The Black Magic of Winemaking: Tannins

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Credit: Gerald Hoberman, Getty

Last December, I took a trip to Napa and visited a ton of wineries throughout the Valley. Though not the purpose of the trip, it became a study in tannins. The experience reminded me just how impactful vineyard and winemaking decisions can be on a wine’s profile. The largest differences in the wines came in the size, shape and structure of tannin, and I realized I should know more about why those differences exist because I clearly had preferences about them.

To learn more, I reached out to three winemakers whose wines I love in large part because of their tannins: Richie Allen of Rombauer in Napa, Shane Moore of Zena Crown and Gran Moraine in the Willamette Valley, and David Larson of Soos Creek in Washington State. Richie’s Napa cabernets are highly structured wines, but were also among the very small minority that do not overload the tannins. I found this remarkable because most of the Napa cabs I had, including many from esteemed wineries that receive (incorrectly, I believe) higher scores from the big reviewers than do Richie’s, hit you upside the head with dense, chewy and often times coarse tannins that prematurely dry the mouth and kill the flavor.

Shane’s pinots (and chardonnays) from Oregon are complex and rewarding at every price point they hit, and though one doesn’t talk about tannin in the same way with pinot as is done with other red varietals, I’ve found his pinots to achieve captivating textures.

For more information on Richie, Shane and their wines, you can read about my visit to Rombauer here, a profile of Richie here, and a profile of Shane here.

David’s Bordeaux-varietal wines from Washington, a state whose climate can develop ample tannin, go through a wonderful evolution as they age. He’ll tell you that he prefers at least five years on most of his reds, if not ten, largely because it takes time for the tannins to resolve. When his wines hit their target balance, they offer classic Washington flavors combinations and textures. I recently had an 8-year old Soos Creek and loved it.

The first thing to know about tannin is, well, what it is. Tannins are chemical compounds, and the term originates from leather tanning, as leather workers used them to preserve the leather. Tannins bind proteins together. The physical sensation we associate with tannins in our mouths when drinking a wine is the actual process of proteins being bound in real time.

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Phenolic tannin. Credit: WineLand Media

The next thing to know it is that the term “tannin” encompasses two components: anthocyanin and phenolics. Anthocyanin is the color in the wine, and it’s the main focus for Richie at Rombauer because “it’s a very good indication of quality: the higher the color, the higher the potential quality.” Color is finite; there is only so much color in fruit and only that amount available can be extracted. Phenolics, of which there is usually higher quantities than anthocyanin, are chemical compounds, of which there are potentially hundreds of varieties.

Richie aims for full extraction of color. If he can hit that, then he and his team can build the desired tannin structure because there’s usually more phenolics than they need. Put another way, if they have really high anthocyanin then they can push the tannin structure without throwing the wine out of balance. However, if the anthocyanin is moderate and they try to push the tannin structure by ramping up phenolic extraction, they end up with a highly tannic wine that has a hole in the mid palate, something Richie and his fellow Aussies refer to as “donut wine” (lots of tannin around the sides and nothing in the middle). Shane, too, is focused on color. He describes one of his priorities as achieving good “color stabilization,” which is another term for the same thing: the bounding or conjugating of anthocyanin and phenolics into “complexes.”

Tannins, as David explained, “are very specific to each batch of grapes. Like everything else in winemaking there’s a lot of variability between varieties, vineyards, and even blocks within vineyards.” David is looking for great mouthfeel. His ideal tannins are the kind “that caress the mouth. It’s one of the best attributes of a wine, but hard to achieve. I’m looking for abundant but fine grained tannins, which create elegant wines.” These, as will be explained below, are long-chain tannins formed by the binding of anthocyanin and phenolics.

When speaking to a pinot noir producer, you enter a different tannin realm. Pinot’s tannins are very different than any other varietal because physiologically, the tannins and structure are unique. “You have skin tannins, your anthocyanins, and then you have seed tannins, and not a whole lot of other phenolics involved like you do with cabernet or the Bordeaux varietals,” Shane said. “This makes both tannin extraction and the mouth feel very different.” The differences in tannin that we experience in drinking pinot noir are unique tannin experiences when compared to other reds.

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Credit: EnoViti

Anthocyanin is developed in the vineyard and lives in the skins of the berries (the term used to refer to the grapes). Richie looks at many things in trying to influence color accumulation in the skins. If the berries get too large, color gets diluted. Too many berries on the vine can lead to less color. Sun exposure is key: too much sun and the berries get sun burnt; not enough sun and they don’t develop much anthocyanin. “Think of anthocyanin as sun block,” Shane explained. “If you’re giving the berries less sun, they make less sun block.”

This makes canopy (the leaves) management critical. The act of picking leaves from the vines, called “leafing,” is part of this. In Shane’s vineyards, they begin leafing right after flowering and fruit set in most cases. This approach is suited for the cooler climate of Oregon where sufficiently warm sun, needed to develop anthocyanin, isn’t always plentiful. “More sun produces more and riper anthocaynins for us,” Shane noted.

