(Disclaimer: This is our first dual-post… so watch out for ambiguous pronouns!)
Heeding our soif, Cory and I showed last Saturday for the tasting with Bob Varner of… wait for it… Varner Wine. These guys have a special place in my heart for turning me back onto California Chardonnay. A couple years back, like many of us, I was a firm A.B.C. man, especially the super-oaky Cali bombs. Luckily, our friends at Vinocruz schooled me otherwise with a bottle of Varner Chardonnay (Bee Block, me thinks).
If there is one grape in California that has been abused, manipulated, charred, over-extracted and just plain treated poorly it is
Pinot Noir Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot Chardonnay. What is a precise, demanding wine in the hands of the Burgundian producers who do it best has become the equivalent of the biometal Tetsuo in the closing act of Akira, a flabby buttered mess that is half wine, half machine. The minerality and acid that makes up the finesse of the best white Burgundies has been replaced by big fruit, glycerine and oak. Lucky for us Varner, which is run by Bob and Jim Varner (sheriff’s deputies names if i’ve heard them), is a winery that is trying hard to make classically structured more Burgundian style chardonnays that forego all the tricks that have become so common in modern wine making.
What we’re dealing with here is Spring Ridge Vineyard made up of four adjoining blocks. Varner is especially fun for horizontal tasting ’cause you can really focus on the differences in terroir. In addition to the three blocks of Chardonnay (Amphitheater, Home, and Bee Blocks), Varner offers a Pinot (Hidden Block), and some higher-end blends under the Neely label. You’ll also notice a few from Foxglove, which is Varner’s ridiculously good budget label.
Chris Osborn, Bob varner, And Cory Cartwright
Talking with Bob, you quickly figure out their approach: keep as little as possible between the grape and the wine. This means simple, sustainable practices and never cutting corners. This is a low intervention affair, dry farmed, hand pruned and picked, and all natural yeasts (Bob doesn’t believe that selected yeast does half the things that the purveyors of it claims, and he doesn’t believe in paying for what nature does for free). Interestingly, despite adhering to organic farming principles, Varner does not seek out a certification as getting the label would do nothing to help the wine itself. During the talk he went into the philosophical differences in making high end wines (The Varner) and mass market stuff (the Foxglove) and the challenges and rewards implicit in both. With the Foxglove wines he doesn’t want to make a Varner light, he wants the best possible wine at the price that he can sell them at, which requires a shift from wood to stainless steel and finding facilities and growers that can meet his expectations for quality rather than employing tricks to smooth out the wines.
Strangely (at first) Bob didn’t have much to say about the wines themselves, he mostly stuck to talking about farming techniques and non-interventionist winemaking. He would pour a wine, and then discuss the implications of dry farming, or the difference between large scale production wines like Foxglove and small scale like Varner. He didn’t offer tasting notes or palate profiles for his wines or discuss what he was going for in the wine, there was a distinct sense that for Bob what mattered was what he did in the field, and that he hoped the wine would express that and only that, and if it didn’t there is always next year.
(Chris) After sampling bottles from all three labels, there were a few standouts. The 2007 Foxglove Chardonnay delivered big time with crazy, tropical nose (kinda like sticking your head into Carmen Miranda’s hat), a well-balanced sweet/dry duality, and a sublime ever-lasting finish. $13? Oh yes. We sipped two Pinots, one Neely blend and the other straight-up Varner. Having neglected to note more than “cherry” for the Neely, I’ll assume the 2005 Varner Hidden Block rocked us a hit harder. Another huge nose on this one, warm and alcoholic, but not so on the taste-buds. Remember when you used to do weird stuff with soda, like mix Coke and Dr. Pepper? This wine might bring back a little of that feeling without all the corn syrup. In the weird category, the 2007 Foxglove Zinfandel pumped herbaceous notes out of the glass, which Bob quickly pointed out was due to under-ripe grapes. But of course, he did that on purpose ;)
(Cory) The standout for me was the Ampitheater Block Chardonnay, which had that flinty minerality and waxed citrus acids missing in so many California chardonnays (it is grown on its own root stocks, a rarity everywhere given the risks). It also had less oak on it than the Home Block, which was richer expression of the grape in a more California style. The Ampitheatre represented to me what chardonnay grown here can be (a bottle also made it home with me). The Hidden Block Pinot Noir, which was one of the palest reds i have ever seen, was brighter than a Burgundy with some cola notes but still managed some of the deeper mushroom and earth flavors. The Foxglove Chardonnay was the wine that stuck out in the budget lineup, offering up pineapple acidic crispness, underripe pomegranate, and very little in the way of cheap creaminess. This is a racier, rawer wine than the Varners. With the exception of the Hidden Block Pinot Noir I enjoyed the whites over the reds in every case. I felt the Zin was all over the place (then again i don’t like Zin much as a grape) and the Holly’s Cuvee Pinot was too plump, round, and fruity for my taste. Overall an impressive lineup from a solid local producer working in the right direction. If only more people had this mindset…c’est la vie, i guess.