Sashi Tasting of 2010s: Stolpman Zing Factor

Tasting wine with Sashi almost always imparts a whiplash “wow” factor. Head bent forward spitting, and then UP with a cocked head: “what did you just say?” He has a way of speaking about wine with obscure references that opens new worlds of thought. Depending on the day, Sashi might be in the mood for tangents on cooking, classical music, travel, yeast reproduction, or dry-farming. His seemingly casual thoughts often resonate for days and years after I taste with him. I often hear his voice in my own when I’m talking about our wines on the road. Of course, in my case, Sashi’s influence couches my otherwise lewd, crude, “shock value” descriptors – no doubt inherited from Dad.

The evening of Monday April 2, 2012 I invited the production and tasting room gang over to the house to try the new 2010 vintage releases.

It’s extremely rare for us to have an 8 wine release all from the same vintage. Usually we have an early release Sauvignon Blanc or Cuadrilla blend or an extended-aged Sangiovese in the mix. Trying all of these different cuvees from one year gave Sashi a chance to dive in to the different elements of the 2010 vintage that made these wines so special. But it wasn’t enough just to talk about the cold weather.

Sashi launched the evening, as everyone waited, drooling; by explaining Analog music. The music industry has taken a retro spin back to the pursuit of exact duplications of live instruments rather than a synthetically manufactured and layered blend. Stolpman, and other boutique estate wineries have followed a similar trend: we’re bottling a wine purely analogous to the year without trying to mold it into a style or genre. In so many words, Sashi was asking us to think back to the summer of 2010 to remember the cold, racing winds ripping across the golden afternoon skies that brought an air of excitement to the large, healthy harvest.

2010 Viognier

We normally don’t like to make pure Viogniers due to the stigma of opulent, fruit driven blousy wines perfect for Real Housewives to get sloshed on and slap-fight. It would take an intentional departure from our current thinking to make this style of wine from Stolpman Vineyards, especially as the vines continue to produce more refined crops with age. With the unusually cool 2010 vintage, Sashi found an opportunity to make this lower alcohol, stainless-steel fermented Viognier. Most years, all of this Viognier is co-fermented into our Syrah, but many of the Syrah lots were so bright and aromatic, we didn’t feel the need to add as much.

Sashi prevented malolactic fermentation to leave fresh, crisp acidity; but the wine still caries richness and grace that we can’t help relate to the heights of Condrieu, but with much different winemaking methodology. Everyone at the table commented on the savory white peach and lasting finish.

With the future of the Viognier program uncertain we decided to keep this tiny 250 case lot for the tasting room with a silly $19 price point. Our thinking? Folks like us who don’t typically buy California Viognier will just have to add a couple bottles onto their wine order, and true Viognier fanatics will gobble up most of the production given the stupid price. We expect this wine to be gone before summer to make way for our new Roussanne blend!

2007 La Las

The big treat of the night followed the Viognier. Stephen Tanzer’s La Landonne reference in his review of the 2009 Angeli coincided with the launch of Villa Angeli, our La Mouline equivalent. The tasting room staff talked me into buying both $380 Guigal wines so they could truly understand the comparison. This portion of the tasting was momentous enough to demand its own blog posting, so look for it next!

2010 Villa Angeli

With much anticipation we popped the first Stolpman 2010 red of the night, the inaugural release of “Villa Angeli”. With a 10% Viognier co-fermentation, seductive red perfume and violets chase the cork right out of the bottle and fill the room. The wine is the most aromatic newly bottled wine I’ve ever tried. The palate has quite a bit of raspberry with a delicate mid palate and young but savory tannin. The Viognier also seems to have smoothed out the young Syrah, adding silkiness to the finish.

Sashi included 50% of the stems for a 21 day maceration. Sashi also experimented with a 28 day maceration, but decided to declassify this portion as the extra week of skin contact muddied the wine.

2010 Angeli

Even for this cooler vintage, and especially compared to Villa Angeli, the 2010 Angeli shows deep, brooding blueberry. So young, the wine shows a tad raw with a bit of oak bite still present. That being said, it’s already hit hedonistic heights of nirvana with its pure richness and coating mid-palate. Just enough fruit lingers through the palate to package the oak, tannin, and acid into a “wow” of a wine.

This year, Sashi de-stemmed 100% of the Angeli clusters. I think the 100% New Oak creates plenty of backbone and the stem-free maceration provides luxurious fruit through the finish, riding above the young structure.

When I asked Sashi if he could explain why 2010 is so incredible he brought it back to finally being able to farm and make wine perfectly and bottle the results. So why did it take so long to hit this level of quality? First off, Ballard Canyon is an extremely difficult place to farm if one is striving for perfection. Sashi says our land is comprised of “2 minute soils”. You can’t work it in the rain because the clay topsoil turns to 2 feet of muck, and there’s no point in trying to work the ground once it quickly turns bone dry. Any spring-time pruning, prep-work, and composting must be done with perfect timing around the sporadic storm fronts as once summer comes around, there won’t be any significant rain until after harvest.

