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Terroir in Pinot Noir: an approach, and a problem

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When it comes to coastal California Pinot Noir, we make much of the distinctions of terroir (“we” being the wine media, some winemakers and everyone else involved in this rather arcane conversation).

We know the regions we celebrate: Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Carneros, Anderson Valley, Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey County, San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Rita Hills and so on. We say (and may actually believe) that each region is unique. If this were not the case, then what difference would an appellation of origin make, anyway? If each of these regions is not truly different, the only thing we’d concern ourselves with would be the reputation of the winery and the quality of the wine.

But of course they’re different. Aren’t they? Anyone classically educated in Burgundy understands that Chambolle-Musigny is “feminine, elegant,” Vosne-Romanée “deep, rich, velvety but not heavy.” Gevrey-Chambertin is “masculine, complex and long-lasting;” Echézeaux “close-knit and elegant.” (Descriptions are from Michael Broadbent.) To expect anyone who loves California wine not to transfer these templates to California—in Californian-ese–is, frankly, magical thinking.

And so we insist that the Pinot Noirs (and Cabernets, and Zinfandels, and Chardonnays, and so on) from our different AVAs must be different; and, when we discover (if we do) that they indeed are, we feel content and justified. To discover that the world is the way you expect it to be, is a verification of our moral and intellectual good judgment. Life is good, when you can make sense of it according to your own terms. Without that sense-making, life turns disturbingly chaotic.

And yet, anyone who’s been around for a while will tell you that, when it comes to California wine, things aren’t that simple. It is not always possible to tell an Arroyo Grande Valley Pinot Noir from a Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir, nor for that matter to tell a northern SLH Pinot (Morgan) from a southern one (Pisoni), as has historically been the case for the two Côtes, de Noirs and Beaune. As our grapes get picked riper than they used to, and vintages become warmer, regional distinctions become blurred. (This isn’t to say that picking early is a guarantee of terroir.) It may also be that the much-touted Dijon clones contribute a certain sameness to Pinot Noir. And there’s a standardization of winemaking technique (cold soaking the grapes, new French oak) that also covers or can mask terroir. It can be very difficult even for trained winemakers to discern their own wines in blind tastings—or even to agree on what characteristics their own terroir displays!

Terroir, then, is a conundrum, a paradox. In one sense, it’s a bunch of hokum. In another, common sense tells us it has got to be true. Are grapes not like humans? Someone from the Louisiana Bayou country is going to be a lot different than someone from the South Bronx (me). Where we were born and grew up puts an indelible stamp on us; no matter how much we might subsequently change, our upbringing never leaves us. This is the terroir of humans.

One could prove the truth of wine terroir and end all the discussions forever the following way: You could organize a blind tasting of all the experts. Give them flights of Pinot Noirs, from all of California’s major coastal regions, and ask them to come up with descriptors. Correlate all the findings in a statistically meaningful way. If there is such a thing as terroir, you should be able to tweak out reliable and consistent characteristics from each region. Then repeat the experiment for the next ten years.

But you can see that this is clearly impossible, on practical grounds, if no other; and whatever the conclusions, reputable people would object, and we would have to factor in their objections. We are therefore faced with the limitations of theory. Here, a few quotes are apt:

If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts.

Albert Einstein

The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees in every object only the traits which favor that theory.

Thomas Jefferson

The next quote isn’t specifically about theory, but it does say a lot about how Californians like to break society’s theories:

I moved to California because it’s a lot freer, you know? You can do what you want to do, and nobody bugs you.

Janis Joplin

And my favorite:

Before I got married I had six theories about raising children; now, I have six children and no theories.

John Wilmot

THE META-TAKE

I’m working on a project where we’re trying to figure out what makes Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir different and distinct from all other coastal California appellations. I think, in my bones, that it is; I believe I’ve noted those differences, over the course of many years, and can describe them, even if I can’t explain them; and I know for damn sure that the Santa Maria Valley is utterly unlike any other coastal growing region, in climate but perhaps even more in earth. Every fiber in me insists that there’s a Santa Maria character to Pinot Noir. At the same time, for all this certainty, I know the enormity of the challenge in nailing it. Wish me luck.


A visit to an old-new winery in Carneros

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I’m in Carneros today, visiting one of Jackson Family Wines’ newest estates, Carneros Hills, on the site the former Buena Vista vineyard and production facility on Ramal Road, on the Sonoma County side of that sprawling appellation, just over the Napa line.

