What makes a winery important?
A fellow named Jeremy Ball, whom I met at last March’s World of Pinot Noir (his company, Bottle Branding, was the official videographer), sent me this YouTube, in which Yours Truly makes a brief appearance.
I watched it, and then later, as I was walking Gus, I found myself thinking of something Francis Ford Coppola told me a few weeks ago, that in his humble opinion a winery can be considered great and important only if it’s been around for at least 50 years, and been making great wine all that time. (Of course, he was talking about his resurrection of the Inglenook brand.)
When I watched the video I saw lots of producers who make great wine–Paul Lato, for example–but their careers have been relatively brief in California. Then Brian Talley showed up, and I remembered that it was a younger Brian, blonde, handsome and sun-tanned, who picked me up at the San Luis Obispo airport 22 or 23 years ago for one of my first forays outside the Bay Area as a newbie wine writer. I was visiting his Talley Vineyards, already acquiring a high reputation at that point as the premier Pinot Noir producer along that stretch of the Central Coast.
It occurs to me that, by any reasonable definition, you’d have to call Talley an important winery, even though it doesn’t meet Mr. Coppola’s 50-year standard. Well, few wineries in California do, and even those that are that old might fail to meet the standard of importance for other reasons.
So here’s what I think a winery needs to be considered important. I’ll stick to Pinot Noir producers for now.
1. It should be “old” by the relative standards of both California in general and its region. Thus, for example, it’s impossible for (say) a Santa Lucia Highlands winery to be anywhere near as old as a Napa Valley winery. But it can be a S.L.H. veteran by local standards. Pisoni Vineyards, whose launch was only in 1998 but whose plantation, by Gary Pisoni, dates to 1982, meets that condition.
2. All during its existence it has to have been producing wines universally acknowledged as great. By this parameter, there are several important Pinot Noir producers in California: Rochioli, Williams Selyem, Joseph Swan, among a few others.
3. It should have led, and continue to lead, in terms of individuality of style and consistent expression of its terroir. Here, one thinks automatically of a winery like Calera, which has had its reputational ups and downs over the decades, but always has hewed tightly to its style–a balanced, earthy Pinot that’s now returning to fashion.
4. The wines should be ageworthy, although this of course is relative. All of the above wines are easily capable of more than a decade in a good cellar, providing the wine was sound to begin with.
Importance, or greatness, of reputation isn’t easy to achieve, nor should it be. Nowadays, there are wineries that attempt to buy reputational importance through a variety of manipulations: a significant investment of money upfront, association with famous names, pricing based on hubris, the buzz of the media. But no such winery should be called important by any self-respecting writer with any sense of history. Importance, greatness, call it what you will, can only be achieved the old-fashioned way: through the four parameters I outlined above.