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The Magic of the Miracle Mile:  Westside Road

For the intellectually curious, far along the curve of consumer wine enthusiasm, beyond the run-of-the-mill kibitzing about varietals, regions and appellations, an investigation into vineyard sources and, notably, the different styles of wine that can come from the same place happens.

It’s a wonky conversation for sure, but also integral to teasing out the nuances of understanding the New World terroir vs. winemaking debate.

Indeed, wine is made in the vineyard, but like a chef working with the best raw ingredients, a deft touch in the process is significant, as well.

In January, Wines & Vines magazine (a must read companion to Wine Business Monthly for anybody interested in a fuller, 360 degree understanding of U.S. wine), had an interesting feature on the different expressions of Pinot Noir from Julia’s Vineyard (south of Paso Robles in the Santa Maria Valley) and its “Artisan Vineyard” program.

Started in the mid-1990’s, the idea behind the artisan program was to provide grapes to small vintners so long as they used the fruit as a vineyard designate bottling.  It was a win-win.  The Julia’s Vineyard owners (the inimitable Jess Jackson and wife Barbara Banke), received slow burn branding for their vineyard and the small vintners received guaranteed and consistent access to high-quality fruit.  And, of course, a natural by-product of sourcing to small vintners from the same vineyard was/is an examination of the influence that winemaking style can have on the end wine.

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The Wines & Vines article noticed significant stylistic differences in between Pinots produced by Lane Tanner, Cambria and Foxen.  Terroir apologists might not want to hear that it’s not just the fabric that makes the fashion; it’s the designer, as well—each winemaker providing their own recipe for a high-quality, low-production product.  Brix level at harvest, grape handling, yeast type and use of oak all play a significant part in the style of wine that ultimately goes into the bottle, after starting with good source material.

In the same vein as Wines & Vines, I took a look at Bacigalupi Vineyard in the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County.

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Some in the Russian River Valley have taken to calling Westside Road, an area noted for being a viticultural slice of nirvana, the “Miracle Mile.” It’s a stretch of winding road running a meandering parallel to the Russian River.  The vineyards along that stretch of road turn out some of the finest Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel in the country. 

With history dating to 1954, Bacigalupi Vineyard has long been a source of grapes to third-party vintners including Chateau Montelena and the Chardonnay grapes that went into the 1976 Judgment of Paris winner.

Flash forward to modern day and second-generation Vineyard Manager John Bacigalupi tends over 150 acres of vines at the eponymous vineyard including Petite Sirah, Chardonnay and more notably, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir.

Grapes from Bacigalupi Vineyard go to Rudd, Williams Selyem and a cadre of small vintners as well – up and coming names like Chronicle, Gracianna and the Bacigalupi’s own label, John Tyler wines. Each have a Bacigalupi Vineyard designate bottling.

I tasted through several Zins and Pinots sourced from Bacigalupi and the results were interesting – widely varying styles, all high-quality, and each enjoyable – an underlying quality from the viticulture, all marked by the signature of the respective winemaker.

2006 Chronicle Russian River Valley Bacigalupi Vineyard Zinfandel
ABV: 14.5%
SRP: $36
Production: 165 cases

Tasting Note:  Lighter-styled, and translucent garnet in the glass.  This wine forsakes the syrup that marks so much Zinfandel these days.  A fruit forward, balanced, and restrained expression of Zinfandel – what I like to call a “Nü California” style – good with food, good alone.  Notes of blackberry, raspberry, vanilla, with a hint of tar on the edges and an underlying earthy, nuttiness.  Palate offers an extra dimension with spice, herbal notes and a streaky cranberry.  Finishes complex with black olive juice, cola, spice and touches of leather. 

