I like Allen Meadow’s dictum about Burgundy, expressed in his new book, The Pearl of the Côte: “You may not always get what you pay for, but one thing’s for sure: You’ll never get what you don’t pay for.”
I’m sure that’s true of a region as old, established and well understood as Vosne, where they figured out a long time ago that, say, La Romanée is great terroir whereas Echezeaux is slightly less so–hence the difference in price.
What about California? Let’s take Allen’s Dictum and apply it to certain wines and regions.
Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux blends.
“You may not always get what you pay for.” True enough! I can’t tell you how many 85-87 point Cabs I’ve reviewed that cost more than $50, and sometimes a lot more, into triple digits. (Readers of my blog know that I don’t identify specific wines in a critical way. But you can always go to Wine Enthusiast’s free database and look up my scores. Then you’ll see who I’m talking about.) I don’t know about you, but I think it sucks when an 86 point wine costs $70. That is the very definition of “not getting what you pay for.”
However–and it’s a big however–the truth about Napa Valley is that, in general, you do get what you pay for. To pick one example, $275 for 2007 Araujo Eisele? At 98 points, it’s worth every penny (unless you happen to be of the Fred Franzia school of thought which declares that no wine is worth more than $10).
Do you have to pay that much for a 98 point wine? Nope. Consider Vine Cliff’s 2007 Oakville Cabernet, which also got 98 points, and costs “only” $75. The difference, I suppose, is bragging rights. I guess it’s flashier to put Araujo on your table than Vine Cliff.
Now, how about “You’ll never get what you don’t pay for” in Napa Cabernet. That, too, is true. You simply have to pay a lot of money for a top Cabernet (although, as we just saw with the Vine Cliff, “a lot of money” is a relative term). Still, the fact is that most of my very top scoring Cabs do cost in the triple digits. If you can’t afford that, then I’m afraid you’ll rarely get a great Napa Valley red wine.
California Pinot Noir.
This is a different story. “You may not always get what you pay for.” Well, that’s always true, across the board, in every variety, wine type or region in the world. But here, we have to be careful, because the statement “You may not always get what you pay for” is actually very complicated. Break it down, and you’ll see that it has to do with expectations. What if you’re disappointed when you taste an expensive Pinot Noir?
It could be that the wine actually is very good, only it’s not to your liking. Young Pinot is notoriously more difficult to appreciate than young Cabernet, especially if you don’t have a lot of experience. Maybe you prefer a lush, rich, high alcohol Pinot, and the one you bought is made in an earthier, more acidic style. (Of course, you should have done your homework before you spent, but that’s another story.) Still, it’s absolutely true that, in California Pinot Noir, “You may not always get what you pay for” occurs more frequently than in Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
How about “You’ll never get what you don’t pay for” in Pinot Noir. That, too, is true, and it’s even truer than it is with Cabernet Sauvignon. In Cabernet, there’s a chance that, with careful selection, you can get a fine Cabernet for $25. To pick but a single example (and there are many), I gave 91 points to Raymond’s 2008 Family Classic Cabernet Sauvignon, which has a Napa-Sonoma-Lake appellation. That’s a pretty good wine. Why Cabernet is easier to make good and inexpensive is because Cabernet isn’t really that hard to make to begin with. Get the grapes ripe, have sound winemaking practices, give it a little oak, and voila. Much of the rest is sizzle, not steak.
Good Pinot under $25? Fageddaboudit. Sure, dig through my database and you’ll find some 91s and 90s in the $11-$20 bracket, but not too many. It’s not much easier finding great Pinot from $21-$30, and such as there are tend to be notable for instant gratification rather than true, ageworthy complexity. Example: Melville 2010 Verna’s Estate Pinot Noir ($26), which I scored at 93 points. That’s an amazing bargain, which is why I gave it an Editor’s Choice special designation. But again, it’s an exception to the rule.
What about all those other varieties–Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc? Allen’s Dictum is far less relevant. It’s easier to find good versions of all these varieties at lower price points, while super-expensive bears less relation to quality than in Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon. (I consciously include Chardonnay in this generalization.) I guess that’s why Cabernet and Pinot are described as noble varieties. You do get what you pay for.
I have mixed feelings about the Federal Trade Commission requiring alcoholic beverage companies to reveal their “Internet marketing and data collection practices,” as reported here.
Most of the information I cite here came to me this morning from the Buffalo Trace Distillery, a Kentucky-based whiskey brewer, through an email blast. Unfortunately, the contents of that email are not available on the Internet, so I can’t provide a link.
