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Thoughts on a Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet tasting

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In California, we don’t get the extremes of weather that Europe does, but still, our vintages vary considerably from each other. You just have to know how to read the subtleties. Four years ago, 2011 was “the year summer never came,” and many of the wines have a lean, green streak, if not actual botrytis. Still, the best wineries successfully negotiated the challenge.

Yesterday we tasted a Ridge 2011 Monte Bello. It did indeed have a streak of mint and dried herbs, but it was clearly a wonderful wine, an ager, and the star of our Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet tasting. If I were rating it, it would score an easy 94-95 points, and earn a Cellar Selection designation. The Monte Bello terroir is fabulous (if you know Ridge’s history, have done verticals and visited the property, you already know that), but, perhaps more important has been the quality level of Ridge’s viticulture. I’ve never seen a crush at Ridge, but I imagine (and the evidence of the wine supports it) that they have perfectionist practices, including an active sorting table.

Unfortunately, in our tasting were some pretty flawed wines. I’m not in the reviewing business, so I won’t identify them. But a couple were severely afflicted with brettanomyces, so stinky it was like Steph Curry’s armpit that had not been washed for several days. (Eeew.) I attribute this to well-intentioned but impoverished winemakers who can’t afford to completely sanitize their wineries.

Others were okay wines, perfectly drinkable; someone noted of one of them that, were he served it at a restaurant, he would happily have drank it. But nothing special. It’s hard to explain to someone what the difference is between a superb wine, like the Ridge, and an okay wine whose grapes may have been grown right next door to it, but just doesn’t have the razzle-dazzle.

This Santa Cruz Mountains appellation is an interesting one. It’s one of the biggest in California, a whopping 408,000 acres, but contains only about 40 wineries, most of them very small. The reason, I think, is because suburbanization claimed most of the available vineyard sites, and the rest is too rugged and mountainous for cultivation. I always like to tell people about the old Woodside Vineyards La Questa Cabernets, originally planted in 1884; that wine was said to be the finest in all of California in the early 20th century, and the vineyard still exists in the little (and ultra-expensive) town of Woodside. Had that region developed an intensive wine industry, the way Napa Valley did, the Santa Cruz Mountains (or perhaps a Woodside A.V.A.) would be as famous today as Napa Valley. But things didn’t turn out that way. (The appellation also grows very fine Pinot Noir. The latter tends to be on west-facing vineyards on the cooler side of the mountains; the Cabs are on east-facing sites overlooking Silicon Valley and San Francisco Bay.)

Someone at the tasting brought up the subject of how Santa Cruz Mountains Cabs differ from Napa Valley’s. Well, the most obvious distinction is alcohol levels: they’re quite low in the former. (The Ridge was only 12.8%, and if I’m not mistaken, Ridge has never had a Monte Bello in excess of 14%.) This is in part due to Napa Valley’s warmer climate, but also because Santa Cruz Mountains winemakers have resisted the pressure to emulate Napa Valley.

When you make lower-alcohol Cabs, any faults in the wine are more apparent than they would be at, say, 14.5% or higher. Alcohol covers a multitude of sins. Brett shows up more clearly; so do greenness and tannins; and those wines can’t handle as much new oak as Napa’s. There were a couple wines in our tasting where the oak just stood out like a sore thumb. I honestly will never understand how some people think you can take a more delicate wine and make it get a higher score by drenching it with oak. I suppose some critics will fall for that, but not the better ones.

This 2015 vintage is looking good so far. It’s a drought vintage, but that’s not necessarily harmful to quality. Spring has been cool, until this heat wave that’s striking today; but the heat will be short-lived, and is less damaging at this point in the vines’ lives than it would be towards harvest. Everyone is raving about the 2013s. The 2014s seem fine too. With 2015, we might be in for a three-fer. But it’s too soon to tell. Right now, all that the growers are hoping for is rain next winter—a good, long, drenching El Nino. And that’s exactly what we might get.

 


Fountaingrove joins the AVA party

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Last July, I wrote that the Fountaingrove District AVA was probably coming.

Now, it’s here.

TTB first published the Notice of rulemaking only last June, which means the whole process took less than a year. That’s pretty good! Evidently there was no disputation, which is rare for a new appellation. Fountaingrove now becomes Sonoma County’s 17th AVA. Welcome!

