Wine Reflection

14

The Challenges of Natural Wine

One of the criticisms regularly leveraged against the so-called Natural wine movement is its lack of definition. Critics of the phenomenon repeat the point as a central proof of the movement’s lack of legitimacy.

Some writers, however, have also asserted that lack of definition could be an advantage. Eric Asimov takes up the subject through an article in 2012 and describes the lack of definition as “one of the greatest strengths of the natural partisans” as they “refuse to be pinned down in a manner that subjects them to lawyerly argument.” Part of the advantage means they can pursue what techniques best suit their motivations within the reality of what’s available to them.

In her book, Naked Wine, Alice Feiring considers a key trouble with Natural wine lacking definition. There she says, “The danger lurks in the word’s being legislature resistant and therefore easily commandeered by commercial wineries looking to keep their market share” (2011 31). Such an event would work against the roots of the Natural wine movement, which places itself against such commercial wineries.

Definitive to the origins of the Natural wine movement rests a defense against pollutants associated with large scale farming, and additives used in the cellar.

While organic and less-interventionist wines have been made for centuries, Natural wine as a movement took form precisely at the point industrialized farming and winemaking began to dominate entire regions. As Feiring describes, chemical farming took hold in France from the 1960s, with serious changes seen in the health of the land by the 1970s (2011 38). By the end of the 1970s, winegrowers in France were beginning to assert a position in viticultural politics. By 1982, the political position had expanded from producers to sales with Natural wine bars appearing.

Natural wine as a project moves outside France as well. It takes similar form in Italy, for example, where, like France, Natural winemakers tend to also grow their own grapes.

In the New World, it becomes more difficult to carry forward a comparable model of Natural wine. In California, for example, of those that assert themselves as Natural wine producers, few also control their own farming, though there are exceptions. It is simply a different sort of grape market. In such cases, an implicit gap between cellar and vineyard changes the politics of the movement, but also the reality of what winemaking activities a producer controls. While winemakers that source fruit may retain control of their fermentation, élevage, and bottling, many enjoy limited input on viticultural choices that produce their fruit. When possible, they can of course choose to work with farmers they trust.

Motivations and needs differ between origins as well.

Influential in the difference is a contrast in regulatory board. In France, regional control groups demand particular farming practices, rather than just claims of origin, as in the United States. For producers in France, then, a Natural wine movement arises from very real need to protect against what proponents see as legally enforced ecological damage. There Natural wine proves an actual fight, with producers facing court battles, and substantial fines.

In the United States, ecological damage also stands as a real concern but without such direct legislative weight. That said, Natural wine doesn’t belong to a particular region. It’s a global phenomenon that happens to take strong form in some areas thanks to specific laws and regulations.

At the same time such politics take place, many other producers have continued to make wine through essentially organic and less interventionist means without claiming to be part of a movement. The range of wines that eschew industrialized technologies proves, then, to be broader than those claiming membership in a cause.

It appears, then, difficult to find a cohesive idea of what Natural wine is.

Still, Feiring finds the word useful for how it gives the public “a general word to indicate the kind of wine it is looking for” pointing out that while there may be issues with natural as a concept it “is good enough” (2011 13).

While many critics of Natural wine would target Feiring at exactly this point, seeing such hand waving as exactly where the illegitimacy they keep repeating shows up, her point here, I take it, is precisely made. Natural gives us a general word to get at an idea. For any of us discussing the issue, whether we’re for or against or agnostic for Natural wine, referencing Natural wine as an idea is good enough. We all basically know what we’re talking about, even if not precisely. When we want and actually need to be more careful, we can do that.

What Being More Careful Looks Like

In truth, any definition of Natural wine does have a certain vagueness to it. The point, however, is that such ambiguity is not inappropriate to the subject, nor a lack of legitimacy. Further, we can do more to resolve it.

Winegrowers farming organically and then using less interventionist cellar techniques; winemakers reducing cellar input but purchasing grapes; and producers refusing the subject while using methods appropriate to the title of Natural wine — they’re all relevant to the discussion.

(In grape buying markets, there are also organic and/or biodynamic grape growers but the discussion of Natural wine seems defined by its product — wine. So, while these growers are crucial, they’re a different piece of the puzzle. Strictly speaking, I’m not excluding them. My point is only that organic grape growers not making wine are precisely that — growing grapes but not making wine. We need and want them. However, winemakers can purchase organically farmed grapes and then chapitalize or acidify, as examples, thus not making natural wines. When we discuss Natural wine, we’re discussing what’s in the bottle, even if also what got us there. So, I am not excluding the growers but in a grape sourcing market, the winemakers choose to use such grapes or not and they can clarify that for us in discussing their wines.)

Which of these you’re getting at, and how you’re considering their activities depends on what motivates your point to begin with. That is, what is your purpose or focus? The specifics, in other words, are provided by you.

Let me explain. There are various types of definitions. (For the sake of clarity, I do need to address what might seem like a purely lexical point, but I’ll be brief.)

For example, in discussing wine, located as I am in California, I often reference wines from this state. In doing so, it’s (basically) easy to understand what I mean as the boundaries of California itself provide my definition. I mean wines made from within the state of California, and let’s assume from grapes within the state as well.

In cases where an Arizona winery, for example, is making wine from California fruit trucked across state lines it doesn’t really make sense anymore to call such wine simply as “from Arizona”, nor only as “from California.” Boundaries have gotten mixed. The wine comes from California fruit made into wine by an Arizona winery. We have a specific idea when we say “from California.”

As an example of a different sort, I might refer to Napa Cabernet. In one sense, such an idea is rather straightforward as I could simply point to every example of a wine made by a California winery using and bottling Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Any one of them would count.

However, it is common these days for people in wine to refer to Napa Cabernet as a stylistic point referencing the riper, big boned, more extracted styles associated with the 1990s. Not all Cabernet made from Napa Valley during the 1990s fits this genre. However, whether we’re for or against this type of wine, we all basically know what we’re talking about when we refer to Napa Cabernet in this way, even if the edges of the category get a little smudgy.

In which of these two ways we intend to use the idea of Napa Cabernet usually gets cleared up by the context of our conversation. When it doesn’t, our point might get confused. That’s when it’s our job simply to clarify.

In the case of Natural wine, something else is happening. To sum up before I illustrate my point: we do generally know what we’re talking about when we talk about Natural wine; that is, there is a definition already. We just haven’t quite recognized it, partially because it’s just not the same sort as either of the previous examples.

In his 1953 book, Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein puts forth a now famous account of what he calls family resemblance. He’d actually begun developing the idea decades prior, but it is in Investigations that it becomes well-known. The basic idea is simple. One of the key implications of Wittgenstein’s ideas is relevant here. It is this.

Wittgenstein pointed out that sometimes we expect things of the same type or definition to be joined by one common feature, all from California, for example, or, all of the same style, for another.

However, in many instances, a group of things or an idea are instead defined by overlapping similarities without one single feature common to all. Even so, however, we do still recognize and understand these overlapping similarities as a connected group. In such cases, asserting the group has no definition is a misunderstanding, rather than a genuine assertion of illegitimacy.

Here’s how it works.

Game Playing with Wittgenstein and My Family

When Wittgenstein discussed his idea he would often refer to the notion of similarity in families.

For example, my parents, my sisters, and I are all of the same family. My sisters and I have in common that we are each a daughter of our two parents. But my parents don’t share that similarity. They have in common that they are both parents of their three girls. My sisters and my dad share the trait of being obstinate, while my mom and I have in common often being right. (Just kidding. I thought we could use a laugh at this point.) There is no one common element that all five of us have in common, yet it is quite clear we are all from the same group.

As another of Wittgenstein’s famous examples, he looked at the notion of games. His point here was similar. That is, different games have a lot in common, but there is not one feature shared by all games. Wittgenstein describes games as a type of family.

We can take Wittgenstein up on this idea (as the entirety of Western thought has since) and consider too types of games, or parts of a family as a notion of subgroups.

Certain types of games might share more in common than another type of game. Card games are played with cards, while board games require a playing surface, for example. Similarly, my sisters and I have in common being the children of the family, while my parents share their being the parents.

In other words, there can be subgroups that share a resemblance not shared by all of the larger group, yet the subgroups together are parts of the larger group. Card games and board games are still both games, just not the same type. The children, and the parents are both part of the same family.

We can apply this idea to Natural wines.

Types of Natural Wine

As already discussed, there are different types of Natural wines.

(1) There are Natural wines made by grape growers that practice organic and/or biodynamic viticultural practices, that then go on to practice less interventionist cellar techniques with few additives.

(2) There are winemakers that practice less interventionist cellar techniques with few additives but that purchase their grapes.

