Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Some Thanksgiving Weekend winery visits

That is a construction photo of the new J.K. Carriere winery. It's not far south of Chehalem. You should visit, if only to see how highway culverts (really large ones) can be laid down and buried, to make perfect barrel cellars. I like Jim Prosser's wines (except his "Glass"--I don't understand that one). He keeps getting better and better. He makes a range of Pinots at various price and quality points. I can get many of his wines at wholesale. Jim's taken a risk with such a large and nice winery in this economic climate, but I predict he will do just fine. I appreciate his philosophy of continually learning; the master remains the student.
2. Adelsheim: Dave the winemaker gave me a great tour. Love those barrel vaults! They go back almost to infinity, dimly lit and wonderful. And their wines are very, very good. The '08 Willamette Valley Pinot noir ($32 retail) is my favorite when considering price as well as quality, but the '08 Elizabeth's Reserve ($52 retail) and '08 Calkins Lane ($68 retail) are outstanding Pinots. Cross your fingers and hope they will go on sale, someday. Their Pinot gris is outstanding and their Chardonnay is classic Burgundian. This is a winery which I had not given sufficient thought to, over the years.
3. Anam Cara: New tasting room in Newburg (on Hwy 240, just north/west of Hwy 99). Their Riesling is not as good as I recall a couple of years ago. A dessert Gewurz is wonderful stuff, but that's about it. The owners sold a line of pizza restaurants in CA and moved up here to a nice hill near Sherwood, where the grapes are. They bear continued watching.
4. Brick House: it IS a lovely brick house, built by the US Army Corps of Engineers. I wish we still lived in that time. New buildings now do not look like this. And their barn is a lovely renovation of some office space, some tasting space (furnished), and some winemaking space (rustic), all in the same building. I like the physical plant very much. Unfortunately, that is all the the good I can say. Their numerous loyal fans must not know a lot about wine.
5. Natalie's Estate: Boyd makes very good warm weather red wines, and he does it off North Valley Road in Dundee country. My own Viognier is better than his, but his Cab franc (Red Willow Vineyard) is outstanding, as is his Meritage. And his prices are good. (As is his spread of food.) His Cab sauv is great in the mouth but it has no bouquet; maybe it needed a blender?
I'll look for some of these wines, at wholesale . . .

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Cold's worse early

November 23 is awfully early for us to see 22 degrees Fahrenheit in Portland, Oregon. Not in 25 years have we seen such temps in November.
My friend in Lyle Washington (across from Hood River, in the Columbia Gorge) has 5F this morning!
Why do grapegrowers care? Because vinifera can die back to the ground at about 0F to -15F. If there is a graft union somewhere above ground, and the vine winterkills to the ground surface, then that vine loses its ability to ever make vinifera fruit again. The rootstock (which is selected for many features, none of which include fruit quality) may sprout but nobody wants the grapes from it.
Worse, a cold snap in November is harsher on the plants than a cold snap in January. This is because it takes time for the plant to acclimate to winter; one can only imagine the changes which the plant must undergo (sap falls to the roots; leaf stems must be hardened off and rejected; and who knows what else?). Heck, the Harvest was still going on just a few weeks ago, and some vinifera (e.g., Riesling) can be harvested in November. This is very early cold.
Hybrid grapes, which contain the disease resistance and cold resistance of native American grapes, plus the early ripening which may give them more time to prepare for winter, can laugh at cold temperatures, at least until they hit -10F or lower. Some hybrids survive -40F.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Taste-off: 2000 Leonetti v 1994 Mondavi

We put two heavyweights into the ring last weekend:

Fighting in the red corner, we had 2000 Leonetti Cabernet sauvignon. Age: 10 years. A full-bodied red hailing from Walla Walla, Washington. Rated 93 by Spectator, who says to drink it now. Parker, however, says it can last another couple of decades. Original cost: $60. Present Value: About $130. This was Washington's first cult winery (and now, it's one of three, together with Cayuse and Quilceda Creek).

In the blue corner was 1994 Mondavi Cabernet reserve. Aged; 16 years. Fighting from its base squarely in the Napa Valley. Robert Mondavi was one of the early giants who put Napa on the world stage. Parker called this wine "Mondavi's greatest Cabernet." Original cost: $65. Present value: about $140. Spectator gives this one 87 points ("currant, olives, and cedar") and says to drink it up now.
The Mondavi was decanted right before drinking, to remove sediment, of which there was plenty. The Leonetti was just opened and poured. A group of us observed the wines over time.
The gist: Neither wine presented the complex aromatics that I hope for in a Cab blend. Each was just OK on the nose. In the mouth both were very jammy and smooth, with nice dark fruits showing. The Leonetti had good structure (acidic backbone) for food. One note worth mentioning is that this was the first Leonetti I've opened that didn't make me feel like I was robbing the cradle. If I were a buyer building my cellar, I wouldn't pay the current value for either of these puppies, though they were very good. Just not good enough to warrant a price (presently) of $130-140.
This is not Leonetti's best; I think on a good day the best Leonetti would probably smash the best Mondavi. There is every reason to continue thinking that the better wines from Walla Walla, Tri-Cities, and Yakima are head and shoulders above their similarly-priced competition from Napa and Sonoma. That is a generality and of course there are exceptions, but that is my belief and no events of the past 20 years have done aught but to further solidify my feeling.
Life is good, when we have opportunities to make such comparisons!

