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The Long and Winding Pinot Road

On Christmas Eve 2007, I sat down to dinner with my family for a “traditional” Southern California holiday meal: chips and guacamole, salsa, tamales, refried beans and Modelo Negro beer. As we ate, I reflected upon where I started, how far I have come, and where I plan to go next year. I never drank wine growing up. Like most families in the 1950s, beer and cocktails were the drinks of choice for most adults. Alcoholic beverages were rarely seen on the dinner table, except for maybe an occasional beer when chili was on the menu. I can’t remember when I first drank a dry wine, but I think it was Champagne brought to my house by my French aunt. The quartet of wines I remember most fondly had a little sweetness. Mateus was a moderately dry rosé wine from Portugal. The story goes that the wine was invented in 1942 by Fernando Van Zeller Guedes whose family made Port and grew Vinho Verde grapes. Mateus was really the “in” drink in the 1960s and at one point the wine made up 40% of Portugal’s export income. Practically every college-age person had an empty Mateus flask that was converted into a candle holder. I also downed many bottles of another similar drink, Lancers, which had become wildly popular by the early 1970s. André Cold Duck was still another star during the 1960s, a slightly sweet sparkling wine made by Gallo from Concord grapes that was guaranteed to provide an agonizing hangover the next day. Blue Nun was the wine to order on a date. It was packaged in an impressive slim tall bottle and had a label that read Liebfraumilch (“Milk of Our Blessed Mother”). Again, this generic white wine was slightly sweet, but even better, it was cheap and low in alcohol. As I progressed through the end of high school, college and medical school during the 1960s, there was no such thing as a “varietal” wine in California. It wasn’t until 1974 that Gallo made the first varietal wines such as Hearty Burgundy and Chianti. Four years earlier, in 1970, my world would be transformed.

The year 1970 was memorable for me. I was living humbly in a studio apartment close to the hospital where I was interning. My girlfriend was a flight attendant (the proper term back then was stewardess) for TWA. I was working my tail off, but when our busy schedules allowed, I would eagerly pick her up after a long flight at Los Angeles International Airport. We would stop at the market and buy some food as well as a jug of Spanada. Spanada was one of a long line of wines blended with fruit introduced by Gallo. It was the original Spanishsounding wine. Spanada had been first introduced in 1970 at a time when the country was changing tastes from dessert to table wines. We spent many marvelous evenings together at a tiny two-seat kitchen table, eating simply and drinking Spanada. The Spanada inevitably led to romance and I thanked Gallo many times for that.

In 1970 I traveled to Northern California to visit some friends, including a doctor who collected wine. He had a cellar in his home stocked with fine Bordeaux and Burgundy. I had never seen anything like it in my life. He could tell I was awestruck and generously gave me a bottle of Burgundy (I spelled it “Burgandy” at the time) to take home. One night my girlfriend and I decided to skip the Spanada and open the Burgundy. I did not have a corkscrew and had to borrow one from a neighbor. Remarkably, it was like no wine that had every passed across my lips. The label was strange and foreign, and I remember the words Cote de Nuits, but regretfully not any other details. It was seductive, delicate, beguiling, alluring, complex and aromatic. It was an epiphany. We polished off that bottle in no time and so began my love affair with Pinot Noir. I kept that empty bottle on my kitchen table until I moved out after internship without a remembrance of the exact producer, vintage or vineyard. I was beginning a residency in ophthalmology that offered an increase in salary and the prospects for further wine indulgences were dancing through my head. My girlfriend and I parted ways, but I discovered the wonders of well-stocked liquor stores and began to look for that elusive bottle of “Burgandy.”

In my price range, the pickings were slim, and the ones I could afford were thin, rustic, acidic and terribly disappointing. There wasn’t much California Pinot Noir worth pursuing in the early 1970s. Some early signs of success were coming out of Mt. Eden and Chalone, but these were off my radar and might as well have been on another planet. I was thoroughly frustrated at this point, so I looked to the dark side, and began to dabble in Cabernet and Petite Sirah. I was particularly drawn to Petite Sirah because of its bold sweet blackberry jam flavors and black pepper spice. It seemed to be a perfect accompaniment to my culinary skills which consisted primarily of grilling steaks on the barbecue.

