I was reading excerpts from Jon Bonné’s new book, The New California Wine, that were published in the S.F. Chronicle earlier this week. (I haven’t seen a copy of the book itself, yet.) In it, Jon deals with California Pinot Noir, largely fairly. He has associated himself with the anti-high alcohol movement in recent years, which is fair enough; to each, his own. But I do want to talk about this issue of what Jon calls “brawn” in Pinot Noir.
Certainly, Pinot Noir can be made in a variety of styles, as can any wine. One does, however, expect a proper Pinot to be dry, silky in the mouth, bracing with acidity and (here in California, anyway), fruity. But within those parameters, Pinot can display a wide spectrum of weight.
Jon mentions Loring Wine Company’s Pinots as examples of “irrational exuberance.” Consider their 2006 Clos Pepe Vineyard Pinot Noir, a wine I reviewed five years ago, and gave 94 points. The official alcohol level on the label was 14.7%, which I suppose is highish (from the point of view of an In Pursuit of Balance aficienado), and I suppose it might have been slightly higher even that that, given the government’s tolerance of alcohol ranges, rather than specifics. But it was an awfully good wine, one I’d love to try today.
Jon included the Pinots of Kosta-Browne in his “irrational exuberance” category. I must say that I have not been a fan on those wines, either. They’re too big for me–“brawny.” Although the official alcohol levels are in the 14.5% range, they do seem over the top–there’s something exaggeratedly Caifornian about them, like that suntan George Hamilton always had, even in the dead of winter: or maybe the late, great Tammy Faye Bakker’s over-cosmetized face is the better comparison.
What makes Loring’s Pinots balanced and Kosta-Browne’s less so for me? Who’s to say? It’s a matter of taste. The greatest, most consistent Pinot Noirs in California, IMHO, are produced by Williams Selyem. Their alcohol levels are reliably moderate–usually in the low 14s. Yet I also love Brewer-Clifton’s Pinots, which can run a point higher; their 2004 Cargasacchi (such a noble vineyard) was 15.1%, yet that wine was so far from “brawny”, I can’t even tell you. I had to give it 97 points. Was it better than Siduri’s magnificent 2007 Hirsch, which I gave 96 points, and whose alcohol was 13.5%? No. Both wines rocked, in their own universes. It would be patently unfair to force them into some kind of mixed martial arts slapdown. Apples and oranges, as it were, but both distinctively Pinot Noir.
Here are the “crimes” California Pinot Noir can commit: residual sugar. Thinness. Simplicity. I don’t care for Pinots with too much oak, especially on an over-cropped wine. Unripeness (some critics love the 2011s. Not me. Too much mushroomy, veggie herbaceousness and mint, even some mold). Or, the opposite, overripeness: Loring’s 2007 Russell Family Vineyard, from Paso Robles, was raisiny, even though the alcohol was a relatively modest 14.4%. Sometimes, in warmer years, Pinot ages prematurely–why, it’s hard to tell, so that even at four years, it can be tired. A Steele 2000 Bien Nacido, tasted in May, 2004, was like that.
Have a good weekend!
For some reason I bookmarked this Decanter “tease” for an article two years ago (the full article requires a subscription), then forgot all about it until this past weekend, when I was cleaning out my old bookmarks and happened to read it. In the afterlight of what we know since then, it makes interesting reading.
We’ll start with Oz Clarke’s statement that “There is no style revolution in California: low acid, velvet tannins and high alcohol is [sic] what Americans want from their wine and California winemakers will continue to feed that need.”
Well, Oz made this remark before it was clear there is a “style revolution”, so we’ll give it an accuracy rating of 87 points. While it’s true that Americans do like the big, fat, rich, ripe California style, it’s equally true that increasing numbers of winemakers are consciously attempting to make their wines leaner. Which does not mean “lean.” We see this most certainly in a wide swathe of Pinot Noirs that are below 14%, and sometimes nearer to 13%, as evidenced by Jasmine Hirsch’s and Raj Parr’s “In Pursuit of Balance” movement.
