I had nothing to read the other day, so I looked through my wine library and spied a book I hadn’t opened for years: Hugh Johnson’s “The World Atlas of Wine” (fifteenth edition, 1984), one of the greatest wine books of our time.
I was a newbie then, absorbing every ounce of learning I could about wine, and that book helped me enormously. So I pulled it off the shelf and opened at random to page 86: the section on Pauillac.
Who doesn’t remember their introduction to Bordeaux and the four communes of the Médoc, plus Graves (or Pessac-Léognan): Margaux, Saint-Julien, Pauillac and Saint-Estephe? For me, it was a revelation, an intellectual journey into the mysteries of terroir, which Mr. Johnson described with such clarity. The wines of Saint-Estephe, he wrote, “have more acidity, are fuller, solider, often have less perfume, but fairly fill your mouth with flavor,” attributing this to the fact that “as the gravel washed down the Gironde diminishes there is a stronger mixture of clay found in it.” In Margaux, by contrast, “there is very little” clay; that commune has “the thinnest [soil] in the Médoc…the result is wines which start life comparatively ‘supple’, though in poor years they can turn out thin. In good and great years, however, all the stories about the virtues of gravel are justified.” And so on.
It all made perfect sense: a predictable and historic hierarchy of qualities based on location and soil type. When I had spent some years studying the communal differences in the Médoc (and not just via Hugh Johnson, but Alexis Lichine and many other writers, all by the way in agreement with each other), it was only natural for me to look at the five towns strung along Highway 29 in Napa Valley and wonder if terroir conclusions could be drawn. I thought it probable, not so much in terms of soils, as of climate. Yountville, being closest to San Pablo Bay, would be coolest, with temperatures gradually escalating as you proceeded northwest (i.e. inland) from Oakville and Rutherford through St. Helena to Calistoga.
Now, though, I wonder if it’s all that simple. There are so many complicating factors. Napa Valley is a much more complex place than the Médoc. For one thing, Bordeaux doesn’t have mountains to factor into the equation. Oakville, for example, goes up to the 500 foot contour line in the Mayacamas, and the higher you go, the more dramatic are the distinctions between valley floor and elevation. In Pauillac, the highest elevation, I believe, is 100 feet (at Mouton). And in Napa Valley, the soil choice is not simply between clay and gravel, an easy equation. Because of the San Andreas Fault and plate tectonics, “There exist an amazing 33 different soil series in the Napa Valley representing six of the 12 soil orders that comprise modern soil taxonomy. In other words, in an area just 30 miles long and five miles wide, half of the soil orders that exist on the planet can be readily found,” in the words of the Napa Valley Vintners.
To make matters yet more complicated, we have the maritime air and fog that arrives in Napa in unpredictable ways, not just from the southeast via San Pablo Bay but through various gaps in the Mayacamas from Sonoma County. For example, as I report in my upcoming article on the Calistoga appellation in Wine Enthusiast, there is data suggesting that St. Helena is actually warmer than Calistoga due to such a gap, thereby tossing the cool-in-the-southeast, hotter-in-the-northwest theory into the trash. And purely anecdotally, I can tell you I’ve watched the dashboard thermometer in my car for many years as I’ve driven south from, let’s say, St. Helena to Yountville during the summer months and seen the temperature increase.
Another reason why it’s so complicated to define communal differences in the five towns (which are now AVAs on their own) is because winemaking styles vary significantly. There are those who pick earlier and make lighter wines–Corison, for example–and those who prefer a fatter style: Araujo and Hall, among many others. Even in Pauillac, the experts always scratched their heads over the fact that Lafite, which is just a stone’s throw from St.-Estephe, is more “Margaux-like” than Mouton, in the south, which is more “St.-Estephe-like.”
I don’t doubt that scholars will try to define Napa Valley communal patterns, including me. I think it can be done on a macro level, in the same way we can make vintage assessments on a macro level. On the micro level, though, which is what really counts, generalizations generally break down (which is itself a generalization). Which is good news for mavens and journalists: we’ll be talking about this for the next 100 years.
Anyone who’s followed my reviews for a while knows I haven’t been a fan of Livermore Valley wines. In a column I once wrote, I described Livermore as the weak link in the chain of appellations that limns the San Francisco Bay region, from Anderson Valley through Napa Valley and Sonoma County, down to the Santa Cruz Mountains. All are great wine areas, except Livermore.
