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Tasting eight Carneros Pinot Noirs

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My tasting yesterday of eight Carneros Pinot Noirs was enormously instructive to me, even after all these years. Afterwards, we tried to put together four attributes that linked all the wines, and they were:

  1. acidity
  2. a “Burgundian” earthy, mushroomy thing
  3. spices
  4. nice, ripe California fruit

Of course, identifying regional typicity is possible only in high-end wines, preferably single vineyards but not necessarily. As it turned out, there were two fabulous wines that really captured Carneros: one on the Napa side, the other on the Sonoma side. But these boundaries are political fantasies: true terroir doesn’t follow county lines, which is why Carneros was properly recognized by the Feds as the first AVA that crossed counties, because it was defined by climate and soil.

Here are my notes, somewhat abbreviated.

Donum 2012 West Slope, $90. The first wine in the flight. It blew me away so much that I decided to return to it after the last wine. Sometimes the first wine of a flight (and of the day) can seem better than it inherently is. It showed the most wonderfully ripe, pure raspberries and cherries, with plenty of exotic Asian spices, smoky oak, great acidity and polished tannins. After an hour in the glass the oak emerged as a stronger force. There also was a rich, mulchy mushroominess. This is a fabulous wine with a future. Score: 94 points.

La Rochelle 2011 Donum Estate, $80. A real disappointment. It was bretty but also thin. Well, it’s 2011, after all. Score: 84 points.

Carneros Hills 2013 Estate, $36. I work for Jackson Family Wines, which owns this winery. The wine was okay. Nothing wrong with it, in fact a pretty good wine, but the best I could do was 87 points. I know that Carneros Hills is a work in progress and I expect better things from it in the future.

Hartford Court 2012 Sevens Bench Vineyard, $65. Another Jackson Family Wines wine, and another disappointment. It was too hot in alcohol—officially 15% but I think higher than that. I scored it at 87 points.

Cattleya 2012 Donum Vineyard, $85. This was one of the better wines in the flight: rich, fruity and young, but a little soft. I thought it might improve in 3-4 years and scored it at 90 points.

Paul Hobbs 2013 Hyde Vineyard, $75. A fabulous wine. Savory, rich, complex, complete. Raspberries, plums, cherries, great savoir faire. Right up there with the Donum West Slope. Score: 93 points.

Saintsbury 2012 Lee Vineyard, $54. We all frankly found this wine a little unassertive. Nothing particularly wrong with it, just lacking that extra oomph. Score: 87 points.

Stemmler 2012 Estate, $44. It was better than the Saintsbury but not even close to the Donum or Paul Hobbs. A good, sound, well-made Carneros Pinot Noir. Score: 89 points.

Some critics have claimed to find minerality in Carneros Pinot Noir. I did not—at least, not as much as you find in Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir.

The question arose as to whether we can assume that the Napa side of Carneros is warmer than the Sonoma side. I do think that’s true, overall: Sonoma Carneros is that much more open to the Petaluma Gap. But it differs with individual wineries: when they want to pick, how ripe they want the brix or flavors to get before they pick. And there are differences in climate even within Napa, which is why the question of Haut Carneros—approaching the Mayacamas foothills—and Bas Carneros—the muddy, sandy, silty flats along San Pablo Bay—continues to be a fascinating one. I don’t know about the Frenchisms, but I do think this process of further distinguishing Carneros’s terroirs would be further along if they’d allowed more small, creative wineries to do business there.

Carneros has lost much of its luster over the last twenty years. But the potential is there for Carneros to re-gain the reputation it once had, and again be a contender.

Carneros


Wine, beer…and pot?

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As a longtime pot enthusiast, and the current holder of a California medical marijuana card, I’ve been glad to witness the acceptance of weed in America. If you’d asked me twenty years ago if I thought the legalization of marijuana (or gay marriage, for that matter) would occur in my lifetime, I would have said, No, especially not gay marriage. And yet, look how far we’ve come!