We see it also in other varieties (including Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon). So Oz said something that was mostly true, but not entirely; and cooler vintages may also be tipping the scale toward leaner wines.
However much Oz was or wasn’t correct, the larger issue centers around an inherent assumption: that there’s something fundamentally suspect about “low acid, velvet tannins and high alcohol” in table wines. For, if you think about it, that assumption is the context of the conversation: Just as the statement “Americans drink too many sugary sodas” implies the context of widespread obesity. “Too many sugary sodas” wouldn’t be a problem if so many people (including kids) weren’t so fat. We can all agree on that. But what is the negative implication of “low acid, velvet tannins and high alcohol”? There is, in fact, none (unless you say that higher alcohol wines get people drunker faster than do low alcohol wines; but this isn’t a qualitative critique of the former, just one of degrees, since low alcohol wines [and beer] can get you drunk too).
In fact, isn’t it possible that, if winemaking had originated in the New World instead of the Old, the standard for wine would be a 15.2% alcohol, low acid, velvety Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon? In which case we might just find the upstart German and Italian wine too acidic and lean. One can envision, under such a scenario, a group of vintners and somms, perhaps located in Geisenheim or Florence, calling themselves “In Pursuit of Balance” and promoting wines of higher alcohol, greater ripeness and softness and increased youthful appeal. Stranger things are imaginable.
And what of food? Much has been said and written that our California style of wine is undrinkable with food; the conceit there is that the wines are so strong, they fight with the food, whereas wine traditionally is supposed to take a back seat to food.
Is this really true in your experience? It isn’t in mine. I suppose if you ate the kinds of bland, plain things Englishmen ate in the 1800s, a Shafer Hillside Select might not be the ideal accompaniment. When George Saintsbury relished “boiled Turkey” at a dinner partly held at an unnamed date, but probably in the early twentieth century, with it he drank “1878 Lêoville”, whose alcohol level cannot have been much higher than 12%, and which must by then have been a dry, somewhat light and earthy wine. But we don’t eat “boiled Turkey” today. Instead, we gorge on “Niman Ranch Hangar Steak with San Marzano Tomatoes, Garlic, Arugula and Parmigiano-Reggiano,” to take but one item off the menu from Oenotri, the Napa restaurant; with it I might order a 2008 Staglin (alcohol 14.9%) or Anakota “Helena Dakota” (14.8%) off the list and be perfectly happy. In fact, something lacking in body might falter and be wiped out beside that dish’s mouth-filling richness. So, once again, you have to take these things in context.
I got so infatuated with the thought of food and wine pairing that I Googled “Boulevard,” one of my favorite San Francisco restaurants, to find additional main courses that call for rich, opulent wines. With “California lamb T-bone, wood oven roasted, served off the bone with grilled Monterey artichoke, olive panzanella, pancetta-mixed faro, lamb juice, mint and orange (a dish that would have blown Professor Saintsbury’s mind) I could easily see myself drinking a Patz & Hall 2010 Chenowith Ranch Pinot Noir (14.8%) and smiling all the way. An old, dry, 13% Bordeaux or Burgundy? No, thanks.
Critical attitudes toward California Pinot Noir have varied over the decades. When I first started paying attention to wine, the belief was just becoming entrenched that warmer regions, especially Napa Valley, were unsuitable for the great grape of Burgundy, because (it was said), the grapes got too ripe, and thus lacked the silky elegance, or one might say the dynamic tension you want in a great Pinot Noir.
I accepted that argument, because all I was, was a lowly newbie, so who was I to disagree with the experts? This was despite my having had a Napa Valley Pinot Noir, from the now defunct Louis K. Mihaly Winery, which I liked so much, I bought a half case, my first multiple-bottle purchase ever.
