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Another road report from Washington State

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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.

  1. Nick Dokoozlian (note the “L” toward the end) is right. In the yield trials I have done, severely under-cropped vines yielded wines that were even less preferred than wines from over-cropped vines. Critically, though, the sweet spot – the yield level producing the most preferred wines – varied from site to site.

  2. Steve,
    I have to agree with Nick, with John and mostly with you, nailing it with: “The answer, from my point of view, is simple: MARKETING”. When I get together with winemaker friends and we talk among us about some of these myths (old vines, oak from the Troncais forrest, native yeast etc) we always end up with the same conclusion: Beware of a winemaker who believes the marketing material BS of his own employer!

    Fun and cynicism aside, as consumers, we are all accustomed to “half truths” in advertizing of goods. I am certain that an engineer working for AMD or Intel will chuckle when they read advertizing claims on laptops ads featuring the latest chip they designed. Should the wine industry be held to a different standard? And if so, who should police it?

  3. raley roger says:

    Steve,
    These past two entries have been a total pleasure to read. Feeling like an arm chair traveler this morning!

  4. Oded, the critics should police it! I try to expose myths whenever I see them.

  5. Cabfrancophile says:

    The low yield myth also comes from European viticulture where it is probably closer to reality. Maybe this is an oversimplification, but solar flux + heat = sugar + flavor. Europe has less of those initial ingredients than CA, and if they want ripe grapes they can’t overload the vines. Plus old vines, which are more common in Europe, likely tend to have lower yields.

    In CA it seems like the focus should be on lowering sugars and delaying ripeness except in the most marginal climates. A lot of the CA wines I’ve tasted from very low yields have been unbalanced, albeit it ripe and concentrated. Dividing that converted energy over more fruit may have helped given the surfeit of concentration and alcohol.

  6. “Nick presented data showing that undercropping is actually detrimental to wine quality”.

    It is pretty much common knowledge that IRRIGATED vines (particularly those with denser canopies) do not perform well under severe pruning and (excessively) limited yields. A quality vs. yield graph from these vines would show a bell-curve skewed – and truncated – to the left. But despite the fact that irrigated vines can tolerate somewhat higher yields without entirely compromising fruit quality, as yields grow beyond the aforementioned “sweet spot” quality still falls rapidly.
    Grapes from non-irrigated vines, on the other hand, granted canopies are not too dense, maintain the same (highest) quality from the lowest yield up to a certain threshold (which varies according to variety, soil, climate, canopy management…); beyond this point quality falls precipitously.
    Thus, Dr. Dokoozlian’s statement (“Low yielding vines make better wine: […] Not true”) seems misleading. Even though low yields, alone, are not sufficient to ensure “quality”, high yields (e.g., 8 tons per acre) are, surely, enough to ruin it.

  7. Thanks for starting the list of myths about what makes better tasting wine. I added some that need to be busted to it.

    high alcohol, low crop, close spacing, no irrigation, organic farming, biodynamic farming, organic pesticides, warm days/cold nights, old vines, a wine tastes of the soil, unfiltered, unfined, tartrate instability, native yeasts, gravity flow, non-interventional winemaking, no additives, small wineries make better wine than large wineries, winemaking is an art, luddites make better wine, young winemakers are more creative than old ones, barrel makers actually make their barrels from the forests they claim, an expert winemaker does not need chemical analysis and can rely solely on his palate (particularly in determining harvest date by crunching up some grapes in his mouth), and a taster claiming to taste on a hundred point scale actually uses more than a thirty point spread to score wines and can accurately and reproducibly do so.

    (sorry Steve, couldn’t resist putting that one in).

  8. STEVE!

    In 20 years of being a sommelier I don’t think I ever once sold a bottle of wine by remarking how low the yield was for that particular bottle. That simply wouldn’t work. However, I was often told the yield, if it were very low, by the salespeople who were trying to sell the wine to me. Did I care? Not when I’m tasting the damn wine and can judge for myself whether I think it’s any good. That said, an awful lot of sommeliers (not me) did sell wine by mentioning how many points it received… Without P.R. and Marketing people does Wine Enthusiast even exist?

  9. I beleive Peter O’Conner nailed it. As to Morton, what are you going to do when “They” produce a “Wine” that tastes absolutely superb but has no grapes in it. I’m sure it’s possible but do you (we) want to drink it? Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  10. Balanced yields are the key to producing quality grapes. Some regions (soils/rootstocks/clones/insert your set of qualifiers here) produce wonderful wines at four tons per acre, and some regions produce wonderful wines at eight or nine tons to the acre. I thank you for touching on the fact that vine spacing now varies greatly. When every vineyard was based on eight by eight spacing of head pruned vines, comparisons based on tons per acre were VASTLY more relevant than they are today.

