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’47 Cheval Blanc a precursor of today’s Napa style? And other Xmas Eve thoughts

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On this day before Christmas I was transported down Memory Lane after reading this blog, from the English wine merchant Nick Stephens, on “the world’s most expensive faulty wine–Chateau Cheval Blanc 1947.”

That is a wine I have some familiarity with, having written about it back in the early 1990s, and, a little later, having the good luck to taste it. I wrote about it, for Wine Spectator, when I was in charge of The Collecting Page (which I referred to as my ghetto: it always was the last page in the magazine). Through that gig I met many wealthy collectors, and I would always ask them about the greatest wine they had ever tasted. Invariably, the answer was “1947 Cheval Blanc.”

I remember the hassle of getting through to the chateau’s cellarmaster, in order to interview him for my article. I do not recall much of what he said, and I no longer have the article, but I do remember him telling me that the alcohol level was very high on that wine–in excess, I think, of 15%. My luck in eventually tasting it occurred when I made the acquaintance of young Billy Getty, who, with his friend Gavin Newsom (now California’s Lieutenant-Governor), was anxious to have their new wine shop, PlumpJack, written about. As part of that effort, Billy invited me with some frequency to parties at his parents’ Pacific Heights mansion. These were experiences that, for me at that early point in my career, when I wasn’t used to such attentions, were heady and flattering. (The effect wears off after a while, though.)

One day Billy called to tell me his mother had bought “an amusing little wine cellar” from a New York collector. He invited me to the mansion to taste some of the selections, including–gasp!–’47 Cheval Blanc. Needless to say I raced across the Bay Bridge, drove up Fillmore Street and parked in front of the mansion. Rang the doorbell–it was answered by the Gettys’ old butler, who formerly had worked for Joe Kennedy, JFK’s dad, when Joe had been ambassador to the Court of St. James. I walked into the livingroom [if that’s what it’s called: maybe it was a drawing room, or a ballroom, or a parade-ground; at any rate, it was bigger than my condo], where I saw Billy and a few others, plus lots of bottles. I asked for the Cheval Blanc. Billy found the bottle: Empty! My heart sank. He saw my disappointment and made some sort of signal, whereupon somebody appeared out of nowhere. “Bring us another Cheval Blanc,” Billy said. Within moments the functionary appeared holding the bottle, with the cork pulled. He handed it to me. I was alone, with my crystal wine glass and a full bottle of 1947 Cheval Blanc!

The wine was, as Nick Stephens (quoting Robert Parker) writes, as “unctuous” and “thick…as motor oil.” It was almost as sweet as Port, yet it was a dry sweetness, with no trace of the cloyingness of a poorly-made wine with too much residual sugar. Looking back, in retrospect, I can say it anticipated the modern, cult style of a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux blend: something like, say a Blankiet or Shafer Hillside Select. I take Parker’s word that the Cheval Blanc was “appallingly deficient in acidity,” with “volatile acidity [that] would be considered intolerable by modern day oenologists.” These charges also have been made against certain Napa Cabs. The difference between a young, fresh Napa Cab was that the Cheval Blanc, when I tasted it, already was more than 40 years old. It was showing bottle bouquet, and the fruit was drying out, yet it was remarkably fresh and clean.

I don’t think that wine would have blown my mind had I not known what it was. The fabulousness of tasting it was nearly 100% connected with knowing its identity. Tasted blind, it would “merely” have been a very rich, interesting, complex old wine, not necessarily the one I would have reached for at the table for repeated glasses with, say, lamb or beef.

But I did know what it was, and that made all the difference. Which leads to a theme we’ve explored many times here at steveheimoff.com. And that is the influence of seeing the label of a wine you’re tasting, as opposed to having it hidden by a paper bag. As my readers know, I consider this a very important topic to discuss, and not an easy one to arrive at definite conclusions. It is true that blind tasting eliminates all factors except for the actual organoleptic experience of the wine, whereas an open tasting expands the parameters of the experience in psychological and intellectual and even emotional ways. It is a pointless debate as to which is preferable. It all depends on the purpose of the tasting. In the case of that Cheval Blanc at the Getty mansion, my purpose was not to rate the wine, or to review it in any formal way. It was instead to experience the wine up close and personal. And, in that instance, having an entire bottle, and all the time in the world, made it possible for me to get to know that wine as much as I’ve ever known any wine.

