Guild of Sommeliers "Spire Sommelier Summit" 2013 Report

In early November, the Guild of Sommeliers invited ten candidates for the Court of Master Sommeliers' 2014 Advanced Exam to spend three days in Napa and Sonoma counties. The event's primary sponsor was Jackson Family Estates' Spire Collection, and the trip to wine country included visits to some of the portfolio's top wineries, including Vérité and Cardinale, and some excellent stops in the vineyards of Howell Mountain and Knights Valley. In addition, the group spent an afternoon discussing organic and biodynamic viticultural approaches with John Williams at Frog's Leap Winery in Rutherford, and peeked behind the scenes at Kistler in Russian River Valley, exploring the chemistry of wine.

Afterward, as each candidate logged the most impactful moments of his or her experience, a few themes emerged...

Winemakers John Williams and Chris Carpenter

Two Perspectives

There’s something to be said about getting a group of passionate individuals together to share their opinions, interpretations and perspectives. On the first day of the program, we were exposed to polar opposites: winemakers Chris Carpenter of Spire wineries Lakoya, Cardinale, and La Jota; and John Williams of Frog’s Leap. However, the greatest memory of the trip was seeing each other’s passion of extreme viticulture to provoke thought and discussion.

We traveled up the switchbacks of Howell Mountain to meet Chris Carpenter at the company's W.S. Keyes Vineyard (1,700 ft.) to explore mountain viticulture. Volcanic ash and rock – tufa – with little topsoil, coupled with gusting wind, laid bare the challenges of farming in high-elevation Napa. Every meticulous detail, from vine formations to VSP trellising, displayed the careful planning required to capture every bit of luminosity in the harshness of the mountains, and the wines were blissful, showing powerful structure and aromatic richness. Phenolics and tannin management take center stage for Chris in the mountains: they utilize irrigation and can manipulate structure, if necessary, to achieve their vision of pristine phenolics and age-worthy wines. My top wine was the 2005 Lakoya Howell Mountain AVA, eluding lengthy fruit and polished florals with generous tannic richness – balanced, but definitely ripe.

Our second visit took us back to the valley floor and into Rutherford to learn about dry farming and organic viticulture from John Williams. The emphasis here was on respect for the vine – and its surroundings – so the grape vines can produce and think for themselves. The soil structure was drastically different from the mountains: alluvial fans, gravel and loam. The ground had soft texture, giving and in the absence of drip irrigation lines the vines were encouraged to dig deeply into the earth for water. In John’s eyes, deep roots reduce the risk of phylloxera and allow the fabled Rutherford Bench terroir to shine through the wines. Respect for the vineyard and for the site takes precedence over power, and his goal is to make classic wines from healthy vines. Manipulation in the winery is not an option, and in one of his more printable analogies, John regards micro-oxygenation as akin to "forcing a flower to bloom early.” My favorite wine here was the 1987 Frog’s Leap Zinfandel, with savory red fruits, Christmas spice, dusty earth with a long, acid-driven finish – proof that you can age Zinfandel! 

Both winemakers walk different paths in producing their respective wines, and there is more than one right way to express the best from a region, a vineyard, or a grape. The contrasts between Chris' careful details in managing microclimates to the macroclimate idealism of John Williams invited debate and emotion; perspective is opinion. We may choose to buy into another’s ideal, but we as sommeliers are responsible to investigate all sides of the discussion. We concluded that the best winemakers or “artists” are those who do not compromise, but follow their own obsessive paths. After seeing the passion of Chris and John, it’s very easy for me to find that balance for our wine program: support great wines AND support mindful viticulture.  - Scott Ota

