Further reflections on terroir: Does Pinot Noir show more of it than Cabernet Sauvignon? PLUS a reader survey
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.
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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!
A reader made the following comment yesterday on my most recent post, Terroir and cru: an exploration. I don’t usually reproduce reader comments in full, but this one contains many interesting and complex points I want to address. Here’s his comment:
Steve, there are many problems with California ever establishing a reputation with any level of authenticity.
First and foremost is one of genuine sincerity. Quite honestly this just reeks of Napa’s latest marketing gimmick. It’s hard to listen to anyone from Napa/Sonoma discuss terroir knowing full well that during their heady Parker fueled era of success, they stenuously discounted the notion of terroir. It was, after all, about what happened in the cellar when (fill in name), superstar-genius-rockstar winemaker made the magic happen.
So, where does this newfound respect for terroir come from? Could it be borne of the desperation of market rejection, particularly in those sought after major metropolitan markets? In Chicago, you can’t give away expensive California wine, and I’ve heard that the situation is similar in New York, Washington, Boston and even San Franscisco. I can’t count how many restaurants have opened with all-euro winelists in the Chicago market over the last eighteen months. Conversely, I can’t think of one (outside of steakhouses) that’s opened that prominently featured high end Napa/Sonoma wine and none (even counting steakhouses) that focused on it exclusively.
Beyond issues of sincerity and authenticity is the issue of establishing terroir in California where the notion of vineyard designates has been corrupted to utter irrelevancy. When an admittedly quality vineyard such as Truchard of Hudson encompossas hundreds of planted vines, how does one seriously maintain that it has any real sense of terroir. Lee Hudson’s vineyard would, by European standards, encompass hundreds of indivdual terroirs–some premier cru, some village level and maybe even a couple of grand cru. Is Lee going to allow an outside authority to determine that–and thus what he can charge for his grapes? I doubt it. Also, simply calling a particular piece of land a vineyard (a’la “my daughter/wife/great grandmother’s vineyard” or “dollarsaddlehidestick vineyard” and have it immediately mean something is not how the game works. That’s marketing not the estblishment of a true AOC/DOCG sytem.
The notion of California terroir will go nowhere because their [sic] is no genuine belief in it by those who will tout it only for marketing reasons and there are powerful vested interests who will line up against it.
Many of the opinions expressed above are widely shared throughout American wine circles. Anyone in this industry is aware of them. In essence, it’s a critique of California wine reduced to the following points:
-California wine has become Parkerized.
-Parkerization is a code word for too high in alcohol, too ripe, too oaky.
-As a result, the wines lose their connection with terroir–the ground in which they were born–and become internationalized in style.
-There is a movement afoot now whereby consumers are rejecting such wines.
-Producers of these wines increasingly must resort to marketing tricks in order to sell them.
We’ve heard all this before. It’s an old argument but it does have its adherents and the issues need to be addressed whenever they arise. The truth is that the style of ultraripe wines, especially in Cabernet Sauvignon, is one that people like. That’s why producers make these wines: because they find favor among buyers. I myself reject the argument that high alcohol trumps terroir because it makes no sense. Logically, there is no reason for that to be true. Those who believe it have to assert that something in the ground that is transmitted to the wine can only be expressed if the ABV is below a certain number. That is implausible to me. After all, alcohol levels have been rising in France, too, so one would have to argue that even in France, the notion of terroir is being lost. Eventually one becomes a terroir-ideologue, finding violations everywhere, fixated on a romantic notion that doesn’t exist.
Some consumers may well be rejecting high-end, expensive, high alcohol Napa Valley Cabernets, but I would suggest that is due more to the economy than to any shifting in taste. When the Recession hit, everything pricy got hit. Napa Valley wine will find its way, I’m sure, as recovery occurs.
