Writing about and — the necessary preliminary — drinking wine is a voyage of discovery. I won’t say that any new vineyard has made me feel quite like “stout Cortez” who, according to Keats, “star’d at the Pacific — and all his men/ Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—/ Silent, upon a peak in Darien.” But wine is in a deep sense about more than the fermented juice of the grape. It is about place — terroir, of course, but also place in a larger sense: place as habitation, place as community, which means place as the stage whereon manners, romance, technique and custom perform for the gods of pleasure. It is also about history and personality and their distillate: money, which ushers in snobbery and its accoutrements.
That is one of the reasons writing about wine is so engaging. The wine itself, with its acids and tannins, its fruit, scent, proof and succulence, is only — albeit an indispensable — part of the story.
Which puts me in mind of an observation that the novelist Arnold Bennett made in his notebooks. “For you,” the lady says, “love means only one thing.” “No,” the man replies, “it means twenty things. But it does not mean nineteen.”
I don’t recall if I have had occasion to quote from Wallace Stevens’s great sprawling poem “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” in these columns. It’s uneven, in my view, but one of its rubrics articulates a great principle that Bennett would approve and should animate wine making and drinking as well as poetry: “It Must Give Pleasure.”
I am happy to report that my latest discovery, Tolosa Winery in Edna Valley, California, measures up nicely. The name of the winery comes from the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, the mission dedicated to Saint Louis, Bishop of Toulouse. By coincidence, if you believe in coincidences, the winery’s new(ish) winemaker is the distinguished Frederic Delivert, who hails from Toulouse.
Where is Edna Valley? I didn’t know. It’s in Central Coast, California, south of the powerhouses of Napa and Sonoma, cheek-by-jowl to San Luis Obispo, just a few miles in from the coast. The vineyard was started by Robin Baggett, a recovering lawyer, and some colleagues in 1998. Baggett and his wife Michelle went on to start the great Napa winery Alpha Omega Collective, which owns Tolosa, in 2006. I may return to Alpha Omega in a future column.
The marine climate is unusual in the San Luis Obispo hills. Cool in the summer, mild in the winter, beset by fog that something called the Pismo Venturi effect clears in the evening. The hillside volcanic soil just west of the San Andreas Fault has the well-drained, rich poverty that grapevines adore. The area has, the winery’s PR observes, “all the elements for crafting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines to rival any in the world.”
That’s quite a claim, and I am not going to take it up. I will say, however, that the four Pinots Noirs and two Chardonnays, all from 2019, that I recently had an opportunity to taste ranged from fetching to fantastic. Now, 2019 was a good vintage in those parts. But not as spectacular as the 2018, which is about as good as it gets. Yet all these 2019 wines were splendid. Indeed, I shared the first — the Tolosa 1772 Pinot Noir from Edna Ranch in Edna Valley — with a friend who exclaimed on first sip, “That’s delicious!”
She was right. The 2019 Pinot Noirs — most of which retail for about $75 — are well structured, floral and fruit-forward wines, complex without being fussy. I am sure they will age well. The 2019 Chardonnays — which retail for about $60 — are a cut above your average premium California Chardonnay. Someone said they were “voluptuous,” which is good enough for government work, but it is worth noting that they have an almost chaste elegance that set them apart from many California Chardonnays. They are firm rather than large-breasted.
The two wines from Tolosa that you should look out for, though, are the Hollister Pinot Noir and the Primera Pinot Noir, which the winery rightly describes as its “flagship.” The Hollister, hailing from a hillside plot just five miles from the Pacific, is rich, deep, and delicious. It will set you back about $130 a bottle, but I know you weren’t asking. The Primera, which I had just last night, really is a special wine. Physically, the bottle features an attractive golf-ball sized cap instead of the traditional lead foil. It is not easy to breach. But the wine is something special. It was clearly too young, but was also full of unfulfilled, unresolved promise. I intend to come back to it in a few years, though given the pressure of inflation I may plop down the $148 per bottle now in hopes of appreciation. But who am I fooling? I may buy some. But the pertinent verb for what follows that is “drink” not “sell.”
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s July 2022 World edition.