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Cocktails and varietal promiscuity



I’m not a big cocktail drinker, but I do like one or two from time to time when I’m having a nice dinner at a restaurant. My preference is vodka. The taste of Scotch has never appealed to me, although I do appreciate the complexities of a single-malt. Rum and bourbon, ehh, I sometimes like to venture over to Pican on a late night and have some of their Bourbon classic cocktails, but I have to be in the right mood. On my to-do list is to explore tequila. Now that I’m not immersed in a tsunami of California wine, like I was for so long, I have the time to explore other beverages!

I used to be a dirty vodka martini guy, but the excessive salt in the olives and brine eventually bothered me. So I asked a bartender at a hotel where I was staying to recommend a vodka drink that was simple but not salty, and he gave me a gimlet. Now, that particular gimlet was not very good. It was too soft and sweet and simple. So when I had dinner recently at Ozumo, I tried again, and bingo! That was a superb gimlet, as were the two I had the other night at Boot and Shoe Service, here in Oakland. I asked the bartender lady why it was so good, and she said it was because they freshly squeeze their own limes, instead of using the classic Rose’s Lime Juice, which to my understanding is sweetened. Perhaps that was the problem with that hotel gimlet, which tasted like liquid candy.

Before I was a wine writer, I drank widely and prolifically. My old tasting diary is filled with notes on Alsace, Chianti, Bordeaux, Germany, the Loire—not so much Italy, alas. These are the wines I plan to start re-enjoying in this new phase of my life and career. But I’m sure the majority of the wines I drink will still be from California.

When I began enjoying California wine, the state hadn’t yet turned into what we may today call the appellation-varietal complex (a term I borrowed from Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex”). Even in Napa Valley, which shortly was to become a varietal monoculture, with primarily Cabernet Sauvignon planted, you still saw vineyards with Zinfandel, Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet next to each other. When Harry Waugh visited the valley, in the mid-1980s, he was astonished to see, at the S. Anderson winery, only Chardonnay and sparkling wine produced, which he called “another new trend…What a contrast [to when] every winery used to produce and sell half-a-dozen varietals!”

I’m not here to defend varietal promiscuity in a vineyard, but it wasn’t the worst thing in the world in the 1960s and 1970s and it wouldn’t be today, if someone did that sort of thing. We got into this topic last week on my blog, where someone wrote critically of Trefethen for having Riesling growing in the same vineyard as their Cabernet. That person felt it was terroir-ly (is that a word?) impossible for both varieties to thrive in close proximity. I suppose his thinking was that Riesling needs Alsatian or German weather and soils whereas Cabernet needs Bordeaux weather and soils, and since the weather and soils in Alsace/Germany are different from those of Bordeaux, it must ipso facto be impossible for both varietals to thrive in Oak Knoll!

That’s an example of what I call ideological thinking. It may seem logical, but you really have to taste the wine to see what’s real. In the case of Trefethen’s Rieslings, I’ve always liked them. They’re dry (as the label says), and most of the time make for excellent drinking, at a fair price. I gave 91 points to the 2009, 87 to the 2010 and 89 to the 2012 (I didn’t review the 2011—did they make one?). I’m also a huge fan of Trefethen’s Cabernets, so for me, the argument that you can’t grow Riesling and Cabernet in the same vineyard just doesn’t hold water.

In part what I’ve learned and tried to communicate during my entire career can be boiled down to this: Whatever you think is real may not be. The best way to find out is to have an open mind. If you can’t have an open mind, then taste blind. You discover the most surprising things that way.

  1. Bill Haydon says:

    Steve, my point was never that both varietals could not grow in the same soil but whether they should, whether any terroir could be suitable for both to the point of leading to great–or even distinguished–wines. I still maintain that they can’t. I, however, do think the soils and warmth there are vigorous to the point that you could “grow” anything, including lettuce, berries and prunes.

