According to Randy Schock, wine maker for Mendocino County’s Handley Cellars, it is unfortunate that there is such a resistance to American riesling.
Schock’s confounded tone is more confusion over why such a great varietal, in an even better style, doesn’t sell as well as more popular white wine varietals like chardonnay, sauvignon blanc or pinot gris/grigio.
“It’s too sweet,” is all we hear, according to Schock, who uses two guidelines to determine a wine’s sweetness (or most likely lack thereof): the simple residual sugar rule of 3g/l and the ratio of g/sugar to acidity. In each case, his wines are waaaay dry. Go figure. To add to that confusion, and backing up the claim of a great varietal in an even better style, Schock’s freshman-season effort with Handley produced a truly wonderful riesling that caught the attention of this summer’s Sonoma-Marin County Fair naming it “White Wine Of The Year.”
Schock didn’t quite step into this role as wine maker, rather he was actually thrown into it as the attending wine maker unexpectedly stepped out of her role. The nine-year cellar master assumed the position and his first wines coincided with the stunning vintage of 2012. That vintage, according to Schock, was an uncharacteristically homogenized ripening year, everything on the same time frame, with a condensed harvest season.
“A very kind vintage,” he adds.
Specifically, for the riesling, nice moisture early in the season helped to develop beneficial botrytis (the noble rot) by setting up the mold start. Then a nice dry period throughout the summer and well into late October kept any ensuing and possibly destructive cluster-rot from forming. This also allowed ultra-long development of flavors and beautiful purple-tinged berries all day long, which were brought into the barn early in the morning on Oct. 20, cold and crisp.
And you can taste it on the palate as the usual green apple, kiwi and melon flavors lead to something deeper, with lingering purple passion fruit on the mouth. I taste a lot of riesling, and I don’t come across this color of the fruit spectrum very often. Schlock reminds me this is the flavor component that began with the botrytis mold-set in the early summer, and developed all the way until harvest. The wine is sleek and crisp, with wailing acidity, yet that weeping purple lingers on and on. It also has a deft resemblance to an alcoholic version of lemon-lime soda.
That riesling should resonate so well from its roots all the way to Mendocino County, about as far west as one can grow grapes in the United States should come as no surprise. The Germans settled in the rugged and remote valley sometime during the Gold Rush era, and they brought their cold-climate vines to this chilly area. Today, Alsace-style riesling is seeing both resurgence and success, along with other Alsace varietals like gewürztraminer, pinot gris and pinot blanc. They are among the best whites California has to offer when it comes to crisp, acidic and refreshing wines. To wit, the Anderson Valley hosts each spring an event entirely devoted to these sprite aromatic varietals when the International Alsace Varietals Festival convenes in February. The event is unique in that beyond showcasing the stunning local whites, invites are sent to top producers from France, Germany and New Zealand as well as New York, Michigan, Oregon and Washington domestically.
Schock remains humble in spite of this quickly found success. Part of that credit goes to his long-time mentor Milla Handley (who incidentally was named Wine Maker Of The Year at the same competition that awarded the riesling top honors) and to the wonderful growers who take full advantage of Mother Nature’s bountiful ways in this region. Still, he contemplates challenges ahead, from the vast portfolio of wines he is called upon to make (from three different gewürztraminers alone, all the way to zinfandel and Mediterranean red blends) to the rigors of competing in today’s competitive and savvy wine market.
And next week, I’m going to resonate all the way back to the motherland: Alsace, France, where the wines of Albert Boxler, Hugel, Ostertag, Trimbach and Pierre Sparr — among many others — will continue to help change perceptions that riesling is merely a sweet sipper, in this iconic cold-climate region where sense of place and innate grape acidity yields superb, mineral-driven wines that are perfect for celebrating — and dousing — a summer heat wave.
Cheers! Remember, wine reveals truth.
Drew Stofflet lives in Carbondale. Correspond with him at firstname.lastname@example.org