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Alcohol level in Pinot Noir: a question of shifting fashion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


To the Green Valley for a book signing!

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I’m driving up to Occidental today, on the far edge of the Green Valley of the Russian River Valley, for a book signing at a winery called Fog Crest. I’m not familiar with their wines, and I don’t know the proprietors, but they invited me up, bought a bunch of my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, and are putting me up for the night at the nearby Inn at Occidental, so what’s not to like about that?

That book was published in 2005, after a writing and editing effort that took about two years. Prior to that, I’d tried hard to get a book publishing deal. It was an era when having a book was the crowning glory to your reputation as a wine writer, but actually getting a book deal was hard. I’d written sample chapters, sent them to agents and publishers and worked the grapevine diligently, alas to no avail; nobody seemed to want my book.

Then serendipity struck, in the form of a phone call from an acquisitions editor at University of California Press. He invited me to lunch and, over sushi in Berkeley, informed me that I could write a book – about anything I wanted – as long as it was about wine – and U.C. Press would publish it.

Wow. That sort of thing just doesn’t happen. But it did. I came up with the idea for Journey – based on Heart of Darkness (alternatively, Apocalypse Now), I conceived it as a year-long journey from one end of the Russian River to the other end, where it spills into the Pacific, exploring along the way the region’s culture, plate tectonics, climate, personalities, food scene and, of course, winegrowing areas and wines. Because U.C. Press didn’t have a large budget like some for-profit publishers, they couldn’t afford a photographer, so I took my own pictures – with a throwaway camera. In the end, the rustic nature of the pictures echoed the book’s artisanal nature: I call it “the terroir of Steve” from a writing point of view.

I wrote one more book after that for U.C. Press, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff, but by the time we started talking about a third book, I’d begun this blog, which, after more than six years, has amounted to perhaps two million words, the equivalent of many books. I always thought that said something about the nature of wine writing: that it’s migrated to the Web. Of course, wine writers still write wine books, and they still get reviewed, but somehow, a wine book doesn’t seem to have the glory it used to anymore. The times they are a-changing.

My readers know that I make a big deal of the art of writing. In Journey, something came over me that I can only liken to possession: I felt like it wasn’t me writing it, but some wonderful force that was expressing itself through me. It’s a terrific little book, if I do say so myself. When I proposed it to my editor, I told him, “I want to write a book people will read 100 years from now.” I was well aware of the brief lifespan of 99% of wine books: they come and go like gnats. Today, Eric Asimov is praising them in the New York Times: tomorrow, they’re in the remainders bin of the local bookstore. That’s not what I wanted. I wanted to capture a moment in time, in a particular place (the valley of the Russian River), in such a manner that later generations would read it and go, Ahh, that was an interesting time and place.

I haven’t been up to Occidental in years, so this trip will have some nostalgia. Today will be quite warm and sunny; we’re in the pleasant grasp of our last heat wave of the season before the rains come and transform the Russian River Valley into a dripping enchantment I once likened to Middle Earth in a storm. That is, if the rains come: we all hope they do. I don’t want to see Guerneville and adjacent towns flooded, as they so frequently have been, but we all are hoping for torrents to fall and fill our reservoirs.

Have a great weekend!


A day in coastal California’s micro-climates

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It was 101 degrees in Calistoga yesterday when I left, around 4:30 p.m. By the time I reached St. Helena it was down to 94. Then 87 in Napa city. As I crossed the Benicia bridge, across the Carquinez Straights on the 101 freeway heading back to Oakland, I could see, there in the distance, a huge, glowering wall of dark gray hovering on the horizon. At first it looked like the smoke from a forest fire; but it wasn’t, it was the coastal fog.

Bigger and more looming it grew as I drove south. In Richmond, I entered the maelstrom. The blue sky, the picturesque distance disappeared into the gloom; Mount Tam, to the west, vanished as completely as if it had been wiped off the face of the world. The temperature dropped until it was 65 degrees: nearly 40 degrees lower than when I’d left Calistoga, just 1-1/2 hours before. The fog hung low through Albany and north Berkeley, then evaporated as I got to Oakland, where it was again sunny, and the temperature had gone back up to the mid-70s. This was as beautiful, as classic an illustration of Cailfornia’s summer coastal climate as you could possibly wish for. It’s why northern Calistoga specializes in Cabernet Sauvignon (good Charbono, too), why Carneros is good for Pinot Noir, and why the near East Bay is too cold for any serious grapegrowing.

