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The critics, not committees, have classified California wine

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In the Spring of 1969, Roy Andries de Groot, who turned to wine- and food-writing when he became blind, was sent to California by Esquire Magazine to write about the state’s wines, on the 200th anniversary of Junipero Serra’s planting of wine grapes in San Diego.

de Groot soon realized that what he really wanted to do was what he called his “immense project”: “a Classification of American Wines,” he called it, based on the sort of official hierarchy that had been developed by the French, in the famous 1855 Classification.

(de Groot also went on to classify the wines of the Pacific Northwest and New York State, hence his reference to “American Wines.”)

As he notes in his 1982 masterwork, “The Wines of California,” de Groot had pedigreed precedence for his audacious project. There not only had been the 1855 Classification, but, a century earlier, “in 1755, a first attempt had been made to rank the wines of Bordeaux,” he wrote, followed by another in 1833. So the project was neither as audacious nor as radical as it might have appeared.

Here in California, others have attempted, from time to time, to classify the state’s wines into quality tiers. Perhaps the most controversial has been Jim Laube’s 1989 book, “California’s Great Cabernets,” in which the Wine Spectator writer rather self-consciously established five “Growths” (just like the 1855 Classification), which he populated with dozens of wineries functioning at that time. It was a worthy effort—but one doomed to failure, as California, unlike staid Bordeaux, was in the process (and still is today) of sprouting new wineries like mushrooms after an Autumn rain. When Laube wrote his book, for instance, there was no Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Dalla Valle, Verite, David Arthur, Jarvis, Araujo. The book was destined for obsolescence even before it was published. (It does, however, remain an interesting read and is important as an historical document.)

de Groot established, not five, but four tiers in his classification, although he did not numerically denote them but instead used the adjectives “Great,” “Superb,” “Noble” and “Fine,” in descending order of quality. (The only wineries he put into the “Great” category were Heitz, Schramsberg and Stony Hill.) But, just as Laube’s book of seven years later was condemned to early obsolescence, so was de Groot’s, and for the same reason. As we look at his list today, we’re struck, not only by the non-inclusion of so many wineries that simply didn’t exist in 1982, but by others that were functioning at that time, but no longer are, or that continue to exist, but not at a very high level. The list, then, is sadly out of date, although like Laube’s book, “The Wines of California” makes for good reading.

I doubt that any wine writer will ever again attempt such a hopeless task as classifying the wines of California! But then, in this modern era of, say, the last 30 years, the public doesn’t need an official list. That task has been taken over, in practical effect, by critics. Can there be any question that California Cabernets and Bordeaux blends have been unofficially ranked already, through the reviews of Robert Parker, Wine Spectator and others? This ranking has the appearance of mathematical precision because it’s based on scores of the 100-point system. Thus, in order to determine the placement of any winery in the critical classification, all you have to do is look up its scores over the years, and that will determine its position in the hierarchy. Before you object that this is a pretty flimsy basis, remember that the 1855 Classification itself—which we all hold so dear—was based in part on the prices the wines had historically fetched. Since today, price and score are irretrievably intertwined, it’s not ludicrous to base a wine’s placement by its score: the highest-scoring wines will generally be the most expensive (although the opposite is not always the case!).

There’s one huge, qualitative difference, however, between an official classification, like that of 1855, and the unofficial one created by scores. The former can never change, or does so only agonizingly slowly (Mouton-Rothschild, originally a Second Growth, was not elevated to First Growth until 1973.) But the latter, unofficial classification is constantly morphing, as wineries come into and fall out of favor, reflected in their scores. The critical classification, then, has the advantage of a built-in resilience that makes it more adaptable to change and thus more descriptive of reality, as well as more useful. A critical classification can never become obsolete, by definition.

Where things get sticky, of course, is with the proliferation of critics. In 1855 the French had a single committee to make their classification. There was nobody to challenge it (although disgruntled proprietors always have complained about their placement). Twenty years ago we had only a tiny handful of critics to make their de facto classification, and few if any dared to challenge them. Today, everybody’s a critic. This is why we have the phenomenon of multi-source rating compilers, like CellarTracker, where consumers can track reviews from multiple sources side by side for the same wine.

What I find fascinating about the new order, with its proliferation of voices and the coming of age of a younger generation, is how impervious to change the old perceived hierarchy remains. In Bordeaux the First Growths still rule. In California, the Harlans and Screaming Eagles remain at the top, although they may have had to allow some room for a few other aspirants. Something about wine—or, rather, the way we perceive it—is remarkably conservative. I wish I had a time machine and could see what the top wines are fifty years from now. For some reason, I doubt if I’d be surprised.


