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Staying relevant: for wineries, it can be tricky

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W. Blake Gray wrote, on his blog, a pretty good book review on Loam Baby: A Wine Culture Journal’s inaugural edition, so I won’t, not just because Blake did but because I’d rather comment on some of the remarks that Greg Brewer made in the author’s (R.H. Drexel, a pseudonym) interview with him.

Greg is, of course, the winemaker at Brewer-Clifton, Diatom, and Melville (did I forget any?). He’s also emerging as a sort of mentor to a younger generation down in the Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills (although Greg’s hardly elderly; I don’t think he’s hit 40). I always liked Greg because he was one of the people who welcomed me to Sta. Rita Hills years ago when I first visited, driving me all around and telling me who’s who and what’s what. Reporters depend on the kindness of strangers like Greg, who is no longer a stranger but a friend; I profiled him in my second book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversation with Steve Heimoff, and I contact him from time to time with questions about wine, vintages and other things.

Greg has a reputation as an intensely thoughtful guy, a philosopher. He will go all esoteric on you, if you want, but won’t if you don’t. (I also dig his tattoos.) Anyhow, this R.H. Drexel (whoever he is) asked Greg a great question: “How do you stay relevant?”

The issue of staying relevant if you’re a winery or a winemaker obsesses me. The main place I look for clues is Napa Valley,  because of all the wine regions in California, it’s (a) the hardest place to achieve relevance and (b) the hardest place to stay relevant.

This past February I wrote an article in Wine Enthusiast called “The Class of ‘72.” It was about the wineries who began life in 1972. They’ve had a tumultuous ride and not all of them have ended up for the better, sad to say. Some are stronger than ever (Diamond Creek, Caymus, Montelena) while others have languished. There’s no better illustration of “staying relevant” than to look at the Class of ‘72 and see that while some have, others haven’t.

Getting relevant in the first place if you’re in Napa Valley is difficult for multiple reasons. First off, competition is fierce. Does the world really need another $80 or $100 Cabernet Sauvignon (which is probably what you’re going to do if you have a Napa Valley winery)? The economy suggests that, no, it doesn’t. Wineries try to achieve relevance in all sorts of ways, from sending samples to people like me (to get a high score) to not sending samples to people like me (to foster the illusion of exclusivity) to hiring Famous Name growers and winemakers for bragging rights. (It also helps to get an important somm in your corner.) Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. I never feel sorry for new Napa wineries that don’t really make it, because I figure that their owners are rich, and knew what they were getting into, although I’ve been around long enough to know that’s not always the case. Some of them may be rich, but they’re dumb as doorknobs when it comes to selling wine. Either way, I don’t feel sorry for them.

Even if you get relevant it’s hard to remain at the top. I’ll mention two names. Take Chappellet and Trefethen. Both are old wineries (by Napa Valley standards). Both make magnificent wine. Both are intensely relevant to me and to all serious writers. But I wonder if the collectors and showoffs, especially in China, who just want the latest new kid on the block could even be bothered to try Chappellet or Trefethen. That’s a mistake, of course, a big one. Their wines are better than ever. Winemakers learn from their experiences. They seldom make the same mistakes over and over again (well, some do, but not at the level of a Chappellet or Trefethen), and they learn new tricks to make their wines better.

I have no idea how Chappellet and Trefethen stay relevant, or if their owners even try to or care about it. Maybe they’re doing just fine; I hope so. But I’ve seen wineries that were stars for years before their ascent slowed and then they began the long, inevitable descent back to Earth. They couldn’t figure out how to stay relevant and so they didn’t.

In his interview Greg Brewer said he hopes to stay relevant by mentoring a new generation of talented young winemakers. If I were a 21-year old budding winemaker (oh, that would be nice!) I’d certainly hope that Greg would take me under his wing. But I also assume that Greg’s hardly ready to call it quits and just “mentor.” He and his wineries will stay relevant for just as long as he wishes to continue working. After that (and let’s hope it won’t be for many decades), his wineries will reach a turning point: all wineries do when their veteran winemaker dies, moves on or retires.


High alcohol in Pinot Noir? Maybe not so bad!

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As I continue to read and enjoy Benjamin Lewin’s In Search of Pinot Noir, I remembered the fuss last March at the World of Pinot Noir when Adam Lee slipped Raj Parr a 15% Siduri Pinot Noir in a doctored bottle and Raj liked it, even though he [Raj] had earlier declared he would never buy a Pinot above 14% for RN74.

