Silver Anniversary Celebration: How Wine Has Changed Since 1989

Robert Parker, Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide (New Edition 1989-1990). Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Our friends were married in 1989 and recently celebrated their silver anniversary with a dinner party where almost all of the wines were 1989s from their cellar (plus a few bottles from their children’s birth years). What a treat! I’ll paste a photo of some  of the wines we enjoyed at the end of this post to give you an idea of what a great time we had.

1989 and All That

To paraphrase a famous football coach, wine isn’t like life, it is life, so wine and life’s celebrations are natural partners and our very small gift to the happy couple was an autographed copy of the 1989 edition of Robert Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide.  I hope that what the book says about how wine has grown and changed over the last 25 years will inspire them to consider how their relationship has deepened and matured like a great wine!

I couldn’t part with the book without looking at it myself — just a quick glance to see what Parker wrote about and how — not the detailed analysis of the individual winery and wine entries that would yield the greatest insights. Here’s what I found.

What’s changed since 1989? Well, you won’t be surprised to know that prices have done up. Parker rates each wine with a point score out of 100 (his signature rating system) and an alphabetical price indicator. A = Inexpensive (less than $8) to E = luxury (in excess of $50).  The 1984 Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon receives 96 points and a D ($25-$50) for example. The Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cab cost only C ($15-$25) — I should have put some of that away!

It is interesting to see how the world wine map has broadened in 25 years. The sections on the Wines of Western Europe is very complete, as you would expect, with France, Germany, Italy Spain and Portugal well represented.  A section on The Best of the Rest includes Australia (of course), and briefer discussions of Argentina, Bulgaria, Chile, Greece, Hungary, Lebanon, New Zealand, Switzerland,  the UK and Yugoslavia.

It would be hard to make a list like this today without including Austria, South Africa and China. Brazil, India, Israel and several other countries would also claim a place in the lineup.

American Wines Everywhere

What about North America? Well it is there, of course (sans Canada, alas), wedged between Europe and the Rest, with about 250 pages of text compared to nearly 550 for Europe. That’s not a bad page count ratio when you consider how much more wine the Europeans produced then and how tiny the US industry was by comparison.

California got 210 of these pages followed by Oregon with about 30 pages. Parker has a particular interest in Oregon wines and is a partner with his brother-in-law at Beaux Frères (Parker does not review these wines because of understandable conflict-of-interest concerns).

I was interested to see what Parker had to say about Washington wines back in 1989, so I turned quickly to the chapter on Other American Viticultural Regions (other than California and Oregon that is). Connecticut, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, — the list goes on, wine seems to be everywhere in America  — Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia and then finally Washington!

Washington: Lingering Doubts, Encouraging Signs

“While I still have doubts about the overall quality and potential for Washington state wines,” Parker writes on page 843, “there are some encouraging signs …”.  Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but probably how many wine people saw the situation at the time. California was obviously important. Oregon, too, because of its Burgundy-like prestige.

Washington? Still needed to prove itself, which I think it quickly did. Washington is now the nation’s #2 wine producer in quantity and challenges California in many areas in terms of quality and reputation. But not in 1989.

In a very brief guide to the state’s best wines, Parker found no Outstanding Chardonnays and just one excellent producer (Hogue). Arbor Crest, Columbia, Chateau Ste Michelle and Zillah Oakes made the cut as Good Producers of Chardonnay.

The best Cabernet Sauvignons? Chateau Ste Michelle’s post-1983 Reserves earned them an Outstanding recommendation. The Chateau’s regular bottling was rated Excellent along with the Columbia “Red Willow” Cab and wines from Latah Creek, Leonetti and Woodward Canyon. Six wineries received the Good score, including Quilceda Creek, which is since earned cult wine status.

While we know that Parker thought the 1985 Pinot Noir Reserve from The Eyrie Vineyards in Oregon was worth an 89 score and cost a C amount, we have no numerical rating or tasting note data on any individual Washington wine at all.

Much has changed since 1989 as Parker’s book  makes clear, but a lot has stayed the same, too. Many of the great wine producers of the world have aged and developed as gracefully as the 1989 wines we had with dinner. New wineries, regions, styles and varieties have emerged. Wine was great in 1989, as Parker’s guide tells us. It is even better now, don’t you think!

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Extreme Wine Experience: Bottled History at Seppeltsfield

P1060537Wine can be many things — geography, geology, culture, even poetry (according to Robert Lewis Stevenson). So it is no surprise that wine experiences — the real time, real life phenomena that leave such indelible impressions — can take many forms, too.

