Winemakers and Palates Evolve
By: George Balling
I would speculate that if you work long enough in any career you see trends change, and buying patterns in the industry evolve. With over 15 years in the wine business now I have certainly seen it in wine. Trends come and go, as do tastes in wine but above that, you can see individual palates evolve as you can the best winemakers. Evolution of this kind is something more profound than just the latest trend for any of us, it is in a way, a historical look at what we like as consumers, and how winemakers travel their career journey.
For consumers we have noticed this change can go in two general directions. Like almost anything it is different for each of us. For some when we start our wine consuming years the bigger bolder flavors are all that stand out. The more oak and more tannin in a glass of Cabernet is where we start. When we are first consuming wine that is simply put, all we can taste. Then as we get “better” at wine appreciation the more subtle aromas and flavors start to make themselves known to our senses. We pick up the subtle fruit notes of really great Pinot Noir and find the great acid balance in French as opposed to American Chardonnay. The subtlety and nuance become our thing and then one day we look back and say “how the heck could I have drunk so much of that style of wine”.
For others we start with the lighter, easier drinking reds and whites. Sweet Riesling and Beaujolais Nouveaux are our departure point on our wine journey because our new and tender palates just can’t take high levels of tannin and oak. Then as we drink more wine the subtlety becomes boring and we crave big robust wines with more of everything. More oak, more tannin, more fruit all appeal as we leave our light fruity side behind. A similar reaction unfolds when we think of our previous favorites, what was the point of all those light bodied wines they taste like Kool-Aid to me now. Wherever we start though this transition is a product of our palates and tastes evolving.
Winemakers go through this too. Most all of them. Dave Phinney the original winemaker behind The Prisoner before two sales of the brand, set the wine world “on fire” with his creation of The Prisoner. From the dark, quirky, Quentin Tarantino-esq label to the rich opulent Zinfandel based wine it was all new to many of us and the wine and Phinney quickly developed a cult-like following. Then the sales of the brand happened and then Dave Phinney in my opinion really came into his own. He moved beyond Zinfandel and beyond all the oak and extraction and started making some really terrific wine, though the dark and quirky labels and esoteric wine names remained. The punch-line though is that I think Phinney’s later projects have produced far better wines than The Prisoner ever could have been sale or no sale. Try his 8 Years in the Desert and you might agree with me, or you might not.
One of my absolute favorite winemakers is Ehren Jordan owner at Failla Winery and Day Wines. Ehren is simply put, a master. Every vintage good, tough or mediocre he produces some of the most outstanding wine to come out of Napa and Sonoma Counties. While I disagree with his pilgrimage to Oregon, we can leave that argument for another time. His Northern California sourced wines show an evolution that is among the more gentle, but is no less remarkable. Each year when we get the new vintages at the shop, they are the first I take home to try myself. Each year I am reassured that not only do the wines remain among my favorites, but also that Ehren’s evolutionary journey remains intact. I love all he makes, Syrah and Zinfandel but where I really see his command of his trade and this evolution is with his Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The silky elegance of both wines becomes more pronounced, the exquisite balance of fruit, oak and acid is more precise. The wines are that good and improve that much each and every year.
All winemakers except for the most recipe driven ones who toil away at the mega-wineries go through changes like this and you will see it, or more accurately taste it over the years they make wine. Just like our palates it is one of the best parts of enjoying and really appreciating wine. When you notice it in your own palate, and in your favorite winemakers it is unmistakable.