I’ve given brutal scores lately to some expensive wines, most of them new entrants to the California marketplace. When a wine costs $40, $50 or more, and it’s not even as good as some other wine that costs $15, it gets me irked.
Of course, I can’t allow my emotions to enter into my scores. But if you read between the lines of my reviews, you might occasionally glimpse a certain dismay.
This is the critic’s conundrum. We’re only human. We get dazzled by great wines, even if they’re hugely expensive. Sometimes, I have to hold myself back a little in praising a great wine, or risk being accused of score inflation, which I believe is an issue that has not been seriously addressed. On the other hand, it’s easy to get bored with mediocre wines, which dominate every region no matter how famous.
I always wonder if a winemaker or proprietor who’s putting out a $50 bottle of wine that scores 84 points knew in advance that the wine was mediocre. Maybe they did, and cynically released it anyway, knowing that people will buy it because of its pretty label, or at the tasting room, or whatever. On the other hand, maybe they didn’t. It would be a huge mistake to assume that all winemakers have good palates. I know some who put out mediocre wine year after year after year. (Why they still send me samples, when they have good reason to know I don’t like their style, is a riddle to me. It’s that old definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result.)
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Speaking of winemakers, I’m getting ready to assemble my panel for March 9th’s Pinot Noir Summit, at the Golden Gate Club, in San Francisco’s Presidio National Park. I haven’t decided on a theme yet, but am tinkering with the notion of regional differences between the southern Russian River Valley (including Green Valley) and Fort Ross-Seaview. In general, the south valley is chillier and foggier, because it’s low-lying and gets a strong push of maritime influence coming up from the Petaluma Gap. Most of the Fort Ross-Seaview vineyards, on the other hand, lie at altitudes above the fog line, so they bask in sunshine while their sister vines down in the valley are swathed in fog. You’d expect this situation to express itself clearly in the Pinot Noirs from both regions, and it does: valley wines are darker and more tannic on release, while Fort Ross Pinots tend to be more accessible early. I don’t think either is more ageable than the other; I wouldn’t mind having a couple cases of Flowers alongside a couple cases of Joseph Swan in my cellar.
Finding themes for public tastings can be challenging. There’s a tendency on the part of some people to make the topics too geeky, but it’s my impression that the public gets bored with abstruse discussions of technique. People want fairly simple, accurate information, in an easy-to-digest form. They don’t want to wade through the intricacies of grape chemistry, irrigation, maceration techniques and tannin management. A little of that goes a long way. They also want personality: not all good winemakers are good panelists (and not all good panelists are good winemakers!). A few years ago, I had a certain winemaker on one of my panels and he/she was as boring as a doorknob. Won’t make that mistake again.
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A quick word of praise in passing for Von Strasser’s latest batch of Cabernet Sauvignons from their Diamond Mountain estate. Great wines, and all the more impressive for coming from a 2011 vintage that was as challenging as any in memory. These wines show the importance of well-drained mountain vineyards in a cold year, and of vigorous pruning and sorting decisions. Of the six new ‘11s, I gave my highest score to the Estate, but Spaulding, Sori Bricco, 2131, Post and the regular ’11 Cab weren’t far behind. All are ageable. I don’t think Von Strasser gets the recognition they deserve, but they should.
Have a great weekend!
I remember when the 2010 vintage was finished, how everyone was predicting that the wines, especially the Cabernet Sauvignons, would be the most balanced California had produced in years.
The vintage was the chilliest people could remember–2011, of course, was even colder–but the spin was that the cool conditions meant that the grapes would physiologically ripen at lower brix, resulting in Cabs and other wines that would taste good at lower alcohol levels.
Well, I’ve now reviewed about 750 Cabernets and Bordeaux blends from the 2010 vintage, and I’ve got to say, from the evidence presented to me, the theory hasn’t panned out. The simple fact of the matter is that a cold vintage is a cold vintage. You can’t spin your way out of that.
Look, California isn’t Bordeaux. Whatever happens at the latitude of Bordeaux to a Cabernet Sauvignon grape is not what happens to a grape at the latitude of Napa Valley. The light is different; the length of day is different, and of course the climate is totally different, California being warmer and drier than Bordeaux. So to suggest that “all California needs” is a cool vintage that will result in more Bordeaux-like wines is simplistic and incorrect.
