Folks, please consider voting for steveheimoff.com as Best Overall Wine Blog. You can click here, or on the big logo to the right. Thanks.
* * *
I’ve been invited to participate on a panel to be held at the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival early next month. The name of the panel is “The Pritchard Hill Gang Wine Seminar, co-hosted by Michael Jordan, M.S., and moi. We’ve got quite a lineup of winemakers: Phillip Corallo-Titus (Chapellet), Phillipe Melka (Brand), David Long (David Arthur), Austin Peterson (Ovid) and Carlo Mondavi (Continuum).
I’m especially jazzed, because this tasting is the direct outcome of an article I wrote for Wine Enthusiast last Fall on the Cabernets of Pritchard Hill. The article was, I’m told, the first in-depth ever on that region of Napa Valley, which is in the Vaca Mountains, above Lake Hennessey east of the Silverado Trail. I’d been fascinated by it, as a growing region of distinctive terroir, for several years, and wanted to investigate it with the object of writing about it, but just couldn’t find the time. Eventually, through a series of happenstances, Tim Mondavi (Carlo’s dad) reached out to me and offered to set up a blind tasting for me at Continuum.
One of the pleasures of my trip to Pritchard Hill was an invitation from Greg Melanson (Melanson Vineyard) to take me for an aerial ride over the region in his helicopter, which he parks (is that the right word?) just steps from his home on the Hill. Folks, the best way to understand a wine region is from the air, especially a region as undulatingly complicated as Napa Valley. (It was fascinating to see the topological connections between Pritchard Hill and Atlas Peak.) Tim Mondavi hitched a ride with us for that occasion, and what a great tour guide he was, pointing out every little landmark and connecting it to some memory from his childhood. (And I wish that Greg’s wines were included in our panel. I don’t know why they’re not. Other producers on Pritchard Hill include Colgin, Montagna, Gandona and Bryant.)
At any rate, Michael Jordan read my article and liked it. He told me it had inspired him to set up the Pritchard Hill event at Kapalua (he’d held an earlier one in, I think, Anaheim, which I was unable to attend). Michael is an exciting, interesting guy, not only an M.S. but a true entrepreneur in the restaurant field.
By another coincidence, just this past week I sat down with Carlo Mondavi (on the phone) and had a little chat for an article. I’ve never met him in person, and didn’t realize right away that he’d be representing Continuum at Kapalua (nor did he realize I was on the panel). So we both got a chuckle out of that and vowed to spend some time together on Maui.
I would think Pritchard Hill will be an American Viticultural Area someday, but it won’t be one for quite a while, as there is opposition to it from the Chappellets, who own rights to the name. In the end it doesn’t matter what the appellation is called; the wines speak for themselves.
Please consider voting for steveheimoff.com as Best Overall Wine Blog. You can click here, then hit the red VOTE button and scroll down to the appropriate category. Or you can click on the big Wine Blog Awards icon to the right. Thank you!
* * *
In the 1970s and 1980s, when I was coming up in wine, the conventional wisdom was that in order to be ageable, a young wine had to be undrinkable.
That made sense. After all, it was the case in most of Europe. Barolo, Rioja, great German Riesling, and especially Grand Cru Burgundy and the top Classified Growth Bordeaux all required years and years in the cellar.
I figured it was the same for the top California wines. The people whose guidance I was depending on–Charlie Olken, Norm Roby, Earl Singer, Bob Thompson, Harvey Steiman–were saying that Cabs in particular required aging, and sometimes for an extended period of time (10-15 years, said Olken-Singer-Roby in their “Handbook,” 20 years in Thompson’s “Encyclopedia”).
I took them at their word. Trust was involved, because they were tasting a lot more and a lot better wines than I was able to (which was actually very little, given my limited budget and the fact that it was to be many years before wineries started sending me free samples), and so I had no basis other than their judgment on which to form a conclusion regarding ageability. I began collecting, modestly: Cabs from Freemark Abbey, Louis M. Martini, Beringer, Pinots from Carneros Creek and Acacia, and so on, and then aging them; but the results were disappointing. I’d open a bottle after 6 or 8 years and more often than not found the resulting wine dried up and boring.
