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This week we have three wines, all in very limited quantities, and each is a top-level wine that I’m pretty sure you’ve never had, and/or even heard of (especially the Pinot Noir and Syrah).
Our Friday offers have really started to get the attention of the local wine scene. Not only are the responses and sales up (THANK YOU!) but local wholesalers/importers and other retailers are carefully following what we are doing here. In other words, we’re making some waves and that’s just plain good fun. As a result of this success, more and more wholesalers are digging into their inventory and coming to us with samples to try, and are offering great pricing we can pass along to you. That’s how all three of this week’s wines came to be.
First, a question: what do you expect from a wine?
It’s one of my favorite questions when I want to get all philosophical at the wine table. What are your expectations when you pull a cork or screw off a cap?
And what are you thinking about as you pour that first glass — before you have smelled or tasted the wine?
For me, if it’s a European wine, the place comes first. If I’m pouring a Chianti, my mental Rolodex calls up all the Chianti I can think of, plus trips we have taken, then amalgamates them into an expectation sometimes (not always) tied to price, then I smell and sip my glass the first time. In other words, for European wines, it’s all about the place first and foremost and whether the glass in hand matches up or exceeds what I expected.
On the other hand, California wines can be a bit more complicated.
Unless it’s a specific vineyard or a small region, often terroir goes out the window. With the hotter temperatures in general but winemaking precision and techniques at an all-time high, winemakers have far more latitude in approaching their craft. For instance, I’ve had Pinot Noirs from the same property, the same vintage, made by two different winemakers, and they are over 2.5% apart in total alcohol; bookends regarding the overall style of the wine. So in some ways, terroir and sense of place go further down my list of expectations of California wine, with a few exceptions (one of which is in today’s offer).
This week’s offer has three wines that walk this tightrope: is it the place, or the winemaker? Two are from a hyper-European-styled producer who coaxes the old world out of new world fruit. The third shows the power of a place like few other California Zinfandels do.
All three are some of the best wines I’ve had this year.
Meet Joe Davis of Arcadian Winery
In 1980, Joe Davis sipped a top-level Burgundy, Dujac’s Clos de la Roche.
And that was it.
He caught the bug.
This is the type of story we often hear in the wine world. We know what getting struck by the wine lightning feels like. For me, it was a Chateauneuf-du-Pape I had in 1996. For Angela, it was 1994 Bongran Macon-Clesse White Burgundy (experienced the same week I had my CdP, and for both of us, it was off to the races).
Joe Davis quickly learned about winemaking and ended up becoming the head winemaker for Dan Morgan Lee at Morgan Winery of Monterey from 1985-1994. That timeframe is super important, for it was the years of growth + experimentation in the Central Coast area of California. Joe learned about new vineyards being planted, established connections, and honed his craft while working for a top-level winery.
From 1994 to 1996, he worked at Dujac in Burgundy to try to figure out what it was about that wine 15 earlier that set him on this path.
Returning to California in 1996, he founded Arcadian Winery, specializing in Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah, made in an individualistic style that is far more European than Californian.
This is the kind of winery that flies under the radar of most retailers (and thus, consumers), has a super devoted local following on the west coast, and makes sommeliers sit up straight and reach for an empty glass when a bottle gets pulled out.
From an article in PinotFile:
Winegrower, winemaker and proprietor of Arcadian Winery, Joe Davis, is somewhat of an iconoclast among today’s popular and high-scoring California producers of Pinot Noir. Stylistically, he has always been steadfast in his vision of what Pinot Noir should be, and his target consumers are connoisseurs of Pinot Noir, often Burgundy drinkers, who prefer the classic style of Pinot Noir with consummate age ability. Writer Dennis Schaefer said, “Almost every winemaker who makes Pinot Noir professes to follow the Burgundian model. And, more or less that’s true. But with some winemakers, the ‘less’ part is apparent, and plenty of shortcuts may be employed. With winemaker Joe Davis, everything is always ‘more’ Burgundian.”
Davis sums up his philosophy as follows. “The tendency to harvest very ripe and sometimes over ripe grapes to produce a highly extracted wine with deep color and intensity and yes, high alcohol, has become the norm and has met with both critical and consumer success. While I applaud my colleagues for their successes, I do not subscribe to their theories that this is the best way to make Pinot Noir here in California. Rather, I am looking for much more elegance and balance. I chose to harvest with much more modest sugar levels and much higher natural acidity. The belief that my wines will continue to evolve in the bottle for years to come and this continued evolution will ultimately produce a much more interesting wine is what drives my philosophy of winegrowing.”
