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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

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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.


Proposed new Paso Robles AVAs an object lesson for all of California

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I’m glad to see the Tax and Trade Bureau finally has published a notice of proposed rulemaking (bureaucratic phrase-making) to establish 11 new AVAs within the greater Paso Robles appellation.

This means that the public now has the opportunity to weigh in, pro or con, before the Washington pointyheaders make their decision. However, I think it’s fair to say that the cake is in the oven. The new AVAs will be approved.

What a long, strange trip it’s been. The Paso Robles people have been talking about sub-dividing their big AVA (the fifth biggest in California, with 666,000 acres) almost ever since I’ve been a wine writer. At one point, some of them wanted a simple division into east and west, with the 101 Freeway the dividing line. As things turned out, that proposal ended up going nowhere, for a variety of reasons: It really was too simplistic. Can you imagine dividing, say, Napa into east and west, with the Napa River down the median?

Readers of this blog know that while I’m generally a supporter of more refined AVAs, I recognize that sometimes, they make no sense. The most reliable AVA, I’ve always held, is the individual vineyard. Harlan Estate might be an AVA (theoretically, I mean; in reality it never will be) because it shows an absolute consistency of terroir from year to year. Ditto for, say, Duckhorn’s Three Palms Vineyard, always so tannic and brooding, or Rochioli’s West Block Vineyard. But those, too, will never enjoy elevation to AVA status.

In Paso’s case, the appellation is so huge that the subdivision is entirely warranted. For years Paso suffered from the reputation that it was all the same: a hot, broad swathe that extended practically to the Central Valley. That never was the case, but the critical media never took the time to investigate the truth; and when the A team wrote that Paso was too hot for wine, the B and C teams parroted it, as so often occurs in reporting of all kinds, not just wine; and so it became the accepted wisdom. Perception, as they say, is reality.

I plead guilty to that same crime, in part, although I think I was less susceptible to it than some others, mainly because I took the time to visit Paso with some regularity, to get to know the players, young and older, and to sample seriously the wines and listen to the points of view of many vintners and growers. Over the last several years I noticed something exciting happening in Paso Robles that alerted me to the fact that true journalism consists in abandoning one’s preconceived notions (no matter how difficult that may be) and perceiving the world with fresh eyes.

I haven’t at all studied the 11 new AVAs, so I can’t pretend to understand them, much less summarize them. It will take, at any rate, many years, even for the most diligent student, to grasp their intricacies. After all, we’re still working to understand Napa Valley’s sub-AVAs. But this event down in Paso Robles should be celebrated by all wine interests throughout California. When the final approvals go through, Paso Robles will have been the most thoroughly analyzed of all petitioning AVAs in the history of California, and I have no doubt that other big regions will be watching to see how things go. That includes Russian River Valley, another big AVA (the 21st largest in the state), which also is overdue for sub-dividing.


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.


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