Category Archives: Wine Styles

Challenging Personalities: Exploring the Tough to Grow Varieties*

Over the years, multiple varieties have made the news for one reason or another.  Some, like Gewurztraminer, suffer from difficult to pronounce names.  Others suffer from identity challenges. Chardonnay anyone?  Still more are actually difficult to get to a bottle in once piece without the high involvement of the dedicated growers to make quality wine.  Here are a few of those challenging personalities and how much work needs to be done behind the scenes to create our favorite wines.

Zinfandel – The Indecisive One

Zinfandel has a tough issue.  Is it a rose or is it a serious red?  Is it going to be high alcohol or more moderate? Consumers are often not sure because, inherently, this variety is naturally indecisive. It tends to ripen extremely unevenly so you can have huge spans of ripeness within the same cluster.  This makes picking calls very tough since the Brix can vary so much from cluster to cluster.  Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Wine Company says he has seen clusters with 21 Brix berries and 28 Brix berries. “Part of the trick of growing Zinfandel is that you have to be comfortable with lack of some uniformity.”

Zinfandel also has very tight clusters and thin skins which makes it prone to rot. Twain-Peterson sees issues with this as well.  “The biggest year to year issue I see is the potential for botrytis where the wing lies on top of the main cluster. It ripens a little behind and can be heavy, […] weighing down on the rest of the cluster.” This pressure on the thin skins can cause the berries to burst and introduce botrytis into the clusters. “We battle this by almost always dropping wings on vineyards with higher historical botrytis pressure.”

Pinot Noir – The Drama Queen                                                                         

Pinot Noir has always had a reputation for being tough to grow.  You can look at it wrong and it will rot.  It is prone to diseases, sunburn, berry splitting, and nutrient issues.  Making high quality Pinot Noir is a labor of love but those growers who have taken it on have found ways to make it work for them.  In upstate NY, with high humidity and cool growing conditions Pinot Noir can be especially challenging. Thirsty Owl Wine Company winemaker and vineyard manager, Shawn Kime states “Intense canopy management and a prudent spray program are needed throughout the season long to allow grapes to reach their full potential. Vine balance is also extremely important. This doesn’t just mean not over cropping, but also not under cropping. Under cropped vines have too much vegetative growth and can be more susceptible to berry splitting and late season rot.”

Carneros Grower, Jennifer Thomson of Thomson Vineyards states “genetically many Pinot Noir clones display thin skins, tight clusters and compact berry formation which is a haven for pests and makes Integrated Pest Management essential for growing high quality Pinot Noir.” Grape berry moth, Mealy bug, and a host of other pests love Pinot Noir for its nooks and crannies in which to hide.  She tries to achieve “a balance between location, clone and seasonal characteristics” in order to grow great Pinot Noir.

Petit Verdot – The Goth

Envision walking into a vineyard that is otherwise happy and healthy except for one block which looks yellow, stressed, and spindly. Chances are that block is Petit Verdot.  It has a high propensity for over-cropping and generally doesn’t make very high quality wine unless it looks stressed.  Robert Mondavi Winery Vineyard Manager, Matt Ashby, points to extreme crop thinning to maintain quality.  “It will regularly grow 4 clusters per shoot, and it is a low vigor variety [with] very light pruning weights, so it will be out of balance for high quality wine if it is not thinned aggressively.  For Mondavi this means 1 cluster per shoot.” Another grower who chose to remain anonymous says “It’s a grey variety.  It always looks a little depressed when you are growing it properly.”

Rhone Whites – The Clique

This group of varieties tend to run in packs, meaning they are grown in similar locations, and they all have their own quirks. Viognier is an irregular setting variety which tends to only develop flavors towards the high end of the Brix scale and dump acid like last week’s leftovers anywhere outside of the Northern Rhone.  When asked about the challenges of Viognier, Stuart Bewley of Alder Springs Vineyard in Mendocino, CA, replied “The variety is prone to get mildew so you have to be on top of your spray or dust program.” Then he said he would not classify Viognier as the most difficult to grow. According to Bewley, Rousanne is far more challenging to grow.  “It shatters at set, it gets both mildew and botrytis and it is very hard to ripen.  It always comes in after Viognier or Marsanne.  Even Picpoul is easier to grow.”  Marsanne tends to set a heavy crop leading Bewley to come back and thin. “We must go through the blocks and cut off 50% to 75% of the fruit to make great wines.  The great thing is that these varieties make wonderful wines if cropped at a low yield.”

There are so many varieties in the world, it would be impossible to name all the difficult ones at one time. Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Petit Verdot, and the Rhone Whites tend to have the greatest reputation for being finicky but there will always be growers out there willing to deal with their challenging personalities.

* This article was originally written by me and published on however I also really wanted to share it with my readers that may not have had the chance to see it there. This version is the un-edited original sent to and does not contain any omissions or editing from their version.

Vancouver International Wine Festival Observations


I LOVE Vancouver.  If I had to choose an international city to live in , it would be a toss up between Paris and Vancouver.  I also love talking about wine to people and the Vancouver International Wine Festival gave me the opportunity to do that in such great surroundings.  I learned several amazing things at the festival this past week.


1) Robert Mondavi is credited with starting the festival.

Many people came up to me to let me know this fact.  He is very well respected here and one person even credited him with being the catalyst for Vancouver’s thriving wine and food scene that is has today. This further cements my belief that Mr. Mondavi was a force to be reckoned with and full of boundless energy and passion for sharing wine with people.  I only hope that I can live up to at least half of that for my career.

2) Canada has some startlingly good wines.

