Morgan Clendenen of Cold Heaven Cellars has been quietly perfecting her take on Viognier since 1996. She writes:
“My mission and goal as a winemaker is to illuminate and define Viognier, to elevate its profile and explore its potential through keen observation and copious tasting. I seek to sound the depths of this enigmatic grape, to reveal its secrets and shine a bright light on the extraordinary fruit grown in the cool vineyards of the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys of California ’s Central Coast.
Despite this strong ambition she flies under the radar, working and experimenting diligently according to her own vision. She has little interest in the expansion of Cold Heaven if the proper fruit cannot be found. Though her love of Pinot Noir may eventually require a call to a local contractor. And neither are Cold Heaven’s labels festooned with marketable tropes. They are reserved, dignified. Yet Ms. Clendenen is also a vivacious, quick-witted soul, and seems easily capable of commanding a room. So her wines, her beloved Viogniers, possess these complimentary aspects of her character: finesse, balance and a lively acid.
I spoke with her just last week, Wednesday, one of many days California was being flattened by a runaway train of foul weather. A last note, I have enjoyed only three of her wines. That will certainly change.
Part 2 will post later this week.
Admin What a lot of rain! How are your vines? Any vineyard erosion?
Morgan Clendenen This is the time of year you want rain. It’s good for the vineyards. As long as we don’t have any frost, we should be sitting pretty. The abundance of rain usually means an abundance of grapes. But Mother Nature… she’s a tricky bitch! And erosion is always a problem in California whenever it rains. So if you’ve planted in a dubious place then it may happen. But Le Bon Climat vineyard is constantly dealing with erosion factors. We try in various ways to slow the water down. But it’s an ever changing Earth we live on. Ours is a constant struggle to try to control the environment. It’s kind of funny. Well, maybe not funny: it is what it is.
About water. Do you folks irrigate?
MC Most everything I deal with is irrigated. And I’m very happy because in the past few years we’ve had some tremendous heat waves right before harvest. When you have these heat waves what you get is sugar ripeness but not always physiological ripeness. I saw a little bit of that this year. It was interesting that the sugars were there but the physiological ripeness wasn’t. And then it kind of switches places where the grapes became physiologically ripe but the sugars were not as high because we had a cold snap after a heat wave. Irrigation helps us moderate these swings.
There is only one vineyard that I can think of, I’m sure there’s more around here, and that’s Foxen. They have a specific vineyard that they dry farm. But everything that I deal with is does have irrigation. It’s a drip irrigation system.
On a personal note, just to get this out of the way, why is it that there are no two pictures of you that look alike? It’s the oddest thing. You’re like a changeling!
MC (laughs) I don’t know! The picture on the Home page of the winey site is odd because what you see is a reflection of me off the glass of a painting. You see what I see in the mirror, not what you would see looking normally at me. So I look very different to everybody. But I think I look the most like me in that picture! (laughs) It’s just how it is. When I look at myself it is always a reflection.
So no Grace Jones-like body doubles! Well, one of the reasons I wanted to speak with you was because of a wine of yours I enjoyed many years ago, an early, maybe the first bottling of the Domaine des Deux Mondes, Saints and Sinners. I’ve had Viogniers from all over California since then but I’ve never forgotten that wine. Your winery’s name stuck in the back of my mind. And then to have encountered the winemaker herself on Facebook, well, there you go.
MC Well, thank you. That wine is basically just a recipe I followed from Yves Cuilleron [from Condrieu] to make a wine in his style. It’s a partnership I have with him. He’s very well known for his wines. He makes several single vineyard Condrieus. His sense of doing more than one, playing around, manipulating the grapes to some degree, is always very interesting to me. In fact, his sweet wine has always been a benchmark wine for me. But with that wine, the Domain des Deux Mondes, we decide that we do this fun thing where we would blend finished wine from one of his vineyards with finished juice from one of mine. It was a 50/50 blend. We had so much success from that, and had enjoyed doing it, we decided that we would take some of my grapes and use them for Yves style.
Now, Cold Heaven’s style is nothing like that! Nothing like that. Deux Mondes is not Cold Heaven. It’s not the wine I personally would go for in a line-up. It’s very oaky and it tends to be a little riper than everything else I do. But it shows that, yes, I can make lots of different styles besides what I do. But I choose to go in a different direction with Cold Heaven because I like it the best. And that typically means lower sugars; I like high acidity. I like it to be natural.
I buy very few grapes from warm sites. I’m not interested in warm sites for Viognier, quite honestly. I’ve been working with Sanford and Benedict vineyard and Le Bon Climat vineyard which would always serve up a good helping of acidity; and I would barely, if ever, have to acidulate those wines. The first Deux Mondes was a 2004 vintage.
That may have been the vintage. I’m a little surprised because I am no fan of oak and I like high acid. But palates change. Clearly, I was still evolving! But about Sanford and Benedict. On your website you describe having found there a then “rare clone” of Viognier. Could you tell me something about that clone?
MC What we have over at Sanford and Benedict is not really known to us because whoever planted it seemed to fall off the face of the Earth. They had grafted a bunch of Viognier onto Cabernet rootstock. Then a section of it died and they went in and replanted on some other rootstock, also unknown to us.
And why did the section die? Do you know?
MC We don’t know. I wasn’t around during that period of time. It was in the eighties. So, there was a lot of change-over over at Sanford and Benedict about who was farming. When I came on board there the guy who was farming was never seen. I never saw him! He was like a mythological creature. So when that job was taken from him and the new people took over, I see them all the time. They are very pro-active in that vineyard. Coastal Vineyard Services. It’s questionable, the clone. We just don’t know.
We were approached at one point by the former owner of Sanford and Benedict. He said he wanted to plant more Viognier for me. We wanted to get a specific clone but we couldn’t get it. We ended up getting a Davis clone. What is planted mostly in California is the Davis clone; that’s what’s there. So when we planted Le Bon Climat vineyard as my primary vineyard, we planted that with a Chateau Grillet clone.
