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Learning Willamette, one step at a time

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I just got back from up in the Willamette Valley working on that AVA project for Jackson Family Wines. Our particular vineyard is west of the town of Monmouth, in a part of the valley that does not have its own sub-appellation. That’s something I’m looking into, with the idea of coming up with a name that will satisfy our neighbors as well as the Tax & Trade Bureau of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the agency that oversees such things.

It’s been a long and winding road, so far, but I’m making good progress—I think (and I’m knocking on wood as I write this, being a superstitious type). My initial plan, for a larger AVA that would have included many more of our neighboring grapegrowers and vintners, seems in retrospect to have been a little too ambitious. I’ve since scaled back, towards a smaller, more focused appellation, which seems like a better idea anyway, because smaller appellations tend to make more sense (from a terroir point of view). I mean, I’ve been the first to criticize gigantic appellations all my years as a wine reporter. So I’m glad we’re able to aim for something smaller, which is easier to understand, and to bring our neighbors with us.

One thing I’ve discovered about TTB is, they do not want to get in the middle of somebody else’s fight! And I can’t say I blame them. They’re probably understaffed; they’re in no position to play Judge Judy. It’s not their job to intervene between quarreling neighbors who disagree about where a boundary is or isn’t. TTB wants us—the petitioners—to get our act together and come to them as a united group that has fulfilled TTB’s basic requirements for approval of a new AVA. That’s not asking too much of us.

Another thing I’ve come to appreciate is how important it is to really understand the land you’re trying to get appellated. I understood, back when I made my first visit up here (last Fall) that it would take me a while to “get” the physical parameters of this part of the valley. Now I’m on my fourth trip, and it’s starting to sink in: I am beginning to understand the slopes and contours, the directionality, where the hllls are, what the elevations are, where the pinot noir thrives and where the it’s better for hazelnuts. I’m getting the roads, too: no more need for GPS. More than that, I’m figuring out the big view: the macro-terrain, where the bowls are, the amphitheaters, the natural topographic features on a many-miles scale. I now have my eye on one such: it seems like a consistent place (in fact it reminds me of the Coombsville appellation in Napa Valley, it’s so compact and geometric). The soils seems to be more or less the same throughout, so does the rainfall, and—well, I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. But for me, this is the kind of stuff I love, the sleuthing, the research, the trying to make sense out of a whole lot of unconnected stuff until you begin to see the connections. And, of course, the people we are working with: growers and vintners. Hanging with them, picking their brains, sharing my thoughts, hearing theirs…it’s all so rewarding.

I’m still obviously an outsider, but it strikes me that the Willamette Valley is a huge place, 3.4 million acres, or 35 times bigger than the Russian River Valley; and lord knows, the Russian River Valley seriously needs to be sub-appellated. Willamette Valley already has six sub-AVAs (Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Yamhill-Carlton and Ribbon Ridge), but it seems to my outsider eye that it will take many years if not decades to really figure this place out. I mean every nook and cranny, every slope, every orientation; and this isn’t even to mention the potential Grand Crus. The area to the west and south of Monmouth, which is where I’m working, is very little understood, but I’ll wager it’s going to be important. The little city of Independence, just two miles to the east, has serious plans to develop a winetasting infrastructure on the banks of the Willamette River, and Monmouth is popping up with cute little tasting bars and restaurants. The tourists aren’t flocking here quite yet: they’re going a little further north up the 99, to Eola, Amity and McMinnville. But that’s the beauty of path-breaking winemakers: their curiosity. Tell a winemaker that there’s the potential for beautiful Pinot Noir in an undiscovered region, and light the fire in her eyes. I’m not a winemaker, but it’s fun for a writer to be part of the discovery process, too.

In the end, though, you have to wonder what makes a great AVA—or, at least, one that’s perceived as great. It can’t just be the mere establishment of a perimeter. It can’t just be the petitioner’s claim that the appellation is unique (for most AVAs aren’t, to be perfectly honest). I guess what it takes is a long track record of producing great wine, which doesn’t happen overnight.


A tasting of Oregon Pinot Noirs

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I couldn’t be more pleased with my tasting yesterday, but I don’t give the credit to myself; I give it to the wines. The idea was to taste some of our Oregon Pinot Noirs to a select group of people in Marin County. In many respects, this was the best tasting I ever went to, because it satisfied the requirements of a good comparative wine event. The wines were conceptually linked: all Oregon Pinot Noirs. Seven of the eight wines were current releases, although they weren’t all from the same vintage. The eighth wine was from 2005, but from the same winery and vineyard as one of the current releases, so we could see how these fine Oregon Pinot Noirs age. And there was a ninth “surprise” wine, much older than even the ’05, that I’ll describe shortly.

