Had a call from a guy working on his WSET. He’s doing a paper on rising alcohol levels over the last 20 years and wanted my viewpoint.
He began by listing 6 reasons that, in his judgment, account for higher alcohol: later harvest time, climate change, locale (planting in warmer areas, is what I think he meant), viticultural practices, vinification techniques and consumer demand. Then he asked if I thought any of them was more important than the others.
Here’s what I said. “Obviously, one of them is driving the rest.” He knew I was going to say “consumer demand.” The others (excluding climate change, which I’m not sure has a place in this discussion) are manipulatable — they can go any way the owner wants. An owner or winemaker can pick earlier or later, farm the way he wants, make the wine any way he wants. The one uncontrolled factor — the only thing he can’t manipulate — is consumer demand. Which is what matters: a winery is a business, not a charity. Therefore, consumer demand drives all else.
So we have to ask, why is the consumer demanding these high alcohol wines? Well, they’re not demanding high alcohol in itself, they’re demanding lots of fruit. And the way to achieve lots of fruit is extreme ripeness, i.e. high alcohol. It’s an unintended consequences type thing, like energy consumption. Consumers don’t consume gasoline (with all the political, financial and environmental problems it causes) because they like gas. They buy it because they need gas to drive.
Winemakers don’t want to make high alcohol wines; it’s the price they pay for ripeness. Which is why the holy grail is to achieve physiological ripeness at lower brix levels. If there was an easy way to do it, everybody would know, but there’s not. You have to try lots of different things, over many years, and even then, it’s not entirely in your hands. There’s no formula.
The WSET guy wanted to know if the high alcohol trend is reversible. I said that, while cooler vintages in California may be helping, and there’s a critical backlash against high alcohol, in general the answer is, no. We’re not going back to 11.5-12 percent alcohol.
Then he asked if high alcohol leads to homogenization. I said it does, because it leads to similar flavors in all varieties. I’ve said this before, but everytime I do, somebody — usually Charlie Olken — smacks me upside the head. But I do think fruit flavors are all pretty similar across varieties in California. (Do we really need an argument that one area is red cherries and another is black cherries? I don’t think so.) Flavor isn’t hard to achieve: I could grow grapes and get them really flavorful. Just don’t pick until they’re super ripe! But what I couldn’t achieve in wine is structure. And structure requires 3 things: money, talent and good taste (that’s assuming a good vineyard). Even if a winemaker has the first two, that doesn’t mean he has good taste. You’d be surprised at how much bad taste is out there. I constantly am.
So does high alcohol mask terroir? I said I don’t think so. The wines of Saxum have terroir. I know that vineyard. It’s a very special, unique place. It also happens to be in a hot area. Justin Smith’s wines routinely approach and sometimes exceed16%. And yet they’re delicious and compelling. So high alcohol in itself does not mask terroir. (And low alcohol doesn’t necessarily guarantee it.) I told the guy, “If you want to talk to someone who’s on an anti-high alcohol crusade, find Dan Berger. High alcohol doesn’t bother me, if it’s balanced.”
In the end, it all comes down to the consumer. Justin Smith caters his small production to his admirers. So does everybody else. And until the broad mass of consumers says “We’re sick of high alcohol and we won’t take it anymore,” high alcohol isn’t going anywhere.
* * *
Readers: Please consider nominating this blog for a Wine Blog Award. Thanks.
A couple years ago, Dr. Vino had a blog on “wine tattoos.” I found it after Googling “wine and tattoos” (it came up second, just after a hit for a brand with the word “tattoo” in the name). Dr. Vino had pointed out how so many people, especially Millennials, are not only getting tattoos these days, they’re getting wine tattoos. Tyler showed pictures with wine cork tattoos and tattoos of glassfuls of wine. In return, people commented and sent in pictures of their own wine tattoos, including a guy with big, purple grape bunches on his arm.
I got my own tattoo the day before yesterday, but it wasn’t a wine tattoo. When I first decided to get a tattoo, Philip, the artist, asked what I wanted. I said I didn’t know. “What about grapes?” he asked, knowing my proclivities. “Or wine bottles?” “Good heavens, no!” I said (well, words to that effect), fairly screaming. I live and breathe wine 24/7. The last thing I wanted was to have my first tattoo be anything about wine.
Anyway, we finally worked out the design.
The process took about 3 hours and wasn’t nearly as painful as I’d feared. While I watched Philip do his art (with his chihuahua, Lula, in my lap, which helped ease me), it crossed my mind that there was a similarity between Philip’s work and that of a winemaker. A tattoo is first envisioned in the imaginations of both the tattoo artist and the tattoo getter. In my case, there was real collaboration with Philip, because the actual image, being on you for the rest of your life, should not be trivially conceived. Philip and I engaged in what was almost like psychotherapy, as he tried to help me figure out what image I wanted. The theme of black-and-red roses, intertwined on thorny vines, was what we came up with. (Don’t ask me to explain it here. Next time you and I are drinking, I can tell you.)
