The end of baseball season has always meant for me the end of summer. It’s a time of the year—at least, on the East Coast, where both baseball and I were born (although not in the same year!)—when the seasons really do pivot. The days grow shorter; usually, sometime in early or mid-October, you can feel the first bite of chill wind when it comes sweeping down from the northwest, from Canada. The leaves turn, from summery green to gold, orange, amber, and fall down in drifts, like butterflies in the cool, clean air. In the far-olden days, this is when farmers would think of their root cellars, their put-up cans of peaches and tomatoes that would get them through the long, cold, dark winter months. For us school kids, the end of summer meant the end of thoughtless summer days. It was back to school. Buy your pencils, notebooks and rulers: put away the bathing suit!
When I moved to California, where seasonal change is far more subtle, the end of summer became about something else: the grape harvest. Fall was that time of year when the pickers harvested the grapes, when their trucks clogged the highways and byways of wine country. Fall in California even had its own version of foliage: the leaves on the vines blazed with crimson. And the scent of fermenting wine hung heavy in the air, a vinous-perfume that lingered even as the days turned hotter—for, in contradistinction to the East Coast, September and October turned out to be Northern California’s hottest months.
What are we to make of the association of the grape harvest and Fall, though, when the grapes have largely all been picked by the end of August? 2015’s earliest-ever harvest seems to be, not an anomaly, but the new normal. Nearly every winemaker I know professes to have a new, and not unwelcome, experience on their hands: What to do in October? Previously in their careers, they were still picking, crushing and fermenting. Now, the labor’s done. Their schedules have been up-ended, just like the schedules of the grapes themselves. Everything’s turned on its head.
I thought of these things yesterday as the baseball season ended, for me, with the last Giants game I’ll go to this year. They lost, barely, to the Dodgers. The Giants didn’t seem to play with heart; you could almost feel them thinking that, Hey, let’s just get this over with so I can get to Playa del Carmen or Italy or wherever rich baseball players vacation when the season’s over. The Dodgers, by contrast, were playing for home-field advantage. They were fierce; the Giants, well, weren’t. There was a flurry of activity in the 8th inning that got us all to our feet. But, alas, it went nowhere, and as Jose and I filed out along with the crowd, there was a sullen feeling in the air, a mood of resignation that the hopes that had ushered in 2015 had been finally dashed upon the rocks of reality. Even our three World Series victories in five years did little to lift the hearts of Giants fans.
But if baseball is about anything, it’s about Hope. Before you know it, Spring Training will be here, the Giants will again take the field before a rapturous crowd at AT&T Park, and maybe, just maybe, all these awful injuries that plagued the team this year will have gone away, and our Boys of Summer will once again be contenders. Even as I thought these things, when we left the park and I got on BART to go back to Oakland, I saw, as we emerged from the tube, huge cumulonimbus clouds piling up over the East Bay Hills. These are not the clouds of summer; they are the clouds of winter, of rain (in fact, I heard later that, east of the Hills, there was heavy, brief rainfall). It’s not unknown for big rain clouds to pile up against the hills, but it is somewhat rare, and these were HUGE piles of clouds, twenty, thirty thousand feel high. They were a promise of rain to come. A promise of hope for a state drought-plagued and parched for water. A promise, like that of baseball, that somewhere, just over the rainbow, lay better and happier times.
I’ve drank my share of Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs over the years and enjoyed them very much, but I hadn’t been up there since the 1990s. So it was with eager anticipation that I few to McMinnville yesterday for a short but intensive crash course in all things Willamette.
I was lucky in having as my tour guide the invaluable services of Eugenia Keegan, whom I’ve known since her days at Bouchaine. She now is in charge of Jackson Family Wines’ winemaking efforts throughout Oregon, which is to say Eugenia’s got a big, important job.
Prior to my trip I had a fairly sound academic knowledge of Willamette. You could hardly call it exhaustive or even particularly current: I can hardly keep up with all the new brands in California, much less in a state that’s not my own. So how does a curious wine writer even begin to take in and learn about a wine region as large and diverse as Willamette Valley?
