Articles in Winemaker
At Zester Daily, we scour the world for interesting food and drink stories to share with our fans. As luck would have it, we only had to drive an hour south to Orange County, California, to find our latest discovery: Best Wines Online, a new wine e-tailer we know you will enjoy.
We have trusted the talents of founders Kyle Meyer and Tristen Beamon since their years managing another wine store. Their well-earned reputations as wine sleuths able to sniff out values in the obscure corners of wine’s ever expanding universe are complemented by an encyclopedic knowledge of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Their picks reflect a preference for balanced wines that shine on the dinner table. Kyle and Tris take the time to learn the backstories of the wines they sell. With their guidance, wine shopping is more treat than chore.
When we learned this dynamic duo was opening a store of their own, we jumped at the chance to introduce the venture to Zester fans.
Discounts for hand-selected wines
Today, we are proud to announce that Zester Daily and Best Wines Online have launched a marketing partnership. Each week, Kyle and Tris will hand-select a wine they will make available to Zester subscribers at an exclusive 10% discount below the store’s already competitive prices.
Zester newsletter subscribers will find a Best Wines Online promotion detailing the weekly wine offer in our new Weekender newsletter sent out toward the end of the workweek.
On bestwinesonline.com, you’ll find detailed wine descriptions and a growing library of videos both from Kyle and Tris’ travels as well as interviews with winemakers who visit their shop. Their personal touch extends to customer service. When you call their store during California office hours, you’ll get a living, breathing human being on the phone.
They are limiting their stock to 1,000 labels — enough variety to represent the wide world of top-shelf wines along with stacks of tantalizing under $20 treats. Rare among boutique e-tailers, the pair also feature hard-to-get older vintages straight from the wineries.
We know you will enjoy getting to know Kyle and Tris and their particularly delicious take on fine wine at bestwinesonline.com. Sign up now for Zester’s newsletter so you won’t miss out on any of these delicious deals.
Top photo: Kyle Meyer and Tristen Beamon of Best Wines Online. Photo and video credits: Matthieu Silberstein
The legacy of Jim Barrett, the 86-year-old owner of Napa Valley’s Chateau Montelena who died last week, inspired this selection. The fresh, creamy-textured 2010 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay is a wonderfully balanced white with aromas of citrus and white flowers and flavors of green apple, lemon curd and wet slate.
Elin McCoy's Wine of the Week
Price: $40 to $50
Region: Napa Valley, California
Grapes: 100% Chardonnay
Serve with: Lobster salad, lemon-thyme chicken
More of Elin's wine picks:
Chateau Montelena‘s historic 19th-century stone winery and vineyards north of Calistoga were neglected when Barrett snapped up the estate in 1972. He poured in money to restore it and hired Mike Ggrich, who now runs his own Grgich Hills Estate, as winemaker.
Several years later, the winery’s Chardonnay gained overnight fame when French judges rated the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay (the second vintage) above four great white Burgundies in a blind comparison at the now legendary 1976 Paris tasting. Upon hearing the news, Barrett was widely quoted as saying, “Not bad for kids from the sticks.”
The tasting’s results reshaped the wine world forever. The complete story is well told in the book “The Judgment of Paris” by George Taber, the only journalist present at the tasting. The cheesy Hollywood movie “Bottle Shock” provides a fictionalized version of the Barrett/Montelena side of the tale.
Legacy of Jim Barrett continues
When many Napa Chardonnays jumped on the oaky, buttered popcorn style, Chateau Montelena remained true to its origins, avoiding malolactic fermentation (which reduces acidity) and aging only a small percentage in new oak.
It always seems to age better than most Napa Chardonnays.
The cool 2010 growing season was marked by a late August heat wave, which burned grapes in some wineries’ vineyards. Not at Chateau Montelena, where chief winemaker Bo Barrett doesn’t favor aggressive leaf-thinning — the grapes had plenty of shade until the harvest was finished in mid-October.
This 2010 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay is a combination of lush California fruit and a firm flinty finish that almost reminds me of Chablis. I tasted the wine on a visit to the Napa Valley a couple of weeks ago, soon after the winery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. But I opened another bottle this past weekend to drink a toast to Jim Barrett.
