Monday, July 25, 2011

Picks From The Online Vineyard

Gems from today's scanning of various wine-related websites:

- British wine columnist Jancis Robinson provides a concise yet comprehensive primer on underappreciated Italian wines from the grape aglianico. She mentions a couple of California producers working with the variety, including the ever-exploratory Kenneth Volk in Paso Robles, but not two others that deserve recognition: Terra d'Oro Winery and Amador Foothill Winery, both in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley. Just had a bottle of Terra d'Oro's 2008 the other night and found it to be light in build but with a lot of spunk and surprising complexity, including a floral smell and a flavor running to pomegranates and orange zest. Its suggestion of leather and its acidic snap brought to mind a finely tooled bullwhip.

- Coming to a natural-foods store near you any day now, no doubt: Vegan Vines, a line of wines made without the use of any animal products. While wine is popularly perceived as nothing more than fermented grape juice, several animal products commonly are used in making it, notably during fining and filtering. The list includes isinglass from the bladders of sturgeon, milk proteins and egg whites, the use of which is contrary to vegan principles. Though vegans constitute less than one percent of the population, their numbers are growing, prompting Clos LaChance Winery of San Martin to introduce three wines made without the use of animal products. Instead, the winery uses a filtering and fining method that involves bentonite and sodium bitartrate.

- Later this week I'll have a chance to reunite with my traveling buddy in Chile and Argentina this spring. That would be Joe Roberts, he of the wine blog 1 Wine Dude. We'll both be judges at the Lake County Wine Competition. Joe, who lives in Pennsylvania, gets around. For the past few days he's been in Charlottesville, VA, for the annual Wine Bloggers Conference. In his posting earlier today he lists and provides links to what was recognized as the country's best wine blogs in several categories - best writing on a wine blog, best new wine blog and so on. With his usual candor, he also discusses his role as one of the competition's judges. I'm looking forward to what he will have to say of the Lake County judging.

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Gathering Of Old Vines

They're short and stooped. Their limbs are stiff and gnarled. They're thick through the trunk. Their skin is flaky. Many need to be propped up to keep from toppling over. No wonder they're so often likened to old men. But rather than old men, they're grape vines, very old grape vines. For 60 or 70 or maybe 100 years they've been yielding fruit that goes into many of California's more esteemed wines.

Lots of vineyardists and vintners cherish and fawn over older vines. A few of these farmers and winemakers, all based in Sonoma County, think the country's elderly vineyards deserve more respect and protection. About a year ago, they formed the Historic Vineyard Society. A few days ago they organized for a handful of wine writers a casual tour of four older vineyards in Sonoma County.

Mike Officer at his Carlisle Vineyard outside Santa Rosa
Weather-wise, they couldn't have scheduled the tour any better. The temperature was in the 70s. Low scuttling clouds kept the group in soft shadows much of the afternoon. The vineyards included the Carlisle just west of Santa Rosa, and the Whitton Ranch and the Lytton Estate just outside of Healdsburg. Soil compositions, exposures, drainage, slope and the like varied from site to site. Nevertheless, the elder statesmen of the vineyards more or less all looked alike - short, dark, stubby, hung with bunches of grapes still small and green, their canopies of leaves and tendrils full and wild.

At each stop, the vines for the most part were zinfandel. But each vineyard also was dotted with other varieties, scattered randomly through the rows. At Carlisle Vineyard, owner Mike Officer, who also is president of the Historic Vineyard Society, says he's counted 31 varieties other than zinfandel in his 10-acre spread, planted in 1927 by Alcide Pelletti, an immigrant from Tuscany. Officer hasn't identified all of the vines, but those he has include such historic workhorses of the California wine trade as alicante bouschet, petite sirah and carignane, as well as rarities like grand noir de la calmette.

