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Hey elites: Ordinary people love California wine!

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With the bashing that California wine sometimes gets from the old boy’s club (AKA the cool kid’s club), it comes as a refreshing reminder to learn that “beyond the beltway” of snobbery and exclusivity, ordinary people love our wines.

Up in Canada, the Ottawa Citizen yesterday reported on the upcoming “California Wine Fair” to be held this Friday. Ottawa is, of course, still gripped in winter: as I write these words, the temperature there is 32 degrees. That’s why the article’s headline is “Dreaming of California Wines,” and the lead sentence refers to our state’s balmy weather: “Just when we need it most,” it says, “A taste of sunshine and warm breezes—California wine is coming to Ottawa.”

This is the thing we mustn’t ever forget about California wine: People love it. They love it the same way they love California itself. For most people all over the world, California is a magical place, of sunny beaches and swaying palm trees, of jasmine-scented evenings and year-round backyard barbecues, of beautiful people and gracious living. Granted, those of us who actually live here know that it’s not always that way. But it is enough of the time. California really is “the golden dream at the edge of the world.”

Our wines reflect that notion. They’re rich, sumptuous and bold, reflecting a place and a people that are distinctly Californian. I know this, and it’s why I grow impatient with the accusations (which actually seem to be diminishing) that California wine is not delicate enough for some people. That may be so; but ordinary people everywhere love our wines. This may be part and parcel of the eternal struggle between the masses and the elite, a struggle you find reflected in every aspect of life and culture. But even if you consider yourself among the elite, you should remind yourself of certain verities.

Among them: As the Ottawa Citizen says, “California wines…strike a chord with many people. [They] consistently demonstrate a pleasant and appealing flavour profile…California vintners have learned from the traditions and history of others and have innovated and put their own spin on techniques and practices.”

That’s how the non-elite see things: not in terms of alcohol level, but in terms of how much pleasure they get from sipping our wines. To be truthful, if California wine can only appeal to one group—the elite, or the masses of everyday consumers—I’d much rather it be the latter. That’s the California way: open, free, egalitarian, meritocratic. We’re the State that developed the ballot initiative by which the people get to vote directly on important issues, instead of leaving them to the “experts” who, occasionally, may find their judgment clouded. I’m proud to be a Californian (by way of New York City and the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts), and I’m proud of California wine!


Wednesday Wraparound: Bordeaux and Asti

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The Drinks Business magazine is reporting huge unsold stocks of Bordeaux from the 2010, 2011 and 2012 vintages–the latter two decent, with 2010 exceptional according to most critics. Things are so dire, apparently, that the chairman of Justerini & Brooks, one of London’s top wine merchants, called the dust-gathering stocks “the last chance saloon for the Bordelais.” Distribution chains are “struggling to cope”; supplies “didn’t even get to the market as the merchants and negociants didn’t buy any. In fact, it didn’t get out of the chateau door.”

This chart shows how bad things are. It’s hard to read, but basically, all those lines on the right represent unsold inventory.

 

Livex-chart

This raises interesting questions, beginning with the obvious: Has the Bordeaux car run out of gas? One hesitates profoundly to reach that conclusion concerning the most famous wine region in the world. Bordeaux has survived every catastrophe you can name, from wars and invasions to phylloxera, human plagues and financial Depressions. It would be imprudent to the highest degree to even hint that such a long run at the top is over.

Prices of the most famous wines are, of course, ridiculous, but there are plenty of good red Bordeaux in the $40-$60 range, not just Medocs and Haut-Medocs but from prestigious communes like St.-Julien and St. Estephe. So it’s puzzling to me why more people aren’t buying them. I like a good, dry Bordeaux as an alternative to the big California Cabs and Merlots I also enjoy. I’ll peer into my crystal ball and make this prediction: Don’t count Bordeaux out. Ever.

* * *

Have you ever been to the Asti winery? Probably not, unless you had business there, because it’s not open to the public (at least, it hasn’t been whenever I’ve gone). But it really should be, for it’s an interesting blast from the past in the history of California wine.

