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What is “nobility” in wine?

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Why are Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay “noble” varieties? Why isn’t Zinfandel? Can Syrah be “noble”? Is sparkling wine “noble”?

First, we have to define “noble.” It’s an oldish word when applied to wine. From Wikipedia: “Noble grapes are any grapes traditionally associated with the highest quality wines. This concept is not as common today, partly because of the proliferation of hybrid grape varieties, and partly because some critics feel that it unfairly prioritizes varieties grown within France. Historically speaking, the noble grapes comprised only six varieties: Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.”

It’s tempting for me to side with the democrats [small “d”] in this argument–the ones who feel that de-nobleizing certain varieties because they’re not French is unfair and patronizing. But there are sound reasons for preserving our current understanding of varietal nobility.

The most important of these reasons is that, in California as in France, a handful of varieties clearly makes the best wines, and has for pretty much as long as the state’s wine industry has existed. All I need do is go to Wine Enthusiast’s database to confirm this. Since the first of this year, all 30 of my highest-scoring wines have been either Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, with the single exception of a Nickel & Nickel 2010 Merlot, from the Harris Vineyard, in Oakville. (And I, personally, would not include Merlot among the nobles, at least in California.)

Why do these wines score higher than other varieties? Ahh, here we get into the fuzzy details, which are impossible of proof. But let me try. First and foremost, there is structure, a word that seems comprehensible at first. Structure is architecture: just as you can have the most beautiful stuff (paintings, carpets, furniture, vases) in the world, but it’s only a mere pile if it doesn’t have a room or home in which to reside, so too wine needs walls, a floor, a ceiling, a sense of stolidity and solidity, else it become simple flavor. And flavor, in and of itself, has never been the primary attribute of great wine.

California, of course, has no problem developing flavor, in any variety. That’s due to our climate: grapes ripen dependably. To the extent California wines are the target of criticism, it is because Europhiles find a dreary sameness to too many of them. Even I, as staunch a defender of California wine as there is, find this to be true. Too often, the flavors of red wines suggest blackberries and cherries and chocolate, whether it’s Syrah, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Grenache, Cabernet, Merlot, Tempranillo. It’s easy for such wines to score 87 points, or 89 points, or even 91 points: these are good scores, but not great ones, limited by the wines’ lack of structure.

Structure, of course, is composed primarily of acidity and tannins, the latter of which may come from both the grapes and the oak treatment. (I won’t get into the mysteries of minerality.) Yet there are elements of structure that are more difficult to define. Texture is an element of structure, just as the way a room feels is an element of its architecture. Imagine a room with soaring roof and large windows that let in the sunlight, as opposed to a cramped, pinched room, a closet or storage area. The former feels more satisfactory to our senses and esthetics. So too does a wine with great texture feel superior. It can be the hardest thing in the world to put into words, but even amateurs will appreciate the difference between a beautifully-structured wine and its opposite. (I have proven this many times, with my wine-drinking friends who have but limited understanding of it.)

So why don’t we allow Zinfandel into the ranks of noble wines? I suppose an argument could be made that we should, for at its highest expressions–Williams Selyem, De Loach, Elyse, Ravenswood, Bella, Turley–Zinfandel does fulfill the structural and textural prerequisites of a noble wine. But too often, it does not: a Zinfandel can be classic Zin for its style (Dry Creek Valley, Amador County) and yet be a little rustic, in a shabby-chic way. Sometimes this is due to excessive alcohol, sometimes to overripened fruit, but no matter the cause, and no matter how much fun that Zin is to drink with barbecue, the last thing I’d call most Zins is noble. Zinfandel is Conan the Barbarian, ready to chop your head off and stick it on the tip of a spear.

Can sparkling wine be said to be noble? It is most often, of course, a blend of two noble varieties, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, so why not? The answer is as simple as this: We call varieties “noble,” not wine types. Perhaps we should expand the definition of “noble” to include types, not just sparkling blends but Sherry and Port. Certainly these are great wines, if underappreciated nowadays. I keep my eye, also, on some of the surprisingly eccentric red blends being produced lately, mainly by younger winemakers (often in Paso Robles), who are mixing varieties in unprecedented and triumphant ways, proving that a wine doesn’t have to be varietal (as defined by the TTB) in order to be great.

But I’m comfortable for the time being restricting nobility to just a handful of varieties in California: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Not Riesling, not yet, in our state. Not Sauvignon Blanc, not yet, in our state. Not Syrah, not yet, in our state. And not, as I have said, Merlot. Any one of these latter varieties can produce great wine, but it will be the exception.


