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Randy Caparoso's Culinary Wine & Food Matching is everything you wanted to know about wine in the context of food, sans the usual gibberish and vague generalities.



Tuesday, February 17, 2015

What a wine lover really wants

Author as a burgeoning sommelier (1982)

Is there a new American wine?

In an 2014 piece published in The Washington Post, longtime industry observer Dave McIntyre projected the evolution of what he calls “the new American wine,” strongly influenced by steadily growing consumer interest in wines grown and produced in states other than California (i.e. the “drink local” mantra), where the sun so easily engenders such rich, full bodied wines.  Writes McIntyre:

What does the new American wine taste like?  Because so much of it is coming from outside California (although the Golden State still dominates every statistical analysis of U.S. wine production), the wines are less ripe and alcoholic, combining a European sense of balance with American flair.  They might use unusual grape varieties, such as Petit Manseng or Chardonel, as vintners discover which vines grow best where.  Grape varieties could become less important as winemakers focus more on expressing the voice of their vineyards, often with blends that don’t follow traditional wine paradigms.  The new American wine is a wine of place, proud of where it comes from and proud of its diversity.

As for California wines, McIntyre adds:

These trends are happening inside California as well... we will hear more about moderating alcohol levels as winemakers, such as those in In Pursuit of Balance and other groups, redefine ripeness.  The sledgehammer wines with 15% alcohol might not be extinct, but their heyday has passed.

Artist Kathy Womack's depiction of today's wine lovers

Is the heyday of big alcohol wines – like big hair, or big fins on cars – coming to pass, or is this simply another case of a journalist closing his eyes and tapping his heels three times to wish something along?

When I started in the business in 1978, almost all wines were finished at about 12% alcohol (or 13%, if you really wanted to go wild).  Anything near 14% was considered weird, a freak of nature.  Most California red wines were aged in tree-sized redwood vats until their varietal fruit qualities were smoothed (or dried) out, and virtually no white wines saw aging in small “center of France” oak barrels.  Yet this was just the thing for grandpa and grandma, happily consuming these low-key wines by the gallon-jug from stubby glasses, or that restaurants served by the 1-liter “carafe” day and night.

The reason why Californians, in particular, were producing less ripe, lower alcohol style wines prior to the 1980s was because in those days they didn’t have better ways of doing it:   trellising and viticultural practices of the past made it difficult to grow grapes beyond 22° or 22.5° Brix (sugar levels that convert to just 12% to 13% alcohol and, thus, diminished fruit expression).  It wasn’t so much a style choice as an only choice.

Yet McIntyre makes a good point about the increased exposure to European wines influencing contemporary Americans’ taste in wine.  The European model is generally lighter and leaner – closer to the 12% alcohol and low emphasis on fruit that suited grandma and grandpa just fine – which is why it’s always such a shock when you find the occasional European imports made in softer, heavier, fruitier, woodier styles just to please us dumb Americans.

Optimal consumer segment:  female, early to mid-30s.

But let’s face it:  the reason why 14% alcohol wines are considered light by today’s standards, and why ultra-ripe, oaky styles have became so popular in recent years, was not only because viticultural and winemaking improvements made it possible, but also because consumers (not to mention 100-point critics) have liked them that way. Wine drinkers are like voters:  we like our big mouthed, obnoxious, even dim witted politicians, and continuously complain once we put them in office.

Still, today’s producers are always feeling the pressure to produce wines that fit the 100-point media’s criteria for what constitutes “good wine,” since media response is very much a part of the sales process.  But this does not keep consumer tastes from forever being in a state of flux.  Consumer tastes are constantly evolving, with or without media input.

Change is inevitable – it’s just that it’s never overnight, and there is always segments of the  wine consuming public that have to be dragged along kicking and screaming.  For years now, much of the public has been deriding the fat, fruity styles of California Chardonnay, but it’s not as if the cougars enjoying these wines will suddenly go extinct.  Many of them will continue to demand their butterball Chardonnays the same way that Aunt Gladys clings to her White Zinfandel, or the way Uncle Bob is perpetually suckered into his over-priced, over-hyped Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that he does more looking at in his cellar rather than actually drinking.

But time is a bitch in that it never, ever quits.  We all need time to gravitate to lower key sensations:  to think of lightness as a quality rather than flaw; to appreciate sharpness instead of softness, earth and minerals instead of tropical fruitiness, and subtle, barely noticeable complexity rather than obvious, brutal intensity.  But eventually we come around to that because moderation and subtlety is closer to the style of more timeless classics – that is, wines consumed in countries with a far longer history of appreciating wine.

A “new American wine” is on its way.  It’s just a matter of waiting for it, and...

Ancient Lodi vines:  strong sense of place

The final step:  appreciation of wines’ sense of place

The best wines in the world have always been defined primarily by how distinctly they taste of where they come from.  This is why, after centuries of winegrowing culture, all of the official quality classification systems in Europe are based upon identification and regulation of regions, sub-regions, and vineyards – not so much grapes, brands, producers, winemaking standards, etc.

How far along is the American wine industry on this path?  Honestly, not very far.  Most consumers, as well as industry movers and shakers, still define the quality of American wines primarily in terms of “varietal character,” or sheer intensity of fruitiness.  When it comes to wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, it is all too obvious that the more oak flavor in a wine the better.  Industry pundits even use the expression “200% new oak” – use of new oak barrels plus extra oak amendments during fermentation and élevage – to describe what is necessary to score 95 points or higher.

100-point score systems clearly exacerbate this misappropriation.  No matter how you slice it, assigning numbers to wine is an infantile way of looking at it.  There is no objectivity, but in this world you voluntarily suspend rational disbelief.  If wine critics were beauty pageant judges, they would be judging strictly on the size and perception of breasts.  But that’s okay, because most Americans (including media and trade) are still babies when it comes to subtlety or sophistication.  You have to start somewhere; and besides, babies are cute, aren’t they?

Still, we’ve come a long ways:  40, 50 years ago the vast majority of American wine drinkers were consuming generic wines like “Burgundy,” “Chablis,” and “Vin Rosé.”  Appreciation of varietal wines – at first, wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, then Chardonnay and White Zinfandel, progressing later to Merlot, Pinot Noir, red Zinfandel, Syrah/Shiraz, and most recently, “new” (although ancient in Europe) varietals like Tempranillo, Albariño, Verdelho, Sangiovese, and Grüner Veltliner – has really been a fairly recent development for most American consumers, but still a major step in the right direction.


Barrel topping in Halter Ranch Vineyard, Paso Robles

Appreciation of brands, winery styles, and even individual artisanal winemakers, has also been part of the evolution, but the next step is appreciation of wines in the way of the oldest winegrowing region in the world:  in terms of sense of place first – how well and distinctly they express where they are grown in real, tangible sensations – and only after that, appreciation of producers, and arbitrary notions like “varietal character” or “brand” styles.  That’s the natural order of things.

The finest wines have always been, basically, agricultural products.  They may be manufactured to some degree, since humans have a direct hand in the viticulture and science of the winemaking process.  But ultimately, both quality and appreciation are determined by characteristics derived from natural conditions within given regions and vineyards, down to smaller blocks of vines and individual plants, on this particular pocket of soil, exposure or climatic corner.  This is when fine wine really gets interesting – when Nature is given the final say on what you get in the bottle.

There are already, of course, tons of American wine lovers who are into that. They are enjoying American wines the way classic European wines have always been enjoyed (not, mind you, the modern day European wines that also employ 200% new oak to kiss up to the critics).  It’s only a matter of time before significant chunks of more wine lovers go for that, too.  And when that happens, most American wine producers will feel less compelled to produce wines kowtowing to 100-point critics (and maybe, just maybe, even the critics will develop more sophisticated tastes).  Praise the lord, and pass the bottle.

True-blue, crazy-about-wine consumers, after all, aren’t exactly stupid.  They’re just doing what they’re supposed to be doing – continuously learning, and expanding their horizons – along with our nation’s growers and producers.  For me – after all these years in the business of tasting, buying, selling, and writing about wine – the process is still an exciting one, and gets better by the day!