Well do I remember the acclaim and hope that greeted Carneros’s emergence as an appellation on the wine scene. Los Carneros (the proper name) wasn’t declared an American Viticultural Area until relatively late, 1987,* by which time its neighbors—Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, even little Suisun Valley and Solano County Green Valley—already were AVAs. Why it took Carneros so long, I don’t know; perhaps it was because it crossed county lines, which was something the TTB hadn’t encountered before. It’s not as if Carneros was a new place to grow grapes: the Carneros Quality Alliance says wine grapes were first planted there in the late 1830s, and by the 1870s, the first winery had been built.

With the formal creation of the Carneros AVA, the wine media went nutso over its prospects. This was just about the time I became a professional wine writer (although I’d been studying the wine industry and closely following developments in California for a decade prior to that). If I can sum up the general impressions conveyed by the then-famous writers, especially those in the San Francisco Bay Area, it was: At last! America’s (or California’s) “Burgundy” has been discovered! Finally Pinot Noir is being grown in the proper place, and vinified into wine by the proper winemakers! Now we’re going to see some world-class Pinot Noir! (Good Chardonnay, too, but it’s curious that Chardonnay has never “starred” in a California region or, to put it more bluntly, no region in California ever rose to fame on Chardonnay alone, the way Chablis, for instance, or Puligny-Montrachet did, in France.)

The excitement continued through, I’d say, the mid-1990s, but gradually subsided. Other Pinot Noir areas eclipsed Carneros: Russian River Valley (1983), Santa Lucia Highlands (1992), the western part of the Santa Ynez Valley now called Santa Rita Hills (2001), the Santa Maria Valley (1981), Anderson Valley (1983). It’s also curious that, while several of these preceded Carneros in the date of getting appellated, it was Carneros that generated the most excitement among the critical community at that time—at least, in my memory. The reason for that may well have been that wine writing in California in the 1980s and early 1990s was dominated by Bay Area and Northern California critics (it still is, although less so), who naturally would be expected to pay more attention, in those pre-Internet days, to their own back yard than to something far away.

By the early 2000s Carneros had lost much of its luster among that community. The reasons were varied, and had as much to do with law and social custom as with wine quality. One factor that led to the diminution of Carneros’s reputation was that the region, while a large one, simply lacked a critical mass of small, boutique wineries, the result of zoning regulations whose practical impact was that only large, well-heeled wine companies could afford to buy in. (The situation in, say, Santa Rita Hills and Anderson Valley was the exact opposite.) We can argue over whether a large wine company has the will to craft small, artisan wines, or not; but what is unarguable is that the critical community loves small, artisanal wineries, and is prepared to give them more of a break (if you will) than it is to large wine companies—an inequality of treatment that isn’t fair; but it is what it is.

I myself, during my years as a wine critic, had no problem with Carneros. I gave lots of its Pinot Noirs high scores: Etude was one of my perennial faves, as were MacRostie, Donum, Saintsbury’s single-vineyard bottlings, Kazmer & Blaise (the small project from Michael Terrien), Hartford, Signorello and the occasional Acacia. As for Buena Vista, it fared well, but wasn’t exceptional: some scores of 90, 91 and 92 points, but nothing more dramatic. Why that was, is hard to say. The wines seemed unable to push their way through excellence to brilliance. It’s always hard for a critic to discern why this is with a winery; the temptation to yield to simplistic explanations should be avoided. But wine writers hate to say they don’t know everything.

The Buena Vista winery and brand themselves have, of course, undergone vast changes in modern times. Once California’s oldest winery (1857), it went through several ownership switches; I’ve lost track of all the corporate parent companies, although I certainly remember Beam’s overlordship, when the great winemaker (and my friend) Nick Goldschmidt oversaw its production (along with that of Clos du Bois, Atlas Peak, William Hill, Gary Farrell and others). In 2011, Jean-Charles Boisset bought the brand name and the original stone winery, in Sonoma Valley. The next year, Jackson Family Wines purchased the Ramal Road vineyard and production facility, and announced the formation of a new brand, Carneros Hills.

Which is why I’m here today. The company has high aspirations for the estate. It ought to be able to rise to levels unattained in its prior history; the terroir is just fine, and the Jackson family has sunk a small fortune into winery improvements. We’ll have to wait and see how it all turns out.

* I relied upon Wine Institute data for this 1987 date. According to the TTB’s website, the date of approval for Carneros was 1983.


Terroir vs. personal preference: the critic’s dilemma?

