Does the winemaker have more of an impact than do the grapes on the quality and/or style of the resulting wine?
This isn’t an academic question. It lies at the heart of wine making, where every decision of the winemaker alters the course of the fruit that came in from the vineyard, from picking date to bottling.
Historically, however, it has been widely believed that all fine wine is made in the vineyard and that the winemaker can only mess it up. Thus the best winemakers simply allow Mother Nature’s handiwork to rule.
In France, for centuries, the idea that the major ruling force in wine style and thus the perception of quality was that mystical idea called terroir.
This difficult-to-explain term refers to the idea that a particular plot of soil (which includes the area’s microclimate and numerous other subtle aspects of the vine’s growth) makes the major impact on what the winemaker ultimately can make.
And there is no question that terroir plays a major role in European wine making, and can be seen in numerous areas.
Germany’s Mosel and Rheingau both make Rieslings that differ not only from one another, but also differ from the Pfalz and the Rheinhessen. Italy’s highly respected Tuscan region grows a lot of Sangiovese, which leads to many great wines in Chianti. But Sangiovese also grows in Brunello, and each region sees what it does as more distinctive than its counterpart.
Inherent in all of this is that the size of the vineyard dictates specific variations. So in theory a two-acre site makes a more distinctive wine than one of 200 acres.
Yet in the sunny West Coast of the United States, such soil-based distinctions have not been as apparent. Some believed this was due to the more Mediterranean nature of the climate, where sunlight, heat and other climatological factors are thought to play a greater role than they do in continental Europe.
Also, on the West Coast the winemaker has always been seen as an integral part of the wine making process.
Thomas Houseman, winemaker for Anne Amie Vineyards in Oregon, mused about this conundrum after a Pinot Noir winemakers-only conference in Oregon a few years ago. So he called Mike Richmond, a longtime Napa Valley winemaker and general manager at Bouchaine in the Napa Valley, and proposed to test this concept. They decided to tackle this decades-long debate with an actual hands-on project.
Thus was born the Cube Project, in which the fruit from three widely separated vineyards would be harvested by the winemakers at the three properties, then divided into thirds and shared with the other two.
At Bouchaine, winemaker Andrew Brooks picked estate fruit and shared the grapes with Leslie Mead Renaud of Lincourt Vineyards in Santa Barbara’s Santa Rita Hills and with Houseman, in the Willamette Valley of Oregon.
Using fruit from the 2010, 2011, and 2012 vintages, the winemakers all chose slightly different methods for making the wine with the understanding that all of them started with essentially the same basic raw material.
Brooks said the project yielded a series of technical sheets in which the winemakers listed every last detail of what they did. In a tasting of all nine 2011 wines last week, it was clear that both the hand of the winemaker and the fruit chosen each made a difference in how the wines came out.