Of course, my cellar conditions were inadequate then. You couldn’t even call it a “cellar.” I had a plastic contraption that I kept in my apartment. Whatever the temperature was in my apartment, that was the temperature in my “cellar.” I knew that was bad, but it was San Francisco, where it’s pretty cool even in summer, so I kept my fingers crossed.
At some point, there was a sea change in popular thinking concerning Cabernet and Pinot. The view began to be that a wine that was undrinkable (hard in tannins, biting in acidity) in youth would never age out. Instead, the theory now went, any California wine that was ageable should be good and drinkable on release.
I fully subscribe to that theory, but when did it start and how did it come about? I was thinking about this as I read the following quote from the winemaker Philip Togni (Philip Togni Vineyard), in Benjamin Lewin’s new book, Claret & Cabs:
“I used to claim that if the wine wasn’t pretty terrible coming out of the fermenter it would never amount to anything, but I no longer believe that.”
Given Philip Togni’s wealth of experience (Chateau Lascombes, Gallo, Chateau Montelena, Chappellet, Cuvaison), this is quite a statement: The confession of a great winemaker who’d essentially gotten something very important very wrong. The only “excuse” (if that’s the right word, and it isn’t, but I can’t think of a better one) is that pretty much everyone in the 1970s in Napa Valley thought that a Cabernet had to be “pretty terrible” coming out of the fermenter in order to age well. It was the weltanschauung of the era, and weltanschauungs are the hardest things in the world to see beyond.
The reason things began to shift was, IMHO, the rise of Parker. We can argue until the cows come home about him, but let’s not today. Parker pushed winemakers around the world to produce wines that tasted pretty darned good right out of the fermenter (and out of the bottle on release).
Do they age as well as the Bordeaux of old? The critical community is still debating that one, and since there are now billions and billions of critics (tip of the hat to Carl Sagan), the debate may go on forever. On the other hand, the attitude toward aging wines is shifting with tectonic force. The parents of Baby Boomers aged their wines. Baby Boomers themselves might have aged some of their wines (if they had some kind of cellar), but they were not as obsessed with aging as their Depression-era parents. Now, the children of Baby Boomers, and in some cases their grandchildren, are becoming the main consumers of fine wine in America, and as far as I can tell, they don’t give a rat’s patootie about aging wine. They want something delicious and interesting, at whatever price they’re prepared to pay, not something they have to stick away for some point in the future when they might not even be around to enjoy it.
Much is made of Cathy Corison’s Cabernets when it comes to Napa wines in the “older” style. And it is indeed true that her Cabs are lower in alcohol and age gorgeously–well, up to ten years anyway, which is the oldest Corison Cab I’ve had. (A 2001 was fantastic in 2011.) However, ageable as they are, they’re lovely on release. Here’s what I wrote about Corison’s 93 point 2007 regular (not the Kronos): A beautiful wine, dry and classically structured, showing the elegant balance for aging. Made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s long and deep in blackberries and cassis. Give it a brief decant if you open it now, but it should develop over the next six years, at least.
I suppose if Cathy had been making Cabernet in 1976 I might have written something like “Tough and tannic and sharp, almost undrinkable, a dark, brooding wine of astringency. It stubbornly refuses to reveal its inner nature. However, a deep core of fruit and cassis suggests 10, 15, even 20 years in the cellar.”
Well, that wine never existed, so we don’t know, do we? It might have aged gracefully, but it might have been one of those clunkers like the Cabs I tried aging from the mid- to late 1970s. Aging wine always is a crapshoot, and I’m not a gambler. I like a sure thing, which is why I like Napa Valley Cabernet nowadays: it’s drop dead gorgeous and sexy from the get-go, and whether or not it will go 20 years is pretty much irrelevant. (But a lot will.)
Please consider voting for steveheimoff.com for Best Overall Wine Blog. You can click here, then push the red “VOTE” button and scroll down. Voting is only open through this Friday. Thanks.
