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Chron’s Jon stumbles in RRV assessment


Charlie Olken did a good job deconstructing Jon Bonné‘s column in last Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle. Like Charlie, I too was surprised to read the column’s headline (which, actually, Jon may not have written. An editor may have). When I saw “Russian River faces crossroads,” I thought, Huh? Is something going on up in the valley I don’t know about? I didn’t think so, but it was certainly enough of a grabber to make me read the article.

We critics can agree to disagree about lots of stuff, but as a professional journalist I have to say that Jon’s article did not reflect well on our craft. I agree with one of Charlie’s commenters, TomHill, who wrote, “…print journalists oftentimes overstate their case in order to get a better ‘buzz’ on the street. So I spect that that was what Jon was doing.”

The truth is that the 2009 RRV Pinots, like other ‘09s up and down the state, are just fine. As Jon pointed out (and it should have been accompanied by a disclaimer that the article came to premature conclusions), we have yet to taste many, perhaps most of the greater ‘09 Pinots, because they haven’t been released. But I went to our trusty Wine Enthusiast database to look up my scores so far for the ‘09s. Out of 89 Pinots that scored 90 or higher, the Russian River Valley or Green Valley accounted for 21. That’s not a bad track record. In fact, RRV had 4 of my top ten Pinots: Lynmar 2009 Quail Hill Vineyard Summit, Lynmar Quail Hill Old Vines, Failla Keefer Ranch and Williams Selyem’s regular Pinot (and, oh, I can’t wait to try their single vineyard Pinots when they come out).

Jon complained about overly-manipulated wines: “too much oak, too much heat, too much overripe fruit.” Sure, there are always Pinot Noirs–and every other variety–that suffer from these imbalances. But there’s no evidence that the ‘09 Pinots are worse than their predecessors, and plenty of evidence that they’re better. It was another cool vintage (although nowhere near as cool as 2010 was to be). Vintners I talked to at the time were glowing. James MacPhail told me in early November of 2009 that it was a good vintage in the North Coast. Nick Goldschmidt said coastal Pinot Noir would live up to the hype. The Russian River Valley Winegrowers Association said, “Quality is over the top…we saw no heat spikes.” There was a huge storm the second week of October, but it had been predicted well in advance, and growers rushed to get the fruit in. If that had any negative impact, it would have been underripe fruit, not overripe, as Jon wrote.

I have two procedural objections to Jon’s tasting. First of all, he tasted only 40 2009 RRV Pinot Noirs. That’s not a very big sample to arrive at a conclusion, especially when you’re publishing it in California’s second biggest newspaper. Secondly, Jon tastes with different colleagues each week (in this case, it was with a merchant and a sommelier), and I can tell you that a tasting panel whose membership constantly shifts is an unreliable tasting panel, indeed. For consistent results, you want to taste either alone (the way I do) or with a consistent group.

But the silliest thing in the column–and one of the silliest things Jon has ever written, as Charlie pointed out–was “Russian River is in peril of becoming lost in the crowd.” This is so untrue as to be ludicrous. The Russian River Valley is a hotbed of serious winemaking, especially in Pinot Noir, and its potential is just being realized. Far from becoming “lost in the crowd,” the Russian River Valley is leading the crowd–not all by itself, but along with its sister AVAs like Anderson Valley, Sonoma Coast and Santa Rita Hills. Jon subtlely dismissed “inland” RRV as being too warm for Pinot, and if he was talking about Chalk Hill, the areas east of Highway 101 and the immediate vicinity southwest of Healdsburg, hard by Dry Creek Valley, he was right. But the Middle Reach too hot? Williams Selyem? Give me a break.

  1. It was a strange article by a normally reliable and thoughtful guy. Now he’s the Newt Gingrich of wine journalists.

    Hard to disagree with any of Charlie’s points or yours. I’ve also tasted a lot of very nice 2009’s from the Russian River. And I can’t think of many I would call overripe. Sounds like the panel talked themselves into believing something that wasn’t particularly true.

    Oh well, even Babe Ruth struck out once in a while. Or maybe I should say, even Arnold Schwarzenegger struck out once in a while…

  2. Hey Hosemaster thanks for weighing in!

  3. Steve, I was beginning to wonder if anyone besides me had read that article.

    And your comment about varying tasting panels, while perhaps a bit too harsh for my taste, because Jon after all both sits on the panel and does the writing and thus is a strong leavening force, does sort of highlight one problem that needs further discussion.

