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Learning Willamette, one step at a time

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I just got back from up in the Willamette Valley working on that AVA project for Jackson Family Wines. Our particular vineyard is west of the town of Monmouth, in a part of the valley that does not have its own sub-appellation. That’s something I’m looking into, with the idea of coming up with a name that will satisfy our neighbors as well as the Tax & Trade Bureau of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the agency that oversees such things.

It’s been a long and winding road, so far, but I’m making good progress—I think (and I’m knocking on wood as I write this, being a superstitious type). My initial plan, for a larger AVA that would have included many more of our neighboring grapegrowers and vintners, seems in retrospect to have been a little too ambitious. I’ve since scaled back, towards a smaller, more focused appellation, which seems like a better idea anyway, because smaller appellations tend to make more sense (from a terroir point of view). I mean, I’ve been the first to criticize gigantic appellations all my years as a wine reporter. So I’m glad we’re able to aim for something smaller, which is easier to understand, and to bring our neighbors with us.

One thing I’ve discovered about TTB is, they do not want to get in the middle of somebody else’s fight! And I can’t say I blame them. They’re probably understaffed; they’re in no position to play Judge Judy. It’s not their job to intervene between quarreling neighbors who disagree about where a boundary is or isn’t. TTB wants us—the petitioners—to get our act together and come to them as a united group that has fulfilled TTB’s basic requirements for approval of a new AVA. That’s not asking too much of us.

Another thing I’ve come to appreciate is how important it is to really understand the land you’re trying to get appellated. I understood, back when I made my first visit up here (last Fall) that it would take me a while to “get” the physical parameters of this part of the valley. Now I’m on my fourth trip, and it’s starting to sink in: I am beginning to understand the slopes and contours, the directionality, where the hllls are, what the elevations are, where the pinot noir thrives and where the it’s better for hazelnuts. I’m getting the roads, too: no more need for GPS. More than that, I’m figuring out the big view: the macro-terrain, where the bowls are, the amphitheaters, the natural topographic features on a many-miles scale. I now have my eye on one such: it seems like a consistent place (in fact it reminds me of the Coombsville appellation in Napa Valley, it’s so compact and geometric). The soils seems to be more or less the same throughout, so does the rainfall, and—well, I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. But for me, this is the kind of stuff I love, the sleuthing, the research, the trying to make sense out of a whole lot of unconnected stuff until you begin to see the connections. And, of course, the people we are working with: growers and vintners. Hanging with them, picking their brains, sharing my thoughts, hearing theirs…it’s all so rewarding.

I’m still obviously an outsider, but it strikes me that the Willamette Valley is a huge place, 3.4 million acres, or 35 times bigger than the Russian River Valley; and lord knows, the Russian River Valley seriously needs to be sub-appellated. Willamette Valley already has six sub-AVAs (Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Yamhill-Carlton and Ribbon Ridge), but it seems to my outsider eye that it will take many years if not decades to really figure this place out. I mean every nook and cranny, every slope, every orientation; and this isn’t even to mention the potential Grand Crus. The area to the west and south of Monmouth, which is where I’m working, is very little understood, but I’ll wager it’s going to be important. The little city of Independence, just two miles to the east, has serious plans to develop a winetasting infrastructure on the banks of the Willamette River, and Monmouth is popping up with cute little tasting bars and restaurants. The tourists aren’t flocking here quite yet: they’re going a little further north up the 99, to Eola, Amity and McMinnville. But that’s the beauty of path-breaking winemakers: their curiosity. Tell a winemaker that there’s the potential for beautiful Pinot Noir in an undiscovered region, and light the fire in her eyes. I’m not a winemaker, but it’s fun for a writer to be part of the discovery process, too.

In the end, though, you have to wonder what makes a great AVA—or, at least, one that’s perceived as great. It can’t just be the mere establishment of a perimeter. It can’t just be the petitioner’s claim that the appellation is unique (for most AVAs aren’t, to be perfectly honest). I guess what it takes is a long track record of producing great wine, which doesn’t happen overnight.


“There were giants in those days”

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The news that Paul Draper is retiring came, not as a complete shock, because after all, he’s 80 years old. Rather, it was a realization, the latest in a sorry series, that “the mighty men of old, men of renown” are passing from our scene like the last of a fine vintage gone to frost.

