Back during the fall of the last year, I ran a series of posts talking about passion and Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir is a finicky grape which, I can only guess, has some enchanting properties – for the winemakers and wine lovers alike. Pinot Noir has an ability to grab you and never let you go – once discovered, it becomes an object of obsessive desire: winemakers go out of their way to make the best Pinot Noir wine, and oenophiles go out of their way to find it.
To give you the best examples of Pinot Noir’s passion and obsession, I decided to [virtually] sat down with a pioneer, a rocket scientist, a soil fanatic, biodynamic believer and some true farmers – all of them from Oregon. Through our conversations, I wanted to convey the unwavering belief in the magic of that little black grape, Pinot Noir.
We talked with Ken Wright of Ken Wright Cellars, David Nemarnik of Alloro Vineyard, Mike Bayliss of Ghost Hill Cellars, Wayne Bailey of Youngberg Hill Vineyards, Steve Lutz of Lenné Estate and Don Hagge of Vidon Vineyard – the passion was easy to see, through their words and through their wines.
The essential Pinot Noir map includes four major players – Burgundy, California, New Zealand and Oregon. Out of these four, Oregon usually beats Burgundy in consistency, and often California and New Zealand in finesse. That consistency and finesse don’t go unnoticed – and not only by wine consumers but by the big domestic and international wine businesses and investors as well. Big businesses are great, but – they are, first and foremost, big businesses – and passion is often replaced just by pragmatic business needs and shareholders value.
The wine quality and creativity is on the upswing around the world, and while consumers are driving this trend with an ever increasing thirst for the wine, nothing can be taken for granted – the wines have to find the consumers, and convince them that they are worth paying for.
The big business interest and more and better wines – what does it mean for the Oregon wine industry, the passion and the Pinot Noir? To answer this question, I asked once again for the help of Carl Giavanti of Carl Giavanti Consulting, wine marketing and PR firm, who reached out to the Willamette Valley Wineries Association. As you can imagine, I had more than one question, so here I would like to share with you what I have learned.
First three questions were answered by Anthony King, 2017 President of WVWA Board of Directors and General Manager of the Carlton Winemaker’s Studio:
[TaV]: Willamette Valley squarely joined the ranks of world-class wine regions. Does it mean that everything is great, or you still have big issues to solve on your agenda?
[AK]: Willamette Valley is certainly on the rise and we are all thankful for the attention. Our biggest issue is to continue to share the spotlight with the other classic regions of the world without losing our roots, our authenticity, and collaborative spirit.
[TaV]: It seems that lately big corporations are paying lots of attention for the WV wineries – or rather money, as for example, Jackson Family which acquired 3 WV wineries over a short period of time. Are you concerned with this development? Do you think it might change the soul and spirit of WV wines?
[AK]: Most of us are flattered by the attention that our wines, vineyards, and wineries have been getting from producers all over the world. JFW, in specific, has invested heavily, but have done so with a soft touch and an eye towards the community and their neighbours. In the end, the region will have diversity that consumers will ultimately benefit by. Our hope, however, is that this interest doesn’t drive vineyard and fruit prices into a range that makes the hands-on artisan winemaking that has made Oregon so special too expensive for entry.
[TaV]: There are many white grapes which can be called “next frontier” for the WV wineries – Pinot Gris (yes, okay, this is an old news), Chardonnay, even Riesling. However, if we look at the red grapes, WV wineries are a “one trick pony”, only working with Pinot Noir. Do you see any problems with that? is there a next big red grape for the WV, or is it not necessary?
[AK]: Great question. I don’t think that any of us, as winemakers, regret that we are working with Pinot noir in such an ideal locale. It presents a lifetime of challenges and, hopefully, rewards. Although much more rare, Gamay can be thrilling and has been successful planted alongside Pinot noir. Syrah, too, has a lot of potential, making compelling, Northern Rhone style reds in warmer years. Cooler-climate Italian reds could have potential as well. We’ve already seen an increase in planting of these “other reds,” but the more dramatic shift is (as you mentioned) towards focusing on whites and sparkling wine, which are very well suited to this climate. Ultimately, I foresee increased experimentation with a range of red varieties in the warmer sites in the Willamette Valley in the short-term; time and the weather will tell what succeeds.