So everyone tore out their Pinot Noir vines from Napa (and few dared to plant the variety in warmer places like Paso Robles), and the rush was on for cool regions: starting with Carneros (which, briefly, was heralded as “California’s Burgundy” in the 1980s), then the Russian River Valley, Anderson Valley, Sonoma Coast and broad stretches of the Central Coast, most famously in the western Santa Ynez Valley we now call the Santa Rita Hills.
That was all well and good. I would say the first nine or ten years of the 21st century were the Golden Era of California Pinot Noir. Wines of majestic distinction arrived, differing in their particulars depending on where and how grown and made, but asserting their right to sit beside Cabernet Sauvignon as co-bearers of the title, “California’s Greatest Red Wine.”
Well, that was before the 2010 vintage, as stubbornly cold as anything we’d witnessed in many years. Followed by 2011, even colder, shockingly so–the year summer never came. The market now is receiving the Pinot Noirs of these two vintages (a few 2012s are trickling out, but not the important ones, which should begin arriving in the Winter-Spring of 2014). And we are learning, the hard way, one of the oldest lessons in wine: When you grow a variety at the limit of its ability to ripen, you will get great wines in a warm vintage, and mediocre wines in a cool one.
The problems I’ve encountered with rot, mold, green tannins and flavors and vegetal notes in Pinot Noirs from 2010 and 2011 are worse than anything in my previous experience. It’s been truly shocking. Erratic, too: wineries that bottle numerous vineyard-designated Pinots (as so many do nowadays) will have one that’s ripe, and another that’s green and moldy–often from the same appellation. There are some famous brands that, in my opinion, should have declassified their wines, especially the 2011s; but declassification is rare in California.
The numbers express it interestingly:
2011 Pinots I scored over 90 points: 127
2009 Pinots I score over 90 points: 489
Granted, there are some more 2011s yet to come, but the ultimate number of over-90s is not going to approach 250, much less 489. So what we gave up when we tore out that Napa Pinot was, at least, consistency of ripeness. What we gained, I suppose, is the same situation as in Burgundy: not every year is a “vintage” year.
What of 2012? As I wrote on Sept. 18 of that year, “2012 is the year nothing happened. No rain, no frosts, no damaging heat waves, no chilly temperatures, no smoke taint from wildfires, no mold, no spring shatter.” A week and a half later, something happened: we had a bigtime heat wave. I noted, “If you gathered in your Pinot Noir before the heat struck, you’re fine. If not, high alcohol will be a problem.” There were even reports of sunburn, especially in the Russian River Valley. When the harvest was over, Bob Cabral, at Williams Selyem, favorably compared the quality of his 2012 Pinots to the 1997s, when he’d been at Hartford Court. Yet, in the same conversation, he alluded to “a little bit of botrytis in some Pinot blocks,” which I took to be caused by rain that moved in after Oct. 21. So you can see that 2012 also was not a perfect vintage. But we’ll just have to see what the bottles offer.
Why are Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay “noble” varieties? Why isn’t Zinfandel? Can Syrah be “noble”? Is sparkling wine “noble”?
First, we have to define “noble.” It’s an oldish word when applied to wine. From Wikipedia: “Noble grapes are any grapes traditionally associated with the highest quality wines. This concept is not as common today, partly because of the proliferation of hybrid grape varieties, and partly because some critics feel that it unfairly prioritizes varieties grown within France. Historically speaking, the noble grapes comprised only six varieties: Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.”
It’s tempting for me to side with the democrats [small “d”] in this argument–the ones who feel that de-nobleizing certain varieties because they’re not French is unfair and patronizing. But there are sound reasons for preserving our current understanding of varietal nobility.
The most important of these reasons is that, in California as in France, a handful of varieties clearly makes the best wines, and has for pretty much as long as the state’s wine industry has existed. All I need do is go to Wine Enthusiast’s database to confirm this. Since the first of this year, all 30 of my highest-scoring wines have been either Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, with the single exception of a Nickel & Nickel 2010 Merlot, from the Harris Vineyard, in Oakville. (And I, personally, would not include Merlot among the nobles, at least in California.)
