With the bashing that California wine sometimes gets from the old boy’s club (AKA the cool kid’s club), it comes as a refreshing reminder to learn that “beyond the beltway” of snobbery and exclusivity, ordinary people love our wines.
Up in Canada, the Ottawa Citizen yesterday reported on the upcoming “California Wine Fair” to be held this Friday. Ottawa is, of course, still gripped in winter: as I write these words, the temperature there is 32 degrees. That’s why the article’s headline is “Dreaming of California Wines,” and the lead sentence refers to our state’s balmy weather: “Just when we need it most,” it says, “A taste of sunshine and warm breezes—California wine is coming to Ottawa.”
This is the thing we mustn’t ever forget about California wine: People love it. They love it the same way they love California itself. For most people all over the world, California is a magical place, of sunny beaches and swaying palm trees, of jasmine-scented evenings and year-round backyard barbecues, of beautiful people and gracious living. Granted, those of us who actually live here know that it’s not always that way. But it is enough of the time. California really is “the golden dream at the edge of the world.”
Our wines reflect that notion. They’re rich, sumptuous and bold, reflecting a place and a people that are distinctly Californian. I know this, and it’s why I grow impatient with the accusations (which actually seem to be diminishing) that California wine is not delicate enough for some people. That may be so; but ordinary people everywhere love our wines. This may be part and parcel of the eternal struggle between the masses and the elite, a struggle you find reflected in every aspect of life and culture. But even if you consider yourself among the elite, you should remind yourself of certain verities.
Among them: As the Ottawa Citizen says, “California wines…strike a chord with many people. [They] consistently demonstrate a pleasant and appealing flavour profile…California vintners have learned from the traditions and history of others and have innovated and put their own spin on techniques and practices.”
That’s how the non-elite see things: not in terms of alcohol level, but in terms of how much pleasure they get from sipping our wines. To be truthful, if California wine can only appeal to one group—the elite, or the masses of everyday consumers—I’d much rather it be the latter. That’s the California way: open, free, egalitarian, meritocratic. We’re the State that developed the ballot initiative by which the people get to vote directly on important issues, instead of leaving them to the “experts” who, occasionally, may find their judgment clouded. I’m proud to be a Californian (by way of New York City and the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts), and I’m proud of California wine!
A question arose on my blog late last week, after my March 27 post, “What about those reports that “weaker wines are better than stronger ones”?
When the comments turned to a discussion about soils, the topic of limestone arose. Now, as any historian of Burgundy (including Chablis), the Loire and Champagne is well aware, limestone (or chalk) has been considered the “bedrock” (pun intended) of those regions’ terroir. Hugh Johnson, in his “World Atlas,” praises the limestone of Nuits-St-Georges (to use a single instance) for causing “the inimitable sappy richness of the Pinot Noir.” James E. Wilson, in his book, “Terroir,” titles his chapter on Champagne “Chalk Country” and reminds us that it took centuries for “the significance of the relationship of this lifeless-looking white rock and the soils of Champagne” to be recognized.
A few California Pinot pioneers with experience in the vineyards of Burgundy recognized it. They sought chalky soil when they developed their properties. Foremost among them was perhaps Josh Jensen, at Calera, who once described to me how he had scoured the state of California, armed with geology maps and a little vial of acid, in search of limestone, which he eventually found on Mount Harlan. (“Calera” itself is the old Spanish word for “lime kiln.”)
When I began visiting the Santa Rita Hills, local vintners made a big deal of pointing out the white-stone outcroppings that burst through the soil along the shoulders of Santa Rosa Road—limestone, uplifted or exposed from the now-retreated sea bed. In western Paso Robles, too, one can see these eroded white rocks, evidence not only of the California coast’s birth deep below a long-gone ocean, but of the fact that there is more limestone in our state than anyone had previously thought.
