Last Friday’s Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting was a big deal. The crème de la crème of San Francisco’s wino high society turned out, and even in a city where “Friday casual” tends to be seven days a week, there was enough Armani to gag a Milan runway.
It’s a fun tasting, although the most famous Growths (Margaux, Lafite, Latour, Mouton, Haut-Brion, Petrus, Cheval Blanc, Ausone) never seem to come. I guess they don’t have to market their wares. But everybody else does, apparently.
I don’t even attempt to taste everything. It’s simply not possible, unless you power-taste your way through (which some people do, although it’s a pointless exercise, IMHO). Instead, I selectively taste. How to decide what to selectively taste? Ask others who know more than you do! I spotted the immortal Fred Dame, who immediately steered me to a pair of Right Banks, La Conseillante (Pomerol) and Figeac (Saint-Emilion). The former was amazing: fat, soft, unctuous, while the latter showed its composition of one-third Cabernet Sauvignon with hard tannins.
By the way, the French hate it when we American reporters ask them what the blend is. They expect the question, they know it’s coming, and they’ll rattle off the answer, but you can see their inner eyebrows rising to the tops of their têtes in exasperation, as if to say: What is wrong with these people? One is supposed to look for terroir, not burden oneself with such trivial pursuits as the percentage of this or that variety. Sometimes, I ask the pourers anyway, but I don’t like to—they make me feel guilty and provincial. (Or do I do that to myself?)
Then I ran into an old acquaintance, Jean-Noel de Formeaux du Sartel, the proprietor of Chateau Potelle, who reminded me that my story on him, back around 1990, had been the first I ever wrote for the Wine Spectator, when I worked there. Jean-Noel—“Johnny Christmas”—has had a lot of adventures lately, with some health issues and a trek through India to rediscover the wellsprings of his being. He insisted on my tasting Leoville-Poyferré, the Saint-Julien, which I found a little rustic, and Brainaire-Ducru, another Saint-Julien, whose rôti fruit, cocoa and meat flavors were so good, I wrote, “I would buy this.” I tasted also the Pomerol Clinet (“shows the power of the Merlot”), Haut-Bailly, filled with Pessac-Leognan stones and tannins, and a four or five others. Then I headed over to the Pauillac table to compare the two Pichons, Longueville and Lalande.
There I met another old friend, Gary Cowan, sales manager at Fine Wines International and also at Vineyard 7 & 8, who was doing the same thing. I think we agreed that the Lalande was more beautiful and approachable now—more feminine?–than the Longueville, whose tannins were like a Denver Boot on the mouth.
Wine chit-chat at these events is inevitable, but can be tiresome. A guy who knew who I was (I never did get his name) wanted to talk about precisely when a particular wine’s tannins kicked in. Was it mid-palate, 60%, or what? I don’t like to be rude to anyone, but that’s a situation I had to extricate myself from quickly, so I made some lame excuse and crawled away. That’s when a cool-looking dude with spiky hair introduced himself to me.
“Hi, I’m Josiah,” he said. That would be the exquisitely-named Josiah Baldivino, head sommelier at Michael Mina San Francisco, whom I’d spoken with on the phone earlier that day. He was with his lovely wife, Stevie. We talked about the evolving role of the somm, a subject of endless fascination for all three of us, so much so that we agreed to take it up again in the near future.
The 2010 Bordeaux vintage has generated a lot of buzz. I’m not a Bordeaux critic, so I’m not making any grand, informed statements, but I’d love to have a cellarful of any of the wines I tasted. Where we can only surmise at the ageworthiness of a great Napa Cab, these 2010 Bordeaux are stone cold guarantees. I don’t think that makes them better, just different. Young Napa is flamboyance, flash and instant bedazzlement. Young Bordeaux lets you know it won’t show you anything anytime soon.
Josiah and Stevie
People sometimes ask me if it’s hard to taste wine every day, after so many years of doing it. Don’t I get tired, or bored, or burned out?
The answer is NO! In CAPS. Especially when it’s a great flight.
Oh, I guess plowing my way through 12 or 15 under-$10 Chardonnays has its elements of tedium. (And if this were an email I’d include a little smiley-face emoticon : > with that statement.) But let me tell you about the pleasures of going through a range of fantastic wines.