That memory was triggered by this passage, on page 371 (of 424 pages. I hate coming to the end of a good book!):

I do not believe that Pinot Noir is a variety that tolerates too much extraction, and especially too much alcohol. I become concerned about preservation of varietal typicity once alcohol goes into the high thirteen percents, and I’m reluctant to give much leeway to wines over 14% (admittedly with some notable exceptions, and it’s true I’ve been forced to move my limit up).

Interesting remarks, no? Benjamin’s rigid rule about Pinot Noir above 14% has some notable exceptions. Might that Siduri wine, at 15%, be one of them? We can’t know, of course, but for such a bright man as Benjamin, who is a Master of Wine, to admit that there are notable exceptions to his views on alcohol is really–when you think about it–to throw the whole notion of objectionable alcohol levels out the window.

I mean, a rule is a rule only if there are no exceptions. Two plus two equals four does not allow for the existence of two plus two equals five. Therefore, any critique of high alcohol in Pinot Noir must be seen for what it really is: not a criticism of alcohol levels per se, but a criticism of imbalance. And cannot any wine be unbalanced, at any alcohol level? Obviously the answer is yes. So we have to dispose of the notion that a high alcohol Pinot Noir cannot dazzle even such sophisticated palates as Raj Parr’s and Benjamin Lewin’s.

Let’s consider varietal typicity. This is a fairy dust concept that’s always lurking in the background of any high level discussion of wine. Its thrust is that every great wine (we’re not talking about bag-in-a-box stuff) is a truthful expression of its varietal type (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel), as filtered through the lens of terroir (however you define it). However, you are not likely to hear the phrase “varietal typicity” from anyone under the age of 45. This is because it’s really an antiquated concept, left over from the days of English dons who knew Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne and perhaps a little Sherry, Madeira and Port, but little else. After all, what else was there for them to know? Those wines defined the landscape.

We are no longer in the eighteenth or even the nineteenth centuries, of course (good lord, it just occurred to me that we’re not even in the twentieth century anymore, which is where I spent the greater part of my existence). The concept of “varietal typicity” has much less meaning than it used to. Maybe it has none. Have you ever heard a young blogger use the term? When you taste a lot of wines from all over the place, you soon realize that “varietal typicity” in, say, Pinot Noir is as elusive as human typicity in the population of Oakland, which is one of the most ethnically diverse cities on Earth. It would be as improper to claim that Burgundy represents “varietal typicity” in Pinot Noir as to claim that true “human typicity” is found only in the white population of Oakland!

I don’t suppose anyone would mistake a Williams Selyem Russian River Valley Pinot Noir for Burgundy (all the newly released 2009s are officially around 14%, although it wouldn’t surprise me to learn the alcohol had been lowered by Bob Cabral). Such is their “extraction” (to use Benjamin Lewin’s word) that Burgundy would need a year like 2003 to approach those fruit levels (Jancis Robinson called it “a rum vintage”). Therefore, from a classical point of view, Williams Selyem’s Pinot Noirs lack varietal typicity. Yet they are indisputably very great wines. There are, of course, California Pinot Noirs that are too extracted and hot–Benziger’s 2008 San Remo Vineyard is one such, and if I had unlimited time I would go through my database and undoubtedly find many others. These wines are the poster children for Benjamin’s criticism.

But surely it is wrong to tar an entire region on the basis of irregular wines. If that were a valid criterion, we would write off Burgundy and Bordeaux in a single stroke, since there are unbalanced wines flowing from both. I therefore return to Benjamin’s spectacular dual confession: (…some notable exceptions, and it’s true I’ve been forced to move my limit up) to point out that rigid expressions of alcohol level in wine are more akin to ideology than to objectively experiencing reality and judging it fairly. And I thank Benjamin for being so candid about his evolving views.


A new book from Gerald Asher

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When it’s finally out in the market, give yourself a treat and buy Gerald Asher’s new book, A Carafe of Red, which is about to be published by University of California Press, our common publisher. I was sent an advance copy; it should be widely available soon.

The book is a compilation of Mr. Asher’s previous articles, mostly written for Gourmet magazine–articles that defined his style of lucid intelligence. Reading a Gerald Asher essay is more than just inhaling the written word, pleasant as that is. It’s like sitting in an easy chair in front of a warming fire on a chilly night, with a glass of Port in your hand, and Mr. Asher in a chair opposite you, explaining, in an indulgent way, whatever the topic is. The new book covers lots of territory, as you’d expect: everything from Côte Rôtie and Malmsey to Armagnac and Priorato.

