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Can Napa Valley be understood like Bordeaux?

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I had nothing to read the other day, so I looked through my wine library and spied a book I hadn’t opened for years: Hugh Johnson’s “The World Atlas of Wine” (fifteenth edition, 1984), one of the greatest wine books of our time.

I was a newbie then, absorbing every ounce of learning I could about wine, and that book helped me enormously. So I pulled it off the shelf and opened at random to page 86: the section on Pauillac.

Who doesn’t remember their introduction to Bordeaux and the four communes of the Médoc, plus Graves (or Pessac-Léognan): Margaux, Saint-Julien, Pauillac and Saint-Estephe? For me, it was a revelation, an intellectual journey into the mysteries of terroir, which Mr. Johnson described with such clarity. The wines of Saint-Estephe, he wrote, “have more acidity, are fuller, solider, often have less perfume, but fairly fill your mouth with flavor,” attributing this to the fact that “as the gravel washed down the Gironde diminishes there is a stronger mixture of clay found in it.” In Margaux, by contrast, “there is very little” clay; that commune has “the thinnest [soil] in the Médoc…the result is wines which start life comparatively ‘supple’, though in poor years they can turn out thin. In good and great years, however, all the stories about the virtues of gravel are justified.” And so on.

It all made perfect sense: a predictable and historic hierarchy of qualities based on location and soil type. When I had spent some years studying the communal differences in the Médoc (and not just via Hugh Johnson, but Alexis Lichine and many other writers, all by the way in agreement with each other), it was only natural for me to look at the five towns strung along Highway 29 in Napa Valley and wonder if terroir conclusions could be drawn. I thought it probable, not so much in terms of soils, as of climate. Yountville, being closest to San Pablo Bay, would be coolest, with temperatures gradually escalating as you proceeded northwest (i.e. inland) from Oakville and Rutherford through St. Helena to Calistoga.

Now, though, I wonder if it’s all that simple. There are so many complicating factors. Napa Valley is a much more complex place than the Médoc. For one thing, Bordeaux doesn’t have mountains to factor into the equation. Oakville, for example, goes up to the 500 foot contour line in the Mayacamas, and the higher you go, the more dramatic are the distinctions between valley floor and elevation. In Pauillac, the highest elevation, I believe, is 100 feet (at Mouton). And in Napa Valley, the soil choice is not simply between clay and gravel, an easy equation. Because of the San Andreas Fault and plate tectonics, “There exist an amazing 33 different soil series in the Napa Valley representing six of the 12 soil orders that comprise modern soil taxonomy. In other words, in an area just 30 miles long and five miles wide, half of the soil orders that exist on the planet can be readily found,” in the words of the Napa Valley Vintners.

To make matters yet more complicated, we have the maritime air and fog that arrives in Napa in unpredictable ways, not just from the southeast via San Pablo Bay but through various gaps in the Mayacamas from Sonoma County. For example, as I report in my upcoming article on the Calistoga appellation in Wine Enthusiast, there is data suggesting that St. Helena is actually warmer than Calistoga due to such a gap, thereby tossing the cool-in-the-southeast, hotter-in-the-northwest theory into the trash. And purely anecdotally, I can tell you I’ve watched the dashboard thermometer in my car for many years as I’ve driven south from, let’s say, St. Helena to Yountville during the summer months and seen the temperature increase.

Another reason why it’s so complicated to define communal differences in the five towns (which are now AVAs on their own) is because winemaking styles vary significantly. There are those who pick earlier and make lighter wines–Corison, for example–and those who prefer a fatter style: Araujo and Hall, among many others. Even in Pauillac, the experts always scratched their heads over the fact that Lafite, which is just a stone’s throw from St.-Estephe, is more “Margaux-like” than Mouton, in the south, which is more “St.-Estephe-like.”

I don’t doubt that scholars will try to define Napa Valley communal patterns, including me. I think it can be done on a macro level, in the same way we can make vintage assessments on a macro level. On the micro level, though, which is what really counts, generalizations generally break down (which is itself a generalization). Which is good news for mavens and journalists: we’ll be talking about this for the next 100 years.


