In honor of our men and women who serve to keep us free.
Jon Bonné, the San Francisco Chronicle’s former wine critic and, now, occasional columnist, has much to say about the demise of In Pursuit of Balance that is on point: that the organization was controversial, that it stimulated a valuable conversation over Pinot Noir style, that “it received a disproportionate amount of attention and media coverage,” that the ending, after five years, was “a shock” to the group’s members and fans, and—ultimately—that IPOB “served its purpose.”
Bonné can be a good reporter when he sticks to the facts and leaves aside his personal piques, but here, his dislike, verging on hatred, of larger wineries lends his analysis an off-putting hysteria. This is further fueled by his ongoing antagonism towards Big Critics, especially Wine Spectator, some of whose writers consistently raised legitimate questions about IPOB. Raising questions is the lifeblood and purpose of journalism—no reporter would be worth anything without raising questions–but Bonné calls it “savaging” IPOB, an odd but telling choice of verbiage. He goes on to accuse these Wine Spectator commentators (and, by extension, all of us who raised similar questions) of being “fearful of change.” That there is no evidence of such “fear” on the part of anyone who asked IPOB’s creators to more precisely define the “balance” that was their hallmark should be clear to all impartial observers. I myself asked, frequently, because IPOB never could iron out their internal contradiction, which was that they seemed to be suggesting that “balanced” Pinot Noir had to be below 14% in alcoholic strength, but even Raj Parr himself repeatedly had to backtrack from that assertion, for obvious reasons: It is on its face silly, and besides, there were members of IPOB whose wines were well in excess of 14%. Thus IPOB was forever hoisted on a petard of its own making, its “message” smudged into incoherence: If, indeed, they could not define “balance,” then what were they “in pursuit” of? IPOB’s inclusion of only certain wineries to their road show—the hottest ticket in London, L.A., Prowein, San Francisco or wherever else they poured–could only be seen as an arbitrary illustration of what has come to be known, in California circles, as the Cool Kids’ Club: We’ll invite our friends to the party. Don’t bother coming if you’re ugly.
I went to just about every IPOB tasting in San Francisco since the group’s founding in 2011, and yes, they were wonderful tastings. But they were wonderful not because they represented some sort of curated selection of the best and most balanced Pinot Noirs, but because they showcased many small producers whose wines most people—even I, as Wine Enthusiast’s senior California reviewer—didn’t have access to. I would have gone no matter who sponsored the event or what it was called; but the weight under which it was placed by that word “balance” cast a more lurid and ominous glow over the proceedings. One felt one was entering, not a mere arena for tasting, such as World of Pinot Noir, but a political convention, complete with party platform and ideological frisson, that just happened to feature wine. Since we knew that a cadre of insiders—including Jon Bonne—was responsible for the decision of what to include, out of all the bottles submitted for consideration, the implication was that all other Pinot Noirs were somehow unbalanced, an unsettling thought to a wine critic who might have given years of high scores to wines that, presumably, had been rejected by IPOB’s overseers. I should think James Laube and Matt Kramer felt quite the same: and why not? Thus to publicly air their concerns was not to “savage” In Pursuit of Balance. It was not to “savage” Raj Parr or Jasmine Hirsch or even Jon Bonne. It was to wonder, just as you might in a similar situation, why there was such a discrepancy between something you liked and something that IPOB appeared to find “unbalanced,” which, when you get right down to it, has to be seen as defamatory.
Not all of the kinds of wines IPOB loved, however, were good, and some were disasters. The 2011 Pinot Noir from Raj Parr’s Domaine de la Cote, which I tasted not at IPOB but at a World of Pinot Noir tasting, was among the worst Pinots I’ve ever had. In that cold vintage, Raj picked too early, motivated, I supposed, by ideology; the wines tasted like Listerine. (In fairness, his 2012s, which I tasted the next year at IPOB, were utterly magnificent.) This served to underscore what always was IPOB’s Achilles heel: its apparently slave-like devotion to a concept—low alcohol—at the expense of a far more important concept: deliciousness. Let the vintage tell you when to pick, not your frontal lobe. Incidentally, the limits, indeed the dangers, of sticking to this low-alcohol ideology were graphically illustrated at a World of Pinot Noir tasting some years ago when Siduri’s Adam Lee pulled a switcheroo on Raj Parr, at a public panel, an event Bonne alludes to in his opinion piece but whose implication he does not explore: that when you blind taste Pinot Noir without the ability to form a pre-conception due to knowledge of the alcohol level, you just might find yourself loving something you thought you were supposed to hate. Sic temper alcoholis.
