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All Those Pesky Single-Vineyard Wines

Posted: Oct 12, 2006 9:34pm ET

In one of my earlier blog entries, James Molesworth asked the following questions:

You're big on the single-vineyard thing. Do you do microvinifications from vineyard blocks for a few years before deciding if the vineyard is worthy of being bottled alone?

Have you ever stopped bottling a vineyard separately after a few years for any qualitative reason?

The answer to both questions is no. Well, at least a qualified no. Let’s examine the first question. In essence, we do what James asks, but without the waiting period. We keep all of the wine from the various vineyards separate in the winery. Since we taste all the barrels throughout the year, we actually evaluate each vineyard each year.

As for the second question, we’ve never decided to not bottle the wine from one of our vineyards, either in one year or after several years. So far we’ve always felt the wines were “worthy.” Maybe we’ve been extremely lucky in our vineyard choices, but so far so good.

The real question I think James was inferring is: What makes a vineyard worthy of a single-vineyard designation? I hope I haven’t put words in James’ mouth, but let’s assume I’m right and go from there because that is an interesting question.

Personally, I feel that every vineyard has the right to be vineyard-designated. I know, that’s a bold statement. Most of you are probably under the impression that a single-vineyard wine should be exceptionally great wine, but I disagree. Firstly, who’s to decide if the wine is great or not? Who sits on that panel? What vineyard owner or winery would ever abdicate that power to someone else? I certainly wouldn’t. Not even to someone as distinguished and accomplished as James Molesworth. :-)

When discussing this issue, I like to bring up a point that no one has ever countered: If you say a vineyard has to develop some track record or meet some standard of quality before it can be vineyard-designated, what do you do about estate wines? Do you tell a winery that produces wine from their own vineyard that they can’t label it as coming from their vineyard? Or worse yet, that they have to blend it with a neighbor’s vineyard for the first few years? If you can’t say yes to those questions, then you can’t place any limit on single-vineyard wines.

Since I’m a smartass (I’m told it’s better than being a dumbass), I might ask: Would you wait three years before naming your kids? Maybe you could just call them “kid” for the first few years, until they distinguish themselves, and then give them a name. Or never give them a name if they’re just average.

Probably not a perfect analogy, but just like kids, I think every vineyard should be given the chance to stand on its own. A chance to make its own identity. After that, only time and the buying public will decide if the vineyard is ultimately worthy.

Colin Haggerty
La Jolla, California —  October 13, 2006 9:34am ET
Brian-You make some very good points. However, I would have to disagree with your "Estate Bottled" analogy. Just because a wine is labeled as being estate bottled does not mean that it is single-vineyard. The proprietor of the winery can blend lots from different vineyards, as long as he (or she) owns the vineyards or has long-term leases (with full control) on the vineyards.
James Molesworth
October 13, 2006 10:11am ET
Excellent point on the 'track record' theory. So much of today's wine world is judged against the backdrop of old world regions with long histories.

How can a Carneros Pinot be priced as much as a premier cru Gevrey-Chambertin - gasp! Puhleeze...

Yes, Burgundy has had a few hundred years to get it right - California has only been around for 50. But I'd say California (and other regions) have pretty much caught up at this point. That argument doesn't hold water any more...

For me though, the key to a single vineyard wine is - does the vineyard provide a distinct personality, different from other vineyards? And is the fruit as good (or better) than other vineyards already considered benchmarks?

There are oceans of vineyards out there - and IMO many don't deserve to be bottled separately - that's why they wind up in $10 bottlings with 250,000 case productions. They may be good vineyards in their own right, but are they dramatically different than the average? Significantly better than the average?

Basically, there are .330 hitting, All-Star vineyards, and .240 hitting bench player vineyards. Modern viticulture and winemaking allow some of the .240 hitters to make good wine, but there's always a qualitative hierarchy. (Whether that quality is maximized is another question).

Brian: Do you have personal favorites among your vineyards, and if so, why? And minus 2 points if you use the "all the vineyards are like my children, I can't choose a favorite" line...;-)
Wes Hagen
Lompoc, CA —  October 13, 2006 11:53am ET
Clos Pepe is clearly his favorite. :-pHe says that the fruit is so good that it's as good as printing money.And when we picked your fruit yesterday, Brian, we took 2 shots each of good tequila in your honor, knowing you were deep in sleep after late night punch-downs/revelry.
Wes Hagen
Lompoc, CA —  October 13, 2006 11:55am ET
Clos Pepe is clearly his favorite. :-pHe says that the fruit is so good that it's as good as printing money.And when we picked your fruit yesterday, Brian, we took 2 shots each of good tequila in your honor, knowing you were deep in sleep after late night punch-downs/revelry.
Mattias Jansson
October 13, 2006 1:38pm ET
Well, I think we all agree that all vineyards are not created equal - some are better than others.

