The Tasting Panel magazine

August 2013

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Revelation in the Air story and photos by Randy Caparoso ONE SOMM FINDS THAT "AIROIR" CAN BE AS IMPORTANT AS TERROIR Timothy O'Neal, Sommelier of Kansas City's Avenues Bistro, had "a personal revelation" while tasting in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I n June, during the yearly wine country tour that I organize for sommeliers coming in from across the country, Timothy O'Neal of Kansas City's Avenues Bistro was suddenly hit by what he calls "a personal revelation." It happened during a visit to the Corralitos/ Pleasant Valley area of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA—a decidedly cold climate sub-region (where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are often picked in November) located a scant three or four miles from Monterey Bay, with the added stress of vines being grown on hillsides amounting pretty much to giant, porous sand dunes. Says Mr. O'Neal, "I tasted a 2010 Lester Family Pinot Noir made by Big Basin winery, and it was briny! One can literally smell the salty oceanic expression—it was one of the briniest wines I've ever tasted. But in a way, it was no shock that the grapes for this wine come from vines so close to the ocean. This is something I've confirmed numerous times when tasting California Pinot Noirs back home in the restaurant. I think I can now identify wines grown close to the ocean, or far from the ocean, nearly all the time." For O'Neal, awareness of this sensory aspect of wine has been slow to come. "When I first started trying to assess wines critically, I had a difficult time with analyzing oak intensity. Over time, and by tasting many wines, my skill with it has developed over the years. Now, a new focus on the brine in the wine, like the presence of oak, has become a legitimate component of wine analysis—at least for me." The idea of the "air" strongly influencing aromas and flavors of wines is not entirely new. It's just that the common assumption has always been that "earthy" qualities are byproducts of either soil or grape characteristics. Yet everyone has also known, for instance, that wines made from vineyards lined with eucalyptus trees invariably end up with minty, eucalyptus-like aromas and flavors. The French have always known this. It's no surprise that Vermentino-based white wines grown along the shores of Corsica taste of sea brine, mixed in with the lemon and kitchen herb qualities of the grape. In Provence, it's always all about the garrigue, the wild scrub surrounding vineyards, imparting resiny aromas and flavors resembling lavender, thyme, rosemary, sage and other familiar herbs—inundating white wines, reds and rosés, no matter which grapes these wines are made from. The idea that pungent qualities are derived from air is a priori in this part of the world. It just is. "Airoir," as much as terroir, can have as strong an influence on wines; especially when they are transparently vinified with minimal oak, fermented with indigenous rather than cultured yeast populations and finished with little or no filtration. No wonder Pinot Noirs from Sonoma Coast are often woodsy or forest floor-ish; some Lodi Zinfandels are composty or animal-like; and a Barolo from Piedmont can have tar or fusel notes. When vineyards are surrounded by woodlands, cow pastures or autostrada busily spewing scents of the road, invariably these factors end up in wines—and often enough, many of our finest, most interesting wines! Sommeliers at Windy Oaks Estate in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. TP0813_104-132.indd 104 7/24/13 9:40 PM

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