History in a Bottle

Wine is or can be bottled history, for example, and connect us not just with each other but with people and events from the past.  Sometimes this is purposeful as in collecting wines from particular years to commemorate marriages, births and other special events. But sometimes the historical narrative goes deeper. Wine as bottled history is what we sought when we visited Seppeltsfield winery in the Barossa valley and we found that and a good deal more.

The Seppeltsfield winery was founded in 1851, very early in the Australia’s wine history. The Seppelts were Silesian immigrants with ambitious plans to develop the region’s economy. Wine grapes and then a winery and a village and so on. A visit to Seppeltsfield today is an opportunity to experience this history in several ways.

Seppeltsfield wears its history proudly. The wooded picnic area by the car parks feels like it has been there for a long time, a sense that is reinforced as you walk into the winery complex, with old buildings decorated with elaborate ironwork grills that reminded Sue of New Orleans.

A Cascade of Wine

You can visit Seppeltsfield and just taste wines at the cellar door bar and the people we saw doing that were certainly having fun, but the programmed tours and tastings seem to be the way to go here. The Heritage Tour, for example, takes you through the restored family home where the Seppelts lived (tight quarters by modern standards, despite their wealth). A short walk across a creek-spanning bridge leads to old vineyards, warehouses (including one where a Master Chef episode was filmed) and — my favorite part of the trip — the old winery itself.

Built in 1888, the “gravity flow” winery cascades down a steep hillside. The grapes were delivered up top and the finished wine surged out the bottom with labor-saving gravity performing much of the hard work in between. Gravity flow wineries are always interesting but it is the scale of the this facility that got my attention — 120 big open top fermentation tanks reached from the bottom of the hill to the summit, connected by all manner of pipes and valves. At the time of its construction it was one of the world’s largest and most modern wineries! Now, over 125 years later, it remains an incredible sight.

The winery remained in use for a century (imagine that) until finally time and perhaps also deferred maintenance caused it to be shuttered. Restored and improved (the tanks are now lined with stainless steel) under the current ownership, the big wine plant is back in use, producing both the small quantity of Seppeltsfield still wines that are for sale at the winery and larger quantities of wine made under contract for other wineries. If the vineyard is the soul of a winery, the production facility is its heart and this heart is back at work pumping out both wine to fill the bottles and also revenues to finance the expensive plans to restore Seppeltsfield’s historical facilities.

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A Taste of History

The Heritage Tour let me see history, then we were offered a chance to taste it, too. Who could resist? Up the stairs we went to the second level where a barrel of fortified wine was kept for every year of the winery’s history since the 1880s. Many people don’t realize the quality and importance of Australia’s great fortified wines and this room with its deep aromas stressed the long history.

Would we like to have a tiny taste of wine from our birth years? Yes — who could resist — but Sue and I were born in the same year so we proposed to share a taste of our vintage and then to honor Sue’s father  back in Virginia by sampling his year — 1921. It was kinda of a scam to allow us to taste two vintages, I know, but it worked and we loved it. Wines this old are very different creatures as you might expect, but the taste of history was dark, rich, profound, moving. Quite an experience.

Seppeltsfield h0nors its own history by each year releasing a small amount of 100 year old fortified wine. We tasted 1913 (significant to economists like me as the year the Federal Reserve System was founded in the U.S.) and considered how much has changed and yet remained the same.  (Note: The Seppeltsfield website offers for sale a small quantity of 100 ml bottles of fortified wines dating  back to 1880. Not cheap, but probably priceless to the right person.)

We didn’t have time to sample all the experiences that Seppeltsfield offers. A tasting that features small plates paired with various styles of fortified wines was certainly tempting. And I’d love to return in the summer to enjoy the outdoor areas and the crowds that are drawn to them. But it is the history (and those great fortified wines) that I will always remember.

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Thanks to Chad Elson for showing us around Seppeltsfield during our visit and providing the historical context for all that we saw and tasted. Thanks to Kym Anderson for sending us to Seppeltsfield to learn about Australian wine history first hand.

Invisible Vineyards & the Division of Labor Theory

Last week I wrote about the Yakima Valley AVA, which I described as Washington’s invisible vineyard. Why doesn’t it get more attention? I considered the “amenities gap” theory and concluded that it was at best a partial explanation. This week I dig a bit deeper into the issue.