It’s not that 2010 was a bad vintage for Cabernet. In fact, it was a very good one, in the sense that it resulted in many high-scoring wines, particularly (as you’d expect) from Napa Valley and its subappellations. But, looking over my reviews, 2007 outclassed 2010. So did 2008 (a fairly warm year) and, by a hair, 2009. (As for 2011, that icebox of a vintage, all the Cabs have not yet been released. But so far, I’ve given the lowest number of high scores to 2011 Cabs than I have in many years.)
Case in point: Sequoia Grove’s Rutherford Bench Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. I gave the 2010 a perfectly respectable 92 points. But I gave the 2007 96 points. The ’10 was a shade less rich, not quite as vast as the ’07. Ditto for Alpha Omega: I gave the 2010 Beckstoffer Tokalon Cab 91 points (they actually had two bottlings, a “North” and a “South,” but they both got the same score), while the 2007 Beckstoffer Tokalon got a whopping 97 points. Then there’s Moone-Tsai, whose 2010 Cor Leonis I gave 90 points, compared to the 96 points and 95 points I gave, respectively, to their 2008 and 2009.
I should also point out, in fairness, that I recommended a lot of 2010s for cellaring, precisely because they started out so tannic and tight. However, if you’ve followed my reviews for any length of time, you’ll know that I have mixed feelings about longterm prognostications when it comes to California Cabernet Sauvignon. Predicting which one will actually improve with more than 8 or 10 years in the cellar, as opposed to which one will simply become old and boring, is an inexact science, and anyone with experience in these things is bound to agree.
Is a tight, tannic young Cab “better” with food than one that’s fat and opulent? That’s the standard wisdom–if fact, it’s common to hear that those huge, rich Napa Cabs are “cocktail wines” rather than food wines. Well, I haven’t found the 2010 Cabs to be particularly modest in alcohol, which was also one of the early prognostications. Among my highest scorers, the Yao Ming was 14.9% (these are all official readings, but–again, as my regular readers know–I sometimes am forced to conclude that some wines are higher in alcohol than the label says), the Laird Flat Rock is 14.8%, Venge Bone Ash is 14.9%, JCB No. 10 is 15%, Lamborn Vintage VIII is 14.8%, Hall Exzellenz is 15.5%, Terra Valentine K-Block is 14.9%, Janzen Beckstoffer-Missouri Hopper is 15.2% and David Arthur Elevation 1147’ is 14.9%. I don’t have a problem with these alcohol levels, but they do lend the lie to the notion that the 2010 Cabs are more elegant because they’re lower in alcohol.
In the end, one is left having to sort out what’s true and what’s not true about the old notion that “every year is a vintage year in California.” It’s quite true in the sense that California or, more properly, its various sub-regions hardly ever have uniformly bad years. Yet it’s also true that some years can be tough on certain varieties and regions. Sauvignon Blanc had a particularly difficult time in 2011. It was so cold that the grapes just couldn’t fully ripen, resulting in an ocean of green, minty wines. And yet, certain producers (the usual suspects, one is tempted to say), did just fine: Mondavi, Grgich Hills (whose ’11 Essence is fabulous), Margerum down in Happy Canyon, Brander, Rochioli and others. But all in all, if you’re perusing a wine list and see a 2011 California Sauvignon Blanc and don’t know the producer or that particular wine, you’re best off buying something else.
The Chardonnay Symposium, with which I’ve been associated, has new ownership and a new location that will make it easier for Northern Californians to go. The details are still being worked out, including those of the panel I’ll be moderating, but here’s the basic 4-1-1: instead of being held at Byron Winery, in the Santa Maria Valley, the event is moving up the coast to the Dolphin Bay Resort & Spa, whose official home city is Pismo Beach, but it’s actually in little Shell Beach, just to the north–and by coincidence is right next door to The Cliffs Resort, which was the longtime home of World of Pinot Noir, until WOPN decided to move south this year to Santa Barbara and into Bacara Resort. As you know, I’ll be “the official blogger” again of WOPN.
