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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


What electric car patents and some AVAs have in common

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Elon Musk made a bit of news last week when his Tesla Motors announced that the company is “opening all its electric car patents to outside use.”

This “open sourcing” means that anyone can use Tesla’s proprietary procedures without having to worry about a patent lawsuit.

Why would a successful company like Tesla give the farm away? Originally, Musk had hoped that “the big car companies would copy our technology and then use their massive…sales and marketing power” to promote electric cars. While this would have presented Tesla with serious competition, it also would have promoted the concept of the electric car, which is a hard sell for most consumers. This “rising tide lifts all boats” concept would, Musk hoped, in the end benefit Tesla.

But it didn’t happen. “The unfortunate reality,” he said, “is…electric car programs…at the major manufacturers are small to non-existent.” Musk therefore is gambling that giving his manufacturing secrets away for free will help lift the tide that will help lift Tesla.

This story neatly dovetails with something that’s been on my mind lately, namely whether a winery in an appellation should promote only itself, or promote also its appellation, which means promoting all the other competing wineries in its appellation. This can be a tough decision for a winery. For example, I remember when I was a critic how surprised I was that Fess Parker Winery almost never put local appellations on their wines, like Santa Ynez Valley. Instead, they put Santa Barbara County. I thought it was wrong then, and told company officials so, but they argued that in their judgment no one had ever heard of Santa Ynez Valley, whereas everyone knew about Santa Barbara (which conjures up images of white-sand beaches, palm trees, movie stars and affluence). When I asked them, in turn, how the public ever would learn about Santa Ynez Valley, if wineries wouldn’t put it on their labels, there was radio silence.

We have a similar situation with regard to the Santa Maria Valley. It’s a great place to grow wine grapes, as I assume readers of this blog know. But it’s off the beaten path; even wine tourists to Santa Barbara County are more likely to visit Santa Rita Hills or Santa Ynez Valley than this northwestern, fairly remote part of the county. How, therefore, should S.M.V. wineries deal with the situation?

In different ways. Although they all (to my knowledge) put Santa Maria Valley on their labels, they still struggle with the public’s general absence of understanding of this region (which is shared, alas, in too many cases by sommeliers and merchants). Therefore, it would stand them all in good stead to promote the valley, but this would mean cooperating together, which is easier said than done. There have been efforts over the years to promote Santa Maria Valley, mainly through a local association, but, having followed these efforts, I have to admit they’ve been fairly tepid. Some influential local powers organized the Chardonnay Symposium a few years ago (with which I was involved), and held it at Byron Winery, where it largely showcased Santa Maria Valley wines. But this year, the Symposium closed up shop and moved north to Shell Beach, so now, even that slight exposure of the valley’s wines to consumers has ended.

My own feeling is that a single winery can’t promote its appellation, especially these lesser-known AVAs. A winery doesn’t have enough money, manpower or clout to pull off the massive consumer educational program that’s needed. It takes collaboration between all the local wineries, but as I said above, this can be politically difficult to achieve, because after all, these wineries are competing against each other. But in the end, collaboration is something they should do. It’s like Ben Franklin’s old woodcut says: Join, or die.

join_or_die_flag

 

Unity is better than disunity. It worked for Napa Valley: that region promoted itself with ruthless efficiency, so that now, a winery that isn’t even making very distinguished wine benefits from having “Napa Valley” on the label. Even earlier than that, it worked for Bordeaux. Promoting the appellation is a tried-and-true practice.

* * *

I’m off to Anderson Valley today, to spend a little time at Edmeades. It’s been a couple years since I’ve been there and I’m looking forward to it. I’ll be reporting from there for the next several days.


The “neighborhoods” of the Russian River Valley

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Last Saturday’s tasting and panel discussion on “The Neighborhoods of the Russian River Valley,” sponsored by the Russian River Valley Winegrowers Association as part of their winter “Pinot Classic” event, was interesting, as these terroir-oriented seminars always are. But, as I told the audience, for me at least it smacked of “déja vu all over again.”

 

YOGI

 

The theme was to see if we could isolate and identify the characteristics of Pinot Noirs from three different “neighborhoods” of the greater Russian River Valley: Green Valley, Laguna Ridge and the Middle Reach.

