It’s said that we eat first with our eyes, meaning that if a plate of food looks appetizing, we will likely dig in, believing that it will be delicious before we’ve taken a bite. If the beet juice has merged with the mashed potatoes, and the meat has the grayish look of a cement block, we don’t get our hopes up too high for how the food will taste. Similarly, wine is also drunk with the eyes, its appearance giving us some idea of what the wine will taste like.
Wine buffs give a lot of weight to a wine’s color, and in fact, the 20-point UC Davis sensory evaluation scale awards up to 4 points for color and appearance. If a Sauvignon Blanc is observed to be “clear, brilliant and pale straw in color,” or something similarly positive, it gets all 4 beauty points. Yet if it’s dull, murky and browning at rim from oxidation, it might get zero appearance points; its highest possible score is 16, even if every other category -- aroma/bouquet, absence of vinegar formation, acidity, sugar, body, flavor, astringency and general quality -- is positive and the wine downright delicious. Of course, a wine that looks nasty has very little chance of tasting anything but nasty, yet if by some miracle it’s tasty, it would still place only mid-pack in scoring because of its visual warts.
For red wine, color is less crucial, because “red” covers a huge range, from candy apple on the light side, to crimson in the middle, to inky on the dark end. Red wine also does a better job of masking appearance faults than whites; the eyes may not see them, but the mouth likely will taste them (and those 4 Davis points are already in the bag).
Grape variety, growing conditions, viticultural practices and cellar decisions all can impact the color of a red wine, and the trend in the New World is toward darker, blacker wines. Convinced that consumers equate more color with more flavor and thus higher quality, winemakers use every tool in the chest to bolster the color of their wines.
Extended maceration, where the skins of the grapes remain in contact with the juice for a long period of time, is one way to extract color. Another is to add a dollop of inky Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot or other very dark-skinned grape to a Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah or Merlot. And it’s not much of a secret that some winemakers add Mega Purple and other grape concentrates to deepen the color of their red wines. Consumers might not be pleased to learn about such an additive, yet it’s entirely legal, as Mega is made from grapes (Rubireds grown in California’s Central Valley, to be precise).
Yet a little Mega Purple goes a long way, and if a winemaker uses too much, the concentrate takes over, damping the wine’s aromas and leaving a sweet impression on the palate. My WRO colleague, W. Blake Gray, has written about tasting Mega Purple mixed with water, describing it as smelling like “a gymnasium floor.” That’s certainly not a trait anyone would want in any wine.
I admire a deeply hued wine as much as anyone, but when it comes to Pinot Noir, I’m in the less-is-more camp. A saturated-purple Pinot gives me pause before I lift the wine to my nose, then to my mouth. Will it be too heavy, too rich, too plush and/or too dense to let the Pinot-ness of the variety shine through? Unfortunately, this is often the case, particularly with California Pinot Noir, so it’s a most pleasant surprise when an inky, opaque one tastes fresh and refined.
A Pinot Noir that is ruby in color and translucent in appearance hooks me before I taste it, its clarity suggesting that the wine will be crisp and elegant, with refreshing acidity. There is a hint -- though there is never a promise -- that the winemaker did not excessively manipulate the wine (see Mega Purple above) or blend other varieties into it ... that it might have fruity/floral fragrance and succulent red berry and black cherry flavors, with maybe some cranberry and pomegranate ... that it has a chance of delivering subtle yet oh-so-Pinot-like truffle, black tea, mineral, forest floor and spice notes, which all lend complexity and interest to Pinot Noir.
However, just as deeply colored Pinot Noirs can surprise me with their refinement, lighter-colored Pinots can disappoint with their limpidity and lack of interest. While my “drink with my eyes” vision is 20/20 most of the time with Pinot Noir, sometimes I’m fooled by that giant “E” on the top row of the optometrist’s eye chart.
There was no foolin’ when I tasted five 2008 Pinot Noirs from Gary Farrell’s new-ish Alysian Wines brand from Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley. Each was focused, elegant, refreshing and varietally true -- and 100% Pinot Noir. While the color of the five wines varied somewhat, there was admirable consistency in the ruby to dark-ruby hue of each -- no purple in this bunch. Each wine’s appearance and taste followed classic Pinot Noir lines, with translucency and purity.
My tasting notes go into more detail on each wine -- Rochioli River Block, Rochioli-Allen Block, Floodgate Vineyard Rock Hill, Floodgate Vineyard West Block and the multi-vineyard Russian River Selection -- yet know that each wine is textbook Pinot Noir, without toasty oak, blended-in varieties or Mega Purple to intrude on pure Pinot-ness.
Farrell sold his Gary Farrell Vineyards and Winery to Allied Domecq in 2004, yet remained as winemaker – even after Beam Wine Estates bought the brand from Allied Domecq in 2005. He yearned to get back to hands-on winemaking, and did so in 2007, partnering with venture capitalist/vineyard owner/vintner Bill Hambrecht to establish Alysian Wines in the Russian River Valley.
Farrell’s story a fascinating one, although abbreviated here. He went from being a political science major at Sonoma State University to a cellar job at Davis Bynum Winery in the Russian River Valley, whose Pinot Noir grapes came largely from the Rochioli Vineyard two miles away on Westside Road. When Joe Rochioli decided to produce his own wines in 1982, he hired Farrell to make them, at Davis Bynum. When Joe and his son, Tom, realized they needed their own winery, they called on Farrell to help design it.
It was at this time, 1982, that Farrell began producing his own wines, under the Gary Farrell label. That brand continues under the Ascentia Wine Estates umbrella, and Farrell reports, happily, that its Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays continue to be made in a restrained, elegant style under the direction of winemaker Susan Reed.
“It’s so exciting to be fully immersed in winemaking again,” Farrell said. “My whole career, I’ve been able to make the wines I want, and not what others have told me to make. Alysian is the extention of that.”
At the end of my tasting with Farrell last week, I said, as I had so many times before, that succulence and texture are Pinot Noir’s greatest attributes. He nodded in agreement. I know that color is important, yet it’s not the only barometer by which great wines are judged. And color can surprise, both positively and negatively.
Gary Farrell’s wines have always had succulence and scintillating texture, no matter the brand. He’s now back in a big way with Alysian, and based on my recent tasting, his Pinot Noirs are better than ever.