Thursday, July 26, 2012

Wine balance: Napa's Phoenix

In the early 1970s, Napa wines exhibited characteristics that were close enough to wines from France that a group of leading French experts famously (Judgement of Paris) could not differentiate between the wines from the two regions and awarded top honors, in both the red and white flights, to the wines from Napa.  Somewhere along the way the paths of these two regions diverged (some would say that Napa lost its way) and Napa wines became known as fruit, alcohol, and oaken bombs that were too extracted and dangerous to food.  A sense abounds, however, that the tide is beginning to turn and that a vanguard of the winemakers who jumped off the deep end are beginning the long swim back to join those who had the courage and foresight to mann the shore batteries against the onslaught of sweet.  We examine the forcing factors in this post.


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:

1960s                                          1970s
Heitz                                           Joseph Swan
Ridge                                          Sterling
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.

© Wine -- Mise en abyme


  1. Terrific blog post, Lorris! Your analysis and view points are right on point, in my opinion. I'm hoping that California winemaking can return to the glory years of a time seemingly long gone.

    1. Thank you for your kind words and I also look to broader adherence to the balance line by California winemakers

  2. While I don't disagree with the overall sentiment of your post, I think your take on the lazy, uneducated public is a bit of a harsh criticism on them. Yes, it was the winemakers who continued with the style, but the Wine Critics are the ones who held the power in their hands. An uneducated public made their attempts to educate themselves and were, in a sense, deceived by those that would state they have the right (by experience, education and access to the wines) to educate the public or criticize or praise the winemakers.

    So you can point to Parker's preference for the overripe style, and as a critic, your desired style is bound to creep through - but then, what is the excuse for everyone else? I'll use my most extreme example and leave WS, WE & Tanzer out of the discussion for the moment - Parker gave 1997 & 2001 96 points for the vintage & Decanter gave that vintage 5 stars.

    How could the public know who to trust if an entire industry of critics are praising the style? And thus the vicious cycle continued to repeat itself.

    Ultimately, I don't know that there is much point in trying to point fingers at who is responsible (even though I just did) and instead, be happy that we are going to get to experience all that California can really offer when the wines are allowed to truly express themselves without manipulation.

    1. There was a little bit of hyperbole in my statement regarding the wine-drinking public but it was meant to draw a sharp contrast between the actions of the drinkers of that generation and Millenial drinkers who went out and decided what they want to do and are driving the growth in the US market while their counterparts in France, Soain and Italy are turning to non-wine beverages.

      Parker made a lot of people comfortable with the idea of buying wine, a dark cavern for the public before he shed some light therein, but the interests of all concerned would have been better served if he had chosen a more balanced path. I am just saying.

      I wholeheartedly endorse the sentiments expressed in your last paragraph.

    2. Just an additional thought for context. The post clearly points to the winemakers as the source of the "Napa problem" rather than Parker. Both of the authors that I draw on point to winemaker movement towards phenolic ripeness as being catalytic. By making this style of wine available, they gave Parker a view of a style that he liked and he then pushed this style to the exclusion of all others.

  3. "but the interests of all concerned would have been better served if he had chosen a more balanced path" this is so true.

    And this discussion would be better served over a shared glass of Burgundy!

  4. Sounds like a deal. Tell me when

  5. While I am definitely a fan of the food-friendly, elegant, structured, old-world type of wine, I cannot entirely lay the blame at the feet of Parker. He has consistently given high scores to classical types like Chateau Montelena which others, like Laube of WS, give very poor scores to.

    1. I do not lay the blame entirely at the feet of Parker either. The article specifically says that there winemakers pursued phenolic ripeness and some went too far down that road. If this article becomes viewed as primarily a Parker-bashing article then I have not succeeded in my attempt to paint the big picture. The Parker story was only a story within the story (mise en abyme)

  6. Just to be clear, I was not my intent to imply that you were blaming Parker. Quite the contrary, your discussion was concise and very clearly presented the facts. It is my personal opinion that the "blame" (for lack of less instigating term) falls on the critics, with Parker being the most extreme example. My Decanter reference was only to prove that even, imo, those publications that I consider to be more balanced in their general world wine view also fell prey to the call of the big wine and even bigger scores mania. All that said, When I posted, I was drinking a bottle of Battely Sojourn 2003 that came in at 17.5 (I'm not even kidding) and I couldn't decide if I was amused or angry at the wine my view was perhaps askew. :)

    1. Didn't take your comments that way.

  7. Very astute analysis and a good read about a subject that has been way overdone (poorly at that) in the blogospere.

    Another thing to consider that lead to the riper wine style was the switch from the valley sprawl or lyre to VSP training systems.

    1. Thank you for the kind words. Good point on the trellising system switch. The following link point to a Wine Business treatment of the topic