Why this is so is because of several reasons. For starters, there’s suburbanization. Livermore has been particularly hard hit by it (just like the Santa Clara Valley, which is present day Silicon Valley). Both once had vast acreage of vineyards and produced wine. But Livermore was unable to escape Santa Clara’s fate: tracts of land, including ranches, were sold to housing developers, and the vineyards, in large part, went away. Even Livermore-based wineries like Wente turned to other parts of the state, like Monterey County, to boost their grape supplies.
I think another reason is that the winemaking bar in Livermore has been set lower these days. There are complicated reasons for this, and if you’re curious, I can give you my thoughts later.
There are certainly wineries remaining in Livermore Valley. The Livermore Valley Wine Country website says there are more than 40. I can’t claim to have tasted all of them or even most of them, and there surely are many wineries I’ve never tasted at all. But those I have have tasted over the years have been disappointing, and I have no reason to suspect there are hidden gems in Livermore I don’t know about.
I’m not sure why quality isn’t higher. It can’t be terroir. Livermore Valley was one of California’s earliest grapegrowing regions and one of the best. We all know the story of how Charles Wetmore planted cuttings of (presumably) Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon from Yquem in 1882, turning his Cresta Blanca winery into one of California’s most famous. Livermore Valley wineries were the first to bottle varietally labeled Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Petite Sirah, according to the Livermore website, and their Cabernets once had a high reputation. The soils are well-drained and alluvial, and while the weather is hot, Livermore boosters argue it’s no hotter than the St. Helena-Calistoga area. So the problem must be in the winemaking. There simply aren’t enough qualified, or quality-oriented, vintners working there.
The Livermore wineries are probably grateful that I no longer review Livermore wines. Virginie Boone now does for Wine Enthusiast, and I hope she likes them more than I did. Maybe the Livermore winemakers are getting their act together and making better wines, which would give Virginie the opportunity to score them higher.
There has been one Livermore winery I’ve admired over the years, and that’s Steven Kent. The owner-winemaker is Steven Kent Mirassou, of the old Mirassou Winery, which was bought out by Gallo years ago. I’ve given his wines high scores since the 1999 vintage, with the Cabernet Sauvignons particularly impressive. These are wines that can stand against Napa Valley and I have told Steven so.
I get asked to lunch by a lot of winemakers and 99% of the time I decline, but Steven Kent Mirassou is one of the few I readily consent to. Why? Because I admire what he’s doing. It doesn’t make me happy to write off an entire region, the way I have with Livermore Valley, but it makes me glad to see somebody there who’s attempting to elevate it. Steven is scrappy and visionary. He sees, not the present sorry state of Livermore Valley, but its glorious past and what he hopes will be its glorious future.
At lunch we talked about whether and how much Steven should market Livermore Valley as a region, as opposed to just forgetting about Livermore Valley and plugging the Steven Kent brand. These are very difficult decisions with no easy answers. My advice to Steven was to forget about Livermore Valley and promote the Steven Kent brand. That’s just my two cents.
is Thursday April 7, in the evening at City Hall. I’ll be there and I hope you are too. If you want to get together, let me know, and we can make an arrangement.
RIP LIZ TAYLOR!
It’s a big appellation whose 96,000 acres run all the way from Occidental in the southwest to Healdsburg in the northeast, from Guerneville on the river southward nearly to downtown Santa Rosa.
Criss-cross it on any given summer day and one minute you have to turn on the windshield wipers, headlights and turn up the heat, then the next minute you’re in blazing sunshine with the AC on high.
It’s obviously not just one place, particularly when we’re talking about its most famous grape and wine, Pinot Noir. And given the rise to prominence of Pinot Noir in general, this may be the time to have a serious discussion about sub-appellating this broad swathe of land.
One of the chief difficulties in defining and isolating different terroirs in the Russian River Valley is that, no matter what natural distinctions there may be, winemakers are constantly changing their techniques. Beyond experimenting with yeasts, barrels, stem inclusion and other technologies, they tinker with their vineyards, to the extent it’s financially possible, altering row orientations and spacing, changing clones and rootstocks, and playing around with canopy regimes. In general–and I’m hardly the first or only one to point this out–we’re seeing alcohol levels in Pinot Noir (if not in Cabernet Sauvignon) falling. Right before our eyes–mine, anyway–I’m drinking Pinot Noirs that you can actually see through clearly in the glass, instead of being so inky they might as well be from the Rhône. I’m seeing alcohol levels in the 13s–how about that?–and low 14s. And I’m tasting Pinots that are so transparent, they offer tastes and feelings of the earth in which they were grown.
