One of my favoritie scenes from “Cheers” was of Cliff Clavin delivering mail to an apartment building. After he fills all the mailboxes, he leaves. Then the people come out of their apartments, check their mailboxes, and start trading envelopes. Cliff misdelivered everybody’s mail.
I am sometimes reminded of that when I get wines meant for Virginie Boone and she gets wines that fall into my territory. Virginie of course is my fellow California wine reviewer. So, in the interests of less hassle on our part as well as less time spent in the back of vehicles [not good for wine], here’s a new listing who gets what for review in Wine Enthusiast.
In general, with certain exceptions, Virginie reviews inland California, while I taste the coast. I suppose you could say that’s somewhat arbitrary, but I think it makes sense. Since we have to divide California up–the state is just to big for one person to cover–it was a question of how to do it.
We could have done it via a north-south scheme, but that would have bifurcated California’s most important wines: coastal Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Bordeaux red blends (although Northern California obviously dominates that category). We could have done it by variety, and I think there’s a stronger argument to be made there. But in the end, we opted for the inland-coastal scheme.
That California’s most important wines come from the coast is, I think, incontrovertible. Meaning no disrespect to the inland areas, it’s just a fact that consumers prefer these coastal wines, which is why, to an overwhelming extent, they’re willing to pay more for them. After all, the Bordeaux classification of 1855 was based on price–the most expensive wines were deemed to be the best. While price isn’t 100% correlated with quality, more often in wine (as in other things) you get what you pay for. I personally happen to believe that the coast produces better wines, especially for Bordeaux (both red and white) and Burgundian varieties, but their higher price proves that it’s not just me, it’s the majority of consumers (and other critics, I might add) who believe it.
Where, exactly, is the coast? Good question. You can define it by county– San Luis Obispo is considered a coastal county, for example, even though its inland areas are quite warm. A county doesn’t have to actually meet the Pacific Ocean to be considered coastal: San Benito doesn’t, but it’s a coastal county. Is Contra Costa a coastal county? Maybe, maybe not; there’s no official definition (although CoCo is considered a Bay Area county).
From a wine point of view, I think of the coast as the areas of California directly influenced by the ocean during the growing season. Now, every appellation west of Placerville claims to be gently washed by cool coastal breezes (in the iconic if predictable poetry of the press release), but that ain’t necessarily so. There may be a lick of maritime influence 80 and 100 miles inland, but if so, it’s on life support. The one exception is certain regions in the eastern part of the San Francisco Bay-San Pablo Bay-Sacramento Delta complex, where air from the Golden Gate does seep far inland. But even then, they’re pretty toasty.
I think of the coast as extending from the beaches to about 25 miles inland. That’s a generalization, of course; it varies from county to county, because California’s geology has been so fractured by the San Andreas Fault earthquake system. But for the most part, you know you’re near the coast in July and August if (a) it’s foggy a lot, especially at night and in the early morning, (b) it gets chilly at night no matter how hot the daytime temperature gets, and (c) somebody nearby is serious about growing Pinot Noir. Even Cliff Clavin could find the coast in California. Just look for the Pinot.
Anyway, wineries, do Virginie and me a favor, and yourselves too, and print out the new AVA guide. She thanks you and I do too.
Dinner last Saturday with Maxine and Keith featured barbecued pork ribs for the main course. Spicy, sweet, fatty, smoky, meaty and succulent. What to drink them with?
Maxine thought a white, but I vetoed that. I’m sure there’s a white wine somewhere in the world to pair with pork ribs (maybe an oaky Grenache Blanc or even Sauternes?), but all we had at the time was Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and sparkling wine, and I didn’t think any of those would work. I had earlier tasted some miscellaneous reds, so we had a pretty good selection to try out: a delicious Merriam 2008 Windacre Merlot, a fine Courtney Benham 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stags Leap, Krutz 2009 Krupp Vineyard Malbec, a spicy Kenwood 2010 Jack London Zinfandel, Krutz 2009 Stagecoach Vineyard Syrah, and another Merriam Windacre, this time the 2008 Cabernet Franc.
