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Isn't That the Point

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It very strange how in winemaking you can end up at the same point in very, very different ways. "It is important to understand that a point is not a thing, but a place," notes the Math Open Reference. The point we are always trying to achieve is a pure expression of our three "V's": vintage, variety and vineyard.

To achieve this with varieties as transparent as chardonnay and pinot noir takes a clear vision of where you are going. To arrive at the same point in winemaking is not to make carbon copies vintage-to-vintage, but to arrive at the place you feel each vintage is taking you. Patient, careful winemaking allows wines of very different vintages to arrive at the place, the point, you are seeking as a winemaker. To arrive at this point you have to let the wine achieve its own natural balance for the year that created it. So in some years you have structured wines and in others a more natural richness and forward personality. Just because they are different does not mean they have not arrived at the exact point you are trying to achieve.

Two such vintages are 2011 and 2012 in Oregon's Willamette Valley. In 2011 rain and cool weather made fruit sorting an art form if you wanted to make exceptional wines. We rejected bin after bin and individually sorted and selected each bunch that made it into the fermenters. The end result speaks for itself in the beautifully lifted and structured 2011 Cornerstone Oregon Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, White Label. The wines from this year are naturally tight and are only now starting to reveal their delicate layers of complexity. As someone who cut their pinot noir teeth on Burgundy I particularly love this wine. Then there was the sunny, gentle 2012 vintage where there was hardly a thing to sort. In fact, the 2012 chardonnay fruit was the most beautiful and defect free I've ever seen in Oregon. The 2012 Cornerstone Oregon, Willamette Valley Chardonnay, White Label reflects this generous vintage, not by being soft, but with a rounded firmness that will develop for years to come. I think this is a perfect example of the extraordinary potential of chardonnay in Oregon and why I am convinced this is the best region for chardonnay in North America.

It is exciting to release such a distinct range of personalities with our Cornerstone Oregon releases this fall. For me such differences are the things that make wine so exciting and pleasurable. After all, isn't that the point.

A Beautiful Factory

It was majestic, breathtaking. It cost tens of millions of dollars. It was the most beautiful factory I'd ever seen. Such are the temples of wine in the Napa Valley. Shrines to people rather than agriculture. The days of Bottle Shock have long passed to be replaced by sticker shock. The Napa Valley is no longer the place a farmer can bring his winemaking dream to reality.

Today in the Napa Valley people build pyramids to their own memories just as the pharaohs did in ancient Egypt - and for the same reason. Immortality is expensive. Making wine is farming and it's hard to think of anything less glamorous. The choice for the ages is obvious - temples last longer than wines.

I was visiting one of Napa's new pyramids a few weeks ago and it was perfection. Majestic floor to ceiling windows filled with vineyard views, a winemaking facility loaded with the cutting edge technology and, of course, it was all integrated with equally cutting edge modern art. There was only one thing missing. There was no soul, no soul of the wine and no tie to the land. The connection to the land was lost as everything about the place was about people - nothing was about nature and dirt, which was nowhere to be seen except through perfectly clean, massive windows. It was there to see, but there was nothing to touch or that could touch you.

You can buy the land, the equipment, the art and the media, but in the end the wines will have no soul, no soil, unless it is really inside of you. Without that soul, no matter how much you spend, you just end up with a beautiful factory and like all factories you pump out an industrial product. Designer wines designed for points not people.

The marketing employed to sell these wines is as cold as the facility they're made in. Data points replace people and social media becomes a strategy not a conversation. You don't want to get your hands dirty.

Corison Winery

On Route 29 in the heart of the Napa Valley is a plain gray barn where the wine, and only the wine, tells the story. There Cathy Corison has endured the pointless point-ridden decades for wine when only points mattered and pH did not. Today she has been magically rediscovered without changing a thing. It seems actually having a vision and a passion, not simply an ego and a bottomless checking account, have become fashionable again. This, at least, is something we can be thankful for in the Napa Valley

There are real wine temples, like that plain gray barn, out there in the the Napa Valley and across California, but as in Indiana Jones, you'd better choose wisely. Most people choose poorly forgetting that it's in the cup of a carpenter that you're more likely to find real wine.

