What follows is my gaze into the crystal ball of wine writing’s future. I was invited by the organizers of the Wine Bloggers Conference, this year held in Walla Walla, Washington, to offer my views along side of those of the steady Steve Heimoff and the durable Tom Wark of Fermentation. My invitation to participate, I must say, was a bit of a lark, entirely unexpected. It is one thing to go about the quiet, deliberative work of presenting important ideas and issues to the public, one’s readership; it is quite another to take to the stage with gentlemen of such considerable experience and wisdom. Though I will not dispute for a minute the insight of the Conference organizers for having thought of me, I will say that I approached the panel discussion with humility, indeed, with a haunting sense that it could all go very wrong. But it didn’t. In fact, it may turn out that our exchange will take on an after-life none of us could have predicted.
Not used to public speaking, fully aware of the shortcomings of my presentation, here I offer an enhanced, fluid reconstruction of my remarks.
So It Begins…
None of us on the panel had any idea of what the other would say. We had agreed that our point of departure would be the question of whether in the future there would be a handful of important critics, gatekeepers; whether the consumer would continue to depend upon select voices for navigating the bewildering choices. However interesting the answer may be, it was clear to me that the question did not remotely approach what I understand by wine writing. Whether there will be gatekeepers in the future is a marginal question at best. The handmaiden to mere commerce, tasting notes and scores threaten to trivialize wine, and make of wine writing little more than the penning of serviceable haikus. A sub-genre at best, tasting notes and scores might more properly be understood as the discursive equivalent of a wine additive or manipulative technology.
And the assumption of a passive consumer deepens this impression. Having worked in a winery and knowing the manipulations commonly brought to unbalanced juice, I have often encountered a deep cynicism with respect to the public. And just as it is a common feature of winemaker psychology, so too does it afflict the wine writer. Aware of winery shenanigans, to the degree that they turn a blind eye to such manipulations in their tasting notes and scores, they, too, show a lazy contempt for the consumer, more so when, as often happens, they are made fully aware of a specific winery’s procedures and practices. Critics often share an unspoken compact with a winery that some things shall go unspoken. Indeed, it is just this structural deformity, the non-equivalence between wine critic and consumer knowledge that encourages contempt for the latter and generates dependance.
Now, to be put properly on the path to being a successful wine blogger, especially one specializing in tasting notes, will often mean accumulating secrets, a knowledge of which the public is unaware. It is the effective concealment of aspects wine knowledge, rather than its elaboration, that informs credibility. How humorous is the spectacle of established wine critics slamming bloggers for their lack of expertise when what they really mean is that they don’t know where the bodies are buried! You don’t need a PhD is business to know that controversy will close more doors than it opens. So, a wine blogger’s success, their monetization, is often built upon a foundation of bad faith, the requirement that wine drinkers be reduced to passive consumers, and that some aspects of wine knowledge be strictly policed.
The principle obstacle to improving the fortunes of wine writing in a broader sense is, unsurprisingly, the digital form it is required to take. These days there is no wine-related conference one may attend at which social media does not play a commanding role. Whether it be Twitter, Facebook, or blog formats themselves, these forms can significantly limit expression. A technological fetish, the various forms of social media, endlessly promoted, are granted magical (commercial) powers. But at the expense of thought and culture. We are repeatedly told that no one reads anymore; that 500 to 1000 words is all we should write on our blogs. But that is a function of social media’s digital forms. They aggressively subvert thought, largely preferring commercial applications alone. The corrosive financial impact of multiple digital innovations on traditional wine writers exploring the complexities of wine history, culture, and the literary side of the wine world, is everywhere evident. After all, democratization has, since Plato, known another face. With respect to wine writing we might call it a variation of the tragedy of the commons.
The future of wine writing ought to include readers in the writer’s explorations. No longer relegated to a passive position, the word ‘consumer’ should be scrapped. It was just a short while ago that Oz Clarke referred to Merlot as America’s gateway wine. Following upon a series of news reports in the 1980s about the beneficial effects of moderate wine drinking, America turned to wine in a big way. Merlot was chosen because it was the least wine-like wine, by which was meant that it caused no offense and was easy to drink. A lot has changed since then. The ‘consumer’ is not longer in that place. I compare our understanding of the evolution of the ‘consumer’ to traveling by car in the south of France to the Spanish frontier. The architectural forms, the local vernacular, slowly change. To take a single snapshot at any given mileage marker tells you nothing of the subtle, on-going transformations. It is the same with our idea of the ‘consumer’. Though we may try to fix the concept, it is morphing, taking on complexities of its own. So, the first principle of future wine writing in digital formats should be this recognition. Educate readers! Invite them along. Deepen their understanding along with yours. Most importantly, make of your own developing sophistication a promise to readers that your current ignorance will become a shared future knowledge. For your journey is also theirs.
There are great opportunities for on-line wine magazines. The Palate Press and Catavino are among the best examples we currently enjoy. Though differing in intent, each offer opportunities for multiple genres and topics to be more fully explored, even if somewhat briefly. The world of wine demands the multiplication of genres the on-line mag performs. The Palate Press’ recent stories on under-valued indigenous American grape varieties amply illustrates the point.
And then is the interesting possibility of wineries themselves taking on a greater role in wine writing in the future, to help gently force the agenda. It has long been felt that a winery can only provide updates on the humdrum ‘everydayness’ of their work. Perhaps one might read on Facebook an announcement about a festival or wine sale, the comings and going of the winery dog, that is about it. And whether one is organic or biodynamic is a one-off utterance. “We are organic!” Next month they write, “Yup. We’re still organic!” What is needed is for a winery to enter into a compelling narrative, for themselves to become a generator of important news. And this, in my view, is what Parducci Wine Cellars, the whole of the Mendocino Wine Company, is fast becoming. America’s first carbon neutral winery, the 100% reuse of winery waste water, the construction of wetlands, the aggressive promotion of biodiversity on their properties, these and many other green initiatives make of the Mendocino Wine Company an on-going performance of its vision of the future. The process moves. It is the unfolding story with multiple chapters.
Their most recent chapter may well be that as the anchor for a broad-based micro-finance initiative throughout the Mendocino AVA itself. Briefly stated, micro-financing is the use of monies aggregated from multiple private sources for the purpose of peer-to-peer lending. The purpose is not only to eliminate banking hierarchies and their usurious interest rates, but to encourage an entrepreneurial spirit. And to open up opportunities for development often closed to small farmers, for example, in our troubled economic times. Were a struggling farmer wish to do the right thing, to improve the efficiency of their water recycling system or even to install one, where a bank might not see a compelling financial interest, private micro-financing dedicated to such an initiative could quickly respond.
I shall have much more to say about this matter moving forward. It is best for now to simply let the process take its course and, hopefully, to awaken the imaginations of other wineries to the idea of micro-financing.
So, there are many, many ways to approach the question of the future of wine writing. I have related here not the sum total of my speculations, just those generally consistent with my presentation at the Wine Bloggers Conference. There will be much more to come. After all, tomorrow is the future.
As South America is currently dominating the World Cup being played in South Africa (with all their teams clearing the group stages and Argentina looking good for the title) it is perfect timing to write up a recent tasting of Chilean and Argentinean wines I attended and highlight some of the excellent wines the region is producing in general.
As you may know I am a member of the North East Wine Tasting Society, or NEWTS as it is colloquially known. The format is simple; each month we sit down to critique 8-10 wines, typically following a theme and usually sourced and presented by one of the society members. Occasionally we have a trade presentation from one of the local retailers and this month it was from the UK national wine chain Oddbins on South America, given by Laura from the Newcastle branch. At the start Laura admitted she had been apprehensive about the wines to bring for the evening and had called in a few favours from other Oddbins stores around the country to pull together a selection of bottles not readily available in Newcastle, including one which only just arrived on the morning of the tasting.
The first wine was the 2009 Garuma single vineyard Sauvignon Blanc by Viña Leyda in the relatively new winemaking region of Leyda Valley, only 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Chile is starting to make a reputation for itself with good Sauvignon Blanc in a richer, smoother style compared to New Zealand – one of my favourites is the Terrunyo single vineyard by Concha y Toro – and the Garuma was in that vein. It had a smooth, rich nose with aspects of Sauvignon typicity (but not over the top) while in the mouth it had a very pleasant texture; dry, fruity with a lemon zing – although there was a touch of heat at the end from the 14% abv. For £9 a bottle this was a very well made wine, good value for money and didn’t change my opinion that Chile is worth looking at if you’re tired of all those carbon copy Marlborough Sauvignons.
The next white was from Argentina, although surprisingly not a Torrontes, which is fast becoming as synonymous with that nation as the Malbec grape is for its reds. Instead we were given Dona Paula’s “Naked Pulp” Viognier, made from the free-run juice – the grapes then used to co-ferment with the wineries “Olives road” Syrah-Viognier.
After 10 months in new French barrels the Viognier had an overtly oaked nose which masked any fruit, but an enjoyable texture and viscosity in the mouth, along with a touch of sweetness, brought out pineapple flavours. The viscosity, oak, alcohol (14.5%) and £14 price are likely to put off some but many more would enjoy this full bodied white.
The reds started with a confused offering from Italian producer Masi, taking some of their home-grown ideas into Mendoza’s Tupungato Valley to produce the 2008 Paso Doble. Malbec grapes were fermented first and then a second fermentation was started after the addition of 30% of semi-dried Corvina grapes, in the Passito style more commonly seen in Valpolicella. Considering the large Malbec component, the wine was relatively thin, with a menthol component on the nose but a green aspect I didn’t appreciate. Although smooth in the mouth it was dry with a short finish, a simple wine for its price (£13) and winemaking technique.
Thin and simple couldn’t be applied to the next wine, Norton’s 2006 Privada blend of Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Norton is rightly known as a consistent producer of quality wines and the Privada is made from old vines with very low yields of 4 tonnes per hectare (ton/ha) to justify the £20 price tag. This was a big, dense wine with a massive nose of black fruits and spice and an almost syrupy texture with tannins throughout, rich and fruity from the mid-palate but a disjointed herbal bitterness to the finish detracted a little.
After 2 Argentinean reds it was time to cross over the Andes into Chile and Cono Sur. The winery was founded as a subsidiary of Chilean giant Concha y Toro in 1993 and has developed a reputation for environmentally friendly winemaking under Chief winemaker Adolfo Hurtado (Tim Atkin has a good interview from last year on his site).
Initially building its reputation on reliable low to mid-priced wines it moved into the premium sector in 2003 with the launch of the “Ocio” Pinot Noir and it was the 2007 vintage that was next on the tasting list.
Some questioned tasting a Pinot Noir after a big Malbec blend but it soon became clear that this was no ordinary Pinot! Also produced from yields of 4ton/ha, mostly from the El Triangulo Estate in Casablanca, the concentration could be seen as the bottle was poured. There was some mushroom on the nose behind plenty of fruit and some cigar-box, while the taste was clean with overt acidity, but a savoury sort which carried a host of subtle flavours into a moderate finish. I can appreciate that the acidity would be seen as too much by many palates, but for me it made the wine with a sharp savouriness that I had not come across in a Pinot before, although at £32 a bottle the price is outside of my typical purchasing range so that may not be surprising!
