Marc Giangrosso, August 2002
One of the truths of the wine business is that by the time the major publications, i.e. the Wine Spectator or Robert Parker's Wine Advocate have "discovered" a new winery, finding that wine at the retail level can be a bit like tilting at windmills. This spring, I took a little trip out to California in an effort to seek out some wines that haven't made it to the pages of our favorite magazines and to sample some old favorites that have new vintages on the way.
In an attempt to avoid both the crowds and the over-commercialization that the Napa Valley has come to represent, I focused my journey on the more sedate areas of Sonoma County. Napa and Sonoma have been developing along different timelines as far as wine growing is concerned for the last hundred years or so. The pace of change was intensified during the sixties and seventies as it became apparent that Napa could produce world-class wines, especially where the Bordeaux born grape Cabernet was concerned. The hype-driven wine culture came a little more slowly to Sonoma and its neighbors in the Russian River and Dry Creek Valleys. This allowed small vineyards of such out of favor grape varieties as Zinfandel and petite Syrah to lie undisturbed while their brethren in Napa were torn out to plant whatever was most popular at that moment. This has been a blessing of untold proportion, as tastes again shift and there is a revived interest in wines other than Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Merlot. That is not to say that there aren't great wines made from those grapes that come from Sonoma, just that there should be more than three colors on any painter's palette.
It would be impossible to describe even a tenth of the wines we tasted in this short format so I'll pull out two from the mental scrapbook and save the rest for some other time. The first wine was the Overlook Chardonnay from Landmark in Sonoma. This Chardonnay is year in and year out a recognized leader in its class and having had an opportunity to try some barrel samples of the next vintage, it is going to stay that way. Its assets are rich and concentrated aromas and flavors of nectarines and spice that meld seamlessly with the moderate seasoning of new French Oak--a really good bottle. I have to admit it might have been made better by being part of a scene that included a spectacular sunset across the ridge of the Mayacamus Mountains, but I doubt it.
The other winery that stands out at this moment is Handley vineyards in the Anderson valley. The Anderson Valley is a narrow defile that slices north up into Mendocino County with a winding two-lane road, some one-truck towns, and nowhere to get off. It also is home to some of the best growing conditions for those who wish to make their wine sparkle in emulation of Champagne. The wines of Handley reflect both the cooler climate and the more rugged growing conditions with their quality being represented by lively acidity and a crisp character that sings out for food, in particular, their Cuvee Primo Pinot Noir. They also believe in the concept of biodynamic farming and try to utilize as many aspects of this philosophy as possible in their cultivation of the vine. Placing all this down to paper, or the digital representation thereof, has me thinking wistfully of my trip out there and remembering glasses of wine whose quality was matched only by the heart-wrenching beauty of the land they sprang forth from. O.K., O.K. I better hang this up before I do something crazy like take the next flight