I usually don’t trust a man who wears sunglasses inside, even if it is intermittent, but there was something charming about the movement of the black shades from the light blue eyes of Michael Christian down to his hand where they would rest a while before ascending back to this charged winemaker’s face. And I must admit, to the detriment of my name and reputation as a rather indistinguished investigative journalist, that I never asked if they were prescription lenses or if his eyes are sensitive to light (in which case San Diego is a place that will invoke his sensitivities again and again) or if there was another reason for the cyclical migration of the lenses. In fact, I should go further and proclaim that it is I who am the villain, making insinuations and presuppositions about that which I never had the courage to ask. And yet, I am glad that I left the question on the movement of the sunglasses silent as I enjoyed observing it as it were a subtle and exquisite ballet going on in the periphery while we spoke about the wines of Los Pilares, an operation making some incredibly exciting and unique wine from grapes sourced exclusively in San Diego County. This is a region which has a long history of winegrape growing that extends to the 18th Century when Franciscan monks planted vines in order to manufacture the blood of Christ as well as to manufacture the experience of the glory of God’s gift of inebriation. Frank Cornelissen once said, “wine should be the blood of Christ, but most of what is made today is the urine of Christ.” I should say Los Pilares has continued the Franciscan legacy and is definitely opting for the former.
To revisit my initial image, I do not bring up Christian’s sunglasses only to poke fun or to wax a rather watery poetry: the idea of the dancing shades made me think of the role of a winemaker with his grapes. I have been considering this for a while now: is a winemaker an artist or an artisan? Is wine like a painting or a chair? A sculpture or a home? Are any of these metaphors even useful? Does the question itself even have merit? But on my trip to San Diego, I considered that a winemaker is like a dancer: he dances with his grapes to make wine; man and grapes are partners in a time-bound process which relies on mutual movement and understanding. I think that in the natural wine movement it is the grapes that lead the winemaker in this dance; many of these winemakers say that their role is finding out what the grapes want express in their journey to wine and to assist that process. But anybody who has mastered the role of following in a waltz knows that you can have your own way around the floor if you know your partner and if you are graceful and intuitive. A winemaker must understand his or her grapes and spin and move with them until they are both at a place of mutual harmony and joy in the expression that occurs as a result of this movement. And their dance should be repeated on the tongues and in the spirits of those who get to enjoy their product, each sip a spin, each gulp a dip, until the lights are out and the bottle is dry.
Christian & co. have certainly had to dance with a couple of the wines that we tasted on our trip to San Diego; the results are joyous! I’d like to talk about the 2014 pet nat of Cabernet Sauvignon first. For those who are green in this new world of wine, a petillant naturel is a sparkling wine whose method we can only really explain by contrasting it to the Champagne method. Champagne is made by fermenting a wine until it is dry and then adding sugar and new yeast to the bottle so it will create carbon dioxide, (aka bubbles). Pet nats are made by fermenting a wine until it is almost complete with that fermentation and then bottling them and corking them so they will create their own CO2 based on the sugar and yeast that are still present and active. Pet nats often express their yeasty character early on and for this reason some people profess a kombucha-like sensation. The popularity of this wine is growing, though the established wine community is slow to take this style of sparkler as seriously as Champagne-method wine. Christian most definitely danced with these grapes; when the farmer who grows them dropped them off he unexpectedly brought twice the load he was asked for. What to do with twice as many grapes? Find out what they want to be and let them do it! And so Christian and his partners (I think it may be more appropriate to call them friends though) decided to make what they call a “black pet nat” with all of these black grapes. I must say, this is an inventive choice; I don’t think anybody has ever made a pet nat with Cabernet Sauvignon, at least not intentionally. And the wine that pours out of this lucky bottle is as tremendously unique as the decision to guide the grapes to this state. Immediately out of the bottle it shows hibiscus and a taut body, but as it loosens and warms a bit it begins to show off a lot of dark mediterranean fruit. It is dark, brooding, virtuous, and uplifting. The only thing I can really compare it to is a 1970 Black Sabbath concert—don’t worry, that’s before Ozzy did a shitload of drugs and accidentally bit off a bat’s head—but I definitely want to highlight this wine’s (and Sabbath’s) seriousness. Pet nats are known as “fun” wines but I think that bottles like this from Los Pilares are a part of a movement which will show the virtuosity of this wonderful, ebullient style of wine. And like the songs of Sabbath, though fun and seemingly kitschy, this wine is revolutionary and deeply talented. Behind the image is a truly phenomenal energy which expresses itself with the seriousness of a desert landscape at sunset if we are attentive enough to pay heed.
