How California wines have changed

Experienced American wine writer Dan Berger, once wine correspondent of the LA Times, has kindly sent an article he has written for California Grapevine about the recent Carneros discussion on ripeness levels. Below is a slightly abridged version with some statistics that are fascinating whether you agree with Dan's central thesis or not.

Over the last year, the question of just what is ripe (and thus what is under-ripe and what is over-ripe) has popped up as a major topic of conversation among dedicated wine lovers, winemakers, and those in the media.

A point of reference here. When a red wine grape is harvested very late in its growing cycle, the result usually is something more closely resembling a raisin, and at that stage of the game, the fruit has little of the character of the original grape, which is supposed to (in wine anyway) exhibit its varietal character. So late harvesting, even if it doesn’t totally destroy the varietal character, has a way of diminishing it significantly.

The Carneros Quality Alliance (CQA) staged a ripeness symposium the other day for winemakers and the media, focusing on the issue of just what constitutes ripeness, and David Graves of Saintsbury set the tone of the conference when he stated: “In the early 1980s, we all heard the term ‘food wines,’ which were wines that were supposed to go with food. They were balanced and had less explosive power. Today, we have wines with alcohol levels that are much higher than we have ever had before. Why are alcohol levels so high? Why is fruit being picked at higher Brix than we ever picked at before? Can we tolerate such alcohol levels? Wine styles are a human creation. We can make decisions that affect wine style in a great way.”

Michael Havens admitted that he was “happy to represent the fringe elements here,” noting that he believed in a lot less ripeness than most winemakers. He aims to craft a more balanced wine. He called the debate one between those who preferred natural wines and those who believed in manipulated wines.

“But what do we mean by natural?” he asked. “After all, we choose the rootstock, we choose the varieties and the soils in which we put them.” Havens suggested that man’s choices often lead to much bigger-then-necessary wines, and that a great deal of man’s tinkering with the system is aimed at making a wine that scores high with certain critics. And he offered a solution on how wineries could make wines that scored very high: “Just take your alcohol, multiply it by your percentage of new oak, divide by the square root of the number of days of cold soak and multiply by your percentage of residual sugar,” and he gave an example that totaled 95.

He also said that many larger (corporate) wineries do things slightly differently: they do focus-group surveys, which eventually leads back to winemakers making harvesting decisions in late summer.

The focus group, Havens implied, was the root of all of this. And I believe it.  I firmly believe that the average consumer of wine (not those who pay attention to varietal identity and regional issues) often has no knowledge whatsoever of what constitutes a classic wine. Or even a sound wine.

Yes, some may have more sensitive taste buds and noses than others, but the insidiousness of the focus group is that it is usually conducted by a polling specialist – a person who also has no clue what a classic wine is all about. I participated in one such focus-group survey some years ago. I was approached in a parking lot of a department store in southern California and asked if I would like to participate in some research. Without revealing I was a wine writer, I agreed and was led to a room where I was given some wines to taste out of horrid little glasses and then asked some of the most inane questions you can possibly imagine.

One of the questions had to do with the “fruitiness” of the wine, and it was absolutely clear that the interviewer was asking not about the aroma or the taste, but the sweetness level! Without tipping my hand about who I was, I asked if the term “fruitiness” didn’t have something to do with the way the wine smelled. The researcher/pollster was extremely clear that in using that term he meant the wine’s softness, sweetness.

One of the questions raised from the Carneros audience of journalists related to the dilemma winemakers face. The query about the dilemma sort of took this form:

- Winemakers who work for large companies usually are the instruments of the corporate machine, and it is the machine that decides what style of wine will sell fastest and for the most amount of money. (Or makes the greatest profit margin.)

- The machine makes these decisions by use of various means, one of which is to analyze the highest-scoring wines (usually $50 to $100 or more), even though those wines have nothing to do with the $10 to $25 wines the winemakers are being asked to craft.

- The winemakers are passionate about wine; they make what they prefer to drink (for the most part), and are willing to push the envelope to make wines that sell faster as long as the style isn’t so radically different from the style they prefer.

- The marketing department usually pushes the winemaker to make decisions that are not exactly what the winemaker would prefer. Even winemakers who do not work for large corporately owned wineries face the dilemma: make a flabby wine that sells fast, or make one with the acid you know is best for balance and risk slow sales? (And isn’t there a mid-point?)

