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How many Pinot Noirs can one winemaker successfully make?

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I got a bunch of single vineyard Pinot Noirs for review yesterday from Sojourn Cellars, a fine producer whose Pinots, Cabernets and other wines I’ve liked over the years. I haven’t reviewed the new batch yet, so this post isn’t about them. It’s about the phenomenon of wineries producing multiple vineyard-designated Pinots (in Sojourn’s case, six).

Lots of wineries practice this business model. Among those who come to mind are Siduri, Testorossa, Williams Selyem, Loring, Failla, Merry Edwards, MacPhail. Some of these also produce estate wines from their own vineyards; others own no vineyards, but buy their grapes, usually under longterm contracts, from vineyards up and down the coast.

(Some Pinot houses–Marimar Torres, Flowers, Rochioli, Lynmar, Calera, Joseph Swan, among others–of course bottle multiple Pinots in every vintage, but they own their vineyards exclusively.)

It’s an odd model, bottling multiple Pinot Noirs from vineyards often scattered hundreds of miles apart, from Santa Rita Hills to Anderson Valley. I don’t think you’d find that in Pinot Noir’s natural home, Burgundy. There, producers make such a big deal about their terroir (mainly soils) that it would be scandalous for them to secure grapes from someone else’s vineyard. That would go against the whole grain of what it has historically meant to produce grand vin in France.

But California isn’t France. We’ve always been an entrepreneurial state, from the Gold Rush days to Silicon Valley, and there is indeed something entrepreneurial about a producer crafting multiple Pinot Noirs, from as many great vineyards as he can get his hands on. And certainly, we have no shortage of great Pinot vineyards: just as someone like Adam Lee’s business model is crafting a dozen or so Pinots, so too there are vineyard owners whose model is to grow and sell grapes, rather than make their own wine. That too is an unlikely scenario in Burgundy. Then there are vineyards that bottle their own wine and also sell some: Cargasacchi, Clos Pepe, Hirsch and Pisoni come to mind.

Here’s what I wonder about. It’s kind of an intellectual question, but I think it bears on wine quality. Is it possible for a vintner to produce great Pinot Noir from multiple, scattered vineyards? Logic tells you that the vintner’s attention must surely be divided: he’s having to maintain relationships with multiple growers, from up and down the state. He has to arrange delivery of the grapes to his crush place, which may be hundreds of miles away from the vineyards. Above all, he has to try and capture the essential personality of the vineyard (or, expressed another way, he has to do nothing that would impede the grapes from expressing that personality). And he has to do all of this during the busiest time of the year, crush, with a million other things competing for his attention, not the least of which often includes making wines other than Pinot Noir.

There’s another potential danger: The wines may lose something of their terroir when made as a part of multiple batches by a vintner who cannot be intimately familiar with the vineyards, and whose winemaking technique may be the exact same with all the wines.

A final challenge is that every vineyard, no matter how famous, has bad grapes–bad in the sense they may be too young, or a moldy lot that somehow escaped scrutiny, or was overcropped or otherwise compromised. So just because a wine bears an esteemed vineyard designation doesn’t mean anything.

I guess the lesson is, buyer beware. Not every famous Pinot Noir vineyard will compromise its reputation by selling crappy fruit, but some will. And not every winery will compromise its integrity by buying crappy fruit, but some will. The consumer has to learn to tell the difference.

That’s a tall order. You might think it can’t be done–but it can. I routinely give high scores to many of these multiple Pinot houses, vintage after vintage. In fact, combing through my reviews over the years, I can detect no preference on my part to wineries that own vineyards versus wineries that buy grapes. So this California model seems to be working, at least, in the case of Pinot Noir. It reflects technical progress, in transportation, fruit preservation and communications, of a type that didn’t exist not that long ago; it’s impossible to think that a vintner like Adam Lee could have made this work in the 1980s.


Just thinking on a wet Tuesday morning

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All the rain we’ve had lately is making me introspective. I may have a slight case of S.A.D.–seasonal affective disorder. When the sky turns a dull gray, it rains for a week and the sun seems like it’ll never return, all I want to do is curl up with a good book and wait until Spring.

