A few years into farming the vineyards inherited from his father in California’s Los Carneros, Robert Sinskey thrust a shovel at the dirt but couldn’t get it in. The soil was so resistant that he eventually had to resort to a pickax. “There’s no life here,” his wife, Maria, recalls him saying.
The Sinskeys conducted a full-scale assessment of the health of their soil and vines, then embarked on a full transition, completed in 2004, to biodynamically farming organically grown grapes.
I don’t know how good the wines were before that, but right now Robert Sinskey Vineyards are producing some of the most elegant, nuanced California wines that make it out of their home state.
Prices (in the $30 range) are beyond everyday for most of us, but offer tremendous value compared to their Napa brethren, and make ideal gifts or special holiday meal companions.
Maria, who told me her official title is “chief cook and bottle washer” (she runs the RSV culinary program, but in truth also handles much of the winery’s non-vineyard work), says the move to biodynamics isn’t just about refraining from pesticides.
“With biodynamics,” she told me, “if something goes wrong it’s very hard to turn things around. You can’t turn to a toolbox in the cellar … our wines have become more complex, with much longer finishes; more elegant but with higher acidity and lower alcohol levels.
“But that’s because we’re in the vineyards and paying attention to canopy management, ratio of leaves to vine, physiological ripeness. The most important thing is to constantly watch what’s going on.”
I guess in theory, you could “watch what’s going on” and still end up producing the super-concentrated, sugar-oozing wines-as-prostitutes that appeal to contest-based taste makers.
But in practice, careful attention doesn’t work that way. Only sociopaths combine powers of concentration with nefarious or wasteful behavior.
“A lot of wine makers farm according to a schedule,” Maria said, “and pick according to sugar levels, to get super-rich, big-fruit-style wines. They do it strictly by the numbers.”
Not sociopathic, but not humane either.
Because close watching necessarily entails restraint, it also leads to inherently more restrained wines. And Sinskey wines, while expressing the fleshy potency and polish for which Los Carneros is famous, are fascinating in large part because of that restraint.
The Sinskeys take advantage of the astonishing diversity of microclimates in foggy Los Carneros, the coolest part of Napa, to produce a kind of Tour de France variety of wines.
Where else on Earth can different plots appropriately accommodate Burgundy’s Pinot Noir; Bordeaux’s Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot; and Alsace’s noble white varietals? Where else can one wine maker make an ethereal, precise, unmistakably Californian but Alsace-honoring wine like the Abraxas (Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Riesling), and also a tense, tannic and dignified Bordeaux blend (Merlot and the two Cabernets) like the POV?
Maria predicts that more Carneros producers will turn to Bordeaux varietals in the future, “but people won’t notice until someone with a great name, a well-known Bordeaux producer, comes here to do it.”
But she also hopes for a focus on “aromatic whites” such as the Abraxas. “It’s so well suited. But you have to do it carefully, otherwise the acids will be too low, not true to the varietals, and it’s like cheap perfume. If you ferment too quickly, you don’t achieve the right length and complexity. So work in the cellar does matter. You just have to do it right.”
The Sinskeys do it right. They pay attention; they’re humble. The house style expresses appropriateness, balance, grace and subtlety. All Robert Sinskey wines are distributed in Maine by Pine State.
Pinot Blanc 2009, $19 (375 milliliters): A svelte, graceful bottle contains a svelte, graceful wine. It jumps off the palate, fresh with tarragon, candied lime and rock salt. White-flower notes provide both panache and pungency. If you equate “refined” with boring, enter here and be forever changed. Spicy appetizers, medium-soft cheeses.
Abraxas 2010, $30: Just so achingly stylish and poised, punctuated by a keen, rousing stoniness midway through the half-minute-long finish. Vibrant aromatics are equal parts herbal, piney, floral and fruity (ripe pears!). That Carneros fog carries plenty of sea salt too. Alsatian terroir’s Deutschland-sud austerity is replaced by a downright American ripeness and optimism, blasts of sunshine. With herb-inflected meals of lobster, cream sauces or in-season-right-now Maine sea scallops (or Maria’s suggestion of a Moroccan-flavored game hen), this is an unbeatable wine.
Pinot Noir 2008, $39: A large American heart pumps blood to a contemplative European brain. Strawberries and roses waft to the nose and in a full, frankly sexual flush of youth, carry into the introductory flavors. I love how appropriately ripe the fruit presents itself at first. Then history joins the fray: Garrigue, masculine strength, a rod of iron pulled from rocks. I love delicate-flower Burgundies, but this ain’t that; no soft foliage here, but rather branches and bark. It develops magnificently in the glass over a few hours, and I’m sure it will age beautifully over the next five years.
POV 2007, $37: This is the most difficult Sinskey wine for me to decode. (Testament to its brilliance?) A blend of the Bordeaux varietals that the Sinskeys believe are so well suited to their Carneros terroir, it’s like a precocious child. Shockingly well-integrated and capable of impressive feats of technical skill, the POV is nonetheless still holding something back; it’s not yet at ease enough within its own skin to just let loose and be. All the pieces are in place, hinting at their ultimate communal power, which is yet to come.
Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog, soulofwine.com, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org