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How do you describe a wine region, anyhow?

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One of the constants of the wine writer’s job is describing wine regions. Whether it’s the Right Bank of Bordeaux, the Santa Rita Hills or the Finger Lakes, the wine writer is expected to understand the region’s terroir (climate, soils) and its impact on the major wine varieties and types produced there.

I don’t think there’s ever been a wine book that didn’t contain this information; at least, I’ve never seen one. It’s part and parcel of the wine writer’s challenge to explain why wine smells and tastes as it does. After all, if you take this away from the writer, there’s not much else to opine about!

So how’s it done? You’d think the wine writer would visit the region/s he’s writing about, but this isn’t always possible, given the financial constraints of the trade (don’t get me started). So the wine writer makes certain compromises: he looks up to see what others have written about the region in question—others with, presumably, more opportunities for world travel than he possesses (or who accept all those junkets!).

The traditional way of researching what others have written is, of course, books. But we’re in the Age of the Internet now. Why bother to read a book when Google can give you anything you want for free? The result is a new generation of wine writers that appropriates pre-digested information from the Internet.

I’m not saying there’s anything immoral about this, but it can be dangerous. The reason is obvious: You can’t trust everything you find on the Internet. Few people, I admit, have the motive to lie about something as dull as the effects of the mistral in the Rhone Valley, so the wine writer who depends on the Internet as his source of this kind of information is on generally solid ground. Still, second-hand sourcing can be risky.

I don’t think readers want, as their first choice, a wine writer who gets her facts from the Internet. They prefer, or at least deserve, hearing from writers who actually go to the places they write about. And not only go to them—but spend time in them, year after year walking the land, breathing the air, listening to the leaves rustle in the wind, smelling the earth and the soils and the underbrush, sensing how the temperature and wind patterns shift hour-to-hour, talking to anybody and everybody about anything and everything, and drinking the wines from that place to determine for oneself what they’re like. Well-heeled writers, sometimes sponsored, can travel vast distances of the globe, parachuting in and “reporting” on Austria or Crete or someplace else the sponsors send wine writers to for 3 or 4 days. But is this the best kind of wine writing ?

The worst thing in the world for the wine industry is for old myths to be repeated. There are so many of them; so many are wrong. If every wine writer took the following oath, wine writing would take a great leap forward: “I vow not to automatically believe things just because I read them or heard them from someone. I vow to come to every wine experience with fresh eyes and an open, inquisitive mind.” Wouldn’t that be something?


Is the drive toward ever-newer wines a form of OCD among critics?

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The search for “the new” is the story of California. Whether it was the reinvention of the self, or the society, the Golden State always has lured those restless with the existing order, and anxious to replace it with something innovative and, they hope, better.

This reinvention reinvents itself constantly. Nowhere is it better reflected than in our cuisine, as Joyce Goldstein’s book, Inside the California Food Revolution, makes abundantly clear. But we have to look no further than the current contretemps over what makes wine “balanced” to see it in another, and possibly ideological, form.

Joyce wrote her book to chronicle the rise of California cuisine, with its emphases on freshness, locality and seasonality, but she turns her eye also toward the evolution of California wine. “As California chefs began cooking more innovative food,” she writes, citing names like Ridge, Chalone, Calera and Bonny Doon, “they began seeking more innovative wines.”

By “more innovative wines,” she meant wines that aspired to something greater than the jug ‘burgundies,” “sauternes” and “rhines” that dominated production up until that time (around the 1960s and 1970s). This surely was innovation which was needed; if California ever was to become a wine state (and it seems to have been destined to), it would have to turn more towards a European system of proper appellations and noble varieties.

It worked. But we also have to admit that there was much to be admired in those old wines, with their faux names. They were cheap, they were clean, they went well with food, and they were pretty good, if my memories of what I drank in the late 1970s (just as that era was trailing off) are correct, and I think they are. Those old jug wines were vin ordinaire that appealed to vast numbers of American consumers, and without them blazing the trail, the rise of the boutique winery would not have been possible. Far from condemning them, we ought to celebrate them.

