Saturday, October 18, 2008

Visit to Renaissance, Part 4 - Clos Saron

After the barrel tasting (see part 3), I was essentially finished with my visit to Renaissance. But I wasn't finished with my visit. You see, winemaker Gideon Beinstock also runs his own winery, Clos Saron, and he generously invited me down to his home vineyard.

I say home vineyard because his home and his vineyard are on the same few acres of land. No prizes for the genius who guesses the source for Clos Saron's Home Vineyard Pinot Noir.

Wait, pinot noir? In the blistering heat of the Sierra Foothills? Ah, but this is where the story gets interesting. But then, Gideon Beinstock is himself interesting. An Israeli native, he spent the 80s in France, where he worked with several winemakers. In California he was an assistant winemaker and then winemaker at Renaissance. The first wine that is "his" is a 1991 cabernet sauvignon.

Beinstock prefers to drink wines that are coming down from their plateau, when, as he says in his slightly pan-European-accented English, "they have nothing left to hide." He needs wine to be honest, although even when a wine is honest, he wants it to be more than that. I paraphrase here: "The first sip of a wine might be delicious, but what comes next?"

Back to that pinot noir thing. While we are now but one mile and a ridge away from the Renaissance vineyards, it turns out that the mesoclimate here is quite cooler. Whereas Renaissance is rarely hit with frost — the rampaging frosts of 2008 being a notable exception — it is a significant, yearly threat at Clos Saron. Beinstock explains that this 1,600 foot elevation, northeast-facing slope greets not one but two cool air streams that are funneled around a hill. He can look out his window in the morning and see a Y-shaped pattern of frost in his vineyard where the two air streams join.

Remarkably, the vines are planted on their own roots. When Beinstock and his wife Saron moved in, the site was already planted to cabernet sauvignon, and yet the grapes did not perform as well as they might. In 1995, then, he grafted pinot noir onto the vines (originally planted in 1980), then in '99 planted two more acres. Remarkably, these latter vines aren't yet producing much, as Beinstock forces them to compete with the grasses. The man has patience.

The soils here are considerably different than at Renaissance. There: granodiorite and a thin layer of clay loam. Here: alluvial layers of clay loam and granodiorite coexist with volcanic material toward the top of the property, and then toward the bottom of the slope we find a thick layer of volcanic ash as well as quartz. As Gideon pointed out the ash near a reed-filled hole, he noted that John McPhee's book Assembling California, which masterfully conveys the region's ultra-complex geology (I read it a while back), practically begins its narrative in the nearby area. Regrettably, man contaminated the area: when he dug to plant the 1999 vines, he found oil spills and machine parts, so this was probably an old manufacturing site or mill. Fortunately, the soil is almost returned to complete health, thanks to a biodynamics regime. This regime has also encouraged native grasses to return to the site, supplanting an invasive species.

One thing that Clos Saron does have in common with Renaissance is the extremely low yields, with 2008 clocking in at a mere 0.75 tons per acre! Now, some of this is due to the 2008 frost, which was quite bad, but Beinstock aims to keep yields low, regardless. One interesting point he makes about low yields is that, contrary to common belief, they do not increase body and richness. Rather, they increase aromatic intensity. Something to consider when you're drinking a Parkerized bottle of liquid road tar.

As at Renaissance, Beinstock irrigates minimally, ferments solely with native yeasts in open-top wood fermenter, and eschews sulfur at bottling. Likewise, here he pushed ripeness levels up in 2004 as an experiment; although having had to add water to the 2004 vintage with regret (not that I'd know it tasting the wine), he thus returned to his previous standard for ripeness, wherein the grapes are harvested at no more than 26 brix, and often less, with no need to adjust alcohol levels in the winery. The pinots clock in a just over 13%.

Home Vineyard Pinot Noir 2006
I will not describe any American pinot as "Burgundian." Just because a pinot is restrained and more earth-driven than fruit-driven, it is still its own thing, and hopefully expressive of its terroir. Still, I wouldn't fault anyone for using the adjective here, as this elegant wine is driven by earth and minerals, although it's hardly bereft of red fruits. It is also a very pure wine. It does need time, as the tannins and the finish are not yet resolved, and so has yet to become completely itself. But this is already very impressive. The vineyard is planted to a multitude of clones: 115, 113, 777, Pommard, Wente, and a few others.

Texas Hill Road Vineyard Pinot Noir 2006
Beinstock also farms the nearby Texas Hill Road site, which I did not visit. This wine is a darker animal than the Home Vineyard, with blacker fruit on the nose and palate. It has more power and less grace than the Home Vineyard bottle, but its earthy funk has its own beauty. The vineyard is planted exclusively to the 115 clone. Regrettably, a combination of frost, hail, and humidity destroyed 100% of the crop in 2007 and frost also affected the 2008 crop.

Syrah Heart of Stone 2004
Beinstock farms this syrah on Renaissance property. Now, whatever the drawbacks of having harvested later than is Beinstock's usual practice, this is actually a very pretty wine, with (as the name suggests) terrific minerality; you will not find "gobs" of fruit and/or baked characteristics. A la a Côte-Rôtie, viognier was added to the tune of 4%.

Holy Moly 2003
The first sip of this GSM (58% grenache, the rest evenly split between syrah and mourvedre) was so fruit-driven. Beinstock and I then started talking about the Loire (he is also taken by the way chenin blanc is expressed in the Loire Valley), at which point I admired two of his '71 Coteaux du Layon, and then I took another sip — but it was so tannic and structured, I thought he had poured the next wine. "Well, you've tasted a lot of wine today," said Beinstock. And it's true: though I had been spitting all day, I am not used to tasting so many different wines in a single day. So in addition to being easily distracted at the best of times, I was likely suffering from palate fatigue. I regret I must take this entire note with a grain of salt.

Black Pearl 2004
This is a blend of syrah, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, and sauvignon blanc (!). Beinstock likes to use petit verdot for its richness and spiciness, while the sauv blanc adds freshness and aromatic interest not unlike the role that viognier plays in the Heart of Stone. This vintage is ripe and very nice, but the 2006 vintage tasted from barrel struck me as deeper and more interesting.

By then the sun was setting and we said our goodbyes. As I drove my rented Versa back to Nevada City, I popped Rollerball's clamorous, shimmery new disc into the CD player and I rolled past rocky, green and gold hills. I thought about the good day, and the goodness of the day. I would return if I could and I will if I can...

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