Tasting wine for formal reviewing purposes is a job, and a rather unnatural one, at that. The kind of people who do it are wine reviewers, winemakers, sommeliers, merchants and others involved in the wine trade. We do it, not for enjoyment, but because it’s part of our professional standard of excellence. For the ordinary wine lover, blind tasting can be an educational diversion–you certainly learn about the palate’s shortcomings! But it’s not really the best way to understand and appreciate wine. The anticipation of knowing about a wine–the experience of savoring its history and, particularly with a wine like ’47 Cheval Blanc, knowing that so many people with access to the greatest wines in the world have declared it be the best they’ve ever had–those are integral to the enjoyment of the wine. It gives you something to think about, and thinking about wine is part of its enjoyment.

By the way–isn’t it funny that a wine like the ’47 Cheval Blanc, that by all rights shouldn’t have aged well, has? It makes me wonder about my own aging prognostications, not to mention those of all other wine critics, no matter how famous. I have friends and relatives who think that critics have crystal balls that provide perfect clarity into the future, but guess what? We don’t. As I’m sure the best critics will happily concede. All that an aging prediction amounts to is an educated guess. As with all guesses, however, they can be wrong.

Anyhow–Please accept my heartiest wishes for a merry Christmas and a Happy 2014!


2012 vintage: a report card

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I’ve tasted only about 700 wine for Wine Enthusiast  from the 2012 vintage (the number should eventually rise to several thousand), but based on what’s come in so far, this is going to be a hugely successful year for Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Most of the better red wines have yet to be released. But a few early Pinots show the vast promise of the vintage. Santa Arcangeli made a 2012 Split Rail Vineyard, from the Santa Cruz Mountains, that knocked my sox off, while early ‘12s from Siduri, Reaper, Orfila, The Gardener and Patz & Hall all scored above 90 points. I would expect that, in two years or so when we’ll have the lion’s share of top coastal Pinots in, there will be lots of 95-and-above scores, and maybe–who knows?–some perfect 100s.

Very little 2012 Cabernet has come my way yet, mostly under-$20 stuff, but even this grouping, which can be so mediocre, has lots of scores in the 86-88 point range, with wines showing plenty of vigor and good fruit. Cabernet in tnis price range is frequently disappointing, with thin flavors, so when you get a bunch of nice ones, it bodes well for what’s yet to come. So 2012 could really be a blockbuster Cabernet year.

The 2012 Chardonnays, however, are now pouring in. I would characterize them overall as elegant, well-structured wines. What they may lack in opulence they more than make up for in balance and class. I have a feeling, though I can’t prove it, that vintners are dialing back on ripeness and/or oakiness, in favor of acidity and freshness. A Foxen 2012 Chardonnay, from the Tinaquaic Vineyard of the Santa Maria Valley, typifies this lively style, combining richness with minerality and tartness and alcohol well under 14%. Even unoaked Chardonnays, such as Marimar Torres’ Acero bottling, are so delicious that they don’t really need any oak. So, again, 2012 should prove to be a fantastic Chardonnay year.

