In these dog days of summer, with dangerous wildfires burning up and down the coast, and the country in a state of political hallucination, I retreat into the pleasanter realms of wine history, where everything is neat, tidy and comprehensible.
Well, almost. Dan Berger’s recent column on Santa Barbara wine history ignores one of the Founding Fathers of modern-day viticulture and winemaking in that county, H.W. “Bill” Collins, whose Tepusquet Creek vineyard was planted as far back as 1964, according to the historian Leon Adams, in his signature 1973 book, The Wines of America. It was Collins, Adams tells us, who planted 100 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Johannisberg Riesling, Sylvaner and Chardonnay “on virgin land in a sparsely populated area where nobody had ever tried to grow grapes before.”
That area was, of course, the Santa Maria Valley, and specifically a high bench of the San Rafael Mountains above the winding Sisquoc River, 20 miles inland from the sea. Those first grapes, Adams reports, were bought by the old Mont La Salle winery, belonging to Christian Brothers, in Napa Valley; the winemaker who bought them was then-Brother Justin Meyer, who famously went on to found Silver Oak. Meyer, says Adams, “said the wines were of superior quality.”
One wonders what the Cabernet tasted like. Back then, more than fifty years ago, growers had little idea which varieties to plant in which locales. The notions of site-specificity, terroir and even of climate regions were little developed. In their place, the Marketplace ruled; growers planted what they thought would sell, and they planted it anywhere they could. Today, of course, practically nobody would think to plant Cabernet Sauvignon in the Santa Maria Valley, where the average summer temperature is barely in the mid-70s; Cabernet doesn’t get ripe there (which is why Santa Barbara vintners developed the more inland Happy Canyon region). As for Sylvaner, I don’t know if it would ripen in the Santa Maria Valley, but who cares? Nobody would buy it anyway; maybe a somm here and there. Instead, the valley has become a hotbed (pardon the pun) of Pinot Noir, but fifty years ago, only a clairvoyant could have known that Pinot would become a superstar.
History is a very important thing to “get right” but it’s all too easy to get it wrong, or at least to omit the details, like that of Collins planting his vineyard well before the other vintners Berger mentions (Mosby, Zaca Mesa, Firestone, Fess Parker) planted theirs. Having said this, as one who’s done a lot of historical wine reporting over the years, I’m the first to testify how hard it can be to pin down the facts. My own employer, Jackson Family Wines, who owns the Tepusquet Vineyard, on their own website states that the vineyard “was planted between 1970 and 1971.” But whether or not the Tepusquet Vineyard was or is the same thing as the Tepusquet Creek vineyard of which Adams wrote, I have no idea. A tantalizing hint is contained in this reporting from The Prince of Pinot, who states that a certain “Bill Collins” was—not the owner, but the vineyard manager of that original vineyard, which was owned by Uriel Nielson and Bill De Mattei. (The Prince of Pinot article agrees that the planting dates to 1964.) And Uriel Nielson, we know, planted his eponymous vineyard, now owned by Byron (also a Jackson property) in 1964. Coincidence? Was Nielson’s Tepusquet Creek vineyard that which today is known as Nielson?
All this at any rate suggests how slippery history can be, an alarming thought when we consider Santayana’s prescient warning (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”) and also how certain politicians in this country try to take cynical advantage of certain people’s ignorance in order to launch themselves into power. An ignorant fool is always more susceptible to the snake oil of a charlatan than an educated man or woman, who cannot be persuaded by some charlatan’s blatant lies on Twitter. An ignorance of wine history, fortunately, is not nearly so dangerous to the republic as ignorance of political and cultural history. But still, ignorance, in any field, never is a good thing. One might object—it certainly is feasible—that it hardly matters who planted what, when; what counts is how the wines are today. That is certainly true. But anyone who enjoys a good glass of wine, from a property with significant history behind it, will find her enjoyment of that wine immeasurably enhanced by a proper understanding of that history.
