Wine’s Superego

June 20, 2012

Gritty, grainy, drying, grippy, emery board, ripe, fleshy, sweet, astringent,chewy,  fine-grained, structuring…Tannin be thy name.

Fruit and acid are the hip, well-dressed kids; the too-cool-for-school, let’s-smoke-pot-behind-the-7-11-rebels. Tannin is the righteous one; the responsible one that gives seriousness and meaning to wine.

If you’ve drunk Cabernet or Grenache or a young La Rochelle Pinot Noir – even – and felt the sides of your tongue or your cheeks go dry…that’s tannin for you. Derived from the skins and seeds of grapes and the wood from new-ish oak barrels, tannin is what gives ageability and a drying, astringent structure to young wines and allows them to age. Supergo to fruit’s id.

I had the chance to taste through a trial of wines today that had commercial tannins added to them. These tannins were natural, derived – too – from oak and grape skins, but they were meant to add to red wines what nature did not give them. The winemaker has many tools at her disposal to make wines better…and  what separates the good winemaker from the not-so-good one is the judiciousness with which those tools are used.

I tasted through several flights of wine, each of which had a control then varying amounts of a couple different kinds of tannin added. Unlike a series of fining trials tasted earlier (that’s another post), the control wines were aided, made more complete, by the structural addition of tannin. For a commercial winery that targets a specific consumer with wines that are carefully made to hit certain structural cues, this tool, used in a limited and intelligent fashion, can be very valuable.

Without a hill to die on, some people would have no fun at all.

So it’s the “balanced” wine crowd now…alcohol levels are too high in California they say. Or maybe it’s the “the pendulum is swinging back” pack with their  synecdoche argument.

Alice Feiring, in a Newsweek article linked above,  stops short of contending that there is a full-scale movement toward lower alcohol wines in California , but one could be forgiven for intuiting that the small set of examples she gives is meant to stand for a(n as-yet-unseen) stampede.

So too with Raj Parr and Jasmine Hirsch founders of the In Pursuit of Balance group who, in their search for “balance,” have found a shibboleth waiting there all along. To be fair though, Mr. Parr admits that wines can be in balance at higher alcohol levels but that alcohol, fruit, wood, and tannin find “harmony” when they are co-equal.

California is a really sunny place, most of the time. Grapevines produce sugar via photosynthesis. Sugar in the grapes gets converted to alcohol when they’re crushed and exposed to yeast. If you read “ripeness” as higher sugar content in the fruit, California is nearly always going to have riper fruit than most European producers (the laws in Europe have something to do with this as well).

So, if warmer weather leads to higher alcohol wines, what do you think cooler weather does?

In the last 2008 and 2009, generally considered fairly temperate years, the degree-days in the Livermore Valley were off of their 30-year average by nearly 3%. And in 2010 and 2011, quite cold years, the same value was off the average by 17.9% and 13.4% respectively.

Sometimes a mystery looking for a solution has one staring in its face. Could it be that winemakers are not changing their style as much as they are just taking what Nature has given them?

When I think of UC Davis, I envision this proudly tree-shrouded citadel of learning inhabited by monks wearing brown robes and cinched by raw cord, their tonsures browned from exposure to the gentle rays of the sun and the breezes wafting off the coast. When you get there, you realize it’s an f’ing oven. There are trees, cork oaks that have never been harvested, but they hunch over in obeisance to the unremitting solar energy. The profs share a sensibility with the monks of Middle Age France; in many ways they are still the keepers of the sacred books and some of them lament the state of the relationship between the learned (them) and the crass money counters who can only sell and do not value the value of wisdom.

Tom Stutz and I went up today to attend a series of lectures on the effects of oxygen exposure to fermenting wines, the intricacies of

The UC Davis Winery

pressing, and the different kinds of tannin that are present in grape skins and seeds and oak barrels and how to manage those to make the best possible wines. There is something undeniably magical about being in this particular academic environment. These are the Avengers of the wine-education world, the best of the best. The image of the cloister isn’t really right. A lot of what these scientists are dealing with is of real-world concern to people trying to make saleable wine. There is a symbiotic relationship: the industry (the Mondavi and Gallo and Jackson families, in particular) has funded the construction of  several of the buildings the department uses as well as endowing a number of the professorial chairs. These assets are used by the faculty and students to help the industry be more profitable and to make better wine, and thus seeding the virtuous research cycle.