But according to Buffalo Trace, the FTC “for the first time” has requested the information in order “to see how effective the industry’s voluntary guidelines are in reducing marketing messages to underage audiences.” The companies now under compulsary order by the FTC include Anheuser-Busch, Diageo, Constellation, Brown-Forman, Jackson Family Wines, Pernod Ricard and many others that are big players in the wine, beer and spirits industry.
The FTC is concerned, rightfully so, with Internet marketing of alcoholic beverages to people below the age of 21. According to Adweek magazine, which reported a version of the story yesterday, until fairly recently the FTC wasn’t terribly concerned with Internet marketing of alcoholic beverages. But all that changed following “the explosion in mobile apps and social media, reportedly a new favorite of alcohol marketers.” Seems the FTC became aware of a study which determined that “digital marketing…might be even more profound than the known risks of exposure to traditional marketing,” particularly when targeted to “youth who…increased their drinking levels more over time…into their late 20s.” You can find a link to this study by going here and then clicking on the “Alcohol Marketing in the Digital Age” link at the bottom of the page, which brings you the PDF.
The reason I have mixed feelings about this new policy by the FTC is because I’m concerned about the increasing encroachment of the government into our Internet activities. I grant that the government has a legitimate interest in combating underage drinking. It’s also obvious that alcoholic beverage companies are experts when it comes to marketing. See this report on how “Social networks are becoming the go-to platform for alcohol marketing,” which says “social media has become a new venue for promotion, and alcohol is no exception.” Check out, for example, this YouTube-like opener for Corona Beer. It’s really well made, addictive in its own way. Who wouldn’t want to be young, cute and lovable, on a warm beach at night, with other young, cute lovable kids, rocking out to live music while sucking up the suds? The possibilities for love are endless.
Of course these ads are reprehensible; they seek to entice young people into irresponsible behavior, at a point in their lives–teenage–when they’re least capable of self-discipline. On the other hand, how intrusive do we want government to get, even with giant corporations? It’s also unclear what the FTC means to do with the information it has required from the companies, which is due by June 11. Can the FTC force companies to drop their Internet ads? Is that censorship? What will the courts decide? As usual, the intersection of public policy, law and private behavior (remember, “corporations are people”) is an exceedingly complicated one.
I love Wine Enthusiast’s database. It’s my brain, with memory: I can barely remember what I tasted 2 days ago, but that database remembers every wine I’ve reviewed since the 1990s. Not only does it remember them, it knows the date of my review, exactly what the score and text were, and–if I entered the data in the first place–what the alcohol was and even the case production.
Those are powerful tools to discern patterns and trends, which are different: A pattern might be, say, that Paso Robles had a particularly good year with Zinfandel in 2010. A trend would be for Paso Robles to have good Zinfandels year after year after year.
If I look at my top-scoring wines over many years, it’s evident that two varieties, clustered into growing regions, really define California at its greatest. Those would be Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (including the Sonoma Coast appellation) and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux blends, including all the valley’s sub-appellations.
It’s important for a wine region to have top exemplars. It sets the bar higher for all other varieties and regions, which is vital if a region is to advance, as not all do. Big scores also help to convince skeptics that the region is right up there with the world’s other top wine regions. And they affirm the efforts of those hard working zealots who have labored for so many years. Nobody likes to work hard and have their achievements go unrecognized.
Why Napa should produce such great Cabernets is easy to understand. They’ve been working at it for 150 years. Even if you discount the period during and immediately after Prohibition, when everything was on hiatus, Napa Valley really started getting serious about Cabernet in the 1960s. So they’ve had the better part of 60 years to work at it: figure out the best places to plant (and the inferior places not to), to analyze the soil (which can take decades to properly understand) and combine the right rootstocks and clones to the right blocks, to tinker with canopy management and cropping levels and figure out the most beneficial way to sort their fruit and get it to the winery. And that doesn’t even begin to address the improvements in enology.
Napa’s climate is ideal for the ripening of Bordeaux varieties. Being an extra mountain range (the Mayacamas) inland from the sea than Sonoma County, it has that extra bit of heat. But Napa also has what all inland California coastal valleys have: a pretty fierce diurnal temperature swing. That means that, regardless of how hot it gets during the day, nighttimes cool off rapidly. That’s what Cabernet (and Merlot and Cab Franc and Petit Verdot) need to maintain acidity.
