Another Big Crop Year?

Apr 14, 2014 PN-CVSWe are having a run of lovely, mild, quiet weather just now: day/night temperatures in the mid- to high-70s/mid-40s, morning coastal low clouds and fog burning off by midday, light breezes. This weather is predicted to last through the weekend, with just the hint of possibility of a rainy front pushing through at the 10-day forecast limit.

Walking through the vineyard yesterday I was struck by how fruitful our Pinot is looking just now. The cluster primordia (seen in the photo above, more in my Twitter/Instagram streams) in the young-vine cane-pruned blocks are enormous, with wings on wings in some cases, mostly two clusters per shoot, and frequently two shoots per bud. It looks like 2012 and 2013 all over again.

A large crop three years in a row would be unprecedented in my experience. I’m <ahem> “interested” to see if the cumulative effect of the past two heavy crops and the very dry conditions December-February lead to massive flowering failure — somehow “worried” is simultaneously too strong and too weak to describe how I really feel.

The Syrah and Tannat are not looking anywhere near as fructiferous as the Pinot at this time, but they are several weeks behind — and the Syrah especially has fooled me before, with the crop ending up much heavier than early-season cluster evaluation led me to expect. I am surprised at how far along the Grenache is this year. At this time its development appears to be between that of the Pinot and the Syrah. Grenache primordia counts are low but they look to end up as really big clusters.

No surprise to me that the Counoise is barely budded out at this time. What really IS a surprise is that the Mourvèdre is behind the Counoise, with only 20% of vines showing even a hint of green. Up to now the Mourvèdre at the Estate has budded out between the Syrah and the Grenache. My only conjecture is that it has been delayed by the dry winter, as the Mourvèdre block is planted on our shallowest soil with the lowest water-holding capacity. I have no idea what this weird timing of bud emergence may mean for either the Grenache or the Mourvèdre this year.

My grape broker emailed me this morning: “Buyers are in a holding pattern currently because crop has potential again. If everything sets this year, at this point it is looking very similar to last year’s record breaking crop.” The word on the street is that La Crema (owned by Jackson Family Wines, producing 850,000 cases annually) does not plan to renew contracts this year for Pinot here in the North Coast — they are reportedly shifting focus to Oregon — which means there will be that much extra Pinot on the market.

Part of me is hoping for a massive flowering failure. Everywhere else.

Rites of Spring

Mar 14, 2014 View From TopHere we are, a few days into spring, and the vineyard is still looking pretty bare, while the vines in Carneros already have a couple inches of growth on them. The crew finished pruning and tying at our Estate vineyard about a week ago.

The young, cane-pruned Pinot next to the highway has started to pop (this is in the clone 91 “Pommard”): Mar 14, 2014 PN91 …but the rest of the block is still barely woolly. It used to be that the Tannat at the top of the slope was my “canary in the coal mine” indicating budbreak was imminent:

Mar 14, 2014 Tannat Old VineMar 14, 2014 Tannat Young Vine

…but only one vine up the hill — the young, cane-pruned replacement on the right — has popped, while the older vines in the rest of the block look like the vine on the left.

As a matter of course, our cane-pruned vines are trained to two canes and two renewal spurs (double-Guyot pruning) which looks like this older vine of Pinot clone 943: Mar 14, 2014 PN943 Double Guyot This pruning works well for our Dijon clones and the young vines of the heritage selection Pinots — the vines are well-balanced between crop and canopy. However over the last couple vintages we have discovered that the Haynes selection of Pinot (which we think may be a mutation known as Pinot Liébault) is more vigorous than the other Pinot Noir selections at the vineyard. We have decided we need to set an extra cane to help dissipate this vigor, meaning we had to stretch a new fruit wire to support the extra wood, as seen below:
Mar 14, 2014 PN-HVS 3-canesWe’ll see if this works for us. If the crop load ends up too heavy for the site, we will treat the third cane as a “kicker” and remove it after berry sizing and before veraison.

Endings & New Beginnings

There seem to be an unusual number of changes happening around here right now, big and small, that leave me unsettled. Bob Cabral is leaving Williams Selyem to do who knows what. I met Bob way back when he was winemaker at Alderbrook and his wife worked with me at Vinquiry.

Steve Heimhoff suddenly announced that he is leaving Wine Enthusiast to go to work for Jackson Family Wines as director of communications and wine education. Steve has been working as an independent wine reviewer for nearly as long as I have been in the industry — for Spectator from 1989 and then Enthusiast from 1994.

