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On the art of blending

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The new book The Winemaker’s Hand, which contains interviews of winemakers, is a testament to the art of blending. “Blending is very intuitive…it’s neither linear nor logical,” Cathy Corison tells author Natalie Berkowitz, adding, “A plus B doesn’t equal A plus B.” Her fellow Napan, Bill Dyer, refers to the “hunches and perceptions” involved in winemaking: “Dawnine [his wife] and I are quite competent at blending,” which he calls “an essential part” of making wine.

Just how essential and intuitive blending is, is rarely appreciated by the public, but winemakers know it’s at least as important as anything else they do, and in the long run, maybe more so. The entire yield of a vineyard never ends up in the final bottling, at least at a top winery. The winemaker must blend for consistency with house style and also to produce the best wine she can from the vintage, while remaining true to the terroir. That can entail tasting through an enormous range of individual lots, some as small as a single barrel. It’s tedious work, but necessary, and, if you’re of the right mindset, terrific fun.

So when Marcia Monahan, the winemaker at Matanzas Creek, invited me to blend Sauvignon Blanc with her, I jumped at the chance. She was looking to assemble the final blends on three of her wines: the Bennett Valley bottling, the Helena Bench wine from Knights Valley, and the top-tier Journey. So Gus and I drove up early last week from Oakland and spent the most delightful day playing with dozens of samples.

 

BOOTY

When I say “playing” I use the word intentionally. There is something of the kid playing with toys; although it’s serious business, personally it has its roots in the little girl trying different outfits on her doll or the little boy who’s plugging Legos together. (Blending also brings to mind the playful tinkering of a chef developing a new dish.) Try this, try that, what do you think, how does it taste, how about this and that, with a little more of that, a little less of this, let’s put in a drop of C and see what happens… There’s no way not to think of this behavior as play for adults. But there’s always intentionality behind it.

The idea, as Cathy Corison suggested with “A plus B doesn’t equal A plus B,” is that the sum of A plus B can be more than either A alone or B alone; the mixture is greater than the sum of its parts. On the other hand, sometimes A plus B is less than A plus B. It’s difficult if not impossible to know, in advance, how the alchemy will work out, so almost every possibility has to be tried before you can know what works and what doesn’t. This means the process is arduous. But it’s the tedium of pleasure, of discovery, of the gold miner willing to plod through tons of ore because any moment now the big nugget might appear.

 

Marcia

We—Marcia and I—put together what I think is a marvelous Helena Bench and Bennett Valley. We preserved the terroir of both—the latter being cooler than the former, it has a different fruit-acid profile. (Journey will have to wait for a later date.) Of course, our blends may not be the final ones, but I do think they will in large part constitute them. When we finally hit the nail on the head, after all that trial and error, it was like, “Yes!” Fist bumps, high fives all around—both Marcia and I glowed with pleasure. We had taken raw materials, some better than others, but no one of them anywhere near perfect—and through admixture, come up with something that never existed before, something Mother Nature by herself could not have accomplished, because it required hands, brains, experience, esthetic vision and hard work to achieve. But after all that work, you’re hungry! So we went down to the Jimtown Store.

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Off to Southern California and Arizona for the week. I’ll be blogging from the road, so you never know what will turn up!


Secrets from the cellar

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As an old karate hound, I stay in touch with my senseis. One of them recently sent me an article about a very great aikido sensei who refuses to demonstrate any technique more than once, “because if I do a technique twice, it will be stolen!”

For a martial arts student, that’s pretty funny; the dojo is a place for study and learning, passed along from teacher to student. It is not a place for secrets. This instantly made me remember a quote from an older winemaker who was interviewed by Robert Benson in his 1977 book, “Great Winemakers of California.” Benson, as was his wont, was asking the winemaker some technical questions, when the winemaker answered, “We’re very jealous about certain things, quite frankly, and I hope you wouldn’t be insulted, I’d simply tell you I’d rather not answer that question…Look, my dad taught me this stuff and some of it I don’t tell anybody but my kids.”

Back in the day, secrecy was fairly standard in the wine industry. Yes, winemakers have always collaborated, to some extent, but an older generation, who had been taught by their fathers (who in turn might have been taught by their fathers) was less inclined to share trade secrets with the young whippersnapper next door who might be his arch-rival. This mindset affected many older California wineries. It was part of the California culture immediately after the Repeal of Prohibition—maybe because consumers were few and far between, and the wineries were under tremendous pressure to differentiate themselves from the competition.

When a younger generation in California—the so-called boutique winery founders—arose in the 1960s, there was less guardedness and more openness. It was partly a matter of generational attitudes. The Benson book shows a spirit of sharing among younger winemakers, like Warren Winiarski and Jerry Luper, and even André Tchelistcheff, who was 76 when “Great Winemakers” was published, showed not a hint of reticence when it came to divulging his techniques, which might have been due to his European upbringing.

