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Burgundy appellations and California AVAs

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I’m still very much enjoying and learning from Rajat Parr’s new book, “Secrets of the Sommeliers” (co-written with Jordan Mackay), although I could live without his constant swipes against California wines.

Parr is at his best when writing, of course, about his beloved Burgundy. Whenever I read good writing about Burgundy it turns me on, for the explanation of this region surely is one of the most rigorously intellectual in all of winedom. Who among us doesn’t remember the first times he was taken, through the written word, on a tour of the famous slopes of the Cotes d’Or, by a writer who knew what he was talking about? In my case, my first tour guide was Alexis Lichine who, although a Bordelaise (he owned a couple of chateaux), knew Burgundy in his blood. I must have spent dozens of hours close-reading the Burgundy sections of his immortal “New Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits”, memorizing the appellations controlées, studying the map, understanding the millennial history, and wishing I could have the opportunity “to perceive the difference between a…Charmes-Chambertin and the contiguous Clos de Beze,” which, sadly, didn’t happen nearly enough.

It was those tiny, mystical differences between vineyards and parts of vineyards so close to each other that inflamed my mind. I took it as part of God’s plan for an ordered Earth that it should be so–that the Pinot Noir grape (and to a lesser extent the Chardonnay) grown in Burgundy should express itself in so complex a tapestry, in what is really a fairly compact region.

Parr takes us over much the same territory as did Lichine, albeit in language not quite so poetic. Reading Parr on, say, Vosne-Romanée, the old fire returned to light up my brain. The old passion was rekindled, as it was when, in 1982, I bought (for $30!) my Lichine “Encyclopedia.” But I reflect also that there’s a huge difference between then and now, in terms of how I apply the knowledge of Burgundy to the situation of Pinot Noir here in California.

It was the particular French genius for (or obsession with?) classification that provided the underpinnings of my fascination with Burgundy, and in the 1980s there was no reason why I, or anybody else, would have been blamed for believing that California too would someday be organized into communes and villages and premier and grand crus. They might not be called by those words, but we would someday have identified the precise slopes where our Vosnes and Cortons and Chambolle-Musignys grew, and even the tenderloins within them in which our Bonnes-Mares and La Taches displayed exquisite grandness.

That is what I thought in the 1980s, at any rate. Today, it’s a very different story. We have superb Pinot Noir regions scattered for hundreds of miles, from the Anderson Valley down to the Santa Rita Hills, from Fort Ross to the Santa Cruz Mountains, from Carneros to the Santa Lucia Highlands. Far from having a single range of hills to understand, we have multiple valleys, even whole mountain ranges that have just begun to be poked and prodded. We have, too, a vastly greater range of clones, rootstocks, farming techniques, barrel regimens and winemaking practices available than the Burgundian vignerons ever did, each of which minimizes the contributions of terroir, making them harder to discern. I could go on and on about all the reasons why classifying California Pinot Noir, at least in the way it’s done in Burgundy, will never be done.

Does that leave me disappointed? No. My expectations from the 1980s have turned out not to be achievable, but then, I had many fantasies back then that never panned out. There is, though, a definite satisfaction in knowing that, although things here are much more complicated than I, or anybody else, thought, still, we as a state have reached the point where I can taste masterpieces like Merry Edwards’ 2007 Meredith Estate, Lynmar’s ‘07 Five Sisters, Byron’s ‘08 Nielson, Samsara’s ‘08 Las Hermanas, and appreciate them for what they are, even though they don’t seem to be arranged into any sort of coherent order (and even despite Rajat Parr’s back-handed compliments).

And who’s to say that the dream is truly dead? It won’t be my generation that finally and fully explains Pinot Noir in California. It won’t be the Millennials, because even if they have writing careers of thirty years or more, vintners and growers still will be scratching away in our appellations like chickens looking for a tasty grub. I think we may be able to make sense of some of our AVAs sooner than others–the Santa Lucias seem more logical than, say, the Sonoma Coast. Westside Road may someday be plotted out in a more or less thorough way. We may have some clearer understanding of the Santa Rosa Road corridor in the Santa Rita Hills, brief as that place’s viticultural history is.