Division of Labor Theory

The romantic idea of wine is a tiny vineyard farmed by a rugged individual who makes wine right there on the spot. We call this an estate winery and for better or worse the conventional wisdom holds that its it the model for quality wine. There are estate wineries in Yakima, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

In general the Washington State model is that there is a division of labor between farming the grapes and making the wine. The vineyards hereabouts are often large and supply grapes to many different wineries. The advantages of scale are tempered with the ability to give special treatment to particular blocks, rows, and sometimes specific grape vines within the larger vineyard.

Exceptional Exceptions

Betz Family Winery and Brian Carter Cellars  are both extreme and typical at the same time. Their wines earn the highest praise, but I don’t think they own any vineyards at all — they “outsource” the grape growing to others (although I think they are far from “laissez faire” in their relations with their winegrowers.) There is no indication that their wines suffer from the lack of “estate” status and probably benefit from the specialized system that has evolved.

Côte Bonneville is an instructive exception to the rule. Kerry Shiels makes the wines from grapes grown by her parents Hugh and Kathy at their iconic DuBrul Vineyard. But only a fraction of the grapes go into the estate wines — the majority are sold to a short list of wineries that are happy to feature the DuBrul Vineyard name on their labels.

Thurston Wolfe is another exceptional example. Wade Wolfe, who has inherited Walter Clore’s place as the valley’s leading viticultural authority, relies upon winemaking skill and an unchallenged knowledge of the region’s vineyards. He makes wines that have a cult-like following despite their lack of “estate” designation. An estate vineyard provides only a small proportion of the winery’s fruit — the rest is purchased.

Famous Names

Many of the most famous names in Yakima Valley such as Boushey and Red Willow are vineyards, not wineries, famous for the quality of their fruit and the dedication of their owners.  But they don’t produce a drop of wine themselves. This model has been very successful and accounts in part for the growth of the Washington wine industry since it is possible to start a new winery, a capital intensive commitment, without also having to develop equally capital intensive vineyard properties. If wine is really made in the vineyards, then Washington wineries with access to these Yakima vineyards start the game with a real advantage.

But the division of labor has also contributed to Yakima’s invisibility. More attention is given to Walla Walla and Red Mountain (a Yakima AVA sub-appellation), for example, in part I think because the estate winery model is more typical in these areas, helping them to achieve a stronger reputation.

(One consequence of the division of labor is that many wineries blend across regions, which they could not do with an estate wine, drawing upon fruit from different vineyards, rather than focusing on expressing a particular terroir. Some critics argue that something is lost in this process, even though the wines may be very good or objectively even better than similar single-vineyard products. And because the vineyards may not all be within the Yakima AVA’s strict boundary, their wines often carry the broader Columbia Valley appellation.)

Westward Ho!

This division of labor was shaped early on by Chateau Ste Michelle’s decision to build its showcase winery in rainy Western Washington, in Woodinville just a short drive from Seattle, rather than in the more distant Yakima Valley where the grapes are grown It must have seemed like a peculiar choice back in the 1970s, but it has turned out to be a brilliant move in terms of the development of the wine industry. (Ste Michelle makes its white wines in Woodinville — the freshly pressed juice is rushed to the winery by tank truck — while the red wines are made in the wine country itself).

Because wine is an industry that seems to develop in clusters, one result of the Ste Michelle strategy has been to help create a vibrant wine production zone in the Seattle area, with literally hundreds of wineries, all far from the vineyards that supply them. Even wineries that have no production facilities in the Seattle area see the wisdom of setting up tasting room operations to facilitate direct sales to the critical mass of wine tourist consumers that the cluster has encouraged.

There are wine clusters in the Yakima Valley, too (especially around Prosser and on Red Mountain), but they are obviously smaller than on the west side of the Cascades and are less successful in generating critical mass. This is changing, however. A number of new investments are in the works including Ste Michelle’s decision to convert its Snoqualmie brand facility in Prosser into a home for its spectacularly successful 14 Hands wines. This might be the cornerstone investment that really starts things moving.

Is This a Problem?

Yakima is sort of a middle sister. Not as big as the Columbia Valley of which it is an integral part but huge compared to the sub-AVAs like Red Mountain and Rattlesnake Hills that live within it.  Some producers choose the broader designation for their wines while others prefer to focus on the more local name. Yakima, which is key to both the big and little, is left to spend Saturday night alone at  home. How sad.

But I think this is the wrong way to look at the situation and so I am glad that the Yakima Valley wine folks are choosing to use the occasion of their 30th birthday to celebrate what and who they are, focusing on the wines, vineyards and the people who make and tend them.

It is only a bit of an exaggeration to say that there would be no Washington wine industry without the Yakima Valley. The next time you pull the cork of a Washington State wine you might stop to consider the invisible vineyards that are responsible for the liquid in your glass.