Which wine do you think paired best?
First, I should explain that the side dishes were Israeli cous cous with black beans, grilled zucchini squash and Brentwood butter and sugar corn grilled in the husk, so sweet it needed neither seasoning nor butter. But grillmeister Keith’s ribs dominated the room like Bill Clinton working a crowd.
I thought, intellectually, that the contenders were the Merriam Cab Franc and the Krutz Syrah. The Cab Franc struck me for its spiciness, and the way the fusion of cherries and oak had a jammy, brown sugary sweetness that would echo the sweet flavors of the ribs. As for the Syrah, well, it was so outstanding on its own, full-bodied and layered, and so smoky-sweet that it seemed like a no-brainer. When the actual taste test went down, the Merriam Cab Franc was okay, but the Krutz Syrah beat it by a mile. A brilliant pairing, really, in which the wine brought out the intensity of the ribs, and the ribs brought out the sweet depth of the wine, which had the volume to stand up to–but not be dominated by–the ribs’ fatty richness.
This Stagecoach Vineyard has entered my consciousness over the last several years as one of the most noteworthy in Napa Valley, which is to say in all of California. I’d long known the name from the many wineries that vineyard-designate it, but only visited the vineyard for the first time two years ago, when Dr. Jan Krupp, of the owning Krupp family, toured me for an article I was researching on the Atlas Peak appellation. I learned that the vineyard necessarily qualifies only for a Napa Valley AVA because just 30% of it is within the Atlas Peak boundary. The rest of it spills over a kind of canyon that leads to Pritchard Hill, on which another 30% lies. At that time, I had only an imprecise vision of Pritchard Hill (the October 2012 issue of Wine Enthusiast will have my big story on it) and the quality of its wines, but with my focus on it since last Spring, I’ve now realized what great real estate Pritchard Hill is, especially for Bordeaux varieties and Syrah.
There are differences between Atlas Peak, Pritchard Hill and the land inbetween, but the fundamentals still apply: mountain intensity, purity of focus, intense minerality from the rocks. Here’s something I hadn’t known: Dr. Krupp told me it in 2010, so I don’t know if it’s still true today, but “Atlas Peak has more vineyard acreage than all other Napa Valley mountain AVAs combined.”
The fact that Stagecoach qualifies “only” for the basic Napa Valley AVA is another proof that what counts in California is not the legal appellation on the label, but the vineyard name and, behind that, the quality of the viticulture and enology practiced by the producer. Years ago, I wrote an article on California’s greatest vineyards. Stagecoach wasn’t in it. Were I to write that article today, it certainly would be (and some of the vineyards I included would come off!). Cabernet is Stagecoach’s forté, as evidenced by wineries inlcluding Paul Hobbs, Krutz, Conn Creek, Sequoia Grove, Charles Creek, Krupp, Palmeri and Miner, but as we have seen Syrah can be spectacular. If all Syrah were that good, Syrah would have an honored place in the pantheon of California varietal wines, a place it does not current enjoy.
A reader griped the other day that I was writing too much about social media and not enough about wine. So here goes!
These are my 5 top-scoring wines from three popular varieties over the past several months. (All reviews and scores have been published, either in Wine Enthusiast’s print Buying Guide, online, or both. I’ve scored other wines higher, but they haven’t been published yet.) Within each variety, I consider the commonalities that made the wines so great, to me.