But that’s the good news: with lower alcohol levels, terroir can shine through, which makes sub-appellating the Russian River Valley make even more sense.
I’ve carried around certain generalities in my head for years. Here are a few: Westside Road and The Middle Reach being warmer, the Pinots are riper and fuller-bodied. Green Valley being cooler, the wines are acidic and dry, but spicy. The area south of River Road, being open to the Petaluma Gap, seems to produce wines of firm tannic structure. But these are, admittedly, generalities.
What matters in the greater Russian River Valley are three things: distance from the Pacific Ocean (or San Pablo Bay), conduits of cold air that allow maritime influences to penetrate inland, and elevation. The first two are obvious; we tend to ignore the influence of elevation in the Russian River Valley, but in, say, the Green Valley it is significant: Pinot Noir planted at lower elevations, Zinfandel on ridgetops where it is sunnier and warmer. Soil, in my mind, plays less of a role than climate. As long as the soil is well-drained, it is suitable (and I say that despite the Goldridgers who attest to the superiority of that soil type).
How many sub-AVAs might there be in a reconfiguration, and what would their names be? I have already mentioned The Middle Reach. A case can be made for the Santa Rosa Plain, which is sort of a northerly extension of the Petaluma Gap. Some people speak of Windsor as an AVA. Laguna Ridges, which comprises the area south of River Road wherein Dehlinger, Lynmar, Joseph Swan and others are situated, can be thought of as a part of the Santa Rosa Plain, but its more westerly location argues for a unique status. All of these regions are considerably cooler than The Middle Reach. Joe Rochioli, Jr. used to deride the Laguna area as “swampland” more suitable for Gravenstein apples than the Pinot Noir he was growing on Westside Road.
Winemakers have been talking, on and off for years, about sub-appellations in the valley. So far as I know, at this time there are no serious discussions (and if there are, I’m sure someone will let me know). But there should be. It will take lots of scientific evidence from weather stations and soil analysis, and there are historical factors to be reckoned with, but better understanding the Russian River Valley is something we need to tackle.
Do you ever wonder about the real meaning of certain terms on wine labels? Well, so do a lot of other people, which is why the Federal government is opening up a real can of worms with its announcement that the agency in charge of wine label wording, the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), is launching hearings designed to reconsider the definition of such terms as “estate,” “estate bottled,” Proprietor grown,” “Vintner grown,” “Vineyard,” “Single vineyard,” “Old Vine,” “Reserve,” “Barrel Select” and a host of others.
(You can read the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking here. Scroll down to Notice No. 109, which will give you a PDF.)
Big news, and about time. For too long, wineries have had too much leeway in their creative employment of such words, which are confusing and can mislead consumers into coming to conclusions about the wines that aren’t true.
Take the term “estate bottled.” Up until now, a wine can be called “estate bottled” only if (a) it is labeled with an appellation of origin, and (b) the bottling winery is located in the labeled viticultural area, grew all of the grapes used to make the wine on land owned or controlled by the winery within the boundaries of the labeled viticultural area; and crushed the grapes (there are some additional restrictions).
That’s reasonable enough, right? Here’s where things get murky. For years, TTB has (in their words) “allowed the term ‘Estate grown’ to be used as a synonym for ‘Estate bottled,’” meaning use of the former would have to conform to the same conditions that govern use of the latter. But “some industry members” now are requesting TTB to let them use “Estate grown” even if “Estate bottled” conditions haven’t been met, since, they argue, “Estate grown” says nothing about bottling conditions.
That may sound reasonable, too, except that you have to wander further into the thicket to understand just how radical this proposed change is. For it all centers around the definition of “estate.”
The problem, in TTB”s words, is that “the regulations do not address or define the word ‘Estate’ or ‘Estates’…”. In other words, the word “Estate/s” means nothing…nada…zilch…and never has. So even though the word seems to convey some sort of authenticity or quality or prestige sourcing, it doesn’t. It’s about as useful as the words “New!” and “Improved!” on a box of soap flakes (and using it so loosely erodes the confidence the consumer has in wines that really are estate grown). Therefore, if “estate/s” is meaningless, and “estate grown” is divorced from its connection to “estate bottled,” then “estate grown” is meaningless. And down the slippery slope we go.
TTB is asking the public to weigh in on these things. On their website, they present a list of fuzzy label terms, and then they ask:
“1. Which terms currently used in wine labeling and advertising should TTB consider defining, if any, and what should those definitions be?
2. Why or why not should TTB consider defining such terms?”
I’ll take a crack at some of them.