Then the hard task of creating it occurs. There is physical effort, some degree of discomfort, and the task is time-consuming. And while the tattoo artist is working, he’s usually playing his favorite music on a CD. When the new tattoo is completed, it still isn’t ready; it needs a week or so to firm up, for the skin to recover. When the tattoo finally is ready, there it is, in all its glory.
Wine, too, first is envisioned in the winemaker’s mind. He imagines all he knows of the vintage (I’m talking about good wine, not supermarket stuff), all he remembers of past vintages, everything he knows about the vineyard. He is, in fact, communing with himself, to determine with the greatest precision he can what his eventual wine will be like. This process is ongoing; even after the grapes are crushed, the winemaker will be making decisions, right through to bottling. He wants to get the reality of what’s in the bottle as close as he can to the Platonic picture in is mind.
There are hard tasks in winemaking, too. Winemakers sweat and get hurt and occasionally bleed in the performance of their jobs. They grow cold in winter and hot in summer. There’s almost always music playing in a winery, unless the tourists are filling up the place and they have to turn it off. And when the wine finally is in the bottle, it’s not yet ready to drink. Like raw skin after a fresh tattoo, the new wine needs time to settle down, to get over its shock, to heal. But when it’s finally ready, there it is, in all its glory.
Okay, maybe I’m stretching comparisons a little thin. But believe it or not, going through this experience of getting a tattoo has made me more sensitive to the intricacies and agonies of making wine.
We wine writers who visit winemakers have lots of different choices of how to spend the time. One thing you can do (which I suspect most writers do with winemakers) is to taste the wine. That’s not my favorite thing, because to tell you the truth, I don’t feel I can be completely objective. Sometimes you’re in a cold cellar and the winemaker siphons the wine right out of the barrel. It almost always tastes pretty good under those circumstances. Other times the winemaker will line up bottles and glasses anywhere that’s available: the lab, the tasting room, his office, even on top of a barrel. At any rate it’s hard for me to properly evaluate a wine when I’m sitting with the person who made it.
Another thing you can do with winemakers is to let them take you on a tour of the winery. At this point, I’ve been on so many winery tours, I have bottling lines and fermenting tanks coming out of my ears. These days, when a winemaker walks me through the winery, it’s not uncommon for him to begin by saying, “You’ve probably seen a million wineries,” to which I silently think, Yes, I have, but I would never say that. Instead, I let the winemaker point out whatever he wants (I’m a polite guest). But really, the technological side of a winery has never much interested me (although the architecture does. I can just as easily appreciate a luxurious winery as a shed with a tin roof).
You can also walk through vineyards with winemakers. I like that because it takes me to the heart of where wine is made: the rows of grapevines that produce the grapes that make the juice the yeasts ferment into wine. But after a while, all vineyards begin to look alike. I know that’s heresy to those trained in the art and science of canopy management, but that’s how things are with me.
So what do I like to do with winemakers? I like to drive with them. Specifically, I like piling into the passenger seat of the winemaker’s vehicle (often an SUV, 4-wheel drive or pickup truck) and letting the winemaker do the driving. Winemaker vehicles are usually dirty and in disarray. You know how you sometimes apologize to a visitor because your house isn’t quite as tidy as it might be? Winemakers do the same, although I always tell them not to, because I could care less. Take a look at the inside of a winemaker’s car. Maps, gadgets and junk all over the place. Dried clots of earth on the floormats. Empty soda cans and water bottles. Clipboards on the dashboard, sunglasses and cell phone and pencils and pads and keys and boxes of tissue and little broken bits of metal and plastic. The inside of a winemaker’s vehicle is a veritable junkyard, but it’s a place I love to be.
Where do we drive? Typically around the property and/or the appellation. That’s what I really like to do with winemakers. They can tell me all about the hills and clefts inbetween the ridges that let the maritime influence filter in. They can point out that outcropping of limestone, that jumble of stones, or the way a bench rises suddenly from an alluvial plain. They can show me their neighbors’ vineyards. We can drive to high points where you can see for miles and miles and from that aerial vantage point gain an appreciation of an AVA’s physiognomy (if that’s the right word). Of course, you can do all this driving yourself, on your own, but then you can’t pay proper attention, and a winemaker is the best tour guide in the world. Winemakers know their appellations like they know the palm of their hand. (One of the nice things about chatting while driving is that, because it’s so casual, sometimes there’s some good gossip, oops I mean news, to be had.)
