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Pinot Noir 4.0: An exploration of extreme terroir in California and Oregon

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This is my take on the situation. I hope to hear from you about yours. Agree, disagree, whatever you add will be appreciated. Thanks.

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Pinot 1.0 extended from approximately the Repeal of Prohibition (1933) through the 1950s. Growers knew they wanted to plant Pinot Noir because it was the great grape of Burgundy. But they had little or no concept of where it grew best, so they installed it in places they had already cultivated for varieties like Zinfandel, Alicante Bouschet, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc: Napa Valley and the eastern Russian River Valley around Santa Rosa. The climate wasn’t always right, growers didn’t have access to good clonal material, and they didn’t understand that Pinot Noir isn’t vinified the same way as Zinfandel. The result was wines that were not outstanding. As late as 1986, Friends of Wine magazine—then the leading consumer wine magazine in America—stated categorically, “California Pinot Noir has yet to achieve an acclaim parallel to that of Cabernet.”

This began to change with the advent of Pinot 2.0. It was an extraordinarily creative time. Beginning with tentative efforts in the late 1940s (Tchelistcheff going to Carneros, for example), growers gradually understood with more precision that Pinot Noir needs to be planted in cooler coastal areas. By the late 1960s, the race was on, towards places like western Santa Ynez Valley, the western slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Anderson Valley, Carneros and the central and westerly stretches of the Russian River Valley. The quality of the Pinot Noirs improved, especially with the importation of Dijon clones in the late 1980s-early 1990s and a more thorough understanding of winemaking technique. Critics began to sit up and take notice.

Pinot 3.0 was simply an extension of this trend. Growers began to discover specific terroirs within the cooler regions, and to further adapt their plant materials and techniques to those particular micro-climates and soils. For example, the greater Russian River Valley began to be understood in terms of smaller sub-regions within it: Laguna Ridges, the Middle Reach, the Santa Rosa Plain, and so on. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, we saw a huge improvement in the quality of Pinot Noir: riper wines, more delicious and savory and balanced, that, in the view of many, gave Burgundy a run for its money. Then came Sideways, and the public eagerly hopped onboard.

But enough is never enough when it comes to fine wine. Pinot 4.0 began in the last several years, encouraged to some degree by the rise of organizations like In Pursuit of Balance, and spurred by a new generation of sommeliers. But this new phase of exploration seeks wines that go beyond mere hedonism and deliciousness to capture what the wine writer Richard Olney calls Pinot Noir’s “mysterious, sensuous, transcendental, ethereal” nature.

How does a winemaker capture such a will-of-the-wisp transcendence? Olney says it is only through “the genius of the terroir,” a concept the Burgundy expert, Allen Meadows, further elucidates in his analysis of La Romanée-Conti itself. Its terroir is such that it produces “subtle and reserved, even austere” wines that do not “shout or call attention to themselves, but require the connoisseur to come to it rather than it coming to the taster.”

This is a momentous step. It’s no longer enough for the greatest Pinot Noirs to appeal only to the senses. Pinot now must appeal to the intellect. It becomes a cerebral experience: more French New Wave film than Hollywood blockbuster. Wines, to paraphrase Meadows, that require us to sit back and think and talk about them.

Now that we have identified, in California as well as in Oregon, the cool-climate sites, we can take this journey to the next level: which is to explore individual vineyards of extreme interest and complexity. These generally are hilly. Their soils are austere, with no water-holding capacity. Weather conditions may be marginal, such that not every year will be a “vintage year.” The challenges to grapegrowing in such sites—from frosts to pests and steep slopes—are daunting: they require the most intensive viticulture. But the results, which will take winemakers many years to fine tune, are bound to be amazing. Pinot 4.0 represents, in California and Oregon, the most daring challenge to Burgundy that has ever been mounted.


On the road to Willamette Valley

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It was a pretty ride up to Oregon yesterday, bright sun and blue skies the whole way. Shasta looked like a Japanese painting,

Shasta

although when we got to the Siskiyous the fog descended. I think that this part of the land must be behind the rain shadow: the conifers suddenly disappear, so does the snow although you’re still at a good elevation, and instead everything is the barren beige dry blandness of high desert. These rain shadows have always fascinated me: Eastern Oregon is a good example, but so to some extent are the Vacas in Napa Valley, which have considerably less rainfall than the Mayacamas, which is why east Oakville is so different from west Oakville.