Still, that period of innovation—the boutique winery era–was a good and necessary one. We come now to another period, which may prove to be more of a hiatus than a legitimate tipping point. It is characterized by a somewhat noisy cadre of wine writers, critics and restaurateurs critical of what they perceive as wines whose alcohol levels, fruit extraction and oak render them “unbalanced.” Rather, this cadre says, wines should revert back to their original purpose, of being less assertive and more amenable to accompanying food, rather than dominating it.

Which sounds rather like the role the jug wines played in this country post-Prohibition through the 1970s. They were wines to be enjoyed as part of the overall experience of dining and socializing, not wines that demanded to be the diva-like stars of the table. Now, it’s good that we have a movement that desires to see wine restored to its proper place in the hierarchy; but where the new critics have a bit of ‘splaining to do is this: there is nothing particularly affordable about the wines they celebrate. Unlike the jug wines of the past, which anyone could afford, these new darlings of the School of Balance can be as pricey as the big, oaky varietal wines they decry.

It would make more sense for a critic to scream from the rooftops the virtues of under-$10 wines that could slake the thirst of a nation that’s not as wealthy as it used to be. That would be one thing; I could jump onboard that train. Instead, the critics of the big California style are calling for a new elitism: of low-production wines, made by people they perceive to be personally interesting—wines with modest alcohol levels, and moreover made from grapes that in some cases aren’t even fully ripe. This is the result of the increasingly strident call for “more innovative wines,” which sometimes seem like it has more in common with obsessive-compulsive disorder than with providing us with wines of deliciousness. But then, every wine writer/critic also is a journalist, and journalism, in its essence, is the insatiable search for the new, the radical, the innovative, the undiscovered. That is the strength of good journalism: it prods a complacent culture onward. That also is the weakness of journalism that seeks simply to unearth whatever happens to be new that day, and disregards what is lasting. Innovation, for its own sake, is meaningless.


Are consultants “killing” wine?

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They’re easy to pick on, those flying winemakers, like Michel Rolland, who travel the world getting big bucks for advising wineries on how to get 95 points from Parker.

And they do get picked on! Mondovino, the 2004 movie, famously took on Rolland, showing a small vigneron who declared that “Wine is dead” due to people like Rolland, who it was said bring an “internationalization” of wine flavors; and the director even brought Michael Mondavi in to talk about “the globalization of wine.” It didn’t help to show Rolland, in the back of his car being driven somewhere, on a phone laughing about “These journalists, if you don’t hit them on the head, they can’t remember a thing.”

As a journalist, I resemble that remark (as Groucho said), even though I totally understand it. There are some “journalists” who will repeat anything they’re told, without the slightest effort at fact-checking.

It would take a telephone book to list all the Bordeaux chateaux associated with Rolland. In California, the list is smaller, but impressive, and includes or has included Harlan, Dalla Valle, Sloan, Staglin, Araujo, BOND, Bryant. These are wines I’m more familiar with. Are they all the same? Are they marked by an “international” character? Has Michel Rolland, and people like him, in fact “killed” wine?

Affirmative on that, according to a Saumur winemaker, Thierry Germain, whom the drinks business wrote about yesterday. They quoted him as saying, “Wine consultants are like plastic surgeons trying to make ugly wines beautiful. There’s a trend at the moment for trying to create beautiful wines over authentic wines. The result is that they end up tasting fake and artificial.”

Wow, tough words. This is, of course, the territory of “authenticity” that critics like Matt Kramer and Jon Bonné have been exploring for years. I never fully subscribed to their black-and-white notion that some wines are authentic while others are fake, for the simple reason that too many consultant-driven wines–Harlan, Staglin, Araujo etc.– are so stupendously delicious that you wonder how much better red table wine ever can be.