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Here’s my favorite example of the division of labor (and how not to do it!).

Washington’s Invisible Vineyard: Yakima


There’s a section in Extreme Wine, my new book that’s due out in October, that examines the Invisible Wine phenomenon. Invisible Wines? Not invisible in the sense that they can’t be seen with the naked eye, but invisible as in extremely overlooked. They’re right in front of you, big as life, but somehow they just don’t show up on the radar.

Oldest, Biggest, Best?

The Yakima Valley is Washington State’s invisible vineyard. It is the state’s oldest AVA (celebrating its 30th birthday this  year), it has the largest vineyard area and is the chosen source of raw materials for many of Washington’s most celebrated wines.

And yet if  you ask people outside the region (and some locals, too) about Yakima wine  you can get a blank stare. The most famous Yakima probably has nothing whatsoever to do with wine — Yakima Canutt, the celebrated Hollywood stunt man — you saw him in Stagecoach and Ben Hur and dozens of other films– check out the highlights video above.

Sue and I have spent a good deal of time in the last year learning about Yakima wine. I walked the DuBrul Vineyard with Kathy, Kerry and Hugh Shiels last July and then returned with Sue and a crack research team (Richard and Bonnie) to get to know the Red Mountain AVA in October. We attended seminars that highlighted two sides of  Yakima Valley’s story at Taste Washington in March.

And then just recently we were invited a special tasting of Yakama AVA wines in Seattle that featured presentations about the region’s special winegrowing advantages, particularly the long growing season, the long days of sunlight during that season, the advantageous aspects (south-facing slopes) and the soil profiles that have resulted from complex geological combinations of volcanic eruptions, the Missoula flood and more.  It was a very useful seminar. I’ll paste the tasting menu at the end of the post so that you can get  a sense of how diverse the wines from this region really are.

Past and Present

Winegrowing in the Yakima Valley is much older than the AVA’s 30 years. The first wine grapes were planted in 1869 by a Frenchman named Charles Schanno but the real beginning was just a little over 100 years ago when Willliam B. Bridgman laid down vineyards. Todd Newhouse of Upland Estates makes a tiny amount of ice wine from some of the Muscat vines that Bridgman planted in 1917. Tasting this wine is like sipping history — a pleasure on many levels.

The region has received international recognition. Tuscany’s famous Antinori family built Col Solare in the Red Mountain sub-AVA in partnership with Chateau Ste Michelle, for example, and Jancis Robinson singles out Yakima for its Lemberger vines in the Oxford Companion to Wine. (Kiona and Thurston Wolfe are two of my favorite Yakima Lembergers.)

The Amenities Gap 

So why is the Yakima Valley invisible or at least less well-known than you’d expect based on the quality (and quantity) of the wines made from its fruit. There is no single answer, but the amenities gap is the most commonly cited concern.

Everyone moans that the Yakima Valley needs more upscale hotels, resorts and eateries and I suppose this is true, but there is a circular reasoning problem. You won’t get the investment until a critical mass of visitors appears and you won’t get the visitors until the amenities are there for them. Someone has to break the cycle and while the new Walter Clore Wine & Culinary Center is a welcome addition it isn’t enough by itself. Fortunately I’ve heard rumors of possible new initiatives that might jump start the development process. Fingers crossed.

But I don’t really think that the amenities gap is the real problem and while I would certainly welcome more lodging and dining choices in the Yakima Valley, I don’t this this alone will transforms the region’s reputation. There are other factors that are more important and they make me wonder how concerned we should be about Yakima’s invisibility.  Come back next week for my analysis.

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OK, maybe film stunt men like Yakima Canutt are invisible too — you  see their work, but never know who they are. I guess that might make the two Yakimas (the valley and the cowboy) very much alike. Hope you enjoy the video.

Thanks to the Barbara Glover and Wine Yakima Valley for inviting us to a tasting of Yakima Valley wines at Wild Ginger in Seattle (if I was trying to make you jealous I would tell you about how well the 2004 Cóte Bonneville tasted with Wild Ginger’s Fragrant Duck). Special thanks to Wade Wolfe and Kerry Shiels for sharing their knowledge of the valley with us.

Forty Years of Domaine Chandon

I’d like to raise a glass to toast Domaine Chandon on the occasion of its 40th year. Domaine Chandon was a bold idea back in 1973 and it has grown to become both an iconic producer of sparkling wines in Napa Valley and an important element of the American wine industry.