Slowly and patiently. I decided not to try and cram dozens of details of scattered bits of knowledge into my brain, but to sit back and absorb. Just let the sights, sounds, scents and information from Eugenia seep in, sort themselves out, and settle, like lees in a barrel. Fortunately, the day was superb, the weather chilly and cloudy in the early morning, but clearing by 11 a.m. to reveal blue, expanseless skies. The temperature quickly warmed up to the high 70s.
My impression of the Willamette is a compound picture of wide spaces flanked by mountains on both sides, but the mountains are much further apart than they are in any California wine valley. Nor is there the grapevine monoculture one sees in California wine valleys, with vast, unbroken carpets of grapes lining the floor and slopes. I found the vineyards relatively scattered, interspersed with hazelnut trees, feed grasses and bovines, and the most insanely cute little towns. I also gained an appreciation of different terroirs: Someone had mentioned that two ranges of hills, miles apart, had very similar conditions of soil and climate; but when we drove from the first to the second one, great differences of terroir leaped out to my eye. The soil was beige-white, not orange; and the foliage was completely different, being lusher than in the first vineyard. Then I learned that the second vineyard was considerably further inland. That made total sense: the further inland you go, the warmer it gets.
I mention these relatively trivial details only to share how my mind works. At some point I will throw myself into the details of weather, soils and history in the Willamette Valley. But I think the best way to newly learn about a wine region is simply to open the senses to their maximum extent and allow yourself to be assaulted by impressions. It’s getting a feel for a place, as opposed to forming an opinion or stereotype about it, which one then imposes on the region.
On the short flight back home we passed right over the Lake County burn area, which was very sad. The Valley Fire has largely passed out of the daily news, but the many victims, who lost so much, will endure their harrowing ordeal for a long time. It was a sobering reminder of the vagaries of daily existence—a message from the Universe to appreciate what we have right now, in the moment, because it could all disappear in an instant.
Off to Willamette Valley today, my first trip there in many years. This is to check out some of Jackson Family Wines’ vineyard holdings. Yesterday, after a brief meeting at JFW in Santa Rosa, I zoomed back to Oakland to get to BART to go to San Francisco for a greatly anticipated meeting with California Lieutenant-Governor Gavin Newsom. I’ll be doing a Q&A with him on the blog early next week, when I get a chance to transcribe our long interview. Then, on Thursday, it’s the final baseball game of the year, Giants versus Dodgers, with old pal Jose Diaz. On Friday, another tasting with my JFW family, this time of Santa Rita Hills Chardonnays. So it’s been and will be a busy week.
I will offer this little peek into my conversation with Governor Newsom. (“Governor” actually is the proper honorific; not “Lieutenant-Governor.”) He is very optimistic about the future of the wine, food and entertainment industries in California, which is why his PlumpJack Group of companies is rapidly expanding.
People, especially younger ones, want to enjoy the good life, and in coastal California, the good life is all about eating and drinking well, with friends, in a companionable atmosphere. Throw in a little music and dancing, and that’s it! I remember when I moved to San Francisco, longer ago than I care to remember. I was young, happy, and had a little money. There was nothing better than being with pals, out on the town at night, laughing and having a great time. Of course, the problem now is that, in the late Seventies and Eighties, you didn’t need a lot of money to have fun in San Francisco. Now, you do. Even so, I knew people at that time who remembered the San Francisco of the 1950s and 1960s, and who complained that the City was changing too fast, was becoming too expensive, etc. etc.
So some things never change. San Francisco always is in the process of becoming. People move there, fall in love with it, and want it to stay exactly the same as it was in their glory days. Not going to happen. Nothing stays the same. I’ll venture a prediction: Twenty years from now, that technie who’s now in his 20s is going to gripe about how the San Francisco of the 2030s isn’t the same as it used to be! But San Francisco, whenever you move there, always retains its charm, its hold on you, its power to mesmerize you into thinking it’s the center of the Universe. Well, of the West Coast, anyway.
