Lots of work-related travel coming up. I’m off to New York for a quickie tomorrow to attend the big Red and White Bash, Wine Enthusiast’s 25th anniversary celebration, at the Hudson Hotel, on West 58th, in busy midtown. From the sound of it, it’s going to be quite the par-tay. I already have my red and white “costume,” and Chuck lent me a really cool papier-måché mask he bought in London.
Then next week, it’s up to Geyserville for the Alexander Valley Cabernet Academy. This is an offshoot of the annual Taste Alexander Valley consumer event, but the Cabernet Academy is an invitation-only thing for sommeliers. They fly in from all over the place for a series of seminars–four in all–which I’ll be moderating, at different locations throughout the valley.
The idea is to see if there are terroir differences between the southern, middle and northern stretches of Alexander Valley. This is a topic I hadn’t given much thought to before, so in the next week, I plan to study it. My impression, up to now, is that the major distinction in Alexander Valley terroir is between mountains and flatlands. If you take a property like Stonestreet, or Verité, they have to have an Alexander Valley appellation even though they’re thousands of feet up in the Mayacamas. That’s the same AVA all those wineries along Route 128 have, down on the valley floor, which makes no sense at all.
The late Jess Jackson tried for years to get his mountain vineyards under a new appellation. The mountain they’re on historically has been called Black Mountain. Jess wanted it changed to Alexander Mountain. He lost that one, a rare defeat for a man who seldom lost anything in his long, illustrious life. I don’t care what they call it, but that mountain does need a separate appellation.
At any rate, I think the temperature is a little hotter the further north you go in Alexander Valley, as it is in Napa Valley. The average high in July in Cloverdale, for instance. Is 93 degrees, while mid-valley, at Geyserville, it’s a little over 90. At Healdsburg, in the southernmost part, the average July high is 88.8 degrees. So there is that spread. But this is a simplistic way of looking at things, as there’s so much more involved. Along the Russian River, the soils are deep and fertile. As you climb the benches and get into the mountains, they become drier, thinner and less rich in nutrients. The mountains also are cooler, an important consideration in such a hot place.
Then, after Alexander Valley, I’m off to the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival, where I’ll be co-hosting, along with Michael Jordan, M.S., a tasting of the Cabernets of Pritchard Hill. (Michael told me he was inspired to organize this tasting after reading the article on Pritchard Hill I wrote last year for Wine Enthusiast. The confirmed winemakers and wineries for our panel at this point are Phillip Titus (Chappellet), Andy Erickson (Ovid), Phillipe Melka (Brand), David Long (David Arthur) and Carlo Mondavi (Continuum). This panel will be a high point of the festival, but only one of many: as you can see from the schedule of events, Kapalua is a fabulous four days of some of the greatest wines and winemakers in California (not to mention food. I’m assuming the hotel has a gym where I can burn off the calories!). I can’t wait to go. My only regret is that Gus won’t be able to come with me. He loves the beach.
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?
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.
Running into Gary Eberle again at this weekend’s big Cab event in Paso Robles brought back beautiful memories. I first met Gary when I was sent by the magazine I used to work for to write a story about him.
That must have been around 1990. I’d heard of him, of course, for by then, he was already famous as one of the founding fathers of Paso Robles (the old Estrella River brand, followed, in 1981, by Eberle). But Paso, unfortunately, back then was not particularly esteemed as a wine region, so Gary’s wines had more respect than love among the critics’ club I was about to join. One of the country’s top critics said his Cabernets “ha[d] shown promise at times” but were “variable in quality.”
Now, before I go any further, it’s time to deconstruct this off-used critics’ meme. When a winery “shows promise” it means that it’s officially on the critic’s radar, and that he has some reason to like it. However, what troubles the critic is that he can’t quite convince himself that the wine is worth really committing himself to. If I may indulge in a gender metaphor, it’s like he’s dated her a few times, is interested…but he’s interested in a lot of different wines and isn’t ready to go steady yet.
Still, he can’t quite bring himself to throw the wine under the bus. They had some fun times together…remember that summer night with the barbecued steak? Things were just about perfect, with the stars twinkling in the black sky and the soft August breeze teasing out the jasmine, and the second bottle nearly drained. But she’s only a working girl, a Paso chick with sunburn on the back of her neck, more Brad Paisley than will.i.am. The critic isn’t sure she’s the girl he wants to bring back and introduce to Mom…or bear his children.
Hence “variable in quality.” Do not, gentle reader, make the mistake of thinking this means that the critic has tasted every one of the winery’s wines over many vintages and found that, one year, the Cabernet is 91 and the next it’s 83. That may be the case; it may not; it may simply be that the critic (for whatever reason) is loathe to commit, and the finest excuse for not committing–a 24 karat excuse, one no one can ever disprove–is that the wines “are variable.” Who would argue with such a statement? “You think the wines are NOT variable?” the critic exclaims, his eyes wide and pitying. “Then, my friend, I’m afraid you haven’t tasted them consistently. Or, even worse, you do not have the palate to discern variable quality.
