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Going Rhône in Cabernet country

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I interviewed the great musician Boz Scaggs yesterday, and something he said made me think about how, sometimes, serendipity in the wine business pays off.

My full conversation with Boz will appear in an upcoming issue of Wine Enthusiast, so I don’t want to steal its thunder. The only part I’ll reveal is what Boz said when I asked him why he didn’t plant Cabernet Sauvignon instead of Rhône varieties on his property on Mount Veeder, a Napa mountain famed for the quality of its Cabs and Bordeaux blends.

“I wasn’t aware that it was!” was Boz’s reply. Instead, he put in the Rhônes, and I have to tell you his 2008 Scaggs Vineyard Montage GSM is an absolutely fabulous wine.

I imagine if someone had advised Boz that Mount Veeder was Cabernet country, he might have planted it instead, and the resulting wine no doubt would have been excellent. His property has great terroir, and Boz’s winemaker is the talented Ken Bernards (his brand is Ancien). We then would have had one more good Mount Veeder Cabernet, in addition to other great ones from Kendall-Jackson Highland Estates, Trinchero, Atlas Peak, Yates Family and Cuvaison. But we would not have had Boz’s Montage.

Who’s to say what other varieties could perform well on Mount Veeder, if only they were planted? Sky, a small winery on the mountain (I haven’t reviewed their wines for many years), made an outstanding Zinfandel; I hope they still do. So did Chateau Potelle; their VGS Zin off Veeder was absolutely one of the best in California. I don’t imagine there’s much Zin left on Mount Veeder, though, because it’s a tough sell.

There also used to be a winery, Veedercrest, up there that made one of the best Rieslings in California. It was so good, I bought it by the ton in the Eighties; it was a house fave. I don’t think Veedercrest exists anymore, and I seriously doubt anyone’s growing Riesling on Veeder; in all the years I’ve reviewed for Wine Enthusiast, I’ve yet to see a Veeder Riesling (although I’m sure if there’s any out there, someone will let me know!). If Americans cared about California Riesling, more people would grow it, and Mount Veeder would be a natural home. But that’s not the case.

Chardonnay, by the way, does well on Veeder, as evidenced by the likes of Mayacamas, Y Rousseau and those old Chateau Potelles. They’re steely, minerally Chardonnays, not fat, unctuous ones like you get from, say, Alexander Valley or Santa Rita Hills…the kind of Chardonnays that can take some bottle age and actually improve.

It’s true throughout California wine country that grape varieties that performed perfectly well have been ripped out and replaced, generally by Cabernet, Chardonnay or some other popular wine. I’ve struggled over the years about what to think of this. On the one hand, it’s sad. But on the other, the focus on Cabernet, Chardonnay, etc. has led to amazing progess in the quality of those wines. And if we look at every wine district in the world, they tend to be focused on one variety or family of varieties or, at most, a few families of varieties. Back in the day, Napa Valley had 20, 30 varieties or more, all intermingled. In some ways it was a more interesting period than today, but the wines weren’t as good.

And then along comes a Boz Scaggs, unaware of Veeder’s reputation for Cabernet, so he plants the Rhône varieties he loves instead, and voila! turns out a magical wine. (His Grenache rosé is no slouch either.) It’s wines like those that are so much fun to discover.

  1. Sky Vineyards is definitely still in business and still producing one of the few Zinfandels that will give you an idea of what I’d call “traditional style” Zin tastes like. They tend toward balance and reflect vintage variations quite nicely, reflecting the winemaker’s approach that the the vineyard is more important to the finished wine than he is. They planted some Syrah about ten years ago and it too is on the moderate side, very drinkable and like the Zinfandel, benefits from a little age. Here’s a link to the website: http://www.skyvineyards.com I’ve got no commercial affiliation with them – I’ve just followed their wines for a lot of years and enjoy them quite a bit.

  2. Whoa, a celeb wine that doesn’t follow the herd of $200 Napa Cabs pushed by marketers and consultants. That must be a first! Though he got the Napa pricing right: $75 for initial releases. Wonder how it compares to similar blends like the Tablas Creek Esprit ($50-ish) and other Central Coast Rhone blends.