Yes, we need the water. Everybody says so, and so I tell myself that I’m being selfish for being so bored stiff by the rain. Every night it drizzles; every morning I wake up to drizzle; is this California, or Seattle? You’d think that the talk about drought that dominated December and January would start to fade away, but no, the news is that no matter how much it’s rained lately, the drought still is upon us. Typical is this headline from last Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle:

More rain this week but it’ll fall short

“[San Francisco] has recorded just 8.01 inches of rain this season, far below its usual tally of 18.21 inches by the start of March,” says the article. Last week’s big storm–the one that hit when I was in Santa Barbara at World of Pinot Noir–apparently was more powerful in Southern California than up north, which must have helped with the water situation down in the Central Coast, where the drought has been particularly severe. Maybe some of my readers will let us know how things are doing from Paso Robles south. I do know that, driving home on Sunday, the hills and fields were bright green in native grasses, something I hadn’t seen in a long time. (California is called the Golden State not for the Gold Rush, but because gold is the color of our hills and mountains during the dry season.) But I suppose that when the rain falls so hard, so fast, that most of it runs off into streams and rivers that eventually empty into the Pacific.

Sometimes I like the rain. I spent a night once in a little cabin in the middle of a Redwood forest in the Russian River Valley, just outside Forestville. It was a wild night, stormy and windy and cold: a gale had swept down out of the Gulf of Alaska. The rain track for Northern and Central California can come down from the north, or it can come in from the west, via Hawaii, which is why it’s called the Pineapple Express. From the point of view of the water supply, it’s better to have Gulf of Alaska storms, because they’re colder; hence the snow level in the Sierra is much lower, and that’s where much of our water comes from. Unfortunately, all these storms have been Pineapple Expresses: warm storms, high snow levels.

I remember lying in bed, that stormy night in Forestville, and listening to the sounds of nature: the rain pounding on the roof and windows, but also the limbs of the trees rubbing against each other in the wind, making low, moaning sounds, like sad cellos. I thought of all the critters that live in the woods: the skunks and raccoons and rabbits and badgers. Do they have dry holes where they burrow and stay warm? Our distant ancestors, recently become human, must have relished a nice cave, and whoever could make a fire must have been seen as special, godlike. At some point in pre-history those ancestors discovered fermentation, and made wine. That too must have seemed miraculous. Fire and wine: two divine gifts that make life bearable, even joyous. We worship them both today.

See, I told you I’m feeling introspective.


Final thoughts on WOPN 2014

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World of Pinot Noir was a very great success despite 3 days of continuous rain (I hope all those poor people living in the foothills of the San Gabes are okay). The Bacara Resort turned out to be a lovely new venue; their staff was awesome. Personally, I want to thank the Uber people for taking such good care getting me back and forth. I stayed at Fess Parker’s Doubletree, a 25 minute drive from Bacara, and it would have been very difficult for me (and for Gus) without my wonderful driver, Ariane. Thank you, and thanks also to Andy.

WOPN has been such a great success that I wonder why more wineries from beyond California don’t participate. I think if Burgundy, Oregon, New Zealand and other Pinot-producing countries knew more about this event (and the upscale crowd it attracts), they’d come. As for tasting, I spent most of my time concentrating on the New Zealand and Oregon wineries that did attend. Partly, that was because I don’t taste much non-California wine. I also felt sorry for the non-California wineries, many of whom were stuck in a side room that frankly didn’t attract much of a crowd. People were lining up at the likes of Kosta Brown, which seems rather lemming-like to me. I mean, hey, okay, if you’ve never tried KB, fine, but why not go outside your critical comfort zone and discover something else? Isn’t that what wine is all about: discovery, surprise, evolution? It’s boringly easy to taste something that critic X or Y gave a million points to and then go home and yada yada about it. Well, if that’s the outermost limit you can soar to, my sympathies.

It was great to see Bob Cabral pouring at Williams Selyem. As most of you probably know, Bob gave them his notice, and will be moving on to unknown adventures, although he’ll oversee their 2014 vintage. The two of us had a good long talk–we go back a ways and Bob’s always been one of my favorite people, both for his superb attitude as a human being, friendliness and warmth, and because Williams Selyem’s wines rock.

