SPECIAL NOTE TO MY READERS: I have been forced to install a Captcha! Code in order for you to comment here. Believe me, I didn’t want to. For many years you’ve been able to get your comments posted instantly (after one initial approval), and I like it that way. But the Comments section has been overwhelmed with spam, resulting in a denial of service shutdown yesterday. So I apologize for this extra hassle, but that’s the way it is in this age of spam.
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Regular readers of this blog know that I have expressed some puzzlement over the years at the proliferation of expensive, high-end wines–mainly Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux blends from Napa Valley–that are “lifestyle” wines, that is, the creations of wealthy people who made their fortunes elsewhere and now want to join the most exclusive vintner’s club of all: those who can say that they own a Napa Valley winery.
My curiosity has been how these brand-new brands can possibly succeed when they cost triple digits and yet have no provenance at all–provenance being a known history of proven performance AKA a track record. I once counted all the Cabs I’d reviewed in a year’s period costing over $100 retail and by the time I reached 400 my eyes had glazed over. That’s a lot of expensive wine and automatically leads to the question: Who’s buying it?
The conventional wisdom is that it doesn’t matter who’s buying it: these proprietors are rich enough to go for years losing money. After all, what price lifestyle? There is, however, now a bit of a hint that the audience for these wannabe cult Cabs may be coming from an unexpected place.
The evidence lies in the newly-rich techies for which San Francisco lately has become famous. There’s a lot of money being made, fast, in Northern California. Last year, 2013, was “a banner year” for initial public offerings, the biggest since 2000 (immediately preceding the dot-com collapse); more than $54 billion was raised, more than twice as much as in 2008 when the Great Recession started, and believe me, a lot of that money is washing around San Francisco, which is enjoying (if that’s the right word) its greatest glory days since, well, maybe since the Gold Rush.
San Francisco know it well, and is trying to adjust to the news. Now, even New York City has taken note, a little jealously, it seems, since the Big Apple is not used to having its supremecy challenged as the nation’s leading financial and cultural center. This article, from New York magazine, even compares San Francisco to “West Egg circa 1922” (i.e. the Great Gatsby, the Roaring Twenties); Fitzgerald’s North Shore mansions and balls have become San Francisco’s downtown condos with split-level swimming pools and personal masseurs. What particularly has grabbed New York’s attention are the “Upscale restaurants [that] pop up at regular intervals, each with a more elite clientele” chowing down on “kombucha pairings with sustainable-seafood dinners.”
I don’t think one can say precisely when this Age of Surfeit started, but for me it was 2011 when the launch of Saison signaled that something was up. A few months later, Josh Sens, the restaurant writer at San Francisco magazine, wrote this glowing review of the $498-per person chef’s 22-course, 18-wine menu. (Confession: at that time the restaurant invited me for a full dinner. It was very, very, very good!) Josh wrote about the “hyperdevoted food pilgrims, IPO millionaires, and other assorted members of the city’s discerning gourmand club” who were flocking to Saison, proof enough that the Recession–which hit San Francisco hard in 2008-2010, forcing the closure of many restaurants–had ended in the City by the Bay, even as it was tightening its grip on other parts of the country.
It wasn’t just the price of a meal that caught my eye: it was Saison’s locale, in a disreputable Mission District neighborhood far from the glamour of the Financial District and even from the shabby-chic of South of Market. Saison seemed to glory in its downscale digs; the come-as-you-are dress code blared that, no, you’re not at Fleur de Lys anymore.
It is not difficult at all to conjecture that these newly-rich folks who can afford a splurge at Saison also are on the receiving end of these rare, limited quantity Napa Cabs that most people will never experience in a lifetime. Somebody knows somebody who knows the owner, and gets a bottle. Friends go out to dinner and drink it–perhaps at Saison. What began as a little story ends as buzz. Everybody wants a bottle–for now. But at this level, the consumer is incredibly fickle. Today, winery “X” is a star. Tomorrow, somebody meets somebody who’s friends with a different owner, and procures a different bottle; the cycle begins a new. Only a few of these rare and expensive wines will make it in the long run: this is Darwinian natural selection among wines, as it is among living things.
