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Aug 5, 2013 10:28 AM

Dan Berger: "Authentic flavors" (or, lack of varietal character in Calif. wines)

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  1. Spot on IMO. Thanks to Starbucks and Illy most coffee tastes like it was brewed with charcoal. Thanks to oak chips, inner staves and sawdust most red wines and many chards seem to be all about the oak.

    Equally responsible for the loss of varietal character is blending which may be disclosed but frequently is not.

    1. I think a wine can be "authentic" without being "varietal", and that California (I speak as a California grape grower) did no favors to consumers by conflating grape varieties with wine styles. Back in the 80's, we had the following rough definitions.

      "Cabernet": rich, tannic, slightly herbal age-worthy red wine
      "Zinfandel": fruity, "zingy", higher alcohol red wine
      "Pinot": light colored, smells of roses or red fruit, age-worthy red wine
      "Chardonnay": oaky, rich, white wine with hint of apple/pear
      "Sauvignon Blanc: lighter, higher acid, non-oaky, slightly herbal white wine.

      And so on. But now, we have lots more "varietals" that are often shoe-horned into one of these styles. And now, even if it is called Pinot it needs to be dark and rich and tannic. And if it is Cabernet it can't have a trace of herbal. And so on.

      I wish we could come up with names for various wine styles, and then use the appropriate grapes, vineyard practices, winemaking practices to meet that style, rather than trying to make all wines from a single grape variety taste the same.

      1. I totally agree with his comment about winemakers using oak where they shouldn't. It started in California, but winemakers all over the world have gone down that path.

        If you really want to know what a grape variety tastes like, find one that was made from good fruit with no new oak (which with some varieties can be difficult).

        I think it's goofy to compare overoaked wines with erzatz olive oil, maple syrup, and so on, at least if you're a middle-class person living in Northern California, as he and I are. The reaction against artificial substitutes has been going on here for so long that people who are eating crap just aren't making the effort to avoid it or don't care enough to spend the extra money.

        7 Replies
        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          Berger is writing for a national audience, not Northern California, so his comments probably have more meaning for areas that aren't so food-centric.

          I agree about varietal erosion, that style often overtakes fruit, that corporate edicts often result in bad viticulture.

          1. re: maria lorraine

            That's been going on here for a long time and I don't think it started with corporate edicts. I remember Kent Rasmussen making wine from less-common grape varieties back in the 80s, but he treated them all the same way, and in many cases I couldn't detect any varietal character (with which I was often familiar from having tasted unoaked wines made from the same variety in Italy or France).

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              I know I'm going to regret this, but since you, Robert, brought it up, what do "corporate edicts" have anything to do with the discussion at hand?

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  No said this trend "started with corporate edicts."

                  Winemaking style often eclipses varietal flavor. But the decision on wine style is often made by corporate execs
                  rather than winemakers, who then simply become suffering order takers.

                  1. re: maria lorraine

                    I can't blame profit-oriented corporations for pandering to the market, but that's not a recipe for the best wine.

                    Many of my favorite California wines are small-production side projects by moonlighting winemakers who at their day jobs make what seem to me like cookie-cutter corporate wines of little interest.

        2. As a self taught wine fan who is focused on Caifornia wine for say the last 10 years, I have no idea what the flavour difference between Pinot and Cab or Syrah or Zin. Reading informs me that there are some, but, and here is where the art/science/BS of tasting notes come in, I have no reference on which to say "This is a Cabernet Sav. It tastes like...., as opposed to Pinot Noir which tastes like this..... and no amount of reading whether by book or blog or importer monthly newsletter has been able to give me one. Maybe starting with a French focus would have given more clarity
          The wine tasting classes and groups i have been apart of are great at findng tasty wines that I would not have known about, but have been very scant on the actual flavour of the grape itself.

          I can get the taste of Chards vs SV Blanc of course even when the Chards are in steel. And in my mind I think I have a handle on Granache, But the big reds all seem to be one grape, treated differently. I'm not saying they all taste they same, they don't, but once in the bottle,there is not an identifiable taste that tells me that one is a Petit Syrah vs a Zin, or Merlot.