    By including two other tasters whose interest in CA wine is questionable at best (one a somm from RN 74 where CA Pinot over 14% ABV has been chased from the building like a bad smell and the other a retailer who has not exactly praised CA wine), that particular panel started with a particular tilt in its preferences.

    As to Mr. Washam’s comments, well, I begin to wonder if the HMW is writing comedy again. Jon Bonne as Babe Ruth? What’s Steve Heimoff then? The Dos Equis man?

  4. BTW, I do appreciate your kind comments about the article. It was the post in my blog last Monday and was entitled and pretty much found the comments in the SF Chron to be out of line with my experiences and to be greatly overblown.

    Your readers who would like to see my full comments can follow the link you have provided above or can paste this link into their browsers–>

    Apologies for repeating the address. It is not the individual reviews in the article that bother me (we all disagree and agree from time to time) but the gratuitous slap at the Russian River Valley and then the subsequent, and totally uncalled for, denigration of Napa that simply could not be left to stand. As I commented on my blog yesterday–when the newspaper of record for the Bay Area finds that the two most popular entries in the CA wine world to be failing, I have wonder what they are thinking–or smoking.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I suspect that a lot of folks in the Cali wine industry will not sign on to this blog post to comment, at least with their real names, because they’re afraid to weigh in when one writer is criticizing another.

    I myself am in the business and will readily admit that I don’t necessarily want my name published either. But, I did feel the need to weigh in, albeit anonymously.

    I think, at essence, the real issue here is two different approaches to wine criticism and journalism.

    In my humble opinion, Jon is from the more formal school of criticism/journalism. He seems to prefer to cultivate a fair amount of distance between himself and his subjects; perhaps in an effort to maintain some objectivitity and even formality.

    This is a very viable approach, I feel, as it allows him to maintain some professional privacy, a fair amount of journalistic objectivity and probably provides him with a fair measure of sanity. If one makes oneself too available, it can be exhausting and can detract from the story at hand.

    Accordingly, and again, just in my opinion, Steve, you are a more emotional writer. You wear your heart on your sleeve and you tend to champion your subjects; certain regions about which you’ve been very passionate and supportive. You are very open and you tend to take stories and subjects to heart. Again, this is a perfectly viable approach, and has its own merits.

    I guess my point is that there is room for both schools of criticism/journalism. So, I find it somewhat anti-productive to slam a colleague when, really, they are simply just approaching things from a different angle.

    Jon has done plenty, in his own right, to introduce many producers and great wines, to his readership. He’s a responsible writer in that regard. I feel he serves his readership, of which I am one, well and consistently, as do you.

    So, where’s the High Road and how come so few of us travel it anymore, especially on the internet?

  6. Charlie,

    My tongue is firmly in my cheek at all times. And I’d say you’re the Ted Williams of wine writing. Your batting average right about .406…


    Yup, I’m still here. I just don’t comment much. As you know, I have few opinions.

  7. I have no intention of putting words in Steve’s mouth. What follows is strictly my opinion.

    The SF Chron made a strong statement of opinion. Commenting on that opinion, and its manuy subtexts is fair game.

    Those kinds of reactions–about a topic of interest–have got to be fair game in all aspects of life, including journalism. This was never about Mr. Bonne and thus no apologies for him are needed from anyone, including Mr. Bonne. But holding professed ideas up to scrutiny is always required, even when the findings of such scrutiny are not in agreement with those ideas.

    Do not confuse the two. Sorry you feel the need to post anonymously.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Please don’t tell me who has the right, or doesn’t have the right, to be apologized to. I feel that this back-and-forth critiicsm by wine writers and bloggers of each other, that oftentimes occurs, is tiresome and tedious.

    To date, I haven’t heard Bonne issue forth criticisms of colleagues in ink, so I felt compelled to point out that I think his approach is viable and intelligent.

    I don’t need my opinions to be annointed by Charlie Olken in order for them to hold water.

    And, if I want to post anonymously, that is entirely my right.

  9. If this is a discussion about whether openly written journalistic opinions about the state of play in the wine world can be discussed, then I stand by my statements that they can and should be. If not, then we cannot ever express differing opinions. As I said on my blog re the SF Chron conclusions (note: conclusions, not the writer personally), I Beg To Differ with those conclusions.

    And I beg to differ with your opinion as well. Differences of opinion are valuable. My opinions are not more important than Mr. Bonne’s or yours, but they are mine and they have been offered publicly–as they should be.

  10. Anyone else feeling a little blue in the face yet?

  11. Anonymous says:

    Bottom line for me is this:

    In today’s cultural climate, fed as it is by the cult of celebrity, it’s become fashionable to take pot shots at people, rather than the quality of their work.

