How can good wine makers miss on some grapes and make magic with others?
My last drive up to Ahlgren got me thinking about this. They make wines that I adore and some I just cannot drink. The 20 and 30year old Cabs, Cab Franc, Merlot and Syrahs are tasty tasty wines, fresh and fruity, low alcohol levels all below14% but the Pinots seem pruney and the Chards are... well I can't drink them.
Ever find wines from a favorite winery or producer that make you wonder? Not bad bottles but a style choice?
Why would you (not you, personally -- any individual consumer) think that "one size fits all," meaning that one winery, or one winemaker, would produce outstanding wines from every grape he or she touches?
-- Many winemakers are known as (e.g.) a "Cabernet Specialist," or a "Zinfandel specialist," etc., etc.
-- The winery's vineyard source for (e.g.) Cabernet Sauvignon grapes is far superior than is their source for Pinot Noir.
-- The winemaker prefers more/less oak on their (e.g.) Chardonnay than you do (or more/less r.s.).
-- and so on and so on and so on . . .
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From a historical perspective, remember that California wineries were -- in a sense -- based upon the "industrial model."
Just like it doesn't matter if you want a two-seater sports car, a family station wagon, a pick-up truck for construction jobs, or a large semi for long-haul trucking: GM makes it! Doesn't matter if you want a sweetened kid's cereal, something pseudo-healthy and "granola-like," or something that is pure bran: Kellogg's makes it! So it is (was) with the "traditional model" of the California winery: white wine, red wine; dry wine, sweet wine; even sparkling and fortified -- Beaulieu / Beringer / Almadén / Paul Masson / Gallo made it. The same is true for newer, 1970's-era (and even 1980's) wineries like Ahlgren, Bonny Doon Vineyard, Chateau St. Jean, The Monterey Vineyard, and many others . . . doesn't mean the wines were all equally good! ;^)
It does explain why nearly every winery I visit sells chardonnay even if the mission statement is a focus on Syrah or some other red. Red white dessert.
A few of the local South bay wineries make heavy, alcohol high reds and tight Chards aged in stainless. Seems incongruent but I get the business model and am getting some context that history of model. Often I found myself buying the less expensive SV Blanc or Late harvest raisin juice at a place where people have been generous with their time and I was challenged on the palate by their main bottles.
OK, this is MY take on the relatively brief history of California winemaking. There have been four "waves" of commercial California winemaking:
1) the pre-Prohibition Era, the 19th century to 1920;
2) post-Prohibition, 1933-1966;
3) the "Modern Era" -- for lack of a better term -- that started in 1966 with Robert Mondavi building the first new winery in California since 1933 (Louis M. Martini), and featured temperature-controlled stainless steel for fermentation, new French oak barrels, etc., etc.
4) the "Post-Modernist Era" -- again, for the lack of a better term -- that really exploded in the lste-1980s/early-1990s, but traces its origins back to the 1970s with both Ridge and Chateau St. Jean: focusing more on single vineyard wines; more on terroir, such as it is in California; on indigenous yeasts, biodynamic techniques, etc. Along with this came a dedication to making fewer wines, from fewer grape varieties.
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Focusing on the last two eras . . . when Robert Mondavi started his winery in 1966, he was making wines like Chenin Blanc, Semillon, a sweet Sauvignon Blanc dessert wine, Muscat, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Napa Gamay, and, of course, Cabernet. (The industrial model, as I mentioned above.)
Ridge was making various bottlings of Zinfandel, and everyone thought that was cool, but when Chateau St. Jean started in 1973 and released four single-vineyard Chardonnays all from Sonoma (or maybe one was Mendocino?), most people said, "What's the point?" Nonetheless , they persevered.
Silver Oak came along and ONLY made Cabernet Sauvignon . . . WTF? Unheard of -- where was the Chardonnay, the Fumé Blanc, and all the rest???
And now? Patz & Hall, for example, just celebrated their 25th anniversary -- making ONLY Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. In 2013, they made 22 wines -- not all will see the light of day, but as of right now, they have 22 different wines in barrel from the 2013 harvest. No plans to make any other varietal wines . . .
Conversely, I found the Ahlgren Pinot to be balanced, even for the riper style it's made in. Particularly considering it's price point. In a former life I ran a restaurant wine list and sold it BTG and it flew off the shelves.
Each wine, each vineyard, each vintage, has distinct and changing variables. There's no exact formula that works with each varietal or each vintage.
Furthermore, each of the varietals you've listed requires different techniques to make well. It's quite possible to make one varietal well, but not have the touch for another, like being good at making cupcakes (Cabernet) but unable to make great pastry (Pinot). Or good at grilling meat but not fish. Pinot is particularly tricky; Cabernet is easy as a basic wine but becomes more difficult when you add in oak, fining, filtering, and oak aging. One must know what and how much to push and how much to leave off.
Just like any crop, the fruit varies each year, as do the resident yeasts and pests in a vineyard.
The combo of fermentations and aging means adjustments on both ends. Using ML judiciously on white wines, and in combo with barrels, requires a deft touch for the wine not to taste manipulated. No matter the varietal, when using one technique, other techniques have to be adjusted or eliminated for the wine to be in harmony.