The rest of the questions were answered by Emily Nelson, Associate Director for Willamette Valley Wineries Association.
[TaV]: What percentage of WV wineries are LIVE certified? Do you see this number dropping, increasing, staying the same?
[EN]: In 2016, there are 13,170 Oregon vineyard acres certified sustainable, which is 48% of total planted acres in the state. 8,218 acres are LIVE Certified, which is 30% of total planted acres. We do see the number of certified sustainable vineyard acres increasing year after year. As the home of the nation’s most protective land use policies, the first bottle recycling law, and the highest minimum wages for farm workers, it’s fitting that the Oregon wine industry is committed to sustainable farming and winemaking practices.
For LIVE Certified acres in particular, the number has increased annually from 2,368 acres in 2007 to 8,218 acres today.
[TaV]: How important is Biodynamic viticulture for the WV wine industry? Do you see more wineries embracing it?
[EN]: Biodynamic viticulture in Oregon has also steadily increased over the years, from 289 certified acres in 2007 to 1,585 certified acres today. It is an important component of our sustainable character in the region, reinforcing our belief that agriculture in general and viticulture in particular can flourish in harmony with our natural environment. In general, Demeter Biodynamic certification is in accord with many practices that characterize the certification of organic farms. However, certain practices are unique to Biodynamic agriculture, including managing the whole farm as a living organism; maintenance of a healthy, diverse ecosystem that includes not only the earth, but as well the cosmic influences and rhythms of which the earth is a part; and use of the Biodynamic preparations to build soil health through enlivened compost.
[TaV]: Are there any new wineries showing up in the WV? If yes, is there a trend there (more than the last 5/10 years, less than the last 5/10 years, the same?
[EN]: Yes! Our number of wineries in the region has climbed over the last five to ten years. We had about 110 wineries in the Willamette Valley in the year 2000. By 2010 that had more than doubled to 300 wineries. And now in 2016 our most recent census shows 531 wineries in the region. People are drawn to grape growing and winemaking here for many of the same reasons that brought our pioneers in the 1960s—unique climate and soils ideally suited to Pinot noir and a wine industry culture that celebrates collaboration, inventiveness, and land stewardship.
[TaV]: Do you see a lot of foreign capital coming into the WV winemaking industry (buying, partnering, starting new wineries)? Again, is there a trend?
[EN]: There is a trend of outside investment in the Willamette Valley wine industry, and it speaks to the quality of the wines being produced here. We see Burgundian investors who’ve found the New World home of Pinot noir, as well as those from Washington and California who are expanding their premium Pinot noir brands with Willamette Valley wines.
[TaV]: Last question – are there any new and coming, or may be old but coming around wineries wine lovers should watch for? Anything which makes you particularly excited?
[EN]: We’re particularly excited about a few things here: first, many of our pioneering wineries are handing the reigns down to second generation winegrowers and owners. The children who grew up in the vineyards and cellars of the wineries who put our region on the map are now at the helm. They continue to innovate and improve, so watching their brands and their wines flourish and evolve is a thrill. Second, we’re excited about the Burgundian presence in the Valley. French winemakers who come here to experience the Oregonian version of their time-honored grape offer unique expressions of the wines and outside confirmation that there’s something really special happening here. Lastly, we’re excited about new winemakers just entering the industry, who contribute a vibrant sense of experimentation and energy to the Valley.
All the good things come to an end, so this was the last of the conversations in the Passion and Pinot series – for now, at least. As I said before, Pinot Noir has some very special properties, making people fall in love with it and not letting them go. And whether you agree or disagree – you know what to do. Until the next time – cheers!
P.S. Once again, here are the links to the web sites for the wineries profiled in this series:
Alloro Vineyard: www.allorovineyard.com
Ghost Hill Cellars: www.ghosthillcellars.com
Ken Wright Cellars: www.kenwrightcellars.com
Lenné Estate: www.lenneestate.com
Youngberg Hill Vineyards: www.youngberghill.com
Vidon Vineyard: www.vidonvineyard.com
Grape grower. Pioneer. Visionary. Winemaker. Mentor. Teacher. Philanthropist.
