Tasting To Kalon Soil With Mondavi’s Genevieve Janssens

Ξ September 30th, 2010 | → 4 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Tasting Notes, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries |

In one of the most interesting wine events I’ve yet attended, local Bay Area artist Laura Parker teamed up with Robert Mondavi Winery and the elegant Genevieve Janssens, Director of Winemaking, for what was billed A Taste of Place Tuesday night at Saison Restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District. Not since the Wine As Liquid Music event has my brain been so engaged by a tasting. It began with the innovative invitation I received in the mail, a boxed soil sample from Mondavi’s famed To Kalon Vineyard (ancient Greek for the highest beauty), and this mysterious phrase, “Please join us for an interactive soil ‘tasting’”…. Interactive soil tasting? What could this possibly mean? Well, it turns out to mean quite a lot, especially for those of us interested in deepening our understanding of terroir. For conceptual artist Laura Parker, I believe, is really on to something. I shall begin with her.
Laura Parker “It started out when I used to do really large-scale drawings of food, and people would say, ‘That’s a beautiful peach.’ And I would say, ‘Yes, it was’, meaning that I had eaten that very piece of fruit. So I began bringing the farm into the gallery. I didn’t want them to only see what I do, but also how beautiful I think the food is. Because I believe that what the farmers do is as much art as what I do, if not more. I wanted to see that recognized. Further along, when looking at soils, we came up with these crazy tasting notes for those we were collecting; they were just kind of tongue in cheek, like wine tasting notes. That’s when we came up with the idea, well, why not do a soil tasting? We then figured out how to do just that without having to actually taste the soil. The idea was to smell the soil and then eat the food from that exact soil. So far we’ve done 65 farms, and we’re not going to stop!”
Having collecting dozens of soil samples solely from organically certified farms, most certified for well over ten years, Ms. Parker’s many public presentations involve placing about an ounce of dirt by volume into a wine glass and add sufficient purified water, (filtered water was used at our dinner) to create a mud; disarmingly simple, something all children are familiar with! She then swirls the concoction vigorously. First noted is the muds’ glass-coating characteristics, its color, the rate of water absorption, organic, vegetative matter content, and the ratio of rock to clay, silt etc. (Traditionally, a farmer might add a bicarbonate solution etc. to induce a diagnostic reaction.) The ‘tasting’ begins with a few deep whiffs followed immediately by eating produce generated directly from the soil source. The idea she is attempting to get across is twofold: on a cultural level, it is to remind and deepen a participant’s appreciation of the origins of their foods and, more to my interests, to seriously explore the possibility of a connection between a soil’s multiple traits, most importantly aroma, with the produce itself.
Ms. Parker has collected soils from all over California, mostly coastal regions. Santa Cruz and Watsonville farm dirt is particularly well represented. At the Mondavi event three soils were ‘tasted’, all from well-established California agricultural lands: topsoil from J.E. Perry Farms in Fremont; a pasturage sample from Bodega Artisan Cheese; and the To Kalon Vineyard from Oakville. From the first farm we tasted peas grown in the very row from which the soil was sourced. The second product, a goat cheese, was from the animal’s Bodega pasturage; the third, Cabernet raisins from To Kalon.
Whether peas, goat cheese or grapes, I worked diligently to locate some gustatory connection. (Having been an organic gardener for years, I have a special, desperate affection for my small plot of soil, its fragility, how easy it is to lose it to erosion and airborne contaminants.) And I can report that it is difficult! The power of suggestion is strong. However, I cannot discount the possibility that something is going on. After all, it is well established that the surrounding environs, the biodiversity within a farm, can and does impart detectable flavors to fruits and vegetables when eaten raw. This is true of pine and eucalyptus trees, sage, thyme, even the creosote bush. There are dozens of examples, some negative, such as car exhaust, fire smoke and pesticides and fungicides. Quite recently I tasted wine grapes approaching harvest, and the Bordeaux Mixture, a fungicide I have worked with in the past, was particularly evident on the palate. Needless to say, I stopped at a single grape!
The soils showcased Tuesday evening were themselves extraordinarily distinct. Perry Farms’ soil was bright, the clay clearly evident, with few deeper humus notes. A very light brown, the uniform sheeting along the sides of the wine glass clearly evidenced clay owing to its microscopic platy character. (Think of the rainbow of colors from spilled gasoline. This effect is due to its molecular structure, the sheeting of which results in differences in refracted light visible to the naked eye. Hence, the rainbow.) Bodega’s was very earthy and dark, with plainly visible plant material and finely ground rocks. Unlike the Perry soil, Bodega’s hardly coated the glass at all, leaving clumps, an irregular pattern of mud around vegetative nucleating sites. The To Kalon soil (pictured with the ‘07 Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon) was darker than the Perry, but with an equally uniform glass coating, though a much heavier layer was deposited. The result was a completely opaque glass. The aroma was heady, richly humid, almost as though freshly tilled. Puzzled by To Kalon’s aroma profile, Ms. Parker informed me that the sample was actually taken from a deeper horizon, from lower in the soil’s profile. This made sense. Clearly, sample depth has a significant olfactory impact. Samples from Perry and Bodega farms were taken nearer or at the surface.
Ms. Parker’s brief tasting notes:
Laura Parker “With the peas, I can almost taste, just at the end, the minerally clay… And this one with the goat cheese is really direct for me. It is all her own milk. She has twenty-five goats. The land has not been tilled for over 20 years. We chose this feta because it is a very fresh, young cheese. So it will have the most immediate flavor of the pasture and goat’s milk. For the To Kalon I dehydrated the grapes because of their otherwise overpowering sweetness. But this soil is musty.”
I asked whether she has ever done blind soil tastings. She said that was the next step.
Laura Parker “Usually the people I’m doing this with are not wine people. So you don’t really know where people are coming in with their palate. Its just to have a place to stop for five minutes and think about different places having a different taste. That itself is extraordinary for people because they are so far away from that. I would actually love to do carrots; they are amazingly articulate. And beet greens. And do them from very different soils, like maybe something coastal; something in the Central Valley and maybe Healdsburg. But you’d have to have a pretty sophisticated palate.
“Sometimes at a gallery opening we’ll have anywhere from 100 to 300 people come to the bar. All of a sudden my little heart starts going crazy! I have a 100 people standing around smelling dirt. It’s just the best!”

