Sonoma Winter WINEland 3: Taft Street
The crew behind TAFT STREET Winery, our second stop on northern Sonoma’s Winter WINEland 2013, call themselves “garagistes,” a French term that came into vogue in Bordeaux in the 1980s to describe people who made wine in their home or garage, in small but meticulous quantities, rather than in a large chateau. Taft Street actually pre-dates the garagiste craze, having set up shop in Oakland (on Taft Street, naturally enough) back in the 1970s, and if there is truth to their web site, the partners have maintained their sense of adventure, excitement, craftsmanship and entrepreneurism even as they have built their company over the decades to the point of stealing wine-maker Evelyn White from the esteemed Clos Du Bois.
For Winter WINEland 2013, Taft Street pushed a pair of Chardonnays as their ‘Featured Grape’ of the event. The difference between their 2011 Chardonnay Russian River Valley ($20) and their 2011 Chardonnay Russian River Valley “Garagistes” ($28) was essentially one of oak; while both wines are made from the same clones, go through 40% malolactic fermentation and spend nine months in French oak barrels, that oak is 60% new in the “Garagistes” blend as compared to just 20% in the regular wine. You can tell: both wines give off quite considerable amounts of the buttery vanilla texture that was once de rigeur in American Chardonnay production, but the Garagistes wine had so much of it that it blocked out the apple and bear fruits at the front end of the regular wine. Interestingly, my tasting partner for the day, Susie, preferred the Taft Street Chardonnays to those of Dutton-Goldfield, which I had found far more elegant; on the great journey of wine-discovery, it’s not uncommon to start at the more oaky and perceptively sweeter end of wine and gradually refine one’s taste towards something more subtle. Indeed, I’ve made that progression myself, and so I won’t knock these two wines, especially the “lesser” of the two based on its popularity and price point.
A 2011 Rosé of Pinot Noir Sonoma County ($18) proved considerably more fun all around. Sourced from a vineyard in the Russian River Valley exclusively put aside for the purpose of rosé (though lacking an RRV designation), stainless steel fermented and then bottled within four months of harvest, this bright pink dry wine evinced the grape’s cherry notes in its most cheerful manifestation, full of acidity, juicy as anything, and copiously easy to drink. You can buy cheaper rosés from the Mediterranean, but that’s not always the point: this was joyously uncomplicated stuff, a reminder that Pinot Noir does not always have to aspire to greatness.
…Then again, it’s nice when it does. Taft’s greatest asset excels at an ability to balance limited production with sensible pricing, as seen in the 2009 Pinot Noir Mendocino Ridge “Garagistes,” priced at $32 even though only 147 cases were produced. Mendocino County sits to the north of Sonoma (making this wine something of an intruder, though not the only one we would come across on the so-called Northern Sonoma Wine Road), and all the vineyards of its non-contiguous Mendocino Ridge AVA sit over 1200 feet above sea level, and therefore the fog line, which enables morning sun but also afternoon cool, making for potentially spectacular wines. Certainly this offering from Taft, sourced from the Manchester Ridge Vineyard, had plenty to recommend it by way of a dark nose full of black fruits. It was, I noted at the time, a “serious” Pinot, a view confirmed once I visited Taft’s web site which similarly observes that their Mendocino County Pinot Noir is “bigger and more brooding” than the one they source from within the RRV, which they had opted not to put out for tasting. I’d love to come back to this wine some time.
For all the talk of Russian River Valley as a cool grape climate especially ideal for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the AVA produces some exceptional Zinfandels, the cooling fog helping rein in the sometimes searing tendencies of this famously alcoholic and uniquely Californian grape. Taft Street’s 2009 Zinfandel Russian River Valley (from the 100-year old Cobblestone Vineyard) was a textbook example, with everything in its right place: full of Zin’s distinctive big, spicy wild berry flavors, it was pleasantly subtle up front and pleasingly lengthy at the back. Zinfandel is sometimes referred to as an “acquired” taste, but I think that’s because most of the wine-drinking world has had so little exposure to it; those who have tasted the good stuff almost instinctively fall in love. Still, we groupies to bear in mind its high alcohol content and the relatively high price for anything above mediocre. The Taft wine met both challenges. Coming in at under 15% alcohol, a relative lightweight by typically Zinful standards, and at $24 a bottle (with close to a 30% discount on the day by the case), it was spectacularly well-priced for such character and pedigree. We left Taft Street with Zin on our palate and a spring in our step.