The winemakers at the symposium didn’t speak of this as a dilemma, but used the term “tension,” the feeling they experience at harvest time. “The tension is enormous,” said Donaldson of Domaine Chandon. “The pressure to make a 90+-point wine is real.”

For the winemaker who is his or her own boss, who has no marketing department pulling strings above the backdrop, “The tension is within us,” said Michael Havens, who said he frequently was willing to make a more distinctive wine than one that was more “popular” with the masses by making it broader, softer, and with greater breadth when the wine wouldn’t show as well as in a leaner style.

Then we get to the issue of large vineyards, which is a logistical issue that few ever discuss. Imagine a vineyard that’s 50 acres planted contiguously with the same variety. The average sampling crew can only get to some parts of the vineyard prior to harvest, giving an average of what’s in the field. But picking crews (or even mechanical harvesting machines) can only work so fast.

It may take more than a day (or more than two) to harvest such a large block, and this may cause winemakers to make picking decisions based not on an optimum sugar, but on other factors.

“The logistics dictate a lot of what you can do,” said Anna Moeller-Racke of Donum Estate. “When you’re picking only 50 tons, you make one decision. It’s a lot different when you’re picking 800 tons.”

Bernards addressed the issue of high alcohol in many wines when he said that Cabernet Sauvignons and Pinots Noirs at 14.8% are simply too alcoholic for the wines to work with food. “Alcohols have to go down over the next five to ten years,” he said, adding that for wineries to go “chasing scores” may be counter-productive. “The mob is fickle,” he said, noting that what may seem to be popular now may be seen in just a few years to be an aberration, and not a wine for the dinner table.

Since this was a Carneros-sponsored event, no one wanted to speak directly to the question of high alcohols in Zinfandels, although a few of the winemakers pointed out that even in Zinfandel, the claret-style of wine is still much-admired among winemakers who know of the charms of the variety.

They pointed to the fact that the demand by some for bigger and bigger wines is little more than a macho attempt to prove that a winery can make such heavy, exotic wines, but that when the raisin component seems to over-ride the fruit of strawberry, blackberry, and raspberry, the main elements in a classic Zin, the wine then can’t be seen as a food accompaniment. Not when the alcohol is closer to port.

Indeed, as I sat listening to this discussion, I mused over the fact that in today’s Zinfandel world, anything over 15.5% alcohol is actually higher than fino sherry.

In California today it’s hard to find a range of under-14% alcohol wines.

Just for fun, I subsequently grabbed a copy of my binder of the California Grapevine for 1990. Among the tastings on which this publication reported in the February-March issue was one of 1985 and 1986 Cabernets. The tasting included the following wines from one through 12, with alcohols and prices:

1. 1986 Fetzer, Barrel Select, 13.8%, $10.99

2. 1985 Shafer, Hillside Select, 13.0%, $24

3. 1986 Dunn, Howell Mountain, 13.7%, $30

4. 1986 Cosentino, Reserve, 13.0%, $18

5. 1986 St. Francis, Reserve, 13.1%, $20

6. 1986 Vita Nova, Reservatum, 13.8%, 20

7. 1986 ZD, Napa Valley, 13.1%, $16

8. 1986 Gustave Niebaum Collection, Tench Vineyard, 12.8%, $15

9. 1985 Heitz, Martha’s Vineyard, 13.5%, $60

10. 1985 Dominus Estate, Napa Valley, 13.0%, $45

11. 1985 Heitz Bella Oaks, 13.5%, $25

12. 1985 Heitz, Napa Valley, 13.6%, $18

In the April-May issue of the same volume, a report on Zinfandels from 1986 and 1987, only one wine (1986 Hop Kiln, Russian River Valley) was listed above 14.0%; it was at 14.5%.

In the June-July issue, two reports on 23 different 1986, 1987, and 1988 Zins, only two wines (1988 Lytton Springs and 1987 Boeger) were rated above 14.0%.

More compelling is the fact that as alcohols have risen, the pH on these wines has risen as well, giving the wines a softer, sweeter character, with thus more early drinkability for novice drinkers. Please note the last three words of that sentence [and see a recent article in your turn, How will bordeaux 2003 age?].

Meanwhile, the number of US consumers of all wines has risen significantly. As per-capita consumption has risen, to nearly three gallons per adult per year, a major reason for the increase is the number of new consumers for whom wine has become a beverage.

Novice drinkers thus make up a lot of US wine consumption figures and to a huge degree this passion for soft, flat-and-flabby wines by the newly enfranchised has left on the mind of marketing departments that their wines need to soft and fat, and that crisp and dry must not be a part of the mainstream.