The other wine that Christian most certainly danced with was the 2014 Rose of Grenache. I have had many, many roses of grenache, but I have never had anything like this. Once again, the grapes that arrived at Los Pilares to be foot-stomped and fermented were a surprise. The skins on these Grenache Noir grapes were incredibly thin and Christian and his winemaking friends had to figure out what on earth they wanted to be. They foot-stomped the grapes and left the juice on the skins during fermentation for two weeks. This is an unbelievably long time for black grapeskins to be left on the juice and would typically result in a dark red wine. Here, we have a rose, but a rose with beautiful, bitter tannin, a rose with the body of a red wine, what I have dubbed a “Winter Rose”, which category I hope will inspire the next new wine fad and prove that I am the visionary of marketing for which the natural wine world has been waiting! But seriously, Christian pointed me to the dry watermelon and the salted watermelon rind in the pallet here and I could see this as an unusual accompaniment to roasted pork with dried figs, but for Elf and our vegetarian menu, I would recommend something fatty and meaty like our King Oyster Mushroom Kofta. This dance was perfect and the wine is beautiful and unique like some ballerina who looks a little too big for her leotard but when put into motion leaps and glides like a diving dove.
Okay, okay, you say my metaphor has been getting tired; in fact, that it has carried your patience to the brink of exhaustion. And so I will let you off here (don’t worry, I’m tired of it by now too, so we are in this together) and drop the damn dance talk. I was turned on to Los Pilares a couple of years ago when we tasted the 2010 Grenache/Carignan blend at Elf. I was still somewhat new to wine (and continue to be so) but I had never tasted anything quite like it. The body and texture were something that I still struggle to understand and describe with any adjectives more explicit than “cloudy” or “ethereal”. Communication is based on similarity of experience, of one thing being like another. The experience of a trip to another country or of a special meal or of the reading of a philosophical text can only be communicated between two people who have been in some sort of similar situation. The speaker reaches into his own past to draw a comparison to his present and then attempts to share that connection with someone else who may or may not have had a similar experience. Unique phenomena cannot be linguistically shared, though, for if the speaker has no way of comparing his present experience to his own past, he has no way of reaching into the past of his intended audience to try and make the leap of imagination which would ideally bring the two into mental union. You might be saying now that you have come to read a wine blog and that my segue here has precluded mental union for my intended audience (you, that is). I should respond that in discussing the 2010 Grenache/Carignan from Los Pilares this mental union was impossible from the very start since I still don’t quite understand the experience myself. Much has been demystified for me in my travels through today’s wine world, but there are still those mystical experiences out there waiting for us; that’s exactly why we keep buying and opening bottles, chasing the ghost, for when we find it, our enchantment is all-encompassing.
We continue to be lucky to have the Grenache/Carignan project by Los Pilares available to us. I do not want to do the current bottling an injustice by comparing it to its older brother (I know my younger siblings had to suffer through such shitty treatment in their lives in school). The 2013 is every bit as important as the 2010, though it is a little bit easier to bring into words. Christian and his partners call the San Diego terroir “Mediterranean” and this profile shows through perfectly here. Leathery dates and dry cured black olives show through this beautiful and sensuous wine like a warm, dry gust of wind through a desert night as the sun is setting and most of the air has cooled. A good acid and dark fruit bring me to a place of comfort in this bottle. It is like curling up into a warm blanket you’ve had for a long, long time. Somehow, the color of the wine already shows bricking around the edges too (which could be the result of the whole cluster fermentation or of the nice old age of the vines) and gives the impression of a wine that has been in bottle for a number of years (like the blanket of my previous sentence). The taste backs this color note up and if you want the experience of age from a young wine, look no further: this one is wise beyond its years.
I hope that the team at Los Pilares will be happy with my presentation here; I mean all of my jesting as an honor to them and the work they are doing in the Southernmost wine-growing region of California. They are working to buy some land and plant their own vineyard (the wines we discussed here today all come from plots grown by other farmers, their Cabernet coming from land owned and farmed by the original inhabitants of these lands we now call America, which of course appeals to my sense of Romance about the grapes) and I cannot wait for ten years from now when I am able to enjoy their bottlings of wine to which they gave birth from root to glass. By that time they may be known as the people who spearheaded San Diego terroir, I think that is part of their aim. I am no prognosticator, but I think they are headed in the right direction. And though the earth may crumble and our economy may dissolve into its self-created fiction, though poisonous sea snakes and stinging jellyfish may invade our once joyous shores, though computers may create codes which control and subdue the human spirit, when I consider the wines to come from Los Pilares, I am excited about the future.
(And for some behind the scenes action here, I have to thank my friend and co-conspirator here Pony Cassells for shooting the amazing photos for this post. Thank you for making me look better than I am! These are some of the relatively unromantic plastic containers Los Pilares uses to age their wines. Christian says they breathe like oak without any of the flavor influence. I think the proof is in the pudding. Pony gives us some amazing Fritz Langian shots of the vessels here, showing a mastery of the shadow and light which accompany the wine through their voyage. These doors are to the winery which is shared with Vinavanti another amazing winery based in San Diego and like the Italian “Ciao” or the Hawaiian “Aloha” they bid us both “Welcome” and “Farewell”)