Dan Gatlin on Texas Wines and Climate, Part II of II

[Reproduced with permission]

Previously

Dan GatlinWelcome to Part II of the series on hot-climate wine production. Part I stated that 70%+ of the issues with heat can be mitigated by humans. Unfortunately, these actions are expensive and laborious, resulting in only a small number of producers willing to undertake them. Those producers have been rewarded with accolades and higher pricing, while the rest continue to define the body of Texas wine.

Part II is the converse: If the effects of hot weather can be mitigated, then a question arises as to whether “cool-climate” producers have oversold themselves on the climate issue. This is especially poignant in view of the summer season in Napa this year.

Brief: The previous article dealt with the misconceptions and remedial techniques associated with hot-climate grape production. For 40 years, Napa marketing departments have told us their cool climate is the secret to great winemaking. In 2014, unusually hot weather in Napa Valley is causing grapes to develop faster than most of Texas. Question: Will Napa make lesser wine and tell the world that it was “just too hot this year for high quality wine?” (Don’t count on it). Or, will Napa make its usual high quality wine and have to come clean that their climate marketing is overly hyped? This might be the wine story of the decade (that never gets printed).

Brief 2: Climate is a complicated topic, and there are some caveats in the body of this article. However, everybody in Texas needs to be watching this situation very, very closely for several reasons: Napa producers WILL expertly deal with this season by using the remedial techniques referred to previously and make great wine. In last week’s article, I pointed out that the vast majority of Texas producers are NOT using said techniques, which of course, should and MUST become standard operating procedure here every single year. Therefore, I submitted that the vast majority of Texas wine was flawed before it was made, for which I received unilateral praise from the marketplace, and a thorough skewering from Texas producers. So here’s the take away this week: If you won’t believe me because I’m a Texas producer, then believe what you see in Napa this year and believe what you’re being told from sources like Napagrowers.org. They’re going to give Texas a close-up and personal lesson in hot season vineyard management.

Although, in the end, if they are successful (they will be), they will also have to admit that great wine can be made in hot climates (Ugh, for them).

Article: Napa 2014: Will 40 years of wine-climate-marketing be unraveled?

Introduction

I can walk up to virtually any random person on the street in America today and ask them, “Where is the best wine made in the U.S.?” Almost in unison they will answer “Napa Valley.” If I continue and ask them WHY they think Napa makes the best wines, they will also answer in unison, “Because they have the best climate.”

I am hard pressed to think of very many industries which have done such a remarkably thorough job of getting their message out to the public. It’s stunning to think that there is such widespread agreement on ANYTHING in America today. Equally stunning is how little thought is devoted to any dissenting opinion or probing technical questions about the exact causes and effects regarding how the weather creates this chemistry and whether it is or is not unique to Napa. Go to any cocktail party in any upscale environment in the U.S. and wine talk will be solely about trips to Napa and what wines/wineries are on the new discovery list. In 2014, it is cool to know Napa-speak. It is the kiss of death for wannabe sophisticates to utter any praise for any other U.S. wine region.

It’s a monopoly, or very close to it. But it’s one which I have said for many years, is predicated on some thinly reasoned assumptions that are almost never closely examined in the media. Sure, the schools do their studies, but what’s printed in the wine press is a mile wide and an inch deep. Now, let me say at the outset, I am a Napa fan, not a critic. On the whole, they DO produce the best wines in the U.S. year in and year out, just not for the reasons people think. (Full disclosure: I was one of a few people who brought Caymus, Chappellet, Clos du Val, and many more to Texas in the mid/late-70s, so I am intimately familiar with their histories and wines). My aim is to advance the dialogue without the dogma and propaganda because there are things going on in other parts of the world that simply cannot exist if the average person’s wine-climate-beliefs are true. But they DO exist, so some questions have to be asked and answered.

It Gets Complicated

It’s July 9 and I’m sitting on my Hill Country patio enjoying a 73 degree evening. People from around these parts know full well this is not normal, but hey, we’ll take it. We’ll be down in the 60’s on this July night, and given a few more degrees, I may even have to go inside and dig out a fleece I put away in April. That’s crazy.

Napa Valley is hot and dry. I’ve been watching this closely all year. Many of my suppliers (for wine-related things like caps, corks, yeasts, barrels, etc.) are there and they have been telling me this since February. Actually, I’ve heard some fairly dramatic predictions, but I’m going to leave those out in the interest of staying factual. At the time, I was an unbeliever. I told them, “No way. It will turn cool later…always does. It’s Napa.” They were saying not this time. Maybe they were right.

