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California terroir, c’est moi


Readers of this blog know that I recently got a wrist tattoo, and subsequently decided to expand it up to the elbow. Which raised the question of design. What do I like? What “statement” do I want to make?

Philip, the tattoo artist, explained the options. There are varying degrees of what he called “saturation.” Apart from the particular images I want, I’d have to decide whether I wanted a dense, saturated pattern, or something less so, where some of the natural skin shows through.

I knew immediately that I wanted something dense and intense. As for the image itself, it should be jungle-y, with exotic tropical flowers, vines and leaves, in violent, explosive color. I said so on my Facebook page, and then, spontaneously, I added the comment, “I guess I like my tattoos the way I like my wines, with lots of saturated color.”

That was a spontaneous remark, but it was true. And it made me think about my taste in wines. I do like a big, rich wine, the kind they call California-style. When I look at my highest-scoring wines, they are big: There’s Williams Selyem’s 2007 Litton Estate Pinot Noir; nothing shy about that. Trefethen’s ‘05 Reserve Cab, a Sea Smoke 2007 “Ten,” Alpha Omega’s ‘07 Beckstoffer To Kalon, Blackbird ‘07 Illustration, Hestan’s “Stephanie” Cabernet, a Rodney Strong 2006 “Rockaway” bottling (whose high score, I hope, re-endears me to Robert Larsen!). These are all wines that critics routinely describe as “massive” or “monumental” or “huge” or, yes, extracted.

And then there are the Chardonnays! I tasted a bunch the other day. Marilyn was there; she’s one of the few people I’m comfortable being with when I formally taste. There were eight Chards in the flight. Four were from Stonestreet, specifically from the old Gauer Vineyard (no longer so-called), way high up on the Alexander Valley side of the Mayacamas. As I was tasting through the flight, I told Marilyn, “These are controversial wines. Some people detest them because they’re so rich and oaky. I love this style.” I gave them scores that reflect my appreciation for that style: the ‘08 Upper Barn, Lower Rim, Gravel Bench and Broken Road. The other four Chardonnays in the flight, which I won’t identify, all were good wines, but didn’t score as well. Compared to the Stonestreets, they lacked, well, extraction.

I can’t apologize for my taste, any more than you can for yours. More than that, I believe my taste reflects the best of California’s terroir. California wines are big, ripe and fruity. The climate insists that they be so. If they’re not ripe and fruity, they’re not really California wines. There are important exceptions, of course. I recently reviewed Mondavi’s 2006 Tokalon I Block Fume Blanc (Sauvignon Blanc), and it is a magnificent wine, complex, elegant, bone dry, even mysterious in its minerals. But it is not fruity. But then, fruitiness is relative. I want fruit in my Pinots, Cabernets and Chardonnays. I don’t necessarily want it in my Sauvignon Blancs, or Pinot Grigios or Chenin Blancs or Albarinos. Those are white wines that I expect to deliver dryness and racy acidity, mouth-cleansing properties that make an end-run around fruit. Maybe that’s why I never give those white varieties super-high scores. The highest score I ever gave a Sauvignon Blanc was 95 points, for Illumination’s 2008 (it’s from the Quintessa people). Is that wrong? Should I score a super-dry Sauvignon Blanc higher? Maybe. My intellectual processing of wine scoring is still evolving, and I wouldn’t want it any other way, even at the potential cost of some consistency.

So saturation appeals to me. Of course, saturation needs a framework, a structure in order to succeed; saturation all by itself is pure flab. That’s when you can look at my scores and draw conclusions. An “85” can be saturated in fruit but lack structure (or be too sweet). A “95” will almost invariably be a big, saturated but dry wine, red or white. That’s my palate, that’s California’s terroir, and there’s very little daylight between them.

  1. Steve:

    The “heart wants what the heart wants.” No matter how assiduously a reviewer tries to keep in mind the “correct” model for Cabernet or Chardonnay, the personal preference of the reviewer will show through. I have no problem with that.

    Where I think reviewers make a mistake is in comparing all varieties to a Chardonnay or Cabernet scale. Despite the fact that I don’t believe in 100-pt perfection, if you are going to potentially award that number to the major varieties, there has to be an analogous scale for SB, Albarino, Sangiovese, etc. You may never taste a 100-pt SB, but it doesn’t make any sense to decrease those chances by making it compete against a totally different wine.