I was reminded of this because I just read my notes of my drive-around the southern Santa Rita Hills with Richard Sanford. One thing that struck me about that appellation was how quickly its vineyards have become famous. Ten years ago everybody knew about Sanford & Benedict Vineyard and Babcock, but who had ever heard of Cargasacchi, Fiddlestix, Fe Ciega, Richard’s own La Encantada, Sea Smoke, Clos Pepe, Melville, Mt. Carmel, Rancho Santa Rosa, Carrie’s, Huber? (I know I’m forgetting others.) Look how well-known they are today. There’s not another appellation in California whose vineyards have come so far, so fast.
I like winemakers anyway, most of them, and somehow they seem more themselves when they’re behind the wheel of their own vehicle.
Every time I start thinking that Paso Robles has turned the corner on red wine, along comes a bunch that makes me think the bad old days never went away.
First, the good news. I talk up Paso Robles all the time, especially in Napa Valley. You’d be surprised at some of the “names” to whom I say, “They’re doing some fiercely good stuff down there.” Many of them — Napa vintners — are freaked out by the collapse following the third quarter of 2008. For the first time ever, they’re looking over their shoulders; even Paso Robles, for all they know, might be a contender. So they listen. It reminds me of when the French Rhônistes came over here, in the early 1990s. They weren’t exactly worried about the Californians, but they’d heard distant rumblings…maybe they should find out for themselves what was going on.
Napans would do well to pay attention to Paso Robles. We are in game-changing times. Napa Cabernet is not immune to a market turnaround. A Toyota moment always threatens, or threatens to threaten; the current recession may already have dealt a serious blow to über-Cabernets. There’s a lot of Southern California money invested in Paso, the way that Silicon Valley goes to Napa. If there’s a lesson to be learned from Paso Robles — young, aggressive, ambitious — Napa’s smart winemakers want to learn it.
There’s plenty of evidence on the Paso side. At their best, Paso reds are juicy-good and balanced, and if that means they spent a little time inside a spinning cone, so what. Saxum is a good example of how delicious these wines can be, but, as Saxum is so rare and expensive, perhaps a better example is Vina Robles. To name just one, I reviewed their Signature red blend (Petite Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah) last Fall, gave it 93 points, and might have gone higher, I suppose, had I let it play with the air in the glass; but at some point in reviewing, you have to close each chapter and get on with the next.
So that’s the good news, but then come those awful Paso Robles reds, and once again I despair. No names, please. This blog is not the place for that (you can look up my reviews in Wine Enthusiast’s database, and it won’t cost you a penny). There are wine companies down there that charge $30, $40 and more for red wines that are so terrible, I think of quitting my day job and becoming a coal miner. What goes wrong in Paso Robles?
a. Overripe grapes. There is nothing more disgusting than inhaling a wine and getting a lungful of raw, harsh port.
b. Thinness of fruit due, I suppose, to overcropping. I have nothing against 15% alcohol, in and of itself, but when there’s not enough fat on those bones, the wine is hot and disagreeable.
c. Bizarre acidity. I imagine some winemakers add stuff out of a bag because the wines are too soft. Nothing like unnatural tartness to make the palate gag.
d. Residual sugar. A longtime bugaboo of mine.
e. Uneven ripening. Sometimes you get asparagus. Not pleasant.
f. Uneven tannins. This probably comes from inferior viticulture or from problems at the sorting table (if there is one).
Why do these things happen in Paso Robles but seldom in Napa Valley? I put the question up on my Facebook page and got some interesting comments. Matt Garretson, who used to make wines in Paso, said, “The issue isn’t so much with the raw materials (which are every bit as good, if not better), but has more to do with the intentions/talent of the grower/winemaker. Far too many posers there, IMHO.” Another commenter, John Danby, noted, “Part of the reason you get some less-than-stellar wines in Paso is that it’s still relatively affordable for the dreamers (gotta love ‘em), making their own wine and finding their way along. In Napa, if you can afford to be here, you can afford the consulting winemakers, etc.” I agree with both statements.
Paso has its work cut out, but they’ve shown enough critical mass of intelligence and fortitude that I retain hope. Anything can happen.
Most of the chatter about wine blogging has been from the point of view of the amateur wine blogger: how can he or she monetize the blog? Who’s writing the best blog? Who’s on what panels, who’s got the latest book deal, who’s got the most visits, who’s the new kid on the street, who’s the coming star?
All good questions, but we sometimes forget that there’s another source of blogs out there: winemakers. Their blogs may not be as widely read as the amateur wine blogs, but an argument can be made that they’re more educational. Because, after all, what do most wine bloggers know about wine, except (a) they drank something last night and (b) they’re going to tell you about it. But winemakers live and breathe wine. They have great stories to tell.
