Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Most Meeker wines are produced in quantities of only a few hundred cases

Almost every Friday Veritas welcomes a guest from out of town: a winemaker, an importer, or a marketing agent, usually in a clean shirt, sometimes beleaguered by the routine of moving from airports to hotels to trade meetings. Our sales team gathers at the Warren headquarters where we are treated to a presentation. Normally this includes stories, technical information, marketing figures and -- most importantly -- wines to taste. Thank-yous are exchanged and Paul, our leader, buys lunch.

June 27th was slightly different.

On that day we greeted Molly and Charlie Meeker. They climbed out of a Chevy Suburban loaded with wine samples which were insulated only by suitcases filled with changes of clothes. The Meekers were in the middle of driving across the country, squeezing sales calls in between sightseeing and visits to children in other states. They did not exhibit that dry, grey skin color and dull spirit of the jetlagged; instead, they radiated red and orange, benignly irritated by the friction of the road, thirsty for wine.

One leg of their trip had taken them through Texas -- in June. Texas is hot in June. Is this the best way to transport wine? As we would soon learn, Meeker wines are substantial enough to withstand less than ideal storage. Some of the wines open days prior even tasted fresh and expressive. (Mind you, this is what we tasted. The inventory Veritas offers now was shipped with utmost care.)

Nothing about Meeker seems typical.

Lobster Cove Chardonnay

  1. Some of the label art is -- how do you say this -- 'not pretentious.'

  2. All of the wines are from vintages which, in ordinary commercial terms, would be considered the distant past. 2005 is the current vintage of the unoaked Chardonnay. Several of the basic reds were harvested in 2003.

  3. Rather than spin deliberate images of idealized domestic bliss, the Meekers talked over each other in dueling flurries, sometimes in apparent contradiction and reprobation.

  4. Like a lot of winery owners, the Meekers retired from the corporate executive classes. Charlie was a boss at MGM at one point. But he doesn't dress like it. On this day he wore the costume of a guy who you might imagine spends a lot of time at the local library.

Charlie Meeker Listens

Pfft. These are surface impressions. What are the wines like?

After this initial introduction we tasted the wines again and again. After trying more than 25 different wines over two months, it is clear that these items belong to a rare slice of independently produced wine in California. At ~17,000 cases annually, Meeker is small and articulate enough to exemplify the wit of the producer -- and the loyal fans -- rather than the insidious mass market formulas that so often drive the business. On the other hand, Meeker is big enough and well enough established to offer wines priced to drink.

Since the late 1970s, Meeker has established contacts with some of the best Sonoma vineyards. Much of the fruit they don't grow on their own property is delivered by their friend Lee Martinelli.

But most astonishing is the fermentation routine. The reds are held at cold temperatures for up to seven days and then macerated for several months, four being typical. This adds a commercial burden in two ways. 1) because of this generously measured maceration period, the vats can only be used once per season, and 2) because this extracts unusual concentrations of tannin in the wine, they must be allowed to age, sometimes for years, before the wine smooths out. The 2003 11th Rack Zinfandel, for example, was bottled in August of 2006. The results are wines with huge fresh fruit dimensions, but dry, with focus and substance and detail provided by ripe firm fruit tannins. Because there are no cosmetic enhancements, there is no sensation of syrup texture nor mindless oak flavoring.

Show me another California winery that does this.