After a morning on Howell Mountain with Chris Carpenter, I gained some clarity on how several of the nuances of a wine are born in the vineyard. Chris distinguished between a few concepts that are often lumped together, and it is in these crucial distinctions (and the vintner's mastery of them) that the success and focus of a given wine lies. In particular, Chris examined the interrelated ideas of phenolics and tannins, and how warmth and sunlight propel their development. Essentially, tannins are phenolic compounds, but not all phenolics or phenolic compounds are tannins. For our purposes here, let's break this into two categories: Flavonoids and Non-Flavonoids. Flavonoids include tannins and anthocyanins, which affect color and mouthfeel (read: sight and touch), and non-flavonoids produce perceptible aromatic acids (such as phenolic, caffeic, cinnamic, and benzoic acids) that can affect taste and smell. I'm not an expert on phenolic compounds, but I can use this (admittedly over-simplistic) distinction as a basis for discussing what may be affecting the senses of sight and touch and what may be affecting the senses of taste and smell. A look at the so-called "triangle of phenolic bitterness" (Pinot Grigio, Albarino, and Gruner Veltliner) highlights how non-flavonoids manifest themselves differently than tannins and anthocyanins. While wines made from those grapes contain far fewer flavonoids, they are certainly influenced by other phenolic compounds. This wide range of non-flavonoid phenolic compounds is perceptible as distinct flavors in a wine. While non-flavonoids may not be as easy to distinguish in red wines, they certainly play a role in the final product. Chris makes the point that an astute winemaker will be aware of the difference in tannin and phenolic development.  As he says, "you can't fake or adjust phenolics like you can everything else."  Naturally, the question follows about how to manage the development of each. The answer reveals another seemingly subtle yet critical distinction between the effects of sunlight and heat on the vine.

Sunlight plays a greater role in the development of the phenolics, flavors, and the chemical compounds that create them by igniting the process of photosynthesis and determining how nutrients are developed and fed to the grape. Warmth and heat play more of a role in the rate at which a grape goes through the arc of the general ripening process – development of sugars and the decrease in acidity. Thus, in management of the vineyard, Chris makes an important distinction between sunlight hours (affected by aspect and, more specifically, ridge/tree lines and their shadows) and degree days (governed by latitude, elevation, and proximity to oceans).  

Given the Napa Valley's vast range of topography and varying climatic influences (ocean, lakes, mountains, fog, etc.), the differences between vineyards, and particularly mountain vineyards, can be marked. As someone who tends to favor Old World styles and all of their subtle quirks, I admit to having, from time to time, treated the myriad of Napa Cabs as about as unique as each of the dancing girls in a Robert Palmer video. This experience has forced me to pay close attention to the beautiful nuances that I had ignored previously. Luckily, I was raised Catholic, so I understand that any growth begins with the shame of realizing one's own ignorance. - Matthew Dulle

Experiencing firsthand the different in warmth and sun in the mountain and valley floor AVAs of Napa was revealing. Draped in fall foliage, the vineyards had a lot to say: it was easy to see how different areas, even within the same vineyard, were changing colors at different paces. In the Keyes vineyard on Howell Mountain, there were three heavily shaded rows with no leaves, followed by a patchwork of green and yellow rows, with coloring dependent on individual aspect. Coming down from the mountain to Rutherford, you could actually feel the temperature change from light jacket weather to t-shirt and sandal weather. You always read about regions with markedly different microclimates within small geographic areas, but in autumn in Napa we experienced this firsthand.  

The visit to Frog’s Leap was memorable, as John Williams' combination of zeal, confidence and salesmanship is extremely rare. I don't think that a single belief system or scientific understanding (in this case, a preference for dry-farming and organic farming) is the only correct approach to every possible situation in vineyard management. There are different ways to arrive at a similar goal, but – and this is what John Williams reinforced for me –  the best approach is dictated by the land itself. I also appreciate the winery's practice of planting various other crops, requiring care at different times of the year, in order to provide for a year-round workforce. - Greg Van Wagner

John Williams’ passionate discourse on dry-farming, particularly with regard to irrigation’s role in the resurgence of phylloxera in Napa in the late 1970’s, was eye-opening. In the world according to John, every vineyard in Napa was dry-farmed prior to Andy Beckstoffer's introduction of drip irrigation in Carneros in 1975. From there, the practice spread throughout the valley. In the deep, volcanic, water-retaining soils of the Rutherford Bench, dry-farmed vines rooted down into the soil well past the phylloxera comfort zone of 18 inches, keeping the most important parts of the root away from the louse – even Aramon x Rupestris (AxR1) could survive phylloxera with a deep enough rootzone. But once a majority of the valley's producers began to employ irrigation, the roots become vulnerable as they retreated back up into the shallower soils in pursuit of a new, easy water supply. Only then did AxR1 – with genetic parentage that is half-vinifera – reveal its susceptibility to phylloxera. - Mia Van de Water