As for those “marketing reasons” producers rely on to tout their terroir, nothing new there either. Bordeaux and Burgundy have been doing it forever. That’s what high-end wine does: tries to convince people it’s special due to its ground and that no other wine can ever be quite like it. The Napans learned that from the French. Yes, Colgin does it. Continuum does it. Harlan does it. Screaming Eagle does it. Ditto Araujo, Dalla Valle, anything with the word To Kalon or Tokalon on it, Shafer, Staglin, Ovid, Diamond Creek, Vineyard 7&8, Duckhorn. Lord knows I’ve criticized some proprietors for not letting me taste their wines blind, which is a marketing trick if you ask me. But that’s not to say they’re not in possession of spectacular terroir capable of producing spectacular wines. They boast about their terroir because it’s real, not because they’re trying to trick people into thinking it’s real. In other words, if you’ve got it, flaunt it.
So you can see I reject most of my reader’s comment. But I do thank him for reading my blog and for taking the time to express his opinions, which I respect. I just don’t happen to agree with them.
I read this piece on J winery by Richard Paul Hinkle and it got me thinking about those vineyards in California I think show distinctive and consistent terroir. I’ll mention a few of them shortly, but first, a discussion.
We’ve talked about terroir on my blog before, but not for a while. It’s always a topic guaranteed to make you think! My definition of terroir is the totality of the physical things that impact the vineyard: climate or weather, soil and drainage, elevation, orientation, wind and light exposure, things like that. These are the “nature” part of the grape, as in “nature and nurture.”
The “nurture” part is what the winemaking team brings to the terroir. The viticulturalist does all kinds of things, from trellising to pruning. The enologist has the final stamp on the wine, all those intricate fermentation and aging decisions. Together, these two things–”nature” and “nurture”–comprise what Emile Peynaud, in The Taste of Wine, calls “cru”:
[Cru] is a complex notion because it combines a whole group of activities that are essentially different: agricultural, in part industrial, always involving processing, and even commerce…In Bordeaux…the cru…is the wine-producing property, the chateau…The Bordeaux cru…combines the three activities of production, processing and marketing.”
[Forgive the ellipses: Professor Peynaud’s style of writing demands concision or, at least, his English translation does.]
Because terroir is so intricately wrapped up in the notion of cru, it is possible for a great property to not live up to its potential, due to neglect by its proprietor, or perhaps the inability to properly finance it. It would be a mistake to judge a winery’s output inferior in substance: if it is not doing as well as its neighbors, it could be because the terroir is wanting, in some way, but it could also be because the human aspects of cru have been degraded. Over-production of the vines is a common form of degradation of the cru.
On the other hand, a poor terroir cannot be compensated by superior human factors. It is impossible for great wine to come from patches of earth that are simply incapable of producing it, for whatever reason (too hot, too cold, poor drainage, etc.).
Most of the wine I review is merely good, ordinary stuff. It’s impossible to know exactly why a $75 Napa Valley Cabernet earns only 87 points instead of 97. It could be that the terroir is not superior. It could be due to failures in the cru or human aspects. It could be a combination of both. A critic cannot know these things without undertaking a comprehensive survey of that property, which obviously is impossible in every case.
What is possible, however, and delightful as well, is to study that handful of vineyards that out-perform on a consistent basis. Vintage after vintage they offer the greatest wines. In these cases, we have to conclude that both the terroir and the cru are working in perfect harmony and at the highest levels. This is the happiest circumstance in winedom, because it represents the pinnacles toward which all other wines, from that region, should aspire. (“From that region” is in italics, because it would be absurd to say of a Burgundy Pinot Noir that it should aspire to be a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. And vice versa. Nor does this mean that every Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir should aspire to be, say, a Failla. But every Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir should aspire to be a great Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.)
I’ll mention just a few of the vineyards that, in my opinion, bring together this fortunate union of terroir and cru. In the Russian River Valley is Williams Selyem’s Estate [formerly Litton Estate] Vineyard. We know from history that this stretch of Westside Road, in the so-called Middle Reach of the valley, is one of the great places to grow Pinot Noir in the New World. It seems to be a combination of the cool, foggy nights and mornings that preserve vital acidity, the days that are so reliably sunny and even warm after the fog burns off by mid-morning, and some quality of the soil, which is very stony. I think also that the vineyard’s location, on slightly sloping ground midway between the higher hills and the sands along the river’s bank, plays a key role. One has to assume, as well, that winemaker Bob Cabral understands his fruit intimately, and owner John Dyson is prepared to make the necessary investments. That is a true coming-together of terroir and cru.