Richie focuses on berry weight and size. Smaller berries tend to have higher anthocyanin levels. That said, Richie has his outliers. “I have a couple of vineyards that, on paper, should be terrible when you look at the numbers, but when you taste them, they’re really good and the numbers don’t match. I always say, you can graph it and draw your correlation line, but there are always outliers, and that’s why we taste.”

Shane expressed a strong desire to produced “balanced crops.” If there is too much fruit hanging, “you often get more green tannins, meaning seed, or short-chain, tannins.” Over the years the average crop of Willamette pinot noir has settled into the 2.5-3.5 tons per acre zone, “and when you hit that tonnage,” Shane says, “you’re ripening your seeds, and ripe seeds equal ripe tannins and you’re not extracting shorter tannins; you’re getting longer chain tannins and that’s your desired starting point” in achieving good texture and mouthfeel. “Balanced vines are going to give you ripe tannins and balanced wines.”

A common theme among these three winemakers is that they approach winemaking looking primarily at the structural elements of the wine, not flavors or aromas. Shane’s approach is to make wines “texturally” because texture shows through in the wine for a longer period of time than other elements and “is more of the wine itself then flavors or aromatics. Texture is the most stable part of the wine.” Therefore, when Shane extracts tannins, he’s doing it in the context of achieving that desirable texture.

Richie has been accused of making wine by numbers, and he admits that to a certain extent, he does. “All I’m doing is stacking the deck in my favor. It’s like counting cards – you’re working the probability to get a desired outcome. That’s all that we’re doing, and with fruit that’s $10,000 or more per ton, you want to make sure you nail it every time. In high end winemaking, you can’t screw it up one year and say, well, we’ll do it better next year. That doesn’t fly.”

Winemakers can’t rely on taste alone in the tannin context because of the presence of sugar during fermentation. “The reason we’re so interested in the numbers is when the wines are fermenting and you still have sugar, you can’t taste or feel tannin in your mouth. It’s all hidden by the sugar,” Richie told me. “So the only way to see if you’re heading in the right direction is to run analysis. You don’t know if you’ve gotten all the tannin out, you don’t know what the tannin level is when it’s at even three Brix. You can’t taste it. And if you keep pumping it over and you overshoot that mark, it’s too late. You can use strippers [like egg whites or gelatin] to lean the tannins, but you can’t just strip tannin without getting rid of stuff you want to keep. Fining agents are not as selective as they’re portrayed. The analysis is a good indicator of potential quality, though it doesn’t replace actually tasting either.”

David strives to balance alcohol, tannin, fruit, oak and acid. “This is largely a function of the grapes you get,” he says. In Washington, David believes the most impactful adjustment to make to find the sweet spot in the balance is tweaking sugar levels. “It matters a great deal because it determines the alcohol level, and I want a relatively low-alcohol wine.” For age worthy wines – read high(ish) tannin and high(ish) acid – alcohol is the sticking point because while tannins and acids soften with age, alcohol remains exactly the same its entire life. A wine with great tannin and acid at bottling will fall out of balance with time if the alcohol is too high.

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Credit: Wine Folly

Fermentation is a key phase for tannin development, even though, as noted above, you can’t detect the tannins by taste, because, as David explains, “the higher the temperature the more tannin extraction you get. The longer the juice stays on the skins, the more extraction of tannin (up to a point). The tannins will start to soften as they get longer.” He starts his fermentations off at usually around 65 degrees and allows them to creep up slowly to the mid to upper-80s. This translates into fermentations usually lasting around 20 days, though they’ve gone as long as 30. He added that the shape and size of the fermenter matters as well in that it determines the juice to solids ratio as well as the flow, or interaction, of the juice with the solids.

Shane approaches fermentation with temperatures that are considered on the lower side for pinot noir. Whereas most are toping top out at around 86-90 degrees, Shane doesn’t go above 78-80 degrees. Temperatures matter for tannin extraction – warmer temperatures help to extract heavier tannins. Therefore, if he’s getting a higher extraction than desired, he will lower the temperature, and vice versa.

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Punching down the cap. Credit: Willamettewines.com

Management of the cap, meaning all of the solid bits that float to the top during fermentation, also plays a big role because the cap is where the tannins – anthocyanin and phenolics alike – originate. The two most common ways to manage the cap are “pump overs,” which involves keeping the cap where it is while pumping the juice below it up and onto the cap, and “punch downs,” which refers to pushing the cap into the juice. The former adds more oxygen to the juice, which functions to elongate the chain of the tannins. As Shane describes it, short chain tannins are coarser drying tannins whereas longer chain tannins are “umami tannins and not as drying.” Shane uses pump overs early on to elongate the tannins as those are his preferred variety. Once fermentation is over, so too is grape-based tannin development.