Then it hits Twitter: “Big critic says wines variable.” Next thing you know, the guest wine blogger for the Cedar Rapids Press Blowhard writes, “The wines are known to be variable” and, voila! a reputation is cemented.
End of segue: Back to Gary Eberle. At Saturday’s Cabernet Collective event, most of the younger winemakers on the panel paid homage to Gary. As well they should have. It’s hard to exaggerate Gary’s influence on Paso Robles. It’s a sign of a maturing wine region when a new generation comes in and recognizes the role that the pioneers played. That’s not always the case: there are appellations in California where new people come in and act like they invented everything…as if nothing had existed before they arrived..how ridiculous. It’s beautiful and refreshing when new people give props to those who came before them.
To Paso Robles this afternoon for a quick trip to moderate the first CAB Collective, a local group organized to promote the Cabernet Sauvignons of Paso Robles. Good timing: Paso is on the verge of a renaissance, if it’s not already happening, and tastemakers–sommeliers, writers, chefs–are starting to take note, especially of its red wines. Alcohol levels seem to have moderated in recent years, making the wines more balanced. Meanwhile, a new generation of winemakers (one might call them contrarians) is exploring Paso’s terroirs with renewed vigor, particularly on the west side.
There’s never enough time on these trips to do everything I want. For that matter, there’s never enough time in my life to go on all the trips I want. I’d love to get down to Paso, and Santa Barbara, and other destinations south four or five times a year; but that’s impossible. There’s been talk for years of sub-dividing Paso Robles into multiple AVAs. Some years ago, a proposal to establish an East Side and West Side appellation was killed amidst intense opposition. I’d love sometime to have someone familiar with the region drive me around and explain how the climate and soils change from place to place. Even after all these years, I feel the gaps in my knowledge. This map, courtesy of Tablas Creek, is helpful in understanding the wind flow patterns from west to east. It shows how the “Templeton Gap” effect is no simple thing, but instead is a spider-webby pattern that may impact one property while leaving another nearby alone.
Meanwhile, the battle over expanding the Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills AVA is heating up. I inadvertently got involved in it earlier this week, although I’ll spare you the dreary details. It’s a shame how these boundary line fights pit neighbor against neighbor, in a kind of Civil War. I recall a similar fuss some years ago concerning expanding the Russian River Valley’s lines (which eventually was approved despite some intense local opposition).
And who could forget the turmoil that arose when some folks in Napa Valley talked about establishing Rutherford Bench and Oakville Bench appellations? I was unable to find an online link to anything about it, but in the 1990s that brouhaha was tearing Napa apart. It went nowhere.
People take their AVAs seriously. An AVA is hard enough to get established anyway (consider that a branch of the Treasury Department is involved). It takes a lot of time and costs a lot of money, and I can understand why, once one is up and running, the people in it don’t want to tinker with it anymore. At the same time, the wine industry is a for-profit place, and, since wines from a smaller, prestigious appellation tend fetch higher prices than wines from bigger appellations, someone who’s outside is always going to want to be inside. It’s only human nature. But it can get ugly. I hope the Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills people get this situation under control soon. It’s not good for anyone. Can’t we all just get along?
My favorite event of the year, at which I speak and taste with others, is my annual gig at the student wine club at the University of California’s Haas School of Business. I did it last night for, I think, the fifth year.
These future MBAs are so smart. At least half the questions they asked startled me with their freshness and straight-to-the-point accuracy. But then, they always do, which is why I so enjoy this class.
What do I think of score inflation? Why doesn’t Beaujolais ever get as high a score as Bordeaux? Do I find myself agreeing with other critics on the same wines? What makes one wine score 98 while another only gets 88? Are there different styles of wine writing aimed at different audiences or demographics (which made me recall the short-lived awfulness of Wine X magazine and the absurdity of Twitter reviews)? If I review the same wine twice over time, will I give it the same score? How do I know if a wine will age? How do I predict how long it will age for? Is there a relationship between price and quality? Do I think crowd-sourcing will become the wave of the future? And so on.
Each of these questions could exhaust an entire seminar, of course, and each of them got my brain cells all fired up.