We stayed on the Pacific side of the mountains with Neyen de Apalta in the Apalta Valley, part of the larger Colchagua region. This small winery only produces one label and the 2004 vintage was a blend of Chile’s signature red grape, Carmenère, with 30% Cabernet Sauvignon at 14% abv and £28 a bottle. The two grapes came together in a very dark wine with a thick, concentrated nose of liquorice and smoky fruit. This was extremely smooth and seamlessly integrated; fine grain tannins and subtle complexities resounded around the mouth with a strong chocolate component.
Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon went solo next for the 2005 Viñedo Chadwick, a wine with an impressive pedigree as part of Eduardo Chadwick’s blind-tasting roadshow first brought to the attention of the world after the 2004 “Judgement of Berlin”, when the Viñedo Chadwick and the Viña Errázuriz Seña were ranked ahead of Château Margaux, Château Lafite, Château Latour, Sassicaia and Tignanello. Tom Cannavan did a tongue in cheek re-enactment (The Judgement of Glasgow!) on his UK Wine Pages last year which included the 2006 Chadwick.
As for the 2005, this had an ethereal nose with little cherry wood, was also very smooth (more so than the Neyen) and was fresh with a touch of mint. Tannins came in on the mid-palate and carried on through the very long finish. I am not going to try and describe the various secondary flavours of this wine as I would undoubtedly fail to do it justice, but when someone shouted out “bargain” at its £35 bottle price (on Bin End at Oddbins) I had to agree – this was as close to a 5 star wine as I have come across, not trying to be anything else other than stunningly good.
A final hop back over the Andes for the last wine, the 2005 Finca Pedregal single vineyard Malbec (70%), Cabernet Sauvignon (30%) blend by Pascual Toso.
This had a strong savoury nose with some tar and maybe a little volatility and there were big tannins and a lot of blackberry in the mouth. I used the word seamless for the Neyen, but this was more so with a long plateau of flavour from start, thought the mid-palate and into the sweet and fruity finish. with. At £38.50 I wouldn’t put it ahead of the Chadwick, Neyen or even Ocio, but like the others this was an exceptional wine which gave a lot of enjoyment for a price far lower than some of the more established Old World equivalents.
I left the room at the end of the evening with a strong feeling of being privileged to have tasted some beautiful wines all on the same day. Of course the tasting was more of a Chile and Argentina tag team match – Brazil and Uruguay still have some way to go before they can lay claim to the same accolades – but if there’s anyone left who thinks South America is only for Supermarket wines then they need to think again.
One of the great advantages of arriving in Walla Walla earlier than the commencement of the Wine Bloggers Conference is the people you meet outside the official program. Always one to stray, I have been very fortunate to happen upon an excellent young winemaker, Sean Boyd, owner of Rôtie Cellars. He makes some of the finest Rhone expressions in Washington State that I have had the pleasure to taste. EVER. He sells out quickly. His wines are sought after by sommeliers in Seattle, and they are very popular here. But he’s a small producer. And should he grow it will only be if he is certain that his fundamental winemaking philosophy remains firm. A glimpse of his approach, his ethos:
“The whole point of Rotie Cellars is to make traditional Rhone Blends with Washington State fruit. So what do traditional Rhone blends mean to me? To start with, they mean lower alcohol, less ripe, less wood, balanced, finesse driven, mouth coating wines.”
But as I can personally attest, this is no mere marketing b.s. He believes what he says. And spend a few minutes with the man and it becomes crystal clear that he’s having the time of his life life making wine. The funny thing is is that he would be the first to shy away from the hype, to just laugh off the praise. As he says, “I’m just the janitor.” He believes all the quality his wines will ever have is achieved in the vineyard. Site location is of paramount importance, especially in the wide open spaces of the Walla Walla AVA and beyond.
The assembled bloggers for this weekend’s conference are fortunate that Côtie Cellars has just opened a tasting room that will be open tomorrow (Friday) and Saturday. Sparsely decorated, with only lonely orchids blooming, you simply must make time to drop in while there are still wines of his to taste. It is located a couple of blocks from the Marcus Whitman, at 31 E. Main Street, Suite 216.
Though it is not my custom or style, I will make an exception and provide tasting notes on another occasion. For now enjoy a little time with the gentleman.
Admin So you like Rhone varieties?
Sean Boyd Yeah. Naming my winery Rôtie Cellars is a little cheeky, but I just wanted to focus on making what I love to drink. I thought it was a fad ten years ago, but it was always one of those constants. You know, when you start drinking wine, for me, it was Zins. I started with Zins out of Paso Robles. I started there. Then you realize your love for other wines. You’ve filled up your cellar and one day realize you can’t drink anything out of your cellar because you think they’re all disgusting. You’ve moved onto Pinots. Then you move on as your wine education develops. Then you move back to what you’ve always loved; for me, Rhones.
Now, Cote Rôtie’s have higher acids, firm tannins, need aging…
SB For me it’s lower alcohol, less manipulation, finding sites that grow the vines very well. Walla Walla is a horrible place to grow Grenache. It’s a horrible place to grow Mourvèdre. Super long cycles, even longer than Cab. When you think about where Grenache and Mourvèdre come from, you think hot sites. Walla Walla is a much cooler site than a lot of the places around Washington. Now, I don’t want to put wines out that just say ‘Walla Walla’ on them to sell bottles. It’s more about finding the best spots to grow the grapes. With Grenache and Mourvèdre, the best spots are along the Columbia River. Super high winds, south-facing slopes, so I found Horse Heaven Hills and north of the Hood River where you have the gorge… you have these constant winds. You don’t get hit by winter frosts.
Grenache is a very temperamental grape. It comes from hot climates. It does not like cold weather. So during the winters around Walla Walla the vine starts deteriorating at around 7 degrees F. Syrah, Cab, Merlot, they start deteriorating between -3 and -12 F. And so if you have a 24 to 36 hour period of sub-zero, which we do every three or four years here in the valley, people are having to cut it all back. And they’re wondering why it’s not waking up in the spring. The reason is that it just doesn’t like cold weather. But if you have that constant flow from the wind, when the temperature stays in the teens at sites nearer this gigantic river, the Columbia rolling through, it helps keep the ambient temperature down, plus you’ve got this wind flow. So for me, that whole area is going to be fantastic for Grenache.
That for me is the highlight of Washington State, those Rhone varietals. I’m picking stuff that’s 24-25 brix, letting it hang until early November; it comes off with fantastic acidity. Because of the long cycle, you get those fantastic ripe-picked characteristics, where it’s phenolically ripe yet it is lower alcohol. So, finding spots that grow grapes well is the battle. If you’re more focussed on estate vineyards, where you’re predicated on Riesling to Cab in the same 40 acre parcel, on the same plot of land, that makes no sense to me. You’re going to have different ripening times all throughout it. Right now we have this incredible reservoir, especially with the crash of the economy, people are dropping out of vineyards left and right. So you’re able to find these incredible contracts, five acres for five years with an option for another five years. I’ll pay the going rate, no problem, with a 5% escalation clause, of course. Let’s see if we can manage it a little bit better. I want to chop it back to 2 1/2 tons per acre. Let’s just see where it goes from there. This after they’ve been producing 4 1/2 to 5 tons an acre because people are just looking for ordinary table wine. My idea is to concentrate the fruit, make some really fresh, high acidity wine by selective green cropping inside and outside of the canopy. Then it starts getting exciting.
So you source along the Columbia Gorge?
SB Yes. All throughout the Gorge. That’s Grenache and Mouvèdre. Now, the advantage of Walla Walla is the Syrah. Walla Walla is Syrah. It’s too cool, the cycle’s just not long enough; some years it’s fantastic, but for me it’s not long enough for Cab. It’s fantastic for Merlot; it’s a little earlier cycle than Syrah. But for Syrah it is just perfect here. It grows really well in the valley. Just beautiful, silky smooth tannins, plenty of color, just the way I like it. You can get reductive down on the rocks to super bright up on the loess… it’s a great spot for Syrah.
And I like to bring in a little bit of edge with lots of stem fermentation.
So you include stems? I love that. It’s considered heresy in certain parts of California.
SB Absolutely I use stems. A lot of it has to do with the sorting machines. The just chop away at the stems. You’re getting all these fractures, the little cuts, when chopped up by the de-stemmer. And if you don’t have a secondary sorting table, vibrating or what not, and you have guys picking out absolutely every little bit of green out of there, you’re not necessarily going to want that. You’re going to have greenness coming into your wine. At least if you do it with whole cluster, you’re getting away from all those little cuts that are happening when you’re sending it through a de-stemmer. It’s $150,000, $200,000 to get proper de-stemming equipment and sorters. It would be nice to have that kind of equipment to decide. If your stems are super, super green then maybe we need not to use them. It will bring in too much pyrazine.
Cab, you can’t really get away with putting lots of stems in. But with Syrah you don’t get those pyrazine issues, as you do with Bordeaux varietals. They would be super green: asparagus, green bean, pickles… but with Syrah using the stems really gives you that spice, that edge, it gives you that stinky funk that makes things interesting; so that it’s not just a bowl of fresh fruit.
I imagine you use a bladder press.
SB Yes, it’s a bladder press. We take all the free run out and mark them. Then with pressing we go up to about a bar, and we stay there after six or seven cycles. Some of the press juice is the best out of Syrah. We don’t do extended macerations. Most of the fermentations are done in 15 to 16 days. I’m not worried about color or extraction, and so some of the press stuff really gets nice tannin in there. I don’t like to rack. You leave the lees in there. Of course, you don’t want 4 inches of lees! But a good 1 or 2 is fine. Keep it sustained at the bottom of the barrel, keep it really topped, and as long as you’re not adding oxygen and that it goes through secondary, you’re fine. Then you become a janitor! This is really what winemakers are, glorified janitors. How you can get an ego about being a glorified janitor I’ll never know. Everything important is about getting it off the vine. You know what? I ike to be a janitor!
How did you get your wine into the right hands? I mean, there are dozens and dozens of new wineries yet there is a lot of buzz about Côtie Cellars. How did you break through?
SB I think it’s that I really enjoy what I am doing. On the marketing end, I hire the right people. Actually, it’s cool. I have two people. They came to me. What more perfect situation can you have than people coming to you? But it’s simply that good wine will sell. People say Syrah is a bad word right now. Syrah doesn’t sell. Blah, blah, blah. If you chase fads you’re going to get burned. You got to do what you love.
I started with Grenache. I got a contract suddenly. Somebody had just backed out of half a block and I had three hours to decide. There were a lot of people lined up to buy the fruit. But I had to take all of it. So I said I’d call my wife. I hung up the phone and literally hit redial. I knew my wife wasn’t going to like this! She was going to think it was a really bad idea. So I bought every last drop of it! Sign me up for the three acres. That’s what started it off. I knew it was a great site. When you know you’re getting this fantastic 14th leaf fruit of Grenache that people would fight over if they knew it was for sale, you can’t say no.
