May 4, 2011

Wine: Washington winemaker dares to put sense of place first

By JOE APPEL

Today, you will read two wine columns simultaneously. One is about a winemaker in Washington state who makes sustainably and biodynamically produced, inexpensive and delicious wines.

The second column is about the politics of wine marketing. Somewhere in here too is posited the counterintuitively sensible notion that the precise taste profile of a given wine is relatively unimportant.

Christophe Hedges is chief winemaker at one of Washington's oldest wineries, the one that bears his family name. Know how old is oldest in Washington? It's been around since 1987.

That youth was the basis of my refusal, until recently, to spend much time learning about Washington wine at all. What could a Europhile snob learn from wannabe-Californians with no indigenous tradition and no age on their Cabernet-heavy vines?

The answer, as Hedges has taught me, is plenty (and Washington is not like California), but I got there through an intriguing political movement he and some compadres have started.

It's called Score Revolution (scorevolt.com), and it's committed to the radical notion that, as a genuine human experience like hiking a mountain, making music or staring into your lover's eyes, wine can't be quantified on a 100-point scale.

What? Aren't 91-point wines better than 89-point wines? Isn't Robert Parker an expert? No.

Wine scores are a marketing ploy and convenience calculator masquerading as objective criteria.

Created by Parker -- a man blessed with a brilliant palate who has squandered his talent obsessing about flavor minutiae and equating walls of compacted structure and nuclear-powered fruit with quality -- the 100-point scale was designed in the spirit of standardization, and seems to provide even-handed comparison of one wine with another.

But actual people do not compare wines (or hikes, music, lovers) outside of context. And Parker's palate, incisive as it is, belongs to one person alone.

That one palate, however, has facilitated a flattening out of the entire wine market, as winemakers from around the world started designing wines to win high scores.

Immense, high in alcohol and with a titillating but soul-deadening emphasis on the type of concentrated fruits normally reserved for pie contests, these wines are built to "rock your world," to impress.

They leap off the shelves so fast, most people don't notice their incompatibility with the food on their plates. But the scores don't help the magazines sell ads for food, so who cares?

Hedges does. I've never heard someone speak so generously of the land he stands on.

"We're trying to protect a tradition," he told me, "that is rooted in agricultural ideals. The notions of winemaker and brand are ultimately secondary; wine ultimately comes down to geography and has nothing to do with us. We're necessary as stewards, but really we're just trying to promote a sense of place."

Such a perspective suggests a total recalibration of what "quality" means. The typical American calculus stipulates that the more a product conforms to static, established (and largely subconscious, therefore largely unexamined) criteria of pleasure, the better it is: if this tastes "good," it is good.

Hedges' approach stands that rubric on its head by suggesting that quality increases alongside proximity to truth.

"I don't claim these are the greatest wines in the world," he explained. "I say, these are from a particular place and they're interesting, and they're important because of that. More and more people want that connection. This is the new luxury model of living."

With Score Revolution, according to Hedges, "We say, no more Food Network model, where winemakers become more important than the wine and the process. And we say, it doesn't matter what the wine tastes like, as long as it tastes like where it's from."

Hedges intervenes in the cellar as little as possible: minimal filtration, no artificial acidification, no oak (except in their big red) or malolactic.

Relatively early harvests preserve the liveliness of the fruit and keep alcohol levels at bay: 13.6 percent is the upper end -- uncommonly low for Washington, but not for a guy who loves food (the list he rattled off of favorite foods sounded like a Maine farmers market in July) and whose mother is from Champagne.

Of course, there would be little point in homage to terroir if the wines were not, in fact, pleasurable to drink. Hedges says his wines have "a disciplined angularity about them, a liveliness."

This goes beyond pleasing to the tongue, and will appeal to those patient enough to suspend preconceptions and consider uniqueness.

Hedges CMS White 2008, Columbia Valley, Washington, $13: Two-percent Marsanne amidst Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, but that tiny percentage of honeysuckle is remarkably harmonizing. The wine feels like harmony itself, integrating the Sauv Blanc's zippy forthrightness and Chardonnay's sleek comfort.

Independent Producers Chardonnay 2007, Columbia Valley, Washington, $10: So soft and delicate, despite Hedges' refusal to submit the wine to malolactic fermentation. It's also wonderfully ripe, in an almost damp way. There are pears and woodsmoke, but then a lemony spritz at the end. So much character.

Hedges CMS Red 2008, Columbia Valley, Washington, $13: A blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah, at first decidedly Cab-y: mint, eucalyptus and a touch of cassis. Thirty minutes into my meal, the integration took hold, with Merlot's cocoa and cedar and Syrah's smoke, roasted plum and tar. I've never been to the Columbia Valley, but I'm there now.

Independent Producers Merlot 2008, Columbia Valley, Washington, $10: This is what first got me fascinated with Hedges and Score Revolution. The wine itself is deep, deep, deep, like a Oaxacan mole with cocoa, pumpkin seeds and innumerable other stealthy spices and dried fruits.

Hedges Red Mountain 2008, Yakima Valley, Washington, $24: This is the single-vineyard big daddy from Hedges, a mind-bogglingly complex blend of the classic Bordeaux varietals plus (pre-Classification Bordeaux) Syrah. A friend of mine who does a slow, fluid, almost trance-inducing belly dance, dressed in black with scarves and thick eye makeup, would love this.

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog, soulofwine.com, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at:

soulofwine.appel@gmail.com

 

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