Gus and I headed up to the Alexander Valley yesterday for a tasting. It was chilly and foggy in Oakland when we left early, and the ride could have been worse: only 1-3/4 hours. We drove up the 101 to Alexander Valley Road, turned east through some awfully pretty wine country, and then—before reaching the winery—stopped by the old Jimtown Store
for a late breakfast and bracing cappuccino. The temperature in the valley already was in the 80s, under a cloudless, azure sky. While I was eating Gus checked out the flowers.
Our destination was right around the corner:
Stonestreet Wines, owned by my employer, Jackson Family Wines. From the winery itself
you can look further east, to the west wall of the great Mayacamas Mountain Range, and see the mountain
Jess bought years ago, for which we’re currently trying to establish an A.V.A., since it makes no sense to say that mountain wines come from a valley appellation. The family long has called it Alexander Mountain Estate, and it was the Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays off this sprawling, beautiful property I had come to taste.
The thing to understand is that this very large estate is broken into a series of smaller vineyards, with extensive wildland corridors inbetween through which wildlife–bears, cougars, deer–can pass on their millennial expeditions. Each smaller vineyard was planted to particular varieties depending on soil analysis, elevation and exposure. (They have this wonderful schematic model in the tasting room that explains everything, but if you can ever arrange a tour of the mountain, I highly recommend it.)
The first flight was white; the second, red. All the wines are Stonestreet. Here are my abbreviated notes. There was no need to taste blind.
2013 Broken Road. Rich golden color. Complex aromas of wet stone, tropical fruit, white peach, crème brulée, baking spices. Rich and delicious, with bracing acidity and a creamy texture. Score: 95.
2013 Upper Barn Vineyard. Rich golden color. Similar to Broken Road, but more saline and minerals. Ripe white peaches, tropical fruits, buttered toast, crème brulée, vanilla bean. Insanely rich, with bracing acidity. Notable for its superior structure. Score: 96. This is the white wine I brought home with me.
2013 Gravel Bench Vineyard. Rich golden color. The oak is more apparent (it’s the only Chard aged in 100% new French oak). A big, exuberant wine, with tropical fruit, nectarine and white peach fruit. On airing the oak got more integrated. Score: 92.
2013 Gold Run Vineyard. Rich golden color. Nice, firm flintiness, but the fruit and oak star. Tiers of golden mango, crème brulée, lemon meringue, vanilla bean, honey custard. Excellent acidity. A real star. Score: 95.
2013 Bear Point Vineyard. Good golden color. Nose a bit shy, suggesting lemon verbena, honey, golden mango, white peach, vanilla bean, buttered toast. Really rich and wonderful, in a way my favorite for its exquisite tension of parts. Score: 97.
2013 Cougar Ridge Vineyard. Good golden color. A tangy green apple note brings a bite to the mango, grilled pineapple and crème brulée richness. Lots of oak in the mouth: vanilla bean, buttered toast, smoke. Soft, creamy and opulent. Score: 94.
2012 Bear Point Vineyard. Pitch black color at the center, garnet at the rim. Very young and closed now. Jammy plums, tar, coffee and smoke. Thick tannins, bracing acidity. Dense and concentrated. Needs plenty of time. After 2020. Score: 94.
2010 Rockfall. Similar color to Bear Point. At six years, still closed, mute, resistant at first. On airing, hints of dark chocolate, olive tapenade, plums, black currants. Very tannic. Great structure, lots going on down underneath the astringency: creosote, blackberry jam, black licorice, cedar, toast, mushu plum sauce. Reminds me of Lynch-Bages. Needs time. After 2020. Score: 95.
2012 Rockfall. Midnight black without a moon, turning purple at the rim: young, young, young. Hints of blackberry jam, sweet oak, cocoa, rum, plums. Great primary fruit sweetness, plump, fat, rich, but very tannic. Good acidity, elegant structure, great weight and balance, with a very long, spicy finish. Superior if possible to the 2010. Needs time. After 2020. Score: 96.
