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Planes, parties, panels: a wine critic’s day is never done


Lots of work-related travel coming up. I’m off to New York for a quickie tomorrow to attend the big Red and White Bash, Wine Enthusiast’s 25th anniversary celebration, at the Hudson Hotel, on West 58th, in busy midtown. From the sound of it, it’s going to be quite the par-tay. I already have my red and white “costume,” and Chuck lent me a really cool papier-måché mask he bought in London.

Then next week, it’s up to Geyserville for the Alexander Valley Cabernet Academy. This is an offshoot of the annual Taste Alexander Valley consumer event, but the Cabernet Academy is an invitation-only thing for sommeliers. They fly in from all over the place for a series of seminars–four in all–which I’ll be moderating, at different locations throughout the valley.

The idea is to see if there are terroir differences between the southern, middle and northern stretches of Alexander Valley. This is  a topic I hadn’t given much thought to before, so in the next week, I plan to study it. My impression, up to now, is that the major distinction in Alexander Valley terroir is between mountains and flatlands. If you take a property like Stonestreet, or Verité, they have to have an Alexander Valley appellation even though they’re thousands of feet up in the Mayacamas. That’s the same AVA all those wineries along Route 128 have, down on the valley floor, which makes no sense at all.

The late Jess Jackson tried for years to get his mountain vineyards under a new appellation. The mountain they’re on historically has been called Black Mountain. Jess wanted it changed to Alexander Mountain. He lost that one, a rare defeat for a man who seldom lost anything in his long, illustrious life. I don’t care what they call it, but that mountain does need a separate appellation.

At any rate, I think the temperature is a little hotter the further north you go in Alexander Valley, as it is in Napa Valley. The average high in July in Cloverdale, for instance. Is 93 degrees, while mid-valley, at Geyserville, it’s a little over 90. At Healdsburg, in the southernmost part, the average July high is 88.8 degrees. So there is that spread. But this is a simplistic way of looking at things, as there’s so much more involved. Along the Russian River, the soils are deep and fertile. As you climb the benches and get into the mountains, they become drier, thinner and less rich in nutrients. The mountains also are cooler, an important consideration in such a hot place.

Then, after Alexander Valley, I’m off to the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival, where I’ll be co-hosting, along with Michael Jordan, M.S., a tasting of the Cabernets of Pritchard Hill. (Michael told me he was inspired to organize this tasting after reading the article on Pritchard Hill I wrote last year for Wine Enthusiast. The confirmed winemakers and wineries for our panel at this point are Phillip Titus (Chappellet), Andy Erickson (Ovid), Phillipe Melka (Brand), David Long (David Arthur) and Carlo Mondavi (Continuum). This panel will be a high point of the festival, but only one of many: as you can see from the schedule of events, Kapalua is a fabulous four days of some of the greatest wines and winemakers in California (not to mention food. I’m assuming the hotel has a gym where I can burn off the calories!). I can’t wait to go. My only regret is that Gus won’t be able to come with me. He loves the beach.

  1. Mark Lyon says:

    Being a winegrower of Cabernet in Alexander Valley for the past 32 years, I am in general agreement that soils play a larger role than climate. My vineyards are on flatland, but I’ve noticed that the gravelly areas made the best Cabernets. Are they as dense as the Mountain Cabernets? Perhaps not. However, not as tannic either. My ideal mix would be blending both Mountain and Flatland (on well drained, gravelly sights) to achieve balance. Mountain sights are typically cooler though with later ripening and lower yields.

    The climate issue has also been discussed. Yes, the southern part is cooler, but it has also more tendency towards vegetal, herbaceous styles that critics in general don’t like. But, I again believe soils and canopy management play a larger role in controlling herbaceousness.

    Finally, I remember the snobbery of those in the Southern (and still have) that their vineyards had superior Cabernet than those vineyards up north. There was an appellation battle in the mid-80’s that eventually resolved it under the larger tent. Nobody now is saying that Northern is more inferior in a larger context. The debate has shifted to Mountain and benchland vs. flatland.

  2. Concerning flatland vs hillside: I used to work with fruit from Three Palms Vineyard, and often described it as a mountain vineyard that happened to be on the valley floor. It is on an alluvial fan at the base of Dutch Henry Canyon, and strewn with volcanic rock that the stream brought down from the hillsides. The vineyards at the base of Ritchey Creek that flows off of Spring Mountain through Bothe Park are another example. I think the Eisele Vineyard where Araujo is located is the same. These are Napa examples of what surely explains some Alexander Valley sites as well.

  3. Not a winemaker,not a som, not a wine buyer. Really no one important but a young person just dipping their toe into the wine industry and I am just salivating at the fantasy of sitting in the same room as this “Cabernet Academy” is going on. Who do I have to call if I just want to sit in the room and listen? God? I bet he’s listening…..

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