Then when I was dealing with Vogelzang, they called me up and said, ‘Look, we planted what we thought was Roussanne but it turns out that it is Viognier’. (We call it the ‘R’ clone. As in ‘Randall’. It was supposedly brought in by Randall Grahm as Roussanne.) When they tasted that wine they swore it tasted like Roussanne. I said ‘You’re out of your mind! I don’t think it tastes anything like Roussanne’. Now, I like Roussanne. I don’t like Marsanne at all. I won’t work with Marsanne. I hate Marsanne. It is my least favorite grape in the entire world! But I love Roussanne. If I could get Roussanne here I would be excited. I would like to work with that grape more. But there’s not a lot of it around here. And quite honestly there’s not a lot of cool climate Viognier vineyards around here. Cold Heaven hasn’t gotten bigger and bigger every year because I don’t want to make wine just for the sake of having my name on a label. I make the wine I want to make, you know? Unfortunately, not every vineyard is up to snuff where that’s concerned.
Let me add that I don’t think the Davis clone planted in a hot sites is good. Our clone I work with is in a warm site, but I like it a lot because it seems to hold its structure better than the Davis clone does. It seems to keep its pH lower, it seems to have a little more acidity. So I particularly like this grape. It doesn’t go as tutti-frutti as I think the Davis clone does in warm sites. I like that clean, more acidic expression of the grape. I just think it’s more food-friendly. The Le Bon Climat is just a great catch-all wine for things you normally have difficulty pairing foods with: Mexican, sushi, Asian, Chinese, spicy, Indian… it is very interesting that acidity really blends so well with spicy foods.
It’s an anomaly in California. What I do is an anomaly compared to 9/10ths of the industry.
The Vogelzang tends to be (we call it) ‘blousy’. It’s bigger, more fruit forward… it’s big on everything! The alcohol is not through the roof. It’s 14%. But it’s well integrated. Then you move into Le Bon Climat. It’s so funny. People come into the winery and love the Vogelzang, but they don’t get the Le Bon Climat! Then you’ll have a sommelier from a restaurant come in and he will go absolutely apeshit for the Le Bon Climat over Vogelzang. That’s the great thing about making more than one expression. But they are not different styles. They are stylistically different in their clonal selection and their vineyard sourcing.
So the winery treats the different grapes in pretty much the same way.
MC We do. We don’t use any new oak. We don’t like any oak flavors in the wine. We have such naturally high acidity in most of the wines that we do barrel fermentation that rounds that out a little bit. Whereas stainless becomes a little too eye-popping, I think. I’ve done some stainless experiments. I did some Viognier in stainless this year. Once it was though primary fermentation, I put it in barrel for malolactic. It’s not that I’m against stainless steel. I use it when I’m kind of curious what kind of product it’s going to give. But my wines do better with some neutral oak. And I use neutral French oak, mostly Francois Freres.
I’ve been using neutral oak since 1996. It’s been our philosophy since the beginning. Then when Domaine des Deux Mondes came around, Yves used considerable new oak. I had to start buying barrels for the first time in 2004. So we use about a third new oak on those wines. And we use Ermitage as our barrel producer specifically for Viognier. I don’t like Francois Freres new barrels for Viognier. It’s not a good fit to me. Neutral barrels are fine. But as far as the oak, for whatever reason the Ermitage just seems to be a lot more seamless in the wine.
Do you specify the tightness of the grain?
MC I don’t. When we first started the project Yves told the guys at Ermitage what was going on, they actually just gave us three barrels in the beginning. Then one year old barrels were shipped from Yves cellar. They were cleaned but one wonders just how clean can you actually get something. Are you still getting some yeast cells in there, whatever? So Ermitage gave us these barrels. There wasn’t deliberation on my part. Since then I’ve stayed with that because it just seems a good fit. So, no, I don’t get into tightness of grain… all of that. But I am starting to more of that because I’m now making Pinot Noir. This year I have a lot of new barrels in the cellar and we’re constantly tasting the wines side by side. I am very, very curious what each barrel is bringing to the plate on the Pinot. I have a 2008 and a 2009 in barrel.
END OF PART 1
When in Lisbon, Portugal for the European Wine Bloggers Conference, I had the good fortune to be taken on a detailed tour of a few Colares DOC vineyards by Francisco Figueiredo, enologist for the Adega Regional de Colares cooperative. This rewarding encounted I chronicled in The Vineyards of Colares, A National Patrimony At Risk. I must stress that little of what follows here will be fully appreciated without first having read this part. For now comes a part 2, a continuation of our conversation, but with the accent on the field research the cooperative is doing with clones and trellising.
Colares sits is along the Atlantic Coast, in the western Estremadura, a region surrounding Lisbon. A simple and inexpensive train ride north from Lisbon takes the visitor to Sintra. From there a bus on regular rounds, wends its way to Colares proper. As recounted in part 1, its wines are particularly interesting, first because of the grapes permitted by the DOC, Ramisco, Malvasia and Molar (Negre Mole); secondly, because the Ramisco grape has been historically grown in sand, the vines never required grafting during the phylloxera plague of the 19th century. They remain quite rare in all of Europe.
And so I resume the conversation. With the wind howling, I ask…
Admin Is this a fairly steady wind?!
Francisco Figueiredo (laughs) Yes, yes!
When I came into Colares the other day it was completely still. But we are on the other side of the hills….
FF This is the place I was talking about. We are here making the clonal selection. This is planted with several cuttings from the area. We have here the three main varieties we use here: Ramisco, Malvasia, the white, and also we have a traditional red variety which is Molar. It is known by Negra Mole in Madeira where they also use it for their wines. This is trellised to help us study. It helps us watch the canes and more easily see the harvest.
This is a fairly large vineyard. Was this always a vineyard?
FF This was always a vineyard. If you ask me how the wine is we make from this vineyard I will tell you that it is different from the wine made in the other vineyards we’ve seen. The maturation period is quite different here. Here we have early maturation on that type of vineyard, the ones low on the ground, than we have here with the trellis. It can make a big difference in terms of wine quality because of the weather. That can be a big problem, especially the rain. So what we see, mainly in the white varieties, is that we have early maturation on the traditional vineyard instead of the trellised vineyard.
