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Retrospective: World of Pinot Noir

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Last Saturday morning’s seminar on “Terroir: The Soul of La Côte d’Or” was an absolute delight. It’s no easy thing to rouse an audience of several hundred at 9 a.m. in the morning of the second day of a major wine and food event, after a night in which most of them partied hard and went to bed late. But Don Kinnan did it.

John Haeger, who wrote North American Pinot Noir, used to have this time slot for his “Pinot Noir 101” seminar, which we always enjoyed (“we” meaning myself and all the other attendees; I haven’t adapted use of the Papal “We,” yet). But Mr. Kinnan, who appears to be of a certain age, was new to most of us, and we didn’t know quite what to expect.

Turns out he’s an ex-Kobrand guy, where he was director of education, and also holds the Certified Wine Educator certificate from the Society of Wine Educators. Don not only “knows his stuff” when it comes to Burgundy, but also made one of the greatest presentations (complete with Power Point) I’ve ever seen. He had everybody captivated with his graceful, informed and easy approach.

We tasted 9 wines, from 9 villages, 8 producers and 4 vintages, in order to penetrate more deeply into the mysteries of terroir. Don explained how Burgundy is comprised of 3,800 estates, not to mention 250 negociants, spread over 101 appellations, which makes it a terribly complicated place. “It takes faith to believe in [the reality of] terroir, which cannot be proven by the scientific method,” Don told us. Of course, I’ve grown up with conventional notions of Burgundian terroir: Volnay delicate, Vosne powerful, Beaune elegant, Chambolle feminine, but unless you really drink a lot of these wines, you don’t know these things first-hand. Don wanted to show us how the old notions of regional differences are true, and he largely succeeded.

First, he tackled an issue I’ve written much about on this blog: “terroir” is the soil and climate, but the human element has to be considered, in the form of vineyard management and the winemaking process. The combination of the two is what I have called “cru,” after Emile Peynaud, but of course, as Don said, in Burgundy the idea is for the human to stand back and let terroir star. (His most controversial statement may have been, “In the New World there’s more human influence than in the Old World,” which, if true, would minimize terroir.)

I won’t go through all nine of my tasting notes, except to say that Don had us taste blind, and, based on his superb and clear definitions of what to expect in the wines, I got all of them right. This surely is the highest performance a wine educator is capable of: To describe wines in such chiseled detail, in a way that makes so much sense, that you’re able to identify them blind. For me, the stars of the show were a Clos de Vougeot, Domaine Hudelot-Noellat 2004, and a spectacular Volnay, 2006 Taillepieds from Domaine de Montille, that was so good, it made my seatmate to the left, Dick Doré, from Foxen, smile ear to ear. I can only say that wine gave me a permanent Platonic idea of Volnay.

After that peak experience, it was hard to go back to California Pinot Noir. But I made a valiant effort, and have to say our state has no reason to hang its head. To fall ever so short of a world class masterpiece like that Volnay is not embarrassing. I tasted a lot of wine that Saturday, under the white tents on the bluffs above the Pacific beach as the fog rolled relentlessly in, but I took no notes. I never take notes at crowded venues like World of Pinot Noir. They’re not conducive to thoughtful tasting, and even logistically, you can’t hold your glass, your spit cup and your pad and pen in two hands! Not to mention a lack of level surfaces upon which to write.

But I do enjoy visiting the various wineries, trying new things, connecting with old friends, making new ones, and deepening my understanding of things in general. I will add only that, late Saturday afternoon, the WOPN people arranged for a final pair of seminars, including a Talley one to which I went, Talley being an old favorite and Brian Talley an old acquaintance. Brian brought along his winemaker, Eric Johnson, and together they made a formidable presentation, and the wines, of course, were great. However, by 5 p.m., several of the attendees were obviously drunk, and while some of us tried to get them to shut up by polite requests and tapping silverware on our crystal glasses, alas, it was to no avail. The silent, respectful majority of us were irritated, and I think Brian was, too (although he’s too much the gentlemen to reveal such things). It is really awful how thoughtless and rude some people can be. The WOPN organizers may want to rethink these 5 p.m. Saturday seminars.

But that was a minor cloud on an otherwise fabulous World of Pinot Noir. Check it out next year.


A Ribera del Duero tasting

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Master Sommelier Yoon Ha, from San Francisco’s acclaimed Benu restaurant, did a great job presiding over yesterday’s Ribera del Duero tasting and seminar, held at the Ferry Building on a gloomy, gray day. We had six different wines, all current releases and all 100% Tempranillo, that illustrated what Yoon called “the diversity” that characterizes this 30-year old Denominacíon de Origen.