Another great vineyard for Pinot Noir (as well as other varieties) is Bien Nacido, in the Santa Maria Valley. The overall conditions are of a cool climate, with the valley’s well-known transverse orientation bringing chill and overcast moisture in directly from the ocean every night. Here again we have a situation wherein the fog burns off by mid-morning with the reliability of a clock; nor do the daytime temperatures get as warm as, say, in the Middle Reach. Bien Nacido also is famous for the quality of its viticulture. Dozens of wineries buy grapes from the vineyard. Not all are entirely successful. Not all have access to the best blocks, for Bien Nacido is a very big vineyard. Not all bring the most creative cru to the wine’s production. But a Bien Nacido Pinot Noir always is a compelling wine and, more often than not, a great one. Here again, we have the fusion of “nature” and “nurture” it takes to make unforgettable wine.
The best wine book to write in California would be one exploring the state’s greatest wines through the lens of terroir and cru, including the person of the winemaker. Winemakers often say modestly that the wine is made in the vineyard and all they do is accompany it on its journey to the bottle. That’s true in one sense but false in another. Such a book also would explore Prof. Peynaud’s seemingly strange remark that “marketing” is part of the cru. What can this possibly mean? I may write that book someday.
Cabernet Franc’s a terribly hard grape to vinify all by itself in California and make pleasant. The wine can suffer from all sorts of problems: a leafy vegetativeness, high alcohol that makes it hot especially when the underlying wine itself is thin, aggressive tannins, too much residual sweetness, or just a simple candied flavor.
Yet I’ve had some really good Cab Francs over the last 18 months, and surprise, they’ve come mostly from Napa Valley. Of my top 14 Cab Francs tasted since Jan. 2011, fully 13 bore either a Napa Valley appellation or one of its sub-apps: Howell Mountain, Oakville, Diamond Mountain.
Why Napa Valley should produce California’s best Cabernet Francs is no mystery: it produces the best of the state’s Bordeaux varieties, period, including (obviously) Cabernet Sauvignon, but also Merlot and what little Petit Verdot there is.
When you analyze why a region is tops in any given variety or wine type, the answers are complex. Terroir tops the list, and Napa’s terroir is perfect for Bordeaux grapes. One mountain range further inland than Sonoma County, it’s just that much warmer, and Bordeaux varieties love the warmth they need to fully ripen. It gets hotter down on the valley floor than it does up in the mountains, and that can be a double-edged sword: a heat wave can massacre valley grapes, but a chilly year (like 2010 or 2011) can help them achieve ripeness when their mountain brethren struggle. But it all depends, of course, on the vineyard’s exact exposition, orientation and the expertise with which the vines are farmed.
Napa’s soils also are ideal, whether they’re the thin, well-drained dirts of the mountains or the richer clays and loams of the floor. River bottom land isn’t supposed to be good for Cabernet, but there are some fine vineyards bordering the Napa River, including some of Beckstoffer’s. But it’s not just climate and soil that make Napa Valley Cabernet country, it’s the human culture that pervades the valley. Napa’s been making Bordeaux-style wines for something like 150 years. Cabernet is in Napa’s bloodstream, its DNA. We’re now five or six generations into experienced winemakers who understand Cabernet the way a parent understands her child. People like Philippe Melka, Andy Erickson, Austin Peterson, Heidi Barrett, Chris Carpenter, Sara Fowler, Nick Goldschmidt, Elias Fernandez, Mia Klein, Kirk Venge, Steve Leveque, Ted Henry, Tim Mondavi, Allison Tauziet–the ties between these talented individuals are deep, forming a sort of biodiverse ecology in which collective consciousness (of the Jungian variety) is as much a part of the terroir as the weather. Emile Peynaud, the great Bordeaux enologist, captures this concept nicely in his The Taste of Wine when he describes “cru” as combining not merely “the wine-producing property, the chateau” but also “the three activities of production, processing and marketing.” All of these elemental components of cru are “supported by a tradition of quality and the owner’s particular care…”.
