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.

I “Must” Do WHAT?

Rubs Me The Wrong WayThis past Thursday, W. Blake Gray put up an interview with Clark Smith he titled “Winemakers Must Come Clean”. Maybe it’s because I’m running on little sleep and a lot of stress, but this just rubbed me the wrong way. There’s are many things I HAVE to do over the next couple of months (and into the future) but “come clean” is not one of them.

Clark is plumping his new book, “Postmodern Winemaking”. In his interview with Blake, Clark asserts:

“Almost everybody uses technology, but they want to be seen as on the artisanal side. That’s why we all ‘do the minimum,’ whatever the hell that is. It’s an illusion, and we’ve worked very hard to create it. I’m offering an alternative that we just be straight with people.”

Clark Smith is an interesting guy. I’ve known him nearly 30 years—I taught him biochemistry lab when he was studying at UC Davis, and he hired me for my first winery job at R.H. Phillips in 1987. Clark has always been a strong advocate of technology in winemaking (he’s built a couple business on it) and he’s never lacked for an opinion.

Clark has long been a proponent of interventionist methods for improving mediocre wines made from average grapes—which means the target market for his approach represents most of the wine made in the world. Technology IS good, and we can thank numerous technological improvements—some with Clark’s fingerprints all over them—for the fact that industrial wines have never been better.

But I take issue with the disconnect in his statement:

I’m offering an alternative that we just be straight with people.”

This statement supposes a “we” that doesn’t exist. A lot of wines really ARE made with very little input of recently developed technology—Clark’s all inclusive “we” is false. In fact, most wines are made without these technological interventions.

But beyond that, I object to the implication that “we” are not being straight with our customers if we don’t trumpet how “we” are using technology in our winemaking. And Blake Gray’s “must come clean” headline not only plays into the implication, it further implies that by not touting the technological solutions sometimes used in some winemaking, all winemakers are engaging in sordidly deceiving our customers.

If a winemaker is careful and lucky, most modern winemaking technology is unnecessary. Flash détente, centrifugation or filtration, micro-oxygenation, reverse osmosis, spinning cone, velcorin—every one of these processes is like a medical procedure, and using them is an explicit admission that something went wrong and needs to be fixed. In the barely-controlled chaos of industrial wine production, things go wrong all the time and these tools and procedures are absolutely necessary.

But just because these tools and procedures can rescue a bad situation does not mean they make better wine when things are going well. I have tasted the results over the years, and I have concluded—as a scientist who has done the duo-trio/triangle tastings and run the stats, as well as a winemaker—that wines made with these methods do not taste as good as wines made without them. The same goes for Clark’s absurd contention that oak alternative/extract flavor is as good as new barrel.

One of the commenters on Blake’s piece noted:

“If Mr. Clark’s methods ensured the best possible wine is produced, the world would be beating a path to his door.”

In other words—we aren’t stupid—if these technological procedures really did make the best wine, every one of us would be using them all the time. Clark is a smart guy, but his insistence that “we” are deluding ourselves about the inherent superiority of traditional methods and the actual utility of these new technologies would be insulting if it weren’t so laughable.

And the same goes for the assertion that “we” must “come clean” about using these technologies. If our customers cared, we would. Our marketing people would insist on it. When I have a customer who wants the nitty-gritty details of how I made the wine in their glass, I give it to them honestly. But every one of us in this industry knows that the VAST majority of people who buy and hopefully enjoy our product have zero interest in knowing how it is made. What they care about is that it tastes good, and that the taste validates their decision to have spent the amount of money they did.

It serves Clark Smith’s agenda to legitimize these technological tools. But it is overly self-serving to imply that “we” are all using these tools all the time, and lying about it to our customers. That is a “fake-troversy.” Blake Gray is hardly the first journalist to sell an article based on a fake-troversy, and I’m not critical of that. It just rubbed me the wrong way.

