I’m now going to gush about the best wine-tasting I’ve ever been to—ever. I am going to spend the next 900 words or so name-dropping winemakers you’ve probably never heard of, and describing wine-making techniques that will bore you to tears. Consider yourself warned.
Earlier this December, the incomparable desert wine goddess, Christine Soto of Dead or Alive bar in Palm Springs, did what no one in this industry thought was possible: She managed to convince a laundry list of the best and brightest winemakers in California to converge at the Ace Hotel for one day of wine-tasting fun in the sun, for the first Palm Springs Wine Fest. You might think that wouldn’t be such a difficult task, given the beauty of our desert this time of year. I mean, who wouldn’t want to come to sunny Palm Springs in December for a little work/play? Well, the truth is the desert has not exactly been on the forefront of cutting-edge food and wine concepts. The wine scene here has always been a little conservative, if not staid and out of touch. So, to have a venerable list of the coolest “kids” making wine in California right here in our back yard was not only pretty damn exciting; it had never been done.
When I first walked in to the open-air event space at the Ace, it was a little overwhelming. There was a live band and throngs of people wedged between rows of tables. It was hard to even know where to begin. From across the room, I saw Abe Schoener of Scholium Project. I hadn’t seen him in years, and I was certain he wouldn’t know me from Adam. Back in my Napa days, I would sit at the bar of a local hotspot called Norman Rose and hope to get a seat next to him so I could eavesdrop (in a non-threatening fangirl kind of way) on all the cool wine stories he and his buddies would share. I introduced myself to him a couple of times—each attempt a little more awkward and pathetic. But he is such a sincerely nice guy that I think he just pretended not to notice my social ineptitude. But here at this tasting, in my hometown, I suddenly manufactured the confidence to walk right over to him, introduce myself (again) and immediately dive into a conversation about the gloriously strange glass of white wine from his table. It’s called La Géante, and it’s a blend of a couple of white varietals, none of which I can remember, except there’s 1 percent gewürztraminer in there, and I think he said something about skin-contact sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. But what makes this wine so crazy is how he’s making it. Abe proceeded to tell me about some friends of his at Hiyu Wine Farm in Hood River, Ore., making a solera red that blew his mind. So he decided to try his hand at it with some white wines. If you’re curious about the solera process, it’s chiefly used in sherry and other fortified-wine production, and it creates a multi-vintage aged product by fractionally blending the liquid through a series of barrels from top to bottom, with the oldest liquids being in the barrels on the ground. Fascinating stuff, right?! The wine was beautiful and complicated and fearless. I was off to a good start.
From there, I looked for any table that had an opening. I needed to regain a little personal space from the shoulder-to-shoulder New York City sidewalk vibe and blissfully found a spot at the Minus Tide table. Best discovery of the day! These guys released their first vintage in 2015, with the focus being the cool-climate wines of Mendocino. The first wine they poured for me was a riesling. As with Abe and his unique approach to wine-making, these guys do it a little differently, too. This riesling is made by carbonic maceration. If you’ve stuck with me this far, this might be where I lose you … but if you’re a wine geek, you just shouted out loud: “A RIESLING?! CARBONIC MACERATION?! WHAT?!” Yup. It’s 100 percent carbonic, whole-cluster pressed, unrefined and unfiltered from only 40 vines located in the pinot noir dominant Langley Vineyard in Anderson Valley. Just enough for one barrel. I’m choking up a little; it would be impossible for me to love a wine more. That said, this darling wine didn’t overshadow the stunning Feliz Vineyard Carignane—also 100 percent carbonic and 100 percent mouthwateringly delicious—or their velvety-rich malbec from the famed Alder Springs Vineyard. The unbridled happiness I feel knowing these wines exist is only shattered by the fact that everything they make is sold out, and I can’t get any.
Field Recordings from Paso Robles has long been a favorite of mine, and I had the pleasure of tasting their orange wine called Skins. This is a blend of chenin blanc, pinot gris and verdelho, and the result is a wine that, unlike a lot of other orange wines I’ve tasted, is full of bright acidity with that savory, cidery aroma and textured mouthfeel, without the bitter wood varnish component that can sometimes be too overpowering.
I think I hung out at the Red Car table for about an hour. The founder, Richard Crowell, and I discussed our mutual sentiments regarding scores; the beauty of syrah and why everyone should drink it all the time; and the rugged and picturesque vineyards from which the fruit for their insanely balanced and elegant wines comes. He was like a friend you’ve known for years, and our conversations were my high point of the day. If you haven’t tried Red Car, go to Eureka! in Indian Wells right now, and have a glass of their rose. Oh hell, just have a bottle. I did.
I hopped from table to table, tasting one gloriously foot-trodden wine after the next. More often than not, these wines are naturally fermented, and generally left un-fooled-around with by the hands that made them. All of these winemakers were there to tell a story, and what I found so endearing is that they were all so happy to be here in our desert. Many of them had vacationed here as children or had been here years ago without much reason to return … until now. The energy in the room was palpable, and everyone there, whether they were pouring or drinking, was genuinely excited to be there.
There is a wine awakening happening here in the Coachella Valley. Go buy a bottle of something fun and be a part of it.
Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.