History and tasting go hand in hand when it comes to wine appreciation

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We tasted through a range of Jackson Family wines the other day with the staff of the Sonoma County Vintners, and my oh my, what an impressive group they (the SCV staff, I mean) were. I remember a time when the staffs (such as they were) of these regional wine associations weren’t as professional or informed as they should have been. Of course, the Napa Valley Vintners always was the best organized, but the others—as hard as they tried—just didn’t seem able to pull it all together.

The problems were twofold: money and politics. It takes dough, and plenty of it, to run a successful regional association, and most of them, aside from Napa, just didn’t have it. Wineries didn’t want to pony up the dues, and besides, many of them felt they didn’t need a regional association—they could do all the marketing and P.R. themselves.

Then there was raw politics. You’d think that all the wineries in a region would be eager to work together to promote that region. But that wasn’t always the way it rolled. The smaller wineries would resent the bigger ones (whose money bankrolled the associations) and felt that they were getting short-shrifted. The job of Executive Director of these associations was a perilous one; people came, got in trouble with the membership, often through no fault of their own, and left after a few years, meaning that the associations were always in a state of drift.

Well, that began to change some years ago. I suppose it just took a maturation of the industry. Competition became fiercer, and winery owners began to realize that (in Franklin’s words), “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

I’ve witnessed the most astounding improvements in the last seven years or so. My most direct experience (aside from Napa Valley) was with the associations of Monterey County and Paso Robles. In both cases, I was impressed by the intelligence and passion of their leaders. Whatever improvements you’ve seen in the wines of these two areas have certainly been due, in part, to the energy of their regional associations.

I had less experience with the Santa Barbara Vintners because I tended to arrange my own travels down there (with the help of some local professionals who were glad to help me). Which brings us back to the Sonoma County Vintners. For some reason, while I was at Wine Enthusiast our/my relations had minimized over the years. I’m not sure why. Mostly my relationships were with individual wineries and winemakers in Sonoma County, and given my long history with the county, it just didn’t seem necessary to work closely with SCV.

After last Tuesday’s tasting, I wish I had. I can’t tell you how diligent and curious that group, which numbered about a dozen, was. They wanted to learn everything they could, and I felt that I could draw on my rich and varied experiences, so that our tasting was just as much about history, personalities and anecdotes as it was about the hedonics of the wines. One of the advantages of (how shall I describe it?) getting gray hairs is that you can look back over your adventures and get some perspective on things. It’s often said that younger people have no interest in History. I don’t agree, at least, from the point of view of wine. A twenty-something year old employee of a regional wine association does indeed want to hear tales of bygone times, just as much as she wants to understand how that Pinot Noir tastes and why that taste is the product of the terroir.

Actually, the two concepts—hedonic experiences of wine and history—go hand in hand. In Old Europe this has always been taken for granted. In Europe’s case, it sometimes impeded wine progress, because their cultures got so mired in traditionalism that they couldn’t move forward, even when the way to do so was obvious. Here in California, our lack of tradition—which at first the Europeans derided—turned out in retrospect to have been a blessing in disguise. That might have led some pundits to conclude that history isn’t important in California. But it is. The lines of transmission from, say, Tchelistcheff to Joe Heitz to Richard Peterson to Heidi Barrett to the entire gamut of today’s cult Cabernets are living; no proper understanding of California wine can occur without at least some understanding of how we got to where we are today.

When I was speaking last week at the Haas School of Business at U.C. Berkeley I alluded to this topic of history and one of the students asked me to recommend some books. I’m going to do that pretty soon, right here on the blog. Reading about wine is, to me anyhow, just about as much fun as drinking it!


Comparing the wine cultures of Japan and the U.S.

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Ned Goodwin, said to be the only MW living and working in Japan, has written a thought-provoking piece that’s worth reading in full. For me, his essential take-home point is that Japan is experiencing what he calls “the Galapagos effect,” an “isolation dynamic” that takes its name from the island chain, off the west coast of South America, where species that went extinct elsewhere somehow stayed on, or developed exotic new features, because the islands are so remote.

Ned, whose love of Japan is evident, nonetheless is critical of certain aspects of its culture: “an inability to see what’s going on elsewhere, and a closed-mindedness that’s steeped in ignorance and grounded in the tired old us-and-them mindset.” I personally have never been to Japan, and so I can’t say whether he’s right or wrong. But he made a point that compels me to compare Japan’s wine culture, as he describes it, to that of California, and America in general.

