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Thursday throwaway: wine bloggers, aging wine, and a brand new AVA

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More “aren’t they special” plaudits for young wine bloggers in this op-ed piece from the online edition of beveragedaily.com. The author lets us know that—at long last!—bloggers are “telling the story” that presumably has not been told before: wine lovers now have “real” people, AKA wine bloggers, to help them in their quest to find good wine. Not “technical” academics, not “corporate” hacks, not dinosaur Boomer critics, but “real persons” who can “provide a crucial link between the industry and consumers” and who understand, as never before, the “passion” of winemakers.

Finally! After centuries of being hectored, lectured and bullied by wine snobs ranging from Thomas Jefferson and Professor Saintsbury to Dan Berger, Parker and (ahem) me, consumers are being spoken to by their peers, people they can trust to not bamboozle them. I wrote the other day, concerning National Drink Wine Day, that apparently anybody can declare a National Something Day, so I’m going to propose that the fourth Thursday of each February now and henceforth forever be #National Wine Bloggers Day. I created that hashtag on Twitter. I’m urging my Congressional representatives to make it a national holiday. No work, no school, fly the wine flag high and let the nation celebrate wine blogging by, well, wine blogging. Remember what Jefferson immortally said: “A nation of wine bloggers will be a bloggy nation.”

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Speaking of Dan Berger, I associate myself entirely with his remarks the other day in his column, in which he cast considerable doubt on the ability of wines to age—even wines that are very expensive and that you think, for perfectly valid reasons, have the capacity to age well.

Dan writes, I have long noted the utter failure of some expensive reds to taste better with even as little as a year of age.” He adds that, as a reviewer, “It is one reason I am reluctant to assert wine has potential when I cannot be certain it does.” Consumers should take note: Dan Berger has tasted more old wines than most people ever will. I completely agree with his assessment. I’ve stored a lot of wine, mainly red, mainly California Cabernet Sauvignon, in various storages (small fridges, big wine units, professional wine lockers) and I can’t tell you how often I’ve been dismayed at the results. The wines become, not splendidly aged as one would hope, but “tired,” to use Dan’s word.

I believe that critics make far too much of aging wine. Bigtime “name” critics do it first, and then small wannabes mimic them. Consumers are left confused and frustrated, believing they have to age wines but not knowing which ones to age or for how long. I have my own theory how this all started: In France, a long, long time ago, winemakers did not know how to manage tannins. This was a problem compounded by often poor vintages caused by the Little Ice Age that struck Europe. The result was wines that really were “undrinkable” when they were young. Britain was the main buyer of French wine: Bordeaux and Burgundy, and for a while, when Britain was at one of her frequent wars with France, she turned to Portugal for wine, especially vintage Port: another wine impossibly tannic when young. What to do?

Turned out that many British consumers of wine, being wealthy, had large castles (ah, the good old days); and these castles had underground cellars where the temperature never warmed up much beyond the mid- to high 50s. Since these men bought their wines in enormous quantities rather than by the bottle (no corner wine store in those days), they stored the wines in these cold cellars, where they discovered—voila!—that after many years, even decades, the wines finally shed their tannins and became sweetly mellow. In this way there developed the custom of laying down wine for one’s children’s or grandchildren’s 21st birthdays, a custom we still see here in America.

But somewhere along the line arose the modern practice of tannin management, and lo and behold, most wines are perfectly drinkable upon release. They’re riper and softer than ever before in history, which makes them great to drink the first six years or so. My advice: Cellar stuff if you want to. But be prepared to be disappointed, especially with California wine.

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CALIFORNIA’S NEWEST APPELLATION

As far as I can tell, most of the wines from Lamorinda (just approved by the Feds as an A.V.A.) are backyard hobby efforts. The name “Lamorinda” is an concoction of Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda, three very wealthy suburban towns just on the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel from Oakland, in the county of Contra Costa, so named by pioneers because it lay on the “opposite coast” of the Bay from San Francisco. I have long known men of wealth in that area who planted grapevines in their backyards, on slopes of the East Bay Hills; I’ve tasted some of their wines over the years, and they’re not bad. I don’t think anyone really knows if any one variety or family of varieties is best suited for Lamorinda. People grow everything from Pinot Noir to Zinfandel and, of course, Chardonnay. They even make sparkling wine. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for Lamorinda wines to pop up on store shelves or restaurant wine lists. Maybe some local restos, but not otherwise. Nor do I expect the somm community to discover and promote the red-hot wines of this new appellation. But good luck to my through-the-tunnel winemaking neighbors, and congrats on getting your appellation! I know what it takes, because I’m going through the process myself, up in Oregon.


Hello Los Olivos! Welcome to the California family of AVAs

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I haven’t been the biggest fan of California’s AVA system, which contains far too many utterly meaningless appellations. (Sonoma Coast, anyone?)

