Wine Enthusiast Podcast: Climate Change and Wine

Our editors talk with winemakers around the world on how global climate change is shaping the way we produce wine.
Illustration by Mikel Casal

Contributing Editor Nils Bernstein speaks with winemakers from New York, Michigan and England on how their wines and winemaking overall is being influenced by global warming.

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The Wine Enthusiast Podcast

Host: From Wine Enthusiast magazine, this is the Wine Enthusiast Podcast.

Coming up on today’s podcast: climate change and wine. Winemakers from New York, Michigan and England weigh in on how their wines, and winemaking overall, is being influenced by global warming and how the world’s most famous regions—Germany, Austria, France, Spain and more—are all going to be affected by the impact of climate change.

Roman Roth: Areas like Spain, who makes some of the greatest wines in the world, but they are a very dry area. They have almost a desert in the middle. And with this climate change, it will be impossible in the future to make affordable wines or cheap wines or normal-priced wines there. You could still make your high-end priced wines, because you will have such low yields that it will be a problem. So, as a result there will be a demand and a need for areas like Canada, Russia, Scandinavia, China.

Host: Plus, vintage variation and this year’s Napa harvest. Variation and vintage from year to year has always been a part of winemaking, but the traditional paradigm is changing. Contributing Editor Virginie Boone talks with a Napa Valley vintner about why vintage variation is increasing in this legendary wine region.

Matthew Crafton: And you want to improve quality and push to make your wines better every year, you have to be willing to try new things and, hopefully, what you come out with is just a top-to bottom approach that doesn’t necessarily isolate one aspect. It’s not about just planting Cabernet everywhere; it’s about, again, it’s the right variety, it’s the right clone, it’s the right root stock. How does that fit the soil? How do you farm that? How do you manage your canopy? How do you manage the light as it hits your grape berries? We’re at a level of detail now that nowhere else in the world focuses as much on it as we do.

Host: Plus, pared-down pairings, wine basics and more all coming up on the Wine Enthusiast Podcast.

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Climate change is very real. It affects every aspect of our lives and even wine. Contributing Editor Nils Bernstein speaks to three different winemakers from three different regions, two from here in America and one from across the pond, and discusses the upside and downside of making wine in an ever-changing global climate.

Nils Bernstein: Climate change and global warming present major concerns for the world’s winemakers. For starters, warmer weather means earlier ripening of grapes, which presents a dilemma: picking early and risking loss of complexity or picking later and risking overripe and unbalanced wines. Insect and disease problems are showing up where they didn’t before and rising sea levels may threaten the very existence of some coastal vineyards.

Additionally, climate change doesn’t just mean global warming, but unreliable and extreme weather overall, which means more wild fires, hailstorms, hurricanes and even tornadoes. However, for many wine regions, there’s a silver lining to this global crisis. In regions whose cooler climates have historically presented problems, global warming is creating some opportunities. Regions like England, Tasmania, Michigan and Long Island are emerging as major players and there’s serious investment in unlikely places like Scandinavia, Poland, Russia and Hokkaido, Japan.

Today, we’ll hear from some people who are seeing some benefits from climate change, although it comes with some serious new challenges as well.

I first spoke to Roman Roth of Wölffer Estate, located in the cool, maritime climate of Long Island, New York. Roman’s been making wines here for 30 years, and he spoke about how climate change is already effecting his wines and his thoughts about the future.

Well, it’s a good day to talk about climate change and global warming because it’s, maybe, 80 degrees in mid-October right now.

Roman Roth: Yes, it’s definitely unusually warm and we’re picking as much as we can because there’s a little hurricane threat, the leftovers from Michael.

NB: So how long have you been making wine out here?

RR: I came in 1992, in August 1992, for my first vintage at the time. So it’s now 27 harvests, I’m counting my years in harvests.

NB: Yeah.

RR: So, 27 years at Wölffer Estate.

NB: Wow. We’re talking about climate change, global warming, but for regions that are having, maybe, a net benefit from it. What are your perceptions over the time you’ve been here?

RR: Well, there’s been dramatic changes over the last 27 years. We would pick, let’s say, by mid-October. We used to start by, maybe the first week in October, we would just start picking. Now we pick the beginning of September. So we picked three weeks, four weeks, three weeks earlier than what we used to over the last six, seven years that has slowly, it dwindled to this, amounted to this three weeks or four weeks, three weeks earlier picking.

