Bored With Fruit

spoiled-fruitPatrick Comiskey at Lucky Peach is reporting an incipient revolution in California winemaking.

No doubt, in California we love our fruit:

In modern winemaking, fussily sorted fruit samples are vinified in squeaky clean cellars into wines of seamless elegance, influenced in part by the autocratic and antiseptic predilections of Robert Parker, the influential critic who has privileged fruit above all other elements. The result was an industry defined by homogeneity, at the expense of funk.

I doubt that Robert Parker is fully responsible; our weather and tastes would naturally lead us in that direction. But the general point is dead on. Up and down the state from the cool climate of Sonoma coast to the hot, inland Central Valley, to the sea-ventilated hills of San Diego, fruit is king, especially now that winemakers are backing off the oak just a bit. Sure some winemakers are better than others at extracting fruit flavors and capturing the distinct terroir of their vineyard but most seem to be aiming for the same thing—to show the fruit in its most pure expression. There is nothing wrong with that but when everyone is doing it, it becomes rather pointless.

And yet for a small but growing number of California winemakers, mere fruit is not enough. “It’s the one thing we have too much of,” says Kevin Kelley of Salinia Wine Company, in Santa Rosa. “I’m much more interested in minerality, in salinity; those things are hard to find in fruit-forward wines.” Abe Schoener of the Scholium Project speaks pugilistically about the process, of “beating the fruit out of the wine.” Howell is more philosophical. “We’re not doing this to preserve fruit,” he says, “we want to transform it.”

Barnyard, blood, meat, mushrooms, flowers, leather, spice, minerality—wine can show a whole range of flavors other than basic fruitiness. Why not let them flourish? Of course that requires playing around with brettanomyces, flor, excessive oxygen, volatile acidity, and all the little critters that inhabit the nooks and crannies of a vineyard or winery. Abe Schoener of the the Scholeum Project is positively enthusiastic about them:

Schoener addresses the problem of fruit in a multitude of ways; he maintains his winery, for starters, in an almost defiantly untidy state, eschewing the use of soaps or solvents—even hot water is used as a last resort. The hope is that the walls and the tanks and barrels will all support an active population of microflorae which will contribute to the wine’s flavors….

“The molecules that produce fruitiness, I want those in my wine,” he says. “But I want something to happen to them.” So he’ll extract to extreme levels (think of steeping tea), or he’ll expose the wine to more oxygen than is typical, so that those fruit flavors morph into something more savory—toward mushrooms, tobacco, and other articulations of umami.

I know it is heresy and I may be drummed out of the wine business for saying it, but I’m bored with fruit. I hope the rebellion catches on. Bring on the funk.

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