What are the bunches like on the Ramisco?
FF They are very small. Do you know Pinot Noir? They are more or less like that. Small, open clusters, with small grapes, a lot like Pinot Noir. Ramisco has very large seeds in relation to the skin and pulp of the grape. That’s one of the reasons why the Ramisco wine has a lot of tannins. We have to soften them in the wood barrels before we can bottle it and put it on sale. This region does not produce very high alcohol wines because of the climactic conditions. They tend to be 11 to 11.5 percent alcohol; a maximum 12 to 12.5 percent alcohol in the white wine. And it also has some natural acidity; so the wine improves a lot with this four-year aging in the barrel, and after that in the bottle.
Yes. I’ve had maybe eight different vintages from a couple of different producers since I’ve arrived. I’ve been doing lots of research!
FF Do you like the wine or is it a difficult wine?
Yes! I love the wines.
FF I ask because the usual consumer likes high alcohol wines with very sweet flavors. Colares is very different from that! It is a very good wine for food.
So are Colares wines sold principally in Lisbon?
FF Yes. Mainly in Sintra, in Lisbon and the Sintra area. We make a very large amount of the sales directly from the adega regional, from the cellar in Colares itself. Colares is a small production. We make around 5,000 to 7,000, to 10,000 liters a year. So it is a very small production. The clay soil wines have higher yields, a higher production. Those types of wines we tend to distribute more widely. But the Colares wine is mainly sold in the Sintra and in some wine shops in Lisbon. But not in the big supermarkets.
Now, I notice that all the vineyards we’ve seen are on the top of the hills or dunes. Are there some that grow on the slopes? [Back in the car, we drive east to another vineyard.]
FF A little. But the ocean is very near. Maybe 200 meters away. Different from the traditional vineyard, here we are looking at mechanizing harvesting along the rows, between the rows. So here we have a low trellis. This way we can still keep the leaves and the bunches near to the ground. Here it is a divided canopy to allow the wind to pass through so as to give us a little bit more protection against powdery mildew. The higher the vine the more protection is needed. These are very old vines. This vineyard is of the adega’s director. He is also an agronomist.
And you own a vineyard.
FF My parents have planted a vineyard, in 2007. But unfortunately it is not on the sandy soil. My parents’ land is on clay! (laughs) I’ve not put in Ramisco. But I have planted Molar because it is better adapted than Ramisco which does not mature well on the clay. It needs the sand, the hot sand. So I have planted Molar, which is also a variety from here. But it’s not Ramisco. It’s not DOC. It would be nice to have a piece of sandy soil… but nevertheless I have planted a vineyard. It’s my home.
How did you become associated with the Adega Regional de Colares?
FF I have known the director for a while. When I was studying and doing my thesis, he was doing his final thesis, his PhD. And we were using the same vine for collecting data for our own work. I knew him there, and then he invited me to work here on the 1999 harvest. So I came to Colares for a one month job during the harvest, in the adega itself. I came back in 2000 and again in 2001. He then invited me to work in the cooperative. And in 2006-2007 I assumed enology position in the wine production. I was working with the wine but before we had an ‘external’ enologist. From 2007 on I assumed that part of the job.
During the height of the tourist season, how many tourists come here? Are the roads busy?
FF Yes. During summertime it is a busy, busy time. As for the adega and vineyards, there are some companies who organize wine tours and trekking around this area. They also show the vineyards to the visitors. We also organize tastings. The adega gets a lot of tourists. We put on tastings all year round. Between tastings, wedding and dinner parties, we probably have around 12,000 people pass through the cellar. If some groups require a more technical tour then they call me and I will do that.
Do enologists and wine experts from around the world come here as well?
FF Yes, yes. I’ve received guests from Australia, from France… we have received a of of people who work in the field. And some wine blogs have made reference to Colares I can recall.
[We drive along the coast, past very large new homes.]
So these large houses are mostly second homes?
FF Mostly, yes.
Was there a building project that was an especially big battle over a vineyard?
FF No. It’s just chipped away little by little.
What other DOCs in the Estremadura are under threat from development?
FF Carcavelos and Colares are the two. They are also small. They are nearest Lisbon. And Bucelas, which a region demarcated only for white wine. They produce white wine from the Arinto variety. So they are a little bit threatened. But the remaining areas of the Estremadura are not threatened.
But one of the bigger threats must be the importation of foreign varieties, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
FF That is now happening in the Estremadura. You have a lot of varieties getting in, mainly Syrah with a little bit of Cabernet Sauvignon. And the Portuguese varieties are being used less. People are probably now using only Touriga Nacional, which is good, and Tinta Roriz which is the Spanish Tempranillo. We see a lot of Syrah, a lot of Cabernet, Alicante Bouschet… and so our traditional varieties are being used less with the exception of Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz (which is not Portuguese, but it almost since it has been grown here for many, many years in the Douro and in the Alentejo.) But if a different grape is grown here in Colares, you can call it a regional wine, but the name ‘Colares’ cannot appear on the label.
Founded in 1931, the purpose of the cooperative was to produce all of the Colares wine as a legal protection, a guarantee of quality. And then the cooperative sells the wine to different storage companies, with different aging techniques, for example, their own barreling, their own blending, all under their own label. Back then the Colares cooperative didn’t even bottle their own wine. They sold the wine to different brands. Colares Chitas, for example, was one of them, and still is, one of the two remaining.
Now, however, since 1994, if a person came from outside and wanted to produce Colares, if that person respected the DOC law, they could do it all themselves, even the vinification. So there are now two labels and two producers who do the vinification, including the Adega Regional de Colares.
End of part 2
Read part 1 here.
The next and last installment will be a tour of the adega itself.
This post comes under the heading of ‘unfinished business’. Some months ago I wrote a piece that caught the attention of Robert Cartwright, the winemaker at Ponte Family Estate. I thanked him for his comment and asked after his work. He generously offered to send me some samples. I received the wines a couple of months later, but owing to the hustle and bustle of my schedule, they were set aside and forgotten. Entirely my fault! Recently rediscovered, I thought it best to revisit the conversation, the well-designed Ponte Family Estate website and, of course, the wines.
