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Thoughts on the proposed new Eagle Peak appellation

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I always have mixed feelings about AVAs. Are they helpful or hurtful? To what? You ask. To our understanding of terroir, of the sense of place they purport to convey.

Of course, an AVA does nothing of the sort. Its appearance on the label guarantees only the geographic origin of the grapes (and not even 100% of them), with certain descriptions of soils, climate and other geological and physical features that tell us little or nothing of what the resulting wines will be like.

So in a sense, few of us should care; and in the case of monstrosity AVAs, like Sonoma Coast, Central Coast, San Francisco Bay Area and even to some extent more compact ones such as Paso Robles, the formal existence of the AVA is almost irrelevant. Other AVAs (Chalone and Mount Harlan come to mind) strongly suggest a direct influence of place on wine. Oakville, too, might qualify; so, too, are Arroyo Seco, Rockpile, Spring Mountain and Carmel Valley examples of coherence. But one cannot say this about many other AVAs.

Now the federal government has opened the comment period for a proposed Eagle Peak AVA to be scrutinized by the public. I was first made aware of this pending decision some time ago by Jake Fetzer, who runs Masut, and is one of the guiding powers behind it. The region encompasses 26,000 acres (according to the TTB public notice) in east-north central Mendocino County, in what looks like (from a topo map) a very rugged, mountainous landscape.

Twenty-six thousand acres is middling for an AVA. That is roughly the size of the San Bernabe Vineyard, in southern Salinas Valley (said to be the largest contiguous vineyard in the world), midway in size between Chalk Hill, which is slightly smaller, and the somewhat larger Santa Rita Hills.

The TTB petition describes the climate in the region as “transitional…between the cool, wet climate of the Pacific coastline and the warmer, drier air of the interior valleys.” This description could apply to almost anywhere between the beaches and 40 miles inland. The temperature doesn’t appear to get too hot, compared to, say, the Central Valley: the TTB petition calls it “moderate” due, “in part,” to “coastal fog.” This is interesting: “Although the Coastal Range blocks the heaviest of the marine fog from moving further inland, some fog does enter…through a gap in the Coastal Range,” which makes it sound more or less like the Templeton Gap, in Paso Robles.

I don’t not know what varieties are thought to do best in the proposed Eagle Peak area. Currently only 120 acres of of vineyard are planted, scattered across 16 commercial properties. Masut specializes in Pinot Noir (I haven’t reviewed their wines in years because that’s Virginie Boone’s territory), but I am making the (perhaps mistaken) assumption that Pinot grows there. But, to make comparisons again with Paso Robles (which by the way is 25 times larger than Eagle Peak), Paso too grows Pinot fairly well, but only in the extreme west; most of the region is too hot for it, and that may be, at first glance, the same situation with Eagle Peak.

Jake Fetzer is a young idealist, and I do not believe he would lend his efforts to something that lacked authenticity. He must believe in the place-ness (to coin a word) of Eagle Peak, and its ability to yield fine wines. I don’t welcome every new AVA in California, but something about this one feels right.


To Kapalua for the Cabernets of Pritchard Hill

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I’ve been invited to participate on a panel to be held at the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival early next month. The name of the panel is “The Pritchard Hill Gang Wine Seminar, co-hosted by Michael Jordan, M.S., and moi. We’ve got quite a lineup of winemakers: Phillip Corallo-Titus (Chapellet), Phillipe Melka (Brand), David Long (David Arthur), Austin Peterson (Ovid) and Carlo Mondavi (Continuum).

I’m especially jazzed, because this tasting is the direct outcome of an article I wrote for Wine Enthusiast last Fall on the Cabernets of Pritchard Hill. The article was, I’m told, the first in-depth ever on that region of Napa Valley, which is in the Vaca Mountains, above Lake Hennessey east of the Silverado Trail. I’d been fascinated by it, as a growing region of distinctive terroir, for several years, and wanted to investigate it with the object of writing about it, but just couldn’t find the time. Eventually, through a series of happenstances, Tim Mondavi (Carlo’s dad) reached out to me and offered to set up a blind tasting for me at Continuum.

