Tag Archives: Wine

Concerning Merlot…

There seems to be a bit of buzz ramping up regarding Merlot in the blogosphere this week and I wanted to add my two cents.  I was recently talking to a colleague about my concerns about Merlot disappearing from Napa.  It seems every time you turn around someone else is pulling a Merlot vineyard to replant it to Cabernet Sauvignon.  I really like Merlot.  When it is done well, it is a beautiful thing.  However, during the PS era (pre-Sideways) there was quite a bit of very bad Merlot on the market since it was the “it” grape.  The quintessential red wine of America, one could almost look up “red wine” in the dictionary and have a picture and description of Merlot as the definition.   Post-sideways, it became the least desirable, least flashy workhorse of the wine world and sales plummeted for the next few years and vineyards began to pull it.

The pulling has slowed however it is becoming harder and harder to find good Merlot.  I personally feel that Cabernet needs a little bit of Merlot.  It fills in the middle and rounds out the edges.  There is a reason these varieties are blended together most of the time because they truly do complement each other.   The Sommelier Files brought up a great point saying “Thanks to the combination of soft tannins and finesse, the distinct flavors of … high-quality Merlots are also very approachable and fantastic with winter dishes.”   It’s a great variety and one that I would hate to see reduced further in the valley.  I have a fear that we as winemakers are going to wake up one day to a monoculture of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa and have no Merlot or Cabernet Franc to enhance it.

I’m not fortunate enough to own vineyard land in Napa but if I did, I’d be looking at all my neighbors planting Cabernet Sauvignon and probably would decide to go with Merlot.  If you are planting now one has to think about the market in 3-6 years and beyond.  I think Merlot is going to be the scarcer commodity in a few year’s time and it might be quietly coming back while no one is looking.


Winemaker 2 Winemaker: Conversation with Joel Peterson

This week is the inagural launch of my new monthly column, Winemaker 2 Winemaker.  There are so many times when I get together with other winemakers and we have great discussions.  I always learn something fun and exciting and I wanted to share those experiences with my readers.  This month’s winemaker is Joel Peterson, founder of Ravenswood Winery in Sonoma, and all around gregarious personality.

NC: I know from our earlier conversations that you have been around wine all your life. How do you think this shaped your career?

 JP: I think being around wine for the vast majority of my life has definitely shaped how I think about wine and certainly how I think about my career. Ultimately, I learned the ethic of fine wine very early. Many of the things that young winemakers struggle to understand or learn by trial and error I intuitively knew because of my youthful environment. I had an opportunity to taste wines from Europe that were considered legendary from vintages such as 1911, 1929, 1945, 1947, 1949 et al. These were in relative abundance and at ridiculously low prices. In my early twenties I had a number wine obsessed peers with whom I shared expansive wine dinners and blind tastings. Looking back on some of those bacchanals of great wines brings me near to blushing. Frequently these verged on the profligate. It was also a fairly competitive environment, and a whole lot of fun. The majority of the wines of that era are, sadly, unavailable or out of the financial reach of most young winemakers these days. These wines certainly informed my perception of what great wine could be, but it also taught me that every year is a new vintage and ultimately the fate of a winemaker and the wines from any given year is determined by many elements out of a winemaker’s control. Humility and patience came later with experience.

 NC: The Ravenswood Motto is “No Wimpy Wines”. What was it that inspired that motto for you?

 JP: The motto “no wimpy wines” was inspired by white Zinfandel, the ultimate wimpy wine. I got so tired of people asking me why my Zinfandel was not pink that by necessity I had to realign peoples’ expectations. No Wimpy Wines = nothing pink, sweet or wimpy. That slogan became something of a rallying cry for Ravenswood. Marketers have occasionally tried to reinterpret it as super powerful and Harley-esque, but it is really about a wine being true to the best expression of the core identity of grape and place. As a corollary think Nureyev and Ballet. No wimpy Ballet Dancer. Or think Einstein, no wimpy physicist. Of course you could also think powerful as in Thor, No wimpy Norse God.

NC:  When you were starting down the path of winemaking was there a single person who you felt was an important inspiration for your style or did you pull from multiple sources?