Anyhow, I’m looking forward to my visit to Willamette Valley. In our Pinot Noir tastings, the Willamette Pinot Noirs really dazzled me. If I had to choose a favorite, from all the appellations that we blind-tasted over six months, I’d have to say that Anderson Valley and Willamette were the standouts. I think it was because, as the most northerly in latitude, both of those regions offered earthy, mushroom and forest complexities to the fruit. They were the most “intellectual” Pinot Noirs. I always feel funny using that word, because it suggests that you have to think about the wines, not just enjoy them. Nothing could be further from the truth. But if you’re the sort of wine drinker who enjoys thinking about the wines you’re drinking, because they have so much going on, then they’re for you.
Have a great day!
Good for President Obama for choosing to serve a screwtop wine at last Friday’s State Dinner for Chinese President Xi Jinping. I do believe that’s a first for this White House, or any other for that matter.
Historically, the White House has served very expensive wines, finished with corks, at State Dinners. For a long time, these wines were mainly French. Thomas Jefferson served Lafite Rothschild; JFK served Haut-Brion Blanc; and when Nixon was President, he loved Chateau Margaux, although an anecdote revealed in Woodward and Bernstein’s “All the President’s Men” told how Tricky Dick would have his butlers discretely pour him Margaux, wrapped in a white cloth napkin, while the other guests got Mouton Cadet.
That all began to change during Reagan’s administration (he was justifiably proud of California wines), and today, it would be very strange for a President to pour foreign wine, unless it was from the country of the visiting dignitary (at last week’s Xi-fest, for example, the White House served Chinese Shaoxing rice wine). Many are the California wineries that proudly display a menu in their tasting room or office showing how and when one of its wines was served at the White House. And, of course, these tended to be expensive wines.
Four years ago, Republicans predictably and harshly criticized Obama for serving an expensive Washington State wine at a State Dinner for then-Chinese President Hu Jintao. The Tea Party website, Gateway Pundit, slammed the President for pouring a $399 bottle of wine to “Chi-Coms” [Chinese Communists], heading their hit piece “Sacrifice is for the little people,” and conveniently overlooking the fact that their hero, Ronald Reagan, also served very expensive wines: at one State Dinner, he poured a trio of California wines that, for the time, were quite pricy: Clos du Bois Calcaire Chardonnay, Carneros Creek Pinot Noir and Schramsberg Cremant Demi-Sec. More recently, there was President George W. Bush, who once served a Shafer Hillside Select ($245) at a similar dinner.
Perhaps it was criticisms like the one from Gateway Pundit, however selective and unfair, that prompted Obama to go screwtop. The particular wine he chose was a Penner-Ash 2014 Viognier, from Oregon, which retails for $30. It was paired with lobster (“poached in butter and served with traditional rice noodle rolls embedded with spinach, shiitake mushrooms and leeks.” Mmmm….but can we get rid of the word “embedded”?).
Obama’s screwtop embrace isn’t the most earth-shattering news ever. But it is a nice development in the sense of underscoring a new and, dare I say it, more democratic [small “d”] attitude towards wine that seems to be permeating across America, and that reflects an emerging sensibility that the most expensive things aren’t necessarily the best. Indeed, as I’ve long argued (and most critics agree), price is not always a reflection of quality; beyond a certain price point, you’re paying for image and psychological satisfaction.
Now, as to why wineries continue to be so resistant to screwtops, that’s another story!
Interesting article by the Chronicle’s occasional wine writer, Jon Bonné, in yesterday’s paper, on a range of topics related to wine prices, but mainly more or less of a warning that they may be too high to be sustained.
Jon fairly points out that labor costs in California are very high (just look at the cost of housing), and vineyard prices also are increasingly beyond the means of all but the superrich, at least in prime coastal growing regions. These things all contribute to the cost of the bottle—but perhaps the prime culprit is a “we’re-worth-more argument” that prompts many winery owners, maybe too many, that they can charge just about any price they feel the market will bear, because…well, just because.