  2. Steven, you raise an important point, one that I’ve talked about many times in this blog. As I said, my thinking continues to evolve. On the other hand, one needs some kind of reference, in order to evaluate anything. We judge films that way. We say, “Iron Man 2 isn’t as good as Iron Man 1.” We look at a sunset and say, “It’s gorgeous, but remember that one from last summer? We’ll never see anything like that again.” So in the same way, I think it’s only human, and fair, to hold Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as the highest standards, and judge everything else with respect to them.

  3. Michael says:

    You make a very good point but I would have to disagree with the “California Terrior” comment. The decision to pick fruit to make a bigger style of wine does not, in my opinion, reflect on our terroir but more on winemaking. Sure we can hang fruit till it dries on the vine but that is style not terroir. A friend of mines wine were reviewed as “industrial” by a critic. He picks to make balanced wines no large water or acid adds. The reviewers comments were based on his preference for larger extracted style of wines. Numbers attached to wines are used by the public as gauges of quality not the critics taste.

  4. Steve,

    I couldn’t disagree more. Comparing a sunset in Colorado to a sunset in California doesn’t really make much sense. There are inherent differences between the two. Both are beautiful when they’re at their very best but one dips below the rugged Rockies and the other settles down over the grand Pacific.

    Now, if you came to Colorado from California, you might compare the first sunsets you saw to those you knew best when you arrived. But once you really got to know Colorado, you’d probably feel compelled to appreciate and describe the nuances of your experiences their independent of whatever else you’d seen during your travels in California or elsewhere.

    It seems to me that your job as a full-time wine writer and critic should be to expand your understanding and appreciation to the utmost. That is to say, to develop as many independent reference points as possible and to push others with less opportunity to experience all the possible sunsets to think outside the “California sunset” box. After all, it’s easy to have a single reference point that we constantly come back to. It’s much harder to appreciate things independently for their own intrinsic qualities. It takes time and energy that most of us don’t have. Isn’t it your grand challenge as a pro to help guide us along and promote our deeper understanding instead of allowing our stagnation on what we already know so well?

    Let me ask one final question: if Albarino had been planted in Burgundy instead of Galicia, do you think that you would favor aromatic high acid whites and use these as your absolute reference point? Certainly, “the heart wants what the heart wants”, but exposure and perception play an enormous role in why we like a given thing over others. Do you really believe that Cab, Pinot, and Chard are, “the greatest”, or is it simply that they have been touted as such louder and longer than any others?

  5. Steve, thanks for another great post. It’s often the case that our (Californian) wines don’t present a clear answer to the question of, “Who am I?”. I completely agree with you that California-style is what we do best. I’ve often tasted wines made here that aspire to taste like a Rhone, a Burgundy, or even (in the case of Sauvignon Blanc) a New Zealand, only to find them falling short of the real thing. Also, I must admit to being a total Sauvignon Blanc nut and I have wondered why these fantastic wines don’t receive higher marks. Nothing beats a great SB on super-hot day. The best ones seem to be full of fruit, rich yes, but evoking a freshness that leaves your mouth dry and wanting more. This way one is all too tempted to be drawn in by the aromatics for more. As far as I’m concerned no Chardonnay can compare to this, and key is really the finish. Is it just the higher acids, or is it the taste of the grape. I would say it is mainly the taste of the fruit. So if a wine is complex, rich, balanced, and finishes by showing off its unique personality, wouldn’t the best examples be worthy of equal billing?

  6. We’re on for Thursday, right? 😉

  7. Corey, wow you ask some deep philosophical questions. Rather than answer them quickly, let me think about it.

  8. Michael is exactly right. As I’ve said (or preached) on this blog and many others, terroir is so much more than the piece of land grapes come from. It also includes just as importantly how man (and woman) interacts with the vineyard and the grapes in producing a wine. Given that, man (and woman) can choose what style of wine he wants to make. And with all do respect, Steve, I think it is wrong that you score SB relative to your favorite CA chard. In many ways I think scoring wines on a 100 pt scale is questionable, and I think that is especially the case when one varietal, from one state is used as the benchmark for all whites. It’s almost like saying CA oranges are better than FL tomatoes.