It makes perfect sense to start our “Stories of Passion and Pinot” series by conversing with Ken Wright. After starting making wines in Willamette Valley in Oregon in 1986, Ken came to the realization of a tremendous diversity of soils and microclimate conditions in the region. Ken was instrumental in establishing 6 AVAs in the region; he also focused his winemaking on showcasing terroir through single-vineyard bottlings. The rest is history which you can read on Ken Wright Cellars web site and various publications, such as Wine Spectator May 2015 issue.
I have limited exposure to Ken’s wines – the production is small, and there are lots of people who loves to drink his wines. But even my limited encounters resulted in long lasting impressions – and not only the wines but also the labels which you need to see only once to remember forever. Thus when I had an opportunity to ask Ken a few questions, albeit virtually, I was very happy to do so – and the outcome of our conversation you can see below. This might be a tad long, so arm yourself with a nice tall glass of Pinot – and enjoy!
- When it comes to the winemaking, is there someone who you would name as your mentor or a teacher?
KW: My first position was in California and included working with Dick Graff of Chalone on their Gavilan brand. Dick started a research group, in 1979 I believe, that met once a month at Mount Eden Vineyards. The group included many of the best wineries in the state including Mt. Eden, Kistler, Calera, Sanford, Acacia, Forman, Chalone and the Paragon group among others. The opportunity, as a novice winemaker, to be part of that group of successful producers allowed me to be part of cutting edge winemaking discussions. Ears were perked, respectfully my mouth was generally closed. I was a sponge.
- As a pioneer and a long standing and successful winemaker, I’m sure many young winemakers look up to you and want to learn from you. Are there any winemakers who you would call your students?
KW: Once I moved to Oregon, in 1986, to pursue the production of Pinot noir I had a learning curve to understand the new area that I was in. During those early years I fell in love with the ability of Pinot noir to connect myself and our buyers with the qualities of individual sites. After blending sites for several years I began in 1990 to produce site specific wines that connected us to place.
In the mid 90’s I was part of a group we created, quite similar to the California research group, that focused on research both in the vineyard and winery. My partners were Bethel Heights, Cristom, Solena and Penner-Ash. Beaux Freres joined at a later date. Our experiments provided a volume of information that I believe changed the way in which we all grew grapes and made wine. That information was openly shared with anyone who cared to ask. Many viticulturists and winemakers are now approaching their craft with the lessons we learned whether or not they are aware of where this information came from. I would not want to take any personal credit for the success of those that have benefited from this work or from my many direct relationships. Information comes from so many sources. If I have benefited someone along the way that would be great but I would only be one of many.
- You personally helped to define 6 AVAs in Oregon. Do you think there are still areas in Oregon which would benefit from their own designated AVAs?
KW: It is a natural evolution for regions to define themselves. All areas must first identify which wine varieties have inherent superiority. It’s a process. What is clear at this time is that the Willamette Valley, particularly the area of the six new AVA’s, is world class. We are producing Pinot noir that is riveting. While there are regions that can say they are older there is no area on the planet that can say they are better, period. I suspect there will be new AVA’s within the six new identified AVA’s that will further define each region in more detail.
- In the description of the Freedom Hill vineyard, there is a mention of Phylloxera. How did it come around? How difficult was it to contain it and deal with it? Is that the only one of your vineyards which was affected?
KW: Phylloxera reared its ugly head in 1990 at Fuqua Vineyard in the Dundee Hills. With the first inexpensive own rooted plantings of Eyrie in 1966 the industry coasted until this time with the hope the blight would never come. But it did. It is impossible to know what the source of the “infection” may have been. This was an older vineyard so unless they were purchasing replacement vines on a regular basis from a nursery that had an issue it would be hard to assign blame on source of vine material. Not impossible though.
Phylloxera became real in the mid 90’s. Freedom Hill began to fail. Guadalupe began to fail. Shea began to fail. There were a number of others. Vineyard owners, hoping to forestall the infection, did whatever they could to protect their sites. At the time the concern was that the insect was being transferred on soil. We had chlorine foot baths. Incredible cleaning of vineyard equipment. It did not help. It is only my opinion but I believe most of the “infection” was directly from the replacement vines from nurseries that had the bug in their soil material that came with new or replacement vines.