This speckling of other grapes in a vineyard given over largely to one variety is repeated at the next stop, Whitton Ranch, though the diversity isn't as far ranging as it is at Carlisle. Whitton Ranch, owned by the Trentadue family, is believed to have been planted in 1882. Since 1966, Ridge Vineyards of Cupertino has been buying fruit off the vineyard for its celebrated "Geyserville" proprietary wine, largely zinfandel but also including petite sirah, carignane, alicante bouschet and mataro, also known as mourvedre.

At Lytton Estate, where the older sections were planted in 1901 and 1910, the mix is almost identical. Ridge Vineyards has been making a zinfandel from the vines since 1972, and in 1992 bought the winery on the site and the prized vineyards around it.

The first question these vineyards prompt is  whether this seemingly haphazard array of vines was by accident or intent? Did the oldtimers who cultivated the vineyards simply lack the wherewithal to identify correctly the vines they were putting into the ground? No, said vineyardists guiding the tour, the pioneers knew exactly what they were doing. Certain patterns emerge in the blends, they note. As you move north in Sonoma County, more carignane can be found in the old zinfandel vineyards, said David Gates Jr., vice president of vineyard operations for Ridge Vineyards. It's warm up there, and the early vineyardists wanted carignane co-planted and co-fermented with their zinfandel to boost the wine's acidity, a trait highly valued in carignane. As you head south, petite sirah becomes more prevalent because it is valued for the color and structure it can give zinfandel that might not get as ripe as it does in the warmer valleys to the north.

David Gates, flanked by old vines at Lytton Estate
Such field blends are rare today, though some growers and winemakers again are experimenting with the technique. For the most part, however, winemakers prefer to receive and ferment one variety at a time, then blend afterwards in the cellar. That preference, in fact, has led to the pulling of some older mixed vineyards and replacing them with plots devoted to a single variety. The loss of older vineyards because of that sort of specialization is one reason that Officer, Gates and a few others took the initiative to create the Historic Vineyard Society.

Older vineyards also are jeopardized by economics; as vines age, their productivity drops, tempting vineyardists to replace them with new vines that yield more tonnage. Urban encroachment also can endanger older vineyards.

At its website, the Historic Vineyard Society has created a registry of more than 200 older vineyards. Several of the names will be familiar to anyone who relishes vineyard-designated zinfandels, including Nichelini, Puccini, Lubenko, Mohr-Fry, Grandpere, DuPratt and Zeni, among others. Any grower with a vineyard that he or she feels qualifies for the registry can add its name to the list. The society's officials then undertake a review to verify each vineyard's age, starting with a casual physical survey of the vineyard itself.

To qualify for the registry, a vineyard must have been planted no later than 1960, it still must be producing grapes, and no less than a third of its existing vines must date to the original planting. Though the society's directors feel they can fairly accurately gauge a vineyard's age simply by touring it, they also will consult agricultural-commission documentation, tax-assessment records and the like to validate a vineyard's age in cases of uncertainty and dispute.

The group, which has as a consultant the British wine writer Jancis Robinson, was inspired to create the society largely because it wants to help preserve older vineyards as important physical links to the country's wine heritage, says Officer. But he also draws a parallel with efforts to preserve the nation's older historic buildings; those preservation efforts often include tax breaks for people who own them. "Why not do the same thing for historic vineyards?" he muses.

So far, the organization has raised what few funds it's needed through "blind donations" and a sale last fall of wines made from several older vineyards. Eventually, the society would like to stage tastings of wines from historic vineyards both to raise funds and to raise public awareness of their existence and contributions. "We want to raise public awareness of how special these vineyards are so they can be kept in the ground," says Officer.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Renwood Winery Draws $7 Million Bid

A federal bankruptcy judge in Sacramento today cleared the way for Amador County's troubled Renwood Winery to be sold for nearly $7 million.

The potential buyer is Ren Aquisition Inc., a newly formed California corporation affiliated with Nuevo Manantial, a South American energy company with diversified agricultural interests in Argentina and Uruguay. (Three Ren representatives at Monday's hearing sat silently through the proceedings, and afterwards declined to discuss their plans for Renwood.)

