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.
King Estate 2006 Block 4D Clone 777 Pinot Noir. Originally $75. The appellation on the label is “Oregon.” Wine Enthusiast (I think it was Paul Gregutt) gave it 92 points back in 2009; oddly, they said nothing about its ageability. Spectator gave it only 89 points and recommended drinking it only through 2014. I think Enthusiast was more accurate about the score. It really is a very fine wine; I’d rate it 94 if I were scoring it now. Here we are in 2016 and it’s rocking with a good future. Loads of blackberry, boysenberry, cassis, and such nice, sweet toasty oak and vanilla. Great tannin structure, good acidity, lowish alcohol (13.5%) and a rich earthiness, like Portobello mushrooms and an umami tang, like prosciutto. At nine years of age, a wonderful, rewarding, silky wine that offers plenty of pleasure. Just what you want in a fine West Coast Pinot Noir, and I think that earthiness signals its Oregon origin.
And now to some controversy. This post raises so many issues that it’s impossible to address them all in a single post, but let me just say that I sympathize with the sentiment expressed by the author, Maxwell Leer, who says he’s a sommelier. To some extent it’s a rant against the 1 percent but, hey, that’s fine with me: Maxwell had me when he compared Cristal to Prosecco and said “you can…be fucking happy, too” with the cheaper wine.
Now, Maxwell’s position is something that every wine writer has expressed since, well, forever. I know that the meme of post-Prohibition wine writers was “Wine snobs make wine sound too fussy” and probably there was someone running around ancient Rome saying the same thing. Every generation has to discover the same truths, so I cut Maxwell some slack. Still, that doesn’t take away from the force of Maxwell’s argument, which he expresses strongly and well.
It’s funny when he writes about pouring Kistler Chardonnay into a glass that was rinsed with bourbon. I bet that’s a seriously tasty sip! Maxwell seems to be saying, don’t worship the Kistler itself and think you have to experience it in all the profundity that has been lavished on it by wine critics—which is exactly what you’d think from reading the critics. You want to have a few drops of bourbon in there? Fine! (Hey makes you think of an American Kir, doesn’t it?) What wine is about, as Maxwell writes, is “love, peace, love, unity, and respect.” As I pointed out in my post the other day about Premier Cru’s troubles, wine is not about snobbery or elitism or the fear that just because you can’t afford Petrus you’re missing out on the best. You’re not! Maxwell understands that and it’s a message we have to continue to get across. My generation did a horrible job of it, despite our best intentions. We perpetuated the myth of “cult wines” and while I do have some issues with Maxwell’s suggestion of “simplifying” wine, he’s onto something, especially for younger drinkers. He’s right when he says that “Wine culture needs to evolve like everything else.” That doesn’t mean we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It doesn’t mean that you can’t trust anyone over thirty. It does mean that, as Maxwell says, “we have groups of people every day who come into the restaurant and literally say, ‘OK, show us what you got.’” They want interesting wines, wines with stories, wines that drink well with the foods they like. They don’t want to spend a fortune on them, and the good news is that they don’t have to.
This is not a Top 10 predictions list. It’s just stuff I’ll be talking about in 2016.
Here in California, it’s all about the money: profits vs. losses. It comes down to the nesting circles of financial health:
- how is the overall economy doing?
- How does California fare within that?
- How is my tier doing?
- And how am I doing within my tier?
We do see the overall American economy recovering, but 2015 ended on a weak note, with many economists predicting a slide back into recession this year. Obviously, this is not an economics blog, and I claim no expertise in that area. But the economy feels shaky, and, since perception is reality, it’s likely that American consumers will continue to withhold spending, or limit it, while the insecurities persist.
This is good news for value wines; bad news for expensive wines. Within the overall economy, California will continue as a beacon of success, based on the gold mines of Silicon Valley and Hollywood. But California wine producers can’t depend solely on California consumers. They need the rest of the country, as well as foreign counties; and, abroad, China’s a mess and Europe’s barely breathing. So tough times for exports.
But individual wineries have to consider the tier/s in which they operate. As I said, the value tier seems likely to remain strong, but it also will become increasingly competitive. My feeling is that established value brands will go from strength to strength; the consumer is in no mood to experiment, when she has access to a few dozen wineries with proven track records. Just above the value tier is the ultrapremium tier—let’s say, $20-$35 a bottle. That always has been a challenging place to do business, and it remains so today. Laurels go to the cleverest; existing brands will have to double down on their efforts to stay relevant, but they do have the edge.
Finally we get into the super-ultrapremium luxury tier, and this is where I think things are the grimmest, especially if we do slide into a recession. Of course, the proprietors of many of these brands have almost infinite resources to hold on; but, despite the proliferation of Parker 100s in California, I see no way that enough people want these $80-and-up wines, especially when you consider that the few people that might want them tend to be older. Why would a Millennial want Harlan, Marcassin, Sine Qua Non? These are the very wines that represent the elitism of the old order—an order they renounce.
