For years the meme has been out there that California wine is getting bigger, badder and bolder—wine on steroids. Some critics decry this, which is their right; but consumers by and large do tend to favor this riper, fruitier style. But why is this happening? Is it really the Parkerization of wine, as many have alleged, or is something else going on?
An answer may be found by turning to another popular beverage: coffee. A recent article by Marcie Hanel in the October 2015 issue of Food & Wine, called “The Coffee Conundrum,” maintains that “today’s coffee [may be] too strong to drink” and quotes a well-known chef, Jonathon Sawyer, that “Coffee is so powerful now [that] you can’t have a triple espresso cortado followed by a pour-over [or else] your heart’s going to explode.” (Blue Bottle is the poster child for this phenomenon.) Marcie herself attests to the “skyrocketing” of coffee’s caffeine content; Chef Jonathon even compares coffee to “weed”, in the sense of its powerful extraction—so much more intense than it used to be.
“Powerful extraction…”. Hmm, that’s exactly the phrase critics of the California style use to disparage wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, not praise them. Let us grant that many of the things we eat, drink and use are more powerful than they used to be: not only wine and pot and coffee, but spirits: The current issue of Food & Wine has an article called “The Secret to a Richer Rum,” as if Rum isn’t rich enough!
Beyond booze, everything else in life seems to be getting plus-sized. Computer chips and all of the associated devices that use them are faster and more powerful than ever; Moore’s law applies to everything these days. Even in film we’ve seen an acceleration of “power” in the sense of more, and more graphic, violence and sexual activity. We see more or less the same thing in politics, where hyperbole and exaggeration have largely replaced reason, and in science, where technology is employed to peer further and deeper into the smallest and largest recesses of the Universe. And of course, with beer, we have the IPAs and the double IPAs, which a friend of mine once described as the beer equivalent of Napa Cabernet.
This penchant for “more” and “greater” obviously comes from the consumer; producers would not create and sell more powerful products if the masses weren’t buying them. When did Americans turn away from subtlety and embrace gigantism? Well, one synonym for “subtlety” could be blandness. Wine didn’t used to taste so good as it does today!
As I look back over the arc of my life, I can’t help but compare the placidity of the 1950s to the chaotic explosions of the 21st century. I can’t pinpoint when this penchant for power started; the advent of psychedelic drugs clearly was an expression of it (if not the cause), because drugs like LSD did “heighten” awareness far above the mundane level. Maybe it was that experience that created a craving for “more is better” among Baby Boomers, a heightened-everything craving which has been passed onto their children, the Millennials. Even heavy metal and thrash rock are more “heightened” versions of the rock and roll of yesteryear.
I offer this line of reasoning, not to justify the current trend towards richer, riper wines, but to explain it. Look at it this way: California wine—the majority of it, anyway—is pretty much on a par with Blue Bottle coffee, Led Zeppelin, IPAs and medical marijuana. That’s not bad company!
I got my Sunday San Francisco Chronicle and, what do you know, there was an entire section on California Wine! Sixteen pages. That’s the most wine coverage I’ve seen in the paper in years. Maybe they got the message—not just from me, but from others, including the Napa Register’s Paul Franson–about how skimpy their wine writing has been. I don’t know, but Sunday’s section was a welcome surprise.
Still no appearance by their supposed new wine writer, Esther Mobley. Maybe she’s getting up to speed. [EDITOR’S NOTE: I’ve since learned that Ms. Mobley had an article on Aug. 15.] There were several articles by local freelance writers; I particularly liked Luke Sykora’s on the drought. But it’s not clear whether this new, expanded coverage will be permanent. Maybe not; on the paper’s website, the wine section is tagged under “California Wine Month,” which is officially this September.
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Meanwhile, as part of my Jackson Family wines job, I’m off to Las Vegas for Darden’s Specialty Restaurant Group conference at the M Resort. (Darden owns everything from Olive Garden to The Capital Grille.) I’ll be doing a seminar on Napa Valley mountain Cabernet Sauvignon “versus” Napa Valley valley floor Cabernet.
I put “versus” into quotation marks, because I don’t see this as a contest. Valley floor used to have a negative connotation (inherited from Europe, I guess, where the best vines are on slopes), but with modern viticultural and enological techniques, valley floor Cab can be quite good. Witness Beckstoffer’s Georges III Vineyard, close by the Conn Creek, in the Rutherford flats.