I just don’t want to mess it up, the wine. And there’s a lot of messing up here: like too much oak, like tartaric acid, like water… And then you get into the big boys and it just goes exponential from there. You start talking about RO, taking alcohol out, all those things that fool you. Super ripe and tons of acid, yet low alcohol… what the fuck is going on? Again, it’s about finding the right sites. Right now I have about 24 tons of Grenache under contract. I only use maybe twelve. I sell the fruit off for the same price I pay for it because I don’t want to piss off the growers. But I know that as were moving forward and things change, I want to have access to all the older vine Grenache so I can really work with it. Syrah is now very plentiful. So I don’t really worry about it. It’s easy and it’s fun to work with.
How important is the appellation designation, Walla Walla?
SB The winery is in Walla Walla. But for me it’s Washington State. I could care less if it’s Walla Walla. There are some incredible wines and vines being grown in Washington State, and Oregon. I could care less if it’s Walla Walla AVA. I think that’s doing a wine a disservice. I think it’s cool to do single vineyard Syrahs out of here, but to predicated yourself in Walla Walla just for the label, just because we’re getting in the magazines, is just ridiculous. If you’re fruit is a Cab you’ve gotta be in Horse Heaven Hills, you gotta’ be in Red Mountain, you know, super hot, really fun, floral, beautiful sites; it’s definitely not Walla Walla, for me. If you move into Merlot and Syrah, and some fantastic whites coming out of here, then it’s Walla Walla. For me the AVA does not matter. It’s the vineyard.
So Walla Walla is still working out its identity.
SB Absolutely. If you look at the vines I would say that half are between 7 and 14 years of age in the valley. There are some that are 35, like Windrow and Seven Hills East. The majority is young, with tons and tons of new plantings on the way. In France 35 years is still considered juvenile. We’re definitely trying to get our bearings, dial it in. It didn’t help that we had a huge frost in ‘04. But you can’t worry about it. You have to think of doing what’s best for the vines; not what’s going to burn into my profits. Right now we’re looking long-term. The only way you can be long-term in the wine industry is by putting out a quality product. If you don’t, then you might as well go do something else.
Tell me something of the water rights issues here. I’ve heard a lot about the ‘use it or lose it’ model.
SB Yes. If you don’t use it then you lose it after five years.
So it has to average out to whatever inches you’re initially allocated, or, if you’ve gone from fruit trees to grapes, for example, whatever has been grandfathered in.
SB Correct. A lot of people donate it back. If you put in a drip irrigation system you’re never going to need that type of water you need for growing trees, like the old apple and cherry farmers who would do overhead irrigation. I bought a small piece, ripped out all the trees, and we were going to irrigation. The government was going to give us money because of the water savings. That meant we had to donate water back to the river, but yet we got money back for that. They were very excited about it. They paid for all the main lines, the pipe, there were discounts on the pump, all these fantastic things where you’re getting, even as a first time farmer, 75% of the cost of your drip system, materials and installation. That’s fantastic. You’re helping the water table by using less. You have to use drip irrigation. Hopefully you find spots that can grow grapes without using it. But you can’t really do that in the juvenile stage of a vine’s life. You have to be very careful.
If I had endless amounts of money I would say that for the first 6 years not to take a crop off of a vine. Just get it up, grow some wood, give it what it wants but not take anything from it. And then roll into it. But economics being what they are, the 4th year you can start to make rosé out of it. Hopefully you’re in a spot where you’ve thought far enough ahead that you’re, down the line, not necessarily needing to water. Hopefully they’re big enough, the vines are strong enough. If they’re tree trunks after a few years, then you know damn well that it’s a fantastic place to grow that varietal. The can withstand a hell of a lot more if their 5 and 6 inches in diameter than they can when they’re one inch in diameter.
On a personal note, how does your wife feel about your new calling?
SB She’s from New Jersey. So, every time we come onto the other side of the mountain she says to me, “What the hell are we doing over here?” But then we get to Walla Walla and it’s ok. She’s also a school psyche. We’ve got the prison, and one step beneath that we’ve got the wineries and the service industries. It’s a small community and there are issues in it you don’t find in Seattle where they sweep in under the rug and move to south Tacoma. But here it’s a small community. You get all walks of life.
So a lot of the fruit here is hand-picked.
SB Absolutely. Talk about work. They guys who pick the fruit are unbelievable. It’s amazing when you walk out there and try and do a bin or two yourself. It’s really impressive. I won’t even pretend that I could do that work. We’re janitors. Those guys are laborers. They get paid pretty well, which is good; but it’s only seasonal. We’ve definitely seen the crunch with all the immigration bull shit. People want to work. And they’re willing to do it. You need to give them a shot. It’s how America was founded. The tough move up. Hard work is supposed to count for something.
Great guy, great wines. He left for France today, I believe. A pity the blogging folks could not meet him. But his wines may be found around town, especially in the tasting room. Again, I strongly recommend his work.
A curious thing happened on the way to Milton-Freewater, Oregon, a small agricultural town a few miles south of Walla Walla, and home to the vineyard of winemaker David Stephenson, just across the road from Cayeuse. What was to have been a vineyard tour first passed through Mr. Stephenson’s remarkable introduction to Walla Walla’s wine growing past, present, and ambitions. I shall be doing a second post on the vineyard portion of my visit as well as the stop at Stephenson Cellars itself. But, for now I felt it would be particularly helpful for fellow wine writers and bloggers here for the Wine Bloggers Conference to be brought up to speed via his spirited account of the AVA.
Mr. Stephenson produces round 1,000 cases a year. He is also a consultant, helping with site location, variety selection, bonding paperwork, fruit contracts, the whole deal. As he has said, “In two years I can take anyone from zero to winery”. His knowledge of the local scene makes him an invaluable source of information for visiting bloggers. Indeed, though he is not, sadly, currently on the list of wineries the bloggers are scheduled to visit, I strongly recommend they make their way down to his tasting room at 15 South Spokane St. here in Walla Walla, just minutes from the Marcus Whitman Hotel.
Admin I’ve heard repeatedly about cooperation among winemakers here in Walla Walla. You’re view?
David Stephenson There is a unique level of cooperation here in Walla Walla. It’s a small town. We all know each other. We have to eat at the same restaurants and stare at each other. We tend to get along. But it’s really about trying to lift everybody up at the same time, because if we have people who’ve driven six hours, or who come here from New York or Chicago, and they have a bad experience at any of the wineries, then that carries through for the rest of their visit. It kind of shadows the valley. So we all made a decision early on, the people who founded this place, the wine community, that it made a whole lot more sense to make sure everybody was successful. We’ll let the marketplace sort out your competitors. We’re not competing against each other. We’re competing against ourselves.
What percentage of the local production goes outside of the Walla Walla AVA?
DS As far as the fruit… that’s a tough question. I would say, this is a guess, about half. There are some relatively large wineries that have locks on some of the old, established vineyards here. Long-standing contracts. They understand that it probably helps to lift the quality of their wines buying our fruit. Basically, I would say that the percentage is high for wineries here in Walla Walla that source fruit outside of the AVA as well. One of the things we’ve learned in Washington, at least Eastern Washington, is that it’s a pretty unpredictable place weather-wise. So you need to hedge your bets, I believe. So if I’m exclusively one AVA, there is a chance that about every six years you’re going to freeze. And when you do, you don’t get any fruit. So you either raise your prices 20% to cover the loss, or you try and source fruit from outside the valley. A lot of folks just don’t want the headache of that. There is great fruit all over, so it makes sense to borrow from each other, if we can.
So how does Walla Walla understand the distinctions between its terroirs and the terroirs of the Yakima Valley, or other locales?
DS Oh, you know, that’s still an on-going discussion! Over the years I kind of go back and forth on the whole concept, wondering if it exists [terroir], because I have in my own vineyard sometimes as much difference from one end of the vineyard to the other as there is from one end of this valley to the other end. There’s just a lot of different micro-climates. It’s a pretty large, expansive area. And I think that anybody who comes to Eastern Washington is blown away by just how huge the wine growing areas are. I mean, they stretch to Idaho; they stretch up to the Canadian border; they stretch all the down to Bend, Oregon. So it’s just an enormous amount of real estate. That said, Walla Walla does seem to have a real lushness and warmth to the fruit that I think shows through. It’s not like any other place. That doesn’t mean it’s worse or better. It’s just different. And I really enjoy working with the fruit from here.
I’ve settled here. I’ve bought vineyard ground.
And when was your first vintage?
DS It was 2001, my first commercial release. I had worked for a lot of the bigger wineries for 3 or 4 years prior to that. I apprenticed with some really great guy that showed me a lot; showed me what not to do as well. I was real appreciative of that. I’ve been around for awhile compared to most of the valley, I guess.
Yes. I noticed that there are two major wine books about Washington, including Walla Walla, of course. And even though they were published in 2008 they already seem to be seriously out of date.
DS They are completely out of date. Our growth has been exponential. A lot of what is happening is, and there is a lot of romanticism that goes with this, but there are just a lot of people who’ve worked hard their whole lives, and they get to be about 50 or 55 and they wonder what do they want to do in their retirement years. They are productive people, professionals, successful in their fields, so they want something that’s challenging but at the same time enjoyable. So they come here. For as many baby boomers as there are, we talk about an aging population, that’s the demographic that really wants to start these wineries. They maybe spent their college years in Europe and haven’t been back, or they visited and want to have a piece of that enjoyment. I sometimes think there are more people who want to start wineries than there are people who want to buy wine.
Is there any conflict between established wheat growers and the pursuit of new vineyard acreage? I’m thinking with respect to land prices.
DS Initially there was. But it has really balanced out. What you see now is wheat farmers who often own vineyards. They are not foolish. They understand that if the land prices go up exponentially, and they’re sitting on 3,000 acres, if it goes up ten times that’s not exactly bad for them. It’s tough to farm. If you wanted to get into wheat farming, if that was your life’s goal, to do that without an existing farm would be pretty difficult. That’s just the way things are.
But as far as taxes on land… that must be burdensome.
DS Well, you know, farmers, we take care of ourselves. There are tax exemptions. You don’t pay the same as if you had an apartment building on your property. Oregon, especially, is very, very protective of their farming ground, their agricultural land. In fact, the vineyard we’re heading to now are in what is called an ‘exclusive farm use area’. I couldn’t build a home. If there is not already an existing home you’re not allowed to occupy any square foot of that land except for agriculture. You have to go with your hat in your hand and beg the planning department if you want to put up any sort of structure that would take any acreage out of production. In exchange for that you have dramatically reduced taxes. It really does work to keep it in agriculture.
What about the erosion of your agricultural base? In California a farmer pulling down $50,000 a year might be approached by some real estate speculator who wants to build McMansions. He’s offered millions of dollars for his 100 acres. He’s 70. What’s he going to say? Of course he’ll take the money.
DS We’ve seen some of that here, south of town, toward the slopes of the Blue Mountains. There was a lot of 10 acre zoning that were wheat farms; but that seems to have slowed down. People have realized that it’s much better to live in town if you want a to have a second of third home. You’ve got services. You’re not dealing with well failures, mowing, and agriculture all the way around you. It’s really no fun living in a dirt zone, unless you’re farming it. It’s not that romantic.
So what about water rights? What percentage would you guess, of course, it has to do with locale, but what is the percentage of vineyards dry-farmed? And what are the irrigation protocols for many of the wineries?
