Directions in Napa Winemaking

In the time since I moved to Napa Valley nearly seven years ago, a great many things have changed. Shortly after my arrival, Robert Parker ended his decades-long tenure as the preeminent California wine critic and passed the reins to his then-heir apparent Antonio Galloni. A few years later, the pieces shuffled again when Parker sold a majority stake of The Wine Advocate, causing Galloni to start his own publication, thereby prompting Parker to return to California. Concurrent to all this, Jon Bonné’s work in the San Francisco Chronicle led to his groundbreaking book The New California Wine, which celebrated a shifting set of priorities among the Golden State’s emerging generation of winemakers. In Pursuit of Balance (IPOB) came next, traveling internationally to promote freshness and restraint in California wine (at least for Burgundian varieties) and bringing considerable attention to the topic of alcohol levels. Across the country and abroad, an interest in California’s older vintages swelled, which helped to excite many sommeliers who were otherwise disinterested in the region. A series of cold and/or wet vintages—2009, 2010, 2011—led many to declare that the “pendulum” of ripeness was indeed swinging back to a place of more moderation, but these were immediately followed by a string of hot and worryingly dry years that saw a return to the production of many ripe and richly concentrated wines. Around this same time, IPOB disbanded, and Bonné left both the Chronicle and the West Coast, causing many to wonder about the future of both movements.

Perhaps I’ve paid closer attention than most, but it seems that this debate over the true nature of California wine has been particularly heated, and more than a little partisan. Mostly, I’ve heard from writers and sommeliers, all of whom make their living by forming opinions about wine, and less from the actual winemakers, though they are arguably the ones with the most skin in the game. To draw out that perspective, I contacted winemakers Andy Erickson and  with a series of questions that delve into their personal experiences with California wine, their thoughts on the ups and downs of the last several years, and their hopes for the future.

Despite his disarmingly easygoing nature, Erickson is one of Napa Valley’s most lauded consultants (his client list has included Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, Ovid, and Mayacamas) and the erudite Petroski mans the helm at Larkmead, one of California’s most storied estates. And while both are masters of the Napa Cabernet craft, their interests extend far outside the genre. For his own label, Favia, Erickson has worked closely with vineyards in the Sierra Foothills, and he can also boast years of experience with Santa Barbara’s Jonata. Petroski’s wanderlust diverges geographically from Erickson’s but is just as potent. His personal brand, Massican, was forged from his love of Friulian wine, and though he released his first actual Italian creation, Gaspare, last year, most of his Massican fruit comes from forgotten corners of Napa Valley and Sonoma.

Kelli White: When you were first getting started down the winemaker path, what were your assumptions about California wine, and how have your views changed?

Dan Petroski: I grew up drinking the Napa and Sonoma classics in NYC in the late nineties and early aughts: Turley, Pahlmeyer, Phelps, Caymus, Opus One, Rochioli, and William Selyem. These wines defined everything that was attractive about California wines—the Napa wines had a richness that was approachable and delicious. On the other side of the mountain, the Sonoma wines presented an air of adventure, a rusticity that offered its own allure in a more bohemian kind of way.

I still believe in my first impressions. Napa is easy. The wines are of high quality and have big, refined flavors that are delicious to the majority of wine drinkers. The producers in the fringes—Sonoma, Santa Cruz, the Hills, Anderson Valley, the lowlands, Santa Barbara—can be much more adventurous in their pursuit of alternative wines [and] wine styles because the economics allow for more risk-taking.

Andy Erickson: The truth is that what initially brought me to wine was the connection to agriculture, and that it was a craft, something handmade, so I wasn’t really thinking too much about what California wine was or what it could be. I was lucky early on in my career to be able to taste some incredible Napa wines from the seventies, eighties, and nineties that opened my eyes. I think the wines have such a strong character—that’s what excited me, and what keeps me motivated.

KW: Do you think that Napa Valley should be as focused on Cabernet Sauvignon as it currently is, or should there be a greater emphasis on diversity?