The two wines I’ll be presenting are Mount Brave, way up (1,600-1,800 feet) on Mount Veeder, which obviously is the mountain wine, and Freemark Abbey Bosché, which is not strictly speaking a “valley floor” wine but is on the Rutherford bench. (I think that one of these days there ought to be “Bench” appellations for Oakville and Rutherford, and possibly Yountville too, but politically, it probably won’t happen.) The main difference between viticulture in the mountains and the floor is that, in the latter, the soils are richer, so growers will often force the vines to struggle by dry-farming them. Growers also can leave more clusters on valley floor vines because the canopies are more extensive and can support more fruit. Of course, up in the mountains, there’s less fog and more sunlight, but as we’ve seen, this is a mixed blessing. The vines up there can bake in a heat wave. Mountain Cabs also tend to be more tannic than floor or benchland wines, so winemakers have to deal with that—typically, by letting the fruit hang longer, and then doing “aerative pumpovers” to expose the juice to more oxygen.
If I can tear myself away from the casinos and the nightclubs, I’ll be reporting from Vegas. Or, maybe not. What happens in Vegas…
I’m tempted to say, pace Justice Stewart, that I can’t define “classic” wine, but I know one when I taste it, except that I can’t say that, either, because it’s not always true. I do know a classic wine when you tell me its name.
You: “Here’s Chateau Lafite-Rothschild.”
Me: “Oh, that’s a classic wine.”
But this gets us into the territory of blind tasting, and I’m tired of writing about that (I will again, but not now). However, this notion of “classic wines” is endlessly fascinating, because it involves, not just wine, tasting and judgment, but linguistic processes which, as a Stanford professor points out, “are pervasive in most fundamental domains of thought, unconsciously shaping us from the nuts and bolts of cognition and perception to our loftiest abstract notions…”.
This means, in brief, that the way we describe things—to ourselves and to others—shapes how we perceive them. This shouldn’t be surprising, in a post-Heisenberg world. But it would not have surprised our grandmothers, either, who understood the commonsense validity of “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”
Anyhow, bravo to Wine & Spirits for their Fall 2015 issue, which examines the question of what is a classic wine? It’s a spirited romp through the world of fine wine and, even if we’re no closer to defining “classic wine” at the end, getting there is a hell of a lot of fun.
One of the articles, by Luke Sykora, seeks to determine what are the classics of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Few surprises there from the past: For the 1960s and 1970s, Luke lists five: Charles Krug Vintage Selection, Beaulieu Georges de Latour, Freemark Abbey Bosché, Robert Mondavi Reserve and Heitz Martha’s Vineyard. (Luke also referenced specific vintages, but I am omitting them for convenience.)
Now, one could, theoretically, add others to the list, but lists, like undergarments, are best kept brief. Luke seems to have been influenced in his selection of yesteryear’s classics by Gerald Asher, who participated in a tasting with him; and certainly there is no living wine writer better equipped to pronounce on Napa Valley Cabernet from that era than Gerald. In him, we see one parameter of defining “classics” that is sometimes overlooked: authority, which means that the situation has been codified by some person or panel of the utmost esteem. (Indeed, the 1855 Classification itself possessed authority only because its drafters were so respected.) In other words, if Gerald says that these five Cabs are classic (and this statement is in accord with our general understanding), then we are inclined to agree.
So much for the 1960s and 1970s. We now move forward to today. What are the new classics? To answer this, Luke’s group, which included Gerald, tasted a dozen wines from the 2012 vintage. Luke didn’t identify the complete lineup, but listed three that “seemed destined to show life and typicity in 20 to 30 years’ time,” meaning that ageworthiness is one of the qualities Luke’s group associates with a classic Cab. The chosen three wines were Dominus, Spottswoode and Robert Mondavi Tokalon Reserve.
So we have implicitly implicated three qualities that constitute the definition of “classic”: authority, typicity and ageworthiness. All are big, weighty, dense but, as we shall see, problematic constructs. Authority presupposes a writer/critic of longstanding reputation, a person of good will and trustworthiness, whose intellectual capacities cannot be doubted. We always have had such individuals: Thomas Jefferson, André Simon, Professor Saintsbury, Michael Broadbent, Hugh Johnson. In more modern times we move to more controversial choices, Robert Parker being the obvious candidate; but everything in our morally discombobulated world these days is controversial. If we continue the arc of time into the future, things seem destined to grow more and more controversial, meaning that we may (sooner than we think) run out of authority figures, which will call into question the notion of “authority” itself. If there are no authority figures, who will tell us what wines are classic?
