In winemaking we measure our experience not in years, but in the number of vintages. Between Bill & I, throwing in the odd harvest in the Southern Hemisphere and Europe, we count over 80 collective harvests.
In that time we have seen a number of advances and developments, from the vineyard to the winery. Parsing apart what makes truly great wine is to ponder the evolution of these changes, what separates true advances in winemaking & grape growing from trend and fad.
Over the years perception has shifted broadly. Sugar levels at harvest have risen and sunk, only to rise again. The use of oak barrels has carried cries of superiority from France to Hungary to the United States, with ever increasing prices and ever less expensive alternatives like oak chips finding their way into event he least expensive mass market brands. Even how we define and describe varietal character has ranged widely during our time; indeed, many would argue that our perception of quality itself has shifted, with particular wine styles scored highly in the wine press (converting to sales) while other styles are largely left out of the media discussion and left lonely on wine store shelves.
In the 70s growers were rewarded, more directly than today, for high sugars… the higher the better. In the 80s, with the near “death by late harvesting” of Zinfandel (and a growing anti alcohol lobby), we looked to Europe and contemplated the role of wine as food. Then in the fast paced 90s, high sugar again became a major part of the fine wine equation, and, at least in Cabernet, we developed a pathological fear of any plant based character that was green or tannic.
Throughout this time, a profound amount of research emerged from places like UC Davis and the University of Bordeaux. We gained a better understanding of even ripeness in the vineyard and the powerful impact of green seed & stem tannins. Vineyard managers began mapping vineyard sites and matching clones to contour, rootstock to soil type – in addition to developing advanced trellising techniques aimed at tempering the effect of warm climates and maximizing the sun exposure of more marginal regions. Here is Napa, as phylloxera continued its “lousy” march through Napa Valley’s vineyards, many growers took the positive approach and adopted these advances with a fervor.
What starts in the vineyard plays out in our choices of winery equipment. A melange of new “advanced” and cutting edge equipment entered the winery; from destemmers to presses, from multi sized temperatured controlled stainless steel tanks to the now de-rigour sorting tables enabling the hand sorting of fruit.
Yet, with all of these advances, it remains an open question whether or not we have done ourselves any favors with the squeaky clean, virus free plant material and sophisticated winery tools. The great debate about ripeness, and the variation of styles from the 40’s until today, has never reconciled into a cohesive definition of perfect wines. If anything, the “advances” have led to increased debate. Traditionalists, extolling the virtues of the great 28 vintage in Bordeaux, the legendary wines of Inglenook from the 40s and 50s, decry the uniformity of the wines from the great vintages (and here I am thinking about 2000 in Bordeaux and 1997 in Napa Valley). Modernists assert the preference of market driven wines for accesability, for plush tannins and fruit driven styles. The modern wine press, whose scores drive the bulk of the high end wine market, side on the latter.
Yet, in the world of fine and rare wine, are we not all trying to achieve a form of perfection? Whose perfection?
If we prune and farm for even ripeness, identifying the moment of optimal ripeness is a matter of much debate. For some it comes as the seeds begin to harden and brown, for others it is not until the grapes raisin on the vine. Berkeley chef, Paul Bertolli, devotes a chapter in his book Cooking by Hand on ripeness and his philosophical approach appeals to me … in it he says such things as “… the state of ripeness may amount to only minutes, hours or days in the garden (it’s a little longer for grapes). Or a few years in a years in a human life, yielding to the winding down of function, decay, and eventual dissolution.” “…intensity is the hallmark of ripeness, the culmination of growth and experience. But ripeness is not simply the reward for waiting nor is it necessarily guaranteed. The precondition of ripeness is maturity, which in turn can only come about through the right kind of development along the way. Ripeness, then is one of the naturally fortunate outcomes of life.”(p 30)
How do you decide what is right? If you believe in terroir, than it is situational and there will be a “best practice” for each vineyard. But there is the collective aspect as well… how else do you explain Amarone or Champagne, where technique has been raised to prominence over fruit. Do Napa Valley Cabernets now fall into that category where technique (oak levels, jammy, almost sweet fruit) has become an important identifier for wines?