- Can you make parallels between any of your vineyards and Burgundy vineyards, in terms of wines which they are capable of producing?
KW: Burgundy could only hope to make wine that consistently produces the quality of wine that we produce. They are in our rear view mirror. It’s sad that people automatically assume age of region is related to quality. Do truly blind tastings and you will not be able to assign label prestige to the result.
- Same question regarding your wines – would you compare any of your wines with any of the wines from Burgundy, and if yes, which with which?
KW: If there is any comparison I would say that Oregon Pinot noir has a perfect fresh fruit profile. Burgundy tends to be more acidic, angular in youth and less forward.
- It seems that you only produce Pinot Noir from all of the vineyards you are working with, and the only white wine you are producing comes from Washington. Is there a reason why? Have you ever thought of planting white grapes in Oregon?
KW: As a business, anything we produce that is not Pinot noir is harder to sell and less profitable. The entire world recognizes the quality of Pinot noir from our region but no other variety resonates. We have a half acre of the Chardonnay Dijon 548 clone at Savoya. It is delicious but only sold to our mailing list. We will not plant more Chardonnay in my lifetime.
- I find your wine labels fascinating. How do you come up with the designs? Are you making those yourself or you are working with an artist? Do you change any of the labels from vintage to a vintage?
KW: The artist that created our labels is David Berkvam, a Portland native. He is a dessert chef at a local Italian restaurant named Geno’s. The original artworks are 100% beeswax carvings. Incredible depth that we attempt to relay on paper. Our relationship with David began with seeing his work at a gallery in 1999 in Portland.
Our original label for Ken Wright Cellars was a clean, straightforward text only label. It was not memorable or noticeable. My wife Karen and I decided to make a significant change to the look of our label. We asked David to produce a label that showed the efforts of the Mexican laborers in our vineyards during the difficult time of winter pruning. There was no other labor that would do this work. Yet the Mexican women and men who did this work did so with graciousness and humor. That was our first label with David. Now each vineyard has its own artwork from him and each is quite personal for us.
- What is your approach to the oak ageing? For how long do you typically age your wines? What type of oak do you use most often?
KW: Unfortunately, we have to use French oak for our wines. Would prefer to buy from the US but our native oak species are very resinous which does not rhyme with Pinot noir. Pinot noir spends 11 months in oak before bottling.
- Based on the information on the web site, your general philosophy around winemaking is “minimal intervention”. Did you ever consider going into organic or even biodynamic wine production?
KW: Winemaking has nothing to do with your farming approach. Yes, the winemaking at the highest level is minimal intervention, assuming a very high level of professional babysitting. All inherent quality comes from the vineyard. Any winemaker at the highest level knows they are subservient to the quality of what they receive.
- You’ve been making wine in Oregon for the very long time. Did you have any scary (okay, most difficult) moments you can share with us?
KW: The beauty of our area is that we do in fact have “vintages”. No robotic wines. The year is reflected in the wine. A great example of a “scary” vintage was 1991. A cool year that produced wine that was at first reticent. With age this vintage proved to be perhaps the best of the decade for most producers.
- Among all the wines you made in Oregon since the beginning, can you share a few of your most favorite vintages and particular wines?
KW: 1990 was the best vintage I have seen in Oregon. An unusual year in that it was amazing for so many regions in the world, Germany, Italy, Champagne, Burgundy and more.
- Do you export your wines outside of US? If yes, what are your top export destinations?
KW: We export to all provinces of Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, France, Italy, Japan, China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, South Korea and of course Luxembourg.
- Today, Oregon wines are well known and well recognized by the wine lovers. What is ahead for the Oregon wines? What are the latest trends and new directions for the Oregon wines?
KW: We will always hang our hat on Pinot noir because we truly have a world treasure with this variety. As world markets emerge we will find a place at the table in each of these markets.
- You have very extensive list of charities you support. How do you go about deciding which charities you are going to support?