I did not know Mr. Draper well, although well enough for him to return my phone calls and to invite me to Ridge, where he was winemaker for more than 45 years. In fact, it was at one of those visits that he tasted me to about 30 vintages of Monte Bello, a tasting I will never forget. The quality was of course high, vintage variation was terribly interesting, and I found it fascinating that no Monte Bello had even been produced in excess of 14% alcohol. I also had the opportunity to interview Mr. Draper many times on the telephone.

That he was a “giant” is true in this sense: Certain industries, or perhaps “human practices” is a better term, seem capable of launching men and women to the status of “gianthood.” This is a near-mythic status in which we sense something more noble and inspirational than you might find in, say, insurance salesmen (with all due respect to insurance salesmen). The wine industry, and particularly its production side, seems always to have produced giants. I think of, for instance, of the winemaker, his name lost to history, who made the Falernian wine from the Opimian vintage of 121 BC, which Julius Caesar himself loved when the wine was more than sixty years of age. I think also of Arnaud III de Pontac, the proprietor of Haut-Brion, who hauled, with great difficulty and at great danger, his wine across France around 1660, so that the English King Charles II would fall in love with it, as Pontac knew he would.

I think of the Widow Cliquot, and the Finnish sea captain Gustave Niebaum, and Andre Tchelistcheff, and Max Schubert at Penfolds, and of course of Robert Mondavi, a giant if ever there was one. These were men and women whose visions were capacious, and upon whose shoulders not only their own fates rested, but the fates of entire generations of vintners and wine drinkers. And they knew it, these giants, knew how large were the tasks they assigned themselves, respected the challenges and difficulties, and gladly accepted them; for they knew, also, that to trod the well-worn path would lead them only to well-trod places. In their fertile imaginations, they perceived places no man had perceived before them, and, in going boldly to those places, enabled the rest of us to follow their paths.

Mr. Draper’s story is well-known and need not be repeated here. What is interesting is that he helped, with his partners, to create, not only a First Growth of California, but to do it in a place—the Santa Cruz Mountains—that was not named Napa Valley. It is true that those mountains had a very noble place in California’s vinous history: the La Questa Bordeaux-style red wine, planted in the 1880s supposedly from cuttings obtained at Margaux, was one of the first “cult” wines. But by the time of Ridge’s founding, in 1959, the gaze of the industry already had turned to Napa Valley, which makes the decision of Ridge’s founders to locate in Cupertino all the more curious, and Draper’s achievement all the more noteworthy.

That Mr. Draper’s style of Cabernet—leaner, more elegant and ageworthy—also marched to a different beat from that of Napa Valley also contributes to his legend. He never deviated from his style, as wine writer Laurie Daniel noted in the San Jose Mercury News. That style, which she accurately called “graceful,” does not seem to have inspired other California Cabernet makers, aside from perhaps a Cathy Corison or two; instead, others marched towards higher alcohol, greater extraction, more new oak. Mr. Draper realized that if he allowed the grapes to reach the high sugars necessary for superripeness at the cool Monte Bello ridge site, they would result in a bizarre, unbalanced wine, of limited ageability. So he “danced with the one that brung him,” to the joy of Monte Bello fans everywhere.

Still, it would be misleading to ascribe Mr. Draper’s achievements solely in technical terms. The things that result in men being thought of as “giants” have less to do with their specific behaviors or creations, and more with something mysterious and inchoate which they inspire in others. (Alexander the Great had this very impact.) Some of that has to do, of course, with personality, and the fact that Mr. Draper was a consummate gentleman should not be overlooked. Nor should it be forgotten that he was a tireless worker and representative of Ridge, if not as indefatigable as Robert Mondavi, then at least in the same mold. Men like these—giants—are aware that they have a responsibility to the aura of legend others have built up around them; and they rise to that responsibility with, yes, grace.

So, to Mr. Draper I say, enjoy your retirement! Well done, sir, well done.


If point scores give you reassurance, go ahead and trust them…

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…no matter how many articles like this one you read that tell you to ignore them.

