Reflections on the 35th Vintage: The Oily Burgundy Days (Part 2)

1_VogueI may have mentioned once or twice that it was during my tenure at the Wine Merchant in Beverly Hills that I had became obsessed with pinot noir, and this mania achieved full-flower when I was a student at UC Davis.1 I didn’t have a chance to taste so many Burgundies when I worked at the shop, but I was privileged to drink the ’49 de Vogüé Musigny (out of magnum, no less!), the Dujac wines that were just beginning to come into the U.S. (I don’t think I really understood them very well at the time), as well as sundry wines from DRC.2 Remember, though, that the mid-‘70s and early ‘80s were really the doldrums for Burgundy (and elsewhere); there had been a number of changes in viticultural practice in the ‘60s – the adoption of herbicides (unmitigated disaster), more productive clones with consequent higher yields, the use of cultured yeasts, the adoption of new barrels when not appropriate, all practices that worked against the expression of terroir and with the exception of the wines from a few impeccable growers (Jayer and several others), Burgundies had largely become pretty dicey. But the fact that there were so many ordinary ones (though still expensive) made the rare extraordinary ones all the more special.

When I was a student at Davis I had actually begun to scout for land and on holiday breaks and weekends would spend a fair bit of time driving around coastal California as well as further afield. It doesn’t really take years of psychoanalysis to understand why I was so quick to rule out the Santa Barbara/Santa Ynez area. 2_SanfordWinerySanford and Benedict were already producing sensational pinot noir in the region, and if “coolness” of site was truly the primary criterion for grape quality in pinot (as virtually everyone but Josh Jensen seemed to believe), I should, frankly, have taken the area a bit more seriously. I told myself that the region seemed to be a bit too “dry” for pinot noir and a cursory study of geological maps suggested as well that there was no limestone to be found. But the real reason I was loathe to look too closely at sites in the area was that Santa Barbara County was just a bit too close to Los Angeles, and I was determined to try to get out of the orbit of my familial system if I could.

I looked for land up and down the coast of California and into Oregon.3 On one weekend I visited three quarters of the extant wineries in Oregon, visiting both the Willamette Valley as well as southern Oregon, which I quickly disqualified as being too warm for pinot. I remember particularly well the visit with David Lett, founder of Eyrie Vineyard and the godfather of Oregon viticulture.3_DavidLett

“You don’t want to come to Oregon,” David said. “It’s miserable here. The grapes really struggle to ripen, the yields are terrible. You’re much better off staying in California.”4 I met Dick Erath, who proposed charging me a consulting fee to talk about Oregonian viticulture. (I was pretty shocked and politely declined.)5 I’m not really sure why I was so quick in deciding to rule out Oregon. For one thing, it just seemed a bit too “far” not just geographically, but, also I imagined culturally,6 and I was certain that there was no limestone soil in the state. (I was still holding out hope that I would fine limestone soils somewhere in an area that was relatively cool.) And I had the notion (mistaken as it turned out) that the Oregonian soils were all quite “heavy,” i.e. exceptionally rich in clay. I wasn’t then (nor am I now) the world’s most astute viticulturist, but I was very nervous about moving to an area where it seemed to rain all the time, and plant grapes in soils that absorbed water like a sponge and would produce vines I imagined would continue to just grow and grow, like Jacques and the Beanstock.
I landed in Bonny Doon, owing to the confluence of a number of factors. I had been a student at UCSC and had heard tales of Bonny Doon – this was still the early ‘70s and things were pretty wild in the day. The little hamlet (its boundaries were magically a bit amorphous) was mentioned in rather hushed tones, possibly correlative to the unmentionable goings-on that one imagined were occurring there. If Santa Cruz had its own magic (as it certainly did for me in the day), Bonny Doon might have represented an even deeper more mysterious, virtually Druidic enchantment, replete with mysterious woodland creatures. Maybe it was Brigadoon, or perhaps Avalon; I always imagined it was someplace that might mysteriously come into view through the fog-enshrouded mist.

