The best thing about prognostications (a fancy word for “guess”) is that nobody can prove you’re wrong in advance, and by the time the future comes, it’s unlikely anyone will haul out your predictions and show how massively incorrect they were. So here we go: my prognostications about what we can expect next year in the world of wine.
The big news is that the wine industry will improve economically. The conventional wisdom of the last three-plus years is that wine at the high end has been slammed, as consumers, wary of spending too much, cut back on the amount they’re willing to pay for a bottle of wine. This has supposedly been good for companies like Bronco, Gallo, The Wine Group and others who can manufacture a sound bottle of wine and retail it for under ten bucks. But it’s been very hard on premium wineries. I’ve heard it time and time again, from owners and/or winemakers at these wineries, who tell me, off the record, that they’d be lying if they claimed everything was hunky dory.
But the U.S. economy seems to be recovering, and I have the feeling 2012 is going to be robust. I think the GDP will be up sharply, the housing market will show signs of life, the unemployment rate will go down, and personal income will rise, albeit modestly. We’ve seen, in the latest economic cycle, that consumers are spending like they haven’t spent in three years. They’re sick and tired of frugality. They haven’t treated themselves to very much since 2007, and they’re reading to start living again! That means a $12, $15, $18, maybe even a $20 bottle of wine.
I don’t see any major trends erupting in 2012, but hey, I missed sweet Moscato! The sweet red wine trend will pick up steam, but who cares? (No disrespect to anybody, but I’m into fine wine, not plonk.) I can guarantee you Chardonnay will continue to sell like crazy, and don’t look for lower levels of oak anytime soon (despite the oak-free phenomenon), because all those consumers with a sweet tooth (Moscato, reds) will find oaky California Chardonnay to their liking, with its sweet, simple vanilla and butterscotch flavors.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir remain red hot. I think the Cabernet market from $12-$18 will be particularly healthy, and for sure there are a lot of good wines at that price. There’s nothing going on in Pinot Noir below $18, but once you get up to $25-plus, your options increase. Pinot will be seen as a luxury wine, Cabernet as the everyday standard, and the reason that won’t change is inherent in the properties of the varieties themselves. You just can’t make a decent Pinot Noir unless the vineyard is in the right place and yields are kept low. That’s not true for Cabernet, which can be made decently from Temecula and Lodi to the Sierra Foothills and Mendocino County.
On the social media side, I don’t expect any great breakthroughs when it comes to wineries using Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc. in 2012. An interesting article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle suggests that Twitter “can marginally help a candidate’s general message…but the jury is out as to whether tweets lead to votes.” Isn’t that what I’ve been saying here for years–that engaging, even heavily, in social media can help a winery marginally to get the message out, but the jury is still out on whether or not social media can lead to sales. I maintain that position. Wineries are in a good position to take advantage of the impending recovery, but they’re going to have to do it the old-fashioned way: by pounding the pavements, or hiring salesmen to do it for them. Advertising, for those who can afford it, helps, as does a proper alignment of quality and price.
My final prognostication is that I’ll still be here, blogging, writing and reviewing for Wine Enthusiast, and having fun running around California and, hopefully, staying out of trouble.
We touched on a lot of topics at The Chardonnay Symposium, where my panel consisted of Greg Brewer (for Diatom), Dieter Cronje (Presqu’ile), Joshua Klapper (La Fenetre), Leslie Mead Renaud (for Foley), Mike Eyres (Chehalem) and Greg Stach (Landmark), all of whose Chardonnays were delightful.
The title of my seminar in the official handbook was “The Great Oaked Debate,” but I didn’t want to make it into some kind of hot-and-heavy competition between adherents of oak (like Joshua) and those who don’t use much if any oak (Greg Brewer), like those cable television shootouts between conservatives and liberals where the moderater has to practically keep the opposing sides from crawling onto the table and attacking each other.
That just wasn’t my intention. There’s way too much fuss and furor in wine media anyway. It’s like the debate over “France vs. California.” That might have been relevant 15 years ago, but no more. The wine media loves to take tiny differences or distinctions and blow them up into “wars.” Another example is “natural” winemaking versus what I suppose would be “unnatural” winemaking. Another version of that is organic (or biodynamic) vs. non-organic. Then there’s the high alcohol vs. low alcohol faux issue and the native yeast vs. commercial yeast debate. We seem to always be itching for a fight, and to pit stainless steel vs. oak is a natural for stirring up trouble.
