Albarino is one of those grape varieties nobody in California thought too much of, like Pinot Gris and Gruner Veltliner, until comparatively recently.
Why should they have? California vintners fell into two categories in the modern era: those who wanted to sell commodity wines to lots of average consumers, and those who wanted to create prestige brands along the lines of Bordeaux chateaux or Burgundy domains. Either way, that meant producing those old familiar varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. If variety for variety’s sake was desired, the vintner could always throw in a little Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel or something Rhônish.
But something in the California psyche started shifting around the year 2000. I haven’t read much about what instigated this shift, which saw the beginnings of the emergence of what are usually called aromatic whites. There had long been plantings of Riesling and Gewurztraminer in California, but suddenly, one started hearing about Pinot Gris/Grigio, Viognier, Albarino, Gruner, Torrontes and others. Whaf the wines had in common were low to moderate alcohol, keen acidity, bright floral, citrus or green notes and, perhaps most importantly, little or no oak influence to mask the fruit.
What instigated this shift is hard to tell. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. Grape growers are very conservative when it comes to planting; they’re not going to stick anything in the ground they don’t think they can sell. So it didn’t come from the growers. But growers are sensitive to signs around them, and the more acute of them, who have their fingers in the wind all the time to detect changing consumer preferences, know what’s happening before most of the rest of us. Maybe they have a good network of restaurateurs and distributors to keep them abreast of what’s happening out there. Maybe they watch the critics, to see what new variety is being touted. Maybe the appeal for fresh, vibrant white wines really did start among consumers, and then traveled from the ground up. Who knows?
At any rate, it wasn’t until 2003 that I reviewed my first Albarino for Wine Enthusiast, a late date. It was a 2002 from the Lodi winery, Bokisch. It was pretty good; I scored it 88 points and, at $16 in price, it was worthy of an Editor’s Choice special designation. But I can’t say it knocked my sox off.
The first 90 point Albarino I reviewed was the 2004 Havens. It represented a big step above the Bokisch, in terms of utter dryness, light alcohol and a flintiness that was like a lick of cold stone. It put the idea in my mind that Carneros, and cool climates in general, were what Albarino likes.
Since then, the 90 point or higher Albarinos haven’t exactly flooded my doorstep, but they are coming in with greater frequency. Three producers now stand out as the most dependable: Marimar Torres, Longoria and Tangent. Each takes a different approach, but what all have in common is a cool growing region: respectively, the Green Valley of the Russian River, the Santa Ynez Valley and the Edna Valley. I’ve also been impressed lately by Kenneth Volk’s 2011 Albarino from the Santa Maria Valley, a little more-full-bodied than the others, but still Albarino-ey.
This new penchant among consumers for light, aromatic white wines is a very good thing, and I suspect it’s being driven by younger wine drinkers. It takes a certain amount of courage for a diner to request a wine type he’s unfamiliar with and may not even be able to pronounce, even if the sommelier recommends it. My friends who are floor staff confirm that it is indeed younger people who are drinking these aromatic whites, including Albarino, which pairs so well with today’s fresh, ethnic, pan-Asian fare and tapas-style small plates.
Acreage of Albarino is up sharply, although it’s still miniscule compared to other white varieties: a total of 176 acres in 2011. But 72 acres of that were non-bearing, meaning they’d been planted in 2009 or 2010; and I suspect that when the 2012 Grape Acreage Report comes out, we’ll see even higher numbers. Critics have long lamented that Americans are not drinking adventurously, creatively and experimentally. But I think that trope can now be laid to rest.
I was pleased to read, in Benjamin Lewin’s magnificent new book, “Claret & Cabs: The Story of Cabernet Sauvignon,” that “in Bordeaux [there is a] general lack of interest in exactly which clone is used.”
That is so different from California, where you’re always hearing about Clone 7, or 4, or 6, or 8, or 29, or 337, or whatever. And it’s not just Cabernet, it’s Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and just about every other important variety
I formed my initial impressions about clones in the early 1990s, when the new French Pinot Noir clones started coming into widespread use in California. I remember many a conversation with winemakers as they described the differences between the various clones and older selections. As a budding reporter, I listened carefully, trying to learn all I could. I wanted to know if, for example, 777 was better than 115 in Carneros–or if perhaps the situation were reversed in the Russian River Valley. Writers always want neat, tidy conclusions that we can pass along to our readers.
