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Lessons Mayacamas and Inglenook (may) teach us

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I must admit that I find the ongoing industry-wide conversation about ripeness levels to be the most confounding I’ve been involved in, lo these many years.

Where did it start, anyway? I suppose it’s been going on for decades, in one form or another. Even before the launch of In Pursuit of Balance, which seems concerned mainly with Pinot Noir, there were hints of this brouhaha all the way back in the Seventies, with Cabernet and Chardonnay. It’s actually a question of style, not just alcohol level: and questions of style are never fully arbitrated.

A recent interesting example is in David Darlington’s (well written) story of the reinventions of both Inglenook and Mayacamas, in the June issue of Wine & Spirits. (“Napa’s New Old School”) The story teaser suggests that David “digs deep into the question,” hinting at some resolution for those of us who are scratching our heads at what’s going on. But there is no resolution to be had, only more wonderment, which is not David’s fault at all. The problem is the setting up of artificial sets of parameters, with an expectation that one set is correct and the other wrong, and the corresponding assumption that simple changes and fixes will solve the “problem” of overripeness.

Were it only that simple.

It is naive to the point of foolishness to think it’s all a matter of picking the grapes “less ripe or more ripe.” In interviews, both Francis Coppola and Charles Banks confess as much, although not in so many words. As any writer would, David tries his hardest to get them to come out and say something definitive, like Charles saying, “Bob Travers picked the grapes when they were still green. We’re going to let them get riper.” Or Francis saying, “Scott McLeod picked the grapes too ripe, so we’re going to pick them leaner.” No such luck.

That’s because neither Charles Banks nor Francis Coppola knows what to tell their new winemakers to do—and their new winemakers (Andy Erickson and Phllippe Bascaules, respectively) also don’t really know what to do. How could they? It takes an estate decades if not centuries to find its way. Although Mayacamas dates to the 1940s (or the 1960s depending on which ownership you choose to start the count at), the assumption in the critical industry is that Mayacamas lost its way under Bob Travers, a good man who just didn’t have enough money to turn things around, and so lost traction. The other assumption, concerning Inglenook, which dates to the 1800s, is conceded by Francis Coppola: that although he was making 90 point-plus wines, Rubicon never achieved the status of First Growth of Napa, according to the critics. So while Francis says he disdains point scores, his shakeup at Rubicon/Inglenook suggests that he really doesn’t.

Myself? I had more respect than love for Mayacamas; in this business, you have to take your hat off to a winery that’s been around for so long—and has done things so consistently honestly. I did like Rubicon, quite a bit—enough to buy a case of the 2002, which I rated 98 points. But other critics didn’t seem to care for it as much as I did, so Francis turned to Philippe, whom he got from Margaux, in hopes of a shakeup. (At least, by his own recounting, he didn’t hire Michel Rolland.)

Philippe confesses he had “no data” when he arrived at Inglenook (he now has three vintages under his belt), and is trying to steer a middle course between overripeness (he says he finds too many Napa Cabs “taste like Port”—an IPOB-style criticism). His goal is “to reduce alcohol levels,” but he is frank enough to state he doesn’t really know how to go about it; and it sounds like he certainly doesn’t want to do it with technology. You can’t just pick at 23 degrees Brix, the way Inglenook did in the old days, because everything—rootstocks, density, trellising, perhaps even the climate—is different. “I don’t want to do exactly what Inglenook did in the 40s and 50s,” Philippe says. Precisely: he couldn’t, even if he wanted. This is why Coppola, his employer, peers far into the future and concludes, “I don’t necessarily expect to give full blossom to Inglenook in my lifetime.” The critics will just have to wait.

As for Mayacamas, Charles Banks echoes Coppola. “We’re not doing this for short-term gain.” What is this “this” to which he refers? Will the team pick the grapes riper than Bob Travers did? If lean, underripe wines used to be the problem, the solution should be obvious. But Banks hedges his answer. “I am [as] opposed to pruney, stemmy wines as others are to herbaceousness. At the same time, I don’t want green, harsh, underripe tannins.” Well, who would? The Mayacamas team may be crossing their fingers in hopes that other modernizations—replanting with closer spacing, newer clones, tinkering with trellising regimes, extensive winery investment—will help them avoid having their hands forced regarding picking decisions. But the answer, as at Inglenook, will not be known for a long time.