So that is, in some ways, a big blessing because you get nice, ripe flavors a little earlier. We still have a nice, long hang time which is key for ripening your seeds and your skins. And, again, it lowers the danger, if you would get it in September, end of September or October, a hurricane threat or a remnant, you have already 40, 60, 70% of your grapes picked so it’s, that’s certainly, it’s been a big change over the years from that point of view. In the past, you would have to wait longer and bear the brunt, sometimes, of these remnants.

NB: And you don’t feel that you’re compromising complexity or?

RR: There’s two great things, what makes Long Island so special. That we are on the same latitude as Madrid and Naples, so we get wonderful sun, but we are Long Island so it’s surrounded by water and we have these beautiful breezes, even today, it’s a hot day, but you feel this little breeze, it makes it very pleasant. It’s cooler in the Hamptons, that’s why people from Manhattan travel out here to have their second homes.

But what’s great for people is great for grapes. So this elegance, this freshness that comes from the sea breeze, 2.6 miles away from the ocean we are, our vineyard is. And that gives us this freshness, vibrancy, elegance. We don’t have to worry about overripening and getting 16, 17 volume percent wines and making this cough-syrup red wines or very flabby white wines. That is the key balance, I think, is the best word to describe it. We make wonderful, concentrated, rich, intense wines with texture and vibrancy, but they have 12.8 volume percent. Our biggest reds get 13.5, that’s the maximum, usually.

So we get this long hang time, get intensity. Yes, we do extra work in the vineyard, limit crop levels in order to maximize your photosynthesis and your energy of the vines. But, as a result, you get complexity and elegance and I think that’s a unique combination. So 20 years ago, people only wanted to pick fat wines or big, big names. It was a problem. We weren’t French and we weren’t fat so we had to find a way to figure out that people, to let people realize that this elegant style is exact, that’s what is food friendliness and the balance and the lightness, less can be more.

NB: Yeah.

RR: And finally, 20 years later, it has come around and people are now realizing that these elegant wines are very fashionable, are more pleasing to the palate, and not overwhelming your food and your dinner party, where you need the couch at the end, you want to go out dancing after the dinner.

NB: Yeah. And you’re lucky in this respect with global warming where you’re not losing the elegance with that kind of more guarantee of ripeness?

RR: No. I think to fine tune it, you have, it has allowed us over the years to make, now, world-class wines because you do get, we have gotten riper from 20 years ago, we would still have small pyrazine characters.

NB: Yeah.

RR: So there was this greenness a little bit and now, well, the vines have gotten a little older, of course, we have more experience, too, in the vineyard than in the winery, but, certainly, the way the  grapes come in now have less of this New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, this pyrazine quality, it has, now, a much lusher, riper fruit quality despite being elegant and light and fresh.

That makes, to me, is one of the greatest wines in the world, when you get that combination and, very interesting, I think, it’s now in 1998 or whenever it was, it was in Melbourne was the Cool Climate Symposium every three years, there’s the Cool Climate Symposium.

And at the time they were saying it’s going to a pact with the devil for cool climates like Germany or Long Island, those kinds of cooler climates where you will have, now, because of global warming, you will have more ripeness so you will make the best wines in the world, but that could also be one year after, you may have four, great, amazing years and then you may have a year where you have two hurricanes hit your vineyard and you don’t pick any grapes.

So that’s the big danger about global warming that we’re heading there. So on one side you make, now, the best wines in the world, among the best wines, and the warmer it will get, again, hot climates have to change, have to change their clones, have to change their wines in order to adapt, and for us it’s really working in our favor, but there’s the off year where you have these hurricane remnants or lots of rain or moisture, higher humidity.

NB: So it’s really, when we’re talking about climate change, we’re also talking about extreme weather, unpredictable weather, and you’ve seen that here?

RR: We’ve never had tornadoes on Long Island, now there have been tornadoes.

NB: Wow.

RR: Really never had hail in the past. Over the last 10, eight, nine, 10 years there have been a couple of hailstorms and I’ve heard in the North Fork and I’ve seen vineyards being damaged by hail. We have, we’ve been fortunate here, but so there’s definitely more risk and there will be, there is, definitely, more dramatic weather patterns now.

