Once upon a time, a decade or so ago, the word allocation struck both enthusiasm and fear into the hearts of the world of wine. You see, there were wines that were so sought after, that wineries and wine distributors would deem whom to be worthy to be doled out in bottle quantities, often after fulfilling other obligations. So egregious were these allocations, that they were sometime linked to completely disparate products from suppliers that have no relationship. Others were so unrealistic that only a few could really ever earn these allocations. It was a time when a high Parker score on a relatively inexpensive aussie wine sent buyers into a fervor. Allocations were once so crazy that large wineries didn't sell, they just handled allocations. Then the wine industry changed forever. Some people like to think that it didn't, but it did. It changed forever and will never be the same again.
Without reliving the economy, 9/11, housing bubble, etc. What has really happened is that buyers have rebelled against the allocations and told wineries and distributors to shove it. They don't need the wines that they were allocated. They have learned that being a good wine merchant is not determined by how much you can bully your rep and distributor into increasing your allocation, it is about finding the road that is perhaps, less traveled. It is about forging your own path, on your own terms, not being beholden to sell anything you don't want to just because they have something you do want. Most importantly though, consumers have stopped (although not completely) seeking out these rare, highly rated prizes. The ratings don't matter so much anymore, and the droning white noise of the greatest vintage ever proclamations has long since stopped shaping anyone's cellar.
It has been replaced by an egalitarian-merit based wine buying populace, that is more concerned about the opinion of the guy in the wine shop that some douche-y wine writer (thank you internet). The feeding frenzy has subsided.
How would you feel if you were on the other side of that equation? Where you don't get allocated something? You wouldn't take real kindly when the well dried up and you got your crack, would you? That's where we are now. Now, when people say allocation, I worry that this will set off some latent response that they wish they would have said to their distributor in 1999. Suppliers need to de-emphasize the idea of allocations (assuming there are many left that still need to do this). Distributors need to switch over to the old-school method of an offering. It's a much more humble tact, and more appreciated. allocations implies that only these people are going to be "offered" these wines. Take everything you get, say thank you for every order, and if you can only offer a finite amount of wine, be courteous and tactful, it will go a lot further.
One of the greatest mountains I have to climb is giving a brief explanation of what makes Chave so special. "Scoreboard!" Is neither respectful, nor accurate. I've bought or sold Chave practically my entire wine career. I've tasted the wines countless times. I've probably tasted every vintage for the last 20 years, not to mention a respectable smattering of 60's, 70's and 80's bottlings. Yet, even after all of these years, I am just now beginning to be able to articulate what makes these wines quite unlike anything else the world of wine has ever produced.
History Let's get this one out of the way first. Chave has been passed down father to son since 1481. 500+ years. To put this in perspective, They were old when Galileo was born. When they first planted Syrah in this family at this site, Columbus had not yet left for the New World. That's pretty old, and they've been an elite producer as far back as the books go. 16 generations. Although, if you speak to people in Hermitage (a scant 326 acres), you'll learn that Syrah has been grown here since about 500 B.C.
Varietals "More than anything Hermitage is great, in the sense of Grand Vin, and quite unusually, it is great for both the white and the red wines. It is very rare to have an appellation where you can make both red and white at the same level of quality." -JL Chave
In my (probably controversial) opinion, you can make a claim that Syrah is France's one true Nobel red grape. Pinot Noir is a close second, however, Pinot Noir is a little too fickle in tough vintages. It's many things, and not to downgrade Pinot by any measure, but it just doesn't quite compare to the upside of Syrah. These wines are tremendous in off vintages and age beautifully. It is a varietal that grows well seemingly everywhere, but nowhere else does it become what it is in Hermitage. There is no mono-varietal wine in the world that reaches the heights of Hermitage. The whites on the other hand are remarkable in how they elevate 2 grapes that cannot stand alone, but together, make what many believe to be be the greatest white wine in the world. Roussanne and Marsanne are difficult and unruly. They can get out of whack very easily. When they are done right, it's like suspended animation, these wines don't age, they slowly accelerate. They live seemingly forever without even turning color.
Hermitage "When you look at our bottles you see what you need to know about us. We don't want to be Chave, we want to be Hermitage. That's where the wine comes from. It just happens to be Chave. Our vineyards are on the hills because they need to look for the sun. Hermitage is Hermitage because it faces south. If there is a place that ever was supposed to be a home for grapes it is Hermitage. I thank my history and my family for finding it. We are very lucky to have these vineyards." -JL Chave
Jean Louis Chave and Hermitage are synonymous. Chave will go to great lengths to keep the conversation about Hermitage rather than about Chave. It is these 326 special acres that is so unique, and Chave is fortunate to own about 10% of the AC including parcels of 9 of the 18 vineyards in Hermitage. Granite hillsides and a very cool climate encourage minerality and slow development. 75% is planted to red 25% is a field blend of Roussanne and Marsanne. The vines are very old, many over 100 years. So old that when they were planted, they didn't realize that Marsanne and Roussanne were different grapes. Chave does not know the percent of the white varietals only the percentages from each of the vineyards.
