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Here comes Lamorinda

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When I first moved to the Bay Area, I was astonished at how radically the weather can change within the smallest areas. I was living in the North Bay–Solano County–and I remember driving for the first time through the Caldecott Tunnel, which runs from Orinda, in Contra Costa County, beneath the East Bay Hills for a mile or so, emerging through its west portal in Oakland.

It was summertime. The temperature in Orinda must have been in the high 80s or low 90s. I had the car window open. As soon as I came into the Oakland daylight I felt the cold air. Maybe the temperature was in the low 60s. We’d lost up to 30 degrees from one end of the tunnel to the other.

The East Bay Hills are, of course, part of the California Coast Ranges that cut off maritime air from the cold Pacific, so that areas east of them grow progressively warmer. Orinda is dependably warm to hot in the summer, but nowhere near as hot as the Sacramentio Delta and the Central Valley, which are much further inland.

For example, the Delta city of Brentwood accumulated 3,470 degree days in 2011. That’s pretty toasty, even for that cool year; Brentwood is in eastern Contra Costa County, an area known for old-vine Zinfandel, where the wines are high in alcohol. Compare that to Oakville, in Napa Valley, where the average annual degree days are 2,798.

In Oakland proper, the warmest part of the city tends to be the easternmost, where the flatlands begin to rise into the East Bay Hills. There, in 2011, the degree day accumulation was 2,173, according to data by the Lamorinda Winegrowers. So you can begin to appreciate the temperature spectrum: too chilly in most of Oakland for proper winegrowing, hottish in the Delta, just right (for Bordeaux varieties, anyway) in Oakville.

“Lamorinda” is a neologism created from the names of three contiguous towns in Contra Costa County: Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda; the word has been in common usage for decades to describe these posh suburbs, just east of the Caldecott Tunnel. Each town is different, of course, but what they share, among other traits, is that they are plopped into the inland side of the East Bay Hills, which rise to about 2,000 feet at their highest. Depending on the exact location, some of the ridges and slopes would seem ideal for growing vitis vinifera: sunny and warm enough to ripen the grapes, not too cold nor too hot, just Goldilocks right.

I remember about 20 years ago being invited to the home of a automobile tire magnate who was experimenting with growing grapes up in those hills, in the expansive backyard of his home, which was technically in Oakland–but these boundaries between towns are, of course, artificial. He was growing several varietals on his sunny slope, and tasted me to them. I was impressed by all of them, across the board, from a rich, opulent Cabernet to a brut-style sparking wine made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

These days, many well-to-do homeowners in the Lamorinda area have followed suit and are planting grapes. (My friend Rajeev, who owns the UPS Store where I receive my wine, recently installed a vineyard on his property.) In fact, there are now 121 planted acres of winegrapes, across 42 vineyards, according to a petition filed with the TTB to establish a Lamorinda American Viticultural Area. The petition was written by my old acquaintance, Patrick Shabram, a professional AVA petition-writer whose previous successful efforts include the Alexander Valley expansion, the Mpon Mountain AVA, and Fort Ross-Seaview. Here’s the link to the formal petition.

It’s not clear what varieties are the most successful for Lamorinda and it may never be, for two reasons: One, the terrain is so jumbled and crazy (courtesy of the San Andrea Fault system) that micro-climates vary radically, making one spot cool enough for Pinot Noir and another warm enough for Cabernet, “within a single vineyard,” as Patrick writes. The second reason is because Lamorinda, if and when it’s approved as an AVA, is never going to be a commercial winegrowing area. Such wines as are made will be consumed by the grower, his family and friends, or will be sold at local restaurants and markets.

I’m in favor of this AVA. Like any appellation, it’s not perfect, and won’t provide the consumer specific information about its wines. But Lamorinda does have a “thereness” and, if approved, will stimulate growers and winemakers to step up their efforts. Which is a good thing.