          Now I admit mine is not the most trained palate, and I have loads to learn, but there does seem to be some truth in the idea that wine making style trumps fruit.

          6 Replies
          1. re: budnball

            Wow. I guess the past ten years were a pretty bad time to try to learn the differences between the most popular grape varieties by drinking California wines.

            When I was first learning about wine in the 70s, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petite Sirah wines tasted so different that it took little effort to learn to distinguish them. Same goes for Pinot Noir, which to my knowledge didn't exist as a quality wine here until the early Carneros wines hit the market in the early 80s.

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              >>> Wow. I guess the past ten years were a pretty bad time to try to learn the differences between the most popular grape varieties by drinking California wines. <<<

              Uh, yeah . . . I'm rather floored, to put it mildly.

              >>> . . . Pinot Noir, which to my knowledge didn't exist as a quality wine here until the early Carneros wines hit the market in the early 80s. <<<

              1977 Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard (SCMV) Pinot Noir, Estate
              1976 Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir, Santa Maria
              1976 Beaulieu Vineyard Pinot Noir, Carneros
              1975 SCMV Pinot Noir, Estate
              1972 Mount Eden Vineyards Pinot Noir, Estate
              1968 Beaulieu Vineyard Pinot Noir, Carneros
              1968 Louis M. Martini Pinot Noir, California (Carneros + Rutherford)
              1953 Martin Ray Pinot Noir, Estate (along with many other vintages)
              1950 Louis M. Martini Pinot Noir, California (Carneros + Rutherford)
              1947 Beaulieu Vineyard Pinot Noir, Napa Valley (Rutherford)
              1946 Beaulieu Vineyard Pinot Noir, Napa Valley (Rutherford)

              To name but a few . . . and let's not forget Hanzell!

              Heck, even the 1973 Freemark Abbey Pinot Noir, which was so light in color that Jerry Luper "declassified" it and bottled it as "Red Table Wine" ($3.95) was a stunningly delicious, if very light-bodied, Pinot Noir (think Mercurey, rather than a Nuits St.-Georges, for example).

              1. re: zin1953

                How many of those did you actually get to taste? I never saw or heard of any of those in the 70s. Since then I've read about reportedly great California Pinot Noirs back to pre-Prohibition times, but that was very esoteric information in the 70s.

                I wasn't aware of Hanzell until I saw a bottle at Draper & Esquin in the 80s. I couldn't understand why it was so expensive, asked the clerk and he explained that it usually sold out direct to subscribers, first I'd ever heard of that phenomenon.

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  Robert, With the exceptions of the two oldest Beaulieus (the 1946 & '47), I have had each and every one, plus a number of old Hanzells and many others . . . these are just the ones I could recall tasting off the top of my head (which is why I couldn't cite specific vintages on the Hanzell!).

                  I wouldn't have mentioned the two BV wines except for a) they are indeed famous, legendary, and very well known; and b) a conversation I once had with André Tchlistcheff where he told me -- and this *is* a direct quote -- "I can only count the number of great Cabernets I made at Beaulieu if I take off my socks and shoes. But I can the number of great Pinot Noirs on one hand: 1946, 1947, 1968, and 1976." And he didn't even made the 1976! After the 1947 harvest, they ripped out the Pinot Noir from Rutherford, taking the best budwood and planting a vineyard down in Carneros in 1948. Tchlistcheff said it took 20 years for the charcater in the vineyard to come back.

                  FWIW, Louis Martini first planted Pinot Noir in Carneros the year before BV, in 1947, and was home to the UC Davis "species garden" (different clones) until Davis replanted it in Carneros Creek's vineyard when Highway 128/12 was redone in southern Napa and Martini lost some acreage to highway construction.

                  1. re: zin1953

                    Lucky you. As an average consumer I never encountered any of those wines.

                    Per Charles Sullivan's "A Companiion to California Wine," a 1918 John Stanly Carneros Pinot Noir clued André Tchelistcheff in to the region's potential.

                2. re: zin1953

                  Thanks for the kind words about SCMV Pinot. It was founded by good family friends, and I had the chance to work there during school vacations in high school, then once I was studying viticulture and enology at Davis. I probably picked some of the 1977 grapes!