I was especially interested, of course, in the chapter on California Cabernet Sauvignon, which originally appeared in the mammoth, authoritative The Book of California Wine, also published by U.C. Press. I’ve read that article many times. Like a great wine, it never palls, and seems to get better with time. It takes a bold, skilled hand to make sweeping pronouncements like this one: the “legacy of California Cabernet Sauvignon has been handed down by Louis M. Martini, Charles Krug, Inglenook, and Beaulieu Vineyard [which expressed] the seeds of all options available to winemakers today [i.e. 1984]. A writer needs not only vast learning to issue such declarations, but also the self-confidence to know that few will dare challenge him.

Sidelight: Is Mr. Asher’s statement true today? The “options” he referred to were that Charles Krug was 100% unblended Cabernet, with not too much oak. Inglenook on the other hand blended in Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Louis M. Martini was a master of blending, which produced “agreeable wines ready to be drunk early,” while Beaulieu used “young American oak…to dramatic effect on intense, unblended Cabernet” in the Georges de Latour Private Reserve.

Mr. Asher, 27 years ago, could not have foreseen the rise of Robert Parker and the dramatic tendency toward higher alcohol (and more new oak) that has characterized the “cult Cabernet” of today. We could, I suppose, add this as a fifth “option” for Cabernet (whether blended or not), but we could also view the modern style as an extension of the Krug style, “with fruit so persistent and finish so soft [Mr. Asher wrote] that the wine left a sweet impression…”. (He’s speaking of a 1956, tasted in 1979.) I might easily describe a Cabernet from, say, Hall or Maybach with those very words.

A particular joy of reading such a comprehensive and personal book as A Carafe of Red is that we get to experience, vicariously but no less intimately, Mr. Asher’s experiences of wines we will never otherwise have the opportunity to taste. (I love Michael Broadbent’s The Great Vintage Wine Book for that very reason.) For example, in his 1975 essay, A Morning Tasting with Joe Heitz, Mr. Asher describes tasting the 1966-1970 vintages of Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard, the most famous Cabernet Sauvignon of the 1960s (I suppose you could say the Beaulieu Private Reserve was more famous, but I don’t agree). There are other references to these wines from other writers–see, for example, Harry Waugh’s diaries. I’ve never had any of those wines and probably never will, but it gives me endless pleasure to read what great writers had to say about them, and to compare their impressions against each other. Both Harry and Gerald loved those Martha’s Cabernets, in their own ways, of course; both were British and somewhat reserved–Mr. Asher seldom gushes. In fact, one can say that Gerald Asher laid down his own option for stylish wine writing, an option that began to be perfected before him (for example, by George Saintsbury), but never with such precise clarity and authority. It is a style every serious wine writer would do well to study.


If critics are going to pronounce on regions, they should at least know them in depth

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I‘ve been enjoying Benjamin Lewin’s new book, In Search of Pinot Noir [Vendange Press, 2011], which covers the Pinot grape and wine around the world. It’s really one of the best wine books of the year. Lewin, an M.W. who writes in an accessible style, is largely free of cant. He doesn’t repeat stale old chestnuts, the way so many wine writers do, if he doesn’t believe them for a fact, which makes his reportage credible, and he obviously knows his stuff.

In his section on California, Lewin makes a point that cannot be emphasized enough. Because California’s top Pinot Noirs are produced in such tiny quantities, “A system of managed scarcity” prevents most people from ever tasting them, “unless you are in the magic circle of aficionados…And if you can only taste the generic appellation wines because the best wines are never available… how can you appreciate their potential quality…? Does this [difficulty], Lewin asks, rhetorically, hold back recognition of the full potential of the [California] regions?”

My answer is a full-fledged Yes. We’ve all heard and read the critique that California Pinot Noir is flawed, compared to the best of Burgundy and Oregon. Too fruity. Too high in alcohol. Too oaky. But I would argue that a lot of the people who make these charges simply have not had the opportunity to taste California Pinot at its top levels, which is to say the single vineyard or best barrel bottlings from the best wineries. I would scarcely dare to pronounce on the quality of, say, the Portuguese red wines of Alentejano, Alentejo or Bairrada, which my Wine Enthusiast colleague, Roger Voss, recently gave high scores to, because I haven’t had enough of them. But I wonder how it is that a wine writer not actually living in California (or visiting here frequently), and who lacks full access to the top Pinot Noirs tasted on a consistent basis, can make sweeping generalizations and expect to be taken seriously.

I guess you can just fly into California once a year, arrange a whirlwind tasting, and render a verdict.