Just a brief word on the Burgundy seminar. I had some favorites: Domaine Collotte 2012 Marsannay Rose. What a great wine for $18 retail. I wrote “I wish there were more California rosés like this, especially Pinot Noirs, which tend to be too heavy.” I loved the Domaine Mongeard-Mugneret 2010 Savigny-Les-Beaune “Les Narbantons,” not a Premier Cru but a gorgeous wine, rich and spicy and ready to drink now, at only $30. But my top wine was  Domaine Jean et Gilles Lafouge 2010 Auxey-Duresses “La Chappelle” ($36). I just couldn’t get enough of it: dry, acidic and spicy, with firm tannins and oh, so complete and wholesome. To me, it beat out the Grand Cru on the table, Domaine D’Ardhuy 2005 Corton Clos du Roi, which I called “very hard, undrinkable, all about tannins and acidity, showing no generosity, austere.” I have no idea if it will age, and neither, apparently, did Don Kinnon, who once again moderated this outstanding panel. He seemed almost apologetic about it. Of course, if you know this is a Grand Cru, and from a celebrated vintage, you’re going to hedge your bets and give it a great score, probably with a line like “Nowhere near ready, best after 2030.” If you don’t know what it is, you’ll just go “Uggh” and turn to something else, like the Auxey-Duresses, at one-third the price. This just shows that tasting occurs, not merely in the mouth, but in the mind.


World of Pinot Noir 2014: Random notes

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At the morning seminar on the Pinots of Willamette Valley, my friend Gillian Handelman, of Jackson Family Wines, remarked that Oregon winemakers seem to talk a lot more about soil and rocks than do California winemakers, who lean more toward climate in explaining their Pinots. That immediately rang true to me, and I wondered why it might be so. A few things occur to me:

The historical reference point for Pinot Noir in California is Sonoma County, where the soils are so impossibly jumbled, courtesy of the San Andreas Fault system, that you can walk two yards and find different structures. That may be one reason why: Winemakers were stymied trying to understand their soils, so they very naturally turned to climate. Then too, as someone observed, up in Oregon-Washington, every kid is raised with the story of the great Missoula Floods, which formed so much of those states’ terrain. “It was our creation myth,” said Oregon journalist Katherine Cole, who moderated the Willamette seminar. So it may be that Oregonians have rocks more deeply imbedded in their imaginations than do Californians. Finally, it may be because in Willamette, Pinot Noir is pretty much exclusively the red grape, whereas in California, it’s everything from Pinot to Cabernet and Zinfandel. Pinot seems to draw more from the dirt than most other red varieties, so maybe Oregon winemakers look more toward Burgundian explanations of terroir than Californians. I don’t know what the answer is, but I think Gillian hit the nail on the head.

The seminar on the wines of Louis Jadot’s Beaune Premier Cru Clos des Ursules was stunning. I’ve gone to few vertical tastings in my life in which a continuity of style was clearer, or where the necessity of aging more apparent. We tasted eight wines, from 2010 going back to 1985, and it was easy to find the same elements in them all. But really, only the 1985 was drinkable (to me)–and that, just barely; I’d love to try it in another 20 years. Jadot’s winemaker, Frédéric Barnier, conceded as much. When asked by an audience member if he didn’t feel the need to change the style in response to consumer demand for earlier-drinking wines, Barnier said, in effect: No way. Good for him.

Later, at the walkaround tasting, I found myself gravitating toward the 2011s, from both Oregon and California. Some of them were stunning. The one I particularly recall was the Baxter 2011 Valenti Vineyard, from Mendocino Ridge. (I no longer review Mendocino wines for Wine Enthusiast; Virginie Boone does. She scored it 92 points. I might have gone a little higher, and added a Cellar Selection designation. But Virginie and I are in the same ballpark.)

