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Friday Fishwrap
The Great Vineyard Designate Debate. To Blend or Not To Blend—That Is The Question

By Charles Olken

Let’s face it. Everyone has a nose and everyone has an opinion, and even those whose noses are suspect still have opinions. Take the case of vineyard-designated wines. There are wine writers in this world who pan the notion of vineyard-designated wines, specifically Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast, and yet praise those very wines as the second coming of the grape.

Now, only a wine geek, a cartographer or a person with more money and time than brains would argue that we need not only more vineyard-designates, but also vineyard-designates separated into blocks, sub-divided by clonal selections and then made in reserve and regular bottlings. Yet that is what we are getting these days in some iteration or other, and, for every winery that makes two or three bottlings, there seems to be another that makes six or eight or ten.

This debate, not a new one here in California, has taken on a different slant lately simply because there are so many wines with limited production. Not many typical Pinot aficionados can taste them all, so, when the releases from Williams Selyem or Kosta Brown or Arista hit the street, the buyers of those wines are either guessing which they will like by reading the winery releases or turning to those whose job it is to taste them all—like Connoisseurs’ Guide, for instance.

I don’t really mind that some critics wish for fewer wines to taste. I don’t really mind that some even say that blends of many vineyards would yield better wines. Those folks have noses and opinions and they are entitled to both. I just wish they were not sometimes so short-sighted and forgetful of the past.

It was not so long ago here in California that the majority of coastally grown, varietally labeled wines were multi-vintage blends. Not all mind you, but most. The argument put forth by the blenders, all of whom now make vintage-dated wines, were that blends allowed them to offer a consistent product from year to year, decade to decade. Sort of like hand soap.

As wine became more than a cheap tipple for Americans, the demand for better wine also led to a demand for vintage-dating. And the adoption of vintage-dating forced wineries to make better wine and to sort out their stock into levels of quality. It is no accident that vintage-dated wines are of higher quality than were their non-vintaged blends some decades back. It was not just the overall upgrade of vineyards and techniques. It was the need to make better wines with special personalities that drove much of the switch into vintage-dating. Blends were, well, blends, with all of the “averaging” of quality that such blends inherently delivered. Vintages vary, although it has turned out that vintages are not destroyers of quality but determiners of style. And with winemakers forced to deal with vintage variation, they are also forced to pay attention to every aspect of their business.

Vineyard-designations are a lot like vintage-dating. They force the wineries to pay attention on a very small and specific scale. No more picking everything when it is more or less ready. Now vineyards are picked according to rigorous study of the grapes therein, and often more than once in order to get the right blocks picked at the right time. Wineries handle those separate lots as individual wines in the winery. No more averaging. Now, there are lots of wine to look after and each lot is different. That does not say that each lot needs to be bottled separately. The Kosta Browne bounty of vineyard-designates runs to several thousand cases. But, the winery’s AVA-labeled blends run near to ten thousand cases total, and those blends are quite good wines with ratings running close to the stratosphere. They are just not, in this case, as interesting as almost all of their vineyard-designates, some of which actually do earn stratospheric ratings.

You can count me as among those who want to see vineyard-designations for wines of significance. In the world of fine wine, it is the small differences that add up to the big differences in the amount of enjoyment we derive.


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Acacia in the '70s
by John Kelly
Posted on:9/30/2011 9:29:26 AM

Charlie you and I have had a little fruitful back and forth on this subject in the past. I agree that sub-dividing can go too far. And I think I demonstrated convincingly once that a blend of clones from the same parcel can be more than the sum of its parts.

My understanding is that the current effort at Mt. Battois is to develop clonal mixes optimized for specific Burgundian terroirs . Blocks (climats ) will not be planted to a mono-clone. Also I hear there is an intention deliberately NOT to share these mixes with the rest of the viticultural world. We'll still get the new clones, but the onus will be on us to develop our own optimum mixes.

Not that anyone here will ever do that.

But to the title of this comment: I would argue that in the late 70s Acacia diluted their brand by bottling so many different Pinots. It is a measure of how awareness of the variety has increased that so many wineries have been recently successful in marketing 10 or more individual bottlings.

Pinot Knowledge
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:9/30/2011 10:19:14 AM

<<   I would argue that in the late 70s Acacia diluted their brand by bottling so many different Pinots.  >>

I am not so sure of that. The first Acacia wines were quite good, but somehow either production goals or some other failure to focus ultimately cost them their quality status. And then they started fooling around with Cab, Zin, even sparkling wine so that they were no longer a tightly focused house by the third of fourth year.

I don't there was so much of an "awareness gap" in Pinot thirty years ago as a qualitative gap. We have come a long ways since then in understanding where to plant Pinot and how to make it into something worthy.

Tasting through your wines in barrel showed just how much more we all know. You separated out lots that made sense, and they tasted like lots that made sense--whether by plot or by clone.

We simply did not know nearly as much back in the days when Acacia opened its doors (1979 or 80).

by TomHill
Posted on:9/30/2011 11:43:04 AM

Totally agree, Charlie. It was exciting back in those days (by crackey) to taste thru the Iund/Lee/Brand/whatever the rest were vnyd-designate Pinots of Acacia. Those were quite good Pinots for that time. It's the other things you cite that probably killed the Acacia brand.



Works for Zinfandel, Too
by Mike Dunne
Posted on:9/30/2011 5:51:38 PM
Anyone who still questions the value of vineyard-designated California wines should have been beside me earlier this week as I tasted through several of Ridge's zinfandels - Geyserville, York Creek, Pagani Ranch and the simply delightful Ponzo. To no one's surprise, Paul Draper and crew showed once again the strong and individualistic voices of individual vineyards.

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