Perhaps the most refreshing development in the world of wine is the gradual rejection of strict wine-and-food-pairing do’s and don’ts, in favor of “Don’t worry about it, if you like it, just do it.”
This liberating thought struck me as I was reading through this article in yesterday’s Napa Register which paraphrased MW Tim Hanni as “vehemently eschew[ing] wine pairing as a concept in both the East and the West, and encourag[ing] consumers to drink the wines of their choice with Chinese foods.”
We’ve gotten so used to mandatory wine-and-food rules that it’s hard to understand just why we adhered to these arbitrary injunctions for so long. I suppose it all started long ago, in Old Europe, although I don’t think that, in the 19th century, the esthetic tastemakers of wine were as ideological about pairing as were more modern, mainly American writers. Once Prohibition ended and a spate of wine books appeared on the scene, the rules were elevated to near-sacred status, with writers declaring with Papal infallibility what to eat with what to drink. That tendency towards rigid ideology in taste seems peculiarly American.
The inflexibility persisted well into modern times. I think the first book I can recall that began to bend—not break—the rules was “Red Wine With Fish,” David Rosengarten’s and Josh Wesson’s 1989 tome, which began to loosen the shackles. That book made a dent, but only a little one: the field in which I worked, wine writing and reviewing, helped to keep the old walls from tottering, for the simple reason that our editors expected us to recommend foods with the wines we wrote about, and it hardly would have been suitable for me to write, “Drink this Pinot Noir with anything you friggin’ want, because it really doesn’t matter.” I mean, that would have been a good way to lose your job!
Hence, I’d sit there, after the review was finished, and rack my brain to discern what foods I thought the wine would be magical with. Sometimes I’d browse through my extensive collection of cookbooks for ideas. And I was perfectly serious and sincere.
Yet, as the years passed so pleasantly, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable making such restricted judgments. In my own personal life, off-stage and in the non-visible comfort of my home, I tended to drink just about anything with anything else: Chardonnay with a hamburger, Pinot Noir with brown rice and tamari sauce, Zinfandel with sole, Sauvignon Blanc with lamb chops. I enjoyed it all, and, while I felt vaguely guilty about being so dogmatic in my published writings, didn’t really worry about it.
How refreshing it is to reach a point where America has become a mature wine-drinking country where people don’t feel the need to adhere slavishly to somebody else’s rules. Having said that, I’m sure that somebody is going to write in and say that wine critics themselves are obsolete dinosaurs imposing their ivory tower pronouncements on the plebes below. I don’t agree. Consumers still need and want somebody with more time and knowledge than they have to break it down and explain the ins and outs of wine to them. What they don’t want or need are authoritarian ideologues who threaten them with purgatory if they don’t obey the pairing rules. At this rate, we might, here in America, reach a point where wine critics are anachronisms. We’re not there, yet. But I’d be perfectly happy to see that day arrive.
I sometimes wonder if the general public knows how much land acquisition is a strategic consideration in many of the winery deals that have gone down in California. Sometimes, these acquisitions don’t make any sense, on the face of it; you wonder why in the hell winery X bought winery Y. But if real estate is part of the deal, it can make a great deal of sense.
Such seems to have been the case with Constellation’s purchase of Meiomi, announced yesterday. Not on Contellation’s part, but on the Wagner family’s.
Meiomi’s proprietor, Joe Wagner, of the family that famously owns Caymus, Belle Glos, Mer Soleil and other wineries, told Shanken News Daily that he was selling Meiomi for an unbelievable $315 million “because the deal will give him the liquidity necessary to become a much larger landowner. Wagner says he hopes to amass 2,000-3,000 acres of California vineyards over the next five years.”
“A much larger landowner.” That’s the game the major players are playing these days. Everyone assumes several things: (a) the U.S. appetite for wine will only grow, (b) exports of U.S. wines overseas also will grow, especially as trade deals like the TTP go into effect, and (c) supplies of grapes are only going to tighten as the best appellations and regions get planted out. Under such circumstances, buying vineyards now—or selling a superhot brand like Meiomi for a fortune, in order to buy land later—is smart.