 

RRVMap

 

To help walk us through an understanding of these regions were four talented winemakers: Michael Browne (Kosta Browne), representing Green Valley; Rod Berglund (Joseph Swan), representing Laguna Ridge, and Mark McWilliams (Arista), representing the Middle Reach. Our panel moderator was Mike Sullivan (Benovia), whose long career in the Russian River Valley gives him broad, general oversight.

My role, in Rod Berglund’s words, was to be “the cleanup hitter and let us know if what, from an outside observer standpoint, what we say makes sense or if we are all just full of [it].” I thus spoke last.

I must now briefly digress to quote some passages from my 2005 book, “A Wine Journey along the Russian River.” This is from a section called “Carving Up the Valley”:

After the 2001 harvest, a group of [Russian River Valley winemakers] began gathering to taste the wines from different parts of the appellation. Their focus, obviously, was on Pinot Noir … The object was to see whether it made sense to carve up the valley into sub-AVAs … The vintners would get together every so often for a few hours to taste and see whether they could detect consistent differences in the wines … Exactly where these divisions are and what they should be called are years away from being determined … the Russian River Valley Winegrowers Association itself has suggested three sub-AVAs: the Middle Reach, Laguna Ridges [sic] and the Santa Rosa Plain (counted as one), and Green Valley, which has had AVA status since 1983. You can think of this as a warm-cool-cold continuum.

I wrote those words in 2004. Now here we are, ten years later, and it’s as if I wrote them yesterday. Pretty much the same winemakers, talking about the same topic—it’s as if the last ten years hadn’t ever happened.

Why these new AVA processes take so long (and they always do) is a matter of complexity; no small reason is simply because people are busy, and it takes a great deal of effort to come to agreement (especially in so large and crowded a place as Russian River Valley). Still, I confess to finding it surprising that this particular process has dragged on for so long. There’s no question that the Russian River Valley needs to be broken up into smaller, more meaningful AVAs. At 96,000 acres (according to Wine Institute), it’s the 21st biggest AVA in California (of more than 100), bigger than Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill, Sonoma Valley and Sonoma Mountain combined—and you can throw Santa Rita Hills in there for good measure and there’s still a skosh of acreage left over.

As I wrote in “Journey,” “[T]he Middle Reach does deserve its own AVA status.” I believe this on several bases: historical (the name “the Middle Reach” is very old, by California standards, and Pinot Noir there dates to the 1960s) and because the wine quality is so high and so consistent across all properties. Indeed, the Middle Reach probably has the greatest quality overall because, being the warmest part of the valley, it ripens the grapes well even in cooler years, whereas a place like Green Valley—the coldest neighborhood—may struggle in a chiller like 2011 and even in the more moderate 2012 vintage to get the grapes to full maturity. A well-made Middle Reach Pinot is spectacular on release, yet we know from the experience of older wineries (Rochioli, Williams Selyem) that the best bottles are capable of twenty years of development.

I think Laguna Ridge also makes sense. You have there wineries whose Pinot Noirs are lush, tannic and earthy, and need time to develop in the bottle. I think the current thinking now is to separate out Laguna Ridge (in the hilly south-central part of the valley) from the Santa Rosa Plain to the east, which makes sense; but that leaves unnamed a huge swathe of Russian River Valley, stretching roughly from Highway 12, east of Highway 116, northward almost to Windsor, and containing some of the Russian River Valley’s most famous wineries and vineyards. It surely deserves appellation status too, and why not Santa Rosa Plain? Although, as I noted in “Journey,” Rod Berglund at that time had suggested a Windsor Hills AVA for the more northerly part of this stretch.

I had written, too, that Bob Cabral had suggested a West River AVA (to pick up where the Middle Reach trails off), while Dan Goldfield had suggested dividing Green Valley into Upper and Lower (based on elevation); and I’m sure there are others with even more creative ideas. So we can begin to see why this process of new AVAs takes so long. This is complicated stuff!

I wish the Russian River Valley Winegrowers well in this latest push. As I wrote in 2004, things then seemed to have been put on hold, “but that has only slowed, not stopped, the momentum for sub-appellating the valley.” My hope is that, with last Saturday’s public event, the momentum has been regained.

(P.S. As I noted in “Journey,” and Rod Berglund again reminded us on Saturday, legally and technically there is no such thing as a “sub-AVA.” All AVAs are created equal, it seems, in the eyes of the government! But for conversational purposes, I have no problem referring to sub-AVAs.)

 

GusWine

Gus was there too


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