Archive for the ‘Viticulture’ Category

Joseph Swan 1993 Pinot Noir

Monday, March 10th, 2014

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

I’ve been trying to clear out a large number of older wines recently. My general advice for California wines is to drink them up within 10 years. In typical “do as I say, not as I do” fashion, I have a large number of wines from California that are definitely beyond the ten-year point.

And, in general, I should’ve followed my own advice. Most of these wines are hollow ghosts of their former selves. In many cases, they are totally over the hill, showing an unacceptable level of oxidation.


I know I have often made the case that California wines simply don’t age that well. And, in general, I think that that is a true statement of the state of affairs. But do California wines not age well because of some innate characteristic or because of how they are made?

Entering the fray on this question is a wine that I opened last night, the 1993 Joseph Swan Pinot Noir from Lone Redwood Ranch.

I can’t even remember when I bought this wine, but it was a really really long time ago. Even when young, this wine was, in my opinion, a wonderful example of what Pinot Noir should be. It was light in body, high in acidity. As all Pinot Noirs should be.

So how was it last night? Well, in a word, spectacular. It is one of the best Pinot Noirs I have ever had. Generally, we think of the best aging California wine as being Cabernet Sauvignon. Pinot doesn’t seem to last nearly as long. But this wine certainly put the lie to that generalization.

It is certainly the case that if you start with overripe grapes which are low in acid and tannin, and simply put them through the fermentation process without making adjustments, you’re probably going to end up with a wine that is not going to last terribly long.

If you start off with that same wine, but add a decent amount of acid, and maybe even some tannin, that wine should fare appreciably better.

If you start off with a wine that is not overripe, and maybe even a little underripe, with tons of acidity, it will do much better still. While tannins help, we know in general, and the Joseph Swan in particular, are not overly endowed with tannins. Certainly, when you think of what Pinot should be at its best, lots of tannin doesn’t factor into the equation. But this wine is certainly evidence that with enough acidity and being otherwise in balance, a California Pinot Noir can last a really really long time.

I’m not really sure how to describe this wine, since old Pinots tend to develop a nose which is unique unto itself. All of the usual descriptors that we apply to younger wines just don’t seem to have a place when talking about a wine of this age. I guess the best descriptor that I could give it is “old Pinot”.

So, if the question is whether California wines usually don’t age well because of innate characteristics or, instead, how they are made, this wine certainly comes down hard on the side of “how they are made”. I’m quite sure that these grapes were not picked too late, and I suspect that they naturally had plenty of acidity. It’s also possible that acid got added after harvest, though I tend to doubt this.

At any rate, this wine is simply glorious. It is everything an old wine should strive to be.

A few thoughts on the drought

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

As I am sure most of you are aware, we are in the middle of one of the worst droughts that California has ever faced. What is the likely effect of this on the upcoming grape growing season?

To begin with, it’s important to have an understanding of how much water soils actually hold. There are three concepts that are relevant to understand in order to form any assessment of how much havoc the drought is likely to cause. The first concept is saturation. When a significant rain occurs, the soil quickly become saturated. The most important thing to understand about saturation is that it’s really not very relevant to anything at all.

The reason for that is that the soil cannot hold onto all the water it contains when it is saturated.  The water in the soil will drain away until it reaches what is called field capacity.

Without getting into too much chemistry and electrons and things like that, water binds to soil particles. At saturation, the power of the soil particles to hold onto the water is less than is necessary. For that reason, water drains away until there is just enough of it that the soil particles can hold onto it. That point is field capacity. For all intents and purposes, field capacity is the maximum amount of water the soil can hold. Once the soil is at field capacity, more rain does not translate into more water in the soil for the upcoming season.

As water is used up in the soil, eventually the point is reached where the remaining water is so tightly bound to soil particles that it is no longer accessible to grapevines. That point is called the wilting point.

So after the rainy season, the amount of water that is available to the vine is the difference between field capacity and the wilting point.

So, for example, if the soil is 3 feet deep, then by determining for each foot of soil how many inches of water there are between field capacity and the wilting point, you can calculate how much water the vines will be able to retrieve from the soil. Using our example of a soil which is 3 feet deep, and assuming that for each foot there is 3 inches of available water, then there will be 9 inches of water available.   If you factor in the area available to each vine, you get a pretty good approximation of the water that will be available to it.

