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Making [non]sense of terroir

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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.


Is this how Europe sees us?

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They gave us attendees to the Wine Writers Symposium last March a free copy of The World of Fine Wine, issue 30. I didn’t get around to reading it until just the other day, and a fine magazine it is indeed.

One of the columnists is David Schildknecht, who is part of Parker’s team. He wrote a piece on terroir which, unfortunately, I was unable to find online, so I can’t link to it here. There was nothing particularly new in it; it’s pretty standard stuff, if a bit stuffy to read. But it was interesting because David revealed a certain Eurocentric view in referring to “the one-time heartland of terroir denial, Northern California.”

It seems that David believes that, after a long period of insisting that terroir doesn’t exist or matter, California now “champions site-specificity,” proving that “a paradign shift has clearly occurred…What too you so long?” David asks California.

Let us now deconstruct these remarks so that we can prove their untruth. David offered no evidence that California has only lately stumbled into an embrace of terroir, other than an interview with Tony Soter, who no longer makes wine in California but rather in Oregon. Hence, it’s not at all clear why he feels that way, i.e., that 5, 10, 15, 20 or 30 years ago California pooh-poohed the notion of terroir. (David cites Matt Kramer as having discovered the importance of place 20 years ago.) I mean, really, this is not only silly, it’s disrespectful of decades of history. Look at the boutique era for proof that the founding fathers of the modern wine period understood terroir perfectly well, even if they didn’t feel it necessary to use a Frenchified word for it. Did such pioneers as Donn Chappellet and Al Brounstein not pick their mountains for terroir purposes? They did. Did Josh Jensen not travel the state looking for limestone before he created Calera on Mount Harlan? He did. Did Patrick Campbell choose the vertiginous slopes of Sonoma Mountain because he knew it would make ageworthy Cabernet Sauvignon? Yes. Did the daring vintners who planted vineyards on the far Sonoma Coast not have a passionate dedication to terroir before they tackled that forbiddingly harsh region? They did. Was the late Jess Jackson unaware of “a sense of place” when he bought and developed the Verite and Stonestreet properties, high up on Alexander Mountain? He was not. Did Sir Peter Michael choose his spot high on Mount St. Helena by accident? No.

All these pathfinders sought terroir, and I could go on and on citing others who knew exactly what they wanted in a piece of dirt and then went on to realize it. Northern California, or California in general, has never been a bastion of terroir denial. We can agree on that. So what would lead David to say it was? Here we have to get inside the man’s head. There are several reasons, I think. One is the standard old European bias against California, and more broadly against the U.S., that we are a collection of idiotic boobs with no taste or discernment. Another reason is because there’s been a very tight little in-group of European wine writers and MWs who talk only to themselves–and they tend to be insulated and perpetuate the same myths over and over. The reason David doesn’t know that California has always been aware of and in search of the greatest terroir is because he doesn’t read people like me. I could have told him so a long time ago and prevented him from writing something so patently vapid. And a final reason may simply be the Francophilia that so many European wine writers feel in their bones–a belief that may not even be conscious, that only Old Europe can have true terroir, that all coastal California is, is a western extension of the Central Valley.

No, California’s great winemakers know perfectly well what terroir is. They always have. Nothing “took them so long.” What “took so long” has been for David to finally grasp that California “gets it.” Well,  better late than never!


Going Rhône in Cabernet country

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I interviewed the great musician Boz Scaggs yesterday, and something he said made me think about how, sometimes, serendipity in the wine business pays off.

My full conversation with Boz will appear in an upcoming issue of Wine Enthusiast, so I don’t want to steal its thunder. The only part I’ll reveal is what Boz said when I asked him why he didn’t plant Cabernet Sauvignon instead of Rhône varieties on his property on Mount Veeder, a Napa mountain famed for the quality of its Cabs and Bordeaux blends.

“I wasn’t aware that it was!” was Boz’s reply. Instead, he put in the Rhônes, and I have to tell you his 2008 Scaggs Vineyard Montage GSM is an absolutely fabulous wine.

I imagine if someone had advised Boz that Mount Veeder was Cabernet country, he might have planted it instead, and the resulting wine no doubt would have been excellent. His property has great terroir, and Boz’s winemaker is the talented Ken Bernards (his brand is Ancien). We then would have had one more good Mount Veeder Cabernet, in addition to other great ones from Kendall-Jackson Highland Estates, Trinchero, Atlas Peak, Yates Family and Cuvaison. But we would not have had Boz’s Montage.

Who’s to say what other varieties could perform well on Mount Veeder, if only they were planted? Sky, a small winery on the mountain (I haven’t reviewed their wines for many years), made an outstanding Zinfandel; I hope they still do. So did Chateau Potelle; their VGS Zin off Veeder was absolutely one of the best in California. I don’t imagine there’s much Zin left on Mount Veeder, though, because it’s a tough sell.

