Wine has always seemed to me as the most natural of substances. So it comes to me as a bit of a surprise that a whole new genre of wine, “Natural Wines”, has been created.
To be sure, there is a plethora of manipulated and manufactured wines out there, but even they come from real grapes fermented by real yeasts. So I intuit that the creation of the “natural wine” classification is a reaction to the addition of concentrators, micro-oxygenation, coloring agents and the like to modern winemaking. And, to be sure, I share the disdain for this increasingly large collection of manufacturing techniques.
But let us be fair in our evaluation of this new genre: it is, to be sure, a narrow and arbitrary classification meant to suit the marketing needs of whoever is using it. For example, when I see a cloudy wine and am told “Oh this is a natural wine”, I am compelled to retort “I can’t think of anything more natural than gravity…maybe the winemaker should have waited to rack his wine for bottling!” And when one encounters a wine which is oxidized, yes this is a natural process, and to be sure there are some great wines that are made with oxidation in mind (eg Radikon and other wines from the Collio as well as of course Sherries). But in many other cases oxidation or smells of fingernail polish remover or brutalization by a lactic acid bacteria infection emanate from poor winemaking practices.
A winemaking practice which is “modern” should not necessarily be considered outside the realm of “natural.” There are in fact a good many “modern” practices which are both organic and sustainable and can be utilized to make beautiful vibrant wines. Rejecting these practices is a bit like rejecting a naturopathic or traditional cure for a sinus infection because it is not “natural”.
And I will admit to occasionally producing wines with some of the preceding faults….the difference is that those wines go down the drain in my cellar, not into the bottle.
While the 2016 growing season had its share of late summer hot weather, it was not as hot a growing season as in the previous year. However, water stress was another issue. By late April not only were we experiencing unseasonably warm weather but the ubiquitous Oregon rain mostly came to a halt as well. The rain that we did receive after that was either of short duration or was soaked up by the cover crop which had been stimulated to grow by the warm temperatures. And the ground simply dried up as the season progressed without significant rain.
In the case of our vineyards at Cameron, we have over the last several vintages engaged in a practice of no-till, instead simply mowing the covercrops. The idea is to keep carbon fixed in the soil right where it is since tilling sets in motion microbial degradation of carbon to CO2. Most vintages this will work fine but in an extremely dry and warm vintage, the vines end up water-stressed. Partly as a result of this, the berries did not size up as much as we thought they would, so crop levels were a bit low.
The saving grace for the entire 2016 vintage came in early September when we received a significant rain event just prior to harvest. Since rain water is absorbed to some extent directly into the fruit, the spongy, slightly dehydrated berries rehydrated to a perfect turgid state and we were in business. The end result of all of this is a cellar of very concentrated wines (due mostly to the small crop) which are wonderfully balanced (due to the beneficent rain). So get ready for a brilliant 2016 vintage of small production down the road!
Guido, our 18 year old Tuxedoed cat, who some will remember as the greeting committee at Cameron Winery and others will remember as the sheriff, quietly passed away on August 18.
In the cellar, he was a fixture on the top of barrels when we were tasting or racking wine, often issuing his opinion about things. In the warehouse, he rode on pallets of wine as they were being forklifted and flopped down on newly bottled cases while we were bottling to supervise the activity and cheer us on. In the vineyard, he would always appear while we were pruning, pulling leaves, or picking fruit, insisting that we stop our activities and give him some love. In the yurt, he was a fabulous host, warming our pillows and purring us to sleep.
In his youth, no rodent within a quarter mile was safe. He emerged from the vineyard with a throaty growl to announce every catch. And yet, he warmly greeted visitors, often inspecting the inside of their car while they weren’t looking.
Guido will be missed by many, here are some reflections from those who knew him well:
Mighty Guido, what a cat, like no other, it was a pleasure to know him: Kyle Cheney
Guido was a remarkable cat, best cat ever: Bill & Julia Wayne
He has left a cat-shaped hole in our hearts: Cheryl Cappellin
A cat with a two squirrels shaped hole, I would say: Tom Sivilli
A man among cats, he will be missed: Chad Hageman
He was such a character, I can’t imagine it feels the same right now: Tyson Crowley
What a great life he had out in the farm, chasing whoever he pleases: Martina Ralle
He was definitely one of a kind: Dan Eliot
He was a special animal for sure: Star Black
He was the sweetest and definitely a big part of being out at Cameron: Elaine Skinner
Guido is survived by the other member of the A-team, our dog Jackson Pawlick, who he actually tried to kill by tipping a palate on top of her when she was a puppy. We will never forget him.
