Monday, February 14, 2011

Enologix's Leo McCloskey on fixing U.S. wine

You want to fix everything that ails the American wine scene?

Forget about dumping the 100-point scale and replacing it with nothing. Instead, consider what a European would do.

Enologix president Leo McCloskey, one of Napa Valley's leading consultants, suggested in a comment on my blog last week that what America really needs is a classification of vineyards, the way it's done in Burgundy, with some vineyards ruled Grand Cru, some Premier Cru and others Lodi (sorry).

I don't expect that this will happen, ever, because too many people would oppose it, and here when we don't like something, we sue.

But I wanted to hear more, so I called McCloskey. As always, he had some interesting points.

"The AVA system is dead," McCloskey said. "The AVA system was started with a mission to bring information about quality to the consumer. But the AVA system was immediately politicized. The politics of consensus; every opinion has to count. So the AVA system did nothing."

McCloskey's point is twofold: giant AVAs like Sonoma Coast or Columbia Valley are so diverse that they're meaningless, and seeing an AVA on a bottle might tell you where the grapes are from but says nothing about how good the wine might be -- unlike European regions like Rias Baixas, which have fairly strict quality controls.

Leo McCloskey (photo courtesy Appellation America)
"The wine industry created an information void," McCloskey said. "Like Detroit: 'We're going to create cars but we're not going to tell you how they work.' Consumers needed to get educated."

Robert Parker and his 100-point scale, McCloskey argues, filled an important role in a country with no dependable AVA system.

"Attacking Parker like he's bad is missing the issue," McCloskey said. "Do you trust car manufacturers? Do you trust the wineries?"

But keep in mind McCloskey's perspective: he's on the side of the wineries, who pay his salary.

"For the wineries, a future where the ratings are controlled by the producers is much better," he says. "More communitarianism. More soul."

The idea is that, freed from competing against each other to insist "my vineyard's better than yours," wineries would collaborate to boost the overall region. That's what most of Europe is doing now, and what Robert Mondavi did for Napa Valley 35 years ago, though the egoism in Napa today makes joint promotion more difficult.

One of McCloskey's most interesting insights is about efficiency of production and marketing. Imagine a USA with classified vineyards. At the top end of the scale, owners of the best, say, 50 vineyards would invest top dollar in equipment and personnel to try to make the best wine possible. Those wines would be really expensive.

The flip side is, vineyards that were not top classified would be developed only through passion, because it wouldn't make economic sense to spend top dollar on a wine that couldn't fetch it.

That sounds brutal. But it makes sense. How many $75 wines can the market support? Seemingly every winery makes one, and more of them aren't worth it than are. If a vineyard was unclassified and everyone knew that, they could save expenses by just trying to make the best $20 wine they could.

Moreover, if you like wines of terroir, you don't really want most wineries spending too much money on production. You want hygiene, but you don't want reverse osmosis.

McCloskey says that a classification would be easy because we now have about 30 years of records on which wines get the best ratings. He also says that Oakville is "the tiptop of AVAs," significantly better than even its well-regarded neighbor Rutherford, which he called "a second growth."

As for Napa Valley in general, he calls it a national treasure with the same importance as Yosemite, as most of the country's greatest wines -- by critic's ratings -- come from there.

There is, of course, one big flaw in this, and that's the idea that Robert Parker's and Wine Spectator's ratings actually represent some sort of objective statistic of quality, like on-base percentage. The problem is that Parker and James Laube of the Spectator have ruled for years that power is the most important quality in wine, acidity is a negative, and food-friendliess just doesn't matter. I respect Parker's palate -- he's the most consistent taster in the business -- but would not sign off on a permanent classification based on his preferences.

Which brings me to the question that I asked online in the first place: What's Enologix, the company that taught wineries how to get higher Parker scores, going to do now that Parker won't rate California wine anymore?

"Are my customers worried because Robert Parker isn't there? No," McCloskey said. "They're land owners. They're farmers. They're trying to do the most with the land."

McCloskey says, in essence, the service he provides is helping people make better wine, and that Parker and other critics just recognize that.

Editorial opinion: McCloskey's right in general; a lot of what wine consultants do is recognize bad habits and change them.

However, the standard of what constitutes "good wine" might be in a time of change, with the "balance backlash" for lower alcohol wines spreading like a beneficial virus through sommeliers long before Parker's announcement.

But what sommeliers and wine writers want and what well-heeled consumers will pay $150 a bottle for are different, and I expect McCloskey will quite sensibly keep his clients focused on the latter.

In other words, Parker may be leaving California, but Enologix isn't going anywhere.


David White said...

There's a huge downside to this sort of classification in the U.S. -- it would depend on politics. America's "Grand Crus" would be owned by the politically connected and powerful. The big wine companies would probably LOVE a system like this, as they have the capital to launch a huge lobbying campaign as to why Vineyard XXX should be elevated to "Grand Cru" status.

It's naive to think this doesn't happen in Europe -- and hasn't since the dawn of time. How else to explain Mouton's promotion to first growth status?

Finally, a classification system in the United States assumes that our best vineyard sites have already been identified. Are we so sure that's true? Some unusual regions are turning out some incredible wines these days.

W. Blake Gray said...

David, your last comment is particularly astute when it comes to Washington. I was astonished to learn how few spots have been planted in Columbia Valley compared to how much land is there. We might not know where the best vineyards are there for centuries.

McCloskey has a Napa-centric view, and classification makes a lot more sense there because there's a longer track record.

But it's all fantasy. St. Emilion is having trouble updating its classification because of lawsuits, and the French don't sue anywhere near as much as we do. Interesting to think about, though. I'd like to be on the classification committee.

Benito said...

I wonder a bit about what California wine would look like today if a classification system had been put in place prior to Prohibition. If the categorically high quality wine of the time was made from Mission or Alicante Bouschet grapes, would the great Bordeaux and Burgundy styles ever have emerged? Would winemaking powerhouses like Missouri and Ohio have remained as the definition of "American Wine" if they carried legally protected quality designations? It seems that if the popular and praised French-American hybrids and indigenous grapes of the time had been codified and protected, we would not have developed a successful wine industry based on European grapes and wine styles.

Of course, I find the Bordeaux classifications too newfangled. In the Roman tradition I only consume the finest wines of North Africa and Eastern Europe, carried in clay jars and exposed to wood smoke before consumption. ;)

W. Blake Gray said...

In the 1970s, back when Baltimore, Kansas City and Pittsburgh were among the most powerful teams in baseball, Chenin Blanc was the most popular white wine and was produced all over Napa Valley.

I long for a return to half of that.

Brent said...

Why are we worried about this? Hasn't Bond Estates already identified the only "Grand Cru" sites in the United States? ;-)

David White said...

Mandated varietals is another downside of any classification system. Are you a creative French vintner who wants to experiment with some cool climate Syrah in Burgundy? Too bad. There's no such thing.