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California Wine: Send in the Clones

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You know it's gone past drinking to deep thinking when a winemaker on a panel says, "It's actually a cultivar, not a clone," and you don't hear a single snore. Of course, this serious moment came after an introduction by wild wit Peter Cargasacchi to the Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance Wine and Fire Symposium's Pinot Noir Panel on Clone 115M that began, "Now that Area 51 has been declassified, we can tell you a little bit about Clone 115," and ended, "If I told you any more I'd have to kill you."

UFOs were a just one of the many out there metaphors that came up during this fascinating chat about Santa Barbara's most famous varietal and one of its major clones (since grapes tend to be grafted to rootstock and don't get to reproduce sexually, the poor things). Kris Curran from D'Alfonso Curran Wines called it "the workhorse of pinot cultivars," and Bill Wathen of Foxen Winery said, "115 is a really important tool, like having all your surfboards in the garage and you always fall back on your favorite -- 115 is a favorite."

Adam Lee of Siduri, happy to be included since his winery is based in Sonoma although he makes pinot from grapes throughout California and Oregon, took things even further, pointing out how 115 is, according to the Urban Dictionary, "A ghetto south side hood in Edmonton, Canada. Only two small gangs roll through 115." He mostly did this to annoy rap-hating seminar moderator Josh Raynolds from Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar, but continued, "It was a weird gang of people trying this sh** -- an interesting exciting time. 115 has lost a bit of its luster, we moved to higher numbers...now it's retro." Raynolds, not missing a beat, jumped in, "It's the Run DMC of pinots."

The samples the seven-person panel brought for us to taste were all fascinating, particularly because all were from the barrel, and most would be blended with other pinot clones. "These wines are absolute babies right now," Brandon Sparks-Gillis of Dragonette Cellars said, but that didn't stop them from showing like very precocious youth, if a bit more rough and tannic than the pinots from Sta. Rita Hills we tend to know and love (Curran, for instance, ages hers for four years before selling them). Sparks-Gillis said of his 2012 Cargasacchi Vineyard pinot "it's a magical combination of interesting richness and aromatic complexity, the holy grail of power without weight."

Since every sample was of 115, vineyard location got even easier to taste in the glass. Norm Yost of Flying Goat Cellars stressed, "Rio Vista Vineyard is the most warm in Sta. Rita Hills, tucked in a corner so it doesn't get much wind and it ripens sooner." He pointed out how this sample was therefore spicier than the rest we'd tasted (he was right, of course), and it would be a component for their Dijon Clone blend.

And while 115 might no longer have the flash of other clones, Lee from Siduri said, "We always taste blind for blends, and every barrel that made the 2012 Clos Pepe Vineyard pinot was 115; that's a testament to how 115 is still vital."

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