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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.


Why big is better (but just up to a point)

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In my job as a critic who gives point scores to wines, even after all these years I still think all the time about just why I give high scores to certain wines and not-so-high scores to most others.

Just what is it that, in my head, makes one Cabernet score 96 points and another “only” 89? It’s not that the latter Cab is bad. In fact, it may be better to drink (under certain circumstances) than the former. This is where a certain arbitrariness comes in–but it’s an arbitrariness with rules.

The main thing I look for in a wine is power. There are synonyms for power: concentration, intensity, volume, size, mass. (These are all nouns; their corresponding adjectives would be words like intense, massive, powerful, huge, etc.). The more mass a wine has, the more likely I am to give it a high score.

It can be tricky, though, determining the line between mass that’s pleasingly balanced, and mass that’s just power for its own sake. I hate to engage in meaningless metaphors, but I sometimes make analogies in my mind to power that’s controlled, as opposed to uncontrolled power. Imagine a large dam, like Hoover Dam or Boulder Dam. Controlled power is when the dam’s walls hold; the force of all that water can be used for productive ends, such as the manufacture of power to turn turbines. That’s controlled power. Imagine next that an earthquake destroys the dam’s foundations, resulting in a great flood that destroys forests and buildings and lives. That’s uncontrolled power.

I realize the comparison isn’t perfect, but that’s how it feels to me when I taste–the kind of sense impression the wine gives, from my first glimpse and sniff to the way it occupies my mouth. And quite often, I find the balance of power, especially in red wines, slipping away from control into abandonment and chaos.

This usually happens when a winery has two (or more) tiers of a wine, often expressed as a “regular” regional bottling and a “reserve.” Most often the reserve is a more concentrated version of the regular; that is, whatever characteristics the regular has (specific flavors, quality of tannins and oak, acidity, alcohol), the reserve will possess also, but in spades: everything will be more, greater, more evident. Sometimes, this works. Sometimes, it doesn’t. Sometimes, more is more; sometimes, more is less. Just because the wine goes from 60% new French oak to 100% (or 200%) new French oak doesn’t make it better; it can make the wine merely oakier, which in itself is not balance but imbalance. Same with fruity concentration. There are technical ways of increasing the extract in wine, but the winemaker has to be very careful with tinkering, because there’s a thin line between “massive fruit” (a term I might use positively) and a fruit bomb. Sometimes, I taste these reserve-style Cabs and I’ll give it a lower score than the regular Cab (even though it costs a lot more money) for the very reason that the winemaker tried too hard to impress with sheer force. There is something to be said for finesse, restraint, elegance: Just because the California sunshine and warmth allows you to make a fruit bomb doesn’t mean you ought to.

The final step in my thinking process when reviewing such wines is, inevitably, this: Granted that the wine tastes clumsy now, might it age? Part of the problem is that the way I was educated about wine. I read the likes of Professor Saintsbury and Eddie Penning-Rowsell and learned to appreciate that a fine Bordeaux that tastes hard and unyielding in youth might turn out silky and delicious if given enough time in the cellar. Well, that’s true, as far as it goes: But there’s a big difference between a young wine that’s clumsy because it’s hard and tannic, and one that’s clumsy because it’s a fruit bomb. I don’t think it’s right to assume that a wine will age simply because (a) it’s a Napa Valley Cab, (b) it costs triple digits and (c) it has more fruit than a roadside fruit stand in August.

If there’s a cautionary tale here, it’s to advise vintners that just because you can extract massive fruit doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Show some restraint, please. Not just in reds but in whites: I’ve seen too many perfectly fine Chardonnays ruined by massive applications of oak, or oak-like aromas and flavors. I’ve always defended California from the naysayers who claim it’s too hot here to grow fine wine (a patent absurdity), but it is getting difficult to defend these over-extracted, overly-oaked, too soft and too sweet wines that seem to be popping up even in the $30-$40 and up ultrapremium range.


Did you hear the news about The Hosemaster?

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I was shocked, and saddened–immensely so, almost to the point of grief (except that I didn’t feel anything remotely resembling grief, just a kind of emptiness, like the inside of an empty wine bottle, or the content of a Joe Roberts blog)–when I learned, suddenly, and almost serendipitously (for, if Gus hadn’t vomited, forcing me to rush to Whole Foods to buy some paper towels [Fair Trade, recycled], then I wouldn’t have put on my iPod, which happened to be tuned to a local radio station, which is where I heard the tragic, almost unbelievable news–made all the more grimly believable by the announcer’s nasal flatness–news that stunned me, not to the point of being immobilized–I wouldn’t go that far–but that “knocked me on my heels” [to paraphrase something Shakespeare once said. Or wrote. Or could it  have been Joe Pesci?]. Of course, I don’t mean “knocked me on my heels” literally; what would that look like, anyhow? Picture a guy–me!–walking down the street suddenly being “knocked on his heels.” I have no idea what that would look like, and I bet you don’t either. It’s just an expression, and that’s the thing about expressions: they don’t mean anything, but are meant to convey a mood, a feeling, a frisson of some kind. Anyway, I was talking about the news, and the way I felt when it was made horrifyingly, nauseatingly clear to me, listening through my ear buds, that Ron Washam, the Hosemaster of Wine, had been killed.