It’s increasingly apparent that well-paid Millennials, at least in San Francisco, are looking for upscale new drinking experiences and willing to pay for them. Check out this article, from the March 24 Bon Appetit, which argues that Milllenials “love wine…even more than their parents love wine.” They love it “because drinking it is classy and it makes them feel sophisticated.” Of course, a Millennial making $60,000 isn’t going to buy expensive Napa Cabernet. But lots of San Francisco Millennials are making a lot more than that: median family income in The City is $91,037, and keep in mind that a lot of those “families” consist of unmarried persons without kids, so they have a ton of disposable income. And their salaries are only heading higher: the San Francisco Business Journal reports mobile app developer starting salaries at $135,500-$195,120.
Thiis New Money has got to be a good thing for a local wine industry that, only a few years ago, looked teeter-tottery. If I were doing outreach on behalf of wineries, I would make San Francisco the Mecca of my evangelism, and I’d go after the Millennials where they live, play and hang out, starting with online.
I guess the big news about the 2013 California Crush Report, just out, is that we set another record for tonnage.
It was headline news in 2012 when California’s crush was the biggest ever, but for some reason, news of 2013’s even bigger one has been largely muted. The total was 4,685,075 tons, up 7 percent over 2012. Yet the devil is in the details. The state Dept. of Food and Agriculture counts table grapes and raisins in the total, and 2013’s raisin crop also was large. Separating table grapes and raisins out, we still had the biggest red wine crush ever. Red wines were up 5 percent; white wines were up 6 percent. But the average price for all varieties was down, by 4 percent, from 2012: $706 per ton, on average, for reds, $620 for whites.
Cabernet Sauvignon was among those red varieties whose price dropped from 2012 to 2013. Not by much: only 3.6%, but still. Why did Cabernet drop? I suspect that number was skewed downward by the cost of Central Valley grapes. For instance, the average price per ton of Cabernet in Districts 11, 12, 13 and 14 (San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Madera, Fresno, Tulare, and down into Kings and Kern counties) was down everywhere except in District 14, where it crawled up a tiny $19 a ton, whoopee. But if you look at District 4, Napa Valley, the average cost per ton of Cabernet grapes soared, from $5,058 in 2012 to a whopping $5,494, an increase of 8.6%. (The highest deal reported to the state last year was $35,000 per ton, in Napa Valley. The Crush Report doesn’t identify where those grapes were from. If you know, send me the answer on the back of a million-dollar bill, and thanks to Click and Clack for that.)
Surely we can draw conclusions. Everyday Cabernet is under intense price competition in the marketplace. Producers simply can’t raise their prices too high, or else someone will undercut them. And if you’re a supermarket wine, you can’t afford to let somebody undercut you; that is death by a thousand cuts.
But Napa Cabernet appears to have rebounded after the hit it took in the Great Recession. I certainly see this anecdotally; in my own experience, I’m getting more expensive Napa Cabs for review than ever, many of them from first-time producers. I never thought that some of these businessmen-turned-vintners who buy lifestyles in Napa Valley (and elsewhere) are the smartest marketers in the world; but they must know something, to think that consumers are ready for yet another $80 or $100 Cabernet.
So there’s increased competition for what is, after all, a limited supply of Napa Valley Cabernet fruit. This must be good news for those esteemed vineyards–Stagecoach, Beckstoffer Tokalon, Dr. Crane, Georges III and others–that sell to the highest bidders, as well as for estate-bottled Cabs, whose owners feel they can notch prices upward as demand ticks back up again.
Cabernet is a funny wine. It’s been at the top for so long that people wonder when its run finally will end–kind of the way Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra hung on forever (or Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger, for that matter). Surely a new face has to take its place. But Cabernet is a grape and wine, not subject to the mortal coils. It keeps on keeping on, and I think smart producers understand this. Far from abandoning it, they’re seeking new ways to brand it–new price points, new points of reference, new strategies for messaging. And Cabernet is elastic enough to cooperate with them all. It’s really a miracle variety: having achieved superstardom, it’s undoubtedly the best-known red wine in America. The name means class and refinement, even to the least-knowledgeable novice, while the miracle is that upscale consumers haven’t lost their faith in it merely because the hoi polloi also likes it. It might have gone that way–like the kids who are abandoning Facebook because old people have taken it over. Facebook is proving not to be sharable across multiple demographics. But Cabernet continues to appeal to everyone, and for that, you have to give credit for some underlying nobility that Cabernet possesses. What more could a varietal ask for?