Yay America! Give yourself a pat on the back.

Still, I must admit my jaw dropped when I was reading the June/July issue of The Somm Journal and came across, on page 34, an article entitled “California Artisanal Hashish.” No, I thought, it can’t be what it looks like; this hash must have something to do with corned beef and potatoes for weekend brunch. (But why would that be in Somm Journal?)

It was only a few seconds later, reading the article, that I realized it was indeed about hashish, and specifically, how “Emerald Triangle farmers are fighting for the AOC classification as California reevaluates its medical cannabis industry.”

Hashish in Somm Journal? AOC classification? Photos of a dude tasting his “aged, artisanal hashish”? Yikes.

Well, Somm Journal is from the redoubtable Andy Blue and his business partner, Meredith May, two of the most successfully entrepreneurial publishers/editors in recent California history. Coming on the heels of The Tasting Panel magazine, maybe Andy has some new triumph in sight: The Smoking Panel magazine. And why not? If weed is going to be a legal, multi-billion-dollar industry in California (it’s already a multi-billion-dollar industry, but there’s still a huge fight between the feds and the state concerning its legality), then it’s going to need its own industry magazine. And who better than Andy to bring it to us?

What’s interesting, and something I hadn’t completely understood although I should have foreseen it, is that some of the same issues we see in beer and wine are now happening in marijuana production. Namely, the fight between large, industrial producers and small artisanal ones. We see that front and center in beer and wine, where artisans complain that the majors are producing soulless, chemically-treated and mass-produced products—a charge to which the majors are being forced to respond–and a new generation of consumers is siding with the artisans, and is moreover willing to pay a premium. Apparently, the same thing is happening with weed. “[S]econd- and third-generation farmers are coming out from the shadows to protect their heritage against the current trend of large corporations controlling cannabis production.”

Are they coming out of the shadows, or out of the smoke? Probably both. Regardless, the issues are timely. Heritage pot? Well, we have heritage clones in grapes, so why not in marijuana? Artisanal production? We celebrate craft beer, and in wine, all you hear about from somms these days is small artisanal producers. But an AOC system for weed? Yes. “California cannabis farmers are working with legislators to build appellation zones into upcoming regulations,” Somm Journal tells us, adding, “…wine-style AOC classification is what will save the farmers and allow California to become the only producer of artisanal hashish globally.”

That’s big thinking. Planetary, CGI thinking, even though Bill says he never inhaled. And no growing region is better suited to be the first appellation for hash and pot than the Emerald Triangle, that three-county (Mendocino, Humboldt, Trinity) hub, north of San Francisco, that’s been famous for weed-growing for decades. Anyone who lives there or has traveled through the rugged mountains knows the stories of plantations hidden deep in clearings in the forest; of innocent hikers getting their heads blown off as they unwittingly intruded into someone’s pot farm; of the local constabulary raiding fields, or the DEA showering down herbicides from helicopters; of pot gazillionaires who expanded into other, more legal, industries, including—gasp!–wine. (What, you think that didn’t happen? I first wrote about this in my 2005 book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River.)

Well, good for the pot farmers! And I will happily endorse the Emerald Triangle as the first weed appellation in the nation. When that happens (and I have no doubt it will), it will be only a matter of time before the Emerald Triangle is sub-appellated into smaller terroir-driven pot districts. Or is that too far-fetched? It’s one thing, I suppose, for wine experts to sit down at a formal tasting and discern the distinctions between, say, Diamond Mountain, Mount Veeder and Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. But somehow, it seems trickier to get high while determining the precise characteristics of, and differences between, pot from Yorkville, Willits and the Sinkyone Wilderness. I mean, you can’t spit. And who would take notes, or even remember the next morning? I have no doubt, however, that intrepid analysts are already hard at work at it, even as we speak. To them, I lift my glass of wine, followed by my medicinal pipe, and say, L’Chaim!


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.


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