Today, there are few, if any, secrets among winemakers in California. Nor would many winemakers refuse to answer a technical question from a journalist. Even if they wanted to (which is unlikely), the lure of publicity is too strong. The wine industry has many symposia and conferences, from WITS to the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium to smaller get-togethers, and most winemakers are part of local tasting groups with their peers, where they share techniques and freely borrow from each other. So the information is out there: you can’t keep it bottled up.

One complaint you sometimes hear about this Kumbaya closeness is that it has resulted in wines that taste more and more alike, and less and less of their native terroir. Even if that’s true to some extent (and I’m not sure it is), the genie is out of the bottle: we live in an open, transparent, communicative world. Two or three hundred years ago, wineries were far more isolated from each other than they are today. Nowdays, information is open, free and universal, which is how it should be. In fact, far from fearing that information-sharing is detrimental to the individuality of wines, I would suggest it gives winemakers a wider spectrum of approaches (in both the vineyard and in the winery) to choose from, in order to learn how to make the best, most expressive wines they can.


Bob Cabral’s next step

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NOTE: This is a revised version of the original post, based on additional information.

I am so pleased that Bob Cabral has landed a job that according to his lights will be all that he is looking for.

I’ve known Bob for a long time, since my days as California editor of Wine Enthusiast. It was under that guise that Bob always arranged for me to get tasting samples of the latest Williams Selyem releases. Now, given Williams Selyem’s stature—one of the leading in-demand, high-end producers in California—I’m sure owner John Dyson didn’t have to send me samples. But he did, which always led me to ask myself the following hypothetical question: If I owned a high-end winery, would I send samples out? If so, to whom? Some producers (Kistler or Marcassin, for example) never sent me anything. Williams Selyem, on the other hand, did, and what was so pleasurable about that, beyond merely getting to review these wines twice a year according to the winery’s release schedule, was getting to know Bob Cabral.

I was very honored when, one day, during the course of writing my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, Bob invited me to sit with him in his then-tiny office, at the old Williams Selyem facility on Westside Road, and participate in a blending session of a new wine Bob was working on. Called “Neighbors,” it was to be a composite of several of the vineyards along Westside Road that Bob bottled into vineyard-designated Pinot Noirs: Allen, Rochioli River Block and the like. Bob told me this had been Dyson’s idea, in order to create a tier between the vineyard designates and the lower-priced regional blends (Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast and so on).

I remember tasting and giving Bob my impressions. I suppose I didn’t think, even then, that my contributions would be significant. What was important to me was that Bob asked. It also gave me a glimpse into the passion with which Bob, so driven and such a perfectionist, approached all aspects of his job. This “Neighbors” blend would have to approach, in quality, the vineyard designates; it was important for Bob to get it exactly right. (He did.)

Last year the world learned that Bob would be leaving Williams Selyem, after 16 years, for the next phase of his career. This past year has been replete with rumors as to what he would do next; today, the media are reporting that Bob will be the new winemaker at Three Sticks Wines.

There, Bob will craft, not only Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Don Van Staaveren, Three Sticks’ winemaker emeritus, will make the Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as the Pinot Blanc and Casteñeda wines.

 


Tuesday Twaddle: “Offloading” brands, and the old spinning cone

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When is it time for a winery to “offload” underperforming brands?

It happens. You’ve had a line, or SKU, in the market for years, but for some reason, it’s never gained traction. So the hard decision must be faced: Is it time to pull the plug on Grandma?

This is the situation Treasury Wine Estates is facing. The Australian company, which lost more than $100 million in 2013-2014, has brands “that [are] not a priority and may be retired [or] offloaded,” according the industry publication, The Drinks Business.

This can never be an easy decision for a big company like TWE. Companies love all their brands, the same way parents love all their children. You can’t throw an underperforming child under the bus, of course, but companies aren’t families, they’re business; and sometimes, “retiring non-priority brands”, or repurposing them in some way, is the only way to stay healthy.

 

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Does this shock you? It shocks me. “One in four bottles of Californian Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have been through the industrial alcohol removal process supplied by ConeTech in the past year.” That’s another report by The Drinks Business, which adds that the spinning-cone process of lowering the alcohol content of wine is more popular than ever because “winemakers would rather take out alcohol from a ripe wine than risk creating lighter, possibly greener wines from harvesting earlier for naturally lower abvs.”

Well, as Dana Carvey’s character, The Church Lady, used to say on Saturday Night Live, Isn’t that special?

I’ve written before that I don’t mind some technological intervention to produce sound, clean, drinkable wines. These are what Americans want. Critics denounce them as Franken-wines, but to me, that just seems derogatory and mean. Besides, the truth is, since this de-alcoholization is done secretly, no one can ever know just which wines have passed through the spinning cone, so before you give such a wine 96 points and then have to appear foolish when someone outs you, restrain thy criticism.

