New World Identity: Terroir Reformation
The prime directive of postmodern winemaking is to present distinctive terroir expression. This means the winemaker is encouraged to remain as invisible as possible, assisting the character of place in its best expression. Today, varietal New World wines from a growing multiplicity of origins struggle to fit the simplistic expectations of varietal norms.
Commercializing regional character at Safeway is tricky. If the natural influences won’t cooperate with efforts to make wines blend in with the least-common-denominator style profiles for the expected Merlot or Chardonnay, shelf positions are hard to come by. On the other hand, those influences can, with time and effort, become the very reason your wines are sought out, just as Beaujolais and Chianti are.
We have entered a golden age in which regional character is getting attention and local styles are taking shape. Today’s most important winemakers are regional leaders cementing the unique styles of their regions, from the Dunns of Napa’s Howell Mountain to Johnny McPherson of Southern California’s Temecula to Murli Dharmadikari in Iowa. But we have yet to revamp the consumer’s experience to enable a transition from varietal to appellation thinking and buying. Competitions are supposed to provide a bridge, but they don’t.
A target-poor environment
Let’s face facts. Wine assessment in California competitions is a joke. Humboldt County winemaker and statistician Robert Hodgson created a well-deserved scandal with his recently published papers about judge unreliability and the inconsistency of awards in 13 U.S. wine competitions.
Having judged hundreds of competitions during the past 30 years, I was elated when Dr. Hodgson blew the whistle. Why? Because in truth, we saintly judges just make up our assessments. There’s no way for the consumer to tell if a “gold medal” Chardonnay is something he would wish actually to drink. It’s embarrassing.
In Europe, there are clear and well-known definitions of what a region’s wine is supposed to taste like. The French have known for centuries that varietals vary from region to region and must be marketed accordingly. We would never consider jumbling together a Graves, a Chinon and a St. Emilion into a grab bag Cabernet Franc category for judging, because consumers regard them differently. Why, then, should we blindly judge Merlots from Spring Mountain, Long Island and the Snake River side by side?
When I first began tasting and buying wines in the early 1970s, there were fewer than 250 wineries in California, and nearly half the wines on the shelf had technical flaws such as VA, aldehyde, sulfides or excessive SO2. Thus, it was easy to take 100 California Cabernets, discard the flawed wines and organize your favorites for recommendations. In other words: In this tiny world of long ago, varietals seemed to work as a judging category.
But in truth, this was never a good idea. Today there are thousands of Cabernets being grown in hundreds of AVAs scattered over dozens of states and provinces. And the percentage of seriously flawed wines has dropped considerably; almost everything is pretty good. Absent defining criteria, judges are left to choose among a wide variety of well-made wines with vastly different personalities—and of course they waffle, as any open-minded expert should.
Going to the dogs
It seems obvious to me that the primary problem is that judging cannot be effective without targeted profiles. Any of you who’ve seen Christopher Guest’s 2000 film “Best in Show” can attest that if we tried to judge dogs the way we judge wines, the breeders would murder us in our beds.
In dog competitions, thousands of entrants are judged according to exacting breed standards, and ribbons are awarded based on exacting criteria put forth by the breed clubs and documented by the American Kennel Club. There’s a book. An Irish Setter and a Cocker Spaniel, although they are both considered Sporting Dogs, are judged by completely different rules. It would be silly to hold them to the same criteria, and sillier still to have no standards at all.
As an outgrowth of my work in defining regional varietal identities for the Best-of-Appellation evaluations panel at AppellationAmerica.com, this spring I received the cooperation of the Riverside International Wine Competition. Leaders agreed to experiment for the first time in any U.S. competition with the revolutionary concept of judging wines according to regional standards. For the Petite Sirah category only, judges were provided with the AVA stated on the label and, if available, regionally based style profile(s) for the AVA.
Petite Sirah was chosen for a number of reasons: wide regional planting, proven response to regional influences, and, most of all, a strong advocacy group (P.S. I Love You) that had supported the development of regional style profiles. We already had 21 definitions in the can, as well as two pieces I wrote about the varietal.
Riverside received 54 Petite Sirahs for judging from 26 AVAs. We had profiles for 14 AVAs comprising 36 wines; thus, 67% of the wines were judged against standards, and the rest were thrown into a grab bag category as usual, except that they were identified by region.
Dan Berger seated me on a panel with winemakers Kerry Damskey and Linda Trotta, as well as journalist Mike Dunne. After some init ial confusion, the process flowed smoothly and naturally. As I have seen on so many BOA panels, these first-time participants in judging by AVA groupings were taken by surprise by the regional character consistency and how little difference winemaking choices made compared to the regional variations.
“This is a valuable route to take in evaluating wines,” Trotta reported. “The key to success is the work that’s been initiated with vintners in the appellations to describe the representative regional characteristics. Adjusting the way that I judged the wines to take these criteria into account was a surprisingly quick process.”
“The Petite Sirahs from Livermore Valley did have fairly consistent streaks of blackberry, blueberry, black pepper and sweet tannins,” Dunne offered. “The Petite Sirahs from Paso Robles tended to be characterized by candied fruit flavors offset against the smell of smoldering briars. Flowers, Bing cherries, lemon verbena and soft tannins ran through the Petite Sirahs of the Russian River Valley. Black fruit flavors, green herbs and white pepper seemed to distinguish the Petite Sirahs of Dry Creek Valley.”
