Winemakers (and Vineyards) Need to take Probiotics Daily

Troon Harvest 2017 Malbec, Tannat, Syrah (1).jpg

Your microbiome is suddenly fashionable. The bugs in our gut are chic. We can’t get enough of probiotics and fermented foods. This is a very good thing and a trend that will certainly lead to healthier people. The bugs love us and now, finally, we love them. Good thing, because we would not exist without them.

However, the microbiome is not just in your gut. It’s everywhere - literally. It’s part of everything you touch, breathe, eat and drink. Yes drink. That includes wine. Bugs in wine? Not so much really because alcohol and bugs do not get along well. But before fermentation wages its war on bacteria (sometimes more successfully than others) there are grapes in a vineyard and the key to a healthy vineyard and great wines is the microbiome of the vineyard itself. Just like us, for vineyards there are good bugs and bad bugs and the key to good health is maximizing the good ones and minimizing the bad ones.

Conventional farming has destroyed the microbiome built up by Mother Nature over the millennium. The resulting soils are dead requiring mainlined injections of petrochemicals to grow anything at all. Soon, like any addict, the plants require stronger and stronger doses to survive. A vicious dead-end cycle that ends up the same for the plant or the drug addict.

Just like we need to take probiotics to repair the damage we’ve inflicted on our microbiome, a vineyard needs the same remedy. Unfortunately, for a vineyard it’s a bit more complicated than simply taking a pill. However, there is a proven cure - biodynamics .

First let’s make one thing clear - I believe and revere science and scientists. I know that climate change is real. I know that astrology is ridiculous and that relativity is not. So how does someone who believes these things also believe in biodynamics? That’s a good question and in a very real sense many aspects of biodynamics and science are in total conflict. Yet, I think with deeper thought and research the gap between them is not a chasm, but is in fact semantics. Clearly there are aspects of biodynamics that are absurd to any educated person, but there is a major problem here because, very simply, biodynamics works. Biodynamics not only works, but works dramatically well. The list of wineries using biodynamic agriculture is a who’s who of exceptional winemaking. The results speak for themselves.

Often it is argued by anti-biodynamic crusaders that it is not biodynamic practices that improve a vineyard, but the simple fact that the owner must spend more time in the vineyard. Without a doubt there is an element of truth here for as they say, “the best fertilizer for a vineyard is the owner’s boots.” Yet there are many dedicated viticulturists who spend endless hours in vineyards that produce flavorless wines from dead soils that have had the soul ripped out of them by chemicals. Time spent in the vineyard alone cannot be the answer.

However, if you strip the voodoo out of Steiner’s biodynamic program (and Steiner was loaded with voodoo ideas) what you get is a discipline dedicated to putting the bugs Mother Nature intended to be there back into your vineyard. Burying horns filled with manure, hanging stuffed animal organs in trees then spreading their contents over your vineyard is very simply creating a probiotic for your vineyard. Almost all of the numbered biodynamic preparations are focused on composting. It’s in the area of composting that biodynamics meets science as there is hard data showing that compost treated by biodynamic methods is more active microbiologically than untreated compost. I believe this extremely proactive composting program is the heart and soul of what makes biodynamics effective. You are simply creating a giant probiotics therapy program for your vineyard. It is here that science and biodynamics reconcile. Any plant scientist will tell you that a healthy microbiome is key to a plant taking nutrition from the soil. Kill nature’s bugs and your vines will slowly starve to death. It is at this point that biodynamics goes beyond simple organic farming, which tells you what not to use, but biodynamics goes a step farther by telling you what to put back in. The goal of biodynamics is not simply sustainable agriculture, but to restoring and building the microbiome of your vineyard.

There is an obvious conflict between science, facts and biodynamics. I have no doubt that there are parts of biodynamics that are total hooey. The problem is that we don’t know which parts work and those that are a total waste of time. That means for now a winegrower committed to both a natural sustainable vineyard and great wine must take the bad with the good of biodynamics until science and biodynamics catch up with each other. Until they do and we fully understand how and why biodynamics works I do not intend to take a risk that would mean wines that are not all they can be.

Starting in 2018 we are launching our program at Troon Vineyard to achieve biodynamic certification. We do this fully understanding that some of the things we’ll have to do will seem absurd, but we know that others will create miracles in the vineyards that will take our wines to greater and greater heights. To achieve that, I am more than happy to practice a little voodoo.

