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.
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:
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.
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.
There’s been an interesting discussion going on at the Tablas Creek blog on why California wineries find it so hard to make good, artisanal wine priced between $10 and $20. The reason Jason Haas blogged on this topic was (as he explained) because of a blog that the S.F. Chronicle’s Jon Bonné posted on March 27 that wondered why there aren’t more and better wines available for restaurants (as, for example, there are from Cotes-du-Rhone producers). Jason also was activated by this article that appeared in the N.Y. Times last month on why California can’t seem to produce Europe’s versions of inexpensive, savory local wines.
Let’s back up. The notion of finding a perfect vin de pays or vino di tavola at a little bistro or trattoria in the Languedoc or Tuscany is very romantic, but let’s keep in mind that it was created and disseminated by American tourists traveling to Europe, not by locals who’ve drunk these wines for generations and find them, not exactly romantic, but hearty and quaffable. When you’re traveling in an exotic foreign country, perhaps sitting at a table with someone you love eating local dishes in a place of great beauty and culture, everything is heightened — including the local wines. But let’s not forget there’s another narrative here: Often, when these American tourists try the same wine back home, it fails to live up to memory or expectation.
It’s not hard for me to imagine a European tourist traveling here in California who dined at a restaurant in Ukiah or Forestville or Paso Robles and found some amusing local bottle he, too, found romantic.
Jason’s blog explained how the economics of land prices in his neck of the woods (western Paso Robles) dictate against being able to sell a bottle of wine that retails for below $20. (And thank you to Jason for being so honest and clear about the numbers.) But can we dispense with the incorrect notion that California doesn’t have really good wines, reflecting true terroir, for under $20? Here are just a handful that I’ve quite enjoyed recently. Each is an authentic wine that shows its origins in a fine and interesting way. (Keep in mind the prices listed are suggested retail, according to the winery. That means you should be able to find these wines priced even lower on the open market.)
Alma Rosa 2007 Chardonnay (Santa Barbara County, $18)
Atmosphere 2008 Demark St. Vineyard Fume Blanc (Sonoma Valley, $18)
Novy 2007 Syrah (Napa Valley, $19)
Sausal 2007 Estate Zinfandel (Alexander Valley, $19)
Navarro 2008 Gewurztraminer (Anderson Valley, $19)
Tangent 2008 Paragon Vineyard Riesling (Edna Valley, $20)
Sean Minor 2008 4 Bears Pinot Noir (Carneros, $17)
Pedroncelli 2007 Three Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon (Dry Creek Valley, $16)
Katherine Goldschmidt 2007 Crazy Creek Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley, $20)
Concannon 2007 Conservancy Petite Sirah (Livermore Valley, $15)
Foxen 2008 Ernesto Wickenden Vineyard Chenin Blanc (Santa Maria Valley, $20)
I could go on and on. I mean, these are all fine, local, authentic and artisanal wines. I scored all of them highly, and would be happy to drink them on a regular basis. So we really need to stop this California bashing and boo-hooing that we don’t produce quality, local, authentic wines of terroir at everyday prices. It just ain’t so.
My post yerterday generated an interesting discussion in the “comments” section that attempted both to focus in on the true meaning of terroir and also to expand upon it. The issues raised included:
– can heavy winemaker intervention “overpower any sense of terroir”? [this is from Stephen Hare]
– What about “the heart, soul and dreams of the people farming the vineyard and making its wine” [from scott]. Romantic notions aside, what is the importance of the winemaker’s consciousness to a fine wine that expresses terroir?
– what is the nature of the interactive process that occurs between the vineyard and its manager/winemaker? Or, to use Joe’s phrase, how important is it for the winemaker “to learn from the vineyard”?
Books could be (and have been) written about all of these concepts, which are complex and interrelated. The notion of heavy winemaker intervention overpowering terroir is probably the hardest to answer. Before addressing it, it might be helpful to ask another question: If heavy winemaker intervention overpowers terroir, then does light intervention safeguard it? (By “light” I mean less new oak or less charred oak, non-dealcoholized wine, unfiltered, natural yeast, etc.) The answer obviously is no. It seems logical, then, to extrapolate that heavy winemaker intervention does not necessarily overpower terroir. Most people, when they think of winemaker intervention, mean oak. Many of the top Burgundies and Bordeaux are aged in 100% new oak, yet they are held up as prima facie examples of terroir. I suppose in theory it’s possible to take a perfectly good wine that does reflect its terroir and then bury it under this and that. I routinely complain about otherwise good Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Cabernet Sauvignons that are overoaked. But whether the amount of oak overpowers their terroir, as opposed to their being sound, non-terroir-driven wines that happen to be overoaked, is impossible to tell in a blind tasting. If you know the wine is from a great single vineyard with a high reputation, and the wine tastes overoaked, you can always say, “What a pity they overpowered the terroir with oak.” But what if the wine is (say) a Meritage sourced from various vineyards throughout Sonoma County? You can say it’s overoaked, but you can’t complain that the terroir has been compromised, because the wine by definition has no terroir, properly understood, unless you claim there is a special Sonoma County terroir; and if you do, you would have to claim there’s a special North Coast terroir, and even a special California terroir. It becomes more and more absurd and reductionist.
So it’s easy to show that winemaker intervention can just as easily enhance terroir as overpower it, and that leads to the notion of the winemaker learning from the vineyard. This is often overlooked, by the public and even by some critics, but it shouldn’t be. Christian Moueix once was quoted as saying it would take him 20 years to figure out how to make Dominus (and, in the event, he was right). Here, he strikes to the heart of the matter. It’s not just a question of the grower and vintner tinkering with oak forests or toast levels or yeast types. First they must listen to what the vineyard is saying to them. This is known by the producers of every great wine in the world. Just as a child with certain inherent talents may never be able to express those talents if he is forced into a role by his parents that doesn’t allow his inner uniqueness to express itself, so grapes need to be allowed to be themselves. If there is terroir in the vineyard, the winemaker must understand precisely how to allow it to be expressed through the proper oak regimen, canopy management, winery techniques, etc. It’s an ongoing process that implies an open-minded willingness to learn. But the proof is in the pudding, as reflected by the overwhelming dominance of single-vineyard wines in my highest scores over the years.
And that brings us to scott’s observation about “heart, soul and dreams.” It’s always tempting to get overly romantic and philosophical about fine wine, but in this care it’s justified. Scott is onto something. There is a relationship between terroir (which we think of as firmly rooted in physical parameters) and the winemaker’s mind or consciousness. A very fine wine reflects a very fine mind. There’s no blunter or more accurate way to put it. A wine mind, if you will. To make great wine, the winemaker first must think like a grape.
If a winemaker can obtain a great site and then think like a grape (and this implies his employer giving him the means to do so), then what you have is terroir + the human factor = what Peynaud calls cru. [pp. 225-226 in "The Taste of Wine"]. “A cru is the result of making the most of natural conditions, as we saw in the [discussion of the] human factors in quality.”