Grape Transformations: Oregon Origins

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I had a hidden agenda when I visited McMinnville, Oregon a few weeks ago. Ostensibly I was there to talk about my new book at Linfield College and to the local Rotary Club. Those events were great but I would not have been happy if I hadn’t done one more thing: return a minor piece of Oregon’s  wine history to its rightful home.

“To Nick, Cheers for all the years — past & future. David Lett, Christmas 1989.”

That is the inscription I found in a second-hand bookstore copy of Vintage Timelines, a neglected classic book that Jancis Robinson wrote over twenty years ago. The idea of the book was to select a group of the world’s greatest wines and examine how different vintages have evolved (and would be expected to continue to evolve) over time.  The research required Jancis to taste trough verticals of each great wine (research is such a drag!) and compare notes from previous years to create complex and quite fascinating graphical timelines.

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Darn few American wines were good enough (in terms of their ageing potential) to make the cut and only one wine outside of California — the Eyrie Pinot Noir Reserve made by David Lett. Lett planted the first Pinot Noir vines in the Willamette Valley and he, along with the group they call “the Pioneers,” set Oregon wine on its present course.

Nick’s Back Room

The Nick in the inscription is almost certainly Nick Peirano of Nick’s Italian Cafe. Lett’s audacious egg was incubated and eventually hatched by the Pioneers and others over countless discussions in Nick’s back room. I’ve loved owning the book, but felt it didn’t belong to me. I needed to take it home and give it back. But to whom?

My first thought was my friend Scott Chambers, a professor at Linfield College and a friend of both Nick and the Lett family. He’d love to have the book, I thought, but it didn’t really belong to him any more than me. Maybe Jason Lett, David’s winemaking son who is carrying on the Eyrie tradition and building upon it? Yes, that would make sense.

But then I learned about the Oregon Wine History Project at Linfield College and that sealed the deal. They were pleased to add my copy of Vintage Timelines to their archive as a document chronicling the Eyrie Reserve’s early international recognition as well as the role of Nick’s back room in the region’s early development. Jeff Peterson, Director of the Linfield Center for the Northwest, accepted the book and both Scott and Jason supported the decision.

A Remarkable Story: David Lett (and the Pioneers)

David Lett is one of my heros and I am including him in my “Grape Transformations” list of people who have changed the way people think about wine or wine regions. He was certainly instrumental in the transformation of Oregon from a place known for fruit and nuts rather than grapes to a region frequently mentioned in the same breath with Burgundy.

Lett’s story is remarkable. Trained at UC/Davis, he came north looking for terroir where he could make Pinot in the Burgundian style. The first Pinot vines were planted in 1965; 1970 was the first Eyrie Pinot vintage.  After one or two false starts he hit paydirt. Great wine.

But from Oregon? Rainy old Oregon probably seemed like the last place on earth to make world class wine in the 1970s.

Olympic Gold

Then came the Wine Olympics of 1979. This was a competition, sponsored by  the French food and wine magazine Gault Millau, that featured 330 wines from 33 countries tasted blind by 62 judges. The 1975 Eyrie Pinot Noir Reserve attracted attention by placing 10th among Pinots. A stunning achievement for a wine from a previously unknown wine region.

Robert Drouhin of Maison Joseph Drouhin, a Burgundy negociant and producer, was fascinated and sponsored a further competition where the Eyrie wine came close second behind Drouhin’s own 1959 Chambolle-Musigny. Thus was Eyrie’s reputation set (and Oregon’s, too). It wasn’t long before Domaine Drouhin Oregon (DDO) was built in the same Dundee Hills as Eyrie’s vineyards — a strong endorsement of the terroir and recognition of the achievement.

The Pioneers founded the Oregon wine industry, but now the torch has been passed to a group that you might call the Sons [and Daughters] of the Pioneers. Some of them appear in the video at the top of this post (don’t be discouraged by the poor audio at the start — it gets better quickly). I’ll have something to say about this group in an upcoming post.

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Special thanks to Scott Chambers and Jason Lett for their hospitality during our stay in McMinnville.

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Update 11/16/2011: You might be interested in Katherine Cole’s recent piece on the 50th anniversary of wine in Oregon — it includes a nice annotated chronology of the wine industry.

Grape Transformations: Piemonte’s Twin Tornados

This is the second in a series on people who have revolutionized the way the world thinks about wine or a particular wine region. This post takes us to Italy’s Piemonte region, famous for its Barolo and Barbaresco wines.

Two winemakers stand out here. Many of you have probably already guessed the first name: Angelo Gaja, who is associated with the transformation of Barbaresco. The second name? I’ll leave you in suspense for a few paragraphs. See if you can figure it out.

Gaga for Gaja

Angelo Gaja changed the way the world thinks about Piemonte wine (and to some extent Italian wine in general). Joe Bastianich (writing in his book Grandi Vini) says that Gaja is “the most famous Italian wine producer in the world” (this may come as news to the Antinori and Frescobaldi families, but I’m sure Joe knows what he is talking about). Barbaresco was seen as the plain little sister of sexy Barolo until Gaja changed everything.

