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Carneros Pinot Noir: a study i

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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.


Refining the Russian River Valley AVA: another start

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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.


California AVAs as splintered broomsticks in “Fantasia”

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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.


That proposed Freestone-Occidental AVA: an interim status report

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I had a little time to catch up on the proposed Freestone-Occidental appellation. Here’s what I found out.

It was first proposed to the TTB in 2009, according to First Leaf, a Sonoma company that helps investors acquire agricultural land, and whose website contains valuable information on Sonoma’s various wine regions. Freestone and Occidental are, of course, small towns in the southwestern part of Sonoma County. Here’s a link to one version of a map, Free-Occ,  prepared by my friend, the AVA specialist Patrick Shabram. The website, everywine, has done a nice job summarizing the facts of the proposed appellation.

So what’s happened since 2009? In a word, nothing. “TTB returned [the application] last year,” explains Mike McEvoy, vice president of sales and marketing for Joseph Phelps Vineyards, which has vineyards in the area. The problem, according to McEvoy: “The reason TTB gave was, they had clarified their view on new AVAs that overlap with existing AVAs. And because part of the Freestone-Occidental appellation overlaps Russian River Valley, they sent back the petition back.” The problem seems to particularly apply to Freestone, not Occidental.

Shabram told Marimar Torres, (who shared the email with me) back in 2012, that he was aware of the overlap problem, and that “resubmitting a revised petition with the overlapped area removed, is much more plausible.” McEvoy, however, says little has occurred lately to push things forward. He says a group of members of the West Sonoma Coast Vintners, including Andy Peay, Ehren Jordan, Regina Martinelli and Ted Lemon, has plans to meet new month “to tackle this Freestone dilemma.” Unfortunately, the group wants any Freestone AVA “to include the area that’s overlapping with Russian River Valley,” which TTB is opposed to. Of course, no matter what the new eventual appellation is, starting this year it will have to append the words “Sonoma County” to it, according to the county’s new conjunctive labeling law, which will make for quite a mouthful.

My own feeling is that there should be at least one new AVA carved out from that area. I’ve always said the existing Sonoma Coast appellation is too big to mean anything. I was excited when Fort Ross-Seaview was approved by the TTB in 2011, but, as Marimar Torres, whose Doña Margarita Vineyard lies in the proposed new AVA, correctly notes, Fort Ross-Seaview is quite a distance away from Freestone-Occidental. “It’s so far north [whereas] Freestone-Occidental has a distinct personality.” The elevations there aren’t as high as in Fort Ross-Seaview, meaning the region is more subject to fog, making the wines deeper, heavier, more brooding than those of their northern cousins. Marimar’s 2005 Doña Margarita Pinot Noir is a classic example: dark, tannic and lush, not to mention ageworthy.

 


Thanks to all my tour guides over the years

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Thanks to Massimo di Constanzo for being my tour guide yesterday in Coombsville. This is Napa Valley’s hinterlands, a sleepy region of little homes and twisting country lanes that would be easy to get lost in. I’ll have much more to say about Coombsville in my upcoming story in Wine Enthusiast, but for now I just want to comment on the feeling I get when I visit a place that just reeks of terroir.

Terroir: there it is, that awful word again. I’m both a believer in it, and a scoffer of many of our official appellations that claim to have terroir but in reality don’t. But there are indeed places that look like they have terroir. Coombsville is one. So is Ballard Canyon, down in Santa Barbara County. So is Mount Harlan, where Calera does their thing. Edna Valley oozes a sense of terroir. So what do I mean by “places that look like they have terroir”?

For one thing, they’re fairly small in area. You can eyeball the entire appellation (pretty much so, anyway) from one point of elevation. Even if you can’t see the whole thing in one swoop, you can see the appellation’s unity on a topo map. For instance, this image of Coombsville

CupsSaucer5 w line.ai

 

shows clearly how the region is so delineated: tucked into a crescent-shaped bowl beneath the Vacas that descends from rolling foothills down to the Napa River, where the flatlands of Napa City take over. Doesn’t that look like “a place”? It’s not sprawling, like Paso Robles. Nor does it even have much of the east-west spectrum of, say, Oakville. It looks like It has a unity of climate, soils and exposures, which is why you’d expect to find a similarity between wines of the same variety or blend. And you do. And that’s what I call regional terroir.

