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MONDAY MANIFESTOS
08/29/2011
Monday Manifestos
Different Is Different—But Is It Better

By Charles Olken

I spent part of my just completed vacation trying to explain the difference between “different and better” to my neighbors at Tahoe. They have heard of new grapes and new techniques and wanted to know what it all means.

I guess, because I was the nearest thing to someone who might know the answers to those questions, that we spent a happy evening over a chilled bottle of high acid Sauvignon Blanc followed by a ripe and rich Zinfandel discussing those weighty topics instead of telling tales about hurricanes we had lived through and baseball pennant chases. And I am happy to share the “truth” about that topic.

Here it is in a nutshell. For as long as I have been wine cognizant, which means from the days when I stepped up from Gallo Hearty Burgundy to Beringer Ruby Cabernet and then to cheap Beaujolais and to Chianti in wicker raffia, the “new thing”, or “the next big thing” has always been with us. It began with the Cabernet vintages of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and was compounded by Zinfandels from Ridge, Joseph Swan and Sutter Home, Chardonnays from Mayacamas, David Bruce and Freemark Abbey and Pinot Noirs from Chalone and Mount Eden and continued unabated over the almost four decades now that I have been collecting.

There is always a new darling, a latest cult wine, a next big thing. It is the ongoing discovery of wine’s potential here in California that has been the basis and backbone of our wine industry. True enough, with 100,000 acres of Chardonnay and 75.000 more of Cabernet Sauvignon, we have entered a period of what might be stability at the heart. To some, that means “boring” while, to others, that means recognizable styles and quality and faith that a dictionary and an atlas in no longer necessary to enjoy bottle after bottle of very good wine being sold at reasonable prices.

For those who see “boring” in stability, there is hope. Even with the great majority of California’s wine grapes concentrated in a few varieties, the thrill of discovery has not left the scene. There are those who see excitement in old varieties like Burger and Grey Riesling that were left behind for good reason. I do not. But, I do see excitement in the new attempts to capture the grandeur of Riesling. California may have failed once with Riesling, but just as Pinot Noir has succeeded by being planted in more accommodating microclimates and soils, so too can Riesling.

And California wineries, whether JC Cellars with its Rhône bottlings or Spottswoode with its Sauvignon Blanc, are still experimenting with and learning new fermentation techniques such as the use of small cement containers in order to achieve a fuller mouthfeel without having to search for higher alcohols or softer acidities. New varieties are also the center of experimentation for those who are bored with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah and Merlot.

And so the question pertains. Does all this mean that different is better? In my wine lifetime, it very frequently has. I am just not so sure how much of today’s “different” will truly be better and how much of it will be Nebbiolo and Sangiovese, two varieties that simply did not satisfy despite being different and now have very little or no place in California wine discussions these days. I like different. I always have. But I like better better, and different is not always better just because it is different.


 

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Comments

Harumph....
by TomHill
Posted on:8/29/2011 8:35:52 AM

Some very good points, Charlie. Different is not necessarily better. But, however, "better" is very much a matter of one's perceptions. And sometimes those perceptions can change w/ maturity.

   There's a lot of activity these days in things "different" in the Calif wine world. Much of that is described in ystrdays SFChron column by JonBonne for whites, one of his best of late.  Everybody makes Cab/Pinot/Syrah/Chard. If you're a new and up&coming winemaker, how do you crack thru that barrier? For some, it's doing something that's "different".

   Over the last year, we've seen a lot of interest in white wines made w/ skin contact, sometimes in an oxidative manner (orange wines) and I've been trying as many as I can. They certainly can be "different". But "better"?? Some are, some are not. Some I just can't get past the bitterness. So I'm struggling with "different", too.

   As for Nebbiolo...you had your chance last week!!! :-)

Tom

 

Viva La Difference
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:8/29/2011 8:58:36 AM

Tom--

I think we should all be grateful for the continuing experimentation in the CA wine biz. Some of it, like "orange wines" represent difference for difference's sake. So did the exploits of Martin Ray and Randall Grahm.

Pushing the envelope is a time-honored tradition that we all ought to support. I thought Jon's columns yesterday were very useful discussions of how our envelope continues to expand. I thought it broke down a bit in its lack of critical analysis of what works versus what does not. In that regard, your comments here are a lot more informative.

Hey, maybe we will find that Trousseau Gris is a great grape after all. But, likely as not, we will simply find that it is different and not better--and it will once again go the way of the hula hoop.

Well...
by TomHill
Posted on:8/29/2011 11:03:39 AM

Charlie sez:

"

Pushing the envelope is a time-honored tradition that we all ought to support. I thought Jon's columns yesterday were very useful discussions of how our envelope continues to expand. I thought it broke down a bit in its lack of critical analysis of what works versus what does not. In that regard, your comments here are a lot more informative.

Hey, maybe we will find that Trousseau Gris is a great grape after all. But, likely as not, we will simply find that it is different and not better--and it will once again go the way of the hula hoop."

I'm not sure we really know yet what works vs. doesn't work in Calif. But it's fun to play along and be part of the evolution. Some people complain about having some of these "experiments" foisted off onto the unsuspecting public when they encounter a wine they don't understand. I enjoy playing along.

   There are probably a lot of European grapes that were discarded into the dustbin of history over there they could very well make good/great wines under Calif growing conditions. Who'd have thunk that Crljenak Kaštelanski/Tribidrag would go onto greatness here and become California's grape.

Tom

 

No Subject
by SUAMW
Posted on:8/29/2011 11:35:27 AM

Different, as in "distinct", as in "not typical for the grape" as in "flawed", as in "bad" has been the selling point of many a nascent AVA. If it says "Pinot Noir" or "Merlot" on the bottle and tastes like plonk in no way reminiscent of any Pinot Noir or Merlot ever produced in any place on the planet is it even "good" (never mind "better")?

