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The history of wine reviewing

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Did my annual wine class last night for the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business’s Wine Club. It’s always so cool to go there, with the big banners celebrating their Nobel Prize winners, and those super-smart students who, one imagines, might be running the show someday.

One of the things they wanted to know about was the history of wine reviewing. Here’s what I told them.

Describing wine has a long and honorable history in humankind. People have always understood that wines differ greatly in quality and this seems to have been fascinating to even the earliest peoples we have record of. The Old Testament, Numbers 18:12 (1400 B.C.). refers to drinking “all the best of the wine.” From the New Testament, John 2:10: “every man serves the good wine first.” So these notions of “the best” wine and “the good” wine date to the earliest times.

The ancient Greeks divided wine into quality hierarchies. Socrates’ and Plato’s “symposia” were actually wine-drinking parties at which matters of intellectual interest were discussed. Aristotle praised the aroma of Limnio, a red wine still produced on the island of Lemnos. Later, in Rome, Pliny the Elder (first century A.D.) created one of the earliest rankings of wine, noting that the vineyard is the most important influence on the wine’s quality. In this he anticipates, by nearly 2,000 years, the French system of Grand Crus and Classified Growths, which also are based on vineyards. The greatest, or most famous, of the ancient Roman wines was Falernian, which was often mentioned by ancient writers: On the walls of Pompei, destroyed by Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D., is a price list [this must have been the equivalent of a Roman wine bar!]: For one denarius, you could buy an “as”–the house wine. For two, “the best.” For four, “Falernian.” Scholars think Falernian might have been a sweet white wine–rather like an ice wine. According to Pliny the Elder, in 60 B.C., Julius Caesar was served Falernian from the 121 B.C. vintage–the first vintage in recorded history that was celebrated for wine quality. However, as the physician Galen noted around 180 A.D., not all so-called “Falernian” wine could be genuine. There was simply too much being drunk and too little produced! Yes, even then, they had fake wines–a situation we’ve seen here in the states, with the recent Rudi Kurniawan scandal. Counterfeit wine also is notoriously frequent in China with Burgundy and Bordeaux.

Here in America, knowledge of wine all but disappeared due to 14 years of Prohibition. Following Repeal (1933), a plethora of wine books appeared to explain wine to Americans, and implicit in them all was this notion of a hierarchy of quality. It’s very easy for Americans to accept that some things are better than others: people understand that Cadillacs are better than Chevrolets. So they absorbed this notion of wine hierarchies, and it’s still hard to persuade them that a common, everyday wine can be better than a rare, expensive one, depending on the circumstances.

When the Baby Boomers—my generation–came of age with all their disposable income, the number of wineries was exploding exponentially. Consumers needed help deciding what to buy—and they wanted that help to be neutral and objective–so a new generation of “critics” arose in the 1970s. Newspapers in the major cities hired wine critics. Books and newsletters flourished. This was the genesis of where we find ourselves today. Two publications of note arose during the late 1970s: Wine Spectator magazine and Robert Parker’s newsletter, The Wine Advocate. My own former magazine, Wine Enthusiast, launched about ten years later.

With all of these came the advent and triumph of the American wine critic.


Networking in San Francisco’s wine and food scene

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I used to go to every P.R. event I was invited to—which was a lot—when I started out as a wine writer. With Wine Spectator cred, I was on all the A lists in San Francisco. When I moved over to Wine Enthusiast as chief California critic—a big step up in power—the invitations only increased.

It was really cool, I thought, to be welcomed at all those top restaurants and clubs, to be wined and dined on wine and food I wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford, to be treated with a certain respect and courtesy. But guess what? I soon tired of the scene, which, it seemed to me, was populated mostly by networkers looking to sell their products or services. I wasn’t networking; I already had the job I wanted.

For some years now, I’ve been pretty selective about what I go to. The invites still pour in, but I seldom feel the need to go: I’m happy snuggling up with Gus at night and reading a good book, watching something on the telly, or getting some work writing done on the computer. But last night was an exception. I’d gotten invited to a client meet-and-greet by Postcard Communications, an up-and-coming S.F. agency, whose offices are located in a cute little building on uber-cute Maiden Lane, two blocks east of Union Square. The firm represents restaurants, artisanal food producers and wineries.

I’m not entirely sure why I went; something prompted me to. So I took BART into the city (four stops) and was there promptly at six. It was the usual thing: grazing through tables of delicious foods and wines. Met some nice people; traded business cards; had some superficial chats. There are two or three individuals I plan to follow up with.