There also used to be a winery, Veedercrest, up there that made one of the best Rieslings in California. It was so good, I bought it by the ton in the Eighties; it was a house fave. I don’t think Veedercrest exists anymore, and I seriously doubt anyone’s growing Riesling on Veeder; in all the years I’ve reviewed for Wine Enthusiast, I’ve yet to see a Veeder Riesling (although I’m sure if there’s any out there, someone will let me know!). If Americans cared about California Riesling, more people would grow it, and Mount Veeder would be a natural home. But that’s not the case.

Chardonnay, by the way, does well on Veeder, as evidenced by the likes of Mayacamas, Y Rousseau and those old Chateau Potelles. They’re steely, minerally Chardonnays, not fat, unctuous ones like you get from, say, Alexander Valley or Santa Rita Hills…the kind of Chardonnays that can take some bottle age and actually improve.

It’s true throughout California wine country that grape varieties that performed perfectly well have been ripped out and replaced, generally by Cabernet, Chardonnay or some other popular wine. I’ve struggled over the years about what to think of this. On the one hand, it’s sad. But on the other, the focus on Cabernet, Chardonnay, etc. has led to amazing progess in the quality of those wines. And if we look at every wine district in the world, they tend to be focused on one variety or family of varieties or, at most, a few families of varieties. Back in the day, Napa Valley had 20, 30 varieties or more, all intermingled. In some ways it was a more interesting period than today, but the wines weren’t as good.

And then along comes a Boz Scaggs, unaware of Veeder’s reputation for Cabernet, so he plants the Rhône varieties he loves instead, and voila! turns out a magical wine. (His Grenache rosé is no slouch either.) It’s wines like those that are so much fun to discover.


I have to explain to Europeans that California wine does have terroir

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There’s a Dutch-based website, QLI [pronounced “coolie”], that asked me to respond to the following question: Why do California wines show so little sign, or no sign at all, of terroir?

I suppose one hears this complaint a lot in Europe. Hell, one even hears it here in the States, and not just in New York; my own colleague at Wine Enthusiast, Paul Gregutt, has been known to lodge similar criticism of California wines.

I’m going to write someting up for the QLI people (who seem nice enough; they explain that they, personally, like California wines, it’s their friends who don’t). But I thought I’d take my answer out for a test run here on the old blog.

What I’ll begin with, I suppose, is to answer a question with another question: What is terroir? I mean, if terroir is the sum total of dirt and weather, then California wine has terroir because, obviously, every grape vine grows somewhere, in dirt that has weather. You may not like a 17.2% El Dorado County Zinfandel with 1.2% residual sugar–I don’t–but isn’t it true that such a wine possesses terroir? So right away I find the question a little incoherent.

However, obviously I don’t want to tell my new European friends they’re incoherent, so I have to frame the argument in a different way. Instead of answering the question literally, I need to deconstruct it and figure out what it really means.

What I think it means is that California wines don’t show certain nuances that, say, Bordeaux and Burgundy show, because we’re at too southerly a latitude and therefore the grapes get too ripe and therefore the alcohol levels get too high and the higher the alcohol, the more terroir is masked, and the problem is compound by winemakers giving a heavy-handed vinification, mainly oak that’s too strong. (Maybe the anti-California crowd also thinks we don’t have suitable soils anywhere in our gigantic state.) Anyway this is what I think the anti-Californians mean. There’s a variant of this argument that says it’s not that California is too southerly, it’s that the wrong (i.e. meridional) varieties are planted here, rather than the Mediterranean varieties that would do better. This was being pushed quite a while ago by Randall Grahm, but I don’t think he says that anymore.

If the anti-California crowd is saying something other than what I’ve described above, I don’t know what it is. So I’ll assume that’s what they mean: in short, California wines are too big, powerful, ripe and alcoholic.

Well, there are certain French and Italian wines that are also big, powerful, ripe and alcoholic, and they include some famous names sold at high prices; but maybe the anti-California crowd would say they, too, lack terroir. Then, too, there are some terrific California wines that clock in under 14%, or nearly so, which is lower than a good many classified growths. Another question I’d like to ask the anti-California crowd is, Are you saying that all Bordeaux and Burgundies have terroir? Mouton-Cadet has terroir? Possibly the problem is that, over there in Europe where they live, they’ve tasted only big-brand California wines exported to Europe by the mega-corporations that own them. (No names need be mentioned, but they would be the California equivalents of yellow tail.) I will grant that a mass-produced, California-appellated varietal wine probably doesn’t possess terroir, but surely it’s not fair to judge all California wines by the standard of a million-case production Chardonnay, is it?