For us at Meteor Vineyard, the final blending of 2008 will unfold this month. The fruit in barrel is the careful amalgamation of best practices from every era. On the modern, is the carefully selected clones and rootstocks planted by Mike Wolf. Purposeful trellising maximizing the long temperate growing season of the Meteor Vineyard hillside, diligent work in the vineyard throughout the cycle farming for uniform ripeness while recognizing the unique nature of each clone, each block, each row – and ultimately each vine. From there we, as wine makers, are largely shepherds, a practice as old as organized community – flagging harvest at a moment when the natural acids of Coombsville meld with the rich fruit characters of Cabernet Sauvignon and the natural tannin structure of the grape. No excessive extraction, diligent use of new barrels (around 50%) and 18 to 20 months in barrel to round out the wines.
Perhaps that is the wisdom of 80 harvests and the ease of working with a perfect site. The great wines have always come from the land, we, as viticulturalists and winemakers are simply here to help them along.
Coombsville’s unique placement offers the elements for perfect cabernet.
The Coombsville region’s eponymous name comes from a Napa founding father, Nathan Coombs, whose historic land holdings in the city’s southeastern neighborhood have led to common usage of his name for the area. Winegrowers are unified in their recognition of the unique geographical characteristics of this region. The soils are a mélange resulting from various geological events. They include volcanic debris and lava flows from the ancient eruption of Mt. George, distinct from the alluvial soils along the Napa River. Other parent materials are derived from marine sediments and stream deposition of cobbled rock. Through uplifting, weathering, and faulting a mix of well-drained and mineral rich soil has developed throughout and is characteristic of the district.
Cabernet Sauvignon requires warm soils to properly ripen, and Coombsville’s well drained volcanic soils soak up the summer’s heat. Equally important is the area’s distinct micro-climate, resulting from its topography and proximity to San Pablo Bay. The fog typically burns off here earlier than in Carneros to the south, ensuring ample heat and sunshine, but afternoon winds arrive earlier than in Stags Leap District to the north. The result is that summer days are warm, but the daily maximum temperature is of unusually short duration. This temperate profile provides an extended growing season, allowing the slow and even ripening so crucial to Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.
To date fifteen AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) within the Napa Valley have received official recognition by the U.S. Treasury. This regulatory agency protects a wine production area’s integrity by enforcing varietal and wine growing criteria. It also controls that what’s on the label is what’s in the bottle. Coombsville’s legitimate claim to such status has been held up in a mire of political disputes, but there is renewed vigor among producers of the area banding together to push the proposal forward.
Meteor Vineyard’s location in the Coombsville region combines the area’s coastal influence and warm, well-draining volcanic cobble and soils. Those benefits, and Meteor’s 500-foot elevation help produce densely flavored, luscious fruit that is crafted into a perfect expression of the finest Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
“Vibrant, violet-hued, intense color, blackberry, voluptuous, upfront, ripe fruit aromas & flavors, focused, precise, classic, balance and structure” – just some of the characteristics that we and others report finding in Meteor Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.
Well-drained soils impart depth and minerality to a wine. During the critical maturation period warm, even temperatures allow for leisurely ripening that softens tannins and produces lush, bright fruit. Both of those aspects of a great site are amply evident at Meteor Vineyard.
The vineyard possesses another, celestial quality that is uniquely Meteor, something we recognize every time we ferment grapes. It shows up in the wine’s dense but clear violet-edged color, and a trademark Meteor aroma of red cherries and blackberries.
The three clones planted on the vineyard make our 100% Meteor Vineyard Cabernet more complex to create, challenging us to find that precise balance between the three vineyard expressions. There is always a discovery.
Winemaking Philosophy of Meteor Vineyards
We believe that in the perfect viticultural situations – when the right grapes are planted in the right place – that the best wine that can be made is the one that allows the vineyard to speak clearly and forcefully. The winemaking will therefore be simple and non- interventional, like cooking with the finest fresh ingredients and just allowing the ingredients to shine.
