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Alcohol level in Pinot Noir: a question of shifting fashion

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Writer David Darlington makes the case, perhaps unwittingly, for how hard it is to explain why alcohol levels are higher in Russian River Valley Pinot Noir than they used to be, in his article, “Accounting for Taste,” in the April issue of Wine & Spirits. (Sorry, I can’t find a link online.)

After first positing that today’s wines are, in fact, higher in alcohol than, say, twenty years ago—an unarguable statement—David makes his position immediately known, calling “so many so monstrous.” At one point, he even calls them “dangerous.”

Now these are awfully harsh words: surprisingly so, coming from the guy who wrote what is possibly the best book on Zinfandel ever, “Angels’ Visits.” But let us grant that Pinot Noir is not Zinfandel.

After having slammed so many Pinots, David at least has the reportorial curiosity to ask why alcohol levels have risen. He phrases his question thusly: “Are the winemakers responsible, or is it attributable to something beyond their control?”

And then cannot answer the question. Which is, of course, beyond his own control, for the fact of the matter is, there is no one answer why alcohol levels have increased. David certainly did his homework, interviewing multiple winemakers in an effort to find out why. Here are ten causes they suggested to him:

  1. vertical shoot positioning, as opposed to the California sprawl of old
  2. the market
  3. ratings
  4. consumer preferences
  5. climate change/global warming
  6. Dijon clones
  7. longer hangtime
  8. super strains of yeast
  9. younger vines
  10. warmer fermentations

Well, that’s pretty much the whole nine yards! By article’s end, the reader’s impression can only be confusion. Why are alcohol levels higher now than they used to be? Who knows? Pick a reason—pick any reason—pick them all! But what does any of it have to do with Russian River Pinot Noir being “monstrous”? Well, with that remark, David at least is honest, if hyperbolic, about his bias.

The winery that David holds up for particular praise is Small Vines. I personally can attest to the quality of their Pinot Noirs: I gave them eight 90-points-or-higher scores over the years, and since I left, Virginie Boone has given them another four. With all this talk of low alcohol, I was curious to know what Small Vines’ levels have been. Google brought me to The Prince of Pinot; this article shows that alcohol levels in Small Vines Pinot Noirs varied between 13.2% and 14.5%, with seven of the 15 wines The Prince reviewed above 14%. This is not particularly low, and is in league with most of the Pinot Noirs I reviewed from coastal California, which were anywhere between 13.8% and 14.5%.

I’m glad David quoted the great Merry Edwards, who reduced the low-alcohol movement in Pinot Noir to incoherence. “The fashion norm is shifting now,” she told him; “people are listening to Raj Parr (the In Pursuit of Balance ringleader), and French marketing has convinced people that you should pay a lot of money for wines that are light and watery. I’m on the opposite side—we’re not in France, we’re in California”

Light and watery! You go grrl! When one has been in the arena as long as Merry (she’s been making wine since 1974), one sees “fashion” come and go with merry-go-round (excuse the pun) regularity—and one learns not to succumb to it.

It can be hard to resist fashion, if all you want to do is appeal to the latest trend. But winemakers who are dedicated to their art are not slaves to fashion. They stay the course; they know that style goes in and out, but that true quality in winemaking, as exemplified by Merry Edwards, remains undeterred by these perturbations in the critical aether.


Is liking IPAs really as uncool as liking California Cabernet?

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I like beer, but didn’t have much of a chance to enjoy it when I was tasting and reviewing wine. Popping the corks on at least 15 different bottles a day, and then sitting there thinking and writing about them, took so much effort that I had little time or energy left over for any other kind of alcoholic beverage.

All that changed fairly dramatically a year ago, when I took my new job at Jackson Family Wines. Suddenly, I didn’t have to taste a gazillion wines anymore. (Not that I’d minded it—I loved, and still love, reviewing wine.) All the samples that had flooded my doorstep for so many years abruptly ceased.

Well, not 100%. Although Wine Enthusiast, and I personally, did our best to notify California wineries that I wasn’t working there anymore, wine still comes to me with some regularity. I always send it back, of course, but if you’re a California winery, and reading this, please take note: I DON’T WORK AT WINE ENTHUSIAST ANYMORE!

Anyhow, shortly after I started the new gig, I decided to get back into beer. Nowadays, you’ll always find a few bottles chilling in my fridge. Starting at 5 p.m.—Happy Hour, yay!–I like to have some in a frosty mug I keep in the freezer.