DS That’s a good question. Very few wineries or vineyards here are dry-farmed. This road we’re sitting on here is the road down into Oregon. Basically, the rule of thumb is that every mile that you go to the East you pick up an inch of rain. We’re at about 17, 18 inches. It’s almost like clockwork. As you go up the slopes you pick up more water. Basically, as you get this rising elevation, you tend to scrub a little bit more moisture out of the thunderstorms. The difficulty with this area is that we have an enormous amount of water. Walla Walla means ‘many waters’. We’ve got creeks and springs bubbling everywhere. The aquifers are good. It doesn’t mean that they’re not going down–but that’s not due to grape farming. Grape farming uses minimal amounts. The biggest issue that we have is that if you turn your apple orchard, or your cherry orchard, your irrigated fields over to grapes, you’re going to use a tiny percentage of the water that you used to. There is a kind of ‘use it, or lose it’ rule. If you don’t use your 36 inches per year, you may well forfeit it. You can lose it forever.
You lose it forever? So they determine your allocation by how much has been historically used? So your incentive is to use as much of your allocation as possible even though you’ve switched over to grapes?
DS It’s a terrible system. My right is for 36 inches per year. So you’ll see out here cow pasture where people have a pump going year-round. They just flood-irrigate the field. They just have it running because if they don’t use it up, they’re going to lose it. We all know that in the future that water will be gold. None of this happen without water. Land doesn’t have any value here if you don’t have an irrigation source for it.
We don’t get any rain from basically this point until the end of September, sometimes into October, we’re not going to get an inch of rain. So, unlike France, or other places that dry farm, we get our 18, 20, 22 inches, but it’s all in the Wintertime. We’re in a little bit different situation. We desperately need to irrigate.
Speaking of France, when a winemaker first starts out here who do they turn to? To what nation’s winemaking traditions do they model their winemaking? I’ve noticed a certain use of oak, shall we say.
DS I would say Rhone is closer. We have a very hot climate. You wouldn’t know it now because it’s temperate, but we’re usually scorching in the 90s right now; that’ll go to a 100, sometimes 110 in the Summertime. Tempranillo is here as well. But it was Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, that’s sort of made in more of a California style. Some want to go to the oak. You want bigger, bigger, bigger, because that is, quite frankly, what your customers want. If you want big scores, you go with lots of oak and heavily extracted fruit. But at some point, you kind of settle down. You make the wines that you love to make. You gain confidence over time. I think you can then throttle back and start paying attention to subtleties. But initially, if you look around, you’ll see that this stuff has not been planted to grapes for very long; I think 40 years is about the oldest vineyard here. Most of them are 10 years, 8 years. And so, with that you get this explosion of new, raw, big, bold, beautiful fruit. They’ve got an excess of carbohydrates. It’s fun while it lasts, but at some point we’re going to settle down here.
Where do folks turn for their rootstock?
DS There are a couple of nurseries. Washington is a little different because we grow on our own rootstocks, predominately. We’re not using any rootstock here. We don’t have phylloxera at this point. We are too bloody cold; too bloody hot. That we can plant vines ungrafted is another thing that I think gives Washington really unique wines. We’re not having to control for the effects of rootstocks. What you’re getting is kind of a pure blast of Cabernet, or whatever varietal you’ve cuttings of.
Do you pay attention to clones?
DS There is some attention. I would say that that research is a long ways away. We’re still trying to figure out what site grows fruit. We’re in our absolute infancy. We just haven’t been doing this for very long. and, again, if you look at how much space we have left in the Walla Walla Valley, it’s an enormous area.
We have about 1800 acres under grape cultivation in the entire AVA. I will tell you that there is a new expansion we’re going to be right below [Seven Hills]. It will be about 2000 acres in size. That will double the acreage in the Walla Walla Valley AVA with that one planting alone. So, we’re kind of on the radar now. We’re starting to see a lot more outside money coming in.
So, a new winemaker would essentially turn to a limited number of viticulturalists and siting experts in the area and be told what most are told. There is a model or a pattern.
DS There is a pattern that gets you in the door. Then, after that, you begin sourcing from small, little independent farmers. And this the community of Milton-Freewater, very different from Walla Walla. This is the old time agriculture: cherries and apples and prunes. And now grapes as well. There are lots of little pocket vineyards in here that are fun to play with.
Interesting. So there might be an apple grower here, for example, who might plant an acre of vines. Winemakers would then spot buy, as it were.
DS Yes. Absolutely. And there are a lot of winemakers here who work with a farmer. They’ll go up to an orchardist with a 100 acres and ask for five acres to plant under a long-term contract. Then they’ll split the development costs. The farmer gets the ’sure thing’. The winery owner has clear ideas of what he wants to see, what varieties… there’s a lot less risk for both of them.
—As mentioned above, a second post on Mr. Stephenson’s vineyard itself will be forthcoming.—
“My name is Tim Thornhill. I grew up in Houston. Some 35 years ago we all took off and went to work or went to college. The family only got back together once or twice a year sorta’ only when somebody died or got married. About ten years ago my brother [Tom] and I started thinking about what we should be doing, and what we would regret not doing; and that was trying to get as much of our family back together in one location, if possible. So I looked around the country, Tom already lived in the San Francisco Bay area; we settled on Northern California as being the region. We spent three years looking through Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties. While Napa and Sonoma have the geography and the climate, they really didn’t have the community that we were looking for. When your gathering family together to put down really deep roots, you have to look forward 40 or 50 years as to where you’re leaving them and how are they going to feel about it.
“What Napa had to offer, as far as all the commercialism and tourism, it just really didn’t fit for us. Also, this community is a very, very green community. There is 5 times as much organic acreage in Mendocino county as their is in Napa or Sonoma counties. So it really worked for us. When we purchased the first property [La Ribera Vineyard], it had 150 acres of vines on it. We ended up in the vineyard business. But it was really the landscape for the family estate. My parents were here right away. One of my older children has come back. In fact, I just became a grandfather three days ago [6/15]. My daughter [Kate], who runs the export and does all of our contract grower negotiations, married one of the winemakers here, and has now thrown off the next generation, probably a biodynamic baby, to be honest. Then we partnered up with Paul Dolan.”
All of this was said within the first few minutes of my revealing vineyard tour at Parducci Wine Cellars. I knew then and there I was in luck. Tim Thornhill is a rarity, in my experience. He needs no prompting to get to the heart of the matter. And he thinks big. But this has nothing to do with any Texas cliché. For he is a man of the world.
As you read what I will call a ‘lesson’, perhaps you might think money was an overwhelming factor. Not all wineries, after all, may believe they have the resources to accomplish what has been done at Parducci. But Mr. Thornhill turns the question around. Aligning yourself with the natural forces of Nature (with a big ‘N’) will save you money. And perhaps the world. After all, how much is spent on pesticides, municipal water, and electricity? How great are the monies spent resisting the natural world? Biodiversity, plant and insect succession, water filtration, oxygenation, gravity– these are biological and physical processes to be harnessed. The idea is to align your project with how the natural world expresses itself, how it goes about its business.
Life loves to live, I tell my kids. Even the lowly weed sprouting in the median along I-5 is an act of grace. Caltrans may knock it down, but there is no denying the weed’s determination to live. There is a beauty even there.
We now join a conversation already in progress.
“We take a row, I think it’s one every 14 of 16 rows, and we put in an additional drip line, sub-surface, and then we plant around 30 to 40 different plant species in our mix. We have flowers year-round. You’ll note this row [pictured] runs all the way through the block. So we get good distribution of insects all the way through. I want all the insects I can get! They will balance themselves. There’re almost 3000 species of predatory insects in Northern California. It’s really about habitat. We do the same thing time after time after time, whether it’s the insects or the owls.”
I am shown a video, recently taken by Mr. Thornhill, of the interior of one of their many owl boxes around the property. Barn owl eggs are clearly visible. In another box fledglings hiss behind a partition. A third video shows a mother owl starring at the camera.
“People ask me, ‘So, do you put owls in the box?’. I tell them no more than I put insects in that insectary. ‘Where did you get your owls?’ Well, the owls are indigenous. They just need habitat. An average owl consumes 53 pounds of rodents in a year. So I don’t need poison in my vineyard. I don’t need traps. They will balance themselves. The owls wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t food. They just need the habitat.”
Reduce The Use
“The first thing I want to do with all of my energy consumption is ‘reduce the use’. And what we find is that if you measure there is an almost immediate reduction just because people know you’re measuring. Of course, there is a push-back in the beginning for most people when you say you want to measure everything. So, in the vineyard we installed what’re called tensiometers. They measure available moisture in the soil. We used to make our decisions based more on schedule, what was convenient, or maybe what was historical, which usually was not based on data; it was based on feeling, emotion. ‘In god we trust; all others bring data’.
So we put all these tensiometers and started measuring available moisture in the ground. We found we did not need to necessarily water on a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, like we were doing. We might not even water at all that week. We’ve reduced our water use by 25% in our worst case, and 37% in our best case. And we end up with better balanced vines, better fruit, and better wines in the end.
“We’ve reduced the amount of water we pull from the aquifer, the water we pull from the rivers, the amount of biodiesel burned to run the pumps, the number of hours run the pumps… yet the quality of our product has been improved. A lot of people will say being environmental is too expensive, that they can’t afford it. Being environmental means being efficient. When you’re efficient, things drop to the bottom line. So first we reduce the use. Then we get into recycling.
“Here in the winery to reduce the use, I went through and divided it up into 22 different sections. Each section has its own water meter. So when walking through the winery right after I put the meter in, the gentleman running the barrel room for 17 years said he’d seen that I had put one there in his spot. He was a little concerned that I would now how much water he was wasting. I said, no. I want to know how much water you’re saving. Well, guess what? He’s done nothing but save water. And so have all of his other guys, basically in competition. They’ve got the scoreboard right there, the water meter!”
“All of our utilities have been coming down. Our electric consumption, for example, between ‘06 and ‘08 went down by 15%, but our production actually increased by between 100-200%. So, while we’ve grown the production operation tremendously, we’ve reduced our electrical use. And you see our water use in the vineyard also declined. The period from ‘05 through ‘09 was one of the worst droughts in California history. But even while we had a tremendous drought, this means far less ambient moisture, we were still able to reduce the amount of irrigation we did, and ended up with better fruit and better balanced vines.”
Reuse and Recycling
“I try to use the water that rinses the tanks to also, at the end of the day, rinse the floors. We’re using it twice, if at all possible. Then the water is to be recycled. At that point the water is BOD. Here is a picture of what it use to look like when we first got here. It was basically purple. All designers told me back then that I needed to put four 10 hp motors in my pond, basically agitators like any sewer plant uses. But signing up for 25 years for four 10 horse motors was not in my game plan. I kept going through consultants until I found one willing to think completely outside the box. We went out and maximized existing resources.
“Here’s how we did it. In the winery I gave everyone dust pans and brooms so that they could sweep up all the debris of winemaking first before they tried to wash down the floors. It all use to just go down the drain. That use to be ok, and legally it was ok, too. But it also meant that the water was basically ruined. It had no oxygen. It’s called BOD, biological oxygen demand. It’s created mostly by sugars and solids. The sugars, in our case, comes from the fruit. So my job is to get the solids out and remove the sugars, and put the oxygen back in the water.
