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The connection between high scores and ageability

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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.


Russian River Pinot Noir too often is commodity wine. Get used to it.

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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.


From Kapalua, Two Pinot Panels, and a Parsing of “In Pursuit of Balance”

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Saturday’s two wine panels at the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival were both on Pinot Noir. The first, “In Pursuit of Balance,” was about a newer generation of winemakers: Rajat Parr (Sandhi), Pax Mahle (Wind Gap), Jamie Kutch (Kutch) and Gavin Chanin (Chanin). The theory, I think, was that these are all wines of lower alcohol (although we weren’t told what the ABV was, so I’m only guessing. The only winemaker to tell us the alcohol level on one of his wines was Kutch, who said it was 12.8% on his 2011 Sonoma Coast).

Here are my very abbreviated notes:

Wind Gap 2011 Gap Crown (Sonoma Coast). Vibrant, delicate, ripe. Cola, cherry pie, cranberry sauce.

Wind Gap 2010 Gap Crown. Keen acidity, similar to but less advanced than the ’11 despite being a year older. The ’10 was made in concrete while the ’11 was in neutral French oak.

Kutch 2011 Sonoma Coast. Blend of 3 vineyards: Annapolis, Petaluma Gap, Sebastopol. A pretty wine, ripe and savory. Root beer, cherry pie.

Kutch 2011 McDougall Ranch. The vineyard is in the Fort Ross area and the wine showed that distinctly feral, foresty quality I always get from there. A brooding wine, tannic. 50% whole cluster gave lots of dark spice. Needs plenty of time.

Chanin 2011 Los Alamos (Santa Barbara County). From this unappellated region between Santa Ynez Valley and Sta. Rita Hills. Bit of mushrooms, sweet red fruit, complex and lovely.

Chanin 2011 Bien Nacido. Much tougher and more tannic, lots of spice. Needs plenty of time, as BNV Pinot always does.

Sandhi 2011 Sta. Rita Hills. Vinous, sappy, rich and sweet in baked cherry pie. Villages-style,  young, but will make a sound bottle in a year or two.

Sandhi 2011 Sanford & Benedict. Really classic S&B. Spicy, earthy, red fruit, minerally, dry, complex. Needs plenty of time.

A remark about In Pursuit of Balance (the organization): In response to a question from the audience, Raj seemed to feel the need to defend the group, which perhaps has come under some criticism for the perception that IPOB claims that low alcohol Pinots are “better” than those over, say, 14.0%. To the extent this was the public’s perception (it certainly was mine), it cannot have gone over well with many of Raj’s (or Jasmine Hirsch’s) friends and colleagues. So Raj explained that this is not what they’re saying–although if it’s not, then it’s hard to know just what IPOB’s message is, beyond a vague “We’re trying to make the most balanced wines we can.” Well, who isn’t? I do think IPOB at first gave the impression of being an Old Boy’s (and Girl’s) network, an exclusive club of friends to which outsiders need not apply. They now have a “committee of wine professionals” (from their website) that decides who’s in and who’s out; that committee consists of Ehren Jordan (Failla, whose wines I’ve praised to the utmost for years), Jon Bonné (wine editor, San Francisco Chronicle, who’s been on something of an anti-high alcohol crusade himself), Raj Parr and Wolfgang Weber (an editor at Wine & Spirits, whom I do not know anything about). This selection committee certainly wouldn’t inspire me to ask to join IPOB if I were, say, Rochioli or Williams Selyem, two wineries (among many I could mention) I would hope we can agree make outstanding, balanced, ageworthy Pinot Noirs even though they dare to occasionally sneak over the 14.2% line and even approach –gasp!–14.5%.

The second Pinot Noir panel was named “Heroes of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay” and was meant to counter-balance the first by featuring an older generation of famous winemakers: Fred Scherrer (Scherrer), Gary Pisoni (Pisoni), Michael Browne (Kosta Browne) and Geoff Labitzke (Kistler’s sales and marketing director, representing Steve Kistler).

These noteworthy names grabbed the audience’s attention; mine, too. Here are some very brief remarks. I found the 2 Kistlers (2011 Stone Flat Chardonnay and 2011 Kistler Vineyard Pinot Noir) to be the most classic in the lineup, in the sense that they showed everything you want in Sonoma County wines: acidity, depth, length, dryness, varietal typicity, complexity, ageability,  intellectual stimulation and no particular eccentricities.