If you factor in even a minimal amount of rain and add in some amount of water left over in the soil from the prior season, there will be enough to fill the soil to field capacity, or at the least fairly close.  This season, as difficult as it is, is unlikely to change that.

In regions that experience summer rains, it is possible that rainfall will provide all of the water necessary to the vine for the entire growing season (since the summer rains replenish the water in the soil). But that is not our situation here in California, where, by and large, we need irrigation.  And, without question, the drought is affecting the accumulation of water that can be used for irrigation.

In the Central Valley, where winter runoff is widely used for agricultural irrigation, the drought is something of a disaster since those supplies will be much reduced.

In many areas, well water is used for irrigation. While less affected by the drought than those farmers that rely upon outside water supplies, they are nonetheless dependent upon the water table. If the water table in their area remains adequate, they will be able to get by.

Other factors enter into the equation as well. For example, pretty much all grapevines are planted on rootstocks of American origin (which can survive phylloxera). Most of those rootstocks are crosses that use either a riparia or berlandiera vine. Berlandiera is fairly drought resistant, while riparia is not. In fact, the name riparia comes from the same linguistic source as the word riparian; the vine is native to relatively wet areas adjacent to rivers or other water sources.

So vines that are planted on a berlandiera cross will probably do better than vines planted on a riparia one.

Another all too obvious factor is how hot it is during the summer growing season. The more heat there is, the more the vine will use up what water there is in the soil. A relatively cool growing season, just as obviously, will help us all get by.

Grape vines, as a general rule, are not as thirsty as a lot of other crops that can be grown. I have a vineyard at my home that I irrigate with well water. I probably only use about 50 gallons per vine for the entire season. I am quite sure I could get by with less.

Since there are so many unknowns about what will happen between now and harvest, it is hard to know with any degree of certainty whether we will dodge the bullet, or not. I suspect that the overall impact is going to be less than many people might think, at least here in the coastal regions.

One final factor.  As I’m writing this, I’m looking out my window as the rain is coming down, as it has for about the last 36 hours. I don’t think that even a relatively wet February, March, and April is going to overcome the total lack of rainfall we’ve had to date. But, obviously, every drop helps.

Picking based upon sugar levels, or an exercise in total stupidity

Monday, January 20th, 2014

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

While reading through my usual list of blogs for Good Reads Wednesday, I got led to this post: The Problem with ‘Physiological Ripeness” by Paul Lukacs.  It can be found at:

The following quote sums up the sum and substance of this article:

Perhaps when that happens, vintners will return to common sense and admit that seeds, skins, and pulp have little to do with ripeness, which as everyone has known ever since Antoine Lavoisier proved it so, refers to the appropriate concentration of sugar in the fruit–no more and no less.

In a minute, I’ll get around to my objections to the substance of the article. But before I turn to that subject, I think there is a question that needs to be asked: “Has this guy ever grown even one grape?”

To try to satisfy myself on that point, I googled the author’s name, and while I could find that he had written several books related to wine, I could find no evidence that he has actually engaged in the subject that this post is about, namely, growing grapes.

I will grant that you don’t need to know how to grow a grape in order to drink a wine. Or, to render an opinion as to the quality of the wine that you’ve just drunk.

But it’s one thing to consume a wine, and something else altogether to make one.

Aside from the lack of any indication on my Google search that Mr. Lukacs has ever grown a grape, the content of this post would seem to confirm my suspicion.

So let me turn to the post itself.

The gist of the post is that vintners should be guided by the sugar level of the grapes rather than other factors such as the condition of the seeds, skins, and pulp. Which, as I’ve quoted above, Mr.Lukacs feels has nothing to do with ripeness.

Not sure exactly how to describe Mr. Lukacs’ view. A few words jump to mind, however: “crazy, nuts, insane”.