KW: Karen and I normally choose to support local charities that keep our immediate area healthy. We have hosted Flavors of Carlton for 15 years which is by far the most impactful event that keeps the pre school, after school, summer work experiences, 12 sports programs and more financially sound. We are founding sponsors of Salud, started in 1992, which is a combined effort of Wineries, hospitals, clinics and Medical Teams International that has provided health care for vineyard workers. Karen and I were the initial 50K endowers of the local Community College program for their vineyard curriculum.
We partnered with the local FFA Alumnae, High School FFA teacher, YC Board, the curriculum writers from the local college and members of our AVA board to create a path for our local young people to get real world experience in growing grapes. We created a 1.5 acre vineyard on the high school property so they would have real world experience, not book knowledge.
We are done – and I hope you are still here, as there was a lot to read (and I thank you for that). Hope you found this interesting, and now have an increased desire to drink Ken Wright Cellars Pinot Noir (good luck with that unless you already have one in your cellar). I also believe that this was an excellent opening into our Stories of Passion and Pinot – you can clearly feel passion and pride in every word of Ken’s answers…
We will continue our series next week, so for now – cheers!
To be continued…
P.S. This post is a part of the “Stories of Passion and Pinot” series <- click the link for more stories.
It is easy to declare this grape a king. It is a lot more difficult to have people agree to and support such a designation. And here I am, proclaiming Pinot Noir worthy of the kingship, despite the fact that this title is typically associated with Barolo (made from Nebbiolo grape) or Cabernet Sauvignon.
Barolo might be a king, why not – but its production is confined strictly to Italy, and can be considered minuscule in terms of volume. Cabernet Sauvignon is commanding attention everywhere – but I would argue that it is more because of the ease of appeal to the consumer and thus an opportunity to attach more dollar signs to the respective sticker. Don’t get me wrong – I love good Cabernet Sauvignon as much or more than anyone else, but having gone through so many lifeless editions, I developed a healthy dose of skepticism in relation to this noble grape.
Talking about Pinot Noir, I’m not afraid to again proclaim it a king. If anything, it is a king of passion. Hard to grow – finicky grape, subject to Mother Nature tantrums, prone to cloning, susceptible to grape diseases – and nevertheless passionately embraced by winemakers around the world refusing to grow anything else but this one single grape – year in, year out.
Historically, Pinot Noir was associated with Burgundy – where the love of the capricious grape originated, and where all the old glory started. Slowly but surely, Pinot Noir spread out in the world, reaching the USA, New Zealand, Australia, Chile and Argentina – and even Germany, Italy, Spain, Canada and South Africa are included in this list. Looking at the USA, while the grape started in California, it then made it into Oregon, and now started showing along the East Coast, particularly in Hudson Valley.
I don’t know what makes winemakers so passionate about Pinot Noir. For one, it might be grape’s affinity to terroir. Soil almost always shines through in Pinot Noir – it is no wonder that Burgundians treasure their soil like gold, not letting a single rock escape its place. While soil is a foundation of the Pinot Noir wines, the weather would actually define the vintage – Pinot Noir is not a grape easily amended in the winery. But when everything works, the pleasures of a good glass of Pinot might be simply unmatched.
However important, terroir alone can’t be “it”. Maybe some people are simply born to be Pinot Noir winemakers? Or maybe this finicky grape has some special magical powers? Same as you, I can’t answer this. But – maybe we shouldn’t guess and simply ask the winemakers?
Willamette Valley in Oregon is truly a special place when it comes to the Pinot Noir. Similar to the Burgundy, Pinot Noir is “it” – the main grape Oregon is known for. It is all in the terroir; soil is equally precious, and the weather would make the vintage or break it. And passion runs very strong – many people who make Pinot Noir in Oregon are absolutely certain that Oregon is the only place, and Pinot Noir is the only grape. I’m telling you, it is one wicked grape we are talking about.
I see your raised eyebrow and mouse pointer heading towards that little “x”, as you are tired of all the Pinot Noir mysticism I’m trying to entangle you in. But let me ask for a few more minutes of your time – and not even today, but over the next few weeks.