“Food without wine is a corpse; wine without food is a ghost; united and well matched they are as body and soul, living partners.” So said André Simon, wine merchant, gourmet, and co-founder (in 1933) of the Wine & Food Society, the editorship of whose journal passed, in 1963, into the hands of a rising young British writer named Hugh Johnson.
Simon was part of a [mainly British] fraternity of gourmands in the first half of the twentieth century, men (including Professor George Saintsbury), whom today we’d call “foodies.” They enjoyed good food, good wine and good conversation, in an era when the Port was always passed to the left. They were not necessarily men of means; the Society’s other co-founder, A.J. Symons, wrote, for his own epitaph, “No one so poor has lived so well” (a sentiment with which some wine writers might agree!). In the 1920s and 1930s, when the movement was perhaps at its apogee, prices for claret–Bordeaux–came under pressure due to a variety of reasons: the lingering effects of the Great War, the worldwide Depression, the collapse of the French franc, bad vineyard practices, a mummified contract system. Edmund Penning-Rowsell, in The Wines of Bordeaux, has carefully analyzed the “poor succession of [Bordeaux] vintages after 1900” (certainly compared to the Golden age of 1858-1878), pointing out the “not…very satisfactory prices” the chateaux received. Prices even for the great 1929 vintage sank to historic lows, coming as they did mere months after the stock market crashed, in October of that year. “Within eighteen months [afterwards] the first-growth ‘29s could be re-bought for 10,000 frs., exactly half their opening prices.” Quel désaster for the chateaux; a stroke of luck for the gourmands.
The members of the Wine & Food Society would not have understood our modern practice of reviewing wine. They would have been puzzled by the 100-point system (although, one hopes, they might have been more receptive had it been thoroughly explained to them, for they were, above all, rational men). They might have reserved their puzzlement for our tendency today to critique wines with little or no reference to food. If “wine without food is a ghost,” then a wine review without food pairings would have been judged a sacrilege.
Be that as it may, that is our modern way. Yet even those of us who make our living doing wine reviews understand, in our private lives, the importance of the “body and soul” of proper wine and food pairing. So it was that, the other day, talking with cousin Maxine, she remarked on the collection of older California Cabernet Sauvignons that are piling up in our collective cellar. “We don’t have much opportunity to drink them,” she fretted, “because we’re eating less beef.”
Cabernet and steak: it’s the classic pairing. But, like Maxine, I too have been eating less steak for years. Health aspects aside, I don’t make it at home because good cuts are hard to get and even when I can buy it, the risk of overcooking is too high; and nothing is more frustrating than paying good money for a bad steak. In restaurants, I tend not to order steak. Unless the place is a beef specialist (like House of Prime Rib or Harris’, in San Francisco), the risk also is unacceptably high that steak is merely a token item on the menu and will not be satisfying–for the privilege of paying $30 or $40, or more: we ate last night at Bocanova, one of my favorite Oakland restaurants, but I would never order the $48 steak.
So I wondered, What non-beef dishes pair well with a high-end, aged California Cabernet? As usual in such situations, I asked the question on my Facebook page. I expected good answers from my friends; I was not disappointed by the results.