But Jon is correct that IPOB “served its purpose,” if its purpose was to stimulate just the sort of discussion we’re having and have been having for some years. What had been esoterica has now become a standard part of the conversation about Pinot Noir, and for that we have to thank Raj and Jasmine. You have done the industry a service, monsieur et mademoiselle, and it is now time for you, and us, to move on.
Speaking at U.C. Davis last night before a group of graduating students and faculty was really a thrill. As I told the audience in my opening remarks, to me, UCD’s Viticulture and Enology Department is like the Vatican City—not in a religious sense, of course, but as the spiritual center of winemaking in California, probably in the U.S., and as one of the greatest places to learn winemaking in the whole world.
As a budding wine reporter in the late 1980s and 1990s and on into the 2000s, many were the times I telephoned one of the famous professors there, to interview him or her for a story: Anne Noble, Andy Waterhouse, Mark Kliewer, Carole Meredith, James Wolpert, Linda Bisson, Roger Boulton, James Lapsley, Andrew Walker. These were often for articles of a technical nature, and I was always a little apprehensive that my ignorance of technical topics would bore these learned men and women. But they were patient with me, and I hope I didn’t make too many errors in my reporting!
Even before I was a wine writer, I was reading books by the likes of Maynard Amerine and Vernon Singleton, figures who were as historic, to a wine geek like me, as George Washington or Benjamin Franklin. I knew about Dr. Olmo, who created the “Olmo grape varieties,” although I never had the opportunity to interview him. I was aware of UC Davis’s history, its importance in the evolution of the California wine industry, and how nearly every winemaker I ever met in California seemed to have graduated from there. So in my mind, UC Davis’s V&E Department loomed large, and still does.
Dr. Boulton, who holds the Stephen Sinclair Scott Endowed Chair in Enology Department of Viticulture and Enology, was kind enough to give me an hour of his time. We toured the Robert Mondavi Institute and the nearby Jess S. Jackson Sustainable Winery Building,
both remarkable structures and centers of study and innovation, and both of them superb testaments to the legacies of two remarkable men. Then it was off to the Sensory Theatre, in the Mondavi Institute,
for our actual tasting and talk. We went through five different clones of Pinot Noir all from the Cambria vineyard, in Santa Maria Valley, and all made identically, so that whatever differences there were had to come from the clones. That was interesting, and served the point of showing how different people discern different things in wine—even people of great education and training. Our conversation about the intricacies of marketing, critics and related topics became so involved that one of the event organizers had to cut it off, because time was up and the official program called for the presentation of awards to some of the top students. But afterwards, they had a most excellent barbecue on the lawn, and fortunately some of us were able to continue the conversation.
What a smart young group of future professional winemakers these grads are. Really brilliant, so well educated and conversant in the world’s wines. And they’re just getting started: most of them are now off to summer internships, in France, Chile, Napa Valley, all over the world—and then to their first jobs. Armed with such an excellent education, and with such smart, inquiring minds, they are a reassurance that the future of winemaking is in good hands.
Those who read this blog and hear me speak know that I have been predicting the discovery or uncovering of small, stellar blocks within existing great vineyards in California and Oregon—blocks that can be called “grand crus” were we to adopt that French terminology. This process will take decades, but clearly it’s underway.
I have argued that this evolution of a vineyard into greater and lesser blocks or climats is inevitable. It happened in France and in Germany, and for the best of reasons: grower/vintners, usually monks, discovered over hundreds of years that some sites were naturally superior to others. These, they gave special names to, and when a market-based system of supply-and-demand replaced the old feudal system, these special blocks were prized, and priced, the highest.
Why this development is inevitable and unavoidable is because of the nature of wine: something in it, and in us, makes us sensitive to the slightest differences. We seek those differences, make judgments as to their relative merits, collectively decide which blocks are the best, and reward them, as the free market allows and even encourages.
Is this rewarding, this hierarchizing, justifiable? Is it based on true qualitative differences in the wines, or is it only the critical perceptions that we know can be shaped by marketing? Undoubtedly, a little of both. Great marketing cannot make a silk purse of a sow’s ear. It can, however, take two silk purses, both near each other in quality, and make one Prada and the other Sears.
