Though I have been writing about the wines made by Gideon Beinstock for 20 years, I met him for the first time three weeks ago at a dinner party in the Sierra Foothills, northeast of Sacramento. Around dusk, a group of us were sitting outside, and Beinstock opened a bottle of his Clos Saron Out of the Blue 2013, a blend of 90 percent cinsault and five percent each syrah and graciano grapes. This was also my first encounter with a wine under the Clos Saron label, which he and his wife Saron Rice launched in 1996, while he was winemaker for Renaissance Vineyard and Winery. You know how it is, friends. You sniff a wine, take a sip, and you know that this is the real thing, an amalgam of such intensity and expansiveness, of such vibrancy and resonance that most other wines seem amateurish in comparison. The next day, I visited Clos Saron and tasted through the winery’s currant releases and wines in the barrel. My colleagues on this occasion were Gary Paul Fox, owner and winemaker of Bangor Ranch Vineyard & Winery, and Cara Zujewski, who with her partner Aaron Mockrish, operates the local Three Cedars Ranch, she doing produce, he raising sheep.
The Israeli-French Beinstock arrived at what became Renaissance in the 1970s and helped plant the original vines. He spent most of the 1980s working in vineyards in Burgundy and the Rhone Valley. and when he returned to Yuba County, he took the position as assistant winemaker to Diane Werner, widow of the estate’s first winemaker Karl Werner. Beinstock became winemaker for Renaissance in 1994, a job he held until 2011. He told me that for his last few years at Renaissance, his “heart was not in it,” and he extricated himself from the Fellowship of Friends, the spiritual organization that owns the estate, and took up the reins of Clos Saron full-time.
Clos Saron occupies a rustic compound near the community of Oregon House — motto: “We’re not actually in Oregon!” — where the structure in which he and his wife and children live lies a few steps from the winery. The Home Vineyard extends practically from their front door down a slight slope. Also on site are sheep, chickens and geese. Beinstock’s methodology is about as minimal as winemaking gets. The winery possesses neither a crusher nor a destemmer; all crushing is done by foot-stomping, and fermentation takes place with stems in open-top casks; because of the stems, fermentation is relatively short, that is, four to 10 days. Grapes are not inoculated with commercial yeast, but fermentation is impelled by natural yeast on the grape skins. Acidity is never “corrected.” New oak makes no appearance at Clos Saron. Battonage (stirring) and racking do not occur while wines are in barrel; wines are only racked directly to bottle. Sulfur dioxide is applied at a minimum degree, 20/25 parts per million. Red wines are neither fined nor filtered.
The result, to my palate, are wines that display a remarkable measure of authenticity and integrity, purity and intensity, the exhilarating quality of a wine that goes almost directly from the vineyard to the glass. I asked Beinstock if he missed working with cabernet sauvignon, the grape that put Renaissance on the map, admittedly a small map considering the limited production. He said, “Truly, what I’m most fascinated with is soil, not the grape. I worked with cabernet at Renaissance because of the microclimate. It’s one of the world’s best sites for cabernet. Here I work with different grapes because of the location. A lean soil over layers of volcanic ash and decomposed granite.” The Home Vineyard slopes gently to the northeast at 1600 feet above sea-level.
How do you find these wines, usually made in a total quantity of about 800 cases a year? They’re available at a handful of restaurants and retailers in California, New York and around Boston and Washington D.C.; or from the winery website: clossaron.com
Current and recent releases:
>Clos Saron Syrah 2013. An experimental blend of Stone Soup syrah with 30 percent (white) verdejo; powerful, very spicy and fruity; seductive body and texture. $NA.