Yes, Virginia. There is a huge difference between light and heat

There is a rather poor way to measure the quality of a grapegrowing season. It is Growing Degree Days (GDD's), which in the US are calculated in three different ways. The most common is to calculate the average temp for a day [(max temp + min temp) divided by 2] and then subtract 50 degrees F. (50F is the baseline.) If the result is negative (which is the case today, Nov 18, where the high is not even 50F), then just give that day a zero. Then, you add up all such results, for each day of the year. For 2010 in the Portland area, this results in a total GDD for the year of about 1800 GDDs. In 2009 it was about 2200, or 22% more.

So why is this method a lousy proxy for sunshine? Because GDDs vary somewhat independently of sunshine. (What we need is a new way to measure and report actual sunshine units.) Here are some examples proving the shortcomings of GDDs:

1. Think of the US Northeast. It is often cloudy there in the summer, although it can get quite warm. And the nights are generally warm also, due to the high humidity. So the GDDs are pretty high (for a northern climate), but the actual sunshine on the grapes is low. There, the GDDs are misleadingly high, and only extreme Northern grapes tend to ripen there.

2. Think of West Texas. There, the sun is amazingly bright (because of the high altitudes--about 4000') and it shines on those high plains almost every day of the year. Yet, due to the high altitude and low humidity, the average temps, even in summer, fall pretty far at night, which drags down the day's average temp. So the GDDs there are misleadingly low, even though the sunshine is very strong and frequent and the afternoon temps are often in triple digits.

3. Now, consider Scandavia and Southern England. (Yes, wine grapes are being grown there now, just as they were back in Roman times.) There, the high latitude makes the sunshine very bright in summer, and the days are very long, so the actual sunshine totals are pretty high, although the GDDs, due to the cool temps, are very low.

I'm paraphrasing Bill Shoemaker, who is a grape breeder at U of Illinois: "Heat is like an accelerator; it regulates the rate of the plant's physiological engine. Light, on the other hand, is fuel [it is one of the inputs which the plant uses, via photosynthesis, to make sugar and cellulose from sunlight, water, and minerals]. Respiration is also key; it consumes the products of photosynthesis. Respiration is higher wherever the temp is high, so in Scandanavian nations, where temps are cool, respiration is lower and the plant retains more of its sugars. This (combined with the long sunny days in summer that far North) allows the plant to ripen its fruit fully, even though temps are cool and the growing season is shorter." The Portland area is similar.

This is a major reason why the same grape varieties will fare so much differently in different geographic settings. Then there are other important factors, such as soil type, drainage, color of soil and surface rocks (which affects heat absorption and reflection), wind, winter minimum temps, speed of onset of winter, etc. Altogether, it really does make "terroir" a critical component in winegrapegrowing. And it truly makes every wine, and even wine from each plant, uniquely different.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Anybody can be a Wine Critic . . .

Check out this drivel, by Mike Steinberger, Slate's wine columnist:

I know we have a free press, and anybody can publish whatever BS opinion they want, about anything, but how did this guy get his position as a wine writer? There is some pretty suspect advice in this piece. The only good point he makes is that many wineries in Napa, and especially some of the high-end ones, are in some serious trouble with their overpricing and this weak economy.

I have nothing against the CONCEPT of good wines from Napa. Let them flow, from whatever extremely-limited places where they exist. Too many Napa wines are overpriced and (as M.S. noted, but this is widely known so he doesn't get credit for saying it) they are hopped up with too much alcohol and too much oak, and thus cannot be much good with food.

But, really? To call the following wines the good ones from NADA Valley???

1. 2004 Smith-Madrone ($37): Spectator finally stopped scoring these guys 12 years ago--their last two scores were 72 and 74. Those are failing scores, in the Napa context. If this winery has turned around, Spectator doesn't seem to know about it.

2. 2006 Napanook ($43): This is Dominus' second label. But Spectator gives this wine 82 points--which is not exactly hearty praise--and says it has "an earthy streak, which bends to dryness." Ouch! And oh the by the way, there are numerous 90-point wines which cost half this much, or even much less.

3. Dominus (I chose the 2006, like its second label cousin above) ($129): This got a whopping 86 points and Spectator says, ". . . trim, tannic finish suggests only short-term cellaring." Let me get this right: For $129 we should buy a wine that must be drunk now and has an average grade. For that same cost, you can buy a CASE of a much better wine. It's just not from Nada Valley; hope you don't mind . . .

4. I have tasted the length and breadth of Ch. Montelena, and though their winery building is most impressive, the wines just aren't.

That is hardly the kind of service that readers should expect from a wine writer. Please, please, don't follow his advice--don't put those wines on your Thanksgiving table.

Monday, November 8, 2010

A burning match, on gasoline?