As if in evidence of this line of thinking, Domaine Trimbach, the well-known Alsace winery, just announced that, for the first time, they are taking advantage of Alsace’s Grand Cru appellation system to market their wine, something they have been reluctant to do until now. Why? “[W]e cannot today escape the grand cru any more because with all the media, with all the fuss and the buzz and whatever around the system,” says Jean Trimbach. Around the world, he argues, people know the names of the Alsace Grand Crus and demand them. The implication is that it’s not because a Grand Cru is better than a regular Alsace AOC wine, it’s because people “know exactly what the top grand cru[s] are, so you cannot escape the grand cru game any more.”
The grand cru game…is that all it is, a game? Is there any relevance to inherent quality? Or have the Alsatians, like the Bordelais and the Burgundians, been hoisted on a petard of their own making?
Being a fair-minded journalist, I must admit that the answer is not that simple—although we all wish it were. Those of us reared in this “game” of comparative terroirs have it emblazoned into our DNA that some plots are better than others. To deny that this is true is one of the few heresies of wine connoisseurdom. This is why land in Vosne-Romanée is much more expensive than land in Beaune, why land in Oakville is much more expensive than land in Paso Robles, even though, in a blind tasting, I can assure you that some Paso Cabs would give Oakville a run for its money.
Indeed, such is the power of appellation—or, I should more correctly say, the awareness of appellation—that we have a situation in which the price for an acre of “the choicest land” in Napa Valley is now $310,000, up a remarkable $40,000 over 2014.
“The wine grape vineyard market continues to operate in a universe of its own,” says an expert in land prices in yesterday’s Napa Valley Register, referring to a phenomenon known as “the pedigree of the parcel,” in which the “pedigree” is conferred as much by subjective factors as objective ones—and perhaps even more so.
Once a vineyard has been prized so astronomically, there’s only one direction to go: To find little pieces within the vineyard that can be priced even more astronomically. This is the basic duty of capitalism: to test what the market will bear. And, as another expert in the Napa Register article said, “Actual sales [i.e. prices] can go even higher.”
In other words, unless there’s a bubble—and I don’t see one coming—we’re in for more and more expensive wines from California and Oregon at the highest levels. There’s nothing to stop it. It is, indeed, inevitable.
Off to the University of California at Davis later today for a talk and tasting I’m giving this evening to DEVO, the Davis Enology and Viticulture Organization’s “190X,” an occasional discussion series at which “professionals in the wine industry” are invited to speak to about 70 V&E students and faculty members. They’ve asked me to talk about how the wine industry has changed over the course of my observations, and various aspects of marketing, and what I think of crowd-sourcing and the era of the Big Critics, so this should be a fascinating conversation.
Of course I’m including a tasting, of five different clones of Pinot Noir: 4, 115, 2A, 23 and 667, all made identically by winemaker Denise Shurtleff from grapes grown in Cambria’s vineyard, down on the Santa Maria Bench. I myself have never even done this particular tasting, so it will be interesting to see if we can detect significant differences in the wines (all 2013s), which would have to be due to the clones. I had made lists over the years of the generally-accepted qualities of the various Pinot Noir clones, but I have to say that actual tasting experience often belies these theoretical differences as they come up against the hard reality of site, farming practices, degree of ripeness and so on. However, even if we can’t agree on the particular tastes of, say, 2A versus 115, I’m sure we’ll be able to see differences. At any rate, these sorts of discussions—while they may not result in definitive conclusions—can be the launch-point for fun conversations.
For “How has the California wine industry changed?” I’ll start off with the 5-point timeline I’ve been developing in the last few months, specifically regarding Pinot Noir, but really, you can apply it to any variety in California.
- plant anything anywhere 1940s-1950s (e.g. Pinot Noir in St. Helena)
- better understanding of variety:region. Pinot to the water [1940s-current: Tchelistcheff, Martini to Carneros]
- find best sites in best regions (e.g. not all of Carneros good: slopes best, mud flats not so much] 1980s – current
- improve plant material, clones, rootstocks, canopy mgmt.1990s – current
- find best blocks within vineyards. Ongoing and into the future.
As an example of 5.0, I cite the contrasting examples of Jackson Family’s Gran Moraine vineyard, up in Oregon, and the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. I tell people that Gran Moraine, at 150 acres, is a pretty big vineyard, right? And they all agree. Then I ask them how many acres they think the DRC is (I mean all seven vineyards-within-a-vineyard, or climats). No one ever knows precisely, but they usually guess that it’s far less than 150 acres (some think as few as ten), and they’re surprised when I tell them the DRC totals 198 acres (according to Richard Olney’s little book, Romanée-Conti).