Exactly what Gaja changed and how is a matter of opinion, although the achievement is clear. Bastianich looks to the vineyard, the development of particular vineyard sites and the production of “cru” single vineyard “terroir” wines. He also praises Gaja’s efforts to travel the world promoting his wines and the other wines of the region. The power of Gaja’s personality is clearly part of the story here.

Matt Kramer, writing in his book Making Sense of Italian Wine, tells a different story. For him Gaja’s contribution was in the cellar even more than the vineyard, where he introducing an international style to the wine by using small French oak barrels (Gaja also controversially introduced international grape varieties to the family’s vineyards).

Gaja’s second and perhaps even greater achievement, Kramer suggests, was to charge outrageous prices for his wines. “While few people know about wine, everybody’s an expert on money: Could this Gaja … really be worth that much money? The sheer chutzpah was captivating and so, too, it turned out, were the wines.”

Gaja became a role model for Piemonte and perhaps for aspiring winemakers throughout Italy.

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Barbera, Bologna, “Braida”

As much as I admire Angelo Gaja, enjoy his wines and respect his innovations, he is not alone on the Piemonte “grape transformations” podium. The second “tornado” is someone who did for democratic Barbera what Gaja did for aristocratic Nebbiolo. The achievement may be even greater.

Nebbiolo, the noble grape that is responsible for the great Barolo, Barbaresco and Langhe Rosso wines, is far from the most planted Piemonte grape. It has the best reputation, but perhaps because it ripens so late and requires specific site characteristics to excel, it is not as widely planted as you might imagine. There is 15 times more Barbera than Nebbiolo in Piemonte.

Barbera! Making this humble everyday wine respected  and even fashionable today is a signal achievement. This is the claim to fame of the late Giacomo Bologna of “Braida” winery in Rocchetta Tanaro, just a few miles from Asti.

Barbera is not finicky like Nebbiolo — it will grow pretty much wherever you plant it in Piemonte, both where it produces outstanding grapes and where quality is not so high. There was not much of a premium for quality grapes in the early postwar era when wholesalers would buy indiscriminately and lump them all together. Giacomo Bologna thought he could do better and set out to achieve excellence beginning in the 1960s, when Gaja was also picking up steam.

The old Barbera was nothing special, but focusing on specific sites with old vines and low productivity, engaging in aggressive cap management and aging the wines in small French oak, Bologna was able to create both a new Barbera wine and a new image of Barbera wine. The top wines, including the famous Bricco dell’Uccellone, redefined the region and jumpstarted the quality wine movement.

Another “Braida” Revolution?

We visited Braida in June when were in Italy for the wine economics conference in Bolzano. Nadine Weihgold led us on a tour of the winery, pointing out the many ways that Giacomo Bologna’s vision and plans have been fulfilled since his untimely death by his wife Anna and his two children Raffaella and Giuseppe (both of whom are enologists).

We tasting the single vineyard wines and then Ai Suma, an extreme version of Bologna’s idea of Barbera that is only produced in special years. These are wines of distinction and reputation and so popular in Italy that a surprisingly small amount leaks out to the rest of the world.

Giuseppe Bologna happened to pass through on his way to the barrel room and, hearing the wine economics conversation, sat down to join us. “Is there anything else you’d like to taste?” Nadine asked? Embarrassed and apologetic, I confessed I wanted to follow these great wines with their vivacious but less prestigious little sister – La Monella, the frizzante Barbera that was the company’s first success. A simple wine, but with style and quality.  Were they offended? No, just the opposite. Grinning with obvious pleasure, Giuseppe went to work, corks started to fly and soon were we chatting away in mixed Italian and English.

Ai Suma might be literally the summit of Giacomo Bologna’s mountain, but his son Giuseppe has his own dreams and plans — and they include Pinot Noir. Pinot is a blending grape in this part of Italy, but Giuseppe has hopes that it might some day learn to stand on its own as Barbera has. He called for a barrel sample and the wine was very interesting — not an imitation of Burgundy, Oregon or New Zealand, but something different, still developing, full of potential.

Pinot Noir in Barolo-ville? Giuseppe Bologna must be nuts. But then they probably said that about Giacomo Bologna and Angelo Gaja back in the day.

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This video has nice images of Giacomo Bologna and family and tells the winery’s history very well (I think you can catch the gist even if your Italian is a little rusty). The first video features Angelo Gaja telling his own story. Cheers!

Grape Transformations: Mondavi and Catena

Karl Polanyi’s classic 1944 book, The Great Transformation presented a theory of how the Industrial Revolution transformed much the world. Polanyi proposed a complex paradigm of acting (economy and technology) and reacting (politics and social movements) forces that combined to shape history.  It is a must read (but not always an easy one) if you are  looking for Big Ideas in an era of disruptive change.

