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The California Wine Rush

California Wine Grows Up in the Great '94 Vintage
Matt Kramer
Posted: April 1, 1997

(continued from page 5)

So it is with wine, especially California wine. California seems like an orphanage of wine look-alikes: all white wines seemingly are Chardonnay; all reds, Cabernet Sauvignon. That's not true, of course, but the casual observer could be forgiven for thinking so. There is a lot of twinning in California wine growing: Half of all the vines planted in Napa County and two-thirds of those planted in Sonoma County are either Chardonnay or Cabernet.

Still, even seemingly identical Chardonnay and Cabernet twins, row upon row of them, are turning out differently. This, even though they are raised identically, nurtured with the same drip irrigation, trained on the same trellising systems and pruned pretty much the same way. What's more, the grapes are all made into wine using French oak barrels, computer-controlled presses and similar aging techniques. Yet the latest wines are tasting increasingly different.

 

While the variations may seem incredible, they were predictable. Like twins, nothing in California wine was ever as identical as it seemed. Now, finally, we're able to see this clearly for ourselves in the exceptional 1994 vintage. This stellar vintage, like a perfect snapshot, captured the evolutionary moment for us.

The '94 vintage was great throughout the West Coast, as Oregon and Washington also had history-making wines. It was well-nigh perfect: warm, but not too warm; a long, lingering autumn; no rains to harry pickers and no extremes to hurry winemakers.

Make no mistake, though: vintage perfection does not, in itself, make for real differences. A vintage is just the weather of one growing season. What makes '94 a landmark year is that it brought fully into focus the emerging distinctions that make California wine utterly different than it was even 10 years ago.

So what changed? And how do the wines themselves tell us?

If you talk to winemakers--some of them, anyway--all you'll hear about is wine-making technique. Consulting enologists (as winemakers-for-hire loftily characterize themselves) will expound like carny barkers, using big words like polymerization, cold maceration and phenolic extraction. Jargon aside, there have indeed been changes in wine making. In the past decade, California winemakers have steadily polished their red wines, making them less tannic, smoother, rounder, better balanced and more accessible upon release. The trick, they say, is to achieve this without sacrificing depth, dimension and potential longevity.

With white wines, there's an increasing awareness that merely tossing wine into a new French oak barrel is not enough. This is partly a revised aesthetic awareness that a lavish vanilla-scented oak taste won't carry a wine. But partly it's practical: French oak barrels now cost upward of $600 each, double what they cost a decade ago.

So, yes, there have been noticeable changes in wine-making techniques. But not that many. All the wine-making techniques and technologies used today were common 10 years ago: sophisticated wine presses, barrel fermentation, small oak barrels, stirring the lees, or sediment, in barrel-fermented Chardonnay and so on.

Actually, there is a new wrinkle worth mentioning--tunnels. California wine country is becomingly increasingly honeycombed with tunnels; they are everywhere today, especially in high-priced precincts such as Napa Valley and Sonoma County. Because such tunnels are extremely humid (about 90 percent humidity), the evaporation rate of wines stored in porous small oak barrels is dramatically reduced. Barrels stored in conventional structures such as a warehouse lose about two gallons of wine per barrel per year. In tunnels, the evaporation rate is half that.

To see an enormous tunneling machine rumble through the vineyards is to witness something grotesquely at odds with the gentility of wine growing. This is a malicious-looking phallic symbol: a 20-foot-long cylindrical snout with a rotating spiked mace at its tip. The machine, technically known as a Dosco Road Header Mark II-A, is imported from England, where it was used for coal mining in Nottingham. The operator simply rubs the snout against the hillside, where the cutting bits claw at the rock, reducing it to rubble. While the tip claws at the rock, it also insistently rubs up against it, the length of the apparatus arcing up and down. Keep at it and you've got a tunnel.

Since wines evaporate less in the tunnels, every gallon of wine saved means an extra five bottles of wine to sell. When you're getting $25 or $50 a bottle, this "found wine" adds up to real money. Wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon need to stay in barrels for up to two years; others, like Chardonnay, require at least a year.

One winemaker that built a tunnel is Rutherford Hill Winery, a large operation in Napa Valley. Its $1.6 million tunnel holds 8,500 barrels, which enabled the winery to retain an extra 36,000 bottles a year and ultimately recoup the cost of the tunnel in five years.

Randy Dunn of tiny Dunn Vineyards, high on Napa Valley's Howell Mountain, also has tunnels. Nobody's idea of a fashion follower, Dunn looks and talks like a ranch hand. But Dunn happens to make one of California's best and most expensive Cabernets. If you can find a bottle, you'll pay 70 bucks. He sells most of his small-production wines directly to consumers--in other words, retail. Every gallon of wine he saves is money in his pocket. He figures that his tunnels will pay for themselves in about seven years.

What makes these tunnels interesting goes beyond economics. By retaining more of the wine's water in the humid tunnel while losing a disproportionately larger amount of alcohol from the porous barrel, the tunnels have subtly changed the taste of some wines. Wine is, after all, mostly water, with a small amount of alcohol. Since alcohol is more volatile than water, a grower can--to a certain degree, anyway--pick riper grapes yet avoid the correspondingly higher level of alcohol in the resulting wine.

Such fine points aside, the real change in California wine has been winemakers' attitudes. Put simply, they've grown up. The young winemakers who surged into prominence in the 1970s and early '80s are now middle-aged. They've got 15 or 20 vintages under their (expanding) belts. They've traipsed to France and Italy like diplomatic couriers. They've had wine-making successes, as well as highly educational misses.

