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Why my dog is like some winemakers. Or the other way around.

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Gus ate a pound of salami a couple days ago. It was an accident on my part. Someone sent it to me in a box–I thought it was a book and left it in the iivingroom, unopened. In the middle of the night, Gus’s magnificent olfactory sense discovered it. The next morning, there was nothing left, except the shredded box.

The next morning, Gus was vomiting it up. He knew he’d been a bad dog. He got that guilty look in his eyes, tucked his tail down below his hind legs, and followed me around the house wherever I went, looking morose and mopey. Dog owners know that look: “I’ve been bad, I feel terrible about it–but really, I just couldn’t help myself. Please don’t hate me.”

Now on to winemakers. Yesterday I heard from one, whom I respect a great deal, and whose wines I usually–not always–score well into the 90s.  He wrote of his 2011s, “they probably won’t get high scores, they are not showy wines, but there is not a musty or lacking wine in the bunch.”

In other words, he was apologizing for his wines even before I’d tasted most of them! (He’s already sent a couple of the less expensive ’11 early releases, but not his heavy hitters.) This is what reminds me of Gus. My dog didn’t have anything to apologize for–really. I wasn’t angry at him; he was just doing his doggie thing, and after all, it was my fault for leaving the meat out where he could get to it. If I was mad at anyone, it was me.

Now, this isn’t to single this winemaker out. He’s a fine gentleman who’s earned his celebrity status in the wine industry. But I do want to use his “probably won’t get high scores” comment to make an important point. Why do people feel the need to apologize for not making the kind of high alcohol, ripe, oaky wines that tend to get the highest scores? (Believe me, he’s not the only one.) If this winemaker sticks to his guns (and he has) and lets his terroir tell him what to do, rather than to try and appeal to the palate of 2 or 3 critics, then he’s going to be a better, more honest winemaker.

The wider problem is when winemakers are so insecure and needy that they deliberately undercut their own terroir, not to mention their natural instincts. They take fruit that is not naturally geared toward high alcohol, ripeness and oak, let it hang until the last possible minute while the acidity drops lower and lower and the sugars rise as much as they physically can, ferment the hell out of the grapes to maximize every molecule of fruity essence, and then load up on the new oak (and possibly the Mega Purple too). That may fool some critics, but discerning ones will simply find the wine overworked and tedious, and say so in their review.

I think a certain steadfast attitude is necessary for a winemaker, as it is for all of us in every aspect of our lives. One should not fear letting the wine be what it wants to be, just because it might not get 97 points. If winemakers need scores to market their wines, they should know that there are many critics around who can appreciate a lighter-bodied, more elegant wine just as much as a big, heavy one. Winemaking at the highest levels should be all about what the terroir wants to express, guided perhaps by the winemaker’s hand, but gently.

If the winemaker who wrote me those comments reads this, I’d tell him not to worry, not to apologize, to stand tall and respect the values that got him into winemaking in the first place. I’m sure that, 25 years ago, he didn’t stress out over scores. He doesn’t have to today. His wines are respected in the right venues, and so is he.


Number of corked wines is down, but TCA is still a BIG problem

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The number of corked wines is definitely lower than it used to be. I’d estimate about 1 in every 30 bottles is notably tainted by TCA. It used to be about 1 in every 12 (humans vary widely in their sensory threshold to TCA; I’m about average), so let’s give credit to the cork industry for improved performance.

Wnen I say “1 in every 30 bottles” I mean that 30th wine reeks of mold to the point where I detect it immediately on pulling the cork, in an “Ugh!” reaction that is always unpleasant. However, a new study on the effects of 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA) leads me to worry more about the impact of sub-threshold TCA, which is far more common than overtly corked bottles.

The study acknowledges that TCA has long “been thought [to introduce] off-flavor substances [and] unpleasant smells” in affected wines. That would be the Ugh! factor. But the scientists also found–and this is the key sentence–“that …TCA…inhibits ciliary transduction channels…even at extremely low…concentrations.”

Lots of verbiage here, so let’s break it down.”Ciliary” is the adjectival form of the noun “cilia,” which are short, hairlike outgrowths from cells.  “Transduction” is the transfer of energy from one system to another–in this case, the transfer of olfactory sensations (smells) from the wine to our nose and brain. This energy transference occurs through the cilia in our olfactory neurons; they are the receptors that are stimulated by external odors, which then are passed along to the brain via olfactory nerve channels.

