“What was the bottle that got you hooked on wine?”
That is a very popular question asked of those enthralled with fermented grape juice—asked of winemakers, grape growers, and aficionados. Although I have never really been asked this question, I certainly do think about it quite a bit. My thoughts usually focus on my beloved champagne, trying to determine what bottle of aged vintage champagne has set me down the road to financial ruin. I have never figured out what that bottle was, but I can say without equivocation that the bottle of 1979 Dom Pérignon I opened a few years ago is the single best wine that I have ever had.
It is a different story when it comes to Pinot Noir—I know precisely the bottle that got me hooked on Burgundy. I was leading a bike tour in the region in the late 90’s and my group was dining at a restaurant in Dijon. There were a few winos on the trip and they pulled me aside and asked me to order a “special” bottle for the table. I was a bit of a wine neophyte at the time, so I went the easy route: I figured that older was better, and I ordered a bottle of 1962 Albert Bichot Beaune (it was only $60). It was pretty good, but we decided to step it up a notch and four of us got a bottle of 1976 Camus Pere & Fils Chambertin (for just over $100).
I sat there for what seemed like an hour with my nose hypnotized by the aroma.
That was it for me. Like many, Burgundy had me hooked.
Fast forward a few years, and I had moved to Philadelphia, where I started buying a lot of wine online since the only other choice is to buy wine from the woefully inadequate state liquor stores. I did not have much experience with American Pinot (despite living in California for the previous four years)—I figured that Burgundy was the apogee, so why bother. I was playing on the Varsity, why voluntarily move down to the JV?
At some point in the early aughts, a two bottle lot of Pinot Noirs from the Rochioli Vineyard intrigued me: a 1995 Davis Bynum Le Pinot and a 1995 Gary Farrell. As I said, I did not know a ton about domestic Pinot at the time, but I did know the name Rochioli (and its almost legendary fruit) and I figured I would put in a modest bid for the two bottles. As luck would have it, I won the bottles for a ridiculously low price, and by the time they were delivered, I had about $20 in each bottle.
Those two bottles completely changed my mind about American Pinot. I was not much of a wine note writer at the time, so I do not have any record of my thoughts, but I was certainly “wowed” by how the nearly 10 year-old wines retained their fruit, but at the same time were complex and earthy–dare I say “Burgundian”?
In the years since, I have been on a bit of a West Coast Pinot tear–from the Sta Rita Hills in the Central Coast of California up through Sonoma and up to the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Despite my wanderlust in search of great American Pinot, I keep coming back to my beginning and Gary Farrell.
Gary Farrell (and for that matter Davis Bynum) sold his winery right about the time that I was discovering his wines. In my albeit limited experience, when a winery loses its namesake founder, the quality of subsequent wines diminishes. While there seemed to be a bit of a dip initially at Gary Farrell, the winery appears to have found solid footing under the Vincraft Group and is once again producing fabulous wines, and well on its way to recapturing its rightful place as one of the top producers in Sonoma County.
I also need to admit that I have a bit of a love affair going on with the staff at the winery. Under the direction of General Manager Nancy Bailey, the winery is at the forefront of social media interaction, and really should serve as a model for other wineries looking to improve their online profile.
So it made perfect sense (at least to me) to schedule a visit with the Westside Road winery while on a trip to the area this past Spring. I showed up promptly at 10:00, only to discover that the winery did not open until 10:30.
No problem. It was a beautiful day and, more to the point, the winery is in a stunning location with incredible views of the valley. Within a few moments of my arrival, however, I was greeted by a member of the tasting room staff who informed me of their opening time. I apologized, stating that I thought my appointment was at 10:00. Her response was rather quick: “Oh, are you the Drunken Cyclist?” It was not entirely clear whether the accompanying chuckle was due to the name (possible), my past interaction with the winery on Twitter (not likely), or the fact that I am now a widely known internet celebrity-type and she was giddy with excitement (probable).Nancy soon came out (we had met a few weeks prior in New York) and after a playful chastisement for showing up early, she introduced me to Kila Aldrich, the wine-club director, and, as it turned out, also involved in the winery’s social media effort (and thus the one delegated to respond to my inane tweets).
Kila, who could practically see the house where she grew up across the valley, was absolutely delightful as we tasted through a large portion of the Farrell portfolio (the winery produces about 25,000 cases total with five Chardonnays, twice as many Pinots, a couple Zins, a Sauvignon Blanc, and a couple Syrahs).
2011 Gary Farrell Westside Chardonnay: Retail $48. Bright and lemony with just a hint of oak. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
2009 Gary Farrell Carneros Chardonnay: Retail $35. I have had this wine countless times but never in this setting. I have enjoyed it immensely at home, but can setting influence? You betcha. 90-92 Points.
2011 Gary Farrrell Bacigalupi Vineyard Pinot Noir: Retail $60. Ripe red fruit with a classic nose. On the palate, wonderfully balanced. Outstanding. 91-93 Points.
2009 Gary Farrell Stiling Vineyard Pinot Noir: Retail $55. Perhaps a shade more restrained than the Bacigalupi, but also less fruit. Still Outstanding. 89-91 Points.
2009 Gary Farrell Ramal Vineyard Pinot Noir: Retail $50? Tons of berry on the nose. Really rich and a bit big. Classic Farrell. Outstanding. 91-93 Points.
2011 Gary Farrell Bradford Vineyard Zinfandel: Retail $45. Much in the way that the ’95 GF Rochioli turned me on to American Pinot, the current GF Zinfandels are making me a Zin lover–I am still not on the big, huge, fruit bomb Zin wagon, but this is a Pinot lovers Zin: Refined and deep with great structure. All that and some rich fruit. I could smell and drink this for a very long time. Whoa. 92-94 Points.
2010 Gary Farrell Archer Family Vineyard Syrah: Retail $40. Quite dark. Nice balance and surprisingly restrained. Very nice. 89-91 Points.