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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.

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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.


To Kapalua for the Cabernets of Pritchard Hill

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I’ve been invited to participate on a panel to be held at the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival early next month. The name of the panel is “The Pritchard Hill Gang Wine Seminar, co-hosted by Michael Jordan, M.S., and moi. We’ve got quite a lineup of winemakers: Phillip Corallo-Titus (Chapellet), Phillipe Melka (Brand), David Long (David Arthur), Austin Peterson (Ovid) and Carlo Mondavi (Continuum).

I’m especially jazzed, because this tasting is the direct outcome of an article I wrote for Wine Enthusiast last Fall on the Cabernets of Pritchard Hill. The article was, I’m told, the first in-depth ever on that region of Napa Valley, which is in the Vaca Mountains, above Lake Hennessey east of the Silverado Trail. I’d been fascinated by it, as a growing region of distinctive terroir, for several years, and wanted to investigate it with the object of writing about it, but just couldn’t find the time. Eventually, through a series of happenstances, Tim Mondavi (Carlo’s dad) reached out to me and offered to set up a blind tasting for me at Continuum.

One of the pleasures of my trip to Pritchard Hill was an invitation from Greg Melanson (Melanson Vineyard) to take me for an aerial ride over the region in his helicopter, which he parks (is that the right word?) just steps from his home on the Hill. Folks, the best way to understand a wine region is from the air, especially a region as undulatingly complicated as Napa Valley. (It was fascinating to see the topological connections between Pritchard Hill and Atlas Peak.) Tim Mondavi hitched a ride with us for that occasion, and what a great tour guide he was, pointing out every little landmark and connecting it to some memory from his childhood. (And I wish that Greg’s wines were included in our panel. I don’t know why they’re not. Other producers on Pritchard Hill include Colgin, Montagna, Gandona and Bryant.)

At any rate, Michael Jordan read my article and liked it. He told me it had inspired him to set up the Pritchard Hill event at Kapalua (he’d held an earlier one in, I think, Anaheim, which I was unable to attend). Michael is an exciting, interesting guy, not only an M.S. but a true entrepreneur in the restaurant field.

By another coincidence, just this past week I sat down with Carlo Mondavi (on the phone) and had a little chat for an article. I’ve never met him in person, and didn’t realize right away that he’d be representing Continuum at Kapalua (nor did he realize I was on the panel). So we both got a chuckle out of that and vowed to spend some time together on Maui.

I would think Pritchard Hill will be an American Viticultural Area someday, but it won’t be one for quite a while, as there is opposition to it from the Chappellets, who own rights to the name. In the end it doesn’t matter what the appellation is called; the wines speak for themselves.


Everything about aging California wine is changing

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In the 1970s and 1980s, when I was coming up in wine, the conventional wisdom was that in order to be ageable, a young wine had to be undrinkable.

That made sense. After all, it was the case in most of Europe. Barolo, Rioja, great German Riesling, and especially Grand Cru Burgundy and the top Classified Growth Bordeaux all required years and years in the cellar.

I figured it was the same for the top California wines. The people whose guidance I was depending on–Charlie Olken, Norm Roby, Earl Singer, Bob Thompson, Harvey Steiman–were saying that Cabs in particular required aging, and sometimes for an extended period of time (10-15 years, said Olken-Singer-Roby in their “Handbook,” 20 years in Thompson’s “Encyclopedia”).

I took them at their word. Trust was involved, because they were tasting a lot more and a lot better wines than I was able to (which was actually very little, given my limited budget and the fact that it was to be many years before wineries started sending me free samples), and so I had no basis other than their judgment on which to form a conclusion regarding ageability. I began collecting, modestly: Cabs from Freemark Abbey, Louis M. Martini, Beringer, Pinots from Carneros Creek and Acacia, and so on, and then aging them; but the results were disappointing. I’d open a bottle after 6 or 8 years and more often than not found the resulting wine dried up and boring.

Of course, my cellar conditions were inadequate then. You couldn’t even call it a “cellar.” I had a plastic contraption that I kept in my apartment. Whatever the temperature was in my apartment, that was the temperature in my “cellar.” I knew that was bad, but it was San Francisco, where it’s pretty cool even in summer, so I kept my fingers crossed.

At some point, there was a sea change in popular thinking concerning Cabernet and Pinot. The view began to be that a wine that was undrinkable (hard in tannins, biting in acidity) in youth would never age out. Instead, the theory now went, any California wine that was ageable should be good and drinkable on release.

I fully subscribe to that theory, but when did it start and how did it come about? I was thinking about this as I read the following quote from the winemaker Philip Togni (Philip Togni Vineyard), in Benjamin Lewin’s new book, Claret & Cabs:

“I used to claim that if the wine wasn’t pretty terrible coming out of the fermenter it would never amount to anything, but I no longer believe that.”

Given Philip Togni’s wealth of experience (Chateau Lascombes, Gallo, Chateau Montelena, Chappellet, Cuvaison), this is quite a statement: The confession of a great winemaker who’d essentially gotten something very important very wrong. The only “excuse” (if that’s the right word, and it isn’t, but I can’t think of a better one) is that pretty much everyone in the 1970s in Napa Valley thought that a Cabernet had to be “pretty terrible” coming out of the fermenter in order to age well. It was the weltanschauung of the era, and weltanschauungs are the hardest things in the world to see beyond.