According to Wine Business Monthly, Domaine Chandon is the 25th largest wine company in the U.S., producing 625,000 cases in 2012.

Humble Beginnings? Global Reach!

I’d like to say that there were humble beginnings back in 1973, when the winery began, and I’m sure there were, but it is a hard case to make. Honestly, they had audacious ambitions right from the start.

Domaine Chandon was part of Möet & Chandon’s early strategy to dominate the global market for sparkling wine by both promoting their signature Champagne and simultaneously establishing wineries in the most important regions including Australia, South America, and the United States. If someone was going to make and sell “champagne” around the world, why not the Champenoise themselves?  The master plan continues today — Chandon has recently broken ground on a major winery in Ningxia, China.

It is difficult to over-state the importance of Domaine Chandon at the time of its founding, which was only a few years after one important milestone — the opening of the Robert Mondavi winery — and three years before another — the famous “Judgement of Paris” wine tasting. Chandon was the first French-owned sparkling wine producer in the U.S. and a strong statement about both the potential of California to make quality wines (at a time when many Americans still doubted this) and the confidence of the French that Americans would drink them!

Soup and Dessert

One of the reasons for Chandon’s big impact is that the winery was conceived as something more than just a production facility.  A destination winery was constructed to allow the story of the wines and their makers to be told effectively (more than 250,000 visitors now come to the Yountville facility each year).

Wines, wine-making, history — all that was needed to complete the experience was great food and this was provided by étoile Restaurant, the first (and so far still the only) fine dining restaurant located within a Napa Valley winery.

No wonder people came by the droves and then came back and back again as lifelong ambassadors for both Chandon and for Napa Valley.

Sue and I have great memories of our early visits to Chandon in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I hate to admit this, but although we loved the wine it was really the restaurant that kept us coming back — especially for chef Philippe Jeanty‘s famous puff-pastry-crowned cream of tomato soup (which you can still enjoy at Bistro Jeanty  in Yountville) and the luscious chocolate desserts.

Fred’s Friends

Fred: Count Frederic Chandon

One of my favorite memories of Domaine Chandon involves a mystery that I uncovered back in the 1980s. I was rummaging through the wine bins at our local Safeway and I came across a colorfully decorated bottle of a still wine — Rosé of Pinot Noir — by a producer identified as Fred’s Friends.

I was a bit suspicious because the price was so low ($1.99), but I bought a bottle and took it home only to discover that it was delicious both as an aperitif and paired with salmon. Yum. We shared our discovery with friends Michael and Nancy and together I think together we bought every bottle that the local Safeway stores had in stock. It was our perfect summer wine.

We were happy to enjoythe wine, but who was Fred and were we his designated friends (and why was he “dumping” this nice wine under a made-up label at a bargain price)?

I guessed the wine’s real maker because the fictional winery’s location was Yountville. Who in Yountville would have enough Pinot Noir around to make a pink wine like this and then be able to sell it for such a bargain basement price? Only one possible answer: Domaine Chandon. Sure enough I was right.

I found  a crude black and white image of the original label (see above — probably made from a faxed document) on a trade-mark registration website and I uncovered more details about the origin of the still wine in oral history archives at Berkeley.

Our first couple of years when we started, we were making wine at Trefethen. Our deuxieme taille, the last cut on our press, we’d never use for sparkling wine. Yet when you get to that last cut, as a still wine you have the appearance in the mouth of a little bit more body because there’s more tannin in the wine, and the acids are a little less so it’s a bit softer.

We thought, “Gee, this is really pretty nice wine just to drink as it is .” I forget now why, but we decided we wouldn’t just put it on the bulk market, which is what we do today. I think it was partly because we were making sparkling wine, but it was going to take three years or so before it was ready to drink, so we thought, “Let’s have a wine that we could enjoy ourselves.” So we bottled some of that- -a thousand cases or so.

Came time to sell it and we were just going to sell it to friends of the company and employees. Michaela Rodeno, who was then our v.p. of marketing and communications, came up with the idea of Fred’s Friends. I guess it was shortly after Fred Chandon had been here on a visit. He’s a very charming person. He took us all out to lunch, the whole group; we had about twenty people working then. As I recall at that time, he had promised which he later delivered on- -that after we had sold a million bottles, everybody would get a trip to France. Everybody was quite intrigued with that; I’m talking mostly about people on the bottling lines, et cetera. So Michaela just came up with the idea of calling it Fred’s Friends.