That the Russian River Valley should be so hospitable to Pinot Noir is the surprise of a lifetime, I think, even to the pioneers (some of them no longer with us) who planted it there in the 1960s and 1970s. I mean folks like Joe Rochioli, Jr., Joe Swan, and a couple of others. I don’t think they really understood what they were doing. No disrespect, but they were working more with hopes and fingers crossed than with any foreknowledge of guarantee. But look what they did!
What’s so spectacular about Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is the breadth and depth that it’s achieved in only 40 years. The variety is now widely planted there, from Fort Ross way out (and up) on the coast, through the Goldridge soils of the southerly Laguna Ridges, all the way on up to near Healdsburg, in the northeast. We thus have a wide spectrum of terroirs, with enough wineries in each to make solid generalizations, mostly concerning temperature variations, soil being (IMHO) less important in the Russian River Valley than geographic location relative to the maritime influence.
(I’m still reading and enjoying Allen Meadows’ new book, The Pearl of the Côte, and if I had a dollar for every time he expresses irony or surprise that a particular vineyard performs well despite its soil [i.e. in unexpected, unstereotypical ways], I’d be a rich man. The point being that while much is made of soil and its effects, climate is a much more reliable predictor of wine style.)
No other Pinot region in California besides the Russian River Valley possesses these factors of widespread plantings over a wide region, with a density of producers and a history of production. Not Santa Rita Hills, not Santa Lucia Highlands, not even Carneros. Anderson Valley is beginning to, but it will take a few dozen more wineries to really let us figure it out, and that may never happen, given the peculiarities of doing business in that far-off region, so remote from San Francisco or any other population center.
I feel like Napa Valley and Russian River Valley are California’s Bordeaux and Burgundy. I don’t think that’s too far-fetched. We’re blessed to have such markers to calibrate everything else.
I think most of us have worried at one time or another whether our cellar conditions are ideal. I have. I store wines in several places, including a temperature-controlled unit in my house, and also in my cousin’s basement. She lives in San Mateo, near SFO, and her cellar, while it’s not temperature-controlled, rarely rises above the mid-60s, even during heat waves. So I thought it was a good place to store wine.
Apparently not. We opened a 2005 Rubicon last week, for the seder dinner, and my cousin immediately noticed that it was a little brown around the edges. I told her that wasn’t necessarily a bad sign in an older wine–but it did make me worry a bit, because the wine was only 6-1/12 years old. At the time I’d rated it, in January of 2009, I’d scored it at 96 points and given it a “Cellar Selection” designation, writing that it was “Nowhere near ready for at least four years, and that may be conservative.”
But last week, when I tasted the wine I was struck by the presence of dried fruit, a plumminess that emphasized a certain overripe character. That wine was very good, mind you; we all happily drank it with the leg of lamb. But I figured we’d better drink the remaining 11 bottles over the next 18 months.
It was a personal disappointment to discover that my prognostication from 2009 was so dissonant from the reality of 2012! So it was really fascinating when, during my visit to Francis Ford Coppola yesterday, for lunch they pulled out the 2005 Rubicon and served it with the cheese course. I had earlier told the winemaker, Phillippe Bascoules (whom Francis hired six months ago; his predecessor, Scott McLeod, actually made the’05), of my experience with the wine, which elicited a raised eyebrow from him. He’d had it recently and thought it fresh and clean.
As indeed it was. The bottle at lunch was the wine I’d tasted in 2009. It obviously was just at the beginning of a long journey through this world. The inevitable conclusion was that the bottle we’d had at the seder had been compromised.
Could it have been “an off bottle”? I suppose; I’ll know for sure as we open the other bottles. That catch-all phrase “off bottle” is often used to exonerate a wine that didn’t show well. I can understand certain obvious reasons for off bottles: maybe it got cooked in the back of a delivery truck during a heat wave. Maybe it’s corked. Then there are instances where a winemaker insists the bottle is off, but there’s no apparent reason, except for some random, Heisenbergian mutation. Dan Berger used to talk about “lightstruck” wines, that being a criticism. It was never clear to me what he meant, although common sense suggested that if a bottle of wine was in direct sunlight for a period of time, it would probably suffer. But my ‘05 Rubicon had never seen sunlight. I bought it directly from the distributor.
