Who’s getting screwed?

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

jeff-smPalate Press had an article recently entitled “Napa Cult Cabs, ‘They’re Absolutely Getting Screwed’”, which can be found at http://palatepress.com/2012/10/wine/napa-cult-cabs-theyre-absolutely-getting-screwed/ .  It’s largely an report of an interview with Randy Dunn, of Dunn Howell Mountain fame.  I’m certainly not going to quibble with the quality of the wines Dunn produces, but I will take exception to a number of things that Dunn professes.  First and foremost is the assertion that mountain wines age longer.

First off, I think it’s important off the bat to note that the things that make a wine age are to a large extent pretty objectively quantifiable.  Higher acid levels are certainly one of the most important factors.  Ditto for higher tannin levels.  I don’t think concentration helps a wine age longer, but it makes it age better.  In fact, increased concentration usually translates into a better wine at pretty much any age, other things being equal.  One other factor, rarely mentioned, is the SO2 level.  Many wines fall apart because they run out of SO2.  But, other things being equal, you’d prefer your SO2 levels to be adequate, but not excessive.  On balance, a wine with higher SO2 levels will age longer than one with lower levels, again other things being equal.  A wine that’s run out of SO2 is pretty much a goner.

So what does any of the above have to do with whether a grape comes from the valley floor or a mountain vineyard?  Some, but really not all that much, particularly when you factor in things you can do in the winery.  You can argue that mountain vineyard will produce grapes with somewhat higher acidity, but I really have a hard time believing that there’s much of difference, if any, in this regard.  I think acidity has more to do with such things as harvest date.   Grapes lose acidity as they mature, so picking a little earlier will get a higher acid level than picking a little later.  And there’s little doubt that many growers and winemakers, looking for that opulence that super-ripe grapes give, pick later and therefore at lower acid levels.

But whether grapes come into the winery with higher acid levels is only part of the question. It’s pretty easy to add acid in the winery.  So if you have a must that’s lower in acidity than you’d prefer, you can, within certain limits to be sure, add in enough tartaric acid to reach your preferred level.

Tannin level is something where I can give a little more credence to claims that mountain vineyards produce more age worthy wines.  I don’t know that, in general, mountain vineyards produce more tannic wines, but I certainly can attest that Howell Mountain wines, at least based on the ones I’ve had, are pretty tannic.  Again, whether that’s generally an attribute of mountain-gown fruit, I can’t say.  But at least it’s a plausible argument.  You can add tannin in the winery, though the practice is not nearly as widespread as adding acid.

Concentration is another point where I have my doubts about mountain-grown fruit being superior.  I think this idea is based on the intuitively correct belief that seller berries (which, supposedly, mountain vineyards produce) make more concentrated wines.  While I agree that this is intuitively correct, I question whether it’s really correct.  While the surface area (i.e., in grape consideration the skin, which is where we get wine flavor and concentration from) of a sphere is greater in relation to the volume of the sphere (for grapes the pulpy inside which contributes water and sugar, but not much flavor) the smaller the sphere (or berry).  But that assumes that the thickness of the skin remains the same as the berry gets bigger or smaller, something that, as far as I know, isn’t really proven one way or the other.  The one article I read on the subject a long time ago (I don’t remember the citation) cast a lot of doubt on the idea that smaller berries make more concentrated wines than larger ones.

Even if you grant that smaller berries make more concentrated wines, they have to be a relatively small part of the equation.  Other factors, such as variety and clone, have to be major factors, probably far more important than berry size (though certainly variety and clone contribute to berry size, so it can be hard to isolate the effect of berry size).  Though in my experience we’ve gotten relatively dark colored wine out of relatively large berried fruit.

So I think that, in the end, the style of grapegrowing and winemaking have a lot more to do with whether a wine will age than does whether the fruit is valley floor or mountainside.

I do agree with Dunn on the subject of how long these wines will age.  Many California wines are now being made from super-ripe grapes (that means low acidity).  While you can add acid in the winery, many winemakers, who are striving for the soft, plush style that many consumers (and wine critics) like, don’t.  So if you make wine to emphasize softness and downplay tannin, that wine probably isn’t going to age very well.  And many of the uber Napa trophy wines are made in this style.

That’s not say that these are bad wines.  While I prefer wines with more tannin and acid, if someone else likes their wines in a softer style, there’s nothing wrong with that.  But if that’s the style you like, don’t expect your wine to last a couple of decades.  Drink it up when it’s still young.

But in the wine world, wines that age are the badge of greatness.  I don’t agree with that.  If a wine is wonderful when young, it’s still wonderful, and should be consumed and enjoyed before it suffers the indignities of wine senility.  For me, there’s nothing innately superior about a wonderful old wine over a wonderful young wine.  But I’m obviously not in the majority on this point.

The downside of a high acid, high tannin wine is that it’s not very appealing young.  So if you make that kind of wine, you are making it to age.  But if you’re making that style, you don’t need to be on a mountain to do it.

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One Response to “Who’s getting screwed?”

  1. Evan Dawson says:

    Jeff - I’m slow to get around to this, but grateful to read your thoughts. The goal in my article is to foster more conversation on the subject. Great stuff from you, per usual, whether I agree with each point or not. Cheers.

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