Sunday, January 30, 2011

Noble Rot Infestation Spotted In St. Helena

I have been to a lot of wine tastings.  Almost without exception, the focus of events described as “wine tastings” has been either the wine, or the drunken state of attendees.  Before last Saturday’s Noble Rot event, I had never been to a wine tasting where the people behind the wine actually came first and foremost.
Not that the wine poured on Saturday was in any way undeserving of center stage—but the opportunity to chat with Hardy Wallace (of Murphy-Goode social media contest fame), Heather Munden (creator of St. Francis Winery’s single vineyard projects, as well as her own new label), and Christina Turley (former somm at Momofuku, and scion of Napa’s Turley family) about whatever came up in the casual, house party atmosphere certainly was a breath of fresh air.
The Noble Rot is a self-described “traveling wine saloon” that throws offbeat and irreverent wine tasting parties, combining (as the mood strikes) doses of stand-up comedy, theatrical flourishes, culinary riffs, and smartass coups designed to make you trust your palate and go with what you like.  The two ringleaders of this NYC-based operation are “self-appointed Master Sommelier” Jonny Cigar, and “state-certified gentleman” Brian Quinn, who believe in the dying art of face-to-face conversation, and the power of wine to promote it.  Tasting pours at Noble Rot events are not one ounce, unless you choose to pour your own.  On arrival, guests were handed a warm-up glass of wine to help with pre-program mingling, and then provided a second pour (from different bottles, but—as was revealed later—of the same wine) to compare with the first as the three special guests of the evening took to the stage.
From L to R: Brian Quinn, Hardy Wallace, Christina Turley,
Heather Munden, Jonny Cigar
This “formal” portion of the event was deliberately brief, more of a primer on the three special guests than a substantive presentation.  We learned just enough to intrigue us, and all questions had to wait until the end to ensure that you would go up and start a real conversation. 
I'll post a link to the podcast they recorded when it's available (UPDATE: it's here), but for now you'll have to make do with my abbreviated account.  The charming and indefatigable Hardy Wallace moved on from his six-month gig at Murphy Goode to work with The Natural Process Alliance, a hands-off, let nature take its course kind of group that produces fascinating, funky wines in resusable 750 mL stainless steel canteens, designed to be consumed young, alive, and within a 100-mile radius of the Santa Rosa winery facility.  You can find these crazy canteens at Bay Area restaurants like Chez Panisse and Gary Danko, to name just a few.  We got to sample the 2010 sauvignon blanc, and the 2010 pinot gris—which due to the skin-on, whole-cluster fermentation, turned out a striking orange color reminiscent of beer or cider.
Christina Turley’s dad Larry is the owner of St. Helena-based Turley Wine Cellars, known for its huge, intensely concentrated, over the top Zinfandels.  He was famously quoted by The Wine Spectator a few years ago as saying that Cabernet people drink the label, but Zin drinkers drink the wine.  After eight years in New York City working in the restaurant biz as a sommelier in her own right, Christina has returned to California to help her parents start a new wine brand… of Cabernet Sauvignon.  Far from pretending Larry’s diss never happened, the Turleys have christened their cab brand “The Label” and are downplaying label-related bragging rights as much as possible with their minimalist bottle design.  And, to further emphasize the restrained, old-school style in which the wine is made, they use the same flat-bottomed claret bottles that Napa wineries used in the 1970s, when Napa cabs could fool French wine experts in blind tastings.  We got to try barrel samples of The Label 2010, as well as the 2010 Turley Wine Cellars Hayne vineyard Zin.
Heather Munden joined the St. Francis winemaking team as their Artisan Series winemaker in 2007, after years of working around the world in places like New Zealand, Australia, Chile, and Puglia.  She shared the trials and tribulations of making small-production single vineyard wines at St. Francis’ 400,000 case facility (she has her own mini-winery within the winery), and broke the news of her nascent independent label, called Fama.  In Italian, "fama" means fame, reputation, rumor, and renown... or a woman with all of those things.  (Hmm, Heather... what are you saying?) Since the seven barrels’ worth of Fama 2009 Chardonnay from her ex's well-known Carneros vineyards haven’t been bottled yet, she brought barrel samples for us in repurposed Carlo Rossi jugs.  Rock on, sister.
I’m not really talking about any of the wines here, because the conversation was really the focus and purpose of the evening.  Chatting in the kitchen about Heather's new outdoor wood burning oven and homemade charcuterie, commiserating with Christina about the culture shock of sleepy St. Helena after years in the city, and laughing about the distribution system Hardy “the Milkman” uses to get his canteens of wine to restaurants—he delivers them himself, packed into milkcrates in the back of his car—really made the night what it was.  Tasting the fantastic and interesting wines was really more of a bonus... and yet, like the cheeses from Raymond Cheesemongers, the array of tasty crostini and passed appetizers, and the beautiful St. Helena home that hosted it all, completely essential to the experience.
This event on January 29 was the first west-coast foray for Noble Rot, but Jonny and Brian definitely have plans for more California mayhem... including a possible City of Napa event I could walk home from.  You can follow their rollicking adventures and teasers on their website, via Twitter, or through their blog, 

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