98 Goldschmidt 2006 PLUS Game Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville); $150
97 Shafer 2007 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon (Stags Leap); $225
97 Cardinale 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $250
97 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 2008 Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $195
97 Yao Ming 2009 Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $625
2. from Napa Valley or its sub-appellations
3. relatively high in alcohol [minimum: 14.5%]
4. relatively low production
6. quality factors: richness, full-bodied, ripe, oaky, dense, appearance of sweetness, complexity
98 Merry Edwards 2009 Klopp Ranch Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $57
97 Donum Estate 2009 West Slope Estate Pinot Noir (Carneros); $100
96 Rochioli 2010 West Block Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $100
96 Marimar Estate 2008 La Masia Don Miguel Vinyard Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $39
96 De Loach 2009 Pennacchio Vineyard Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $45
1. All from Russian River Valley except Donum, which is on the Sonoma side of Carneros
2. alcohols within a narrow range [14.4-14.7]
3. production relatively low [maximum: Marimar Estate, 3,300 cases]
4. all show oak, but balanced
5. quality factors: juicy in acidity, medium-bodied [not too light or too heavy], rich in fruits [generally red stone and berry], dry, spicy, silky, elegant, approachable
99 Failla 2010 Estate Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast); $44
96 Lynmar 2010 Susanna’s Vineyard Chardonnay (Russian River Valley); $50
96 Roar 2010 Sierra Mar Vineyard (Snta Lucia Highlands); $45
94 Sandhi 2010 Rita’s Crown Chardonnay (Sta. Rita HIlls); $55
94 Matanzas Creek 2010 Journey Chardonnay (Sonoma County); $75
1. Geographically diverse, so no common origin
2. alcohol levels diverse, ranging from Sandhi (13.0%) to Matanzas Creek (14.6%)
3. all show well-integrated oak
4 quality factors: all made in the popular style: oaky, creamy, rich, flashy fruit, spicy, good balancing acidity
In Cabernet Sauvignon the address remains Napa Valley, most often the hills but not necessarily. And you get what you pay for. Also, great Cabernet can come from any vintage, regardless of its challenges.
In Pinot Noir, quality is considerably less tied to price: put another way, there are more bargains and also more overpriced ripoffs. Nor is geography as simple as with Cabernet: any of the coastal appellations can shine.
In Chardonnay, the same is true: great Chardonnay comes from the same areas as great Pinot Noir, with the single exception of Napa Valley, where very little reliably good Pinot Noir is produced. But then, I can remember a time when Napa Valley did produce interesting Pinot Noirs. The vines have all since been ripped out or budded over, victims of a critical mindset that determined Napa Valley cannot produce good Pinot Noir.
After all those stories from a few years ago about Chinese millionaires mixing Coca Cola into their Lafite, I figured it was just a matter of time before the Chinese discovered California wine, as Bloomberg is reporting.
Why would the Chinese do something so apparently preposterous as pouring cheap soda into one of the most expensive wines on earth? The initial supposition was that the Chinese were just too heathen or unsophisticated to drink Lafite neat, but I think that explanation was insulting and disingenuous to a culture far older than our own (Western) one. They were putting Coke into their Lafite for an obvious reason: to sweeten it! By itself, the Lafite was just too dry to the Chinese palate, which by and large likes its foods slightly sweet.
The Chinese began their fascination with French wines when they started getting rich. French wines were the most famous and prestigious in China, so all the new millionaires (yuannaires?) turned to France to show off their new wealth, the same way they bought Gucci and Pucci and whatever-ucci. But guess what? The found they didn’t like their French wines because they were too dry and austere for their tastes. Funny how that works: you think you’re supposed to like something but when you finally experience it, you don’t. Hence, the decision to blend with Coca Cola made perfect sense. And Americans have no right to snicker at the Chinese for being rubes. After all, we are now a nation that worships mixologists, for whom straight vodka no longer suffices: no, we have to gaga it up with Triple Sec, sour apple pucker, heavy cream and a splash of Sprite. Calling all tiny umbrellas: report to the martini glass.
The Bloomberg article says the Chinese are now falling in love with “mid-priced, boutique quality California wine.” But it also warns that China’s wine market is “rapidly changing,” which means there’s opportunity, but also risk, for everyone. In a land rush, you want to be the first to arrive at the best place; then you have to make sure someone else doesn’t poach it from you lest you return home to the mother country, empty-handed. I suppose that wineries that started exploring the Chinese market decades ago, like Wente (everybody thought they were crazy back then: crazy like a fox) are now enjoying the fruits of their labors. But the Chinese really are ignorant about California, and I mean that not insultingly, but just in the literal sense that they don’t know much about it. The Bloomberg article says the members of a private club in Shanghai, invited to an exclusive wine tasting, “had never heard of Mendocino.” Okay, maybe Mendocino isn’t as famous as Los Angeles, San Francisco or Disneyland, but this does suggest how much education is required to make it in China. If they haven’t heard of Mendocino, chances are they haven’t heard of Monterey, Sonoma or Santa Barbara And Lodi? Fageddabboutit.
