If fruit isn't in the grape, you can't get it in the wine

Buena Vista Carneros winemaker Jeff Stewart believes in fruit, as do most quality winemakers. "Wine is made in the vineyard," he'll tell you, and he means it.

When Beam Wine Estates purchased the historic winery and named Stewart head winemaker, they gave him all the tools he needed to have the potential to make great wine. The 1,000-acre Ramal Vineyards in the Carneros region of Sonoma is now providing him the fruit to make that wine a reality.

With all of the cabs, pinots, chardonnays and every other varietal being bottled and sold by anyone and everyone these days, it's often the quality of the grapes that separates the goods from the not-so-goods. Although every wine has a flavor profile that includes many components, the one thing that has to be exceptional to make great wine is the fruit.

Within the grape lies power and potential. Everything else is secondary.

If a wine is too tannic, it can be softened. If it's too acidic or flabby, the acid level can be adjusted.

The winemaker has options to control the levels of these components, like malolactic fermentation, micro-oxygenation, extended maceration and any other "ations" he or she can come up with. What can't be changed is the fruit. What is harvested is what goes in the wine.

There is a lot of talk about terroir these days, and some of it has cast doubt on whether the place the grapes are grown is really that important. I would suggest that anyone who says it doesn't matter where grapes come from is either making a statement of ignorance or attempting to write a controversial story. The claim has no merit in the real world where wine is made.

A good winemaker can make good wine from average fruit, but no one can make great wine without great fruit. And in order to have great fruit, you need the soil and climate that will allow the grapes to develop all the characteristics needed to show their best in the finished product.

That's why one of the first orders of business for Stewart was to take soil samples from all over the vineyards. Once he knew what was in the ground, he knew what to plant and where.

"We have one area of the vineyard planted with pinot noir, and just 15 feet away, it's chardonnay because the soil is different there," he told me recently. "Because Carneros (the region where the vineyard is located) is a cool climate region, these are the grapes that really show the best here."

Tasting notes will contain all kinds of fancy descriptors of how a wine is supposed to taste, and you may or may not be able to recognize them. But ultimately, it's the fruit that gives the wine its true character.

Next week, I will be taking a break from the topic of flavor components, but will return to it afterward to speak more about the proper character of the major grapes. In the meantime, look for a pinot noir, chardonnay or syrah from Buena Vista Carneros and it will tell you all you need to know.

Write me with your thoughts or questions, at brian.goodell@morris.com. Until next time, happy pours.

SideBar: Wine Guy's Pick of the Wee

Naturally, when you drink wine at the vineyard and with the winemaker, you are getting a bit of a biased experience. On the other hand, what could be more genuine than to share a meal and a bottle of wine on the land where the grapes were grown, with the man who made the wine?

I got to share a bottle of Buena Vista Carneros Syrah with winemaker Jeff Stewart at the barbecue following the 150th anniversary celebration of their winery. The choice this week was a no-brainer, as he and everyone else raved about the wine, and we celebrated its balance of blueberry and ripe fruit with the meaty, gamey character of the syrah grape.

Don't confuse this with Australian shiraz, even though they are the same grape. This is no peppery, spicy fruit bomb, as it comes from a cooler climate.

The fruit ripens very slowly in Carneros, and the cool temperatures and covering fog allows an elegance and depth that isn't often found when this varietal is produced in other locales. At around $22 retail, you'd be missing out not to see for yourself.

This wine is tremendous with barbecue, as well as nearly any grilled meat. It would also make an excellent gift if you want to surprise someone with a choice they might not ordinarily make.

Got a tip, tasting note, or review? Write me at brian.goodell@morris.com or visit www.myspace.com/morriswineguy.