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Alexander Valley and Napa Valley Cabernet: A study in contrasts

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I’m going to be doing an event soon on Alexander Valley and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and the differences between them. This is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. As a working critic for many years, I of course had the opportunity to taste many if not most of the Cabs from both those regions, over many vintages, and so I formed a picture in my mind of their differences.

I keep in mind that Napa Valley is one mountain range further inland than Alexander Valley, so it’s a bit warmer and drier. (Of course, it needs to be said that Napa is incredibly more complicated than Alexander Valley, terroir-wise. The west-facing slopes of the Vacas in Oakville, at Dalla Valle for instance, are much warmer than, say, conditions at Dominus.) You’d expect Napa Cabernet to be a little riper than Alexander Valley Cab, and that has in fact been my experience. I’ve always thought of Alexander Valley Cab as slightly more herbaceous than Napa Cab. There’s frequently an edge of tobacco, or sage, or green olive in Alexander Valley Cab that frankly makes the wines more Bordeaux-like.

In Napa, too, the tendency to let Cabs get ultra-ripe, in the modern Parker style, is also much more pronounced than in Alexander Valley. This is primarily for economic reasons; wineries that have gotten very high Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast scores naturally are reluctant to change their house style, and those high scores are generally a reflection of their wines’ opulence. I don’t feel bad at all for whatever I contributed to encouraging that style, despite the fact that it’s come under some assault lately. I like a big, rich, dramatic, powerful Napa Cabernet.

But Alexander Valley wineries never felt the same pressure to mimic that Napa style. I suppose some tried to get their grapes ultra-ripe, but it really doesn’t work in Alexander Valley. The best growers realized they had to do more to achieve success than simply copy Napa. Even if they wanted to, Alexander Valley’s cooler climate would have made it more difficult.

I keep in mind, too, that when we speak of “Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon,” we’re really talking about Cabs from the foothills, slopes and mountains of the eastern side of the valley, which is the western side of the Mayacamas Mountains. (It’s silly to have to call them “Alexander Valley,” but until there’s some new A.V.A., that’s all we have.) There’s a lot of Cab planted down on the valley floor, mainly along Route 128, but the best Cabs have some elevation—and in some cases, quite a bit of elevation. Being 800 feet or 1,400 feet up in those mountains creates vastly different terroir conditions from lower down on the valley floor. The temperature is cooler during the daytime, but warmer at night due to an inversion layer, and the vines are generally above the fog, even on the foggiest days when the valley floor is smothered in the white stuff. There’s also more intense solar radiation up on those mountains, and while I’m not an expert in precisely how that affects the grapes, I think it tends to make the fruit more intense.

The fruit also is more intense up on those mountains because the soil is really sparse. Not much grows up on those west-facing slopes of the Mayacamas except madrone and other drought-resistant flora. The native grasses and herbs pretty much dry out and turn golden during our summers, and you can sometimes find those dried herb touches in the Cabs. This too helps to make Alexander Valley Cabernet distinctive.

Then there’s the tannins. They’re dustier, sometimes a little grittier or greener in Alexander Valley than in Napa, particularly in a cool year. Overall, Alexander Valley Cabs tend to be drier, more elegantly structured and more ageable than Napa Valley Cabs, which are more dramatic and flashy. Having said all this, it can be hard to pick out Alexander versus Napa in a blind tasting, even for an experienced taster. I don’t think it would be hard to tell a Colgin from a Jordan, because they’re made in such different styles. But a 2008 Lancaster from a 2008 St. Supery? Not so easy.

I do think this is a good time for Alexander Valley Cabernet to shine. It’s been a little lost in the glare of Napa Valley, as have all of California’s other Cabernet regions (Paso Robles in particular). But we’re in new times, when new consumers are more open to exploration and discovery. And Alexander Valley Cabernet is better than it has ever been. Lots of restaurants feel they have to have Napa Cab on their wine lists because their well-heeled customers expect it, and that’s totally understandable. But if I were a somm, I’d be looking at Alexander Valley mountain Cabernet. It’s a story waiting to be told, and worth the telling.


How wine can be as cool as beer and cocktails

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It’s certainly true, as Robert Parker pointed out in his recent interview in The Drinks Business, that high wine prices are “a problem and a concern” and that they are creating “a caste system” in which “the younger generation” cannot afford top wines from regions such as “Burgundy, or Bordeaux, or from California.”