Japan has been through a lot lately: their “lost decade” of economic stagnation, leading to perpetual recession; the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and an overall “drudgery” that comes from their work-work-work ethic. Lately, of course, has also come some trepidation of the Chinese. The result of all this, Ned writes, is that the Japanese, insecure and isolated on their home islands, see wine “as a token motif of status or face” and—in a beautifully written phrase—“something to dissect forensically while tasting with the eyes instead of the nose and mouth.”

Well, one could of course make the identical accusation against certain American connoisseurs who simply must have the latest cult fave, but I’m not thinking of them today. I’m thinking of the masses of younger Millennials, whose approach to wine, and alcoholic beverages in general, seems to be the opposite of the conservatism Ned finds in Japan.

We too, in America, have been through a lot. Depending on when you trace the beginning of our tsouris, the 21st century thus far has been one of difficulties both emotional and financial. We had the dot-com bubble and resulting collapse of 2000-2001, followed closely by the contested 2000 election that threw the country into political chaos. Then of course there was Sept. 11, as wrenching an experience as anything America’s ever been through; the launching of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, finally, just as things were beginning to look up, the Great Recession that began in 2008 and whose ill effects linger with us still. That’s a lot for any nation to go through in such a short period of time.

But kudos to our young Millennials, for instead of retreating into an isolationist, “close-minded elitism” (in Ned’s words), our new wine drinkers are the fairest and most internationalist-minded in history. Perhaps my view is prejudiced from living in the San Francisco Bay Area, but never before can there have been this enthusiastic embrace of all things alcoholic: wines from every nation on earth, a myriad of beers, and cocktails, cocktails, cocktails!

Ned writes that “the wine scene [in Japan] is essentially moribund,” which also is part of the Galapagos effect: evolution seems to have ground to a halt. How different are things here in America, where “the wine scene” is evolving so quickly, no one quite knows how to get their arms around it! That makes it infinitely more difficult for wineries to market themselves, but it also makes our “wine scene” that much more vibrant and exciting.

Maybe the reason why is because America is a far younger country than Japan. We’ve always been open to new experiences; trying new things is in our national DNA. We may go through periodic bouts of isolationism and chauvinism, but by and large Americans embrace change. For older wineries, that means more or less a constant reinvention of themselves. This is a challenge , to be sure, but also an opportunity, for who wants to rest on their laurels?


In Napa Valley, the past is prelude to the future

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In a few paragraphs in “Winetaster’s Choice,” written 42 years ago, Harry Waugh anticipated much of Napa Valley’s modern history, although he likely did not know it. It was on March 30, 1972, that Harry, the “grand old man of the English wine trade” who also was on the board of directors of Chateau Latour, made his third visit to Napa and found the region so dry that “It is said to be the worst drought since 1870!” Those of us who live here know that every ten years or so we do have a drought, and while I don’t mean to sound dismissive of the water situation (after all, the population of California has more than doubled since 1970), sometimes the media does seem to make things sound worse than they really are. (By the way, the rains of February have switched this winter from being the driest ever to the third driest.)

Harry’s visit coincided with a time when Napa’s boutique winery era was reaching an apogee. He was friends with Belle and Barney Rhodes, who’d planted Martha’s Vineyard, from which Joe Heitz produced one of the first vineyard-designated Cabernet Sauvignons (and which can lay claim to being California’s first modern-era “cult” wine). Martha’s Vineyard is, of course, located in the same general area of Oakville as Harlan Estate and Far Niente.

A few days later, Harry also visited Mayacamas Vineyard, high up on Mount Veeder, way above Oakville, and was dazzled by the views, which visitors still are today. “For sheer beauty the views in every direction…are, to my mind, unsurpassed,” and this despite his penchant for “splendid Alsace” and “my beloved Beaujolais country.” Tasting with Mayacamas’s founder, Bob Travers, Harry sampled the winery’s Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon (the wines were made, partly or wholly, from purchased grapes, because Bob’s new vineyard plantings hadn’t yet matured). Mayacamas was, of course, recently purchased from the Travers family by Charles Banks, who has vowed to restore the estate to greatness.

Harry also tasted a Mayacamas 1968 Zinfandel, a wine he said “caused such a stir” for its alcohol of 17%! [The exclamation point was his.] Being possessed of a European palate, and particularly fond of Bordeaux, Harry might easily have pooh-poohed that Zin, the way certain of our Europhile writers do today to wines of high alcohol. But he called it “one of the richest unfortified wines I have ever tasted” and added, “It is gratifying to know already I have a case of this most unusual wine tucked away in London.” One of the reasons I admired Harry was because of the catholicism [small “c”] of his palate. He was always in search of what he called “the pick of the bunch,” the best wines in whatever country or region he was touring, and did not bring provincial or biased tastes to his experiences.

