Sunday, November 22, 2015

Old Nebbiolo’s Influence on Napa Valley and New California Wine

“I think it’s safe to say I drank more Nebbiolo on my last visit to Napa Valley than Cabernet. And that’s beginning to be more the rule than the exception.” There’s more to that quote than the mere act of opening bottles of Barolo and Barbaresco. We're witnessing a minor revolution in California and it is one that has enlisted winemakers, sommeliers, importers and restaurateurs.

Last week, while in wine country for meetings, my friend Dan Petroski arranged for an informal wine get together in the home of Chef Sarah and sommelier Jason Heller. There were a dozen of us, and we all brought various bottles of Nebbiolo, some aged and some newer, like those of us in the group. And yes, we ate crazy good food, including white truffles and fresh tajarin (from Chef Sarah) and we drank ridiculously awesome wines. And I’d like to tell you about that, really, just for the bragging rights. But there’s something else going on, something much more important than one great meal with some of the most iconic wines on earth. Would you like to know?

Picture a table where there are winemakers Bob Bressler (Bressler Vineyards), Dan Petroski (Larkmead and Massican), Mark Porembski (Zeitgeist Cellars) and Matthew Rorick (Forlorn Hope). Then add to the mix Cameron Hobel, who is a hybrid, both involved in making wine (under his Hobel Wine label, aided by wunderkind Thomas Rivers Brown, (who was not present with us this night) and does double duty running Milton Road Trading Company, an importer and distributor of fine and rare wines in California. Throw in the young force of nature, Ruben Moreno, who if he wasn’t in wine here on Earth would probably be finding a way to live on Mars and make and sell organic wine there. Add to the mix sommeliers Jason Heller MS, Sur Lucero MS, Bryan Lipa and Benjamin Richardson who work with Californian wineries and Ryan Stetins, who manages Parallel 37 (and the hotel wine program) at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco. All of their CV’s are much more than I just offered, for the sake of space. But needless to say, this is a very energetic, talented and not your run-of-the-mill wine group. We have influencers here as well as folks who make the stuff - folks who help decide where wine tastes are going in California and the world beyond. And they are all hopelessly in love with Italy and Nebbiolo. The view from the mountaintop is looking pretty good from here. I look back on 40 years since I have been coming to Napa Valley and look forward to the next 30 or 40. It’s going to be very interesting to see how things change from a California wine (and winemaking) perspective.

The wines? They (the Nebbiolos) ranged anywhere from 1960 (Gaja Barolo) to 2006 (Oddero) and included these wines (in the order in which we tasted and had them with food):

• 1996 Barolo Parusso ‘Bussia Vigna Rocche’
• 1990 Barolo Oddero ‘Rionda’
• 1990 Barolo Conterno Fantino ‘Sori` Ginestra’
• 1980 Barbaresco Oddero
• 1985 Barbaresco Marchesi di Gresy ‘Camp Gros Martinenga’
• 1985 Barolo Borgogno ‘Riserva’
• 1960 Barolo Gaja
• 1961 Barolo Cappellano (Troglia bottling)
• 1969 Barolo Cappellano (Troglia bottling)
• 1967 Barolo E.Pira
• 1967 Barolo Oddero
• 1973 Barbaresco Oddero
• 1973 Barolo Cappellano (Troglia bottling)
• 1974 Barolo Fontanafredda
• 1974 Barolo Marcarini ‘Brunate Marcarini’
• 1974 Barolo Oddero
• 2006 Barolo Oddero (as we'd had quite a few wines from Oddero, Dan Petroski thought it would be interesting to taste a young version from this property)

We also had a few white and sparkling wines before and some aged Vermouth and Amari for dessert.

But beyond the wonderful experience of having these wines with the wine professionals, sitting around a table, eating homemade food and taking the time to drink the wines with food and have proper discourse (as well as one hell of a time) is what I sensed that night was a sea-change. I will offer a few anecdotal snapshots which I think point towards this sense I have.