“So when the waste water leaves the winery (after years of bringing all the plumbing into one place), it goes up to the tanks way up on top of the hill. Up there we have repurposed old fire tanks. They now serve as anaerobic digesters. The water spends between 20 and 30 days to go through those tanks. Then, via gravity, it comes down through a series of trickle towers. The first one is near the tanks. Here’s another one [pic]. The water comes up through a pipe and runs down the trickle tower.
Now, the consultants I went to designed a trickle tower for me, but it was going to be $100,000. It was all stainless steel and plastic. Instead, what I did was take some old grape trailers. These things were in the weeds. Nobody even knew they were here. They do hold water. So I then took barrel racks, old steel barrel racks, stacked them up; welded them together; stuck it full of wood slats to act as a media; I then jammed a bunch of willows between. You’ll note what most people would call black slime coating the sides. It’s actually called filamentous fungi. What it does is consume compounds, sugar being my main compound. And as the water trickles down through here it also gets aeration. So, my settling goes on in the tanks on the hill. My de-sugaring goes on in these trickle towers.
“This one [pictured above] was built about three or four months ago. The efficiency is quite measurable. It’s an amazing thing. It has a whole lot of surface area; and the filamentous fungi, if you take it in your hand, feels kind of like wet cotton. You can squeeze it. It has texture. But lay it out on the flat rock in the sun, and by the next day it is like a piece of paper. It’s almost nothing but structure.
So the water passes through the trickle towers, the last one sitting just before the water goes into the pond. So that’s the delivery of the water from the winery to the pond. Now, in the pond is where they wanted me to put these four agitators. They would have just consumed the power of three or four houses. Instead, we built a water falls.
“Think about the two main processes in this world with respect to water. The giant water filters are the Everglades of the world. The oxygenators are all the streams and rocky creeks. That’s where the trout live because that is where is found the highest oxygen level. So we figured out that with one five hp pump all we had to do was lift the water in this pond twelve feet. That takes very little psi, very little power to move a lot of water. So I raise about 400 gallons a minute twelve feet. From that point it is gravity again. The water is raised above the pond level to the road height. From there gravity takes the water through a series of water falls. Those are my aerators. All gravity. No moving parts. Rocks. Plants. No service! And were operating at 20% of the power of the four aerators originally proposed, and we achieve a water quality 3 to 4 times what they would have ever had as a goal. We’re pretty pleased.”
We pass by a portable chicken coop with a solar door which opens at dawn and closes at dusk. It must be moved every six months when the predators in the area catch on. Guinea hens pass through. Hawks, a couple species of duck, egret, black, green, and great blue heron, common snipe, geese, sandpipers, killdeer, turkeys, bluebirds, a kingfisher, even the occasional troublesome otter, all make use of the pond, one way or another. There are muskrats.
“This pond use to be purple four or five years ago. It had a smell that people on the freeway would call and complain about. There is now no smell. Again, when the water comes out of the winery it has a BOD of about 2,500. Before I can use it on land it has to have a measurement of 80 ppm. I am now somewhere below 10 ppm. We can’t even get a reading. So I have virtually no BOD. When the water comes out of the winery there is zero oxygen. I’ll measure the oxygen down where it comes out of the wetland. We’ll probably find it is over 4 ppm. Trout require about 5 ppm.
“My minimum requirement for oxygen is 1 ppm before I can land-apply it. The BOD minimum is 80 ppm before I can land-apply it. So this water in the pond can be used anytime.” [To clarify, there are two measurements in play here. One, for BOD, is a measurement of organic material: the lower the number, the better. The second is for oxygen saturation: the higher, the better. The 'minimums' Mr. Thornhill refers to are establish either at either the state or federal level, or both. Admin]
“The water has to go back and forth, back and forth, and back and forth. It comes in via gravity, passes through the water falls, is pumped back up the twelve feet and starts all over. The plants in the pond do all kinds of things. They suck out all the excess nutrients left in the winery water; all the phosphorous, the nitrogen. They will also remove heavy metals. They also introduce oxygen. Aquatic plants pull oxygen out of the atmosphere and introduce it back into the water through their roots.
I had a neighbor call me to ask if I was interested in some concrete. He was taking out a big patio. I went and looked. There were forty of these slabs [pictured]. I said I would be right back with my truck! So I am going to put a path of these all through the wetlands so that people can see what is going on.
“So here’s our dissolved oxygen level. And I would venture to say that we are probably close to 6 or 7 ppm. We’re over 5, that’s for sure. When they first gave me an oxygen set to test, it went from zero to one, in tenths. Right? I would measure and tell them that I was getting 1. They would ask if I was getting a full 1 or a point 1 [.1]? No, I was getting a 1! And if you went to the bottom of the water fall it would be 12 ppm, off the charts. Saturated. So I got a new set. I come out to check the oxygen levels once a week, usually when I’m doing a tour, just out of curiosity. But I do have a guy who checks it in three different places every single Monday. We can see a difference from end to end of the pond and wetland.
“We check BOD once a month. That’s kind of an expensive thing or I would do it all the time. But we don’t see huge changes once we get out of harvest. There just begins this very steady decline. In fact, BOD removal is much faster now because of our trickle towers. We can go right to a trickle tower and measure the BOD in the water as it comes out of the tank. At the bottom of the tower BOD is cut in half. That is just at the first tower; and I’m going to have four.
“We recycle 100% of the winery water. After we’ve ‘reduced our use’, we reuse it more than once. It’s kind of like a wine glass. When people ask me what is the difference between ‘recycle’ and ‘reuse’, I tell them that a wine glass is reused. When it is broken, it’s recycled. So with the water, we try to use it more than once. But it does get ‘broken’. Then we have to recycle it. So this entire process here saved me about 5 million gallons of water last year that I was then able to use for irrigation. It’s high-quality water. I would have otherwise had to buy it.”
“So, number one, we recycle 100% of the water. Number two, we do it in a way that consumes very little energy, with no chemical applications. Number three, we’ve ended up with a bird sanctuary out of it; more habitat, more biodiversity, a greater contribution to the biodynamics of this property. And number four, I get to share the knowledge with people and try to teach others.
“When you want to talk about sustainability, what is true sustainability, well, first of all it means living your life and running your business so that it doesn’t adversely impact future generations. I didn’t come up with that. But I also think that it means sharing information. If you are not passing the information along, that is not sustainable. The sooner we pass it on right now, the better. It needs to be viral.
“My partners and I came to the conclusion, when we created our partnership, that if we waited for the governments around the globe to address environmental concerns, then it wouldn’t happen fast enough. However, industry can turn on a dime, with incentives. They are now incentified. They weren’t five years ago.
It’s been a struggle all my life to be an environmental person. Other people sort of laugh at it, and don’t pay any attention. It’s the same thing with organics. I remember when I kept thinking, well, there getting it now. That was 10 years ago. Maybe they’re getting it now. That was 5 years ago. Now they’re getting it. I mean, now there is a big push. A big wave. There is incentive.
“You take Walmart and Clorox. I’ve sat on boards with the environmental guys and that is the number one thing they are focused on is turning their company green. They know that if they don’t, they’re out. That company will not be around five to ten years from now. I’m convinced.
“The generation coming into play now, my kids, basically, the twenty and thirty year-olds, they are distrusting. They see what is happening. They want third-party certification. So, that’s where ‘certified organic’ or ‘certified biodynamic’ comes in. A lot of people don’t want to be measured. I do. It’s kind of like running in a race. If I’m going to run, let’s make it a race. If it’s going to be a race, then I really prefer the front. It’s just a lot more fun.” (laughs)
We then drove to the winery’s tasting room where I enjoyed a healthy lunch. I turned off my recorder. Both my intellectual and corporeal appetites were satisfied.
How strange and jarring can be the experience when reading old wine books, especially those centered on California. But what might be meant by ‘old’ ? Is 1978 old? It can seem like ancient history when reading Wines of California, by Robert Lawrence Balzer. Yet that is the book’s great strength. Selling for pennies on the second-hand book market, Mr. Balzer’s book provides valuable insight into where we’ve come from, how far has the industry moved in 30 years. California’s first great modern wine writer, his Wines of California enjoys an unusual distinction of having been written on the cusp of California’s explosion onto the international wine scene, a fuse lit by Mr. Balzer himself.
Who is Robert Lawrence Balzer? From his Special Collections page at Cal Poly Pomona.
“Balzer is recognized for having had an enormous impact on the California wine industry, and on the acceptance of California wines worldwide. He began championing quality California wines in the 1930s, decades before the rest of the world realized their stature. In 1973 he organized a blind tasting with the New York Food and Wine Society, where California Chardonnays received the top four scores. That contributed momentum toward the famous 1976 “Judgment of Paris” blind tasting where again California wines received top scores over French wines (portrayed in the 2008 film “Bottle Shock”). The acquisition of the Robert Lawrence Balzer Collection builds on an already significant Wine Industry Collection at Cal Poly Pomona Library and further strengthens the library as a research venue for the wine industry.”
A man of many talents (he played a small role in the 1975 film Day of the Locust), a practicing Buddhist, Balzer’s distinguished writing and teaching career earned him the enduring gratitude of Ernest Gallo, Robert Mondavi, and the California wine industry as a whole. A charming post from the Underground Wine Letter describes a recent March 2010 visit with the gentleman this way,
“Robert, the first serious wine journalist in the U.S., has been a wine writer for close to 70 years. I had not seen him since his birthday before last and he will be 98 in June. A true Renaissance man and an epicurean, Robert has been a retailer, an actor, a restaurateur, a Buddhist monk, a flight instructor during World War II, a wine instructor and the author of 11 books. While age is finally catching up with him, he is still charming, knowledgeable and articulate, especially when reminiscing about the earlier days of California wine. He stills drinks wine and Scotch regularly, which he partially attributes to his long age. An amazing man, he has known the rich and famous in politics, food and wine, Hollywood and more.”
Adding to his august reputation is the New York Wine Tasting he organized in 1973. Years before the far better known Judgement of Paris, the New York tasting
“assembled 14 leading wine experts including France’s Alexis Lichine, who owned two Chateaux in Bordeaux, a manager of the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City, and Sam Aaron, a prominent New York wine merchant. They evaluated 23 Chardonnays from California, New York, and France in a blind tasting before an assemblage of 250 members of the New York Food and Wine Society. California Chardonnays received the top four scores. Fifth place went to the 1969 Beaune Clos des Mouches Joseph Drouhin. Other French wines in the competition were the 1970 Corton-Charlemagne Louis Latour, the 1971 Pouilly-Fuisse Louis Jadot, and the 1970 Chassagne-Montrachet Marquis de Laguiche Joseph Drouhin.”
I belive much may be learned from older, out of print wine books. Mr. Balzer’s Wines of California is a case in point. There is a kind of innocence about his style. Free of technical, highbrow cant, we may read what are now almost tragicomic observations such as this about California Pinot Noir.
“Pinot Noir, both the grape and the wine, remains an enigma to California viticulturists and winemakers alike. [....] Pinot Noir in California seems to elude even the most intelligent application of enological science in the production of wines comparable in stature to those of the French Côte d’Or. [...] Few wineries can afford more than a year or so of bottle age before general release. That aging is the beginning of the refinement necessary to achieve a wine’s full potential. It is up to you, the wine buyer, to allow your wines the time they need to reach their peak.”
