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More inaccurate herd reporting on Napa climate change

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I was glad to see, via Terry Hall, the Napa Valley Vintners issue this clarification of the true state of climate change in Napa Valley.

They had to, because there’s been some sensationalistic reporting on that topic, in publications that should know better, including Reuters, which said “the results of climate change could [push Napa] beyond the acceptable band of temperatures required for…high quality varieties,” and The Huffington Post, according to which “By 2040 Northern California might have 50% less land suitable for growing premium wine grapes due to climate change.”

They were reporting on a short abstract in an online journal, Environmental Research Letters, whose bullet point is “We find that the projected warming over this period results in the loss of suitable winegrape area throughout much of California, including most counties in the high-value North Coast and Central Coast regions.” Others who jumped on this and wrote scary predictions about Napa’s future included Stanford University, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, and the Los Angeles Times.

Maybe it’s asking too much for publications to put scientific studies into context. Journalists have neither the time nor the skills to do so. Newspapers that used to have science reporters have laid them off (with the commendable exception of the San Francisco Chronicle’s David Perlman). It’s much easier to run an attention-grabbing headline (“Warmer temperatures threaten California vineyards” — the L.A. Times) then to do actual research.

That’s why Terry Hall’s press release from yesterday (read it, please; it’s not very long) is so welcome. Terry knows, as do I and many others, that Napa Valley is not getting hotter. Anyone who lives here knows that we’re now in the seventh year of a cooling cycle, which has been notably accentuated the last three vintages. I’ve written about this endlessly in this blog: how truly hotter temperatures far inland are sucking more, not less, chilly Pacific air over the coast, which includes Napa Valley. (Terry specifically said Napa “is not considered a coastal region,” but I would dispute that. Historically, it has been considered coastal, “coastal” being synonymous with fog, which Napa Valley rightly celebrates.)

Terry called Napa “the poster child for the potential results of climate change” and he’s exactly right. Patiently, he explains the results of the Napa Valley Vintners’ own five-year study. He points out that “the results [of climate change] will not necessarily be a blanket effect, as climate change is not a ‘one size fits all’ phenomenon.” So true. Would that all reporting would be so diligent about the facts.

The NVV Study did find a little bit of local warming “over recent decades,” namely an increase of 1-2 degrees F., but only in overnight temperatures between January and August. That may be true, but it may not be. Survey findings are only as accurate as the data that were inputted, and, as we all know from reading, say, The Winemaker’s Dance, temperature and climate studies are notoriously inaccurate, especially when they go back for decades, when readings were even more unreliable than they are now.

So next time you read some panicky article on how Napa will be too hot for anything except Algerian varieties, don’t worry. Just pop open a bottle of Cabernet and read something else.


Sonoma in the crucible

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Had a call yesterday from Oded Shakked, the proprietor of Longboard Vineyards, inviting me up to his place for a tasting of nine vintages of the Cabernet Sauvignon he’s made since 1999 from grapes grown in the Rochioli Vineyard.

I met Oded around 2001 when I was writing my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, in which he figures prominantly–and he even has his own photo (taken by moi). I not only was interested in Oded’s fascinating story (how he went from being an Israeli fighting soldier to a Russian River Valley winemaker), but because he had some interesting insights into a strange area of central Sonoma County that falls inbetween some far more famous appellations.

This would be the region around Healdsburg that isn’t really Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley or Chalk Hill, but falls near the nexus of them all. When I was writing “Journey,” I was in the process of articulating my understanding of what grape varieties or families of varieties grow best in Sonoma’s various AVAs. With Russian River Valley a cool area, it was obvious the answer was Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (with a nod to Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Sauvignon Blanc and a few others). With Chalk Hill and Alexander Valley–warmer regions–it was clear the stars were Bordeaux varieties (and, of course, Alexander’s exquisite Chardonnays and Zins). But what of that funny area around Healdsburg?