2011 Christopher’s. The highest point on the mountain, at over 2,400 feet. The blackest color of all, impenetrable. Tight, closed; airing shows blackberry jam, clove, mint (eucalyptus), dust, smoke. Extremely complex but very tannic. Massive core of ripe summer blackberries and cassis; creosote, minerals. Needs lots of time. Drink after 2020. Score: 96. This is the bottle I brought home with me.
2012 Legacy. Another dark black wine with glints of ruby and garnet at the rim. The 30% Merlot in the blend is immediately apparent, giving a floral-violet scent to Cabernet’s blackberries and plums. In the mouth, complex, smooth, more forward than the other Cabs, but still very tannic, with blackberry, cherry, shaved chocolate, anise and baking spice flavors. You could drink it now but it will age for decades. Score: 94.
I picked up an older issue of Bon Appetit in which the “Starters” column (a sort of “Ask Bon Appetit anything you want” feature) has the following question from a reader: Dear BA, I often hear chefs on cooking shows…talking about a person’s palate…What exactly does that mean, and can I train my own palate?
The use of the verb “train” is strange here. I’m reminded of what I had to do when Gus first came to live with me. There was a lot of dog training involved: he was pretty well housebroken, but not entirely, and he had to learn—and respect—my voice commands, including “no,” “stop,” “sit,” “stay” and “come.” This training involved me—the dad—imposing my will upon Gus, the child/dog. It was a process of issue command—wait for result—impose result if necessary—repeat—and repeat—until the result was an obedient dog, which Gus is.
Does one “train” a chef’s or wine lover’s palate in the same way? (“Sit, palate. Give me your paw, palate.”) Bon Appetit’s answer person, Andrew Knowlton, defined a “great palate” for chefs in two ways: a more fundamental level in which a talented chef can identify the flaws in a dish and know instinctively how to correct them: perhaps by adding a pinch of salt or squeeze of lemon.
On a higher level, Andrew defined a great palate by the degree of “taste memory” the taster possesses. According to this approach, the only way to acquire an extensive taste memory is to taste a ton of food (and, for our purposes, wine) over a long time. That way, when you judge a food (or a wine) you compare it to the greatest similar food or wine you’ve ever had. This presumes, of course, that you remember that greatest food or wine, which is why it’s a function of memory.
Well, most of you reading my blog probably have tasted a lot of wine in your time, and you no doubt possess an extensive taste memory (kind of like having a lot of books in your library). Still, I’ll bet you wonder if you have a truly “great palate,” or just an ordinary one. Am I right? Sure I am. I think most of us doubt our palates from time to time, even though we might never care to admit it. I do admit it, and I did throughout my long career as a wine critic. I always did the best I could, honestly and diligently, but I knew that there were palates more acute than mine. There’s always a palate more acute than yours, just as there’s always someone better than you at (name it: basketball, math, making an omelet, dancing, sodoku).
There’s a meme in this business that the best palates belong to those professionals who have undergone some sort of formal training: sommeliers and Masters of Wine. Winemakers, too, are often known as great tasters. I’ve known quite a few great palates in my time. One was (and still is) the longtime winemaker at Jordan, Rob Davis, whom I once saw correctly identify, blind, twelve Cabernet Sauvignons concerning their origin, Napa Valley or Alexander Valley. That’s pretty good.
I once knew quite well a person who was studying for his MW. He’d been at it for years, and was therefore completely saturated in that hard-nosed, analytical approach. When he tasted a wine, blind, he’d go into a sort of mesmerized concentration: eyes scrunched shut, brow wrinkled in thoughtful meditation. Swirling and chewing the wine, he’d begin his written analysis, slowly and methodically working through all the wine’s parameters—flavors, acidity, complexity and so on—until he felt he had a good handle on it. (Sadly, this person never did get his MW, and he eventually dropped out of the program.) Of course, the ultimate expression of this approach—the Gold Medal at the Tasting Olympics, as it were—would be to taste a wine double blind and announce that it is, say, a young Spanish Verdejo. Not Sauvignon Blanc, not Albariño, not Gruner Veltliner. This is the taster’s wet dream: to nail it in public. Polite applause (and perhaps envy) from the crowd—the taster’s reputation is enhanced—the story will go around the wine world via social media in no time.