What will it take for the Chinese to embrace Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon?

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The Holy Grail for California wine has been China. With its hundreds of millions of emerging upper-middle class consumers, Cali producers see a vast new source of demand. The problem is how to persuade all those Chinese that they want California wine.

We already know they want French wine. Parker has been investing his time and energy heavily in China for many years (I remember raised eyebrows when he started visiting with regularity, but he was ahead of his time, wasn’t he?), and now, of course, a Singapore outfit owns Wine Advocate.

RMP himself is now back tasting California wine. (Ironic, isn’t it? First he said he didn’t want to anymore. Then “the troubles” went down with Galloni, and The Man Himself was compelled to return to a beat he’d previously said he was tired of.) So, while the Wine Advocate is competition for the magazine I write for, Wine Enthusiast, I do think that Parker is in a position to publicize to wealthy Chinese consumers the Napa cult wineries he likes. If I were a cult Napa producer, I’d be all over Parker, inviting him to the winery, getting my wines into his hands, then keeping my fingers crossed for a 99 or even a perfect 100.

But I also think Wine Enthusiast has growing clout in China, a clout that will only increase over time. Last year we began a Mandarin edition of the magazine, and my understanding is that it’s doing quite well. It was, I believe, the first important English-language wine periodical to be published in the Chinese language. And, as that edition also reports on my scores and reviews of Napa cult wines, I think it’s likely that those scores will drive sales, too.

Of course, some Napa wineries don’t have to worry about scores. Yao Ming’s wines ($625 for the 2009 Family Reserve) were an instant hit in China, for obvious reasons. I suspect that Screaming Eagle and Harlan also are doing well. The kind of people in China who can afford them have extensive connections with the west. They tend to speak English and are aware of the consumer goods, including wine, that are popular and prestigious in America. They take their cues from rich Americans and are ever alert to symbols of status and preference. Since critics like Parker tend to rate these wines highly, that should make them in high demand in China.

What about the other hundred or so Napa cult Cabs?

It’s terribly difficult for individual wineries to market themselves in China. But the Napa Valley Vintners has been plying those waters for a long time. This article, from the Huffington Post, does a good job describing the general contours of breaking into the Chinese market, but to me, the bullet quote is from Harlan’s GM, Don Weaver“Trying to solve the China puzzle is the most exciting part of my job right now.” The adjective “exciting” is an interesting choice; Don might have used “challenging,” but when you rise to meet a challenge, and then perhaps exceed it, it is exciting.  (I felt that way when I was awarded my first Black Belt in karate.)

Napa wineries (and others in California) also recently got a boost from Gov. Jerry Brown, a longtime friend of the wine industry, when his April trade mission to Shanghai (which included Wine Institute’s CEO, Bobby Koch), promoted the state’s wines; the promotion also included a “Taste Napa Valley” event sponsored by Wine Institute.

These activities all are promising, and the people organizing and managing them are very good at what they do. But there’s a limit to how effective they can be at the individual winery level. If you’re selling a 93 point Cabernet for $100 or more, and you don’t have an ultra-famous name and have only been around for a few years, you’re going to have a tough time, whether it’s here in the States or in the People’s Republic. It’s those Napa Cabs I wonder about. Who’s buying them? Who will be buying them? Maybe their proprietors are so rich they can afford to break even, or even lose a little money, for a decade or two. I have a feeling they’re about to find out.


The connection between high scores and ageability

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It’s funny that I never really thought about it until recently, when I was browsing through my reviews in Wine Enthusiast’s database and realized that I had chosen the special designation of “Cellar Selection” for about 80% of my highest scoring wines.

If you’d asked me what parameters form the basis of a high score (let’s say anything above 95 points), I would have referred you to the magazine’s guidelines. They say things like “truly superb,” “great complexity,” “memorable,” “pinnacle of expression,” “complete harmony and balance,” “absolute best,” but the guidelines are silent on the question of ageability.

Had you pressed me to more fully explain a high score, I suppose at some point the “A” word would have arisen. But in and of itself, “ageability” does not equal great wine. Many wines will age, some for a long time, yet are not particularly complex or beautiful, either in youth or in old age.