Collectively, what they've learned--or so their '94s tell us--is that finesse is prized, purity is appreciated and restraint is a virtue. That these qualities appear so often in a vintage as opulently fruity and rich as '94 tells us that a new maturity of palate has taken hold.

The proof is how comparable many California Cabernets are to the best red Bordeaux. Or how close California is edging to a Burgundian standard in its Pinot Noirs--which not even California's most enthusiastic boosters were predicting a decade ago. Chardonnays, of course, made their mark long ago. Yet today's versions are better: more refined, restrained and balanced, even in the lush '94 vintage. Merlots are slowly getting better; Sangiovese still has a long way to go, though.

But the biggest change of all is not in wine making. It's in wine growing. The word admittedly sounds odd, yet it's the source of goodness in the world's best wines. Simply put, great wines are not made, but grown.

What happens in the vineyard--where it's located and what's grown in it--is almost everything. "Ninety percent of wine making has nothing to do with the winemaker," says Roger Boulton of the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California at Davis. "All a winemaker is doing is preventing spoilage, introducing some style characteristics and bottling it."

The story (and the glory) of California wine in our time is what might be called the "fine wine ambition," which took hold in the late 1960s when winemakers were no longer content to produce bulk wines selling for a pittance under plagiarized names such as Chablis.

When you trace the effects of the fine wine ambition anywhere in the world, you will discover the same pattern. The first wave is money: newcomers with cash to spare are entranced by wine. They take risks; they make dream wines with little regard for business payback. That was California in the late '60s and early '70s.

Then owners came to grips with the business of fine wine. It takes tons of money, which must be recouped. That means higher prices. But fine wine lovers aren't fools. There are standards. If you're making Cabernet, then you'd better keep an eye on Bordeaux. With Chardonnay, it's Burgundy. To get your price you've got to produce better wines with every vintage.

Throughout the 1980s, California kept up. The best equipment was purchased. No expense was spared. But eventually vintners realized that California wine making had achieved pretty much all that technology and technique could do. The next level of improvement had to be won in the vineyards.

That's when real change occurred. No matter how good a vintner's Cabernet Sauvignon was, there were too many on the market to differentiate one from the rest. The pressing question became, How was yours better? The answer--if you were lucky in your vineyard--is that your site had something to say.

Take Napa Valley's Spottswoode Winery, for example. Vintage after vintage its Cabernets stood out from the pack, a mark of good wine making to be sure, but ultimately of place. To this day, no other Cabernet is quite the same as Spottswoode's--and it's not for lack of others' trying.

Thus, the final threshold of the fine wine ambition is when you've realized--and accepted--that the world's greatest wines taste like they come from somewhere. That you can't make such profoundly distinctive wines, you can only grow them.

So what we're seeing, never more so than in the '94 vintage, is a rapidly increasing emphasis on place. Just check any wine label. Never before has California seen so many wines distinguished by district and single vineyard designations.

Cognoscenti no longer talk about Napa Valley Cabernets, any more than a Burgundy lover lumps together all red Burgundies as Pinot Noirs. The emphasis is all on place. Increasingly, the most expensive and sought-after Napa Valley Cabernets are distinguished by district. Cabernets privileged enough to say Stags Leap District, Howell Mountain, Rutherford, Oakville or Mount Veeder all command higher prices than a generic "Napa Valley" Cabernet.

The reason is obvious. Those attentive to fine wine know that a Stags Leap District Cabernet consistently tastes different than one from, say, Howell Mountain. Where Stags Leap District is soft, velvety, voluptuous and redolent of bitter chocolate, Howell Mountain is firm, detailed, tannic and profound. You can tell them apart in a blind tasting.

Throughout California, this awareness of place has transformed what people grow, how they make wines and, above all, how they talk about them. Take Zinfandel, for example. For years, only Ridge Vineyards took the trouble to designate its vast array of Zinfandels by the vineyard. Most other producers were content to add a county name to the Zinfandel label, and let it go at that.

No longer. Both winegrowers and wine fanciers have come to realize--and celebrate--the importance of place to Zinfandel. A Zinfandel grown in Sonoma County's Dry Creek Valley tastes utterly different from one grown in the neighboring Russian River Valley. Dry Creek is dense, tarry and even a little stern, while Russian River is delicate, fragrant and strongly reminiscent of Pinot Noir. The fact that both are Zinfandel is almost less important than where they are grown.

This emphasis on place has come to prominence with the '94 vintage. There have never been so many Zinfandels with such site-specific labels. The Haywood Estate in Sonoma Valley, for example, issues two Zinfandels, both from the same vineyard called Los Chamizal; the newer Los Chamizal bottling will carry the designation Rocky Terrace to indicate that the Zinfandel was grown in a small plot of the vineyard. This newer wine is denser, richer and more profound. And, with only 900 cases produced, it's also more expensive.

Never have Zinfandels commanded such high prices. This, too, is a result of reaching the final threshold of the fine wine ambition. If a Zinfandel or Pinot Noir or Chardonnay grown in one spot consistently tastes better than the same grape grown somewhere else, people gladly pay more for it. That's why Burgundy's Richebourg vineyard gets $200 a bottle while a Pinot Noir grown just a few hundred (less perfect) yards away will fetch only $50.


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