DP: Napa was incredibly diverse “back in the day.” Larkmead alone has had 28 different grape varieties planted on the estate during its 120-year history. But with the phylloxera epidemic of the late eighties and red wines becoming more fashionable, Napa Valley underwent a systematic replant to red Bordeaux varieties [that were] planted with a deeper understanding of soils, row direction, proper rootstock, variety, and clean clonal material, which led to the modern era of Napa wine style. And with the attention that the wines received in the press, and the wealthy audience that started to gravitate more toward [them], supply and demand economies took hold, prices started to escalate, and the cycle perpetuated. Today, the short supply of these wines and their resulting high prices have attracted more and more investment, and the high land values don't support the diversity of yesteryear. At a property like Larkmead, we give every grape we grow the same attention when it comes to farming practices. But our Sauvignon Blanc grapes sell for one-third of the price of our Cabernet Sauvignon. If you are doing equal work, why accept lower value for your labor? It just doesn't make sense right now to have any other grape but Cabernet Sauvignon planted in Napa Valley.

AE: I do think that Cabernet Sauvignon is the best vehicle to express the terroir we have in Napa. There’s something about the combination of soils, drainage, and proximity to the Bay and Pacific Ocean that create the perfect environment for Cabernet Sauvignon to thrive. I’m all for diversity in wine, but I don’t see why all different varieties need to come from Napa. Napa Valley represents a very small percentage (four percent) of the grapes grown in California, and it’s incredibly well-suited to Bordeaux varieties, so why not go with that? I make plenty of wines from different varieties, but the grapes come from other regions. You don’t see a huge movement for varietal diversity in Burgundy, so what’s the difference? That said, anyone who knows me knows that I’m always pushing to plant more Cabernet Franc… Does that count for diversity?

KW: Do you feel that you ever pushed your winemaking too far in pursuit of a popular style—either too ripe or too lean?

AE: I think in the mid-2000s, ripeness was going a little too far in the wrong direction. I was definitely guilty of chasing a certain style—which was and still is very popular, by the way—of wines that are big and opulent. Plus, because of replanting, vineyards back then were mostly young, and the grapes matured quickly. Now, I am looking more for balance, and these same vineyards are in their twenties, so I feel a stronger character coming back into the wines. That said, revisiting the wines we made back in the mid-2000s, I still like them a lot.

DP: I was very fortunate. When I started working for Andy Smith at Larkmead in 2006/2007, he was ready to start dialing it back from the ripe, intense days. We took baby steps each year. The motivation was never to go too far—Napa Valley wines should always express a bit of sunshine in the glass, that approachability and luxury the climate affords us. But we were working toward stripping away the makeup and looking at the raw material of the vineyard. The current vintages (2014, 2015, 2016) are starting to look more like terroir wines than wines of climate. It's a long process.

From a Massican perspective, I think I pushed acidity too far to see what the breaking point is or was with consumption. I'm not super proud of some of those wines, but I learned a lot about what the market will absorb. There is a fine line in both under-ripe fruit and over-ripe. I like the challenges of walking that line, but the reality is that ripeness levels are completely subjective.

KW: What do you think of the New California movement and its ilk? Now that Jon Bonné is out of the Chronicle, and IPOB has disbanded, what is the future of this movement?

AE: I love the word ilk. I think it’s really important to have a lot of different forces at work to help define what California wine should be. I’m very focused in Napa, so that’s what I know best, but even here we have winemakers pushing the pendulum to one end or another. I think the truth is the best vineyards make the best wines, and that should be the focus. There should be an aim to produce wines that are “balanced,” but that can mean many things. Is a wine that is low in alcohol and acidic more balanced than a wine that has more alcohol and is softer on the palate? Those are just words on a page, and arbitrary targets. If a wine is exciting, and it will age for a long time, for me that should be the goal.

DP: Jon nailed the zeitgeist. He used every column he could to champion the new methods and mores of a generation of winemakers that maybe lacked financial wherewithal but had plenty of nostalgia for an earlier time in California history where all you needed was a sense of adventure. Winemakers made wine, Jon stirred the pot, people looked on attentively—some defensively—and the movement rippled through the mainstream. People started caring about the character of their California wines. Why shouldn't they? Jon's fellow writer and editor at the Chronicle, Michael Bauer, had been championing where the food in California restaurants came from and how important that was. The wine industry owes the food industry an incredible debt of gratitude. For every person who scrutinizes their grass-fed beef options, there is a person who wonders what, why, and how sulfites impact a wine.

