Vineyard & Winery Management

January - February 2012

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Page 137 of 139

END POST Grand Cru? Says who? oes "California Grand Cru" sound like an oxymoron? Not to Sea Smoke Cellars. The Santa Barbara County winery placed the term on its front label for its 2009 wines. The 350- acre parcel was a bean field prior to being planted to pinot noir and chardonnay in 1999 by owner Bob Davids. Needless to say, put- ting "grand cru" ("great growth") on the label is pure marketing, as California has no codified cru sys- tem, a French classification for the vineyards of Burgundy (and other regions), with grand cru at the apo- gee. I asked the principals at Sea Smoke how they arrived at a deci- sion to use the self-aggrandizing term, which oddly is not one of the 14 protected terms in the 2005 European Union-United States bilateral accord concerning wine terms. They pointed me to an article by Wine Spectator's James Laube, who, in passing, referred to the Sea Smoke property as "an important part of Santa Barbara's wine scene and one of its 'grand cru' properties." I posted about the unilateral proclamation on my blog and it unleashed a tremendous backlash in the online wine world, ranging from scorn to hilarity. If Las Vegas bookies were interested in vinous things, the odds would be long against Sea Smoke repeating the term for its 2010 vintage wines. After I unearthed it, many in the online commentariat, including Mike Steinberger on his blog, won- dered whether California needs a system for classifying vineyards. I say no, for several reasons. California is a young region in winemaking terms. Although there were shoots of quality that 138 VINEYARD & WINERY MANAGEMENT JAN - FEB 2012 appeared in the late 19th century, and some age-worthy cabernet sauvignons produced in the 1940s and 1950s from vineyards such as Inglenook, the bulk of vineyard and winery development for the state's top wines has occurred since approximately 1968. So, in many cases, the best wineries are still run by the people who found- ed them. While some stars can emerge in one generation, it's hard to solidify a list of top sites while there is so much flux. Climate change contributes to the flux: A notable 2006 research paper published in the "Proceed- ings of the National Academy of Sciences" forecast a possible reduction of 81% in premium wine grape production during the next century. The main cause, it cited, was a rise in "extreme heat" days. Indeed, Kevin Harvey and his team at Rhys Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains have won much critical praise for their wines in a short time. A key to their success is meticulously scouring North- ern California for vineyard sites to develop that are so cool today that the grapes have difficulty ripening (indeed, one of Rhys' syrah vine- yards will be used exclusively for rosé in 2011). It's the producer's view that "many of California's best pinot terroirs are yet undiscov- ered," as it recently tweeted. Bordeaux had several producer (rather than vineyard) classifica- tions in the 75 years prior to the one that has endured to this day, the 1855 classification. But that remains simply a snapshot from a given moment, when at least one producer with a good site was in reorganization; others have added vineyard acreage since 1855, TYLER COLMAN Tyler Colman, author of the wine blog Dr. Vino, teaches wine classes at New York Uni- versity and the University of Chicago, and wrote the book "Wine Politics: How Gov- ernments, Environmentalists, Mobsters, and Critics Influence the Wines We Drink." some from neighboring properties that were not included in 1855. Refreshing the classification every decade or so, which the Bordeaux Right Bank region Saint-Emilion does, has the intention of keeping it fresh and relevant. But as the Saint-Emilion example has shown, it can be fraught with acrimony and lawsuits, leaving the whole classifi- cation stymied. Another obstacle to the imple- mentation of a cru system isn't just who would be included, but also who would be doing the choos- ing. If it were just producers, it would lack legitimacy. Critics could certainly weigh in independently. While the broadest mix, including critics, producers and academics, could provide the most legitimacy, it is also unwieldy – and surpris- ingly similar to the tasting panels of the French appellation system. In France, the appellation risks becoming a rump system as its tasting panels have rewarded medi- ocrity and punished producers who dare to pursue individuality within the regional vernacular. This isn't a direction in which California wants to head. We don't have a cru system. For better or worse, we have the mar- ket. Bonne chance. (Opinions expressed in this col- umn do not necessarily reflect those of Vineyard & Winery Man- agement.) Comments? Please e-mail us at WWW.VWM-ONLINE.COM

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