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Embracing the alcohol of Paso red blends, and a word about that Benziger deal

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For the past half-year, I’ve been hosting a series of wine tastings up at Jackson Family Wines headquarters, just outside Santa Rosa. So far, they’ve included both JFW and non-JFW wines, but the next one is strictly non-JFW. It’s a tasting of high-end Paso Robles Rhône-style blends (JFW currently owns no Paso Robles wineries), and I’m getting excited even before I pop a single cork.

Here’s the lineup so far:

  • Saxum 2012 Heart Stone
  • L’Aventure 2013 Cote de Cote
  • Tablas Creek 2012 Esprit de Tablas
  • Law 2011Sagacious
  • Linne Calodo 2013 Sticks & Stones
  • Jada 2012 Hell’s Kitchen
  • ONX 2012 Crux

I’m also trying to get a bottle of PharoahMoans 2012, and maybe one or two others.

These are all expensive wines, among the priciest in California outside Napa Valley. The most expensive is the Saxum. I’ve written before about Justin Smith’s amazing story: how he started this little winery that zoomed straight to the top. (If there are more expensive wines in Paso Robles, I don’t know what they are.) I’m not sure how Justin got there; probably he isn’t either, and has been pleasantly surprised by his success. I think my reviews helped, as did the chapter I gave him in my 2008 book, “New Classic Winemakers of California.”

I liked Justin’s wines from the moment I first tasted them (I gave them lots of 95s and 94s), but I realize these are not wines for the In Pursuit of Balance crowd. The alcohol on them can be very high. But then, the same can be said of many of these Paso Robles blends. The grapes get ripe, sometimes super-mature under that hot Paso sunshine, even in the Templeton Gap where things are supposedly cooler. Well, I drove right through the Templeton Gap yesterday during the hottest part of the afternoon, and yes, the temperature did fall from 92 just north of Paso Robles to 87-88 at Templeton, evidence that there really is a cooling influence that makes it in from the coast. Still, the Templeton Gap area is still pretty warm.

It would be a shame to dismiss these big, hearty Paso Robles red wines simply because of the alcohol level. They’re really world class. I’m excited about this tasting and will report on it here.

* * *

I asked my Facebook friends yesterday what I should blog about today and a lot of them said “Benziger.” I don’t have a super-strong view of the sale to The Wine Group, except for a couple thoughts. Number one, I like the Benziger clan and especially Mike, who was very kind to me when I was coming up as a wine writer. The family worked hard to establish both the Benziger brand and Imagery, and the wines from both were very good. The family did what they felt was in their best interests, at a time competition is fierce and Benziger was doing battle with brands from all over the world. I don’t know what The Wine Group will do with the brands—whether they’ll maintain them, elevate them or crush them into the ground. (By way of contrast, had Jackson Family Wines bought them, I’m confident the Jackson family would have elevated them.) Hopefully, The Wine Group will elevate them, although I do have some concerns that The Wine Group is not necessarily associated with the top quality tier. (Here’s a list of their brands.) Perhaps with this acquisition, The Wine Group is trying to go upscale and improve that image. If so, kudos to them.

* * *

Miss Sherry asked on Facebook for me to blog about Gus because she likes him a lot. So, Miss Sherry, here he is, relaxing on my queen bed at the lovely Santa Maria Radisson. We’re here for a couple days to hang out at Cambria and Byron.

GusRadisson


The New York Times discovers IPOB

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Nice, balanced treatment of the In Pursuit of Balance movement and those who think it’s silly by Bruce Schoenfeld in the New York Times magazine. The very fact that this phenomenon has hit the pages of the Gray Lady is indicative of how important IPOB has become in the weltanschauung of our wine conversation.

Let me get this out of the way immediately: I’ve thought since IPOB’s inception that they’re too ideological in declaring that some wines are “balanced” and some aren’t and that the dividing line is some ill-defined notion of alcoholic strength.

I don’t believe I’m one of the “invective-filled…partisans” who opposes IPOB, in Schoenfeld’s words; he catches the family quarrel well, but does tend to exaggerate the animosities a little bit—bringing in Robert Parker and his stinging critiques of IPOB (“jihadists,” “anti-pleasure,” “useless”) makes things sound worse than they are. For my part, I certainly wouldn’t use inflammatory language like that. But then, IPOB’s supporters haven’t gone after me the way they’ve gone after Parker. (I’m not important enough.)

If you believe IPOB you’d think that their members all make Pinot Noirs below 14%, but at the recent San Francisco tasting, there was Calera, whose wines can exceed 14.5%. For example, the 2007 Ryan I reviewed was 14.7%, and it was a very good wine I gave 93 points. But how do you explain Calera’s presence in IPOB? This is not a diss of Calera, whose wines I quite like, or of Josh Jensen, whom I respect, but it is a question posed to Raj Parr and Jasmine Hirsch. Why is Calera there? Are you saying that most other Pinot Noirs of that alcohol range are “unbalanced” but by some divine intervention, Calera isn’t? Enquiring minds want to know.

I give IPOB credit for sparking this conversation. Whether it’s a conversation that actually leads to any responsible conclusions, however, remains to be seen. Some years ago, the conversation in California was all about “food wines”—what they are, what they aren’t. Then, it was the application of oak that was at the heart of the chatter. This IPOB thing is a modern rendition of that discussion, which actually did have the positive result that it led to a renewed consideration of the proper application of oak to wine. There seems to be something self-regulating in the American wine industry—helped by social media and the chatty opinionizing that characterizes the wine industry—that perceives excesses almost as soon as they occur and tries to curtail them. This is a good thing.

But I suspect that IPOB will run its course in due time; other organizations will arise and fall, people’s attention will be diverted elsewhere, California’s climate will certainly play a role, and Raj, Jasmine and IPOB will go on to other, less contentious things. In the meantime, they’ve already succeeded in making wineries (which means winery owners) make, at the very least, contingency plans for what to do if, in fact, there is a serious consumer swing towards low-alcohol wines. I don’t think there is, yet, although if you read the wine press voraciously you might be forgiven for thinking it’s already happened. But this is how the media works nowadays: somebody stirs the pot, everybody starts talking about it, and the next thing you know, self-fulfilling prophecies pop up all over the place.

Have a great weekend!


Hey elites: Ordinary people love California wine!

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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!


California Pinot Noir: A followup consideration

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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.


What about those reports that “weaker wines are better than stronger ones”?

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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)

“Wine With Lower Alcohol is More Appealing” (Bustle)

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.


Alcohol level in Pinot Noir: a question of shifting fashion

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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:

  1. vertical shoot positioning, as opposed to the California sprawl of old
  2. the market
  3. ratings
  4. consumer preferences
  5. climate change/global warming
  6. Dijon clones
  7. longer hangtime
  8. super strains of yeast
  9. younger vines
  10. 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.


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