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Pit bulls and Pinot Noir, or how IPOB changed the way I think

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That old saying “It changed the conversation” needs explanation. Not everybody in America is talking about the same things at the same time. We say Donald Trump has changed the conversation but there are lots of people who couldn’t care less about him. We say Ellen DeGeneres changed the conversation about gays when she came out on T.V. but there were millions of people who didn’t know that and wouldn’t have cared if they had. We say mounting evidence of massive, manmade climate change has changed the conversation, but we all know there are still so many Americans who refuse to believe even the basic science. So we have to be careful when we talk about conversation changers.

Now consider In Pursuit of Balance. It too is said to have changed the conversation, specifically about Pinot Noir, and more specifically, about West Coast (California and Oregon) Pinot Noir. Did it? I can speak from my own experience: Yes, it did. I’ve been a staunch defender of Pinot Noir for years and battled against what I perceived as IPOB’s irrational stance towards alcohol levels. I will yield to no critic for having done more to protect Pinot Noir from assault. I have the scars to prove it. I maintained from the get-go that just because a Pinot Noir was below 14% didn’t automatically make it “balanced” and just because a Pinot Noir approached 15% didn’t make it unbalanced. I consistently argued that if the wine tastes good, who cares what the alcohol is?

But slowly I’ve been looking at things differently. This has been evolving over the past two years. It actually began with my tasting Raj Parr’s 2012s from Domaine de la Côte. Those wines were quite low in alcohol (Bloom’s Field is 12.5%, La Côte is 13%), and while I was prepared to dislike them, after Raj’s execrable 2011s, they actually blew me away, and I began to think that maybe there was something to this low-alcohol thing after all.

Since then I’ve been finding more and more Pinot Noirs excessively heavy. These are mainly the 2013s: celebrated as a near-perfect vintage, it did result in grapes that were intensely fruity, but in many instances I’ve thought it was more successful for Cabernet Sauvignon than Pinot Noir, because Cabernet’s bigger tannins and structure can carry more fruity weight and oak. Pinots that are super-ripe (and oaky) can be heavy, hot and monolithic, lacking the delicacy and cerebral complexity that the wines should possess.

Every once in a while I’ll taste such a West Coast Pinot Noir and think, Wow, this really needs steak or something to balance it out. When the wines are that dark, tannic, ripe to the point of raisins, hot and oaky, they can be hard to appreciate; but rich, fatty fare will take care of that, right? Of course, as a former critic, I’m aware that when we taste wine, it’s without food: you’re sampling the wine in and of itself, without ameliorating factors. Maybe that’s unfair. Probably it is. Normal human beings don’t drink wine (especially red wine) without food. Wine is made to be drunk with food. Still, you need to have consistent rules about wine tasting, and you can’t taste every wine with food. So we taste without food.

But if I think, “Wow, this Pinot is so heavy, it needs beefy fat to balance it out,” isn’t that making excuses for the wine? It’s like a pit bull that snarls and lunges at you on the street, scaring you, but the owner insists “Oh, Molly is a goofball, you should see her with little kids.” You think, “If I had little kids I wouldn’t let them anywhere near Molly,” and you think that Molly’s mommy is making excuses for her out-of-control dog: She doesn’t even realize that Molly is a ticking time bomb. So when I taste a big, thick, heavy Pinot and think “Steak!”, am I Molly’s mommy, making excuses for my pit bull of a wine?

Would I have been thinking along these lines had it not been for IPOB? It’s a hypothetical, but I think the answer is that, as harshly as I criticized IPOB for being ideological, they have changed my way of thinking about Pinot Noir. For the better.


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.


A presentation at U.C. Davis

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Off to the University of California at Davis later today for a talk and tasting I’m giving this evening to DEVO, the Davis Enology and Viticulture Organization’s “190X,” an occasional discussion series at which “professionals in the wine industry” are invited to speak to about 70 V&E students and faculty members. They’ve asked me to talk about how the wine industry has changed over the course of my observations, and various aspects of marketing, and what I think of crowd-sourcing and the era of the Big Critics, so this should be a fascinating conversation.

Of course I’m including a tasting, of five different clones of Pinot Noir: 4, 115, 2A, 23 and 667, all made identically by winemaker Denise Shurtleff from grapes grown in Cambria’s vineyard, down on the Santa Maria Bench. I myself have never even done this particular tasting, so it will be interesting to see if we can detect significant differences in the wines (all 2013s), which would have to be due to the clones. I had made lists over the years of the generally-accepted qualities of the various Pinot Noir clones, but I have to say that actual tasting experience often belies these theoretical differences as they come up against the hard reality of site, farming practices, degree of ripeness and so on. However, even if we can’t agree on the particular tastes of, say, 2A versus 115, I’m sure we’ll be able to see differences. At any rate, these sorts of discussions—while they may not result in definitive conclusions—can be the launch-point for fun conversations.

