I must admit that I find the ongoing industry-wide conversation about ripeness levels to be the most confounding I’ve been involved in, lo these many years.
Where did it start, anyway? I suppose it’s been going on for decades, in one form or another. Even before the launch of In Pursuit of Balance, which seems concerned mainly with Pinot Noir, there were hints of this brouhaha all the way back in the Seventies, with Cabernet and Chardonnay. It’s actually a question of style, not just alcohol level: and questions of style are never fully arbitrated.
A recent interesting example is in David Darlington’s (well written) story of the reinventions of both Inglenook and Mayacamas, in the June issue of Wine & Spirits. (“Napa’s New Old School”) The story teaser suggests that David “digs deep into the question,” hinting at some resolution for those of us who are scratching our heads at what’s going on. But there is no resolution to be had, only more wonderment, which is not David’s fault at all. The problem is the setting up of artificial sets of parameters, with an expectation that one set is correct and the other wrong, and the corresponding assumption that simple changes and fixes will solve the “problem” of overripeness.
Were it only that simple.
It is naive to the point of foolishness to think it’s all a matter of picking the grapes “less ripe or more ripe.” In interviews, both Francis Coppola and Charles Banks confess as much, although not in so many words. As any writer would, David tries his hardest to get them to come out and say something definitive, like Charles saying, “Bob Travers picked the grapes when they were still green. We’re going to let them get riper.” Or Francis saying, “Scott McLeod picked the grapes too ripe, so we’re going to pick them leaner.” No such luck.
That’s because neither Charles Banks nor Francis Coppola knows what to tell their new winemakers to do—and their new winemakers (Andy Erickson and Phllippe Bascaules, respectively) also don’t really know what to do. How could they? It takes an estate decades if not centuries to find its way. Although Mayacamas dates to the 1940s (or the 1960s depending on which ownership you choose to start the count at), the assumption in the critical industry is that Mayacamas lost its way under Bob Travers, a good man who just didn’t have enough money to turn things around, and so lost traction. The other assumption, concerning Inglenook, which dates to the 1800s, is conceded by Francis Coppola: that although he was making 90 point-plus wines, Rubicon never achieved the status of First Growth of Napa, according to the critics. So while Francis says he disdains point scores, his shakeup at Rubicon/Inglenook suggests that he really doesn’t.
Myself? I had more respect than love for Mayacamas; in this business, you have to take your hat off to a winery that’s been around for so long—and has done things so consistently honestly. I did like Rubicon, quite a bit—enough to buy a case of the 2002, which I rated 98 points. But other critics didn’t seem to care for it as much as I did, so Francis turned to Philippe, whom he got from Margaux, in hopes of a shakeup. (At least, by his own recounting, he didn’t hire Michel Rolland.)
Philippe confesses he had “no data” when he arrived at Inglenook (he now has three vintages under his belt), and is trying to steer a middle course between overripeness (he says he finds too many Napa Cabs “taste like Port”—an IPOB-style criticism). His goal is “to reduce alcohol levels,” but he is frank enough to state he doesn’t really know how to go about it; and it sounds like he certainly doesn’t want to do it with technology. You can’t just pick at 23 degrees Brix, the way Inglenook did in the old days, because everything—rootstocks, density, trellising, perhaps even the climate—is different. “I don’t want to do exactly what Inglenook did in the 40s and 50s,” Philippe says. Precisely: he couldn’t, even if he wanted. This is why Coppola, his employer, peers far into the future and concludes, “I don’t necessarily expect to give full blossom to Inglenook in my lifetime.” The critics will just have to wait.
As for Mayacamas, Charles Banks echoes Coppola. “We’re not doing this for short-term gain.” What is this “this” to which he refers? Will the team pick the grapes riper than Bob Travers did? If lean, underripe wines used to be the problem, the solution should be obvious. But Banks hedges his answer. “I am [as] opposed to pruney, stemmy wines as others are to herbaceousness. At the same time, I don’t want green, harsh, underripe tannins.” Well, who would? The Mayacamas team may be crossing their fingers in hopes that other modernizations—replanting with closer spacing, newer clones, tinkering with trellising regimes, extensive winery investment—will help them avoid having their hands forced regarding picking decisions. But the answer, as at Inglenook, will not be known for a long time.