Green-cropping (selectively thinning excess fruit before it ripens) is the height of fashion amongst those seeking to make stellar wines, and with good reason. Because grapevines are programmed by evolution to maximize self preservation, given optimal conditions, they are inclined to produce more berries than winemakers want to see. When a vine is carrying too much fruit, it fails to ripen that fruit properly.
A grape cluster might at first appear to be “on the money” with respect to sugar content and sometimes even color and acidity. But critical elements related to mouth feel, fullness and finish might not be there. This is particularly true with respect to Pinot noir, perhaps the most finicky of grape varieties when it comes to crop load. In the Willamette Valley, the optimal yield usually translates to approximately 2-2.5 tons of Pinot noir per acre.
Fortunately for the astute winemaker, it was determined years ago that at the point when the developing seeds inside the grape start to harden (around 2 months before harvest), that cluster is exactly half the weight that it will be when ripe. As a result, at some point in July we usually know approximately what the crop is going to look like. And as soon as we have that information, it is time to immediately drop the excess crop onto the ground. The closer to harvest that one eliminates the overcropped fruit, the less beneficial is the effect to be had.
Eliminating crop even as it is blooming is perhaps the most effective time to achieve the greatest good, but obviously this involves a bit of a gamble that the ensuing set will be good and if you’re wrong, you may have very little crop at all! If you hit it right, the best fruit can be had from this scenario, but because this is so risky, we only use this technique on a limited number of vines.
And though it takes courage to drop beautiful clusters on the ground, at Cameron virtually every year requires a bit of crop adjustment to make the best wine possible.
Measuring Brix isn’t just important for winemaking. The consistency and quality of premium canned tomatoes (such as San Marzano) relies on careful measurement of the Brix of tomatoes at harvest (to determine ripeness) and in the final product (to determine sweetness and thickness). Here we proudly present “What’s a Brix?”, written by my wife Teri, and featured on page 67 Ken Forkish’s fabulous new book, The Elements of Pizza.
The Brix scale is named after 19th-century German scientist Adolf Brix, who invented the hydrometer, an instrument that could measure the sugar content of grape juice for wine. Before this, ripeness could only be determined subjectively, by taste. The Brix scale can also be used to measure ripeness in the juice of other fruits, like tomatoes.
In winemaking, 1 degree Brix is equivalent to 1 g of soluble solids (the sum of sucrose, fructose, vitamins, proteins, and so on) per 100 g of grape juice. In winemaking, an effort is made to harvest at a particular Brix level, and this measure of ripeness and its corresponding sugar content in the fruit directly relates to the fermentation potential in the wine, its flavor, and ultimately the conversion to alcohol. In theory, alcohol is produced at a rate of approximately 51% of fermentable sugar. Variables such as exposure to oxygen and temperature, the amount of yeast and yeast diversity determine the actual conversion rate from fermentable sugars to alcohol and carbon dioxide.
Tomatoes go through the same seasonal harvest variability as grapes and other fruits of the earth do. There is a right time to harvest, and measuring Brix in tomatoes is as important to timing harvest as it is for grapes, when the desire is to produce canned tomatoes that have consistent flavor, acidity, texture and water content (think of it as thickness or thinness of tomato sauce from one can to the next, from one day to the next). Fruit ripening involves a series of related and complex enzyme-catalyzed transformations. When starches are converted into simple sugars by natural enzymes, the fruit sweetens. A tomato changes from green to red as chlorophyll breaks down to reveal underlying pigmented compounds such as anthocyanins and lycopenes. It becomes less tart as organic acids are converted into less acidic molecules; softer as pectin is broken down; and more fragrant as volatile aromatic compounds are synthesized. Brix is an extremely useful objective marker for ripeness.
The vineyard at Clos Electrique is a study in the power of the massale (the French term for selecting and propagating the best vines in a vineyard). Clos Electrique owes its existence to a number of different personalities, many of whom have long ago passed away. This writing is an homage to the various people who made our collection of vines possible.
I arrived at Carneros Creek Winery in 1979 to begin my stint as the assistant winemaker under the tutelage of Francis Mahoney, then considered the guru of Pinot noir in California. An extensive Pinot noir clonal plot had been established at Carneros Creek by the venerable UC Davis professor emeritus Curtis Alley. Alley had gathered clones from famous vineyards all over California and planted them on a random numbers basis. Each clone was marked with a lettered stake and most of the alphabet was utilized, which gives one an idea of how many clones he had managed to gather. While some of the material originated as “suitcase clones” from supposedly such notable domains as Chambertin, most of the great material was brought to California by one man, Paul Masson. Masson purportedly arrived in the vicinity of Saratoga in the late 1800’s bearing a huge amount of budwood from his native Burgundy. For hundreds of years the strength of Burgundy has always been found in the wide array of different clones of Pinot noir that comprise the vineyards. So Mr. Mason planted his vineyard to these disparate clones and from there, bits and pieces of his masterpiece were disseminated around California.