Like the ones I did yesterday. A very high-level flight of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons. Included were the following: PerryMore 2008 Stagecoach, Paradii, Beckstoffer To Kalon, Beckstoffer Dr. Crane and regular Napa Valley; Altvs 2009 (the “v” is not a typo. I guess it’s Bill Foley’s inner Roman coming out); three Raymond 2009 “District Collections,” St. Helena, Calistoga and Oakville; also Raymond’s 2009 “Generations. I threw in a Kunde 2010 from Sonoma Valley (at $25, the bargain of the lot) “just to see.” More on this in a moment.
My tasting was, of course, single-blind (which I define as knowing generally what’s in the lineup, but not knowing which bottle is which. We can argue ‘til the cows come home what the best way of tasting is. For me, this approach is what I’m used to, and so it works for me.) Now, right off the bat, I admit to starting out with a heightened sense of excitement. These are all well-regarded properties and/or vineyards, Raymond is in the process of being reinvigorated, and this is, after all, Napa Valley Cabernet, a place and variety for which (you might know) I have some affection. So this was a gratifying tasting for me.
“Happy families are all alike,” Tolstoy famously wrote, and I should say, of happy Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, that they are all alike. Lest readers begin barraging me with emails explaining how different Atlas Peak is from Calistoga, let me explain myself. A good Napa Valley Cabernet makes you reach for the Thesaurus for synonyms for “delicious.” I’m finding a lot of chocolate in my Napa Cabs these days, which probably is some alchemical synthesis of things in the berries and contributions from oak; but Cabernet’s classic black currants and, often as not, crème de cassis are there, and what’s not to like about those flavors? So, when I first attack my flight, my mind and palate are simply dazzled by this virtuoso display of richness.
They’re not all the same, though. Once the immediate dazzlement is over, then we get down to the serious business of finding differences. One wine’s tannins are firmer, another’s more pliant. One wine turns out to be a little thinner after it’s been in the glass for a while—but maybe that makes it more elegant? At any rate, you can see how much fun it can be to frolic among the glasses while all the while coming up with a conceptualization that’s accurate enough to send to the magazine’s database, on its way to being published: and let’s not forget associating a score with that description. In this way, the hours fly by, while I do my thing (with Gus nearby) and the outside world ceases to exist, for all I know or care.
Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, at the level of yesterday’s flight, is very great. If you don’t like that style, fine. Most of us do. Oh, that Kunde? Remarkable. Held its own right alongside the others, at a fraction of the price. I’d happily drink it anytime, with the best Cabernet food you can find. Was it just a shade less rich? Yes. But so balanced, so refined, and made in such good taste. In a way, California can be prouder of producing a great $25 wine like that, than of producing triple-digit cult idols. But that’s what makes California so cool: everything from $7 clean, everyday wines from Freddie Franzia to these wonderful premium varieties in the $15-$25 range to the spectacular heights of Napa Cabernet. I love this state!
Regarding “bargains,” while it is undoubtedly true that it is harder to find a great CA Pinot under $30 than it is with some other varieties, I think CA Pinot provides superb “value” when you consider the full QPR. Consider that your top rated wines above are $100 and average maybe $60-70. Compare that to the prices of your highly-rated Cabs. It’s one of the things I’ve always appreciated about California Pinot Noir.
This is certainly true, but begs the question, Why? It’s not because there’s an inherent difference in quality between top Cabs and Pinots. A Janzen 2009 Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (97 points) is not a better wine than Failla’s 2010 Occidental Ridge Pinot Noir (also 97 points), even though the former retails for $135 while the latter is a “mere” $60. So what gives?
Here are some factors that could raise the price on the Napa Cabernet: buying grapes from Beckstoffer, who charges a lot, price of new barrels, cost of consultants, cost of bottles (Napa Cabernet generally is in heavier and presumably more expensive bottles), cost of corks. Without knowing the details, I will assume that all these costs were higher for the Janzen than for the Failla. Still, that can’t account for a difference in price of $75!
So we have to go to factors that are unrelated to the cost of production. One that’s obvious right off the bat is the influence of peer pricing. In Napa Valley, you can’t price a wine below the price of your perceived competitors (or so the argument goes). If your wine costs significantly less than the “neighborhood” you want to live in, then buyers—consumers, somms, retailers, even, alas, some “critics”—will perceive you as “lesser” and conclude that your wine cannot be as good, even if it is. This is why, when Screaming Eagle raised its list price some years ago, you saw a kneejerk reaction up and down Napa Valley: everybody who perceived himself as in the same elite category as Screaming Eagle felt it necessary to jack up their prices accordingly.