The comments on my blog concerning limestone underscored its importance for Pinot Noir at such wineries as Calera and Chalone. This may well be true, although in the case of Calera the terroir is dominated by the warm summers, which in my judgment trump soil there. As for Chalone, its changes of ownership over the years have resulted in some inconsistency of the wines, which makes them difficult to appraise. If we view the broader Santa Rita Hills (and Santa Maria Valley, as well), with its fossilized seashells, it’s easy to apprehend that these old chalky deposits lend a certain something to the wines (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay especially), but precisely what that “something” is, is hard to say, beyond the intriguing but amorphous word “minerality,” which almost everyone in California claims to find in their wines, whether it be Zinfandels from the Sierra Foothills or Cabernets from Oakville. I will not at this time venture any further into the tall weeds of minerality.
So I see limestone, if a Pinot vineyard is lucky enough to have it, as a good thing. But so are the Gold Ridge soils of the Sonoma Coast, the barren, austere dirts of the Mayacamas stretch of Alexander Valley, the volcanic soils of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and indeed the clays and pebbles of Carneros. This is the puzzle of Pinot Noir in California: that so vast and turbulent an array of soils can consistently produce so fine a wine.
Which leaves us, then, with the only thing these regions have in common to explain wine quality: climate. (Obviously, all the different soils are well-drained, no matter their chemical composition. Well-drained soil is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the production of fine wine.) These regions all are within the Region I-Region II spectrum of the old U.C. Davis scale. I look to the warmer parts among them, such as the Middle Reach of the Russian River Valley, to give dense, textured and frankly flamboyant Pinot Noirs. The cooler areas yield silkier, more delicate and perhaps more complex Pinots, with the most complex of all coming from those places so impacted by the coast that, in a chilly year like 2011, the grapes might not get fully ripe. But in a more moderate year, like 2012, look out.
There’s no point in pitting these styles one against the other. It’s petulant to do so. Which is why I hold that, when it comes to Pinot Noir, California has achieved—finally—a degree of variation, based on terroir, that we long envied among the French. We need envy France no more—what we need is further exploration, fueled and paid for by consumers willing to pay the bottle price, because they know that California coastal Pinot Noir needs to offer no apologies, to anyone, for being what it is.
I do think that the lower the alcohol is on Pinot Noir, the more it will reflect its particular soil conditions; there is an inverse relationship between ripeness and the soil part of terroir. In this respect, it’s important to keep in mind that the soil part of terroir is to some extent at odds with the grape itself. Which will dominate? I see this as a pitched battle between two sides. There is a school of thought that roots for terroir, another school that roots for the fruit itself. (One might almost conclude that this is the essence of the difference between “old world” and “new world” palates.) Ideally, Pinot Noir, and all wines actually, is the result of an exquisite balancing act between terroir and grape, the sort of equilibrium sometimes referred to as “tension” or “nerve,’ which is more than just piquant acidity. It’s rarely achieved; one hopes that any wine that gets a high score from a reputable critic comes close. This touches upon the ripeness conversation we’ve all been having, but does not resolve it because, in truth, there is no resolution.
You’ve probably read about it: According to Fox News, a new study out of Spain has been widely reported to “prove” that “People think weaker wine tastes better.”
But, in fact, the study doesn’t show that at all; and much of the second-hand reporting on the study actually shows how lazy journalists can be.
For example, the Fox account of the study claims that “people think wine with a lower alcohol content tastes [better] because it allows them to focus on the diverse flavor profiles of the beverage.”
That’s a pretty sweeping statement. If you’ve been deep into the alcohol-level tall weeds, as I’ve been, you might think, “Wow, that gives credence to the In Pursuit of Balance argument.” But, in fact, if you read through the entire Fox report, you won’t find a single wine variety mentioned. You will find the implication that wine with 12 percent alcohol “induce[s] a greater…exploration of sensory attributes” than wines in the 14-15 percent range, or higher.
Well, let’s think about that for a minute. Do you really want to drink a 12 percent Zinfandel? A 12 percent Petite Sirah? A 12 percent Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc or Viognier? In fact, let’s be even more generous and raise the alcohol level on those six varieties to 13 percent. What do you think they’d taste like in California?
Not very good. They wouldn’t be ripe—nowhere near ripe. They’d be all sour in acidity, with chlorophyll flavors and tart green fruit. This is why California vintners allow those varieties to get ripe enough to yield wines above 14 percent and usually above 14.5 percent. In the case of Zinfandel and Viognier, sometimes the alcohol level is 15 percent or higher.