In a couple of months, when I can get some time, I won’t be so grumpy. I can chill out, and get someone to rub me the right way. Rubbing Me The Right Way

Harvest Is On For Some, Not For Us

Grenache sun side vs shade sideFolks are starting to pick for still wine already. I’ve seen some trucks on the road, and posts to social media showing some Napa Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc coming off the vines. Yesterday folks posted some Pinot noir picks, but I’m sure at least half of it was for sparkling wine. On the other hand, at Westwood we are still weeks away.

I took our first grape sample of the vintage on 8/16, in the young-vine clone 90 Pinot. Saw some basal leaf yellowing and tasted some pretty ripe berries showing the beginnings of seed maturity (crunchiness). Sugar went 21.8° Brix on that sample, which—at “normal” rates of ripening—puts us 2-3 weeks from picking that block. As an indicator of how scattered things are this vintage, Cathy Corison tweeted on 8/21 that she has Cabernet at 22° Brix!

Today I had Kyle sample our block of Calera Pinot. Berries are tasting less ripe than the clone 90—the Calera Pinot seeds are incredibly bitter just now—but the skins are showing softness and releasing from the pulp (another sign of ripeness). That sample showed 20.4° Brix, 4-5 weeks from harvest.

Since Bedrock Wine Co. is buying some Grenache from us again this year for rosé, and Morgan Peterson wants the fruit at 19.5°-21.5° Brix, I thought I would grab a sample even though the block is not yet all the way through veraison. The refractometer tale: 15.0° Brix. So, hey Morgan! We’ll be delivering in a month.

The picture leading this post is of our Grenache, and shows a phenomenon I have observed every year in this variety. The fruit on the shady (morning) side of the canopy always colors up first, leaving the fruit on the sunny (afternoon) side behind. Sunlight on the clusters appears to inhibit veraison. For this reason, you can see we only pull leaves on the morning side of the canopy. Yes, I geek out on this stuff.

Acid Trip Mea Culpa

Acid Trip by Sergeant KeroroThe 2013 harvest is coming up in in a few weeks. Every year I start planning the next vintage as soon as the previous one is done, but as the harvest draws near the thought process gets particularly fraught. About now I make a dispassionate, unstinting assessment of what worked and what didn’t, and what I’m going to do differently this year.

Back in April I released out 2010 Estate Pinot Noir. Let me say at the outset — I LOVE this wine. It is complex, fruity, mineral, has great concentration,and is generally representative of our vineyard site and my winemaking goals. I believe that this wine has the potential for at least 20 years of positive development.

And I also believe it could have been better.

I’m absolutely certain that it is my fault that it is not.

This Pinot exhibits two characteristics that are the direct result of things I did or didn’t do in the winery, things that I made a conscious choice about. 1) The wine exhibits ethyl acetate — a very fruity, estery, slightly chemical solvent smell. We used to say “it smells like airplane dope” because model dope is mostly ethyl acetate. But almost nobody builds those kind of planes any more. Anyway, the wine has a pronounced whiff of ethyl acetate. And 2) the wine is VERY acidic.

Both of these things are there because of choices I made in the winery. The ethyl acetate is there because I chose to not inoculate the Pinot Noir with a commercial strain of Saccharomyces yeast. For years I have been allowing the Pinot fermentations to take off on indigenous yeast — the yeast present on the grapes and winery equipment. One of these indigenous yeast is Kloeckera — a fairly robust fermenter that produces ethyl acetate as a by-product of fermentation.

In past vintages, I have allowed the Kloeckera to conduct part of the ferment, and then inoculated with Saccharomyces both to ensure that all the sugar is used up in the ferment (Saccharomyces is more alcohol-tolerant than Kloeckera, and so will complete the fermentation of high-sugar musts that would challenge most Kloeckera strains) but more importantly: for the Saccharomyces to take up and metabolize the ethyl acetate produced by the indigenous Kloeckera.

The 2010 Pinot fruit came in at lower than average sugar — 23.9° Brix. The ferments blasted through, such that Kloeckera pretty much completed the fermentation before the Saccharomyces could take over—much less dominate—the yeast population in the tanks. The ethyl acetate was there, and there it stayed. I actually like it a little, but it doesn’t need to be there. And a part of me still associates ethyl acetate with some nasty-ass “natural” wines I tried back in the 70s and 80s. Lesson for 2013: Don’t allow the strain of Kloeckera I have floating around the winery to dominate the ferments.

