Ban the bomb! Anti-Parker wines

Drinks: Wines
Other: People

The resistance movement, taking a stand against big-scoring Parkerised fruit-bombs, is small but growing in the States – and the restaurant community is leading it. Larry Walker dons his disguise, roots out some false papers and heads underground

The game may be changing for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. A few younger and knowledgeable sommeliers, joined by a band of enlightened winemakers who believe in making Cabernet Sauvignon that is balanced, elegant and capable of ageing, are urging consumers to ‘just say no’ to monster fruit bomb wines.

Balanced wines? Capable of ageing yet drinkable when young? What a novel concept. There are those who argue that balance and elegance have always been there, but they were driven underground by the full frontal assault of jammy, over-extracted ‘Parkerised’ bottlings.

‘I don’t think these wines ever went away. They just haven’t been getting the attention that the bigger, riper wines generate. They are not the aspirational accessories of wealth that are the cult wines,’ says Dawnine Dyer. Dawnine and her husband Bill Dyer have a good handle on Napa Cabernet. They’ve been working with wine in the valley for more than 30 years, both at making it at their own Dyer Vineyards and as consultants.

‘I think any trend towards more balance in wine is being led by sommeliers and the food community, cheered on by a few of us in the wine community,’ she adds. For Dyer, the food community is important because of their emphasis on local, sustainable produce. ‘They appreciate terroir and artisan products, not numerical ratings.’

Numbers game
Ah, the elephant has just stepped out of the cage. The subject of numerical ratings leads to Robert Parker. Has Parker ever reviewed Dyer wines? ‘We don’t normally submit our wines for review. Once he gave us an 89 on our 2006,’ she says.

‘Restaurant buyers, especially sommeliers are saying “I’m tired of these fruit bombs”’ Tom Eddy

She agrees that Parker’s influence has been huge, but believes it might be on the wane. ‘It’s changing. He doesn’t hold sway over the next generation of consumers like he did with their parents. It’s been interesting to watch the ‘grade inflation’ in Parker reviews. When there are hundreds of wines with 95 points, it’s hard to generate the same acquisitional frenzy. It seems to be a winemaking formula that many have mastered.’

‘In general,’ adds Bill, ‘these [high-scoring] wines are made to show best when they go out for the ratings tastings. Colours often fade early, the gobs of fruit get punky and pruny, and they go hollow in the middle.

‘However, over the last year or two there has been some attention raised by some in the trade who are against the overblown style. The Slanted Door Restaurant in San Francisco won’t carry Californian wines because of the perception that this style predominates in our region. However, I still encounter lots of wines that are getting big scores that to me are out of balance and pruney.’

Cool cabernet

‘Much has been made recently of restaurants that won’t sell wines above a certain alcohol percentage. This, to me, is absurd, akin to a clothing store that won’t sell red dresses or striped ties’ Tom Riley

Cathy Corison’s name comes up whenever sommeliers and other winemakers discuss balanced and elegant Cabernet Sauvignon. ‘Her take is that there is a definite trend toward wines of greater finesse,’ says Dawnine. ‘As our industry matures, the field of wine criticism will mature with it, with more voices emerging to help people think and learn about wine. The internet is changing the whole picture very quickly.’

Corison agrees with Dawnine on the connection between balanced wines and food, saying: ‘I value the range of fruit flavours that Cabernet can produce going from red (cherries) and blue (blueberries) to purple (plums, blackberries, currants) before the profile gets to prunes and tar. Dry wine with good, natural acidity is lively and lip-smacking with food. Moderate alcohol better complements most foods.’

Veteran Napa winemaker Tom Eddy (Tom Eddy Wines) is definitely seeing the trend move away from Parkerised wines. ‘It’s happening, and it’s not just my biased view. As I’ve travelled around from market to market over the past two years, I’ve been surprised that restaurant buyers, especially sommeliers are saying, “I’m tired of these fruit bombs, I want to sell elegant wines that are structured, are not sweet, and weren’t bottled yesterday”.’

Consumer confusion
Eddy believes that leadership is coming from sommeliers because most consumers are confused. ‘There are more sheep following sheep these days. I think when the media starts coming out against the Parker style, then consumers will start experimenting outside the Parker model.’

‘As our industry matures, the field of wine criticism will mature with it’ Dawnine Dyer

But Randy Dunn, who has made some legendary Napa Cabernets both under his own label and earlier for Caymus, is less optimistic. ‘I don’t see any trend away from high alcohol wines. If there is to be one, it must come from the press.’

Dunn often hears the wine press talking about higher alcohol wines being the result of better yeasts, or clonal selection or even trellis systems. ‘I tell them that it is none of those things. It is press ratings, and not just Robert Parker, who are constantly pushing the alcohol curve higher,’ he says. ‘I get more and more consumers coming to me and saying, “I don’t drink California wines any more. They all taste the same. They are cocktail wines”.’

John Williams, owner and winemaker at Frog’s Leap, is something of a trendsetter himself. He has taken the lead in promoting a return to dry farming in Napa and is a strong proponent of balanced wines.

However, he too sounds a note of caution for those wanting immediate results. ‘I feel that there are rumblings out there, particularly amongst sommeliers, that the pendulum has swung too far. But I believe that a swing back is far from a trend. Way too many people have too much at stake to assume that this approach to style will be abandoned in any kind of wholesale fashion.’