Lewin, on the other hand, has plenty of opportunity to taste California Pinot Noir, presumably through his duties writing for the World of Fine Wine and Decanter, and that’s why I say his writing is largely cant free. He displays an even-handedness concerning California, even though it’s pretty clear that he is, at heart, a Bugundian. He gives more four-star ratings to the likes of Chambertin than he does for anything in California; but his ratings for Williams Selyem, Sea Smoke and Au Bon Climat, to mention but a few, are quite similar to mine [albeit that I use numbers, not stars), which means that Lewin is right on the money, as far as I’m concerned!

If I only tasted the basic appellation Pinot Noirs from California–those available at supermarkets and distributor tastings–no doubt my opinion of Cali Pinot would be lower than it is. I too would probably criticize them. And in fact, I do criticize even some of the expensive, hard to get Pinot Noirs for obvious faults: over-extraction, too much oak, too much alcohol and (more rarely noted by critics, although it should be), bizarre acidity that has been added in a heavy-handed way.

But fortunately, I get to taste almost all the rare Pinot Noirs in California, and believe me, there are some spectacular wines out there, which is why I feel on firm ground stating how world class they are, and how ignorant the anti-California critics are–using “ignorant” in the sense of not possessing the necessary information to come to an informed judgment. Maybe the next time a critic bashes California Pinot, he or she should tell us precisely how many he’s tasted over, say, the last year, and exactly which ones. That at least would put some context into his remarks.


Thinking about my first book

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It was nine years ago — hard to believe — that I got the phone call. It was from Blake Edgar, at the University of California Press, in the People’s Republic of Berkeley, my neighboring city. He wanted to meet with me to discuss my writing a book.

Wow, I thought. It’s pretty rare for a publisher to ask someone to write a book. Usually, the would-be author has to find an agent and then write a proposal, often a very lengthy one, and the author has to pitch the proposal to the publisher.

I’d tried to write a book years earlier. Joel Butler, the well-known M.W., and I had one in mind in the 1990s. It was to have been a major work on grape varieties and wines. We worked hard on a sample chapter on Rhône wines. I focused on California; he focused on France. We got a pretty good chapter, but things stalled. We just couldn’t find an agent, and the project died.

After that, I gave up on the idea of writing a book. It was just too hard. I’d go down to Barnes and Noble and see all the shiny new wine books, most of them pretty awful in my opinion, and wonder how these bad books managed to get contracts, while Joel’s and mine, which would have been a very good book, couldn’t. It was just one of those things.

So Blake’s call came out of the blue. We met in downtown Berkeley at a Chinese restaurant (he paid), and he said, essentially, “You can write about anything you want.” I’d recently written a story for Wine Enthusiast, “Sonoma Sojourn,” in which I envisioned a four-day tour of the county. I broke it into four regions, one per day: Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Sonoma Valley. Readers liked it. I was remembering Coppola’s movie, Apocalypse Now, which was based on Joseph Conrad’s book, Heart of Darkness. Both had the structure of a journey up a river. As the plot moves forward, things get more and more complex, until it ends in a dramatic denouement. What if, I said to Blake, I wrote a story about traveling the length of the Russian River, from inland to the sea, having adventures all along and incidentally getting into plate tectonics, weather, history, culture and, of course, wines, vines, wineries and winemakers?

Thus “A Journey along the Russian River” was born (and don’t ask me why the scribes at U.C. Press decreed that the word “along” should not be capitalized). It was grand writing that book, but it was a lot of work. I spent a year traveling the river, getting up there from Oakland every chance I could, and I did work my way from the Mendocino County line all the way out to Jenner. (I ultimately decided not to include the Mendocino part of the river in the book.) I vividly recall my final visit. It was the first time I’d been to the exact spot where the river meets the Pacific. You have to hike in to get there.  It’s literally a spit of sand, about a foot above the water. As you stand looking northwest, the river is to your right, the ocean to the left. Where the two commingle is a ferocious swirl of water, white-capped and filled with eddies; here, freshwater meets salt. The ecosystem is fantastically rich, and thousands of sea birds hunt there for food. I was exultant, thinking, “Here is not only the end of the Russian River, but the end of America, and the end of my book, as well.” It turned out to be nearly the end of me. A rogue wave suddenly came out of nowhere, easily my height, and washed over me, almost making me lose my footing and sweeping me out to sea. People along the North Coast get killed by these waves on a reguar basis. Scared witless and soaking wet, I hightailed it out of there.