As I wrote in my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, the settlement of “Asti” was founded by a man as colorful as Count Haraszthy, Andrea Sbarbaro, who established the original Italian Swiss Colony winery there in 1880, on the banks of the Russian River just south of Cloverdale. In the 1960s, ISC went into a period of decline; the Asti facility deteriorated into a producer of jug wines. Treasury Wine Estates acquired the 536-acre property some time ago, but has now put it on the market, as part of its cost-cutting practices. I hope that whoever buys Asti will love it and restore it as a tourist destination, in addition to whatever winemaking they do there. It’s a lovely place to wander about, with old stone structures, and is frankly perhaps the greatest vantage point from which to learn about and appreciate the history of Alexander Valley, especially its Zinfandels.


Sangiovese’s bold, noble road to nowhere

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Reading about Piero Antinori in the April 30 issue of Wine Spectator brought back memories of the early and mid-1990s, when the Marchese had hundreds of acres of Sangiovese growing in a beautiful section of Atlas Peak.

The sprawling vineyard was a fine sight to see. Sangiovese, the grape and wine, still was on the upswing in Cailfornia. Many winegrowers and critics thought it could be California’s answer to Tuscany—indeed, the term “Cal-Ital” was coined to express this desire.

To understand Sangiovese’s allure at that moment, you have to put it into context. Cabernet Sauvignon was the undoubted king of red wines. Pinot Noir was not then seriously considered to be a candidate for anything. Merlot was on the rise. Zinfandel, as always, was in one year, out the next. Petite Sirah? Hmmph. It was okay for blending, but nobody took it seriously as a standalone. So people were left to wonder: What is the “next big red wine?”

In California, with its edge-of-the-continent tradition of radical reinvention, there always has to be a “next” everything. The next big movie star. The next big politician. Even the next big earthquake. This concept of “nextness” is uncomfortable with tradition—tradition, after all, is what drove so many people to leave their homes and travel westward, where they would be free from stifling oppression. So it was with wine.

Sangiovese was crowned early on with this crown of nextness. But there was a problem—a big one. It never seemed to make very good wine. Grown on fertile flatlands and benches in Napa Valley, it made a light, pale, savory wine, almost a rosé, at places like Flora Springs. But its lightness disqualified it from being the next big red wine. So it was that growers and vintners headed to the hills.

Enter Piero Antinori. The Atlas Peak vineyard, as I’ve said, was gorgeous, and the fact that the master of Tuscany presided over it was inspirational. However, once again, Sangiovese failed to live up to expectations. The tannins in the wines were enormous, gigantic, impossible. I remember attempting to review them and fundamentally giving up. Would these wines age well in 15 or 20 years? Who knew? Who cared?

So it was that, as the Wine Spectator explains, Antinori eventually gave up on Sangiovese and replaced almost all the Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon, which he bottles under the Antica brand.

As for Sangiovese in California, it’s one of the really few disasters in the state’s wine varietal history. Acreage over the last ten or fifteen years has remained practically stagnant statewide. In Napa, less than 300 acres remain. I can barely remember the last one I reviewed for Wine Enthusiast.

Someday, somebody might resurrect Sangiovese in California and make something of it, but I doubt if we’ll ever see it return to glory. It’s awfully hard to attempt something important in California wine, only to fail, and then to return. Some politicians have done it—Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan conspicuously come to mind, men who ran losing campaigns that embarrassed them, but then came back and triumphed.

Wine, however, is not man. Whatever niche Sangiovese once promised to fill has been replaced by Pinot Noir. Sangiovese’s experimental period in California was a bold and noble venture, but it led nowhere.


The history of wine reviewing

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Did my annual wine class last night for the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business’s Wine Club. It’s always so cool to go there, with the big banners celebrating their Nobel Prize winners, and those super-smart students who, one imagines, might be running the show someday.

One of the things they wanted to know about was the history of wine reviewing. Here’s what I told them.

Describing wine has a long and honorable history in humankind. People have always understood that wines differ greatly in quality and this seems to have been fascinating to even the earliest peoples we have record of. The Old Testament, Numbers 18:12 (1400 B.C.). refers to drinking “all the best of the wine.” From the New Testament, John 2:10: “every man serves the good wine first.” So these notions of “the best” wine and “the good” wine date to the earliest times.

