I was early, by intention. I wanted to absorb the air, the space, the mojo.
Ghosts of Shamans past — silken-shadowed, proud and twirling — wove the naked canes with threads of dripping gossamer.
In my car, the metal murmuring beneath me.
The music came on. Ornette Coleman.
Frantic, frenetic, almost borderline atonal. Strange against the hazy blues and grays weighting down the coming sun.
Then the track changed. Beauty Is A Rare Thing. The long, lone, keening wail of saxophone, the prophesizing rumble of the toms, the gravitas of bass drops, all the spaces in-between the lonesome spaces.
Beauty Is A Rare Thing.
I drove towards the crest of the mountain; to the exalted limestone histories, to the winery, to the ghosts of Shamans present, past, and future.
I am constantly amazed by the ways landscape is destiny.
Dawn behind the valley of the fog. Dawn beyond the yawning of the crush pad. Dawnlight just beginning with the One Tree Hill …
We turn away to face the cold, enduring chill
As the day begs the night for mercy love
Almost reassuring to me now — the pathway through, and to, the holy Monte Bello belly — this, my moment, this, my third Assemblage year.
Through the darkness, through the lightness, through the barrels …
…to the crystal choreography of history in the waiting …
This is Assemblage.
One-hundred-thirty acres, give or take. Acreage that begins some thousand feet above the valley, then stretches towards the heavens for another thousand more, and more than several hundred feet on after that.
Bramble stream, white rocks jutting out.
Heaven cold, red leaves scarce. No rain
up here where the mountain road ends,
sky stains robes empty kingfisher-blue.
Harvest began on the tenth morn of September, and concluded on the sixteenth of October; the day the cabernet grapes on the knoll bid farewell to the gnarled arms of their lowly-slung progenitors.
Two-hundred-eighty-tons of grapes picked off the mountain, whittled patiently down to only twenty-eight blocks, and then down again to twelve lots after that. Twelve lots to make up our control.
And so the rounds begin.
Two glasses before you. In one glass, the control. Twelve lots worth of juice from off the mountain. In the other, the addition. One lot worth of hope of making history. Which is which, you do not know, and so you taste. And smell, and taste, and taste again, and smell again, and look, and think, and smell, and taste, and contemplate, and contemplate. In the nose, on the lips, on the tongue, down the throat, drip by drop, strained through teeth, rolled on tongues, swished and spat, and left to linger, and the pen is in your fingers, and the pen is on the page, and it goes scratching ‘cross the page …
… you dig for words, and lay on words, and search for metaphor and simile; descriptor, adverb, poetry. The clock maw gapes in rhythm, all the Tell-Tale Hearts at table — disparate rhythms harmonizing — beat the pounding of the wine-blood in your ears. There’s no more time left, no more wine left, on the left page is Glass A and on the right page is Glass B; which gets your minus, which your plus? You finally choose, your secret vote, it’s done, it’s done, you did it, there, it’s done, you made your vote, the tasting notes — like pagan chants — begin to be read out, aloud; first the first chair at the table …
Nine at the table. No tie possible. The first round is as close as close can get, four to five, five to four; the B Glass takes the lion’s share of votes, by a note, but the winemakers both come out for A. Lift the veil, it’s the addition! The addition in Glass A, the winemakers’ final say, on and through, to Round Two, and thirteen lots now. The addition is the Cabernet from blocks that we call Fosters, at the south end of the old Torre boundaries.
Paul says Glass A just seems racier.
A tenth taster joins, raises the threat of a tie, but as the voting is revealed, it’s six to four. Glass A is the addition once again, and earns the passage once again, but this time on the strength of a majority. And what was added? It’s a co-fermented block of Cabernets: Sauvignon and Franc, from South Twin Peaks and Upper Gate, north of the winery, on the old Perrone ground.
