Last week, I started to recount my time spent in SLO (San Luis Obispo) Wine Country this past Spring. I had just finished a quick lunch with Sean Weir, and we headed across the street to meet the others on the trip and quickly headed off to our first winery visit.
As I have mentioned before in this space, the van rides on press trips are, well, interesting. There are times where the distance between stops is significant, which promotes sleep, the use of personal headphones, and a lot of gazing out of the window. When the van ride is shorter, though, there is usually quite a bit of chatter ranging from information on the region, gossip about previous trips and other writers, and various complaints about the food, wine, or hotel. (Those are admittedly rare, but I remember a poignant recounting of a room that was infested with a variety of insects, most of the airborne variety. It was only after some rather rigorous cross-examination that it was discovered that the afflicted had left her window open—and the light on—when she went off to the three-hour dinner.)
On this occasion, there was neither any juicy gossip nor any egregious complaints, so I seized the opportunity….
Ever since I was a junior in high school, I had absolutely no idea how to pronounce “San Luis Obispo.” Granted, there are really only two legitimate possibilities (“San Loo-ee O-bis-po” or “San Loo-iss O-bis-po”) but my indecisiveness or rather my ignorance crippled me for years (had I known that I could simply use the acronym “SLO” it would have made my life infinitely easier and I would have likely been president by now—no wait….).
So I needed to know.
And this was my chance.
Considering myself a native of Philadelphia, there are a host of local spots that if pronounced incorrectly, would lend one to a host of insults if not bodily harm. (Anyone want to give Bala Cynwyd, the Schuylkill River, or Passyunk Avenue a try?) I wanted to avoid that at all costs, particularly since this was the first day of the trip.
Nonetheless, I needed to know.
I posed the question to our intrepid guide, Sean Weir, couching it in mitigated speech (linguistic term): “Sean, I have heard a couple of different pronunciations of the town where we are staying—just to be precise, which is correct?”
Again, being from Philly, I braced myself for a backhand to the jaw, or at a bare minimum, a teeth-sucking dismissal of an asinine question followed by a poignant dose of sarcasm (likely insulting my mother).
Instead, I did not even get the slightest chuckle. In fact, there was no audible exhale, eyes were not rolled, nary an incredulous double take.
No, Sean simply replied in the utterly non-dramatic SLO fashion:
“Good question. It’s ‘San Loo-ISS O-BISS-po.”
I was both relieved and crest-fallen. It is always good to avoid public humiliation, but the Rocky Balboa in me was looking for a bit more of a confrontation, an opportunity to retort with a well-rehearsed witticism (“Bite-me tree-hugger” or “Well, THAT’s stooopid!”), but to no avail.
Instead, I was completely disarmed. I had no retort but to absorb and appreciate.
I was learning the SLO way.
Within minutes, we arrived at our destination. As I dismounted the über-van, my Cole-Hahn sandals landed in the marine soil of Sinor-Lavallée’s Bassi Vineyard, just 1.2 miles from the Pacific Ocean.
If there were a “typical” winery owner in SLO, Mike Sinor would probably not be it. He grew up in Visalia, California in the San Joaquin Valley about halfway between Fresno and Bakersfield, where he worked in his father’s auto wrecking yard. After high school, he travelled about 150 miles west and south and attended Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, with designs on becoming a high school shop teacher. Needing money to pay for school (and other “activities’), a friend convinced him to take a job at a local winery, despite not knowing the first thing about wine or its production. During his time at Cal Poly, he worked at six different wineries–after his first harvest in 1993, he was hooked.
In 1994, Mike took a job with Byron Winery in the Santa Maria Valley, working his way up to Assistant Winemaker. Eventually, after stops at a few more wineries, learning the craft, he and his wife, Cheri LaVallee (whom he met in a Chemistry class at Cal Poly and married in Burgundy in 1996) decided to buy a vineyard in SLO Wine Country.
There are 30 acres total at the Bassi Vineyard Estate with roughly half planted to eight different clones of Pinot Noir. Other varieties include Syrah, Grenache, Chardonnay, Albariño, and Pinot Gris making up 43 different lots, all of which are fermented separately, producing a total of 2000 cases.
Mike initially started tinkering with biodynamic farming not to necessarily enhance the vines, but to prove the concept wrong. When the fruit improved fairly dramatically, he was sold on the process. Mike did not go fully biodynamic, however, preferring to use the best and most convenient aspects of biodynamic and organic farming, which he calls “organic with biodynamic inputs.”
After our quick lesson, we sipped on a few of his wines at a make-shift tasting room right there in the vineyard.
2015 Sinor-LaVallee Albariño: Retail $25. Initially had four acres, but pulled out all but one since they were on bad soil. Barrel fermented and aged for 18 months. Unique expression. Still great fruit and plenty of acidity. An incredible roundness on the midpalate with a creamy somewhat oaky finish. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
2015 Sinor-LaVallee SLO County Pinot Noir: Retail $30. Just outside the AVA, but 100% Bassi Vineyard fruit. Great cherry fruit and depth. Very nice. and at $30? A steal. 500 cases produced. Very Good to Outstanding. 89-91 Points.
Next, we tasted the two Pinot Noirs: the White Label, which are leaner with lower alcohol and higher acidity, and the Black Label, which are full-throttle wines with powerful fruit and higher alcohol.
2014 Sinor-LaVallee White Label Bassi Vineyard Pinot Noir: Retail $45. Menthol and eucalyptus surround the cherry. More depth and intrigue. This is elegant and right up my alley. Whoa. Outstanding. 92-94 Points.
2014 Sinor-LaVallee Black Label Bassi Vineyard Pinot Noir: Retail $45. Much bigger expression. Rich and lush. If you like your Pinot on the big side this is incredible. Outstanding. 91-93 Points.
I asked the rather delicate question as to why the wines are so reasonably priced—I have had many wines at twice the price that were not nearly this good. Mike intimated that he has had this price point for years, not even raising the price at all after the “Sideways effect.”
He stated that “When wine tastes good, life goes easy” and he felt that all should have the opportunity to drink good wine.
But in the next breath he added “This is not a trust fund situation here. I need to feed my kids with this shit.”
Climbing back into the van, I had a singular thought: Mike would fit in quite well in Philly.