I’d been in Calistoga for a visit and tasting (of various Pinot Noirs) at Atalon, which is part of Jackson Family Wines’ portfolio. It’s on Tubbs Lane; nearby are Summers, Chateau Montelena, Tamber Bey and others. This is the warmest part of Napa Valley, its northwestern-most pocket, where the cooling influence from the Bay pretty much fizzles out. Bo Barrett once told me that there’s something he calls “the Calistoga Gap”—no, not part of the clothing store chain, but a low place in the Mayacamas through which, he said, cooler air from the Russian River Valley funnels in, moderating the temperatures. This may be so; to get to Calistoga from the Russian River Valley (as I’d done that day), you drive east up Mark West Springs Road as it roller-coasters over the mountains, twisting and turning its way towards Highway 128/29. But it’s not clear to me that the Russian River Valley air can actually find its way “over the hill”, to any meaningful extent. Maybe one of my smart readers can explain this. (I had Gus beside me, in the passenger seat, and for a while he seemed like he might throw up, because his little tummy doesn’t do well on twisting mountain roads. But he didn’t.)

The Tubbs Lane part of Calistoga is a distinctive place. To my eye, it’s a bowl of sorts: not like Napa Valley further south, in, say, Oakville or Rutherford, where you have the mountains (Mayacamas and Vacas) neatly lining the western and eastern sides, with the valley broad and expansive inbetween, like the sheet on a bed. Along Tubbs Lane there seem to be mountains everywhere except to the south; it is thus more of an amphitheater. Mount St. Helena looms immediately to the east: this picture, taken at Atalon, only hints at its majestic presence.

StHelena

 

On the other side of the mountain, of course, is Lake County.

That 101 temperature yesterday in Calistoga shows how we’re in the midst of a long, severe heat wave here in California. That’s on top of the drought. The state has had some forest fires, but mainly in the Sierra Foothills and around Yosemite; the coast has largely been spared—so far. Everybody’s hoping it will continue to be. The heat is expected today—as I write these words—to be even worse than yesterday, not good news for anyone, including the grapevines that are so close to being harvested in record-early time.

Although it’s only August 1, I haven’t heard that growers are particularly worried. In fact, the scoop is that it will be another fine harvest, coming after 2012 and 2013. Lest anyone think vintage doesn’t matter in California, the evidence proves otherwise. At the Pinot Noir tasting at Atalon, which we did blind, we tasted through multiple Anderson Valley and Russian River Valley wineries, in two flights: the 2011 and 2012 vintages. There was no comparison. The 2011 flight contained some good wines but overall was disappointing. The 2012s by contrast were fat, lush, opulent. There wasn’t a single loser among them.

Have a great weekend!


The “neighborhoods” of the Russian River Valley

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Last Saturday’s tasting and panel discussion on “The Neighborhoods of the Russian River Valley,” sponsored by the Russian River Valley Winegrowers Association as part of their winter “Pinot Classic” event, was interesting, as these terroir-oriented seminars always are. But, as I told the audience, for me at least it smacked of “déja vu all over again.”

 

YOGI

 

The theme was to see if we could isolate and identify the characteristics of Pinot Noirs from three different “neighborhoods” of the greater Russian River Valley: Green Valley, Laguna Ridge and the Middle Reach.

 

RRVMap

 

To help walk us through an understanding of these regions were four talented winemakers: Michael Browne (Kosta Browne), representing Green Valley; Rod Berglund (Joseph Swan), representing Laguna Ridge, and Mark McWilliams (Arista), representing the Middle Reach. Our panel moderator was Mike Sullivan (Benovia), whose long career in the Russian River Valley gives him broad, general oversight.

My role, in Rod Berglund’s words, was to be “the cleanup hitter and let us know if what, from an outside observer standpoint, what we say makes sense or if we are all just full of [it].” I thus spoke last.

I must now briefly digress to quote some passages from my 2005 book, “A Wine Journey along the Russian River.” This is from a section called “Carving Up the Valley”:

After the 2001 harvest, a group of [Russian River Valley winemakers] began gathering to taste the wines from different parts of the appellation. Their focus, obviously, was on Pinot Noir … The object was to see whether it made sense to carve up the valley into sub-AVAs … The vintners would get together every so often for a few hours to taste and see whether they could detect consistent differences in the wines … Exactly where these divisions are and what they should be called are years away from being determined … the Russian River Valley Winegrowers Association itself has suggested three sub-AVAs: the Middle Reach, Laguna Ridges [sic] and the Santa Rosa Plain (counted as one), and Green Valley, which has had AVA status since 1983. You can think of this as a warm-cool-cold continuum.