The Spire Summit could not have presented a more balanced perspective of Sonoma and Napa, even while largely representing one portfolio. John Williams’ exposition on dry-farming, organic principles, and a more grounded approach to biodynamics (with a smattering of Chinese philosophy à la the Tao te Ching), made me want to pitch a tent in one among his cover crops (planted to naturally attract pests away from the vines) and live off the land with Abby, the Frog’s Leap mascot. His wines are elegant and acid-driven, and express the old practices of Napa Valley. On the other hand, mountain man Chris Carpenter speaks highly of John’s conviction, while arguing that the fertile valley floor affords John more leeway to put his vineyard philosophy into practice than do the challenging mountain vineyards and spartan soils John prefers. Chris wants to express the bigger, riper side of Napa fruit, while allowing for corrections on the winemaking side.  He represents the new guard of Napa – unabashedly big and bold, yet still offering balance and acidity. Spending the afternoon with John Williams and a morning and evening with Chris Carpenter could not have created a better balance between the old and new guards, and their very different perspectives. - Zach Gossard 

Kistler's Mark Bixler in the lab, and Geoff Labitzke among Chardonnay vines at the winery's Vine Hill vineyard.

Day 2: Information Learned and Relearned, and Some Pretty Great Wines

At Kistler, our first stop in Sonoma County, we spent an hour as flies on the wall, soaking up some pretty technical details about acidity in pH in conversation with Mark Bixler and Geoff Labitzke MW, and deepening our understanding of post-fermentation chemical changes in wine. Following was a non-blind tasting of classic Chardonnay and Pinot Noir examples from across the world. 

TA vs. TA: From Mark Bixler we learned that, practically speaking, there is no difference between total acidity (TA) and titratable acidity (TA). While we all know and acknowledge that there are many types of acidity in must and wine, we express them all as a single number (in g/l of tartaric acid equivalent) when measuring TA. - Mia 

pH is a logarithmic scale: A wine with a pH value of 3 is 10x as strong in acidity as a wine of pH of 4. Additional fun fact: lees stirring in barrel tends to increase pH, and lower acidity. - Matthew 

The relationship between pH and Sulfur Dioxide: My biggest takeaway from the pH discussion is how the pH of the wine affects the bioavailability of SO2. Lower PH allows a winemaker to use less SO2 to accomplish the same result. - Greg 

pH is a more important indicator of age-ability than TA: From Mark, we learned that pH is a measure of the strength of acid based on the activity of Hydrogen ions, while TA is the expression of titratable acid, or the measure of total acidity. The idea that pH is more important for aging wines makes perfect sense as the evolution and reaction of Hydrogen ions with enzymes, esters, sugars and phenolics should be more important to the development of a wine in the bottle. What makes it difficult is how to measure the predictability of these reactions based on a given crop harvested at different times in different vineyards in various vintages. And how does one quantify or measure the future effects of these reactions? In the future, it will be interesting to see more data come out regarding the science of these reactions. - Scott 

Non-Blind Tasting: We don’t often get to do tastings like this, and we probably should, as it is fantastically informative and more productive then just continuing to beat yourself over the head with blinders. Tasting in this fashion is incredibly useful as a drill to ascertain ripeness and oak contact on various similar wines. Tasting with a MW and hearing their views and thought processes on wine provides a slightly different perspective than tasting with MSs. Geoff Labitzke seemed to be more analytical, and used less “restaurant verbiage” in relation to wine's qualities (which certainly makes sense). Plus, while I may never actually order a Patagonian Pinot Noir (assuming that the wine we had was typical), at least now I can say that I have tasted one. - Greg Van Wagner

Later in the day, following a tasting and visit to Anakota's Knights Valley vineyards, we drank some spectacular stuff...

The final winery tasting was held at Verité in Alexander Valley, with a flight of 6 blind reds. Since we were on the property, I assumed that there would be one or two Vérité wines in the flight; however, to my surprise, the tasting included some of the biggest names in Bordeaux: Pétrus, Lafite and Cheval Blanc! My personal preferences still led me to name Lafite and Cheval Blanc as my two favorites, but the quality of Vérité was on par on with these great châteaux, albeit from a different perspective and with less brettanomyces (I can admit that I like a little brett). What was even more surprising was that Pétrus was my least favorite, tasting unbalanced in its flavors and oak treatment. Furthermore, Pétrus tasted the most developed (all wines were '05 or '06 -ed.), perhaps as a result of micro-oxygenation, thus leading the group to the conclusion that it would be the shortest-lived wine at the table. In my opinion, the tasting reaffirmed that blind tasting is still the best way to evaluate wine. And a huge thank you to Spire for allowing me to knock off two “bucket list” wines! - Scott 

The blind tasting at Verite was crazy! Tasting and critiquing such wines without even knowing which they were was a great and eye-opening experience. I still cannot believe that the one that no one liked (Pétrus) was the most expensive of all. Afterward, we met for Salon Champagne and caviar, followed by dinner with Julia Jackson (Jess' daughter). What an honor. - Nikolay Dimitrov

The blind tasting line-up!