While it is endlessly fascinating work for us eno-nerds to collect data on climate, weather, altitude, vineyard practices and winemaking choices in an attempt to connect these dots, all a consumer needs to know is simply that consistencies exist. The judges need not explain how the character comes to be, but rather like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography, they simply know it when they see it.
In general, judging against a standard was perhaps worth a one-rank boost to a wine conforming to its standard. More importantly, it is easier to make allowances for outlier styles such as Southern Oregon’s austerity and the hard tannins of the high altitude AVAs.
“It makes logical sense to taste a variety defined by appellation, because terroir is going to define that wine, so tasting related wines against each other will better define their virtues,” Damskey said. “Tasting Petite Sirahs by appellation generally allows wines to show better among their peers. Understanding how an appellation expresses itself makes it easier for judges to discern quality. Tasting by appellation is also less fatiguing than tasting blind with mixed appellations. There is a sense of expectation when you understand what a terroir should taste like.”
I knew the experiment was a success when the panel remarked what a drag it was to have to go back to the old system as we slugged our way through boatloads of randomized Chardonnays.
Whence cometh these standards?
“An important element for judges to work out is the case in which a wine is very well made but may not adhere to the regional descriptors,” Trotta observed. “I think that as a panel we worked through that well.” In fact, the Christopher Creek ’08 Russian River, which was named Best of Class and went on to win the Sweepstakes for Best Red in Show, was just such a wine. Although it was very rich in black cherry, orange and lilac, the aromatic traits in the standard, and had the expected round, fine tannins, it was extremely dark in color (a result of being grown in the fog-free end of this long and varied appellation). Its compelling quality made it instantly plain that a second profile for the upper Russian River should be added to the standards.
To get the ball rolling, any source will do. There is no reason why standards cannot be developed by any journalistic team or the competitions themselves. Publications can and do churn out regional articles full of descriptive prose available for this purpose, and competitions could collect the best of it over time.
But following Europe’s lead, the regional winegrower associations should be the final arbiters, and it behooves them to get active in this area. In the AKC, the breed clubs themselves are the source of standards, and among these vested interests is where the political head bashing should properly take place.
Competitions exist to serve consumers by connecting them to wines they will enjoy, in the process rewarding wineries that give the people what they want. A “gold medal” Chardonnay means nothing without descriptive categorization. It is not helpful to hear the recommendation of a “really good” movie, book or song absent genre info.
An important manifestation of regional profiling is the development of an open universal language for wine traits. This language may never reach consumers—with existing technology, it doesn’t have to.
Five years hence, I predict that your phone will run an app that will sort your preferences into a personal wine list the way Pandora tailors radio stations, by pairing like with like. Shops and restaurants will upload their offerings, and your app will sort into Ed’s Bold Reds, Ed’s Crisp Whites<$15 and so forth, providing links to winery blurbs, critics’ reviews and user feedback, letting you refine your personal algorithm with a thumbs up/thumbs down on your purchases.
This technology will enable consumers to get in touch with their preferences among a huge and growing world of offerings. It can also obviate the need for a European-style system of regulated production.
Sounds like a lot of work
Without question, it’s going to take a long time to complete our transition beyond grab bag varietal categories. But every time we take a baby step towards respecting and advertising diversity, a few good wines on the fringes improve their marketa bility. Giving consumers and the trade a road map to styles can counter the perception of sameness that typecasts California wines. When our wines become once again a navigable adventure, everybody wins.
“To become expert at this, you need to have judges who understand the different terroirs well,” Kerry Damskey said.
That’s going to take time. Mike Dunne added, “Whether this eventually leads to a heightened understanding and appreciation of wine, let alone improved wine competitions, will only become clear after many, many more vintages.”
Still, the sea change in consumer purchasing patterns from simple varietal loyalty to appellation consciousness is already under way, and there is really no stopping it. These things happen fast. Consider that in 1950 it was unimaginable that table wine production would replace port and sherry. In 1970, no one could predict that Cabernet and Chardonnay would dominate over Rhine wine and Grey Riesling.
We have made a solid beginning. The Blue Book for significant varietal/AVA combinations currently has 209 entries. That means a good 25% of the work needed to characterize the major regions is already done. One area (Petite Sirah) is ready to lock and load into any competition willing to play. Other varietals like Riesling, Chardonnay and Zinfandel have enough key entries to make a start. When competitions begin providing this aid, uncharacterized AVAs will be enticed to add their own standards in order to partake of the competitive advantage they confer.
At the very least, judges ought to be told where the wines come from; this would at least provide some hint to style. Though judges without a good regional background would be at a disadvantage, this would at least allow everyone to start learning by tasting.
Destiny beckons. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and I reckon we’d better get started. In the meantime, it should be plain to even the most shortsighted among us that the Petites at Riverside got a fairer shake this year.
Clark Smith is winemaker for WineSmith and founder of the wine technology firm Vinovation. He lectures widely on an ancient yet innovative view of American winemaking. To comment on this column, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.