    My point: Is it necessary to call into question Bonne’s abilities as a reporter/critic, just because he chose to have a different point of view than do either of you (Olken/Heimoff, by way of example) about Russian River and Napa. It’s perfectly fine for him to call into question the viability of a winegrowing region if he feels he has the insight, knowlegdge and experience to do do.

    By the same token, Steve has the right to defend those areas, but is it necessary to say things like “one of the silliest things Bonne has ever written” or to lead with a sensationalistic headline with his name in it?

    The entertainment industry has already gone down the path of a complete and total loss of decorum. Sites like TMZ, Perez and Gawker daily are pretty banal and mostly trashy. Does the wine industry need to go down that same path?

    There are writers out there that profess it should be “about the wine” very much the way Clinton’s champions said it was all “about the economy”. But, then they turn around and belittle their colleagues.

    I guess I don’t get it. Seems very tedious and backwards to me.

  12. Anon, wine writers are not journalists. They (dare I say we) are pundits that sell opinion and not fact. Just as Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly go back and forth with each other over political opinion, so too can Steve/Charlie and Jon (granted there hasn’t been a ‘back,’ yet) do so over wine. Take everything they (we) say with a grain of salt. Despite what Steve thinks, we are not therapists…

  13. Anonymous says:

    You make an interesting point, though I do consider someone who writes for the Chron to be a journalist. And, I think I’d classify Bonne as a wine journalist, very much the way that I think Asimov is a wine journalist. Still, thanks for offering a different viewpoint.

  14. Steve,
    July mean temperatures around Wohler Bridge are pretty low (65-67°F) but mean highs often reach 84°F at Windsor (and Graton), and 86-87°F at Forestville. Theoretically speaking, this climate pattern, with long growing seasons (>220 days) and a lot of daily temperature variation, is more suitable for Merlot, Cab Franc, Tannat, Petit Verdot, even Cabernet Sauvignon (in warmer south facing slopes and around Forestville), than Pinot Noir.
    The (Middle Reach) area’s excessive solar radiation and low relative-humidity, in addition to the ability to obtain high Brix levels, might also distress (cook?) Pinot’s thin skins a little bit. The smoother coastal climate, with smaller daily thermal amplitude, higher humidity, fog (Guerneville, Monte Rio) and/or ocean breezes (Occidental – Sonoma Coast or RRV??), in spite of producing a higher proportion of malic acid, seems IMHO more appropriate to avoid the need for (cellar) intervention and to achieve Pinot’s natural/indigenous balance.

  15. Peter,

    I think there are a lot of other factors that need to be mentioned when looking at suitability….not just temperature. For example, the more variable weather in certain parts of the Sonoma Coast leads to lower yields, which oftentimes leads to more rapid sugar accumulation. — Some of the Sonoma Coast (such as the Fort Ross-Seaview area, where we get Hirsch fruit) is above the fog line. This leads to colder nightime temperatures but warmer daytime temperatures…..David Hirsch is actually the one that taught me about this diurnal shift….Other parts of the Sonoma Coast AVA (such as the Petalum Gap) are more fog enshrouded.

    Clones/rootstock/soil combinations make a huge difference. For example, in 2009 we purchased fruit from a vineyard near the Sonoma County airport, certainly one of the warm sections of the RRV. Harvest was on 10/4 for all 3 clones with the 115 clone being at 24.7 brix, the 667 clone being at 25.1 and the 777 clone being at 23.2 brix (that’s all in one vineyard). We also picked Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir is 2009, and it was harvested on 9/14 (3 week earlier) at 24.2 on the Mt. Eden and 23.9 brix on the Pommard.

    Unfortunately perhaps, reality when it comes to our vineyards and sections is complicated and you have to take each one individually….not taking AVA into consideration but instead being guided by the much more specific site.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  16. I read the piece and immediately forgot about it. More nonsense from amateur tasters. Maybe the sameness he found came from his own olfactory fatique. Now if such nonsense had been said about the Napa Valley I would been pissed, but this BS I can tolerate… particularly if it makes for more and cheaper RR Pinot for me to drink.

    But, I would have paid more attention to the piece if, rather than vague unsubstantiated opinions, he had given some evidence as to how he formed this conclusion. How many wines were overripe out of the 40 he tasted? How does that result compare to as similar tasting of Santa Rita Hills, Anderson Valley or Sonoma Coast which he feels may overshadow RR? What were the 40 wines tasted? What wines of those showed complacency in winemaking? Enquiring minds want to know!