The purchasing habits of consumers have been so upended by access to information that there aren't singular influencers anymore—products, packaged goods, entertainment, music, food, lifestyle, fashion, restaurants, [and] wine are all being promoted by micro-influencers whose voices and reach extend beyond the normal levels of attraction. The movements aren't dead; they are just taking on a more organic development.

KW: Do you feel that critics and scores influence the styles of wine being made in Napa? That you yourself make? If so, was this truer in the past or today?

DP: There was a great deal of copycat-ism over the last three decades or more of winemaking in Napa, and critics often take the brunt of the burden for this critique, but think about how young and how shapeable the industry is. If success is staring you in the face, why would you, after making a significant investment in planting grapes and building a winery, turn away and do something different? I'm not condoning this. I'm just saying, aren't all the Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, and Seth Rogan movies made over the last three decades kind of the same movie?

[But] the glory days of 95 points meaning something may be at their precipice. There is too much noise cluttering the conversation, and consumers are becoming more discerning about who they listen to or how many people they listen to. You have to ask yourself, is the opinion of one critic on one wine worth 100 likes on Instagram?

Today, an owner or winemaker may look at Galloni, Parker, or [Wine] Spectator, while a visitor to wine country may plan their trip using Facebook, Instagram, Trip Advisor, or Yelp.

So, how does this influence my winemaking? When you own a passion project like Massican, it's your own prerogative to make a wine that you deem necessary in your life. When you are hired to be a winemaker, however, you have to collaborate. Hopefully, you can agree on something you both enjoy; hopefully, you can have the same philosophy and respect of the vineyard and the process. But more times than less, that idealistic approach can be lost [because] of the value we put on the success of a proven track record of critical reviews.

AE: I’ll go on record saying that the 100-point scoring system is one of the most complicated aspects of the wine business. Of course, I like a good write-up as much as the next guy, and if one of my wines doesn’t score like I had hoped, I’ll get bummed out and revisit what we did, but the fact is that every time a wine is tasted, that is a moment in time, and what we are doing in the vineyard and winery (with Favia and with my clients) is a year-round pursuit. Before we blend and bottle, we pull out a vertical of the wines that have been produced from that vineyard, to see where the new vintage stacks up. We want to make sure it is the best we can do every year. But we’re thinking more about what the viticultural and winemaking decisions were, and less about the scores of the wines. Thankfully, the more experience I have, the less I worry about critics. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like positive reviews! There’s just a different motivation.

KW: What do you think about the rising prices in Napa—both in terms of the cost of doing business (land prices, permitting hurdles) and the general trend of rising bottle prices? Is there a ceiling? How does this affect locals, younger generations, and consumers?

AE: I think it just puts pressure on us to do the best we can every year. If our customers decide that the wine does not justify the price, then there’s a problem. But the same can be said for any artisan product from any place. I believe strongly that Napa Valley—the wines and the place—has a character that cannot be replicated, and as long as it is cultivated wisely, it has great value. All the issues you listed—land prices, bottle prices, business, permitting—are tied to this. If we don’t make sure that the wines are among the best in the world, and that the Valley keeps its strong agricultural character, we’re moving in the wrong direction. And don’t forget: Napa Valley grows only four percent of the grapes grown in California.

DP: The rising prices in Napa are inevitable and will continue. It's a supply-and-demand economy trading in luxury goods. And wineries are sparing no expense at growing higher quality grapes and making higher quality wines. Great land for growing grapes is harder to come by, and the permitting for building a winery is getting harder each year. The adage to make a small fortune in the wine industry, you need to start with a big one is truer now than ever. Land prices are prohibitive, farming costs are expensive, and reputations are priceless!

Is this there a ceiling or a bubble waiting to pop? Yes. But it's generational. The older Y's and the younger Millennials will encounter problems with job growth and distribution of wealth, and when the population of one percent-ers declines, so will the luxury goods marketplace.

KW: Does Napa have a hope of winning the hearts of the emerging wine drinkers? Do you find that certain wines appeal to them more than others?

