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Debunking Wine Myths

(More and less based on an article by Dan Berger in the California Grapevine)

   Myths abound everywhere in our culture. Long ago, we seemed to be more willing to have the wool pulled over our eyes; today, we seem more likely to be skeptical. The news media are a lot more revealing these days. So there are fewer myths in most fields -- except wine lore.

   Decades ago, our religious leaders were above reproach. Recent allegations about some religious leaders (infidelities, child molestation, embezzlement, etc.) have made us all more skeptical. Take also political leaders. John F. Kennedy, we now know, was quite a “ladies man”, unlike the clean-cut image we had of him at the time. We were genteeler back then. Conspiracy theories had yet to develop; Watergate and Monicagate had yet to happen.

    Myths exist in other areas of our lives. And for various reasons, we hold onto these “false truths” long after we should. Some may call it faith, others simply chalk it up to tradition: once an object gets an image, it’s hard to shake it.

    What is odd to me, then, is that in the wine business, a business laden with images, romance and history, many people are quite prepared to accept the myths and hold fast to them because they like the comfort in simple answers. Simple answers usually are for simple people, but in the wine business, some otherwise very intelligent people are prepared to believe a myth rather than deal with research and fact-digging. They know, consciously or unconsciously, that to do so might ruin their simple answers. And simple answers, even if incorrect, make their lives simpler and less complicated.

    Sometimes these myths are passed along sort of like an oral tradition. And many myths go back centuries.

    One of the simplest myths about wine: “Bad wine turns to vinegar.” The truth is that very little bad wine actually turns to vinegar. The conversion of alcohol to vinegar is done by bacteria that simply are not present in a bottle of wine. Mostly what happens to bad wine is that the fruit simply oxidizes. In fact, bad wine that has oxidized will make a very poor vinegar.

Some Myths Die an Ugly Death
    It’s true that a few myths have been wiped out in our lifetimes, but they usually went kicking and screaming. Take the term Pinot Chardonnay, for example. Once a staple of wineries in California, the term was used for decades and began to disappear slowly about 1975 once it was discovered and then widely disseminated (within the industry) that Chardonnay was not from the Pinot family. Yet the term Pinot Chardonnay remained on some wine labels long after it was known that the term was dumb, misleading, and only served to display the user’s lack of knowledge! Tradition carried more weight than fact.

    Myth: Old wines are better when they are opened long before you drink them so they can breathe. Decanting is even better.
    Truth: Really old red wines are so fragile that opening them and letting them sit to breathe is silly. Especially after decanting. More than once I have attended dinners where someone did this and the wine simply deteriorated before anyone had a chance to take a single sip.

    Corollary Myth: Young wines benefit from uncorking the bottle to let them breathe.
    Truth: Without decanting, a wine sitting in an open bottle essentially does not “breathe” in the way we think it does. Very little happens. Only decanting really helps.

    Myth: Cabernet is a better wine than Zinfandel.
    Truth: This is like comparing a Valencia to a Pippin. I could argue that more Zinfandel is tastier than Cabernet, but that is only an opinion. However, you never see a Zinfandel get a 100 rating, and a number of Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines have. Varietal discrimination!

    Myth: Chardonnay is a varietal wine.
    Truth: Almost all Chardonnays these days go through a series of processes that end up lowering the acid, making the wines rather flabby in texture. At the same time, the wines get an addition of non-grape flavors (from blending, malolactic fermentation, oak aging, etc.) resulting in something that is truly terrible with food. The worst sin is infusing the wine with a bitterness offset with sweetness (A glass of Kendall-Jackson, anyone?), which wipes out any hope for a tasty wine with meals. Yet vast hordes of Americans remain convinced that Chardonnay is a worthy choice for the dinner table, and they keep ordering it. And they apparently enjoy it, too, although I suspect they use it mainly as a palate wash, not a flavor enhancer. Besides, it’s usually served so cold that the negatives are muted.