It was cold in northern California and southern Oregon, and considerable snow already had fallen. Poor Gus, who had never experienced snow before, didn’t know what to make of it. I think this picture of him is a WTF moment.

GusSnow

I stayed the night in Ashland, a cute little town, and across the street from my hotel was a wine bar, Liquid Assets. Quel coincidence: they had a Freemark Abbey 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon on the by-the-glass list.

FreemarkBar

Tomorrow—today, as you read this—I complete my journey to McMinnville. Jackson Family Wines has a vineyard up there, in the south-central part of the Willamette Valley, and we’re interested in seeing if we can get a sub-AVA going in the Monmouth area. It’s a terribly interesting project that involves going deep into the tall weeds of TTB policy, but it’s right up my alley. The first thing to do is determine a name, which TTB requires be anchored in historical documentation. So for the next several days, you’ll find me in local museums, historical societies and libraries, doing my research.

A big reason why I drove up to Oregon rather than flew was because I want to get a sense of the lay of the land. It’s one thing to study USGS maps and soil surveys, but important as those are, they provide only limited information about terroir, which after all involves all sorts of other elements. The human brain and especially our eyes are equally needed, to show the relationship of valley and bench to slope and hill, to see variations in soil color, to breathe the air and detect subtleties of wind, temperature, humidity and plants. I think the most important thing about the terroir of wine grapes is to learn to perceive everything from the point of view of the vine. Years ago I used to lie down in vineyards. Dissociating myself from my mind, I’d experience the wholeness of being a living thing at that place at that time. That’s what terroir means, isn’t it?


On geological faults in Burgundy and Sonoma County

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I’m reading Benjamin Lewin MW’s new book, Wines of France, and as usual with his books, there’s more thoughtful information packed into almost every paragraph than most other wine books contain in 100 pages.

I’ll have a more complete review in a few weeks, but for now I want to comment on the role of geological faults in Burgundy and in Northern California. As Lewin writes, “Burgundy is a land of faults that create intricate variations in terroir.” The major fault, the Saône, runs down the length of the Cote d’Or; the famous Route Nationale 74 more or less marks it.

The major terroir features that the fault contributes to the Cote d’Or are the hills themselves that are oriented towards the southeast, from where they pick up that beautiful morning sun. The fault also has brought, through uplifting I would imagine, limestone close enough to the surface for the vine roots to touch it, especially mid-slope, which is where the Premier and Grand Crus are.

Yet, to a Californian, to say that the Saône Fault has created “intricate variations in terroir” is almost laughable. Compared to, say, Sonoma County’s, the Cote d’Or’s terroir is as simple as a child’s toy. Where the Cote’s soils are (as Lewin writes) a mixture of various types of limestone and marl (clay and shale), the soils of Sonoma County are complex almost beyond understanding, encompassing everything from volcanic debris to ancient bedrock, sand, pebbles, dust and clay. And where the Cote is geometrically simple to visualize (close your eyes and try it), Sonoma County is a mass of jumbled hills, valleys, swales, cliffs, riverside flatlands and orientations. It defies visualization.

Our relevant fault system in California is the San Andreas. My friend, the well-known wine writer Bob Thompson, once described these soils as a “slagheap,” a word that only begins to describe the cluttered mess. It is often said that Sonoma County contains more soil types than all of France—I may be mis-remembering the specific reference, and I’m hoping someone will point me in the right direction. But you get the point. Walk ten feet from any given spot, and the soils (structure and chemistry) under your feet will change, sometimes drastically.

So if the Cote d’Or displays “intricate variations in terroir,” we’d have to search for a word for the terroir of Sonoma County that means “intricate on steroids.” This is the main reason why the Russian River Valley will never be classified according to vineyards in the orderly, logical way that the Cote d’Or has been. It cannot be done, because there is no pattern to the soils.

The climate is another matter. It is relatively easily explainable throughout Sonoma County. But climate alone cannot be the basis of terroir; indeed, climate plays a minor role in Burgundy, where soil is King (or Queen). There is something decidedly American about the disorderliness of Sonoma County. It’s untidy, a mélange. The French dislike untidiness; it goes against their grain for organization and classification. Lucky they were to have, in the Cote d’Or, a place that really can be organized and classified by soils. They would go crazy if they had to deal with Sonoma.

