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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.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Cooper Vineyards Barbera: The dollar that changed a region

Cooper Vineyards' Dick Cooper among his perfectly sculpted, head trained Barbera

Part 2 of my telling of Amador County’s heritage, in collaboration with the organizers of the upcoming Amador Four Fires (please see Part 1 – The Original Grandpère Vineyard: Powerful Women, Grapes and Wines)

DickCooper, whose family originally arrived in the Sierra Foothills in 1919, is generally considered Amador County’s “Godfather of Barbera.”  Zinfandel might be Amador’s heritage grape, but it is a grape that does well in other parts of California.  Barbera, on the other hand, makes a red wine that many of today’s wine lovers believe grows better in Amador County than just about anywhere else in the world – even as well as the Piedmont region in Italy, where the grape originated.

That makes Mr. Cooper’s story an important one indeed; and we’re fortunate that, although he recently has had to slow down his storied career just a little bit, he now has more time to tell his tale.

According to Mr. Cooper, “In the late 1970s we had an abundance of pasture land, 35 acres of prunes, and walnuts trees on the family property where Cooper Vineyards is now located.  I wanted to put in a vineyard, but my Dad (Henry “Hank” Cooper) didn’t want anything to do with grapes.  That’s because he’d been burned a few years earlier, and he was especially done with Zinfandel. 

“He and my Uncle Ken Deaver had gone together on a 40-acre planting of Zinfandel, which the government was buying up during the war (WW II) to turn into medicinal alcohol, and was used in hospitals.  They were making good money then – $125 a ton – but after the war the price dropped to $35 a ton.  There wasn’t anywhere else to take the grapes except to some brokers in Sacramento, and down the road at D’Agostini Winery – and they weren’t offering more than $35 either.  Dad said, ‘I’ll help you with 5 acres of grapes, but no more than that.’  He felt we were diversified enough, with the prunes, walnuts and sheep. 

“Now, my parents loved to entertain.  They always had great parties at the house, inviting the best people from near and far.  Around that time they had Darrell Corti over.  He was a wine merchant from Sacramento who had influenced a number of wineries in the Foothills.”

That fateful dollar bill

Dad asked Darrell, ‘If we get back into grapes, what varieties should we plant?’  Darrell said, ‘Barbera and Dolcetto.’  Having never heard of those grapes, Dad asked Darrell if he could write those down for him.  Because no one could rustle up a piece a paper right away, Darrell just took a dollar bill from his wallet, wrote down Barbera and Dolcetto, and handed it to Dad. 

“Since it was my project, I went out to find cuttings of those grapes to plant.  I couldn’t find any Dolcetto, but I found Barbera from one of our neighbors, Gary Gott at Montevina.  So that was how we started with our first 5 acres of Barbera, in the late ‘70s.  It grew pretty well, but in the beginning there was no demand for it – it got to the point where it was being used primarily to blend, mostly in White Zinfandel, even though you’re not supposed to do that. 

“But later, winemakers like Scott Harvey, Jeff Runquist, Bill Easton at Terre Rouge, and a few more wineries in El Dorado were taking the fruit and making some pretty remarkable wines.  The grape sort of took on a life of its own, and the entire region has become known for it.  From our first 5 acres we’ve grown to about 100 acres – mostly Barbera, although we grow 16 other varieties on our ranch.”

The excellence of Mr. Cooper’s Barbera, not to mention his renown as a grape grower, took off.  Besides expanding his own vineyards, he has since designed, planted and managed at least another dozen vineyards in Amador and El Dorado County. 

Long before Mr. Cooper’s forays, the Barbera grape had always been a favorite among growers and winemakers of Italian descent in San Joaquin Valley and Sonoma County; regions that still account for most of the 7,000 or so acres planted in the state.  Historically, Barbera was a major component (along with Zinfandel and Carignan) in blends like E. & J.Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy. 