I don’t think any vintner or grower would say that sugar levels are irrelevant. But there are lots of things that factor into sugar levels that really have nothing to do with the ripeness of the grape. As just one example, since sugar levels are determined simply by the ratio of sugar to water in the grape, as water content declines (as, for example, as a result of a heat wave), the sugar levels will rise. Conversely, as the water level in the grape rises (as would result from an irrigation), the sugar level will decline. Neither a short heat wave nor an irrigation is going to reflect much on the ripeness of the grape, though it will certainly affect sugar levels.

For various reasons (or for no particularly discernible reason) sugar levels can vary from year to year in ways that don’t correlate with the ripeness of the grape in other respects.

Certainly, there is a lot of variation in harvest sugar levels from one grape variety to another, from one site to another, from one clone to another, and pretty much from one of anything else to another. Whether, and to what extent, these changes in sugar level reflect changes in grape ripeness is often not at all clear.

So it is entirely possible to end up with a grape that, when you measure the brix, seems just fine. But that grape can have green seeds, tough skins, and bitter unpleasant flavors.

If you harvest that grape, you’re going to get a wine redolent of green peppers, super high in acidity, with tight green tannins. Now, if that’s how you like your wines, all is good.

But if you prefer (as I and almost everybody else does) a wine that reminds you of fruit rather than veggies, then picking that field is a big mistake.

Lukacs seems to feel that the switch to making harvest decisions based on physiological ripeness of the grape has led to the phenomenon which we are all too aware of, the increasing ripeness of grapes at harvest which results in higher alcohol, lower acid, “floozy” wines. But it’s a mistake to confuse the measuring stick (whether it be physiological ripeness or sugar level) with what you are measuring, i.e., the ripeness of the grape. There is no question that there is a wide variety of opinions among growers and vintners as to when a vineyard is ready to be picked. Some, who seek a lighter, more elegant, style, will pick sooner than others who seek a more powerful, concentrated style. There is no right or wrong – – there is just personal preference.

But whether you want a lighter or a more powerful style, to rely upon sugar levels as your measuring stick makes no sense. Focusing on physiological ripeness does not require you to pick late anymore than focusing on sugar levels requires you to pick early. If you are seeking a lighter style, then you will tolerate a few more green seeds, a somewhat crunchier skin, etc. etc. You will almost certainly seek higher levels of acidity, which has little to do with sugar level.

But if you rely, instead, on a test of, say, 21 brix sugar at harvest, then instead of getting the lighter, more elegant style that you sought, you may end up with something that is simply repugnant.

More wine myths

Monday, December 16th, 2013

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

In reading through the week’s wine blogs, I came across this one by Jamie Goode that couldn’t help but catch my attention. And I don’t say that in a good way either:

Grape varieties and the diversity of wine

jamie goode’s wine blog

I don’t know where to begin in my critique of this post. It is full of all kinds of myths concerning wine. In many cases, the myth has some small basis in reality. In others, none at all.

I’m going to start by quoting a part of the post that I just really have a hard time getting my head around: What makes wine interesting isn’t really the diversity of grape varieties that exists. This is a bit of a sideshow. A grape variety is like a musical instrument: we need a few of them to make a band, but not too many: it’s the score that counts. And the score is terroir.”

Goode goes on to point out that two Syrahs from different environments can, in fact, be different:  “I could present you with two Syrahs—say, Alain Graillot Crozes and Clarendon Hills Astralis. Would you be able to recognize these as the same variety?”

Finally, He concludes: “…. it is the geography, not the grapes, that makes wine interesting.”

It almost sounds as though the variety is nothing more than a canvas upon which the artist, in other words, terroir, works its wonders. As far as I am concerned, this is just Looney Tunes.

I have no doubt that the same variety planted into different spots can produce wines that are different. However, there is way more similarity between two wines grown from the same variety grown in two different locations than there is from two different varieties grown in the same location. Think about it for a second. If you plant a Pinot Noir and a Cabernet and a Zinfandel in the same Vineyard, you’re going to get three very very very different wines. If you plant the same variety in two different locations, there will be differences, for sure, but on the whole they will be much less than the difference between varieties. Even if you take Goode’s Syrah example, which is a fairly extreme one (which is no doubt why he chose it), there is more similarity between those two Syrahs than he intimates.

