I come from people who were born, lived, and died under a blanket of clouds. The sun came out in their lifetimes for flirtatious and ungraspable kisses which escaped before my ancestors could even take note of the brief change in the weather; they knew that the true color of the sky was grey and that the bright blue patches and the illuminating light only invaded aberrant and intermittent like some foreign, incomprehensible god who could warm bones and made you squint your eyes. I am entirely genetically unprepared for the sun of Southern California, which bangs like a hammer on an anvil at my melanin-deficient skin whenever it is exposed. And so in substitution for the clouds, I wear long sleeves and pants year-round even when the temperature rises above 100°, all the time wishing I could really cover up and dress like a bedouin without drawing the judgmental stares of the people on the streets of Los Angeles.
And while I have a personal biologically deficient defense from the power of the direct sun, grapes do not, and this ball of floating fire has, since the beginning of California viticulture, defined the wine and the terroir of California. Rightfully so! We have tons and tons of sun and this will affect what grapes we grow, where we grow them, when we harvest, how we farm, and how we vinify. I wasn’t around for the big bang of fruit explosion in wine and I don’t think I would have taken to those wines with much pleasure, but during the mid 80s through the 90s and continuing with diminishing popularity today, the sun became the only and absolute star (yes I know the sun technically is a star) of California terroir as a result of its ability to produce sugar sweet, full, juicy, jammy, and sometimes fiercely tannic wines from grapes which I would consider to be overripe unless they are destined exclusively for consumption as dessert. I have only had a few wines like this. To me, they are undrinkable for much more than a couple of sips. One tasted like birthday cake. Another like some sort of syrup made from pinot noir grapes. It might have been nice if I’d had some pancakes to sop it up! Resultantly, California wine is thought by many to be sugary sweet, and while some people chase the jammy thickness, others dismiss the whole of California wine as a result.
While I do not care for the flavors of oversunned grapes (think of those poor aged ladies who habitually took too much sun and have thick and leathery skin now as a result), the sun and its power are undeniably one of the distinct and defining aspects of California terroir. And though some may have somewhat successfully argued that the sweet wines of California’s recent past give you a direct taste of all the sunshine we get here, I think they are placing too much emphasis on the quantity of sun (“all the sun”) and not on the quality of our great and wonderful daytime star.
So what is the taste of the quality of the sun? We have been serving a few wines at Elf recently that really seem to shift the emphasis for me and come to define the California sun in terms of freshness and buoyancy. These are clean and juicy without being sweet, and vibrate in your mouth if you hold them in for long enough. These wines are beginning to give me a sense of the taste of sunshine. It is a taste that is like a lot of Americans: unjaded, optimistic, adventurous, sensitive, caring, and even a little naive—all character traits which we might describe in a person as “sunshiny”. This leads me again to muse on why I love wine so much; things that you would not be able to taste in the grapes that make these wines, through fermentation, emerge as flavors which allow you to directly experience a powerful and beautiful phenomenon of nature. I cannot taste the sun but through its product which, fermented, places this creator of life on earth on the stage of your tongue. In an almost hallucinatory experience, Helios speaks to us through our taste buds. Wine is like a crystal which concentrates certain aspects of nature and allows one to experience them physically, sensationally. I have taken the sun into my mouth and it has traveled through my body and enlivened me.
The first of the wines I would like to cover is the Broc “Love Red” blend 2014. 75 % Carignan, 14% Valdiguie and 11% Syrah, the grapes come from 50-70 year old vines in Solano County’s Green Valley just East of Napa city. It is such a resonant red with a tiny bit of purple that it looks like Dorothy’s ruby slippers got a little bit of Syrah spilled on them. It shines and glows in the sun and is an especially incredible daytime glass of red wine. I think you can truly feel the sun commitently vibrating the taste and color of this wine like a string on an instrument tuned to the same note vibrates when you pluck its analogue. The low D of the spherical originator sun reverberates in the high D of its spherical fruit child and together “one pleasing note [they] do sing” (that’s from Shakespeare’s 8th Sonnet). I have photographed these wines today through a ray of sunshine in order to make the point that when we look at the color of wine under natural light we are really looking at the sunlight itself as presented through the prism of the wine and we taste the sunshine itself as presented through that same prism. How this crystal tastes beautiful! Broc “Love Red”’s round ripe red cherries show off the natural and clean fresh fruit of summer without banging you over the head with the fact that fruit is a carrier of sugar. The acidity is there and keeps it fresh Fresh FRESH! white linen drying on a clothesline. It reminds me of innocent sportive playing in a park with friends, maybe soccer or badminton or roaming archery, far away from thoughts of politics, economics, bank accounts, cancer, or famine; it has a lot of laughter and a ton of joy. I think I am only now beginning to understand that some people want wine that is difficult to drink, something which makes you struggle to get through an entire bottle, tannic, dry as sand, and fierce: this is not a bottle for them. In fact it is so inviting, you really do have to pace yourself, it could be gone in an instant if you don’t pay attention going back for inviting sip after inviting sip; and then what would you be able to achieve with the rest of your day with a bottle of wine in your belly?!
