Taos Winter Wine Festival

TaosWinterWineFestWhy care? I mean, about anything, really, but…wine? I expect you to care about…wine? Really? When Beirut/Paris/Syria are rent by darkness, when Monsanto hijacks our grocery shelves and armed rightists visit slaughter upon caregivers, it’s hard to get it up for carbonic maceration. I understand. And yet…Wine—specifically the drinking of wine in a social milieu—pushes back against the darkness. Human conviviality offers respite. And something as silly as wine makes the world, and our place in it, briefly better. It’s worth bothering about.

Here’s an easy way to bother about wine—and maybe recover a little well-being—in Taos during the last weekend in January. The Town of Taos and the Village of Taos Ski Valley host a four-day wine event from Thursday, January 27 through Sunday, January 31. El Monte Sagrado is the in-town venue, hosting the Reserve Tasting (Thursday, Jan. 27) and half of the weekend’s seminars; TSV puts their Resort Center (at the base of Chair 1) to use as the site for the Grand Tasting (Saturday, Jan. 30) and for the balance of the seminars. The seminars are where it’s at for the geeky set; Bacchic irregulars can practice their rites at either of the big events. Serious wineries abound, too, with about 40 first-rank producers slipping into town to ski Taos and drink with Taoseños.

Start on Thursday evening (4:30 p.m.) at the Reserve Tasting and over-bid on the silent auction in order to support Taos High’s very sharp culinary arts program, The Great Chefs of Taos. Run by Mary Spears and Benjie Apodaca, the Great Chefs program has a handsome test-kitchen inside the high school that allows freshmen through seniors to earn credits while gaining basic-through-advanced culinary skills, impeccable sanitation practices and extern experience at large and small off-site events. A significant portion of their annual budget flows from fundraisers like this silent auction, so over-bid. And over-indulge: Taos restaurants bring appetizers and jostle three-dozen wineries bearing reserve-only bottlings. (Tickets: $75 and worth every penny.)

Seminars! Not strictly or solely for nerds and geeks, the five seminars offered this year span the globe and forge an intimate connection with some of the most committed and talented winemakers out there.

Everyone’s heard of Napa, and most associate that green and pleasant and prosperous land with Cabernet Sauvignon. “Napa Cab” is one of California’s biggest achievements. But many would argue that the state’s greatest and most distinctive Cab is not from Napa, but from a special ridge high in the Santa Cruz Mountains, above Cupertino. The winery is Ridge Vineyards; the wine is Monte Bello. Taste four vintages of it—poured by the winemaker—at the first of the weekend’s seminars on Thursday at 2:30 p.m., right before the Reserve Tasting.

What makes Ridge Monte Bello such a big deal? Remember that Cali planted Cabernet Sauvignon in conscious imitation of one of France’s greatest red wine regions: Bordeaux. The Bordelais make wine in a certain way and we tried to make wines in their image and likeness. Failing, we came up with our American style instead: Napa Cab. Not elegant—delicious. But holed-up in the hills above Silicon Valley was Ridge Vineyards and the holy ground called Monte Bello making a style of Cabernet-centric wines that the French trade journal Vigneron Magazine recently called the most Bordelais of all American reds. And Although Ridge Monte Bello is a concentrated, powerful wine, its power isn’t based on big ripeness and alcohol like some of the trophy wines winning big points. Forty years ago, the French concept of terroir, the idea that wines are an expression of the soil and the unique microclimate of their origin, was regarded in California wine circles as folklore. Today, the skeptics are in the minority. For all its traditional Bordelais character, Ridge Monte Bello is ultimately a wine of the rugged Santa Cruz Mountains, not quite like anything else in France or California. (Oh, Ridge also grows Chardonnay in the limestone-rich Monte Bello vineyard. Thursday’s seminar starts with two vintages of Chard—one old and one new—before moving into the reds. Be there.)

Then there’s Italy. Mad, chaotic, capricious Italy. It’s OK if you haven’t figured out Italy. Many people in the wine business haven’t figured out Italy. That’s probably OK, too, because many Italians haven’t figured out Italy. Some would argue it’s more concept than country, with 20 regions precluding any unifying theme, never mind an identifiable and unitary place. North-Central-South is one successful frame for breaking down Italy. Those stoic and cold northerners with their Nebbiolo and their cash. The Tuscans and their near-neighbors slugging Sangiovese and fagioli at all times of day. And finally, the southerners. Some of them live closer to North Africa than they do to Rome, which provides polite near-cover for the horrible ‘joke’ that everything south of Rome is Africa. What’s a wine fan to do?

Go south, south to Italy’s Mezzogiorno, but go with a good guide, like Shelley Lindgren, owner of A16 and SPQR, both in San Francisco. Shelley is coming to Taos, conducting a lightning tour of Southern Italy on Friday, January 29, 1 p.m. Wine & Spirits Magazine named her Best New Sommelier, her first book earned Cookbook of the Year and Gourmet Magazine granted her the magazine’s Sommelier Award, presented to the next generation of wine stars. Let Shelley Lindgren take you to Italy’s soulful south. The places are unforgettable, the grapes unpronounceable. It’s a good place to embrace the whole concept of autochthonous grapes. Little-known, linked indelibly to one certain corner of Italy, autoctoni are indisputably of that place but from elsewhere. Good example? Greco di Tufo. Its origins are right there in the name (Greco) but it’s no longer grown in Greece and has been (arguably) in cultivation in Southern Italy for 2,000 years. Of there, even if not from there: autoctono. And what of the 20 regioni? Campania, Lazio, Toscana, Sicilia and other southern gems are candidates in this tasting. Always eye-opening, sometimes eye-popping. (Note: In case Italy isn’t your thing, and your Francophile reflex is still sharp, Saturday, 2 p.m. at TSV, a comparable guide rips through a tour de France with a comparable line-up. Details TBD.)

Most long-term wine people end up at Pinot Noir. They may have come into wine through Bordeaux or Napa or Mateus or white Zin. But they mostly end up at Pinot. It’s one of the mysteries of life. And every Pinot Noir maker will tell you it’s all about the ground. Some call it terroir. Some just call it dirt. But where that fickle, elusive, sexy, uncooperative grape grows is all-important. On Saturday, January 30, at TSV, four different winemakers all swear the Willamette Valley of Oregon is some of the best—maybe the best—ground around. Four winemakers, four wineries: Belle Pente (Yamhill-Carlton), Beaux Freres (Chehalem), Brick House (Ribbon Ridge) and Bergstrom (Dundee Hills).

Willamette (rhymes with dammit) is the American Viticultural Area (AVA) responsible for three quarters of Oregon’s wine production and the vast majority (88 percent) of the state’s Pinot Noir production. All other grapes—Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling—share a distant second place. In Willamette, Pinot Noir is a big deal. And it’s a big AVA: over 5,000 square miles and nearly three-and-a-half million acres planted to vines with half-a-dozen inner-AVAs within its generous Portland-to-Eugene span. This year, a Willamette Valley Pinot earned the No. 3 spot in Wine Spectator’s Top 100 wines. That’s a big deal, too. (Geek alert: Rajat Parr’s Evening Land Pinot Noir is the No. 3 wine. It’s technically from an inner-AVA of Willamette Valley called Eola-Amity Hills.)

Keep your eye on the schedule for these four days of intimate wine connection in Taos. Check the website (taoswinterwinefest.com). Don’t skip the Grand Tasting at TSV on Saturday afternoon, 4 to 6:30 p.m. And share all of it with a friend or two or three. Is that an answer to “Why care?” No, but it could be a formula for “How to.”

Story by by Andy Lynch

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