The Indie Ethos…
Never Sell Out!
Sometimes I feel as though RSV is like an indie-rock band. We want you to love our music, but we’re never gonna sell-out by making a deal with the devil. It’s so tempting to go to the dark side - analyze market trends, hire a famous consultant with a high-score formula resumé, make Chardonnay, chase the money - but that might break up the band. We (Jeff, Debby, Maria, myself and the rest of the RSV crew) need to feel our efforts stand for something.
Until recently, I had this feeling that I should apologize for making wine in Napa. Napa wines, once classically styled, had turned into a gentlemen’s club of rich, ripe wines that paired best with cigars - the complete antithesis of everything RSV is about. I feared guilt by association. There were very few classicists left as most departed from the restrained Napa style of the 70’s and embraced the excesses of the 80’s and 90’s. It seemed everyone was ignoring terroir as they grasped for the high score gold ring. It didn’t matter if the variety was Cab, Zin, Chard, or Sauv Blanc, most (and I emphasize “most” because there were a few admirable holdouts in each category) were aiming for an overblown style that just didn’t make sense, particularly at the dinner table. Winemaker Jeff Virnig describes these wines as, “So good you can’t finish the glass!” They were interesting on the first taste in their excess, but rarely were you compelled to come back for more. We wanted to make wines that would not only make you want to finish the glass, but the bottle - and leave you wanting more! We wanted to make pure, living wines with a distinct character and a vibrancy that allowed them to work with the food on your table.
Similar to that little band that came out of nowhere with a sound all their own, no one was looking for a wine like Abraxas, that is until it touched their lips. There were no market trends for this type of wine from California. It had to be a labor of love and a leap of faith for us to pursue this wine. But we were convinced that once people tried it, it would become the wine they never knew they needed.
Best in Show…
“which one of these dogs would you want to have as your wide receiver on your football team?”
I’ve never been a particularly competitive sort. The idea of butting heads to move a ball down a field made little sense to me… especially when genetic predisposition gave my competitors a natural advantage. I discovered early in life that I had to do things differently. Instead of excelling in team sports, I found independent activities - photography, surfing, bicycling, and skiing - more suited to my ninety-eight pound weakling physique. I did my best to figure out my strengths and not try to be what I wasn’t.
So it was natural that once I got into wine, I would have a distaste for competitive tastings. To line one wine up against another in a blind tasting, then assign a score just to select the best wine, seemed like an exercise in absurdity. How could you take wines from varying regions, made by winemakers with differing intents, and say one is better than the other?
Everyone has different skills, including their ability to taste and discern the flavors and textures of wine… and everyone, thankfully, is unique - one person’s tonic is another’s toxin. Each person’s predisposition determines their likes and dislikes in a way that a numerical score will not change.
But what about the wine itself? Is it possible to compare a Pinot Blanc and a Chardonnay and say one or the other is best in show? How much of the determining factor is personal preference versus actual genetic predisposition of the variety? Pinot Blanc is the elegant ninety eight pound weakling. It is subtle by nature and it is a mistake to try to force it to compete with a more broad shouldered wine, like Chardonnay.
Years ago, as wine publications anointed Chardonnay with high scores, those with Pinot Blanc in their vineyards attempted to emulate the winemaking techniques that garnered attention for Chard - like barrel and malolactic fermentation - but the Blanc did not have the “bones” for it. Many wines came out of the cellar flabby and woody, earning it the reputation of the poor man’s Chardonnay.
At the time, we Americans did not understand subtlety in wine - never mind our new world inferiority complex. Competitive with the old world, we felt the only way to judge a wine was to determine the best - and in our mind, the best was big, fat and a touch sweet.
But things are changing. Driven by a burgeoning culinary sophistication, the American wine drinker is evolving to accept and desire a different style of wine. People still have an opinion, but they realize there is no best in show, just personal preference. Some may think our Pinot Blanc is light weight and too bright with acidity, while others find it perfectly balanced and consider it the best rendition of Pinot Blanc in the world. I don’t know if it is the best in show, but if there were a Pinot Blanc equivalent of the working dog category, it might just take a blue ribbon as best of breed. It all depends on whose judging.
