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Friday Fishwrap

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I tasted yesterday through a bunch of single clone and clonal blends of Pinot Noir from a Russian River Valley winery. There were six in all. I don’t want to single the winery out, which is a practice of mine in this blog. But I do want to use this occasion to express my views on clonal bottlings, which are almost invariably disappointing.

There can be only one legitimate reason for special designating Pinot Noir by clone (or by vineyard block, for that matter): specialness. All the rest of the reasons can be attributed to marketing. It’s sad to think that a marketing person could trump the taste of a winemaker, but that’s preferable to thinking that a winemaker doesn’t have the taste to begin with to recognize the limitations of a single-clone Pinot Noir.

This all started with the various block bottlings from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Although they’re all part of the same vineyard, the various blocks were so different from each other, they deserved separate bottlings. Hence La Tache, Echezeaux and all the rest. I’m not here to argue that Romanée-Conti shouldn’t be block designated. I’m suggesting that, in all too many cases, California wineries that do clonal bottlings are making a mistake. Each clone by itself has a theoretical divot that other clones or selections can fill in to make a better wine. If you see a clonal bottling as part of the winery’s Pinot lineup, be skeptical.

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Here’s a prime example of a winery that used social media to boost its business.

Pacific Rim, which makes Riesling from Columbia Valley grapes, seems to have struck gold, via the artful use of Twitter, Facebook, their own website, and a series of giveaway campaigns designed to lure customers in and, once they’re there, give them reasons to stay (not the least of which is quality: my colleague, Paul Gregutt, has given them consistently good reviews over the years).

This is one of the few instances I’ve seen where social media apparently has had a positive impact on the winery. I wish the New York Times, which reported the story, had done a little more research proving that it was social media, and not other factors, that was responsible for Pacific Rim’s success. It’s conceivable that the winery would be selling 200,000 cases a year without social media. Still, it’s pretty impressive. The company’s leaders seem to have a coherent vision how to use a coordinated social media approach, instead of just throwing a bunch of spaghetti against the wall and hoping a few strands will stick.

* * *

Tom Wark called me yesterday to ask if I think that a wine sent out for review when it’s very young is not as good as one that’s been held back by the winery for a few years.

My answer was, of course not.

Apparently, some other writers make the assumption that if “x” winery sends out its $80 2010 Cabernet now, it’s because the wine isn’t very good, whereas if “y” winery sends its 2009 out, the wine must be good because it’s older.

If that isn’t the silliest thing I ever heard, I don’t know what is. I don’t make any assumption about the quality of a wine based on how long the winery did or didn’t sit on it. (If you’re tasting blind, you wouldn’t necessarily know the vintage or release date anyway.) The one assumption I do make, when I see an expensive Cabernet that seems like it was rushed to market, is that the winery may be having liquidity problems. But that has nothing to do with the quality of the wine. When producers ask me when to send their wine, I always tell them: When the winemaker says it’s ready to be tasted. This is not a decision that should be left to marketing, sales or P.R. Unfortunately, all too often, it is.

* * *

Wine of the Week

Summers 2009 Checkmate Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain

Summers has produced solid, if relatively uninspiring, Cabernets for years. With the release of this small production (200 cases), expensive ($100) wine, they’ve outdone themselves. It was my highest scoring wine of the week.

  1. A good example of this happening recently is Robert Young Estate. They released their 2008 Scion Cabernet before they released their 2007 Scion. I assume they did this with good reason, but not necessarily because the ’07 was “better,” just maybe needed a bit longer. Maybe the ’08 was just so delicious right now that they didn’t want anyone to miss out. Furthermore, I believe the release dates of these two wines were reversed, but it seems that the 07′ was released for sale prior to be sent out for review. This bugs me a bit as it seems they are saying it is good enough for our customers. . . the rubes. . . but not yet good enough for the critics exalted palates. Any thoughts?

  2. raley roger says:

    Arcadian always releases their wines a few vintages after their colleagues. I respect and admire that Joe Davis waits until he feels his wines are approachable before releasing them.That’s a hard angle to embrace from a cash-flow perspective, and so I think that’s a great demonstration on his part of his integrity.

  3. doug wilder says:

    Steve,

    I agree with you about not making any conclusions based on if it is a 2010 or 2009 vintage. Having said that, if it was a 2011, I would probably take that into account because I don’t taste blind. I remember when Coppola had Rubicon on a seven year release. When everyone else was selling ’88, he hit the Tonight Show with his ’85 – brilliant! And he did release ’79 before ’78 and never released ’77. I have recently had a current release 2006 Cabernet from Spring Mountain, in a small flight that included 2008 and 2009 and in that case the extra time in barrel/bottle had a positive result.

    Your comment about picking the right time to release reminds me of a story when I sold wine in napa valley. A winery owner came in one day to show us his wine (which I didn’t think was showing that well) He made the assumed close that he could deliver me a pallet the next week. I told him to slow down, sharing my impressions that I thought the wine needed time and would want to retaste in six months. Incredulous, he mentioned he had just sent the wine to Wine Spectator for review. Several months later he came back in cussing about getting an 87 from them. We retasted the wine later and did bring some in several months later.

  4. @Doug Wilder brings up a great point about not sending wines for review until they’re actually showing well! Wineries have gotten a lot better at this over the past few years, but there are still some that rush it out the door.

  5. @GrapesRGreat, I don’t have much to add to this. I don’t know why wineries release their wines when they do, so I can’t speculate. All that matters to me is what’s in the bottle.

  6. Send in the clones…try ‘non-marketing ploy’ Willamette Valley WillaKenzie Pinot clonals. Good stuff. Cheer~

  7. in my experience (working at small wineries in the willamette valley), the general strategy is pretty simple: release the new vintage when the old vintage sells-out.
    at my current winery, we would actually like to push back out release dates, but as our sales grow, we are being pulled in the opposite direction. while my inner-artist would like to delay the release, my practical self accepts the reality of the situation, and calls it a “good problem to have”.
    in any event, i usually consider late vintage release a sign that wineries are having trouble selling their wine fast enough to keep up with production, although that is not always a sign of poor quality. my two cents

  8. @gabe, what you said. Trouble selling is not a sign of poor quality.

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