It’s Friday morning, day two of the Alexander Valley Cabernet Academy, where I’m moderating a series of panels for about 35 sommeliers, from all over the country, who were invited to the event, which is sponsored by the Alexander Valley Winegrowers.
I think AVW’s feeling is that Cabernet Sauvignon is their primary grape and wine, and perhaps people don’t understand what makes it unique from other regions. This is remarkably similar to what’s occurring in Paso Robles, where I also moderated a panel just a few weeks ago for their Cab Collective, an event aimed–not at somms–but at the public, but also meant to demonstrate how good Paso Cab can be.
Panel 1 yesterday was on Cabs of the southern part of Alexander Valley: Alexander Valley’s Reserve, Lancaster Estate, Hawkes Pyramid, Stuhlmuller Reserve, Simi Landslide, Hoot Owl, Silver Oak, all from the 2008 vintage. It was good to taste these Cabs with a little bottle age on them: All were beginning (as I said) to “turn the corner” from expressing primary fruit to more bottle aged notes. All were very interesting, soft and round in the Alexander Valley way. Some had a touch of the herbaceousness that also historically has marked this valley’s Cabs. All also showed firm tannins, although two–the Lancaster and the Simi–were harder than the others. Most of the wines will benefit from 8-10 more years. My own feeling was that the Hoot Owl was the most advanced, though. That wine was higher in alcohol and riper than the others, more “Napa-esque” if you will, and I thought its future is limited for those reasons as it’s already showing signs of premature aging.
That tasting was held at Hawkes beautiful property, on a windy hillside that is officially in Alexander Valley, but might as well have been in Chalk Hill, for all I could tell. The day had dawned cloudy, cool and rainy, after our gorgeous Spring, not a good omen for the Academy. But it cleared up and turned sunny and mild, with the result that I, who am at risk of skin cancer the result of my fair complexion and overexposure to the sun in my youth, now have a sunburned nose that’s already beginning to blister. Stupid me.
From Hawkes we took the bus up to Stonestreet for a tasting and lecture from their winemaker, Graham Weerts. I was happy to see Barbara Banke, the proprietor, there; I sat next to her and, as she wished to have Gus sit in her lap, I was happy to comply, as was he. I have to say Gus is a rock star on these road trips.
The Stonestreet wines are really fabulous. Such depth and precision, power married to finesse. That’s mountain vineyards for you, as well as the most refined manufacturing process imaginable. I use that word “manufacturing” deliberately, but cautiously. The Jacksons have the technology to bring perfect grapes to the fermenter, and that technology is not available to many. As I remarked to Graham, after he told us about the process by which inferior grapes are eliminated (involving computerized imaging and blasts of air and what-not), “It’s not romantic, old-fashioned winemaking. But it does make for great wine.”
After Stonestreet we went up to Silver Oak’s estate, where somehow I’d never been. They had set up an educational program on corks, where we could smell corks infected with TCA to varying degrees and test our sensitivity, as well as corks that had other aromas, some pleasurable, some not. It showed us how much the cork can bring to the wine.
That evening the somms went to a barbecue at Hoot Owl and then took the bus down to Healdsburg for a night of gaiety and, I suppose, eating and drinking. I did not join them. I had work to do, Gus was hungry and needed walking, and I wanted to wake up early this morning and get this blog done. I dashed into Geyserville, had an icy cold IPA from 101 North, got some chow from a local eaterie, and went back to the Inn. So now, into the shower, a quick breakfast, then onto the next two panels: mid-Alexander Valley and northern Alexander Valley.
Benjamin Lewis writes, in his superb new book, Claret & Cabs, that the Left Bank of Bordeaux, and to some extent the Right Bank, is undergoing an identity crisis, as more and more Classified Growth chateaux bottle second wines.
It used to be that the handful of chateaux that made a second wine used grapes that were considered not good enough to go into the main wine. But that started to change in the 1990s and 2000s. “[S]econd wines have become profit centers in their own right, and are no longer simply a way to mop up lots that are not successful enough to include in the grand vin,” Lewin writes. “Often enough they have become a separate brand in all but name.”
