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.
Spent yesterday in Monterey County, specifically in the Salinas Valley and the hills (Gabilan and Santa Lucias) that frame its eastern and western edges. During my conversations the subject arose as to Monterey’s reputation as a wine region. That is a subject I have lots to say about.
It’s fair to say that Santa Barbara County, to the south, has beaten Monterey in the perceived-quality sweepstakes, as has San Luis Obispo County. And, of course, Napa-Sonoma to the north are still perceived as the non plus ultra of wine country in California. Which leaves the questions, why has Monterey been left behind (again, I stress perception-wise), and what can be done about it?
I think part of the reason is because Monterey has been so famous as “America’s salad bowl,” the source of a huge percentage of our row crops, from greens in the summer to cauliflower in the winter and everything else inbetween. And there’s a school of thought out there that wine country must be a monoculture (the way, say, Bordeaux, Burgundy and Napa Valley are), so if wine grapes are growing right next to arugula, the quality of the grapes and wine cannot be very high.
That is untrue on the face of it; the grapes have no idea what’s growing in the next field over. It’s only people who make these distinctions. We’ve also been raised on the notion that the finest vineyards are in places where farmers can’t grow anything else, because the slopes are too steep, or the soil is too infertile or stony, or whatever. Again, it may be true from an historical point of view that farmers planted vineyards in places where no other crop could grow (or animal graze), but that was in order to maximize land use, not because they thought these slopes or poor soils would produce better wine. So this “can’t grow anything else” belief is also bogus.
Another problem that plagued Monterey—actually, two problems that are closely related—is that the earliest important plantings, in the 1950s and 1960s, were by big companies that sought to grow commodity grapes for mass-produced wines, which weren’t very good. This was compounded by planting the wrong grape varieties; people of my generation will recall “the Monterey veggies,” unripe aromas and flavors that accompanied the Cabernet Sauvignon everyone thought—mistakenly—would do so well. But it’s cold and windy in the Salinas Valley, and Cabernet turned out to be a disaster. Monterey is still trying to overcome that.
Another part of the problem is that gatekeepers have a distorted view of Monterey. They may remember “the Monterey veggies” and the commodity grapes, and they may still think that Monterey is nothing but a vast source of jug wines. The emergence of the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation of course makes that belief sheer nonsense, but most wines from Monterey County don’t come from the Highlands. It’s still hard to convince sommeliers that there are some pretty good wines coming from elsewhere, such as the Arroyo Seco and some of the unappellated sections of the Gabilans.
The Santa Lucia Highlands aside, Monterey’s several appellations are seeing growth in smaller, premium wineries, focusing on low-production, interesting lots of varietal wines. This is a good development that will put the county onto the fine wine map, linking it with its sister appellations along the coast and making the California coast the longest, unbroken stretch of premium wine land in the world.
I’m not quite sure how I feel about the proposed West Sonoma Coast appellation some people are proposing. On the plus side, it’s more compact than the existing Sonoma Coast AVA, which as everyone knows almost nobody likes because it’s so all-encompassing. On the minus side is that it’s still pretty sprawling.
It would have been nice had the proposed appellation’s boundaries been the original ones for the Sonoma Coast. They’re a lot more honest from a terroir point of view, since they hug the Pacific Coast more closely, which after all is what the Sonoma Coast, theoretically, is all about.
But we can’t undo the past; we’re stuck for all time with Sonoma Coast. So what does West Sonoma Coast do that Sonoma Coast doesn’t?
Well, it further delineates this vital stretch of the coast, which truly is an area unique unto itself. The problems, however, are manifold. For one, we know from studies that consumers already are puzzled by the word “Sonoma” on an appellation, which appears in Sonoma Valley, Sonoma County and of course Sonoma Coast (not to mention the rarely used Northern Sonoma appellation). Then too, there are lots of wineries with the word Sonoma in their name. So adding a West Sonoma Coast AVA to the list runs the risk, it seems to me, of further confusing the consumer.
Then too, it seems likely that at some point there will be smaller sub-AVAs even within this restricted version of the Sonoma Coast. We already have (and needed) Fort Ross-Seaview. Can Annapolis be far behind? Or Freestone and Occidental? If these appellations are on the to-do list, might it not make more sense to forego a West Sonoma Coast appellation, until we obtain clarity on the others.
