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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.


The historic phases of Pinot Noir in California: 4.0…and counting

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I blogged the other day about a tasting in which we tried four different versions of Clone 777 Pinot Noir from four Jackson Family wineries in four regions: Anderson Valley (Champ de Reves), Willamette Valley (Gran Moraine), Santa Lucia Highlands (Siduri-Sierra Mar Vineyard) and Annapolis (Wild Ridge, on the far Sonoma Coast). This was an attempt to see if we could detect the signature of the vineyards (terroir) in each case—which we could. The 777’s intense color, strong, aromatic profile and sturdy tannins always came through, but each barrel sample was different, which can only have been due to their differing origins.

But that was only half the story. That tasting was an in-house rehearsal at Jackson Family Wines for our full-scale public event yesterday, held at The Battery, which by the way is a fabulous place to have a tasting as well as a terrific bar and restaurant. (Segue: I walked there from Montgomery Street BART, which took me past the old Square One restaurant where I spent so many pleasurable hours in the 1980s and 1990s. Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory” chimed nostalgic-happy in my mind.)

For this tasting, which attracted about 40 industry pros, we repeated the Clone 777 tasting, and we also had each of the winemakers present to talk about his/her wines. For the icing on the cake we had each of the winery’s 2013 final bottled blends of Pinot Noir, which contained varying amounts of 777. The idea wasn’t so much as to see if we could detect the presence of the 777 in the final blend as it was to see if we could discern the terroir in both the Clone 777s and the final blended wines.

All of us on the panel—the winemakers, myself, our moderator Gilian Handleman and Julia Jackson, the youngest daughter of Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke—of course weighed in with our own impressions. For my part, and being the “senior” on the panel (as well as, pretty much, in the room), I shared my perspective on where we are concerning Pinot Noir here on the West Coast of America. Here’s my take on that, historically-speaking.

Pinot Noir 1.0 followed the Repeal of Prohibition. It occurred primarily in the 1930s and early 1940s. This was the “Plant Pinot Noir anywhere” era. It was put into central Napa Valley, into Sonoma County east of the 101 highway, and other warmish places better suited for Zinfandel; it took a while, but it was discovered those places were too hot for this variety.

Pinot Noir 2.0 followed a single imperative: “Go towards the water.” This was in the later 1940s. Pioneers like Andre Tchelistchef and Louis Martini went south, to Carneros. They understood that Pinot needs the cooling influence of (in this case) San Pablo-San Francisco Bay.

This water-seeking was a long period and lasted through the 1980s. Pinot also looked westward, towards the Pacific Ocean. Vineyards went onto the western slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains, into western San Luis Obispo County, the Anderson Valley, the western part of Santa Ynez Valley we now call Santa Rita Hills, and of course the Russian River Valley, as well as the far Sonoma Coast.

Pinot Noir 3.0 was the mighty effort to improve plant material. Now that we knew the best places to plant it, the next step was to improve the vines themselves: virus-free clones and selections. This phase occurred in the 1990s.

Pinot Noir 4.0 is where we find ourselves now: the focus is on the vineyard. Where are the best sites in the best regions? What are the best soils? The best viticultural practices? Volcanic-basalt soils are different from marine-sedimentary ones. How do you match clones to sites? What is the best oak treatment for your wines? This is the most intensive effort today in California.

I see this phase occupying our attentions for the next twenty years, at least. But it won’t be the final one.

Pinot Noir 5.0 has barely begun. It will consist of an understanding of the individual vineyards so thorough that we will be able to identify individual blocks within them for site specificity. After all, the vineyard now owned by the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti was planted as far back as the twelfth century: it was not for additional centuries that the individualities of La Tache, Echezeaux, etc. were understood and appreciated. Hundreds of years to understand roughly 198 acres of vineyard (including Montrachet)! I hope it will not take us that long. Many of our vineyards are of considerable size; we need to break them down into block bottlings. We’re just scratching the surface—I love Josh Jensen’s exploration of his terroir at Calera, and the way the Rochiolis have put their Westside Road vineyard under the microscope and blocked it out. I told our audience yesterday (and most of them seemed to be in their twenties and thirties), “You guys are lucky. You will spend the rest of your lives understanding and writing about Pinot Noir phase 5.0” when we delve into the most exquisitely detailed comprehension of the micro-terroir of our vineyards. What a glorious epoch that will be.