The good thing about these conversations about ripeness levels is that we’re having them. The bad news is that we’re having them—at least, with such passionate irresolution. The game is largely driven by critics, whom proprietors and winemakers privately say they loathe; yet nobody dares to ignore them. The result is a kind of navel-gazing, similar to the wine blogging world, where content-poor wine bloggers blog about—wine blogging.
Everybody (well, almost everybody) complains about California wine tasting “like port,” but nobody wants to make a Cabernet that tastes like a boiled bell pepper. Nor do people necessarily want to hold onto their wine for twenty years. Everybody talks about finding the sweet spot, but nobody seems to know exactly where it is, or even how to recognize it if they were knee-deep into it. (And variable vintages don’t help them find it.) The discussion has turned into an echo chamber, where everybody has taken a side, and listens only to people who speak their language—like cable T.V. news shows, there’s a lot of cacophony and very little harmony.
There’s no way to turn the conversation off. Now that it’s started, we’ll have to let it run its course, like a storm, and hope it doesn’t do too much damage.
In the mid-1970s, writer David Darlington tells us in the June issue of Wine & Spirits, “Robert Mondavi defined [the Inglenook Estate vineyard] for [Francis Ford Coppola] as the crown jewel of Napa Valley.”
The wine world loves crown jewels. Petrus has been called the crown jewel of Pomerol; ditto the DRC in Burgundy. The concept stems, of course, from Old Europe, which bequeathed to us not only the idea of an aristocratic hierarchy of vineyards, with one or a few at the top and all the rest clustered below, but of a human aristocracy itself, whose royal heads were crowned with gemstones. It was as natural for 19th century France to elevate four vineyards in Bordeaux to First Growth status as it was to celebrate its Kings as les seigneurs grands plus among lesser royals.
If Robert Mondavi did indeed tell that to Mr Coppola (and we must assume he did, for Darlington, the author of Angel’s Visits, is a great historian of wine), his claim must be put into context. Inglenook’s Rutherford vineyard, on the bench just northwest of the Oakville border, was already 100 years old in 1970, and always had produced acclaimed Bordeaux-style wines. There were few, if any, contenders to the throne in Napa Valley that could boast that legacy (Martha’s Vineyard was a mere infant, Harlan a gleam in Bill Harlan’s eye). Napa’s mountains—Spring, Veeder, Diamond, Howell, Atlas Peak, Pritchard Hill—were completely undeveloped, or very nearly so. Thus Mr. Mondavi was on firm historical and qualitative grounds when he praised Inglenook to Mr. Coppola, who must have listened with wide-eyed alacrity.
Today, does anyone think Inglenook is Napa Valley’s crown jewel? I don’t think so. This is not to diss Inglenook as simply to point out that it now has plenty of competitors—so many, in fact, that it would be fatuous for me to try and list them. Let’s just agree that we can no longer identify a “crown jewel” in Napa Valley, or indeed in most of the world’s greatest wine regions. Instead of an aristocratic “crown jewel” we now have galaxies of jewels, glittering and precious and giving us incredible wine.
California, in other words, is a meritocracy, not an aristocracy. Inglenook, for all its past glory, has yet to prove its modern relevance; Mr. Coppola has his work cut out for him (and I wish him luck). Yesterday’s crown jewel may be today’s déclassé property. By contrast, yesterday’s underperforming (or even non-existent) vineyard may be elevated to glorification today, provided (a) it possesses inherently great terroir to begin with, and (b) is given the necessary nourishment (talent + money) to allow the winemaker to express that terroir to the highest degree of international reclaim.
There are not that many wineries with the wherewithal to pull off this feat. Even among those that are owned by the very rich, you’d be surprised how many stint on the required financial investment. Some proprietors, it is rumored, are not even in the game for the long haul, but only for investment or lifestyle purposes. Why invest tens of millions into a property you may not be able to make a profit on when you sell it off? Then too, some proprietors who spend millions on improving their vineyards, ill-advised from the start, may unfortunately own land that is not inherently capable of producing the greatest wine.