Yoon, who lived several years in Ribera, is high on the wines, as are many of his colleague somms in the City. I can see why. They’re wines of great elegance and finesse, ranging through the unoaked or only lightly oaked Jovens, to the Crianzas (aged two years, with a minimum of one year in barrel), Reservas (aged three years, with a minimum of one year in oak) and Gran Reservas (aged five years at minimum, with a minimum of two years in barrel). It was amusing to read, in the tech notes, that “During harvest each winery is assigned a surveyor by the Consejo Regulador of D.O. Ribera del Duero” to regulate the origin of the grapes, the varieties and percentages allowed, winemaking procedures, and so on. I had to smile at the thought of the California Department of Food and Agriculture sending “Reguladors” to each winery to police their practices. I asked Yoon if he thought that such bureaucratic intrusion was good for the wines, or if it inhibited innovation. He replied, in effect, that it was probably good, for it ensures a certain continuity of style and helps keep unqualified dabblers from harming Ribera’s reputation.

Here are my tasting notes:

1. D.O.5. Hispanobodegas S.L.U. Viña Gormaz 2010. All stainless steel. Bone dry with supple tannins and racy acidity. So fresh, elegant and clean, with sour red cherry candy fruit. So versatile with such a range of food, and only $10. An amazing value. I was with young Joey Franzia, of Bronco, and he loved this wine.

2. Bodegas Felix Callejo Crianza 2007. A touch of oak brings toast and eucalyptus. Reminded me of a Johnson Turnbull Cabernet from the 1990s. Great weight, body, very rich and deeply flavored. Black currants. Bone dry, complex, thick, supple tannins. Another super-versatile wine at the table. $14.

3. Protos B. Ribera Duero de Peñafiel Tinto Fino 2009. A little muted at first. Dry, elusive, complex. Herbs, dried cherries, earth. From 25-year old vines. Intense, austere, elegant, tannic, good acidity. $15 a bottle.

4. Alejandro Fernandez-Tinto Pesquera Crianza 2009. Very concentrated and intense. Dark color–great power and substance. Bone dry, clean, touch of raisins. Alcohol 14.0%. Spent 18 months in American oak. Concentrated, great weight. $28.

5. Explotaciones Valduero Reserva 2005. Picking up aged character, dried fruit, mushrooms. Bone dry, thick. Thirty months total in oak. Elegant, complex. Develops in the glass. Impressive. $32.

6. Viñedos Y Bodegas Garcia Figuero Tinto Figuero Reserva 2004. Sweeter than the others–from oak? 70% American wood, 30% French. Big wine, dry, powerful, from 50-year old vines. Dried fruits, balsam, grilled meat. Very serious wine. Great weight, power. Bone dry on the finish. Tannins rich, smooth, supple. Easily the standout of the flight. I asked Yoon what food from Benu he would pair this with and he said the rabbit cassoulet with black truffle bun, from the restaurant’s tasting menu. Then he added, “And it’s great with Mexican food, especially with mole.”  This wine retails for $38.

I loved these Ribera wines. Compared to California (say, Sangiovese or Tempanillo or even Merlot), they’re drier, sleeker, earthier, more austere and elegant. I wrote of all six wines “subtle power” but was struck also by their food-friendly versatility and pricing. The low prices can be explained by two factors, I think: most of the vineyard land has been in the family for generations, so there’s no bank debt on it; and Spain’s horrible economy prohibits producers from charging too much, since much of the production is consumed in country. There is evidently a great desire on the part of Ribera producers to export to the U.S.

California has little or nothing to compare with these wines, from the Temps I’ve had. The best California Tempranillo I ever tasted was the Jarvis 2008 (Napa Valley, $53, 94 points), a delicious wine indeed, but with its strong oak, softness and powerfully sweet fruit, it was all California. Somewhere between a Crianza and a Reserva, I should think, was the Maisonry 2008 Tempranillo, from the Stagecoach Vineyard (Napa Valley, $42, 88 points). I liked its dry, medium-bodied weight, but then, it contained some Cabernet Franc; California Tempranillo on its own can be one-dimensional. Other Temp producers that have caught my eye–and you have to give them credit for marching against the market–are Twisted Oak, Longoria, Six Sigma, Curran and Bella Luna.


Getting by on a wing, a prayer–and another breakout session

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It’s hardly surprising that “Profitability is the top concern this year for wine industry professionals,” as was reported yesterday.