NB: Yeah. So what, you mentioned, maybe changing clones and other vineyard management issues, what are some things you’re doing to kind of accommodate this?

RR: What we do is, for example, we make sure that we have optimum ripeness on a homogeneous level so that you don’t have this compromise where some of the vines, let’s say, on a sandier spot are overripe. The heavier spot on the lower section is underripe. Well, you make a compromise, you throw them together, it makes a nice wine.

But, why doesn’t this wine age for 25 years? Which is one of our biggest goals, to make wines with longevity and Wölffer Estate. And so we will really make a big effort of making sure that our vines ripen the grapes at the same time as much as you can control that. So, for example, we do the leaf removal in the fruit zone so that you make an ideal condition that as many grapes as possible get hit by sunlight. The byproduct is, of course, that you have, that they dry quicker so, again, this ocean breeze will, if there’s humidity or dew, it dries quicker, if there’s no leaves around the grapes, so that helps you to have healthier, less disease pressure, which allows you to get longer hang time.

So that’s a big, big commitment of the winery, this leaf removing, 100% leaf removal in the cluster zone and this perfectly positioning of clusters.

NB: What’s happening in a lot of very established or high priced regions, for them to acknowledge climate change means they have to acknowledge what that might be doing to their notion of terroir. So what does it mean looking forward, some of these exalted regions, when you look at other wine regions around the world, do you think people are reluctant to acknowledge it? What do  you see happening?

RR: It’s a big, big problem for wines that have this certification, if they’re grand cru vineyards. When you had a cooler climate, that was the wine that ripened the best. But then you’re getting hotter and hotter, this becomes overripe, and so now you have a problem where you may make a very powerful wine and you can get a great rating while the wine is young, but it will not age. It will have a problem after 15, 20 years, it falls on its face and it becomes flabby and who wants a flabby wine?

So that’s where, and you’re stuck because it is so ingrained in the law, the wine laws, that’s the blessing of America, you can grow Chardonnay next to Merlot, which is not allowed in Bordeaux, for example, in France. So we have this freedom of growing different varieties wherever you want.

NB: You mentioned Oregon and some of the best Pinot Noirs in the world are made in the Willamette Valley, but I could see that changing over the next 20, 30 years.

RR: France, certainly, I’ve spoken to some professors from Montpelier or whatever, they’re working extremely hard to find Cabernet Franc clones and Merlot clones that ripen later just so they can still make their famous Cabernet Franc if you’re Cheval Blanc or whatever.

NB: Yeah.

RR: But you have to find a variety or you have to use a vine that ultimately ripens a little later.

NB: You mentioned Germany and Austria, are you still very familiar with those regions? And those strike me as regions that also might be seeing some benefits to climate change.

RR: They are seeing benefits already, but then they also feel the pinch of what should be a traditional Riesling taste like. And like this year is a good example, ‘18, I mean, Germany has harvested the earliest they’ve ever harvested in history, I think, as far as I heard and know. So now you’re making this lovely ripe Riesling, but it has no acidity anymore. And of course the laws are still very strict, they are not allowed to add tartaric acid so you have to first make an application and by the time you get your application, you don’t get, really, the benefit of an earlier tartaric acid addition to control your pH level, which then causes you unclean fermentation. So there are a lot of things that will have to change, but it’s very difficult in Europe to change tradition.

NB: Yep.

RR: So they will have to find a way. And I’m sure they will find a way, they certainly know the business, wine business, and at one stage you have to fight, who will win? The traditionalists or the people who are, who realize there’s a change and you have to change?

NB: Yeah, we’ll see. You know, there’s some talk now about and some investment now, of course, in England, Tasmania, places that are already seeing a lot of growth, but they’re also talking about Scandinavia, Poland…

RR: Russia, Canada.

NB: Yeah, the southern tip of Chile. Does that seem valid to you? Does that seem like there could be potential?

RR: No, we will see this in our lifetime that areas like Spain who makes one of the greatest wines in the world, but they are very dry area. They have almost a desert in the middle. And with this climate change, it will be impossible in the future to make affordable wines or cheap wines or normal-priced wines there. You could still make your high-end priced wines, because you will have such low yields that it will be a problem. So, as a result there will be a demand and a need for areas like Canada, Russia, Scandinavia, China.

