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Listening, Wine and Bach

My wife is out-of-town, visiting her sister. That means I can crank up the tunes. I was rockin' out tonight during dinner. My Sonos was shaking the house with - Glenn Gould's 1981 recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations.

What's fascinating about loud Bach is that you feel much the same as if you were listening to The Beatles or the Stones (yes, I'm old). The passion and beat makes you tap your toes. One of the compelling aspects of this recording (listened to loud!) is that you hear Gould's humming and grunts as he plays Bach with the same emotional intensity that B.B. King plucked Lucille on The Thrill is Gone.

Said Gould, "I believe that the justification of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not its shallow, externalized, public manifestations. The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenalin but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity." Can you think of a better description of a great wine?

This is the why a point scale can never hope to define, or explain, much less quantify the experience of wine. It is too complicated to boil down this complex interaction of humans and nature over literally thousands of years to a decimal point.

Dinner tonight was pressure cooker wine-braised pork short-ribs (90 minutes) with a reduction made from the broth and for the wine 2010 Donkey & Goat "Five Thirteen" El Dorado, Red Wine Blend (47% grenache, 21% syrah, 16% mourvèdre, 10% counoise, 6% cinsault). Like Gould, this wine hummed and grunted in the background during its performance with a whiff of volatile acidity and a little funk, but like Gould it delivered. Exciting and fun it lifted the dinner to a new height. How many points? Don't insult it.

As Bach proved and Gould restated, there is real power in refinement, elegance and discipline. Power itself is not something to be revered. Powerful wines get high points because, as Gould said, they deliver "a momentary ejection of adrenalin." I think in winemaking a little reflection on Gould's thoughts on the justification and purpose of art can be applied to our craft. All to often we pursue the external, not the internal, or nature's purpose for wine.

To repurpose the Gould quote, the purpose of wine is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenalin but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity. Powerful wines may give that injection of adrenalin on the first sip, but they do not deliver a sense of wonder and serenity instead becoming trophies to hoard.

It takes courage to let your own personal vision and passion show through in your work. You'll be hard pressed to find wine brands that roll off your tongue that have even a bit of courage.

When you first hear the humming on Glenn Gould's recording of the Goldberg Variations (both the 1955 and 1981 versions) you think something is wrong with the recording. Then, with repeated listening and a little homework on your part you understand that you are hearing something personal and truly expressive. With compelling, memorable wines the experience and requirements are the same.

It's not how loud it is, it's how well you're listening.

Barrel Roll

You need a license to drive a car. Permits for hunting and fishing are required. In general if it’s dangerous you need to prove you’re competent to get a permit. Perhaps winemakers should have to get a permit before they're allowed to use new oak barrels.

Admittedly new oak barrels are not dangerous to people, but they can be very dangerous to wine. Today's wines rarely taste of basic mistakes in the cellar. Cultured yeasts, enzymes and cutting edge machines that can take out almost anything have seen to that. But the neutral ripe black-fruited wines produced by these techniques are, to say the least, boring. So new oak flavors sing a siren's song that few winemakers can resist. If new barrels are not an option, no problem. There are inner-staves, chips, powders and many other products made out of oak to bring those flavors to your wine.

There’s the problem isn’t it? The whole idea of “bringing flavors” to a wine should be controversial. After all, wine critics look down their nose at Retsina, spiced wines or any wine that has something added to alter its flavors. Yet when it come to new oak, they’re suckered in with an almost religious fever that anoints these oak flavored wines with big points.

The concept of terroir is dear to wine lovers around the world. Yet can you think of a bigger enemy of terroir than the pronounced flavors of new oak? If you mostly taste the oak, you are not tasting the wine.

That is not to say these flavors can’t have their place. Certainly cabernet sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties can be lifted to new heights with the judicious use of new oak. However, there are so few varieties and appellations that use or benefit by the use of new oak that perhaps more winemakers should step back and reconsider its use. Just because new oak flavors are associated with the two of the most famous wine regions should not be in itself a reason for a winemaker to equate those flavors with quality. The worldwide success of cabernet sauvignon and the exalted status of Bordeaux, and now the Napa Valley, has established the taste of new oak itself, instead of the flavors of the land and variety, as the goal to be coveted by many winemakers and sought out by consumers.