I stayed for about an hour, then—feeling like the old uncle in a group whose average age seemed to be about 24—I left. On the way home on BART four young men were break dancing for contributions. It was fun to watch and I wished I’d brought something less than a couple twenty dollar bills so I could give them a few bucks. (It felt weird asking for change. Should I have?)

And I thought: I don’t really need these networking events anymore, but they’re fun to go to occasionally, and moreover, they really are the bloodstream of the younger part of our wine and food culture. Everyone I met had already had three or four “careers” in their search for one that suited them. One guy had been a teacher, a techie and had worked in publishing, before ending up in the food business. These folks, at their tender age, are still figuring out where they want to be and what they want to do insofar as work is concerned. They’re happy to be living in San Francisco or the East Bay (although prices are killing them). For a veteran like me, it was refreshing to see such burgeoning passion and talent incubating in the Bay Area, which is such a remarkable fount of creativity, from the programmers of Silicon Valley to the musicians and chefs of Oakland. I sometimes think of it as a kaleidoscope of personalities, dreams, ambitions and skills, always shifting and transforming into beautiful patterns of symmetry and color. From it will emerge the successes of tomorrow.


Fountaingrove joins the AVA party

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Last July, I wrote that the Fountaingrove District AVA was probably coming.

Now, it’s here.

TTB first published the Notice of rulemaking only last June, which means the whole process took less than a year. That’s pretty good! Evidently there was no disputation, which is rare for a new appellation. Fountaingrove now becomes Sonoma County’s 17th AVA. Welcome!

At 38,000 acres, it’s mid-sized, a little bigger than Fort Ross-Seaview, a little smaller than Yorkville Highlands. The word “Fountaingrove” is an old one for this part of eastern Sonoma County. It was the name of a utopian commune founded near Santa Rosa in 1875; the winery of the same name quickly followed. (I mention the following historical footnote only because, well, I want to: Fountaingrove’s founder, and his commune, were said by the wine historian Leon Adams to indulge in “bizarre occult and sexual practices.”) Be that as it may, Fountaingrove had a good history: by 1942, our old friend, Mary Frost Mabon, was able to write, in her ABC of America’s Wine, that Fountaingrove was “a fascinating property with a romantic history [and that] tourists…find a very hospitable tasting-room.” She liked, in particular, the Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon, and especially a 1935 Pinot Noir she called “one of the top wines of California, and a true California Burgundy…”.

Fountaingrove’s boundaries run from just northeast of Santa Rosa almost to the Napa County line; it’s a hilly region that touches these other appellations: Chalk Hill, Diamond Mountain, Sonoma Valley, Calistoga and Russian River Valley. According to the TTB’s establishment ruling, the average growing season temperature is warmer than areas to the west but cooler than those to the east—as you’d expect. It is classified as a Region II on the old U.C. Davis scale. The soils are primarily Franciscan bedrock overlaid with volcanic residue, as they are throughout the Mayacamas. Elevations range from 400 feet to 2,200 feet.

I suspect, based on my past experiences, that the chief grape of Fountaingrove District is likely to emerge as Cabernet Sauvignon, which could be similar to Cabs from the higher stretches of Alexander Valley. There will be plenty of Chardonnay, too. We’ll see how Fountaingrove’s reputation evolves on Pinot Noir.

Interestingly, Fountaingrove became an AVA on the same day the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance announced they have officially submitted a petition for AVA status. I was interviewed yesterday on these topics by a reporter for the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, who asked me a number of questions, including why petitioners want their own AVAs. Two reasons, I answered: economics and pride. The smaller the appellation (in general), the more you can ask for the bottle. But also: Petitioners are proud of their terroir. They want consumers to know, with some precision, where the grapes come from—not just from someplace in a county, but a specific region in that county.

The reporter also asked me if I think Sonoma has too many AVAs. No, I said. France has, what? A gazillion. Rather than being confusing, I think AVAs are clarifying—but ONLY to the extent they’re well thought out. Sonoma didn’t used to be so good at thinking out their AVAs. But they’ve learned their lesson. They’re much more thorough in their research nowadays, much more sensible in defining boundaries, and also more collaborative, to avoid those unseemly internal battles that marked AVAs in the past, not only in Sonoma but just about everywhere. Finally, the reporter asked me if Sonoma is running out of new AVAs. Nope. They’ll sub-appellate Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast further, as they should.