  11. I never could understand the crowing about 1/2 ton yields per acre – how is that good for the vine or for the bottom line? Balance in everything is always the answer, but yes…it’s (relatively) easy and pleasurable to make wine. Selling it is a different story entirely. Steve, on your point about gorgeous new equipment – I only wish that the folks who design these would have to figure out how to clean and sanitize them before they put them into production! Always a conundrum and always too many nooks and crannies!

  12. These ‘findings’ are rediculously unscientific. What matrix is being used to determine wine quality, and where does the winemaker come into play? The question should never have been “Does lower yield = better wine?”, it should have been “Does lower yield = better grapes?” Not all winemakers are the same. I also find it interesting that this ‘study’ came from Gallo. Not exactly known for thier low yields.

  13. A viticulturist’s perspective: True, yield is not directly inversely related to quality. There is no physiological mechanism in the vine that responds to crop level. Oh, except sugar loading. There is a finite amount of sugar being produced by the leaves and the fruit is the sink for that sugar. More sinks = less sugar uptake and vice-versa. But sugar concentration does not necessarily equate to quality. And I agree with Nick in that low yields may negatively impact quality by creating rapid sugar accumulation that outpaces other (more important) aspects of “flavor ripening”. I’ve seen low yields imposed on vines just for the sake of low tons per acre, only to have them reach 26+ brix without being ready to harvest due to “green” tannins and other unripe characteristics. All that said, overcropping is a detriment to wine quality, if fine wines are the goal. Densely-grouped clusters create uneven ripening amongs the population of clusters (not to mention disease). It’s really all about creating a uniform microclimate for each and every cluster and then creating uniformity of maturation of the population of clusters/berries. This is done by dropping clusters where congested and by thinning out green fruit in late stages of veraison. This reduces yield beyond what the vine may be capable of producing, but its purpose has nothing to do with yield.

  14. Phillip – My take on your question is that the only reason we use grapes to produce wine is that it is the easiest and cheapest way to produce such a great tasting and healthful beverage. But even, if it were possible to do it easier and cheaper any other way, we would probably still use grapes because of deeply instilled prejudices and beliefs that there are things man does that are natural and other things he does that are unnatural.

  15. Kurt Burris says:

    Tony is spot on. It’s not the yield, it is having the vineyard in balance. I was on a school related tour of John Baritella’s (sp?) Rutherford Cabernet vineyard in the early 90’s and he stated he was getting 10 tons to the acre at 2K a ton and the fruit was going into the Georges De Latour. While working in the foothills we tried cutting the yields in our Zin vineyards to 3 tons and the wines weren’t as good as at 5 to 6. And I helped make wine from some low yielding phyloxera infested vines that was crap. Healthy happy vines make good wine.

  16. Bernard Portet says:

    Good job, Steve, for debunking this myth of Lower yield equals better quality. The balance of the vine is key, and that will lead to balance of the wine. What good is it to keep only one bunch per shoot if you are going to over ripen it to 28 Brix any way. It is time for common sense grapegrowing and winemaking to get back in the picture. It is high time to stop being too intellectual.

  17. Karen, I’m glad I don’t have to clean that stuff! I can’t even figure out how to clean my beard trimmer.

  18. Great topic Steve! Although, as a farmer with no marketing education- I do believe in paying close attention to yieldsfor the highest wine quality.

    Equilibrium or balance is the key to the whole thing- balanced vines make balanced wines. With the soils technologies we have today- we can do a better job of anticipating what an appropriate spacing is for a vineyard/varietal prior to planting. Different land preparation techniques can dramatically effect the vigor of the vine and therefore the spacing required to achieve a balanced vine. With Pinot Noir being the most yield sensitive varietal, and the grape I grow the most of, we pay close attention to growing a physically small plant where the yield is balanced with the vigor of the vine.

  19. Doesnt it seem rather biased as the person giving the presentation represents probably the largest grape grower in the entire world, hence will always be encouraged to defend higher yields and grape quality. Gallo must continually give evidence and support this concept because that is how they support the millions of gallons of wine they produce. Just a side note, but seems interesting enough to point out.

