Friday, December 15, 2006

The New Turks

Visiting with Chuck Custodio (in the photo to the left) and Ted Osbourne at Piña Napa Valley in Rutherford off the Silverado Trail, I noticed right away they were running out of room. Barrels, barrels everywhere, with not a place to drink, but drinking was why I had stopped by – I wanted to taste some wines and grab some last minute gifts before the holidays. Actually, there was hardly a place inside the winery to turn around. “Yeah,” Ted said, grinning, “we’ve been planning to add on to our barrel storage, but this year things kind of got away from us.” Besides the barrels stored in the cellar stacked on racks twenty or more feet clear to the ceiling (mostly French oak, some costing upwards of $1200 a piece) were more barrels crowding the space in front of the wine-tasting table, and still more barrels blocking the stairway to the offices and even more barrels squeezing the area before the doorway to the wine lab. The only way to get to the restrooms at all was stepping under and through the rolling barrel ladder!

Granted Piña is small, even by boutique standards, but because of the obvious success and fantastic wines Ted and Chuck were producing, both for Piña and for their own respective labels – Chuck Custodio makes superb wines under his Trahan label, and Ted Osbourne has recently garnered stellar ratings from the Wine Spectator for his Olabisi brand – word is getting out, which accounts for the current space limitations. “We’re growing, obviously,” Chuck said, smiling. “We’ve tried keeping things organized so the barrels we need to get at are those easily at hand,” he said shaking his head at the stacks, “but of course that never happens. The barrels we need to work with next are always buried someplace in the back.” The best laid plans of cellar rats and men. Only in the last few days have all the fall chores that started up during harvest finally wound down enough for the men (and women) to catch their breath. With this season’s fermented wine now finally barreled down, both of these men were looking forward to a relaxing holiday.

In the Los Carneros appellation of Napa Valley though, Sal Godinez, winemaker for Carneros Della Notte was still at it, busy even this late into the season with a unique project of his own. Only calling it unique hardly does it justice. Sal is making a Late Harvest Botrytis Pinot Noir and last year, the first year Carneros Della Notte made this wine, called Eclipse, trying to get label approval turned out to be unexpectedly difficult. Apparently no one had ever applied for such a wine before. There certainly are Pinot Noir wines, and Late Harvest wines, and Late Harvest Pinot Noir wines, but never a Late Harvest Botrytis Pinot Noir. The government had to create a whole new category. So yes, Eclipse is unique, but more than that, it might be the only wine of its kind in the world.

Botrytis, sometimes referred to as Noble Rot is a mold that grows on grapes, especially in moist rainy years. “It isn’t something winemakers usually ask for,” Sal chuckles, as he finishes explaining to the pickers what he’s after. He’s in the Thompson vineyard and the picking crews are following his orders to pick only the clusters covered with mold. “Telling them not to pick the beautiful clusters, but to leave them on the vine goes against everything they’ve come to know. But the good clusters just water down the wine.” Not only is the picking crew looking at Sal as if he’s lost his mind, David Iund the grower tries to smile, only the smile is one of incredulity. He’s holding in his hands a bottle of Eclipse that Sal made last year. The clear bottle lets the brilliant ruby color of the wine shine through, but even this doesn’t seem to entirely convince him. “Farmers see only spoiled grapes,” Sal says, “but what I see are peach and apricot flavors, and maybe some walnuts, in the finished wine.” Taking a cluster from the vine, Sal sticks his nose into the mold and inhales and I follow suit. The Botrytis smells like truffles or mushrooms, along with the hauntingly sweet perfume of the pinot noir fruit. The finished wine is lip-smackingly sweet. A noble nectar to be sure.