Some non-wine books that influenced me

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Forbes’ Cathy Huyghe, who is turning into one of the most interesting wine writers I know of, wrote late last week about the best non-wine books for wine communicators to read. This is a novel approach; we established wine writers often advise younger ones to read classic wine writers like Harry Waugh, Hugh Johnson and Michael Broadbent, but Cathy is exactly right when she says you can be “a better wine writer [by] read[ing] widely and especially outside the category of wine.”

Cathy didn’t list her own reccos (I wish she had) but instead asked others whom she ran into at the Wine Writers Symposium for theirs. (You can read her article here.)

I’m going to offer my own list of non-wine books. I can’t say that they’ll be helpful to all wannabe wine writers, because these things are terribly personal. But I can say that these are books and writers who have been helpful to me, in terms of informing my style and approach.

There’s a sort of truism in Eastern religious philosophy that anyone you meet can be the Buddha, so you’d better pay attention to them all, in case they have something to teach you. I don’t know about the Buddha part, but it’s certainly true of writers. You never know when you’re going to read something that will stay with you for life! Sometimes it’s by someone super-famous; sometimes, it’s someone you’ve never heard of. It’s a mysterious process of osmosis, by which the writer’s style just sort of eases its way into your head. It’s not about copying or plagiarizing or trying to write like someone else; it’s just that something about the writer impacts you in such a profound way that you find yourself “borrowing” some aspect of that writer’s manner or tone. So here are some writers whose works have informed my own writing in important ways.

Winston Churchill. I’ve read pretty much everything he ever wrote, in many cases several times. Churchill had impeccable grammar and sentence and paragraph structure. His sentences were incredibly complex: long and winding, yet as intricately organized as a symphony score. He knew how to tell a story that keeps you on the edge of your seat, in a stately way. He wrote about massively important historical things, yet told them from a personal point of view that makes you feel you were right there beside him. He also was a strong personality who didn’t try to keep his feelings out of his writing, despite a thorough grounding in journalism. Churchill was, in fact, an emotional man, a fact that most people don’t realize. In his epic “The Second World War,” you can feel his emotions—joy, sadness, excitement, anger, disappointment, humor, even a needling sarcasm. He is a joy to read.

Gore Vidal. I put him on my list because, in addition to being a very good, proper writer, he was wickedly funny. I don’t think the word “snarky” existed in his time, but he was witty and stylish, and was able to make history come alive by inhabiting the inner lives of his characters. And he never wrote anything of inconsequence; whatever he wrote brimmed with importance and his own penetrating intelligence.

Celebrity memoirs. I know, I know; it’s undignified to admit I read ‘em and like ‘em. But I do! Some of my favorites have been Nancy Reagan’s “My Turn,” Lauren Bacall’s “By Myself and Then Some,” Jacques Pepin’s “The Apprentice,” J. Paul Getty’s “As I See It,” the Duke of Windsor’s “A King’s Story,” Keith Richards’ “Life,” and Katharine Graham’s “Personal History.” These were all wealthy, powerful people, and I like reading candid books where they reveal personal things about themselves (some of which are not flattering) that show the real human being behind the façade.

I always have a “latest book I loved” whose style definitely impacts my short-term writing and may go on to influence it long-term. I recently finished “The Savage City,” by T.J. English, a book I didn’t think I’d like but did, very much. It’s a documentary of life, crime and racial politics in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s, a period I’m very familiar with. In fact, much of the action takes place in my boyhood neighborhood of the South Bronx. English obviously did a ton of research, paces himself beautifully, and knows how to tell a solid story with dramatic flair. He also writes with masculine power—not afraid to drop an F-bomb here and there, especially when he’s paraphrasing how people really talk. I like that muscular approach.

There is so much more to making a career as a wine writer than just reviewing all the free samples wineries will drop on you.


Aging Cabernet Sauvignon

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When I was a wine critic, I used to say that nobody really knows how these opulent Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons will age, because the world had never seen wines quite like them (in ripeness, in fruity phenolic richness, in tannic quality, in alcohol level, in softness), and so there was no evidence upon which to base any conclusions.

Granted, I played the prediction game—when you’re a wine critic, you have to, especially with Cabernet Sauvignon. But I was never terribly comfortable saying that such-and-such a wine would be better fifteen or twenty years down the road, and so, by the early 2000s, I began shortening my window of ageability. Instead of advising (as some other critics did) to hold that Cab until 2027 or some equally far-off date in the future, I became considerably more guarded; my window tightened to maybe eight years or a little bit longer. This wasn’t just because of some intellectual hedging of bets; it was also because of my own experiences in pulling older Cabs from my cellar and finding that they hadn’t age well.