A Brief History of Cabernet Franc…
I used to hate New World Cabernet Francs. They tasted like high alcohol canned green beans to me… a weird mix of ripe and unripe characteristics that left an unpleasant impression. What bothered me even more was that I knew it didn’t have to be that way - some of the greatest wines in the Old World are either mostly, or all, Franc.
The first Francs I tasted, I didn’t know were Franc… they were Bordeaux, Chinon, or Bourgueil. At the time I didn’t think about the constitution of the wines, I only cared if they tasted good. I was young and not yet involved in the wine world, so the subtleties and specifics were lost on me. Still, certain flavor profiles managed to bore their way into my subconscious. All I know is the first time I tasted a Cheval Blanc, with a majority of Franc as its blend, I was in awe.
The history of Cabernet Franc is spotty… especially in the New World where it was sometimes confused with Merlot. It was first cultivated in the 17th century, transported from its native habitat of the Libournais in Southwest France to the Loire. One of the genetic parents of Cabernet Sauvignon (the other is Sauvignon Blanc), it is an ancient variety with a narrow comfort zone. In contrast with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc is thin skinned, early ripening and performs best in cooler climates where it can ripen slowly for flavor development, yet be picked before inclement fall weather.
When I first arrived in Napa in 1986, I took a job in an Oakville wine shop to have access to all the local wines. I tasted and found pleasure in most varieties, but Franc hurt. It was either green and mean or too gamey with brettanomyces. There was no pleasure factor. But a series of coincidences eventually changed my mind. One year, we were short of Merlot and my neighbor in the Carneros would only sell us some if we bought a few tons of his Cabernet Franc. Reluctantly, I acquiesced… and that Franc became my favorite wine of the vintage. As serendipity would have it, the following summer we needed to plant the hill across from that Franc vineyard. We figured if it did so well in his vineyard, then it would do well in ours. When I mentioned this to one of my mentor winemaker friends, he said that I would have to let it get super ripe in order for it to lose its overtly green character…. and then I had that a-ha moment. Most Franc in Napa valley was grown in warm regions where the early ripening grape sugared up before it developed flavor, forcing the hand of the winegrower to let it get super ripe to lose the green notes - but in the process the structure of the wine was compromised, losing its natural acidity and gaining too much alcohol in the process.
Carneros in the 80’s was trying to establish itself as the the Burgundy of the New World, yet we were about to contradict this trend by planting a traditional Bordeaux variety amongst the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines. But it made sense if you consider the genetic predisposition of this primitive variety. The Franc could sugar ripen slowly while developing flavor yet be picked with relatively low sugars for lower alcohols in the finished wine. What we discovered was that the Northern Carneros had more in common with the Right Bank of Bordeaux than the Côte d’Or… or maybe the Carneros was just drawn too large and should be split into two regions. Regardless, Cabernet Franc found a home in the New World where it can stand on the quality of its fruit.
A Good Libration…
is a balancing act!
We want libration. I know what you’re thinking - but no, it’s not a typo. We’re always seeking a good libation too; but one leads to the other… and it is only when we find a libration point that we can deliver a good libation.
Let me try to explain… the word libration has several meanings, its root is the latin “libratio,” from “librare” - meaning to balance or sway, which in turn comes from “libra” or scales. In its most simplistic form, libration is that point as scales oscillate just before finding equilibrium. Libration is seeking balance.
Libration is the goal we aspire to in everything we do. All things must be in balance from the ground up, but nature follows a dynamic equilibrium - a balance of movement, swaying back and forth between forces. Good farming encourages this pendulum in the appropriate direction. For example, giving a poor soil what it needs to be rich with microbial activity in order to convert raw materials into nutrients, yet stopping just before the soil becomes too fertile which could result in too much green growth. Then, as the grapes work toward ripeness, we pick them just before they swing towards too ripe. Also, the finished wine must have that dynamic balance of fruit, acid, sugar, alcohol and tannin to be alive in your mouth - and work with the food on your table.
However, every once in a while you need to tip the scales toward excess… thus Libration only comes in magnums - because everyone needs to find their libration point between work and play.
I’m the Chairman of the Bored…
Craftsmanship in the era of the short attention span!