Millennials:  the face of future and present-day wine consumers

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The 2015 ZAP Experience: Is Zinfandel the new noir?

ZAP Sommelier & Winemaker Workshop speakers:  Matt Cline (Three Wine Company); Randy Caparoso (The SOMM Journal); Tegan Passalacqua (Turley Wine Cellars); Jamie Harding (Cavallo Point Lodge)

This past January 28-31, Zinfandel Advocates &Producers (a.k.a. ZAP) held its 24th full-scale “Experience” in San Francisco’s Presidio.  ZAP 2015’s theme:  Zinfandel is a rising star... reach out and grab it.

Zinfandel, of course, is not exactly a “rising” star.  It has been a major varietal since producers such as Ridge in the sixties and seventies, Ravenswood and Rosenblum in the eighties, and Robert Biale and Turley in the nineties began leading the way; fueling consumer mania for the grape’s more obvious features, such as big, lush, jammy fruitiness.

At the same time, Zinfandel producers have always been acutely aware that Zinfandel has never really caught on with the on-premise trade – particularly sommeliers in high-end restaurants, hotels and resorts. 

In turn, much of the on-premise trade has never made any bones about its perception of the category’s shortcomings over the past twenty years:  particularly the fact that most commercial Zinfandels almost seem to be crafted for lowest-common-denominator tastes.  Measured by girth rather than balance, Zinfandel tends to be over-oaked, overripe, often annoyingly sweet and rarely capable of expressing subtleties of terroir or origin.  

Zinfandel, in other words, usually ends up tasting too much like “Zinfandel”:  defined by trendish conceptions of “varietal character,” almost always at the expense of sense of place – a tragedy, considering the historical nature and complexity of field mixes common to so many ancient vine plantings.  The entire premise of ZAP, after all, is that Zinfandel is America’s heritage grape – to be treasured, and preserved.  I’m there, and not only that:  from experience, I know that Zinfandel is probably the most food-versatile red wine in the world (take that, Barbera and Pinot Noir).

ZAP Media & Trade Panelists:  Tim Fish (Wine Spectator); Lulu McAllister (NOPA); Wilfred Wong (wine.com); Randy Caproso (SOMM Journal)

But if you’re still not understanding why I can be such a cheerleader and, at the same time, critical of the varietal, let me put it this way:  how many Zinfandel specialists do you know produce multiple bottlings of single vineyard designated wines, which all taste the same?  

That’s what drives me nuts about even the finest Zinfandels.  All too many of them are crafted with an obsessive need to achieve a numbing uniformity of “varietal character,” usually with a heavy-handed dose of some kind of predictable “house style” (using the same yeasts, the same enzymes, the same re-hydration formulas, the same alcohol, pH and T.A. levels, the same oak dust and barrel regimes, ad infinitum).

I don’t care what a super-duper, revered Zinfandel specialist may say:  a Zinfandel made from a 100-year old vineyard from one vineyard or region should not be barely distinguishable from a Zinfandel sourced from another 100-year old vineyard from a different vineyard or region.  Hey, I get the importance of branding; but it’s a damned shame when “style” runs roughshod over terroir related distinctions.

Hence, ZAP’s “rising star” mantra at the 2015 Experience in San Francisco may, in fact, be very apropos.  As popular and as good as it can be, Zinfandel still has a ways to go towards “grabbing” the attention and respect of certain members of the trade.  Call fussbudgety sommeliers (or speaking for myself, sommeliers-turned-journalists) what you will, but I think we have a beef.

But not with all Zinfandels, of course.  There has been a very positive, growing movement afoot during the past few years, which has really been turning sommeliers on.  Those sommeliers, that is to say, who haven’t remained stubbornly close-minded about Zinfandel.  It will take a while before many of them become aware of what Christopher Sawyer – the former wine director of Sonoma’s Carneros Bistro & Wine Bar – shared with me following this year’s ZAP.  

According to Sawyer, “The 2015 ZAP may represent a huge awakening for people who thought all Zinfandels were big, sweet, and high in alcohol.  Instead, we’re starting to see a paradigm shift towards a new breed of young, adventurous winemakers who are putting more emphasis on elegance and food-friendliness – especially those working with ancient, heritage plantings from less familiar regions, such as LodiEl DoradoMendocinoLake, and Contra Costa counties.”

In my capacity as The SOMM Journal Editor-at-Large, I participated at the 2015 ZAP as organizer and moderator of a panel discussion/tasting strictly for an audience of media and trade on Wednesday, January 28.  Our panel, and the wines presented:

Randy Caparoso (The SOMM Journal)
2013 Lodi Native, Stampede Vineyard Zinfandel, Clements Hills-Lodi (Fields Family Wines)
2012 Lodi Native, TruLux Vineyard Zinfandel, Lodi (McCay Cellars)

2012 Turley Wine Cellars, Pesenti Vineyard Zinfandel, Paso Robles
2012 Hartford Family Winery, Fanucchi-Wood Road Zinfandel, Russian River Valley

Lulu McAllister (NOPA San Francisco Restaurant
2013 Bedrock Wine Company, Evangelho Vineyard, Contra Costa (Zinfandel/Carignan/Mataro/Alicante Bouschet/Palomino)
2012 Ridge Vineyards, Geyserville, Sonoma County (Zinfandel/Carignan/Petite Sirah/Mataro/Alicante Bouschet)

Wilfred Wong (wine.com)
2013 Cline Cellars, Ancient Vine Zinfandel, Contra Costa
2012 Ravenswood Winery, Dickerson Vineyard Zinfandel, Napa Valley


ZAP Media & Trade Panel Zinfandels

Then on Saturday, January 31, I hosted multiple sommelier/winemaker workshops, focused on terroir related qualities distinguishing Zinfandels from lesser known regions (namely Contra Costa, Lake County, the Lodi, Mendocino and Rockpile AVAs, and the Sierra Foothills AVA’s Calaveras and El Dorado regions).  Our speakers and wines:

LODI AVA - Randy Caparoso (The SOMM Journal)
Tim Holdener (Lodi Native & Macchia Wines)
2012 Lodi Native, Noma Ranch Lodi Zinfandel
2012 Macchia, Outrageous Noma Ranch Lodi Zinfandel
Layne Montgomery (Lodi Native & m2 Wines)
2012 Lodi Native, Soucie Vineyard Lodi Zinfandel
2012 m2, Soucie Vineyard Lodi Zinfandel
2012 m2, Select Block Soucie Vineyard Lodi Zinfandel

CALAVERAS COUNTY & EL DORADO AVA - Tracey Berkner (Restaurant Taste, Plymouth)
Scott Klann (Newsome-Harlow Wines
2012 Newsome-Harlow, Donner Party Calaveras Zinfandel
Jonathan Lachs (Cedarville Vineyard)
2012 Cedarville, Estate Bottled El Dorado Zinfandel
Steve Milliere (Milliaire Winery)
2011 Milliaire, Calaveras Zinfanndel
2011 Milliaire, Heritage Old Vine Ghirardelli Calaveras Zinfandel

CONTRA COSTA COUNTY - Jamie Harding (Cavallo Point Lodge, Sausalito)
Matt Cline (Three Wine Company)
2012 Three Wine Company, Live Oak Contra Costa Zinfandel
Tegan Passalacqua (Turley Wine Cellars)
2012 Turley Wine Cellars, Salvador Vineyard Contra Costa Zinfandel

LAKE COUNTY & MENDOCINO AVA - Christopher Sawyer (Sawyer Sommelier Consulting)
Andy Pestoni (Jelly Jar Wines)
2012, Jelly Jar, Lake County Zinfandel
Rich Parducci (McNab Ridge Winery)
2012 McNab Ridge, Cononiah Vineyard Mendocino Zinfandel
2012 McNab Ridge, Family Reserve Mendocino Zinfandel

ROCKPILE AVA - David Glancy MS (San Francisco WineSchool)
Jeff Cohn (Jeff Cohn Cellars)
2011 Jeff Cohn, Botticelli Rockpile Vineyard Rockpile Zinfandel
2012 Jeff Cohn, Botticelli Rockpile vineyard Rockpile Zinfandel
Clay Mauritson (Mauritson Family Winery)
2011 Mauritson, Rockpile Ridge Rockpile Zinfandel
2012 Mauritson, Rockpile Ridge Rockpile Zinfandel

The question that I dangled throughout the course of both events:  how close is Zinfandel coming to being simpatico with, say, the needs of sommeliers, or any wine lover expecting more from the category than simple, brutal varietal character?