Except that if I’m the moderater, it’s not gonna happen. As I explained at the outset, I don’t see it as oak versus stainless, I see it as oak or stainless. Separate but equal. Not better or worse, just two different approaches. Either one can go bad. If you take the oak approach, the wine can be appallingly overoaked (as too many Chardonnays are). If you take the stainless approach, the wine can be simple, like fruit juice. With all things, it’s a matter of balance, and as a journalist, I’m always looking for balanced coverage of the things I write about. (Or maybe I’m a journalist because I’m a Gemini and so I see everything from dual points of view). I’ve just always gotten upset and impatient when people take ideologically rigid attitudes in wine, claiming that their approach is the correct one and everybody else is doomed to hell.
I don’t know what the 60 or 70 people in the audience expected, but they liked what they got. I’ve done a lot of these panels over the years, and never had the overwhelmingly positive reaction I got from this one. When people walk up to you afterward–they don’t have to, they just make the decision to–to shake your hand and tell you how much they enjoyed the session, that’s pretty cool. The typical reaction was: Thank you for an interesting, informative and respectful discussion of the issues. People liked that I didn’t take sides, or bait one side or the other. Of course, there was disagreement among the panelists, but it was expressed in a good humored way that made the audience chuckle, even as it brought out fundamental winemaking issues. I don’t believe a single person in the audience walked away thinking that the oak adherents had “won” or that the stainless people had “lost.” Instead, they left thinking, “Hmm, you can make good wine anyway you want, as long as you start with good grapes.”
To be truthful, I did say I think an unoaked Chardonnay can’t rise to the level of complexity of a great oaked one, and I’ll stand by that assertion, in a general way. Would I turn down Greg Brewer’s unoaked 2003 Inox? Hell no. At lunch later that day I had a 1997 Qupe Bien Nacido Reserve Chardonnay from magnum (poured by a beaming Bob Lindquist himself) that was obviously oaked, and I have to say that both wines really turned me on. To have to choose between them would be a crime. Fortunately, we don’t have to. The bottom line is this: Great wine is an anomaly that cannot be explained. Even after every aspect of terroir, viticulture and winemaking is defined (as if terroir can ever be fully defined), the final satisfaction of a great wine is a phenomenon of nature, or perhaps a singularity is a better word. In a singularity, the laws of nature no longer apply. Anything is possible. Isn’t that what we look for in wine? Every time I open a bottle, I’m prepared to fall into a wormhole and be transported to some magical new place. That’s why I love this job!
One final thing I wonder about, which didn’t really get addressed during the panel, was if the consumer is confused by the oaked-unoaked Chardonnay thing. Lord knows consumers have enough to be confused about anyway (I’m just talking about wine). Since there’s no legal terminology to refer to an unoaked wine, proprietors use all kinds of different terms: unoaked, no oak, stainless, steel, naked, and even whimsical terms like Metallico. One of the winemakers on the panel related how a customer, tasting a Chardonnay from a bottle labeled unoaked, said he didn’t like it because he wasn’t getting the oak he expected. I wondered, if the same wine had been poured from a bottle labeled “barrel fermented,” would the customer have had a different reaction? Hmm.
I’m back from my panel at The Chardonnay Symposium down at gorgeous Bien Nacido Vineyards and man oh man, what a fun time it was. Only in its second year, TCS is growing by leaps and bounds, and is destined to be the premier Chardonnay event in the U.S.A. (Actually, it already is, but you ain’t seen nothing yet!)
After my panel, on oaked and unoaked Chardonnay, people asked me, what was your favorite wine in the flight? And I said, I can’t actually say. There are different ways I taste wine. Tasting at home for review is a very specialized form of wine tasting. It’s how I taste at work, but it’s not how I, or any normal person, would taste wine anyplace else. It would be dreadfully boring to always be formally tasting wine.