Yet the Sierra Foothills Viticultural Region has recently become the area most closely identified with Barbera.  Although plantings in these higher elevations hover around a more modest 300 acres, there are more producers of Barbera in the Sierra Foothills than anywhere else outside of Italy.  And since 2011, thousands of wine lovers have been attending the annual, sold-out Barbera Festival, where over 80 producers from throughout California (plus a few from Italy) gather in June for an all-Barbera/all-the-time celebration.  Shenandoah Valley has become the New World epicenter of Barbera happenings.

Dick Cooper tells his tale (over a glass of Cooper Vineyards Barbera)

According to Amador County Wine Grape Growers Association spokesman David Logan (whose own Logan's Rock Wall Vineyard in Shenandoah Valley was designed and planted by Dick Cooper – including some of that elusive Dolcetto!), “Dick Cooper’s ranch has been the home of the Barbera Festival for several years (in 2015 the festival takes place at Terra d’Oro/MontevinaWinery).  Cooper grown Barbera produced by about a half-dozen wineries have been responsible for almost all the top Gold or ‘Best of Show’ medals at L.A. County Fair, California State Fair, the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, and several other competitions in recent years.”

Yet the very best may very well be Mr. Cooper’s own bottling:  his current release, the 2012 Cooper Vineyards Amador County Barbera is thick, layered, velvety and fluid – chiseled with every bit of the naturally zesty, savory, mouth filling, blackberryish flavors you expect in the varietal.

“Truth be told,” says Mr. Cooper, “the whole Barbera thing came almost as an accident – a name of a grape jotted down on a dollar bill.  It took many more years to actually learn how to grow the stuff – you can’t grow Barbera like Zinfandel or anything else.” 

All of Cooper’s Barbera plantings are head trained and vertically spur pruned.  He has tried trellised systems on his sandy-clay loam hillsides – a perfect combination of porosity and water retention, which vines love – but discarded the approach after learning that the best quality still comes from the free-standing vines.  Mr. Cooper’s Barbera plants are primarily FPS Clone 06 (from U.C. Davis’ Foundation Plant Services) grafted onto St. George rootstock – plant material sometimes called the “Cooper clone Barbera,” out of respect for its “Godfather.”

Still, unlike Zinfandel, says Mr. Cooper, “You need to leave more spurs per vine on Barbera to get a little more shade, and you learn to drop seconds (i.e. late blooming clusters).  Barbera likes a little sun after veraison (i.e. when berries turn from green to black), but before veraison it’s a disaster.  It’s also susceptible to powdery mildew, so you have to be vigilant with the sprays.

Recently planted Black St. Peter clone Zinfandel in Cooper Vineyards

“We go for Barbera that’s a little more fragrant and fruit-forward – it always has more than enough acid and body.  Not to be critical, but we feel this makes a better wine than the harsh, under-ripe styles you often get from Italy.  I love it when Italian winemakers come and visit, walk around the vineyard and ask us how we do it.  They may be the ones who started it, but now they learn from us!

“If anything, we’ve learned to be patient with the grape.  It usually takes a while before its acids, which are notoriously high, start to go down.  If you have to wait until sugars climb to 28° Brix, which you have to balance out in a winery (usually by adding a little water to lower alcohol levels to a more ideal 14% range), this is preferable to making a wine that’s hard to drink or weak in flavor.

“When we decided to produce our own wine, we planned our winery and tasting room for about 2,500 cases.  We’ve been so successful, though, that it’s grown to 10,000 cases, and we’re now taking more (about 45%) of our own fruit, and selling to fewer of those top winemakers.

“But I think we’ve reached capacity.  I've had some recent health issues, so I can’t spend nearly as much time out on the tractor as I’d like to.  But I have vineyard foremen who have been with me for 12, 16 years.  The vineyard is in good hands – they know what they’re doing, maybe even better than me.  And my four daughters are all involved in the operations. 