It’s not just the Big Three–Chardonnay, Cabernet and Pinot Noir–that show such promise in 2012. A handful of Sauvignon Blancs that have come in (Ehlers Estate, Atalon, Matanzas Creek, Cosa Obra, Capture, Rochioli, B Cellars, El Roy, Longmeadow Ranch) show the ripeness and acidity that variety needs, without any of that annoyingly unripe, cat pee pyrazine junk. And Viognier, which is probably the most difficult white variety of all to get right in California (not too green, not too flabby and sweet), shows real promise, as indicated by bottlings from Pride Mountain, Qupe, Kobler and Nagy. The wines are racy and balanced. I could say the same thing about rarer whites, such as Bailiwick’s Vermentino, Birichino’s Malvasia Bianca, Grüners from Zocker and Von Strasser, white blends such as Vina Robles’ White4, Roussanne (Truchard), Albariño (Longoria, La Marea and Tangent), and dry Gewurztraminers (Gundlach Bundschu, Claiborne & Chruchill)–all these are 90 points or higher, exciting to drink, mouthwatering, ultra-versatile with food. And finally, rosé. Up to now, it’s never been my favorite California wine (too flabby and sweet)–but 2012 could change my mind. The few I’ve had so far (Lynmar, Chiarello Family, Ousterhout, Gary Farrell, Demetria)–wow. Dry, crisp, delicate and fruity, just what a rosé should be.

So here’s to many more magnificent 2012s to come. It will be the best vintage in many years, at least since 2007–and all the early signs are that 2013 could exceed it.


High hopes for Mayacamas in a new era

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For those of you who don’t understand the role Mayacamas plays in Napa Valley’s history, consider this: When a former owner produced the winery’s first Cabernet Sauvignon, in 1962, Mayacamas joined only a handful of Napa wineries (including Charles Krug, Beaulieu, Inglenook and Louis M. Martini) that specialized in the variety.

And Mayacamas is even older than that: it was originally founded in 1889, then re-established in 1941. The name most closely associated with it, Bob Travers, purchased the winery in 1968, and ran it for all these years, until selling it recently to Charles Banks.

Among critics, Mayacamas had a very special role. Bob Thompson called its Cabernets and Chardonnays (all grown on the Mount Veeder estate) “two of the region’s most praised wines.” Hugh Johnson, no huge fan of California wine, dubbed it “first rate.” When the late, great Harry Waugh (who was on the board of Chateau Latour) visited, in 1969, he declared the 1967 Cabernet “another for my collection”; even the 1968 Chardonnay was “one of the wines I would buy for my own collection.” (That was high praise indeed from old Harry.)

Travers always made his wines lean. Even as the world marched away from that spare, angular style, Bob kept at it; as a result, his critical acclaim fell, to some extent. I liked his Cabernets well enough, but the highest score I could ever give one was 92 points, for the 2004. Even in that hot year, its alcohol was only 13.8%, and the wine showed a certain ungainly character, with streamlined, herb-infused fruit cast into fierce tannins. Bob’s style was more amenable, I thought, for white wines: his Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs benefited from that grave linearity, and often reflected the terroir of their mountain soils.

I think it’s fair to say that Mayacamas, for many years, has been underperforming. Oh, I know this is all in the eye of the beholder. If you dislike that lush, fat modern style, you might find yourself inclined to favor Mayacamas. But the truth is, the modern style, which 99% of Napa has embraced, left Mayacamas at the station long ago; or perhaps Travers simply chose not to board that train. Either way, I always review its wines with a certain wistfulness. Such a great name (said to be Native American, for the howl of the mountain lion), such an iconic history, such a noble perch up there on the mountain. Surely, I always thought, Mayacamas could do better.

But there were tales of vineyards in sorry shape, of an aging leadership, of run-down facilities; and even the price of the wines, which hardly varied over  the years, put them into the dreaded “relative value” category; the Cabernet, for instance, remained at $65 for a long time. Perhaps Bob Travers felt he dare not raise the price in order to be able to afford improvements in the vineyard and barrels. Perhaps he was philosophically against high prices.

When Banks bought Mayacamas, last April, there were high hopes that he would spruce things up. After all, the guy had money (he’d formerly owned Screaming Eagle, and recently bought Qupe). He seemed to have discernment and taste. I met him only once, a few years ago, when he and his wife, Ali, brought me to dinner, just the three of us, in Los Olivos. We talked for a long time, and he convinced me of his sincere commitment to quality, in whatever properties he owned. (This isn’t always easy–I mean, convincing me. Everyone talks the talk but few walk the walk!) But Charles did. Thus, yesterday, when I got the latest Mayacamas newsletter and order form in the mail, I paid it more than the usual amount of attention.