For example, at my seminar, the way I tasted was to look for what was best and most exemplary in each wine. So although we had 12 wines, and they were all quite different from each other–grown in different regions, made by different winemakers, some entirely unoaked, some with 200% new oak, some at 13%, some at 16%, some from barrel, some 8 years old–I looked for the best qualities of each. And I found them, because you generally find what you’re looking for, whether it’s in wine, people or life.
On the other hand, when I taste critically, in blind flights, what I’m looking for are faults. I’m seeking to eliminate wines from the lineup, one by one, due to certain flaws. They may be excessive in acidity, or flabby, or too hot in the finish, or too oaky, or not fruity enough, or have raisin tastes, or be too sweet; it could be anything. Last one standing wins. So, just as I said you always find what you’re looking for, if you’re looking for faults, you’ll find them.
This leads to the question, is it better to look for faults or for virtues? The answer is, you can’t say one approach is better than the other. Different approaches are suitable for different purposes. When I’m reviewing and scoring, it’s appropriate to look for flaws. When I’m leading a panel of invited winemakers, each of whom I’m honored to sit beside, I’m looking to find those qualities in the wines that are the topic of the symposium. And let’s face it, the winemakers on my panel are not accustomed to making ordinary wines! Each of the twelve samples was extraordinary in its own unique way.
(Thanks by the way to Ellen for being a wonderful traveling companion!)
The Wine Blogging Awards
Of course I wanted to win Best Wine Blog at the Wine Bloggers Convention. And I didn’t. But I can honestly say that there’s nobody whom I would more have preferred to beat me than Tom Wark and his Fermentation blog.
Tom deserved this award by every measure. He’s easily the most important person in wine blogging history. He not only had one of the first wine blogs, he began the Wine Bloggers Conference and he started the Wine Blog Awards. Those achievements alone put Tom in the pantheon. Tom is to wine blogging as Walt Disney is to animation, as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were to the personal computer. In other words, the creator.
More personally, Tom has been my mentor in wine blogging. Not in the most direct way, but still importantly. It wasn’t Tom alone who persuaded me to be a wine blogger. But he was incredibly supportive of my efforts from the start. When I began wine blogging, Tom wrote one of the first reviews, which he headlined “Steve Heimoff and the Active Mind.” I was so proud of that, because Tom really “got” what it was I was trying to do (as I already had “got” what he was trying to do).
Since then, Tom has been a friend and ally. I like to think he’s had my back, and I know I’ve had his. It was Tom who advised me to blog 5 days a week. I’ve had offline conversations with Tom over the years. I’ve asked him questions and for advice; he’s always kindly answered. He’s asked me questions; I’ve given him my opinions, I hope helpfully. I respect the hell out of Tom Wark (and by the way, Tom is absolutely leading the fight against monopolistic distributors). Like I said, if I couldn’t win this award, there’s nobody on Earth I would rather have seen win. So my heartiest congratulations, Tom. You singularly deserve this honor.
I’ll be heading down to Santa Barbara on Friday July 22 to host a panel on unoaked and oaked Chardonnay at the second annual Chardonnay Symposium, which will be on July 23, at Bien Nacido Vineyard, with lunch to follow at Au Bon Climat/Qupe’s little facility, tucked away in a corner of the vineyard.
I wrote, above, “unoaked and oaked,” but I could have written “unoaked versus oaked.” I think that’s how the organizers would have preferred it, because a little controversy is always good for attracting paying customers. But I couldn’t feel it in my heart to pitch this as a contest. It’s not. It’s simply two different approaches to making Chardonnay.
Why there is even an increasingly important category of unoaked Chardonnay isn’t hard to understand. There are two reasons. First, the category did well coming out of Australia. Secondly, and maybe more importantly, it addresses the loud complaint of the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) crowd that too much Chardonnay is overoaked, sweet plonk that’s virtually undrinkable at any price. Even though I’m a confessed lover of oaky Chardonnay, I’ll agree that there’s an awful lot of terrible stuff out there, simple wines that taste oak-like even though they may never actually have seen the inside of a proper oak barrel.