Or this (abbreviated) breakdown of California’s “own wine, unique, complex, and [...] varied” Zinfandel.
“1. A light, young, and fresh Zinfandel, its berry-like flavor suggesting the French Beaujolais.
2. A heavier-bodied, deeper-colored wine, capable of long cellar aging, comparable to the finest French clarets of the Médoc. Such wines are most likely to emerge from the cooler regions.
3. Late-harvest Zinfandels, with alcohol content as high as 17 percent by volume [!] and with minimal residual sugar. These have rare aging potential and suggest the results that will be possible when viticulture and enology marry in the science of winemaking.”
From rare pictures of youthful and noted California winemakers, Fred Franzia, Dave Bennion, Martin Ray, Joe Heinz, Warren Winiarski, Michael Mondavi, even Justin Meyer, to an excellent gloss on California wine history, this book has all that a contemporary wine enthusiast might want to learn about how the California wine world was understood in the late seventies. Mr. Balzer’s accounts of what he calls The Corporate Investment Period (1965-1974) and the Financial Adjustment and the Post-Boom Crisis (1974-1976) are especially insightful.
So, it is to Robert Lawrence Balzer, who will turn 98 on June 25th, that I offer my deep gratitude for his work. I strongly encourage folks to visit their local used book store and buy a copy of what will prove a classic, the Wines of California.
May was a relatively quiet month for news but sent a steady trickle of wine and events my way, including a welcome addition to my Château Musar collection. My involvement in the inaugural North East Wine Festival at the beginning of June means that this post is even tardier than usual but, while it may seem strange posting a piece about May in the middle of June, I suppose it’s no different to the Decanter Magazine I get in June July on the front cover yet being full of stories from April!
The biggest news for May must be the rise in opposition to HR5034, the dreaded bill for State based alcohol regulation: in the US which threatens free wine trade across the country. Although proposed in April it was last month that saw a concerted outpouring of opposition to the bill with a dedicated web-site and Facebook page. Anti-HR5034 Tom Wark of Fermentation has put together a compelling set of posts on this subject while Jon Bonné has written a good piece over at SFGate.
Over in France researchers at the Institute of Vine and Wine Sciences (ISVV), in Bordeaux released details on their study of wine stored in different packaging types; glass, bag-in-box, single-layer PET and small multi-layer PET. The initial results don’t indicate any obvious negative effects for red wines, but for white it suggests that signs of oxidation are apparent after only 6 months in the plastic packaging.
Moving across to Burgundy and Decanter.com reported the news that Domaine de la Romanee Conti was the victim of a blackmail attempt which threatened to poison vines at the famous Estate.
Keeping with a French theme but moving to Asia for Vinexpo in Hong Kong at the end of the month and Decanter.com reported on the Bordeaux 2009 Vintage being the main talking point. The exhibition ended with a 40% increase in attendees compared to 2008 and confirmed a resurgent Asian wine market, at least when it comes to Bordeaux.
Australia’s woes continued with news of falling grape prices and unsold wine in warehouses as an era comes to an end in Antipodean winemaking and sees thousands of hectares of vineyards being grubbed up. The most likely outcome of the expected 3–5 year realignment of the industry will be a smaller but higher quality production and the disappearance of the ubiquitous cheap Australian brands from UK supermarket shelves.
Bringing the news summary to a close and I had to smile when I heard that Gary Vaynerchuk is to be an airline wine consultant for Virgin America and that passengers will have the delights of WLTV broadcast on the in-flight entertainment. Having watched my fair share of these videos I’d be interested to see how an average passenger takes to his enthusiastic presentation style!
So to my little corner of the North East of England and Château Musar proved to be a running theme throughout the month. My occasionally random tweeting as @KSLaczko persuaded one of my followers to pick up a 2002 Musar from our local Waitrose store and open it for her husband’s birthday at the beginning of the month. I haven’t even tried the 2002 myself yet so I was relieved to hear it went down very well, so well in fact that by the end of the month she’d bought the 2001 and tried it over a supper of Fish & Chips (which apparently was a lovely match!). However the best Musar news came with an e-mail from the Wine Society with a special offer of a mixed case; 2 each of the 2003 Rouge, the 2004 Blanc and the 2003 Père et Fils. Since the 2003 Rouge would normally only be available in the UK towards the end of the year the decision to spend £84 was almost instantaneous and less than a week later I added these early release bottles to my cellar.
Spain supplied a large proportion of drinks while out and about during May. A week on the South coast of England courtesy of the day job required a cheap bottle of wine for hotel room drinking and £5 at the local Sainsbury’s got me the Castillo de Calatrava 2001 Gran Reserva Tempranillo from La Mancha, which punched way above its price range. Later on a Thai meal was accompanied by the young and fruity Torrelongares 2003 Reserva, a Grenache/Tempranillo blend from Carinena, while night-time drinks in the hotel bar had me trying out a selection of Sherries including a fine dry Amontillado – although after all that the most memorable wine turned out to be the Vidal 2009 Hawkes Bay Riesling, a racy citrusy white from New Zealand.
Back home and I had cause to dust off the kilt for a friend’s wedding, however the evening meal at one of the local hotels didn’t have an inspiring wine choice. A rather sharp, chemical Chilean Carmenere underwhelmed, followed by an inexcusable Vin de Pays du Gers Blanc (Cuvée Lamartine). A passable Pinot Grigio Blush was an improvement but luckily Spain came to the rescue with a fruity Viña Sanzo Verdejo and a half-decent 2005 Rioja Crianza to dull the senses and lubricate the rest of the evening, ending up with me dancing like my dad into the wee hours!
The monthly NEWTS meeting was a showing of some of the latest offerings from UK retailer Majestic, although due to a booking mix-up store manager Greg wasn’t available to give the presentation.
The first big wine was a white in the form of the Astrolabe Kekerengu Coast 2009 Sauvignon Blanc with a heavy citrus flavour, but with a quick finish and a £20 price tag this didn’t receive a lot of enthusiasm from the members with comments about “why produce another (Sauvignon)?”. A Beaujolais then provoked a mixed response; the Domaine Christophe Cordier 2008 Morgon, Côte du Py Vieilles Vignes, was decreed an atypical Beaujolais but for me it was the better for it, with smoked strawberry nose, chewy tannins and a cherry mid-palate. It had a slightly bitter aspect and plenty of acidity which cried out for food, and could possibly have benefitted from a year or two more in the bottle.
The reds moved up a gear with the Contino 2005 Rioja Reserva which had a turbo-charged nose with vanilla and smoky liquorice. This full-bodied, modern style of Rioja had plenty of sweet fruit and received unanimous approval befitting it’s price tag approaching £30. For significantly less than that the £13 Bordeaux Blend Craggy Range 2006 Te Kahu Gimblett Gravels from New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay also met with group approval. This was a superb wine; a slightly vegetal nose with blackcurrant and liquorice, smooth and rich in the mouth with plenty of tannin on the mid-palate and finish, but could have done with a few more years to integrate.
In comparison the D’Arenberg 2006 Coppermine Road was rather dull, good for a second before turning rather flat and with nothing to commend its £25 price, so we moved to South America for the final wines of the evening; the Catena 2006 Alta Malbec from Mendoza and the Viña Mayu 2007 Syrah Reserva from Chile’s Elqui Valley. The Mayu had only recently been lauded in Decanter magazine as a 19pt, 5 star wine so I was looking forward to trying it, especially as it retails for less than £12. Unfortunately it was a confected, syrupy wine with a chemical nose and a cloying texture that impressed no-one – “alcoholic Ribena” was shouted out, the reference to the sugary blackcurrant juice not a sign of appreciation! Argentina didn’t fare too much better with the premium Catena Alta either, as I don’t usually pay over £25 for an easy-drinking “quaffable” wine which doesn’t elicit much thought while you drink.
The Contino (owned by Spanish Stalwart CVNE) was voted best wine on the night but for less than half the price I’d recommend the Craggy Range Te Kahu – if you’re in the UK then look for the Marks & Spencer Lone Range Gimblett Gravels Red, which is effectively the same wine made with an M&S label.
And so finally to my monthly roundup of bottles at home and it was definitely a month for the cellar with 17 incoming and only 8 outgoing, suggesting June will be a lean month! Apart from the 6 bottles of Château Musar there was another country theme with the Feudi di San Gregorio 2005 Greco di Tufo, Borgo San Michele 2005 Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio, alta Battistina 2009 Gavi and Deltetto 2008 Favorita Sarvai catering to my current quest for Italian white varietals.
I also managed to pick up a couple of good Australian deals in local stores; first with a Tim Adams 2006 Riesling hiding amongst the 08s in Tesco, and then with a Tempus Two 2003 Botrytis Semillon for only £5, however, it was 2 bottles of another dessert wine which had me most satisfied as it completed a search for an unusual German example – the Schales 1999 Huxelrebe Beerenauslese from Rheinhessen should be the perfect close to a tasting I’m planning for next year.
Of the drinkers only 2 were of note. A classic English white was first, the Chapel Down Winemaker’s selection 2006 Bacchus reserve. This crisp aromatic wine had similarities to Sauvignon Blanc with a touch of lemon and nettle – not great QPR at £11 but worth it for the experience. The £10 Heredad Ugarte 2005 Crianza proved to be an excellent Rioja from a very good vintage, ticking all the boxes for a medium bodied, food-friendly and easy drinking red.
And so to June, already upon us, but you’ll have to wait a short while for news of the Wine Festival.
Sometimes on a hot afternoon a rosé or sharp Albariño just won’t cut it. With the weather we’ve had here in Santa Cruz, temperatures sure to spike over the weekend, I often turn to a cold beer to slake a thirst satisfied no other way. But what if I want those moments to be more than merely satisfied? What if I want exhilaration? If I only had a guide…. Well, I am happy to report that they are at it again, those Fearless Critics. Fresh off their groundbreaking The Wine Trials, this ever-widening circle of drinking friends has now returned with yet another very helpful guide, The Beer Trials. This time they’ve willingly sacrificed weeks of their lives for the humble beer drinker. And I am glad they did. What a world of taste and variety I have been missing!
As I discovered during a trip to Vermont some time ago, there has occurred an extraordinary explosion of artisanal, high quality beer production here in the states. It is no longer about Bud versus Coors, or dueling Michelobs, the choice of Corona or Pacifico for the beach. There are now new names to conjure: Saison Dupont, Russian River Pliny the Elder, Magic Hat, Boulder Planet Porter, Widmer Broken Halo. Just how massive has been the cultural shift to high quality beer making, abroad as well, I have only recently begun to learn. This book certainly helps! After years trying to grasp the intricacies of the wine world, is was in just the few weeks since the publisher sent me a copy, that this casual beer drinker can now more confidently find the IPA of my dreams. And understand why one might be better than another.
Yet the authors’ artisanal rap does not go to their heads. They are not fighting a variation of the culture wars. The Beer Trials is no high brow versus low brow. Their tone is itself humble, and humorous. Yes, I may keep my fond memories of stealing sips from my father’s Hamm’s.
