“I would be absolutely honored to have a rule named after me (I have one named after me in Georgia already, but that has to do with being nude and weeping in front of high schoolers).”
—JT, Wine Specialist for LeDu’s Wines, NY, NY
JT, a wine guru I once had the honor of working with, views weird wines as one of the central tenants of his wine philosophy. In other words, if someone is going to go to the trouble of growing and bottling an obscure varietal (or grape), you know it’s going to be good. After all, why would anyone go to the trouble to grow something that’s hard to sell?
Up until then, I had never thought of wine in that way. Wine already intimidates and there’s no snob like a wine snob. The idea of a vineyard, then, seems like the lair of the snob, the nest, the inner sanctum. Qualities like vulnerability, passion and sacrifice feel like they should not exist here. But just like corporations are people too, er, no—Vineyards and the winemakers who run them are sometimes as human as any…human. In the best case scenario, along with all the wine they produce to pay the bills, they also vint wines that hold more value than the more consumer-friendly wines. Sometimes a winemaker produces a wine that pleases no one except the palette of the winemaker, and that winemaker wants to share.
We see these wines most often when we come across a wine or even winemaker that just doesn’t seem to fit. The Rhone Rangers, a group of American winemakers who are driven by their passion for Rhone varietals grown in California grow French wine in California. Randall Graham of Bonny Doon Vineyard is pictured on the Wikipedia page for Rhone Ranger, a move indicating his visage represents the Platonic ideal of a Rhone Ranger. Several years ago, I hosted a wine dinner featuring his wines. Through Skype, we had Randall present all the wines and then take questions. With his tiny Ben Franklin glasses and his full, undulating ponytail currying as much awe as Ron Burgundy’s mustache, Randall cooed over each of the wines, and we were all grateful.
Many winemakers give off this same brand of joie de vivre, but few nerd out as much as Graham. When unable to experience the person behind the wine, the JT Rule is most helpful. Back when I first had this conversation with JT, he pointed out Cabernet Frank as his go-to wine. It was intriguing as it’s not really bottled anywhere, at least not by itself. Instead, it’s introduced in very small amounts to add a little herbal stink and funk to wines.
Even worse, it was called out as bad (“flabby, overripe”) by Miles in Sideways. And just so you don’t dismiss that observation, when that movie came out, Pinot Noir sales exploded. The last time something like that happened is when Sixty Minutes mentioned a link between red wine and cardiovascular health. When Sideways came out, I was working at this local Italian restaurant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I remember that even there, where White Zinfandel is still king, Pinot Noir was hard to come by.
JT’s argument, then, is fully realized in Cabernet Franc. To find a bottle of Cab Franc, blended with nothing else and especially if this bottle is from the West Coast, means that you’ve just found the unicorn. Unfortunately, my local wine purveyor doesn’t carry any US Cab Franc. After hearing about the JT Rule, however, they’re going to bring something in. In the meantime, here are some shout outs worthy of you popping their cork and unscrewing their cap. Two of these are Italian grapes grown in California. And if you haven’t heard, Italian grapes do so well in California’s climate that these grapes are called Cal-Ital grapes (if you’re into that sort of brevity thing). I included the Pecorino because it’s an amazing grape that should be more popular than Pinot Grigio, the most popular Italian white. And you should absolutely try it if you’re into heavier whites like Chardonnay.
2009 Stolpman La Coppa Sangiovese ($25) (Italian grape grown in Santa Ynez Valley, CA)
If this grape was grown in Chianti, Italy, it would be called Chianti. You probably know that, but just in case… Grown anywhere else, it should be called Sangiovese (san-jee-oh-vay-see). This was by far the most expensive, but it was one of the best wines I’ve had for a long time for a very important reason.
Huffington Post recently ran an article on being able to tell the difference between cheap and expensive wines. They concluded that not as many people can. Tasting this wine, however, I think you’d have to be suffering from sinus issues, drinking too much when you should be spitting or you’re dead to me to rate this below Two-Buck Chuck. And here’s why: Heft. It’s so thick! And it’s so resolutely so! There’s not one thing that’s jumping out. Instead, it’s a myriad affair. The tannins are perfectly balanced with the acidity and the sugar. You sense all-at-once the sweet of dark fruits, the funk of leather, dust, herbs, the very gently pull of tannic dryness, the mouth-water much closer in resemblance of cause to a predator eyeing prey than a human licking a lemon and the staying power of something that physically needs to melt in your mouth before it finishes. To me, this is what it means to taste the difference between cheap and expense.
2009 Uvaggio Vermentino ($12) (Italian grape grown in Lodi, CA)
I’m a huge fan of Uvaggio’s label as it actually is helpful. I’m a fan of artful, provocative labels, but I’d always prefer at least some modicum of description. I don’t think I’ll ever be so good that I don’t need the assistance of words to help prime me for the best that that wine can do.
In this case, I was familiar with the Vermentino grape but not with the cilantro-side of mint. I have too much pride to admit that I’ve been smelling the same glass for hours, but I can still smell that little hint, that soupcon of minty cilantro! Or cilantro in the mint! Whatever! Along with the Chardonnay-like heft of this wine, the beautiful acidity and the beautifully crisp honeydew perfume, I’m ensorcelled.
2011 Saladini Pilasti Pecorino (Italian grape grown in Marche region, Italy)
I first fell in love with this wine several years ago. That vintage was extraordinarly different with stewed peaches and a bit of petrol or bandaids or however you want to call that. And, yes. I realize I sound like a total douche hipster when I say that, but it’s true. This vintage is much more like bananas and citrus with a racy acidity that keeps it from being too sweet. More importantly—and this is definitely something much more prominent in wines grown abroad—is the minerality. I have no memory of licking rocks or sipping my mineral shot at the juice bar, but when I taste that in a wine, I melt a little. Mineral water is okay, but minerals in my wine? Yes, please.