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Thinking coastal thoughts

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The reality of my focusing exclusively on coastal wines in my job as one of two California reviewers for Wine Enthusiast is sinking in. It’s a huge change, after 17+ years of being the sole California taster. I’m sure it will be a while before I get used to it, and all the implications are clear in my mind.

I liked being responsible for the entire state, but it was obviously a big job that got bigger as Wine Enthusiast became more popular and more people wanted me to taste their wines. So great was the deluge of incoming samples that, over the past few years, I came to regard myself almost as a victim of my/WE’s success. I took a vow, years ago, to taste each and every bottle that came in. That was because it seemed like the ethical, professional thing to do. I figured, people aren’t sending me wine for their health, or as a gift; no, they’re sending me wine to review, and so it’s my obligation to review it. That’s exactly what I’ve done. There’s never been a single bottle of California wine sent to me that I didn’t review. I’m not sure that any other critic can say that.

There was a downside to that. It limited my ability to travel. For every day that I’m on the road, more and more wine comes piling in. If I’m gone for 4 days, when I return, frequently my wine storage space at The UPS Store is crammed to the ceiling with boxes. I’ve been known to screech when, upon returning from a trip, I slowly open the closet door and peek inside.

One negative result of tasting all that wine, from every region in California, was that it was nearly impossible for me to keep up with the small, new boutique producers that are always popping up. From Calaveras County on over to the Anderson Valley, down through Napa Valley and over in Lake County; from the Santa Lucia Highlands through Paso  Robles and throughout Santa Barbara County, there are young new winemakers, trying new things, getting their hands on grapes or growing them, tinkering, doing interesting stuff. These people typically don’t send their wines for review to anyone. Even I, in my position, have trouble hearing about them. It’s those fresh, new faces that I most missed during the years when I was buried in wine. It was a constant hassle. I had some pressure from the magazine to find the new faces, yet the quantity of incoming samples worked actively against that goal. I tried to balance those mutually-exclusive priorities, but in the end, it proved impossible.

That’s why I’m so jazzed with our new dual-tasting system. To be able to travel more, to sink into the deepest levels of the finest coastal regions has been my thwarted dream. And I know that the winemakers out there, whom I’ve yet to meet, will welcome me into their midst. When I had lunch with Rob Mondavi the other week, I mentioned to him that, with my new freedom, I’d like to connect with the garagistes up in Napa, but I wasn’t sure how to even identify them. These guys travel under the radar, and you have to know somebody who knows somebody to get through to them. Rob was extraordinarily kind in replying that he’d be delighted to invite me up to his place for an afternoon meet-and-greet with some of his friends who are doing interesting things, and he made me happy when he added that he thought they’d be thrilled to meet me.

I’m going to miss inland. Not all of it. I’ve had my problems with certain regions, and it may be true that — as Virginie Boone said here yesterday — these appellations will benefit from her fresh palate. There are some extraordinary winemakers in Lake County, Calaveras County and Lodi, and I’m sure that Virginie will be reporting on them well and faithfully.

But as much as I’ll miss inland, it’s a good tradeoff, from my point of view, to be able to focus like a laser on the coast. With its cooler climate, the coast always has produced better wines than inland, and is likely to do so into the future. There’s more money on the coast, too, which enables owners to invest in their vineyards and winery equipment — two sine qua nons for the production of fine wine. I’m encouraging small producers, with whom I haven’t yet worked, to reach out to me, and I will to you, too. You’ll be seeing more of me as I travel our coastal valleys, looking for the best wines California has to offer.

  1. Have to say this piece after yesterdays kind of cracked me up. Reads a little like, “Welcome Virginie here are the keys to my Ford Pinto” but I’m mean so it just might be me. I for one think it sounds like a sweet ass gig for you Steve, I like you, love cooler climate wines so I’d be gleefully tossing over those Pinto keys as well.

  2. Pintos RULE!

    If this move means (and it certainly sounds that way) that smaller producers will get their wines additional (or in some cases, *any*) exposure, then I am all for it.