So that’s one reason, but there’s another, more related to history: California mimics Europe in its approach to the pricing aspects of wine, and Bordeaux in general always has been more expensive than Burgundy. While there are obvious exceptions, this statement is true. It’s curious, because the average Bordeaux chateau has a higher production than the average Burgundy domaine, so you’d think it would be the other way around. But no. For some reason, going back hundreds of years, consumers (wealthy white western Europeans and, a little later, Americans like Thomas Jefferson) were willing to pay astronomical prices for top Bordeaux wines like Lafite and Latour. That tradition is larded through our wine culture and remains in force today.
What’s changing, of course, is that an entire younger generation of Americans couldn’t care less about Bordeaux. Report after report proves this. As Eric Asimov wrote, for a greater number of Americans, especially younger ones, Bordeaux “is now largely irrelevant.” Pressure on the Bordelais to ease up on prices has been neutered only by the false and thus unsustainable popularity of these wines in Asia. But the marketplace eventually rationalizes everything (if Adam Smith is correct), and so we should see an equalizing of Bordeaux and Burgundy prices internationally sooner or later.
In California, the distorting effects of this historical imbalance between Bordeaux and Burgundy struck early, but are now in an interesting state of flux. We saw the Great Recession pose a threat to triple-digit Napa Cabernets. Now that we’re in recovery, we see a consumer who’s no longer willing to blindly plonk down whatever it takes to buy the Cabernet of the moment. And to the extent this consumer exists, he probably has gray hair.
This is Pinot Noir’s moment to shine, and it can happen, if—and it’s a big if—the top producers manage to resist their hubris and keep prices moderate. And by “moderate” I mean less than $100.
There is not and cannot be an answer to the question, “Which is better, Cabernet Sauvignon or a Bordeaux blend?”, because the question is meaningless. One might say that the nearer a wine approaches 100% Cabernet the more tannic it is, and the more its flavors approach those of classic blackberries and cassis; it also may be more ageable. This is true in theory and often in reality, but depending on where the Cabernet is grown its other qualities will assume equally important roles. For instance, Cabernets grown in rich, fertile soils will be less tannic but also less concentrated than those in the mountains, while a Cabernet from a cooler area will show an herbaceousness seldom found in Napa.
One might say also that a Bordeaux blend is rounder, mellower and drinkable earlier because varieties such as the Merlot and the Cabernet Franc make it so. Certainly, a winemaker with access to good fruit from all classic Bordeaux varieties has a wider range on his palate with which to fill in divots. As this Scottish website notes about Bordeaux, “the skills of assemblage – the synergistic blending of grape varieties… are vital in a region where climate does not always allow all varieties to ripen to the required level.” So true in a place like Bordeaux, where vintage variation is more extreme than here in California. Our dependable heat means, however, that a properly grown and ripened Cabernet has no divots. Anyway, as we’ll shortly see, the federal 75% rule pertaining to varietal labeling is arbitrary to the point of silliness.
Having said that, the interesting point about Bordeaux blends and Meritages (more about this word in a moment) is that the category is not dominated by the 800-pound gorilla of Napa Valley. In terms of sheer numbers, if I count up my 90-plus wines, there are more of them from Napa than from anywhere else; but the list also contains an impressive number of wines from beyond Napa. The Jackson Family’s Verité wines, from their Mayacamas Mountain vineyards high above the Alexander Valley, easily produced the greatest blends last year, with a range of 2007s and 2008s; the former vintage gets the nod by a hair, but then, they had an additional year in the bottle.
Also impressive were Jonata’s 2007 El Alma de Jonata, based on Cabernet Franc, and their 2007 El Desafio de Jonata, based on Cabernet Sauvignon, both from the Santa Ynez Valley. The Capture 2009 Harmonie, with a Sonoma County appellation, is very good, as is Thomas Fogarty 2007 Lexington Meritage, proving that the Santa Cruz Mountains still count, especially in an opulent vintage. I quite enjoyed Geyser Peak’s 2007 Reserve Alexandre, Wellington’s 2007 Victory Reserve Meritage, Korbin Kameron 2008 Cuvée Kristin, Chateau St. Jean 2008 Cinq Cepages and Ferrari-Carano’s 2009 Trésor, all from various parts of Sonoma County.
