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How does our taste in alcohol change over time?

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When I was a young man I didn’t care at all for wine, except for its obvious ability to make a college freshman (me) drunk. Years later, I learned to appreciate and eventually love wine. At first I sought out Cabernet Sauvignon because that was the wine all the critics at that time (the 1980s) said was the most important grape and wine, at least here in California.

At about that time I got my first wine writing job, at Wine Spectator, where they assigned me The Collecting Page, which appeared in every issue. My job was to write articles of interest to wine collectors. I got to know most of the top collectors in America (they all wanted to have their pictures and names in the magazine, so they returned my phone calls and in some cases they sought me out). One thing I learned about these wealthy, white, middle-aged men was that, almost to a person, they had started out with a preference for Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux, then graduated to Pinot Noir/Burgundy. That was my first intuition that our tastes in booze change over time.

Of course it’s well known that many people begin liking sweet wines and only gradually move onto dry table wines, so that’s another calibration in the booze evolutionary scale. With me, a love of Pinot Noir took some time, because there wasn’t very much decent Pinot in California, and I certainly couldn’t afford to buy good Burgundy. But by the mid-1990s there was enough good Pinot, from the likes of Williams Selyem, Rochioli and so on, that I learned to love it. However, I never loved it more than Cabernet. To me, they were separate, but equal.

However now my tastes are definitely changing. I’ve acquired, or I should say re-acquired, a taste for beer—good beer, craft beer, not the watery stuff produced by America’s gigantic brewers. I’m not sure why this has finally happened to me. Beer has an umami quality that I simply crave, especially for my first drink of the late afternoon. Maybe it’s the fizz.

I’ve also acquired a new-found appreciation for liquor, particularly vodka. Again, I can’t say why this is. My favorite is a gimlet: good vodka and freshly-squeezed limes. None of that sweet Rose’s, please, and if you happen to have a basil leaf, feel free to muddle it in, but not too much; the basil should be a subtle background taste.

This isn’t to say I don’t still appreciate wine. I certainly do. I continue to love a good, dry white wine, no matter where it’s from: California, Sancerre, Chablis. It’s in the matter of red wines that I find my bodily tastes changing the most. I can still appreciate a red wine, but it really has to be a very good wine. For me, red wines show their flaws more readily than any other wine; and the chief flaw is a certain heavy blandness that can come with an over-emphasis of fruit. Many, many California red wines suffer from this flaw; a little fruitiness goes a long way, and if the wine is out-of-balance in acids and tannins, the flaw is even more obvious. Another way of putting this is that I can appreciate a good beer, white wine or cocktail by itself, but most red wines are more difficult for me to enjoy unless they’re coupled with the proper food.

It’s funny, though, because I still find myself mentally rating wines, even though it’s going on two years (!!!) since I was a working wine critic. Old habits die hard. Take California Cabernet Sauvignon. There are lots of them I’ll score at 92, 93 points, even though they’re not particularly wines I care to drink, except, as I said, with the right foods. But there’s a twist: most of these big red wines call for beef, and I’m not much of a beef eater. (I think of lamb as a Pinot Noir food. Pigs and Pinot, as we say.) So even though my formal training is in rating and reviewing big red wines, and I’m pretty good at it, those same wines play less and less of a role in my private life.

I’ve also evolved to another more interesting point, at least for me. I’ve cellared wine since, like, forever! But I’m finally at the point where I’m starting to drink my older bottles. I figure, I’m not going to be here forever, and those special occasions I always fancied would justify popping the cork on a 15-year old wine seem to come a lot less frequently than they used to. So why wait? What’s the old saying, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

El Nino is starting to hit us here in California. One storm after another, with a biggie scheduled to roll in on Thursday. But the week beyond that is dry, and our state water officials are warning us, with some urgency, not to stop conserving just because the “monster” El Nino is coming. So we’ll just have to wait and see what January, February, March and April bring.


Is it possible to create a new cult wine?

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Some years ago (and I quoted her in New Classic Winemakers of California), Heidi Barrett told me that the success of Screaming Eagle surprised even her, the winemaker. It was like a “prairie fire,” she said: lightning struck ready ground, and the winery became a legend.

Recent developments and discussions have led to me inquire about the possibility of creating a new cult wine in California. A “cult wine,” of course, is one that is of relatively low production, that amasses, not jus good, but ecstatic reviews from the most influential critics, that has a “story,” and—bottom line—fetches the highest prices. The sanctum sanctorum of cult wines is a situation where the wine doesn’t even appear in retail contexts. In order to buy it, you must get on a waiting list for a mailing list.