But now, the TTB has made an eminently worthy decision, in the case of Los Olivos, which on Jan. 20 was approved to become California’s latest appellation. (The actual effective date will be Feb. 22.)

It joins its Santa Barbara County sisters, Ballard Canyon to the west and Happy Canyon to the east, as AVAs in this central part of the sprawling Santa Ynez Valley, itself also an AVA. To the north is Santa Maria Valley; further west is Santa Rita Hills. The missing link in the region is now Los Alamos Valley, which currently is a gigantic black hole stretching from Santa Maria all the way south along the 101 Freeway to Buellton. It’s not an AVA, yet, but I expect it, or some part of it, to become one eventually.

With this fait accompli of Los Olivos, I should think the appellation-izing of Santa Barbara County has reached completion (once Los Alamos comes online). At least, there are no further suggestions for additional sub-divisions I’m aware of. Readers? I’ve long thought Santa Rita Hills is overdue for a little fine-tuning: that could happen along east-west (warmer-cooler) lines, or north-south (elevation and orientation) lines, but I don’t perceive any strong impetus to get involved in the fractious and expensive fights that appellation-tinkering almost always stimulates. (Look at the nastiness of the effort to expand Santa Rita Hills a little bit to the east, which seems to have stalled, at least temporarily, as local vintners line up to take sides.)

Thirteen wineries will be entitled to use Los Olivos on their labels, if they want to. Should they? I think so, but ultimately these are complicated marketing and sales decisions. Is there a Los Olivos terroir? Yes. The soils are not complicated, the way they are in, say, Sonoma County. Los Olivos is primarily a broad alluvial plain created by the Santa Ynez River. Hills are rare: the topography, in the words of the petition, is “relatively uniform, with nearly flat terrain” that, incidentally, makes harvesting easy.

Climate-wise, Los Olivos is warmish-cool, not as hot as Happy Canyon (think: Bordeaux), nor as chilly as Santa Maria Valley (Burgundy). The maritime influence has largely drained away by the time it arrives here, 30 miles inland; due to radiational cooling, that absence of fog makes nighttime temperatures quite chilly, cooler than in most of Santa Rita Hills.

Varietal-wise, Los Olivos has turned into Rhône country over the years, although the vintner behind the push for the appellation, Fred Brander, is a Sauvignon Blanc man, one of the few in California to specialize in that variety (and how well he does it!). Although a few wineries still produce Cabernet Sauvignon, the smart money has given up on it, because it never seemed to get ripe enough (which in turn was the rationale for Happy Canyon). I always had the feeling that vintners around Los Olivos produced Cabernet for the market and not because they thought it was the best grape for their terroir.

In short, the Los Olivos AVA makes perfect sense. It’s an upscale appellation: there are no common wines in Los Olivos. (Geeks: to what famous statement am I alluding? First to identify it gets a free lifetime subscription to steveheimoff.com.)


Appellations in Wonderland

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The more I get into the details of appellation formation here in California, the weirder things get. I feel like Alice through the looking glass: “Curiouser and curiouser!”

Wine appellations in Europe are easy to understand. The grape variety or varieties are, in general, matched to the region, after hundreds if not thousands of years of vintners having determined that the variety is perfect for the terroir and vice versa. Thus Chenin Blanc in Touraine, for example, or Pinot Noir in the Cote d’Or.

The strength of this system is that there can be no doubt that grape and appellation are a perfect fit. The French (who created this system) are sticklers for legalité; they like things neat and orderly, and the AOC system is both of those (although it does get messy at times!).

The neatness comes, of course, at a cost: Vintners must plant only permissible grapes (and in permissible ways), or else they cannot use the appellation on the label. It could be that Chardonnay grows great in Pessac; we’ll never really know, because why would a winery in Pessac make Chardonnay when their Cabernet Sauvignon will fetch such a hefty bottle price?

Still, Europe’s appellations make as much sense as one can reasonably expect. Here in California, if I understand the process correctly (and I think I do), the connection between variety and appellation is non-existent; the TTB doesn’t care what the grower plants there. If somebody petitioned them for a Mohave Desert AVA, and could fulfill all of the other requirements, they’d get their AVA, despite the fact that no grape variety I know of—certainly not vitis vinifera—could grow in the desert. To use another example, if somebody wants to grow Pinot Noir in Calistoga—where it demonstrably does not do well—they’d be perfectly entited to put “Calistoga” on the label.

