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On terroir, and the vine’s microbiome

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Doesn’t it seem to you like these stories lately about microbes in soil affecting wine are making the concept of terroir even more complicated than we thought it was? We used to think terroir was a matter of the physical structure of the soil and the climate, or meso-climate, of the vineyard. John Winthrop Haeger, in his encyclopedic “North American Pinot Noir,” interpreted the soil part to include “orientation and aspect,” and possibly the “chemical composition.” But he said nothing about microbes.

Emile Peynaud, the great French enologist, in “The Taste of Wine” similarly referred to terroir’s “combination of site and soil,” and while he differentiated between “surface soil [and] subsoil and its water content,” he, like Haegar, has nothing to say about microbes. (For the record, as I’ve pointed out before, Peynaud takes note of the hand of man in crafting wine’s qualities in introducing the word “cru” to denote the combination of terroir and human intervention.) Even as hardcore a scientist as Clark Smith, in “Postmodern Winemaking,” refers to no fewer than “sixty five data dimensions” in soil analysis, but they have to do with structure, chemical composition and water content—not microbes.

So if this new report on the “wine grapevine’s microbiome,” published by the American Society for Microbiology and widely reported in scientific media, is true, we’re looking at a vastly more complex explanation of terroir than anyone has envisioned up to now. The study looked at “how different bacteria colonize these plants [i.e. grapevines] and also how those microbes might ultimately contribute to the wine’s sensory properties.” The study found a very close connection—almost an identity—between the “bacterial species found in the plant [and] the soil it was growing in.”

While one of the scientists who conducted the study, Jack Gilbert, conceded that “We don’t have evidence that bacteria are specifically contributing to terroir,” he firmly concluded that “those bacteria are affecting the chemistry of the plant,” which seems to pretty conclusively state that the microbes are, in fact, impacting terroir, since the chemistry of the plant obviously plays a large part in the qualities of the wine made from it.

The thing that puzzles me is this statement from Gilbert, which really requires more explanation than I’ve been able to find. “No matter where you are in the world, the types of bacteria growing on or in Merlot grapes are quite similar.” Gilbert looked at Merlot grapes or wine from Long Island, Bordeaux and California and found “similar bacteria species” in them all. Several things are unclear. Were the Merlot microbes also found in lab specimens of other grape varieties and wines? Were the Merlot bacteria substantially different from the bacteria associated with other varieties? Why should plants growing as far apart as California and France all possess similar bacteria? Does this suggest that Merlot itself can only thrive in the presence of certain bacteria?

I hope the scientists do a lot of followup work in these areas. This entire conversation about terroir has been stuck in a ditch for decades, and important new discoveries in the vine’s microbiome may help to push it forward. It will certainly give wine writers a whole new area to write about.


Wednesday Wraparound: Parker on futures, those “miracle” 2014s, and—Parker on futures, not!

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If, as Bob told The Drinks Business (and who would know better?), Bordeaux en primeur futures are “largely dead,” then good riddance, says I. I never did care for this futures stuff.

I mean, what purpose did they serve? Maybe once upon a time wine lovers could get a “bargain” by buying en primeur, but those days are long gone. I’m not entirely sure what killed them off, but surely the Internet had something to do with it. eBay? I don’t know for sure, but I bet much, if not most, en primeur Bordeaux is bought strictly for flipping. Something drove prices up so drastically that, as Parker himself points out, [producers] started raising the prices [on futures] higher and higher, so you were being asked to pay prices for unbottled wines two years before you received them for prices that will essentially be the same as when they came out…”.

That doesn’t make much sense—to tie your money up like that, in essence lending it to the chateau interest-free.

It’s funny how powerful is Parker’s influence. Even though people say his day is over, he’s still the 800-pound gorilla in the room, especially in Bordeaux. Decanter just wrote an article, How to buy en primeur, in which they said that, while the system can be complicated (involving not only the chateaux but negociants and merchants), there seems to be little sign of change in the offing, and the system does work.” Well, not according to Parker, it doesn’t. And I believe Parker.