Sonoma County’s problem is that in the 1980s it rushed forward to appellate more than any other California county. Napa by contrast took things slow and steady. They made sure their appellations were all nicely lined up, with few if any overlaps, and they were mostly named after the townships and the mountains. Sonoma by contrast ended up with a hodgepodge which almost everyone now regrets, but there you are: it can’t be undone. So the question is, where to go from here?
My own feeling is to let things lie for a while. Give consumers more time to absorb Sonoma’s AVAs, including Sonoma Coast, which seems to be gaining some traction. Why over-burden them with even more names to remember?
The reason why is because some vintners want these new AVAs, including West Sonoma Coast. They were never happy with Sonoma Coast (much less Sonoma County), and so they want a name they can hang their hats on—one moreover that connotes the quality and pedigree we associate with this “true Sonoma Coast” region of maritime influence, where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay develop so magnificently.
Like I said, I haven’t made my mind up whether or not to support the West Sonoma Coast appellation. I’m torn between the “makes sense” and “doesn’t make sense” extremes. The West Sonoma Coast Vintners is a fabulous grouping of some of the greatest wineries in California; no matter what you call the region, it’s true name is brilliance. But, based on my long experience of writing for the readers of wine magazines, my orientation is toward consumers, not the egos or interests of local vintners. I always put myself in that shopper’s state of mind, so I ask myself: Will West Sonoma Coast clarify things, or hopelessly muddle them? Right now, I’m inclined toward the latter view.
If you’ve only come upon the California wine scene in, say, the last 15 years, you’d never know that, once upon a time, Carneros was one of the hottest appellations in the state.
I don’t have copies of articles from the 1980s that were calling Carneros “California’s Burgundy,” but that was the meme of the time in magazines and newspapers. I do have some older wine books that get the point across. E. Frank Henriques was a wine-loving Episcopal priest who wrote an obscure but useful book, The Signet Encyclopedia of Wine (1975, reprinted 1984), in which he says Carneros Creek’s Pinot Noirs (the winery was bought by Michael Mondavi in 2006) have “the classic Burgundy aroma,” whatever that means! Harvey Steiman, writing then if I recall correctly for the old San Francisco Examiner, similarly called a 1980 Carneros Creek Pinot “Burgundian.” John Winthrop Haeger, writing in 2004 in his fine book, North American Pinot Noir, wrote that Carneros Creek’s founder, Francis Mahoney, was “reminded…of Burgundy” when he first saw Carneros’s “hilly terrain and rocky subsoils.”
Another obscure but useful and, at the time, highly controversial book, Roy Andries de Groot’s The Wines of California (1982), referred to André Tchelistcheff’s description of Carneros’s climate as “so close to that of the upper [i.e., better] slopes of Burgundy that this would be an ideal place to grow a typical Burgundian grape…”. The Maestro did indeed grow Pinot Noir in Carneros, and he himself always said his 1968 vintage was one of his best ever; but it does not appear to have been particularly “Burgundian,” for in 1974 Robert Gorman, an amateur who seemed to know everyone who was anyone in Napa wine circles at that time, tasted the 1968 Beaulieu Pinot Noir and, in his book, Gorman on California Premium Wines (another fascinating obscurity), found it “unmistakably a Napa Valley wine [that] looks more like a Pomerol than a Burgundy.” That referred to its dark color: I myself tasted that wine in 2001, when it was 33 years of age. It was largely dead, but it still was big, dark and somewhat tannic and certainly not Burgundian.
Anyway, this introduction is simply to give some idea of the promise that Carneros held for Pinot Noir (and Chardonnay) from the 1970s into and through the 1980s. However, it’s fair to say that by the 1990s Carneros’s star began to fade. Other Pinot Noir regions—primarily the Russian River Valley, but also and increasingly, the westernmost part of the Santa Ynez Valley (now known as the Santa Rita Hills) were exciting critics, and Pinots from Anderson Valley, the Santa Cruz Mountains, San Luis Obispo County and the Santa Lucia Highlands were coming on strong. The combination of them eclipsed Carneros, which may also have suffered due to zoning restrictions that made viticulture possible only for larger wine companies that could afford great acreage, thereby shutting out the garagistes (of course that term didn’t yet exist) who had been the ones pushing the California Pinot Noir envelope.
