Last week, Santa Rosa’s Donelan Family Wines opened the doors of the winery warehouse to community and winery members alike for the launch of their inaugural discussion series, Warehouse Talks.
The event’s topic of conversation? “What is wine style?”
To be exact, the wording on the invite stated: “When we talk about style in our contemporary wine conversations, the concept takes on much greater—and often politically charged—implications. Wines, producers and vineyards seemed to be defined themselves in such limiting terms. What happens to the larger spectrum? What do we leave out and skip over? Who or what determines a wine’s style? Have our politics become too partisan?”
The subject is as hard to wrap one’s head around as it is interesting. Hence why some 70 opinionated people—winemakers, winery owners, marketers, workers alike—turned up on Wednesday evening to hear what I, one of the panelists leading the discussion alongside San Francisco Chronicle writer Esther Mobley, had to say.
I can’t say I walked away with a better sense of what exactly defines “wine style” necessarily. As with so many other avenues of the wine world, it can be in the eye of the beholder. But it was a good springboard for lots of questions, if not always answers.
I do agree, as I think many in the room did, that we’re just now coming out of the darkness of the great California wine-style wars in which the very word “style” became a polemic, a line in the sand, a word that meant more than it was perhaps intended to.
On the one hand, wines were too easily categorized as “Parker fruit bombs,” wines thought to have been made in a voluptuously ripe style to please Robert Parker. The antithesis of this was similarly categorized in a sweeping manner as “New” California wines, or IPOB wines, what Parker himself once tweeted as wines preferred by “the anti-flavor wine elite.”
Neither really captures the diversity of California wine styles; the majority of wines here lie somewhere in between.
When blind tasting and reviewing wines for Wine Enthusiast, I try as hard as possible to be style-agnostic, in that I attempt to decipher quality across styles.
I like ripe, fruit-flavorful wines but I also like leaner, savory, cool climate driven wines. If a wine is well made, it’s well made despite its style.
Still, I think the topic took some interesting turns. Is style the same thing as terroir? Does terroir include winemaking decisions? I think it does.
Kirk Venge, winemaker at Venge Vineyards and consultant for various wineries, couldn’t be at the talk but emailed me ahead of time with his thoughts. He had this to say about wine style:
“Wine style is just a little takeoff of everyday life,” he wrote. “Dave Ramey says, ‘Wine is a reflection of its maker.’ I’ve always liked that. To be real with yourself and real with your wines and that vision of what’s in the bottle, when you are looking at a grape. Maybe as early as now, when one looks at a vine to prune in just the right way, it’s all an art meeting science and it is certainly all connected. Wine style is a takeoff of lifestyle. If you live organic, or like to put on a pointy hat and practice biodynamic in the moonlight, then that is the flow of how you will nurture your vineyard and find follow through in your wines. If you happen to be a structured person, more on the line with science and conformity, you might have cleaner, correct and tighter wines, less left to chance and walking the line.”
Other winemakers in the room liked Karen MacNeil of The Wine Bible’s idea of choreography, one of her nine elements that great wines share. Many likened it to logistics and all the real-world, day-to-day decisions behind winemaking; the moving parts that go into pruning and harvesting grapes, to harvest itself, oak regimens and getting a final wine in bottle.
Nothing was really settled in the end, only other questions left looming in the air. The next day, one of those ponderous questions landed in my email inbox.
“Our discussion last night made me think a lot about the interplay between style and typicity,” it read.
“While it’s easy to get caught up in how styles can change according to vintage variation or consumer tastes, shouldn’t any great wine, regardless of vintage or style, display typicity? And to what extent can making wine in a particular style detract from or interfere with that? Even if you blind taste a Napa Valley Bordeaux blend and initially mistake it for Bordeaux, shouldn’t the wine always reveal some degree of ‘connectedness’ to the Napa Valley? Are there ever exceptions?”
And there you have a whole other topic worthy of discussion. The long and short of it, I answered—though a lot more thought could be put into this—is that a Napa Valley wine should not taste like Bordeaux and I think it rarely, if ever does, that there is indeed a connection between California’s different climate, soil and youthfulness of its vines.