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Tasting Great Terroir and Finding Great Winemaking In The Process

By Stephen Eliot

I must confess to a certain impatience with winemakers who cannot wait to tell me what it is that they do not do. “Wine is made in the vineyard” has become a monotonous mantra, and I find myself looking for a large cup of coffee to stay awake when yet another vintner mounts the pulpit of minimalism and drones on about how they do not make the wine, that the land does and their job is essentially to stay out of the way. Terroir, we are too often told is everything, and that winemaker anonymity is thus the ultimate goal.

Now, you cannot produce great wine unless you start with great material. That simple axiom is inarguable in my book, but I refuse to accept that the winemaker’s art is one of stand-around-and-do-nothing acquiescence and very much believe that a vintner leaves an indelible mark -- sometimes subtle, sometimes profound -- on every wine that he or she makes.

Yesterday, Charlie and I sat in on a fascinating symposium on Chardonnay sourced from two of California’s premier sites, the Hyde and Hudson Vineyards in Carneros. The event, held at Ram’s Gate Winery under the aegis of the Sommelier Guild, featured growers Larry Hyde and Lee Hudson along with a panel of august producers including, among others, Ramey, DuMOL, Kistler, Ram’s Gate and Patz & Hall who poured their 2013 offerings from the two sites. Suffice it to say that the wines were remarkable, but they were decidedly different despite being from the same vintage and site.

In the post-tasting discussion, one attendee asked what the wines specifically said about Carneros and if they were representative of the whole appellation. One vintner averred that Carneros was too large and varied to be easily defined, while another pointed out the Hyde and Hudson properties should be regarded as Grand Crus that occupied a lofty place of their own and were thus far from typical of the district at large. The Master Sommelier panel moderator then posed the idea that, in Burgundy and in Bordeaux, the character of individual appellations was defined by their top producers and that it was not necessarily wrong to regard Hudson and Hyde as archetypes for Carneros.

I was heartened to hear someone give voice to the notion of wineries and winemakers being viewed as the arbiters of character, the conduits for the expression of “place”. Perhaps, the cited examples of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Chateau Latour have come to define their respective appellations by doing a better job of “staying out the way”, but I am not close to being convinced any more than I believe that terroir in and of itself guarantees a great wine…or even significant consistency in character. Winemaking simply cannot be overlooked, and I am continually surprised at how the winemaking lately gets as little respect as it does.

At the end of the discussion, the very capable David Ramey repeated a sage observation from the legendary Henri Jayer, “It’s half the grapes and half what you do with them,” and to that I can only say Amen.

Charles Olken’s Postscript

As we were driving back to the Bay Area late yesterday afternoon, I asked Steve if he were going to blog about the event (one which we thoroughly enjoyed, by the way), and he responded that he had thought of several reports that could emerge. One such that I think is needed, and would encourage Steve to do or will do with him, is to discuss the wine’s we tasted—where they were similar and where they differed. A couple stood apart more widely than others but each offered its own manifestation of a great vineyard. And exploring those differences in the wines will give further voice to the “hand of man” part of the winemaking equation because it truly is the other half of the explanation as to how the wine’s came out as they did.


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No Subject
by Randy Caparoso
Posted on:1/15/2016 12:04:01 PM

Charlie and Stephen...

I don't think anyone with brains and a half-decent palate would argue with you. Yes, winemaking is like artistry; and great paintings don't paint themselves, music needs a composer to put together notes and arrange instruments, and books need authors or poets to string words together.

But the best wines are also slightly different than other arts: they are agricultural products. They reflect nature's seasonal influence, and also reflect where they are grown. A mango grown in Hawaii, for instance, is quite different from a mango grown in Mexico, and it's danged near impossible to grow a mango in Vancouver or Buffalo.

So as monotonous as the "wine-is-made-in-the-vineyard" mantra can be, there is something to that, too. There is such a thing as winemakers doing so many things to achieve their aesthetically driven outcomes that subtle qualities distinguishing individual vineyards get blurred or even completely buried. The question, of course, when that happens is: is this good, or not-so-good?

Speaking for a lot of wine lovers, I kinda like it when I can taste terroir or "sense of place" in wines coming from more interesting vineyards. And I often think it's a shame when winemakers put too much of a personal stamp, no matter how pleasing the outcome. Not always, mind you, but often.

It isn't a matter of black and white. Terrific winemaking should have its due, but so should terrific terroirs. A nice balance makes sense, but it's also nice when you come across minimalist styles that helps you appreciate vineyards, regions, grapes and, not in the least, peculiarities of vintage, for "good" or "bad." Wines that remind you that good wine comes from grapes that are grown in particular places under specific conditions; not manufactured in labs for mass market, lowest common denominator tastes or to chalk up scores from critics with predictable tastes.

We don't have to live, or evaluate wine, according to just one or two axioms. Otherwise, wine would be boring. We should embrace differences, and maybe even praise conformity, as long as it's done skillfully. Why not?

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