NB: Yeah. Hokkaido, Japan is … They’re doing a lot there.

RR: Which will grow more and more grapes and make up for that loss where it will get too dry to make normal-priced wine.

NB: Rising sea levels is another thing, talking about coastal vineyards as well as salinity in the ground water and…

RR: Yes. I mean, what’s the line if you … The greatest wines are made from vineyards where you have seagulls flying over it. It will change the life as we know it, for sure, in the next 50, 40, 50 years and we will see how quickly humans can, that Homosapiens can adapt to this change, and there’s not enough then, I think, at this stage to at least do what we can do if it has a big effect or not, but at least do what’s right.

NB: Sean O’Keefe from Mari Vineyards in Traverse City, Michigan had similar thoughts on climate change.

Sean O’Keefe: As a Michigan winemaker, when the topic of global warming comes up, usually people with a wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say, “It must be great for you as a winemaker in Michigan,” and leaving aside all the other things that might come along with the sum. Generally, it has gotten warmer here. There has been climatic data, which I just saw at a talk by Dr. Schultz from the Wine Research Institute in Geisenheim, Germany, that shows that our regional Michigan and our peninsulas, we’re having average degree days that are equivalent to what the Rheingau in Germany was in the early ‘80s. That also implies that places in Europe have also bumped up to other climatic levels, but that’s another topic.

In any case, it is warmer in the sense where when my dad first started planting grapes here in the early ‘70s at Chateau Grand Traverse, Riesling and Chardonnay seemed like possibilities and Gamay Noir, but Cabernet Franc and Merlot and Bordeaux varieties were considered kind of outside of our range.

Since the last 10 years, I’ve been making wine here at Mari, and we’ve consistently ripened Merlot and Cabernet Franc, not to mention all the new Italian varieties that we’re growing. The Great Lakes acts as a buffer and it takes some of the edges off the weather that we have here. That’s why we’re able to grow what we do. Having said that, most of the vineyards here hug the coast and even though it’s getting warmer, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to suddenly be growing more vineyards inland or becoming a huge winegrowing region, at least in my lifetime.

What we are seeing, though, is global warming doesn’t mean that everything just gets slightly warmer and then palm trees pop up everywhere. It means more extreme weather. As anybody who’s taken a science class can tell with equilibriums, when you add energy to a system, there’s a lot of chaos before it resettles at another level, and I think we’re seeing that here. We’re seeing more extremes of rainfall, of hail, which we have not usually experienced here, and also, paradoxically, colder winters.

As some of the research is showing, or some of the weather prediction models, is that a warmer icecap means a weakening jet stream around there, and we’re starting to get the polar vortexes that sweep down here where the cold air drains out of the Arctic area and comes right down Hudson Bay, and the first place it hits tends to be Michigan. That can lead to really, really cold temperatures, and in some cases, vine damage. So far, not much vine death.

That’s what gives me the most pause because even though the seasons are warming over the average, our winters are also getting more erratic, and on top of that, more rainfall, possibilities of hail. These are all things that give me pause. It makes me worry a little bit about things, but there’s really not much I can do at this point. I’m hoping that these things are gradual and we’re able to adjust and adapt to it. We’ll see what happens in the future.

NB: Across the pond at Nyetimber in England, winemakers Cherie Spriggs and Brad Greatrix have been making sparkling wines that now stand among the great sparklers of the world. Brad spoke to the issues that he and other UK winemakers are facing.

Brad Greatrix: Regarding climate change, England certainly has noticed some effects, and we’ve noticed some effects of climate change at Nyetimber. Over the longterm, meaning in the time that we’ve been growing grapes at Nyetimber, we have noticed a gradual warming, and with that comes earlier harvest start dates. Now, there are some advantages to being able to pick earlier, and most notably, you gain the advantage of time.

So, as we’re approaching the harvest period, we’re measuring sugar and acidity in the grapes, and, of course, tasting the grapes to assess the flavor and decide the optimum moment to pick. If Cherie and I feel like a particular parcel would benefit from a little bit more ripening time at the end of September, to wait a couple more days actually means something. What I mean to say by that is at the end of September, you still have, relatively, warm daily temperatures, and also the days are a little bit longer. So, to wait an extra day or two or three, you would notice a difference in the ripeness parameters and in flavor.