Try Tackling the question: “What is a Reserve Wine?”
    Myth: “Reserve” indicates a superior wine.
    Truth: Reserve has an interesting history as a word applied to wine, one that is completely forgotten in the US today. 100 years ago, the word “reserve” was not used in the same way we use it today. There were wines called Reserve du Chateau, but the term meant simply that the wine was made for the chateau owner’s use exclusively. It was a wine held back from sale, reserved if you will, for the cellars of the property. This was not a commercial wine.

    It could of course be given by the chateau owner to a friend as a gift, or swapped with another chateau owner. My unsubstantiated theory is that some of these gifts made their way to auction houses and were advertised as supposedly “better” wines than the “regular” wine, commanded much attention and thus a higher price. The higher prices were based on scarcity rather than higher quality.

    I once attended a dinner at which bottles of 1945 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild Reserve du Chateau were served side by side with the “regular” bottling. The wines were served blind to a group of excellent tasters. Most preferred the “regular” bottling to the Reserve.

    If the “reserved” wines represented a wine that the chateau owner wanted to have for himself and his friends, is it not possible that that wine differed to a degree from the “regular” wine? It certainly seems likely, else why have a special “reserve” bottling, if they were identical? And if that is so, isn’t it likely that these “reserve” bottles were made to please only one person: the Chateau owner. Most probably tasted better younger. Some were probably made to taste better when they aged.

    I am not suggesting that the earliest “reserve du chateau” wines were not as good as the normal bottles that were sold. But considering that quality is in the eye of the beholder, and considering that wine evaluation 100 years ago wasn’t as worldly wise, broad or encompassing as it is today, who is to say that just because a wine was bigger and more concentrated (or drank better at an early age) that it was better than the regular wine?

    Indeed, we know that most of today’s California reserve wines are oakier, weightier and more “impressive” when they are young, but are they better? Will they age better? Most of these wines can’t be consumed when young because of higher tannins, and thus require aging for a long time. Many have excessive alcohol to go with that load of fruit and don’t age that well. In fact, in blind tastings of older reserve bottlings of Cabernet, the regular wines show at least as well as the reserves, and occasionally are better. (At a blind tasting I attended in 1986, the 1974 Mondavi Napa Cab was almost unanimously preferred to the 1974 RM Reserve!)

The Curious Questions of “Old Vines” and “Low Yield”
Myth: Old vines make better wines.
Truth: This myth may have been created by the following rather odd sequential logic:
1. Fact: The smaller the amount of fruit off a vine, the better the resulting wine. This is generally accurate, since huge production results in diffuse flavors. More concentration of flavors comes from smaller production, and this usually makes for a more flavorful and better wine.
2. Fact: Older vines usually produce smaller amounts of grapes. As vines age, they lose their vigor and ability to produce large crops, so they naturally produce smaller crops. Thus:
3. Assumption: Old vines make better wine than young vines.

This assumption is so widely believed to be a fact that it has led many California wine makers to put the term “old vines” on their labels, indicating that the wine maker (or the marketing department) believes solidly that there is a direct correlation between quality and vine age. That is, older vines make better wines than younger vines, so we might as well advertise it.

So, then, how do we account for reports that are being widely circulated around the California wine industry: the best fruit produced by a vine in its early (first 20) years is produced in its first few years of full harvest, and that quality declines slightly but noticeably after that?

Moreover, there is no scientific proof that older vines always produce better fruit--or more to the point, better wine. We know that older vines yield less fruit, but when young vines have been trellised and pruned and treated intentionally to yield only a fraction of the fruit it would have on its own, the result can be high fruit (and wine) quality. That clearly indicates that what is at play here is not old-vine production, but merely low yield.

To add more confusion, there are specific situations where higher yields produce better wines than lower yields! It is true that 10 tons of Chardonnay growing on a one-acre vineyard will usually not produce a better wine than the same vineyard growing, say, four tons of fruit. But there are numerous California vineyards where growers have found that their best fruit is achieved at six tons per acre, and that four tons from the same acre makes a lesser quality wine.

