Monday, January 20, 2014

Eight Songs; Su'Skol


Pretty names, aren't they?

2002 Peter Lehmann Eight Songs shiraz, Barossa Valley, Australia
Sometimes a wine will put funny ideas into your head. This shiraz first called to mind words like satiny -- blackberry -- finishing acidity -- soft, lush, and then it made me think: "a great actor departs the stage."

What an odd image for wine, and how odd that it should leap into words without my struggling over it. I suppose the combination came to me because this very good wine had a good-tasting but somewhat lean and faded strength and stature, no longer resembling what a fresh-from-the-harvest shiraz can be -- nearly black with prunes and chocolate, brawny with tannin, and fiery with alcohol.
(Retail, about $35 to $55 if you can still find the 2002 vintage. Wine Searcher lists the 2007 vintage as averaging about $16.)

As for the pretty name, "Eight Songs," it has a convoluted etymology. According to the back of the label and other sources, it refers to a set of paintings by Australian artist Rod Schubert, privately owned by Peter Lehmann and hanging on the walls of his The Cellar Door. The paintings' theme is based on a sort of mini-mini one-man operetta about King George III originally composed and produced in the late 1960s (Eight Songs for a Mad King), a work in turn based on the fact that the king once used a mechanical organ, which played eight songs, to try and train wild birds to sing.

Peter Lehmann, I'm told, is the Robert Mondavi of Australia. That is certainly a less convoluted image to remember him by.

2007 Hess chardonnay Su'Skol vineyard, Napa Valley

Sound; banana-pineapple -- acid/hardness smoothed in vanilla oak.  "Entry-level serious wine for the newbie ready to move up" (according to the sales rep.). The pretty name, Su'Skol, was given to the vineyard to honor the indigenous Su'Skol people of that area of Napa, who "used the site as a meeting place and valued the nearby sources of fish and game." This christening is evidently fairly recent; wine drinkers at CellarTracker can remember when the chardonnay was just Hess. Retail, about $20.

The reason why one salesman could pigeonhole Peter Lehmann for me, plus let me in on the secret of a chardonnay designed to be "entry-level serious," is because both wines belong to one portfolio, that of Hess family. It's a good-sized portfolio. It also includes Glen Carlou wines from South Africa, Argentina's Colome, and California's Artezin (they produce Mendocino County and Sonoma County zinfandels) and Sequana (they make single vineyard Russian River pinot noirs -- in other words, the labels of these will say, "(1) Sequana, (2) Sundawg Ridge Vineyard (or "Dutton Ranch" or "Sarmento Vineyard"), (3) Green Valley of Russian River Valley (4) pinot noir"). Incidentally, the Russian River valley is in Sonoma County.

I can't help being fascinated by the way winemakers at once boast what they do, and yet sometimes wish to cloak what they do. I ask myself when and why, or when not and why not. For a long time I've entertained ambitious plans to make a flow chart of the California wine industry, so that I can begin to understand exactly where Gallo leaves off and everything else begins -- which just might be essentially the whole story. "All ye know on earth, and all ye need to know," as the poet (Keats?) said. I thought I could practice my plan with Hess Collection, as it seems small and manageable, and yet reaches out and puts its stamp on things all over the world that you must work a bit to identify. 

But what a fool I was to imagine any such flow chart could be simple to produce. Take Hess, for instance. That smiling, healthy, golden-aged couple in the publicity materials, he with his black cowboy hat and she with her draped orange scarf, simply glow with arugula-fed West Coast sunshine, and with the joy of living the life they want making great wine, expanding the business -- even to the point of owning the Robert Mondavi of Australia -- and opening art galleries and things. More power to them. Have you guessed by now that the family are Swiss, made beer and then bottled water for more than a century in Bern, and only bought land in Napa in the late 1970s? Good guess. But it means that in sheer California seniority, Gallo outranks them by far. And now how do I start any of my flow charts, even the simple ones?

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