Meet Ursula Hermacinski

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I used to go to a lot of charity wine auctions when I worked at that other magazine. In fact, since nobody at the other magazine was remotely interested in charity wine auctions, they gave it to me, a newbie, to cover. I was ambitious and anxious to prove my worth, and I remember one Napa Valley Wine Auction–this would have been in the early Nineties–where I sat there in the front row, calculator in hand, and added up each winning bid, as if I were the offficial tallier. I didn’t even dare go to the bathroom for fear of missing a lot. Can you imagine? That is complete insanity. The Napa Valley Vintners would have reported all the numbers the next day or two. But in my eagerness I thought it was something I should do.

I met most of the major wine auctioneers during those days: Fritz Hatton, Dave Reynolds and Ursula Hermacinski, and saw how hard they worked. Do you think it’s easy to stand up in front of a recalicitrant audience of bidders and make them spend more than they want? I remember Dave Reynolds once–I think in Sonoma Valley–in a tuxedo in 100-degree heat, yelling for hours, trying to keep the energy high and losing who knows how many pounds. I came to wonder at the ability of these athletes who, offstage, were invariably possessed of colorful personalities.

When I left the other magazine, with its wine collector mania, I also left behind the wine auction world. I still admire it for its commitment to raising money for charity, but I don’t miss watching the über-rich vying for testostone superiority by out-bidding their rivals. That part of the game always rubbed me the wrong way.

I got to know Ursula well enough, twenty years ago, to have visited her in her little Venice Beach cottage one day. I have no idea why; memory fails. Then I didn’t hear from her for the longest time, until she contacted me recently. We got together yesterday, on Oakland’s first warm, sunny day in what seemed like an eternity, and chatted at Whole Foods, my “office away from home.” She’s had quite a career. In addition to being one of the top charity wine auctioneers in America, Ursula did a stint as the estate manager for Screaming Eagle. More lately, she’s taken a position as VP of sales and marketing for a new winery, Casey Flat Ranch, located in, of all places, Yolo County, because the owners already had a big ranch there. I won’t be reviewing the wines, because Yolo is in Virginie Boone’s territory, but it was nice to see Ursula anyway.

Young bloggers, here’s a career bulletin: Ursula told me that there’s a real gap in younger wine auctioneers coming up through the ranks. This is occurring even as the number of charity wine auctions is exploding across the country. As a result, she’s begun doing auctions again (or maybe she never stopped; I didn’t get that straight). She’ll be doing the Napa Valley Wine Auction this year, in addition to the auction for the The Rusty Staub Foundation, which, she told me, is now the nation’s fourth largest charity wine auction. So Ursula will be wielding her gavel for a while longer. I don’t have any idea how one would go about becoming a charity wine auctioneer. It’s a lot different from auctioning cattle, with that weird, hypnotic chant. If you’re interested, I’m sure Ursula would be happy to talk to you.

I admire people who are survivors in this weird world of wine. Ursula’s had a unique life and it’s still evolving. When we were talking about social media and she told me she’s learning about Facebook and (gasp) Twitter (or trying to), I told her she ought to blog about her life and adventures. I bet she has some stories she could tell.


Weighing in on balance

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“Balance” in Pinot Noir has been on everyone’s lips lately in California. It’s the Justin Bieber–or is it the Libya?–of wine social commentary, the subject of every column, article, conversation and fulmination. The roots of this go deep, too deep to analyze here, except to say the boil was lanced at the World of Pinot Noir during the famous Asimov seminar that was, essentially, a smackdown between Adam Lee and Jim Clendenen (and which Alder Yarrow covered so well at Vinography, thereby providing a great service to those of us who were elsewhere). Mr. Rajat Parr was at the center of that brouhaha, as he was at yesterday’s “In Pursuit of Balance,” which consisted of two events, a small tasting and panel discussion at a downtown San Francisco Hotel, followed by a larger walkaround tasting at RN74.

I report; you decide. The panel discussion starred Sashi Moorman (Evening Land), Wells Guthrie (Copain), Vanessa Wong (Peay), Jeffrey Patterson (Mount Eden) and, the only non-winemaker, Geoff Kruth, MS, who’s director of operations for the Guild of Sommeliers. Among the celebrities present were Alder himself (ferociously tweeting), Jon Bonné, Mr. Clendenen, Karen MacNeil, Laurie Daniel, Raj, David and Jasmine Hirsch, Larry Stone, Jim Gordon and my wonderful colleague, Virginie Boone. The topic, as I say, was “balance” in Pinot Noir: what is it? Can it be achieved “through corrections in the winery or it is the result of natural processes…?” (in the words of the handbook provided us for tasting notes).

