Genius Oddballs

Remember Cabernet? King Cab? Remember how Tony Soter used to have a hand in crafting outstanding Cabernets (and Cabernet blends) at places like Chappellet, Spottswoode, Araujo, and Dalla Valle? Soter still makes Cabernet, but as Steve Heimoff notes in his recently published book New Classic Winemakers of California, "ironically, he now specializes in Pinot Noir." And he's not alone in his devotion to the heartbreak grape. Heimoff's first two interview subjects, Bill Wathen at Foxen and Dan Morgan Lee at Morgan, both started out making Cab and moved over to Pinot. Says Lee, "I think back to when I got out of school. I liked Cabernet then, loved it, or at least I thought I did. Now I drink about two bottles of Cabernet a year, probably even less. At our house, probably six out of ten bottles of wine are Pinot Noir."

Or consider Merry Edwards, who is "finally building her own winery after making wine for more than 30 years." Heimoff asks, "Why make different Pinots? Most people would not make four single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons, they'd make a blend." Edwards responds, "That's because Cabernet doesn't have the finesse or complexity that Pinot has...I think Cabernet and Merlot are very unsophisticated wines. If you try to do an aroma profile, there isn't one. Pinot is more like white wine, in that it has a substantial and very complex aroma." At interview's end, Heimoff asks Edwards if America is becoming "a Pinot Noir--drinking country." Her reply: "They're starting to...People ask, 'After Sideways dies down, do you think it will go away?' Well, no. It's been building for ten years at least. The base is solid now."

Okay, okay -- so that's four. There are always going to be a few oddballs out there, even genius oddballs, doing interesting things on the fringes and taking shots at the mainstream. Except, of the 27 "new classic" winemakers Heimoff selects for the book, 13 are focused primarily on Pinot Noir, while only 8 make Cabernet a specialty. And it gets better. Heimoff divides his book by "the decade in which the winemaker first began his or her career: the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s." He chooses 10 from that latest decade -- the new generation, the future of the industry. Of those 10 (representing 9 wineries), 5 are making their name with Pinot Noir. Two specialize in Rhones. The other 3 are Gina Gallo, who is involved in way too many varietals to be called a Cab specialist; Javier Tapia Meza of Ceago Vinegarden, who talks mainly about biodynamics; and Rolando Herrera of Mi Sueño Winery and Baldacci Family Vineyards, who makes Cabernet, but also Pinot, Chardonnay, and Syrah.

Of course, Cabernet and its attendant blends have not abandoned the field. Bob Levy is in these pages, still keeping the faith at Harlan Estate. And Mark Aubert, winemaker for Colgin, another cult Cab, sounds off on...Pinot Noir. To be fair, much of the interview treats other matters, including Cabernet, but we learn right off the bat that Aubert's own label produces Chardonnay and Pinot. And Heimoff, who went into his conversations having done his homework but not armed with any set list of questions, finds himself asking Aubert about the complaint that some Cal Pinots are "Rhone-like." "Yeah," answers Aubert, "Very, very ripe, surmaturite." (And at the end, we learn that since the interview took place, Aubert and Colgin have parted company. So that's at least one Cab he's not making these days. Later still, we find that he had a hand in the making of the first Pisoni Pinot.) And while Heidi Peterson Barrett says she has always believed that "Cabernet is king and Napa Valley is the lead in that," it's interesting to note that she recently parted ways with what was perhaps the king of the cult Cabs, Screaming Eagle. (She does, however, still make Cabernet under her own label and elsewhere.)

"Well, sure," the skeptical reader thinks, "Heimoff could pick a handful of wineries. Of course he's going to try to establish the existence of a trend, in order to provide some justification for picking what he does." A sensible thought. But when I asked him about it, Heimoff denied trying to highlight Pinot Noir in particular. In the book, he gives the following as his criteria: "My foremost parameter was that the winemaker be making consistently excellent wine." Second, "I wanted, obviously, to include more women," and "I also wanted diversity from a production point of view: small wineries and large ones, specialists and generalists." Finally, "I wanted geographic balance." From the sound of it, it's not Heimoff's fault that all those factors conspired to make Pinot the star of the show. It's just what happened.

What's going on? Is the industry tracking with David Lee at Morgan, wondering what it found so compelling about Cabernet now that it's fallen in love with Pinot Noir? Heimoff, who also serves as West Coast editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine, might not entirely disagree. "Again and again," he says, "I talk to people, people who know about wine, who say, 'I started out with Cabernet, but as I got older, I became attracted to Pinot.'"

Such unwilled fickleness (though I suspect some might call it development) can be hard on a grape-grower or a winery. "We finally get everyone settled on Cab, and now this?" It can also be hard, notes Heimoff, on a critic. A common charge against Robert Parker is that, as he has aged, he has become fonder of ever-increasing intensity, ever-bigger body, ever-larger dollops of jammy fruit. The palate that made him a legend, runs the complaint, has been dulled by an endless barrage of tastings, to the point where it takes monster hugeness to really catch his fancy. Imagine, however, the opposite possibility: that as a critic ages, he becomes less tolerant of sweetness, of ripeness, of enormity. He begins to long for something quieter, something more demure in its approach. (Not that California Pinot Noir is always anything close to demure, but these are relative terms.) He finds himself criticizing wines he used to adore and admiring wines he used to dismiss. Not in any extreme sense, but at his level, moderate and even minute senses count. There is a great gulf between 88 and 90 points.

Suddenly, the 100-point scale looms before him, terrible and absolute. What is he to do? If he diminishes his rating on a mondo Cabernet that once received 96 points, people will wonder: what went wrong with it this year? If he raises his rating on a Pinot that used to seem delicate to the point of timidity, people will wonder: how have they changed for the better? Because, clearly, it's the wines that have changed, not the critic. The critic is objective. The critic is an absolute. It's just that the Pinot is better now, and the Cab is flawed. Right?

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