27 February 2009

2, 4, 6, hate...

A dispiriting update to this post on the rate of corked wines here at oenoLogic: through the first two months of the year, adjusting for screwcapped and other synthetically-sealed wines, I'm finding nearly 6.5% of my bottles TCA-enhanced. Sadly, many of them have been on the older side, and mostly irreplaceable. That number is akin to the "bad old days" of the last decade or so, and while we'll see what the greater statistical accuracy of larger numbers brings, I think we can all agree that it's aggravating. Perhaps last year was an anomaly, not a trend?

18 February 2009

Slo food

[ljubljana sculpture]Where are we? Judging by the featureless beige on our GPS’ screen, the answer is “nowhere.” The road we’re on doesn’t exist. Yet it quite obviously does, and we’re on it, and it doesn’t look so new that our allegedly Europe-covering maps wouldn’t include it. This wouldn’t be so bad, except that we now have no idea if we’re headed to Ljubljana or…oh, I dunno, Salzburg. The tension in the car rises a bit.

So much for Italians and their “shortcuts.”

…continued here.

14 February 2009

Meat castles

[tombstones]Set in an otherwise quiet residential area of town, Le Tournedos et H. Le Tassigny isn’t the easiest restaurant to find. Not that I think it’s particularly big with the tourists in any case; everyone stares when we walk in, there’s certainly no English being spoken at any other tables, and the English we speak to each other draws a surprised glance from every waitperson that approaches our table.

The name of the game here is meat, and a lot of it. In fact, I can’t imagine wanting to eat here except if in search of the namesake tournedos, which feature on the menu in many, many incarnations. I start with a salade de gésièrs, itself a massive and extremely filling (but excellent) undertaking, and while waiting for my next course I realize I’m really not all that hungry. Oops.

So, when presented with a slab of beef about the size of my head…

…continued here.

11 February 2009

Sticky fingers

[(varner) neely and foxglove wine bottles]No more than twenty seconds after exiting my car, I’ve got a glass in my hand. In it is a dense, sticky liquid straight from a rumbling crusher a few feet above my head, with a good number of uninvited floaters: bits of stems, skins, seeds, and perhaps a few dozen fruit flies. There’s also a fair amount of the sugary goop on my hand, which means it’s now on the pen I’m using to take notes. Which means it’s also on my notebook. Which means the pages are getting a little sticky.

But there’s nothing to be done about it now, so I shove my nose in the glass and take a lusty sniff. Freshly-crushed grapes, with a bit of a edge to them. I sip, ignoring the potentially complexing elements of bug protein and stem roughage. Dense fruit, very sweet, but vivacious. It’s a wine in embryonic form, just waiting to be born. And it’s delicious.

Varner is a eponymously-named winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains, run by brothers Jim and Bob. Jim seems to handle the business side of things while Bob works the vines and the cellar equipment, though as with any family winery the actual practice is a little more collaborative than that. In any case, today Jim’s the one leading me around, while Bob grows increasingly spattered and spackled with the sticky residue of an ongoing crush. They’re bringing in chardonnay today, and in-between brief visits to chat, thief some barrel samples, or hand me a glass of fruit flies, Bob’s spending most of his time wheeling a forklift around the small parking lot, hoisting bins overflowing with grapes to an elevated platform, and then scampering up and down a ladder to check on his grapes’ plump befores and slurried afters.

But you wouldn’t know that there was a winery here unless you knew it. Local fiat disallows any hint of a public face, so access is only granted via appointment and the presence of someone with permission to open a forbidding gate. It’s not a matter of wanting to keep people out; Varner’s been given no choice in the matter by the civic worthies of Portola Valley. As a result, whenever the din of winemaking pauses – say for the workers’ lunch break – a peaceful isolation settles over the winery and its forested grounds.

Varner’s vineyards – which their business partner owns (see below) – were planted in stages beginning in the early eighties, and benefit from the Santa Cruz Mountains’ cooling effects, which assists in the preservation of acidity. In the Varners’ case, the stylistic intent came first and the vines came later, on a series of sites above the San Andreas Fault, though a few plots have been replanted as tastes and intents changed (for example, a block of gewürztraminer was supplanted by pinot noir). Two of the higher-elevation vineyards are on their own roots.