“Our winemaker (Cooper Vineyards’ Michael Roser) is doing a great job, and he’d love for me to plow up a little more of the landscape to make room for more tanks and barrels.  But I think I like the free space around the property looking the way it is.

“That dollar bill Mr. Corti had written on – we misplaced for a little while, but my daughter Chrissy recently went looking for it, and she found it.  It’s now hanging up behind our tasting room bar – a constant reminder of how it all got started!”

The Original Grandpère Vineyard: Powerful Women, Grapes and Wines

Terri Harvey among the ancient, revered Zinfandel in her Original Grandpere Vineyard

This is Part 1 of my telling of Amador County’s heritage done for the organizers of the upcoming Amador Four Fires; a culinary and wine celebration taking place in Plymouth’s Amador County Fairgounds on May 2, 2015.  Amador County’s heritage is all about the fascinating history of its vineyards and wines, woven with stories of the colorful, hard-scrabble people who made it happen.  A few of the brighter threads:

Farmers, dreamers, risk takers... 

Scrawled on a chalkboard in the recently opened Prospect Cellars on Plymouth’s Main St., you can see an homage to the families, farmers, vets, county fairs, traditions, sunsets, rain, FFA, 4H pigs, dance partners, dreamers, risk takers, and all the other things that make Amador Amador.

And so naturally, in the small-town setting of Amador County, things that happened over 150 years ago are as fresh in people’s minds as last week’s events.  Prospect Cellars proprietor Jamie Colburn-Lubenko, the former Executive Director of Amador Vintners Association, calls herself a “Plymouth girl” through and through. 

Ms. Colburn-Lubenko can talk first-hand about Shenandoah Valley’s 10-acre Zinfandel planting known as the Original Grandpère Vineyard – the oldest and most revered of California’s Old Vine Zinfandels – because, to her, it’s family history.

“What everyone knows is that there is a grant deed in Amador County records that shows a vineyard planted there in 1869,” says Colburn-Lubenko, “and that the original vines are still there.  This makes it the oldest documented Zinfandel vineyard in the state.

Plymouth girl:  Prospect Cellars' Jamie Colburn-Lubenko

“What fewer people know,” she continues, “is that it was a woman named Mahala Teter Upton – my husband Ronn’s great-great-grandmother – who originally took care of that vineyard, with the help of her 8-year old son Rueben.  

“Mahala first came to Shenandoah Valley with her husband John Dale in 1863 with seven children in tow – all the way from Missouri in a slow, covered wagon.  How they accomplished that, when I could barely contain my kids for two hours in a car, I have no idea.  I suppose if anyone got out of hand they could say, ‘You can get out and walk.’

“Like most Amador County settlers, Mahala’s family came to mine but stayed to farm.  According to family lore, in 1870 John Dale just up and died, probably from a stroke, while changing a neighbor’s wagon wheel.  By then they had a fairly large homestead (600 acres, according to Sherry A. Monahan’s California Vines,Wines & Pioneers), and Mahala had just given birth to their tenth child.  But work had to go on.  Mahala went ahead and took care of her vineyard, which was good enough to survive to this day.” 

Woman under the influence of rickety old vines

In the aforementioned Original Grandpère Vineyard – that is, what remains of Mahala Teter Upton’s original Zinfandel vines in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley AVA – you will see curving tracks of a tractor wheels between the rows of spindly, gnarly limbed, head trained, spur pruned old plants; many with trunks split in two, their cores long rotted away, standing 8 by 8-feet across along the site’s sloping, northwards facing hill.

Terri Harvey

Here is where the plot thickens, although we need to get down to the roux of the matter to give it a decent accounting... 

For over 70 years Mahala Teter Upton’s original Zinfandel planting continued to serve her family and numerous descendants well.  Grapes were sold to locals and, after the start of Prohibition (1920), mostly to home winemakers in the Midwest or on the East Coast.  During the 1930s the vineyard was sold to the Steiner family, who held on to it until 1970, when Walt Steiner sold it to its longtime caretaker, John Downing.