I am with the As, and Eric Baugher says this wine will be a hundred-year wine, and the talk turns to juniper, to jazz, to anthocyanin …
At fourteen lots, the roadblocks block the road, and the control cannot be shaken; seven-two, the final tally, and Will Thomas says Glass A shows as “broad-shouldered” …
Still fourteen lots as we begin, and when the round ends, we will still be at fourteen; a seven-two vote once again. In the last round it was Eric in minority, and this time it is Paul, but all let commonwealth prevail, and the majority prevails, and the control survives yet another challenge.
Paul voted “no” because the wine was just “too perfect,” just “too lovely” … and Kyle Theriot is the first to speak of velvet …
Another close vote — five to four — but an addition has emerged; South Slope North! La Cuesta clone, maybe an acre, in the ground in ‘eighty-eight, at 6.33%, a small addition, but addition it will be, it makes the cut, takes the control to fifteen lots. I was on the wrong side of this vote, of Paul and Eric, and of Will, who said the wine, this time, was “tall, but not broad-shouldered” …
Four to five, the vote this time, coming out for the control, but then there’s Paul with his plus on the addition. I’m with Paul, as is Shinji, as is Karen; I wrote “elegant and playful,” Paul says that he likes the “power and the elegance” … It’s Merlot, from Le Vasseur, from the high side of the old Torre vineyards.
The seventh round, and the control is sixteen lots. Sixteen lots, and what do you get? One more addition doth the final round beget! A 3.6% addition, Cabernet from Circle Hill, and we have made it up the hill …
Fish don’t fry in the kitchen;
Beans don’t burn on the grill.
Took a whole lotta tryin’,
Just to get up that hill.
Now we’re up in the big leagues,
Gettin’ our turn at bat.
As long as we live, it’s you and me baby,
There ain’t nothin wrong with that.
And now, 2012 is in the big leagues, and we’re going to see if it can holds its own, in the last round of the day, in the vertical display, cinq Monte Bello in a line, the ’11, ’10, and ’09, and the ’08, that magic vintage, liquid music, holy water, magic birth year of my daughter, making five tall and broad-shouldered wines …
This is it, The First Assemblage. To be tested, and tried again, to be sure, but for today, the testing done, seventeen lots safe and sound, a Monte Bello for the ages.
55% Cabernet Sauvignon
26 % Merlot
11% Cabernet Franc
8% Petit Verdot
Were it to stand, we’d be looking at some four-thousand cases …
As in years past, as I emerge from the barrel room brume, from the effluvium of grape and mystic poetry, I am weary.
In the company of pirates, monks, spelunkers, I’ve been searching, with my brothers and my sisters I’ve been searching, with the mendicants and beggars, I’ve been searching, at the altars, in the gutters, I’ve been searching.
Oh Ornette, your hymn, a horn
with a halo ‘round the reed
Oh, Beauty Is A Rare Thing indeed.
Will Thomas, Viticulturist, Lytton Springs
Kyle Theriot, Viticulturist, Monte Bello
Shun Ishikubo, Assistant Winemaker, Monte Bello
Shini Kurokawa, Production Assistant, Monte Bello
Heidi Nigen (Round II), Marketing Manager
Christopher Watkins, myself
Amy Monroe, Hospitality Coordinator, Monte Bello
Karen Leeds, Director of Quality Control/Chemist, Monte Bello
Eric Baugher, VP of Winemaking, Monte Bello
To you all, deep bows.
Attributions for excerpts and quotes above, in order of appearance:
Ornette Coleman (the song “Beauty Is A Rare Thing”)
Ron Rash (from an interview with the author on NPR)
U2 (from the song “One Tree Hill,” lyrics by Bono, music by U2)
Wang Wei (from the poem “In The Mountains,” translated by David Hinton)
Ja’net Dubois and Jeff Berry (from the song “Movin’ On Up,” theme song for the TV Show “The Jeffersons”)
For essays on previous Assemblage Tastings, please follow the links below: