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Thanks to all my tour guides over the years

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Thanks to Massimo di Constanzo for being my tour guide yesterday in Coombsville. This is Napa Valley’s hinterlands, a sleepy region of little homes and twisting country lanes that would be easy to get lost in. I’ll have much more to say about Coombsville in my upcoming story in Wine Enthusiast, but for now I just want to comment on the feeling I get when I visit a place that just reeks of terroir.

Terroir: there it is, that awful word again. I’m both a believer in it, and a scoffer of many of our official appellations that claim to have terroir but in reality don’t. But there are indeed places that look like they have terroir. Coombsville is one. So is Ballard Canyon, down in Santa Barbara County. So is Mount Harlan, where Calera does their thing. Edna Valley oozes a sense of terroir. So what do I mean by “places that look like they have terroir”?

For one thing, they’re fairly small in area. You can eyeball the entire appellation (pretty much so, anyway) from one point of elevation. Even if you can’t see the whole thing in one swoop, you can see the appellation’s unity on a topo map. For instance, this image of Coombsville

CupsSaucer5 w line.ai

 

shows clearly how the region is so delineated: tucked into a crescent-shaped bowl beneath the Vacas that descends from rolling foothills down to the Napa River, where the flatlands of Napa City take over. Doesn’t that look like “a place”? It’s not sprawling, like Paso Robles. Nor does it even have much of the east-west spectrum of, say, Oakville. It looks like It has a unity of climate, soils and exposures, which is why you’d expect to find a similarity between wines of the same variety or blend. And you do. And that’s what I call regional terroir.

I’ve been lucky in having tour guides like Massimo help me all my career. When I first visited the Santa Rita Hills, it was Greg Brewer who took me all around. Andy Beckstoffer once gave me the royal tour of Rutherford, an experience I’ve never forgotten. Greg Melanson was kind enough to helicopter me (twice) over Pritchard Hill, an experience beyond praise; being 900 feet up in altitude is absolutely the best way to get the lay of the land. Michael Terrien once shepherded me around the Napa side of Carneros; walking that land showed me that the area is more complicated than I’d thought.

There’s a symbiosis between the wine writer, on the one hand, and the people he writes about, on the other. We need them, as much as they need us. Ultimately, our interests don’t necessarily coincide, but, there’s a mutual respectfulness–in the best of cases, anyhow. I’ve met a few vintners and growers in my time who were models of incorrigibility. But not too many, fortunately; this is a pretty well-behaved field to work in.


Planes, parties, panels: a wine critic’s day is never done

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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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Destemming or not?

Crush pressure

Cold soaking

To inoculate or not? And with what?

To pump over or punch down, and how frequently?

What’s your maximum fermentation temperature?

When to drain off the juice?

Include press wine?

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

Cooperage and toast level

Natural malo or inoculate?

Stirring, if any?

Racking, if any?

Time in barrel

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

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


Meet the new meme: terroir as marketing

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What I wrote yesterday isn’t to say that all Bordeaux tastes alike. Lewin doesn’t go there and, in fact, goes out of his way to point out distinctions between chateaux (e.g. Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion) that must be due to something–although he cautions the reader that “the only difference [between them] is that Haut Brion is planted at 10,000 vines per hectare, while La Mission is planted at 8,000 vines per hectare.” Last time I checked, terroir does not include the way a vintner plants his vines, so what vine density has to do with terroir is a mystery to me.

In California, when you think of all the things that can mitigate or mask terroir (in addition to Lewin’s catalog, there’s clonal/selection, a tendency to use more oak, a general standardization of winemaking techniques, and considerably more career mobility than in Bordeaux), it becomes easier to understand why all coastal Pinots taste more alike than not. What the wine critic’s task then becomes is to look for differences of elegance, finesse, beauty, balance, texture, ageability and so on–qualities that are not merely expressions of local growing conditions, but of human influence, of proper vineyard management and superior winemaking skills. In other words, the writer’s task becomes the telling of stories, not repeating the conventional wisdom of the terroir meme, which is of very little use to consumers.

And so we come to yet another iteration or mutation of the concept of terroir: it now becomes a marketing tool, a word to use on back labels and sales brochures. How many wines have I seen described as coming from superior terroir that actually are purchased on the bulk market and blended into county-wide or even Central Coast and North Coast appellations? I wish we could put the toothpaste back into the tube and limit our use of the word “terroir” to the only place where it could conceivably apply: to small, individual vineyards that have produced particular wines (varietal or blend) over a longish period of time, where those wines have shown a consistent style and profile. (We might for example look at the Allen Vineyard on Westside Road for its Pinot Noirs from Williams Selyem.) But I think it’s no longer valid (if it ever was) to talk about “Santa Rita Hills terroir” or “Russian River Valley terroir” or “Oakville terroir,” except in the most generalized way, and even then to warn our readers (those of us who have readers, anyway) to take these terroir distinctions with a generous pinch of salt.


The End of Terroir

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One of the most enduring memes in wine is that of terroir. (A meme, by the way, is a cultural idea that spreads virally from human to human. Memes have been compared to genes in that they may mutate in response to environmental pressures, a concept I’ll return to in a minute.)

We all know the origin of the concept of terroir: France. That it was borrowed by American wine growers and vintners, primarily here in California, is perfectly understandable, especially after the boutique winery boom pushed prices high enough that vintners had to come up with some rationale to convince consumers to dig deep. Their rationale: Mass-produced wines have no terroir. The word “terroir” went beyond its original French meaning of referring to a given set of growing conditions, to acquire qualitative and even esthetic dimensions. One might say that the terroir meme mutated.

In the 1980s and 1990s, as I was learning about wine and becoming a wine writer, the concept of terroir was all-pervasive at the higher levels of California. Napa Valley was said to make the best Cabernets because of its terroir. When Pinot Noir started to become popular, there were fierce intellectual discussions of the difference between the terroirs of, say, the western part of the Santa Ynez Valley (now called the Sta. Rita Hills) and the Russian River Valley. One might say that being able to describe his region’s unique terroir was as integral a part of the winemaker’s job as producing good wine. Certainly, it became a necessary part of the job description with the rise of the wine media.

Personally, I always had my doubts. While I could certainly tell that Napa Valley Cabernet was better than Cabs from elsewhere (as a general rule; not always in every instance), I always felt some skepticism when someone told me about how radically different Rutherford and Oakville were, or Howell Mountain and Mount Veeder. I didn’t see it quite that way. But one learns to keep one’s mouth shut in such cases: I feared that perhaps it was my lack of ability that prevented me from detecting what seemed so obvious to others. The guilty fear of many writers, maybe all of us for all I know, is that nagging feeling that you know less about wine than people think you do. So when I wrote about terroir, I dutifully quoted winemakers, while myself seldom if ever proclaiming terroir distinctions in my own voice. There’s a big difference between quoting others and making your own declarations, and I have never been confident making the kind of ultra-fine statements that would be needed in distinguishing Rutherford from Oakville.

Or Sta. Rita Hills from Russian River Valley. Or Santa Lucia Highlands from Sonoma Coast. Or even Carneros from Russian River Valley. Which is a problem for a wine writer expected to know these things. I can describe the differences, intellectually, based on my knowledge of climate and soils, and from things I’ve been told by winemakers over the years. But I would hate to be put to the acid test of having to identify these wines in a blind tasting in a public format, for a simple reason I’ve been hesitant to express, before now: The truth is, Pinot Noirs from all California’s top regions taste more alike than not, and so do Cabernets from Napa’s appellations; and now we are seeing the emergence of Cabernets from other parts of the state (not just Sonoma County, but Paso Robles and Santa Barbara County) that one might easily confuse with the real thing from Napa Valley.

Wine writers aren’t supposed to admit such things, and few do, at least in public. Which is why I have been so enjoying Benjamin Lewin’s new book, Claret & Cabs. He does such a superb job of demolishing the terroir meme, not because he doesn’t believe in terroir–he does– but because external factors are minimizing its impact, to the point where traditional terroir concepts in Bordeaux–the mothership of terroir–have become so blurred as to be largely unintelligible. (My words, not his.)

Lewin, who’s an M.W., compiles a list of reasons why terroir distinctions in the Médoc have gotten so fuzzy. Vintners pick riper. Some varieties, like Malbec and Carmenere, are being eliminated, in favor of more Cabernet Sauvignon–which may be making all Bordeaux wines taste more alike than they used to. Cabernet is being planted in areas where it didn’t used to, even at the top chateaux. Wines from lesser parts of Bordeaux are fast becoming as good as classified growths. Most importantly, perhaps, global warming is doing away with climate patterns that dominated when the communal distinctions were first established–patterns that made for perceptual differences between cooler and warmer micro-terroirs. As he writes, “I suspect…that [terroir] differences were brought out in the past by marginal conditions”–conditions that less frequently apply in today’s Bordeaux, so that “it would be a fine taster who could always tell the difference between St. Julien and Pauillac.”

Such a statement would have been heresy in Michael Broadbent’s, Hugh Johnson’s or Alexis Lichine’s heyday. Today, as established a figure as Lewin (who may be the most prolific and best wine writer in the English language) can come out and say the unsayable, the truth about terroir that dare not speak its name. He blew my mind when he called terroir “a point of faith in Bordeaux.” Faith is something you believe in despite evidence to the contrary. But for how long, and at what price?

