Get the dirt

Get the dirt
I always gravitate toward wine dinners and tastings that educate. So I ran to Robert Mondavi Winery’s “A Taste of Place: To Kalon Vineyards” at Akasha restaurant in Culver City.
With director of winemaking Genevieve Janssens to speak to us, right, and a menu that included diver scallops, wild mushroom agnolotti, and American Imperial Kobe Rib-eye, it was a foodie dream. But the biggest treat was a “tasting” of soil at a pre-dinner reception.
Can you really taste the terroir in the wine? We started by sampling dirt from Windrose Farm in Paso Robles. Our hosts showed us the soil, placed it in a wine glass and poured in some water. We swirled and sniffed: sandy with distinct pepper elements. Then we munched Siberian Kale grown in that soil. Yes, the pepper notes shone through. Next it was Coleman Farms dirt from Carpinteria. It was darker and smelled more like clay. The celery root we tasted reflected this “sweeter” note. 
At the bar in the dining room we were presented with wine glasses of To Kalon soil from Oakville. Mondavi’s sacred place for growing cabernet, To Kalon means “the highest beauty” in ancient Greek. The soil was actually pretty—a deep shade of khaki. It comes from land that backs up to the Mayacamas mountains and is referred to as “Coombs gravelly loam.” I’m no dirt geek but just the smell was enchanting. When water was poured into it, aromatics leapt into the air. The overtones were vegetal: sage, moss, and spice. Not the strong black pepper but exotic Indian spice notes of cumin and coriander would be my descriptors. I immediately tasted Mondavi’s 2007 Reserve Cabernet and finally made a connection between the term “terroir” and actual dirt. The wine in the glass did smell like those exotic spices combined with the rich berry fruits. Amazing. I was supposed to detect its influence in the Fumé Blanc Reserve 2009 but could not—I’ll leave that to a more expert taster than me.
The bottom line was I’ll never taste a cabernet from that appellation the same way again. Those strong elements of complexity in the soil will forever color my appreciation of their cabernet. They rang through again in a second side-by-side tasting of two very different cabs: the 2007 reserve and another from 1996 that was still holding its fruit but balancing that with those lovely aromatics.  
A native of France, Janssens’ goal is to follow Robert Mondavi’s wishes to make a wine that can’t be grown anywhere but Napa. She describes the vineyard in French terms. “I like to call To Kalon the first growth of Napa,” she said, then noted the consistent characteristics of wine made from grapes grown in that soil. “It’s fruity with minerality and herbs—verbena and sage. Black olive can be strong in certain years, along with blackberries and huckleberries. They’re wines with big tannins and suppleness: power, and intensity, elegance and finesse.”
I was really impressed with the To Kalon cabernets, they also served a pinot noir grown in Carneros and a lively sauv blanc botrytis dessert wine. On the table, servers had placed a test tube of To Kalon dirt. Offer it to me at the beginning of the evening and I might have refused it. But at the end? I carried it carefully home, looking forward to letting my foodie and wino friends check it out. I won’t put it in a wine glass with water for them because I want it to last forever, but if they promise not to spill it, I will let them have a whiff.
If you’re dying for a good wine dinner, make it Thursday night. Morton’s Steakhouse at South Coast Plaza Village will host Paso Robles’ Denner Vineyards with a 5-course meal at 6 p.m. $120 per person.—Anne Valdespino

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