andy beckstoffer: part one

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A few days ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down one-on-one with grower Andy Beckstoffer. His accomplishments and accolades would fill this blog many times over. I will direct you to the excellent bio on his website for full details.

As he and I had (rather improbably) never met – though between us we’ve been involved in the wine business for, oh, around 6000 years – I let him set the topics. We sat around my dining room table and tasted through six wines, all sourced from Beckstoffer-owned vineyards. As we chatted about the wines, we traded thoughts on a range of issues.

AB on vineyard designate wines: “We have 9 vineyards in Napa valley, and 7 we bought from wineries. It wasn’t long ago they’d buy the grapes, cook up this stew, call it a reserve. They felt a blend was better [than a single-vineyard wine]. My thought was the greatest wines in the world are the vineyard designates – look at Bordeaux. So we went looking for the best places. Lots of times vineyard designates are distinguished by the fact that the vineyard is owned by the winery. But if a vineyard designate is not owned by the winery, then it’s really got to be outstanding.”

AB on reserve wines: “A reserve wine is like a Barbie doll or Ken doll; a vineyard designate is like a fit beauty with a chipped tooth. The beauty is in the defect. So I asked how do you take these reserve wines to the next level? And the way is to seek out the best vineyard sites, and put the grapes in the hands of the best winemakers. Example – when we bought To Kalon in ’94 we wanted to put those grapes in the hands of the best possible winemakers. If ten winemakers all come up with great wines, then maybe it’s the vineyard that’s responsible.”

AB on red vs. white: “Red wine is made in the vineyard; white wine in the winery. If you are a grower, you want to be where the value is added. That’s why we plant mostly red grapes. I think when Merlot comes back it’ll come back strong in Carneros, because it models Bordeaux. I really like things that are old and expensive (my wife doesn’t like me to say this). I like Cabernet best. We like to have 1000 acres wherever we are, or I become an investor, not a manager. I want to be a manager, and not on an airplane all the time.”

PG: Why are your wines all labeled Napa, rather than using sub-AVAs? AB: “I’m trying to distinguish the vineyard. That they stand alone. To Kalon isn’t Oakville; for years it was Rutherford. Had it not been located south of the Mondavi winery it would have been Rutherford. St. Helena in my view is a town, not a viticultural area. All that said, I think the sub-app system is important. But we want to drill down a little bit farther with these wines.”

Wines tasted:

Signorello Vineyards 2006 Las Amigas Vineyard Pinot Noir ($50)
A fine example of Carneros Pinot Noir. This has a seductive softness yet remains firm in its core; mixed red fruits, enhanced with some light herbal firmness. At Las Amigas Beckstoffer planted only 20 acres of Pinot Noir out of 343 total. “But we picked the best site for it,” he says. I’d score it a 91.

Bounty Hunter “Waypoint Series” 2006 Beckstoffer Missouri Hopper Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($65). Missouri Hopper was formerly Vineyard X – purchased from the Phillips family. This is the first wine to carry the name. At first oaky, then it shows a lot of black olive, smoke, barrel, liqueur, and caramel. Another 91 point wine for me.

PerryMoore 2006 Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
Napa Valley ($100). This has a fairly light mid-palate, with strawberry/ pomegranate flavors, balanced and smooth. It lingers nicely, but does not have the depth or weight of some of the others. A hint of asparagus creeps into the finish. I’d score it an 89.

Tomorrow: AB on high alcohol wines, tough times, and climate change. Plus three more reviews.


James said...

"AB on red vs. white: “Red wine is made in the vineyard; white wine in the winery."

Really, white wine is made in the winery? Guess all that white burgundy is just manufactured widgets. Great white wine is far more elusive to grow or make than red. Whites are transparent, offering a view on the mistakes of both the grower and the winemaker. Red wines can often pull the veil over sloppy winemaking or grapegrowing.

Richard said...

I second James' comment. I guess those Riesling growers on the Mosel and Wachau hillsides are wasting their time growing grapes in such a tough spot, when winemaking is the real ticket.

Since Beckstoffer is speaking as a Napan, however, he does have a point concerning whites, albeit a localized on. If Stony Hill Chard or Smith-Madrone Riesling were the norm in Napa, he would sing a different tune.

