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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


The historic phases of Pinot Noir in California: 4.0…and counting

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I blogged the other day about a tasting in which we tried four different versions of Clone 777 Pinot Noir from four Jackson Family wineries in four regions: Anderson Valley (Champ de Reves), Willamette Valley (Gran Moraine), Santa Lucia Highlands (Siduri-Sierra Mar Vineyard) and Annapolis (Wild Ridge, on the far Sonoma Coast). This was an attempt to see if we could detect the signature of the vineyards (terroir) in each case—which we could. The 777’s intense color, strong, aromatic profile and sturdy tannins always came through, but each barrel sample was different, which can only have been due to their differing origins.

But that was only half the story. That tasting was an in-house rehearsal at Jackson Family Wines for our full-scale public event yesterday, held at The Battery, which by the way is a fabulous place to have a tasting as well as a terrific bar and restaurant. (Segue: I walked there from Montgomery Street BART, which took me past the old Square One restaurant where I spent so many pleasurable hours in the 1980s and 1990s. Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory” chimed nostalgic-happy in my mind.)

For this tasting, which attracted about 40 industry pros, we repeated the Clone 777 tasting, and we also had each of the winemakers present to talk about his/her wines. For the icing on the cake we had each of the winery’s 2013 final bottled blends of Pinot Noir, which contained varying amounts of 777. The idea wasn’t so much as to see if we could detect the presence of the 777 in the final blend as it was to see if we could discern the terroir in both the Clone 777s and the final blended wines.

All of us on the panel—the winemakers, myself, our moderator Gilian Handleman and Julia Jackson, the youngest daughter of Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke—of course weighed in with our own impressions. For my part, and being the “senior” on the panel (as well as, pretty much, in the room), I shared my perspective on where we are concerning Pinot Noir here on the West Coast of America. Here’s my take on that, historically-speaking.

Pinot Noir 1.0 followed the Repeal of Prohibition. It occurred primarily in the 1930s and early 1940s. This was the “Plant Pinot Noir anywhere” era. It was put into central Napa Valley, into Sonoma County east of the 101 highway, and other warmish places better suited for Zinfandel; it took a while, but it was discovered those places were too hot for this variety.

Pinot Noir 2.0 followed a single imperative: “Go towards the water.” This was in the later 1940s. Pioneers like Andre Tchelistchef and Louis Martini went south, to Carneros. They understood that Pinot needs the cooling influence of (in this case) San Pablo-San Francisco Bay.

This water-seeking was a long period and lasted through the 1980s. Pinot also looked westward, towards the Pacific Ocean. Vineyards went onto the western slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains, into western San Luis Obispo County, the Anderson Valley, the western part of Santa Ynez Valley we now call Santa Rita Hills, and of course the Russian River Valley, as well as the far Sonoma Coast.

Pinot Noir 3.0 was the mighty effort to improve plant material. Now that we knew the best places to plant it, the next step was to improve the vines themselves: virus-free clones and selections. This phase occurred in the 1990s.

Pinot Noir 4.0 is where we find ourselves now: the focus is on the vineyard. Where are the best sites in the best regions? What are the best soils? The best viticultural practices? Volcanic-basalt soils are different from marine-sedimentary ones. How do you match clones to sites? What is the best oak treatment for your wines? This is the most intensive effort today in California.

I see this phase occupying our attentions for the next twenty years, at least. But it won’t be the final one.

Pinot Noir 5.0 has barely begun. It will consist of an understanding of the individual vineyards so thorough that we will be able to identify individual blocks within them for site specificity. After all, the vineyard now owned by the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti was planted as far back as the twelfth century: it was not for additional centuries that the individualities of La Tache, Echezeaux, etc. were understood and appreciated. Hundreds of years to understand roughly 198 acres of vineyard (including Montrachet)! I hope it will not take us that long. Many of our vineyards are of considerable size; we need to break them down into block bottlings. We’re just scratching the surface—I love Josh Jensen’s exploration of his terroir at Calera, and the way the Rochiolis have put their Westside Road vineyard under the microscope and blocked it out. I told our audience yesterday (and most of them seemed to be in their twenties and thirties), “You guys are lucky. You will spend the rest of your lives understanding and writing about Pinot Noir phase 5.0” when we delve into the most exquisitely detailed comprehension of the micro-terroir of our vineyards. What a glorious epoch that will be.


