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California Pinot Noir: A followup consideration

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A question arose on my blog late last week, after my March 27 post, What about those reports that “weaker wines are better than stronger ones”?

When the comments turned to a discussion about soils, the topic of limestone arose. Now, as any historian of Burgundy (including Chablis), the Loire and Champagne is well aware, limestone (or chalk) has been considered the “bedrock” (pun intended) of those regions’ terroir. Hugh Johnson, in his “World Atlas,” praises the limestone of Nuits-St-Georges (to use a single instance) for causing “the inimitable sappy richness of the Pinot Noir.” James E. Wilson, in his book, “Terroir,” titles his chapter on Champagne “Chalk Country” and reminds us that it took centuries for “the significance of the relationship of this lifeless-looking white rock and the soils of Champagne” to be recognized.

A few California Pinot pioneers with experience in the vineyards of Burgundy recognized it. They sought chalky soil when they developed their properties. Foremost among them was perhaps Josh Jensen, at Calera, who once described to me how he had scoured the state of California, armed with geology maps and a little vial of acid, in search of limestone, which he eventually found on Mount Harlan. (“Calera” itself is the old Spanish word for “lime kiln.”)

When I began visiting the Santa Rita Hills, local vintners made a big deal of pointing out the white-stone outcroppings that burst through the soil along the shoulders of Santa Rosa Road—limestone, uplifted or exposed from the now-retreated sea bed. In western Paso Robles, too, one can see these eroded white rocks, evidence not only of the California coast’s birth deep below a long-gone ocean, but of the fact that there is more limestone in our state than anyone had previously thought.

The comments on my blog concerning limestone underscored its importance for Pinot Noir at such wineries as Calera and Chalone. This may well be true, although in the case of Calera the terroir is dominated by the warm summers, which in my judgment trump soil there. As for Chalone, its changes of ownership over the years have resulted in some inconsistency of the wines, which makes them difficult to appraise. If we view the broader Santa Rita Hills (and Santa Maria Valley, as well), with its fossilized seashells, it’s easy to apprehend that these old chalky deposits lend a certain something to the wines (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay especially), but precisely what that “something” is, is hard to say, beyond the intriguing but amorphous word “minerality,” which almost everyone in California claims to find in their wines, whether it be Zinfandels from the Sierra Foothills or Cabernets from Oakville. I will not at this time venture any further into the tall weeds of minerality.

So I see limestone, if a Pinot vineyard is lucky enough to have it, as a good thing. But so are the Gold Ridge soils of the Sonoma Coast, the barren, austere dirts of the Mayacamas stretch of Alexander Valley, the volcanic soils of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and indeed the clays and pebbles of Carneros. This is the puzzle of Pinot Noir in California: that so vast and turbulent an array of soils can consistently produce so fine a wine.

Which leaves us, then, with the only thing these regions have in common to explain wine quality: climate. (Obviously, all the different soils are well-drained, no matter their chemical composition. Well-drained soil is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the production of fine wine.) These regions all are within the Region I-Region II spectrum of the old U.C. Davis scale. I look to the warmer parts among them, such as the Middle Reach of the Russian River Valley, to give dense, textured and frankly flamboyant Pinot Noirs. The cooler areas yield silkier, more delicate and perhaps more complex Pinots, with the most complex of all coming from those places so impacted by the coast that, in a chilly year like 2011, the grapes might not get fully ripe. But in a more moderate year, like 2012, look out.

There’s no point in pitting these styles one against the other. It’s petulant to do so. Which is why I hold that, when it comes to Pinot Noir, California has achieved—finally—a degree of variation, based on terroir, that we long envied among the French. We need envy France no more—what we need is further exploration, fueled and paid for by consumers willing to pay the bottle price, because they know that California coastal Pinot Noir needs to offer no apologies, to anyone, for being what it is.