And not just in any old way. No: In one of those bizarre twists of fate (similar to the way Antonio Galloni was recently paralyzed when he fell into an empty concrete egg somewhere in Brunello) that verges on irony, the poor Hosemaster was simply minding his own business, proceeding north on East First Street, in Sonoma (presumably on his way somewhere, although we don’t yet know precisely where; Vinography has speculated that he was on his way to get an erotic massage from a new joint that opened on the edge of town, but I’m not sure that’s true; and, at any rate, hardly seems relevant to the story. Although it is interesting…), when he was struck, unceremoniously and without warning, by a small truck (apparently an ex-UPS truck), owned and driven by the former social media maven, Hardy Wallace, and loaded down with the former’s Squalid and Filthy wines (I’m always forgetting the name of Hardy’s brand. Evil and Repugnant? Lewd and Malicious? Soiled and Perplexed? It has two words, both of them adjectives, I believe, and one of them has to do with being “in a state of tawdry deshabille,” which is an odd association for wine, but then, maybe not). Hardy, it seems, got distracted when he saw he was getting an incoming text message from (to further compound the weird series of coincidences that litters this entire tale) none other than Jancis Robison, who (I was told this by Tyler Coleman) was calling to ask if he, Hardy (not Tyler) wished to write for The Purple Pages: $20 an article, not a huge amount of money, given Jancis’s stinginess,, but enough “to fill the tank” [as they used to say; not anymore, at least until oil falls to $20 a barrel, which isn’t likely as long as The Purple Pages exist to infuriate Al Qaeda. But that glance at his portable device was just long enough to cause Hardy to take his eyes off the road [never a good thing], which was just enough to allow the little truck to strike Ron, who had on his own iPod and so didn’t hear the squeal of wheels (and, no, we don’t know what the Hosemaster was listening to; that information is expected to be released by the Sonoma County Coroner’s Office any moment, and as soon as I find out, I’ll tweet it to the world).

BULLETIN: Ron was listening to Amy Winehouse.

What are we to make of this?

1.   The wine world is a poorer place.

2.   The wine world is a better place.

3.   The wine world hasn’t changed a damned bit, one way or the other.

I would say the answer is “All of the above.” Which leads to the next, and possibly more interesting question: What is Hosemaster’s legacy? I would argue the answer must be among the following:

1.   He left no legacy.

2.   He left a legacy, but it is impossible to define what it is with any precision.

3.   He left a legacy, and we all know exactly what it is: It hangs over the industry like a cloud of Beijing pollution, choking in its acridity.

4.   He left a legacy that exalts us, each and every miserable one of us, specks of nothingness that we are: but because such as The Hosemaster once walked among us, we all of us are a teensy, weensy closer to–what?

I would argue that the answer to #4, above, must necessarily be among the following:

1.   We all all closer to our Deaths.

2.   We are even closer to our Deaths than we would have been had The Hosemaster not walked among us.

3.   We all have already died and are now dreaming. (The Hosemaster would have liked that one.)

4.   We now know that Life, including the entire wine industry, is essentially meaningless; this, The Hosemaster taught us, and, once his teaching was concluded, there was no longer any reason to continue among us. In this sense, did Hardy’s truck strike The Hosemaster, or did the Hosemaster strike the truck?

5.   All the above is completely ridiculous.

Here we see a thrilling example of the type of indeterminacy The Hosemaster spoke of; his life was, in a sense, a perfect example of it. One never was able to determine both The Hosemaster’s position and his velocity simultaneously, or even if he was particle or wave. We shall ponder these enigmas until the last wine blog dies.

On a more personal note: You know we journalists aren’t supposed to inject our feelings into our reportage, but in this case, I simply must, and I hope you will forgive me. I am at the moment overrun with feelings, and not just because of that huge burrito I chowed down for lunch. No, it’s more than that. I admired Hosemaster, looked up to him as a kind of Older Brother. He could be funny one moment, bitingly sarcastic the next, but always oozed a Mother Theresa-esque compassion. In fact, Hosemaster was a Saint. I think we should take up a collection and build a statue of him. We could tear down that nasty “Welcome to Napa Valley” sign on Highway 29–nobody likes it anyway–and replace it with a 40-foot replica of our own Hosie, arms spread, sporting a smile as big as all outdoors that seems to say to visitors, “Hey there! What took you so long?” After all, who more represented Napa Valley than Ron Washam? Robert Mondavi? I think not. Ron WAS Napa: its soils and pebbles, its alluvial fans, its foggy nights, its diners and auto body shops and hardware stores. Above all, Ron’s everyman sort of demeanor symbolized Napa’s enduring values. Are you with me on this one? If you are, let me know. I can already feel the Hosemaster bashers out there (and they know who they are), getting ready to smear his legacy. Let us not let them do that. We are better than than. Ron Washam taught us how to be better than that.


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