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What are California’s greatest vineyards?

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What are California’s grand cru vineyards? Somebody at work asked me this question, for a project they’re working on, so it got me to thinking.

Some years ago, I wrote an article for Wine Enthusiast (which I no longer have available, alas) on California’s five greatest vineyards. Before I could make that determination, I had to define what I meant by “greatest.” There’s no objective definition; it’s purely subjective. Besides, there are so many fantastic, famous vineyards, you really have to cull the field to make your article manageable. So I decided on the following parameters:

  1. The vineyard must have a long, consistent history of producing great wines. (“Long,” by California standards.)
  2. Following #1, the vineyard probably will be known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (on the one hand) and Cabernet Sauvignon, on the other. (Sorry, other varieties, you lost out on that one.)
  3. The vineyard must not be the exclusive monopole of a single winery. Although it may primarily be associated with a single winery, it must also sell some of its fruit to other wineries. In this way, the vineyard’s name and fame are spread, and a fairer assessment can be made.

This last rule was a little controversial, I must admit. It excluded vineyards including Harlan’s Estate, or Screaming Eagle. But it left enough room for Beckstoffer-Tokalon, Pisoni, Sanford & Benedict, Bien Nacido and Rochioli to make the list. They all sell fruit to other wineries, they’ve all been around long enough to have established track records, and surely nobody would quibble about any of them.

Today, ten years later, I have mixed feelings about this sort of thing. The historian in me reveres the notion of great vineyards, Grands Crus, First Growths and the like. If you’re a wine geek with a penchant for reading about the history of wine, you know that certain vineyards always have been considered the greatest, from time immemorial.

On the other hand, part of me–the democratist–realizes that “grands crus” are not as rare as may once have been thought! In other words, they’re not exactly unicorns. With modern advances in viticulture and enology, vineyard managers are now able to deliver far more distinguished fruit, from far more sources, than ever before. Indeed, if we look to Mother France for a clue, we see a near-constant reshuffling of reputations in Bordeaux, for example: Second- and Third Growths now said to rival Firsts. In Burgundy, in Champagne, in many places, the traditional hierarchies are falling, as tastes change and opportunities arise for garagistes or for long-established wineries that are cleaning up their acts. I also know, as a media maven, that the reputation of the so-called top (or cult) vineyards often is based, not on objective quality, but on the decision of wine writers to include them on their “best” lists! With all due respect, Screaming Eagle is not the best Cabernet in Napa Valley. It’s one of dozens that are “the best.” There is no “best,” nor can there be, unless you are absolutely ideological about it and don’t care about fairness. So I’m somewhat loathe to say “These are California’s great vineyards,” because that implies that the rest of them—the 99 percent—are not great.

Still, I think there’s a useful purpose in trying to identify the top vineyards, although this has to be based on clearly spelling out your parameters, with all the caveats that this imprecise effort involves. It’s also fun: we all like reading about this stuff, don’t we? And so, dear readers, what are your nominations, and why?


Thinking about history, while it’s being made all around us

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  In these dog days of summer, with dangerous wildfires burning up and down the coast, and the country in a state of political hallucination, I retreat into the pleasanter realms of wine history, where everything is neat, tidy and comprehensible.

Well, almost. Dan Berger’s recent column on Santa Barbara wine history ignores one of the Founding Fathers of modern-day viticulture and winemaking in that county, H.W. “Bill” Collins, whose Tepusquet Creek vineyard was planted as far back as 1964, according to the historian Leon Adams, in his signature 1973 book, The Wines of America. It was Collins, Adams tells us, who planted 100 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Johannisberg Riesling, Sylvaner and Chardonnay “on virgin land in a sparsely populated area where nobody had ever tried to grow grapes before.”