Inspired by Dr. Alley’s recreation of the massale paradigm, I began to gather many of these clones for my soon-to-be established vineyard in Oregon. I went to one of the most notable early Pinot noir winemakers in California, Bob Sessions at Hanzell Vineyards above the town of Sonoma. After spending a day in his vineyard gathering cuttings of some of his best clones, I sat down with Bob and he kindly filled me in on the history of Pinot noir in California. The best of it did indeed start with Paul Masson but the story gets richer from there. It turns out that a young man growing up in Saratoga in the early part of the 1900’s became friends with Mr. Masson. After purportedly hanging around his winery for years, Martin Ray purchased the property from Paul Masson in 1940. Unfortunately for the new owner, the winery mysteriously burned in 1943 and Martin was forced to sell the property and the rights to the name “Paul Masson” to Seagrams of New York. Before leaving, Mr. Ray took cuttings from throughout the original vineyard and planted them on a new piece of property high above Saratoga. That vineyard eventually became known as Mt. Eden Vineyard and it was this vineyard that became the source of budwood for many of the early significant Pinot noir vineyards of California including Chalone, Hanzell and Joseph Swan.
It therefore became my intent to gather clonal material from each of these seminal vineyards as well as others including Louis Martini and finally the mother block at Martin Ray’s Mt. Eden Vineyard. The winemaker & vineyard manager at Mt. Eden, Jeffrey Patterson, was kind enough to allow me to mark individual vines during the early Fall season prior to harvest. As a result I was able to select interesting cluster morphologies and small yielding vines while avoiding those with heavy infections of leaf-roll viruses. When we came back in the winter months to gather the budwood, we also gathered a bit of material from the Chardonnay block, part of which was also originally brought to California by Paul Masson. The bitter irony of that occasion occurred as we were gathering the wood: I noticed a lot of dust in the valley down below. Seagrams was at that very moment plowing under the entire Pinot noir block that Paul Masson had brought from Burgundy nearly a hundred years previously. So as I was attempting to bring to Oregon the greatest set of Pinot noir budwood that state had ever seen, Seagrams was busy destroying the greatest set of Pinot noir budwood that California had ever seen! So much for corporate agriculture.
The cuttings that I collected were rooted and planted in 1984 to a 2 acre section of vineyard in the Dundee Hills. To prevent deer damage in the newly planted vineyard, we surrounded it with an electric fence, hence the name Clos Electrique. The remarkable wines produced from this piece of terroir owe their unique qualities to the pioneering efforts of Paul Masson and Martin Ray as well as the succeeding generations of Californians who kept alive the clones and the stories about them.
It has come to our attention than Donald Trump vociferously denounced Oregon Pinot noir at a recent campaign rally. We sent our team of crack reporters out to garner the details.
The feminine qualities of many Pinot noirs such as Abbey Ridge sent him into a rage but when he heard that possibly immigrant workers had actually touched the fruit, Donald started retching uncontrollably. Add to that the fact that many of these wines are aged in French oak and you have generated an epic diatribe.
When our team attempted to ascertain what The Donald actually liked, they were informed that he didn’t drink, but if he did “the grapes must be machine harvested and the wine would definitely need to be aged in American oak”. A new campaign slogan may be taking shape as well, apparently along the lines of “Make Merlot a Grape Again!”.
Inclement weather in the Fall is no joke to those engaged in agricultural pursuits. Hail, rain, wind, cold and heat are all enemies of the grape vine throughout the growing season. But in the Fall, as the perfect clusters are nearing their state of perfection, it is rain and the temperature associated with it that I keep a vigilant eye on.
In this regard there is no better friend than the University of Washington Department of Meteorology! In the latter part of September 2013, through the use of satellite imagery and modeling, they produced a 5-day rolling forecast that caught my attention and left me scrambling for the harvest. The Pinot noir was just entering what I think of as “the ripe zone” which, depending on the year, might have a window of 2 weeks or several days. In this case I saw a major storm sweeping out of the North Pacific generated by a low pressure area. More importantly it was caught by and being swept around a high pressure system to the south, veering north of Hawaii and concentrating its full force straight toward Oregon. It looked like we had less than 5 days to get the Pinot noir picked before it would hit so I started scheduling picking for each of the 5 days.
The final Pinot noir that I was able to get to arrived at 1 pm on a Friday, was unloaded and covered by 1:30. Literally 15 minutes later, warm rain started to fall. The storm increased in intensity over the next several days and dumped several inches of rain in the process.