A classic example: The Louis Martini Winery in Napa Valley owns a 70-acre hillside Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard in Lake County, planted in the late 1980’s. The vines were trellised and pruned to take advantage of a temperature pattern that was calculated based on daytime temperatures. Farmed to produce four tons per acre, a common target in such temperature areas,

the grapes were disappointing, showing green, herbaceous, underripe flavors. Further research revealed that the hillside was not high enough to take advantage of evening cooling breezes, and that valley-floor heat from the daytime rose in the evening, and that nighttime temperatures in the vineyard were so high that grapes reached sugar maturity earlier than they reached flavor maturity.

“To get the hang time we needed [for fuller flavor development],” said Mike Martini, “we had to increase tonnage to six tons [per acre]. And that made a better wine.”
Also, a famed vineyard in the Alexander Valley that has produced superb Chardonnay for years reportedly averages eight tons per acre (admittedly an extreme situation) and that at some lower crop levels, quality seems to tail off.

So clearly it is sometimes possible to make a better wine from higher tonnages. Which answers the self-proclaimed experts who constantly harp about lower yields always making better wines. Usually, perhaps, lower yield does lead to higher quality. But always? No. The evidence is clear: the best fruit is produced from a balanced vineyard. Balance is achieved in various ways. An “unbalanced” vineyard that produces only 1 ton per acre can make pretty terrible wine whereas four tons from a balanced vineyard makes infinitely better wine.

The Maverick ‘Brett’
Another myth: Brettanomyces in red wine can be horrible, but a trace adds complexity. (“Brett” is a bacterial infection which gives a wine an unusual and inappropriate “musty” smell and taste. It comes from contaminated corks and is synonymous with a “corked” wine.)

Truth: You can believe that if you want, but without a lab test, no one -- not even skilled wine makers -- can tell by aroma and taste whether a wine has a trace or a load of brett. Filtering could have removed the bacteria, but the aroma would remain and may even become stronger. Moreover, a more “complex” aroma from a “trace” of brett does not change the fact that a large brett population also changes the tannin structure of the wine. It mutes the fruit and makes the wine harder and less likely to age well. Some forms of “complexity” are clearly unwanted.

Why Wine Makers Don’t Debunk Myths
The myths stated here are, for the most part, fully understood by wine makers and grape growers. There is a great degree of interaction between wine makers, and they share these ideas with each other. Then why are such myths allowed to persist in the writings about wine around the country? Let’s look at a little fictitious scenario that’s probably pretty close to reality.

1. A wine writer writes a column in which a myth is stated as fact, with no qualifiers, no explanation, no indication that there might be another opinion.
2. A wine maker, preparing to make a sales trip to the city in which this wine writer writes, reads this article and is surprised that the myth has been stated as fact.
3. The wine maker arrives in the city on his sales trip, arranges to have dinner with the wine writer and pour a few of his latest releases.
4. At the restaurant: seated on one side of the table is the writer, notebook at the ready. On the other side are the wine maker and the local sales representative. The writer is there to sample and evaluate the four bottles of wine on the table. The wine maker is there to provide salient quotes for the article that he hopes will be one of the results of this sales trip. The sales guy will make sure the writer gets the production figures and prices.

Isn’t this the perfect time for the wine maker to say something about the error in the wine writer’s column of a few weeks earlier? Not a chance. The wine maker figures (probably correctly) that the writer has an ego as bruisable as a Gravenstein apple, and to tinker with that ego in the hope of getting the writer to mend the error of his ways is unthinkable. What if the writer takes offense at being corrected? And takes it out on the winery by giving the wines a bad review? So the wine maker says nothing and myth goes on.


Myth America - by Dan Berger
[Dan Berger, who writes for the California Grapevine, is one of my favorite wine
writers. His articles tend to meander, but by the time you have finished reading
one, you are left more knowledgeable, more thoughtful, and more questioning
of some of your very basic assumptions. What more can you ask of a writer?]