Fred Scherrer (what a lovely man) chose an older Chardonnay, 2007 Scherrer Vineyard (Alexander Valley) which didn’t do much for me at first. In fact I thought it was too old, although I loved his 2007 Russian River Pinot Noir. But after 45 minutes that old Chardonnay emerged from its tomb like Lazarus, alive and vital and remarkable, and I told Fred so. He said, “That wine never shows well right out of the bottle. It needs time” despite its age. California Chardonnay that ages well is so rare; that was one I’ll remember years from now.

Kosta Browne showed 2011 “One Sixteen” Chardonnay and 2011 Russian River Pinot Noir. I have never particularly been a fan of KB’s wines, suspecting that their popularity is due to the lemming-like tendency of consumers to believe anything some reviewers say (and then to find in the wines what they expected to find, in a gorgeous proof of the theory of the self-fulfilling prophecy). The ’11 Chardonnay was, I wrote, “over the top.” I did find the Pinot more interesting, “flashy” in fact, and in need of age.

Gary Pisoni’s 2011 Lucia Chardonnay was, in a word, dee-lish. I had formally reviewed it earlier for Wine Enthusiast and, while it wasn’t in the same league as Lucia’s ’11 Soberanes Chard (not included in this tasting), it was close, and also ten bucks less. Gary’s 2010 Estate Pinot Noir is a young, vinous, serious Pinot with vast tastes of the earth. It is  just beginning to throw off its cloak and show some flesh. It needs lots of time.

I’ll report another time on my “Pritchard Hill Gang” seminar, which was the last of the festival.


Which is more important for fine wine, terroir or technique?

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Is great wine the product of terroir, technique, or both?

Regular readers of my blog know that this question, or concept, intrigues me as do few others. I’ve frequently quoted the great Prof. Peynaud, who says terroir is Mother Nature; when man brings his or her own touch to the finished product, the combination of the two, he calls “cru.” As he expresses it, somewhat complexly, in The Taste of Wine: The Art and Science of Wine Appreciation, “The cru…is the wine-producing property, the chateau, different from its neighbors.” At the same time, this definition includes not just physical attributes such as climate, soils, slope, elevation and so on, but “the three activities of production, processing and marketing.” And P.R.? Yes, that too.

This definition of terroir is pretty broad; it’s one I accept, and if everyone else did, we could cease these eternal hand-wringings on what constitutes terroir. Still, the definition raises exciting and troubling implications: If I take the grapes from a single wine-producing property, divide them into three parts, and give three different winemakers one of those parts to vinify, will the resulting wines all show the terroir of the site? Or will they be so different that we can only explain their distinctions by the technique of their winemakers?

This is precisely what The Cube Project explores. The brainchild of Anne Amie’s winemaker, Thomas Houseman, it was formed “to evaluate the impact of winemaking vs. terroir.” Anne Amie is in the Willamette Valley; its two partner wineries are Bouchaine, in the Carneros, and Lincourt, down in the Sta. Rita Hills. Each of the winemakers took a single block of Pinot Noir from the estate vineyard in the 2010 vintage, divvied it into three shares and sent two of them (very carefully) to the other two winemakers. Then all three crafted the best wine he or she could.

Two nights ago, the three winemakers–Andrew Brooks from Bouchaine, Leslie Renaud from Lincourt, and Houseman–hosted a dinner at Roy’s San Francisco. This was an event not even I, who generally eschew these kinds of trade events, could pass up–and not only because I love Roy’s Hawiaiian-fusion food!

There were so many questions to be answered. Could we really detect commonalities between the three wines from each place? I mean, we knew what they were; but, if you didn’t, could you have? I personally found all the Anne Amie wines quite a bit higher in acidity than the others, across all three winemakers, so maybe I could have nailed them in a blind flight. The Carneros and Sta. Rita Hills bottlings were closer in personality, with softer textures and brighter fruit.

Did I detect winemaker styles? Not really. I thought that Andrew (Bouchaine) and Leslie (Lincourt) succeeded in making fine wines from all three sites. Thomas, on the other hand, seemed like he struggled with the two California selections. As I told Andrew afterward, it was as if he didn’t “get” California, and couldn’t quite figure out how to get a handle on the (relative) softness and fruitiness. His own Anne Amie wine was complex and lovely, but the others were puzzling.

