If you read the major wine magazines such as the Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast most of their reviews of high-end wine are accompanied by a recommended drinking window. This “massive” Cabernet will last for 20 years; or drink from 2020 – 2030, etc.
It is thought that more than 90% of wines that are bought in supermarkets and wineshops are consumed the same day so the drinking window (in this context) is essentially meaningless. But that’s a topic for another rumination.
What’s not meaningless, however, is the notion that part of a wine’s essential quality is tied to the perception of how long that wine can age or how long past release the wine hits its peak. This equation is influenced by all kinds of caveats, and I have spent a career thinking about its validity.
America is a very young wine-drinking culture, and California a very young wine-making area. When you are just beginning to become interested in something you tend to look to examples from the Old World, no matter dissimilar the growing areas are.
The notion of ageability as a prerequisite for quality was formed long ago and based on a foreign paradigm that doesn’t seem relevant to me any more (viz. California wine). And Europe was the obvious place from which American winemakers and drinkers took their cues. Bordeaux and Burgundy (Cabernet-based wine predominantly, and Pinot Noir) produced wines (generally) much harder in tannin and lower in fruit than their California counterparts. When my father really got into wine in the mid-1960s, the best examples of Cabernet were Bordelais and these massively tannic and acidic wines needed decades to soften and complex up. The same was rarely true of the California example of the grape – especially those wines made in the last 10-15 years when the predominant wine-making style shifted to longer hangtimes, more fruit, less acid, and less ageability.
One of the great truths and part of the essential nature of the greatness of wine as a thing is that it does CHANGE. Wine evolves; it matures; it lives out its life sometimes grandly and over a great many years and sometimes its nature is that of the May Fly. How wine practically changes is for a long chemistry conversation and is fairly well known. But HOW a wine is going to change or AGE is fraught with so many tangential but crucial questions I’d argue that it is knowable only within a range, and not even very well at that.
Storage conditions – temperature (absolute temperature and temperature range), humidity, absence of vibration and light; quality and integrity of the cork; wine variety; reputation of the producer; winemaking style; appellation; hillside or valley floor…all of these factors will influence the wine’s ability to age, practically speaking. Then when you take into account your personal preferences (freshness of fruit, like or dislike of tannin and acid and wood, desire for tertiary aromas and flavors brought on by bottle bouquet and age) age-worthiness as a signifier of quality becomes much more complicated and ephemeral a conceit.
The wine press and the avid wine consumer have taken a simple Old World reality that high-quality wines needed time to become enjoyable to drink and did their transmogrifying voodoo on it. What we are left with is a tarted-up New World notion that ascribes excellence to a dynamic that began as a purely pragmatic realization.
I would contend that there are no objective measures where affairs of the heart ( and of the palate) are concerned. I can measure the amount of titratable acid there is in a wine, the pH level, the amount of alcohol by volume, and a bunch of other things. What I can’t measure, though, is how these things make you feel, how all of these individual planks combine in your mouth and your mind and your heart to create your individual sense of the wholeness of the thing.
All wine’s can age. Not all, in fact, – most – are not meant to age for a long time. Each time you drink a wine, you are getting only a snapshot of its life; the quality of that life, however, is purely a product of your own needs and desires. Just like the color orange, expressing in words the essence of the thing you are tasting and smelling is nearly impossible.
Great wines tend to get more complex the older they are. Primary fruit and the impolite, exuberant structure of youth give way to integration and propriety and a depth we associate with maturity. Neither state is inherently more valuable or more worthy than the other. These states are not even individual stops reached in the whole span of life; they are only moments in time, fated to change even just a moment later. Really good wine gives a pleasure that is thrilling in its physical briefness, and very long in the memories that it creates. A great wine has less to do with how long it can live and more to do with its ability to transfigure the Time that it has.
I am fortunate to be working in the Livermore Valley, a too-little known gem that is demonstrating – at its best – the ability to grow Cabernet Sauvignon as great as any in the world. I’m also fortunate to have been born into the oldest winemaking family in America – a family for whom wine has been a singular professional focus for nearly 160 years.
Lineage|Livermore Valley is meant to be one of the great Cabernet-based wines in the world. I apologize in advance if the preceding statement sounds immodest. It is meant only to describe the intended trajectory of a life-time mission. My thinking is that If I’m going to devote my career to trying to accomplish one thing, It might as well be a BIG thing. I’m going to follow the Boss’s advice here and walk tall, or don’t walk at all.
What really gives this personal bet a chance of paying off—in the end—is the spectacular viticultural quality of the Livermore Valley. Oriented east-west, and situated between two ranges of mountains, 30 miles east of San Francisco Bay, our Valley is warm during the day and really cool during the night. This dramatic diurnal temperature range describes and circumscribes the sugar-producing photosynthetic activity of day and the maintenance of balancing acidity that happens in the cool of the dark. Only the best regions have this dramatic range, and coupled with a multiplicity of soil types (there are six alone ribboning through one of our estate vineyards), and microclimates afforded by an elevation range of 500′ to more than 1000′ above sea level, Cabernet and its Bordeaux cousins thrive.
I am most attracted to wines that are elegant and beautiful and balanced. Lineage|Livermore Valley must be compelling; it must have vitality and movement, depth and length and complexity. More than any individual characteristic, though, is that the wine must have a sense of cohesion (and with a blend of the five classic varietals, this is one wonderful challenge); it must seem inevitably of one piece.
