Monday, November 30, 2009

Clos Pepe in Sta. Rita Hills - A California Pinot Noir Estate

I was in The Wine Country one afternoon recently, and what I know is that it was a Friday, because two winemakers were getting ready to do a wine tasting class with wine specialist Bennett, who had set up the event. As I was milling about, Bennett introduced me to Wes Hagen, at which time I said to him as I shook his hand, "You sound familiar....." and Bennett told me, "That's because he is the winemaker at Clos Pepe!" and then Clos Pepe began to sound familiar to me, and then I found myself at a loss, because I had never tried the wines, didn't know anything about the estate, and all I knew was it sounded like a producer that Bennett was a huge fan of.

It could have stopped there, but it didn't. It could have been just another of many winemakers to come through the doors of The Wine Country, it could have been another interesting person here selling his wines, but it wasn't - Wes soon launched into a quick summary of his winemaking philosophy, which was neither organic nor conventional, but it wasn't biodynamic either, and it got me hooked, because I am personally not a huge fan of organic this and organic that, which doesn't make me a huge fan of ingesting a large amount of chemicals either, but I am very suspicious of certified organic, and I am much more impressed when a winemaker does not follow one narrow-minded doctrine that allows him to market his wine as organic..... and indeed Wes seemed to engender that philosophy, followed by a very open and welcome invite to Clos Pepe if I was ever in the area.

Well, after also talking about how I sell German wine, and how he is a huge fan of German wines and how he admires German white wines, well, I had to say, "Actually, I am going to be in your neck of the woods the day after Thanksgiving - are you there that weekend?"

And as luck would have it, he said yes, we are doing a tour on the Saturday after Thanksgiving and if you want to be a part of it, then you must send me an email! Cards were exchanged, and a couple of weeks later, we found ourselves on the estate of Clos Pepe, located on Route 246 toward the town of Lompoc, just west of Buellton.

Needless to say, the sprawling estate is gorgeous, hilly, expansive, sunkissed, showing the best of Autumn's colors ranging from curry yellow to burgundy. While the grapes have long been collected, the fall leaves still cling to the brown vines, coloring the landscape. Round rolly-polly sheep munch the ground cover between vines, offering a natural weed control that requires no chemicals, just a well-trained sheep dog that round up the sheep when you need them to move where they don't want to go.
The tour starts outside among the vines and the sheep and a full historical background of the area dating back several hundred thousand years when this region, the Santa Rita Hills AVA, established only in 2001, was deep under sea water in the Pacific Ocean before the plates bumped into each other and created mountains and hills on which we can stand on and plant on today. Diatomaceous earth covers the soil now, a result of small shelled organisms who used to live in this area when it was sea, their fossilized bodies now contributing to the soil that contributes to very good Pinot Noir.
Wes Hagen's history lesson also includes a personal story, with dots of humor, about how he happened to be in the right place at the right time, leaving a lucrative profession with the department of education (teaching kids!) to becoming a winemaker... though he did leave out how he was able to make that jump.
Politically speaking, he is interesting to listen to - he talks about how Greenpeace hurts people in developing countries by insisting that people who are on the brink of starvation reject genetically modified foods that may actually save the lives of many people - he talks about how conventional farming has its place because it feeds the masses and feeds them well, and that if all farming switched to organic tomorrow, then 2 billion people would die. The way Wes speaks, he is not afraid of offending, and at the same time, he does not offend (at least not me!) because he speaks what he knows.
After some philosophizing, we are all in the mood to taste some of his wonderful wine, wine which he says he makes in not a big heavy Parker style. The estate produces Pinot Noir grapes and sells some to other producers, some of which, Wes says, make bolder Pinots than he does, but he does not believe in muscular Pinot Noir. I like the sound of that.
The tasting consisted of a vertical of his estate Pinot Noir, from his 2008, which is not quite ready yet to be released, to his 2005 vintage, which is sold out. Here are my tasting notes from these 4 wines:
2008 Clos Pepe Pinot Noir - beautiful floral and fruit-scented nose, bright on the palate, reminicent of cranberry and raspberry, zippy acidity, too young at this time, but shows the potential for a lovely Pinot Noir that is not oaky or heavy.
2007 Clos Pepe Pinot Noir - gorgeous nose, richer in aroma and very enticing and inviting. On the palate, perfect, with lots of fruit, weight, density but not oak or extract or tannin. Shows its long perfect growing season. Delicious and my favorite of the bunch.
2006 Clos Pepe Pinot Noir - deeper and earthier nose. Developed palate showing more "French" characters, deep, black cherry and losing some baby fat and fruit, would be great with some lamb or game meat. But clunckier and not as focused to me as the 2007.
2005 Clos Pepe Pinot Noir - Wes claimed this rivaled French Burgundies with much higher price tags (Grand Crus) but said he could talk smack because he was sold out of this wine... indeed it has this French aspect to the wine, maturing well, would be interested to taste this blind.... I think I would still guess this to be Californian but made with a French style to it because it still seems fuller and fruitier than a Burgundy, but very nice and way more serious than the other Pinot Noirs. A great, noble wine for drinking with dinner, something to be savored and enjoyed slowly. We were very, very lucky to get a bottle of this sold-out number - thank you Wes!
2008 Axis Mundi Syrah, Sleepy Hollow Vineyard - This last wine is Clos Pepe's second label, Axis Mundi, which is labeled in a modern look with a screw cap to indicate "drink me young" and is more of an everyday wine, a more extracted Syrah. Honestly, a bit of a difficult wine to taste after those much more elegant, ethereal, pretty wines which are the Clos Pepe Pinot Noirs, but then again, one probably wouldn't want to taste them before the Pinots either, so one is stuck with tasting a more clunky, basic every day red after the Pinot Noirs which are twice the price and more than twice as nice. Since we got a bottle to take home, we look forward to tasting this wine by itself where it will have a chance to be very enjoyable, we are sure. But at the time of tasting this Syrah, I wasn't really wooed by it. I'll be sure to post a tasting note again in the future when we open it!
Here we are posing with Wes - he was a gracious host, serving us water and cheeses and bread and coffee afterwards. If you get a chance to go up to this area, I seriously recommend visiting this estate and getting the full tour! They don't have a drop-in tasting room, everything is by appointment, so call first!

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