You can’t go into a fine wine shop and not agree. Prices really have shot through the roof—despite the Great Recession, which may temporarily have halted the inflation in some cases, but if it did, no more. At the ultrapremium end, prices just keep going up, and up, and up, which leads Jon to ask the (rhetorical) question, “Wouldn’t it be a shame if…progress was halted because the people…decided it just wasn’t worth the money?”
Good question. What will it take for consumers to say, The heck with it, I’m not paying $80 for a bottle of Pinot Noir when I can get something just as good for half that price, or less—whether it’s from California or some foreign country?
I myself can’t see far enough into the future to make a prediction. Ten years ago and more, I was wondering how so many Napa Valley wineries were able to get away with charging triple-digits for their Cabernets. I thought then that lots of them would be forced out of business. That didn’t happen. So I’m out of the prognostication game. In fact, nobody knows where prices are going, but in the history of wine in California and in Europe, they seldom, if ever, go down, so we can only assume that they’ll continue to increase, albeit possibly at a slower rate.
Some commodities and consumables do decrease in price or at least hold steady when market conditions aren’t so good. That’s why we’ve seen basically flat inflation in the U.S. ever since the Great Recession. Things just aren’t getting more expensive. But wine seems to able to disobey the classical laws of supply and demand. I’m not sure why that is. I think, in many cases, winery owners are independently wealthy, so they can ride out periods of decline, sometimes for many years. I think also that wine, alone of all alcoholic beverages, has the allure of luxury: it’s an aspirational drink. Like diamonds, or sports cars, or designer clothing, wine has managed to furbish itself with a glow, in a way beer and spirits haven’t. True, both beer and spirits are available in very expensive bottlings. But think about it: beer’s fundamental image, at least in America, is of a cheap buzz, in front of the tube on Football Sunday. The image of spirits is more complicated, but then, spirits are cheaper than wine, when you compare the two ounce-per-ounce in terms of alcoholic strength. A good bottle of Scotch might set you back $60, but you’ll get a lot of mileage out of it over time, and unlike wine, it won’t go bad in a few days.
Wine by contrast seems to lift any occasion into the realm of special and celebratory. People still ooh and aah over wine: even a meal in a place like Chili’s or Applebee’s is heightened when wine is set on the table. People perceive this about wine, consciously or not; either way, wine makes their meal feel more special. And because wine has this quality of glamour, consumers seem willing to pay extra for it.
How much extra? That is the question. I’m not as worried as Jon is about California wine pricing itself out of the market. There will always be moderately priced California wine—say, under $20—and as for the under-$10 segment, I don’t really think that much about it, except that I’m glad it’s there because it gets people to drink wine who might not otherwise.
But I do continue to wonder about these Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and, now, Chardonnay prices that are skyward bound. I suppose the wineries who are taking price increases know what they’re doing. At least, I like to think so. But Jon, coining a phrase, referred to “the neuroses of [California’s] prestige” as a way to pointing out that some wineries are taking increases, not because they know what they’re doing, but because they think they do; they think they’re riding the same bubble as Bordeaux.
Maybe they are. Maybe they’re not. Maybe Bordeaux’s bubble is unsustainable. Like I said, I don’t play the prognostication game anymore. But, if you look at the history of Bordeaux prices over the centuries, they have just one direction: up.
This is the latest of my occasional wine reviews. I hope you enjoy.
Vina Robles 2013 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (Paso Robles); $24. There’s a tartness to this Cab that gives it a cranberry-like bite. The acidity is quite high, which makes me wonder if it was added or is natural. At any rate, it does throw the mouthfeel off balance. Flavorwise, everything is perfect. Blackberry preserves, dried black currants, cassis liqueur and a fine layer of smoky oak. The tannins are just right for Cabernet: thick, dusty and intricate. And the finish is long and impressive. If it weren’t for that acidity, I’d give it a much higher score. Drink now, with fatty, greasy foods, like barbecued beef. Score: 88.