But there’s nothing really new about this situation. It’s been so forever. In fact prices for Bordeaux today, adjusted for inflation, are no higher than they were 100 years ago. What is interesting, to me, is the complex psychological contortions by which consumers (and some critics as well) arrive at the conclusion that price is a determinant of quality.

Long ago, vintners understood that the public suffers from this misapprehension. According to Edmund Penning-Rowell, who wrote what is still, to my mind, the most authoritative book on Bordeaux (“The Wines of Bordeaux,” 1969), Baron Phillippe’s [de Rothschild] intense conviction [was] that Mouton-Rothschild was as good as any first growth, and for his money better than most. The only way that this [i.e. rise in its perception by the market] could be achieved was by asking a price as high as any first growth and if possible higher than all.” As Penning-Rowsell later makes clear, the Baron “was able to do this successfully.”

Baron Rothschild, of course, also was the partner of Robert Mondavi in establishing Opus One, which, at the time of its launch (the first vintage was 1979), was the most expensive Californian wine.”

This strongly suggest that Mondavi learned his lesson in pricing from his friend. And we know, from personal experience, how many wineries, faced with tough sales, raised their prices, only to find demand radically increased.

Nowadays, the price of Opus One (about $240 for the 2011) pales in comparison to that of Screaming Eagle ($2,400 for the 2012 in the aftermarket). If your mind works the way most peoples’ minds work (including mine), it can be hard not to be impressed by that kind of price. A rational part of you thinks, “If it costs that much, and knowledgeable people are willing to buy it, then it must be one of the most fabulous wines in the world.” And, of course, these very famous and rare wines always are fabulous. But their prices bear no relationship to their quality, with respect to similar wines from similar appellations. This is why seasoned wine critics taste blind.

Back to Parker. He knows as well as anyone that the Bordeaux, Burgundies and Californians he helped push to astronomical heights can be very difficult to suss out in blind tastings. Why some people continue to buy them is, in fact, a matter for behavioral and cognitive scientists, not wine critics. As for the “younger generation,” I’m not so worried about them. They couldn’t afford Bordeaux First Growths in 1929, when Latour et. al cost nearly three times the price of Gruaud-Larose and Langoa, and they can’t afford it now.

Is price, as Bob speculates, “one reason why such people are turning to drinks other than wine.” ? It could well be, although good craft beer cannot be described as cheap. As I, and many other, observers have noted lately, beer and spirits seem to have the wind at their sails in a way wine at the moment does not, at least in our urban centers. Another question: Has this trend been created and fostered by the media, or did the media simply pick up on something that was already occurring on the street? As usual, it’s a little of both. What craft beer and cocktails have done—which wine has not—is to rise to the level of being cool. All those tattooed young mixologists, those hip brewmeisters, the trendy bars that have popped up from the Mission to Soho—they are the modern face of beer and spirits. What is wine’s modern face? As far as I can tell, it’s a young woman who opts for Pinot Gris on a date, your grandfather, or a somm.

I don’t overly fret about wine’s future because these trends come and go. Wine has been the most successful alcoholic beverage of all time for a very good reason; and what has worked for humans for thousands of years is likely to work for them for thousands more. Nor is wine in any particular financial trouble in the U.S. But it has lost a certain frisson of coolness, or at least the perception, the optics of frisson. In reality, wine is as cool as anything: winemakers themselves are as cool as any dashing mixologist, if not as visible.

But beer, in particular, is on a roll. In Britain, the brew industry is sponsoring a “There’s a beer for that” advertising campaign, crafted by the wildly successful filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes), that was launched on Downton Abbey, and also is huge on Twitter and other social media.

If the industry is to lure the under-35 crowd away from beer and spirits to wine, it has to find ways to speak to them in their own language, on their own turf. This involves an accurate and fearless study of how beer and spirits are actually succeeding. One could do worse, as an academic enterprise, to hang out in a Valencia Street bar and study who’s drinking what. I volunteer for this vital work in the field, as the Margaret Mead of the cocktail lounge.


Is liking IPAs really as uncool as liking California Cabernet?

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I like beer, but didn’t have much of a chance to enjoy it when I was tasting and reviewing wine. Popping the corks on at least 15 different bottles a day, and then sitting there thinking and writing about them, took so much effort that I had little time or energy left over for any other kind of alcoholic beverage.