Lulu McAllister, wine director at San Francisco's cutting-edge NOPA restaurant, also addressed the trade and media with Wong, seconding his emotion regarding Zinfandel’s role on the table.  According to McAllister, “I have Zinfandels on my list with the structure to handle pork chops and lightness to match fish and vegetable dishes.  I think it’s the fact that many of the best Zinfandels come from ancient, field crushed plantings – vineyards mixed with CarignanPetite SirahMataroAlicante Bouschet and other grapes – that is giving us all the more reason to highlight it in the restaurant.”

Wilfred Wong – a beloved San Francisco based retail merchandiser, now employed by wine.com as “Chief Storyteller” – sat on the trade and media panel, and had this to say:  “I happen to believe that Zinfandel is still on the rise, after four decades of tremendous growth.  For the restaurant trade, it has always been one of the most food versatile varietals out there, and most recently producers have been finding a sweet spot between power and balance.  Many of the wines tasted at this year’s ZAP events showed incredible finesse, proving that Zinfandel can appeal to more sophisticated tastes.”



Sommelier/Winemaker Terroir Workshop:  David Glancy MS (San Francisco Wine School), Jeff Cohn (Jeff Cohn Wines) and Clay Mauritson (Mauritson Family Winery) presenting Rockpile AVA Zinfandels

Inevitably there are sobering nays mixed in with optimistic yays.  Ron Washam, well known in the blogosphere as the HoseMaster of Wine, has worked with Zinfandel as a full-time sommelier for over thirty years in the L.A. area, before recently putting himself “out to pasture” in Sonoma County.  With his imitable phraseology, Washam tells us, “Every six or seven years some writer has declared ‘Zinfandel is about to break out.'  Zinfandel has seen so many outbreaks, it's the measles of wine varieties.”

Adds Washam, “I did walk away from ZAP thinking that there are fewer Turley impersonators than there were a few years ago, including Turley.  One of the prettiest Zinfandels I tasted was the 2013 Turley Vineyard 101 – nothing resembling the brutish Turleys of yesteryears.  Overall, I found a lot more Zinfandels that seemed focused on pretty varietal aromatics, and fewer that smelled like they should have that pretty Sun-Maid lady on the label.  I think that will ultimately serve the varietal well.”

Jamie Harding, the wine director at Sausalito’s Cavallo Point Lodge, cites experimental projects like Lodi Native, which focuses on native yeast fermented Zinfandels aged strictly in neutral oak in order to craft delicate, perfumed, almost Pinot Noir-like styles.  Says Harding, “projects like Lodi Native are only going to help producers find Zinfandel’s true expression – the grape seems capable of a lot more nuance and structure than what most people expect.”

Robert Volz of Portland’s pour wine bar & bistro tells us, “I traveled all the way from Oregon to attend ZAP because Zinfandel is my second-favorite grape, after Pinot Noir.”  Like Harding, Volz was struck by the Lodi Native Zinfandels, in which he found “lower alcohol levels and higher organic elements, much like the earthy aspects of a Burgundian or Oregon Pinot Noir.”

Full disclosure:  yes, I live in Lodi and have advised on the Lodi Native project.  But in every presentation to journalists, buyers or sommeliers, I have never suggested that they have to like the wines.  Lords knows, wine professionals make up their own minds, and so far the reaction to the Lodi Native Zinfandels has been overwhelmingly positive.  They get the beauty of lighter, naked Zinfandels.

Still, when all is said and done, Mr. Washam remains skeptical:  “Will the sommeliers of the world go retro and suddenly decide Zinfandel is the Next Big Deal?  I have my doubts.  Restraint may be the trend right now, but I have the feeling that the big fruit bombs of the past will make their inevitable comeback.  Hey, I love Zinfandel, always have – I just don’t think it has to be the next Pinot Noir.  It should be fine being ‘good ol' Zin!’”

Sommelier/Winemaker Workshop:  Andy Pestoni (Jelly Jar Wines, Chris Sawyer (Sawyer Sommelier Consulting) and Rich McNab (McNab Ridge Winery) presenting Lake County and Mendocino AVA Zinfandels

Saturday, March 24, 2012

True luxe & flagellation at the 2012 World of Pinot Noir


What became crystal clear after two days of immersion in the grape at The 12th Annual World of Pinot Noir in Shell Beach, CA. this past March 2-3:  American Pinot Noir has definitely grown up.

But have Pinot Noir lovers matured?  The Pinot Noirs shown – generally from the 2009 and 2010 vintages – were impressive enough, despite more than a few hints and allegations heard amongst the crowd about concerns like “balance,” which I still think is a load of expletive (re Why this whole “balance” issue is a crock).  I stood next to one enthusiastic pinotphile – bless his heart – congratulating a vintner because, and I quote, “I like the way you believe in picking early and making wine less than 14% alcohol.”  As if most winemakers – who have blown their wads or sold their soul to the devil to birth a gratifying pinot – are so clueless, they don’t know alcohol or balance from nothing.  The irony, of course, is that it’s neither a vigneron nor pinotphile who has the last word on such matters.  It’s Mother Nature.

Case in point:  in the press room I tasted the 2010 Clos Pepe Sta. Rita Hills Estate Pinot Noir and immediately thought, wow... the best Clos Pepes I’ve tasted in years (at least since the inaugural World of Pinot Noir in 2000).  Knowing owner/winemaker Wes Hagen’s almost religious devotion to restraint, vineyard over varietal fruit expression, and (hang on, here comes that word again) balance, I felt quite pleased with the maturity of my taste.  Until I picked the bottle up and looked at the alcohol content:  whoops, 14.5%.  Maybe my pinot consciousness hasn’t progressed after all.


So I wrote Mr. Hagen a few days later, and he promptly responded, saying that his 2010 was a product of “a long, very cool year that was punctuated by a heat spike in October.”  Grapes benefitted from “insane hang time,” but the heat wave “dehydrated the berries and added a layer of rich, sexy fruit not seen since 2002.”  Although Hagen admits that “Oregon haters might suggest Syrah additions” in this richly pigmented, ultra-intense vintage, spreading across the palate like “blueberry and boysenberry jam, cherry compote, intense spice and insane depth and concentration of aromatics... plush, luxe, sexy, ultra-seductive."

In other words, good stuff; and no matter how you spin it, as pure, sharply etched, and refined as any Pinot Noir, damned the torpedoes.  So even if only for this one time, 14.5% alcohol is good enough for Hagen, maybe we can’t define a wine by its numbers after all.  Duh.

Then again, the love and self-flagellation concerning American Pinot Noir goes back some time.  In typical deference to the enduring, mystical superiority of red Burgundy, in 1896 (not a typo) a respected U.C. Davis professor submitted:  "in some localities (of California) it is doubtless possible to make Pinot Noir wine of high quality and to age it, but only with a minute attention to detail and an elaborate care, which no price that is likely to be obtained at present would justify" (Muscatine, Amerine & Thompson, Book of California Wine).  

In the late 1960s the late, great André Tchelistcheff was famously quoted to say, "Pinot Noir is scrawny and broods about the slightest offense... all the challenge is getting the surly child to smile."


I started my own search for America's elusive vinous love child even before taking my first official sommelier job, back in 1978; when anything resembling real Burgundy was considered a freak of nature.  Those days, we could count the number of consistently successful pinot specialists on literally one hand:  let me see... Joseph Swan, Sanford & Benedict, Chalone... but not much more, since it was only occasionally that producers like Beaulieu, Mondavi, Hanzell or Eyrie produced something that wasn’t amusingly naïve in its presumptuous domesticity.