  9. Scott, like I said, every critic needs a benchmark. You can’t evaluate something subjectively without benchmarks. I think, once you grant the necessity for a benchmark, it doesn’t much matter what it is. For a specialist in Italian wine (which I am not), it might be a Barolo or Super-Tuscan. Here in California, which is the region I report on, my benchmarks are Chardonnay (for dry whites) and Cabernet and Pinot (for dry reds). Without benchmarks, I think you just have a hodgepodge of personal impressions. Yes, there could be a Sangiovese I like that’s the best California Sangiovese I ever had, but does it deserve 100 points? No, because in my judgment it doesn’t have to complexity and greatness of (say) a Shafer Hillside Select. So even though it’s the best Cali Sangiovese I ever had, it’s not a 100 point wine, and I will score it with reference to all the other Cali Sangioveses I ever had.

  10. Trouble is Steve H, following the opening comment by Steve M, many of your readers are fans of Rhone/Spanish/Italian/German etc., etc. varietal wines and with your personal preference for Burgundian and Bordeaux style wines, are you not giving short shrift to these wine enthusiasts of which there are many?

    This seems to be yet another variation on one of the main themes that has run through this blog: whether we should bestow on one person the responsibility to assess the whole range of Cali wines with benchmarks appropriate to the particular variety. I guess your response will be, as you’ve said before, as long as readers are clear on my taste preferences they can follow my judgments or not. If not, then they should find another critic who has a different set of preferences closer to their own.

    IMHO, Corey is only half right, by the way. The magazine may have an obligation to ensure that all types of wines in CA get covered “properly”. But I don’t think you have a personal responsibility to expand your understanding and appreciation. You have long since determined what sort of wines you like and what wines will never rock your boat. This is a given.

    You give 100 pts and a corresponding rave write up to the 2004 Shafer Hillside Select; but the Internet version of WE has nothing for the Shafer Syrah (“Relentless”). So once more I must insert the wisdom of the crowd called CellarTracker which has 52 notes on the Hillside leading to a median score of 94 and 57 notes for the 04 Relentless for a median score of 92. One of the Alban Syrahs, the great Reva Estate, hasn’t been reviewed by you for over a decade it seems; whereas CT has 128 notes on the ’04 with a collective score of 93.

    This also raises the question why should a fine wine writer also be a fine taster? Might it not be that the skill set for writing essays about wine is not the skill set, necessarily, for judging wines. Which is why a wine buyer may want many opinions.

    I realize I’m being awfully repetitious, but then you keep bringing up this topic in various guises.

  11. Steve, I believe you´re partially right. IMHO, California global benchmarks are: Cabs (from Napa and Sonoma), Zinfandels and Petite Sirahs. In the sense that within these varieties California has a competitive edge in global terms.
    Chardonnay benchmarks are from the Côte de Beaune, for oaky, dense and buttery; and Chablis for leaner, more structured, austere wines. SB benchmarks are from Sancerre and Pouilly. The same is valid for consistently outstanding Pinot Noir: it belongs to the Côtes des Nuits.
    Then again, California has its distinctive Pinots (from varied but very specific climate niches), and Chards; which are miles away from Burgundy. But that doesn’t mean they’re worse; they’re different. And that’s exactly what’s fascinating about wine. Different regions will produce intrinsically different wines, each with its own typicity and character; and should be proud of it.

  12. Steve, I look forward to your response to Corey’s comment.

  13. Chris, you’ll find it in today’s blog.

  14. Steve H. – spoken like a true and ardent tolerant taster! Great piece and I hold you as a great maven for other tolerant tasters looking for ratings, critiques and information. Still would love to get together for the lunch I keep offering to provide more background on the sensory sensitivity front and work I am doing in that area.

    To the ‘terroir’ crowd: properly defined the word terroir simply means ‘locality’ and is more closely related to ‘territory’ that anything else. Any characteristics displayed by a wine, from nature or nurture or winemaking or culture or whatever, that ties it to a locality either large or small is considered a ‘gout de terroir.’ Terroir is flavor attributes that tie a wine to a territory, not specifically (yet inclusively) the soil.

    Thus, “Sure we can hang fruit till it dries on the vine but that is style not terroir.” Surely it is for Amarone, Vin Santo (dried in the attic not the vine) and many other wines that are very traditional and typical for those localities.

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