By then the vineyard had dwindled from 16 to 10 acres.  In 1979 a talented Sierra Foothills raised but Germany-trained winemaker named Scott Harvey began to purchase Zinfandel from John and Virginia Downing.  At the time, the vineyard’s condition had also hit a low poiint.  Ready to retire, the Downings offered to sell to Mr. Harvey – by then married to a local farmer’s daughter, Terri Harvey – in 1982. 

The Harveys could not afford to buy the vineyard outright.  So they signed a 5-year lease to revive the planting – taking a saw to all the dead or gangly wood keeping the vineyard from producing top quality grapes – while fixing up the old, raggedy home on-property (built during the 1880s).  They were finally able to take full possession of the property in 1988.

The Harveys would work together as a husband-wife team until their divorce in 1996.  Scott was the winemaker; but from the very beginning, in 1982, most of the vineyard work fell to Terri Harvey, since she was the one with the farmer’s hands and disposition.  According to Ms. Harvey, “I had been working in Shenandoah Valley vineyards since I was 11 years old, getting wealthy at $1.65 an hour.”

Close-up of ancient Original Grandpere Vineyard Zinfandel

While surveying her domain this past April 2015, Ms. Harvey told us, “This is not like most vineyards, where you can run a tractor between the vines in a nice, straight line.  The vines were never big, but the spurs will stick out into the rows.  In the old days the 8-ft. spacing probably wasn’t much of a problem, because you did most things by hand or with a horse.  It makes you sick when you accidentally break off an arm; or sometimes, when you hit one, the whole vine comes down.  There aren’t enough of them left as it is.”

Yet all things considered, at 146 years of age Ms. Harvey’s vineyard is in remarkable shape.  Just over 80% of the remaining vines are the original ones planted by Mahala Teter Upton and her son Rueben.  In most California vineyards over 100 years old, retention of 50% to 70% of the original vines is considered a good percentage. 

Over the years Ms. Harvey has been replanting “dead” spots with new vines, utilizing cuttings from the original vines to maintain a clonal purity.  The new plantings are grafted onto phylloxera-resistant rootstock, since the infamous root louse that devastated well over 99% of the vineyards in California and around the world during the late nineteenth century still remains a threat to natural (i.e. “own-rooted”) vines.  All of the 1869 vines in the Original Grandpère Vineyard still grow on their own roots.

“We have phylloxera here, but it doesn’t get carried away because this vineyard happens to sit on the sandiest soil in Amador County,” says Ms. Harvey, in reference to the mixture of finely decomposed granite (i.e. sand) and loose clay loam on her slopes.  To hedge her bets, Harvey uses equipment exclusive to the vineyard, and rarely allows outsiders to tromp through, to minimize the possibility of pests, microscopic or otherwise, carried in from other vineyards. 

“But it’s mostly because we are in a sandier spot of the Foothills that these old vines have been able to survive,” she tells us, “whereas plants in surrounding vineyards have not.”  There are, incidentally, a few old stands of own-rooted Mission – an even sturdier type of Vitis vinifera – dating back from the 1850s and 1860s in Shenandoah Valley, although it was Zinfandel that the early miners-turned-farmers preferred.

Despite the other ever-present danger of “tractor blight,” the natural wild grasses that grow around Grandpère’s vines need constant mowing and discing because the ancient plants are low-yielding enough – in an average year, producing tiny, fist-sized clusters (clusters on young Zinfandel vines are easily three times that), barely adding up to 1 to 1.5-tons per acre – without having to compete with grasses for water and nutrients on this 1,300-ft. elevation hillside.