The reason things began to shift was, IMHO, the rise of Parker. We can argue until the cows come home about him, but let’s not today. Parker pushed winemakers around the world to produce wines that tasted pretty darned good right out of the fermenter (and out of the bottle on release).

Do they age as well as the Bordeaux of old? The critical community is still debating that one, and since there are now billions and billions of critics (tip of the hat to Carl Sagan), the debate may go on forever. On the other hand, the attitude toward aging wines is shifting with tectonic force. The parents of Baby Boomers aged their wines. Baby Boomers themselves might have aged some of their wines (if they had some kind of cellar), but they were not as obsessed with aging as their Depression-era parents. Now, the children of Baby Boomers, and in some cases their grandchildren, are becoming the main consumers of fine wine in America, and as far as I can tell, they don’t give a rat’s patootie about aging wine. They want something delicious and interesting, at whatever price they’re prepared to pay, not something they have to stick away for some point in the future when they might not even be around to enjoy it.

Much is made of Cathy Corison’s Cabernets when it comes to Napa wines in the “older” style. And it is indeed true that her Cabs are lower in alcohol and age gorgeously–well, up to ten years anyway, which is the oldest Corison Cab I’ve had. (A 2001 was fantastic in 2011.) However, ageable as they are, they’re lovely on release. Here’s what I wrote about Corison’s 93 point 2007 regular (not the Kronos): A beautiful wine, dry and classically structured, showing the elegant balance for aging. Made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s long and deep in blackberries and cassis. Give it a brief decant if you open it now, but it should develop over the next six years, at least.

I suppose if Cathy had been making Cabernet in 1976 I might have written something like “Tough and tannic and sharp, almost undrinkable, a dark, brooding wine of astringency. It stubbornly refuses to reveal its inner nature. However, a deep core of fruit and cassis suggests 10, 15, even 20 years in the cellar.”

Well, that wine never existed, so we don’t know, do we? It might have aged gracefully, but it might have been one of those clunkers like the Cabs I tried aging from the mid- to late 1970s. Aging wine always is a crapshoot, and I’m not a gambler. I like a sure thing, which is why I like Napa Valley Cabernet nowadays: it’s drop dead gorgeous and sexy from the get-go, and whether or not it will go 20 years is pretty much irrelevant. (But a lot will.)


As wine consumers trade down in cost, some wineries stand to lose, while others gain

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Trading down from Gucci to J. Crew may not seem like the toughest sacrifice in the world, but even the top 2 percent of upper-income Americans is “thinking twice” about spending their money on über-expensive goods, says Bloomberg News.

“These ‘2-percenters,’ unnerved by the most recent recession, are trading down to less-expensive” apparel and other items, the article says. It quotes the president of a luxury research firm: “The rich have lost their exuberance.”

Of course, “a small cadre of ultra-high net-worth individuals…is insulated and not cutting back,” but unless you’re in the yacht business, you’re not really concerned about these 1 percent of the 1 percent.

The article names names: On “the way down” in clothing and accessories are Prada, Armani, Gucci, Hermes and Gianni Versace. On “the way up” are Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Banana Republic and Urban Outfitters. In other words, brands that offer cachet and style, without the high price.

So the HENRYs (“high earner not rich yet”) are scaling back. What does it mean for luxury wine brands, particularly California Cabernet Sauvignons that have hit triple digits?

Unless you’re the owner or the winery’s banker, you can’t really know what the bottom line is. Is Screaming Eagle hurting? Harlan? How about Bryant, Colgin, Dalla Valle, Schrader, Abreu, Sloan? If these are the Armanis and Guccis of wine, then we have to expect that things are not quite as solid as they were pre-2008. The HENRYs are “thinking twice” about spending their hard-earned cash on them, and there’s no indication they’re going to return to their free-spending ways anytime soon.

Nor are there enough “ultra-high net-worth individuals” to absorb all of these expensive wines. I have to believe, based on what I’ve seen and heard, that the cults are hurting–although some of their owners are so rich that they can afford to ride out what they hope is a relatively brief soft period following the Great Recession.

What are the alternatives to the cults–the winery equivalents of the Banana Republics and J. Crews of California that the 2 percenters are turning to? Here’s my list of Cabernet Sauvignon producers whose wines are pretty much near as good as anything from the cults, but whose prices are more aligned with reality: Stonestreet, Von Strasser, Vine Cliff, Goldschmidt, Krutz, Hall, Sequoia Grove, Duckhorn, Conn Creek, Kendall-Jackson Highlands Estates, Long Meadow Ranch, Piña, Macauley, Stephen & Walker, Kuleto, Yates Family, Renteria, Creo, Snowden, Laird, Moone-Tsai, Hunnicutt, St. Supery, La Jota, Frank Family, Prime, Rubicon Cask Cabernet, Signorello, Trinchero, Stag’s Leap Artemis, Monticello, Charnu, KaDieM, Venge, Terra Valentine and Hidden Ridge. I’ve given scores of 95 points or higher in Wine Enthusiast to bottlings from each of them over the past few years, and none costs more than $90 retail.


Alexander Valley Academy: new appreciation for these fine Cabernets

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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.


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