Phenolics drive more of the textural element than anthocyanin. When there is an excess of phenolics, winemakers strive for high levels of bound anthocyanin and phenolics because it helps to reduce coarseness. I asked Richie if determining the chains by taste is as simple as, if the wine is coarse, it’s heavy on the short chain, and if it’s smooth, it’s heavy on the long chain. “More or less yes,” he said, adding that I was “basically correct, [but] when you start to look at the types of tannins and their interactions it becomes very complicated and our understanding is in its infancy. Thus is the art of winemaking.”

Untoasted wood chips can help in this department, as do additives like enological tannin. Richie has played around with these methods in trials, and while they’ve offered some interesting outcomes, he hasn’t felt like it’s boosted quality and hasn’t deployed it in production Rombauer. However, if using highly cropped, lower quality fruit, the use of chips or enological tannin can really help develop a wine of superior quality. “I’ve known people who do it really, really well,” Richie said. “And I’ve done it myself [at other wineries]. If you don’t understand how to use exogenous tannins correctly, you’re really limiting your ability to make quality wine. Especially in the cheaper bracket. At the higher end, you don’t need to do it.”

I asked him if it’s possible to pick up on the use of these tools in a wine by taste, and he questioned whether one could. “I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I don’t have the ability to do it and I don’t know of anyone who does. However, to make wines taste more palatable texturally and give them more palatable mouthfeels, especially in the lower price tier, their use is a sure way to improve your quality.” Dispelling any notion that it’s a New World thing, Richie explained that it’s very common in Europe, and referred to an unnamed friend in France who “is really well versed in how to use enological tannins and phenols to build wines to make them significantly better in that lower price bracket, and he’s really, really good at it. If I were making $10 wine, I’d be calling him to learn more.”

Measuring anthocyanin levels in the vineyard is challenging, and naturally Richie and his team have found that the most labor intensive way to measure gives them the best data. I promised not to spill the beans on this method, but after the explanation it’s understandable why those not using it are a step or two behind. These measurements, however, don’t necessarily mean anything because there is often a difference between the amount of anthocyanin in the vineyard and the amount that can be extracted in the winery. Determining the factors that drive that difference would be a holy grail in winemaking, and one that Richie is chasing in earnest. Richie does not believe that any of the theories about anthocyanin extraction hold up to scientific scrutiny, though he believes this is the direction high end red wine is going: “how you maximize color accumulation and color extraction drives wine quality.”

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Credit: Wine Folly

How one extracts anthocyanin from the berries depends on the varietal. “You always hear about cold soaks with pinot noir, and that’s not something you really hear about with many other red varieties. Syrah, maybe. Some winemakers working with Bordeaux and Rhone varietals are doing cold soaks. Nebbiolo, too. But when it comes to red varietals, when you hear cold soak you think pinot,” Shane said. David is one of those doing cold soaks with Bordeaux varietals. During that process, both make no qualm about using appropriate levels of sulfur, which they find critical to tannin development because it helps to stabilize the anthocyanin complexes in both stages.

The goal as Shane explains it is to build stable anthocyanin-phenolic complexes by bringing as many together as possible to form the longest chains they can “because these are the good tasting tannins.” Oxygen, as explained in the paragraph above on cap management, is critical for this to occur. Most red varietals require doses of oxygen exposure for these chains to form and grow longer. If you’ve ever had a reductive syrah, for example, chances are it was not racked (a method for adding oxygen to the wine post-fermentation) because syrah requires a relatively high amount of oxygen to avoid reduction. In a reductive wine the tannin complexes are scavenging for limited or non-existent oxygen in the wine, which reduces the vibrancy of the wine’s aromas and flavors. This is why, when one aerates a reductive wine, it can snap out of its reductive state.

Pinot is unique among red varietals in that it has a naturally high anthocyanin-phenol ratio. Therefore, if it’s exposed to sufficient oxygen, it does a great job on its own of building beautifully tasting tannins. “Somehow,” Shane noted, “they figured this out over 1,000 years ago in Burgundy. If you start with great pinot fruit and age it in French oak, which breathes perfectly for the varietal, and don’t mess too much with it, you get great wine.” He continued, “once it’s in barrel, all you need is once-a-month topping and the wines won’t go reductive.”

When Shane gets his pinot harvest into the winery and destems, he’s aiming to maintain whole berries (he destems roughly 80% of his clusters) to allow for a longer cold soak. “Crushed grapes tend to ferment faster because, I think, it releases more nutrients [for the yeast to feast on].” Whole berry fermentation allows for maximum anthocyanin extraction while protecting the seeds longer before their harsher and more abundant tannins begin to enter the juice. “Pinot noir is a low tannin wine in general. Almost all your tannins are in your seeds, and it’s also a relatively low anthocyanin grape.” With that in mind, Shane does long cold soaks (~5 days for Gran Moraine and ~8-10 days for Zena Crown) to maximize anthocyanin extraction before fermentation “so you can really control tannin [phenolics] extraction during fermentation using punch downs, pumpovers and temperature, the principle being that seed tannins are highly extractable in an aqueous alcohol environment (alcohol dissolved in water), whereas you don’t need alcohol to extract anthocaynins.” Since there is no alcohol in the cold soak, there’s no risk in extracting phenolics while anthocyanin is seeping into the juice.