Beyond Fred’s Friends

Fred’s Friends disappeared after a while, but the idea of making fine still wines with some of the wonderful raw materials on hand did not. Chandon’s still wine program today is strong and, as the attractive label indicates, has escaped from the anonymous Fred’s Friends shadows. Sue and I met Domain Chandon’s still winemaker Joel Burt at IPNC a couple of years and visited him in Yountville earlier this year.

Barrel tasting with Joel was fantastic, sampling the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier at different stages and with different oak treatments. The Pinot Meunier was especially interesting because the wine changes so much during its time in barrel and then bottle.

While most of the wines Joel makes are from grapes you would naturally associate with a sparkling wine house, he also makes a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon, leveraging the fact that Newton Vineyards is part of the LVMH family and so some great Cab grapes are available. Total still wine production is between 15,000 and 19,000 cases a year, mainly five different Pinot Noir bottlings (9000 cases altogether) then Pinot Meunier and Cab (about 4000 cases each) and Chardonnay (about 2100 cases).

Chandon’s still wines were an unexpected discovery. Much more serious and refined than Fred’s Friends, of course, but just as surprising ..  and delicious!

Domaine Chandon has grown up to fill the big shoes that its founders envisioned.  At 40 years, has it entered middle age? I don’t think so. Maybe 40 is the new 30. In any case, I sense that the dynamism is still there and the ability to surprise and delight remains as well.

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Thanks to Joel for his hospitality during our visit to Domaine Chandon. You’ll see him in this video, which showcases all the elements of the Domaine Chandon experience.

Extreme Wine: Vineyard Edition

P1030341When I started working on my book on Extreme Wine  (due out in the fall) I asked Wine Economist readers for ideas. Who are the most extreme wine people, for example? I received many nominations but one particularly caught my attention.

It came from a California winegrower who asked that winegrowers (although not him/herself) be included on the list. Everyone says that wine is made in the vineyard — and some growers go to real extremes to make that happen — but it is the wine makers who get all the attention.  The Pisoni family was cited as an example. Fruit from Pisoni Vineyards goes into some of the best wine in California, although only a little of it is bottled under the Pisoni name.

Good point. A quick search on Robert Parker’s website turned up a long list of Pinot Noir and Syrah with the Pisoni Vineyards designation (Parker calls it a grand cru vineyard in one review).  The 2008 Pisoni Estate Pinot earned the highest score (98/100), but all the reviews were strong. Clearly there’s something special about this vineyard and the people who farm it.  I visited several extreme winegrowers in 2012 (most recently on Red Mountain). Here are three that illustrate different sides of the extreme winegrower phenomenon.

Serendipity

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As luck would have it, at about the same time I was having this extreme wine people conversation I received an invitation from Wine Yakima Valley to participate in a program they were organizing to help wine enthusiasts get to know several of the most noteworthy (read “extreme”) vineyards in the Yakima Valley AVA (which celebrates its 30th birthday in 2013). A perfect opportunity for me to do some extreme vineyard / wine grower research!

The Vineyard Tour Series highlighted the work of  four outstanding growers at Red Willow Vineyard, DuBrul Vineyard, Upland Estates and Boushey Vineyards. What a great opportunity. Each of these vineyards is famous for the quality of the wines made from its fruit and each is discussed in Paul Gregutt’s valuable book, Washington Wines & Wineries: The Essential Guide.

Gregutt knowingly breaks down Washington wine into grapes, AVAs, wine makers and wine growers. Boushey is one of his “grand cru” designates while Red Willow and DuBrul make “premier cru” in the top 20 list.  All these vineyards have interesting stories, but the DuBrul program was the best fit for my schedule.

Tough Love

I ended up spending a hot July afternoon at DuBrul, walking the vineyards with Hugh, Kathy and Kerry Sheils and gaining an appreciation of the unique terroir. This is how the Sheilses describe their site:

Our DuBrul Vineyard is situated on a basalt promontory with sweeping vistas in all directions.  The steep rocky south facing slope is composed of dissected terraces comprised of coalesced alluvial fan deposits primarily from the Ellensburg Formation.  The soils in the vineyard are made up of relatively thin loess (wind-deposited silt) over the more coarse-grained alluvial fan deposits.  The volcanic ash and heterogeneity of the rock types within the Ellensburg Formation add to the complexity of our terroir.

It’s hard land — literally. I think I remember Hugh saying that the spacing of the vines was partly determined by the lay out of the previous apple orchard there. The land was too equipment-busting tough to cultivate any other way, so they were forced to accept what they had to a certain extent. Wade Wolfe laid out the vineyard and Stan Clarke advised on the winegrowing — that’s as good a combination as you can get in Washington State.

