In reading about the great Eastern religions, I’m struck especially by the Taoist notion of wu-wei: “inaction.” Joseph Needham, the British sinologist, defined wu-wei as “refraining from activity contrary to nature.”
When I read that I thought of two things: First, it reminded me of the maxim, so popular today in some winemaking and critical circles, of minimalist technique. The allegedly artisanal, or natural, method of winemaking stresses a less-is-more school in which winemaker interventions are kept to a strict minimum. Many wineries promote the concept as part of their marketing. Google “minimalist winemaking” and go through the search results: you’ll see many familiar names.
The other thing I thought was that the concept of “natural law” has been used wickedly by ideologues and religionists for years in order to persecute behaviors which they find objectionable, because they think that such behaviors are “contrary to nature.” Whenever I hear that, it makes my blood boil. Who defines this “nature”? What is the source of this “nature”? Who’s to say what’s “contrary” to it and what isn’t?
Call me skeptical. Many things that are uttered sound good on the surface, but when you scratch below the surface you begin to see the contradictions pile up. A winery may boast of its “minimalist approach” but—not only do we have no real way of knowing what goes on in the cellar—we also have to wonder what’s so minimalist about pruning, using commercial yeast, barrel fermentation and aging, sur lie aging, pumping over, sulfuring, racking, and so on. Tom Wark, some years ago, blogged on this topic, remarking that “Those currently pushing the idea of ‘Natural Wine’ think they may be on to something transformational and important when in fact what they have done is mistaken the tail of the dog for its snout.” (The quote is courtesy of John M. Kelly’s blog.)
I think most people would agree that “doing nothing” is a silly idea, both in winemaking and in one’s life in general. Wu-wei has, of course, been exaggerated in the Western mind over the last century or two (ever since sinology arose as a serious pursuit) into the image of the robed monk sitting in full-lotus on some Himalayan cliff, subsisting on a teaspoon of rice a day. (Who cooks the rice anyway?) In order to live, you have to do things, and doing implies making judgments about what you ought to do, what’s the right thing to do, and how to prepare yourself for the consequences of your action.
These things are obvious. So why are we so attracted to this idea of “minimalism” in winemaking? We would not trust an automobile manufacturer that bragged of its minimalist approach to production. We might have a taste for minimalist art, but we would not condemn a highly-articulated painter—Renoir, say—for his acute detailing. I, myself, enjoy a film or television show that is decidedly not minimalist: True Detective, for instance. And minimalist restaurants that charge $150 for a decorative configuration on a huge plate? Not my style.
But when it comes to minimalist winemaking, people get all wet. I wonder why that is?
So I called up this winery the other day. It’s not too far away from Oakland. I’m putting together another tasting and asked if I could buy a bottle of their Cabernet Sauvignon and have it shipped to me. The guy—the owner-proprietor, I think—said no. He said it’s not worth his while to “drive down the mountain” to send a single bottle. If I wanted to buy a case, he explained, that would be a different story.
I thanked him and told him I wasn’t looking for an entire case, so goodbye. No $ale. But the incident bothered me and so I put it up on Facebook and asked my friends, “What kind of a business model is that?”
Lots of comments, as usual. I suppose I think more about these marketing and sales issues since I’ve worked at Jackson Family Wines than I would have when I was at Wine Enthusiast. I thought the winemaker’s attitude was pretty dumb (not that he was rude about it; he wasn’t. In fact, he couldn’t have been nicer. He simply explained that he was way up in the middle of nowhere). The bottle price, by the way, was $27.
What did my Facebook friends say? You can read all the comments here. Most of them roundly criticized the guy. Jeff Stai, from Twisted Oak, wrote “I’m way up in the mountains and I’ll sell you a bottle. wink emoticon.” He added “Today’s one bottle sale is next month’s five case sale.” Bill Smart said the guy’s business model is “One that is not going to last for very long?” (Bill did put it in the form of a question.) Chris Sawyer said the business model is a “case study [in] how to inflict bad mojo on your brand.” Sean Piper said “If you ever buy a bottle of my wine I’ll personally hand deliver it to you.”
And yet, the guy had his defenders. Neil Monnens wrote, “More power to him…Imagine you are his friend or family and he leaves you to go down the mountain to sell one bottle of wine to someone…it’s not worth it. Good for him.” Victoria Amato Kennedy wondered “What was the profit margin on the one bottle after factoring in gas/shipping costs/time?” I understand that, but I would have paid whatever shipping cost the guy charged me. The fact of the matter is, he was too lazy to drive down the mountain. As Patrick Connelly wrote, “Bad customer service = increasing selling difficulty.”
If I had a little family winery (which this was) I’d drive down the mountain! How hard can it be? It’s summertime, no rain, easy-breezy. Besides, even if it’s a 30-minute drive to the UPS Store, aren’t there other things the guy can do while he’s in town—buy groceries or supplies, call on an account, have a nice meal, see a friend? I’m sure that people who live up in the mountains always have lists of stuff to do when they’re in town.
As I’m constantly reminding people nowadays, you do what it takes to sell your wine. Establishing customer relationships is one of those things. Although I didn’t identify myself to the guy, how did he know I wasn’t buying the wine for a Parker tasting? I could have been some rich Silicon Valley venture capitalist looking for a house Cabernet. You never know. Sending somebody a bottle of wine can sometimes change your life in unexpected, great ways. But first, you have to be willing to come down from the mountain.
Last Wednesday’s historic tasting of 40 years worth of wines produced by Richard Arrowood was not only a testament to the oeuvre of one of California’s greatest living winemakers, but a refreshing reminder—if one were needed—of how well Sonoma Valley wines, red and white, can age.