Still, I have to say there’s a certain sameness to these Napa Valley cult wines that reminds me of the contestants in a beauty pageant.

 

MissUniverse

While you have to admit these women are stellar examples of what we (or some people) think of as traditional female beauty, there is a certain, uhh, sameness to them, as well as an implication that women who do not conform to that particular template of “beauty” are, by definition, unbeautiful. I know a lot of women—men, too—who are utterly turned off by this exclusionary attitude. Men, too (including me), suffer from these stereotypes: if you’re not tall, buffed and handsome, you have far less of a chance of getting a top job, or even of being respected. (I’ve done research on this and I know what I’m talking about.)

Well, the gender wars are tricky, so I’m getting out now, but the fact remains that it’s not surprising that wines “advised” or “consulted on” by the same consultant should bear a certain similarity to each other. It’s like a guy who impregnates multiple women who then have his children. While all the kids will possess certain inherited traits from their moms, they’ll also all have things they got from dad, and in that sense, they’ll be alike. Whether this is good, bad, or angels-dancing-on-pinheads navel-gazing (to mix metaphors) is, I suppose, in the eye of the beholder.

I, myself, have always wondered why a winery would hire a famous consultant. Don’t they trust their everyday winemaker? Don’t they trust their growers? How would you feel if you got a great job as a winemaker and the next thing you know, your employer tells you he’s bringing in Michel Rolland as a consultant? What does a consulting winemaker bring to the table, anyway, except bragging rights for ownership? It’s never been clear to me. I guess if a winery is just starting out, and their winemaker doesn’t have much experience, then sure, bring in an expert, to be the training wheels for a vintage or two. But the top winemakers I’ve known for the last 30 years—and I’ve known most of them in California–neither want nor need outside help. They just ask to be given good grapes, and then enough of a budget to make good wine, and some time to figure out how to express the vineyard’s potential. If you can tell me why these consultants are necessary (rather than just bling), please do.


Come to Anderson Valley–but make sure you have a place to stay!

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I’m up here in the beautiful Anderson Valley, which more than 30 wineries call home. To those familiar with trafficky Highway 29 in Napa Valley, or even the much less densely clogged roads of the Russian River Valley, Anderson Valley’s Highway 128 will seem blissfully free of cars. You can drive from Boonville past Philo out to Navarro, in the Deep End, with no one on your tail. But empty as the valley is, it’s not empty enough for some people.

That, at least, is what a longtime vintner-friend told me yeserday. I had related to him how, when I arrived in the valley on Monday evening, I couldn’t find the key to the Edmeades guesthouse, and for a while, I feared I’d have to find someplace else to spend the night. Not exactly the most pleasant prospect in Anderson Valley, where accommodations are scarcer than encryption in the cloud, which is to say: pretty scarce. The lady at the local market directed me to enquire at the Philo Inn; alas, there was no room there, nor at the Boonville Hotel, which pretty much represents everyplace there is to spend the night. The guy at the Philo Inn told me I had two choices: to head back to Ukiah (Not! Under! Any! Circumstances!) or to drive another 40 minutes out to the resorts on the coast. And even then, I’d need a dog-friendly place. I was feeling pretty glum at that point.

Fortune fortunately came to my assistance; the long-sought key was found, and I am now safely ensconced in the beautiful Edmeades guest house. But as I explained to my vintner-friend, it made me wonder if there wasn’t an opportunity for someone to add to the valley’s existing lodging stock, perhaps by building a charming little B&B. After all, it wasn’t just I who was looking for someplace to stay that Monday night; two leathered-up guys on motorcycles, who by their accents sounded like they were from Germany, maybe Holland, also were desperate. Doesn’t that sound like Anderson Valley could use more places to stay?

My vintner-friend laughed. “The locals would never allow it,” he smiled.

“Not even for a little seven-room inn?”