JP: I certainly relied on multiple sources as inspiration for my style. I derived much of how I thought about wine from my own tasting experience. I also read a number of old winemaking texts from the 1800’s to try to understand wine making it its simplest form before there were things like refrigeration, cultured yeast and stainless steel. It is also necessary here to list my mentor, Joe Swan. He contributed significantly to my understanding of process and the meticulous attentiveness required to make great wine. There was also Andre Tchelistcheff, who provided good counsel, criticism and grounding as well as a remarkable demonstration of chain smoking mixed with tasting acuity that I could never have hoped to emulate.

NC: Is there a vintage in your career that you would like to experience again?

JP: Sure, the 1976 vintage. That means that I would get to live my wine career all over again, right? Aside from that, I have no favorites. Each one has had its own quirks, challenges and successes. It is the variation and possibilities that keep wine making interesting. Beyond that, I still haven’t gotten a single vintage quite right, so I might as well keep at it. Perfection seems so near and yet so far away. My Hippie self just keeps telling me that it is the journey, not the destination that is important.

NC: Do you feel wine is an art or a science and why?

JP:  Art and science are not mutually exclusive. Science brings an understanding of your materials and process. Art is the personal statement that you bring to the assembly. With winemaking you are much better off if you combine both and try not to parse them.

NC:  What was one of the most memorable winemaking mistakes you ever made that you still think about to this day?

JP:  The 1982 Sonoma County Cabernet. During bottling one of the vacuum pumps somehow leaked machine oil into the filler bowl. We bottled 300 cases of wine with a 1/8 layer of oil in every bottle before I caught the problem. It is a little disturbing to see an oil slick in my glass. It would have been less tragic numerically if I hadn’t gotten side tracked and had been more attentive to my QC. That one really hurt because 300 cases was a large percentage of my production and the 82 Cab was the best Bordeaux style wine I had made up to that point in my young career.

NC:  If you could share only one or two things with younger winemakers, what would be the most valuable piece of knowledge or experience that you pass on?

JP:  Taste as many interesting wines as you can. The rule of 10,000 applies equally to winemakers as it does to musicians. The only difference being that we use our organoleptic sense and they use the auditory/proprioceptive senses. Revere tradition and make intelligent diversions that please you.

NC: Can you describe your philosophy on winemaking in haiku? 


Nature knows the way

do no harm honor spirit

Channel into wine

NC:  Are you working on any exciting projects now that you would like to share?

JP: Old vineyards have always been an obsession. I am currently working with the Historic Vineyard Society to designate famous historic vineyards with old vines as “California Historic Landmarks”. Also, the Heritage Vineyard project that I have been working on for many years with ZAP and UCD will be releasing four named Zinfandel selections from the Heritage Vineyard in Oakville that are free from viruses and have multiple years of viticulture metrics associated with them. We hope that this material from 100+ year old vines will form the basis for the next generation of 100+ year old vines.

NC: Thanks for your answers Joel!

Wandering Through Germany: Part 3 – Mosel

Our final stop in Germany was, of course, the Mosel. None of the pictures prepared me for the sheer beauty of these vineyards. Steep slopes dug into rock with little but rock for soils in the best sites. Iconic German architecture reminiscent of Oktoberfest in quaint villages tucked along the stunning, swiftly flowing river was a sight to behold.

Website size Mosel Pic

Our first stop was to Weingut Willi Schafer, an unassuming building tucked away in a relatively residential looking villiage, where we were hosted by Andrea Schafer. We tasted several bottled wines first then toured the cellars afterwards to taste the most recent vintage.

2004 Graacher Domprobst Riesling Spätlese – Stone and Chalk

All flinty and minerally with a linear palate that is weighty and lean at the same time. Lemon lime fruit and a hint of white flowers with 70g/L residual sugar cut through with racing acidity.

2012 Graacher Domprobst Riesling Spätlese – Zesty and Fruity

Warmer fruit than the 2004 with fresh apricot, lime zest but continuing with minerality on the palate, 70 g/L residual sugar and racing acidity.

Andrea told us that the most recent vintage (2013) was more suited for the off-dry style due to a high level of botrytis influence. “We make the wines but nature decides what style we will make.” They try to interrupt the fermentation at the right time to achieve the proper balance in the wines. “When you have too much sugar you lose the elegance and the terrior.” We asked for her interpretation of the different styles of Riesling and she gave us the following.

Kabinett – Light and fresh in style with less richness than Spätlese.

Auslese – More honeyed notes and a very rich style.

Spätlese – A lighter more spritzy style than Auslese but with extra richness and depth above Kabinett.