“I’m bored.” I often hear this refrain as my girls navigate the teen years - an irony since they attend demanding schools, are plugged into the social network, and anything can be a swipe of the fingertip away.
I’m also hearing this same refrain from sommeliers, wine journalists and wine drinkers these days. “I’m bored with (insert variety, winery or region here)!” The urge for something new is irresistible, maybe even addicting - or have we just become conditioned to think we want something new?
We have access like never before with the ability to discover new things daily on the information highway. As an Instagram abuser (@rsinvin), I can see culinary trends transmit across the world - oceans or languages are no longer barriers. We see culinary trends like farm-to-table, cupcakes, pork belly, tacos, ramen, pho, and whole-animal begin when a plugged-in traveling chef “discovers” something in one corner of the world and returns home to post their latest creation online. Within weeks, chefs are creating their own versions and then, within a few months, the “new” dish or trend jumps the shark by appearing on corporate restaurant menus. The cycle continually shortens.
It wasn’t always that way - at one time we really didn’t have a choice. We only knew (and had access to) what was local. What differentiated was the craft behind the product…the honing, the skill, the knowledge that only time and repetition could provide. New or unusual was viewed suspiciously. Tried and true was cherished.
Wine is a craft, but it is also an accident. Crush some grapes, put them in a crock, and they will ferment. It is up to luck if the result is something you want to drink. But put those same grapes in knowledgeable hands and they might become something ethereal.
Historical wine regions have become refined over decades, if not centuries. This is no accident. Fine wine cannot chase trends because it takes too long and costs too much to plant, cultivate, make, and age wine. Instead of vacillating with the trends, wine regions have become more focused and refined by what works best. Burgundy is the land of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay - while Chianti is mostly Sangiovese. Bordeaux is divided into the Left and Right banks (which in turn are divided into sub-regions), where the former is dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon and the latter Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Laws have been created by governments or ad-hoc vintner organizations to keep wine regions focused on what they do best and help maintain their identity.
However, we make wine in the New World - the land of independence, the cowboy, the rebel - where no one tells us what to do and to hell with the rules. We certainly have been guilty of this attitude ourselves, but we’ve now had over thirty years to sow our wild oats, experiment, and refine what works best, continuing to evolve, learning something new each year that adds to the knowledge gleaned from years past. So, instead of replanting our vineyards with the varieties of the Jura, our cure for boredom comes by answering the thrill ride of challenges posed by the four seasons in an attempt to capture the distinctiveness of vintage.
another perfect day in hell!
Your idea of perfection might very well be my idea of hell… maybe perfection is hell! We think we want things perfect and we spend our lives making “it” better, more beautiful, easier, faster… but what we really want is distinctiveness. Don’t get me wrong, we enjoy the pursuit of an ideal, but more often than not, once we’ve achieved a perception of perfection we’re rarely satisfied and find ourselves in need of new challenges - even if it means that we must ignore or reverse the advances we’ve already made.
The pursuit of perfection in fine wine is a prime example of something that, when taken too far, has unintended consequences. Achieving ripeness was historically the goal of fine wine. A benchmark “vintage” wine could only be created from a relatively warm year. But as knowledge and technology intervened to make things more consistent in the less than optimal vintages, we began to see wines that were so good you couldn’t finish the glass - ripe, rich, and high in alcohol. This style may be someone’s idea of perfection, but when wines from different regions all taste the same, they became like the Stepford Wives… creepy in their perfection.
It’s a counterintuitive idea, but all the little technological steps taken to create a perfect wine has led to the blanding of a whole category of aspirational beverages. Clones were bred to ripen earlier, sugar up, and shed some acidity before the fall rains came. Viruses and diseases were controlled resulting in more vigorous vines. Sorting tables were employed to remove any less than ideal grapes, leaving only the most “perfectly” ripened examples for the fermenter. All of these things and more were done to create a riper, richer, sweeter style of wine. And, for a while, it worked. These richer wines stood out in blind tastings against leaner, more subtle entrants and were rewarded with high scores, creating an arms race for the “perfect” 100 point wine.
In the pursuit of perfection we lost something in the form of character and balance. Wines from around the world became perfectly boring with a rich, sweet flavor profile.