I wrote those words in 2004. Now here we are, ten years later, and it’s as if I wrote them yesterday. Pretty much the same winemakers, talking about the same topic—it’s as if the last ten years hadn’t ever happened.

Why these new AVA processes take so long (and they always do) is a matter of complexity; no small reason is simply because people are busy, and it takes a great deal of effort to come to agreement (especially in so large and crowded a place as Russian River Valley). Still, I confess to finding it surprising that this particular process has dragged on for so long. There’s no question that the Russian River Valley needs to be broken up into smaller, more meaningful AVAs. At 96,000 acres (according to Wine Institute), it’s the 21st biggest AVA in California (of more than 100), bigger than Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill, Sonoma Valley and Sonoma Mountain combined—and you can throw Santa Rita Hills in there for good measure and there’s still a skosh of acreage left over.

As I wrote in “Journey,” “[T]he Middle Reach does deserve its own AVA status.” I believe this on several bases: historical (the name “the Middle Reach” is very old, by California standards, and Pinot Noir there dates to the 1960s) and because the wine quality is so high and so consistent across all properties. Indeed, the Middle Reach probably has the greatest quality overall because, being the warmest part of the valley, it ripens the grapes well even in cooler years, whereas a place like Green Valley—the coldest neighborhood—may struggle in a chiller like 2011 and even in the more moderate 2012 vintage to get the grapes to full maturity. A well-made Middle Reach Pinot is spectacular on release, yet we know from the experience of older wineries (Rochioli, Williams Selyem) that the best bottles are capable of twenty years of development.

I think Laguna Ridge also makes sense. You have there wineries whose Pinot Noirs are lush, tannic and earthy, and need time to develop in the bottle. I think the current thinking now is to separate out Laguna Ridge (in the hilly south-central part of the valley) from the Santa Rosa Plain to the east, which makes sense; but that leaves unnamed a huge swathe of Russian River Valley, stretching roughly from Highway 12, east of Highway 116, northward almost to Windsor, and containing some of the Russian River Valley’s most famous wineries and vineyards. It surely deserves appellation status too, and why not Santa Rosa Plain? Although, as I noted in “Journey,” Rod Berglund at that time had suggested a Windsor Hills AVA for the more northerly part of this stretch.

I had written, too, that Bob Cabral had suggested a West River AVA (to pick up where the Middle Reach trails off), while Dan Goldfield had suggested dividing Green Valley into Upper and Lower (based on elevation); and I’m sure there are others with even more creative ideas. So we can begin to see why this process of new AVAs takes so long. This is complicated stuff!

I wish the Russian River Valley Winegrowers well in this latest push. As I wrote in 2004, things then seemed to have been put on hold, “but that has only slowed, not stopped, the momentum for sub-appellating the valley.” My hope is that, with last Saturday’s public event, the momentum has been regained.

(P.S. As I noted in “Journey,” and Rod Berglund again reminded us on Saturday, legally and technically there is no such thing as a “sub-AVA.” All AVAs are created equal, it seems, in the eyes of the government! But for conversational purposes, I have no problem referring to sub-AVAs.)

 

GusWine

Gus was there too


Refining the Russian River Valley AVA: another start

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Maybe something will come of it this time–“it” being the latest push to establish sub-appellations within the greater Russian River Valley.

People have been talking about it forever. More than ten years ago, when I was doing the research for my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, the controversy already was old. As I wrote, “Exactly where these divisions are and what they should be called are years away from being determined.” Some new appellations suggested at that time by the Russian River Valley Winegrowers Association (RRVWA, but nowadays they’ve dropped the word “association” so it’s just RRVW) were the Middle Reach, Laguna Ridges and the Santa Rosa Plain (although the latter two had major overlappings), but separately, Rod Berglund, at Joseph Swan, added Sebastopol Hills and Windsor Hills, Dan Goldfield (Dutton-Goldfield) suggested splitting Green Valley into “Upper” and “Lower” (based on elevation), and Bob Cabral (who just announced he’s leaving Williams Selyem) favored a West River AVA (to pick up where the Middle Reach trails off, beyond Wohler Narrows and Gary Farrell (and if you’ve driven out there, you know it looks and feels very different from Westside Road closer to Healdsburg).