Chalkboard in Prospect Cellars

Yet it is also because these ancient vines have been dry land farmed all their lives (it is only the young, new plantings that ever see irrigation) that they have been able to survive nearly 150 years of cycles – periods of drought, excess rain, cold vintages, hot vintages.  Sandy soil forces deep rooting, and deep roots contribute to healthy, productive plants – a symbiosis you see in other regions (such as Lodi and Contra Costa) replete with sandy soils and ancient vines.

Says Kevin O’Neil, the cellarmaster of Vino Noceto, which produces an “OGP” Zinfandel each year from the vineyard:  “In the hottest, dryest years, when all the surrounding vineyards look like they’re shriveling up, Grandpère’s vines always looks fresh because their roots are so well established.  I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them have roots stretched all the way over to Deaver’s Pond across the road.”

Ms. Harvey tells us, “You’ve probably heard of vineyards where one person claims to know each and every vine, like people.  I actually do, mostly because I don’t trust anyone else to touch these vines.  I prune each plant myself – I think you have to have a feel for how each one wants to grow, be thinned, suckered or picked.  I used to tell everyone that working this vineyard myself keeps me out of the bars, which would be true if not for the fact that I don’t go to bars.”

In the late 1960s and 1970s, some of Amador County’s old vine Zinfandel growths began to attract a lot of attention when wineries like Sutter Home, Montevina and Carneros Creek began to wow California wine lovers with the typically perfumed, finely etched and spicy qualities of the fruit. 

Despite the ancient eminence of Mahala Teter Upton’s planting, the vineyard had absolutely no identity until the 1980s.  This would not happen until Scott Harvey began to fashion wines from it under his Santino Winery label; and then a little later, for a short time (1993-1995) with a partner (Robert Smerling) at Renwood Winery.  The latter relationship would end in a litigious fashion, almost as bitterly as the divorce between the two Harveys around the same time. 

It is Mr. Harvey, however, who gets credit for naming the vineyard “Grandpère” (there were also “Grandmère” Zinfandels, produced from younger neighboring vineyards).  Today, the confusing thing for both consumers and the wine trade is that there is also a Renwood Grandpère Vineyard Zinfandel, made from a vineyard planted by Mr. Harvey for Renwood during the early 1990s from cuttings taken from the original 1869 planting, grafted onto phylloxera-resistant rootstocks. 

Vino Noceto winemaker Rusty Folena

Although Mr. Harvey was the one who put Grandpère on the map, his former partner at Renwood was the one with the foresight – some say duplicitous, others say smart – to trademark the name, and be able to exert said rights following Mr. Harvey’s split with Renwood Winery.

“We were stupid,” says Terri Harvey.  “We should have trademarked the name years before, and then Scott and I were going through our own problems.  I wanted to buy Scott out and keep the vineyard – at the very least, to keep the girls (the Harveys have three daughters, now grown and happily successful) in their own home. 

“Eventually everyone came to a compromise,” she tells us.  “I kept the property.  Smerling kept the rights to the Grandpère name, but allowed us to sell our grapes as Original Grandpère.  And Scott – he was fed up with everything; the suits, counter-suits, some pretty wild accusations.”  Mr. Harvey would move to Napa Valley, where he would help to launch Folie à Deux Winery into national prominence.

Just to get it all straight:  Zinfandels from Mahala Teter Upton’s own-rooted 1869 planting are currently bottled as Original Grandpère Vineyard.  Today, these wines are produced by just four wineries – Andis Wines (located nearby on Shenandoah Rd.), MacchiaWines (based in Lodi), Vino Noceto (as OGV Zinfandel), and Scott Harvey Wines (who calls it Vineyard 1869). 

Since Terri Harvey refuses to sell grapes to Renwood Winery, the Renwood Grandpère Vineyard Zinfandel is made from those younger grafted vines that went into the ground in the 1990s with the use of cuttings from the original vineyard.

Because, as she puts it, “You cannot make a living from an old 1-ton-an-acre vineyard,” Terri Harvey and her second husband, grape grower Pat Rohan, now manage some 29 other vineyards (totaling about 550 acres) in Amador County. 

