A Rebuttal

By Nick Peay — November 13, 2012

From An Open Letter to U.S. Pinot Producers by Allen Meadows, aka Burghound: “The problem, as I see it, (is with) genetic diversity in the vineyards, or perhaps otherwise stated the lack of it…I’m referring to increasing, and troubling, emphasis of most new plantations to focus on just a few clones…115, 667, 777 and 828 dominate…these clones tend to taste more of themselves than reflect the site specific characteristics of where they’re planted.”

I appreciate when a wine writer attempts to zero in on the cause of a generally perceived shortcoming. Allen Meadows finds it troubling that so much of the U.S. Pinot planted in the last ten years has been limited to very few clones, and that, while the quality of wines has been improving during this period, their taste is too similar due to this trend. You may note that I have no need to respond to this general criticism of all domestic growers: at Peay our wines are made from a great variety of planted material (10 Pinot clones/selections and counting), the wines do not taste like those from other domestic producers (or even like one another), they clearly express our terroir, and Allen generally likes them. But I think his assertions as to the cause for homogeneity in domestic Pinots differs markedly from my own experience, and merits a response.

It is true that there were widespread plantings of Dijon clones 667, 777, and 115 in the last ten years. I think it is necessary, however, to look at the state of Pinot noir plantings before these clones became available to understand why people are planting them now. In the mid-eighties, early in the wave of Pinot planting in the U.S., two well-known and well-regarded, non-virused clones were favored, though there were a dozen or more available to work with. The first was FPS 4/5 – really two different clones (4 & 5) known together as Pommard – that is still widely planted and loved in California and Oregon (it plays a strong role in our Scallop Shelf Pinot). The second was FPS 13/15 (clones 13 & 15) known as the Martini clone, with 13 being preferred, but both gradually being perceived as inferior, producing thin, tart cranberry-flavored wines, except in exceptionally cool vintages or exceptionally cool sites. On the heritage selection side, Mt. Eden, one of the Swan selections, and to a lesser extent Hanzell, Trefethen, Byron, and Calera (though hard to come by at the time) were preferred, though hampered by Leaf roll and various other viruses.

The story of viticulture in Burgundy is quite different, of course, as that is where all of the genetic diversity of Pinot noir resides. Growers there were, and to some extent still are, dealing with an excess of heterogeneity within their vineyards. Imagine a half-acre block, your holdings in a famous Burgundy vineyard. You farm 2,000 vines of Pinot noir with ages ranging from 40 to 80 years old. How many distinctly different (at a genetic level) Pinots are there across those 2,000 vines? Less than two thousand, sure, but certainly more than ten, probably 100 or more. They will all likely ripen at different speeds due to genetic variances. And what of virus status? Virused vines take longer to ripen, ripen unevenly on the same vine and, in general, can have nutrient issues that affect ripeness. With 11 different kinds of known Leaf roll virus and the ability of a vine to have more than one Leaf roll or other virus, how much greater is the observed diversity across that one half-acre block? Further, the logistics and the weather dictate that you pick all at once or in two passes if you are luxurious in time and good weather. As a result, the challenge of bringing in grapes that are all roughly the same ripeness, minimizing the green flavors and raisins, and of keeping to a minimum the contribution of lesser quality vines is daunting, if not impossible in this scenario. Could this be why critics and Burgundy lovers favor ripe vintages with plenty of sun?

Replanting in Burgundy also presents a problem. When replanting a few vines within a block, traditionally a vigneron uses cuttings from his favorite vine. His favorite vine was never made into wine all by itself, as it is impractical to do this with only one vine. He selected that vine because it looked healthy and ripened its clusters evenly and reliably before the growing season ended. In fact, it might make ordinary wine. But if he selected from the same favored vines every time he replanted, his block would have moved in the direction of clonal homogeneity and even ripening after eighty years.

One of my greatest challenges with my homogenous blocks is to get sufficiently even ripeness within a block. We attempt to achieve this with various farming techniques including: trimming excess clusters off of short shoots, dropping green or partly green clusters at veraison, manipulating the canopy to equalize the degree of sun exposure, altering watering so only vines that need it get it, focusing my composting only to vines that are weak, etc. Yet a thorough sampling of individual berries throughout the block always reveals a range of ripeness. The folly – if not foolheartedness – of trying to introduce more diversity in a single block by blindly replanting through a selection of many clones is readily apparent to any grapegrower who is paying attention.