Healdsburg Ranches 2013 California Coastal Cabernet Sauvignon (California): $14. Every great wine-producing region needs a good, sound, affordable bottling that shows what it’s capable of. We call these sorts of wines “rustic” or “charming” or whatever, and what that means is, “Hey, this is a really nice, easy-drinking wine, and it won’t cost you an arm and a leg.” This is that kind of wine. Who knows where the grapes came from? Who cares? It’s dry, full-bodied and tannic, the way Cabernet should be, with flavors of black currants, raisins, mushu plum sauce, unsweetened baker’s chocolate and a touch of smoky oak. It all leads to a peppery, slightly bitter finish. Score: 88.
Stonegate 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon (Rutherford): $35. Here’s a big, juicy, ripe Cabernet, brimming with the pure essence of blackberries and black cherries. There are complexing notes of black tea and licorice, while oak adds a delicious coating of smoky toast and vanilla bean. The all-important tannins are strong and sweet, while just-in-time acidity adds to the structural integrity. All in all, a very good Cab, easy to drink now with steak. It will hold in the bottle for five years or so. Score: 90.
Healdsburg Ranches 2013 “The Ranch Reserves” Chardonnay (Russian River Valley); $19. Ripe and oaky, this will please Chardonnay fans who like this style. The underlying fruit flavors are strong in pineapples, peaches, limes and kiwi fruits, while oak brings those toasty vanilla notes that come from wood. There’s a buttered popcorn taste that may come from the malolactic fermentation. Meanwhile, the acidity is nice and crisp, and the mouthfeel smooth and creamy. There may be some residual sugar, to judge by the sweet finish. Not bad for the price. Score: 87.
Senses 2013 Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast): $35. There seems to be a movement towards drier, lower alcohol, more minerally and less fruit-driven Chardonnays, and this bottle could stand as its poster child. It’s all those things, and more, with the sleek stone profile of Chablis, relieved by hints of golden apricot, orange peel and Meyer lemon. There’s some new French oak, not too much, just enough to provide a jacket of vanilla bean and smoke. In such a wine, the lees play an important part, giving it a yeastiness that becomes an integral part of the profile, the way it does with Champagne. Acidity also plays an important role. I continue to believe there’s a place for lush, ripe, buttery, flamboyant Chardonnays in California, but it’s interesting that wines like this are emerging to give consumers a choice. Score: 90.
Knez 2013 Demuth Vineyard Chardonnay (Anderson Valley): $39. Knez is a new winery for me. I’m including them in my upcoming tasting of Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs. I bought that bottle; they graciously included a free Chardonnay in the box, so I’m reviewing it. The vineyard sits at 1,500 feet, in the mountains above Boonville. Way back in late 2004, I reviewed a 2002 Demuth Chardonnay (from the winery of that name). My description of it could fit this 2013 from Knez. I called it dry, leesy, acidic and streamlined, “doesn’t hit you with fruit,” but I liked the minerals. Same here. I guess it’s the extreme elevation. This is an elegant, rather austere and bone dry wine whose limey acidity makes the mouth water. Fruit-wise, it suggests Meyer lemons, grapefruits and perhaps some tropicality and white floweriness. If they had let the grapes hang longer, it would be a richer wine, but then, the alcohol wouldn’t be a mere 13.2%. So what you see is what you get: severe, Chablisian, an acquired taste. But if you can dig that taste, you’ll find lots to be intrigued by. Score: 90.
The Wine With No Name 2013 (Central Coast); $15. From Truett Hurst. They don’t tell us what the blend is. It could be anything, but who cares? Anonymity is the name of the game. It’s a lovely wine, dry, tannic and full-bodied, with good acidity. Spicy, too, with black currant, tobacco, blackberry and blueberry jam and leathery flavors. All in all, somewhat rustic, but easy to like, especially with barbecue. I’m giving it an extra point or two because it’s so easy to drink, even though it’s not particularly complex. Score: 90.