Most recently, Scott Harvey has successfully developed two other brands, Scott Harvey Wines and Jana Wines, in partnership with his second spouse Jana Littman, working out of Napa Valley.  But after a 20-year absence from the Foothills, Mr. Harvey has recently christened new tasting rooms in both Sutter Creek and Plymouth (with signs on Shenandoah Rd. saying, “Scott Harvey is back!”).

That’s the history – what about the wine?  From the beginning, Zinfandels from the Original Grandpère Vineyard have never been known for sheer size, power or strength; but rather, for a lanky, sometimes even lean, sinewy length of flavors, mixing bright, floral fruit with mildly earthy, loamy, occasionally crushed or green leafy notes.  You don’t buy an Original Grandpère to be bowled over – you buy it to be buoyed or enlightened.

The 2011 Vino Noceto OGP (The Original Grandpère Vineyard) Zinfandel shows exactly that, but with a beautifully fresh intensity of flowery perfume – wrapped around a bright core of raspberry/blackberry fruit – and long silky, balanced, zesty qualities shoring up its modestly weighted (14.1% alcohol), medium-full body.  This wine is a limber lover, not a lumbering fighter. 

Vino Noceto winemaker Rusty Folena, who first began working with the vineyard as Scott Harvey’s assistant at Santino in 1983, describes the Original Grandpère Vineyard Zinfandels as “classic Amador... never over-the-top.”  Through year after year of vintage variation, according to Folena, the vineyard “always has a mind of its own... clusters are tiny – they can fit in the palm of your hand – and the small size gives the wines their distinct consistency of fruit and acid balance.”

Folena adds, “We pick for ripe flavor, and so sugars can vary year to year, from 24° to 27° Brix.  Complexity can come in different ways.  We destem and break berries without mashing them, and we do a submerged cap fermentation to get a slow, low, gentle extraction, no punch-downs or pump-overs” – a gentle approach that further enhances the Original Grandpère’s characteristic delicacy. 

“The fact that the vineyard faces mostly north has probably always contributed to its subtle character, different than anything else in Shenandoah Valley,” says Folena.  “Sometimes we’ll get a good second crop (less ripe fruit from late flowering clusters), which we’ll pick for more acidity.

“And like other vineyards in the area, Grandpère does get a little bit of red leaf (leafroll virus is typical of Zinfandel clonal material planted in Amador County), which can give different degrees of ripeness in a single vine” – the latter issue, something Ms. Harvey has been able to offset somewhat with usage of KDL® (a foliar macronutrient) and other measures to extend photosynthesis and more efficient fruit maturation longer into the season.

According to Ms. Harvey, living with rickety old vines like Original Grandpère Vineyard is like “making peace with Murphy’s Law... you expect things to go wrong at any time, but every year it’s probably the age of the vines that ultimately pulls you through.  You cannot be broken when you’re already almost dead!”

Close-up of 146-year old Original Grandpere Zinfandel in sandy clay loam soil

Thursday, March 19, 2015

When it comes to top Pinot Noir, terroir trumps varietal valuation

I was contemplating a 2013 Failla Pinot Noir from Occidental Ridge Vineyard (Sonoma Coast) at the most recent World of Pinot Noir – a yearly two-day event that took place in Santa Barbara this past March 2015.  The Failla’s color was a deep, vivid, almost blue-tinged red, and the nose was gushy with strawberry-like varietal fruit, infused with whiffs of woodsy forest floor.  Tannin and flavors seem appropriately aggressive, considering the nose and the wine’s youth, but seemed to plop like a dead weight on the palate, like an over-floured gnocchi kneaded by a clumsy novice cook.