Then came the news that Wilfred Wong is leaving BevMo to go to work in PR for wine.com. I can remember when Wilfred started at BevMo — it was 1995 — but it seemed that he had become a fixture there.

Then there’s little things, like the closing after 18 years of Hot Shots, my favorite independent drive-through coffee stand in Sonoma, which will become a Dutch Bros. coffee outlet. It’s going to be interesting to see what the local cadre of finger waggers has to say about the rampant proliferation of coffee chains in our town (first Starbucks, and then Peet’s and now THIS outrage! where will it all end!?), now that they have lost on limiting hotel size, regulating winery tasting rooms and painting ice cream store doors pink.

Maybe I’m still unsettled by the news that a close older family member took a hard fall a couple weeks ago. Or maybe it was the hit-and-run driver that rammed into my car from behind at a stop light the other day. Maybe I’m unsettled by the annual pre-tax-day worries that my business and personal finances are teetering on the verge of insolvency.

Even good news can have an unsettling effect. I’m very happy, but also inexplicably on edge that three good friends are about to have babies. What could be unsettling about that?

I find it curiously disturbing that, nearly a decade and a half after the failure and bankruptcy of the Mobius Painter winery project that was slated to be built on land adjacent to our Estate vineyard, the parcel has finally been purchased by our neighbors on either side of it (Annadel Estate Winery and Novavine grapevine nursery) for a joint development.

I’m even a little nervous that the Weather Service is forecasting rain for Tuesday and again Friday, as we need to get our first sulfur application on the vineyard and dig out some slumped water channels that led to unwanted flooding in the last storm.

This brings me back to the one pure good thing that is not unsettling of itself: the vineyard. No matter what changes are in store for me this year — and I’m certain there will be many — the vineyard is a constant. Sure as the sun rises (which it is doing as I put the finishing touches on this piece) the regular annual rhythms of the vineyard will march on. I’m on my way there shortly to walk and check out the progress of budbreak and become, myself, for a moment, a participant with a small part of the rites of spring.

Geography Lesson On Our Labels

mandatory textThe other day our friend and client Marcel showed up with labels for his 2012 Rosé of Pinot Noir, which Kyle and I helped him apply by hand to all 64 cases he made from extra juice recovered from the fruit off our Haynes selection block at the Estate vineyard (it’s delicious wine, by the way).

Since this is the first wine we have labeled in 2014, it’s the first where we have been required to include the “Sonoma County” designation on the label, mandated by AB 1798, or risk losing our production license.

And we have not gone halfway with this, inviting confusion by doing something so vague as putting “Estate Vineyard, Sonoma Valley, Sonoma County” on our front label (can’t you just see the consumer scratching their head looking at such a label? “Which is it? Valley or County? I’m SO confused!”).

Nope — as you can see above, we have stated in a clear, all caps, sans-serif type that is the mandatory 2mm high:
“SONOMA VALLEY IS LOCATED IN SONOMA COUNTY” Nothing ambiguous about that — the consumer is enlightened, rather than confused. This is every bit as important for the consumer to know as that my wines contain sulfites, and that there are risks associated with drinking too much alcohol.

SO MANY AVAs In Sonoma County! What Is The Consumer To Make Of This Mess?

At this time there are 15 different geographically/climatologically sensible appellations — approved viticultural areas (AVAs) — that have been recognized by the Federal Tax & Trade Bureau for indicating the origin of wines made from grapes grown in the area indicated by lines on the map as “Sonoma County.” (Not to be outdone, Napa County has at least 16 AVAs, though it is only 45% the size of Sonoma County.)

Just over half of the members of the Sonoma County Vintners and the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission — two marketing organizations representing less than half of the wine producers and grape growers in the Sonoma portion of District 3 (*) — believe that it is VERY IMPORTANT that consumers be constantly reminded that these sensible appellations are all inside the lines on the map that delineate District 3, um… I mean, Sonoma County. Because, you know… Napa Valley. QED.

(*)NOTE: “District 3” is the commodity grape crop pricing district defined by the California Agricultural Statistics Service, which includes Sonoma and Marin Counties. Poor little Marin County — producers using grapes grown there are allowed to use “Marin County” on the label, but the underdog has no AVAs of its own. It’s only allowed to share either the Central Coast AVA or North Coast AVA with a bunch of other Counties. I feel sorry for it.

But wouldn’t it be exciting if the Sonoma County Vintners and the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission were to set aside their holier-than-thou prejudices against Marin County, extend the hand of friendship and equality to the producers and growers there, and rename themselves the District 3 Vintners and the District 3 Winegrape Commission?

