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Those “semi-generic” European place names? Let’s ditch them

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In law, the concept of “grandfathering” certain parties into new laws is quite old in America, dating back to post-Civil War days. It occurs, says Wikipedia, when an old rule continues to apply to some existing situations while a new rule will apply to all future cases.” The concept applies across many areas of technology, law and sports. For example, the Green Bay Packers of the NFL are grandfathered out from a rule that prohibits corporate ownership of teams, because their corporate ownership dates to a time before the no-corporations rule was adopted.

When the U.S. and the European Union signed a trade deal, back in 2006, regarding American use of “geographic indications” on wine labels, the deal specified 16 “semi-generic” European place names that could no longer be used on American wines, including Burgundy, Madeira, Sherry, Port and Rhine.

However, under the deal’s terms, American wineries that were using these prohibited place names before March 10, 2006, were permitted to continue to be able to use them; they were grandfathered in. As the Department of the Treasury stated at that time, If there is any question of eligibility for the ‘grandfather’ provision, we will rely on the information that appears in the ‘Brand Name’ and ‘Fanciful Name’ fields on the COLA that was approved before March 10, 2006.”

The deal had a ten-year time period; it expired this year, which led to the parties having to renegotiate it. Politico is reporting that, while both the U.S. government and the Napa Valley Vintners wish for a permanent ban on purloined place names, “the rest of the U.S. wine industry” is pushing to allow “American vintners to keep labeling their products with such regional designations as long as they were doing so before the agreement was struck.” This divide, between the Obama administration and Napa Valley Vintners, on the one hand, and “the rest” of the industry, on the other, “sets up a major showdown” between the U.S. and the E.U.

The Napa Valley Vintners offers a stark illustration of why they’re siding with the E.U. on this one: With the “Napa Valley” mark already appearing on at least one Chinese wine, “How can we go fight for our integrity around the world when the United States doesn’t offer that same reciprocation?” asks a NVV official.

Makes sense to me. I don’t see why we have to have phony European place names on American-made wines. These names may have had a useful purpose in the period after Prohibition, but they no longer do; they are useless anachronisms.

I’m sure that wineries that have used semi-generic places names for decades will have to go through a period of adjustment, if they’re no longer allowed to do so. But the actual wines won’t change, and consumers are smart enough to figure out how to deal with name changes. It’s called “a teaching moment” for the consumer, and you can’t have too many of those. Besides, the historian in me thinks that there will come a day when California (and America) no longer has any of these European place names on labels, and that will mark a significant tipping point in our maturation as a wine-drinking nation, as well as  being a good partner to our European friends. And sometimes, in business, as in life, you have to take your friends’ feelings into consideration, even if it costs you a little.


Chardonnay Symposium winners tell a story

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Looking at the medal winners from the International Chardonnay Symposium, I’m struck by the geographic diversity of origins of the top-ranked California Chards. They range from Napa Valley down to the Santa Maria Valley, with Paso Robles, the Santa Lucia Highlands, Livermore Valley, Arroyo Seco, Sonoma Valley and the Russian River Valley inbetween. (I personally think you’d have to add Anderson Valley to the mix, although no Chardonnays from there were listed among the winners. Maybe there were no entrants.)

So from Mendocino to Santa Barbara for California’s best Chardonnays. That’s a big spread, about 375 miles. In France, we tend to think of the best Chardonnays as coming from a relatively narrow spread: Chablis down to Macon.* That’s a north-south distance of about 136 miles, but you’d obviously have to deduct most of the Cotes de Nuit from that, because it’s mainly Pinot Noir. So we have a Chardonnay terroir in coastal California that’s far bigger than the Chardonnay terroir of Burgundy.

Why is that? Examining California first, there is a true coastal terroir running along the Pacific Coast that’s obvious to anyone who regularly travels that route. Everybody knows the typical pattern: bone dry summers and autumns, warmish, sunny days and cool nights, as the maritime intrusion sweeps in dependably and bathes the land in fog. Yes, the soils differ. And yes, it is true that the further south you go the more of a change there is, especially in the quality of light. Cezanne would have loved painting the Santa Barbara mountains and coast. One senses it, also, in the softening of the air you feel as, driving from San Francisco, you hit Pismo Beach on any given summer day, then make your way southward down to Buellton. It feels different to us humans, so it must feel different to grapes, too.