Others, a fortunate few, have the twin blessings of wealth and a discerning eye for land. It is with them that California wine’s future lies, and always will. This is the brilliance of our Western-style meritocracy: passion and generational commitment, and not the mere lucky sperm of heredity, now transform vineyards, old and new, into crown jewels.
My goodness, we’re losing the founding fathers and mothers of our modern wine industry at an alarming rate! But that’s life. Frank Woods began his career as a marketing man (Proctor & Gamble), went on to become a staunch supporter of Ronald Reagan’s early political career (he was responsible for drafting southern delegates for Reagan’s failed 1968 campaign) and then, in a remarkable feat of self-invention, co-founded Clos du Bois Winery, in 1974.
His initial purpose was to sell grapes, primarily to Rodney Strong, but the lure to make wine proved too strong. That era, the early- to mid-1970s, saw the crescendo of the boutique winery movement in California, and Clos du Bois was right up there with the best of them. They were one of the earliest wineries to specialize in proprietarily-labeled bottlings that promoted individual terroirs and approaches to winemaking. Most exciting were their various Cabernet Sauvignons—Briarcrest and Marlstone—and their Chardonnays—Calcaire and Flintwood. Critics loved them; the wines showed that visionary winemakers could produce terroir-inspired varietals at the highest levels of performance. Clos du Bois also made fine Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel, and dabbled in Pinot Noir (not so good, alas), Riesling, Malbec and Gerwurztraminer; the latter, made in a botrytised, late-harvest manner, was one of the greatest California dessert wines of its day.
Woods sold Clos du Bois in 1988, to Allied Lyons. People familiar with Clos du Bois today might see it as simply a commodity brand now owned (since 2007) by giant Constellation; and, in truth, it is a shadow of its former self. But we shouldn’t forget what Clos du Bois set out to be, and Frank Woods, who served as chairman of the Wine Institute, was the guiding light behind Clos du Bois. He is not in the Vintners Hall of Fame, but he deserves to be.
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On lighter note, I read with great interest Dan Berger’s recent column in the Napa Valley Register on “the decline of cabernet-ness.” I take his point that Cabernet Sauvignon may no longer taste the same as it did 30 and more years ago, when oldtimers like him and me (!!) first experienced these wines. Back then, Cabernet was generally under 14% alcohol by volume. Dan seems to be hopping onto the In Pursuit of Balance train, and objects to what he feels is the loss of varietal character in wines that possess “a lot of oak, high alcohol, low acidity, and a lot of tannin.”
I defer to no one in my respect for Dan Berger, a true icon of modern wine writing, whose long career is the envy of wannabe wine writers. But I have to respectfully disagree. While I grant that there is a boring sameness in many California Cabernets, I just can’t go along with the notion that “the more you pay for a cabernet sauvignon, the less like cabernet sauvignon it smells and tastes.” I’ve tasted most of the same high-end Cabs as Dan has, and at the top level, these are wines that dazzle, some of the greatest Cabernets the world has ever known. I just get impatient sometimes with all this criticism of alcohol levels and oak, which seems to currently dominate the conversation. As for the critique of Pinot Noir “being made so dark that they taste more like syrah,” yes, there are some out there. But not as many as the current buzz would suggest. This sort of remark makes it sound like most California Pinot Noirs are un-varietal when the fact is that the better ones–and there are hundreds of them out there in any given vintage–are gorgeous, world-class wines.
One of the most interesting and controversial topics of the modern wine industry is the phenomenon of the “flying winemaker.” This is the term, which I first heard in the 1990s, that refers to a class of men and women who hire themselves out to wineries as consultants; they are “flying” because their preferred mode of transportation is of course the jet plane.
But they are much more than mere consultants. Their name, attached to a wine on a press release, automatically confers prestige, the way, say, Steven Spielberg’s name as producer of a movie is a sort of guarantee of the film’s pedigree.
The name most often conjured up by “flying winemaker” is that of Michel Rolland. I knew he consults for a lot of wineries around the world, but I never knew that the number was up to two hundred, according to this article in Harpers. Among his Napa Valley clients, current and/or previous, I’m aware of are Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Alpha Omega, Dancing Hares, Staglin, Dalla Valle and Sloan—in other words, absolutely the peak of Napa Valley (if not the New World) in terms of price and quality (at least, as judged by the top critics). These are the famous “cult wines” that define a region’s reputation and in fact establish its upper or outer limits of quality and perception by the wine world’s cognoscenti.