I do think that the lower the alcohol is on Pinot Noir, the more it will reflect its particular soil conditions; there is an inverse relationship between ripeness and the soil part of terroir. In this respect, it’s important to keep in mind that the soil part of terroir is to some extent at odds with the grape itself. Which will dominate? I see this as a pitched battle between two sides. There is a school of thought that roots for terroir, another school that roots for the fruit itself. (One might almost conclude that this is the essence of the difference between “old world” and “new world” palates.) Ideally, Pinot Noir, and all wines actually, is the result of an exquisite balancing act between terroir and grape, the sort of equilibrium sometimes referred to as “tension” or “nerve,’ which is more than just piquant acidity. It’s rarely achieved; one hopes that any wine that gets a high score from a reputable critic comes close. This touches upon the ripeness conversation we’ve all been having, but does not resolve it because, in truth, there is no resolution.


On terroir, and the vine’s microbiome

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Doesn’t it seem to you like these stories lately about microbes in soil affecting wine are making the concept of terroir even more complicated than we thought it was? We used to think terroir was a matter of the physical structure of the soil and the climate, or meso-climate, of the vineyard. John Winthrop Haeger, in his encyclopedic “North American Pinot Noir,” interpreted the soil part to include “orientation and aspect,” and possibly the “chemical composition.” But he said nothing about microbes.

Emile Peynaud, the great French enologist, in “The Taste of Wine” similarly referred to terroir’s “combination of site and soil,” and while he differentiated between “surface soil [and] subsoil and its water content,” he, like Haegar, has nothing to say about microbes. (For the record, as I’ve pointed out before, Peynaud takes note of the hand of man in crafting wine’s qualities in introducing the word “cru” to denote the combination of terroir and human intervention.) Even as hardcore a scientist as Clark Smith, in “Postmodern Winemaking,” refers to no fewer than “sixty five data dimensions” in soil analysis, but they have to do with structure, chemical composition and water content—not microbes.

So if this new report on the “wine grapevine’s microbiome,” published by the American Society for Microbiology and widely reported in scientific media, is true, we’re looking at a vastly more complex explanation of terroir than anyone has envisioned up to now. The study looked at “how different bacteria colonize these plants [i.e. grapevines] and also how those microbes might ultimately contribute to the wine’s sensory properties.” The study found a very close connection—almost an identity—between the “bacterial species found in the plant [and] the soil it was growing in.”

While one of the scientists who conducted the study, Jack Gilbert, conceded that “We don’t have evidence that bacteria are specifically contributing to terroir,” he firmly concluded that “those bacteria are affecting the chemistry of the plant,” which seems to pretty conclusively state that the microbes are, in fact, impacting terroir, since the chemistry of the plant obviously plays a large part in the qualities of the wine made from it.

The thing that puzzles me is this statement from Gilbert, which really requires more explanation than I’ve been able to find. “No matter where you are in the world, the types of bacteria growing on or in Merlot grapes are quite similar.” Gilbert looked at Merlot grapes or wine from Long Island, Bordeaux and California and found “similar bacteria species” in them all. Several things are unclear. Were the Merlot microbes also found in lab specimens of other grape varieties and wines? Were the Merlot bacteria substantially different from the bacteria associated with other varieties? Why should plants growing as far apart as California and France all possess similar bacteria? Does this suggest that Merlot itself can only thrive in the presence of certain bacteria?

I hope the scientists do a lot of followup work in these areas. This entire conversation about terroir has been stuck in a ditch for decades, and important new discoveries in the vine’s microbiome may help to push it forward. It will certainly give wine writers a whole new area to write about.


Understanding temperature data? Not so easy!

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One of the toughest parts of my job—of any wine writer’s job, actually—is finding reliable, historic data on which to base conclusions about terroir.

Lord knows, we have endless discussions about terroir, yet most of them are based on anecdotal information and as we all know anecdotes are not reliable. They may be interesting, they may be well-meaning on the part of the teller, and they may even be true. Yet there’s nothing like accumulated, provable data to underscore a scientific claim.