All that changed fairly dramatically a year ago, when I took my new job at Jackson Family Wines. Suddenly, I didn’t have to taste a gazillion wines anymore. (Not that I’d minded it—I loved, and still love, reviewing wine.) All the samples that had flooded my doorstep for so many years abruptly ceased.

Well, not 100%. Although Wine Enthusiast, and I personally, did our best to notify California wineries that I wasn’t working there anymore, wine still comes to me with some regularity. I always send it back, of course, but if you’re a California winery, and reading this, please take note: I DON’T WORK AT WINE ENTHUSIAST ANYMORE!

Anyhow, shortly after I started the new gig, I decided to get back into beer. Nowadays, you’ll always find a few bottles chilling in my fridge. Starting at 5 p.m.—Happy Hour, yay!–I like to have some in a frosty mug I keep in the freezer.

What kind of beer? It can be anything, but it’s often an India Pale Ale. I don’t claim to know much about beer, except that I like it (hey, if all there is on a hot summer afternoon is Bud Lite, count me in!). But I do know that I like that big, hoppy IPA style, which I also recognize as the California Cabernet Sauvignon-equivalent of beer: full-bodied, rich and heady.

This article, which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle’s Inside Scoop online portal, gives a nice summary of where beer trends are at here in the Bay Area. The author is Jon Bonné, who recently announced that he’s stepping down from his fulltime gig as wine editor of the paper, although he’ll continue a monthly column of some sort. Now Jon, as we all know, made his bones by coming out against the prevailing style of California wine, which is ripe, sunshiney power. Jon favors the In Pursuit of Balance style of lower alcohol wines that many in the IPOB crowd consider more classic and elegant than your typical Napa Valley Cab or, for that matter, Pinots that are riper than—oh, I don’t know, let’s say 13.8%. So I didn’t find it surprising that, in his article, Jon came out against “the hoppy amping-up of American craft beers” as evidenced by “the style that defines most IPAs…”. In fact—just to make sure that we readers understand that hoppy IPAs and big Cabernets are crimes against their respective beverage groups—the craftsmen who produce them, according to Jon, are profiting from a “follow-the-money argument,” which means, presumably, that the producers Jon doesn’t care for are venal.

Well, I’ll let those producers make their own rebuttals. Here’s Jon’s: “The arms race of oak, extraction and jammy flavors, which proved successful for a previous generation of Cabernet makers, is a direct parallel to the hoppy amping-up of American craft beers.” Both drinks are “flavor bombs”; neither is part of the “avant-garde” which Jon so assiduously courts.

I should think Jon might have modified his views following his recent visit to Paris—his beloved France, source of “balanced” wines, and original home of the avant-grade—where he discovered, evidently to his dismay, that “the French craft brewing renaissance is currently populated by hopheads, and obsessed with IPAs…”. I guess forty million Frenchmen can be wrong.

But the real point is that Jon has not served the California wine industry well. He dismissed a large part of its best wines, in many cases refusing even to review them in the Chronicle despite being sent tasting samples, and thus distorting reality to his readers. This has disturbed many California winemakers, who were afraid to criticize Jon publicly for fear of retribution. My own position has been consistent: It’s unprofessional for a wine critic to throw so many wines produced in his own home region under the bus by refusing to even taste them. It’s a fundamental axiom in wine criticism that you don’t have to like a wine in order to review it fairly. You review it within the context of what it purports to be. For example, I might not like Sherry (in fact, I do), but even if I didn’t, I’d feel honor-bound to recognize what a good sherry is, and then to give good sherries good scores.

Jon never gave so many California wines the chance to just be what they are, simply because of a number—alcohol percentage by volume. Instead, he trashed these wines with epithets like “fruit bombs” and “male swagger.” Such snarkiness may have made him a hero to IPOB, but not to many of our state’s winemakers, who might be forgiven for being happy now that he’s gone. Personally, maybe I can finally get into the cool kids’ avant-garde club even though I like Napa Cab and IPAs!


Crowdfunding your Napa Valley Cab: is it tacky, or smart?

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Nothing illustrates the entrepreneurial challenge of a cult Napa Cab staying relevant than Yao Ming’s turning to crowdfunding for his winery’s financial needs.