So the unoaked movement has allowed Americans to taste the true flavor of Chardonnay. Of course, just because a Chardonnay is unoaked doesn’t make it interesting or good. If you don’t put oak on top of a simple Chardonnay wine, all you end up with is a simple unoaked Chardonnay. The best unoaked Chardonnay I’ve had is from Diatom, Greg Brewer’s little project (he’s on my panel), but Greg reserves the right to put a little oak on Diatom if he wants to. If he gets radically good fruit in any given vintage, he’ll let it shine with unoaked Zen purity. And given the vineyards he has access to–Clos Pepe, Babcock, Huber–it’s more likely than not he’ll find good fruit.
For Chardonnay to succeed on its own, without oak, the wine needs complexity and acidity. A touch of minerality doesn’t hurt, and of course the finish must be dry, even if the center is fat and honeyed. The first time I ever tasted an unoaked Australian Chardonnay, I was amazed at how much vanilla there was. I had thought vanilla came from oak, but apparently there’s something in Chardonnay that gives it too.
Our panel is two hours in length, a long time for which to keep an audience amused. I’m just finishing the final touches on its structure. We have six panelists (excluding me), and I think I’ll have each winemaker bring two wines. Tasting twelve wines will help fill in the time by letting us compare and contrast more. But I also want to get into other issues. There are technical questions to be discussed, and also issues involving marketing and pricing. Why do winemakers make unoaked Chardonnay anyway? Is it because they perceive a niche for it, or because it’s cheaper? Does unoaked given them a higher profit margin? Do winemakers feel a tension between appealing to the marketplace, as opposed to making the best wine they can?
Anyhow, this should be an interesting panel, and I hope to see you on the day.
As eclectic a list as has ever appeared in the Top 10, showing how, in California’s democracy, almost any kind of wine from any appellation can be good. As always, you’ll find my complete reviews and scores in upcoming issues of Wine Enthusiast. Have fun this weekend and play safe.
Jarvis 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 460 cases, 14.7%, $195. Spectacular 100% Cab, from the Vacas east of Napa. Also, Jarvis 2007 Lake Williams Cabernet.
De Loach 2009 Stubbs Vineyard Pinot Noir, Marin County. 50 cases, 13.5%, $40. There’s not a lot of Pinot in Marin, but what there is is tantalizingly fresh and complex. Also the winery’s 2009 Chardonnay, from the same vineyard.
Neal Family 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley. 924 cases, 13.7%, $18. One of the best Sauvignons on the market, and look at that price.
Phillips Hill 2009 Hinterlands Pinot Noir, Mendocino. 140 cases, 14%, $38. A delicate, transparent and complex young Pinot.
PureCoz 2007 Red Blend, Napa Valley. Mitch Cosentino is back, and in fine style with this Bordeaux blend + Sangiovese.
Calcareous 2009 Viognier-Marsanne, Paso Robles. 437 cases, 14.7%, $28. Dry and racy, with exotic flavors.
J. Keverson 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, Dry Creek Valley. 312 cases, 14.4%, $34. Dry Creek Cabernet at its slightly rustic, charming best.
Hall 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley. 8,700 cases, alcohol not known, $22. Rich and fruity, with a touch of gooseberry. Sorry I forgot to note the ABV.
Lost Canyon 2009 Morelli Lane Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley. 340 cases, 14.1%, $45. A big, rich, spicy and delicious Pinot for drinking now. Also their 2009 Saralee’s Pinot.
Gundlach Bundschu 2010 Estate Gewurztraminer, Sonoma Coast. 2,250 cases, 14.4%, $23. Textbook cool climate Gewurz, spicy and fruity.
THE CHARDONNAY SYMPOSIUM
I hope you’ll come by The Chardonnay Symposium this July 22-23, down in the Santa Maria Valley of Santa Barbara County. This is the only fullscale event devoted to Chardonnay in California. I’ll be heading up a symposium; Karen MacNeil will be doing another. Lots of great wine and food, educational seminars and cool winemakers. Now in its second year, The Chardonnay Symposium, I predict, is going to be one of the biggest, most important wine events of the year.
It’s always exciting for a critic to taste through a range of wines from the same variety and winery, whose fruit comes from different places. Testarossa, Williams Selyem, Siduri, Failla, Merry Edwards, MacPhail–they all produce a wide range of Pinot Noirs (Williams Selyem made 16 different Pinots in 2007), and it’s interesting and educational to experience them as expressions of terroir, made, as they are, with the same winemaking sensibility .