Now, I don’t usually write tasting notes, a detail I made clear to Mr. Cartwright; but it became clear from reading the excellent Environment portion of their winery blog that I had to respond in some way. Truth is, they are doing a commendable job on the ‘green’ front. From using light weight bottles, to sourcing locally produced ingredients in their restaurant, from using 100% CFL light bulbs, to the elimination of plastic bottles from their facilities, they are making an effort. And ‘green’ extends to home life. Even the winery owner, Claudio Ponte, had turned in his SUV for a Prius; he advocates replacing lawns with drought tolerant plants and planting a vegetable garden. Small steps, to be sure. Of course, no mention is made of solar power or water recycling. And some ‘innovations’ are just plain silly, such as this one: “Our winemaker and his team are harvesting at night whenever possible. This effort allows the must to be chilled without using much energy.” But by and large, the greenwash is kept to a minimum.
– 2008 California Chardonnay 13.6% alc ($23.95)
I tasted this wine at room temperature on a stormy afternoon. The nose is very tropical, with peaches, bananas and a strong coconut. It tastes very similar. The coconut is much stronger. A bit too much sulphur for having been open for half an hour. A hint of sourness that someone else described as green apple, but it’s more like a green apple Jolly Rancher candy to my taste. Very unctuous, thick mouth feel. It is not my style or to my liking, but I can taste no obvious faults. I know many wine drinkers who would like this wine.
– 2006 Temecula Valley Meritage 13.5% alc ($34.95)
This wine is a blend, naturally, of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec. The bottle notes list the varieties in that order. No percentages are given. The nose is very sweet, with bacon fat (yes, though a vegetarian I can still remember the smell and taste of bacon fat) and bright fruit. A bit of sourness on the nose as well. Quite nice. Good acid, smoky body (oak), I would guess the Cabernet Franc percentage to be quite high. An entirely agreeable wine. Perfumey after taste. Long finish. Good, solid bottle of wine.
– 2007 Temecula Valley Holiday Reserve Zinfandel 15.1% alc (2006 sold for $26.95)
One of the most unusual Zinfandel noses I’ve ever smelled. Very curious. Sweet, baked trout? Almost an ocean spray and very ripe fig. Baffling. Medium bodied, sweet and sour cherry. A bit green, perhaps. Uneven ripeness from a multiple vineyard blend, I’d guess. Hot. Acidified. For a California Zinfandel collector this wine should definitely be added to the cellar. I’ve had a hundred Zins from throughout California and this one is a puzzle. Warming in the glass, the wine has taken on more of a Zin character. A bit of cinnamon candy now. Oak. Very unusual. Weird, but I like it for that reason. Take it to a blind tasting and no one would easily identify it! I don’t detect any microbial mayhem, by the way.
Very high quality corks were used for each wine.
Great thanks to Ponte Family Estate and Robert Cartwright for their generosity.
How does one approach a wine largely made with a Roman technology hundreds of years old? How does one square the modern palate, though habituated to a broad range of flavors, but nevertheless structurally incapable of thinking such a wine on its own terms? How does one taste what is ancient without a historical memory? These are more than academic questions. Imagine a time traveler from contemporary Mexico City conversing with Cervantes. Or an American Christian fundamentalist suddenly in the presence of Giordano Bruno. In a similar manner, one may say what a wine tastes like, but one cannot easily enter into a productive cultural dialogue with an ‘ancient’ wine, one pioneered by monks, certainly not with one like the Vila de Frades clay jar wine sitting in front of me. How does one properly taste ‘the blood of Christ’?
Like many aspects of Portuguese wine culture, and, frankly, of the culture of Portugal itself, there is very much for this writer to learn. Yet this equally holds true for American wine enthusiasts generally. Since my November return to the states from the European Wine Bloggers Conference held in Lisbon, I can honestly say I have not had a single constructive conversation on the subject of Portuguese wines! The absence of knowledge has been a revelation. This must change. Portugal is an intellectual paradise for the restless mind. I encourage folks to visit and explore. And to drink widely.
Moving on. During the organization of the Alentejo Vinho Regional (VR) into DOCs and Indicação de Proveniencia Regulamentadas (IPR), the clay jar tradition, with Vila de Frades at its center, was somehow overlooked. A process has been underway for some time to provide the associated villages distinct government protections.
Vila de Frades, parish of the village of the friars, is located in the Alentejo, a few miles west of Vidigueira DOC and south of Evora IPR. The local economy is based upon the vine and olives, an agricultural economy maintained by many, many small landowners. Through attrition, the wearing out and accidental breaking of their distinguishing clay jars and the expenses associated with privatized winemaking, it happened that Vila de Frades became the region’s center of wine production. I will freely admit primary, local information is hard to come by, a condition I hope to partially remedy when I visit the region and villages this February. Perhaps the reader might, therefore, forgive me offering so few details! For now an interested reader may find something of value in an earlier piece I wrote a short time ago. Stay tuned to this space.
Of the wine itself, just what grapes are used to produce precisely this wine I cannot firmly say. I do know that at least these varieties are possible: Touriga National, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca, Rufete, and the white grape, Rubigato. (A search of Catavino’s deep archive would likely prove most rewarding.) The wine is a blend of red and white. Curiously, I have found contradictory information as to the percentages permitted. One site claims it is 85% white and 15% red maximum. Another source, lost in my browser ‘History’, claims the reverse, 85% red, 15% white. (I hope to clarify this detail in a few days.) In either case there is a law forbidding the blending of red and white wines. Just how this matter is locally dealt with I am not certain. But I believe it may come down to the antiquity of the blending practice. Yet another question to ask…
As may be seen in the picture above, the wine is quite a crystal clear pale red, almost pink, (though rosé would perhaps be most accurate were it not to give us the wrong idea). The nose is fruity, with strawberry and sweet cherry. A good sniff is difficult owning to the traditional plane drinking glass, also pictured above. I suspect this choice of glass has to do, in part, with how quickly the wine might oxidize in a larger vessel.