The first thing of note is that the newsletter is signed by a familiar winemaker: Andy Erickson, who has been associated with, in one way or another, Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, Harlan, Spottswoode, Dancing Hares and Ovid. Banks, I’m sure, has offered Andy a great deal of money to oversee the renaissance of Mayacamas, but it will have been money well spent.

Andy vows “to continue crafting wines of elegance, longevity, and rustic mountain power.” I don’t think he would come right out and say that he’s going to entirely revamp Bob Travers’ approach; that would be disrespectful. But reading between the lines, you can infer that Andy knows exactly what’s wrong up on Mount Veeder, and how he intends to fix it, starting with the vineyard. “We’ve also been analyzing the unique soils and how they contribute to making such distinctive wines,” he writes, suggesting that “new vines planted this year” will help bring about a quality revolution in the near future.

And Banks himself, in his cover letter, says “We’ll be…upgrading winery equipment, and renovating some of the facilities.” More money out of pocket: Ka-ching! But that’s what it takes. In this day and age, you can’t make great wine on the cheap.

I’m thrilled to see what’s happening at Mayacamas, and can’t wait to follow their progress, especially the Cabernets!


Cult Napa Valley Cabernet as Drag Queen

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An admiration for female beauty, brought to extreme, over-the-top stylization, is what characterizes the Drag Queen: the man who takes on the appearance of a particular sort of woman, often a celebrity: Judy Garland, Cher, Diana Ross, Carol Channing, Joan Crawford, Dolly Parton, Barbra Steisand. These are women already exaggerated, by hairstyle, makeup, attire, fame and attitude, to iconic excess. The Drag Queen, in turn, exaggerates the exaggeration, creating (she hopes) a work of art and wonder.

Almost always, Drag Queens take on an assumed name that is as much a parody of real names as their appearance is of real women. Divine, Chi Chi LaRue, The Lady Chablis and, from La Cage Aux Folles, Miss ZaZa Napoli suggest the sexually exotic plumage of their owners. The true Drag Queen, as the U.C. Berkeley philosopher Judith Butler notes, “radicalizes the norms of gender performance,” making drag far more than mere masquerade; indeed, no Drag Queen in history ever intended to pass as a woman (the way a cross-dresser might). Butler correctly understands that Drag is performance art, combining the flamboyance of Hollywood with the mind-bending challenge of genderfuck.

Is Drag then deliberately provocative? Considering that most Drag Queens restrict their professional activities to appropriate circles (drag balls, drag bars, GLBT parades) in which no one is particularly shocked, but rather gladdened by them, the answer is no. Drag Queens wish to be taken seriously, but on their own terms, and mainly (and this is an important consideration) by those who understand them. Drag isn’t easy. The successful Drag Queen has spent many years and thousands of dollars to create her own, special brand. She doesn’t just throw on a wig, paint her eyelids blue and put on a ball gown. The costs are considerable, involving waxing, wigs, jewelry, false fingernails, lipsticks, hair sprays, brushes and puffs, perfumes, fake eyelashes, designer shoes, foam rubber breasts, and, of course, the dresses and accessories themselves, which can cost as much as a new car. Beyond all that, the most successful Drag Queens are expected to throw extravagant parties, especially if they are running for election in the numerous “Royal Courts” that practically every American city has. Empress V Cha Cha, a famous queen from San Francisco, once told me she’d spent $22,000 on entertainment expenses in a single season, all of it out of her own (not very well-padded) pocket.

Let us now consider cult Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux blends. Just as there is “regular” Napa Valley Cabernet (no slouch, that), so too the cults have to exaggerate that style and become much more than regular. If that means riper fruit and more new oak, and perhaps a little Mega Purple, then so be it: People expect flamboyance in their cult Cabs. A “regular” Cabernet doesn’t stun; it’s simply a good wine. A cult Cab is expected to stun, to stand out, to elicit gasps of surprise. It “radicalizes the norm” of standard Cabernet.