Top photo composite:
Jim Barrett and label from 2010 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay. Credit: Courtesy of Chateau Montelena.
Lately I’ve been frustrating my customers, which is never a wise thing to do. We get asked all the time for analytical stats on the wines we offer and details about our winemaking practices. My catalogues tend to pass over such things, because I’ve reached a place in my drinking career where I find them otiose. This might seem snooty. So let me explain.
First, a wise quote from Peter Jost (of the estate Toni Jost), who said: “Judging a wine by its analysis is like judging a beautiful woman by her X-ray films.” Second, and further support for my theory, a remark I received from esteemed German winemaker Helmut Dönnhoff many years ago, when I asked him for the figures of a wine in my glass. “You don’t need these anymore, Terry,” he said. “Analyses are for beginners.”
But there are beginners, I must remember, and they’re curious, and it’s peevish for me to deny them the understanding they seek. If a drinker is interested in knowing how a wine was made, or in knowing what its acidity or residual-sugar or extract might be, this is entirely valid if she is trying to collate her palate’s impressions with the facts of the matter. That is a useful way of thinking — until it isn’t anymore.
ZESTER DAILY CONNECTIONS
The ecstasy of defeat
I well remember traveling with an earnest young colleague who sought to guess how a wine was made strictly from its taste. He was especially eager to identify cask versus stainless steel aging. I loved the guy, but I knew the perplexing denouement that quivered a few days down the road. For indeed, at one winery where all the wines were done in cask, my pal was sure they used steel, and yielded to his dismay; however hard he tried, he just wasn’t getting it. When I told him he’d crossed the Rubicon into a place of far greater wisdom, he thought I had a screw loose. I tried to reassure him that being right was reassuring, but being wrong invited epiphany; you ascended to greater understanding through your mistakes.
I remember, though, the urge to understand, to find explanations, to learn the causes and effects of flavor. We mustn’t frustrate that urge – it’s human to be curious and I think we should respect curiosity. But we also have to help drinkers understand the limits of this vein of knowledge. It is a closed system that gives the simulacrum of expertise while actually leaving us in an airless chamber of our minds. We feel terribly knowledgeable discussing the details of a wine, but there’s a big-picture glaring at us that this approach won’t let us see.
If you’re hungry for knowledge of how a grower trains his vines, prunes his vines, binds his vines; if you seek to know the density of plantings per hectare and the space between the rows; if you’re curious about which clones were used, how the canopies were worked, if and when the winemaker did a green harvest, if the grapes were picked by hand, with what-size teams and with one big bucket or several smaller ones, then these are things you ought to know. Shame on me for finding them ancillary and ultimately trivial.
More than the sum of its yeasts
If you want to know the wines’ total acids, the amount of its sweetness, the must-weights of the grapes at picking, whether it fermented with ambient or with cultured yeasts, how it was clarified, what vessel it fermented in and at what temperature (and if the temperature was technologically controlled), whether it sat on its gross or fine lees and for how long, and whether it was developed in steel or in wood — I don’t mind telling you. But it worries me some. Because I fear that for each one of you who sincerely wants to compare what his palate receives with what’s actually inside the wine, there are many of you who want to enact value-judgments prior to tasting, because you’ve decided what’s permissible and what’s despicable. (This nonsensical approach is rampant in Germany.)
I am decidedly not in favor of excluding tasters from any wine because they disapprove of the effing yeast that was deployed, or because they won’t go near a wine with more than X-grams of sweetness. Who wants to enable something so repugnant?
Nor am I willing to abet the sad phenomenon of people talking about wine with what seems like authority, because of the “information” they’ve accumulated, whereas they’re actually blocked from attaining true authority by the rigid limits of their approach. If you’re stuck in the “how,” you’ll have a rough time finding your way to the “what.” And that is where true wisdom lies. The wonky isn’t a bad place to be, for a while, but it’s a dangerous place to stop, because like all objects of beauty, wine is more than the sum of its parts. If you’re busily probing into technical minutiae, will you remember to consider not only the application of technique but the expression of a vintner’s spirit? Will you remember to pause for just a second and consider how a wine makes you feel?