Vina Robles 2012 Estate Petite Sirah (Paso Robles); $29. To call this wine “rustic” is accurate. Its tannins are a little awkward, and the flavors veer towards briary, brambly wild blackberries, tobacco, sweet leather, teriyaki beef and chamomile. The finish is entirely dry, but what’s harder to put into words is the feeling that this is a wine that no doubt tastes better where it was made, with a locally-grown meal, than it does if bought in a store or restaurant. It’s certainly impressive for the sheer volume of fruit: so ripe and savory and delicious. The grapes were grown all over the extensive Paso Robles region and then blended “for overall synergies,” says winemaker Kevin Willenborg. It’s a big, hearty wine you want to drink with hearty fare: short ribs, certainly, or barbecued beef in these waning days of summer. It will warm your bones during the cold winter months. I like it a lot, but the basic rusticity keeps on coming back. Score: 89.
A pair of Petite Sirahs from Retro Cellars
Retro 2011 Petite Sirah (Napa Valley); $35.
Retro 2011 Petite Sirah (Howell Mountain); $45.
I have long admired these two bottlings from Retro, which has done a good job with Petite Sirah from both appellations.
Of the two, the Napa Valley is firmer, drier and more structured. It’s quite dry, with substantial tannins and a leathery earthiness to the blackberries, raspberries, cocoa powder and soy sauce. The finish is long and spicy, like red licorice. It is a wine that can take some time in the cellar, but it’s drinkable now, although I would decant it. The vineyard where the grapes were grown is in the Pope Valley region. The official alcohol is 13.4%, which is lower than you’d think tasting it. Given the tannins, I would drink this wine with the richest, most complex foods possible: short ribs of beef, Chinese Mongolian beef, or beef or chicken in a Mexican mole sauce. Definitely for fans of big, full-bodied, complex red wines. Score: 91.
Then we come to the Howell Mountain. It is completely different, as opposite in flavor as you can imagine. The wine is softer, sweeter and riper than the Napa Valley, although the word “sweeter” is misleading, for it’s completely dry. But it does dazzle with the ripest, most succulent raspberries and red licorice, and seems oakier too, with that sweet, wonderfully toasted wood quality. It is perhaps notable that the wine was aged in 100% new French oak for 30 months. That amount of wood would swamp most red wines. Not this one. Once again, the official alcohol level, 12.8%, seems weirdly low, given the ripeness. Considering the wine’s forwardness and accessibility, I would pair it with a good steak, and drink it soon. Score: 92.
Vina Robles 2014 White4 (Paso Robles); $16. I’ve always liked this interesting, offbeat white blend from Vina Robles. The quality is high, and the price is crazy good. This year, the blend is based on Viognier, with smaller quantities of Vermentino, Verdelho and Sauvignon Blanc. In the history of the world, these varieties have never met, but it works here to produce a pleasant wine, with great complexity. There are flavors of tangerines, white peaches and vanilla bean. No oak was introduced, so what you get is what the grapes give. There’s sweetness in the finish, but the acidity is great, providing balance. What a nice wine to drink with Asian fare: pot stickers, Vietnamese chicken or pork dishes, spicy Indian lamb or Thai fish cakes. The winemaker recommends fish tacos, which sounds good. Score: 89.
Senses 2013 Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $40. What a pretty Pinot Noir. It has the translucent clarity you expect from a Sonoma Coast Pinot, with fine acidity highlighting complex strawberry and cranberry fruit flavors. There are exciting hints of wild mushrooms, licorice, exotic Indian spices and cured golden tobacco, leading to a long, contemplative finish. The wine is fairly tannic, and has excellent brisk acidity, both of which give it structural integrity. The alcohol level is 14.2%, just enough to give body, but not so much as to give heat. As good as this wine is now, I would age it for four more years, and who knows, it could be rocking in 2023. Score: 91.