That pairings other than beef were well known to the gourmands is obvious from the menus many of them left behind in their written journals. Professor Saintsbury, in his famous Notes on a Cellar-book, devotes an entire chapter to “records of meals and wines discussed in my own houses, and mostly devised by ourselves.” Forty- and fifty-year old First Growths were commonly consumed at the Professor’s table; what is notable is the relative absence of beef, the result of bad economic times that resulted in an “absurd modicum of meat that was allotted…and when one had to be content with sprats and spaghetti.” With Margaux 1868 and again with ’78 Latour he ate “haunch of mutton,” with ’70 Margaux there were “cutlets a l’Americaine” [presumably veal?], with ’76 Mouton came “mutton cutlets” and “chicken salad,” with ’62 Lafite “Virginian Quails” and with ‘93 Latour and ’96 Leovillle Poyferre “beans and bacon” (!!!!). True, there was one dinner at which 1870 Latour was poured with “Braised Fillet of Beef” but that indulgence seems to have been the exception. At any rate, it’s evident that our modern preoccupation with steak as the perfect Cabernet partner is of fairly recent origin.
I wouldn’t have enough time to try all the pairings my Facebook friends suggested, but there are many tantalizing ones: braised pork loin with mushrooms, cheese sauce and a red wine-bouillion reduction; mushroom-stuffed raviolis and cheese; rack or leg of lamb (of course); grilled halibut with black olive butter; a “warm corn tortilla black bean taco with a subtle fire-roasted salsa and queso fresco” (from Amelia Ceja); applewood-smoked barbecued salmon; braised lamb shanks; lamb and goat cheese lasagna; porcini mushroom risotto; ham with black cherry reduction; coq au vin. For something culinarily different (and perhaps more interesting), Michael Turner suggests Cabernet with “foot rubs and hot tubs”; I might add the Cheez-its Shauna Rosenblum swears by.
I’ve given brutal scores lately to some expensive wines, most of them new entrants to the California marketplace. When a wine costs $40, $50 or more, and it’s not even as good as some other wine that costs $15, it gets me irked.
Of course, I can’t allow my emotions to enter into my scores. But if you read between the lines of my reviews, you might occasionally glimpse a certain dismay.
This is the critic’s conundrum. We’re only human. We get dazzled by great wines, even if they’re hugely expensive. Sometimes, I have to hold myself back a little in praising a great wine, or risk being accused of score inflation, which I believe is an issue that has not been seriously addressed. On the other hand, it’s easy to get bored with mediocre wines, which dominate every region no matter how famous.
I always wonder if a winemaker or proprietor who’s putting out a $50 bottle of wine that scores 84 points knew in advance that the wine was mediocre. Maybe they did, and cynically released it anyway, knowing that people will buy it because of its pretty label, or at the tasting room, or whatever. On the other hand, maybe they didn’t. It would be a huge mistake to assume that all winemakers have good palates. I know some who put out mediocre wine year after year after year. (Why they still send me samples, when they have good reason to know I don’t like their style, is a riddle to me. It’s that old definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result.)
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Speaking of winemakers, I’m getting ready to assemble my panel for March 9th’s Pinot Noir Summit, at the Golden Gate Club, in San Francisco’s Presidio National Park. I haven’t decided on a theme yet, but am tinkering with the notion of regional differences between the southern Russian River Valley (including Green Valley) and Fort Ross-Seaview. In general, the south valley is chillier and foggier, because it’s low-lying and gets a strong push of maritime influence coming up from the Petaluma Gap. Most of the Fort Ross-Seaview vineyards, on the other hand, lie at altitudes above the fog line, so they bask in sunshine while their sister vines down in the valley are swathed in fog. You’d expect this situation to express itself clearly in the Pinot Noirs from both regions, and it does: valley wines are darker and more tannic on release, while Fort Ross Pinots tend to be more accessible early. I don’t think either is more ageable than the other; I wouldn’t mind having a couple cases of Flowers alongside a couple cases of Joseph Swan in my cellar.
Finding themes for public tastings can be challenging. There’s a tendency on the part of some people to make the topics too geeky, but it’s my impression that the public gets bored with abstruse discussions of technique. People want fairly simple, accurate information, in an easy-to-digest form. They don’t want to wade through the intricacies of grape chemistry, irrigation, maceration techniques and tannin management. A little of that goes a long way. They also want personality: not all good winemakers are good panelists (and not all good panelists are good winemakers!). A few years ago, I had a certain winemaker on one of my panels and he/she was as boring as a doorknob. Won’t make that mistake again.
