Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Organic Wine meets art on the Carmel Valley Road

by Dwight Casimere

“Magical Wines That Dance On Your Palate” is the motto that graces the label of every wine that comes out of Heller Estate Organic Vineyards in the Carmel Valley of the Monterey wine growing region in California. Besides being a multiple Gold Medal winner for its organic wines that include Dancer’s Meritage, Estate Merlot, a screamin’ Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, the winery is distinguished by its sculpture garden, containing the works of internationally acclaimed artist Toby Heller, who, along with husband Gilbert, are the owners of Heller Estate.

Besides being USDA Organic Certified, the winery scored medals in every category at the First International Green Wine Competition in Santa Rosa, California in 2008 and was selected in the Top 5 U.S. Chardonnays by The Wall Street Journal in June 2009.

Heller Estate is the leader in organic wine-grape farming in Monterey County. The winery has eliminated the use of fossil fuels in their farming practices and has adopted the use of 100% plant-based biodiesel.

The tasting room at the mouth of the rustic Carmel Village, nestled at the base of the mountains that encircle the Carmel Valley off Carmel Valley Road, provides a tranquil setting for sampling the great wines, along with the many handmade, gourmet delicacies available in the tasting room.

Both Gilbert and Toby Heller were on hand, along with winemaker Rich Tanguay, for an exclusive tasting of their new releases.

Tasting Heller Estate wines quickly dispels the myth that organic wines lack character. These wines are big and bright, with intense fruit and a pleasant finish that puts a smile on your face.

The first California wine I ever had was a Chenin Blanc from Wente when I first moved to San Francisco in the mid ‘70s. I’ll never forget it. I had just sat with the legendary Lawrence Ferlinghetti, San Francisco’s poet laureate, now 90 years old, at his famed City Lights Book store, where he reminisced about the days of the Dharma Bums of the Beat Generation, immortalized by his best friend, Jack Kerouac. I walked across the street to the North Beach Restaurant and was introduced to that local culinary delight Cioppino, a hearty Sicilian shellfish stew redolent with local crab, shrimp, clams, scallops and mussels in a garlicky, tomato sauce. The wine was a Chenin Blanc from Wente Family Estates. It was a crisp, fruity accompaniment to the briny shellfish with enough acid to stand up against the somewhat astringent tomato sauce. I’ll never forget that meal. Stepping into the fog-tinged evening and walking up the winding cobblestone street to my flat on Coit Tower, I was lost in the magic of the moment.

Fast forward to the Heller Estate tasting room in Carmel Valley where winemaker Rich Tanguay pours a copious glass of crisp, 2007 Chenin Blanc. The wine sells in the $20-$25 range and has a composition of 89% Chenin Blanc and 11% Johannesburg Riesling. The wine presents itself with bright green apples in the mouth and a luscious, lingering finish. I had forgotten what a treat Chining Blanc is. With the culinary switch now to Asian fusion, Thai and ‘new wave’ Latin cuisine, this old flame is now reemerging as a hot, new romance!

I moved on to the 2007 Chardonnay and would have bought a bottle (at a reasonable $24, $20 for wine club members and ‘special guests’, hint, hint!) and hidden in a corner of the sculpture garden with it, if I hadn’t run into the artist, Toby Heller. She gave me a personal tour of the garden and explained her beautiful art work to me as we sipped this pleasant, light wine. Heller Chardonnay has a lovely, smooth mouth feel and a delightfully crisp, citrus flavor and a clean finish. It’s just the wine to have while strolling through the garden. Its flavor seemed to be enhanced while viewing art.

Heller’s 2004 Estate Merlot ($35) and Cabernet ($38) are excellent standard-bearers for their respective varieties. The Merlot is big and fruity with under ‘currants’ (get the pun?) of blackberry, dark chocolate and cedar. The undertones of lavender and rosemary give one a real feeling for the ‘terroir’ from which it is derived. It’s like taking a walk through the vineyards. The Cabernet is all toasty oak, black fruit and savory herbs with a backbeat of vanilla. This is the one to have if someone snags a local pheasant or if you decide to blow your Christmas bonus on a couple of pounds of prime, aged, grass-fed Filet Mignon. This one took a Silver Medal at the 2009 San Francisco International Wine Competition. I can see how Harvey Steiman and the rest of his tasting panel decided to heap the accolade on this one.

Heller Estate is just one of the many pleasures to be found along the Carmel Valley Road. I heard quite a few stories from people who say they came here for a visit and never left. A few of them even became winemakers. More on that another time!

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