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Feature Article

Can you discern the appellation from the taste of the wine?

You should be able to discern the vineyard in your glass but you can't if high alcohol masks the appellation. Thus, appellation transparency.

Napa Valley (AVA)

Regional Transparency - When Marketing Trumps Winemaking

In the second of his two part series, Editor-at-Large Dan Berger shows how he thinks wineries are producing wines calculated to garner select critical praise and resulting sales, all at the sacrifice of appellation distinctiveness. While Berger cites the Rutherford AVA as a vehicle for his argument, he is merely using it as an illustrative example of a practice that sadly is widespread.

by Dan Berger
September 25, 2007

When it became clear to me that a range of Rutherford AVA Cabernet Sauvignons from the 2004 vintage lacked much distinctiveness of regional character, I decided it was time to look at how this might have occurred.

Some might argue that the loss of varietal and regional characteristics has occurred as a result of factors totally out of the hands of man’s control (such as “global warming” or “super yeasts” or some other nonsense). It is clear to me that what has happened in Napa and other areas in California is a conscious effort on the part of wine makers to deal with a number of difficult factors. Winemakers are trying to make wines that both justify a high price and appeal to some of the more recognizable wine critics who prefer wines that are powerful and flavored rather atypically to what was previously rated as great. (Such as the wines that vanquished the French in 1976.)

regional transparencyRead Part One of Dan Berger’s exploration of Regional Transparency at APPELLATION AMERICA
This was not the case in the 1970s and 1980s when wines were made from grapevines grown far differently from the way they are today, and when wines weren’t being compared with some ethereal paradigm that, frankly, does not represent very good wine. Back then, the top Napa Valley Cabernets were seen as collectibles mainly because they were balanced, improved in the bottle, and delivered a charming level of fruit and complexity over a decade or two. Or more.

Today’s more heavy-handed styles of wines don’t appear to be aging as long or delivering as much complexity. Indeed, the lack of regional definition has left many of the wines with a hollow mid-palate that is filled mainly with alcohol and oak. In fact, the instant hedonism that some ascribe to some of these wines is more likely a result of aging in expensive French oak barrels. Caramelized flavors are, after all, appealing in a circus atmosphere.

Goodbye Phylloxera, Hello Big Vines

The key factors in how we got to this point - where alcohol is up, regional character is out, and flavor definition is compromised - probably began two decades ago when we began to hear reports of phylloxera hitting Napa Valley vineyards (and elsewhere). A lot of the vines were planted on the AxR1 rootstock, which was well known to be susceptible to that particular root louse. Soon after it was developed, AxR1 was prized for its ability to produce significantly larger crops than did other rootstocks.

Healthy rootstock = healthy grapes
The transition from AxR1 to less phylloxera susceptible rootstocks combined with virus free budwood has thrown off the balance between vine vigor and sugar development in many California vineyards.
AxR1’s vigorous root system allowed vines to produce as much as 16 percent more fruit per year (according to one scientific report), and of a quality good enough to make a wine as near-perfect as Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet – and with consistency. And many other great Cabs came from AxR1, whose abundance was due to the fact that the A in the name of the root system came from Aramon, a huge producer of red wine fruit of rather inconsequential character from France. (It has since been banned by presidential decree from French vineyards!)

When phylloxera hit, most wineries began to tear out the infected vines and many in the North Coast decided to use devigorating rootstocks, a complete reversal from the vigorous AxR1 that had existed before.

Moreover, the top wood (called scion wood) varietal material they chose to graft on top was virus free. Prior to phylloxera, much of the vine material in the North Coast was infected with viruses. Leaf roll virus in particular was actually beneficial, say many growers, because it helped to retard sugar development and allowed the grapes to ripen in terms of flavor maturity longer into the season without high sugars threatening the ultimate balance of the wine with excessive alcohols. It was the root system’s vigor that kept the vine in balance.

This was the situation for California’s North Coast for some 20 to 30 years or more, and growers got to know how to deal with their vines under this regime: vigor below ground, retarded
VSP trellis
Vertical Shoot Positioning controls vine canopies exposing
grape clusters to more direct sunlight.
development above ground. Result: even ripening while sugar developed slowly. Almost all of the new vineyards were thus inverted from what they had been.

Then came another innovation: a new trellising system called vertical shoot positioning (VSP). Older trellising systems had larger canopies of leaves, which also slowed sugar accumulation by not allowing as much sunlight onto the grapes. The VSP method, which was chosen partially because it was easy to manage, allows the vine’s fruit-bearing arms to be lifted well above the level at which they once grew, making the leaf canopy thinner and accordingly, exposing the fruit more directly to sunlight. Among other things, this insured what some wine makers said was complete ripeness of the fruit.

Make Mine Ultra-Ripe Please

Many wine makers saw this as a crucial factor in pleasing some wine critics who liked the more ultra-ripe flavors and seemed to dislike the more varietal/regional elements found in Cabernet Sauvignon from more shaded vines. Such wines are slightly greener and more herbal. The key ingredient in Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Merlot and other varieties was methoxypyrazine (or simply pyrazine for short). It was soon the target of near-universal derision and scorn.

The California Sprawl trellising systems of the past seemed to encourage the grapes to retain traces of this naturally occurring component, which is related to both varietal as well as regional character. It was regularly seen in Bordeaux of vintages prior to 1982. By switching to VSP trellises, California growers made life a bit easier in terms of canopy management, and they were able to get more direct sunlight onto the grapes, which generally had the effect of diminishing pyrazine character.