Yes, that is one definition of a “great palate.” But you have to ask yourself, what’s the point of it all? You take years and years, do all that studying, all the hard work that goes into it, and for what?—so that you can nail Verdejo at a blind tasting? I’ve always said that the kind of tasting skills one develops depends on one’s job. Wine critics, of the kind I was and most of the well-known print critics are, do not need that particular skill. In fact, it may be detrimental to them doing their jobs well. Aspiring MWs and MSs do need it, for one reason only: to pass their respective examinations, so that they can get their credentials. Afterwards, such freakish analytical skills become less and less necessary, as the graduates find themselves careers in which other skills—business, teamworking, networking, accounting, organizing, writing, teaching, food pairing—take center stage. In fact, from the point of view of a consumer (which we all are), what skills do we want to see in the person who’s making buying recommendations to us? Personally, I couldn’t care less if my somm or critic can nail Verdejo blind. But I do want her to know her wines, tell me stories, answer my questions, impartially help me make my decision, and maybe even be able to have a good conversation about something besides wine.
How much money is too much money for a multi-course dinner at one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s top restaurants?
That’s what the San Francisco Chronicle’s longtime restaurant critic, Michael Bauer, asked this past Sunday in this article, in which he takes to task Bay Area restaurants that raise their prices to astronomical levels but all too often fail to deliver for the money.
What kinds of prices are we talking about? $398 at Saison…$310 at French Laundry…$298 at Atelier Crenn…$220 at Quince…$500 at Meadowood…throw in some good wine and the amount soars even higher. I mean, not that long ago those prices would feed four people, not just one.
In the article, Bauer traces the evolution of this price inflation and blames it on the confluence of three things: “food-obsessed tourists” coming to the region, who are already psychologically primed to spend a lot of money on a meal; “the sophistication of the Bay Area dining public,” which includes me and, I assume, those of you lucky enough to live here; and—bottom line–“enough disposable income to indulge.” The latter apparently is no problem here in San Francisco, which sometimes seem like it’s swimming in money the way Uncle Scrooge used to in the comics.
How much you choose to spend for dinner is up to you, of course. But I agree with Michael Bauer when he says, “[N]o matter the price tag, there has to be a sense of value. High prices are not a given; they have to be earned.” I’m sure you agree, too; the problem is that these places would not be able to get away with these exorbitant prices if people weren’t prepared to pay them. I’ve had my share of these dinners (Saison, French Laundry, Meadowood and others, including beyond the Bay Area), and was fortunate in that somebody else was usually picking up the tab. But everytime I have one of these meals, I think, “For this price, I could eat at any of my favorite restaurants in Oakland ten times.” This is true, I’m sure, for everybody else, so why do people continue to queue up for seats at these palaces of gastronomy?
For the same reason they line up for the most expensive wines. There are psychological phenomena at work, ranging from not wanting to miss out on something special, to bragging rights and an authentic curiosity about what food at that price tastes like, how it’s served, and the ambience in the restaurant. We foodistas are understandably passionate about great meals. It goes with the territory if you’re a wino. Still, the psychological part fascinates me. I sometimes feel like an anthropologist who’s parachuted into the Bay Area to observe the social habits, including dining, of the natives. Like Margaret Mead when she observed Samoan culture in the 1920s, I want to understand the behaviors of a very particular group: well-educated, primarily white, middle-aged gourmands who are able to afford to eat in the top restaurants of Napa Valley, San Francisco and the Bay Area in general.