The requirements TTB does want are, first, some sort of similarity of, and evidence for, terroir (soils and climate) within the proposed AVA boundaries, and evidence that the proposed name has historical antecedents. The terroir consistency is obvious and warranted, the name requirement less so. In France, appellation names are millennially ancient. Bordeaux has been Bordeaux, Burgundy Burgundy, Champagne Champagne for far, far longer than the entire history of the United States. In California, history (at least, the white man’s) didn’t even really begin until the 19th century; you can’t look to history to justify a name like Fort Ross-Seaview, Pine Mountain or Mt. Harlan, because by and large those place-names didn’t exist until relatively recently. So the TTB can’t be very fussy about historical references. Still, they want something, even if the historical connection is weed-slender: If I proposed “Mount Heimoff” it would be an utter non-starter.

Another thing TTB wants—or, to be more accurate, doesn’t want—is controversy. The last thing those bureaucrats need is for locals in a proposed new AVA, or an expanded one, to be at war with one another, waiting for TTB to be the judge and jury. They’ve been there, done that, and learned their lesson: it’s not gonna happen again. The process of appellation-ing has become so politicized that TTB has said, in essence: Don’t come to us with a petition unless you have all your neighbors on board.

I’d like, someday, for our AVA system to contain some sort of reference to specific varieties. I doubt that it will ever happen; in fact I’ll bet my last dime it won’t. But it would add greater authenticity to a system that, frankly, has become so random, so chaotic and political, that it really lacks much informative value to the consumer—which, after all, is the whole point, isn’t it?


Thinking about appellations

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I’ve been thinking about appellations lately, partly because I’m still reading—and immensely enjoying—Benjamin Lewin MW’s new book, Wines of France, which contains so much useful information about them in France—but also because the nature of my work at Jackson Family Wines includes research into this area.

In France the issue of appellations is more or less settled. The regions are so ancient, their proclivities so well understood, that the names and boundaries, however complex, are simply codifications of realities that have been determined for centuries. There are of course outstanding questions—and there always will be—such as expanding the borders of Champagne, or who should be a St. Emilion Grand Cru, or should Alsace have a premier cru level. But, by and large, France’s appellations are fixed, and they make sense.

Here in California, the situation is anything but. Our existing AVAs are fixed, I suppose, to the extent that the TTB, which is an arm of the Treasury Department, has recognized them, and so—as with any government program—they are unlikely to be changed. Yes, an AVA may be tweaked around the edges: witness the Russian River Valley’s southern expansion, or the proposals to extend Santa Rita Hills to the east. But, as anyone knows who has studied our AVA process, it is haphazard to the point of chaos. It is true that politics in France also rears its head in appellation discussions, but in California, politics seems to play an outsized role. And our TTB—which also regulates firearms and ammunition—has not exactly shown itself to be the most intellectually logical place in the U.S. government for such things as regulating wine regions. What TTB seems to want is to avoid getting caught in internecine battles. And who can blame them?

Still, the TTB is what we are stuck with. Knowing how arbitrary the approval process can be, how political it is, with personalities and money wrapped up into considerations of terroir, and how bureaucratic is this arm of the government, how and why, then, should the consumer even care about AVAs? Well, the average consumer doesn’t. Let’s face it: price, variety, brand, availability and even label design play a greater role in the selection of wine than appellation. Then, a step up from the “average consumer” is the “informed consumer.” He or she does care about appellations, to a certain extent: Napa Valley means something to him (general approval, an expectation of greatness, especially for Cabernet Sauvignon). But beyond that, his awareness of appellations dims.

Who, then, is the target of the ever-expanding list of American AVAs, which now numbers—well, Wikipedia says 230, although that seems low to me. I think it’s mainly wine writers. They care about appellations, even if no one else does. When Paso Robles subdivided into eleven AVAs, do you think Americans lifted their glasses and toasted the birth of El Pomar and San Juan Creek? I don’t. But wine writers duly took note (and the gatekeepers who read them did, too). The writers who wrote about it felt they had to “understand” this move—it must have meant something, right? Otherwise why would the U.S. government have blessed it?—and they therefore gave Paso Robles more publicity than it ever would have gotten. So in this sense, appellations are just as much about P.R. as they are about terroir.

Well, yes…and no. It’s obvious that there must be terroir distinctions for grape varieties. We feel that intuitively; we know that experientally, through the feelings of our own bodies as we transit across various California landscapes, even those limited to the coastal regions. We “get” that Cabernet, or Pinot Noir, or Syrah (to mention only the more terroir-sensitive varieties) perform differently in different places: taste differently, ripen differently, have different acid profiles. Therefore we—the more thoughtful wine appreciators—are implicitly biased in favor of terroir distinctions, or appellations. The question, and it’s a huge one, is: Are these appellations, as defined by TTB, meaningful reflections of reality, or are they just examples of “he who has the most money, and the best lawyers, wins”?