Before analyzing how a cult wine might be created, let’s look at a few that already exist and see how they happened. I spoke of Screaming Eagle: before it became Screaming Eagle, it was just another Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Heidi Barrett was not then the ultra-famous consulting winemaker she has since become. Screaming Eagle’s location, off the Silverado Trail in east Oakville, was not considered the best. There was indeed a “lightning strikes” serendipity to the process that is very hard to explain.

Another cult winery is Saxum, which I also wrote about in New Classic Winemakers. Rhône blends from Paso Robles weren’t exactly cult darlings when young Justin Smith began his West Side project. It took some stellar reviews from top critics to launch him to the top. Ditto for Helen Turley at Marcassin, Williams Selyem and Rochioli, Manfred Krankl at Sine Qua Non, John Alban and, up in Washington State, Charles Smith and Cayuse. They would not be where they are today without the help of famous wine critics.

On the other hand, there are wineries that have spent tens of millions of dollars to produce quite respectable wines that, while very good, have not launched into cult status. They hired the most famous flying winemakers, the hardest-to-get viticulturalists and the most expensive P.R. firms, and still they remain on the almost-cult list. Napa Valley is replete with such examples. Could it be that the era of the cult winery is over—that it’s not possible to make a new one from scratch?

That is a plausible theory. The field is so crowded that it hardly seems to have room for yet another cult wine. A younger generation is not as interested in them as were their parents and grandparents. A meme has swept the country, along the lines of “Just because it’s expensive and gets high scores doesn’t make it better.” In fact, people, especially below the age of 30, understand that to some extent the system is rigged. They may not know the details, but their cynicism has been sharpened by exposure to a U.S. media that seems to advance people and things for its own purposes, rather than for the general well-being. In this sense, it would be very, very difficult if not impossible to make a new cult wine.

On the other hand are a couple of traits of human nature. One is that we seek novelty. Even cult wines gradually lose their appeal; I could name several that have over the last twenty years. Wine people are notoriously fickle. They are also are notoriously insecure, which is why wine critics are so easily able to influence them. Since we still have wine critics—and are likely to into the future—there is the distinct possibility that “the critics” (whoever they are) could anoint a new cult wine anytime they choose to do so. Yes, the Baby Boomer critics are leaving the scene but, as I have long predicted, they’re being replaced by a younger generation (Galloni is the prime example) that’s as influential as ever. Meanwhile, the most important wine magazines and newsletters maintain their critical power; even if their newer writers aren’t as well-known as Parker or Laube, they retain the power of the Score. So we still have the infrastructure in place to create new cult brands.

What varieties are most likely to be the new cult wines? Pinot Noir for sure. In my opinion, its future is unlimited; someone, somewhere, is going to make a single-vineyard Pinot Noir that rockets to the top. Cabernet and red Bordeaux blends are more problematic. There are so many; the market is so saturated. I suppose if a First Growth started a new Napa Valley winery (the way Petrus, or rather Christian Moueix, did at Dominus), the media at least would be waiting with baited breath for the first release, and if they universally praised it, it could soar to the top. But that’s unlikely. Nor is it likely that there will be a cult Chardonnay or Zinfandel. What about Syrah? It’s poised for a comeback. Growers are putting in new plantings in the best coastal locations, especially along the Central Coast. Prices for grapes are up. In selected locales, Syrah and red Rhône blends are doing very well, hand-sold by gatekeepers to audiences who don’t seem to be aware of, or care about, the conventional wisdom that red Rhônes are dead. So, of all the varieties, I think Syrah, or a Syrah-based Rhône blend, is in the best position to give birth to that rarest baby in the wine world, a cult wine.


A Cameron Hughes Cabernet vertical

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Cameron Hughes Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. Sold as a six-pack vertical, 2006-2011 vintages, $449.

Cameron Hughes was kind enough to send me this six-bottle vertical for review. (Full disclosure: He also was kind enough to come all the way to Oakland and buy me a sushi lunch.) All the wines are obviously related to each other, being strongly similar except for bottle age; but negociant Cameron cannot reveal his precise sourcing, except to strongly hint we’re dealing with major sources and famous winemaking consultants.

I begin with a lengthy discussion of the youngest wine (2006) and the oldest (2011), since they frame the conversation. Then it’s on to briefer considerations of the ’07, ’08, ’09 and ’10.