I’m still formulating my views on the 2011 Pinots. Katherine, the Willamette moderator, told a story about a Burgundian producer she interviewed. When she asked him about a certain vintage would develop, he crustily replied (I paraphrase Katherine’s quote), “How am I supposed to know? You can’t understand a vintage for at least fifty years.” While I wouldn’t go that far, I do think it takes time, and any serious reviewer who doesn’t revise his estimations of a vintage is lazy or dead. Early on, I had serious problems with 2011 Pinots from California. Lots of mold. But there always were some great wines from producers who either sorted out the moldy berries or who sourced their grapes from vineyards (often mountains or hillsides) where mold was not a problem, even in the cold 2011 vintage. So at the walkaround tasting I was really blown away by some of the 2011s. The Baxter is the only one I’ll mention here, but the great ones all were low in alcohol, incredibly streamlined and elegant, brisk in acidity and not overwhelming in fruit. You can call them Burgundian, I suppose. This raises the question of how to evaluate a vintage, overall, when it contains extremes of both sides: extraordinary wines as well as moldy ones. My feeling is to lower the overall score, in terms of numbers, but try to express, in the text, that consumers who choose well will find unbelievably gorgeous wines. This is not always an easy message to get across, but then, of course, the individual scores and reviews of the wines also express how I feel about them.

Finally: Frédéric Barnier on numerous occasions made a distinction between wines that are “good” and those that are “interesting.” I raised my hand five or six times, during the Q&A, to ask him to elaborate; but alas, Katherine never called on me, so all I can do is surmise. I wanted to ask him: Can a wine that’s not good be interesting? Can a wine that’s good be uninteresting? This is fascinating stuff, and I hope to muse on these concepts in the future.

 


What do the attacks on Google mean? An analysis of the anti-tech phenomenon

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Over the past few months, it was attacks on Google buses in San Francisco and Oakland that made headlines and showed how anti-techie resentment is spreading throughout the Bay Area.

Now comes the latest chapter: a “tech consultant” showing off her Google Glass in a bar in the Haight district was attacked for reasons known only to her attackers, who have not been apprehended. But I think we can surmise what their motives were, and they’re connected with the unease many of us feel about social media in general and the increasing absorption people have with [or in] their mobile devices. (P.S. I am NOT condoning violence! Just trying to fathom the depth of the anger toward tech that’s such big news out here.)

The issue can perhaps be summed up by this observation from a bar owner (not the one where the woman was attacked) quoted in the article: “If you’re old enough to be in a bar, you should be old enough to have conversation with other adults. When you’re in a bar with Google Glass, it’s like saying, ‘I’m only halfway here. I’ll be checking my phone.’”

“Only halfway here…”. Who hasn’t had the experience of being with someone, having a conversation you thought you both were enjoying, when suddenly the other person checks his cell phone? I don’t know about you, but when that happens to me, I feel as though I’ve been dismissed–from the conversation, from the person’s mind, from his consideration. It is–to use an old word–rude, and I was raised (mainly thanks to my southern-born mother) not to be a rude person.

Is it rude to wear Google Glass in a bar? I can infer myself into the heads of people who would be upset about it. For one thing, you don’t know if the glass-wearer is photographing or videotaping you. Surely, people have the right to object to being recorded by a stranger in a public place. But a Google Glass wearer seems to be saying, “I really don’t care if you object to being photographed, I’m going to do it anyway if I want to, and I don’t have to ask for your permission.” Nor is it pleasant to think that the glass wearer might post your image all around the Internet (which is to say, all around the world), with possibly offensive or taunting comments.

The reason why we have to get a handle on this, now, is because the technology is only going to become smarter, and more intrusive. How long will it be before Google Glass can see under clothing or through a thin partition? We know about the problem of spy cams. Google Glass could be far more nefarious.

What’s the connection between Google Glass and attacking Google buses (other than the brand name)? The emotions are similar. People smashing Google buses are worried about getting squeezed out of their neighborhoods, and sometimes their city, by high-paid techies who seem interested only in their jobs and their friends, not the traditional cultural mores of the neighborhood. That rap is, admittedly, not entirely fair; but it is understandable, given the increasing numbers of people who no longer can afford to live in San Francisco, a city they love and presumably don’t want to leave. I know this for a fact: many of these folks are moving to my neighborhood (San Francisco’s loss is Oakland’s gain).

