Craig Camp: Succeeding at Making Great Wine

Craig Camp knows wine from every angle. He has been a wine and food writer, president of Direct Import Wine Company, studied wine production in Italy for three years in Barolo and Barbaresco, and president of Ann Amie Vineyards in Oregon and Cornerstone Cellars in Napa Valley. Today Craig resides in Southern Oregon as General Manager of Troon Vineyards in Apple Valley, crafting an array of wines uncommon to the Southern Oregon landscape.

I first knew of Craig in early 2015 when he began sending me wine samples to review from Cornerstone Cellars. Each wine he sent me was better than the last. In the summer of 2015, I met Craig in person at TexSom. In 2016 Craig announced he was leaving Cornerstone Cellars and Napa Valley and heading back to Oregon to run Troon Vineyards. A few short months after Craig arrived at Troon Vineyards, Troon wines began showing up at my door. In similar fashion to Cornerstone Cellars, each wine he sent me was better than the one before. Last summer at WBC16 I once again had the pleasure of spending time with Craig and sampling more Troon wines.

Craig Camp is someone I admire in the wine industry. He is outspoken about the industry but shares his perspective in an eloquent and non-confrontational manner. Before WBC last August I emailed Craig a list of questions about his perspectives in the industry based off articles he had written in his wine blog, Wine Camp by Craig Camp. I encourage you to read his blog, in the meantime, here is some of our conversation.

Troon Vineyards and the Applegate Valley January 2017 via Craig Camp www.winecampblog.com/journal
Troon Vineyards and the Applegate Valley January 2017 via Craig Camp http://www.winecampblog.com/journal

MW: As IPOB comes to an end, you have been an outspoken voice from the west coast wine community about seeking balance in all varietals of wines. In your article, “This Wine Makes Me Mad,” November 29, 2015, you share your frustration over how balanced, elegant, and complex a 2009 Mas de Daumas Gassac is crafted coming from the warm, Mediterranean climate of Languedoc; begging the question “what the hell is wrong with Napa Valley and why can’t we make wines like this?” Would you please weigh in on the pursuit of balance in wine and why it is seen as controversial? Where do you see Napa wines headed?

CC: As proven by Cathy Corison, Randy Dunn, Spottswoode and others you can make balanced wines in the Napa Valley. Clearly you need to control the farming on all of your fruit. Perhaps there will be more and more of them as this style seems to be making a comeback. However, the big wines still get the big reviews from big critics. As long as making big, high alcohol, oaky wines makes money people will continue to make them and the Napa Valley is the perfect place to make those kind of wines. I don’t think it’s a sin to make wines this way, we’re not a religion, people should make the kind of wines they like to drink and people should drink any style of wine they want. There are a lot of IPOB wines that are simply weak. There is no correct style of winemaking, just personal styles.

MW: You have also been outspoken regarding the 100 point wine rating system. In your article “You Like Tomato I like Tomahto” you expressed outward frustration at how the system has damaged the cause of balance, restrained wines, yet confess your juxtaposition in “pimping some 90+ point rating” to compete in the market. How would you like to see the system (wine makers, critics, consumers) evolve?

CC: The answer here is simple. Any food or taste scientist will tell you it is impossible for a human being to accurately taste large numbers of wines and give them precise scores that mean anything. People just can’t do it. As far as using the scores I think as winery you’d be stupid not to use them. They define the market now and we’re stuck with them. We have to make a living. This is agriculture and there are not huge margins. All you can do is make the wines you believe in with integrity and then you can sell them without guilt even if you use points that you know are B.S. because you know the wines are not.

Apple Valley Oregon Harvest 2016 via Craig Camp http://winecampblog.com/journal/
Apple Valley Oregon Harvest 2016 via Craig Camp http://winecampblog.com/journal/

MW: In your 2008 article “Old vs New: Is There a Difference,” you point out that old world vs new world wines is not a matter or terroir; rather a matter of style. Furthermore, highlighting the difference in how Europeans drink wine as an accompaniment to food vs American drinking wine as a cocktail. Who do you hold responsible for this situation: US wine producers for making “commercially viable” wines or US consumers for remaining uneducated to the holistic approach to wine enjoyment?

CC: I think there was a bigger difference in 2008. Today European wines are richer and more fruity then they were due to better farming and climate change. There are also many more new wines (IPOB), Oregon etc. that are made in a more balanced style. It is undeniable that New World wines come off more fruity than many European wines. Much of this I believe comes from using cultured yeasts, enzymes and, of course, harvesting too late. Americans have developed their own style of drinking wines and we drink much more wine on its own then Europeans do. On their own fruit is good when it comes to wine. Again I don’t see an absolute wrong or right here. Cultures are different and that’s good.