“Reserve” and “Private Reserve.” These are routinely and wantonly abused because they have no meaning whatsoever. A wine cannot be a “reserve” unless there’s a “regular” but in case after case, you find there is no regular. So change the law. Make it mandatory that “reserve” is a small percentage of the winery’s regular bottling of that wine.
“Barrel Select.” A true barrel selection means you took a portion of your best barrels, as determined by tasting, and bottled them separately. Unfortunately, most wines labeled “barrel select” don’t seem to have undergone this sorting out process. Change the law to make “barrel select” mean what it says. (The term “barrel select reserve,” which quite a few wineries use, therefore would be an oxymoron.)
“Old Vines.” Consumers think this is some kind of guarantee, both of age and of quality, but it’s not. It doesn’t mean anything. Change the law to make “old vine/s” mean vines that are at least 25 years old; and then make it so that the labeled wine has to contain at least 90% of grapes from those vines.
“Old Clone.” Nobody knows what this means, either, because it doesn’t mean anything. There are no “old clones,” properly speaking. There are “old selections,” but just because a vine is “old selection” is meaningless from a quality point of view. Therefore, change the law. If a winery says it’s “old clone,” make them spell out just what clone or selection they’re talking about, and make them prove that the vines the wine is made from, or at least 90% of them, indeed are comprised of that selection.
The following terms also are meaningless, but we don’t want the hand of government to get too heavy, do we, so I’d leave them alone: “Proprietors Blend,” “Select Harvest,” “Bottle Aged.”
I’ve been getting into a category of wine I don’t write about much, dessert wines. Although they’re largely absent from my consciousness for much of the year, about this time they start coming in for review, probably, I suspect, for the holidays. Right now I’m drinking and vastly enjoying Quady’s 2009 Essensia Orange Muscat. It’s decadently sweet, and to sip it you’d swear you were transported to some heaven where the streets are lined with oranges and tangerines. At just $25 for a full 750-milliliter bottle (most dessert wines are in 375s), it’s a good value. I could see drinking this wine almost anytime–at lunch with a smoked trout salad or ham sandwich, at 5 p.m. as a refreshing cocktail, even during dinner with a steak. Steak and Orange Muscat? Why not. Professor Saintsbury reports a dinner he served, probably in the late 1800s, at which 1870 Yquem was paired with “consommé and grilled red mullet” and another when “Sauterne, 1874” went with a “Zootje of Sole” and “Mutton Cutlets.” (And as best as I can tell, “Zootje” is a traditional Dutch dish of poached sole and potatoes in a butter sauce.) Then there is the marriage of Yquem with roast beef, a combination that goes back at least to the 19th century, and was resurrected (in Jeremiah Tower’s first book, “New American Classics”), in which he praised Yquem with with a ”rich, aged, perfectly cooked roast beef.”
So Orange Muscat and steak isn’t a stretch.
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I’m reading a terrific wine book, Rhône Renaissance, by Remington Norman, with a forward by Hugh Johnson. Although it was published more than ten years ago, I’d never heard of it, until I found it in a local used bookstore. At $2.99, I had to snatch it up.
It’s definitely in the Johnson mold, hard-covered, good paper, great, detailed maps and written in a literary style (although it is not without typos. I don’t think I ever saw a typo in a Hugh Johnson book). I’m reading the section on Côte-Rôtie and am struck, once again, by the complexities and peculiarities of France’s appellation system. The Côte-Rôtie appellation apparently has been changed several times in recent decades, swelling to far beyond its original 1940 boundaries until it had extended into areas that were patently unsuitable. The result of that was a 1993 readjustment of the boundaries that shrank it back to its present size. It all goes to show how political appellation lines are, although it must also be conceded that, in the best of cases, they rest on firm realities. In the case of Côte-Rôtie, of course, these realities include, most importantly, southern or southeastern exposures and steep slopes. The actual Côte-Rôtie appellation makes a great deal of sense.
What appellations in California make the most sense? It’s easier to list the ones that don’t, which would be most of them. The bigger an appellation is, the less you can say about it, except in the most general terms. “Burgundy” and “Sonoma County” both are big appellations; the former makes a little more sense because the authorities limit the grapes there, so at least you can declare that a red Burgundy will have a certain varietal character. You can’t say that about a red Sonoma County wine, which could be made from any variety in the world. So “Sonoma County” is of limited usefulness, unless you believe that, if it comes from Sonoma County, it must be good.
