Last week I left the wine road untraveled, taking time off for family. We were remote - away from radios, TVs, phones, and email. Well, almost too remote for email. But not too remote for the New York Times. You’d be surprised where it can turn up these days. And were you to read the March 5th edition of the National Report, Jesse McKinley's article on the Sonoma County Pruning Championships might have caught your eye too. As the photo depicts, it determines who can prune five vines in the least amount of time, but with penalties for poor quality cuts or for leaving withered clusters from last year.
And Sonoma is not alone in this sort of competition. France hosted the E.U. version this week. Though U.S. pruning competitions are more often found in just the larger AVA’s, there are dozens of them across our many growing areas.
These competitions provide much-deserved bragging rights for the talented fieldworkers who assure each vine enters the new season trimmed to perfection, thus affording a winemaker his or her first irreversible decision that will determine the quality of their next vintage...
The NYT article discusses the differences between U.S. competitions and those of Europe - domestic competitions focus on speed, the E.U. on technique and in-depth knowledge (through both an oral and written exam). Is it any wonder the French have no word for "Winemaker"? The closest is Vigneron, which translates as WineGROWER.
But having recently participated in the pruning at Abbey-Harris Vineyard, I have been made both sore and keenly aware of the skills necessary to continue the growth of a healthy, premium grape vine. And while the Cowboy Winemakers of the new world can still learn much from the old guard, we are seeing a number of developments not yet as common across the pond.
For one, fewer premium winemakers are buying grapes by the ton – the standard arrangement during the last half of the 1900's - because doing so pits the winemaker’s interest in low-yielding, high-quality vines against the grower’s interest in maximizing yield per acre.
Either as a cause or an affect of the explosion in premium boutique producers, this quality-stifling arrangement is being replaced by "strategic partnerships" between producers and premium vineyard owners. With this approach, the grower charges a flat rate per acre regardless of its yield. In this enlightened arrangement, the grower and producer work together to make decisions affecting grape quality while sharing the risk of poor vintages. Growers become motivated to give the winemaker the best grapes possible (the vineyard name appears on each wine's label) in order to increase the prestige of their vineyard name and the resulting price they can charge in subsequent years. Such vineyard owners can often take their pick from among premium producers, eagerly vying for their limited supply of succulent grapes.
Take, for example, wines made from the famed vineyards Bien Nacido, Fiddlestix, Solomon Hills or Clos Pepe (just to name a few). Each of these vineyards sell the majority of their fruit to other producers and are prominently featured on each wine's label.
Wine fans willing to taste a number of wines produced from a single vineyard’s grapes begin to understand the taste profile of the vineyard, to gain a sense of its place. Along the way, they also develop favorites among the various producers buying its fruit. It's all part of the fun of this wonderful hobby that is wine.
Compare These Wines From Bien Nacido Vineyards
- J. Wilkes Wines, 2001 Pinot Noir, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Block Q. $48.50
- Labyrinth, 2004 Pinot Noir, Bien Nacido Vineyard. $27.00
- J. Wilkes, 2005 Pinot Blanc, Bien Nacido Vineyard. $20.00
- Ovene Winery, 2004 Pinot Blanc, Bien Nacido Vineyard. $15.00 Note, this wine contains a bit of Muscat blended in. As such, it does not provide a direct comparison. After much self-deliberation, I decided to include it simply as an option for this excercise. Differences in vintage as well as blend make a direct comparison difficult, if not moot)
Compare These Wines From Solomon Hills Vineyard
- J. Wilkes Wines, 2005 Pinot Noir, Solomon Hills Vineyard. $38.00
- Ovene Winery, 2004 Pinot Noir, Solomon Hills Vineyard. $40.00
Compare These Wines From Fiddlestix Vineyard
- Arcadian, 2002 Pinot Noir, Fiddlestix Vineyard. $50.00
- Fiddlehead Cellars, 2002 Pinot Noir "728" (their designation for this particular wine from "Fiddlestix", their estate vineyard, located at mile marker 728). $38.00
- Ortman Family Vineyards, 2003 Pinot Noir, Fiddlestix Vineyard. $40.00
Dave Chambers, Wine Merchant
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"Excess upon occasion is exhilarating.
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