The wine is mildly acidic, very fruity, agreeable, with 13.5% alc., definitely detectable on the tongue. But all of this is completely irrelevant because the wine must be drunk with food! Indeed, the person from whom I received this jar and glass, Virgilio Loureiro, forcefully insisted in a private communication that there can be no proper tasting of this wine absent food. So it is that its historical character, its gustatory genealogy, makes of the modern gesture of tasting notes a perfect non-sense. This is a difficult notion to grasp in our age of the near-universal acceptance of evaluating wine in isolation, for example. And let us pass over in silence the stupidity of scores. But the question of how we moderns might think and come to appreciate such a wine on its own terms is, I believe, of broad interest to wine culture.
For what is the purpose of a horse now that we have engines? What is the purpose of love since soon we will soon have a pharmaceutical cure? A Kindle for books. And as for transubstantiation, now that we are rapidly refining the science of genetics, of what use is God?
Special thanks to Eduardo Segueira and Virgilio Loureiro for help with this fragment.
Coming on the heels of my review of The Wine Trials 2010 by Robin Goldstein and Alexis Herschkowitsch was a blind tasting in the Sierras with family and friends. I had planned a more conventional tasting weeks before. It was to have been with labels exposed and winery back-stories at hand. But after reading The Wine Trials 2010 I thought it would prove much more interesting to my non-expert friends were I rather to explore, unknown to them, some of the questions forcefully asked in the book. Is price correlated to quality? Can an expensive wine be sensed? Knowing only the price range of the wines, can folks ‘ballpark’ a price point? Further, is the evaluation of wine quality made easier or more complicated if the wines may not be discussed during the tasting? And what of defensiveness, intimidation, parroting the critics, post-tasting humiliation, all of the pleasure-robbing pathologies surrounding wine? Should the blind tasting be properly constructed, might this miasma of anxiety be displaced by, well, good, clean fun?
I did not follow the letter but the spirit of The Wine Trials’ Chapter 8 Drinking games for adults, the book’s instruction manual for blind tastings. My method was the following (and nearly all of these details were known to the participants): I purchased all of the wines from one store, Trader Joe’s. The price spread was from a few dollars to around $30. The wines were made of one grape, Cabernet Sauvignon, with one notable exception I’ll explain later. Four wines were domestically produced, in California. One was from Bordeaux.
I placed the bottles, five in all, in identical paper sacks. I then removed all of the tin and plastic on the necks of each bottle and pulled the corks. Only one cork was plastic. I concealed them. The bags were then taped closed at the neck. I left the room and requested that another soul randomly number the bottles which were promptly placed among the participants at the tasting table. I returned to the room and passed out notebook paper and pens.
Though unintentional, it happened that none of the wines I selected appear on the list of 150 recommendations in The Wine Trials 2010, though it may be that they were on the original gathering of 450 wines. I do not know. Neither is it particularly relevant.
Of the five participants (and I will be speaking of myself in the third person from time to time), there were three women, all mothers, and two men, both fathers. They range in age from the late thirties to the early fifties. All are college-educated; they think for themselves. Each soul is independent and will not hesitate to express an opinion. All are good-looking, talented and desirable. They are all middle to upper middle-class. All stick to a budget. None drink to excess unless provoked by the chafing coil of daily responsibilities. Four souls are avid, casual wine-drinkers; only one is an oft-times annoying student of the vine. All of their children were present, and, I should point out, quite amused at their parent’s behavior. Moreover, the secretive character of the wine tasting exercise interested them. Who doesn’t enjoy guessing what’s in the brown paper bag?
A simple series of questions was asked. “Which wine(s) tastes expensive?” “What is the taste of expensive?” “How much would one be willing to pay for a given wine?” Not asked was which wine was a favorite, though all were free to speak of such a thing only after the other questions were answered, or at least an attempt was made. Lastly, each soul was given the option to guess the grape. (It must be said that the questions were so designed as to shift the burden off of private reflection and onto that of a wine’s commercial reception.)
Dinner had already been eaten. The numbered wines were tasted in order. A single 12 oz. crystal glass was used by each taster, and each time the glass was rinsed with the next wine to be tasted. A spit bucket was provided. Its use was encouraged.
The results? The first wine tasted was from the general Napa AVA, a 2008 Spiral cab. This wine tasted ‘expensive’ by two participants. The tannin and acid was compelling. Too much oak (or oak flavoring?) was nevertheless present. Three folks said, rather emphatically, that the wine tasted like ‘just wine’, ’simple’, ‘thin’, ‘little depth, no story; Elmer’s glue’. Of the latter, they would not pay more than $6. This is a good thing because the wine sells for $4.99!
The second wine was a 2006 Napa Valley Robert Mondavi cab. No taster sensed that this wine was ‘expensive’. Indeed, after two folks volunteered that the wine ’smelled like rubbing alcohol’, tasted ‘metallic, like cherry cough drops’, ‘not complex’, no taster, it turned out, would be willing to pay over $10. Three tasters felt the wine worth less than $7! The retail price for this wine is $20.99.
The third wine, a 2001 Chateau de la Riviere Fronsac. The ringer. Mostly Merlot. But inasmuch as it was from Bordeaux I knew it would be a strict, harsh example. One thought it poor, hardly worth more than $3. The high acid and tannin was welcomed by others, though one taster felt it had but one note. Somewhere between $10 and $15 was the general consensus. Retail: $14.99.
One of the strangest wines of the evening, the fourth, was the 2007 California Pétanque by M. Schlumberger, Inc. Perhaps it was that it was tasted after the Fronsac. One felt it was quite cheap. Others detected chalk, roses, said it had a ’story’. The consensus that it was a medium priced wine. Most would pay $14 to $16. The retail? $4.99.
The fifth wine was a surprise. We had a near unanimous agreement that it was an ‘expensive’ wine, the 2004 Mt. Veder, Napa, Chateau Potelle. One taster said, ‘I would pay over $20 for this.’ Another said it was the ‘best of the evening’. ‘Bitter’ intro, but worth $15 at least added a third. A fourth soul agreed. One last voice, a fan of the Fronsac, said this wine tasted ‘powdered’. Like Kool-Aid, simply dump it into a glass of water. Retail: $24.99.
