California winemakers overdosed on old oak

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There is no doubt that I have developed a Northwest palate over the years. On a recent road trip through Sonoma and Napa, I came to an interesting conclusion. Just as my preferences have been shaped by Washington and Oregon wines, California winemakers have comparable preconceptions about what wines should taste like, and therefore, what is the "right'' way to make wine.

I've chatted with consulting winemakers at tiny, family-owned wineries such as Rocca, Pfendler, Ridgeway, Wind Gap and Hidden Ridge, as well as full-time winemakers at Frank Family and Bennett Lane (both family owned, but somewhat larger). With just a single exception, I found that they think new oak barrels make better wine, whether the wine is chardonnay, pinot noir, syrah, zinfandel or cabernet sauvignon.

From the least expensive blends (such as Rocca's 2006 Bad Boy Red, which sells for $32), to the rare, pricey, single-vineyard offering (Frank Family's 2006 Winston Hill Red, priced at $150), the standard regimen is oak-driven.

There is no disagreement that the quality of the fruit is the foundation for all good wines. Yet more than one winemaker flatly stated that without ample exposure to new oak barrels (70 percent minimum, 100 percent common, some go as far as 200 percent) that wonderful fruit would somehow not live up to its full potential.

No question -- expensive barrels can deliver some pretty fine flavors. Chocolate, mocha, toasted nuts, coconut, espresso, vanilla -- the list goes on. You can order your barrel with flavor-driven options, and winemakers love to have the full array of oak "seasonings'' available to them.

The wines from these family-owned California wineries are miles apart from the cheap, generic, corporate stuff you find in supermarkets, and you pay a premium for them. Focused on estate-grown fruit, they are supple and flavorful, bursting with ripe fruit wrapped in those seductive barrel flavors. Though the alcohol levels may be up around 14.5 or 15 percent, they are not out of line with many similar offerings from Washington. What's different is the reliance on those new oak barrels.

Many, if not most, of the wines I tasted would have been just fine with less new oak. The trend I see here in the Northwest is to move away from 70 or 80 or 100 percent new-oak programs, to 50 percent or less -- in the case of pinot noir and syrah, much less. It only makes sense. As vineyards mature and the fruit they grow offers nuances and complexity that young vines cannot, backing off on the new-oak barrels gives the fruit more head room. No one ever disagrees with the statement that wines are made in the vineyards. The quality of the fruit determines the wine's potential for greatness.

The disagreement comes later. Can good fruit be compromised if it is not given the big oak treatment? Or does too much oak itself do the compromising? My own feelings are clear. As good as oak flavors are, I prefer them to be used very sparingly. Winemaker Rob Hunter (at Bennett Lane) was the only one who spoke to this same idea. "Our goal is to highlight varietal fruit flavor,'' he explained, while pouring the winery's white Maximus (all stainless), reserve chardonnay (30 percent new oak), red Maximus (20 percent new oak), cabernet (20 percent new oak) and reserve cabernet (33 percent new oak). "These wines don't need a lot of oak impact,'' Hunter continued. "I'm focused on fruit character. Toast and coffee and chocolate are not what cabernet is all about.''

Granted, unoaked chardonnay can be thin and flavorless. But it doesn't have to be, as this week's Pick proves. And as for red wines -- especially pinot noir and syrah -- many Oregon and Washington winemakers are showing off the fruit rather than the barrels these days. Why shouldn't they do that in California as well?

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Washington Wines & Wineries.'' Find him at www.paulgregutt.com or write to paulgwine@me.com.

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