Ah, but how the list of its dedicated, thoroughly accomplished practitioners has swelled.  Producers who – standing on the storied shoulders of Tchelistcheff, Swan, Lett, and going even further back, Paul Masson and Martin Ray – seldom produce a discouraging pinot.  That is why, personally, I am as appreciative of big, voluminous, even richly oaked styles as I am of lighter, prickly, more comely or demure styles of Pinot Noir:  I vividly recall the days when you were happy to get anything that tasted decently of the grape.

Those that know me know that I abhor ratings (how can you put numbers on matters of aesthetics that change with the moment and circumstances?), but I do have a list of favorites tasted at the 2012 World of Pinot Noir.  

Larry Hyde's outstanding new vineyard in Cuttings Wharf, Carneros

In rough order of personal preference, as circumstances would have it at that point in time:

2010 Larry Hyde & Sons, Carneros – It’s been a long time since I was as thoroughly impressed by a Carneros grown Pinot Noir as I was with this bottling; compelling in its brilliant violet-red color, ultra-rich strawberry perfume, and full, concentrated, richly knit, voluptuous, even sluttishly rounded, fruit focused qualities.  Mr. Hyde, of course, has long been known for his viticultural prowess, supplying impeccable material (mostly Chardonnay) for the likes of Kistler, David Ramey, Patz & Hall, DuMOL, and his own HdV (in partinership with Aubert and Pamela de Villaine) for years.  But here’s the kicker:  the grapes for this spectacular pinot come from Hyde's most recent planting near Cuttings Wharf, south of Carneros Hwy. from Boon Fly Café, representing a massal selection (i.e. clonal mix) that went into the ground only in 2006.  When I followed up with Mr. Hyde about this freakazoid of a pinot, he said:  “yes, this is the case of young vines often producing superior wine... the problem will come up when the vines reach adolescence, and all our work will go into devigorating to recapture that quality” – adding, facetiously, “the ideal thing may be to sell the grapes to someone else when they reach that stage, and take them back when they are old and finally find their own balance.”

2010 Clos Pepe, Sta. Rita Hills Estate – I really was quite taken by this wine, as indicated by notes that read “puristic, sharply defined, velvety, tightly wound yet resplendent (yeah, that word actually popped up) with popping cherries and strawberry preserves.”  Question might be, does this particular pinot reflect more of a vintage and the grape itself, or, as the winery’s mission statement reads, “the complex and transparent character of the climate and soil here in Sta. Rita Hills?”  Here’s a thought:  who cares?  I say, just enjoy...

VML's Virginia Lambrix

2010 VML Boudreaux, Russian River Valley – VML (by winemaker Virginia Marie Lambrix, a Biodynamic® specialist who also makes the Truett-Hurst wines) also showed a 2010 VML Winemaker’s Select from Russian River Valley, and damned if I can tell you what I like better.  The Boudreaux positively quivers with pliant, fleshy, black and red berry fruit, sheathed in silk with wisps of smoky tobacco; whereas the Winemaker’s Select puts out even more sumptuous, broader, more densely textured fruit with a sensual, almost primal wild berry fruit quality (think gorging yourself from thorny roadside bushes while biking through a wine country in a summer sweat).  In a conversation with Ms. Lambrix the month before, she likened her Select to “Tchlistcheff’s fur coat... that animal smell combined with the perfumed scent of a woman,” but either VML will satisfy the most primitive longings of pinot lovers, pining for that base, licentious experience in finely laced garb.
  
2010 Kosta Browne, Gap’s Crown Vineyard, Sonoma Coast – This is more like one of those “whoa” pinots – somewhat full scaled, with as much muscle as flesh, or masculine, if you will – but its rich black cherry intensity seeps deep into the mouth, with that “Elvis on black velvet” quality that you just can’t keep your eyes off.  And for all you protest kids, there is very much a terroirist wine, as you find pinots of pretty much the same ilk made by others (notably MacPhail, Patz & Hall, Sojourn, Wind Gap and Anaba) who source from this 800-850 ft. elevation hillside vineyard on the western flanks of Sonoma Mountain, bathed in the sun while belted by moderating, rambunctious winds whipping in through the Petaluma Gap.


2011 Chamisal, Stainless Steel/Unoaked, Edna Valley – My enthusiasm for this pinot may very well be a plaintive cry for help:  I’m such a wuss when it comes to shamelessly fruity styles, and this fruit driven cuvée is like plasticine rock to a crack addict.  But I can say this because I’m just as confident in my street creds; and because even terroirists enjoy a good quaff like this purplish ruby red, emanating floral, super-fresh raspberry aromas, becoming like drippy cherries in the mouth, contained in a fine, zesty, medium body unperturbed by mild tannin.  

2010 Failla, Keefer Ranch, Russian River Valley – Because Failla is a poster child for what is often associated with contemporary “natural” wine – cold climate viticulture, wild fermentation, minimalist élevage, etc. – the assumption even among those who should know better is that a Failla Pinot Noir will also be minimalist in structure and fruit expression.  Of all their cuvées, Failla’s Keefer Ranch regularly defies such pigeonholing:  the 2010, a violet toned, lusciously fruity wine teeming with extravagant perfumes of strawberry, peppermint and baking spices, flowing out from a velvety, voluptuous body of almost unreal lushness.  Winemaker/owner Ehren Jordan would tell you that fruit from Keefer Ranch is what it is – he doesn't fool with it - and so if you are looking for something taut, tart and taciturn, like a nice little pinot should be, you should probably look elsewhere, my friend.  Just as exotic in its pinot sauciness - but in a tad more flowery, bony, Angelina Jolie sort of way - is the 2010 Failla Sonoma Coast Pearlessence.

2010 Freeman, Keefer Ranch, Russian River Valley – This vineyard – sitting pretty much dead-center in the Green Valley sub-AVA, sloping down to Green Valley Creek – invariably produces meaty yet fluid pinots for its prestigious clientele (besides Failla, Kosta Browne, Siduri, and the Keefers themselves).  Freeman always seems to emphasize the foresty spice, enhanced by subtle smoky oak, of the terroir; and in 2010, couching that in black cherry and earth tones, its plush, fullsome body fluffed up by mild acidity.  With even more emphasis on earthy, sweet pepper tinged spice, the 2010 Freeman Sonoma Coast Akiko’s Cuvée coalesces with similar, plush qualities, battened down by a slightly edgier, mouth watering acidity.

James MacPhail

2010 MacPhail, Pratt Vineyard, Sonoma Coast – You gotta love James MacPhail’s aggressive style:  you might notice his use of oak, but nearly always just to the point where varietal fruit qualities distinguishing his stable of top flight vineyard sources become all the more exhilarating.  In the 2010 Pratt, a woodsy/spiced black cherry fruit concentration hits you with almost relentless, juicy intensity, supple and fleshy in the mouth, yet coiled and springy in the feel.  After a brief hiatus, Mr. MacPhail’s return to this growth, farmed by Jim Pratt at the north end of Sebastopol Hills (as such, also falling within the Russian River Valley AVA), is something to write home about.

2009 Talley, Rosemary’s Vineyard, Arroyo Grande Valley – It’s the immediate east-west proximity to the Pacific that has always given Talley’s Arroyo Grande Valley plantings their sturdy, steely, often dark, savory, scrubby, almost iron-like, downright masculine qualities – confoundingly stingy in some years, generously sleek in others.  Of all their single vineyard bottlings, Rosemary’s probably personifies that taut tension of sinew and berry jam concentration; in 2009, taunting you further with exotic notes of berry infused black tea spice, before knocking you to the floor with curvaceous, fleshed out, acid and stony sensations.

