Another road report from Washington State
The first two sessions at the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers were both called Myth Busting. Mine was based on the premise “High alcohol wines taste better.” I said, not necessarily. That’s too easy a formulation, and one that should be shot down. I bash as many high alcohol wines as low- or moderate alcohol wines; in fact, probably more.
The second panel, which I wasn’t part of, was based on the premise “Low yielding vines make better wine.” The lead speaker was Gallo’s head viticulturalist, Nick Dokooslian. He said “Not true,” and offered a series of powerpoint slides showing his extensive research into the matter. I personally don’t need research to agree with Nick. I learned a long time ago that some damned good wine comes from vines we would consider high yielding (e.g. 8 tons per acre). Then too, as Nick reminded us, tons per acre is a misleading metric. How many clusters per vine? What is the vine spacing? So generalizations are complicated.
There was lots of discussion on the panel, and interaction from the audience, on the yield question, but it wasn’t until the end that the panel moderator asked what I think is the key question: If low yield isn’t the alpha and omega of wine quality, then why is the perception so strong—among writer/critics, sommeliers and even educated members of the public—that it is? I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t enough time to delve into this in depth. The answer, from my point of view, is simple: MARKETING.
Hard-core viticulture guys, which this WAWGG audience largely was, are rightfully concerned with things like cluster thinning, shoots per vine and the like, but they don’t really know much about marketing. No reason they should; they’re farmers. Thus, they don’t really understand the marketing, P.R. and communications side of selling wine. It’s no insult for me to say that. I don’t understand viticulture all that well; it’s not my job, just as it isn’t their job to know what happens out there in the world where wine actually has to be sold to skeptical, fussy consumers via a distribution chain that largely cares only about what simple message they can communicate to the end buyer to persuade him or her to buy the SKU. Winemakers, of course, do have to worry about marketing, but there’s always been a cultural gap between winemakers and grape growers, and that gap is no less today than it was 50 years ago. Growers want yield; it’s how they make their profit. Winemakers tend to want to keep yields down.
But if, as everyone on the panel agreed, low yield isn’t as important as people think, then why is the perception so entrenched that it is? (Nick Dokoosian did point out that low yield seems to be associated with quality in Pinot Noir more than in most varieties.) Well, if you think about it, what messages have you heard all your life about low yield? It’s that low yield=quality. And who were you hearing that message from? For the most part, it’s been from wineries who can charge very high prices for their wine, and thus can demand that growers keep yields exceptionally low. They then use the low-yield fact in their marketing and advertising. Their P.R, people trumpet the low yield. That message in turn is picked up by the distributors, who use it as a selling point to the final tier, the retailers, who then repeat the claim to the end buyers. The result is that a sommelier, in trying to make a sale, can tell the customer about how low-yielding the vines were, and this will help persuade the customer to spend a premium on the wine.
But in my experience, low yield in and of itself is pretty meaningless. Nick presented data showing that undercropping is actually detrimental to wine quality. There seems to be a sweet spot that’s neither low nor high, at which most varieties perform best. As for Pinot Noir, well, probably the fact that it needs a cool climate is the reason for its low yields; Mother Nature takes care of that. In the final analysis, one take-home lesson from the WAWGG panel is that the myth that low-yielding vines make better wine is another one to toss out.
After the panels, they had the big walkaround exposition of technical geegaws for the industry. I was really struck by how beautiful these machines have become: MOG sorters, concrete egg fermenters, filterers, crusher/destemmers, bottling machines, tractors. I used to work at California College of the Arts, where I got to know the industrial designers, who were hip, young guys who knew how to make machines sexy. I’m telling you, these modern wine machines are gorgeous enough to display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
P.S. Check out this link to the Sonoma County Wine Library. They’re honoroing the great Merry Edwards this Friday. Try to be there.