The ancient Greeks divided wine into quality hierarchies. Socrates’ and Plato’s “symposia” were actually wine-drinking parties at which matters of intellectual interest were discussed. Aristotle praised the aroma of Limnio, a red wine still produced on the island of Lemnos. Later, in Rome, Pliny the Elder (first century A.D.) created one of the earliest rankings of wine, noting that the vineyard is the most important influence on the wine’s quality. In this he anticipates, by nearly 2,000 years, the French system of Grand Crus and Classified Growths, which also are based on vineyards. The greatest, or most famous, of the ancient Roman wines was Falernian, which was often mentioned by ancient writers: On the walls of Pompei, destroyed by Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D., is a price list [this must have been the equivalent of a Roman wine bar!]: For one denarius, you could buy an “as”–the house wine. For two, “the best.” For four, “Falernian.” Scholars think Falernian might have been a sweet white wine–rather like an ice wine. According to Pliny the Elder, in 60 B.C., Julius Caesar was served Falernian from the 121 B.C. vintage–the first vintage in recorded history that was celebrated for wine quality. However, as the physician Galen noted around 180 A.D., not all so-called “Falernian” wine could be genuine. There was simply too much being drunk and too little produced! Yes, even then, they had fake wines–a situation we’ve seen here in the states, with the recent Rudi Kurniawan scandal. Counterfeit wine also is notoriously frequent in China with Burgundy and Bordeaux.

Here in America, knowledge of wine all but disappeared due to 14 years of Prohibition. Following Repeal (1933), a plethora of wine books appeared to explain wine to Americans, and implicit in them all was this notion of a hierarchy of quality. It’s very easy for Americans to accept that some things are better than others: people understand that Cadillacs are better than Chevrolets. So they absorbed this notion of wine hierarchies, and it’s still hard to persuade them that a common, everyday wine can be better than a rare, expensive one, depending on the circumstances.

When the Baby Boomers—my generation–came of age with all their disposable income, the number of wineries was exploding exponentially. Consumers needed help deciding what to buy—and they wanted that help to be neutral and objective–so a new generation of “critics” arose in the 1970s. Newspapers in the major cities hired wine critics. Books and newsletters flourished. This was the genesis of where we find ourselves today. Two publications of note arose during the late 1970s: Wine Spectator magazine and Robert Parker’s newsletter, The Wine Advocate. My own former magazine, Wine Enthusiast, launched about ten years later.

With all of these came the advent and triumph of the American wine critic.


Tastemakers are ready for a return to classicism

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You can’t really blame the famous Napa Valley wineries that came of age in the 1970s for running out of steam a little bit by now. The problem, to the extent there is one and I think there obviously has been, is that American wine writers and sommeliers (a group included in the larger group of “tastemakers”) tend to be a fickle bunch. Writers, especially, suffer from “what’s new?” syndrome: Witness the obsession verging on mania of all those “rising stars” and “wineries to watch” articles in the wine press. As a former member of that establishment, I can tell you that the pressure on “what’s new?”– from editors and publishers and your fellow writers–is tremendous. There’s little in it for the hard-working wine writer to remind the public that a forty-year old Napa Valley winery is producing fantastic wines. Nobody wants to hear it. They want to hear about the sexy newcomer who just got 100 points from [fill in the blank].

This is the truth, but it isn’t entirely the fault of the people who are paid to market and promote these wineries. They’re fighting an uphill battle. Our throwaway culture wants youth, not longevity—ask any Hollywood actress over 40 (except Meryl Streep). One day, you’re 22-year old Winona Ryder, garnering wows for The Age of Innocence and Little Women. The next, you’re in your forties and doing Frankenweenie.

It’s sad and pathetic—tragic, even—but, like Tony Soprano always said, What you gonna do? There are two important take-homes here: One concerns how those 40-something year-old Napa wineries stay relevant in the second decade of the 21st century. The other is, How does a young modern winery plan to stay relevant in 2050?

To stay relevant, the older wineries have to be smart. Just as people of a certain age (me included) understand that, to keep the weight off and stay trim, you have to burn more calories than ever (because your metabolism slows down), so too the older winery needs to step up the pace. But that doesn’t necessarily mean working harder: It means being more intelligent and efficient. To continue my analogy, it doesn’t mean the older person has to stay on the treadmill twice as long (although it could), it also means she has to be more careful about the food she eats. When you’re twenty you burn off that double bacon cheeseburger in five seconds; when you’re older, it’s “from the lips to the hips.”