* * *

Meanwhile, speaking of Bordeaux, how long will they continue to hype their vintages? As long as there are enough gullible people around to believe it. Here’s the latest on the 2014s, “a ‘great, miracle’ vintage that is close in style and quality to the exceptional 2010s,” according to a Bordeaux winery general manager. (There’s objectivity for you!)

How many times have we heard of a “vintage of the century” or “the greatest vintage since [fill in the blank]”? And it’s not just Bordeaux, it happens in every great wine-producing region. P.T. Barnum would be pleased to learn that his admonition about suckers is truer than ever when it comes to selling wine.

* * *

Finally—to reprise both Bordeaux and Bob Parker—his stepping down from reviewing en primeur—which he announced after giving The Drinks Business his gloomy prognostication on Bordeaux futures—is not the earth-shattering asteroid crash some writers have made it out to be. It was time for him to move on, a decision only he could make, and one into which not too much should be read, except this: as many have pointed out, no critic will ever have Bob’s influence. On balance, that influence has been a very healthy one for the wine industry. Bob was responsible—not entirely, but largely—for wine’s explosion in popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, when media all over the world trumpeted his achievements. More than anyone else, he made wine important. He glamorized it—the way an Oscar elevates a movie. We here in California ought to thank him, too, for he was/is the ultimate non-snob. He said that California wine could be as good as French at a time when many people didn’t want to hear it (and still don’t). I, personally, never begrudged him, as did some critics. In fact I’d venture to say that if it hadn’t been for Bob, there might not have been a Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast—and even if there had been, they wouldn’t have become as influential as they did, because he blazed the trail. He cleared the way. He set the style—and will, even after he retires. Bob Parker was the Sinatra of wine critics: The chairman of the board.

* * *

I’m up in Sonoma Valley today, at Richard Arrowood’s Amapola Creek Winery, where he’s hosting a 40-year retrospective tasting of some of his wines. I respect and admire Richard so much. He was a big part of my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River. I’ll write about this historic tasting tomorrow.


Trying to comprehend the red blend trend

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I’ve been watching this burgeoning red blend trend for years. Although red blends have been around forever, I first learned that they were seriously on growers’ and producers’ radar about 5 or 6 years ago, when I spent a most delightful day with Joey Franzia, Fred’s son, of Bronco Wine Co.

We had driven down and back from Oakland to Paso Robles, and on the long haul we had a good conversation about all kinds of stuff. When I asked Joey what was new with Bronco, he mentioned two things in particular: the growing popular interest in Moscato and in red wine blends, both of which Bronco was planting furiously.

Well, when the scion of the fourth-biggest wine company in America (20 million cases annually) tells you about trends, let me tell you, your ears prick up. So from then on my brain was alerted to any news about the red blend trend. (Not so much about Moscato. I thought that trend had a short shelf life.)

The latest wine writer to opine on red blends is Lettie Teague, in the Wall Street Journal. She cites Nielsen as saying that “the domestic red-blend category…is one of the fastest-growing wine sales categories in the country.” The trend began, asserts Teague, with the 2001 release of The Prisoner, “the first American red-blend superstar.”

The Prisoner indeed is something of a pheenom, but it’s not as if it emerged parthenogentically from the mind of Zeus, or of Dave Phinney. It had historic and notable antecedents. For most of history wine was not labeled at all. Varietal labeling in America is a more or less modern occurrence, the brainchild of post-Prohibition purists, such as Frank Schoonmaker, who wished to distinguish our wine from its European brethren. (Yes, there was varietal labeling in California in the 1800s, but it was the minority.)

Even with the popularity of varietal labeling, though, there always has been a feeling among winemakers that they did not wish to have their hands tied by the government’s rules. If it took less than 75% of a named variety to produce a better wine, so be it. Hence Meritage and proprietary names. Then, too, the practice of “field blends” also came roaring back in the 1990s and 2000s, with the success of bottlings like Carlisle’s “Two Acres” blend of Mourvedre, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Carignane, Peloursin, Alicante Bouschet, Zinfandel and a white variety, Helena. Such old-vine blends can be really superlative.