When his wines hit the market, I was as excited as anyone. I gave the 2009 Family Reserve 97 points—the highest of any critic I’ve yet seen (although only by a hair). It was a big, big score for stingy old me—and the next year, I was even more generous, with 98 points for the 2010. The wines were glorious examples of modern Napa Valley Cabernet, but the prices were absurd: $625 the bottle for both vintages. I figured Yao Ming figured he had a lock on the wealthy Chinese market, at a time when it was seemingly willing to spend anything on great wine, so why not go for the gold? After all, he was one of the biggest Chinese-American superstars of the decade, maybe ever.

Now here we are five years later, when the Wall Street Journal is reporting that “As China’s luxury wine market cools,” Mr. Yao is being forced to change his business model. With Beijing’s anti-corruption campaign sapping demand for expensive wines,” the paper says, “Yao Family Wines is shifting its focus from Chinese banquet tables to US steak houses.”

Wow. That’s quite a radical change in business model. Do you think that $625 retail bottle price can survive the transition to steak houses? I don’t. Who’s going to pay $1,000 for a bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon to drink with the rib eye and baked potato? Perhaps the wine Yao Ming is aiming at American steakhouses is their second-label Napa Crest brand that retails for $48. It’s a solid wine: I gave the 2010 91 points, and my successor in Napa Valley reviewing, Virginie Boone, gave the 2011 90 points. But I think they’re talking about the Yao Family Cab. Whatever the case, the crowdfunding suggests that Mr. Yao is having some difficulties earning enough money to keep his business going through sales alone and is turning to this new, promising but largely unexplored area of crowdfunding to raise money from the masses.

Is there any shame about crowdfunding? I’m undecided. It may well be a wave of the future type thing. After all, we think nothing of a startup Silicon Valley firm taking venture capital from wealthy angels; in fact, it’s a source of pride that a smart, rich investor would think highly enough of a company’s prospects to put her money into it. I suppose that crowdfunding, of the sort Mr. Yao is engaging in (“as little as $US5,000 per person,” the Wall Street Journal says), is simply venture capital for the hoi polloi.

Still, it does make one wonder. What would we think if, say, Screaming Eagle, Araujo, Harlan, Bryant Family or Colgin announced they were crowdfunding? I think there would be a lot of raised eyebrows, and even, perhaps, some upset people on their mailing lists, who might feel that turning the reins over to “the crowd” was impinging on their notion of exclusivity.

Perhaps this is the way to expand an empire that’s already flourishing and can flourish even more. Yao Ming says he wants the money to (in the Wall Street Journal’s reporting) “build a visitor center in Napa Valley and a tasting room in Shanghai.” Given the current blowback from wine country residents against new tourist facilities, Mr. Yao may have some ‘splainin’ to do in Napa Valley. But I suspect that hundreds, if not thousands, of people will want to send him their money, to be connected with his brand, to get whatever perks or discounts they’re entitled to on the wines, and to just have the feeling that you don’t need to be a multi-gazillionaire to have a little bit of ownership in a Napa Valley winery.


Aging Cabernet Sauvignon

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When I was a wine critic, I used to say that nobody really knows how these opulent Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons will age, because the world had never seen wines quite like them (in ripeness, in fruity phenolic richness, in tannic quality, in alcohol level, in softness), and so there was no evidence upon which to base any conclusions.

Granted, I played the prediction game—when you’re a wine critic, you have to, especially with Cabernet Sauvignon. But I was never terribly comfortable saying that such-and-such a wine would be better fifteen or twenty years down the road, and so, by the early 2000s, I began shortening my window of ageability. Instead of advising (as some other critics did) to hold that Cab until 2027 or some equally far-off date in the future, I became considerably more guarded; my window tightened to maybe eight years or a little bit longer. This wasn’t just because of some intellectual hedging of bets; it was also because of my own experiences in pulling older Cabs from my cellar and finding that they hadn’t age well.

So it was pleasing to read the comment of Michael Weis, Groth’s winemaker since 1994, that “We don’t know how these wines will age.” That’s a frank statement and Weis is to be commended. It was in an article by Laurie Daniel, of the San Jose Mercury News, whose experiences apparently match mine, for she wrote: “I’ve found that some of the riper Napa Cabs from other producers start to fade after just a few years.”

We’ll never conclusively resolve this question of “To age or not to age,” but a little objectivity is helpful. The concept of aging wine, especially in Bordeaux, arose because until fairly recently viticulture and enology were simply not advanced enough to tame the tannins that Cabernet Sauvignon (and other red Bordeaux variety) grapes can imbue in the wines. Through time and experimentation, people discovered that aging the wines in a proper cellar—cool, damp and dark—allowed the tannins to precipitate out, as sediment, which is why the modern wine bottle evolved to include the “punt” at the bottom.