A week ago, headlines started to emerge marking the beginning of veraison in Napa Valley. Veraison is a term which signifies the beginning of ripening. Practically speaking, it is the time when grapes turn from something that looks like little green marbles, to something soft and pliable that resembles a grape. It is also widely used as a marker on the timeline that tells us if we are running early or late for the season. There is a direct cause and effect between veraison and accumulated heat units, regardless how you measure them. I love using the vines themselves for data: they are not on anyone’s “side,” they are not trying a “make a point.” I have always found them to be the most accurate measure of heat. Give them more of it and you get more cane length and development. Less, and everything is slower. Getting the right amount is key, and what that amount is depends on many factors, a lot of which are within human control on the hot side. Too little is harder. The average American on the street always assumes that cooler is better because of the marketing propaganda. That’s not the case. I’ve seen Riesling vines in Connecticut that received so little heat during the year that they only made 17 brix by October 10 (22-23 would be about right for Riesling). Since first freeze was forecast for that evening, I told the grower I didn’t think he was going to make it. He didn’t.

The articles beneath the headlines tried to make it sound like veraison was a little early. I think they’re going soft on that. Exactly how early it is depends on how you measure it, and I’m sure they’re looking at some of the earliest varieties. But I grow early varieties also. In fact I grow Chardonnay, one of the earliest, in Dallas County, one of the hottest. Further in fact, I would not be surprised to find out that my Chard vineyard in Dallas is the hottest Chard vineyard, not only in Texas, but maybe the U.S.

Apples to Apples

However, on the morning of July 9, I was in the Chard vineyard where we observed only 10% veraison. Yes, that’s late for us, no doubt. Reds are still to come. What’s more, in the Texas High Plains, we are nowhere close. Veraison after August 1 there is routine, and this year is nothing unusual. For the first time in my career, Texas vineyards are behind Napa. The importance of what happens from here cannot be emphasized enough.

Have you ever seen those ridiculous infomercials where they try to close the sale and they shout, “BUT WAIT!”, and then double the offer? Every producer in Texas right now should be sitting on the edge of their chairs screaming, “BUT WAIT!”, for the last 40 years all of America has been under the impression that the super-cool, flawlessly perfect climate of Napa Valley is what caused their wines to be so great. And now you’re telling me that the whole world is upside down in 2014? You’re telling me that Texas and Napa could possibly ripen and harvest their grapes at the same time? (Texas High Plains could be later, in fact.)

The implications of this would be sizzling (pun intended). I see one of three possibilities:

  1. It doesn’t happen: Napa weather turns cool and wet. Not likely given the intensity of this drought, but it’s possible.
  2. Napa has a Texas-style harvest date and the wines suck. The industry takes a deep breath and says, “See we told you: you can’t make good wine in hot weather. 2014 is a blow-out, our wines are terrible and we’re hoping for better next year.” Whether you love me or hate me, you can mark my word: THIS WILL NEVER HAPPEN. Fortunately for them it won’t have to, because there’s a third option.
  3. Napa has a Texas-style harvest date and the wines are fantastic. Assuming Option 1 is not offered by Mother Nature, THIS WILL HAPPEN.

I would lay money that we will see unexpectedly excellent hot climate wines made this year. (Remember 2003 Bordeaux?) At the minimum, they will be of the usual superb Napa quality, and at best, they will represent one of the very, very few years where Napa is truly different and not monotonous and totally diverse. This will occur because the Napa producers are real professionals. They will double their efforts and pull out every stop and overcome every obstacle to manage the vineyards in the heat and FOR the heat. They will spend whatever they have to spend to save the vintage, make the most of it, and they will be rewarded for doing so.

They are already telling us: Napagrowers.org says they are working overtime to manage canopies and cut ground covers, reduce crop loads, get the sidelight exposure just right, and perfect water programs.

OOPS! Last week this humble Texas producer and sometimes writer produced an article suggesting AMAZINGLY similar things: Trellis systems, canopy management, water management, fruit drop for crop loads…too weird to be true? I don’t think so. This is what people do when they grow premium grapes in a hot climate. I was soundly skewered by Texas producers and some others as well. (We’ll deal with them later). So here’s the take away this week: If you won’t believe me because I’m a Texas producer, then believe what you see in Napa this year and believe what you’re being told from sources like Napagrowers.org. They’re going to give Texas a close-up and personal lesson in hot season vineyard management.

But, Somebody’s going to have to come clean…

Last week a California sommelier made an ardent effort to disprove my article, stating in the end, that Texas simply can never make a fine wine because of the climate. Yes, it’s hard to break a Kool-Aid habit after 40 years, I understand. So it will be even more interesting to watch him explain how Napa harvested grapes a month before Texas and still made great wine in 2014. And not only him, but hundreds of marketing departments and national wine magazines and thousands of websites. If the near future comes to pass this way, THIS WILL BE THE WINE STORY OF THE DECADE, even if it never gets printed because of intense political pressure.