The point I wish to make is that the DRC in addition to being a big vineyard is a very old vineyard. Olney cites a reference to a “Romanis” vineyard in Vosne from the year 282 A.D., and suggests that “La Romanée may have belonged to the Roman emperors” of that era. Certainly the vignerons of Vosne have had a long time to figure out which climats are which: why La Tâche is different from Richebourg, not to mention Montrachet, where they grow, not Pinot Noir, but Chardonnay. Why, then, should we not look at a vineyard like Gran Moraine and imagine that, with due diligence, some future grower/winemaker in the 22nd or 23rd century should not have discovered tiny blocks within the greater vineyard that are the equivalents of Grand Crus?
Of course, in California some vintners have already been engaged in that process. I think of Josh Jensen, at Calera, who has sub-divided his Mount Harlan vineyard into at least six climats (Selleck, Mills, Reed, Ryan, Jensen and de Villiers), and the Rochiolis, whose teardrop-shaped vineyard off River Road in the Russian River Valley is broken into distinct climats: River Block, Mid 40, Little Hill, Sweetwater and so on. Granted, Josh Jensen and the Rochiolis did their sub-dividing more quickly than it took the Romans or Burgundians to figure out the subtleties of the Cote de Nuits. And granted (as I am reminded by people whenever I talk about the DRC), marketing has played a perhaps pre-eminent role in shaping our perceptions of the seven climats. Still, and for whatever reason/s, the identification of climats in these famous vineyards seems to be inherent in their evolution, and in our relationships with them; consumers and connoisseurs like it, and owners are happy to provide it.
I plan also in my talk to cover the waterfront of other influences on the wine industry, from demographic shifts and the rise of the Big Critics to the advent of social media. But this post is already getting a bit long, so I’ll hold off for now and report on that tomorrow.
I’m not big on blowing my own horn, but hey, if you don’t beat your own bush and shine a light on your own accomplishments, then who will? So, with these awkwardly mixed metaphors, I’m proud to announce that I have just been awarded the prestigious title of Master Sommelier!
I didn’t reveal to anyone that I was actually “going for it” because I feared it would be too embarrassing if I didn’t win. You know how it is with some people—they tell you how successful they are and how everybody else is a loser, and then, when they themselves lose, they have to eat some serious crow. Well, I’ve never been a fan of crow, serious or otherwise. But guess what, you losers and ugly people: I WON! Hahahaha. Or is it Bwahahaha?
It was hard going. First I had to qualify for the WSA, then the WSAT, then the WSIP and the WSIP-level II, then the WSOP and ASAP and FSOP, and after that the Beta-san Phlibit and the notorious Wackomole-46. The latter was particularly grueling as it included living for four months in Ughistan where I was sommelier in a restaurant frequented by the Russian mafia and recovering phlebotomists. Then when I passed my Beta-san Phlibit the Court of Master Sommeliers made me take the Service part of the exam standing on my head for 11 months while reciting Michael Broadbent’s Great Vintage Wine Book chapter and verse backwards and being molested by ardent butterflies. That was hard, no less because they wouldn’t let me bathe, and every six weeks Fred Dame came in to tickle me. If you think being tickled by Fred Dame is pure gastronomic pleasure then you’ve never been on a force-fed diet of wormwood and pflugets, which is all I had to eat.
Fortunately I survived the Service part and then it was onto Blind Tusting. This isn’t the same as Blind Tasting, which I passed easily, especially after paying off the examiner. Blind Tusting is hard, because you don’t know what you’re Tusting, and you don’t even really know the definition of Tusting, so it’s quite difficult to do it correctly. All I knew was that every once in a while somebody would yell at me “Bad Tust!” and then lights would flash and horrible sounds erupted and the hounds began to howl. But then I would do something and somebody would say “Good Tust” and I felt all, like, calm and secure, and then Fred Dame would come in and massage my feet. I got my Introductory Tuster certification, then from there went on to Certified Tuster, Advanced Tuster, Advanced Tuster II, Semi-Professional Advanced Tuster levels III, IV and V, and Super-Duper Nirvanic Tuster, which took me 15 years but I did it, gosh darn it, proving again that I Am Special.
But don’t think for a minute the Blind Tust test was the end, because it wasn’t! Far from it, my friends, far from it! There was the Evocation Schmevocation, the Allurid Vowels Competition and the Wine and Psychosis Pairing, where they lock you in a tea party ward for six years and you have to match the wackadoodles with wines from Bulgaria, Inkadinkadooland and West Bumfuck, and if you get it wrong, they turn off the power, take your clothes off and leave you at the tender mercies of….well, let’s just say Hieronymous Bosch would have painted it if he weren’t dead. Which is pretty much how I felt when the Court told me I was now qualified for the finals: The Feiroreticals.