But it was all in vain: there was so much conflicting and competing information, so many different opinions were expressed, so many complicating factors such as rootstocks and different climate and soil conditions, so much absence of scientific certainty, that at some point in the 1990s I gave up trying to understand clones. I was in despair that I would ever be able to write about them without resorting to clichés, second-hand anecdotes or pretend-authority statements that I was just stealing from others [and that others would eventually steal from me]. That has never been my style.
By the turn of the new millennium I was doing research for my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, and since so much of that had to do with Pinot Noir, I found myself reluctantly plunging back into the chaos of clone theory. I went through more rounds of interviewing, and by that time, access to the Internet additionally expanded the scope of information I had access to. Once again, I found myself in overwhelmed. So much data, so little time to digest it. So, when Tom Dehlinger said to me, “If you have a site that is producing great Pinot Noir, then almost any clone will be successful,” I almost sobbed with relief. At long last, with a single statement, someone smart and respectable had swept away the cobwebs, and given me permission to not be obsessed with clones, the way so many other writers were.
Why are the French so lackadaisical about Cabernet clones when the Californians seem so obsessed by them (or, in Lewin’s words, “Bordeaux’s indifference to clones [versus] Napa’s focus on them”)? Lewin, who’s an M.W., doesn’t explore this fruitful territory, but I will. California viticulture and enology always has been very academically and scientifically oriented, at least, since the modern boutique winery era began. The state has schools like U.C. Davis and Fresno State that long have been heavily involved in the industry, and have had a lock on providing winemaker talent. I’m not sure if there’s an equivalent situation in Bordeaux.
Universities stay in business, of course, only as long as they’re perceived to be adding to the body of knowledge of the academic subjects they specialize in. In Davis’s case, this means making constant, ongoing progress in all their V&E fields, whether it’s plant pathology, soil science, fermentation science or biochemistry. Graduates of these departments arrive at their first jobs heavily educated.
There’s always been some debate in California about whether winemaking is an art or a science. To some extent, this is a silly distraction–it’s both–but the perception is out there that too much technique can cripple the vintner’s creative, artisanal side. For example, when I first met Josh Jensen, at Calera, he told me that when he was advertising for an assistant winemaker, his single qualification was “Must not be a U.C. Davis grad.” I suspect Josh was being wry, but I took his point.
Winemakers in California tend to get very wonky because of the belief that only rigorous scientific research can result in the greatest wines. That is a reasonable point of view, but it also should be pointed out that some pretty great wines were made in Europe for centuries before there were winemaking schools or even a basic understanding of fermentation. If your quest is for ever-greater wines, then when do you stop questing? When do you know that you have a great formula (vineyard, winemaker, grapes, winemaking facility) and so there’s no longer a need to keep on tinkering? When, in other words, do you leave well enough alone? Or is that a dangerous thought–that, somehow, if you stop questing, you’ll lose status and be eclipsed by the competition?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. But the interest in clones in California, versus the apparent lack of interest in them in Bordeaux (assuming Lewin is correct), is interesting. I wonder if it’s just a phase, part of California’s coming of age. What do you think?
I have to do some writing on the general topic of grape varieties in California for some upcoming articles, and find myself amazed–again–at how few we have in the state, compared to most of Europe.
In Italy, you can hardly cross a regional border without leaving an entire family of varieties and encountering another. Same in France. But in California, you can go from Temecula to Hopland, Lodi to Santa Rosa, Coombsville to Hames Valley to Placerville, and pretty much see the same grapes.
Everywhere there’s Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel. While the state Department of Food and Agriculture lists about 40 official grape varieties in California, the fact is that Chardonnay accounts for 50% of all planted white grape acreage in California, while Cab, Zin and Merlot together account for about 60% of all red [or black] varieties. That would be utterly unthinkable in Old Europe.