Thursday throwaway: wine bloggers, aging wine, and a brand new AVA

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More “aren’t they special” plaudits for young wine bloggers in this op-ed piece from the online edition of beveragedaily.com. The author lets us know that—at long last!—bloggers are “telling the story” that presumably has not been told before: wine lovers now have “real” people, AKA wine bloggers, to help them in their quest to find good wine. Not “technical” academics, not “corporate” hacks, not dinosaur Boomer critics, but “real persons” who can “provide a crucial link between the industry and consumers” and who understand, as never before, the “passion” of winemakers.

Finally! After centuries of being hectored, lectured and bullied by wine snobs ranging from Thomas Jefferson and Professor Saintsbury to Dan Berger, Parker and (ahem) me, consumers are being spoken to by their peers, people they can trust to not bamboozle them. I wrote the other day, concerning National Drink Wine Day, that apparently anybody can declare a National Something Day, so I’m going to propose that the fourth Thursday of each February now and henceforth forever be #National Wine Bloggers Day. I created that hashtag on Twitter. I’m urging my Congressional representatives to make it a national holiday. No work, no school, fly the wine flag high and let the nation celebrate wine blogging by, well, wine blogging. Remember what Jefferson immortally said: “A nation of wine bloggers will be a bloggy nation.”

* * *

Speaking of Dan Berger, I associate myself entirely with his remarks the other day in his column, in which he cast considerable doubt on the ability of wines to age—even wines that are very expensive and that you think, for perfectly valid reasons, have the capacity to age well.

Dan writes, I have long noted the utter failure of some expensive reds to taste better with even as little as a year of age.” He adds that, as a reviewer, “It is one reason I am reluctant to assert wine has potential when I cannot be certain it does.” Consumers should take note: Dan Berger has tasted more old wines than most people ever will. I completely agree with his assessment. I’ve stored a lot of wine, mainly red, mainly California Cabernet Sauvignon, in various storages (small fridges, big wine units, professional wine lockers) and I can’t tell you how often I’ve been dismayed at the results. The wines become, not splendidly aged as one would hope, but “tired,” to use Dan’s word.

I believe that critics make far too much of aging wine. Bigtime “name” critics do it first, and then small wannabes mimic them. Consumers are left confused and frustrated, believing they have to age wines but not knowing which ones to age or for how long. I have my own theory how this all started: In France, a long, long time ago, winemakers did not know how to manage tannins. This was a problem compounded by often poor vintages caused by the Little Ice Age that struck Europe. The result was wines that really were “undrinkable” when they were young. Britain was the main buyer of French wine: Bordeaux and Burgundy, and for a while, when Britain was at one of her frequent wars with France, she turned to Portugal for wine, especially vintage Port: another wine impossibly tannic when young. What to do?

Turned out that many British consumers of wine, being wealthy, had large castles (ah, the good old days); and these castles had underground cellars where the temperature never warmed up much beyond the mid- to high 50s. Since these men bought their wines in enormous quantities rather than by the bottle (no corner wine store in those days), they stored the wines in these cold cellars, where they discovered—voila!—that after many years, even decades, the wines finally shed their tannins and became sweetly mellow. In this way there developed the custom of laying down wine for one’s children’s or grandchildren’s 21st birthdays, a custom we still see here in America.

But somewhere along the line arose the modern practice of tannin management, and lo and behold, most wines are perfectly drinkable upon release. They’re riper and softer than ever before in history, which makes them great to drink the first six years or so. My advice: Cellar stuff if you want to. But be prepared to be disappointed, especially with California wine.

* * *

CALIFORNIA’S NEWEST APPELLATION

As far as I can tell, most of the wines from Lamorinda (just approved by the Feds as an A.V.A.) are backyard hobby efforts. The name “Lamorinda” is an concoction of Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda, three very wealthy suburban towns just on the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel from Oakland, in the county of Contra Costa, so named by pioneers because it lay on the “opposite coast” of the Bay from San Francisco. I have long known men of wealth in that area who planted grapevines in their backyards, on slopes of the East Bay Hills; I’ve tasted some of their wines over the years, and they’re not bad. I don’t think anyone really knows if any one variety or family of varieties is best suited for Lamorinda. People grow everything from Pinot Noir to Zinfandel and, of course, Chardonnay. They even make sparkling wine. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for Lamorinda wines to pop up on store shelves or restaurant wine lists. Maybe some local restos, but not otherwise. Nor do I expect the somm community to discover and promote the red-hot wines of this new appellation. But good luck to my through-the-tunnel winemaking neighbors, and congrats on getting your appellation! I know what it takes, because I’m going through the process myself, up in Oregon.