Whereas, if we were harvesting in the middle of October, which would be more typical for Nyetimber and for England, by then you’ve got much shorter days. So, eight, nine hours of daylight, plus the average temperature is much lower. So, daytime highs don’t even, necessarily, reach double digits at the end of October, and therefore to wait two or three, four days, you take on more risk with your crop being vulnerable, leaving it out, but hardly anything gained ripeness-wise. So, there is some advantage to moving things forward.

We have the benefit in England of having a very long growing season anyways. So, we would start our year off in the early to middle part of April with bud burst/flowering around late June, early July, and then, harvesting, as I said, is typically early or middle part of October. So, quite a long season and we can afford to bring that forward a little bit if necessary.

However, it’s certainly not all smooth sailing here in England. It wasn’t so long ago, in fact, in 2012, Nyetimber decided not to pick any of its grapes that year because it was the coldest and wettest summer for at least the past 100 years. Internationally, people will remember the summer in England for the London Olympics, and we had two weeks of fantastic weather while the world was watching, but immediately after the games ended, the temperature went down and the rain fall increased, and we just never achieved the ripeness that we want for the high-quality sparkling wines that we’re aiming to produce at Nyetimber. So, we ended up not picking a single grape this year.

You would, certainly, say that 2012, not so long ago, and in this climate change era, we definitely can’t say that from one year to the next, it’s constantly getting warmer and constantly getting easier. I think, in fact, it’s getting more challenging because of this issue of variability, that you could have a warm, hot summer like we’ve had this year in 2018, and next year we could be back to something cooler like we experienced in 2012, or some other more recent years.

Accompanying the variability are also increased hazards. In England, we’re a marginal climate at the best of times, and one of the things we’ve seen occurring more frequently are spring frosts, most notably 2016 and 2017. We were significantly affected, along with a lot of other producers in England by a spring frost. In both of those years, ‘16 and ‘17, what occurred was a relatively warm March, should say warmer than average, which means that the vines were able to get their metabolism going earlier than normal. Bud bursts took place at the beginning of April, and then three, four weeks later, we had a cold snap around April 27th, 28th in both years. Temperatures dropped below zero overnight, and all the primary buds, or a significant portion of primary buds, were damaged by the frost, which means we’re relying, then, on secondary buds to replace them.

Anyone involved in viticulture, grape growing, will know that once you’re counting on your secondary buds, yields are going to be way down. To give an indication of how badly we were infected in 2018, where we avoided the frost, had just good weather through the early part of the growing season, it ended up being around three times the crop that we had in 2017, and that’s not because ‘18 was particularly big, but rather because ‘17 was so significantly affected by frost.

So, weather absolutely brings its challenges for grape growers in England.

NB: So, climate change, obviously, is a major issue for winemakers as it is for all of us. But for some, there are some silver linings. This is Nils Bernstein, Food Editor for Wine Enthusiast. Thanks for listening.

Host: Next, Senior Editor Layla Schlack has tips for integrating simple foods and flavors into your wine lifestyle.

Layla Schlack: In today’s pared-down pairing, it’s a divisive one. We’re going to talk about olives. They’re one of my favorite foods on earth. It turns out that not everyone feels the same about them, but for my fellow olive lovers, we’re going to dive deep.

Did you know that olive trees have been considered sacred since before Biblical times? Its fruit is surprisingly versatile, playing nicely with sweet ingredients like oranges, dates, tomatoes and caramelized onions; salty foods like capers, cheese, anchovies and cured meats; and all kinds of nuts, dairy and fresh herbs. Olives can provide a punchy blast of contrasting flavor or be the centerpiece of dishes like tapenade, muffaletta or puttanesca.

Also, green olives are just underripe black olives. Olive trees generally live 300 to 600 years. Like grapevines, olive trees grow and bear expressive fruit in all kinds of soils. Olives are in the same biological family as jasmine and lilacs.

Now that you’re an expert in their biology, let’s get to how to pair them. Joe Campanale, who owns Fausto, a wine-centric Italian restaurant in Brooklyn, has some answers. He says, “I like low alcohol, high-acid wines. The high acidity cuts through the fat of the olive and stands up to the olive’s acidity, even better if it’s a coastal wine that has some of its own natural saltiness. Wines from Santorini, Corsica, Liguria and coastal Croatia come to mind. Many wines that exhibit olive notes, like Sagrantino, Syrah from Côte Rôtie and some Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon work well, but they’re best reserved for rich cooked dishes, like pastas and braises,” Campanale says.

