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Thoughts on my Chardonnay Symposium panel on clones

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The 2013 Chardonnay Symposium is all over. My panel was on clones, and the challenge was to take something that could be really dry and academic and make it interesting–not just for the audience, but for me. Because, as I explained in my remarks, when you’re moderating a panel, you’re midway between the audience and the speakers. The latter are the experts, there to deliver high-level information. But the danger with winemakers is that they can get a little too technical and geeky, thereby losing the audience. For an ordinary, wine amateur audience–as this one was at the Chardonnay Symposium–a little geek goes a long way. Fifteen or twenty seconds of segue into clonal trials, framed in high techno-speak, is just about the limit of toleration. Beyond that, you start to see people’s eyes shifting. They look down at their cell phones. You can tell they’re drifting. My job is to hasten things along.

Having said all that, we did learn a lot, everything from the history of Chardonnay on Earth (from nurseryman Eckhard Kaesekamp) to that of the Wente clone (from none other than Karl Wente), to the trials and tribulations of the 1970s and much about the current situation in California. The most interesting question, for me–one that always fascinates me–is, What is the role or impact of the things that Mother Nature brings to wine, relative to that of the things the winemaker brings? Mother Nature is the terroir of climate and soils, as well as the DNA of the particular clone. If someone is making a big deal about the clone–“This clone is floral, or muscatty, or tropical fruity”–does that aspect invariably show with that clone, whether the grapes are grown in the warmer Alexander Valley or the cooler Edna Valley? To me, this is the stuff I love to investigate. The answer is, there can be no answer, which was summed up by Jeff Stewart’s (Hartford Court) assertion that “There are no blanket statements” about clones that are invariable. Comments from other winemakers, including Wente, Merry Edwards and James Ontiveros (Alta Maria and Native 9), made the same point: So much depends on the way that clone reacts to the soils, the weather, and also the rootstock, as well as to the way the winemaker does everything from barrel and malolactic fermentation to sur lie aging and battonage. Clarissa Nagy (Riverbench) described quite poetically this intersection between human and non-human; Matt Dees (Jonata) brought us into the winemaker’s head and how he thinks when approaching the topic of single-clone Chardonnays versus multiple clone blends. Chamisal’s Fintan du Fresne in particular stressed the importance of site over clone, a natural position for him given the intensity of fruit and acidity that Edna Valley wines always display.  But in the end, it is really hard to come to any kind of bottom line conclusion concerning what any one clone brings to the table.

No conclusions. Think about it. Think about the millions of words we expend in our conversations about wine, whether they be verbally, in blogs or magazines or textbooks. Think of all the conversations trying to pinpoint just what something means, when the reality is, we never, or only rarely, can know. There are so many things about wine that are fundamentally indeterminate. This is why in olden times they saw wine as a spiritual miracle. Nowadays, despite our science, there remains something Heisenbergian about wine: it’s impossible to pin it down, to get it into clear focus and pick apart the exact function of winemaker technique and Mother Nature, with all their myriad subsets. It can never be done, but it’s wonderful to talk about. These things make for great panel discussions, and consumers obviously love it, which is why they’re willing to spend pretty good money to go to events like the Chardonnay Symposium, not only to sit there and listen and taste, but to raise their hands and ask questions. This intense interactivity goes to the heart of wine, which brings people together in thoughtful conversation.

One topic that Ontiveros introduced into the discussion, which I think is interesting, concerns the role of marketing. A lot of the conversation about clones is, How do they make the wine better, or more distinctive — what kinds of aromas and flavors and acidity does the clone bring? The fact is, just as often, or maybe even more often, as a clone is chosen for its qualitative aspects, so too is it chosen for its quantative aspects. There are certain clones that are good producers, and if a good Chardonnay can be made from a high-production clone, then the producer is going to use that clone. Vintners and growers are always looking to maximize their output; all their talk of quality is fine as far as it goes, but tends to obscure the hard facts of business.

The commercial implication made me remember something I wrote in one of my books: that for every descriptive word you can squeeze onto the front label, you can charge an additional $5 retail. For instance, if the label says “Dijon Clones”, ka-ching: Add ten bucks to the price. The consumer will think it’s a better wine than one that doesn’t have that designation, and will be willing to spend more for it.

Anyhow, we had eight awesomely good Chardonnays at our panel, underscoring once again why this varietal is California’s greatest white wine.

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