(2a) We might want to add that they purchase organically and/or biodynamically farmed grapes but of those producers that have been included in the Natural wine community so far this is not true in every case. There we’ve been willing to allow Natural winemakers less defined by viticulture. It might be this forms two subgroups.

(2b) Some will likely want to exclude any wine made without essentially organic and/or biodynamic grapes all together.

(3) Wine growers and/or makers that use organic and/or biodynamic viticultural practices and/or less interventionist cellar techniques with few additives but do not define themselves with the movement of Natural wine.

Natural wine as a category includes each of the three types of wine. There is no one element shared by every single instance of Natural wine. However, that does not mean there is no definition, nor does it mean we do not know what we are talking about when we refer to the concept. We do. When we need more clarity, we can simply be more specific.

“I would like a grower-Natural wine,” for example, that is, like a grower Champagne, one made by the person that grew the grapes. “Let’s make a list of California’s Natural winemakers,” as another, that is, a list of Natural winemakers (of whatever subgroup) that make their wine in and from California. “Who is making Natural wine but not touting it as such?” as a third. In each case, we’re using that general term Feiring explains that gives us an idea of what we’re looking for, while also being just a bit more specific because we have a more specific need or sense of what we want.

Within these types of Natural wine we can also get more rule driven, when desired or appropriate. For example, organic and biodynamic viticulture have specific guidelines that are generally followed on principle for those that believe in such views, and must be followed for certification. In the cellar, Natural wine using few additives generally means nothing added to the grapes but sulfur, and being less interventionist doesn’t mean doing nothing, but does often include approaches like no invasive filtering, as examples.

For some critics, here is precisely where more rules should be drawn. It is not clear, however, that Natural wine is a rule driven category in that sense. It is in rules, rather than just definitions that the lawyerly argument takes hold, to reference Asimov’s point. There are ways to defend a demand for rules, but those are more case by case than general so I’m not going to get into it here. Further, there are many categories in wine and elsewhere simply assumed as legitimate without being subject to precise rules. It’s not clear rules are strictly necessary, in other words. Instead, I’ll point out that there are already some implicit guidelines in place in Natural wine, and guidelines are likely good enough. We do know what we mean when we say something like no additives besides sulfur, for example.

As an example, Jenny & Francois offer a list of general guidelines on their website that they believe help steer Natural winemaking. They then offer the following point that seems relevant to the spirit of Natural wine, and so is relevant here in relation to the question of rules.

For the pedants out there, it should be noted that all of these aspects are ideals. We accept that some may be on the path to these ideals and not quite there yet. We work with their wines because they share the spirit of these ideas and a desire to get as close to them as they possibly can. The road to healthy organic soils and wines is not a quick and easy path.

The point is this. What we have, and in fact have already had for a long while, is a definition of Natural wine, even if the edges get a little smudgy. It is one that we can better recognize thanks to the idea of family resemblence we get from Wittgenstein. This definition of Natural wine is good enough, as Feiring says, and avoids the lawyerly argument that worries Asimov too. In this discussion, we’ve all been talking for a long time like there is only one way to arrive at definitions, and Natural wine doesn’t have it. For a long time, that simply hasn’t been true.

Remaining Controversies

For critics of Natural wine, showing we already have a definition of the category doesn’t undo other problems. It does remove the commonly made claim that the category is illegitimate because it lacks a definition, but other issues still remain. Some of those are problems for proponents as well.

Many critics will still have issue with how Natural wine is marketed. In some cases, that depends on the marketers. In others, misunderstanding.

Implicit to many discussions around Natural wine there will still likely be hard dichotomies placed, with Natural wines on the one hand, and Industrial wines on the other. Looking at fights like those occurring in portions of France, such a view begins to make sense. In other regions, more fine-tuned accounts are better suited.

The idea of Natural wine is still not legislated. In parts of Europe, that has proven a legal problem for wine shops that know we know what we’re talking about but whose relevant legal systems don’t think we know it well enough.

The lack of legislation around the concept could put more work on the side of the consumer, but it should put more work on the part of the retailer and restauranteur to know what they’re selling and serving. The consumer’s job is to recognize whose views they trust.

People that don’t like use of the word natural itself have likely already lost the battle. In relation to wine, the category seems to have already chosen its name.

Problematic uses of the word reach back at least to the early local food movements, and health crazes of the last century. None of the claims that the word is misleading have too much weight when the truth is we all have to chose words to make our point, and the point is really made in the rest of the conversation, not just one name.

To make that last point another way (and borrowing from the late Leslie Feinberg), we can care about what word is used, but we can treat the subject (and each other) with respect using the wrong word, and we can be disrespectful using the right one. What matters is if we’re trying to listen, and have a conversation.

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4

Biodynamics Posters

Interested in a Biodynamics poster?

I’m picking up poster samples this week of the following image. It will be available for purchase here.

If you’re interested in buying one, email me (lilyelainehawkwakawaka (at) gmail (d0t) com). Biodynamics Poster

For those of you curious about what biodynamics is all about, here’s a look back at some comics that explain the ideas behind the farming philosophy, including more on the treatments shown in the poster.

Biodynamics & Wine: or, What poop, crystals, and the moon have in common

(click on images to enlarge)

Biodynamics in the Farm Biodynamics in the Cosmost Biodynamics in the Vineyard Biodynamic Treatments

Cheers!

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

 

Considering Changes at Mayacamas

Mayacamas WIneryMayacamas Winery, June 2014

In 2013, Charles and Ali Banks, in partnership with Jay and Joey Schottenstein, purchased Mayacamas Vineyards and Winery from Bob Travers, the man who had shepherded the wines since the late 1960s. Though vine growing had been established on the Mt Veeder site in the late 1800s, Travers work there brought the label to iconic status, a representative of pioneering Napa Valley, and the rustic purity possible in a wine region that had become known for blousy red wines.

After the purchase of Mayacamas was announced, worry immediately whispered through the wine community. Would we lose Mayacamas? But any complete change in ownership ushers in a new era for a winery — new ownership, new Mayacamas. Now that the site has been sold and a year been given to the new team, the question is to what degree will it alter the icon?

Travers’s wines of the site, from 1968 to 2012, offer a signature of rustic elegance, with juiciness and sense of concentration that demands time in bottle. In Cabernet, for example, five years before release was standard, aging it three years in neutral wood, two in bottle.

The distance between vintage and release sheds light on the meaning of the recent change. We won’t see Travers’s last vintage, 2012, for another three years. Nor will we be offered the new winemaker, Andy Erickson’s first, 2013, until 2018. There is no way to know, then, what the change from Travers to the new team will taste like for at least four years. In reality, it will be more than a decade before a multi-vintage picture starts to form of the new Mayacamas.

There is already, however, a lot that can be known. Interviews with Banks, and Erickson, when compared to the actual updates already put into the winery, and vineyards shed light on where we can glimpse the new Mayacamas.

The Move from Travers to Banks, Erickson, and Favia

Looking South from the top of Mayacamasfrom the top of Mayacamas looking due South into Carneros and Hudson Vineyard below, June 2014

The change in ownership struck a painful note for many lovers of the site, who have been attached to the distinctively mountain expression of Mayacamas. As recently as four years ago, Travers’s sons and extended family involvement in the winery gave wine lovers confidence the style would carry forward with a sense of continuity. With the realization the site would not remain in family ownership, the break in continuity appeared.

The wine community has carried a persistent skepticism of the new team leading the site, and what it means for the long-term style of the wines. Banks earlier partnership in the cult Napa Cabernet, Screaming Eagle, is often raised as illustration of the concern. As Eric Asimov pointed out in his 2013 look at the change in ownership, Screaming Eagle is “the cult cabernet that seems in so many ways the antithesis of Mayacamas.

Banks’s involvement in Screaming Eagle, however, might prove a red herring. His ownership there, after all, was comparatively early in his move into wine investments. Its easy to imagine a person new to the wine world assuming more expensive wines must be better, whether for their assumed quality or cachet. Banks himself describes it as a change in his knowledge as well as his palate. His investment practices prove consistent with the statement as what he’s partnered in since are labels known for a lighter, more affordable style — Sandhi, Wind Gap, and Qupe, as lead examples from California.

The Screaming Eagle worries though seem more justifiable in Banks’s choice for leadership in the new Mayacamas wine team. With Banks choosing Andy Erickson and Annie Favia as directors of the winery, and vineyard respectively, the skepticism grew stronger, thanks largely to the seeming disjunct in style between their winegrowing history and that of Travers.

Banks has repeatedly stated in interviews that he respects Travers’s work at Mayacamas, and intends to maintain its style. Erickson’s and Favia’s success, however, has come through production of wines known as both riper, and more interested in new oak than Mayacamas has ever been.