I already had written the part of Journey where I called the Russian River’s crazy loops around Healdsburg–loops that result eventually in its drastic turn westward to the sea, the only major California river to do so–“crucial.” Thus, when I asked Oded his views on that area, and he replied by calling it “The Crucible,” I was stunned. “Crucial” and “crucible” both trace their etymological roots to some very old terms: the Latin word for “cross”, and with connotations of a melting furnace.

I concluded then (and Oded already had arrived at the same conclusion independently) that this no-man’s land was (and is) probably good for Syrah, being neither too cool nor too warm. But now I need to pick up the story of Oded’s Rochioli Cabernet Sauvignon.

Why exactly the Rochiolis planted Cabernet in their famous vineyard on Westside Road always has eluded me. I’m sure I asked Tom Rochioli at some point, and have forgotten what he said. Probably they just wanted to see what it would do, so they put in a small patch. The Rochiolis themselves weren’t interested in vinifying it; they didn’t seem to think very much about it. Anyhow, they had a relationship with Oded, and so he got the grapes and made the wine. But it always was a curiosity to have a Cabernet Sauvignon with a Rochioli Vineyard designation.

At any rate, Oded told me yesterday (I don’t think I’d known, or, if I had, I’d forgotten) that the Rocholis finally budded over the Cabernet portion of their vineyard to, predictably, Pinot Noir, in 2007. So the ‘07 was the last vintage Oded, or anyone else, will ever make a Cabernet from the Rochioli Vineyard. It seems likely to Oded, and I agree, that there may be virtually no more Cabernet Sauvignon growing in the Russian River Valley. (I’m sure someone will set me straight on this.)

Then Oded added that he’s thinking of finding a new source of Cabernet, and he’s looking–you guessed it–somewhere in The Crucible. He added that he’d thought of planting it in his own little vineyard, which also is on Westside Road but further north, and thus warmer, than Rochioli (and where he also grows his Syrah and Merlot). But he still worries the area might not be suitable for Cabernet Sauvignon.

It always was hard to figure out why Longboard’s Rochioli Vineyard Cabernet was so good. I never rated it less than 90 points. In theory, Rochioli Vineyard is too chilly to ripen Cabernet. Yet somehow it worked. Maybe it was because the Cabernet vines were planted (in 1974) on the north side of Westside Road, in a warmer region of the large vineyard than down by the Russian River, where Rochioli’s classic Pinot Noir blocks (West, East, Riverblock, Three Corner) were situated. Maybe it was Joe, Jr.’s impeccable viticulture. Probably a combination of both, with Oded’s skill and a little mystery thrown in.

All this reverts back to an issue that appears with some regularity here at steveheimoff.com; namely, the relationship between wine type, AVA, consumer and critical perception, scores, pricing and marketability. In other words, everything. Oded may find a fine Cabernet Sauvignon source somewhere in The Crucible; he may make a fine wine from it, and offer it at a decent price; but will it sell? We all have become a little too dependent on associating varieties with appellations, instead of letting the wine speak for itself. That’s not a healthy development, as it inhibits innovation. I’ll miss Oded’s Rochioli Cabernet, but I’m looking forward to whenever he starts making one again, no matter where it comes from.


Wine biz doing okay despite recessionary fears

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The national media is discovering the news, already several months old, that the U.S. has now become the world’s top wine consuming country. CNN and Bloomberg News actually had it last night as a top story: “Move over France, USA topping wine consumption,” CNN headlined it.

This doesn’t mean America has the highest per capita consumption. We simply drink more in total tonnage than any other nation, because we have so many people.

The Wine Institute says the average amount of wine consumed per resident last year was 2.54 gallons, up .04 gallons from 2009, and about 30% more than the 1.96 gallons per person in the year 1978, which is when I moved to Califronia and discovered wine.