Photo: Terry Theise. Credit: Anna Stöcher
Zester Daily readers have shown an appreciation for a stunning variety of stories over the past year. A quick scan of the 2012 reader favorites reveals a yen for Ruth Bourdain’s dishes, cuisine from every corner of the world, food preservation, photography, films, wine insider news and a treasured recipe for flavored marshmallows — as well as a critique of American taste.
Snippets of the 12 most popular Zester Daily contributors’ stories, plus the five most popular Soapboxes, are below. Follow the story links to read the complete text. Follow the contributor links to read more by each author.
The stories are listed in reverse order.
Top contributors’ stories of 2012
12. THE ORIGINS OF CURRY by Raghavan Iyer: Before I try to define the word “curry,” let me create an image for you from my college laboratory days in India where I pursued a degree in chemistry over 20 years ago. As I busied myself measuring crystals of …
11. OLD-SCHOOL SOY SAUCE by Manuela Zoninsein: There’s no one right ritual or rule to guide your eating extravaganza on Jan. 23. The Chinese New Year involves a number of great food traditions. Dumplings are reminiscent of coins in ancient China and will thus bring …
10. TEN BEST FOODIE FLICKS by David Latt: If cold weather traps you indoors for months each winter, you might run through your queue of streaming movies pretty quick. Why not entertain yourself with a library of the best …
9. HOW KERMIT LYNCH TAUGHT AMERICANS HOW TO DRINK WINE by Patrick Comiskey: Forty years ago, Kermit Lynch abandoned the handmade purse industry and opened a wine shop in Berkeley, Calif., and in doing so, became one of the great innovators of …
8. WINE’S ACCUSED GRIFTER, RUDY KURNIAWAN by Corie Brown: By the summer of 2006, when I first noticed Rudy Kurniawan at Christie’s in Beverly Hills, he had transformed the market for old wine from a sleepy backwater into a high-stakes free-for-all. Only the richest wine collectors knew him. Or thought they did …
6. EATING TO BEAT CANCER: DIET MAY PROVE TO BE A CURE by Harriet Sugar Miller: Last night, it was cauliflower curry on a bed of leeks while my husband grilled his own slab of meat. The night before I ate solo — and downed an enormous bag of kale chips (please don’t tell him) flavored with cashew dust and too much …
4. IN DEFENSE OF TRUFFLE OIL by Lynne Curry: Midwinter is high season for fresh truffles in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. With the help of an experienced truffle hunter (or a trained dog), I could spend …
2. CANNING JARS FROM FAUX TO BEST PRESERVING CHOICES by Susan Lutz: About six months ago, I salvaged a beautiful marinara sauce jar that I intended to refill with home-canned sweet pickles made using my mother’s recipe. And if I hadn’t taken a 12-week course to become a certified Master Food Preserver, I might have …
1. FLAVORED MARSHMALLOWS MADE FROM SCRATCH by Charles Perry: When you hand people homemade marshmallows, they’re always dazzled. These are actual marshmallows, but with a lush, moist texture you never find in store-bought versions. If you want your friends to keep thinking you’re a wizard, don’t tell them how simple it is …
Top Soapboxes of 2012
5. DÍA DE LOS MUERTOS IS FOR AMERICANOS, TOO by Veronica Gonzalez-Smith: In the small town of El Paso, Texas, my siblings and I grew up at a unique intersection of Mexican and American culture. As kids, we traveled in and out of …
4. THE INFANTALIZATION OF AMERICAN TASTE by Michael Krondl: Though the plague of cupcake shops has not spared any city in this great union, it would be hard to find one that illustrates my point better than …
3. CALIFORNIA’S EXCITING NEW WINES BUCK THE MAINSTREAM by Eric Asimov: We live in the most wonderful era in history to love wine. Right now, Americans have access to a greater diversity of wines than ever before, wines made in more styles from more …
2. THE FORGOTTEN QUINCE by Jane McMorland Hunter: Nowadays most people hardly know what a quince looks like. Until the 19th century, it was a commonplace orchard fruit throughout North America and Europe; now it has become …
1. RUTH BOURDAIN DISSES AND DISHES WITH ZESTER by Ruth Bourdain: It’s been more than two years since the debut of Ruth Bourdain, the sensational and often raunchy Twitter persona whose name and sensibilities are a mashup/spoof of former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl and outspoken celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. The true identity of Ms. Bourdain is still under wraps, but her tweets show her to be ….
