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Why Napa Cabernet costs so much

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The most interesting quote in the Napa Valley Register’s article on the 30th birthday of the Carneros Wine Alliance is from David Graves. The co-founder of Saintsbury said, “There’s no ‘Napa of pinot noir.’ No one place dominates the market.”

Isn’t it interesting how the cultural evolution of the market has treated our two leading red wine types so differently? One, Cabernet Sauvignon, has become almost exclusively dominated, in the mind of the consumer, with a single appellation: Napa Valley. The other, Pinot Noir, resists being associated with a dominating region. Indeed, if you were to ask leading wine critics, What is California’s top Pinot Noir appellation, they would tell you the question makes no sense.

Beyond being merely of academic interest, this is a pocketbook issue. How much a winery gets for its wine (and how much, in turn, the consumer pays for it) are intimately linked with the wine’s origin. While the average statewide price for a ton of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in 2013 was $1,339, in Napa Valley it was $5,469, a difference of 308 percent. Pragmatically, this is why the average bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet is many times higher that the average bottle of Cabernet from, say, Alexander Valley.

This is not true of Pinot Noir, whose price tends to be more consistent across all the top coastal growing areas. Here are some examples, all reflective of the price of a ton of grapes in 2013:

Sonoma: $3,078

Santa Barbara/San Luis Obispo: $2,586

Mendocino: $2,652

Statewide: $1,594

Indeed, as I have long suggested, when it comes to Pinot Noir, it is somewhat misleading to focus on individual growing regions. Instead, the way to look at things is that we have a single Pinot Noir terroir that stretches from Anderson Valley down to Santa Barbara County, extending inland perhaps 20 miles. No single A.V.A. within this vast stretch can plausibly pretend to supremacy because, in truth, all of them are roughly equal, although, of course, wine writers and critics make their livings discerning differences within the similarities.

In the case of Napa’s lopsided price for Cabernet, this cannot be credited to matters of terroir. Napa Valley demonstrably is not the best, only place to grow qualitatively significant Cabernet Sauvignon in California. Alexander Valley has equal precedence. So too do the Santa Cruz Mountains, Paso Robles, the easternmost parts of Santa Barbara, Lake County and other regions of Sonoma County, including Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Knights Valley and Chalk Hill. (I refer, in all cases, to the top wines.) I don’t think any critic who’s being objective would object when I say that prime Cabernet growing areas in California are at least as widespread as those for prime Pinot Noir.

Why, then, the incredible price differential on behalf of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon? One reason and one reason only: perception. Napa Valley is perceived as being the best place to grow Cabernet. That perception clearly impacts the choice of consumers (and the restaurateurs and merchants who sell wine to them), but it also distorts the impressions of a surprisingly high number of critics, who do not taste blind and thus are subject to the biases within their own unconscious or subconscious minds.

Now that I’ve been “relieved” of the job of tasting many thousands of wines a year, I find I’m developing a refreshingly clearer sense concerning these matters of terroir. Perhaps it’s a form of now being able to see the forest for the trees. If one is looking for pleasure and complexity in wine (and what else would one look for?), then it’s simply astonishing how easy it is to find those qualities in California wine. This is not to suggest that quality differences do not exist, but it is my considered judgment that these differences are neither as vast as I once thought, nor as distinctive as consumers believe. This may be due, in part, to the 100-point system, which I long employed and for which I will never apologize. But I am glad that, when it came to very high scores for Cabernet, I always included Alexander Valley right up there with Napa Valley, for I was able to get past the “perception thing” and focus on the wine itself.

The history of California wine is replete with paradigm-shifting events, such as the Paris Tasting, the advent of the current era of Pinot Noir, replanting after phylloxera, and, if we go back far enough, to the use of French barriques and the creation of the Federal labeling laws. To these, I will predict a gradual shifting in the consumer’s perception, a widening of appreciation that great Cabernet Sauvignon can in fact come from many more places than only Napa Valley. When this will occur is open to question, but I have no doubt that it will.


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.


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