A Fresh Take On The Gen X Conversation, This Time From Within The Family Winery

Food & Drink

Generations.

It’s an ongoing topic in the wine world, with Gen X-Gen Z-Millennials owning the lion’s share of the attention right now in terms of buying trends and taste preferences.

But “generations” in the wine world also means grandparent-parent-child, particularly from the perspective of winemakers, growers and winery owners. Today I’d like to dive into the family business side of the industry, to further develop what for me is an important conversation around what’s considered valuable from one age group to the next.

How, and when, does the younger generation differentiate from their elders? What is the trajectory and shape of their learning curve within the industry? How do they carve the shape of their own stamp on a family business they were born into? And, perhaps most poignantly, what is the response of the older generation to the shifts and attitudes of the new?

These are broad questions with an undoubtedly varied set of answers from family to family. As a start, and as an illustration of the theme, I’d like to share excerpts of a two-generational conversation I had with Ric Forman of Napa’s Forman Vineyards and Toby and Dawn Forman, Ric’s son and daughter-in-law, of Tobias Vineyards.

Today, for part one of this mini-series, we look at generational differences of gaining experience in wine in California, from the 1960s to today, and the impact that the different journeys have had on taste and stylistic preferences. Then we look at new critical reviews of the wines from both generations; the winemakers share a history, their wines are distinct in important ways, yet the scores for those wines? Perfectly aligned.

Gaining Experience, and Its Impact on Wine Style

Ric Forman studied enology at UC Davis in the late 1960s, then traveled to France to study fermentation and viticultural practices. He pioneered a number of techniques upon his return to California, including fermenting chardonnay in barrel and barrel-to-barrel racking.

Toby Forman, on the other hand, studied agronomy at Colorado State, graduating in 2000, and credits his father with teaching him everything he knows about winemaking.

Despite their shared influence, however, both winemakers recognize the divergent paths their taste preferences have taken for the wines they make and the wines they enjoy drinking for themselves.

Ric Forman, for example, acknowledges that his own style is “somewhat restricted,” more elegant in nature. “I like restraint and polish, like something to reach for rather than something that hits you between the eyes,” he said. “I like something that intrigues you, not that comes at you all at once.”

On the other hand, Toby Forman’s style is more expansive. “My style is a mixture of two different styles,” he said. “It’s got a balanced characteristic but it’s also a little higher in alcohol, and a little heavier on the palate with the tannins. What I like is a bigger California style of wine, whereas I think Forman is more of a Bordeaux style.”

What both Formans share in common is the tendency to not drink too much of their own wine, aside from the making, bottling and post-bottling times of year. On a day-to-day basis, Toby Forman is looking for food friendly bottles that he can share with his wife at dinner. “We don’t want to feel like [the wines] got the best of us,” he said.

Ric Forman’s opinion is influenced by a “terrifying” experience in his first enology class at UC Davis with Dr Maynard Amerine, who told the students to never get used to drinking their own wine because they’ll get used to its flaws. As a result, he reaches for wines from all over the world that are typically low alcohol, no wood, fruity and very high in acid.

Shared Experience, Different Styles, Same Score

The Formans share a lifetime of experience together in winemaking, which has resulted in some similarities and some differences in their production today. Stylistically, both expressions of that production can be successful, as evidenced by Antonio Galloni’s reviews this month on Vinous.

The 2016 Tobias Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Howell Mountain scored 94 points; Galloni described it as “a very pretty wine,” “super-expressive,” with “muscular Howell Mountain tannins” that wrap around a core of dark fruit.

The 2016 Forman Cabernet Sauvignon from St. Helena also received 94 points; Galloni described it as “classic Ric Forman,” “gracious and medium in body, with remarkable finesse.” He also noted that the 2016 is more refined than it was as a barrel sample.

They’re both impressive results, but it’s far too pat and superficial of a conclusion to simply say that “success breeds success,” or even that “good wine is good wine” regardless of the different contexts of its production. Which is why there will be a “part two” of this post, where we’ll dig deeper into the generational perspective we’ve started here. In the follow up, we’ll zoom out to more global themes of how these similar-but-different winemakers cultivate consumers both domestically and internationally, their perspectives on pricing (from $4.50 a bottle to $100+), and what’s important about how you get your start.

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