Despite the mutual benefit that the faculty and winemakers receive from each other, there is also a very real respect issue that undergirds some of the presentations that we see today. One of the professors mentioned a number of times the “stupidity” of the people on the business side of the business who don’t know what they don’t know, and who don’t recognize the value of what was being summarized in the presentation today. This was a proud and accomplished dude who (I imagine) felt as if he were casting pearls before swine. The oinking chorus was concerned only (again, I’m projecting) with the bottom line and didn’t understand the short-sighted nature of saying no to more research. This professor described himself as cynical and Tom mentioned that you become how you act, referring to his observation that this professor has carried this cynical streak with him his whole tenure at the college.

And while the presentation was valuable in at least a knowledge-for-knowledge’s-sake kind of a way, one could question whether that knowledge would lead to wine that was sufficiently better in quality as to make its academic integration worth the effort of the acquisition and the putting-into-practice. As I’ve gotten older, I realize more and more that the real bottom line is that I’m making wine for an audience willing to pay its hard-earned money for it. My own passion to know it all is really only of value in respect to how much service I can put that knowledge to in the pursuit of making that bottle of wine you buy from me the best wine-drinking experience you can have.  We still render unto Caesar what is his and have and will. It’s the only way, in the end, of sustaining that which is given over to the pure.

Thankfully, the prospect of a new car or the shiny girlfriend half my age holds about as much joy as as a root canal. Nonetheless, I’ve been staring into the gaping maw of a mid-life crisis recently.

It started strangely and innocently enough with an aversion to eating the meat that I had loved for so long. I just can’t get past certain ethical dilemmas that, being aware of but not compelled by, before, have now wrapped me up tight – and discomfited – in a vegetarian knot.

More relevantly, I’ve noticed a subtle shift in my attitudes about the wines I make. It happened again yesterday while working with my

Craig taking notes on 2010 Merlot

newest winemaking team member, Craig Ploof, while evaluating barrels of Merlot for our 2010 Bordeaux Varietal Series offering. I have repeatedly been questioning the relationship of fruit to wood and to structure recently. We made a couple of mock blends of Merlot, both of which were very nice. But I concluded, ultimately, that I liked the idea of the one that would have been most characteristic of a Steven Kent release better than I liked the actual wine.

The other blend, the one I eventually chose, is a terrific wine. The important issue for consumers of Steven Kent wines is that the wine is a beautiful example of the varietal, year, and site. My job…my passion is to make GREAT wines…and those can come in any number of different presentations. The subtle shift in emphasis – big for me – may not be detectable to anyone else. In the end, that’s more than okay.

Quest: Pinot Meunier

April 22, 2012

La Rochelle has released two vintages of Pinot Meunier from the Four Sisters Vineyard in the Sonoma Coast appellation, and each has been very well received. In 2011 a communication gap, the size of the Grand Canyon, prevented us from getting fruit from this site…both in 2011 and forever after.

We have been searching for a site since then and may have found one in Saralee’s Vineyard in the Russian River Valley.

Pinot Meunier is a genetic mutation of Pinot Noir, named for the fine white hairs that look like flour growing on the underside of the vine’s leaf (Meunier means Miller in French). The wine is Pinot Noir’s rustic country cousin…Mary Ann to Pinot Noir’s Ginger. It is overladen with wonderful plummy fruit, great aromatics, and is a wonderful accompaniment to all kinds of food.

There were just over 300 tons of Meunier produced in California in 2011…the vast majority used for Sparkling wine. Meunier is one of the classic Champagne varieties. That leaves a very small number of tons that are used to make red, still wine from. Hence the difficulty in finding available fruit.

Saralee’s Vineyard is a gorgeous site right on River Road in the heart of the Russian River Valley appellation. In fact, if you look at a map of the appellation, it is nearly dead center. The 260-acre vineyard was planted in 1989 to over 60 different varieties. Now, the count is down to 17 different grapes, Pinot Meunier comprising just over 3 acres.

There a number of issues to overcome, but our love for the grape is intense so we will keep working on it. Hopefully in the next 18 months we will be talking about how well the wine from the site is coming along.

The Grand Cru Collection

April 22, 2012

Based upon historical geography alone, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the perfect partners. They’ve occupied the same general stretch of land in the northern part of France for centuries. For decades in California, it was Cabernet that most wineries offered as the counterweight to Chardonnay, and here, those two grapes will grow together suitably.