One subset of this multi-bottling practice is with block bottlings. This is when the winemaker bottles the same variety from different parts of the (presumably estate) vineyard, in the belief that the various bottlings will show fascinating differences. Transparent varieties like Pinot Noir and, to some extent, Chardonnay are able to reflect small differences in terroir, in a way a heavier variety, such as Zinfandel, will not.
There’s usually a price formula with such lineups. The block bottlings tend to be more expensive than the vineyard-designated bottling, which in turn is more expensive than the non-vineyard-designated appellation bottling (if the winery has one). This model is based, of course, on Burgundy. For anyone in California who’s serious about Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, and has access to the grapes, it must be irresistable to produce multiple bottlings.
But what does this mean for the consumer? For a critic whose mission it is to provide advice and guidance to wine buyers, the question begs to be asked: “Can it be said in every case that the block bottling is better than the vineyard-designated wine, which in turn is better than the appellation bottling?” And the answer is decidedly “No.”
I’ve seen it over and over for years. I’ll use a few examples of wines I reviewed last week. Lynmar sent me 11 new 2009 Pinot Noirs, most of them from their Quail Hill estate vineyard in the southern Russian River Valley. I’ve long been a big fan of Lynmar, through the Hugh Chappelle and Dan Moore eras to the Bibiana Gonzalez Rave era of today. In 2004, Lynmar sent me 3 Pinots to review: the Quail Hill, Five Sisters and regular Russian River Valley. I rated the Quail Hill higher than the Five Sisters, even though the latter cost $30 more.
By 2007, Lynmar sent me five Pinots. I scored their Hawk Hill the same as the Five Sisters, even though the latter again cost $30 more. But the other three Pinots were tightly clustered just below them in score, meaning that for all practical purposes they were just as good. (When wines are 3 or 4 points apart, their relative standings can easily switch, given the vagaries of time and bottle variation.) Which brings us to those eleven 2009s I just reviewed. My highest scoring wine was the Quail Hill “Summit”, which I scored more highly than the Quail Hill Old Vines Pinot that cost $50 more. I scored a Block 10 bottling from Quail Hill considerably lower, as it didn’t possess the complexity of the Summit, Quail Hill Lynn’s Blend or Quail Hill Bliss Block, even though all were priced identically, at $70.
There are a couple lessons here. One is that price is no indicator of quality. We all know that, but what’s less understood is that there’s a potential risk a winery takes when it carves up and bottles an estate vineyard into lots of little blocks: it can be a zero sum game in which one side wins while the other loses. This is because, if you blend your best lots into block or barrel selections, you no longer have those barrels available to fill in the divots of other barrels that may be incomplete in terms of aromatics, acidity, depth of flavor, color, tannins, and so on.
Then there’s the case of Iron Horse’s 2009 Chardonnays, which numbered seven, the most they’ve ever sent me. The grapes for all of them came from the winery’s magnificent hilly estate vineyard, near cool Forestville, in the Green Valley. All seven are terrific wines, showing the crisp acidity, dryness, minerality and brilliant fruit Iron Horse Chards always deliver. I scored them all within a few points of each other. Well and good, but the pricing was widely disparate, meaning there was little correlation between price and quality (or my scores, if you prefer). For example, I rated the Estate Chardonnay, at $27, higher than the Heritage Clone and “M” bottlings, (the latter a block selection), both of them priced at $48.
The Burgundian model, of which Romanée-Conti is the most famous, works because vintners there have had centuries to figure out block differences that are dependably real, year after year, decade after decade. (You can think of the six red DRC named vineyards as different blocks of a single 61-acre vineyard, which is smaller than Iron Horse’s 79 acres of Pinot Noir.) The Californians haven’t yet had the opportunity of centuries to get things right. It’s certainly not improper for wineries like Iron Horse and Lynmar to tinker with block bottlings, and in fact, just the opposite: it’s a noble undertaking, not without risk (as I pointed out above), whose goal is laudable and, one hopes, achievable. In another generation or two, Iron Horse and Lynmar may have blocked out their vineyards in compelling ways. But not yet.