The good thing about these conversations about ripeness levels is that we’re having them. The bad news is that we’re having them—at least, with such passionate irresolution. The game is largely driven by critics, whom proprietors and winemakers privately say they loathe; yet nobody dares to ignore them. The result is a kind of navel-gazing, similar to the wine blogging world, where content-poor wine bloggers blog about—wine blogging.

Everybody (well, almost everybody) complains about California wine tasting “like port,” but nobody wants to make a Cabernet that tastes like a boiled bell pepper. Nor do people necessarily want to hold onto their wine for twenty years. Everybody talks about finding the sweet spot, but nobody seems to know exactly where it is, or even how to recognize it if they were knee-deep into it. (And variable vintages don’t help them find it.) The discussion has turned into an echo chamber, where everybody has taken a side, and listens only to people who speak their language—like cable T.V. news shows, there’s a lot of cacophony and very little harmony.

There’s no way to turn the conversation off. Now that it’s started, we’ll have to let it run its course, like a storm, and hope it doesn’t do too much damage.

  1. IPOD? Typo? Or In Pursuit of Dogma :)

  2. Steve,

    Great post on this modern issue. As a winemaker on the Right coast, I’ll add that this is a conversation I never have with my colleagues. I wonder if the fact that this subject has only come up in the past decade or so is attributable to the fact that the climate is changing, and it will soon be too warm to be able to find that ideal picking window to make balanced wines in the warmer climates of Napa and its surroundings.

    Cheers,

    Carl

  3. Bill Haydon says:

    “The game is largely driven by critics, whom proprietors and winemakers privately say they loathe; yet nobody dares to ignore them.”

    That’s it in a nutshell. California winemakers need to grow a pair and let them descend. Watching a guy like Kongsgaard suddenly listing all his alcohols at exactly 14.1% is just pathetic. One moment he’s the Rolland disciple, crafter of fruitbombage and the next he wants you to believe that he’s frickin’ Francois Raveneau. Make the wines that you truly feel express greatness from that particular vineyard and let the chips fall where they may rather than swaying with every change in the wind whether it’s pandering to Fat Bastard or some somm in SF. Some people may not like them and possibly deservedly so, but at least you’ll show some heart and some balls.

    As an aside, I will say that there always have been exceptions that prove the rule who, Parker/WS be damned, made the wines they loved. Bob Sessions at Hanzell and Steve Edmunds jump immediately to mind. I would throw in the old Havens “right bank blends” too. And these guys did it when they were most definitely at odds with the dominant zeitgeist of the market. I’ll also say that California was not unique in this (witness the modernistes in Piemonte and Tuscany or the entire region of Priorat which seemed to bow at the alter of the Hedonistic Buddha) just the most egregious offenders.

  4. Bob Henry says:

    I have previously introduced into this ongoing debate a practice embraced by some Frenchmen that is given no publicity/no adoption on this side of The Pond: dual harvests.

    (Not to be confused with multiple vineyard harvests when making Sauternes.)

    Pick a minority percentage of your vineyard(s) early at lower ripeness/higher acidity levels, and vinify it separately.

    Pick the remaining majority percentage of your vineyard(s) later at whatever ripeness/acidity level you deem appropriate. Vinify it separately.

    Then make a cuvee to your preference/”house style” from the two lots.

    (I discovered this little discussed approach in the pages of Decanter magazine back in the 1980s. Alas, I cannot recall the “technical” term for this practice . . . and neither can others I have mentioned it to.)

    Alternately, “water back” your wines to adjust for the dehydration of the grapes.

    Bibliography:

    Link: http://articles.latimes.com/print/2004/oct/27/food/fo-wine27

    Link: http://articles.latimes.com/print/2005/jan/10/business/fi-hangtime10

  5. Bob Henry says:

    While I await for my 2 PM comment to be released from “moderation,” let me add this observation.

    If vintner’s are concerned about underripe fruit (e.g., Mayacamas) or overripe fruit (e.g., Rubicon), one approach to consider is blending in (1) grapes other than Cabernet Sauvignon, which ripen earlier than differently, and (2) blending in some wine from a previous vintage that was purposely set aside for such occasions.

    Experienced winemakers know that it doesn’t take much “reserve” caliber blend wine to enrich the “base” wine, filling in perceived deficiencies.

  6. Bob Henry says:

    Erratum.

    If vintner’s are concerned about underripe fruit (e.g., Mayacamas) or overripe fruit (e.g., Rubicon), ALTERNATE APPROACHES to consider ARE blending in (1) grapes other than Cabernet Sauvignon, which ripen earlier AND differently, OR (2) blending in some wine from a previous vintage that was purposely set aside for such occasions.