That said, our approach is to employ the best of traditional and modern winemaking techniques in teasing out every last ounce of plush fruit and tannin from the grapes. The fruit is harvested when it’s perfectly ripe, generally in late October. Sorting out defective fruit, raisins and sunburned berries is done in the field, and again at the winery toensure that we’re working with beautiful, perfectly clean grapes. These are lightly crushed and then cold soaked for several days prior to fermentation, allowing the extraction of flavors and colors before the alcohol from fermentation changes the nature of the extraction. As the fermentation heats up, pump-overs, the mixing of the fermentor that submerges the “cap” for optimal extraction, is increased from two to three and than reduced as the fermentation slows.
Draining and pressing is based on tasting and our palate for the quality and quantity of the tannins. Only the free run juice is used for Meteor Vineyard wines. The wines go to barrel before malo lactic fermentation, which occurs in the barrel. We use barrels from several coopers: Alain Fouquet, Tarrensaud and D & J are current favorites. The first racking is done after the finish of malolactic and subsequent rackings are performed based on the evolution of the wine. Every stage of growing grapes and making wine contains its own challenges, surprises and rewards. The final blend of Meteor Vineyard wine highlights the strengths of each of the three clones of Cabernet Sauvignon in the vineyard. When we agree that we’ve hit on an expression of the best representation of the Meteor Vineyard, we know that our job is well done, and that the wine has grown into something that others can also enjoy.
Yes South Florida is known for the glitz and glam (and incredible Art Deco architecture) of South Beach, the posh houses and sophistication of Palm Beach and the tranquil beauty of Naples and the Gulf Coast, but it should also be recognized as a destination for a incredibly sophisticated food and wine scene (I am sure the cocktail scene is just as innovative – will have to save that for a personal trip).
In Miami’s South Beach, the beach was the furthest thing from peoples minds last week, with temperatures holding in the mid 60’s during the day and dipping in to the 40’s in the evenings. Couple that with a constant stiff breeze (wind chill in Florida?????) and people are indoors drinking and eating ( a few brave soles braved the beach, huddled among blankets and sweaters, eyes tearing against the whip of Atlantic winds and staring blankly at a distant warm and tropical place).
Much has been written about the influx of money to update many of the classic hotels of South Beach; the Fontaineblue went through close to a 1 billion dollar refurbishment, the Delano is sparkling and reaching back to a romantic period past, the Betsy pulsing with the energy of B Bar and BLT Steak. Each hotel also understood that sophisticated travelers are looking for more than just ocean views, spa service and high thread count sheets; dining is now an integral and essential part of every renovation.
The Fontaineblue houses three of the of the best restaurants in Miami; Alfred Portale’s Gotham Steak serves up classic range of steaks and seafood along with a great wine list (The French Laundry’s lead sommelier Dennis Kelley’s sister in law runs the cocktail program),Scott Conant’s Scarpetta takes Italian dining in Miami to a completely different level, and Hakkasan, London’s Michelin starred Chinese food restaurant, makes a splash with innovative and perfectly executed Chinese cuisine.
At the Delano, The Blue Door, Claude Troigros fuses the cuisine of his french roots (yes, that Troisgros family) with influences derived from his year cooking in Brazil. For something less formal, Plat Blue is the perfect place to relax for the evening taking in the famous Delano scene.
Though easy destinations, these restaurants are only the beginning of the culinary tour. Emeril’s South Beach outpost continues to turn out Emeril’s classics (the night I was there was Emeril’s South Beach Food and Wine VIP event and the place was PACKED). Steak houses, ok – hip steakhouses, remain a staple with Red, The Steakhouse, Meat Market, and Prime One Twelve serving perfectly cooked steaks, eclectic wine lists and slightly over the top cocktails. One little side note, and you will not find Meteor Vineyard here, but my favorite lunch place is the tiny, outdoor seating only sandwich place Le Sandwicherie on 14th Street. One of the best sandwich shops in the U.S.