Richie describes the profile they seek at Rombauer as an “iron fist in a velvet glove,” which is driven by the color and phenolic binding. Wines cannot achieve a high level of binding unless there’s a lot of color already in the wine, which makes it the limiting factor in driving quality if you follow Richie’s logic. When Rombauer does in-house trials, they look at the free anthocyanin, bound anthocyanin and phenolics [a.k.a. complexes], and they find that more often than not, the wines with the highest bound anthocyanin are the ones they score the highest in double blind tastings.

Quality wine evolves with age, and to many palates it improves over time. I asked Richie about older wines and why the color loss during aging didn’t necessarily lead to losses of flavor and structure. He explained that bound color, which tastes good, is stable and resists oxidation and changes in pH. Unbound color that exists in wine is unstable, and as wine ages it’s the unbound color that drops out while the bound color remains. Therefore, a wine with a higher level of bound color is going to keep its color, and its desirable flavors, longer in the bottle.

Referring back to his holy grail of winemaking, Richie noted that “tannin is kind of like the black magic of winemaking at the moment, and not everyone understands it. A lot of high end wineries run [the data], but they don’t actually do anything with it because they don’t understand it. They run it because it’s the latest cool thing to do in winemaking. ‘What tannins do you have?’ It’s like, ‘what does it matter? What are you going to do with them?’ If you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve, the data is useless.” Shane doubled down on the difficulty of understanding tannins. “I took a whole graduate level course on tannin chemistry. It’s incredibly complicated and possibly the most difficult college course I took. I think it was called “The Biochemistry and Physiology of Horticultural Products” or something, and we still have open questions about tannins.”

Where our understanding of tannins goes from here is up to people like Richie, Shane and David who make it a focus of their winemaking. I do think it’s important, though, too, for consumers to educate themselves and maybe even do a bit of purchasing based on their tannin preferences. I would sure love more winemakers to focus on developing those long chain complexes.

 

Good Vitis’ 2017 Tastemakers Part 2

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Last week I posted Part 1 of Good Vitis’ 2017 Tastemakers, which included profiles of three individuals in the wine biz who influenced, for the better, my appreciation and knowledge of wine this year. If you missed it, make sure you check it out now. They included two wine pros, Rick Rainey of Forge Cellars and Erica Orr of Baer Winery, whose wines have already appeared on top-100 lists, and another whose wine I’m sure will make one of those lists in the future, Lisa Hinton of Old Westminster Winery. This is Part 2, the final three, 2017 Tastemakers.

Richie Allen

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Where to start with Richie? I don’t think I’ve met anyone more obsessed with their craft than Richie is with winemaking, and I’ve been on the receiving end of many a winemaker’s epic winemaking rants. I think, maybe, it’s his Australian accent that makes it easier to survive his diatribes? I kid, honestly, because when Richie speaks about winemaking (and oenology, and vineyard management, and anything else), I listen as attentively as my brain will allow as it tries to process the unbelievable amount of interesting knowledge being dropped on me. There’s an academic book chapter worth of information in each sentence coming out of his mouth…

I’ve had the pleasure of talking and drinking wine with Richie in several settings, and I’ve enjoyed it immensely each and every time. Richie is laser-focused on constant improvement, and he and the winery are in it together. After exhaustive research, when Richie brings an idea to his bosses I imagine he gets a “yes” every time, either instantly or eventually, because he’s proven, over and over and over, that their trust in him is entirely well-placed. Consumers have thought of Rombauer wines similarly for a long time – they always deliver. I can tell you that’s because Richie makes it so.

Richie is also just a great guy. Earlier this year I wrote a post about why you should attend a winemaker dinner, and it came from a place of extreme skepticism. If winemaker dinners were typecast, Richie would be a leading man because he brings everything you could possibly imagine to the table. If Richie and Rombauer Vineyards come to a town near you, I suggest you take in the show.

  1. Winery and role: Rombauer Vineyards Director of Viticulture and winemaking
  2. Number of years in the wine business: 17
  3. Previous wineries/roles: Penfolds Magill Estate, cellar door, cellar, everything and anything; Oakridge Winery Yarra valley, vintage assistant winemaker; Church Road Winery Hawkes Bay, cellar; Vavasour, Awatere Valley, Assistant winemaker; Rombauer vineyards Napa Valley, Cellar, Enologist, assistant winemaker, winemaker, Director.
  4. What got you into the wine business: I got to taste different varieties as a 19-year-old and was hooked.
  5. Why you choose the route/role you did: I just followed the path before me to wherever it lead.
  6. One sentence description of your approach: If you are not constantly trying to improve, you are falling behind.
  7. Accomplishment you’re most proud of: I’m lucky to love what I do.
  8. Your blind spots (where you need to improve): I love what I do and that can cloud your vision. Passion can lead you to make decisions that are not great business decisions, even though your heart tells you to do it.
  9. Where and what do you want to be doing in ten years: making wine.
  10. Top-3 bucket list wines: Penfolds 1962 Bin 60A; Salon champagne 1996; Grosset polish hill 1999, screw cap.

