I’m reading Benjamin Lewin MW’s new book, Wines of France, and as usual with his books, there’s more thoughtful information packed into almost every paragraph than most other wine books contain in 100 pages.
I’ll have a more complete review in a few weeks, but for now I want to comment on the role of geological faults in Burgundy and in Northern California. As Lewin writes, “Burgundy is a land of faults that create intricate variations in terroir.” The major fault, the Saône, runs down the length of the Cote d’Or; the famous Route Nationale 74 more or less marks it.
The major terroir features that the fault contributes to the Cote d’Or are the hills themselves that are oriented towards the southeast, from where they pick up that beautiful morning sun. The fault also has brought, through uplifting I would imagine, limestone close enough to the surface for the vine roots to touch it, especially mid-slope, which is where the Premier and Grand Crus are.
Yet, to a Californian, to say that the Saône Fault has created “intricate variations in terroir” is almost laughable. Compared to, say, Sonoma County’s, the Cote d’Or’s terroir is as simple as a child’s toy. Where the Cote’s soils are (as Lewin writes) a mixture of various types of limestone and marl (clay and shale), the soils of Sonoma County are complex almost beyond understanding, encompassing everything from volcanic debris to ancient bedrock, sand, pebbles, dust and clay. And where the Cote is geometrically simple to visualize (close your eyes and try it), Sonoma County is a mass of jumbled hills, valleys, swales, cliffs, riverside flatlands and orientations. It defies visualization.
Our relevant fault system in California is the San Andreas. My friend, the well-known wine writer Bob Thompson, once described these soils as a “slagheap,” a word that only begins to describe the cluttered mess. It is often said that Sonoma County contains more soil types than all of France—I may be mis-remembering the specific reference, and I’m hoping someone will point me in the right direction. But you get the point. Walk ten feet from any given spot, and the soils (structure and chemistry) under your feet will change, sometimes drastically.
So if the Cote d’Or displays “intricate variations in terroir,” we’d have to search for a word for the terroir of Sonoma County that means “intricate on steroids.” This is the main reason why the Russian River Valley will never be classified according to vineyards in the orderly, logical way that the Cote d’Or has been. It cannot be done, because there is no pattern to the soils.
The climate is another matter. It is relatively easily explainable throughout Sonoma County. But climate alone cannot be the basis of terroir; indeed, climate plays a minor role in Burgundy, where soil is King (or Queen). There is something decidedly American about the disorderliness of Sonoma County. It’s untidy, a mélange. The French dislike untidiness; it goes against their grain for organization and classification. Lucky they were to have, in the Cote d’Or, a place that really can be organized and classified by soils. They would go crazy if they had to deal with Sonoma.
I doubt if the notion of terroir would have developed the way it has, if the wine world had been centered on California, instead of France. The French not only are obsessive organizers and classifiers, they also possess a sometimes exaggerated patriotism that can verge on chauvinistic. They feel that France is the supreme nation (I am not prepared to disagree in some respects), and, once they realized that the limestone and slopes of the Cote d’Or were responsible for the fabulousness of the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, they rightfully coined the concept of terroir to imply that no where else in the whole world—no country, no state, no region—could ever match the Cote d’Or in quality, because the Cote d’Or is, by definition, the place that it is, and no other place on earth can be identical to it. This is a redundant truth, and it is not entirely false. But it also is not entirely true. Great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay can be grown elsewhere. And it also is not entirely true that California cannot produce Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs that rival those of Burgundy, and can be very difficult to discern from Burgundy. What, then, does this do to the very notion of terroir? It suggests that all terroirs are equal (in a political sense, like the members of the United Nations all are equal), although, to torture George Orwell, “All terroirs are equal, but some terroirs are more equal than others.”
As the author of two tomes on California wine, I know full well how short the lifespan is of a book. They come and go with the regularity of coastal fog, drifting in and out of existence. Some, because of the peculiarities of the media ritual of book reviewing, are more persistent than others. For example, anything Eric Asimov reviews and raves about can be counted to have a longer shelf life—say, a couple of months—than others. But 98 percent of wine books are destined, in my humble but experienced opinion, to evaporate quickly, finding their way into the remainders bin at the local bookstore within one month—if, that is, the local bookstore hasn’t yet gone out of business.
Why most wine books have such a short shelf life is not hard to discern: it’s because they’re ephemeral. They’re reflective of moments in time, or perhaps moments in the zeitgeist is more appropriate. But in grasping the immediate here-and-now they fail to grapple with larger, long-term issues, the ones that really matter to both history and to the people who must live through the unfolding process of history, which happens to be us all.