“Nope.” It seems like the Anderson Valleyites like the lonely remoteness of their slice of heaven, and are determined to keep it that way.

And who am I, or anyone, to challenge them? It’s their place to live, and I would think that many of them headed up here in the first place in order to escape the evils of traffic, noise, pollution, crime and all the other ills that accompany dense population centers.

Does remaining pristine impact the quality of the local wine? I think to some extent it does, and for the better. Local winemakers here, less subject to the demands and whims of the tourist trade, are able to focus on their land, their vines and their personal visions. Of course, just because Anderson Valley isn’t swamped with tourists doesn’t put it off the grid (although many people here do live off that proverbial matrix). With the Internet and social media, they’re very much tuned into the outside world, and lots of them sell a goodly proportion of their wines to club members, whom I guess you could call virtual tourists.

Still, there’s something unspoiled and rustic about the wineries in Anderson Valley. As Ben Salazar, the young winemaker for Edmeades, told me, most of the growers are local guys who are true farmers, depending on their crops to pay the mortgage and put their kids through school. “It’s like a glimpse into the past of how Napa and Sonoma used to be,” said Ben, who previously made wine in both of those appellations.

Anderson Valley is a great place to visit if you’re a wine tourist, but you do have to keep in mind the lack of amenities, including a place to stay. You definitely do not want to arrive here at the end of a long day, only to find yourself homeless. If you’re looking for wine country, and great wine, without the hassles, you can do no better than this beautiful, isolated place of Mendocino County. But plan ahead.

Anderson


Live, from the road! Mendocino County

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I didn’t throw up, but Gus did, three times, on the loopy drive up to Mendocino, which included many twisting miles on a dirt road leading to the Gianoli Ranch, a spectacular property founded in the 1800s by Italian immigrants, whose new owners grow Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, which they sell to Edmeades and a few other brands. I was on my way to visit Edmeades, in the Anderson Valley, but the appellation up here, at Gianoli, is Mendocino Ridge, one of the few AVAs in California based on elevation; you have to be at least 1,200 feet above sea level, and ay Gianoli, you’re well above that. Here’s a picture from a clearing in the Redwood forest.

Mendo

 

It’s a remarkable place to grow wine. The vineyards on Mendocino Ridge are few and far between, often separated by miles of mountainside forest impenetrable to all but cougars and deer and other critters. It always surprises me to find places where Zinfandel and Pinot Noir grow side by side. You’d think they require totally different climates, the former warm, the latter cool; but in this case, the vineyards are so high in elevation that the weather is warm and sunny enough (Gianoli is 2,000 feet or so, well above the usual fogline) to ripen Zin, but that same elevation, as well as the northerly latitude, makes it cool enough to grow Pinot. Granted, it’s a distinct Pinot Noir, not silky and delicate like, say, Monterey, but with plenty of stuffing and tannins, a big Pinot, almost brawny, with the peppery spice you also find in the local Zinfandels. These are rich, flashy Pinots, but they really do need six years in the cellar to come around.

Pinot in these parts is picked early enough to usually avoid the Autumn rains, which come to Mendocino well before they hit Sonoma or San Francisco. Amounts are significant; the average annual rainfall at, say, Gianoli, is 80 inches. In this drought year, they’ve had only 40 inches (still twice the average in San Francisco), but a wet year can bring 120 inches, or more. That’s the risk for Zinfandel, which is picked far later than Pinot. With its tight bunches, it tends to develop botrytis. As Ben Salazar, Edmeades’ winemaker,

 

BEN

told me, they have to be very severe in cutting out the botrytis-infected bunches.

Back down in the Anderson Valley, Boonville looks pretty much the same as it ever did.

 

BOON

 

Five miles further, Philo, population 349, where Edmeades is, is even tinier. Blink, and you miss it.

Philo

 

But people don’t come to the Anderson Valley—to the extent they do, for it’s pretty remote—for the amenities. They come for the wine. As do I. I’m staying at the Edmeades guest house, a spectacular property in the hills above Philo. Here’s a shot from one aspect of the property. How lucky am I?

