Listening, Wine and Bach

My wife is out-of-town, visiting her sister. That means I can crank up the tunes. I was rockin' out tonight during dinner. My Sonos was shaking the house with - Glenn Gould's 1981 recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations.

What's fascinating about loud Bach is that you feel much the same as if you were listening to The Beatles or the Stones (yes, I'm old). The passion and beat makes you tap your toes. One of the compelling aspects of this recording (listened to loud!) is that you hear Gould's humming and grunts as he plays Bach with the same emotional intensity that B.B. King plucked Lucille on The Thrill is Gone.

Said Gould, "I believe that the justification of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not its shallow, externalized, public manifestations. The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenalin but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity." Can you think of a better description of a great wine?

This is the why a point scale can never hope to define, or explain, much less quantify the experience of wine. It is too complicated to boil down this complex interaction of humans and nature over literally thousands of years to a decimal point.

Dinner tonight was pressure cooker wine-braised pork short-ribs (90 minutes) with a reduction made from the broth and for the wine 2010 Donkey & Goat "Five Thirteen" El Dorado, Red Wine Blend (47% grenache, 21% syrah, 16% mourvèdre, 10% counoise, 6% cinsault). Like Gould, this wine hummed and grunted in the background during its performance with a whiff of volatile acidity and a little funk, but like Gould it delivered. Exciting and fun it lifted the dinner to a new height. How many points? Don't insult it.

As Bach proved and Gould restated, there is real power in refinement, elegance and discipline. Power itself is not something to be revered. Powerful wines get high points because, as Gould said, they deliver "a momentary ejection of adrenalin." I think in winemaking a little reflection on Gould's thoughts on the justification and purpose of art can be applied to our craft. All to often we pursue the external, not the internal, or nature's purpose for wine.

To repurpose the Gould quote, the purpose of wine is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenalin but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity. Powerful wines may give that injection of adrenalin on the first sip, but they do not deliver a sense of wonder and serenity instead becoming trophies to hoard.

It takes courage to let your own personal vision and passion show through in your work. You'll be hard pressed to find wine brands that roll off your tongue that have even a bit of courage.

When you first hear the humming on Glenn Gould's recording of the Goldberg Variations (both the 1955 and 1981 versions) you think something is wrong with the recording. Then, with repeated listening and a little homework on your part you understand that you are hearing something personal and truly expressive. With compelling, memorable wines the experience and requirements are the same.

It's not how loud it is, it's how well you're listening.

Barrel Roll

You need a license to drive a car. Permits for hunting and fishing are required. In general if it’s dangerous you need to prove you’re competent to get a permit. Perhaps winemakers should have to get a permit before they're allowed to use new oak barrels.

Admittedly new oak barrels are not dangerous to people, but they can be very dangerous to wine. Today's wines rarely taste of basic mistakes in the cellar. Cultured yeasts, enzymes and cutting edge machines that can take out almost anything have seen to that. But the neutral ripe black-fruited wines produced by these techniques are, to say the least, boring. So new oak flavors sing a siren's song that few winemakers can resist. If new barrels are not an option, no problem. There are inner-staves, chips, powders and many other products made out of oak to bring those flavors to your wine.

There’s the problem isn’t it? The whole idea of “bringing flavors” to a wine should be controversial. After all, wine critics look down their nose at Retsina, spiced wines or any wine that has something added to alter its flavors. Yet when it come to new oak, they’re suckered in with an almost religious fever that anoints these oak flavored wines with big points.

The concept of terroir is dear to wine lovers around the world. Yet can you think of a bigger enemy of terroir than the pronounced flavors of new oak? If you mostly taste the oak, you are not tasting the wine.

That is not to say these flavors can’t have their place. Certainly cabernet sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties can be lifted to new heights with the judicious use of new oak. However, there are so few varieties and appellations that use or benefit by the use of new oak that perhaps more winemakers should step back and reconsider its use. Just because new oak flavors are associated with the two of the most famous wine regions should not be in itself a reason for a winemaker to equate those flavors with quality. The worldwide success of cabernet sauvignon and the exalted status of Bordeaux, and now the Napa Valley, has established the taste of new oak itself, instead of the flavors of the land and variety, as the goal to be coveted by many winemakers and sought out by consumers.

This, of course, is much more a New World than an Old World problem. Most of the other European regions that flirted with new oak in the 80s and 90s have backed off and returned to their more traditional methods. It was sad to see some Italian producers destroy the character of classic, individualistic wines in Piemonte and Toscana during this era. Fortunately, almost all of those producers have either severely reduced their use of new oak or abandoned it all together and returned to making wines true to their regions and varieties. As it turns out, it's good business to be different in the world of wine instead of tasting like you could come from anywhere. In fact, now Barolo has almost become the new "Burgundy" with rare single crus, high prices and allocated wines.

Then there are “oak products” like inner-staves, chips and powders that are added to a wine simply to add that oak flavor. These producers are doing the same thing ancient winemakers did when they created wines like Retsina. The pine flavors covered up other faults, which is exactly the reason “oak products” are used in winemaking today. The most important purpose of a wine barrel is to allow controlled amounts of oxygen to interact with the wine, not to add flavor to it. Obviously these oak products don't have anything to do with the amount of oxygen the wine is exposed to as they only add flavor. They create the modern version of Retsina.