As Dylan once sang, I’ve been through this movie before... with this particular wine tasted right out of the gate, which can come across as gawky, one-dimensional, or slutty to an uncomfortable point of artificiality  – like a pretty girl in unnecessary makeup.  The question was:  Why can’t Failla’s Occidental be a little finer, limber, more lifted and delineated in its woodsy, strawberry perfumed intensity – qualities I found abundant in, for example, the 2012 Baxter Pinot Noir from Mendocino Ridge’s Valenti Vineyard that I had tasted moments before?

The answer struck me – not then and there, but hours later after tasting nearly 100 more Pinot Noirs, as I was organizing my thoughts on the “best” wines tasted that day.  A young Failla Occidental Ridge can’t be as “fine” as a Baxter Valenti because it’s grown in a deep, foggy pocket of Sonoma encircled by lush stand of evergreens; whereas the Valenti is high up on a Mendocino ridgetop, also surrounded by woods but well above the clouds.  Different strokes, different Pinots.

No matter what, a young Failla Occidental Ridge naturally comes out rambunctious, whereas a Baxter Valenti is well heeled from the get-go.  Heck, it’s not even so much a question of age – it’s fundamentally ingrained, like DNA, in the wines themselves.

Of course, we could, and should, trot out the T word – terroir – to explain this simple concept of Nature-compelled differentiation.  So let’s just say it:  terroir should always trump varietal character (or, for that matter, elusive notions like “balance,” which many confuse with scale these days) when evaluating top-flight Pinot Noir.

For many of us in the wine trade, the overwhelming compulsion, when tasting dozens or over 100 wines in a day, is to evaluate wines in terms of varietal character rather than terroir or origin.  This Pinot Noir tastes fat, fruity and clumsy, whereas that Pinot Noir is zestier, more delicate, and less obviously fruited.  We don’t do this so much when we compare Burgundies or Bordeaux; because the French make it easier for us by reminding us from the get-go that we’re tasting regions and vineyards, not varietal categories.

I, for one, still find myself wrestling with that compulsion, as cognizant as I am of it.  On the first day of this year’s World of Pinot Noir I actually “marked down” (although I don’t do scores) a 2012 Merry Edwards Meredith Estate, thinking its strawberry/raspberry concentration too blatant, ripe and preponderant; until I reminded myself that I’m tasting Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, not one from McMinnville, Central Otago or Mendocino Ridge.

I found that forcing an open mind even allowed me to better appreciate wines that I previously found weak or wanting – like the 2012 Adelaida from Paso Robles.  On paper, the thought of Paso Robles Pinot Noir seems ludicrous – it’s too darned hot there.  But when you consider the fact that Adelaida’s Pinot Noir is crafted from historic 50-year old vines (some of the oldest in the state, originally part of the old Hoffman Mountain Ranch, where Andre Tchelistcheff famously consulted) on limestone slopes at about a 1,700-ft. elevation, then the wine’s dull, faded nose suddenly turns into a gentle, subtle, intoxicating bucket of wild cherries, and its scrawny frame suddenly tastes sleek, zesty, sexy.  It may be all in the mind, but then again, pleasure is always a perception.

No doubt, an Adelaida Pinot Noir, or even an unevolved Failla Occidental Ridge, might get “destroyed” in a competitive double-blind tasting (the whole idea of wine "competitions" suddenly sounds stupid), when we line them all up and let the chips fall.  What a shame.  Because when you taste terroir driven wines within their own context – like we do, in fact, when we taste French crus or châteaux – then it’s amazing how bright and diverse the wine world turns out to be.

Cotiere winemaker Kevin Law

That said, my favorite Pinot Noirs at the 2015 World of Pinot Noir were varied, in the spirit of terroir-cracy; and as always, personal – anyone who can’t acknowledge that whim, time of month or time of season, mood, atmospheric pressure or even BD calendaring (whether we’re aware of it or not) has an effect on choices is just kidding him- or herself.