Finally, though, the performance of each winery is individual. You can succeed even when your tier is having trouble. It takes, beyond sheer luck, a remarkable amalgam of ingenuity, blood, sweat and tears, and a ground game. And this brings me to the marketing side of things we’ll be talking about this year.
Wineries will continue to try and find a balance of concentrating their efforts (and money) on social media and guerrilla marketing techniques, as well as more traditional ones such as magazine advertising and sales forces. This never-ending experiment will result in many anecdotal claims of success on both sides, but few provable ones; and what works for one winery—say, YouTube videos—cannot necessarily be replicated by another. There simply exists no demonstrable method of marketing that is guaranteed to work, although we do know demonstrably terrible ones, such as poor websites, lousy customer relations (which usually means lousy management above) and proprietors who are out-of-touch with the real world and thus not in a position to understand what consumers really want.
There will be more talk, and news, about winery consolidation. But big wineries buy smaller ones all the time: nothing new about that. Every ten years, a new generation of “wine writer” feels he has to discover this huge news, but it isn’t news. The usual number of wineries will be put on the market; the usual number will be bought. The news is that prices for California wineries have hit San Francisco real estate levels, which is to say: only gazillionaires need apply. Is that a bubble? Probably not. The few wineries that are gobbled up don’t represent enough of a critical mass to burst any emergent bubble.
Varietal-wise, we’re stuck in neutral in America. There will be no “breakthrough variety” in 2016, although umpteen bloggers and columnists will try to convince you otherwise because, hey, if there’s no real news, then invent it! (Orange wine, anyone?) The same wines that are popular today will remain popular in 2016 (and 2017, and 2018).
I suppose the best news on the horizon is that we—the chattering wine classes—will continue to explore the nuances of terroir in California. This is a good time to do it. The Coast is pretty much developed out. We pretty much have all the AVAs we’re likely to have, between Mendocino and Santa Barbara, for the foreseeable future. The thing to do now is to explore the nooks and crannies within those terroirs. (Of course, I don’t discount the creation of sub-AVAs within larger ones such as Russian River Valley and Santa Rita Hills; and I also think that parts of the vast Willamette Valley need to be sub-appellated.) This is fun, important, creative work, and it will occupy us for generations, as it has kept Europeans busy for a thousand years. In this sense, it’s a good time to be a wine writer. Now, if only wine writers could figure out a way to make some money! But most of them cannot, and that, too, will be something we’ll talk about this year.
There’s been much analytical writing lately about the mental, psychological, intellectual and emotional aspects of wine, such as this think piece in Decanter, in which Andrew Jefford ruminates on the concept of wine “as a dream.” He writes of the way wine “commands our emotions” and of its “cultural depth,” referring to historical effluvia well-known to most wine writers, such as Napoleon’s love of Chambertin. As an example of this “cultural depth,” he claims, justifiably, that one cannot drink Stag’s Leap Cabernet without thinking of the Judgment of Paris. Certainly, that is true for me.
(Interestingly, Jefford puts more emphasis on wine’s alcoholic content than I would. Surely, getting buzzed, in precisely the way that wine stimulates the brain and spirit, contributes to the human capacity to experience emotion. Yet non-alcoholic consumables, such as movies and athletic contests, also stir up our emotions, so the presence of alcohol doesn’t seem to be necessary to make us feel strongly.)
Anyhow, I agree with Jefford’s line of thinking and have written about it frequently, suggesting that wine’s emotive and associative force—and not its objective hedonistic content—is the reason why people are willing to spend so much money on certain bottles. But the fact that this topic, of wine’s subjective and cultural bases, has arisen so much in recent months and years begs the questions, Why? And why now?
It used to be that the superior price of Haut-Brion, for example, was explained as a function of its superior quality. The First Growths cost twice as much as the Seconds because they were twice as good. All the experts said so; everyone believed it, because we lived in an age of expertise that applied to everything from art and economics to religion, governance and wine. People did not question the expertise of the experts, or their right to proclaim their views with rigid certainty. You might not particularly care about those views; but you, as a non-expert, were not free to disagree with them. Or, to be precise, you could, but at the risk of sounding like an idiot.
In retrospect we can see that this Age of Expertise was a minor chord in a larger symphony of hierarchical ranking, in which what was was would be. God reigned supreme over the Universe. The Kings and Queens who ruled empires were second in order, their rule “divine” and thus unassailable. Below the Kings and Queens were the Princes of the Church, Generals of the Armies and Admirals of the Navies, and so on and on, down through the pecking orders, in which peons and slaves occupied the lowest rung. These latter had no views, or none at any rate worth considering. This mechanistic view of the world and its inhabitants was reflected supremely in Newton’s mechanics.