The book finally was published in 2005. U.C. Press takes a lot of time editing their books in-house. They are determined that their publications be not only perfectly correct in terms of grammar and punctuation, but factually. The U.C. geology professors had to double-check my geology assertions, and they had lots of questions. My book was the first ever to posit a theory for the creation of the Russian River. I persuaded Karen MacNeil and Anthony Dias Blue to write puffy little things for the back cover. The book came out as my mom lay dying in the hospital. She’d been so proud that sonny boy had a book contract, and from a prestigious university press, at that. I showed it to her days before she passed. My cousin, Maxine, read her verses from it. I’m glad she got to see it.

I still love that book. I always describe it as “the terroir of Steve.” It’s pure me in style. U.C. Press recently republished it, with a new Intro I wrote. I hope you’ll check it out.


Miles and me

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I’m about a third of my way through Rex Pickett’s new book, Vertical, the followup to Sideways. It’s a fun read, frolicksome, raucous and ribald, with Jack and Miles drinking their way once again across wine country, and getting into their usual predicaments.

Knowing Rex just a little, and having heard his personal story, I’m struck by the way his own life is reflected in the pages of Vertical. There are repeated references to things that happened to Miles in Sideways, but since Miles is Rex (in a manner of speaking), I also find myself wondering what in Vertical actually happened to Rex, as opposed to what fictitiously happened to Miles. This all puts Vertical on a meta level, which increases its complexity and enjoyment.

And then it hit me that nothing happens in a vacuum. We know we’re in an age where wine writing itself is changing–moving away from the dreary old academic top-down voice-of-God approach, and toward a more personal, confessional, intimate and humane kind of writing. People don’t want to hear Suckling asking some cult proprietor what cooper he bought his Tronçais oak barrels from. People want instead some glimpse into the writer’s life, which means the writer’s new task is opening up, not just preaching and declaring “I give this wine 92 points.” This is because people understand that the art and craft of wine writing and criticism isn’t as simple as was once thought. It occurs on, and arises from, every level a human being can experience, and so, if readers are to take the words of a wine writer seriously, they expect to know about all the levels that exist within him. They expect to see, in other words, inside the Black Box, to witness the wheels turning, the moving parts, what really makes the writer tick. The day of the anonymous wine critic, who seals himself off from the public like Greta (“I want to be let alone”) Garbo in her New York days, are over. The public wants wine writers who are transparent, whose lives intersect with theirs. And that means wine writers who are not afraid to reveal their fallibilities, imbecilities and insecurities.

Well, that pretty much describes Miles. Or is it Rex? Neither is a wine critic–yet–but I’m told that, by the end of Vertical, Miles does become a wine critic; and already, in the book’s early pages, he’s pronouncing verdicts on certain Pinot Noirs that might have leaped straight out from the Wine Enthusiast’s Buying Guide. Miles is, therefore, the very modern picture of a wine critic. When you read his words on wine, you are experiencing them on a higher level than merely their objective, definitional meaning. Because you know who Miles is, his words take on additional dimensions. They’re freighted with the knowledge we humans have of each other that cannot be put into words.

In my own writing, I find myself moving toward this new standard. Of course, it’s hard to achieve much in the way of personal writing in a 40 word review, but short reviews are in many respects just an adjunct to the wine writer’s more serious efforts–the way, say, sculpture was for Picasso. In my long-form writing, I find myself striving toward something infinitely more powerful, personal and particular than I used to. I have a story coming up in next February’s issue of Wine Enthusiast, on Winemaker Dives, that illustrates this new style. It was one of the more challenging assignments I ever had, filled with logistical and stylistic speedbumps, but I think the hard work paid off.

Which leads to a big question, one I constantly ask myself: in moving toward this new style, am I abandoning expertise? In tackling a more personal and muscular style, am I undermining my authority as an objective “expert”? Is wine writing, in short, a zero sum game, in which you’re either amusing, or serious, but never both? (As in Heisenbergian mechanics, where you can know the position or velocity of a particle, but not both.)

I don’t think so. At its highest form of expression, wine writing combines the intensely personal with the deeply knowledgeable. That’s what I aspire to. It’s what the age seems to want, as Rex Pickett intuited at least by the time he wrote Sideways. Miles, nor I, may be a hero; anti-hero is more to the point; but we are intensely human, get drunk, do and say stupid things, worry, take things personally, try our best, are idealistic, love great wine, work hard at understanding wine, and when we write, we take everything we’re thinking and feeling and remembering and put it into words, exposing it to all the world; and, in the end, all we can hope is that people like it.

* * *

It was 47 years ago today that President John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas. I cried for him and for the country then, and I will always wonder how things would have been different had that gifted and humane man been allowed to serve out his terms in office.


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