Same grapes, different wines

(For The Washington Post)
Tuesday, March 22, 2011; 4:54 PM

Why does one wine cost $15 while another of the same grape costs twice as much or more? Isn't a cabernet a cabernet?

Melissa Stackhouse, recently anointed pinot noir wine master for Jackson Family Estates, is in an ideal position to explain the various factors that affect quality and price. Jackson Family Wines is the winery empire created by Kendall-Jackson founder Jess Jackson.

Before assuming her current post, Stackhouse was chief winemaker at Jackson's popular La Crema winery, which specializes in pinot noir and chardonnay. We chatted via Skype as we sipped our way through 10 pinots from six labels she oversees.

"I think we'll be able to demonstrate very clearly with these wines that the lower-price-point wines and the more expensive ones are made in very different styles," Stackhouse said. "You may prefer a less expensive one, but you can taste the difference."

Certain style points are constants throughout the company line, she says: a preference for elegance over brawn; enhancing "the vexing floral nature of pinot noir" and its mouth-watering acidity; and what she called "fruit integrity," meaning no blending of other grape varieties to beef up the wine's color or structure. Beyond that, the winemakers seek to express the characteristics of a specific region or vineyard.

Geography obviously is an important factor in wine's quality and price. For example, the Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve 2009 bears a general "California" appellation, as it is made from grapes grown in several counties along the coast. About 64,000 cases were produced, priced at $17 per bottle. Stackhouse calls it "an entry-level pinot, with vivid fruit and an appealing softness on the palate." I noted a slight impression of sweetness on the finish, which I suspect helps the wine commercially.

Stepping up the price ladder, we compared two wines Stackhouse made during her tenure at La Crema: the 2009s from the Sonoma Coast and Mendocino County's Anderson Valley. These "appellation" wines are meant to capture the expression of a particular region. La Crema made a whopping 240,000 cases of the Sonoma Coast bottling, priced at $24, from vineyards that typically yield about four tons per acre, Stackhouse says. (Yield is a factor of the vineyard's vigor and of decisions made by growers throughout the season.) In contrast, she made only 2,700 cases of the Alexander Valley, from two vineyards with older vines and lower yields, about two tons per acre. It sells for $50.

"Lower yields obviously means less fruit and, therefore, higher prices," Stackhouse says. "But it helps quality, because it promotes smaller berries, which means greater skin-to-pulp ratio for darker color, greater extraction and more tannins from the skins."

Two wines came from a single vineyard in Arroyo Seco, in the Central Coast region south of San Francisco. The vineyard employs "precision winemaking," Stackhouse says, which entails keeping different pinot clones separate in the vineyard and through fermentation and aging until the wines are blended, just before bottling. And because sun exposure is uneven along the vine rows, each side is picked separately to ensure even ripeness.

The wines, Seco Highlands 2007 ($35, 1,500 cases) and Carmel Road 2007 Arroyo Seco ($33, 625 cases), were darker in color and somewhat brooding in character. Stackhouse praised the Carmel Road's smoky character, calling it "a steak pinot." Actually, I preferred Carmel Road's 2009 Monterey bottling ($20, 44,000 cases) for its brighter, red-fruit flavors and elegance.

Which brought us back to Stackhouse's initial point about personal preferences. "That higher-priced style won't appeal to everyone," she says. "Some people will like the up-front fruit of the lower-priced wines."

Then she smiled as she sniffed a glass of brooding red: "But you can tell there's more winemaking in the higher-price-point wines."

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