When we’re talking about Pinot Noir (and sometimes Chardonnay), the story is, of course, different. California can indeed produce splendid Pinots below 14 percent in a good vintage, as the recent I.P.O.B. tasting showed. But to use the Spanish study to “prove” that consumers don’t like any wine over 14 percent is completely misleading.
Let’s look at the study itself, not just Fox’s reporting. Its key finding—the one seized upon by so much of the media—is, “significantly greater activation [of the brain’s flavor-processing regions] was found for low-alcohol than for high-alcohol content wines…”. It is this assertion that led to such headlines as:
“Does weak wine taste BETTER?” (Daily Mail)
and “Taste Perception Higher With Lower Alcohol Wines” (The Drinks Business)
But, again, the actual study did not identify specific grape varieties that were given to the subjects. (Does anyone really think that a low- alcohol Zinfandel from Amador County or an unripe Viognier from Russian River is “more appealing” than a ripe one?) All the study says is that the wines tasted “were red Spanish [varieties] coming from Rioja, Navarra, and Cataluña),” of unidentified grape varieties (although we can presume they were old varieties like Garnacha, Tempranillo and Monastrell; there may have been some Cabernet and/or Merlot blended into them to make them richer). All of the 26 subject tasters were Spanish. From this, we can infer that the subjects all had palates geared towards Spanish (not California) wines. We also can infer that, in all probability, they are not familiar with our California wines that routinely clock in higher than 14.5 percent alcohol. And so, it seems to me, the study has very little application to an assessment of ripeness and alcohol levels in California wines.
Discover Magazine also reported on the Spanish study and also read into it things that are not supported by the facts. They wrote: “people tend to pay more attention to the flavor when the alcohol content is low.” Well, I would wager that if you give a big, tasty California Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Cabernet, Viognier, etc. to anyone, even Europeans, they would not and could not indict it for lacking in flavor! Some of them might not care for that particular wine—but they’d pay attention. And that’s what makes the world go ‘round: Different strokes for different folks. That doesn’t bother me at all—but sloppy reporting does. The Spanish study simply doesn’t support the “low alcohol wines are better” headlines.
Writer David Darlington makes the case, perhaps unwittingly, for how hard it is to explain why alcohol levels are higher in Russian River Valley Pinot Noir than they used to be, in his article, “Accounting for Taste,” in the April issue of Wine & Spirits. (Sorry, I can’t find a link online.)
After first positing that today’s wines are, in fact, higher in alcohol than, say, twenty years ago—an unarguable statement—David makes his position immediately known, calling “so many so monstrous.” At one point, he even calls them “dangerous.”
Now these are awfully harsh words: surprisingly so, coming from the guy who wrote what is possibly the best book on Zinfandel ever, “Angels’ Visits.” But let us grant that Pinot Noir is not Zinfandel.
After having slammed so many Pinots, David at least has the reportorial curiosity to ask why alcohol levels have risen. He phrases his question thusly: “Are the winemakers responsible, or is it attributable to something beyond their control?”
And then cannot answer the question. Which is, of course, beyond his own control, for the fact of the matter is, there is no one answer why alcohol levels have increased. David certainly did his homework, interviewing multiple winemakers in an effort to find out why. Here are ten causes they suggested to him:
- vertical shoot positioning, as opposed to the California sprawl of old
- the market
- consumer preferences
- climate change/global warming
- Dijon clones
- longer hangtime
- super strains of yeast
- younger vines
- warmer fermentations
Well, that’s pretty much the whole nine yards! By article’s end, the reader’s impression can only be confusion. Why are alcohol levels higher now than they used to be? Who knows? Pick a reason—pick any reason—pick them all! But what does any of it have to do with Russian River Pinot Noir being “monstrous”? Well, with that remark, David at least is honest, if hyperbolic, about his bias.