When did Cabernet Sauvignon arrive in Napa Valley?

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I’m doing some research for a project I’m involved with at Jackson Family Wines, and one of the things I’m interested in establishing is when the first Cabernet Sauvignon vines were planted in Napa Valley, by whom, and where.

You’d think such things would already be well-documented. After all, Napa Valley is one of the most famous winegrowing regions in the world, and Cabernet is its crowning glory. And Napa Valley is not so old that its vinous origins are lost in the mists of time, as they are in Burgundy and Bordeaux.

So why is it so hard?

I have about a zillion wine books, and I couldn’t find the answers. So I turned to my trusty online source, Facebook, where a number of my friends weighed in. They suggested everybody from H.W. Crabb in 1868 to Capt. Niebaum in 1883, but one, Tom Ward, said “George C. Yount, in 1836, at the site of the current Napanook Vineyard,” a claim Tom says was substantiated by the winemaker at Dominus, Tod Mostero.

I’ll have to do some more fact-checking on that myself, but the point it raises is how easily we in California lose our history, in this fast-paced, twitterized world, where Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes have shrunk to 15 seconds.

I went to some of my California wine books to see what I could find on George Yount, after whom Yountville is of course named. He was the first white settler in what we now call Napa Valley, having come there from Sonoma. Leon Adams, in The Wines of America (1973) says Yount planted “Mission vines,” which he vinified in 1841: no mention, though, of Cabernet Sauvignon. Thomas Pinney’s “A History of Wine in America” (2005) does not even list Yount in the index, nor does his “The Makers of American Wine: A Record of Two Hundred Years” (2012). Then again, Yount doesn’t even appear in Frank Schoonmaker’s and Tom Marvel’s epochal 1941 book, “American Wines,”

Yount does make an appearance in Robert Mondavi’s charming memoir, “Harvests of Joy” (1998), in which Robert calls him “a tough, adventurous trapper”; but Robert does not say Young grew Cabernet (although he does refer to Crabb who in 1868 “obtained certified cuttings of ‘noble varietals’ from Bordeaux…” in the vineyard that eventually became Tokalon (or To Kalon).

Yount also makes a brief appearance in The Oxford Companion to the Wines of North America (2000), with information drawn from other sources. Ditto for Hugh Johnson’s Story of Wine (1999), with the added tidbit that Yount had started as a seal trapper. I could mention a dozen or more other books in my library that refer to Young, but with no additional information.

It seems important that we should establish these facts, of the origins of Cabernet Savignon in Napa Valley. It didn’t happen so long ago that it should be impossible. And yet, maybe it is. Today, everything is recorded. We tend to forget that, not that long ago, not everything was. Nor did men even have the notion that everything should be recorded. Marriages were, and births, and deaths; but the planting of agricultural crops? I mean, what man planted the first plums in Napa? The first nut trees? Then too, we must remember that our obsession (for that is what it is) with specific varieties is of comparatively recent origin. It hardly existed in Old Europe, where they made “Bordeaux” and “Burgundy” and “Hermitage,” not “Cabernet Sauvignon” or “Pinot Noir” or “Syrah.” It was, in fact, due in large measure to Mr. Schoonmaker that our present way of thinking about (and labeling) varietals came about. So maybe it’s not so strange, after all: Young made wines from his estate: what the particular grape variety or varieties was, nobody cared.

Do you know anything about the origin of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley? Can you document it? I’d love to hear from you.


Classic, schlmassic: another silly wine word to get rid of

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I’m tempted to say, pace Justice Stewart, that I can’t define “classic” wine, but I know one when I taste it, except that I can’t say that, either, because it’s not always true. I do know a classic wine when you tell me its name.

You: “Here’s Chateau Lafite-Rothschild.”

Me: “Oh, that’s a classic wine.”

But this gets us into the territory of blind tasting, and I’m tired of writing about that (I will again, but not now). However, this notion of “classic wines” is endlessly fascinating, because it involves, not just wine, tasting and judgment, but linguistic processes which, as a Stanford professor points out, are pervasive in most fundamental domains of thought, unconsciously shaping us from the nuts and bolts of cognition and perception to our loftiest abstract notions…”.