2009 Bergström, The Bergström Vineyard, Dundee Hills - Among the latest releases from Bergström Wines, there are three estate (also DEMETER certified Biodynamic©) grown bottlings from three different Willamette Valley AVAs, representing two vintages that owner/winemaker Josh Bergström says “could not be more different.” Bergström describes 2009 as a “warm, ripe year, producing wines of opulence, density, plush textures, and alcohols over 14%.”  Hence, the meaty, almost explosive qualities of the ’09 Bergström Vineyard, couched in what Bergström describes as an "old world palate... meaning more earth, mineral and a complexity that does not revolve solely around fruit,” which he attributes to his signature estate’s rocky red soil, consistently giving “a ferrous-driven minerality reminiscent of blood or Breseola.”


On the other hand, Mr. Bergström describes 2010 as more of a “classic Oregon vintage... very late ripening into November, flavors developing before sugars, interplay of acid and tannin, and alcohols around 12.9%-13.2%.”  Though still calling them “babies,” the 2010 Bergström de Lancellotti Vineyard Chehalem Mountains Pinot Noir ($60) is already flowery and perfumed, and the 2010 Bergström Gregory Ranch Yamhill-Carlton Pinot Noir ($60) is silky, bright and effusive, despite the young, meaty tannin in both.  Bergström notes that Gregory, the family’s newest site, is on one of Yamhill-Carlton’s cooler slopes, describing its emerging character as “urgent cherry and Marionberry, and a sweet earth character more akin to truffle than loam, on top of the classic sweet spice/potpourri of Willakenzie soil.”

Some briefer remarks on other noteworthy Pinot Noirs:

2008 Solomon Hills, Santa Maria Valley – One of the few ‘08s being shown during the weekend; red berry perfume tinged with smoky, peaty notes; slender, lean, but nicely filigreed qualities, energized by snappy acidity and harmonious tannin.

2008 Bonaccorsi, Nielson Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley – Another ’08; this one, a charmer with dollops of cherry fruit and strawberry purée; soft, delicate feel on the palate, with silk and zippy acid interplay.

2009 Native9, Rancho Ontiveras Vineyards, Santa Maria Valley – Fragrant cherry pie, cola, and smoked meat qualities in the nose and dense texturing; acidic snap, plus raw, pithy sense of immediacy from front to back.

2009 Pali, Fiddlestix Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills - Bull’s eye in the middle of the seductive perfume (red berry and rose petal) and earth tinged aspects of the grape; slinky body, draped in velvet and smoky spice.

Greg La Follette with assistant winemaker Simone Sequeria

2009 La Follette, Du Nah Vineyard, Russian River Valley – Head spinning intersection of wild berries, dead leaves, smoky spice, and even a smack of leather (organic rather than Brett related); silken textured, earth toned flavors punctuated by sharp acidity; youthful tightness in the finish.

2010 ROAR, Sierra Mar, Santa Lucia Highlands – First release from Gary Franscioni’s newest vineyard atop a 1,000 ft. elevation slope; lush bing cherry, super-high toned, tangy and deep.

2010 Lucia, Gary’s Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands – By Pisoni Vineyards; medium-full bodied wine saturated with black cherry fruitiness; firm tannin center, while lush and snappy on the palate.
  
2009 Benovia, La Pommeraie, Russian River Valley – Bright, broad, lavish Russian River Valley style; plump, juicy, velvet texturing.

2009 Flying Goat, Garey Ranch, Santa Maria Valley – Super-fragrant nose of strawberry and peppermint sprigs; bright, zesty, high toned, yet fine and delicate in the feel.

2010 Thomas Fogarty, Rapley Trail Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains Estate – Redolent of strawberries and underbrush, yet dense and youthfully bright, tart edged on the palate; finishing with a fluid feel of soft leather in its medium weight.

Winemaker Nathan Kandler in Thomas Fogarty's mountaintop estate

2009 Fiddlehead, Oldsville Reserve, Chehalem Mountains – Pale transluscent red color and fragrant perfume of dried flowers and berries; sense of delicacy in the nose and palate, finishing with a fine, zesty flourish.

2009 Sokol Blosser, Dundee Hills – Another Oregonian shown in almost stark contrast to the weightier California pinots:  a lithe, medium bodied pinot, throwing out attractively floral notes of Christmas spiced berries; some tightening tannin in the mouth, but flowing into a long, zesty finish.

2009 Freestone, Estate Grown, Sonoma Coast – Nose dripping with sour-suggestive morello cherry fruitiness, tinged with an airy woodsy spice and strawberry sweetness; fairly full on the palate, revved up by good acid and sweet woodsiness of the spice and oak.

2010 Luminesce, Presqu’ile Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley – Luscious, sweet red berry nose; the promiscuous fruit qualities tucked into a nicely rounded, velvety medium body.

2010 Belle Glos, Clark &Telephone Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley - Billowingly sweet scented, somewhat fat yet luxurious, satisfying; from an own-rooted, Martini clone vineyard now in its fortieth leaf.

ROAR's Gary Francscioni

2009 Lucienne, Doctor’s Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands – Fairly lavish nose of red berries, smoke, and trail mix-like dried fruits and nuts; aggressive full body and tannin, but plumped up by lush flavors.

2010 Hilliard Bruce, Hahn Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands – Luscious, almost liqueur-like strawberry/cherry aroma; velvety, broad feel, brimming with luscious fruit, in similar, gushy, bouncy style to the solidly crafted 2009 Hilliard Bruce Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir Moon.

2009 Silver Pines, Sonoma Mountain – Sweet berry and interestingly organic, forest floor aromatic notes; silky on the palate, finishing on the soft side.

2010 Puma Road, Vigna Monte Nero, Santa Lucia Highlands – By Ray Franscioni Wines (RFW); slightly sharp edged, almost lean in its classical structuring, yet teeming with strawberryish fruit.

2010 Bu, Wildcat Mt. Vineyard, Sonoma County – By Bruliam Wines; invitingly lush red berry perfumes; velvety entry leading to slightly fat but juicy, flavorful feel.
Native9's James Ontiveras

Sunday, December 4, 2011

La Follette's Strange Fruits


No winemaker is as widely known, and often misunderstood, as Greg La Follette

La Follette in Sangiacomo Vineyard
This profile and interview was originally composed for Sommelier Journal (Nov. 2011), where it appeared in abbreviated form as a winery profile.

We like our winemakers to be unique, but not odd.  We like their wines to be intense and expressive of something, but not so different that we can't easily compare them to other wines within our points of reference.  We even like to talk concepts like "natural" and terroir, as long as the ramifications of such are reasonably easy to sell -- at least for those of us in the restaurant or retail trade.

Greg La Follette has never been one to make things easy for us, despite the notoriety of being first real winemaker at Flowers, during this extreme Sonoma Coast estate’s formative stage in the late nineties.  When La Follette ventured off on his own, founding Tandem Winery in 2001, it was almost as if he wanted us to forget the glory years at Flowers, and even earlier milestones, such as the years when he led Hartford Court into the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay Big Leagues.

For one, he’s been rarely seen:  after starting Tandem, he turned into one of those flying winemakers, designing and consulting for more than a dozen wineries across the globe, at one point on five different continents (including at home in Sonoma, for it was La Follette that Jean-Charles Boisset first called upon to restore De Loach after taking it out of bankruptcy in 2003).  Between raising kids (a total of six, between wife Mara La Follette and himself) and whispering to vines, there simply hasn’t been much time for public relations or even sales.

Second, when there were La Follette sightings, it was usually of a grizzled man in well worn overalls and an unfortunate haircut – not an image of the suave celebrity winemaker – while the twenty or so wines produced each year under the Tandem label became known more for their tendency to stick out in comparative tastings, challenging even the most adventurous palates with oft-times discomforting sensations of down-and-dirty earth, pungent meats, unidentifiable flowers, or strange fruits – love it or leave it – despite their structural integrity and sleek, coiled intensity.