While not Proust’s madeline, one is immediately transported back to the smells of sliding into second base, the odor of a grandmother’s gardening gloves, the rainstorms and forest explores of youth. Ms. Parker has hit upon what I hope will become a popular public activity. Leave it to the artist to breathe new life into so overlooked and common a material, soil. And, yes, it is amusing her name is Parker. I can well imagine her publishing the Soil Advocate periodical!
Once seated in the dining room, Ms. Janssens introduced herself to the learnéd crowd, which included Steve Heimoff, Charlie Oiken, W. Blake Gray, Patty Burness, among many others. In her charming accent, an expression of her terroir she insisted, her sense of place, she declared her love of the soil, spoke passionately of living the life of the vineyard since 1978 when her participation with Mondavi began. She recounted the pleasure of walking the vineyards before phylloxera, the pain felt during phylloxera, and the joys of replanting. Now entering a new era, her love is undiminished. With her toast to humble dirt, the meal began.
The dinner itself was very pleasing in the main, each course paired with a Mondavi wine. The menu in italics:
Garden beans in various forms, river vegetables. This was paired with a 2008 Fumé Blanc about which Mondavi’s Director of Winemaking, Genevieve Janssens, a tall, elegant woman with all the French affectations I find absolutely beguiling, said this:
“We bring the fruit in very cold, in the morning. Direct press, no skin contact; and then in barrels it is fermented very slowly. We use all French oak, 35 to 45 percent new. We do battonage to give that richness to the mouthfeel, depending on the year. Every year we taste and then decide; if it is a year with a lot of acidity then we will do battonage much more. If it is a year which is balanced, we will do less so it is not too fat. When finished it is bottled in August. That’s it. We don’t rack. It’s on lees for the entire nine months.”
Chicken liver mousseline, shinli pear, huckleberry and rosebud. This was paired with a well-made, balanced 2008 Pinot Noir.
Sonoma lamb roasted with vadouvan spices, wild greens. Two wines came along, the 2007 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and a very lovely, bright 1996 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. About the 2007 Ms. Janssens said,
“This is 90 percent Cabernet Sauvignon into which we have blended 7 percent of Cabernet Franc and 3 percent Petit Verdot. Again, here is very traditional winemaking. We bring the fruit to the winery for fermentation in our oak tanks. We remodeled the winery in 2000, extended it to support mainly the Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. Our best blocks are fermented in oak tanks. The fruit is brought to the first level, at the top of the tanks, and then by gravity, when we de-stem and crush, the juice goes directly into the tanks. We try not to brutalize the grapes. Fermentation is for 10 days, not too warm, 30-31 celsius. And then we do our pump-over. We extract as much as we can depending on the potential of the fruit. The winemakers are very close to each tank, detail oriented. Brix is usually around 26; in the wine, maybe 14.8. We cannot be lower than that. It’s the nature of Napa Valley. At To Kalon the vines are quite old, some planted in 1975. Phylloxera came in 1989… so 20 years. And we also have younger, 10 year-old plantings.”
Summer berries in their consummé, yuzu ice cream. The 2009 Moscato D’Oro was paired. The combination was far too sweet for my liking. I kept thinking of trying another soil sample, so hooked was I on Ms. Parker’s concept!
Evening brought a cooling breeze. The animated voices of the crowd began to lessen. Talk at many tables was punctuated by laughter, now more personal to fewer ears. The energetic waitstaff could take a breather from their prompt, efficient service. I had to return to Santa Cruz, an 80 mile drive, or I surely would have closed the place. A lovely night.
For those interested in Laura Parker’s project, please visit the Laura Parker Studio at 1890 Bryant Street, 206 San Francisco, at the corner of Mariposa & Bryant Streets.
Great thanks to Laura Shear of Folsom & Associates for inviting this writer to so fine an event.


4 Responses to ' Tasting To Kalon Soil With Mondavi’s Genevieve Janssens '

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  1. laura parker said,

    on October 3rd, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    You are invited to taste dirt/soil with me anytime. I enjoyed reading your reflections of the evening.

  2. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on October 3rd, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    Thank you, Ms. Parker. It was a pleasure!

  3. 1WineDude said,

    on October 4th, 2010 at 9:02 am

    Down & dirty… literally! :-)

  4. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on October 4th, 2010 at 3:54 pm

    Hi, Joe. It was quite an intriguing experience.

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