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Are single-vineyard wines better than blends?

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Of the five wines I gave perfect scores of 100 points to during my years as a wine critic, two were blends: Cardinale 2006 and Verite 2007 La Muse.

(Yes, both were Jackson Family Wines, which is one of the reasons I love working here.)

If I’d thought, by the time I reviewed them, that single-vineyard wines are better than blends, those experience disabused me of that notion. The Cardinale, as it turned out, was a blend of  six Napa Valley appellations: Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder, Oakville, Stags Leap, Spring Mountain and St. Helena. The Verite consisted of grapes from Alexander Valley, Bennett Valley, Knights Valley and Chalk Hill.

I think most people, including critics, believe that single-vineyard wines are the best. Why is this so? Because throughout the modern classic history of wine, from the 1600s onward, the wines from specific estates—which is to say, single vineyards—from France and Germany were considered the best in the world. And they probably were.

A mythos thus arose around these wines. Those great Bordeaux, Burgundies, Hocks and Mosels were so famous, so good, people figured there had to be a reason for it. And the reason was easy to discern: terroir. Wine experts, such as there were, sleuthed out these vineyards, and in every case discovered tangible physical distinctions that lifted the vineyards to grand cru status over their neighbors.

It’s odd that no one questioned this leap of faith. If there had been an internet and wine bloggers, someone might have wondered why the wine from a single vineyard was, ipso facto, better than one blended from multiple great sites. But then, blending from multiple great sites was not in the European tradition of chateaux, domaines and schlosses. It took the Californians, in the modern era, to do that—and to prove that a blend didn’t have to be a high-production common wine, but one that could play at the highest world level.

Indeed, why should it not be so? It is logically coherent to say that a blended wine can correct for the divots, or faults, of a wine from a single vineyard. The latter may, in any given vintage, be incomplete in some way: acidity, texture, fruit, complexity. Give the winemaker extra colors to play with on her palatte, and she can create a Renoir, not just an Ansel Adams.

“Just” an Ansel Adams? Well, frankly, yes. Compare a black-and-white photo of Half Dome with the cost of a Renoir at auction.

Now, before y’all start in on the hate mail, I also gave 100 points to Shafer 2004 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, a fabulous expression of a vineyard. So I’m not saying “Blends are the best.” But I do think it’s time to evaluate our attitude toward blends as somehow lesser creatures.

Does that include Pinot Noir? Yes. There’s no reason a blend of, say, Russian River Valley and Santa Rita Hills couldn’t kill. The fact that marketing, commercial and other perfectly understandable considerations make that unlikely should not discredit the point I’m trying to make.


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.

* * *

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


Good times for DTC

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Ever since I’ve been a wine writer—the 1980s—direct-to-consumer sales has been the Holy Grail of wineries. Why pay a middleman a cut of the profits when you can make 100% of every dollar by selling direct?

In the 1990s and early 2000s, though, DTC was as elusive as unicorns. Some wineries did a lot of it; I remember touring the wineries of Gold County, where proprietor after proprietor told me they were selling 90% or more of their production “out the screen door” to tourists cruising up and down Highway 49, or on their way to Tahoe and ski country. But if you weren’t on a major tourist route, you weren’t so lucky.

Some wineries tried to lure tourists in through indirect means. Wineries along Highway 29 in Napa Valley, for instance (where competition is fierce) offered educational, artistic and musical venues, becoming, in effect, entertainment palaces that just also happened to sell wine in the tasting room. This was, and is, quite effective. But still, not everyone was in a position to do it.

Now, Business Wire is reporting that “American wineries increased the dollar value of their direct-to-consumer wine shipments by an unprecedented 15.5% in 2014.”

Granted that this percentage increase comes on a relatively smaller base compared to traditional on- and off-premise accounts, it’s still a pretty impressive achievement.

Another breakthrough in DTC sales has come due to efforts to get around the nation’s silly patchwork of laws that limit or prohibit reciprocal shipping of alcoholic beverages between states. In Massachusetts, a new law just went into effect that allows wineries from throughout the United States to sell and deliver up to 12 cases of wine per year to Bay State consumers — a transaction previously prohibited.”