* * *
And that’s our list for 2012 … Here’s to discovering Ms. Bourdain’s identity in 2013!
Photo illustration, clockwise from top left:
Ruth Bourdain. Credit: Ruth Bourdain
Indian spices (originally published in 660 Curries). Credit: Ben Fink
Homemade marshmallows dusted with confectioners’ sugar. Credit: StockFood
Photo illustration credit: Karen Chaderjian
They are storied wines — the white, a Catarrato, and especially the red, a Nero d’Avola. They carry meaning from an American writer’s 50 years in Sicily, her husband’s winemaking passion, their daughter’s embrace of her agrarian roots after cosmopolitan wanderings, an inspiring student revolt and a growing international thirst for natural, indigenous wines.
More from Zester Daily:
“The next morning the children and I go down with baskets to the vineyard where the red grapes grow,” wrote Mary Taylor Simeti in her 1986 memoir “On Persephone’s Island: A Sicilian Journey.” (She’s also the author of “Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-Five Centuries of Sicilian Food, and Travels with a Medieval Queen.”) Her two children, in bathing suits and rubber boots, stomped on the harvest in a plastic baby bath. The first year, the vineyard produced … vinegar.
It got better. “The white is indigenous to Sicily, dry, slightly bitter, floral, with a slight taste of almonds,” Simeti said. The red, said Tim Mortimer, operations manager of American distributor Jenny & François Selections, is “aromatic, expressive, with a floral note on the nose, acidity in balance, and a lightness rare in Nero d’Avola.”
Americans who have delighted in Simeti’s writing will soon get to experience her wine, too. Jenny & François are set to begin importing it to select stores soon.
A family passion
At Bosco Falconeria, the farm Mary and her husband Tonino took over in 1966, Nero d’Avola has been grown since 1933, when it was a strong high-alcohol “cutting wine” shipped to northern France and Germany to strengthen too-light wines. By the late ’60s, they were producing very good wines.
“We were very excited about it,” said Simeti, now 71. “It was at the beginning of the renaissance of Nero d’Avola in Italy.”
They sold it to friends and other customers in Palermo. By the ’90s, though, when it looked as if their children wouldn’t be returning, they had the local winery make the wines for them. That changed again in 2005, when their daughter Natalia, who worked in museum administration in the United States, decided with her husband and children to return to Bosco.
“She had had ever since she was tiny, a very clear sense of what she did not feel ready to face, together with the courage and determination to go after what she really wanted,” is how Mary described her then 12-year-old daughter in “On Persephone’s Island.”
The wine is organic, grown without irrigation, from indigenous varietals, made without sulfites or industrial yeasts.
“We produce less, but what we do produce is in its flavor and taste,” Simeti said. ”We are making wines that are in my husband’s genes, that have been in the family for generations, and my daughter has become very passionate about it.”
This year, they’ve produced about 10 thousands bottles — about 1,500 Nero d’Avola — but they can triple capacity if the market is there.
An anti-mafia stand
The wine is pure in another way: No mafia influence. In “On Persephone’s Island,” Simeti describes mafia terrors, and the nascent brave youth-led anti-mafia movement. Since 2009, her wines have carried the “Addiopizzo” label. The Food and Drug Administration asked for information about the label, which literally means “bye-bye protection money.”
The addiopizzo movement began with a group of students in Palermo in 2004 who wanted to start a wine bar but realized the mafia would ask for their price soon enough. So they plastered Palermo with stickers on walls, light polls and phone booths that read: Un intero popolo che paga il pizzo é un popolo senza dignita. That is, “A people that pays the pizzo is a people without dignity.”
The movement now includes more than 700 firms, including 39 wine producers, who’ve signed the pledge not to pay pizzo – and to report any attempts to collect it to the police. More than 10,000 consumers have taken out memberships.