But still, the terroir, in a macro way, is of one piece, and given the similarly of viticultural and enological practices nowadays, I doubt if anyone could tell the difference, on a consistent basis, between a Chardonnay from the Santa Maria Valley and one from, say, Carneros. Stones and minerals, green apples, tropical fruits, bright acidity, the usual impact of oak and lees and malo—this is why the coast makes such fine Chardonnay.

Perhaps the Chardonnay-growing area of France would be larger if it weren’t for the French system of appellation controllée, which is so much more rigid than ours. But it is what it is; the French system tends to favor a multiplicity of varieties. Ours—not molded by centuries of precedent, nor by Napoleonic law—is market-based; and the market being what it is, has resulted in only a handful of varieties, including Chardonnay, dominating vast regions.

It is a common notion nowadays that this system is changing. Led by sommeliers, responsive to a taste among younger consumers for the new and different, a new reality supposedly is emerging, of new varieties, tinkered with by a new generation of winemakers born in the waning decades of the 20th century, willing to venture where their fathers would or could not. This new paradigm—if that is not too strong a word—has much to recommend it, but it also faces stiff opposition. There is, for example, a Chardonnay Symposium in California, but not a Tannat or an Assyrtiko Symposium. One has to be careful predicting the future of anything, much less consumer preferences in foodstuffs; but we can allow History to be our guide. History tells us two things: First, what was popular, wine-wise, 100 years ago is popular today, and secondly, once a wine region becomes dominated by certain varieties, it tends to remain planted to those varieties. The two things are, of course, related.

But, you will object, younger people are turning away from the Chardonnays, Cabernets and Pinot Noirs, towards other varieties, said to be fresher, lower in alcohol, crisper and more interesting. Is this true? The media makes much of this meme. But is it more than just a story? Is it really a trend? The media loves trends, and has been known—shockingly!—to manufacture new ones for its own purposes. So, while I’m sure there will be new wines and new varietals that come and go, I’m equally sure that one grape variety—Chardonnay—will always be around. And I’m proud of my state of California for doing such a magnificent job with it.

* I suppose you could argue for extending the Chardonnay region south of Macon through the Beaujolais, but I wouldn’t go that far, either geographically or qualitatively.

OrlandoRemember the Orlando Martyrs


The last word, literally, on In Pursuit of Balance (well, maybe…)

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Jon Bonné, the San Francisco Chronicle’s former wine critic and, now, occasional columnist, has much to say about the demise of In Pursuit of Balance that is on point: that the organization was controversial, that it stimulated a valuable conversation over Pinot Noir style, that it received a disproportionate amount of attention and media coverage,” that the ending, after five years, was “a shock” to the group’s members and fans, and—ultimately—that IPOB “served its purpose.”

Bonné can be a good reporter when he sticks to the facts and leaves aside his personal piques, but here, his dislike, verging on hatred, of larger wineries lends his analysis an off-putting hysteria. This is further fueled by his ongoing antagonism towards Big Critics, especially Wine Spectator, some of whose writers consistently raised legitimate questions about IPOB. Raising questions is the lifeblood and purpose of journalism—no reporter would be worth anything without raising questions–but Bonné calls it “savaging” IPOB, an odd but telling choice of verbiage. He goes on to accuse these Wine Spectator commentators (and, by extension, all of us who raised similar questions) of being “fearful of change.” That there is no evidence of such “fear” on the part of anyone who asked IPOB’s creators to more precisely define the “balance” that was their hallmark should be clear to all impartial observers. I myself asked, frequently, because IPOB never could iron out their internal contradiction, which was that they seemed to be suggesting that “balanced” Pinot Noir had to be below 14% in alcoholic strength, but even Raj Parr himself repeatedly had to backtrack from that assertion, for obvious reasons: It is on its face silly, and besides, there were members of IPOB whose wines were well in excess of 14%. Thus IPOB was forever hoisted on a petard of its own making, its “message” smudged into incoherence: If, indeed, they could not define “balance,” then what were they “in pursuit” of? IPOB’s inclusion of only certain wineries to their road show—the hottest ticket in London, L.A., Prowein, San Francisco or wherever else they poured–could only be seen as an arbitrary illustration of what has come to be known, in California circles, as the Cool Kids’ Club: We’ll invite our friends to the party. Don’t bother coming if you’re ugly.