Just IMAGINE the marketing clout to be gained by riding on the coattails of an internationally successful book and movie franchise! Never mind that District 3 of the fictional Panem is a dystopic slave state specializing in the manufacture of technology for the Capitol. Maybe we could get Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson to be our spokespeople! Now there’s an idea that’s catching fire! catching fireBut I digress…

What Does Sonoma County Conjunctive Labeling Really Mean?

We have been assured by something like a quarter of the producers and growers in the County who are wiser and more far-sighted than the rest of us that it is in ALL of our best interests to put “Sonoma County” on all our labels, that conjunctive labeling will “build brand equity” and “ensure that consumers understand where they are.” Heck they even have one bought-and-paid for demographic survey by a third-rate pollster to back up their assertion that consumers WANT conjunctive labeling (or, well, maybe, at least… it doesn’t exactly hurt consumer perception, and never mind that the results could be interpreted entirely differently).

Let’s suppose for a moment that this law was not pushed as a self-serving prop for a couple of largely irrelevant marketing entities. If we suppose that, then the alternative explanation for conjunctive labeling is that Sonoma County Vintners and the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission patronizingly and condescendingly believe that consumers are largely stupid, and ineducable. 15 is this many

Doing Our Part — Gung Ho! Gung Ho! Gung Ho!

Assuming that conjunctive labeling has been made the law of the land because consumers need to be condescended to educated, we have followed both the letter and the spirit of the law with our geographical statement. I can only hope that my fellow vintners can come up with something as forthright and creative, and that consumers actually appreciate our efforts.

Oh, The Stories Wine Writers Write

reblogged from Nick Miller's TumblrI’ve noticed a “thing” trending recently — a bunch of stories in wine-related media (and showing up on my various social media timelines) featuring young couples launching new wine brands, often making wines from non-mainstream varieties. “Young couple starts winery” is not a particularly original storyline, but the thing about the couples featured in these recent pieces is that they — like the couple in the pic above (who do not own a winery, BTW) — are RIDICULOUSLY photogenic. Which can’t possibly hurt the marketability of these stories.

This storyline is part of a larger genre of shopworn but easy-to-sell “interest” bits, including: “guy makes cubic dollars in private equity/tech/real estate, buys vineyard, builds ‘world-class destination winery’, hires famous consulting winemaker and viticulturist, releases $200+/bottle Cabernet” and — a variation on the ridiculously photogenic couple theme — “hipster somm pairs with rebel urban winemaker to produce wines that cut against the grain of the ‘international’ style” (some trendy facial hair mandatory in accompanying photos) and “winegrower eschews technology, converts vineyard to biodynamic practice, produces ‘natural’ wine” — which must include at least one photo intended to depict rugged individualism: rough clothes, 1,000-yard stare, vineyard dog, rented sheep among the vines, and a cow horn with a handful of poo.

Then there’s the ever-reliable, if somewhat more rare, interest piece formula: “rock star/celebrity ‘makes’ wine!” and the even more rare: “who knew/isn’t it awesome that ‘people of color’ can be winegrowers too?” I’ve got a few ideas on what the next formulaic “interest” tropes might be that wine writers pursue to bore entertain us: winemaking politicians, and winemaking people with disabilities (the former arguably being a subset of the latter).

Writing From The Other Circles Of Hell:
Lists & Pairings

The interest pieces are not that difficult. The writer likely is working off a press release with stock photos. They may have met the featured player(s) at a wine-themed event, or on a junket, and exchanged a few words. The writer might follow up with a phone interview, and even may go so far as to taste some wines and make a few notes to add that little bit of je ne sais quoi to the piece they are putting together.

But the writer has to do some real work to put together a list: “20 Top-Scoring Wines Of 2013!” or “15 Best Wines Under $15!” pieces might require as much as several hours of browsing on WineSearcher and note-taking. Or perhaps the writer could troll their stack of press releases and stock photos for something like “The 5 Coolest Wineries in Ohio!” or “The 10 Most Ridiculously Photogenic Winemakers Under 30!” Writers who also happen to be tasters and critics could go back through their own notes to pull out “My Top 10 Wine Discoveries Of The Year!” or “The Single Best Grüner Veltliner Money Can Buy!” or “My Thoughts On The 50 Red Burgundies Tasted On My Last Visit!”