I expected more color differentiation between the 2006 and the 2011, with the older wine, at nine years, being paler. It is, kinda sorta, but you have to squint to see it, which means either of two things: The ’11 is looking old now, or the ’06 is looking young. In this case, it’s decidedly the latter, but that may be the high alcohol level. I would not guess the ’06 for being nine years old. It’s still dark, a gorgeous ruby garnet, like the ’11. So much for color: then I inhaled the wines, which is where the ’06 begins to show its age. Where the ’11 is all fresh black currants—sprinkled with cocoa nibs and anise, with that telltale hint of fine, smoked new oak—the ’06 (alcohol high, at 15.7%) is more yielding and pliant. No more currants: blackberry and blueberry jam, but what is that lurking underneath? Bay laurel? Violets? Teriaki? Definitely mocha. The new oak has evolved into old cigar box. These are scents that are hard to define, easy to appreciate. But it’s in the mouth that the vastest difference occurs: The ’11 (alcohol 14.5%) is so tannic, it assaults the gums and tongue like an attack tank, hard, raw in its immediacy, stinging. Old-style tannins, mind you. Mountain tannins. Who knows, given the secrecy. The wineries that sell to him are, presumably, in some kind of financial trouble. It seems to me that all the wines come from mountain vineyards, but in the ’11 the tannins are especially blunt. Of course, 2011 was a chilly year. Score for the 2011: 92.

Then we come to the ’06. It was not a particularly great vintage: okay, adequate, fine. I would not hold this wine much longer. It’s good to go now. The tannins are resolving: the wine has achieved a maturity where ripe, fresh fruit is fading. Complex, interesting, mellowing. But there still are those cabernet tannins. Give it greasy protein fat—a charbroiled steak—and it’s a match made in heaven. Score: 91.

By the way, I did let the ’06 and the ’11—the oldest and the youngest of the wines—sit in the bottle, opened, for 48 hours, to see what happened, which can be very interesting. Both wines went downhill, showing an overripe quality that wasn’t evident to me on opening.

Here are my notes on the other four wines:

2007: Alcohol 15.9%. Very dark, in fact midnight inky black. The aroma is oaky and quite rich in black currants, with shavings of baker’s unsweetened chocolate and black licorice. The flavors are similarly rich, and while the tannins are strong, they’re finely-ground and sweet. You can feel the high alcohol in the form of a slight jalapeno pepper heat. This is quite an interesting wine, one that fans of ripe Napa Cabernet will love. The alcohol level makes its future troubling. Drink now-2016. Score: 91.

2008: Alcohol 15.3%. A bit more elegant than the ’07, but still somewhat hot in alcohol, with similar flavors: black currants, baker’s chocolate, black licorice, and plenty of sweet, smoky oak. Bone dry, with good acidity, a wine to sip on a cold winter night. Score: 91.

2009: Alcohol 15.3%. Like the others, this is an ultra-ripe Cabernet, brimming with black currant, black licorice, shaved chocolate and oak flavors. The tannins are, like the other wines, exceptionally smooth, but they do have a fierce quality. You can taste that Napa Valley sunshine and heat all the way through. Almost identical to the ’08, this is a rich, somewhat Porty wine to drink with rich meats and cheeses on a winter night. Score: 91.

2010: Alcohol 14.9%. Fits right in with the rest. Super-dark black and garnet color. Rich, Porty aromas of black currants, dark chocolate, black licorice and oak. Deeply flavored. Cabernet doesn’t get any riper, yet still with that peppery heat from alcohol. Like the other wines, it will drink well with a rich, fatty steak or filet mignon. I would decant it first and drink it over the next three years before the overripeness takes over. Score: 91.

Discussion: At an average bottle price just under $67, these Cabernets are pricy. For the fullest intellectual appreciation, they require some belief on the buyer’s part that they are from super-famous wineries, or vineyards, or winemakers, that are distressed enough to have had to sell to Cameron Hughes. In their own way, each is distinctive, showing Napa’s classic Cabernet luxe. But each also is marked by overripeness and subsequent high alcohol, with a finish almost of sweetened crême de cassis liqueur and even, at the more chocolatey extremes, Kahlua. Although I recommended drinking them with steak, you could enjoy them slowly as after-dinner wines, like Port or a cordial, to be sipped on the way to oblivion and bed.


Crying all the way to the bank

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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.


A great Pinot Noir tasting

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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.


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