andy beckstoffer: part two

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Continuing yesterday’s interview with grower Andy Beckstoffer. Much of the discussion centered around a half dozen wines he’d brought to showcase several of his vineyards. None of these wines are inexpensive, and Beckstoffer was upfront about the purpose of his visit. I mean, the man is quite wealthy, owns thousands of acres of prime vineyard land, and is pushing 70 years of age. Why would he hop on a plane and schlep up to Seattle to sit and sip wine with me?

Well, the answer is pretty simple. If the wines don’t sell, the grapes don’t sell either. He was on a marketing trip, pure and simple. These are tough times in the wine business, the toughest he’s seen in four decades.

AB: “Right now, this is as tough as it gets. But this business has always been very precipitous. The 2009 harvest from the point of view of selling grapes was as tough as it’s been. We made bulk wine. We want to sell grapes, not wine. But I think things can change quickly.”

With a wine cellar that includes many iconic California wines dating back to the 1960s, Beckstoffer is well-schooled in the ageability of those lower-alcohol wines. “I like Cabernet best,” he admits. “I have a very large cellar; I’ve been collecting California wines since the ‘60s. There’s stuff in there I don’t even know I’ve got. It’s the thrill of discovery. There is a lot of bottle variation in older wines from the ‘60s and ‘70s, but they’re delicious, elegant, and right around 13% alcohol. I’m highly critical of high alcohol wines. My view is for a region to be great, wines have to complement food and stand the test of time. These really big wines compete with your food. Whether these high pH wines are going to last, I don’t know. What I do know is the long hang time costs us yield, and the high alcohol causes problems also.”

AB on the different agendas of wineries and growers: “Traditionally the growers wanted to overproduce and the wineries wanted to underpay. We are totally over that now. We think they are letting grapes hang too long, but they can’t tell me how to farm, and I can’t tell them how to make wine. We can count bunches, but we don’t know what the bunch weight is going to be. Tons per acre doesn’t mean anything; the weight of the bunch is what counts. We farm based on the bunch of grapes itself – whether it’s open or tight, the light it gets, etc. If you thin too early the grapes left are going to blow up. You’ll never see a bunch touching a bunch. But doing it late is too late.”

And finally, on the implications of climate change: “I’m very concerned about climate change as a human being. In Napa we are influenced by the bay; what we’re getting is warmer nights. Diurnal change is important to our wines; we’re going to get less in the future. On the other hand, if you get warmer nights you may get more flavor development during the night. We let grapes hang to get more flavor development; there is a possibility that warmer nights will get that flavor earlier. What I’m more concerned about is bugs – we’re getting a whole different system of bugs now. We’re getting the bug of the month in Napa. More and more we’re getting bugs that never happened before. I’m really concerned about the whole disease infrastructure that’s caused by climate change.”

The second half of our tasting included three hard-to-find, expensive and high-scoring wines.

Karl Lawrence Cellars 2005 Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($85?). Unusual, with a sweet grain character, also a blue plum, black cherry core, and good acidity. The wine is has a tiny hole in the center, but it fills out and rolls into a delicious finish.

Tor 2006 Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Clone No. 6 Cabernet Sauvignon ($150).
High alcohol (15+ percent), high-scoring (95 Wine Spectator) and “hedonistically” jammy, with luscious, strawberry preserves, also backed with notes of graphite, herb, and minerality.

Knights Bridge 2007 Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($110).
My favorite wine of the tasting, for the structure and detail. A mix of brown sugar, tobacco, cassis, black olive, vanilla and lush fruit, all with great concentration. Dense and jammy.

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