In the beginning, Jim & Bob spent a good deal of time selecting clones, including 115 and 777 for their pinot noirs, and a range of what Bob calls “old California clones” for the chardonnays. Subsequent plantings of the latter have been from a massale selection of those vines. And they try to take on “one creative endeavor a year,” which is sometimes a varietal exploration, and other times a speculative modification to technique, just to see what happens.

Experiments aside, Varner works very, very simply. Irrigation was gradually abandoned after the initial five years of vine growth (“our water patterns,” notes Bob, “are like natural deficit irrigation anyway”), and grapes are picked at around three tons per acre in temperatures between 50-60º. Back at the winery, each block of grapes is destemmed by hand, crushed, and pressed all in the same day. Varner’s particular vineyard sites don’t suffer from fog, but frost can be a problem…“though not this year,” notes Bob.

Yeasts and malolactic fermentations are natural rather than inoculated, barrels (a combination of medium-toast Allier and Tronçais, 1/3 new) are getting new wooden bungs for better control over oxygenation, and everything up to and including clarification is accomplished via gravity – no fining or filtration, just racking. Alcohols, which tend to hover around 14 to 14.5% (though 2008 has brought several wines under that threshold), are controlled in the vineyard, rather than with water or more technological means.

The tactile, sun-made-manifest fluid in my glass is chardonnay from the Bee Block, already nearing the end of its journey from grape to barrel, and from this site the Varners look for “peaches up front, lemon curd on the finish, and a sensation of chopped-up apples,” whereas the Amphitheater Block showcases its minerality in a package of less overt lushness. Pinot noir from the Hidden Block tends to show “perfectly ripe black cherry,” while the Picnic Block brings a crisper, yet still “perfectly ripe red apple” element into play. At least, that’s the intent. As we move into tasting, I’ll have the opportunity to judge for myself.

There are three projects here. Two, Varner and Neely, are just different names for the same range of wines; the latter is named after a third investor (who joins us midway through the tasting), though the label nomenclature differs between the two brands. The third is Foxglove, a larger, appealingly-priced label for purchased grapes that emphasize clean varietal character.

[chardonnay crush at varner]Varner 2007 Chardonnay Spring Ridge Home Block (barrel sample) (Santa Cruz Mountains) – Still thick and lush. Peach, apple, lees. Opaque. (9/08)

Varner 2007 Pinot Noir Spring Ridge Home Block (barrel sample) (Santa Cruz Mountains) – From a new François Frères barrel, 115 clone. Still wood-marked. Elegant. Spicy cherry (again, the wood influence). Seems lighter-styled. (9/08)

Varner 2007 Pinot Noir Spring Ridge Home Block (barrel sample) (Santa Cruz Mountains) – From a three year old François Frères barrel, still the 115 clone. Balanced fruit with light tannin. A mix of black and red cherry, strawberry, and perhaps some more exotic berries that I can’t quite put a name to. Very long. Grey soil. A persistent bit of wood influence lingers late on the finish, but it’s very minor in comparison to the new-wood sample of this cuvée. (9/08)

Varner 2008 Pinot Noir Spring Ridge Hidden Block (barrel sample) (Santa Cruz Mountains) – Actually, not even really a wine, as it was pressed just yesterday. Crisp apple with a touch of milk-soaked strawberry. Light. (9/08)

“This is a year to cut back on the oak,” notes Bob, in reference to the 2007s.

Neely 2006 Chardonnay Spring Ridge “Holly’s Cuvée” (Santa Cruz Mountains) – Very restrained. Apple and apricot, but not just the fruit…skins and other plant-parts as well. There’s good acidity and a lot of minerality. Medium-bodied, steady-state, pure, and fabulously balanced, but this needs more time to develop into what it’s becoming. (9/08)

Wine “can be balanced and [still] dull,” notes Bob, who looks for simultaneous “tension and equilibrium” in the end product.

Neely 2005 Pinot Noir Spring Ridge “Holly’s Cuvée” (Santa Cruz Mountains) – A blend of clones 115 and 777. Intense cherry…really more like an explosion thereof…with just a hint of tar. Vivid. Beautiful texture and huge, deep-black minerality. Starts bright and blinding, then turns structured in the middle, and finishes with supple gentility. (9/08)

“Interesting aromatics with lushness on the palate…that’s the goal of California pinot noir,” claims Bob.