Some pessimists lately are predicting that the lousy economy will reverse this upward direction. “Downturn to slow US wine consumption,” Decanter blared last week, but I don’t buy it. Americas continued to drink more and more during the worst of the recession, 2008-2009, although they also drank cheaper, and I expect we’ll continue to enjoy our wine, no matter how bad things get. Americans like to drink alcoholic beverages. We already were a beer and spirits consuming country before wine got big; now, we’re a wine drinking country too. Case sales of wine have been up in this country for 17 consecutive years, and it would take a catastrophe of unprecedented volume for that to reverse.

Last April, when the news about U.S. wine consumption came out, I blogged that Millennials get the credit for driving sales. My take on them is that they’ve got the wine bug now. They may be having problems getting jobs, or good jobs; they may have returned home for a spell to live with mom and/or dad, ‘til things get better. They may be sharing a two-bedroom flat with four of their friends, to make ends meet. Or they may be doing perfectly well, holding down well-paid gigs in our big cities. But one thing the recession isn’t going to rob them of is a nice glass of wine, at home or in a bar.

In fact, check out this article, by a marketing analyst. He says that, even though “this is not the best of times for Millennials,” they are “More likely to splurge on expensive alcohol brands [and] more likely to purchase wine and hard liquor than their previous generations.” It may sound cynical, but, the analyst concludes, even as the “Economy Crushes [the] Average American [the] Liquor Industry Rejoices.” Consumers, including Millennials, are spending less on everything from clothes to autos to vacations, but they’re drowning their troubles in wine.


Playing with the Grape and Crush reports

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My intern, Chuck, was telling me about a certain Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon we’re both familiar with that, while pretty good, could be better. He said the owner was looking for some Merlot to blend in, to improve it.

“Why Merlot?” I asked. “For softness,” Chuck answered. The Cabernet’s tannins were too raw.

“Why not Cabernet Franc or Petit Verdot?” I said. Based on my experiences, and some reporting I’ve been doing, both these varieties are increasingly popular, especially in Napa Valley, to blend in with Cabernet. I personally thought that Merlot was less resorted to, because it is such a difficult grape to grow right.

Well, in bridge they talk about taking the guess out of the finesse by peeking at your opponent’s cards. In wine, instead of guessing about what’s up, what’s down, and what’s sideways, we can always look it up in the two guidebooks the California Department of Food and Agriculture puts out each year: the Grape Crush Report and the Grape Acreage Report.

I predicted that I thought Petit Verdot was the most expensive red grape variety in California. We looked it up: weighted average dollars per ton: $1,192. A glance of the rest of the list shows that that isn’t even close to being the most expensive. Twenty varieties cost more, including Pinot Meunier, Lagrein and Counoise!

Okay, so my predictive powers as Chuck’s boss were proven to be a total sham. But wait! “Let’s look at District 4 instead,” I said, that being Napa Valley. “I bet Petit Verdot’s the most expensive grape there.”

Flip to page 63 of the Crush guide, and there it is: average price, Petit Verdot, District 4: $4,919. That’s higher than Cabernet Sauvignon ($4,456), Merlot ($2,518), Syrah ($3,015) and Pinot Noir ($2,473)–but not higher than Cabernet Franc, whose average Napa price last year was $5,238.

Still, I could just as easily have pulled a switcheroo with Chuck and said that I bet Cab Franc was Napa’s most expensive red grape, so I considered myself vindicated. The point being that Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot increasingly are being relied upon to complexify (is that a word?) Cabernet Sauvignon. Cab Franc gives, I think, aromatics and sometimes a lovely green note of olives and herbs (in contrast to Cab Sauv’s blackberry fruit), while Petit Verdot adds an elegant structure; it seems to have tannins that are at once smoother and denser than Cabernet’s, which can be prickly despite modern tannin management.