The result are wines that “have improved significantly” and, with the great 2009 and 2010 vintages, “seemed to reflect their origins more clearly” than the grand wines. In fact, Lewin quotes Bruno Eynard, director of Chateau Lagrange, that “The second wine of a great year today is better than the grand vin of a minor year previously.” !!!
Lewin is not suggesting that proprietors are reducing the quality of the main wine, only that there is now competitive selection to make it into the second wine–with the corresponding result that many chateaux now have a third brand, as well, often bearing a simple communal AOC.
This ties into a phenomenon we’re also seeing here in California, in which top Cabernet wineries, usually in Napa Valley, produce a hierarchy of wines. As readers of my reviews probably know, it is far from certain that the most expensive wine (which may be a vineyard designate or barrel selection) is “better” than the second wine. I’d say that in about one-third of the cases, it is not. (Whether that makes the second wine a value, or the main wine a rip-off, is debatable.) But when the winery has a third tier that bears a simple Napa Valley appellation, the chances of it being pretty ordinary rise significantly. Not naming names– my reviews speak for themselves–but some Napa wineries are releasing these third-tier Cabernets that frankly aren’t worth the price, but merely trade on the winery’s name.
There was a time when vintners had some pride in what they turned out. If they had a lesser quality wine, they’d bulk it out on the market, or else bottle it under a different brand name and do everything in their power to hide the link to the parent winery. Inherent in this strategy, obviously, was the possibility of a reverse one: Some marketing whiz, at some point, would have said, “Wait a minute. Why are we hiding the connection? If we actively promote it, we could charge more money for the lesser wine.” (Mouton-Cadet, anyone?)
Someone in the room, I would think, would have objected that a low score on the lesser wine would taint the image of the main wine. But with the Recession and the current struggle for survival, even of some pretty famous wineries, the marketing message increasingly is triumphing over the moral message.
Last year, Joe Gallo asked me a question: Was Opus One good or bad for the Robert Mondavi brand? I’d never thought about it, so I asked him to give me a few seconds to think about it, and then I said, “Good, because it associated Mondavi with prestigious Bordeaux.”
“Wrong,” Joe Gallo admonished me. “It was bad, because Opus One took all the best fruit, and the Mondavi reserve suffered.”
He may or may not have been correct: certain critics in the 1990s faulted Mondavi Cabernets for lacking power, but that wasn’t necessarily because “Opus took all the best fruit.” Tim Mondavi repeatedly insisted he was not interested in making powerhouse wines, preferring a French style; the criticism that the wines were light (which I never bought into) was therefore a misunderstanding of the winemaker’s intention.
However, Joe Gallo’s argument does underscore the danger when a winery, with only limited access to superior fruit (and what winery has unlimited access to the best fruit?), tinkers around with second and third tiers. Usually, something gets hurt: either the top wine is lowered because quality grapes are diverted from it, or the second or third tier suffers because it has only inferior grapes. This is not to say that a winery cannot successfully produce separate tiers that are each quite good on their own: Freemark Abbey reliably does (with Sycamore, Bosché and the Napa Valley), and so does Stag’s Leap (Cask 23, Fay and Artemis). But I’m afraid they’re more the exceptions that the rule.
I’ve been tasting a lot of Cabernet Sauvignons lately. The 2010s are entering the market in full force; meanwhile, there’s still a good quantity of 2009s also arriving. The fun is in comparing the vintages.
As a wine critic, I’m loathe to come to premature conclusions about vintages. I do it, of course, like just about everyone else; but I don’t particularly like to. My feelings about vintages change over time. My current thinking is that 2009 was the more difficult of the two. It was the first of our recent series of cool years; as Nick Goldschmidt told me at the time, “I don’t think 2009 will be well received. It was just too cool. When you look back at the great vintages in California, they tend to be warmer ones.” The year wasn’t just cool, it rained in the middle of October, just when the Cabernet grapes were entering their final push. Dawnine Dyer, at Dyer Vineyards on Diamond Mountain, told me (on Oct. 30, 2009), “The rain will define the harvest, depending on which side of it you were on.” Jeffrey Stambor, at Beaulieu, told me on the same day, “The rain set up challenging winemaking conditions.”
