less based on an article by Dan Berger in the California Grapevine)
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,
its 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
Its 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 users lack of knowledge! Tradition carried more weight
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
Myth: Cabernet is a better wine than
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, its usually served so cold that the
negatives are muted.
Try Tackling the question: What is a Reserve
Myth: Reserve indicates a
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 owners 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, isnt 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 wasnt 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 todays
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 cant 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 dont 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
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
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 1980s. 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
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
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
Why Wine Makers Dont 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? Lets look at
a little fictitious scenario thats probably pretty close to
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
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
Isnt this the perfect time for the wine maker to say
something about the error in the wine writers 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
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
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.”
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