So, that’s it. Thanks for listening. This is Layla Schlack.

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You’re listening to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast. Vintage variation is simply the difference in how a wine tastes from year to year based on the weather’s influence on the grapes during a growing season.

Contributing Editor Virginie Boone speaks with Matthew Crafton from Chateau Montelena about this year’s Napa harvest and how in years past, vintage variation may have been less common than it is now because of changes in weather patterns.

Matthew Crafton: I’m Matt Crafton, the winemaker at Chateau Montelena. I took over winemaking in 2014, so this is my fifth vintage as winemaker at Montelena. I actually joined the winery in 2008, so 10-plus years here. It’s really flown by. I have more gray hair now.

Virginie Boone: But 10 years is a pretty significant amount of time to learn—well, to observe vintages even in a place like Napa Valley, which many will say does not have the same weather challenges. Well, they used to say not necessarily, the same challenges as a lot of regions in France or Italy or Germany or some of these older regions that we’re familiar with, but as we both can attest being local, Napa has had it’s fair share of vintage variation over the last 10 plus years. So, maybe speak to kind of what you’ve observed.

MC: Sure. So, I started off my career, actually, in Virginia 15 years ago, and if you want to talk about vintage variation, there’s a spot where you go from hurricanes to droughts, and we never got the plague of locusts (laughs), but it wasn’t far from it some years. I think the key in understanding Napa, specifically, is that the changes are, or the differences are real, but they’re considerably more nuanced. But the level of the game here, so to speak, is so much more sophisticated, where the decisions you’re making not only on the farming side, but on the winemaking side, have huge repercussions.

So, it’s really about, at least at Montelena, about first off, recognizing those differences. It starts off with climate, but it’s also about how that interacts with your geology and the aspect of your vineyards and your soils, rootstock, clone. All those things can multiply, or they can certainly increase the gravitas of any subtle changes or individual idiosyncrasies throughout a vintage.

So, on the first level there’s that recognition of it, and then on the second level, it’s having the expertise to exploit it, or to mitigate it, depending upon what you’re looking to do.

VB: We were speaking a little bit earlier about either the importance also as Napa evolves in replanting. I mean, there’s also just a lot that goes into how a vintage reacts to weather based on, maybe, what you’ve actually have planted in the ground, and where are you have it planted. You guys are addressing that now as you had, I think, said third, sort of your third big replant since the winery has been in existence. So, how do you look to kind of sharpen the farming to address vintage challenges?

MC: It’s really good question. I think the first place you start off with is familiarity. I think one of the things that we don’t overlook is just that old fashion gut instinct of what’s worked here and what hasn’t. Then, you have to have an open mind to realistically address what has been successful and what hasn’t. Not to just excuse something away. The other piece of it, I think, is being able to understand and embrace new technology and developments, because I hate to say it, but farming didn’t peak in 1970 or 1940. Every year things improve.

People come out with new ideas, new trials, and I think if you want to continue to compete, and you want to improve quality, and push to make your wines better every year you have to be willing to try new things. Hopefully, what you come out with is just a top to bottom approach that doesn’t necessarily isolate one aspect.

Like, as in, it’s not about just planting Cabernet everywhere, it’s about, again, it’s the right variety, it’s the right clone, it’s the right root stock. How does that fit the soil? How do you farm that? How do you manage your canopy? How do you manage the light as it hits your grape berries? I mean, we’re at a level of detail now that nowhere else in the world focuses as much on as we do.

VB: We’ve had a string of unbelievably successful vintages, in terms of how wines taste and in many of these vintages how they’ll probably age. Let’s say 2012 to 2018 amazing string, but they do have their differences. So, how would you kind of summarize what you’ve seen as the differences in those vintages as a winemaker?

MC: Maybe the best way to put it is this way. We all crave some sort of organization in our lives, to be able to categorize something and to compare it to something else. Especially in this incredibly nebulous world of wine.

From a winemaking standpoint, you need to have a little bit of understanding of that, but you also have to have enough open-mindedness to be able to say, “Well, there’s never ever gonna be another vintage like this.”