Having been in this business for a long time I can’t tell you how often I’ve been given directly conflicting info by winemakers who often couldn’t agree on the characteristics of their region’s terroir even when their vineyards were right next to each other! Or, along similar lines, they couldn’t agree on the qualitative aspects of the wines from the appellation they shared. Needless to say, this makes the wine writer’s job more difficult, so in the end, we’re forced to come to our own conclusions—for which the winemakers who couldn’t agree in the first place then criticize us. Sigh…

A nice example of my current challenge is to determine, precisely and clearly, the temperature and climate differences between the Santa Maria Valley and the Santa Rita Hills, especially for growing Pinot Noir. The two AVAs are, of course, close together. Both are open to the west winds from the Pacific; both are east-west-running valleys. Is one cooler than the other? How does one define “cooler”? This is where the tough part of my job kicks in. Where is the data? Who controls it? Is it a government agency, like NOAA? Do individual vineyards have weather sensors that could tell us? Is that data proprietary or is it sharable? Over how many years does the data span? I don’t want data only from a single year; to be credible the data should span multiple years. Who’s been measuring degree days or daytime and nighttime lows for a decade? How long does the high temperature remain high during the day—for 30 minutes? An hour? Both AVAs are long, in an east-west direction: how much does the daily high temperature vary as you move inland? A degree a mile, as is commonly cited? What part does elevation play (both AVAs contain significant hills). This only begins to describe the complexities. As the great Saintsbury winemaker David Graves notes, “What do you mean by cooler? Hours above or below a threshold? Nighttime lows? Daytime highs? The period between veraision and harvest? Bloom-harvest? And what role does relative humidity play?” For the wine writer these are difficult things to determine, but they seem central to me, if you’re trying to pick apart the differences between neighboring appellations. After all, if an appellation means anything to begin with, it consists of these very complexities and ambiguities.

Yet if a writer wants really to tackle issues of terroir, these data points need to be accumulated. The trouble is, where are they?

It’s hard work, which is why there are so many shibboleths and myths in this business. Who’s got the time to research this stuff, or even to figure out how to begin? So, too many wine writers look up something Matt Kramer, or Oz Clarke, or Steve Heimoff or Larry Walker or somebody else once said, and repeat it, as though it were the gospel truth. Which it might or might not be. It’s not that any of these individuals would deliberate misstate something (Heaven forbid!) but that they might have got it wrong to begin with, without knowing it and without having subsequently been corrected.

Anyhow, this is one reason why the more I last in this business the less I trust “the conventional wisdom.” Still, understanding appellations is as central to my job as breathing is to life. I hope to just be able to contribute some small part to it that will stand the test of time.


Terroir in Pinot Noir: an approach, and a problem

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When it comes to coastal California Pinot Noir, we make much of the distinctions of terroir (“we” being the wine media, some winemakers and everyone else involved in this rather arcane conversation).

We know the regions we celebrate: Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Carneros, Anderson Valley, Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey County, San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Rita Hills and so on. We say (and may actually believe) that each region is unique. If this were not the case, then what difference would an appellation of origin make, anyway? If each of these regions is not truly different, the only thing we’d concern ourselves with would be the reputation of the winery and the quality of the wine.

But of course they’re different. Aren’t they? Anyone classically educated in Burgundy understands that Chambolle-Musigny is “feminine, elegant,” Vosne-Romanée “deep, rich, velvety but not heavy.” Gevrey-Chambertin is “masculine, complex and long-lasting;” Echézeaux “close-knit and elegant.” (Descriptions are from Michael Broadbent.) To expect anyone who loves California wine not to transfer these templates to California—in Californian-ese–is, frankly, magical thinking.

And so we insist that the Pinot Noirs (and Cabernets, and Zinfandels, and Chardonnays, and so on) from our different AVAs must be different; and, when we discover (if we do) that they indeed are, we feel content and justified. To discover that the world is the way you expect it to be, is a verification of our moral and intellectual good judgment. Life is good, when you can make sense of it according to your own terms. Without that sense-making, life turns disturbingly chaotic.