That area was, of course, the Santa Maria Valley, and specifically a high bench of the San Rafael Mountains above the winding Sisquoc River, 20 miles inland from the sea. Those first grapes, Adams reports, were bought by the old Mont La Salle winery, belonging to Christian Brothers, in Napa Valley; the winemaker who bought them was then-Brother Justin Meyer, who famously went on to found Silver Oak. Meyer, says Adams, “said the wines were of superior quality.”

One wonders what the Cabernet tasted like. Back then, more than fifty years ago, growers had little idea which varieties to plant in which locales. The notions of site-specificity, terroir and even of climate regions were little developed. In their place, the Marketplace ruled; growers planted what they thought would sell, and they planted it anywhere they could. Today, of course, practically nobody would think to plant Cabernet Sauvignon in the Santa Maria Valley, where the average summer temperature is barely in the mid-70s; Cabernet doesn’t get ripe there (which is why Santa Barbara vintners developed the more inland Happy Canyon region). As for Sylvaner, I don’t know if it would ripen in the Santa Maria Valley, but who cares? Nobody would buy it anyway; maybe a somm here and there. Instead, the valley has become a hotbed (pardon the pun) of Pinot Noir, but fifty years ago, only a clairvoyant could have known that Pinot would become a superstar.

History is a very important thing to “get right” but it’s all too easy to get it wrong, or at least to omit the details, like that of Collins planting his vineyard well before the other vintners Berger mentions (Mosby, Zaca Mesa, Firestone, Fess Parker) planted theirs. Having said this, as one who’s done a lot of historical wine reporting over the years, I’m the first to testify how hard it can be to pin down the facts. My own employer, Jackson Family Wines, who owns the Tepusquet Vineyard, on their own website states that the vineyard “was planted between 1970 and 1971.” But whether or not the Tepusquet Vineyard was or is the same thing as the Tepusquet Creek vineyard of which Adams wrote, I have no idea. A tantalizing hint is contained in this reporting from The Prince of Pinot, who states that a certain “Bill Collins” was—not the owner, but the vineyard manager of that original vineyard, which was owned by Uriel Nielson and Bill De Mattei. (The Prince of Pinot article agrees that the planting dates to 1964.) And Uriel Nielson, we know, planted his eponymous vineyard, now owned by Byron (also a Jackson property) in 1964. Coincidence? Was Nielson’s Tepusquet Creek vineyard that which today is known as Nielson?

All this at any rate suggests how slippery history can be, an alarming thought when we consider Santayana’s prescient warning (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”) and also how certain politicians in this country try to take cynical advantage of certain people’s ignorance in order to launch themselves into power. An ignorant fool is always more susceptible to the snake oil of a charlatan than an educated man or woman, who cannot be persuaded by some charlatan’s blatant lies on Twitter. An ignorance of wine history, fortunately, is not nearly so dangerous to the republic as ignorance of political and cultural history. But still, ignorance, in any field, never is a good thing. One might object—it certainly is feasible—that it hardly matters who planted what, when; what counts is how the wines are today. That is certainly true. But anyone who enjoys a good glass of wine, from a property with significant history behind it, will find her enjoyment of that wine immeasurably enhanced by a proper understanding of that history.


“There were giants in those days”

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The news that Paul Draper is retiring came, not as a complete shock, because after all, he’s 80 years old. Rather, it was a realization, the latest in a sorry series, that “the mighty men of old, men of renown” are passing from our scene like the last of a fine vintage gone to frost.

I did not know Mr. Draper well, although well enough for him to return my phone calls and to invite me to Ridge, where he was winemaker for more than 45 years. In fact, it was at one of those visits that he tasted me to about 30 vintages of Monte Bello, a tasting I will never forget. The quality was of course high, vintage variation was terribly interesting, and I found it fascinating that no Monte Bello had even been produced in excess of 14% alcohol. I also had the opportunity to interview Mr. Draper many times on the telephone.