  3. Virginie Boone says:

    I look at it as the chance of a lifetime to discover new things and meet new people, yet still roam around Napa and Sonoma for the Press Democrat, too. Never drove a Pinto, but an old, rickety diesel Mercedes wagon (since deceased) is still the best car I’ve ever had.

  4. Dude, it does mean that.

  5. Steve, one point which you might clarify for me when you state, “There’s never been a single bottle of CA wine sent to me that I didn’t review.”

    1) Every wine gets a review? Including the terrible, the not-so-good and the marginal? Do we see those reviews?

    2) Since we don’t see a number of reviews about the terrible/marginal wines, is this an editorial decision by WE to not publish them?

    As much as I would like to believe wine making has elevated to such a place that you’re NOT seeing some plonk, I know that’s not the case. Since you’re doing the ethical thing and making it a point to review all the wine you receive (and assuming that at least SOME of what you receive doesn’t quite make it to the mid-80′s in points), where are the reviews of the mediocre?

  6. Sherman, in WE’s system, any wine scoring lower than 80 points is not revealed. No sense kicking a man when he’s already down. All scores of 80 and above are accessible through WE’s database, which the public can sign onto for free. As for what’s published in the magazine, I’m afraid those decisions are above my pay grade.

  7. Wow, 17 years. I knew it had been a long while, but that is an impressive run, Steve. According to the Wine Institute, the number of California wineries went from 845 in 1992 to 2,972 in 2009. So, yeah, I think sharing the tasting duties makes sense!

  8. Pete, if you count the number of virtual wineries, it’s probably more like 4,000.

  9. It doesn’t seem to me that your load has lightened all that much. The inland appellations do not account for a very high percentage of those 4,000 wineries (this “inland” moniker is bothersome–the Foothills, with their cool nights, have profiles that resemble the coastal regions; David Jones at Lava Cap showed how close El Dorado County was to Napa). And Gallo Central Valley won’t command much coverage compared to Gallo Sonoma (unless it has to do with fraud).

  10. More than 5000. The bonded wineries now number over 3000 and we found about 2000 private labels, virtual wineries, second labels roaming around in public when compiling the list of possibilities for my new book.

    No one can taste them all, and many of them do not want tasting in any event, but there is physical limit based on time to taste, time to write, time to visit wine country and time for self. Like you, I taste somewhere in the 4000 to 5000 wines range per year, but unlike you, I do not taste everything that comes in. On the other hand, I do buy wines so I get to see some wines that are not sent out.

    There is no magic formula here, but the key is that limits do exist.

    Welcome Virginie. You already know your way around wine country. The big difference is that you are instantly more visible. Enjoy.

  11. Steve,

    I’m jealous! Congrats on the new focus of your job! It sounds like you will be getting out and about more…..which is great news for your readers.

    Here are my unsolicited leads for you to consider:

    Old World Winery

    Derek Trowbridge is making some exciting wines there in Fulton. He’s steep in Sonoma history (you can figure out the connection) and is doing it pretty much by himself. Ask for the wine and the story behind the ‘Abouriou’ the lid will not be closed long on that wine.

    Porter-Bass

    Maybe you have heard of the winery, but most likely you’ve heard of the vineyard. Luke Bass is making some very exciting wines…and their vineyard…..a completely isolated farm. He only makes three wines all sensational.

  12. Ok, last one I promise:

    Salinia Wine Company

    Try ALL OF THEIR WINES.

    I just hand an incredible Syrah (I know, we are not supposed to talk about Syrah from the RR) from them the other day.

    I was blown away by their entire line up and was honored to meet Kevin, Hardy and the whole crew there at the NPA.

  13. It doesn’t get any more obscure, here making wine deep in the Redwood Forest on a ridgetop overlooking the Anderson Valley. Garagistes cant afford to be under the radar anymore. The “cult” paradigm of inaccessibility has changed. I hope to see you in the Tasting Room soon in “downtown” Philo, all of 4 buildings!

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