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News from the Anderson Valley Pinot Conference

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Contents: Event and its region. Technical program highlights. New wine consumers ending the era of dominant critics. John Haeger's new Pinot book. Winery notes. Scuttlebutt: payola and Dramamine.


Anderson Valley (AV), the northernmost California grape-growing coastal river valley, is known for cool-climate varieties including Pinot Noir. Though the valley's southeastern tip touches Sonoma County, it and the grape-growing AVA subregions are essentially of Mendocino County. 2008 (11th annual) Pinot Noir Conference and Festival this past weekend included an intense technical program Friday, a Saturday general tasting, and dinners and other events at area wineries. Less convenient than the mass wine tastings at metropolitan convention centers, this event nevertheless draws hundreds who brave the Dramamine road (see Scuttlebutt) to taste the wines literally on their native soil. This conference also concentrates Pinot insight, just as the valley itself yields serious wines disproportionate to its acreage.


Technical session talks, to a strongly local and mostly trade audience, reported developments in grape growing, winemaking, economics, legalities. Some very distinguished wine experts participated this time, of international credibility. I greeted Peter Marks (formerly of the Copia food-wine museum, now at Icon Wines), an early US Master of Wine (and years ago, bit of a mentor to me on Burgundies).


McGourty, county winegrowing and plant-sci advisor, quoted annual data and a Darrell Corti quip from a Cabernet meeting the day before. To effect that Mendo. County makes wines tasting refreshingly unlike "dry dessert wines." (They'd been lined up next to some imposing French and Napa labels.) John Haeger put Pinot production in broad perspective, estimating 160k acres now planted worldwide (37-38k in North America, 27k California; Oregon almost 9k and rising) with average metric yield 53 hl/ha, half the yield for wine grapes in general. A pie chart also showed that most of the world's major wine-grape plantings, in the Mancha plain for example, are varieties "unheard-of" in US markets. Clone-speak and the "DRC syndrome:" improbable number of selections claim prestigious pedigree. Large plantings of one clone now underway in Lodi (Ca.) area, "with growers contracted to Gallo," so be prepared for "the $10 bottle." Annie Bones of the Wine Institute reviewed current direct-ship rules, 49 different requirement sets for 49 states, changing constantly. Andy Walker, UC-Davis plant geneticist, described research projects on rootstock pest resistance. The extreme complexity of Phylloxera attacks (little understood despite more than a century of serious research). Plant scientists Jessica Cortell and Ginny Lambrix detailed soil's effects on grape chemistry, root behavior, flavors. For semi-serious perspective, Lambrix profiled chemical contributions to aroma, mouthfeel, etc. to obtain a hypothetical "98-point wine" in a magazine's reviews. Supplementing theory with practice were two presentations by featured wineries, Breggo Cellars (Anderson Valley) and Scherrer Winery (Sonoma County). Winemakers explained their approaches and the characteristics of their wines, already in sample glasses for us to taste. At the session's close came news of Robert Mondavi's death.


If a consensus of diverse high-profile speakers is accurate, a generational shift in attitudes is underway among both new US wine consumers and professionals coming into the business, aged in their 20s. This emerged from a panel discussion about presenting Pinot Noir to consumers and the trade, and audience questions about big, high-alcohol dark-red wines. US consumers have a "bell curve" of preferences, one panelist replied, but most of them dislike high-alcohol high-extract wines. "The era is now coming to an end," added another expert who studies wine consumer behavior, of "blind obedience" to proxy tasters with big-wine palates. The core demographic that follows those tasters is "50-somethings with wine cellars," with tastes and assumptions the new consumers don't share. "The younger generation is not thinking of wine" as their parents did -- another speaker -- "as a number, or a prestige point." Asked for details by a confessed 50-something listener (with wine cellar), that expert said the new consumers get wine information from more diffuse sources -- new media, word of mouth, personal tasting. The questioner recalled becoming seriously interested in wine around age 20 ("me too," the expert said), and recalled seeing those numerical tasters arrive, not so long ago, displacing earlier independent US wine-critic media, a history often unknown or garbled among 50-something wine geeks who post online. Implying that many of them came to wine enthusiasm later in life than we did. (Agreement.) Why don't we hear more about this consumer shift? Well, for one thing, the high-profile wine media don't talk about it.