As a result, three major changes had occurred in the vineyards (new roots, new virus-free scion wood, new trellising). So those growers and wine makers who had learned what was happening in their vineyards for decades under varying weather conditions now had to discard what they knew and had to re-learn how to deal with their vines. Moreover, the (new) demand to make a wine with no pyrazine elements encouraged growers to harvest later and later.

Alas, ultra-late har

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Reader Feedback

Reader Comments... [10]

Kenneth O'Farrell
Calistoga, CA
I completely agree with Dan Berger's comments regarding how too many winemakers today manipulate the structure of wines in order to please influential writers. Can you imagine a world in which all food from Italy, for example, looked, smelled, and tasted the same? How boring. Also, I agree with Darrell Corti's decision to stop selling wines over 14.5% alcohol. These wines typically have too much heat in the mouth and a hot, jagged/sharp finish, similar to sensations often associated with swallowing moderately priced brandy. Blah! Last week, my wife and I shared a bottle of 2000 La Dominique, stated alcohol of approximately 13%. The wine was balanced and had finesse. We easily drank the first bottle and were ready to open a second one when I decided to save it for another lazy afternoon.

Donn Rutkoff , Wine Salesman
San Francisco area, CA
Excellent article, hits the nail on the head. Wine drinkers should read this article over and over until they learn enough about the growing process to understand why high alcohol wines are boring.

Margaret Davenport , Winemaker/Consultant
Davenport & Co., Healdsburg-Geyserville, CA
Hi, Dan. Well-written article. Just a few points. California sprawl necessitates much wider vineyard spacing. Growers are happy with VSP for several reasons: greater sun exposure to canes means greater fruitfulness for the following year; greater cluster exposure makes spraying more effective and allows clusters to dry faster after rain and fog; harvesting can be by hand (day or night with lights) or by machine; crop estimation is easier and more accurate. Also, although Clark is a great salesman, he and his partner at the founding of the business, Rick Jones, didn't "invent" the process. I believe it dates back to the 1930's or 1940's, probably in Germany. Finally, in reading your newsletter a few weeks ago I was astounded to read that we in California haven't had any really wet vintages since sometime in the 1970's. What about 1982, 1983, and 1989? We who were actually making wine on the North Coast then will never forget those vintages. They are tremendously difficult to manage but are great learning opportunities.

Greg Jones , Professor
Southern Oregon University, Ashland, OR
Dan ... fabulous article summing up the driving factors of this issue. I totally agree with your assessment and much of a similar one by Clark Smith in Appellation American a couple of weeks ago. However, while climate change is not the culprit in any big way, it is the vehicle behind which it can happen. Its simple, the long hang time "to wait for flavors" could not be accomplished in the climate of the 1950-1980s; today's climate allows growers and winemakers to get their flavors and 27-29 brix with leaves still on the vine! While most of this is clearly a result of "new roots, new virus-free scion wood, new trellising" as you describe so well, the style is mostly economics driven, but climate allows it to happen.
Greg Jones

Patricia Savoie , freelance wine writer
New York City
Dan Berger has once again elucidated a complex issue and practice. We should all thank him for this solidly researched, easy-to-grasp commentary.

Carole Loomis , CDM
Inertia Beverage Grp, Napa, CA
Here Here, Dan. The system is partly to blame here since the consumers have allowed the few to determine style for the many. The entire Paradigm needs to change -- and the wine biz is a slow adopter. Fortunately, people like Gary Vaynerchuk are trying to do just that.

Stefen , Wine Lover
Forestville, CA
Dan, I really enjoyed reading your article, as I think it is the best yet at your never ending battle against this modern style of wine. But I feel I must offer a dissenting view. I find it hard to believe these consumers who are buying this stuff up like it's going out of style (which I know you wish were true) are "brainwashed". Folks purchase wine for many reasons, one of which is the recommendations of friends, gatekeepers, and critics, of which you are one. Fine. But will they buy the same wine again? Only if they like it. So you're saying that all these people are buying all this rather expensive wine because they're brainwashed? Seriously, that's a stretch. It's just a different style, not evil. Go back far enough, and wines were sweet, and that's how people liked them then, and that's what sold. Wine is a product and is market driven, a beverage like any other. If this style wasn't resonating with the market, it would quickly go away. I happen to like it!

John Juergens , President
Vin-Test Wine Evaluations, Oxford, MS
This was a great series, and it explains a lot of what I have noticed over the last twenty years. Using Dan's wine recommendations I was able to illustrate for my wine group precisely what he has been talking about in these articles. Even the devotees to the new generation monster wines recognized what they are missing when they tasted several wines made in the classically structured style. I just hope that more winemakers get the message and buck the trend to sell out their heritage. Thanks, Dan,

Clark Smith , Owner
Vinovation, Sebastopol, CA
Margaret is right that I didn't invent reverse osmosis. It's an amusing tale I relate in The Crossflow Comix which occurred just after WWII as a spin-off of atomic energy applications, such as the first sterile filters by Nuclepore. What I patented was the method to distill RO filtrate and recombine the alcohol-free portion back into the wine so we can avoid harming the wine and preserve its integrity (no added foreign water). This invention is now a standard method to adjust alcohol in the wine industry to uncouple wine's final alcohol from brix. It gives us a way to obtain optimum maturity. But we still need to be concerned about excessive hangtime, because balancing the alcohol doesn't remove the jammy aromas or restore the longevity Dan's talking about.

Andrew Bushnell , Restaurant Manager
San Diego, CA
Thank you for carrying the torch on this, Dan. I'm the wine buyer for our restaurant, and all of the vendors are telling me the same thing: sommeliers buy modern-style Napa Cabs because they sell well (and at a high price), but choose high-acid, low-alcohol, low-oak, traditionally-styled wines for their own personal drinking. Graeser Winery gets it right, at least.

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