5_HippiesBonny Doon was mentioned in the Winkler text, “General Viticulture,” aka the Bible, specifically for its particularly cool climate, which appeared cooler (in every sense, I extrapolated) than any of the other grape-growing areas mentioned. Based on the Winkler system of “degree days,” it appeared that Bonny Doon was one of the few places in California that really seemed comparable to Burgundy as far as climate,7 one of the coolest areas in the state where grapes were grown. Even as a student at Davis, I was beginning to spend some time with Ken Burnap, the owner of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard. Ken seemed to have a pretty good gig; you came to visit him at his mountain retreat up on Jarvis Rd., off of Vine Hill (not far from Smothers) and the bottles and the conversation just flowed and flowed.8 He poured for me his inaugural vintage, the 1974, and I was just floored.9 Put in simplistic terms, it was “Burgundian,” or expressed more elegantly, it seemed to speak of the Platonic essence of pinot noir, a pinot that would “se pinot,” as the French sometimes say.10)

6_KenBurnapI imagined that as far as climate, Bonny Doon couldn’t be too dissimilar from Burnap’s location. The property that I had located didn’t have limestone soils. Okay, we’ll just work around that, I thought;11 I bethought to schlep in heroic volumes of calcaire, and sheep manure and shed-loads of compost as well, while we’re at it. I sought out what I imagined was a superior clone of Pinot noir from a research station in Espiguette, France. I would plant the vines to an exceptionally close spacing, which all the literature suggested was absolutely crucial. How could I possibly miss? I sincerely thought that I was doing most everything right. But, of course, I had greatly underestimated the degree of difficulty in finding or creating the right conditions to produce a truly great pinot.

After leaving the employ of Smothers I got it into my head that I didn’t want to wait for my own grapes to come to maturity, but rather, I wanted to advance the learning process more rapidly with the purchase of grapes – pinot noir, of course, but ultimately some others as well. The theory being that by the time my own vineyard would come into bearing, I would have learned more about this fickle grape, and would have gotten the major winemaking mistakes well behind me. It was getting a bit close to harvest time in 1981 when I was able to get in touch with Warren Dutton, the famous grower in Sebastopol. He didn’t have any grapes available from his own vineyard, but he was able to sell me some fruit from the Arrundel Vineyard on River Road, which he managed. I visited the vineyard just once before harvest, and was struck by the seemingly preternatural vigor of the vines… Here goes nothin’.7_WarrenDutton

I made the first Bonny Doon Vineyard wine at my friend, Chuck Devlin’s winery in Soquel in 1981. Chuck, Bill Arnold and several other members of the Santa Cruzoisie wine circle were in a tasting group with me; this was a way for me to continue to expand my wine knowledge, and also pretty much represented the metes and bounds of my social network at that time. We weren’t drinking first growths, of course, as I had at the Wine Merchant, but this was a way to begin to back-fill the enormous gaps in my wine knowledge.

Warren delivered the fruit himself, as he did in those days, and we didn’t really start crushing till maybe 8:00 p.m. It was my first harvest on my own, and this was before the days of sorting tables. So, as the bins were being dumped by fork-lift into the crusher, I was manually pulling out individual bunches that I felt were not quite up to snuff. This became an incredibly tedious process, taking much, much longer than it normally would and I think that we did not really finish till well after midnight. Warren was just fuming – partially because I was throwing away perfectly good fruit but mostly because he still had to drive back to Sebastopol that night, and be up at the crack of dawn the next morning to harvest another field. I still feel terrible to have put him out so much.
The first grapes came in from the vineyard in Bonny Doon in 1982. They were fairly large bunches – that was quite discouraging – and somewhat devoid of much pinot noir character. In retrospect, I didn’t give the vines much of a chance – they were really just adolescents in the world of grapevines, and undoubtedly they would have settled into a state of better balance. But, it did not appear quite likely that these grapes were not really going to take me where I needed to go, and ultimately I ended up grubbing them up and replanting them to marsanne and “roussanne.” In 1983, I returned to the Willamette Valley and there were now significantly more players than there had been and the wines were also beginning to enjoy greater acceptance and acclaim. I met the wonderful Casteel brothers, Terry and Ted, and was quite impressed by the fastidious of their Bethel Heights Vineyard.12 The yields from their vineyard seemed lower than what I was finding in California, and of course the harvest dates were significantly later, owing to the cooler location.

