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What a tattoo artist has to teach winemakers


Can a winemaker make artisanal wine without knowing how to make academically correct wine?

The great Philip Milic, my tattoo artist at Old Crow, was teaching his newest student, Ciara, a lesson in drawing. Ciara had drawn a kind of angel-lady with long, Pre-Raphaelite braided hair and a tropical bird, and also a grinning skull. Philip critiqued them. Some of Ciara’s lines, he told her, were out of balance, too thick, crooked. He pointed out aspects of the skull’s teeth and the nymph’s hair and the bird’s wing, and, with a few corrective strokes, vastly improved them. He said, “If you want to draw like that after you know how to draw well, it looks cool. Otherwise, it just looks amateurish.”

I knew what he meant, because it’s the same thing with writing. You have to know how to write really well before you can abandon traditional classical English grammar and syntax and write in your own voice. In other words, you have to learn the rules before you can break them. Same with painting. When some people see Picasso, they say, “Why, my kid could paint like that,” but what they don’t know was that the young Picasso could draw exquisitely in the realist style. In the merest Picasso doodle is the essence of everything he learned from Raphael, Goya and Cezanne.

In wine, there is the eternal debate between classic university training versus developing a more intuitive or natural style. In California, this debate often takes the form of “To Davis, or not to Davis?” There are some who feel that formal training at a school of enology like U.C. Davis or Fresno State robs winemaking students of their originality and forces them to mainstream their talents in predictable, conventional ways. I remember when I met Josh Jensen, at Calera. He told me that when he hired his first assistant winemaker, his one job qualification was: “Must not be a U.C. Davis graduate,” because he wanted his A.W. to possess the skills of creativity and innovation he felt Davis stifled.

There is mounting talk in California about “natural” winemaking–hands off stuff, involving a minimum of manipulations, organic grapegrowing, use of native yeasts, and so on. Often, it is assumed that a smaller winery can make wine more “naturally” than a big one. There’s something attractive in this notion of the rugged individualist who goes up against the big guys by doing something they institutionally cannot–make wines of personal artistic interpretation.

There’s some truth in this, but there’s also a lot of romantic hooey. Just because the wine comes from some little winery, presided over lovingly by the winemaker and his kin, doesn’t make the wine good, interesting or even drinkable. Believe me, there’s a lot of bad wine out there, and a lot of it comes from artisanal wineries.

So I’m not one to be impressed by a press release that tells me how small the production is, or how personally involved so-and-so is in every step of the wine production process. Many a bad smell has come out of the artisanal vat. Having said that, most of the wines I think most highly of do come from small wineries. How to account for this paradox? I think the difference is because the best winemakers learned how to make good, clean, well-made wines first. (Of course, they also need good grapes.) After they knew what to do and what not to do, they could move to the next level: crafting wines of personal distinction and artistic merit. They know the difference between safely running risks, and foolish abandonment of long-held rules. When I taste something truly dreadful, I always wish the person who made it would take a year off and do some remedial V&E at one of our teaching schools, the way Ciara is learning the basics from Philip. She won’t be doing simple angels and skulls when she turns pro, but she has to learn to do those basic forms correctly before she can explore her own inner promptings and create the kind of splendor Philip does.

Cosentino closing? But Mitch marches on


I heard from a friend this morning (who in turn learned about it from a friend of his who worked there, so this is third-hand) that yesterday was the last day that Cosentino Winery would be open to the public. “Another victim of the tough economy,” the person who worked at Cosentino wrote him. (For  the record, I called the winery early this morning and a recording said the tasting room is still open.)

I hope it’s not true that Cosentino is moribund. It’s sad when a winery stumbles, especially one you’ve known and liked for a long time. I met Mitch Cosentino, who started the winery in 1980, many years ago, when I was still at Wine Spectator. There was a period of time, during the 1980s and 1990s, when Cosentino the brand had some renown. Its Napa Valley Cabernet, especially the reserve and the Meritage they called CE2V, could be quite good, although they never attained the heights of which Napa Cabernet is capable.