When you are exhausted of the painfully cool scene in South Beach, its time to head to what may be the most exciting restaurants in the city (and slightly north). Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink has garnered tremendous acclaim, all of it justified. This small “neighborhood” restaurant in the Design District turns out some of the most compelling and authentic food I have tasted anywhere. Perfect ingredients prepared with precision and honesty. It didn’t hurt that they were pouring Krug by the glass (for $28 – incredible!) as well as Diamond Creek. Former S.F. sommelier Matt Turner has escalated the wine list at Michael Minna’s Aventura outpost of Bourbon Steak to a work of art with the worlds greatest producers represented on page after page (look for Meteor Vineyard soon). The stunning beauty of the Mandarin Oriental on Brickell Key only adds to the allure of Azul. Sommelier Cynthia Betancourt oversees a diverse and cutting edge wine list. The champagne bottles chilling along the center of the bar suggest (loudly) the best way to start the meal (and end it).
The recent New York Times article on Palm Beach ( 36 hours in Palm Beach, Fl ) did a decent job capturing the vibe of the tony seaside enclave (and the continued introspection of its residents post Madoff), but missed the breadth of options on the dining scene. The Breakers dominates the northern end of Palm Beach Island, historically and in presence. The dining scene alone makes this a must stop. Not one but TWO Master Sommeliers (Virginia Philip and Juan Gomez) oversee a massive wine program that form the foundation for everything from L’Esaclier to the Seafood Bar. Cafe L’Europe remains one of the most loved restaurants in Palm Beach (beware the video on the home page of the website – it doesn’t do justice to the elegant sophistication to say nothing of the epic wine program) and Daniel Boulud’s Cafe Boulud at the Brazilian Court Hotel added an element of cool to the downtown dining scene.
I suppose all of this befits an area know as South New York City. There are far worse places to while away the winter…
Blending from a single vineyard is a very different exercise from blending fruit from throughout a region.
Many fine wine regions are based on blending; Champagne is synonymous with blends (though far more grower champagne bottlings focusing on one estate), Port is often pulled from multiple vineyards from throughout the Duoro, and many wines from California are labeled under larger AVA’s to allow for a particular style to be created. In many cases this style is intended to provide wine lovers with wines that are similar in style from year to year. Fruit from cooler areas is added for brightness and acidity, warmer regions for base notes and mid palate breadth. In Napa Valley, people will also pull in mountain fruit for tannins and structure.
Working solely with an individual site, you are faced an individual interpretation of a vintage. The models here are many as well, with Burgundy remaining the most recognized with clearly defined vineyards delineated since the middle ages. Each vineyards’ minute changes in soil type and exposition manifests in subtle, and sometimes profound differences. (Of course, human influence has a role here as well with a melange of clones and winemaking techniques creating variations within the variations).
The Meteor Vineyard sits atop a knoll at 500 ft elevation. Soils are a fairly uniform blend of volcanic ash, rounded river stone and sedimentary soils. There is a slight “rolling” aspect to the contour, but for the most part the knoll faces west and southwest. The greatest variation lies in the 3 clones planted, each with fairly unique characteristics. This is where the “blending” comes in.
We describe 2008 as the year of fire and ice, with fires peppering the hillsides in the summer and frost affecting bud break.
Clone 337 is always the most delicate of the clones we pull from the vineyard. Historically, the wines are dominated by red rather than black fruit with a distinct floral component and sandalwood. Everyone agreed that the 337 from 2008 was the best “stand alone” 337 that we have harvested to date. More red hued than in 2007, the wine displayed compelling high tones reminiscent of past vintages, with more weight in the mid palate, and a long, vibrant finish.
What clone 4 holds back aromatically, it compounds and compacts into structure. A range of black and red fruits, with firm tannins and focus. Perhaps lacking completeness alone, the wine adds depth and rounds out the 337, and somehow tempers the brooding nature of clone 7.
Clone 7 remains the most precocious of the clones. Muscular and brooding, filled with black fruit and spice, chocolate and coffee bean. Even at this nascent stage, the tannins are powerful, yet rounded, the finish long and firm. Once again the stand out.
