Purple thumb on a Mission. 6 min read

Unexpected-Grapes-Dyn-225x300I don’t have a green thumb (plants see me and run away faster than Usaine Bolt), however my purple thumb is another story – it is alive and well.  I train it regularly with my favorite form of exercise – the Palate Workout.


And what better way to exercise it than to show up at a Wine Tasting?


So here I was, on a mission, 8 Mission Street that is, at the swanky Hotel Vitale, where the Wine Institute Tasting was held.  I am no stranger to wine events, however this one was a bit unusual.  Titled “The Unexpected Grapes from Unexpected Places” it delivered just that.


The roster of producers represented wines from all over the state – from Temecula all the way to Lake County with everything in between, the varieties offered were anything but the usual suspects – Durif, Vermentino, Mouvedre, Albarinho, Tempranillo, Fruillano, Nebbiolo, just to name a few.


It also featured a great seminar lead by Evan Goldstein, MS. His engaging personality and encyclopedic knowledge of all things wine (not to mention an immensely entertaining Dustin Hoffman flair) held the attention of several dozen very thirsty wine folks, trade and press alike.  He threw us a gauntlet in a form of a blind tasting consisting of 12 wines (5 white, 7 red), all of which fell into a category of either uncommon variety or uncommon origin. In other words, if it was a Cab, it was not likely to be from Napa, and if it was a Pinot, not likely from Sonoma or Russian River Valley, etc. We were supposed to guess both the variety and the place of origin.


I know it isn’t feasible to line up 12 fascinating wine pours for a group of your closest friends, but I bet if you pull together your resources it isn’t that challenging to come up with 4-6. The point is to expand your awareness, both palatal and geographical. Go ahead and “blindfold” a wine fashioned from an unusual variety or from a lesser known area and test yourselves…  This exercise is not about getting it right, and guessing correctly in the end, it is about the experience itself. Besides, you will have loads of fun before you even get to your own tasting. Imagine picking the dead ringer for say, a Napa Valley Cab from Paso Robles and anticipating everyone being wowed by it? Feel Good Factor all around.


Back to my Blind Ride.


My notable standouts were: the 2007 Nth Degree Cabernet from Livermore Valley and a Pinot Noir form SLH.  Sourced from the best vineyard blocks and subjected to a rigorous regime during harvest, combined with a diverse oak treatment program this was one fantastic Cabernet. Brimming with varietal character, exquisitely balanced, it delivers great fruit and subtle tannins – a great effort overall.


The Pinot was… ready for it? 2008 Gary’s Vineyard “Lucia” Santa Lucia Highlands.  I know, I know.  Not exactly an “obscure” discovery, but I just had to say something about that one. I tasted it for the first time at the Family Winemakers Event, went home and promptly ordered some from the winery… obviously it blew me away.  This taste was no different; I instantly fell all over again for the luscious fruit framed in earthy overtones, the seductive silky texture culminating in a playful finish.
It didn’t require any guesswork on my part, I didn’t want to identify it, I wanted to drink it! Here was my insatiable apatite for hedonism leading me astray yet again, instead of partaking in all things new and different my palate beckoned to the tried and true. I guiltily swallowed my pour; secretly wishing I could sip it for a good long while.


There was one more wine that I also was quite pleased with… 2007 Big Basin “Mandala” Syrah from Santa Cruz Mountains. Big bold fruit, well-integrated tannins, long finish, what’s not to like?  It is also important to mention that all 12 wines tasted were very good for different reasons, these were merely my personal favorites.


I find wine events in general to be quite invigorating. Each has a rhythm, a personality, and each one has taught me something unique.  I like the quirky personalities they attract, both humble and the irreverent attendees, even the stupid questions I sometimes overhear… I chuckle in the ladies room when women engage in a banter referring to the subtleties of oak/flavor profiles instead of discussing men and make-up. I am a wine geek at heart and proud of it.


I do have a secret to share with you though. With each tasting I attend, I hold out a special hope. This hope is all about meeting a producer who just knocks my socks off, for one reason or another.  That is my Holy Grail, and when I find it, I just can’t wipe a grin off my face.  It clearly happened before and this time I got lucky again.


How to Buy $45 Syrah for $25?  Easy.  Heard of Clavo Cellars?  Me neither.


Neil Roberts is no “new kid on the block.” His own label, “Clavo Cellars” is just 5 years old but Neil has been a successful grower for more than 20 years. Is he a “David Abreu” of Paso Robles? I intended to find out.  For many years Neil was a viticulturist for Robert Mondavi brand, overseeing vineyard properties located on the Central Coast. As the head of Roberts Vineyard Services, Roberts has been managing vineyards and growing grapes for some of the most prominent vineyards, including Peachy Canyon, Robert Hall, Ancient Peaks and many others who were selling fruit form prominent wineries to newcomers turned rock star projects such as Barrel 27.  I was quite enamored with the 2008 “Oracle” Grenache Blanc (I blame Kris Curran for getting me hooked on that variety, if you have never had this grape, change that.)  However it is was the Syrah that I fell for.  Plush fruit driven nose, silky texture, ripe tannins, tons of personality… with an entry fee of a mere $25? Staggering.  2006 Syrah “Reckless Moment” Syrah. $25. (Should be $45) Run, don’t walk to get some.


So what was are take away lessons from this tasting?
Lesson #1
Think outside the box, in life and in wine! It is amazing what is revealed if you make your palate available to new experiences. Don’t just automatically default into your staples, instead engage in a palatal adventure.
What is the payoff?  You may well discover a brand new favorite.


Lesson #2
There are surprising validating factors about those staples that may not be apparent without a challenge. Here is the hypothesis: you may have thought that you like Napa Valley Cabs, but what you actually liked was fruit-driven Cabs that are well-balanced, something that can be found outside of Napa.


Lesson #3
It sure feels good to know how rich and diverse California winegrowing regions are and the treasures they hold… even if you wind up holding on to your favorite glass of Pisoni Pinot Noir.  I, for one, feel much more secure that way – should an Asteroid cause devastation in Gary’s vineyard I know I won’t be thirsty for long. After a proper mourning period I will find another lover, and another exquisite ecstasy delivered by yet another (or perhaps even the same) talent who found (and planted) an epiphany a few (hundred) miles down the road…

Ilona Thompson

Ilona Thompson is Editor-in-Chief at PalateXposure, a destination site for oenophiles, gourmands and luxury travelers. She also recently launched #Wine, a site dedicated to wines and spirits reviews, and #Photography, a site devoted to high-quality wine, food, and travel related photography.

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