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California Wine: Failla Wines, The Anti-Napa

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Sitting on the pleasant porch of a venerable old farmhouse along Napa's famed Silverado Trail this May, it seemed a bit of a surprise that the red wine I swirled in my tasting glass wasn't Cabernet Sauvignon, the valley's king grape. Nope, this was Pinot Noir, and a very Burgundian one at that. But I was tasting at Failla Wines (pronounced FAY-la, and it's Italian, or more accurately, Sicilian), and the wine was made by Ehren Jordan, who has made a habit of not being habitual. For 18 years he was the winemaker at Turley Wine Cellars, best known for their bodacious yet beautiful Zinfandels -- my friends and I used to joke the Turley Moore-Earthquake Vineyard got its name because it pushed almost 17% alcohol in some vintages, and was sure to register seismically upon you the day after (especially since it tasted so balanced you'd drink plenty of it). Jordan was also a partner and winemaker at Neyers Vineyards, but has been slowly building up his own winery -- named after his wife Anne-Marie Failla, who runs the business end -- and as of February is devoting himself totally to it, even if that it means less than 5,000 cases a newsletter (the best way to get the wines).

Failla is a 180º turn from Turley, a wine about finesse and grace. While the wine-making happens in Napa, the Estate Vineyard is on the Sonoma Coast, in the relatively newly approved Fort Ross-Seaview AVA. It's an area Jordan grew intrigued by when working for Helen Turley at Marcassin back in 1994 (oh, and how's that for cred?). These are grapes grown with a view, almost a thousand feet elevation above the fog line, so while cool, sunshine is abundant. Failla farms organically -- even more, once at a Turley event I asked Jordan about biodynamics and his eyes lit up -- and water comes from natural springs run through solar powered drip systems. Other people growing in this AVA are Flowers, Hirsch, and Martinelli, so Jordan is onto something. And that's wonderful expressions of Chardonnay, Syrah, and Pinot Noir.

Not all the wine comes from the Estate Vineyard, there'd be practically none of it if it did, but it all shares the same philosophy: get great fruit and do no harm. Jordan prefers older vines (perhaps that is the Zin maker in him): even one of his whites hails from the Haynes Vineyard, one of the oldest continuously producing Chardonnay vineyards in Napa. And his instincts always seem to lead to fruit sourced by other major vintners: his Keefer Pinot Noir, a subdued but seductive tone poem to the cherry, comes from the same Russian River Green Valley grapes used by Kosta-Browne, Pali, Loring, and Siduri.

The whole portfolio is meant for some age, for much pleasure, and to accompany food, given their strong acidity and low-ish alcohol. And now that Jordan is fully Failla focused, who knows where he will go with his wines that earn so many 90+ scores from critics he could make every teacher's pet envious.

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