 

Rebecca (Becky) George

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I met Becky only this month. Kelly Fleming Wines, where she is the winemaker, was the first stop in a 5-day trip to Napa I took in early December (several write-ups to come in 2018). Admittedly, Napa hasn’t ever been my thing. A few wineries, however, like Rombauer, Ehlers and Smith-Madrone, came onto my radar in 2017 and were enough to get me excited about exploring Napa in the hopes that I’d find more wineries making killer cabs gracefully packed with complexity, depth and savory notes. After the first sip of the 2014 Kelly Fleming Cabernet Sauvignon, I knew I had found another that delivered something intellectually stimulating while entertaining the taste buds as well.

Later in the week, I went back to taste Becky’s side project pinot noir, called Mojave, that was equally impressive as the Kelly Fleming Cabernet Sauvignon for similar reasons (grace, depth, complexity, balance, textual pleasure). We hung out for half an hour before I had to run off to my next appointment and talked about her history with, and love of, Burgundian varietals. We talked about her hope to source from (redacted) for Mojave, which I’m completely on board with because it’s my favorite California wine region. With demonstrable skills and similar wine loves, Becky is a winemaker I’m looking forward to following as she continues to produce and refine California wines more interesting than the average California grizzly bear.

  1. Winery and role: Kelly Fleming Wines, Winemaker; Mojave Wines, Founder/Winemaker.
  2. Number of years in the wine business: 15 years
  3. Previous wineries/roles: Enologist & Assistant Winemaker, Schramsberg Vineyards; Harvest Intern, Marcassin; Williams Selyem, Domaine Méo-Camuzet (Burgundy) Yarra Burn (Australia) and Artesa.
  4. What got you into the wine business: Growing up in the desert, I spent a lot of time exploring the outdoors with my dad. We would take wildflower hikes through desert canyons and did a lot of trekking in the eastern Sierras. I’ve always enjoyed being outdoors, playing in the dirt, and working with my hands. When I attended UC Davis as an undergraduate, my intention was to follow the biological sciences route, but curiosity led me to the Intro to Winemaking course with Dr. Waterhouse. The course intrigued me enough to take a quarter off and work a harvest in Napa. I loved working in the cellar, the excitement of harvest, and just being a part of this very specialized industry.
  5. Why you choose the route/role you did: My route has been one that has taken shape differently than I originally imagined. When I finished college, I was sure that I would follow the Burgundian varietals no matter what, and end up in Oregon or Sonoma or Santa Barbara. I have followed the Pinot track in some ways (with my own wine project), but opportunities in the industry have led me down different paths. When I was invited to come back and work full time at Schramsberg, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to work with bubbles and some of my favorite people. When I found out about the possibility of working at Kelly Fleming’s small Calistoga estate, under the direction of esteemed winemaker Celia Welch, I knew it was an opportunity not to be missed.
  6. One sentence description of your approach: I like to make wines that have a sense of style and grace, express the place where they come from, and perhaps most importantly, are delicious.
  7. Accomplishment you’re most proud of: Starting my own wine brand. Fear kept me from starting it for a long time, but it’s been a huge learning experience and it’s cool to be able to call this wine my own.
  8. Your blind spots (where you need to improve): In winemaking this would probably be getting stuck in ruts and not always staying on top of the latest technologies. Just because you have always done something one way, doesn’t mean that you should continue doing it that way. There are so many opportunities for experimentation in the vineyard and the winery. In regards to my own wine business, I could improve with that whole self-promotion thing. As a natural introvert, it’s not really in my wheelhouse, but social media is the new norm, so it’s time to step up!
  9. Where and what do you want to be doing in ten years: Oh boy. I think it would be great to continue making Pinot and Chard for myself, and hopefully for others too. I’d like to work with other appellations like Santa Cruz Mountains, Willamette Valley and Santa Barbara County. Perhaps making some method champenoise bubbles. And can I still do Napa Cabernet as well? All the cars will be electric by then so the commute should be easy!
  10. Top-3 bucket list wines: 1982 Chateau Latour (birth year Bordeaux); early 2000’s Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Blanc de Noirs; 2005 Domaine Méo Camuzet, Corton Clos Rognet

 

Lenn Thompson

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Wait a second, how did a wine writer get here? Lenn is definitely an outlier in both his place on this list and his place in wine writing. Lenn is famously (or notoriously, depending on who you talk to), known for his passion for spotlighting EBCOW (Everything But California, Oregon and Washington). Lenn started out with a focus on New York, but has since expanded his website, The Cork Report, to include New England, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland and other off-the-radar states.