At 38,000 acres, it’s mid-sized, a little bigger than Fort Ross-Seaview, a little smaller than Yorkville Highlands. The word “Fountaingrove” is an old one for this part of eastern Sonoma County. It was the name of a utopian commune founded near Santa Rosa in 1875; the winery of the same name quickly followed. (I mention the following historical footnote only because, well, I want to: Fountaingrove’s founder, and his commune, were said by the wine historian Leon Adams to indulge in “bizarre occult and sexual practices.”) Be that as it may, Fountaingrove had a good history: by 1942, our old friend, Mary Frost Mabon, was able to write, in her ABC of America’s Wine, that Fountaingrove was “a fascinating property with a romantic history [and that] tourists…find a very hospitable tasting-room.” She liked, in particular, the Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon, and especially a 1935 Pinot Noir she called “one of the top wines of California, and a true California Burgundy…”.

Fountaingrove’s boundaries run from just northeast of Santa Rosa almost to the Napa County line; it’s a hilly region that touches these other appellations: Chalk Hill, Diamond Mountain, Sonoma Valley, Calistoga and Russian River Valley. According to the TTB’s establishment ruling, the average growing season temperature is warmer than areas to the west but cooler than those to the east—as you’d expect. It is classified as a Region II on the old U.C. Davis scale. The soils are primarily Franciscan bedrock overlaid with volcanic residue, as they are throughout the Mayacamas. Elevations range from 400 feet to 2,200 feet.

I suspect, based on my past experiences, that the chief grape of Fountaingrove District is likely to emerge as Cabernet Sauvignon, which could be similar to Cabs from the higher stretches of Alexander Valley. There will be plenty of Chardonnay, too. We’ll see how Fountaingrove’s reputation evolves on Pinot Noir.

Interestingly, Fountaingrove became an AVA on the same day the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance announced they have officially submitted a petition for AVA status. I was interviewed yesterday on these topics by a reporter for the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, who asked me a number of questions, including why petitioners want their own AVAs. Two reasons, I answered: economics and pride. The smaller the appellation (in general), the more you can ask for the bottle. But also: Petitioners are proud of their terroir. They want consumers to know, with some precision, where the grapes come from—not just from someplace in a county, but a specific region in that county.

The reporter also asked me if I think Sonoma has too many AVAs. No, I said. France has, what? A gazillion. Rather than being confusing, I think AVAs are clarifying—but ONLY to the extent they’re well thought out. Sonoma didn’t used to be so good at thinking out their AVAs. But they’ve learned their lesson. They’re much more thorough in their research nowadays, much more sensible in defining boundaries, and also more collaborative, to avoid those unseemly internal battles that marked AVAs in the past, not only in Sonoma but just about everywhere. Finally, the reporter asked me if Sonoma is running out of new AVAs. Nope. They’ll sub-appellate Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast further, as they should.


Who’s growing fast, and who’s not, according to the latest survey

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Silicon Valley Bank’s annual industry survey has been summarized by Lewis Perdue’s Wine Industry Insight, and while I don’t have a link (it came late yesterday via email), I’d like to make it the focus of today’s post.

The most interesting part is SVB’s “predicted sales and case growth by region.” I did manage to drag the chart onto my desktop, and reproduce it here.

Regions

It’s kind of small: sorry about that.

As you can (or cannot) see, the chart takes nine California regions and predicts their case growth and sales growth for this year. The regions with the least growth are the Sierra Foothills, Lodi, the Central Valley and, surprisingly, Napa County (in that order, from least upward). The region with the highest growth by far is Anderson Valley/Mendocino County. Mid-Coastal (Santa Cruz/Monterey)) also is projected to have high growth, as are Sonoma County, Lake County and the Central Coast (San Luis Obispo/Santa Barbara).

I don’t find any of this in the least surprising. It’s actually quite interesting, because it’s always interesting to see a bird’s eye view of these large regions and compare and contrast them with one another. I’m delighted that Anderson Valley is doing so well. It’s a small region, but so impressive, especially for Pinot Noir and the Alsatian varieties. Someone described Anderson Valley Pinot to me as a cross between Santa Cruz Mountains and Oregon, and I think that’s about right.

