Wine Matters: Popovich appearance perks up pinot noir panel
By John Griffin - Express-News Dining Editor
The topic was Oregon pinot noir, but the big news for the Saturday morning audience and at least one of the speakers was that Gregg Popovich was on the panel.
The Spurs coach is the owner of a private Oregon winery, Rock & Hammer, which produces pinot noir, and he's often expressed his admiration for the grape.
“I'm thrilled to be here, because all these people (on the panel) know something about something I love,” he said during an early morning seminar that was part of the San Antonio New World Wine & Food Festival.
The admiration was mutual for Alex Sokol Blosser of Sokol Blosser Wine Cellars, who practically gushed at sitting at the same table with the coach. “You know Ime's from Oregon,” he said of the Spurs' forward Ime Udoka. “You got a little bit of Oregon on my team.”
Popovich responded with a mischievous smile and a playful wave that let Sokol Blosser and everyone else know he was there to talk wine, not the team.
“At the winery, sports analogies are not allowed,” said Bill Hatcher, who makes Rock & Hammer. He and his wife, Debra, also own A to Z Wineworks, in which Popovich is a partner.
Whenever the coach visits, it is to focus on the blend of juice from the prestigious Shea Vineyard in Oregon's Dundee Hills region that will become the latest bottling of Rock & Hammer.
“He does choose between different blends that we prepare,” Debra Hatcher said. “He knows a lot more than he admits.”
“He has one of the better palates I know,” Bill Hatcher agreed.
Rock & Hammer get its name from a comment once made by reformer and journalist Jacob Riis: “When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”
The quote is on every bottle and it also hangs in the Spurs locker room in the languages of every team member, Popovich said.
And what about what's inside the bottle?
“If you don't like it, I don't give a damn — because we don't sell it,” he said, coaxing laughs from the audience.
The wine is given to friends or donated to charities, such as the festival itself, which auctioned off several large format bottles later that evening. It commands a good price, which pleases Popovich in that he's able to help out. “One bottle sold at an auction here for $1,100,” he said.
He also has eight fellow NBA coaches asking for more when their supply runs out. “Even Sean Elliott likes it,” he said.
It would be hard to imagine New World pinot fans not liking Rock & Hammer's 2006 vintage based on the sample poured at the tasting. The wine was heavily concentrated with plenty of lush fruit, especially ripe cherries, and a bit of bacon. It may not have been Burgundian, the style Popovich has been quoted as preferring, but it was an excellent wine that lingered long on the palate.
In fact, it all but eclipsed the rest of the lineup, which included a number of heavy hitters: A to Z (recently named best pinot noir under $20 by Food & Wine magazine), King Estate Domaine Pinot Noir, Rex Hill Vineyards, Erath Vineyards Prince Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sokol Blosser, Willamette Valley Vineyards and the one ringer in the group, MacMurray Ranch Russian River Valley Pinot Noir.
The Oregon wines were all from 2006, a harvest that has some winemakers at odds with the critics. The opulent fruit from that year has earned raves from the likes of Robert Parker, known for his love of big, bombastic reds. But a few of the winemakers Saturday included it among the worst vintages they had seen, because that fruit had lost a lot of the finesse and elegance they strive for, which is what separates Oregon pinot from the rest of what's produced in the U.S.
Still, as Sokol Blosser said, offering up the only sports analogy during the seminar, “No matter what the pitch is, you've got to put the bat on the ball.”
John Griffin is Express-News dining editor.