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A quick word of praise in passing for Von Strasser’s latest batch of Cabernet Sauvignons from their Diamond Mountain estate. Great wines, and all the more impressive for coming from a 2011 vintage that was as challenging as any in memory. These wines show the importance of well-drained mountain vineyards in a cold year, and of vigorous pruning and sorting decisions. Of the six new ‘11s, I gave my highest score to the Estate, but Spaulding, Sori Bricco, 2131, Post and the regular ’11 Cab weren’t far behind. All are ageable. I don’t think Von Strasser gets the recognition they deserve, but they should.
Have a great weekend!
I remember when the 2010 vintage was finished, how everyone was predicting that the wines, especially the Cabernet Sauvignons, would be the most balanced California had produced in years.
The vintage was the chilliest people could remember–2011, of course, was even colder–but the spin was that the cool conditions meant that the grapes would physiologically ripen at lower brix, resulting in Cabs and other wines that would taste good at lower alcohol levels.
Well, I’ve now reviewed about 750 Cabernets and Bordeaux blends from the 2010 vintage, and I’ve got to say, from the evidence presented to me, the theory hasn’t panned out. The simple fact of the matter is that a cold vintage is a cold vintage. You can’t spin your way out of that.
Look, California isn’t Bordeaux. Whatever happens at the latitude of Bordeaux to a Cabernet Sauvignon grape is not what happens to a grape at the latitude of Napa Valley. The light is different; the length of day is different, and of course the climate is totally different, California being warmer and drier than Bordeaux. So to suggest that “all California needs” is a cool vintage that will result in more Bordeaux-like wines is simplistic and incorrect.
It’s not that 2010 was a bad vintage for Cabernet. In fact, it was a very good one, in the sense that it resulted in many high-scoring wines, particularly (as you’d expect) from Napa Valley and its subappellations. But, looking over my reviews, 2007 outclassed 2010. So did 2008 (a fairly warm year) and, by a hair, 2009. (As for 2011, that icebox of a vintage, all the Cabs have not yet been released. But so far, I’ve given the lowest number of high scores to 2011 Cabs than I have in many years.)
Case in point: Sequoia Grove’s Rutherford Bench Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. I gave the 2010 a perfectly respectable 92 points. But I gave the 2007 96 points. The ’10 was a shade less rich, not quite as vast as the ’07. Ditto for Alpha Omega: I gave the 2010 Beckstoffer Tokalon Cab 91 points (they actually had two bottlings, a “North” and a “South,” but they both got the same score), while the 2007 Beckstoffer Tokalon got a whopping 97 points. Then there’s Moone-Tsai, whose 2010 Cor Leonis I gave 90 points, compared to the 96 points and 95 points I gave, respectively, to their 2008 and 2009.
I should also point out, in fairness, that I recommended a lot of 2010s for cellaring, precisely because they started out so tannic and tight. However, if you’ve followed my reviews for any length of time, you’ll know that I have mixed feelings about longterm prognostications when it comes to California Cabernet Sauvignon. Predicting which one will actually improve with more than 8 or 10 years in the cellar, as opposed to which one will simply become old and boring, is an inexact science, and anyone with experience in these things is bound to agree.
Is a tight, tannic young Cab “better” with food than one that’s fat and opulent? That’s the standard wisdom–if fact, it’s common to hear that those huge, rich Napa Cabs are “cocktail wines” rather than food wines. Well, I haven’t found the 2010 Cabs to be particularly modest in alcohol, which was also one of the early prognostications. Among my highest scorers, the Yao Ming was 14.9% (these are all official readings, but–again, as my regular readers know–I sometimes am forced to conclude that some wines are higher in alcohol than the label says), the Laird Flat Rock is 14.8%, Venge Bone Ash is 14.9%, JCB No. 10 is 15%, Lamborn Vintage VIII is 14.8%, Hall Exzellenz is 15.5%, Terra Valentine K-Block is 14.9%, Janzen Beckstoffer-Missouri Hopper is 15.2% and David Arthur Elevation 1147’ is 14.9%. I don’t have a problem with these alcohol levels, but they do lend the lie to the notion that the 2010 Cabs are more elegant because they’re lower in alcohol.