And yet, my highest scoring wines, from this year alone, include Williams Selyem 2010 30th Anniversary Pinot Noir, Rochioli 2011 West Block Pinot Noir, Freemark Abbey 2009 Sycamore Vineyard Cabernet, Flora Springs 2010 Hillside Reserve Cabernet, Tantara 2010 Gwendolyn Pinot Noir, Matanzas Creek 2010 Journey, Terra Valentine 2010 K-Block Cabernet, Stonestreet 2010 Rockfall Cabernet, B Cellars 2009 Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Cabernet, Jarvis 2007 Estate Cabernet, Von Strasser 2010 Sori Bricco Cabernet, Sodaro 2009 Doti-Sodaro Blocks 2 and 6 Cabernet, and, another Beckstoffer coup, Janzen 2010 Beckstoffer Missouri Hopper Vineyard Cabernet. All 95 points or higher, all Cellar Selections.

What I look for in predicting ageability are two things, or three, depending on how you define them. First is an immediate reaction (from the nose/palate via the brain) of stunned impressionability. It’s a simple “Wow!” factor, although of course there’s nothing simple about it. Now, any wine can possess the “Wow!” factor without being ageable. A lot of it has to do with what Dr. Leary called “set and setting,” i.e. where you are (the external circumstances) and your mindset (subjective factors). A silky Beaujolais, like the one I had the other night, achieved the “Wow!” factor, because it was a warm evening, I had slightly chilled the bottle, and with it I enjoyed a soy-glazed tuna burger (homemade) and the company of someone special to me. But that Beaujolais was not an ageable wine, and if I were scoring it, I would have given it around 90.

The next thing I look for, in determining ageability, is an immature quality that makes the wine, good as it is, undrinkable, this latter word used in the old British sense of “too young to enjoy now” (although I’m always careful to point out that even a California wine that’s “too young to enjoy now” is, of course, enjoyable now, if you like it that way. The Cellar Police will not slap you into Guantanamo). What makes a wine “too young now,” for me, are, usually, dense tannins that numb the palate, but this is not so great a problem as it used to be (in California or in France) because modern tannin management regimes render even the hardest tannins more mellifluous (the adjective “mellifluous” being a good example of its own definition). A greater problem is what I call the unintegrated quality of a young wine’s parts. Those parts include oak, fruit, alcohol, acidity and tannins, and if they feel (in the mouth) like a herd of cats, each going its own way, resistant to corralling, then the wine is unintegrated. A subset of this is that California fruit can be overwhelming in youth, a detonation of jam that makes them too obvious–“Tammy Faye Bakker,” in the words of a Frenchman I know who crafts wines (or seeks to) of greater finesse and control.

The final aspect of determining ageability is the history and reputation of the winery. I make the previous two determinations blind, but this third factor weaves its way in when I take the bottle out of its covering bag. If I’ve already determined that the wine is ageable, that is going to appear in the review; but if I then see that it’s a wine I know for a fact ages well (say, a Williams Selyem Allen Vineyard Pinot Noir), that seals the deal, as they say. In general, I don’t like to stretch the window of ageability too far into an uncertain future (the way RMP does), but if I know the wine has a good history of hitting, say, 10 or 20 years, I’ll say so. (Corison Cabernets are a good example of this.) Which obviously makes it difficult when the wine is a new brand, without history, of which there are many, particularly in those bastions of ageability, Napa Valley Cabernet and cool-climate Pinot Noir. But, going through my highest-scoring wines, I see very few new brands among them. Mostly they are the older, traditional names, which is just as you’d expect.


Another discussion of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvginon, by way of Warren Winiarski and Bernard Portet

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If there’s a godfather of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (now that Robert Mondavi  and André Tchelistcheff no longer are with us), it has to be Warren Winiarski.

Although he sold Stags Leap Wine Cellars years ago, it was he who crafted the 1973 Cabernet that won the red wine prize at the Paris Tasting (1976), the signal event that launched Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon onto the world stage (although it would have gotten there sooner or later anyway, and an argument can be made that it already was out of its chair and advancing toward the stage, when it was catapulted there by Steven Spurrier’s timely contest).

And now Winiarski, comparing today’s Napa Cabs to “milkshakes,” has told the Washington Post that he considers them to be “one-dimensional behemoths that lack complexity and elegance.” (I am quoting here the author of the WaPo article, Dave McIntyre, who, since he did not put these words in quotation marks, hopefully was correctly paraphrasing Winiarski.)

This has got to come as a blow to certain quarters in Napa Valley, and also as relief to the [many] critics who have been slamming Napa Valley Cabernet the past several years. They now have, on their side, a true valley insider. And Winiarski is not alone. The article goes on to include Bernard Portet (founder of Clos du Val) among the critics of high-octane Cabs. Portet resurrects the theory that too many Napa winemakers, in an effort to get high scores from certain critics, deliberately forego “modesty” and “elegance” for power.