Dr. Robert Smiley, at U.C. Davis, did a survey of managers and found that “profit margins ranked the most significant wine business trend, garnering virtually a 4 on a five-point scale.”

Any wine company always wants to make a profit at the end of the day, but in these perilous economic times, making a profit–however marginal–can spell the difference between survival and going belly up. I talk to a lot of winemakers, winery owners and winery business managers, and I can tell you that, when they’re being frank (which they aren’t always), and they know we’re off the record, they confess in the most startling terms how tough things are out there.

Just the other day, somebody (an unusually well informed winemaker consultant) told me that one third of the wineries in Sonoma County are up for sale. This is an astounding number. Even if its somewhat exaggerated, it’s probably close to the truth. Imagine being at the helm of a small or medium sized family winery. You’ve always managed to make enough money to keep a few of your relatives employed and live the lifestyle. But these days, the pressure on prices is so strongly in a negative direction that you lie awake at night, worrying how you’re going to get through the next quarter.

That’s why “profit margins” are more important these days than ever. This also explains the next most significant concerns by owners, as reported by Smiley: cost of materials, “pricing pandemonium,” distribution and “new consumer values and how to work with them.”

About “cost of materials,” one of the most significant is fuel, and there’s not much a proprietor can do about that. “Pricing pandemonium” refers to the inexorable demand, on the part of buyers, to pay less and less for wine. Producers would love to raise prices to gain a little breathing space, but they just can’t. I’ve heard stories of buyers getting competing sellers together in the same room and saying, in effect, “Okay, guys, who can undercut whom the worst?” It’s like feeding slaves to the lions at the Roman Coliseum. And that’s assuming that the salesmen can get their product into the distribution system, which is far from the case.

This explains “new consumer values and how to work with them.” It’s not clear from the reporting just what these “new consumer values” are, but we can assume that proprietors are thinking of two things: “values” in the monetary sense of the word (i.e. consumers are looking for value wines) and “values” in the sense of a new generation of younger consumers, who are alleged to think and behave differently from their parents and grandparents.

It’s likely, if you’re a 50- or 60-something proprietor or top level manager, that you look at the younger generation with bemusement. Everything you hear and intuitively feel tells you they’re different. They tweet and Facebook and text; they don’t listen to traditional influencers; they’re much more tuned into peer persuasion than your generation; they want to be engaged by wineries, not manipulated by them, or taken for granted. This makes older proprietors scratch their heads, and look to anyone who can possibly explain to them how to get through to this population. That’s why the upcoming (Sept. 19-20) Wine Industry Financial Symposium will address this topic. Attendees will flock to breakout sessions like Jayson Woodbridge’s “Forget Marketing-Change the Game” and John Gillespie’s “What’s Next for the Wine Market? Reading the Tea Leaves of Research,” where they will carefully inspect every utterance and dissect every statistic with the diligence of ancient soothsayers analyzing the entrails of a slain beast for clues and prophesies. They will take notes, ask questions, network, and then go home, there to resume the fight to make a profit, keep costs under control, get distributed and, if they’re lucky, make a little progress on direct-to-consumer. They’ll probably be just as frustrated about those pesky “new consumer values” as they were going in, but maybe they’ll leave with a few new ideas. And believe me, in these times, new ideas–hope–is what gets you through the night.


You scratch my back and…when wineries and charities both benefit

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Had a call from a friend, Larry Schaffer, proprietor of Tercero Wines, in Santa Barbara. He wanted to know if I could come to an event next month in San Francisco, a promotional thing between the Rhone Rangers (on whose board Larry sits) and The GAVI Alliance, an international nonprofit that combats pneumonia in children. GAVI’s supporters include U.N.  Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Larry explained that each Rhone Ranger member winery had decided to donate $10 for each case of Syrah sold during November to GAVI. He was looking for help promoting the event.

As it turned out, I couldn’t go. But I was curious as to how and why the partnership between the Rhone Rangers and GAVI had come about. Larry explained that, last June, Eric Asimov had written a piece on his New York Times blog, at The Pour, that was super critical of California Syrah. Eric had repeated the tired old joke (which I’ve now heard about 25 times), “What’s the difference between a case of Syrah and a case of pneumonia? You can get rid of the pneumonia.” He said some rather harsh things about California Syrah (“dreadfully generic”) that I don’t agree with–that’s not the point–but it was a kick in the groin for California Syrah producers, who are struggling.