For a person interested in maintaining the Mayacamas style, selection of a management team known for wines that run counter to the mountain winery’s, then, seems a contradiction. Why not hire a winemaker known for mountain fruit? Looking at Banks’s history as an investor might give insight into the choice.

In a 2013 interview with Alder Yarrow, Banks highlights the importance of who he works with over simply choosing based on style. “[W]hat I’m doing now in the wine world is influenced by the people I want to be in business with and like working with.” Banks said. “I like these people, what they’re doing, and their vision.” From that perspective, Banks’s choice of a winemaker starts to find a context. Banks and Erickson have a long-standing history of working well together.

For many, though, the concern remains. As said, Erickson’s vision has always coincided with the execution of a different style than that known for Mayacamas. Asked about the issue, Banks defends against this worry. To Yarrow he said, “That’s what Andy’s done [before] but that’s not what he’s about. We are absolutely not going to change the style of the wines.”

Banks, and Erickson have both given numerous interviews discussing their intentions for the site. Interviews can give insight into intention, but don’t always show how ideas will be executed, whether because of the relevance of a larger context, or change in need. This week, Fred Swan and I were able to visit Mayacamas, tasting the 2013 Cabernet from barrel with Andy Erickson, and touring the site as it looks now with Estate Director, Jimmie Hayes. With that in mind, a look at the winery today, the teams views of Mayacamas wine, and the vineyards themselves can shed light on what is changing at Mayacamas.

A Look at the Winery

Andy Erickson checking the progress on Mayacamas winesAndy Erickson checking the progress of 2011-2013 vintages of Mayacamas, June 2014

Without doubt Mayacamas is a special and moving site. The basic construction of the 1880s winery has remained, with fermentation occurring in open top cinder-block fermenters, and aging starting in large decades-old wood casks, before then moving into smaller older barrels. At the back of the winery a small cave was dug decades ago until it struck a stream. After rains, the winery floor now flows with water.

Erickson himself admits, its a winery style that pushes against what he’s used to. In 2013 when it came time to move wine into the 70-year old wooden casks, he says, he had to call Travers to get reassurance the wood would really hold. “Travers said, Andy, you just have to go for it.” Erickson laughs.

In 2013, Erickson tested aging some wine from the site in new wood, and discovered the practice simply didn’t work at Mayacamas. In interviews, Travers account of the role of new oak in his wines moved between 2% and 10%. It wasn’t an approach he relied on. New wood appeared as it was needed. In Erickson’s experiment, the fruit hated new barrels. The team cancelled their 2014 order for new barrels, and plan to bring them in only as replacements are needed.

Within the fermentation room, Travers had rigged a high-maintenance cooling system. During harvest, ice had to be brought daily to the winery, then held in a handmade tank at the side of the room. Tubes with water cooled by the ice then ran from the tank to each of the fermenters to act as temperature modifier. The practice was an economical choice for Travers, as well as one likely kept by habit. In an interview for the June 2014 issue of Wine & Spirits by David Darlington, Travers explained. “I didn’t even think about modernizing. It would have been very expensive, and I thought what we were doing was satisfactory.” Before the 2013 harvest Erickson had internal cooling installed in each of the fermenters. It’s an update that seems reasonable from the perspective of both work load and ease.

Bottling for Travers was another technological hold over. It occurred over several months. As Banks explains, bottling now will occur over hours. Such a change, again, seems reasonable. Bottle variation proves a real concern when bottling occurs over such an extended time. The wine going into glass at the start of the cycle simply isn’t the same as the wine at the end. Fine tuning bottling time, then, means getting a handle on a detail that can help capture quality at Mayacamas.

The Pillars of Mayacamas Style

Jimmie Hayestouring Mayacamas with Jimmie Hayes, June 2014

The new team has spent extensive time discussing the hallmarks of Mayacamas style in an attempt to hone in on their role carrying it forward. “We’ve had a lot of big conversations about what it means to keep the style here, and what can change or not,” Hayes says.

As Hayes explains, these discussions led them to identifying pillars of Mayacamas style that prove so definitive as to not be changed. “We decided there are some pillars to the style you have to keep to keep from changing it.” He names some of them. “Short macerations for the reds is an example, and you don’t start picking later. The age-ability is another one.”

Honing in on these mainstays, the team can then also test through the details to see what can be adjusted for the sake of improving quality. As Erickson discovered, incorporating new wood was not a reasonable detail to change. But shortening bottling time is an easy way to eliminate bottle variation, for example. In reality, issues like early oxidation on whites, and a bit of funk on reds, show up on some vintages of Mayacamas. Hayes points out that is the sort of thing that can be improved upon. “That slight funk that shows up in some vintages we can tend to. We can clean it up by watching the details.” He says.

Looking at the tools present in the winery, it’s clear many of Travers’s choices came from simple pragmatism, rather than a pre-conceived romantic ideal of wine. If Travers needed fermentation space, he wasn’t going to be able to let the wines soak. At the same time, he also kept extensive notebooks, which he then gave to the new team. Picking around 23-24 brix proved consistent through the years.

Part of people’s worry in Erickson acting as winemaker rests in his consistent history of making riper wines rather than the ultra juicy, higher acid style of Mayacamas. Arriving at the site, Erickson admits he was skeptical of what he thought of as earlier picking numbers. He picked fruit from the Valley floor at higher brix levels. Through the extensive team conversations, however, as well as talks with Travers, Erickson realized he had to trust the notebooks, and pick according to site history. At Pebble Beach Food & Wine in April 2014, Erickson said the experience with Mt Veeder fruit has made him rethink some of his ideas on ripeness. He’s picking Mayacamas fruit consistent with Mayacamas history. Tasting the 2013 Cabernet, it carries all the mountain minerality and structure of a classic Mayacamas.

The Relationship of Vineyard to Winery

The remaining parcels, Merlot and Cabernetlooking from the top of Golden Hill towards blocks Fletch and Coyote, which grow Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon

A view of Mayacamas Vineyards today brings the greatest shock of change. In interviews over the last year, Banks has repeated the point that they will replant slowly. In an article by Elin McCoy in July 2014 for Bloomberg, for example, Banks explained, “We’ll need to spend millions slowly replanting. It’s not a crazy redo.

It’s also been clear all along such replanting would be necessary. In her tour of the vineyards, McCoy mentions the sight of dying vines around the property. The Mayacamas plantings averaged in age between 30 to 60 years old, a condition uncommon for Cabernet Sauvignon in particular. In addition, many of the blocks were planted on AXR rootstock, which proved vulnerable to phylloxera. The reduction of productivity found in older vines, then, was in many cases exacerbated by disease. As Hayes explained, the worst of the blocks on the site gave only 1/4-Ton per acre.

Travers himself admitted that the average volume on Mayacamas as a whole was less than 1-Ton per acre. At the same time, it was a reality he didn’t seem to have issue with. In a 2006 interview with Alan Goldfarb for AppellationAmerica.com, Travers described his affection for the reduced production. “There’s no question that the higher you get on the mountain, the rockier, the shallower, and the less fertile the soils become. We average less than a ton per acre. That’s why I’m up here. That’s why I picked this spot.

As Travers continues, he emphasizes that the quality and condition of the vineyard is what gave Mayacamas its style of wine. “Producers realize that if they’ve got a good vineyard, the vineyard can do all the talking. If you don’t do too many winery techniques, you can let the grapes be the master. These [winery] techniques reduce the vineyard effect.” Travers’s reticence in updating the winery, then, begins to make sense. For Travers, the vineyards themselves appear to be a hallmark of Mayacamas style. He valued what he had in the vines.

It’s also simply expensive to invest in replanting when your focus is on a family operation of a winery where what you’re already doing seems to work. For a new owner, however, to purchase a site and maintain less than 1-Ton per acre seems unreasonable.

As Favia explained to Jon Bonné in an article looking at the change of hands last summer, the replants at Mayacamas were necessary but a long-term process. After vines are pulled, the ground is left to rest to allow phylloxera to die out. Once the replants are initiated, at such high elevation vines take closer to five years to establish. The team’s plan is to follow Travers’s previous example. They’ll use irrigation to establish vines in the first five years, then dry farm. (They’ve also moved entirely to organic farming.) After vines are established, it’s another decade before plants are more adjusted to their site. In the meantime, clusters offer something like the distinctively fruit focused character of young vines.

It’s shocking, then, to discover that the slow replant Banks promised actually amounts to all but two blocks of Mayacamas being pulled. Viewing the site Monday, the replanting project amounts to what looks like between 80% and 85% of the vines at Mayacamas removed. Do older vines not prove to be a pillar of style? One Merlot, and one Cabernet block at the far Western side of the property remain. (At the time of this posting, I do not yet have confirmation on the acreage of the two remaining blocks.) The empty blocks will rest this year. Replantings will begin in 2015, and continue into 2017. Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir will not be reestablished on the site.

