With lifetimes of experience
Tim SPEAR makes big, overpowering Syrahs that Robert Parker calls “prodigious,” “revolutionary,” “unctuously textured” and “pedal-to-the-metal, full-throttle.” But Spear, working with grapes grown at four vineyards in Paso Robles and three in Santa Barbara, is convinced that his current wines -- as good as they are -- may be just a training exercise for his next life.
Spear, you see, is a firm believer in reincarnation. He is certain that he was a winemaker in northern Burgundy in a previous life, and he is sure he’ll be a Burgundy winemaker again in his next life, “in about 150 years.”
So why does he make Syrah instead of Pinot Noir?
“Because Syrah does well in the heat of Paso Robles, and Pinot doesn’t,” he says.
Then, in the same matter-of-fact voice, he adds, “Global warming is going to change winemaking. It’s going to kill off all the Pinot in Burgundy and make it impossible to grow Pinot there. It will just be too warm. But Syrah will thrive in Burgundy under those conditions, and with my experience from this life, I’ll be ready to make Syrah in my next life in Burgundy.”
It would be easy to make fun of Spear. He talks about myths and pagan rites and, though born in 1967, says he remembers attending the World’s Fair in Paris in 1855 -- in his previous life. He times his harvest around phases of the moon and tips from “The Witches’ Almanac: The Complete Guide to Lunar Harmony.” A Francophile, he also punctuates his speech and his e-mails with self-conscious French words and phrases.
But Spear -- a native of Tarzana, wiry, dimpled, with a buzz cut and wire-rim glasses -- is serious about his winemaking, and you don’t have to accept his theories on reincarnation, witchcraft or anything else to appreciate his wines.
He makes three Syrahs and one Grenache -- 250 cases total -- under the Clos Mimi label and 2,500 cases of a second-label Syrah called Petite Rousse. Clos Mimi wines are $50 a bottle; Petite Rousse, $17.
I tried the 2000 and 2001 Clos Mimi Syrahs from the Bunny Slope Vineyard and the 1999 and 2003 Petite Rousses when we met for lunch recently and was surprised by how much I liked them all. I tend not to enjoy huge wines, especially huge wines high in alcohol, because they overshadow -- indeed obliterate -- any food they’re served with.
Most of Spear’s wines have 15% to 17% alcohol, and based on these numbers, Parker’s descriptions and Spear’s own tasting notes, I wondered what in the world I’d eat with them.
Spear acknowledges that this is a legitimate and troubling question. He’s made several pilgrimages to the Rhone Valley to seek winemaking counsel from such living legends as Jean-Louis Chave and Marcel Guigal, and he’s often taken bottles of his wine with him to ask these men what they’d eat with them. The consensus: wild game.
But that wasn’t an option on the warm, late-summer day we met for lunch at Pinot Bistro in the San Fernando Valley. So I chose the short-rib sandwich, and it proved rich and hearty enough to stand up to Spear’s wines. The wines, like the sandwich, were strong and chewy, a real mouthful. The two Clos Mimis seemed a bit earthier and more concentrated, and the ’01 in particular reminded me of an Amarone.
I was curious, though: Why does he make such high-alcohol wines?
“When you work with Paso grapes, especially on the east side of Paso, where our vineyards are, it’s really hot, and the grapes ripen quickly,” he said. “If you pick them when the grapes are at the ideal sugar levels, levels that would convert to about 13% alcohol, the tannins won’t be ripe. They’ll be too harsh. So I go with a longer hang time and I get more sugar and, ultimately, more alcohol.”
That’s the technical explanation. The personal explanation is that Spear likes the taste of big, high-alcohol wines -- and he thinks they’ll age better.
That they will. But given Spear’s conviction that he’s a Burgundian in his soul -- and given that red Burgundies rely more on elegance than power and almost never reach the alcohol levels of his wines -- isn’t this something of a contradiction?
