When makers of beer and wine manage to stick around for decades and remain curious and self-critical and keep trying…they get better – sometimes a LOT better.
More and more, lately, I seem to be faced with reminding people of producers whose names have become submerged a bit in that vast sea of the New and Buzz-worthy – those breweries and wineries that you probably liked at one time but trampled a bit in your understandable rush to try and explore new things. That’s not a criticism. I do it, too. Everybody does it. What’s new is always more interesting than what’s been done, seen, tasted, experienced before. That’s human nature but human nature also dictates, as time passes, that we read a name online or in a magazine or on TV that prompts a little spark to crackle inside our synapses, causing us to mutter, “Oh, yeah…”
I am delighted to do it because one thing remains true, no matter how loud the buzz from all the chic new beers and wines…
When makers of beer and wine manage to stick around for decades and remain curious and self-critical and keep trying…they get better – sometimes a LOT better.
Parducci…when I saw the sender line on that email, that bright, blue spark crackled hotly in my brain. Back in the mid-90s, when I was just starting to work in retail wine, I was working for Town & Country Markets, making modest $$$, slowly burning through my savings, and living in a near-constant state of frenzy about wine. I was consumed by it; ate, slept, read, talked, thought, explored, and studied wine with a focus and intensity that would have gotten me through the University of Maryland in two years, instead of the laborious three and a half it did take, if I could have applied it back then.
I knew enough about wine to have become a small-gauge snob (since mostly cured, Thank God) but lacked the resources to ascend to that tier of Wine Weeniedom in which you regard anything that costs less than $50 a bottle as suspect. I tasted wines relentlessly, tramping off from Bainbridge Island to Seattle three or four times a week to show up at tastings, both trade and retail shops, where I could expand my knowledge. My rule then remains the same as today: if I buy three bottles of wine, two have to be something I’ve never tasted. So, that one bottle that I knew would be pleasurable was critical; a safe bet in a rolling set of unknowns. And, about 40% of that time, that Sure Thing bottle said “Parducci” on it.
Parducci just celebrated their 85th vintage as an active winery and has now had the same winemaker, Bob Swain, for the past thirty years. Bob was just starting his tenure at Parducci’s Mendocino estate, right in the fat middle of my early wine mania, overseeing his first vintage in 1997. I tasted those ’97 wines (a banner vintage for California) and wound up drinking a medium-size bathtub full of his Cabernet and Petit Sirah and even a white they made back then, a lightly oaked Chardonnay that reminded me powerfully of a reserve Burgundy white. The Cab, in particular, knocked me sideways, and I sneaked it into tastings of Cabernet with my newly formed wine group, up against Cabs that frequently cost three or four times its sticker price. It frequently won such tastings.
It was $9.99.
So, this Spark was like greeting a long-lost friend. Parducci! Hell, yes, I’d like to review the wines! Send ’em to this address, please…With this non-stop parade of all these frequently lovely Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs that I am inundated with, the prospect of a box of wine with all Bordeaux or Rhone varietals in it was like a quick plunge into a cool pond.
The box arrived. I opened it. I lifted up the packing tray and…Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
I moaned involuntarily: Oh, shit! The Burgundy Plague has taken down Mendocino, too! Just as with dozens of other old fave wineries like David Bruce and La Crema and Clos Du Bois/Val/SomethingSomething, it seemed that Parducci had now wandered off in search of the elusive (and probably mythical) Burgundy Perfection.
Then, I unfroze and lifted the bottom tray. Zinfandel! Red Blend! Cabernet!! Shit’s gettin’ serious, up in here! (as the kids used to say…I think)
I had about five bottles of wines awaiting tasting on my table and I moved ’em aside to line up the Parducci…two of which, curiously, didn’t say Parducci anywhere I could see: Zin-Phomaniac Old Vines Lodi Zinfandel and Tie-Dye Red Blend. My wife came home and I showed her the bottles. Even she breathed a sign of relief that they were only forty percent Burgundy grapes.
I asked her to pick one. She betrayed me and chose the Pinot. (Oh, serpent, how sharp is thy sting!) I went with it because of one bedrock fact: every single time I’ve been invited to a dinner or party and the host has specifically (and unwisely) insisted that I bring a Pinot, it was a California Pinot. It used to be Domain Carneros or Dehlinger. Now, it just might be Parducci.
I’m fed up with this clown car of endless debate about how California Pinot is “less authentic” that Oregon and Burgundy. That opinion stems from the universal genuflection to French wine and that blanket presumption that Burgundy is the template for all Pinot and Chardonnay. Homie don’t play dat. California Pinot IS authentic – for California. That is how this grape grows in California: richer, larger, just as complex, more fruity, and none of the stinginess and austerity that used to be the virtual hallmark of Oregon Pinot. That’s changing, now, Thank You, Jesus, but there is still than skinny profile and reductionism at work in Oregon and I still bring California Pinot. Why? Because you can get a really good one for about half to a third of what you’ll pay for Oregon or Burgundy. And I don’t drink Pinot, so I’m not inclined to be that generous.
