December 21, 2011

Appel on Wine: Restraint puts Sinskey wines over the top


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.

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