There is no clear answer. Not every question that sounds as if it has an answer actually does. Still, I would argue, the effort must continue: to delineate individual appellations, based on terroir. We must resist the conclusion that it’s all a bunch of B.S., just because so much of it has been in the past. We have to work with the TTB—unfortunate as that is—to more precisely define AVAs like Russian River Valley, or Santa Rita Hills, or Santa Lucia Highlands, or Anderson Valley, or Alexander Valley, in order to zero in on particular local distinctions. This is important work. It may never be properly appreciated by hundreds of millions of consumers, nor need it be. But we owe it to wine, to the earth, to honesty and to ourselves to continue to try to understand it.


Is California appellation-ed out? Yes

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We have another tasting coming up this Friday, this time of Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs. I will be writing more about that later, but I just realized that Anderson Valley was probably the last appellation of significant importance I can remember emerging in California—even though it was officially declared way back in 1983.

I mean that, for the wine press in general, Anderson Valley didn’t really hit our radar until the 1990s, and even then, it was primarily known for Alsatian varieties. Even in the early 2000s, I think if you’d polled most knowledgeable wine writers about the best Pinot Noir growing districts, Anderson Valley would barely have made the list—if at all. (Some oldtimers may disagree.) And yet, today, Anderson Valley—that pretty little cleft of land along the Navarro River tucked in between the Mendocino Highlands—is universally recognized as great Pinot Noir terroir.

So when I ask, Is California appellation-ed out, what I mean is that I think there may well be no more super-appellations in our future. The ultimate frontier may have been reached: We’re plumb out of space. Yes, we’ve had some pretty good AVAs declared in recent years: Ballard Canyon and Coombsville are superb. And yes, we’ll have more tiny little carveouts from larger AVAs: Pritchard Hill is long overdue, although legal and personal issues may prevent it from happening anytime soon. And yes, we’ve had Lodi split up and Paso Robles go positively schizo on us: if there are any master sommelier candidates who can rattle off all of its new sub-AVAs, I’ll personally promote you.

But these are all relatively small, narrowly defined appellations within greater appellations whose value has long been recognized. What I’m talking about is a brand new winegrowing region, not contained within an existing one, that comes out of nowhere and grabs the critical imagination. The Santa Lucia Highlands once did that. So did the Santa Rita Hills.* But the days of new stars emerging onto the pantheon are, I fear, over—and necessarily so. We’ve simply run out of land along the coast.

Oh, I suppose somebody could discover and develop some area way to the north—Humboldt County—or way to the south—Ventura. But it’s not terribly likely. Even if those places had the terroir to produce remarkable wines, the money isn’t there to invest to exploit them because it [the money] is too busy elsewhere, in existing appellations that are far more profitable to sell. Who would spend much money on a Humboldt County Pinot Noir? Even Marin County, which can make very good Pinot (and Riesling), will always remain a curiosity; I can’t see Marin having dozens of wineries, like Anderson Valley does, and becoming a contender.

If the coast is shut down, then the only place you can go in California is east, inland: and inland wine just has not proven to have the appeal of coastal wine. Lodi, however much you want to love it for being the underdog, and however good its old vine wines can be, simply doesn’t have selling power. The Sierra Foothills and its various sub-regions seem to have reached whatever peak they’re likely to have in the foreseeable future. Temecula? I don’t think so. Lake County seemed for a while to have a future, but that vision has evaporated, and is not likely to resurrect in the consumer’s mind, not even for good Cabernet Sauvignon, which doesn’t have a chance of competing against Napa Valley or Sonoma County and its sub-regions.

How does it affect the psyche of California wine to have finally run out of room for new AVAs? We’re told by historians that when the westward expansion of America, which is to say the westward expansion of European civilization, hit the Pacific shore, a certain turn inward ensued. An alternative explanation is that outer space became the new frontier. But we’ve seen how that exploration has slowed down since the Moon landing, despite the fabulosity of the Hubble telescope and the Pluto flyby. And we’re not likely to develop extra-Earth vineyards in my lifetime, yours, or your grandkids’.  (Where would they go? Titan?)  In truth, America’s obsession with what it means to be “an American” may be the sublimation of the fantastic energy that went into 500 years of Europe’s drive to the west, only to be stymied. Once it ended, where was that energy to go?

Well, a good place, I’m sure. There’s always room for improvement, isn’t there. We were a bit hurried in California in developing our appellations, which now must number close to 130. Many if not most of them were done for political, personal and financial reasons that had little to do with authentic terroir. So perhaps, now that the appellation frontier has ended and we have some time on our hands, we can revisit our important appellations to more fully understand them. I’m talking about places like Oakville and Rutherford, the Santa Rita Hills and Santa Lucia Highlands, the Russian River Valley, even Alexander Valley. Admired as they are, these are stupid AVAs that have little meaning, beyond P.R. Let’s put our shoulders to the wheel and get down to the business of sub-appellating them in ways that make sense.

*Yes, geeks, I know SRH was carved out of Santa Ynez Valley. But it really was the equivalent of an exciting, brand new and hitherto undiscovered Pinot Noir area.


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