Wine myths intrigue me. Mainly because fostering incorrect information of the past is a lot easier than explaining why time has changed the conventional wisdom, and why today’s truth is the way it really is. Because my readership is composed of savvy wine lovers, from professionals on down to average collectors, to those who merely like wine on a regular basis, I often get biting responses. I like this because as the dialog goes along, I get insights from wine makers, merchants, sommeliers, and newcomers to collecting wine. All this leads to new thinking about wine, and thus more inquisitiveness, and eventually new insights.

What is obvious to me is that some of the least likely to react to my pointed commentaries are the heavyweight collectors, those folks who have standing orders to buy Chateau Latour by the multiple cases, en primeur. It is these people with whom I’d most like to have a lively debate, especially over bottles of red wine that have been properly aged. To be sure, most such folks have acquired tastes that took years to hone, but some of what they say is that great wine is merely big wine. And to me big is not automatically great. Nor is bigger better. Some of the most exciting older wines are lighter, but better balanced, the way fine wine used to be in the era before huge flavors were seen as de rigueur for all red wines.

I believe that some of these high spenders (notably the newcomers) are people who have bought into the myths surrounding great and faux-great wine; who have fostered these myths with their mammon, and who have left a sad legacy for those wine makers who are so naive as to think that pricey wines are the best wines. And who then emulate the style with grapes that don’t like such treatment.

The Loss of Classic Wines
One of my greatest wine disappointments is the loss of favored wines due almost exclusively to financial considerations. I miss many wines, including Souverain Colombard Blanc, Russian River Vineyards’ Riesling, Larkmead Petite Sirah, and Buena Vista Steelhead Run. Many more come to mind, each with a story worth telling. And each ends with a line noting that not enough consumers understood the wine and it soon died, leaving those of us who fancied it to mourn for decades, with only our firm memories of the glorious tastes left in the ether.

Back when wines as amazing as the Larkmead Petite Sirah were still floating around, and when I had no idea how much I would miss them all when they were gone, I took it for granted that their greatness was apparent to others, and that the wine makers responsible for these gems would preserve the grapes from which such exalted liquids came. I assumed we’d always have them in some form or another.

I got a rude awakening early in the 1980s. I was seated, at a dinner party, next to the son of the original owner of a great Petite Sirah vineyard in the northern end of Napa Valley, one of the vineyards closely associated with one of the greatest red wines of the early 1970s. He had inherited the vineyard. We chatted about the wines those grapes had made, and we agreed they were great wines. And I suggested that the vines ought to be a national treasure.

“I tore out the vineyard,” he said without a blink.

I was dumbfounded and asked why. He told me the wineries to which he was selling those grapes loved the fruit, but refused to pay more for them than the going rate for Petite Sirah. He added, “Besides, I was getting only two tons per acre. Cabernet sells for more and you can get four, maybe five tons....”

Of course I blame myself for a measure of all the losses similar to this one. I was writing wine columns back then and could have sent up stronger warning signals. And indeed, over the years I have championed such great wines as rose, dry Gewürztraminer and Muscat, and moves into esoteric and creative wines that mainstream wineries eschew. I have also fought for wines with more varietal and regional character and less oak, less alcohol, and more structure. Not to no avail, I acknowledge. A few wine makers who believe as I do have been strengthened in their beliefs that they were on the right path all along, that someone understands what they were trying to do. I’m fairly sure few of them would have altered their style and compromised had I not said what I said. But at least I gave them some of the reassurance they needed to persist. Still, there is the nagging feeling that perhaps I could have done more.

Times Change, and So Do the Facts
Where this is going, curiously enough, is to myth identification as a way of noting that the truths of this game are often derived from history, and that as the times change, some of the historical facts no longer apply. What once was gospel, now is ancient and incorrect.