For “How has the California wine industry changed?” I’ll start off with the 5-point timeline I’ve been developing in the last few months, specifically regarding Pinot Noir, but really, you can apply it to any variety in California.

  • plant anything anywhere 1940s-1950s (e.g. Pinot Noir in St. Helena)
  • better understanding of variety:region. Pinot to the water [1940s-current: Tchelistcheff, Martini to Carneros]
  • find best sites in best regions (e.g. not all of Carneros good: slopes best, mud flats not so much] 1980s – current
  • improve plant material, clones, rootstocks, canopy mgmt.1990s – current
  • find best blocks within vineyards. Ongoing and into the future.

As an example of 5.0, I cite the contrasting examples of Jackson Family’s Gran Moraine vineyard, up in Oregon, and the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. I tell people that Gran Moraine, at 150 acres, is a pretty big vineyard, right? And they all agree. Then I ask them how many acres they think the DRC is (I mean all seven vineyards-within-a-vineyard, or climats). No one ever knows precisely, but they usually guess that it’s far less than 150 acres (some think as few as ten), and they’re surprised when I tell them the DRC totals 198 acres (according to Richard Olney’s little book, Romanée-Conti).

The point I wish to make is that the DRC in addition to being a big vineyard is a very old vineyard. Olney cites a reference to a “Romanis” vineyard in Vosne from the year 282 A.D., and suggests that “La Romanée may have belonged to the Roman emperors” of that era. Certainly the vignerons of Vosne have had a long time to figure out which climats are which: why La Tâche is different from Richebourg, not to mention Montrachet, where they grow, not Pinot Noir, but Chardonnay. Why, then, should we not look at a vineyard like Gran Moraine and imagine that, with due diligence, some future grower/winemaker in the 22nd or 23rd century should not have discovered tiny blocks within the greater vineyard that are the equivalents of Grand Crus?

Of course, in California some vintners have already been engaged in that process. I think of Josh Jensen, at Calera, who has sub-divided his Mount Harlan vineyard into at least six climats (Selleck, Mills, Reed, Ryan, Jensen and de Villiers), and the Rochiolis, whose teardrop-shaped vineyard off River Road in the Russian River Valley is broken into distinct climats: River Block, Mid 40, Little Hill, Sweetwater and so on. Granted, Josh Jensen and the Rochiolis did their sub-dividing more quickly than it took the Romans or Burgundians to figure out the subtleties of the Cote de Nuits. And granted (as I am reminded by people whenever I talk about the DRC), marketing has played a perhaps pre-eminent role in shaping our perceptions of the seven climats. Still, and for whatever reason/s, the identification of climats in these famous vineyards seems to be inherent in their evolution, and in our relationships with them; consumers and connoisseurs like it, and owners are happy to provide it.

I plan also in my talk to cover the waterfront of other influences on the wine industry, from demographic shifts and the rise of the Big Critics to the advent of social media. But this post is already getting a bit long, so I’ll hold off for now and report on that tomorrow.

 


What is West Burgundy Wine Collective?

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The announcement the other day that Jackson Family Wines has bought Copain Wines, which comes on the heels of JFW’s acquisition of Oregon’s Penner-Ash Wine Cellars, has brought renewed attention to JFW’s West Burgundy Wine Collective. So I thought I’d try to explain to my readers just what WBWC is and why it exists, because I feel it’s not really understood.

This is the way I see it, anyhow: Jess Jackson started Kendall-Jackson, and it turned out to be a tremendous success: the #1 selling Chardonnay in America for 25 years in a row, etc. etc. Jess was understandably proud of KJ, but he also wanted to show the world he was not merely a one-trick pony. He wanted to compete with wineries at the highest quality levels around the world; hence the purchase of wineries such as Matanzas Creek, or the creation of others like Verité.

The JFW portfolio now contains more than 50 wineries on five continents; most of the wineries are small, although sometimes that fact tends to get lost in the glare of the larger wineries, including KJ and La Crema. Since I’ve been working at JFW (March, 2014), this has been a source of some frustration, as people (consumers and trade alike) often refer to everything as “Kendall-Jackson,” or say that “Kendall-Jackson owns Verité,” etc., which just isn’t true. It is a constant challenge—and opportunity—to remind people that KJ is but one winery in a portfolio—the biggest winery, yes, but just one. I sometimes make the analogy that nobody holds Mouton-Cadet (which is, I believe, one of the biggest selling Bordeaux in the world) against Mouton-Rothschild. But I’ve met sommeliers at top restaurants who won’t list Stonestreet, for example, because “It’s Kendall-Jackson.” It’s enough to make me want to pull out what few hairs I have left in my head!