That there is a backlash against Napa Cabernet, and a serious one at that, can hardly be disputed. The piling on has begun in earnest when senior voices within Napa itself are joining in. So we have to step back and take a closer look.

Consider two wines. First there is the Stag’s Leap 2009 Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon (94 points, $210; all cited reviews are mine in Wine Enthusiast). The alcohol was a reasonably modest 13.5% (according to the label), but then, as I noted in my review, that was undoubtedly because of the cooler vintage: the 2008 Cask 23 had measured 14.5%. (For the record, I gave it 97 points.)

The other wine I want to discuss is the David Arthur 2009 Elevation 1147 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (99 points, $150). The official alcohol was 14.8%. I take it as a given that this is the type of wine the critics of opulence and power have in mind. (Do you have a better candidate? If so, what?) I tremendously enjoyed and respected both the David Arthur and the Stag’s Leap, and it would be a mistake to assume that, just because I gave the former 5 points more than the latter, that I thought it was a better wine. On another day, under blind-tasting circumstances, the scores might have been tighter. (What other critic will tell you that?) So both of them were very, very good Cabernets.

Now, the difference in alcohol between the Stag’s Leap 2008’s 14.5% and the David Arthur’s 2009 14.8% isn’t very much, is it? And I did score them within two points of each other. Admittedly, the Stag’s Leap 2009 was a full 1.3% by volume lower than the David Arthur; but then, I gave the 2008 a higher score, which suggests to me that there is a direct relationship between plushness (as I perceive it) and alcohol level–although you cannot carry this argument so far that you would say a 16.2% Cabernet would be even better. Clearly, we’re talking about a sweet spot for Cabernet, below which the wine is unripe and above which it loses balance.

The question becomes, where is that sweet spot? For me I’d put it somewhere around 13.5% at the lower end and around 15% at the upper end. This doesn’t seem to me to represent an intellectually indefensible spread. The high-octane critics (among whom we now must include Winiarski and Portet) would suggest otherwise, and they have a right to their opinion, but I don’t see vast differences (in pleasure or ageability) between the Stag’s Leap 2008 and 2009 and the David Arthur 2009. Different wines, certainly. This gets us into the “how many glasses can you drink before the wine palls” debate, which is the slickest of the anti-high alcohol arguments. Portet used a form of it in the article: “[M]ake a wine that tastes good, which means when you have a meal with family or friends, it invites you to have a second or third glass. If you only want one glass, get back to work,” i.e., you have not succeeded in making a balanced wine.

These angels-dancing-on-pinhead debates remind me of my Yiddish forebears arguing over the meaning of a phrase or even a letter in the Torah. I personally could drink an entire bottle of a Cabernet like the David Arthur (over many hours, with the right foods), so to me the Portet criticism doesn’t work. But so too could I drink a bottle of the Stag’s Leap 2009. It perhaps is a slightly more elegant wine, so I might prefer it with a simply grilled steak, whereas I might pile on the mushrooms and wine reduction sauce with the David Arthur. In this endless hassling over alcohol level, too often people forget to include food in the equation. No Cabernet Sauvignon is meant to be consumed by itself; the food provides the context that makes the wine perfect, or not.


Sex in the wine industry, and those 2010 Cabernets

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There have always been gay and Lesbian people in the wine business, of course; some pretty famous winemakers have been, not to mention a contingent on the P.R. and marketing side.

But the wine biz is inherently a conservative one, not so much politically (I think most of the California industry tends to be liberal), as socially. There are certain modes of behavior that are expected (don’t get drunk unless you can hold your liquor, treat your colleagues with respect, don’t gossip too much, avoid cursing), and it is expected that things such as sexuality are not flaunted (whatever the orientation) but are treated with discretion.

This doesn’t mean that late night conversations, after copious amounts of alcohol have been consumed between trusting adults, don’t sometimes wander into…well, let’s just call it terra rauncho. It happens, even in mixed company. (I could relate a certain chat in the bar of the Ritz Carlton Kapalua last week that made even my limited amount of hair stand up.) Still, the topic of sexuality has been largely kept in the closet (pun intended).

This is changing. There are people who are “out” in a big way. Older gay men and women tend to be quieter about it, but a younger generation is bolder, and good for them, I say. There also are wineries that are overtly gay-friendly; this article mentions a few of them, but I think there are more. Certainly the wine industry is wise to welcome all of America’s demographics into its embrace. A gay dollar is as green as a straight one.