This bit of musical chairs is interesting because it sheds light on the evolution of wine events. WOPN’s directors for years had been talking about moving into a bigger, more urban locale, in order to accommodate more people, and Bacara certain fulfills that requirement. Meanwhile, The Chardonnay Symposium, which consciously patterned itself after WOPN, similarly waited for the day that the rather austere, amenity-less Santa Maria Valley would no longer be big enough to accommodate it; and, that day having arrived, its officials made the decision to move to Shell Beach. Maybe in ten years, The Chardonnay Symposium will move to a big Santa Barbara hotel-resort, or even up to San Francisco. You never know.
Choosing a topic for an event panel always is a challenge. You don’t want it to be too geeky-technical because that would bore a lay audience (and, to be quite honest about it, geeky panels bore a lot of winemakers, too). On the other hand you don’t want the topic to be too broad and simplistic. You have to find something in the middle. Last year, our topic was unoaked-vs.-oaked Chardonnay, one I did not choose personally but did my best to make interesting. I don’t think it was the most stimulating topic ever; if I was rating it, I’d give my panel 88 points. This year, we’re still talking about the topic. At any rate, we’ll try to get the best winemakers we can, so attendees will be able to meet some superstars and taste their Chardonnays.
I’ve also agreed to be part of this year’s Pinot Noir Shootout & Summit. Details are extremely sketchy, but I’ll be talking about it when I find out more. I think our topic will differing styles of California Pinot Noir. I broadly classify the variety into two styles: lighter, lower-alcohol wines and darker-colored, fuller-bodied ones. I do not favor one over the other. Both have their uses at the table, and both are ageworthy, provided they’re balanced to begin with.
It’s funny that there’s no major statewide event for Cabernet Sauvignon. But how could there be? Anything that Napa Valley does (e.g., Premiere Napa Valley) is pretty much the equivalent of a statewide Cabernet event, so identified has that single appellation become with that wine type. I’ll be at Premiere too, and hope to see lots of winemakers there.
A final word about that Multifamily Social Media Summit I spoke at on Wednesday evening. First off, it was really interesting to explore this sub-culture of housing specialists. Who knew such a thing existed? But housing, of course, is a huge industry, and I felt right in the middle of its vital center for the few hours I hung out with those nice folks in Santa Rosa. They’re just getting into social media–how to use it in their jobs–and between me and the other speaker, Siduri’s Adam Lee, they definitely got some offbeat perspective. It was from the points of view of two people in the wine industry, with very different jobs but a common interest in social media. Hopefully, the housing people were able to extrapolate our experiences and advice and incorporate it into their own needs.
Have a great weekend!
It’s astonishing to me, as I consider the last 30 years, how irrelevant Bordeaux has become in much of the American wine scene.
When I first became infatuated with wine, in the late 1970s and 1980s, Bordeaux was the Queen of the Wine World. (Burgundy was said to be King. We can talk about that gender confusion another time…). Everything in California pertaining to Cabernet Sauvignon was with reference to Bordeaux. Our vintners were going over there every chance they could to walk Classified Growth vineyards and study with Classified Growth winemakers. It was almost as if they were on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, seeking to bathe in the holy waters that would cure them of all their vinous ills.
That was then…today, who talks about Bordeaux? Who buys it, either for home consumption or at restaurants? All that most people know about Bordeaux is that (a) almost every year Parker declares a Vintage of the Century and (b) prices are ridiculous. Neither of those phenomena is designed to elicit respect for a wine that once was the most coveted in the world.
Lagging interest in the States has not gone unnoticed along the banks of the Garonne and Gironde. No doubt chateau owners wish to regain the interest of the U.S. market, but it’s hard to discern a realistic marketing strategy. Yes, the Union des Grands Crus does their annual tour, attracting the usual cadre of sommeliers, merchants, writers and other denizens of the trade. But what happens inside the glittering ballroom of the Palace Hotel seems to stay there.
Along these lines, the Washington Post two days ago published this analytical piece on how the Bordelaise are “out to attract a younger American audience” in order to overcome Bordeaux’s “tarnished image” here.
