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The California Wine Rush

Matt Kramer
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

(continued from page 1)

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.

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