Where beer's concerned, and with distilled spirits such as vodka and whiskey, taste and quality are pretty much standardized. Wine, on the other hand, is a perpetual joy because of its variations--not only from wine maker to wine maker but also from vintage to vintage and from grape to grape.
The French call this gout de terroir , which translates--too literally--as the "taste of earth." A Pinot noir planted on the golden slopes of Burgundy has almost no relationship to the same vine growing on the rolling benchlands of the Vosges Mountains in Alsace. Similarities may occur in wines, but because of vintage variations from year to year and the difference in soil from plot to plot--let alone from microclimate to microclimate--no two wines, even of the same title, will ever be the same.
Studies by the U.S. Department of Agriculture have shown that high among the reasons why people don't buy or use wine--beyond religious considerations--is a lack of knowledge of the product. It thus becomes a challenge to the growing number of wine writers to demystify the subject, though by nature, the joy and the "magic" lie precisely in that mystery of difference.
With that in mind, veteran Sonoma County wine maker Rodney Strong recently conducted a one-day vineyard seminar for a group of wine writers. (In the eternal triptych of wine making--the soil, the vine and the wine maker's skill--one must consider the wine maker and his expert contribution as much as the soil and the grape.)
Time and circumstances have reduced the Strongs' one-time holdings of some 5,000 acres to a still significant 1,200 premium acres with stellar titles: Chalk Hill and River West (Chardonnays), River East (Pinot noir), Alexander's Crown (Cabernet Sauvignon) and Charlotte's Home (Sauvignon blanc).
As we stood among the vines on an eminence of the Chalk Hill vineyard, Strong declared: "I don't like wimpy little Chardonnays that some people will say are 'food wines.' " Therefore his cuvee of Piper Sonoma gets a first picking at 17 to 20 Brix, resulting in keen acidity for the crisp, sparkling wine. For the noble Chalk Hill Chardonnay table wine, a later picking with higher sugar readings is called for.
We were then driven to the River West vineyard in the Russian River Valley, where Chardonnay vines flourish in gravelly loam soil on a 289-acre plot, also the site of 20 acres of 80-year-old Zinfandel vines in light-red volcanic soil. Our attention was directed to the hedge pruning on the Chardonnay vines. Strong had directed the removal of leaves from the east side of the rows, exposing the ripening grapes, because otherwise, he said, the leaves would act as reservoirs of dew that might drip down onto the berry clusters, possibly causing bunch-rot. The vines on the west side were allowed to keep their leaves so that they could get the long, ripening rays of the sun, with protective shade for afternoons.
Well before lunch, we returned to the winery for vertical tastings of Chalk Hill and River West Chardonnays, from 1982 through 1985. The Chardonnays of Chalk Hill had consistent richness, depth of taste and hints of apricot in bouquet; the River West Chardonnays had that spectrum of crispness so enjoyed by Francophiles. Because flavor elements are next to the skins, both wines are given as much as 18 hours of skin contact: "the nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat." None have malolactic fermentation. "I don't think California Chardonnays can afford to spend their acidity that way," Strong averred. "They fall apart. It makes them mousy." Fermented in stainless steel, aged in French oak, each vintage of these wines is a masterpiece of individual charm.
Our seminar also included a visit to the spectacular Alexander's Crown vineyard in the Alexander Valley, a hilltop where Strong pioneered a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon planting. The vertical tasting of these singularly elegant Cabernets, from 1974 to 1981, was almost awesome. I remember, as if it were yesterday, the stunning debut of the 1974 Alexander's Crown. Wholly seductive then, it's holding well. But it was the variation from vintage to vintage that made this tasting adventure such a privilege. The current release, 1980 ($12), which shows the depth and complexity of the 1974, belongs in any wine lover's collection of fine clarets.
As we met for dinner, sipping our way through the vintage Brut, Blanc de Noirs and tete de cuvee fine-beaded sparklers, I could not help but retrace the morning pilgrimage among the vines, including the 1984 Charlotte's Home Vineyard Fume Blanc ($7), a lovely, silky wine with no grassiness, from the Alexander Valley vineyard just below the Crown.
Recollections also include a new awareness of Strong's personal dedication to the Old Vines River West Zinfandel. Every vintage is a collector's item. We tasted those from 1976 to 1981. This fall, be on the lookout for the 1980, but you really ought to sample every one as it comes along. The yield is down to one ton per acre--not very efficient but gloriously intense.
Differences in wines, even among the most familiar titles, is what keeps the wine game exciting and the adventure ever new. To be curious about all the good California wines is an ongoing challenge.