Making the Cut
By James Laube, senior editor
As of mid-July, California's 2000 vintage looked to be a bumper crop, and as the grapes slowly started to turn from green to red, Christian Moueix, owner of Dominus Estate in Napa Valley, paused to reflect on an earlier time.
It was the summer of '73 in France, and Moueix, then 27 years old, was walking through the vineyard of Château Pétrus, the famous Merlot estate in Pomerol managed and part-owned by his family.
While examining the grapes, Moueix saw that the crop was unusually large. He realized then, in midsummer, that there was no way the grapes would ripen in time for harvest. So he made a decision.
That night, under cover of darkness, he slipped back into the vineyard with a pair of pruning shears and began to clip, thinning the crop by removing grape clusters. For several nights in a row, he and a couple of friends returned to the vineyard and pruned like crazy. Each night, after they had finished, Moueix picked up all the dropped clusters from the ground and stuffed them into large plastic bags. Then he put the bags into his dusty gray Peugeot and drove to a nearby river, where he dumped the clusters into the water.
He hoped no one had seen him, because the practice of thinning--now called "green-harvesting"--was largely unheard-of then. In the small town where he lived, cutting grapes from one of the most celebrated vineyards in the world was considered a sacrilege.
The '73 Pétrus turned out to be a good wine from an ordinary vintage. "I did not have enough time to get to all the vines to thin them," Moueix recalled, but the vines that were thinned made a more concentrated wine and improved the overall quality of that vintage. Convinced that controlling crop size was beneficial to the wine, he continued the practice of thinning at Pétrus, assuming no one would notice or care. He was wrong.
Three years later, as he sat in church on a Sunday morning in St.-Emilion, he received a stern condemnation from a priest who had learned of the thinning. He scolded those who had pruned grapes from the vines, proclaiming, "They have cut the fruit that God gave them." Moueix slumped sheepishly in his pew.
Green-harvesting is no longer considered heresy. At many of the world's finest estates, thinning to reduce crop size--in an effort to produce a more concentrated wine--is considered essential. Many winemakers equate a severely pruned vineyard with the most concentrated wines. Still, it's a controversial practice, and sometimes difficult to execute. Growers whose livelihoods depend on selling grapes based on a per-ton price hate to cut away potential profits. Vineyard workers who pick grapes and are paid by the ton grimace to think that when they cut green clusters, they're cutting their paychecks.
Even among hard-core thinners, there are often strong disagreements about how much to thin. For several vintages in the 1990s, Moueix sold a small portion of his California Merlot grapes to Jayson Pahlmeyer. Pahlmeyer's winemaker at the time, Helen Turley, is a stickler for severe thinning. Moueix and Turley debated whether the grapes destined for Pahlmeyer had been sufficiently thinned--or whether Moueix would bow to Turley's request and send his crew through the vineyard to prune one more time.
When I asked who won the debate, Moueix only smiled and chuckled. Later, we talked about styles of wine, and he said that while he will always thin, he doesn't like wines that are too thick and extracted. Nor is he a fan of too much oak. His best vintages--1991, 1994 and the newly released 1997--are very deep and profound, with rich, earthy nuances of currant, grilled meat and spices. But these wines are not as rich and extracted as some made by Turley. For instance, the Cabernet she makes for Bryant Family Vineyard is thick and mouth-coating, loaded with smoky toasted-oak flavors--a very different style than that of Dominus.
"I like wines that are deep but not thick," Moueix said. "If [a wine] sticks to your mouth, to me it's not pleasant."
After we spoke, Moueix returned to his vineyard with his staff, and they began to discuss how many clusters would have to be thinned from each vine. This time he walked through the vineyard in broad daylight, for everyone to see.
James Laube's new edition of Wine Spectator's California Wine is now available.
This column, "Unfiltered, Unfined," features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Tuesday by a different Wine Spectator editor. To read past "Unfiltered, Unfined" columns, go to the archives.
(And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)