In August, I arrived from sticky New York into hot Sonoma sun. I couldn't complain, after all it was their first two steamy days of the entire vintage. Ever wilting me, the arid 110 degre day was far more tolerable than 90 and 100% humidity of New York City.
I would be lying to you if I didn’t say that sitting in dinner party pro, (Marcy with the worlds best dog)
Marcy Mallette’s Healdsburg backyard, with a fig tree groaning with unripe fruit and guests sopping up the last of their Alaskan salmon BLT
wasn’t a joy, even if everyone wore wearing flip-flops, and Kevin Hamel (my boss on the Sagrantino project and winemaker for Pellegrini) made fun of my trapped shoes. I was outted from the shtettle. That's okay.
I reached into the pileup of wines we had assembled. "You got to taste this," I said, and poured around, then sat down on the stoop, near the long, al fresco dinner table.
Taking a tentative taste of Coturri’s 2005 Cabernet, Hardy Wallace said, “That sure is some Hippie juice." He was certain the wine had a significant retro taste, within spitting distance of a Haight-Ashbury head shop.
ripped off from Hardy's facebook page.
Wallace, you might remember, is the young cherub who arrived to northern California from the South to live out a dream. The dream had been induced when he won a very high profile contest to be social media guru for a Kendall Jackson winery. He knocked out the competition with his brains, chops and goofball charm. After his six months, however, he really found his dream job, with Kevin Kelley,
the winemaker whose grapes I had trod, cheated on, really, when my Sagrantino was in process. His palate, as far as I could see was more aligned with 'hippie juice,' than techno-wines. I kept on trying to look into his face to see what he really thought about the wines. I knew if I had the rosé or even the chardonnay he'd have been won over as Marcy and I had been.
Earlier that day, when it was only ninety-three degrees or so, she and I drove to the Coturri Global Headquarters in Glen Ellen, clear on the other side of the county. We wended on the back lanes, past brush and the spindly copper barked trees. Baking in the heat, the landscape seemed friendlier to cattle ranching than grape farming, I thought. And then there were the zinfandel vines, floppy and unirrigated.
Tony Coturri (with brother vineyard manager Phil) had the winery bonded in 1979, aiming to make wine the way their father learned from their Tuscan grandfather. The only difference seems to be fermenting in one-ton redwood tanks instead of two-ton and more whole clusters. They had been in my consciousness since the mid-eighties. I remember back in the day seeing bottles of Coturri relegated to the 'organic' wine section, a pathetic rack of a few wines down the block at Astor Place. The bottles stood upright, in the sun, languishing and bleaching out. Not a good thing for natural wines without sulfur.Perhaps like so many, I discounted them as hippie juice, but was that a bad thing? I mean, I was a little hippie wanabee, too young at the time to be part of the movement, but yearning to grow up to be free.
It wasn’t until Jenny Lefcourt, (a woman who could look like my dark haired sister, who started to import natural wine in 2000) took them on as her sole-American winery, did I reconsider.
I was at a party in New York City (not that long ago) and the only wine I could drink there was the 2004 carignan. I didn’t just like the wine, I loved it, earthy, never a touch of new oak, brambly and call me impressionable, but I thought it tasted, like California, whatever that means; wild, unbridled and friendly.The talk on the street was that sometimes the wines were great and sometimes they sucked. But to some, they were cult, before there were cult CEO wines. Tony always made his wines with the credo, organic viticulture, nothing added, nothing taken away and no sulfur, even at bottling.
This was crazy. Tony was never a hipster. I'm not sure he, even with his wooly, unkempt beard, was ever a hippie, he just cared about land and health and the environment and honesty.
Separated at birth by 6000 miles, the Coturri winery had been organic and sulfur free---that reads ‘hard core natural,’ since the beginning years. Two years before Francois Morel started his sans soufre wine bar in Paris, Tony was an American pioneer. Thirty years later he was just as hard core as Laureno Serres in Terre Alta. The only difference is that the others had a circle of friends, of like-minded people. Until Tony joined up with the Return to Terroir group, he was working in total isolation. He did not have a clan. He didn’t have any idea he wasn’t alone untl he went to Paris around 2000 and a friend told him about a wine store, he can’t remember which one, that had natural wines. He discovered Paolo Bea, sagrantino, as a matter of fact. He was still struggling but maybe he belonged to something bigger. And now he does.
Some of my favorite wines from that tasting were:
'09 Coturri Chardonnay: peachy and refreshing.
'08 Carignan; Yes, from the smoky year, and there it is like a lamb smoking on the spit. Sheep, lanolin and currant.
'05 Cabernet; VA alert, if you can't take it, move away, but I think this touch is lively. Old school, not too ripe, earthy with just enough lilt, and berry fresh.
'03 Cote de Cailloux; a blend of Rhone-ishisms, forest and licorice.
The next generation:
(photos, from the generosity of Marcy Mallette)