This would be all well and good, except that over the last fifteen years or so—let’s say, roughly from the start of the new century—a certain drumbeat of criticism has arisen among some critics, to the effect that an increase in the activities of these flying winemakers has resulted in a standardization or sameness in all the wines with which the consultant is associated. In fact, this critique goes even further: it says that all flying winemakers bring a similar approach to all their client wines, making these wines all taste similarly to each other, regardless of who made them or whether they are from Napa Valley or Pomerol or Chile. This sameness has been referred to as the “globalization of wine” or “the international style,” terms meant to suggest that all wines of the same varietal type—most usually, Cabernet Sauvignon and its allied varieties—smell and taste alike. In the eyes of the critics of such globalization, this is tantamount to a crime, since it obliterates the notion of terroir.
This is a serious debate and a good one to have. I’ve never been one to take an extremist position one way or the other, as some American critics and newspaper columnists do in utterly condemning these “international” wines. Their criticisms usually also have to do with what they perceive as excessive ripeness, over-oakiness and an alcohol level (often approaching if not exceeding 15%) which, they claim, elevates technique over terroir.
My reluctance to join these reporters has been based on the simple fact that many of the Cabernets associated with Michel Rolland and other flying winemakers are, in fact, gorgeous. They are among the richest, most sumptuous wines ever produced in the history of the world, and it is churlish, if not somewhat childish, to object to them based on some philosophical or ideological notion. This deliciousness seems to be what Rolland himself referred to when he told Harpers that all he strives to do is to produce wines that are “intense, full bodied, balanced, harmonious, with delicate tannins and a long finish.” This description certainly fits the Napa Valley wines I’m familiar with that Rolland consults for, but the problem, which you see is obvious by now, is that the same description fits all of them, which seems to hoist Rolland on his own petard. He has provided us with the template for an international style of Cabernet Sauvignon. And here, I must say that, in California at least, there is an ersatz style that mimics the international style on the surface, but that on closer examination results in lazy, flamboyant but eventually tiring wines. One has to be very careful in approaching the international style, lest he throw the baby out with the bathwater!
Harpers headlines their article “Michel Rolland defends his ability to manage wines on up to 200 wineries around the world,” and while the word “defends” is perhaps hyperbolic on Harper’s part, Rolland no doubt feels a little beleaguered. He must be aware of the criticism (although one suspects he cries all the way to the bank). Supporting the critics is the commonsense notion that one can only be in one place at a time, and even in this age of the jet plane, to have to be in so many places all over the world, having to apply one’s conscientious attention to so many properties, especially at the harvest, must be challenging to say the least. Heidi Barrett, herself one of California’s most famous flying winemakers (although she more properly might be called a “driving winemaker,” for she only accepts clients that are “within a half hour” drive of her Calistoga home), notes that she limits her number of clients for the most pragmatic of reasons. “Realistically, when things are fermenting I must taste every tank, every day, and so I’m going to four locations, and that maxes me out. Some days I barely get everywhere.” (These quotes are from my 2008 book, “New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff.”)
Historically, we are at a point now where there is more or less an equilibrium between the international or global style, which admittedly is a ripe, expressive one, and a more restrained (one could almost say timid) approach, encouraged if not caused by the critics of the international style, who tend to have big platforms and the egos to fill them. I said we’re at “a point,” not “a tipping point.” I don’t think the balance will alter anytime soon, one way or the other. The wine market is simply too big and fractured for any large-scale revolutions to happen, despite alleged claims from some quarters that one is underway now. In the midst of such a complex market, winemakers hedge their bets; better to stick with a style that’s worked for you up to now, than to throw the dice and risk unnecessary changes that might alienate your customers. Finally, we come to the cases of new entrants to the production game, a younger generation that’s decided to live the wine life. They have, it seems to me, two choices, in the widest sense: to appeal to the international style, or to make wines more severe and that will, they hope, win the praises of the newspaper columnists who like that streamlined approach. They might as well flip a coin, given the standoff, and follow their hearts—always the best thing to do.
