Thinking About Laura Catena’s Grand Cru Project

Laura Catena believes we need to think about the concept of Grand Cru vineyards and wines, so she organized a series of Zoom events for trade and media participants built around the idea of the Grand Cru.

Sue and I recently participated in one of the sessions and it provided food for thought as well as some delicious wine to sample — Catena Zapata and Winebow generously provided a line-up of wine samples to help us think about Grand Cru-class wines in practice as well as theory. I will paste our wine lineup at the end of this column.

The idea wasn’t to do a blind tasting (can you tell Old World from New World, recognized  Grand Cru from an ambitious pretender?)  or stage a sort of “Judgement of Tupungato” competition, but rather to appreciate some really excellent wines and use them to stimulate thought and discussion.

It took me a while to begin to figure out the point of the discussion. Why talk about Grand Cru now? According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, the concept of a Grand Cru wine is a bit of a moving target. The term, French of course, has a different meaning in Burgundy (where it applies to specific vineyards), in Alsace (where there are Grand Cru appellations), and Bordeaux (it is all about the producers).

New World Grand Crus?

Can (or should) the Grand Cru concept be applied to the New World? And if so, how and where? Much of the discussion focused on practical problems. Grand Cru is a French idea (or ideas) that would seem difficult to translate to foreign soil. Would consumers understand it? Would producers unite around the concept? And could they ever agree on a Grand Cru league table — who’s in and who’s out? Doubtful on all counts, participants suggested.

In any case, several pointed out, there is already a quality-assessing system in place and it is called the market. If you want to know the best vineyards look at grape prices (and the resulting wine prices). The Bordeaux Classification of 1855 was based on price and the market measure endures.

As an economist, I appreciate the power of price to establish hierarchies and find it interesting that the Bordeaux classification is still relevant. But I also understand that markets are very imperfect measures of quality.  It is not for nothing that Oscar Wilde complained of people who know “the price of everything and the value of nothing!”

I am more interested in the way what we say conditions how we think. Language doesn’t simply transmit thought, it also shapes it. Talking about Grand Cru means thinking about wine in a particular subjective way that reflects respect and admiration for the very best that I’d argue is different from measures such as extremely high prices or 100 point scores.

So talking Grand Cru may help us think about wine in a certain way. But American wine history suggests that as difficult as Grand Cru is to achieve, it may sometimes be even harder to maintain. I am thinking about the story of Martin Ray, which I recounted in my book 2011 Wine Wars (and also in the revised new edition that will be released next year) in the chapter titled “Martians vs Wagnerians.”

The Sad Tale of Martin Ray

Martians — a term I borrowed from wine historian Thomas Pinney — are inspired by Martin Ray’s idea of wine. Ray was upset that the standard of US wine was so low in the years following the repeal of Prohibition. He persuaded Paul Masson to sell him his once great winery in 1935 and proceeded to try to restore its quality with a personal drive that Pinney terms fanatical.

He did it, too, making wines of true distinction—wines that earned the highest prices in California at the time. His achievement was short-lived, however. A winery fire slowed Ray’s momentum and he finally sold out to Seagram’s, which used a loophole in wartime price control regulations to make a fortune from the Paul Masson brand and its premium price points, starting a trend of destructive corporate exploitation that forms a central theme in Pinney’s book on American wine history.

Ray’s history is therefore especially tragic since his attempt to take California wine to the heights through Paul Masson ended so badly. Paul Masson degenerated into an undistinguished mass-market wine brand that was sold to Constellation Brands, which eventually passed it along to The Wine Group (makers of Franzia bag-in-box wines among other products), which quietly withdrew the spent brand from the market. Paul Masson brandy still exists as part of the Gallo portfolio.

So in the end Martin Ray’s high Grand Cru values degenerated into the market prices they yielded and then degenerated again and again until nothing was left of them. How sad!

Gold in the Vineyards?

Laura Catena’s interest in Grand Cru vineyards isn’t a new thing. Her 2018 illustrated book Gold in the Vineyards surveyed the world of wine through stories of great wines, the families (and especially the women) behind them, and the great vineyards that are their source. The finally chapter is personal, focusing on Catena Zapata’s “Adrianna Vineyard: the Grand Cru of South America,” which is the source of the quote at the top of this column.

As Laura Catena tells the story, her father Nicholas Catena was determined to create a Grand Cru vineyard in Argentina. Scouring the Uco Valley countryside, he came across a cold, dry area with stony soils high up in the Andean foothills at 1500 meters elevation. The winery viticulturalist said it would be impossible to make anything except perhaps sparkling wines from vines planted in such a unfriendly site. But Catena stubbornly forged ahead with what we now call the Adrianna Vineyard, which produced four of the eight wines in our sample pack.

Re-reading Gold in the Vineyard and connecting the dots, I realized the unstated question at the heart of the Zoom events. Did Nicholas Catena and his Catena Zapata colleagues really do it? Is the Adrianna vineyard what he meant for it to be: Argentina’s Grand Cru vineyard? That’s what will be on my mind as Sue and I work our way through these wines in the coming weeks.

We’ve started with the White Stones and White Bones Chardonnay wines, which I have wanted to taste for a long time. They are fantastic — balanced, elegant, complex. The two Catena wines are very different from each other and different, too, from the Chablis wines including in the tasting, which is important since imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s not what great wine is all about. Grand Cru? Gotta think about it some more before I make up my mind. World-class? Absolutely!

The question of what does Grand Cru mean today is thought-provoking and considering what it might mean in a New World context provokes debate. For me, the idea of the Grand Cru is worth holding on to and using as a source of inspiration — I am on board with Laura Catena’s project — even if the practical realities are messy and problematic.

In the meantime, perhaps it would help if you poured yourself a glass of wine from  your favorite maker or region and pondered  the notion of the Grand Cru.

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WINES

  • Alain Chavy Puligny-Montrachet Les Folatières Premier Cru 2018

Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard White Stones Chardonnay 2018

Louis Moreau Les Clos 2017

Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard White Bones Chardonnay 2018

Lingua Franca The Plow Pinot Noir 2019

Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Fortuna Terrae Malbec 2017

Grattamacco Bolgheri Superiore 2016

Nicolás Catena Zapata 2017

2 responses

  1. One thought as I look at your list of wines: only in the New World does the concept of a Grand Cru vineyard encompass the notion of producing multiple top-tier wines from varietals that traditionally find their highest expressions under dramatically different growing conditions. Europeans would snort at the notion of a Bordeaux Grand Cru producing a similar-level Pinot Noir or Chardonnay from grapes grown on the same property.

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