Did the Wagners start Meiomi, back in 2006, in order to sell it after it became hot? Who knows? But I doubt that they, or anyone, could have guessed how wildly successful Meiomi would become. I suspect they started it because, nine years ago, the country was still in the throes of its “Sideways” fascination, and the Wagners surmised, correctly, that you couldn’t have too much good Pinot Noir. Probably, they figured Meiomi would be a nice, profitable little brand, like Mer Soleil or Belle Glos: an affordable Pinot Noir, from coastal vineyards. Myself, I don’t particularly care for it—too sweet, like candy; in a tasting of other Pinots, the sweetness sticks out like a sore thumb. But Americans, at least the ones who buy Meiomi, are gobbling it up: Wagner told Shanken that Meiomi is on par to sell 700,000 cases this year. Perhaps the Wagners looked into their crystal ball and figured out that Meiomi has had its fifteen minutes and is on the way down. This would not be the first winery that Constellation bought that had already reached its zenith.
So we know what the Wagners get from the deal: a boatload of cash that will finance future vineyard and/or land purchases. And what of Constellation? They get a super-famous brand that flies off supermarket shelves, which is really the Constellation business model. I can’t see Meiomi getting better in the future—that would be asking too much of Constellation. But with all their access to grapes, they can grow Meiomi forever, keeping it affordable even as production approaches a million cases.
There’s another thing about buying vineyard land: it’s always there for other purposes besides vineyards. Zoning regulations mean you can’t just do anything you want, but investing in land has been the most secure place to put your money since the beginning of time. And in the case of coastal California, if you happen to have a few extra hundreds of millions of dollars, you can buy some pretty fabulous property that will only increase in value. Whether or not it’s in vineyards in ten or twenty years, you don’t really care; that land is going to be extraordinarily valuable no matter what happens (unless coastal California disappears into the sea in the Big One).
Getting my chops back as a taster isn’t hard at all. It’s like bicycle riding: once you know how to do it, you can take some time off and then get right back on and go places.
As I wrote yesterday, I’m going be reviewing wines here on my blog, after 1-1/2 years off. But it’s not like I ever stopped tasting. I reviewed Jackson Family Wines for the winery newsletter, and—let’s face it—I didn’t exactly stop drinking! I found myself instinctively reviewing and rating every bottle that I came across. Old habits die hard.
The question sometimes comes up with wine critics, Can’t you just drink wine without analyzing it? Well, no. I mean, anyone who purports to think more than the average Joe about wine probably gets analytical about it. The one question I can never get away from is, What is this wine’s quality? Is it super-duper? Is it average? Does it suck? I think we all do that, those of us in the industry. We make value judgments.
That doesn’t mean that every time I have a new wine, I’m writing a little mini-review in my head. But there is a form of thought, consideration and judgment that wouldn’t be very hard for me to put into words, if that was my wont. Nor does it mean that I can’t enjoy a wine that’s average. I can. I’ve known people in my life who wouldn’t have been caught dead drinking anything less than a First Growth or Grand Cru. I felt (and feel) sorry for them. Snobs. But then, I also feel sorry for folks who only drink plonk, and claim that there’s no difference between wines anyway, so why spend a fortune when you can get the same thing for eight bucks? That’s not true. I wonder if they say the same thing about automobiles, or stereo systems, or clothing?
So here I am, getting back into the reviewing business. But I’m not going to let it to be like it was at Wine Enthusiast, when I often felt like a prisoner in a cage made of wine bottles. So much wine coming in, more and more everyday, and you have to taste and review every single one of them. It cuts into your social life, I can tell you that, and becomes a tedium. I doubt if some of the more famous critics, who taste scores if not hundreds of wines a day, will ‘fess up to that. But it does. I don’t think I ever let the tedium get in the way of my reviews, though; and it’s also true that alcohol stimulates me, so that even when I’m tired, wine perks me up. There were days when I felt like I couldn’t face another flight, so tired was I; but as soon as I jumped into it, my fatigue went away, and the sheer intellectual and physical challenge stimulated my body and mind and allowed me to perform. Going to the gym can be that like: every serious gym rat knows that, on those days when you feel like your dogs are draggin’, if you can get to the gym you have the best workouts.