Now, the first thing I’m going to tell you is that the author of the article, MJ Skegg—a good writer–got all nine of his bullet points correct! MJ is the wine writer for the Portland, Oregon, Mercury, and yes, he’s right, for the most part, when he makes his accusations against scores:

  1. It’s all subjective
  2. Wine critics are human
  3. The wines start to look the same
  4. Experts are inconsistent
  5. They ignore context
  6. They inflate prices
  7. The scores keep getting bigger
  8. The system is (allegedly) corrupt
  9. They’re prescriptive

I might dispute some of his points a little, and I will in a second; but by and large he’s correct (although he’s not really breaking any new ground. Other writers and bloggers have made the same points for years). So how come I say that, for all the correctitude of his points, they still are not (as the lawyers say) dispositive?

Because you could say the same things about any system of wine reviewing! Go down the list and substitute any system you want; each of them is capable of being critiqued for all nine of MJ’s reasons. So that means no system is better or worse than any other. You might as well pick and choose the one that works for you. That any system of judgment created by humans is fallible is obvious; that doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Besides, we all know that, of all the reviewing systems in the world, the 100-point system is the most popular. Like the old saying goes, fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong. Therefore, if you’re using it (and I do, when I’m looking for a wine), you shouldn’t feel guilty.

I will admit, as I have before, that MJ’s point (e), “scores ignore context,” is true. It’s hard to pack context into a number! However, every point score I’ve ever seen, including my own, also had a text review attached, which is where you’ll find the context. Granted, a 40-word text review isn’t very capacious, and I always found myself wishing I could write 100 words, or even more, for my reviews; one could write a book on some wines. But you have to draw the line someplace. In one of his articles, MJ’s reviews sound just like they came from Wine Enthusiast, only without the number! Not much context there. I also don’t quite “get” the accusation that scores inflate prices. Not sure how that works. Wine prices have been going up (like prices for everything else) since, like, forever. Take a peek at Eddie Penning-Rowsell’s “The Wines of Bordeaux” to track classified growth Bordeaux prices over centuries. Robert Parker did not create the demand for the First Growths; it’s been there since before America was a country.

So I would tell consumers, Hell, yeah, MJ’s brief concerning scores is spot-on. But rather than undermining scores, he actually makes the case for them, and for the wine critics who use them. Critics are human, just as MJ points out. They are fallible; they have their foibles; neither are they consistent. But don’t you want a human giving you their take? They, like you, me and MJ, are just out there, doing their jobs. If you find a critic you can relate to, at least you know whom you’re dealing with, as opposed to crowd-sourced-type reviewing platforms, which are a mobocracy. If Steve Tanzer or Paul Gregutt floats your boat—if you know them (or feel as if you do) through their writings—if you trust them—if you understand that, as MJ implies, point scores are figurative rather than literal, and you know how to use them as part (but not the whole part) of your buying decision—if you feel that you can use all the help you can get in making that buying decision (and don’t we all?)—then go right ahead, use point scores. Like I said, when I’m exploring a wine or region I’m not that familiar with, I always turn to my trusted bevy of 100 point-based critics, and I’ve not often been disappointed.

* * *

Sorry for not posting yesterday. I’m in Oregon. These travel days don’t leave a lot of extra time for creative writing, and I don’t want to put up crap.

 


Lessons learned from old tasting notes

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Why I did 25,000 tasting notes before I ever even had a job reviewing wine remains a mystery to me to this day.

I guess it was that overused word, “passion.” It’s not that I couldn’t help myself, as can happen with other less desirable addictions. I didn’t want to stop; I loved taking wine notes. I felt I was performing a useful act (if only to myself), and I’ve always derived intense pleasure in learning and mastering new talents. In the end, though, it really is a mystery, this “getting bit by the wine bug.”

I kept all eight of my hard-cover volumes as well the thick files of my written notes, and I’m glad I did.

NOTES

I don’t think I’m going to publish a “Great Vintage Wine Book,” but re-reading them makes so much fun. Here’s one from the summer of 1991 or 1992;

GAVIN

Gavin Newsom, today our Lieutenant-Governor (and the odds-on favorite to be California’s next Governor) was about to open his first Plump Jack wine store, down in Cow Hollow, and he invited me to be part of a small tasting group that met weekly to taste wines that salesmen had dropped off. The wines were written by Gavin himself, the notes are mine. We marked them simply “Yes” or “No”; a group consensus determined if the wines would be sold in the store on Day One.