In the end, one is left having to sort out what’s true and what’s not true about the old notion that “every year is a vintage year in California.” It’s quite true in the sense that California or, more properly, its various sub-regions hardly ever have uniformly bad years. Yet it’s also true that some years can be tough on certain varieties and regions. Sauvignon Blanc had a particularly difficult time in 2011. It was so cold that the grapes just couldn’t fully ripen, resulting in an ocean of green, minty wines. And yet, certain producers (the usual suspects, one is tempted to say), did just fine: Mondavi, Grgich Hills (whose ’11 Essence is fabulous), Margerum down in Happy Canyon, Brander, Rochioli and others. But all in all, if you’re perusing a wine list and see a 2011 California Sauvignon Blanc and don’t know the producer or that particular wine, you’re best off buying something else.
The Chardonnay Symposium, with which I’ve been associated, has new ownership and a new location that will make it easier for Northern Californians to go. The details are still being worked out, including those of the panel I’ll be moderating, but here’s the basic 4-1-1: instead of being held at Byron Winery, in the Santa Maria Valley, the event is moving up the coast to the Dolphin Bay Resort & Spa, whose official home city is Pismo Beach, but it’s actually in little Shell Beach, just to the north–and by coincidence is right next door to The Cliffs Resort, which was the longtime home of World of Pinot Noir, until WOPN decided to move south this year to Santa Barbara and into Bacara Resort. As you know, I’ll be “the official blogger” again of WOPN.
This bit of musical chairs is interesting because it sheds light on the evolution of wine events. WOPN’s directors for years had been talking about moving into a bigger, more urban locale, in order to accommodate more people, and Bacara certain fulfills that requirement. Meanwhile, The Chardonnay Symposium, which consciously patterned itself after WOPN, similarly waited for the day that the rather austere, amenity-less Santa Maria Valley would no longer be big enough to accommodate it; and, that day having arrived, its officials made the decision to move to Shell Beach. Maybe in ten years, The Chardonnay Symposium will move to a big Santa Barbara hotel-resort, or even up to San Francisco. You never know.
Choosing a topic for an event panel always is a challenge. You don’t want it to be too geeky-technical because that would bore a lay audience (and, to be quite honest about it, geeky panels bore a lot of winemakers, too). On the other hand you don’t want the topic to be too broad and simplistic. You have to find something in the middle. Last year, our topic was unoaked-vs.-oaked Chardonnay, one I did not choose personally but did my best to make interesting. I don’t think it was the most stimulating topic ever; if I was rating it, I’d give my panel 88 points. This year, we’re still talking about the topic. At any rate, we’ll try to get the best winemakers we can, so attendees will be able to meet some superstars and taste their Chardonnays.
I’ve also agreed to be part of this year’s Pinot Noir Shootout & Summit. Details are extremely sketchy, but I’ll be talking about it when I find out more. I think our topic will differing styles of California Pinot Noir. I broadly classify the variety into two styles: lighter, lower-alcohol wines and darker-colored, fuller-bodied ones. I do not favor one over the other. Both have their uses at the table, and both are ageworthy, provided they’re balanced to begin with.
It’s funny that there’s no major statewide event for Cabernet Sauvignon. But how could there be? Anything that Napa Valley does (e.g., Premiere Napa Valley) is pretty much the equivalent of a statewide Cabernet event, so identified has that single appellation become with that wine type. I’ll be at Premiere too, and hope to see lots of winemakers there.
A final word about that Multifamily Social Media Summit I spoke at on Wednesday evening. First off, it was really interesting to explore this sub-culture of housing specialists. Who knew such a thing existed? But housing, of course, is a huge industry, and I felt right in the middle of its vital center for the few hours I hung out with those nice folks in Santa Rosa. They’re just getting into social media–how to use it in their jobs–and between me and the other speaker, Siduri’s Adam Lee, they definitely got some offbeat perspective. It was from the points of view of two people in the wine industry, with very different jobs but a common interest in social media. Hopefully, the housing people were able to extrapolate our experiences and advice and incorporate it into their own needs.
Have a great weekend!