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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.


Here comes Lamorinda

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When I first moved to the Bay Area, I was astonished at how radically the weather can change within the smallest areas. I was living in the North Bay–Solano County–and I remember driving for the first time through the Caldecott Tunnel, which runs from Orinda, in Contra Costa County, beneath the East Bay Hills for a mile or so, emerging through its west portal in Oakland.

It was summertime. The temperature in Orinda must have been in the high 80s or low 90s. I had the car window open. As soon as I came into the Oakland daylight I felt the cold air. Maybe the temperature was in the low 60s. We’d lost up to 30 degrees from one end of the tunnel to the other.

The East Bay Hills are, of course, part of the California Coast Ranges that cut off maritime air from the cold Pacific, so that areas east of them grow progressively warmer. Orinda is dependably warm to hot in the summer, but nowhere near as hot as the Sacramentio Delta and the Central Valley, which are much further inland.

For example, the Delta city of Brentwood accumulated 3,470 degree days in 2011. That’s pretty toasty, even for that cool year; Brentwood is in eastern Contra Costa County, an area known for old-vine Zinfandel, where the wines are high in alcohol. Compare that to Oakville, in Napa Valley, where the average annual degree days are 2,798.

In Oakland proper, the warmest part of the city tends to be the easternmost, where the flatlands begin to rise into the East Bay Hills. There, in 2011, the degree day accumulation was 2,173, according to data by the Lamorinda Winegrowers. So you can begin to appreciate the temperature spectrum: too chilly in most of Oakland for proper winegrowing, hottish in the Delta, just right (for Bordeaux varieties, anyway) in Oakville.

“Lamorinda” is a neologism created from the names of three contiguous towns in Contra Costa County: Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda; the word has been in common usage for decades to describe these posh suburbs, just east of the Caldecott Tunnel. Each town is different, of course, but what they share, among other traits, is that they are plopped into the inland side of the East Bay Hills, which rise to about 2,000 feet at their highest. Depending on the exact location, some of the ridges and slopes would seem ideal for growing vitis vinifera: sunny and warm enough to ripen the grapes, not too cold nor too hot, just Goldilocks right.

I remember about 20 years ago being invited to the home of a automobile tire magnate who was experimenting with growing grapes up in those hills, in the expansive backyard of his home, which was technically in Oakland–but these boundaries between towns are, of course, artificial. He was growing several varietals on his sunny slope, and tasted me to them. I was impressed by all of them, across the board, from a rich, opulent Cabernet to a brut-style sparking wine made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

These days, many well-to-do homeowners in the Lamorinda area have followed suit and are planting grapes. (My friend Rajeev, who owns the UPS Store where I receive my wine, recently installed a vineyard on his property.) In fact, there are now 121 planted acres of winegrapes, across 42 vineyards, according to a petition filed with the TTB to establish a Lamorinda American Viticultural Area. The petition was written by my old acquaintance, Patrick Shabram, a professional AVA petition-writer whose previous successful efforts include the Alexander Valley expansion, the Mpon Mountain AVA, and Fort Ross-Seaview. Here’s the link to the formal petition.

It’s not clear what varieties are the most successful for Lamorinda and it may never be, for two reasons: One, the terrain is so jumbled and crazy (courtesy of the San Andrea Fault system) that micro-climates vary radically, making one spot cool enough for Pinot Noir and another warm enough for Cabernet, “within a single vineyard,” as Patrick writes. The second reason is because Lamorinda, if and when it’s approved as an AVA, is never going to be a commercial winegrowing area. Such wines as are made will be consumed by the grower, his family and friends, or will be sold at local restaurants and markets.

I’m in favor of this AVA. Like any appellation, it’s not perfect, and won’t provide the consumer specific information about its wines. But Lamorinda does have a “thereness” and, if approved, will stimulate growers and winemakers to step up their efforts. Which is a good thing.


Cult Napa Valley Cabernet as Drag Queen

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An admiration for female beauty, brought to extreme, over-the-top stylization, is what characterizes the Drag Queen: the man who takes on the appearance of a particular sort of woman, often a celebrity: Judy Garland, Cher, Diana Ross, Carol Channing, Joan Crawford, Dolly Parton, Barbra Steisand. These are women already exaggerated, by hairstyle, makeup, attire, fame and attitude, to iconic excess. The Drag Queen, in turn, exaggerates the exaggeration, creating (she hopes) a work of art and wonder.