What kind of beer? It can be anything, but it’s often an India Pale Ale. I don’t claim to know much about beer, except that I like it (hey, if all there is on a hot summer afternoon is Bud Lite, count me in!). But I do know that I like that big, hoppy IPA style, which I also recognize as the California Cabernet Sauvignon-equivalent of beer: full-bodied, rich and heady.

This article, which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle’s Inside Scoop online portal, gives a nice summary of where beer trends are at here in the Bay Area. The author is Jon Bonné, who recently announced that he’s stepping down from his fulltime gig as wine editor of the paper, although he’ll continue a monthly column of some sort. Now Jon, as we all know, made his bones by coming out against the prevailing style of California wine, which is ripe, sunshiney power. Jon favors the In Pursuit of Balance style of lower alcohol wines that many in the IPOB crowd consider more classic and elegant than your typical Napa Valley Cab or, for that matter, Pinots that are riper than—oh, I don’t know, let’s say 13.8%. So I didn’t find it surprising that, in his article, Jon came out against “the hoppy amping-up of American craft beers” as evidenced by “the style that defines most IPAs…”. In fact—just to make sure that we readers understand that hoppy IPAs and big Cabernets are crimes against their respective beverage groups—the craftsmen who produce them, according to Jon, are profiting from a “follow-the-money argument,” which means, presumably, that the producers Jon doesn’t care for are venal.

Well, I’ll let those producers make their own rebuttals. Here’s Jon’s: “The arms race of oak, extraction and jammy flavors, which proved successful for a previous generation of Cabernet makers, is a direct parallel to the hoppy amping-up of American craft beers.” Both drinks are “flavor bombs”; neither is part of the “avant-garde” which Jon so assiduously courts.

I should think Jon might have modified his views following his recent visit to Paris—his beloved France, source of “balanced” wines, and original home of the avant-grade—where he discovered, evidently to his dismay, that “the French craft brewing renaissance is currently populated by hopheads, and obsessed with IPAs…”. I guess forty million Frenchmen can be wrong.

But the real point is that Jon has not served the California wine industry well. He dismissed a large part of its best wines, in many cases refusing even to review them in the Chronicle despite being sent tasting samples, and thus distorting reality to his readers. This has disturbed many California winemakers, who were afraid to criticize Jon publicly for fear of retribution. My own position has been consistent: It’s unprofessional for a wine critic to throw so many wines produced in his own home region under the bus by refusing to even taste them. It’s a fundamental axiom in wine criticism that you don’t have to like a wine in order to review it fairly. You review it within the context of what it purports to be. For example, I might not like Sherry (in fact, I do), but even if I didn’t, I’d feel honor-bound to recognize what a good sherry is, and then to give good sherries good scores.

Jon never gave so many California wines the chance to just be what they are, simply because of a number—alcohol percentage by volume. Instead, he trashed these wines with epithets like “fruit bombs” and “male swagger.” Such snarkiness may have made him a hero to IPOB, but not to many of our state’s winemakers, who might be forgiven for being happy now that he’s gone. Personally, maybe I can finally get into the cool kids’ avant-garde club even though I like Napa Cab and IPAs!


A Thursday afternoon Pinot Noir tasting

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I did a small tasting session yesterday up at Jackson Family Wines for some folks and, as it was highly informative, I thought I’d share some of the findings here.

Pinot

All the wines were 2012 Pinot Noirs. Here was the lineup:

Foxen Fe Ciega

Siduri Clos Pepe

Domaine de la Côte, Bloom’s Field

Foxen La Encantada

Cambria Julia’s

Loring Cargasacchi

Brewer-Clifton 3D

Lutum Sanford & Benedict

Brewer-Clifton Machado.

You’ll notice that all the wines were Santa Rita Hills except for the Cambria. I thought it would be nice if we included the Julia’s (a wine we at Jackson know well) to see if we could detect it and also if it showed a “Santa Maria Valley” character as opposed to a “Santa Rita Hills” character. After all, the two appellations have nearly identical climates, although the soils are different, and are separated only by the 101 Freeway and a little bit of latitude.

My top wines easily were the two Brewer-Cliftons, the two Foxens and the Loring. All showed what I think of as the fleshiness I want in a great California Pinot Noir: rich, ripe, almost flamboyant fruit, great tannins and acidity, enormous complexity, and deliciousness right out of the bottle yet with the capacity to age. Interestingly, all five were at least 14% alcohol by volume. By contrast, the wine with the least alcohol, the Domaine de la Côte, at 12.5%, was my least preferred wine.