Even more work is necessary to produce a pairing article. The writer might actually have to taste pairings to write about the “best” wine to go with beef/fish/chicken/pork, or with a particular style of cuisine. Or perhaps they could just read through a sampling of the thousands of articles that have already been written on this subject, and synthesize an “original” piece. But there is no way to do an original piece on which wines to pair with things like breakfast cereal, Girl Scout cookies, or chocolate-covered popcorn, without actually tasting those pairings — and that strikes me as work above and beyond the call.

I can see where this is going: “Best Wine And Toothpaste Pairings” perhaps, or maybe something along the lines of “Which Scotch Pairs Best With 2008 Pinot Noirs From The North Coast?” or “The Best Colorado Wines To Pair With The Best Colorado Dutchie!” Better yet, lets see some creativity in combining the list article with the pairing article — surely someone can do “10 Best Franciacortas Under $8 to Pair With Funyuns!” The possibilities are mind-numbingly ridiculous endless.

Wine “Journalism”

No doubt about it that there are stories to be reported in the wine world: business and marketing trends, acquisitions, mergers, management changes, deaths, weather, government regulation, and so forth — enough to keep at least a platoon of writers gainfully employed.

But I have a special place in my heart for a particular genre of wine journalism I call the “agenda” piece. Some writers apparently can’t seem to help themselves from 1) seeing an article — usually in a scientific journal — they don’t have the expertise to fully understand, 2) spinning up their misunderstanding through a personal agenda, and 3) producing a piece generally intended to scare the under-informed reader. From carbon footprint to water use to pesticides to nutritional labeling to sulfites in wine — and plenty more — a lot of misinformation gets slung around, agenda-driven drivel that wants debunking.

I give the agenda pieces credit for some substance. I take stronger issue with other formulae masquerading as journalism that are largely substance-free. One of these is the faux-outrage piece, which the internet is especially good at perpetuating. It goes something like this, usually with two or more participants writing successive pieces on the same topic:

“Did you hear the outrageous thing so-and-so said? How do you feel about that?”
“I’m completely outraged! What do you think about so-and-so being outraged at that?”
“It’s absolutely outrageous!”

…and on and on in a never-ending circle. I suppose it is possible to feign interest in the original outrage for a few moments, but for the love of gods it gets boring really quickly.

Another example of substance-free journalism is the unpaid infomercial. Any wine-related product can be plumped through the vehicle of an “interview” with the producer, inventor, or PR person. I’m especially fond of the logrolling form where one author tacitly endorses another, which goes a bit like this:

“Hey folks, So-and-So has written a book titled ‘Blah!’ So tell me, So-and-So, what is ‘Blah’ about?”
“It’s about blah-de-blah-de-blah. Please buy it.”
“Would you mind if I lobbed you a couple uncritical softball questions about the opinions you expressed in ‘Blah’?”
“I’d be very happy to answer uncritical softball questions! Please buy my book.”
……
“So there you have it, folks. So-and-So has written ‘Blah’ and answered my uncritical softball questions about the content of the book! Thanks for talking with me about your ground-breaking opus.”
“You’re welcome! Please buy my book.”

I mean in all seriousness — this is not journalism, it’s infotainment. And not particularly engaging infotainment at that. George Orwell may have said: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.” William Randolph Hearst said: “…all else is advertising.”

Another empty zombie that wine writers keep feeding brains to is the “wine writing is dead” theme. In fact, I do have some sympathy for the writers who are making column-inches by repeating this theme — but how many more articles do we have to endure on this topic? I don’t happen to agree that writing itself is dead, but I will admit I think that maybe the demands for content have caused some writers to at least go a bit numb from the shoulders up.

Attempting Originality While Constrained By Cliché

I could go on listing the lame story lines wine writers are subjecting readers to (um… “natural” wine, anyone?), but I’m starting to bore myself — and by now I’m sure all three of my regular readers are sick of what probably seems like kvetching. But the direction I’m going with this is not complaint. This is a pep talk — one I often give to myself.

As a winegrower, I have a deep understanding of the demands of repetition in practice, and of the emotional toll that this can take on the creative mind. Every year I do more or less the same things in the vineyard and the winery, somewhat constrained by caution and tradition. It can be frustrating. I remind myself of the wise words of Judy Rodgers, who came out of Alice Waters’ kitchen to open Zuni Café: “You’re better off making the same recipe six times than constantly trying new ones. You’ll do it differently each time, and probably make it better.” So yes I’m doing the same thing over and over while at the same time working to perfect it — like a golf swing.

At the same time, I am always on guard that while I’m busy “doing it differently each time” any changes I make are thought through and warranted. Nothing should be attempted just for the sake of doing something different. It is possible to confuse novelty with originality, but nobody worth your effort is fooled.