Almost always, Drag Queens take on an assumed name that is as much a parody of real names as their appearance is of real women. Divine, Chi Chi LaRue, The Lady Chablis and, from La Cage Aux Folles, Miss ZaZa Napoli suggest the sexually exotic plumage of their owners. The true Drag Queen, as the U.C. Berkeley philosopher Judith Butler notes, “radicalizes the norms of gender performance,” making drag far more than mere masquerade; indeed, no Drag Queen in history ever intended to pass as a woman (the way a cross-dresser might). Butler correctly understands that Drag is performance art, combining the flamboyance of Hollywood with the mind-bending challenge of genderfuck.

Is Drag then deliberately provocative? Considering that most Drag Queens restrict their professional activities to appropriate circles (drag balls, drag bars, GLBT parades) in which no one is particularly shocked, but rather gladdened by them, the answer is no. Drag Queens wish to be taken seriously, but on their own terms, and mainly (and this is an important consideration) by those who understand them. Drag isn’t easy. The successful Drag Queen has spent many years and thousands of dollars to create her own, special brand. She doesn’t just throw on a wig, paint her eyelids blue and put on a ball gown. The costs are considerable, involving waxing, wigs, jewelry, false fingernails, lipsticks, hair sprays, brushes and puffs, perfumes, fake eyelashes, designer shoes, foam rubber breasts, and, of course, the dresses and accessories themselves, which can cost as much as a new car. Beyond all that, the most successful Drag Queens are expected to throw extravagant parties, especially if they are running for election in the numerous “Royal Courts” that practically every American city has. Empress V Cha Cha, a famous queen from San Francisco, once told me she’d spent $22,000 on entertainment expenses in a single season, all of it out of her own (not very well-padded) pocket.

Let us now consider cult Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux blends. Just as there is “regular” Napa Valley Cabernet (no slouch, that), so too the cults have to exaggerate that style and become much more than regular. If that means riper fruit and more new oak, and perhaps a little Mega Purple, then so be it: People expect flamboyance in their cult Cabs. A “regular” Cabernet doesn’t stun; it’s simply a good wine. A cult Cab is expected to stun, to stand out, to elicit gasps of surprise. It “radicalizes the norm” of standard Cabernet.

Nor are cult wines meant for the masses. Cult Cabs are designed (I choose that verb deliberately) for the connoisseur: the person who likes and appreciates them, who has some understanding of what goes on behind the scenes in crafting one (famous-name winemaker, equally famous flying winemaker, famous proprietor, the glamorous architecture and appointments of most cult wine headquarters, the expensive new French oak barrels, the exclusive mailing list). Just as you or I might try to keep from staring at The Lady Larissa (with her exquisitely blond beauty), but would steal glimpses of her because she is, after all, a work of art, so too is the connoisseur of cult wines above all fascinated by the artistry in the bottle (and often of the bottle). The connoisseur prides himself on possessing the knowledge to recognize the artistry of a cult wine, in the same way that the best admirer of a superbly-made up Drag Queen is another Drag Queen. Only they know how much trouble it takes to look that good.

What of names? Cult wine designations themselves can sound like Drag Queens: Maya. Les Pavots. Cariad. Screaming Eagle, when you think about it, could easily be Lady Screaming Eagle, part Joan Crawford “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” horror show, part vampiric Angelina Jolie. The camp aspect of cult wines lies in their appeal, in the way they elevate us by allowing us to share in their mystery–even if we ourselves are ordinary mere mortals. Just as Americans are fascinated by the celebrities who adorn the covers of supermarket tabloids, so cult connoisseurs are fascinated by the most elite and expensive Napa Valley Cabernets. These wines are the Drag Queens of wine: exotic, unfathomable, exaggeratedly gorgeous, glamorous, worshipful and a little insane: all that effort for something so ephemeral (wine is drank and pissed out; makeup is washed off when the party’s over). The quibble (which almost all wine critics routinely note) is that cult Cabernet, as a “star” wine, is not really suitable for everyday pairing with food; like diva Drag Queens, the cult Cab selfishly demands to be loved on her own, without competition. And, finally, like the great diva Drag Queens, each cult wine has its groupies. Drags have their courts; with cult wines, they’re called mailing list members.


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