What are we to make of the winemakers quoted in Karen MacNeil’s latest column in The Somm Journal?
Asked by Karen their views on the word “cult” to describe their wines, the sextet unites in condemning a term they all say they loathe.
Bill Harlan says the word “implies blind followers who lack discernment.” For Doug Shafer, “It’s a manufactured term…I don’t understand what it means.” Dan Kosta calls it “lazy,” Celia Welch “something that simply has investment value,” while Sir Peter Michael dismisses it as “the so-called ‘cult’ status of a wine.” Ann Colgin cracks an uneasy joke: “I was born in Waco, Texas, why is why I’ve always hated the term ‘cult.’” (She refers, of course, to the infamous 1993 siege of the Branch Davidians.)
It may well be that these winemakers and winery owners are made uncomfortable by a term now so widespread that its use instantly telegraphs almost all that an English-speaking wine person needs to know about a “cult” wine: that it is red; that it is probably a Bordeaux-style wine from Napa Valley (Kosta Browne and Peter Michael excepted, but most of them are); that it is produced in small quantities; that it has achieved very high ratings from two, or three, or four top critics; that it is ultra-expensive and—as Ms. Welch implied—that it often is resold (via the Internet and auction houses) to amass sizable profit to the original purchaser. Indeed, as Karen herself, in her article, notes, “now…the term has been stitched into common wine language.”
My sympathies for the sextet, then. “I feel your pain,” as Bill Clinton, using that very phrase, famously said in a figure of speech in 1992 when responding to a critic of his AIDS policy.
So too is there a bit of figurative speaking when the sextet bemoans this most common and useful descriptor of their wines. They mean it, I guess—albeit with qualifications of which they may be unaware. So too there is a bit of disingenuousness. Harlan Estate’s fans may not “lack discernment,” but “blind followers” is a not inaccurate way of describing their lust, which most of us feel is inspired by high scores and the desire to show off, as much as by an appreciation of the wine itself. Dan Kosta’s “lazy” simply affirms that many layers of meaning—all of them accurate—are wrapped up in that single adjective, “cult”; there’s nothing “so-called” about it. As for the “investment value” part, well, that’s why people call it flipping.
The sextet has done well, extraordinarily well, with their wines, but it’s not as if their rare, exalted status happened ipso facto—by itself, with no external causation. The proprietors and their marketing advisors worked exceeding fine to manufacture exactly the desirability that is one of the layers of meaning of the word “cult.” I can speak only of my own personal experience, of course, but consider that:
Ms. Colgin pours her wines by appointment, in the Versailles luxe of her Pritchard Hill mansion. Mr. Harlan similarly tastes by appointment; he once requested that I taste BOND and Harlan Estate in separate places, a few minutes’ drive apart, in order, I suppose, to better appreciate their ambience. Sir Peter has been on endless magazine covers—with the honorific “Sir” conjuring up associations of English royalty and wealth (exactly as it is supposed to, and what is more cultish than the Royal Family of Great Britain?)—while Dan Kosta benefited from his “lazy” characterization to the tune of his share of the $40 million when Kosta Browne was sold, in 2009. So let’s not feel too sorry for these cult wine proprietors.
Look, I love their wines. Used to give ‘em high scores at Wine Enthusiast. I appreciate how hard it is to make them—how much effort goes into every aspect of growing and vinifying. I’m not even particularly bothered by the prices: crazy as they are, the market determines that. And some of these proprietors, the ones I know—perhaps all of them–are wonderful people. I’m just sayin’ that the “woe is me” croc tears aren’t credible. These guys are crying all the way to the bank.