One of the pleasures of my trip to Pritchard Hill was an invitation from Greg Melanson (Melanson Vineyard) to take me for an aerial ride over the region in his helicopter, which he parks (is that the right word?) just steps from his home on the Hill. Folks, the best way to understand a wine region is from the air, especially a region as undulatingly complicated as Napa Valley. (It was fascinating to see the topological connections between Pritchard Hill and Atlas Peak.) Tim Mondavi hitched a ride with us for that occasion, and what a great tour guide he was, pointing out every little landmark and connecting it to some memory from his childhood. (And I wish that Greg’s wines were included in our panel. I don’t know why they’re not. Other producers on Pritchard Hill include Colgin, Montagna, Gandona and Bryant.)

At any rate, Michael Jordan read my article and liked it. He told me it had inspired him to set up the Pritchard Hill event at Kapalua (he’d held an earlier one in, I think, Anaheim, which I was unable to attend). Michael is an exciting, interesting guy, not only an M.S. but a true entrepreneur in the restaurant field.

By another coincidence, just this past week I sat down with Carlo Mondavi (on the phone) and had a little chat for an article. I’ve never met him in person, and didn’t realize right away that he’d be representing Continuum at Kapalua (nor did he realize I was on the panel). So we both got a chuckle out of that and vowed to spend some time together on Maui.

I would think Pritchard Hill will be an American Viticultural Area someday, but it won’t be one for quite a while, as there is opposition to it from the Chappellets, who own rights to the name. In the end it doesn’t matter what the appellation is called; the wines speak for themselves.


Alexander Valley Academy: new appreciation for these fine Cabernets

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It’s Friday morning, day two of the Alexander Valley Cabernet Academy, where I’m moderating a series of panels for about 35 sommeliers, from all over the country, who were invited to the event, which is sponsored by the Alexander Valley Winegrowers.

I think AVW’s feeling is that Cabernet Sauvignon is their primary grape and wine, and perhaps people don’t understand what makes it unique from other regions. This is remarkably similar to what’s occurring in Paso Robles, where I also moderated a panel just a few weeks ago for their Cab Collective, an event aimed–not at somms–but at the public, but also meant to demonstrate how good Paso Cab can be.

Panel 1 yesterday was on Cabs of the southern part of Alexander Valley: Alexander Valley’s Reserve, Lancaster Estate, Hawkes Pyramid, Stuhlmuller Reserve, Simi Landslide, Hoot Owl, Silver Oak, all from the 2008 vintage. It was good to taste these Cabs with a little bottle age on them: All were beginning (as I said) to “turn the corner” from expressing primary fruit to more bottle aged notes. All were very interesting, soft and round in the Alexander Valley way. Some had a touch of the herbaceousness that also historically has marked this valley’s Cabs. All also showed firm tannins, although two–the Lancaster and the Simi–were harder than the others. Most of the wines will benefit from 8-10 more years. My own feeling was that the Hoot Owl was the most advanced, though. That wine was higher in alcohol and riper than the others, more “Napa-esque” if you will, and I thought its future is limited for those reasons as it’s already showing signs of premature aging.

That tasting was held at Hawkes beautiful property, on a windy hillside that is officially in Alexander Valley, but might as well have been in Chalk Hill, for all I could tell. The day had dawned cloudy, cool and rainy, after our gorgeous Spring, not a good omen for the Academy. But it cleared up and turned sunny and mild, with the result that I, who am at risk of skin cancer the result of my fair complexion and overexposure to the sun in my youth, now have a sunburned nose that’s already beginning to blister. Stupid me.

From Hawkes we took the bus up to Stonestreet for a tasting and lecture from their winemaker, Graham Weerts. I was happy to see Barbara Banke, the proprietor, there; I sat next to her and, as she wished to have Gus sit in her lap, I was happy to comply, as was he. I have to say Gus is a rock star on these road trips.

The Stonestreet wines are really fabulous. Such depth and precision, power married to finesse. That’s mountain vineyards for you, as well as the most refined manufacturing process imaginable. I use that word “manufacturing” deliberately, but cautiously. The Jacksons have the technology to bring perfect grapes to the fermenter, and that technology is not available to many. As I remarked to Graham, after he told us about the process by which inferior grapes are eliminated (involving computerized imaging and blasts of air and what-not), “It’s not romantic, old-fashioned winemaking. But it does make for great wine.”

After Stonestreet we went up to Silver Oak’s estate, where somehow I’d never been. They had set up an educational program on corks, where we could smell corks infected with TCA to varying degrees and test our sensitivity, as well as corks that had other aromas, some pleasurable, some not. It showed us how much the cork can bring to the wine.