Concerning another attitude shift, a speaker related a learning experience while teaching a university-extension general wine class to more than 100 wine consumers, mostly young, of diverse backgrounds and means. This teacher sought a show of hands: What bottle price would you readily pay, say within the past week. $10, $20, $30, $40? Surprisingly, just a few of 100-plus hands came down by $40. New consumers are more at ease with wine in general, said the speaker; more secure in their tastes, and they willingly spend for quality.


John Haeger, author of North American Pinot Noir (2004), told me of his new book Pacific Pinot Noir (ISBN 0520253175), due for Autumn release. It's a companion volume complementing his 2004 title (itself the main modern treatment available on its subject). The new book surveys current producers in what the earlier book labeled the "Pacific Pinot Zone."


Brief winery notes. I focus here on house styles more than individual bottlings, and on one of two stylistic camps that roughly divide AV's winemakers. I seek complex subtle wines that may need bottle age to show those features, revealing minerality and silky textures in the process. These also are characteristics of the Pinot Noir wines that made the grape famous on its home soil of Burgundy. The term "old-world" style is heard, even with California grapes, whose wines are not Burgundies even if inspired by them. A sour-cherry fruit note is a local signature. The alternative is a "new-world" or fruit-forward style, which some consumers prefer. Goldeneye exemplifies a strong AV producer aiming avowedly for new-world style.


Saturday, a heat wave and windless day made the tasting tent an oven. Though that didn't seem to hurt smell or taste sense, I didn't linger or (consequently) sample all the producers I wanted to, and followed up with a few winery visits. Baxter, Black Kite, Copain, Drew, Elke, Husch, Lazy Creek, and others continue to make wines in styles I enjoy. Couloir was a new producer with impressive barrel samples of 2007 from two local vineyards. I caught what I called a Dujacy edge in the Monument Valley sample and told the winemaker, asking if he deliberately included stems, which he confirmed, pleased by the comparison. At Lazy Creek's winery, the new 2006 estate Pinot (80% old vines, $39.50) was unusually concentrated, hard, disjoint. Like Paul Draper's Monte Bello Cabernet 150 miles to the south, this wine is becoming an article of faith sustained through past experience. Josh Chandler now recommends "5-15 years" aging on the back label. (His entry-level "Red Table Wine," a solid Anderson Valley MV Pinot at $21, continues production though I haven't tasted the latest batch, containing 1999 through 2007 vintages in a solera-type blend.)


Scuttlebutt: Stories of a wine publication soliciting advertising in exchange for a specified increase in a wine's (already respectable) point score. Big discussion one evening addressed the Disneyland Threat, a favorite topic (and term) among old AV hands. Basically, Anderson Valley looks much as I witnessed it 40 years ago, while Napa Valley does not, some folks even having worked to stick ostentatious villas amid former natural vistas. Local consensus finds Anderson Valley facing less of that threat, for two reasons. First, AV is much less "near anything," being more remote and mainly a corridor en route coastal destinations. Secondly there's the Dramamine road. The long serpentine highway at the valley's hilly eastern end is easy to joke about when you're not driving it. An esteemed sparkling-wine maker and local wit still recalls his rude surprise driving that road the first time, and its effect on children in the rear seat. (At least, their mother remarked practically, they learned the skill of using paper bags.) As a child I had a similar introduction to that road. The winemaker proposed a combined advertising opportunity and vague warning. A road sign or billboard: "Protected by Dramamine."

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US consumers have a "bell curve" of preferences, one panelist replied, but most of them dislike high-alcohol high-extract wines.


Max, Certainly true of Pinot Noir and other varietals that should be more nuanced rather than more powerful.


I wonder if Ken Burnap or Jeff Emery ever attends that conference. To me, these guys (Ken before he retired and now Jeff) have made the best domestic PNs year in and year out.


Thanks for the interesting posting!



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