Joe carefully manages all of his vineyard sources, doing the tough work before the grapes even arrive in the winery. He is fanatical about meticulous sorting of his incoming grapes. He prefers lower alcohols, bright acidity, well-honed tannins and avoids any funny business in the winery such as watering back or acid and enzyme additions. Joe’s time spent in Burgundy at Domaine Dujac has led him to become a firm proponent of whole cluster fermentations, believing that stems offer a distinctive character and complexity to Pinot Noir without detracting from its site-specific origins. Typically, Joe uses 50%-75% whole cluster. He performs pigeage (foot treading) 3 to 5 times a day to gently extract color, tannins and richness. Pigeage introduces oxygen to the yeast, helps keep the shearing of stems and crushing of seeds to a minimum, and maintains the vintners sensory relationship with the wine. The wines finish fermentation in barrel, are aged for up to 22 months, bottled unfiltered, and then further aged for another 14 to 18 months before release.https://www.princeofpinot.com/article/1095/
Arcadian Winery “Francesca” Pinot Noir 2009
Yes, that is the current vintage.
Joe doesn’t mess around when it comes to releasing his wine. In Burgundy, he learned the secret ingredient that very few California winemakers ever learn: the power of time.
To put it simply, the more a wine ages in the barrel and in the bottle, the more the dissolved oxygen level shifts. And as that level shifts, you develop flavor profiles that you just simply can’t get otherwise. Wine people call it “terciary development.”
This Pinot Noir is labeled “Central Coast” but comes from a range of the best vineyards from Monterey down to Sta. Rita Hills. The ABV is 13.8% and is fully integrated into the wine. This is one of the most Burgundian Pinot Noirs I’ve ever had from California. I would love to have this particular wine in a blind tasting up against anything from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, for the styles are similar: textured, complete, mouth-filling, and seamless. I think it would win. Those are big words, I know, but I’m being honest.
Tasting note: dark berry preserves, forest floor, magical raspberry, juicy dark fruits, medium acidity that sings through the entire taste. Incredibly complex, like a kaleidoscope of aromas and flavors. I desperately want a rack of lamb off the charcoal grill to go with this!
Arcadian Winery Syrah, Stolpman Vineyard 2008
Again, yes, that is a current release. It’s fourteen years old, and Joe has finally decided it’s drinking on point, so he released it. (Could you even imagine what this guy’s inventory looks like?)
Many of you are familiar with Stolpman Wines, for the Stolpman family has done a great job of growing their business and grabbing Santa Barbara Syrah’s spotlight.
But in 2008, it was a different story. They were farmers first, with some of the best fruit in the state, but nobody knew about them. Expect people like Joe.
This is going to sound weird but stay with me here. Syrah from Santa Barbara (some of the most famous being from places like the Bien Nacido vineyard and legendary producers such as Qupé) can become magic in the hands of a Pinot Noir winemaker. It will never be a blow-the-doors-off-the-barn style, and that’s the point. In the 1990s, American wine consumers got bombarded with high-alcohol jammy lap-dance Syrahs, especially from Australia. Robert Parker didn’t help things out, excessively promoting “hedonistic fruit bombs.”
But great Syrah doesn’t want to be like that. Great Syrah wants to be treated like Pinot Noir. Of course, the wine ends up fuller bodied than Pinot Noir (duh), but the goal is detail, not power through steroids.
So what you have here, in my opinion, is ‘true Syrah.’ It’s more like a great Hermitage than anything. Aromas of graphite, licorice, blackberry, toast, wet concrete, and dried trees not yet cut into logs (ya know what I mean, I think?). It’s the kind of Syrah I want to pour for Syrah skeptics, keeping the label hidden until I hear their reaction.
It’s a beauty. And it’s been aged perfectly. And it will continue to age gracefully for another 10-15 years (but the best part is that it’s drinking great RIGHT NOW … thank you, Joe!).
Back to the question: what do you expect from a wine?
I started this week’s essay with this philosophical question, hinting that terroir is a lesser consideration for me when I taste California wines.
Of course, there are exceptions to that rule. And one of them is this wine.
Before we get to the story of Limerick Lane, here’s a bit about old zinfandel parcels in general. The treasure trove that these old vineyards represent is rare in the world of wine. Super rare. And much of that has to do with three things: Prohibition in America in the 1930s, the rise of chemical farming right after World War II, and the overall lack of attention California wines received until the 1990s.
Prohibition killed the burgeoning California wine industry. Some wineries survived by making home wine kits (thus so much Petite Sirah got planted, for it transports well packed in dry ice and shipped across the country), and some switched to sacramental wines. But most gave up. It was a losing proposition to be in a business where you couldn’t sell your wares (duh). So a field planted to vines was far more profitable if it was switched to almonds. (Even in 1970, a ton of Zinfandel from Sonoma could be had for $25. A ton of almonds was worth twenty times that.)
