subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

Who’s on the A List of the most important California vintners?

24 comments

 

I once had a sensei who was quite well known in karatedo circles for the historic role he had played in spreading this traditional Japanese martial art throughout North America in the 1950s and 1960s, thereby stoking its popularity and leading directly to Bruce Lee and Chow Yun-Fat and today’s mixed martial arts.

My sensei was indeed a sort of legend, possibly more in his own mind than in other people’s, but well-regarded nonetheless. When the history of karate in America in the 20th century is recorded, his name will be more than an asterisk, but less than a superstar. Somewhere inbetween.

Which got me thinking, how do we decide which are the most memorable and important figures in the history of California wine? I suppose there’s always an arbitrary element to it. We can argue about this person, or that one. But surely, no one would object to the inclusion of Count Agoston Haraszthy, André Tchelistcheff and Robert Mondavi on the short list. But where do we go from there?

I don’t mean individuals who were historically important on a regional basis. Each county and wine region possesses such people: Santa Barbara boasts Richard Sanford, Monterey had Dick Graf at Chalone, San Benito’s star was and is Josh Jensen, the Santa Cruz Mountains had pioneers like David Bruce, Livermore Valley had its Wentes, Anderson Valley had Dr. Edmeades. the Russian River Valley its Rochiolis and Joe Swans, and so on. No, I mean individuals without whom our modern, successful wine industry would not be what it is today.

What are the criteria by which we can even pretend to make such momentous decisions? Well, let’s turn to the three men we all agree on: Haraszthy, Tchelistcheff and Mondavi. What did they have in common? What did they do to get on the list?

What they had in common was that each of them contributed something so vital that we can’t imagine California wine today without them. Haraszthy of course brought all those cuttings over from Europe, started Buena Vista, wrote his influential report to the State legislature, and in fact provided the intellectual basis for California wine to emerge onto the world stage. Tchelistcheff can be credited with inventing Napa Valley, in its modern sense, transforming its 19th century mentality to one firmly anticipating the twentieth. Others were making fine Cabernet Sauvignon—at Inglenook, at Charles Krug, at Louis Martini—but it was Beaulieu, under Tchelistcheff’s leadership, that emerged as the prime example of a boutique winery. No Beaulieu, no 1960s explosion of boutiques, end of story. Add to that the fact that Tchelistcheff mentored several generations of superstar winemakers, and his place in history is assured.

As for Mr. Mondavi, well, he was and is and will remain for all time the face of California wine, not just for his technical contributions to wine quality but, possibly more important, his tremendous drive, energy and communication skills. How we think about wine (and food) today is largely defined by how Mr. Mondavi taught us to think about them.

Measured by this fantastic yardstick, who else can possibly claim membership on the short list? To tell you the truth, no one, in my opinion. The A list remains the exclusive enclave of this trio of geniuses. There is, indeed, a very impressive B list, and I might draw that up one of these days. But not now.


Remembering a defunct winery, and a lesson in regional correctness

3 comments

 

I don’t know what made me remember the old Chateau Woltner wines. The memory just popped into my head—who knows how these things work, or why. The winery had been started by an heir to the Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion dynasty. I don’t recall the details—here’s the Wikipedia entry that says after La Mission was sold, the owning family went their separate ways. Thus it was that Francis and Françoise DeWavrin took their share of the proceeds and moved onto something else. In this case, Napa Valley. They bought some land in 1980 on the lower slopes of Howell Mountain, above the Silverado Trail, and planted—not Cabernet, as you’d expect, but Chardonnay!

Even then, in the mid-1990s, this was a shocking thing to do. Napa Valley Chardonnay hadn’t yet acquired the reputation (unjust, in many cases) for being dull, but even so, Napa hadn’t been perceived as prime Chardonnay terroir for many years; and in any case, Howell Mountain was known to be superior Cabernet county. (Randy Dunn had seen to that!) So it was that, with pleasure and some curiosity, I accepted an invitation by the DeWavrins to visit their property.

The house and grounds had seen grander days. The DeWavrins themselves could not have been nicer. The Chardonnays? Well, to call them “minerally” would be an understatement. They were clean and elegant, yet hard in briny wet stone and metallic minerals. In other words, not the lush, fruity Chards California was known for.

Eventually the DeWavrins gave up their quest; I suppose the wines simply didn’t sell well. Today, I doubt there’s much Chardonnay remaining on Howell Mountain. The action has moved closer to the coast. Howell now is a hotbed of Cabernet and other Bordeaux varieties.

The lesson I glean from this is how hard it is to march against the popular drumbeat and try to grow varieties in places where tastemakers think they don’t belong. Critics seemed to resent those Woltner Chardonnays even before they tried them. Too expensive! Why is he growing them on Howell Mountain instead of someplace else? I suppose Francis DeWavrin had a bit of the contrarian in him—he certainly had some well-pronounced marketing genes and believed that he could develop a niche product. And then there was the Frenchman in him. When it came to world Chardonnay, his eye turned, not to Carneros or the Russian River Valley, but to Chablis.

If he were still making that wine today, I bet there would be sommeliers celebrating it as “Chablisian” and far more terroir-influenced than most other California Chardonnays, which so many somms say are overripe and flabby. This is a perfectly legitimate attitude, but it does tend to reinforce the tendency of California growing regions to become monocultures. Napa Valley once had, not just a lot of Chardonnay but a lot of Pinot Noir too, and it wasn’t bad stuff. But the critics of the 1970s and 1980s didn’t like it and badmouthed it, which meant proprietors couldn’t sell it, so they budded their vines over to the Cabernets, Sauvignon and Franc, or Merlot, or Petit Verdot, and that was that. A similar fate awaited Napa Valley Sangiovese, Semillon and other varieties that made honest, straightforward wines that consumers wouldn’t buy, because, after all, if it says Napa Valley on the label, it should be Cabernet Sauvignon, right? In fact, by 1990, it had become politically incorrect (from a varietal point of view) to grow much else in Napa Valley besides Bordeaux grapes.

Have a great weekend!


Why Napa Cabernet costs so much

17 comments

 

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!

8 comments

 

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

4 comments

 

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

7 comments

 

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.


« Previous Entries

Recent Comments

Recent Posts

Categories

Archives