The winery that David holds up for particular praise is Small Vines. I personally can attest to the quality of their Pinot Noirs: I gave them eight 90-points-or-higher scores over the years, and since I left, Virginie Boone has given them another four. With all this talk of low alcohol, I was curious to know what Small Vines’ levels have been. Google brought me to The Prince of Pinot; this article shows that alcohol levels in Small Vines Pinot Noirs varied between 13.2% and 14.5%, with seven of the 15 wines The Prince reviewed above 14%. This is not particularly low, and is in league with most of the Pinot Noirs I reviewed from coastal California, which were anywhere between 13.8% and 14.5%.
I’m glad David quoted the great Merry Edwards, who reduced the low-alcohol movement in Pinot Noir to incoherence. “The fashion norm is shifting now,” she told him; “people are listening to Raj Parr (the In Pursuit of Balance ringleader), and French marketing has convinced people that you should pay a lot of money for wines that are light and watery. I’m on the opposite side—we’re not in France, we’re in California”
Light and watery! You go grrl! When one has been in the arena as long as Merry (she’s been making wine since 1974), one sees “fashion” come and go with merry-go-round (excuse the pun) regularity—and one learns not to succumb to it.
It can be hard to resist fashion, if all you want to do is appeal to the latest trend. But winemakers who are dedicated to their art are not slaves to fashion. They stay the course; they know that style goes in and out, but that true quality in winemaking, as exemplified by Merry Edwards, remains undeterred by these perturbations in the critical aether.
I like beer, but didn’t have much of a chance to enjoy it when I was tasting and reviewing wine. Popping the corks on at least 15 different bottles a day, and then sitting there thinking and writing about them, took so much effort that I had little time or energy left over for any other kind of alcoholic beverage.
All that changed fairly dramatically a year ago, when I took my new job at Jackson Family Wines. Suddenly, I didn’t have to taste a gazillion wines anymore. (Not that I’d minded it—I loved, and still love, reviewing wine.) All the samples that had flooded my doorstep for so many years abruptly ceased.
Well, not 100%. Although Wine Enthusiast, and I personally, did our best to notify California wineries that I wasn’t working there anymore, wine still comes to me with some regularity. I always send it back, of course, but if you’re a California winery, and reading this, please take note: I DON’T WORK AT WINE ENTHUSIAST ANYMORE!
Anyhow, shortly after I started the new gig, I decided to get back into beer. Nowadays, you’ll always find a few bottles chilling in my fridge. Starting at 5 p.m.—Happy Hour, yay!–I like to have some in a frosty mug I keep in the freezer.
What kind of beer? It can be anything, but it’s often an India Pale Ale. I don’t claim to know much about beer, except that I like it (hey, if all there is on a hot summer afternoon is Bud Lite, count me in!). But I do know that I like that big, hoppy IPA style, which I also recognize as the California Cabernet Sauvignon-equivalent of beer: full-bodied, rich and heady.
This article, which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle’s Inside Scoop online portal, gives a nice summary of where beer trends are at here in the Bay Area. The author is Jon Bonné, who recently announced that he’s stepping down from his fulltime gig as wine editor of the paper, although he’ll continue a monthly column of some sort. Now Jon, as we all know, made his bones by coming out against the prevailing style of California wine, which is ripe, sunshiney power. Jon favors the In Pursuit of Balance style of lower alcohol wines that many in the IPOB crowd consider more classic and elegant than your typical Napa Valley Cab or, for that matter, Pinots that are riper than—oh, I don’t know, let’s say 13.8%. So I didn’t find it surprising that, in his article, Jon came out against “the hoppy amping-up of American craft beers” as evidenced by “the style that defines most IPAs…”. In fact—just to make sure that we readers understand that hoppy IPAs and big Cabernets are crimes against their respective beverage groups—the craftsmen who produce them, according to Jon, are profiting from a “follow-the-money argument,” which means, presumably, that the producers Jon doesn’t care for are venal.
Well, I’ll let those producers make their own rebuttals. Here’s Jon’s: “The arms race of oak, extraction and jammy flavors, which proved successful for a previous generation of Cabernet makers, is a direct parallel to the hoppy amping-up of American craft beers.” Both drinks are “flavor bombs”; neither is part of the “avant-garde” which Jon so assiduously courts.