The juxtaposition or intersection of winemaking style versus government winemaking rules is complicated and as old as time. Phillippe the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy, forbade “disloyal Gaamez” from growing in his realm in 1395, an early example in Europe of the intrusion of government (in this case Royal) into winegrowing affairs. The A.V.A. laws as drafted by our own Federal government in the late 1970s and early 1980s were merely a democratized version—one widely thought to be innovative and reformative then, but could just as easily be seen as nanny-state meddling now. There is no reason, and there never has been, why a varietally-labeled wine should necessarily be better than a blend.

Some producers will point out, accurately, that consumers are now used to varietal labeling; they (the producers) can’t be expected to pioneer radical marketing practices that will cost them business. This is true. But all things evolve, even in an industry as resistant to change as is wine. There is no reason to think that younger consumers today are as obsessed with varietal labeling as their parents and grandparents. If anything, there’s reason to think they’re moving in exactly the opposite direction.

Teague points this out, suggesting that many younger wine drinkers find red blends more “friendly” than varietals (and cheaper, too). The current (April 2015) issue of Wine Enthusiast has an article on “The Changing Face of Wine” (sorry, I can’t find it online to link to) that’s all about “a new generation of winemakers…the world over” who are creating wine labels that are “fun, bold [and] wildly creative”—and many of these wines are red blends that eschew identifying specific varieties and whose “coolness” appeals to younger drinkers.

I do think producers of these red blends are going to have to give consumers a little help regarding what the wines taste like. Consumers know that a Cabernet Sauvignon will be full-bodied, a Pinot Noir lighter and more elegant, a Zinfandel spicy and bold. But they have no idea what a fancifully-named blend tastes like or what kinds of foods to drink it with. This is where the back label comes in. I’m a big fan of back labels. They’re the producer’s opportunity to talk directly to consumers at the point of sale. I know there have been studies on the impact of front labels in off-premise sales. It would be interesting to study the effect of a well-produced back label. If I were looking at two bottles that were similar in every respect, except that one had nothing on the back label except the usual boring stuff, while the other gave me information about grape sourcing, wine style and food suggestions, I’d be much more likely to buy the latter.


We do not need an alternative to alcohol!

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Well if this isn’t the strangest thing I’ve read in a long time, I don’t know what is. “Why the government should fund research into finding a replacement for alcohol,” it’s called.

It was written by Ryan Cooper, a national correspondent at TheWeek.com, which is by no means a wacko rightwing pub. Ryan’s basic premise is that alcohol—the “ur-drug: the oldest, most common, and most widely abused drug in the world,” can cause “brain damage; severe memory loss; cardiovascular disease and strokes; cirrhosis of the liver; cancer of the mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, liver…” Well, Ryan’s list goes on and on, but you get the idea. His solution, as the headline implies: Have the gummint look into funding studies into “alcohol replacement,” to come up with something that’s “better than booze.”

Is this the latest installment from the neoprohibitionist crowd? They never go away, do they? Look, anything and everything is potentially dangerous: automobiles, bicycling, eating certain foods, taking certain medications, flying in an airplane, joining the military, playing, making love, breathing. All we can do, as individuals and as a society, is to try and understand the risks involved, and adjust accordingly. In the case of alcohol, the solution is not to do away with it entirely, it’s to teach people the benefits (and pleasures) of moderate consumption—and to not drink and drive!!! (I can’t emphasize that enough.)

I actually don’t think Ryan is some kind of wild-eye prohibitionist, like the Marin Institute, which earned itself such a bad name that it had to reinvent itself as Alcohol Justice.

Still, in writing these inflammatory articles, Ryan links himself to the fire-eaters. He’s also not particularly consistent in his claims: A couple years ago, he wrote a piece for Washington Monthly in which he condemned hyperbolic diatribes against drugs, including alcohol: “[W]e should avoid alarmist, simplistic slogans” such as calling them “poisons,” he warned, because calling various drugs ‘poisons’ as if this counts for something is foolish. By this standard basically everything, including water, is a poison…”.