Neely 2005 Pinot Noir Spring Ridge Picnic Block (Santa Cruz Mountains) – 777 clones on 5C rootstock in “the poorest soil on the property.” Dark blackberry, blueberry (both with seeds intact), and broodberry. No, that’s not a word, but it applies here. Lush indeed, but very well-balanced, and frankly gorgeous. Is that a little tail of licorice? Long, vivid, and intense. Impressive. (9/08)

Neely 2007 Pinot Noir Spring Ridge Picnic Block (barrel sample) (Santa Cruz Mountains) – Anise. Red fruit with black skins, or so it seems; definitely not the other way around. Beautiful acidity, long, silky, and supple. A fine particulate texture pairs with flawless structure. “We’re looking for an interplay between raspberry and dark red plum skins.” (9/08)

The chardonnays, according to both Jim and Bob, are built for around seven to ten years’ aging, but they’re less sure about an endpoint for the pinots. “Ten, fifteen years?”

Foxglove 2007 Zinfandel (Paso Robles) – 15% petite sirah, 14.6% alcohol. Big boysenberry fruit, with a nicely bitter espresso edge. A little short aromatically, but eminently drinkable. (9/08)

The Varners consider their work an always-interesting combination of art and science. And in fact, science is often paired with the duo’s occasional lapses into old-style California winemaker cant, e.g. their desire for “tannic equilibrium and some synergistic energy.” But both Varners describe their philosophy in an appropriately simple way, insisting that what they do is no more than “really paying attention to natural conditions.” Their wines – pure, complex, unadorned – reflect their sites, but they also exemplify this well-tested hypothesis.

Now if I can just get this chardonnay residue off my fingers…

Disclosures: lunch at Lavanda paid for by Jim Varner, several bottles purchased at a significant discount.

10 February 2009

Identity crisis

[grapes]Describe the taste of a raspberry.

Asked to do this from memory, rather than by biting into the actual berry, your initial instinct will likely be to rely on a tautology – raspberry tastes like raspberry – rather than to start rattling off a litany of qualities that define “raspberry-ness.” In fact, given an audience that has also tasted a raspberry, this may be the most useful description one can propose.

Now, describe the taste of a peach. Again, invoking the “Reflexive Property of Peaches” is tempting. But now that there are two fruits under consideration, you might also be able to compare and contrast the two, which brings new vocabulary into play. You might, for example, point out the greater acidity and seed-and-squirt crunch of the raspberry, or the sweetness and smooth chew of the peach.

What you’re not likely to do is declare that “this peach tastes like a raspberry,” or vice-versa. Why not? Because it would be extraordinarily unlikely to think that, and even less likely to actually be true. The differences, even if one lacks the organoleptic vocabulary to iterate them, are both significant and obvious at first taste.

Or, consider two things a little closer to each other (genetically speaking): tuna and sole. While the gulf between the taste of these two fish may be shallower than in the previous example, there’s still very little chance of mistaking one for the other in their native, unadorned form. Why not? Because they don’t taste alike, nor are they texturally alike. There is, for lack of a more developed explanation a “tuna-ness” and a “sole-ness” that, once one has tasted them, draws clear lines of separation between the two. And in both cases, this knowledge is essential because informs how we use the ingredients. For example, aggressive preparations that work with tuna will obliterate sole, while delicate sauces perfect for sole might be overwhelmed by the intensity of tuna. Raspberries will bring a tartness to a dessert (which might, in some cases, necessitate adding sugar for balance) that peaches will not. Were we unaware of these differences, we would have no idea when to use which ingredient; we might be making a linzer torte with tuna jam, or dipping raspberries in little slurries of wasabi and soy. (And yes, I’m aware the latter is bad sushi etiquette.)

“All this is obvious,” you might be thinking to yourself. Quite so. But make the subject of analysis a wine grape, and for some this obviousness apparently goes right out the window. Describe the taste of pinot noir? How dare anyone suggest that pinot noir is like this, that, or the other thing…why, it’s varietal fascism of the highest order!