There was one producer of Petite Sirah in particular that caught my attention - Concannon Vineyard. Maybe it was the fact that Concannon was the first California winery to label the varietal Petite Sirah on the bottle (1964), or maybe it was because the winery had some familiar kinship (founder James Concannon was born on St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland, the homeland of my great grandfather). Most likely, though, it was because I liked the masculine wine, and as a young bachelor, identified with its machismo style. Concannon Vineyard, located on the East Bay of Northern California in Livermore, was the first winery I ever visited. It was around 1974 when I traveled to Concannon and bought a case of wine, one of life’s rites of passage.

The father grape of Petite Sirah is Syrah and the mother is Peloursin, a humble grape from southern France. Since cross-regional breeding of grapes was frowned on in France, Petite Sirah was not accepted there and found a new home in the United States, where along with Zinfandel, became America’s own varietal. It was initially brought to America from France in the 1889s. Petite Sirah survived phylloxera in the 1890s, both World Wars, the Depression and Prohibition (Petite Sirah was a main ingredient in sacramental wines).

I began medical practice in 1975, and my marriage in 1977 and two sons who followed shortly thereafter took my attention away from wine for a few years. Mr Stox Restaurant would revive my passion.

In 1977, brothers Ron and Chick Marshall bought an existing restaurant with the peculiar name of Mr Stox in Anaheim, California. They quickly converted it into a destination dining mecca for foodies and wine lovers. The Marshalls amassed an impressive collection of wine and in 1983 received the Wine Spectator Grand Award, an award they retained up to recent times. Comfortably married and established in my medical practice in the early 1980s, I began to take a renewed interest in wine. I attended many winemaker dinners at Mr Stox, the most memorable of these featured the wines of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti (DRC).

I had became interested in Chalone Pinot Noir. Chalone had developed a cult following in the 1970s and the wines were quickly snapped up by wine fanciers of the time. Owner and winemaker Richard Graff had acquired the Chalone property which was located on a wind-swept plateau in the Gavilan Mountains, a remote outpost 50 miles east of Monterey. Graff chose the site because of its volcanic soil underlain with limestone. Graff’s winemaking was modeled after Burgundy and his Pinot Noirs reminded me of the DRC wines I had tasted at Mr Stox. The Chalone Pinot Noirs were fermented with stems giving them structure. They were aged 18-24 months in the same French oak barrels that were used at DRC. The barrels were kept in caves that were cool and dark. Later, the wines were put into bottles made in France from a special Burgundy mold. I was particularly fond of the Reserve Pinot Noirs that were first produced in 1978. They were focused, tight-knit, and well-balanced with many layers that revealed themselves slowly with each sniff and sip. The Reserve Pinot Noirs were produced exclusively from old vines on the property and were sold only to shareholders of Chalone stock. I soon became a shareholder and enjoyed many vintages of Chalone Reserve Pinot Noir as well as the rowdy annual Chalone shareholders meeting. In the mid 1980s, another winemaker was making a name for himself and I took notice: Gary Farrell.

My love affair with Pinot Noir was now fully engaged, and I was looking for a new source I could hitch my grape-wagon to. In 1989, Dan Berger wrote a glowing report in the Los Angeles Times, calling Gary Farrell a “Pinot Noir Superstar.” In the article, he listed the best Russian River Valley Pinot Noir producers at the time as Joseph Swan, J. Rochioli, Davis Bynum, Williams and Selyem, Laurier, Dehlinger, Mark West, Iron Horse and De Loach. The best of the bunch according to Berger was Gary Farrell. Berger noted that Farrell’s 1988

