Sunday, April 27, 2008

Clary Ranch: One to Watch

I usually reserve my wine reviews for the little ticker on the right side of this web page, but this past year I had the good fortune of discovering Clary Ranch, a wine that deserves special attention. I'd like to tell you all about this wine, but first a little background...

Since I left IBM in 2000, I've worked for 3 companies; all of which were based in Silicon Valley. Napa and Sonoma are about an hour and a half North of San Jose, and I've enjoyed extending my business trips out there to explore all that wine country has to offer. Napa is definitely on my list of top 3 places to visit in the US. The combination of the beautiful scenery, the casual yet upscale lifestyle, and the great restaurants and wineries make it a perfect place to visit (or live for that matter).

I recall fondly a leisurely lunch with Deanna at Bistro Jeanty, sitting at the "community table" and getting to know the strangers sitting next to us. My childhood friend Nick Burger and I have enjoyed a couple of capers to the area, perhaps most memorably taking in the "big reds" at Chimney Rock (he was a Club Elevage member, didn't you know?). My long time colleague and friend Mike Loomis and I really lucked out with some VIP treatment at Sterling and an unforgettable visit to Buehler Vineyards. Buehler is definitely tops on my list of best wineries to visit in Napa. John Buehler puts on an a great tour, and Buehler is a consistent producer of outstanding reasonably priced wines.

My friend Mike lives in Sonoma these days, so when we were having a group meeting in San Jose last year he had the great idea of pulling together a group wine tasting in Sonoma. Mike mentioned that his neighbor, Paul Clary, was a wine maker and that we should try to find a way to taste his wines. This would be a little tricky, however, since Paul's operation is pretty small and he doesn't have a tasting room. We agreed to meet Paul at a park in Sonoma center where he would pour his wines along with a picnic lunch.

As Mike was pulling together the itinerary for this trip, I'd just received an issue of Wine Spectator that included a feature on up and coming California Pinot Noir producers. Wouldn't you know it, Paul's Clary Ranch was one of the wineries mentioned along with a stellar "91 point" rating for their 2004 Pinot Noir. What is most amazing about this rating is that it was the first wine Clary Ranch ever submitted for rating by Wine Spectator, and they hit it out of the park!

When we met Paul for lunch that day, it was great getting his insight into the wine making process and his perspectives on the wine industry. He was remarkably down to earth, knowledgeable and friendly. I asked him what it was like competing in an industry where Charles Shaw is sold for $1.99 a bottle. He shared that small wineries like his are hard pressed to bottle *air* for $1.99 since the glass, label, cork, and labor costs add up quickly in a limited production scenario. I remember asking John Buehler why he charges so little for his wines even though they receive outstanding ratings. He said, "You can price wines to production, or to perception. I choose to price my wines according to my production." I'm always fascinated to talk with wine makers in particular about what it is like to submit a wine for rating. I remember talking to Page Buehler (John's son) about how they made sure the labels were perfectly aligned (superstitiously) on the bottles they submitted, crossing their fingers and hoping for the best. The difference between an 89 point and a 90 point rating is huge in terms of sales impact and I've got to think when a new issue comes out with a favorable rating, high fives abound at the winery.

Meeting and talking with wine makers gives me a different perspective on the industry. When I'm browsing the aisles of a wine store I don't think much about the hard work that goes into wine making. But when I see first hand how someone's livelihood depends on their wines, and how their passion goes into the bottle, it gives me a whole new appreciation for the different characteristics and quality levels various wines offer.

Last night, we had some friends over, so I opened the second of two bottles I brought back from that trip. It was fantastic. Paul makes his Pinot in a ripe, luscious style and I find it to be more full bodied than other Pinot Noirs. In addition to raspberries and cherries, I picked up tobacco aromas that give the wine a unique characteristic. There were only 150 cases of this wine produced, so it's highly unlikely that you'll find it in your local wine store. But if you visit Clary Ranch's web site or drop Paul an E-mail he may be able to hook you up with some of his great wine.
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