The worrisome aspect of this statement lies in its implications: Even if a wine does not smell overtly moldy or corky, there may still be enough TCA in it (“extremely low concentrations”) for its vinous aromatics to be inhibited or tamped down. This means that the wine will lack a vibrant aroma. If you’re a wine taster, you know that the aroma is possibly more important in judging a wine than anything else. It is certainly the first important signal (other than the color) that the taster receives about the wine (discounting foolishness like the weight of the bottle and length of the cork), and thus is likely to shape the taster’s subsequent [oral/flavor/palate] impressions. A wine whose aroma does not attract the taster’s attention is unlikely to be one he will signal out for praise.

I wonder how many dull, inert wines I review are actually infected with extremely small quantities of TCA, sub-threshold but with a consequent inhibiting effect on the aroma. It’s impossible to know, of course, without sending everything to a laboratory for testing. So my advice to the cork industry is to intensify their efforts to make every cork in the world 100% TCA-free.

P.S. I apologize if you’ve been experiencing access issues the last two days with my blog. My web host has been having huge server problems. Next week, I’m going over to a Linux server which, they say, will make everything faster and more dependable.


When is a “flaw” not a flaw?

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Got an email from a wine director at a restaurant yesterday. She wrote:

Yesterday I was tasting through my wines by the glass to make new notes after going through some recent vintage changes when I smelled the 2012 ___ Sauvignon Blanc. I was so overwhelmed by the smell of rotten green pepper and shocked by the complete lack of the usual ripe grapefruit notes. I generally get excited when I come upon a wine with a flaw as I look at it as a learning experience I can share with my staff. But to my shock, most of my staff did not smell the same thing I did and no one smelled it to the extent that I did. I opened several bottles then went on to a new case but they all smelled the same to me. I was convinced there was a flaw but questioned myself that no one smelled the horrible things I did. I pulled the wine right away. So, my question is, is this strong smell considered a flaw or is it just bad judgment on the part of the winemaker and producer to release a wine like this?

(The wine director identified a specific New Zealand Sauv Blanc but there’s no point in revealing it here.) There are two points she made that leaped out to me, both of which are interesting enough to warrant a little chat.

The first was “most of my staff did not smell the same thing I did.” This points out the subjectivity of wine tasting. Whatever caused the green pepper smell that the wine director picked up on (and I couldn’t say that it was pyrazine because I haven’t tasted that wine), it seems that she was more sensitive to it than the rest of her staff. I myself am very sensitive to pyrazine, and I don’t much care for it if it exceeds a certain tipping point in a Sauvignon Blanc. But on the other hand, I’ve met people who are far more sensitive than I am to TCA and brett.

The second point is contained in the wine director’s question and is in some ways the more interesting one. “Is this strong smell considered a flaw or is it just bad judgment on the part of the winemaker?”

I don’t think it was a flaw, technically speaking, but it depends on how you define “flaw.” Generally, flaws in wine are considered to be egregious violations of the basic sanitary and chemistry things you learn in winemaking school. For example, a young white wine that is brown in color and smells old may have been oxidized; that is a flaw, but on the other hand, you want a degree of oxidation in some white wines (Sherry, for example). Aromas that are rancid also are considered flaws, but in some older wines (Priorats, for example), a little rancidity is considered desirable. And consider brett itself. Technically, it’s a flaw, but some winemakers (and wine drinkers) like a touch of it in their wines.

If we assume the cause of pyrazine smell is unripe grapes, can we call that a flaw? In one sense, maybe: I mean, you wouldn’t make a wine out of grapes that were 13% brix, would you? But if pyrazine’s a flaw, it’s not on the scale of letting a white wine get oxidized to the point of brown stinkiness. Pyrazine could be and usually is a vintage problem (and you can’t accuse Mother Nature of committing flaws). But it could be a marketing decision to bottle and sell a pyraziney wine (one that the winemaker may not want to put out there, but has to be sold anyway, for economic reasons).

Is it bad judgment to sell a wine that some people will think is flawed, like that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc? Well, not necessarily. The wine director who emailed me thought it was flawed, but no one else on her staff did. It’s conceivable that, even had the winemaker known the wine was high in pyrazines, he would have green-lighted it anyway (assuming he had that power, rather than a sales director or owner), knowing that it wasn’t so excessive that critics all over the world would condemn it as cat pee.

So this question of what constitutes a flaw, and what doesn’t, is more complicated than you might think.


Which is more important for fine wine, terroir or technique?

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Is great wine the product of terroir, technique, or both?