Mid-Coastal is a term I hadn’t heard before regarding Santa Cruz/Monterey; generally, I think of those as Central Coast. Santa Cruz isn’t a very big wine-producing county, although it is of high quality. Too bad all those vineyards in the Santa Clara Valley are now housing developments and Silicon Valley companies! But Monterey is a very high-production place, and as we’ve seen for some time now, it’s also coming up in quality. I’m not talking just about its best-known AVA, the Santa Lucia Highlands, but the county as a whole. Prices also have remained reasonable, which surely is one of the most important reasons why Monterey is doing so well. People are looking for a bargain, and they get it with Monterey wine.

I said Napa County was one of the places with the least predicted growth, but that’s a little misleading. It’s on the lower side compared to the higher-growth regions, but not by much. The point, I think, is that sales there are limited by the high prices. We can argue about whether they’re warranted another time; for now, suffice it to say that American consumers, post-Great Recession, seem to be looking for value, and Napa doesn’t really represent value, any more than, say, Classified Growth Bordeaux represents value, unless you’re willing to say that a 95-point Cabernet that costs $150 is a “value.” I mean no disrespect to Napa Cab, only to suggest that it is a little too pricy for most people, and that’s what seems to be holding back Napa’s sales growth.

Sonoma County on the other hand is doing well, and I think that’s because their prices just haven’t kept up with Napa’s. We all know that Sonoma County, with its many appellations, is far more diversified than Napa, or for that matter than just about any other major wine-producing region in the world, in terms of the varietal range. And quality, too, is really high. But the Sonomans have never been able to charge Napa-esque prices, which is to our (the consumer’s) benefit.

Then there’s Central Coast, defined as Santa Barbara (mostly) and San Luis Obispo. Santa Barbara has been one of my top wine regions for more years than I care to remember. I was championing it early, and the reason I can say that is because Santa Barbara vintners were telling me, a long time ago, that I “got” their region, while other critics didn’t, in their view. I don’t know about that, but I do know that Santa Barbara, with its various AVAs (Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley) caught my fancy in the early 1990s, and whenever a Santa Barbara winemaker told me that other critics never visited there, I always was astonished.

Santa Barbara’s a funny place, price-wise. The best wines are expensive, but, again compared to Napa Valley, not really. And there are quite a number of fabulous wines, across varieties ranging from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Syrah and Grenache, that haven’t leapfrogged into the too-expensive category…yet. I think Santa Barbara prices are heavily connected to the economy, but they’re still reasonable, which explains why the region is experiencing growth.

I won’t say anything about the low-growth regions here. I wish them luck.

Anyhow, as you read this, we northern Californians are hunkering down for the Great Storm of ’14. Good luck to us, and to you.


Here comes (probably sooner rather than later) the Petaluma Gap AVA

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The growers and wineries have been working diligently to get this largish region on the official AVA list, and since they’ve been doing everything right, far as I can tell, it shouldn’t take the multiple years it took for Paso Robles to finally sub-appellate itself. They’re currently getting the paperwork together for the TTB, and hope to get an AVA as soon as a year or two from now.

The organizers are the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance, which has been around for about eight years. Despite their map (sorry you have to crane your neck to read it),

The Gap

 

they warn the boundaries aren’t yet final, not just because of the usual who’s in, who’s out politics, but because the good ole TTB is giving people a hard time about new AVAs that overlap with existing ones, and the northernmost part of the proposed Petaluma Gap does include that new southern stretch of the Russian River Valley. So nobody knows what will happen with that, although if they have to revise the boundaries around the RRV extension, it would eliminate one of the more important parts of the Gap, home to many well-regarded vineyards.

It’s a cool-climate growing area, although not that cool: warmer than Carneros, which itself is warmer than Santa Maria Valley. Still, the Petaluma Gap clearly is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay country, with Syrah thrown in for good measure. At the Alliance’s tasting yesterday (held at the gorgeous Golden Gate Club in the spectacular Presidio National Park, with such dramatic views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the spires of San Francisco), the Syrahs were outstanding and so were the Chardonnays. The Pinots, less so, but then again, this is Pinot Noir we’re talking about, the heartbreak grape. I particularly liked the more delicate ones, for instance Greg LaFollette’s 2012 Sangiacomo and Keller’s 2013 El Coro. Some of the bigger ones, like the Kosta-Browne 2012 Gap’s Crown, were a little too extracted for my tastes.