It’s very exciting, actually, that Wine Enthusiast now has a Mandarin edition specifically for the Chinese market, making it–I believe–the first American wine magazine to go there. Wine publications have a very important role in educating the Chinese public, and American wine magazines in particular have that obligation and also that opportunity. Yao Ming’s success in Napa Valley will acquaint the Chinese with Napa, or reinforce their existing perception of it, if they have one. But much work remains to be done to let the Chinese know that California wines from all regions and varieties are much to their palates’ tastes: smooth, complex, a little sweet, spicy and, above all, filled with umami (for the most part).
Once again the subject of new AVAs, or American Viticultural Areas, arose in conversation this week, relative to a story I’m working on. It concerns an area that some people, including me, as well many if not most who actually grow grapes and have wineries in the region, believe should have its own unique appellation. I won’t mention it, because you’ll read about it in an upcoming issue of Wine Enthusiast.
The problem, as one person expressed it, comes down to this: “You either have to cut cut some people out, or include everybody, to the point where it’s almost meaningless.”
He’s talking about boundaries, of course. They have to run somewhere, have to be based on something (climatic, dirt-wise, watershed, history). They can’t just be arbitrary because that would pollute the very concept of an appellation. Trouble is, depending on where you draw the boundaries, somebody who wants in always gets left out. (Never mind that some people who shouldn’t be in automatically get included. That’s a different story.) Whoever gets left out becomes grouchy and, potentially, litigious. And who wants a grouchy, litigious neighbor? (As a condo dweller, I can say with certainty that I don’t!)
I thought this topic was worth some observations on some current California AVAs. I won’t mention all 9,476,746 of them because then this post would be War and Peace. But here’s a start.
All the valleys need to be redefined to bring down their elevation lines. For example, in Sonoma Valley, the AVA line goes up to 2,530 feet! That’s a half-mile. If 2,530 feet is a valley, then I’m a [fill in ridiculous metaphor].
(All my statistical conclusions about AVAs in this post come from the Wine Institute’s link to American Viticultural Areas.)
Alexander Valley’s highest permitted elevation is 857 feet. Again, that is not a valley–conditions that high are in stark contract to the valley floor. These higher stretches of Alexander Valley (even well above 857 feet, where I guess they’d qualify only for Sonoma County) desperately need their own AVA. The late Jess Jackson tried, and failed, to get Alexander Mountain an AVA. I don’t care what the name is, but somebody should continue that struggle.
Anderson Valley goes up to 2015 feet feet, a situation relieved, in some part, by the Mendocino Ridge appellation. Still, it’s weird.
Many of California’s AVAs really don’t matter because few wines are produced from them and much of that is common. The bigger AVAs, like Napa Valley, are pretty meaningless, especially in this age of the negociant, where tons of wine with Napa Valley on the label are standard stuff. Napa’s mountain AVAs make sense to me. As for the communes, well, they’re weathervanes, in the sense that an Oakville Cab will have some particular characteristics, a Rutherford Cab will have its own traits, and so on. But these generalizations often break down under close inspection. I think they need to split Oakville in half: east and west. That would be a beginning. Rutherford’s awfully sprawling. It takes in everything from Flora Springs on the west to Staglin in the middle to Quintessa with its little hill there to Hall up above the Silverado Trail in the Vacas. Crazy. And don’t even get me started about Russian River Valley. I’ve been calling for years for it to be subdivided into at least three AVAs, maybe as many as six. Nothing ever seems to happen.
