A winemaker from California visited Washington recently, bringing with him some refreshing wines and and some refreshingly candid opinions.
The Californian was Richard Arrowood, who makes the wines of Chateau St. Jean. Like his vineyard, Arrowood is young and has a reputation for being aggressive, self-confident and talented with a passion for making wine of quality.
Chateau St. Jean made its wines during the 1974 vintage. The Chateau itself has 105 acres of vineyard at Kenwood in the Sonoma Valley, but these are not yet in production. Instead Arrowood has purchased grapes in the region with great success. Carefully keeping vineyard productions separated, treating them differently and providing detailed label information, he has attempted to show that great California wines may posses as much individuality as those of France or Germany.
It's an expensive route to take and the cost of Chateau St. Jean wines is correspondingly high. In addition, Arrowood runs the danger of confusing the public (there were seven separate chardonnays from the 1975 vintage) and has been challenged by at least one wine authority for the oenological equivalent of splitting hairs.
Arrowood replied: "We're firm believers that wines of the same varieties may possess different characteristics. Our Belle Terre and Robert Young chardonnays are from similar vineyards a quarter-mile apart. I find them quite different. I think you'll find a hell of a difference in three Montrachets and they're even closer together. We're going to continue it (separate vineyard designations). The consumer will be the ultimate deciding factor, though."
Despite the crowd around the California starting gate (since 1970 at least 100 vineyards have introduced wines or soon will do so) Chateau St. Jean has been recognized as a thoroughbred from the first. Determinedly small (its production goal is less than 50,000 cases a year), with a production ratio of 80 per cent white and 20 per cent red, it intends to travel only first class.
"Extraordinary quality . . . costs plenty," Arrowood has said, "but that's what we want and we don't mind paying for it. Of course, this means that some of our wines are not going to be particularly inexpensive, but we are not trying to make cheap wines, only wines for the top 3 per cent of connoisseurs who want and appreciate the very best." The wines are carried locally at Morris Miller and Harry's Liquors. Most are in the $5 to $8 range, though rare, sweet rieslings will be considerably more expensive.
While modern equipment and innovative vinification are importaant, Arrowood takes a further step. Chateau St. Jean has long-term contracts with growers that guarantee flexible prices within a fixed range. In return Arrowood can "observe and comment" on the vineyards, requesting trimming of buds for less yeilds and selective late picking. (He has provided extra workers for the latter.)
"If we ask them to sacrifice tonnage or delay picking, we've got to be willing to compensate them," Arrowood said. "It's a two-way street. It's gotta be. If I have a contract with a dissatisfied grower, I'm going to get inferior grapes."
Arrowood was still in his 20s when he came to Chateau St. Jean. Trained at California State in Sacramento and Fresno, his first experience had been at Korbel, followed by stints at Italian Swiss Colony and Sonoma. By his own admission, white wines are the "most challenging. Make a mistake in a white and you have to sell it in bulk."
Riesling, which makes such glorious wines in cool Germany, presents a problem in hot, sunny California. To make a fruity, Germanic-style riesling," Arrowood said, "you have to keep the alcohol down. German growing conditions are a heck of a lot colder, the weather is more variable and thus the wines are more acid. We want a long growing season so the character of the fruit is not lost." Therefore he looks for grapes from hillside vineyards in cooler areas. He also wants grapes that have been infected by botrytis or the so-called Nobel rot. These grapes yield naturally sweet juice that becomes Sauternes in France and spatlese category wines in Germany.
Chateau St. Jean has made such wines in each of the last three vintages. The quantity is small, so despite the elevated price these wines will almost certainly sell out. Nonetheless Arrowood is not in accord with German attempts to produce drier wines to match their perception of the "American taste."
"People say sweetness is not sophisticated," he said. "That's baloney. A lot of people talk dry and drink sweet." A well-made wine, he implied, should carry its pedigree and origin proudly. Sweet or dry, it should be distinctive.