Different Vs. Plonk
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:8/29/2011 1:28:19 PM

Plonk is plonk is plonk. We can agree on that point, and it is not limited to nascent AVAs or to the New World.

But different is not necessarily plonk. Tom Hill's point about Zinfandel is a good one. What we do with Zin here is not replicated elsewhere, yet it is good wine.

So, it is not the "ever produced in any place on the planet" that needs to be the standard. "Orange" wines, whether one likes them or not, are more than three standard deviations from anything we have ever known as good. Yet, if folks like them, then they are entitled to be called good by those folks regardless of how far they stray from past standards.

I would love to have a longer discussion of your point about Merlot and Pinot Noir. Which AVAs are you talking about? Is Algerian Pinot Noir a standard of measure we can use for acceptability just because it exists? That is what I mean be plonk is plonk.

New interpretations do not necessarily equal plonk, however, and so I hope you will define your points a bit further.

Points to Clarify
by Jeff V
Posted on:8/30/2011 10:32:08 AM

Mr. Olken,

I assume that when you state:

"and California wineries, whether JC Cellars with its Rhone bottlings or Spottswoode with its Sauvignon Blanc, are still experimenting with and learning new techniques such as the use of small cement containers....."

By 'new' you mean new to JC Cellars and Spottswoode, since cement containers have been used as a proper fermentation vessel in Europe for many, many decades. 

In addition, 'Orange' wines are not made "difference for difference's sake" this is a style of winemaking that dates back thousands of years.  Extended skin contact for white wines is nothing new, nor should it be considered a novelty.  It actually has been proven to be a technique that has stood the test of time.

It's worth noting that Reverse Osmosis machines are 'new' techniques, so is CrossFlow filtration, these are modern winemaking techniques that still have many more decades to go before they should be considered the 'standard'.

  


Hmmmm....
by TomHill
Posted on:8/30/2011 11:17:28 AM

Jeff sez: "In addition, 'Orange' wines are not made "difference for difference's sake" this is a style of winemaking that dates back thousands of years.  Extended skin contact for white wines is nothing new, nor should it be considered a novelty.  It actually has been proven to be a technique that has stood the test of time."

To be sure, amphorae and orange wines (wines made w/ extended skin/lees contact and in an oxidative manner by some people's definition) were standard practice way back in ancient times, primarily in Georgia. But they pretty much went the way of the DoDo as I understand. There was a revival of interest in these ancient techniques, though, primarily in Friuli/Slovenia...but that was not all that long ago. That interest  has now been showing up in Calif over the last few yrs as well.

   Same for extended skin contact. Ten yrs ago, I think you'd have been hard pressed to find anyone using extended skin contact (weeks & months) in Calif in making their white wines. And still so...so I'd consider it  a novelty. And I'm not (yet) convinced it's going to stand the test of time in Calif.

   Same for concrete fermentation vessels. Ten yrs ago, you'd have been hard pressed to find any save a few old-timey Calif wineries. And I know of only one clay amphorae fermentation of late in Calif.

   So...even though the techniques date back hundred & hundreds of yrs, I'd say their adoption/trials in Calif are pretty new. And pretty much a novelty.

Tom

 

New or Unheard Of
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:8/30/2011 11:31:53 AM

Jeff--

Thanks for the comments. You are right. Oxidative winemaking is not new. It just has not been part of the discussion in most of the parts of the wine world. Let me speculate this way. I would wager that 99.9% or more of wine drinkers in this country have never drunk an intentionally made "orange" wine.

Cement fermenters have stayed in use in lots of the world. And, on my recent visit to the southern Rhone, I found wineries all over the place adding cement and even taking out stainless steel and putting in cement fermenters.

But, the whole "cement egg", "cement hippos" and cement large tanks movements are essentially new to California because they represent a direction that did not exist in any large measure anywhere save for a few outliers. Even today, we are not talking a large percentage of fermenting capacity. Calling them new is not a pejorative; it is a description of the changing state of play. Back in the early '70s, not only did we have cement fermenters in CA, we also had redwood tanks.

But please remember the focus of this editiorial. It raises the question: Is different better or just different?  It is a question that needs to be asked in the face of editorials in other places praising these new directions for CA wine without so much as a hint of the downsides.

 

Orange Wines...
by TomHill
Posted on:8/30/2011 1:22:12 PM

Charlie,

Just a bit curious as to what you define as an orange wine??

1. White wine made w/ extended skin contact from white grapes: There's little pigmentation in the skins, but they can sometimes can take on a bit of a golden cast, depending on length of skin contact. Examples are from Chard, SauvBlanc, GrenacheBlanc, Muscat of Alexandria.

2. White wine made w/ extended skin contact from gris grapes: There's a bit of pigmentation in the skins, so the wines take on more of an orange or even rose/light red cast, depending on length of skin contact. Examples are from GWT, PinotGrigio/Gric, GrenacheGris, TrosseauGris, Bastardo, GoldenMuscat.

3. White wine made w/ extended skin contact from white or gris grapes, but with some oxygen exposure. There may be a bit of pigmentation, so the wine takes on an orange, bordering towards brownish, cast, depending on length of skin contact and length of oxygen exposure. Examples are Gravner Ribolla.

4. The friggin' wine is orange. End of discussion.

I lean towards 2 & 3. But I was recently corrected that an orange wine MUST be made in an oxidative style.

Your thought??

Tom

 

Orange Is The New Gruner
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:8/30/2011 1:37:58 PM

Pardon the slightly snarky title, but, in this day and age, "orange" means oxidative winemaking and what was once a mistake is now as au courant as Gruner was for its week and a half in the sun.

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