Thursday, November 4, 2010

Niner wines of Paso Robles; the 'Fog Catcher' in the rye

Photo 1-Niner winemaker Amanda Cramer
Photo 2-a glass of Niner's award-winning Fog Catcher
Photo 3-Heart Hill estate, Paso Robles

by Dwight Casimere

Paso Robles, California—I first encountered Niner Winery of this lush California wine growing region, now immortalized in the wildly popular 2004 Alexander Payne film “Sideways” starring Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church as two hapless, love-lorn bachelor buddies who find their souls in the bottom of a glass of Pinot Noir, at the Double Gold winners wine tasting of the San Francisco International Wine Competition. The tasting was held at the Beacon Restaurant in downtown Manhattan.

Niner Wine Estates Fog Catcher 2007 ($58) had been named the Best of Show and Best Bordeaux Blend by the competition’s Tasting Panel. Here I was, two months later, walking through the lush, rich volcanic soiled vineyards of Niner’s Heart Hill Estate near Paso Robles, with the picturesque natural formation of its signature heart shaped hilltop looming in the distance, above the landmark stone fa├žade of its tasting room.

At the New York tasting, an employee of the vineyard, in breathless tones, encouraged me to tour the winery on my next visit to California. He informed me that the winery was unique for its use of gravity in the production and vinification of the wine and how the entire facility was constructed with state-of-the-art technology to take advantage of its unique hillside location. I sought out winemaker Amanda Cramer who gave me a personalized tasting and tour of the facility, afterwich; she discussed her personal philosophy of winemaking.

Amanda Cramer won the esteemed Andre Tchelistcheff “Winemaker of the Year” of the San Francisco International Wine Competition. On top of that, she won two Double Gold medals in the competition, including the “Best Bordeaux Blend.” The recent accolades had done nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of this stellar UC Davis grad and New Hampshire native.

“The most important step in the winemaking process is what happens in the grape fields,” she asserted, the strong northwesterly winds whipping through her wavy, auburn hair. “Winemaking is a unique process. It’s the only one I know that’s not dependent solely on exact science. It’s a combination of agriculture, chemistry and artistry.”

Ironically, Amanda began her professional life as a high school math teacher before studying enology and viticulture at UC Davis. She then began getting hands-on experience at wineries in the Napa Valley, South Australia and Chile. After returning to California to work with famed winemaker Heidi Barrett, she honed her skill at crafting Bordeaux varietals. The cutting-edge, eco-friendly techniques she learned abroad served her well as she began designing Niner Estate’s new facility. “I was able to take the best of what I saw out there and had the freedom here at Niner to create a state-of-the-art facility that is also user friendly.”

The proof of all wine is in the drinking. I sampled several bottles of Niner wines in my home, while grilling freshly harvested pheasant and Bison steaks, which I grilled in seasoned oak hardwood. The first wine that I tasted was Niner 2007 Bootjack Ranch Merlot ($24), a Gold Medal winner at the 2010 San Francisco International Wine Competition. I sampled both a selection of California and French goat’s milk cheeses, called Chevres, and a nutty Asiago, Parmesan-like cheese from Tuscany in Italy. As much as I liked the taste of the cheeses with the wine, I liked the taste of the wine alone, better. It was bursting with dark fruit flavor and a heady, berry-filled nose that was just like the sensation I had of the aroma in the air while I walked the fields outside Niner’s winemaking facility in the hills above Paso Robles Valley. It was an epiphany!

The first course of roast pheasant with morel mushrooms and green apple stuffing was accompanied with Niner 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Bootjack Ranch, Paso Robles ($28), and another Double Gold winner. Again, the presence of both intense fruit and the back note of terroir created an elegant experience that heightened the pleasure of eating the succulent pheasant. The presence of wood in the aging of the wine and the light smoky flavor of the meat and the mushrooms made for an all-encompassing taste experience.

After an interlude of a light-herb flavored cheese and a sip of Pellegrino, it was on to the main event; dry aged Bison rib eye steak, grilled on the open hardwood fire with a glass (or two) of the Double Gold and Best of Show winner, Fog Catcher Premium Bordeaux Bland, Paso Robles 2007 ($58). This is a landmark wine worth three times the asking price! I lingered over each sip of this rich, exquisite beauty, savoring its complex aromas and relishing in its complex flavors and long finish. I became so enthralled with the wine that my superb Bison steak became cold and eventual languished on the plate, virtually uneaten. Considering what a steak lover I am, particularly Bison, that is a high compliment.

I had planned to have some delicious homemade chocolate cookies and my favorite ice cream (Hagen Das rum raisin) for dessert, but instead opted for another glass of the superior Fog Catcher wine.

Inclement weather during my recent visit to the winery prevented my witnessing of the harvest and winemaking process in Niner’s technologically superior facility. I’ve already penciled in a return visit on my calendar. If the weather prevents a visit to the fields, I’ll just busy myself in the tasting room. I can’t possible go wrong there and will quickly lose all concerns about the weather!

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