Sonoma County Pinot Noir ($15) was superb, but the 1988 Allen Vineyard Pinot Noir ($25) was a killer and “one of those rare treats worth the price.” In the article, Farrell said, “There are probably fewer than 500 acres of top-quality Pinot Noir vineyard land here. The Russian River hasn’t gotten the publicity of some other areas, but that’s ok. Actually, we’re trying to keep this thing quiet because of the limited acreage out there.” I had sniffed out Farrell even before the glowing article written by Dan Berger, having acquired my first bottles of 1987 Gary Farrell Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($20, see label above) several months before the article’s publication. This wine was produced from 40% Howard Allen Vineyard, 40% Bacigalupi Vineyard and 20% Rochioli Vineyard, all located within a few miles of Healdsburg. The grapes were hand-harvested early, gently destemmed taking caution not to break the skins on approximately 50% of the berries. The grapes were fermented in small two ton lots using Ashmanchausen yeast for 8 days, inoculated with MCS ML bacteria at 12° Brix. Pressing occurred at dryness and the wine was allowed to settle for four weeks before barreling. The wine was then aged for 14 months in 30% French oak barrels. I became a steady customer of Gary Farrell and his wines accumulated numerous accolades and medals over the years. I was thoroughly charmed by their enticing aromas, lush and broad fruit flavors, modest tannins and sweet oak highlights. My loyalty never wavered, but there was another Russian River Valley producer who stole my heart away in the early 1990s.

Liking Pinot Noir in the early 1990s practically labeled me an eccentric. To most wine lovers of the time, Pinot Noir was an afterthought - a weak substitute for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. For me, Pinot Noir was the

Holy Grail, the most sensual of all wines, and I was determined to pursue my love affair with it. Burt Williams and Ed Selyem were producing magical Pinot Noirs out of a small garage on Fulton Road in Santa Rosa. There had been significant press since 1985, touting the quality of the Pinot Noirs they crafted from vineyards with now-magical names like Rochioli, Allen, Hirsch and Olivet Lane. It was a 1992 Williams Selyem Rochioli Vineyard Pinot Noir that had such a powerful charisma for me that even today I can taste the wine, and clearly believe it was the greatest California Pinot Noir I have ever had in my life.

I reached my fiftieth birthday in 1993 and decided to have a celebratory degustation dinner at The Pacific Club in Newport Beach, California. My friend and sommelier extraordinaire, Rene Chazottes, planned the food to accompany my wine choices. It was Rene who made me understand that wine, alone above all other beverages, is part of food and neither wine nor food exists in even half its glory without the other. As Renee used to say, “Wine is made for drinking with food and when you have the perfect match, that is it, the

experience will bring you to your knees!” I wax nostalgically about the wines served that night: 1990 Domaine Ramonet Bourgogne Aligote with Crème de Casis (Kir), 1989 Zind Humbrecht Brand Grand Cru Vendage Tardive Riesling, 1989 Williams Selyem Rochioli Vineyard Pinot Noir (magnum), 1985 Comtes Lafon Les Caillerets 1er Cru Volnay, 1982 Chalone Reserve Pinot Noir, 1943 Cheval Blanc, 1982 Cheval Blanc, 1984 Silver Oak Bonny’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (magnum), 1990 Williams Selyem Martinelli Vineyard Zinfandel, 1989 Gaston Huet “Cuvee Constance” Vouvray, and 1982 Laurent Perrier Cuvee Alexandra Rose Champagne. It was probably the last big dinner I planned where I drank varietals other than Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, or Champagne. I was hopelessly hooked on Pinot Noir and this led to the “Super Bowl of Pinot Noir.”

A wine group was formed in January, 1989, as a monthly gathering of wine enthusiasts. The instigator was Ron Marshall, proprietor of Mr. Stox Restaurant in Anaheim, California. The guidelines proposed insisted “Members have a serious interest in wine, have their own wine collection, and have a desire to enhance their palate and wine education through group tastings.” The premise was that this was not to be a pompous group of wine snobs and “good jokes would be encouraged at all tastings.” The origin of the group’s name, Le Grand Crew, is lost in history. Le Grand Crew was a major source of my wine education and inspiration and the group, with few member changes, has persisted to the present time. Meeting monthly over dinner, we (women were not specifically banned but few dared to attend) tasted all the world’s greatest wines and developed friendships for life.