“The anti-mafia movement has come a long way in the past 30 years,” Simeti said.
Mary Taylor Simeti’s wines heading for the U.S.
And so Mary Taylor Simeti’s excellent anti-mafia natural organic Sicilian wines are coming to America. The wines should show up any week now in a few stores in selected U.S. cities. For those of us who love Simeti’s books, though, with their graceful blending of food culture and history and ancient myth and family stories, the real pleasure would be drinking a glass while reading a new Mary Taylor Simeti book.
“The farming and family life and writing all feed each other,” she said. “There are no compartments in my life. On the whole, it’s been a privileged life to write what I wanted. I’m working on a fun writing project now, about wildflowers. But I think I have at least one more serious book on the back of the stove. It may be totally scorched, but I hope I can still make it.”
Natalia and Tonino Simeti at Bosco Falconeria in Sicily. Credit: Totò Le Moli
I used to think Malbec’s popularity was bound to wane, but it’s still a hot varietal in the U.S. despite the dozens of simple, jammy examples. This big, savory 2009 Catena Alta Malbec, with its aroma of violets and layers of glossy dark fruit flavors, is one of the best around. It’s not cheap, but it is well worth the price, and has a great back story, too.
Elin McCoy’s Wine of the Week
Region: Mendoza, Argentina
Grape: 100% Malbec
Serve with: Grilled steaks, beef en daube with olives
This rich, sophisticated red is perfect for drinking with grilled strip steaks on a cool night. It was one of the best wines I tasted at a Women in Wine Leadership Symposium held in New York City last week. The event was a chance for top level women in the industry such as Costco’s wine buyer Annette Alvarez-Peters and innovative women wine producers to share thoughts about the state of women in wine and some good bottles.
Laura Catena, the managing director of her family’s Catena Zapata winery in Argentina and author of the book “Vino Argentino,” held forth on a panel about multigenerational wine families. The winery was founded in 1902, but her father Nicolas, third generation, put it on the path to world fame. He was a key player in the country’s Malbec revolution and is often referred to as the “Robert Mondavi of Argentina.” Entering the architecturally stunning winery he inaugurated in 2001, you feel as if you are entering a Mayan temple.
Catena got involved after attending Harvard and Stanford medical school, and now manages to juggle a job as an emergency doctor in San Francisco with overseeing operations as well as chiming in on viticultural research and winemaking.
The first Catena Alta Malbec, their top bottling of the varietal, was the 1996 vintage, but Laura says that they’ve only recently really understood how sensitive Malbec is to specific microclimates. The family has done more research on this grape than anyone and conclude that high altitude vineyards and old vines are essential for quality and complexity.
The 2009 comes from three vineyards at elevations of 3,000 feet to 4,700 feet. I used to find some Catena Malbecs too oaky, but this one definitely isn’t. Its tannins are smooth, its texture silky and elegant. You can drink it now, but it will age well, too. If you’re in the mood for a splurge, go for it.
Top photo composite:
Label for Catena Alta Malbec, and Laura Catena and her father Nicolás. Credit: Courtesy of catenawines.com
For wine drinkers, these are the worst of times and the best of times. It’s the worst because wine prices have exploded in recent years, especially when it comes to French prestige wines. The entry of wealthy Chinese into the market has pushed up the prices of those rare wines to astronomical levels. Who would have thought that Lafite would be selling for $1,500 a bottle? I fear that my tongue will never again be blessed with the wonderful experience of a Mouton or a Richebourg.
At the same time, though, it’s the best of times because the world’s wine surplus, which is driving down wine prices, is unlikely to evaporate anytime soon. In addition, the quality of bargain wines is better than ever. Not everything out there is great, but much is outstanding.
Average, run-of-the-mill wine is better than ever before thanks to several major developments in the wine world. The first is that there are now very few technical secrets in winemaking. Technology flows at Internet speed from vineyard to vineyard. There was a time when the French had a lock on the world’s knowledge of how to make great wine. But today at dozens of enology schools around the world, students are learning new and better techniques. Young winemakers now routinely work two harvests a year, thus speeding up their professional development.
