At this point, since the onset of COVID, I have done a few interviews with winemakers and wine writers on Zoom and they have meant a lot more work than I had envisioned (editing these suckers has been my albatross)). They have also produced many a memorable moment (at least for me) as well as enabled me to broaden or enrich relationships that I have fostered over the years.
That was certainly the case (I hope) with James and Kerry MacPhail, the dynamic duo behind the Tongue Dancer brand, which I have come to know over the last half-dozen years or so. James and Kerry are for me, desert island type of people–you know, “If you were to be stranded on a desert island, name four people…”
Now, I have no idea whether either one of them could make fire from a couple of rocks and some coconut husk, or be able to hunt the wild boar on the island. But. I do know that Kerry would immediately make us aware of all the benefits of our solitary existence (“Look, just look at this beach!”) and James would disappear for at least a day or two but then come back with the best mangos (or papaya, or pineapple, or…) on the island, already well on their way to a fermentation that would produce an elixir that would not only nourish our souls but also help us forget our unfortunate predicament.
I also know that our conversation, now several months back, was one of the more engaging, educational, and, yes, fun conversations I have had over the course of these decidedly un-fun past 18 months (or so).
Today, the conversation moves on from the Tongue Dancer Chardonnays (from the Pratt and Bacigalupi Vineyards) to the Pinots, where James really first made his name. As we got there, James offered his thoughts on why Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the real tests of a winemaker’s talent.
As I mentioned in a previous article, this is not James’ first wine brand–that was MacPhail Wines, which he sold to the Hess Collection a decade ago. I asked him what he might have learned or done differently with Tongue Dancer Wines:
Along a similar line, I asked James if, over the course of the past couple of decades if his own personal tastes have changed and did that have any effect on his winemaking:
James digs a little deeper about his theory of winemaking and I try to not sound like an idiot:
Then, we dive a little into the, well, crap show that was 2020, first with COVID and then with the disastrous fires that engulfed much of Northern California:
We did talk a bit about the actual wines, too, as here James and Kerry talk about perhaps the bedrock of the Tongue Dancer lineup, the Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir:
2017 Tongue Dancer Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, CA: Retail $49. (Tasted 10/26/2019) Opened. Poured. Um…. To say this was a bit closed is to say that the Pope is a bit Catholic. The wine, though, was made by two of my favorite people in the world, so, yeah, I took another sip, then another pour, and several more swirls. Yeah. Closed. It happens. So I put a cork in it and prayed (OK, I’m not all that religious, but I may have said a few words to no one in particular). And…boom. The nose is still closed (some slight evidence of cherry fruit), but the palate? Holy cow: fruity, rich, tart, lovely. Give this a year or three and thank me later. Outstanding. 92 Points.
Kerry elaborates on how and why they are able to provide such a fantastic Pinot for under $50:
2018 Tongue Dancer Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, CA: Retail $49. (Tasted 7/26/2020) This Pinot from James MacPhail is a blend of two Sonoma Coast Vineyards: Putnam and Sexton Road. Fairly dark in both color and aromas (dark cherry, eucalyptus, mint), but bright, tart, and fruity on the palate. Initially, this wine was a bit tense and nervous, but it was clear that the stuffing was there for an incredible wine. After a day open and a bit of rest, I revisited. Whoa. Sure, the fruit is front and center, but behind all that exuberance is balancing acidity, depth of flavors, and silky tannins. Yet another stellar effort from the Tongue Dancer team. Outstanding. 95 Points.
2019 Tongue Dancer Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, CA: Retail $49. (Tasted 5/29/2021) B.A.B. 7.5 Barrels (187 cases). While the base of this wine has always been from the Putnam Vineyard, the remainder has been a blend from some of Sonoma County’s best plots for Pinot (this vintage it was Terra di Promissimo, with a commitment to keeping the retail cost of this wine at $45. Dark in the glass for a Pinot, with black cherry, raspberry jam, red rose flower, and just a touch of black pepper. The palate is rich, and wildly fruity with wave after wave of dark fruit accompanied by an earthy goodness, a zingy tartness, and, on the finish, subtle tannins. Make no mistake, this is a bold Pinot, but also an incredibly balanced wine. Whoa. Outstanding. 94 Points.
I will be back next week with the rest of my conversation with the MacPhails (including a few of the many outtakes).