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  • Writer's pictureJoy Murphy

Rex Pickett's Discovery and Love for Ancien Wines

Since moving to the city of Napa a little over a year ago I have been a frequent visitor at the Vintners Collective in downtown Napa. It's by far, to me, the finest tasting room in all the world because it does a number of things that most tasting rooms don't. First, it's one of the coolest buildings, a two-story stone masonry edifice standing sentinel at the corner of Main and Clinton. Second, it boasts a beautiful bar that can handle about a dozen oenophiles. It has upstairs private seating, but the bar is where the action is, and the conversation is convivial and always wine-knowledgeable. The Vintners Collective pours a curated list of about ten wineries. Their selections are focused on small producers and the finest winemakers in Napa/Sonoma. It is here where I discovered the Ancien Wines and its winemaker Ken Bernards.

Ken Bernards of Ancien Wines and me:

Pinot lovers
Sideways Author, Rex Pickett and Ken Bernards of Ancien Wines

Ken, a big believer in site-driven wines, sources from as far south as the Santa Ynez Valley (the famous Fiddlestix vineyard) to the Shea Vineyard in Oregon, and everywhere in-between: Russian River, Napa, Carmel ... Yes, it's true I'm a Pinot Noir lover and have been ever since I wrote Sideways in the late nineties. That passion for the grape was annealed in the cauldron of my mild antipathy for the heavy, tannic Bordeaux varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc, Petite Verdot, and, yes, Merlot. I love the range of expression in Pinot Noir from terroir to terroir and from winemaker to winemaker. True, since the movie came out nearly 20 years ago, a lot of mediocre, and even bad, PN has flooded the market, and a lot of people might wonder what my alter ego Miles Raymond must have been thinking when, played by Paul Giamatti, he waxed on about its "haunting" flavors. Mediocre, supermarket, Pinot Noir can turn you off from the grape. But when it's done right, it can reach empyreal heights.

Ken, in my humble opinion, is producing some of the finest Pinots in the world – and I'm going to except Burgundy from that statement because it's such a different terroir, and its wines are ludicrously out of the price range of even the most passionate Pinotphiles. From bottle to bottle, from vineyard to vineyard, Ken's wines are lush, geologically complex, and provide the full three-act palate experience that all the great wines—and plays, and books, and movies—should deliver, but which many don't. So many wines have a front attack and you maybe get a tease of excitement, but in the mid-palate they disintegrate, collapse, often turn harsh and bitter and show their real amateurishness.

I got a chance to meet Ken and talk about his winemaking techniques. He's a modest guy. Without getting too geeky, he uses basket presses which, he believes, more gently crushes the splendiferous fruit he sources. He does as little as possible in his facility so as not to introduce too much oxygen. Fermentations are long, and often involve native yeasts. The wines rest in oak—a nice combination of neutral and new—for a year-and-a-half and longer so that they can evolve, soften. Ken is a non-interventionist winemaker. Everything is gravity flow. He reminds me of an Italian winemaker I met in Chianti Classico who, when I asked him about his winemaking philosophy, looked at me and said, "I take what the vineyard gives me."

I love every single one of Ken's Pinots, but my current favorites are his Jouissance, sourced from a tiny vineyard in the Russian River and his Coombsville Mink Vineyard from, shockingly, a small parcel in Napa. As a writer, I'm a fan of lyrical rhapsodizing, but of late it's Ken's Ancien single vineyard Pinots I've been fond of extolling, the ones which have been inspiring poetry. In the case of Ken and his Ancien Wines I have to say he coaxes the most out of the tremendous grapes he's sourcing. His Pinots soar across the palate. At his new tasting room in Napa I got a chance to taste some of his older vintages from as far back as '07, '10, and '13, and I was stunned by how fresh and delicious they still tasted. None of them had collapsed. They all showed so beautifully. Ken's wines might be site-driven, but he chooses the sites, and in his barrel room, he works more like a true artist, never wanting to cut corners, always wanting to extract the finest expression of the vineyard lots he magically divinates to. From site selection to harvest to barrelling, he makes highly subjective decisions, akin to a writer, and lives with the results. In his case, it's all five-star reviews. We should all, artists and winemakers alike, be so lucky.

Russian River Pinot Noir
Ancien Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Jouissance

You too can experience Rex Pickett's Discovery and Love for Ancien Wines by visiting his Napa Tasting Room or the Vintners Collective in Napa.

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1 коментар

Garret Murphy
Garret Murphy
17 лют.

Hi Rex,

It was really nice hanging out with you at Vintner’s Collective today, I am grateful for our friendship and humbled by your kind comments, in your wonderful segment about my all time favorite Pinot producer and person Ken Bernards. How lucky I was, crossing his path almost 20 years ago, I had lost all hope of finding an extraordinary Pinot Noir producer in Napa Valley, and one that produced delicious wines that wouldn’t break the bank!

So cheers to you and Ken!

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