Regular readers of my blog know that this question, or concept, intrigues me as do few others. I’ve frequently quoted the great Prof. Peynaud, who says terroir is Mother Nature; when man brings his or her own touch to the finished product, the combination of the two, he calls “cru.” As he expresses it, somewhat complexly, in The Taste of Wine: The Art and Science of Wine Appreciation, “The cru…is the wine-producing property, the chateau, different from its neighbors.” At the same time, this definition includes not just physical attributes such as climate, soils, slope, elevation and so on, but “the three activities of production, processing and marketing.” And P.R.? Yes, that too.

This definition of terroir is pretty broad; it’s one I accept, and if everyone else did, we could cease these eternal hand-wringings on what constitutes terroir. Still, the definition raises exciting and troubling implications: If I take the grapes from a single wine-producing property, divide them into three parts, and give three different winemakers one of those parts to vinify, will the resulting wines all show the terroir of the site? Or will they be so different that we can only explain their distinctions by the technique of their winemakers?

This is precisely what The Cube Project explores. The brainchild of Anne Amie’s winemaker, Thomas Houseman, it was formed “to evaluate the impact of winemaking vs. terroir.” Anne Amie is in the Willamette Valley; its two partner wineries are Bouchaine, in the Carneros, and Lincourt, down in the Sta. Rita Hills. Each of the winemakers took a single block of Pinot Noir from the estate vineyard in the 2010 vintage, divvied it into three shares and sent two of them (very carefully) to the other two winemakers. Then all three crafted the best wine he or she could.

Two nights ago, the three winemakers–Andrew Brooks from Bouchaine, Leslie Renaud from Lincourt, and Houseman–hosted a dinner at Roy’s San Francisco. This was an event not even I, who generally eschew these kinds of trade events, could pass up–and not only because I love Roy’s Hawiaiian-fusion food!

There were so many questions to be answered. Could we really detect commonalities between the three wines from each place? I mean, we knew what they were; but, if you didn’t, could you have? I personally found all the Anne Amie wines quite a bit higher in acidity than the others, across all three winemakers, so maybe I could have nailed them in a blind flight. The Carneros and Sta. Rita Hills bottlings were closer in personality, with softer textures and brighter fruit.

Did I detect winemaker styles? Not really. I thought that Andrew (Bouchaine) and Leslie (Lincourt) succeeded in making fine wines from all three sites. Thomas, on the other hand, seemed like he struggled with the two California selections. As I told Andrew afterward, it was as if he didn’t “get” California, and couldn’t quite figure out how to get a handle on the (relative) softness and fruitiness. His own Anne Amie wine was complex and lovely, but the others were puzzling.

Leslie had described her thinking process this way: When the grapes show up at her winery, she tastes them, and then starts thinking how she’ll vinify them. I asked Andrew for some of his decision points in the process. Here’s a partial list:

Destemming or not?

Crush pressure

Cold soaking

To inoculate or not? And with what?

To pump over or punch down, and how frequently?

What’s your maximum fermentation temperature?

When to drain off the juice?

Include press wine?

How long to let the wine settle before putting in barrel?

Cooperage and toast level

Natural malo or inoculate?

Stirring, if any?

Racking, if any?

Time in barrel

You can see how Peynaud’s “production and processing” play a huge role in determining the wine’s final qualities. Each one of these steps has multiple solutions, and each can dramatically impact the final product.

Thomas made an interesting statement: “It’s easier to tell the winemaker’s hand when the wines are young. As they age, the terroir shows through.” I think that’s probably true, although it’s also true that bottle variation becomes greater the older the wine is. Meanwhile, it’s only fair to say that the statement, made by many fine winemakers, that “the wine is made in the vineyard. I have little to do with it” is untrue, if romantic. The winemaker has everything to do with it; but it’s equally true that even the greatest winemaker cannot make fine wine from merde.


Whose blogs are relevant?

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READERS: Here’s another blast from the past, originally published late in 2008. I’ll resume regular posting when I come back from New York, this Friday.

* * *

I had coffee yesterday with M., a highly regarded North Coast winemaker (actually, he had tea) who’s been in the business for a long time. What did we talk about? Blogs, of course. I wanted to know how he (and, by extension, his winemaker colleagues) view wine blogs, and did he think they hold value for him in publicizing his brands.

Yes, M. replied, but… There’s always a “but.” M. put it this way: In determining the value of any particular blog, he wanted to know if it was relevant.