Actually, I’m luckier than many wine book writers, in that my two—A Wine Journey along the Russian River and New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff, continue to sell well, despite being ten and six years old, respectively. I’m nowhere in Jancis Robinson’s league, though, much less Karen MacNeil’s, whose “The Wine Bible” will survive the next nuclear holocaust and asteroid-Earth collision, combined. But my books sell tolerably well, which satisfies me.
It’s hard to write a book because it takes a ton of organization and research. But it can be done by anyone with enough time and skills of literacy. (Actually, a great many wine books, especially those little pocket guidebooks, aren’t written by the famous authors on the cover. They hire anonymous writers and pay them, say, 20 cents a word, or $2 a review, although the reader would have no way of knowing that.)
It is, though, even harder to write a good wine book, not only because it’s always harder to do something well than mediocrely, but because in order to write something penetrating and long-lasting you really must have your eye and mind firmly set on the long span of history, which means you must understand history and, most importantly, be objective enough to let history do its own thing, rather than seek to impose your own will and conditions upon it. Some books claim to have identified historical trends, but as the immortal baseball manager and existentialist philosopher, Casey Stengel, warned, “Never make predictions, especially about the future.” The psychologist and Nobel economics laureate Daniel Kahneman expanded on this: “Most successful pundits are selected for being opinionated, because it’s interesting, and the penalties for incorrect predictions are negligible. You can make predictions, and a year later people won’t remember them.”
We see this latter insight keenly illustrated when it comes to vintage prognostications. More wine writers have gotten them wrong, over the years, than they’ve gotten anything else wrong, or right for that matter; but no one has ever called a wine writer to account for a bogus vintage declaration, and probably no one ever will, for the simple reason that people have better and more useful things to do with their lives than busting an incorrect vintage assessment, twenty years after it was issued.
Here are some of the wine books that I’ve read over the past few years that I love and that are classics. Get them if you can:
- What Price Bordeaux? Benjamin Lewin, M.W.
- In Search of Pinor Noir: Benjamin Lewin, M.W.
- Postmodern Winemaking: Clark Smith
- Claret & Cabs: Benjamin Lewin, M.W.
- Secrets of the Sommeliers: Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay
I wish I’d written them all, but I couldn’t have, any more than Benjamin or Jordan or Raj could have written “A Wine Journey along the Russian River.” A good wine book reflects the writer’s personality, judgment and insight. Remove any of those factors, and the book is not so good. By the way, I don’t know Benjamin Lewin, M.W., and I profit in no way by recommending his books so strongly. He’s just a damn great writer.
Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen, “the World Wine Guys,” have a new book out, Wines of California: The Comprehensive Guide, with a foreward by Michael Mondavi and a preface by Kevin Zraly. It’s quite good, certainly the best of the genre in a long time, and a useful companion for the wine lover’s bookshelf. We met up yesterday at one of my favorite San Francisco restaurants, Chaya, where, over sushi and wine, we had a little chat. Mike and Jeff are, of course, the entertainment and lifestyle editors at my old stomping ground, Wine Enthusiast, so we’ve been buddies for years.
SH: Why another California wine book? It seems like there’s been a lot of them recently.
MD: Actually, it’s been a long time since there was a comprehensive California wine book.
JJ: The last book was by James Laube, back in 1995, California Wine, but it was really focused on Napa and Sonoma.
MD: There’s a number of books that have covered specific regions, or a specific area, for example The New California Wine, which covered some of the new producers. We wanted to cover the entire state, top to bottom, Mendocino down to Temecula. And we wanted to create a book that reaches people in different ways, because there’s geography, history, there’s an explanation of AVAs, major grapes, up-and-coming grapes, and specific listings on wineries we consider to be the most notable in the state.
SH: You guys live in New York, but you’re in San Francisco for your book tour. Where else are you going?
JJ: Wow. Besides San Francisco, there’s New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and Boston. We’re really excited. It’s a big book tour.
SH: Do you like being on the road?
JJ: I love it. We’ll be traveling today, back to New York, then flying back here to go out to Lodi, where the winegrowers have invited us to do a party out there. Then Saturday night, we’ll be at Ordinaire—
SH: In my neighborhood!
JJ: So for all your readers in the area, please come down to Oakland and see us.
SH: You guys started as lifestyle writers and now you’re doing wine.
MD: We like to do both. If you look at the book, we have interviews with wine people, but we also have recipes from noted wine country chefs. So we really do straddle the lifestyle, because wine in a vacuum might be more for your collector, but really, I think wine should be enjoyed with food, and with friends.