And yet, in The Week article, Ryan states: the most popular recreational drugs, particularly alcohol, are atrocious.” It is “very often terrible.” In fact, he adds, even heroin is “not as bad” as alcohol.

Those sound like alarmist simplistic slogans to me!

I’m glad that Ryan emphasized that he is “certainly not in favor of reinstating full-scale prohibition.” But notice that hedge: “full-scale.” Whatever does that mean? If he was really against restating prohibition, he wouldn’t use weasel words like that, he’d just come out and say “Let’s not even think of reinstating prohibition in any way, shape or form. We tried it once, and it was an abject failure and a national embarrassment.”

We already have some pretty stringent laws against alcohol consumption: age limits, shipping restrictions and so on. Alcohol is one of the most heavily-regulated consumer products in the U.S., which means that we continue to have a residue of prohibition, even though historic Prohibition was formally repealed in 1933.

I understand the concern Ryan has about all the problems associated with the inappropriate use of alcoholic beverages. But the answers are a lot more complicated than naively calling for the government to fund alternatives to it. Is that really something we want our precious tax dollars to go for? Instead, let’s be smart about this. Wine, beer and spirits are miraculous gifts to us from benign Nature. We don’t need to do away with them; we need to be smarter about using them, and we need to teach our children to be wise, not foolish, about alcohol and everything else.


Fountaingrove joins the AVA party

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Last July, I wrote that the Fountaingrove District AVA was probably coming.

Now, it’s here.

TTB first published the Notice of rulemaking only last June, which means the whole process took less than a year. That’s pretty good! Evidently there was no disputation, which is rare for a new appellation. Fountaingrove now becomes Sonoma County’s 17th AVA. Welcome!

At 38,000 acres, it’s mid-sized, a little bigger than Fort Ross-Seaview, a little smaller than Yorkville Highlands. The word “Fountaingrove” is an old one for this part of eastern Sonoma County. It was the name of a utopian commune founded near Santa Rosa in 1875; the winery of the same name quickly followed. (I mention the following historical footnote only because, well, I want to: Fountaingrove’s founder, and his commune, were said by the wine historian Leon Adams to indulge in “bizarre occult and sexual practices.”) Be that as it may, Fountaingrove had a good history: by 1942, our old friend, Mary Frost Mabon, was able to write, in her ABC of America’s Wine, that Fountaingrove was “a fascinating property with a romantic history [and that] tourists…find a very hospitable tasting-room.” She liked, in particular, the Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon, and especially a 1935 Pinot Noir she called “one of the top wines of California, and a true California Burgundy…”.

Fountaingrove’s boundaries run from just northeast of Santa Rosa almost to the Napa County line; it’s a hilly region that touches these other appellations: Chalk Hill, Diamond Mountain, Sonoma Valley, Calistoga and Russian River Valley. According to the TTB’s establishment ruling, the average growing season temperature is warmer than areas to the west but cooler than those to the east—as you’d expect. It is classified as a Region II on the old U.C. Davis scale. The soils are primarily Franciscan bedrock overlaid with volcanic residue, as they are throughout the Mayacamas. Elevations range from 400 feet to 2,200 feet.

I suspect, based on my past experiences, that the chief grape of Fountaingrove District is likely to emerge as Cabernet Sauvignon, which could be similar to Cabs from the higher stretches of Alexander Valley. There will be plenty of Chardonnay, too. We’ll see how Fountaingrove’s reputation evolves on Pinot Noir.

Interestingly, Fountaingrove became an AVA on the same day the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance announced they have officially submitted a petition for AVA status. I was interviewed yesterday on these topics by a reporter for the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, who asked me a number of questions, including why petitioners want their own AVAs. Two reasons, I answered: economics and pride. The smaller the appellation (in general), the more you can ask for the bottle. But also: Petitioners are proud of their terroir. They want consumers to know, with some precision, where the grapes come from—not just from someplace in a county, but a specific region in that county.