This means, in brief, that the way we describe things—to ourselves and to others—shapes how we perceive them. This shouldn’t be surprising, in a post-Heisenberg world. But it would not have surprised our grandmothers, either, who understood the commonsense validity of “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”

Anyhow, bravo to Wine & Spirits for their Fall 2015 issue, which examines the question of what is a classic wine? It’s a spirited romp through the world of fine wine and, even if we’re no closer to defining “classic wine” at the end, getting there is a hell of a lot of fun.

One of the articles, by Luke Sykora, seeks to determine what are the classics of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Few surprises there from the past: For the 1960s and 1970s, Luke lists five: Charles Krug Vintage Selection, Beaulieu Georges de Latour, Freemark Abbey Bosché, Robert Mondavi Reserve and Heitz Martha’s Vineyard. (Luke also referenced specific vintages, but I am omitting them for convenience.)

Now, one could, theoretically, add others to the list, but lists, like undergarments, are best kept brief. Luke seems to have been influenced in his selection of yesteryear’s classics by Gerald Asher, who participated in a tasting with him; and certainly there is no living wine writer better equipped to pronounce on Napa Valley Cabernet from that era than Gerald. In him, we see one parameter of defining “classics” that is sometimes overlooked: authority, which means that the situation has been codified by some person or panel of the utmost esteem. (Indeed, the 1855 Classification itself possessed authority only because its drafters were so respected.) In other words, if Gerald says that these five Cabs are classic (and this statement is in accord with our general understanding), then we are inclined to agree.

So much for the 1960s and 1970s. We now move forward to today. What are the new classics? To answer this, Luke’s group, which included Gerald, tasted a dozen wines from the 2012 vintage. Luke didn’t identify the complete lineup, but listed three that “seemed destined to show life and typicity in 20 to 30 years’ time,” meaning that ageworthiness is one of the qualities Luke’s group associates with a classic Cab. The chosen three wines were Dominus, Spottswoode and Robert Mondavi Tokalon Reserve.

So we have implicitly implicated three qualities that constitute the definition of “classic”: authority, typicity and ageworthiness. All are big, weighty, dense but, as we shall see, problematic constructs. Authority presupposes a writer/critic of longstanding reputation, a person of good will and trustworthiness, whose intellectual capacities cannot be doubted. We always have had such individuals: Thomas Jefferson, André Simon, Professor Saintsbury, Michael Broadbent, Hugh Johnson. In more modern times we move to more controversial choices, Robert Parker being the obvious candidate; but everything in our morally discombobulated world these days is controversial. If we continue the arc of time into the future, things seem destined to grow more and more controversial, meaning that we may (sooner than we think) run out of authority figures, which will call into question the notion of “authority” itself. If there are no authority figures, who will tell us what wines are classic?

But wait, there’s more: the second quality that defined “classic” was typicity. But here, too, we are in profoundly murky waters. “Typicity” as we’ve known it is melting faster than the Arctic icecaps. In Burgundy and Chablis, typicity almost no longer exists, as producers do things their grandfathers would have found appalling. Global warming also undoes typicity. Besides, who—in this welter of controversial topics—is to decide what is “typical” and what is “atypical” anyway? And if something happens to be “atypical” who’s to say it’s not the “new typical”? You see how complicated this can be.

And then there’s the third thing that underlies classic wine: ageworthiness. But if we’re prepared to accept Luke’s contention that ageworthiness can only be determined after “20 to 30 years,” then we may not be able to arrive at a conclusion about which Napa Cabs are classic today until the year 2035, at least. This is not a very satisfactory solution for those of us who want to know now. Nor will it take into account those wineries that (a) do not exist today, or (b) are not part of the tastings by which we will determine ageworthiness, since such tastings always have an arbitrariness to the selection process.

What are we to do? My answer is to do away with the notion of “classic” wines. “Classic” is a word. As the Stanford professor warned, language “unconsciously shap[es] us from the nuts and bolts of cognition and perception to our loftiest abstract notions.” Surely defining “classic” wines is a lofty abstract notion, but it’s also a fundamentally unfair one that skews our perceptions into outright bias against other wines that are not so deemed.