Shortly after Eric’s piece, a doctor named Orin Levine wrote a piece on the Huffington Post in which he said that, after reading The Pour, he’d had an idea: In recognition of World Pneumonia Day 2010, “I am asking all winemakers and wine retailers to contribute $10 from every case of Syrah they sell in November to the GAVI Alliance, and asking American wine drinkers to make Syrah their wine of choice in November.” Levine seems to have clout. The Rhone Rangers heard about his challenge, one thing led to another, and ergo, the event in San Francisco next month. Even Stephen Tanzer jumped in, following a Rhone Rangers-GAVI tasting in New York, and urged consumers to support the effort, under his cleverly named blog posting, “Pneumonia’s Last Syrah.”

Larry Schaffer was frank in his talk with me in conceding that the Rhone Rangers’ reason for working with GAVI is as much to gain publicity for California Syrah as it is to help kids with pneumonia. Last week, I went to the big Mondavi family dinner, held in conjunction with Morton’s The Steakhouse, to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation. It was clear to me then that the various Mondavi brands involved were happy to be helping kids out, but were also happy to see their names connected, in a positive way, with concepts of helpfulness, compassion, love and sharing.

My cynical gene kicks in here. How much of a winery’s motivation is due to the desire for publicity, and how much is true concern for the charity? Is there in fact a difference? It’s impossible to know for sure, since I’m not a mind reader; but in the case of wineries and charities, the question actually is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what the winery’s real motive is. What matters is how much money the winery is able to help these charities deliver. In the end, these are win-win situations, good for everybody involved. In the case of California Syrah and the Rhone Rangers, I’m happy to pass the message along: during the month of November, if you find yourself needing a red wine, consider buying a California Syrah, and especially one by a Rhone Rangers member. There are dozens of great ones, from up and down and across the state. And memo to Eric Asimov: you were being a little harsh on California Syrah. Lighten up. Don’t shop for the quote that trashes. Give equal treatment for defenders, of whom I am one.


Paso Robles, SLO collaboration a sign of the times

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The winery organizations of Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo County last night held a promotional dinner in San Francisco, the first time the organizations had collaborated, in a move that could mark a new era of increasing cooperation between such entities.

The dinner, at Spruce, was hosted jointly by the Paso Robles Wine County Alliance and the San Luis Obispo Vintners Association. Both have in the past “done their own thing,” so to speak, although the former has, in my experience, been much busier in hosting consumer events, while the latter — SLO County — has been a bit reticent.

It seemed to me there must have been a reason why the two organizations finally decided to get together — and it’s pretty obvious what the reason was and is: the economy, and the dour state of the wine industry. Tensions between rival wine regional organizations are nothing new, of course. Look at the skirmishes over Sonoma County’s new conjunctive labeling law, which is likely to be signed into law by the Governor any day now. (I blogged about it last month.)

I think in the case of Paso Robles and SLO County, Paso did such a good job establishing its reputation over the last ten years that they must have thought there was little to be gained, and perhaps much to be diluted, by conjoining themselves and their reputation to that of the county as a whole. And for that, you have to credit the P.R.W.C.A. and its skilled leadership, not to mention the vintners of Paso Robles. They’ve done a really tremendous job.

As for SLO County itself, my hunch is that they felt they didn’t really need to market themselves. Instead, they seemed to let their appellations — Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley — and the fine wineries within them speak for themselves. SLO County placed its bet, as it were, on being a cool climate wine region, and it may be that they wanted to distance themselves from Paso Robles, which is perceived as hot.

But those calculations were thrown overboard when the economic climate turned sour. I don’t know who approached whom, in this case — who did the wooing and who was the wooed. I don’t know if any of the member wineries on either side said, Wait a minute, this isn’t really that good a deal for us. Certainly last night, all was happiness between the representatives of the two regions.

The bottom line is that everybody has to work together to get us through this mess. I know there’s always going to be some residual tension between regional organizations, especially those that are contiguous or nearly so, or in the same county. There’s rivalry between Napa and Sonoma, even between Rutherford and Oakville. But it’s a healthy rivalry, like the Red Sox and the Yankees — good for both teams, good for baseball.

The one thing I wonder about, in the case of SLO County, is whether the idea of an entire county marketing itself makes sense anymore. Counties are so big. They contain multitudes of terroirs. In every winegrowing county there are many rooms, each different, which makes it harder for a county to present a coherent message about its wines. In SLO’s case, aside from Paso Robles, they do have the Arroyo Grande and Edna valleys, which are utterly distinct places, within themselves and compared to each other. When you promote SLO County, does that tend to diminish Arroyo Grande and Edna? If SLO’s reputation rises, will wineries within Arroyo Grande and Edna be tempted to put SLO on the label, instead of their smaller valleys? Will we see conjunctive labeling come to SLO the way it did to Sonoma?