It was a bit of an adventure in figuring out how to bring a truckload of grapes from the Willamette Valley to Santa Cruz, but I did in 1983, and the wine that I made from those grapes was really exceptional.13 I forgot what score the Wine Spectator awarded me on the wine, but if memory serves, it was far and away the highest score I was ever to receive from them. The pinot grapes that I was buying from the Casteels and then a few years later from Temperance Hill, were infinitely better than the ones that I was growing myself, which gave me no end of existential angst. One of the essential conundra of the wine business is that in general, if you strive to make a great wine, you will have to control all aspects of production, especially the growing of the grapes, which are overwhelmingly the most important factor in the wine’s quality. But, if you somehow fall short of the mark in producing grapes that are anything less than magnificent, you will be forever afflicted with “the Curse of the Home Ranch fruit.” My failure to grow magnificent pinot was, however, the impetus to move into a new direction and explore the grape varieties of southern France.

  1. I exaggerate only a bit to say that professors would duck into janitorial closets when they saw me coming. But only just. They really were slightly frightened of the barrage of questions they could routinely expect to hear from me or maybe they just felt they didn’t have the time to spend with such an exigent student. (Dr. Dinsmore Webb, the Chairman of the department, to his great credit, was really exceptional in this regard; he was happy to spend as much time with me as I needed to discuss my questions in depth; he told me that it would be a good idea if I were to write them all down, and even suggested that I keep a notepad by my bed if I were to wake up with some brainstorms or even a new line of questions. (This was adding fat to the fire.) I desperately wanted to understand what were the salient factors that made pinot so extraordinary and what were the roles (and their relative importance) of: 1) limestone soils (with an explanatory mechanism furnished as well, if you don’t mind) (Note to world: I’m still waiting.); 2) latitude of the vineyard (correlative to day-length throughout the growing season); 3) diurnal variation of temperature; 4) clones (or mixture of clones) and rootstock; 5) vine-spacing; 6) soil microbiology (what were best practices to promote?); 7) manuring of vineyard (I had been told by certain Burgundians that sheep manure was quite helpful in helping to make minerals more available to the plant; 8) phenology, i.e. maturity parameters; 9) juice chemistry (Low pH seemed to be quite crucial, but on the other hand, there were the unquestionably great wines of Romanée-Conti, which tended to be rather high in pH); 10) minerality in wine? Qu’est-ce que c’est? 11) “minerality,” as it relates to the ability of a wine to resist oxidation, and what, by the way, was the operative mechanism? And for the extra credit question: 12) Why do European wines tend to resist oxidation whereas California examples tend to be DOA the day after they are open? I truly felt then, as I do now, that the research arm of the UC Davis Dept. of Viticulture should drop everything else they’re currently working on, and start addressing these last two questions in earnest and ASAP. The aforementioned issues, of course, don’t even begin to really address the zillions of winemaking decisions that are made and the overall vision that informs them – to delay ML (or not)?, conserve lees (or not)?, whole cluster fermentation (when to use, when not to use, how to decide what percentage?), how much SO2 is appropriate?, small barrels vs. puncheons?, how much new wood is appropriate (and from which forest, and air-dried for how long?), is it possible to truly achieve “physiologically mature,” i.e. thoroughly lignified stems? (I found out the answer to this question just this year, and it turns out to be “yes,” but maybe only achievable after the grapes are harvested, at least in California.) []
  2. I also had a chance to taste some of the utterly spoofulated wines of Dr. Barolet, including several of the legendary “’34s.” I’m not sure if anyone knows what went into those “Burgundies,” but they were remarkably lively for 40-year old wines. []
  3. I was very struck by the area on the Sonoma Coast, adjacent to Cazadero, and it struck me as a sort of Bonny Doon analog, with similar elevation, vegetation, rainfall, etc. It could well have worked for me, but it didn’t have the advantage of being located close to Santa Cruz, which was an area that already felt quite familiar to me, as close to anywhere in the world where I felt I was at home. Ironically, some of the best pinot noirs in California are being produced in this area. []