It is clear that a blind tasting exercise like the one described above, or that found in The Wine Trials 2010, ought to be a part of every wine enthusiast’s on-going education. Not only does it interfere with received commercial and critical opinion, but it makes short work of whatever expertise one may have felt they’re owed. What is interesting is the simplicity of the work. One need merely drink from a paper bag. And no one needs to feel disappointed. Tasting at cross purposes, finding mystery with the most modest of wines, it is a minor miracle that the human palate may draw distinctions from so small a sample. Five wines!
How strange is it that family and friends, first drawn together by a common purpose, a blind tasting, should nevertheless find themselves alone.
December – the festive month where most people have at least a few days vacation time over the Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year period. Typically it’s a time for over indulging and, as ice and snow closed in on the UK, waistlines and livers were prepared for the onslaught.
In wine news Web Wine Wunderkind Gary Vaynerchuk predicted the US would avoid 2009 Bordeaux en primeur in a Decanter interview, Calistoga became the latest AVA while Amarone della Valpolicella and Recioto della Valpolicella were promoted to DOCG status – but Italy also made the headlines for the wrong reasons with yet another scandal surfacing, this time in Tuscany where illegal blending is being investigated covering several sub-appellations including Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino.
On the lighter side of the news Decanter reviewed the claims about wine and health with a handy fact sheet on the all that’s good and bad (sometimes at the same time!), new Wine Personality of the decade Eric LeVine presented a tantalising preview of the upcoming CellarTracker changes and we at Reign of Terroir welcomed back Donna with her wonderfully amusing and insightful post The Many Faces of Wine and for inspiring our combined Decade Of Wine Industry Highlights.
Here in the UK a few more First Quench jobs were rescued when Hampshire based Wickham Vineyards took over 14 local stores and quality UK supermarket Waitrose lost top wine man Justin Howard-Sneyd MW to Direct Wines Ltd, which includes Laithwaites Wines and the Sunday Times Wine Club.
I had the delights of 2 festive meals at the beginning of December. First the NEWTS annual gathering at the Newcastle College Chefs’ Academy restaurant, where the food was prepared and served by the hospitality students. Drink was BYO, just as well for a Wine Tasting Society, but even better there was no corkage charge!
Our table of 7 began with the excellent Ployez Jaquemart 1999 Brut Champagne (my contribution) then moved onto the Château Pesquie 2007 Viognier to accompany the starters (I had a delicious Pigeon breast salad) and soup. For the main course my pan-fried Duck was superb and complemented by a smoky, spicy & vegetal glass of Cloudy Bay 2007 Pinot Noir. A cheese-board finished the evening alongside my second contribution, a very disappointing Trimbach 2000 Cuvée Frédéric Emile Riesling; all kerosene and no complexity. Much better was the bottle of 1984 Vintage Port brought by another diner – I forgot to note the producer but it had a nice raisin component and drank well, although I suspect Port aficionados would have been merely satisfied.
The following evening it was the turn of the office party and we moved away from traditional fare with a Chinese meal at a local restaurant on Newcastle’s Quayside. I admit I did not expect to have much wine that night but I was surprised by their very drinkable options which were on the table;
–Cristobal 1492 Torrontes from Mendoza was a great matching for the Chinese meal, with good aromatics.
–Caliterra 2008 Reserva Merlot from Chile’s Colchagua valley added a bit of youthful tannin to the table, and enough fruit for a very enjoyable drink.
–Tyrrells 2008 Old Winery Pinot Noir, a familiar favourite and good with Peking duck pancakes, although not as elegant as the ‘06 or ‘07.
Once again I headed south to New Milton in Hampshire where my company head office is – camped in hotels for nearly two weeks isn’t my idea of fun, but at least I get a chance to visit a few local restaurants on expenses! This time round the Boathouse in Christchurch provided a good meal for a group of 8 of us and the Campo Viejo 2006 Rioja Crianza was a safe bet for the table, smooth and easy drinking.
Later on a visit to the Pacific 23 restaurant (part of a traditional British pub) saw a choice of Gewurztraminers to accompany the Thai food; the Chilean Casa la Joya 2008 by Viña Bisquertt was a good example of a New World Gewurz, but too dry for the meal and better as an aperitif, while the 2007 Cave de Ribeauville from Alsace was perfect with the rich and spicy food.
At home I saw an interesting recipe on a TV show and decided to try it out – Wild Mushroom and Spinach Lasagne. I added my own twist to it by making a Béchamel sauce using the mushroom stock and adding Comté cheese before pouring over the mushroom and spinach layers – it was such a success that by month end I’d made it again! The Cata Mayor 2006 Tannat from Uruguay was a good partner to the first dish, but I suspected an earthy Pinot would have been better so second time round I opened the Brook Ranch 2006 Pinot Noir from California’s Marmesa Vineyards. This was my first Californian Pinot and the colour was darker than expected for the variety, with a lovely smoky bacon & resin nose and a mouth-watering cherries and tannin finish which made it very enjoyable to drink, however, a poor mid-palate kept it firmly in the 3 star category. At £10.99 it was encouraging as an introduction to the region and I have a couple of more expensive ones from Cuvaison and Au Bon Climat nestled away for some time in the next year or two.
December purchases were very light; only 6 bottles in total and three of those were Champagne and a Crémant du Jura for drinking over the holidays. The best deal was probably the Palais des Anciens 2008 Chateauneuf-du-Pape by Vignobles du Peloux (an obscure producer in the Boisset group) from the Co-op at £11.99. Of course it was Christmas that was the main focal point of the month, and a full 2 weeks off work allowed me to wring every last drop of enjoyment from the time. Even better, Christmas day’s dinner was at my parents in Scotland where my mother (a retired cook) was doing the largest beef 4 rib roast I’ve ever seen! Needless to say the food was stunningly good and the wine I brought up to accompany it didn’t let it down.
The first drink of the day was Heidsieck Monopole Blue Top NV Champage, chilled outside in the snow (yes, it was a White Christmas where I was); a medium mousse released strong apple fruit and was perfect for the Christmas toast. This was followed by the floral Reichsgraf Von Kesselstatt 2004 Ockfener Bockstein Riesling; sweetness and acidity in good balance with a lemon finish.