* * *
Loathe as I am the wander into the blood alcohol limit debate, I’m making an exception this time, to come out against the proposal to lower the drunken driving threshold to .05, down from its current .08.
The idea is being floated by the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent agency of the U.S. government established in 1967 within the Department of Transportation. The NTSB plays an important part in keeping this country’s transportation infrastructure safe; for instance, it investigates airline and rail accidents. So I hope the government keeps them well-funded. It’s just that, this time, they’re wrong.
The .08 limit was signed into law in by President Bill Clinton, who at the time called it “the biggest step to toughen drunk driving laws and reduce alcohol-related crashes since the national minimum drinking age was established a generation ago.” The law’s passing exemplified the growing power of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in the power halls of Washington, D.C., throughout the late 1990s.
I have always had mixed feelings about any laws that curtail people’s freedom of behavior. Of course, we need a criminal code to keep people’s worst instincts from running amok, and there are many curtailments on human activities that are needed in order to protect the greater good and safety of our communities. The problem always is in defining precisely where the line should be drawn between freedom and government restriction. The recreational use of pot is a good example.
I suppose the .08 limit made sense. It seems to have worked: traffic fatalities in this country caused by drunk drivers are down since then. In 1999, they numbered 15,786; by 2011, that number had fallen to 9,878, a significant reduction. (Although it’s also possible that other factors, such as safer cars and increased driver awareness, contributed to the decline.) So why not go this next step and lower the limit to .05?
Couple reasons. For one, different people react differently to alcohol in the blood. There’s no question that alcohol, taken to excess, impairs driving ability, but it also seems obvious that millions of people have a drink or two and drive everyday, with no harmful results. A perfectly good, safe driver could find himself in jail simply for drinking a beer or two with lunch.
Another reason I’m against the proposal is because I don’t like laws that nobody obeys, with no consequences of punishment. I don’t like HOV lanes because single drivers abuse them all the time, with little fear of getting stopped by the Highway Patrol. This disregard of laws makes laws less esteemed among the public, and when a nation disregards and disrespects its own laws, it’s on some kind of slippery slope. So why criminalize a behavior (moderate drinking and driving) that tens of millions of Americans are going to completely ignore anyway? It just makes a mockery of the concept of “law.”
Moreover, the tests that measure blood alcohol are notoriously inaccurate. What if the machine says I’m .051 when I’m actually .049? How do I defend myself? Finally, why stop at .05? Why not come up with a law that prohibits any trace of alcohol in the blood, regardless of how low it is? If any drinking at all constitutes risk, then we should outlaw drinking and driving, period.
I should add that I, personally, never drink and drive. I haven’t since 2001. Not even a half-glass of wine or beer. I simply can’t afford the price that a DUI or collision would cost me, financially, legally and reputationally. Whenever I’m out drinking, I’m with someone else who’s doing the driving, or I walk or take the subway. (It does get to be an inconvenience!)
I understand the impulse to try and prevent all the death and injury we can. But I do think we need to draw the line someplace in our efforts to prevent every risk to life and limb imaginable through government intervention. There’s no way to make life risk free. The answer to drunk driving is to educate people (including to the need for designated drivers), to make them think smarter, and to be as respectful of our obligations to others as we are protective of our own personal freedoms. But that’s a whole other conversation.
Please consider voting for steveheimoff.com for the Wine Blog Awards’ Best Overall Wine Blog. Voting is open until Friday. Thank you.
* * *
Trading down from Gucci to J. Crew may not seem like the toughest sacrifice in the world, but even the top 2 percent of upper-income Americans is “thinking twice” about spending their money on über-expensive goods, says Bloomberg News.
“These ‘2-percenters,’ unnerved by the most recent recession, are trading down to less-expensive” apparel and other items, the article says. It quotes the president of a luxury research firm: “The rich have lost their exuberance.”
Of course, “a small cadre of ultra-high net-worth individuals…is insulated and not cutting back,” but unless you’re in the yacht business, you’re not really concerned about these 1 percent of the 1 percent.
