Jack Stuart of Benessere Vineyards and the Napa Vintage Perspective tasting

The Negress finished up her time in Napa by avoiding some of the usual pitfalls of the pre-Premiere Napa Valley events. She could have gone to all the AVA tastings, greeting the sheep at Spring Mountain, straining to hear over the throngs tasting auction lots. But this year, it was time for a change. She did start off by doing the Pinot Noir division of the Napa Vintage Perspective tasting at the Rudd Center for Wine Studies at the CIA. Then she ended up chatting with Jack Stuart over at Benessere Vineyards. Stuart had been the winemaker at Silverado until 2004. In short, more perspective. Some of the Pinot vintages were oaky fruit bombs. One producer, I just wrote “indifferent across the board.” Life is too short to drink indifferent wine. The Negress brought up her disappointment with the tasting to Stuart, and he offered the following: “I think some of the young wine makers haven’t been around long enough to know what a traditional Pinot Noir tastes like. American new oak is too much for Pinot. It’s a more delicate wine.”

Wine writers tasting Pinot Noir at the Napa Perspective tasting

All work and no play makes for a dull wine life

At Benessere, which took over the old Charles F. Shaw winery (yeah Chuck’s old haunt before his name was sold and slapped on oceans of plonk), they made 124 cases of 2008 Pinot Nero. But the majority of their 4,000 to 5,000 case production is Sangiovese, Zinfandel and Pinot Grigio. The half bottle of 2006 Sangiovese the Negress took with her back to Meadowood paired nicely with a venison entrĂ©e. She’s waiting to try the Zins, regular and the Black Glass, on a suitable occasion. She tasted the regular Zin at the winery, but only remembers that it was light on its feet.

We also sampled the 2010 Pinot Grigio, which is the first vintage that is Stuart’s from start to finish. Most people’s gateway Pinot Grigio is Santa Margherita, and that’s deeply unfortunate. The wine is crazy out of balance and almost syrupy. When Stuart arrived at Benessere, his goal was to make the Pinot Grigio less sweet. He has succeeded and maintained the varietal’s distinct minerality.

Stuart took his cue from the climate of the Alto Adige in Italy, where the weather is cool. His Pinot Grigio is on 42 acres in Carneros, which is also a cool growing area thanks to the moderating influence of San Pablo Bay. The juice is cold temperature fermented in stainless steel, and then spends some time in old barrels.

One thing Stuart was conscious of when he came to Benessere was that he was coming to a place where he admired the wines they were making, but he knew that he couldn’t make any sudden changes. He did ended up toning down the sweetness of the Pinot Grigio, but it was, “a controlled evolution.”

During his days at Silverado, Stuart supervised some replanting of the vineyards, especially after a 1986 phylloxera outbreak. Current Silverado general manager Russ Weis said the wider spacing of the vines was a leftover from the old days, but Stuart said they used 4×6 and 6×8 spacing and it was relatively recent. “They’re not as narrow as some, and we did change to headtrained, cane-pruned vines from the cordon and spur training.”

The Negress threw out an analogy to winemaking and Oscar fashions. In the days of Bjork and her swan and Kim Basinger and her mermaid tail, errors in judgment shone out like shook foil. Now, with everyone being guided by stylists, the jaw dropping miscues are gone, but blandness has seized the day. Isn’t this as true of wine where “meh” has replaced “Ewwww” as the watchword?

Stuart  stopped judging wine competitions because of the “Ewwww” factor.

“When I did judge, out of tasting a dozen wines, the most powerful, odd wine made the strongest impression and they would usually get acknowledged,” Stuart said.

But Stuart also acknowledges the difference between tasting professionally and drinking.

“I had a nice spatlese Riesling when I was out for dinner the other night and it went well with the chicken and couscous. But I was also with good friends and it was a lovely night. When I was working on the Pinot Grigio, I shut the door of my office and tasted without any distractions. I was looking for flaws and ways the wine was off-kilter. But you have to separate work from play.”

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