Still, La Follette’s energy quickly grew Tandem to over 9,000 cases a year; and although the winemaker’s legend also expanded, especially among geekier elements of the cognoscente, the wines were not exactly flying out the cellar door.  Enter Peter Kight, owner of Wine Creek LLC, which also handles Barossa Valley’s Torbreck Wines and Dry Creek Valley’s Quivira Vineyards.  In 2008 Kight began chatting with La Follette about taking Tandem off his hands, in a deal that would also retain his consumnate skills as a winemaker, and his uncanny eye for edgy vineyard sourcing.  In January 2009 Tandem officially became part of Wine Creek. 


Kight’s company immediately brought steadier management, sound marketing and broader distribution to Tandem; particularly by halving SKUs to less than ten, and bringing the products into more realistic price points (from $40-$70 to $30-$40).  After a year into it, Kight came to La Follette with an even better idea – scrap the Tandem label altogether; establish a new name, and re-focus it on what it really is:  La Follette Wines, launched in summer of 2010.

Within the Wine Creek fold, La Follette himself enjoys more freedom than ever as a winegrower; his feet firmly set, so to speak, in the terroir:  if anything, he has always been known for a single minded focus on vineyard expression, even at the expense of “varietal” or brand identification.  To Kight’s credit, Wine Creek has rolled with it, and so far so good.

While fewer in number, the brand formerly known as Tandem still consists of single vineyard and Sonoma Coast bottlings from some of the finest, most prestigious vineyards on the North Coast:

  • DuNah – in the fog and windswept Sebastopol Hills, at the southernmost end of the Russian River Valley AVA
  • Sangiacomo’s Roberts Road – (not to be confused with the Sangiacomo family’s Carneros plantings), falling in the Sonoma Coast AVA on the eastern edge of Petaluma Gap, at the base of Sonoma Mountain
  • Van der Kamp – a 1,400 ft. elevation Sonoma Mountain planting (highest in the AVA) dating back to the early sixties
  • Lorenzo – an historic 36 year old Chardonnay vineyard on the floodplain south of Santa Rosa in the Russian River Valley AVA
  • Hawk’s Roost – another late ripening Russian River Valley site located on the Santa Rosa floodplain
  • Manchester Ridge – a newer site (planted 2002-2004) on a remote, dizzyingly high 2,800 ft. peak in Mendocino Ridge, and one that has only solidified La Follette’s reputation for edgy, iconoclastic winegrowing.
Lorenzo Vineyard

This past spring La Follette sat down and talked about his 27 years of winegrowing, now crystallized in his eponymous new brand:

RC:  Although you’ve established a reputation for the unorthodox, I’ve heard you say that you attribute most of what you’ve learned to U.C. Davis.

GL:  I originally thought of becoming a Catholic priest.  Instead I ended up studying chemistry at U.C. San Francisco, earned my degree in plant biology and chemistry, and started doing research in the U.C. system.  My specialty was infectious diseases, particularly AIDS, but it became difficult for me emotionally.  Finally I said, life’s too short, and much to the chagrin of my parents I went back to school to study analytical chemistry at U.C. Davis, and got my degree in winegrowing.  That was in 1987.

RC:  What did they call that degree at that time?

GL:  My diploma read, Food Science and Technology.  I actually stayed an extra year at Davis, working on-staff as a chemist, while continuing to take as many viticultural courses as I could.  In fact, three years earlier I had already started working at Simi Winery, where Zelma Long was winemaker, Paul Hobbes was assistant winemaker, and Diane Kenworthy was the viticulturist – all great people to learn from.  While attending Davis and working at Simi, I was primarily looking into the role of pectins and their uses as a possible marker for ripeness.  Then after taking my degree at Davis I started working at Chalone with Dick Graff, who actually gave me 67 barrels for my research.  Then I recruited John Kongsgaard, who was at Newton, to help me out as well.

RC:  Sounds like a lot places to be at one time.

GL:  No kidding – I was going crazy, driving all over the place.  But what I really wanted to look at was the effects of Burgundian winemaking techniques, which I was able to do in three different places.  Right about that time, in 1991, I met André Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu, who became probably the single biggest influence in my winegrowing career.

RC:  How so?

GL:  André was huge – an amazing man, so focused on wine, holding so much knowledge in his hand, which he would sort of take out in little bits from his pocket, hold it forward in his hand for you to examine, or to pick up and put into your own pocket.  He would never force anything down your throat – most of the time he was more interested in listening to what I had to say.  André also taught me things like, “never let winemaking ruin your personal life,” and “pay attention to your children” – which I never forgot.

Van der Kamp on Sonoma Mountain

RC:  Aside from Tchelistcheff, who were your other key influences?

GL:  Ralph Kunkee, Roger Boulton and Ann Noble were my three thesis professors at U.C. Davis, and they were influential in the way that I thought.  Not so much what they tried to teach me, but how to investigate, how to ask questions.  They gave me tools, not answers – how to problem-solve. 

It was an incredible stroke of luck that I was able to work for André Tchelistcheff because he gave me the opportunity to put that approach to problem-solving to work, all the while encouraging me to go off on other projects – like starting up Yarra Ridge in Australia, and Jarvis in Napa Valley.  I took those jobs, but kept boomeranging back to Beaulieu for the privilege of working with André, and doing exhaustive research for him, like 24 Pinot Noir clonal trials.  Finally, in 1994, a job offer came up with Kendall-Jackson – to start up a new brand called Hartford Court, and to help resuscitate La Crema,  André thought that this was going to be the next big thing, the wave of the future, and he encouraged me to go.  So I started with the K-J properties, where I ended up carving out my own position as an in-house consultant/problem-solver, viticulturist/winemaker.

RC:  This was right before your move to Flowers?

GL:  In 1996 I was out in the Sonoma Coast during the harvest, walking through the rows ahead of the picking crew and flagging vines, because there was some real variability in that field.  I looked across the canyon and saw another picking crew really having a hard time, and so after I was done I got into my car and drove on over – we were on a different ridge, so the drive took 45 minutes – hopped out and introduced myself to Joan and Walt Flowers, who had just recently planted their first 18 acres, and just starting to build their winery.

Walt looked at me and said, “who are you?”  I told him I was Greg La Follete, and Joan said, “oh, you’re Greg La Follette – I just read your column last night about designing a winery for minimal cost and maximum quality output.”  Long story short, they were looking for help.  Their vineyard, frankly, wasn’t planted properly – in fact, a lot of their acreage had already slipped down the slope – and winery construction was running about a million dollars over budget.  And so 5 weeks and about 10 interviews later, I started work for Joan and Walt, sat down with their winery design team to make the necessary changes, and got it completed by the following vintage.  We came in several hundred thousand dollars under budget, and still improved the quality output.

RC:  What was the appeal of Flowers to take you away from that plum job at Kendall-Jackson?

GL:  There weren’t a lot of vineyards in the area at the time. Hirsch was established across the way, and the Bohans were the first to plant out there, although they had planted Merlot which ripened only about two out of every three years.  There were no wineries other than Flowers.  We were planting some very cutting-edge clones and rootstocks, and we did some really cool vineyard engineering to deal with the high elevation, heavy rainfall and steep slopes.

It was a great place to be a pioneer, and a great place to raise children.  Nick Peay was my cellarer for about two years, Luke Porter Bass was my cellarmaster, and I hired Hugh Chappelle as a day-to-day winemaker and Ross Cobb as a harvest enologiest.  I helped out Linda and Lester Schwartz, who were planting out Fort Ross Vineyard next door, and of course, Marcassin and people like Ehren Jordan were doing some big things in the region as well.  I think Flowers was a nucleus for a lot of things that were starting to blossom on the coast at that time.


RC:  How did your experience at Flowers change your outlook on winegrowing?

GL:  It didn’t.  I already had just about all my thoughts and ideas in place well before I got to Flowers.  At Flowers, though, I was able to fully implement them. 

RC:  Such as?

GL:  It was kind of like new viticulture:  using every part of every day in vines’ processing of their surroundings to make the most effective wine possible.  Employing a carbohydrate repartitioning strategy, which involves timing of leafing, not just leafing.  Pruning strategy, appropriate modifications of the Guyot-Côte methods employed in Burgundy.  Bringing that information into the winery and doing wild primary and secondary fermentations.  Doing a lot of gentle nudging rather than bashing of wines.  Open top fermenters, hand punching, going to barrel early and dirty, moderate use of oak rather than big, whacking heaps of oak.  Letting yeast interact with barrel polyphenols to unleash flavor.