Considering the level of disease, and age of the vines, perhaps it was necessary, or easier, to remove all of the vine issues together, rather than block by block. The situation still means it will be decades before Mayacamas returns to being predominately estate fruit.

Looking at the history of Mayacamas, Travers relied heavily on sourced fruit from the beginning, and throughout his tenure. The previous Mayacamas vineyards were about 50% Chardonnay, with the remainder split between Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc (for blending), Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc. The site’s famous Cabernet Sauvignon, then, has always relied on a large portion of sourced fruit. Keeping with Travers’s seeming pragmatism, these sources varied. He did not always rely solely on Mt Veeder either. The new team has maintained Travers’s long-term Mt. Veeder fruit contracts, and added two more. In 2014, all of the fruit for Mayacamas will come from Mt Veeder.

***

Thank you to Jimmie Hayes, and Andy Erickson.

Thank you to Fred Swan.

***

To read more on Mayacamas (All articles in order by publication date):

* For a glimpse into Bob Travers, check out these older articles.

An interview with Alan Goldfarb, 2006: http://wine.appellationamerica.com/wine-review/272/Mayacamas-Vineyards-Interview.html

A visit from Evan Dawson: http://www.drvino.com/2010/01/27/visiting-mayacamas-vineyards-napa-valley/

Eric Asimov considering old school Napa Cabs: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/20/dining/20pour.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&pagewanted=all&adxnnlx=1404328112-sjc6VC03CfJ6P6TsMtsljQ

* For a look at the new ownership:

Alder Yarrow talks with Charles Banks: http://www.vinography.com/archives/2013/05/charles_banks_the_new_man_behi.html

Elin McCoy visits Mayacamas: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-07-15/private-equity-wake-up-kiss-for-mayacamas-elin-mccoy.html

Eric Asimov talks with Banks and Erickson: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/07/dining/calming-words-from-a-vineyards-unlikely-new-owner.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Jon Bonné looks at the change, including viticulture with Favia: http://www.sfgate.com/wine/thirst/article/An-improbable-guardian-takes-over-at-Mayacamas-4703491.php#page-1

David Darlington considers Old Napa turned New Napa: http://wineandspiritsmagazine.com/pages/2014/0514/0514_oldnapa.html

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Google Video Hangout with Brice Jones and Mari Cutrer-Porth Jones

Emeritus Vineyards Google Video HangoutMari and Brice Jones on Google Video Hangout
with Dezel, James, Luke, Alex, Kimberly, Steve, Rosie bird and I

As you can see, we had fun.

Emeritus Vineyards, along with Charles Communication hosted a Google Video Hangout that brought together writers from around the country to taste and talk Emeritus wines together online. Brice Jones, president and founder of Emeritus Vineyards, and his daughter Mari Cutrer-Porth Jones, director of marketing and direct sales, led the discussion of Emeritus Vineyards farming practices and philosophy. Also participating in the video hangout were writers Luke Sykora, Dezel Quillen, James Melendez, and Steve McIntosh.

Thinking About Balance in Wine

Crediting his philosophy to time with winemaking friends in Burgundy, as well as Emeritus founding winemaker Don Blackburn, Brice discussed what he views as the three elements that combine in wine. As he describes it, soil contributes the character of a wine, climate its personality, and the people behind it its spirit or style. The trifecta earns mention on the Emeritus website as well, but through the video conversation we were able to probe deeper into the idea.

As Jones describes, soil, character, and the people behind a wine work together to create the final wine itself. Also essential to Jones’s idea is the point that, like a three-legged stool, balance is achieved through the way these elements work together. Too much or too little of any one of them and imbalance forms.

Through the course of the conversation, Jones invited me to help him explicate the role these three elements take, according to his model. Following is my response to that suggestion.

Personality as Climate

The idea of vintage differences gives insight into recognizing the notions of character versus personality or style in Jones’s concept. As Jones described, if we assume the winemaker and his or her practices have essentially stayed the same from one year to the next, wine made from a particular vineyard will retain its character from growth in the same soil, as well as its style from the winemaker’s approach. Importantly, the only things that have changed from one year to the next in this case are the climate conditions, and the age of the vines.

In this model, personality of a wine, then, would seem to show through the sorts of climate differences apparent through vintage variation. A cooler year might offer earthier flavors on pinot noir, for example, or fresher green elements on cabernet. Acidity may also be higher on a cooler year, as another example. Wine from a particular vineyard, then, may show as lean and less fruit driven on a cooler year, or broader and more fruit driven on a warmer. When the vineyard and winemaking crew chooses to pick its fruit, and how the clusters and canopy is managed, however, can also influence how these climate differences show up in the final wine. It is also understood that vine age plays an important role in the vines ability to regulate its quality and quantity during vintage variation.

Soil as Character

Importantly, the soil of the wine essentially does not change year to year. However, vineyard management choices affect the way in which soil character is able to impart itself to the wine, or not. As Jones describes, winemakers such as Aubert de Villaine, have it that irrigation changes the signature of the wine. The more reliant a vine proves to be on irrigation, the shallower its roots. Irrigation draws smaller root hairs towards the soil surface as drip irrigation clusters water within surface soil. As a result, root depth tends to remain abbreviated, and vines rely on drip irrigation for its water needs. Surface soils dry quickly between rain falls thus not offering vines water without irrigation. Part of Jones’s point is that in the case of shallower roots, vines are unable to express significant or distinctive soil character. As a result, such wines are more expressive of climate personality than of soil character.

California predominately relies on irrigation, seeing the lack of water through summer as detrimental to vine health. It is the case that vines need water to be established, demanding watering during the first two years to assist in the development of the vine. Vines that have been irrigated beyond that initial period also cannot simply be moved straight to dry farming. The shallower roots of irrigated vines need assistance over several years to grow towards seeking water at deeper levels.

The contrast between the character presence of dry-farmed versus irrigated vines defines heritage regions such as Burgundy in France, or Montalcino in Italy. For California, however, the reliance on irrigation rests partially in the climate differences from the state and pivotal areas of the Old World. Rainfall during the growing season in many Old World viticultural areas differs from its lack during that stretch in California.

Jones asserts that he was initially resistant to dry farming his vineyards. However, he credits Villaine with pushing him to reflect on the idea further. After long consideration, Jones recognized that even in California, where summer rains are scarce, vines flourished in pre-Prohibition when irrigation would not have existed. He chose then, along with his vineyard crew, to shift Emeritus’s Hallberg Ranch to dry farming over a five year period. 2011 was the site’s first fully dry farmed vintage.

Looking at 2011’s vintage profile serves as interesting example of the impact of dry farming, which then gives glimpse into the notion of soil character in wine. The 2011 vintage in California proved excessively cold, leading in some cases to sheer lack of ripening for later harvested varieties. To make matters more difficult, intense rains came near the end of the season. The effect, then, was that vineyards across the North Coast of California suffered delayed ripening, leaving fruit on the vines when severe rains (and therefore mold and mildew) hit. As a result, sites across the Northern part of the state simply had no viable crop. As Jones describes, however, with dry farming the Emeritus vines were fully ripe a week before the rains hit. All of their crop was picked before the rains, then, and the rains were not a problem.

Dry farmed vines must be self regulating in a way simply not possible with irrigation. With the luxury of irrigation, vines tend to increase crop size, and relax their pace of ripening. Without the stress of seeking water, vines signal to disperse seeds is less clear.

The choice of irrigation impacts root depth, and as a result vine regulation as well. The role of soil character, then, becomes more clear with older vines, deeper roots, and dry farmed sites. In the case of younger vines, and vines with shallower roots, soil character offers less apparent presence allowing climate to play a stronger role.

As Jones explains, dry farmed vines, with deeper roots in comparison to younger vines or vines with shallower roots, offer deeper color, fuller and more refined bouquet, and richer flavor with an ultra long finish, all with greater balance of expression to the wine as a whole. In the case of North Coast vineyards, the diurnal shift of the region’s climate gives ample acidity to the wines thus carrying the soil character of the wines through with a juicy personality.

It is clear that different soil types, and slope of vineyard (a way through which soil is presented) provide differing character to a wine. Where limestone, for example, puts incredible tension down the backbone of a wine, granite feels nervy, or Kimmeridgian offers the tension of limestone with the open palate of clay.

The Role of the Vineyard and Wine Team: People as Spirit and Style

Considering the effects of climate and soil, the role of the people involved in wine production are left to consider. As Jones describes, the people offer the spirit of the wine. Over time, he has come to understand that spirit as the winemaking style.