I should think Jon might have modified his views following his recent visit to Paris—his beloved France, source of “balanced” wines, and original home of the avant-grade—where he discovered, evidently to his dismay, that “the French craft brewing renaissance is currently populated by hopheads, and obsessed with IPAs…”. I guess forty million Frenchmen can be wrong.
But the real point is that Jon has not served the California wine industry well. He dismissed a large part of its best wines, in many cases refusing even to review them in the Chronicle despite being sent tasting samples, and thus distorting reality to his readers. This has disturbed many California winemakers, who were afraid to criticize Jon publicly for fear of retribution. My own position has been consistent: It’s unprofessional for a wine critic to throw so many wines produced in his own home region under the bus by refusing to even taste them. It’s a fundamental axiom in wine criticism that you don’t have to like a wine in order to review it fairly. You review it within the context of what it purports to be. For example, I might not like Sherry (in fact, I do), but even if I didn’t, I’d feel honor-bound to recognize what a good sherry is, and then to give good sherries good scores.
Jon never gave so many California wines the chance to just be what they are, simply because of a number—alcohol percentage by volume. Instead, he trashed these wines with epithets like “fruit bombs” and “male swagger.” Such snarkiness may have made him a hero to IPOB, but not to many of our state’s winemakers, who might be forgiven for being happy now that he’s gone. Personally, maybe I can finally get into the cool kids’ avant-garde club even though I like Napa Cab and IPAs!
If there’s a new no-makeup, or low makeup, look for women—and the Wall Street Journal says there is–then I’m a fan. I never did like that Tammy Faye Bakker over-the-top clown face, although I did like Tammy Faye herself, who seemed to be a big-hearted, fair-minded, loving woman who never hesitated to part company with her co-religionists when she felt they were wrong on an issue.
The WSJ article suggests that the tendency for stars such as Jennifer Anniston and Reese Witherspoon to “brave the big screen with little-to-no visible makeup” is a welcome alternative to the “fully made-up look of [the] Kardashian sisters,” a look that “social media [has] helped spread…”. Cosmetic companies, the article reports, “are responding with lighter foundations, sheerer lip glosses and new products” that allow women’s faces to look like what they really are, rather than somebody’s fantasy of what they should be.
This is great news: what America has always needed are people comfortable in their own skins.
And the wine connection? Pretty obvious, really. You can draw a straight line between the no-makeup look and the emerging taste among American wine drinkers for wines that are less oaky and less extracted.
We can all agree that there is such a trend. You hear it from sommeliers and from consumers themselves. Wineries are listening and reacting accordingly. I do not believe that things are as dire as some winemakers and some wine writers allege; we don’t hear overwhelming consumer demand for no oak, or for wines that must be below 14% alcohol by volume. What consumers want are wines that taste of the grapes, and not of toasted barrels and prunes. Well, we all want that.
Actually, speaking of poor Tammy Faye (she died in 2007), the winemaker Jean-Noel Formeaux du Sartel, who co-founded (with his wife, Marketta) Chateau Potelle (whose Mount Veeder estate was purchased by the Jackson family in 2007), twenty-plus years ago told me, as we sipped his fabulous VGS Zinfandel on the winery’s deck, that in his view too many California wines were “like Tammy Faye Bakker,” in that they were too big, extracted, ripe and oaky. His vision was to craft wines more in “the French style”: balanced and elegant. So this current importuning for “balance” is nothing new.
However it has picked up steam, and social media has certainly played a role in that. I’m onboard, if this movement really is about balance and not an ideological quest for a sort of ethnic cleansing in wine. I do think our era is defined, in part, by a desire for a new kind of simplicity and purity. Post-Sept. 11, post-Great Recession, and still in the midst of political and cultural schism, we collectively yearn for a stripping-away of what’s irrelevant, so that we can focus on the real, the true, the sincere, the credible. This applies to women’s faces; it applies to wines; it applies to the foods we put into our bodies. It’s a good revolution to have, and to be part of.
* * *
Correction: An earlier edition of this story misstated the date of Tammy Faye Bakker’s death.