Terroir? Winemaking has gone global
The biggest benefactors of all this transfer of technology are the world’s hot wine regions. They have long been able to produce massive amounts of fruit, but until recently had to accept the tradeoff of low quality. Thanks to new technology such as drip irrigation and night harvesting, regions like Mendoza, Argentina, or the Central Valley of California are producing huge harvests with better quality.
Winemaking in the past century has spread from its European roots to just about every part of the world except the North Pole and the South Pole. Wine is made in every state in the U.S. Just in the past six months, I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing the wines of Croatia and Colorado on their home turf. Connoisseurs looked with disdain on the wines of California until May 24, 1976, when some upstart winemakers from Napa turned the world upside down at the Paris Tasting. The Californians had simply copied French best practices and adapted them to the growing conditions nature gave them. That experience has now been repeated in many other countries.
Winemakers turning out $100 bottles or $1,000 bottles, though, have to keep preaching the myth of terroir to keep up their prices. They have to spread the belief that their grapes come from a unique spot of earth that has perfect growing conditions. The dirty little secret is that really good wine can be made in many places.
For the past four years, I have been working hard in the vineyards of bargain wines. I’ve tasted some terrible products, but they have been exceptions. The wines that average people drink on average days have improved. They may not be the wines you want to serve at a wedding or a golden anniversary, but they are perfectly fine daily wines. In the business they are known as Wednesday wines because that’s what people regularly drink on a Wednesday night at home when no one is looking. In my book “A Toast to Bargain Wines,” I listed some 400 Wednesday wines selling for less than $10 a bottle, and dozens of what I called splurge wines that go for less than $25.
Bargain wine lovers: Here’s an eye-opening blind tasting
I regularly do blind tastings with friends to help educate anyone with an open mind about undiscovered gems. I had such an event on a recent weeknight. As part of a charity auction, I had offered to do a wine tasting at my home on Block Island, R.I., which is located 12 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean. After looking around my wine cellar, I decided on a tasting of Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot and picked three in each category.
The four tasters were regular wine drinkers, but not connoisseurs. They enjoy all sorts of wines, but one woman admitted that she bought more expensive wines to give as gifts than what she drank regularly. She said she drinks mostly $10 wines.
The wines fell into three categories: inexpensive, moderately priced and expensive. The three Sauvignon Blancs: Charles Shaw 2010 ($3); Clos Floridene Graves 1999 ($26); Moraga Blanc 2007 ($65). The three Merlots: Charles Shaw 2010 ($3), Château Reignac 2000 ($18); Plump Jack 2004 ($52). I had bought the Charles Shaw wines in New Jersey, so my Two Buck Chuck was Three Buck Chuck. The French-style wines were generally blends, but with a predominance of Sauvignon Blanc or Merlot.
My guests tasted both the whites and the reds before I let them know the results. In the white category, three of the four selected Charles Shaw as their favorite. Among the reds, there was a tie between Charles Shaw and Château Reignac. I was not surprised because I’ve now done similar tastings dozens of times, and the other results were similar. In a blind tasting average wine drinkers seem to prefer inexpensive wines. So why do people buy $100 or $1,000 bottles of wine? I don’t get it. Are they really just buying the label?
We then discussed the results and the implications while drinking a bottle of 2000 Vin de Constance, one my favorites dessert wines, in part because Napoleon asked for it on his deathbed. There is story in every wine bottle.
Photo: George M. Taber. Credit: Cliff Moore
It seems that every era has a word or a phrase that gets used to the point of cliché. Today in the wine world it’s all about “terroir,” a term linked to items as disparate as tour companies, gin, coffee and seeds.
Terroir loosely translates from French as “a sense of place,” but more pointedly refers to the specific combination of soil, weather conditions and farming techniques that contribute to the uniqueness of a product, in most cases wine.
To understand terroir in the wine context is to understand history. For centuries in France, the church had control of vast areas of land, and monks were able to observe the influences of various parcels on the wine they produced from the grapes growing there. Over time, the vintner monks compiled their observations and began to establish the boundaries of different terroirs, many of which still exist.