“If this is a book with an agenda, then that agenda is simple: to broaden your horizons, and narrow your search, by arming you with better information about beer. If we can help you find a new beer to love, then our purpose is met.”
Written by Seamus Campbell and the intrepid Robin Goldstein, with the contribution of a dozen professionals, from homebrewers to the BJCP-approved enthusiast, The Beer Trials provides much more than a list dozens and dozens of beers from around the world. It is as well a guide to beer styles, flavors and ingredients. The section on adjuncts, additives, and unusual flavors was highly instructive. As was the chapter on off-flavors and flaws. I had no idea the flavor of malt could be further broken down into pale, English pale, crystal, medium crystal, Munich and Vienna. Now I do. Neither did I know what could be the differences, for good or ill, that adding oats, corn, rice, molasses, wheat or rye, brings to a finished bottle. Skunky, tart, sour, buttery, and soapy, these flaws are discussed. And the stylings created by proper use of Acetobacter and Brettanomyces? Of Brett they write,
“Brett produces a variety of phenolic compounds. [....] The most desirable of these is closely related to the clove-flavored phenol produced by weizen yeasts., and can come across as meaty (like bacon), smoky, or spice [....]
‘Old leather’ is the classic British description of Bretty beer — intriguing enough to inspire the recreation of 19th-century British beers, with authentic Brett flavors.”
As with The Wine Trials, all tastings were done blind. And again we are presented with compelling observations about the distorting effects of lifestyle marketing, observations central to all of the Fearless Critics’ work, and one of the many reasons I find their efforts important and commendable.
“If your job as a consumer is to look beyond all categories of lifestyle marketing, that doesn’t mean skepticism of Anheuser-Busch’s Super Bowl ads. It also means skepticism of the well-intentioned but ultimately narrow and unscientific opinions of the beer snob who insists that all great beer must be Belgian and cost at least $10. That enthusiastic beer geek may turn out to be even less aware of lifestyle marketing than your average Bud Light drinker.”
After a few pages explaining their methodology, their (harmless) scoring system, and price point symbols, we dive into the soul of the book: an examination of enough beers, more than 200, to keep me occupied throughout the Summer! Amber and Pale Lagers, Belgian, Brown and Dark Ales, including Porters, Stouts, and my personal favorite, India Pale Ale (though I will now look for a neuvo British Brett beer!), and Smoke, Sour, Strong, and Wheat beers are all well represented.
Another fine guide for a thirsty public. Highly recommended.
A former Biochemistry and Molecular Biology student of UC Santa Cruz, Eric Baugher’s path to Ridge began as a summer job in 1994. It was essentially essentially a scientific inquiry with a bit of research thrown in. Unsure of his graduate school plans, whether to pursue a PhD and enter the pharmaceutical world, or to go into Dentistry, Eric decided to take a year off just to figure it out. After more time spent at Ridge, he made the proper decision: “No way am I going to any grad school. This is what I want to do. There is no better drug to be making!” Now the winemaker at the Monte Bello winery division of Ridge, one of California’s best known producers and a shining star in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, Eric has fully realized the skills of his mentor, Paul Draper. Mr. Draper needs no introduction. His merits, awards, and deserved international recognition are the stuff of legend. The Judgement of Paris anyone?
But for all of that the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA does not receive a tenth of the recognition of its noisy peers, Napa and Sonoma in particular. This is for a number of reasons, not the least of which are the dispersion of the properties and lack of organizational savvy. The pioneering spirit of the AVA, its strong sense of independence, has its downside. Ask anybody to name a Santa Cruz producer. Chances are folks will draw a blank. I have even heard people exclaim that they had no idea Ridge’s Monte Bello was made from Santa Cruz Mountain fruit!
In any event, I learned that Mr. Baugher was to helm a tasting at VinoCruz, Santa Cruz’s premier retailer for showcasing the wines of the AVA. Not wishing to be a bother, but insisting on a story, I hustled to the venue and made a bother of myself. Pausing between the public’s questions and his answers, I stepped in from time to time to ask my own. Though by no means a rigorous interview as readers here have come to know, it does have its charms.
Admin I understand that you were in Bordeaux recently [late May]. The reason?
Eric Baugher En Primier! I wanted to check out the competition. I was touring with some other California winemakers, going to some of the chateaux and tasting. I visited a cooper near Cognac just to see what they were up to there.
When I arrived there it was 91 degrees! I was unprepared. Normally Bordeaux is cool, especially this time of year. You always expect rain and cool weather. that’s what I packed for. When I got there it was Summer. Then I heard that back here it was raining and very cold. But at least I was able to bring back that weather to California.
Just out of curiosity, what cooperage does Ridge use for Monte Bello?
EB Always new oak, and 95% American, a nice mix of: Canton Cooperage, Kelvin Cooperage, Radoux, Demptos, Barrel Associates, it is a wide, diverse mix. We don’t rely on one barrel to make the wine. We really want the diversity of flavor from the coopers, and the different forests of America.
I was going through an older book on the California wine world circa 1979 and I can across a rare picture, the first one I had seen, actually, of Dave Bennion. I did an interview some time ago with Ken Burnap who, along with Mr. Bennion, paced out the original boundary of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. How is Dave Bennion memorialized at Ridge?
EB I know there is an area, a spot in the vineyard where there is a large rock, one of the limestone rocks that were dug out when they were planting what is now known as the old vines. It is a spot where Dave Bennion used to go sit. There is a nice clearing around the rock, and ever so often people go out there. Fran Bennion still lives right below the winery. She is very close to the winery. We see her often, especially when we have special events at the winery. Usually the Bennions will come up.
Have you ever seen Ken Burnap up there?
EB No. We hardly ever see anyone [other winemakers] in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s surprising; but it is a different appellation. We’re so spread out. Everyone is off doing their own thing. It’s really difficult to see people. Whereas in Napa and Sonoma? Everyone is watching over who is doing what. Anytime anyone goes out to lunch you run into winemakers. In the Santa Cruz Mountains we just don’t have that. We all kind of occupy our own part of the mountain and stay to it.
In the old days there used to be all kinds of dinners, back when there were 17 wineries.
EB Nowadays there are more than 70 wineries and, again, we’re so spread out. There is no single road you can take. They are all so far apart.
So, are these selections principally your responsibility?
EB Most are. The Lytton Springs we now make at the winery in Dry Creek Valley. This is produced by my colleague John Olney. I’m responsible for Geyserville, everything that’s produced at Monte Bello winery. That would be the Mont Bello, the Chardonnays, our Rhone varietal wines, and several of our Zinfandels. And I’ve been responsible for 16 going on 17 vintages, working with the master, Paul Draper.
How is he, by the way?
EB Oh, he’s doing well. He’s in great shape. He’s very active, and actively involved in the day to day business of Ridge. But he’s relied upon me to take over winemaking long ago. And I didn’t go to UC Davis! So I didn’t bring any of that, you know, the technical, industrial methods of winemaking to Ridge. That’s not the way we do things.
A visitor asked after the recent heat wave we’ve experienced in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
EB We need this heat. Our growing season is off by three weeks. We’re starting off really late. It’s been a long Winter. And very wet. These late Winter rains is making for very good weed growth this year. At one point before we mowed, the weeds were taller than the vines. It was horrible.
How has our troubled economy affected sales at Ridge?
EB Well, at the bottom of last year, March of 2009 was probably the lowest point of our sales. It really affected our distributors mainly who were not buying wine because they didn’t want to sit on inventory. As things improved last year, by June things came back, distributors were re-ordering wines to replenish their inventories; and on the sales side we were seeing that the distributors were actually getting the wine into the marketplace, selling it to retailers and restaurants. So health returned to our sales by June of last year. And every month since sale have continued to improved. We’re actually 39% better this year than we were last year at this time.
Exports have really picked up substantially for us! Particularly in the UK, but also Germany, Switzerland, Japan, those are the big markets. Australia and France, we have distribution there. About 25% of our annual sales are to the export market. It’s a good diversity for us to have those markets. And as the US market comes back stronger, hopefully that will counter any effect that we may see in the export market. European markets are having some issues recently.
I noticed a Parker score on their tasting table placard so I asked, Do you think Robert Parker will ever retire?
EB Well, he’s got people in place now; he’s got his understudies there slowly taking over. I would imagine that in the next ten years we’ll see some change. Jim Laube as well, from the Wine Spectator. Hopefully some new writer will come in with a different sense of taste and style, or a greater appreciation for real wine rather than these fruit bomb, cocktail-style wines. And I think they’re slowly losing out to the on-line world, the new generation of wine consumers are necessarily going to be relying on Jim Laube and Robert Parker for their wine information. They’re going to be getting it off the internet through blogs. That’s a greater power.
But here on your placard you’ve got a Robert Parker score!
EB (laughs) That’s true! You can’t get away from him. We actually have not submitted samples to him for three years. There was a long hiatus where he didn’t review our wines… because we don’t worry about what the critics have to say. We don’t court them. Our customers let us know when we have succeeded by buying our wine. Firstly, we begin by making wines that we truly enjoy drinking ourselves and that our customers keep coming back to buy. We’ve got to begin at that point. And if then the critics come along and give some favorable scores, then that’s great. But we don’t count on that as part of our economic engine to retail sales.
Getting back to Bordeaux, how were the wines?
EB The 2009s that I tasted were terrific, absolutely beautiful. It’s a high quality vintage. The Bordelaise haven’t yet released their pricing because they’re waiting for the Chinese to decide how much they are willing to pay for the wines this year.
So the Chinese are that important a player?
EB Well, the Chinese were everywhere on the streets of Bordeaux.
They were everywhere in Cahors as well.
EB But I do think the Bordelaise have a very beautiful vintage in 2009. And I would love to buy some, as long as they’re reasonably priced.
A last question, about climate change. Many winemakers will not associate climate change with viticultural adaptations from vintage to vintage. The human mind can no more remember the weather last week let alone last year. We’re not wired that way. But if they go through their records they can then see they irrigated a little bit more here, they were a little more aggressive with the green harvest there, or they messed around with their canopy… they can detect subtle viticultural trends if sufficient attention is given. Is there anything about Monte Bello, about Santa Cruz’s Ridge that you’d care to add?
EB The only thing that we’ve been seeing it that to get physiological ripeness we’re generally having to go to slightly higher levels of brix. So what that has done is that the average alcohol of Monte Bello through most of the history of that wine, up into the 80s, the late 80s, early 90s, was right around 12.8% alcohol. That was a pretty precise measurement. As we moved into the mid-nineties to the present, the alcohol has moved now into the 13% to 13.1% range. We haven’t seen a general trend of hotter growing seasons. What we’re seeing is a lot more weather variability, or extremes. The coldest days of Winter have become much colder. The hotter days of Summer have become much hotter. Wind comes at unusual time of the year. The weather has become much more unpredictable. This has made the grape growing a little more difficult, more challenging. There is a lot of high anxiety for us, trying to grow with these extremes.
In 2004, the earliest harvest in our history, we began picking grapes in the middle of August that year. We were out sampling, tasting. We saw that verasion came early. It was on our radar that the harvest was going to be early. For a lot of California winemakers it just didn’t register. A lot of people picked too late and produced over-ripe wine; whereas we produced beautiful wines. A different style, though. They were lighter just by the nature of an early season with heat.
