Thinking coastal thoughts
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.