It is often remarked that listening is a lost art. I disagree. The listeners are out there, but most of them are waiting silently to be found. The trouble nowadays is that such strong and silent types are easily drowned out by today’s over saturated and often shrill media landscape. Including, of course, social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Drew is like that. The wines will speak volumes if you have the patience and gentleness to listen. If they aren’t overwhelmed by loud mouthed wine critics singing their abundant praises first. If you care about California wine as much as I do, we simply can’t let that happen.
Some explanation may be in order, so that you don’t misread my message. Winemakers as experienced and talented as Jason Drew, who runs his small family-run estate winery with the help of his wife, Molly, in Mendocino County on a high ridge line overlooking the Pacific Ocean, won’t let high scores & top 100 rankings in Wine & Spirits go to his head. He’s a hard working grape grower and winemaker (vigneron) who toils from ground to grape to glass to make his wines, and I doubt he’ll change his approach now just because the wine magazines and online experts are starting to take notice of his skills crafting expert renditions of Burgundian and cool climate Rhône wines. But you as a wine consumer will, because the power of suggestion can be a dangerous thing.
Even experienced wine drinkers are prone to be swayed by an effusive tasting note or laudatory review they encounter while researching a future tasting trip. It’s human nature to care what others think, even if we try to approach a wine tasting appointment with an open mind. Drew doesn’t make that so easy anymore. They have worked exceedingly hard to turn the Mendocino Ridge vineyard growing region into something of the next great frontier for Northern California wine enthusiasts and also helped to solidify the already sky high reputation of Anderson Valley for making great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. What’s not to admire about that?
I think that there is a fundamental difference between searching for “greatness” in a glass of wine and celebrating something essential, enduring, and classically styled about its “grapeness.” Greatness can be found anywhere, from sports to music to cooking and more, but grapeness is unique to wine. It’s a quality that suggests to me not just an understanding of terroir, which is fundamentally a deep and abiding respect for place, but also a dynamic understanding of heritage, which is fundamentally an abiding appreciation for the passage of time and the role that we in the present play in bridging the gap between the past and future yet to come. The best winemakers, like Drew, are able intuitively to grasp and balance both.
The problem with wine critics is that they are constantly seeking out greatness and pounce when they encounter it, as many already have with Drew. So tasters who come to Anderson Valley to encounter greatness for themselves know ahead of time what to look for: balance, aroma, flavor, finish, food friendliness, age worthiness, texture. They run the risk of talking over top of the wines, which speak a different and altogether quieter sort of language than the critics and cognoscenti do. If you shout at the wines, they won’t shout back. They will ignore you. And you will miss out on what actually makes them such interesting company. Let them start the conversation first. Listen and learn. You may be surprised by what happens next.
What made Drew wines special to me upon my first tasting was how honestly and unassumingly they introduced themselves as Syrah, or as Pinot, or as Chardonnay, of the sort raised to maturity in rock, windswept homes surrounded by redwood forests overlooking the ocean, nurtured by doting parents who treated them kindly and with profound respect for the wonderful natural, organic creatures they are.
These wines tasted the way that I imagine wines made from these grapes have for generations, either in California or Europe, depending on the clonal selections chosen. Jason Drew knows his clones, and he knows his winemaking history, too. He honors the classics while also exploring the potential of his vineyards to generate variations on terms of taste and smell. The fruit, the spice, the floral elements, the earthy and mineral notes, they all felt right. Not loud. Not brawny, but not meek or mild-mannered, either. It’s like a top notch jazz musician who cares enough not to mess up a beloved tune with too many flourishes of brilliance or virtuosity. Not that he couldn’t perform so if asked, but I doubt that he would wish to do that to his grapes. They surely deserve better. Give them freedom of self expression, and they will sing songs of their own design and making.
There are plenty of status seeking, ambitious, and committed winemakers in California out there. Many make superb wine. And there are also great vineyards that have proven themselves as unique enough to warrant the term Grand Cru terroir. Drew may well deserve to be celebrated as a top 100 winemaker. I don’t disagree. His Mendocino Ridge estate, Fâite de Mer Farm, may one day achieve world-class status. Good for the vines. They could probably use the publicity and added encouragement to produce consistently superior vintages. Personally, I don’t need to be convinced of a Drew wine’s capability for achieving greatness. Its grapeness is enough for me. But that’s because I took the time to listen until the wines spoke to me in their own language, not mine, which has been corrupted by too many scores, tasting notes, and human interest stories to be of much use anymore. If you love wine like I do, you owe it to yourself to do a tasting at Drew and see if you have not yet lost the power to listen.