A straw man? Unfortunately not, as anyone who’s spent much time on online wine fora will know. Consider, for example, this recent thread on eRobertParker.com, wherein a debate over this point is joined by people on all sides of the issue. Even Parker himself sees fit to join the fray, though given his all-too-typical syntactical incoherence it’s hard to say exactly what position he’s taking; he seems to be against “typicity” as a general concept, but for the idea that grapes have identifiable characteristics. Here’s a verbatim excerpt; see if you can make sense of it:

I have never found anyone who can give an accurate definition of "typicity"....or anyone who can find much of it in a double blind tasting....if typicity is merely reciting the generally agreed upon 2-4 flavors/aromas that each varietal offers,I am impressed....usually I associate the use of "typicity" as a substitute for mediocrity

(Let’s get one bit of definitional precision out of the way. I’m not talking about “typicity” as it is used within, say, the French appellation system. That sort of typicity – a Sancerre must “taste like a Sancerre,” and so forth – is related, but fraught with complications, and a longer subject than I’m willing to tackle at the moment. The issue under consideration here is both broader (the very existence of typicity) and differently focused (how that concept applies to grapes).

So what is varietal character? In the context of wine, it’s the qualities of grapes that differentiate one from another, and that make that grape identifiable in isolation. It’s one of the three elements that create the character of a finished wine (the other two are terroir and winemaking). Components include various aromatics, of course, but also structural and developmental factors. For instance, some grapes have naturally long ripening curves, or inherently low acidity, or a persistent greenness from high concentrations of pyrazines, or a natural inconsistency in maturity within a bunch.

[grapes]This all seems basic enough, right? Yet it is denied by so many. Let’s start by examining the consequences of this stance.

If, for example, sangiovese does not have an identifying signature, then how can a raspberry? Lavender? They can’t. In the absence of an essential character to the wood used for barrels, what does it mean to invoke the aroma of oak in a wine? Nothing, because who can say what oak smells like? Much of the language of wine description is thus lost at a stroke. Consider, for example, this representative note from Robert Parker:

A blend of 82% Zinfandel and 18% Carignane, the similarly priced, full-bodied, inky ruby/purple-tinged 2004 Zinfandel Buchignani reveals superb raw materials along with abundant quantities of raspberry, blueberry, black cherry, and loamy soil notes as well as subtle oak in the background. Nicely layered with good acidity, and an opulent, powerful finish, and a low 14.4% alcohol, it can be enjoyed now and over the next 4-6 years.

Now let’s try that note again, but this time removing references to things that (according the anti-inherency crowd) cannot have identifiable characteristics:

A blend of 82% Zinfandel and 18% Carignane, the similarly priced, full-bodied, inky … 2004 Zinfandel Buchignani reveals superb raw materials along with abundant quantities of … as well as subtle … in the background. Nicely layered with good acidity, and an opulent, powerful finish, and a low 14.4% alcohol, it can be enjoyed now and over the next 4-6 years.

Not very descriptive, is it? No, it’s not useless, and some might prefer that the wine notation abandon its over-reliance on the produce aisle, but the language is fundamentally and unrecoverably stunted. Even “acidity” is problematic, because it is a discrete chemical (several, actually), with defined organoleptic characteristics, and those who believe that such definitions are impossible would certainly wish to be consistent. Tannin, not mentioned in this note, would be another victim as it, too, is a specific thing, though describing its effect (“bitter,” “smooth,” etc.) would remain acceptable. What about sugar, or alcohol? I’m not sure, but they might have to go as well.

So, as some would have it, one should no more be able to tell gewürztraminer from mourvèdre by taste and smell alone than be able to differentiate tuna from a raspberry. Does that make sense to anyone? Of course not, and I doubt most who take the position that there is no or little inherent varietal character would agree with that statement. Why, then, do they insist on its truth in other situations? If it’s true that there’s no gewürztraminer character, then indeed who’s to say that’s it’s not mourvèdre after all?

Something that one notices, almost right away, is that the deniers of varietal character tend to be mostly, though not exclusively, from the New World. Or, if not, from newish producers and regions of the Old, where viticultural traditions are not measured in centuries, or even millennia. Why might that be?