A top guy at Sherry-Lehmann, one of New York’s leading wine shops, told the Post writer, “We’ve locked up the 70- and 80-year-olds. We need to convince the younger generation to drink Bordeaux.”
Wow. Why not try to interest “the younger generation” in Depends© ?
To understand where Bordeaux went wrong in America, let’s break down this comment from Cos d’Estournal’s director: “Bordeaux forgot to speak to one or two generations of sommeliers in the United States, and naturally the share of Bordeaux wines in restaurants dropped dramatically.”
I don’t think Bordeaux stopped “speaking” to somms, I think that somms just didn’t like what they were hearing. They didn’t like the prices they were forced to inflict on their customers. They didn’t like the rigid formalism that surrounds every sip of Bordeaux with the solemnity of a Papal audience. Their own lifestyles (the somms, I mean) were seriously at odds with Bordeaux’s regalism. Somms tend to be edgy, young and urban. They like to find new things that are off-the-beaten path, which they can then share with their customers. Bordeaux may be many things, but it isn’t edgy or off-the-beaten path.
I suppose Bordeaux’s chief selling point these days is that it’s not California Cabernet! Oh, the irony. The Post article cites a New York somm who showed some Bordeaux to her staff members, “all in their 20s.” The experience was “eye-opening,” the somm said, explaining that the staff was “shocked” to find the wines so much more “interwoven and integrated” than “powerful California Cabernets.”
To think that Bordeaux has come to this: “We’re not California.” !!! Twenty years ago Bordeaux barely deigned to acknowledge Napa Valley’s existence. Now Napa has become the focal point against which conversations about Cabernet are conducted–the way Bordeaux used to be. What goes around comes around, as they say.
All this is not to suggest that Bordeaux did anything wrong, or that it could have done anything else. Bordeaux is a victim of its own success. In an era where the issues of the 99% are at the top of everyone’s concern (in a bipartisan way), Bordeaux has been unable to shed its 1% image. Nor is it easily conceivable how it could do so even in theory. The best Bordeaux is necessarily expensive and will remain so. Ordinary Bordeaux is more affordable, but it’s also less good, and there’s no compelling reason for an American to buy a $30 Bordeaux over an Argentine Malbec, Carmenere from Chile, Cabernet from Chateau Ste. Michelle, a sound Vacqueyras or Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Stellenbosch Syrah/Shiraz or any one of dozens of other world wines that frankly have more interesting stories to tell–and do not demand of their drinkers that they remove their caps before imbibing.
The most interesting part of Silicon Valley Bank’s new report on the future of the wine industry concerns its predictions about Millennials. As Baby Boomers age and die off, Millennials will become the U.S.’s dominant wine purchasers, but “The big issue with millennials is they’re the largest buyers of international wines. They’re also really good with buying the discounted bottles,” said the bank’s founder, Rob McMillan.
International wines and discounted bottles. Hmm. That’s good news for South America, Australia and old Europe, and also good news for California companies like Cameron Hughes, Gallo, Bronco, The Wine Group and others who sell inexpensive wines. But what are the implications for high-end wine, particularly Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon?
They can’t be good. Millennials didn’t grow up worshiping at the shrine of Bordeaux, which is the model that Napa Valley mimics, and so far they [Millennials] haven’t given any indication they’re in the thrall of the cults. And why should they be? Millennials pride themselves on their independence. They’re not as hidebound as their parents, and they’re a lot more open to new experiences. Nor are they as hung up with matters of prestige and conspicuous consumption, which are two phenomena that–like it or not–are associated with the allure of cult Cabernet Sauvignon.
There are so many anecdotes about high-end Napa wineries having difficulty unloading product. Like the old saying goes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Triple-digit Cabs took a real hit during the Recession, and there’s no evidence that they’re recovering now. What I hear through the grapevine is remarkably consistent: retailers who traditionally dealt with expensive Napa wine tell me they can’t even give it away anymore.
Here’s a bullet quote from the Silicon Valley Bank report: “Today we find ourselves at a crossroads, one in which the younger consumer is being trained to believe luxury purchases should come with a discount, and wine is as good or even better coming from foreign sources. With Boomers hitting retirement age, we have a real question about the ability to increase wine sales when older generations who are willing to pay for a good bottle simply can’t consume the volumes they used to, and younger generations can’t afford a good bottle but could consume more.”