SH: Finally, what’s next for World Wine Guys?
MD: We’re actually working on another cookbook and another wine book. I’m not going to say what it is; we’ve done the Southern Hemisphere, we’ve done California. Next time, we’re doing something that’s more general, but we’ll talk about that when the time is right! And we’re working on a couple T.V. projects. We have a lot of stuff going on.
The World Wine Guys will be at Ordinaire Wine Shop and Wine Bar, 3354 Grand Ave., Oakland, this Saturday, Sept. 20.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, I was a fairly frequent visitor to Square One, the restaurant Joyce Goldstein had opened, in 1984, in the Jackson Square neighborhood of downtown San Francisco.
There, I was treated like a regular, mainly through my acquaintance with the sommelier, Peter Granoff, whom I had met earlier when he’d served in the same capacity at the old Mark Hopkins Hotel. Well do I remember strolling into Square One on any given night, usually by myself after an evening of doing something else that had brought me to the area from my home in Noe Valley. I’d take a seat at the bar and order something off the chalkboard menu—a little pizza or focaccia, some fettucine, wood-fired grilled shrimp—while Peter surreptitiously brought me tasting sips of the most interesting wines of the evening. Peter also held regular wine tasting classes in a small room of the restaurant. It was there that I learned, more than anyplace else, about Condrieu, Cote Rotie, Spanish sherry and other wines to which I would otherwise have had little access.
These were not mere wine tastings. Peter’s boss, Chef Joyce, provided delicious little plates to wash down the wine. One night, a blind tasting of Monterey County Chardonnays (Estancia, Morgan, Pinnacles, Talbott, Chalone, Wente and so on) was paired with a signature crab cake with mango salsa, and ginger-marinated pork loin on a bed of corn pudding.
That food was, of course, California cuisine, or what came eventually to be called California cuisine, although Joyce herself, after extensive research for her new book, Inside the California Food Revolution, writes that exactly who coined that phrase remains a mystery. Not mysterious at all, though, is what California cuisine means. Joyce Goldstein: “…restaurants broadened from formal and ceremonial to more democratic and casual. Kitchens that had been hidden were opened up to become part of the dining room. Chefs who had toiled behind closed doors in anonymity became stars. Ingredients such as arugula, baby greens, and goat cheese, virtually unknown previously, became household items…”. California’s fabulously diverse ethnic constitution, including Mediterranean, Asian and Latin American cultures, also became part of the mix that contributed to the new, complex combinations that constituted California cuisine, whose “one common element,” Joyce writes, was “fresh, seasonal ingredients, preferably raised nearby.”
I hadn’t known Joyce had written this book until I ran into her son Evan, an old friend, at a wine tasting event. I’d told him how much I’d always longed for a formal history of California cuisine, which was restaurant-based long before it became a staple of home kitchens. Evan smiled and told me there was one: He arranged to have the publisher, University of California Press, send me Inside the California Food Revolution. If you’ve ever hankered for an insider’s account of everything and everyone from Alice Waters and Chez Panisse to Wolfgang Puck, Jeremiah Tower, the French Laundry, Laura Chenel, Zuni Café and, yes, Joyce Goldstein (as insider as they get), this is the book. It recounts, in loving terms, what Mark Miller (Fourth Street Grill and Santa Fe Bar and Grill, both in Berkeley) describes as “California cuisine[‘s] revolutionary [nature], in terms of not only its fashion, its style, but also its culinary ethos.”
The California food revolution cited in Joyce’s title spilled over, of course, to the California wine revolution—or perhaps it’s fairer to say that both were the result of the revolutionary attitude that always has characterized California. In the book, too, you will find references to Paul Draper and Ridge (whose wines Alice Waters celebrated early at Chez Panisse), Randall Grahm and Bonny Doon, Josh Jensen (Calera), Dick Graff (Chalone), Bob Long (Long Vineyards) and others. Interestingly, Joyce, in retrospective hindsight, goes back to this period to foreshadow wines “with overly hard tannins, too much oak, and in time, higher alcohol levels”—shades of today’s ongoing debate. But that is another story.
Can it really have been 20 years since André Tchelistcheff died?
I met and interviewed the man they call The Maestro a couple times, in my guise as a reporter, although I can’t claim to have known him well. His heavily Russian-inflected English could be hard to understand, especially on the phone, but he was unfailingly polite, in an Old World, almost Victorian way; more importantly, he was the foremost mentor to several generations of winemakers. It’s amazing how often his name comes up in conversation even today.