See, you can’t have it both ways: somebody eventually is going to have to tell the truth and somebody is going to have to explain why the climate-marketing-spin got so out of control over the years. After 37 years in this business, I know how it got started. Then, Mother Nature delivered an amazing string of great harvests, so it was easy to perpetuate. But there was never a clear-minded, truth-teller in the crowd assuring us that California could and would do something different to maintain quality if Mother Nature made a U-turn. Why not? Because such a concept would open the door to the idea that fine wines could be made outside California.

Bottom line: if Napa can make great wine in a hot year using very modern, up-to-date techniques, then they can do it again next year if necessary. And if it’s repeatable, then other people can do the same thing in other areas in future years compromising the uniqueness of Napa.

In Texas, the 15% of producers using such techniques are making stellar wines; and unique and diverse as well because the terroir here offers extremely diverse conditions. This is a treasure-trove of possibilities. All too often sommeliers and media are the last to find out about these cutting edge wines because they rely greatly, or exclusively, on what’s available in the retail distribution channel. Cutting edge wines are rarely in the distribution channel. This results in an upside-down situation where the “experts” are rarely in the know, and the non-expert, but wine-loving public, is buying up cutting edge wines before they can be discovered.

On the production side in Texas, these wines are busting out all over. Eventually, there will be enough of them that they cannot be ignored. Let’s use that Dallas County Chardonnay I make as an example. From this place, I make a decidedly Burgundian Chardonnay. It’s a wine that by all accounts should not exist, but does. The vines are on a high-calcium base, and there is a very tiny window each year where we can harvest fruit at 24.5 brix with 3.52 pH…every year, no matter how hot it is. In the last 3 years, it has been 114, 108, and 104 on harvest day. If we would take 24.0 brix, we could get 3.38 pH. Right there, though, you can see the difficulty involved: Would you like to know how long it takes to go from 24.0 to 24.5? 12 hours! I never said it was going to be easy, only that it is possible.

A Helping Hand for My Critics

My last article apparently angered so many people from so many interest groups, that everybody and their grandmother tried desperately to pick my work apart. Yet, from what I saw and was told, nobody got it right. There is an Achilles Heel in my argument, but nobody saw it, so I’m going to help out my critics. Such a nice guy I am.

1) I can show you how to make great wine in a hot climate, but I never promised you would get rich doing it. The techniques I talk about are High-Touch, High-Maintenance, and costly. I can hear a plethora of Texas producers saying, “Dan, nobody is going to pay more than $15 for my wine, and if I do what you say, my wines will have to sell for $40, so forget it!” To them I say, “Do it and you will get $40.” A tenfold increase in quality will bring a new customer base that ARE the buyers of the future. The media and sommeliers will criticize you for your higher price. Their criticism is based on the past product found in the distribution channel. They are old-school by our standards.

2) I can show you how to make great wine in a hot climate, but I never promised it would be easy. Go back to that Dallas County Chardonnay example: I mean really, 12 hours. (20 hours if you allow a little leeway plus or minus). Winemaking does not get harder than that. If you can do that, you can do anything. Everything else is easier.

3) Napa has an unseen advantage: they are sitting on big crops from 2012 and 2013 that are high-quality. If they have to drop a lot of fruit to make the same quality wine in 2014, they will not be hurt because they have wine to sell from the last two years. If they had 10 straight years like 2014 (welcome to Texas), eventually prices would rise a lot because of consistently smaller crops. Or, conversely, quality would fall.

Conclusion

“Dan, are you saying that since high-quality wines can be made in both hot and cool climates, that there is no difference at the end of the day?” No, I am NOT saying that. Given a choice, of course any producer would choose cool climates because you can carry larger crops resulting in better economics. This could be another article subject, but roughly speaking, 4 tons per acre harvested in mid-October equals roughly 2 tons (or less) harvested September 1 in maturation. Who would not prefer twice the fruit? Twice the fruit equals half the cost. But, if the question is whether great wine can be made in Texas in a shorter, hotter season, the answer is absolutely yes. I am not addressing the costs of doing that.

“Dan, if both Napa and Texas producers harvest at the same times this year, who will make better wine?” The Napa producers will make great wine and also the 15% of Texas producers who use their techniques will make equally great wine. In a hot climate, the main variable is human: who will do the extra work and who will pay the extra costs. The 85% of Texas producers who refuse to do either will make the sub-standard product that has defined the body of Texas wine over the years. No change there.

But the next time some persnickety sommelier or wine writer insists that you cannot make a fine wine in a hot climate, point to Napa 2014 and tell them they have some “‘splain’in” to do.

Dan Gatlin, Winemaker

Inwood Estates Vineyards

July 2014


Comments

  1. Napa is over rated. Personally Paso Robles, central Ca., has some incredible wines. Zin being my favorite. great article Dan. Texas has some great wines and getting better.

  2. Sadly most of Texas’s wineries are primarily AgroTourism based. Again, the world’s best wines are high input/ low volume.

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