The grapes are in high demand and are sold to only a few carefully selected customers — if you see the DuBrul Vineyard designation on a wine label you can expect something pretty special. So special that some of it is reserved for Cote Bonneville, the estate wine that Kerry makes.  The wines get high marks from the critics. At $200 the top of the line Cote Bonneville Du Brul Cabernet Sauvignon is the most expensive Washington State wine.

But DuBrul Vineyard isn’t about the money, it’s about the place and the particular geological forces that shaped it over the millenia and that shape what’s in your wine glass today. And, of course, it’s about the extreme wine people who have nurtured it.

History in a Bottle

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The first thing you see when you approach Larkmead Vineyards, which is located in Napa Valley up the road near St. Helena, are the 120 year old head-trained Tocai Friuliano vines planted in a block between a house and the road. Man, that’s history, I thought, as I surveyed these gnarly old vines and imagined the tenacity of the owner and the commitment to a less-than-fashionable Napa Valley variety.

I was right about the history, but wrong about the commitment to Tocai. Turns out the Tocai vines were kept through the years  in spite of  negligible market demand because they made such a darn fine hedge in the summer. Completely blocked out the road and its noise! Only in recent years did the winemaker decide to make lemonade out of the lemons. Now the unusual wine quickly sells out its tiny production each year.  (I was too late to try the most recent vintage. Sigh … maybe next year).

We came to Larkmead for the history (although not specifically for the Tocai Friuliano). Larkmead got into my head when I first read Jim Lapsley’s history of Napa Valley wine, Bottled  Poerty. The legendary Andre Tchelistcheff identifed the “big four” quality wine producers in the valley when he came to work here in 1938: Beaulieu (Tchelistcheff’s new employer), Beringer, Inglenook and … Larkmead.

Larkmead? I knew the wines were very good, but I didn’t appreciate the historical significance. I needed to find out more.

My curiosity was especially piqued because of what I knew about the other three wineries and the way that they fell into corporate hands and met different fates. Perhaps the saddest story (but with a happy ending) was Inglenook, which went from producing some of Napa’s best wines to being a lowly jug wine brand. Only recently, after years and years of effort, has Francis Ford Coppolla managed to bring the estate, its vineyards and the Inglenook brand back together to make excellent wines. Congratulations to him on this achievement.

We tasted with Colin MacPhail and Sonny Thielbar and enjoyed the wines quite a lot. But what I liked even more was the sense of history. Although everything about Larkmead is up to date, there’s a very strong sense of of identity here. The people at Larkmead know what they are –the stewards of the land — and who they are, too.  After talking, tasting and thinking a bit I realized that several generations of extreme wine people were necessary to preserve these vineyards and to sustain a particular vision of wine through all of Napa’s ups and downs. The Tocai vines that first caught my attention aren’t central to all this (as I secretly hoped), simply an unexpected reminder of how hard it can be for a vineyard and winery like this to stay true to itself.

Extreme Vineyard PersistenceP1040105

We visited Anne Amie Vineyards twice during our Willamette Valley expedition (I taught a class for the University of Pinot at the International Pinot Noir Celebration) — first to attend a casual food and wine reception and then again for a “magical mystery tour” seminar and luncheon.

We’ve been to this place on many occasions, starting about 30 years ago when it was called Chateau Benoit (after the founding family). We liked the wines then, especially the sparkling wines as I recall, and it has been interesting to watch the place evolve as the region’s wine industry developed. Much has changed. We called it Chateau Benoit (pronounced Ben-OYT) when we first visited because that’s how the founders said it, but I understand it morphed into a French-inflected Chateau Ben-WAH later on. And it 1999 it became Anne Amie when Robert Pamplin bought the operation and named it after his two daughters.

More than the name has changed — Pamplin has invested much energy into developing Anne Amie’s Pinot Noir program as you might expect in Oregon — but much has remained the same, including some of the original vineyards (which is where this story fits into today’s post). As we drove up the long road to the hilltop winery, we passed the original (1979) block of Muller Thurgau vines that produced the grapes that went into the wines we tasted on our very first visit.

It has taken a good deal of persistence to maintain these vines because they have faced a lot of challenges. The first is economic — there’s not much of a market for Muller Thurgau here in the U.S. It might make economic sense to pull them out and put in a more marketable variety.

And then there’s nature. The bottom of the hill gets pretty cold in the winter and these old vines sometimes suffer. And I think I remember that they’ve been hit with Phylloxera, but nursed along rather than grubbed up as you might expect.  I like the wine that is produced from these grapes — crisp and clean — but more than that I appreciate the extreme perseverance that is behind it. This particular Muller Thurgau vineyard is singled out for special mention in Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz and it is easy to see why.