As with the never-ending terroir debate, there’s an element of resentment involved. Not jealousy, it’s important to note, but fatigue. A weariness and wariness over constantly having to defend their wines as “bad” or “wrong” not because they have their own assortment of individual flaws, but because they are not [insert paradigm-defining Old World wine region here]. And that’s certainly understandable. The Willamette Valley is not Burgundy, the Santa Ynez Valley is not the Piedmont, Mendoza is not Cahors, and so forth. If terroir is to mean anything, that must be acknowledged.

And sure, maybe there are some who would ask, “who is anyone to say what a raspberry tastes like?” But while I wish them well in their philosophically pure subjectivity, there’s not much point in engaging them in a debate on the subject, because they’re not likely to agree on any definitions upon which to base a discussion. As I suggested before, however, most objectors to the codification of varietal character probably don’t actually believe in definitional anarchy, despite their protests to the contrary. Instead, they’re defending their wines as a finished product, and by extension are drawn into a corollary debate about the grapes required to produce that product. Grapes that sometimes don’t taste much like their historical or traditional antecedents.

What does it mean, for example, to say that a pinot noir tastes like a syrah or a zinfandel; a charge leveled at many a New World pinot? We can restrict that charge to the finished wine, in which case there are all manner of winemaking techniques that can achieve, at least in part, those results. But in the main, winemakers utilizing such techniques aren’t the ones doing the complaining, they’re the industrial, mass-market-focused types that aren’t heard from much outside of annual stockholder reports. No, the winemakers raising objections tend to work pretty simply from grape to bottle, or buy from those who do. Yes, they utilize some of the “tricks” – one might more charitably call them “mitigations” – that are a part of every winemaker’s portfolio, but not often to an unduly deformative extent. Thus, the difference in their wines’ character comes not from strange voodoo in the cellar, but more often than not from the practices of the farmer, who uses knowledge both ancient and modern to achieve results that would be recognizable by the first people to ever grow wine grapes…even if they might not find the resulting wines particularly familiar.

To push a pinot into realms where people think it tastes like something it’s not (without mucking about in the cellar) requires one of two things: an individualistic terroir, or something historically atypical about the condition of the grapes at harvest. The terroir differentiator is easily tested by comparing the wine in question with other wines from the same terroir. Do any of them “taste like pinot” by the standards of the person leveling the charge? If yes, it’s not the terroir, it’s a farming choice. Which, one learns, it almost always is. And these days, the most common path towards difference (or what critics would call deformation) is the search for greater ripeness (or what critics would call overripeness). Not just of the aromatics, but of the grape’s various structural elements.

Is it reasonable to assert that, across wildly varying terroirs, a grape will show identifiable yet common characteristics? Within certain parameters, yes: a grape tasted at analytically similar stages in its evolution, and – this is important – bracketed within the range of what most people would call “ripe,” will indeed taste much the same from place to place. And so, lacking fundamentally deformative cellar practices, will the wine that results from it, though of course there will always be differences as well. But note that key caveat. A grape pushed past that bracketed stage, or not allowed to reach it, shares something in common with very old or botrytized wines in that it becomes very difficult to identify in contrast to its genetic cousins and distant relatives. Varietal similarity due to the less controversial form of this – underripeness – is amply demonstrated by supermarket wines in pretty much any country, where one €5 Jurançon will taste much like another $6 pinot blanc: green-tinged and vague fruit, and watery, perhaps with some sugar to “cover up” the winery’s general indifference to quality.

And as for the more controversial stage – elevated ripeness (see how even I’m afraid to use the loaded word “overripeness”? though the French sur maturité finesses the issue with the usual French élan) – here we see how New World producers and their Old World spiritual cousins can feel so put-upon. For indeed, their wines are often bigger, fruitier, and more alcoholic (at least at harvest; alcohols are easy to adjust downward) than the paradigmatic regions to which they are so frequently, and to their minds unfairly, compared. There are good and bad reasons for seeking escalating levels of maturity, but they’re beyond the scope of this particular post, so for now it’s enough to accept that such viticultural choices and their results exist, and then turn our attention back to the issue of varietal character.