The thing that compels me about these wines is their unique melding of new and old world styles. The temperate climate and volcanic soils clearly impart a restraint and elegance, while the California (and Napa Valley) sunshine imparts a fruit character that is unmistakably California. 2008 is clearly more restrained than the previous vintages, yet unique and substantive – another unique example of the character of Meteor Vineyard.
What will the final blend be? That remains to be seen.
Linda Viviani excels at providing her clients access to some of the most exciting wineries in Northern California. In this video she speaks with Tracy Schuler about finding the property that is now Meteor Vineyard and the elements that make it such a unique and compelling place.
There have been some heated exchanges recently between sommeliers in San Francisco and winemakers from the surrounding regions. Although nearly every chef in San Francisco embraces the concept of buying local products, wine buyers have shown little such interest, creating wine lists that are largely based on imported wines from both classic and emerging regions from the far corners of the globe while ignoring the innovations of myriad winemakers in California. A recent blog post from New York Times wine and spirits writer Eric Asimov ignited debate, with San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Bonne following on his heals with an article of his own.
As a longtime sommelier and lover of wine from around the world who now manages a small winery in Napa Valley, I was approached repeatedly about weighing in – but thought it best to let the dust settle. Recent rains have settled that.
My first true wine trip took place nearly 15 years ago when I boarded a plane to Malpensa in November and made my way to the town of Alba. Anyone who has spent time in Alba in November knows that the streets are perfumed with the beguiling musk of white truffles. The streets are full of revelers and seekers, those who make the yearly pilgrimage to this famed northwestern region of Italy to secure and consume one of the worlds most beguiling products.
Aside from white truffles, the other defining product is wine. From the famed nebbiolo based wines of Barolo and Barbaresco, to the more approachable dolcetto and barbera (and cortese), the bars and restaurants of Alba, and Nieve and every other town in the region, are full of locals and visitors alike enjoying the fruits of the nearby land. Order a plate of tajarin with butter and white truffle along with a pristine bottle of 1978 Barbaresco (ok, there are probably very few left in the cellars) and you are in heaven.
For many who travel to the worlds great wine growing regions, one of primary reasons for the trip is to taste the wines of the area. When I am traveling around the Willamette Valley, I am not likely to order a bottle of Angelus. If there is Coche-Dury on the menu at a reasonable price, I may HAVE to buy it, otherwise I, and most everyone else traveling in the region, is going to order pinot gris, chardonnay or pinot noir grown in the surrounding vineyards. Wine lists are full of the new as well as the established, the iconic and the eccentric. This is as true in Champagne as it is Bordeaux, in Rioja as it is in Mendoza.
Lovers of wine in all of these regions (simply living in a famed wine region doesn’t immediately qualify you as a true lover of wine) seek out compelling examples from around the world and well chosen restaurant lists highlight the local while looking outside the immediate evirons for compelling expressions of far flung varieties. THERE IS GREAT WINE MADE IN NEARLY EVERY WINE GROWING REGION IN THE WORLD. As a lover of fine wine you would be doing yourself and your customers a disservice NOT finding the best examples. Coercing the Burgundians to pull the cork on a bottle of Bordeaux is no small feat, and yet if you are truly compelled by the potential for myriad expressions of grapes, you seek them out, ask around. At Cyrus, in the heart of the Sonoma wine country, I was DEDICATED to finding the best examples of wines from throughout the region while paying homage to the greats from around the world. The local wine lovers asked after Burgundy and Piedmont, the visitors after Ceritas and Copain.
So why the allegations that the Bay Area, long home to one of the worlds most progressive and locally sourced food scenes, takes a dim view of its winemaking neighbors to the north and south?
The reasons raised are predictable, if more complex than understandable by a cursory glance.