TOMORROW: Part 2.

 


Further reflections on terroir: Does Pinot Noir show more of it than Cabernet Sauvignon? PLUS a reader survey

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Before we get into terroir, I want to ask you to take a reader survey. You can click here to access it. My blog is 4-1/2 years old now, and it’s time for me to take it to the next level, whatever that is. The information this survey provides will help me enormously, and I’m grateful to you for taking a moment of your time. Rest assured, the information is completely anonymous. I’ll have no idea who you are. The survey software simply crunches the numbers I need. I’ll keep you posted on future developments. Thank you.

* * *

So does Pinot show more terroir than Cabernet? This question popped up in the comments section last week when I was exploring these issues of terroir. Then I got my latest copy of Anthony Dias Blue’s trade magazine, The Tasting Panel, in which the one and only Fred Dame, M.S., a former president of the Court of Master Sommeliers, has a conversation with his fellow M.S., Emmanuel Kemiji, whom I first met when he was wine director at the San Francisco Ritz-Carlton.

Emmannual made this remark:

Cabernet Sauvignon is a grape variety driven more by its character than where it comes from, quite unlike Pinot Noir.

When I read that, I went, Wow. When I was coming up in my wine education [early 1980s], everything I read–and I read a lot–addressed the importance of terroir in Bordeaux. The Classified Growths along the Haut Médoc were in the Goldilocks porridge geography of just right with respect to the Atlantic. They were far enough away from the marshy palus along the Gironde. The best growths were those with the best drainage. Haut-Brion was great because it sat on piles of gravel. And so on. Even within the individual communes, terroir showed its hand: Margaux were lighter and more elegant, Pauillac firm, Saint-Estephe tannic. For centuries Bordeaux–the region–defined Bordeaux–the wine–with its own inimitable character.

So how could it be that Cabernet is defined more by character than terroir?

And yet, the more I thought about it, the more I decided that, yes, Emmanuel is onto something. I’m not sure how he defines the “character” of Cabernet Sauvignon, but I would define the best of them from California (which is to say Napa Valley) as full-bodied, dry and tannic, with intense, spicy flavors to which oak often brings a hint of chocolate.

Having said that, the above description could apply to hundreds of California Cabernets, most of which are perfectly nice for drinking, but not major league. To achieve major league status, you have to have something more than merely that generic oak-aged Cabernet-y quality.

It’s not until you get to Napa Valley that you find that “something more.” Which isn’t to say there aren’t great Cabernets elsewhere, but they tend to be outliers. Napa sits in the sweet spot: warm-hot enough to get the grapes nice and ripe, yet not so hot as the Central Valley. Cool-foggy enough at night to preserve acidity, yet not as chilly as, say, Carneros. Another just-right case of Goldilocks porridge.

Cabernet does have powerful “character,” but just what it brings to Napa’s terroir, and vice versa, is ultimately unanswerable. They work in tandem. Each distinct area within the valley boosts them in different ways: Yountville will accentuate tannins and earth, Howell Mountain power-packs everything, Rutherford brings that dustiness and herbs and often pushes the black fruit into the red direction. Atlas Peak brings minerality, west Oakville perhaps the most opulent peacock’s tail of everything, Pritchard Hill that high-alcohol delirious headiness. Yet these are subdivisions of a single entity, Napa Valley, that you have to concede offers sublime Cabernet Sauvignon.

And then we come to Pinot Noir. Does Pinot, in and of itself, have less “character” than Cabernet Sauvignon, making it more contingent on where it’s grown? I suppose in one sense, that’s true, because Pinot is lighter and more delicate, which would suggest that it is a site-specific grape and wine.

But great Pinot Noir now comes from an extraordinary range of places, stretching along 500 miles or more of California coast, while we still have that anomaly of great Cabernet Sauvignon isolated in one small region, Napa Valley. So I’m not sure it’s true that Pinot Noir is more terroir-driven than Cabernet, unless you’re prepared to say that 500 miles of coast constitutes a single terroir. Moreover, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to tell the difference between, say, a Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir from a Santa Lucia Highlands or a Russian River Valley. (You can do it when you know what you’re tasting, but it’s much harder in a blind set-up.)

Still, I think I know what Emmanuel means because it’s that very lightness and transparency that make great Pinot Noir so exciting. In the end, though, I don’t think we have to compare Pinot and Cabernet and wonder which is more or less terroir-driven, more or less transparent, more or less susceptible to winemaker interventions, or which has more or less inherent character. It’s when we get into these angels-dancing-on-pinheads theological debates that we lose sight of the simple things: Napa Valley is great Cabernet terroir, coastal California is great Pinot terroir.

Please do my survey!


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