In My Glass: La Clarine Farm Mourvèdre "Sumu Kaw' 2011
A few nights ago I had the great pleasure of being in the company of some wine writing friends at Chalkboard restaurant in downtown Healdsburg, California. Pictured above, Ron Washam is better known as the notorious voice behind the satirical wine blog, HoseMaster of Wine, and has been in and around the wine biz since before Prohibition, which affords him an especially deep insight into the industry and a piercing cynicism beyond all our years. Amanda Barnes is the U.K-born, Mendoza, Argentina resident behind the blog, Around the World in 80 Harvests, and a journalist whose particular life skepticism rivals my own. The blood-cynicism level of a Brit's natural resting state is high enough to poison your average front pew, church going U.S. Southerner. Thus, I am right at home with these two gems; wine people are my people.
Our trio gathering happened because Amanda and I each received a fellowship to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood, Napa, and Ron, with whom I recently began a pen pal friendship, offered to put us up for a night before we checked into the resort for the week. I met Amanda last August at the Wine Bloggers Conference, became fast friends, and have stayed in touch.
We began the evening with a bottle of François Chidaine Montlouis 2015 from Ron's cellar before dinner, followed by a Hambledon Classic Cuvée that Amanda carried across the ocean. The beautifully lean English bubbly was made with the traditional Champagne varieties from Hampshire, England, where she grew up. Next were the La Clarine Farm mourvèdre 'Sumu Kaw' 2011 and A Tribute to Grace grenache, both from the collection of Señor Generosity, who'd rather I tell you was a complete and utter bore with atrocious table manners and a faint sulfuric odor wafting from his person, like a Bizarro Pig-Pen born from Schultz' ink bottle and transformed into a three-dimensional human likeness, only evil, not cute. But no, he's a lovely man with a great talent for honest discourse and tremendous respect, or at least measured tolerance for opposing opinions, which made the argument he and Amanda had while drinking the mourvèdre all the more engaging.
Is wine art? I can't remember how we got onto this topic and I'm not certain there was a clear winner, which is the best kind of argument, especially when it involves a superfluous luxury like wine. I've always thought of wine as a perfect marriage of science and art. Chemistry is at the heart of the fermentation process (sugar + yeast = alcohol + CO2) and elements of the natural world are responsible for plant photosynthesis, soil composition, temperature etc. in the vineyard. But isn't it the art of the vigneron and winemaker that dictates much of the when and how?
Ron says, No. Wine is not art, it's fermented grape juice. Amanda says yes, it is an artful enterprise, which she argued in a passionate and eloquent speech with wide, flowing gestures like a ballerina performing a solo dance. I was too busy trying to capture the above Pulitzer-worthy photo to interject my opinion, though both made excellent points and I've since been thinking about it.
The nay half of the argument drew a loose comparison between abstract and representational art, the former almost completely rooted in the self expression of the maker while the latter demonstrates learned skills that harbor an inconspicuous expression of the maker with a greater intention to communicate to a broad audience beyond the self. Ron said, in all the years he's been in the wine business, he's never heard a winemaker refer to themselves as an artist. He says it's a marketing buzz phrase.
Maybe winemaking isn't an art form. Maybe my desire to marry art and science is more aptly expressed as an elopement of science and romance. Winemaking, like writing, is romantic in the abstract, yet difficult and risky work in reality. Is writing art? No. It's a craft, and so is making wine. It seems most winemakers today will tell you, because it's the sexy thing we all want to hear, that they hardly touch the wine once the grapes have been harvested, that they are merely vehicles and safety checks against spoilage and fault from earth to bottle.
Yesterday afternoon I was tasting through several wines at Turnbull Wine Cellars with winemaker Peter Heitz as part of the symposium activities, when caught with a whim to ask Peter, "Is winemaking an art or a craft?" He replied, "It's a religion." He went on to dismiss both science and art, insisting that as a fourth generation Napa winegrower he relies on the basic chemistry you'd find in a grade school classroom, which for him eliminates the wine is science argument. And art? Just no, he said, and went on to explain he is not a creative person, he is not an artist. So for Heitz, the only category left is religion, by which he means his belief in the things he does or witnesses in the vineyard will reveal themselves accordingly in the wine.
Is wine a philosophy? Is it a lifestyle? Or simply a commodity?
Yes. To different people at different times, wine is these things.
I might trash my former poetic notions that wine is science and art...the jury is still out, but I can't deny that when a wine is done spectacularly well, when it grabs one by the heart and soul and sends tingles up the spine and all through the nether regions, it might best be described as a spiritual experience. The La Clarine Farm mourvèdre came close to having such an effect upon me.
La Clarine Farm Mourvèdre 'Sumu Kaw' 2011
Hank Beckmeyer's 10-acre farm, La Clarine Farm, in the Sierra Foothills, California, has been huddled under the umbrella of New California wine by journalists and marketers, and qualifies honestly as natural wine. Last summer I had emailed with Hank about visiting his polyculture farm but had to cancel when I realized I couldn't be there and at Forlorn Hope in the same day, plus Scholium Project and arrive by dark in Healdsburg. I was disappointed to miss it, as he sounds like an interesting person and no doubt would have been worth re-arranging the schedule.
This mourvèdre, I believe, was made only in 2011 as the fruit from this vineyard is typically used for blending, so I'll apologize upfront that you may not be able to find it. But I think it's representative of his style, and you can find other wines from La Clarine easy enough, even through their website, including tempranillo, a fiano-arneis blend, and skin fermented albariño. Weird wines with little to no sulphur at bottling or elsewhere in the winemaking process, and lean, light alcohol with layers of nuance and interest.
I love this mourvèdre. It was easily my favorite of the evening. It has dark fruit, medium tannins that aren't too grippy, and a distinctive sour note, like I often find and dearly love in sulfur-free wines. It was one of those wines, and one of those evenings, I'd like to relive.
*Correction. Ron says Hank makes this wine every year, so maybe you will have better luck finding a bottle.