Why do these wines score higher than other varieties? Ahh, here we get into the fuzzy details, which are impossible of proof. But let me try. First and foremost, there is structure, a word that seems comprehensible at first. Structure is architecture: just as you can have the most beautiful stuff (paintings, carpets, furniture, vases) in the world, but it’s only a mere pile if it doesn’t have a room or home in which to reside, so too wine needs walls, a floor, a ceiling, a sense of stolidity and solidity, else it become simple flavor. And flavor, in and of itself, has never been the primary attribute of great wine.
California, of course, has no problem developing flavor, in any variety. That’s due to our climate: grapes ripen dependably. To the extent California wines are the target of criticism, it is because Europhiles find a dreary sameness to too many of them. Even I, as staunch a defender of California wine as there is, find this to be true. Too often, the flavors of red wines suggest blackberries and cherries and chocolate, whether it’s Syrah, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Grenache, Cabernet, Merlot, Tempranillo. It’s easy for such wines to score 87 points, or 89 points, or even 91 points: these are good scores, but not great ones, limited by the wines’ lack of structure.
Structure, of course, is composed primarily of acidity and tannins, the latter of which may come from both the grapes and the oak treatment. (I won’t get into the mysteries of minerality.) Yet there are elements of structure that are more difficult to define. Texture is an element of structure, just as the way a room feels is an element of its architecture. Imagine a room with soaring roof and large windows that let in the sunlight, as opposed to a cramped, pinched room, a closet or storage area. The former feels more satisfactory to our senses and esthetics. So too does a wine with great texture feel superior. It can be the hardest thing in the world to put into words, but even amateurs will appreciate the difference between a beautifully-structured wine and its opposite. (I have proven this many times, with my wine-drinking friends who have but limited understanding of it.)
So why don’t we allow Zinfandel into the ranks of noble wines? I suppose an argument could be made that we should, for at its highest expressions–Williams Selyem, De Loach, Elyse, Ravenswood, Bella, Turley–Zinfandel does fulfill the structural and textural prerequisites of a noble wine. But too often, it does not: a Zinfandel can be classic Zin for its style (Dry Creek Valley, Amador County) and yet be a little rustic, in a shabby-chic way. Sometimes this is due to excessive alcohol, sometimes to overripened fruit, but no matter the cause, and no matter how much fun that Zin is to drink with barbecue, the last thing I’d call most Zins is noble. Zinfandel is Conan the Barbarian, ready to chop your head off and stick it on the tip of a spear.
Can sparkling wine be said to be noble? It is most often, of course, a blend of two noble varieties, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, so why not? The answer is as simple as this: We call varieties “noble,” not wine types. Perhaps we should expand the definition of “noble” to include types, not just sparkling blends but Sherry and Port. Certainly these are great wines, if underappreciated nowadays. I keep my eye, also, on some of the surprisingly eccentric red blends being produced lately, mainly by younger winemakers (often in Paso Robles), who are mixing varieties in unprecedented and triumphant ways, proving that a wine doesn’t have to be varietal (as defined by the TTB) in order to be great.
But I’m comfortable for the time being restricting nobility to just a handful of varieties in California: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Not Riesling, not yet, in our state. Not Sauvignon Blanc, not yet, in our state. Not Syrah, not yet, in our state. And not, as I have said, Merlot. Any one of these latter varieties can produce great wine, but it will be the exception.
It’s funny that I never really thought about it until recently, when I was browsing through my reviews in Wine Enthusiast’s database and realized that I had chosen the special designation of “Cellar Selection” for about 80% of my highest scoring wines.