“The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not.” — Kurt Vonnegut

By statistical definition, half of the winegrowers in the world are below average. The same is true of wine writers. However, a strong institutional memory in winegrowing assures that the average is always improving. Does the same sort of institutional memory exist in the world of wine writing? From my perspective I see no evidence that there does.

In all honesty when I read much of what shows up in wine media today what I see is a cry for help:

“I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.” – Stevie Smith

So you writers get out there and do better! Stop playing the “write-by-numbers” game. You may write something you regret, but write so that you have actually chosen what to regret. At least for the first draft, “[w]rite like no-one will ever read what you’re doing.”

Otherwise, nobody will read what you are doing.

Looking For Our Customer

alexander meets diogenes1Quiet day in Sonoma. As I start composing this post I’m looking out at a passing storm that has brought us nearly four times the rain we have had since November. We’re still in a drought, but my friends who rely on surface water to raise their vines are getting at least a partial break.

For the moment, things are quiet. The vineyard erosion control measures have been checked and are holding up. I’ve temporarily patched our roof leak, the winery is not flooded, and Kyle and Tiffany are holding down the Salon on a day when most customers are staying home, perhaps watching the Olympics.

Last week I went to Houston for our annual partners’ meeting. It was great to be able to report another year of growth behind us, and make plans for expanding sales in 2014. There is no question but that, with big crop years in 2012 and 2013 expanding our inventory, we are going to have to pursue a return to three-tier distribution — a sales mode we withdrew from in 2008 when the Great Recession hit hard.

But since the crash of 2008 we have found a sweet niche in the long tail of the wine market, a niche where we have been successful directly connecting with many wonderful people — people who love the wines we make, and geek out when they get to sit, chat with us in our tasting salon and share our passion for our wines and for Sonoma Valley. One of the topics under discussion in Houston was how to expand that customer base.

Searching For An Honest Customer

Diogenes was said to wander Athens in the daytime with a lit lantern, looking for an honest man. According to his philosophy, honesty was demonstrated when a person’s deeds and actions matched their words. I think about this a lot.

The Down Side

I thought about it the other day when a group of guests came in to spend a couple of hours, bragged about how they had bought 50 cases at another winery, didn’t believe we were a “real” winery because we don’t have an impressive building and landscaped grounds, and bought relatively little.

I think about it every time someone comes into our salon expecting—sometimes demanding—a free tasting.

I think about it every time I exchange business cards with someone “interested in doing something” with our brand and see the look in their eyes that tells me no matter how many follow-up contacts I make nothing will ever happen.

I thought about it when I was introduced to a wine broker recently at a charity event. It was late in the evening and perhaps she was at the point of finding veritas in vino, but when she tasted one of my wines she commented “ooh that’s GOOD — great ‘food’ wine. But I can’t sell this — well maybe to one restaurant I know. People want ‘lollipop’ wines.” By which she meant sweet, soft and alcoholic. And cheap. It was refreshingly honest.

The Bright Side

Mostly I think about it when we meet someone new at the tasting salon and see their delight when they get more from us than they expected, when they “get” the wines, and when they plunk down their hard-earned cash and take some with them. I think even more about how word and deed go hand-in-hand when some of them come to visit again and again, and some of them join the wine club.

I’ve been doing this long enough to know that no matter how optimistic my outlook, not everybody is a potential customer. The people we come into contact with honestly are not “customers” until they engage with us in the cooperative dance we invite them to, and until they actually buy something. So the big question facing us in 2014 is — how do we find more of our kind of buyers?

More Direct Engagement

When I opened our tasting salon just off the Sonoma Plaza in 2005, it was an untested concept in our town. There were two other winery tasting rooms in Sonoma that opened about the same time. Today, in addition to Westwood there will soon be 26 other winery tasting rooms in our Plaza area (moving counterclockwise from us: MacLaren, Envolve, Bryter, Two Amigos, Haywood, Sonoma Enoteca, Victor Hill, Spann, Kamen, Bennett Valley, Stone Edge, Sojourn, Highway 12, Eric K. James, Walt, Auteur, Hawkes, Roche, Three Sticks, JAQK, Adobe Road, Charles Creek, Bump, R2, Petroni, and Rumpus).

Up to a point, every new tasting room that opened seemed to bring more traffic to our own salon. I’ve got to think we have reached a limit by now — a limit dictated by the amount of parking available in proximity to the downtown area. Even with our loyal customer base, referrals, and our great Yelp reviews, we are not going to get any more people in our door in Sonoma unless more parking is constructed and new hotels with shuttles open in the area.