Sometime in the early 2000s, though, Cosentino seemed to have lost its way. Over the years I formed the impression that they were getting stuck in the same trap as Robert Mondavi Winery did: making too many SKUs in an attempt to please everyone, with the result that too little attention was paid to anything. In addition to the Napa Cabernets there was Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay and Merlot and Zinfandel and Gewurztraminer and a white Meritage and Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir and even an execrable Sangiovese. It reached the point where, by 2003, I was thinking, “What the heck is going on at Cosentino?”

And Cosentino had their Mondavi Woodbridge/Private Selection problem: an inexpensive second label that was probably meant as a cash flow wine, but further diluted the company’s energies and reputation. That was Crystal Valley, which usually bore a California appellation.

I don’t know the precise impact of the recession on Cosentino’s fortunes. One heard, through the grapevine, that the winery was hurting even before the economy soured. I suppose the continuing deterioration of the marketplace simply accelerated Consentino’s problems. But there are lessons to be learned. Cosentino did try to expand too rapidly in too many directions at the same time. The financing didn’t seem to be there. Quality dipped, and the downward spiral built on itself. At the same time, the winery didn’t advance a coherent marketing strategy. As someone who sits, spider-like, at the center of the P.R. web in California, I get a sense of who’s reaching out, who’s thinking about communication, who’s doing a good job and who isn’t. By the time the 21st century arrived, Cosentino seemed to disappear. It had become almost a virtual brand. I would have largely forgotten about it if I didn’t pass the actual winery building, on Highway 29 just south of Oakville, every time I went to Napa Valley. I’d see it and feel bad.

I don’t know the particulars of the brand’s troubles, and I hope it’s not actually true. But I Googled “Cosentino” this morning and found this article from this morning’s Napa Valley Register that says Mitch Cosentino “has launched pureCru Napa Valley, a small producer of wines.” The new winery’s website says it will produce “small quantities of unique blends,” and quotes Mitch as saying he will “do it all myself again, like I did in the beginning.” So the cat has landed on his feet, to live again, which makes me happy and hopeful.

Winemaker hopes and dreams


Had coffee yesterday with a winemaker named Darek Trowbridge and his assistant winemaker, Steven Washuta. Darek owns the brand Old World Winery, up in Sonoma County. He’s related to the Martinellis, and founded Old World when he learned that there was no place in that winery for him.

Darek told me he hadn’t put much time or energy into marketing Old World, a mistake he’s now out to rectify. He was describing his dreams and visions, when suddenly it occurred to me that Darek wasn’t just speaking for himself. He was speaking, albeit unwittingly, for an entire generation of young winemakers, men and women who are embarking on the adventure of a lifetime. They’re coming out of V&E school, or perhaps transferring into the wine business from other careers, and entering a field filled with challenges and stress, at possibly the worst time to launch a winemaking career in recent history; but they’re game for anything. I watched Darek’s handsome face as he talked about winemaker dinners, his small distributor in Louisiana, his and Steven’s nascent efforts at social media, people he buys grapes from, the production level he hopes to achieve, and I thought about the many young winemakers I’ve run into lately, from Santa Barbara up through the North Coast. They’re all so hopeful and enthusiastic, so filled with energy and ideas, willing to endure just about anything to realize their dreams. And it struck me that, of all occupations in the world, making wine has got to be the most optimistic.

I’ve been meeting a lot more of these younger winemakers who have been below my radar, after the magazine divided California up into inland and coastal tasters, leaving me freer to sink down into the coast and meet these small, exciting producers. When I put the word out, via my blog, Facebook and personal contacts, that I was in search of this more or less hidden level of winemaking activity, I wasn’t sure what the response would be. In part, I feared that the smaller, younger producers wouldn’t be interested in a print magazine writer reviewing their wines in the traditional way. Because of my experiences writing this blog, I’ve been exposed, and rather strongly, to an anti-magazine attitude out there, on the part of Millennials who feel that everything that needs to be done can and should be done through social media. It wouldn’t have surprised me, then, to learn that a newer generation of winemakers had no interest at all in connecting with me.