Farallon, the popular seafood restaurant in San Francisco’s Union Square, is having their annual PinotFest taating of Pinot Noir this November 20, and I’m already champing at the bit. Look at this list: Alma Rosa, Archery Summit, Au Bon Climat, Bonaccorsi, Byron, Calera, Charles Heintz, Chehalem, Cobb, Costa de Oro, Domaine de la Côte, Domaine Drouhin, Drake, En Route, Ernest, Etude, Failla, Fiddlehead, Flowers, Foxen, Freeman, Gloria Ferrer, Greenwood Ridge, Handley, Hartford Family, Hendry, Hitching Post, Joseph Phelps, Keller Estate, Kendric, Kosta Browne, LaRue, Littorai, Lutum, Lynmar, Marimar Estate, Melville, Merry Edwards, Morgan, Patz & Hall, Paul Hobbs, Paul Lato, Peay, Radio Coteau, Reuling, Saintsbury, Siduri, Sinor-LaVallee, Soliste, Soter, Talisman, Talley, Tendril, Testarossa, Thomas Fogarty, Twomey, Wayfarer, Whitcraft, WillaKenzie, Williams Selyem.
Wowee zowee. That is Pinot heaven. I might have added some more wineries, but hey, you can’t have everything.
I asked myself, What if I’d been invited to a similar tasting, but of the best California Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux blends instead of Pinot Noir. Would my enthusiasm be as high? And the truth is, I had to answer in the negative. Sure, I’d go to a great Cab tasting—happily, willingly—and I’d have a ball while I was there. But, somehow, my excitement wouldn’t be as great.
Why is that? Well, it’s just me, of course: Maybe you, or someone else, would be more turned on by a Cab tasting than a Pinot tasting. As I scrape my brain trying to understand why the Pinot event is more exciting for me, I keep returning to the word “delicate.” To say that Pinot Noir is a more delicate wine than Cabernet Sauvignon is obvious. Is that what the explanation is? Maybe it’s because I can anticipate tasting through a few dozen Pinots without palate fatigue, as might be the case with Cabernet Sauvignon. The alcohol level tends to be lower in Pinot, the tannins certainly are, and the acidity tends to be a little higher. Pinot Noir is never, or should never be, full-bodied, as Cabernet always should be. Maybe my palate just doesn’t want to do all that heavy lifting anymore.
And maybe part of my excitement is because I’ve been witness to the rise of Pinot Noir in California. What a thrilling ride it’s been! What a privilege to have been here “at the beginning” (well, since the late Seventies, anyway) and been able to see, and participate in, this amazing evolution, from a starting point where everyone—and I do mean all the then-important critics—insisted that fine Pinot Noir was impossible to grow in California. Everybody believed that—except for fanatics like Dick Graff, Richard Sanford, Joe Rochioli, Jr., Josh Jensen, Burt Williams and Ed Selyem (am I missing anyone?), true believers who refused to be deterred from their vision quest. Mazel tov to the Pinot-neers! (I just coined a neologism that deserves to be quickly interred.)
It’s very important for people who want to keep up with the evolution of our wines in California to go to tastings like this. It’s so easy to develop a cellar palate. It’s true that I work for a wine company, Jackson Family Wines, that produces a range of Pinot Noirs from different wineries; but I don’t always get to taste them all, nor do I get to taste any California wines with the breadth and depth I used to, when I was the wine critic at Wine Enthusiast, and the wines came cascading in every day. So I’m very grateful to Farallon for hosting this annual event. I’m assuming that “everybody who’s anybody” in San Francisco is going to be there. I’ll be looking forward to seeing some old friends, and making new ones. But you know what? I’ll also be missing the many faces that aren’t there, because they’ve passed onto that Great Big Tasting Room in the sky.
Well, that’s making me a little weepy, so let me just wish you all a pleasant weekend. I’ll be right here next week.
You all know that I work for Jackson Family Wines. I have so say that upfront, because of what I’m about to write, which is how good and fine a place Sonoma County is for growing Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux varieties in general.
If I were still the California wine critic for Wine Enthusiast magazine and I made that statement, I think people would take it at face value. They might or might not agree, but at least they’d believe that it was my own opinion, unbiased and uninfluenced by personal or venal considerations.
