The library release wines from Clos Saron are an echo of a bygone era when Clos Saron’s Gideon Beinstock was still piloting the cellar for the infamous doomsday cult The Fellowship of Friends and their once esteemed, now defunct, Renaissance Winery. Gideon’s unique winemaking approach developed as a series of experiments during his time at Renaissance that have been sitting in magnums in Renaissance’s cellars where they’ve slowly evolved into something quite special. The relationship with the cult soured somewhere along the way and Gideon lost access to the vineyards and the old wines that he’d made but thanks to his former apprentices, Aaron and Cara Mockrish of Frenchtown Farms, he’s been able to not only work with the fruit again but access these forgotten treasures.
Once Upon a Time
Bottled more than two decades ago from targeted lots, each is an experiment that evolved into the central Clos Saron wines of the 2000’s. These projects started in 1995 with a Riesling and then moved on to include ideas with cofermentation that have come to typify the Clos Saron approach today. Although a few were released in miniscule quantities, most have not been available ever before.
Originally labeled as Renaissance wines, the corks on these need a little love but Gideon explains that despite the drying corks, the wines inside are surprisingly stable and in fact crave extended decanting. Be gentle and don’t worry when the corks are a bit fussy, the wine beneath is marvelous!
1996 ‘Once Upon a Time’ Cabernet Sauvignon
Gideon recounts the traumatic 1996 harvest with the kind of wry amusement one can adopt only years later. ‘The wines were wretched when they were young’ Gideon says with a smile in his voice. The grapes had barely ripened, the vineyards pocked with mildew outbreaks and without a sorting table he was powerless to overcome the catastrophic decision the vineyard manager had made to hire a bunch of unskilled seasonal workers and tell them to pick absolutely everything. Most of the wines from this harvest are delicate, delightfully freshened by the rough conditions and allowed at last to achieve elegance after years of imprisonment in bottle. THIS particular wine is a bit of an outlier within the 96’s: taken from a particular plot, the grapes were the first to come into the winery and represented a very different level of quality than what the rest of the vintage gave. A mightily structured thing kept nimble by the shadow of the raspy acidity that blighted its sister wines in youth, this Cab is remarkably long lived. It could easily endure another 10-20 years Gideon thinks but for those of us that can’t wait that long he recommends heroic levels of decanting, claiming that the wine really achieves its potential three days after uncorking!
1998 ‘Once Upon a Time Black Pearl’
What eventually became ‘Black Pearl’ started as a curiosity about cofermented Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah that Gideon first encountered when visiting Provencal producer Domaine Trevallon. Seeing some similarities between Trevallon and the terroir at Renaissance, Gideon set out to see what would happen. Although the eventual bottlings of Clos Saron’s ‘Black Pearl’ ended up including Viognier, this is the prototype wine of just Cab and Syrah. The year was highly unusual thanks to the El Nino weather pattern that resulted in incessant rains until the middle of July. Of all the wines he toiled over that year, the only one that really stood out was this coferment that would evolve into ‘Black Pearl.’ Gideon believes this is just starting to come into maturity with a great deal of potential for further cellaring. ‘Aromatically enchanting’ in Gideon’s parlance, this wine is fairly robust but doesn’t quite get to the place of musculature that its descendants would take on between 2003 and 2007.
Taken From Granite
Quite like the ‘Once Upon a Time’ wines, these were made during Gideon’s time at Renaissance but with a slightly different focus. These weren’t experiments kept away from the public so much as library Renaissance wines that were released but never effectively sold owing to the haphazard eccentricities of the doomed Renaissance project. They too have been waiting in the dark, kept hidden even from Gideon but thanks to Aaron and Cara Mockrish they have an opportunity for a second crack at the world. Renaissance’s wines came to be identified with long aging, most being released only after 8-12 years of development in bottle but would still, to Gideon’s mind, require additional time in order to encompass the nobility he always believed the wines were capable of.
1999 ‘Villager Cabernet Sauvignon’
Back in the 90’s the approach for Californian Cab was fairly simple: you do an ‘estate’ bottling and a ‘reserve’ bottling. This was the ‘estate’ or entry level wine rebranded in allusion to the ‘Villages’ appellation’s function in Burgundy as essentially a peasant wine. Generally, 1999 was a sun soaked vintage producing massive, fruity wines but North Yuba experienced intense wildfires from August through September creating cloud cover in that crucial final period of ripening. Though the Renaissance wines typically demanded 8-12 years of aging before Gideon felt comfortable releasing them, the 99’s were good from the get go thanks the firecracker acidity. In Gideon’s mind this wine is more authentically European in personality, more closely resembling a true French single varietal Cab with brighter acidity and aromatics.
1995 ‘Soleil Cabernet Sauvignon’
Being a rather independently minded fellow, Gideon found himself frustrated by the limiting simplicity of the two-tier categorization of ‘estate’ and ‘reserve.’ Believing the Renaissance terroir to be far more compelling and dynamic than could be encapsulated by any one ‘reserve’ bottling, Gideon decided to create three different wines in the upper echelon. This is one of the upper echelon bottlings from the much lauded ‘95 vintage. Considered an excellent year for Californian wines broadly and North Yuba especially, this wine, originally bottled as ‘Premier Cuvee,’ was intended to embody the peak excellence the Renaissance vineyards could achieve. Surprisingly closed in its youth, only after a dozen years did it begin to emerge revealing a Bordelaise inflected wine with alluring aromatics. Saron and Gideon both forget why they called it ‘Soleil.’ Classic.
This is the second of the three ‘reserve’ level wines, a loosely Bordelaise blend originally bottled as ‘Claret Prestige.’ Gideon would spend days experimenting with blends on the most granular level resulting in a final mixture that is somewhat different than what’s printed on the label (he thinks there’s some Syrah and maybe something else in there too). Once again this is a memory of that wildfire vintage so there is a toothsome edge to articulate the fruit and intensity.
The Syrah Trio
Along with the Renaissance re-release projects we have verticals in small quantities of the 3 elemental Syrah wines of the aughts: ‘Heart of Stone,’ ‘Cuvee Mysterieuse’ and ‘Black Pearl.’ With the arrival of the 2003 vintage the effects of climate change made themselves known in North Yuba with a nearly decade long run of hot, dry vintages that never quite got to draught conditions but certainly produced more power oriented wines than in past years with harvests creeping earlier and earlier. Although these years comported themselves more uniformly than the crazy-making years of the late 90’s, there are some broad characteristic distinctions between them:
2005 - The most focused acidity of the bunch.
2006 - Highest structure.
2007 - More powerful aromatics.
A direct result of the Cab, Syrah coferment later rebranded as ‘Once Upon a Time Black Pearl,’ the later renditions included Petit Verdot in the coferment. Headier, more monolithic wines than the old school Renaissance wines or the contemporary Clos Saron wines.
An evolution of the wine bottled as ‘Elegance,’ this is a sister wine to ‘Black Pearl,’ intended to reveal two sides of the same terroir through Syrah and slightly varied accompaniment. Unlike its progenitor wine, ‘Cuvee Mysteriuese’ was not a blend but a coferment of Syrah, Merlot and Viognier to bring out the most finesse. The Syrah dominates the narrative with Merlot and Viognier functioning to impart complementary subtleties.
‘Heart of Stone’
This is a coferment of Syrah with Viognier or Roussanne depending on the year. The grapes come from two hillsides one facing East one facing West. The East brings a nimbleness and aromatic lift, the Western fruit, baked by the afternoon sun imparts a wilder, more tannic personality of Syrah. The two are cofermented together to create a harmonious balance between.