There were two top highlights of my trip to Germany.  The first was an amazing dinner with Dr. Uli Fischer of the Neustadt Research Institute with awesome food and conversation that ranged far beyond wine to economics, philosophy, sports, politics, religion, and every other topic under the sun.

Our next stop in the Mosel was definitively the other top moment.  We were treated to a personal tour of Weingut Dr. Loosen with Ernie Loosen.Dr. Loosen Arch

 He first took us for a quick jaunt around their vineyards in his Range Rover. They own 10 hectares split into 184 different parcels, the smallest of which is 15 vines. This is of course thanks to the Napoleonic code that affected both Germany and Burgundy very similarly. The government in Germany, however, is trying to remedy the situation by introducing a “reorganization”. They are killing several birds with one stone in typically efficient German fashion. Each vineyard involved must have buy in by a majority of the owners of the vines. The owners agree to give up a maximum of 10% of their land to the government to build roads to traverse the steep slopes for machinery to be more easily moved about. The government builds the roads and regrades the slopes to allow for mechanization with crawlers. Each of the owners then gets a consolidated section of the slope equal to 90% of the number of vines they owned prior to the consolidation. The upside is the vines are now all together rather than spread out over the slope and are able to be mechanized to some extent. The un-reorganized slopestake 2-3,000 manhours per ha and the reorganized slopes take 1/3 of that time. The downside is that it is expensive costing $30-40,000 for the vines however the government is subsidizing this and offers the ability for the owners to pay the balance with a 10 year interest free note which is held by the government itself. With a labor shortage being the biggest problem in the Mosel any level of mechanization is helpful. It takes a single crew a full day to pick the equivalent of 1.5 acres because of the treacherous slopes. Standing on top of them I wondered why anyone would be willing to haul grapes up and down them.  Another downside? How can you be sure the vineyard will not be changed?  Ernie assures us that not all slopes will go through with this plan just for this reason but it is a huge undertaking for those that have.

Website size NC and Ernie Loosen

After our vineyard tour we went back to the tasting room and went through several amazing wines.

Dr Loosen 2012 Riesling Trocken Blauschiefer (Blue Slate) – Zesty and Fruity

Very elegant and fruity with a subtle minerality. Flavors of white peach and apple with zesty linear acid. Fermented with indigenous yeast in a 1000 Liter Füder with 12-24 months on lees.

Dr Loosen 2012 Riesling Troken Rotschiefer (Red Slate) – Zesty and Fruity

More spicy and floral, almost Gewurztraminer like with fresh acid and a rich palate balanced by a steely mineral backbone.

Ernie stated that these two wines needed lots of air to show their best and generally needed to be open for 3 days to fully experience the flavors.

He is also working on lots of different winemaking techniques in the winery such as extended lees contact as well as different types of fermentation vessels. He offered as an example where after the 3rd century the Romans switched to oak barrels for fermentation because they showed better quality than the amphoras. “We need to learn the old ways so we can make them better” when talking about reviewing ancient winemaking practices.

Erdener Pralat Wines

Dr Loosen 2011 Erdener Prälat Riesling Alte Reben Reserve– Unbelievably Unique

Fruit from 120 year old vines planted on a steep, rocky red slate filled, southern facing slope of the Mosel fermented in neutral oak and aged on lees for 12 months. This wine is highly complex with intense aromas of white flowers, peaches, and slate with a rich sweet profile with enough acid for a dry finish. The palate brings spiciness reminiscent of pepper and cinnamon with intense weight. GO FIND IT!!! It’s amazing and a wine which every winelover should experience once at least!

Dr Loosen 2011 Erdener Prälat Riesling Alte Reben – Zesty and Fruity

Restrained nose with flavors melon and tropical fruit with all the richness on the palate of the sweeter translation above. The finish brings more mineral characters and additional tropical fruit notes with slightly less spicy intensity than the reserve.

Dr Loosen 2012 Erdener Prälat Riesling Auslese (Gold Capsule) – Zesty and Fruity

Amazing intensity for fruit with pineapple, melon, grapefruit, and honey complemented by an equally intense rich palate which is weighty and long. It is sweet at 110g/L but is easily balanced by the zesty 9 g/L of acidity!

All in all it was an amazing day and a fitting end to a whirlwind trip through Germany’s three wine regions. I can’t wait to go back to spend more time getting to know the wines and the people who make them.

Mosel Vines Website size