The article names names: On “the way down” in clothing and accessories are Prada, Armani, Gucci, Hermes and Gianni Versace. On “the way up” are Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Banana Republic and Urban Outfitters. In other words, brands that offer cachet and style, without the high price.
So the HENRYs (“high earner not rich yet”) are scaling back. What does it mean for luxury wine brands, particularly California Cabernet Sauvignons that have hit triple digits?
Unless you’re the owner or the winery’s banker, you can’t really know what the bottom line is. Is Screaming Eagle hurting? Harlan? How about Bryant, Colgin, Dalla Valle, Schrader, Abreu, Sloan? If these are the Armanis and Guccis of wine, then we have to expect that things are not quite as solid as they were pre-2008. The HENRYs are “thinking twice” about spending their hard-earned cash on them, and there’s no indication they’re going to return to their free-spending ways anytime soon.
Nor are there enough “ultra-high net-worth individuals” to absorb all of these expensive wines. I have to believe, based on what I’ve seen and heard, that the cults are hurting–although some of their owners are so rich that they can afford to ride out what they hope is a relatively brief soft period following the Great Recession.
What are the alternatives to the cults–the winery equivalents of the Banana Republics and J. Crews of California that the 2 percenters are turning to? Here’s my list of Cabernet Sauvignon producers whose wines are pretty much near as good as anything from the cults, but whose prices are more aligned with reality: Stonestreet, Von Strasser, Vine Cliff, Goldschmidt, Krutz, Hall, Sequoia Grove, Duckhorn, Conn Creek, Kendall-Jackson Highlands Estates, Long Meadow Ranch, Piña, Macauley, Stephen & Walker, Kuleto, Yates Family, Renteria, Creo, Snowden, Laird, Moone-Tsai, Hunnicutt, St. Supery, La Jota, Frank Family, Prime, Rubicon Cask Cabernet, Signorello, Trinchero, Stag’s Leap Artemis, Monticello, Charnu, KaDieM, Venge, Terra Valentine and Hidden Ridge. I’ve given scores of 95 points or higher in Wine Enthusiast to bottlings from each of them over the past few years, and none costs more than $90 retail.
Robert Parker, in what was called “a rare interview with the French magazine Terre du Vins,” denied “the idea of the ‘Parkerisation’ of wines and the emergence of a richer, riper style made to please the critic’s palate.”
Now, the information I cited above comes from an article about the Terre du Vins interview that was in the drinks business publication. I felt the need to read the original Terre du Vins story, so I Googled it and asked for a translation.
Here is the relevant RMP quote: “is there a Parker taste? Even my wife thinks it is, but I’ve never subscribed to this belief. I think my taste is too complex and varied to be defined and placed in a small black or white category. I love too many wine styles, finesse and elegance of Pope Clement the creamy richness of Petrus or Trotanoy, through the extraordinary majesty, the fullness and aging potential of Latour or Pontet -Canet. The same goes for my appreciation of wines from other regions. But I know that even if I live another 25 to 35 years, and when I leave my obituary you read, there will be a reference to wine ‘parkerized’ or to taste ‘Parker’. There is nothing I can do against it.”
Even allowing for the eccentricities of automatic online translation, these remarks ring true. So let me accept them as words Parker actually spoke, and tell you what I think.
I think Mrs. Parker got it right, bless her soul. Of course there’s a Parkerized style. Everybody in the industry knows what that means. The topic has been endlessly discussed for decades, with worldwide agreement, that, yes, the era of Robert Parker has resulted in wines of higher alcohol, greater fruity extract, stronger oak influence, and a sweeter finish.
For RMP not to see this clearly is a bit of a mystery. He may feel that, since he also has an appreciation for lighter, drier wines such as, for example, the Chenin Blancs of the Savennieres (which he described as “among the potentially most profound and ageworthy” of the world’s wines), he has immunized himself against allegations of Parkerization. As much as RMP himself may see things that way, surely the rest of us realize that it isn’t so: Parker may like a broad range of wines, but the high scores he has consistently given to the richest and most extracted of them is precisely what has caused the world to become Parkerized since the 1980s.
