Wine Talk

Snooth User: Richard Foxall

Winemaker's Dinner at Mauritson/Rockpile, June 2.

Posted by Richard Foxall, Jun 4, 2012.

As many of my fellow Snoothers know, I'm a big fan of the wines of the Dry Creek Valley and particularly of a few of the winemakers up there.  Most of them specialize to a degree in Zinfandel, a grape that has its hard-core fans, but does not get all the recognition of more widely-planted varieties like Cabernet, Syrah, Pinot Noir.  A lot of folks associate Zin with the blush wines of the past, or fruit bombs that taste like they should be spooned from a jelly jar instead of sipped from stemware.  That's their loss:  Dry Creek Zins can range from elegant, almost Burgundian wines to the aforementioned fruit bombs; there's plenty of great, restrained ones in that spectrum.

As good as Dry Creek Zin can be, there's a place where it gets (mostly) top billing that has conditions uniquely suited to Zin, and which produces other great wines.  Slightly overlapping Dry Creek's appellation, but uniquely situated, is the Rockpile AVA.  Haven't heard of it?  Not surprising: Only a few wineries have access to the grapes, and the wines are bought up about as quickly as they are made.  Rockpile is huge, but the planted (and plantable) area is only about 160 acres.  It sits above Lake Sonoma, which was created in 1982 when the area behind Warm Springs Dam filled up.  The dam was a project of the Army Corps of Engineers for flood control, electricity generation, and irrigation. 

The ancestors of the Mauritson family farmed and ranched the land where Lake Sonoma is today starting 140 years ago.  When the dam was built, they lost thousands of acres to imminent domain.  But some time ago, they saw the possibilities created by the lake's properties as a heat sink:  It moderated temperatures for longer growing seasons, which meant a chance to grow outstanding grapes.  They had long farmed wine grapes on the DCV floor, but forward thinking descendants of the original farmer/winemakers saw the new possibility. The silver lining, Clay said, if there can be one to losing 3300 acres of land.

Two years ago I first drank Clay Mauritson's Cemetery Vineyard Rockpile Zinfandel.  I had previously had one of Clay's DCV cabs (an anomaly for DCV, but well worth checking out), but this was revelatory.  I've talked it up here before in other threads.  My efforts to get more were frustrated: I'm far from the only one to discover it.  Even begging Clay via email didn't work. So I signed up for the Rockpile Wine Club to insure I got my hands on more.  I'd take whatever else they gave me to get some Cemetery. 

One perk of the club is that you can attend dinners a couple times a year in the Rockpile vineyards.  This last weekend, I attended my first.  I drank quite a bit of fantastic wine and learned a ton.

James Setchim of Palace Cafe in New Orleans (owned by the Brennans, who are to N.O. dining what, I don't know, Mondavi is to Napa wine) cooked.  When we arrived at the winery to take the bus to the Vineyard, we were met with appetizers of alligator sausage and crawfish etouffe, traditional N.O. food.  My first time eating alligator.  Know what it tastes like?  Meatier iguana.  It was in a Crystal Hot Sauce-based sauce. The etouffe was really delicious.  The staff was pouring Mauritson's DCV Sauv Blanc.  I've asked the winemaker at Yoakim Bridge and Mike Talty of Talty what they drink beside their own wine, and both have mentioned this one.  It lived up to expectations.  Crisp, a hint of white grapefruit at the back end, not oaky, not wildly grassy but with a hint of mown hay.  It's not Sancerre, and not trying to be, it's a bit less austere than the silex-grown Loires, but the finish is clean like that.

