Wine Tasting In The Desert

Think of Burning Man and wine tasting is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. Nor the second. In fact, it’s probably one of the last things you’d expect to find out in the Nevada Desert, where 45,000 people come together over the course of a week to build a temporary city based on “extreme self-reliance,” gifting, art installations, mutant vehicles and partying. Yet for some reason, at this, my third Burn, I attended three different wine tasting (two of them, admittedly, held in my own camp, Kidsville) and made some grape friends in the process. Temperature control, naturally, is a bitch in a location where the daytime routinely tops out in the high 90s and the nights frequently fall into the 40s, and some bottles (which I have not reviewed) were certainly affected. Here are some of the more intriguing wines that passed my way: most of the Californian bottles were gifted by the producers themselves to Burners driving out from the Golden State.

Initially the partnership of a Swiss winemaker and the descendent of Alsace winemakers, Michel-Schlumberger primarily produces high-end wines from Bordeaux grapes, but there’s also a Pinot Blanc and a Pinot Noir intriguingly inserted into the line-up. The Pinot Blanc 2008 offered up light apple and exotic citrus aromas, with a firm, spicy full body and a pleasantly oily back palate. Much bigger and more pronounced than its 12.5% alcohol would suggest, it was a lovely aperitif while suggesting itself to be a fine food wine as well. The Pinot Noir 2006 is sub-titled “Le Fou!” in thumbed-nose reference to the fact that the winery was labeled mad for daring to grow this delicate grape in the Dry Creek Valley. It’s not just because the resultant wine registers a most Pinot-unfriendly 14.6% alcohol that I would be tempted to join the cast of naysayers; it’s the fact that, over the course of two consecutive nightly tastings, whatever fruit may have existed in the wine remained almost entirely hidden under a hot, high alcoholic bruising bully of a wine. Chilling it revealed some limited dark cherry and chocolate flavors but I still couldn’t unravel much by way of Pinot Noir’s famously delicate qualities. Sometimes you have to admire American wine-makers for going against conventional wisdom, and sometimes you just have to scream, Fou!

I love my Californian Rhône Rangers, but it’s hard to take seriously any wine that names itself after a random explosion of upper shift numerical keys. You wouldn’t even know, after all, that one of the above was a white wine and one of them a red. The online descriptions don’t do much more to endear me to their cause – though I’m slightly relieved to note that the white wine has subsequently been renamed Ruben’s Blend. Back when it went by the name %@#$!, the 2005 white was a blend of Marsanne and Roussanne, but I couldn’t get much more out of it than oak and heft and vanilla and weight. Too old? Possibly. Lacking in true Rhône varietal character? Most likely. A couple of nights later the 2003 Sierra Foothills *%#&@!, a (53%) Mourvèdre, (40%)  Syrah, (7%) Grenache blend did not fare much better; I’d like to believe that a few years in the cellar should not have dissipated every last hint of fruit and yet again all I got was weight and oak. Despite the fact that they’re now making Iberian-style wines as well, and that some of them even have marginally interesting names, like, um, The Spaniard, I’ll be steering clear of Twisted Oak in future in favor of more proven producers with proper labels.

…This being one of them, I guess: at least Bonny Doon’s “Flying Saucer” has proven consistent enough that the name no longer inspires raised eyebrows.  38% Grenache, 35% Syrah, 12% Mourvèdre, 8% Carignane and 7% Cinsault, this was a good solid red with lots of body even though, once more, a large amount of fruit had blown off. Physically correct though not desperately reminiscent of the Châteauneuf du Papes on which it is based, and served from a half bottle, I suspect it might have tasted better a couple of years ago. But I never kick this one out of bed.

No problems of old age with this wine, which we were tasting the same week it was being released to the public. I got a delightful blueberry smell straight out of the glass, with what I’d call a spicy Aussie/Californian Shiraz thing going on the palate. The winery talks about chocolate and violets as well, notes that weren’t evident on the desert floor, but I got a warm fuzzy feeling of tenderness that, while not reminiscent of a Rhône Syrah, assured me that Vino V puts quality far ahead of quantity. Indeed, only 100+ cases made.

We met a lovely woman from Paso Robles at the second of our wine tastings, who had brought to the desert a handful of bottles from neighborhood friends of hers, hoping to share them with interested drinkers. I was happy to help her. Ascunsion Ridge is the name of an Inn close to downtown Paso which has recently begun making its own wines from its 320-acre site. I scrupulously noted its Lascivious 2009 to be an unusual blend of 44% Mourvèdre, 29% Syrah, and 27% Cabernet Sauvignon – and yet the only online reference I can find suggests that in 2008 the winery was planning on a Zinfandel-Syrah-Cabernet blend. Hmm, either way, this was ablaze with aromas of olives, mushroom and earth, with similar textures apparent on the palate. I suspect that this wine was produced with great love, and that under better tasting conditions, it would have delivered considerably more character than my notes give it credit for. A wine to watch – assuming you can find it.