>Clos Saron Stone Soup Syrah 2013. Inky purple, penetrating graphite and granitic minerality; very intense and concentrated, very spicy. Try 2017 or ’18 through 2023 to ’25. Typically 60 to 150 cases. About $50
>Clos Saron Stone Soup Syrah 2012. A touch more open and approachable than the ’13; slightly fleshy and meaty, grounded in iodine and iron, bright acidity; fresh with ambient elegance. 2015 through 2025. About $50
>Out of the Blue 2013. 90 percent cinsault, 5 percent syrah, 5 percent graciano. The cinsault vines were planted in 1885, and the vineyard is still owned by the same family. Lovely heft and body, profoundly lively, vibrant and appealing; black and blue fruit scents and flavors, permeated by briers and brambles, graphite and dusty tannins. Approximately 170 cases. About $30.
>A Deeper Shade of Blue 2013. 56 percent syrah, 38 percent old vine grenache, 6 percent verdejo. Quite spicy and minerally, currants and blueberries and plums, slightly macerated and roasted; smooth and polished but earthy, rooty, slightly granitic. About $35.
>Pinot Noir 2011. Grapes from the Home Vineyard. Dark ruby with a violet tinge; deeply earthy and minerally, a bit of iron; but fresh and clean and penetrating, currant and plum fruit, tremendous presence, vibrancy and tenacity; dusty tannins but sleek supple texture; one of the most individual and expressive pinot noirs I have tasted. Approximately 108 cases. About $60.
>Stone Soup Syrah 2011. Awesome purity, intensity and concentration; you feel the rock-strew soil of that precipitous vineyard, the deep foundation of tannin and acidity, the cut and edge of graphite, the spareness and elegance yet the paradoxically voluptuous aura of ripe blackberries, currants and plums. Approximately 104 cases. About $50.
>Heart of Stone Syrah 2009. With 10 percent viognier. Very earthy, piercing graphite minerality, deeply and darkly spicy, intense and concentrated, black and blue fruit; powerhouse acidity and tannin, briery and brambly, root-like; incredibly supple texture. 125 cases. About $45.
>Cuvee Mysterieuse 2009. 64 percent syrah, 30 percent merlot, 6 percent viognier. Lovely, rich and warm but intense, well-knit, vibrant, supple, resonant; quite floral, very spicy, earthy and imbued with a huge lithic minerally component. About 96 cases. Price $45.
>Black Pearl 2008. 65 percent syrah, 27 percent cabernet sauvignon, 6 percent petit verdot, 2 percent merlot. Ripe, spicy and minerally; black and red cherries and currants with a touch of plum; smoky, briers and brambles, touch of old leather, dusty tannins, vibrant acidity. Approximately 97 cases. About $45.
From the barrel:
First, we tried a couple of wines made from fruit purchased in Lodi, a Tickled Pink Rose 2013 that won’t be released until 2015, 100 percent graciano grapes, a dry, spare, elegant and intellectual rose; and the Carte Blanche 2013, a half-half blend of verdelho and albarino grapes that builds remarkable density and character in the glass while remaining bright, clean, fresh and elevating.
Then, we moved on to the components of pinot noirs from 2013 and 2012, getting an impression of what the separate blocks or lots in the vineyard offer.
For 2013, the North Block (planted in 1999) is a radiant dark purple hue, deep and spicy, with notes of lavender and violets, very dry, bastions of tannin. The South Block is quite earthy and loamy, delivering rooty briers and brambles and tannins that are dominant but not punishing. The Lower Block is indeed the “blockiest,” the most inchoate and unformed, even feral. Older Block, grafted in 1995 to cabernet stock planted in 1980 and interplanted between, feels the most complete and comprehensible as pinot noir, very dry, with spanking acidity but with spice and violets and lovely fruit. Finally, in this group, we tasted the Pinot Noir 2013 that’s a blend of these separate blocks, a wine that’s inky-purple, very dry, impressively vibrant and resonant and starting to be expressive.
For 2012, the North Block offers a hint of floral character but is incredibly intense and concentrated and wrapped by tight tannins. Lower Block is deep, dark and spicy, roiling with earth and loam and quite tannic. Older Block delivers a thread of spice, dried flowers and black fruit through the vibrant acidity and minerally tannins. The blend of these three vineyards — we didn’t taste the 2012 from South Block — felt almost like real pinot noir, complete, confident, both deep and elevating.