This latest initiative, announced by Chris Donatiello, currently head of the RRVW, is interesting in that it refers to any potentially new AVAs as “neighborhoods” and to the push itself as “the neighborhood initiative.” I would like to have been a fly on the wall in the discussions that resulted in the choice of such a richly connotative word. Perhaps, given the history of flashpoint divisiveness that has accompanied every AVA battle I’ve ever witnessed (from Santa Rita Hills to Fort Ross-Seaview), the RRVW decided that calling the regions “neighborhoods” would humanize the discussion. Maybe the idea of a “neighborhood” is more expansive than that of a region whose boundaries are hard-wired on climate and soils. Terroir can be awfully exclusive: I mean, let’s say the presence of Goldridge soil is pertinent to your definition. Exactly where does Goldridge start and stop?  It can be a matter of feet–and if I’m right outside the Goldridge zone, but I want into the new appellation, I’m going to be pissed off if you don’t let me in. I might even hire a lawyer and fight. So maybe calling them “neighborhoods” is so that the boundaries can be more elastic.

At any rate, it’s a good thing the discussion has resumed, and I hope that it results in some new AVAs. As readers of this blog know, I sometimes poke fun at California AVAs (because it’s so easy to), but at heart I’m a big admirer of them. They’re the slipperiest things in the world to get your arms around–but we’re better off with them than without them, because they do help, however limitedly, to understand why some wines are the way they are. At the elite end of wine, at the kind of wineries that are so common throughout the Russian River Valley, vintners try their utmost to produce wines with minimal intervention so that their terroir can shine through. So it’s only proper that that terroir should have a name.

You can’t be a fan of wine without having some interest in geology, climate science, geography, political history and associated fields. As a geek, I love studying topo maps (showing physical features) and political maps (showing streets, towns, river names and so on), trying to piece together how everything ties in. Right now I’m looking at the giant map the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission put out in 2007 of the Russian River Valley (including Green Valley and Chalk Hill). Because of its topo features, you can clearly see how the flats we call the Petaluma Gap allow maritime air to funnel into the valley, traversing past Cotati and Rohnert Park like a bowling ball taking aim at the southeastern valley (the Laguna Ridges). At the same time, another break in the coastal hills, this one coming up from Bodega Bay, brings that cool, moist air into the southwestern valley, into the heart of Green Valley. (Berglund’s Sebastopol Hills seems to lie at the junction of the Petaluma Gap and Bodega Bay intrusions.) Of course, as you move north in the valley, you lose that coastal influence with every mile or so (local conditions depending), so that it’s largely spent by the time you reach, say, Oded Shakked’s Dakine Vineyard, on Westside Road, where you’re almost in Dry Valley (and Dakine is, of course, where Oded grows excellent Syrah for his Longboard brand).

The Russian River Valley obviously needs clarification. At 96,000 acres, it’s the 21st biggest AVA in California, according to the Wine Institute–bigger than Santa Rita Hills, Arroyo Seco and Atlas Peak combined. It’s true that Napa Valley, at 225,280 acres, dwarfs Russian River Valley, but Napa already is divided into at least 16 sub-appellations, and quite successfully; in my opinion, Napa’s appellations were drawn up more or less sensibly, although they could stand further refinement (I’d divide Oakville, for instance, into East and West, and might even reconsider Benches for Oakville and Rutherford).

The task the RRVW has given itself will not be an easy one. Even if there’s widespread agreement among all parties as to names and boundaries–a big “if”–the biggest challenge is suggested by this sentence in Donatiello’s press release: “The diverse personalities within the Russian River Valley are shown as much in the people that inhabit this area as much as the wines grown here.” This statement tacitly concedes that the total impact on a wine includes not just climate and soil, but “personalities,” or what Emile Peynaud, in The Taste of Wine, refers to as cru. It is not simply terroir, as such; it includes “the primary role of…man’s efforts,” taking into account his “observation, ingenuity and hard work.” How you roll these things into establishing the boundaries of an appellation is beyond me, but somehow, it has got to be done.


Happy Birthday Russian River Valley!

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I’ve had a love affair with the Russian River Valley for the nearly 30 years I’ve been going up there to visit wineries and taste wine. My first visit was in 1985; two years before that, the region received its official status as an American Viticultural Area, the 26th California AVA (preceded, oddly, by such non-entities as Paicines, Lime Kiln Valley and Cole Ranch). So 2013 is the valley’s thirtieth birthday.