Bodegas Paso RoblesThe best white wine I’ve tasted in a long time.

I was, however, emphatically blown away by this white wine, which was adequately chilled and served over the course of two consecutive nights. A Spanish-style blend of 60% Grenache Blanc (as opposed, I guess, to Garnacha Blanca) and 40% Malvasia Blanca, its nose positively exploded with floral spices. If I hadn’t already known better, I’d have guessed it for Roussanne, yet there was something still more vibrant, tropical and intoxicating than anything but the best Hermitage could offer. While on the first night I noted that it was also buttery and creamy and with a touch of lemon zest, I came back a night later, took my time, and observed “quince and pineapple and lemon and honeyed floral flavors,” as well as a label reporting 15% alcohol, which was evidently kept in much better check than some of the reds. Produced in limited quantities by Dorothy Schuyler, whose web site doesn’t offer more than a phone number and address in downtown Paso, it made me reconsider the potentially singular qualities of Grenache Blanc and to seek out more by way of Malvasia, too. Most of all, it had me wishing I could just walk down to the local wine store and pick up another bottle, especially as I was informed that it’s in the $20-$25 price range, which I consider a bargain for one of the most interesting and exciting and genuinely lively new white wines I’ve tasted in years.

At a dusk-time wine tasting at the Mile High Club (hey, it’s Burning Man), I arrived to find two or three dozen wines of varying quality at various temperatures. Speed tasting my way through them, and surprising more than a few people by assiduously making notes despite my limited glassware and illumination, I was able to observe a fondness for an EL MIRADOR CABERNET SAUVIGNON WALLA WALLA VALLEY WASHINGTON STATE 2005, thanks to its full body, rich and spicy palate; unfortunately, the winery now appears to be out of business. The GIRASOLE VINEYARD PINOT NOIR MENDOCINO COUNTY 2007 impressed for its relatively smooth taste and texture (and at $15 in the wine store, its price, too). The ROSENBLUM PETITE SIRAH HERITAGE CLONES SAN FRANCISCO BAY 2006 was highly reminiscent of the same winery’s Zinfandels for body, fruit and spice, but with a more pronounced chocolate edge; again a decent wine given its price bracket.

All that said, the general vote on best wine at the Mile High Club was the bottle of  BERNARD BAUDRY CHINON LES GRANGES 2007 that I’d picked up at Whole Foods in Reno for about $20. Initially muted on the nose, it opened up into a deliciously pure and peppery, silky, mineral, red cherry-tinged, medium-bodied red wine. It was reassuring to see how many relatively unsophisticated wine drinkers shared this opinion, perhaps recognizing the refreshing subtleties of a modest northern French wine on a hot evening in the desert. That said, the Chinon was seriously challenged by the sudden arrival of a DOMAINE CHANTAL LESCURE NUITS ST.GEORGES LES DAMODES 2005, an almost incongruously good bottle of wine to share table space with Two Buck Chuck. Sure enough, this one offered aromatics and body that put its West Coast neighbors thoroughly in the shade, and yet it had arrived too late in a double tasting to fully express itself to my own now dusty (and tired) palate. I did, however, befriend its owner, a (clearly) wealthy young man who volunteered to attend our next tasting a couple of nights later, and shared with us a number of fine wines, of which, this being Burning Man, and that much later in the week, I was able to keep track of only two:

BLASON D’ISSAN MARGAUX 2005, the second wine of Chateau d’Issan, was purple, plump and plummy, with a deliciously soft texture already despite the presence of yet-to-be-integrated tannins, all of which suggested plenty room for long-term development. Its copious body offered cherry, blackcurrant, the aforementioned plums and some chocolate, all of which makes sense given its typical 70-30 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend. A retail price of $40 and up seems fair enough under the circumstances.

Pio Cesare BaroloAnd the kind of red that you would never kick out of bed

Finally, the PIO CESARE BAROLO 2005 was unquestionably the best red I tasted all week – evidence that serving temperatures weren’t the main thing holding back some of the Californian competition. A deep dark red, with notes of orange peel, cinnamon and clove as well as copious herbs, it had a silky and sexy front end that gave way to an earthy, leathery body with plenty tannin, leading to an excessively long finish full of licorice and cardoman. I came back for more and more of this and wish I could keep doing so over coming decades as it fully develops. In the absence of such certainty, here’s to next year’s Burning Man and even finer wine.

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November 2021