Jancis Robinson, Helen Turley, and “Dirty,” “Underripe” Pinot Noir

I’m always amazed at how ideological people can be about wine. Or perhaps I should say, idiot-illogical. Wine is a varied and wonderful drink that should bring like-thirsted enthusiasts together, not divide them over subjective preferences. But no, and living in the Washington, D.C., area at a time when our elected leaders seem hell-bent on destroying our country, perhaps I should not be surprised that people fight about as really insignificant as wine.

There’s a bias I’ve encountered among many wine lovers that consider French wines to be “dirty” or “barnyardy.” This viewpoint emerged at the recent Wine Bloggers Conference in Charlottesville, Va., where Jancis Robinson was accosted by a pinot noir producer and asked her opinion of his wine. When she said it wasn’t “pinot noir-y enough” for her, he said, “Oh, so you like dirty pinots, with a lot of barnyard?”

You don’t have to take my word for this – Jancis caught it on camera, or at least the discussion. It’s at the very end of this video on the “Live Blogging” session at the conference, when she is interrupted as she describes the scene. We don’t see her inquisitor, and we don’t know what pinot noir she didn’t care for. But we clearly hear a New World winemaker insulting the world’s second-most famous wine writer, a Master of Wine, about her taste in pinot noir. His assumption was that if she didn’t like his pinot noir, she must like crappy pinot noir.

Unfortunately, Jancis turned off her camera and we don’t hear the rest of the conversation. I only hope she responded with something like, “Well, I don’t particularly like wines that have been stripped of their varietal character by manipulations and other hijinx in the winery.”

Jancis’ exchange with her anonymous detractor echoes the latest controversy in the wine blogosphere. This was  sparked by Helen Turley and John Wetlaufer, the wife-and-husband team behind Marcassin wines, luxury cuvees of pinot noir and chardonnay from California. Turley, of course, has been annointed by Robert Parker and Wine Spectator as one of California’s best winemakers, if not THE best. It seems that Turley and Wetlaufer believe that a certain region in France (hint: it begins with B-U-R-G) is ill-suited to produce pinot noir.

A disclaimer is in order. I have never, to my recollection, tasted a Marcassin wine. They don’t send me samples; they don’t need me, and I don’t need them. I have probably tasted wines on which Helen Turley has consulted, but I have no real impression of them and I cannot name one off the top of my head. I do not particularly care for her brother’s zinfandels. I have never met Turley or Wetlaufer. I have no dog in this fight, just bemusement.

The controversy came to light through Dr. Vino, wine’s foremost pot-stirrer who has a great eye for this stuff, and was whipped up further by a particularly vituperative post by Slate’s Michael Steinberger on WineDiarist.com. They took exception to a newsletter penned apparently by Wetlaufer and sent late last month to Marcassin subscribers in which Wetlaufer recounted how he, Turley and Robert Parker tasted Marcassin’s 2006 pinots alongside a Domaine de la Romanee-Conti La Tache and found the Burgundy benchmark “undrinkable.”

On the face of it, the argument should be this: California makes riper pinot noir than Burgundy does. Some people prefer California, some prefer Burgundy. But noooooooo – there has to be good and evil involved.

Wetlaufer embarks on a lengthy discussion of why Burgundy cannot ripen pinot noir. Here’s an excerpt:

Because of summer rain and heat, there is vegetatively vigorous growth in Burgundy vineyards, even in Grand Cru like Batard-Montrachet or Romanee-Conti itself (again take a look at “Heaven on Earth” on pp. 46 and 47 of the 5/31/10 Wine Spectator). [Oh, you recycled that? Silly you! – DM] Carbohydrate (photosynthetic assimilate) partitioning or allocation, which is mediated by phytohormones, [we need more such phytohormonal mediation in Washington these days – DM], strongly favors vegetative growth points over fruiting structures. These, i.e., vegetative growth points, include growing tips, shoots, lateral growing tips and shoots, and juvenile leaves, including young leaves on lateral shoots. [British Prime Minister Cameron is all for controlling juvenile shoots and leaves – DM.] At veraison vegetative sinks in actively growing vines dominate clusters, especially the grape skins, which are a weak sink for the carbohydrate necessary for biosynthesis of aromas, flavors, and color.

Got that? I didn’t think so.

This controversy seems to be over the massive ego Turley and Wetlaufer show about Burgundy, and you can follow it on eRobertParker.com as well as the comments on Steinberger’s post or at wineberserkers.com. But I think it goes to something more, an innate belief that one person is superior to his neighbor because he knows a little something about wine.

