Upper Picnic & Hidden Block
Jim Varner says the trick to Pinot Noir is learning to know when not to intercede. Jim and his winemaker brother, Bob,place their trust in the inherent goodness of the fruit grown on Spring Ridge Vineyard that goes into their Neely Pinot Noir. The Spring Ridge Vineyard is a unique site. It is situated next to an open space preserve and sits on a property that spans elevations from 500 ft to 1800 ft. in the Santa Cruz Mountains. This protected area experiences typical Bay Area maritime weather but at the altitude which the vineyard sits, the nights are even cooler and daytime highs are less sizzling, making it ideal for grape growing.
Jim Varner
In early July, Jim came by the store to taste us on the newly released Varner Chardonnays and Neely Pinot Noirs. So why the two different names? I’ll try to keep the explanation as simple as possible. Jim and Bob Varner planted Chardonnay at Spring Ridge Vineyard in the 80’s. In 1995, the property was sold to the Neely family. The Neely’s decided to plant Pinot Noir with the help of the Varners and wisely had them make the wine too! The approach to planting the Pinot Noir was similar to how the Chardonnay was planted, in small parcels or blocks. I won’t go into how terrific the Varner Chardonnays were for the moment because what I want to focus on are their fabulous Pinot Noirs.
A hard day at the office
The 2012s are fleshy and open-armed with distinct personalities. The first one I tasted was the Hidden Block. It immediately triggered a happy taste memory – Dujac of yore. The Hidden Block has that intriguing interplay of strawberry/cherry fruit with just a hint of green. Not vegetal, mind you, but green like stems and leaves. I love that in Pinot Noir, though I find it more often in Burgundy than in domestic Pinots. And then came the Upper Picnic – lots of deep red cherry fruit and with more oomph and power than the Hidden Block. For both wines, after press, the Pinot Noir is put into tank and then a short time later into barrel.The Varners feel this helps to soften the oak influence on the wine.
In talking with Jim, I am fascinated at how the Varners continue to make adjustments, experiment and push themselves to make the best possible wine. There are no recipes here other than trying to get out of the way of the fruit. For such experienced winemakers and highly respected ones at that, the Varners make it seem as if there is mystery in every vintage. I like that about them,they are truly humble winemakers.
On the home front, this is going to be a very BIG weekend – my eldest nephew is getting married! The reception will be catered by family and friends – I’ll be supplying the wine and, NO, it won’t be Neely Pinot Noir. I’m on a budget after all. Besides the Upper Picnic and Hidden Block are allocated to us, so supply is limited. – Anya Balistreri
Here’s what Antonio Galloni writes about Hidden Block:
“Succulent red cherries, raspberries, mint, sweet spices and tobacco open up effortlessly in the 2012 Pinot Noir Hidden Block from Neely. Open-knit and absolutely delicious, the 2012 is gorgeous today and should drink well for the better part of the next decade. Pretty crushed rose petal notes add perfume on the gracious, super-expressive finish. 92 points.“
And Antonio Galloni’s review of the Upper Picnic:
“Dark red cherry, plum, tobacco and spice blossom in an ample, generous Pinot Noir….The creamy, expressive finish suggests the 2012 will drink well with minimal cellaring. This parcel was regrafted in 2006 to own-rooted vines. 93 points.”