    I sometimes wonder if Napa Cab wasn’t such an ubiquitous commodity if other cultivars could work better in parts of Napa. Like Touriga or Mourvedre in the warmer northern or inland sections, though they probably already ripped out plenty of old vine field blends to make dry port style Cab. I suppose Carneros is pretty diverse. The older sub-AVAs like Rutherford and Oakville meanwhile are proven historically for Cab. But if Cab is consistently topping 15% potential ABV before it has table wine flavors in other zones, then maybe there is an issue. (Intentionally pursuing a dry port style is different altogether as I’m sure cooler zones could make lighter Cab, but economic and critical forces encourage more turbo wine styles.)

  3. Well…Steve….how could you miss the Syrah grown by SteveLagier & CaroleMeredith up om MtVeeder?? I think it’s easily the best Syrah grown in the NapaVlly.
    And the ParasVnyd is a pretty good one, as well.
    If I’m not mistaken, I believe AlBaxter’s Riesling came from WineryLakeVnyd down in the Carneros, not from his property up on MtVeeder.
    His wnry was over in lovely downtown Emeryville. In a very tall bldg that used to house ShellOil’s Van de Graff accelerator.
    Tom

  4. Tom, I haven’t reviewed Lagier Meredith for about 10 years because they stopped reaching out to me, and I already taste more wines than I can handle. But I did give their 1999 93 points. The Veedercrest Riesling actually had a Mount Veeder appellation, so it wouldn’t have come from Winery Lake.

  5. Greg, I bet Touriga and other Port varieties would do really well in Napa. But nobody would buy them.

  6. Hess has a small block of Riesling in our Veeder Summit vineyard, produced for the Small Block Series offered to our wine club and in our Visitors Center. Gruner Veltliner too. All sorts of things going on here on iconoclastic Mount Veeder.

  7. Most CA coastal regions (including Mount Veeder AVA) have a predominantly cool to warm Mediterranean climate and one should take for granted that the main Mediterranean (Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignan, Aglianico, Zinfandel/Primitivo,…) varieties would perform well in these areas.
    Syrah, on the other hand, is not a Mediterranean but a Northern Rhône grape which thrives in warm continental climates (i.e. the area comprised between Valence and Vienne), with shorter growing seasons, and (along with Alicante Bouschet, Graciano/Morrastel, Cinsaut, etc.) is used, in the Med climates of the Southern Rhône, Provence and the Languedoc-Roussillon, as a blending variety; to impart color, density and tannic structure. Roughly the same job Petite-Sirah does so well in CA.
    The fact that Napa is Cabernet country these days is most likely due to Cab’s perennial economic importance and status quo (and also random events like the 1976 Paris Wine Tasting), than to geographical factors. Luckily, Cabernet Sauvignon is an extremely versatile and resilient grape that can adapt and succeed (with some minor adjustments) in a great diversity of climates.
    Still, giving in to fashion and fads, besides becoming highly susceptible to crises and to the economic cycle, wine growers and producers in CA might be wasting some precious time, and indefinitely postponing the exercise of their own identity.

  8. H. Harman says:

    Although the Mt. Veeder appellation is know for its’ hefty and delicious Cabernet Sauvignons, that does not mean that other varietals need to be excluded. With some experimentation from the norm, one may be surprised to see other varietals excel in this region as well. Syrah is surely a candidate for this extraordinary micro climate, where it is hot and yet has some temperate influence as well. I see this varying micro climate in other areas of Sonoma and Mendocino County, in the highest elevations, where all the bordeaux wines flourish. So why not some of the Rhone varietals as well. Cabernet Franc vineyards also likes to mingle with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Variety is the Spice of Life!

  9. Don Clemens says:

    Steve: I enjoyed this article. When I worked with William Hill in the 1980′s, we used to make an amazing Chardonnay from Mt. Veeder, in vineyards next to what is now Chateau Potelle. I discovered an unopened case of the ’83 Reserve Gold Label in my cellar about six months ago. It has been nothing short of amazing. It is (of course) fully mature, but still eminently drinkable. It’s more Burgundian than a lot of white Burgundies that I have tasted lately. Of course, this wine went against the current trend. It was stainless fermented, oak-aged and very low pH (around 3.10). It also did not go through malo. It is still lemon-yellow, barely a hint of amber.
    We couldn’t get a review above 87 points from any of the “experts” of the time. When we switched to the full-Monty (barrel fermentation, malo, riper harvest), we started to get the points, but the wines NEVER lived as long as the original style.
    Thanks for making me remember the “good old days”, when winemakers made wine without thinking in advance about scores.