During that same period, as a sort of lark, Harry and his wife, Prue, traveled to Lodi, which is not so far as the crow flies from Napa Valley, but seems altogether different, being on lowlands in the Sacramento Delta. However this trip was not to sample its wines or tour its vineyards. He’d been invited by “Bob and Marge Mondavi” to “a square dance club” to trip the light fantastic. I wish Harry had described this scene in greater detail, but in 1972 he could not have known the iconic status Robert Mondavi would later achieve. Isn’t it fun to imagine Mr. Mondavi dosado’ing in jeans and cowboy hat.

Another winery Harry went to was Louis M. Martini, then under the control of the Martini family (Gallo bought it in 2002), where he tasted “1970 Mountain Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon,” with a Sonoma County appellation. Could this have been Monte Rosso? Harry loved its “rich, sweet nose” and called it “gorgeous, big”; it even reminded him of the 1970 clarets (“the best vintage there since 1961”), with “its fabulous colour…richness and complexity.” I wonder what the alcohol was on that wine; today, Monte Bello Cabs tend to be on the hefty side. Perhaps a Martini will read this and let us know.

You see why it’s such fun to read about the history of wine regions. We discover that the things we are concerned with today are not without precedent. Nothing springs parthenogentically from nothing; everything has origins, and if you love wine, you must love understanding how today came out of yesterday, and all the years before.


How come the Chinese don’t love California wine the way they love French wine?

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It’s odd, when you think about it, that the Chinese have embraced French wine so fervently.  I mean, why wasn’t it California wine? China, over the course of its long history, has had very little to do with France. But the relationship between China and California goes way back–to a sad time (the 1800s) when California imported Chinese laborers to build its infrastructure, including some of Napa Valley’s buildings and wine caves. But today, that relationship is thriving. San Francisco is the gateway from China to the rest of America, the city’s Mayor is Chinese-American, and business interests in and around the Bay Area have been cultivating ties with their Chinese counterparts for decades.

So why did France beat California in the Chinese wine sweepstakes?

The conventional wisdom is that the Chinese are motivated by status, and nothing says “status” louder than a bottle of Lafite. That may partly be true, but it doesn’t fully explain the phenomenon. Of equal, and perhaps greater, importance has been the investment, in time and money, of the French government in promoting French wines abroad, and especially in China. Such organizations as the French Wine Society, which is endorsed by a range of French agencies as well as regional-based ones, have long been actively educating consumers and trade in China. And the CIVB–the Bordeaux Wine Bureau–has cultivated ties to Chinese consumer organizations. As links between the two nations have thickened, the French government has stepped up its efforts to promote wine to China’s growing legions of middle class. As Decanter recently reported, “France accounts for around half of the wine leaving the EU for China annually and the French government has not missed an opportunity to build bridges with the Chinese authorities.” (This is despite issues of taxes and “dumping” that have arisen between the two countries.)

I know that Wine Institute has been trying to cultivate ties with China for a long time. But my sense is that the American government, riven by political differences, has been hesitant to support or promote the sale of wine abroad, to a degree not present in France. That is, I think, due to the historic role wine has played in France. It is part of the essential French patrimony.

Still, I can’t understand why France beat California. It seems so counter-intuitive. As usual when I want more information on something, I turned to my Facebook friends and asked them, “Why do you think the Chinese prefer French wine to California wine?” I got a ton of replies. Here are some of them. Since their names already are public, I repeat them here.

Chris Kassel: “Cachet. Credit the CIVB for having done the required footwork…”.

Peter Nowack agrees. “French has more cachet than Californian. A lot of wine that moves into China is given as business gifts, so prestige plays a role…”.

Fred Swan: “Outreach and availability. European wine merchants have spent a lot more time reaching out to the Chinese market.”

Tim Vandergrift: “Fred Swan is correct. At a trade show I went to the French didn’t have booths: they had pavilions three stories tall, and they knew how to flatter, coax, schmooze and outright bribe Chinese buyers…”.

Bob Cranston: “Having lived and worked in Hong Kong I can tell you it’s simply a matter of familiarity. The French have been working the market in Asia for a very long time.”

Raymond Tosti: “The Chinese are still neophytes to the wine game, and probably still buy into the pre-1970s dogma of how the French are at the pinnacle of quality and California wines are the Charles Shaw of the world!”

Chris Brown: “Newer wine drinkers like lighter wines.”

Bartholomew Broadbent: “The answer is culture. Red is culturally a very important color [in China], so red is the wine of choice. And the Chinese are hardly exposed to anything worth drinking [from California]. Look at the wine list in a Chinese restaurant. They’re serviced by big distributors who put really bad wines on the list.”