So where does that leave us? I think we have to consider opening a second location. We have to do it someplace that will not cannibalize our existing traffic, perhaps someplace that is already a destination in its own right — maybe The Barlow in Sebastopol, or even perhaps a place in SF like Ghiradelli Square. The big question for me (aside from whether the place will pay for itself) will be, how do we adapt and evolve our customer experience to a new venue? Diogenes

Drought Weather & Farmer Concerns

rossby wavesThe weather is broken. The Rossby effect, which should be bringing winter storms down the coast, seems to be stalled. We have had a persistent ridge of high pressure over the North Coast since November, which broke down once early in December. Since then we have had an unremitting string of dry days, cool nights and record daytime highs.

I’m worried, like I have not been in 30 years. I track rainfall accumulation from November 1 to October 31, and since Nov. 1, 2013 we have received just 1.85 inches of precipitation at our vineyard. This is barely 16% of the average to-date since 11/1/1997 (11.24 inches). Just for giggles, here’s the 2014 accumulation to date compared to the next driest winters in my records:
      2014      1.85″
      2001      3.05″
      2012      3.65″
      2000      4.28″
      2010      4.60″
      2009      5.70″
      2008      6.40″
      2007      7.70″

It’s dry, drier than 2012, which USDA described as “…the most severe and extensive drought in 25 years.” This bodes ill for urban water restrictions and availability of irrigation water for the most populous and agriculturally productive State in the country.

It has me worried for our vineyard as well. The UC Davis Cooperative Extension — Fresno County December 2013 newsletter discusses a possible consequence of a very dry winter: Delayed Spring Growth (DSG). Symptoms include: poor and uneven bud break, stunted growth, smaller flower clusters or complete abortion of clusters, failure and ultimately death of individual buds, and excessive sucker growth at the base or head of the vine. So we will be irrigating soon.

Another concern is that the warm daytime temperatures will wake the vines up early. There is still the possibility of us having a sufficiently wet end of winter-start of spring to make up for the current drought, but if the vines wake up due to warming in the shallow root zone, the weak shoots will be more prone to late frost and to spring Botrytis.

I love farming grapes, and we have had a couple of easy vintages. But I’m planning for a hard time in 2014.

Midnight Rambler

MPRose2012Late-night knock on my door, and it’s my buddy Marcel. I don’t see him often, but when I do it’s either a brief stop at the winery at some random time, or a midnight visit with a bottle of wine.

Last night he showed up with an indifferent Bouzy, and this label idea for the Rosé of Pinot Noir he made from some fruit we sold him last year. We had to sit outside so we wouldn’t wake up the family and so he could smoke, and it was a damn cold and still 30°F in Sonoma last night.

As we killed the bottle he prattled away in his heavy accent on his very un-French enthusiasm for Husserlian phenomenology, Japanese silent films, and the role of the cabin boy in the British Navy of the 17th and 18th centuries (and he wonders why he’s single).

I told him I like the label. It’s about as close as I think we will ever get of a picture of him.

Are Winemakers “Bad” Tasters?

“The Tasting Panel” magazine is one of those small wine publications that boosts its circulation by sending free copies to wineries and other trade outlets. Otherwise I would have missed this gem of a column by editor-in-chief Anthony Dias Blue:

Why Are Most Winemakers Terrible Tasters?

Some years ago, I called out a certain large winery about their wines, which were consistently overwhelmed with vegetal flavors. The winemaker couldn’t understand what I was talking about. To him, the wines tasted exactly the way they were supposed to taste. He had become cellar blind.

Winemakers seem obsessed with flaws. Clearly, many American winemakers have been taught in their university courses to put each wine through a rigorous check list of defects. They are adept at breaking a wine into many pieces. This obsessive attention to detail can obscure the view of the wine as a whole… to miss the individuality and character of a wine. The wine completely without flaws is going to be a wine without character, an innocuous, boring and totally forgettable wine.

When I became director of the San Francisco Competition one of my first official acts was to nicely but firmly tell all winemaker judges to stay home.

Then, paradoxically and apparently without irony, ADB finishes his piece with:

Winemakers, listen up. Go out there and taste other wines, a lot of other wines. Maybe someday you’ll get to be a judge and, more important, it’s sure to make your own wines better.