We haven’t earned the right to terroir
These days terroir is commonly used as a descriptor for a wine on its label or website, which, as a winemaker, concerns me. New world wine growing regions are called new world for a reason: We have yet to accumulate the information that centuries of living and working with our soils can provide. As a result we’ve yet to define our terroir enough to use it as a selling point.
In old world winemaking regions, by contrast, winemakers rely on information culled from generations upon generations of watching the response of vines to various weather patterns, soil conditions and growing techniques. When they use the term “terroir,” it means something. We in the new world bat the word around, I believe, because it is (a) French and (b) a concept so elusive few know what it means. Both factors work well when it comes to wine sales.
As the winemaker at Anne Amie vineyards in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, I decided to explore the variables of our estate vineyard’s terroir. In order to get an idea of how our site is unique, I enlisted two other vintners in a project that compares the Pinot Noir growing on our three sites, which are located within a 900-mile span of the West Coast from north to south.
The Cube Project
Our experiment has a few guidelines. Because we all know our own sites best, each winemaker would make the picking decision at their own vineyard. We would each pick six tons of Pommard-clone Pinot Noir, keep two tons for the home vineyard and give two tons each to the other wineries. Once we all had six tons of the same grapes, all winemaking decisions would be left to the individual winemakers: myself, Andrew Brooks at Bouchaine Vineyards in Carneros and Leslie Renaud at Lincourt in Santa Rita Hills, just north of Santa Barbara.
We launched The Cube Project in the fall of 2010: three winemakers, three vineyards, three years of experimenting with each others’ grapes. We now have nine wines from our three vineyard sites, three “expressions” of each vineyard.
In 2010 it was a cool season for us in Oregon, and harvest was still at least a month away when our two tons of Bouchaine Vineyards Pinot noir arrived. Leslie sent her grapes a few weeks later. When it came time for me to send our Pinot Noir to Leslie and Andrew in late October, Andrew was entirely finished with harvest, and had to get equipment out of storage to accommodate our fruit.
We showed the 2010 wines to the public for the first time during a seminar this March at the World of Pinot Noir just outside Pismo Beach, Calif. When we asked who thought the vineyards were the driving force in the wines tasted, and who thought it was the winemakers’ styles, it was clear the winemaker’s hand trumped the vineyard at that early stage. But my guess is that over time, as the wines evolve and the fruit characters fade, the vineyards and regions — the terroir — will catch up with, if not surpass the winemaking as the dominant trait.
The variables become familiar
With our 2011 wines, we were more familiar with the grapes from the others’ vineyards. The vineyard site seems to have more impact on our second attempt. As we head into our third, and final vintage of the Cube Project, I know my familiarity with the flavors and the uniqueness of each of the other two vineyard sites has changed not only my ideas about the other regions as a whole, but about my approach to winemaking. What works for Oregon Pinot Noir does not necessarily translate to the same clone of Pinot Noir grown in Carneros or Santa Rita Hills. For example, ripe grapes from California don’t always equate to ripe stems, therefore the use of whole clusters in ferments, which is something I routinely practice in Oregon, may not be a practical decision for fruit from warmer regions. Conversely, Oregon wines are much lighter-bodied, and the structure does not support heavier-toasted barrels, so cooperage decisions had to be adjusted.
As simple as this experiment may seem in its concept and execution, something of this scope has not been attempted before (to my knowledge) in the United States, which is a shame. There is an immense amount of knowledge of site, clone and the interaction thereof that is being treated as proprietary knowledge as many wineries set up internal experiments, which often are not shared with other wineries, let alone the public.
It takes experiments such as ours and, we hope, other wineries who are willing to do a little “thinking outside the box” to gain perspective on what constitutes terroir in America. And, like our experiment, I think it is important to offer the wines to the general public to purchase and taste for themselves exactly what defines the terroir of a place, and the art of the winemaker. It will only be through experiments, trial and error, and ultimately, time, that we will define our American terroir.
Photo: Thomas Houseman. Credit: Foster Ramsey
An ex-modern dancer, Thomas Houseman is the winemaker at Anne Amie Vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. He is also the founder of The Cube Project, which will show its 2010 wines in a seminar at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Ore., in July. See “The Cube Project” on Facebook for updates, and contact email@example.com to purchase the wines.