To me, as an historian, André’s greatest achievement was bringing a European sensibility of winemaking to the industry, at a time—the 1930s through the 1970s—when that’s what was most needed. When he came, famously, to Beaulieu, in 1938, America still had its rear wheels stuck in the muck of Prohibition. What few Americans there were who actually drank wine had little besides ersatz “Sauternes,” “Port,” “Sherry,” “Vermouth” and unidentifiable bottles with proprietary names, like Don Juan and Mission Bell, to choose from.
One of the best ways to appreciate a historical person’s contributions is through the eyes of his contemporaries. Here, we’re fortunate that Tchelistcheff’s advent on the scene occurred at the same time as an explosion of wine books. (The two phenomena are not unrelated!) In 1948 the Chicago journalist Julian Street, in the second edition of his book “Wines,” praised Beaulieu’s George [sic] de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon—Tchelistcheff’s crowning glory—as “stepping up into another class,” while he called the Pinot Noir “among the best of its type.” Pinot Noir was (I think it’s fair to say) Tchelistcheff’s own personal favorite variety, probably due to its challenge. He told the lawyer and amateur wine lover, Robert Benson (who quoted him in the latter’s 1977 book, “Great Winemakers of California”), that he, Tchelistcheff, had produced only three “high standard” Pinot Noirs in 35 years: the 1946, 1947 and 1968, successes he deemed “accidental” although, of course, they were no accidents; but Tchelistcheff appears at that time not to have realized exactly what he had done right.
Eleven years after Street’s little book, Alec Waugh (Evelyn’s older brother) authored “In Praise of Wine,” a book so dismissive of California wine that he relegated coverage of it to two pages in the appendix. Even so, Waugh managed to mention a handful of wineries he did “greatly enjoy,” and Beaulieu was one of them. By 1973, when the founder of the Wine Institute, Leon Adams, wrote his influential “The Wines of America,” he was able to state definitively that BV Private Reserve had become “the single most-praised and most-sought after American wine.”
Why did experts like it so much? We can only begin to guess what Private Reserve tasted like young. Michael Broadbent sipped a 1941 Private Reserve (from a celebrated vintage) in 1972; the then 31-year old wine was “extremely rich…with [an] extended finish,” and despite this rather abbreviated review, Broadbent awarded it 4 stars. But a few years later, he added a coveted fifth star to the 1946 Private Reserve, which Tchelistcheff himself had poured for him at a tasting; “the ’46,” Broadbent wrote, clearly in ecstasy, “was a great wine by any standards, perhaps Tchelistcheff’s supreme masterpiece.”
It was this accomplishment—the ability to make wine so good that even a confirmed Europhile like Broadbent would swoon in its presence—that was André’s great contribution to California wine.
By the 1990s, well into his own Nineties, André’s best days were behind him. He died in 1994, his intellect and humor intact. As Rod Smith reminds us (in “Private Reserve,” published by Beaulieu in its centenary year, 2000): “Just before [Tchelistcheff] died, he exclaimed, ‘We still don’t know what kind of rootstock is right for Carneros!’”
It was that unflagging drive to know, to perfect, to achieve that marked André Tchelistcheff. He was among the first to understand that Napa Valley’s temperature gradient between Carneros, in the south, and Calistoga, in the north, mandated the planting of different grape varieties—an axiom so fundamental to our knowledge of Napa Valley today that it’s hard to fathom that it was not always known. His work with Pinot Noir has never yet been fully acknowledged. His background as a technologist showed in his never-ending experiments with different kinds of fermentation techniques, including the malolactic. Robert Mondavi, who loved him, has written (in “Harvests of Joy”) how he “often turned to André for advice” after launching Robert Mondavi Winery, and paid The Maestro the supreme compliment of calling him “one of the most influential figures in twentieth-century American wine making.” André also put his stamp on stylistic matters. His remark (to Benson) that “oak in the bottle is nothing else but seasoning” and accompanying criticism that “Some people overdo it [oak]” surely were prescient and have been echoed by latter-day aficiendos of balance.
André himself wrote what could perhaps be his epitaph, although he meant it as praise, not for himself, but for Benson’s book: in its Preface, he called the book “full of depth, full of reflections of winemakers struggling to open the gates to tomorrow.” Those words easily describe André Tchelistcheff’s own triumphant struggle: if we now stand in tomorrow, it is because we have walked through the gates André opened for us what seems like just yesterday.