RC:  Could you elaborate on your last point about yeasts?

GL:  Yeasts are actually capable of bio-transforming barrel phenols and softening them.  Prior research, at U.C. Davis, and during my time with André, had indicated that going to barrel early was very important for that.  But of course, the work starts in the vineyard.  One of the first things I did at Flowers was take the 18 acres they had planted – which was all cordon spur pruned, resulting in wines with very hard tannins – and do the Texas Chainsaw Massacre thing.  We lopped off all the cordoned arms, and implemented a double Guyot modified cane system.  Almost immediately tannin ripeness and fruit balance improved dramatically.  In other parts of the property we went from meter x meter to 5 by 8 foot spacing, increased yields from 1 to over 3 tons per acre, and we improved quality significantly – something borne out by higher scores. 

RC:  So you were able to improve quality by increasing yields?  That doesn’t sound right, especially for Pinot Noir.

GL:  There is an old adage that says “low yield makes better wine,” but this is horse-puppy.  Balanced vines make better wines.  Sometimes lower yields can make worse wine.  The earliest vintages of Flower Pinot Noir, for instance, were tannic monsters – their fruit is long gone.  The key is putting the breaks on shoot tip growth and initiating carbohydrate repartitioning – encouraging vines to go from a vegetative stage to a reproductive stage, preferably at lower Brix.  This is where you get earlier formation of color and flavor aromas.  You get that by doing things like opening up canopies and getting earlier light penetration, not dropping leaves too early or too late, getting moderate leaf size, not too large and not too small.

At lower yields vines aren’t always interested in ripening tannins, so they make you wait for it – often at a higher Brix than what you want.  Of course, for Pinot Noir it depends entirely upon the clone and site.  While many clones perform better at lower tonnage, there are clones grown on a fertile site that actually need to be picked at higher tonnage to come into better balance.

RC:  When you talk about this – achieving ripeness at lower Brix – it also sounds like a good way to address the issue of high alcohol, which has recently become a big topic, or bone of contention, in the press.

GL:  Whether a wine is below 14% alcohol or above 14% alcohol is really not my focus, but I will say this – I haven’t used a refractometer in over 30 years.  I learned long ago, working with Zelma Long, the right way to taste grapes – how to excoriate the seeds in your mouth to ascertain ripeness, and why you always pick for flavor.  In 2010 my lowest picking was probably about 20° Brix, and my highest maybe about 24°.  Among our current releases, we have wines under 14% alcohol, and wines over 14% alcohol. 

I realize that sommeliers really are the first line of defense – they’re tasting wines, and deciding which wines people will experience – and they can probably decide for themselves whether or not a wine is balanced, whether a wine is good for the food they’re serving, or whether a wine is better off served by the glass like a cocktail.

But for winemakers, our job is to make wines of balance and harmony.  This argument about whether wines should be lower or higher than 14% alcohol reminds me of the argument between a married couples having troubles, especially those with children.  You know who always suffers the most from those arguments?  The children.  You know what suffers the most from this argument about wines having too much alcohol?  The terroir.  We let terroir fall through the cracks when we go back and forth on alcohol, and it’s terroir that really matters – at least for the wines that matter most to me.
Pinot Meunier in Van der Kamp Vineyard

RC:  But doesn’t the high alcohol question call into question the wisdom of how California wine is grown?

GL:  No question, with good farming practices you don’t have to wait forever – for higher sugars or dessication – in order to find balance.  Regardless of where you’re growing or what you’re growing, intra-cellular machinery has to start well before veraison – you can actually start getting carbohydrate competition to effect berry cell division and berry cell expansion just after flowering.  Less berry cell division means fewer cells per berry, which means smaller berries and more concentration.  Less berry cell expansion means small cells per berry, which means smaller berries and more surface to volume ration, resulting in more concentration in the absence of excess sugar.  If you’re not getting that, it probably means you need to re-examine what you’re doing in the vineyard.  It also means you may have planted the wrong grapes in the wrong site.

What I’m more interesting in learning is the language of wine, which is nothing more than the language of vine physiology and yeast cell biology, and the more you learn those particular speeches the better you can speak to those needs.

RC:  At a conference in Santa Cruz, I once heard you talk about yeast cell biology in terms of wild fermentation and nutrient deprivation.  How is that consistent with what you learned at U.C. Davis?

GL:  One of the first things you learn at U.C. Davis is that Saccharomyces can produce aromatic molecules – for instance, one that produces the beautiful smell of rose petals.  But the only way yeasts are able to do this is if they first exhaust their nitrogen sources.  The first thing they eat is ammonia, and then they start on amino acids, preferentially.  The first amino acid they eat is analine, and the last amino acid they eat is phenylanaline.  And so yeasts chop off the phenyl group to get to the analine portion, and basically substitute the remaining benzene ring, or molecules, for 4-ethyl phenethanol – and voila, the smell of rose petals.

What you learn from this kind of winemaking is, “wow, you can push the dragon’s tail and get some really cool aromas and flavors.”  This is why it’s not such a good idea to add a bunch of yeast nutrients or to inoculate prophylactically.  Wild ferments can take forever, and often require prayer and occasional interventions.  But the advantage is their stress responders.  Think of yeast cells as being like athletes – you train them by making them run, not by feeding them bonbons.  When the yeasts start to tire, molecular walls start to crumble, and they begin to build macro-molecules that give wines more structure, like steel girders.  You also get more attractive mouthfeels, and complex aromas, like the smell of rose petals or roasted meats.

RC:  But isn’t it true that at U.C. Davis winemakers are discouraged from employing wild fermentation?

GL:  Davis doesn’t really teach you answers – they teach tools of investigation.  They tell you about the good and the bad stuff, wild ferments vs. inoculated ferments, where you can go wrong and where you can go right.  Make no mistake – wild fermentation is not practicing safe winemaking, but it can produce more interesting and unusual wine.  Wines I call enigmatic, which speak to a sense of place, rather than simple varietal character.

RC:  When you say “sense of place,” aren’t you talking more about following the French, and specifically Burgundian, traditions, as opposed to the science of U.C. Davis?

GL:  I certainly investigated Burgundian techniques very thoroughly, but my idea was to find out how these things work, not necessarily to follow them.  Once you find out how, you can improve upon it.  One of the things you discover is that some Burgundian techniques work, but for reasons that are the opposite of what they say.  A good example is the practices of sur lie and bâtonnage, the stirring of lees, and the idea that this reduces the amount of tannin in wine.  It is true that these practices result in a better mouthfeel, but the opposite is true when it comes to tannins – you actually increase tannins by practicing sur lie

In my own research I’ve found that the absorption of tannin into proteins happens very quickly following primary fermentation, but if you sweep away the lees you’re sweeping away a big pool of tannins.  If you allow lees to remain in contact, there is a slow re-release of tannins back into the wine, along with macro-molecules that are also enriching the wine and bathing over those tannins.  The result is a taking away of the aggressiveness of those tannins.  So instead of feeling those tannins like a big punch, you’re masking those tannins by grabbing them, and putting more fatness and richness into the mid-palate, and extending that feel into the late palate.

RC:  Does this also explain the more consistent longevity of Burgundian wines, compared to most New World wines?

GL:  You got it.  About a couple weeks after primary fermentation, yeasts always begin to prepare to go into a deep space.  So what they do is jettison all their intra-cellular material, all the guts that they don’t need for anything but going into deep sleep survival mode outside the presence of sugar, and a lot of those compounds are great anti-oxidants.  That’s why you stir, and you add oxygen, and even encourage brown juicing – because the lees are able to absorb these compounds, resulting in much more interesting, profound and longer lived wines.
Lorenzo Vineyard, Spring 2011

RC:  It seems to me, when I taste one of your Chardonnays or Pinot Noirs, there is invariably some kind of odd fragrance or unusual perfume not found in Chardonnays and Pinots from other producers – even those who espouse natural fermentations and work with other cold climate sites in the North Coast.  What’s up with that?