I mean, there won’t be. The world is too complex for there to be a carbon copy. Sure, some of the techniques you use may apply and sure maybe some of the ideas you have may work, but I find it’s really useful to make sure when we go into the beginning of a vintage that basically you start off with that.

That tabula rasa, that blank slate in your brain and says, “Well, I’ll just take what the vintage gives me.” Hopefully, you’re at the point where you’ve been involved enough with the farming that it’s not really a surprise. And so, I’m already working on what I’m going to do in the winery when I’m tasting fruit right when it’s coloring up in the end of July. When we look at the spring weather and are saying, “Oh my gosh. This was just one of the most incredible springs we’ve had.” Well, what’s that gonna do to the following year, when we look at how fruitful the berries and how fruitful the grapevines are going to be?

But, specifically the individual vintages. I think depending upon the type of wines you’re looking to make, you can mitigate and minimize those differences. So, you could make almost the exact same wine if you chose to from 2012 through 2018.

If that’s the kind of wine you want to make, where you have this incredibly consistent product, you’re able to do that. For us here, it’s really about teasing out those individual differences and I’d say there are a lot of similarities between the ‘12 and the ‘18. ‘16 has a lot of character, I think that’s very similar to the ‘18.

I’d say ‘15 and ‘13 were pretty similar, ‘14 was right in the mix. ‘17 was kind of its own animal and for a number of reasons you alluded to, but I think that if you ask anyone who’s really truly invested in this from a mental and psychological and spiritual level, it’s those challenging vintages. Those are the ones that you’re most proud of.

I mean, I noticed you left 2011 out of the list, because there were a string of cooler vintages before that, but I think we made some really great wines during those vintages and from a winemaking and farming standpoint, it was having to overcome some significant challenges and some difficult scenarios that I think is what makes me most proud of what we eventually put in the bottle. I won’t say the last six years have been easy, but it’s definitely, we’ve painted with different colors, compared to what we did in the previous few years when the vintages were cooler.

VB: Well, I didn’t really mean to leave off 2011, because I do think right out the gate there were beautiful wines that you released. I think certainly over time that vintage has been proven in the right hands to have produced some really lovely wines.

Especially, for kind of our current mood of more balanced wines, kind of food-friendly wines. A little less ripe in some cases, but I know it’s controversial and it just depends. I think you need to have these conversations for people to go back the 2011 and to rediscover them, because I think early on it was just a vintage that people were a little bit afraid of and I think in the wrong hands there were wines that were not as good.

MC: I don’t think I could put it any better than that and I think you were one of the early advocates that said get out there and try these wines, because there really are some beautiful ones out there.

I go back to that wine relatively frequently and I think about all the things that I think we did really well and some other ones where I’m like, “You know, we could’ve done that a little better.” But, what we put in the bottle I think is actually quite excellent, but I think you have to be a little bit crazy in doing this job, because you can never quite be satisfied. Or else everything gets boring.

VB: It’s the exact definition of vintage. Every year is a new set of factors. Good, bad, in between. Doesn’t matter, they’re always different in some way. I think, to me, that it matters a lot who’s putting all those factors together and experience has so much to do with reacting, overreacting, underreacting. And so, I think you have to have seen a lot of vintages to truly understand it. Even though every year is different.

MC: You’re absolutely right and it’s great. Having Bo here, Bo Barrett, our CEO, Bo was our winemaker here for a long time and I can’t tell you how many times I’ll be like, “Hey. You know, I think we should try this.” He’ll be like, “Oh, yeah. We tried that in 1984 and it didn’t work. Don’t do it.”

You know? You need to have that perspective, but that being said you never want to squish that creative muscle and I really thrive on that intellectual curiosity. Kind of the what if and the ability to take a step back and say, “Okay. Even though we’re right in the middle of harvest and it’s a one-time, one of the most amazing and brilliant portions of the year and a time that I love and yearn for.” But, when you’re in the middle of it you’re just like, “Wow. This is such a grind.”

But, you have to be able to take that step back like you said and put things in perspective and say that, “Okay. Well, here’s a real opportunity to do something great.” We just have to choose to take that path and I’d like to say it works out more often that not, but it’s all about stacking the deck in your favor the rest of the year through your farming, through having the right team, and having the right people in the cellar, and having… my production crew, I think I have the best cellar crew in the valley.