Lenn and I were introduced by a mutual friend and he subsequently invited me to join his annual Taste Camp, held earlier this year in Maryland. Since then, Lenn and I have stayed in touch, bonded over a mutual appreciation of Old Westminster Winery, and cross-posted content. (Okay, fine, he’s posted mine; I haven’t posted his. I’m a bad friend, I get it). A few months ago, he even treated me to an amazing night of Long Island wine over dinner with a few friends when I was nearby his home on a work trip, and has offered to guide me around Long Island for a proper introduction to its under-appreciated wine scene. In addition to expanding my exposure to domestic wines this year and offering thoughtful input on wine writing and blog management, Lenn been a champion of Good Vitis, friend and all-around mensch. His writing is superb, and I can’t recommend his blog enough.

  1. Blog(s), outlets and role: You’ll find me several places these days. I retired the NewYorkCorkReport.com site over a year ago, but it’s still live. I couldn’t throw away 10-plus years of content, but also didn’t want to migrate it all to my new site either. That new site is TheCorkReport.us where I’m writing about not only New York wine, but also wine from just about anywhere in North America that isn’t California, Oregon or Washington. I’m also the wine editor for a local newspaper (The Suffolk Times), their quarterly wine magazine (Long Island Wine Press) and their companion website (northforker.com). I’ve also written a few short pieces for Wine Enthusiast and Beverage Media over the last year.
  2. Number of years in the wine writing game: Almost 15 years.
  3. Stints in the industry – harvests, bottling, retailers, etc? If not, what would you most like to be exposed to?: I’ve dabbled here and there. Picked grapes on Long Island a few times and once in the Finger Lakes. I’ve also worked on a restaurant wine list here and there. Now I consult with a relatively new wine shop here on Long Island, picking the New York wines. I’d like to do more wine list work. There are so many restaurants in and around east coast wine regions who don’t serve local wines – and I think a big part of that is they just haven’t (or won’t) take the time to find the good stuff. I’d also love to get some hands-on winemaking experience.
  4. What got you into blogging: It started off as a creative outlet for a pretty boring day job writing about software. I had just moved to Long Island and was just starting to explore the wines here. It became an obsession rather quickly. Now, I can’t imagine my life without it.
  5. Side projects: The biggest one is TasteCamp, an annual wine conference that I organize for wine writers and members of the wine trade. Basically, I get 30 or so wine writers to descend upon a wine region they probably don’t know much about and we get as many wines, winemakers and vineyard managers in front of them as possible. I’m also planning to resuscitate a failed attempt at podcasting in the new year.
  6. One sentence description of your approach to wine writing: Be intrepid and open minded – but always be honest with your readers, even if it creates some friction with industry people who don’t want to hear it. Oh, and remember that it’s not about me, it’s about the wine, people, places, etc. – a lot of wine writers forget that.
  7. Areas of particular interest/expertise: I like to seek out the up-and-coming producers and regions. There are already so many people writing about wines from California, Italy, France, etc. – who will frankly do it better than I can. From the very beginning I wanted to carve out a niche as a guy who would explore the lesser-known corners of the wine world. There are so many people with so much passion doing such great things in these places, but for myriad reasons, they just can’t get the attention of most writers. Sometimes I think of myself as a champion and an advocate – but at the same time, I’m brutally honest too. Some people think I’m too much of a cheerleader. Some think I’m way too hard on East Coast producers. You can’t make everyone happy.
  8. Your blind spots (where you need to improve): I’ve got a bunch of those. I need to make more time for writing – and for face-to-face visits with winemakers. I used to publicly mock writers who never leave their office – now I’m guilty of the same in many cases. I also need to give domestic chardonnay another chance. So much East Coast chardonnay is so mediocre that I largely stopped even tasting it, but a few examples I’ve had lately have impressed. That’s a goal I have for 2018. I also need to get more regimented with how I use social media to expand my reach and get the wineries I write about more attention.
  9. Where and what do you want to be doing in ten years: One of the reasons I have expanded beyond writing about only New York wine is that after 10 years of being one of the few people writing about them, a lot of people are today. It was time to – at least in part – move on to regions that weren’t getting the same attention. I hope that 10 years from now, I can say that Virginia and Maryland and Pennsylvania and New Jersey and Minnesota and beyond are all being covered the way they deserve. There is good wine – even great wine – being made in just about every state now. It just takes a little effort to find out who is growing the right things in the right places and handling them the right way in the cellar. Ten years from now, I hope all of those places are being written about by writers way more influential than I’ll ever be. I don’t know what I’ll be writing about by then, but my son will be in college, so hopefully someone will be paying me to do it.
  10. Top-3 bucket list wines: When I was a kid in the late 1970s and early 1980s, my parents would take me and my sister to this great frozen custard place just outside of Pittsburgh. They always had vanilla and chocolate available, of course. They were staples and by far the most popular flavors. This was well before any sort of foodie movement, mind you. But at the bottom of the menu, they always had something a little different. Banana or butterscotch or peach. I always ordered whatever the “weird” flavor was, no matter it was. I’m still kind of that way today. I honestly don’t have a bucket list when it comes to wine. I guess I could list a rare vintage Champagne or exorbitantly priced First Growth Bordeaux, but the truth is that I get more pleasure of out of tasting and drinking wines that aren’t that. I’d rather explore. Try something new. Try something “weird.” Experiencing something new for the first time is what drives me.

