Twenty-five years for a French wine region is the blink of an eye, but it’s a pretty good age for a California AVA to reach. Stags Leap District has just hit the quarter-century mark, as Decanter reminds us, so it’s time to wish them happy birthday and consider what that appellation has brought to the spectrum of Napa Valley wine.
Actually, it’s a little strange it took Stags Leap so long—1989–to be formally recognized: at least fifty California AVAs are older, including the likes of North Yuba, Merritt Island, Pacheco Pass, Willow Creek and Cole Ranch, proving that organizational power, and not necessarily the provenance of the terroir, is the governing force behind appellation formation. But I digress.
André Tchelistcheff of course said the most famous thing that was ever said or ever will be said about Stags Leap, that its wines were “an iron fist in a velvet glove,” but he did not invent this phrase. Napoleon did, apparently, according to Thomas Carlyle, who defined it as a person being “soft of speech and manner, yet with an inflexible rigour of command.” I don’t know about the Napoleon origin, and I’ve never been able to discover the exact citation for Tchelistcheff. The Maestro was of course familiar with Stags Leap District, long before it was officially called that: In the 1970s he consulted for Warren Winiarski, at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, and he had at the very least a hand in making the 1973 Stag’s Leap Cabernet that won the Paris Tasting. Winiarski’s homage to André, in Benson’s Great Winemakers of California, is worth quoting in depth:
“In André Tchelistcheff…I feel you have the combination of technology and love, because he combines the spirit and the science in himself. He has been a great influence, as a consultant here.” Winiarski pointed out the fact, which has been unappreciated, that André had been “the common bond between the two wines that placed first in the Paris tasting,” his own and Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay, in that Mike Grigich, who made the Montelena, worked under Tchelistcheff, at Beaulieu.
Whenever or however André made his “iron fist” remark, writers ever since have used it freely, as I did in 2005 in reviewing the 2002 Chimney Rock Elevage. “If Tchelistcheff were still here,” I wrote, “he might describe this Cab as an iron fist in a velvet glove.” I meant that it had a fruitysoftness I called “deceptive” because of the huge structure.
I’ve always had a warm spot for the Cabernets of Stags Leap District. The roster of wineries is impressive: older ones like Chimney Rock, Stag’s Leap and Stags’ Leap Winery, Shafer (one of my few perfect 100s), Pine Ridge and Clos du Val, newer ones like Baldacci and Odette and Cliff Lede. I remember the first time I tasted a Baldacci Cab, the Brenda’s Vineyard from (I think) the 2005 vintage, which just blew me away, and sent me on a special search for find out who made it (Rolando Herrera). There is something special about a well-made Stags Leap Cab: it’s not quite as apparently tannic as, say, Oakville, Rutherford or Howell Mountain, but has great weight and density. Yet it seems so silky—that’s the velvet glove. I remember, also, tasting the very early Clos du Vals, which always seemed too hard and brittle to me, not quite ripe: I think the winery miscalculated for a number of years, thinking that if they picked the grapes earlier than their neighbors, they’d get something more “Bordeaux-like.” But this didn’t work. If you pick the grapes before they’re fully ripe, you get big tannins and acids and underripe fruit. (This problem may have been compounded by excessive vigor as well as the cool winds that invade Stags Leap coming up from the south. The grapes need hang time.) The best Stags Leap Cabernets show an exquisite tension of all parts; they seem, also, to have a taste of the earth that you don’t get in the wines of Highway 29. I’m not sure what why that is, this grippiness and chewiness. It’s more of a texture than a taste. It may be more noticeable in those Cabs from the east side of the Silverado Trail, where the soils contain more volcanic debris. But this is speculation.
I’m not the biggest fan of AVAs in California, which can have a willy-nilly, haphazard character. But Stags Leap District surely is one that makes sense. If anyone knows of any upcoming tastings of the wines of Stags Leap, please let me know.
I drank a very nice wine from Argentina last night, Michel Torino 2013 Don David Finca La Primavera #3 ($23), made from the Torrontes grape. It was quite delicious, offering layers of lime, quince and tangerine, with wonderfully brisk acidity, and while there was a honeyed richness, the finish was absolutely dry.
After 25 years of tasting mostly California wines, I now have the time to branch out. When I tasted that Don David (not blind!), my first thought was to compare it to what I know best: California. Had you given it to me without telling me what it was, I might have guessed Pinot Gris—or Sauvignon Blanc—possibly Chenin Blanc–but not quite. It had oakiness, but in a balanced, low-key way. Gorgeous acidity, too, mouthwatering and clean. There was minerality, but also something vegetal, not in a bad way, but in a wonderful way. I know this sounds weird, but it reminded me of lightly salted cream of broccoli soup. What’s not to like about that?