Leslie had described her thinking process this way: When the grapes show up at her winery, she tastes them, and then starts thinking how she’ll vinify them. I asked Andrew for some of his decision points in the process. Here’s a partial list:

Destemming or not?

Crush pressure

Cold soaking

To inoculate or not? And with what?

To pump over or punch down, and how frequently?

What’s your maximum fermentation temperature?

When to drain off the juice?

Include press wine?

How long to let the wine settle before putting in barrel?

Cooperage and toast level

Natural malo or inoculate?

Stirring, if any?

Racking, if any?

Time in barrel

You can see how Peynaud’s “production and processing” play a huge role in determining the wine’s final qualities. Each one of these steps has multiple solutions, and each can dramatically impact the final product.

Thomas made an interesting statement: “It’s easier to tell the winemaker’s hand when the wines are young. As they age, the terroir shows through.” I think that’s probably true, although it’s also true that bottle variation becomes greater the older the wine is. Meanwhile, it’s only fair to say that the statement, made by many fine winemakers, that “the wine is made in the vineyard. I have little to do with it” is untrue, if romantic. The winemaker has everything to do with it; but it’s equally true that even the greatest winemaker cannot make fine wine from merde.


Are vineyard designates better than blended wines? Not necessarily. So why do they cost more?

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I was reading Peg Melnik’s article on Chateau St. Jean’s 2010 Belle Terre Vineyard Chardonnay, in yesterday’s Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which reminded me that Chateau St. Jean pretty much single-handedly created the vineyard-designated Chardonnay market in the 1970s, with a brilliant series of wines crafted by their then-winemaker, Richard Arrowood. Belle Terre, Les Pierres and Robert Young were perhaps the best known, but one year, Arrowood produced 9 individual Chardonnays. (He also made vineyard-designated Fume Blancs and Rieslings.)

It got me thinking of how obsessed we are today with single-vineyard wines in California, not just Chardonnay, obviously, but everything, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.

The first vineyard-designated Cabernet I ever heard of was Joe Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard. It was, back in the day, the most famous Cab in Napa Valley, and if it’s lost a little of its luster in the glare of so many newer brands, it’s still well-regarded. I don’t recall the first single-vineyard Pinot Noir I ever had. The first one I ever reviewed in my wine diary was a 1982 from Louis K. Mihaly, with a Napa Valley appellation. The label said “Produced and bottled by the estate of Louis K. Mihaly,” so I suppose that, technically, it was a single-vineyard wine; but I’m talking about vineyard designations on the label. Ditto for the Dehlinger 1985 Lot #2 Pinot I tasted (in 1990, by which time it had gone downhill).

Today, of course, many producers make single vineyard wines. They fetch a higher price, on average, than blended wines. (Even the word “blended” sounds pejorative. We need to come up with a better one.) When you think about it, though, there’s no reason per se why a single vineyard wine should be better than a blended one. The reason the Bordelais grew so many different grape varieties was because they knew that blending could fill in the divots that a single variety wine might otherwise have (unripe, too acidic, too tannic, not enough color, etc.).

It was in the 1990s that vintners opted to go bigtime with vineyard-designated bottles. They said they were spurred by the extra complexity that certain sites exhibited, but that’s only half the story. The other half was that, by then, it was apparent the public would pay more for single vineyard wines. (We can thank Heitz and Chateau St. Jean for that!) I myself have never quite bought into the theory that the wine from a particular place is necessarily better than a blend. Some critics make much of “wines of place” and, of course, to question the concept of terroir is to hold oneself up for ridicule. However, I don’t see how you get around the “divot” theory: in a perfect vintage, a particular site might yield a complete wine. But not all vintages are perfect, and it’s only logical to expect that, in other vintages, the grapes from a particular site will be lacking something and could benefit from being blended with the grapes from another place.

Today we have brands that specialize in single vineyard wines: Siduri, Loring, Testarossa and Williams Selyem (among many others) in Pinot Noir, and practically everyone making high-end Chardonnay. (Williams Selyem, Lynmar, Rochioli, Paul Hobbs, Marimar Torres, Martinelli, Talley and Thomas Fogarty in particular come to mind.) There also are an increasing number of wineries that bottle vineyard-designated Cabs. Sometimes they buy grapes from other growers, and sometimes they simply make block bottlings from their own vineyard or from separate vineyards in their own portfolio. (Sometimes it’s hard to say what the difference is between blocks from the same estate, and separate vineyards. Witness Diamond Creek.)