Wind Gap side label, “Lucques” 2011. A Syrah/Grenache blend from Pax Mahle (whose surname I just found out is pronounced something similar to the word melee), man of many labels (Pax, Wind Gap, Wilde Farm, and the now defunct Lucques label), which is as pretty and flirty a glass of wine as I have had this year. Light purple shows through the reddish-brown tone which dominates this wine which is light and, you guessed it, fresh Fresh FRESH; this is mildly surprising to me since it has been in the bottle for 3 years already—it tastes like it was bottled yesterday! The Syrah shows some pepper but it is soft and unaggressive blended with all of the lavender and gentle plum and pomegranate of a proper fruit salad. This is a wine which is influenced by the grape skins, not dominated by it. The body shows off the softness and velvety textures of Grenache as the grape interprets the sun that gives it the power to grow. This wine belongs in a park with the “Love Red” but is more a playful barefoot dance in a light skirt than a sportive game and definitely includes some light and soft kisses from a happy lover. The Lucques could be a woman or it could be one of Hibiscus’s Angels of Light (the ethereal side of the Cockettes); either way, it is so pretty and so soft that I want to lay down in it for a blissful nap.
Cruse Wine Co. Rorick Vineyard Chardonnay 2014. This wine comes from own-rooted 40 year old Chardonnay vines in a rocky vineyard a couple of miles outside of Yosemite National Park in the Sierra Foothills appellation. It is in some ways more complex than the two reds of our trip through California today, but still shows all of the bright characteristics of a product of Appolonian joy. This wine is highly reminiscent of a Jura Chardonnay (if you don’t know about the Jura yet and you love wine that is like no other, please look into this profound and tiny region in Eastern France that is pumping out some of the most unique and surprising wine despite the tragic and miserable weather they have been experiencing thanks to “climate change” in a nation which is known for pumping out rather good wine); it smells and tastes of walnuts, brazil nuts, rosemary, and aged cheese. I haven’t had anything quite like this from California. But behind that complex and oily front is the fresh fruit of a California summer. This is quite a bit more inland than the other wines we have discussed in this post and shows all of the rugged terrain of the Sierra Foothills, sometimes inhospitable, craggy land which enticed men into its lap with the promise of interred gold but only gave them dust in the summer and ice in the winter. And while these golden grapes show the dust and roughness of the terrain, in which only the tougher plants like grapevines and rosemary can thrive, they also show the pure and beautiful fruit of a California sun even when it does not have the cooling aspect of the ocean to balance it. This Chardonnay has all of the lemon acidity of California citrus, another resilient and drought-resistant species, and shows the round juice of yellow plums, pure and delightful. One of the things I love about stone fruit is how messy it is when you bite into it. The juice is ready for its release and rushes out onto your chin and around the corners of your lips. I sense this pure golden rush from this wine. It is exciting and enriching. The most important gold in the Sierra Foothills, as far as I am concerned, can be found above the ground, growing on old vines.
I began this post in reaction to quantity of sun of the popular wines of California’s recent past and wanted to find the quality of sunshine in a glass. I think in some ways, this was a false search, for the sun has no single quality, especially in an area as large as California. On a hammock beneath some shady trees, the warming speckled sun on your cheek makes you feel safe, warm, relaxed, and sleepy. In the desert a dehydrated man feels the sun beating on him like a cruel tyrant with a bag of old nails. In the winter of a frozen polar land, the sun feels like a promise that someday the air will not cut your skin and the ground will soften. But in the search for wines of distinction, I seek distinctness; I celebrate difference and seek a unique experience from every glass, even from the same bottle, which should be different from the first glass from the same bottle as it grows and develops with air. What is the quality of California sun? It cannot be defined as the sum of its parts or as medians or means, but only in its great and beautiful diversity. And though I hide my body from this buoyant gaseous ball’s penetrating gaze and buy Amish hats online for their wide brims to protect my pink face and neck, I travel far and wide in my bottles of wine to experience these rays of Californian light and what they mean to my tongue-spirit continuum.