Early on, I was an outcast and weirdo in Le Grand Crew, the butt of many jokes for my professed love of Pinot Noir. The members were dedicated Cabernet and Bordeaux drinkers with little interest or patience for other wines. That was all to change, when in 1991, I organized my first “Superbowl of Pinot Noir” dinner tasting. The idea was to present the champions, the best of the best New World Pinot Noirs, currently available in the marketplace. Over the years, the members looked forward to the “Superbowl,” and many abandoned the dark side for Pinot Noir. The wines at “Superbowl I of Pinot Noir” were the following: 1987 Au Bon Climat Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley ($30), 1987 Calera Jensen Vineyard Hollister ($30), 1987 El Molino Napa Valley ($30), 1987 Williams Selyem Rochioli Vineyard Russian River Valley ($40), 1988 Gary Farrell Allen Vineyard Russian River Valley ($25), 1988 Robert Mondavi Reserve Napa Valley ($29), 1988 Signorello Proprietor’s Reserve Napa Valley ($25), 1988 Williams Selyem Sonoma Coast ($25), 1989 Byron Santa Barbara County ($18), 1989 Etude Napa Valley ($22), and 1989 Williams Selyem Olivet Lane Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($25). Looking back, it was a heck of a lineup, and a glimpse of Pinot history.

1993 had arrived and I was hosting Super Bowl of Pinot Noir II. It was a time when the wine cognoscenti were awakening to American Pinot Noir. American producers were beginning to wave the flag proudly, sticking their chests out, proclaiming how good home grown Pinot Noir from California had become. The event that turned Pinot Noir’s future happened in the early 1990s and involved an eleven-letter word. California’s most notable Pinot Noir winemakers became winegrowers. This one word led to a revolution in philosophy and practice and the results led to quantum leaps in quality. Gradually, Pinot Noir escaped the unflattering title of “heartbreak grape.” Under-ripe, pale, green and vegetal examples became distant memories. The most talented workers in American wine now wanted to craft it and the most enlightened drinkers wanted to consume it.

Super Bowl II of Pinot Noir, “Second Encounter of the Pinot Kind,” was held at the now shuttered Gustav Anders Restaurant in Orange County, California. I had searched far and wide to find the best from the 1991 vintage and the lineup was memorable: 1991 Domaine Drouhin Oregon Willamette Valley Pinot Noir (first vintage), 1991 Ponzi Reserve Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, 1992 Beaux Freres Willamette Valley Pinot Noir (first vintage), 1991 Saintsbury Reserve Carneros Pinot Noir, 1991 Schug Heritage Reserve Carneros Pinot Noir, 1991 El Molino Napa Valley Pinot Noir, 1991 Rochioli Estate Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, 1991 Williams Selyem Allen Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, and 1991 Sanford Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir. My wine drinking buddies, most of whom had been raised on California Cabernet Sauvignon, were a little surprised by the full, deep, rich scents and flavors in the lineup of Pinot Noirs that seemed lacking in extract, body and color. They found Pinot Noir very hard to say no to, seduced by its sensually indulgent nature that melded together delicacy and intensity like no other grape varietal they had experienced.

American Pinot Noir was proving its worth and my passion for it had been vindicated. It was time to visit the cradle of Pinot Noir, the slopes of the Cote d’Or. Master Sommelier, Rene Chazottes, led a small group of wine enthusiasts on a wine and gastronomic tour of France in June of 2000. Our group’s battle cry was “Mon verre est vide!” (my glass is empty). 1 Bus, 2 drivers, 4 hotels, 15 winos, 18 wineries, 22 cities, 24 meals, 185 wines, and 370 bottles of wine from Champagne to Burgundy to the Loire Valley and finally Bordeaux. For me the highlight of the trip was the heartwarming sight of the almost unbroken vista of vines carpeting the slope of the Cote d’Or on a glorious sunny day. As we drove leisurely along RN 74, the most evocative signs to villages appeared, the names of which sounded like a roll call of the most voluptuous red wines in the world: Chambolle-Musigny, Vougeot, Vosne-Romanee, and Nuits St. George.

