Wednesday Winery Spotlight: Tongue Dancer Wines (Part 4)

At the last moment, I decided to split this post up into four shorter posts (it was really long), be sure to check out Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.

Today, I wanted to start off with the part of our conversation where we discussed the effects of the widely reported fires in 2020 that made a huge impact on the California wine industry in many ways. So to refresh everyone’s memory, here is a clip from last week talking about the mess that was 2020 (which my wife video bombs at the end):

That then evolved into a comment about smoke taint and what that means in wine:

And then we (or at least James) get really geeky about how smoke gets into the fruit:

James and Kerry, like many winemaking teams, make many more wines than just their own. Their company, Wines by James MacPhail, has a number of clients and we try to get to the bottom of that number here (I have to point out that watching Kerry count the number of clients on her fingers is one of the funniest images I have seen in a while):

James and Kerry then describe (and you can really hear the excitement and joy in their voices) about why a slew of smaller clients is better, in some ways, than one large client:

We then delve into the other Pinot that we tasted that afternoon, the 2018 Tongue Dancer The Sly One, a really special wine, made from only two barrels:

2017 Tongue Dancer Pinot Noir Sly One, Sonoma Coast, CA: Retail $65. There are times in your life that you remember: getting your driver’s license, your first kiss (mine was Monica Farhat in sixth grade), the birth of your first child. While perhaps not quite on the same level as those seminal moments, I do remember my first meeting with James and Kerry MacPhail. James was busy bottling large formats by hand (to describe it as “busy” is a bit of a stretch) and Kerry was showing me around the winery while popping corks, gleefully pouring me the contents, and talking just short of a mile a minute. The MacPhails are a delightful study of personalities and proof that opposites do seem to find each other. This wine is that relationship in a bottle. It is both bold and boisterous with a healthy dose of fruit but also reserved and, at least on the mid-palate, a bit shy and reserved. According to Kerry, this is James’ ode to Burgundy, a bit of a departure from his characteristic intrepid (right up to the point of being) in-your-face style. And I get that, but make no mistake, this is all MacPhail: fruity, plenty of throttle and integrated tannins. Sure, it could use a bit of time, but why wait? James and Kerry will be making more. But be sure to ask her, James is no doubt “busy.” Outstanding. 94 Points.

2017 Tongue Dancer Pinot Noir Sly One, Sonoma Coast, CA: Retail $65. I am such a dope. This wine was in my samples pile, which is where I put all the wines I receive from wineries for review. Check. I also enter all of those wines into Cellar Tracker in an attempt to keep track of them. Oops. This one was not there. No problem, pop and pour, pick up the pieces later. Oops. I reviewed this wine in late 2020 (with similar notes to today) and did not know that until now. I am pretty sure Kerry and James MacPhail sent me this wine as a “save until later.” Oops. I am a moron, but this wine is fantastic. Outstanding. 94 Points.

Much more on the making of The Sly One:

2018 Tongue Dancer Pinot Noir Sly One, Sonoma Coast, CA: Retail $65. B.A.B. Two barrels (fifty cases). I have known James and Kerry MacPhail for approaching a decade now and while I give them a fair amount of grief for their heavy bottles, I never question the contents of those vessels. Why? James has proven beyond any shadow of the doubt that he understands Pinot. Sure, his wines are on the “big” side of the variety, but they are also incredibly balanced and focused. Case. In. Point. This is only the second vintage of The Sly One, but this second iteration is already a notch above the first. Rich, luscious fruit but also harmony, balance, and verve. I spoke to James recently (via Zoom, natch) and he lamented that there are few “gateway wines” these days. Wines that one remembers as “the one” that shifted, altered, transformed one’s view of wine. Well. If this is not one of those, I am not sure what is. Whoa. Outstanding Plus. 96 Points.

The last part of our discussion I will share (at least for now) was James’ thoughts on winemaking as an art form, which is a great segue into the two wines we did not taste together that afternoon, the Pinot de Ville and the Pinot Noir Ultra, two truly magnificent wines, truly works of art:

2017 Tongue Dancer Pinot Noir Pinot de Ville Putnam Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, CA: Retail $65. You don’t go into one of James MacPhail’s Pinots without your big boy/girl pants on as that would be utter folly. James believes in having the pedal firmly to the metal when crafting his wines and will not wait for you to catch up. Big fruit on the nose and the palate is more than a bit of an understatement with blackberry, plum, and dark cherry all up in there. But dig a bit deeper. There is depth, earth, and plenty of intrigue if you can allow yourself to be patient as James is devilishly clever in appealing to both the full-throttle crowd and the terroir-obsessed contingent. It’s all in there folks, just waiting for you. Whoa. Outstanding. 94 Points.

2018 Tongue Dancer Pinot Noir Pinot de Ville Putnam Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, CA: Retail $68. Another stellar offering from the rock-star winery team of Kerry and James MacPhail, this wine is a return to the full-throttle style for which James is known. Super-dark in the glass with rich, luscious fruit (black cherry & raspberry), a bit of chocolate, and a healthy dab of vanilla. Whoa. The palate is rich and decadent with round dark berry fruit, hints of that vanilla, and just a smidgen of earth. Yeah, this is big, even really big, but by Day 2, this settled down quite a bit. Yes, it is still big, but much less nervous, more balanced, calmer. Give this puppy some time, perhaps even a handful of years, and you will be greatly and richly rewarded. Yowza. Outstanding. 95 Points.

2018 Tongue Dancer Pinot Noir Ultra, Sonoma Coast, CA: Retail $90. B.A.B. Under cork. One barrel (25 cases). Kerry and James MacPhail, both rockstars in the Pinot world identified a singular barrel (the best of the best) for this wine, the inaugural (I think) Ultra. On Day One, I’m not going to lie, this was a bit of a fruity mess. The fruit was definitely in control and though the acidity made an appearance, it was quickly rushed out of the room by all of that rowdy fruit. As what happened with the Ultra Chardonnay, this Pinot requires a bit of patience and attention, which is a bit of a departure from James’ usual approach. In my experience, he usually bottles wine that is ready to go upon release, sure it might change/improve with time, but whenever you pop the cork, that sucker is singing. Not here. All that initial power needs to calm the freak down and that requires patience; either a healthy decant (even a double decant) or a lengthy stay in the cellar is in order here. Trust me, it is worth it. On Day 2, this still needs time, the complex and layered nose indicates an incredible soul, where fruit, earth, and spice partake in a complex dance (see what I did there?) that could keep me enthralled for most of the evening. Whoa. The palate starts off as it did on Day 1 with the fruit racing to the forefront, but this time, the acidity is ready to keep it in check and divert attention to the multiple layers of complexity. Make no mistake, the power is still there and is compelling, but 24 hours in and it is clear there is plenty yet to be revealed. All one needs is a bit of patience, which seems to be in short supply these days. Extraordinary. 97 Points.


About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
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