  7. When Cabernet was picked at 23 brix “in the old days” likely this was done without the intensive canopy management and sorting that are increasingly the norm. In the past often the average brix represented a wide range of maturities within the crop. Excessive shoots and clusters, clusters on weak shoots, excessive shading of some clusters and excessive exposure of others, gave a wide range of maturities distributed on each side of the average brix. This does not give as satisfactory result as does harvesting at a precise, uniform maturity. Just as blending two levels of maturity (as suggested above) will not be as delicious as harvesting grapes of uniform maturity (in my experience).

    The discussion of what optimum maturity is certainly must include such variables as site and season. But perhaps even more important is what the resulting wine is expected to be—in other words, wine style. For all the discussion about “natural wines,” wine as we know it does not happen spontaneously in nature, but only as a consequence of human intervention. It is a creation within human culture. Ideal maturity depends on our expectations of what the wine is to be.

    Consider two Cabs we opened on successive nights recently—one I will identify, the other I won’t. The first was a 2009 Napa Cab made in a style that was announced in advance by an extremely heavy bottle. It was uber-ripe, glossy, soft and fleshy, with noticeably high alcohol and pushy oak. Yes, I did enjoy this wine, though it might have been better served around a fire pit on a cold night. But it was not profound—not a wine to reflect on, and unlikely to reward further aging. I’ve had wines like this from throughout the world—easily made when this style is the intent.

    The next evening I pulled out of my cellar a 2004 Corison, Kronos Vineyard. This was a wine that revealed dimensions that emerged throughout the evening. We were still talking about it the next day. A wine like this gives a totally different experience, and an appreciation of the site. When driving by this vineyard I will always be happy those old vines are still there.

    The first wine left me thinking: just because you could doesn’t mean you should. But surely the maturity at picking was intentionally chosen to make a wine that is all flash upon release. A hedonistic wine?

    The second one was likely picked at a lower brix level, perhaps 23, but surely with a managed and open canopy such that green, herbal, or bitter berries were not present-likely nor were shriveled, raison-like, or flabby ones. The resulting wine reveals, rather than hides, varietal identity and pride of place. And continues to do so a decade later. An intellectual wine?

  8. Bill Dyer, it’s not entirely clear to me how you can say the first Cab, the 2009, was “not profound, not a wine to reflect on.” This is eye of the beholder stuff and I bet plenty of people would disagree with you. I certainly understand your enthusiasm for the 04 Kronos. That is a wine that ages beautifully. But are there not different forms of beauty?

  9. Bob Henry says:

    Bill Dyer:

    In the pre-phylloxera replanting days, some prized vineyards comprised a mix of grapes.

    Different clones of the same grape (say, Cabernet). And a second or even third grape interspersed through the vineyard (say Merlot and Cabernet Franc).

    When the grapes were harvested en masse, a field blend resulted.

    Those single variety clones and that second/third grape variety matured at different times. Some clusters were underripe; others overripe.

    Akin to a chef have a “spice box” to season his/her dish.

    Today post-phylloxera, we have vines of single clone grapes planted contiguously by designated rows in dedicated vineyard blocks. Drip (not “dry farmed”) irrigated. Using trellising configurations and canopy management that give more sun exposure to the grapes. Nothing is left to chance.

    Each grape variety is harvest at “optimum ripeness.” The spice box has been diminished.

    I posit that our “fruit bomb” wines are the direct result of the replanting of Napa and Sonoma. We have lost our “old vines” vineyards of “heritage clones” that were self-limited on their yield, and resulted upon vinification in lower alcohol levels.

    ( Aside: see this recent article that touches on the subject: http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2014/03/california-vines-age-prematurely )

    Bill Haydon champions European wines as being better “balanced” and lower in alcohol. I would submit those attributes come, in large part, from old vine vineyards that have not been replanted due to phylloxera.

    California has first and foremost a vitication problem – not a vinification problem.

    Our newly planted vineyards produce grapes on steroids . . . a radical departure from Napa and Sonoma’s illustrious history.

    When Cabernets smell and taste like pruney, higher alcohol Zinfandel, that’s a problem. The wine is no longer “claret-like.”

    Which in my comments I continue to hark back to what is for me the “golden age of winemaking” in California: the 1980s.

    Those wines have stood the test of time.

    So far, wines made from post-phylloxeria replanted vineyards are a mixed experience.