You see, I was lucky enough to have a conversation (albeit virtual) with few people who combined Pinot and Passion in Oregon, and can’t see it any other way. What you will hear might surprise you, or maybe it will excite you enough to crave a glass of Oregon Pinot Noir right this second, so before you hear from a pioneer, a farmer, a NASA scientist and a few other passionate folks, do yourself a favor – make sure you have that Pinot bottle ready. Here are the people you will hear from:
- Ken Wright of Ken Wright Cellars
- David Nemarnik of Alloro Vineyard
- Mike Bayliss of Ghost Hill Cellars
- Wayne Bailey of Youngberg Hill Vineyards
- Steve Lutz of Lenné Estate
- Don Hagge of Vidon Vineyard
I would like to extend a special note of gratitude to Carl Giavanti of Carl Giavanti Consulting, wine marketing and PR firm, who was very instrumental in making all these interviews possible.
As I publish the posts, I will link them forward (one of the pleasures and advantages of blogging), so at the end of the day, this will be a complete series of stories. And with this – raise a glass of Pinot Noir – and may the Passion be with you. Cheers!
P.S. Here are the links to the web sites for the wineries profiled in this article:
Alloro Vineyard: www.allorovineyard.com
Ghost Hill Cellars: www.ghosthillcellars.com
Ken Wright Cellars: www.kenwrightcellars.com
Lenné Estate: www.lenneestate.com
Youngberg Hill Vineyards: www.youngberghill.com
Vidon Vineyard: www.vidonvineyard.com
And we are on the finishing stretch! Third and the last installment of the Wine Gifts Guide. We already talked about wines and wine gadgets as two large gift categories. This post will be a bit different from the previous two. If I pressed and pressed the need to be practical and pragmatic when it comes to the wine and wine gadgets, it will be hardly applicable to this last group of potential wine gift recommendations. You will easily see why it is so, and without further ado, let’s get to it.
Here is the last of my list of potential wine-related gifts:
- Wine Books. Yes, wine lovers still read books. If anything, we use books as a reference. There are plenty wonderful wine books which will make any aficionado happy – the famous World Atlas of Wine, Wine Grapes Guide, Jura Wine, Food and Travel, and hundreds and hundreds of others. It is hard to go wrong with the book – the only issue might be if the recipient already has the exact same book, so I guess our principle of “practical”, knowing what the other person has, would still come handy. Nevertheless, the wine book would make a great present for the most of the wine lovers.
- Wine Education. Wine education is fun, it is almost priceless for the wine aficionado. You can never know it all, and even if you think you do, you will still learn a lot, given the opportunity. There are many wine classes and wine schools offered around the country and I’m sure, the world. Yes, you will need to spend some time to find the reputable wine school and wine educators. But the gift recipient will really appreciate it. For instance, a famous Windows on the World Wine School taught by Kevin Zraly – you can buy a gift certificate for a single class at $125, and the series of the 8 classes would cost $995. Yes, it is a lot of money, but hey, my job is to give you ideas, it is your job to get from the dreams to the reality.
- Wine Experiences. Yes, this is a broad category, and it includes a lot of possibilities – but these are the experiences we are talking about. I don’t want to sub-divide this category too much, but you definitely got options. Here are few:
- Grand Wine Tastings. A ticket to the Boston Wine Festival Gala Dinner will cost about $250 per person. Wine Spectator Grand Tour is $225 per person. You will create memories forever by sending special people in your life to such an event.
- Wine Master Classes/Dinners/Vertical tasting. If you can score tickets to the event of this kind, they will run about $450 – $600 per person – but hey, I’m sure you have people in your life who are well worth it. Again, guaranteed memories for life.
- Wine Travel. Send your grown up kids on the 10 days wine tour in Tuscany – I guarantee you will change their life forever. Or – grown up kids, remember how much your parents did for you? Send your parents on the trip of the lifetime while they can still enjoy it! Remember, the best things in life are not things. Collect the experiences and help others do the same.