Doing big things quietly: Rombauer delivers

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Picture credit: rombauer.com

I started Good Vitis to document my journey to find as much good wine as I can. Much of this journey had been underway well before the start of the website, although the winemaker dinner has been a new excursion owed entirely to this blog . Until Good Vitis I had avoided these events because they seemed like a rip off: doing the calculations, the wine and meal seemed overpriced, even when packaged with a tasting guided by the winemaker. Four winemaker dinners (or, rather, three dinners and a lunch) later and I’ve gone one-hundred and eighty degrees: if you come across one featuring wines you like, it’s a must-attend event.

As I wrote in the post about a dinner I attended with Shane Moore of Zena Crown and Gran Moraine, “Shane was right – drinking with the winemaker makes the wine better. If this post hasn’t made it clear, he’s a very engaging guy, and loves talking about his craft. The banter was as fun as the wine, and the combination made the night. It seems to me this is why you go to winemaker dinners. I imagine the more engaging and fun the winemaker, the more engaging and fun the dinner. So long as the wine can keep up, you’re going to have a good time.” A subsequent winemaker dinner with Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone reinforced this point. A recent lunch with Richie Allen, head winemaker of Rombauer Vineyards in California, further confirmed these findings while introducing me to another example of why California deserves its reputation for outstanding wines.

The first thing to know about Rombauer is that it is obsessively focused on quality. You can say that about a lot of wineries, and a lot of wineries say that about themselves, but few walk the walk like Rombauer. I’ll give you a poignant example: somewhere between the merlot and cabernet sauvignon, Richie told us about the winery’s optical sorting machines. These machines fire the berries pasted a high resolution and high speed camera at 10 meters per second (roughly 22 miles per hour) that take a picture of each berry and, in a fraction of a second, accept or reject it based on size, color and shape. These factors combine to eliminate problematic berries that may be raisined due to heat stress, may be sunburnt, are under or over ripe, etc. Those that are rejected get a little jet of air to send them in a different direction to become what Richie called really expensive compost, while the good fruit goes on to become wine. Depending on many factors, rejection rate is between one and thirty percent at Rombauer. The machine is calibrated with each new lot of fruit that passes through the machine. As you can imagine, these machines ain’t cheap, and Rombauer has three of them. I’ve come to understand that (nearly) no cost is too much to improve quality for the Rombauer family.

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Joan’s Vineyard, a Rombauer estate vineyard. Picture Credit: rombauer.com

I’ll give you a second poignant example: Richie’s obsession with improving barrel quality. There are three important elements to a barrel: wood origin and selection, how it is seasoned, and how much it is toasted. The last factor has the biggest impact on the outcome and has therefore seen the most industry research. However, the first two factors, Richie believes, have such an impact that the absence of sufficient research means the industry has missed the boat on taking them into adequate consideration. So, over the last ten or so years Rombauer has spent considerable time and resources looking into them because they believe it’s another way to improve consistent and desirable outcomes in the wine.

Despite it’s 150,000 case production, Rombauer has always been a family-owned winery, though it does operate with a board of directors comprising zero family members. This arrangement seems to have struck a successful balance between authenticity, quality and profitability that has allowed the winery to produce consistently excellent wine from year-to-year. Rombauer’s wines have always struck me as perhaps a bit underpriced given the quality of the juice, and so I asked Richie about their pricing logic. He explained their basic pricing structure as, I’m paraphrasing, “cost plus profit margin equals price,” which seems pretty simple but also illuminates the modest profit quest Rombauer seeks. The winery uses grapes from some of the most expensive vineyards in the country (and in the world, for that matter), yet their wines are usually, and noticeably, less than many of their competitors (and often times better tasting). Many winery owners, especially in California, satiate their ego through the price point of their wine. As Richie explained, there’s no ego when it comes to price point of Rombauer wines. When costs go up, as they inevitably will, so too will Rombauer’s prices, but rest assured the extra cash you’ll shell out isn’t being demanded to feed someone’s ego.

Richie is obviously a big reason for the winery’s good vitis. I arrived early for the lunch and had a chance to chat with him before tipoff. Richie is a charismatic guy and clearly loves what he does. Vastly experienced in a few climates (and hemispheres), he has zeroed in on what he needs to do to produce the best possible wines with the significant resources Rombauer provides. Rombauer’s confidence in Richie seems to equal his own confidence in himself, as the quality of the wines can attest. The consumer is the beneficiary.

