Snooth's West Coast Pinot Throwdown 2013

A meeting of the greatest, wines that is.


Back in July, I proposed a West Coast Pinot Noir throwdown on the Snooth forums.  In what was a pot-luck twist on one of Gregory dal Piaz’s “Drink My Wine” events, I suggested that any Snooth forum posters could congregate in my neck of the woods—Oakland, California—and bring a bottle of their favorite Pinot Noir from whatever region they think makes it best. Consensus quickly settled on a date of October 26, 2013. 
Like most conversations in the Forums, it grew out of another thread’s drift, and it took on a life of its own.  Before I knew what I was doing, I had volunteered to host, and even to cook the complementary food.  Fair enough, I figured that also meant I could set a few ground rules.  No more than two bottles per attendee, to keep things reasonable, and the ground rules for the tasting were at my whim.  
And, like most organic projects, it grew in unpredictable ways.  By August, we had confirmations from attendees from both ends of California.  And we learned that Gregory dal Piaz was going to be out here that very week, upping the ante further.  Excitement was reaching a fever pitch.  And some guests were clamoring to bring more bottles than the allotted two.
I decided we needed an added bonus if people were driving and flying up from Los Angeles and my friend Outthere was actually crossing the southeastern border of Napa County.  I called in the heavy artillery:  My old friend and soon to be East Bay neighbor Michelle Armour is one of the preeminent wine P.R. agents and represents, among others, Patz and Hall.  Could she deliver James Hall and Anne Moses, winemakers and partners in one of California’s foremost Pinot and Chardonnay producers?  Turns out they were thrilled at the idea, and asked if they could bring five bottles for us to taste.   
With all the anticipation, I feared I had set expectations too high.  Sure, I was making duck tacos and salsas to complement—nothing goes with pinot quite like duck—but I had to remind the clamoring crowds that I wasn’t actually roasting those ducks myself.  I’m not Thomas Keller, after all! 
October 26 broke cool and clear.  The sun shone, but its rays have weakened in the midst of fall.  I overslept my usual Saturday morning internal alarm and got to the pool late for my morning swim.  Not the best day to be running late.  A quick side trip to Oakland’s Chinatown—the original Joy Luck restaurant is within sight of my duck purveyor—and some additional shopping in the foodie ghetto of Rockridge and it was time to cook.
By 4:30, things were really coming together.  Good thing, because Outthere had budgeted enough drive time to get through a major earthquake, two firestorms, and an eighty car pileup on I-80.  Making the best of his early arrival, I put him to work folding tasting programs and wrapping bottles.  
The plan was to be semi-scientific.  I  wouldn’t plan a space mission based on the rigor of the protocol I had in mind, but I hoped we would learn something.  We bagged all the contributors’ bottles—JonDerry shipped his, Greg and Lingprof ordered them from a wine website located in my backyard and Outthere and Emark brought theirs—then assigned them more or less randomly to three flights.  The idea was to taste each wine without being able to ascertain its origins.  Did you love your own wine or someone else’s?  Could you tell where it was from? Vintages would be all over the place, too. 
The plan was to drink the flights in pairs—each participant had two glasses.  More than that and there would be no room at the table for food or elbows.  
The guests, after Outthere, started arriving at 5:30, as planned.  Lingprof and her charming friend Martha, Michelle, then Emark and Mrs. Emark.  JonDerry rolled in just a minute before James and Anne.  James immediately set everyone at ease and had us laughing up a storm while Anne and I talked about our love for early-1980s California punk rock.  Two bottles of introductory 2009 Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs quickly disappeared as welcoming aperitifs. With Greg dal Piaz still missing, eleven of us settled down after filling plates with duck tacos, scarlet runner beans from my garden, and a selection of salsas, including a fig-pomegranate port reduction that paired very well with the duck.  
Greg arrived right after Anne and Outthere poured the first two glasses.  (For extensive tasting notes by many of the participants, read the original thread here. For the sake of brevity, and because I am no expert compared to Greg, I’ll spare you my impressions of the individual wines.)
Our first five wine flight consisted of a 1990 Faively Charmes Chambertin (Cote de Nuits; JonDerry provided); 2010 Clos des Lambrays (also CdN; JonDerry); Mayer-Nickal Blue Slate (Ahr-Spatburgunder; JonDerry); 2007 Amalie Robert Cuvee Amalie (Willamette Valley;Lingprof); 2007 Foley Santa Rita Hills (Emark).  The revelation for me was that James picked the Faively as the lone Oregon wine and I thought it was young.  The Foley was sweet and candied, not to my liking at all, while the Amalie Robert was, depending on your point of view, Burgundian or smokily Russian-River-like, although it was in fact neither.
After the first flight, we took a break while our palates were still fresh and opened the wines that James and Anne brought from Patz and Hall.  I can’t say enough about their participation to this point:  Anne was cheerfully pouring wine with Outthere. I was pinned in a corner to Greg’s left, as you can see from the photo above that Outthere took.