* * *

Much has been made of the “difficult” 2010 vintage in California. Jon Bonné, for example, calls it “complicated,” and certainly it did throw some curve balls to vintners. The cold was the main problem; I’ve detected a large number of Pinot Noirs, in particular, that smell moldy. Heavy rains in mid-October came right in the middle of the Cabernet harvest. Earlier, record heat in late September cooked some Bordeaux varieties. Despite the rosy scenarios issued by the Napa Valley Vintners, in their annual harvest report, winemakers off the record were less optimistic. Or perhaps the better word is “philosophical.” In November of 2010, after all the grapes were in, I had a conversation with Merryvale’s assistant winemaker, in which he conceded that the vintage would be “atypical” (in the sense of lacking the expected Napa lushness), but insisted that the Cabernets would still have “quality, regardless of what form it takes.” What did he mean? “Yes, maybe there’s a mintiness to this, and maybe there’s an herbalness to it, but these are still quality wines.”

I’ll leave it to others to decide how much mintiness and herbalness they like in their Cabernets. I haven’t had Merryvale’s 2010 Cabernet because they haven’t yet sent it to me. But I have reviewed some terrific 2010 Cabs that prove great wineries can produce great wines even in a tough vintage. Among the best have been Flora Springs Rutherford Hillside Reserve, all the Von Strassers, Terra Valentine K-Block, Stonestreet Rockfall and also Stonestreet Christopher’s and Jarvis Estate–all mountain or hillside vineyards, where presumably the September heat was not quite as intense, while the October rains drained off.


Here comes Napa Auction week!

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The valley is all atwitter. The private jets and limos will swoosh in, millions of dollars will be spent, endless quantities of gourmet food and wine will be consumed, and then the millionaires and billionaires will depart as quickly as they came, leaving the Napa Valley Vintners to count up the money for charity raised during Auction Napa Valley 2013.

To say this is Napa’s biggest extravaganza of the year is an understatement–and Napa has some pretty extravagant events. (Probably #2 is Premier Napa Valley.) Years ago, I used to bring a hand-held calculator and sit under the auction tent, tallying up the bids myself–a useless, pointless task, since the NVV does it anyway; but then, I was anxious to prove myself as a journalist. As many times as I saw Robert Mondavi, in his big straw hat, encouraging the high rollers, I never failed to be in awe. He was larger than life, legendary, and it’s been gratifying over the years since he passed away to learn more about him from his sons, Michael and Tim, and his grandchildren.

Nowadays I skip the auction and focus on the barrel tasting, held this Friday at Jean-Charles Boisset’s Raymond Vineyards. One can’t easily taste all 90 lots, much less take notes (although one or two bloggers try). I might taste a dozen or two (with spitting, of course), but informally, just enough to register a fast impression, which is usually “This is really a nice wine,” because, in fact, the majority of them are, which is what you’d expect. But a huge, crowded, noisy room is hardly the place to focus.

Sometimes, wandering through the crowd, my eyes will lock onto a proprietor’s eyes whom I recognize, and I feel compelled to walk over to his or her barrel and taste and chat. It’s an opportunity to catch up with old acquaintances and learn new things. Other times, I’ll see a brand I don’t know (and they don’t know me either), and I’ll ask a few questions and take a business card.

There was a minor brouhaha in the Napa Valley Register last week, in which the newspaper’s editorial board responded to suggestions that the auction isn’t really for “everyone” in the valley because it is largely “outside the economic reach of the vast majority of Napa County residents.”

That may be true; but the paper strongly defended the auction, and of course, they’re right. The auction has raised $110 million over the years which has gone to help mainly the agricultural workers and their families, through housing assistance and the provision of healthcare at Queen of the Valley Medical Center and local clinics, as well as a variety of non-profits that support the community in many ways, from schools to legal aid.  That’s not even counting the money that auction attendees drop at local businesses, from gas stations to limos, restaurants and hotels . So obviously the auction is a huge boon to everyone who lives in Napa Valley.

I’m looking forward to this visit. You can criticize Napa Valley Cabernet all you want, especially if you’re an effete New York critic or California writer looking to establish a reputation. But the fact remains that Napa Valley changed the world conversation about Cabernet and (dare I call it?) Bordeaux-style blends to such an extent that we should never, ever again refer to Bordeaux again in any discussion of Napa Valley. Actually, they should refer to us.


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