WineInk: My Old School

Pali Produces Pinot

Kelly J. Hayes

Unless you went to Montepulciano Middle School or the Grange Prep School, chances are that you don’t have a wine named after the school you attended.

Ah, but I do. As fate would have it, this wine scribe attended Palisades High School in Southern California, affectionately known as Pali. And yes, there is actually an acclaimed pinot noir producer who markets their wines under the moniker of the Pali Wine Company. And, as this is the 700th WineInk column I have penned, please excuse a little personal indulgence.

In my youth, as a precocious high school student, I developed a fondness for a cheap Portuguese wine called Mateus Rosé. Rod Stewart, the gravelly voiced “vocalist-extraordinaire,” was a prodigious consumer of said wine and even credited it on “Every Picture Tells a Story” as a “vocal abrasive.” That was all I needed to know. Good enough for Rod, good enough for me.

So it was that, as confirmation of my coolness, I would acquire from an older friend who worked at a Malibu wine shop, an occasional bottle or two of Mateus. I would pack them along with me to post-football game parties on Friday nights at the homes of fellow Palisades Dolphins (as our teams are known), who lived in the tony Huntington, Summit and Riviera neighborhoods.

“Party on Amalfi!” was a frequent post-game rallying cry.

Occasionally these soirees would wind there way down way to the Will Rodgers State Beach, where we would, under the influence of the Mateus, sing the songs of the day (“Jesus Freaks, out in the streets, handing tickets out for God…”) as we sat atop the lifeguard towers overlooking the Pacific.

Dawn always came too soon.

Now, as an over-age student of wine, my palate and infatuations – though fostered by the Mateus – have evolved and I am more inclined to drink well-tended pinot noir, syrah and cabernet than old school plonk Rosé. So it was, as confirmation of my continued coolness and a nod to nostalgia, that I recently acquired, from an older friend who works at an El Jebel wine shop, a bottle of the 2017 Pali “Riviera” Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.

As times have changed, the wines in my life have certainly gotten better.

The Pali Wine Company, based in Lompoc on California’s Central Coast, has one of the most eclectic business models in the wine world. The owners – yes Palisades residents, hence the name – created the company in 2005 with local investors to produce single vineyard pinot noir wines. But Pali has since blossomed to include a number of distinct wine tiers and labels, and a collection of five tasting rooms in urban Southern California.

Aaron Walker, Pali’s winemaker, who oversees production of myriad wines in the 16,000-18,000 cases that the company makes explains, “We work outside the box. To compete with larger wine producers you need to pivot to stay relevant.”

The tasting rooms in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, San Diego’s Little Italy, and other locales, offer Pali a way to meet directly with their fans and consumers on their turf.

“It’s not that far from a brewery model.”

Walker benefited from a hands-on Central Coast-centric winemaking pedigree. On the top end of the Pali spectrum, he crafts single-vineyard pinot noirs produced in limited quantities from some of the most desired plots on the Coast. Bien Nacido, Fiddlestix, Rancho La Vina and Pali’s own estate vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills are all tapped for premium wines in the $50-$75 a bottle range.

The backbone of the Pali’s portfolio is the larger production “Appelation Series” which uses fruit sourced from different vineyards in individual AVAs. Christened Summit, Huntington (both from the Sta. Rita Hills AVA) and Riviera (Sonoma Coast AVA), after the aforementioned playgrounds of my youth, these wines in the $25 to $30 range are eminently quaffable.

Walker makes a little lusher style of pinot noir that is at once food-friendly and also perfect for sip-by-sip contemplation.

A third tier, Tower 15, named for the lifeguard tower nearest Sunset Blvd. (this is your life, Kelly Hayes) is dedicated to affordable warmer climate Rhône and Bordeaux varieties, including grenache, syrah, merlot and cinsault from Paso Robles and Santa Barbara. And a new line, shepherded by Nick Perr, the next generation of Pali ownership, is making pet nats and Orange wines for on-tap sales in the tasting rooms.

“I average 70 to 80 picks a year,” says Walker, the busy and prodigious producer, “And it’s all about relationships and location.”

Kind of like high school.

Aspen Times Weekly

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