MW: Another of your articles I enjoyed recently was “Bitter Pleasures.” You were spot on when you wrote, “Just as we Americans have gone to extraordinary lengths to hide any hint of bitterness in our coffee we’ve done the same things with our wines. Overripe, over-extracted fruit bombs with excessive alcohol, new oak and significant residual sugar are wines with no edge, no bitterness. Round and jammy wines with no acidity, no tannin and not even a hint of bitterness satisfy palates that bury a shot of espresso under milk, chocolate and whipped cream. We’ve turned our coffees and our wines into desserts.” You explain that search for organic bitterness, the tartness from natural acidity, took you from Napa to Applegate Valley. Are you finding the bitterness you were seeking? How do you train the same Americans who seek over sugared “milkshake’ style coffee to embrace a more naturally crafted wine with a hint of bitterness?

CC: That bitterness exists on wines grown in Southern Oregon. It’s one the reasons I’m here. We don’t add any acids and depend on natural ferments. Natural winemaking leaves the bitter in. Industrial winemaking takes it out. I don’t think you train people to like bitter, it’s something that a certain number of people will acquire naturally. As we are a small winery I don’t have to care that most people don’t like it. That’s not the business we’re in. I’m just looking for those people.

Troon Vineyard Estate Vermentino Framed by the Siskiyou Mountains via Craig Camp http://winecampblog.com/journal/
Troon Vineyard Estate Vermentino Framed by the Siskiyou Mountains via Craig Camp http://winecampblog.com/journal/

MW: Last year you resigned as president of Cornerstone Cellars in Napa Valley and headed north to Oregon, not Willamette but instead to southern Oregon in Applegate Valley, to become president and general manager at Troon Vineyards. Your article announcing this move, “Leaving Forward,” was quite eloquent. You explained you are not running away from Napa Valley; rather, you are running toward rekindling the atmosphere of community, toward the feeling of “electricity that only comes from being on the edge looking down into the unknown.” It’s only been a few months (this question was asked last August), how is it going so far?

CC: I’m extremely exciting the potential of the Applegate Valley and thrilled to be working with some new (for me) varieties. To be in a pioneering region was just what I wanted to do.

troon-gsm-and-syrah

Here are my thoughts on the latest two Troon Vineyards wines shared with me by Craig Camp:

troon-black-label-syrah2014 Troon Black Label Syrah Reserve Applegate Valley USA ($50): 100% Syrah; clear, medium ruby in the glass; clean medium aromas of red and black berries, rose petals, black pepper, smoked meat, graphite and dusty earth; balanced medium+ acidity, tannins, and body with a long finish; crafted in the elegantly restrained style of northern Rhone, layered and complex, a stunning wine that over-delivers.

 

troon-black-label-gsm22014 Troon Black Label GSM Rouge Valley USA ($50): 4.2% Grenache, 45.2% Syrah, 50.6% Mourvedre; clear medium+ ruby in the glass; clean medium aromas of fresh picked black and red berries, sweet spices, savory dried herbal notes, soft violets, fresh tobacco leaves, and trailing hint of vanilla; well-balanced wine with medium acidity, tannins, body, and finish; another old world style wine with layers of texture and complexity; silky mouth-feel with an elegant finish; pure pleasure.

These two wines were stunning. To order for yourself visit Troon Vineyards web site.

Craig said his “single minded goal in life is to make great wine.” In his article “The Meaning of Life,” Craig elaborates on what this goal means to him. I will leave you with a taste, click the link to read the rest.

CC: You’re either reaching for the emotional intensity of “Deh! vieni non tardar” or you’re making a wine that wants to hold your hand – and make you simply happy. As proven here by both Mozart and The Beatles, if you are truly successful at making something meaningful at either end of the spectrum your art will live on from generation to generation. By the way, it’s worth noting that Mozart penned more than a few “I Want to Hold Your Hand” pieces and The Beatles also achieved the heights of “Deh! vieni non tardar”.

My Song Selection: I was not planning on pairing a song with this article due to its complexity of topics and wine notes. However, Craig recently published an article on Wine Camp titled, “Listening, Wine, and Bach.” In it he expressed his joy of listening to Bach loud. It is a lovely sentiment. My daughter is a musician and also loves Bach. Bach speaks to me of old world style wines, so it is a fitting selection. Please read Craig’s article for additional insight on his unique wine perspective.

Get your own bottles of Troon Vineyards wine and let me know what song you pair with it. Cheers!

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