But we have to give Napa its due. Ovid 2009, Terra Valentine 2009 Marriage from Spring Mountain, Chimney Rock 2009 Elevage from Stags Leap, Terlato 2009 Episode, Sequoia Grove 2008 Cambrium, Viader 2009, Merryvale 2009 Profile, Carte Blanche 2009, Les Belles Collines 2009 Les Sommets, Jarvis 2009 Will Jarvis’ Science Project, Kenefick Ranch 2008 Pickett Road Red—all sensational wines, restaurant wines, flashy, opulent food wines.
I opened by saying that it’s useless to speculate which is better, Cabernet Sauvignon or a Bordeaux blend, but the market apparently has made up its mind: Cabernet Sauvignon. That I review, year after year, 15 to 20 times more Cabs than blends is proof that vintners, for whatever reason, choose to adhere to the 75% minimum for varietal labeling. I’m sure their sales people and distributors tell them that it’s far more difficult trying to sell a wine with a proprietary name, no matter how good it is, because most consumers just don’t get the concept. And unless they’ve been living under a rock, who hasn’t heard of Cabernet Sauvignon?
Ought we as a nation to revisit our concept of varietal labeling requirements? Probably it would be too much of a hassle, and in the end only the consultants would profit. Besides, the public, already hopelessly confused, would be needlessly driven insane if they were asked to absorb yet another rule imposed by a distant bureaucracy. But the 75% varietal minimum gave rise to the Frankenstein of “Meritage” as well as these pompous proprietary names, many of which seem like they were plucked at random from a Thesaurus, if not invented outright, by an inebriated marketing manager. Poor Joe Phelps can hardly have known what he was starting when he dubbed his 1974 Bordeaux blend “Insignia.”
Happy New Year! May you have a glorious 2013.
I’m not going to do a full-blown “Best of” or “Top 100” list, but I will spend the next few days going through some of the wines I thought highly of, for various reasons, by variety or varietal family. We’ll start with a selection of Cabernet Sauvignons.
Most of the best Cabernets released in 2012 were from the 2009 vintage. It was a generally good year, on the cool side but not as cool as the next two vintages to follow. Napa Valley as usual dominated in this category, with excellent wines coming from all quarters of the appellation, both mountains and benches.
My highest scoring Cabernet of the year was David Arthur 2009 Elevation 1147 Estate (99 points, $150). This past year provided me with an in-depth exploration of the Pritchard Hill area (which really should have its own appellation) and the David Arthur represents all that area can be. To excel in that exalted terroir is no mean feat.
I always like to single out Oakville Cabs that express their Oakville-ness and this year it was Janzen’s 2009 Beckstoffer To Kalon (97, $135), but why oh why don’t they put Oakville on the label instead of Napa Valley? I will single out only one of Diamond Creek’s ‘09s, the Volcanic Hill (96, $175), for sheer, ageworthy tannins and mountain concentration, but all of Diamond Creek’s Cabs were spectacular, as were those of Von Strasser, also from Diamond Mountain.
Chimney Rock went through some doldrums in the early 2000s, but man, are they ever back. Their 2009 Tomahawk Vineyard Cabernet (96, $135) rocked. Duckhorn produced a splendid array of Cabernets, packed as always with hard tannins to ensure their safety down the line. These are always wonderful Cabernets to review; this year, their best was, not a 2009, but the 2008 Monitor Ledge Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (96, $95). Alongside these wines are Nickel & Nickel’s Cabernets, also always tannic ageworthy, but so complex and chewy. My preference this year was the 2009 Branding Iron (94, $100), but the entire lineup is exciting.
From Howell Mountain, Denis and May-Britt Malbec produced a huge wine, their 2008 Cabernet (94, $150) that must be cellared. I’ve enjoyed watching this young couple build up a track record. And a word of praise for Beaulieu’s 2009 Georges de Latour Cabernet (94, $125), often overshadowed but really as good and ageable as ever.