This recent Pinot Noir quest on the part of Barbara Banke (Jess died back in 2011) is because she is of the view—quite rightly, in my opinion—that Pinot Noir’s opportunities are limitless, in terms of the public’s embrace of it, and that West Coast (California and Oregon) Pinot Noir makes some of the best in the world (also quite rightly IMHO!). The Copain and Penner-Ash acquisitions are part and parcel of that view; so was the purchase of Siduri. These three wineries join others that JFW started itself: Wild Ridge, on the far Sonoma Coast at Annapolis; Champ de Reves, high on a mountain above Boonville, in Anderson Valley; and Gran Moraine, in Oregon’s Yamhill-Carlton AVA. Collectively, they live in the West Burgundy Wine Collective portfolio. The thing to realize is that these are truly small, estate-driven Pinot Noir houses. (Some produce other wines, like Chardonnay and Viognier, but Pinot is obviously the focus.) Each of these wineries is inspired by Burgundian notions of terroir; each is presided over by ambitious, smart, passionate winemakers; each is given the resources to do what has to be done to produce world-class Pinot Noir; each is largely left alone by JFW management to do their own thing. This is a continuation of Jess’s (and Barbara’s) desire to succeed at the highest levels of what is possibly the world’s most difficult wine to grow and produce at grand cru levels, Pinot Noir. And each is a wine I’m proud to pour.


Carneros Chardonnay (and a little Pinot Noir)

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Spent the day yesterday in Carneros. It had been a while since I really walked the vineyards, smelled the flora and felt and tasted the dirt and rocks up there, so my visit was overdue. Plus, it was an unbelievably gorgeous day, the sort of Spring weather that tells you Winter will soon be but a distant memory. Carneros’s famous hills indeed were rolling, and as green as Irish grass after this winter’s rains.

Carneros

We started out at the Coteau Blanc Vineyard, which is source for one of the two single-vineyard Chardonnays from the JFW winery, Chardenet (itself part of Carneros Hills Winery). Parts of this vineyard were planted, or I should say replanted, about ten years ago, but the larger vineyard was long part of the Buena Vista’s old Ramal Road Vineyard, whose wines I always liked. It is said of Coteau Blanc that it contains rare limestone deposits—unusual for Carneros—and seeing is believing, for where the ground has been bared of cover crop you can easily see the white rocks.

CoteauDirt

The Chardonnay in particular has a tangy minerality that gives the wines grip and structure, but it is really the acidity that does it for me, so bright and crisp. It just highlights the green apples and tropical fruits, and winemaker Eric Johannsen never overoaks them. By the way, the 2013 is my preference over the blowsier ‘12s; by all accounts 2013 is going to be recorded as one of the most magnificent vintages in recent California history—and that’s saying a lot.

We also tasted, right in the vineyard, a Carneros Hills Pinot Noir, and it indeed had that earthy, slight herbaceousness I’ve associated with Carneros. I think that’s from the very cool conditions as well as the wind. With the warm, dry weather we’re enjoying, the cut grasses were all dried out and golden-colored, so I scooped up a bunch and shoved my nose into it and did find similarities between that clean, inviting spicy hay aroma and something in the wine. But then, maybe my mind was looking for it, and we do usually find what we’re looking for, don’t we. But the Pinot Noirs from that vineyard are quite good.

Then it was on to an old favorite, the Fremont Diner,

Fremont

which hasn’t changed a bit in all the years I’ve gone there. The food can be a little, uhh, cholesterolly [neologism alert!], but it’s fun and easy and has lots of parking, and is right there on the Carneros Highway, so easy to get to both Napa and Sonoma. I took this picture of our group having lunch,

Lunch

and it reminds me of an old Brueghel painting of a bunch of people having fun.

Breughel

Then we drove a few miles northwest to the famous Durell Vineyard. It’s right at the intersection of where the Sonoma Coast and Sonoma Valley AVAs come together, and I think the Carneros line is mixed up somewhere around there, too. An interesting, complex region where site is all-important. Chardenet bottles a Durell Chardonnay that is broader-shouldered, softer and more powerful than the Coteau Blanc, but then, the weather is a little warmer at Durell than Coteau Blanc, which is right near San Pablo Bay, so that on a clear day you can see the office towers of downtown San Francisco. Here’s a picture of Eric Johannsen in Durell.

EricDurell


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