Yet classic paradigms of “dry” wines are actually dry. That is, instead of seeing pH levels of 3.7 and 3.8 (which are very commonplace in today’s red wines), as I look back in the old California Grapevines, I see pH levels of 3.4, 3.5 and only an occasional 3.6. (For the uninitiated, with pH, even hundredths of a point are significant.)

Thus the softness that we see, which is a result of higher pH from later harvesting (a failure of winemakers to heed their mentors of the past to harvest with lower pHs), is mere pandering to the novices.

And yet the fact that the palates of novice drinkers are so similar to the palates of the two most powerful voices in the scoring arena may not be so coincidental. It’s a chicken-and-egg sort of argument, and clearly it was the big chicken that came first:

That is, the highest scores usually go to soft, flabby wines. Newcomers to wine bought the wines with the highest scores, learned to cut their teeth on such soft and unstructured wines, and thus never developed a more cultured taste for the classic paradigms that call for better acid balance.

Soft was in. Tart was out. Period, end of story.

I was chatting with a young winemaker the other day who was dead certain that his Cabernet’s pH levels, off his mountainous Sonoma Valley land, were “pretty low.” I asked how low. He said 3.7 to 3.8. I winced, and suggested that at that level, most wine scientists would rate his red wines to have a high pH. He rejoindered that he had done lab analysis of some of the Napa Valley’s most prestigious wines, red wines from the various priests and priestesses of the High Kingdom, “and they’re in the 4.0 to 4.2 range.”

I suggested that that pH range was utterly ludicrous for red wines. At the ripeness symposium one winemaker said that at that level of pH, a wine would be susceptible to all sorts of common maladies, including Brettanomyces, the aroma of which can be off-putting. (Wet dog in a phone booth was one wine lover’s mild description of the character.)

The Sonoma Valley winemaker was unmoved by my comments on his pH. And then he pointed out that for a time, his winery used Dick Arrowood as a consultant, “and he suggested we pick when the pH was at 3.4!” he exclaimed, as if that was an outrageous idea.

So, what’s wrong with that? I asked. Arrowood is a graduate of Fresno State, as sound a wine making school as exists, and Arrowood has been making wine (great wine, I would add) for three decades.

So let’s look back at a random group of Cabernet Sauvignons from the 1980s and their pHs. The following are all wines from the good vintage of 1986:

Cafaro, 3.35; Mondavi Reserve, 3.47; Whitehall Lane, 3.42; Caymus, 3.65; Johnson-Turnbull, 3.36; Robert Pecota, 3.58; Forman, 3.52; Silverado, 3.37; V. Suttui, 3.47; Kenwood, 3.40; Dry Creek, 3.55; Streblow, 3.45; Eberle, 3.5; Plam, 3.59; Morgan, 3.45; Mazzocco, 3.4; Shenandoah, 3.3; Buehler, 3.55; Domaine Michel, 3.36; Carmenet, 3.5; Cosentino “The Poet”, 3.45; Spottswoode, 3.4; A. Rafanelli, 3.48; Kenwood “Jack London”, 3.4; Shafer, Stag’s Leap, 3.55; Lambert Bridge, 3.37; Tudal, 3.57; Beringer, Knight’s Valley, 3.39.

I could go on. The point is clear, I think. Wines of the 1980s and early 1990s were made with structure that allowed them to age. Today’s brutish, oafish wines are being harvested so late and then their pHs not adjusted enough (or at all) to make the resulting wines taste strange when young (not tart enough to work with food, irrespective of alcohol levels) and with structures that allow them to fall apart when just a few years in the bottle.

The winemakers of Carneros were right to call the ripeness symposium. Many of them were asked to address an issue they may have thought about, but perhaps hadn’t spoken about openly.

Perhaps such a symposium ought to be staged every few weeks to re-impress upon them how their gut reactions ought to be respected.

And as for the young Sonoma Valley winemaker, I can only suggest looking at a textbook on wine making and going back to the older winemakers among us for advice that would likely pay huge dividends down the road.

Finally, a look back at the start of this article. Filmmaker Jonathan Nossiter’s Mondovino may be a flawed and over-long documentary on how wine has been compromised over the last decade or two, but the message underlying his passionate voice is clear. It is that the vitality and distinctiveness of wine is being compromised by those who treat this product as one to manipulate into a positive scoring range, even if that manipulation is equivalent to using a can of spray paint to improve the Mona Lisa.