But much work remains to be done, and one thing wine writers will have to be careful of is not to jump to unwarranted conclusions, just because they sound good and are easily repeated. In a day and age of instant truthiness, spread virally over the Internet, writers should avoid parroting something that somebody else said. That’s not how the Burgundians understood their land. It took them a thousand years, and from what I’ve read of their history, they were in no hurry. Neither should we be.

A good cause to support…

My friend, David Le, is hosting a fundraiser for Big Brothers and Big Sisters of the Bay Area. It’s on Sat., Oct. 16, at his Garden Hortica garden center in Oakland, 668 Seventh Street, near Jack London Square.

  1. Though totally unrelated, I found it funny and cool that the post I’d scheduled for publication today also deals with Burgundy. :-)

    You are INSIDE MY HEAD, man!!!

  2. Dude, what’s that smell?

  3. Must be a slow news day. Gee, I did not blog about Burgundy at all.

    But, a Burgundian system is not likely to happen anywhere else in the world. Well, OK, I will grant you the Cote Rotie, but are there others where anything like it exists? Even on the West Rutherford Bench, which is one continuous land mass with similar exposures, the land is already broken up in holdings that are much larger than the tightly defined spaces in Burgundy. Can you imagine ten different appellations for ToKalon alone?

  4. Charlie, I could see some kind of parcelizing of Santa Rosa Road, perhaps individually on the north and south sides, because it seems like a contiguous mass. Ditto for a few miles of Westside Road.

  5. Raj Parr is what’s wrong with wine. He’s a pretentious prick who turns off most people to wine.

  6. Steve
    Burgundy is an Arthurian legend. There will never be any sense to made of terroir in the post-modern winemaking world. When people can and do manipulate every single fundamental component of wine, it becomes a manufactured commodity. This is where we are. Wine is dead. All the things that all of us of a certain age loved about wine has become a marketing object. Like Letterman says about the global environment- “It’s over- the cab is on its way”. There are a very few of us who don’t read parker, who remember Lichine and Hughes, who care about what wine was for centuries. But it’s over. We are a dying breed. It’s all tweets and money. Fuck it. I’ll go down trying to make real wine. You better write about it.

  7. Bunt marker, cheer up. Things could be worse. Wine has been around for 10,000 years. It will even survive Twitter.

  8. Steve
    Yeah, you’re right. Just late night harvest grouchiness. I do wish someone would pay attention to the wines that have the least manipulation, but, how could one know? I think Randall Graham’s on the right track. I’m following his lead, and will list ingredients on my labels. I probably lost a restaurant sale today because when the buyer asked how I produced wines of 13 and 13.5% alcohol, I told her. I bleed and add water back. Duh. Many do it, few admit it. Is it better than R.O. and distillation to remove alcohol? I don’t know. But I think it’s simpler, more direct, less industrial. I ask for fruit at 23.5 Brix, but even though growers bitch about losing money selling dessicated grapes, that’s all they seem to be able to supply. This year IS special, though, so I can’t blame them for sending me 26 Brix Pinot in 2010. I picked my Syrah at 22.8 and it ended up 24.2, after the dried fruit soaked up. So I can’t even get my own my fruit right. But I’m continuing the experiment of NO ADDITIONS. The 4.2 pH is scary, but let’s see what happen. It fermented reasonably well without SO2 or inoculation. It’s a one barrel experiment, so if it blows up, no great loss. Probably the VA will help lower the pH. HAHA HA! By the way your top ten lists are useful. Too bad many of your picks are too expensive for normal people to drink.I’m grateful you pay attention to Syrah, the saddest story in wine-dom. Cote-Rotie is probably the most singular appellation on the planet, makes emulating Burgundy seem easy. bunt

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