In France an attempt was made in 1968 to respond to this chaotic state of affairs in French vineyards. The Government’s agricultural research departments began the process of testing single vines for cleanliness, propagating them into full vineyards, and evaluating the monoclonal wine made from each vineyard. Since the rapidity of the end of the growing season in Burgundy is always a problem, late-ripening selections were not favored. Large-clustered or large-berried selections were also not favored, as they were perceived as not being ‘typical’ and therefore of lesser quality. The numbered clones that Allen Meadows disdains are these favored selections, directly from the hallowed vineyards of Burgundy – pure and singled out for their excellence. In December of 2000 when we visited Comte de Vogüé, JF Mugnier, and Dujac, owners/winemakers at each domain were happy with their replanting of government certified Dijon clones 115, 777 and 828. At l’Arlot and DRC, blocks were replanted with clonal stock selected from a few vines in their own vineyards and tested to be disease-free. In any event, they were replicating the government’s work with the same objective: genetically few, disease-free, quality vines for propagation in their vineyards.

Sometime around 1987, material originating from Oregon State University began to make its way into new plantings in the U.S., namely, Wadenswil 1A, 2A, 3A and 115. Much of the ‘older’ plantings in the Willamette are of Wadenswil and Pommard, but in California, 115 began to catch on. My experience tasting 115 in many cellars has truly brought home to me that clone 115 is chimeric, like Martini, different in every site planted except that crop load seems to be the major factor affecting quality rather than a requirement for very cool weather. At lower crop loads 115 is the one clone that seems complete all by itself. Barrels of 115 we sample in our cellar possess a harmony of aroma, entry, mid-palate, and finish that echo Burgundy. Eventually, the French government’s viticultural agency realized that the efforts of their labors (all the clones they identified and evaluated) were leaking out to the New World without any receipt of compensation. A protocol for the sale of these clones (667, 777, 115, and others) was established about 11 years ago, ensuring a royalty to the French government in exchange for certified material. Hence, the recent proliferation of 777, 115 and 667 plantings in the New World.

The Dijon clones are not only distinct from one another, but also vary markedly in taste and aroma from site to site. While the French researchers liked 828 and 777, they thought less of 667. Clone 828 has never been released in the U.S., however, and those of us who have it do not have certified material (and I’m beginning to suspect that what we have is not 828). 777 is the most aromatic clone we grow, giving beautiful floral aromas and a bright and intense fruity mid-palate. Even when fully ripe, however, it does not have an impressive finish. It attenuates too rapidly. It is an essential component for blending due to its gorgeous nose (a key component in our Pomarium Pinot noir). And 777 is even less consistent from site to site than 115, as I learned by tasting 777 from many of my neighbors’ vineyards. 667 is truly a workhorse, making big-framed, fruity wines, what the French might refer to as ‘rustic.’ Perhaps the most consistent from site to site, while a complete clone from entry to finish, it is perhaps a bit atypical in its flavor profile. I know firsthand that these clones are capable of expressing their terroir and their unique clonal personality as I have tasted these clones out of barrel across many vintages with an intimate understanding of the winemakers’ harvest and vinification decisions.

This brings me to the true cause of the ‘sameness’ of so many of the Pinots Allen dislikes – the late-picking harvest decisions and the non-traditional vinification protocols that many of the producers of same-tasting Pinot employ. When Pinot is picked OVERRIPE, the wines tend to taste the same regardless of clone or site: the nuance in the nose is lost, smelling flat and generically jammy. The fruit character in the mouth turns the corner to something plummier: intense, but dark-fruited and lacking vitality on the palate due to low acid levels. Allen glancingly refers to this in a post script: “I am well aware that clonal selection is only one of many factors that could be legitimately discussed in the context of this noticeable convergence of aromas and flavors; prime among these of course is the insistence by some on picking at very high ripeness levels (and often watering back).”

Though aware of other possible reasons for the vast sea of similar tasting domestic Pinot noir, I believe Allen has chosen to hitch his wagon to the wrong presumptive cause. We agree on the desire for a greater breadth of styles of Pinot noir, and certainly for greater nuance and aromatic subtlety. But it isn’t the material or the believed homogeneity in flavors of new plantings that is to blame. No, the blame lies in a desire by a growing number of producers to impress critics and consumers with big, rich, and juicy wines that have little to do with the charm, elegance and power of varietally-correct Pinot noir.

As for me, I’m just doing my thing. We will continue to make three terroir-driven Pinots from our 10 soon to be 12 clones of Pinot noir. That is enough heterogeneity for me to attempt to manage for now.

Want Some Wine?

Our wines are made from grapes grown on our 53-acre hilltop vineyard located above a river in the far northwestern corner of the West Sonoma Coast, 4 miles from the Pacific Ocean. We grow Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay, Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne. You can browse our current offerings in our online Wine Shop.


Want Some Wine?

Our wines are made from grapes grown on our 53-acre hilltop vineyard located above a river in the far northwestern corner of the West Sonoma Coast, 4 miles from the Pacific Ocean. We grow Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay, Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne. You can browse our current offerings in our online Wine Shop.