We have come to appreciate (worship?) the fabled footprints of the vineyard--those magical spots on earth where a wine expresses itself through the intricacies and interactions of grape variety, soil and climate.
But even with all that, there will always be the handshake of the winemaker, for it is he who ultimately makes the most subjective qualitative decisions about the wine we taste. You wonder: Why is it that some winemakers toil to make good wines year after year, while others make compelling wines out of seemingly every grape? You'd have to conclude that the former are mere mortals who can't take wine to a higher plane; the latter somehow find a way.
Who better to illustrate this than Richard Arrowood of Arrowood Vineyards & Winery in Sonoma Valley? It seems as if Arrowood, a homegrown Sonoman, has been making great wines forever--notably a 16-year stint at Chateau St. Jean and, since 1985, with Arrowood (a total of nearly 600 wines).
He has mastered the vineyard footprint. One year at St. Jean he made nine different Chardonnays--most carrying vineyard names, some of which would become famous later on other wineries' labels: Robert Young, Belle Terre, McCrea (Kistler), Les Pierres (Sonoma-Cutrer), Gauer Ranch (Marcassin's Upper Barn) --along with an individualistic Fumé Blanc (La Petite Etoile), sweet and sweeter Rieslings and more. At the end of his St. Jean days, he even showed a command of reds with some of the finest Sonoma-grown Cabernets.
I suppose that after making scores of wines, one would get bored focusing on just a single-vineyard wine or two. If you've got the talent, have proven you can excel with many wines, and the challenge suits you, then make way. Make as many wines as you can.
Arrowood has shied away from two tricky kinds, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, but he remains fascinated by unique vineyards and pays tribute to several with vineyard-designated wines. He's equally driven to demonstrate his skill of putting together select lots of wines that bear the broader Sonoma County appellation.
After tasting every wine he's made in the past five years, I was struck by how finely honed the individual wines are, both as varietals and by special designations. While the Sonoma County Chardonnays serve up delicious fruit flavors, the Cuvée Michel Berthoud Réserve Spéciale, both in 1994 and 1995, turns even richer and deeper.
Pinot Blanc from Saralee's Vineyard in Russian River is well defined, more elegant and lighter than his Chardonnays, with distinctive, sweet white peach flavors. Viognier from Arrowood's estate is equally individualistic, showing off the rich, spicy attributes of the grape.
Arrowood Merlots feature the herbal, tar, anise and smoky currant flavors and a wonderful sense of harmony and finesse that this grape is capable of showing. Both the 1994 and 1995 vintages are ultrarich and deeply flavored. The 1992 is thick, with a delicious core of olive, herb and currant.
The Cabernets are more intense and concentrated, with richer currant, plum, berry and cedar notes--a clear departure from the more supple herb and sage flavors of the Merlot. The Réserve Spéciale is most impressive--rich, polished, broad-textured, determinedly tannic wines that increasingly deserve to be considered among California's finest.
New is Syrah, also from Saralee's. It is decidedly varietal, readily distinguishable, with its smoky, meaty, gamy fringe flavors and dense leather, currant and spicy essences.
Arrowood has long made delicious dessert wines, and when weather permits he still does. The White Riesling Russian River H.S.S. ("Hot, Sweet & Sticky") 1997 is extraordinarily sweet, with fig, peach and nectarine flavors; a 1997 Hoot Owl Creek offers ultrarich fig, peach and cream. The real showstopper for me, though, was the 1993 Russian River Oak Meadow Vineyard, with its golden color and superrich, fat, creamy fig, custard, crème brûlée flavors--I rated it a perfect 100 points.
Sometimes, the handshake of the winemaker is equal to or better than the vineyard's footprint. If Arrowood has a hand in the wine, buy it.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from columnist James Laube, in a column that's also appearing in the current issue of Wine Spectator. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.