At some point the Carneros Quality Alliance, a marketing consortium of local growers, was born, to boost awareness of this sprawling appellation that crosses two counties, Napa and Sonoma. I remember being in the thick of things in the 1990s and early 2000s when, as a wine critic, I was on the receiving end of press releases, invitations to tastings, etc. I never had the sense that the CQA was particularly well-organized or that it did a very good job of promoting the region, which seemed to slip further and further into marginality. It’s not that the wines weren’t good, occasionally very good. It was just that Carneros lost its luster by 2000, and seemed always to have to fight to be included on the short list of great wine regions.
The CQA now has morphed into the Carneros Wine Alliance (CWA), and they’ve lately embarked on a revised marketing and promotional effort, described in the April issue of Wines and Vines as a “new focus” to “raise awareness” of Carneros. Even some of the CWA’s leaders, such as Garnet’s Allison Crowe, concede that the CWA and Carneros the appellation “lost its focus in recent years.” In all the years I reviewed wine for Wine Enthusiast, the number of Carneros Pinot Noirs that scored very highly was disappointingly small, compared to California’s other coastal regions. I did give a Donum 2009 West Slope 97 points, a couple of Etudes 95 points (the 2006 Heirloom and the 2007 Deer Camp), also 95 points to the La Rochelle 2009 (which was from Donum Estate); there was a 94 point wine, the 2010 Mira, from Stanly Ranch (which Louis M. Martini purchased in 1942 and planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, six years later), but these sadly were outliers. My chief gripe with Carneros Pinot Noir was that the wines could be overly acidic and a little earthy if not one-dimensional.
(I should add that Jackson Family’s La Crema brand produces a Carneros Pinot Noir that I’ve given generally good scores to for many years. They also have a Hartford Court “Seven Benches” Pinot, but I haven’t tasted it for a long time. Finally, the company bought the old Buena Vista Carneros production facility, and I’m highly looking forward to tasting those wines when they’re released at some point (not under the Buena Vista name, because Jean-Charles Boisset owns that). Historically, Buena Vista was capable of producing fine Pinot Noir from their Ramal Road vineyard.)
I do think that Carneros has not been at the forefront of Pinot Noir in California, but there’s no intrinsic reason why they couldn’t once again be there. After all, if André Tchelistcheff himself saw its promise, it must be there—and there are simply too many Carneros Pinots that more than hint at its potential. And so I eagerly welcome the CWA’s effort, which involves hiring a new P.R. firm for the appellation, which turns 30 years old next year. But success depends on more than public relations, obviously; the wines have got to be good to the point of compelling, in order for Carneros to regain the luster it showed twenty and more years ago.
Maybe something will come of it this time–“it” being the latest push to establish sub-appellations within the greater Russian River Valley.
People have been talking about it forever. More than ten years ago, when I was doing the research for my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, the controversy already was old. As I wrote, “Exactly where these divisions are and what they should be called are years away from being determined.” Some new appellations suggested at that time by the Russian River Valley Winegrowers Association (RRVWA, but nowadays they’ve dropped the word “association” so it’s just RRVW) were the Middle Reach, Laguna Ridges and the Santa Rosa Plain (although the latter two had major overlappings), but separately, Rod Berglund, at Joseph Swan, added Sebastopol Hills and Windsor Hills, Dan Goldfield (Dutton-Goldfield) suggested splitting Green Valley into “Upper” and “Lower” (based on elevation), and Bob Cabral (who just announced he’s leaving Williams Selyem) favored a West River AVA (to pick up where the Middle Reach trails off, beyond Wohler Narrows and Gary Farrell (and if you’ve driven out there, you know it looks and feels very different from Westside Road closer to Healdsburg).
