How Winemaking Is Like the Fashion Industry

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.

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.

Finally, in the last 10 years, Laurel Glen has considered the ripeness of grapes but has also looked for more liveliness in the wine, so the winery has tended to pick a little earlier and watch the natural acidity levels at harvest. Often now it is done more by taste than by the laboratory. After 30 years you get to know a vineyard.

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I liked the early wines, which were crisper and leaner, with some herbal notes, yet which were vibrant still after so many years. When I first tasted these wines, when they were in their infancy, I was impressed with their structure. More importantly, I believed they would improve with age, develop more complexity and nuance. I believe that they did.

I very much loved the wines from the 1990s, which were softer, more viscous, and more concentrated. Not characteristics that I would always endorse, yet which were still balanced and in proportion to the flavor of the underlying fruit. In fact, I think the wines from the early 1990s to 1997 were among the best ever made here, and they are luscious, creamy, soft, and round, fruity with blackberry and black cherry, yet never overripe, raisiny, or dull. They are among the best efforts in California of that era and certainly over time the most interesting Cabernet in Sonoma.

The more recent wines are excellent, nearly as ripe as the wines from the 1990s but with a little more nuance and freshness. This leads me to believe that they will mature as nicely as the others have, if not better than the wines from the 1980s. The retrospective tasting showed the incredible persistence of terroir and the consistent high quality of the wines throughout the years. From the very beginning to the present day, all the wines show complexity, longevity and classical proportions, regardless of the trends that may have effected winemaking decisions along the way. Though Patrick Campbell and Ray Kaufmann have every reason to be proud of their legacy, it will be interesting to see what sensitivity the new regime, directed by Bettina Sichel, can bring to an already proven site.

Image: Robert Galbraith/Reuters