- Wine Art. Similar to the books, I’m sure most of the wine lovers will be happy to get a beautiful painting. Yes, there are lots of options, in all different price ranges. If you live in the US, you can find very nice paintings in your local Home Goods store, where it will cost you $25 – $50. Yes, it will be mass produced art, but I personally own a few of those, and they make me happy when I look at them. But you don’t have to be confined to the home decoration store selection – you can look for the actual artists who creates paintings and other forms of art, all wine related. Here are two references for you – Leanne Laine categorizes herself as “The Women in Wine Artist” – she has a lot of beautiful wine-themed paintings which are available from her website. Another artist I know of, Ryan Sorrell, creates beautiful mosaics from the wine bottle foil tops – here is the link to Ryan’s website. These are just two artists I know of, but I’m sure you will find more artists – and again, I think wine art is a great gift category on par with all others.
Well, believe it or not, but we are done! I don’t have any more wine gift recommendations for you, and this series is over. I only hope that I was able to give you at least a tiny amount of useful information, and if you got a wine lover in your life, your shopping task will be a little bit simpler. If you will find this information useful (and especially if you will not), I would love to hear from you. Happy Holidays and Cheers!
The title of this post is not misleading. I plan to talk about wine as an art form, which is the way I look at it. Why all of a sudden? Couple of articles, both great in its own right (I mentioned both in the Meritage post a week ago), prompted this blog post, despite my claim that I’m not going to enter this debate. I don’t know why is that, but I have a habit of saying “No” where deep inside, as soon as I finish my full and long “no” sentence I already know that, “oh it will be a yes”. Anyway, this blog post is not about me, it is about wine, so let’s get closer to the subject.
In case you didn’t have a chance to read those two articles, they were both on the beaten up (badly beaten up, I have to say) subject of cheap wines versus expensive wines. The first article, published in the Forbes magazine, provided a number of illustrations to the fact that…there are many factors affecting perceived taste of wine – temperature, label, feel of the moment, critics’ opinion, rating and many more (I’m not going to cite a full article here – it is well worth reading if you are into the wine world). I believe that one of the points of the article was to suggest that for the most of us, we can’t distinguish between cheap and expensive wines anyway, so why bother – drink any wine, be happy (I’m oversimplifying, I know).
Then Steve Heimoff took the subject close to his heart and went on to explain that there is a very big difference in taste between $15 and $150 bottles of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, that more expensive wine is always better than the cheap wine and that the the whole premise of Forbes article in Steve’s words is “man bites dog” attempt at a cheap publicity.
Let me take step aside and explain the meaning of the concept “wine = art”. When you are at home, take a look around you. I would make a safe assumption that for absolute majority of people, your home is decorated in one way or the other. You might have pictures and photos on the walls, statues big and small, flowers live and not, little (or big) mementos and many other things which surround our lives with only one purpose – to give us pleasure, set the mood or may be create lasting connections between time and memories. Taking pictures as the simplest example, they can be your kids’ pictures, copies of the works of the famous artists, works of the completely unknown artists or may be they are actual original paintings. Those pictures can be mass produced and acquired at the neighborhood convenience store for $4.99. But they also can be acquired after a long battle at the auction, where you had to put down $4.9 million to beat another guy and get that painting you always dreamed of.
Now, when was the last time you read an article telling you that you are not supposed to buy any works of art more expensive than $19.99, because you are not capable of understanding the difference between $19.99 and $199 pictures? Or when was the last time you read an article telling you that expensive painting is always better than cheap print? I can bet I’m giving you a very taxiing memory-combing exercise which will yield no results.
So my question is – why wine is treated in any different way than any other works of art? Read (or talk) about the wines, read about vineyards and places, read about wine makers, grape growers, oenophiles, wine collectors – what do you get out of that reading or talking? Passion, obsession, emotions, feelings. We eat because we have to, but we drink wine because we want to, because of its ability to resonate with our beings, to create emotional response. This is my premise of “wine = art” statement. I believe that wine is a form of the renewable art, which also has a pretty unique advantage compare to a simple painting, for instance. Whatever you see on the painting will be exactly the same in 10 years or in 50 years. It will create different emotions on a different day, of course – but it will not change in principal. At the same time, even the simplest wine will change in the bottle. For better or worse, but it will change. Last weekend we shared a bottle of 1997 Toasted Head Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah blend (probably $9.99 or less) – believe it or not, but this wine was outstanding – it evolved, it had beautiful fruit, great balance and nice finish. It was memorable, it solicited emotions, it created mental staples for that particular moment. If this is not art, I don’t know what is.