Nor are cult wines meant for the masses. Cult Cabs are designed (I choose that verb deliberately) for the connoisseur: the person who likes and appreciates them, who has some understanding of what goes on behind the scenes in crafting one (famous-name winemaker, equally famous flying winemaker, famous proprietor, the glamorous architecture and appointments of most cult wine headquarters, the expensive new French oak barrels, the exclusive mailing list). Just as you or I might try to keep from staring at The Lady Larissa (with her exquisitely blond beauty), but would steal glimpses of her because she is, after all, a work of art, so too is the connoisseur of cult wines above all fascinated by the artistry in the bottle (and often of the bottle). The connoisseur prides himself on possessing the knowledge to recognize the artistry of a cult wine, in the same way that the best admirer of a superbly-made up Drag Queen is another Drag Queen. Only they know how much trouble it takes to look that good.

What of names? Cult wine designations themselves can sound like Drag Queens: Maya. Les Pavots. Cariad. Screaming Eagle, when you think about it, could easily be Lady Screaming Eagle, part Joan Crawford “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” horror show, part vampiric Angelina Jolie. The camp aspect of cult wines lies in their appeal, in the way they elevate us by allowing us to share in their mystery–even if we ourselves are ordinary mere mortals. Just as Americans are fascinated by the celebrities who adorn the covers of supermarket tabloids, so cult connoisseurs are fascinated by the most elite and expensive Napa Valley Cabernets. These wines are the Drag Queens of wine: exotic, unfathomable, exaggeratedly gorgeous, glamorous, worshipful and a little insane: all that effort for something so ephemeral (wine is drank and pissed out; makeup is washed off when the party’s over). The quibble (which almost all wine critics routinely note) is that cult Cabernet, as a “star” wine, is not really suitable for everyday pairing with food; like diva Drag Queens, the cult Cab selfishly demands to be loved on her own, without competition. And, finally, like the great diva Drag Queens, each cult wine has its groupies. Drags have their courts; with cult wines, they’re called mailing list members.


First crush at Tim Mondavi’s new Continuum winery

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Tim Mondavi presided over yesterday’s blessing of the grapes at his new Continuum winery facility yesterday, in an ancient Catholic ceremony famously practiced every year by his late father, Robert Mondavi. Robert’s first blessing was in 1966, at his eponymous Oakville winery. His younger son’s ceremony was up on Pritchard Hill, where his estate vineyard is located. The wines up to now have been made elsewhere, but the new winery building is now completed, just in time for the 2013 crush–which falls on the 100th anniversary of Robert’s birth.

Continuum is one helluva wine. I’ve scored it in the 90s every vintage since 2005, with 2007 taking top honors at 97 points. But then, I’ve always been a big fan of the 2007 Napa Cabs. Plush and delicious right out of the bottle, but ageworthy.

Could 2013 develop into a super-vintage? All the indications are positive. The weather has been steady as she goes all year. Except for last Saturday’s gullywasher, September has been a dream month. I always say that grapes like the same kind of weather we humans do: warm, dry sunny days, nights chilly enough to need a blanket. And the long-range forecast, right into the beginning of October, is for more of the same. High pressure is keeping storms well to the north.

From what I hear, the crop yield will be large, although nowhere near the size of 2012. Vintners are always predicting a successful vintage even when they know it’s not, but this time, 2013 could be one for the history books. All the grapes ought to be in the cellar by the third week of October (except, I suppose, for the most late-ripening areas). The one problem I’ve heard of concerns water, or more properly, lack of it. We are in a drought. The Central Coast, where rainfall always is lower than in the North Coast, has been hard hit, with Paso Robles bearing the brunt. A local newspaper reported last month that the area’s water table has dropped by seventy feet since 1997. The problem is exacerbated by an increasing population, as more and more people desire to live in this beautiful country of vineyards, rolling hills and warm summers.