Some 2009 Napa Cabs just didn’t have the stuffing you expect for the prices they fetched. Not bad wines, but a little broad, lacking focus. Some were marred by high alcohol. When a Cabernet is rich in fruit, it can handle alcohol, but a thin one with lots of alcohol is a misery; and there were plenty of them in Napa Valley in 2009.
On the plus side, those wineries who always make their wines meticulously–the usual suspects–did fine. I loved Goldschmidt’s 2009 Game Ranch Single Vineyard Selection Cabernet (although the name isn’t particularly elegant). Ditto for Freemark Abbey’s 2009 Sycamore, their finest ever. Sodaro, a winery I was unfamiliar with, had an amazing ’09 Doti-Sodaro Blocks 2 and 6 Cabernet. (I later found out that Bill and Dawnine Dyer had made it, which makes this the second mention Dawnine gets in this post!) And B Cellars had a really good portfolio of 2009s (and I did not know at the time that Kirk Venge was their winemaker. He is hands down turning into one of the best in the valley). All in all, though, 2009 was a routine year.
Then we come to 2010. It blew everyone’s mind because it was so cool (before 2011 came along, which was even colder). Oddly, the late summer also was punctuated by severe heat waves. A huge one around Sept. 27 was so severe, Genevieve Janssens, at Robert Mondavi, told me that “the Petit Verdot and Malbec are largely burned out.” (That heat wave lasted for days. Sept. 29 was the hottest day ever recorded in Los Angeles.)
Following the heat, the weather was a roller coaster of picture-perfect days, rain, followed by more perfection. I made the following note in my vintage diary, on Oct. 23: “Mountain Cabernet could be fine,” because the rainwater runs off.
And in fact, when I look at my highest-scoring 2010 Napa Cabs, they’re from mountains and hillsides: Flora Springs Rutherford Hillside Reserve, everything from Von Strasser on Diamond Mountain, Terra Valentine K-Block, from Spring Mountain, Communication Block Lampyridae, from Mount Veeder (made by Aaron Pott). Beckstoffer’s To Kalon also produced some fabulous 2010s; it’s not a mountain vineyard, so it must be the super-fantastic viticulture Andrew B. and his team practice.
Running into Gary Eberle again at this weekend’s big Cab event in Paso Robles brought back beautiful memories. I first met Gary when I was sent by the magazine I used to work for to write a story about him.
That must have been around 1990. I’d heard of him, of course, for by then, he was already famous as one of the founding fathers of Paso Robles (the old Estrella River brand, followed, in 1981, by Eberle). But Paso, unfortunately, back then was not particularly esteemed as a wine region, so Gary’s wines had more respect than love among the critics’ club I was about to join. One of the country’s top critics said his Cabernets “ha[d] shown promise at times” but were “variable in quality.”
Now, before I go any further, it’s time to deconstruct this off-used critics’ meme. When a winery “shows promise” it means that it’s officially on the critic’s radar, and that he has some reason to like it. However, what troubles the critic is that he can’t quite convince himself that the wine is worth really committing himself to. If I may indulge in a gender metaphor, it’s like he’s dated her a few times, is interested…but he’s interested in a lot of different wines and isn’t ready to go steady yet.
Still, he can’t quite bring himself to throw the wine under the bus. They had some fun times together…remember that summer night with the barbecued steak? Things were just about perfect, with the stars twinkling in the black sky and the soft August breeze teasing out the jasmine, and the second bottle nearly drained. But she’s only a working girl, a Paso chick with sunburn on the back of her neck, more Brad Paisley than will.i.am. The critic isn’t sure she’s the girl he wants to bring back and introduce to Mom…or bear his children.
