Glorious clear skies meant forever views along the vaulted Santa Lucia Highlands for Passport Day, Saturday, February 9. Having some girlfriends in tow who used Siri for directions resulted in a rather late rendezvous and start.
So, my friend Lolin and I enjoyed hanging out at Hahn, grooving on the 2011 Hahn Chef’s Table Noir Blanc (made from free-run pinot juice with no skin contact), paired with decadent duck confit, showing how fat likes acid, and the lovely, Audrey Hepburn-in-a-velvet-gown elegant 2011 SLH pinot, which made every bite of Chef Brian Overhauser’s multi-flavored pasta packed with wine-drunk mushrooms, parmesan cheese and prosciutto, even more enjoyable. That Hahn pinot was easily my group’s favorite red of the entire Hahn lineup, if not the entire day’s tasting.
The folks at Hahn poured their gregarious and wildly popular GSM, the polished SLH pinot gris and the intently focused 2009 cabernet franc, whose sandy tannins would complement game. Good wines, great times!
Off to Boekenoogen we went, in what became a very long procession up the driveway, held up by a huge camper – who brings a camper to an event like this? The place was already jumping like 4th graders on a trampoline, and cars were wedged every which way. We parked in the vineyard to enjoy the walk up the hill, admiring the sensational views that meet you at every angle.
My friends Toni and Denise had never been here before, so this was a serious treat, and the wines made them believers in the ability of the SLH to convert even the diehard chardonnay hater into a believer. Said Toni, who has been in the wine business as an editor for Vine Times for many years, “Wow, I don’t even like white wines, and these are all really good! This region really shines for whites.” Indeed, it shines like the sun on the crushpad at Boekenoogen, which was packed with sun-worshippers sipping 2011 chardonnay, 2010 pinot and 2008 petite sirah, and savoring every bite of grilled pork loin with mustard and cheese or tri-tip sandwich slices, as the Valley glimmered below.
We hated to leave this solar infusion, as it was a chilly day. My friend Lolin was glad she had on her gloves! I think most people were under-dressed for the chill wind that came up right about 1pm, making red wine taste all the better.
Approaching Puma Road, Ray Franscioni’s winemaking crib, with that schnazzy new black label that features the whole cat and not just the head, we could see the parking lot was overflowing. Cars were parked all along the road – never have I seen so many people at this spot, and it was a full-on party, complete with a very talented musician regaling the crowd gathered ‘round the blazing fire pit with his juicy guitar licks. Inside, the barrel room was bursting with activity, and the food flowed as freely as the wines, as Wendy and Mike and friends, grilled and cooked up a venerable storm of grilled sirloin, spicy sausages and beans.
Puma Road wines are a must try. The scantily clad 2011 Estate chardonnay bounces from flavor to flavor with glee, and is like landing in a hammock, while the 2011 Reserve chard, barrel-fermented and oh so rich, is like landing in a velvet couch, with the perfect pillows. Join the wine club now to enjoy the immensely focused, frankincensed and currantly exciting 2009 cabernet franc, or spend a few moments in the Hall of the Mountain King, the awesome petit Verdot. All these brazen beauties are from Ray’s Paicines vineyard. And they are all coming around to excellent. You wouldn’t want to let your teenage daughters out with them just yet…but you could envision where this could lead.
Escaping the barrel room crowd and the chill of the crushpad, we tasted at the kitchen table where Ray grew up, and somewhat proudly explained that his Dad sat closest to the refrigerator, while his Mom sat at the head of the table, where she could get to the kitchen most easily. It’s a sweet place, filled with nostalgic memories, including a pair of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben salt and pepper shakers that take you back to another era altogether.
The relationship between Dave and Ray, which they both admit “kinda works,” has been a long time brewing. Apparently, Ray planted a seed with Dave while he was still at Morgan, where Dave’s winemaking certainly got his attention. When longtime grapegrower Ray got serious about making wine, he allegedly said, over a few glasses of wine at Zeph’s, “Davey, you need to come here!” and the rest is history in the making. Ray says the reason it works is, “I don’t have the ego of a winemaker. I know how to grow grapes. I know how to build a winery and supply the cash. The rest is up to him. Did you say ‘can’t?’ The worst word in the English language is ‘can’t’!” To which Dave replied, “Emmanuel Kant do this.”
They clearly enjoy the constant banter. What Ray really had to say about Dave, goes something like this, cleaned up, “This goofy God-blessed hippy son of a beachtree-hugging guy is like an artist. Wine is liquid art.” He’s clearly pleased with the portrait that’s developing.
Coventry says, simply, “My goal is to demystify wine without robbing it of its magic.”
Perhaps we should call him the Wizard Winemaker of River Road.
Mark Calendars: The next River Road winetasting experience is May 18: the SLH Gala, held at Mer Soleil. You should not miss it. Chardonnays and Pinot of extraordinary provenance, in concert with amazing food and the most engaging people you are ever to encounter across the barrel.