Take Me Back to Robert Sinskey, Please
Wine: Robert Sinskey Vineyards
Region: Los Carneros, Stags Leap District, Napa Valley
Grapes: Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Riesling & Gewürtztraminer, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon & Franc
Not every winery visit is created equal. Having once been on the wholesale side of such trips, where the red carpet is practically rolled out before you, making introductions as a blogger is decidedly more low-key. Of course that depends on the people behind the winery. Some have taken me into their home, some enthusiastically let me stomp their grapes, and some seemed to be going through the motions and would have rather been elsewhere. At Robert Sinskey, an appointment in the tasting room is like a three-star dining experience with the personable ease of a mom-and-pop neighborhood joint. Chef Maria Helm Sinskey runs the RSV kitchen with an inspired hand, creating mouth-watering dishes and wine-pairing snacks. Each bite and sip trade roles as hero and chorus throughout the tasting.
I had been to Robert Sinskey before, as a sales rep for T. Edward Wines with customers in tow. On my return visit this past August, as part of my post-Bloggers Conference adventure, I was immediately impressed with the generous hospitality that appeared to be offered to anyone interested in experiencing RSV. In full disclosure, I was a guest of the winery, and in the excellent care of "Sundance Kid" Jackson Engen. But what leads any wine-head to a winery? The wine, of course! And while I have long been a mostly non-Cali drinker, at times crudely opposed to it - shocker, I know - RSV has always been an exception.
THE STORY & The cellar
The late Bob Sinskey began his namesake winery in 1988, around the same time his day job took a sharp turn away from retirement and into the spotlight. Dr. Sinskey had invented an artificial lens that changed the game of cataract surgery; with the "Sinskey modified J loop intra-ocular lens," a rare surgery became a common procedure. That success required him to devote more time to traveling, lecturing and performing surgeries, and so his 115-acre retirement project needed a manager with a less demanding calendar. Enter young Rob, Fine Arts degree in hand.
Rob Sinskey never went to winemaking school, but his artistic temperament and care for the vines, which he began overseeing in 1996, has helped guide an unwavering vision for wines of restraint and elegance. Jeff Virnig, who started as an assistant winemaker at RSV in the winery's first year, is the head winemaker today and has been since 1991. He works closely with Rob to maintain a soil-conscious approach with emphasis on recognizing and cultivating the uniqueness of each parcel and vineyard. Rob's talent with a camera is still very much in practice, as evidenced by the images in the short book given to me during my visit, which he wrote as well. He's not bad with the word smithing either, and interweaved with the RSV story are a handful of Maria's recipes.
Robert Sinskey Vineyards is a "whole farm" endeavor greatly influenced by the agricultural essays of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. RSV's 175 acres are organic and biodynamic, and a welcome home to a meandering herd of sheep. The "wine is made in the vineyard" approach has always been a core ethos for the Sinskeys, beginning with the first harvest three decades ago. Sadly, I was a week late for the 30th anniversary fête.
Long before organic and natural wines were part of the mainstream conversation - or industry talk for that matter - Sinskey walked that line, both in the vineyards and the winery, where native yeast fermentation and gentle handling has always been standard practice. RSV vehemently eschews critic's scores, stating on their website in a letter to the media, "we do not send wine out for review." I sort of remember a story about this from way back when, though I always found the position made sense with the rest of their practice, sans incident. I can't confirm this first hand, and honestly I haven't tried, but I recently read in Elin McCoy's 2005 biography of Robert Parker that Parker once erroneously reported in his inflated newsletter that Rob acidified his wines, and when Rob called to correct him, not only was a retraction never printed, but subsequent reviews were given lower scores. There are many accounts like this one in her book, evidence that Parker was vengeful and considered himself above rectification. Sound like any political blowhards we know?
Whether that's true and Rob said, "F--- this!" or if he was ahead of his time and could see through the trend in fire play and beyond the greed, where the grass is always green and soft and people savor their vinous experiences with food, friends and family, I can't say definitively. Either way or both, I commend the stance.
In those dark years, while much of California sculpted their wines to please a cola-trained palate like 7th graders bending to peer pressure at a basement party, RSV did not adulterate, did not push harvest dates nor over-extract, nor acidify. They just kept making pure wines, polite yet independent in nature, with abundant fruit to match their natural acidity and hold your attention without commanding it. Sitting with a bottle of Pinot Blanc or the Vin Gris Rosé or Carneros Pinot Noir is akin to having a long overdue conversation with an old friend, one who's seen you at your worst and loves you all the same.
Before we sat to taste through several wines, Jackson toured me around the property, through the vegetable garden and into the cellar. The cave was dug into the side of the mountain and makes a circle that covers 17,500 square feet and holds approximately 1,200 barrels at any time, plus the library room. This wing off the main path holds selections from previous vintages and several large format bottles. Each bottle is copper-wired to its rack in case of earthquake, or clumsy employee. Because of the preventative wiring, not a single bottle was lost in the 2014 earthquake that shook the region. One barrel fell over, but didn't break. The floor in front of the entrance to the library room however was jolted and lifted, blocking the doorway.