Buyers are accused of romanticizing the foreign, of coercing their customers into trying wines that fit their preferences and not those of their guests, of simply being too busy or lazy to fully understand the wines and winemakers that work diligently in their own backyards. There is an aura of eccentricity for the sake of eccentricity, with Gruner Veltliner posing as the poster child for a whole era of copycat consumption where suddenly every restaurant in the larger Bay Area was pouring it by the glass (I include myself in this criticism, at Gary Danko I had 2 full pages of Gruner Veltliner…).
Winemakers, also predictably, are accused of making wines that taste the same whether pinot noir or cabernet, of slanting production methods towards the palate of reviewer, or worse, of planting grapes in places that should have remained apple orchards or grazing land. Most damning is the accusation that the local wines simply don’t go with food – all of the ripe rich fruit and wood morphing into some indistinguishable reduction of sweetness and cooking spice.
There is truth to all of these accusations; however, to delve so superficially into the debate is ludicrous. Are there overripe wines that declare themselves the primary point of the meal? Yes. Are buyers wary of preparing lists that are identical to the restaurant down the street? Absolutely. But if we in the Bay Area are devoted to the idea of localization, then buyers need to work harder finding the unheralded gems and innovative winemakers and winemakers need to continue to evolve their approach beyond one that is purely score based and more soul based.
Wines like Lioco are embracing old school methods of non intervention (including un-oaked chardonnays) and seeking out compelling sites that produce wines of balance and individuality. Parr selections is picking fruit early to preserve freshness and balance and demonstrating that wines from California and Oregon can have a sense of place. There is Peay and Corison, Dyer and Melville, Hirsch and Von Strasser – there is Meteor making distinctive site specific wines with structure, balance and elegance that rival (and often transcend) any of the worlds greatest wines!
Asimov and Bonne are right to question and buyers are not wrong to question, but to make grandious statements about an entire industry and declare yourself a supporter of “local” agriculture is hypocritical at best and naive and lazy at worst.
We racked the last of the 2009 vintage off ML today… have been racking since Tuesday and everything looks great. Particularly excited about the clone 7 and the Petite Verdot. The Petite Verdot is more of a stand alone wine than most I’ve tasted, with some of the racy, floral top notes of Petite Verdot but with great delicacy and length. Once again, the balance of clones offers and array of aromatics and textures, with the bright berry fruit of the 337 adding the telltale “high tones”. Balances are good. Tannins already controlled. Mike and his team did all the real work in the vineyard. Looking at oak, we’re liking the addition of more Tarrensaud, especially for the 337, but still are partial to the Alain Fouquet barrels. The before and after the rain discussion is a non starter…the only grapes that remained into the rain were Clone 4, and the fruit is close to perfect.
An article in the recent New Yorker about Johnathon Gold (”the high-low priest of the L.A. food scene…”) explored Gold’s exhaustive quest to eat through the endless array of restaurants in Los Angeles (he covers over 20k miles per year JUST dining in L.A. and environs). Many commentators note L.A. as one of the adventurous places to eat in the U.S.
The wine scene has been slower to develop. While mammoth wine programs like the former Grand Award winning Sona excel(ed) at comprehensive programs delving deep into the classic wine growing regions, others have looked broad and far for the most exciting producers from any number of regions from around the world.
Restaurants like Palate in Glendale fuse a passion for artisanal food with wines ranging from classics like Coche-Dury to biodynamic producers from the Loire Valley and Languedoc Roussillon. Caroline Styn’s Lucques and AOC have long sought out interesting wines from around the world – I remember several years ago enjoying Domaine Vacheron’s delicious Bell-Dame and marveling at the potential for Pinot Noir in the Loire (in ripe vintages). For Italian wines, everyone flocks to Mozza and Osteria Mozza.
For the most exciting wines from Napa, restaurants like CUT, The Polo Lounge, Spago, Boa and Melisse stand at the forefront – constantly surveying the horizon for wines that transcend the status quo.
And don’t forget that many of the most interesting wine programs in Southern California are the regions innovative retailers. Savvy consumers are tied into some of the most interesting wine shops in the U.S.; HK at Red Carpet Wines, Gary Fishman at Wally’s, Michael Brick at Hi Times and Alan Chen at Wine Connections.