Thursday, February 4, 2010
Pierce Ranch Vineyard’s got guts.
They’re introducing obscure varietals like Touriga Nacional and Albariño to a Monterey County palate obsessed with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Most customers are not likely to try unfamiliar foreign wines, so these aren’t bottles that can be put on a wine list next to Silver Oak, recognized and sold – which means staff must be ready to hand-sell with skill, a far-from-automatic endeavor.
Moreover, most wineries that try to be different fail: Some slip up by not staying true to a varietal’s persona by growing it in the wrong climate; others neglect to employ the time-honored winemaking methods that provide identity. When a select few do succeed, they often charge too much.
That’s why guts to do something different aren’t enough. Pioneers like Pierce have to do that something different well.
When Salinas-raised Josh Pierce was 21, he scheduled what was supposed to be a quick trip to the Iberian Peninsula. The tapas bars, flamenco dancers and bullfights inspired him to prolong his experience abroad. Loveable wines helped extend the trip further.
Nuances of Touriga Nacional seemed to climb out of his glass and into his heart. Tempranillo’s earthy flavors coexisted with just the right amount of fruit and acidity. Nothing beat a well-crafted Albariño on a sunny Spanish day.
The dry air and mild climate, meanwhile, felt like one he knew well. The San Antonio Valley is a lot like the Iberian Peninsula, dry and hot, which allows grapes to ripen easily. He knew his family ranch’s 1,000-foot elevation and decomposed granite soil, which provides good drainage, would be very helpful when the rains did come. He was pleased to discover those conditions paralleled those in many of Spain’s best appellations.
In front of him he had wines he loved that no one in Monterey County was bottling, and access to the right environment to make it work. Hence the decision to bring those grapes back to his stomping ground came quite naturally. His craving for a quality Touriga Nacional in California just helped.
Pierce ferments a process that avoids the common uptick in price that comes with small growers. They give the closer care that leads to a quality wine rather than machine harvesting and risking the varietal’s character. They afford the added attention in the vineyard without passing along the cost to customers in the store by training hardworking help to be supremely efficient, and by making a conscious decision to sacrifice a few bucks in order to make a quality small-lot wine instead of a more profitable mass-engineered product.
Strict pruning procedures during winter months keep crop size low and flavor high – too many grapes in a bunch dilute the fruit’s flavors. They are aware of the vital importance of proper water management, purposely starving vines so roots dig deeper into the ground and grapes gain complexity.
Key people are noticing what results. Restaurants that focus on creating wine lists that are excellent and eclectic – hoping to move buyers to be more sophisticated – are picking Pierce wines. Think restaurants like Passionfish and Fifi’s in Pacfic Grove and Mundaka in Carmel.
Gabe Georis, owner of Mundaka and former G.M. at 30,000-bottle-cellar Casanova, knows his grape juice. He sees Pierce as a natural extension of his restaurant’s Spanish ambience.
“When people come, they’re already out of their comfort zone,” he says. “It gives us a unique opportunity to turn people on to wines they’ve never had.”
Pierce’s light Albariños have gone quickly at daytime Monterey County Vintner and Grower events. Although good by themselves, they pair well with shellfish, ahi, salmon, rich dishes, and spicy Indian food. Locals can steer towards A Taste of Monterey (646-5446), Clementine’s (392-1494), Star Market (422-3961) or the Monterey Wine Market (646-0107) on the way home to better understand why.
At MWM, owner George Edwards aims for undiscovered small-lot and food-friendly wines. He’s had success recommending Pierce. “One of the ways I get people to get try new wines,” he says, “is to ensure them that the wine I’m recommending goes well with the food they’re having.” He likes the versatile Tempranillo with just about everything. (See tasting notes sidebar, this page.)
There’s another place to find Pierce: the new tasting room on Cannery Row. The room evokes images of John Steinbeck’s 1935 novel Tortilla Flat, a story about Monterey’s paisanos and their daily quest to eat, drink wine and relax. The 1915 building still has creaky wooden floors that create an ambience unmatched on Cannery Row. The wines have just as much character.
Pierce pours tastes, supplies knowledge and watches guests become believers.
“The best thing to do is put the wine in front of someone,” he says, “and let them taste it for themselves.”