In the Spring of 1969, Roy Andries de Groot, who turned to wine- and food-writing when he became blind, was sent to California by Esquire Magazine to write about the state’s wines, on the 200th anniversary of Junipero Serra’s planting of wine grapes in San Diego.
de Groot soon realized that what he really wanted to do was what he called his “immense project”: “a Classification of American Wines,” he called it, based on the sort of official hierarchy that had been developed by the French, in the famous 1855 Classification.
(de Groot also went on to classify the wines of the Pacific Northwest and New York State, hence his reference to “American Wines.”)
As he notes in his 1982 masterwork, “The Wines of California,” de Groot had pedigreed precedence for his audacious project. There not only had been the 1855 Classification, but, a century earlier, “in 1755, a first attempt had been made to rank the wines of Bordeaux,” he wrote, followed by another in 1833. So the project was neither as audacious nor as radical as it might have appeared.
Here in California, others have attempted, from time to time, to classify the state’s wines into quality tiers. Perhaps the most controversial has been Jim Laube’s 1989 book, “California’s Great Cabernets,” in which the Wine Spectator writer rather self-consciously established five “Growths” (just like the 1855 Classification), which he populated with dozens of wineries functioning at that time. It was a worthy effort—but one doomed to failure, as California, unlike staid Bordeaux, was in the process (and still is today) of sprouting new wineries like mushrooms after an Autumn rain. When Laube wrote his book, for instance, there was no Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Dalla Valle, Verite, David Arthur, Jarvis, Araujo. The book was destined for obsolescence even before it was published. (It does, however, remain an interesting read and is important as an historical document.)
de Groot established, not five, but four tiers in his classification, although he did not numerically denote them but instead used the adjectives “Great,” “Superb,” “Noble” and “Fine,” in descending order of quality. (The only wineries he put into the “Great” category were Heitz, Schramsberg and Stony Hill.) But, just as Laube’s book of seven years later was condemned to early obsolescence, so was de Groot’s, and for the same reason. As we look at his list today, we’re struck, not only by the non-inclusion of so many wineries that simply didn’t exist in 1982, but by others that were functioning at that time, but no longer are, or that continue to exist, but not at a very high level. The list, then, is sadly out of date, although like Laube’s book, “The Wines of California” makes for good reading.
I doubt that any wine writer will ever again attempt such a hopeless task as classifying the wines of California! But then, in this modern era of, say, the last 30 years, the public doesn’t need an official list. That task has been taken over, in practical effect, by critics. Can there be any question that California Cabernets and Bordeaux blends have been unofficially ranked already, through the reviews of Robert Parker, Wine Spectator and others? This ranking has the appearance of mathematical precision because it’s based on scores of the 100-point system. Thus, in order to determine the placement of any winery in the critical classification, all you have to do is look up its scores over the years, and that will determine its position in the hierarchy. Before you object that this is a pretty flimsy basis, remember that the 1855 Classification itself—which we all hold so dear—was based in part on the prices the wines had historically fetched. Since today, price and score are irretrievably intertwined, it’s not ludicrous to base a wine’s placement by its score: the highest-scoring wines will generally be the most expensive (although the opposite is not always the case!).
There’s one huge, qualitative difference, however, between an official classification, like that of 1855, and the unofficial one created by scores. The former can never change, or does so only agonizingly slowly (Mouton-Rothschild, originally a Second Growth, was not elevated to First Growth until 1973.) But the latter, unofficial classification is constantly morphing, as wineries come into and fall out of favor, reflected in their scores. The critical classification, then, has the advantage of a built-in resilience that makes it more adaptable to change and thus more descriptive of reality, as well as more useful. A critical classification can never become obsolete, by definition.
Where things get sticky, of course, is with the proliferation of critics. In 1855 the French had a single committee to make their classification. There was nobody to challenge it (although disgruntled proprietors always have complained about their placement). Twenty years ago we had only a tiny handful of critics to make their de facto classification, and few if any dared to challenge them. Today, everybody’s a critic. This is why we have the phenomenon of multi-source rating compilers, like CellarTracker, where consumers can track reviews from multiple sources side by side for the same wine.
What I find fascinating about the new order, with its proliferation of voices and the coming of age of a younger generation, is how impervious to change the old perceived hierarchy remains. In Bordeaux the First Growths still rule. In California, the Harlans and Screaming Eagles remain at the top, although they may have had to allow some room for a few other aspirants. Something about wine—or, rather, the way we perceive it—is remarkably conservative. I wish I had a time machine and could see what the top wines are fifty years from now. For some reason, I doubt if I’d be surprised.