The people behind a wine make numerous important choices from where to establish, and then how to plant the vineyard, followed by what sorts of viticultural approach will be used, and then when to pick, and what winemaking will be employed in the cellar. The choices made along the way mitigate the effects that soil and climate can offer but also establish the style of the wine.

One of the most obvious places that people impact the expression of the wine is through variety and clonal choice in the vineyard. Matching grape type to soil profile marries the human element with the character of the vineyard site. Clonal choices too can be used to bring together climatic tendencies with the varietal flavor chosen. In the case of Pinot Noir, for example, Dijon clones are often seen as more fruit-and-flower expressive compared to some of the heritage clones, which can vary widely. Over time, as a vineyard gets older and adapts to its site, clonal differences become less apparent, just as vintage variation becomes less noticeable on older vines with deeper roots.

While the winegrowing team cannot reasonably change either soil or climate for a particular site, they can lessen their influence. Choosing to irrigate, as already discussed, changes the way in which soil expresses in the wine. Other choices like choice of root stock, or training style impact how the vine uptakes nutrients from the site, and helps to determine the vines overall vigor. To put that another way, the farming practices employed, including the way in which the vineyard is established, influence the fruit expression of the vines.

Within the cellar, winemaking choices arise from the type of wine the winemaker wishes to emulate. While any winemaker may have innumerable tools and techniques available to them, which they choose depends upon the winemaking philosophy that guides their methods. A winemaker that wishes to amplify soil and climate character, for example, might strive to lessen their own intervention in the cellar. A winemaker wishing to make a reliable expression from year to year irregardless of vintage differences may increase aspects of their cellar intervention as well as diversify their blending practices.

For Emeritus, the style of the wine arises, as Jones explains, from the approach of their founding winemaker, Don Blackburn. Blackburn’s training occurred in Burgundy. He went on to champion Pinot Noir, arguing that a proportionally higher number of the finest wines in the world originate with the grape. For Blackburn, cellar techniques learned in Burgundy were essentially to bringing subtlety to the wine.

As Jones explained, it is not that he is trying to make a Burgundian wine at Emeritus. In California we don’t have the climate, nor the soils that would allow us to do that. He has no desire to emulate wines of another region, no matter their quality. Instead, his goal is to make the best wines available from his site. With his long standing connections to Burgundy, Jones established Emeritus first with Blackburn, then bringing in Nicolas Cantacuzene (raised and trained originally in Burgundy) as assistant winemaker under Blackburn. Cantacuzene has since become head winemaker for Emeritus. In working with Blackburn, and now Cantacuzene, Jones has seen that utilizing cellar techniques cultivated in Burgundy works best for generating Emeritus’s style of Pinot Noir.

***

Thank you to Brice Jone, Mari Cutrer-Porth Jones, Kimberly Charles, and Alex Fondren.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

10

Reflections on Beauty and Strangeness in Wine

“Strangeness is a necessary ingredient in beauty.” -Charles Baudelaire

Last night in the midst of a Paris Popup dinner at Penrose in Oakland I unexpectedly found my nose in a glass of Domaine Raveneau 2001 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre Chablis. The profundity of the experience proved quite simple. In the grapefruit, forest musk of the glass I smelled only joy.

A particular explanation of philosophy remarks that the philosopher’s work is to notice the strangeness of the ordinary. Such a view forms a sort of paradox. That is, the ordinary is in its nature strange, in other words, not really ordinary at all.

In what are known as the Kallias Letters, German poet-historian-philosopher Friedrich Schiller gives an account of beauty. “A form is beautiful, one might say, if it demands no explanation, or if it explains itself without a concept.” Within Schiller’s idea of the beautiful is the point that it transcends us — what is truly beautiful is not a matter of our own personal preferences (our preferences are fickle), but instead a characteristic of the beautiful thing itself. In saying that the beautiful needs no explanation, Schiller is pointing out that what is beautiful is simply complete — it needs no supplement. It is beautiful. A kind of straightforward aesthetic truth.

Schiller’s account of the beautiful seems to present an example of the very thing it works to define. It too needs no further explanation. That is, for any of us that have encountered moments of beauty in wine, his definition of beauty feels right. In the nose of Raveneau, there was nothing to say. I could try to describe aromas for the wine but the truer point was that the wine smelled of joy. It had no other explanation.

It must be said too, that for those of us that haven’t witnessed a moment like this of the beautiful (whether through wine or anywhere else), there is nothing to understand in Schiller’s point either. He can give no explanation because there isn’t one. You’ve either seen beauty, and so recognize the simplicity of it, or you haven’t.

Schiller’s account of beauty forms a sort of paradox as well. In his account, he shows that beauty is not a matter of personal preference. There is nothing fickle about the beautiful. Our tastes may change, but a beautiful form is in itself a beautiful form. Our recognition of it (or not) does not impact the truth of the object. Yet, there is a kind of problem.

The idea of beauty is an aesthetic one. Aesthetics is, by definition, a study of the principles behind beauty, but it is also a study of our sensory experiences, or that which we can witness about the world. The point is that, something like Raveneau may be beautiful in itself, but it can only be recognized or exist as beautiful because as humans we have the capacity to witness it. This point is tricky, and almost circular, so let me restate it.

Because beauty is an aesthetic concept, it is necessarily subjective — we are the sensual creatures that seek it — and yet, the beautiful thing exists in and of itself as beautiful, whether we recognize its beauty or not. We are the creatures that generate the very concept (beauty) that we then find in the world regardless of us.

It is here, then, that we discover the gift and strangeness of encountering beauty. We are struck dumb by the beautiful. In encountering beauty, we in a sense escape ourselves. Yet, we are always implicated in its form. Precisely because beauty is an aesthetic notion, it links necessarily to our senses. The experience of sensing something beyond ourselves at the same time gives us strength — we have the capacity to access, witness, and experience something beyond our own limits. Here, the intertwined nature of beauty — that it transcends us and yet we are implicated in it — reveals part of its power. The thing that transcends us roots us more fully in ourselves, precisely by its pulling us beyond ourselves, another paradox. In doing so, beauty reveals to us how much more is possible. It becomes a kind of motivation for us to be more than we thought we were.

Beauty reminds us how much more is the world than any of our self-involved analysis of it, and also of our ability to live more fully in it. In his book, The Aesthetic Education of Man, Schiller goes on to develop an account in which he treats the beautiful as an example for improving ourselves as people. There he tells us that we can strive to achieve in ourselves a sense of the completeness we witness through the beautiful. That is, when we are good there is no explanation, we simply are good. Yet, for us as humans, such goodness feels more tenuous than those moments with the beautiful, precisely because goodness for us must be an ongoing process. We must always strive for such balance without an ability to permanently arrive at it. In its parallel to goodness, beauty becomes a motivator to find comfort in our own uncertainty.

In smelling my Raveneau last night, I had no words and only smiling. The wine changed remarkably over the course of the evening, yet always carried that initial experience of my being struck. In as much as I gave myself to the wine, there was little I could say about it. To write any sense of typical wine description, I would have had to take a stance of analysis that necessarily would remove me from the very thing I sought to describe. As a result, what I find to say is this. (It is both utterly inadequate, and in itself complete. Forgive me. I can only hope the people for whom it’s meant will recognize the statement for its intended truth.)

Last night I drank Raveneau. All I can say emphatically is, Thank you.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

Tasting Place with Mac Forbes

Mike Bennie, Mac Forbes, Woori Yallock Vineyard, Yarra Valley, Australia

Mike Bennie and Mac Forbes, in the Woori Yallock Vineyard, Yarra Valley, Victoria, Australia, February 2013

It’s February the first time Mac Forbes and I meet. Wine writer Mike Bennie has generously included me on a trip around Yarra Valley, Victoria, Australia, and we’re spending the second half of a day with Forbes, and his vineyard partner, Dylan Grigg.

We focus the visit on a favorite site of Grigg and Forbes in the Woori Yallock area walking a South facing slope to see the changes of Pinot at various parts of the hill. They’ve worked with the site for several years now. Forbes tells me when they started, the deep siltstone soils created grapes so tannic the fruit couldn’t stand up to the structure. The vines now reach around twenty years old and their expression has seemed to find itself — the fruit-tannin balance gives more easily. Later, we taste several vintages of the wine. It carries a lithe tension and energy that renews my previously challenged faith in Pinot Noir.

Departing from Australia, Forbes’ wines keep returning to mind so I decide to contact him. After several re-tastings, and emails back and forth, we’re able finally to talk in early November on, what I find out later, is Forbes birthday. He’s just returning from a visit to Austria, where he spent several years as a winemaking and vineyard consultant. The trip allowed him time with long-term friends.