That he was a “giant” is true in this sense: Certain industries, or perhaps “human practices” is a better term, seem capable of launching men and women to the status of “gianthood.” This is a near-mythic status in which we sense something more noble and inspirational than you might find in, say, insurance salesmen (with all due respect to insurance salesmen). The wine industry, and particularly its production side, seems always to have produced giants. I think of, for instance, of the winemaker, his name lost to history, who made the Falernian wine from the Opimian vintage of 121 BC, which Julius Caesar himself loved when the wine was more than sixty years of age. I think also of Arnaud III de Pontac, the proprietor of Haut-Brion, who hauled, with great difficulty and at great danger, his wine across France around 1660, so that the English King Charles II would fall in love with it, as Pontac knew he would.

I think of the Widow Cliquot, and the Finnish sea captain Gustave Niebaum, and Andre Tchelistcheff, and Max Schubert at Penfolds, and of course of Robert Mondavi, a giant if ever there was one. These were men and women whose visions were capacious, and upon whose shoulders not only their own fates rested, but the fates of entire generations of vintners and wine drinkers. And they knew it, these giants, knew how large were the tasks they assigned themselves, respected the challenges and difficulties, and gladly accepted them; for they knew, also, that to trod the well-worn path would lead them only to well-trod places. In their fertile imaginations, they perceived places no man had perceived before them, and, in going boldly to those places, enabled the rest of us to follow their paths.

Mr. Draper’s story is well-known and need not be repeated here. What is interesting is that he helped, with his partners, to create, not only a First Growth of California, but to do it in a place—the Santa Cruz Mountains—that was not named Napa Valley. It is true that those mountains had a very noble place in California’s vinous history: the La Questa Bordeaux-style red wine, planted in the 1880s supposedly from cuttings obtained at Margaux, was one of the first “cult” wines. But by the time of Ridge’s founding, in 1959, the gaze of the industry already had turned to Napa Valley, which makes the decision of Ridge’s founders to locate in Cupertino all the more curious, and Draper’s achievement all the more noteworthy.

That Mr. Draper’s style of Cabernet—leaner, more elegant and ageworthy—also marched to a different beat from that of Napa Valley also contributes to his legend. He never deviated from his style, as wine writer Laurie Daniel noted in the San Jose Mercury News. That style, which she accurately called “graceful,” does not seem to have inspired other California Cabernet makers, aside from perhaps a Cathy Corison or two; instead, others marched towards higher alcohol, greater extraction, more new oak. Mr. Draper realized that if he allowed the grapes to reach the high sugars necessary for superripeness at the cool Monte Bello ridge site, they would result in a bizarre, unbalanced wine, of limited ageability. So he “danced with the one that brung him,” to the joy of Monte Bello fans everywhere.

Still, it would be misleading to ascribe Mr. Draper’s achievements solely in technical terms. The things that result in men being thought of as “giants” have less to do with their specific behaviors or creations, and more with something mysterious and inchoate which they inspire in others. (Alexander the Great had this very impact.) Some of that has to do, of course, with personality, and the fact that Mr. Draper was a consummate gentleman should not be overlooked. Nor should it be forgotten that he was a tireless worker and representative of Ridge, if not as indefatigable as Robert Mondavi, then at least in the same mold. Men like these—giants—are aware that they have a responsibility to the aura of legend others have built up around them; and they rise to that responsibility with, yes, grace.

So, to Mr. Draper I say, enjoy your retirement! Well done, sir, well done.


Happy birthday to a very special winery

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When Robert Mondavi first walked the ground where his winery now stands, in early 1966, he was struck by something profound, a sense that in retrospect sounds mystical.

“I knew this was a very special place,” he wrote in his memoir, “Harvests of Joy.” “It exuded an indefinable quality I could not describe…of calm and harmony.” The To Kalon vineyard that surrounds the winery now must have been brown and barren at that time of the year, as the leafless vines sprawled from Highway 29 to the lower foothills of the Mayacamas. But already, Mr. Mondavi was envisioning great wines from that great vineyard, made in the winery he would commission his architect, Cliff May, to erect.