Whenever people of similarity spend most of their time together they tend to develop the same esthetic tastes. This is known as class identification and has been developed through evolution to keep tribes cohesive.
When it comes to wine one singular and rather insulated tribe defined for centuries what was good and bad. This tribe was Caucasian, Western European, male and wealthy, and thus deeply conservative in its social and political outlook. It consisted mainly of the British upper classes, an amalgam of landed gentry, aristocracy, academics and clergy. What they favored was Bordeaux. Without this group of what, today, we call tastemakers or gatekeepers, Bordeaux likely would not have reached the pinnacle of wine fame it still enjoys today.
The tastemakers eventually branched out, a little bit, to appreciate a few others wines: Burgundy, Port and Champagne, but Bordeaux remained their obsession and exclusive province. When our own country, America, was formed, it was mainly by the descendents of those Britishers, which is why we saw the founding fathers similarly obsessed with Bordeaux . (Madeira too appealed to them, but there were other economic reasons for that.)
As long as America remained a fairly tight little country, with poor internal communications, the tastes of these original British (and some German) founders dominated the country’s esthetic. (We might credit the Germans with establishing the beer culture that has always gone hand-in-hand with the wine culture, and more than occasionally dominated it.)
Even as late as the 1960s, the country’s internal communication was fairly dismal. The large newspaper chains tended to speak with one voice; wine writing and criticism remained in its infancy, with a “preaching to the choir” mentality in which, yet again, Bordeaux was extolled, now joined by its California cousin, Cabernet Sauvignon. Some insiders understood that it would take a revolution to shatter this template, but what would the revolution be?
We know now: The internet. More specifically, the proliferation of social media. All the old institutions in this country are being fractured and disrupted. We see this in politics first and foremost, with the rise of movements as disparate as greens/environmentalists, on the one hand, and the Tea Party on the other. We see it in the wild fractionalization of popular music. No longer do we simply have rock and roll, jazz and classical music; nowadays the most particularist genres appeal to their tribes. Ditto with the multitude of televised broadcast sources we have to choose from: hundreds on my cable system alone. We see it in the very diversity of the American people: California is no longer a white-majority state, but is the first truly rainbow state in the nation.
How long will it be before this stranglehold of a handful of wine varieties is loosened? Just today, a local wine writer and restaurateur writes in the San Francisco Examiner of the world “beyond the 93 percent prime grape varieties” that are “opening the eyes” of sommeliers, leading one to remark that “The potential [for new varieties and wine types] is something we haven’t even scratched the surface on.”
I’m seeing this up close and personal. If you go into a wine bar, nobody is ordering Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. Visit Uva Enoteca, in the Haight, and you’ll find lagrein, schiava, refosco, gattinara, nero d’avola among reds by the glass. Head over to Hotel Biron, in hot-hot-hot Hayes Valley, and you have your choice of Mendoza Torrontes (a variety that’s quickly grabbing my attention), South Portuguese whites, South African Pinotage, plenty of German Rieslings, and a nice range of a California wine that deserves to be consumed in restaurants more than it is: Zinfandel.
This is encouraging news. It means that a new generation of wine drinkers is willing and able to expand their experience well beyond where their parents and grandparents went. It doesn’t mean that Cabernet, Chardonnay and the rest of the 93% “prime grape varieties” are going away anytime soon. But it does bring a welcome diversity to our wine (and restaurant) scene, and it seems particularly strong here in the Bay Area, where so many cultural trends begin.
Can it really have been 20 years since André Tchelistcheff died?
I met and interviewed the man they call The Maestro a couple times, in my guise as a reporter, although I can’t claim to have known him well. His heavily Russian-inflected English could be hard to understand, especially on the phone, but he was unfailingly polite, in an Old World, almost Victorian way; more importantly, he was the foremost mentor to several generations of winemakers. It’s amazing how often his name comes up in conversation even today.