There is using new oak as part of your basic manipulation winemaking recipe, or there is using new barrels like a great chef uses herbs and spices. A soupçon here and there brings a dish to life, too much and you become TGIF. Wine with too much oak makes me think of pizza. On one end of the spectrum you have Pizza Napoletana with its thin, crisp crust graced by light touches of the finest ingredients. Then you have Chicago deep dish pizza where a single slice has more gooey cheese than two, maybe three, whole pizzas in Naples. In Italy one person can eat a whole pie, while two slices of Chicago deep dish is a gut buster. I grew up loving Chicago style, but once I tasted pizza in Italy I could never go back. This is the choice a winemaker has with new oak. What kind of pizza do you want to make?

The use of new barrels is very much a decision that should be made by variety and region. For example, here in the Applegate Valley it has become very clear to me that new oak barrels are just not a good idea. The wines here are too graceful and refined with naturally silky tannins and layering new wood flavors and tannins on top of them buries the character that makes this place a special wine growing region. There are more regions like this in the world of wine than there are those like Bordeaux and Napa.

Like most fashions, even the use of new oak in winemaking has reached its logical extreme. For some, even 100% new barrels was not enough and now there are wines with 200% new oak. How is that possible? Simple, after its first year in a new barrel you transfer a wine into yet another brand new barrel for another year or more. The resulting wine is, of course, 100% devoid of terroir and 400% more expensive. Such is the new math of wine.

While we won't be issuing new barrel permits to new winemakers, perhaps we could at least consider learner's permits? No new oak barrels for five years? Certainly learning how to make good wines without the crutch of new oak, from either barrels or oak products, would make for better, more thoughtful winemakers.

In the meantime, it's in my interest that winemakers retain their addiction to new oak. Every year I can buy beautiful French Oak barrels thoughtfully broken in for me by other winemakers. I can buy these one, two, three and four year old barrels at a tiny fraction of what they cost new and then have the pleasure of using them for years to come.

Come to think of it forget the permits idea, I hope they keep using them.

Production Winemaking

Winemaking is often referred to in the trade as production. That's just the right word for it as the vast majority of the world's wine is a product. An industrial product - beverage alcohol as they call it.

Big wineries are stuck with reproducing a replica of the same wine every year as that's what the mass market wants. They are the equivalent of national restaurant chains whose customers want a dish to be exactly the same no matter what city they are in. Small wineries can make wines that reflect vineyard, vintage and variety, which means that they will be different every year. Obviously this is not always good, but in the hands of a skilled winemaker is always interesting. The choice is between consistency or individuality.

Large production winemakers are very technically skilled. It is not easy to make thousands, if not millions, of cases of wine that, vintage in and vintage out, is indistinguishable to their customers. Consistency is to be valued more than anything once you have a winning formula. When producing beverage alcohol be that wine, vodka, gin or whatever the last thing you want is for anyone to be able to discern any difference from batch to batch. To be able to accomplish this takes amazing technical skill and can't be done by just anybody. These winemakers are true professionals.

On the other end of the spectrum are the small artisan winemakers. Their craft more resembles a fine woodworker making one-of-a-kind pieces of furniture. While these pieces may not be perfect as they let the natural grain of the wood define the character of the piece, they have more natural beauty and individuality than furniture turned out in a factory. It's because of their individuality that these artisan products sell at higher prices than those rolling off of the assembly line.

Artisan winemaking is expressed in the same way. When you taste a vintage you are tasting something that can never be repeated. Each vintage for an artisan winery is a unique expression of what Mother Nature has created. Each is an experience and an expression never to be repeated. But that's the beauty of it isn't it?

However, faults are still faults. While production wines become boring due to their palate dulling consistency, all too often consumers shy away from artisan wines due to the jarring faults apparent in too many of them. Winemaking faults are not terroir. Small wineries have something to learn from the technical proficiency of their big brothers. A fine woodworker possesses amazing technical proficiency with the tools and raw materials of his trade. The same should be true of artisan winemakers.

If your goal as an artisan winemaker is to treasure terroir and Mother Nature you need to be committed acquiring the technical skills necessary to make natural wines. It is a great challenge to make wines using indigenous yeasts and forsaking the chemicals and technology employed by the big wineries to make their standardized products. The risks are high and there is more pressure than ever on the winemaker's skills as there is no "magic pill" to be used if things go wrong - and go wrong they will.

A fine wood craftsman will consign a piece she is working on to the junk pile behind her workshop if she makes a mistake beyond repair. Too many artisan winemakers bottle up their mistakes and sell them citing their natural winemaking practices as reason enough to buy them as if the word natural itself is justification to forgive all.

The artisan winemaker is revered in Europe. Some of our greatest importers have made a career out of bringing their wines to American consumers. The lists of these importers are filled with amazing values from such producers. It's easy to find wonderful, naturally made wines from Europe in the under $30 price category. Rarely do I find winemaking faults in these wines. The same is not true for such wines produced in the New World. Not only are they more expensive, but they are often not as well made.

Young American sommeliers seeking naturally produced wines are often criticized for the Euro-centric wine lists. However, I can empathize with their position. When the customer doesn't like a wine it's the sommelier that's face-to-face with them, not the winemaker. They need reliable wines at affordable price points to meet today's more casual, bistro-style of dining.

We need to stop selling the winemaking and start selling the wine inside the bottle. I want to be inspired by the wine, not the winemaking.