So it was pleasing to read the comment of Michael Weis, Groth’s winemaker since 1994, that “We don’t know how these wines will age.” That’s a frank statement and Weis is to be commended. It was in an article by Laurie Daniel, of the San Jose Mercury News, whose experiences apparently match mine, for she wrote: “I’ve found that some of the riper Napa Cabs from other producers start to fade after just a few years.”

We’ll never conclusively resolve this question of “To age or not to age,” but a little objectivity is helpful. The concept of aging wine, especially in Bordeaux, arose because until fairly recently viticulture and enology were simply not advanced enough to tame the tannins that Cabernet Sauvignon (and other red Bordeaux variety) grapes can imbue in the wines. Through time and experimentation, people discovered that aging the wines in a proper cellar—cool, damp and dark—allowed the tannins to precipitate out, as sediment, which is why the modern wine bottle evolved to include the “punt” at the bottom.

Well, aging Bordeaux or Cabernet Sauvignon became an idée fixe in the minds, first, of tastemakers (merchants, writers, collectors) and from them it migrated into the minds of the average consumer. I’ve always thought it remarkable and odd how many strange conceptions the average wine drinker has about aging wine. No more than one or two percent of the world’s wines ever “need” aging to begin with (whatever “need” means), but I’d wager that most people think that any wine will improve if you age it.

With these big, lush and luscious Cabernets that California is now making, we really have to abandon the pretense that Cab needs age. But wait, there’s more! I’ll go one step further and say we have to abandon the notion that, if a Cab isn’t ageable, it somehow occupies a lower rung on the ladder of nobility. This is a mistake commonly arrived at by a kind of intellectual default: One starts the thinking process with old-fashioned ideas about ageability that are no longer relevant to our times. Then one holds onto those ideas despite the fact that they don’t conform to reality—and winds up blaming the wine for not being ageable in line with one’s conceptions, instead of blaming himself for applying anachronistic thinking to our modern times.

Anyway, welcome to my brain: This is the kind of stuff I think about. Have a great weekend!


Thursday throwaway: Restaurant tipping, and Alexander Valley Cab

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When the restaurant reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle—arguably the most important reviewer in California, and one of the most important in the whole country—comes out and says it’s time to end the practice of tipping, people should listen.

That’s exactly what Michael Bauer did yesterday.

“Increasingly, it’s becoming apparent that it’s time for tips to make a graceful exit.” For the reasons why he’s taking this radical position, Michael cites the fact that it’s happening anyway—Bar Agricole, Trou Normand and Camino, among others, have already done away with tipping. He notes also that this “new tipping paradigm” is “civilized”–no more calculating percentages, no more discomfort or uncertainty—and is “the wave of the future.” Adding an overall service charge, instead of tipping, also ensures that back-of-the-house staff is paid more equitably (at least, one would hope so!).

I’m in favor. I’ve never been comfortable with the concept of tipping, so I won’t miss it. I have two huge problems with tipping: (1) it’s not fair to the kitchen staff, and (2) it implies that servers aren’t professional, which certainly isn’t the case, particularly in a good restaurant. I mean, you don’t tip your doctor or car mechanic; why do we have to tip our servers?

Nor have I ever particularly subscribed to the notion that tipping is good because you can tip higher for great service and lower (or not at all) for lousy service. The truth is, 99% of all restaurant service seems pretty good to me. Maybe it’s because I live in the very professional, restaurant-conscious Bay Area. Maybe it’s because I’m not a fussy, demanding diner; I don’t expect everything to be perfect. In fact, on occasion when I’ve dined at  restaurants like French Laundry or the old 231 Ellsworth in San Mateo, I’ve sometimes been uncomfortable with the service because it’s so self-consciously perfect that it makes me self-conscious! (Thanks, but I can put my own napkin in my lap!) So I rarely have cause to complain about restaurant service, except when I feel like I’ve been forgotten about, and that usually happens in an inexpensive restaurant where I’m there, not for cuisine, but for sustenance.

So let’s see how this “end-of-tipping” thing goes. California is where most trends happen: maybe this will sweep the country.