This, of course, is much more a New World than an Old World problem. Most of the other European regions that flirted with new oak in the 80s and 90s have backed off and returned to their more traditional methods. It was sad to see some Italian producers destroy the character of classic, individualistic wines in Piemonte and Toscana during this era. Fortunately, almost all of those producers have either severely reduced their use of new oak or abandoned it all together and returned to making wines true to their regions and varieties. As it turns out, it's good business to be different in the world of wine instead of tasting like you could come from anywhere. In fact, now Barolo has almost become the new "Burgundy" with rare single crus, high prices and allocated wines.

Then there are “oak products” like inner-staves, chips and powders that are added to a wine simply to add that oak flavor. These producers are doing the same thing ancient winemakers did when they created wines like Retsina. The pine flavors covered up other faults, which is exactly the reason “oak products” are used in winemaking today. The most important purpose of a wine barrel is to allow controlled amounts of oxygen to interact with the wine, not to add flavor to it. Obviously these oak products don't have anything to do with the amount of oxygen the wine is exposed to as they only add flavor. They create the modern version of Retsina.

There is using new oak as part of your basic manipulation winemaking recipe, or there is using new barrels like a great chef uses herbs and spices. A soupçon here and there brings a dish to life, too much and you become TGIF. Wine with too much oak makes me think of pizza. On one end of the spectrum you have Pizza Napoletana with its thin, crisp crust graced by light touches of the finest ingredients. Then you have Chicago deep dish pizza where a single slice has more gooey cheese than two, maybe three, whole pizzas in Naples. In Italy one person can eat a whole pie, while two slices of Chicago deep dish is a gut buster. I grew up loving Chicago style, but once I tasted pizza in Italy I could never go back. This is the choice a winemaker has with new oak. What kind of pizza do you want to make?

The use of new barrels is very much a decision that should be made by variety and region. For example, here in the Applegate Valley it has become very clear to me that new oak barrels are just not a good idea. The wines here are too graceful and refined with naturally silky tannins and layering new wood flavors and tannins on top of them buries the character that makes this place a special wine growing region. There are more regions like this in the world of wine than there are those like Bordeaux and Napa.

Like most fashions, even the use of new oak in winemaking has reached its logical extreme. For some, even 100% new barrels was not enough and now there are wines with 200% new oak. How is that possible? Simple, after its first year in a new barrel you transfer a wine into yet another brand new barrel for another year or more. The resulting wine is, of course, 100% devoid of terroir and 400% more expensive. Such is the new math of wine.

While we won't be issuing new barrel permits to new winemakers, perhaps we could at least consider learner's permits? No new oak barrels for five years? Certainly learning how to make good wines without the crutch of new oak, from either barrels or oak products, would make for better, more thoughtful winemakers.

In the meantime, it's in my interest that winemakers retain their addiction to new oak. Every year I can buy beautiful French Oak barrels thoughtfully broken in for me by other winemakers. I can buy these one, two, three and four year old barrels at a tiny fraction of what they cost new and then have the pleasure of using them for years to come.

Come to think of it forget the permits idea, I hope they keep using them.

Rationally Natural

A very happy tempranillo indigenous yeast fermentation 

A very happy tempranillo indigenous yeast fermentation 

Natural wine and biodynamics seems to promote irrational flame wars on the Internet. I have faith in science and personally have trouble buying some of the more voodoo practices myself. On the other hand I can’t argue with the results. Many of the wines I find the most compelling are made using natural winemaking concepts and from vineyards farmed biodynamically. My goal is to become rationally natural.

The intensity of these debates is hard to comprehend after you’ve fermented two hundred tons of fruit without a bag of yeast in sight. My vision of becoming rationally natural is simple: only do what you have to and when you have to do something don’t use bad stuff. Simply minimize or eliminate inputs everywhere.

There is something emotionally rewarding about simply putting grapes into a fermenter and removing the lid a few days later to find fermentation starting without a bit of help from you. It makes you feel more connected to the wine. However, this is not magic, it’s science. When winemakers use cultured yeast strains they knock-off all the indigenous yeast with a dose of sulfur. Then they add their selection of Saccharomyces cerevisiae and it’s off to the races. When our grapes go into a fermenter no sulfur is added so the indigenous yeasts start a less direct process. At the beginning of our fermentations many types of yeasts are present to compete with each other for food. One of the reasons yeast cells produce alcohol is to kill off the competition - not the best system as eventually they kill themselves off. As the fermentation continues the weaker strains of yeasts are killed off until at the end only Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the bad boys of the wine yeast world, are there to take the wine to dryness just like those using cultured yeasts. The difference is that with many types of yeast having been part of the fermentation each adds a nuance, no matter how small, that adds layers of complexity to the wine.