Guest

 

INSERT GUEST


What electric car patents and some AVAs have in common

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Elon Musk made a bit of news last week when his Tesla Motors announced that the company is “opening all its electric car patents to outside use.”

This “open sourcing” means that anyone can use Tesla’s proprietary procedures without having to worry about a patent lawsuit.

Why would a successful company like Tesla give the farm away? Originally, Musk had hoped that “the big car companies would copy our technology and then use their massive…sales and marketing power” to promote electric cars. While this would have presented Tesla with serious competition, it also would have promoted the concept of the electric car, which is a hard sell for most consumers. This “rising tide lifts all boats” concept would, Musk hoped, in the end benefit Tesla.

But it didn’t happen. “The unfortunate reality,” he said, “is…electric car programs…at the major manufacturers are small to non-existent.” Musk therefore is gambling that giving his manufacturing secrets away for free will help lift the tide that will help lift Tesla.

This story neatly dovetails with something that’s been on my mind lately, namely whether a winery in an appellation should promote only itself, or promote also its appellation, which means promoting all the other competing wineries in its appellation. This can be a tough decision for a winery. For example, I remember when I was a critic how surprised I was that Fess Parker Winery almost never put local appellations on their wines, like Santa Ynez Valley. Instead, they put Santa Barbara County. I thought it was wrong then, and told company officials so, but they argued that in their judgment no one had ever heard of Santa Ynez Valley, whereas everyone knew about Santa Barbara (which conjures up images of white-sand beaches, palm trees, movie stars and affluence). When I asked them, in turn, how the public ever would learn about Santa Ynez Valley, if wineries wouldn’t put it on their labels, there was radio silence.

We have a similar situation with regard to the Santa Maria Valley. It’s a great place to grow wine grapes, as I assume readers of this blog know. But it’s off the beaten path; even wine tourists to Santa Barbara County are more likely to visit Santa Rita Hills or Santa Ynez Valley than this northwestern, fairly remote part of the county. How, therefore, should S.M.V. wineries deal with the situation?

In different ways. Although they all (to my knowledge) put Santa Maria Valley on their labels, they still struggle with the public’s general absence of understanding of this region (which is shared, alas, in too many cases by sommeliers and merchants). Therefore, it would stand them all in good stead to promote the valley, but this would mean cooperating together, which is easier said than done. There have been efforts over the years to promote Santa Maria Valley, mainly through a local association, but, having followed these efforts, I have to admit they’ve been fairly tepid. Some influential local powers organized the Chardonnay Symposium a few years ago (with which I was involved), and held it at Byron Winery, where it largely showcased Santa Maria Valley wines. But this year, the Symposium closed up shop and moved north to Shell Beach, so now, even that slight exposure of the valley’s wines to consumers has ended.

My own feeling is that a single winery can’t promote its appellation, especially these lesser-known AVAs. A winery doesn’t have enough money, manpower or clout to pull off the massive consumer educational program that’s needed. It takes collaboration between all the local wineries, but as I said above, this can be politically difficult to achieve, because after all, these wineries are competing against each other. But in the end, collaboration is something they should do. It’s like Ben Franklin’s old woodcut says: Join, or die.

join_or_die_flag

 

Unity is better than disunity. It worked for Napa Valley: that region promoted itself with ruthless efficiency, so that now, a winery that isn’t even making very distinguished wine benefits from having “Napa Valley” on the label. Even earlier than that, it worked for Bordeaux. Promoting the appellation is a tried-and-true practice.

* * *

I’m off to Anderson Valley today, to spend a little time at Edmeades. It’s been a couple years since I’ve been there and I’m looking forward to it. I’ll be reporting from there for the next several days.