DP: Napa is incredibly easy to drink, but harder to buy. On a volume level, Napa wines are a drip in a vast sea of available wines out there, but they rank as some of the most expensive premium or luxury wines. Other critics of the high prices have said it before I have: tasting the classic wines of the world (not only Napa) has become harder and harder because the wines are priced out of most consumer, restaurant, and retailer budgets.

However, I have hope for Napa. Every time I hear a young sommelier speak favorably about an old bottle of Bordeaux, I know that a compliment for a Napa wine isn't too far behind.

AE: Absolutely. I was lucky to move to Napa Valley in 1994, and I’ll never forget tasting some of the wines being produced in the early 1990s (what we would now call the original cult wines). The feeling is still with me. Serious light bulbs going off. Again, it goes back to the strong character that the wines have. People will always gravitate to a particular style, but for those people who are attracted to what Napa has to offer, I think there are more options every year, more passionate producers, and more vineyard-focused wines.

KW: What are your thoughts on current trends in ripeness? Do you agree that the Napa pendulum is swinging back to a place of more moderate ripeness? What about for other regions and wines?

DP: As I have said before, ripeness is subjective. However, I do believe there is a consensus in the industry that Napa has pushed the envelope toward an extreme, intensely rich style. I can speak for myself that, as I revisit some of the earlier wines I've made, I am critical of how they are developing. If you state that you want to make wines of place, like I do, you are 100% accurate in saying that sunshine and climate are considered part of that place. But that is not the whole story, so a pursuit of balance between above-ground and below-ground factors is necessary. Is everyone pursuing these objectives in their winemaking? A lot of people are, but using your pendulum metaphor, no matter how hard it swings to one side, eventually it comes back the other way.

As for other regions: Sonoma County Pinot Noir in the mid- to late-2000s followed a similar trajectory as Napa. Napa's extreme swing has lasted a few more years than Sonoma’s, and that appears to be because Sonoma County farmers and winemakers seem a bit nimbler, and wines reach the market sooner.

AE: I think I answered this one above.

KW: Aside from Napa and Sonoma, which California regions do you feel will rise to prominence in the next decade?

DP: A decade is a short period of time. Ridge has been making Cabernet in the Santa Cruz mountains since the early 1960s, and Mount Eden since the early 1970s. In the last decade or so, we've seen Arnot Roberts and Ceritas make Cabernet from Santa Cruz Mountain sites. [That is to say,] I can only name four producers of Cabernet from the Santa Cruz mountains over the last 60 years. We'll need to move a lot faster than that to bring some prominence to a “new” ‚Äčregion. Prominence is earned over the course of time, but it is not linear; it needs bandwidth as well.

AE: I really love seeing what is happening in Amador, especially with Rhône varieties. We started making wines from up there nearly 15 years ago, and to see the number of vineyards now, and the quality of the viticulture, is really exciting. Also, I’ve always loved Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Santa Rita Hills north of Santa Barbara, and I think every year those wines get more compelling. It all comes down to the people moving into these regions with a passion to do something special.

KW: Where do you see California wine in 10 years? Where do you see yourself? What about the importance of Cabernet Sauvignon?

AE: With California in general, I see more diversity in grape varieties and styles, which is great. My hope is that we continue to see more small, artisan producers in every region working with many varieties. In Napa, I think Cabernet Sauvignon is going to continue to be very important, and that’s not a bad thing. It thrives here, and other regions cannot produce what is produced consistently in Napa. Hopefully, I’ll still be here doing what I’m doing, making wines from special vineyards in Napa and dabbling in cool wines from elsewhere.

DP: Cabernet will always be important. It's in the grape's DNA to transcend borders and produce great wines in multiple regions of the world. It is a wine grape’s ability to travel over borders that makes it great, in my opinion.

Wine growing is a patient game—10 years is nothing. I think I have the patience to stick it out. And I know I have made a lot of wines over the years that have brought people pleasure, but I haven't made a great wine yet. You will know when I do, because I'll drop the mic and move on.

 Dan Petroski - photo: Geoff Kruth

 Andy Erickson - photo: Jimmy Hayes