The Alliance said they’re trying hard to pinpoint a “Petaluma Gap” style or flavor, but I have to say this is going to be hard. The region clearly is a high-rent district: the wines, red and white, have great acidity, are ripe and balanced, with silky tannins and, in the case of the Pinots, frequently with an earthy, Bay leaf-herbal tea-tomato note. But you could say that about lots of Pinot Noirs from other places. On reflection the Chardonnays were perhaps the standouts: dry wines, rich and tangy in acidity, bright in fruit and minerally. Once again Greg LaFollette’s entry stood out: his 2012 Sangiacomo was, I wrote, “Grand Cru quality.” I also liked the Fogline 2013 and the Keller 2013 La Cruz. But some of the other Chardonnays were just too oaky, which is the fault, not of the Petaluma Gap, but of the winemakers.

The TTB requires AVA applicants to explain what makes their region singular, and in this case, the Alliance people said it’s not the fog and it’s not the soils, it’s the wind. The “Gap” refers to an opening in the coastal hills, roughly between Bodega Bay in the north and Dillon Beach in the south, where the winds rush in before hitting Sonoma Mountain,about 20 miles inland, from where they go north up to Cotati and south towards Carneros and San Pablo Bay. The AVA, as proposed, will be a big one, occupying roughly the entire southern third of the Sonoma Coast AVA, and spilling a little bit into Marin County. In the west the boundary line would extend to the coast. My friend Charlie Olken asked why they drew the line all the way out to the sea, when it’s clear nothing will grow out there except artichokes and onions. I’m not sure the Alliance people answered that, except to say there may be little pockets here and there where growers could persuade Pinot and Chardonnay to grow, even if it’s just for sparkling wine.

The Petaluma Gap contains about 80 vineyards and nine wineries, although lots of wineries source fruit from there. I must say, judging by this tasting, that I’m heartily in favor of this new AVA. Not all AVAs make sense, goodness knows, and the Petaluma Gap as presently conceived is a little too big for comfort. Yet goodness knows it’s more intelligently crafted than Sonoma Coast was (and is), and represents a big step in the right direction for the future of Sonoma (and Marin) county winegrapes. So kudos to the Petaluma Gap Wine Alliance for going about this in a smart way.


When losers become winners: How a bad appellation can make you a cult wine

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When I was a working wine critic, people said I possessed a certain amount of power. Maybe so, but I never was in a position to dictate to a winery what appellation they were entitled to use on the label!

If I had been an official taster with the Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité, the French quasi-governmental agency that regulates the appellation contrôlée system, I would have had that right and that power. Which scares even me: uneasy lies the head that wears a crown! But that is the case in France, where the 2012 vintage of Pontet-Canet’s second wine, Les Hauts de Pontet-Canet, [was] refused AOC classification by an independent tasting panel. As a result, the wine will have to be bottled as a Vin de Table rather than a Pauillac,” according to the drinks business newsletter.

It seems ridiculous to put that much power in the hands of a group of bureaucrats, but that’s the French way. Besides, I wonder if the official tasters tasted the wine blind. (If any of you know, please tell me in the comments.) The drinks business article tried to discern why the tasters rejected the wine; the best they could surmise was that Pontet-Canet’s combination of biodynamic winegrowing and use of amphorae (a sort of “egg”) resulted in the wine’s lacking “Pauillac typicité,” whatever that means. Now, I don’t know the total number of wines that bore a Pauillac AOC in 2012, but it has got to be in the dozens if not hundreds, right? So how “different” could the Les Hauts have been (after all, it is from a respected Classified Growth), for the tasters to have rejected it? Was it the sole outlier in the entire commune? Perhaps the tasters knew what it was, and their personal attitudes toward biodynamics and amphorae shaped their perceptions.

It’s not that I’m feeling sorry for Pontet-Canet and its owners, the Tesseron family. In fact, the brouhaha may work in their favor. Melanie Tesseron told the drinks business that the wine “is becoming fast a collector’s item.” I don’t doubt it. Anomalies often do. The famous “upside down plane” stamp is a collector’s item.

upside down plane

In wine, pretty much the same thing happened when Piero Antinori launched Tignanello, in 1971; because he blended the Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, the Italian government wouldn’t let him label it Chianti Classico. He had to use the lowly “Toscana” appellation. But it didn’t exactly hurt Tignanello, which became a collector’s item.

