Nose Diving: Good taste runs in the Family Winemakers sampling in Pasadena

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Nose Diving is a new feature column, in which a novice wine writer fumbles toward grace.

I’m standing just outside the Pasadena Convention Center, cursing my five-inch heels.

There’s a lot of ground to cover here, but grumbling at a time like this seems indecent; it’s not often I have the good fortune to sample wines from more than 200 California wineries.

Even better is that I’ve lucked into riding sidecar with the owners of South Lake Avenue’s Wine Detective as they negotiate their way through the Family Winemakers of California trade tasting.

Size-wise, this is the biggest tasting I’ve ever attended, and the hum of activity in the pavilion is electric. I confess to Lev Gerstik and Yulia Meltser, two of the sleuths from Wine Detective, that I’m feeling unmoored.

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Gerstik assures me even virtuoso tasters can be overwhelmed by sheer volume at an event like this. On top of that, he says, “Most of these are small wineries we’ve never heard of.”

Naturally, there’s only one way to separate the wheat from the chaff: Start tasting.

The four detectives — Gerstik, Meltser and Alan and Violetta Markie — have a collectivist approach to tastings, Meltser tells me. 

“We always taste together,” she says, “because we want to get a diverse selection.” And for every spot on their wine list, they sample dozens and dozens of labels.

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Determined to make the most of their time at Family Winemakers, the group develops a tactical assault: They split up and canvass the pavilion in pairs, then report back on must-trys.

Remarkable is the 2007 pinot noir poured by Hitching Post. (This winery has a reputation that precedes it, and if you’ve ever seen the film “Sideways” you know why.) This pinot charmed me from start to finish, with an honest, fruity character full of cherries and berries. I’ve since noticed wine sellers denoting this as an “everyday” pinot, and I wholeheartedly concur, in the sense that I could drink this medium-bodied wine literally every day.

Speaking of pinot, it is through Gerstik that I am introduced to Wes Hagen, vineyard manager and winemaker at Clos Pepe Vineyards in Santa Barbara County. (Interestingly, Hitching Post winemakers Gray Hartley and Frank Ostini have in the past used Clos Pepe’s Santa Rita Hills grapes.)

Hagen — La Caada High School, class of ’87 — is known in some wine circles (OK, really, lots of them) as obsessive, with a penchant for waxing philosophic on all manners of viticulture and winemaking. Gerstik puts this diplomatically, telling me I’ll enjoy talking with Hagen because he’s infinitely quotable.

Hagen’s also among what powerhouse wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. derisively calls the “anti-flavor elite.” Of the Clos Pepe winemaking philosophy, Hagen writes: “We strive to produce wines that represent a time and a place. In a landscape where critics heap praise on ‘heavy metal’ wines more akin to fortified wine than a beverage for table, we believe that wine should integrate into a meal … I want the wines to be ‘jazz’ over ‘heavy metal’ — a reflection of craft embedded in an ever-changing environment instead of a homogenized attempt to kowtow to the gods of concentration.”

Hagen may be elite, but he’s also remarkably down-to-earth, which, if you ask me, is sort of an ideal place for a vintner to be.

Outside of a brief how-do-you-do in Pasadena, my exchanges with Hagen take place over Twitter, in 140-character increments. (Follow him @WesHagen.)

Hagen not only answers my Tweets, even on his own birthday, but also indulges my weird, analogy-style questioning. (“Clos Pepe is to jazz, as BLANK is to heavy metal?” He writes back: “Screaming Eagle? Marcassin? Martinelli … Sine Qua Non — any of the ‘big wines.’ “)

Hagen tells me he’s been penning a 3,500-word love letter to Santa Rita Hills pinot noir for the Los Angeles Times Magazine. (Read it here.) And, of my own wine-writing, nose-diving endeavors, he’s nothing if not encouraging. “Never flounder. State your opinion about your wine like you were a pro. I liked this, didn’t like that. Fruit, structure, finish.”

Minutes later, he sends out a public Twitter blast: “Only three rules to wine … sniff … smells good, taste … tastes good, drink. Anything else is affectation or someone trying to sell (something.)”

Hagen makes me feel that even I can get this down. I think.

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At Family Winemakers, I decide to spend some time on my own, careening wildly into self-indulgent territory, bouncing around the alphabetized rows from one favorite to another. In the days leading up to the tasting, I’d been poring over the lengthy list of wineries and bestowing a hot-pink asterisk upon those I couldn’t bear to miss.

I’d no greater reason for this except that, simply, I could.

I catch up with Chris Fotinos from Fotinos Brothers Winery, of which a 2006 pinot noir is the inaugural vintage, and already generating some strong buzz.

The aroma on this Napa Valley pinot is something to behold: whispers of ripened cherry with a muted, smoky oak. Delicately balanced with moderate acidity, it tastes of spiced sugarplum and slinks away in a smooth wash of tannins.


Fotinos and his winemaker brother, Tom, have the kind of epic stories that make growing up in 1970s Napa seem serene and romantic.

“Christian Brothers was a very prominent winery in Napa, and my father would take my brother and I up to visit the monks who worked in and ran the winery,” Fotinos says. “He would leave (us) in the barrel aging room to play, while he discussed and tasted wine with the monks.”

The Fotinos are fourth-generation winemakers — their great-grandfather started crafting wine in Greece in the late 1800s — and Tom’s wife, Danielle, the vineyard manager, descends from settlers of the Carneros region of Napa in the 1800s.

I ask Fotinos how he balances dueling careers: He’s director of sales and marketing for Fotinos Brothers Winery and has a cosmetic dentistry practice in Orange.

“In dentistry, we are sculpting very small spaces, and with wine we are making art in a bottle,” he says. “Both are very time-consuming; I’m answering (your) questions … while one of my patients is getting numb.”

(To be fair, Fotinos answered my questions from his office a few days after the Family Winemakers event, not during it, but that would have been pretty darn impressive, too. Numbing patients while simultaneously pouring wine; I guess that’s what they call a Botox party?)

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In my closing tour of the Family Winemakers pavilion, I move circularly to Chalk Hill (2005 cabernet sauvignon); Larkmead (Firebelle blend); and finally Nickel & Nickel. I harbor such an crush on Nickel & Nickel’s single-vineyard wines that one of their wooden crates — long ago emptied of 2003 Dragonfly Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon — is among my most prized possessions.

Their 2006 Copper Streak Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon is full-bodied, currant-rich and mellows into a divine, lingering essence. Don’t mind if I do.

(Photos by James Carbone / Correspondent and staff)

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