I’m of the notion that Zinfandel isn’t capable of much beyond the “very good,” never breaking through to exceptional.  This one pushes that edge. 93/100

2007 Gracianna Russian River Valley Bacigalupi Vineyard Zinfandel
ABV: 14.4%
SRP: $42
Production: 52 cases

Tasting Note:  Candied nose of blackberry with vanilla, cola syrup, wet stone and a briary component.  Palate offers blackberry and a beguiling minerality, but lacks significant stuffing.  Overall style is feminine and approachable; the kind of glass you want to have after dinner as the conversation continues with good friends.  The 5% Petite Sirah was an inspiration as a blending component, adds rich depth. 89/90

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2007 Gracianna Russian River Valley Bacigalupi Vineyard Pinot Noir
ABV: 14.3%
SRP: $48
Production: 58 cases

Tasting Note:  Brick tinted garnet in the glass and made in a vexing style that needs some time to open up in the glass, yet is extremely soft.  Bright, pure strawberry juice, cherry, plum and cotton candy on the nose.  Palate is soft, round and rich with strawberry and cherry with added complexity from notes of violet, mushroom and a hint of orange peel on the edges.  Finishes long, and balanced.

This wine is like Target store designed products – a cut above in quality; trustworthy, well-designed, and accessible.  Winemaker Trini Amador is cutting his own style. 91/100 

2006 John Tyler Russian River Valley Bacigalupi Vineyard Pinot Noir
ABV: 14.7
SRP: $42
Production:  589 cases

Tasting Note:  Brick tinted cranberry.  Nose is reasonably muted, but offers a delicious and complex stew of macerated strawberry, cherry, blackberry, and earthy spice, with beet juice on the edges.  Palate offers more earthy complexity, cola, spice, cranberry on the edges and a healthy dollop of oak.  Typical to many Pinot’s, this is a brooding, complex mysterious wine.  On the one hand it lacks a third dimension that would truly separate it as exceptional.  However, it is, unmistakably, a food wine, that would allow an entrée to fill in that 3rd dimension into a harmonious whole.  Finishes with a touch of heat.  I wish I had a second bottle and roasted lamb with rosemary, perhaps the biggest and most positive endorsement I can make for it. 89/100

Note:  Lady Bug photo credit: John Tyler Wines
All wines provided by the respective wineries



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Posted in, Good Grape Wine Reviews. Permalink | Comments (3) |


Comments

On 05/03, Arthur wrote:

In Santa Maria, vintners call the vineyard to find out when Lane picks her Pinot Noir and set their harvest two weeks after that.
Seeking commonality of character is difficult (at best) in that scenario.

On 05/03, Jeff wrote:

Hi Arthur,

A quote to that effect was in W&V’s.  I guess that’s my point, brix level at harvest, winemaking styles with yeast selection, cold soaks and the rest all impact the ultimate wine even if it comes from the same plot.

It’s fascinating to me ...

Thanks for commenting,

Jeff

On 05/03, Arthur wrote:

What’s even more fascinating is when you taste multiple producers’ wines from some vineyards, you see that even with these interventions it’s sometimes impossible to escape the gravity pull of a site’s character.
A week ago, I tasted some Santa Barbara County wines at the Futures Tasting. Two wines from the same vintage and vineyard (but different producers) exhibited varying levels of geraniol - which can be a winemaking flaw or a characteristic of cool sites/vintages.
Another, stronger example: if you can attend the annual Fiddlefest at Fiddlestix Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills, itís likely that you will see a commonality of character of all the wines, regardless of winemaking style. At my last visit to this event (2008), it was striking how all the Pinot Noirs poured, showed game and truffle - to one degree or another.
One could argue that a vineyard can select who will get their fruit, to ensure that the winemaking will preserve the site’s character but when you see wines made by guys like Paul Lato, who pushes the ripeness, have a commonality with those wines made by winemakers who favor a leaner an more restrained style it becomes evident that not in all instances can site character be muddled or beaten out of a wine with interventions. Perhaps the same notion can be demonstrated for ripeness at harvest, but Iím not sure.


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