The Variables That Matter

In my ongoing attempt to educate myself, I’ve been reading Matt Kramer’s book New California Wine: Making Sense of Napa Valley, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Beyond. If you don’t know Kramer’s books, they’re worth looking at. He writes in a very clear and straightforward way, cutting through complexity without cheapening things. The opening chapters on the history of winemaking in California intrigued me: Kramer does a fine job of describing how American ingenuity and Californian inventiveness and freethinking came to bear first on the problem of getting grape vines to produce huge amounts of fruit all over the state, and then on the problem of making those vines put out high-quality wine; and now on the challenge of making wines that aren’t just good, but also full of character and distinctiveness, like the wines of Europe. It’s a story of agricultural science, really, and Kramer compares the tradition-driven old-world way of winemaking to the more modern approach that emerged in California, based on endless tinkering with clones and cataloging and soil testing and sun-exposure quantification and various metrics for tracking the progress of the vines and the fruit development.

He describes experimentation with trellising techniques, and approaches to pruning and to various kinds of wood, and on and on. And for a guy like me, a relative newcomer to my role as an observer of wine, the book suggests something else: the possibility that I’ve been in a far more skewed and particular conversation than I realized. Here’s what I mean: I read a lot of product sheets about wines, and I meet various winemakers and enjoy asking about their work, and I talk to people in wine shops, and it occurs to me that in all of these conversations we are kicking around perhaps five or six winemaking variables, from a possible list of maybe 100. I’m making up this last number, but the point is just that it’s a lot—enough to merit multiyear graduate programs in the science of winemaking and grape growing. Now maybe that’s simply because these five or six are the big ones (soil, clones, age of vines, how much aging in what kind of wood, whether or not the wine is fined and/or filtered). Maybe it’s that they’re sort of fun to talk about. But I’m wondering if those five or six variables—the handful of variables that enter the everyday conversation about winemaking—aren’t also the variables that let us focus on the currently hot issues in winemaking, like the impulse to make California wines with the distinctive character people usually associate only with the best old-world wines. I guess I’m wondering how much of the marketing push is at work here, in presenting as dispassionate data the only data that lend themselves to a story about how traditional and naturalistic a given winery’s practices are. Nothing wrong with this—just life, commerce—but interesting. At least to me.

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