Monday, September 28, 2009

A Fine Wine Detour

OK, I know this blog is supposed to be about food and food photography, but today's post is going to have precious little of either. This post is going to be about wine tasting.

I apologize in advance for the photos; I never even thought to take a 'real' camera, so these were shot with Jhan's point and shoot.

Some of the wines we tasted
Some of the wines we tasted at Renaissance Winery

Jhan and I both love wine, and back when we could really afford it, we used to buy and drink a lot of really good wine. In fact, I was the wine columnist for a local paper for a couple of years. You can still read my  columns on my old wine blog.

But now, we've fallen on lean times and rarely get the pleasure of doing wine tasting or even drinking decent wine. But Jhan recently got a small wad of unexpected cash (bank robbery FTW!), and we decided to spurge by going out wine tasting. And boy howdy, did we!

Our typical haunts include the Sierra foothill wineries in Eldorado, Amador and Calaveras counties, but this time we decided to visit a couple of obscure but notable wineries closer to home: Clos Saron and Renaissance wineries. Never heard of them? Well, now you have.

Both actually have the same wine maker, Gideon Beinstock, who has been making wine for Renaissance Winery since 1992 and for himself under the Clos Saron label since about 1999.

We first encountered Gideon's wines several years ago at Red Tavern restaurant in Chico - a truly stunning 2003 Black Pearl. So, though we've known of his wines for awhile, this weekend was the first time we visited either winery. And was it ever worth it!

Visits to Clos Saron are by appointment only, so we called Gideon on Friday and he graciously agreed to meet us the next day, even though he was heading off to do a tasting in Grass Valley.

I'm not going to give tasting notes on the wines that we tasted (this isn't my old wine column after all) other than to say that he's growing Pinot Noir in the Sierra foothills - Pinot that probably won't won't hit it's peak for another five to ten years. Big stuff. His syrah is pure and massive. And the Black Pearl, well, it's a monumental wine. All have the potential to age ten years or more.

Gideon himself is a very soft spoken but nonetheless passionate wine maker. His home facility for Clos Saron is tiny and littered with cases of wine stacked to the ceiling, but his love for what he's doing clearly comes through.

His philosophy of winemaking is very traditionally French and naturalistic. He's not one of those wine makers who try to control and manipulate every second of the wine making process. Instead he believes in letting the process take its natural course with minimum intervention. He doesn't inoculate his wines, nor filter, fine or rack them. But rather than turning out rough or brutish, his wines have an unexpected purity and honesty.

That said, they clearly aren't for everyone, as was reaffirmed when we moved a half mile down the road to Renaissance Winery.

Renaissance is part of a huge property run by the Fellowship of Friends, either a spiritual development group or cult, depending upon your point of view. Their teachings are supposedly based on the Fourth Way, taught by George Gurdjieff and P. D. Ouspensky. But other than seeing a very large and well maintained property, there were no odd vibes. Personally, I would ignore everything other than the fact that it's a winery.

Renaissance Winery
In front of the Renaissance Tasting room

The day we were there they were holding a vertical tasting of Cabernets back to 1983 - yes, that's not a typo. We expected the place to be packed, but other than one other couple from Sacramento, we were amazingly the only people there. As a result, we got the full attention of the wonderfully hospitable and knowledgeable tasting room manager, Lana Sladkova. We spent over two hours tasting and discussing a wide range of Renaissance wines. It was heavenly!

Lana - Renaissance Winery
Lana Sladkova, Tasting room manager at Renaissance

The wines here bore the unmistakable character of their winemaker: monumentally structured wines with incredible longevity. We were quite stunned with the complexity and quality of these wines. But the Cabernets in particular were notable. We tasted five cabs, from 2001, 1999, 1997, 1995, and 1983 (the only non-Gideon wine we tasted).

1983 Cabernet at Renaissance Winery
Some of the cabs we tastes, including the 1983

Each had its own character, but shared a massiveness that was impressive, but probably not appealing to a lot of wine drinkers. People who love fruity fruit bomb wines would not be happy with these wines. These wines would knock them down, beat them up, and take their lunch money. But to me, that was a lot of the appeal - virtually no one is making wines like this any more.

Gideon's makes wine in an old world, old school style - built to age and mature, to slowly come into their own as their towering tannins slowly mellow. They are not meant for immediate gratification. And the fact that the 2001 Cabernet is the current vintage at Renaissance reflects this philosophy.

In the end, we had a wonderful, wonderful day. We tasted over a dozen wines at Clos Saron and Renaissance combined, we were subjected to incredibly graceful hospitality at both places. For me at least, it was the best wine tasting experience I've had.

We will be pairing some of these wines with food over the coming months, and hopefully, we'll be able to work more wine into the blog as we go along.

Wines tasted at Renaissance Winery
The tasting bar at Renaissance - with some of the wines we tasted

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