As I said, I’m not sure that the best, most wholesome and complete, not to mention satisfying, wines come from individual vineyards. But wine isn’t just about hedonism, it’s about intellectual fun. For me, as a wine lover and critic, I love these single vineyard or block designation wines because they’re so interesting in themselves, even if they’re sometimes a little lacking something essential. Just like some people.


The multiple-vineyard Pinot Noir game: gaining ground

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Testarossa, Siduri, Williams Selyem, Merry Edwards, Failla, Bonaccorsi, La Follette, De Loach, Bjornstad, MacPhail–what do they (and many other California wineries) have in common?

Yes, they’re all Pinot Noir houses (in addition to whatever else they make), but they also play the interesting game of buying Pinot Noir fruit from multiple vineyards and bottling them with vineyard designations. For the wine taster, this presents unique opportunities, as well as challenges.

I suppose the allure of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti was such that it was only to be expected serious Pinot winemakers would want to try their hands at expressing the terroir of different vineyards. (I don’t mean wineries who own estate vineyards and produce different designations, like Lynmar, Donum, Rochioli or Talley, I mean wineries that buy their fruit. And yes, I know that some of them, like Williams Selyem, own their own vineyards.)

I don’t know who was first to play the multiple vineyard game in California. Williams Selyem certainly was an early adapter. Testarossa seems to have followed their model in the 1990s. The entrepreneurial aspect of the template is perhaps most perfectly expressed by Siduri. But over the last 2-3 years, more and more wineries are getting into the act.

The opportunity for the taster in these cases is twofold: (1) to see if you can detect the winemaker’s signature across multiple terroirs, and (2) to see if you can detect the vineyard’s terroir across multiple winemakers. This latter opportunity is true only of those vineyards large enough to sell fruit to multiple winemakers; among them would be Bien Nacido (among the largest) and smaller ones like Rosella’s, Precious Mountain, Olivet Lane and Fiddlestix. This isn’t as easy as it seems, though, because winemaker techniques can differ widely (some pick earlier than others) and because of micro-terroir differences in vineyard rows and blocks.

There also is the challenge of precisely how best to taste the Pinot Noirs of these multiple producers when they all arrive in one box. There is no one best way of tasting; each approach has its pros and cons. When Bob Cabral sends me 15 vineyard-designated Pinots, should I taste them in a single flight, or should I segregate them out by appellation and taste them against other Pinot Noirs from those appellations? I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule for this. My own preference is to taste them all together–to take a long, leisurely swim in the essence of Williams Selyem, as it were–but I can see where an argument could be made to taste Russian River against Russian River, Sonoma Coast against Sonoma Coast, and so on. It also would be instructive to do flights from the same vineyard from multiple producers, although tactically, this is more difficult for me to set up, as wines from the same vintage may arrive at widely different times across a calendar year or even two, depending on the winery’s release schedule.

I will say that tasting these multiple Pinots from the same producer is one of my most enjoyable tasks. Not every wine in the world is bursting with joy. Some, maybe most, are made grindingly, to pay the bills and fill the bellies of the masses. But when a California producer makes a range of Pinots from different vineyards, it’s because he wants to and loves to and can. This is the Happy Hunting Ground for the intrepid Pinot producer, and with each pop of the cork, I get to share in his joy.

Incidentally, it’s worth noting that few wineries play the multiple Cabernet game. Duckhorn and Nickel & Nickel do, Paul Hobbs a little, Chimney Rock’s getting into it as is a new player, PerryMoore, and there are others I could mention. But the multiple Cabernet thing is nowhere near as advanced as the multiple Pinot thing. I’m not sure why that is, but I don’t think it’s because “Pinot shows terroir more transparently than Cabernet Sauvignon,” which is the usual trope (and one moreover I’m not convinced of, not to end a sentence with a preposition). I think it has more to do with the availability of good Pinot fruit versus good Cabernet fruit. While there’s more than twice as much Cab planted than Pinot, there’s more Pinot going in by a long shot, which increases the availability of fruit. Great Cabernet for sale is restricted pretty much to some well-known Napa Valley vineyards, like Beckstoffer To Kalon and Stagecoach.


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