Friday, July 8, 2011

Pinot Noirs and Memories

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Lenny and I sported a smile as we climbed up the steep hills of Pacific Heights on a bright, shimmering late afternoon just before twilight. Tucked between the mcmansions on the hill's summit is the modest house of our late friend and colleague, John Demergasso. As we knocked on the door our excitement grew.

Bonnie, ever game to entertain her late husband's old friends and drinking comrades allowed us to indulge in one of John's favorite pastimes: wine drinking. I found her in the kitchen still busy finishing the braised beef ribs that will pair with the dozen or so Pinot Noirs and Burgundies everyone brought for the evening.

It was John's birthday and we wanted to make a big show of it. Maybe the hoopla would've unsettled John, I knew him as outwardly restrained, but Hemingway-esque in his pursuits. I think not, he would've glowed in the honesty of our bacchanal.

Kevin, John's close friend, together with Bonnie spearheaded the get-together with typical bravado. The fireworks came in the presence of a living legend in California winemaking: Josh Jensen. In the early 1970s, fresh from laboring in the grape fields of Burgundy, including a stint at DRC, Jensen pioneered the making of California Pinot Noirs from specific vineyard sites, or lieux-dits. He was determined to discover the holy grail of Pinot Noir in California, and his Burgundian background told him he must plant on limestone soils. So up on the hills of the Gavilan Mountains, in Mt. Harlan, he found his limestone vineyards and started Calera Wine Company.

So there he is, Josh Jensen, my longtime Pinot Noir idol (I have a personally signed copy of his book "Heartbreak Grape" from back in 1993 when it was published) standing in Bonnie's living room, still looking gaunt and hiply attired as always.

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Josh brought library selections of his single-vineyard Pinot Noirs that were still drinking fresh and exceeding drinking windows the wine critics foretold. The 2002 Jensen Vineyard, with 14.4% alcohol, shows the richest fruit--luxurious and intact at 9 years and counting. But it was the 2003 Mills Vineyard (14.2% alc.) that surprised me the most, with its assertive tannins giving shape to its still formidable fruit. This kind of tannin structure is truly unique in California Pinot Noirs. Could this Pinot Noir age for another ten years? You betcha!

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My favorite of all Calera vineyards is the Selleck--although the Reed on occasion would win me over with its seductive character, alas, it doesn't hold up with age. The 2003 Selleck Vineyard is true to form. The fruit is dense and silky, the tannins are very fine, and, overall, the wine is still somewhat closed. I always find it the most Burgundian of all Calera's Pinot Noirs for its elegance.

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Mayon's and Ben's cheese quiche (or is it quiche cheese?) and gougères are always a hit when served in these gatherings. A great starter with the Champagnes, I just have to make sure I don't overload on them!

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The 1999 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, the house's tête de cuvée, was drinking well, but I felt it was already softening for a 1999.

Bob: Served a bit too cold for full appreciation. Still evolving in the glass. Pure chardonnay free run. Fresh, citrus flavors, Lemony. Toasty nose. Sweet, but will lose sweetness as it ages. Will age well I think.

Kevin: surprisingly sweet, touch minty, lanolin. Good, but not the toasty, sour spot I expect from The Comte.


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The 1999 Dom Perignon was a disappointment. It was losing freshness and appeared to be falling apart. A bad bottle, perhaps?

Bob: Dom Perignon; Nice floral nose, yeast, citrus and lemon flavors, crisp finish.

Kevin: wiff of vanilla, firm and dry, not remotely austere. Not interesting or going anywhere special. Disappointing.


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So, thankfully, there was the 1999 Billecart-Salmon Blanc de Blancs. A powerful Champagne, so fresh and intense, with very lovely depth and length to the finish.

Bob: My favorite of the sparkling wines. Toasty, floral nose. Classic champagne nose and feel. Delicious.

Kevin: Late disgorged (2010), very lively for its age, not doubt because of its late disgorgement.dry, classy, very distinct Pinot notes, would love a few of these to stow away.