And yet, anyone who’s been around for a while will tell you that, when it comes to California wine, things aren’t that simple. It is not always possible to tell an Arroyo Grande Valley Pinot Noir from a Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir, nor for that matter to tell a northern SLH Pinot (Morgan) from a southern one (Pisoni), as has historically been the case for the two Côtes, de Noirs and Beaune. As our grapes get picked riper than they used to, and vintages become warmer, regional distinctions become blurred. (This isn’t to say that picking early is a guarantee of terroir.) It may also be that the much-touted Dijon clones contribute a certain sameness to Pinot Noir. And there’s a standardization of winemaking technique (cold soaking the grapes, new French oak) that also covers or can mask terroir. It can be very difficult even for trained winemakers to discern their own wines in blind tastings—or even to agree on what characteristics their own terroir displays!

Terroir, then, is a conundrum, a paradox. In one sense, it’s a bunch of hokum. In another, common sense tells us it has got to be true. Are grapes not like humans? Someone from the Louisiana Bayou country is going to be a lot different than someone from the South Bronx (me). Where we were born and grew up puts an indelible stamp on us; no matter how much we might subsequently change, our upbringing never leaves us. This is the terroir of humans.

One could prove the truth of wine terroir and end all the discussions forever the following way: You could organize a blind tasting of all the experts. Give them flights of Pinot Noirs, from all of California’s major coastal regions, and ask them to come up with descriptors. Correlate all the findings in a statistically meaningful way. If there is such a thing as terroir, you should be able to tweak out reliable and consistent characteristics from each region. Then repeat the experiment for the next ten years.

But you can see that this is clearly impossible, on practical grounds, if no other; and whatever the conclusions, reputable people would object, and we would have to factor in their objections. We are therefore faced with the limitations of theory. Here, a few quotes are apt:

If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts.

Albert Einstein

The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees in every object only the traits which favor that theory.

Thomas Jefferson

The next quote isn’t specifically about theory, but it does say a lot about how Californians like to break society’s theories:

I moved to California because it’s a lot freer, you know? You can do what you want to do, and nobody bugs you.

Janis Joplin

And my favorite:

Before I got married I had six theories about raising children; now, I have six children and no theories.

John Wilmot

THE META-TAKE

I’m working on a project where we’re trying to figure out what makes Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir different and distinct from all other coastal California appellations. I think, in my bones, that it is; I believe I’ve noted those differences, over the course of many years, and can describe them, even if I can’t explain them; and I know for damn sure that the Santa Maria Valley is utterly unlike any other coastal growing region, in climate but perhaps even more in earth. Every fiber in me insists that there’s a Santa Maria character to Pinot Noir. At the same time, for all this certainty, I know the enormity of the challenge in nailing it. Wish me luck.


Is “terroir” a social construct, or an objective fact?

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If the definition of insanity (as Albert Einstein is reputed to have said) is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results, then I must be insane for delving yet again into a discussion about the meaning of terroir—even when I know that such exercises will result in utter futility, as they always do.

Even so! The topic is irresistible to me; like momma’s milk to a thirsty baby, I’m unable to turn my head away when someone makes claims as absolute and contrary to accepted wisdom as those of Valéry Michaux, a French professor whose work was summarized (all too briefly) in the online edition of yesterday’s the drinks business.

Her position, as I understand it, is that there is no such thing as terroir, if by terroir we mean the chemistry of the soil, the climate or [even] local knowledge.” (By inserting the word “even”, I mean to associate Michaux’s position with that of another professor, the esteemed Emile Peynaud, who holds that the combination of natural terroir—soil and climate—together with the creativity of man elevates the entire wine-forming formula into what he calls “cru.”)

