To Be Trendy
Fads in winemaking come and go. After the second World War, farmers in all fields, including winegrowing, pursued higher yields and “quality” through the use of newly developed, chemically-intensive farming practices. For the past 15 years, the stylistic trend has been to make accessible, rich wines that result in high scores from critics and ensure financial success. Today, biodynamic farming claims ne plus ultra status for proponents by taking a Shirley Maclaine approach to organic farming.
It is exciting to be part of an industry that is dynamic. It is not surprising that most of the zealotry and innovation comes from the New World where there is less inertia from tradition and lower barriers to entry for outside entrepreneurs who want to make wine. Often in their eagerness to quickly imitate what the Old World producers have accomplished over many decades, many New World wineries borrow traditional techniques outright from the Old World icons and enshrine them without considering the differences in their terroir or the logic and history behind the practices. Consider the Chardonnay producer who puts her wine grown in a warm climate in 100% new French oak and 100% through malo-lactic fermentation and ends up with a wine that tastes like a butter and toffee parfait. “It is what they do in Montrachet.” True, but if these grapes are not grown in Montrachet, no matter what the marketing team professes, the wine does not and will not taste like Montrachet. At other times, New World winemakers eschew traditional practices and wine styles as out-dated or, at least, out-moded. It reminds me of the Napa Cabernet producer who explained to me that the reason his Sangiovese did not taste like Chianti (I asked where had the sour cherry flavors gone) was that it was not hot enough in Tuscany to get Sangiovese fully ripe. Ah, right, the twin “problems” in Tuscany, lack of heat and a want of insight from cabernet producers.
There are so many variables involved in the process of making a glass of wine that theory is often supported only by supposition, anecdotal evidence and the force of personal persuasion. The resulting marketing messages (and wines) can be quite confusing to consumers, trade buyers, and, well, pretty much anyone who bothers to drink and listen to people talk about wine. Sussing out which practices are valuable and effective and which are simply misguided—or, even worse, slick marketing mumbo-jumbo—can be a daunting task. How can you tell the difference?
I put this question to Vanessa Wong, our winemaker extraordinaire. With a degree in enology (essentially, wine chemistry) and a background making wine at the some of the world’s finest and oldest estate wineries, she answered unequivocally: “What? You are asking the question from the wrong end, Andy.” This is polite language for “man, how can my brother-in-law be so thick.” Essentially, she said, you make the best wine when you aim to express the terroir of your vineyard. The land: that is real, that is unique. If you pick the right site, that dictates everything else you do. Winegrowing techniques should be based on an understanding of plant biology and viticulture with an eye directed at growing fruit that best expresses your terroir. Employing farming practices that result in over-ripe, raisin-y fruit (high BRIX at picking, e.g.) in an attempt to achieve power and fruit-forwardness, lead to fruit aromas in the wine that are monolithic and taste generically like dried fruit from anywhere. This does not allow the vineyard to express its character. If winemakers use winery techniques that mask terroir and result in soft, oaky, and/or overly fruity wines that are evocative of no place, but instead of added flavors, why not grow grapes in the Central Valley where the land is cheaper? In some cases, winemaking techniques are utilized after picking to purposefully alter or correct the character of the wine to fit an ideal that is not reality, kind of like Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. It may taste like the real thing but the wine seems a little stitched together and when it inevitably falls apart, head for cover. Instead, a winemaker should use techniques to guide and highlight the expression of the fruit without masking or adulterating terroir expression. Any advance in technology or “hot” new practice that Vanessa’s brother-in-law wants her to consider must fit through this logical framework.
Let’s take the use of stems in making Pinot noir as an example. In some cases I have liked the aroma of stems in Pinot noir, as it can add a spice and bark aroma that can lift Pinot noir’s bouquet and balance fruit flavors. I have also had many wines where the stems made the wine taste awful. I have encouraged limited experimentation with stems to see how it works with our fruit. It is oh–so-trendy while being so old school; what’s not to like? Vanessa correctly points out that our wine is already balanced by a dried pine needle spiciness and adequate tannins simply by the fact that the grapes are grown on our vineyard near the coast. Many people think we use stems because of the presence of these characteristics. She feels if we use stems, this aromatic profile will be exaggerated and dominate the wine. And her suspicions have mostly proven true. When we have experimented with using stems (anywhere from 25-100% of total) in small lots, the wine is overwhelmed and taken out of balance, not only in stem expression, but in pH, color, and tannins. If she were to use stems in all of our Pinot noir, we would have an unbalanced wine, and worse: a wine that does not express Pinot noir grown at Peay Vineyards, but rather a cocktail of our wine mixed with stem flavors.
I still cock my ears when I hear of a new trend sweeping through the industry. I want an egg shaped fermenter! I mean, they look cool. But, it takes a massive amount of attention, knowledge and patience to understand how our vineyard can make wines that capture our terroir’s unique expression. As a result, we are less tempted to flit from trend to trend. That is one variable that our customers can rely on.