I have no expectations about where this reviewing thing is headed. I’m playing around with the idea of charging a reviewing fee; there’s a lot of work involved in wine tasting (picking up boxes at the UPS Store, breaking down the cartons, dealing with the Styrofoam, washing and recycling the bottles only begins to describe it), and after all, I have bills to pay, like everyone else. It doesn’t seem to me that charging for reviewing would “taint” my reviews, but I’ll leave it to my readers to decide if they think it does. (Troll alert: I don’t care what you think.) I mean, if a steveheimoff.com review has potential value to wineries, then I’d think the least they would want to do is sustain me at a fair price. Right?
Starting today, I’m going to do something I’ve never done before on my blog: I’ll be reviewing wines.
The first batch follows below. None of these wineries paid me. I don’t intend for steveheimoff.com to become a wine-reviewing site, although I think people are interested in what I have to say. But I do want to do it occasionally. If you want your wines to be reviewed on steveheimoff.com, send me your tasting sample, along with tech notes and the SRP. You’ll notice my reviews are longer than they used to be at Wine Enthusiast. I always felt constrained within the 40-word format and now I can make these reviews as lengthy as I want.
This change coincides with some additional changes in my professional life. Starting tomorrow, I officially become a consultant. My first client will remain Jackson Family Wines. I’m having conversations with additional wineries. My goal is to assemble a high-end portfolio of wineries I like and respect, and who respect my contributions. If you’re interested in working together, reach out to me and let’s talk.
A word of caution: If you do use one of my reviews for promotional purposes, credit it to steveheimoff.com, not Steve Heimoff. Thanks.
Dominus 2012 Napanook (Yountville): $69. My tasting notes for Napanook have been remarkably consistent for many years, going back to the 1990s. The wine always has struggled in the shadows of its senior sister, Dominus Estate. For instance, I said of the 2006 that it “has been trying to stand on its own,” apart from Dominus. Napanook still is seeking its own identity. Like previous vintages, this 2012 is fairly tough, dry and tannic. Its black currant, blueberry and cassis flavors are framed in oak, 20% of which was new French. There’s an earthy complexity, reminiscent of dried sage and unsweetened cocoa. The overall impression is one of great balance and care, but of course, Napanook must be viewed as the second wine of Dominus. Unresolved now, it will benefit from hours of decanting. Is it an ager? Five or six years will present no problem. Much longer than that, and you’re gambling. Score: 90.
Laurel Glen 2013 Counterpoint (Sonoma Mountain): $40. I must admit to having lost track of Laurel Glen for a number of years, following Patrick Campbell’s sale of the winery. Counterpoint, the “second label”, often could be a worthy alternative to the main attraction, the estate wine, showing the same classy, dry, elegant structure, if less ageable. With this 2013, Counterpoint firmly establishes itself at the top of its price tier in California Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s the anti-Napa Cabernet, bone dry and modest in alcohol. You’ll find plenty of California-style black currants and black raspberry essence, but no overripeness, just a rich, delicious complexity that finishes spicy and long. There’s an oaky sweetness that’s perfectly balanced with the fruit. The addition of 15% Merlot to the blend softens the tannins, bringing a sensual mellowness to the mouthfeel. This 2013 is as good as the 2009 Counterpoint, to which I gave 93 points, and, like that wine, I would recommend drinking it over the next four years. Score: 92.
Tamber Bey 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville); $125. Tamber Bey has flirted with ripe, opulent Cabernet for years, with mixed results. With this 2012, they firmly ensconce themselves in the California style of high alcohol, extracted fruit flavor and generous new oak. You’ll find plenty of blackberry jam, cassis liqueur and dark chocolate, with an overripe hint of prunes, wrapped into soft tannins and just-in-time acidity. The result is heady and delicious, although it could grow tedious if you’re drinking the entire bottle. The official alcohol is 14.9% and 682 cases were made. Drink now-2020. Score: 88.
