Just say Ahh
Bruce Rector lives on the loving edge of pinot noir
Bruce Rector in Glen Ellen with his liter-only pinot because a 750 ml bottle “runs out 250 ml too soon.”
Pinot noir? You want to talk pinot noir?
Meet Bruce Rector, your gatekeeper to the otherworldly, limestone-loving realm of pinot noir vines and other avenues of oenological, microbiological and mythological pursuits.
If you’re lucky you’ll meet him with a glass of pinot pressed to your lips. If you’re really lucky, you’ll have two, and you’ll be sitting at his dining room table in a verdant villa above Glen Ellen, deciphering the evolutionary differences between two glasses from the same bottle: 2003 Bien Nacido Vineyard, Barrel 2 of 4.
One was poured earlier, and one was poured later, and being that this wine is, from Bruce’s perspective, a living being, the two taste different and smell different and are...different.
At the tiny boutique Ahh Winery, Bruce and his wife, Krassi (short for Krassimira), have predicated their name, their artisan process and their winemaking philosophy upon that boundless, ineffable “ahhh”—that sacred sigh—heralded by tasting extraordinary wines. In particular, those mystical, crustacean-loving pinots.
“Wine is alive with organisms. It’s a microbiological zoo,” says Bruce, describing the bouquet of such nectar as a breathing, “biological expression of the vineyard.”
Very little should encroach upon the exhilarating “transmission” of that unseen but potent biology to your palate. It’s why Bruce and Krassi do what they do.
They ferment outdoors. They keep barrel lots separate. Besides the crusher, the wine never sees a machine. They bottle and cork their small batches by hand. They don’t filter their wines. The more mechanical and chemical processing, you see, the less biology, the less richness and yes, the more risk.
But “the closer to the edge of the cliff, the prettier the view,” says Bruce.
If anyone has earned the right to cultivate wine with unorthodox gusto and poetic license, it’s Bruce. His quieter reputation as a “winemaker’s winemaker” notwithstanding, Bruce has been at the helm of some pretty large galleons. He was winemaker and general partner at Glen Ellen Winery, he did winemaking stints at Stony Ridge, Benziger Family Winery and other venues scattered about the Sonoma, Napa and Monterey wine country. Add it all up and you’ve got someone who might as well be the Grape Whisperer.
Originally from Bulgaria, Krassi has a degree in agricultural engineering, and she too has spent years in the local wine industry.
The duo may be miners of pinot’s dark limestone depths, but they are truly creatures of light, warmth and play. Walking through their hillside garden, you are confronted with explosions of red and orange poppies, roses, iris, every color of flower, which float like suspended confetti over ribbons of rocks and stones.
Every shady alcove yields a place to think or dream.
“There are 81 places to sit out here,” grins Bruce. A rack of rainbow-hued horseshoes stands by for those who might want to accept the challenge of Bruce’s own creation, “Horseshoe Golf.” (“I even got a patent, but no one has ever called me about it.”) Inside their house are breezy vaulted ceilings and intriguing art, and all is illuminated by the green radiance of mossy oaks outside.
This is a sublime setting to taste pinot noir, whether you’re a novice like me or an aficionado like Bruce.
And I suspect that’s the point.
This bottle comes from Bien Nacido Vineyard near Santa Barbara, “one of the most famous pinot noir vineyards in America,” explains Bruce. Bien Nacido grapes fuel wineries from Escondido to Oregon, but farmed in small blocks, it maintains the intimate feel of a small vineyard.
In the glass, the wine is a dark red ruby slipper with a nose of grace and intensity. Before I try it on, Bruce humors me with a brief Pinot Noir 101.
Essentially, “it starts with a combination of strawberries, some dry and some fresh, with a preponderance of dry. Add to that wintergreen mint, dried pine needles, a subtle earthiness…that’s pinot noir,” he says. This one should also exhibit “the white part of grapefruit and black pepper, not separately, but melded into one... That’s the (result of) Bien Nacido Vineyard.”
I taste, and it is a beguiling, equivocal thing, flavors and nose changing moment to moment.
Bruce speaks with a kind of even-keeled enthusiasm. He is intensity framed by tousled gray hair, an arbor of roses, a carbonated laugh. He’s made wine longer than just about anybody.
He made his first batch at age 12. No joke. His father was a mathematician, his mother a playwright, and they condoned it in the name of science. Using a dimestore guide, 101 Wine Recipes, as his shepherd, Bruce took a whack at the green Thompson seedless recipe first (“barely drinkable”) and the cantaloupe wine recipe second (“ghastly”). He still has the book.
At 20, he added beer and mead to his repertoire, mostly because “he had a basement.” For a while, he was convinced mead was the next big trend.
“Except people, culturally, didn’t know what to do with it. They’d say ‘Wow!’ This is really good!’ and never open another bottle.”
Mead wasn’t Bruce’s only detour from winemaking. The other was a degree in environmental planning and management, which he pursued at UC Davis until one day he realized he would spend most of his time “making contracts or reading them.” That changed that, and Bruce eventually got a Davis degree in fermentation arts (yes, arts).
Today he is a man continually compelled, delighted and humbled by the craft of wine, its inherent mystery, its ability to transcend the trappings of carbon-copy commodification.
On a personal basis, winemaking for Bruce is “a practice and a discipline, a way of testing your ideas in this incredibly old format.” He and Krassi circulate their ideas within a small wine club of friends and wine lovers. On a recent afternoon they celebrated Cinco de Mayo with a battle royale of French and Mexican cooking, along with some rounds of Horseshoe Golf.
The ideal way to drink wine is, of course, with food, and for that Bruce espouses an entire philosophy.
“The essence of the table is conversation and hopefully connection... and (through connection) there’s the potential of love, and mending love. Wine is merely a way to get that going... It’s not really a product, in and of itself. I know that’s a dangerous point of view, but that’s why we make under 10 barrels a year.”
Deeper into Pinot 101 we learn, “There are two moments in wine consumption. The two-by-four moment that smacks you right upside the head” and “the Maxwell Drop moment, the good to the last drop” calculation “that ‘I haven’t mastered this wine, I don’t know this wine entirely.’” The intrigue is enough to keep you coming back for more. “You might say our winemaking style errs on the side of the Maxwell Drop moment.”
One more thing to know about Ahh Winery: The Maxwell Drop moment happens 250 ml later than the average bottle. That’s because Ahh wines only come in one-liter bottles.
“When Bruce and Krassi drink good pinot noir, they notice it runs out 250 ml too soon,” laughs Bruce. “We don’t want this to happen to you.”
Ahh wines are available through the winery and its wine club. For information call 707.933.4404, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the Summer 2008 issue of SONOMA