But the best part of the tasting was the logic of the order of wines. Seldom have I experienced a better gradation from lighter and more accessible to richer and more ageworthy. I didn’t really understand how compelling this spectrum would be until I arrived early to open the wines and taste. It was so obvious, like ascending a ladder or climbing a mountain, as it were. To a wine taster like me, this is glory, this is as good as things get, when the order of a lineup makes perfect sense. It is a thing of beauty.

I started with the lighter wines, of course, worked my way through the more complex ones, and then there was that 2005, so you could see that we don’t only say these great Oregon Pinot Noirs are ageable, we demonstrate it. Here was the order of the lineup, with very brief notes.

La Crema 2014 Willamette Valley. It was what I think of as the La Crema style: broadly appealing, fruity, easy to like, with some complexity. The alcohol was the highest on the table, some 14.5%. It was easy to appreciate (and I say this as a Jackson Family Wines employee, but also as an objective reporter) why these La Crema wines have been so successful in the marketplace.

Siduri 2014 Willamette Valley. There was a definite step up in complexity here, not just fruit but tea, mushrooms, earth notes. Still a wine to drink now.

Siduri 2014 Chehalem Mountains. Even earthier than the Willamette Valley, with oodles with cherries and wild mushrooms. One of the guests, a restaurateur, said he would make a porcini mushroom risotto with this.

Penner-Ash 2014 Estate. So new is JFW’s acquisition of Penner-Ash that not even I have all that much familiarity with it. This is their estate vineyard, formerly known as Dussin Vineyard. It represented an entirely new leap into complexity, starting off a bit closed due to tannins, then erupting into pomegranates, tart cranberries and a wonderfully earthy mushroominess. I would surely age this wine.

Gran Moraine 2013. A new winery from the JFW portfolio, and so complex. It elicited a fierce discussion from our group concerning what to drink it with. Quail, veal, risotto, salmon, steak, take your pick. A mineral-driven wine of great terroir and ageability.

Zena Crown 2013 The Sum. This is another wine that was new to me. Wow, what complexity. Very low alcohol (12.9%), dry, fairly tannic in youth, and mushroomy, with a sassafras and cola taste many of us noted. Lots of acidity, a serious, intellectual, ageworthy wine.

Angela Estate 2012 Abbot Claim. This is not owned by JFW but sold in California by Jackson’s Regal Wine Company. For me it was the top current release, although not the most expensive. Gorgeous perfume, with foresty scents and tons of wild raspberries. At four years, it’s starting to show some age; the bottle was throwing some light sediment.

Penner-Ash 2005 Dussin Vineyard. Showing its age: orange-bricky color at the rim. But so clean and vibrant, with marzipan, cocoa, raspberry tea and spice flavors. It had that “sweet but dry” richness you sometimes get from older wines.

I finished with the surprise wine, the Penner-Ash 1998 Dussin Vineyard. This was a Wow! wine for everybody. At 18 years it was still vital and alert, a wine with nervous energy, plenty of spine, pure, bright and delicious, with sweet fruit and a long finish. Some wines of this age die quickly in the glass. Not this one. I brought it with me afterwards to lunch and it was fabulous.

And speaking of lunch, we had our event at Tamalpie, which calls itself a pizzeria, and it does have fabulous pizza, but also does wonderful Cal-Italian fare. I would eat there all the time if I lived closer to Mill Valley.


A tasting of Oregon Pinot Noir

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I’ve been on a sharp learning curve about Oregon Pinot Noir for the past year or so. In all my years at Wine Enthusiast I was “the California guy” and so my exposure to wines not from my state grew increasingly limited—one major negative of being a regional specialist (but the positive, of course, is that you get very knowledgeable about your region).

Because of Jackson Family Wines’ involvement in Oregon, and particularly the Willamette Valley, I’ve been involved in a number of projects that require this study, and have been traveling up there with some regularity. So, when it came time to schedule the latest in my series of tastings at JFW, I decided on Oregon Pinot Noir.

Tasting Oregon Pinot Noirs is more challenging for me than tasting California Pinots. The latter are easier to “get”: generally fruit-forward, riper, softer and lusher. The Oregons, by contrast, have all sorts of earth, mushroom and black or green tea notes, firmer tannins and brighter acidity, all of which can mute them in youth, making them harder than their more southerly counterparts to appreciate straight out of the bottle. So it’s important to let these wines breathe, to see what they might begin to do down the road. Certainly, this was the case in yesterday’s tasting.