Marketing as part of cru? Yes. We often forget what an essential part of great wine marketing (and sales and public relations) are, which is just fine by the marketing, sales and P.R. people I know. They don’t want to be out front; they want the wine to star, along with the winemaker and/or proprietor. The people behind the scenes know the importance of the part they play, and are content to be largely invisible to the public. Just as it should be.
The best Cabernet Francs I’ve had this year include Merryvale’s 2008, Peju’s 2008 Reserve, La Jota’s 2009, Oakville Ranch’s 2007 Robert’s Blend, and a 2007 Jarvis called “Estate Grown Cave” (and if you’re ever been in Jarvis’s cave, you’ll understand why they pay it hommage. It’s the size of Rhode Island.) Try one or several of these wines, and when you’re drinking it–or any superior Napa Valley Bordeaux red–think about the fact that it’s a product, not simply of that particular vineyard or winery, but has emerged from a complex cultural web of ideas, emotions and shared experiences called Napa Valley. As with a child, it takes a village to raise a wine.
There’s so much misunderstanding out there concerning American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) that it’s important to have this conversation from time to time, just to set the record straight.
I’m pretty sure the vast majority of my readers know precisely what an AVA is and isn’t, but this blog does spill over into the non-industry world, which is where enlightenment is needed. Some people still believe that an AVA on a label guarantees something about the wine’s terroir. This is, as we’ll see, a mistake. It guarantees nothing except the origin of the grapes. And that, in turn, says little to nothing about the wine in the bottle.
Yet the myth persists that it does. Consider, for example, this report, from Yahoo news, on the recent legalization by the TTB of some new AVAs. The headline reads “Wine country in the US expands with designated ‘terroir’ areas.” Now, I don’t know why they put “terroir” inbetween apostrophes. Usually, a writer does so to suggest something suspect about the word in question–that the reader ought to take it with a grain of salt. In this case, though, it could just have been that the writer understood that “terroir” is a foreign term. Either way, the article goes on to state something untrue: “a bottle of champagne or Bordeaux wine is instantly recognizable by its place of origin in France, American wine growers are hoping to distinguish themselves from the competition with labels that denote their terroir — a taste profile specific to the area the product was made in, influenced by climate and soil conditions.”
First off, a bottle of Bordeaux is not “instantly recognizable by its place of origin.” There are thousands of individual Bordeaux brands and they have little in common except that they’re dry, fairly full-bodied and tannic. That describes half the red wines on earth, not just Bordeaux.
Now, the second part of that statement merits attention. “American wine growers are hoping to distinguish themselves from the competition with labels that denote their terroir,” defined as “a taste profile specific to the area the product was made in.” Yes, American growers and winemakers do hope to distinguish themselves from the competition, and the place of origin on the label is one way to do that. But what does that have to do with “a specific taste profile”? Very little. Does a “California”-appellated wine have a taste profile? Nope. Does a “Russian River Valley”-appellated wine have a taste profile? Well, what does a 15.7% RRV Zinfandel with residual sugar have in common with a 13.2%, dry Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir? Nothing. Therefore, “Russian River Valley” on the label tells the consumer nothing about the wine’s character, or its quality. The consumer may believe that a bottle of wine from “Russian River Valley” will be a good one, and generally, it will be. But the AVA itself is fairly meaningless.
The smaller AVAs get, the more meaning they tend to have. Russian River Valley is a big place, 96,000 acres on the Wine Institute’s website, although it’s probably a little bigger than that after its recent expansion south. It should in theory be a little easier to find a common “taste profile” in the Santa Lucia Highlands, at 22,000 acres. But is it? I could say SLH Pinot Noirs are ripe, juicy, big wines, often tannic, and dry, with a minerality rare in Russian River Valley, and who could argue with that? And yet that’s just a generalization: the actual wines are variations on this theme, some closer to it, others further away. Compare a Pisoni estate Pinot Noir with a Sleepy Hollow (say, Testarossa’s) and you’re really talking about two different places.