There are several reasons for this imbalance, historical, cultural and economic. Historically, of course, Europe’s grape regions developed indigenously, uninfluenced by events in far-off places (except in the event of wars or plagues). Thus, the Juracon could happily cultivate the two Mansengs, Petit and Gros, while, far to the northeast, Champagne could tinker with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and the Jura could develop their [somewhat bizarre] Vins Jaunes, even as Cabernet was being installed along the Médoc and, in almost alien Alsace, people were growing Riesling.
Each region’s culture and history prompted its unique internal development, in agriculture as well as in other commercial spheres. Europe, 500 years ago, was not a homogenized society, the way America (and much of the world) now is. Today, Levi’s jeans and McDonald’s hamburgers are as frequent in Beijing as in Boston; we live in a one-size-fits-all world, and the commercial interests, including wineries, understand this. If Cabernet is popular in the U.S., it can be made popular in China, and so more and more of it is planted, wherever grapes are grown.
It’s fun to play the “what if?” game. What if California had been an old society, instead of a new one? Would Clarksburg Chenin Blanc have developed into something truly interesting? (Some would say it already is.) Might Temecula have become known for, say, rich Petite Sirahs the likes of which were grown nowhere else? For that matter, there could have been entire regions specializing in Nero d’Avola, Pecorino, Cayetana, Espadeiro, Praca, Sevilhao. Regions beyond Napa would never consider trying to copy, much less compete with, its Cabernets, but would have developed their own, equally respectable varieties and varietal families.
The worst part of this homogenization of varieties is that not all parts of the state are suitable to all of them. That’s why so many of the resulting wines are predictable, bland and boring. As Randall Grahm long has pointed out, California has a Mediterranean climate, not a Continental one. This obviously doesn’t prohibit great success with Continental varieties (Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay) but it does limit the state’s potential expression of terroir. This is where the marketplace has frankly failed the consumer. The market is supposed to be innovative, entrepreneurial, risk-taking and adventurous–especially in California! (Think Silicon Valley.) Instead, it’s been cautious and risk-averse, at least, in the wine industry. Don’t get me wrong: I fully understand the economic difficulty of trying to convince the consumer to try something different, particularly if he or she has never heard of it. But whose responsibility is it to educate people?
I suppose I, and critics like me, bear partial responsibility for the imbalance. I’ve given high scores to Cabs, Chards, Pinots etc. for many years, and lesser scores to varieties you can call “alternative.” Consumers naturally respond to our recommendations with their buying behavior. If we critics had given higher scores to some of these alternatives, perhaps consumers would have responded with their credit cards. I suppose we would have, had the wines been better. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing: it takes time for a vintner to perfect a new bottling, but it also requires recouping the expenses she must invest. But perhaps this is crying over spilled wine.
This paucity of choice in California has been a detriment to the consumer. No wonder people, including me, are drinking cocktails like there’s no tomorrow–bartenders are pushing the envelope in terms of creativity, surprise and excitement. Craft beer, too, is as hot as I’ve ever seen it, with beer trails opening up and down California. Wine by contrast has become, well, a bit stuffy. It feels like it’s losing its buzz.
By now you’ve all heard about California’s record 2012 harvest, at 4.4 million tons the largest ever. It edged out the previous record, in 2005, and was up 11% over 2011’s harvest, which was more in line with historical averages.
I don’t think anyone foresaw how big 2012 would be. Here in California, I remember the anecdotes that started to be heard last summer about “bigger than normal.” On Sept. 18, Allied Grape Growers, a Fresno-based growers association, predicted the crop would hit 3.7 million tons, which would have made it the second largest ever. That turned out to be a serious underestimate.
By harvest time the rumors of huge crops became frantic realities. On Oct. 19, I wrote, in my Vintage Diary, “Scattered reports of WMs [winemakers] running out of fermentation vessels, having to use storage bins, etc.”