Senses 2013 Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $55. This is exactly the kind of Pinot Noir those clamoring for more “balanced” wines are asking for. The alcohol is officially 14.2%, lowish, if not super-low. The wine is bone dry. The mouthfeel is silky, and yet the flavor profile is deep and intense. The vineyard is in the Occidental area, on a hillside with good drainage. The 2013 vintage fully ripened the grapes, so that the wine has raspberry, cranberry and pomegranate flavors. The tannins are fine, the acidity brisk and mouthwatering. French oak has been tastefully applied, bringing notes of sweet vanilla and toast. All in all, this is a high-quality Pinot Noir, balanced and beautiful now on release, and capable of at least six years of aging. Score: 93.
Waits-Mast 2012 Wentzel Vineyard Pinot Noir (Anderson Valley); $45. The immediate impression of this wine is that it’s robust in flavor and quite tart in acidity. This hit of acid marks the winery’s 2012 Pinots in general. The wine, which is a combination of multiple Dijon clones, was grown in a tiny block of the vineyard, at a high-altitude above Philo. Production was a mere 48 cases. It is rich in raspberries and cherries, licorice, sassafras and pomegranates, as well as earthy, foresty things, like wild mushrooms and balsam. With alcohol at 13.5%, it has a delicate mouthfeel. The acidity calls for pairing with fatty foods: steak, tuna, lamb. But I have a feeling this is an ager. You can drink it now, after a few hours of decanting, and through 2025. Score: 93.
Waits-Mast 2012 Nash Mill Vineyard Pinot Noir (Anderson Valley); $40. The Nash Mill Vineyard is in the northwestern, cooler end of the valley, and is owned by the family that owns Husch. The wine is entirely dry, with significant acidity and yet a delicate mouthfeel. The flavors in this good vintage are quite ripe, suggesting raspberries and strawberries, with vast amounts of exotic spices and a fine earthiness. It has what might be called a gout de terroir. But it’s a touch hot in alcohol (officially 14.5%), which is a limiting factor. Some critics liked this wine more than I do. Drink now-2017. Score: 89.
Waits-Mast 2012 Mariah Vineyard Pinot Noir (Mendocino Ridge); $42. People grow old-vine Zinfandel in the high mountains of the Mendocino Ridge, so Pinot Noir can be a challenge, as this wine is. It feels a bit too hot in the mouth. The flavors are lovely, ranging from raspberries and strawberries to the most deliciously earthy wild mushrooms and Asian spices. The tannins are smooth and fine. Yet for me, it’s marred by the heat and also by high acidity, both of which combine to make it fierce. Score: 88.
Waits-Mast 2012 Oppenalnder Pinot Noir (Anderson Valley); $44. As with the winery’s other 2012 Pinots, I found this immediately to be quite tart in acidity, which emphasizes the alcoholic heat even though the official reading is just 14.2%. There are gorgeous flavors, of raspberry and cherry jam, with a nice earthy mushroominess and a good smoky overlay of oak. But when I taste a Pinot Noir I don’t want the first impression in my mouth to be of acid. Even as the wine warmed and breathed in the glass, which is when it might soften and become more mellow, it gave my palate the bite of a stingray. Very hard to explain this phenomenon. Score: 87.
Waits-Mast 2012 Deer Meadows Pinot Noir (Anderson Valley); $55. A fierce bite of acidity marks this young Pinot Noir. It has concentrated flavors of raspberry and cherry pie filling, with lots of dusty exotic spices, a rich coating of smoky, toasty oak, and an earthy taste of wild mushrooms. It also shows the wild, feral quality of Pinot Noir you associate with the Fort Ross-Seaview area, which is quite pleasant and complex. The problem is the acidity. It’s cuts like a razor blade through the palate, and doesn’t seem like it will fade away with time. Score: 88.
Truett Hurst 2014 Bluebird Sauvignon Blanc (Russian River Valley); $23. Classic Sonoma Sauv Blanc here, dry, brilliantly crisp in acidity, and with grassy flavors that venture into richer notes of green melons, peaches, limes and tropical fruits. The alcohol is a refreshingly low 13.8%. If there’s any oak, it’s not apparent. What you get is purity and cleanliness, and plenty of flavor, and a hint of honey on the finish. You have to give this wine credit for being so well-made and easy to drink. Score: 90.