Well, aging Bordeaux or Cabernet Sauvignon became an idée fixe in the minds, first, of tastemakers (merchants, writers, collectors) and from them it migrated into the minds of the average consumer. I’ve always thought it remarkable and odd how many strange conceptions the average wine drinker has about aging wine. No more than one or two percent of the world’s wines ever “need” aging to begin with (whatever “need” means), but I’d wager that most people think that any wine will improve if you age it.

With these big, lush and luscious Cabernets that California is now making, we really have to abandon the pretense that Cab needs age. But wait, there’s more! I’ll go one step further and say we have to abandon the notion that, if a Cab isn’t ageable, it somehow occupies a lower rung on the ladder of nobility. This is a mistake commonly arrived at by a kind of intellectual default: One starts the thinking process with old-fashioned ideas about ageability that are no longer relevant to our times. Then one holds onto those ideas despite the fact that they don’t conform to reality—and winds up blaming the wine for not being ageable in line with one’s conceptions, instead of blaming himself for applying anachronistic thinking to our modern times.

Anyway, welcome to my brain: This is the kind of stuff I think about. Have a great weekend!


Thursday throwaway: Restaurant tipping, and Alexander Valley Cab

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When the restaurant reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle—arguably the most important reviewer in California, and one of the most important in the whole country—comes out and says it’s time to end the practice of tipping, people should listen.

That’s exactly what Michael Bauer did yesterday.

“Increasingly, it’s becoming apparent that it’s time for tips to make a graceful exit.” For the reasons why he’s taking this radical position, Michael cites the fact that it’s happening anyway—Bar Agricole, Trou Normand and Camino, among others, have already done away with tipping. He notes also that this “new tipping paradigm” is “civilized”–no more calculating percentages, no more discomfort or uncertainty—and is “the wave of the future.” Adding an overall service charge, instead of tipping, also ensures that back-of-the-house staff is paid more equitably (at least, one would hope so!).

I’m in favor. I’ve never been comfortable with the concept of tipping, so I won’t miss it. I have two huge problems with tipping: (1) it’s not fair to the kitchen staff, and (2) it implies that servers aren’t professional, which certainly isn’t the case, particularly in a good restaurant. I mean, you don’t tip your doctor or car mechanic; why do we have to tip our servers?

Nor have I ever particularly subscribed to the notion that tipping is good because you can tip higher for great service and lower (or not at all) for lousy service. The truth is, 99% of all restaurant service seems pretty good to me. Maybe it’s because I live in the very professional, restaurant-conscious Bay Area. Maybe it’s because I’m not a fussy, demanding diner; I don’t expect everything to be perfect. In fact, on occasion when I’ve dined at  restaurants like French Laundry or the old 231 Ellsworth in San Mateo, I’ve sometimes been uncomfortable with the service because it’s so self-consciously perfect that it makes me self-conscious! (Thanks, but I can put my own napkin in my lap!) So I rarely have cause to complain about restaurant service, except when I feel like I’ve been forgotten about, and that usually happens in an inexpensive restaurant where I’m there, not for cuisine, but for sustenance.

So let’s see how this “end-of-tipping” thing goes. California is where most trends happen: maybe this will sweep the country.

* * *

I’m interested in what my readers think of Alexander Valley. Here are a couple of my thoughts:

  1. Great Zinfandel, much of it from older vines.
  2. Surprisingly good Chardonnay given the valley’s warm climate. Those old Chateau St. Jean Chards, made by the great winemaker Richard Arrowood from vineyards like Belle Terre, rocked.
  3. Very fine Cabernet Sauvignon. Along these lines, I make a distinction (which may not be as important as it used to be, due to precision farming) between the higher, western slopes of the Mayacamas and the flatlands. Still, Alexander Valley is one mountain range closer to the Pacific than Napa Valley, which makes it cooler. The Cabs as a result are somewhat earthier or more herbaceous, with pleasing tobacco-green olive-sage notes: you can actually taste those things because the Cabs aren’t as fruit-driven as they are in Napa Valley. I think, also, that Alexander Valley Cabs aren’t as high in alcohol as Napa’s, and that they’re more capable of aging. I’m always surprised they’re not more popular with somms.

Care to offer your thoughts, esteemed readers?


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