Being Franc

2011 Cornerstone Napa Valley Cabernet Franc, Black Label Stepping Stone Cuvée 

Every vineyard, vintage and variety has its center. It's our job as winemakers to find that center and let it speak through the wine. If you think I feel there is Zen in crafting a wine you'd be right. When you find that center the wine truly has not only something to say, but something worth listening to.

This is why Cornerstone Napa Valley Cabernet Franc is so distinctive. We let it be Franc. Many wineries seem to want to tame the cantankerous cabernet franc's edgy personality, but we don't. In fact, we revel in its idiosyncrasies. Being Franc is everything to us.

Where is cabernet franc's center? For me it a little on the wild side, sauvage, as the French call it. Not wild like crazy, but like nature. Cabernet franc should have an edge aromatically showing wild herbs and mint and a firm structure that grabs your attention. Like most really interesting things, it's not for everyone. Perhaps that what we like about it as we freely admit we are not trying to make wines for everybody.

Finding cabernet franc in the Napa valley is not easy and, unfortunately, expensive. We have been fortunate to find some amazing sites that allow us to weave the diverse characters of vineyards in St. Helena, Oakville, Coombsville and Carneros into a wine that embraces its Franc-ness. A dollop of spicy merlot from Carneros rounds out the texture and expands the aromatics with the herbal touch of merlot from a cool site echoing the sauvage of the cabernet franc itself. The fresh acidity lifts and separates each aspect of the wine allowing it to be voluptuous, yet finely balanced. This is a full figured Napa beauty that displays all of its seductive charms while never losing its elegance or firmness. I don't know if we make a sexier wine.

Just a note on the vintage, there have been a lot of knocks from the press on the 2011 vintage in the Napa Valley, proving once again a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous. The fact is if you took the weather we had in 2011 and gave it to Bordeaux they would be drinking Champagne and slapping themselves on the back. The only people that had trouble with this vintage are those winemakers dreaming of making big-point-fruit-bombs by picking at brix levels approaching thirty. Winemakers that were looking to harvest ripe grapes, as compared to overripe ultra-hang time fruit, cruised through the vintage just fine. A case in point being our 2011 Cornerstone Napa Valley Cabernet Franc, Black Label Stepping Stone Cuvée.

We believe we have found our center with the 2011 Cornerstone Napa Valley Cabernet Franc, Black Label Stepping Stone Cuvée by being willing to let franc be franc. We hope you will take the time to enjoy this wine in a state of mindfulness. Being Franc requires concentration.

Adding Fuel to the Fire

Me pouring Cornerstone Oregon at World of Pinot Noir

Sometimes a pat on the  back also gives you a kick in the butt. It never hurts to have some fuel tossed on the the fire of the passion you are pursuing. That is how I feel about Alder Yarrow's article about me and Cornerstone Cellars on Vinography - fired up.

I knew going in it would be a challenge to market Napa Valley wines made in a more elegant style. Certainly it would have been easier to just make a massive wine, slathering on oak and alcohol in a style many critics adore, but where is the pleasure in making wines you don't like to drink?

When we started releasing our more restrained style of Napa Valley wines we took our lumps from Laube and Parker, which, proudly puts us in a sort of elite club with some very fine winemakers whose vision we share. However, rejection by the old boys club has been more than countered by the likes of this exciting article in Vinography and excellent reviews in Connoisseurs Guide to California Wines, The Wine Enthusiast, Stephen Tanzer and a host of wine bloggers

It's easy to make wines that get big points from the old guard, you can hire a consulting company that guarantees results point-wise (do they charge by the point?). But is it really easier? Does scamming the system just to get those points really bring you satisfaction? Maybe for some, but not for me. 

What brings me satisfaction is tasting a wine we created and having it excite and thrill, well, me. What brings me even more satisfaction is seeing someone else have that experience too.

It also brings true satisfaction to have someone I respect as much as Alder write such a, for me, moving article on the work we are doing at Cornerstone Cellars. Please take the time to read his article at the link below.

