This blog post has been 10 years in the making.
A decade ago, I interviewed Cameron Hughes. He’s a San Francisco-based wine negociant and I’ve interviewed him a bunch of times, but on that occasion, he said something — and gave me a bottle — that I wanted to test.
Hughes had bought a batch of 2008 Napa Cabernet that he said was full of brett, so much that the producer couldn’t risk releasing it under its own name. He boasted that he sterile-filtered out all the brett and now he had a prestigious wine to sell.
What if you didn’t get it all, I asked. Even a little brett in the bottle could increase over time.
Hughes told me if I checked the bottle in 10 years, I would find no brett. And he gave me a bottle.
Which I put away for a decade.
Last week I got it out of my cellar. And on Saturday night I opened it. What would I find?
This is the part where I talk about how the world was different in 2010, when I put this bottle away.
The first iPad was sold in 2010. A DVD-by-mail company named Netflix introduced streaming video.
|Steph Curry in 2010|
When I had this conversation with Hughes, the San Francisco Giants had never won the World Series. Even though the Golden State Warriors were terrible, they sold for $450 million in 2010. The Warriors had a skinny rookie guard who could make some outside shots and they had the No. 6 pick in the 2010 draft, which they spent on Ekpe Udoh. LeBron James made The Decision and left Cleveland without a title. Lamar Jackson was in middle school.
Three newspapers that I had worked for full-time still existed: the Tampa Tribune, Hayward Daily Review and San Mateo County Times.
And California winemakers almost universally hated brett, which is short for “brettanomyces.”
Quick explanation. The sugar in grapes is converted into alcohol by yeast, thus carrying out God’s plan by turning grapes into wine. This happens naturally if you leave grapes in a bucket.
But there are many kinds of yeast. Most wine is made by yeast from the genus saccharomyces. But yeast from the genus brettanomyces naturally occurs in vineyards and can also convert sugar into alcohol. However, it gives a range of aromas and flavors that includes many nasty ones. It’s possible to get some nice aromas from brett — in fact, a UC Davis brett seminar I attended in 2012 was one of my most mind-expanding wine experiences of the decade.
But in 2010, I still thought what UC Davis still taught — that brett was a “spoilage organism.” Some French winemakers embraced it. But California winemakers (with the notable exception of Chris Howell at Cain Vineyard & Winery) thought it was the devil.
That’s why a Stags Leap winery would sell its expensive wine cheaply to Hughes: brett could not be tolerated.
Today I wonder how that wine might have tasted unfiltered. Maybe it would have had brett-based aromas like coffee, cola and graphite. Or maybe it would have had brett-based aromas like horse or smoked meat. Who knows?
I just wanted to see if the sterile filtering worked. So I opened the bottle and let two glasses of it sit out at room temperature for hours.
At the end of the evening — nope, no brett. Not even a trace. The wine was fruit-forward, full-bodied, seamless: your basic Napa Cabernet. I confess I found it boring, but this is the style that has made Napa famous. Anyone who bought Hughes’ Lot 189 a decade ago would have been happy with it.
A lot of winemakers are probably smiling indulgently at my naivete right now. Dozens — hundreds — thousands of wines from California and elsewhere are sterile-filtered every year. Of course it works, you’re thinking. Why would a wine journalist be surprised at that?
I’ve been writing about wine for a while, and this is the only opportunity I’ve had to test a sterile-filtered bottle like this, where the proprietor admitted it was full of brett. I’m sure I drink older wines all the time that had been sterile-filtered. But nobody — NOBODY — tells the wine journalist, “This was full of brett, but we took it all out.” One thing I’ve always admired about Hughes: he tells it like it is.
So now I know that it works! See, it wasn’t a wasted decade after all.