I went to just about every IPOB tasting in San Francisco since the group’s founding in 2011, and yes, they were wonderful tastings. But they were wonderful not because they represented some sort of curated selection of the best and most balanced Pinot Noirs, but because they showcased many small producers whose wines most people—even I, as Wine Enthusiast’s senior California reviewer—didn’t have access to. I would have gone no matter who sponsored the event or what it was called; but the weight under which it was placed by that word “balance” cast a more lurid and ominous glow over the proceedings. One felt one was entering, not a mere arena for tasting, such as World of Pinot Noir, but a political convention, complete with party platform and ideological frisson, that just happened to feature wine. Since we knew that a cadre of insiders—including Jon Bonne—was responsible for the decision of what to include, out of all the bottles submitted for consideration, the implication was that all other Pinot Noirs were somehow unbalanced, an unsettling thought to a wine critic who might have given years of high scores to wines that, presumably, had been rejected by IPOB’s overseers. I should think James Laube and Matt Kramer felt quite the same: and why not? Thus to publicly air their concerns was not to “savage” In Pursuit of Balance. It was not to “savage” Raj Parr or Jasmine Hirsch or even Jon Bonne. It was to wonder, just as you might in a similar situation, why there was such a discrepancy between something you liked and something that IPOB appeared to find “unbalanced,” which, when you get right down to it, has to be seen as defamatory.

Not all of the kinds of wines IPOB loved, however, were good, and some were disasters. The 2011 Pinot Noir from Raj Parr’s Domaine de la Cote, which I tasted not at IPOB but at a World of Pinot Noir tasting, was among the worst Pinots I’ve ever had. In that cold vintage, Raj picked too early, motivated, I supposed, by ideology; the wines tasted like Listerine. (In fairness, his 2012s, which I tasted the next year at IPOB, were utterly magnificent.) This served to underscore what always was IPOB’s Achilles heel: its apparently slave-like devotion to a concept—low alcohol—at the expense of a far more important concept: deliciousness. Let the vintage tell you when to pick, not your frontal lobe. Incidentally, the limits, indeed the dangers, of sticking to this low-alcohol ideology were graphically illustrated at a World of Pinot Noir tasting some years ago when Siduri’s Adam Lee pulled a switcheroo on Raj Parr, at a public panel, an event Bonne alludes to in his opinion piece but whose implication he does not explore: that when you blind taste Pinot Noir without the ability to form a pre-conception due to knowledge of the alcohol level, you just might find yourself loving something you thought you were supposed to hate. Sic temper alcoholis.

But Jon is correct that IPOB “served its purpose,” if its purpose was to stimulate just the sort of discussion we’re having and have been having for some years. What had been esoterica has now become a standard part of the conversation about Pinot Noir, and for that we have to thank Raj and Jasmine. You have done the industry a service, monsieur et mademoiselle, and it is now time for you, and us, to move on.


From the road: Portland Oregon

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Up here in Portland, Oregon, a town I haven’t really spent much time in, and I must, what a cool place. Of course it helps that the weather has been so beautiful—much better than in Northern California, where the past week has been dismal and cold. The neighborhood they call the Pearl District reminds me of parts of Baltimore, where I was two weeks ago, and also the area of San Francisco around the Barbary Coast: old brick buildings (fortunately seismically retrofitted!) that have been rehabbed and loved back to their exciting historical roots, making them great places to live and work. We had dinner at Paragon Restaurant & Bar, in the heart of the Pearl. With the warm night, the ‘hood was swarming with life, and I swear, there were ten bars and cafés on every block. Portland clearly is a town that loves to eat and drink! Young, too. But, as I discovered from talking with some locals, they are experiencing the same difficulties with rising housing prices as is happening up and down the Pacific Coast, from Vancouver to La Jolla, although rents and home prices aren’t anywhere near what they are in San Francisco and, increasingly, Oakland.

Anyhow, I could live up here! The Pearl is exactly the kind of neighborhood I’ve always lived in: inner city-urban, densely packed, with old buildings and lots of stuff going on.

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Why do some people call “Parkerization” a dirty word?