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I threw in a ringer for fun--a recently released California sparkling wine made with 100% Pinot Meunier, disgorged only after over 17 years of cellaring! It was luscious and complex, rising up to the challenge of being served with the the three prestige champers. Yet I demur to the Sparkling Wine's long pretentious name: 1992 Chateau Beaux Hauts "En Tirage" Extra Brut Russian River Sparkling Wine. C'mon, Don (Baumhefner), you need a bitly for that!

Bob: Browning colors, funky nose, but creamy , lush and fruity flavors. Recently disgorged according to Alex. 100% Pinot Menieure. Very nice example of an older sparkling wine. Few California sparkling wines are made to age, but this one was still lively.

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The Pinot Noirs were first up at the dinner table. Sadly, the 1997 Williams Selyem Hirsch Vineyard was corked. Folks in the room thought it would've been a beautiful wine.

Bob: Soft , ripe fruit, black cherries, plenty of tannins. Oaky flavors, Well balanced. Complex. Drink now.



The 1997 Williams Selyem Olivet Lane did better. This is a vineyard that WS bottled for several vintages but discontinued. This '97 may have been the last. Good rich fruit that started out simple, and seemed to gain in complexity as it opened more. Josh liked it.

Bob: Oaky nose, ruby color. Ripe fruit, black cherries, minerals. Tannic. A bit short in the finish, but very nice.




The 1996 Rochioli Three Corner Vineyard was planted with Pommard clone in 1974. I find this to have the highest acidity among the bunch of Pinot Noirs, and the fruit didn't wow. I still found it interesting and likable.

Bob: Barnyard nose, rich very ripe cherries, plums, smooth and mouth filling. More powerful and bigger wine than the Rochioli. Wonderful with food.



The 1996 Rochioli Little Hill Block was a lot easier to like. It comes from a privileged site in Rochioli's vineyard, next to the famed West Block and planted with West Block cuttings in 1985. Gorgeous wine, rich and luscious. Well-liked by the group.

Bob: Ruby color, barnyard nose, lots of ripe cherries and raspberries, oaky nose. Lush, smooth and polished. Delicious. More restrained then the 3 Corner Vineyard. Delicious to drink now. Bursting with fruit. Mouth filling. I really enjoyed the Rochioli's. Seemed "young". yet 15 years old. I think the best wine of the night to accompany the food.

Kevin: attractive, cherry, mint, very nice, good varietal flavors.




Unfortunately, there's not much to say about the 1992 Joseph Swan Wolfspierre Vineyard, a Pinot Noir apparently not built for age. It was made by Swan's son-in-law, Rod Berglund, not long after his passing.

Bob: Ripe cherry fruit in the nose, but tart and somewhat thin finish. Nice with the cheeses.

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But the 1991 Domaine Drouhin is showing the fine potential of Oregon Pinot Noirs even from such earlier years. Not only was it alive and well, it was also displaying a youthful richness that was really satisfying for me.

Bob: Barnyard nose, ripe cherries in the nose.. Soft tannins. Somewhat thin finish, faded. But enjoyable and easy to drink.



Almost the same thought entered my mind when I drank the 1986 Hanzell Sonoma Valley Pinot Noir. A bit more weight, but coarser than the Drouhin.

Bob: Strawberries, a burgundy like barnyard nose, tart cherries. A bit short in the finish. Reminded me of a burgundy.

Kevin: more burgundy like, warm, earthy, a bit short at the end.


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And to finish the domestic Pinot Noir flight, Josh unwrapped a pristine bottle of 1986 Calera Selleck. What a treat! As always this started as firm and tight as a Vosne-Romanée. Coming from one of the worse drought years in California, it had quite a bit of structure and still deeply colored.

Bob: Ripe fruit, cherry, plums, complex nose. Somewhat herbaceous nose. Medium to heavy bodies. Still lots of tannins but plenty of ripe fruit to match. Very nice.

