6.28.2015

Wine column no. 70: Who needs the truth when you've got smoke and mirrors?

June 28, 2015: If you want to know the truth — and let’s face it: deep down, everyone is interested in at least some version of the truth — there’s much about wine that’s very much a mystery.

So when I come across vintners that are all about pH levels and average harvest brix, bottle dates and case production numbers, elevation heights and slope directions, I get a bit excited.

Here, I say to myself, are winemakers who care about more than just sales figures and wine label verbiage. These are people who are truly interested in helping me and everyone else learn about wine. These men and women are offering to us — wine drinkers — information that other wine makers deliberately choose to keep to themselves. And I like that. I like that a lot — especially since there’s no law that says they can’t, or shouldn’t, provide that information.

Some might argue that vintners who go beyond what’s required are spoiling the mystery, that they are taking what should be left alone and not discussed and turning it into ordinary table talk. Discussing pH levels and case production numbers is equivalent to revealing the wizard behind the "Wizard of Oz," they argue. Not everyone wants to know who works the puppet strings. "Let us have our magic," they say.

Well, I pretty much gave up on magic a long time ago. I like science. I like facts. I like people who rely on both science and facts. And I like trying to understand difficult subjects like wine through a reasonable, rational lens.

After all, the wizard in the "Wizard of Oz" wasn’t really who he claimed to be. And that movie was more about the characters that followed the yellow brick road to meet him, anyway. It’s the same with wine. Every bottle is the start of a mystery. Not every wine is everything its label says it is. It’s up to you to decide if you want to vet it, if you want to take it to task.

But here’s the trick — you won’t always solve the mystery. And this is what I love about wine: As much as science helps draw lines, as much as the facts extend the borders, there’s still a tiny bit of magic that keeps it all beyond reach. Call it wind, call it sun, call it rain, call it terroir, call it whatever else is beyond measure, but wine without magic is impossible. That’s what makes it most alluring. You are dealing, in the end, with something you cannot fully control.

Geometry and I never got along. But, sometimes, I think in terms of images. And if I were to draw the 2012 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon from Alexander Valley in Sonoma County, California, it would be as a line on a graph reaching high into the sky. 

For around $16.59 from the Newburgh Schnucks, you get a bit of a chalky texture, an earthy nose, and a berry finish. My father said this wine wasn’t as good as the 2010 or the 2011. I haven’t had either one of those vintages, so I wouldn’t be able to tell either way. But I will say this wine had an upward trajectory. A positive ending matters. Even more to the point: Sometimes, it’s all you can hope for.

That said, Louis M. Martini isn’t a company that reveals too much. In fact, after two phone calls and one email to the vineyard, no one responded to my efforts to gain more information about the 2012 vintage. The most I was able to learn about this wine is that the previous vintage's grapes were sourced from the company’s own vineyards in Sonoma County, “with the balance coming from our longstanding partner growers. Specifically, we looked to our Frei Ranch Vineyard and Stefani Vineyard in the Dry Creek Valley AVA, as well as our Barrelli Creek Vineyard in the Alexander Valley AVA for fruit,” according to the company’s website.

Additionally, 2011 was slightly warmer than the previous few years, the Louis M. Martini website said. This resulted in ripe, dark fruit flavors in its Cabernet. A bit of Petite Sirah added further dark fruit character and structure to the wine, “while a hint of Merlot contributes to a plush mouthfeel.”

That’s a lot to say about a wine I haven’t even had. But when you’re relying on only one source, what other options do you have? Sometimes it’s easy to be led astray.

Are those details as good as specific information about pH levels and elevation? My gut says no, but what can you do? Some vintners prefer to hold their cards closer to their chests. Discretion, after all — and within certain constraints — is perfectly legal. With some wine makers, it might even be preferred. Just remember that not all winemakers, or their wines, are equal. What’s discretion for one vintner could, for another vintner, be a full reveal.

What’s essential to discern more, to learn the truth? That answer, at least, is easy: You’ll have to do your own research. Every vineyard has its own wizard. Some wizards just happen to be more forthright than others, that's all.