Ringing in the New Year with a deeper appreciation for the pinot noir grape.
STORY BY LESLIE A. WESTBROOK
I recently developed a new appreciation for the wine in my glass after briefly harvesting grapes in bucolic Sonoma. I traveled north to make peace with the pinot noir grape, as I am one of the few people on the planet who is not particularly enamored with its wine. But lo and behold, the pinot grape is (along with chardonnay) one of the grapes used for sparkling wines in California — which I do enjoy. Bubbly varietals from pinot-driven winery Gloria Ferrer are especially tasty. I had the opportunity to participate in the harvest and pick grapes at one of the Sonoma County vintner’s noteworthy California vineyards a few years ago.
Wine making is a process that requires both patience and cooperation from Mother Nature, among other things.
Harvest time had arrived two and a half weeks earlier than average, due to mild weather in mid-September 2016. My fellow winemaking colleagues (sommeliers, restaurant owners and wine buyers from across the U.S.) and I headed out pre-dawn to the vineyards of Ferrer Winery’s Circle Bar B Ranch on the south end of Sonoma and western end of the Carneros appellation that bridges Napa and Sonoma counties. We watched the sunrise before we were each carefully handed a very sharp grape-cutting knife, gloves and instructions.
I chose a row of the vineyard’s Los Diablos block to work and began the task at hand: filling a plastic bucket with the grapes, one cluster at a time. The small black, juicy grapes tasted deliciously sweet and the juice soaked my glove by the time I’d finished picking. My harvesting time was brief, but this physically taxing work is not for the faint of heart: Imagine laboring for eight or more hours, day after day and often into the night, during harvest season.
After breakfast in the field, and an amazingly deft grafting demonstration by Albert Robledo who honed his “old school” skills as a young man practicing on willow trees, we left the fields and rode to the Gloria Ferrer Winery, where we tasted a new release with a view across the valley. Then, we observed our grapes begin their journey towards a finished product.
The morning’s pickings were dumped into a huge de-stemming and pressing machine. The pulp was then pumped into a large vat to begin the fermentation process. Time, aided by winemaker Steve “The Grape Listener” Urberg, who strives for “elegance, balance and texture” — the noteworthy ingredients of a good pinot would tell if our efforts paid off.
A tour of the winery ensued, including a viewing of a smidgen of Gloria Ferrer’s vast champagne flute collection. Some 2,000 are in Barcelona, from where the Ferrer family hails. I intend to investigate on my next sojourn to one of my favorite European cities.
Bubbly and enthusiastic winemaker Urberg explained the wine making process over a tasting, sharing his proprietary regard for a block of very old, special vines.
“Don’t judge a wine by looking at a grapevine. A nasty looking, older, ugly vine can make a beautiful wine!” he noted.
Just this past spring, it was time to uncork and sip the pinot noir wine made from the grapes we picked. Will understanding and relating to the grape, combined with my sense of the terroir and the people behind it, seduce me? I shared a bottle with a wine connoisseur friend, Daniel. We took the bottle to a great new Italian restaurant and popped the cork.
Did the wine possess “elegance, balance and structure”? We noted lots of berries and pepper. The winemaker tasting notes confirmed our impressions: black pepper, brown spice, blackberry and cherry, with earth and cedar full mouthfeel and a touch of tasty oak in the background, with a bright finish.
Daniel noted it should age nicely. “Give it five years,” he said.
I will save a bottle and wait to savor the “2016 Hands On Harvest” pinot noir (of which only 25 cases were produced) fate willing in 2024. But I will probably try it again in 2021 as well.
OTHER EXCELLENT OPTIONS
Truth be told, I’m still not a die-hard convert to pinot noir wines. But no worries: Gloria Ferrer makes terrific, affordable sparking wines, too. In fact, the winery has won over 500 gold medals and fifty 90+ ratings in the past five years. I’m a big fan of Gloria Ferrer NV Sonoma Brut Sparkling (Sonoma County) Méthode Champenoise, made from mostly pinot grapes with an addition of 8.8 chardonnay (92 points from Wine Enthusiast). I recently opened a bottle to celebrated Daniel’s latest CD release (he’s also a composer), with him deeming it “Excellent!”
If you like pale pink bubbly, Gloria Ferrer NV Méthode Champenoise Blanc de Noirs Sparkling (Carneros) is a blend of 92 pinot and 8 percent chardonnay (90 points).
I certainly have a great excuse to celebrate and show off “my wine” and share it with good friends who are pinot noir aficionados. Just give me a little time to age with my wine. I’ll get there, slowly but surely, bottle by bottle, year by year.
In the meantime, I plan to pop a bottle of Gloria Ferrar NV Sonoma Brut to bring in 2020 — and maybe even pop the pink one too!