Here’s another, from a Bon Appetit tasting panel shortly before Christmas, 1990 (and a big, belated Thank you! to Andy Blue for inviting me to those wonderful tastings for so many years).

 

DUNN

I don’t know if you can read it, but my notes concerning the 1979 Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon—then 11 years old–are interesting. Here they are:

Me: “Inky black, orange at rim. Dead? Raisined nose—some licorice, tar. Massive tannins either hiding it all, or this wine’s gone.” Andy himself was there and so was Jim Laube, so I asked them both, separately, what they thought. I wrote:

“Laube says 91 [points], hold 5-6 years. Dias Blue agrees with me [i.e. that the wine is dead].”

That was a teaching moment for me. Andy and Jim were just about the most famous critics in California in 1990. As an aspiring critic myself, I looked up to them as mentors. And yet, here they were, coming down on diametrically opposite sides about a wine. I remember thinking, “Maybe there is no objective truth about these sorts of things. People will differ. The best course is to state your opinion honestly and confidently. Others can agree or disagree.” And that is the philosophy that guided me for the next 25 years after I really did become a professional wine critic. (And by the way, I still think that ageability predictions are crap shoots.)

One other thing I noticed going over my old tasting notes, and that’s how relatively low my scores were. From the same page as the Dunn: 84 points for Keenan ’87 Cab. A measly 86 points for La Jota ’86 Cab Franc. On other pages, I found lots and lots of scores in the mid-80s for wines that, today, I probably would score above 90. Why is that? Only two possible explanations: Score inflation, or a definite improvement in quality. I think it’s the latter. Vintners are picking riper these days than they did in the 1980s (which is a good thing, if they don’t let the grape sugars run away). They’ve learned how to tame those tannins, and they’re also far more educated about how to oak their wines; many from the old days were simply too oaky. That makes for better wines. On the inflation part, I’m willing to admit that there may have been psychological factors involved in my higher scores over the years. I don’t fully understand that part. I didn’t particularly feel pressured, from either external or internal sources, to score higher. I wasn’t aware of any shifting in my thinking or motives; Wine Enthusiast certainly never hinted to me they’d like more high scores. But I think my notes from the 1980s and early 1990s prove that my scores did tend to get higher, especially after the year 2000. I’ll leave it to others to ascribe the reasons why.

* * *

I’m on my way to Oregon’s beautiful Willamette Valley today. The weather will be absolutely gorgeous, warm and blue skies, so unlike my last trip when it was cold and wet, and the Siskyou Pass was treacherous driving. More tomorrow.


Introducing the robot wine critic

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In the next five years, when you call customer service or technical support for help with your checking account, internet connection or credit card, you’re likely to speak—not to a real human being—but to a robot.

“Hello,” it might say, in its weird, Stephen Hawking-like drone, “my name is Robbie, and I’m here to assist you.”

In fact, “Robots already are starting to displace some humans from low-end tasks,” reports the Wall Street Journal, and “within five years” they’ll be “smart enough to replace the human phone operators who do jobs like fielding calls from bank clients or helping people reset their modems.”

Given Moore’s law and the advances in artificial intelligence, it’s only a matter of time before human wine critics are also replaced by machines. It’s not hard to imagine how this might work. Say you’re in the wine aisle at the supermarket wondering which wine to buy. You’ll take your smart phone, ask Siri about it, and be connected instantly to a cloud-based “wine taster” who will tell you everything you want to know about the wine. This wine taster will be as human as anyone “real” you could talk to. It will ask you questions to establish your personal preferences (which, of course, it will remember, the way iTunes does), and will be able to tell you if you can find a better deal down the street. Eventually, it will even have an emotional component, possessing the ability to get excited about certain wines and, if you wish, to rate them on a numerical basis. It will be tireless, able to review thousands of wines a day, and its reviews will be utterly consistent—unlike those of human tasters, who are subject to frailty and fallibility. And there never will be any suspicion of ulterior motives (such as advertising) in a robotic review. Like the Mentats in Dune, robot reviewers will be objective and truthful to a fault.