Sitting next to Matthew Rorick, I don’t recall we had met before. We probably did, but it was in a similar group if we did. And in those groups there are a lot of moving parts. But this time I asked Matthew how (or if) wines like these informed his winemaking. Matthew responded with a sensitive, articulate glimpse into his philosophy of winemaking (and I believe of life as well). He is working with the vines he has been given, to make the wines he will make. He cannot make a Barolo (or a Burgundy) but he can be a transmitter of the sense of place (and the energy of it as well) when he makes his wines, not to imitate or duplicate what is already being done in France or Italy, but to convey that earth energy (into wine) where he is as honestly as the farmers do in the Langhe or the Côte de Beaune. For me, that makes his wine as interesting (and compelling) as any wine from anywhere. And yes, I have had some of his wines and appreciate and enjoy them very much.

Across from me was Ryan Stetins, who is young and articulate (and who I wish I had around all the time to tell me what he is smelling in the glass, as he has an amazing vocabulary of experiential words, not made up b.s.). What can I learn from someone who is younger than most of the wines we tasted this night? Who wasn’t even born the first time I came to Napa Valley or Italy? Well, from the mouth of babes, isn’t that the cliché? I saw a humility that made me want to listen to him, because he wasn’t boastful or too proud. He, along with all these gents, is investing in wine. And not just to put into their wine cellars. No, there’s something afoot in California, which is different from what I see and feel when I am on the east coast. Yes, there are wine lovers in both places. But California has critical mass not just in wine collecting and appreciation, but also in the act of making wine. And when there is that energy, winemaking philosophy changes - something we all have seen coming from California for a few years now.

Will California stop making $350 a bottle cult Cabernet for the 1%ers? I doubt it. And frankly, I wouldn’t want them to stop. Let’s see where those boys (and gals) can push it. Is it any different than what they do in Bordeaux? I may not have access (or the desire) to invest, collect or enjoy those wines on a daily basis. But the world doesn’t revolve around me, so let it be.

But…what about what the Dan Petroski’s and the Mark Porembski’s and the Matthew Rorick’s? What are they thinking? Dan makes Napa Valley Cabernet. Cameron Hobel’s wine consultant Thomas Rivers Brown is hugely influential in the valley when it comes to Cabernet, and he probably drinks more great Nebbiolo in a year than I will in a lifetime. Doesn’t anyone think this is influencing wine and winemaking in California? Little ‘ol Nebbiolo, sitting there quietly in the fog, minding its own business, making those quiet little wines that live forever, those dead winemakers influencing and help stoke a revolution beyond the grave and beyond the century and millennia when they were young and alive and well?

As I said in a recent post, we no longer are being held back by the “established cabal of tastevin-adorned gatekeepers.” The young sommeliers have loosened the chains around all our necks and the result is, yes, we can still enjoy Champagne and Burgundy and Rhone and Loire and yes, we can also welcome onto our table their Italian cousins from the Langhe and elsewhere.

The only drawback? The Italians used to have all of these wines to themselves and they were affordable to folks other than the 1%ers. Now, they have to share these wines with more people. Maybe the prices will rise; they probably won’t go nuts. I hope not. All of us at the table hope not. We still have many years of study and appreciation for these wines.

Post script on these wines: While everyone loves to try old wines, my take on old Nebbiolo is that since the 1990’s I think the wines are being made better. There are less “off flavors” in the nose. Some of this could come from storage and just what happens when a wine gets old. Old people sometimes smell funny too, and it’s not because they don’t bathe regularly (their parts just get old). But I’m all for the amazing wine from 1967 (one of the best vintages we sampled that night) or 1973 (a happy surprise).

I’ll probably be drinking Barolo and Barbaresco quite a bit younger than the ones we tasted, as I look from my perch at where this is all going. But what a wonderful future we all have in front of us. I’ve said it before; we are in the Golden Age of wine. The world may be catching fire all around us, as it has been before mankind started calling the shots. That’s pretty much out of my control. What isn’t out of my control is what I choose to do and see and drink and think about. If my world of wine is smaller than the swirling world events around me, let it be. I’ve found my place. And so it seems, have a few other brothers-in-arms around the table. And it seems that Nebbiolo has made all our lives richer because of it.

Huge thank you to Dan Petroski for pulling this together, for Jason and Sarah Heller for offering up their home and their gracious hospitality along with great cooking and many bottle of wine. And for Bob Bressler's benefaction of wine (and who also assured I wasn’t the only silverback in the troop) and for everyone’s convivial contribution to a great night.

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