Hail to the University of Washington Meteorology Dept!
The growing season for 2015 was the hottest and driest on record. A high pressure ridge over the Pacific has been shielding California from rain over the past 3 years and is doing some of the same for Oregon. So it is natural to ask what this all means for those of us who are growing our grape vines without “artificial precipitation”?
As it turns out, the answer is fairly simple: grape vines are actually quite hardy and adapt readily to harsh conditions. Dry farmed vines differ in significant ways from their irrigated counterparts. The most obvious divergence is with the root system. While irrigated vines spend their energy developing diverse root systems near the surface where the water is, dry-farmed vines push their water-gathering infrastructure downward where moisture will be found even in dry growing seasons.
Another less obvious adaptation of dry farmed vines appears in the leaves. Leaves are covered with a waxy cuticle to limit water loss and place their breathing pores (stomata) on the undersides of the leaves. A typical dry farmed vine, however, possesses around 50% less stomata than an irrigated vine and under conditions when the temperature soars above 90F they tend to close up their stomata to prevent water loss. Thus the propensity to conserve precious water even while the root system is searching it out deep in the soil typifies a dry farmed vine.
As a result, dry farmed vines in the summer of 2015 fared just fine as long as they were old enough to have developed an adequate root structure. Young vines (generally less than 3 years old) were severely stressed and in some cases required some hand-watering to keep them alive. Thus no one likes a hot, dry summer but, once established, dry farmed vines are quite adept at surviving it.
First, let’s define cloned vines: it is a group of plants derived from a single ancestor such that all of the vines propagated from that mother plant are genetically identical.
Within any grape varietal are a number of clonal variants which, though they are genetically distinct individuals, are still grouped under a common heading. For example Pinot noir is famous for having an unstable genome and therefore is characterized by 100’s if not thousands of different clones but they are all called “Pinot noir.” And the same thing is true of Chardonnay.
In both cases, if you take a trip to Burgundy, you will find that the most notable vineyards (and therefore the most famous) are composed of an enorm
ous number of different clones within the same small plot of land. The idea, worked out literally over centuries, is that a vineyard which possesses all of this genetic variation will produce wines of the greatest complexity.
Here in the United States (and in the New World in general) we have committed our agriculture to clonal redundancy, planting our fields and vineyards often with single clones. This of course sets us up for problems with respect to poor disease resistance and, certainly in the case of grapes, to lack of complexity in the finished wines.
The irony of all of this is that over 100 years ago, pioneer grape growers came to this country carrying with them multitudes of amazing clones from Europe. Paul Masson in particular brought legendary genetic material, both Pinot noir and Chardonnay, from Burgundy. And other people added to it over the years.
However, in the 1950’s and 60’s agricultural scientists decided that production, and as much of it as possible, was the model that they would convey to the wine world here in the US. So they undertook the task of “cleaning up” the aforementioned clones and getting rid of even more of them until our inventory was reduced at least officially to a relatively few high production, early ripening, frankly for the most part boring examples of Pinot noir and Chardonnay. In the 1980’s agricultural scientists in Dijon accomplished a comparative program bestowing upon us clones of Chardonnay and Pinot noir that would “ripen earlier” (if one uses only Brix and pH as the ripening criteria). Much of the Oregon and California wine industry is now planted to these clones.
Fortunately many of the old Paul Masson and Carl Wente clones still persist in vineyards across California and Oregon. For those whose intent is to make kickass wines, these vines are still sought out for the amazing budwood that they can convey. So the next time that you are wondering why one vineyard produces lofty mind boggling wines and another right near it does not, consider the clones!
I am a bit perplexed by the popularity of a relatively new genre of wine: “Natural Wines”. In my opinion, this is a narrow and arbitrary classification meant to suit the marketing needs of whoever is using it. When I see a cloudy wine and am told “Oh this is a natural wine”, I am compelled to retort “I can’t think of anything more natural than gravity…maybe the winemaker should have waited to rack his wine for bottling!” And when one encounters a wine which is either oxidized or smells of fingernail polish remover or has been brutalized by a lactic acid bacteria infection, sure these are “natural processes” but they also emanate from poor winemaking practices.There’s More... >
2016 was an extremely dry and warm vintage. Because of water stress, the berries were smaller and crop smaller than usual. However, a beneficient rain in early September re-hydrated the fruit and the result is a cellar of very concentrated and wonderfully balanced wines. Get ready for a brilliant 2016 vintage of small production down the road!There’s More... >
Guido, our 18 year old Tuxedoed cat, quietly passed away on August 18. For 17 vintages, Guido was our constant companion in the cellar, in the vineyard, in the yurt.There’s More... >