Later that year, Mondavi began his first harvest, “before the attractive mission-style building was half finished,” the historian Leon D. Adams tells us, in “The Wines of America.” Even then, Mondavi’s fertile mind was imagining, not only making fine wines to match the Europeans’ best, but “visitors, art exhibit[s], tasting rooms…concerts and plays…” and direct sales to account for “a tenth of the winery’s output.”

Mondavi was, in other words, a visionary. While others were quietly making wine in what was then still a rather sleepy little place that saw the occasional tourist drive up from San Francisco, Mondavi was reinventing Napa Valley’s entire weltanschauung. He knew it could be a mecca for wine lovers from all over the world, who would not only visit the Robert Mondavi Winery (and other wineries), but spend the better part of their day—and perhaps their dollars—carousing and having fun as they came to the winery and to the “lawn space for visiting groups” where so much public activity has taken place at RMW over the years.

It was in that lawn space that I last saw Robert Mondavi, on a warm Spring day in 2006.  The winery was celebrating an occasion, I believe their 50th birthday; there were hundreds of visitors, and the old trooper was wheelchair-bound. But still, he knew that many of them had come with a wish to see him, and he would not disappoint. A visit to Robert Mondavi Winery, he always insisted, must be memorable.

Here we now are, fifty years after Robert Mondavi’s first harvest, and what a two-score-and-ten years it has been. There were a handful of “boutique” wineries established prior to 1966, but the proliferation afterwards, lasting roughly until the late 1970s, was truly extraordinary, establishing Napa Valley (and California) as a vital player on the world wine map. And historians generally credit the founding of Robert Mondavi Winery as the era’s ur-event.

We do not even need to dwell on Mr. Mondavi’s accomplishments in viticulture and enology, which are well-chronicled. He urged the industry onward and upward every chance he got, constantly stressing quality. The upheavals of the later years of his life—the sale of the winery to Constellation, the failure of his (and Julia Child’s) COPIA the same year as his death—no doubt were sources of sadness to him, as his life ebbed. But Robert Mondavi was nothing if not the eternal optimist. “Always stay positive,” he wrote in “Harvests.” [H]ave faith and confidence in yourself.” He always had something of the preacher in him, and grew, in maturity, almost ministerial, as if speaking a sermon from the pulpit. “Don’t be judgmental. Instead, cultivate tolerance, empathy, and compassion…listen carefully, and when you talk, make sure people understand you.”

It is never easy to predict how famous people will be remembered long after their deaths. We know that historians change their minds: one day, Harry Truman is considered a failure. The next, he’s a great President. How will Robert Mondavi be remembered? People may be unable, some far-flung day in the future, to rattle off his specific accomplishments—that he was the man, for example, who invented Fumé Blanc. But they will remember that he was a great man. They will feel his spirit radiating across space and time; they will sense, in some inchoate way, that every era raises up some special persons, who summarize in their beings the essence of their time, the zeitgeist. And they will know that Robert Mondavi did that for the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, for wine, when his powers were at their zenith, and every road seemed to lead to the famous arch and campanile, on Highway 29 in Oakville, and to the man who caused it, and the modern California wine industry, to arise.

So happy 50th birthday Robert Mondavi Winery!


A presentation at U.C. Davis

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Off to the University of California at Davis later today for a talk and tasting I’m giving this evening to DEVO, the Davis Enology and Viticulture Organization’s “190X,” an occasional discussion series at which “professionals in the wine industry” are invited to speak to about 70 V&E students and faculty members. They’ve asked me to talk about how the wine industry has changed over the course of my observations, and various aspects of marketing, and what I think of crowd-sourcing and the era of the Big Critics, so this should be a fascinating conversation.