Edna Valley–now there’s an AVA that makes sense. You can tell an Edna Valley wine a mile away, whether it’s red or white. Green Valley’s pretty dependable, too. Santa Rita Hills, Dry Creek Valley–you usually know what to expect from them, and you get it. Those are AVAs at their best.
I do understand the argument about grouchy neighbors being left out. That’s too bad–it’s why so many of our AVAs are so porous. They let in vineyards that shouldn’t have been there, out of consideration (or fear) of somebody. Still, we need more appellations in California, not fewer, but they should be rational and small, not gigantic and meaningless. San Francisco Bay? A lovely place, my home, but not an appellation, in any sense except that somebody had enough money to buy it.
What are your nominations for the smartest and dumbest AVAs in California?
I had the privilege of taking a helicopter tour of the central Napa Valley the other day. We departed from the Melanson winery, which is above the Silverado Trail high in the Vacas, swept all around that area, then headed over the Stagecoach Vineyard down into Chiles Valley because Chuck, my intern, was with us, and he wanted to photograph the winery where he’s sales manager, RustRidge. From there, it was back over east Oakville, just above Screaming Eagle where the Oakville Cross Road hits the Silverado Trail. Our superb pilot, Greg Melanson, wanted to know if we wanted to see Spring Mountain. Of course! So we saw the beautifully tiered, terraced vineyards that dot that mountain, all the way up to Cain, then swept over St. Helena, soared over Howell Mountain, and came back to our point of origin.
I mention this only because seeing Napa Valley from 1,000 feet up (or whatever we were–it might have been a little higher), and from so many different points of view (as opposed to a fixed one, say a turnout on a mountain road) affords the rare opportunity of understanding the valley’s geographic situation in a way nothing else does. A map will show the proximity to the Carneros and San Pablo Bay; seeing downtown San Francisco directly for yourself, from a point exactly above the Napa River, gives you a much truer appreciation. You can see the lowness of the land that funnels down from the Napa Valley floor all the way to the Golden Gate. We know how cold San Francisco is on any given summer day; we know the winds carry that chill straight up to the valley, creating the cool nights and foggy mornings without which Napa Valley would be too hot for world-class viticulture.
However, the wind on that perfect day (blue skies, clement temperatures, near-perfect visibility) came not from San Pablo Bay but from the northwest. It was cool and refreshing, the kind of breeze a human seeks on a hot summer day, and it came from the Russian River Valley. How could that be? From the helicopter we could clearly see a gap in the mountains, up toward Calistoga, that had to be the breeze’s source. So I understood that Napa can be cooled, not just from the south, but from the west.
Our trip also afforded us the opportunity to witness once again Napa’s walls of mountains, the Mayacamas on the west, the Vacas on the east. We were fortunate that one of our fellow passengers was Tim Mondavi, who knows the lay of the land in Napa perhaps better than anyone alive. He was so helpful in pointing out geographic curiosities, but even he–born and reared in these parts–shook his head in amazement at the complexities of terroir. If it were only the valley floor, I suppose Napa would be comprehensible, the way the Médoc, say, is comprehensible. But Napa has this insanely crazy patchwork of slopes, hills, ridges, mountains and high valleys of every orientation, making the work of the geo-mapper challenging to the utmost.
That Napa Valley, with all its physical complexities, is an appellation at all is due to political, historical and cultural factors, many of them arbitrary and the result of compromises. This is true of Burgundy and Bordeaux, also, but at least those two old duchies had the benefit of a millennia or more of political and religious organization that more or less established their boundaries. Napa Valley–the current construction–did not. In itself it’s largely meaningless, as a plethora of mediocre wines bearing the valley’s name attests. It’s not until you zero in on the smaller appellations–Spring Mountain, Oakville, Mount Veeder–that much can be truly said about common characteristics across multiple wineries. But even then, “commonality” can hide particularity. The ultimate appellation, as Tim Mondavi said and as I have long maintained, is the brand and vineyard.
Above Pritchard Hill, with Lake Hennessey below.