Tony, Tony, Tony… where to start? First off, I’m going to dismiss the assertion that a wine without flaws is always, by definition, “a wine without character, an innocuous, boring and totally forgettable.” This apologia—that there is a distinction between flaws and faults, and that the former are forgivable in certain wines while the latter are not—seems to be making the rounds just now in the various media. This is hogwash. There is no distinction. And while flaws/faults can be tolerated at certain levels (levels which vary from taster to taster and flaw to flaw) they are never to be celebrated.

Secondly, it is a winemaker’s job to say: “I am making this wine to taste like THIS, not like THAT.” Every winemaker does this—each of us has an archetype, an ur-form, an ideal that informs and inspires the profile of each wine we choose to make. This is not “cellar blindness”, it’s conviction.

Third, again, it is our job to be able to thoroughly deconstruct any wine and identify flaws. Any winemaker that can’t do this doesn’t deserve the title. And the ability to do this is a prerequisite natural talent—not something “taught in university courses.” Some winemakers choose to intersect professionally with wine only in this mode, but every one I know (and that is a considerable number) in their personal relationship with wine appreciates the whole, and understands individuality and character—perhaps on a level a mere wine judge can only dream of.

And that leads to my final point. It was Anthony’s exhortation that “maybe someday you’ll get to be a judge” that I found utterly risible, in that it’s ridiculousness had me nearly falling off my chair with laughter. Anthony seems have to have forgotten something. The Right StuffIn the world of wine, us winemakers are the astronauts. We are the ones with the training, the skills, the talent, the intuition, the guts—the right stuff—to fly this thing. Guys like Anthony are the ground crew: indispensable, talented, specialized. We couldn’t do what we do without them. But we don’t aspire to do what they do.

No, I think it’s Anthony and his like in the ground crew that need to get out more. They have fallen into the same sort of complacent trap exhibited by Howard Chua-Eoan in the misogynistic bit of dross he recently penned for TIME Magazine, “13 Gods Of Food“. In her exquisite riposte, chef Amanda Cohen notes:

One thing we all have to keep in mind when reading these pieces… is that Mr. Chua-Eoan can only include what he knows and, like most editors, he spends so much time typing that he can’t get out into the world like the rest of us and see what’s actually going on. Instead, he’s trapped in a bubble, going to the same parties again and again, seeing the same chefs over and over, fighting for gift bags at the same events as all the other food editors.

Mr. Chua-Eoan can’t get out into restaurants like us normal people and meet chefs on his own… [he] is not so lucky. He has to meet chefs at special events which, as we all know, have their own problems inviting women. It’s a human centipede out there and instead of criticizing we should all just count ourselves lucky our mouths aren’t stitched to some event organizer’s anus.

I don’t have the same level of disdain for wine editors that Chef Cohen apparently has for their counterparts in food media, but her point about “the bubble” is as real in our industry as it is in hers. I believe that folks in the wine media simply can’t get out enough to know what is really going on.

Anthony Dias Blue’s view of winemakers and their tasting modes are clearly based on just a few anecdotes. According to the frequently mis-quoted UC Berkeley political scientist Raymond Wolfinger, anecdotes ARE data—but only when you have enough anecdotes. As my fellow winemaker (and excellent taster) Tyler Thomas commented when I pointed out ADB’s column to him, statistical certainty is dependent on sample size.

But really, I do get it that it’s a lot of work acquiring an adequate sample size to understand how winemakers actually taste wine in the wild. It’s just so much easier for guys like Anthony Dias Blue to create an under-informed, simpleminded fiction. And their readers will never know how they are being misled.

…And Then There Were None

Clear Deck 9/27/13Compare this picture to my last post. Thirty-two bins of Pinot are pressed off, and I have not brought anything in since the 14th. If you don’t work in a winery you can hardly appreciate how much of a luxury this is, to be able to clear the decks between bringing in waves of fruit.

We had a little rain the morning of the 22nd. The forecast was for a tenth of an inch. We received about a half an inch, and I know a few vineyards up our way that got nearly an inch. This was worrisome—we don’t expect or need a lot of rain midway through September—but didn’t amount to much agitá in the end, as we had a few very dry and windy days after to dry out the fruit before rots could set in.

As luck would have it, we had two crews doing a night pick of the remainder of our Pinot at the Estate for another winery when the rain started to come down hard at 2am. We tarped what we had picked—half of the total job—and the crews went home. The trucker showed up at 5:30am to load. Radar showed that the rain was going to stop around noon, and the winery indicated they were fine with accepting wet fruit. We convinced the crews to come back and pick the rest. They finished about 4pm but the trucker refused to come back to take the second load. (It’s been like this all harvest; I can’t remember ever having to deal with drivers this overworked and surly.) Anyway, the buyer finally found someone who would haul for us, and we got the last load delivered by 8pm. Long day.