Instead, it’s been exactly the opposite. Everywhere I go, people seem interested in making my acquaintance, and I am certainly delighted to make theirs. It’s been reassuring to find out that actual (as opposed to digital) relationships still matter in this business.

I’m going to work very hard at cultivating these new relationships. I want to help these younger, less well known winemakers achieve success. I still get irritated by the snobbery out there on the part of certain sommeliers, writers and, yes, some winery owners, who promote the same old stable of aging elite brands and turn up their noses at everyone else. I was talking just yesterday to a P.R. guy, an old friend, who just got a job with a super-famous Pinot Noir house in Sonoma County. They’d never sent me wines to review. I asked if that could now change. My friend said no, they just don’t send wine to anyone. To no one, I asked? Well, he said, they send to Spectator. I replied, live by Spectator, die by Spectator. It’s so 1990s, so yesterday, such an anachronism in a wine world that’s forward looking and thinking and open to change.

So, to all my new winemaker friends, present and future, here’s looking at you, kids.

A Mondavi state of mind


By coincidence, I had lunch the other day with Rob Mondavi (from Folio Fine Wine Partners) and dinner that same night with Genevieve Janssens, Robert Mondavi Winery’s longtime winemaker. Rob is the son of Michael and grandson of Robert. So I’m in a Mondavi state of mind.

I’d never met Rob, but connected with him recently for my story on the Atlas Peak AVA, for January’s Wine Enthusiast. Rob wanted to show me his top wine, M by Michael Mondavi, made from their 16-acre vineyard on the mountain. Since I’d obviously known Robert Mondavi and Michael Mondavi, I looked for signs of them in Rob. Couldn’t find any, until he laughed. Pure Mondavi! That big, wide smile, the crinkly blue eyes, the energy.

Folio is an interesting company. It’s a hybrid: part “agency” (Rob’s word), which is their distributor side in which they represent other brands, and part production of their own brands, including M by Michael Mondavi. They just released the ‘06, which I’ll review in the Enthusiast. The 2005, now sold out, is a sensation. The ‘07 — which won’t be out for another year — is possibly even better.

Rob’s energy and potency are qualities he must have inherited. He is quite visionary but also realistic. When Folio was first conceived, nobody could have imagined this recession, or how deep and long it would be. Rob was a straight shooter in that respect. Sure, times are tough, and M by Michael Mondavi, at $195 a bottle, is not the easiest sell these days. But Rob has pertinacity built into his dna. This is a family with an eye to the long haul. They’re not trading in on the last name. No tricks, no stunts. While the distributed wines pay the bills, Rob and Michael fine tune their own wines — and in the end, fine wine will out.

When I saw Genevieve Janssens that night, it was to participate in “an interactive soil tasting.”

I must admit I had never taken a wine glass half filled with dirt, added a little water to make mud, then swirled and sniffed, the way you do with fine wine. But what an extraordinary experience it was.

They had three soil samples: one from Bodega Bay, out by the coast, one from Fremont, in my county of Alameda, and one from Mondavi’s To Kalon Vineyard. The object was to pair each sample of mud with a different foodstuff grown in that dirt. The Bodega Bay mud went with a cheese made from goats that grazed on the land below. The Fremont mud went with green peas grown there, while the To Kalon mud paired with Robert Mondavi’s 2007 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. To say that there were similarities and echoes of aroma (and not, obviously, of taste!) is an understatement. If the object was to persuade us that it is not only the structure of soil, but also its smells, that contribute to wine (and cheese, and green peas), the experiment definitely succeeded.

Genevieve presided over dinner with her usual aplomb. She is a living extension of her mentor, whom she always refers to as Mister Mondavi. Robert was a born marketer. It was in his soul. He understood the importance of having a simple message and then driving it home repeatedly. (Politicians, too, do the same thing.) In his case, the message was that wine, food, art and life are all part of a whole. What connected them, he asserted, was passion. “Passion” also is a word Genevieve uses often. She confided that it is part of her mission to elevate To Kalon to the status of an undisputed First Growth. No argument from me.

