Somms' Picks

  1. Leave the Gun, Take the Pinot Blanc: Why ‘The Godfather’ Inspires Ram’s Gate’s Joe Nielsen

    Leave the Gun, Take the Pinot Blanc: Why ‘The Godfather’ Inspires Ram’s Gate’s Joe Nielsen

    When we posted an item about Pinot Blanc last year, a reader responded: “I was searching for a California Pinot Blanc yesterday at BevMo. Not a one to be found but they did have 800 Chardonnays.”

    Such is life for Pinot Blanc, which is mostly associated with Alsace when people think of it at all. Our long-time U.S. favorite was from Chalone Vineyard in Monterey. Over the years, though, good Pinot Blanc, from all over the world, became harder and harder to find. We often described them as “lumpy,” which is difficult to explain but it’s not a good thing. They just kind of tasted neutral and sat in our mouths, although, of course, there are always exceptions.

    By 2019, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures, there were only 324 acres of Pinot Blanc in all of California. (Chardonnay: 89,357). We even assumed – assumed, but hold on – that Chalone didn’t make it anymore since we haven’t seen it in some time and there are no recent vintages available online.

    But then we had a Pinot Blanc that made us sit up. “Seriously good wine,” we wrote. “It has a real intensity to it, like it’s very ripe, so it pops in our mouths. And yet it’s also very easy to enjoy. Fleshy white fruit, maybe some melon.”

    This was the Ram’s Gate Winery 2020 Estate Pinot Blanc ($38) – and, as it turned out, the Pinot Blanc we’d posted about last year was the 2019, both sent by the winery. There’s clearly something good happening here.

    Ram’s Gate was founded in Sonoma 2011 by four high-powered, wine-loving friends: Michael John, Jeff O’Neill, Paul Violich and Peter Mullin. In 2018, they hired Joe Nielsen, now 35, as director of winemaking. He’d previously been the head winemaker for Donelan Family Wines in Sonoma County after first making wine in his home state of Michigan. Ram’s Gate makes 12,000 to 14,000 cases of wine a year, with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay its stars, and has 28 acres of vines, including four acres of Pinot Blanc.

    Ram's GateRam’s Gate made 421 cases of the 2020 Estate Pinot Blanc and it’s hard to find, but, still, we were eager to find out Nielsen’s secret for outstanding Pinot Blanc, so we gave him a call. His answers have been condensed and edited for space.

    Why Pinot Blanc?

    Sometimes the most captivating wine for me is a delicately constructed but really thought-provoking white wine and the Pinot Blanc does that for me. I always say it’s a “Godfather” wine that kind of whispers something really important and it kind of grabs you and pulls you in. It’s not a yelling wine. It’s not a shout. It’s more of a whisper. But what’s being said is kind of intricate.

    What makes yours special?

    What’s unique about our site is that we have three different AVAs that overlap here: Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Valley and Carneros. It’s rather cool temperature-wise, more so in the summer, and then it actually flips and it’s a little bit warmer in the winter time than most of Sonoma Coast or even Sonoma Valley. So I was offered the job and I was evaluating my assets, what do I have to work with here, and I see planted we have Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and that makes sense, but then we had Syrah, Grenache and Pinot Blanc grown on the site, plus Sauvignon Blanc. Well, it doesn’t seem like those are the varieties I would expect to be growing right by each other. Grenache is typically very late-ripening, requires a lot of heat. Pinot Blanc I hadn’t made since working in Michigan and I thought if Grenache does well here then Pinot Blanc ought not to work well here and if Pinot Blanc works well I can’t imagine Grenache works. And the truth is that they both work and it’s because of this maritime climate that we have. So I’m picking Pinot Blanc maybe Sept. 15 and I’m picking Grenache maybe Oct. 15 but both of them get ripe.

    What’s your vision of your Pinot Blanc?

    They don’t have that intense aromatic naturally and then people’s instinct when they can, especially in California, is to ripen them pretty far with the idea that if I ripen them longer I’ll get more flavor. And I think when you do that you kind of lose the varietal character. So there is that sweet spot of trying to find where you’re not picking too early where you’re maybe getting some unripe fruit character but not going to the point where you lose the identity. To me, Pinot Blancs that I really love have this kind of cross between a Golden Delicious apple and some pear Anjou and I want that crispness, I want that freshness that I think is varietal. And then getting a little bit of that exotic stone fruit character is pretty. I like when there is a small hint of reduction that comes across as Parmesan cheese, but ever so slightly. And I’m like bingo, there it is.

    How do you do that?

    If you make it too floral it kind of competes with Riesling. If you make it in a barrel you kind of have to compete with Chardonnay and if you were just to do stainless it might be too much like Pinot Gris. So the way I combat that is to try to do a little bit of everything. We do some in stainless, some in neutral barrels, we foot stomp a portion of it to let it really soak on its skins. We also have three different clones growing here. On our four acres we have four different Pinot Blancs we’re making each year if not more and we kind of play with variations on a theme so to speak. It’s fun for us after harvest to play with all of these components. The cuvée of them all makes that wine way more compelling. My winemaking goal is three Cs for a wine: It must be complete, complex and compelling. 

    Ram's GateIs it a hard sell?

    No. The Pinot Blanc is sort of a fan favorite. It’s something that’s unique for us. There’s plenty of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc being made. Pinot Blanc is an alternative white that from a very simple business sense is an opportunity to be different. We do have an opportunity where we get a lot of new wine drinkers. We’re one of the first stops coming into Sonoma Valley from the southern part. We have a real soapbox opportunity to be educators and set a bar for wine styles. We’re building trust with our customers so they are more adventurous. But I just also really love it. 

    We were impressed with the consistency of your wines, from lower-end to higher-end, even your rosé. We called them “nicely intense, with great acidity and wonderful balance.” How do you accomplish that?