Hmm, I wondered. How do you determine if a blog is relevant? So it was a bit of serendipity this morning to surf through my usual morning mush of blogs and stumble across this one from Caveman Wines, which asks the question, “How do we as wine PR professionals determine which wine bloggers are legitimate or not?” To answer that, the blogger, Michael Wangbickler, a P.R., account manager at Balzac Communications, turned to a guy named Kevin Palmer, who runs an outfit called Social Media Answers. According to Caveman, Palmer came up with a list of 5 metrics by which he measures the value of a blog. Quote:

1. Alexa/Compete – Good for painting a general picture of the strength of traffic to their blog.
2. Quantcast – Most won’t have the tag installed necessary to register with Quantcast. Those that do may be a little more serious about their blogging.
3. Age of blogs – There is high turnover on blogs. An older blog may indicate that the blogger is here to stay.
4. Average Number of posts per month – The more frequently a blogger posts, the greater likelihood that their audience will be larger.
5. Other Social Media channels – Does the blogger have a good following on Facebook, Twitter, etc.? It may indicate that their readership is larger than implied by visits to the blog.

By this method, Caveman writes, he can figure out whom to send review bottles to, because “We can’t just send wine samples to every Tom, Dick, and Harry who happens to say they have a blog.”

I can’t quibble with Palmer’s 5 metrics, although I believe there are additional ways to evaluate a successful blog: the blogger’s breadth of knowledge and experience; number of visits; demographics of the blog’s readership; the blogger’s reputation in the industry (although not all of these are readily quantifiable). I agree with Palmer’s conclusion, taken from his website, that wine blogging currently “seems really fractured and disorganized.” Palmer referred to a Twitter discussion that gave him the feeling “that a lot of bloggers weren’t being respected or included by wineries or PR people. They felt slighted, a little angry” at not being sent samples and not getting invited to events. Well, that gets me back to my conversation with M. With 1,000 wine blogs out there, there’s no reason why a winery should reach out to every one of them. As M. said, he’s happy to play ball with a blog, as long as it’s relevant. Turns out, he couldn’t really define what makes a blog relevant; he just had a feeling which ones are and which ones aren’t.

Blog relevance may be difficult to precisely measure, but, to misquote the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, you know it when you see it.


Three cheers for Zaca Mesa!

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Forty years isn’t particularly old for a European winery, but in California, it’s positively Methuselean. A handful of wineries began in 1972—Caymus, Jordan, Silver Oak, Stag’s Leap, Edmeades—almost all of them in the North Coast. This was a time when viticulture in Santa Barbara County was mostly a gleam in people’s eyes; Richard Sanford was busy with his Pinot Noir, in the western Santa Ynez Valley region that’s now called the Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills. But inland the valley was still mainly cattle and horses.

In 1972, though, a group of friends bought some land in the Foxen Canyon region, north of Los Olivos. The next year they planted grapes to the usual mishmash: Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Chenin Blanc, Grenache and so on, “to see what would work,” as they say on Zaca Mesa’s website.
They hired a guy named Ken Brown as their first winemaker, then planted Syrah in 1978—the first planting of that variety in the county. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Zaca Mesa now is celebrating their birthday with some big events that will culminate in May with the 40th Anniversary Celebration.
What makes the winery so unique is not only its age and the quality of the wines, but the roster of winemakers who’ve worked there. It’s literally a who’s who of winemaking in Santa Barbara County: not just current winemaker Eric Mohseni, but Brown himself, who went on to establish Byron, Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climate), Bob Lindquist (Qupe), Daniel Gehrs, Adam Tolmac (Ojai), Chuck Carlson (Carlson), Benjamin Silver (Silver), Clay Brock (Wild Horse—the list goes on and on, making a stint at Zaca Mesa University almost a prerequisite for winemaking in the Central Coast.
I’ve been fortunate to be able to review Zaca Mesa’s wines for many years, and can say that few wineries anywhere have such a distinguished track record. The throwing-spaghetti-at-the-wall approach to see what would stick gradually evolved into a Rhône specialization, which in itself helped make the Santa Ynez Valley a hotbed of Rhône activity. (It’s fair to say that only one region specializes in Rhône-style wines, and that’s the Santa Ynez Valley.) Zaca Mesa’s top wine always is their Black Bear Estate Syrah, from a small block on the estate vineyard that was planted with cuttings from Hermitage. I don’t know if it’s the pedigree of the Chapoutier vineyard or the terroir of Santa Ynez Valley that makes this one of the greatest Syrahs in California, but it is. I gave the 2009 ($60) 96 points, but production was a mere 367 cases.
Other Zaca Mesa wines that always are good include the Z-Cuvée red blend (often a bargain), the fancier Z Three GSM and the Z Blanc, one of the better white Rhône blends in California.


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