I doubt that the three-tiered system of distribution is going away anytime soon. It’s just too entrenched, and does serve the useful purpose of providing a solid infrastructure to deliver wine to every nook and cranny of the U.S., something that individual wineries, especially smaller ones, are in no position to do. But DTC should continue to grow, fueled in part by the desire of increasing numbers of consumers, particularly younger ones, to buy locally. The Internet and social media, too, are making it easier for consumers to dial in to local wineries and buy direct from “sales’ links, provided that doing so is legal where they live.

So it’s just one game-changer after another when it comes to selling wine in America. Interest in DTC on the part of wineries and other parties is evident by the proliferation of professional seminars on the topic; the Direct to Consumer Wine Symposium just completed their 2015 event yesterday in Concord (Contra Costa County), attracting the attention of such important national media as Forbes, which reported (via Cathy Huyghe), It was so crowded you’d have thought they were giving away money for free.”

Have a great weekend!


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.


Einstein, wine quality and a great San Francisco day

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After 1918, when the General Theory of Relativity made headlines all over the world, and Albert Einstein was the most famous scientist in history, the theory became the basis, in the popular mind, for a singular misconception.

“The phrase ‘everything is relative’ became very popular. It was thought to mean that nothing is better than anything else,” writes Robert Cwiklik, in his little volume, Albert Einstein and the Theory of Relativity.

Under this misunderstanding of what the theory actually meant, people assumed that no opinion, idea, style or solution to any problem was better than any other. This certainly had nothing to do with Einstein’s own beliefs—he always stuck to his view of fixed, immutable truths in the Universe, and spent his life, futilely at the end, searching for them. But it did enable the masses to argue that, since everything is relative, one’s own views were as valid as those of any expert.

This strain of thinking has always been nascent in humans—it is the basis of the anti-intellectualism that runs through American history–but it has acquired particular force in the age of the Internet and social media. This is because anyone can, indeed, formulate an opinion and then promulgate it, instantaneously and universally, with the push of a keystroke. This had led to the notion that expertise is no longer valid—is, in fact, elitist—a notion that has particular traction in wine reviewing, which has always been viewed skeptically and even hostilely by certain segments of the public.

However, as Einstein would be the first to aver, this is simply not the case. As one who has repeatedly suggested that people drink what they want, with whatever they want, I defer to no one in my democratic [small “d”] beliefs. But the fact is, there is such a thing as quality in wine. Some wines simply are better than others, and this is always due to two factors: the excellence of the vineyard, and the diligence of the winemaking team.

Have I said anything earthshaking, or that you didn’t know? No. But I’m reading the Einstein book, and that quote led me to these thoughts, which you’re reading now. Of more pertinence, perhaps, to me anyhow, was my day in San Francisco. A picture-postcard day, Spring-like and sunny, with the beauty that S.F. is famous for. Maxine, Keith and I had planned to have oysters at Waterbar during Christmas week, but the flu hit all three of us, hard, and we had to postpone. Marilyn joined us at the last minute, largely because after Waterbar, we planned to walk over to Trou Normand, in the old Pacific Telephone Building,

PacTel

South of Market. Marilyn worked there, long ago, as a secretary, and wanted to reminisce. Besides, Trou Normand was just chosen as one of Michael Bauer’s top ten new restaurants of 2014, and one of the chefs, Seth, is married to my friend Danielle, who’s the receptionist at Old Crow Tattoo. Trou Normand specializes in charcuterie—who could say no to that, except a vegan?—and, rare for downtown, they’re open all afternoon. So we had our oysters (a dozen each) at beautiful Waterbar, with a bottle of Domaine Chandon L’Etoile (a great wine), then walked over to Trou Normand and gorged on charcuterie and salumi. Here’s a photo essay.

downtownSF

It was clear and blue-skied downtown

FerryBldg

The Ferry Building gleamed white

BayBridge

And the water was blue beneath the Bay Bridge

MrGull

Mr. Gull was relaxing on an old piling

 WaterBar

Waterbar looked warm and inviting

WaterBarPatio

with its outdoor area by the bridge

 Shellfish

The shellfish beckoned

Then it was off to Trou Normand

Normand

Located in a high-ceilinged former lobby of the telephone building

NormandInside

I wanted everything on the menu

 NormandMenu

Charcuterie

Our server was very helpful!


Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir, and the loss of a pioneer, Daniel J. Gainey

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Santa Barbara County has been much on my mind lately. Last month, we at Jackson Family Wines did our “Sand & Fog” event in L.A. that focused on the Pinot Noirs of the Santa Maria Valley. I followed that up with a small private tasting of additional Santa Maria Pinots. Next week, I’ll do Santa Rita Hills Pinots, up at the company in Santa Rosa. Since Jackson Family Wines has no properties in the Santa Rita Hills, I’ve chosen the following eight wines, which I think give a good representation of the region:

Siduri 2012 Clos Pepe

Loring 2012 Cargasacchi

Brewer Clifton 2012 3-D

Brewer Clifton 2012 Machado

Domaine de la Cote 2012 Bloom’s Field

Lutum 2012 Sanford & Benedict

Foxen 2012 La Encantada

Foxen 2012 Fe Ciega

As you can see, the vineyard sourcing is from all over the appellation, north to south and west to east. There’s also a good spectrum of clonal material ranging from the Dijons to older selections like Pommard and Calera. Some of the wines were fermented without the clusters while others, notably Greg Brewer’s, were whole cluster fermentation. And alcohol levels—always of such interest—range from the Cote’s 12.5% to Siduri’s 15.6%. All of the wines are, of course, sourced from individual vineyards or from specific blocks within vineyards.

Does a blended wine give a better representation of regional terroir than a single-vineyard wine? This is a tough question to answer. A blended wine—say, a Pinot from La Encantada, Cargasacchi and Brewer-Clifton—is hard to imagine in the real world. But if you had no idea what the Santa Rita Hills was like for Pinot Noir, such a mythical beast would undoubtedly give you a good idea. On the other hand, it’s terrific fun to explore individual vineyards, especially provided that you’re able to do so over many vintages. Fortunately, I can always go into my database and see what I’ve said over the years about most of these vineyards. Encantada, Fe Ciega, S&B, Clos Pepe, Cargasacchi—I have a history with these wines, which are all very great expressions of their terroir.

For this Santa Rita Hills tasting, I think we’ll do it blind. It will be instructive to see if, for instance, we can tell the Domaine de la Cote and the Siduri because both are the outliers in terms of alcohol level. I, myself, am not always to detect highish alcohol in a California wine. I always try to, before peeking at the label, but I’d say my batting average is just that: average. I also want to see if we’ll be able to detect the whole cluster wines blind. I’d look for more body, more spiciness and a different feeling to the tannins. I don’t think Greg Brewer would whole-cluster his Pinots if the stems weren’t fully lignified. I’ll be looking for that architectural element that stems can give, which you can feel in the mouth.

* * *

Speaking of Santa Barbara County, just as I was writing this post, I got an email that Daniel J. Gainey, the founder of Gainey Vineyard, has passed away, at the age of 89. I had a great deal of respect for Mr. Gainey, although I was closer to his son, Dan H. I was a frequent visitor to their lovely winery, which was just down the road from Santa Ynez town, where I often stayed at the Santa Ynez Inn. Gainey made excellent wines, from cool-climate Pinots and Chards grown in their Santa Rita Hills vineyards to the Merlots, Syrahs and Sauvignon Blancs from warmer vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley. As a matter of fact, before the advent of Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, I used to write that Gainey made the best Merlot in the county. Over the years, I gave 48 Gainey wines scores of 90 points or higher. Not bad.

Mr. Gainey was a true pioneer, having founded his winery in 1984, when practically no one had heard of the Santa Ynez Valley, or of Santa Barbara County wine, for that matter. He was a true wine lover and a gentleman. My sympathies to Dan H. and the entire family.


Premox: a consideration

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Alan R. Balik has a good summary of premox in his column in the Napa Valley Register.

Premox, or premature oxidation, refers to a wine that should age well, but instead turns brown and “off” within just years of its release. The issue of premox has obsessed certain collectors, writers and winemakers for a decade or so, but is now gaining traction. At first thought to affect only white wines, like white Burgundy, it is now considered to impact red wines too, according to a Decanter article reporting on an oxidative destruction that is not expected at such an early stage in the life cycle of fine red wine,” including from Barolo, Napa Valley, Bordeaux, the Rhône and Burgundy.