Balance is elusive. Most people respond to things that stand out, especially in a blind tasting. Balance becomes even more important at the dinner table. Every great chef knows that certain sweet or rich foods need acidity to balance the richness, either by adding it to the dish in the form of citrus, vinegar, or wine, or balancing it with a bright wine on the table. If there is no relief, the richness will keep building until it overwhelms the palate.
Balance is a hot topic for wine writers, sommeliers, and winemakers. Most of the discussion centers on picking grapes earlier for lower sugar, lower alcohol, and higher acidity. But this is only part of the equation - just picking earlier creates wines with the flavor profile of underripe fruit. Every grape variety, every selection or clone, has a predestined ripening cycle. Some are early ripening, some are not. Those that do are more suited to a cooler climate because in warmer situations they often sugar up before achieving flavor ripeness. Many of these earlier ripening selections were chosen for warm climates in the 80s and 90s because vineyard owners were rewarded with accolades for a riper style. Just picking these selections earlier will give you a wine with the right amount of sugar for moderate alcohols and perhaps decent acidity, but they will lack flavor. In this case, the variety, clone, or selection is out of sync (or balance) with the climate. The trick is to find the right selection for the place so the grapes can achieve flavor (physiological) ripeness by the time the grapes sugar up. This is a generational concept that (unless you have lots of history in an area) requires time and experimentation.
RSV has had over thirty years to experiment and refine - in the pursuit of balance - even when that style was not popular. I like to think that we ignored the devil on our left shoulder promising fame and fortune and instead listened to the angel of balance whispering in our right ear.
the serious side of rosé!
While walking through the “Valley of the Bobs”* one day, I decided to take a left turn onto the high road. The time had come for someone to make a stand - it might as well be us.
Almost twenty five years ago, I watched one of my favorite wine styles, rosé, get molested on the altar of commerce. I was afraid if we didn’t do something soon, it would forever be tarnished with a bad reputation. The culprit was sugar-laced White Zinfandel. It ruled the shelves and created moguls out of farmers. The problem was not that it just pushed rosé out of the mindshare of “real” wine drinkers, it was tarnishing rosé’s image as the ultimate food wine.
In my mind, a great rosé is a non-cerebral, visceral beverage. It is about pure joy - fresh, vibrant, and crisp, it’s a day on the beach with fresh seafood - supper on the porch with friends - live music, salumi and cheese - a hot tub of fun, or a Sunday under the covers. If it goes with the food on your table and puts a smile on your face, it has done its job.
The problem was that most of the American rosé back then was a by-product. It was either made from grapes that couldn’t be sold because the variety (Zinfandel) had gone out of fashion, the vineyards were inferior for fine wine, or it was made from wine that was “bled” off fermenting juice to concentrate the skin contact of red wines and something had to be done with the excess. The result was usually an awkward wine with a bitterness that could only be corrected with heavy filtration and sugar.
We decided that instead of making a rosé an afterthought, we would create a pink wine from the ground up. We dedicated a block or two of our organically grown Pinot Noir from our Carneros vineyards, delicately whole cluster pressed the grapes, and cool fermented in stainless to capture the purity of the fruit. The wine was delicious, bright, and satisfying, but I couldn’t sell it. No one wanted a dry rosé for fear of being accused of drinking White Zin.
Two decades later, some people still can’t shake the image that all rosé is sickly sweet, but one by one, the “cool” kids flaunted the status-quo with their pink cred, accepting dry rosé like never before. Restaurants now have sections of their wine lists devoted to rosé, retail shops have shelves lined in shades of pink, the Nantucket wine festival is conducting a seminar called “the serious side of rosé” (I will be a presenter) and there is even a documentary movie being made called “Rosé Rising!” Pink is finally ready for its close up and, unlike the early days, it is our fastest selling wine. It only goes to show that if you do something you believe in, you will find kindred souls who like to break bread and share a pink-induced smile.
* The Valley of the Bobs was an annual dinner hosted by the Culinary Institute whereas all the vintners named “Robert” were invited to co-host. One year, I sat next to a Bob whose fame was derived from White Zin. I was the only one to present a pink wine and, after I did, Bob leaned over and suggested that if I left some sugar in it, I would make a lot more money.
