Vineyard owners love to talk about unchanging traditions. But over the decades, the style of their wines has probably changed.
The world of wine likes to tout the traditional aspects of winemaking: the long history, the sustainable farming practices, the low-tech methods that have been unchanged for millenia. And to a great extent all that is true. I do not know of an industry where the environmental impact is so closely observed as in wine grape growing and winemaking. Nor do I know of any human endeavor today where the advances of science have had so little effect overall on a craft, despite the research and science that have gone into it in the last 50 years. Most dedicated winemakers have in fact marched away from the technological approach.
In the 1990s, the wines became riper, picked a little later, still not becoming ponderously high in alcohol, but they were not acidified as much or at all. The meaning of "ripeness" was redefined.
However, a wine is the result of many hundreds of factors—including cellar temperature, the date the harvest begins, how quickly it proceeds, the time of day that the grapes are picked—that give a lot of room for the producer to affect the outcome. In this way, winemaking is as subject to the fashions of the moment as art.
At no time is this more obvious than at a vertical tasting, when one taste multiple years of wine made carefully from one distinctive site, a wine where a recognizable place shows through the winemaking regardless of the changes in fashion that may have influenced it. Recently, I was able to taste nearly the entire 30-year history of Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignons when Bettina Sichel, who has grown up in the wine industry and who knows a great site when she tastes it, concluded the purchase of Laurel Glen from its founder, Patrick Campbell. Here in Sonoma, Patrick has worked to make balanced and classically shaped wines from the very beginning, in 1981, and he has used the talents of basically one winemaker, Ray Kaufmann. So the tasting illustrated that even with the restrictions of place, philosophy, and even winemaking team, the wines over the decades were subtly influenced by whatever was fashionable at the time.
In the 1980s, Laurel Glen produced wines from grapes that were picked early at a predestined sugar content and also acidified to reach what was considered a proper pH balance. As these wines age, however, they do become a little too crisp and brittle for my taste, especially in years when it was slightly cooler or wet, as Sonoma is already a cooler place than Napa or Bordeaux. But the best of the 1980s are remarkable.
In the 1990s, the wines became riper, picked a little later, still not becoming ponderously high in alcohol, but they were not acidified as much or at all. The key concept in the 1990s was that the meaning of "ripeness" was redefined, with the bar set higher than ever before. Cabernet, which can have herbal notes when picked in cooler years, was suddenly considered inferior if there was even a hint of green herb: chervil, oregano, thyme, or the dreaded green bell pepper. At Laurel Glen they never thought it was necessary to attain a purely fruity wine, but in this era they did pick progressively later and let the pH and acid stay where it was at harvest, without adjusting it. These wines are riper and richer, yet also balanced.