I liked it so much I looked to see if it had been reviewed in Wine Enthusiast, and there it was. The review was by my former colleague, Mike Schachner, who covers South America and Spain. He gave it 89 points and wrote: “This single-vineyard Salta Torrontés is virtually as good as it gets for the variety. Pure lychee, lime and mineral aromas precede a crisp, focused palate. Flavors of steely citrus are chiseled, while the finish is long and juicy. Drink prior to fall 2014.”
(Note: Salta is a region in Argentina. I have no idea if the name if related to salt, but there was definitely a saline character to the Don David that added to its savory character.)
I always admired Michael’s palate, and I thought, Wow, he really nailed it. I, personally, might have mentioned the honey, since the impression of sweetness is, it seems to me, a vital one to convey to readers. But that’s just me. And I also totally supported Michael’s judgment that the wine is best enjoyed soon. Its delicate structure, and rich fruit will fall apart sooner rather than later.
I mention all this because I’m fascinated by the concept of consumers having so many multiple sources of wine reviews. In addition to all the major wine magazines and newsletters, we have, at last count, 1.3 gazillion bloggers who review wine, not to mention the people who write all those shelf talkers at supermarkets and wine stores. If I put myself into the shoes of the wine consumer trying to figure out what to buy, I feel total sympathy if they feel dazed and confused.
I wondered about Michael’s 89 points. For those of us who work (or used to work) the 100-point system, the biggest decision in our everyday job is whether to give a wine 89 points or 90 points. That is the dividing line between life and death. I don’t work in sales, but I’ve been told for many years that 90 points is the cut-off for many buyers. If you’re trying to sell a 90-point wine from a major publication, it’s not that hard. If it’s below 90 points, well, good luck.
Had I formally reviewed the Don David, blind (as I’m sure Michael did), I think I would have given it an initial rating of 89 points too. Let me try to explain my rationale. The message of an 89-point rating is “This is a really good wine. If you drink it under the right circumstances, it can be a fantastic wine. However, objectively, and tasted by itself under laboratory circumstances, it fails—by a hair—to rise to the standards of what I consider a wine worthy of scoring in the nineties.”
I don’t know the details of how Michael considers, or reconsiders, his scores, or how long he takes for each review. But once I had given that Don David an initial 89 points, I suspect I would have raised it to 90 points, maybe an hour or so later, because I liked it so much. I would have put it in the fridge and then, unable to stop thinking about it, I would have tried it again, and given it the extra magic point simply because it had fired up my imagination.
Is that fair—I mean, to give a wine a second chance or reconsideration? Maybe not. But it happens with all critics, whether they admit it or not. I point all this out simply to illuminate the somewhat capricious nature of critical reviews. A score is serious business, and should be considered so by readers. But it should also be taken into context for what it is: fungible. Today’s 88 can be tomorrow’s 92, tomorrow’s 100 can be yesterday’s 92. It all depends. But it’s also important to understand that critics have been known to “adjust” their scores to keep them consistent with past ones, and if you don’t believe that, there’s a bridge in San Francisco I’d like to sell you.
In the Spring of 1969, Roy Andries de Groot, who turned to wine- and food-writing when he became blind, was sent to California by Esquire Magazine to write about the state’s wines, on the 200th anniversary of Junipero Serra’s planting of wine grapes in San Diego.
de Groot soon realized that what he really wanted to do was what he called his “immense project”: “a Classification of American Wines,” he called it, based on the sort of official hierarchy that had been developed by the French, in the famous 1855 Classification.
(de Groot also went on to classify the wines of the Pacific Northwest and New York State, hence his reference to “American Wines.”)
As he notes in his 1982 masterwork, “The Wines of California,” de Groot had pedigreed precedence for his audacious project. There not only had been the 1855 Classification, but, a century earlier, “in 1755, a first attempt had been made to rank the wines of Bordeaux,” he wrote, followed by another in 1833. So the project was neither as audacious nor as radical as it might have appeared.