One might legitimately wonder whether or not there’s an objective way to accuse a given grape of misrepresenting its established standards. As is almost always the case, the only true way to assess objectively is to restrict study to quantifiable criteria. The problem, of course, is that the mere attempt to assign those criteria brings us very quickly back into the realm of subjectivity. Who decides what the criteria are? We could, by fiat, decide that certain levels of X, Y, and Z (including aromatic and structural elements) define the characteristics of a given grape, and in fact we might have just about enough scientific understanding of grape chemistry to do this. But to what end? Deciding that gewürztraminer must possess X amount of whatever chemical is responsible for its signature lychee aroma is a great idea…right up to the point that one encounters a beautifully made gewürztraminer that smells nothing like lychee. If this is a result of terroir influence, as seems quite possible, then by elevating and enshrining one we negate the other: either varietal characteristics must trump terroir, or terroir must trump varietal characteristics. And that’s a subtraction from, rather than an addition to, our understanding of wine.

Outside of the lunatic fringe that insists all aspects of wine quality can somehow be assessed objectively, there’s no reason that this judgment can’t be, at heart and in practice, a subjective one. In other words, nothing more complicated than “it tastes like pinot noir to me”…the oenological equivalent of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” definition of pornography.

[grapes]But isn’t this subjective and restrictive definition a little unfair to our objecting winemakers? No, not at all. In fact, it’s the only sensible way to approach this issue. Here’s why.

Our understanding of the “essentialness” in things (raspberries, tuna, nebbiolo) is not useful because it gives us an opportunity to practice our tautological vocabulary, but because it allows us to make an informed decision about how we utilize those things. We choose olives rather than chocolate with our tuna because we have foundational expectations for what both will bring to the combination. We drink a yogurt-based beverage with lamb vindaloo because we know based on experience that a high-alcohol zinfandel that might otherwise go with lamb is going to taste like 151-proof rum when faced with that much heat. And we control the choices we make based on our experiential and theoretical understanding of the information available to us. Information that includes an internal and personal database of “essentialness.”

In other words, we make our own choices for our own reasons. And just as a chef’s opinion that tuna and chocolate are just spiffy together doesn’t matter unless that chef is participating in our dining experience, neither does a winemaker’s opinion that grenache is best when it tastes like riesling matter unless that winemaker is drinking with us. The chef and winemaker also make their own choices for their own reasons. But their choices and their reasons need have nothing to do with our choices and reasons as long as we have options. Which we do, in spades.

So it is not only enough to believe and thus say, “this pinot noir tastes like syrah,” it is the only way to say it, given that as with all assessments of wine, the implied subjective preamble (“for me…”) must be understood. Since that is all we have, it cannot be gainsaid merely because it is subjective. It cannot be disproved either, though it is susceptible to being shouted down by weight of anecdote. Especially when a winemaker, or the winemaker, is supplying a good portion of that weight.

This happens all too often, and it’s very unfortunate. The leap from “this pinot noir doesn’t taste like pinot noir” to “this pinot noir is [objectively] faulty because it doesn’t taste like pinot noir” is taking one’s rightful subjectivity into realms of claimed objectivity that it cannot possibly navigate. But “who are you to say?” (especially from a winemaker) makes a similarly dubious and perhaps even less useful claim that the very lack of objective truth is itself the objective truth. This is wrong. The absence of truth is just that…its absence. It cannot be repeated enough: other than a few bits of measurable data of only marginal interest to the consumer (rather than producer) of wine, all we have is subjectivity, unless we want to restrict wine appreciation and discussion to the laboratory.

So where does that leave us on the subject of varietal character?

Rejecting wines, or even entire categories of wine, based on personal conceptions of how grapes should and shouldn’t taste is not only justifiable, is eminently sensible, albeit more honorable if it’s done in response to experience rather than to reputation. Some may choose to eat and drink whatever they like whenever they like, without regard for the interaction between any of the elements. But I suspect those people are in the distinct minority; after all, most people don’t put ketchup on ice cream and could offer reasons why (e.g. “it sounds disgusting”). We as consumers regularly make choices, and those choices are best when based on a set of expectations. If we cannot rely on our expectations, then we cannot make informed choices. Since it is to our benefit to make informed choices, it is essential for the realization of that benefit that information be interpretable by our expectations. And, so, it is essential that a pinot noir taste like a pinot noir…by whatever individual standards we have set.