    Just perusing Trefethen’s wines on their website, it boggles my mind that terroir capable of producing 14.8% Cabernet blends is somehow going to produce anything other than mediocre, flabby Riesling in the plot right next door. As someone who drinks a lot of dry German, Alsatian and Austrian Riesling, I really have to differ with your evaluation. Those wines are hardly anything special at roughly the same cost as the bottle of Donnhoff Trocken (one of the Germany’s greatest producers) that I had a couple of weeks ago.

    Such a vineyard may have been a necessary and logical stage as Napa was discovering what really does and does not work, but that era ended decades ago.

    Which leads me to this discussioin’s realtion to your recent post about the decline of Carneros’ perception as a premier Chardonnay and Pinot Noir region. While I’m sure that the emergence of newer, more exciting regions had some effect, perhaps it’s decline also lies at the feet of losing its focus in the 90s as the “benchmark” vineyards there came to be the varietally promiscuous everything under the sun operations such as Hyde, Hudson and Truchard. If John Kongsgaard is cranking 15+% Syrah out of there, can one really argue that the region is such a special and unique site for Chard and Pinot that it should be spoken of in the same breath as Burgundy?

  2. But Bill Haydon, have you ever actually tasted Trefethen’s Riesling?

  3. Bill Haydon says:

    I have. Not recently, but I probably tasted it a couple of times years past. It’s actually a Napa wine that I would be inclined to like (non-Chard white at a reasonable price), but I just never found it to be anything more than technically sound but unexciting, particularly when I can get entry level bottles from people like Donnhoff or Gunderloch at the same price. If we’re going to talk of a Napa “legacy” white that I find excellent, it would be Chappellet’s Chenin.

    I’ll, however, give you my word that I will pick up a bottle (pitch in and cover the gas cost of a lap or two in Frodo’s Porsche) this month and come back with an honest appraisal.

  4. Mr. Haydon—

    Following your logic about Trefethen, how is it possible to grow good dry Chenin Blanc on Pritchard Hill right next to very ripe, deep Cabernet Sauvignon. The site at Chappellet has very little in common with the Loire and the wine has very little in common with dry Chenins of the Loire.

    Yet, both the Chenin and the Cab from Chappellet are quite good. Old World limits were developed practically in Dark Ages–at least in viticultural terms–and those limits today are vestiges of the past, not proven facts of the 21st C.

    Have you ever thought about what Chardonnay grown in the chalky soils of upper Vouvray might taste like? How about Syrah on Beaujolais’ Mont Brouilly where the soils and exposure and climate is nearly identical to Cote Rotie?

    I am not quite the fan of Trefethen Riesling as Steve, but there is no one ideal for picking time for grapes. Riesling, as you well know, can be picked early. Whether it is the equal of the great wines from the Nahe is a very different question, and a giant red herring. If all Riesling had to taste like Donnhoff, aside from being far too boring, Riesling would not be grown in many other places in the world, including the Mosel.

    It is true that Napa is turning into CA claret country, but the economic roots of that evolution are at least as important as the best place to achieve wine quality roots.

    And just to finish the thought, there is not much Zin left in the Napa Valley, and almost none that I know of on the West Rutherford Bench, yet the Zin that Mondavi used to grow in To Kalon was some of the best ever. Funny thing is that To Kalon is not just great for Cab or Zin but also produces what is arguably one of the very best Sauvignon Blancs around.

    CA is not Europe, and there is no point in pretending that it is or that CA has follow practices that are centuries old and vastly out of date—not to mention having their own roots in economic reality as much as in wine quality considerations.

  5. Steve, I am not a big vodka drinker but whenever I am in Oakland (I think that is your world), I think about grabbing a Greyhound at Cafe Van Kleef. Fresh squeezed grapefruit juice with a huge slice of grapefruit alongside it.