OMG how I studied for that!!! Rainfall charts for the last thousand years in Rwanda, the pH of the soils in Brooklyn, the number of wigs Donald Trump owns, the typos in One Wine Dude’s posts…they even made me memorize every glass of wine Leslie Sbrocco ever described as “cheerful.” You enjoy watching old episodes of Check Please! ? Be my guest! Fortunately, I was told by an oldtimer that the Court no longer requires applicants to pass the Gary Vaynerchuk test, which apparently involves anti-emetics…I don’t know, and I don’t think I want to know.
On April 19, 2016, at 11:06 a.m. on a Friday morning, as Gus was dreaming (his little paws were twitching), I got the phone call from Fred Dame himself. “You’ve passed!”
Finally, after all this time! I thought, “Now, Fred will invite me to the Court,” which I imagined as a magical mystical castle, like in Disneyland, with Master Sommeliers flying like monkeys in the Wizard of Oz, and fountains of vintage Petrus, and servants (failed and embittered M.W. candidates) carrying platters of charcuterie and chocolate truffles. Like the Playboy Mansion, the Court in my fervid fantasies was a heavenly place of indulgence, hedonism and endless sexual pleasure.
It was disillusioning enough to find out that there is no actual “Court,” just a post office box in Napa. But even more disconcerting has been my discovery that job offers are not exactly pouring down from Heaven. I had thought that, now that I can add those sweet letters M.S. after my name, I could name my price and work for whomever I wanted. No such luck. It turns out that, with some 17,000 Master Somms in the U.S. and thousands more expected to be churned out of the pipeline in coming months, competition is intense. So I’ve been forced to take such work as is available. I can now tell you that, starting on Monday, I will be the Senior Intern at the Hosemaster’s blog. It’s not what I foresaw myself doing at my age…the money isn’t what I had hoped…I’m working out of a dumpster…but Washam is a kind man and supposedly not a mean boss. It’s a start.
“There’s nothing new under the sun.”
That’s from Ecclesiastes 1:9, which also says, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again.” One might have expected the Author of Authors to have taken the long view: not the next business quarter, but Eternity. So it is, or sometimes seems, for certain of us aging wine writers, who have seen and done just about everything—multiple times.
Now we have all this clamor about winery consolidation: Here’s an example, from Wines and Vines. The San Francisco Chronicle has another one, even calling the present era “buyout season.” And here is yet another, this one more specifically about Jackson Family Wines’ acquisition of Copain; the author, Dr. Vino, not surprisingly strikes a snide pose…but let us not digress from the formal point, which is that, yes, there has been a lot of buying activity lately on the West Coast, and not just JFW; Far Niente’s switch was big news. But the “nothing new under the sun” trope comes to mind because, when I first began writing about wine for professional publications, in the 1980s, the same thing was happening: much hand-wringing that all the little boutique wineries were being gobbled up. Every time there was a recession (1990-1991, the dot-com recession of the early 2000s, and certainly the Great Recession), the sky-is-falling prognosticators sounded the alarm: No more little wineries! But, somehow, family wineries remain in business—thankfully.
Face it, wine is a commercial product and thus subject to the business cycles and push-and-pull of capitalism. The average small family winery seems to have a life cycle: from startup to sale is, maybe, thirty years. And that makes sense. A guy or gal begins the winery in his or her twenties or thirties: thirty years later, he’s looking forward to Social Security, Medicare, and sleeping late, and may not have the physical capacity or the emotional temperament to continue the hard work of making and selling wine (especially if he’s also managing a vineyard). The kids may not want to continue in the family business. So what’s an aging winemaker/proprietor to do? Sell. It has always been that way and always will be. So there is no need to fret about this current wave of activity. It’s actually quite normal, and besides, I bet you that for every winery acquisition you read about in the news, five new family wineries are starting somewhere else in California or Oregon.
How many California wineries will make it to 100 years? Well, one or two already have: Beaulieu and Buena Vista, but they’re no longer owned by their founders. Inglenook planted their first grapes in 1871, but they’ve had multiple owners including, now, Mr. Coppola. Anyone else? Gallo’s going strong after 83 years; it’s likely they’ll hit the century mark. But compared to, say, Antinori (since 1385), California and Oregon wineries are just wee ‘uns. “What has been done will be done again.” Ain’t it the truth.