According to court records, Nuevo Manantial agreed in March to a letter-of-intent to purchase most of the winery's assets from CRG Partners Group, the court-appointed receiver that has been overseeing winery operations for nearly two years.

Under the terms of the agreement sanctioned Monday by Judge Robert S. Bardwil, Ren will pay $6,950,000 for Renwood's equipment, inventory and "intellectual property," among other assets. According to Winston Mar, Renwood's managing director under the receivership, the winery has 65,000 square feet of production and storage space and is capable of producing 150,000 cases of wine a year. Since it was founded in 1993, Renwood has been one of the more readily recognized brands in the foothills, gaining its following largely on the strength of vineyard-designated zinfandels.

Other parties to the agreement include Cooperatieve Centrale Raiffeisen-Boerenleenbank B.A. ("Rabobank"), which claimed a lien on the winery's assets for an outstanding $15 million, and W.J. Deutsch & Sons Ltd., which claimed a lien against Renwood for $6 million.

Earlier, one of Renwood's prime vineyards, Twin Rivers in neighboring El Dorado County, had been bought by the Napa Valley winery Rombauer Vineyards, which has long purchased zinfandel from the Sierra foothills.

Though Monday's hearing was billed as an auction, no bidders other than Ren Acquisition participated in the session.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Times When You Don't Want To Know The Score

Peter Mondavi Sr.
The date isn't specified, but the meeting likely took place in the 1960s, maybe even the 1950s. Peter Mondavi Sr. is tasting wine in the cellar of his family's Charles Krug Winery in Napa Valley with Frank Schoonmaker, a pioneering American wine writer.

(Soon after the repeal of Prohibition, Schoonmaker wrote several columns and articles on wine for The New Yorker; in 1934 they were published as "The Complete Wine Book." Schoonmaker subsequently went into the wine business as an importer. He also was an early and persistent advocate of varietal names and informative back labels on American wines, innovations widely adopted by the nation's wine community and credited with raising the profile of the country's wines. Schoonmaker died in 1976, but his 1964 book, "The Frank Schoonmaker Encyclopedia," revised and updated in 1988 by Alexis Bespaloff as "The New Frank Schoonmaker Encyclopedia of Wine," remains one of the more reliable and comprehensive introductions to the world of wine.)

At any rate, Mondavi is escorting Schoonmaker through his wines, recalls Mondavi in the transcript of an interview for the oral-history collection of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Mondavi, eager to hear what Schoonmaker thinks of the wines, urges him to open up. Schoonmaker is using some sort of scoring system, Mondavi notes. Mondavi: "I asked him, 'How to you score these?' He says, 'Well, I don't want to reveal my scores.' He was tasting our wines, and he says, 'I don't like to reveal any of my scores.'" In telling this, Mondavi was laughing, not at all rueful about what could be taken as a slight.

But good for Schoonmaker. Whether he was using a 100-point scoring system, a 20-point or some other method is irrelevant. The point is he kept the points to himself. Not until years later did Robert Parker Jr. popularize the 100-point approach, since emulated by countless wine commentators and exploited gleefully by the marketing wings of wineries, restaurateurs, retailers and the like.

I've got no quibble with the 100-point system, but even Parker has indicated that he has two regrets about the technique, which he intended merely as a shorthand measure of a wine's quality and nature; he's taken much more pride in his written descriptions and backgrounding of the wines he reviews, and has suggested that he wishes wine enthusiasts would pay more attention to them.

