John Williams at Frog's Leap on the changing face of Californian winemaking

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Reflecting on the recent period of uncertainty for this year’s vintage in Napa Valley as a result of drought conditions in California, Katherine Canfield catches up with Frog’s Leap winemaker, John Williams, in Rutherford to discuss how approaches to winemaking in the region are changing.

What is the philosophy behind vineyard management and winemaking practices at Frog’s Leap?

The way we make wine at Frog’s Leap is fundamentally linked to the way we grow our grapes. It is the winemaker’s job to stand back and let the natural beauty of the grapes show through. We have come to trust less intervention on the part of the winemaker, generally speaking, is preferable to more.

Earlier this year, there was a lot of concern for this year’s grape harvest due to the state-wide drought in California. What is the outlook now among winemakers for this year’s vintage?

The conditions have eased so much given February and March rainfall totals that the topic is now more or less moot among Napa growers. We feel an annual total of 16 to 20 inches is what we need to fully support our target tonnage, and this year we have already received more than 25 inches.  With the amount of rainfall we have already received at this point in the growing season, everything is under control. As our old Uncle Roy said when we were worried about drought the last time: “what makes you think it’s not going to rain?” However, this is not to diminish the impact on agriculture in other regions of California, particularly those that depend on the Sierra snowpack. 

Are there any strategies you would recommend to other winegrowers that haven’t been employed that would minimize the negative impact of a drought?

Somewhat counter-intuitively, we believe dry farming is the best practice to counter drought conditions and continue to recommend it.

Why do most winemakers reject dry framing practices in vineyard management? Do you think the hardships fostered by this year’s drought will inspire a change in attitude towards this approach to grape growing?

Other winemakers will not entertain dry farming until we firmly establish the link between not irrigating and wine quality. Of course this is at the heart of the ongoing discussion of what wine quality even means. As long as ‘quality ‘ continues to be defined by the Parker-style, not only in Napa but around the world, there will be increasing  pressure to achieve super-maturity to achieve big alcohol, big flavour and a highly processed style that gets the big points. These very high Brix levels in wines are only achieved with the use of irrigation.  When the wine world turns back to classical styles – balance, restraint, and respect for terroir – we will be here to help show our neighbours how to farm in the traditional way that made the wines that originally established the reputation of Napa’s wines.

California as a whole has developed a reputation for producing big and bold wines, yet newer winemakers are returning to this classical style you described - a more hands-off approach in the cellar to create more restrained, food-friendly wines. Would you attribute this trend to a shift in consumer demand or a change in the attitude of the winemakers?

It’s almost a generational change – new and younger consumers are more confident in their decisions about wine and are less likely to embrace, or in some cases even shun, the Parker 100-point system. It will be a big change for many of the world’s producers. There will always be a handful of winemakers who produce in the classical tradition based on the courage of their convictions, but others will only change when the consumer speaks.

Frog’s Leap wines have always maintained a relatively low ABV compared to your counterparts in the Napa Valley. Do you think that this is also changing – that there is a trend towards lower alcohol levels? 

Many winemakers have told me that they would like to make more restrained wines, better balanced; however, their sales efforts are still predicated on big points from the important critics. I think that will have to change first – and it is, though slowly.

 

Readers' comments (1)

  • Saw your brother Jim at our class reunion on 5 July. Of course I was the youngest looking one there. Didn't know you used to be a dairy farmer.

    Bart

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