Robert Conrad: “In Chinese culture, older is better. If something has been around for a long time it is more respected.”

Sheldon Richards: “I would suggest the British influence in Asia and the French wines they drank when they dominated.”

Doug Wilder: “From Wikipedia: French wine was the first foreign wine imported into China, in 1980.”

Barbara Lardiazbal: “This is a generalization, but in my experience Chinese people like French people more than they do Americans.”

Well, there were a lot more comments; you can see them all here.

As usual, thanks to my Facebook friends for always being so enlightening!


Sideways is ten years old!

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Can it really have been ten years since Sideways came out?

Yup. It was in 2004 that the movie hit the big screen. I remember going to see it–if there was ever a “must-see” film for a wine critic, Sideways was it. To tell you the truth, I didn’t care all that much for it at the time. I was a bit peeved that it made the Miles character such an a-hole; since he was “the wine guy,” I identified with him, and I thought he made people who were passionate about wine seem neurotic, even petulant and infantile. (Maybe we are.)

But with the passage of time I’ve come to think more highly of Sideways. I recently saw it again and thought that it really is quite a pleasant flick. But I still admire and respect it more for its historical import than for its filmic values.

Did Sideways prove to be the impetus behind Pinot Noir’s startling rise to fame? On the “yes” side is the testimony of Santa Barbara County vintners who say they saw their sales soar in the months following the movie’s release. Tourists allegedly flocked to the Santa Rita Hills in droves, buying Pinot like there was no tomorrow.

On the “no” side, though, is ample evidence that Pinot Noir already was happening in America, and it was only a matter of time before it achieved superstardom. Maybe it would have taken a few years longer without Sideways, but Pinot was well on its way. Plantings were increasing in all the vital coastal appellations, from Santa Rita Hills up through the Central Coast to Sonoma County and into Anderson Valley. Critics–those who were paying attention–already had taken notice of Pinot’s charms. It was obvious to me: Well before Sideways, going back to the 1990s, I’d given extremely high scores to the likes of Belle Glos, Fiddlehead, Lynmar, Dutton-Goldfield, Patz & Hall, Goldeneye, Talley, Laetitia, Lazy Creek, Acacia, Testarossa, Gary Farrell, Williams Selyem, Rochioli, Merry Edwards, Fort Ross Vineyard, Hanzell, Longoria, Ancien, Tandem (miss them), Iron Horse, MacRostie, Mondavi Reserve and many others.

Has Pinot Noir changed in the last ten years? I don’t think all that much, not at the high end. The invasion of the Dijon clones already had occurred, bringing in that purity of fruit. There may be a slight tendency lately to consciously strive for lower alcohol [i.e. below 14%], but that may also partly be due to the 2010 and 2011 vintages being cool ones. Certainly the wines today seem cleaner and more focused; I hardly ever detect brett anymore (not the worst thing anyway, in small doses). And the best wineries remain rigorous in sorting out bad berries and bunches.

What has changed, though, is that the mosaic of individual wineries, working at great distances from each other (Anderson Valley is 500 miles north of Santa Barbara) is turning into a clearer image of coastal terroir. It’s amazing, when you think about it, that Burgundy is such a concentrated place; it’s only 75 miles from Dijon to Macon. Whereas we have in California that 500 mile stretch–and if you add Oregon to the equation (also a coastal winegrowing area) it’s more like a thousand mile stretch, of superb Pinot Noir terroir. Surely that must be unique in the world of wine.

The excitement of that post-Sideways moment has died down, probably a good thing, as it had become a bit of a fad to drink Pinot Noir, and fads always are eventually replaced by newer fads. Pinot Noir has proven to be no mere fad. The wine has taken its place in the pantheon of great California wines, in fact great world wine. How cool is that. And how interesting that it occurred just at the same moment in the evolution of California’s gastronomic culture as did our incorporation of practically every ethnic cuisine in the world (certainly those around the Pacific) into our foods. I don’t think there’s a better red wine anywhere to drink with everything from Vietnamese and Mexican to barbecue, Italian, French, Afghan, Chinese, fusion, modern American, you name it. Cabernet, with its heavier tannins, is not the most versatile red wine. Pinot Noir, pure silk and satin, and brimming with acidity, is.

The next step, one that will take a while, is to determine Pinot Noir’s ageworthiness. The oldest wines from many top wineries are not yet old. We need to see if the 2012s, which haven’t even started appearing yet in serious quantities, are 10 year wines, 15 year wines, 25 years wines, or even older. There’s no reason why some of them shouldn’t be. But I’ll leave it to a future generation of wine writers to figure that out!


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