Clos Saron's Quest For California Terroir

Gideon Beinstock of Clos Saron visited us at Vanderbilt Ave Wine Merchants in November 
When I tasted Clos Saron for the first time, it showed me that California wines could have the same type of layered complexity and aging potential I was finding in European wines. Up to then, it felt like many California wines were showing me a vivid, and yet unambiguous purity of ripe fruit; I missed the tension and the connection to the soil.
What was different about Clos Saron? A whole lot, as it turns out. From the early 1980s up until the early 2000s Gideon Beinstock was a literal cult winemaker—for the Fellowship of Friends' own Renaissance Winery in the Sierra Foothills. (The Fellowship of Friends cult is more than I can fully cover here but if you're curious, check out the podcast Revelations.) He and his wife Saron left to start their own winery, Clos Saron, nearby, in 2003.
Gideon and Saron's work is on another plain—aesthetically and spiritually. They have always been close to our hearts in this shop: our former colleague Matthew was so moved by these wines he left Vanderbilt Ave to work with Gideon in 2021.
After a recent visit from Gideon I have assembled a group of their wines that covers both the Renaissance and Clos Saron periods. They are all drinking extremely well now. All the wines are fermented whole-cluster, foot-tread, and aged in neutral barrels with very little sulfur and nothing else added. There is some rustic barnyard but it's generally pretty toned-down. What you're getting is terroir and character turned up to the max.

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The Fellowship of Friends cult was more than just a quick post-hippie spiritual quest for Gideon. "For a while, it was really like living in paradise," he told me, though he left after he learned of the leader's predatory sexual misconduct. But because the cult was not driven by profits and had a team of free laborers, the vineyards are especially unique, planted in a way that probably was more akin to monks in Burgundy than anything happening in Napa. It also allowed Gideon to experiment in ways that few others have been able to.
One of these experiments was cropping a block of Pinot Noir at different levels. At three tons per acre, Gideon told me, he tasted the textbook version of Pinot Noir. At two tons per acre, he tasted something more confusing, a competition between the pure Pinot Noir character and, well, something else. At one ton per acre—a very low yield that is uncommon—he says Pinot Noir in its familiar form disappeared entirely, allowing the earth and the terroir to come through.
This does a lot to explain what is happening when you taste these Clos Saron wines, and the older Renaissance wines we're featuring. It is an unmistakable and profound quality that these wines, and few others, possess.
The concept of terroir is the way the soil, the climate, the vintage, the microflora and fauna that coexist with the vine. Expressing this in wine is, for many, the highest calling of a winemaker. For me, I typically include the humans who help steward this to fruition as part of the terroir. Gideon Beinstock, his story, his work, and his earnest, dogged philosophies about natural winemaking are just as much a part of why these wines are so compelling.

Jonathan Kemp 

Image of Clos Saron 'Holy Moly!' Grenache Merlot 2018
Clos Saron 'Holy Moly!' Grenache Merlot 2018
55% Grenache, 45% Merlot from steep vines planted in the Renaissance Vineyard on granite at over 2000 ft elevation. The Grenache dominates here, and the first vintage from the early 2000s was so rich and dense they called it 'Holy Shit!' but had to tone it down for the actual labels. Nowadays it's nearly a chillable, chuggable red, but it's missing none of their signature depth, terroir, or character. Lifted, finessed, notes of red plum, cherry, and a slight bit of funk. A terrific way to get introduced to Clos Saron. JK
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Image of Clos Saron 'Tickled Pink' Rose 2017
Clos Saron 'Tickled Pink' Rose 2017
This is always a surprising and singular bottle of wine, whatever category it really belongs in. Light red, rose? I have no idea nor do I care. It's a superbly versatile wine that will stand out with its rustic edge of umami but is not freaky enough to scare anyone away. There is astounding complexity and depth of flavor that is hiding behind a pink facade of freshness and irreverence. For those who like the darker roses of Tavel or Mt Etna—or even the nervy red/white coferments of Hiyu—this captures all of that plus a little extra. JK
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Image of Clos Saron Pinot Noir Home Vineyard 2018
Clos Saron Pinot Noir Home Vineyard 2018
The Home Vineyard consistently produces Pinots with haunting concentration, combining the smoldering aromatic profile of an Etna Rosso, the cherry-fruited lushness of fine Burgundy and the wild, weight of an aged Barolo. Despite the wildness (Brettanomyces and a whiff of oxidation) the wine is beautiful—a humble vineyard captured perfectly, every component in line. It makes you lean in, thrilling and understated, like the smells that greet you upon walking into an old cabin with a wood burning stove. A wine that will gain complexity for at least two decades. Very Limited. MH
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Image of Clos Saron 'Once Upon A Time' Cabernet Sauvignon Renaissance 1999
Clos Saron 'Once Upon A Time' Cabernet Sauvignon Renaissance 1999
This is one of the incredible vintages of Cabernet that was made at Renaissance when Gideon was making the wines and Saron was the vineyard manager. The best bottles have been 'rescued' and relabled for these limited releases, which is a very involved process given Gideon and Saron are no longer welcome at Renaissance after leaving the cult. So they are sadly nearly towards the end of these reclaimed releases. They are among the most impressive older California Cabs I've had, and I've even tasted them alongside Latour of a similar age. The Clos Saron was the favorite. From vines planted at 2200 feet on granite, southwest facing. Sagebrush and tertiary notes with plum, cherry, and cedar. Umami and savory complexity with resolved tannins. I would note that some of the corks are on the softer side so take care when opening. I recommend using a two-prong cork puller. Well worth the extra effort, however. JK
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Image of Clos Saron 'Once Upon A Time' Cuvee Mysterieuse 2000
Clos Saron 'Once Upon A Time' Cuvee Mysterieuse 2000
*Extremely limited. Another rescue effort from Gideon and Saron's time at Renaissance, this is a field blend of 50% Syrah, 40% Merlot, and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon planted on a rocky granitic hilltop with very little topsoil. It's still remarkably taut and energetic with savory thyme and rocky, mineral detail. An impressive and special wine if there ever was one. JK
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