This group radiates confidence and refined sensibilities, but at heart they also suffer from a sense of insecurity. Although they possess many things in the form of material comforts, they feel like something is missing from their lives. What it is, cannot be accurately defined; if it could, they would possess that, too. Perhaps the thing they feel is missing cannot be possessed, but one never knows until one has tried. And so the search goes on, for a greater wine, a greater vacation destination, a greater restaurant experience. As Buddhism points out, “desire” is the attempt to fill a spiritual hole that cannot be filled; the pursuit of things to fulfill desire will always be fruitless; the rarest commodity in the world will not really fulfill desire because change—irresistible, inevitable—soon will have us feeling dissatisfied again. And so back at it we go, seeking an ever greater food, wine, exotic locale.
Well, I don’t mean to be the snake at the garden party. I like good food and wine as much as you do. And I don’t care what somebody spends at Quince, or what they don’t spend; it’s no skin off my nose. I do hope that people who drop these big bucks at restaurants are also using their money in more charitable ways, to help others; and I think there’s something to be said about frugality as an attitude towards life. We don’t see much frugality in the Bay Area; we see a lot of its opposite, profligacy. That means “the careless and foolish wasting of money.” Again, of course, it’s not my place to tell you or anybody else what to do with your money. I can only speak for myself.
Somm Journal executive editor David Gadd asks the pertinent question of what to do when you let a sommelier hand-sell you a glass of older wine, and when you taste it, it’s over the hill.
I say the question is pertinent, because we see this happening with greater frequency nowadays, what with these older vintages, especially of more obscure wines and regions, being readily available at affordable prices, and somms being notoriously into “cool”, offbeat wines that can be downright strange to more traditional tastes. The general public, which includes many professionals in the wine industry, still is mesmerized by older wines; even though many of us understand that the life-curve of most wines is short, and that, from the moment they are bottled they begin to die, the possibility of finding some transmogrified old treasure still haunts us, and is probably responsible for more money being spent on moribund wine than is generally acknowledged.
Such at any rate was evidently the case with David Gadd, who spent $25 each on two “fossils” that were “heavily oxidized” and finished “flat [and] funereal.”
That does not sound like a pleasant gastronomic experience!
I had a very similar time once in one of Carmel’s top restaurants, when I was persuaded by a somm (complete with silver tastevin around his neck) to invest in a 12-year old Spanish Albariño he guaranteed would be fantastic with my scallops sautéed in butter. The wine was completely dead and tasted frankly awful.
The reason these anecdotes, mine and David’s, matter is not because of their particulars, but because they raise questions of current interest. Today’s diner of fine food and wines is confronted with a looming question: whether to stick with what he or she knows and likes, which is usually Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon or one of the other major varieties, in a fresh and relatively young wine; or to go the route of adventure, which usually means an obscure variety, from a lesser-known country or region, and moreover, may—depending on the restaurant and sommelier—have acquired some bottle age, although it may still not cost much more than a younger bottling. One might be tempted to go the second route, in which case there are two possible ways of preventing catastrophe: asking for a free tasting sample of the wine before officially ordering it, or reaching an understanding with the server that, should you not care for the wine, you will have an unconditional money-back guarantee. Both of these are more or less standard practices in good restaurants, but both come with a certain level of risk: you, the diner, are out on the town for fun, and you don’t suddenly want to find yourself plunged into drama with a sommelier or server, particularly when the playlet is likely to be overheard by strangers at neighboring tables (not to mention potentially stressing your dining companions). The first alternative, asking for a free tasting sample, is less fraught with danger, but also less likely: a restaurant is not likely to offer a tasting sample of older wines (although the advent of the Coravin is making that more likely).
The diner, then, finds himself on the horns of a dilemma. We don’t want to be conservative and stuffy and trod only the well-worn paths of least resistance. We want to be open to surprise and delight, ends that cannot be achieved unless we’re willing to take risks. But the dining room floor is often not the best place to take those risks. As a former critic, I have come to the conclusion that older wines are generally more apt to disappoint than to please, which is why, except under strict circumstances, I wouldn’t take the chance, but would stick to young and fresh. There are exceptions, of course: if there’s a wine and winery you’re familiar with, and know has a good track record for aging, then go for it. (For example, I wouldn’t have any problem ordering a 12-year old Corison Kronos.) But old dry Loire whites, which is what caught David Gadd off-guard? Nope.