Then we get down to an even smaller appellation, Oakville. At only 5,760 acres, it’s compact enough for a hiker to walk its boundaries in a few hours. There is something “Oakville-ish” to the Cabernets, but again, the rule is more often than not thwarted by the exceptions. East Oakville Cabernets tend to be very ripe and sweet, with a roasted red berry taste. West Oakville Cabernets tend to be tighter, more tannic, veering to black and blue fruits. They’re both Oakville, but of two different species.
All right, you say, let’s get even smaller, and find an AVA that really does mean something. Searching the list, I see an AVA of 2,560 acres: Solano County-Green Valley. Does that mean anything? Not to me. I see a mere 1,300 acres for River Junction, but I couldn’t even tell you what county that’s in. Stags Leap District, at 2,700 acres, maybe comes closest to actually meaning something, but I’m not going to say it’s “an iron fist in a velvet glove” even though that old chestnut is hauled out by every budding wine writer. About the most I can say truthfully about a Stags Leap Cabernet is that it’s almost bound to be a distinguished wine, and ageable too, the way you might describe a Saint-Julien Bordeaux.
Don’t misunderstand me, I like having a system of appellations. It is helpful for consumers to know where the wine is from, and anybody who wants to is free to dig deeper into appellations, to expand their knowledge. But the entire process of wine education and evaluation consists in learning when the rules apply, and when they don’t. Wine is very complicated, very mysterious, very confounding stuff. Maybe it was simpler, in bygone times, but no more. Human intervention, the explosion of vineyard acreage, climate change, a huge diversity of material (from rootstocks to barrels) and a more internationalized winemaker community mean that, today more than ever, a bottle of wine refuses to be trapped into the straitjacket of an “appellation.”
One sign of a good wine book is when I find something on nearly every page to blog about. By that standard, Benjamin Lewin’s In Search of Pinot Noir is a very good wine book.
Besides being a handsome publication, physically speaking, and well graphicked with superb maps and charts, In Search is written with plenty of informed opinion. I like opinion and even attitude from a wine writer, but only when the writer actually possesses a vast well of knowledge. There are plenty of opinionated wine writers out there whose knowledge suffers from, shall we say, de paucité. When Mr. Lewin, who is an M.W., contends something, it has the ring of truth.
There is an irony at the heart of his book, or maybe an inherent contradiction is the better way to put it. This is not Mr. Lewin’s fault. Rather, it is due to his honesty and perceptiveness that it found its way into the book in the first place. One could suggest that the first duty of a wine book on Burgundy is to celebrate the terroirs of the Côte d’Or, and generations of writers have risen to the occasion, repeating truths they heard from others. This, Mr. Lewin reverentially does, in his discussions of Chambertin, La Tâche and the rest. But he does something else that is rare and refreshing: he raises the question (which he is candid enough to imply has no final answer), Are the historic variations between these wines due to actual terroir, or are they due to differences in the human approach to growing grapes and making wine (including, significantly, ripeness levels, stem inclusion in the fermentation and the amount of new oak)? For, make no mistake, if it is the latter, then not only is our historic understanding of the various vineyards of Grand and Premier Burgundy build on sand, but so is the entire notion of terroir, which as we all know has been appropriated from France to California, especially when it comes to Pinot Noir.
I love that Mr. Lewin testifies to the difficulty of cracking this issue. On the one hand, he can’t quite bring himself to say that “The concept of terroir is B.S.” That would be a bridge too far; besides, he evidently doesn’t believe it. But, having studied his subject matter long and hard, he knows that every theory of Burgundy is shattered by experiences of individual bottles that are the exception to the rule. Read this book, and the take home lesson is that the notion of terroir in Burgundy–specifically, of hard and firm vineyard characteristics–might be true from a bird’s eye view, 500 feet in the air. But get down into the tall grass, and it begins to fall apart, when the wines of two different proprietors, made from grapes grown right next to each other, are so different. Nor is Mr. Lewin enough of an apologist for terroir to claim to find a common thread running through these wines. He might say there seems to be one, but he might also say there doesn’t. Good for him.