    ~~ Bob

  10. Bob Henry says:

    Postscript.

    An excellent article on field blends was written by W. Blake Gray for the Los Angeles Times.

    Here’s the link: http://articles.latimes.com/print/2010/mar/11/food/la-fo-oldvine-20100311

  11. Bill,
    Very good observation on the two Cabs.

    There are wines that engage your mind, that make you want to go back for another glass, that get you
    thinking about the wine…the winemaker…that old vnyd. And then there are wines that you say….
    “This tastes pretty danged good, lip-smackin’ good”….and then you go back to watchin’ the news.

    It’s like which would you rather do…..sit down and talk various shades of new mascaras w/ LindsayLohan…or sit
    down and talk about the impact of the Higgs Boson on WesternCivilization with RichardFeynman. I know which I’d
    rather do…but who am I to fault someone wanting to get an eyefull of Lindsay. As pointed out…there ARE diffeent forms of beauty. Feynman was NOT very much to brag about in the beauty category.
    Tom

  12. Bob Henry says:

    Tom,

    You are no doubt familiar with this quip from someone deeply revered by safe-cracking, wisecracking, bongo-beating Feynman:

    “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl [e.g., Lindsay Lohan?] for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”

    ~~ Bob

  13. As usual it turns out to be quite easy to stimulate some good discussion on this blog. As Ken Kesey might have said, let’s go Further.

    Carl: Don’t be so sure about your climate change predictions for Napa. Some models show a deeper fog layer, with more penetration inland, as the ocean warms up, causing more evaporation. Yesterday the sun never came out in Calistoga, and the fog was drippy wet (yes, weather not climate—but will we be seeing more of this?)

    Bob Henry: Our positions are closer than you might think. Yes, I prefer some of those old heritage clones, and think sun exposure is often taken too far. That Kronos I mentioned is old vine St. George. I agree with the “spice box” concept. In fact in my own vineyard, I chose old “selections” from proven vineyards rather than certified clones. And I pick it as a field blend: Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, and Petit Verdot are all picked the same day and co-fermented. They ripen together due to their location in the vineyard (e.g. the PV is in the warmest site). I also hang onto “claret like” as an ideal—I didn’t mention this before but I poured the Kronos for my wife as a “mystery wine” (i.e. blind) and she was pretty sure it was older, very special, Bordeaux. While I made a lot of Napa Cab in the 80’s (so I don’t take offense at it being called a “golden age”) where I differ is that I think we can do an even better job than in those days, when we pretty much took everything that nature gave us. Now that we do intensive selection both in the vineyard, and at the sorting table, we can more consistently make complex wines at lower brix levels. It costs me a lot to believe that.

    Tom Hill: As always, you get it. How about conversation with Max Tegmark sometime over a glass of complex wine, maybe even talk about multiple universes?

    Steve: Yes, this is eye of the beholder stuff, and yes there are different forms of beauty. This is exactly the point. And we all get to make judgments about them. We could begin a whole thread about aesthetics. I think I have said in the blog before that my dispute with some critics is that they only reward lofty points to one style of wine. I don’t see there being some Platonic form floating out somewhere that dictates the 100 point wine. I am more into a phenomenological perspective. More of everything only takes you so far. I can recognize that Britney Spears is a great lip-synch-er, but I have greater expectations.

  14. Bob,
    That was exactly the quote I had in mind when I penned my screed. I was fortunate enough to meet & chat w/ Feynman some 30 yrs ago…a memory I very much treasure.

    Bill,
    I only know MaxTegmark by name & have not read any of his stuff, but it seems like it would be a fascinating afternoon. You bring the wine…I’ll bring the mascara!!!

    Tom

  15. redmond barry says:

    Mr Dyer and Mr Henry speak sooth. Steve quotes Harry Waugh in a later post describing the fine qualities of the Freemark Bosche 70 , which Waugh says “will make a great bottle” ( it did) That longer -term chemistry is the key IMHO, to the flavors and textures that make, say, a Lauren Bacall instead of the alleged gulpability of a Lindsay Lohan( This is unfair to contemporary winemakers, who are more in the Kate Upton busines; my taste runs to Kate Beckinsale)
    Bacalls and Ava Gardners and Grace Kellys were thick on the ground in Napa in the 70s and 80s, and in the BVPRs of the 60s.

  16. Bob Henry says:

    Bill Dyer:

    “That Kronos I mentioned is old vine St. George.”