We know what happened next: with the advent of Einstein, relativity, the Internet and social media, the old order has more or less totally collapsed. Authority means little these days, in an age when the autonomy of the individual, coupled with that anonymity of autonomous individuals called crowd sourcing, is promoted above all else. In wine, this disintegration of authority leaves the inheritors and defenders of the new order a challenging task: to explain the hierarchies of the old order. How did some wines get to be so much more famous and expensive than others? Proponents of the new order, who generally do not have the ability to taste wine widely, tend to resort to a radical explanation: that the old order was wrong. They say that when their grandparents drank Haut-Brion or Chambertin, the wine’s “cultural depth” actually became “freighted” (Jefford’s word, and not a flattering one) with a dream-weight-anchor that utterly prevented Grandpa from experiencing Haut-Brion for what it was, as opposed to the “dream” his brain conjured it to be. In Jefford’s words, “the dream modifies our reaction to the taste of the wine.”
That’s pretty radical. We wouldn’t allow someone who was racially biased to sit on a jury. We rightfully recoil when a Supreme Court Justice seems to let religious beliefs interfere with a “justice is blind” interpretation of the law. We don’t like it when news “anchors” let their politics blatantly color their reporting. So why is it that we trust wine “authorities” who speak from a dream-world?
This, at any rate, is how proponents of the new order think; and it explains why these arguments of the subjectivity and emotive power of wine are so frequent nowadays. If this tendency towards relativism in wine—an undermining of authority, a calling-into-question of the very notion of quality—continues, the world of wine will find itself in a very peculiar place that has no precedent in recorded history, in which wine always has existed within a hierarchy more or less agreed upon by everyone.
Which is why I don’t believe this worst-case scenario will happen. Human nature doesn’t change, despite fantastic advances in science. We are still the same people our distant ancestors were. Today’s wars and preoccupations mirror yesterday’s; only the particulars have changed; not much else. In wine, the hierarchies of authority (French classification systems, Famous Critic point scores) are under assault, but I don’t believe they’ll fail. These cultural re-assemblings occur from time to time; the rise, in fact, of Bordeaux to the summit of the hierarchy in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries was precisely a reassembling of a prior order, more chaotic but for all its disorder, more real. The particulars today change; the underlying reality—that hierarchies always will emerge, official and unofficial, yet understood by all—remains the same. To resist them is to form the stuff of future hierarchies.
Winston Churchill drank a lot of booze. I consider myself something of a student of the Second World War, having read an enormous body of literature on the topic, and I find it interesting that all three of the Allied leaders, Churchill, FDR and Stalin, liked to drink. FDR preferred his cocktails. Stalin, needless to say, liked vodka. But FDR always kept his input limited to a few rounds, while Stalin was known to have his butler substitute water for vodka at parties, when dozens of toasts might be proposed, and even his top aides would collapse from drunkenness.
But Churchill outdrank them all. Port, wine, whiskey, Champagne, Cognac, he mixed them all, frequently starting in the morning as soon as he woke up, and going until the small hours of the next morning. (There’s a story that he almost refused to meet with the Saudi king because alcohol would not be served.) FDR loved Churchill, who often stayed at the White House for weeks at a time, plodding about in his bathrobe and even meeting people naked in the tub; but FDR always breathed a sigh of relief when Churchill finally returned to England, because keeping up with Churchill’s hours, and his boozing, was close to impossible.
The fourth man of WWII leadership was famous for being a teetotaler. Adolf Hitler did not drink. While there are published reports of him occasionally sipping a glass of wine or beer, they are rarer than hen’s teeth. I have always thought it interesting that the Good Guys in that war drank while the Bad Guy didn’t.
As I survey our current political scene here in America I note that some candidates profess to not drink alcohol. I, myself, would prefer a President who does enjoy a nip now and then, and not just a nip: I like a man or a woman who takes his or her booze seriously enough to have favorite drinks and pursue some understanding of sourcing and quality. This is not a Republican or a Democratic thing. I just think that people who drink with some desire to know about what they’re drinking, who study their beverage and meet with its producers and apply some intellect to the experience of drinking, are superior to people who don’t drink.
Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood. If somebody is an alcoholic and has a problem with booze, then obviously they cannot and should not drink, and that does not make them a lesser person. I’m in no way suggesting that. But if I had to vote for somebody who really likes his booze and somebody who chooses not to drink, or to drink only very little and with no understanding of what they’re drinking, then I will always choose the former. Ronald Reagan was a discriminating wine drinker who promoted California wine. President Obama is a dedicated beer drinker who makes his own brew in the White House.
I think the reason I trust drinkers over non-drinkers is because drinkers seem more well-rounded to me as human beings. It’s easy to become rigid and ideological about stuff, but when you drink and get a little buzzed, the edges of life get softer. Ideologies tend to fuzz up; alcohol opens the heart chakra and in general makes you friendlier and happier and more accepting of life. Aren’t those qualities we want in our leaders, instead of anger, bitterness, closed-mindedness?
The Welsh poet, W.H. Davies, put it well: Teetotalers lack the sympathy and generosity of men that drink. But maybe Ol’ Blue Eyes expressed it best: I feel sorry for people who don’t drink. When they wake up in the morning, that’s as good as they’re going to feel all day.