Today the weather is perfect: warm, very dry and slightly breezy. It smells and feels like indian summer weather. We are picking Syrah for customers Sunday and Monday, then picking Syrah, Roussanne, and Tannat for ourselves Tuesday and Wednesday. I expect to be long in Syrah just like we were in Pinot, so I will spend the rest of the week looking for buyers.

Catching Our Breath …

At The Winery 9/16/13The title is meant to be slightly ironic. Walking into the winery right now it is actually difficult to catch one’s breath, as the CO2 being thrown off by all the fermenters in the picture above is nearly asphyxiating. But we are getting a little break in harvest, and metaphorically catching our breath from the hustle and the bustle of the last ten days.

We put together a wine club shipment at the end of August and started packing and shipping it the first week of September. We had a bottling scheduled for 9/4 that my normal bottling line needed to move to 9/3. I agreed to the change, with reservations, as scheduling ANYTHING the day after a long holiday weekend is risky. Unsurprisingly, we had equipment problems that forced us to cancel bottling with our normal truck.

Fortunately, the problems were resolved with minimal effort, but I still needed to bottle to free tank and barrel space before harvest. And harvest was coming—fast. Luckily, our neighbor across the way was also bottling and I was able to piggyback on their run. We bottled on 9/6.

On 9/7 we brought in our first grapes of the 2013 vintage—clones 115 and 667 of the Pinot Noir from our Estate vineyard. Our picking crews went to church on Sunday, but then we brought in grapes from the Estate every day the following week through Saturday. And on Sunday we rested.

The winery is full. In the picture above you can see 32 T-bins, each holding about 3/4-ton of fruit. I don’t have any empty T-bins at the winery, and probably could not buy, beg, borrow, or steal one right now even if I had to. The eight bins on the left are the pick from the first day, and are nearly done fermenting—I expect to start pressing those lots by the end of this week. The eight bins to the far right have not even started fermenting yet, but I expect the caps to have risen on feral yeast when I go into the winery later this morning.

One might ask “why is he writing at 3 am?” The answer is I napped from 9 pm to 1 am, then had to go in to do punchdowns—the absolutely necessary process of pushing the cap of grape skins down into the fermenting wine in each and every one of those tanks in the picture, mostly to release the heat generated by the yeast in the course of converting sugar to alcohol and the aforementioned CO2. I have to punch the caps down more or less every 6-12 hours, and due to uncontrollable factors just now I am on this ridiculous middle-of-the-night punchdown schedule.

But for the moment, we are taking a break from picking grapes. If the gods put a gun to my head I could bring in six more tons of fruit right now—I have two 3-ton wood fermenters just out of the picture that are almost ready to use (they need to be rehydrated every year so they don’t leak when filled)—but otherwise the winery is full until I get some Pinot pressed off and sent to barrels. Kyle and I are taking a little breather. Except for the punchdowns. And the pressing. And the barreling-down.

Here’s a few preliminary observations on our 2013 vintage:

  • The 2013 harvest started two weeks earlier than 2012, and a full six weeks earlier than the difficult 2011 vintage. This current vintage is starting out early, like the famous 2007 harvest.
  • Unlike 2007, the crop yields are up—making two years in a row that yields are above average, and that wineries are so full that some picking decisions are forced to be delayed waiting on tank space.
  • The grape quality is—so far—very, very good. Looking back, 1993 and 2003 were also excellent vintages for us; it appears that 2013 could perpetuate this decadal pattern.
  • I have noted that the coldest fruit we have brought in to date has only been as cold as 63°F, where in our “normal” past vintages we have brought fruit in at temperatures more like 45°F-55°F—even in early and otherwise “hot” harvests like 2004 and 2007. This is the strongest signal of climate change I have seen yet.
  • In spite of the relatively warm harvest temperatures, the majority of my Pinot ferments have been astonishingly tame. Where I have become accustomed to my Pinot ferments rocketing from around 22° Brix to 2° Brix or less in 12 hours or so, this year I am seeing mostly steady drops of 0.4-0.6° Brix an hour. This is such profound break from what I am used to regarding managing Pinot ferments that I am slightly unnerved by it.

So now it is 4 am and I am finally sleepy again. I will catch a couple hours and then meet Kyle at the vineyard to sample Syrah and Tannat. And maybe to find something to sacrifice on the altars of the weather gods so that we might be spared the rain that is forecast for the end of this week.