Krupp Brothers 2013 Stagecoach Vineyard Chardonnay (Napa Valley); $65. Krupp Brothers, and Stagecoach Vineyard, are of course well-known for beautifully crafted Cabernet Sauvignon. But this lovely wine shows that Chardonnay can grow pretty well 1,500 feet up on the mountain, which straddles Atlas Peak. It’s enormously rich in orange, pineapple and mango fruit, with a sweet overlay of toasty, vanilla-accented oak and crème brulée. There’s a firm streak of minerals running throughout, as well as crisp, mouthwatering acidity that balances and grounds the richness. Fancy and memorable, it’s very fine to drink with rich California cuisine: Dungeness crab, shrimp or scallops, grilled Ahi tuna, chicken in cream sauce. Ageworthy, too–reminds me of a young Hanzell Chardonnay. Drink over the next ten years. Score: 93.
Tamber Bey 2013 Deux Chevaux Vineyard Dijon Chardonnay (Yountville): $55. The oak really dominates this single-vineyard Chardonnay, in the form of butterscotch, caramel and buttered cinnamon toast. That oakiness is accentuated by the butteriness of the malolactic fermentation. Underneath that, you’ll find ripe apricot jam, peaches and cream and pineapple crème brulée flavors. The acidity is acceptable. The ultimate result is quite rich and flamboyant. Drink it with lobster, scallops, crab. Score: 88.
Tamber Bey 2014 Trio Vineyard Unoaked Chardonnay (Yountville): $34. This is what superbly grown Chardonnay tastes like when it’s never seen a molecule of oak. How good it is. You’ll find an enormously deep, ripe array of flavors, ranging from golden apricots and oranges to succulent peaches, pears and exotic guavas and passionfruits, with hints of honeysuckle and clarified butter. The alcohol is hefty, yet balanced. Only 720 cases were produced. I would love to drink this wine with ahi tuna tartare topped with chopped, toasted macadamia nuts and mango salsa. Score: 91.
Tenshen 2014 White Wine (California): $20. The Central Coast long has been a hotbed of Rhône-style white blends, and now Tenshen, which is owned by Guarachi Wine Partners (Montes, Guarachi, Bodega Norton and others) hops on the bandwagon. The blend is Viognier, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc, with a decidedly un-Rhônelike addition of Chardonnay. Each variety brings something to the table, giving the wine real complexity. It’s a pleasurable sipper, dry, crisp in acidity and interestingly flavored in oranges, green melons, succulent peaches, spices and white flowers, with a creamy mouthfeel and bracing minerality. It’s a little hot and heavy—the alcohol is a sturdy 14.7%–suggesting pairing with rich fare, like seared scallops in beurre blanc or baked salmon. The wine is a new partner to Tenshen’s 2013 Red, which was successfully launched earlier this year. Score: 87.
Guarachi 2013 Sun Chase Vineyard Pinot Noir (Petaluma Gap); $75. The vineyard, on the southern side of Sonoma Mountain, is one of the highest (1,400 feet) in the Petaluma Gap, an area currently contained within the greater Sonoma Coast appellation but one that is hopefully awaiting approval of its own AVA status by the federal government. Alex Guarachi owns the young (2007) vineyard, whose grapes have been purchased by others, including Patz & Hall and Fogline. Now Guarachi, who has perhaps been better known for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, has this bottling, which comes down firmly in favor of a riper, more alcoholic (officially 14.5%) and frankly gulpable style. It’s a big wine, dense, somewhat heavy and flamboyant, not your typical In Pursuit of Balance Pinot Noir, but certainly one that scores high on the deliciousness scale. With soft tannins and decent acidity, it’s forward in black cherry pie filling and cola flavors, with a smoky, cedary coating (55% new French oak) and tons of Chinese 5 spice in the finish. I would give it a several hours of decanting and drink it now, with rich, fatty foods, like lamb or steak, although it will overshadow something more delicate, like salmon. Score: 92.
Tamber Bey 2013 Sun Chase Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast); $65. A stylish, classy Pinot, whose silky structure frames intense flavors. Floods the mouth with ripe raspberry preserves, cola, Christmas persimmons, red currants and sweet pomegranates, leading to a long, spicy finish. It’s ripe and soft and satisfying, solidly made in the California style, elegant and ageable for a few years. The new oak flavors of toast and vanilla are enriching. The vineyard is in a mountainous part of the emerging Petaluma Gap region. Only 484 cases were produced. Drink now-2021. Score: 91.