This all signifies that California’s appellations and the system in which they operate are undergoing profound changes. Regional leaders are rethinking their approach to almost everything related to marketing and P.R. In an economy as tough as this, they’ve got to pull every rabbit out of every hat they possibly can. There will be mistakes made, but I think it’s a good thing that the regional associations are showing greater signs of cooperation than in the past, and I applaud Paso Robles and SLO County for taking this step.


Announcing the first Chardonnay Symposium

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Here in California, Pinot Noir has one (World of Pinot Noir). Zinfandel has one (ZAP). The Rhône varieties have one (Hospice du Rhône). Sauvignon Blanc has one (International Symposium on Sauvignon Blanc). Petite Sirah has one (Petite Sirah Symposium). Maybe other varieties do too. I don’t think Cabernet Sauvignon does, but then, can you imagine a Cabernet Symposium? Too politically bizarre to contemplate.

Anyhow, now Chardonnay — America’s favorite white wine — is about to have its very own public event. The Chardonnay Symposium. About time.

What took so long? “We went through this ABC [anything but Chardonnay] period. Chardonnay people were looking at Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc,” i.e. almost anything other than Chardonnay, says one of the Symposium’s sponsors, Nicholas Miller, of Bien Nacido Vineyard. But “a renewed interest in Chardonnay,” he adds, prompted him and his colleagues to start the symposium now.

The one-day event is slated for Sat. July 31, in the Santa Maria Valley of Santa Barbara County, with tastings, seminars, food pairings and of course a great big lunch. The various venues are at Bien Nacido, Cambria Winery, Byron Winery and Tres Hermanas Winery.

I would have loved to go, and they invited me, but alas, something more important conflicts with the date: our annual Summer Editorial Meeting at Wine Enthusiast. If it weren’t for that, I’d be high-tailing it south to hear such esteemed Chardonnay producers as the Symposium will present. Not to single out or exclude anyone, but they include people with last names such as Pisoni, Ullom, Hyde, Talley, Volk, Sanford, Tolmach and Clendenen.

Chardonnay is my favorite California white wine (excluding sparking) and it’s about time somebody devoted a big event to it. True, the geographic focus is mainly the Central Coast, with most of the speakers and participating wineries hailing from there; but then, this is the event’s first year, and you have to start someplace. When World of Pinot Noir began, what– 10 years ago? — I was there (Wine Enthusiast has been a sponsor from day one), and it was almost totally a Central Coast affair. The organizers tried to reach out to the North Coast, but it was hard. Wineries have so many opportunities to participate in so many events that they have to be selective. You not only have to pay to play, you have to open a lot of expensive bottles. And then there are travel and lodging costs, not to mention time away from your real job in the winery. It took some years for WOPN to attract a critical mass of North Coast wineries, not to mention vintners from overseas. Now, WOPN is a huge success.

Nicholas Miller envisions similar growth for the Chardonnay Symposium. “My hope is that, as people see what we’re doing, it will become like a Hospice du Rhône or a WOPN. They’ll see the success of it in future years, and we’ll get more interest from the North Coast.” So [this is Steve to North Coast producers]: keep your eyes on this one.

One tactical drawback I can see for the Chardonnay Symposium is that there’s a near total absence of nice places to stay in the Santa Maria Valley. At WOPN, most people stay at The Cliffs or at nearby resorts. It’s all very convenient. You never have to drive anywhere for the entire three days, and it’s nice to be able to duck away from a grand tasting or inbetween seminars and go to your room to freshen up or rest. By contrast, guests at the Chardonnay Symposium will be on the road all day, at the mercy of shuttle buses. They’ll also be mostly outdoors, which is always risky. It won’t rain at that time of the year, of course, but it could be cold and foggy. Or there could be a heat wave. It’s summer along the California coast; you never know. But then, the Chardonnay Symposium is beginning only as a one-day event.

Here’s what I hope some of the panels focus on.

- the role of oak. How much is too much? Can we wean the public away from their addiction to thick, clumsy oak, which they often think is the actual smell and taste of Chardonnay?

- malolactic fermentation. When is it justified? Are California vintners moving away from it? Why did they become so reliant on it to begin with?

- unoaked Chardonnay. Need it always be only a simple, inexpensive wine? Is it possible to craft an unoaked Chardonnay of great nuance and style?

I’m sure there are lots of other issues, but those are three good ones to address.

You’ll find information on the Chardonnay Symposium here.


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