  6. Sounds good! I’ll have to check it out.

  7. Charlie: Wouldn’t the Estate Zin made by Inglenook (f/k/a Rubicon f/k/a Niebaum-Coppola f/k/a Inglenook) be West Rutherford Bench?

    It’s really too bad so much old Zinfandel was torn out in Napa. I’m thankful the likes of Bedrock, Carlisle and Turley may have stemmed the tide and acted before more was torn out in Sonoma County and other places.

  8. It is sad how much Zinfandel Napa has lost. Good wine. In some respects I like Napa Zin more than from any other region. It’s so balanced.

  9. Anyone who likes vodka would be doing themselves a favor by visiting Spirit Works at the Barlow ( and tasting their vodka. It is wheat based, and the most flavorful vodka I’ve tasted.

  10. Mike–

    Yes, and there are others. Elyse Morisoli Zinfandel qualifies as well.

    Zin is, of course, closer to Cab in ripening demands, and it is not really the Zin in To Kalon but the Sauvignon Blanc that seems to make the point that there is no a priori magic formula for land and grape to the extent that has been alleged.

    There are still many interesting Napa Zins, most of which grow in places that also make very good Cabernet. But I will grant Mr. Haydon the one point that Napa does not grow a lot of exceptional Riesling. That fact does not prove his point, nor his rather far-fetched comment about vegetables.

    But back to your point. I agree with Steve that the loss of Napa Zin is more than a little disappointing.

  11. Bill Haydon says:

    I agree with the zin arguments. While I loathe the old Turley style of high VA prune juice, when done well, I think Napa zin can be phenomenal. Chase Hayne Vineyard has been one that I was recently very impressed with.

    With regards, to To Kalon SB, I’ve never felt it to be all that. I’ve tasted plenty of old Mondavi Fume Blanc Reserves back into the late 80s. Good, serviceable California SB but nothing more and certainly a pale shadow of a great Sancerre or Graves Blanc. That is a wine where the legend (myth?) has greatly overshadowed the more pedestrian reality.

  12. Not to be overlooked: Julie Johnson’s Tres Sabores Zinfandel from her estate vineyard on the Rutherford Bench:

  13. Bob Henry says:


    I will throw out one overlooked Napa Valley Zinfandel here: Brown Family in the Chiles Valley.

    Former Los Angeles residents who turned their weekend retreat into a vineyard and winery.

    ~~ Bob

    “Full disclosure”: The family members are friendly acquaintances, dating back 10 years from my consulting work in the retail wine industry. But I have no financial investment in their family venture. And no “agenda” in naming them – other than enjoying their wine, and wishing others knew more about them.

  14. Bob Henry says:


    I question that I never considered until this wine blog and comments exchange: Do Napa Valley vintners of Riesling ferment or age them in oak barrels?

    The Germans eschew new oak barrels in favor of “neutral” foudres, which don’t impart a vanillin and toasty bouquet.

    At Stony Hill, they avoid new oak barrels for their Chardonnay (and I “assume” Riesling) — citing this text on their website:

    “… we crush and press the grapes with minimum skin contact and ferment in neutral oak cooperage. When fermentation is complete, we rack the wine off the lees, or dead yeast cells, in order to avoid the development of a yeasty flavor in the wine. We then age it in the neutral oak barrels, most of which are over ten years old, allowing the wine to develop and mature without absorbing an oak flavor component that could mask the natural fruit flavors. In addition, we avoid a secondary or malolactic fermentation in order to maintain the original acid structure of the wine and protect the citrus and apple flavor components inherent in the Wente clone Chardonnay grapes we grow.”


    ~~ Bob

  15. Bob Henry says:


    Once again . . . with clarity:

    “A I question that I never considered until this wine blog and comments exchange: …”

  16. Bob–

    I don’t have enough info on this to comment definitively about all Riesling in the Napa Valley, but you can bet with certainty that any Riesling with residual sugar has not been barrel-fermented and that very few have even been barrel-aged.

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