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The Chardonnay Symposium: 8 days and counting…

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There may still be time to get a ticket for my panel at next Saturday’s (June 30) Chardonnay Symposium.

Last year the topic was the role of oak in Chardonnay–which turned out to be more interesting than I initially thought it would be. This year, I chose the topic: how does the winemaker preserve “terroir” in a grape and wine that is usually so heavily manipulated? When you think of all the things winemakers do to Chardonnay–barrel fermenting it, stirring it on the lees, putting it through the malolactic fermentation, exposing it to varying degrees of oxidation, and on an on–what happens to all that terroir that was born in the grape?

A reporter for another magazine called me yesterday because she’s writing somethng up on the Symposium (now in its third year) and was shopping for quotes. She asked me if Chardonnay wine shows greater terroir than other varieties. “Good question!” I replied, which are two words a reporter loves to hear from an interviewee. Usually, people say that Pinot Noir, Riesling and Sangiovese reflect their terroir more purely or transparently than other varieties. Chardonnay is often referred to as a wine so neutral (i.e. non-terroir driven) that it needs winemaker bells and whistles in order to taste good.

Well, of course, that’s nonsense, as anyone who knows anything about Grand Cru Chablis or Montrachet understands. Here in California, we have our “grand cru” Chardonnays (you’ll pardon the expression), and I tried to round up panel members who work grand cru vineyards. They are:

Jenne Bonaccorsi – Bonaccorsi, Santa Rita Hills
Bob Cabral – Williams Selyem, Russian River Valley
Dieter Conje – Presqu’ile, Santa Maria Valley
James Hall – Patz & Hall, Carneros Valley
Eric Johnson – Talley, Arroyo Grande and Edna Valley
Heidi von der Mehden – Arrowood, Sonoma Valley
Bill Wathan – Foxen, Santa Maria Valley
Graham Weerts – Stonestreet, Alexander Valley

A pretty impressive crew, I think you’d agree. I told the reporter that there are certain noble grape varieties in the world, and when these grapes are grown to the highest standards and vinified accordingly, they all show terroir, including Chardonnay. Pinot Grigio is not a noble variety (at least, not in California) and thus you don’t expect to find “terroir” in a $15 PG. You expect freshness, crispness, cleanliness, fruit, etc., but not some eye-opening expression of the site where the grapes were grown.

Each of my winemakers will pour one wine, from a single vineyard, and tell us about the natural terroir, what he or she did in bringing up the wine, and then describe how the natural terroir still shines through. (Well, the one and only Dieter Conje is pouring two wines, but he has a very specific point he wants to make.) Perhaps some of the winemakers will say they believe they actually enhanced the expression of terroir through their interventions, the way, say, Professor Henry Higgins brought out the “real” Eliza Doolittle. Was Eliza more or less “Eliza” before the Professor taught her to speak correctly, dress and behave like a lady and be, well, more attractive to men? In some sense, she was more Eliza when she was an unkempt street urchin selling flowers from the gutter. Did she become “inauthentic” when she was transformed into “My Fair Lady”?

This is an idiotic question, one for metaphysicians to waste their time on. However, in the case of Chardonnay (and especially considering the question of oak), it is decidedly not idiotic; and to Chardonnay lovers, it’s the stuff of grand debate. I hope to see you at the Symposium.


In Pursuit of Balance: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay

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The buzz at yesterday’s second annual In Pursuit of Balance tasting was all about low alcohol, as in below 14%. Vintners were excited about the 2011s, still in barrel. David Hirsch told me some of his lots clocked in at 13.1%, low even for Hirsch Vineyard. “And what do they taste like?” I asked. David just smiled and said “Fabulous.” Unfortunately the ‘11s won’t begin to come out for at least 18 months or so, so we’ll just have to wait. But in the meanwhile we can savor the 2010s, another cool vintage that offers tantalizing hints of yet to come.

Jon Bonné, the San Francisco Chronicle’s veteran wine writer (he’s now been around long enough to merit the v-word) was there. I congratulated him on his column, from Sunday, in which he officially blessed the cool 2009, 2010 and 2011 vintages, writing that they “proved the virtues of restraint.” It was interesting that he made a comparison between 2011–so much cold and rain and, in some cases, mold–and 1998, a vintage universally panned here in California for much the same reasons. However I know a lot of people who say the ‘98s were better than originally portrayed, and are in fact aging well. As if in proof, at In Pursuit of Balance Josh Jensen had a bottle of his Calera 1998 Pinot Noir (I forget which vineyard from his estate on Mount Harlan; sorry. Reed?) that he particularly wanted me to try because of the vintage’s evil reputation. It smelled and tasted just fine, a wine of purity, elegance and harmony, and still fresh in fruit. So next time somebody says a vintage sucked, don’t believe them (unless it’s me!).

