OJAI — ONE after another, the bunches of soft or raisiny grapes in the rejection bin pile up. Adam Tolmach and his Ojai Vineyard crew are sorting the last grapes of the 2007 harvest, and 1 in 10 purple clusters aren't making the cut. It's the third week in October, an early finish -- or early for Tolmach, who produces opulent Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah wines. Next year's harvest, he says, could be even earlier, and the following year may be earlier still. Tolmach is pushing up his harvest dates to pick less-ripe grapes and rejecting bunches that might have made the grade in previous vintages to bring his wines back in balance -- a balance he says he lost in the years spent trying to serve two masters: himself and wine critic Robert Parker.
After 25 years, Santa Barbara's original cult winemaker has had a crisis of conscience. "We got the scores we wanted, but we went away from what I personally like," Tolmach says. "We lost our rudder when we went for ever bolder, riper flavors." Specifically, he says, the alcohol levels of his wines, at 15% and higher, are too high.
Graying corkscrew curls poke out from under his floppy hat as Tolmach stands in the doorway of one of the small, wood-frame buildings around the edge of the open-air cement pad where he makes 6,000 cases of wine a year, including his Melville Syrah and Clos Pepe Pinot Noir. The makeshift winery, a rustic hideaway near Ojai, sits on land left to him by his grandfather. As he steps out into the sun, signaling to his crew to follow him up the stone steps to his house, where he'll make them a lunch of grilled cheese and onion sandwiches, he says, "We have to do the right thing. I'd stopped drinking my own wines."
It's an unprecedented statement. In the ongoing debate about how big is too big for California wines, it's unusual for such a well-respected vintner to even weigh in, much less declare he's made a mistake by making wines that receive critical acclaim. And then to say he's changing course and expects his future wines might be less popular with those same critics? Well, that just never happens. The market for premium wines is enormously influenced by ratings such as those in Parker's Wine Advocate newsletter. At this point, most consumers who are willing to spend the $40 to $60 Tolmach charges for a bottle are disappointed if a California wine doesn't deliver the kind of fireworks Parker praises.
Ripe for a change
BUT Tolmach thinks American consumers will respond, as their European counterparts do, to balanced, lower-alcohol wines -- if they're offered the option. "Low-alcohol" is no longer synonymous with thin and acidic, he says. With careful vineyard management, it is possible to retain rich flavors without sending alcohols soaring. And he will do it, he says, without adding water or physically removing alcohol -- two controversial winemaking tricks common in California.
The goal is to produce 14%-alcohol wines with nuance, Tolmach says. He wants to avoid overripe prune and jam flavors and preserve acidity to allow the more delicate floral and herbal qualities to emerge. "I want to take the Eurocentric sense of balance and apply it in California. We add no acid. No water. It's about picking at the right time and from cooler climate vineyards," he says.
"By farming better, I can have full ripeness earlier," he says. It's a matter of spending more time in the vineyard to reduce grape yields in stages while increasing the leaf canopy to shade the grapes from too much sun. Naturally balanced wines produced naturally, he says.
Tolmach isn't interested in going back to the early 1980s when his Ojai Vineyard wines contained 12% and 13% alcohol. With many California wines now weighing in at 16% alcohol and higher, he considers 14% restrained.
Looking for balance
TOLMACH isn't the only vintner to come to this conclusion. "Take any 20 winemakers, and they are all thinking about alcohol levels," says Joe Davis, owner of Arcadian Winery, a Pinot Noir vintner in Solvang and an outspoken advocate of lower-alcohol wines. His wines have rarely surpassed 14% alcohol.
Winemaker Ray Coursen decided to dial back the alcohol levels in his Napa Valley Elyse wines because sales were slipping. "We found ourselves making wines that were 16.2% and 16.4% alcohol, which is very easy to do in California," Coursen says.
"There is a lot to be said for these bigger wines. But one thing is certain, two people can't share a bottle with dinner." The wines overwhelm the meal, Coursen says. "We have to adapt. You are going to see more vintners change."
Like Tolmach, he's following a slow process of small changes in the vineyard and avoiding adding water during fermentation and other winemaking tricks. He's harvesting extremely small vineyard sections as they ripen, rather than waiting for all of the grapes in a vineyard to reach a minimum level of ripeness.
Top restaurants want wines with lower alcohol levels, says James Hall, winemaker and partner in Patz & Hall in Sonoma.