The original 96,000 acres, now expanded to 126,600 acres, was thought of as a cool-climate growing region, although it’s fair to say our understanding of the valley’s complex terroir has increased vastly since then. There are areas that are quite hot (due to elevation above the fog), and the snaking pattern of the maritime influence is as complicated as the terrain of the hills and wind gaps that shapes it. Still, there’s a reason Cabernet Sauvignon is not widely grown in the RRV: the weather is patently too cool. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and sparkling wine are the valley’s specialties, but Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah and “field blends” also star.

The valley is not difficult to get to from my home town, Oakland. Up the 80-east corridor through Berkeley to the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, past the San Quentin peninsula that I always think would be a fabulous place to live (it’s sheltered from the fog, with gorgeous Bay views), were it not for the inconvenient fact of the prison. Then it’s onto the merge with the 101, made easier in San Rafael since they completed the new ramp. Up through Marin, past Frank Lloyd Wright’s Civic Center, across the Sonoma line through Petaluma and Cotati (where the first vines appear), then to Santa Rosa (which can be trafficky), and there you are: You can take River Road for the valley’s southern fringe, or go up to Westside Road for its northern.

From the ground, it’s hard to appreciate the larger-scale topology of the RRV. Certainly the Petaluma Gap, west of the freeway, a gigantic spoon-shaped plain that funnels cold air and moisture right into the valley’s southern flank, is informative. As is, on a clear day, the sight of Mount St. Helena, in the northeast: that’s Napa Valley. I remember a day, years ago, when I was in a Rodney Strong vineyard right beside the 101 freeway, looking at St. Helena, looming in the purple distance. I picked up a piece of black stone a geologist later identified as basalt that came, most likely, from St. Helena, or from one of the other Napa mountains, that blew its stack, millions of years ago, during the last period of volcanic activity. But between the Russian River Valley and Napa Valley stands a major obstacle: the wall of the Mayacamas, rising (at Cobb Mountain) to 4,700 feet. This formidable barrier tends to stop the marine influence in its tracks, which is why Napa is considerably warmer than the RRV.

The valley has changed a lot over decades. Symbolically, Williams Selyem no longer is made in a ramshackle wooden barn but in an ultra-modern facility. There are many more wineries now than then; more people, too, in towns like Sebastopol (where The Barlow is the biggest thing to happen in years). Yet along River and Westside roads, and the country lanes that crisscross the river itself, things still feel countrified; time hasn’t exactly stood still, but has advanced slowly, a tortoise to Napa’s hare.

The highest score I ever gave to a Russian River wine was 100 points, for Williams Selyem’s 2007 Litton Estate Pinot Noir. (They had to drop the Litton a few years ago, after Ridge complained.) Most of my highest-scoring RRV wines have also been from Williams Selyem, but Merry Edwards is dependably up there, as are Lynmar, Rochioli, Joseph Swan and Gary Farrell. There are many tiny little wineries whose wines I’ve never had, because there aren’t enough hours in the day to taste everything. Sometimes I wish I specialized in Pinot Noir, but I don’t: my beat is inclusive of all wine varieties and types.

The highest score I ever gave a Russian River Valley Chardonnay was 97 points, for Rochioli’s 2010 South River Vineyard. That was followed, a few months later, by another 97 pointer, for Williams Selyem’s 2010 Allen Vineyard. Those two vineyards are nearby, on opposite sides of Westside Road, but both in the so-called Middle Reach of the valley. I do believe the Middle Reach is the tenderloin of the Russian River Valley–a sort of Grand Cru stretch–but so much also depends on whether the vintage has been cool or warm, and also upon viticulture.

There’s been talk, endless talk, of sub-appellating the valley. I think it’s a good idea, but then, I have no economic or egotistical investment in the outcome. Were I King, there would be a Middle Reach appellation, a Laguna Hills appellation, perhaps a Santa Rosa Plain. One can even argue for a Western Russian River Valley AVA, for that cool, mountainous portion north and west of the Green Valley, inclusive of Guerneville (but not of Fort Ross-Seaview, just over the Cazadero hill, to the northwest; there, everything is different). Such distinctions make sense from a terroir (mainly climate but also elevation) point of view. But I’m not holding my breath. If it hasn’t happened already (and it obviously hasn’t), it probably won’t for a long time.


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