Richard invited a small group of us to the tasting of some 60 wines. We gathered at his idyllic Amapola Creek Winery, in the hills above Sonoma Valley, just below Monte Rosso Vineyard, then motored further up the mountain to the home he shares with his wife, Alis, where the grand event took place.
Richard began his career at Korbel in 1965, created a series of famous, great single-vineyard wines at Chateau St. Jean in the 1970s, and then presided over his own Arrowood Winery (which eventually passed into the Jackson Family Wines portfolio.) He launched his Amapola Creek venture in 2001.
Space precludes me from writing about each of the sixty wines we tasted, but I will provide overviews of each of the flights, and include the top wine/s from each. Richard, in his introductory remarks, said one of his purposes was to show how well these wines can age. Indeed, the tasting illustrated that, many times over. All wines bear a Sonoma Valley appellation.
Flight 1. Chateau St. Jean Zinfandel.
These were all from the Wildwood (now Kunde Estate) and Glen Ellen (Moon Mountain) vineyards.
1976 Chateau St. Jean Wildwood Vineyards Zinfandel. Crowd favorite. Sweet blackberry jam, violets, bouquet garni, cocoa nib, espresso. Alcohol 13.9%. Score: 91.
Flight 2. Chateau St. Jean Cabernet Sauvignon.
These were from the Wildwood, Glen Ellen, Laurel Glen (pre-Patrick Campbell) and Jack London vineyards.
1977 Chateau St. Jean Laurel Glen Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon. Good color. Spice. Cassis, black currants, cassis liqueur. Amazingly rich, sweet, still so fresh and vibrant. Superb. 13.9%. Score: 94
Fight 3. Arrowood white wines.
These were from the Alary and Saralee’s vineyards, both in Russian River Valley.
2009 Arrowood Saralee’s Vineyard Viognier. Tropical fruit, green melon, honey. Rich and exotic. Tremendous power. Great job balancing Viognier’s exoticness with structure and dryness. Drinking well now. 14.4%. Score: 94.
Flight 4. Arrowood Malbec and Syrah.
Except for the Sonoma County-appellated Malbec, these were all from Saralee’s Vineyard.
Arrowood 2004 Malbec. Good dark color at the age of nearly eleven years. Fruit drying out. Dried blackberry, grilled meat bone, shaved dark chocolate, cassis. Softly tannic. Tons of sweet black currant liqueur. Beautiful now. 14.5%. Score: 93.
But I want to praise a pair of Syrahs, the 2006 Saralee’s and the 2002 Saralee’s. Both scored 92 points.
Flight 5. Arrowood Cabernet Sauvignon.
These were all from the Monte Rosso Vineyard, or were Richard’s Réserve Spéciale bottling, except for the 1990 and 1991; I don’t know the grape sourcing on the latter two.
This was an incredible flight. It was hard to pick a “best,” but I went with the Arrowood 2005 Monte Rosso Cabernet. Good dark color. Heady, lots of black currants, cedar. Very rich, heady, sweet, opulent. Superb now and will age for many years. 15.8%. Score: 95. Concerning the alcohol level, the wine was not in the least hot.
Runner-ups: A pair of Réserve Spéciales, 1994 and 1993. Both were gorgeous 20-year old Cabs. I scored both at 94 points.
Flight 6. Amapola Creek Cabernet Sauvignon.
These were all from Richard’s estate vineyard, just below Monte Rosso. All the wines are eminently ageable.
2005 Amapola Creek Estate Vineyard Cabernet. Beginning to show bottle bouquet and development. Softly tannic, supple, rich in black cherries and mocha. Balanced, complex. Will drink well through at least 2025. 15.5%. Score: 94.
Flight 7. Amapola Creek Zinfandel.
Eight were Zins, mainly from the estate vineyard, with a few from Monte Rosso. Richard put a Petite Sirah in among them.
Amapola Creek 2008 Monte Rosso Zinfandel. Monte Rosso Zins, for me, can get too high and hot in alcohol, and the flavors can turn raisiny, even pruney. But the ’08 was the best of the lot, despite the heat waves of the vintage. I called it “claret-like” (an appraisal Margo Van Staaveren, sitting next to me, shared). Tons of fruit, spice and cocoa, balanced and elegant, yet always with Zin’s powerful, briary character. 15.1%. Score: 92.
Flight 8. Various Rieslings.
These were from Arrowood and Chateau St. Jean, and covered the vintages 1975-2009. The wines were from the vineyards Richard made famous with his Rieslings and Chardonnays of that era: Robert Young and Belle Terre, joined, later, by Hoot Owl and Saralee’s.
Tie for first:
1975 Chateau St. Jean Belle Terre Vineyards Johannisberg Riesling Individual Bunch Special Select Late Harvest (10.6%), and 1975 Chateau St. Jean Robert Young Vineyards Johannisberg Riesling Individual Bunch Special Select Late Harvest (10.0%). Score on both: 96. It is impossible to praise these very old white dessert wines enough. Possibly I scored them too low. In fact, the entire flight of eight wines was a masterpiece. It’s a pity people don’t drink more of these white late-harvest stickies, especially as they achieve the glories of senior citizenship.
For an extra treat, Richard invited a group of his former assistant winemakers over the years. They included Milla Handley (now Handley Cellars), Margo (Chateau St. Jean), her husband Don Van Staaveren (also from the old St. Jean days, now at Three Sticks), Heidi von der Mehden (Arrowood, now Merry Edwards) and, representing a younger generation, Erich Bradley (who was at Arrowood, and now is at Sojourn and Repris). Apologies to others who were present whose names I have not mentioned.
Richard Arrowood surely will be inducted one of these days into the Vintners Hall of Fame!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.