  4. As a relatively recent arrival to Oregon, David had taken on the (thoroughly obnoxious) habit of wanting to shut the door on any new émigrés to this as yet undiscovered paradise, especially those of the Californian persuasion. Many years later when we had become friends, he apologized profusely for the assumption of this very negative pretend posture. []
  5. This happened again not too many years ago with a very successful “colleague” winemaker on the Central Coast – if by successful one means the ability to craft high octane wines that score extremely well with you know who – who proposed charging me a consulting fee to discuss how to grow Rhône grapes on the Central Coast with him. []
  6. I had no real idea how truly wonderful and civilized Portlandia was (and is). Certainly from a “cultural” standpoint, relocating to the Portland area would likely have represented a major upgrade in the quality of my life. If I had somehow managed to relocate to Oregon, undoubtedly I would have continued on the pinot path for quite some time, and would have either mastered pinot (whatever that might mean) or not. I would likely never have discovered Rhône grapes, never have had the opportunity to work with many of the oddball Italian varieties I’ve been privileged to know, and probably never would have allowed my thinking to evolve(?) to the point of considering some of the hare-brained notions I now have as far as an approach to the discovery of a vin de terroir. []
  7. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it turns out that these weather data were somewhat misleading. There is an inversion layer along the coast of Central California; if you are below the inversion layer (where these measurements were undoubtedly taken), it is generally pretty damn cold. Above the inversion layer, where my vineyard was ultimately located (and which in fact, comprises 95% of “Bonny Doon”) the climate is significantly warmer, so much warmer in fact that when I lived in Bonny Doon and came into Santa Cruz – almost always to buy PVC pipe supplies from Orchard Supply to patch up an irrigation line – I was always woefully underdressed. []
  8. The schmoozing school of wine sales may certainly be an interesting sales and marketing model and has been adopted by any number of small boutique wineries. But it presupposes an owner who has the ability to schmooze, and that is, alas, not in my skill set. []
  9. While Ken did make some very good wines after that, nothing ever came close to the ’74, the profound virtue of which may well have been due to the preternaturally low yield achieved (maybe ½ ton/acre?) and the particularities of the vintage. []
  10. Pinot noir can of course express itself in a myriad of ways, but the Ur-pinot for me always contains an element of earth, beet root, humus and truffle. “Ca sent de merde,” (“It smells of shit,” Anthony Hanson reassuringly tells us. []
  11. Even though I did bring in literally tons of limestone – maybe on the order of 10 tons/acre – I’m not convinced that it really made that much of a difference in changing the fundamental structure of the soil. While changing the pH of the top few feet of soil makes certain oligo-elements more available, it seems quite impractical to add enough limestone to really make a big difference in the soil’s fundamental nature. And if you ever did get to that point, you will have grotesquely altered its basic terroir. (What’s the point of that?) The meta-question, one that I never really addressed at this juncture, was what was I trying to achieve in growing pinot noir? I naively thought that it would really be a great accomplishment to make a Burgundian style pinot noir. In candor, that was really the horizon of my aspiration, and one that now seems rather hollow in retrospect. []
  12. It did seem that there were a substantial number of Biblical names associated both with the Oregonian vineyards and with the place names of the towns themselves. Maybe on an unconscious level, my hesitancy to jump to Oregon was partially based on, how can it put this genteelly as it were?, the state’s seemingly ineluctable goyischness. []
  13. The salient learning here is that if you begin with really great grapes, you often don’t need to be a winemaking genius to produce really good wine. The grapes make you appear to be a lot cleverer than you really are. []

    5 Responses to “Reflections on the 35th Vintage: The Oily Burgundy Days (Part 2)”

    1. Sarah O'Kelley says:

      Great post! Love being taken back to the beginning!

    2. So glad you enjoyed the post. It really is sometimes a matter of archeology, sifting back through the stories that I’ve told so many times, it’s sometimes difficult to recover the primal moment. I’m still excavating – trying to capture the feelings I had at the time, not just the quasi-historical “facts.”

    3. Elia Skoch says:

      Impressed by your blog!! It amazing!! Thanks for sharing your ideas with us!!

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