Tales from the AVA front

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“Democracy,” Winston Churchill told the House of Commons in 1947, “is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Churchill might still have been sour toward democratic forms of government, given the fact that, two years previously, he had been unceremoniously thrown out of office, in a free election, by a British public that—while grateful to “the old man” for winning World War Two—nonetheless found him insufficiently liberal and vigorous to lead them in peace.

I begin today’s post with the famous Churchill quote because it can be adapted to the topic of American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs. “An AVA is the worst way of categorizing winegrowing regions, except for all other forms.” Anyone who follows the AVA process, especially in California, knows how sloppy, irrational and unhelpful it can be. And yet (to paraphrase another politician, Donald Rumsfeld), we have to deal with the AVA system we have, not the one we might want or wish to have at a later time.

The talented blogger Hawk Wakawaka points out some of these incoherences in a Sept. 8 post in which she deftly brings readers up to date on the long simmering brouhaha down in the Santa Rita Hills, which some people are trying to have expanded eastward, a proposal that infuriates others. It’s not my goal today to do what Hawk has already done, and done better than I could. Rather, I’m fascinated by her contention, based on TTB’s published guidelines, that [as Hawk puts it] any sub-AVA “must be generally congruent with” the conditions of the existing AVA.

This can sound a little confusing. What does “congruent” mean? It’s easier to understand in the context of Ballard Canyon, which was granted AVA status by TTB last year. Here, the key is Hawk’s statement that “Ballard Canyon [is] considered to be distinctive enough to merit [its] own sub-AVA status, while still generally congruent with the conditions of Santa Ynez Valley as a whole.”

Well, anyone can see this is where we run into trouble. The main problem concerns how you define the terms “distinctive” and “congruent.” The two seem to be opposites. If a region is so distinctive that it merits its own appellation, fine: we can all understand that. But how can it be distinctive and still be similar [congruent] to other appellations nearby?

Clearly, these are angels-dancing-on-pinheads concepts. There are clear and distinct boundaries between, say, the ocean and the beach. One is wet and watery, the other dry and sandy. Although the waves occasionally wash over the sand, we still insist that the two places are distinct, and we are correct in asserting that.

But appellations are fuzzy. We know this, not only intuitively, but through witnessing the contention that underlies almost every single appellation petition. When Gallo wanted to move the boundaries of the Russian River Valley southward, people erupted in anger. (It got done anyway.) And now, in the case of Santa Rita Hills, we have the same thing going on. (I suspect that TTB will approve the expansion, but you never know.)

It’s confusing, because who’s to say exactly where a climate influence or a soil composition begins and ends? Obviously the west winds and fogs that sweep over the Santa Rita Hills don’t abruptly halt at the 101 Freeway. And you don’t have to be a geologist to suspect that neither does the chemical composition of the dirt, or its structure, radically change at the Freeway. Therefore the petitioners who want the eastward expansion seem to have some justification for their case.

But there’s a slippery slope. If you give the Santa Rita Hills another ½ mile or so to the east, why not give it ¾ of a mile? Or a full mile? At some point, we would all agree that pushing Santa Rita Hills—a cool-climate appellation—too far to the east would be ridiculous. But how are we to know exactly where the line is?

There’s another problem. Consider the Pisoni Vineyard. Many different wineries buy grapes from it; their contracts generally allow them to determine picking times. If one winery picks two weeks later than another, which factor influences the resulting wines more: the vineyard’s terroir, or the winemaker’s picking date? The one thing the two wines have in common is their vineyard source; the fact that both hail from the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA is basically irrelevant. We can see that, while defining AVAs is overall a good thing, from multiple points of view, at the same time it’s a bit of a distraction.