I find wines fermented with indigenous yeasts to have more complex aromatics and a different feel on the palate. Texture in wine is very important to me and I believe much of what consumers refer to as taste is actually the texture of the wine. Building texture is a priority in winemaking for me and I feel fermentation with naturally occurring yeasts enhance the mouthfeel of a wine making it more lively and fresh. Often I find wines fermented with cultured yeast to be more one-dimensional, more focused on basic, straightforward dark fruity flavors. However, certainly this is not always the case as there are hundreds of outstanding wines made with selected yeast cultures.

Obviously what yeast you use for fermentation is only one part of what makes winemaking natural. Personally I’m not big on certifications. I like the idea of taking the best of each and weaving your own relationship to the land and your wine. There is something to be learned from biodynamics, organics, the ideas of Masanobu Fukuoka in the One Straw Revolution and many others. Studying all of these concepts and finding the practices that match your vineyard and region is the best solution for me. The only goal should be what will help me make the best wine possible. Just choosing one discipline does not well represent the complexities of nature.

Being rationally natural is simple: only do what you have to and when you have to do something don’t use bad stuff. That makes sense to me both scientifically, emotionally and rationally.

Trumpism

A dark cloud fills my consciousness this morning. The unthinkable has happened. I am sad for my country. I am sad because I probably will not feel the same about it again. My innocent good faith in Americans as inherently good is broken. The majority chose fear instead of hope. I hope that my hope returns sooner rather than later or never.

However, now I see I was part of the problem. I believed that Hillary Clinton deserved the presidency due to her great experience and obvious competence. I discounted the huge crowds turning out for Bernie Sanders. I turned my head as the Democratic National Committee screwed him out of any chance for the nomination. If that had happened to Obama in 2008 I would have been up-in-arms mad. I now must look at myself more clearly and question why I accepted their manipulations. I believed in the things that Bernie was saying so why did I not fight for him? My rationalization was that Hillary would know how to get things done and in the process missed the real anger that was reflected in the huge crowds turning out for Bernie and, yes, for Trump.

We should have known that the energy around Bernie was real. He was tapping into the same anger that fueled Trump’s win. I sincerely believe, now and too late, that Bernie would have won last night. I was wrong about him and people like me helped give Trump the White House. Hillary Clinton was obviously too flawed as a candidate to win the presidency. We should have understood this and that’s our fault. Trump did not win, he was handed the office by a Democratic Party that insisted on nominating someone with baggage so heavy she could not even overtake someone as repulsive as Trump.

Those of us who believe in hope, equality and tolerance have a lot of work to do. The first step is to clean up our own house - the Democratic Party. We can never let this happen again. The Party must listen to the people and the Democratic National Committee needs new leadership. Next we must focus on the Congressional elections in 2018 and get a majority in at least the Senate. I firmly believe that Trump will be so disruptive that he will be a one-term president. We need to start searching for our 2020 Bernie Sanders right now and this time we need to listen to the people.

It will take me a few weeks to get over this darkness and regret that I did not understand what we had in Bernie, but after that I intend to get to work trying to repair this self-inflicted damage we have done to our country.

As crushed as I am I cannot imagine the sadness of so many women throughout our country who believed their time had come. We all must find a way to shake this off as soon as possible and get to work. The next elections will be here before we know it.

Punched Down

Punching down Troon Tempranillo in the rain under our old oak tree.

Punching down Troon Tempranillo in the rain under our old oak tree.

There are thirty one-ton fermenters spread out before me under the oak tree behind the winery. They all need punch downs and I'm the only one there to do them. It’s raining and at this moment there is nothing romantic about winemaking, fortunately I know that once these wines are in the bottle there will be more than enough romance to make me face this line up of fermenters tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow…

Now it's night and most of me hurts and I'm exhausted, but tomorrow I will be up and ready to go as I know that my life with these wines will make the effort more than worthwhile.

But why is there just me a 63 year old available for punch downs this morning? Welcome to the Applegate Valley where there's not an intern in sight. Welcome to winemaking on the frontier. The Applegate Valley is an exciting, but emerging fine wine region and the niceties of established regions like the Willamette Valley or Napa Valley just don’t exist.

As tiring and challenging as it is, the lack of accoutrements is also liberating. You are forced into choices that make you rediscover how natural the winemaking process truly is and that so many of the interventions used almost without thought in more established regions are unnecessary.

