Let’s say you are a winemaker and dutifully following the strict rules established by a particular appellation. If you are in Chateauneuf du Pape, for instance, you can use 13 approved grapes to make your delicious wine. You made good wine last year, but this year you took a financial hit when hail destroyed half of your crop. And so, you wonder: what would have happened if you could have blended your grapes with those from your southern neighbors in the Roussillon that had so many grapes they were selling them in bulk?
That’s what Dave Phinney wondered in 2008 while crossing France and frustrated by AOC laws that prevented him from blending grapes from a Maury vineyard with those in another appellation. While joking with a friend outside the Charles de Gaulle airport, he wondered aloud what he could do with cross-appellation blends that represented France but ignored an appellation’s constraints.
“That was the impetus for Locations,” Phinney said in a recent video conference call.
Locations is a series of wines that breaks once sacrosanct conventions of winemaking: that a wine reflect the terroir of the appellation and that it has a vintage date. Phinney redefined appellation as an entire country.
“I like options,” he said. “Sometimes the parts are better than the sum, but most of the time you get something more interesting if you put them together.”
Phinney has broken more than one mold in his short but successful winemaking career. The father of The Prisoner and Orin Swift wines, he boldly exercises artistic license to create wines off the flavor charts. Stepping into uncharted territory again, his new endeavor is a winemaker’s dream – but may be a grape grower’s nightmare.
He argued that the cross-appellation and non-vintage barrier was broken centuries ago when grapes were blended from different appellations and vintages in Champagne. That's a fair point, but Champagne's circumstances left little option. Growing seasons in this northern climate can be brutal, so producers need more options. And, champagne producers are only allowed to use three grape varieties.
Large producers of California wines even cross appellations and simply label their wine “California.” Others, such as Sonoma's Marietta Cellars, have ignored vintages for years and labeled their wines with a number, i.e. Marietta Old Vines 32.
Phinney knows that coming from an American winemaker such a rogue concept isn’t going to set well with tradition-bound European producers, but he said he hasn’t gotten much push-back from critics once they taste the unclassified wine.
Location’s labels, cleverly modeled after bumper stickers, are simply “F” for France, “I” for Italy, “E” for Espana (Spain), etc. The grapes for each wine come from a variety of regions – “E,” for instance, pulls tempranillo, garnacha, monastrell and cariena grapes from Priorat, Jumilla, Toro, Rioja, and Ribera del Duero. “F” includes grenache, syrah and “assorted Bordeaux varietals” from Rhone Valley, Roussillon and Bordeaux.
We know this sounds like a frat party where guests dump a fifth of liquor in a pot to come up with some crazy potion, but Phinney has his standards even when he is dealing with bulk wine.
“We’re not doing it for the sake of doing it; it needs to make sense,” he says. “We don’t put gamay (into “F”) because it wouldn’t make sense.”
We can’t deny the quality of these inexpensive wines, but philosophically we struggle with the notion of abandoning the value of terroir. We like the mint flavors we get from a Rutherford cabernet sauvignon, the nutty character of a Meursault chardonnay and the bell pepper flavor of Bordeaux’s Sociando-Mallet.
Phinney readily admitted these wines are not respectful of terroir, a concept he didn’t accept until he tasted wine from his 300-acre Maury property. However, terroir-driven wines aren’t going to disappear and there’s always room for winemakers like Phinney who aren’t so tradition-bound.
The three European wines we tasted are delicious, however they are difficult to define by grape variety or region.
The profile of these wines is quintessential Phinney. They are ripe, juicy, fruit-forward, aromatic and opulent. They aren’t made to age, but simply to enjoy with tonight’s carry-out dinner.
“I want people to think, ‘do you like it, but also did you get a deal?’ It’s about putting a smile on someone’s face,” he said.
Besides the three European wines, there are blends from Oregon, California, Texas, Washington, Portugual, Corsica, and Argentina. All are made in good quantities -- the "4" means it is the fourth rendition.
“E4” ($19). Phinney says he has a soft spot for Spain and the pressure was on to make his first release good. The garnacha, tempranillo, monastrell and carinena grapes come from old, low-yielding vines. Very aromatic with tobacco notes; flavors include raspberry, plum and a hint of sweet vanillin oak.
“F4” ($19). A blend of grenache, syrah and Bordeaux grapes, this wine is riper than we like but dominated by raspberry and cranberry flavors with a dash of lavender that is indigenous to southern France. Generous mouthfeel.
“I4” ($19). Phinney said he spent years finding the right profile for his Italian wine. Negroamaro and nero d’avola from south Puglia combine with barbera from Piemonte to make the boldest of the three wines. It has a spicy aroma, silky texture and ripe blueberry and plum flavors.