The discussions became very technical. (The event was webcast, or podcast, whatever it’s called, and someone from the Internet asked a question about soil pH, which seemed to baffle even the panelists.) There were roundabouts on stem inclusion and the American palate and terroir, but nothing really seemed to be accomplished. Mr. Clendenen once again heard the sound of his voice. After all the condemnations of manipulation of alcohol levels, for which Satan himself must be responsible, I innocently raised my hand to ask my one and only question: if adding sugar to a must or wine can result in balance. My point being, of course, that if alcohol reduction is a sin, then why is alcohol elevation (in a wine that Mother Nature did not permit to become ripe) a glory? Everyone harrumphed, and Mr. Clendenen pronounced any comparison between reducing alcohol and Chaptalisation “an absurdity.” His reasoning: In Burgundy the window of ripening is so narrow, you can’t blame winemakers for wanting to push the wine just over the finish line with a bag or two of sugar. Whereas in California If a winemaker chooses to go three weeks past ripeness and then reduce alcohol, he is an imbecile whose wines cannot possibly be balanced.

There was an element of Groundhog Day to the discussion, I have to admit. At times it reminded me of rabbis arguing over obscure points in the Talmud. There’s a formula to these things: get some famous name winemakers on the panel (who are there, after all, to market their wine) to deliver their by-now well-known spiels. Have it moderated by a famous name writer whose reputation is thus burnished. Invite the usual suspects: the wine media, other winemakers, somms. Toss out the topic du jour, in this case “balance,” and hope that something interesting happens (as it did at Asimov’s event). If nothing happens, well, no one’s the worse. At least you’ve seen old friends and made new ones and tasted some wines, and are able to write off your day’s expenses as work-related.

At RN74 the place was jammed. So many famous wineries came: Flowers, ABC, Calera, Copain, Failla (Ehren Jordan, Virginie and I walked to RN74 from the hotel, together with a somm from New York whose name I didn’t get), Freestone, Hirsch, Lioco, Littorai, Miura, Peay, Tyler, Wind Gap, and others I never heard of, such as Chanin, owned by young Gavin Chanin who evidently is a Clendenen protégé. This was the crême de la crême, a very exciting gathering. We owe a debt of gratitude to Raj Parr for making it happen, as probably only he could. And we owe a debt of gratitude to the crazy, mad, insane, inspired winemakers who pursue this impossible grape, Pinot Noir, giving so much physical and intellectual delight to the rest of us, even if their seminars are sometimes snoozefests.


Monday Meanderings

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Hung out yesterday with the marketing guy from a winery who told me he wishes his budget was bigger, but most of the money goes to sales in these tough times.

I’ve always been fascinated by the marketing and sales sides of the wine biz. Marketing, to my way of thinking, is building brand awareness, affection and loyalty among consumers. Sales is not only getting them to fork over their hard-earned cash, but getting the bottles to them, which involves the bizarrely antiquated three-tier system. So they’re really very different functions, even though they’re two sides of the same coin. The marketing guy was telling me he wants to put more energy into things like social media. He loves building brands. I couldn’t imagine building a brand any more than I could build a spaceship in my kitchen. It’s really hard to break through the information barrage and capture the consumer’s attention, much less hold it. And it’s getting harder. We talked a little about the role of critics and how they have been instrumental in the past in building brands through reviews. And we both wondered where that whole thing is going. Anyway, we didn’t break any new ground, just went over the same uncertain terrain, but I left feeling once again that marketing wine is a very hard job, one that goes largely unnoticed by the public. Which, come to think of it, is just as marketing managers would prefer.

* * *

Readers of this blog know that I’ve tried multiple times to acquire the Twitter habit. I’m now in my third iteration–or it it the fourth? One forgets. One thing I always wonder is whether to follow people who follow me. At first I did, thinking it merely polite; it’s like you see something coming down the street with their hand extended to you for a shake, so you extend yours. But then people who are far more knowledgeable about Twitter than I (and it doesn’t take much Twitter knowledge to qualify) told me that, no, you should only follow people you really, truly want to follow. So I stopped following my new followers, most of them anyway. I wonder if people who follow me expect me to follow them. The truth is that I spend very little time on my Twitter feed (actually none at all, since I use Tweetdeck), but I still wonder about the wisdom and propriety of following. Now come two articles with opposite viewpoints. This one argues that you should be a Twitter snob (nice term) because if you follow everyone who follows you, you’re basically an indiscriminate Twitter slut. It also makes you look a little desperate, like Tiffany in the comic strip Luann (one of my faves), who has a disturbing, probably pathological need to be liked by boys.