If you’d asked me what parameters form the basis of a high score (let’s say anything above 95 points), I would have referred you to the magazine’s guidelines. They say things like “truly superb,” “great complexity,” “memorable,” “pinnacle of expression,” “complete harmony and balance,” “absolute best,” but the guidelines are silent on the question of ageability.
Had you pressed me to more fully explain a high score, I suppose at some point the “A” word would have arisen. But in and of itself, “ageability” does not equal great wine. Many wines will age, some for a long time, yet are not particularly complex or beautiful, either in youth or in old age.
And yet, my highest scoring wines, from this year alone, include Williams Selyem 2010 30th Anniversary Pinot Noir, Rochioli 2011 West Block Pinot Noir, Freemark Abbey 2009 Sycamore Vineyard Cabernet, Flora Springs 2010 Hillside Reserve Cabernet, Tantara 2010 Gwendolyn Pinot Noir, Matanzas Creek 2010 Journey, Terra Valentine 2010 K-Block Cabernet, Stonestreet 2010 Rockfall Cabernet, B Cellars 2009 Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Cabernet, Jarvis 2007 Estate Cabernet, Von Strasser 2010 Sori Bricco Cabernet, Sodaro 2009 Doti-Sodaro Blocks 2 and 6 Cabernet, and, another Beckstoffer coup, Janzen 2010 Beckstoffer Missouri Hopper Vineyard Cabernet. All 95 points or higher, all Cellar Selections.
What I look for in predicting ageability are two things, or three, depending on how you define them. First is an immediate reaction (from the nose/palate via the brain) of stunned impressionability. It’s a simple “Wow!” factor, although of course there’s nothing simple about it. Now, any wine can possess the “Wow!” factor without being ageable. A lot of it has to do with what Dr. Leary called “set and setting,” i.e. where you are (the external circumstances) and your mindset (subjective factors). A silky Beaujolais, like the one I had the other night, achieved the “Wow!” factor, because it was a warm evening, I had slightly chilled the bottle, and with it I enjoyed a soy-glazed tuna burger (homemade) and the company of someone special to me. But that Beaujolais was not an ageable wine, and if I were scoring it, I would have given it around 90.
The next thing I look for, in determining ageability, is an immature quality that makes the wine, good as it is, undrinkable, this latter word used in the old British sense of “too young to enjoy now” (although I’m always careful to point out that even a California wine that’s “too young to enjoy now” is, of course, enjoyable now, if you like it that way. The Cellar Police will not slap you into Guantanamo). What makes a wine “too young now,” for me, are, usually, dense tannins that numb the palate, but this is not so great a problem as it used to be (in California or in France) because modern tannin management regimes render even the hardest tannins more mellifluous (the adjective “mellifluous” being a good example of its own definition). A greater problem is what I call the unintegrated quality of a young wine’s parts. Those parts include oak, fruit, alcohol, acidity and tannins, and if they feel (in the mouth) like a herd of cats, each going its own way, resistant to corralling, then the wine is unintegrated. A subset of this is that California fruit can be overwhelming in youth, a detonation of jam that makes them too obvious–“Tammy Faye Bakker,” in the words of a Frenchman I know who crafts wines (or seeks to) of greater finesse and control.
The final aspect of determining ageability is the history and reputation of the winery. I make the previous two determinations blind, but this third factor weaves its way in when I take the bottle out of its covering bag. If I’ve already determined that the wine is ageable, that is going to appear in the review; but if I then see that it’s a wine I know for a fact ages well (say, a Williams Selyem Allen Vineyard Pinot Noir), that seals the deal, as they say. In general, I don’t like to stretch the window of ageability too far into an uncertain future (the way RMP does), but if I know the wine has a good history of hitting, say, 10 or 20 years, I’ll say so. (Corison Cabernets are a good example of this.) Which obviously makes it difficult when the wine is a new brand, without history, of which there are many, particularly in those bastions of ageability, Napa Valley Cabernet and cool-climate Pinot Noir. But, going through my highest-scoring wines, I see very few new brands among them. Mostly they are the older, traditional names, which is just as you’d expect.