He's also indicated that he regrets not having trademarked the method, which suggests he never expected his point approach to become so popular and imitated. Has it harmed the nation's wine trade? Hardly; the 100-point system, as something Americans almost innately can relate to, given their long exposure to that standard in the nation's schools, no doubt has helped introduce countless consumers to wine. In short, it's made wine more accessible. And while it doesn't on the surface make wine any more understandable, simply by getting people to taste wine it likely triggers in them a curiosity to learn more of a wine, and they may end up reading Parker's notes after all. The problem, if there is a problem, is that so many people at the forefront of introducing people to wine - marketing gurus, sommeliers, merchants - have taken the lazy route and relied solely on points by Parker or some other commentator, without explaining why a wine got this or that score; they make the sale but blow the opportunity to broaden and deepen a person's understanding of wine.

Did Schoonmaker sense that this would happen? I've no clue, but he did prefer to keep his scores personal. There's also the possibility that he just didn't think much of the Mondavi wines and didn't want to offend his host. However, I can't recall that Schoonmaker ever used scores in writing of wine. Coincidentally, while browsing about the fine used-book store Chanticleer in Sonoma yesterday, I came across a copy of Schoonmaker's "The Complete Wine Book." In skimming through it, I could find no scores whatever, but lots of other great stuff.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

As The Dust Settles, Fine Wine Emerges

Quintessa was a personal favorite at the tasting
Last night, to prepare for today's tasting of 2008 cabernet sauvignons from the sub-appellation Rutherford in Napa Valley, I skimmed writings of several masters more familiar with the region than I am. I was looking for aesthetic threads they have found in Rutherford wines over the years. Producers within the appellation include such highly regarded labels as Staglin Family Vineyard, Beaulieu Vineyard, Rubicon Estate and Quintessa. I also was looking for what is meant by "Rutherford dust," a characteristic often attributed to the area's wines, though ill-defined.

The cabernet sauvignons of Rutherford, the consensus seemed to be, are forceful and firm, their substantial fruit often shot through with suggestions of eucalyptus, herbalness and mint, characteristics I especially like in the varietal. Thus, I looked forward to the tasting.

I wasn't disappointed, though I was surprised, in large part because hints of eucalyptus and mint were more elusive than obvious. Rather, the wines - 22 of them, all from the 2008 vintage, tasted blind in two even flights - had more cherry fruit than I anticipated. Their structures were firm without being hard. Their acidity often was refreshingly tangy. Tannins were downright reserved, by and large, despite the youth of the wines. As a group, the wines were supple models of equilibrium. Rutherford dust? For me, the tasting didn't shed any light on what that means.

During a break between flights, I asked Charles Thomas, the winemaker at Quintessa, what had happened to the herbaceousness that at one time seemed to be a distinctive Rutherford trait. He explained that viticulturists and winemakers within Rutherford over the past 25 years have been attempting to master a complicated dance. Their aim is to get more fresh fruit flavors out of their berries while avoiding strong herbaceous characteristics that cross into the no-no land of vegetativeness. They've been paying a lot of attention to canopy management, striving to strike an ideal balance between sunshine and shadow on the grapes. Ideally, that would give them in the resulting wine expressions of both fruit and mint, but not too much of the latter. Too much shadow equals too much herbaceousness; too much sunlight equals too many shriveled grapes with too little juiciness and too much tannin. Over the past five to 10 years, he noted, the trend in the vineyard has been back toward more shading, so eventually notes of eucalyptus and the like might become more pronounced.

As to "Rutherford dust," he speculated that the term arose form a "certain spice character" found in many Rutherford cabernet sauvignons, but conceded that the term long has been difficult to pin down. "Some things in wine are best if they remain a mystery," he remarked.

During lunch, longtime Napa Valley grape grower Andrew Beckstoffer offered another explanation for what is meant by "Rutherford dust." The expression, he suggested, is purely metaphoric. He attributed it to Andre Tchelistcheff, the Russian-born, Paris-trained chemist instrumental in reviving the state's wine trade following the repeal of Prohibition, in large part as the progressive and influential winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyard. Tchelistcheff, said Beckstoffer, felt that to make outstanding wine a winemaker had to own or otherwise control what went on in the vineyard. "To make great cabernet you have to have Rutherford dust," he quoted Tchelistcheff as saying, and by "Rutherford dust" he meant vineyard. Whatever is distinctive about the soils of Rutherford, added Beckstoffer, continues to be a matter of research.