I submit that California wines, at their highest, do show terroir, and in some cases, spectacularly. I blogged yesterday on my 20-year vertical of Williams Selyem Allen Vineyard Pinot Noir, a wine of such expressive terroir that it blows my mind anyone would ever say no California wine has terroir. There are many other wines I could name that possess fabulous terroir. Look up my highest scoring wines and you’ll see many, many with plenty of terroir. They tend to come from individual vineyards, as you’d expect; but I’ve always thought there was a bit of snobbiness to the position that only a single-vineyard wine can have terroir. I gave 100 points to the 2006 Cardinale last year, a wine comprised of grapes from Mt. Veeder, Howell Mountain, Stags Leap and Oakville. I suppose you could argue, purely intellectually, that that wine cannot have terroir because the grapes were grown in such disparate places, but really, who cares, when we’re talking about a wine that is, quite frankly, perfect? (Or maybe you could say that Cardinale has Napa Valley terroir.)

Besides, I’m sure that when the anti-California crowd is looking straight at the label of their garrigiste Bordeaux, grower Champagne or few rows of Vosne, they’re able to detect terroir because their eyes tell their brains, which then tell their ears, that it must be there. Strange, though, that in so many blind tastings, California wines outshine French wines. I’m not just talking about the Paris Tasting. Schramsberg has been doing blind tastings against the top Champagnes for years, and coming out pretty well.

I’d like to invite the anti-California crowd out here. We’ll drive up to Williams Selyem and do another vertical, maybe of Hirsch or Ferrington or Rochioli Riverblock. I think even the most jaded European palate will find the experience eye-opening.


Musings on the Napa Harvest Report

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Could you tell that a painting by Picasso from his 1950s abstract phase was painted by the same artist as an early 20th century Blue Period painting by Picasso?

This question arose during yesterday’s Napa Vintners harvest report in San Francisco. After the report, we tasted through the 2001 through 2010 vintages from four wineries: Cakebread, Corison, Far Niente and Opus One. For me the salient point of the tasting, which consisted of a total of 49 wines, was the obviousness of the house styles at the wineries.

Far Niente was consistently the biggest, most tannic, most dramatic and powerful. Opus was by contrast the most elegant, often showing a delicacy and even an herb quality. Corison was right in the middle, squaring the circle by combining elegance with power. All three displayed a consistency, an expression of terroir, and distinct profile. As for the Duckhorns, I must say that over the years, while I’ve admired the Cabernets and often given them good scores, there’s an inchoateness, a slightly generic quality that repeated itself during yesterday’s tasting.

During the discussion following the tasting there was a conversation going on among the panelists, who were the winemakers from the respective wineries, and something that someone said concerning consistency prompted me to ask this double, somewhat loaded question. Do you winemakers feel compelled to achieve consistency of style year after year, even at the expense of making a better wine? Or is your consistency of style simply a reflection of your wine as a creature of its terroir?

I’ve been aware of the importance of consistency for years, from the point of view of a critic. My own tasting director at Wine Enthusiast routinely dogs me about it. I’ve often asked winemakers what quality they most admire or require in a wine critic, and the reply most often is consistency. So transferring the parameter of consistency from critic to producer isn’t difficult. After all, you’d expect Opus One to be lighter, less dense and tannic than anything off the Oakville Bench (which includes Far Niente, Martha’s Vineyard and Harlan). A heavy, tannic Opus would be an anomoly. But then, of course, Opus’s vineyards include some closer to the Napa River, on the coarser soils east of Highway 29. So that must contribute to its lighter texture (regardless of any “French-oriented” decision Tim Mondavi made years ago).

The analogy with painting arose when Bruce Cakebread answered my question. He suggested that each winery’s terroir would always define itself, regardless of how its approach to winemaking varied. He offered the example of Dégas. A horse by Dégas would be different from a ballerina by Dégas, but they both would bear the unmistakable stamp of the Impressionist. I replied that, yes, that was true; but if you considered an artist like Picasso, who had a very long and creative life and went through multiple phases, would it be possible to testify that the artist who created a Blue Period painting was the same one who, decades later, created something unbearably abstract and wildly colorful? Yes, Bruce Cakebread affirmed, to grunts of assent from the audience. (Or maybe they were just waiting for me to shut up.)

Bruce did make the vital point that it takes a very long time for a winemaker and winery to develop her house style, particularly when crafting wine from an estate vineyard. He said, “You can’t just taste one vintage of Corison’s Kronos and state what the terroir is.” Which is absolutely true, and which is why it was and always is such a pleasure to taste the latest output of fine wineries, especially in a vertical, and have what you always thought were the house styles confirmed so strongly.