This Parducci Small Lot Pinot Noir Mendocino 2014 is a joyous explosion of beautiful, generous fruit, earthy terroir notes galore, and an almost casually expert and obvious level of skill. The palate drips bright, juicy red berries and plums and currants and rhubarb and sweet herbs. Mineral notes murmur in the background but make themselves sweetly Present. One of the old accusations made about CA Pinot was that they lacked acid because of the elevated sugar levels caused by that too-warm-for-Pinot climate. THis was never anything but wine-weenie baloney. This lovely stuff has ample, appropriate acidity to make it a stunning food pairing and – unlike the austere, “Burgundian”, “feminine” Pinots that routinely show up on restaurant wine lists – actually brings some flavor to the pairing. “Juicy“is the precise nutshell for this wine and juicy is NOT a bad thing. That mouthful of raspberries and dried cranberries and strawberries and red currants are a joyous sensory experience and all of this bounty is delivered at a price that makes a mockery of the usual run of $60 – $80 American Pinots: $15, front line, but available both online and in shops for as little as TEN Flippin’ Dollars…Bobby Swain, brother, good on ya! 93 points
Brother Swain also seems to have a way with Burgundy’s other overworked varietal. The Parducci Small Lot Chardonnay Mendocino 2015 is fermented in a combination of 20% new French oak and 80% stainless steel and completely skirts all accusations of California Oak Obsession, showing just a flattering hint of barrel-derived vanilla and pencil shavings that underpins and elevates the gorgeous Asian and Bosc pears, jasmine, ginger, honeysuckle, yellow apple, and wild honey flavors at its core. If you taste enough Mendocino wines, you begin to learn that wonderful, unique terroir profile when it presents itself and it positively struts in this pretty, transparent wine. It’s light, crisp, crazy refreshing, and even a nice tad complex, laying down a seamless pavement of stones, alluvial soil, oyster shells, and clean groundwater beneath the fruit smorgasbord. Chardonnay, of course, is de rigueur for all California wineries and even those which make no Pinot will always have this one Burgundian grape on the vines. While it’s absolutely true that distinguishing your winery’s Chard from all the rest of CA’s Universe of Chardonnay is almost impossible, this is one that will change hearts and minds, once it hits the associated palate. 94 Points
Parducci Cabernet…Parducci Small Lot Cabernet Sauvignon Mendocino 2014, to be precise…the lineal descendant of my old comrade, my boon companion, my sunset confidante in all those late evening, mid-90s decompression sessions. Those early years in Washington, almost giddily fascinated by the 10 p.m. sunset and the tops of the Olympic Mountains off to my right and Mount Rainier just to my left, are drenched, in my memory, in flavors of black currants and blackberries and fresh figs and cafe au lait and cocoa and sage and woodsmoke that erupted from those 90s-vintage Parducci Cab bottles. Opening them was SUCH pleasure! I was never an excessive drinker, so I’d recork the bottle with about half left and have it again the next evening – gladly, eagerly. Taking two days to go through each bottle made for a little logjam of those new, unexplored wines but it was worth it. Today, all that opulence is still there but in a more streamlined, less – for lack of a better term – rambunctious form. Parducci and Swain seem to have traced my steps along the Wine Continuum and retained everything that made that mid-90s Cabernet such a revelation and so eminently drinkable, while sanding off the rough edges and delivering an even broader palate and near-perfect balance.
As I tasted this wine, I suddenly and shockingly flashed on what I would think of it if the label said “Walla Walla” or “Red Mountain” or “Columbia Valley”…and was stunned almost mute by the truth if it: I would be raving about this wine. Raving. It does, in fact, closely resemble some of the better bottles of upper-mid tier Walla Walla and Red Mountain Cabs, with possibly even a broader palate than a Napa or Sonoma Cab but maybe 80% as much richness and depth. I tasted four notable Cabs in particular, in the past year, from both those prestige Washington apppellations, and they were eerily similar to this wine. All were generous and gorgeously balanced and oozing ripe, fresh fruit, had lovely, subtle acids, firm but unobtrusive tannins, and grace notes galore…but the four Washingtonians were priced at $45, $62, $49, and $52.
I just found this Cab on wine-searcher.com for $10.99.
Is this a better Cabernet than those four of my homie wines? That depends on your viewpoint. There are significant differences, for sure. I said the wines were similar to, reminiscent of the Parducci, not that they were identical. In two of those cases – which will, of course, remain anonymous – yes, I do think the Parducci is a better wine, price differences not withstanding – and I would drink those two wines happily, any time. In two others, no, there are distinct and easily identifiable differences that make the Washingtonians better, to anyone who claims an educated wine palate. But in terms of Bang For Buck, it’s simply no contest. This Parducci Cabernet, at this price, is nothing less than an Achievement, a real, tangible, and delicious testament to what it can mean to have longevity in your profession, real dedication to growing great grapes, understanding what your soil and weather and water are all about, and gathering a soul-deep knowledge of what the grape is and can be.