To me, as an historian, André’s greatest achievement was bringing a European sensibility of winemaking to the industry, at a time—the 1930s through the 1970s—when that’s what was most needed. When he came, famously, to Beaulieu, in 1938, America still had its rear wheels stuck in the muck of Prohibition. What few Americans there were who actually drank wine had little besides ersatz “Sauternes,” “Port,” “Sherry,” “Vermouth” and unidentifiable bottles with proprietary names, like Don Juan and Mission Bell, to choose from.
One of the best ways to appreciate a historical person’s contributions is through the eyes of his contemporaries. Here, we’re fortunate that Tchelistcheff’s advent on the scene occurred at the same time as an explosion of wine books. (The two phenomena are not unrelated!) In 1948 the Chicago journalist Julian Street, in the second edition of his book “Wines,” praised Beaulieu’s George [sic] de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon—Tchelistcheff’s crowning glory—as “stepping up into another class,” while he called the Pinot Noir “among the best of its type.” Pinot Noir was (I think it’s fair to say) Tchelistcheff’s own personal favorite variety, probably due to its challenge. He told the lawyer and amateur wine lover, Robert Benson (who quoted him in the latter’s 1977 book, “Great Winemakers of California”), that he, Tchelistcheff, had produced only three “high standard” Pinot Noirs in 35 years: the 1946, 1947 and 1968, successes he deemed “accidental” although, of course, they were no accidents; but Tchelistcheff appears at that time not to have realized exactly what he had done right.
Eleven years after Street’s little book, Alec Waugh (Evelyn’s older brother) authored “In Praise of Wine,” a book so dismissive of California wine that he relegated coverage of it to two pages in the appendix. Even so, Waugh managed to mention a handful of wineries he did “greatly enjoy,” and Beaulieu was one of them. By 1973, when the founder of the Wine Institute, Leon Adams, wrote his influential “The Wines of America,” he was able to state definitively that BV Private Reserve had become “the single most-praised and most-sought after American wine.”
Why did experts like it so much? We can only begin to guess what Private Reserve tasted like young. Michael Broadbent sipped a 1941 Private Reserve (from a celebrated vintage) in 1972; the then 31-year old wine was “extremely rich…with [an] extended finish,” and despite this rather abbreviated review, Broadbent awarded it 4 stars. But a few years later, he added a coveted fifth star to the 1946 Private Reserve, which Tchelistcheff himself had poured for him at a tasting; “the ’46,” Broadbent wrote, clearly in ecstasy, “was a great wine by any standards, perhaps Tchelistcheff’s supreme masterpiece.”
It was this accomplishment—the ability to make wine so good that even a confirmed Europhile like Broadbent would swoon in its presence—that was André’s great contribution to California wine.
By the 1990s, well into his own Nineties, André’s best days were behind him. He died in 1994, his intellect and humor intact. As Rod Smith reminds us (in “Private Reserve,” published by Beaulieu in its centenary year, 2000): “Just before [Tchelistcheff] died, he exclaimed, ‘We still don’t know what kind of rootstock is right for Carneros!’”
It was that unflagging drive to know, to perfect, to achieve that marked André Tchelistcheff. He was among the first to understand that Napa Valley’s temperature gradient between Carneros, in the south, and Calistoga, in the north, mandated the planting of different grape varieties—an axiom so fundamental to our knowledge of Napa Valley today that it’s hard to fathom that it was not always known. His work with Pinot Noir has never yet been fully acknowledged. His background as a technologist showed in his never-ending experiments with different kinds of fermentation techniques, including the malolactic. Robert Mondavi, who loved him, has written (in “Harvests of Joy”) how he “often turned to André for advice” after launching Robert Mondavi Winery, and paid The Maestro the supreme compliment of calling him “one of the most influential figures in twentieth-century American wine making.” André also put his stamp on stylistic matters. His remark (to Benson) that “oak in the bottle is nothing else but seasoning” and accompanying criticism that “Some people overdo it [oak]” surely were prescient and have been echoed by latter-day aficiendos of balance.
André himself wrote what could perhaps be his epitaph, although he meant it as praise, not for himself, but for Benson’s book: in its Preface, he called the book “full of depth, full of reflections of winemakers struggling to open the gates to tomorrow.” Those words easily describe André Tchelistcheff’s own triumphant struggle: if we now stand in tomorrow, it is because we have walked through the gates André opened for us what seems like just yesterday.