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Richie Allen. Picture credit: J.L. Sousa/Register/Napa Valley Register

Richie started with Rombauer in 2004 and took over as head winemaker in 2008 where he has earned near carte blanch control over winemaking and vineyard management. He’s stayed with Rombauer because they’re giving him the opportunity and means to make the best wine he can, which is support and trust he knows many of his colleagues in Napa don’t enjoy. The family and board take the same approach to this goal as Richie, which is to say that every year the wines get better, but they are never good enough. Richie has his sights set on making wine that can compete with the very best, and he knows Napa is one of the few places capable of providing the raw material to do that. With the support he has at Rombauer to do that, he knows he’s lucky and he’s seizing it to pursue his goal.

The first wine we tried over lunch was the 2016 sauvignon blanc. I’m not a fan of 99% of sauvignon blanc on the market today, largely due to the flood of myopically limey sauvignon blanc from New Zealand and California. I feared this might be another wine in that category given Richie’s Southern Hemisphere roots and winemaking experience. Does the world really need another sauvignon blanc, especially one that retails for $25? It turns out yes, yes it does. Richie has strong opinions about sauvignon blanc’s place in the pantheon of wine and a very clear idea of where good sauvignon blanc should be grown, when to pick it, and how to produce it. So far Rombauer has sourced their grapes, and while Richie is very pleased with the quality of the fruit he is on the voracious hunt for land to purchase for sauvignon blanc plantings that is “well drained and too cool for cabernet sauvignon,” which means there isn’t much of it in a place like California. Richie aims to pick his sauvignon blanc at a lower brix when it is “at peak varietal intensity” to ensure good aromatics, the most important element of sauvignon blanc. He claims that any new winemaker should learn to make a good aromatic white, and that if they can’t do it then they shouldn’t be a winemaker.

Rombauer’s 2016 sauvignon blanc offered the gorgeous aromatic profile Richie is going for with tropical and stone fruits and an undercurrent of chalk. With a small percentage aged in 5 to 6 year-old neutral oak, the body is medium in stature with firm structure and zippy acid. It offers nice depth with Key lime, apricot, peach and salty vanilla. It’s one of the very best New World sauvignon blancs out there that’s worth its price tag, and I’d up there with my personal favorites: Greywacke’s “wild” bottling and Efeste’s Feral bottling.

The 2015 chardonnay was, as always, a gold standard for California chardonnay, an all-around iconic wine. Richie explained Rombauer chardonnay has having five core components that fall into a natural balance: (1) ripe fruit, (2) vanilla oak, (3) a creamy palate, and (4) buttery finish all bound together by (5) good acid. “If you don’t have all five, you have a Rombauer competitor.” Well, mission accomplished. It’s weighty without being overwhelming. It has green apple, butterscotch, zesty lemon-lime and toasted oak. It’s among the best values in quality chardonnay from anywhere in the world, and a go-to high value answer for lush but non-butter bomb California chardonnay along with Smith-Madrone Winery.

We then transitioned to the red wines with the 2013 merlot. Like all Rombauer wines, this one was hand-picked and the berries were de-stemmed using a berry shaker instead of a de-stemmer. One-third of the vintage was fermented in barrels that were rolled instead of pumped over, an approach Richie pursues to fill out the mid palate of the finished product. The end result is quite good. The nose is bursting with cocoa, cherries, black current and plum, graphite and a small amount of iodine. The palate is full bodied offering just enough acidity to balance great density that doubles down on dark cherries, mocha, and smoke. There’s a nice dose of saline in the mid palate. This is a great wine to pour blind for people who claim they don’t like merlot, and just as great to pour for those who say they do.

Like the merlot, the 2013 cabernet sauvignon saw barrel fermentation. 70%, to be exact, was fermented in barrel. This one is still young. The nose is still reticent but its dark aromas tease what will likely blossom into a tantalizing bounty of full-blown scents. It’s full on the body, very smooth and round. Richie called it an “iron fist in a velvet glove” which seems exactly right to me. It offers candied cherries, blackberries and dark plum, along with cinnamon, cocoa, graphite and a refreshing amount of orange zest. I imagine this will offer a lot of depth while retaining its refinement as it ages.

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An optical sorter. Picture credit: rombauer.com

The star of the lineup was the 2013 Diamond Selection cabernet sauvignon. My first note from the tasting is “that’s a special wine,” followed by “so dynamic, so young.” As Richie said, this will outlive us all. It offers ripe red, black and blue fruits buried deep in an elegant tannic structure balanced by perfect acidity. It also features toasted hazelnuts, blood orange, dark chocolate, and anise. This would be a shame not to try, and an even bigger shame not to age for as long as you can be patient.

This Rombauer line up was superb, but only a fraction of what Richie and his team produce. Much of their wine, including single vineyard wines and a late harvest chardonnay, among others, are available exclusively at the winery and through their wine club. Based on this experience, the limited productions wines are likely worth the trip.

My conclusion after this experience is really quite simple: the wine of Rombauer is so good because the people behind it are obsessively focused on delivering their very best to their customers and they put their all into the effort. As I said above, many wineries speak like this about themselves, but few offer products that are convincing. Rombauer leaves no question.