Whether or not you include the grower and winemaker along with climate and soil in your definition of terroir, for Michaux, is irrelevant. For she believes that the end quality of a wine, as well as its critical reception in the marketplace, is due to neither (or not much, anyway), but instead is the result of “the cluster effect,” a term borrowed from economics and sociology that refers to the type of activity that happens when “interconnected businesses working together in a region” collaborate, in a “very focused and strategic approach…to bring partnerships for funding, research and revenue opportunities.” This latter definition, from Forbes, uses Silicon Valley as the prima facie example of how the cluster effect works: small startup companies, rather than taking a “go it alone” approach, instead use a “strength in numbers” strategy to “accelerate…commercialization activities, raise additional capital, and attract new companies.”

Michaux also turns to the Silicon Valley model of the cluster effect in her thinking about wine. She attributes the success of certain wine regions, including Champagne and Rioja, to the same forces of “a strong entrepreneurial culture, direct competition, continuous experimentation, innovation and mutual help and solidarity” that characterize Silicon Valley firms, who engage in mutual-aid activities based on the “rising tide lifts all boats” theory.

Tantazlizing stuff. Since the drinks business abstract was so short (only 249 words), I turned to the Google machine for more information on Michaux, and found this longer coverage at The Australian, which says her theory may “horrify oenologists everywhere,” by throwing into academic doubt the entire collage of “climate [and] chemisty of the soil” as being responsible for the world’s greatest wines. Their greatness has nothing to do with the “myth” of terroir; it is a function solely of “strong governance creating a single territorial brand” [e.g. Champagne, Rioja] welded to “an alchemy between different virtuous circles” [professionals from various occupations] resulting in “the dominance of the best-known wines.”

Let’s break it down by taking Napa Valley as an example of a successful area. Michaux surely is onto something when she suggests that “an alchemy of circles” is at least partly responsible for Napa’s success. These circles surely include the historical figures that settled and elevated Napa, the George Younts, Captain Niebaums and de Pins who helped make Napa Valley a household name.

Another circle would certainly be the wealthy friends of the wealthy Napa owners: they helped spread the word (and the wines) to their own circles in San Francisco, New York, London, thereby giving Napa international cred. Yet another circle consisted of the writers and critics who wrote about Napa Valley, making it famous; and the more they wrote, the more other writers visited Napa Valley, were wined and dined, and further embellished Napa’s halo. (I think of Harry Waugh as a perfect example of the overlapping of several of these circles.) A final circle is the international coterie of winemakers and consultants (Michel Rolland comes to mind) who work in Napa, and whose influence is worldwide and powerful. And then of course there were the critics, Parker especially, who early championed Napa Valley Cabernet in the circles among which they had influence.

Circles within circles within circles. Certainly Napa Valley would not have risen to its present-day esteem without the active cooperation of all these groupings. Where I take issue with Michaux, though, is in her abrupt dismissal of the notion of terroir as the physical properties of the region.She seems to have written her recent paper in response to a 2012 Call for Papers from the Reims Management School, in Reims, France, the topic to address a “provocative” statement contained in a 2011 book, by Roger Dion, that “’Terroir’ is a ‘social fact’, the human construction of a territory both historically and strategically, so as to make better use of its resources than other territories and to respond to the specific expectations of a particular clientele.”

Once again, there’s a lot of meat there: certainly, no wine “territory” can possibly be of any use for the commercialization of wine without “human construction”; for vinifera grapes do not grow by themselves and automatically turn themselves into fine wine. “Strategies” are indeed called for; and strategies require collaboration on the part of all stakeholders, and cost money. And just as certainly, the “particular clientele” that is willing to pay premium money for the wines of Champagne, Rioja or Napa Valley does so with the expectation of buying in, intellectually speaking, to the notion of “quality products” grown in “Grand Crus,” as has been the case since, at least, “the royal families and merchants” did so during the Middle Ages.

Still, this argument, convincing as it is in some respects, fails to account for the fact that most of the world’s wine regions never have achieved the acclaim for terroir as have Champagne, Rioja, Napa Valley and some others (Burgundy, Bordeaux and Germany’s better districts come to mind). What has held back the others? Was it the absence of “interconnected businesses working together” (armed, presumably, with fiendishly manipulative genius)? Or was it that these non-successful regions simply lacked the terroir to produce great wine?