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Should the critic base her score/review on personal preference, or on whether or not the winemaker has allowed “the terroir to speak”?

That question arose, yet again, at the recent Wine Bloggers Conference. It’s an old debate, one that’s as hard to frame as it is to answer. What does it mean to allow “the terroir to speak”? Who decides, ultimately, what a wine “should” be, as opposed to what it is? And how do we, the drinking public, know whom to believe, when critics set themselves up as arbiters of such matters?

I got to thinking about all this stuff, so I turned to a favorite old book, “The Winemaker’s Dance,” the 2004 effort by Swinchatt and Howell that’s a must on every winemaker’s bookshelf. The authors make no attempt to hide their true feelings. They’re anti-Parker, to the extent that the Man from Monckton “has placed increasing emphasis on power and intensity, personified by big fruit, rich mouth feel, and opulent character,” as opposed to a “balanced” wine that “let[s] the terroir speak.” The former approach, they warn, has “limitations.” The precise nature of the limitation, implied if not overly spelled out, is that a Parkerized wine, made in a “New World or International style,” is one in which all too often “the wine bares all in the shockingly delicious first burst of flavor” but then almost immediately begins to pall; “the regional and local character that so often distinguishes wine [is] lost” under the assault of all that richness.

It’s a compelling argument, resurrected in its most recent incarnation by In Pursuit of Balance, whose website says the group was formed in 2011 “to celebrate wineries striving to produce balanced pinot noir and chardonnay in California.” IPOB among other leading and influential voices in the [American] wine community has already had a powerful influence, especially in California—if not in how wine is actually vinified, then at least in the conversation about it. While the general public, and even most wine lovers, have never heard of IPOB, they nonetheless are curious about things like alcohol level, which, when you strip away all the clutter and pretense, is fundamentally what IPOB and others of the “School of Balance” is all about.

I personally have never understood this extreme position. The implication, as “The Winemaker’s Dance” makes clear, is that there is a single, unalterable moment in the vineyard when the grapes must be picked—when the fruit is right on “the fine line between maturity and excessive ripeness,” so that picking a single day early or later will “overpower the voice of the earth.”

This is a very illogical position to take. It is not only functionally difficult if not impossible for the vintner to pick grapes at a precise moment in time, it is conceptually difficult if not impossible for anyone to know with precision when that moment occurs. Winemakers will tell you all the time that their picking decisions are based on hunches, not precise knowledge; and any two vintners, picking the same vineyard, will opt for different times.

Besides, condemning a wine for alcohol level is silly. At one of the Wine Bloggers Conference dinners, I sat with Michael Larner, and drank his 2009 Syrah. Although it has a Santa Ynez Valley appellation on the label, the grapes are from Ballard Canyon (Michael spoke at a panel on that fine little area). The official alcohol reading on the label is 15.2% by volume and for all I know it’s higher than that. I can assure you, it is a wonderful wine. I drank three glasses in a row, and it never palled, never tired my palate, but only offered layers of delight and expressiveness.

Was my enjoyment of that Syrah a mere “personal preference,” or was it because the wine really did showcase its terroir? You can see that the question itself is meaningless; just because we can ask a question doesn’t mean it corresponds to reality. (“How many unicorns are there in the state of California?” is a perfectly good question, but it has no answer.) Moreover, from what I know of Ballard Canyon, that’s what Syrah down there does: the variety dominates Ballard’s varietal plantings because it gets insanely rich and ripe, the kind of wine our DNA is primed to love. So is there a competition between that Syrah’s “terroir” and a winemaker style that kills terroir? Has the wine’s alcohol level “overpowered the voice of the earth”? I don’t think so.


Here comes the Fountaingrove District AVA (probably)

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After a couple years of back-and-forth, the TTB has approved putting a petition for a new Fountaingrove District A.V.A. up for public comment.

I’m not big on most A.V.A. petitions in California, which seem silly to the point of meaningless, but in this case, I give it a qualified thumbs up. The new Fountaingrove appellation, if approved, will cover 38,000 acres—a little bigger than Knights Valley, a little smaller than Arroyo Grande Valley. It’s in the eastern part of Sonoma County, stretching from the Russian River Valley, in the west, through Chalk Hill to the Sonoma-Napa line. If you’ve ever been there, you know this is hilly country; the elevations range from 400 feet to 2,200 feet.