The reason this is misunderstood is that it’s far more comforting to trumpet the old slogans. Changing one’s opinions about the facts is not easy, and I believe that by pointing out a few of the myths, we may be able to look at some of the other “facts” and analyze them for their current validity.

After all, the “white wine with fish” myth was long ago dashed to smithereens. We began by looking at creative preparations for salmon and tuna where Pinot Noir was the perfect foil. And we found other combinations that worked well that were anathema to the old rules, such as fish made with red wine reduction sauces, cumin, or barbecue sauce.

Indeed, Pinot Noir figures into other great myths of the past, such as “you get better extraction from Pinot Noir by pumping the juice over the top of the fermentation tank.” Punching down the cap (a mass of mostly grape skins that floats on top of the fermenting liquid), the old-fashioned, eons-old (French) method, was inefficient, hard work, and left the wine without proper dark color, so went the old argument. So by the mid- to late-1970s, punching down California Pinot Noir was given the heave-ho in favor of pumping over.

What we ended up with was darker, but more lackluster Pinot Noir. Now we know that punching down the cap that forms on top of the fermentation tank and other gentler methods of handling make for better management of the flavors and tannins in Pinot Noir. They also yield more typical, characterful wines.

Less is More? Perhaps not.
Let’s add to this an important and newly discovered fact. It once was common knowledge that the smaller the tonnage of the vine the better the resulting wine. This “fact” was a result of the truth embedded in the converse: that a wine off high-tonnage grapevines was thin and watery, and the higher the tonnage the worse the wine. The problem with stating that “the lower the tonnage the better the wine” is simply that at some point in the downward spiral of tonnage, there may be a point at which less actually is less.

Indeed, this seems to be the case with the new French clones of Pinot Noir. Most (except for the vines that were smuggled in) arrived in the US via legal channels and therefore had to go through quarantine to eliminate viruses to make sure that no nasty plant virus gets into the US.

Thus most of the material now planted as Clone 667 and 777 are virus free, and thus more prolific than they would be had some virus been there to limit grape production. So with more grapes per plant, tonnage rises, and when carefully tended, Pinot Noir easily can give 5-6 tons per acre of healthy, tasty fruit. So grape growers ever wary of the “less is better” idea, thought means must be employed to limit production.

This “less is better” idea emanates not from within, but from outside. Over the last 15-20 years, some wine writers have proposed (or proclaimed) that the best wines are those that are deep, concentrated, powerful, and blessed with an opaqueness that’s nearly mandatory if the wine is to gain praise. Such wines, they said, can only be made from grapes that grow in infinitesimal amounts per acre.

Now, here is a real fact: most truly great Pinot Noir wine makers know that color and depth are not necessarily joined at the hip. Some of the finest wines are quite pale and black ones are often clumsy oafs that will not age. (Look at the color of any Williams-Selyem Pinot Noir!) Yet, deep color and concentration are still seen by some powerful writers as essential to all red wines. So growers are told by wine makers to take extraordinary methods to limit tonnage.

One more fact of life for the French clones: they were bred from stock that, probably as a result of natural selection or adaptation, did best in a continental (i.e., cool, occasionally wet) climate. And California has anything but a continental climate. Indeed, it is more Mediterranean, with warm to hot days, rarely moist, without a great threat of rainfall. It is a climate that encourages slightly earlier harvesting and almost never requires the addition of sugar to help the fermentation along (which is common in Burgundy).

Where California can routinely ripen its older-clone Pinot Noir, France struggles to get sugars and, in many vintages, flavor. Indeed, only in the finest locations, such as in Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards, for example, are there conditions that seem to generate flavors appropriate to the areas with a consistency worth paying for. And even there sugar is often added. (The famous terroir character of each region, however, seems to be limited to vintages where the grapes achieve less than optimal ripeness. In great vintages, a Corton need not smell and taste like a Corton as long as it is deep, powerful, concentrated, etc. That is, it can more readily be made in the “international style.”)