I think the real question, though, is this: do lesser vineyards benefit from being blended with each other?

If the answer is yes, then it makes sense that those vienyards should not be used for single vineyard wines. Why make a lesser wine if you can make a better one?

If the answer is no, then why not release them as single vineyards?

I think the root cause of the debate is the fact the there is no consensus on whether blending makes wines better or worse. Personally, I don't think there is any one answer to the question, except "it depends on the situation".
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  October 13, 2006 2:15pm ET
James - I definitely agree with your statement, "the key to a single vineyard wine is - does the vineyard provide a distinct personality, different from other vineyards?" If all of our single vineyard wines tasted the same, then what would be the point? Thankfully, I think all our wines are markedly different.

I'm not so much in agreement with "And is the fruit as good (or better) than other vineyards already considered benchmarks" To me that's too limiting and/or subjective. While I do agree that a concensus can eventually be reached amongst reviewers and the buying public, you have to at least give the vineyard a shot - or you'll never know. Granted, that may mean that it is eventually decided that the vineyard is a ".240 hitting bench player", and will fall by the wayside. But that can even happen to superstars.

Do I have any personal favorite vineyards? Of course. Both in the ones I buy from and ones I don't. Did you want me to list them? Not a chance! :) We all have our own palate preferences. But that doesn't mean I think those are necessarily better vineyards - nor that the others shouldn't be single vineyard designated. Heck, if it was all about my personal preference, there would be no Rhone wines at all. I just don't care for them. Obviously, the vast majority of the world disagrees with me :-)

I think everything eventually gets taken care of by the free market. The "qualitative hierarchy" will dictate which single vineyard wines survive, and at what price point.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  October 13, 2006 2:22pm ET
Wes - I think you may need a "timeout" for that post... :) My young grasshopper, you forget all the other vineyard names that grace those funny looking Loring labels. True, "The Clos" is a special palce, and near and dear to my heart since it was one of the first - along with Garys'. But me thinks we need to get you on the road a bit more :)
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  October 13, 2006 3:10pm ET
Colin - of course you're right when talking about larger wineries/vineyards. But I think most of the single vineyard explosion has happened on a much "smaller" scale.

Let's look at a list of Pinot vineyards that come into Pinot Prison - either for Loring, Pali, Golden's, or P2 Wine:

Keefer Ranch
Naylor Dry Hole
Russell Family
Rancho Ontiveros
Clos Pepe

If we discount Naylor Dry Hole, where we get 100% of the vineyard... only Aubaine doesn't bottle their own single vineyard designated wine. Even if we were to blend all of the fruit sources together, we wouldn't have reduced the number of different vineyard names in the marketplace.
Charles J Stanton
Eugene, OR —  October 13, 2006 3:16pm ET
Brian, I agree with you that the vineyard should exert it's site character early on. History tells us that some vineyards were simply planted in the wrong place (pinot noir in mid-Napa Valley)and no amount of coaxing will get great wine out of that fruit on a consistent basis. Young vineyards planted in the right place, with good water and canopy management with low yields (
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  October 13, 2006 5:35pm ET
James, you might be able to get some of your favorite Rhone vignerons to talk about their favorite vineyards, but it's not really fair to ask Brian what his favorite is when he ONLY bottles by vineyard. Imagine what could (would) happen if he went on record in a public forum? All of us score whores (and probably more than a few others) would flock to just that vineyard's bottling, leaving the rest of his line unexplored. And yes, Wes needs a timeout. Good business decision to reserve comment on that one Brian.
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  October 14, 2006 1:43am ET
I agree w/charles - some "single" vineyds are Huge! To break them down into blocks is helpful but then confusion sets in. I do like the idea of single vineyds but many times have preferred a winery's blend to the single. However, I love side-by-side tastings of singles. It really adds to the mystery of wine to taste the same varietal from the same winemaker and have so many distinct and marvelous variations in flavors & aromas.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  October 14, 2006 1:47am ET
Though you don't know me, thanks to you and your crew Wes for all the hard work behind the scenes. Sweet dreams yourselves.....
Wes Hagen
Lompoc, CA —  October 16, 2006 2:31pm ET
It's true I haven't been off the vineyard for more than a night for like 18 months.Some day, I'll be able to leave.

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