The aromatic Alsatians are getting their moment in Anderson Valley’s distant winter sun this weekend at the International Alsace Varietals festival. On Saturday and Sunday there is an acidic array of off‐dry educational sessions, tastings, and winery open houses, the latter of which may be the real draw for local hill muffins. But if you yearn to learn more about the world of exotic white wine, the educational seminars and grand tasting on Saturday will expand your horizons by a hectare.
You may wonder why Boonville, California is square one for such a transatlantic shindig, showcasing wines made from Riesling, Gewürtztraminer, and Pinot Gris. These are the hallmark, minerally, white varieties of the chilly Alsace region of northern France, and are also the classic grapes grown on the steep slopes of Germany and Austria. So what are they doing in our neck of the wine and cheeser woods (after all, the only place to get bratwurst and German beer is at Alex Crangle’s place in September)? Is it because a bone dry acidic Riesling is the ultimate cotton mouth killer? Perhaps. It’s more likely that the soils, spring frost threats, and relatively cool climate of the Anderson Valley are somewhat similar to those Euro zones, and far more accommodating to these delicate grape varieties than the early budding Chardonnay that has difficulties in being interesting up here. Word around the campfire is that Doctor Edmeades pioneered Alsatian varietals in Mendocino County by planting Gewürtztraminer in the early 1960’s, with Lazy Creek planting their Gewürtz shortly afterward. The next wave of Riesling and Pinot Gris lurked in years later, with Navarro and Greenwood Ridge becoming the standout champions in the cellar. (One of the highlights of this year’s event on Saturday is Allan Green’s 30‐year retrospective of Greenwood Ridge Riesling.)
I asked a couple growers of Alsatian varietals in the valley what the pros and cons are in regards to working with these particular vines. Nathan Miller of Goldeneye Winery (who won’t be at the fest) agreed to meet up with me on a thunderous night in January at Elton’s, the new wine and alternative lifestyle lounge in Guerneville. Elton’s had just hosted a sold out Decoy winemaker’s dinner with Bo Felton and Neil Bernardi, and were now a committed account for all things ducky. Nathan relaxed in a pink velvet chaise and swirled a glass of Handley 2011 Gewürtztraminer as I got my recorder out. I noticed the sores and blisters on his large fingers. Some readers might recall that aside from managing vineyards for Goldeneye, Mr. Miller is a professional saxophone player, mostly of the adult contemporary persuasion, and once harvest 2012 was in the bag flew direct to Macau in China for a ten night run performing alongside Paul Hardcastle at the Wynn. (Mid‐set on NYE, Nathan was floored to see Aloha Vineyards 2011 Pinot Noir being poured by none other than a tuxedoed Dennis Roderick backstage.)
“So what are the challenges of working with Alsatians in Anderson Valley?” I asked, pressing record and drinking a 2011 Goldeneye Pinot Gris Split Rail Vineyard off the by the glass list.
“Gewürtz just seems to love Anderson Valley but it needs to have sunlight. It’s like growing pinot sparkling: it has to have enough sunlight but not too much. We make a heavier style so we get that rosy red color on the berries. Harvest has got to be spot on.”
“Is it a lot different than farming Pinot Gris?”
“Pinot Gris is very similar to Pinot Noir except it’s more susceptible to botrytis. Because of its genetic instability you can get clusters that come out with skins that look like Chardonnay. Chardonnay back in the 1960’s was Pinot Chardonnay. It’s thinner skinned than regular pinot noir and susceptible to sludge skin and sour rot, especially down on the deep end. 2012 was awesome. If I can have two more of those [vintages] in my career, I’d be a happy guy.”
I excused myself to use the men’s room, but retreated upon discovering that it was actually a jam‐packed sauna.
Not known for Alsatian varietals, Goldeneye used to sell blocks of Gewürtz and Pinot Gris to other wineries like Navarro and Handley. There was a rumor going around that the original two acres of Gewürtztraminer at the Confluence Vineyard was planted specifically for Condoleezza Rice. The steam on my skin and the sight of a three liter magnum signed by Bernardi being used for much more than a food pairing made me forget to ask.
Nathan picked up the check and said that next time we’d do this at Cattlemens in Petaluma.
I called up Bob Klindt from Claudia Springs to talk about Pinot Gris, which is the lone varietal he’s been working with over the past couple years, forgoing his passion for Zinfandel, Carignane and the like. He and his brother were growing a 1998‐era twoacre plot of Clone 52 beside his Pinot Noir in the Deep End. Anderson Valley is no longer home for the Klindts, having recently sold the winery, house and vineyard to an unnamed source and purchasing a house in a county where Sudafed is hard to come by (Lake County). “We made 135 cases of Pinot Gris in 2012,” he mentioned from a department store where he and Claudia were looking for a new refrigerator.
“We’re going to bottle that on the 18th so I’ll have tank samples at the Alsace festival.”
There’s been a lot of local hype about the glories of 2012 as a vintage. Bob added his take on it.
“I think the 2012 is really tasting beautiful,” he affirmed. “We did it at Handley this year. We had it whole cluster pressed there.”
I asked him about his winemaking techniques, since I’ve personally seen Alsatian varietals fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks instead of oak barrels to provide crispness. Most of the time the wines are filtered and bottled early for freshness.
“We do tank fermentation,” he said. “We started with doing Pinot Gris from Mary Elke’s vineyard and we tried different things: the barrel and the tank. We finally decided the best way was to do cold fermentation and keep it on the lees in the tank.
And to not put it through malolactic fermentation.” Putting these varieties through ML would drop the acid and bring a creamy and atypical character to the wines. If you’re attending this weekend’s festival, please make a point to taste Bob and Claudia’s 2012 since it’ll be the last, ultimate wine release from Claudia Springs.
That’s all folks. “We’re keeping our tasting room open,” he said about the sale. “It’s kind of liberating. I have some money! It’s cool! My 1989 Honda Prelude is all up to snuff and I’m going to get it painted.”
Must tastes this weekend at the fest are Navarro, Handley and Breggo. I sampled a quintet of Navarro Vineyards’ 2011 Alsatian varietals and they are full of character and aromatically beautiful. In a difficult vintage, Jim Klein proves again that he is a master with these whites. Their Dry Muscat and Gewürtztraminer are my personal favorites. Their Sunday open house should be very cool. Visiting outsider highlights are Thomas Fogarty and Robert Sinskey. Sinskey is a leader in organic viticulture and winemakers Jeff Virnig and Zach Gabbert make incredible wines from Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc, plus their flagship blend Abraxas. Gabbert will be pouring all three on Saturday. Thomas Fogarty from the Santa Cruz Mountains makes clean, bright styles of Riesling and Gewürtztraminer from windblown Monterey County, which are alluringly fresh and offer incredible value. Trefethen will be at the fest pouring their acclaimed dry Riesling too.
A full day pass to the seminars and grand tasting on Saturday runs you $100 (seminars only is $45, grand tasting only is $65). Highlights at the seminar include Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein, pairings by Chef Joyce Goldstein, tastes of some International wines, and a silent auction to benefit the Anderson Valley Housing Association. The John Ash dinner on Saturday night at Scharffenberger is sold out. Open house hours on Sunday are 11‐5, with some tasting rooms offering appetizers, live music, and older vintage releases. Go online at www.avwines.com for more details. ¥¥