One hardly knows where to begin to grieve for France. The birthplace of fine wine – still the inspiration – our hearts go out to the people of France and particularly of Nice. For myself, I plan to show my support by drinking wine all weekend.
It hasn’t come to my local Whole Foods yet, but it looks like it’s on the way: “Sip ‘n Shop.” According to yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, that’s where “Some high-end supermarkets are turning into neighborhood watering holes. Many have set aside space for wine bars…Some stores encourage shoppers to ‘sip ‘n shop,’ drinking while pushing a shopping cart for a more relaxed shopping experience.”
I had mixed reactions when I read the article. On the one hand it’s really cool and very European to be able to have a nice glass of wine while you’re shopping. On the other hand it’s clear why some of these high-end supermarkets are doing it: a “more relaxed” shopper is a shopper who will be more relaxed about spending more money. I think it’s also a little concerning that if this tendency spreads, we’ll have more cars on the road driven by people who are a little tipsy.
Still, on balance, how civilized it is, being able to shop leisurely while sipping something. When you think about it, we’ve historically compartmentalized the different culinary parts of ourselves: we eat food and drink wine at restaurants and bars, while we buy food and wine at retail outlets. Who says you can’t blur the lines and combine the two?
* * *
Had lunch yesterday with an old friend who’s sort of a representative for small wineries. He hooks them up with distributors, who then resell to their on- and off-premise clients. My friend was telling me about one Napa Valley winery he represents that makes quite a good mountain-grown Cabernet that retails for $80. As soon as he began telling me this, I thought, “Uh oh.” That’s because there’s about a gazillion Napa Valley Cabs in that price range that are quite good, meaning that if I were scoring them, I’d give them at least 90 points.
It is as easy as falling off a log to make a 90-point Napa Cabernet Sauvignon these days, which is why there are so many of them. And that’s the problem: the market for these types of wines is limited, and yet supply is constantly expanding, as more and more people with a little money come in and buy themselves a lifestyle.
My friend was telling me he’s trying to think up innovative ways to interest buyers in this Cab, but honestly, it’s like Sisyphus pushing that rock uphill. There are a lot of cookie-cutter Napa Cabs out there, and the fact that none of these newer ones has a particularly interesting story doesn’t make selling them any easier. I mean, what is the tableside conversation between a somm and the customer? “This winery is owned by a [fill-in-the blank, Silicon Valley venture capitalist, mortgage king, neurosurgeon, engineer, Hollywood mogul, professional athlete]. It was made by [fill-in-the-blank, famous consulting winemaker],” blah blah blah, Tweedledum and Tweedledee. When I used to taste these wines for Wine Enthusiast, pretty much on an everyday basis, I was able to appreciate them for their beauty and richness, the sheer sense of drama they convey. They can be gorgeous. But after a while there were so many of them that I started wondering, “Where the heck do all these people sell all these wines?” I figured that a lot of the owners were so rich, they didn’t care if they sold anything, because they could afford to keep the winery going for years, and besides, it gave them immense bragging rights to their friends to be able to say that they got 91 points from Enthusiast, or 90 points from Spectator, or 92 points from Advocate, or 93 points from Galloni, whatever. So, like I said, as soon as my friend gave me the bare outlines of his Napa client, I smelled trouble. In so many respects, Napa Valley has become a vanity playground for outsiders who want to be able to own a Cabernet winery. They all claim to be unique but they’re not, not by a long shot. I don’t envy my friend his job. And, hey, I’m not talking about the really truly unique Napa Cabs that are out there, the 95-pointers and above. Maybe this just indicates that Napa has reached a certain level of maturity, like Bordeaux. Yet I still wonder who’s buying all these Cabs, $80 and above, into the triple digits.