Jon Bonné in his wrap-up of the 2011 Pinot Noir vintage in California uses the extraordinary phrase “mission creep” to describe the great expansion of acreage in the Russian River Valley area over the years, “from the core of the appellation near Healdsburg and Forestville” to places “far afield.”
Historically this is an accurate statement. In 1988 (25 years ago), Sonoma County contained 1,968 acres of Pinot Noir, almost all of it in the relatively concentrated area mostly stretching along River Road in the south and Westside Road in the north.
Last year (2012) by contrast Sonoma had 12,062 acres of Pinot Noir (bearing and non-bearing), an increase of 512%, and while some of that acreage was outside formal Russian River Valley AVA (mainly along the Sonoma Coast), most of it was from within the valley, and a great deal of that was due to the 2005 expansion of the appellation’s boundary southward, toward Cotati, which added 30,200 acres, or roughly 30%, to its total size.
So Jon is entirely correct in his summation of history. But I have a different take on the question of his correlative assertion that this expansion, or “mission creep,” has come at the expense of overall quality.
Jon’s right, in this sense: Certainly the overall quality of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir has been diluted. But then, there are a great many more Pinot Noirs from the Russian River Valley than ever before (and the quantity will explode once the enormous 2012 vintage hits the market), and as with all such things, that means there are a great many more mediocre Pinot Noirs than ever before. This is solely a function of the Russian River Valley’s explosion in size, and not necessarily because its winemakers have failed to “make a stand for a sense of place,” as Jon puts it. Any large region contains many mediocre wines, Bordeaux being a prime example (and Burgundy, too). Therefore, to assume that Russian River Pinot Noirs “need to take a step up in quality” is not the correct interpretation. That is something that the wines–broadly speaking–cannot do: “Russian River Pinot Noir” now has become a generic branding of the varietal, producing many commodity wines. The words “Russian River Valley” on a label of Pinot Noir are simply a guarantee of origin, and a certain Pinot-esque quality of flavor and mouthfeel. Beyond that, the consumer no longer should expect anything more.
This argues the case for two new things to consider: The first, obviously, is the reputation of the individual Pinot house. If one seeks Pinot Noir at the highest level, one buys, not “Russian River Valley Pinot Noir,” but Wiliams Selyem, or Hartford Court, or Merry Edwards, or Lynmar, and so on; and fortunately there are a great many top houses to choose from. The second consideration is less obvious, and more controversial: now that “Russian River Valley” by itself is largely meaningless, it is time to break the greater Russian River Valley AVA into smaller ones.
So sticky has this issue become that no one wants to talk about it anymore, because every time the subject comes up it causes heartache, anger and recrimination. But really, that is the thing to do now. Jon is right to bemoan the fact that “Russian River Valley Pinot Noir” has lost traction to (say) Sonoma Coast (the “True” one, and we now have a Fort Ross-Seaview appellation to officialize it, followed, I hope, by Annapolis in the north and Occidental or Freestone or something else in the south). But neither he, nor we, ought to set our hearts on a general “step up in quality” in the Russian River Valley proper. The horse is out of the barn, his rump disappearing beyond the last bend in the road; and nothing will lure him back. Russian River Valley Pinot Noir no longer is the elite club of Davis Bynum, Joe Swan, Rochioli and Burt Williams, laboring in his ramshackle barn. It’s a big, ungainly consortium, and like all consortia contains a multitude of the good, the bad and the ugly.
It’s sad, in a way, for me to come to this conclusion about Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, but it was inevitable that it would happen. Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is in much the same boat. “There are no common wines in Vosnes,” I once read (it might have been Hugh Johnson or Michael Broadbent paraphrasing someone else), but there indeed are common Pinots in the Russian River Valley and we might as well get used to the fact and stop criticizing the valley for not being what it can no longer be.