GL:  It’s no accident because I’m never focused on just primary fruit – I’m always looking for complexity.  I think, for instance, that if you can combine the smell of mushrooms, or forest floor, rose petals or roasted venison, by favoring a cold loving yeast during early stages of fermentation, and if you have that yeast as an indigenous part of a particular vineyard, then what you are doing is opening yourself up to form a closer partnership with the land.  You are digging out all the possibilities of the land, and you’re letting a vineyard speak in a voice or language it wants to speak in.  I’ve always felt that it’s my job, my mission, to bring that voice forward.  I’m not going impose anything, I’m going to remain quiet and listen, and really try to form a partnership in the same way I might partner with someone I love and respect.  To me, this is a wilder, more satisfying approach to wine.

RC:  Even if those aromas and flavors come out “weird?”

GL:  Especially.  Complexities inherent in a vineyard’s yeast population can be like an exotic flower, a rose petal, or a forest floor.  It can be feral, often sauvage et animale.  If you can find that fine seam of tension that exists between the floral and the feral, and get it just right, I think you make a more transcendent wine – like the tension in the notes that build up in, say, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.

RC:  Yet in the past, you’ve often used the term “Euro-centric” to describe your wines.

GL:  When I used that term, I meant relying less on oak and ultra-ripeness to make a meaningful wine.  Relying on higher acidity, but a balanced acidity, and less focus on fruit, more focus on complexity.  There was a time when it seemed like the highest scoring Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs were bigger, higher in alcohol, oakier, and jammier or more opulent in fruit, but that never seemed to keep many of our wines from scoring very high, or even finishing on top.

RC:  Was this also a way of saying that your wines are less “manipulated?”

GL:  It’s mostly about practicing good vineyard husbandry, but I never felt that we were that good when it comes to handling in the winery.  So we watch our wines very closely – giving them a little nudge here, a little nudge there.  We ferment in shallow tubs so that we can do hand punch-downs, because that’s more intimate, and because that’s how you can feel the heat and aromas coming out of the musts.  We sample lees in our mouth, to see if they’re nice and creamy, sweet or stinky.  We monitor our wines barrel by barrel, handling each one like separate lot.  It’s like little children – you have to be there early on to diaper them, then you watch them stumble and fall as they get older, and you’re still watching them closely when you’re handing them the keys as they walk out the door. 

RC:  Back up a little and tell me what makes your fermentors unusual? 

GL:  We use halved stainless steel milk tanks, which range from one ton to six tons.  As they get bigger, they get longer and broader, insuring that the cap stays within the human strength-range of punchdown ability, including a 114 pound teenage boy.  A very important consideration in my sons’ training as young men who have the wherewithal to work hard and know what it all means.

RC:  Now for the million dollar question – is it pronounced “La-FAH-lette,” or “LAH-Fol-lette?”

GL:  My name is “La-FAH-lette,” but the brand is “LAH-Fol-LETTE.”  We figured it’s easier to identify with the French pronunciation.

RC:  Final question – if you could shuck it all away tomorrow, what would you be doing?

GL:  Growing grapes, of course, but in my own vineyard.  But I think I’d like to try it with a horse and plow.  When you plow the dirt yourself, you see everything, and every clod means even more.  Then again, I always liked horsing around!


LA FOLLETTE WINES’ CURRENT RELEASES

2009 La Follette, Sangiacomo Vineyard, Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($30) – Cold, foggy coastal air funneled in a direct line through the Petaluma Gap to this cobbled, rocky, old riverbed site has consistently made for the nutrient starved wild yeast ferments favored by La Follette; engendering, in Chardonnays, flavor/aromas with as much minerality and toasted almond as intense apple, pineapple and lemon varietal fruit definitions, while slapping a viscous layer over snappy, sinewy, high acid texturing.  Make no mistake, the profile is Californian, but definitely with an Old World raunch.

2008 La Follette, Lorenzo Vineyard, Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($38) – While not the coldest site in the La Follette book (that would be Du Nah in the nearby Sebastopol Hills, and Manchester Ridge on Mendocino Ridge), the clay soil, older vines and microbiology of the vineyard conspire to yield one of the slowest evolving Chardonnays grown in California.  After three years, ‘the 08 remains tight, compact, steel rimmed – more like a wine coming right out of the shoot – although the viscous lemon and honey roasted nut qualities oozing out of a citrus center are clearly indicating a fleshing out into those lavish, creamy sensations for which Lorenzo is always known.

2008 La Follette, Manchester Ridge Vineyard, Mendocino Ridge Chardonnay ($48) – La Follette is fond of calling this “the new paradigm” of California Chardonnay,” and he kids you not:  there are outward sensations of minerality that remind you of Chablis, although nothing in Chablis comes close to the flowery perfume – an almost Riesling-like exoticism – typifying Manchester Ridge.  In fact, there is no Chardonnay based white in the world that has this; necessitating a rearranging of one’s comfort zone when addressing this particular animal.  Terroir plays its part, and so does the Chardonnay clone 809 -- a sexy new variant of the Musqué clones, sans the millerandage (shot, or uneven sized, berries) – which composes a third of this bottling.  The other two-thirds is vinified from Old Wente, a classic shot-berry Chardonnay Musqué favored up and down the coast.  Ergo, it is clearly the high elevation, frigid, late ripening nature of the site itself that fashions the edgy, lean, tart edged yet ultra-fine, silken threaded qualities of this wine, bursting with the honeysuckle flower and citrus/lime driven fruit, just hinting at old fashioned butterscotch beneath the stony veneer.

2009 La Follette, Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($30) – Pretty much a classic, voluptuous, sumptuously fruited North Coast style of pinot, but with earthy, forest floor, almost soy-like nuances that whisper into the ear like a salacious, husky voiced harlot.  The chubby, young fruit mixes red and black berries with a touch of cola, its lacy sweetness barely hiding sharp, bony tannin.


2009 La Follette, Sangiacomo Vineyard, Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($40) – In the Sangiacomo Pinot Noir, the feral aspects of this vineyard’s microbiology infuses the varietal’s fragrant raspberry and exotic tea spices with nuanced rose petal and sensations of roasting meat.  Smoke of oak piles on to the complexity, and the feel is sensual in its silkiness, young tannins poking through like sharp elbows, thickening the wild, earth toned fruit.

2009 La Follette, DuNah Vineyard, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($40) – Here, luscious strawberry preserve perfumes are underlined by pungent organic notes consistent with this site, suggesting rubber boots trudging through crumbling leaves and damp earth.  On the palate, the earth toned flavors is dense, meaty, yet sweet with the vibrant red berry qualities.

2008 La Follette, Van der Kamp Vineyard, Sonoma Mountain Pinot Noir ($40) – The La Follette penchant for tertiary extraction – in this case, leather, mushrooms, forest floor – kicks up a notch in the Van der Kamps; the ‘08, girded by the site’s typical, muscular mountain tannin, and a varietal profile that is less floral, more fruit focused, tinged with a sweet peppermint, leafy herb spice.  The feel is dense, savory, fullsome; tannins coming across with clove-like, almost malty thickness.

2008 La Follette, Manchester Ridge Vineyard, Mendocino Ridge Pinot Noir ($50) – Early studies of Manchester Ridge done by La Follette for U.C. Davis revealed the presence of more polymerizable phenols in its fruit than in any site he’s ever examined; a phenomenon certainly borne out in the ’08:  by far, the most animale of the La Follette cuvées – the essence of the sweet, slightly soured scent of the inside of a woman’s leather glove that Tchelistcheff often spoke of – combined with the oak to give charred meat sensations, suffused by ultra-rich, ringing, berry liqueur quality of the varietal.  On the palate, the luxuriousness takes on sensual textures, like chocolate melting on strawberries, all but making you forget what a unique, or strange, fruit of a pinot this really is.

Rick DuNah in DuNah Vineyard