* * *

I’m interested in what my readers think of Alexander Valley. Here are a couple of my thoughts:

  1. Great Zinfandel, much of it from older vines.
  2. Surprisingly good Chardonnay given the valley’s warm climate. Those old Chateau St. Jean Chards, made by the great winemaker Richard Arrowood from vineyards like Belle Terre, rocked.
  3. Very fine Cabernet Sauvignon. Along these lines, I make a distinction (which may not be as important as it used to be, due to precision farming) between the higher, western slopes of the Mayacamas and the flatlands. Still, Alexander Valley is one mountain range closer to the Pacific than Napa Valley, which makes it cooler. The Cabs as a result are somewhat earthier or more herbaceous, with pleasing tobacco-green olive-sage notes: you can actually taste those things because the Cabs aren’t as fruit-driven as they are in Napa Valley. I think, also, that Alexander Valley Cabs aren’t as high in alcohol as Napa’s, and that they’re more capable of aging. I’m always surprised they’re not more popular with somms.

Care to offer your thoughts, esteemed readers?


Napa’s traffic crisis: Alternate touring days?

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You know that old saying about how you can’t put the toothpaste back into the tube? That was my feeling when I read this article, from Monday’s Napa Register, on a debate taking place in Napa Valley. And, no, it’s not about wine.

The topic is nothing new: Growth versus preservation. In its latest incarnation, it shape-shifts into whether Napa should be (in the words of a county official) “a resort area [or] an agricultural area.” California, with our natural beauty, always is a hotbed of such debates, and Napa Valley, for many reasons, is no exception. This conversation has been going on for as long as I’ve been aware of the valley.

In particular this brouhaha over the number of tasting rooms and wineries hosting “events” like weddings has also been around for a long time. It’s only natural that some valley residents would be upset over the traffic (truly, truly awful on Highway 29) and the feeling that their pastoral little slice of heaven is turning into a tourist-drawing WineryLand theme park.

So is it time to take drastic action, like limiting the number of tasting rooms, or wineries, or vineyards, or resorts and hotels? This is the problem of the toothpaste. Napa can’t go backwards to the bucolic 1960s or 1970s. And there are limits to how much it can do to prevent the invasion of the tourists, which now seems to occur year-round, not just in the summer, as the climate dries and warms.

It’s interesting to read the comments to the Register article. Typical of the slow-growthers is this one from a reader who’s had it up to here: “Anyone catch the traffic on 29 today? Basically heading south it was backed up from the light in yountville all the way to the CIA. It was almost just as bad heading North. It was still backed up at 6:45 at night, about 35 minutes to get from st Helena to yountville. That should be a 7 minute drive.” And this from someone else: “Experiencing the growth in the last fifteen years, one could argue that the tipping point has already been reached. Does one honestly wish to make the traffic even more intolerable?”

It’s not clear what the solution is, but we should be looking at this from a wider perspective, namely: Napa Valley isn’t the only place in California where traffic is an enormous, and growing, problem. It’s a problem throughout the state, from our local city and suburban streets to the freeways and bridges that form California’s nervous system, from the Pacific Coast Highway to the byways of the Sierra Nevada and all chokepoints inbetween. Californians have always complained about traffic in our state’s notorious car culture, but things are worse than they’ve ever been, and if you’re wasting hours of your life everyday sitting idle, you’re understandably frustrated. And what I can’t for the life of me understand is why our government isn’t taking the problem more seriously. This isn’t something that local government can tackle. It’s a gigantic elbow to the throat of California’s economy (not to mention drivers’ peace of mind) and only government has the means to address it.

Maybe, in Napa’s case, the answer is to limit the number of tourists (especially on weekends) in some way that’s legal and fair. Of course, the state would have to be involved, too, and possibly the Feds. Back in the 1970s, when we had the nation’s first gas shortage, you could only fill your tank on certain days, depending on the number on your license plate. I don’t recall there being any riots; people understood that there was a crisis and we all had to be a part of the solution.

Could something like that work in Napa’s case? There are really just two main ways in, from the south and north, Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. Maybe they could build checkpoints with automated cameras, like the ones they use for FasTrak. Get the word out, through media and signage, that Saturdays are for “x” drivers and Sunday’s are for “y” drivers, and then levy a hefty fine on anyone who’s caught cheating (just the way FasTrak works). Of course, you’d have to figure out some way to screen out locals so they didn’t get caught in the net. This would inconvenience many tourists, granted; but once they got the hang of it, they’d get used to it, and they’d probably eventually welcome the more open roads.

I know it’s a crazy idea, but maybe it could work. And if things get bad enough (and they’re heading in that direction) it may be the only way.


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