The tasting was blind, and all of us thought the Bloom’s Field was dominated by oak. Even though the tech notes say there was zero percent new oak, still, the wine was aged in barrel for 20 months, and the vanilla and char were overwhelming. I think the problem was that the wine simply didn’t have the power to support the extracted wood. It’s fine to aim for a low alcohol wine, but not at the cost of trading away richness and ripeness. This is California, not Burgundy. If you take ripeness away from our Pinot Noirs, there’s not much else that remains.

The Lutum, which was made by Gavin Chanin, was an interesting wine, but even though the alcohol was offfically 13.7% I found it a bit hot and rustic. I think, concerning these lowish alcohol levels, that we really have to resolve this discussion about how to keep Pinot Noir “balanced” and yet retain its opulence. Balance for the sake of balance seems silly to me, if by “balance” you mean simply alcohol below 14%. I don’t think “balance” is determined by a number. Shouldn’t deliciousness and opulence be a part of the equation?

Incidentally, the four Foxen and B-C wines were fabulous, but aside from neither of them having an obsession with alcohol levels, they were separated by the fact that Greg Brewer loves whole cluster fermentation whereas Billy Wathan destemmed all his berries. And yet their wines were magnificent, stunning and, yes, balanced. This shows that the degree of whole cluster is irrelevant, provided, of course, that those stems are lignified if you do include them.

Did I identify the Julia’s? No. Mea culpa. It was right in the middle, score-wise.

Anyhow, I can think of worse ways to spend eternity than tasting Pinot Noir and talking about it! Salud, and have a great weekend.


Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir, and the loss of a pioneer, Daniel J. Gainey

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Santa Barbara County has been much on my mind lately. Last month, we at Jackson Family Wines did our “Sand & Fog” event in L.A. that focused on the Pinot Noirs of the Santa Maria Valley. I followed that up with a small private tasting of additional Santa Maria Pinots. Next week, I’ll do Santa Rita Hills Pinots, up at the company in Santa Rosa. Since Jackson Family Wines has no properties in the Santa Rita Hills, I’ve chosen the following eight wines, which I think give a good representation of the region:

Siduri 2012 Clos Pepe

Loring 2012 Cargasacchi

Brewer Clifton 2012 3-D

Brewer Clifton 2012 Machado

Domaine de la Cote 2012 Bloom’s Field

Lutum 2012 Sanford & Benedict

Foxen 2012 La Encantada

Foxen 2012 Fe Ciega

As you can see, the vineyard sourcing is from all over the appellation, north to south and west to east. There’s also a good spectrum of clonal material ranging from the Dijons to older selections like Pommard and Calera. Some of the wines were fermented without the clusters while others, notably Greg Brewer’s, were whole cluster fermentation. And alcohol levels—always of such interest—range from the Cote’s 12.5% to Siduri’s 15.6%. All of the wines are, of course, sourced from individual vineyards or from specific blocks within vineyards.

Does a blended wine give a better representation of regional terroir than a single-vineyard wine? This is a tough question to answer. A blended wine—say, a Pinot from La Encantada, Cargasacchi and Brewer-Clifton—is hard to imagine in the real world. But if you had no idea what the Santa Rita Hills was like for Pinot Noir, such a mythical beast would undoubtedly give you a good idea. On the other hand, it’s terrific fun to explore individual vineyards, especially provided that you’re able to do so over many vintages. Fortunately, I can always go into my database and see what I’ve said over the years about most of these vineyards. Encantada, Fe Ciega, S&B, Clos Pepe, Cargasacchi—I have a history with these wines, which are all very great expressions of their terroir.

For this Santa Rita Hills tasting, I think we’ll do it blind. It will be instructive to see if, for instance, we can tell the Domaine de la Cote and the Siduri because both are the outliers in terms of alcohol level. I, myself, am not always to detect highish alcohol in a California wine. I always try to, before peeking at the label, but I’d say my batting average is just that: average. I also want to see if we’ll be able to detect the whole cluster wines blind. I’d look for more body, more spiciness and a different feeling to the tannins. I don’t think Greg Brewer would whole-cluster his Pinots if the stems weren’t fully lignified. I’ll be looking for that architectural element that stems can give, which you can feel in the mouth.

