If there’s one lesson from all this deficit and debt ceiling talk, it’s that compromise is compulsory. Over the last few weeks, we probably all developed passionate feelings on the crisis, but what’s captured me the most in all this is the concept of compromise. In the short time I’ve had the chance to get to know David White, and in the much longer time I’ve had the pleasure of knowing David’s good friend, Tom M., the two of them have shown me it’s time for my own sort of compromise — with wine.
As a guy who cut his teeth on European wines, I’ve begun to wrap my head around something I never thought I would: There really is another world of wine out there, and it’s where I live now: America.
Every day, another winemaker is borne into the American wine scene with universal experience and sensibility. Every day, some intrepid youngster is spending his summers in places from Beaune to the Yarra Valley, discovering what it means to make wine authentically, naturally, responsibly. So what’s standing in the way of my own discoveries? What’s stopping the evolution of my own palate, my own compromise? Nothing at all, really. That realization prompted me to crack two bottles of Pinot Noir. I wanted to chip away at something that’s haunted me for a while, the misguided notion that America might not ever find that perfect confluence of terroir, talent and tradition to match the svelte beauty of most European wines. It’s obvious that a self-deceiving mindset like that is in need of change.
To put that nonsense to rest once and for all, I knew I had to start my journey with Hirsch Vineyards’ 2007 Pinot Noir ‘M.’
David Hirsch strikes me as someone inextricably linked to his terroir. He nurtures his vineyards like a true shepherd; he could probably talk to you about each plot for hours on end and neither you nor he would ever get bored. His Sonoma Coast property is essentially a terroir laboratory, a schizoid manifestation of Earth and its desire to rip itself apart. His farming talents were legend long before he ever started making wine under his eponymous label.
When I envision Hirsch’s wine, I see exactly the confluence of terroir, talent and tradition I find in places like Burgundy. When I opened the ‘M,’ I got the sense I was dealing with something emphatically Californian, but with something deeper going on that immediately brought German Pinot Noir to mind. This screamed red fruits—cranberries, cherries and raspberries. But this undertow of cedar, cashmere tannin and sweet earth gave me chills. There was something very rooted about this wine—rich and primary, no doubt, with a very natural persistence of mid-palate weight, but influenced mostly by something for which I can only conjure a parallel: the wines of Birkweiler in Germany’s Pfalz wine-growing region. Here the richly hued sandstone yields grapes of surreal depth and volume, gorgeous raspberry and black cherry fruit flavors, and an impenetrable sense of place. Some would call it minerality. I would call it Birkweiler.
The second wine, Aubert de Villaine’s 2009 Bourgogne “La Fortune,” was a bit more challenging. Villaine’s fame leaves nothing to be desired; he’s been at the helm of the world’s most renowned red Burgundy estate, Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, since 1974. Imagine if he started making wine in the humble satellites of the Cote d’Or? No need to imagine, really; the maker’s mark is all over this wine from the humble Cote Chalonnaise.
From the start, this Pinot Noir was almost violently rustic and stemmy, with bramble and damson almost engulfed by plowed earth and beefeaters. Not a Day 1 star, but I had a hunch this would be spectacular on Day 2. It didn’t disappoint. In contrast, the Hirsch had almost completely unraveled into an oxidized, acetyl mess. I was taken aback—with the same amount of wine left in each bottle, I thought for sure they’d be neck and neck the second day. “La Fortune” really did find fortune on the second go-round. Having shed its cloak of oak and loam, this became a basket full of wild blueberries, plum and dried cran. Firm but pliant tannin integrated perfectly with ripe acidity, and the finish cascaded with spicy notes of leather, clove and anise. If you’re set on killing this Day 1, decant, decant, decant.
In the end, I’m certain I could not have picked a better way to foster compromise. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect a slight degree of heat damage and premature oxidation in the Hirsch ‘M.’ There were some indicators—label stains and a rather saturated cork—but its Day 1 performance set those fears aside. I loved the wine’s purity, its texture, and the sense that I could, in two or three pours, map the Sonoma Coast influence in my head. Aren’t these the same qualities that make Burgundy great: transparency, typicity and texture? It’s what made Villaine’s bourgeois Bourgogne something almost stately, aristocratic (given two days). Those principles and attributes translated in American soil will only make me more and more convinced that here—right in our own backyard—is where we’ll really start to see the renaissance and revolution in great wine. I won’t say I’m completely converted yet, but for Pinot Noir, it seems the Sonoma Coast may well be on its way to being my Burgundy DH.