That evening the somms went to a barbecue at Hoot Owl and then took the bus down to Healdsburg for a night of gaiety and, I suppose, eating and drinking. I did not join them. I had work to do, Gus was hungry and needed walking, and I wanted to wake up early this morning and get this blog done. I dashed into Geyserville, had an icy cold IPA from 101 North, got some chow from a local eaterie, and went back to the Inn. So now, into the shower, a quick breakfast, then onto the next two panels: mid-Alexander Valley and northern Alexander Valley.


Thinking about appellations, as a new fight flares in Sta. Rita Hills

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To Paso Robles this afternoon for a quick trip to moderate the first CAB Collective, a local group organized to promote the Cabernet Sauvignons of Paso Robles. Good timing: Paso is on the verge of a renaissance, if it’s not already happening, and tastemakers–sommeliers, writers, chefs–are starting to take note, especially of its red wines. Alcohol levels seem to have moderated in recent years, making the wines more balanced. Meanwhile, a new generation of winemakers (one might call them contrarians) is exploring Paso’s terroirs with renewed vigor, particularly on the west side.

There’s never enough time on these trips to do everything I want. For that matter, there’s never enough time in my life to go on all the trips I want. I’d love to get down to Paso, and Santa Barbara, and other destinations south four or five times a year; but that’s impossible. There’s been talk for years of sub-dividing Paso Robles into multiple AVAs. Some years ago, a proposal to establish an East Side and West Side appellation was killed amidst intense opposition. I’d love sometime to have someone familiar with the region drive me around and explain how the climate and soils change from place to place. Even after all these years, I feel the gaps in my knowledge. This map, courtesy of Tablas Creek, is helpful in understanding the wind flow patterns from west to east. It shows how the “Templeton Gap” effect is no simple thing, but instead is a spider-webby pattern that may impact one property while leaving another nearby alone.

Meanwhile, the battle over expanding the Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills AVA is heating up. I inadvertently got involved in it earlier this week, although I’ll spare you the dreary details. It’s a shame how these boundary line fights pit neighbor against neighbor, in a kind of Civil War. I recall a similar fuss some years ago concerning expanding the Russian River Valley’s lines (which eventually was approved despite some intense local opposition).

And who could forget the turmoil that arose when some folks in Napa Valley talked about establishing Rutherford Bench and Oakville Bench appellations? I was unable to find an online link to anything about it, but in the 1990s that brouhaha was tearing Napa apart. It went nowhere.

People take their AVAs seriously. An AVA is hard enough to get established anyway (consider that a branch of the Treasury Department is involved). It takes a lot of time and costs a lot of money, and I can understand why, once one is up and running, the people in it don’t want to tinker with it anymore. At the same time, the wine industry is a for-profit place, and, since wines from a smaller, prestigious appellation tend fetch higher prices than wines from bigger appellations, someone who’s outside is always going to want to be inside. It’s only human nature. But it can get ugly.  I hope the Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills people get this situation under control soon. It’s not good for anyone. Can’t we all just get along?


Be careful when changing appellation boundaries

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I’m not taking sides in the brouhaha down in Santa Barbara County, where winery owner Blair Pence wants to expand the borders of the Santa, err., Sta. Rita Hills appellation to include some of his vineyards that are located further inland, to the east.

I haven’t seen any statistical data that would indicate, one way or the other, that the proposed added acreage is, or isn’t, similar to the terroir of the existing AVA. As usual in such matters, we have dueling opinions expressed in the media, with Pence insisting it is, and Wes Hagen, of Clos Pepe (who was the guiding light behind the original appellation) saying, Nope, it isn’t.

I do know that the further east you go from the central Sta. Rita Hills, the warmer it gets. By the time you reach, say, Los Olivos, it’s much warmer than out by Lompoc. Maybe the climate on Pence’s property really does show the same maritime influence as it does to the west. Their Pinots certainly indicate a cool climate, and I’ve given the wines respectable scores, even recommending a few of them as Cellar Selections.

But I will say the controversy underscores once again something I’ve said for a long time: the matter of AVAs, at least in California, is more about marketing and money than about terroir and tasting.