Grand Vin What can be said that hasn't already been said? The critics have always (rightfully) fawned over both the red and the white. The red can show: black raspberries, creme de cassis, camphor, acacia flowers, tobacco, truffle, cocoa, braised fig, warm black currant, crushed plum, black cherry, incense, iron and black olive. all with a balanced acidity and silky tannin structure. The white, is something altogether different: Aromas of white flowers, quince, and honeyed citrus, zesty acidity, truffles, white peaches, honeysuckle, marmalade, and crushed rocks. The white is a clinic in both weight and acidity.
Winemaking It's obviously sacrilegious to even use that term when the wine gods have given you something as rare and special as Hermitage. Manipulation is not only out of the question, it is unnecessary. Hermitage gives a bounty every year, only the great vignerons can find that bounty.
"We make each parcel separately, and we keep them that way. You have to wait until the very end to see each wine express its personality, and then to finally be able to answer this question: what is Hermitage? There are different answers to that question, but as we like to say, we don't propose more than one each year. Making wine is not our job, it is our life. So this blending every year is not something to do on the day you go into your cellar and say "I feel well, I'm going to blend today." You think about it all the time. You blend in your mind, all the time. It is definitely emotional, and the emotional is important. But you can't be entirely emotional about it, because it is also your livelihood. You need to be objective sometimes, too."
While this may be a decidedly hand's off winemaking (perhaps elevage-ing?) approach, it is not a task that is taken lightly. The composition of the art is dependent on the color palate each vintage. Chave is blessed by having more to choose from than anyone. 500 years of intertwined DNA between the vines of Hermitage and the Chave family has brought both wisdom and humility with one pursuit: to showcase the very best that Hermitage can be, every single year.
Once in a while, you come across a winery that is beyond comparison. A winery that sows their own path and is unique in every sense of the word. I've represented Wild Hog for a number of years. Each wine they make is singular. Specializing, but not limited to Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Italian Varietals. Each vintage is a completely unique experience.
Daniel and Marion Schoenfeld began making wine in 1977. Located in the "true" Sonoma Coast, barely 5 miles from the Ocean, but above the Fog Line. Theirs is less a vineyard than a working farm. Providing year round vegetables for their table, the Schoenfeld's do everything they can to live sustainably. Their farm and vineyard was certified organic 30 years ago. All of the buzz words we use today to describe artisan wine is the only method they've known. No filtration, handmade, clean wines is all they do. Each vintage acts differently, Daniel encourages this expression.
He loves dense, robust, and fascinating wines. Each is rich, but with tremendous structure and acidity. Most importantly, each wine is it's own journey. A wise winemaker once told me the secrets to secondary flavors in dense wines-ripeness and hands off winemaking. Having exactly zero winemaking experience, I took him at his word, and Wild Hog's wines certainly seem to affirm this theory. While the wines have pretty fruit, it's the secondary flavors and aromas that make these wines so unique and special. Many of the wines have herbs and flowers on the nose, but also the unmistakeable nose of the outdoors. Maybe it's the power of suggestion, but I feel like I get the reflection of the land in the wines, just as you hear the sound of the ocean in a shell. I hope it's true, because that would certainly seem to be Daniel's loftiest goal, to purely reflect the land.
One of the coolest parts of my job is spending time with fascinating wine people. Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards is one of my most visible. These are parts of a fascinating hour Randall spent with Austin
Our good friend, Austin Beeman, interviewed Randall Grahm back in March while I was chaperoning him around Ohio.. This very well structured and respectful interview was conducted one morning in Akron. Randall has some tea, and was quite engaging. Kudos to Austin's interview style, I've seen countless "professionals" step all over Randall's thoughts. These are parts 5-7 (of 10).
Recently, I have participated in a couple of County Fairs as a wine judge. The entrants were all home winemakers, and about 80% of the wines were made from fruit other than grapes. Historically, I had scoffed at fruit wines. As wisdom (perhaps) has crept in, I've begun to philosophically understand the importance of these wines.
I was surprised at how much I loved a few of the wines I tasted, especially a local blueberry wine that was mostly dry. The local fruit wines outshone the grape wines, either local or from kits. Local produce and the products made from local produce, usually, have the highest ceiling. No matter what anyone says, we just don't have great grapes to make wine from, so blueberries make a lot of sense.
This is a tremendous exercise for any wine professional. when you really start to delve into some 200 odd wines, made from a wide variety of different fruits, you begin to realize something: only grapes seem to present the "secondary" flavors that we associate with quality wines. Fruit wines, generally, taste like the fruit from which they came. Fruit wines also tend to surprise the seasoned wine cynics. They hit our palate and evoke memories long dormant (think of the ratatouille in "Ratatouille"). This really helped me to sort through the differences in cherries, raspberries, cranberries, etc on the palate
Making wine is difficult. It's tedious and messy. Making wine from fruit is as much a skill as canning or preserving, it's an important culinary trait. Grapes ultimately have more upside, but I suspect, it's much tougher to make wines from grapes than from fruit. Grape winemaking, must surely be the pinnacle of the fermented fruit arts, and tasting 200 good fruit wines, helped me to remember the skill it takes to ferment clean, and create wines that are even drinkable, let alone trans-formative.