That’s an uh-oh moment for the cults. But there is a potential bright spot: “But as Millennials age if they develop the capacity (income) to buy wine, and if their appreciation for wine is strong as reported in the press, they will be the long-term growth opportunity we can anticipate in the business out past 2020,” McMillan writes.
That’s a big “if.” Actually, two big “ifs.” It means that a generation that grew up on Madonna, Pixar movies, Friends and the Internet is suddenly going to turn 40 (starting around 2022) and then develop an infatuation with Screaming Eagle, Colgin and Bryant. Exactly how is that supposed to happen? Why? Isn’t it easier to think it won’t? Besides, even if their income rises so high that they can afford triple digits for wine, why should Millennals restrict their appetites to Napa Valley? McMillan repeatedly stresses the “international” orientation of Millennials. They would look abroad for prestige wines, further eroding the market for high-end domestic wine.
Ever since I started visiting Napa Valley, in the late 1970s, it’s been clear to me that the vintners up there, who are a smart bunch, looked to Bordeaux as their model and inspiration. They wanted their wines to have the worldwide prestige of Bordeaux–and they also wanted Bordeaux prices. That tendency only grew more pronounced in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, it’s the prevailing model in Napa Valley.
But could it be based on a false assumption? That assumption was, if Bordeaux could do it, Napa can, too. However, history (and markets) are replete with singularities. Bordeaux came of age when good wine was scarce. Because the Bordelaise, and the Englishmen who drank their wines, were masters of the export trade, which was then a virtual monopoly of the English by the 18th and 19th centuries, Bordeaux became the lingua franca of great wine, for the wealthy white landowners who could afford it,
Do any of those conditions exist today? There is no monopoly of trade. Instead, we have free trade across the world, making it much more difficult for any one product or region to dominate the market. A few gatekeepers can no longer influence whatt everybody else drinks. And good wine is no longer scarce. It’s ubiquitous. You can’t swing a dead chicken without hitting a bottle of something tasty. Nor are most consumers any longer wealthy, white, or landed gentry. There also is the problem, in Napa Valley (to which I alluded the other day in this post) that Napa is not proving to be adept at new forms of communication. There’s a growing hideboundness affecting the culture up there. Of course, we do hear from the “Next Gen” of Napa winery families that they’re concerned about this or that, and intend to craft a message that relates better to average people. But this article, which appeared last week in the San Francisco Chronicle (and has been widely ridiculed, even in Napa Valley), suggests that the Napans may have an uphill battle in their quest for Millennial credibility
Have a great weekend!
On this day before Christmas I was transported down Memory Lane after reading this blog, from the English wine merchant Nick Stephens, on “the world’s most expensive faulty wine–Chateau Cheval Blanc 1947.”
That is a wine I have some familiarity with, having written about it back in the early 1990s, and, a little later, having the good luck to taste it. I wrote about it, for Wine Spectator, when I was in charge of The Collecting Page (which I referred to as my ghetto: it always was the last page in the magazine). Through that gig I met many wealthy collectors, and I would always ask them about the greatest wine they had ever tasted. Invariably, the answer was “1947 Cheval Blanc.”
I remember the hassle of getting through to the chateau’s cellarmaster, in order to interview him for my article. I do not recall much of what he said, and I no longer have the article, but I do remember him telling me that the alcohol level was very high on that wine–in excess, I think, of 15%. My luck in eventually tasting it occurred when I made the acquaintance of young Billy Getty, who, with his friend Gavin Newsom (now California’s Lieutenant-Governor), was anxious to have their new wine shop, PlumpJack, written about. As part of that effort, Billy invited me with some frequency to parties at his parents’ Pacific Heights mansion. These were experiences that, for me at that early point in my career, when I wasn’t used to such attentions, were heady and flattering. (The effect wears off after a while, though.)
