Thursday, October 18, 2007

NAPA Cab & AVA's

Alan Goldfarb penned an interesting article this past Monday about winemakers & vitculturists sitting down in Napa to see if they could pinpoint some “real regional diversity” within (and between) the AVA’s there. And much like the same exercise recently performed with the Carneros region, reveal that perhaps much of the industry hype about the differences may be overblown.

This, of course, is all based on the premise that terroir does indeed exist, and that it will manifest “distictivity” in wines produced from one end of such a small area to the other…notwithstanding the fact that it (terroir) still remains undefined within both the industry and the public’s mind…

And that is the biggest problem with this topic as a whole: the French - God bless them! - invented a term so vague that the rest of the world (being dissatisfied with the lack of definition given it by it’s creators) has ended up spending generations holding discussions about what its current impressions of what those differences and distinctions SHOULD BE, rather than come up with a solid platform to work from (e.g., define what those perceptions really are).

What I do like about the topic is that it seems to breakdown the long held ideals in wine culture that drastic differences (“distinctivity” if you will) in wines is due to influences in site and soil over say a distance of a few thousand yards (it’s an awkward measurement, but it’s an old Navy habit I can’t seem to let go of). This is of course, inherited viniculture from our European roots, but has to date more to do with romantic (read “15th century”) land rights, alchemy and aristocracy than any scientific agricultural hypotheses. “Regionality” should by its word construction alone be about something larger, and I find it increasingly disturbing to see people assuming (not necessarily in this tasting panel mind you, but in general) that an attempt to apply it to small nearby vineyards, sometimes even adjacent vineyards, would be appropriate or even remotely successful. What is being tasted at that level is variations in viticulture and winemaking styles, not soil nor regionality.

Some of the nuggets of the article are as follows:

* There still seem to be some winemakers who go out and literally “taste the soil” as Pam Starr (Crocker & Starr winery) stated she does when “she’s intimate with her earth.” (Way too much information, Pam!) Goldfarb writes that she stated…

“I like to call myself a ‘soil translator.’ I don’t like the word ‘terroir’,” she said. “I try not to adjust too much, but (to) bring you sexy fruit. … I make clay patties and taste the soil. I try to make sure I apply (winemaking) to the soil profile.”

(Kudos that she doesn’t like the term terroir, but “soil translator”? That begs the idea that soil needs some interpretation by humans, and as I have written many times, soil is only third-order in the climate/terroir equation. Seriously, this is an ancient practice going back to the Romans. Cato wrote (ca. 100 BC) about trying to swirl soil and water around to make a solution and then taste it to see if it was too acidic. But then again, that was long before concepts about pH – and certainly before litmus tests! – were ever dreamed up or understood how they affect agriculture. And I would question the validity of any conclusions drawn from such a behavior other than the gross observation “it tastes like dirt”…we just don’t have the receptors needed on our tongues for anything beyond that! I think I stopped making mud pies when I was 5 or 6 years old…)

* I think it ridiculous that Doug Hill would think his Merlot would exemplify terroir while his Cab didn’t. Other than problems or variation within the vinting, where would the cause for that lie? And I find I disagree with his assessment of needing to be less ripe to see terroir…

* Bob Levy (Harlan): “It’s quite the opposite. As we wait, I think we get better expressions of site.” I would tend to agree more with his side of the argument: all under-ripe fruit has a tendency to taste “green”, although I would be the first to point out that over-ripe fruit all tastes like raisins and usually has a “cooked” or “burnt” flavor running though it. Ideally, there is a window of opportunity for all vineyards for best expression, which generally falls around (my experience) 24.3°B though that varies with vintage and area being grown in. I thought Levy was on a roll, but he lost me here:

““When I think of terroir versus vinification, the character of the wine expresses the terroir, not just the dirt but the people and all the decisions made,” stated Levy unequivocally.” (My bolding of the text…)

Oh, brother.

Overall, I think the outcome of the article backs up my claim that creating more and more sub-AVA's and sub-sub-AVA's are doing more harm than good by creating confusion where none need be introduced.

Read the article here [Just What are the AVA Distinctions
of Napa Valley Cabernet?

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Anonymous EWatson said...

What's up withthe idea that Opus One and Mondavi being in different AVAs? Isn't that the case every day with AVAs, that they have these hard scalpel-incised lines drawn in the sand, but in reality aren't there wineries across the lines form each other everywhere?
What's to say that wineries next to each other but separated by an imaginary line can't both be good as each other, or that they have to be different?
Doesn't sound like they found anything in their tasting to support the notion that AVA's all over the place are of any help to anyone.

October 18, 2007 10:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that, although they're in the same AVA, the depth of Opus' soils (being right along the river), make their vines much more vigorous and have resulted in much lower-quality offerings since they were "weaned" off most of the ToKalon fruit in recent years. I've overheard at least one vineyard manager say that "Opus planted in a bog!"


October 18, 2007 1:23 PM  
Blogger St. Vini said...

ewatson -
I'm not sure why they brought that up, other than to point out how arbitrary those demarcations can be...

Personally, I think the popular concept of AVA's needs to be looked at with a rather fuzzy border about it: I find it dubious at best that any specific "regionality" of a given area gets turned on or off merely by crossing an imaginary line on a experience is that those specific components we find in wines from the same area fade in and out as you approach or leave the area in question.

The former is unfortunately how many in the popular press (and consumers in general) view AVA's...

Yeah, the bog comment is one I've heard before...granted the water table is much higher there next to the river...

I think their loss of ToKalon fruit hurt them a bit. Though the huge brett populations in their wines have never made them one of my favorites.


October 20, 2007 7:37 AM  

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