The Sweet Spot…
You know it when you find the sweet spot. It just feels right. Like hitting a tennis ball in the center of the racket as it makes that perfect “pop” sound or swinging the bat as it meets the ball with a “thwack!” Or accelerating out of the apex of a turn in a way that puts a smile on your face - and elicits screams from your passengers.
The first known use of the phrase “sweet spot” was in the 1883 novel “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson when John Silver states: “this here is a sweet spot, this island — a sweet spot for a lad to get ashore on. You’ll bathe, and you’ll climb trees, and you’ll hunt goats… Why, it makes me young again.”
Ah, but in 1883 “sweet” was still a luxury and the very word connoted visions of ease… the sweet life. Sugar was rare in the pre-20th century world, but even so, we craved it. We learned as hunter gatherers that sweet fruit provided instant energy and if it was that good, what if we concentrated the sugar in that fruit by drying it, or juicing it? Yum! Later, during the very beginnings of agriculture, we learned how to ferment the sugar of grapes to create a beverage for the heart and soul. Even later, in the northern reaches of the grape growing zones, the fruit would freeze on the vine and those industrious vignerons would pick the frozen fruit, press the concentrated sugar nectar from the grapes, and make a wine that both warmed the soul and sweetened the disposition… a dessert wine that had happy levels of sugar and moderately low alcohols balanced by good acidity.
The sweet spot of the past was a wine that captured the essence of perfectly ripened fruit, fruit that would have been stolen by birds or animals before humans would have been able to harvest or would have rotted before making it to market. It preserved the fruit character at its apex of ripeness.
But now sugar is cheap and commonplace. Most of us were weaned on sugared drinks and snacks. Every coffee house has jars of sugar on counters, spoonfuls of which are free for the taking. Our sugar meters are calibrated differently than our forebears and, unfortunately, more of it is needed to impress. So, if excess is what impresses, where is the sweet spot today?
I will confess that the first time I tried a “super sticky” dessert wine, I was impressed. The sweetness knocked my socks off. But as I tasted more and more sweet wines, I found that high amounts of sugar alone no longer satisfied. What I wanted was balance, something that tasted like ripe, crisp fruit…
There is a point in the cycle of a growing season when the vine no longer supports the ripening of the grape. It shuts down and the only thing that is occurring is dehydration or rot, hopefully the noble kind, removing water and concentrating sugar. However, what is being lost is acid and it is acid that makes a wine crisp and refreshing… even a sweet wine.
So, in my contradictory world, the sweet spot is more ethereal… it is the intersection of physiological and sugar ripeness… a point of libration as sweet is balanced by crisp acidity. Like biting into an optimally ripened crisp apple or peach right from the tree on a cold fall morning. This is my ideal sweet spot.
Sex, Truffles & Pinot Noir
There are two things in the culinary world that are almost as satisfying as sex: truffles and perfectly aged Burgundy, um… I mean, Pinot Noir. But sometimes it’s difficult to know the real thing when chatter, created by our virtual, over-amped, “turn-it-up-to-11” conditioned society, obscures it.
A chef once told me he used truffle oil to exaggerate the flavor of real truffles because his customers complained the dish without the oil did not have enough flavor. That complaint might be viable if the chef used the lesser Summer or Chinese truffle, but not the elegant Perigord or White truffle.
The irony is that there is no truffle in truffle oil, yet we think its flavor is powerfully rich and decadent. Occasionally, pieces of Chinese truffle float in the oil to make it look like an infusion - but it rarely is. Instead, it’s usually a synthetic compound that combines thioether (2, 4-dithiapentane) with an olive or grapeseed oil base. Thioether is similar to ether except instead of an oxygen atom, it has a sulfur atom. Sounds yummy… gives new meaning to the expression, “a knock out dish!” People have come to associate and confuse the exaggerated, overzealous aroma and flavor of truffle oil for the real thing. Robert Chang of The American Truffle Company says the greatest threat to truffle farming is truffle oil, because people expect the blatancy of the oil and no longer appreciate the subtlety of the real thing.