    I can only assume his evidence for making his conclusion was so thin he didn’t dare attempt to substantiate it, else he’d have little to say.

  17. TomHill says:

    As a pretty wussy defense for Jon, not that he really needs one: True, his tasting panel changes from week to week. I would regard that as a strength of his methodology. Additional tasters bring different backgrounds and experiences and I think any wine taster can gain from listening to other taster’s perspectives. At least, I sure do. But, other than the voting of this panel’s recs on the wines, I regard the comments and conclusions in the article as Jon’s and Jon’s alone. I find it much more helpful to me when I can taste with others and listen to their comments then when I just sit down by myself, isolated from the world except me and my glass of wine.
    Jon gets out & about and tastes quite a lot of wines. His conclusion that the RRV Pinot world is in DeepDooDoo is based, I’m confident, on more than just these 40 RRV Pinots they tasted. Charlie & Steve, based on the RRV Pinots they’ve tasted, have come to a different conclusion than Jon. Se la vie.
    And to compare Steve’s blog to what you see on TMZ and Gawker (the very/very few times I’ve looked in there) strikes me as a bit far-fetched and overstating your case.

  18. Anon, fair enough. I suppose I would classify those two more on the journalist end of the spectrum. But why does place of employment dictate journalistic capabilities? Are Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck journalists because they’re paid by Fox ‘News’?

  19. Tom,

    FWIW, I thought this comment interesting….”That said, much of the excitement has moved on. A new model of Pinotphilia has been advanced by energetic but land-poor enthusiasts toiling in warehouses and begging for lots of fruit to create their vineyard-designate lineups. (Consider this the Williams Selyem legacy.) Increasingly, they are turning to the Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley, where the cutting edges lie.” —

    That wasn’t in this article….but in the review of the 2007 Russian River Pinots that Jon wrote two years ago. In this current tasting 20% of the wines were recommended. In the 2007 tasting 25% of the wines were recommended.

    The year before…in the tasting of the 2005 and 2006s the panel recommended 33% of the wines and found “lots to like among the 57 vineyard-designate Russian River Valley Pinots, which are made from vintners’ best, most distinctive grapes. The wines showed well and are displaying depth, complexity and less noticeable alcohol levels than many from the hot 2004 vintage.” That piece was written by Lynne Char Bennett.

    Not sure what that all means…or all adds up to….different panels each time….but thought it was interesting.

    And, yes, I have better things to do…..just waiting in a hotel room in Boston for a ride…..

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  20. Adam, I taste a lot of Pinots. I travel the state. And I know for a fact that the excitement has not “moved on” from RRV. It has spread, but RRV remains the Mother Ship.

  21. Bill Smart says:

    And with that I’m off to Arista to drink some damn good 09 Pinot with Crock and Crawfish! Cheers!

  22. The article written by Jon was, in my opinion, spot on. RRV Pinots haevn’t came out of the McDonald’s approach to “super size me”. As a producer of RRV Pinot Noir, I am dumbfounded how many folks are completely engineering their Pinot Noirs. Her Steve, why don’t you do some real journalism and come out to the RRV in early October to witness the bullshit that’s going on. I can assure you there will still be lots of tiny clusters still on the vine SHRIVELING away just so the reviewers can get their jollies. Yes, there’s a big lie going on in Pinot world. The numbers don’t lie and yet they also don’t add up. Water in massive amounts, fake acid that was once in the grape is being dumped in at an alarming 5-8 G/L. These wines are then oaked at a 40-70% NEW OAK SCHEDULE and then bottled within 9-11 months because the VA is going through the roof. Do you know the number of wines are having their alc’s spun out? There’s a guy in the west county who’s “slammed” (were his words) assisting these clowns at “finding the alcohol sweet spot for Pinot Noir”. This is NOT how we should treat such an elegant, graceful varietal like Pinot Noir.

    For those out there making this slop, why not just make syrah and get on with it? The “14.1%” joke is now turing into the “14.5%” joke. Except the joke is on the consumer.

    That being said, there are some doing a great job and respecting this sexy variety… Inman Family and Freestone are a few that come to my mind. Will the real Pinot Noir please stand up!!!

  23. a one time blogger says:

    With all the nonsense written above it explains something quite clear. The people who really know about wine taste for themselves, not for a column, blog, wine club membership, or to sell newspapers/magazines. It is why we normally do not have time to hash out this gibberish. By the time you are all done I have purchased the last case and am already a step ahead of you for the next great wine!

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