However, I will venture to say that winemakers are resorting to this somewhat risky procedure because the public drumbeat against higher-alcohol wines has reached such a fever pitch that they feel they have no choice. Many of them, themselves, probably hate themselves for doing it—for giving in. Some of them may be under orders to do it, by the people who sign their paychecks. It’s hard for me to believe that any winemaker willingly and happily sends her wine to the spinning cone.

Speaking of those “greener wines” that are the potential result of picking early—which is the natural way to produce lower-alcohol wines—I’ve tasted some of them at big Pinot Noir tastings, and they’re dreadful. Well, I suppose if you like dried oregano, mint and green tomatoes, they’re all right, but if you prefer cherries and raspberries (which I do), you’ll be disappointed.

Thus we find ourselves staring directly at the schizophrenia running through our modern California wine business. The bullet quote in The Drinks Business article is this: “The consumer preference is for riper style wines, with juicy fruit, but consumers want this with more moderate alcohol levels.” Someone should politely tell consumers you can’t get ripe fruit without high brix, which in turn translates into healthy alcohol.

But that’s not a message that consumers want to hear, and so producers—caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place—increasingly are turning to the spinning cone. And if California goes back to a series of warm vintages, like we used to have, we’ll see even more wines spun out.


A family winery bites the dust

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It’s always sad when an old, little family winery shuts its doors, as Milat Vineyards & Winery is set to do by the end of this month.

I never formally reviewed any of their wines, because they never sent me tasting samples. They didn’t have a high profile in Napa Valley, and perhaps didn’t want one; as the Napa Valley Register, which reported the story, observes, “Unlike wealthy people who start wineries to enjoy the lifestyle, the Milats started the winery to make a living.” Playing the publicity game, with all the related frou-frou and social obligations, doesn’t seem to have been the Milats’ style.

Should it have been? There can be little argument that being skilled at marketing and promotion can increase a winery’s prospects. I’ve long been fascinated at how and why some small wineries make it big, while others get lost in the shuffle of history. Sometimes, fate, or destiny, plays a role that can’t be foreseen or managed.

Take a winery like Failla or Saxum. Neither Ehren Jordan nor Justin Smith had much money, connections or P.R. savvy when he started out. What “made” their reputations was a combination of interesting wines made from interesting vineyards, and a personal style that knew how to connect with the wine press. (In both cases, I was “present at the creation,” so to speak, and reviewed them early, so I know what I’m talking about.) They had, to use the current parlance, “stories” to tell, and both told them well.

Writers like me visit hundreds of vineyards and meet thousands of winemakers over our lengthy careers, so it is indeed saying something when we can recall individual visits, that occurred years ago, with crystal clarity. That’s the case with my first visits to both Failla and Saxum. Well do I remember roaming Ehren Jordan’s vineyard in the remote hinterlands high above the Fort Ross beaches. Equally vivid are my memories of Justin Smith guiding me along the terraced tracks of his James Berry Vineyard, where on a blazing summer afternoon he picked out the bleached fossils of whale bones from the white earth. This is not to say that either Failla or Saxum made the greatest wines of their generation. Both make very good, very specific “wines of a place,” although I would fault Saxum to the degree that the alcohol levels were immodest (but, oh, the wines! Amazing. Some of these West Side Paso Robles red blends are stunning.). But what both Jordan and Smith managed to do was impress themselves upon the thoughts of a writer (me, as well as, obviously, others), who then was in a position to afford them some publicity. And they did it without a P.R. department.

One could mention others in California’s long winemaking history who similarly succeeded based on the power of their personalities and the quality of their wines: Agoston Harazsthy, Robert Mondavi, Gary Pisoni, Jim Clendenen. They realized that the renown of a winery is tied to the acclaim its proprietor arouses in the media. This is not to say that such acclaim is the only thing factoring into the renown of a winery: Caymus achieved theirs without any ornate personalities at the helm; so did Ridge; so has Foxen (with the notoriously un-spinny, un-quoteworthy Bill Wathan), and so have many others who went about their work unostentatiously.

So there are different paths to success, but I have to wonder if Milat would have “made it” in the long run had they played the game with a little more perspicacity. But then, that would not have been them; it would have been inauthentic. This question of “authenticity” is, of course, currently much in vogue in wine country. Every winery and every winemaker wants to be seen as staunchly independent and free of the hyperbolic control of spin doctors and P.R. agents. It’s reached the point where hired P.R. personnel advise their clients on how to present the appearance of authenticity! Can a winemaker or winery be “authentic” while paying for professional public relations advice on how to be authentic? It’s a good question and I don’t claim to have the answer.

