Pinot Noir. It can at this point in history be a sentence of its own, a subject in no need of a verb, a cepage which announces itself with the royal and unquestioned fanfare of soft and elegant trumpets, a grape whose economic Californiac supremecy is fortified by an independent film which help decant dollars into the decisions planters would make for the ultimate sales grape, a grape which is given phonebook length dedication by some of the world’s finest restaurant wine lists and is planted in every corner of California, appropriate or not.
At Elf we do not dedicate a ton of space to Pinot Noir. I have a deep respect for what the grape can do, but there are just so many more varietals in the world which deserve their fair share of the spotlight. Negrette and Cannonau, Savagnin and Petit Manseng, Sangrantino and Schioppettino, Pineau D’Aunis and Groslot; really, none of these grapes need a verb to form a complete sentence either, it’s just that people of unaware of this fact. But every once in a while a Pinot Noir comes along that fits the adventurous and exciting thing which I am seeking out for our wines. It is a wine which does not bear the burden of it’s marketability and just drinks like a glass of pure and unique spirit, unconcerned with perfect balance and elegance of fruit, or however everybody thinks a Pinot Noir is supposed to taste. Bryan Harrington, who makes the bold and exciting Charbono we have carried for a while is producing such a Pinot Noir. We are currently carrying the 2011 vintage of his Thompson vineyard “Terrane” which is a bit inland in Mendocino County; it is as ferocious as a maimed bear while being as beautifully worn as an old caned rocking chair.
Terrane in still life
Thompson vineyard is at the center of this wine’s excellence and is a brilliant phenomenon of accident, a beneficiary of the real estate boom gone sour. Around the turn of the millennium, the vineyard, planted in 1968 (which makes the vines a ripe 46 years old), was sold for development and the vines were given an indefinite date of execution. Lucky for us, the real estate geniuses who help make our country such a wonderful and unaffordable place never quite got their shit together and the vines were spared the indecent death which was planned for them. They went wild for a few years, nobody cared for them and the shoots grew off of the canes like a brambly forest bush, leaving old dead shoots strewn about in a state of abandonment where they learned, much like the wolf boy of Avignon, to fend for themselves, to find water amidst a drought, to survive cold without a caretaker, to dig deep into their genetic history and to discover their own tough savage nature. These vines were planted to be cultivated and cared for like children in a nursery, but they dug deep to survive this unintended neglect; for while Pinot Noir is known by many to be a fussy grape in need of a lot of attention and protection, these vines proved to be survivalists of the highest order: they hold the memory of their wild trial of endurance in the wine they make today. And having shown their fondness for a natural and untamed state, they are today cultivated in a manner which respects and encourages this proclivity. Mr. Harrington found these vines and has been working without irrigation or chemicals since 2008. They proved they didn’t need any extra water and still don’t need any today, despite a massive drought. Visually, they wear the element of suffering on their sleeve, looking in winter, shorn of their wilted leaves and inactive shoots, something like a gnarled cross upon which Christ baked out under the sun one Roman day, religious, savage, and defiant. And yet, the summer vines look as happy and playful as little green schoolchildren, spliced with nasturtium DNA. From the root of great suffering, it appears, can sometimes sprout great mirth.
Thompson in the winter, invisible Jesuses on every one
Such soft beauty can be found here on Earth
“But what is the savory yield of this vinous history?” you ask. I should reply that they taste just like their story. Wild, rustic, untamed, and rambunctious, the first thing that confronts you is the acid. I am a great lover of acidity in wine and the Terrane has plenty of it, but if you can’t get past this first gate, the wine’s depth will never reveal itself to you; you will take it for a simple, tart table wine. So it takes a little bit of work and attention to appreciate its greatness, like a great work of music desires you to stop watching the damn television and just shut up and stop emailing and instagramming and fiddling around and just pay attention to it for once in your life, Maxwell Edward Sharpton-Daniels, goddamnit! Though loving and reveling in acid, one must overcome this tart cranberry entrance to the wine to discover the wild rosemary and the most phenomenal flavor of all, which brings the history and memory of the vines into your heart and spirit, using the aperture of your tongue as its messenger. Flavor is not only something to enjoy sensorially, but it can be a code which conveys histories and truths to your deepest being, it can allow you to commune with the earth and with plants; it does not end with the tongue, but only begins there, to take you on a journey which can bring you into concert with the spheres of the universe, with the divine clouds and galaxies, which can activate the stardust which comprises the basic material of your body and mind and hurl you into an ecstatic state, electrical and transcendent. How to bring you to this flavor trigger with mere words? It is imbecillic to attempt, but have you ever left grapes out in the sun for a couple of days and given them a shot after they have begun to raisin? Their leathery texture screams something ancient and vibrant. It is like the grapes have begun to mummify and the spirit of their casual, natural, yet delicious death exhibits something profound about their character that could have never been perceived in the fullness of their vibrant and young ripe freshness. And so here we are at death again. Jesus on a cross, withered suffering grapevines stretching for survival, drying grapes leathering in the parching sun, mummies in a glass of wine. Death is everywhere and is the most profound experience any individual will ever have and we all must do it alone. I want to practice it and get tastes of it as much as I can before it actually has to happen so that when it does come I can recognize it as an old kindly friend. The tip of a bear’s longest fang, a rocking chair’s caned seat weathered and stretched to shape by many tired and useful behinds, and mummified and resonant death come to give us practice for the real thing; an ode to nature. These are my tasting notes.
How wine can make you feel and why we spend money on it
Image Stolen from my friend Paul Koudounaris’s amazing book Memento Mori