According to the TTB (and I’ve been unable to find a map of the appellation, so I’m putting this together by reading the application), Fountaingrove District also touches the boundaries of Knights Valley, Calistoga, Diamond Mountain, Spring Mountain, Calistoga and Sonoma Valley. That makes it sound kind of sprawly. This is an area of Sonoma that’s not well-traveled and in fact is rather remote; TTB says there are only 35 vineyards covering a mere 500 acres. The region would be characterized as a warm Region II, going by the U.C. Davis scale.

The reason I’m in favor is because the Fountaingrove name is a very old one, with a long winegrowing history. A utopian colony called Fountain Grove was established there in 1875. By 1880, there were at least 2,000 acres of grapes, and by 1900, the Fountain Grove Winery had been established. It survived Prohibition by producing grape juice.

In my 2005 book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, I wrote: “In the 1930s, the old Fountaingrove Winery, north of Santa Rosa, grew some, or is said to have grown something called Pinot Noir.” I got that information from the 1942 book, ABC of America’s Wines, by Mary Frost Mabon, then the Food and Wine Editor for Harper’s Bazaar (and one of the first serious female wine writers). She wrote, of Fountaingrove, that the winery was bought “in 1937…by…a gold-mining king [and] racehorse-breeder,” proving that rich people bought into wine country lifestyle long before the present era. Concerning the Pinot Noir, Mary wrote (somewhat ambiguously) that “You will find the ’35 [Fountaingrove] labeled ‘Sonoma County Pinot Noir’ under both the Schoonmaker and Colcombet labels.” Yet in her review of it, she refers to it as “Fountaingrove Burgundy” and calls the ’35 “one of the top wines of California…velvety, smooth, and well-finished, as they say, with much character, a good bouquet, and a dark color,” although she also added that “it is a wine that matures very slowly and needs age.”

I just wanna point out that this is good, clean wine language. The flowery stuff wasn’t invented until my day, but Mary’s description pretty much tells you all you need to know about that wine, doesn’t it?

Anyway, speaking of Frank Schoonmaker, I have also his (and Tom Marvel’s) 1941 book, American Wines, where they say “Fountaingrove’s hillside vineyards at present include plantings of Pinot Noir which are among the largest in the state”; they call Fountaingrove “[one of] the important fine wine vineyards” in Sonoma County.

Whether that long-ago wine actually was Pinot Noir, or something else, we will never know. Julian Street, in his 1948 book, Wines, tasted a Fountaingrove “Pinot” and remarks, “…the Cabernet and Pinot Noir from this vineyard revealed them to be identical in color, bouquet, and flavor. They were fair wines, but the twinship was a little surprising.” Well, that’s the way it used to be done before Big Gummint moved in and made people tell the truth.

At any rate, even if the terroir wlll no doubt be further understood, the Fountaingrove name does have provenance in this part of Sonoma County, which is more than you can say about some of these appellations. I’d guess the petition will be approved, and one of these days there will be a Fountaingrove District, the hundredth-and-something. What they do with those 500 acres of grapes is anyone’s guess, but good luck.


Come to Anderson Valley–but make sure you have a place to stay!

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I’m up here in the beautiful Anderson Valley, which more than 30 wineries call home. To those familiar with trafficky Highway 29 in Napa Valley, or even the much less densely clogged roads of the Russian River Valley, Anderson Valley’s Highway 128 will seem blissfully free of cars. You can drive from Boonville past Philo out to Navarro, in the Deep End, with no one on your tail. But empty as the valley is, it’s not empty enough for some people.

That, at least, is what a longtime vintner-friend told me yeserday. I had related to him how, when I arrived in the valley on Monday evening, I couldn’t find the key to the Edmeades guesthouse, and for a while, I feared I’d have to find someplace else to spend the night. Not exactly the most pleasant prospect in Anderson Valley, where accommodations are scarcer than encryption in the cloud, which is to say: pretty scarce. The lady at the local market directed me to enquire at the Philo Inn; alas, there was no room there, nor at the Boonville Hotel, which pretty much represents everyplace there is to spend the night. The guy at the Philo Inn told me I had two choices: to head back to Ukiah (Not! Under! Any! Circumstances!) or to drive another 40 minutes out to the resorts on the coast. And even then, I’d need a dog-friendly place. I was feeling pretty glum at that point.

Fortune fortunately came to my assistance; the long-sought key was found, and I am now safely ensconced in the beautiful Edmeades guest house. But as I explained to my vintner-friend, it made me wonder if there wasn’t an opportunity for someone to add to the valley’s existing lodging stock, perhaps by building a charming little B&B. After all, it wasn’t just I who was looking for someplace to stay that Monday night; two leathered-up guys on motorcycles, who by their accents sounded like they were from Germany, maybe Holland, also were desperate. Doesn’t that sound like Anderson Valley could use more places to stay?