This latest initiative, announced by Chris Donatiello, currently head of the RRVW, is interesting in that it refers to any potentially new AVAs as “neighborhoods” and to the push itself as “the neighborhood initiative.” I would like to have been a fly on the wall in the discussions that resulted in the choice of such a richly connotative word. Perhaps, given the history of flashpoint divisiveness that has accompanied every AVA battle I’ve ever witnessed (from Santa Rita Hills to Fort Ross-Seaview), the RRVW decided that calling the regions “neighborhoods” would humanize the discussion. Maybe the idea of a “neighborhood” is more expansive than that of a region whose boundaries are hard-wired on climate and soils. Terroir can be awfully exclusive: I mean, let’s say the presence of Goldridge soil is pertinent to your definition. Exactly where does Goldridge start and stop? It can be a matter of feet–and if I’m right outside the Goldridge zone, but I want into the new appellation, I’m going to be pissed off if you don’t let me in. I might even hire a lawyer and fight. So maybe calling them “neighborhoods” is so that the boundaries can be more elastic.
At any rate, it’s a good thing the discussion has resumed, and I hope that it results in some new AVAs. As readers of this blog know, I sometimes poke fun at California AVAs (because it’s so easy to), but at heart I’m a big admirer of them. They’re the slipperiest things in the world to get your arms around–but we’re better off with them than without them, because they do help, however limitedly, to understand why some wines are the way they are. At the elite end of wine, at the kind of wineries that are so common throughout the Russian River Valley, vintners try their utmost to produce wines with minimal intervention so that their terroir can shine through. So it’s only proper that that terroir should have a name.
You can’t be a fan of wine without having some interest in geology, climate science, geography, political history and associated fields. As a geek, I love studying topo maps (showing physical features) and political maps (showing streets, towns, river names and so on), trying to piece together how everything ties in. Right now I’m looking at the giant map the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission put out in 2007 of the Russian River Valley (including Green Valley and Chalk Hill). Because of its topo features, you can clearly see how the flats we call the Petaluma Gap allow maritime air to funnel into the valley, traversing past Cotati and Rohnert Park like a bowling ball taking aim at the southeastern valley (the Laguna Ridges). At the same time, another break in the coastal hills, this one coming up from Bodega Bay, brings that cool, moist air into the southwestern valley, into the heart of Green Valley. (Berglund’s Sebastopol Hills seems to lie at the junction of the Petaluma Gap and Bodega Bay intrusions.) Of course, as you move north in the valley, you lose that coastal influence with every mile or so (local conditions depending), so that it’s largely spent by the time you reach, say, Oded Shakked’s Dakine Vineyard, on Westside Road, where you’re almost in Dry Valley (and Dakine is, of course, where Oded grows excellent Syrah for his Longboard brand).
The Russian River Valley obviously needs clarification. At 96,000 acres, it’s the 21st biggest AVA in California, according to the Wine Institute–bigger than Santa Rita Hills, Arroyo Seco and Atlas Peak combined. It’s true that Napa Valley, at 225,280 acres, dwarfs Russian River Valley, but Napa already is divided into at least 16 sub-appellations, and quite successfully; in my opinion, Napa’s appellations were drawn up more or less sensibly, although they could stand further refinement (I’d divide Oakville, for instance, into East and West, and might even reconsider Benches for Oakville and Rutherford).
The task the RRVW has given itself will not be an easy one. Even if there’s widespread agreement among all parties as to names and boundaries–a big “if”–the biggest challenge is suggested by this sentence in Donatiello’s press release: “The diverse personalities within the Russian River Valley are shown as much in the people that inhabit this area as much as the wines grown here.” This statement tacitly concedes that the total impact on a wine includes not just climate and soil, but “personalities,” or what Emile Peynaud, in The Taste of Wine, refers to as cru. It is not simply terroir, as such; it includes “the primary role of…man’s efforts,” taking into account his “observation, ingenuity and hard work.” How you roll these things into establishing the boundaries of an appellation is beyond me, but somehow, it has got to be done.
The Federal government, in its bureaucratic wisdom, is exhaustive in spelling out the rules and regulations concerning American Viticultural Areas, defining everything from the percentage of grapes required to originate from the AVA to the point size of the appellation on the label. So complex has the process become that the Tax and Trade Bureau, the responsible agency, issued a 27-page Manual for Petitioners.