My three top wines were Penner-Ash 2013 Pas de Nom Pinot Noir (Yamhill-Carlton), $100, Zena Crowne 2013 Slope Pinot Noir (Eola-Amity Hills): $?, and Siduri 2014 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley); $24. (These are all Jackson Family Wines, which numbered 9 of the 13 in the tasting.) Almost in the same league was the Evening Land 2013 Seven Springs Vineyard La Source Pinot Noir (Eola-Amity Hills), $75. All of my scores were at least 88 points; most were above 90, and the four I just cited all scored at least 94 points. I found, over the course of 2-1/2 hours of tasting, that I was raising my scores consistently over my initial impressions, which illustrates the point I made in the preceding paragraph about letting the wines breathe. I must say I found the Antica Terra 2013 Botanica ($75) a little too robust for my tastes. There was one wine whose score I lowered over the course of the tasting: The Cristom 2013 Marjorie Vineyard Pinot Noir (Eola-Amity Hills): $65. At first I loved it; everyone else in the tasting pointed out a funkiness that initially eluded me (I called it mushroomy). This resulted in a discussion about brettanomyces, and while I can’t say this wine had brett (because I didn’t do a lab analysis), after a couple hours in the glass the funk really took over, so I lowered my score to a still-respectable 91 points.

Oregon Pinot Noir offers a real counterpoint to its California brethren. It’s not a question of better-worse, but different. The Oregon wines also tend to be lower in alcohol: Of our 13 Pinots, only two were above 14% (Siduri Willamette and Penner-Ash Estate), and those were only 14.1%. All the rest were either in the 13s or, in the case of the Evening Land and the Zena Crown, 12.6% and 12.7%, respectively. These low alcohol levels make the wines fresh, vibrant and delicate, which is what Pinot Noir ought to be. Also, probably, more ageable. In general, I’d say that most of the bottles we opened were victims of infanticide.

Oregon

This was the table when the tasting was finished.


U.C. Davis V&E grads off to a promising start

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Speaking at U.C. Davis last night before a group of graduating students and faculty was really a thrill. As I told the audience in my opening remarks, to me, UCD’s Viticulture and Enology Department is like the Vatican City—not in a religious sense, of course, but as the spiritual center of winemaking in California, probably in the U.S., and as one of the greatest places to learn winemaking in the whole world.

As a budding wine reporter in the late 1980s and 1990s and on into the 2000s, many were the times I telephoned one of the famous professors there, to interview him or her for a story: Anne Noble, Andy Waterhouse, Mark Kliewer, Carole Meredith, James Wolpert, Linda Bisson, Roger Boulton, James Lapsley, Andrew Walker. These were often for articles of a technical nature, and I was always a little apprehensive that my ignorance of technical topics would bore these learned men and women. But they were patient with me, and I hope I didn’t make too many errors in my reporting!

Even before I was a wine writer, I was reading books by the likes of Maynard Amerine and Vernon Singleton, figures who were as historic, to a wine geek like me, as George Washington or Benjamin Franklin. I knew about Dr. Olmo, who created the “Olmo grape varieties,” although I never had the opportunity to interview him. I was aware of UC Davis’s history, its importance in the evolution of the California wine industry, and how nearly every winemaker I ever met in California seemed to have graduated from there. So in my mind, UC Davis’s V&E Department loomed large, and still does.

Dr. Boulton, who holds the Stephen Sinclair Scott Endowed Chair in Enology Department of Viticulture and Enology, was kind enough to give me an hour of his time. We toured the Robert Mondavi Institute and the nearby Jess S. Jackson Sustainable Winery Building,

BoultonDr. Boulton and the Jackson Sustainable Winery

both remarkable structures and centers of study and innovation, and both of them superb testaments to the legacies of two remarkable men. Then it was off to the Sensory Theatre, in the Mondavi Institute,

Theatre

for our actual tasting and talk. We went through five different clones of Pinot Noir all from the Cambria vineyard, in Santa Maria Valley, and all made identically, so that whatever differences there were had to come from the clones. That was interesting, and served the point of showing how different people discern different things in wine—even people of great education and training. Our conversation about the intricacies of marketing, critics and related topics became so involved that one of the event organizers had to cut it off, because time was up and the official program called for the presentation of awards to some of the top students. But afterwards, they had a most excellent barbecue on the lawn, and fortunately some of us were able to continue the conversation.

What a smart young group of future professional winemakers these grads are. Really brilliant, so well educated and conversant in the world’s wines. And they’re just getting started: most of them are now off to summer internships, in France, Chile, Napa Valley, all over the world—and then to their first jobs. Armed with such an excellent education, and with such smart, inquiring minds, they are a reassurance that the future of winemaking is in good hands.

 


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.

 


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