When I ask Forbes how his Australian winter has been, he surprises me. “Since I’ve seen you I feel like I’ve grown enormously in a humbling way,” he responds. Forbes’ wines are already well-regarded among his winemaking peers, and his experience with heritage wineries in Australia, Dirk Niepoort in Portugal, and consulting in Austria, are impressive, not to mention harvest work through France and elsewhere. I ask Forbes to explain. Eventually, his answer humbles me.

The Vineyard as an Educative Force
Mac Forbes

Mac Forbes, February 2013

Forbes begins speaking about his vineyard sites, all (small) sections of land with unique soil conditions throughout the Yarra Valley. He describes a previously abandoned collection of vines in the Wesburn region that was almost pulled until the current owner asked if Forbes and Grigg wanted to try and restore it. The project demanded several years of wrestling blackberry bushes, and tackling trees before it gave any grapes, that first fruit mainly various whites. More recently they were also able to make Pinot.

I ask Forbes what about his vineyards challenged his way of thinking. “Wesburn definitely precipitated this school of thought evolving,” he tells me. “The big thing that dawned on me in the last twelve months,” he starts, then pauses, and starts again. “So much of what I was doing has been to be outcome focused, yet I was committed to making wines of place.”

Winemakers around the world recite these days how they make wines focused on site expression. Many such examples, however, are winemakers with little contact with the site itself, simply buying fruit at the end of the season. Considering what little interaction with a location such a model affords, how they could be making terroir driven wines remains unclear. Recognizing something more in Forbes’ claim, I push him to explain. Instead of naming site features, he describes the vineyard itself as an educative force.

Looking at his example, Forbes makes wine from the Wesburn site (among others), but perhaps more importantly, he works with other winemakers that also purchase fruit from he and Grigg. The community that’s arisen from the experience has changed him.

“Wesburn fruit has a unique structure totally at odds with other sites we’ve got,” he explains. “It’s quite humbling to watch. People put on a hat ready to taste Pinot, then something else happens.” The collection of winemakers that work with Wesburn fruit come from varied schools of thought. One is more inclined towards conventional uses of apparent oak, and sulfur regimes. Another tends to push on reducing (or eliminating) sulfur additions while increasing skin contact. Over a few years, however, winemaking from Wesburn fruit put in sharp relief for all of them the impact of technique.

Listening for the Voice of a Site

In circling around our discussion, Forbes speaks about the difference between what he quickly calls a shy versus a dull site. He means the names more descriptively than critically. A dull site, as he understands it, might give quality fruit but will readily take up whatever winemaking technique you ascribe to it. The fruit itself is dull when compared to the winemaking, which shows up more in comparison.

“A shy site,” on the other hand, “might just need some space to shine.” A shy vineyard, then, could have sophisticated character but need the room to show what it has without being suffocated. Such a subtle distinction emphasizes the need for a winemaker to listen.

In offering the example, what Forbes wants to discuss is how the contrast changes the attention from outcome to place. When a winemaker’s focus is on listening, he or she has turned away from an outcome question that could otherwise seem as basic as what kind of wine to make–Pinot, for example–instead to asking how he or she will make the wine. In working with vineyards in the Yarra Valley, “I used to be looking for Pinot sites. Now I’m looking for great sites. Variety has to factor in, but it is secondary,” he says.

Education from the vineyard turns the attention away from the goal of a particular wine style or type, to the process of how to approach it, driven by what the site itself needs or wants. “Making wine in relation to benchmark examples of wine,” like Burgundy for Pinot Noir, for example, Forbes explains, “can make lovely wine, but likely suffocates the fruit a little bit.” That is, with such an approach, your attention is focused on somewhere, or something else, rather than the grapes you have.

When dealing with a shy site, “you end up having to ask how to best capture the character of the vineyard and help it come to the surface,” he tells me. “With Wesburn, we were confronted with the edge of going too far in technique.” Part of what is remarkable about the example is that it brought winemaker’s with hugely different philosophies on winemaking much closer in understanding. “This site brought people together, beyond being dogmatic, to a more similar place in approach. We all found the site wanted less sulfur, and less skin contact both. It’s been fascinating to watch.”

Fascinated by Wesburn

Forbes 2012 Pinots

Tasting early release samples with Forbes

Fascinated, by Forbes point, I ask him to talk through details. The vines at Wesburn were originally planted in 1981. The site rides the edge of potential for the Yarra Valley, as one of the team’s most expensive to run, giving incredibly low vigor from compacted mudstone and clay. Five years ago, Forbes planted Blaufrankisch believing the variety would suit the characteristics of the area. It has still to produce fruit for wine. Everything moves slowly at Wesburn. There is, in other words, low incentive for growing in the location but Forbes sees something valuable and so persists.

Moving slowly “is part of the site. It doesn’t help to push it,” Forbes explains. Trying to rush the vines won’t actually grow the fruit faster. The Pinot Noir of Wesburn, even from established vines, also took time to come back from neglect he reminds me. “I believed it would get there. I didn’t realize it would take so long.” The site is unique in Yarra Valley, protected from hot North winds blowing down from the desert, and as far East as one can go in the Yarra. It receives long morning shade, and cool air, so it shows a very specific side of the Valley. It’s the specificity of the site that has Forbes engaged.

Forbes History with the Yarra Valley

Dedicated to winemaking, Forbes spent years working in wine internationally. In 2004, however, he spent a summer with Dirk Niepoort studying vineyard sites first in Portugal, then in Austria. As Forbes explains, Niepoort tends towards vineyards other winemakers overlook as too barren, or neglected for production. The wines Niepoort makes, however, are vibrantly expressive and elegant. The experience with Niepoort made Forbes reconsider the potential of his home region.

What Yarra Valley has in abundance is ready fruit assertion. By trusting the region will give fruit character, winemakers can turn away from concerns of ripeness to search instead for what will make that fruit interesting. For Forbes, the focus falls on texture, and site expression.

After his experience with Niepoort, then, Forbes returned to Yarra Valley with a thirst for studying sub-regionality, to explore the unique, and multiple voices of the Yarra Valley. “If I am going to stay in this caper, it’s got to be to get to know what is unique about our little patch of dirt,” he explains. “If you can’t find out what is unique about your dirt, then why are you doing it?” Forbes asks. It is in this question that the humility Forbes exudes becomes clear.

Mac Forbes winemaking project is not about fulfilling or showcasing his own goals in wine as much as it is based in trying to find (with his winemaking community too) a voice that is bigger than his own to contribute to. Forbes’ wines do renew my faith in Pinot Noir, but interestingly they shed light on the grape itself less than they do the character of the Yarra Valley, and what it means to make wines of place.

***
Thank you to Mac Forbes.

Thank you to Mike Bennie, Jay Latham, and Lisa McGovern.

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

In summer 2012, I was able to meet Jacques Lardière during the International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) in Willamette Valley. As part of the event program, Lardière presented, alongside Alder Yarrow, a retrospective of his work with Maison Louis Jadot. The primary focus of the tasting, however, turned out not to be the wines themselves as much as Lardière’s vivid, while difficult, views on biodynamics.

His talk was intensely challenging. Having studied biodynamics, and specialized too in metaphysics in philosophy, I was asked by several people to outline what I thought Lardière was saying. The following post is my response to that request.

This post originally appeared here on July 28, 2012 as part of a series on IPNC.

***

Thank you to Eric Asimov for recommending this write-up in the July 31, 2012 edition of The New York Times Diner’s Journal “What We’re Reading.”

***

Meeting Jacques Lardiere, Understanding Biodynamics

“We never have the same number of wines every year. Some vintages are less. We reduce the amounts to focus only on the very good villages. We think for our customers to have only the best.” –Jacques Lardière, Maison Louis Jadot

Yesterday afforded the opportunity to listen to Jacques Lardière discuss his philosophy of wine making, as it connects to an entire system of understanding about the differences between Grand Cru, Premier Cru, and Village wines, via the metaphysical forces Lardière recognizes through biodynamic principles. Following is my understanding of Lardière’s discussion.

Jacques Lardiere

“On a good vintage, you work less because it matches you. It matches your stomach, it matches you.” –Jacques Lardière

Lardière explains that at Maison Louis Jadot the goal is to focus on a broad range of areas within Burgundy. The focus includes varying places to grow grapes and make wine from as a way to both support the house financially, but also to understand the life of the vine, and making of the wine from different locations. Towards these ends, then, Jadot depends upon two levels of wine making practices. First, the house farm harvests and makes wine from their own land in Burgundy. Second, however, and Lardière emphasizes the importance of this, they also have contracts with vineyards throughout the region.

As Lardière explains, Grand Cru and Premier Cru are very small portions of the area. Besides making these more developed styles of wine, he states that it is important also to “make simple wine.” One of the primary reasons includes that in being able to sell it quickly for more immediate consumption, you can support the financial base of the winery. But the reasons are greater. The other sites also offer, what for Lardière is not just a learning experience but also a spiritual opportunity. As he puts it, “we can work on it. It can reveal the mother form.”