The reporter also asked me if I think Sonoma has too many AVAs. No, I said. France has, what? A gazillion. Rather than being confusing, I think AVAs are clarifying—but ONLY to the extent they’re well thought out. Sonoma didn’t used to be so good at thinking out their AVAs. But they’ve learned their lesson. They’re much more thorough in their research nowadays, much more sensible in defining boundaries, and also more collaborative, to avoid those unseemly internal battles that marked AVAs in the past, not only in Sonoma but just about everywhere. Finally, the reporter asked me if Sonoma is running out of new AVAs. Nope. They’ll sub-appellate Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast further, as they should.


Napa’s traffic crisis: Alternate touring days?

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You know that old saying about how you can’t put the toothpaste back into the tube? That was my feeling when I read this article, from Monday’s Napa Register, on a debate taking place in Napa Valley. And, no, it’s not about wine.

The topic is nothing new: Growth versus preservation. In its latest incarnation, it shape-shifts into whether Napa should be (in the words of a county official) “a resort area [or] an agricultural area.” California, with our natural beauty, always is a hotbed of such debates, and Napa Valley, for many reasons, is no exception. This conversation has been going on for as long as I’ve been aware of the valley.

In particular this brouhaha over the number of tasting rooms and wineries hosting “events” like weddings has also been around for a long time. It’s only natural that some valley residents would be upset over the traffic (truly, truly awful on Highway 29) and the feeling that their pastoral little slice of heaven is turning into a tourist-drawing WineryLand theme park.

So is it time to take drastic action, like limiting the number of tasting rooms, or wineries, or vineyards, or resorts and hotels? This is the problem of the toothpaste. Napa can’t go backwards to the bucolic 1960s or 1970s. And there are limits to how much it can do to prevent the invasion of the tourists, which now seems to occur year-round, not just in the summer, as the climate dries and warms.

It’s interesting to read the comments to the Register article. Typical of the slow-growthers is this one from a reader who’s had it up to here: “Anyone catch the traffic on 29 today? Basically heading south it was backed up from the light in yountville all the way to the CIA. It was almost just as bad heading North. It was still backed up at 6:45 at night, about 35 minutes to get from st Helena to yountville. That should be a 7 minute drive.” And this from someone else: “Experiencing the growth in the last fifteen years, one could argue that the tipping point has already been reached. Does one honestly wish to make the traffic even more intolerable?”

It’s not clear what the solution is, but we should be looking at this from a wider perspective, namely: Napa Valley isn’t the only place in California where traffic is an enormous, and growing, problem. It’s a problem throughout the state, from our local city and suburban streets to the freeways and bridges that form California’s nervous system, from the Pacific Coast Highway to the byways of the Sierra Nevada and all chokepoints inbetween. Californians have always complained about traffic in our state’s notorious car culture, but things are worse than they’ve ever been, and if you’re wasting hours of your life everyday sitting idle, you’re understandably frustrated. And what I can’t for the life of me understand is why our government isn’t taking the problem more seriously. This isn’t something that local government can tackle. It’s a gigantic elbow to the throat of California’s economy (not to mention drivers’ peace of mind) and only government has the means to address it.

Maybe, in Napa’s case, the answer is to limit the number of tourists (especially on weekends) in some way that’s legal and fair. Of course, the state would have to be involved, too, and possibly the Feds. Back in the 1970s, when we had the nation’s first gas shortage, you could only fill your tank on certain days, depending on the number on your license plate. I don’t recall there being any riots; people understood that there was a crisis and we all had to be a part of the solution.

Could something like that work in Napa’s case? There are really just two main ways in, from the south and north, Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. Maybe they could build checkpoints with automated cameras, like the ones they use for FasTrak. Get the word out, through media and signage, that Saturdays are for “x” drivers and Sunday’s are for “y” drivers, and then levy a hefty fine on anyone who’s caught cheating (just the way FasTrak works). Of course, you’d have to figure out some way to screen out locals so they didn’t get caught in the net. This would inconvenience many tourists, granted; but once they got the hang of it, they’d get used to it, and they’d probably eventually welcome the more open roads.

I know it’s a crazy idea, but maybe it could work. And if things get bad enough (and they’re heading in that direction) it may be the only way.


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