Click here to read the Vinography article 

Cornerstone continues to evolve, but like the rapidly shortening line of a tether ball accelerating towards the pole, the wines of Cornerstone are beginning to gravitate towards a quality and consistency that is quite admirable, and the equal of any of Napa’s stalwart producers. Camp and Keene seem to be laying the foundation for becoming a fixture in the valley. Their Yountville tasting room has already become one of the town’s most visited, and thanks to Camp, the winery has quickly become among the most successful industry players in social media and new internet technologies such as geofencing.
— Alder Yarrow in Vinography



Dancing With Wine

"Wine Dance" by artist Janet Ekholm www.janetekholm.com

I love these "new California" wines. Many a night they grace my table and make my meal and my life better. Yet as full of pleasure as they are, they seem rarely profound. The same goes for many so called "natural" wines coming out of Europe these days. Delicious, full of pleasure, exciting, but not profound. Their experience is more in their juicy fresh flavors than their soaring soul. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Perhaps it was because my palate was hammered on the anvil of the classics that I cannot find profundity here. One of the advantages of being a certain age is that when I was young and just getting into wine in the 1970s, great wines were just minor extravagances no more dear than the price of a dinner at a good restaurant; Lafite, Gaja and Lafon were all under $50. They've put on a few zeros since then.

Today's anvil, that everyone is pounding on, is confusingly called "natural wine". It's an odd phrase as wine, if left totally to its own devices, is just a stopping point on the way to becoming vinegar. While in the past bigger was better, now it seems that being different is, on that merit alone, now better. As usual we replace one oversimplification with another.

For example, much has been said about indigenous yeast fermentation although the science these days points toward the idea that such a concept isn't really possible. Obviously there is still much we do not know about how nature gives us wine. Yet, common sense tells me there must be some difference in regions where indigenous fermentation existed for hundreds of years before yeast were even discovered, much less produced industrially. In these areas natural selection would have refined the yeast population as it is clear from recent research that although we like to think of indigenous ferments as benefiting from a myriad of yeasts to build complexity, in the end one strain wins out and runs the show anyway. But what about the new world where densely packed wineries have been using aggressive commercial yeast strains for decades? It's fair to assume that those strains are now dominate in so called indigenous populations of compact areas like the Napa Valley. 

However, this does not preclude that in many cases an indigenous fermentation may produce a more interesting wine than one from cultured yeast. It is also clear that the opposite can produce the same results. In other words anyone who says they know the answer is full of something or other. You can only do what you as a winemaker believe will craft wine to your own taste. Your vision and palate is all you should rely on as it is well proven that no matter the road you choose, if you have skill, great fruit, passion, focus and dedication to what you believe, you will make wines that will turn heads. Maybe not the heads of critics, but those of people who love wine. 

Diversity is to be celebrated, but not for the fact that just being different is enough. As exciting as it may be to find an old vineyard in California from lesser known varieties like barbera or fruliano we must remember we do not drink in a vacuum. Yes that juicy barbera from Lodi may be tasty, but it's good to remember that in Italy old barbera vineyards are not a rarity.  Forced to pick between a "new California " barbera or an old vine Barbera d'Asti, I know where I'll put my money. Some of this rush towards the obscure is driven by writers who always need something new to write about so diversity in itself becomes glorified as writers also have to find a way to stand out from the pack.

There is also the dirty little secret of many of these "new" wines everywhere in the world. Too many are marred by winemaking faults, which some confuse with terroir. The most common problem I run into is reduction, but the list is long. While not obsessed with squeaky clean wines, I just can't tolerate faults that obliterate sense of place and variety.

That being said I am an unabashed fan of many of these new wines, but that does not preclude loving the classics and once in awhile finding that wine that goes beyond delicious into profundity. Not every variety planted can be profound, but many can be delicious, which come to think of it, is a pretty good thing.

Winemaking is often called art, but to me it is more artisan. Like a fine piece of furniture crafted by a master craftsman or a master chef turning out a classic meal, these are things we live with and that make our lives better.  For me this is the most wonderful part of wine. It has a unique ability to bring us together, to slow us down and make us smile. These are the highest callings a wine can aspire to achieve.  Anything beyond that is too subjective to quantify. 

Is it a wine's job to be profound or to bring pleasure, happiness and health to us? A simply delicious wine with friends, family and food is one the great synergies of existence. Perhaps profound is for museums (aka three star restaurants) and simply delicious is for living. 

Delicious wine makes me happy. I can live with that.