I also take exception to the prominent place that Goode places on soil. I’m not going to say that soil is irrelevant by any means, but when you rank the different factors that influence the final product, soil would not be near the top of my list. That’s not to say that soil is irrelevant. But what soil contributes to the flavor of a grape and the resulting wine is really pretty limited. A vine needs certain nutrients which many, probably most, soils provide in adequate measure. The vine also doesn’t need some things, such as excessive boron, that poison it. Most soils, again, are okay in this regard. Excessive water leads to poor wine quality. So in an area with rain, particularly during the summer, good drainage is important. But that’s about it. Grapes don’t get flavor from the soil. A “steely” soil does not make for a “steely” wine. Yet this myth persists. No amount of evidence seems to dispel it. Jamie Goode is not alone in perpetuating this myth.

Which brings me to the whole concept of terroir. I don’t mind it as a vague concept that where a vine is grown has some bearing on the wine that is produced from it. That’s incontrovertible. But it’s morphed into something romantic that bears little relation to the facts on the ground. The consumer wants to believe that this is at the heart of good wine, so the myth perpetuates itself. It has more to do with the romance of wine than its reality.

And I guess that’s my ultimate peeve. That wine is treated as some sort of elixir instead of just the beverage that it is. A wonderful beverage to be sure. But a beverage, not a fairy tale.


Monday, December 9th, 2013

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

I couldn’t think of anything that would warrant a full post, so I decided to go with a potpourri about various subjects.

Pinot Noir. Had dinner with some friends and tasted a couple of Pinot Noirs. One was light and elegant, with fragrance in the forefront. The second, a full-bodied, almost brawny exemplar of the type that is becoming more and more common. Instead of strawberries, you get dark fruit and even some prune. I just don’t’ get it. If you want the second type of Pinot Noir, why Pinot Noir at all? Why not a Cabernet Sauvignon, or even a Zinfandel? Pinot Noir does elegant better than any other grape. Why try to force a round peg into a square hole?

Alternative varieties. Why can’t the consumer get their collective head around the fact that if nobody ever tries the alternatives, we’ll be drinking the same stuff for the next hundred years. I’m sure at some point in time, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were the alternatives of their day. I don’t know anyone that restricts their fruit intake solely to oranges. I know no one who limits their starches to spaghetti, who would never touch a bowl of rice or, God forbid, some couscous. If there are people who always order Vanilla ice cream, I don’t know them. But the numbers are legion of those who limit their whites to Chardonnay and their reds to Cabernet Sauvignon. It has been said that it’s easier to sell a mediocre Cabernet Sauvignon than a world class wine made from a grape the consumer hasn’t heard of. It seems to be true, much to the detriment of the development of wine.

Winery/tasting room. After waiting for weeks to hear back from the state about out septic system, we got an email with a number of documents that need to be filled out. Sent them on to our septic engineer. Called him several times, no return call. Still don’t know where we stand.

Weather. Mark Twain said climate is what you expect, and weather is what you get. Well, sunny California isn’t so sunny these days. At night it’s dipping into the low 20’s and even the high teens. Fortunately, the vines are dormant, so they don’t care. But it’s sure playing havoc with the water pipes. One leak (pull out drenched carpet, buy a couple of shop fans to keep air circulating to prevent mold), and I’m draining them now every night just to be safe. Not often that the weather in Napa is pretty similar to the weather in Toledo this time of year, though at least it is a little warmer during the day that it is there.

Obamacare. Or, in California, Covered California. Maybe if your income comes via a paycheck that is the same week to week, month to month, this all works ok. But if your income fluctuates, it’s really hard to figure it out. My latest foray into this is to convince whoever that I’m really an American citizen (can you imagine the pickle I’d be in if my last name were Perez). I uploaded, as instructed, my California driver’s license, and then got an email saying I needed to upload my social security card, which I dutifully did. Nothing since then. I don’t know if I’m sitting in someone’s pile that they haven’t gotten to or what. Somehow, it seems like we live in a world now where the simplest things are difficult (didn’t Clauswitz say that about war?).

At any rate, those are my musings on this cold December afternoon. At any rate, going back now to my basketball game. Sure hope the Bruins pull this one out.