But there’s one thing that TTB does not and cannot do, and that is to describe the organoleptic qualities a particular AVA should have. Nowhere in the Manual will you find a description of, for instance, what the Cabernet Sauvignons of Happy Canyon ought to taste like, much less how (or if) they differ from the Cabernets of Paso Robles or Atlas Peak.
Petitioners to the government, who wish to establish a new AVA, need to document all sorts of things: not only where the proposed boundaries are, but upon what criteria they were established; how and why the proposed name is “appropriate”; whether or not the proposed name could be confused by consumers with existing brand names; how the AVA’s “distinguishing features” differentiate it from surrounding areas, and so on. So extensive are all these regulations that AVA petitioners usually must hire professionals to prepare the paperwork, and the process itself lasts for years.
Wine writers, of course, have a different set of concerns. We like knowing about the technical stuff (that’s why they call us geeks), but above and beyond everything else, we insist on trying to understand just what it is about any particular AVA that expresses itself in the resulting wines. This understanding can be elusive; it’s the stuff of endless seminars and studies, none of which is ever conclusive and probably never can be. Call it the Wine Writers Full Employment Act: as long as there are AVAs, there will be people struggling to analyze them. Including me. My latest excursion into AVA Land is with the upcoming Pinot Noir Summit, where, after some back and forth with the organizers, I finally decided on this topic for my panel: Carneros vs. Russian River Valley: Is there a difference?
It sounds a little simplistic, but the best questions are the most fundamental ones. After all, if there’s not a difference between two neighboring appellations, then why bother with appellations in the first place?
I doubt if we (the panelists and the audience) will arrive at any firm conclusions, but that doesn’t prevent the exercise from being fun and informative. Myself, I have a generalized sense of Carneros Pinot Noir with respect to Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. In my mind, the former wines are more acidic, lighter in body, earthier and more minerally than the latter wines, which tend to be bigger, richer and heavier. This is mainly due to Carneros being cooler than most of the valley, and also to its soils, which have large quantities of water-retaining clay.
But the devil is in the details. The Carneros appellation spreads from the flatlands alongside San Pablo Bay (which I think of as bas Carneros) to the foothills of the lower Mayacamas (haut Carneros), meaning that soils and temperatures can vary significantly. Meanwhile, the Russian River Valley itself shows huge terroir differences, the most important of which being that the climate varies significantly from the cooler, foggier southern portions to the warmer, drier area along Westside Road.
Thus the effort to discern regional distinctions will be hampered. This difficulty is made all the more problematic by winemaking techniques (especially picking decisions), which vary from winery to winery and can mask the wine’s underlying terroir.
Do you remember the broomstick scene from the 1940 Disney movie, Fantasia? It’s one of the most remarkable feats of animation ever. Mickey Mouse “borrows” the Sorcerer’s hat and makes a broomstick come to life to perform his chores. Alas, the broomstick does the work a little too well: the next thing Mickey knows, he’s drowning. Attempting to stop the broomstick, Mickey takes a hatchet to it, and chops. And chops. Each splinter turns into a new broomstick that ruthlessly, robotically, mechanically repeats the original broomstick’s function–until Mickey finds himself in a nightmare, saved only by the sudden reappearance of the Sorcerer, who reclaims his hat, and all is well, except that a chastened Mickey has to resume his work.
I sometimes feel AVAs are like that broomstick. They metastasize endlessly; currently, no fewer than 14 new ones are pending in California alone, on top of the hundred-plus we already have. And just as Mickey was overwhelmed with all those marching broomsticks, the poor wine writer sometimes flounders to understand all of California’s AVAs.
No doubt a technical case can be made for each, but from a terroir point of view, it can be very hard to detect a rationale. One likes to think there is a rationale. If we can’t discern the rationale (we tell ourselves), it’s not because there isn’t a defining terroir, it’s because we are insufficiently qualified to find it. We thus take the burden of proof onto ourselves. Which is why I’m doing this Carneros vs. Russian River panel. It obviously won’t be definitive, but it might get us a little closer to the truth.