Vineyard Place: Badly farmed, overcropped grapes make bad wines
by Mike Kallay
Published - 06/03/10 - 09:36 AM | 1605 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
You would think that after five years of tasting hundreds of wines per week that I’d never be in a position to drink crappy wine at home. And you’d largely be right. Because I regularly stock our home cellar with wines from The Cask Room’s regular list — we don’t frequently shop other places for wine. Why would we? Wholesale prices plus the ability to weed out the crappy wines on someone else’s dime equals nothing but well-made juice.

But, there always seems to be a day (or weekend) where I forgot to bring home enough to replenish the cellar after a rousing dinner party or two. Such was the case last month.

We had great plans of taking the kiddos out for pizza after a nice, long walk, but Storm Watch 2010 changed our plans. We found ourselves phoning in a takeout order instead. I opted for a high-end grocery chain here for wine — figuring that I would maximize the chances of a warm pie plus wine this way, versus the trek downtown to “borrow” from the bar’s inventory.

I like to tell our customers all the time that as long as you know the varietal and you know the region that you will be empowered to pick a good wine.

Well, I’m here to tell you that this tactic doesn’t always work.

I bought three bottles of wine to match our pizza and leftovers the next night: a zin from a big name producer with a Lodi old-vine offering, a merlot from Alexander Valley/Sonoma, and a Napa cab. None of these have I tasted before. These kinds of wines don’t come across my periphery too often at our establishment because of their ubiquitousness in restaurants.

Nonetheless, I bought them and we drank them. Well, most of them. They all had a common problem: they were “thin.” That is, not enough fruit, not enough texture, not enough alcohol, and most appallingly, not enough acidity to pair with the pizza.

Now, why is this? They’re all smart grapes for the areas where they’re grown. What exactly is going on?

Overcropping. Blame it on the economy. Blame it on greed. Blame it on corporate decisions and not agricultural decisions. Grapes grown on any plot of land have an optimal “yield” that will produce the “best” or the “most interesting” wine. This knowledge comes with years of experimenting until you get it just right. But, one general rule is that the more fruit yielded per acre, the less interesting the wine is going to be. Think about it — if there’s a set amount of nutrients and water given up by Mother Nature, the more fruit taking it will not get a measurable amount per berry to fully ripen and show the best version of itself that it can.

This is classic American farming. It’s not surprising that many of the state’s growing regions were once planted with lettuce, tomatoes, nut trees, apples, etc. The more you grew, the more you were paid. Grape growing is almost the opposite (for people who care). The less you produce, or the more you thin and prune during the season, the more interesting your crop should be, the more renowned your vineyard should be, the more money you’ll get for your grapes and the more those wines will eventually sell for.

Well, there’s one class of winemaker who might just not give a damn, and it’s those making hundreds of thousands of cases of drinkable but uninteresting juice. Precisely the kind of wine you’ll likely encounter in your neighborhood drug store, liquor store, grocery store or restaurant.

It really pays to find a retailer who gives a darn. Here in San Diego, I can’t recommend San Diego Wine Company highly enough. Places like theirs, and like mine, really weed out the wines you shouldn’t drink. We can make money doing the right thing, buying the right wines, from the people who care.

Of course, there are times when you need a last minute bottle. Well, between 3rd Corner up north, to SD Wine Company in the central, and our store downtown, or the many Costcos around town, you should be able to spend your precious dollars with someone who cares enough to help you enjoy your next bottle. That’s my dream anyway. Stop buying wine from the places who don’t care.

Mike Kallay and his wife, Stephanie, own the Cask Room, a wine bar in East Village.
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