At Louis Latour in Aloxe-Corton I drooled over the library of Burgundies dating to the 1800s. Bottles with no labels and covered in mold were stacked in dank, musty cellars, unmoved for generations. The winemaker’s thief was put into action and I tasted some outstanding 1999 vintage wines including Corton Charlemagne and Chambertain. Not surprisingly, I did not spit these wines out. Later that day, we continued south along the Cote de Beaune to the lovely, old, and very rich town of Beaune with its perilously narrow streets, medieval houses, grandiose mansions and a Romanesque church. We settled in at the Renaissance mansion hotel, La Cep, close to the action in central Beaune.

It was then off to Vougeot for a tasting and dinner at Domaine Bertagna. With only 200 inhabitants and 67 hectares of vines, Vougeot is the smallest commune in the Cote d’Or. Vougeot’s reputation rests principally on the vines from the walled vineyard known as Clos de Vougeot, the largest clos in the Cote d’Or. A spectacular dinner ensued at Domaine Bertagna. Featured wines included 1995 Domaine Bertagna Corton Charlemagne, 1995 Domaine Bertagna Clos St Denis (Magnum), and 1995 Domaine Bertagna Vougeot Clos de la Perriere, Monopole, 1er Cru. We drank, ate and sang the “Ban de Bourgogne.” I was beginning to feel at home in Burgundy.

I awoke after our previous night’s revelry at Domaine Bertagna and decided to walk off my lovely Pinot hangover. I started to think that I had died and gone to heaven. Many would remark, “give me a break, it’s only a bottle of wine.” Right, and a Ferrari is only a car and the Rolling Stones are just a rock band. Some things just become the standard by which all else is measured, and I realized for Pinot Noir, that standard was Burgundy. Although California Pinot Noir compares favorably in many cases with Burgundian wines, some are to Burgundy what the World Wrestling Federation is to athletics. This is not to say that we should spend needless energy on comparing North American Pinot Noir to Burgundy. They should both be enjoyed for the qualities that they exhibit, and to suggest they are comparable is a disservice to both.

A visit to Burgundy is magical. The rich simplicity of each Domaine’s houses and the purity of line of the stone enclosures surrounding the vineyards clings to my memory. The history, tradition, and intimacy of the beautiful farm-based countryside make the wines seem even more magical. Some people call Burgundy “liquid silk,” others say it is as close as you can get to a romantic interlude with your clothes on. In either case, fine Burgundy is a kaleidoscope of flavors and heady aromas that will spin your head around, set your pulse racing, and leave your totally at peace with the world, if not a bit breathless. Every dedicated pinotphile seems to have begun their journey of discovery after tasting a remarkable Burgundy. I am no exception and my travel to the “motherland” only reinforced my epiphany.

As I flew home from Paris, I was reminded of what Louis Trebuchet had remarked after our group polished off thirty-four bottles of fine white Burgundy at a luncheon at Domaine Chartron et Trebuchet in Puligny- Montrachet: “Bordeaux makes women say things they shouldn’t say; Burgundy makes women do things they shouldn’t do.” I glanced over at my wife longingly, eager to return to home in California.

The inspiration and derivation of the name of my newsletter, the PinotFile, is lost in my memory. I do know that I sat down on a Sunday night, April 22, 2001, and began to type a one page “newsletter” on Pinot Noir that I intended to send out to the twenty members of my wine club, Le Grand Crew. I alerted my inaugural readers as follows: “Every Sunday night I am going to e-mail a short newsletter titled the PinotFile to keep you apprised of news in the pinotphile world: new releases, new producers, ratings (Note: I have never believed in or given wines numerical scores but did initially report the scores of others. I have long since discarded this practice), what to buy, what not to buy, winemaker profiles, winery news and so on. If you could care less, too bad, you have been pinot-spamed.”