Hence “variable in quality.” Do not, gentle reader, make the mistake of thinking this means that the critic has tasted every one of the winery’s wines over many vintages and found that, one year, the Cabernet is 91 and the next it’s 83. That may be the case; it may not; it may simply be that the critic (for whatever reason) is loathe to commit, and the finest excuse for not committing–a 24 karat excuse, one no one can ever disprove–is that the wines “are variable.” Who would argue with such a statement? “You think the wines are NOT variable?” the critic exclaims, his eyes wide and pitying. “Then, my friend, I’m afraid you haven’t tasted them consistently. Or, even worse, you do not have the palate to discern variable quality.
Then it hits Twitter: “Big critic says wines variable.” Next thing you know, the guest wine blogger for the Cedar Rapids Press Blowhard writes, “The wines are known to be variable” and, voila! a reputation is cemented.
End of segue: Back to Gary Eberle. At Saturday’s Cabernet Collective event, most of the younger winemakers on the panel paid homage to Gary. As well they should have. It’s hard to exaggerate Gary’s influence on Paso Robles. It’s a sign of a maturing wine region when a new generation comes in and recognizes the role that the pioneers played. That’s not always the case: there are appellations in California where new people come in and act like they invented everything…as if nothing had existed before they arrived..how ridiculous. It’s beautiful and refreshing when new people give props to those who came before them.
I was reading Peg Melnik’s article on Chateau St. Jean’s 2010 Belle Terre Vineyard Chardonnay, in yesterday’s Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which reminded me that Chateau St. Jean pretty much single-handedly created the vineyard-designated Chardonnay market in the 1970s, with a brilliant series of wines crafted by their then-winemaker, Richard Arrowood. Belle Terre, Les Pierres and Robert Young were perhaps the best known, but one year, Arrowood produced 9 individual Chardonnays. (He also made vineyard-designated Fume Blancs and Rieslings.)
It got me thinking of how obsessed we are today with single-vineyard wines in California, not just Chardonnay, obviously, but everything, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.
The first vineyard-designated Cabernet I ever heard of was Joe Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard. It was, back in the day, the most famous Cab in Napa Valley, and if it’s lost a little of its luster in the glare of so many newer brands, it’s still well-regarded. I don’t recall the first single-vineyard Pinot Noir I ever had. The first one I ever reviewed in my wine diary was a 1982 from Louis K. Mihaly, with a Napa Valley appellation. The label said “Produced and bottled by the estate of Louis K. Mihaly,” so I suppose that, technically, it was a single-vineyard wine; but I’m talking about vineyard designations on the label. Ditto for the Dehlinger 1985 Lot #2 Pinot I tasted (in 1990, by which time it had gone downhill).
Today, of course, many producers make single vineyard wines. They fetch a higher price, on average, than blended wines. (Even the word “blended” sounds pejorative. We need to come up with a better one.) When you think about it, though, there’s no reason per se why a single vineyard wine should be better than a blended one. The reason the Bordelais grew so many different grape varieties was because they knew that blending could fill in the divots that a single variety wine might otherwise have (unripe, too acidic, too tannic, not enough color, etc.).
It was in the 1990s that vintners opted to go bigtime with vineyard-designated bottles. They said they were spurred by the extra complexity that certain sites exhibited, but that’s only half the story. The other half was that, by then, it was apparent the public would pay more for single vineyard wines. (We can thank Heitz and Chateau St. Jean for that!) I myself have never quite bought into the theory that the wine from a particular place is necessarily better than a blend. Some critics make much of “wines of place” and, of course, to question the concept of terroir is to hold oneself up for ridicule. However, I don’t see how you get around the “divot” theory: in a perfect vintage, a particular site might yield a complete wine. But not all vintages are perfect, and it’s only logical to expect that, in other vintages, the grapes from a particular site will be lacking something and could benefit from being blended with the grapes from another place.
