A few days back I saw an interesting article in the Chicago Tribune about comparing Oregon and California Pinot Noirs. This is a hotly debated topic and there are many strong feelings on both sides. Being a Californian and believing most firmly that we have the best wines, hands down, I have to also admit that the Oregon Pinots I have tried are pretty fantastic.
I let a few of my wine-loving friends know about this article and then too received a passionate response on the California side. I must comment that some of my friends are quite knowledgeable in wines and can be called oenophiles. I am fortunate to know them as they have been gently educating me throughout the years, much to our mutual enjoyment.
The idea was launched by dear G___ that we should have a Pinot Party next month, and try a few from each state and see what we think. My dear friend C___ has some major favorites from California, and G___ wanted to go in search of other California Pinots, whereas I am tasked with finding an Oregon sample.
Today, C___ and his darling wife D___ and G___ and her dear beau J___ ventured forth to Windsor, a small town north of Santa Rosa, to visit Martinelli Winery. Martinelli has been one of my favorite producers of Chardonnay. C___ has been on the coveted mailing list for eons and knows about their full repertoire of varietals and we were delighted to have an excuse to visit, and go out to lunch somewhere to make a day of it. The days of hitting a dozen wineries and getting blotto are no more, our preference is now to visit one or possibly two places, have a great lunch and then discuss the wines we sampled, a more selective and refined approach to wine tasting, wouldn’t you agree?
We arrived at Martinelli and realized it was one of the Wine Road weekends, a massive tasting program where over 100 wineries participate at various times of the year. It can be a lot of fun but it also means that the wineries all packed to the gills on these weekends and offer limited tastings as a result. Fortunately for us, the wines offered today were the four that we really wanted to try, a Chardonnay, two Pinots and a Syrah, not usually offered for tasting.
Our congenial and charming host for the afternoon was George Martinelli himself. His great grandfather and great Uncle started the winery and planted the vineyards. The Martinellis are among the founding families of the wine industry in California and it was a special pleasure to spend such a delightful interlude with one of the family. George, humbly calling himself a farmer, poured for us and I really enjoyed discussing the geological makeup of the soil at the various vineyards, the impact of elluvial versus clay-like soils, amendments for the soil, the possible impact of the previous plantings of apple orchards on the vineyard and, of course, the flavors, textures and aromas of his current vintages. Naturally George prefers the California Pinots as well, particularly his own product, and I have to admit it was among the most delicious wines I have wrapped my tongue around. C___, said it was they were both the kind of wines with which he would like to get better acquainted, quipped with a sly chuckle and a waggle of the brow, causing a big grin from George.
We started with their 2005 Zio Tony Ranch Chardonnay. I really lack the words to describe this wine. It was rich and yet not a butter bomb. It has a lovely fruit to it, apples and pears, but there was a nice minerality to it too. Uncle Tony would no doubt be delighted that such a wine has been named after him. The Pinot Noir came next, both from 2007. I preferred the first one for sipping on its own. The Moonshine Ranch had a deep fruit and full mouth feel with just enough tannin to make it interesting. The Bondi Home Ranch Pinot was very different, with an herby almost leathery quality with a spicy finish. I imagine this wine would be best paired with dinner, I’m thinking my marinated lamb would be perfect. The final wine was a treasure, a ’06 Hop Camp Vineyard Syrah. Very complex, blackberries and bold tannins. George suggested this wine to pair with game, as he and his family enjoy a lot of the local wildlife, ah, the joys of living in the country! Elk, boar, gamebirds – drool, drool, drool…. He suggested opening the wine in the morning and replacing the cork but letting it open up throughout the day in time for dinner. We played with an aerator with this wine, and it was truly amazing how pouring a measure of this Syrah though the little chubby spout really knocked back the tannins and brought out bright berry and heightened acidity in the wine.
It was fascinating to experiment like this and we were sorry to see the hordes of Wine Road participants pouring in to the tasting room. We took our leave of our charming host and ventured into the sales room to pick up a few bottles for a special evening at home another time. Debbie, the tasting room manager, suggested that we visit Willi’s Wine Bar in Windsor for a nice lunch break. At an unassuming wide spot along the Old Redwood Highway, Willi’s was such a delight and a true culinary gem.
The quiet and soothing interior was perfect for our planned discussion of wines, life and the odd hilarious anecdote. The menu was an intriguing list of small plates from various countries, great flights of wines and flights of cheeses, including wine flight suggestions to accompany the cheeses. Of course their wine list reflected the local vineyards surrounding the restaurant, and we were so excited to see Martinelli’s Blue Slide Ridge Pinot Noir on the menu outside the front door, but sadly they had sold out. We were tempted by the Martinelli River Road Chardonnay but having been well experienced with it, we comforted ourselves instead with a lovely Gewürztraminer from Handley Cellar’s Anderson Valley vineyard, 2007. It was overchilled when first poured but exhibited a wonderful and complex blend of minerality and fruit, pears and perhaps star fruit as it warmed up a bit. I love C___’s thoughts on how to define mineral: “a flinty stone, like spring water over clean rocks”. Pure poetry.
The Gewürztraminer was a delightful match to my small plate of pork belly and shitake potstickers. I ordered the flatbread topped with caramelized onions, feta cheese and fingerling potatoes and mint (although I did not detect the mint). So delicious! It let to an interesting discussion on what difference, if any, is there between pizza and flatbreads. To me, there is none, other than the flatbread is usually thinner, but then again so are many pizzas. In my opinion using the term flatbread allows the chef to use different toppings that most people wouldn’t find equitable with a “pizza”. What are your thoughts?
My fellow diners tried other dishes that were also amazingly executed and creative. three of our party selected the mac’ and cheese with ham, caramelized onions and Gruyere. I snagged a oozing morsel and it was truly delicious and has led me to believe that caramelized onions, like bacon, can only improve any dish. D___ really enjoyed her calamari salad with Andouille, shishito peppers, and a basil & charmoula aioli but naturally wanted more calamari (there can never be enough calamari!). The truffled french fries with truffle aioli were a spot of heaven. Doused in aromatic and pungent truffle oil, and yet still crispy, they were probably the best fries I have tasted. G____ chose a beautiful trio of cheeses, served with a fruit compote and a dish of deep umber honey. Her arugula & endive salad, with great bites of avocado, Manchego dheese, almonds and a Meyer lemon truffle vinaigrette looked beautiful, so fresh and really delicious.
We shared a few desserts, each urging the other to have yet another bite, with cups of Flying Goat espresso and a massive mocha for J___. I especially enjoyed the Gipson’s orange blossom honey crème brûlée, garnished with the plumpest blackberries. Orange blossom honey was a subtle yet discernible taste on the tip of the tongue and the sugar brûléed topping was expertly done, like shimmering sweet glass. The other big hit was the chocolate chunk and banana croissant bread pudding, served in a shallow wide plate. The chocolate remained in melty but distinct morsels with the sweet ooze of baked bananas and the croissant lent an almost crepe-like quality. I haven’t used croissant in bread pudding and think that it might be my new favorite.
Fully satisfied and well pampered, we headed back through the grey mist to the city and possibly for a nap! Thanks to J___ for driving and for hosting such an amazing lunch, and to everyone for their companionship, good conversation and for being such great friends.
I am now on the hunt for a good Oregon Pinot Noir so if you have a suggestion please do let me know!