Friday, October 12, 2007

Smokin’ Wines

Recently, I attended the J.Moss Wines release party, where James and Janet Moss (the “J” getting double billing for James and Janet) poured their newly bottled 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon, and I had the added delight along with the many fans of J.Moss Wines on hand, to taste all their Cabs going clear back to their first release in 2001.

Tasting the 2001, their debut wine, was a rarity, precisely because of how rare the 2001 Lauer Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon actually is. Tragically, nearly all of the 2001 bottles were burned up in a warehouse fire in Vallejo in October 2005.

“This was our first vintage, our first commercial release,” Janet said to me, a touch of emotion still in her voice. “We had just hand labeled the bottles the week before, and then, when we heard about the fire, we thought it had to be a joke.” Not only were the J.Moss Wines debut Cabs lost, but also over $200 million worth of wine from other wineries and private collectors. In March 2007, a Sausalito businessman was arrested for the arson, charged with 19 felony counts. Some of the larger wineries could afford insurance and absorb the loss, financially anyway, but many of the smaller wine businesses were completed ravaged.

Janet went on. “How could somebody do such a thing? So many people lost everything.” Hearing her recount the story, it was clear that the anger hadn’t gone away with time. But unlike Janet, who needed to talk about the arson fire to cope with the loss, James reacted to the tragedy exactly the opposite. He wanted to put the terrible episode behind him. “I wanted to forget the whole thing ever happened. I was so sick of hearing about it. I just wanted to move on.”

After the fire, James and Janet immediately raced down to the warehouse and of course no one was being allowed in. But determined to see if any of their wines could be salvaged, they eventually pushed and cajoled their way past the gatekeepers, and saw the devastation firsthand. “Everything was burned up,” James said, “with all these stacks of wine toppled down into huge piles. Broken glass was everywhere.” He shook his head at the memory. “We had to dig down through these stacks of toppled burned up bottles, which was very dangerous, just to find our wines. We managed to save a few cases on the bottom of the collapsed piles, that had escaped the heat of the fire.” Only then did James’ eyes light up. “But, tasting the 2001, dude, that wine blew me away. I mean, it was smokin’.” I smiled back at him, not sure if he had caught the double meaning in what he had just said.

But I knew exactly what he meant after tasting the wine for myself, and not only that, but tasting all the wines straight through to the 2004s. These are vineyard designated wines, meaning that the grapes from one vineyard are not blended together with other vineyards or varietals, but are kept separate to highlight their uniqueness. The Spicer Vineyard in Stag’s Leap (photo above of the Spicers with Janet and James), the Puerta Dorada and Galleron Vineyards in Rutherford, or the Lauer Vineyard in St. Helena that makes up the 2001. Only you can still recognize James’ hand at the helm, because all his wines have qualities in common, the foremost of which is clarity. They are the perfect example of terroir, that hard-to-wrap-your-mind around French idea of totality, that includes vineyard site, soil, climate, weather, and winemaker that make up a given wine’s individuality.

If you hang around the Napa Valley, you’ll soon discover that the topic of wine is the constant background conversation. But every once in awhile, a wine comes to the foreground. The very first time I tasted a J.Moss wine, it commanded my full attention - one of those moments when the world seems to withdraw, and you’re left alone with the wine thinking, “wow”.

One evening, I asked James how he does what he does, and he gave me an example. “A while back, I decided to taste grapes from all over the Valley, from all these different appellations, just asking friends and farmers and winemakers I knew if I could walk their vines and sample some grapes just before they were harvested. And what I discovered is that you can really tell the difference. Dude, just from tasting the grapes.” He went into the vineyards, and saw how different places had distinct flavors and elements. I feel thrilled when I hear stories like that, when winemakers build sense memories and build their palates, so that they can make wines that stop the world.

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