Francis Ford Coppola at today's luncheon
Today's tasting was at Rubicon Estate, the current name of a winery built as Inglenook in the 1880s by the Finnish sea captain and fur tradder Gustave Niebaum. In 1975, writer and film director Francis Ford Coppola and his wife Eleanor began to acquire property in the area, eventually buying the Inglenook winery in 1994. In the meantime, however, the Inglenook name had passed to a number of corporate wineries. Thus, the Coppolas named their own winery on the grounds Niebaum-Coppola, with Rubicon the name of their flagship wine. Subsequently, the Coppolas bought the old Souverain Winery at Geyserville in Sonoma County and christened it Francis Ford Coppola Winery. Recently, the Coppolas acquired rights to the name "Inglenook," which they will use for the estate they now call Rubicon, thus restoring its historic designation. (You can tell by this much drama and these many twists that Coppola is still writing and directing.)

Which raises the question: Does that mean that the Coppolas will remake the large and striking stained-glass window they installed at the top of the grand stairway at the Rutherford spread? It now says "Niebaum-Coppola," never having been made over to "Rubicon." Francis Ford Coppola, who quietly took a seat at the end of the table for the lunch that followed today's tasting, said he would like to change the window but hasn't yet committed to the project. For one, it's huge. And more than a simple name change could be involved. The original Inglenook logo involves a horizontal diamond. When he founded his own initial winery he made the diamond vertical. In short, a whole new window could be in order. Cost will be a crucial factor in determining whether to restyle the window, he said.

To become Inglenook?
As to the wines at the tasting, these turned out to be my favorites:

- Monticello Cellars 2008 Napa Valley Tietjen Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($65, to be released Oct. 1): Suggestive of Bordeaux in its build (lean) and California in its flavor (sunny fruit), the Monticello is simply one gorgeous wine. The fruit runs to fresh cherries and plums, the oak hangs respectfully in the background, and the tannins aren't at all intrusive.

- Flora Springs Winery & Vineyards 2008 Rutherford Hillside Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($100, to be released Oct. 1): Ripe but not over-ripe fruit flavors, mostly suggestive of small Bing cherries, with a tanginess so pronounced in the finish it leaves the mouth watering for one more sip, then another.

- Round Pond Estate 2008 Napa Valley Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon ($50, already in release): Now this one had Rutherford dust, if by dust we can agree that it means a light coating of something minerally on a dense patch of blackberries. Overall, a wine of terrific lushness.

- Frog's Leap Winery 2008 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon ($75, to be released Oct. 1): The spine is steely, the dark fruit not only refreshing but punctuated with notes of the herbalness I'd been expecting to find in Rutherford cabernets.

- Quintessa 2008 Napa Valley Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon ($145, to be released Sept. 1): Perhaps the most complex and broadest wine in the tasting. The aroma is inviting, the fruit juicy. A seam of intriguing herbaceousness runs through the wine and accounts for at least some of its complexity. Also, one of the more lively wines in the lineup.

- Beaulieu Vineyard 2008 Napa Valley Georges De Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($115, to be released Aug. 1): Big and forceful, but exquisitely balanced. Its dark and lush fruit flavor carries a thread of eucalyptus. While its tannins are somewhat rigid, the finish is long and smooth.

- Staglin Family Vineyards 2008 Napa Valley Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon ($185, to be released this fall): In the past, I haven't been a big fan of Staglin cabernets, finding them too hard. This one, however, is all charm, from its deep and alluring color through its black-cherry and green-olive flavors to its luxuriant finish. A textbook cabernet for its structure and spirit.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

More Than Grapes Squeezed In Lake County

 Mike Thompson (Photo: Jim Wilson/The New York Times)
Over the 4th of July weekend, editors of The New York Times dispatched reporter Eric Lipton to till Rep. Mike Thompson's vineyard, and the dust hasn't settled yet.