While still at the winery, I cornered Clay and asked a lot of questions as he stood near a map of the appellation.  Turns out that, of the 160 acres planted to vines, the Mauritson family owns about half, perhaps more.  Of course, they lost much more, but they were instrumental in recognizing the character of the area and establishing the AVA. Interestingly, Clay's siblings own the vineyards as one entity, and he owns the winery as another.  There's cross ownership, but Clay has to pay market price for the grapes.  What does that mean?  Turley has looked at the cost of purchasing grapes or having a growing contract and deemed it too expensive.  Clay's wines, at around $40 a bottle, are a lot less expensive, even though he gets no break on price.  (Turley's vineyard management practices are a factor in their cost--they are aimed at producing over-the-top wines at corresponding prices.) Clay also mentioned that they measure their production by pounds per vine, trimming the vines to lower yields, measuring by the number of spurs and shoots, which requires an earlier commitment than just dropping fruit later.  They also drop fruit, again by measuring the number of bunches per vine.  I've forgotten the numbers, but they are tiny--one to two spurs, one or two bunches per shoot.  The yields on a per acre basis look higher because the vines are planted closely together--they are able to do that because the howling winds of Rockpile prevent rot, and the steep slopes allow grapes to get adequate sun because they aren't shaded.  The slopes also cause a deceptive measure of acreage, which inflates the appearance of the yields--think of the length of the hypotenuse above the base of a right triangle, and think of a very steep slope and you'll get the idea. That steep slope means vineyard work has to be done by hand and everything has to be walked--not driven.

On the way up to the winery, the bus stereo system blasted the Who, among others, and I thought about another thread here comparing winemakers to Iron Maiden and T. Monk.  I shared that comparison with Clay later and he laughed and quoted a Quiet Riot song--our dining partner pointed out the mistake and we laughed some more. 

To get to the dining area, which was in a grove in the middle of the Jack's Cabin Vineyard, we had to walk down a steep path through the vines.  On the way, assistant winemaker Emma Kudritzki explained that the flowers had recently bloomed and successfully self pollinated.  Good thing, because the winds were howling when we got there.  Too much wind or untimely rains (which we had today) can cause the pollen to blow or drop away from the flowers, which causes them to not set fruit.  When we arrived, we were served a nice rose, but anticipation was high for what was to come. 

We sat, and a mat with three circles was set out in front of each of us.  We were starting with a vertical of Jack's Cabin Zinfandel from '06 thru '08.  Everyone talks about '07 as an ideal vintage, but the wines were all excellent and most of the folks there, a pretty educated group of drinkers, preferred the more structured '06 or '08, which was had some of the best features of both.  Clay explained that the difficulty makers of pinot noir claim is nothing compared to Zin:  Zin is large berried, tightly clustered, and thin skinned.  This means it is prone to bunch rot (tight clusters) and there's a higher juice to skin ratio, making it hard to obtain a lot of tannins or color.  But Rockpile had solved one problem:  Those howling winds that knocked over a few full wine glasses also kept the grapes dry, preventing rot. 

One of Clay's brothers wrote a masters thesis about quantitative measures of Zinfandel growing and had solved another problem with Zin:  It ripens unevenly. 

That's an example.  But Clay's brother had discovered a method of improving the ripening by trimming off the shoulders on every bunch.  So that's what they do, at great cost.  They don't have to wait and pick overripe with ripe, or rush and pick underripe with ripe.  They get it when they think it's just right.  They also have no blowers in Rockpile because it rarely gets frost after bud break, a big danger this year and others on the valley floor.  And, in spite of the lake below, they have almost no water and dry farm almost exclusively, getting a little irrigation from the two springs on their land. 

With the Zin, we had barbecued prawns with a papardelle made by Jimmy Setchim, who was cooking away behind us.  Delicious, and we cleaned our plates.

Next up, the main course.  The wine was the 2009 Madrone Spring Syrah.  Of the Mauritson's 77 acres of vines, there's ONE acre of Syrah.  It's on the sole east facing slope.  It gets less exposure and has a narrow range of temperature.  And it's fantastic.  I've railed about Cal winemakers making "N. Rhone Syrah" that is nothing of the sort. Clay compared it to St. Joseph, but I think it's a little weightier, like an Hermitage.  Sold out on the website, sorry, but I scored an extra couple bottles after dinner.  This just blew me away.  While others enjoyed it with Barbecued Pork Belly, we had chicken (we react badly to pork--something in the fat) in the same barbecue sauce, which had Crystal, Worcesteshire, and something else.  There was a salad with mirlition, a NO specialty.  I kept asking for refills of my Syrah. 