Next I turned to the Acreage Report to see if it jived with the Crush Report. There was in fact a big spike in plantings of Petit Verdot in 2010, but it wasn’t in Napa, as I’d expected; only 18 new acres were non-bearing last year. No, the big increase in California Petit Verdot (59 new acres) was in San Luis Obispo, of all places. It took me about 3 seconds to make the connection: right before meeting with Chuck, I’d been with Scott McLeod, who left Rubicon last year to consult and, possibly, do his own thing one of these days. Scott was telling me about the Adelaide Hills region of western Paso Robles, where one of his clients is located. He predicted, confidently, that this area will become known as a prime source of Bordeaux-style red wines.

So is western Paso Robles where all that Petit Verdot is going? I looked up Cabernet Franc. Only 21 non-bearing CF last year in SLO county.  Where’s most of the new California Cab Franc going? The Sierra Foothills, is where. Once again, it took me only seconds to realize what was going on. Many years ago, more than 10 and possibly even 15, after my first trip to Amador, El Dorado and Calaveras counties, I’d returned home convinced that the best grape and wine up there in the mountains wasn’t Zinfandel, as most would have said. No, based on my tasting, it was Cabernet Franc. I said so and wrote as much. Evidently the growers still believe in it, because between those three counties they had 130 acres of non-bearing Cab Franc last year, about as much as the rest of the state altogether.

This is super-geeky stuff, and I wouldn’t blame anyone from hanging themselves if they even got one-third of the way through reading it. But for some of us, it’s what we thrive on.


What exactly is the relationship between price and quality? Seriously…

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Before I wade into the thicket implied by my header, let me bring to your attention this little spat from across the pond, in which the spokesman for Britain’s third largest supermarket chain accuses the editor of Decanter of being a “snob” after the editor, Guy Woodward, told the BBC there’s a “huge amount of difference” between bottles of wine that cost only 2 British pounds apart, with the more expensive being the better.

The tiff lit up British twitter boards with the ferocity of a royal wedding (well, almost), forcing Woodward to explain what he really meant. On The Telegraph’s website, he said that, at the average price of £4.60 paid in Britain for a bottle of wine (about $7.50 U.S.), “the chances of getting an interesting wine are slim.” Although he had praise for certain cheap wines, including a Rioja, Woodward remained unapologetic. “But these wines remain the exception rather than the rule…”. Continuing, Woodward calculates that “If the price of wine were to rise, producers would be paid a decent wage to reinvest in their vineyards, we’d have better wine [and] people would learn to appreciate it…”. It’s the price wars, with all their deep discounting, that rage in Britain, as here in the States, that keep the cost of wine low, and thus the quality–or so Woodward says.

Is he right?

Well, readers of this space, as well as those familiar with my reviews, know I have long argued that the correlation between price and quality isn’t as neat as you might wish it to be. Often as not, I’ll give a winery’s standard bottling a higher score than its pricier reserve. In big blind tastings, such as the ones that the Napa Vintners arrange for me, I’ll often rate relatively inexpensive wines ($25-$40) equal to, if not higher than, super-expensive cults. I love giving a Best Buy to a wine when it conforms to Wine Enthusiast’s price-rating guidelines. And even when it doesn’t, I’ll give a coveted Editor’s Choice to a wine that out-performs for the price.

But in general, I’d have to agree with Guy Woodward: it is awfully hard to get a great bottle of wine for $7.50. Or even $10. Not to say it’s impossible; it can be done, especially nowadays, when negociants like Cameron Hughes are able, somehow, to buy expensive, well-grown wines at big discounts from producers, who can’t sell it. This is why there are so many great Napa Cabernets lately in the $20-$30 range.

But $20 is not $7.50. At that price point, you have to do your homework very carefully–either that, or you just can’t be too fussy. The wine price wars are fought as fiercely here as in Great Britain, perhaps even more so, driving quality down to an acceptable bottom rung, below which not even the most aggressive producer dares to sink, lest the consumer reject his wines in droves. I have frequently defended the big, mass producers for giving Americans what they want and can afford–but let’s not pretend that these are quality wines. I will claim Guy Woodward’s words for my own: Under $10 or so, “the chances of getting an interesting wine are slim.”


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