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Leaving burgundy to burgundy

Or a Short Rant Concerning a Californian Winemaker’s Experiences in Burgundy

I remember the exact moment when I was initiated into the higher wisdom of all things Burgundian. It was January 11, 1999 and I was visiting Bourgogne for the first time. Bill Clinton was being impeached live on CNN, and if we weren’t knee deep in delicious food and wonderful Pinot Noir we might have cared. On that fateful evening Steve Pepe, my mother Catherine and I were dining at the Rotisserie de Chambertin, This was my first meal in Burgundy, and our host (the owner) spoke wonderful English and quickly found out that we owned a Pinot Noir vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills of Santa Barbara California.

We ate eggs poached in day-old Chambertin, we ate delicious snails and fresh crusty bread. For our main dish we all shared a huge cut of blood-rare Chalonnais beef—which is the equivalent of Grand Cru AOC cow. The food was honest and delicious, but the monumental moment was a wine: the first Burgundy that ever made me cry. Pundits throw the word ‘epiphany’ around with little respect for the true power of the word, but I am here to tell you that my life was changed as a result of what I tasted that night. There’s not many wines that you can isolate in your memory and say THAT bottle made me decide to dedicate my life to Pinot Noir. Maybe you remember with similar clarity the first wine that struck your head and your olfactory sensibilities with an undeniable, complex profundity. I will admit sincerely that when I swirled that (slightly brickish) garnet-colored potion (a.k.a. 1972 L. Trapet Chappelle-Chambertin) and deeply whiffed its bouquet, I suddenly realized that there was some deep truth in the hyperbole and hoopla surrounding the Cult of Pinot Noir—and more specifically, the Cult of the Perfect Bourgogne.

Here’s the tasting notes I made that night at the Chateau de Gilly:
‘Harmonious nose suggesting the deeper secrets of Burgundian terroir–opened up with both the sternness of solid acid and the muscle of seriously intense fruit and perfect cellaring. In the mouth: plum and dry spice, understated game and leather–this wine, if needed to be categorized, was light of color and mostly feminine in taste profile–light extraction, super-fine sediment that tasted of smoke. Spicy roundness that builds with bottle-aged fruit flavors, violet and rose petal in the nose and mouth, building into a massive feminine beast still hinting of vanilla, oak and herb. After tasting the wine with us, our host at the Rotisserie de Chambertin said two things: (On opening the bottle): ‘This wine waited for tonight to be perfect.’ (on finishing the bottle): ‘The last drink is like saying goodbye to an old friend. The man spoke with a nearly religious intensity and regaled us for an hour with stories and anecdotes about the region of Chambertin.’

wes in chambertinMy experience that night piqued my interest as a viticulturist. Like most young winegrowers/winemakers I wanted to see what the Burgundians were doing in the vineyard and in the winery, absorb their secrets, and take them home to improve the Pinot Noir I grow in the Santa Rita Hills. As strange as it seems, though, the opposite happened. As I spent the next week kicking the dirt and crouching over vines from Marsannay to Montrachet, I quickly decided that any attempt to replicate Burgundian vineyard practices in Santa Barbara County would be lunacy. Everywhere you go in Bourgogne, you are met with colorful stories, analogies and anecdotes about winegrowing and winemaking. Like any culture, the Burgundians teach their most sacred values to their children (and their cellar rats) through mythology, parable and story. The aim of Burgundian culture is to produce profound and delicious wines for table—and any area’s mythology will be grounded in the attempt to successfully guide that culture to its goal. The problem is that the Mythology of the Vine in Burgundy is founded upon principles of viticulture and enology that have been practiced (and therefore inflected) regionally for more than eight centuries. The Mythology of Burgundy is perfectly suited to the defined boundaries of Burgundy. Go to Chablis or Beaujolais and the Mythology changes visibly.

Bringing back the Burgundy Religion to the New World is a tricky business, and one that is not likely to translate into profound wines. It’s sort of like visiting India and bringing back the beliefs of an obscure sect of Hinduism to Minnesota. You can practice the religion outside the region where it was developed—but it’s not going to feel as ‘right’, because every place creates a vibrant system of myth and pedagogy which evolves to support the aims of the people that live there (and only there).

Maybe I’m over-thinking this, but stay with me. The pruning techniques, rootstock selection and trellising systems used in Burgundy have developed over centuries to produce good fruit on poor, clay profiles with limestone subsoils. Using a similar trellising system (or pruning style, or similar rootstocks) in the Santa Rita Hills would expose the vines to more mildew and frost damage, and would not match the potential vigor and growth cycle of Pinot Noir vines. Burgundy has a much shorter growing season than we do in Santa Barbara County, but the stems over there are often more lignified (woody) when the fruit is picked. Riper stems give the Burgundians more of an option of stem-inclusion in their fermentations to add grip and mouth feel. Using the same ‘recipe’ for winemaking might produce stemmy, overly-herbaceous wines in Santa Barbara that would detract from the purity of fruit.

So when I returned from Burgundy in 1999 and met up with some of my winemaker cronies, they asked what I learned in Burgundy that would help me make better wines. I thought for a second and replied, ‘Nothing really. I think we should leave Burgundy in Burgundy.’

It’s a daunting task to develop a new mythology for the Santa Rita Hills, but we have had a few good prophets early in our short history. What I learned in Burgundy is that we are babies in their world. We struggle to understand how to best grow and ferment Pinot Noir in our little part of the world. Burgundians grow up in a culture dominated by a deep respect for food and steeped in their own regional Vine Myth. We still live in a culture more interested in Nike and McDonalds than cuisine and the craft of winemaking. We can only hope that, eight centuries hence, that each American Viticultural Area will have its own mythology, and that we will have learned that emulating Burgundy can only divert our attempts to create a true regional identity.

Wes Hagen – Winemaker,
Clos Pepe, California,
April 29th 2003

Agree? Disagree? Anything you'd like to add?