Looking out even further, it’s entirely possible that your smart device will be able to let you actually taste a wine you’re interested in. There’s already talk of “food-focused virtual reality”; meanwhile, Fast Company reports on a “simulate[d]…sensation of taste digitally,” whereby “a new methodology” can “deliver and control primary taste sensations electronically on the human tongue” that “trick” taste sensors “into thinking they are experiencing food-related sensations…”. Throw in a virtual reality headset, and you have what Britain’s Sky News calls an “immersive [wine] tasting experience.”

Looked at from this perspective, what we now call “wine critics” will someday be as antiquated as streetlamp lighters or rotary phone operators.

Geraldine

But wait a minute, could there be a fly in the ointment? There could indeed. Who will pay for all this gimmickry? It won’t happen for free. Moreover, how would you prevent a nefarious influence from hacking into the system? At the first sign of untoward activity, the system’s credibility would be compromised, as Yelp’s has been. There will still be millions of people who will believe in their robot wine reviews, but eventually a small cadre of wine lovers who think of themselves as special will revolt against the machine. They will find their own gurus—human, not automated—and anoint them to exalted status. This is precisely what happened in the 1970s and 1980s with the rise of Parker, Wine Spectator and the others. It seems likely to have been a process that will replicate itself.

I’m off to Oregon tomorrow and will try to blog from there. Salud, and stay safe.


Microflora as terroir influence?

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Former colleague Harvey Steiman at Wine Spectator has a nice piece on terroir in his latest blog. It actually breaks some new ground to the usual, predictably tedious conversations the wine media entertains itself with on this complicated topic. Yes, indeed, climate, elevation, the tilt of the slope or exposure to the sun”—the usual suspects—are an integral part of the mysteries of terroir, but Harvey, citing a new study out of U.C. Davis, suggests that “microflora” could be just as important.

What are “microflora”? “Bacteria and microscopic algae and fungi, especially those living in a particular site or habitat,” according to Google. The study Harvey referred to was published in the June, 2016 issue of the online medical journal, mBio, from the American Society for Microbiology.

Its main finding, which contributes importantly to the ongoing terroir discussion, albeit in “unclear” ways (a word the study itself uses), is that these microflora can account, at least in part, not only for terroir characteristics we find in “viticultural area designations” such as AVAS, but even in “individual vineyards” (and, one would expect, in individual blocks within vineyards).

The upshot? “Grape and wine microbiota exhibit regional patterns that correlate with wine chemical composition, suggesting that the grape microbiome may influence terroir.”

Scientists already had known that these microflora or microbiota exhibit identifiable…patterns across large distances,” but what surprised them seems to have been the vineyard-to-vineyard differences they found. The scientists were careful to point out that much work remains to be done before “causation” can be claimed, in the sense of why different wines of the same variety can be different when grown in close physical proximity, winemaking technique aside. But they do now believe that these neighboring microflora “demonstrate that the microbial composition of grapes accurately predicts the chemical composition of wines made from these grapes and are therefore biomarkers for predicting…terroir.”

Not all regions of wine country are “microbiologically unique,” the authors warn, and climate, soil type, topography and agricultural practices—long known to be part of terroir—also in turn may influence microflora. What, then, is the use of this study, which just seems to further muddy already muddied waters? “These markers could provide actionable information to winemakers to improve wine characteristics or mitigate problem fermentation…and could be practical for predicting the suitability of potential vineyard sites…”.

The challenges all of this poses for wine writers, which is what I’m interested in, would seem to make their tasks even more insurmountable, when it comes to writing about terroir. We at Jackson Family Wines have been doing a ton of research at understanding the various terroirs of the sub-AVAs of the Willamette Valley. It’s hard work, with source information often contradictory; the same platitudes seem to be repeated endlessly, without substantiation or proof, which, of course, only serves to prompt less diligent writers to repeat them. Getting an adequate explanation of the differences between, say, a Penner-Ash Estate and a Zena Crown Pinot Noir seems trickier than ever, now that we have microflora thrown into the equation.