Finally, a few Cabs that got my Editor’s Choice designation because of their price-quality ratio: Yates Family 2008 Cabernet from Mount Veeder (95, $55), Robert Mondavi 2009 Cabernet from Oakville (94, $45), Terra Valentine’s 2009 Wurtele Vineyard off Spring Mountain (94, $65), Snowden’s lovely 2009 “The Ranch” Cabernet (93, $40), Neal Family 2007 Cabernet (93, $45), Long Meadow Ranch 2009 (93, $47) and Hunnicutt 2009 (93, $50). These wines demonstrate that you don’t have to break into triple digits to enjoy a great bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
Conclusion: Napa Cabernet is getting better all the time. Somehow vintners, aided no doubt by their growers, are learning how to achieve ripeness at lower brix levels, resulting in more balanced, graceful and elegant wines that still preserve the lush, sweet fruit you expect from a Napa Cab. I personally am looking forward to tasting the better 2010s, which should arrive in the coming year, and the 2011s that will dominate 2014
Monday: Bordeaux blends.
“Super Seconds” is a term I first heard in the 1980s. It referred to several Bordeaux chateaux that had been classified as Deuxieme, or Second Growths, but that were critically considered higher in quality than their Second Growth sisters—and, in some cases, approached if they did not exceed the quality of the far more famous First Growths of Bordeaux.
The Super Seconds included, if I recall correctly, Leoville-Las-Cases, Pichon-Lalande, Gruaud-Larose and Cos d’Estournal. I was reminded of the Super Seconds the other day when I read Steven Spurrier’s column, “2005 Médoc Super Seconds,” in The Tasting Panel magazine’s Dec. 2012 issue, whose digital version you can access here. (You can also read more about the tasting Spurrier attended on this blog by a young woman, Hilary Howes, who’s studying for her M.W.)
The thing about the Super Seconds was that you could get a great Bordeaux at a fraction of the price of a First, like Lafite, Mouton or Latour. In other words, the Super Seconds were, above all, values. Not the kind of value that, say, a $10 wine that scores 89 points provides. That’s everyday or common value—“Wal-Mart value.” There’s another form of value we can call “elite value.” This is where you spend a lot of money on something, but it still seems like you’re getting a bargain, because it’s pretty much as good as something from another producer who charges more.
This notion of “elite value” is well known to restaurateurs. In the Sept. 10, 2012 issue of The New Yorker, staff writer John Colapinto refers to it in his article, “Check, Please,” about New York’s Eleven Madison Park restaurant. Eleven Madison’s full tasting menu costs about $900, astonishingly high, but lower than, for instance, the tasting menu at Thomas Keller’s Per Se. Colapinto writes that, compared to places like Jean Georges, Eleven Madison is “the least expensive prix-fixe option” among its peers and paraphrases the New York Times’ Frank Bruni as describing it [Eleven Madison] as “a cheaper alternative to other fine dining places…”. Colapinto quotes a food blogger and restaurant critic, Ryan Sutton, that “the trick of fine dining—or any luxury business [is] How can you convince customers to spend eight hundred and seventy-six dollars on a wine-paired tasting menu and make them feel like they got a value?”
Eleven Madison is, in other words, a Super Second restaurant, an elite value. There are Super Seconds in all luxury fields: A BMW, for instance, is a Super Second Mercedes. A Calvin Klein men’s suit is a Super Second compared to Brooks Brothers. I have paid good money to stay at El Camino Real, in Puerto Vallarta, but it’s a Super Second compared to the Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit.
In any field of luxury consumer good or service that’s mature enough to have developed a hierarchy of competition, the concept of elite value has established itself. A young, emerging field, like space tourism, simply isn’t built up enough to have developed elite value vendors. A fully-developed field, like Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which is extremely competitive, evolved an elite value spectrum some time ago. If we can call Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle and a few others Napa’s First Growths, we can certainly define a range of Second Growths. I will refrain from doing so here and now, but I will identify a few Napa Valley Cabs that are “Super Seconds” in the sense that they approach and sometimes exceed the First Growths, at a fraction of their price. They include (but are not limited to) Sequoia Grove, Von Strasser’s vineyard-designates, Duckhorn, Long Meadow Ranch, Goldschmidt Game Ranch, Piña, La Jota, Frank Family and Monticello, all generally costing less than $100. I would happily take and cellar any of them and not be jealous of my richer neighbor who had Harlan and Screaming Eagle. Indeed, I might even feel smug, knowing that I could buy 8 or 10 bottles of each, for every one bottle he had.