As part of our high end wine clubs this month, I give you the: Couloir Pinot Noir Marin County Chileno Valley Vineyard 2014
I originally met winemaker Jon Grant largely by chance. Before I go on, Jon has worked at a number of name wineries in and around Napa Valley, including Plumpjack and Corison. Ok, so back to the story: I was helping every Tuesday at a custom crush facility called Vinifiy in Santa Rosa during harvest. Basically, I’d drop my oldest at school, drive the hour north and walk in the front door to see who needed help. The second time I was there, much like they treat the interns, I was asked to help with what the winemakers knew was a crappy job, but I didn’t.
Jon makes wine under a couple of different labels, this Couloir brand and a brand called Straight Line as well. That day he had some fruit coming in for his Straight Line Tempranillo from Lodi. You don’t have to be socially gifted to notice the snickers coming from other winemakers, but it’s Tempranillo and this was Sonoma, so I thought it pretty normal. Custom crush, reminds me an awful lot of a fraternity house, or a college dorm most of the time.
It turned out that they were laughing, at both of us, because they had gotten a quick glance at the truck as it was coming into the parking lot. You see, grapes are often harvested when it is coolest, often at about 3-6am in the morning under huge lights that are dragged into the vineyard, or via miner lights worn on each pickers head. So the grapes show up at the winery around 10am, usually pretty cool.
What you have at a custom crush, where many winemakers work using the same equipment, is often a line of winemakers sitting outside, waiting for trucks to come in. While they often can tell the varietal that’s falling off the truck over the speed bumps, it is impossible to tell what vineyard it is. So they chat, meanwhile everyone gives the grapes the eye test. Is this fruit they’d want next vintage?
It turns out, this vintage of Tempranillo was problematic. Tempranillo evidently doesn’t usually work well in the destemmer (the machine which separates the berries from the stems) because the bunches of fruit are so tight, but this looked especially bad.
The destemmer basically did nothing. Well, it got the long strands off, but the berries went into the destemmer in large bunches and came out of the other side much the same, although they were at least broken down into jacks (the small part of the stem which holds 4-6 berries together).
At a custom crush, you only have access to staff during the time you’re using the machines during harvest, so the 6 of so folks running the destemmer did the best that they could picking out berries. But it was tough to see any real progress.
Eventually the next ton of fruit came in and everyone moved along. Which left Jon, on his hands and knees picking out the jacks. I ended up spending about 6 hours doing the same with him. This is the hard part about a small winery, especially one at a custom crush. There’s no extra staff, there’s no way to put off tasks. Sometimes winemakers simply have to roll up their sleeves and do about a day’s worth of manual labor, before the grapes heat up.
In any case, then and there I saw a winemaker truly interested in the craft. A lot of people would have thrown up their hands and simply said, screw it. This is hard. It’s pointless. Plus I could just make the Tempranillo and say it was 100% whole cluster this year. No one would know any better, or say anything and I’d be home for dinner. But that wasn’t what Jon did, instead he picked out jacks until he got the Tempranillo down to 50% whole cluster, which was his target based on his experience and how he thought the vineyard had been shaping up during the growing season.
So there’s an attention to detail here.
So you’re wondering, why this wine?
Not just the score, although I think that’s commensurate with the quality of the offering.
Instead, I wanted to feature a wine from Marin County. I have yet to do so. Marin is the small formerly agricultural region directly after you cross the golden gate bridge from San Francisco. It was once the dairy belt for the Bay Area. No longer. Now, it’s multi million dollar houses, although they’ve kept much of the open space (something I still am amazed by growing up in the suburbs of San Diego where open space was basically non existent).
Over the years, the last few dairy farmers have made one discovery: grapes bring in, a crapload of money per acre. Especially Pinot Noir, given Marin is a cold growing region. For a long time, people didn’t think they’d be able to grow grapes in large part because Marin is close to the beach. It’s darn close to the famed Petaluma Gap, just on the southern side as many of the famous vineyards in Sonoma are to its north. In any case, it’s foggy and salty much of the time. The soil, is more sandy than many want to admit, or want to admit can grow grapes. Really, that’s because if we can grow Pinot Noir in sandy soil, than the entire spots that we choose vineyards in the state, might have to change.
There’s about 200 acres in total planted across Marin, so this is largely an undiscovered swatch of land. Plus, the locals are wealthy, so the wines made here often don’t leave the local restaurant scene.
I figure that spending a day doing some back breaking labor might have helped my chances at bringing this one to you as part of my wine clubs. It also fits pretty much perfectly into what I want to do, as only 8 barrels were made, or 194 cases.
Ok, so there’s been a lot of talk from Sommelier’s about this wine and some of Jon’s others being incredibly close to Burgundy, or Bourgogne as they want us to call it. I don’t know if I buy that, largely because in Burgundy, grapes really do run the risk of not ripening. I’ve yet to find a Pinot Noir grape grown in California that didn’t ripen. So that’s pretty different and those results do really end up in the bottle.
So here it is. A ton of people have spilled more ink than me about the Sonoma Coast, what amounts to the Sonoma Coast and what doesn’t. The AVA guidelines suck and don’t tell us much about the wine in the your glass, this is another good example of that phenomenon. Marin east of the 101 is highly populated and warm. West of the 101, it’s largely open space and cool.
I think for what I’m looking to do, this was the right place to start.