The wine writer is tempted to throw up his hands in despair, but this is not allowed in analytic journalism. One must persevere, weeding out untruths from part-truths and absolute truths (which, on close inspection, often turn out to be not-so-absolute), and realizing that for every assertion, the contrary can be found; the best one can hope for is a valid consensus of all sources, rather the way things work in Biblical analysis. People—the general public—want simple, black-and-white truisms where, alas, they seldom exist. Usually, there are only shifting shapes of gray.


Happy birthday to a very special winery

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When Robert Mondavi first walked the ground where his winery now stands, in early 1966, he was struck by something profound, a sense that in retrospect sounds mystical.

“I knew this was a very special place,” he wrote in his memoir, “Harvests of Joy.” “It exuded an indefinable quality I could not describe…of calm and harmony.” The To Kalon vineyard that surrounds the winery now must have been brown and barren at that time of the year, as the leafless vines sprawled from Highway 29 to the lower foothills of the Mayacamas. But already, Mr. Mondavi was envisioning great wines from that great vineyard, made in the winery he would commission his architect, Cliff May, to erect.

Later that year, Mondavi began his first harvest, “before the attractive mission-style building was half finished,” the historian Leon D. Adams tells us, in “The Wines of America.” Even then, Mondavi’s fertile mind was imagining, not only making fine wines to match the Europeans’ best, but “visitors, art exhibit[s], tasting rooms…concerts and plays…” and direct sales to account for “a tenth of the winery’s output.”

Mondavi was, in other words, a visionary. While others were quietly making wine in what was then still a rather sleepy little place that saw the occasional tourist drive up from San Francisco, Mondavi was reinventing Napa Valley’s entire weltanschauung. He knew it could be a mecca for wine lovers from all over the world, who would not only visit the Robert Mondavi Winery (and other wineries), but spend the better part of their day—and perhaps their dollars—carousing and having fun as they came to the winery and to the “lawn space for visiting groups” where so much public activity has taken place at RMW over the years.

It was in that lawn space that I last saw Robert Mondavi, on a warm Spring day in 2006.  The winery was celebrating an occasion, I believe their 50th birthday; there were hundreds of visitors, and the old trooper was wheelchair-bound. But still, he knew that many of them had come with a wish to see him, and he would not disappoint. A visit to Robert Mondavi Winery, he always insisted, must be memorable.

Here we now are, fifty years after Robert Mondavi’s first harvest, and what a two-score-and-ten years it has been. There were a handful of “boutique” wineries established prior to 1966, but the proliferation afterwards, lasting roughly until the late 1970s, was truly extraordinary, establishing Napa Valley (and California) as a vital player on the world wine map. And historians generally credit the founding of Robert Mondavi Winery as the era’s ur-event.

We do not even need to dwell on Mr. Mondavi’s accomplishments in viticulture and enology, which are well-chronicled. He urged the industry onward and upward every chance he got, constantly stressing quality. The upheavals of the later years of his life—the sale of the winery to Constellation, the failure of his (and Julia Child’s) COPIA the same year as his death—no doubt were sources of sadness to him, as his life ebbed. But Robert Mondavi was nothing if not the eternal optimist. “Always stay positive,” he wrote in “Harvests.” [H]ave faith and confidence in yourself.” He always had something of the preacher in him, and grew, in maturity, almost ministerial, as if speaking a sermon from the pulpit. “Don’t be judgmental. Instead, cultivate tolerance, empathy, and compassion…listen carefully, and when you talk, make sure people understand you.”

It is never easy to predict how famous people will be remembered long after their deaths. We know that historians change their minds: one day, Harry Truman is considered a failure. The next, he’s a great President. How will Robert Mondavi be remembered? People may be unable, some far-flung day in the future, to rattle off his specific accomplishments—that he was the man, for example, who invented Fumé Blanc. But they will remember that he was a great man. They will feel his spirit radiating across space and time; they will sense, in some inchoate way, that every era raises up some special persons, who summarize in their beings the essence of their time, the zeitgeist. And they will know that Robert Mondavi did that for the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, for wine, when his powers were at their zenith, and every road seemed to lead to the famous arch and campanile, on Highway 29 in Oakville, and to the man who caused it, and the modern California wine industry, to arise.

So happy 50th birthday Robert Mondavi Winery!


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