I was especially impressed by the latest set of wines by winemaker Kevin Law under the Cotiere Winery label (formerly called Luminesce – same outfit, just a name change for legal purposes).  I’ve never had a problem coming up with descriptors for any wine, but all I could think of was “exquisite” to describe the seamless, silky texturing and brilliant, fragrant perfumes emanating from the 2012 Cotiere Pinot Noirs from Presqui’le Vineyard (Santa Maria Valley) and Laetitia Vineyard (Arroyo Grande Valley).  I don’t know which I like better – although coming from two different regions, both are fashioned in a more petite, feminine, finesseful style that I’ve always been sucker for.

Another stand-out for me was the 2012 MacPhail Family Mardikian Estate; from a vineyard planted in one of the coldest corners of Sonoma Coast by owner/winemaker James MacPhail with the help of crack viticulturists Jim Pratt and Sander Scheer.  The Mardikian Pinot Noir is deep, meaty and full-structured in the MacPhail signature style, but amazingly fine, balanced, baby-bright and exuberant at the same time.  This winemaker/vineyard interaction reminds me of when Lennon met McCartney – a brazen edginess collides with melodic sweetness, resulting in some phenomenal music. 

MacPhail Family's Mardikian Estate

Incidentally, the 2012 MacPhail Family Pinot Noirs from Sangiacomo Vineyard (Sonoma Coast; powerful organic earth qualities underlying exuberant, strawberryish varietal purity) and Gap’s Crown (also Sonoma Coast; fleshy, sonorous sensations) – always a fascinating comparison of Petaluma Gap plantings, one perched on the west facing slope of Sonoma Mountain, and the other on a cobbled, ancient riverbed at the bottom of that same slope – were also tasting as great as ever.

It was also gratifying to find the 2013 Joseph Phelps Freestone Vineyards (Sonoma Coast) tasting so fantastic (how’s that for a descriptor... too plebeian?... see if I care).  But when you taste a 100 Pinot Noirs in a row, and find one in the middle that just seems to leap from the glass with an hallelujah chorus of fragrances, and then caress you with perky, prickly, silky, intoxicating sensations, what can you say?

I felt similar vinous unholiness when I tasted the 2012 Wayfarer Vineyard (Fort Ross-Seaview).  Unlike all the other growths mentioned so far, I have never visited Wayfarer, and so I’m not prejudiced by that personal familiarity – this is simply a fine, penetrating, gracefully layered and elongated Pinot Noir, epitomizing what we used to call the “true Sonoma Coast” style.

Phil Baxter at 2015 World of Pinot Noir

From Santa Barbara, I found two more epiphanies in the 2011 Flying Goat Cellars Rancho Santa Rosa Vineyard (Sta. Rita Hills) and 2013 Gypsy Canyon (Sta. Rita Hills).  Again, I’m compelled by Pinots that exhibit longer-than-average length carried by pincushion acidity and meaty flavor/tannin phenolics – effusive varietal aroma really isn’t an issue with the majority of top Pinot Noirs these days – and these two bottlings had “it.”

You don’t really go to World of Pinot Noir to catch up on all the latest Willamette Valley bottlings, but there was some representation.  Out of those, I was most impressed by the gentle yet snappy, brightly scented 2011 Ann Amie Vineyards (Yamhill-Carlton).  In a similar vein, the 2012 Witching Stick Dowser's Cuvé(Anderson Valley) blends two vineyards in Anderson Valley and two in Mendocino Ridge; turning out lighter weight, acid driven, full of the upbeat, floral raspberry/cherry character I've always associated more with Willamette Valley than anywhere in California.  Not that a California Pinot should ever taste Oregonian, but to me it's a positive, and not entirely inappropriate for cooler climate pockets of Mendocino.

I could go on – every year Pinot Noir just seems to get better and better – but I won’t.  Suffice to say, it was a good weekend; not so much because of the plethora of fabulous wines as the joy of seeing more and more of them tasting less like “winemaker’s art” and more like the places from where they come.  American Pinot Noir may finally be growing up!

MacPhail Family's James and Kerry MacPhail

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 regions 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