It’s easy today for Millennials to not realize that, once upon a time and not that long ago, wine and food, in America, barely mattered to most people. American food sucked. Frozen food had taken over, followed by McDonald’s. There were some old-fashioned French restaurants, but nobody went to them. When average Americans ate out, it was Chinese or Italian (which meant spaghetti and meatballs and veal Parmagiana). Nobody drank fine wine. The culture was heathen and, yes, vulgar.

Robert Mondavi helped to change that. So did Julia Child, and it’s little wonder that the two of them teamed up, late in their lives, to create COPIA. Now here we are, with a vibrant, energetic Genevieve passionately carrying forth Mister Mondavi’s message, while a young, invigorated Rob Mondavi, with his Dad, is pushing the legacy in new directions. La Vida Mondavi continues.

R.I.P. Tony Curtis

Can a wine express human suffering?


Does what a winemaker is feeling at the time he makes the wine somehow enter into the wine, through some mysterious process of emotional osmosis? I don’t mean to get all metaphysical, but this question arose, rather powerfully, during my recent visit to Santa Barbara, and I’ve been thinking about it.

I was tasting with a well-regarded producer. We were reviewing a range of his Chardonnays, dating back to the 2001, which was remarkably fresh. He remarked that he had crushed the wine on a date he would never forget, one that had made him profoundly sad at the time, and still affected him to the point of bringing tears to his eyes.

Sept. 11, 2001.

As his eyes welled, I replied, somewhat insensitively, “Well, I’m sure we won’t taste your feelings in the wine.” What I meant was that I assumed that what I would taste in the wine — in any wine — was the product of all the objective factors that physically made it what it was: variety, viticulture, enology, terroir, vintage, acidity, alcohol, tannins, age, storage condition, and so forth.

As soon as I spoke, I could tell I shouldn’t have. The room (there were four of us present) fell into an uncomfortable silence. The winemaker seemed at a loss for words. I was embarrassed. I didn’t want him to think that I had discounted his experience, since I hadn’t, or hadn’t meant to; I’d merely expressed the view that it didn’t seem likely that his emotions had transferred themselves into the wine, unless they had resulted in him performing acts of omission or commission that were the direct results of those emotions.

So I told him that a day or two after 9/11, I was at a consumer wine event in Monterey. There were 40 or 50 people present, who had paid some pretty good money to do a wine-and-food thing. They were laughing and drinking and partying, which made me feel horrible, considering the trauma our country had just gone through. So I asked a friend of mine, a local winemaker, to ding his glass and request a moment of silence. (Today, I would do it by myself, but nine years ago I didn’t have the self-confidence.) The reason I related this to the Santa Barbara winemaker was to reassure him that I, too, had been devastated by 9/11.

Well, it didn’t do much good, because I felt like an ass for the rest of the day. I still do. I have a tendency to run my mouth off before my brain can think. But I’ve also been wondering if the winemaker’s feelings really did go into the wine, somehow or other.

I don’t know quite how that would work. It doesn’t make logical sense. It would seem that everything the winemaker did must have been something he would have done regardless of what he was feeling. But the winemaker himself believes it, and he is a profound winemaker whose sensitivity is such that every critic who has ever written about him notes it. He is also an intellect who thinks long and deep about philosophy. So his views are not to be dismissed.

That 2001 Chardonnay was quite a wine. It was pristine, the way his Chardonnays always are, and reflected the minerals and acidity of Santa Rita Hills in a transparent way. I should mention that it was unoaked. It also seemed timeless. Not that it didn’t show its age; it did. But it was still sleek and toned.

Of course, once I understood how much that wine and the date of its crush meant to the winemaker, I took the time, out of respect for him, to look for extra qualities in it. Was it clearer, more focused, sparer than his other Chardonnays? His Chards always are minimalist; was the 2001 austere to the point of a haiku, or a Japanese sand garden in which a few strokes of the rake express more than all the flowers in an English garden?