From the beginning, humor has played a large part in the PinotFile. The initial issue featured a humorous review that was borrowed in part from a Wine X magazine transmission. “1999 Viagra Cellars Pinot Noir. Special Family Library Private Reserve, Olive Grove Vineyard, Southwest Facing Slope, Behind the Barn, Vertical Cordon Trellised, Fifth Row, Third Vine from the Right, North Cane, First Bunch from the Left, Unfined, Unfiltered, Barrel Aged, Barrel Fermented, Estate Grown, Estate Bottled, Estate for Sale. Winery founded in 1981 by a fifth generation billionaire. $110.99.” The review went on to say, “I don’t know why I should bother trying to explain such a great wine to mere mortals such as you. It’s like explaining rain to people who don’t know what water is. Nevertheless, I will attempt to describe the wine. At first whiff, there is an attack of acidhyrolsates, vindaloo paste, and ciruela. The aromas are very feminine and may make some question their sexuality. The wine explodes in the mouth, saturating the palate and I am certain this is a masculine wine in drag. But it is good and a wine to remember. 1,000 cases produced, but not for sale - it is the family’s private reserve!” I finished the single page, hit the send box, and the PinotFile was off and running.

After 53 issues sent out weekly in a one to two page format, the PinotFile took on a four page newsletter look in June of 2002 and a rudimentary website was begun with a logo created by graphic designer, Steve Muller. In one of the early newsletters, I wrote a feature titled, “Lust and Pinot,” reproduced here.

Pinot’s powerful smells can bring men and women together, and maybe that is why God invented wine. Wine is powerful both from the effects of alcohol, and from the smell. There are only four basic tastes, but the average person can perceive thousands of different smells (some very sensitive noses can detect up to 10,000). Hundreds of different smells from organic compounds have been identified in wine. The olfactory glands in the nose are directly connected to our frontal lobes in the brain which do most of our serious mental work as well as functioning as the emotional part of our brain. Smells, then, can set off very powerful memories and feelings and help unlock natural urges. When combined with the psychological effects of alcohol, smells can turn any plain mousy blond into Madonna.

Research has suggested that the pheromones in certain grape varieties, especially Pinot Noir, are very similar to human sex pheromones. All the smells in the Pinot Noir grape such as spice, earth, and musk, are smells associated with the principal male smell, andosterone. The key female smells are thiethylamine and isovaleric acid which are characterized by fish and cheese odors respectively. Australia’s randiest winemaker, Max Lake, once suggested that isovaleric acid can be simulated in Champagne and soft cheeses. What all of this proves is what we have know for years: Champagne and Burgundy will get you a sure thing. If it wasn’t for all of those pheromones and wine, we probably would still be apes.

As the years and weekly issues rolled by, I was infusing the PinotFile with a purpose. I chose to circumvent the many wine publications of the time which primarily centered on lengthy lists of tasting notes and scores. My intent was to find and report the compelling stories behind every good bottle of Pinot Noir. Because of the serious commitment in time, effort, and money that Pinot Noir producers put into the bottle, I avoided writing derogatory reviews of Pinot Noirs that were not particularly appealing to me. I strove to give a truthful judgment and only feature and recommend Pinot Noirs that I deemed worthy of reader interest.

I have received a continuous stream of testimonials from grateful readers who seem happy with my unpretentious and humorous approach to reviewing wine, and I am truly appreciative of every one. W.S. Merwin wrote, “I asked how can you ever be sure that what you write is really any good at all……..If you have to be sure don’t write.” The feed back I have received has spurred me on and given me some surety. I especially enjoyed this commentary: “If I drank over 1,300 wines during the year, my wife would accuse me of having a drinking problem. You do it, call it research, brag about it, and gain respect among your friends. Way to go!”

The PinotFile currently has readers from all over the globe including Australia, Canada, the European Union, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hong Kong, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and many other countries as well. I have now published 318 issues of the PinotFile including this issue. It has been a long and joyous road well-travelled, but its time to pull the cork on a new venture.

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