These three vineyards only scratch the surface of extreme winegrowing, but I hope they make the point that my anonymous correspondent suggested. If wine really is made in the vineyard as we all like to say then we ought to honor and celebrate wine growing as much as we do wine making. Here ‘s a toast to the growers! Cheers!

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Thanks to Barbara Glover and Wine Yakima Valley for inviting me to take part in their vineyard program. Special thanks to Hugh, Kathy and Kerry Sheils for answering all my questions and sharing their wine growing experiences with me. More thanks to  Colin MacPhail and Sonny Thielbar at Larkmead and to Ksandek Podbielski at Anne Amie. Happy New Year to all!

Photos: Old vine Tocai block at Larkmead, Hugh Sheils at DuBrul, those old 120 year old Tocai vines once again, and the view from Anne Amie looking down the hill at the Muller Thurgau block.

Summer Reading: Simpson on “Creating Wine”

Summer a a good season to kick back and do a little reading (the other good seasons for this are Winter, Spring and Fall). Serious reading? Fun? I dunno — it’s up to you. A local newspaper columnist has added Wine Wars to his summer business book reading list (along with Daniel Yergin’s The Quest and The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America by Marc Levinson among others). Sounds like serious fun to me.

So what am I reading for serious fun this summer? The answer is Creating Wine by James Simpson (Princeton University Press, 2011).

A Book and Its Cover

Please do not judge Creating Wine by its cover. The main title plus the illustrations of two grape vines might suggest that this is a book about practical viticulture or perhaps home winemaking. The devil is in the details and in this case the truth is in the subtitle (The Emergence of a World Industry 1840-1914). This is the story of how the world wine business evolved in the critical years before war in Europe and Prohibition in the United States when the roots of today’s global industry were established.

The story told here is how different wine regions adjusted to exogenous shocks (such as the Phylloxera scourge) and disruptive technological change (such as improved transportation) and how these differential responses set the industries on courses that still vary today.

Significantly, Simpson finds his explanations for the New World – Old World gap not simply in history or culture, but instead in differences in relative factor abundancies (land scare Old World, labor scarce New World) and differing patterns of political and economic power.

Old World and New

This is an economic analysis  (the author is professor of economic history at the Carlos III University of Madrid) so, although there are no equations, there are plenty of useful tables and charts, which add to the story. And although it wouldn’t hurt to have taken an introductory economics class to understand some of the terminology, I don’t think this is a firm pre-requisite.

Part I focuses on Europe and particularly France and introduces in quick succession the problems of the railroads (19th century globalization), Phylloxera and the development of viticultural science, and the political economy of the response to fraud caused in part by Phylloxera-driven shortages of wine grapes.

The rest of the book examines Europe’s failure to penetrate export markets (especially the U.K.) followed by comparative analyses of the evolving wine industries in Bordeaux, Champagne, Spain, Portugal, the U.S., Australia and Argentina. A final chapter brings things forward to the present.

I enjoyed this book because of the way it helped me make connections. In every chapter I found two or three interesting facts that I already knew and then Simpson supplied the key connecting idea. Suddenly it all made sense! A very satisfying (and informative) read.

Chinese Workers in California Wine

Let me pick one example to illustrate. Thousands of Chinese workers came to the United States in the 19th century to help build the transcontinental railroad. Many remained, especially on the West Coast, after the Golden Spike was driven home. Cheap, hardworking and quick to master new skills, they became the backbone of the California wine industry.

But economic conditions changed and anti-Chinese attitudes emerged and many were driven from the country; an underlying labor shortage was revealed, only partially bridged by fresh immigrants from Italy and other European countries. The problem of scarce and expensive labor became the defining economic constraint of American wine, Simpson tells us (just as the uneconomic division and re-division of European vineyards over time defined Old World wine economics).

The technical innovation of a “vertical” winery, where the force of gravity moved the grapes and juice from one part of the production process to the next, was created to economize on labor, Simpson says, not just to provide more gentle treatment of the grapes as a dozen wine tour guides must have told me over the years.

Creating Wine is a great book for anyone who loves wine economics, wine history or … wine! Highly recommended for a seriously fun summer read.

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Note: The Jake Lee painting of Chinese vineyard and winery workers in Sonoma County shown here was originally displayed in Kan’s Chinese Restaurant in San Francisco. Click here to read its fascinating history.

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