Where am I going with this? I don’t believe cheap versus expensive is a meaningful or useful argument for the wine world. Yes, there are many reasons for the wine to be expensive – best quality grapes with very low yield, state of the art facilities, manual processes, need for aging before release, market demand, reputation and many many other factors define the price and can drive it very high up. But if you will exclude snobbery, arrogance and blissful ignorance, price is simply one of many factors which affect your buying decision – nothing more and nothing less. Yes, $150 bottle will taste different than $15 – but can we say “better”? If someone is a Pinot Grigio drinker (and enjoys it very much), will you be able to prove to him or her that $150 Cabernet Sauvignon is really better that $15? I want to see that happening. When it comes to wine, “better” is a difficult category, as the definition of the best wine is 100% personal – the best wine is the one which tastes best to you. Yes, critics matter, ratings matter – but only as a reference, as food for thought.
Wow, did I bore you to death? I truly hope I didn’t – I think this post was brewing for a very long time, slowly ripening to the point of wanting to get out. These are my true feelings, this is how I see the wine world, and “wine = art” makes it so fascinating for me.
Is this arguable? Of course (comments section is down below and only a click away). I don’t pretend to possess the absolute truth – but “wine = art” makes me open a bottle of wine with hope and excitement. No matter what anyone said about that bottle, how much it costs or what the rating is – I hope you will enjoy it and I hope it will create a special memory, a special moment – just for you. Cheers!
There had being a number of studies made about the ways people buy wine. One of the known facts is that women often buy the wine based on the appearance of the label. I witnessed dialog of mom and a little son in the wine store – she tells the kid “Mommy will buy this wine, because the label looks pretty” (by the way, if you are curious, the wine was Avalon – I wouldn’t ever look at that label).
I don’t know how the man collectively make wine buying decision, but for me personally one of the important factors is the name of the wine or the winery. Of course some of it is due to the fact that once you know ( tried or read enough about) particular wine, the name produces instant reflection – I wonder how many wine lovers’ hands will not sweat while admiring Alban, Harlan, Bryant Family or Petrus. But then even for the wines I never heard of, some of the names trigger instant reaction – hmmm, that sounds intriguing, I wonder how this will taste like.
When I got a note from the Benchmark Wine Company talking about wines coming from the Field Recordings, that caught my attention. Field Recordings? Hmmm, sounds interesting. The price is reasonable (under $20), so why don’t I try one? Done. The bottle arrived (I have to mention that in this particular case I like not only the name of the wine, but the label as well, and I would definitely look at such a bottle in the store if I would see one), and then the day came to open it.
Wine is a form of art. When you smell it, when you taste it, it solicits an emotional response. Same as a music, same as a poetry, same as a painting, same as a movie, same as practically any other thing in life, when done well, it will move you. This 2010 Fiction Red Wine Paso Robles by Field Recordings was definitely one of the best wines I ever tried. I don’t remember ever smelling the red wine like that. Meadows. Beautiful full blown meadows, in a middle of flowering, compacting heavy and heady aromas of a warm summer day – all in one whiff, one breath of air. After the first smell, you don’t want to drink the wine. Not yet. You need to smell it again. And again. And again. And you don’t want to let go of that feeling of freshness and warms.
The same freshness continued on the palate – lots of fresh red fruit. Ripe red fruit, yes – plump and juicy, but not overripe, just perfect fruit with enough acidity and body to make you think of a perfection. Perfect balance. I can’t say anything more. You if are reading this blog for a while, you know that the balance is something I value the most in wine – and this bottle of Fiction got it just right.
This was an amazing experience, and I would gladly repeat it – the only problem is that Benchmark is all out of it, and wine-searcher can’t even find it in the country. Oh well – if you will be lucky enough to come across this wine, remember – there is a beautiful music recorded in that bottle. Find it and experience it for yourself. Cheers!