(photo is of Christophe, of Cayuse, presumably standing in The Rocks)

The below blog post is by a person well-acquainted with the subject matter. The lab results are startling in some ways. But we need to remember this is just one bottle tested. And everyone's palate is different. And most "flaws" are NOT subject to general agreement. Still, a large amount of what is essentially a contaminant is worth noting, even in one bottle of wine, and a pH of 4.06 does seem quite high.

What's fascinating about this post (link below) is the debate and political blowback it may induce. The elephant in the room is the proud (and sometimes fiery) Christophe Baron who may be reading the various comments with interest.

On one side you have loyal customers and the world's greatest wine critics, standing with Cayuse. On the other hand you have a brave (foolish?) wine lover who noticed something she didn't like about the wines and had them tested, and thinks she has scientific proof of her palate at hand. There are reasons why both sides may be right. (Perhaps we are seeing that certain excursions from what has been considered "normal" might not result in bad wines, but could in fact become new understandings of quality?)

I don't want to get into the shooting war, thanks, although you will see my own (hopefully moderate) comment, there in the blog comments. I am a Cayuse member. I am mostly just holding my Cayuse wines, as I find their hugeness makes them inappropriate for early drinking. If you try to drink them from barrel, they are so big and tannic that it might kill you ;) None of the Cayuse wines I've drunk have presented the flaws alleged by the wine writer. For an eyeful, just read through the comments.


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Two more waypoints on the search for good red hybrids

We opened two red hybrids yesterday, as part of the mostly-elusive search for wines from red hybrid winegrapes that are as good as the best white hybrids.

These were both by Bully Hill, from the Finger Lakes in New York:

1. Marechal Foch: Nice cherry nose; no initial off flavors (which is extremely rare with Foch); not herbaceous; nice on the palate; body is too light; on the very back end, a bitter note. Hollow and one-dimensional. It did not improve with time. I'd score it about a 78. The bouquet is there but the mouth is disappointing.
UPDATE, after re-tasting a few days later (BTW: I keep opened reds, unpumped, in the refrigerator, where the low temps prevent oxidation; when you want another glass, just zap it for about :12 seconds in the microwave; don't laugh; this method is the best, easiest, and does not adversely affect the wine). This wine is better now. Still a one-chapter novel, but nice. Maybe it would score about 82. Nothing wrong with it, though it's straight-forward.

I still don't have a compelling reason to plant M.Foch, but perhaps I am now more tempted. This was far better than most Foches I've had, which stink with herbaceousness. Many growers insist that if you treat red hybrids like vinifera (prune to VSP, leaf pull, drop crop, hang for maximum ripeness) you can get vinifera-worthy wines from them. The jury is still out on that, for me, with Foch, but I am a believer in that line of logic.

2. Baco noir: Pleasant muted nose of leather and dark fruit, with some pepper. Simple palate--dark fruits and pepper, with medium body. Well-balanced. A short, acidic finish. Better than the Foch. But it didn't improve once opened--upon further drinking, it was just OK. I score it 81 points. Hate to say this, but it would benefit from a 50% blend with a good red vinifera grape.
Kudos to Bully Hill!

I will be planting this grape--supposedly if you treat it like vinifera, oak the hell out of it and lay it down for five years, it mimics a good cab pretty well. Fingers crossed.

Background: Hybrid winegrapes are crosses between vinifera and disease-resistant, early-ripening native US grapes. To my palate some of them have clearly proved their worth (Cayuga, Melody, Traminette)--their ability to match the best vinifera seems well-established to me. Like any grape, it takes time to figure out where it best grows and how best to vintify it. The effort needs our patience, but it is so green that its future is indisputably bright.

Falling Leaves

The leaves are falling on the soon-slumbering vineyard. Out in the street, folks are scraping their yards clean and making great piles of leaves in the street, for pickup by the city.

I wonder if they have thought about what they're doing? To them, the leaves are trash, debris, a nuisance. To me, they are an essential part of the ecosystem.

In removing the leaves, those "old school" folks are harvesting a "crop" every year. It's the same with bagging your lawn clippings--it's a harvest. In nature, the leaves and grasses slowly become part of the floral floor, where they decompose and then the worms pull them back down into the earth. By removing leaves, you are systematically weakening the soil. Sure, the leaves will probably be composted and used somewhere else, but (i) it uses a lot of fuel to gather them and then distribute the compost later, and (ii) that doesn't help your own yard in any way.

If you just can't stand whole leaves, you can pile them on your lawn and run over them with a mower. Voila! Instant fertilizer. You are again a harmonious part of the natural cycle.

I can't stand people who can't stand leaves ;) You know, as long ago as ancient Greece, the poets were comparing fallen leaves to the different ethnic groups of humanity (light brown, dark brown, yellow, red--you get the idea), and they used the leaves as metaphors for the end of our lives, but still providing a source of hope and promise, for future lives to come.

How Climate Change's Extreme Weather Events Affect Grapes and Wine:

  We (Epona) joined the Porto Protocol a year or two ago; it's a collaboration of grapegrowers and winemakers, worldwide, who are focusi...