This is a lovely, nuanced, expressive bottle of Cabernet that will show up on this wine weenie’s table again and again, here in 2017. 96 Points
The odd ducks in that box of wines were two made at and by Parducci but under other labels. Zin-Phomaniac Old Vines Zinfandel Lodi 2015 has one of those retro Bettie Page pin-up graphics on the big red label and it catches the eye, even as it bumps up against my own aversion to using women as marketing come-ons. That PC point aside, what’s in the bottle is a striking wine that really bears only a passing resemblance to what most of us think of as “Lodi Zin”. Lodi, as a Zinfandel appellation, has made quite a name for itself, in recent years, as a source for Zin grapes that make wines of sometimes eye-popping power and richness. They are what most of us think when we hear or read the term “California Zinfandel”; the outer limits of the flamboyant mixed-berry, spice, black pepper, and jam monsters that horrify wine snobs and Francophiles with their booming fruit and nary a nod to terroir or subtlety. It still shocks me to realize it, here in 2017, but there are a LOT of wine weenies who are actually offended by Zin. One reader wrote me an email, several years back, and said, “I read your blog because I was interested in discovering serious wines. You spend all this time on fun wines and those sub-$50 “gems” that you claim are exceptional. They are not. If they were truly excellent, the price tag would reflect that. You just go on back to your cute little Zinfandels and Valpolicellas and I’ll find a REAL wine reviewer to follow.”
Just the sort of wine-snot I enjoy offending, so it was a win/win, but with that heads-up, I began to notice the widespread condescension to Zinfandel and marvel that it’s so persistent. California Zin has changed a bit away from that hand-grenade style of wine and has drifted into something that does show a bit of restraint and better balance and this wine is a dead-on example. It really has more in common, to my palate, with some of my favorite Puglian Primitivos, in particular the beautiful “Nataly” Old Vines Primitivo, from eccentric Old-School producer Natalino del Prete, of San Dionaci, Apulia. Like Natalino’s “Nataly”, this Zin displays a darker character, leaning more to black berries and plums, than the usual boisterous Lodi Zin Monsters. The palate is less fruit-sweet than many CA Zins and shows distinct mineral and loam notes, along with some brambly wood and leather traits and violets mingled with blueberry, black plums, and dried fruits. It is, frankly, sort of a weird Zin to be wearing a Lodi label but one that I find exceptionally well-made and quirkily refreshing as a glimpse into what Lodi winemaking may evolve into, once the Muscle Car Wine Craze has subsided. For right now, this is a delicious wine that satisfies on its own merits and really needs no context to be intensely enjoyable. 93 Points
The last bottle was a blended wine, Tie-Dye Red Blend 2014, that is marketed via a Hippie Nostalgia theme which is an…odd choice. As I was an actual hippie of original vintage – late 60s – I vividly and unfondly remember that MOST hippie get-togethers that featured wine at all were all about Portugal’s Revenge – the dreaded Mateus – and any one of several California monstrosities like Boone’s Farm Apple Wine, Carlo Rossi Red Burgundy in that classy gallon jug with the finger ring handle, or the vagrant’s choice, old reliable Thunderbird. Wine was not a big item with hippies and those folks I knew would have laid down and wept to taste something as classy and put together as Tie-Dye.
This blend of 62% Syrah, 12% Petite Sirah, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, and 6% Grenache bears the appellation North Coast, which means that the balance of it came from that coastal AVA that encompasses all or parts of the counties of Lake, Marin, Mendocino, Napa, Sonoma, and Solano. Within that region are literally dozens of climatic and soil attributes, not to mention odd little micro-climates that make trying to get anything out of the grapes’ sources sorta superfluous. There really is – as with most wines labeled “California” or other catch-all appellations – no real distinct impressions of origin and, really, for this sort of theme wine, that’s just not the point.There are only two things to decide: 1) Does it taste good? My answer: a resounding YES. this ia a rich, generous, beautifully fruity wine that clearly displays the character of each of its constituent grapes, from the blackberry and plum jam chewiness of the dominant Syrah, to the red berry/cherry/baking spice panache of the Grenache. It’s round and full and shows ample food-friendly acidity, goes easy on the tannins, and is just complex enough to make it an interesting sipper, too.
And, Consideration #2: Is it a good value? Well, uh, YEAH. At about $14 a bottle, it’s a rib-sticking wine for food and patio entertaining that over-delivers on what we all love about California blends. This is a fine, value-driven, unpretentious, and crazy-tasty bottle o’ red that more than justifies the 3 or 4 dollars more than you’ll spend on the usual grocery store plonk. 90 Points
Parducci never really went away, so saying that They’re Back is really a vast overstatement but, in terms of the bang-for-buck they deliver in every bottle, Parducci’s new labels and new attitude have them Back in a real and tangible sense. If you think you know all there is to know about Parducci…taste again.