Conversations with Carlo: whole cluster fermentation of Pinot Noir

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Carlo Mondavi, whom I got to know and like last year in Kapalua, emailed to bring me up to date on his new project, RAEN, a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir he’s making in collaboration with his brother, Dante.

Carlo
Carlo Mondavi

His email prompted me to ask him some followup questions, which led to an exchange I thought is interesting enough to reproduce. The subject is Pinot Noir, and the role of stems in the fermentation.

Carlo had sent me this video of him and Dante making the wine. Along the way, Carlo says, concerning the whole-cluster fermentation he enjoys, “I can smell the greenness of these stems, they’re super-green.” My ears perked up at this, because I had thought that you don’t want green stems in the fermentation, you want brown, ripe ones, in order to avoid passing on that green, vegetal aroma and harsh tannins to the wine. So I asked Carlo, “If you whole cluster with green stems doesn’t that make the wine taste and smell green?”

He replied, “I…believe that the stems being green and thus under ripe or ideal is a complete misconception.” His response is worth quoting in full:

“In fact DRC and most of the best whole cluster examples are harvesting when the stems are electric green. This also means most likely and certainly for us that the sugars are lower and the extraction of bitter flavors will be lower. We also take into account sap flow…

“I believe that sap flow is greater in certain clones and in certain sites varying vintage to vintage… There is no perfect map so we go on taste and observation… To determine the amount of whole cluster vs destemmed fruit we ferment we run a quick tasting. We take the stem sans fruit, cut it up, put it inside a pastil bag and squeeze the sap out. We then observe the sap (how much, how sappy) then taste the sap to see how astringent it is. From there we make decide if we will use some, none or all of the whole cluster.…  This past vintage we certainly used a great amount of whole cluster as it was a new moon and the sap seemed to much less than what we might have seen on a full moon.

“Thirdly I also like the balance of bitter and sweet… Stems add potassium and tannin to a wine and can balance the overly strawberry, cranberry, rhubarb fruit flavors… to me it gives the wine a middle palate of velvet and structure and in some examples and slight elevation of minerality.

“Waiting for full brown clusters is a major mistake in my opinion… If you wait that long you are looking at harvesting well north of 25 brix of sugar and in December in some sites. This would yield a wine of incredible bitterness and a PH that would be certainly unfermentable and unstable naturally. With that said where we make our cuts is where the rachis meets the shoot this area is brown and lignified. We make our harvesting cuts right in the middle of this browning area to minimize sap flowing out into the juice.”

Still puzzled, I asked Carlo, “In a vintage like 2011, I found some coastal Pinots to have a green, minty edge. So, where does that come from?”

Carlo: “Huh… That’s a Good question. I would think some stems, the local terroir and for late harvesters, botrytis… I see a bit of botrytis each year… Pinot noir clusters are so tight it just seems to happen when the heat comes after the rain or In some vintages with the humidity…  With that said green can be no stems with green seeds or Rosie’s, tough under ripe skins or jacks… I have tasted de stemmed and 10 percent whole cluster wines and found them be more green than 100 percent whole cluster wines depending on the site and vintage… I also enjoy wine that can have a slight green note… I don’t see green to be bad so long as it is not over the top… Just like anything.”

I’ve never felt that whole-cluster fermentation is better than destemming, or vice versa. California Pinot Noir can be delightful either way. I do feel, as does Carlo, that stems can give Pinot Noir a fuller body and more tannins, not to mention spiciness. Still, I’m not quite convinced that green stems do not bring a green note to cool-climate Pinot Noir, and I’d love to hear the opinion of others.

This is one of the wine taster’s biggest conundrums: it’s easy to detect something in a wine but a lot harder to identify exactly what causes it. When I was a reviewer, I tried to avoid attributing specific results to specific causes, if I couldn’t be absolutely sure about the connection. Asking winemakers to explain can sometimes clear things up, but sometimes it can make you even more confused. Which is why I was always happy to leave the winemaking to the winemakers, if they’d leave the wine reviewing to me!


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