Here in California, others have attempted, from time to time, to classify the state’s wines into quality tiers. Perhaps the most controversial has been Jim Laube’s 1989 book, “California’s Great Cabernets,” in which the Wine Spectator writer rather self-consciously established five “Growths” (just like the 1855 Classification), which he populated with dozens of wineries functioning at that time. It was a worthy effort—but one doomed to failure, as California, unlike staid Bordeaux, was in the process (and still is today) of sprouting new wineries like mushrooms after an Autumn rain. When Laube wrote his book, for instance, there was no Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Dalla Valle, Verite, David Arthur, Jarvis, Araujo. The book was destined for obsolescence even before it was published. (It does, however, remain an interesting read and is important as an historical document.)
de Groot established, not five, but four tiers in his classification, although he did not numerically denote them but instead used the adjectives “Great,” “Superb,” “Noble” and “Fine,” in descending order of quality. (The only wineries he put into the “Great” category were Heitz, Schramsberg and Stony Hill.) But, just as Laube’s book of seven years later was condemned to early obsolescence, so was de Groot’s, and for the same reason. As we look at his list today, we’re struck, not only by the non-inclusion of so many wineries that simply didn’t exist in 1982, but by others that were functioning at that time, but no longer are, or that continue to exist, but not at a very high level. The list, then, is sadly out of date, although like Laube’s book, “The Wines of California” makes for good reading.
I doubt that any wine writer will ever again attempt such a hopeless task as classifying the wines of California! But then, in this modern era of, say, the last 30 years, the public doesn’t need an official list. That task has been taken over, in practical effect, by critics. Can there be any question that California Cabernets and Bordeaux blends have been unofficially ranked already, through the reviews of Robert Parker, Wine Spectator and others? This ranking has the appearance of mathematical precision because it’s based on scores of the 100-point system. Thus, in order to determine the placement of any winery in the critical classification, all you have to do is look up its scores over the years, and that will determine its position in the hierarchy. Before you object that this is a pretty flimsy basis, remember that the 1855 Classification itself—which we all hold so dear—was based in part on the prices the wines had historically fetched. Since today, price and score are irretrievably intertwined, it’s not ludicrous to base a wine’s placement by its score: the highest-scoring wines will generally be the most expensive (although the opposite is not always the case!).
There’s one huge, qualitative difference, however, between an official classification, like that of 1855, and the unofficial one created by scores. The former can never change, or does so only agonizingly slowly (Mouton-Rothschild, originally a Second Growth, was not elevated to First Growth until 1973.) But the latter, unofficial classification is constantly morphing, as wineries come into and fall out of favor, reflected in their scores. The critical classification, then, has the advantage of a built-in resilience that makes it more adaptable to change and thus more descriptive of reality, as well as more useful. A critical classification can never become obsolete, by definition.
Where things get sticky, of course, is with the proliferation of critics. In 1855 the French had a single committee to make their classification. There was nobody to challenge it (although disgruntled proprietors always have complained about their placement). Twenty years ago we had only a tiny handful of critics to make their de facto classification, and few if any dared to challenge them. Today, everybody’s a critic. This is why we have the phenomenon of multi-source rating compilers, like CellarTracker, where consumers can track reviews from multiple sources side by side for the same wine.
What I find fascinating about the new order, with its proliferation of voices and the coming of age of a younger generation, is how impervious to change the old perceived hierarchy remains. In Bordeaux the First Growths still rule. In California, the Harlans and Screaming Eagles remain at the top, although they may have had to allow some room for a few other aspirants. Something about wine—or, rather, the way we perceive it—is remarkably conservative. I wish I had a time machine and could see what the top wines are fifty years from now. For some reason, I doubt if I’d be surprised.
I’ve given brutal scores lately to some expensive wines, most of them new entrants to the California marketplace. When a wine costs $40, $50 or more, and it’s not even as good as some other wine that costs $15, it gets me irked.
Of course, I can’t allow my emotions to enter into my scores. But if you read between the lines of my reviews, you might occasionally glimpse a certain dismay.
This is the critic’s conundrum. We’re only human. We get dazzled by great wines, even if they’re hugely expensive. Sometimes, I have to hold myself back a little in praising a great wine, or risk being accused of score inflation, which I believe is an issue that has not been seriously addressed. On the other hand, it’s easy to get bored with mediocre wines, which dominate every region no matter how famous.
I always wonder if a winemaker or proprietor who’s putting out a $50 bottle of wine that scores 84 points knew in advance that the wine was mediocre. Maybe they did, and cynically released it anyway, knowing that people will buy it because of its pretty label, or at the tasting room, or whatever. On the other hand, maybe they didn’t. It would be a huge mistake to assume that all winemakers have good palates. I know some who put out mediocre wine year after year after year. (Why they still send me samples, when they have good reason to know I don’t like their style, is a riddle to me. It’s that old definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result.)