The main course was partnered by the Château St. Georges 2003 St. Georges St. Emilion which had a delightful toffee nose and a strong acidity that worked well with the beef.
Finally the evening was brought to a close by a Sauternes, the 1999 Château Filhot. I’m still not sure about Sauternes, at least in the < £20 category, as this medium bodied sweetie had a good shot of honey but didn’t inspire me (I’d rather have had a Tokaji).
Of the other wines drank over the month one was so good it made it into my Top 10 wines of 2009. This was the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Special Reserve from Agur Winery in Israel. I also had a delicious dry Pedro Ximenez from Chile, the Marks & Spencers label 2008 PX made for them by GEO wines, the perfectly typical Villa Maria Private Bin 2007 East Coast Gewürztraminer from New Zealand and a tasty bottle from Australia’s Brokenwood winery, their 2004 Cricket Pitch Red.
I forgot to mention Christmas presents! My wine obsession was catered for this year by a gift membership to the Wine Society, a veritable British Institution where £40 for a lifetime membership gains you access to some wine gems at great prices, I plan on putting in my first case order soon.
I hope you all had a good time over the holiday period, ate some good food and drank some good wine (and had less snow than we did here). The noughties are now done, onward into the next decade!
The Wine Trials 2010, by Robin Goldstein and Alexis Hershkowitsch (along with scores of others), is a curious book. At once rigorous and slippery, honest and evasive, it is precisely because of it’s structural ambiguity that it is a good place to initiate a discussion of what might be called the informal cultural anthropology of wine. And the discussion may most properly begin among small groups of wine enthusiasts tasting blind. This is the book’s great strength.
Robin Goldstein, whom I’ve never met, is perhaps best known for an interesting experiment (some folks used harsher language) he performed in 2008 involving the Wine Spectator’s (WS) ‘Award of Excellence’ program, the details about which this space has written. He created an entirely fictional restaurant on the internet, composed a wine list of WS ‘under-performers’, paid his $250 entrance fee and, voila!, the Award of Excellence was his. Equally importantly for Mr. Goldstein’s purposes (and ours) was the solicitation for advertisement space. Full details may be found on his website, Blind Taste. It was an amusing coup.
The Wine Trials 2010 takes elements of this project forward. First of all, it is important to stress that the tone of the book is a kind of hopeful skepticism, a forceful, yet playful insistence that though the consumer’s conscious freedom to taste is muted by three distinct cultural obstacles, they might yet escape through the practice of blind tasting. (And, of course, with the help of the wine recommendations in this book!) This is a book for adults interested in the ‘big picture’. It is meant to provoke thought. But that it also interferes with thought I hope to make clear.
The first of the three obstacles is the wine press, generalized under the titles Parker’s Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. The second obstacle is the ‘placebo effect’, a universal feature of the human condition. The third obstacle, an equally universal feature, is cultural training whereby everyone is introduced from infancy into a specific gustatory regime. I shall briefly examine each in turn.
The Wine Press How is it that a $12 Domaine Ste. Michelle Cuvée Brut sparkler from Washington State is consistently preferred in blind tastings to a $150 Dom Pérignon? Or a $9 Beringer Founders’ Estate Cab to its close relative, the $120 Beringer Private Reserve Cab? Or a $6 Vinho Verde from Portugal to Cakebread’s $40 Chardonnay? Precisely because they were tasted blind. And the reverse, choosing the more expensive wine in the full light of day? In part, this is because of the distortions the wine press. Through well-publicized tastings by established critics, advertisement and a battery of lifestyle-enhancement triggers, the consumer comes to believe a higher price is correlated to quality. To see is to believe. Of course nothing could be further from the truth, the book argues. And it tries to show the reader why.
The Wine Trials 2010 tells us that four hundred and fifty “widely available” wines were initially selected, all under $15. As distinct from last year’s edition, this time around “We have accepted nominations from professionals in many different areas of the wine industry, from producers to sommeliers, importers to retailers.” It was from this pool that after multiple blind tastings among dozens and dozens of contributors, one hundred and fifty wines made the cut. Part Two of the book is an alphabetical compilation, with details and notes, of these wines. Now, what is surprising is that every one of the 150 wines “outscored much more expensive bottles in our brown-bag tasting.” It is surprising because of what the reader never learns :
1) The identity of the “more expensive bottles”. Indeed, very few expensive wines are mentioned in the book. Apart from the Dom Pérignon, Beringer and Cakebread, the only other wines touched on are Veuve Clicquot and a Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru from Louis Latour. Were there others? What was the price spread? Were $20 bottles included? We just don’t know.
2 Neither is a definition of “expensive” provided. Is it $18, $25? (The least expensive of the wines mentioned comes in at $40.)
3) Lastly, though the Wine Spectator comes rightly under considerable fire for their very questionable methodology, readers are not informed whether the “expensive” wines were ever given especially high scores in that magazine.
These are important methodological faults of The Wine Trials 2010, in my view. Of course, the book’s principle argument is that value may be found at lower price points. I heartily agree. No one would argue otherwise, not in the real world. But I do not believe their case is properly made absent a full disclosure of the expensive wines’ identities, how the expensive were selected and how widely did the authors select. We do know that all wines had to be “widely available”. But that is the sole criterion, as near as I can tell.
The placebo effect The Wine Trials 2010 discusses very important developments in the field of Neuroscience concerning how it is that to believe something is true in fact physically alters one’s perception. The authors provide a fine, though limited bibliography for further reading. Recounting various historical and current experiments in which test subjects, from the sophisticated to the novice, were creatively mislead (shall we say), the book amply demonstrates the very real phenomenon of the placebo effect. In these experiments wine experts come to believe the same wine in different bottles, one expensive, one cheap, actually taste different; casual drinkers, when mis-informed that they are drinking a cheap wine said to be expensive, prefer the ‘expensive’, by significant statistical margins. New experiments are being formulated as I write, so rich is the field.