As usual, the largest crops by variety were Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, in that order. Prices, as measured by dollars per ton, hit record levels, too: Red wines averaged $879 (up nearly 25% over 2011), whites $624 (up 15%)
Another way of appreciating how huge the crop was is to look at the production of individual varieties and compare them to past vintages. Nearly three-quarters of a million tons of Chardonnay were crushed in 2012, an astonishing 31.5% spike over 2011. Cabernet Sauvignon similarly saw a 20% increase over 2011, while even shy-bearing Pinot Noir was up a dramatic 45% (247,303 tons vs. 170,450 tons). I thought this latter number was so unbelievable, I double-checked it against the Districts where Pinot was grown. District 7 (Monterey-San Benito) was the biggest producer of Pinot in the state, clocking in at more than 54,000 tons–double that of the 2011 crop! Similarly in District 3 (Sonoma-Marin) the Pinot crop was nearly double that of 2011. And so on, all down the line.
With Cabernet Sauvignon, District 4, Napa Valley, was the top producer, as usual, with just shy of 71,000 tons produced. Compare that to 2011’s 50,846, an increase of nearly 40%.
Was the vintage a good one? After all the hype and spin, it probably was. As I wrote on Sept. 18, “It’s the year nothing happened: No rain, no frosts, no damaging heat waves, no chilly temperatures, no smoke taint from wildfires, no mold, no spring shatter.” A heat wave in October sped up the picking process, while anticipated rains in the third week of October led to that crush rush. But overall, 2012 continued a string of successful harvests in California.
What will the impact be of the huge crush on prices? We’ll have to wait and see, of course, but it should have a temporizing effect. At least, growers won’t have the excuse of short crops to raise prices. And the continuing impact of the Recession also should encourage producers not to risk unreasonable spikes.
If it can happen in Australia, it can happen here.
I’m talking about the government requiring wine bottle labels to carry “large and graphic health warnings similar to [those on] cigarette packs,” which “public health lobbyists” Down Under are pushing for.
The wine industry is gearing up for a big fight, predicts the Herald Sun.
The industry already has developed voluntary online guidelines concerning drinking while pregnant, under their DrinkWise Australia program, but last November it rejected mandatory label warnings, with a spokesperson for the Winemakers Federation of Australia, the nonprofit trade group, arguing “We don’t believe [tobacco-like graphics] is the right approach.” His words were echoed by a top Treasury Wine Estates exec, who told the Herald Sun, “The [DrinkWise] guidelines around pregnancy and drinking were a good example of the industry moving forward with sensible and practical action,” and that further steps are not needed “at this time.”
But some “public health advocates” apparently disagree. They want “large and graphic” warnings, “to take up to 25 per cent of [the volume of] front labels,” on everything “from violence and car accidents to long-term health impacts such as liver and brain damage as well as cancer and blindness.”
We’ve seen this issue rear its ugly head time and time again here in the States. Anti-alcohol groups such as Marin County-based Alcohol Justice (formerly known and much ridiculed as the Marin Institute) have been active for many years trying bring about what they call “healthy communities free of the alcohol industry’s negative impact,” which sounds suspiciously like communities free of alcohol, period. Such groups, far from being mere cranky fringe riders, always must be considered dangerous. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago–Oct. 1919, less than 100 years ago, a blink in History’s eye–that these anti-alcohol types grew so powerful they actually succeeded in getting alcohol declared illegal across the United States. Repeal, in 1933, was a severe blow to them; but they never went away, simply recoiled, re-huddled and began planning their next assault on our drinking rights. In the early 1990s, they made their last big play, but were again defeated, largely because the Wine Institute took its considerable political clout to Sacramento and Washington, D.C. and defeated them. But these people, fueled by fanatacism, never entirely go away.
Alcohol Justice (what a silly name) isn’t entirely evil. When they say they “oppose the greedy, corporate promotion of alcohol to youth,” I think most of us can agree that the beer companies, in particular, and also to some extent spirits companies are pretty aggressive and outrageous in their advertising. Where I part company is when they use the phrase “the concentrated wine and spirits corporations” to lump wine in with the bad guys. I see no evidence of a “greedy” wine industry promoting its products “to youth.” Do you? It seems to me that the wine industry has been a model of rectitude. If anything, wine bends over backwards to portray itself as the beverage of adults, for drinking with good food, with stimulating friends, in controlled settings of dinner parties or restaurants. I’ve never seen a winery trying to appeal to teenagers.