  20. Rory, your position is undermined by the fact of how many small growers were eagerly taking notes from Nick and trying as fast as they could to copy his powerpoint slides. Clearly they felt they had a lot to learn from him.

  21. I think the point is balance. In Heartbreak Grape there is a great passage where Jensen sums it up. We simply don’t know about yields. Even without seeing this presentation, I’d say we still don’t know except to say that they shouldn’t be too high or too low. The concept of yields isn’t a singular concept.

    Though this sounds pretty light on the spectrum of scientific evidence, I’m glad someone (even if it is Gallo) is a challenging unproven tenants from winemaking. Low yields aren’t the holy grail of wine making. You’ve got to work with your vineyard and find what makes your best wines.

    The more info that gets passed along to the educated consumer helps too!

  22. I have been present in as many as 5 to 7 of Mr. Dokooslian’s talks since I started working with wine. His slides are very similar year after year and point out how the wines made with fruit coming from high yielding vines (Gallo wines) have the same or more flavonoids, phenolic compounds and tannins than wines made with fruit from low yielding vines.
    In my own experience you can have a wine with the highest content of the above that taste watered down and/or green.
    If Mr. Dokooslian gets paid by Gallo to do all his research why isn’t Gallo using the data he has to make the better wines?
    How many bottles of wine made by Gallo do you have at home for your personal consumption?
    Give me some unbiased research…please!

  23. Mauricio, I couldnt disagree more with you. Gallo is making very good wine for the price points they serve. The fact that they remain the country’s biggest winery proves that consumers like and trust them. It’s very easy to pick on Gallo but it’s unfair.

  24. Steve, something you haven’t mentioned, and maybe too anecdotal, would be for you to take 100 or so of your favorite Californian (Highest scoring) wines, check out the yield-data, and see if there is a correlation! Better yet, do the same thing with your least favorite wines!

  25. Amen to you sir! Farmers should also take into consideration their Marketing capabilities/skills. Even with a very good harvest but without the knowledge on marketing their products you would be nothing in the business world.

  26. A lot of Nick’s research on yield and quality was done before he worked for Gallo and the same results have been obtained by other researchers in Australia, Italy and South Africa.

  27. Hi Steve-
    Excellent points. I wonder what you think about the influence of mother nature’s low yields in this discussion. From my albiet limited 10 year vintage perspective, the lower yielding years (2004, 2007, 2008) tend to be riper and friendlier and therefore more favored by consumers and critics than the cooler, larger yielding years (2006, 2005). 1997 is an obvious outlier, but over time, this lower yield statement of fact gets confused with man-made lower yields that do NOT correlate to tastier wine.

  28. Steve,
    Interesting topic, I was at this conference and heard the research points brought up Nick Dokoozlian and the data he presented seemed to make sense. I think it is a good thing that Gallo is spending some of their profits to do research in the wine industry and give growers and vintners some more physical data to use when making decisions. Not many entities have the time, resources, or cash flow to do a lot of this research and it has the potential to help the wine industry as a whole not just Gallo. I personally don’t drink many Gallo products but I respect what they do. I think a lot of people forget how young the wine industry is in the new world and a lot of technical data and research that has been done in the past 20-30 years is still being implemented and the results are now available for analysis, and like most results they data can be interpreted in a few different ways. That said I think the people talking about balance have it right, sometimes you might get 3 tons per acre and love it while other times 5 tons is fine, anything over that is typically going to be going into a lower price point wine and sometimes could still rival other wines but generally speaking you can taste a difference. I don’t think ½ ton per acre is a good idea unless you only have a few rows planted in that acre.

  29. One of the first reserve bordeaux style wine I made was blended primarily around grapes from Cabernet grown in a vineyard in the Oak Knoll District which yielded 6 tons/acre. Later, we did a commercial scale yield experiment with Pinot Noir from the Winery Lake vineyard in Carneros, doing a pretty good job of controlling the variables: lots were made from grapes thinned or not thinned in a randomized block pattern throughout the vineyard, to yield 2, 4, and 6 tons/acre (un-thinned) and the experiment was done over three seasons. The 2 tons/acre sugared up too quickly, and lacked varietal character. The 6 tons/acre was thin and muted. The 4 tons/acre was consistently richer, rounder and more aromatic. Echoing what others have posted here: it seems like there is a sweet spot for each site that varies with the particular conditions; and it is not the yield statistic that drives the quality, but rather the back story (e.g. the clusters per shoot, the sun exposure to each cluster, and so on). These were moderately irrigated vines (less water than vines would typically get from rain in Burgundy).

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