One day Billy called to tell me his mother had bought “an amusing little wine cellar” from a New York collector. He invited me to the mansion to taste some of the selections, including–gasp!–’47 Cheval Blanc. Needless to say I raced across the Bay Bridge, drove up Fillmore Street and parked in front of the mansion. Rang the doorbell–it was answered by the Gettys’ old butler, who formerly had worked for Joe Kennedy, JFK’s dad, when Joe had been ambassador to the Court of St. James. I walked into the livingroom [if that’s what it’s called: maybe it was a drawing room, or a ballroom, or a parade-ground; at any rate, it was bigger than my condo], where I saw Billy and a few others, plus lots of bottles. I asked for the Cheval Blanc. Billy found the bottle: Empty! My heart sank. He saw my disappointment and made some sort of signal, whereupon somebody appeared out of nowhere. “Bring us another Cheval Blanc,” Billy said. Within moments the functionary appeared holding the bottle, with the cork pulled. He handed it to me. I was alone, with my crystal wine glass and a full bottle of 1947 Cheval Blanc!
The wine was, as Nick Stephens (quoting Robert Parker) writes, as “unctuous” and “thick…as motor oil.” It was almost as sweet as Port, yet it was a dry sweetness, with no trace of the cloyingness of a poorly-made wine with too much residual sugar. Looking back, in retrospect, I can say it anticipated the modern, cult style of a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux blend: something like, say a Blankiet or Shafer Hillside Select. I take Parker’s word that the Cheval Blanc was “appallingly deficient in acidity,” with “volatile acidity [that] would be considered intolerable by modern day oenologists.” These charges also have been made against certain Napa Cabs. The difference between a young, fresh Napa Cab was that the Cheval Blanc, when I tasted it, already was more than 40 years old. It was showing bottle bouquet, and the fruit was drying out, yet it was remarkably fresh and clean.
I don’t think that wine would have blown my mind had I not known what it was. The fabulousness of tasting it was nearly 100% connected with knowing its identity. Tasted blind, it would “merely” have been a very rich, interesting, complex old wine, not necessarily the one I would have reached for at the table for repeated glasses with, say, lamb or beef.
But I did know what it was, and that made all the difference. Which leads to a theme we’ve explored many times here at steveheimoff.com. And that is the influence of seeing the label of a wine you’re tasting, as opposed to having it hidden by a paper bag. As my readers know, I consider this a very important topic to discuss, and not an easy one to arrive at definite conclusions. It is true that blind tasting eliminates all factors except for the actual organoleptic experience of the wine, whereas an open tasting expands the parameters of the experience in psychological and intellectual and even emotional ways. It is a pointless debate as to which is preferable. It all depends on the purpose of the tasting. In the case of that Cheval Blanc at the Getty mansion, my purpose was not to rate the wine, or to review it in any formal way. It was instead to experience the wine up close and personal. And, in that instance, having an entire bottle, and all the time in the world, made it possible for me to get to know that wine as much as I’ve ever known any wine.
Tasting wine for formal reviewing purposes is a job, and a rather unnatural one, at that. The kind of people who do it are wine reviewers, winemakers, sommeliers, merchants and others involved in the wine trade. We do it, not for enjoyment, but because it’s part of our professional standard of excellence. For the ordinary wine lover, blind tasting can be an educational diversion–you certainly learn about the palate’s shortcomings! But it’s not really the best way to understand and appreciate wine. The anticipation of knowing about a wine–the experience of savoring its history and, particularly with a wine like ’47 Cheval Blanc, knowing that so many people with access to the greatest wines in the world have declared it be the best they’ve ever had–those are integral to the enjoyment of the wine. It gives you something to think about, and thinking about wine is part of its enjoyment.
By the way–isn’t it funny that a wine like the ’47 Cheval Blanc, that by all rights shouldn’t have aged well, has? It makes me wonder about my own aging prognostications, not to mention those of all other wine critics, no matter how famous. I have friends and relatives who think that critics have crystal balls that provide perfect clarity into the future, but guess what? We don’t. As I’m sure the best critics will happily concede. All that an aging prediction amounts to is an educated guess. As with all guesses, however, they can be wrong.
Anyhow–Please accept my heartiest wishes for a merry Christmas and a Happy 2014!