I often skip dessert and am known for my aversion to dessert wines.  This night that changed.  Dessert was a chocolate beignet with a coffee-ish sauce and foie gras.  This was either the last legal foie in Cali, or the first bootleg, since it became forbidden after June 1.  However, this was purchased the day before in a panic by Jimmy, the chef, who wasn't going to lose out on the last chance at Sonoma foie gras.  It was heavenly, maybe more so because it was transgressive.  Paired with Clay's "Independence," a dessert wine made from the port varietals-because it's what his grandfather collected, along with local Zin.  As Clay said, the Zins turned to vinegar, but the port just got better.  This had the acid to balance and not too much sweetness. 

The wind had died down between the first course and the entree and we could hear Clay explain the amazing topography around us, the history of the names of the vineyards, and converse with our dining partners.  Clay answered all my geeky questions (my wife is over the embarassment and was talking about how great Snooth is) and everyone else's.  We headed back down the hill as the night settled over Dry Creek Valley.

I wanted to drop a satellite picture of the grove where we ate in here, but I can't really do it justice.  Folks had come from as far as Virginia to attend the dinner, and I can't blame them.  If you're curious about Mauritson wines, they have some restaurant distribution--our table mates had them at the restaurant where they were married in Indiannapolis, and Palace Cafe carries them in New Orleans, for two.  If you like them and want more, it's getting harder to buy the Rockpiles, but the Dry Creek wines sometimes show up in stores like K&L and a few of my locals.  I was worried about committing to 24 bottles a year, so I split with a friend--an arrangement I am getting the urge to break so I can keep more.  I know other wine clubs have similar perks, but you can eat overlooking the Napa Valley at Auberge du Soleil--you will never be able to do that at Rockpile. Although you could try to bring your own wine, camp at a slightly lower elevation, and use the barbecue pits to make your own meal, I guarantee it wouldn't be the same.


Reply by outthere, Jun 4, 2012.

Nice write-up Fox. I spend too much time at these events eating and drinking to actually have anything of substance to write about. Well done!

Reply by Richard Foxall, Jun 5, 2012.

I didn't take pictures--you have me there!

Reply by Richard Foxall, Jun 5, 2012.

One thing I forgot, among many others that will come later:  The syrah is cofermented with about 1.5% viognier in classic N. Rhone style.  The viognier comes from elsewhere, as it would not thrive on Rockpile. 

Reply by cmauritson, Jun 5, 2012.

Richard..........thank you very much for the kind words. I am glad that you enjoyed the Rockpile experience, as you can tell, I am a little passionate about it! Please tell your wife there is no need to be embarassed, I really enjoyed your questions and our conversations. We look forward to seeing you soon.


Clay Mauritson

Reply by napagirl68, Jun 5, 2012.

I love Mauritson wine!  Excellent write-up, foxall...  and  nice to see you here, Clay!


Reply by Richard Foxall, Jun 5, 2012.

Clay gets pretty into the Rockpile story.  But who else can claim 140 years of working the same land?  When he talks about sustainable vs. organic, you have to take notice.  I don't know how this generation will pass the land down, but Clay and his wife, his brothers and their families, you have to figure they won't break the chain. I think the winery was part of that planning. There's a consciousness at work here that doesn't come from people who made a lot of money in the dot-com bubbles (1 or 2) and are "into" wine. (Dan Teldeschi is another DCV farmer/winemaker who has a deep connection to his land.) One thing I really enjoyed was hearing how the areas of Rockpile got their names, long before they were vineyards; you had to locate the livestock.  As the descendant of sheep ranchers myself, I appreciate how these stories got handed down over time.

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