Nobody seems to know if premox is something entirely new, and, if so, what causes it. As the articles linked to in this post point out, the cause/s could be anything: global warming, superripe grapes, poor corks and closures, high alcohol, low acidity, high pH, too much new oak, low levels of SO2, excessive exposure to oxygen during the winemaking process, sur lie aging and battonage, botrytis or poor storage (Clive Coats suggested these latter two), and who knows what else. This article, from The Drinks Business, summarizes some of the technical complexities involved in understanding the problem.

It’s impossible to think about premox and not refer to one’s own experiences with older wines. As I (and many other critics) have written for years, I’ve been disappointed in older bottles more often than not. And by “old” I mean more than eight years in Cabernet Sauvignon, and more than four years in any white California wine. (Obviously there are always exceptions.) As Jane Anson describes it in the Decanter article, too many older red wines these days bear “Exotic scents of prunes and figs, the burnt toast undertones of barrel ageing, the silky mouthfeel and unmistakable heat of high alcohol.” These qualities are, of course, not what you want in a ten- or twelve-year old Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that may have cost well north of $100, but common sense tells me they may be qualities that have come about due to the higher brix that grapes have been picked at over the last twenty years or so. That results in higher alcohol levels; also lower acidity, and, given the weltanschauung these days, plenty of toasty new oak. Add “micro-oxygenation,” or mox, in red wines, which also is rather common in the so-called “cult” red wines around the world, and you may have a perfect storm, in which the inherent elements of the wine begin life initially unstable, i.e. prematurely oxidized. Instability that is built into a wine may not be readily detectible when the wine is young, but with each passing year, the instabilities mount up and perturb each other, until the wine is thrown into disorder.

This is not to argue in favor of the current ethos crying for low-alcohol wines. There is not yet evidence, at least in California, that such wines age any better than higher-alcohol wines. (And they may well be less satisfying in youth.) But we have got to bear in mind that the wine world has already gone through a paradigm shift, in which people no longer care about aging their wines. Whatever they buy is consumed rather rapidly. It was only natural for winemakers around the world to respond to this shift by making wines that are softer, rounder and more delicious in their youth. If ageability is the baby that is thrown out with the bathwater, so be it.

There is one more thing to consider, and that is the matter of personal taste. It may be objected to that the subjectivity of personal taste has no place in an objective appraisal of premox, which after all is a scientific question. But a taste for older wines has never been widespread among the general public, and even experienced oenophiles may prefer their wines vigorous and young. After all, any aged wine is already on the road to senescence. Whether an eight-year old Cabernet is experiencing “the first blush of death,” as the English put it, is a matter of determining how much “death” you want in your wine. It may be because I am, at heart, a Californian, but I have never cottoned to that blush of death thing in wine. It can be “un peu beaucoup,” a bit too much. And, as Clive Coats notes, the notion of early deliciousness coupled with ageability is a bit of a stretch. “It would be idiotic,” he writes, “to expect today’s wine to be both delicious at a year and a half and to hold up for 15 years thereafter. Something has to give. I regret that it seems to be the ageing potential of the wine.”

We tend to forget, too, that we make excuses for wines that don’t rise to the level of our expectations. We say the wine is in an awkward phase, which is really an unprovable assertion, but does have the advantage of letting the wine off easy, if it isn’t showing as well as we would like. If one bottle shows wonderfully (by common consensus) while a second bottle of the same wine is a disappointment, we chalk it off to “bottle variation.” I have even heard collectors say that a power outage of an hour or so, which results in the temperature of a wine cellar rising by a degree or two, can perturb great wine so that it is no longer drinkable! This is what I mean by “making excuses.” We want our expensive wines to age well; when they do not, we offer up every reason imaginable for the failure. But Occam’s razor suggests that the simplest reason is usually the correct one: The wine wasn’t ageable in the first place.

Here in California, research into oxidation is somewhat recent but picking up intensity. This video, of Professor Andrew Waterhouse on “The Oxygen Cascade in Wine,” suggests some of the difficulties, although it is straightforward enough for the non-scientist to follow. Waterhouse’s bottom line is that lots more study is required to determine the relationship of free SO2 in wine and the effects of oxidation, including premature oxidation. Right now, he says, most of what we think we know is “speculative,” which means we’re likely to continue to be baffled by the phenomenon of wines that we think should age, but don’t.


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