But I have a bigger issue with the high acid level in this wine. I have posted before about the 2010 vintage. The vintage presented a number of winemaking challenges arising from the relative coolness of the season. The juices had normal to slightly above normal levels of acidity, more malic relative to tartaric than usual, unusually LOW levels of potassium, and relatively high pH. Trial tartaric adds did not drop the pH significantly, and so I made little or no acid addition to the various lots.

What surprised me with the 2010 Pinot was that very little of the total acidity fell out of solution as tartrates. The resulting wine was tart post-malolactic. And this is where I did something I have sometimes chastised consulting clients for: I let a philosophy trump practicality.

The philosophy was “hey let’s be more natural and true to the site and the vintage, and keep the number of additions to a minimum.” The practicality is that this wine probably would have tasted better if I had added a little carbonate (to precipitate some of the acidity). I never even did the trial. But here’s the reality — with all due respect to Alice Feiring, Raj Parr, Jon Bonné, Dan Berger and all the other writers and sommeliers (and winemakers) touting a lower alcohol, higher acid style of wine:

High acid wines are just not as enjoyable to drink as wines with moderate, balanced acidity.

I’m no fan of what I call “cocktail” wines: the high alcohol, high pH, high extract, high oak, high point score grape-based beverages that have dominated the attention of the wine world for the last decade. I am all for moderate alcohols, by which I mean under 15%—preferably closer to 14%. I have tasted some varieties of North Coast wines that are balanced at even lower alcohol. But I’ve been doing this long enough to remember when this pendulum swung before. I recall that the North Coast produced some really insipid wines in the late 70s and early 80s when last the industry felt it necessary to produce a more “European” style. I don’t want to go back there.

So here’s the lesson learned: Spend some time and money doing acid add forecasting. Don’t hesitate to go to the bag, for tartaric or for carbonate, as needed to get a “balanced” wine — by my definition of balance. Don’t let some dubious “philosophy” dictate what I do in the winery.

So Long, Dear Friend

Rex Geitner
I received a message today that my friend of many years, Rex Geitner, passed away after a brief battle with cancer.

I met Rex when I went to work for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in 1988, where he was Warren Winiarski’s manager of the Stag’s Leap and Fay Vineyards. I recall that Rex had worked for the Chappellet’s, and for Al Brounstein at Diamond Creek, before coming to Stag’s Leap.

After I was hired, Warren directed me to do research for the vineyard when I was not engaged in the cellar. I had about 6 months experience in production at that time — I was as callow and green as they come. Rex was gracious and kind even when I was brash and arrogant; he taught me most of my first lessons in the vineyard, gently allowing me to make my own mistakes, and introduced me to people like Daniel Roberts, from whom I also learned much. Rex moved on to manage the vineyards at Spring Mountain some time after I had moved on to Duckhorn and Sonoma-Cutrer.

We lost touch with each other for a while, until one day he turned up working for my friends TJ Rodgers and Valeta Massey on their ambitious and challenging Clos de la Tech project, with its three amazing vineyards in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties. It was clear that Rex reveled in this opportunity, and I was happy to be working with him again, however loosely and infrequently. He seemed very serene living in Half Moon Bay with Amy, the love of his life, and bringing his kids up to adulthood.

None of us ever knows the “real” self of another, but the Rex Geitner I knew was generous and pleasant to a fault. Strong in his faith, slow to anger and gentle in it, quick to forgive, always upbeat in the face of adversity. I’m sure he left his life as I believe he lived it. I grieve for his family and friends and offer my deepest condolences.

As for my friend, I will miss you. This world is a poorer place without you in it. Thank you for your knowledge and kindness, and for sharing both so freely with those around you.

A memorial service celebrating Rex’s life and memory will be held at 1 p.m. on June 29 at First Baptist Church San Mateo. I’m saddened that I will not be able to attend, and offer this small piece as a lasting testimonial to a good man I was fortunate enough to call “friend.”