Parker need not apologize for it. He ought to defer to his wife’s and history’s judgment and accept the verdict. He’s done nothing wrong, except to state his preferences. If the world has allowed RMP’s tastes to dictate the style of its wines, that is not Parker’s fault. It’s not something he set out to do, but happened of its own accord. Besides, I think that Parkerization has had salutary effects. You may like or dislike that style, but at least it has helped to make wine vastly more popular worldwide than it was pre-Parker, and is continuing to do so as RMP and his organization cement their hold on the Asia market.
Parkerization also has stimulated a healthy conversation about wine style among critics, sommeliers, merchants, winemakers, educated consumers and others whose opinions count. This debate arouses passions on all sides, and can verge on the ideological; but it’s a good argument to have, as it forces everyone to think about wine in terms of a wider range of parameters than used to be available. I have just returned from two days of tasting the Cabernet Sauvignons of Alexander Valley with some very talented winemakers and sommeliers, and the topic of Parkerization and its associated issues–alcohol level, ripeness, food-friendliness, oak level, fruit bombiness–constantly arose. Each winemaker, facing his task, must decide where to throw down the gantlet on this spectrum, which Parker helped broaden. That, too, is healthy, I think: it may make the winemaker’s task more complicated, for a variety of reasons (including the market), but there’s no reason why winemakers (and proprietors) should not be held to account on matters of style.
Will there be a backlash against Parkerization, as he and other Baby Boomer critics fade from the scene? The answer is likely to be yes, but rest assured, we are not going back to the era of 11.5% alcohol by volume Cabernet Sauvignons. The toothpaste is out of the tube and cannot be put back. Vintners going forward may tinker around the stylistic edges, adjusting their wines this way or that; and climate change will add its own voice to the results. But Parker moved the goal posts with authoritative finality, and no person, or combination of persons, is going to put them back to where they used to be.
It’s Friday morning, day two of the Alexander Valley Cabernet Academy, where I’m moderating a series of panels for about 35 sommeliers, from all over the country, who were invited to the event, which is sponsored by the Alexander Valley Winegrowers.
I think AVW’s feeling is that Cabernet Sauvignon is their primary grape and wine, and perhaps people don’t understand what makes it unique from other regions. This is remarkably similar to what’s occurring in Paso Robles, where I also moderated a panel just a few weeks ago for their Cab Collective, an event aimed–not at somms–but at the public, but also meant to demonstrate how good Paso Cab can be.
Panel 1 yesterday was on Cabs of the southern part of Alexander Valley: Alexander Valley’s Reserve, Lancaster Estate, Hawkes Pyramid, Stuhlmuller Reserve, Simi Landslide, Hoot Owl, Silver Oak, all from the 2008 vintage. It was good to taste these Cabs with a little bottle age on them: All were beginning (as I said) to “turn the corner” from expressing primary fruit to more bottle aged notes. All were very interesting, soft and round in the Alexander Valley way. Some had a touch of the herbaceousness that also historically has marked this valley’s Cabs. All also showed firm tannins, although two–the Lancaster and the Simi–were harder than the others. Most of the wines will benefit from 8-10 more years. My own feeling was that the Hoot Owl was the most advanced, though. That wine was higher in alcohol and riper than the others, more “Napa-esque” if you will, and I thought its future is limited for those reasons as it’s already showing signs of premature aging.
That tasting was held at Hawkes beautiful property, on a windy hillside that is officially in Alexander Valley, but might as well have been in Chalk Hill, for all I could tell. The day had dawned cloudy, cool and rainy, after our gorgeous Spring, not a good omen for the Academy. But it cleared up and turned sunny and mild, with the result that I, who am at risk of skin cancer the result of my fair complexion and overexposure to the sun in my youth, now have a sunburned nose that’s already beginning to blister. Stupid me.
From Hawkes we took the bus up to Stonestreet for a tasting and lecture from their winemaker, Graham Weerts. I was happy to see Barbara Banke, the proprietor, there; I sat next to her and, as she wished to have Gus sit in her lap, I was happy to comply, as was he. I have to say Gus is a rock star on these road trips.