Of course I’m including a tasting, of five different clones of Pinot Noir: 4, 115, 2A, 23 and 667, all made identically by winemaker Denise Shurtleff from grapes grown in Cambria’s vineyard, down on the Santa Maria Bench. I myself have never even done this particular tasting, so it will be interesting to see if we can detect significant differences in the wines (all 2013s), which would have to be due to the clones. I had made lists over the years of the generally-accepted qualities of the various Pinot Noir clones, but I have to say that actual tasting experience often belies these theoretical differences as they come up against the hard reality of site, farming practices, degree of ripeness and so on. However, even if we can’t agree on the particular tastes of, say, 2A versus 115, I’m sure we’ll be able to see differences. At any rate, these sorts of discussions—while they may not result in definitive conclusions—can be the launch-point for fun conversations.

For “How has the California wine industry changed?” I’ll start off with the 5-point timeline I’ve been developing in the last few months, specifically regarding Pinot Noir, but really, you can apply it to any variety in California.

  • plant anything anywhere 1940s-1950s (e.g. Pinot Noir in St. Helena)
  • better understanding of variety:region. Pinot to the water [1940s-current: Tchelistcheff, Martini to Carneros]
  • find best sites in best regions (e.g. not all of Carneros good: slopes best, mud flats not so much] 1980s – current
  • improve plant material, clones, rootstocks, canopy mgmt.1990s – current
  • find best blocks within vineyards. Ongoing and into the future.

As an example of 5.0, I cite the contrasting examples of Jackson Family’s Gran Moraine vineyard, up in Oregon, and the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. I tell people that Gran Moraine, at 150 acres, is a pretty big vineyard, right? And they all agree. Then I ask them how many acres they think the DRC is (I mean all seven vineyards-within-a-vineyard, or climats). No one ever knows precisely, but they usually guess that it’s far less than 150 acres (some think as few as ten), and they’re surprised when I tell them the DRC totals 198 acres (according to Richard Olney’s little book, Romanée-Conti).

The point I wish to make is that the DRC in addition to being a big vineyard is a very old vineyard. Olney cites a reference to a “Romanis” vineyard in Vosne from the year 282 A.D., and suggests that “La Romanée may have belonged to the Roman emperors” of that era. Certainly the vignerons of Vosne have had a long time to figure out which climats are which: why La Tâche is different from Richebourg, not to mention Montrachet, where they grow, not Pinot Noir, but Chardonnay. Why, then, should we not look at a vineyard like Gran Moraine and imagine that, with due diligence, some future grower/winemaker in the 22nd or 23rd century should not have discovered tiny blocks within the greater vineyard that are the equivalents of Grand Crus?

Of course, in California some vintners have already been engaged in that process. I think of Josh Jensen, at Calera, who has sub-divided his Mount Harlan vineyard into at least six climats (Selleck, Mills, Reed, Ryan, Jensen and de Villiers), and the Rochiolis, whose teardrop-shaped vineyard off River Road in the Russian River Valley is broken into distinct climats: River Block, Mid 40, Little Hill, Sweetwater and so on. Granted, Josh Jensen and the Rochiolis did their sub-dividing more quickly than it took the Romans or Burgundians to figure out the subtleties of the Cote de Nuits. And granted (as I am reminded by people whenever I talk about the DRC), marketing has played a perhaps pre-eminent role in shaping our perceptions of the seven climats. Still, and for whatever reason/s, the identification of climats in these famous vineyards seems to be inherent in their evolution, and in our relationships with them; consumers and connoisseurs like it, and owners are happy to provide it.

I plan also in my talk to cover the waterfront of other influences on the wine industry, from demographic shifts and the rise of the Big Critics to the advent of social media. But this post is already getting a bit long, so I’ll hold off for now and report on that tomorrow.

 


Would California wine have succeeded without the 1976 Paris Tasting?

