Grape Twister

On May 24, a group of regulars from the eRobertParker.com wine board gathered for an offline at the Pamplemousse Grille, stepping out from behind their various keyboards and into the exalted environs of chef Jeffrey Strauss. I was fortunate enough to tag along. The 25 wines — arranged in flights of bubbly, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and dessert -- that accompanied the five courses provided considerable delight, and several surprises. I ended up picking a '97 BV Reserve Cab as my favorite in a blind flight, over an '01 Dalla Valle and (just barely) a '90 Ridge York Creek. I found that I preferred my memory of the Alban Grenache over my first experience with Alban's celebrated Syrah. And I ended up choosing a '98 Pinot Noir from Williams-Selyem as my wine of the evening, even though it had made me wince at first sniff (sour, even acrid). I was amazed at how quickly it settled down and began quietly detailing the best qualities of (mature) California Pinot. Or at least, California Pinot as I knew it.

The other three Pinots in the flight, which hailed from Radio Coteau, Sea Smoke, and Loring Wine Company, were much younger — only two or three years old. But age alone could not account for the difference. The Radio Coteau hit some familiar notes — dried cherry, cola, maybe some raspberry. But the Sea Smoke and the Loring Cargasacchi's Vineyard...winemaker/owner Brian Loring was sitting next to me, and he put it well: "I think a lot of these big, massive Pinots" — the Loring and the Sea Smoke being exemplary — "still taste like Pinot. They're just amped up a bit. I think if you put these wines in a tasting with a bunch of Cabernets and a bunch of Syrahs, you would say, 'Okay, they're all Pinots.' But they really are different critters." Put another way, if you didn't have those Syrahs and Cabs there for comparison, and if you were used to Sonoma Pinot Noir, you might miss the similarities.

Pinot Noir, after all, is a tremendously elastic grape. It is famed for its transparency and its ability to reflect its place of origin and with such specificity that devotees can distinguish Pinots from adjacent vineyards in Burgundy. Its range of potential flavors is wonderfully broad, a lesson I relearned that evening.

Loring was pouring six of his vineyard-designate Pinots during the opening meet-n-greet, and my initial reactions were, shall we say, tinged with surprise (keep in mind these were barrel samples, still on their way to being finished wines): "The Brosseau Vineyard — good gosh, but it's tannic, and sweet, almost like Cabernet. The Clos Pepe reminds me of Syrah. The Rancho Ontiveros has serious body — thick glycerin texture and serious sweet fruit up front." Etc.

Please don't misunderstand me. They weren't bad wines -- I can see why people love them (95 points in Wine Spectator for the Clos Pepe!). They just weren't what I was used to in Cal Pinot. I've been away too long.

"I love Burgundies," said Loring when I asked him about what he was doing to my beloved grape (all red Burgundies are made from Pinot Noir). "In college, I worked at a wine shop where the guys were Burgundy nuts, and once I started drinking Burgundy, I was, like, 'Okay, this is it.' And I love old-school Cali Pinots like Calera. I love Sonoma Coast Pinots. But as a producer, my palate has kind of moved toward the bigger Pinots. I understand that Burgundy has been the model for years and years. The first Cali Pinots tried to do something like that, because that was the model. And some people are so used to 'What Pinot Should Be' that when they buy a bottle of Pinot in a wine shop and it's a big-style wine that doesn't match their expectation, they're upset. They thought they were buying one thing, and they ended up with something different. I understand that, but I've never subscribed to the idea that there is always a single right way to do something."

He doesn't think the notion should be seen as revolutionary. "Look how much care people put into investigating Burgundies. 'Oh, no, Chambertins are too big. I like only Morey St. Denis -- and within that, only these producers.' But when it comes to California, they demand one flavor and one type."

People who criticize big-Pinot producers like Loring accuse him of doing violence to the grape, of putting it on the winemaker's rack and twisting it into something other than what it was meant to be. I confess that I once had a similar reaction after tasting a particular Pinot from Ojai Vineyards that, if I hadn't known better, I would have named a Syrah.

Loring disagrees. "Starting out in the vineyards I started out in, I learned that if you're true to the terroir and to the clone, you're going to make a bigger wine. I think most of it has to do with the new clones of the varietal. I've been talking with Peter Cargasacchi, and he thinks it's possible that the clones we're getting now are more disease-free. The older clones had a lot of leaf-roll and other issues that led them to not produce as much sugar." As a result, "The wines would just generally be in a lighter style. These newer clones -- and I'm getting this from Peter — just produce more sugar." As they do, "They develop different flavors. The old-school clones might have been physiologically ripe around 23 brix" — brix being a measure of sugar concentration in the grape. "The new ones have to hang a little longer. If you have a berry at 26 brix, and the seed is still neon green and you get really bitter tannins when you taste it, it isn't ready to pick. Some guys are trying to pick it earlier and do all kinds of things in the winery — extended macerations and bottle-aging. But I want to let the fruit get really physiologically ripe." And riper means more alcoholic means bigger — naturally so. (The new clones, being more disease-resistant, also help put the lie to Pinot's reputation as the heartbreak grape. Loring finds his high-sugar fruit to be more consistent and more forgiving than Pinot's reputation would suggest.)

Loring doesn't discount the influence of soil and weather on a wine's terroir, its sense of place, but he suspects that clonal selection also plays an important role. "The idea was that Pinots from Carneros in Napa Valley were lighter in style, but those vines are all 30, 40 years old. When they replant them with new clones, you're going to start having big, bold Pinots come out of Carneros." He grants that his winemaking practices — cold-soaking his fruit for maximum extraction -- may have something to do with bigness but notes that "there are guys who do whole-cluster fermentations with no cold soaks, and their wines end up being fairly similar. Maybe a little lighter, but still way bigger than what you were drinking 10 years ago."

His style hasn't hurt him any in the marketplace. "When Pinots got bigger, they suddenly became desirable for people who were into big reds. In California, the percentage of people who buy Cabernet is way bigger than the percentage who buy Syrah, and that's way bigger than the percentage that buy Pinot Noir. The complaint you heard from the Cab people was 'I tried Pinot, and it was kind of light.' Now, with the bigger Pinots, you've opened up this huge market. People who are willing to pay $100 for a bottle of Cab are looking at a $50 bottle of Pinot as a bargain. They're flowing down the price gradient to Pinot like you wouldn't believe."

People who love the Burgundian style of Pinot Noir, however, have not been as interested in moving toward the stylistic middle. "They're entrenched in the lighter style of Pinot. If they want a bigger wine, they'll jump to Cabernet." An embittered Burgophile might accuse Loring of abandoning Pinot's typicity to chase the Cab market. Not so, he counters: "It wasn't a conscious decision. It was just looking back and seeing where our market was coming from. As far as typicity, I just see it as a different type of typicity. It's just a different clone, a different thing."

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