Recently, Maria and I celebrated our anniversary with a simple white truffle pasta dish. The main flavors were from the truffle and Parmesan cheese. It was elegant and subtle… perhaps too subtle for the chosen wine that was showing a bit too sweet. Now we didn’t open a “sweet” wine per se, but this particular Pinot Noir, an expensive, highly regarded wine, was picked ripe, had relatively high alcohol and left us with a perception of fruity sweetness. So we dug deep into our stash and found an orphan bottle of our 1988 Pinot Noir. This was only our third vintage and we were still figuring out our style. When this wine was released, it was hard with tannin, high in acidity, low in alcohol and had a subtle raspberry/cranberry, tea-like aroma and flavor. The youthful version of this wine took some time to show its potential, yet it was incredible with this dish - a full twenty-five years after it was produced!
I have been fortunate to be the recipient of dumb luck. My father planted our original Pinot Noir the old-fashioned way. We tasted wines and, when we found one we liked, we went to that vineyard to take cuttings to plant in our vineyard. Much has changed since those innocent days. Back then, there was an industry-wide inferiority complex that those early Pinot Noir cuttings lacked the “oomph” associated with high quality wine. It wasn’t unusual for those early Pinot Noirs to be blended with Petite Sirah for intensity of flavor and color - but the manipulation didn’t stop there. Wood chips or planks were used to give the wine the sweet vanilla flavor of toasted oak. Then, about the time that our 1988 wine was made, vineyards were being replanted with what some vintners thought were superior clones of French Pinot Noir. These clones ripened earlier and produced wines with more intense aroma and flavor, higher alcohol and a perception of sweetness. They received high scores that resulted in more being planted… but that was not good enough. People picked riper and added acid. Some bled off juice to concentrate the juice-to-skin ratio, making the wines more intense. They sometimes even put it into a centrifuge to reduce the alcohol from these powerful, overripe wines… and somewhere along the way; some people lost their taste for elegant, subtle, and perhaps even earthy, Pinot Noir. They wanted Pinot to “knock you out!” I’m surprised that no one has yet added a little trioether to give it an exaggerated earthy, truffle “pseudo-terroir” note.
There is an old saying that the further we are from nature, the more we lose our natural taste. Or to say it another way - once we accept artifice as reality, can we regain our ability to recognize and appreciate natural purity? I am encouraged that there is a growing backlash against “overdone” wines, yet the most popular wines continue to be very ripe and sweet, with relatively high alcohol that hits you over the head. I guess there is a place for those wines… just not at the table paired with a subtle white truffle pasta dish.
That dumb-luck, combined with stubbornness, saved my beloved elegant, understated Pinot Noir. Those early “inferior” cuttings (that we now refer to as heirloom selections) turned out be the right selection for the climate. We just had to learn how to grow it well and keep our manipulative hands off it… to trust it for what it was and let it be what it is.
One Vineyard - Two Grapes
I think all my smart devices are making me dumb. These days, when I sit down to write, I get an irresistible urge to check Instagram for a “like” fix… It’s as though I’ve become a lab rat, choosing cocaine over food, but in this case it’s the instant gratification of a “like” response over the quiet satisfaction of the written word. Sometimes we’re better off with fewer choices… a simplified set of parameters that allow repetition and refinement. The modern world offers up so many options, it’s easy to be intrigued by the next shiny object, distracting us from the inherent beauty of what is and leaving us yearning for what could be.
RSV has a small piece of land behind the winery where, for the past twenty-five years, we’ve been growing Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. We farm it organically with biodynamic principles. All input choices are natural and revolve around cover crops, compost, or what’s left behind by the sheep. We have no reservoir, so the vineyard gets very little water. Here, there is no instant gratification, but a long term investment: we observe how each year imprints itself on the fruit as well as the finished wine and, if necessary, make adjustments for the current season and a mental note for next year’s improvements. On harvest day, the grapes will travel from the hill to the cellar where they are transformed from fruit to wine. Decisions are made based on observation, with a focus on expressing what is there… not someone else’s ideal of what a Napa wine should be, but what’s best for this piece of land and the unique weather of the vintage.
One vineyard, two grapes, and the same winemaker for twenty five years - these three things allow a rare degree of focus and a consistency to pursue a pure, distinct expression of Cabernet Sauvignon - a refined wine of simple elegance that is unlike any other “New World” wine. It’s a wine that deserves some attention.