He shrugs and launches into a discussion of “Burgundy as religion” and the “spirituality of Burgundy” and his attempts to “reconnect with my previous life in Burgundy.”
Spear’s two most unusual Syrahs are even less Burgundian in spirit, though. Both are dessert wines (sort of), and he only makes them every other year.
One is a late-harvest Syrah that sells for $100 a bottle. The other is a rose of Syrah that sells for $75. The latter weighs in at what Parker calls “a shockingly high alcohol level” of almost 19% and is “a heavy-handed effort that, in my opinion, has gone over the edge.”
Spear makes just 45 cases of the rose, and he says he thinks of it as a “vendange tardive blanc de noirs” -- which would essentially be a late-harvest white wine made from red grapes (if there were such a thing). Blanc de noirs is usually made in Champagne, with Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Menieur, but I think Spear uses this terminology less out of winemaking precision than because the Francophile in him likes how it sounds.
Frankly, I thought his 2003 Etiquette Rose tasted more like a Cognac than any kind of wine. I couldn’t think of any food I’d eat with it, certainly not the chocolate profiteroles I tried at our lunch. They made the wine taste sour, bitter. But later, after I’d cleansed my palate (and my memory) with a glass of water and more conversation, I thought it made an excellent digestif. When I said that to Spear, he didn’t react defensively. Instead, he said he took my words as “a nice compliment.”
“I see this wine as something you’d drink after dinner, between Port and Cognac,” he said.
Well, after a dinner accompanied by several of Spear’s high-alcohol wines, I don’t see myself drinking Port or Cognac.
But I wouldn’t turn down a small glass of his rose -- in this life or my next one.
Spear, who makes his wines at Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria, studied winemaking at UC Davis, then got practical experience with a series of winery internships in Northern California and France. But not in Burgundy. The most important of his internships was at Lynch-Bages in Bordeaux, where he began in 1991 as an English-language tour guide. When he became fluent in French and demonstrated an enthusiasm and aptitude for winemaking, he was asked to stay on at the winery and work in various capacities for a year.
After returning to the United States, he became winemaker at Justin Vineyards & Winery and moved on to Meridian Vineyards, both in Paso Robles. He and his wife, Mimi, were married at Meridian in 1995, two years after he answered her personals ad in The Times.
Since Mimi doesn’t drink -- “I don’t like the taste of wine,” she says -- Spear jokes that he named their wine Clos Mimi so the label would be “the equivalent of a prenuptial agreement. Now she can’t divorce me.”
Mimi runs the business side of the family winemaking enterprise, and clearly enjoys teasing her husband as well.
“He doesn’t know anything about business,” she says. “He doesn’t even care, really, whether he sells a single bottle.
“We only had enough grapes to make 50 cases of Clos Mimi in the ’99 vintage, and I told Tim we’d be out of business in three years at that rate. I told him we needed another wine, one we could make more of and sell more of, at a cheaper price.”
Inspired by Renoir
Thus was born Petite Rousse, named for “the little red-headed girl from Montmartre who enchanted Renoir in the mid-1870s,” as Spear writes in his tasting notes. Spear even tells her story on the back of the label (“Once upon a time there lived a little red-headed girl, ‘une petite rousse’ ” ).
Spear was so taken with Renoir’s paintings of red-haired Margot Legrand when he saw them at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris that he told Mimi, “If we ever have a little girl, I’m going to name her Margot.”
“I told Mimi she could pick the middle name,” he says, “but it had to be French.”
Margot -- Margot Roussanne Spear -- is now 4 years old.
In keeping with Spear’s Burgundy fixation, he readily acknowledges that his “dream” is to have her “marry into the family of Aubert de Villaine,” proprietors of the Domaine de la Romanee Conti. That, of course, would pave the way for his entry into Burgundy in his next life.
David Shaw can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous “Matters of Taste” columns, please go to latimes.com/shaw-taste.
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