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Wednesday wraparound: European palates and “a hole in the middle”

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I was talking with a Russian River Valley winemaker the other day, and she told me that, of all the American critics she follows, I have the most “European palate.”

I was surprised, although I didn’t say anything, because I always think of myself as having a Californian palate. After all, I love our wines (at their best), even as others—mainly Europhiles and New Yawkahs—slam them for being too ripe/sweet/fruity/oaky/alcoholic/name your insult. I’m a sucker for a complex Chardonnay, captivated by Cabernet, sent into swoons by a great Syrah, tickled pink by Pinot Noir, and since I’m running out of alliterative steam, I’ll stop here.

But my fondness for California wine doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate wines from Old Europe. I’ve tasted a lot of Spanish, Italian, French and German wines in my time, and been knocked out by great bottles old and new. The winemaker who told me I have a “European palate” did so, I think, because I give her Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays high scores, even though they’re comparatively acidic and tannic compared to many of her California colleagues’ wines that are riper and more accessible. So she figures I must like a more austere wine, one that only shows its glories with some bottle age—in other words, that I have a European palate.

The truth is, I like to think I have a catholic [small “c”] palate, which is to say I appreciate quality no matter how it expresses itself. That’s why I can never understand these California bashers. After all, if I can find pleasure in a European wine, then why can’t they find pleasure in a California wine?

* * *

In another conversation I had, with a second Russian River Valley winemaker, we were talking about the 2012 vintage (which believe me is being hyped up and down the state like no other vintage in years), and he offered the only criticism I’ve heard so far. “At the very least it’s a very good year,” he began. “The easiest thing to tell early on [with a vintage] is when it’s a bad year!” Then he added, “If I have a worry, yields were too high, so we did a lot of bleed off, saignée. Like in 1997, some of the wines developed a bit of a hole in the middle, and that’s a concern this year.”

This concept of “a hole in the middle” refers to wines that may smell great and enter powerfully, but then something falls off in the concentration or intensity that lowers the score. I find this a lot, and it’s always disappointing; it can resemble the effects of overcropping. In any wine, you want concentration that’s consistent all the way through. That doesn’t mean sheer power. Power by itself is boring. Concentration means power + elegance. Clearly, the Russian River Valley winemaker’s concern is that the high yield will dilute concentration, especially in that middle palate which is so sensitive to the slightest variations of intensity. That is why the winemaker practiced saignée, which normally is used in the production of rosés. The juice is drained or “bled” off after limited contact with the skins, meaning that the remaining juice has greater time on the skins and presumably becomes fuller-bodied.

I’m not sure that’s the best way to restore concentration. After all, if it’s not there initially, then skin contact isn’t going to restore it. But a wine with a hole in the middle can be made to feel fuller through this method. However, I haven’t heard this concern from any other winemaker in the few months since the vintage ended. Indeed, last week in Santa Barbara they were practically turning cartwheels over 2012. Winemakers always fib about vintages, of course; even in a notoriously bad one they’ll tell you that their neighbors suffered from frost/smoke taint/mold/rain/whatever but they didn’t. But in the case of 2012 the hurrahs are so widespread I just have to assume there’s a “there” there. We’ll see.


Playing “what if?” with California wine regions

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It’s really an accident of history that we here in the U.S. and in California decided to name wines by grape variety rather than by region.

We have Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Petite Sirah, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and so on. In Europe, of course, it’s a different story. There (for the most part) they named wines after the regions they came from: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Sancerre, Champagne, Chianti, Barolo, Rheingau, Ribero del Duero, etc.

The reasons why California went the varietal route as opposed to the regional route are many and complex. It made sense to men like Frank Schoonmaker, in the 1930s, following the Repeal of Prohibition, to get away from the false and misleading names of California wines like “Claret,” “Burgundy”, “Port” and “California Champagne”, and take a more honest varietal approach. Their hearts and minds were in the right place: simple, candid truth-telling on the label.

Unfortunately, it seems not to have occurred to them to name California wines after their regions. Think how everything would be so different if we’d chosen names like Oakville, or Glen Ellen [the town, not the wine brand], or Salinas Valley, or Geyserville, or Los Olivos, or Oakley, or Edna Valley.

If that had happened, we might have developed a regional-varietal family coordination like they had in Europe. Instead of having Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrahs, Petite Sirahs, Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs, Tempranillos, etc. with an Oakley appellation, the pioneers of post-Prohibition viticulture and enology might have figured out that a red blend based on 2, 3 or 4 varieties worked best for their climate and soils. You’d be able to say “Oakley Red Wine” and know exactly what that meant, same as “Pauillac” means a Cabernet Sauvignon blend. As things now stand, however, “Oakley Red Wine” could be anything.

Red blends have become quite the thing lately, with more and more wineries mixing varieties willy-nilly. Some of them aren’t very good, and I get the feeling the wineries do it because they had the grapes or bulk wine available and couldn’t think of anything better to do except to stick them in a big tank and call the resulting wine some wacko name. Marketing departments also get involved, perhaps advising their employers that problems with existing varietals suggest staying out of that game. For example, the market’s already crowded with Cabernet. Syrah doesn’t sell. Nobody wants Zinfandel anymore. No one’s ever heard of Tempranillo. And we can’t call lit Moscato because it’s not. And so on and so forth.

However, there are some really wonderful blends out there. To mention a few, Seghesio San Lorenzo Estate, which is Zinfandel and Petite Sirah; Krupp 2009 The Doctor (Tempranillo, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Cab Franc); Chateau Potelle 2009 Explorer The Illegitimate (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel and Syrah), Shafer 2009 Relentless (Syrah, Petite Sirah).

Is it good or not so good that California went down the varietal path instead of the regional one? Hard to say. The government developed a system of American Viticultural Areas that kinda sorta looked to the French appellation system as a model, but differs from it in that the Tax and Trade Bureau doesn’t have any quality standards for an AVA. So really, an appellation doesn’t mean very much. Still, it’s fun to play “What if?” And there’s this, too: some of our better appellations have become so varietal- or varietal family-specific that they’re practically synonomous. Say “Napa Valley red wine” and most people will think of Cabernet or a Bordeaux blend. Say “Santa Rita Hills red wine” and most people will think of Pinot Noir. Say “Amador County red wine” and most people will think of Zinfandel. So, in a way, despite the fluctuations and randomness of human decision making, grape variety and region find each other in a most serendipitous way.


Appellation, schmappellation, just send it to the right reviewer please!

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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.


Pork ribs, Napa’s eastern mountains and a top Syrah

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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.


Today’s post is all about wine!

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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.

Cabernet Sauvignon:
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

Commonalities:
1. expensive
2. from Napa Valley or its sub-appellations
3. relatively high in alcohol [minimum: 14.5%]
4. relatively low production
5. ageworthy
6. quality factors: richness, full-bodied, ripe, oaky, dense, appearance of sweetness, complexity

Pinot Noir:
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

Commonalities:
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

Chardonnay:
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

Commonalities:
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

General discussion:

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.


No surprise that China is embracing California wine

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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).


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