You soon come to understand that these interventions are not only unnecessary, but detrimental as they strip wines of real character leaving pretty, fruity wines with indistinguishable personalities. When I first saw an optical sorter in the Napa Valley I was blown away. Out of one end came perfect grapes, looking exactly like blueberries, and on the side it discharged everything deemed less than perfect. My initial excitement slowly dissolved as I tasted the wines in barrel then bottle. What I thought was perfect fruit yielded wines that were one-dimensional. Those perfect grape blueberries ended up making a wine that tasted a lot like it actually came from blueberries. The strange thing about those perfect grapes is that they only look perfect. If they were truly perfect winemakers would not be forced to add acids, water and use enzymes and other additions to put back in what the optical sorter took out.

At Troon there are no optical sorters in sight, nor in all of Southern Oregon as far as I know. All of our sorting is done during the pick in the vineyard. Instead of making wine with blueberries, we make wine with the grapes that nature gives us. That means along with those perfect grapes some are a little more ripe and some a little less. In the fermenter, together with the indigenous yeasts of the Applegate Valley, this varied fruit creates wine that is anything but one-dimensional. The grapes that are a little less ripe contribute vivacious natural acidity and those a shade overripe contribute body and richness - no additions required. Oh yes, and often we include stems in the ferment. In the tank it may not be pretty, but together they make wines that are alive.

Wines that live make me feel more alive.

Interview by James Melendez

I was very flattered by the kind words and interview by blogger and vlogger James Melendez!

"Craig has a grand passion for the best that wine and great food can offer. His European experience has show his devotion to the art of creating great wines. I think many producers believe they craft the best wines but the attention to detail is essential. Producing crowd pleasing wines is not a check mark for Craig. I have talked with him and it is clear that he has a clear sense of a 360 view of wine–his involvement in wine is admirable of working on the back and front end of many wine businesses." James Melendez

The Meaning of Life

Lisette Oropesa as Susanna in Nozze di Figaro at the San Francisco Opera

Lisette Oropesa as Susanna in Nozze di Figaro at the San Francisco Opera

A lone, elegant women stands on the stage facing over 3,000 people in a majestic old concert hall. From her rises a voice so pure and strong that each of the thousands listening can hear every note and word with no amplification. Here in front of us is the perfection that can only be achieved when great craft and skill combine with extraordinary passion to become something sublime - great art. 

The singer was the sensational young soprano Lisette Oropesa performing the role of Susanna in Nozze di Figaro at the San Francisco Opera. Her performance was a study in complexity as she wove tone of voice with nuances of movements and facial expressions that brought layer after layer of experience to your senses. The ability to bring all of these things together are what makes something rise above a simple performance and transforms it into great art. 

As with most experiences in life that move me, this extraordinary performance made me contemplate the process and meaning of winemaking. Experiencing such a complete, fulfilling and elevating experience is what I am seeking in a wine and it is the combination of those things that makes a wine great. 

I am not seeking profundity in every song I hear or wine I drink. I think life is better with both the emotional impact of Deh! vieni non tardar in Nozze de Figaro (which was stunningly performed by Lisette in San Francisco) and the pure fun of The Beatles “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. In their own way I enjoy them with equal pleasure. 

These define the way I perceive making meaningful wines. You’re either reaching for the emotional intensity of ”Deh! vieni non tardar”or you’re making a wine that wants to hold your hand - and make you simply happy. As proven here by both Mozart and The Beatles, if you are truly successful at making something meaningful at either end of the spectrum your art will live on from generation to generation. By the way, it’s worth noting that Mozart penned more than a few “I Want to Hold Your Hand” pieces and The Beatles also achieved the heights of ”Deh! vieni non tardar”.

In Leap First, Seth Godin says, “ Meaningful work is changing something for the better.” Indeed this is the definition of making meaningful wines. A profound aria or a fun pop song can change something for the better. Something profound may change our lives, but something fun can change our day. The combination of the two makes us better people.

Great opera and great wine should be enjoyed with reckless abandon. Sensational pop music and delicious everyday wines should get their due respect. It’s the combination of these experiences that elevate our lives. Drinking only great wines or experiencing only profound art actually dulls our ability to experience their true greatness. The reverse is true with popular art, without experiencing profound art you don’t comprehend the unrestrained joy of simpler pleasures.

Perhaps the world would be a better place if those with the means to only experience the profound spent a little more time with everyday pleasures and that if those denied access to profound art due to economics could have that world opened to them. A ticket to a great opera or the cost of a great bottle of wine can easily run several hundred dollars. In a better world, everyone would get at least an occasional taste of both.