Even Pence concedes as much, when he suggests he can’t get as high a price for his grapes as he could if the wines could bear a Sta. Rita Hills appellation. Currently, Pence Ranch’s Pinot Noirs have to settle for a comparatively “lowly” Santa Barbara County AVA.

We saw the same kinds of issues arise when Gallo successfully fought to have the Russian River Valley boundary moved southward so that their Petaluma Gap vineyards could be included. Some RRV winegrowers were violently against that. They lost.

The fact of the matter is that appellation boundaries are fungible. They may be more fixed in Old Europe than they are in California, because Europe has had centuries of tradition. But California is so new that the wise consumer should take an appellation name with a grain of salt. An appellation is a generalization. It means that a wine bearing that origin should conform to certain expectations of, say, dryness, acidity, fruit profile and weight. But it does not guarantee that any particular wine will meet those specifics. All that an American Viticultural Area guarantees is that 85% of the grapes come from there.

There are some very ordinary wines in the Sta. Rita Hills. If you look up my scores in Wine Enthusiast’s Buying Guide, you’ll find some that are consistently unable to get beyond a certain quality level. Even if Pence manages to get the boundaries of Sta. Rita Hills redefined, that probably won’t make any difference in how good his wines are or are not–unless there’s something he could do with the extra $1,000 a ton to improve quality (and maybe there’s a lot he could, like better barrels or dropping more potential crop).

In general, I think that appellation boundaries should be altered only with the greatest reluctance. There should be compelling physical reasons to do it–not because somebody wants to get a better deal on grape or wine prices, and has the money to afford the lawyers and/or appellation experts who draw up the paperwork. (And Pence has hired one of the best in the business.) The public–which includes wine writers–should have faith in the meaning of AVAs, but if boundary lines are shifting all the time, that confidence is undermined.


“Going regional” as key to increased quality perception

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Mike Paul’s article, in the Jan. 21 “just-drinks” online pub, offers a compelling insight into the marketing and sales value of “going regional,” and also has important implications for some of California’s appellations.

Paul, who publishes his own business-oriented blog, argues that New World wine-producing countries, including Australia, Chile and South Africa, are “almost certain to vent their frustration that the quality of their premium offer is not being sufficiently recognized, either by the trade or the consumer.”

These countries tend to promote awareness of their wine industries through national marketing and trade associations, such as Wines of Chile, Wine Australia, and Wines of South Africa, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, the problem is that “In any category where a single brand proposition covers mainstream and premium territory, the lower end risks overpowering and dragging down what is happening above.”

Paul’s suggested solution: “producing countries should develop regional propositions that are stronger than their umbrella country brand.”

Here in California we’ve seen a schizophrenic approach to the idea of regionalization. Some large appellations, like Lodi and Paso Robles, have shown an interest in regionalizing. Lodi, which first received AVA status in 1986, twenty years later regionalized into seven sub-appelations. The Lodians’ official explanation for this was that “local winegrowers began to recognize the wide variety of ecological differences across the vastness of the Lodi AVA,” and while that may be true, it’s also true that the Lodi “brand” was not perceived (or the Lodians themselves believed their brand was not perceived) as quality-oriented or, to put it in Mike Paul’s words, they experienced “frustration that the quality of their premium offer [was] not being sufficiently recognized, either by the trade or the consumer.”

Paso Robles was in a similar bind. The sprawling appellation can produce superior wines, but many locals were concerned that Paso was widely perceived as a hot place capable only of rustic, high alcohol wines. They proposed developing as many as 14 sub- or regional appellations, but nothing has happened so far.

On the other hand, California has long seen strange cases in which sub-regions within larger ones go through all the trouble to get an AVA approved—and then local wineries refuse to use it! This has occurred in the Santa Ynez Valley (where some wineries use only Santa Barbara County) and in the new Fort Ross-Seaview AVA, where some wineries are using only Sonoma Coast.

Mike Paul is probably right that entire countries like Australia, South Africa and Chile ought to invest more resources into promoting higher-quality regions, especially in markets as important as America and the U.K. Once a wine-producing area is perceived in ordinary terms by the mass of consumers, it’s very hard to turn that perception around. I think the Lodians were onto something when they took their big step, and I also believe and hope the Paso Robles people can get their act together and create all those sub-AVAs. Both areas deserve to be elevated in the public’s mind. And, if nothing else, having a bunch of new appellations will give us wine writers years of opportunity to study them, determined their differences, and then write about them for our audiences.


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