According to Greg Byrne (Wine surges in popularity ..., Santa Fe New Mexican, 7/15/09), in the 1970s and 1980s, many Napa wineries picked too early in an attempt to emulate the wines of Bordeaux. The standard practice was to harvest grapes based on sugar ripeness -- pick at 23.6 degrees Brix in order to yield 12.6% alcohol in the fermented wine. After many years of pursuing this path -- a path, according to Byrne, littered with overly tannic, underripe, harsh wines -- Joe Heitz (Heitz Cellars) began to agitate for producing wines based on what the climate allowed rather than what Bordeaux was producing. In the early 1990s, then, hang time became the buzzword as winemakers pursued riper fruit and the wine style changed for the better.
Writing about this same period, John Gilman (California Classicism, The World of Fine Wine (TWoFW), Issue 35, 2012) saw two waves of winemaking which, by the end of the 1970s, had placed California winemaking squarely on the map:
Heitz Joseph Swan
Mayacamas Chateau Montelena
Mondavi Clos du Val
Chalone Joseph Phelps
Schramberg Stag's Leap Wine Cellar
The two men agree that Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall but disagree as to the forces that dislodged him. According to Byrne, the lack of rain in Napa in September and October allowed for much longer hang time and phenolicly ripe fruit. It also brought along, however, higher sugar levels, lower acidity, darker color, and richer flavors. By marrying this style of wine with young oak, the Napa winemaker was now promoting power and exuberance over elegance and finesse. Byrne feels that too many winemakers went too far down this path.
While Bryant saw viticultural practices, as it related to phenolic ripeness, as the Napa problem, Gilman sees the problem as the industry's pursuit of cellar-based technology solutions aimed at closing the "Bordeaux gap" (and the creation of winemaking superstars who, from time to time, read their own reviews). In addition, phylloxera had caused widespread replantings in the 1990s and cellar manipulation was used to paper over resulting problems such as young juice in the mix, improperly sited vines, and the pursuit of high yields by the growers in order to meet high demand.
Adding fire to the flame was Robert Parker assigning high scores to these wines and an indolent, self-centered, unquestioning public snapping up the wines at every turn, based exclusively on these scores. This created a vicious cycle with existing wineries adjusting their wines in pursuit of points and new entrants applying the formula from day one.
Regardless of the proportions, these factors had combined to push the industry to a "bad place" by the end of the 1990s. Gilman has characterized that place: high-alcohol wines made from late-picked fruit, vinified with residual sugar, sprinkled with winemaking additives, and matured in expensive new oak. "Phenolic ripeness became the mantra behind which this was all concealed." Alcohol levels had gotten so high that a number of post-fermentation mechanisms were created for mitigation purposes; likewise, technical solutions were employed to address acid deficiency.
A number of factors point to a sea change but, before we address those, let us take a look at the winemakers who did not respond to the siren song of imbalance. The figure below is a compilation of wineries who continued to make wines the old-fashioned way, with words like balance, elegance, finesse, and food being their north stars. The winemakers on this list, plus some others he refers to as "neo-classicists" (James Johnson Vineyards, Philip Togni, for example), remain today, according to Gilman, "at the top of their games and are currently fashioning some of the greatest wines in their illustrious histories."
A number of writers have been making the case that California winemakers are beginning to see the light and are moving to more balanced wines. The writers mentioned in this article definitely fall into this camp. Byrne sees the pendulum as swinging back to finesse, acidity, and varietal character. Gilman views the wines being crafted by the old-liners and the neo-classicists as "classic, old-school wines crafted for the cellar and destined to evolve gracefully." You can also add Alice Feiring to the mix. In a June 2012 article in the Daily Beast (Big? Jammy? Not Anymore! California ...) she cites examples of winemakers who have, for one reason or the other, made the switch from powerful to more food-friendly wines. She makes the point that grass roots organizational activity is also forcing the industry to re-examine its position. Case in point, the In Pursuit of Balance initiative spearheaded by Rajat Par (celebrity sommelier and winemaker) and Jasmine Hirsch, Director of Marketing for Hirsch Vineyard. Hirsch is quoted in the article as saying that one of the drivers of the move to balanced wines is a maturing of the American wine palate and an associated quest for greater subtlety and complexity.
The perceived waning influence of Robert Parker is cited as another reason for this shifting wine style. Parker preferred the style of wine which came to be characteristic of Napa and winemakers and customers heeded his cry. With the financial crash, collectors who pursued this type of wine were wiped out and began looking for less expensive alternatives. They even started looking in places like Chile and Argentina, for crying out loud. Paralleling the fall of Parker's traditional base was the rise of the Millenial's as serious players. In contrast to Parker's traditional base (i) their tastes' were eclectic and (ii) they did their own research , drawing on friends, acquaintances, blogs, and critics who had been laboring in the shadows. Parker's pronouncements still move product but the echo chamber is becoming smaller with the passage of time.
How does a winemaker get on this train? According to Gilman: (i) steer clear of high alcohol; (ii) keep ripeness in check; (iii) keep new oak in check; and (iv) produce structured wines with balance and complexity.
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