Juliette Pope, beverage director at Gramercy Tavern in New York City, sees a growing appreciation for more balanced wines, but with a caveat. ‘There will always be some who want fruit bombs, and yet they would deny that all day long. The familiar names will always be in demand; in fact, the lack of them on our list is frequently mentioned by our diners and is a bit of a frustration for some of them, in spite of the fact that there are always a few like Shafer or Caymus to give them that sense of comfort. That said, more and more of our guests are leaving themselves in our hands re [choosing]Californian Cabernets.’

What does she recommend? ‘I am a major fan of Cathy Corison’s wines, the closest that California can get to Bordeaux, especially in her extensive library releases.’ Pope is also a fan of Long Meadow Ranch, Mayacamas and Frog’s Leap among the more familiar names.

Regional variation

 ‘I don’t see any trend away from high alcohol wines. If there is to be one, it must come from the press’ Randy Dunn

Rob Renteria is wine director at Martini House restaurant in St Helena, the heart of Napa wine country. He sees a regional palate difference in wine preference, with West and East Coast diners being aware that ‘less alcohol equals higher acidity equals better food wine.’ On the other hand, ‘Texans and southerners like their wines big.’ Of the classic Napa Cabernets, Renteria is recommending Diamond Creek, Dalla Valle and Araujo Eisele.

Tim Riley is beverage manager of The Beacon Grille in Boston, a city where consumers know their way around a wine list. He tends to buy in to Renteria’s theory. ‘What I really hear guests stressing is their desire to have a wine that’s balanced. I think there is a turn away from gloppy, syrupy wines that taste only of withered fruit and oak barrels.’

However, like many others, he also sounds a note of caution. ‘Much has been made recently of restaurants that won’t sell wines above a certain alcohol percentage. This, to me, is absurd, akin
to a clothing store that won’t sell red dresses or striped ties,’ he says.

‘While I’m sure there are a tiny handful of niche restaurants where guests actively seek out low-alcohol wines that emphasise earth over fruit, most guests in my restaurant are still looking for medium-to full-bodied wines that offer plenty of lively, ripe fruit flavors; they’d just rather these flavours be vibrant and fresh, not jammy or cooked,’ he adds.

According to Riley, many of the classic Napa estates, like Caymus, Silver Oak and Shafer, continue to have loyal followings. ‘Yet, many guests arrive in the restaurant asking for recommendations for Napa wines that are dialed-back, both in style and price. There is definitely an interest in smaller, boutique producers that meet these standards.’

‘Way too many people have too much at stake to assume that this approach to style will be abandoned in any kind of wholesale fashion’ John Williams

Among other wines, he recommends two wineries making primarily wines from mountain vineyards, Tom Eddy Wines and Ladera Wines.

‘Tom has been around for some years now, but his current releases are spectacular; delicious, complex and distinctive wines that are truly the essence of their hillside terroir. Ladera sources grapes from cooler, hillside vineyards, their two estate vineyards being on Mount Veeder and Howell Mountain. The wines are made in a more lavish style, but one that never falls out of balance.’

Riley has put his finger exactly on a key point: wines can be big, they can be enormous, but they can also be balanced.

Balancing act
There are all sorts of tools in the vineyard and in the cellar that can be used to manipulate wines – picking at high sugar levels, adding back acid, putting the wine through a spinning cone process to lower alcohol, adding water – but in the end, what you are left with is a worked-over
one dimensional wine.

‘There will always be some who want fruit bombs, and yet they would deny that all day long. The familiar names will always be in demand’ Juliette Pope

Corison puts it this way: ‘My winemaking is very traditional. At the risk of sounding flippant, my goal is to pick properly ripe grapes from great vineyards, ferment them, age them in French oak barrels for two years and bottle them.

They are manipulated as little as possible. By the time the grapes get into the winery my job is nearly done.’

Obviously, high sugar levels in the grapes lead to higher alcohol and a jammy flavour that overwhelms any hope of varietal or regional character. ‘Too much oak can have the same results. ‘We like the flavour of Cabernet. That is what we are looking for,’ says Dawnine Dyer.

Again, it seems pretty simple.

Better from America

We asked some winemakers and sommeliers to suggest wines to counter the idea that all Californian Cabernets are jammy and one-dimensional

Cathy Corison, owner and winemaker, Corison Wines
‘If I were a sommelier in an upmarket restaurant I would be shopping for older Napa Valley Cabernets in private cellars, that were made in a more reserved style. I’d also focus on cooler vintages like 1999, 2000 and 2005.’

Dawnine Dyer, co-owner Dyer Vineyards
‘Forman, Corison, Selene, Spottswoode, Clos Du Val, Ancien and Dyer, to name a few, make an honest living from honest, balanced wines from very specific sites and sell them to people who want to drink and enjoy them.’

Juliette Pope, beverage director, Gramercy Tavern, New York City
‘I recommend the unknown but very well-made Godspeed wines. How can you not like a very restrained wine from a father-son team whose current release is 2001?’

Rob Renteria, wine director, The Martini House, St Helena
‘Arns Cabernet Sauvignon, 2005. This wine is made by Sandi Belcher. She is from the Robert Mondavi school of winemaking – classic structure, ripeness, acidity. Old school.’

Tim Riley, beverage manager, Beacon Grille, Boston
‘Another property producing truly balanced Cabernets is Truchard Vineyards, in Carneros. Truchard’s Cabernet is definitively cool-climate, reminiscent of wines from Coonawarra or north-eastern Italy. Tight, defined and nuanced, this wine is an altogether different animal from the fatter, richer Cabernets sourced farther up the valley.’

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – September/October 2010

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