August 25, 2010

Machine harvesting pinot noir

Oh, oh, oh, I get so angry sometimes. So I wake up the other morning and see a front page story in the Oregonian newspaper about a huge planting of pinot noir on the eastern side of the Willamette Valley, south of Portland. Great. I'm sure there is lots of potential for grapes on the largely unexplored eastside. My first homemade pinot noir was from what I jokingly refer to as the terroir of Mollala. I've had home wine from John Eliasson of La Bete Winery from the mid-1980s from grapes out Estacada way that was terrific. The westside dominates today, but like the Sonoma Coast's rise in the past 15 years, we may yet see the eastside gain respect.

But the essence of this story was that the rolling hills of the east valley are ideal for mechinized cultivation and harvesting of pinot noir. Chuck Wagner of Napa Valley's Caymus winery even endorsed the whole idea. Great. A cab producer thinks machine harvesting is terrific for the Willamette Valley. The writer chimes in that machine harvesting is used elsewhere, and we can cut costs 20% to 30%.

I can't say it any better than Scott Wright does in his Scott Paul Wines blog, so I'll quote him here. You should read his whole post for an (as usual) astute take on the current growing season, his recent bottling of '09s, and this issue of mechanized viticulture:
...a few investers and farmers are touting mechanical harvesting and mechanized farming as the path to success for Pinot Noir in the eastern Willamette Valley. I wish them luck, and sincerely wish everyone in this business success, but there are some serious problems with that approach. Nowhere in the world is Pinot Noir mechanically harvested on a regular basis and then made into a quality wine. You just can’t do it with Pinot - it needs too much loving care and attention, and every corner you cut in the production process dramatically lowers the quality of the wine. Yes, mechanical harvesting is in regular use in Burgundy - in CHABLIS, where they grow only Chardonnay. And even there, the top quality producers take the time and care and extra expense to harvest by hand. There simply are no shortcuts to good Pinot Noir. If the goal is to produce decent $15-$20 wines, California is already doing that to the tune of tens of millions of cases a year.
The truth for me is, our competitive advantage in Oregon pinot noir is the handmade factor of our wines. Scott's exactly right -- there's plenty of competition at the low end. There are lots of places that make good enough low end wine. While there's plenty of competition at the high end, there's no other place on earth that makes handmade Oregon pinot noir. There we have a chance at distinction. It may not be easy, but it's our best shot at market success and winemaking relevance.

The folly of cutting costs with machine harvesting huge tracts of pinot is just that, folly. Pinot is hard to make well cheaply. It's the truffle of wine world. It may not be for everyone. It may not be the most economical product out there. But it's hauntingly, memorably unique and worth the hunt it requires. There is no substitute for that.


Portland Charcuterie Project said...

Somewhere, a tractor salesman is crying.

Paul said...

Vince, I of course agree with you and Scott about quality Pinot making methods. But the truth is, there will be schlock. And it is almost inevitable if awareness of Oregon Pinot Noir is to grow beyond the piddly recognition it has outside our local market (and support our emerging artisanal producers). A rising tide floats all boats they say.

If you saw my mention of Trader Joe yesterday (an $8 Billion business!), and follow the link down the rabbit hole, there is an interview with Fred Franzia the supplier of Charles Shaw wine. 2-buck Chuck has sold nearly 500 MILLION bottles of wine. Arguably this is a good thing, even if you detest the wine, the brand or the sheer humanity of it all.

Perhaps it is better to rejoice that Pinot awareness is on the rise. I would argue that the existence of sparkling wine does not diminish the true value of Champagne, nor bourgogne blanc that of Chablis.

FWIW. Paul

Clive said...

There is a Willamette Valley Pinot that they sell at Trader Joe's for I think 5.99, tastes a lot like horse's piss. I think that You're on point about wanting the region to get recognition but what separates WV Pinot from some of that other plonk is the elegance that comes with the craftsmenship. Until Trader Joes's swill I'd never experienced a WV Pinot that didn't have something elegant about it, even if I wasn't necessarily a fan. Hate to see that come this way.

Marshall Manning said...

Sorry, but I'd argue that the majority of WV Pinot isn't elegant, or at least as elegant as it could be. And while the notion of "handmade" OR Pinot sure sounds great, I'd bet it's a very small percentage that's hand-harvested, hand-pressed, hand-bottled, etc.

Vincent Fritzsche said...

Tractors are fine. Machine harvesters for pinot just seem like a mistake.

Paul, I think the growth of lower end Oregon wine is in varieties other than pinot. Pinot will raise its profile by pushing the boundaries at the highest quality levels. Franzia's sold tons of 2-buck Chuck, but I'll agree with Alice Feiring's comment recently on GrapeRadio that, essentially, it doesn't lead to people drink fine wine. I've never met anyone who moved from 2-buck Chuck to anything good. Rather, it's allowed people to drink more wine (good) by being able to afford more. But the connection to fine wine seems highly indirect.

Clive, indeed.

Marshall, the issue was really about hand harvesting rather than machine harvesting. The "handmade" nature of even wines you don't like, to me, is mostly a matter of scale. There are many industrial wine farms in Oregon, and the biggest producers we have still are small on the grand scale. It's a separate matter from liking the wines we make here or finding elegance in them, or not. The point is, I think, it's a strength for Oregon to focus on the lower production, higher quality wines. There's so much competition at the low end the world over. While we can do more of that with other grapes in the southern and eastern parts of the state, I think it's a mistake to try to make Pinot a fighting varietal.