Repetition of the word power is at the center of Lardière’s discussion of what wine can do, and where it comes from. In considering where the distinctions between Grand Cru, Premier Cru, Village, etc levels of wine distinction arise, Lardière describes what he calls “lines of power” present throughout the planet. The lines of power seem to fall along geologically important intersection zones, sometimes volcanic, sometimes from tectonic plates rubbing together, or from other forms of land movement and development.

As Lardière explains, in such activities the rocks warm, and more mineral molecules are released, thereby being available to the plants in a fuller way. But he says too that there is a sense in which people can feel these lines of power. As he describes it, there are times when you may be walking along a line of power feel its benefit, then as you walk away the positive effect becomes less and less, as you go back, more and more until you are on top of it, like an energetic version of the children’s game Hot/Cold/Warmer.

Jacques Lardiere

In Lardière’s view, the Grand Cru sites are directly along these lines of power. The vines are able to work less along these zones to simply receive the benefits of this energetic line, and thereby produce wine that has less undesirable flavor or sediment. But in Lardière’s view the flavor potentials of Grand Cru wine should not be seen as held only at that high level of quality. Instead, his approach to making wine is to study how Grand Cru wine best shows its potential, and from that insight to then turn to less elevated classes of wine. “We start by understanding the top, and then go to the other ones to work with them.” He explains.

In describing how Grand Cru can reveal the potential of other classes of wine, Lardière first describes his view of what impacts a wine’s potential. The place is the first most important aspect of what goes into the wine, as Lardière understands it. But what he also knows is that Burgundy itself is one terroir.

The region as a whole offers a similar sense of place. The different villages within Burgundy all live within this terroir, this unique place, but then offer their own differing potentials for aging. The Village is a fine tuning of the terroir as a whole. Then, third, there is the climate that impacts the quality of the wine from year to year. Finally, there are the Grand Cru and Premier Cru sites, which are the most subtle shifts in the development, and potential of the wine.

What happens in the growth of the vine, as Lardière describes it, is the movement of molecules from the ground, up into the plant, and finally out in the flowering. All of life is vibration, he says, as we know from physics. Vibration is how the plants grow, how they exist, what they are, how we receive from them, and what we are, as well.

“If you plant the flower, you move the star,” quoting an unreferenced poet to illustrate. The ground, as we know, is full of minerals, but in planting we release the minerality (which Lardière continually references as the power itself). Minerals, Lardière explains, are the life. The quality of the mineral that the plant is able to receive and grow from is what determines how much life the wine will have–both in terms of age-ability in the bottle, and in terms of how well the wine does after the bottle is opened. This is a distinction to be found between the wines of the Grand Cru, and those Village wines, but it is also an insight that can be taken in the handling of making Village wines.

The Grand Cru sites, according to Lardière, “match” the plants better. They simply receive what they need, and so grow with this life. Then, the wine, in turn, matches us, as humans, and we receive what we need too. Wine, in general, he reminds us, has medicinal properties. When he was growing up, he says, if a child fell and hurt themselves the parents would give them a small glass of wine. This is true of all wines, but Grand Cru helps us to better recognize it, and so then to know how to make all wines better.

As Lardière describes, it used to be that people only planted in the right places, where plants were best served by the ground. But now people plant in zones that offer not only the purer power of the minerals but also in places where the plants take up aspects that are not healthy for them or for us. What is absorbed in these areas is a denser matter that weighs the expression of the wine down in the glass. What you taste is more of a heaviness, rather than the freedom of the wine. Here one must allow the wine more time before it can be ready to show what it has to offer and, as he puts it, to release the life–the most beautiful wine.

The flavors and quality possible from a wine are the life, according to Lardière. Not all wine is treated in a way that allows this life to be released. It is easier, as he says, to make a wine that has only a couple hundred flavoral components, rather than to take the risk of allowing a wine to have four thousand.

It takes time “for the molecules in the wine to be digested, to become mature and deliver the life” of the wine. But to give the wine this time is a genuine risk. To allow it to happen depends on letting the wine close in the barrel, to turn in on itself and hide, in a way. In letting the wine close down, it has the opportunity to work through what is in it and to release the sediment that is denser and not part of the pure expression of what the wine can be. In giving the wine time to work on itself, so to speak, you are taking the risk of having to wait, of losing the wine for a time without knowledge of what it will be when it comes back after. But it will come back, Lardière claims, it will come back having found its freedom by releasing the sediment that had weighed it down. The wine’s freedom is its fuller expression–its life with four thousand flavors.

Jacques Lardiere

The process of allowing the wine to transform itself reveals to us, Lardière says, important aspects of our own mortality, and potential. We are almost entirely minerals. “When I pass away” he says, “I will be only minerals, (laughing) oh, and a few other small things. It is important to remember that.” The wine making, it is “a process of transmutation, and it could also be a process of transfiguration,” when you allow it the time to find its freedom and its full expression.

The process of the ground growing the vines, the vines then giving the fruit, the fruit then turning into wine–these are all processes of transformation, of one thing turning into something else. But our own involvement in wine making is actually a kind of spiritual training for us as well. In the earliest stages of our spiritual development we are there as the grapes turn in to wine. In this moment, Lardière tells us, “you forget the grapes.” They are no longer there as fruit, we recognize them now as wine. But this is no small thing, he says.

In forgetting the grapes, “you become something that has a name.” We recognize the beverage in front of us as a particular type of thing. But our doing so also reflects a stage of our identifying the world around us, and so too ourselves. We are no longer just beings having experiences, we are also interpreting the world around us, that is, naming those experiences. But, this, according to Lardière, is an early stage in our development. It is necessary, but we come to see it is early in our own process of finding our own freedom.

Wine, when allowed to truly go through its process of closing down, so that it can come back later opened up again in its fuller expression, points us to the greater reality of our lives. When the wine is given the opportunity to go through its full process it comes back from its stage of closing down, and has changed its molecules–sediment has settled out, and above it is a purer wine.

In Lardière’s view this is when the wine is beginning to deliver its power, and to give the life. It has become something more than we could make. We began the process but to be witness to this greater expression, we had to, in a sense, let the wine go beyond us. In doing so, the wine comes back to show us the insight of the process–it becomes something greater than merely what we have named it to be. It becomes a thing that can out live us, and that carries with it a power that extends beyond whether we, as the wine maker, or any particular individual, are even present. In Lardière’s view, this is when the wine has become even more than us.

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Thank you to Alder Yarrow for hosting Lardière’s presentation.

Copyright 2012 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

Stress Drinks in the Holidays

Truth? The beautiful, perfect, glow of love and light that is the holidays stresses most of us out. I can barely get through Thanksgiving, hide on Christmas, and then finally want to sparkle up for New Year’s but that is largely because the year we just went through is FINALLY OVER. It’s a NEW one! Yay!

A couple years ago I did a comic called, “The Precise Gift Buying Guide for the Wine Lover: Whites and Reds.” I felt like reprising the idea but instead of thinking about what to buy everyone else, I thought we could all use a reminder to make sure we have the stock we need on hand.

I sent out a tweet and a message on Facebook asking people what stresses them out on the holidays. The most horrifying response alluded to a world in which only Yellow Tail existed to drink. Please! Do not let that happen to you! Use the bubbled scenarios below to determine your optimal beverage.

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What To Drink When the Holidays Stress You Out: A Decision Flow Chart

Holiday Stress Drink Chart 1 Holiday Stress Drink Chart 2Holiday Stress Drink Chart 3 Holiday Stress Drink Chart 4click on any of the pages to enlarge

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Thanks for the help everyone! It was a lot of fun to come up with solutions for your stressful scenarios.

Cheers!

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Thank you to Katherine Yelle, Meredith Miller Elliott, Lenn Thompson, Ashley Copper Quinn, Geoffrey Stauffer, Dale Tanigawa, Laura Anglin, Shawn Swagerty, Fredric Koppel, Michael Alberty, Don Beith, Andrew Hummel-Schluger, Chris Scanlan, Jeannette Montgomery, Marita Dachsel.

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

Winters ate more than half the year. In Spring, ice floats would form in the streets. I would play by making a leap in my silver moon boots from ice-island to ice-island the half mile walk from school to home. Across the street from the house there was a yard that grew pussy willows, a tree that bloomed fuzz blossoms with the first sun of spring. The rest of the world was wet from winter melt. Each day in March, I would stop the way home from school and pet the tiny bloom with my thumb, then return home.

Opening the front door, my mom would often be at the top of the stairs making food, the light still low that time of year. Sun would rush through the kitchen window and her silhouette would greet me, lit from behind with the light that would lift more for summer.