* * *

Speaking of Santa Barbara County, just as I was writing this post, I got an email that Daniel J. Gainey, the founder of Gainey Vineyard, has passed away, at the age of 89. I had a great deal of respect for Mr. Gainey, although I was closer to his son, Dan H. I was a frequent visitor to their lovely winery, which was just down the road from Santa Ynez town, where I often stayed at the Santa Ynez Inn. Gainey made excellent wines, from cool-climate Pinots and Chards grown in their Santa Rita Hills vineyards to the Merlots, Syrahs and Sauvignon Blancs from warmer vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley. As a matter of fact, before the advent of Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, I used to write that Gainey made the best Merlot in the county. Over the years, I gave 48 Gainey wines scores of 90 points or higher. Not bad.

Mr. Gainey was a true pioneer, having founded his winery in 1984, when practically no one had heard of the Santa Ynez Valley, or of Santa Barbara County wine, for that matter. He was a true wine lover and a gentleman. My sympathies to Dan H. and the entire family.


Tuesday Twaddle: “Offloading” brands, and the old spinning cone

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When is it time for a winery to “offload” underperforming brands?

It happens. You’ve had a line, or SKU, in the market for years, but for some reason, it’s never gained traction. So the hard decision must be faced: Is it time to pull the plug on Grandma?

This is the situation Treasury Wine Estates is facing. The Australian company, which lost more than $100 million in 2013-2014, has brands “that [are] not a priority and may be retired [or] offloaded,” according the industry publication, The Drinks Business.

This can never be an easy decision for a big company like TWE. Companies love all their brands, the same way parents love all their children. You can’t throw an underperforming child under the bus, of course, but companies aren’t families, they’re business; and sometimes, “retiring non-priority brands”, or repurposing them in some way, is the only way to stay healthy.

 

* * *

Does this shock you? It shocks me. “One in four bottles of Californian Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have been through the industrial alcohol removal process supplied by ConeTech in the past year.” That’s another report by The Drinks Business, which adds that the spinning-cone process of lowering the alcohol content of wine is more popular than ever because “winemakers would rather take out alcohol from a ripe wine than risk creating lighter, possibly greener wines from harvesting earlier for naturally lower abvs.”

Well, as Dana Carvey’s character, The Church Lady, used to say on Saturday Night Live, Isn’t that special?

I’ve written before that I don’t mind some technological intervention to produce sound, clean, drinkable wines. These are what Americans want. Critics denounce them as Franken-wines, but to me, that just seems derogatory and mean. Besides, the truth is, since this de-alcoholization is done secretly, no one can ever know just which wines have passed through the spinning cone, so before you give such a wine 96 points and then have to appear foolish when someone outs you, restrain thy criticism.

However, I will venture to say that winemakers are resorting to this somewhat risky procedure because the public drumbeat against higher-alcohol wines has reached such a fever pitch that they feel they have no choice. Many of them, themselves, probably hate themselves for doing it—for giving in. Some of them may be under orders to do it, by the people who sign their paychecks. It’s hard for me to believe that any winemaker willingly and happily sends her wine to the spinning cone.

Speaking of those “greener wines” that are the potential result of picking early—which is the natural way to produce lower-alcohol wines—I’ve tasted some of them at big Pinot Noir tastings, and they’re dreadful. Well, I suppose if you like dried oregano, mint and green tomatoes, they’re all right, but if you prefer cherries and raspberries (which I do), you’ll be disappointed.

Thus we find ourselves staring directly at the schizophrenia running through our modern California wine business. The bullet quote in The Drinks Business article is this: “The consumer preference is for riper style wines, with juicy fruit, but consumers want this with more moderate alcohol levels.” Someone should politely tell consumers you can’t get ripe fruit without high brix, which in turn translates into healthy alcohol.

But that’s not a message that consumers want to hear, and so producers—caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place—increasingly are turning to the spinning cone. And if California goes back to a series of warm vintages, like we used to have, we’ll see even more wines spun out.


My thoughts on the S.F. Chronicle’s Top 100 Wines of 2014

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Of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 Wines of 2014,

  • 9 of the 12 Chardonnays have alcohol below 14%
  • 13 of 16 Other Whites have alcohol below 14%
  • 8 of 9 Sparkling Wine, Rose and Others have alcohol below 14%
  • 18 of 23 Pinot Noirs have alcohol below 14%

Did these wines make the cut because they really are the “top” wines of the vintage, or because the alcohol is low, which is where Wine Editor Jon Bonné prefers it to be?

