Eighteen years ago, I was a wine rep in Chicago. Although I was selling some impressive brands, in particular the high-end Kendall-Jackson portfolio, I was very young and I didn't have much of a palate.
One day my boss announced that we were adding two new wines to our book—small-production Bordeaux-style blends from Sonoma made for Jess Jackson by a guy named Pierre Seillan—and we were receiving some of the inaugural vintage for the Chicago market.
The brand, my boss assured me, was going to be a "big deal." The label was Vérité and the wines were the 1998 "Vérité" and "La Joie."
I was told that I had to meet the winemaker and taste with my fellow sales staff at Spiaggia restaurant in downtown Chicago on a cold winter afternoon.
I remember meeting Pierre Seillan in a private room with about a half dozen other sales people. Pierre was a gruff Frenchman in a suit. He looked cold and weary from travel. I remember asking a stupid question, and I remember him correcting me impatiently.
Flanked by Trey Christy (left), Key Accounts Manager for Regal Wine
Company and Nick Hetzel, MS (right), Director of Education for
Jackson Family Wines, Pierre Seillan speaks on the terroir of Sonoma.
But I also remember being a bit mystified by the wines. I didn’t know what the "big deal" was. They were lean, austere, subdued and the opposite of the big, heavily oaked, high-alcohol wines I was used to at the time. Pierre's wines seemed serious and very restrained.
Eighteen years later, this past September, I found myself at the Nomad Hotel in Downtown L.A. to taste again with Pierre Seillan. Pierre has made a pretty good career for himself since our last meeting. Indeed, he's created 14 100-point wines in the past 18 years, and Vérité has emerged as one of the most highly acclaimed wineries in the world. He's the "big deal" my boss promised he'd be.
This meeting was now a much, much bigger affair. It wasn’t a half dozen tired sales reps and suppliers gathered in a restaurant PDR. It was 20 plus sommeliers, buyers, wine writers and salespeople gathered at full attention to taste a flight of 6 back vintage Vérité wines with (the now legendary) Pierre Seillan.
And indeed one of the two wines that I tasted 18 years ago was poured right there in my glass: the 1998 La Joie. And what was once young and vexing was now a sublime, mature wine, full of fresh red fruits, savory herbs, and an undaunted backbone of acidity that could extend the life of the wine another decade.
Going back to the beginning, Vérité was actually the vision of Jess Jackson, who despite his somewhat infamous reputation, is viewed now as a true visionary of California wine.
Pierre recalled one of his earliest meetings with Jess Jackson when Jess told him: "We have no great Merlot in California. We have great Cabernet, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel. But with Vérité, I want to create a wine as good as Petrus. "Can we do that?" To which Seillan, now famously replied: "As good as Pétrus? I don't know. Why not better?"
"I knew Petrus very well at the time" Pierre explained. "They only had three soil types." After examining the Jackson family holding in Sonoma, Pierre realized he would have 40+ soil types to work with. And with its proximity to the Pacific Ocean, Seillan knew he had a much more diverse collection of flavors to create even more complexity and more elegance.
"I don't want to say we are better. We are on the same level, but with the complexity of Sonoma. 'La Joie' is not a copy of Mouton Rothschild. 'Le Désir' is not a copy of Cheval Blanc. It's not a copy of Pétrus for 'La Muse.' It is a signature of the terroir of Sonoma with my style of blending and my personality from Bordeaux."
But when it comes to "style" or "technique" in the winery, Pierre professes a clear philosophy of non-intervention. "You have to be a servant of the soil. Be the servant of the terroir where you are. Focus what you have in Bordeaux. Focus what you have in Sonoma. Don't have any protocol for winemaking. Be in the vineyard and taste."
A true vigneron, Seillan pays nearly as much attention to his oak regime as he does his vineyards saying, "I want to know where come from my grapes. And I want to know where go my grapes. "
Again, as part of Jess Jackson's vision that, if one wishes to make world class wine for many generations, not only do you need to source your own fruit, but you need to have a reliable source of raw materials to age. So thanks to Jackson, Pierre has his own stave mill in France with an optical sorter scrutinizing each piece of wood before being shipped to their privately owned cooper.
But for as much time and money as they spend on oak at Vérité, the presence of oak flavor in the wine is remarkably subtle. "I consider the wood like a ghost in the chateau. It's somewhere in the wine, but we don't know which room it is in," Seillan says. This analogy is quite accurate.
Before the event, I had a moment to chat with Pierre, and I asked him what was the most important message he wished to convey to his audience in regard to the tasting that day. He said he wanted to demonstrate that Vérité is the closest thing in the New World to Bordeaux in terms of style and ageability.
I have to say that after revisiting that '98, 18 years later, I agree.
Since his inaugural vintage, Seillan creates three Bordeaux-style blends at Vérité: "La Muse" (Merlot based), "La Joie" (Cabernet based) and "Le Désir" (Cabernet Franc based). Here's a quick rundown of the 6 wines tasted and my notes.
2010 Vérité "Le Désir" - Wonderful, vibrant core of almost electrified and candied blue fruit framed by savory herbs, truffles and black tar.
"La Muse" - Very balanced mix of red and blue fruits with a fresh acidity and moderate alcohol. Some black olive, mushroom and graphite minerality.
2008 Vérité "La Joie" - Truffle on the nose. Black licorice, fennel, anise, and sandalwood perfume with a big pop of blue fruit that dominates the mid-palate.
2008 Vérité "Le Désir" - Big and muscular wine with a velvet frame. Dark fruit is accented by intense minerals, charcoal and roasted game.
2000 Vérité "Le Désir" - Still powerful and potent after 18 years in the bottle. Some heat from the alcohol is immediately present on the nose. Tart red and blue fruits, freshness of acidity, lavender, graphite, savory herbs, charred meats.
1998 Vérité "La Joie" - This wine is very beautiful, long and silky while very refreshing and alive. Drinking impeccably after three hours of decant. Tart cherry, roses, tobacco, savory herbs, thyme and rosemary. Pure perfection.
Pierre finished the event by saying, "When I taste a '98 like this, in a challenging year; and when I see the evolution of this wine and the 'Le Désir' 2000, I am extremely optimistic for Sonoma County to have one of the best wines in the world in the next 20 or 30 years."