Pursue Your Passion

This article first appeared in the Dracaena Wines blog series"Pursue Your Passion""the story of one person in the wine industry, as told by them"

It all started with Watergate. How topical is that? That scandal hit just as I started college. Armed with no passion except football at that time in my life I suddenly saw a bigger world and signed on to my college newspaper. I was going to be Woodward and Bernstein.

I packed on the history hours eventually spending a semester in Europe "studying" (Nixon resigned during my flight back). While I was graduated as journalist, just four years later I was part of a start up wine importer and distributor. Now instead of reading All the Presidents Men I was immersed in Lichine, Penning-Rowsell and Bespaloff.

What happened? On that trip to Europe I was introduced to wine and food. Having grown up in a land were food and drink were eptiomized by Pabst, Manhattans and friday night fish fries the experience was a revelation. A chain reaction was started. This growing transition from news to wine was fueled by my friend Don Clemens, who had landed job with Almaden Imports, who in those days (the late 70s) had a cutting edge portfolio. My mouth still waters today as I remember drinking Chapoutier Tavel with ribs at Don's apartment. There was no going back.

In 1978, with zero experience, I talked my way out of journalism and into wine with a new job as the midwest rep of Peartree Imports, whose main brand was the Burgundian négociant Patriarche, but the portfolio was rounded out with a range of spirits guaranteed not to sell in 1978. I hit the books for my first sales calls - work-withs - with the sales team of Union Liquor Company in Chicago. I memorized each vineyard and the precise details of each spirit. On my first day I jumped into the salesman's car and we headed into Chicago's war zone. The main brand of these salesmen was Richard's Wild Irish Rose in pints. We'd get let in the back door of a fortified "liquor store" that consisted of several revolving bulletproof windows where customers would place their cash and, after spinning the window around, would get their pint of Richards. The salesman (there were no women in those days) would get his order for 100 cases of Richards, get paid in cash for the last order, then I had a few minutes to pitch my brands to the owner. I was not very successful. Then the owner would take his shotgun and walk us back to the car so no one would steal the wad of cash we'd just received. Even with this dose of intense realism I was not deterred.

The dismal state of the wine industry in those days ended up being an amazing opportunity. In 1979 I joined Sam Leavitt as a partner in the newly formed Direct Import Wine Company and over the next twenty years we built the first mid-west wine company focused on imported and then domestic estate wine. First came Becky Wasserman in Burgundy, Christopher Cannan in Bordeaux (and then Spain), Neil and Maria Empson in Italy then new upstarts from California like Calera, Spottswoode, Shafer, Corison, Iron Horse Soter and Sanford. Not far behind were Northwest wineries like Leonetti, Domaine Serene and Panther Creek. The first big break we got was selling the 1982 Bordeaux futures to the famed (but long gone) Sam's Wines. I literally got paid for these future deals with bags of cash often holding $20,000 or more. Chicago was the wild west of the wine business and, yes, [he too had a gun.]

This was a very special time for me. It was a great privilege to work with people of such integrity and creativity. They all inspire me to this day.

Then my partner wanted out and I did not have the money to buy him out so we were acquired by The Terlato Wine Group. I had a five year contract to stay, but those were some of the darkest years of my life in wine. Instead of integrity I was tossed into the world of simply moving "boxes". When my sentence was up I escaped to Italy for three years and due to the graciousness of extraordinary winemakers like Luca Currado (Vietti), Manuel Marchetti (Marcarini), Tina Colla (Poderi Colla) and Andrea Sottimano in Barbaresco I dug deeper into the spirit of what makes a wine great. Many hours in the cellar and vineyards with them brought me back to the world of wine I loved.

Refreshed and inspired I returned the the United States and now have spent almost 15 years divided between the vineyards of Napa and Oregon. During these years I have drawn on the knowledge and inspiration of all of the great winemakers I have known over more than three decades in wine. I will freely admit my winemaking heart now firmly resides in Oregon. There is a fresh spirit here. You just know the best wines are yet to come and I relish being a part of that energy.

In the end there is no final satisfaction in winemaking, because there is no such thing as perfection. The concept of a 100 point wine is simply absurd. However, while you may never be totally satisfied with any wine you make, you can be totally satisfied by experience of making them. There is a deep satisfaction at the completion of each vintage, be it great or difficult, that is not only deeply rewarding, but addictive. You have to come back for more.