Vina Robles 2014 Estate Sauvignon Blanc (Paso Robles): $16. Sauvignon Blanc may be Paso Robles’ little white secret. The wines across the board are good; Vina Robles’ 2014 Estate is very good. It fulfills all the basics, being dry and zesty in acidity, and the grapefruit, Meyer lemon, Asian pear and papaya flavors have a tart grassiness that’s lovely. No wood here, just clean, pure 100% Sauv Blanc. Winemaker Kevin Willenborg wisely chose not to put the wine through the malolactic fermentation. Score: 90.
Inconspicuous 2013 Zinfandel (Lodi); $20. Captures the essence of zinniness in its briary, brambly flavors of juicy summer blackberries, blueberries and dark chocolate. With sweet tannins and a dry finish, it’s smooth and round in the mouth, and wears its highish alcohol well. If it’s hot out, drink it with a nice summer barbecue. If it’s cold, this wine, which contains 20% Petite Sirah for body, will pair well with beef stew. Score: 88.
There’s an ill wind blowing in Napa these days. The county seems torn about how it sees its future, which is really about how it sees its current status and its past. This all was the subject of a letter in the St. Helena Star newspaper written by Bill Ryan, who I believe is a columnist. Development versus non-development always is an issue in wine country, but Napa seems to be the most sensitive about it of all regions, perhaps because it is the most famous and most sought after destination for wine tourism.
Mr. Ryan’s letter is a reply to critics who he perceives are “trashing” Napa Valley’s wineries. He seeks to convince readers that all is not “doom and gloom” in Napa. I agree with him—up to a point.
Here’s my take. Traffic really has risen to insane proportions along Highway 29. It’s terrible, but hardly unusual; in post-Recession California, traffic has become worse than ever, from L.A. through the Bay Area to Sacramento and right up to wine country, and it shows no signs of getting better. In my opinion, Governor Brown ought to declare a State of Emergency, summon the Legislature into Emergency Session, and convene a committee of wise men and women to figure out where we go from here. I myself have no idea if there’s a solution, but that’s why we need experts to consider all the alternatives.
To the extent Napa is battling with traffic, concerns about new wineries or winery permits for special events are understandable. I would hate to have to drive between St. Helena and anywhere south, in the morning or during the evening commute.
Mr. Ryan correctly points out that Napa’s golden age, the 1960s and 1970s, accomplished “something that had never been done before in all of history – create a New World wine district that competed favorably with the famous regions of Europe.” Indeed it did. He is proud of his compatriots for so doing. I am too. He suggests that today’s men and women of Napa Valley can help to “find a positive pathway to aiding winery growth and prosperity,” a judgment with which surely no one can disagree. There are such men and women. I don’t know if outsiders who got rich elsewhere and then bought themselves a Napa Valley lifestyle are the kind of people who can lead Napa through its travails, as opposed to the families who have lived there for a long time. Maybe some of them are.
Mr. Ryan also puts his finger on a big issue: “Our key item, cabernet sauvignon, is quickly losing sales and position against pinot noirs and other more drinkable reds.” This is surely true. The reasons are not clear. Is it because of alcohol levels? My own pulse-taking of the market suggests that Cabernet may be down, but you can never count it out. In modern America, fashion has the lifespan of a gnat. Woe be to the winery that bases its long-range business plan on temporary trends.
If Napa Valley really is losing traction to “Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley and Dundee Hills,” as Mr. Ryan fears, is it too late to reverse the trend? No. But Napa’s biggest enemy may be itself. When every winery in the valley started charging an arm and a leg just to taste a few wines, I thought that was a mistake. A weekend for two now in Napa, including lodging and good meals, will set the happy couple back close to $1,000. You can go out to Jenner or Boonville for a lot less, and less traffic, too. Napa Valley will never be a cheap place to go. But it really has to make sure that it doesn’t price everyone out except Silicon Valley millionaires and rich overseas tourists. The golden age that Mr. Ryan celebrates would have been shocked to sense that nobody except the uber-rich could afford to visit.