I remember way back when I was writing about collecting wines. I met one of America’s supreme collectors, a southern Californian with maybe 100,000 rare old bottles. He had a vacation condo in Hawaii. He told me he visited his island home and took out an old Bordeaux from his cellar there. There was something off; he could tell. Upon inquiry, he discovered that the condo’s electricity had been briefly interrupted, for just a couple of hours, but enough, he claimed, to derange his wines. At the time, I thought he must have a freakishly acute palate. But now, 20-plus years later, I can see that you can taste when a good wine is off, even if by just a tiny bit. Even the best bottle can’t withstand torture by uncontrolled temperature.
So I’m going to have to find an alternative to my cousin’s basement. I don’t know what it will be, but the process begins today.
I’m headed up to Napa Valley today, in the rain (groan), to visit with Mr. Francis Ford Coppola. This is for an upcoming feature story in Wine Enthusiast (the print edition here in the States as well as the new Mandarin edition, debuting in June), so I’m not going to steal my own thunder by talking about it now. But it does have me thinking about how great it is to live so close to the wine country I report on. I suppose I could be a wine writer if I lived in Indianapolis, but it wouldn’t be as easy, or as much fun.
I remember my first winery visits as a working reporter. That was when I worked for “the competition.” They sent me to two Napa Valley wineries on the same day: Flora Springs and Chateau Potelle. The former was owned by the same family that owns it today; the wines were very high in quality and still are. The latter no longer exists, and it was by sheer coincidence that I received a tasting sample last week from Marketta du Formeaux, who was one of the original Potelle owners. It was a Sauvignon Blanc from her new Marketta brand, and quite a good wine, indeed.
I remember sitting on Potelle’s balcony, high up on Mount Veeder, sipping their own Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel with Marketta and her then-husband, Jean-Noel, a funny man who insisted I call him “Johnny Christmas” and who joked (referring to the rutted dirt road that led up to the property) that the winery really should have been called Chateau Pot-Hole.
I also visited, early on in my career, two wineries in Paso Robles: Eberle and Wild Horse. Eberle is, of course, still going strong, but Wild Horse like Potelle no longer exists under the guidance of its founder, Ken Volk, who now runs his own eponymous brand. When you’ve been around a while, you see wineries come and go. Mostly, and fortunately, they stay.
It’s an honor and a privilege to be hosted at a winery by the proprietor/s. I never forget that I’m a guest in someone’s home, that my hosts are proud of their accomplishments and that I’m there to hear about them. You don’t have to be servile when you’re a guest, but you do have to pay interested attention to everything around you, and to be alert to your host’s words. On the other hand, some proprietors have a tendency to go robo. They’re on message all the time, repeating the same hidebound formulas they talk about all the time, to every reporter. This is only natural, but in my experience it’s because they’re nervous and don’t know what else to talk about. It’s the writer’s role to loosen them up, get them to be comfortable in the experience instead of tense. That’s the art of the interview. I think I’m a good interviewer, having been doing it for a long time. But some people are easier to interview than others.
My last book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff, was all interviews. Some of them were tortured. Others flowed as easily as if we were sitting by the fireside on a winter night, drinking red wine. At that time, I’d decided never to arm myself with prepared questions. When I first started interviewing, I’d do my research and come with a list of 30 or 40 questions, then ask them one at a time, in order. That is an approach, but not a very good one. I began to notice, when I’d get home and transcribe the recordings, that I’d allowed certain remarks that were alive with implications to pass by unexplored, so fixated was I on asking the next question on the list. It was as though the conversation went like this:
So tell me, where did you learn how to make wine?
Well, I went to U.C. Davis, but it was really during my summer internship at the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti that I learned.
And what year did you graduate from Davis?
I’d read that later and think, Oh, s**t, I failed to ask him about his internship at DRC? Doh! So for years now, I go to interviews without lists of questions, armed only with background information in my head, prepared to have an actual conversation in which I can be mentally alert to where the chat wants to go, instead of forcing it in a particular direction.
I always thought Larry King was a good interviewer. True, he had his detractors, who said he only gave his guests puffballs. But I saw him ask some very tough questions over the years. It was precisely because his guests trusted him that they relaxed their guard enough to sometimes let their true selves out. Mike Wallace, who died yesterday, was Larry King’s complete opposite. He came on strong, looking for blood, and always seemed to know exactly where to stick the knife. He was good at it, and it was fun watching him skewer the rich and powerful on Sixty Minutes. But that aggressive approach isn’t mine, and besides, this is the wine industry. Interviewing winemakers doesn’t call for the same style as interviewing mafia chiefs.