My tromp through the winery came toward the end of the visit, prompted by a vine trellising question Jackson couldn't answer but gladly found someone who could. Assistant winemaker Zach Gabbert, who's in his 10th vintage with RSV, enthusiastically indulged me. The Stags Leap District vines, upon which I gazed from the terrace in the lead photo, are double cordoned trained and vertical shoot positioned with some California sprawl, in case you were wondering.
We talked about brix at harvest and phenolic ripeness and fermentation approaches. I can't recall exactly what was said in that conversation to make me ask about the flavors in the reds, but when I asked how they managed to keep even the heaviest reds so fresh and vibrant, Zach excitedly led me to a fermentation tank rigged with "a Sinskey original." He called this apparatus and practice "cap irrigation," which sprinkles the wine over the top of its fermenting self rather than a fuller force pump-over or the more aggressive punch-down maneuvers. You can see in the photo the flower-shaped plates just below the pipes, which soften the force of the incoming wine and weaken its impact. Imagine this tank is filled with fermenting wine and that my technical understanding of physics is such that I just explained this concept perfectly. I'm thinking it's a soft water, weak-pressure shower versus a hard water headless deluge. You know, gentle like.
Pinot Gris 2003, Los Carneros
Beautiful on the nose and palate, ripe melon, pear notes, great acid and texture, stainless steel fermentation...The introduction to RSV that makes you fall in love with the wines. $32 per bottle
Abraxas 2013, Scintilla Sonoma Vineyard, Los Carneros
A "Vin de Terroir," Jackson said. All grapes are grown in the same vineyard with pinot gris dominating in the 2013. Also here, pinot blanc, riesling and a touch of gewürtztraminer. It's named for the Egyptian god of 365 heavens and an homage to the 365 days of farming under biodynamics. And yes, Santana.
Extremely subtle lychee notes from the gewürtz, good texture on the palate, slight petrol notes from the riesling. $36 per bottle
Pinot Blanc 2013, Napa
This wine comes in 375ml and 1.5L bottles only. Really pretty apple notes, floral hints, good acidity that mellows across the palate, good finish. $22 and $92 per bottle
Orgia 2014, Los Carneros
This is Rob's foray into skin-fermented pinot gris (aka grigio), now in its third vintage. Informed by a conversation with SF somm and author David Lynch, to whom I used to sell Barolo back when he was at Babbo in Manhattan's West Village, and the "orange wine" craze that was beginning to infiltrate the inner circle of tastemakers. Orgia is named for a town in Central Italy where Maria once lived and studied culinary arts, and the wine is a nod to those of Friuli where outliers with cult followings like Gravner and Radikon make orange pinot grigios with considerable caché.
Pale copper-colored with delicate tannins and floral notes coupled with subtle saline and oxidative notes. Not as intellectual and complex as some orange suspects I've tasted - Gravner, after all, is burying his wines in the ground, sealed under beeswax in clay amphorae. But interesting and delicious and worth the experience. $45 per bottle
Los Carneros Pinot Noir 2013
Ruby-garnet in color with toasted cherry bread, juicy and bright with a dry finish, lovely acid and soft tannins, good finish. $40 per bottle
Three Amigos Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Los Carneros
Subtle on the nose with mushroom and earth, more structure than the Los Carneros and darker fruit flavors and great length. $70 per bottle
Merlot 2011, Los Carneros
"Right Bank style" from a cooler year, 100% merlot. Plum fruit with herbal hints on the nose and palate, soft tannins, juicy with notes of shishito peppers and roasted poblano. $42 per bottle for the 2012, current vintage
POV"Point of View" 2012, Los Carneros, Napa
A blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and about 50% merlot made by the dictates of the moon's position, as employed by biodynamic methods. Deep purple in color with a pink rim,nice fruit, mineral notes, good acid, and firm tannins but not chalky and drying, really lovely. Label artwork by Rob Sinskey. $40 per bottle
SLD Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
From the vineyard adjacent to the winery in Napa's Stags Leap District (photo above), a sub-appellation famed for its complex, age-worthy cabs. About 10% merlot is blended into this opaque, plum-colored wine with dark fruit aromas and herbal notes followed by red and black fruit on the palate. Good drip yet generously soft tannins, a good choice for lamb and pork roast. At 13.3% alcohol, it falls in the elegant and restrained SLD camp. This will definitely continue to develop but is drinking well now.
$100 per bottle
Pinot Gris Late 2012, Los Carneros
The dessert wine. Fresh and vibrant with loads of ripe melon aromas and flavors. Great acidity to balance the residual sugar and a long, delicious finish. A lovely end to a wonderful morning. $24 per 375ml bottle