I leave the answers to the conversation. Maybe, instead of futile insanity, we can actually advance the issue a little.


Terroir vs. personal preference: the critic’s dilemma?

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Should the critic base her score/review on personal preference, or on whether or not the winemaker has allowed “the terroir to speak”?

That question arose, yet again, at the recent Wine Bloggers Conference. It’s an old debate, one that’s as hard to frame as it is to answer. What does it mean to allow “the terroir to speak”? Who decides, ultimately, what a wine “should” be, as opposed to what it is? And how do we, the drinking public, know whom to believe, when critics set themselves up as arbiters of such matters?

I got to thinking about all this stuff, so I turned to a favorite old book, “The Winemaker’s Dance,” the 2004 effort by Swinchatt and Howell that’s a must on every winemaker’s bookshelf. The authors make no attempt to hide their true feelings. They’re anti-Parker, to the extent that the Man from Monckton “has placed increasing emphasis on power and intensity, personified by big fruit, rich mouth feel, and opulent character,” as opposed to a “balanced” wine that “let[s] the terroir speak.” The former approach, they warn, has “limitations.” The precise nature of the limitation, implied if not overly spelled out, is that a Parkerized wine, made in a “New World or International style,” is one in which all too often “the wine bares all in the shockingly delicious first burst of flavor” but then almost immediately begins to pall; “the regional and local character that so often distinguishes wine [is] lost” under the assault of all that richness.

It’s a compelling argument, resurrected in its most recent incarnation by In Pursuit of Balance, whose website says the group was formed in 2011 “to celebrate wineries striving to produce balanced pinot noir and chardonnay in California.” IPOB among other leading and influential voices in the [American] wine community has already had a powerful influence, especially in California—if not in how wine is actually vinified, then at least in the conversation about it. While the general public, and even most wine lovers, have never heard of IPOB, they nonetheless are curious about things like alcohol level, which, when you strip away all the clutter and pretense, is fundamentally what IPOB and others of the “School of Balance” is all about.

I personally have never understood this extreme position. The implication, as “The Winemaker’s Dance” makes clear, is that there is a single, unalterable moment in the vineyard when the grapes must be picked—when the fruit is right on “the fine line between maturity and excessive ripeness,” so that picking a single day early or later will “overpower the voice of the earth.”

This is a very illogical position to take. It is not only functionally difficult if not impossible for the vintner to pick grapes at a precise moment in time, it is conceptually difficult if not impossible for anyone to know with precision when that moment occurs. Winemakers will tell you all the time that their picking decisions are based on hunches, not precise knowledge; and any two vintners, picking the same vineyard, will opt for different times.

Besides, condemning a wine for alcohol level is silly. At one of the Wine Bloggers Conference dinners, I sat with Michael Larner, and drank his 2009 Syrah. Although it has a Santa Ynez Valley appellation on the label, the grapes are from Ballard Canyon (Michael spoke at a panel on that fine little area). The official alcohol reading on the label is 15.2% by volume and for all I know it’s higher than that. I can assure you, it is a wonderful wine. I drank three glasses in a row, and it never palled, never tired my palate, but only offered layers of delight and expressiveness.

Was my enjoyment of that Syrah a mere “personal preference,” or was it because the wine really did showcase its terroir? You can see that the question itself is meaningless; just because we can ask a question doesn’t mean it corresponds to reality. (“How many unicorns are there in the state of California?” is a perfectly good question, but it has no answer.) Moreover, from what I know of Ballard Canyon, that’s what Syrah down there does: the variety dominates Ballard’s varietal plantings because it gets insanely rich and ripe, the kind of wine our DNA is primed to love. So is there a competition between that Syrah’s “terroir” and a winemaker style that kills terroir? Has the wine’s alcohol level “overpowered the voice of the earth”? I don’t think so.


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