Today we have brands that specialize in single vineyard wines: Siduri, Loring, Testarossa and Williams Selyem (among many others) in Pinot Noir, and practically everyone making high-end Chardonnay. (Williams Selyem, Lynmar, Rochioli, Paul Hobbs, Marimar Torres, Martinelli, Talley and Thomas Fogarty in particular come to mind.) There also are an increasing number of wineries that bottle vineyard-designated Cabs. Sometimes they buy grapes from other growers, and sometimes they simply make block bottlings from their own vineyard or from separate vineyards in their own portfolio. (Sometimes it’s hard to say what the difference is between blocks from the same estate, and separate vineyards. Witness Diamond Creek.)
As I said, I’m not sure that the best, most wholesome and complete, not to mention satisfying, wines come from individual vineyards. But wine isn’t just about hedonism, it’s about intellectual fun. For me, as a wine lover and critic, I love these single vineyard or block designation wines because they’re so interesting in themselves, even if they’re sometimes a little lacking something essential. Just like some people.
My highest Cabernet scores are still heavily centered in Napa Valley and its sub-appellations, but I’ve been so impressed by how strong Paso Robles is coming on.
Cabs from more established wineries, including Eberle, Vina Robles and J. Lohr, have developed a graceful, delicious elegance that used to be lacking sometimes. This may be due to the relatively cooler vintages that have marked recent releases from 2009 on.
But it’s the new wineries, or newly revitalized ones, that have really caught my eye: outstanding among them are Jada, Daou, Ecluse, Falcone, Villicana, The Farm and Venteux. Some of these, I had never heard of until recently. But all are on my radar now. They’ve all released 90 point or higher Cabernets in the last several months that I would gladly drink with the most Cab-friendly foods around.
I’ve been saying for years that it was only a matter of time before this happened. No disrespect to Napa, but it never made much sense to me that one region, and one only, could excel at a particular varietal, in this case Cabernet Sauvignon. The temperature in the cooler parts of Paso Robles–notably those affected by the Templeton Gap, which sucks in maritime air from the Cambria coast–is ideal for ripening the grapes. Not all areas are exposed to the westerly breezes; the topography of these hills is complicated. But on the hottest days, when it’s well above 100 in Paso Robles town and to the east, it’s dependably cooler throughout the hills, and the higher the elevation, the more the temperature drops.
Meanwhile, the soils in these hills west of the 101 Freeway, where the Santa Lucias trail off, are well-drained, making for small, intensely-flavored grapes, just the way they do in Napa’s mountains.
What held Paso Robles Cabernet back for years was, in my opinion, a lack of belief on the part of local vintners that they could compete with Napa. They either didn’t even try, or they gave it a half-hearted attempt that yielded half-hearted wines. The fact that these Cabs weren’t priced too high helped, but gave Paso Robles the reputation for making modest Cabs that were often too high in alcohol.
Never mind, meanwhile, that in Napa itself, Cabernet was inching steadily up in alcohol, so that some of the cult Cabs approached 15.5% or even higher. People still thought of Paso as too hot for Cabernet. Old stereotypes are slow to die.
It takes powerful, consistent evidence to smash old stereotypes, but I have now experienced it, and am ready to declare for Paso Robles Cabernet. Granted, the quantity of good stuff is extremely small; most of the new wineries produce miniscule amounts and will be hard to find–just like a Napa cult Cab. But even though they’re priced high for Paso Robles, they’re downright bargains by Napa standards.
I think the next step for these Cabs is to catch the attention of sommeliers. Somms always say they’re looking for new, exciting wines, but let’s remember that they’re paid employees of restaurants whose customers aren’t always so open to innovation. A somm might personally be excited by, say, Jada or Daou, but how far will that go when the customer insists on Silver Oak? These new Paso Cabs require hand selling and the truth is that not all somms are good at hand selling or are encouraged to do so by their bosses.
I’ll be down in Paso on Sat. April 27, hosting a panel for an organization called the Paso Robles CAB Collective. This little group of wineries is just getting started. If you’re in the area, drop by.