I won’t go so far as to say I detected sadness in the wine. That would be carrying poetic license too far. But that 2001 Chardonnay was so transparent, like spring water from a Sierra stream, so mute and mysterious, like an obelisk or (something I thought of later) a Rothko painting, so neutral, in the sense that it was like a mirror held back to your own eyes, that at one point I likened it to a Rorschach test. I told the winemaker that it was a wine in which a person would find, not what the wine said, but what was happening inside the person’s own heart. I think the winemaker liked that. At our most profound moments, silence is really the overriding value. There was in fact a profound silence emanating from that wine.

I don’t know if that quality of silence came from the winemaker’s state of mind on 9/11, or from my imagination. I don’t know if I would have found it had I drank the wine from a paper bag in a flight of older Chardonnays at home in Oakland. But I do know the experience made me think about things in great wine that will never be defined. They say some winemakers pour their heart and soul into a wine. Maybe it’s true in more than just a metaphorical way.

Natural, schmatural


Jon Bonné set off quite a stir the other day with his San Francisco Chronicle column on “natural wine.” I even had people Facebooking me to ask what I thought about it.

He treated the issue in a very fair-minded, repertorial way, dealing straight down the middle. Jon granted that we all want “a wine that’s honestly made, compelling and — crucially — delicious.” But he also warned that the whole “natural wine” movement can “tip into greenwashing.”

I couldn’t agree more. As the daily recipient of pitches, press kits and propaganda from wineries that want to get a little love from me, I’ve developed something of a thick skin when it comes to claims. “Greenwashing” is the perfect way to describe a large part of the whole natural, green, sustainable, organic, biodynamic thing. Everybody wants to portray his practices as purer than the other guy’s practices. It’s a holier-than-thou world out there, and IMHO that goes for the whole greenie-natural crowd.

I obviously have no problem with people doing whatever they want to when it comes to growing grapes and making wine. In principle, I’m in favor of the cleanest, least polluting, most sustainable practices. I’m glad when a grower gets his vineyard certified organic, if that’s what he wants. I just don’t want to get drubbed over the head by constantly being told about it.

Besides, what does “natural” mean, when you break it down? Basically, nothing, as far as I can tell. I was talking to a winemaker the other day who was telling me about a machine that can take the sugar out of grape juice. That would result, in theory, in drier, and possibly more balanced, wines. When I observed that that intervention didn’t sound very “natural” — in fact, there’s something Franken-wine about it — he countered that, since the technology wasn’t being applied to the fermented wine, but only to the grape juice, the wine itself could be considered entirely natural!

I didn’t think so, and I made an analogy, inappropriate to reproduce here, that demolished his notion. But then I added that, personally, I don’t really care what winemakers do behind the scenes with their juice or wine. Why should I? Like Jon Bonné said, all I want is a compelling and delicious wine.

I try to put myself into the mindset of a vintner who decides to go the natural route, whole hog. I guess that means using indigenous yeasts, the kind that are flying around everywhere. That’s a philosophical decision, but I bet you that winemaker has some “spare” bags of commercial yeast on the shelf, “just in case.” These sorts of winemakers are elevated to mythic status by a select group of wine writers for whom they’re darlings. Wine writers love to discover such garagistes who are the outlaws of the wine world. They strike the pose of rebels against the academy, purists disgusted with the pandering of the status quo, and wine writers (some of them) are intellectually attracted to them. It’s good for a wine writer’s career to discover and promote a darling, and if that darling is on the side of goodness and purity and “naturalism,” some of that stardust spills onto the wine writer, who then basks in the reflected glory. What, you don’t think that kind of thing happens all the time? Trust me, it does.

I wiki’ed “natural wine. Here’s how they define it: “Natural wine is wine made with as little chemical and technological intervention as possible, either in the way the grapes are grown or the way they are made into wine.” Do you see anything in there that guarantees quality? Does “as little…intervention as possible” mean that the wine will brim with terroir? Is there a direct relationship between degrees of intervention and scores? The answers, respectively, are no, no and no.

Author’s note: This is a natural column. The words were produced entirely out of the writer’s head, without the use of a dictionary, Thesaurus, or other intervention.

On the road again

I leave today for Santa Barbara for the rest of the week. Will try to blog from the road.

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