So what we have here in California are French clones that react differently than they do in France. For one thing, they ripen faster than more traditionally used clones such as Martini, Wente, and Swan. Grapes from the slower-ripening California clones stay on the vine longer than French clones, and this allows for harvesting at a more leisurely pace. The French clones gain sugars and lose acidity so rapidly toward the end of the growing season that the picking window is extremely narrow. Only a day or two can make the difference between a wine of balance and an over-ripe, clumsy wine that may have weight, density, and alcohol, but which lacks the elegance, charm, and regional character (terroir) that are the hallmark of this variety.

And isn’t this what the “international wine” supporters want? Big, strapping wines with nearly 15% alcohol? Wines of such massive power seem to get the greatest accolades; wines of grace, by contract, no matter how complex and food-friendly, seem to get second-tier ratings. This is what bothers me. It is the precursor of the faint praise that damned so many wonderful, but under-appreciated wines in the past.

Wine Makers Praise, but Silently Fear the Clones
At this point, it may be far too early in the “French Clone Pinot Noir” game to have a cause for such alarm, notably because there are still many wine makers who are aware of the benefits of using the French clones as part of a blend, not 100% on their own. Pinot Noirs made entirely from the French clones seem to be a bit too much, lacking some of the grace and harmony I pray for. Powerful yes, but typical, not really.

Yet here we reach another point of myth: one way to control the intensity of the French clones is to grow a bit more fruit than the purists would have you believe is optimum. More fruit per acre does reduce density, and though that seems radical, it may be the solution.

Some respected wine writers state categorically that three tons per acre is about the absolute maximum a Pinot Noir vineyard should bear, else the result is a hollow, eviscerated wine. Four tons per acre? Heaven forbid, say the purists, a disaster. And five? Just forget it. No matter what method the wine maker uses, the result will all be pink in color and dishwater in taste.

Yet during the World of Pinot Noir event in California’s Central Coast in March of 2002, I chatted with a number of wine makers who are frankly a bit concerned that the French clones have created a whole new matrix for a grape we thought we knew something about. Many of these are people who have made Pinot Noir for 20+ years, and they have looked at this newcomer with alarm.

The Greatness of the Latest
Moreover, many of the top Pinot Noirs I have tasted recently show that a combination of the various clones seems to make a better wine. The depth of the Swann clone, the fragrance of the Martini clone and so forth combine with the intensity of the 667 and 777 clones to make for a stylish wine that shows depth as well as grace. One noted “powerhouse” Pinot Noir, which is made entirely from smuggled French clones, is impressive, but left me with a feeling I was drinking a Pinot Noir/Syrah blend!

Yet Pinot Noir has come into its own. The list of great Pinot Noirs these days may be longer than the list of truly great Cabernets, which if true would be dashing another California myth. And even if you are still locked into the “Cab is best” mode, at least you can see why the excitement for Pinot Noir has built rather dramatically in the last few years. There is no doubt that the greatest Burgundies are still some of the most amazing wines in the world, but today’s top domestic Pinot Noirs are now closer in quality to the best of Burgundy than ever.

What may be holding California back here is one truth I still acknowledge has validity: the greatest aging Pinot Noirs are from Burgundy. Rarely have I tasted a California Pinot Noir beyond about 15 years that is better for the time. Then again I recently opened a 1979 Stony Ridge Pinot Noir. The wine was nearly 23 years old, and it was an absolute miracle of balance, fruit, depth, and charm.

I remember tasting the wine in the early 1980s and finding it amazingly well balanced, but quite tart. I bought a bottle and waited. The acid has now softened, and the wine has evolved astoundingly, even to the point where Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti was amazed at its vitality. And now the final myth: that Monterey can’t make a great Pinot Noir. The Stony Ridge wine, with a Monterey appellation, came from the Vinco Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands, which a decade from now may well be seen as California’s finest Pinot Noir area!

If there is a message here it is, “view history as a tale of the past, but remember that wine is an evolving dynamic.”


E-Mail: beekman@conversent.net

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