If you missed it, Lipton's report suggests that Thompson has benefitted financially by his twofold role as farmer and congressman. For one, according to the article, two wineries paid Thompson $500,000 for sauvignon-blanc grapes from his 20-acre vineyard in Lake County during a stretch when their executives were appealing to Congress on various legislative matters. The Times didn't have to dig far to get these figures; they're in a financial-disclosure form Thompson completed two years ago.

The article suggests that at least one of the wineries, Bonterra in Mendocino County, overpaid Thompson for the grapes, thereby hinting that maybe he got a bonus for his steadfast support of the North State's wine trade. Bonterra paid $978 per ton for the fruit when the Lake County average for sauvignon blanc was $877. Never mind that the article doesn't say that Thompson ever interceded on behalf of Bonterra in these matters. On top of that, lots of factors could explain the disparity in prices - the quality of the grapes, their sugar levels, the ability of seller to persuade or outwit the buyer about the nature of his fruit. An average is just that, an average; no doubt, some growers in Lake County got a lot less than the average for their sauvignon blanc while others got a lot more. (Last fall, the price paid for sauvignon blanc grown in Lake County ranged from $200 per ton to $2,800, according to state tabulations; Thompson told The Times that his vineyard last year brought him just an $18,000 profit.)

The article also claims that Thompson stands to gain financially if federal authorities designate the Big Valley area in which he grows his grapes an American Viticultural Area, a proposal he supports. The theory behind this allegation is that small appellations like Big Valley are more prestigious than larger appellations like Lake County, and therefore command more money for their grapes and wines. I think the theory is more wishful thinking than reality, but I sure would like to see members of the American Association of Wine Economists undertake a study to address the issue.

Lipton raises issues that deserve to be aired. He could have been more fair to Thompson and Times readers, however, had he done more reporting. He could, for example, have reported on the full range of prices paid for Lake County sauvignon blanc in vintages when Thompson was selling his grapes. And he could have explained why Thompson's vineyard has increased in value from the $228,000 he paid for it in 2002 to its current assessed value of about $775,000; it wasn't planted with grapes when he bought it, you think?

And in one paragraph that had me almost gagging on my morning coffee, he quotes Craig Wolf, president of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, as suggesting that Thompson's twin roles violate Congressional ethics rules. Couldn't Lipton find anyone more credible to offer that thought so high up in the story than Wolf? Wolf and Thompson are longtime adversaries, with the wholesalers doggedly trying to monopolize the sale of alcoholic beverages to their own benefit while Thompson advocates more freedom in how Americans go about buying wine. The article would be more convincing had Lipton found other critics of Thompson, especially within his congressional district. When you look at a map of that district, which includes at least parts of Yolo, Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties, including thousands of acres of wine grapes and hundreds of wineries, you can see why Thompson is so supportive of the wine trade. But it's an area rich with environmentalists and others who question the wisdom of converting so much open land to vineyards, and yet Lipton apparently couldn't find anyone to suggest that Thompson has been less than thoughtful and fair in accommodating their concerns.

Thompson has been curiously quiet in the wake of Lipton's article. Maybe he's shrugging it off because the piece simply didn't build a strong case that he's done anything wrong. Nonetheless, I'd like to see a specific accounting and justification for the $1.2 million Thompson has taken in campaign contributions from the alcoholic beverage industry during his seven terms. And I do think he should recuse himself from any involvement in deliberations concerning whether Big Valley will be an officially designated American Viticultural Area, even though I question whether any vineyard within such an appellation would benefit significantly by the designation. Overall, though, Thompson looks to be guilty of nothing more than bringing home to his district various cuts of Washington pork, which, ironically, generally pairs quite nicely with sauvignon blanc.