I’ve urged winemakers for years to blog. Usually their reply is “I don’t have the time” or “What would I say?” Both of those concerns are baseless. Blogging takes very little time — you can put up a post in 10 minutes. As for what to say, if you’re a winemaker, all you have to do is describe what you did yesterday or this morning. “Woke up before dawn to the sound of the frost alarm going off.” “Had a little earthquake that popped a few bungs in the cellar.” There’s always something interesting going on in a winemaker’s life.
Now, the wine world welcomes a new winemaker’s blog. It’s called “Making Dom Perignon” and it’s the personal blog of Dom’s chef de cave, Richard Geoffroy.
The blog was just born, in late January; so far, Geoffroy has written 3 posts. It’s unusual for a highly-placed winemaker to write a blog, especially in Europe, so Geoffroy is to be congratulated for taking this step.
The blog shows promise. Geoffroy obviously is smart and a good writer. I would offer a few suggestions to make the blog better. For one, the posts are not particularly long, and there is an atmosphere of marketing around them, as though Dom Perignon’s P.R. people went through Geoffroy’s originals with a red marker, deleting here, adding there. Then, if you click on the “read more” section to learn more about Geoffroy, you come to an “About the comments” section written by someone called “The moderator” who, it would seem, is someone other than Geoffroy. Who is “The moderator”? Why is Geoffroy letting someone else into his blog? The moderator writes: “Please be assured that Richard Geoffroy will read [all submitted comments], even though it will obviously not be possible for him to react to all of them.” Why not? I don’t react to all comments on my blog, but it’s certainly possible for me to do so. As soon as you tell readers upfront that it’s not possible to reply to all comments, you’re telling them, in effect, “I don’t really care all that much what you say, so don’t bother to write in.” And believe me, under such circumstances, they won’t. Besides, when I read the blog (this morning), there was exactly one comment up. Is that too many for Geoffroy to reply to?
Still, it’s a good thing that Geoffroy is writing his blog. I hope he gets into more detail about Dom Perignon and sparkling wine in general. Tell us, Richard, more about your job, your travels, the great meals you have, the people you meet, the places you go. We want to hear all the behind-the-scenes stuff. Your blog can be a real hit, if you don’t allow the marketing and P.R. people to censor you. They’ll try to, you know. That’s what marketing and P.R. people do: control messages. (It’s not a bad thing, it just is.) A blog, on the other hand, is pure spontaneity. It’s a peek into the blogger’s id, without the restraining filter of the superego. The best blogs feel pure and untrammeled, not like they’re the product of a carefully-calculated message.
I had lunch with someone from the industry today and the topic of gender arose. We both noted that most winery P.R. is done by women, while most winemakers seem to be men. That started me thinking, as most things do.
I remembered that a few years ago U.C. Davis announced that their Viticulture & Enology Department had finally achieved gender equity, in terms of the number of students majoring. That was after more than a century, and I bet you don’t have to go back very far before coming to a time when there were no female V&E students at all.
When you think about the history of wine, that’s not surprising. I collect wine books of all kinds. If you read about ancient Greek and Roman wines, there are no women (aside from the occasional ode to a goddess). The people who wrote about wine were men: Virgil, Pliny, Horace and so on. (There’s been the suggestion that in the ancient world, women were more involved with winemaking than we think, but that is largely conjecture.)
All of the books about wine written from the era following Gutenberg through the Renaissance were by men, for men. In the 18th and 19th century, when French and British writers wrote about wine, they were all males. The founders of Port, Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne were men — often monks — except for the Widow Clicquot, who came into possession of her company only because her husband died young. For most of the 20th century, fine wine writing and winemaking again were dominated by men. It really wasn’t until the last 20 years, and even less, that we’ve witnessed, not only increasing numbers of female winemakers, but female writers and lecturers like Jancis Robinson, Leslie Sbrocco, Linda Murphy and so on. (But even now, so far as I can tell, most of the wine blogs seem to be written by men.)
P.R. has been just the opposite, at least in the wine industry. Somehow, it was “relegated” to women, seemingly not as “important” as marketing, finance and sales (not to mention production). There seemed something vaguely clerical about P.R., so it was women who did it — and got paid less than men got paid in their jobs. But that’s changing, too. There are many men now who have started their own P.R. firms.
Here’s what I wonder: When there are finally as many, or more, women winemakers than men in California, will the style of wine change? It’s tempting to prophesy that wine will become more balanced, more nuanced, and not as powerful as some of the fruit bombs we’ve been seeing. But then, think of winemakers such as Helen Turley, Heidi Barrett, Martha McClellan and Mia Klein. Their wines are not exactly shrinking violets. Then again, those women belong to an older generation than the young women currently attending V&E classes. Will a newer generation of women winemakers eschew big, ripe wines? Answer: Not if the market continues to demand them. Money trumps gender.
P.S. I’m going to be away in the North Coast, probably out of reach of a computer, for a few days. So if anyone writes a comment, I may not be able to approve it right away. Back Wed. morning.