I think we should start flowering in the Applegate Valley next week. Only in agriculture are you reborn every year.

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.

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.

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?

Dancing With Wine

"Wine Dance" by artist Janet Ekholm

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.

The One Per Cent

It took forty-seven percent to make a difference for Mitt Romney. For us it's the one percent. No, we're not joining Boycott Wall Street. Percentages for us are all about blending and every percent matters.

Winemaker Jeff Keene and I show what a percent can mean at Premier Napa Valley Auction 2013

Winemaker Jeff Keene and I show what a percent can mean at Premier Napa Valley Auction 2013

Jeff Keene and I were working on our final blends for our 2011 reds a few weeks ago and it never ceases to amaze the nuance and complexity that can be gained by the smallest changes. It is on the blending table that the soul of the wine comes together. It requires intense concentration and attention to the smallest detail to bring a wine to the perfect point.

There are many ways to blend: different varieties and different vineyards, same variety different vineyards and every permutation you can think of. Yet it's not how you blend, but why you blend that's the most important thing. Different varieties react very differently to blending. Take varieties like pinot noir and nebbiolo and blend them with other varieties you quickly lose their distinctive character. The only real blending choice is to make a single vineyard or multi-vineyard wine. Then there is cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc, varieties with assertive character that relish the flourishes added by blending their three spirits.

You don’t start off from scratch, you have a general idea where the wines will take you when you put the first rough blends together. Then you begin to work the permutations. A little more of that; a little less of that and the wine edges closer and closer to what you envision for the wines of this harvest. Finally you’re almost there, but there seems to be something missing. It’s tough to describe or put your finger on, but you know there is more to find, more for the wine to give. It is at this point you discover how important just one percent can be as suddenly the wine comes totally alive from just that small touch of the right variety or vineyard.

This time it was our 2011 Cornerstone Cellars Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, but it happens with every wine. We were so close with a blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot, but Jeff and I just felt something was missing. This time the one percent truly made the difference and when we added a tiny dollop of cabernet franc the wine suddenly became brighter, more lifted and, frankly, perfect. It’s our willingness to reach for our vision of perfection that makes the wines of Cornerstone Cellars something truly special. There are many wonderful wines in the world, but sometimes by reaching for just one percent more moves you from wonderful to something memorable. 

Cheating On Your Wife

bigamy-wineI had lied to my wife. Every guy in the room had. This was not the kind of thing you could safely share with a spouse. We gathered in the room with an exaggerated good-old-boy bachelor party kind of conviviality. The level of anticipation was high, perhaps too high. It was still afternoon and it felt a bit strange to be doing this in the light of day.

Everyone finally arrived and one-by-one we passed our wad of cash to the host with a sense of excitement and a tinge of guilt for the pleasures to come. After all, wasn't this money supposed to be going into the college fund or buying that new dresser? This was more money than I could easily afford on my rookie reporter's salary at the newspaper and I could only hope my wife would never find out. Our host took the cash and disappeared into another room.  A second later, radiating sensuality, they swept into the room and were even more beautiful than we had hoped for in our dreams the night before. There were eight of them, one more exotic than the next. Each was wrapped in a skin tight sheath of aluminum foil just begging to be torn off and marked with a letter so each of us could choose their favorite. An electric energy coursed through me as I unpacked the toys I had brought for the festivities: eight glasses and a notebook. Once again I thought of my wife and how ticked off she we going to be if she found out I had spent our hard earned money on, of all things, wine.

This group of liars was cheating on their wives with our mistress - wine. She was stealing our money and time with our spouses, but we could not resist her charms. We had long passed the flirting stage and this was to be our most amorous liaison yet as we were going to taste Grand Cru Burgundy. None of us had ever spent that much money on wine before. We were at the stage where we had learned more about wine from books than with our tongues and were easily influenced by reputation and label. More than once I had convinced myself to like a wine because someone famous said I should. With this innocence and ignorance we began tasting the eight bottles of Burgundy that our host had tightly wrapped in gleaming aluminum foil as we were doing a “blind” tasting. However, this was not really “blind” as we knew that each wine was an expensive and famous Burgundy. We were prepared to be seduced. Each of the tasters had eight glasses and the table was a crowed forest of stemware. After each of the wines had been poured silence settled on the once boisterous group. Each of us focused our entire concentration each wine as we sipped, swirled, spat and furiously took notes. For the next hour the only sound was the occasional moan or sigh when our mistress hit just the right spot.