I won’t remark on individual Pinots I tasted, because my formal reviews will be appearing in Wine Enthusiast.

I have a big Chardonnay article coming up, so I was also interested in tasting as many Chards as I could, determined to get to the bottom of what makes for balance in that variety. The thing that fascinates me is how some Chardonnays taste too oaky even if the amount of new oak isn’t particularly high. Vice versa, too: some 100% new oak Chards are balanced. Lots of this is dependent on the base wine, of course: a big, fruity Chardonnay can take more oak than a thinner one. Still, I don’t think there’s any one right answer. Some vintners–Adam Tolmach, at Ojai–have largely moved away from new French oak because they prefer to let the fruit talk about the terroir. Others aren’t afraid of new oak and love it. Emmanuel Kemiji, M.S., whom I knew when he was sommelier at the Ritz Carlton San Francisco and who now owns the fine brand, Miura, lavished 50% new French oak and 50% one-year old barrels on his 2009 Chardonnay, from the Talley Vineyard. I love Ojai Chardonnays and I loved that Miura. But, as Kemiji pointed out, if he didn’t have grapes from Talley, with all that natural stone fruit and acidity, that much oak would be too much.


Terroir vs. intervention: the case of Chardonnay

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I’m going to be moderating a panel at The Chardonnay Symposium next June 30. They asked me to pick my topic and after long thought I came up with this:

Given that Chardonnay is, by all accounts, a neutral grape, how do you preserve or express terroir under all that winemaker influence [barrel fermentation, malolactic fermentation, sur lies, barrel aging, etc.]?

I’ve heard that “Chardonnay is a neutral grape” almost ever since I started writing about wine. Wikipedia (which is blacked out as I write this to protest pending anti-piracy bills in the Congress) says “The Chardonnay grape itself is very neutral.” By “neutral” I always figured people meant that the grape and the wine made from it is somewhat linear, being neither strong in flavor nor spicy the way, say, Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc or, especially, Gewurztraminer and Riesling can have strong aromas and flavors.

It was a sentiment I accepted, because so many smart people said so, until the unoaked Chardonnay phenomenon began, and I found myself tasting Chardonnays that had never seen a splinter of wood that were magnificently rich and layered. Well, you might argue, they still might have been manipulated, with malolactic fermentation and sur lies aging adding things that never came from the grape. And you’d be right.

Yet of all the white wine grapes in the world, save possibly Riesling, experts say Chardonnay most reflects its terroir! Hence my topic idea. What the heck does it mean that Chardonnay displays terroir, when the winemaker has interfered so thoroughly in its manufacture? And I use the word “manufacture” deliberately.

We come here to the concept of lines. By that I mean, there must be a line between one form of winemaker intervention that smothers terroir, versus another that helps express it. But where is that line? And in asking this question, are we engaging in rhetorical flourishes when we get into these angels-dancing-on-pinhead metaphysics? So let me rephrase the question this way: Given that Chardonnay expresses terroir, what can the winemaker do to enhance that terroir–to sharpen its profile to make it more interesting and attractive to the wine drinker?

Well, each question leads to another, creating the risk of an infinite regress. Why do we not say that the most terroir-driven Chardonnays of all must necessarily be entirely unmanipulated? I suppose there are Chablisians who would take that position. So might Greg Brewer, who describes his approach to the grape at Diatom this way:

The challenge is to subtract all extraneous elements to arrive at the utmost level of simplicity, serenity and refinement. In order to maintain this desired purity, fermentation is carried out at a very cold temperature in neutral vessels to retain the most primary attributes of the fruit. Furthermore, malo-lactic is inhibited to avoid the distraction of that secondary level of evolution. The resultant wine is then aged on its non-disturbed lees for health and protection, and removed just before there is any risk of autolysis which could impart nondesirable yeast-like characteristics into the wine.

Great word, “subtract.” I’d call it “not add.” Yet Mr. Brewer remains very much in the minority in the Chardonnay world, where heavy winemaker intervention, including charred oak barrels, lees aging and the malolactic, remains the norm. So, once again, how do we reconcile this notion of “neutral Chardonnay” with “terroir” and all that manipulation?

I don’t know the answer, but it’s a great topic, and we’re going to have a great time knocking it around at my panel. I can guarantee we’ll have 8 or 9 fantastic winemaker speakers, tons of great food, and some surprises too. The Chardonnay Symposium, which will be in its third year this June, is growing by leaps and bounds, and is set to become the premier Chardonnay event in the country, if it isn’t already. I hope to see you there.


Prognostications for 2012

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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.


More thoughts about Chardonnay

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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.


The Chardonnay Symposium. The Wine Blogging Awards.

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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.


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