I’ve been lucky in having tour guides like Massimo help me all my career. When I first visited the Santa Rita Hills, it was Greg Brewer who took me all around. Andy Beckstoffer once gave me the royal tour of Rutherford, an experience I’ve never forgotten. Greg Melanson was kind enough to helicopter me (twice) over Pritchard Hill, an experience beyond praise; being 900 feet up in altitude is absolutely the best way to get the lay of the land. Michael Terrien once shepherded me around the Napa side of Carneros; walking that land showed me that the area is more complicated than I’d thought.

There’s a symbiosis between the wine writer, on the one hand, and the people he writes about, on the other. We need them, as much as they need us. Ultimately, our interests don’t necessarily coincide, but, there’s a mutual respectfulness–in the best of cases, anyhow. I’ve met a few vintners and growers in my time who were models of incorrigibility. But not too many, fortunately; this is a pretty well-behaved field to work in.


How the French once hated California wine; and a Petaluma Gap AVA

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My publisher at Wine Enthusiast, Adam Strum, sent me this video of a speech he gave to the French-American Foundation, in New York, at an event  honoring Jean-Charles Boisset. Adam began his remarks with a memory of an exchange he had years ago with the legendary French chef, Andre Soltner, whose Lutece restaurant once was the de rigeur place for the elite to eat, back when French food defined haut cuisine.

At that time there were no California wines on Lutece’s wine list, and Adam asked Chef Soltner about it. Chef replied, “We do have California wine, but we cook with it. We do not have it on our wine list!” Ouch.

Adam’s point was that, not that long ago, the French attitude toward California wine was one of ennui. I immediately recalled an event I went to, more than twenty years ago. It was the first big wine article I ever wrote, for Wine Spectator. Many of the major French winemakers from the Rhône Valley had traveled to Napa Valley to meet up with their West Coast counterparts, the so-called Rhône Rangers, at Meadowood Resort, for a global summit on the grapes and wines of the Rhône. But what I recall most clearly is the disdain, bordering on hatred, that some of the French held toward California wines. This antipathy was in the air and was summed up by a leading French wine industry leader who angrily told the Californians in the audience, “You can steal our grape varieties. You can steal our techniques. But you cannot steal our terroir!”

How far we’ve come! Today, California wine is the envy of the world. Even the French have grudgingly accepted it.

* * *

On the heels of my post yesterday about the pending Lamorinda AVA, I had a conversation today about a proposed Petaluma Gap AVA. Apparently, there’s controversy over where the lines should be drawn. Quel surprise! There always is with these appellation wars. I have a definite position on Petaluma Gap: Yes, it deserves an AVA. This is cool-climate viticulture and there are important sources of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay growing there. I’ll leave it to others to determine the precise boundaries, which at any rate will be decided on a political basis, as much as on issues of climate and soils.

The Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Association developed this map, which is unofficial, since the TTB hasn’t yet ruled on it. Looking at it, it does seem a little too broadly drawn, extending all the way from just west of Cline Cellars, in Sonoma Carneros, out to the Pacific beaches, and from Novato in the south all the way up to north of Rohnert Park and Bodega Bay. I’d hate to see a redux of the Sonoma Coast appellation, which most everyone admits was ridiculously large; the fallout from that will take years more to sort out, even with the worthy addition of Fort Ross-Seaview. But such is the nature of these appellations, far as I can tell, that they tend to be drawn too liberally at first, for an obvious reason: nobody wants to be left out. So they include everybody, and the thing ends up being too big. Then the sub-AVA debates begin. Well, it keeps wine writers busy, anyhow.


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