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THE VINEYARD OR THE WINEMAKING? WHAT REALLY MATTERS?

John Tilson • 7/1/12        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share

Allen R. Balik recently wrote an article in the Napa Valley Register entitled “Is it about the vineyard or the winemaking?”  That’s an often asked question. But, is it a good question or a bad question? I would say that it depends on your perspective. Here are some of the highlights of Allen’s article:

  • Although many points of contention may exist in the world of wine regarding the importance and influence of countless individual aspects of winemaking, there is clear agreement by all that it takes great fruit to make great wine.
  • “great wines are made in the vineyard and shepherded in the winery.”
  • Truly great winemakers often spend as much or even more time in the vineyard throughout the year — not just the growing season — as they do in the winery.
  • Nevertheless, in its most literal sense I tend to dismiss the old adage that “great wine makes itself and the winemaker just has to stay out of the way” as a gross oversimplification.
  • “Wine is the three ‘Ps’ – the place, the product and the people.”

(To view the complete article “Is it about the vineyard or the winemaking” click here.)

Here is the view from the Underground:

Wines should speak for themselves. And I believe that people should drink what they like (to read that article click here).

That eliminates the “one size fits all” concept and widens the playing field. That is what we have today. But many wines are manipulated, over extracted (and sweet), overly alcoholic, and out of balance. And, rarely are consumers able to know the contents of what they are drinking. I believe that this is not a good thing and I am a strong advocate of ingredient labeling for all wines. This is based on my long standing belief that wine is a food product and should be treated as such (to read my article “What is Wine” click here). This is a basic premise of the Underground that we will stand behind until the implementation of ingredient labeling for wine is a reality.

But, putting aside the question of what is in wine for a moment, how do you decide what wine to drink? At the end of the day, for me, it is simple – do I like it? I like balanced harmonious wines. And, I want to know where the grapes come from. I believe strongly in the sense of place.  After that, all that remains is “don’t screw it up” with too many gimmicks and intervention! So that certainly leaves room for the skills of a winemaker who makes sure that the grapes are the best they can be. That means spending a lot of time in the vineyard. And, once the grapes are harvested, for the winemaker to make the wine with a minimum of intervention. This work in the vineyard and minimal intervention in the wine making process is to me tried and true “old school.” For me, this recipe has produced the greatest wines over a long period of time. So was it the vineyard or the wine making for the great wines? Think of all the great wines you know. Name the vineyard that produced the grapes and the growers that tended the vines. Then name the winemaker that made the wines. In doing this you will come up with one way to look at the question as to what is more important.

For sure, great wines do not just happen. Great vineyards produce the grapes to make great wine. And, no great wine is possible without great grapes from great vineyards. Then there needs to be a knowledgeable person there to make sure the true expression of the grapes is manifest in the wine. No question, many historical growers and winemakers deserve accolades for making great wines following this recipe. And, today we  have many such winemakers from many areas of the world. But, these people are not trying to reinvent the wheel to make a more extracted wine. They are following historical tried and  true methods.

But, sadly, for others, they have chosen the other path to make more intense and extracted wines. This latter category includes some of the high profile types favored by the big numbers boys. That is why I cannot get behind the new wave of promoting “winemakers” who create wines with the sole purpose of making intense wines to satisfy the palates of the “sip and spit” critics (to see my article on this subject click here). In these wines the sense of place gets lost. The wines all start to morph together. They tend to be overpowering.  So, I would go so far as to say that in this new wave of “celebrity” winemakers, many are as over rated and over hyped as the wines they make. For me, this is a negative and not a positive. And, just maybe, the word “make” is the operative word here. I believe that those who “make” over extracted, manipulated wines are not really skilled winemakers. Maybe they are chemists or manipulators or something else. You decide.

As for me, wine ingredient labeling will answer a lot of questions about the “winemakers”.  I can hardly wait until the tide goes out and we get to see who’s swimming naked! It won’t be pretty, but at least the perpetrators will be exposed! The emperor has no clothes (to read my article on this subject click here)!

 

In Vino Veritas,Sig

John Tilson

 

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3 comments for “THE VINEYARD OR THE WINEMAKING? WHAT REALLY MATTERS?”

  1. Hi John,

    Nice thought provoking piece. I’m very much in agreement with your summation. I just wanted to mention a concept I became familiar with working for Randall Grahm at Bonny Doon Vineyard. Randall always like to draw the comparison of a “vin d’effort” (wine of effort) or “vin de terroir” wine of terroir. Self confessedly having made both types in his lifetime, Randall speaks about how some winemakers seek to impose their will or fingerprints onto a wine, to shape it, coerce it if you will, into a pre-determined flavor profile or style. Other winemakers seek only to bring forth the essence of terroir with minimal intervention allowing the wine to speak for itself. I like both of these distinctions and believe they can be commonly applied in the world of wine.

    One other thing I think it is important to note is the fact that there are only some many truly special vineyard sites in the world. I think that especially in the “New World” many sites have been planted that have very little in the way of interesting or unique terroir. This I believe has led to an upsurge in people attempting to force a template or flavor profile onto a wine that has no natural distinctive character of its own. The “Coca Cola Effect” if you will, hitting a formula that checks the boxes for both the big critics and a whole category of consumers. I guess there is ultimately nothing “wrong” with this method, I just think that it is ultimately uninteresting. Due to this I believe many times the role of the winemaker begins before the vines are even in the ground with the selection of the site and the recognition of uniqueness. Long live, challenging sites and winemakers who set out to create something unique. For me I rarely apply “good” or “bad” to wines anymore as these are very subjective terms, and I find “interesting” or “uninteresting” generally more applicable.

    Cheers Ryan

    Posted by Ryan W | July 2, 2012, 8:59 am
  2. Hi Ryan,
    I agree with what you and Randall Grahm are saying. The problem as I see it is that there are too many “winemakers” who have pushed the envelop too far. But, that is up for wine drinkers to decide.
    Yes it is true about the vineyards as well. Most of the truly great ones are well known. There are some great vineyards in California and the New World as well. But, as you point out many “winemakers” take the sense of place out of the wine. There is a sameness as between varietals and, in this case, I’m not sure that the “place” matters much. It just needs to get hot enough to produce really ripe grapes and then leave to the folks who want to max everything out. Good and bad makes no difference to me. I drink what I like and like what I drink. That is my advice to everyone. I don’t spend hardly any time at all writing about something I don’t like. I write up wines I like and try to describe them as accurately as I can. Then it is up to readers to decide what to try and then determine if they like it. It’s as simple as that. Nothing else matters!
    In Vino Veritas,
    John
    PS Any idea of how I can reach Randall? My friends and I were stomping around with him before he bought the Bonny Doon property and it has been many years since I have seen him. I will continue to focus on pioneer California wine growers and wine makers and would love to chat with Randall.

    Posted by John Tilson | July 3, 2012, 4:06 pm
  3. Yeah send me a note at the email provided on this post and I will pass it on to him. I’ll be in Santa Cruz then next few days and will stop by the winery.

    Cheers
    Ryan

    Posted by Ryan W | July 4, 2012, 1:12 am

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