Sashi credits La Cuadrilla with their ability to jump on the perfect opportunity to cultivate our vines, and the quality demonstrated within the 2010 bottles shows off the skill of our full-time crew.

With Sashi’s boutique New Vineland Bakery up and running, he also noted that we are now experiencing the full-benefits of over a decade of organic farming. In making bread, there are very few ingredients that influence quality; basically, flour and water. However, the X factor is the yeast and this is why bakers are nuts about their Sourdough starters etc. By organically farming, we’re preserving and cultivating a healthy ecosystem in the vineyard, so the native yeasts are alive and prospering and ride the grapes right into the winery and get busy eating sugar. Using the vineyard’s native yeasts immediately gives the wine a uniqueness and sense of place that refinery-style commercial wineries can only try to replicate synthetically.

To bring the conversation back to Sashi’s Analog music introduction, native yeast fermentation helps us ensure the purest sense of terroir possible. These wines represent the 2010 vineyard experience.

2010 La Coppa Sangiovese

At this point of the evening the gourmet pizzas arrived and so we naturally had to pass around the bottle of la Coppa Sangiovese. We gave the 2010 vintage 5 extra months in barrel to total 15 months in neutral puncheons but still the wine has a perky chewiness. Without food the wine is a bit stiff but the crew loves it! The 2010 shows darker color than the 2009 and certainly throws exuberant youthfulness.

2010 Estate Syrah

The first 6 years at Stolpman,  Sashi only made a total of 5,000 cases of wine per year and now the 2010 bottling of Estate Syrah alone almost totals this much. We are well aware of wine connoisseurs’ fear that a winery can’t get bigger without sacrificing quality. BUT WAIT! We’ve improved the entire vineyard to the point that we want every inch of it for our winery program AND we’ve honed in our farming and winemaking to make the best wines yet (and make enough of it to give you some awesome values while we’re at it). None the less, Sashi does admit that usually the connoisseurs are correct, wineries that begin to source fruit from new vineyards and dilute their blends almost always loose the very magic that made us fall in love. Sashi shrugged and stated the fact, “You can only make a large lot awesomely good from a great vineyard.”

For me right now (literally right now, I’m drinking a glass as I type) this is my favorite 2010 wine. Yes, yes, handy that it’s our largest production. Not only does the bright red fruit jump out of the glass, but it lasts straight through the usually austere mid-palate and boxy structure. The wine exudes more of a lifted, singing “zing” of excitement than the Paso Robles “yum” of rich concentration. Sashi explained that he decided to put all of the earliest picks from the vineyard into the Estate Syrah Cuvee. He didn’t want to interfere with the strong fruit character so he kept the New French Oak and stem inclusion to only 15% each. A 3% Viognier co-fermentation boosts the bright red fruit nose but the color is still a shade lighter than past vintages, no doubt due to the earlier picking dates.

The 2010 Estate Syrah might be an indicator of the future of Stolpman Vineyards, at least for the Estate Syrah program! Despite the modern trend of aiming for ripeness, we believe the complexity of our naturally low yields and mature vines diminishes if we wait too long to pick. Ripe flavors can quickly dominate a wine and overpower the subtle, elegant layers that make a wine truly great. Waiting to pick negates the wisdom that the old vines drop.

2010 Grenache

The long awaited 2010 Grenache holds up to the hype. To make sure of it, we once again declassified a large portion of our Grenache into the 2010 La Cuadrilla blend, leaving only the barrels that stood out as extraordinary for the monocepage.

The nose defines “Grenachappeal”. Aromas of juice box fruit-punch create childhood giddiness. The fruit runs totally pure, truly an upfront, honest wine. Playing into the purity, Sashi aged the wine in only neutral oak. Sashi then finished the wine for the last 2 months in a large concrete tank.

To give the fruit a supportive backbone Sashi fermented the wine 20% whole-cluster.

2010 Originals Syrah

Sashi feels that the Estate Syrah is the perfect example of what a Ballard Canyon Syrah should be. The older vine source of the Originals takes the Estate Syrah and amplifies it with both power and further complexity. The Originals should transcend our expectation of Ballard Canyon to represent the potential of Stolpman Vineyards specifically. This is old-vine Ballard Canyon, expertly dry farmed.

The cooler 2010 vintage created fruit so bright and aromatic Sashi decided not to coferment Viognier. 10% whole-cluster fermentation was all we needed to support the fruit intensity. The Originals is still throwing a bit of oak, but will surely grow in to a true stunner.

2010 Hilltops HD Syrah

The 2010 Hilltops HD competes with the two Angeli wines for “crowd favorite”. This year, Hilltops HD shows off the ripest fruit out of all of our Syrahs. All new French 300L cigars add to the hedonistic glory of HD. Cuadrilla conducted a careful, isolated pick of the steep Block B5 knowing it would be special. It was so special we kept it separate from both Angeli and what will be a more restrained, elegant Hilltops Syrah.

Hilltops HD is our closest parallel to the “Paso Robles Yum factor” but the vibrancy of the wine still rides through, I think, for the moment at least, we’ll continue to call it the “Stolpman Zing Factor”.