They do, you know, as a symbol for wines that are overblown, over-alcoholed, over-oaked, overpriced and over-manipulated.” With Parker’s recent retirement from reviewing Bordeaux, the topic of Parkerization has re-arisen. For instance, in this reporting by Yahoo, they refer to his “his preference for predominantly wood flavours, strong tannins and high alcohol content.” Well, naturally, nobody wants wines that are over-anything, whether it’s oak, alcohol, blown, manipulated or priced; and certainly there are plenty of those kinds of wines. But let it not be forgotten that there’s a Good Twin to the Evil Twin of Parkerization: too many wines pre-Parker were thin and boring and, quite frankly, not well made. Parker dragged sometimes reluctant wineries into modern times, forcing them to clean up their acts and actually get the grapes to ripen correctly so that they tasted good. He doesn’t get enough praise for that—people fasten on the excesses and thus end up throwing the baby away with the bathwater.

* * *

Well, tomorrow (Tuesday, today as you read this) it’s off on a whirlwind visit to Seattle that will be over so fast, I won’t even have time to see my family up there. The temperature is supposed to be in the mid-80s, which I personally love, but really, seems pretty hot considering we’re halfway to the Aleutians. They tell me the Pacific Northwest has been very rainy lately, but also very warm: Global warming, I should think. Then, after Seattle, it’s another whirlwind trip to L.A. and back home—and to Gus—on Friday. I’ll try to blog everyday this week but with this schedule, don’t blame me if my posts seem a little slapdash—like this one.


A pinky of wine for baby: Are you creating a future alcoholic?

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For yesterday’s flight from SFO to Reagan Washington Airport I bought a New York Times, which always gives me a couple hours of good reading when I have the time—and what else is there to do on a long flight?

So in the Science Times section (sorry, no link—firewall!) they had an article called “Alcohol’s Parental Gateway.” Some inflammatory words in that header: must read! It dealt with the question of whether parents who give their young children even “a token sip of wine at Passover” somehow contribute to their children’s later drinking problems.

This sort of “gateway” issue has worried parents for decades. No mom or dad wants to suffer the guilt and pain of thinking they somehow contributed to their child’s mental or behavioral aberrations. Once upon a time, I don’t think parents even worried about this sort of thing, but in our post-Dr. Spock era (Benjamin, not Star Wars), they do. Books, academic studies reported in the media, talk radio and pseudo-scientific T.V. shows like Dr. Phil’s provide endless fodder to make parents wonder if they’ve done a good job or a horrible one raising little Johnny or Susie. The very difficulty of determining precisely what leads to a teen’s or adult’s drinking problem means that the answer is largely unknowable; hence, the never-ending proliferation of studies of the type the Times article cites, which—it seems to this childless adult—only pile on the confusion ever thicker. (It is the pH.D’s full-employment act.)

The Times’ writer, Perri Klass, herself an M.D., asks a lot of questions of the “what does it all mean?” genre, without venturing her own opinions. What does “early sipping” do? Is there a connection to “high rates of alcohol use in adolescents”? Is childhood sipping “a risk factor for a lot of other problem behaviors”? Some psychiatrists and other professionals quoted seem to imply answers in the affirmative.

Now, someone once said that journalism—even the kind of even-handed journalism practiced by good newspapers like the New York Times—cannot by its nature be objective. The writer’s biases, sometimes unconscious, sometimes barely concealed, shape the narrative: what questions get raised, who is quoted, what direction the article seems to point in.

And so it is here. A reader who knows nothing about this particular epidemiological issue would not be faulted for coming away with the impression that parentally-sanctioned childhood sipping is, if not overtly dangerous, at least ill-conceived. Dr. Klass even seems to debunk the European theory that by “providing sips of alcohol to children, we are actually protecting them against problem drinking,” which is the theory I’ve long heard and believed (and which Thomas Jefferson apparently subscribed to, especially when wine is not expensive).

My own feeling is that some academicians, perhaps in the thrall of publish-or-perish, make too much of this childhood-sipping non-issue. We’re not talking about unfit parents who put vodka into baby’s bottle; we’re talking about civilized, responsible parents who believe that, starting with the lick of a finger dipped into wine, and graduating upwards to a full glass by, say, the age of thirteen, a growing child will learn to respect wine—and all alcoholic beverages—and therefore to drink responsibly. I think that is true: do we really need more studies to prove it?

* * *

By the way, on the drive from Reagan International to my Bethesda hotel, we passed the spotlit United States Capitol, Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. Truly beautiful and awe-inspiring.