The Aussie blogger Crikey [Bernard Keane] has got it exactly right when he explains the difference between anti-tobacco movements and anti-alcohol movements: “the mere use of tobacco is harmful whereas the vast majority of alcohol consumers consume it safely and, indeed, obtain health benefits from it”–a fact that “is deliberately overlooked” by groups such as Alcohol Justice. In other words, any puff of tobacco is dangerous; a glass or two of wine is actually healthful. I have yet to see an anti-alcohol organization, such as Alcohol Justice, admit this.
READERS: I return from New York today and will resume new posts tomorrow. This is a repeat posting from Nov. 2008.
* * *
WineDiverGirl is a California blogger who specializes in (as her blog says) “Wine Life and Social Media Coverage.” As such, she’s passionate about the convergence of the wine industry and social media, and writes provocative posts on how wineries and bloggers might work in tandem to help the industry move forward.
I’m all in favor of that, but the question is what, precisely, ought to be the relationship between bloggers and wineries. Last summer, in the Rockaway-gate dustup, I called for bloggers to keep their distance from wineries. When a reporter/critic gets too close to her subject, there’s too great a chance for a conflict of interest or, at least, the appearance of one. I recognized, at the height of the tempest, that it’s flattering for a blogger to be given special treatment by a winery, but it’s vital to resist the temptation to succumb to flattery. Wineries don’t love critics because we’re warm and fuzzy. They pretend to love us because we can help, or hurt, them economically.
Well, in her latest post, WineDiverGirl says she’s “looking for all the ways wineries and bloggers are currently connected (if at all) and new and improved ways for them to evangelize the beautiful power of wine.” She offers a number of ways for bloggers and wineries to work together, nearly all of which are wrong-headed and, in some instances, dangerous. Here are her suggestions:
1. “Host a guest blogger for a month: either pay them or the charity of their choice for them to write about your winery, winemaker, wine, vineyards, etc.” Can we agree that this is a terrible idea? If a winery pays a blogger, then that blogger can have no credibility whatsoever about anything he writes concerning the winery. Even if the winery donates money to the blogger’s favorite charity, it suggests a quid pro quo that makes the blogger suspect. If a winery wants to boast online about how great it is, it can start its own blog.
2. “[S]ponsor or offer scholarships to various wine tasting events to help bloggers get there.” Now, this isn’t as bad as #1. Wine writers are notoriously underpaid and sometimes it’s necessary to accept some help to cover travel expenses. I’ve done it. But as a rule, having your expenses paid by a winery is a bad idea. It’s better for a regional winery association to pick up the tab, so that you’re not perceived to be beholden to anyone in particular.
3. “Host a guest blogger to pour in your tasting room for a day.” This is bizarre. A tasting room staffer should know all about the winery, its wines and vineyards, its owners and winemaker, the area in question, wine in general, and so on. Why would a winery be interested in having a blogger be its public face in the tasting room, unless it expected to get some good publicity — which brings us back to the conflict of interest issue.
4. “Include bloggers in focused research or think-tank like conversations about planning your year, events, marketing.” Bloggers are now supposed to be marketing managers and event planners for wineries? I don’t think so. This crosses so many red lines, it’s hard to know where to begin.
WineDiverGirl concludes by reassuring wineries that bloggers “know consumers better than almost anyone…because they are the wine industry’s BEST consumers.” I would have thought the industry’s best consumers are ordinary working women and men looking to drink a nice glass of wine for dinner.
“What do you think?” WineDiverGirl asks. “How do you see wineries and bloggers working together for everyone’s benefit?” With all due respect to WineDiverGirl, who means well, I don’t see wineries and bloggers working together, if “together” means becoming strange bedfellows. Bloggers should be very careful about getting mixed up in the business of wineries, and wineries should be very careful about trying to influence the independent blogosphere.