Paul would do well to remember that this robber baron did bring down and then pillage some of the grand old names in Napa, namely the Daniels and De Latours. Once he turned those historic operations into bulk producers of swill, he was only too happy to buy up many of those vineyards for a song after they had been devalued. Good for him, if you don't value ethics.

Peter Rosback, Sineann said...

Oh, my. Of all the wines I make, I can most easily predict the final outcome of a wine by the taste of the grapes with one wine - a white wine, Sauvignon Blanc from the Awatere Valley in New Zealand. Winemaking matters, but it's usually (and appropriately) about the fruit.

Anonymous said...

With all due respect to the distinguished Mr. Beckstoffer, regarding white wine being made in the winery versus reds in the vineyard? Tasted any recent vintage Acacia Pinots from the Beckstoffer Vineyard lately? Contrast those less than adequate red wines versus a Corton Charlemagne from Burgundy, a Cotat Les Culs de Beaujeu from Sancerre, or an Eroica Riesling from Washington? Each of the white wines are made in the vineyard, while the Beckstoffer wines from Acacia are a wine making embarrassment. Good fruit? Nature or nurture? So much for the Bechstoffer theorem. Why didn't you call him on this one Paul?

PaulG said...

I am afraid that I unintentionally may have misrepresented the point being made by Beckstoffer. When he says that "red wine is made in the vineyard, white in the winery" he is not saying that the quality of white wine grapes is irrelevant. He is saying – as many winemakers have told me over the years – that it is far easier to screw up white wines and more difficult to cover mistakes. All great wines start with great grapes; there is no argument there. The comment about Eroica is simply wrong - that is not a single vineyard wine; it's a blend that begins with samples from about four dozen vineyards and is painstakingly winnowed down over a period of weeks. That would support the notion that white wine IS made in the winery.

As for allegations that he is a "robber baron" who "pillages some of the grand old names" – well, I am not familiar with the dense politics of the region. I do know that successful business people usually step on someone's turf and toes. And some folks simply don't like rich people. Nonetheless, Beckstoffer has racked up some impressive accolades - he's been named (along with his wife Betty) "Citizens of the Year" by the St. Helena Chamber of Commerce; Grower of the Year by both COPIA and the Napa Grapegrowers Association; Agriculturist of the Year by the Napa County Farm Bureau; and in 2007 he also received the first ever U.S. Congressional Wine Caucus Commendation.

Tuck Beckstoffer said...

Hi all,

I was shocked to read this. I am not opposed to everything said but having said that, I am most certainly not in agreement with what my fathers views an opinions are. Vineyard designate wines are NOT the finest cabernets made. Blends are. If you were to take away the 5% of availability to blend in designate wines they would not show well in nearly all cases, period. If we were to put together a blind retrospective tasting of 10 years of blends vs ten years of designate wines, the blend would win every single time. Designate wines are most certainly interesting and can be spectacular in great years but thats where it ends.

Red wine is made in the vineyard and white wines are made in the winery?? I disagree wholeheartedly on both counts, actually. Vineyards certainly contribute to great red wines but handling, fermentations, rackings, oak programs and blending make GREAT red wines. The white wine statement is a reflection of how much time, energy, and money california growers put into white wines and the answer to that is none with the exception of a very few people. Thats because growers can make 3x on cabernet. Anyone who has ever had a raveneau or a dagenau wines knows that both vineyards and winemaking are critical in making really great white wines.

Scott, The Grande Dalles said...

I might be wasting my breath because this post is sort of old by now, but what the heck. Regardless of how much more valuable a red wine is versus a white wine, whatever valuable means, there are plenty of critical decisions and activities in the vineyard and in the winery that greatly influence the outcome of wine, red or white. I think it’s clear from Tuck’s comment that she believes the GREAT in GREAT cabernet comes from the winemaking process. I believe that would be the case, especially in Napa, where most reds are harvested way passed optimal ripeness. In that case it is up to the winemaker to perform all kinds of tricks in an attempt to bring the wine back into some kind of balance.

If I understand correctly, is Tuck also saying that single vineyard designate wines almost never measure up to blended vineyard wines? Wow, those silly Europeans have been fooling themselves for centuries haven’t they?

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