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Speaking of winemakers, I’m getting ready to assemble my panel for March 9th’s Pinot Noir Summit, at the Golden Gate Club, in San Francisco’s Presidio National Park. I haven’t decided on a theme yet, but am tinkering with the notion of regional differences between the southern Russian River Valley (including Green Valley) and Fort Ross-Seaview. In general, the south valley is chillier and foggier, because it’s low-lying and gets a strong push of maritime influence coming up from the Petaluma Gap. Most of the Fort Ross-Seaview vineyards, on the other hand, lie at altitudes above the fog line, so they bask in sunshine while their sister vines down in the valley are swathed in fog. You’d expect this situation to express itself clearly in the Pinot Noirs from both regions, and it does: valley wines are darker and more tannic on release, while Fort Ross Pinots tend to be more accessible early. I don’t think either is more ageable than the other; I wouldn’t mind having a couple cases of Flowers alongside a couple cases of Joseph Swan in my cellar.
Finding themes for public tastings can be challenging. There’s a tendency on the part of some people to make the topics too geeky, but it’s my impression that the public gets bored with abstruse discussions of technique. People want fairly simple, accurate information, in an easy-to-digest form. They don’t want to wade through the intricacies of grape chemistry, irrigation, maceration techniques and tannin management. A little of that goes a long way. They also want personality: not all good winemakers are good panelists (and not all good panelists are good winemakers!). A few years ago, I had a certain winemaker on one of my panels and he/she was as boring as a doorknob. Won’t make that mistake again.
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A quick word of praise in passing for Von Strasser’s latest batch of Cabernet Sauvignons from their Diamond Mountain estate. Great wines, and all the more impressive for coming from a 2011 vintage that was as challenging as any in memory. These wines show the importance of well-drained mountain vineyards in a cold year, and of vigorous pruning and sorting decisions. Of the six new ‘11s, I gave my highest score to the Estate, but Spaulding, Sori Bricco, 2131, Post and the regular ’11 Cab weren’t far behind. All are ageable. I don’t think Von Strasser gets the recognition they deserve, but they should.
Have a great weekend!
Gus ate a pound of salami a couple days ago. It was an accident on my part. Someone sent it to me in a box–I thought it was a book and left it in the iivingroom, unopened. In the middle of the night, Gus’s magnificent olfactory sense discovered it. The next morning, there was nothing left, except the shredded box.
The next morning, Gus was vomiting it up. He knew he’d been a bad dog. He got that guilty look in his eyes, tucked his tail down below his hind legs, and followed me around the house wherever I went, looking morose and mopey. Dog owners know that look: “I’ve been bad, I feel terrible about it–but really, I just couldn’t help myself. Please don’t hate me.”
Now on to winemakers. Yesterday I heard from one, whom I respect a great deal, and whose wines I usually–not always–score well into the 90s. He wrote of his 2011s, “they probably won’t get high scores, they are not showy wines, but there is not a musty or lacking wine in the bunch.”
In other words, he was apologizing for his wines even before I’d tasted most of them! (He’s already sent a couple of the less expensive ’11 early releases, but not his heavy hitters.) This is what reminds me of Gus. My dog didn’t have anything to apologize for–really. I wasn’t angry at him; he was just doing his doggie thing, and after all, it was my fault for leaving the meat out where he could get to it. If I was mad at anyone, it was me.
Now, this isn’t to single this winemaker out. He’s a fine gentleman who’s earned his celebrity status in the wine industry. But I do want to use his “probably won’t get high scores” comment to make an important point. Why do people feel the need to apologize for not making the kind of high alcohol, ripe, oaky wines that tend to get the highest scores? (Believe me, he’s not the only one.) If this winemaker sticks to his guns (and he has) and lets his terroir tell him what to do, rather than to try and appeal to the palate of 2 or 3 critics, then he’s going to be a better, more honest winemaker.
The wider problem is when winemakers are so insecure and needy that they deliberately undercut their own terroir, not to mention their natural instincts. They take fruit that is not naturally geared toward high alcohol, ripeness and oak, let it hang until the last possible minute while the acidity drops lower and lower and the sugars rise as much as they physically can, ferment the hell out of the grapes to maximize every molecule of fruity essence, and then load up on the new oak (and possibly the Mega Purple too). That may fool some critics, but discerning ones will simply find the wine overworked and tedious, and say so in their review.
I think a certain steadfast attitude is necessary for a winemaker, as it is for all of us in every aspect of our lives. One should not fear letting the wine be what it wants to be, just because it might not get 97 points. If winemakers need scores to market their wines, they should know that there are many critics around who can appreciate a lighter-bodied, more elegant wine just as much as a big, heavy one. Winemaking at the highest levels should be all about what the terroir wants to express, guided perhaps by the winemaker’s hand, but gently.
If the winemaker who wrote me those comments reads this, I’d tell him not to worry, not to apologize, to stand tall and respect the values that got him into winemaking in the first place. I’m sure that, 25 years ago, he didn’t stress out over scores. He doesn’t have to today. His wines are respected in the right venues, and so is he.