But wait, there’s more: the second quality that defined “classic” was typicity. But here, too, we are in profoundly murky waters. “Typicity” as we’ve known it is melting faster than the Arctic icecaps. In Burgundy and Chablis, typicity almost no longer exists, as producers do things their grandfathers would have found appalling. Global warming also undoes typicity. Besides, who—in this welter of controversial topics—is to decide what is “typical” and what is “atypical” anyway? And if something happens to be “atypical” who’s to say it’s not the “new typical”? You see how complicated this can be.
And then there’s the third thing that underlies classic wine: ageworthiness. But if we’re prepared to accept Luke’s contention that ageworthiness can only be determined after “20 to 30 years,” then we may not be able to arrive at a conclusion about which Napa Cabs are classic today until the year 2035, at least. This is not a very satisfactory solution for those of us who want to know now. Nor will it take into account those wineries that (a) do not exist today, or (b) are not part of the tastings by which we will determine ageworthiness, since such tastings always have an arbitrariness to the selection process.
What are we to do? My answer is to do away with the notion of “classic” wines. “Classic” is a word. As the Stanford professor warned, language “unconsciously shap[es] us from the nuts and bolts of cognition and perception to our loftiest abstract notions.” Surely defining “classic” wines is a lofty abstract notion, but it’s also a fundamentally unfair one that skews our perceptions into outright bias against other wines that are not so deemed.
Besides, what of Pinot Noir? We have no such comparable historical examples of it in California, the way we do with Cabernet Sauvignon. During Gerald Asher’s 1960s and 1970s, who were the equivalent names in Pinot Noir to Charles Krug and Beaulieu? There were none, even though some wineries (including Beaulieu) had tinkered with Pinot. Therefore, there are no “classic” Pinot Noirs from the 1960s and 1970s. What, then, would be considered “classic” Pinot Noir today? Bold is the critic who would dare to declaim that list. Should Rochioli and Williams Selyem be on it due to their historical placement? The early bird doth not necessarily a classic wine make. Is Sanford, which has undergone more transformations than Caitlyn Jenner, classic? I will not even mention Chalone. The problem is that there are so many great Pinot houses, with seemingly more popping up all the time, that to attempt to construct a list of “classics” is sheer folly, even if it makes for entertaining journalism.
So let’s be done with this notion of “classic” wines. It’s one more yoke of the past we can safely jettison.
In California, we don’t get the extremes of weather that Europe does, but still, our vintages vary considerably from each other. You just have to know how to read the subtleties. Four years ago, 2011 was “the year summer never came,” and many of the wines have a lean, green streak, if not actual botrytis. Still, the best wineries successfully negotiated the challenge.
Yesterday we tasted a Ridge 2011 Monte Bello. It did indeed have a streak of mint and dried herbs, but it was clearly a wonderful wine, an ager, and the star of our Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet tasting. If I were rating it, it would score an easy 94-95 points, and earn a Cellar Selection designation. The Monte Bello terroir is fabulous (if you know Ridge’s history, have done verticals and visited the property, you already know that), but, perhaps more important has been the quality level of Ridge’s viticulture. I’ve never seen a crush at Ridge, but I imagine (and the evidence of the wine supports it) that they have perfectionist practices, including an active sorting table.
Unfortunately, in our tasting were some pretty flawed wines. I’m not in the reviewing business, so I won’t identify them. But a couple were severely afflicted with brettanomyces, so stinky it was like Steph Curry’s armpit that had not been washed for several days. (Eeew.) I attribute this to well-intentioned but impoverished winemakers who can’t afford to completely sanitize their wineries.
Others were okay wines, perfectly drinkable; someone noted of one of them that, were he served it at a restaurant, he would happily have drank it. But nothing special. It’s hard to explain to someone what the difference is between a superb wine, like the Ridge, and an okay wine whose grapes may have been grown right next door to it, but just doesn’t have the razzle-dazzle.
This Santa Cruz Mountains appellation is an interesting one. It’s one of the biggest in California, a whopping 408,000 acres, but contains only about 40 wineries, most of them very small. The reason, I think, is because suburbanization claimed most of the available vineyard sites, and the rest is too rugged and mountainous for cultivation. I always like to tell people about the old Woodside Vineyards La Questa Cabernets, originally planted in 1884; that wine was said to be the finest in all of California in the early 20th century, and the vineyard still exists in the little (and ultra-expensive) town of Woodside. Had that region developed an intensive wine industry, the way Napa Valley did, the Santa Cruz Mountains (or perhaps a Woodside A.V.A.) would be as famous today as Napa Valley. But things didn’t turn out that way. (The appellation also grows very fine Pinot Noir. The latter tends to be on west-facing vineyards on the cooler side of the mountains; the Cabs are on east-facing sites overlooking Silicon Valley and San Francisco Bay.)