But just because an appellation is small is equally meaningless. The smallest AVAs in California, by acreage, are Cole Ranch (150), El Dorado (416) and McDowell Valley (540). There’s not much you can say about any of these. (“El Dorado” is not the same as “El Dorado County,” which measures 410,000 acres.) On the other hand, the fourth-smallest AVA in California (I’m going by Wine Institute figures) is Anderson Valley, at 600 acres, and you can definitely point out a distinguishing, and fine, character to its wines. So let’s postulate for now that Anderson Valley is the sine qua non of California appellations.
Another point that author Norman makes in Rhône Renaissance is how, when Côtie-Rôtie had fallen more or less into irrelevance, its boosters did certain things to restore it to its previous greatness. They lured in investment money to replant on the best slopes. They formed a Syndicat, or regional growers association. They created a tourist infrastructure in and around the town of Ampuis, with restaurants, shops and winery signposts. They “brought…media to the region in unprecedented numbers.” Surely, these are lessons some California appellations have learned, and that others are in the process of learning.
If you’re wondering why I didn’t have a new post yesterday, it’s because my #%@&*?! laptop had a nervous breakdown. I was on my last morning in Santa Ynez, and had a post in mind, but for some reason the ‘puter couldn’t figure out how to send it to the blog. I’ve had it with that antique laptop, and figure it was a sign from above to go out and buy a new one. On my way home, I stopped by my friend Thomas Reiss’s graphic design and web design firm, Kraftwerk, in SLO city, and his young, tech savvy staff recommended I buy the new Macbook Air, explaining that the reason it costs so much is due to the coolness factor. Well, I am nothing if not cool, so sometime this week, I’m heading over to the Apple Store with Chuck, who helps me organize the incoming wine but who also knows more about tech stuff than I do. Whether or not a new laptop will result in a better blog remains to be seen, but it certainly make this a more regular blog.
At any rate, I digress from what I wanted to talk about, which was my Santa Barbara trip. It was a quickie, mainly for an upcoming Wine Enthusiast article on what I’m calling “winemaker dives” — places where winemakers hang out with each other. These aren’t fancy white tablecloth restaurants where they do winemaker dinners or host important clients. They’re greasyspoons, hash houses, rock and roll bars, tacquerias and pizza joints, the kinds of places you and I frequent. Well, I do, anyway. And I had a great time. You’ll read all about it in the February issue, but we went to this funky old barbecue joint way up in the hills where the bikers lit up doobies and a hippie duo cranked out some pretty good Delta blues. That night we ate at a great pizza joint in Los Alamos that was packed with enough winemakers to teach a semester of undergrads at U.C. Davis.
Most of the talk in Santa Barbara was about the vintage, of course: the wild, crazy ride that’s been 2010. The mantra goes like this: bizarrely cold spring and summer. Massive heat spike in August. Then back to cold. Then last week’s rains, fairly heavy. The one bright spot is that right now we’re experiencing a welcome week’s worth of warm sunshine. As of this past weekend, I was told, there’s still Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to come in, as well as a boatload of Syrah. The Santa Rita Hills vintners were cautiously optimistic; so were the inland winemakers. My impression is that the Central Coast will have an easier time of it than the North Coast. But, as winemaker after winemaker emphasized, 2010 has been a challenge, in which vintners and growers alike had to rise to the occasion. One interesting comment from a winemaker was that, when everybody else was opening their canopies to expedite ripening during the cold months, he didn’t. “I knew the heat was coming,” he explained. “It always does.” As a result, he avoided the sunburning so common throughout the state. Or so he claimed.
A bunch of us also had a chat about the merits of labeling wine Santa Barbara County, or using the smallest appellation to which the wine is entitled. (The county’s other appellations are Santa Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley and Happy Canyon.) Some winemakers felt that they should use only Santa Barbara County, in order to promote the region to consumers. I, personally, feel that you should always use the most distinct appellation you can; but, on the other hand, my position is a critical and esthetic one, not a commercial one. I don’t have to sell wine. The winemakers do. So if they don’t want to use the smaller appellations because they feel it’s counter-productive, I have to respect that.
The Santa Barbarans also tend to feel overlooked by consumers. They think the average wine drinker doesn’t understand how good their wines are. They also think that the wine press doesn’t pay them enough attention, a belief with which I concur if we’re talking about certain well-known magazines. I myself have devoted lots of time and attention to Santa Barbara County for a long time, and I hope to pay it even more attention in times to come. This is a very important and very distinctive California winegrowing region, and it’s only going to get better.