This reverts back to Churchill. Determining these AVA boundaries is messy and frustrating, which is to say the process is political. Boundaries end where they do when the fighting process ceases (often because TTB makes its final decision). In the wine educating I’ve done in my career, I’ve always tried to point out that appellations are useful, as far as they go, but that the ultimate appellation is the brand and winery.

Incidentally, the TTB currently is considering ten AVA petitions, of which I find two noteworthy. One is Lamorinda. For those of you who don’t live in the East Bay, this is an area on “the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel” in Contra Costa County that consists of the towns of Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda. It’s very suburban and upscale and, for that reason, lots of people with money have planted vineyards in their yards, and are making wine. They want their own appellation and I suppose they’re going to get it. Another proposed AVA is Los Olivos District. That’s a little puzzling to me. Los Olivos is, of course, within the Santa Ynez Valley, but then, so are the villages of Santa Ynez, Solvang, Ballard and Buellton. It’s not clear to me why the Los Olivos people want their own appellation. If anyone out there can explain the difference between the terroirs of Los Olivos and Santa Ynez town, please let me know. On the other hand, if eventually all those townships get AVAs, it will be the wine writer’s full employment act; we’ll spend decades talking about their differences, the same way we do now, fairly inconclusively, with Oak Knoll, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford and Calistoga.

My bottom line: There is congruency within AVAs and neighboring areas, but it’s a squishy type. Nonetheless, we should try to understand it, especially in California, where certain critics say all wines are starting to taste like each other.


How the French once hated California wine; and a Petaluma Gap AVA

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My publisher at Wine Enthusiast, Adam Strum, sent me this video of a speech he gave to the French-American Foundation, in New York, at an event  honoring Jean-Charles Boisset. Adam began his remarks with a memory of an exchange he had years ago with the legendary French chef, Andre Soltner, whose Lutece restaurant once was the de rigeur place for the elite to eat, back when French food defined haut cuisine.

At that time there were no California wines on Lutece’s wine list, and Adam asked Chef Soltner about it. Chef replied, “We do have California wine, but we cook with it. We do not have it on our wine list!” Ouch.

Adam’s point was that, not that long ago, the French attitude toward California wine was one of ennui. I immediately recalled an event I went to, more than twenty years ago. It was the first big wine article I ever wrote, for Wine Spectator. Many of the major French winemakers from the Rhône Valley had traveled to Napa Valley to meet up with their West Coast counterparts, the so-called Rhône Rangers, at Meadowood Resort, for a global summit on the grapes and wines of the Rhône. But what I recall most clearly is the disdain, bordering on hatred, that some of the French held toward California wines. This antipathy was in the air and was summed up by a leading French wine industry leader who angrily told the Californians in the audience, “You can steal our grape varieties. You can steal our techniques. But you cannot steal our terroir!”

How far we’ve come! Today, California wine is the envy of the world. Even the French have grudgingly accepted it.

* * *

On the heels of my post yesterday about the pending Lamorinda AVA, I had a conversation today about a proposed Petaluma Gap AVA. Apparently, there’s controversy over where the lines should be drawn. Quel surprise! There always is with these appellation wars. I have a definite position on Petaluma Gap: Yes, it deserves an AVA. This is cool-climate viticulture and there are important sources of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay growing there. I’ll leave it to others to determine the precise boundaries, which at any rate will be decided on a political basis, as much as on issues of climate and soils.

The Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Association developed this map, which is unofficial, since the TTB hasn’t yet ruled on it. Looking at it, it does seem a little too broadly drawn, extending all the way from just west of Cline Cellars, in Sonoma Carneros, out to the Pacific beaches, and from Novato in the south all the way up to north of Rohnert Park and Bodega Bay. I’d hate to see a redux of the Sonoma Coast appellation, which most everyone admits was ridiculously large; the fallout from that will take years more to sort out, even with the worthy addition of Fort Ross-Seaview. But such is the nature of these appellations, far as I can tell, that they tend to be drawn too liberally at first, for an obvious reason: nobody wants to be left out. So they include everybody, and the thing ends up being too big. Then the sub-AVA debates begin. Well, it keeps wine writers busy, anyhow.


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