Kenefick Ranch 2014 Estate Grown Sauvignon Blanc (Calistoga); $24. Sauvignon Blanc in Calistoga? Well, yes, and it’s as ripe as you’d expect it to be. No subtle grass and minerals here, but rather an explosion of Meyer lemon, apricot and orange preserves, with little bites of stewed fruit. Lots of spice, good balancing acidity, and a touch of smoky oak from barrel fermentation. A big wine, slightly heavy. but sound. Call it a white wine for red wine fans. Score: 85.
Tamber Bey 2014 Mello Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (Yountville); $28. Tamber Bey is best known for its reds, but this is quite a good Sauvignon Blanc, and shows how well the southerly part of Napa Valley, with its Carneros influence, can succeed with this variety. The wine, which is highish in alcohol, has just a touch of wood influence, and treads a careful line between tart gooseberries and riper tropical fruit notes, braced with a clean, tangy minerality. The acidity is just fine, and the finish is dry and peppery. I’m giving it extra points for sheer deliciousness and complexity. Score: 92.
Here, you see, is the false dichotomy that infects so many of our wine conversations today: that there are “two different kinds” of wine and that we, as consumers and writers, “must pick one or the other,” as if we were in a vinous civil war where no one is permitted to be neutral and like both sides equally.
That is once again the premise of this think piece in San Francisco Magazine, whose very headline starkly presents the choice said to be confronting us: “Should You Be Drinking Parker Bombs or Trendy Reds?” The article lists six red wines from California that all received “a perfect score from the Wine Advocate” and then contrasts them with six other red California wines “which probably aren’t going to net any 100-point scores…”.
Civil wars are dreadful things. Most people caught up in them, I suspect, would prefer to be left alone to live their lives in peace, but the fact of a civil war makes that practically impossible. We saw this in our own American Civil War (particularly in the border States) and we see it again, horribly, in places like Syria and Iraq, where common people—husbands and wives, children and old people, farmers and merchants and mechanics and teachers—get sucked against their wills into the crosshairs of the most disastrous arguments. Sometimes—often—it seems like these are arguments between maniacs, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” as Macbeth described Life, “a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.”
I submit that this false dichotomy is just such “sound and fury,” that it signifies absolutely nothing, except the unfortunate tendency of the media to fasten on anything that smells of controversy. Those proffering the argument that there are two kinds of wines, and that we must choose, frankly are almost exclusively from the “trendy reds” side of the spectrum. You never hear people who like Harlan or Verité or Saxum say that lighter red wines, such as Domaine de la Cote or Frog’s Leap Cabernet, are undrinkable. No sane or fair wine writer would take that position; if she were to do so, her credibility would be instantly undermined.
And yet the opposite is not the case; that is, writers and somms who like a lighter style of red wine (whatever that means) are able to charge, with impunity, that bigger red wines (whatever that means) are somehow marred or tainted or suspect.
How did we ever arrive at this impasse? More importantly, why do we suffer it to exist, in the exchanges that pass for our national wine conversation, which is supposed to be polite and reasoned, not polemical? This is why I have referred to the purveyors of the “lighter” side of the argument as the Taliban. (See here and here, for instance.)
An extremist, whether religious or cultural or stylistic, who insists that his interpretation of scripture is the only correct one is, by definition, a radical. And haven’t we seen that radicals of all stripes are the last things we need in this world?
So I return again to my old argument: When it comes to “lighter” or “more powerful” red wines, we don’t have to choose. We don’t have to feel as though we must choose, just because some authority (a sommelier, a newspaper columnist) tells us we must. People are so uncertain and insecure about wine; they look for whatever slender reed they can find, to grasp onto lest they be sucked into the quicksand of utter confusion. And this is why those purveyors of false choices do such a disservice to American wine drinkers. By creating the pretense that there is a true canon, as opposed to a false religion, they add to the confusion and, in the process, sow dissention where there ought to be nothing but respectful analysis and personal choice. It’s not and never has been “either-or.” It’s both. I wish that this phony argument, which now has enjoyed more than its expected fifteen minutes of strutting on the stage, would, like Macbeth’s walking shadow, go away and be heard no more.