I mean, they follow where I want to go and it’s hard to find people like that who really are as personally invested. My crew, some of these guys have been here 25 years and they understand that our job is to create this amazingly delicious product and 70 other families here depend on that. Vintages change, people change, the wines change, but we have to continue to look at every vintage individual and say, “We need to make an amazing wine this year, no matter what.”

VB: You’re in the heart of Napa Valley. You’re on the northern side of the Napa Valley in Calistoga, which is one of the warmer parts of Napa Valley. How much do you think we should be or are you worrying about climate conditions changing? Do you worry about pronounced heat coming in the near future with all your different vintages coming up? Do you worry about drought? Do you worry about both? I mean, what do you think is our biggest challenge here in terms of maintaining good wine production over time?

MC: I’m gonna kind of dodge your question at first. What I’m just gonna say is I don’t worry about things I can’t control. I think it’s a good way to live your life, but I would say is that going back to having some really well-tenured people here who’ve seen the last 40 ventures on this property, they’ll tell you that the droughts we had in the 80s were worse than the ones we had more recently.

I think there’s no question that weather is and always will be unpredictable. How that will affect the Napa Valley? I don’t think anybody knows the answer to that. When I was in grad school the common wisdom was, “Well, if it gets hotter in California, just because of how the air currents work here it’s gonna get cooler in Napa Valley.”

We may pick up a few degrees in warmth at night, but it’ll be cooler during the day and we’ve seen a little bit of that. Especially here in Calistoga where it’s, it was 33 here last night. So, I don’t know. I think we… the only thing I can control is making good decisions in terms of how we take care of the vines that we have and take care of our land. And then, putting ourselves in the best position to succeed.

Grapevines grow pretty much everywhere in the world and I think that if you have a group of people anywhere that can surmount almost any challenge, I think they’re here on the north coast. We really do have the best and the brightest. I don’t worry about our future here.

Marina Vataj: Hi. I’m Marina Vataj, digital content director at Wine Enthusiast magazine. In today’s wine basics, we’re tackling the dos and don’ts of hosting a wine dinner party. It’s not always obvious what to do when a guest shows up with a bottle of wine or spills red all over your white sofa. Don’t fret. We’re here to answer all you’re burning questions.

Question one: Do you need to open a bottle of wine that a guest brings? No. Not if it’s a gift, but if your guests bring a bottle with the intention to be served, they’ll casually let you know that it pairs with a certain dish. That’s a clue they’d like to serve it.

Two: Can you bring a favorite bottle if you know ahead you won’t like the wine being served? Not at all. If you know that your host will serve a polar opposite of what you like to drink, it’s a little snobby to show up with something else to share instead.

Three: What happens if a guest spills red wine on your furniture and it doesn’t come out? If someone splashed inky Shiraz on your cream sofa, tough luck. It’s not appropriate to bill someone for the cleanup. One tip is to use stemless glassware, which is much more stable.

Four: What if you’re served wine in a dirty glass? A little dirt never hurt anyone and earthiness in wine can be a good thing. Wipe the glass steadily under the table or with your back turned toward the room.

Five: What if a wine is served at the wrong temperature? Unless it’s hot or frozen, don’t make an issue of it. If you really feel strongly about it, simply say you prefer it colder and ask them to pop it in the fridge, freezer or an ice bucket. If it’s served too cold, let it sit or warm the glass with your hands.

Finally, what about guests who overstay their welcome? Just like in college, cut off the alcohol supply. It will do wonders to clean out the house. If that doesn’t work, sometimes a kind bluntness will get the job done. Say you have to be up early tomorrow and you need to hit the sack. I’m Marina Vataj, thanks for listening. If you want more wine basics tips be sure to visit Winemag.com/WineBasics

Host: That’s it for today’s Wine Enthusiast Podcast. To read more about wine, visit WineMag.com or pick up the current issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine to see our annual top 100 Cellar Selections list. You can subscribe to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast on Apple Podcast, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And please, write us a review. We’d love to hear what you think. We’d also love to stay in touch. Use the hashtag Wine Enthusiast magazine and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. You can also send us an email at Podcast@WineMag.com. The Wine Enthusiast Podcast is produced by Marina Vataj and Mike Sargent. See you next time.

Published on November 7, 2018
Topics: Podcast


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