James was cheerfully commenting on the wines drunk to that point.  But now it was time to turn the floor over to him as we started on the first two of their wines.
A word about Patz and Hall:  If you care about scores, two of their wines received 95 points from the Wine Spectator’s latest round up of California Pinot Noir.  More importantly, the four partners, Donald Patz, James Hall, Anne Moses, and Heather Patz, bring a combined experience of over 120 years in the fine wine industry, as well as a no-compromise vision, to their product. The team’s incredible curiosity and intelligence was on full display as Anne and James served us their wines.  
First up was the 2011 Burnside Vineyard bottling. This vintage gave very low yields in many locations, but the quality in this bottle was obvious.  There was a savoriness that did not mask the fruit, but enhanced it.  James attributed some of this character to the whole clusters and cold soak given to the grapes.  James let the native yeasts kick off fermentation, then stopped them and let RC212 take over. 
Greg asked about the barrel regimen,  just as I was about to open my yawp on the subject, and we sat back and got a lesson in forestry, currency hedging, and playing with the big boys of Domaine Romanee-Conti.  James and Anne explained that, some time ago, James learned that the top producers don’t buy barrels, they buy the wood for the staves.  Romanee-Conti goes even further and buys the actual trees! Patz and Hall buys the wood based on grain, and favors “pink wood,” a particularly choice part of the harvested tree.  The goal is to buy the wood with the straightest, tightest grain.  About 50% new oak is used on the Pinot; the remainder is often one or two-year old barrels that have been used for white wine, although some Pinot barrels are re-used.  James aims for spice flavors of clove and cinnamon from the barrels.  
The second Patz and Hall wine was the 2011 Hyde Vineyard from Carneros, on the eastern edge of the appellation.  I found this wine warm, without being over-extracted.  On the whole, I preferred the Burnside, but this was delicious and varietally spot on, with nice red berry flavors.  This was easy to like, but not jammy.  Balanced, delicious.  I could see why the critics and our crowd like these wines.
Lingering only a while, we moved on to the 2011 Chenoweth vineyards bottling.  This carried 15% alcohol without seeming hot. It had an aroma of candied violets and a gentle attack.  Less red fruit and more dark berries in the palate this time.  James explained to us that cool weather and rain at the beginning of the vintage had led to millerandage, where berries form without seeds.  In this case, nearly all the berries formed this way, but because of the cool weather throughout the season it led to no dehydration.  
For our fourth Patz and Hall wine, Anne and James shared their 2012 Sonoma Coast cuvee.  This is a wine they make from eighteen vineyards, if I heard them correctly.  This wine serves as an entry-level wine that they can offer to restaurants and buyers across the country with a consistent level of quality.  This is a very young wine from a consistent and ripe vintage.  It carries its fourteen plus percent ABV nicely and gives a good sense of the appellation.  Not as distinctive as the single vineyard wines, this is a bottle I would order when traveling some place when I wanted a taste of home.  It carries those elegant aromatics that I associate with great Pinot and would pair well with a variety of meats, fowl and even heartier fish.  
Our final Patz and Hall bottle came from Anne and James’s home vineyard, the 2011 Moses-Hall Estate.  I immediately detected a pricking sensation on the tongue.  Volatile acid?  An unintended secondary fermentation?  No, said James, this was bottled straight from barrel, while the wine was saturated with CO2, and it blew off immediately.  After that, this wine just charmed me.  Easily my wine of the night, and I think many others felt the same:  On Sunday, Emark was already posting that he had checked the P&H website in an effort to procure some for his cellar.  
Back to our bottles it went, with another ten wines to go!  Our second flight revealed, for me, one big surprise:  A 2010 Roar Sierra Mar, one of my own wines, tasted porty and sweet to me.  I expect this wine to be forward, but it really overdid it.  I found a 2012 Ancillary Cellars Sun Chase to be too sweet as well; I thought it was another Santa Lucia Highlands juice box, but it’s a new project by cabernet maker Mike Smith.  It’s too young to be fair to it.  The wines for this flight were 2010 La Pousse d’Or Volnay Caillerets Premier Cru (Cote de Beaune; GdP); 2009 Pavelot Savingy Les Beaunes Premier Cru (CdB;GdP); 2010 Roar Sierra Mar (Foxall); 2007 Taz Fiddlestix (Santa Rita Hills;Emark); 2012 Ancillary Sun Chase (Sonoma Coast; Outthere).
Flight Three went six deep, and we were racing for the home stretch.  The cheese course and the dessert, a locally sourced apple crisp, came to the table, prepared by my wife. My favorite wine, beside the Patz and Hall estate bottle, emerged here.  The 2010 Copain Kiser “En Bas” nailed everything I love about Pinot Noir.  Complex aromatics dancing between floral, spice and fruit notes, layers of flavor with cherries balancing the tarter red fruits, complemented by more spice notes, and a lingering finish.  I’m not looking for extraction or power, I am looking for that ethereal thing that pinot does better than any other grape.  This was in that vein.  I also enjoyed a Roar Rosella’s from 2010, a bottle I’ve had before, and was happy I rallied for one round. Sadly, a 2011 Holdredge Shaken Not Stirred was corked.  