The Stonestreet wines are really fabulous. Such depth and precision, power married to finesse. That’s mountain vineyards for you, as well as the most refined manufacturing process imaginable. I use that word “manufacturing” deliberately, but cautiously. The Jacksons have the technology to bring perfect grapes to the fermenter, and that technology is not available to many. As I remarked to Graham, after he told us about the process by which inferior grapes are eliminated (involving computerized imaging and blasts of air and what-not), “It’s not romantic, old-fashioned winemaking. But it does make for great wine.”
After Stonestreet we went up to Silver Oak’s estate, where somehow I’d never been. They had set up an educational program on corks, where we could smell corks infected with TCA to varying degrees and test our sensitivity, as well as corks that had other aromas, some pleasurable, some not. It showed us how much the cork can bring to the wine.
That evening the somms went to a barbecue at Hoot Owl and then took the bus down to Healdsburg for a night of gaiety and, I suppose, eating and drinking. I did not join them. I had work to do, Gus was hungry and needed walking, and I wanted to wake up early this morning and get this blog done. I dashed into Geyserville, had an icy cold IPA from 101 North, got some chow from a local eaterie, and went back to the Inn. So now, into the shower, a quick breakfast, then onto the next two panels: mid-Alexander Valley and northern Alexander Valley.
I’ve long had a soft spot for Alexander Valley, the AVA in Sonoma County that stretches up from Healdsburg to the Mendocino County line, at Cloverdale.
I came to know the valley especially well during the year I spent writing my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River. I got it into my head to describe how the Russian River first “turned on,” and found that a description of its physical beginnings had never been written–at least, so far as I could tell. So I spent a great deal of time on and along the River, and talked to a great many geologists (none of whom agreed with the others), and then came to my own conclusions, which you can read in the first chapter, “Out of the Pangaean Mists a River is Born.”
It’s one thing to get to know a region through books and maps. It’s quite another to trek it. And I did trek the Alexander Valley, in all seasons. I got drenched in winter rains, almost died capsizing a canoe on a whitewatery part of the river just outside Asti, sweated in summer heat on Rattlesnake Hill and Iron Horse’s old T-bar-T ranch, heard the hoarfrost crackle on the cold night ground while I lit a fire in an old cabin in Geyserville, ate lunch and drank wine on a sandbar, crawled through the prickly, poison ivy’d, spider-webby undergrowth of the river’s banks, tasted in my mouth the stones and dirt from Seghesio’s vineyard, climbed to the top of Squaw Rock and got dizzy looking down, met all manner of characters, visited the valley’s oldest burial ground, did tasting after tasting at as many wineries as I could, ate and drank immoderately and in general absorbed the valley into my genes (or maybe it absorbed me).
My feelings concerning Alexander Valley’s wines have not changed a great deal over the years. I always had respect and affection for them, even if the appellation seemed to be missing the excitement and glamour of, say, the Russian River Valley or the Sonoma Coast. Solid wines, you might call them, but the appellation’s boundary’s are stupid beyond recognition. They extend from the shore of the Russian River to 2,800 feet up into the Mayacamas Mountains. Surely we can do better.
There’s a conservatism about the Alexander Valley that is partly explained by its geographical location. Anyone who knows Sonoma County understands that it is divided culturally into east and west. West Sonoma is Sebastopol and Guerneville: hippies, pot, incense, environmentalists, Democrats, anarchists, the counter-culture. Inland Sonoma by contrast has long been the farming community, by nature less open to change. I don’t mean to make this distinction hard and fast–and certainly, the gentrification of places like Cloverdale, and the wine lifestyle that has changed Healdsburg so remarkably, are shifting things. But these generalizations, I think, hold true.
Alexander Valley knows what it does well, wine-wise; it’s done it for a long time, and it would be imprudent to expect it to change course mid-stream (or mid-river, as the case may be). This weekend (May 18-19), the valley hosts the annual Taste Alexander Valley event. Wineries open their doors, there’s plenty of food and laughter, and the weather will be sunny and warm. I’ll be there today and Friday, doing a couple pre-event seminars, and I hope to run into you.