I doubt if the notion of terroir would have developed the way it has, if the wine world had been centered on California, instead of France. The French not only are obsessive organizers and classifiers, they also possess a sometimes exaggerated patriotism that can verge on chauvinistic. They feel that France is the supreme nation (I am not prepared to disagree in some respects), and, once they realized that the limestone and slopes of the Cote d’Or were responsible for the fabulousness of the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, they rightfully coined the concept of terroir to imply that no where else in the whole world—no country, no state, no region—could ever match the Cote d’Or in quality, because the Cote d’Or is, by definition, the place that it is, and no other place on earth can be identical to it. This is a redundant truth, and it is not entirely false. But it also is not entirely true. Great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay can be grown elsewhere. And it also is not entirely true that California cannot produce Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs that rival those of Burgundy, and can be very difficult to discern from Burgundy. What, then, does this do to the very notion of terroir? It suggests that all terroirs are equal (in a political sense, like the members of the United Nations all are equal), although, to torture George Orwell, “All terroirs are equal, but some terroirs are more equal than others.”


Gems vs. rhinestones

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I was chatting the other day with the great Richard Arrowood when he said something that really caught my mind. “I want to focus on gems, not rhinestones.”

What is a “gem” of a wine? It’s an unofficial term, of course, and therefore subject to interpretation; but I think Richard meant wines that are made in small quantities and come from a single vineyard (historically, Richard is one of the important pioneers of vineyard-designated bottlings in California). And moreover, the vineyards must have proven themselves over time to possess unique characteristics that make the wines particularly interesting. So much the better if and when the winemaker has long familiarity with those vineyards, and knows how to apply his art gently enough to allow the terroir to shine through, and yet indelibly enough to stamp the wines with his own style and personality.

This balance of natural terroir and winemaker style fascinates me. It’s not easy sorting the two out. Like tangled hair, they interweave with and cross over and under one another; separating out which strand is which is an impossible task. After all, why do we separate human activity from natural activity? Are we humans not part of the natural world? (Plato may be to blame for this conundrum.) And yet, he who would understand wine must attempt to analyze what nature, for her part, and man, for his, contributes to wine.

It used to be easier to distinguish between the two for the simple reason that, in times past, all winemakers in a given region tended to use more or less the same techniques. Because they all imposed a similar signature upon the wines, any differences between the wines had to be due to terroir, right? And so we got the Bordeaux communes, each of which had its own personality.

How much more complicated things now are! Winemakers have a plethora of clones and rootstocks for any varieties they want. Their canopy regimens and pruning practices are more sophisticated than 18th century viticulturalists could have imagined. Winemakers also can choose barrels from just about anyplace, toasting them in any way they want. They can select from among a vast array of yeasts, or depend on indigenous yeasts. Their choices of destemming, crushing and fermentation vessels are limited only by their budgets. They can take out alcohol and tinker with their wines in the most amazing ways. In America, unlike most of Europe, they have an entirely free hand, without an overweaning government telling them when to pick or how to blend. And with every touch of the hand, they replace, or add to, what the natural terroir gives the wine with what they themselves want it to have.

But the final definition of a gem, as I think Richard meant, has to come from the winemaker’s mind. With all our emphasis on terroir and winemaking technique, we sometimes forget that the formative character of a wine—call it its Platonic nature—begins in the winemaker’s imagination. He or she first creates the wine mentally, as an idea or image, and then transmigrates it, godlike, into physical manifestation. Some winemakers do this formulaically. Others adopt the artist’s attitude. It’s risky to be an artisanal winemaker, because sometimes your idea of art is contradictory to what the market—as interpreted by your sales force—wants. If you march too stridently to the beat of a different drum, people won’t buy your wine. But if you follow the dictates of the mob, your vision suffers. This is the stuff, the challenge and irony, of what truly artistic winemakers confront every day.

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I’m off on another trip to Santa Barbara County and the lovely, windswept and austere Santa Maria Valley, “a house of sand and fog,” home to Cambria and Byron wineries. Will be down there for the rest of the week, but I’ll try to get daily posts up. Salud!


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.


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