Perception and expectation do alter taste. About that there is no question. Mr. Goldstein calls this framing of experience “The taste of money”. This we know occurs. And it is a far deeper phenomenon than the casual drinker might be willing to admit. Or the authors themselves. Indeed, the clinical trials of new drugs are routinely abandoned because the pharmaceutical company is unable to show a statistically meaningful improvement in a patient over a placebo in blind trials.
Further, there is a large body of brilliant research on differing experiences of pain when a subject’s expectations are wildly distinct. Take, for example, a soldier shot on the battlefield. He is offered pain medication, but he refuses it, deferring to his fallen fellows. Why? With allowances made for specific details, it is because he knows he is going home; he knows he will see his kids and wife; he knows he will receive a hero’s welcome; he knows he will receive on-going medical care. He was wounded defending a cause. Clinical experience clearly shows the experience of pain will be attenuated.
Now contrast that series of expectations to the victim of a random shooting on the street. This poor soul has no expectation of proper, complete care; he does not know whether his employer will keep his job for him and whether, as a consequence, he will be able to pay the rent; or how he will provide for his family. He is the anonymous victim of a random crime. There is no ’cause’, just the brutal reality of the street. Again, clinical experience reveals a different experience of pain.
I’ve gone on this tangent because I think the authors of The Wine Trials 2010 grossly overstate the simplicity of consumers rising above ‘the placebo effect’. They provide what I would call a ’soft’ case. The research they cite, however methodologically flawed, still remains compelling. It is simply that neuroscience and anthropology, the hard research, provides stronger evidence of the persistence and durability of ‘the placebo effect’ than the authors appear to believe.
Cultural Training The Wine Trials 2010 offers some very valuable insight into modern wines, what they call a ‘globalized’ style. Recognizing the jeopardy much of the world’s wine diversity is in, they point to a plausible suspect. Robert Parker? No. For Parker is only the bearer of a cultural marker, a gustatory preference. The real culprit is sugar. From the book,
[...] the culprit for the style convergence might not be Parker himself, or his followers themselves; it might be the taste for sugar that he, and they, all acquired in childhood–a taste that an increasing percentage of the world’s children are now also acquiring. [....] Should we call Yellow Tail not ‘Parkerized,’ but rather ‘globalized’”?
I think there is something to this. And one might look no further than The Wine Trials 2010 list of wines itself for evidence of this increasingly important cultural factor. Sure enough, of the 150 wines selected a full 42 ‘Heavy New World reds’ (their category) made the cut in their blind tastings! Nearly a third, and by far the largest single grouping. Of course, they might argue that this is because the decisive factor for inclusion into the original 450 wines was that they be “widely” available. And Heavy New World red does not necessarily mean ‘globalized’. But it, nevertheless, begs the question. No discussion of this statistically significant result is entertained in the book.
And this takes us to a more difficult question about the value, you could even call it the philosophy, of blind tasting. Mr. Goldstein cites a lively discussion shared on Eric Asimov’s NY Times wine blog, The Pour, about the subject. Among the many topics touched on, Asimov insisted that “blind tastings eliminate knowledge and context that can be significant in judging a wine. [....] It is an almost anti-intellectual position. Obviously what’s in the glass matters. But the more knowledge you can bring to a wine, the better your understanding of that wine will be.”
In The Wine Trials 2010 Mr. Goldstein responds in a very curious, though similar, way. He writes, “Our descriptions do not rely solely on blind tasting notes. Without a doubt, a lot of the fun of wine is in all the stuff that’s not in the glass.” [emphasis in the original]
Now, I have not read all the original source material framing this exchange, but I will say that both gentlemen seem to agree that Knowledge, with a capital K, is extraneous to what’s in the glass. I couldn’t disagree more; for knowledge comes in many different forms. I would argue that viticultural and winemaking practice have a direct bearing on what’s in the glass. Whether biodynamic, organic, conventional, whether terroir-driven, practice and soil informs the wine. It is one thing to recognize it, it is quite another to claim, as Mr. Goldstein certainly does, that knowledge, this time with a small k, does not inform a wine.
Mr. Goldstein is equally dismissive of the notion that wine is meant to be consumed with food. Who would argue with what half the wine-drinking world holds to self-evident? Well, he erases entire libraries and cultures when he writes,
“It is true that information about your experience of a wine in the absence of food, or in a sequence of other wines, will not be perfectly relevant to a reader’s future experience of that same wine over a relaxing meal. But information about how the wine’s fruit character and tannins reacted with your next-door neighbor’s demi-glace might well be even less relevant”
Try telling that to a Spaniard! I guarantee that uttering such a thing will not get you invited into his family’s house.
It is almost as if he is claiming ‘knowledge’ of/about wine is limited to price, the eccentricities of the winemaker, label and prestige, only those elements that fall under the umbrella of wine marketing and ‘the placebo effect’. An astute student of socioeconomic folly does not make one a wine critic. Neither does he claim to be, to be sure. And as to that, it is a curious effect of this book that it leaves this reader with the impression that Mr. Goldstein does not himself drink wine. There is little passion for wine on the page. Intelligence, yes. I think he might be principally a creature of the behavioral sciences, perforce hamstrung by the multiple ways his freedom may be hijacked by subterranean cultural forces at work on us all. Or, perhaps, a touch of how the gynecologist might reflect upon the prospect of having sex. He’s just seen too much!
But I like the book, even though my point of view cannot find a home there. It is stuffed with ideas, too many to fairly discuss in a modest review. It forcefully puts forward a point of view, a series of challenges to a large part of the wine industry which deserve, no, demand to be heard. I like the book well enough to give Mr. Goldstein the last word.
“The aim of The Wine Trials–aside from seeking out good, widely available values under $15–is to question the institutional structures that govern the industry, to encourage people to learn their own palates through the exercise of tasting blind instead of trusting the numerical scores that Parker and the magazines assign. It is the economic power of these institutional structures that damages not only the wallet of the everyday consumer, but also the chances for a small, interesting, good-value producer–even one that makes a wine costing more than $15–to succeed on the store shelf or on the restaurant wine list.”
Please also see the spirited debate over at 1 Wine Dude’s site.