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Come join me, readers, on a thought experiment. It is forty years ago, May 24, 1976. Gerald Ford is President. The Concorde has just flown its first commercial flight to America. Bob Dylan celebrated his 35th birthday. And, far more importantly for the California wine industry, “a publicity stunt for a small wine store in Paris changed the world of wine forever,” says this article in last Saturday’s Washington Post.

It long has been the conventional wisdom that that “publicity stunt,” which now bears the famous name “The Judgment of Paris,” launched California wine to worldwide fame, a lofty position it still enjoys. Indeed, even Steven Spurrier, who organized the tasting, is quoted in the article as saying, [T]he New World simply did not exist as a wine producer in the mind of the public.”

I wonder why Steven, who owned that “small wine store in Paris,” said “New World” instead of “California,” since the stars of the Paris tasting were from the Golden State. Slip of the pen, Dr. Freud? An Old World tendency to lump California, Australia, South Africa and Chile into the anonymous grab-bag of “New World”? Anyhow, back to our thought experiment. Imagine if you will that the Paris Tasting never took place. Steven Spurrier never scheduled it; George Taber, the TIME magazine reporter who broke the news to the English-speaking world, never wrote about it. The French were not outraged, because there was nothing to outrage them. The Judgment of Paris never happened.

Would it have made a difference to the trajectory of California wine? Let’s start with Steven’s remark that [T]he New World simply did not exist as a wine producer in the mind of the public.” ? Is that really true?

Well, it may have been true in Steven’s circle, which was based in mid-1970s Paris. By “the public” he might have meant his public: the winemakers, customers and acquaintances with whom he associated. But others beyond his circle already had noticed California wine, admired it, understood how well the best of it compared to the top French wines, and were spreading the word through their own circles, which were at least as influential, if not more so, than Steven Spurrier’s.

Among these was the man who had more influence on my own career than anyone else, Harry Waugh. In his series of Wine Diaries, which spanned twenty years, Harry shared with his many readers his growing appreciation of California wine, particularly from Napa Valley, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon; and Harry was well-connected, so when he spoke, people listened. He was on the Board of Directors of Chateau Latour (which for better or for worse was not included in the Paris Tasting), he guided Michael Broadbent’s career, and he practically introduced Pomerol to the British wine trade. Through his many tasting visits to California, which he faithfully recorded in the Diaries, Harry let the most influential gastronomes and enophiles in Britain and France (as well as America) know about the first wave of “boutique wineries” that arose in Northern California in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. To cite but a few examples, Harry compared a 1968 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon, from Monte Rosso Vineyard, to Mouton-Rothschild, and wrote, after tasting 1968 Martha’s Vineyard at Heitz and then 1968 Cabernet Sauvignon from the old Souverain, that traveling between those two wineries “could be compared with visiting Chateau Lafite after Chateau Latour.”

This is no mean praise; and Harry wrote these words (in “Pick of the Bunch”) years before the Paris Tasting. Nor was Harry Waugh by any means the first to compare California wine to the best of France. The American wine writer, Julian Street, in his 1948 book, “Wines,” tasted “a white wine of 1919 from Beaulieu which gave a Montrachet a run for its money,” and had high praise for Cabernets from Martin Ray (whose 1936 vintage he called “the best wine ever to be made of the Claret grape in the United States”), Fountain Grove (in Santa Rosa), and Inglenook.

I could cite many more examples; you get the idea. California wine was building in identity and momentum for decades before the Paris Tasting; indeed, possibly the reason Steven Spurrier devised his tasting was because of that very fact. My own educated opinion is that, even without the Judgment of Paris, California wine would have become as famous as it now is. Of course, this is a surmisal; I think also that Pinot Noir would have become as famous as it now is even without Sideways. Such contentions cannot be proven, but events like the Paris Tasting and Sideways do not happen in vacuo; they are prompted and shaped by phenomena already extant that give rise to the Steven Spurriers and Rex Picketts. California wine indeed has become a phenomenon, but it was a long time coming, and did not start with the Judgment of Paris.


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