You’ll have to excuse me, but last night was the last night my parents were in town – they live in London and were visiting San Diego, so I had to whip out some of the awesome ‘cuz my Dad likes a good bottle of wine every bit as much as Julian and I do. Given that I was concentrating more on the company than the wine, I decided not to write about these two wines right away: as a result, what you’re getting isn’t a proper tasting note, but rather further musing on the difference between these two wines.
We began the evening by opening the Monte Bello. This is arguably one of the finest wines produced in California; every once in a while, usually when I’m feeling flush with cash and slightly inebriated, I’ll cave to Ridge’s offer of Monte Bello futures (sadly, they aren’t really doing that any longer; instead, you have to sign up for a subscription program). $400 or so gets you a six pack, or 12 half bottles; then, you have to wait a couple of years until they deliver the bottles to your door. At this point, I’ve got some of the 2000 and 2001… and the 2005 was delivered to my office last week.
Within a few minutes of opening the Monte Bello, I flew off onto one of my usual spiels about how truly excellent wines can almost be diagrammed on staff paper – there should be different things going on in different registers. Perhaps there’s some floral perfume in the treble, and some deep, heavy bass in the sense of wood or roasted coffee; at the very least, there should be a common thread in the midrange that holds the entire wine together.
The 2005 Monte Bello was… very difficult to accurately describe. There was definitely a vanilla perfume above the entire construction, with some classic cabernet sauvignon fruit, with an underpinning of dirty violet perfume (presumably the petit verdot). No matter how many times we smelled that wine, all of its components drifted in and out of focus, perfectly balanced, perfectly harmonious. You had the rich, mulberry (and very, very young!) notes some times; other times, you mostly smelled vanilla, sandalwood, and eventually camphor. It was incredible.
My Dad and I decided it would be interesting to set our glasses aside for a while – we wanted to see what would happen with an hour or two of air – so we did, and went for the other bottle I’d grabbed from the cellar: a Quixote petite sirah. Both of these wines are roughly in the same price range: $33 for a tenth of the Monte Bello, and $60 for the Quixote. Both of these wines are hugely enjoyable. Both of these wines will probably send shivers down your spine with sheer physical delight. And yet, only one of these wines is a great wine.
The Quixote was huge. Heck, my Dad’s teeth went dark purple in a few minutes. It’s a massive, hulking wine: very rich, obviously very expensive, and with an overwhelming sense of espresso towards the finish. It screams California: this isn’t a Rutherglen durif, not even close. It’s ripe – not hyperripe in the Barossa sense – and it’s obviously been raised in the best French barrels money can buy. The tannins are fine, sweet, and delicious.
What’s missing is of course a sense of place. Just as a wine like the Mollydooker Carnival of Points (er, Love) can be huge, intense, delicious, and all of those good things, the Quixote petite sirah is huge, intense, delicious, and a visceral thrill. I kept thinking of Robert Musil, though: this is a wine without qualities. That is, it doesn’t appear to come from anywhere: this is what happens when you take a plant, apply the most awesome growing technology (canopy management, microirrigation, whatever) imaginable, stick it in the most expensive barrels you can find, and then bottle it in bottles with exquisite labels. By the time we finished the bottle, we had gotten over the initial thrill of it, and began to wonder… is that all there is?
We then went back to the Monte Bello. Two hours’ time had caused the wine to soften appreciably; my Dad described it as “sensuous,” and I wouldn’t disagree. Unusually for so-called New World wines, the Ridge seemed carefully designed and constructed to express beauty, not power: more importantly, it tastes like itself and not like any other wine out there. The 2000 and 2001 both had the same, impossible to describe feeling to them… a feeling that what you’re drinking couldn’t possibly be duplicated anywhere else on Earth. Just as with a Hunter semillon or a good Burgundy, you just knew that you were drinking an incredible wine from a place like no other on Earth.
This is the difference between the excellent and the great: complexity, harmony, balance, and fidelity to place.