Jon did select numerous Cabernet Sauvignons, red Rhone-style wines, Zinfandels and Other Reds that have well above 14% alcohol, but I suppose that’s because he had to include those varieties on his list, and for the most part, those grapes just don’t make good wine unless the brix is elevated enough to produce wines in the 14%s and even approaching if not exceeding 15%.

I’m simply puzzled. There are so many great Pinots and Chardonnays out there that don’t fit Jon’s restricted mold. And what’s up with that Calera 2012 Central Coast Pinot that made the list? At 14.6%, it’s easily the highest-alcohol Pinot of Jon’s bunch, but it certainly isn’t a Top 100 Wine of the year. I reviewed it last March 1, just a week before leaving my job at Wine Enthusiast, and gave it 86 points. It’s just what you’d expect: Not Josh Jensen’s top Pinot, not anywhere close to it, but his least expensive ($26), a nice everyday sipper that’s a blend of multiple vineyards along the Central Coast. (I think Josh must be praising the Gods of Caprice for that one!)

Haven’t we ridden this low-alcohol train about as far as it can usefully take us? There’s something fundamentally mashugana about it. I use the word “mashugana,” which is of Yiddish origin, deliberately, for in my version of street parlance, it means, not just “crazy,” but nonsensical. For it’s nonsensical to demand that California wine be picked underripe, just to satisfy the intellectual inclinations of a small band of adherents.

Jon himself seems not to sense the inconsistencies in his approach. In his introduction to the Top 100 article (after mentioning he’d hung out recently with Steven Spurrier), he tells us that, back in 1976, California wine “was as good as French” (a fact obvious to anyone after Cali wine swept the Paris Tasting). Then he adds that, whilst in London, “Our [i.e. California’s] wine promise was again unmistakable.” In fact, repeating a theme he’s held for some years, he trumpets “This is a golden moment for American wine,” which presumably means California wine, or certainly West Coast wine, “which is the scope of our annual Top 100 Wines.”

Well, if California wine was great 38 years ago, and has been in a “golden moment” for the few years that Jon’s been praising it, are we then to assume that between 1977 and 2008 or 2009, California wine was bad, unbalanced, irregular? I don’t think any credible person could claim that. Certainly our wines are wonderful now (the best really are world class), but they were wonderful in the 1970s and 1980s (when I started paying attention to them) and they were wonderful in the 1990s and 2000s (when I was paid to review them). They were wonderful through the second week of March of this year, when I left my old job, and they’re wonderful now, although I will confess I no longer taste as widely as I used to nor as broadly as Jon. But how much can have changed since last March? I would say California is in a golden century, not just a moment.

It takes, I think, a special form of mental jujitsu to dismiss higher-alcohol California wine, as Jon does, and then to come out with a statement like “Eight years ago, it would have been hard to imagine a wine like the 2013 Lo-Fi Cabernet Franc,” a wine that made Jon’s list. Well, it took me all of 40 seconds to go to my database and find Jonata’s 2007 El Alma de Jonata Red, a wine that is largely Cabernet Franc. I gave it 96 points, and while I don’t know precisely what the alcohol was, I really don’t care, either. And how about Lang & Reed? Great Cab Franc house, and has been for years. I could also mention Merryvale, Pride Mountain, Jarvis (both the estate grown and Will Jarvis’ Science Project), Peju, Constant and La Jota. All great Cab Francs. There was a Niebaum-Coppola 2002 Cabernet Franc that was so good, I still remember it. But perhaps Jon never tried it; he only arrived at the Chronicle in 2006.

I don’t mean to pick on Jon or anybody else. Shortly after he came to the Chronicle, I invited him to dinner, because I thought we Bay Area geeks should all be friends. He’s a perfectly nice guy. But I just don’t get this addiction to below 14% wines. Blind tasting clearly is the way to figure out what’s really going on—just ask Raj Parr and Adam Lee, if you know what I mean and I think most of you do. (Hint: World of Pinot Noir, 2011.)

If the Chron’s tasting panel really were tasting blind, their list wouldn’t be so heavy on the under-14% wines. It’s just not fair to be so harsh against all the others. I thought critics weren’t supposed to let their personal preferences affect their reviews. Have times changed?


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