Anyway, congratulations to Tim Mondavi, his family and the crew at Continuum. Mazel tov on the new winery. Your father would be so proud of you. And what a great year for your first crush!


Malbec in California? Mixed bag, emerging story

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I reviewed a very nice wine from Trefethen, the 2010 Dragon’s Tooth, a blend of 58% Malbec, 22% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Petit Verdot. (My full review and score will appear in an upcoming issue of Wine Enthusiast.)

In the paperwork accompanying the wine, Janet Trefethen had written of the winery’s “tinkering with Malbec for the past 12 years” and added, “Clearly, we are not alone in our interest in Malbec as Napa Valley plantings have tripled since the year 2000.”

That sent me to do my own research in the latest Grape Acreage Report, produced every year by the fine folks at the California Department of Food and Agriculture. According to it, prior to 2004 the state had 1,255 acres of Malbec. Last year, acreage had grown to 2,689–considerably more than double. Acreage of Cabernet Sauvignon in California, by contrast, increased in the same period from 71,472 acres to only 80,630–a much smaller rate of growth.

In Napa County, according to the Acreage Report, Malbec increased 70% in acreage between 2004-2012, from 230 acres to 392 acres. That’s still not a lot: There were just under 20,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in 2012. Still, this is evidence that vintners are taking a second look at Malbec and what it can bring to red wine.

Personally, I don’t think California Malbec, bottled on its own as a varietal, is very interesting. Dark, tannic and fruity, yes: compelling, rarely. My scores tend to be in the 86-88 point range. There are, as always, exceptions: Mt. Brave’s 2009, from Mount Veeder, is an awesome wine.

But as a blender, well,…Some wineries in Paso Robles (Bon Niche, for example) are tinkering with Malbec as a component, as are others in Napa: Michael Pozzan’s 2010 Marianna, a Bordeaux blend, is excellent, as is Mount Veeder’s 2009 Reserve Cabernet, blended with Malbec and Petit Verdot. That formula is hewed to at CADE, which adds a little Merlot to it, with their 2009 Napa Cuvée. Newton, meanwhile, replaces the Petit Verdot with Cabernet Franc in their delicious 2010 Unfiltered Merlot. Across the hill, Lancaster, in their 2009 Nicole’s, deepens the interest of their Cabernet Sauvignon with 25% Malbec, bringing a brooding, earthy quality. In all these cases, what the Malbec brings is depth, color, and a certain juicy softness despite the tannins.

Just yesterday morning, Peter Cargasacchi had asked, via Facebook, what the components of the 1961 Cheval Blanc had been. I went to Eddie Penning-Rowsell’s 1969 The Wines of Bordeaux where he wrote that the vineyard, in the Sixties, was “37% Merlot, 43 Bouchet and 20% Pressac (Malbec).” (“Bouchet” apparently was not the Alicante that we know in California, but an old name for Cabernet Franc.) Michael Broadbent, in The Great Vintage Wine Book, ranked that wine higher than Ausone of the same vintage, although not as highly as the five First Growths of the Médoc. The point, anyway, is that Malbec in Bordeaux and especially in the Right Bank historically was considered good enough to put into the cuvée, but I think it’s lost its luster in recent decades; after the devastating 1956 frost in Bordeaux, which killed much of it off, it was replaced with other grapes, in the belief perhaps that Malbec is a bit rustic. (That is precisely the word Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson use to describe it, in The World Atlas of Wine.)

It is rustic, although I certainly wouldn’t complain if you opened a bottle of Catena Zapata for me. I suspect that Malbec’s recent popularity in Napa Valley is as much due to the search for novelty (and playing off its popularity in Argentina) as anything else. Sometimes, winemakers “throw spaghetti at the wall” to see what sticks. I suppose you can’t blame them for not wanting to rest on their laurels, but sometimes I wonder where the line is between innovation that actually improves things, as opposed to change for its own sake.


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