“Authenticity” is hard to define anyway. A strong, colorful personality can seem authentic simply because it is irreverent and impinges itself strongly upon an audience; but until we master the science of mind-reading, we cannot know to what degree a strong personality is “natural” to its holder, or to what degree it is a conscious construct, if not a fabrication, designed to attract attention (or if it is in fact a combination of both). What we can know—“we” being writers, reporters and journalists—is that some winemakers are more interesting and fun to write about than others; they get the press while the quieter ones often don’t. You have to wonder how much this gets factored into a winery’s success.

Anyhow, I wish the Milat family well. As the Chinese increasingly buy ownership of Napa Valley, which years ago began losing its identity as a tight, indigenous culture, we must mourn the loss of each of these little family wineries, which are the bedrock foundation of any wine region. Any winery’s death diminishes me (to misquote John Donne) and the industry as well. And I always have a special place in my heart for winemaking families who just work hard, year after year, against the odds but armed with great integrity, and who do so without resorting to flashy pretention.


Conversations with Carlo: whole cluster fermentation of Pinot Noir

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Carlo Mondavi, whom I got to know and like last year in Kapalua, emailed to bring me up to date on his new project, RAEN, a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir he’s making in collaboration with his brother, Dante.

Carlo
Carlo Mondavi

His email prompted me to ask him some followup questions, which led to an exchange I thought is interesting enough to reproduce. The subject is Pinot Noir, and the role of stems in the fermentation.

Carlo had sent me this video of him and Dante making the wine. Along the way, Carlo says, concerning the whole-cluster fermentation he enjoys, “I can smell the greenness of these stems, they’re super-green.” My ears perked up at this, because I had thought that you don’t want green stems in the fermentation, you want brown, ripe ones, in order to avoid passing on that green, vegetal aroma and harsh tannins to the wine. So I asked Carlo, “If you whole cluster with green stems doesn’t that make the wine taste and smell green?”

He replied, “I…believe that the stems being green and thus under ripe or ideal is a complete misconception.” His response is worth quoting in full:

“In fact DRC and most of the best whole cluster examples are harvesting when the stems are electric green. This also means most likely and certainly for us that the sugars are lower and the extraction of bitter flavors will be lower. We also take into account sap flow…

“I believe that sap flow is greater in certain clones and in certain sites varying vintage to vintage… There is no perfect map so we go on taste and observation… To determine the amount of whole cluster vs destemmed fruit we ferment we run a quick tasting. We take the stem sans fruit, cut it up, put it inside a pastil bag and squeeze the sap out. We then observe the sap (how much, how sappy) then taste the sap to see how astringent it is. From there we make decide if we will use some, none or all of the whole cluster.…  This past vintage we certainly used a great amount of whole cluster as it was a new moon and the sap seemed to much less than what we might have seen on a full moon.

“Thirdly I also like the balance of bitter and sweet… Stems add potassium and tannin to a wine and can balance the overly strawberry, cranberry, rhubarb fruit flavors… to me it gives the wine a middle palate of velvet and structure and in some examples and slight elevation of minerality.

“Waiting for full brown clusters is a major mistake in my opinion… If you wait that long you are looking at harvesting well north of 25 brix of sugar and in December in some sites. This would yield a wine of incredible bitterness and a PH that would be certainly unfermentable and unstable naturally. With that said where we make our cuts is where the rachis meets the shoot this area is brown and lignified. We make our harvesting cuts right in the middle of this browning area to minimize sap flowing out into the juice.”

Still puzzled, I asked Carlo, “In a vintage like 2011, I found some coastal Pinots to have a green, minty edge. So, where does that come from?”

Carlo: “Huh… That’s a Good question. I would think some stems, the local terroir and for late harvesters, botrytis… I see a bit of botrytis each year… Pinot noir clusters are so tight it just seems to happen when the heat comes after the rain or In some vintages with the humidity…  With that said green can be no stems with green seeds or Rosie’s, tough under ripe skins or jacks… I have tasted de stemmed and 10 percent whole cluster wines and found them be more green than 100 percent whole cluster wines depending on the site and vintage… I also enjoy wine that can have a slight green note… I don’t see green to be bad so long as it is not over the top… Just like anything.”

I’ve never felt that whole-cluster fermentation is better than destemming, or vice versa. California Pinot Noir can be delightful either way. I do feel, as does Carlo, that stems can give Pinot Noir a fuller body and more tannins, not to mention spiciness. Still, I’m not quite convinced that green stems do not bring a green note to cool-climate Pinot Noir, and I’d love to hear the opinion of others.

This is one of the wine taster’s biggest conundrums: it’s easy to detect something in a wine but a lot harder to identify exactly what causes it. When I was a reviewer, I tried to avoid attributing specific results to specific causes, if I couldn’t be absolutely sure about the connection. Asking winemakers to explain can sometimes clear things up, but sometimes it can make you even more confused. Which is why I was always happy to leave the winemaking to the winemakers, if they’d leave the wine reviewing to me!


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