    The DeRose Winery makes a wine they call Negrette. The grape was previously known as Pinot St. George — a true heritage clone.

    Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N%C3%A9grette

    I discovered it a decade ago. Thought I was drinking a Fourth or Fifth Growth Bordeaux or Chinon, given its cigar tobacco-like character.

    Want to stump even the most wine geeky of your friends? Serve it blind — NO ONE will guess it.

    DeRose made the front page of The Wall Street Journal due to its proximity to the San Andreas Fault.

    Links:

    http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB125936328750267155

    http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052748703499404574561890907195648

    ~~ Bob

  17. Bob Henry says:

    Bill Dyer:

    Hey buddy, thanks for the soul-crushing spoiler alert:

    “I can recognize that Britney Spears is a great lip-synch-er, but I have greater expectations.”

    Now my weekend trip to Lost Wages is dashed . . .

    http://www.planethollywoodresort.com/shows/britney-spears-las-vegas.html

    ~~ Bob

  18. Bob Henry: Don’t be too hasty in canceling that trip. Following that link you provided I see that Britney’s show is called “Piece of Me.” Could be worthwhile if you hold out for the 2:1 discount.

    The site also mentions “Britney inspired Martinis.” So go just for the marketing insights that you can share with the wine industry.

    And the site encourages bachelorette parties–also go for the networking possibilities.

    The show is to have a 2 year residency, with possibilities of an extended run. Bringing this back to wine related matters, somethings are best enjoyed soon lest they don’t have ageability.

  19. Bob Henry says:

    Bill Dyer:

    And speaking of things that aren’t supposed to have “ageability,” let me once again cite these observations by Robert Parker in an interview he granted Wine Times magazine back in 1989:

    WINE TIMES: “Do you have a bias toward red wines? Why aren’t white wines getting as many scores in the upper 90s? Is it you or is it the wine?”

    PARKER: “Because of that 10-point cushion. Points are assigned to the overall quality but also to the potential period of time that wine can provide pleasure. And white Burgundies today have a lifespan of, at most, a decade with rare exceptions. Most top red wines can last 15 years and most top Bordeaux can last 20, 25 years. It’s a sign of the system that a great 1985 Morgon [Beaujolais] is not going to get 100 points because it’s not fair to the reader to equate a Beaujolais with a 1982 Mouton-Rothschild. You only have three or four years to drink the Beaujolais.”

    WINE TIMES: “In your system, what would be the highest rated Beaujolais?”

    PARKER: “90. That would be a perfect Beaujolais, and I’ve never given one. I have given a lot of 87s and 88s.”

    [Bob Henry's comment: In 1990, Parker awarded a score of 92 points to the 1989 vintage Georges Duboeuf "Jean Descombes" Morgon Beaujolais, contradicting his then year-old statement above.

    Fast forward to 2011: the stellar 2009 vintage cru Beaujolaises garnered scores in the 91 to 94 point range from Wine Advocate.]

    WINE TIMES: “So it’s the aging potential that is the key factor that gets a wine into the 90s.”

    PARKER: “Yes. And it goes back to how I evaluate vintages in general. To me the greatness of a vintage is assessed two ways: 1) its ability to provide great pleasure — wine provides, above all, pleasure; 2) the time period over which it can provide that pleasure.

    “If a vintage can provide pleasure after 4 or 5 years and continue for 25 to 30 years, all the time being drinkable and providing immense satisfaction, that’s an extraordinary vintage. If you have to wait 20 years before you can drink the wines and you have basically a 5 or 10 year period to drink them before [the fruit flavors] ‘dry out,’ it’s debatable then whether that’s a great vintage.”

    The anecdote: in 2010 I took a bottle of 1985 Domaine Diochon Moulin-á-Vent Vieilles Vignes Cru Beaujolais to an old vintage red Burgundy “single blind” tasting, and slipped in into the line-up as a “ringer.” (To be fair, it was served as the last wine of the night so as not to throw off the attendees while tasting “the real deal.”)

    And sure enough, the Burghounds embraced it as red Burgundy — some even calling it the wine of the night.

    No one would have thought that a Beaujolais would “provide great pleasure” that many years down the road.

    As one of my wine mentors (and best friends with Henri Jayer) taught me: “Put your trust in the winemaker and the property.”

    No one thought those 1980s decade “golden age” California Cabernets would make “old bones.”

    Today, you can by them at auction for very attractive prices.

    Link: http://www.latimes.com/style/la-fo-wine23apr23-story.html#page=1

    ~~ Bob

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