Thus the bus attacks are symbols of the increasing unease with the way technology is altering, and intruding upon and disrupting, our lives. The attackers obviously know that the buses are not the cause of high rents and evictions. They know that throwing a brick through a bus window won’t solve a thing. But they vent their anger on the buses, the same way the Boston Tea Party patriots vented their anger on innocent crates of tea, by dumping them into the harbor.

And what’s the connection to the unease about social media? The absorption some people have in it. Is it really better and more satisfying to stare into a tiny screen and tap out text messages on a bus or subway, instead of talking to the person sitting next to you, or just quietly contemplating existence? I’m not saying that the use of social media isn’t a wonderful thing, useful, entertaining and important to stay in touch with far-flung friends and family. Heck, I’m using social media right now, on this blog. But at some point, its overuse is cause for concern. When I have to be extra vigilant walking down the sidewalk because someone is coming towards me with his nose glued to a device, something’s wrong. People used to nod their heads and smile when passing strangers on the street. Now, they don’t even see them.

I think the burgeoning reaction against tech has to do with the end of human engagement as we’ve known it, an alarming possibility suggested by the bar owner’s “only halfway here” remark. Humans have spent millennia learning how to get along with each other in crowded spaces. It’s not always easy. Some things make it harder. Google Glass may be one of them.

Look: I’m no Luddite. No one can stop the march of technology, nor should anyone want to. But we have to find a balance. That’s why I, and millions of others, are dead set against allowing cell phone conversations on airline flights. That would be going over the edge, a serious disruption to our ability to dwell together in peace. When it comes to Google Glass, people are going to have to learn to be civil and appropriate with its use. Going into a crowded bar wearing one may not be the best idea, if it upsets so many people, which apparently it does. There’s already a term being bandied about out here about people who wear Google Glass in public: they’re Glassholes.

Anyway–having got that off my chest–I’m in beautiful but stormy Santa Barbara, at World of Pinot Noir, which begins this morning. I’ll update as frequently as I can over the next two days.


WOPN HOPPIN’

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Off to World of Pinot Noir today, a great event for keeping track of what’s up with the variety, in California and around the world. I’m looking forward to seeing old friends and making new ones. Among the seminars I’m excited about are “The Insider Wines of the Cote d’Or” and a comparison of the wines of Willamette Valley and its sub-AVAs with the wines of Maison Jadot.

Less formally, I’ll be looking for information on how the 2012 and 2013 vintages are looking, and what winemakers are saying, not saying, doing or not doing about the question of alcohol level, an issue that just won’t go away.

It was put on the table, so to speak, with the 2008 formation of In Pursuit of Balance by Jasmine Hirsch and Raj Parr (I’ll be going to their March 10 event in San Francisco). In this era of wineries looking for magic bullets to launch them instant P.R., we should look no further than IPOB for an object lesson par excellence. Whether or not Jasmine and Raj had the intention of making their fledgling organization a vital pulse of the industry, that is what happened. I’ve been amazed by how central IPOB has become to almost every discussion of Pinot Noir–certainly in the circles I travel in. So I was not especially surprised when, last week, Jay McInerney wrote a glowing tribute to IPOB in the Wall Street Journal. When the author of the cocaine-saturated Bright Lights, Big City writes about cool somms partying until dawn in Manhattan clubs after an IPOB event, you know Jasmine’s and Raj’s homegrown enterprise has hit the bull’s eye of the zeitgeist.

I’m not going to play that silly game that determines an artificial alcohol level and then say anything above that is unbalanced. I went over my highest ratings for Pinot Noirs in the last year; the alcohol levels range from 12.4% on Flowers 2011 Moon Select to Rochioli’s 2011 West Block, at 14.5%, with most of the wines hovering between 13.5%-14.2%. All of these wines scored at least 95 points; most of them are ageable. By contrast, I also checked out Pinots with my lower scores, and could detect no correlation with alcohol levels: most of the wines I gave paltry 84s and 85s to had alcohol levels in the 13s and on up to 14.5%, same as the high-scoring ones. If you want to look for a number to estimate the quality of a Pinot Noir, look at its price, not its alcohol level.