What was equally interesting about the students was what they didn’t ask. No questions about the wines themselves. We tasted through four Cabernets: Von Strasser 2009 Estate Cabernet, Venge 2010 Silencieux Cabernet Sauvignon, Rock Wall 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon and Hawkstone 2011 Connoisseur Series Cabernet Sauvignon. All are from Napa Valley. I scored them from 98 points down to 82 points, and wanted to share with the students why my points varied so much. We started with the Hawkstone, which most people liked because it’s fresh and fruity. But when we reached the Venge, everyone could see how much better it was. A superb wine, really. Then came the Von Strasser. I asked for a show of hands: Who preferred the Von Strasser to the Venge, and vice versa? The Venge won, by a slim margin, which is what I expected. It’s a more accessible wine. I had to explain why I scored the Von Strasser higher, which led to a conversation about mountain fruit. I like an interactive teaching style. What (I asked them) is the biggest difference between dirt that lies on a horizontal angle (and here I held my arm up at 45 degrees) and dirt that’s level? Everyone practically shouted out at the same time: Water! Exactly so. I explained about drainage, and how the water carries away nutrients with it, leaving the land leaner than down in the valley below. They listened to all this eagerly; and, of course, when one has an eager audience, it reinforces one’s own sense of excitement. Small berries are concentrated berries: the skin-to-pulp ratio is greater, resulting in greater tannins, hence more ageability. These young students were fascinated by the vagaries of aging, possibly because, being so young themselves, they cannot imagine the process of slow but steady deterioration (for that is what aging is. I reminded them of the old slogan that, according to the French, the British prefer their claret “in the first blush of death”).
It was inevitable that I would contrast these exchanges with some of the other classes and panels I have the opportunity to serve on. There, an older audience asks (in my humble opinion) far less interesting questions. What are the clones? What kind of French oak do you use? What year did you start? Issues such as these do not, I think, make for useful conversations between winemakers and consumers; and I often think the consumers are asking them, not because they really care, but because they think these are the sorts of questions they ought to be asking, if they’re to appear to be intelligent wine people. As people age, the mind seems to grow less curious, less elastic, less, well, naïve: but naïve questions are the best of all. Out of the mouths of babes.
And not a single query about social media! Not one. There would have been no mention of Twitter or blogs, had I not introduced the topic. Some years ago, there were lots of questions about social media. Could this lacuna be canary in the coal mine stuff? At any rate, at the end, they asked me to write my blog’s URL on the white board and as I did so, one of the students said, “You just got 60 new readers.
I’m going to be moderating the panel on clones at The Chardonnay Symposium, which makes it sound like I know all about them when, in reality, I know very little. However, a panel moderator doesn’t have to know much about the topic at hand. The secret to moderating a panel is simply to get the panelists do the talking.
Well, I’m being modest. I do know a little about clones. Here’s what I know–or think I know. I’m hoping to learn more from comments by my savvy readers
- There are many, many clones, or selections, of Chardonnay: Clone 4, the Wente selection, Mount Eden, Hudson, Rued, Dijons 7, 95, 96, 548, etc. I couldn’t tell you what each of them does, though.
- Almost everybody grows the Wente selection (and to add to the confusion, there are different strains of Wente).
- The various clones are sensitive to climate, which affects the wines’ acidity. That’s why some clones are preferred in Oregon and Burgundy, as opposed to others used in California.
- It’s debatable whether certain clones succeed better with certain rootstocks.
- That Rued clone often reveals itself with a Muscat-like scent.
- Some vintners, including Marimar Torres and Elias Fernandez, believe that making a single wine from multiple clones lends complexity, and helps protect against vintage variation. (We see the same thing with Pinot Noir.) At Williams Selyem, Bob Cabral planted more than 20 clones in a single block.
- Chardonnays made from different clones react differently to oak. Some seem better able to handle lots of new wood than others.
- Some winemakers swear that certain blocks within their vineyards consistently produce superior Chardonnay, and they attribute this to the clone. But it could be the terroir, couldn’t it?
Obviously, any and all of these issues can make for lots of conversation, so I’m sure we’ll have lots to talk about.
There is, however, a lacuna of knowledge concerning Chardonnay clones, which is why there’s so much confusion about them. As Nancy Sweet, at U.C. Davis’s Foundation Plant Services, explained in her 2007 paper on Chardonnay, Formal grape clonal selection programs in the United States have not received the financial support that has allowed European programs to progress. I would guess, given the dismal state of educational funding nowadays, that that situation is unlikely to improve.
So far, my panelists are Merry Edwards, Jeff Stewart (Hartford Court), Clarissa Nagy (Riverbench), James Ontiveros (Alta Maria and Native 9) and a Wente yet to be determined (but I think Karl is unable to come. The Wentes, of course, know a lot about Chardonnay clones). The Symposium is at Byron, down in the Santa Maria Valley, where we should have an audience of about 100-150.
One thing I want to avoid, as moderator, is the panel getting bogged down in technical minutiae. After all, this is a consumer event, not a graduate seminar at Davis. But I won’t let it get dumbed down. I was at a panel event recently (in the audience, not onstage) where the moderator tried to dumb it down by getting cutesy with the panelists. It wasn’t exactly “If you were a tree, what kind would you be?” but it was close. When you have smart people onstage, let them be smart.