The lineup for the flight was:  2010 Copain Kiser “En Bas” (Anderson Valley; Outthere); 2011 Ceritas Costalina (Sonoma Coast; Outthere); 2007 Williams-Selyem Weir Vineyard (Yorkville Highlands; Outthere); 2006 Rhys Elysia (Green Valley; Outthere); 2011 Holdredge Shaken Not Stirred (RRV; Outthere); 2010 Roar Rosella’s (Santa Lucia Highlands; Foxall).
After James, Anne and Michelle took their leave, the Snooth crowd crawled to the basement, emerging with a bottle of 2005 Chateau Suduirat Sauternes that disappeared in a heartbeat.
Did we learn anything?  As I said to Greg at one point, none of us knows anything when it comes to wine, we just have our prejudices.  In my case, drinking my own wine blind made me more aware of those.  Certainly, we got a crash course in the vicissitudes of wine-making from James and Anne.  As I passed James to pour out the spit cups, I asked, “With all these variables, how do you know how the wine will turn out?”  With a laugh, he replied, “You don’t.”
Like everything else, you open a bottle or fill a barrel and you hope for the best. This event managed to exceed the high expectations  we shared.  I say this with modesty because the credit goes to the wonderful Snoothers who brought wine, curiosity and good will, and to our very special guests, James Patz, Anne Moses, and Michelle Armour, who brought even better wine, wit, and charm to our table.  I encourage readers to adjourn to the Forum to read more about the event, and to use the Forum to plan their own off-lines.  Feel free to drop me a message if you want recipes for duck tacos, two kinds of mango salsa, figs in port wine reduction, or for tips on hosting an offline.  

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: JonDerry
    Hand of Snooth
    680446 3,144

    Some great showings from all regions, though I preferred the lone Oregon entrant which was a big eye opener for me. Beyond the wines, it was one of those perfect events where the right people got together in the right place, at the right time.

    Nov 07, 2013 at 10:54 PM

  • Snooth User: outthere
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    324443 4,227

    Well done fun event. Anyone for cool climate Syrah next time?

    Nov 07, 2013 at 11:00 PM

  • Snooth User: lingprof
    Hand of Snooth
    155607 1,110

    amazing event! I learned so much. thanks again, foxy, for being brave enough to host, and for getting James and Anne to come. let's do it again sometime soon!!! And YAY OREGON!!!!

    Nov 09, 2013 at 12:24 AM

  • Snooth User: lingprof
    Hand of Snooth
    155607 1,110

    ps oh sure, outthere, take a photo of all the guys, where you can only see the girls from the back! ;-P

    Nov 09, 2013 at 12:25 AM

  • Snooth User: ErnieP
    1401766 1

    Amalie Robert also makes a very scintillating cool climate "Satisfaction" Syrah...

    Thanks for the Oregon love!


    Nov 09, 2013 at 6:24 PM

  • Snooth User: Richard Foxall
    Hand of Snooth
    262583 4,006

    I'm up for doing this more or less annually, although I also can see a shift to the south if anyone wants to host. But I think the presence of winemakers here is a bonus. I'd be more than happy to have James and Anne again if they were willing, but I think one of Michelle's other clients might also like a turn. Different kind of situation: Younger, very dynamic, way precocious, works for a label that has several divisions.

    And LP, that photo says it all: The women are conversing earnestly and completely unaware of the camera, while the peacock males are looking around to see who's paying attention.

    Nov 11, 2013 at 9:09 PM

  • Snooth User: Richard Foxall
    Hand of Snooth
    262583 4,006

    Now if I can stay out of Greg's spam folder, I might also know when he's traveling out here to make it another stellar evening.

    Nov 11, 2013 at 11:08 PM

  • Snooth User: lingprof
    Hand of Snooth
    155607 1,110

    ha ha peacock males! that was hilarious. we are a funny group. I would be glad to come up once a year. I'd love to do it down here, also. My house is pretty messy and full of dogs, but I know my neighbor (a frequent virtual taster with us) would host, and she is great at that stuff. as for winemakers, maybe we could get someone from Temecula? It's changed a lot in the past decade. we could give it a chance to wow us.... just a thought...

    Nov 12, 2013 at 7:39 PM

  • Snooth User: EMark
    Hand of Snooth
    847804 8,336

    Wow, I'd missed this article while traveling last week. I have posted on the Forum thread how much I enjoyed the event and how much I appreciated Fox's incredible efforts. To that I will add that one of the best things about wine appreciation is getting to meet extraordinary people. To my way of thinking an excellent event was made better by being able to chat with such great folks. I do look forward to doing it, again.

    And, in all honesty, I know Mrs. EMark well enough to know that she is very comfortable being completely hidden behind my fat head in OT's pic.

    Nov 14, 2013 at 6:17 PM

  • Snooth User: Seabrooker
    167088 56

    I can't say I'm surprised that an Anderson Valley Pinot "won" - we've been collecting Pinots there for more than 10 years. Our favorites from our trip earlier this month - Mary Elke, Roederer (yes, you have to go to the winery) and Breggo (also great Pinot Gris). Best value - Navarro. Santa Lucis disappointed us.

    Nov 21, 2013 at 1:20 PM

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