So do you plan to stay where you are? (laughs)
EB Oh, absolutely! I’m a Santa Cruz native and I work at one of the first growths of North America. There is no other place to go!
Clos Troteligotte is an interesting property. Stylistically, it straddles the line between old and new Cahors, but is not part of a generational movement as such. It understands its future as one driven by an independence of spirit and a work ethic, the true patrimony of the South West. Clos Troteligotte builds upon this cultural continuity with refreshing innovation, a new perspective. I’ll explain.
Traditional Cahors AOC winemaking is difficult to grasp. Its long history has been punctuated by environmental disasters, changing international fortunes, the rise of powerful, politically astute regional rivals, the emergence of America as a winemaking power, its rechristening, if not rebirth, in the 1970s, and, most recently, Argentina’s successful marketing of the Malbec grape under Cahors’ very nose. Indeed, Cahors AOC identity today is an unsettled confluence of multiple histories and restarts. We can catch glimpses of the magnificence of the wines produced, more numerous examples in recent years, but I don’t believe the Cahors AOC has experienced sufficient continuity as a wine growing region for the rest of the world to clearly understand what it is she has done, certainly not what she now does. It was not until the 1990s, after all, that a thorough analysis of what Andrew Jefford has called the forgotten terroirs was even undertaken.
Now the Cahors AOC project becomes to expand and to deepen this new local knowledge of itself, of its terroirs and the best viticulture, for the sake of its growers, producers, and the thirsty public. For it remains true, as I was often reminded by locals themselves, that a substantial number of Cahors AOC vignerons still do not know the strengths and weaknesses of their own lands, whether their vineyards are in the right place, or where to look within the AOC at large for terroirs of great potential. This last point is important in that I strongly sense that others from outside the region are now shopping for AOC acreage. (I, myself, have more than once in the past few weeks wondered whether I might make a go of it here!) Of spectacular potential, this small AOC in the South West of France has only begun to shower the world with the soulful, expressive gifts of its terroirs. Like much of Portugal, I am convinced that the Cahors AOC is on the verge of far wider international recognition than now enjoyed. There is no downside to its fortunes.
Of Clos Troteligotte. Founded in 1987 by patriarch Christian Rybinski, it is a 10 hectare (1 of white grapes just coming in) family operation spearheaded by young son Emmanuel. They combine excellent red plateau soils, an appreciation of contemporary viticultural thinking, a relentless work ethic, internet savoir-faire, experimentation, and an abiding love of their patrimony into a range of bright wines, including a white and rosé. I had the pleasure of spending a couple of hours with Emmanuel. What follows is a blended narrative of the interview.
Troteligotte, Emmanuel explains, is the name of his grandfather’s house. It means a place where there are a lot of partridge (my effort to find an exact translation was unsuccessful). As we approached the property and drove a private dirt road through wooded land just east of the Villesèque commune, itself ten minutes west of Cahors off D653, sure enough partridge bolted in front of us. They did not fly, but ran. Emmanuel described his vineyard as atop the plateau, an iron-rich clay and limestone mix. Unobstructed sunshine is on the vines, the surrounding forest having been cleared for cereal grains and animal forage as well. Emmanuel’s father, Christian, though an agronomist, was an ingenue. He didn’t know a lot about wine when he initially planted the Clos Troteligotte’s vines in ‘87. His own father had been a farmer, had not known the vine. But Christian learned with each vintage and soon left the negociants behind with a focus on quality, a resolution made in 1998, the year of his first great effort.
In 2004 Emmanuel had returned from Australia. He had worked in Victorian Alps Winery, near the Victorian Alps in the state of Victoria. He had also put put in time in Napa as an assistant winemaker at Chateau Potelle in 2002. So, back in Villesèque in 2004, he began to make his multiple signature cuvées. Shortly was to come, with the help of his father, their first Charte de Qualité wine in 2004, the CQfd [see pic].
Diversity of wines is the key to the Clos’ success. Emmanuel has complete control over block, vine, and grape selection to do as he pleases. So why not explore the variety their current 40,000 bottle capacity allows? Eight thousand of Rosé, 4,000 of the white blend, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier, and the balance of classic Cahors blends, Malbec, Merlot, and Tannat. The white blend is quite interesting, the result of an experiment with the three varieties none of which were planted in sufficient quantities to warrant a separate bottling. But next year he will plant more vines for two new whites, a Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc blend and a stand-alone Viognier.
Father and son do everything; they work the vineyards, the cellar, the barnyard, they do all the marketing, including hand-selling at markets, the labels. Control rests entirely in their hands. Their new website, too, was Emmanuel’s doing, though with the help of a friend who runs eure-k!, a new innovative web design collective, in this instance charged with creating a site which reflected Emmanuel’s electric personality. It took six months, but the results are certainly more energizing and visually arresting than any other Cahors AOC producer sites I’ve visited on the net. They also do tee-shirts, fliers offering discounts, all that modern marketing stuff (like talking to me). Though not yet on Facebook or Twitter (it takes time he does not have!), he does have a blog administered by his lovely wife, Emily. (Though not always a part of Emmanuel’s narrative, Emily is undeniably central to their success.) All of this raises his profile and that of the winery. From his work in Australia and California he learned the importance of wine tourism, something he hopes to increase to his property in the near future. Future plans call for the building of a new cellar for tastings and sales, educational talks; a showplace for local art, theater, music, and books; a comfortable place for cultural gatherings and conversation, what Emmanuel calls a Country or Rural Cultural Center. Under construction now, he hopes to open the doors in the Spring/Summer of 2012.
These kinds of initiatives, incidentally, are going on all over the Cahors AOC. Indeed, the local wine and tourism authorities have launched a five-year plan to completely revitalize the region. It is an exciting time to be a winemaker here! Yet Emmanuel’s advice may not be sought, at least in the beginning. Along with other young winemakers 30 and under, they have not yet earned the confidence of the older generation. For that distinction, a greater region recognition of one’s work is required.
Emmanuel is not particularly concerned with such matters. He really has no time to speak formally about the development of the appellation in any case. He has more than enough work to do, what with his winemaking, viticultural practice, marketing, house and out-building construction and family responsibilities. He is the father of three beautiful young children. Malbec Days, in fact, offered him an excellent opportunity to combine a number of tasks, including meeting local officials, exporters, wine writers, etc. all while pouring his wines.
We arrive at the vineyards, the house and future cellar under construction just beyond. His current cellar is simply too small for his ambitious plans. The vineyard is 9 hectares of Malbec and 1 of Merlot. The Merlot was put in his first cuvée, La Fourmi and in his bag-in-a-box wine. But no Merlot is used for his middle and high cuvées. Those wines are 100% Malbec. I should add that the white grapes are not grown on the same soil as the red. In the main vineyard heavy iron-rich stones, some appearing 100% pure, lie scattered about the ground and lurk just beneath the surface. Years ago such stones were smelted to make iron farm and martial instruments. Were it to rain the soil would turn red before my eyes.
Green harvest is the order of the day at the more progressive vineyards, as here. Emmanuel explains the maximum number of canes allowed, 4 to 5, along each cordon. Grape bunches are severely reduced to one per cane. Yields for the higher quality cuvées are around 30 hectoliters per hectare, the lowest yield is used for the CQfd. Contrast this to the easier drinking, less expensive La Fourmi, for which 45 to 50 hectoliters per hectare are harvested. As may be seen, grass and flowers are everywhere between the rows, but Clos Troteligotte is not yet biologique. La Lutte Raisonnée is practiced, essentially what we would call ’sustainable’. In two to three years they will complete the transition to biologique, or ‘organic’. Under the raisonnée regime a very small amount of ‘product’ is used, sulphur and copper, usually once a year. No insecticide is applied. But even this quantity, Emmanuel explains, has been reduced by half since 2000. As a result the vines have become more and more capable of resisting what diseases there are in this dry climate. During a typical growing season it is only the leaves, and not the grape bunches, which are occasionally attacked. Clean grapes help, of course, with the vinifications, all done with ‘wild’ yeast.
Because it is just Emmanuel and his father, the grapes are mechanically harvested. Small select parcels are harvested first, when it is coldest, between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. in the morning. The disease-free grape clusters, a feature of both climate and viticulture, do not really need hand harvesting. No post-harvest de-selecting is required. Besides, a hectare may be harvested in under two hours at an optimal temperature and have the grapes in the winery before the morning chill has fled. The whites, however, are hand harvested because of oxidative matters. Curiously, their vineyards are consistently ready for harvest a full week earlier than their closest neighbor, a vineyard property only one kilometer away. Perhaps it is the forest circling their lands that provide an extra bit of protection, perhaps a subtle microclimate subtends the difference.
We leave the red soils of the Malbec/Merlot vineyard (with a small amount of Tannat, 2 to 3 percent) to view the white clay, chalkier soils for Clos Troteligotte’s whites. The vineyard bordered the forest, but in the past few years the trees have been cleared to make room for more vines to come, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier, as mentioned above. The empty field is now planted with cereal grains while they prepare for the new vineyard.
I was next introduced to a small plantation of very young oaks, what they hope will become truffle trees in no fewer than 7 years. Asked about a vegetable garden, Emmanuel very proudly said they grew for the family. “We do everything!” They don’t use conventional paper diapers for their children. Instead, they use a hemp fabric, and for their tee-shirts, not to mention for the insulation of their home. His uncle has 40 hectares of cereals under cultivation. Complete with a windmill and grinding stone, grains for the family and their chickens and pigs are produced there. The pig manure is, bien sûr, returned to the fields. Like Emmanuel says, “We do everything!”
Heating of the family home, Emmanuel and Emily’s, is provided by a large stove. After firing it up for a couple of hours it provides heat all throughout the night, important when the temperature last winter plunged from an average of zero to minus 10. With the stove they bake their own bread. They harvest meats from their own livestock. Their family life and that of their farm supports and maintains long-standing Cahors country traditions. They remind me of rural folks living in Mendocino County or in western Montana. I couldn’t help thinking I had met these people before. I’m sure I have. And like their American counterparts, they are not making much money. Emmanuel laughs, “Not yet. Not yet. We work 7 days a week. We have one short holiday a year. Me and my wife. But I am on a good path. Next year I hope to take more time off… maybe pay someone to come with me into the vineyards. That would allow me to do something else.”
I was welcomed at their family house. Emily brought out a bowl of strawberries. Their apple-cheeked children eyed me with amusement, dressed as I was in unseasonable, unreasonable black and sporting multiple electronic devices. A friendly old dog, perhaps a Bernese, went back to the shade. Emmanuel introduced me and soon had his eldest son practicing his English numbers aloud. Their youngest offered me a bottle of liquid soap and a bubble wand. The ice water infused with citron tasted good.
Though I was to spend another 45 minutes with Emmanuel touring the winery proper and other sites, and listening to his extraordinary visions that I am certain will be realized, I feel it is best to end my post here. I had seen, tasted and heard much in my week in the Cahors region. But no experience was quite so perfect, so personally fulfilling for this weary stranger than my few precious minutes here with the Rybinski family.
For further reading, a supplemental link.