Can’t we all just get along?

About Dave McIntyre

Wine columnist for The Washington Post, co-founder of DrinkLocalWine.com, and blogger at Dave McIntyre's WineLine (dmwineline.com).
This entry was posted in California, France, Weblogs, Wine, Wine Humor, writers and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Jancis Robinson, Helen Turley, and “Dirty,” “Underripe” Pinot Noir

  1. Interesting – as you mention, a number of wine bloggers have brought this up too. But recently, one of them – unfortunately, I can’t remember which – commented that sometimes, it’s just nice to open a bottle of wine, enjoy your supper, and then go about your life. Would that we could all just get along!

    • Yes, but see, for some reason if you prefer a different wine than I do, I am duty bound to think you inferior.

      It is reflexive, perhaps. Easy to raise an eyebrow at someone who drinks Barefoot wines, but hey, we all started somewhere. Not everyone gets addicted to the chase and the hunt for “better,” more interesting wines. Some of us have other priorities for our hard-earned cash.

      But this silliness in thinking that all French or European wines are “dirty” and inferior is beyond me.


  2. And I’m supposed to be the curmudgeon, eh? Here’s the other thing that is so surprising, Dave. Why does Helen Turley need to pick a fight? Isn’t she rich and famous and successful enough already?

  3. Leanne in Northern VIrginia says:

    It is worth repeating here a philosophy of a winemaker and friend of mine from Burgundy: “it’s time to drink some good wine” . . . indeed, good is relative and he has taught me that it is not my goal to define that for anyone. Just enjoy it! Bloggers (almost typed “gluggers” here — sorry — remove tongue from cheek) would best keep that advice in mind. What WAS good about the piece . . . as written . . . is how it has given me a new arsenal of catch phrases to add to my burgeoning mental file of terms relating to wino-techno jargon. Who can I impress next with “growth points AND sinks”? The concept of photosynthetic assimilate partitioning just makes me beg for “more, more”.

  4. Stephen Ballard says:

    Good, bad; Satanic, angelic — shouldn’t it be about “balance”, not whether one is “better” than the other? Who is to say which is the “better” expression of varietal character? What does that even mean?

    As a winegrower, we do pause this time of year and reflect on the continued growth of the vines if there is sufficient rain to encourage such growth. It isn’t the end of the world, certainly; we want the vine to concentrate all of its efforts into ripening the fruit, not producing more leaves, but it isn’t so cooperative sometimes. Does this produce a vegetative character? Only if the fruit isn’t ripe. But then, we want to harvest some fruit before it is too ripe, or else the wine may lack the desired varietal character (Viognier, for example, has an odd sweet spot — harvest it at 23 Brix and you have a complex wine; harvest it at 24, and it can be leaner, but lacking the floral characteristics so prized by some imbibers). It makes sense to me (and I find it amusing) that Mr Parker would pronounce something other than an over-ripe California fruit and alcohol bomb as “undrinkable.” He’s probably the foremost cause of that unfortunate style of winemaking (in my very humble opinion).

    So my question is, first and foremost: “What’s for dinner?” Then we’ll pick the wine.

    • I agree wholeheartedly, Stephen, though I think the rise of the trophy wine is too complicated to blame solely on Parker. The other wine mags trumpet this style too. For example, Steve Heimoff has a great piece in the August Wine Enthusiast on the sub-areas of the Russian River Valley AVA. In one of his recommendations from the coolest area, he praises its “Dr. Pepper” flavors (among others). I do not believe I’ve tasted that wine, but to me, Dr. Pepper tastes like prune juice, so the reference implies raisined grapes that have been left on the vine to promote concentration and power (alcohol). And that makes me inclined to think I will not like this wine. (Of course, proof is in the tasting, if I ever get the chance.)

      I’ve had similar reactions to some of Heimoff’s other Pinot raves. Not to say he’s wrong, only that my preferences don’t match his. I still love to read his articles and his blog, and when I read his recommendations, I know what perspective he’s coming from.

  5. Interesting. I didn’t get quite so negative a take on the winemaker’s short conversation with Jancis. I mean, she offers up that she’s been steeped in red Burgundy, and he sort of says “ah, ‘dirtier’ like more barn-yard-y” and while he could be taking a dig at JR, he might also just be acknowledging the fact that for a long time Burgundy was pumping out Bretty wines and some people have developed a taste/preference for that. But then, if he *was* trying to diss Jancis then someone out to string the guy up by his short-and-curlies (figurative speaking, of course… I’m a man of peace…).

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