Wine offers an amazing range of experience, but one end without the other seems to me empty and boring. That experience does not include the “beverage alcohol” industrial wines produced by people with the same passion that Budweiser makes beer or industrial music produced by formula by people like Rihanna. There is a difference between art and industrial production that is not connected to price. 

It is worth the effort to discover things produced with passion instead of a formula. These things are not always rare and more often than not, not expensive. It’s more than rewarding to take the little extra time required to seek them out. Putting the best art, the most creative things you can afford, into your life changes your experience of life. You may not be able to afford the opera, but you can listen to it free online. You might not be able to afford Grand Cru Burgundy, but, if you want, you can find wines made with similar passion at a fraction of the cost.

It takes great effort and dedication to make meaningful wines no matter the price they command in the market. To enjoy compelling wines and art instead of industrial plonk requires only a little effort, not more money, on the part of the consumer. It is more than worth this small effort.

Not everyone may appreciate the sublime beauty of Lisette Oropesa singing ”Deh! vieni non tardar” the way I did. She literally brought tears to my eyes. Yet, I believe that experience made me a more complete person. In the same way, falling in love with The Beatles I Want to Hold Your Hand in 1963 has done the same thing. Greatness can be found in the big and small, but with effort you can find it everywhere. There is no excuse to settle for mediocrity in today’s totally connected world. It is worth noting there is a lot of very expensive, mediocre formula wine produced. Price and popularity is not related to quality or pleasure. 

To fully engage with life we must be mindfully open to big and small experiences. All we need to ask of them is that they add to our lives instead of dulling our experience of it. Industrial products dull us to life, artisan products open our minds to life. While price can often be an issue, in today’s world every day it is easier to find art, food and wine that can add to our quality of life without breaking our budget. 

Experiencing Lisette Oropesa brought a moment of beauty into my life. What I love about wine is the small moments of beauty it brings into my life. For me, these things are something that is more than worthwhile - they’re meaningful.

Monty Python brilliantly showed us the absurdities of seeking The Meaning of Life, but the simple answer is in the search for beautiful moments, be they great or small.

Personal Hygiene

It was so clean. The color was not just healthy, but a brilliant, radiant garnet. I was struck by its purity.

I'd spent most of the last several weeks drinking wines from west coast wine rebels. These are winemakers that distain convention and I admire their dedication to making natural wines. These winemakers see the over-oaked, over extracted wines of most New World winemakers as brutish bores. I agree with them.

Yet there is something to be said for purity, brilliance and, yes, simple personal wine hygiene. By hygiene I don't mean making wines sterile, boring carbon copies of the accepted commercial norm of industrial wine beverages. Certainly there is no need for any more of those. What I value is purity.

The wine mentioned above was a 2013 Domaine Bernard Baudry Chinon imported by Kermit Lynch. This is a wine stunning in its clarity and focus. After the wines from trendy California producers that I'd been drinking I was immediately struck by its brilliant, clean color. There was no browning, no haziness, just a perfectly clear and beautiful garnet wine.

What is important to note here is that Baudry is also a winemaker in the natural winemaking vein. This is a Kermit Lynch selection and Baudry uses natural yeasts and does not fine or filter. So why are his wines so brilliant and pure while so many wines from our winemakers following the same winemaking concepts are cloudy and brown? Beyond appearance there was the rest of the wine - a lively, complex clear expression of cabernet franc. A charming wine full of clarity of purpose and personality.

The winemaking techniques used to make a wine are not in themselves a justification for liking a wine. The commitment of the winemaker to natural techniques is a heavy burden to bear as it is not easy to make wines in this way. However, as much as that commitment is to be respected it does not free the producer from making wines that purely speak of the vineyards and varieties that they sprang from. Wines full of faults including excessive brett, V.A., protein hazes (and others) and oxidation hide terroir and varietal character every bit as effectively as the bag of tricks used by companies like Enologix. In both cases it is the winemaking not the vineyard that defines the wine.

We always seem to be caught up on extremes. On one end of the spectrum are the 100 point wine fanatics easily suckered in by the manipulations of Enologix and others. On the other are the natural wine terrorists who value doing nothing to a wine more than they value how it actually tastes. As usual the sweet spot is in-between these two extremes. That’s where wines like the Baudry Chinon come in as it’s a wine made naturally, but also professionally with great competence and care. It is a pure expression of that variety and that vineyard in that vintage. For me, nothing is more exciting in a wine.

I don’t like to drink spoofulated wines, but I also don’t enjoy muddy, faulted wines, which are the exact opposites. Spoofulated has long described manipulated wines, perhaps we need a new term for under-manipulated wines. Any ideas?