On the other hand, this article, “Bringing down the Twitter snobs,” says you should follow everyone who follows you because “There is an amazing person behind every single Twitter picture.” You never know, this person says, who you’ll meet. Why, it could be someone who could change your life.

I can see it both ways, but I’m still fairly virginile (virginic?) about Twitter and have yet to have enough experience with it to decide conclusively either way. One thing I do think, though, is that you could meet some life-changing person anywhere, not just Twitter, and there doesn’t seem to be more likelihood of meeting a life-changer on Twitter than in, say, Starbucks. The other thing I think is, Do you really “know” people from Twitter? Is it possible to learn about “the amazing person” behind a tweet of 140 words or less, in a feed that changes by the minute if not by the second? However, two dear friends, Joe Roberts and Jo Diaz, attest to Twitter’s charms, so I’m keeping an open mind.

* * *
Speaking of social media,
Eminem Surpasses Lady Gaga As Most “Liked” Person on Facebook. When Lady Gaga makes a movie as good as 8 Mile, maybe she’ll regain the title.

* * *

And reverting back to the theme of brands is this musing on re-branding. Even if you build a successful brand, like McDonald’s, you have to morph it every now and then so it doesn’t get stodgy. This has serious consequences for Ronald McDonald (“McDonald’s continues its march into a more mature market, one not all that in love with clowns.”) One of the most interesting aspects of the entire wine industry for me is to watch the boutique wineries of the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s (mainly Napa Cabernet houses) and see how they rebrand themselves. Some do, which ensures a healthy future and succession to a new generation. Some, sadly and patently, do not. I could name names, but to what point? The hardest thing in Hollywood is to build a second career, but some people–Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler is a great example–manage to do it. But for every Mickey Rourke there are 50 Burt Reynoldses (no disrespect; Boogie Nights was awesome, but that was 1997). It’s interesting, speaking of The Wrestler, that Boogie Nights starred Mark Wahlberg, who began his career as a Calvin Klein underwear model and rapper and just produced and co-starred in The Fighter, which won a bunch of Oscars. Now, there’s a career, and the dude is only 39. When we talk about brand building, look at Marky Mark, who did it, not by simulating a pseudo-career by amassing 1 million Twitter friends, but by actually developing his talent and accumulating a body of work.


Top 10, twice

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Top 10 wines of the week

Lots of old, familiar names on this week’s list.

Flora Springs 2008 Hillside Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Rutherford); $100. 347 cases, 14.2%.

Dragon’s Tooth 2007 Bordeaux Blend (Napa Valley); $75. 14.2%, cases not reported. From Trefethen.

Talley 2008 Rosemary’s Vineyard Pinot Noir (Arroyo Grande Valley); $70. 399, 13.9%.

Sinor-LaVallee 2008 Talley-Rincon Vineyard Pinot Noir (Arroyo Grande Valley); $40. 73, 14.8%

Signorello 2009 Hope’s Cuvee Chardonnay (Napa Valley); $65. 72, 13.9%

Shafer 2008 Merlot (Napa Valley); $48. 7200, 15.3%

Truchard 2008 Syrah (Carneros); $28. 1,035, 14.3%

Robert Foley 2009 Charbono (Napa Valley); $35. 1,400, 13.5%

Jeff Gordon 2008 Jeff Gordon Collection Chardonnay (Carneros);  $45. 238, 14.2%

Chappellet 2008 Signature Cabernet Sauvigno (Napa Valley); $48. 8,125, 14.9%

Top 10 wine destinations for men

From the Men’s website askmen.com, here are the favorite wine destinations for dudes in the world:

Burgundy
Champagne
Tuscany
Bordeaux
Mosel
Napa Valley
Piedmont
Ribera del Duero
Barossa Valley
California Central Coast/South of France [tie]



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