When you work for a winery, though, and you make a statement in praise of their wines and vineyards, people tend to be skeptical. And that’s entirely understandable. Having been on the receiving end of press releases and hype from P.R. types for decades, I would be skeptical, too, if I were you, to hear me say how great Sonoma Cab can be. I accept that risk and that criticism. But I’m going to say it anyway.
What brought this thought process to my mind was this article, from the drinks business, that describes how Verité, a Jackson Family Wines winery in Sonoma County, was the favorite wine in a recent tasting of “50 of London’s leading sommeliers.” The tasting included the esteemed Napa properties, Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle and Scarecrow. My friend Julia Jackson, the daughter of Barbara Banke and the late Jess Jackson, told the drinks business, accurately, “that it’s not necessarily the right decision to go to Napa for cult Cabernet,” and that Sonoma is in “its infancy” when it comes to Cabernet and Bordeaux blends.
Julia alluded to another point, that Napa Valley has achieved its greater fame for Cabernet, even though the history of winemaking in Sonoma is older, because Sonoma doesn’t “have the same marketing resources as Napa.” That is undeniably true. The campaign waged by Napa Valley wineries over the last 40 years, to promote in particular Cabernet Sauvignon, has been relentless, well-financed and highly successful.
This obviously is not to say that Sonoma makes better Cabernet and Bordeaux blends than Napa Valley, or the other way around. It might actually be more accurate to say that northern California has a superb Cabernet zone that sweeps from the west-facing ridges of the Vaca Mountains, across Napa Valley, up and onto the east-facing slopes of the Mayacamas, then extends to the west-facing slopes of the Mayacamas and its associated foothills, which are largely situated in the A.V.A. of Alexander Valley. The political lines of counties were not designed by nature, and are irrelevant from the point of view of terroir.
Napa’s aptitude for marketing was the topic of an opinion piece in yesterday’s Napa Valley Register newspaper that had to do with what the writer calls “extravagant marketing.”
He defines that as “circus acts, jazz concerts, drive-in movies and very expensive wine/food pairing meals on winery grounds…designed to attract tourist dollars.” His point is that this “extravagant marketing” is responsible, to a large degree, for the tourism and associated congestion that many Napa residents (and those in other wine regions) have been complaining about.
Without getting into that thicket, it is reasonable to assert that the investment Napa vintners have made in these “extravagant events” has been responsible, to a large degree, for the worldwide fame Napa has achieved. I’m not putting Napa down for that, or suggesting that it’s in any way improper. Vintners have promoted their wines, and tied them to glamor, since time immemorial; it’s not like the Napans invented marketing!
But we do seem to be living at a time when old stereotypes are being discarded, and one of them, it seems to me—an important one—is that Napa Valley is the go-to place for high-end Bordeaux-style red wines in California. Not true. Alexander Valley, Knights Valley, Chalk Hill, sometimes Dry Creek Valley and Sonoma Valley—they all have their share of wonderful Cabs, usually at a fraction of the price of Napa. I hope that the Millennial bloggers and critics, who say they are entirely willing to topple old clichés, will recognize this truth, and write about it.
I do not suppose there can any longer be even the pretense of justification for critics, or would-be critics, who have negative things to say about the quality of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
That quality is stupendous, and I’m hardly alone of thinking so. After I wrote this post, I got my new (Nov. 15) Wine Spectator in the mail, and saw, in the joint editorial piece by Shanken and Matthews, the headline, “Great Days for California Cabernet.”
Still, the naysayers are out there. As Eric Asimov recently (March, 2015) pointed out, many people “have no use for [Napa Cabernet]. They don’t drink it, which doesn’t stop them from saying they don’t like it.” Eric, on that occasion, begged to differ, which is why he headlined his N.Y. Times article A Return to Classic Napa Style.