Besides, what of Pinot Noir? We have no such comparable historical examples of it in California, the way we do with Cabernet Sauvignon. During Gerald Asher’s 1960s and 1970s, who were the equivalent names in Pinot Noir to Charles Krug and Beaulieu? There were none, even though some wineries (including Beaulieu) had tinkered with Pinot. Therefore, there are no “classic” Pinot Noirs from the 1960s and 1970s. What, then, would be considered “classic” Pinot Noir today? Bold is the critic who would dare to declaim that list. Should Rochioli and Williams Selyem be on it due to their historical placement? The early bird doth not necessarily a classic wine make. Is Sanford, which has undergone more transformations than Caitlyn Jenner, classic? I will not even mention Chalone. The problem is that there are so many great Pinot houses, with seemingly more popping up all the time, that to attempt to construct a list of “classics” is sheer folly, even if it makes for entertaining journalism.

So let’s be done with this notion of “classic” wines. It’s one more yoke of the past we can safely jettison.


Tasting Russian River Pinot Noir, and a shoutout to Gallo

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My weekly tasting at Jackson Family Wines tomorrow is exciting even for jaded old me. It’s of current release Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs. The lineup as now scheduled is:

Merry Edwards 2012 Meredith Estate

Dehlinger 2012 “Altamont”

Gary Farrell 2012 Hallberg Vineyard

Dutton Goldfield 2012 Dutton Ranch Freestone Hill Vineyard

Siduri 2013 Keefer Ranch Vineyard

Rochioli 2013 Estate

Joseph Swan 2012 Trenton Estate Vineyard

Failla 2013 Keefer Ranch

Paul Hobbs 2013 Ulises Valdez Vineyard

Peirson Meyer 2012 Miller Vineyard

Hartford Court 2013

La Crema 2013

Pretty impressive, eh? With the exception of the Peirson Meyer—which I’d never heard of until a friend recommended I try it—I have a long, rich relationship with each of these wineries and their winemakers/proprietors.

The Russian River Valley is such a vast place, with so many wineries, that I could have broken it down into several regional tastings, such as Middle Reach, Green Valley and Laguna Ridge. Maybe I should have, and maybe I will someday. As things turn out, most of the wineries in tomorrow’s lineup are from the southern stretch of the appellation, with quite a few from Green Valley, although nowadays that appellation seems to be falling out of favor; wineries seem to prefer Russian River Valley or Sonoma Coast. I wonder why that is. The Rochioli, which comes from the north, in that sense is an outlier, as is the La Crema, a blend from various valley vineyards. Still, I hope we’ll get a sense of what Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is all about. What makes one different from Carneros, or Fort Ross-Seaview, or anyplace else?

The neat thing about these regional and varietal tastings is that the smallest imperfections, as well as the greatest highlights, of the individual wines are so much easier to perceive than if you’re just drinking the wine alone. Last week, for instance, the Donum 2012 West Slope really had everything a Carneros Pinot Noir should have—but if you’d tasted, say, the Saintsbury Lee all by itself, you might not have realized it was missing a certain something. Tasting is all about context, then, which can be a problem, because if you taste a lesser wine immediately following a very great one, the former will suffer by comparison. Yet if you’re tasting flights, there has to be some kind of order. The question is, how do you determine it?

Well, if you’re doing—let’s say for the sake of argument—Bordeaux, I suppose it makes sense to lead up to the First Growths by starting with Seconds or Thirds. And even with the Firsts you might want to put Latour after Haut-Brion and Margaux. But we don’t have classifications in California, so arranging the order of the wines is more of a problem. You could taste by alcohol level—going from lowest to highest. But if you did, it wouldn’t really be “blind” because you’d know the alcohol levels, which would tell you something you wouldn’t otherwise know, and possibly contaminate or bias your findings.

Anyhow, while worrying about the order of wines in a tasting of Carneros Pinot Noirs is the sort of thing I think about, it’s not going to keep me up at night.

* * *

I’m very glad to learn that Gallo has bought the old Asti property. I fell in love with this historic place in the Alexander Valley after researching and visiting it while writing my 2005 book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River.

The Asti campus is large and complex, with many beautiful old brick buildings, situated along the old railroad tracks that brought wine from these parts down to the big cities in the 1800s. It’s filled with history–Andrea Sbrabaro is a character out of a novel–and is a fabulous place to visit, only it’s never been open to the public, and most of the buildings were run down because nobody cared enough to restore and protect them. I hope Gallo does. Please Gallo, sink some money into Asti and build it into a historical/educational center!


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

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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.


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