Someone at the tasting brought up the subject of how Santa Cruz Mountains Cabs differ from Napa Valley’s. Well, the most obvious distinction is alcohol levels: they’re quite low in the former. (The Ridge was only 12.8%, and if I’m not mistaken, Ridge has never had a Monte Bello in excess of 14%.) This is in part due to Napa Valley’s warmer climate, but also because Santa Cruz Mountains winemakers have resisted the pressure to emulate Napa Valley.
When you make lower-alcohol Cabs, any faults in the wine are more apparent than they would be at, say, 14.5% or higher. Alcohol covers a multitude of sins. Brett shows up more clearly; so do greenness and tannins; and those wines can’t handle as much new oak as Napa’s. There were a couple wines in our tasting where the oak just stood out like a sore thumb. I honestly will never understand how some people think you can take a more delicate wine and make it get a higher score by drenching it with oak. I suppose some critics will fall for that, but not the better ones.
This 2015 vintage is looking good so far. It’s a drought vintage, but that’s not necessarily harmful to quality. Spring has been cool, until this heat wave that’s striking today; but the heat will be short-lived, and is less damaging at this point in the vines’ lives than it would be towards harvest. Everyone is raving about the 2013s. The 2014s seem fine too. With 2015, we might be in for a three-fer. But it’s too soon to tell. Right now, all that the growers are hoping for is rain next winter—a good, long, drenching El Nino. And that’s exactly what we might get.
I don’t know what made me remember the old Chateau Woltner wines. The memory just popped into my head—who knows how these things work, or why. The winery had been started by an heir to the Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion dynasty. I don’t recall the details—here’s the Wikipedia entry that says after La Mission was sold, the owning family went their separate ways. Thus it was that Francis and Françoise DeWavrin took their share of the proceeds and moved onto something else. In this case, Napa Valley. They bought some land in 1980 on the lower slopes of Howell Mountain, above the Silverado Trail, and planted—not Cabernet, as you’d expect, but Chardonnay!
Even then, in the mid-1990s, this was a shocking thing to do. Napa Valley Chardonnay hadn’t yet acquired the reputation (unjust, in many cases) for being dull, but even so, Napa hadn’t been perceived as prime Chardonnay terroir for many years; and in any case, Howell Mountain was known to be superior Cabernet county. (Randy Dunn had seen to that!) So it was that, with pleasure and some curiosity, I accepted an invitation by the DeWavrins to visit their property.
The house and grounds had seen grander days. The DeWavrins themselves could not have been nicer. The Chardonnays? Well, to call them “minerally” would be an understatement. They were clean and elegant, yet hard in briny wet stone and metallic minerals. In other words, not the lush, fruity Chards California was known for.
Eventually the DeWavrins gave up their quest; I suppose the wines simply didn’t sell well. Today, I doubt there’s much Chardonnay remaining on Howell Mountain. The action has moved closer to the coast. Howell now is a hotbed of Cabernet and other Bordeaux varieties.
The lesson I glean from this is how hard it is to march against the popular drumbeat and try to grow varieties in places where tastemakers think they don’t belong. Critics seemed to resent those Woltner Chardonnays even before they tried them. Too expensive! Why is he growing them on Howell Mountain instead of someplace else? I suppose Francis DeWavrin had a bit of the contrarian in him—he certainly had some well-pronounced marketing genes and believed that he could develop a niche product. And then there was the Frenchman in him. When it came to world Chardonnay, his eye turned, not to Carneros or the Russian River Valley, but to Chablis.
If he were still making that wine today, I bet there would be sommeliers celebrating it as “Chablisian” and far more terroir-influenced than most other California Chardonnays, which so many somms say are overripe and flabby. This is a perfectly legitimate attitude, but it does tend to reinforce the tendency of California growing regions to become monocultures. Napa Valley once had, not just a lot of Chardonnay but a lot of Pinot Noir too, and it wasn’t bad stuff. But the critics of the 1970s and 1980s didn’t like it and badmouthed it, which meant proprietors couldn’t sell it, so they budded their vines over to the Cabernets, Sauvignon and Franc, or Merlot, or Petit Verdot, and that was that. A similar fate awaited Napa Valley Sangiovese, Semillon and other varieties that made honest, straightforward wines that consumers wouldn’t buy, because, after all, if it says Napa Valley on the label, it should be Cabernet Sauvignon, right? In fact, by 1990, it had become politically incorrect (from a varietal point of view) to grow much else in Napa Valley besides Bordeaux grapes.