Day 3: Blind Tasting with Geoff Kruth, Matt Stamp, John Blazon, and Jason Heller

Tasting is such an individual thing and it is very important to accrue tactics and find what works best for you through continuous thought on your process, rather than just taking every bit of instruction verbatim. While I have been lucky enough to be able to taste with MSs regularly, everyone has a very different style and approach to thinking through a wine. It seems that there is spectrum of fantastic tasters that simply rely on different aspects of a wine to come to a conclusion. In the past, a lot of the MSs I have tasted with seem to be focused on the tactile feel/profile of the wine in conjunction with structure to provide their conclusion. In this tasting, we looked at a more theoretical and scientific side of the spectrum. With an amalgamation of tasting tactics, you have more tools to get past the “brick wall” with difficult wines. - Greg 

At our blind tasting round table we learned about some of the chemical makeup of wine identity, and how things like pyrazines or rotundone decrease with ripeness. So (for instance) the debate between Federspiel and Smaragd Grüner Veltliner can be essentially boiled down: does it have significant white pepper and more tart, citrus-driven fruits (Federspiel), or, does it have very little pepper and ripe, fleshy, juicy fruits (Smaragd). Plus, you can always expect botrytis with Smaragd because that concentration is usually necessary to get to the alcohol levels required for the category. - Mia 

The main thing that I learned is not to guess what the wine is…read it instead; that’s how you will get to it. - Nikolay 

Golden State

While another famous wine region incorporates gold in its name, California is truly “sunkissed.”  Even in early November, the days felt unseasonably warm as the sun beamed down throughout the day.  The nights, while cool, did not necessitate more than a cursory extra layer of clothing, while it is snowing in Burgundy as I type this, some days later.  California winemaking is not generally about managing extremes, but it requires straddling of warm days and cool nights to give wines necessary acidity to check ripeness. California is about choice: do I pick by Brix or by berry flavor and texture? Do I plant in a cooler subzone, or right squat in the middle of a hot valley? Do I strive to create a wine in the style of the Old World, or embrace the bountiful sunshine and warmth to create an opulent wine in the manner of the New World? The freedom of the New World creates a series of choices which most in the Old World are not afforded—and California’s top winemakers are expressing the entire spectrum of what a California wine can be. It is about power of flavor, balance of acidity, and the longevity that those beautiful tannins and acidity can embody.  As always, it’s what ends up in the glass that counts. - Zach 

I had the privilege to share this experience with several other outstanding sommeliers, all of who had great questions and all who respectfully shared their perspectives. We can all learn from each other if we just take the time to listen and to participate. Just being around other driven, like-minded sommeliers, we had the chance to learn from each other and to bring home new perspectives. Humbled to have been selected for such an amazing experience, I encourage other sommeliers to apply for these scholarships. The chance to learn from each other is all around you, and we should never stop learning. - Scott

I have been lucky enough to be involved in wine events that bring together a number of sommeliers at different points in their careers. This event was no different. There was a camaraderie that connected people in their 20s to those in their 40s and up. Any geographic divide amongst us was instantly bridged. The interactions with Master Sommeliers, winemakers and viticulturalists were second only to the peer-to-peer connection. The only question that was left unanswered? Just what the hell is "Napa chic?" (Jacket and designer jeans. No tie. -ed.) - Todd Brinkman

If you’ve ever been curious whether a group of eight sommeliers can consume two liters of Negronis a night, the answer is yes. I recommend a hot tub, good company, and shooting stars. - Mia

The Spire Sommelier Summit gang. Pictured front row, left to right: Scott Ota, Cindy Woodman, John Blazon MS, Mia Van de Water, Matthew Dulle, Nikolay Dimitrov, Zach Gossard
Back row, left to right: David Ferreira, Greg Van Wagner, Matt Stamp MS, Todd Brinkman, Geoff Kruth MS, Daniel Beedle