Kevin: nice colour and spry, but not having the tertiary I would have expected. Nice pinot, from Josh's library.


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Philippe Naddef's 1985 Mazis-Chambertin is classically hewn; stern, muscular, still densely concentrated, and showing fleshy black fruit flavors.

Bob: Barnyard nose, sour cherries, lots of acid, dense. Evolved in the glass. Will improve. Complex. Very interesting wine.

Kevin: Unfair maybe next to the Mortet, nice fishy Pinot nose, fair amount of oak. Very good wine.


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The 1985 Charles Mortet Chambertin was drinking very well. I thought it was quite elegant for a Chambertin especially for the vintage and it should continue to drink well for some time. And though this was already made by Denis Mortet for his father's domaine, it certainly was very different from the opulent, extracted style Denis Mortet did later under his own domaine, after tutelage with Jayer.

Bob: Barnyard nose, rich strawberries . Soft fruit. Complex. Mature. Somewhat softer style than the Mazis. Nice.

Kevin: We drank California first, then went to the Burgs at the end, and this was a show stopper, day and night between very nice Cal Pinot and this level of Burg. Hard to find, Mortet careful wine maker and not much of his stuff around, on releaee, almost DRC cost back in the late 80's, if that means anything.




1971 Faiveley Clos de la Roche was still deeply colored, displaying good vigor and seamless balance. Very pristine, and quite richer than the '85 Mortet Chambertin.

Bob: Classic barnyard nose, rich, cedar and tobacco flavors, complex. Wonderful. Well balanced.

Kevin: fully evolved nose, fragrant, elegant, thought it migh pale next to the Chambolle
, but neck to neck supberb, great depth, lovely weight, this is great Burgundy!

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The 1971 Chambolle-Musigny Amoureuses of Comte Georges de Vogue is the quintessential Chambolle--sweetly perfumed, silky, curvy, engulfing the senses in its seductive allure. Resistance is futile.

Bob: Wonderful barnyard nose, some browning, Medium tannins. Medium bodied. Good fruit acid balance. Violets. More delicate than the Faiveley. Amazing for a 40 year old burgundy.

Kevin: Great depth, power, subtlety, another great Burgundy, this is what it is all about.Impressive.


For a finale, Kevin opened a ridiculously good 1955 Graham's Port. At this point it was almost time to say goodnight. I badly wanted to stop time for a moment to savor this bottle, and to allow its sensuous pleasures to wash over me.

Bob: A knockout! Sweet nose, nutty. Beautiful purple color. Cherries and chocolate. Soft and velvety, with a smooth finish. Mouth filling. A timeless port. Will last.

Kevin: Fragrant, ethereal, maybe for what it is, the wine of the night, but tough to appreciate it like one would expect given the wines that had already been tasted,--one of the legendary ports of all time says Broadbent and Jancis Robinson. The bouquet was light at first, but towards the end, opened up, has the Graham sweetness with the power of this special vintage. Perfect with cigars at the end, to toast John D.

Thanks to all for the wonderful wines and food, and special thanks to Bonnie for being such a gracious host and cook. It was a real treat learning from Josh. Bob


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Thanks to Bonnie for feeding us and welcoming us to her home. I especially appreciated her pointing out to me some of John's favorite mementos which are everywhere in the house--an original bullfighting poster brought back from Spain, a luminous plein air oil of a fly fishing scene, and a powerful pen-and-ink drawing of two prizefighters clinched in deadly combat, a particular favorite of John's. From her stories I tried to piece together a life of John I wish I knew. Sadly, time can be too brief.



And so I'm sure we didn't do enough justice to any of the Pinot Noirs and Burgundies we drank, the way we sprinted through each one over the course of a few hours. If one wants to plumb the depths of each these wines that could take many hours, or a life time. Alas, life doesn't always afford us such luxuries. But like John, we leave something by: memories at least, and some photographs of what happened once, wishing someone would be kind enough to explain ourselves to us.

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