What this means for the theory of Pinot Noir terroir we’ve created in California over the last 30 years is that it’s nowhere near as simple as it seems, or as producers of highly coveted wines want you to believe. One of the most frustrating and troubling experiences of my career has come when I’ve tasted with producers who claim that there are vast, solid and obvious differences between single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, when I myself cannot perceive them. Of course, when you’re with a highly regarded Pinot Noir winemaker who tells you how different (say) Cargasacchi Vineyard is from Mount Carmel, you tend to believe him, and you tend to look for the differences he is describing. It isn’t surprising when and if, therefore, you actually find those differences.
What’s scary is when you taste these wines objectively and do not find differences. Then you’re forced to come to one of only two possible conclusions: either you’re a bad taster–and who wants to admit that?–or the person who told you about those vast, obvious differences between vineyards was himself mistaken. Or, if “mistaken” is too prejudicial a word, then he was seeing things that don’t exist because he wanted to. I suppose there’s a third possibility, now that I think of it. It may be that a winemaker who consistently tastes the wines of various vineyards, year in and year out, blind and not blind, as part of his job really will learn to detect the subtle distinctions between them that the majority of us, no matter how gifted, cannot. This shouldn’t be surprising, any more than if your neighbor down the street had identical twins, and you were unable to tell Peter and Paul apart, at least during their childhoods. “What? You can’t see that Pete is totally different from Paul?” dad might ask. “Actually, no, I can’t,” you want to reply. “They both seem the same to me.” (But you don’t want to be rude).
Once again we bump up against the principle of uncertainty, by which what we perceive is relative to how we examine the data. This isn’t to say that there are not ironclad differences between, say, Wllliams Selyem’s Allen Vineyard Pinot Noir and their Estate Pinot Noir. There may well be, because although these two properties are quite close to one another on Westside Road, they are obviously different places. And Bob Cabral, who must live as intimately with these wines as he does with his own family, may well learn to be particularly sensitive to their differences. But that doesn’t mean he would be as sensitive to the differences between Cargasacchi and Mount Carmel, since he does not routinely taste their wines. So do the differences between them, as expressed by those who know them best, actually exist? Probably yes. But do they matter to the rest of us? Probably no.
What the critic looks for–even if he cannot consistently detect the characteristics that various vineyards are said to exhibit–is the quality of the individual wine in the bottle. There may well be an underlying, everlasting quality to any wine from the Cargasacchi Vineyard. Peter Cargasacchi, an eloquent man and superb grapegrower, no doubt could express it convincingly. But one would be hard pressed to taste Cargasacchi bottlings from Siduri, Dragonette, Cargassachi itself, Ken Brown, Brewer Clifton and Loring side by side and come up with a pronouncement that holds true across all of them and across all time, unless it’s something so bland–like “all the wines are deeply concentrated”–that it could apply to most good Pinot Noir vineyards. I could, I suppose, comb through years of notes for every Cargasacchi Vineyard Pinot Noir I’ve ever tasted and see if there are words or concepts that apply to all of them. I should then, however, have to comb through reviews of all other Pinot Noirs I’ve tasted, to see if those same words or concepts popped up with the same frequency, before I could honestly write that the Cargassachi Vineyard alone is marked by those qualities. (For example, minerality, or crushed Indian spices, or firm tannins.) But I don’t know if we’ll ever have, in California, an example where one Pinot Noir is described as consistently feminine and another as consistently masculine. Too much depends on vintage variation, on age of vines, on clones and growing decisions, on ripeness, on maceration and fermentation techniques, on yeasts, on barrel type and length of aging and so on. In Burgundy, of course, they arrived at their famous conclusions centuries ago, and they may have been accurate then. The strength of Mr. Lewin’s book is that he shows how difficult it is now to hold onto those conclusions, much as even a diehard Burgundian may want to. And if it’s hard in Burgundy, it’s just about impossible in California.