From the austere and crisp Benjamin Bridge sparkling wine (Light and Bubbly) to the ripe and luscious Burrowing Owl Cabernet Franc (Spicy and Smoky) that we had with dinner last night, to the elegant and intense Inniskillin Ice Wine (Sweet and Luscious),  Canada has some amazing wines to offer and we rarely see them in the rest of the world. I find with most countries to which I travel the best wines are the ones that are found domestically and Canada is no different.

3) The Vancouver International Wine Festival is Fantastic!

It is well organized, well run, and has enough representation from all countries that you feel you have indeed sampled a large portion of the world of wine but not so large that one can easily be overwhelmed.  One of my MW study partners, Matt, and I had enough opportunities in between pouring to run around and work on our blind tasting skills with virtually every style of wine we would need in the room.  Ice was never too far away and rinse water was plentiful.  There were enough people emptying spittoons that they never were more than half full at any given time.  This year’s country of focus was Australia and admittedly, while I am not a huge Shiraz fan, the wineries really put on a good showing with lots of Rieslings, Chardonnays, Semillons, Cabernets, and Bordeaux blends to get a good sense of what is going on down under.

There were also non-wine related observations…

4) Leather pants appear to be back in style.

I counted no less than 15 individuals sporting leather pants.  You see one person and you assume they are quirky and perhaps a bit non-conformist.  You see two people, and you think vaguely wonder if it is protection from the still slightly chilly wind.  You see 6 people and you wonder if you missed a fashion article on how the new trend for spring is leather leggings.  You see 15 people and it is pretty certain that the leather pant/legging is here for the season.

5) There are many types of VIWF visitors.

There are those which are jaded and wander the rooms glancing above your heads at the signs, peering over the shoulders at the people currently being served at your table, with a non-interested aloof look that suggests they are wondering what they are doing among the rest of the rabble in the room.  There are the interested tasters who resolutely work the room picking and choosing from the different wines and occasionally asking questions.  There are the people with plans and are on a mission announcing at their arrival that they are ONLY tasting Pinot Noir today! There are the new to wine tasting visitors that don’t realize they are supposed to be spitting and within 20 minutes of the start of the tasting they are already weaving about and you end up spilling wine on them because they can’t hold their glass steady enough and you are trying to pour the smallest amount possible without looking like you are trying not to serve them.  There are other winery representatives, taking a break from their own booths to tour around the room. Then there are my personal favorites, the avid enthusiasts, that have great questions and generally will come with one to 3 other avid enthusiasts.  Once these types find out one is a winemaker, you’d best be on your top game! “How do you know when to pull a wine out of barrel?” “What is the meaning of neutral oak?” “What’s the difference between Napa Valley and Carneros?” “What process do you use to determine your blends?”  I love these folks.  It makes my time at the table very exciting.

I loved my time in Vancouver this week and it was a fitting finale to my time as the red winemaker for Robert Mondavi.  At the end of this week, my family, and I are driving out of Napa bound for New York.  I can’t believe it has gone by so quickly!  Don’t worry though.  I still have plenty of blogging left in me!  Stay tuned for next Monday!

Harvest 2011: How California became Italy

This year has had it all.  We started with heavy frost on the Central Coast, rain during bloom and spring hail.  The craziness continued with a long temperate summer which was punctuated by few heat spikes (if you can call mid 90s a heat spike out here).  Growers fought Powdery Mildew and numerous invasive insect species all summer including the European Grapevine Moth, Light Brown Apple Moth, and the Oriental Fruitfly.  For those growers who were able to get through the gauntlet of summer, everything was looking perfect until early October when the rain came back and brought with it watered down flavors, muted colors, and botrytis.  As I woke to the sound of frost fans in northern Napa Valley today I felt that we had come full circle. 


Today is the last day of harvest for Asti Winery.  We’ve survived although the last three weeks have been crazy and stressful.  It’s also a time of reflection over the wines that are fermenting away from this vintage.  The floral whites are beautiful.  Marked by crisp acid and intense white flower and spice notes, the Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer have really stood out this harvest.  The Chardonnays that were harvested before the first October rain, while lower in alcohol, are displaying elegant fruit flavors and balanced acids.  The alcohol conversions on whites this year were insanely high.  Sugars that were picked at 23 Brix are topping out in the 13.5% range showing extremely efficient yeast conversion.  Chardonnays picked after the rains look to be less concentrated than the pre-rain picks plus they are showing Botrytized characters that lean towards a bit earthy in most cases.  Luckily most of our lots are pre-rain thanks to the hustle of our vineyard crews and growers. 


It was yesterday as we tasted through pressed off Cabernets though when I came to the realization that my tasting notes were not that of a typical California Cabernet.  Aromas of raspberry leaves, black currants, and sous-bois shined through in the best examples with high acid and moderate alcohol on the palate paired with moderately high powdery tannins.  Granted these wines are pre-ML and have not seen oak for the most part but it struck me as very similar to my notes on Cabernet  from Tuscany.  As we’ve been saying all along, this vintage will be vastly different from what has become the norm in California.  There will be some bad wine out there, I’m sure, but I believe that there will also be a new style of California wine to be found this year.  All the proponents that have been wishing for lower alcohol, this is your year!  The reds had the opposite issue from the whites as the conversion rates were very low. Even the higher Brix reds (which were anything over 24 this year) are only showing in the high 13% range.  It’s going to be interesting to see how these wines develop and how each winery dealt with this challenging year.  Most of all I feel sorry for anyone who gets one of this vintage on a blind exam down the road because it’s going to be so different from what is accepted as a typical California style.


As for me, I’m looking forward to capturing the spirit of this vintage in my wines this year.  I think it will be fun!