Taking on Napa's Tastemaker ; A Small Group of Vintners Is Looking to Reshape the American Palate

By Schoenfeld, Bruce | International New York Times, May 30, 2015 | Go to article overview

Taking on Napa's Tastemaker ; A Small Group of Vintners Is Looking to Reshape the American Palate


Schoenfeld, Bruce, International New York Times


A small group of California vintners is challenging the prevailing standards of how Napa Valley wines should taste, and enraging America's most famous oenophile.

On the steep hills of Central California near Lompoc, on a slope that runs along Santa Rosa Road, two vineyards lie side by side. To all appearances, the Sea Smoke and Wenzlau properties occupy one continuous parcel of land. The vines grow in the same soil and get the same sunlight. Nevertheless, grapes planted only a few feet apart end up in bottles of pinot noir that have little in common.

Sea Smoke's top releases sell for more than $100, and its intensely flavored wines receive all manner of critical acclaim. But the winemaker who leases the Wenzlau vines -- Rajat Parr, a former sommelier who is a co-owner of two wine labels, Sandhi and Domaine de la Cote -- can't understand why anyone would drink them. He believes that the grapes are picked far too late, when they're far too ripe, and that the resulting wine is devoid of both subtlety and freshness. "Our wines are fermenting in barrels, we've gone home," Parr says, "and they haven't picked a berry yet."

Sugar content, which determines alcohol levels, rises as fruit ripens. Parr's wines are full of aromas and flavors that admirers compare to things you would never think to connect to wine, like the leaf-strewn ground in a forest. To Parr, and a growing number of like-minded colleagues, such nuance becomes impossible to achieve when the wines are too alcoholic. He prefers an alcohol concentration below 14 percent and often far lower, as opposed to the 15 percent and higher that is common in California. So Parr harvests his fruit iconoclastically early.

Early one morning, Parr took me to La Cote vineyard, several miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. As we hiked past stick-figure vines, Parr explained that he wanted the specifics of the place -- the shale in the soil, the cutting Pacific wind -- to be evident in the taste of the wine itself. He hates the idea of blending top- quality grapes from different vineyards into the same bottle, which many producers do. Those wines might taste good, but they lack depth and intrigue. "I don't believe in the 'best' -- that the best grapes from different areas come together and create the 'best' wine," he said. "I think there's more to wine than that."

Most California winemakers are trying to produce something more like Sea Smoke than Domaine de la Cote. Before Napa Valley's emergence in the 1980s, highly regarded wines were made in regions - - mostly in France -- where cool, wet summers tended to undermine agricultural efforts. The standout vintages were from the warmest years, those infrequent occasions when grapes reached full maturity before being picked. In California, where sunshine is abundant, fully ripe wines are possible just about every year.

If ripe wines are considered good, many California producers reasoned, those made from grapes brought to the peak of ripeness (or even a bit beyond), should taste even better. That logical leap has created a new American vernacular for wine, a dense, opaque fruitiness well suited to a nation of Pepsi drinkers. More sweet fruit, more of the glycerol that makes wine feel thicker in the mouth, more alcohol. And by extension, more pleasure.

Pleasure is a matter of opinion, of course. But for three decades, the tastes of mainstream American wine drinkers have been shaped by the personal preferences of one man, Robert M. Parker Jr. A 2013 inductee of the California Vintners Hall of Fame -- as a reviewer -- Parker has been anointed by The Atlantic Monthly as "the most influential critic in the world." He has made a career out of championing exactly the style of wine that Parr and his colleagues disdain.

In 2011, in reaction to an American marketplace that they perceived to be dismissive of California wines made in anything but the superripe style, Parr and Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards in Sonoma County began soliciting members for a loose confederation of pinot noir producers called In Pursuit of Balance. …

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