I would argue – though – that it is in the really cool climates (Regions I and II) that Chardonnay is elevated from a drinkable (often sweet, nearly ubiquitous) white wine to an ethereal, transparent, magical vehicle of acid and electricity. If those adjectives don’t sound appetizing, you’ve been drinking the wrong Chardonnay.

The 2010 vintage saw La Rochelle contracting for fruit from three of the most highly regarded Chardonnay vineyards in California: Rosella’s Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands; Ferrington Vineyard in Anderson Valley and Dutton-Morelli Lane Vineyard in Green Valley of Russian River Valley. And one Pinot Noir from a (the?) world-class site in the Carneos appellation: Donum Estate vineyard.  Our intent, with the “Grand Cru Collection” is to make small lots of significantly great Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from significantly great sites farmed by significantly great farmers.

Late Afternoon in Rosella's Vineyard - 2011

Like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay comes in many clonal forms. As with Pinot too, it is the there there that should reveal the truth of the wine. Providing, of course, a winemaker confident enough in his own ability (in this case, to know when NOT to do too much), the whereness  of a great grape like Chardonnay will provide much of the winemaking guidance.

Above all, a wine should be balanced. There should be a sense of momentum through the mouth too. Balance is about fruit and acid and wood and tannin working in harmony (not necessarily of equal measure) to create a sense of beauty and inevitability. While balance might be understood as the Apollonian father, Momentum is about Dionysus; it is what puts the sex in sex-appeal

We know that wine is a living thing. What should be explicit in this, but is often unacknowledged, is that living = energy = purpose. If only in the microcosm of one’s mouth, there should be an energy inherent in the wine (its Momentum) and a purposefulness as it moves from lip to gullet (its Balance). The best of wines tell a complete story. But they are not easy stories. They sometimes take a lifetime of re-telling before the point is finally won and the magic revealed.

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Over the last half-dozen years, Rosella’s Vineyard has become one of the indisputable stars of the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation. Located approximately midway in the appellation, this vineyard is planted to a variety of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay clones. Owned and farmed by Gary Franscioni, Rosella’s provides fruit for some of the best producers of these burgundian varieties. We bought a couple of tons in 2010 of  the Dijon 76 clone for this Grand Cru Collection Chardonnay.

Nearly 240 miles north of the Santa Lucia Highlands is the town of Boonville in the Anderson Valley appellation. There on the east side of the main road through this stretch of Mendocino County is the Ferrington Vineyard. Planted to several clones of Chardonnay, including the Robert Young clone (the fruit we took in 2010) this south-facing vineyard has provided grapes for some of the great marks in California wine.

Creating the western-most angle of our Grand Cru Collection triangle is the Dutton-Morelli Lane Vineyard where we harvest the Hyde Selection of Chardonnay. Located in the Green Valley of Russian River Valley, Morelli Lane in home to both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. And as often happens when a vineyard owner is in love with a particular variety even though it wouldn’t seem suited to the area, old vine Zinfandel. Managed by the renowned Russian River Valley growers, the Dutton family, this vineyard was planted in 1995 (they reinvigorated the 1.5 Zinfandel block that was originally planted in 1935).

The Donum Estate Vineyard was once part of the iconic Buena Vista vineyard planting in the southern-most part of Sonoma County: the Los Carneros appellation. Anne Moller-Racke, the President and Vineyard Manager of the eponymous brand has been growing Pinot Noir for nearly than 30 years. Her team is dedicated to growing world-class fruit, and her invitation to source fruit from her site (we are the only other winery to have this honor) was an affirmation of all the work we have put into making great wines from this fickle grape. Since our first vintage in 2009, we have been getting fruit that comes from a mix of burgundian clones that is called the Donum Selection. This wine has a richness and elegance and depth that elevate it above an already stellar lineup of Pinot Noirs that Tom Stutz has shepherded to magnificence. There is a transcendence to this wine’s seriousness…to its self-possession and layers of flavor. This is a wine that will take years to tell its story…but I am sure the story will be filled with swordplay and love; dragons and timeless devotion.

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With these wines, as with all of our Grand Cru Collection offerings, Tom Stutz has marshaled experience and fruit sources and vision  to create wines of balance and momentum and magic. Made in extremely small volumes, the Grand Cru Collection continues La Rochelle’s growth toward iconic status. As with all of our wines, the Grand Cru Collection wines are after greatness.