In California, we don’t get the extremes of weather that Europe does, but still, our vintages vary considerably from each other. You just have to know how to read the subtleties. Four years ago, 2011 was “the year summer never came,” and many of the wines have a lean, green streak, if not actual botrytis. Still, the best wineries successfully negotiated the challenge.
Yesterday we tasted a Ridge 2011 Monte Bello. It did indeed have a streak of mint and dried herbs, but it was clearly a wonderful wine, an ager, and the star of our Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet tasting. If I were rating it, it would score an easy 94-95 points, and earn a Cellar Selection designation. The Monte Bello terroir is fabulous (if you know Ridge’s history, have done verticals and visited the property, you already know that), but, perhaps more important has been the quality level of Ridge’s viticulture. I’ve never seen a crush at Ridge, but I imagine (and the evidence of the wine supports it) that they have perfectionist practices, including an active sorting table.
Unfortunately, in our tasting were some pretty flawed wines. I’m not in the reviewing business, so I won’t identify them. But a couple were severely afflicted with brettanomyces, so stinky it was like Steph Curry’s armpit that had not been washed for several days. (Eeew.) I attribute this to well-intentioned but impoverished winemakers who can’t afford to completely sanitize their wineries.
Others were okay wines, perfectly drinkable; someone noted of one of them that, were he served it at a restaurant, he would happily have drank it. But nothing special. It’s hard to explain to someone what the difference is between a superb wine, like the Ridge, and an okay wine whose grapes may have been grown right next door to it, but just doesn’t have the razzle-dazzle.
This Santa Cruz Mountains appellation is an interesting one. It’s one of the biggest in California, a whopping 408,000 acres, but contains only about 40 wineries, most of them very small. The reason, I think, is because suburbanization claimed most of the available vineyard sites, and the rest is too rugged and mountainous for cultivation. I always like to tell people about the old Woodside Vineyards La Questa Cabernets, originally planted in 1884; that wine was said to be the finest in all of California in the early 20th century, and the vineyard still exists in the little (and ultra-expensive) town of Woodside. Had that region developed an intensive wine industry, the way Napa Valley did, the Santa Cruz Mountains (or perhaps a Woodside A.V.A.) would be as famous today as Napa Valley. But things didn’t turn out that way. (The appellation also grows very fine Pinot Noir. The latter tends to be on west-facing vineyards on the cooler side of the mountains; the Cabs are on east-facing sites overlooking Silicon Valley and San Francisco Bay.)
Someone at the tasting brought up the subject of how Santa Cruz Mountains Cabs differ from Napa Valley’s. Well, the most obvious distinction is alcohol levels: they’re quite low in the former. (The Ridge was only 12.8%, and if I’m not mistaken, Ridge has never had a Monte Bello in excess of 14%.) This is in part due to Napa Valley’s warmer climate, but also because Santa Cruz Mountains winemakers have resisted the pressure to emulate Napa Valley.
When you make lower-alcohol Cabs, any faults in the wine are more apparent than they would be at, say, 14.5% or higher. Alcohol covers a multitude of sins. Brett shows up more clearly; so do greenness and tannins; and those wines can’t handle as much new oak as Napa’s. There were a couple wines in our tasting where the oak just stood out like a sore thumb. I honestly will never understand how some people think you can take a more delicate wine and make it get a higher score by drenching it with oak. I suppose some critics will fall for that, but not the better ones.
This 2015 vintage is looking good so far. It’s a drought vintage, but that’s not necessarily harmful to quality. Spring has been cool, until this heat wave that’s striking today; but the heat will be short-lived, and is less damaging at this point in the vines’ lives than it would be towards harvest. Everyone is raving about the 2013s. The 2014s seem fine too. With 2015, we might be in for a three-fer. But it’s too soon to tell. Right now, all that the growers are hoping for is rain next winter—a good, long, drenching El Nino. And that’s exactly what we might get.