This Changes Everything

I’m working on my own theory of  “Grape Transformations,” which will be an occasional series here at The Wine Economist. I’m not interested in fads and trends. I want to understand instances where a person or small group fundamentally changed the nature of wine or the way that a type of wine or wine region is perceived.

Jesus is at the top of my list, of course, since he changed water into wine, the ultimate grape transformation. And there is a reason that we call think of this as a miracle. As the always insightful Ken Bernsohn reminds me, inertia is a very strong force in the world of wine (and elsewhere). This is obviously true in the vineyard itself, where years are required to “turn the supertanker” from one grape variety to another. It is also true in the marketplace, where a visible iceberg of wine drinkers interested in trying new things sits atop an invisible bulk of consumers with preferences and habits that are frozen in place (most of them drink no wine at all).

So it really is a miracle (although not in the “fishes and loaves” class) when wine makes a big turn. What are some important examples for my Grape Transformations file?

The Julia Child of Wine

Julia and the Mondavis at the Smithsonian

Let me begin with Robert Mondavi, if only because I discuss his case at some length in Wine Wars. Here’s how the section on Mondavi begins …

I like to say that Robert Mondavi tried to do for American wine what Julia Child (public television’s “French Chef”) tried to do for American cuisine: revolutionize it by convincing Americans that they could not just imitate the French but maybe better them at their own game.

Julia Child succeeded, although not by herself of course. American cuisine was transformed by her books and The French Chef, which aired from 1963 to 1973. She changed the idea of food in America. American ingredients, French techniques. Bring them together and cooks could be chefs.

Robert Mondavi did the same thing for wine. He was convinced that American grapes and Old World techniques could produced world-class wines. And he was right. When the Robert Mondavi Winery opened in Oakville in 1966, it was the first major new investment in Napa Valley in decades and it changed everything (not by itself, of course) and paved the way for a distinctly American vision of fine wine that coexists today along with a Gallo-tinted image of mass-market wines.

Mondavi wasn’t alone and he didn’t do it by himself, but I think it is fair to associate Robert Mondavi with the Grape Transformation of American wine. Quite an accomplishment.

The Mondavi of Mendoza

I think of Nicolas Catena as the Robert Mondavi of Mendoza, although I admit that the similarities only go so far. Catena transformation of Argentina’s wine industry is perhaps even more significant because previous winemaking baseline was so low.  Laura Catena tells the story in a very personal way in her excellent book, Vino Argentino. She explains how and why Argentinean wine changed in terms of her family history.

A broader and more detailed account is due for publication in a few months — Ian Mount’s brilliant The Vineyard at the End of the World (I’ve just finished reading an advance copy — watch for a review here nearer the publication date). Placing Nicolas Catena’s accomplishments in a broader context, as Mount does, changes the Catena story a bit and raises new questions, but does not alter our view of the transformative force he helped launch.

I admit to prejudice in this matter because of the courtesy we were shown when we visited Mendoza and visited with Catena and Luca (Laura Catena’s project) winemakers. Nicolas Catena has a PhD in economics and was a visiting professor at UC Berkeley when visits to Napa winemakers (and a meeting with Mondavi) transformed his idea of what New World wine could be. It was a special treat when, during our winery visit, I was given the opportunity to browse for just a moment through Catena’s personal collection of economics texts.

No Plan B

Accept for the sake of argument that Mondavi and Catena belong on the Grape Transformations list. What can we learn generally from their two specific cases? Something, I think, but n=2 is a small sample size so we shouldn’t press too hard. Robert Mondavi and Nicolas Catena have little in common in terms of personality from what I have read. Catena seems be as pensive as Mondavi was outgoing. Both were driven, I suppose, and perhaps that’s the critical factor.

Both took big risks and that seems like an important characteristic. And I think that they both felt that they had little choice but to take risks, although for different reasons and from different perspectives. Mondavi left the family business and forged out on his own relatively late in life. He didn’t have a Plan B — his new winery had to succeed.

Nicolas Catena, on the other hand, unexpectedly ended up with the family business (ruining his plans for an academic career). But Argentina’s wine markets were in a funk — export was the only route open and he (and those who worked for and with him) had no choice but to remake the wine and the business if they were to avoid collapse. No Plan B here, either.

Finally, it is interesting that family is such as powerful theme in both stories, too, and this is something I will try to explore a bit more in future posts. In both cases the transformations that they led began as internal revolutions, dramatic changes within the family way of doing business, and rapidly spread outward.

The family theme continues today. Laura Catena is now the face of the family business even though she still maintains her “day job” as an ER doctor in the San Francisco area where her family lives.  The Mondavi sons carry on the family business tradition, but not of course the actually family business — Constellation Brands purchased the Robert Mondavi brand back in 2005.

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I have a couple of “Grape Transformation” stories in mind that I will share in future posts. In the meantime, I hope my readers will use the Comments link to give their thought on this idea and suggest names for the list of people who changed the idea of wine.

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