Growing up in Alaska offered a life of finding richness in deprivation. Produce in my childhood consisted only of dried up oranges, the firmest apples, and pears picked long before they were ripe. In summer, we lived on the western coast and survived mostly on canned mushrooms and frozen vegetables to accent fresh fish and wild meats. The salmon straight from water was so vibrant, its flavor made up for limp broccoli.

The ground of Alaska is barren. It offers open vistas of dramatic landscape, the tallest mountain in North America (Mt Denali) in the distance, but so far across the valley its size by contrast rests a comfortable peak, not so obviously the one that people fall from or freeze upon with regularity. The distances between such great objects make them smaller by perspective.

The earth there is made of tundra. Herbs, berry bushes, and tea grow in peat, bound together through miniaturized roots growing into miniaturized plants. In summer, walking across the tundra it is easy to overlook plantlife, leaving it unseen because of its tiny size until the leaves and bramble break beneath your feet and your world becomes awash in scents. Summers in Alaska for me were like the blind developing their other senses–walks across tundra are so rich in scent, so bare in visual appeal. It is this overwhelming flush of smells I now know drove me into wine. Leaving the Northern climes for anywhere else, I find myself in what might as well be (by comparison) city life. In such a life, there are no scents as rich as home except in a glass of wine.

The strongest lesson of growing up within Alaska, however, is the incredible mark one person makes. The land of Alaska, with all that tundra-peat, swallows history. What is built sinks into that moistened land. Untended, buildings disappear within a generation. My first trip to Boston, with all its Revolution era graveyards, and people buried four deep atop each other shook me to the core. Nothing stands so old in my frontier. That something could last so long, occur in layers and remain, moved me. In Alaska, a cut to the land shakes the landscape. Roadways appear as stark contrast to the raw earth surrounding. In a land that swallows buildings, your choices will be lost in a generation. But, because history does not own the landscape around you as it does in older cities, the choices of your generation echo much more strongly. One man’s choices change the world.

In Summer 2012, I came to Napa Valley only to meet a few men in wine. I had two days to give for a handful of meetings. In the midst of those meetings, however, I also connected unexpectedly with George Vare. He’s a man that now, in his final project — planting a small vineyard of Ribolla gialla in Napa Valley — has come to symbolize the pinnacle of wine geek accomplishment. After meeting a few Italian winemakers whose choices he believed in, he rescued cuttings of their vines in Italy and snuck them into the United States. From those he began what would be 2 1/2 acres in the town of Napa, leading now to plantings in Carneros, and the Russian River Valley. But he would also go on to impact a generation of winemakers younger than himself. How? to seek unusual varieties, to make wines under the influence of obscure talents from regions barely heard of, to experiment in wine making, measuring standards on a more global rather than simply market scale.

Interestingly, he planted his Ribolla vineyard at the same time he also dove deep into his practices of spiritual growth. The Ribolla was a commitment not of economic capital–he made no money from it–but of giving one self to a project bigger than yourself, to something you simply cannot predict and yet believe in.

Somehow in the midst of all of this, I was lucky enough to spend time with George Vare. He is only one man. He made simple, while brilliant choices. I write about wine because in the midst of all of this, if I pay enough attention, I am sometimes gifted with the glimmer of a life.

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Inspired by Stevie Stacionis, Matthew Rorick, and Katherine Yelle; and as in all things, my mom.

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

 

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As some of you know, I have an ongoing series that has rested dormant for several months drawing Winemaker Superheroes. Abe Schoener opened the genre as Thor. Jason Lett stepped in as Dr Who (Matt Smith’s rendition, to be specific). Angela Osborne appeared as the 8th Major Arcana from Tarot, Justice. Steve Clifton was clearly Superman. In the midst of the series I also drew one Superhero Wine Writer, Jeremy Parzen, of Do Bianchi. Only a few have been drawn in the Winemaker Superhero Series (one because it takes a lot of work but also) because not just anyone can be a superhero. There must be something iconic in the person, a character that exemplifies archetypal traits and symbolism. Recently I had an epiphany for a Superhero Sommelier, and finally have had the time to draw her.

Carla Rzeszewski as the First of the Tarot Major Arcana: 0 – Faith

Carla Rzeszewski as Faithclick on comic to enlarge

Quickly Explaining Symbolism of the Tarot: The Major Arcana

In Tarot, the Major Arcana represent large themes and lessons through a person’s life. There are 21 Major Arcana, each symbolizing a crucial turning point in an individual’s life path. The Minor Arcana (which resemble the cards of a traditional card deck with four suits, numbers 1-10, and royal suites), by contrast, represent decisions that must be made, but of a more everyday nature. Major Arcana are life changing. However, prior to the start of the count of these major lesson cards there is a card marked 0, which represents the pure soul setting out guided only by intuition and good intention to journey forth on the right path whatever it may offer. The card for this journeyer is traditionally called “The Fool,” with the idea of the fool here understood to mean the pure soul, the one that is not muddied by preconceived ideas, or strict knowledge. Instead, the fool travels forth in faith not knowing what the path will bring, instead knowing only that they will face the lessons with open heart and determined foot. The fool is the person guided by synchronicity, assisted by their own commitment to follow what is right for them. With such a figure in mind, the card is occasionally called instead “Faith.”

The deepest lessons from Faith are these. The path is only ever your own–you have been hand chosen to walk it and so it belongs to you. Though you are the only one that can take the particular journey, and you will gain in doing so, it is when you walk it in dedication to something bigger than yourself you receive the greatest gain.

The card also always shows an animal of some sort that brings warning and instinct to the traveler when needed. In most decks the animal appears as a small dog.

Carla Rzeszewski as Faith

In recognizing an interest in wine, Carla Rzeszewski dove into wine study while working as a bartender, finding herself with a sort of special attention for sherry and champagne. Soon after finding her love for the beverage, she was offered the opportunity to become wine director for several new restaurants in New York City. As I understand the story, the reality of stepping directly from bartender into director of a wine program intimidated her mightily. However, one of Rzeszewski’s beliefs is that if you decide you want something, you had better be prepared to embrace it and act for it when it presents itself to you. She accepted the position. Since, Rzeszewski has not only sculpted the direction of multiple wine programs in New York, but also continued her studies in wine by traveling directly to focal point regions, tasting widely, and working with other committed individuals in wine. She has served as a member of tasting panels for the New York Times, been profiled in the Wall Street Journal, and spoken at the Inaugural Women in Wine Leadership Conference held last year in New York. She has also consistently offered encouragement to others to hunt and follow their beloved goals.

Rzeszewski represents the figure of Faith from the Tarot in her hunt-the-path patience-determination combo, her open to the life-that-comes passion, her heart that flows in love and exuberance. She is guided here by a bird of creative vision, the symbol of timelessness. In flying highest, with widest wing, this bird offers insight into the full arc of life’s path from the start of flight, all the way into its transformation at times end. It is this broad vision that allows Faith to face any adventure without having to know in advance what will be. In such flight comes clarity and calm. Through her openness, the path she walks is vibrant and rich, represented by the colors shown here throughout.

In her work with wine, Rzeszewski’s choices reflect this same creativity and exploration, a playfulness grounded in dedication to her work. Her love for her work, and the people around her is infectious. It is her friendship that most readily showcases her enthusiasm.

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Thank you to Carla Rzeszewski for your good heart. With much love.

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To read more about, and hear more from Carla Rzeszewski:

In a recent episode of In the Drink with Joe Campanale: http://www.heritageradionetwork.com/episodes/4248-In-the-Drink-Carla-Rzeszewski

Sporting her own damn trading card on Eater NY with Levi Dalton:
http://ny.eater.com/archives/2013/05/the_spotted_pigs_carla_rzeszewski_on_her_googamooga_experience.php

Getting into Why Sherry? in the Village Voice with Lauren Mowry: http://blogs.villagevoice.com/forkintheroad/2013/04/carla_rzeszewsk_queen_sherry.php

An interview with Maggie Hoffman on which wines age well: http://drinks.seriouseats.com/2012/07/what-wines-age-well-buying-wine-tips-ask-a-sommelier-carla-rzeszewski-spotted-pig.html

A interview on I’ll Drink to That with Levi Dalton: http://soyouwanttobeasommelier.blogspot.com/2012/11/carla-rzeszewski-is-on-ill-drink-to-that.html

Super fun Lady Somm Style with Whitney Adams: http://www.brunelloshavemorefun.com/2012/04/lady-somm-style-carla-rzeszewski/

Super star in the Wall Street Journal with Jay McInernery: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204909104577237530327096346.html

There is so much more great stuff online with Carla. These are just a few of my favorites.

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com