Not that we’re in any danger of it, but I’d hate to see California turn into the kind of dictated winegrowing region that so much of Europe is, where you can only grow the grape varieties the government approves of, or else you have to lower the appellation. Can you imagine how that would work in Napa Valley, which, presumably, if we had strict typicity rules, would be limited to Bordeaux varieties? A vintner who blended in a little Syrah with the Cabernet (as B Cellars did in 2004, in their Blend 25) would be entitled only to North Coast, or possibly a California AVA. Under those circumstances, B Cellars might not even have bothered making the wine, which would have robbed the world of a beautiful 94-pointer.

I’m off to the beautiful Santa Maria Valley for the rest of the week, but will try to post tomorrow. Meanwhile, we’re supposed to get some pretty good rain on Friday in Northern California, which is a very good thing!


Further thoughts on appellations

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One of the hardest parts of being a wine writer in California is explaining the differences between appellations. It’s hard because, in many cases, the differences aren’t all that stark.

The way I look at appellations is through the lens of history. As the late, great Alexis Lichine wrote (in his Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits, the single most informative book I read when I was coming up in the field), “Fine wines always bear the stamp of the place where the grapes were grown and…the more restricted the place, the better the wine.” The French had inordinate respect for, and understanding of, the qualities that terroir imposed on their wines, so, for example, Saint-Julien, Saint-Estephe, Margaux and Pauillac were deemed different enough from each other to warrant their own appellations. And “the system reaches its logical conclusion in Burgundy…”.

It’s only natural that the founders of the modern California wine industry wanted a similar system of appellational control. They’d been egged on for years by the likes of Frank Schoonmaker, so, with the cooperation of the Federal government, our own American Viticultural Area program went into place, in the early 1980s.

Once an official appellation has been declared, people start looking for the things that make it distinct. The only problem is that “distinctiveness” is irrelevant to the government’s declaration of an AVA. They care about other things—especially political unity—but government bureaucrats had no intention of actually tasting wines to see if they were “typical” for their appellation. So they left that sticky wicket alone.

Well, here we are, more than 40 years later, and writers, critics, sommeliers and others still try to figure out how AVAs are different from each other. The situation here in the U.S. isn’t made easier by the relative ease with which appellations are approved. I think everybody realizes that Oakville (for instance) is not really a single terroir, but at least three: east, west and the flatlands in the middle. So if you’re looking for an “Oakville” character, good luck finding it, especially if you’re trying to distinguish it from, say, the Rutherford Bench, or the east side of St. Helena or even Coombsville, and you’re tasting blind. For one thing, we grow our grapes riper than the French ever did, and there’s general consensus that ripeness trumps terroir, making everything taste more alike than not. (This is not an argument for unnatural underripeness!) For another thing, contemporary winemaking techniques tend to be similar to each other, for a variety of reasons. Thus telling the difference between AVAs isn’t as easy as it was for the French 100 years ago.

I’m running into this because we’re planning an event down in L.A. for early December, and as part of that I’m trying to pinpoint exactly how the Santa Maria Valley puts its terroir fingerprint on its wines, especially Pinot Noir. Having tasted hundreds of SMV Pinot Noirs over the course of my career, I think there is a distinct fingerprint; I feel it in my bones, experience it in my taste memory, and can make a case. But the case ultimately is not provable, for the simple reason that we’re not talking about a “right” or “wrong” answer (2 + 2 = 5 is a wrong answer, anywhere and everywhere; “Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir is silkier than Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir” is an assertion of belief, and is not fundamentally true in all cases).

Therefore, we can only make generalizations about appellations. Of course, the more wines we taste, and the more we study the details of climate and soils, the more we can point to the distinguishing features of an appellation. But when you factor in the human part of winemaking—clonal selection, vineyard trellising, harvesting decisions, fermentation routines, oak regimens, the whole nine yards—things get considerably more complicated.

A perfect world would be one in which external reality mirrored what’s in your mind (and vice versa). But, of course, the curse, tragedy and glory of being human is that external reality has a way of turning out to be not the way we thought or hoped, leaving us forced to reconcile the two, which isn’t always easy. I’m sure there’s a Santa Maria Valley terroir to Pinot Noir, just as I’m sure there’s an Anderson Valley, a Green Valley, a Carneros and an Edna Valley quality. I’ve spent my career trying to find those qualities and write about them. But I’ve always been aware that the exception, far from proving the rule, merely makes the rule obstinately hard to discern.


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