Another consideration of terroir: the wine’s reputation

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If I asked you which aspect of terroir–soil or climate–the French attach greater importance to, which would you pick?

I bet you’d say soil. And yet, twenty-six years ago, in Friends of Wine magazine, Emile Peynaud, undoubtedly one the greatest enologists of the 20th century, and the father of modern cult winemaking, said, “I think it is really climate that makes the difference [in wine quality], not the soil,” when he was asked why Bordeaux is such a great winemaking region.

Climate! How very Californian. Still, Peynaud himself seemed as puzzled by this complicated equation as the rest of us; and he returned repeatedly to the subject of soil in his writings. In the English translation of his masterwork, The Taste of Wine (1987), he writes of the importance of the “soil” of the vineyard to wine quality: and breaks soil down into “the surface soil, the subsoil and its water content, and exposure.” Barely a word in this section (p. 226) of climate or weather; instead, “Wines can be classified according to the topology of their vineyards”—river wines, coastal wines, mountain wines, plateau wines, foothill wines, valley wines and wines of the plain. Peynaud’s use of topology suggests he was well aware that the physical parameters of the site—and not just the climate—were co-influencers of the wine.

Of course, implicit in any conversation about wine is the assumption—not really an assumption, since, in the case of France, it’s backed up by a thousand years of evidence—that certain varieties are best suited to certain climates: Chardonnay in northerly Chablis, for instance, and Grenache in the warmer south. That this is patently true is beyond dispute, given France’s reign at or near the top of the wine world. It also is true that Cabernet Franc, say, or Sauvignon Blanc might perform splendidly in Chablis. Wouldn’t the latter love Chablis’s chalky soil? But we will never know, at least, not anytime soon, given France’s stringent appellation controllée laws. So this is at least indirect evidence that terroir is shaped by culture and law.

I am, as my readers know, a climate guy. I don’t dispute the importance of soil, but I’ve long held that any soil can be amenable to great wine, provided (a) that it’s well-drained and (b) that the variety is suitable to the climate. In Willamette Valley, you have marine-sedimentary soils, for instance, at Adelsheim’s Calkins Lane, and volcanic basalt at Penner-Ash. Both produce high-level Pinot Noir; Wine Advocate, to cite but one critical source, routinely rates both from the low- to the mid-nineties. What they have in common is the northern Willamette’s cool, maritime climate.

Peynaud, in his formal analysis of terroir and cru, adds a puzzling element to the list of their constituent parts: reputation. Readers might not be blamed for scratching their heads at this point. Reputation? What does that have to do with the fixed and immutable aspects of cru? Yet so important is its role that Peynaud insists, “If one of this roll call were missing there would be no cru.” No “reputation”, no cru, and therefore no wine quality. So we have to inquire what he means.

It’s not that reputation, per se, determines the qualities of any particular wine. That would be very odd. But from a “nature vs. nurture” argument, reputation is the nurturing aspect, terroir the nature aspect. Every winemaker producing wine in a recognized region is aware of the context of his activity; winemaking seldom occurs in a vacuum. If I am making Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley, I know its long and historic reputation (and if I were making Pinot Noir in Vosnes, its reputation would be even more daunting). I therefore would craft my wine in such a way that it would be a worthy reflection of its appellation. I would try and let my site “speak” in its own voice, but as the winemaker I would be in ultimate charge of making sure that voice came across in a pure way, a Russian River Valley (or Vosnes) way. I would not want the critics to howl at my wine being “atypical,” a cuss word among that elite group. Winemakers, too, feel these pressures. Next time you hear one say he does nothing but “let the vineyard speak,” realize he’s saying something he thinks he’s supposed to say. He may even believe it. But he’s also working within a rather narrowly defined context, and that context is reputation.

Indeed, this is why, in Taste, Peynaud concludes his section on Cru with this quote: “The cru is the qualitative expression, more often than not based on taste, of the biogenic capability of the environment.” He means that “the biogenic capability”, which is the natural components of terroir, is a mere potentiality that can be realized only by the taste, i.e. the consciousness, preferences and will, of the winemaker, who is aware of the region in which he labors and seeks to make wine compatible with its reputation. “The wine is made in the vineyard,” therefore, is a misleading, if humble, statement. As with all human creative activity, wine is made, first and foremost, in the mind.


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