Have a great weekend!
I had coffee yesterday with a winemaker from Napa Valley who works for a high-end winery: triple-digit Cabernet and all that. We were taking about marketing, when she said something about Napa wineries that intrigued me enough to write it down: “Do you want to sell wine,” she asked, “or do you want to be ultra-exclusive?”
Great question, especially in the context of Napa Valley Cabernet. She was referring to all these Cabs that cost an arm and a leg. In our conversation, we mentioned specific wineries, which I will not. What she meant, of course, is that these wineries seem to have a choice: they can get out there and market (in all its multi-faceted dimensions), or they can rest on their laurels and assume that their wines will be in demand for a long time to come.
Wineries that choose the latter—on the assumption that their cult status, high critical scores and in-demand waiting lists will always provide them with more customers than they can supply—somehow seem to think that marketing is a dirty word. There’s something grubby about it, they feel. Only pedestrian little wineries have to actually sell themselves; a great, grand winery does not. Does the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti have to get out there and hustle? Of course not, or so the argument goes.
Well, I don’t know if Romanée-Conti has to market or not, but I would think so. Wilson-Daniels, who distributes them in the U.S., used to invite me up to their St. Helena chateau once a year, along with a few other writers and critics, to taste through the entire range of seven new DRC releases of the vintage (La Tache, Romanée-St-Vivant, Romanée-Conti, Richebourg, Echézeaux, Grands-Echézeaux and Montrachet). It was terrific fun, but I think you’d have to view that as marketing, although I don’t know if Wilson-Daniels does it anymore. Anyhow, the lesson for me was “Even the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti has to market.”
And yet, quite a few Napa Cabernet houses don’t seem to think that they do. The apparently feel that what has worked for them in the past will work for them into the future. Marketing would dull the perception of exclusivity that they currently benefit from, and their fear is that, once a super-expensive wine is no longer perceived as exclusive, it may no longer be in demand from wealthy customers who don’t want to drink what everyone else is.
The thing to consider here is inventory. Now, you and I will never know how many unsold cases of (fill-in-the-blank winery) are piling up in some temperature-controlled warehouse. It may very well be that the winery everybody thinks is selling out every vintage actually has back vintages piled up to the ceiling. (This would be one of the winery’s closest-held secrets.) But I think this is the case far more than you’d think, and certainly, one hears rumors to that effect. Of course, a rumor is just that, but like they say, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
When there were only a handful of Napa Valley Cabs that cost $100 or more, this was not a problem. But nowadays there are scores of them. I’ve long believed that it’s impossible for all of them to be selling everything, every year. There just aren’t enough people out there to buy it all up, even when you roll in China. Thing is, many of these proprietors are so wealthy that they’re not really concerned about selling everything. They can afford to sit on inventory for a long time, and besides, the wine may actually be getting more valuable as it ages. I knew someone who once bought out the entire production of a well-known Napa Valley Reserve Cabernet for an entire vintage, and then warehoused for resale it for ten years. They made a lot of money on that one.
Lest you think I’m suggesting that fostering the perception of exclusivity is somehow tainted or wrong, rest assured I am not. Rarity and desirability are integral to marketing anything, be it artwork, writing pens or wines. More than two thousand years ago, certain Roman and Greek vintners figured out how to do it (where do you think the concept of “the Comet vintage” came from?). The Bordelais proved masterful at it four hundred and more years ago, and they’re still pretty good at it. All that the Napans have done is to learn at the feet of the masters.
Bordeaux is Bordeaux; it probably will never go out of demand, even though that demand waxes and wanes throughout the centuries. But one cannot say the same of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, or so it seems to me. It has certainly solidified its hold on the imagination of wine lovers, but Napa does suffer from certain potential problems: it’s under attack from the low-alcohol crowd, prices are ridiculous, competition from elsewhere (including Bordeaux) is increasing, and younger consumers don’t seem to have the infatuation with Napa that their parents had. These things aren’t deal-killers, quite yet. But any one of them could prove hurtful to Napa, and a combination of them all might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.