Stone and Sweat in North Yuba - Clos Saron

3/29/22 -

We write often in these emails about idiosyncracy, in wines and in the people responsible for them. It's not a surprise really. Viticulture is often a solitary venture, even a lonely one, that takes place in pockets of the world where one can grow precious few other things. Over the years, I've had the tremendous good fortune to visit great growers, often in strange places, but few have been as peculiar as the hills of North Yuba County in California. Here, Gideon Beinstock and Saron Rice have for the last twenty years produced some of the most singular and brilliant wines in the state.

Over the years, we have talked quite a bit about Gideon and his journey that brought him to the Sierra Foothills. He spent years in Paris tasting with Steven Spurrier, his visits to all the preeminent French growers of the time (a who's who if there ever was), and his experience with the Fellowship of Friends. This is of course the cult that established a winery and large vineyard in North Yuba in the early 1980s, where Gideon learned to grow grapes and make wine long after he and Saron left their membership. It all makes for a compelling narrative.

But when I visited in the summer of 2016 with some other buyers, I found myself more interested by the present of Clos Saron than the past. Over the course of two days and a night, Gideon and Saron opened their home to us, taking us through their vines, introducing us to a menagerie of livestock and pets and to the tiny dedicated community of growers that has sprung up around them.

It was clear from the moment we arrived that they have never had an easy go of it, even by the standards of grape growing. Like much of California, they have been hit hard by drought over the past ten years. Our visit was the height of summer and everything seemed to be covered in a film of fine reddish brown dust. Gideon took us through both his home vineyard and the Stone Soup site and talked about the constant battle to keep the vines going against the increasingly hostile climate. Neither site has ever been treated with chemicals, and he irrigates only when absolutely necessary, in the interests of maintaining a vibrant root system, even in the face of ruinously low yields.

The results of all this labor were made clear later that afternoon, when we retreated to their front yard to taste a slew of wines, surrounded by sheep, chickens, ducks and several dogs. Great wines are always stamped in some way by their region, whether from Burgundy or the Wachau or Tenerife. But rarely have I ever tasted so many varieties that somehow all played second fiddle to their place of birth. Whether the wines were made from Syrah or Pinot Noir or some of the rather odd blends that Gideon sometimes produces, they were all notable for a certain Clos Saron-ness - a combination of dark red fruit, fairly formidable tannic structure and fierce acidity. That's not to say they have no varietal character at all - his Syrahs in particular are striking, perhaps due to the grape's affinity for granite soils, which are the area's defining feature. But these are wines of place in the most intense fashion.

I recently sat down and tasted all the wines on today's offer and all of these memories came flooding back. I was struck not just by the familiarity of the wines but the high quality of everything in the bottle. Every bottle was unique and yet bound by a mineral thread, a dark cooling stoniness that is the core of the estate. These wines are not inexpensive - they never have been - but they are true products of their rather unforgiving environment and are worth the splurge, whether you are a Clos Saron first-timer or a devotee.        Sam Ehrlich

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