More on Pinot Noir and terroir: the concept of Cru

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I went to a most interesting tasting yesterday, quite unlike anything I’ve been to before. We selected a clone of Pinot Noir (in this case, 777). We tasted it made from four different vineyards, in entirely different West Coast regions (Oregon and California), made more or less identically, but by different winemakers. Theoretically, then, the main difference between the wines would be the impact of the terroir. Then we tasted four completed Pinots from those wineries, of which the clone was an integral part of the blend, to see if we could discern the taste and qualities of the clone in the finished wines.

Cool, yes? You have to put on your sleuth’s hat.

This sort of tasting is really so interesting because you get to see, in an undeniable way, the influence of terroir, but not only that, you get to see how, or whether, a single clone Pinot Noir can make a complete wine, or whether a blend of various clones/selections is superior.

Before I go any further, let me say that there are no obvious answers. In my years of tasting, interviewing winemakers and drawing my own conclusions, I’ve decided that the minute somebody gives you a simplistic, black-and-white declaration about this or that terroir or clone, you should ask some serious questions.

For instance, let’s say that we identify the terroir of the Pisoni Vineyard, in the southeastern part of the Santa Lucia Highlands and thus warmer, but a high elevation, where you lose temperature with altitude. The soils are decomposed granite and gravelly. So far, so good. But Pisoni sells to a lot of different wineries. Some pick quite a bit earlier than others; the wines are totally different from the late pickers, and as I told our group at the tasting, I’d hate to have to blind-taste wines picked two weeks apart and claim that I could find something Pisoni-esque about them. I could say the same about any vineyard, such as Beckstoffer-Tokalon, that sells grapes to multiple buyers. Of course, any well-made wine from a great vineyard will show its structure, but the particulars—what fruits? What minerals? What spices?—will be irretrievably obscured with all those winemaker decisions, everything from picking time to barrel regimen and even the choice of yeast.

This is why I’ve come around to adopting Emile Peynaud’s view. Terroir, by itself, explains only part of the wine. To understand it completely, you have to know all about the winemaker, her techniques, and not only that, but the appellation in general, its reputation, and even the way the wines are and have been marketed. Peynaud calls this combination of terroir + everything else Cru.

Sure, terroir is important. Tremendously so: but as soon as you consider wines made by different winemakers, with entirely different house styles, that come from the same vineyard, you realize that terroir can never fully explain everything. We long for some Unified Field Theory, as it were, that would sum everything up in a single neat, tidy package. It’s only human to want simplistic explanations, but Reality abhors such reductionism.

On the other hand, I also call discussions about terroir “The wine writers’ full employment act.” As long as we talk about such unsolvable ambiguities (“how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”), wine writers will feel free to write about them (and, hopefully, get paid). And that’s good: If you’re a true wine geek (and I assume if you’re reading this, you are), then you love talking about such esoterica.

Ultimately, your view of terroir and such things depends on your mindset. Some winemakers take a very romantic, mystical attitude towards it. Others are a little more pragmatic. Reporters—and that is my background—are fact-based, and hard-nosed. We know the influence of terroir is real. It has to be: all growing things, from tomatoes to Redwood trees, are the products of their immediate environment. But no growing thing, no agricultural product, is as intensely intertwined with its farmer, and the person who takes the fruit and then interprets it according to his vision, as the wine grape. That is why the concept of terroir, however interesting and important, has to be viewed through the larger lens of Cru. Terroir is nature: human intervention is nurture.The concept of Cru, it seems to me, comes as close to anything we’ve devised to explain the totality of the wine. As my personal DNA is not enough to explain me, but you have to add my experiences since birth especially in the early years, so it is with wine.

Can a single clone Pinot Noir be a complete wine? In theory, no, because it will always have divots that other clones (or vineyards) can fill in. In reality? Absolutely. Like I said, Reality abhors such reductionism.”


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