Incidentally the tasting proved once again how well Corison’s Kronos ages. Hers were the stars of the earlier flight (2001-2005), with the 2001 (which I loved last year in New York) stunning. On the other hand, Far Niente dominated the second flight (2006-2010). So potent, so refined and dramatic. The 2010s were, obviously, all barrel samples, which are nearly impossible to make sense of, for me anyway. I’d hate to have to taste wines from the barrel professionally. As for the vintages, 2004 revealed its tragic flaw, which was the blistering heat. From my 2004 Vintage Diary:

Sept. 2
Big heat wave to start tomorrow

Sept. 5 Very hot in SF (96), even hotter in wine country, and will continue

Sept. 6 Temps 100 degrees throughout wine country

Sept. 7 More record heat everywhere

Sept. 8 Hotter today than ever

Sept. 10 Heat leading to a crush rush, everything coming in at once, running out of water to rehydrate the vines, running out of fermentation space…

And so on. 2004 was a very difficult year for Napa Cabernet and this tasting proved it. Upon release, I gave the Far Niente and Corison (the only ones I reviewed) scores in the low 90s, but in this tasting, neither broke 90 points. The wines had been inherently unstable; none of the four seems to have much more useful life, although they’re all drinking well now.


California terroir, c’est moi

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Readers of this blog know that I recently got a wrist tattoo, and subsequently decided to expand it up to the elbow. Which raised the question of design. What do I like? What “statement” do I want to make?

Philip, the tattoo artist, explained the options. There are varying degrees of what he called “saturation.” Apart from the particular images I want, I’d have to decide whether I wanted a dense, saturated pattern, or something less so, where some of the natural skin shows through.

I knew immediately that I wanted something dense and intense. As for the image itself, it should be jungle-y, with exotic tropical flowers, vines and leaves, in violent, explosive color. I said so on my Facebook page, and then, spontaneously, I added the comment, “I guess I like my tattoos the way I like my wines, with lots of saturated color.”

That was a spontaneous remark, but it was true. And it made me think about my taste in wines. I do like a big, rich wine, the kind they call California-style. When I look at my highest-scoring wines, they are big: There’s Williams Selyem’s 2007 Litton Estate Pinot Noir; nothing shy about that. Trefethen’s ‘05 Reserve Cab, a Sea Smoke 2007 “Ten,” Alpha Omega’s ‘07 Beckstoffer To Kalon, Blackbird ‘07 Illustration, Hestan’s “Stephanie” Cabernet, a Rodney Strong 2006 “Rockaway” bottling (whose high score, I hope, re-endears me to Robert Larsen!). These are all wines that critics routinely describe as “massive” or “monumental” or “huge” or, yes, extracted.

And then there are the Chardonnays! I tasted a bunch the other day. Marilyn was there; she’s one of the few people I’m comfortable being with when I formally taste. There were eight Chards in the flight. Four were from Stonestreet, specifically from the old Gauer Vineyard (no longer so-called), way high up on the Alexander Valley side of the Mayacamas. As I was tasting through the flight, I told Marilyn, “These are controversial wines. Some people detest them because they’re so rich and oaky. I love this style.” I gave them scores that reflect my appreciation for that style: the ‘08 Upper Barn, Lower Rim, Gravel Bench and Broken Road. The other four Chardonnays in the flight, which I won’t identify, all were good wines, but didn’t score as well. Compared to the Stonestreets, they lacked, well, extraction.

I can’t apologize for my taste, any more than you can for yours. More than that, I believe my taste reflects the best of California’s terroir. California wines are big, ripe and fruity. The climate insists that they be so. If they’re not ripe and fruity, they’re not really California wines. There are important exceptions, of course. I recently reviewed Mondavi’s 2006 Tokalon I Block Fume Blanc (Sauvignon Blanc), and it is a magnificent wine, complex, elegant, bone dry, even mysterious in its minerals. But it is not fruity. But then, fruitiness is relative. I want fruit in my Pinots, Cabernets and Chardonnays. I don’t necessarily want it in my Sauvignon Blancs, or Pinot Grigios or Chenin Blancs or Albarinos. Those are white wines that I expect to deliver dryness and racy acidity, mouth-cleansing properties that make an end-run around fruit. Maybe that’s why I never give those white varieties super-high scores. The highest score I ever gave a Sauvignon Blanc was 95 points, for Illumination’s 2008 (it’s from the Quintessa people). Is that wrong? Should I score a super-dry Sauvignon Blanc higher? Maybe. My intellectual processing of wine scoring is still evolving, and I wouldn’t want it any other way, even at the potential cost of some consistency.

So saturation appeals to me. Of course, saturation needs a framework, a structure in order to succeed; saturation all by itself is pure flab. That’s when you can look at my scores and draw conclusions. An “85” can be saturated in fruit but lack structure (or be too sweet). A “95” will almost invariably be a big, saturated but dry wine, red or white. That’s my palate, that’s California’s terroir, and there’s very little daylight between them.


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