The rise of chemical farming after WWII destroyed vineyards worldwide. But the destruction happened in slow motion, attacking the oldest vines first, similar to how COVID hit the world in 2020. Slowly the oldest vineyards needed to be replanted, and some of the greatest old vineyards around the world were lost.
But not in post-WWII California. Why? Because nobody cared about California wine at the time, expect for the farming families with the names Gallo, Heitz, Seghesio, Pedroncelli, etc. Those families kept the old vines in the ground, for to them, they were part of the story of their family. So ironically, the unpopularity of California wine in the 1950s to 1970s saved some of the oldest vineyards from greedy chemical-based replanting.
About Limerick Lane
Limerick Lane is a 30-acre estate located just south of Healdsburg, where the Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, and Chalk Hill converge. The original European inhabitant was an Irish cattle rancher who named the property from his hometown of Limerick, Ireland.
Around 1890 there was a huge influx of Italian immigrants into the area (led by the Italian Swiss Colony winery and their winemaker Eduardo Seghesio). The del Fava family was part of that immigration, and in 1910 Mario del Fava planted the vineyard that is still in production today. That family worked the property and tended the vines until ten years ago, when Jake Bilbro purchased it.
You may recognize that name. Jake is the son of the late great Chris Bilbro, founder of Marietta Winery (another of our favorites). I’ve known Jake for 25 years, he was one of the first “wine family” people I had ever met, and his infectious smile always reminds me of his dad. Jake’s upbringing was all about the land, taking care of your family, respecting heritage, and building tradition. By purchasing Limerick Lane, the collective whole of Sonoma County breathed a sigh of relief: it’s in the right hands.
Limerick Lane Zinfandel, Russian River Valley, 2019
This is the flagship wine of Limerick Lane, produced with nearly 100% Zinfandel from the home estate, blended with some of the top old vineyards of Russian River Valley: Banfield, Collins, Sodini, and Ponzo (of Ridge Vineyards fame). A few of those fields have a few other grape varieties planted amongst the zin, hence my note of “nearly 100%.”
There is an old saying in the area (I’m pretty sure it’s attributed to the late great Lou Foppiano): “Great zinfandel is made where the fog stops.” All the vineyards in this bottle fall under that heading (as does legendary vineyards such as Ridge Lytton Springs). While the Russian River Valley is obviously best known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, on the eastern fringe of the RRV lie the vineyards that see the fog retreat first thing in the morning, warming up the vines hours ahead of the Pinot Noir planted further west. This is perfect for the Zinfandel variety.
As you know, I’m a HUGE Zinfandel fan. Great zin, to me, is one of the top pleasures of a wine lover. The one thing that sometimes gets in the way, however, is the alcohol. The higher alcohol in general of Zinfandel can sometimes overwhelm any detail and quite simply make me stop after one glass.
This one is different. It’s 14.8%, so it’s no slouch, but the alcohol is totally integrated into the flavor and presents itself as a whole rather than parts that stick out and sucker punch you. Aromas of black currant, worn leather, ripe blackberry, white pepper, clove, violets, and tobacco leaf. Damn, this is good, and it’s easily in the top five zins I’ve had this year.
The Arcadian “Francesca” Pinot Noir is not cheap, nor should it be. It has more in common with Grand Cru Burgundy than anything else! The quality of that wine, plus the cost of aging it the way that Joe has done, and suddenly (in some ways, note I’m choosing my words with a bit of trepidation here) it’s a … bargain? Seriously, it’s a term I don’t throw onto bottles over $60 very often but this is an exception. If you have someone special on an upcoming gift list, this is the wine.
The Arcadian Stolpman Syrah is for two groups. 1) Lovers of classic Syrah, especially the styles you find from Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie. 2) People that haven’t regained the love of Syrah they had back in the day. It’s a classicist style, with again far more to do with the wines of France than the wines of California. I think it’s the type of wine that shows just how high the bar can reach for California Syrah.
The Limerick Lane Zinfandel is just plain fun. If you enjoy a great bottle of Ridge, Carlisle, Bedrock, or Seghesio then this is for you. It’s right up there with the greats and is perfect for sipping as the temperatures go down. Get a top-grade cut of steak from a good butcher, fire up the charcoal, and put on a sweater. This is the wine for that moment.
Happy shopping, and thank you again for your support of what we do.
Sommelier and founder/owner of Twin Cities Wine Education
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