Power + Elegance = Balance

In 1977, Robert Benson published Great Winemakers of California, a series of interviews with the men (and one woman) who were shaping the industry at the dawn of California wine's Golden Age. He managed to interview Martin Ray -- the Orson Welles of the wine world, an outsized personality who had been making Pinot Noir on Mount Eden since the '30s -- shortly before his death. Famous name after famous name -- Draper at Ridge, Graff at Chalone, Winiarski at Stag's Leap, Grgich, Mondavi, Heitz -- all there. (And also Brother Timothy at Christian Brothers, August Sebastiani, Louis Martini, and even Ely Callaway from Temecula -- Benson wasn't just cherry-picking.) The interviews were based on a standard set of questions and heavy on technical details -- lots of talk about centrifuges and temperature-controlled fermentation. But Benson wasn't afraid to let the conversation ramble, and nontechnical aspects of those chats provide a candid portrait of the industry at the beginning of its ascent.

Some 17 years later, Dennis Schaefer published a sequel of sorts: Vintage Talk: Conversations with California's New Winemakers. Cab and Chard were still the king and queen and Napa was still the superpower, but still, much had changed. Tim Mondavi had taken over at Mondavi. Randall Grahm was making mischief with Rhone varietals at Bonny Doon, while Bob Lindquist was doing the same down in Santa Barbara with Qupé. Jim Clendenen was making hay with Central Coast Pinot Noir, and Joel Peterson was riding the Zinfandel swell at Ravenswood. And the structure was more sophisticated. There was still a lot of technical talk -- instead of centrifuges, Schaefer asked about filtration -- but the wine press had grown up in the interim, and Schaefer had clearly tailored his interviews for his subjects.

Schaefer's penultimate interview subject was Adam Tolmach of Ojai Vineyards, and his penultimate question was this: "Do you think we are moving away from an overblown, over-oaked style of wines and moving to stylistic wines more compatible with food?" Tolmach's reply: "Yes. The earlier California wines tended to be just that way. They were over-extracted, over-oaked, too low in acid, and they had this tremendous character that wasn't fashioned correctly...It turns out you don't need incredible ripeness of fruit to make wines with a lot of character. Typically, in California, the wine would be way too ripe, with too much alcohol and almost an excess amount of character.... If you pick the grapes at a more reasonable ripeness, you can have all the fruit character that you could ever want without having the excess of alcohol."

I should note that I am by no means seeking to go after Tolmach here. But the 13 years since that statement was published raise a legitimate question about what he meant by "incredible ripeness" and "excess of alcohol." Consider Ojai's Roll Ranch Syrah: in 1996, it offered 13 percent alcohol. Just two years later, that number had jumped to 15 percent (and the wine nabbed 91 points from Robert Parker's Wine Advocate). And in 2004, while it came in at a somewhat tamer 14.5 percent, the wine still earned 94 points from Parker, who called it "stunningly full-bodied, rich, opulent," and "ripe."

Tolmach's wines are hardly unusual in this regard. Ripeness, with its attendant increase in sugar levels -- and consequently, alcohol content -- has been on the rise all over California for years now. So, I was glad to see that when Bob Heimoff, West Coast editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine, set out to write his own companion to Benson's book (the newly released New Classic Winemakers of California), he had ripeness on his mind. As he writes in the introduction, "High alcohol is a concern among many writers, sommeliers, restaurateurs, consumers, and even (when they will admit it) growers and winemakers, who worry that the resulting wines are not in balance and may not age." Where Schaefer asked about filtration and malolactic fermentation, Heimoff would be asking about ripeness, sugar levels -- alcohol.

He got a wonderful range of answers; I'll make note of just a few. Gary Pisoni described Pisoni Pinot Noir by saying, "It's got mouthfeel! It's got expansion! I mean, you put one drop in your mouth and it explodes...Our wines are identifiable! They're showing what the vineyard wants to produce. And that's what I want: typicite." Justin Smith at Saxum noted that his wines are between 15.5--15.9 percent alcohol but said, "We have chosen to show respect for the season and let it be what it is. We're picking at where we think the flavors are.... I'm not super-happy about high alcohol...but it's also true that we're coming off of three of the hottest, driest seasons. Give us another '98, and they'll be back down." Mark Aubert, then at Colgin, explained that "the advent of tannin analysis" led growers to increase hang time for their grapes as they sought ever-more-wonderful phenolic character. Kathy Joseph at Fiddlehead said that as new vineyards mature -- there was a lot of replanting after the last phylloxera invasion, during the late '80s--early '90s -- physiological ripeness might occur at lower sugar levels. And Kent Rosenblum put it on the consumer: "The bigger, the badder, the better, the quicker it sells."

Nobody tied the trend directly to the critics. But when we spoke, Heimoff, a critic himself, couldn't help but observe that "If you travel around and talk to winemakers, you hear it all the time -- not necessarily on the record: the ripeness thing is being driven by those two individuals. And people deplore it. But everybody knows that Robert Parker and Jim Laube at Wine Spectator like those huge, high-alcohol, highly extracted wines. They are, by definition, high-scoring wines. Unfortunately, as long as the critical market is dominated by so few people, and those few people like these wines, the change [toward less alcoholic wines] will be really slowed down." Winemakers "feel their hands are tied, because they need those scores."

As for Heimoff, while he's friendly with his subjects, he's not a big fan of "the ripeness thing." "I'm a balance guy. I think the magic of wine is a combination of power plus elegance equals balance. I do think that, in too many cases, California has taken the easy way out and just gone with power, because the weather lets us do that. The trick is to have something like Armani. Everything is the best money can buy -- the fabric, the stitching, and so forth -- but it's understated. I guess 'subtle elegance' is the term that I like. Not to say that a very ripe wine can't have subtle elegance, but it's less likely." Here, he takes a much gentler tack than interview subject Tony Soter, of Soter and Etude (and Spottswoode and Dalla Valle and Araujo...), who says bluntly, "There's plenty of winemakers who realize they're being rewarded by critics for these wines, where they're doing it on purpose...Now, that is a bogus approach to making wine. I don't even know what a Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir tastes like anymore...These wines are overblown."

That's one man's opinion, albeit a man who casts a rather large shadow. But, says Heimoff, besides Soter and winemakers like him (and despite Rosenblum's claim), "I know there's a huge consumer backlash -- you read about it everywhere. It's on the blogs...We just have to figure out..." Heimoff pauses. "I was going to say, 'We have to figure out what to do about it,' but that's a meaningless statement. What I mean is, every individual winemaker has to figure it out. Put yourself in Justin Smith's shoes at Saxum, where I believe that just about every wine is over 15 percent. What's his motive to change? If my memory serves, he set a record at their last auction. These are complicated questions. It's easy enough for me to sit here and take potshots at the high-alcohol people. I don't have to sell those wines. My mortgage isn't riding on that. So I don't know where, collectively, 'we' go."

More on the book next week.

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