I do have the sense that winemakers are more conscious of alcohol levels than they used to be–or, to put it bluntly, conscious of the buzz that alcohol levels engender, largely because of IPOB’s influence, among the cognoscenti. Nor is it merely IPOB itself that is so causative of the discussion: IPOB has a strong following among sommeliers, whose roles as tastemakers are more potent than ever before. (We used to live in the era of the celebrity winemaker. This current one is the era of the celebrity sommelier and mixologist. The non-tattooed need not apply.) Indeed, it’s fair to ask: Is IPOB leading somms, or are somms informing IPOB’s weltanschauung? It’s probably a feedback loop with both sides reinforcing each other.

 


The 2013 Crush Report and Cabernet Sauvignon

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I guess the big news about the 2013 California Crush Report, just out, is that we set another record for tonnage.

It was headline news in 2012 when California’s crush was the biggest ever, but for some reason, news of 2013’s even bigger one has been largely muted. The total was 4,685,075 tons, up 7 percent over 2012. Yet the devil is in the details. The state Dept. of Food and Agriculture counts table grapes and raisins in the total, and 2013’s raisin crop also was large. Separating table grapes and raisins out, we still had the biggest red wine crush ever. Red wines were up 5 percent; white wines were up 6 percent. But the average price for all varieties was down, by 4 percent, from 2012: $706 per ton, on average, for reds, $620 for whites.

Cabernet Sauvignon was among those red varieties whose price dropped from 2012 to 2013. Not by much: only 3.6%, but still. Why did Cabernet drop? I suspect that number was skewed downward by the cost of Central Valley grapes. For instance, the average price per ton of Cabernet in Districts 11, 12, 13 and 14 (San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Madera, Fresno, Tulare, and down into Kings and Kern counties) was down everywhere except in District 14, where it crawled up a tiny $19 a ton, whoopee. But if you look at District 4, Napa Valley, the average cost per ton of Cabernet grapes soared, from $5,058 in 2012 to a whopping $5,494, an increase of 8.6%. (The highest deal reported to the state last year was $35,000 per ton, in Napa Valley. The Crush Report doesn’t identify where those grapes were from. If you know, send me the answer on the back of a million-dollar bill, and thanks to Click and Clack for that.)

Surely we can draw conclusions. Everyday Cabernet is under intense price competition in the marketplace. Producers simply can’t raise their prices too high, or else someone will undercut them. And if you’re a supermarket wine, you can’t afford to let somebody undercut you; that is death by a thousand cuts.

But Napa Cabernet appears to have rebounded after the hit it took in the Great Recession. I certainly see this anecdotally; in my own experience, I’m getting more expensive Napa Cabs for review than ever, many of them from first-time producers. I never thought that some of these businessmen-turned-vintners who buy lifestyles in Napa Valley (and elsewhere) are the smartest marketers in the world; but they must know something, to think that consumers are ready for yet another $80 or $100 Cabernet.

So there’s increased competition for what is, after all, a limited supply of Napa Valley Cabernet fruit. This must be good news for those esteemed vineyards–Stagecoach, Beckstoffer Tokalon, Dr. Crane, Georges III and others–that sell to the highest bidders, as well as for estate-bottled Cabs, whose owners feel they can notch prices upward as demand ticks back up again.

Cabernet is a funny wine. It’s been at the top for so long that people wonder when its run finally will end–kind of the way Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra hung on forever (or Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger, for that matter). Surely a new face has to take its place. But Cabernet is a grape and wine, not subject to the mortal coils. It keeps on keeping on, and I think smart producers understand this. Far from abandoning it, they’re seeking new ways to brand it–new price points, new points of reference, new strategies for messaging. And Cabernet is elastic enough to cooperate with them all. It’s really a miracle variety: having achieved superstardom, it’s undoubtedly the best-known red wine in America. The name means class and refinement, even to the least-knowledgeable novice, while the miracle is that upscale consumers haven’t lost their faith in it merely because the hoi polloi also likes it. It might have gone that way–like the kids who are abandoning Facebook because old people have taken it over. Facebook is proving not to be sharable across multiple demographics. But Cabernet continues to appeal to everyone, and for that, you have to give credit for some underlying  nobility that Cabernet possesses. What more could a varietal ask for?


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