    It’s not our decision as winemakers the price of that bottle of wine. It is our promise to perform regardless. While in that artistic frame of mind you can’t say, well, this is just X amount of dollars so let’s focus on the hundred-dollar wine. It’s all important.

    To me, consistency is really important. I kind of look for inspiration in the Old World. When you see a brand anywhere and they have 20, 50 years of consistency, look at that vision. Before a tradition becomes a tradition, do people notice, do people know? I want someone to be able to pick up a bottle in 10 years and say, oh yeah, that’s a style of wine from Joe. We’re starting t...

  2. Alex Clark Pens a Love Letter to Rye at Fort Hamilton Whiskey in Brooklyn

    Alex Clark Pens a Love Letter to Rye at Fort Hamilton Whiskey in Brooklyn

    1985 might not seem like much of a year as years go--‘Take on Me,’ by a-ha, was on the charts for 27 weeks; you might have played the cassette in your IROC-Z Camaro or your Prelude. That said, it’s a critical time in the evolution of the spirits trade in the United States. The story goes like this: two guys named Elmer and Dale walk into a bar and forever changed the way we drink in this country.

    Elmer, as in Elmer T. Lee, was in a bind. As an executive with Buffalo Trace, he had been tasked with enlivening an industry that had never fully recovered from Prohibition. Whiskey was what old men in raincoats drank; vodka was fresh and fun and easy, particularly when it danced with fruit juice. Lee wagered everything on the bet that the American drinking public was ready to fall in love with whiskey again. He was right, and his hunch filled a younger generation with dreams of craft whiskey and small barrels, spirits that were artisanal and unique.

    Meanwhile in New York a restaurateur named Joe Baum was in a bind of his own. He was reopening the celebrated Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center. His goal was to invigorate the cocktail program, at a time when America’s drinking tastes ran to Bobby Tonics and Cosmos. To that end he promoted young Dale DeGroff to run the bar. According to the lore, Mr. Baum handed DeGroff a copy of ‘How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon Vivant’s Companion,’ the seminal Jerry Thomas recipe book of American cocktails from the late 19th century. All of the beautiful concoctions that had vanished or gone underground during Prohibition were in the pages of that book, crying out to come alive again. The project was a revelation. Cocktail culture was reborn and New York City was the epicenter.

    As young city bartenders took DeGroff’s lead and ran with it, a measure of dissatisfaction sank in as they searched for hard-to-find or even extinct ingredients for particular cocktails. In America, in particular, a dramatic consolidation in the whiskey business occurred as producers recovered from Prohibition. New York, for instance, once home to a thousand small distilleries, had none in the late 20th century. Refusing to be stymied by conditions as they found them, a few of these disaffected bartenders struck out on their own to make spirits they had read about but never tasted.

    Fast forward to 2007, when the state of New York introduced the Farm Distillery Act. For those entrepreneurs willing to use New York produce in their operations, the cost of a license dropped from tens of thousands of dollars down to just below a thousand. As other states adopted similar incentives, the craft distilling movement began to spread across the country. New York alone saw the number of legally operating stills increase from a handful to a few dozen to over a hundred in less than ten years. And as these fledgling operations found their footing, distillers began to revive lost styles, the forgotten spirits that made the drinks in forgotten books really sing.

    Meet Alex Clark, owner of Fort Hamilton Whiskey in Industry City, Brooklyn. A cocktailian bartender with Big City Restaurant chops and a South London accent, he stepped out from behind the stick a few years back to pen a love letter to 19th century New York rye whiskey. Personifying the trends set in motion back in 1985 (and 2007), he’s currently producing 24,000 bottles a year, everything from a very affordable high rye double barrel Bourbon to his house signature, a single barrel no-corn New York rye that’s voluptuous and full of flavor, equally at home in a cocktail or over ice at the end of the n...

  3. Herons Sommelier Hai Tran Talks Coravin Trials, Barolo, and Bourbon

    Herons Sommelier Hai Tran Talks Coravin Trials, Barolo, and Bourbon

    Herons sommelier Hai Tran talks about about rigorous Coravin testing, barbecued artichokes, and bourbon-sipping around Raleigh-Durham, NC.
  4. Ashley Santoro

    Ashley Santoro

    Interview with the Sommelier of The Standard East Village whose previous posts include wine director of Casa Mono and Bar Jamon.
  5. Sommelier Dane Campbell of The Musket Room on New Zealand Wine

    Sommelier Dane Campbell of The Musket Room on New Zealand Wine

    What's hot in New Zealand wine beyond Sauvignon Blanc? Sommelier Dane Campbell of New York City's The Musket Room answers.
  6. Sommelier Steven Grubbs on James Beard, Unreal Sherry, Deathcrush

    Sommelier Steven Grubbs on James Beard, Unreal Sherry, Deathcrush

    Steven Grubbs is the Sommelier at Five & Ten, a James Beard Award semifinalist for Outstanding Wine Program. He talks about The South, sherry, and staff music tastes.
  7. Selecting the World's 20 Best Red Wines

    Selecting the World's 20 Best Red Wines

    How do you pick the top 20 red wines from around the world? Ask Master Sommelier Emmanuel Kemiji.
  8. How Does an Opera Singer Become a Sommelier?

    How Does an Opera Singer Become a Sommelier?

    Sommelier Jessica Certo reveals how one bottle changed the path of her career.
  9. Maz Naba, Rich Table, San Francisco

    Maz Naba, Rich Table, San Francisco

    Rich Table is one of SF's coveted reservations, co-owner Maz Naba organizes the innovative wine list.
  10. Carl York and Emily Larkins

    Carl York and Emily Larkins

    Craigie on Main, Cambridge, Massachusetts
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