coke and cookie wines

Friday, May 07, 2010

I’ve had the privilege of meeting hundreds of extremely talented winemakers over the years, but none more interesting and outspoken than the late David Lett of the Eyrie Vineyards. I often think of an extended interview I did with him in the summer of 2003, in preparation for a magazine profile. Lett flew up to Seattle specifically to do the interview, and the photo you see here was taken in our garden. We covered a lot of diverse topics that day, but one of the comments he made that has stuck in my mind came late in the interview. We were talking about vintage variation in Oregon. I noted that for many critics, it had been a problem, and asked Lett how he felt about it.

“I embrace vintage variation because I love it,” he quickly replied. “It makes life exciting. I could grow pinot noir in a warmer climate; what’s the use? Every year you get the same product, you know exactly how much you’re going to get, when you are going to pick, how ripe it’s going to be… and ho hum — where’s the fun in that?”

The conversation continued. What about standardization of wines? I inquired. (This was pre-Mondo Vino, but the trend was already in place).

Lett: “There’s a movement afoot, again this application of technology, so that Oregon can be standardized and homogenized just like everything else on the bloody planet. To take out the variable of vintage. There are things I like to call terroir machines that produce a wine that’s the same every year. There are people who firmly believe that that’s a good thing to do. I’m a grape grower; I like to see what nature does. The rub comes in those years – look at 1988, a spectacular year, warmer than usual – but it lost a bit of the varietal characteristic.”

PG: But it’s the big, dark, ripe, jammy wines that get the high scores.

Lett: “Look at the vintages that get highly touted by the critics, they’re the big vintages. We go back to the theme: big, dark, high alcohol, and then you oak it up to taste the vanilla, which is what your Mom put into everything she baked when you were a kid so it tasted really good and what have you got? Coca-Cola! It’s vanilla, the international flavor.”

PG: This is the line that really caught my attention. Vanilla, the international flavor. At the time we talked, I had not really paid attention to the growing number of wines that used vanilla as their main flavor. Since then, it’s become a tidal wave. Rare is the cheap red syrah, shiraz, zinfandel, or pinot noir that does not have the tell-tale dark purple color and strong vanilla/tobacco flavor that marks it as a yellowtail imitator. I believe those flavors are a product of certain types of yeast and oak flavoring products. The color comes from other additives. And the result is, as Lett described, a wine that tastes just like Mom’s baking, with a side of Coke.

This summer, Jason Lett will do a special tasting of all of his father’s unreleased South Block pinots. I expect that they will be sensational wines, and won’t have a trace of vanilla.


Paul Zitarelli said...

Paul - thanks for sharing that conversation. I was recently lucky enough to try a 1996 Eyrie Chardonnay, and I was nearly moved to tears by its shimmering beauty.

Not surprisingly, vanilla did not feature in the aroma or flavor profile.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

expensive wine

winebookgirl said...

Interesting to read this. In a non wine example, I've found when I add vanilla, even a small amount, to the jams I can, people respond well.

Todd Trzaskos said...

I heard a fine interview with Mr. Lett on "The Splendid Table" that aired just a few weeks before he passed... if anyone is interested.

Those lactones from the oak are what drive most vanilla flavors, with the sawn american oak often delivering more than french. And those 300% new oak programs just pile it on. Just finished reading Jonathan Nosster's "Liquid Memory", and enjoyed it very much, right on the heels of seeing Mondovino. It a great effort and clearly articulates both the mental process of the creation and the goals of the film. He makes a clear distinction in the end, between "globalization" and "global homoginization", which an important syntactic nuance that even many economists fail to adress properly.

grapemaster said...

most people need confirmation from the opinions of others. if parker loved it, then who am i to disagree? parker puts on a tongue prophylactic and if any wine gets through he rates it. the nuances of wine come in the form of advertizing dollars. good wine has no overwhelming charateristic other than harmony. and best achieved when the address of the wine is evident too.

David Larsen said...

I'm glad to see the pendulum is swinging back to less oak and lower alcohol, which is the direction we are taking with our wines.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that a great vintage is one where the depth and richness of fruit are undeniable. Poor vintages are often noted of a lack of fruit in the wine. The use of oak is all about balance... vanilla ruining the terrior of a wine, really?. Poor and too much "winemaking" will erode the terrior of a wine... Adding yeast covers up terrior... too much oak is a flaw...but blaming vanilla??... caramel and choclate are next... vintage variation is tough in a region that has very few of them.. Balance is the key to making wine.. Oh and also it is a business!

Post a Comment

Your comment is awaiting moderation and will be posted ASAP. Thanks!