The intricacies of getting five different grapes from several different vineyards – from those vineyards through the crush pad and fermentors into barrels and onto the blending table and finally into bottle where the life of Lineage|Livermore Valley begins is what obsesses me.
VI adorns the wine’s capsule and label. It marks six generations of winemaking and stands as the aegis under which all of my winemaking energy and love will fall. The more wonderful thing in terms of lineage is that the VI may soon need to be amended to VII as my son, Aidan Mirassou, is now managing our cellar. To be connected to previous generations of the family who labored as I have, who have crushed and pressed and bottled at the same time of year…separated by a sesquicentennial, is a compelling place to be. But to be the generation that shows that same magic to the succeeding line, and serves as the link to the past AND the springboard to the future goes deeper than words.
I’ll be heading to Southern California in a couple of weeks to do a wine dinner and to work the market. I won’t be at home with my girlfriend and dogs (my favorite place) nor at the winery (the next best), and I’m hoping that what I’ll do over those couple of days will yield positive results. And as I’m writing this in the sensory lab at the winery about to pitch yeast into a fermenter, I’m feeling just a little melancholy. So many trips like this in the past and so little ability to determine if the results have led me anywhere other than away.
Certainly not just the fact I’m over 50 now, or a grandfather of two perfect grandchildren, but I’m acutely aware of time passing and all too aware also of the fragility of life – the lives of loved ones and of companies. Success is taking on a different meaning for me now. While it can never, nor should be, uncoupled completely from the inevitability of commerce, it is the pure, more fundamental relationships, that drive me now.
Being a small brand with world-class aspirations (and wanting to be holistically complete) my idea of success for my brands is being circumscribed evermore completely by relationships. My idea of the proper relationship for winemaker and the vineyard and the craft has changed dramatically. No more am I trying to twist and mold and lengthen and compress. Now, I’m in a symbiotic relationship that is less about control and “making” than it is about revelation. Each element works in concert with the others and the process of sharing energy and desire with all my “partners” can lead to moments of perfection, or a state of perfect now-ness.
I am happy that I’ve realized this now so that I can spend the rest of my career unlayering complication in myself and in my wines in order to approach true clarity. Each little stage of this process – a moment of seeing my work for what it is and what it means – is a successful one.
Success, too, looks like my wine club members and my guests at the winery coming away from their experience with a deeper sense of the magic of wine and of the place that wine holds in a well-wined life. Without an avid and enthusiastic receiver of experience, the most magical moments echo soundless in the vast nothingness of today’s techno-reverb. It is my hope that this “sloughing-off” we are trying to accomplish will invite one to contemplate a more authentic and atavistic experience. When this happens – even if only rarely – that will be a deep and good thing.
The final piece of my evolving vision of success is the caretaking of our land. There are a multitude of sources available to describe how one can farm organically or biodynamically, and they have profoundly affected my thinking about what we are doing now and where we ought go. The simplest way for me to describe this relationship to the vineyard is embodied in a phrase you see if you’ve ever hiked in the White Mountains.”Pack in. Pack out.” Simple. Don’t leave footprints. Leave things the way you found them if they’re right. Make them right if they’re not. It is crucial – as with every other relationship – to work to reverberate at the same frequency so that outputs naturally come from what has been put into them.
Perfection doesn’t mean a lack of flaws, and it comes about by doing just those true things that need to be done. The well-lived life is spent discovering what those true things are.
The way from juice to wine is fraught with all kinds of peril. More times than not, imminent “death” is all in the muddled mind of the tired winemaker, but on other occasions, the invisible nasties that roam the winery are REALLY out to get us.
Our winemaking style stays relatively consistent across all of our brands, but we do want to emphasize certain aspects of the grapes that come in to the plant. Unlike very large wineries that work on an industrial scale and for whom nuance is not as important as clean, non-idiosyncratic wine, our winemaking regime can be fairly risky.
We don’t generally add sulfur at the crushpad when fruit is brought in and we keep low levels of SO2 in barrels while the wine is aging. We also do a fair amount of cold-soaking when grapes are first crushed.
There are different viewpoints about what cold-soaking does for wines (as many viewpoints as there are winemakers), and there are a great many winemakers out there who want to get fermentation started as early and as vigorously as possible. Apart from the stylistic qualities that fast and hot ferments might bring to wine, there is a lot less risk to these incipient wines when CO2 is present.
For me, taking a slower and colder approach for wines such as Cabernet Franc, Grenache, and Petit Verdot, allows for the microscopic bugs that come in on grape skins to add their bit of complexity to my wines before they die their noble deaths in about 2% alcohol. Cold-soaking also allows for gentle extraction of color, and – subjectively – more supple wines in the end.
For all the structure and flavor benefits that we attribute to our early winemaking regime, I’d be a liar if I didn’t exhale a sigh of relief when I lift the fermentor lid up and am knocked back by the scouring breath of Carbon Dioxide. For it is this stuff that throws a protective blanket over our baby wines, chasing fruit flies away and keeping the deleterious effects of oxygen at bay.
Fermentation is magic. It is the process that ultimately gives us the wine we so love by not only converting sugar into alcohol but also providing the hot and gassy environment our juice needs to fend off the microscopic army that is intent on turning that self-same juice into vinegar. In this war against volatile acidity and lactobacillus and brett, CO2 is one of our missile shields.