In the same way, the older winery has to work smarter. If that means learning about social media, even if they think it’s stupid, so be it. But it could also mean taking a long, hard, honest look at your wines and asking yourself if they’re really what people want to drink these days. If you’re convinced they are, then say so! Loud and proud.

The younger winery that’s planning to be around in 30 years also needs a game plan. Staying lean, limber and quick isn’t all that hard if you’re already lean, limber and quick. But it’s really hard when you’ve become bloated and lazy. If I was 28 and running my own winery, I like to think I’d know how to keep the ball rolling. Work on DTC. Be out there on the road, meeting consumers, accounts and tastemakers. Do social media. Connect, connect, connect. Taste widely and often. And please, understand history!!!

So what do I mean by the headline, “A return to classicism”? I truly think that in our world of wine the OCD of “new new new” is shifting as people realize that what’s “new” isn’t necessarily better. Not that there’s anything wrong with a new winery—not saying that! But we mustn’t get so mesmerized by these new cult wineries that we throw the baby out with the bathwater and relegate older wineries to some kind of netherworld populated only by your grandfather’s ghost. The truth is—and it bears repeating again and again—what has long been great is worth everybody’s attention. Wine has been the greatest beverage in history because it is the only one (beer and spirits included) that can follow the arc of greatness over centuries down to the individual winery level. Indeed, this is why Europe has Grand Crus. Well, guess what? So does California, albeit in a shrunken time span. If you’re a younger wine drinker, a younger somm or blogger, whatever, you owe it to yourself to understand the classic wines of California—and you owe it, not just to yourself, but to your customers and clients and, indeed, to the history and soul of wine itself.


Secrets from the cellar

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As an old karate hound, I stay in touch with my senseis. One of them recently sent me an article about a very great aikido sensei who refuses to demonstrate any technique more than once, “because if I do a technique twice, it will be stolen!”

For a martial arts student, that’s pretty funny; the dojo is a place for study and learning, passed along from teacher to student. It is not a place for secrets. This instantly made me remember a quote from an older winemaker who was interviewed by Robert Benson in his 1977 book, “Great Winemakers of California.” Benson, as was his wont, was asking the winemaker some technical questions, when the winemaker answered, “We’re very jealous about certain things, quite frankly, and I hope you wouldn’t be insulted, I’d simply tell you I’d rather not answer that question…Look, my dad taught me this stuff and some of it I don’t tell anybody but my kids.”

Back in the day, secrecy was fairly standard in the wine industry. Yes, winemakers have always collaborated, to some extent, but an older generation, who had been taught by their fathers (who in turn might have been taught by their fathers) was less inclined to share trade secrets with the young whippersnapper next door who might be his arch-rival. This mindset affected many older California wineries. It was part of the California culture immediately after the Repeal of Prohibition—maybe because consumers were few and far between, and the wineries were under tremendous pressure to differentiate themselves from the competition.

When a younger generation in California—the so-called boutique winery founders—arose in the 1960s, there was less guardedness and more openness. It was partly a matter of generational attitudes. The Benson book shows a spirit of sharing among younger winemakers, like Warren Winiarski and Jerry Luper, and even André Tchelistcheff, who was 76 when “Great Winemakers” was published, showed not a hint of reticence when it came to divulging his techniques, which might have been due to his European upbringing.

Today, there are few, if any, secrets among winemakers in California. Nor would many winemakers refuse to answer a technical question from a journalist. Even if they wanted to (which is unlikely), the lure of publicity is too strong. The wine industry has many symposia and conferences, from WITS to the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium to smaller get-togethers, and most winemakers are part of local tasting groups with their peers, where they share techniques and freely borrow from each other. So the information is out there: you can’t keep it bottled up.

One complaint you sometimes hear about this Kumbaya closeness is that it has resulted in wines that taste more and more alike, and less and less of their native terroir. Even if that’s true to some extent (and I’m not sure it is), the genie is out of the bottle: we live in an open, transparent, communicative world. Two or three hundred years ago, wineries were far more isolated from each other than they are today. Nowdays, information is open, free and universal, which is how it should be. In fact, far from fearing that information-sharing is detrimental to the individuality of wines, I would suggest it gives winemakers a wider spectrum of approaches (in both the vineyard and in the winery) to choose from, in order to learn how to make the best, most expressive wines they can.


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