  10. I remember a wine that was from either Veedercrest or Mt. Veeder (Franciscan now)

    It was a dry Chenin blanc and I think it was 1979 Vintage. Wow that was good. There were only 7 cases that the distributor had, we bought all 7 and I got almost a case out of those. It was a beautiful and delightful wine.

    There is still much to learn about CA vineyard areas. The history of wine there is still young, and styles and public tastes change.

  11. Great article and comments ! Thanks all…lurkers like me really appreciate the historical perspectives and “against the grain” ideologies.

  12. Zoeldar, you’re not a lurker anymore!

  13. My only quarrel with this fine post is that he called Boz Skaggs a great musician. Come on, Steve, the man’s a pop star.

  14. Patrick, shame on you. His endless curiousity and forays into a melange of musical stylings, his virtuosity on the guitar, the stunning quality of a body of work that extends over many decades: Boz is a great musician, and much more.

  15. His music is like the wine, it gets better with age.

  16. Michael Barry says:

    Hi Steve,
    Quoting yourself

    “If Americans cared about California Riesling, more people would grow it.”

    Is it time to ask this question openly about dry & off dry riesling and try to discover why these gems are ignored by consumers who seem to only be followers of fashion, not discoverers of the good.
    Perhaps a comparison between West Coast, East Coast, German, Australian & New Zealand Riesling could see some examples make it to wines of the week. (which seem dominated by reds).

    This comes out of a discussion about Rhone varietals, but you started it. The soil should grow the grapes for which it is most suited so that the skills of the grower & winemaker can produce the best wine, not the currently fashionable.
    All noble thoughts in an ideal world.

  17. Michael, I think the reason Americans don’t care for Riesling, dry or off-dry, is because Americans love fruity wines, and Riesling isn’t fruity. True, it usually has citrus fruits, green apples, etc. but its essence is a kind of oily minerality, and a pungent taste of cold steel from high acidity. Americans don’t understand that and don’t like it. They want white wines that are softer and more generous.

  18. Wow…Steve….I can’t let that statement go unchallenged:
    “Michael, I think the reason Americans don’t care for Riesling, dry or off-dry, is because Americans love fruity wines, and Riesling isn’t fruity. True, it usually has citrus fruits, green apples, etc. but its essence is a kind of oily minerality, and a pungent taste of cold steel from high acidity.”
    If you are referring to “most Americans” as the ones buying 2$Chuck at TJ’s and shopping at CostCo..than perhaps you’re right. But if you are referring to people like who read your blog or WE, that strikes me as dead wrong. I find the problem w/ most Calif/American Rieslings (and GWT) are that they are excessively fruity, and they lack that minerality/valve oil/petrol character of most German/Alsatian/AltoAdige versions, are woefully underacid, and way too much RS.
    Like Nebbiolo, there seems to be a quiet growth in interest in Riesling (and GWT), especially down in the CentralCoast/SantaBarbara/EdnaVlly. Who knows…maybe someday again up on MtVeeder.
    Tom

  19. TomHill, of course you’re right when it comes to connoisseurs. But of course I’m right because I DID refer to “most Americans.” There will always be those small production wineries, like Stony Hill and Pey Marin, who can sell their most excellent Rieslings. But I was referring to the broad market, where California Riesling is dead.

  20. For those who commented with such generous praise about the Veedercrest Rieslings, they were called White Riesling then, and my partner Al Baxter, general partner and winemaker at Veedercrest, made Rieslings from Richard Stelzer Vineyards, from Winery Lake Vineyards owned at that time by Renee d’Rosa, and from our own vineyards on Mt. Veeder. The Riesling block on Mt. Veeder was known as Milken Hill. I still have some of all three in my cellar, and in fact each of them is currently sitting on a counter on my bar. We are exploring bringing back a Veedercrest Riesling with botrytis. Stay tuned. And thank all of you for your loyalty and support over all these years.

  21. Ron Fenolio, I loved those Veedercrest Rieslings. I drank a lot of them. Good luck to you.

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