I can still remember some of my notes now, which went something like this:

A. Light color, weedy earthy aromas...

B. Light color, earthy, dried leather and cheese...

C. Light color, vegital, smoked bacon. plastic...

So it went for the next hour. When everyone finished it was time to compare notes and come up with a group rationalization for why these wines were not the other-worldly experience we had anticipated. They were strange and not very satisfying. We soon came to the conclusion that problem could not be these famous wines, but that it must be us. Our palates were not well honed enough to understand the complexities of these great and famous wines. Those odd aromas and flavors must be that magical ingredient terroir that the French use to describe the unique personalities of each vineyard that make each single-vineyard wine distinct. Those leather, cheese and bacon smells had to be terroir. Now it was our duty to keep learning and tasting until we could come to understand and appreciate them.

As I look back on this event over thirty years ago, I have learned to understand and appreciate the true glories of Burgundy, none of which could be described as weedy, cheesy or sweaty. I have also learned that those wines that made me feel inadequate in that tasting three decades ago would have better been poured down the drain. Those wines were faulted - full of brett and VA. We were just too young and too intimated by the names and prices of those wines to know the difference. Fortunately I soon learned the difference between terroir and wine faults. Wine faults are a major concern of mine as time and time again I run into wines that are loaded with faults that go undetected in many large tastings. All to often I lift a glass to my nose from an almost empty bottle to find it severely faulted with TCA (corkiness), brett or a range of other faults. At the recent Wine Bloggers Conference there was a lot of debate about ethics, but none about knowledge and tasting technique. If wine bloggers want to be taken seriously, it's far more important that they can spot brett and other faults than if they take samples from producers for free or not.

These memories were jogged by a bottle of 2004 Thomas Dundee Hills Pinot Noir that I pulled from my cellar to share with my good friend, winemaker Donald Patz. Always looking to bring something that he probably hasn't tasted (no easy task) I grabbed a bottle of this hard to get Oregon cult wine. Upon pulling the cork we were treated to a perfect example of brett. Needless to say, it was a great disappointment and we left the bottle, still mostly full, on the table when we left the restaurant. Thirty years ago we may have forced ourselves to accept such wines, but today there are no excuses. Winemakers have the finest laboratories available to them and far more knowledge than the winemakers of the past. Brett needs to be recognized and recognized for what it is - a fault that obliterates varietal character and terroir - which are the two most important things for me in a wine.

Not long after that tasting of three decades ago I entered the wine business. We were importing the Italian wines of Neil Empson and doing tasting event after tasting event. Neil and I would open hundreds of bottles over several days. Every time Neil found a corky bottle, which was often in those days, he'd shove the wine and the cork under my nose. Soon I got it and ever since have been hyper-aware of that musty TCA smell. We should all do what Neil did and every time we find a faulted bottle we need to shove it under someone’s nose. While winemakers have no business making faulted wines, we (especially wine writers) have no business missing those faults.


Wine world outraged at Channel 4 'Dispatches' doc -

Winemakers were apparently offended by this television report referring to industrial produced wines as "alcopop".  Producers like Blossom Hill, Jacob's Creek and Yvon Mau all had their feelings hurt. The thing is that the report was correct. Producers like these are producing a beverage using a recipe designed to produce a specific, repeatable result. The results and the philosophy applied are no different than those used in the production of Coca Cola. To complete the analogy, many of the executives that run these companies and market their wines move freely from beverage company to beverage company moving between companies like Coca Cola, Red Bull and Mondavi with no problem as the production and marketing issues are the same. There's a lot more alcopop being sold in the world than wine.

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Worth Reading: Reconsidering Sulfites from The San Francisco Chronicle

Reconsidering sulfites / Progressive vintners weigh the pros and cons of the controversial winemaking tool

“Long viewed as a necessary, if unromantic, tool by winemakers, and either ignored or completely misunderstood by consumers, the role of sulfur in wine has become a hot topic. From health issues (see”Debunking myths,” Page F4) to sulfur as a winemaking tool at a time when there’s a push within the industry for wines made with minimal intervention, sulfur dioxide is in the spotlight like never before.”