My vintner-friend laughed. “The locals would never allow it,” he smiled.

“Not even for a little seven-room inn?”

“Nope.” It seems like the Anderson Valleyites like the lonely remoteness of their slice of heaven, and are determined to keep it that way.

And who am I, or anyone, to challenge them? It’s their place to live, and I would think that many of them headed up here in the first place in order to escape the evils of traffic, noise, pollution, crime and all the other ills that accompany dense population centers.

Does remaining pristine impact the quality of the local wine? I think to some extent it does, and for the better. Local winemakers here, less subject to the demands and whims of the tourist trade, are able to focus on their land, their vines and their personal visions. Of course, just because Anderson Valley isn’t swamped with tourists doesn’t put it off the grid (although many people here do live off that proverbial matrix). With the Internet and social media, they’re very much tuned into the outside world, and lots of them sell a goodly proportion of their wines to club members, whom I guess you could call virtual tourists.

Still, there’s something unspoiled and rustic about the wineries in Anderson Valley. As Ben Salazar, the young winemaker for Edmeades, told me, most of the growers are local guys who are true farmers, depending on their crops to pay the mortgage and put their kids through school. “It’s like a glimpse into the past of how Napa and Sonoma used to be,” said Ben, who previously made wine in both of those appellations.

Anderson Valley is a great place to visit if you’re a wine tourist, but you do have to keep in mind the lack of amenities, including a place to stay. You definitely do not want to arrive here at the end of a long day, only to find yourself homeless. If you’re looking for wine country, and great wine, without the hassles, you can do no better than this beautiful, isolated place of Mendocino County. But plan ahead.

Anderson


Live, from the road! Mendocino County

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I didn’t throw up, but Gus did, three times, on the loopy drive up to Mendocino, which included many twisting miles on a dirt road leading to the Gianoli Ranch, a spectacular property founded in the 1800s by Italian immigrants, whose new owners grow Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, which they sell to Edmeades and a few other brands. I was on my way to visit Edmeades, in the Anderson Valley, but the appellation up here, at Gianoli, is Mendocino Ridge, one of the few AVAs in California based on elevation; you have to be at least 1,200 feet above sea level, and ay Gianoli, you’re well above that. Here’s a picture from a clearing in the Redwood forest.

Mendo

 

It’s a remarkable place to grow wine. The vineyards on Mendocino Ridge are few and far between, often separated by miles of mountainside forest impenetrable to all but cougars and deer and other critters. It always surprises me to find places where Zinfandel and Pinot Noir grow side by side. You’d think they require totally different climates, the former warm, the latter cool; but in this case, the vineyards are so high in elevation that the weather is warm and sunny enough (Gianoli is 2,000 feet or so, well above the usual fogline) to ripen Zin, but that same elevation, as well as the northerly latitude, makes it cool enough to grow Pinot. Granted, it’s a distinct Pinot Noir, not silky and delicate like, say, Monterey, but with plenty of stuffing and tannins, a big Pinot, almost brawny, with the peppery spice you also find in the local Zinfandels. These are rich, flashy Pinots, but they really do need six years in the cellar to come around.

Pinot in these parts is picked early enough to usually avoid the Autumn rains, which come to Mendocino well before they hit Sonoma or San Francisco. Amounts are significant; the average annual rainfall at, say, Gianoli, is 80 inches. In this drought year, they’ve had only 40 inches (still twice the average in San Francisco), but a wet year can bring 120 inches, or more. That’s the risk for Zinfandel, which is picked far later than Pinot. With its tight bunches, it tends to develop botrytis. As Ben Salazar, Edmeades’ winemaker,

 

BEN

told me, they have to be very severe in cutting out the botrytis-infected bunches.

Back down in the Anderson Valley, Boonville looks pretty much the same as it ever did.

 

BOON

 

Five miles further, Philo, population 349, where Edmeades is, is even tinier. Blink, and you miss it.

Philo

 

But people don’t come to the Anderson Valley—to the extent they do, for it’s pretty remote—for the amenities. They come for the wine. As do I. I’m staying at the Edmeades guest house, a spectacular property in the hills above Philo. Here’s a shot from one aspect of the property. How lucky am I?

Guest

 

INSERT GUEST


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