Before we go any further, I should point out that, from my experience of tasting Napa Cabernet—many thousands, perhaps tens of thousands over the last 25 years, but who’s counting?—the style has not really changed over time. Napa always has been about ripeness, powerful fruitiness, oakiness and decadence—what Gavin Newsom the other day described, in these pages, as “smash-mouth.” If anything, Napa Cab has gotten “smashier.” But at it’s best, it’s balanced and harmonious.
I make these prefacing remarks in my reviews of three new Napa Cabs because we are dealing, not only with a continuity of Napa style that should be clear to the most myopic critic, but with a recent vintage, 2012, that has given us a trove of beautiful Cabernets—and the 2013s are even better. There is not the slightest doubt that Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the greatest wines in the world. It may be overpriced, yes; that’s for the market to decide. The valley may be (read: is) infested with egotism. And I suppose it is true that one complaint that can be leveled against Napa Cab is that, beyond a generalized “Napa-ness,” it does not exude any particular individual terroir. (Can we truly say that a Diamond Mountain and a Spring Mountain are utterly different wines? A Rutherford and a Calistoga?) But these minimal gripes pale alongside the fact of the sheer, spectacular beauty of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
Revival 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley): $125. Flavor is easy to achieve in Napa Valley Cabernet. Just let the grapes hang long enough, and you’ve got an explosion of black currants, cassis, blackberry jam, dark chocolate, black licorice. The trick is to achieve balance. This wine has, expertly. It’s 100% Cab, grown south of Stags Leap, on the Silverado Trail, a cool (by Napa standards) region. The wine shows beautifully balanced acidity, and the sturdy, firm tannins of Cabernet, but those tannins are melted and ripe and sweet and utterly delicious. The wine was aged in 100% new French oak, which would swamp many Cabernets, but not this one. It’s big enough to stand up to that wood, which brings added layers of richness: vanilla bean, buttered cinnamon toast, sweet wood smoke. With alcohol of 14.8%, it’s certainly made in a riper style, yet there’s a touch of green olive that brings a salty, umami savoriness. The finish is very long, rich in exotic spices and a reprise of blackberries, but dry and elegant. What a great wine. Glorious and sophisticated. I can’t think of any reason not to drink it now, it’s so good, but it should have a grand future over the next six years. Score: 97.
Signorello 2012 Padrone Proprietary Red Wine (Napa Valley); $175. I’ve always liked Padrone, which sometimes is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon but more often includes Cabernet Franc, as does this ’12, which has 9 percent in the blend. My highest score over the years was the 2005, which I gave 97 points, and while this ’12 isn’t quite in the same league, it’s pretty dramatic. The mild, even vintage was kind to the grapes. Cabernet achieved near-perfect ripeness, characterized by intense black currant and cassis flavors, while the Cab Franc brings a note of cherries and a pleasantly complexing herbaceousness: think sweet green peas. The winemaker put 100% new French oak on the wine, but it’s not too much, adding the loveliest touch of smoke and sweet vanilla, and you can also taste the wood tannins that have married the grape skin tannins in perfect harmony. The wine is unfiltered; to the extent that matters, it seems to preserve a wild, yeasty complexity. I’d recommend drinking this wine now and for the next two or three years. Its ageability may be compromised by high alcohol. It’s a little tannic, as Cabernet should be, but a great steak will cut through the astringency. Score: 94.
Field Guide 2012 (Napa Valley): $42. Years ago the Garveys, who own Flora Springs, came up with the idea for Trilogy, a blend of three Bordeaux varieties. Now, a new generation of the family has the Field Guide brand, and this red wine is a blend of one-third each of the two Cabernets, Sauvignon and Franc, and Petit Verdot. It’s quite impressive. Your first impression is of absolute smoothness, a product of soft tannins and a cognac-like mellowness. Flavorwise, it’s huge, an explosion of red cherries, licorice, cassis and cocoa. Very complex, very upscale, it straddles a delicate balance between density and accessibility. My advice: pop the cork now or over the next two years. Score: 93.
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…