Three sommeliers from Canada—John Szabo, MS, from Toronto, Véronique Rivest from Quebec and Brad Royale from Calgary—were in San Francisco to compete in our Scavenger Hunt Taste-Off. They had just returned from Hunter Valley, a trip that had changed their perspective on Australian wine. But their perspective on California was still based on Napa Valley cabernet and Russian River pinot noir. So I picked them up from the Intercontinental in San Francisco and drove to the ridges west of Cazadero, where Jasmine Hirsch had set a picnic table on a hilltop above her family’s vineyards, in the place I consider holy ground for California pinot noir. We rendezvoused with Jasmine and the rest of the W&S crew, then walked the new plantings, own rooted vines free, so far, of the phylloxera that infests the soils on the opposite side of the hill; the pest has never taken out the old vines here, where the soil is unwelcoming to the bugs. That soil transition was enough to convince the sommeliers something unusual was happening.
We crossed the vineyard and headed to the picnic table to taste the range of 2012s Ross Cobb and David Hirsch produced. Two ridges stretched into the distance, the soils and climate of the East Ridge taking that wine in a warmer direction, while the West Ridge headed out toward the Pacific. There is one parcel on that West Ridge, planted to Hirsch’s Pommard selection in 1993, that Cobb bottled separately in 2012, as Block 8. For me, one taste of that wine was like coming home. There is no other pinot noir like it in the world.
I can count the number of times I’ve been to Hirsch on two hands, and yet I recognize the place in that wine. No matter how many scientists publish studies to prove that soil has no bearing on the way a wine tastes, I know the opposite to be true. Not only soil but the direction of the hills, the selection of the plants, the animals and plants living in their midst, the care with which the vines are farmed and the sensitivity with which those delicate points of communication inherent in the fruit are captured and preserved in the bottle—our senses remain a more sophisticated measure of those elements than our science.
We set out on our own sensory experiment for this issue, sending fi ve teams of sommeliers to Australia to hunt down exactly that kind of irreproducible experience, to bring back the natural history of a place in six bottles. Afterwards, they all convened for a Taste-O in San Francisco this October, each team presenting a region via six wines to an assembly of 40 of the Bay Area’s most knowledgeable wine citizens—fellow sommeliers, retailers and winemakers. The result was a tasting that presented facets of Australia rarely talked about on these shores. Our report begins on page 44, and it’s well worth assembling some of these flights to taste with your own group of friends. They may open your eyes to a new world of wine.
Elaine Chukan Brown is one of our contributing writers who joined us for the Taste-Off. Brown had just been on a parallel mission in Sonoma County, walking four cabernet vineyards and tasting a range of vintages from those vineyards. The only wine writer we know who regularly illustrates the wines she tastes, her goal was to assimilate her time at the sites and her days with the wines into visual representations of their respective shapes.
The idea grew out of a tasting we did last year when Gilian Handelman, an enologist and educator at Jackson Family Wines, organized a “shape tasting” for our September issue. Brown participated in that tasting panel, and her drawings of the shape of the wines we tasted were compelling. So we asked her to take on this project. She presented us with portraits of four sites, a cross between 19th-century botanical illustrations and 21st-century label art, if labels had no aspiration but to communicate what was inside the bottle.
Photo by Mike Rush
This story appears in the print issue of December 2015.
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