Went to a very interesting tasting yesterday. It was a small private affair, held at the Restaurant at Wente, a chic place tucked into the southern foothills of the Livermore Valley. The subject of the tasting was 1974 Cabernet Sauvignon.
Now, anyone familiar with the modern history of wine in California knows that that vintage was a very famous one. Bob Thompson (1979) called it “strong, showy,” and added, “May be early maturing.” Sadly, for him—happily, for us–he was wrong. Charlie Olken (1980) was nearer the mark. “The best are dark, concentrated, tannic and potentially long-lived.” He even predicted the best “may last until the next century.” As indeed they have.
When tasting older wines like these, which were all 40 years of age, quite a bit of subjectivity rises to the surface. In general, most of the fruit has faded away, and turned into drier, secondary or tertiary notes. Any fatal flaws that were initially present in the wine, such as brett, overripe grapes or excessive tannins, rise to the surface. Then too, in a group such as the one that sponsored the tasting (which was open, not blind), familiarity with these wines is very high, which also raises expectations: The tasters, most of whom are collectors with vast cellars (indeed, it was they who furnished the wines), have a certain emotional attitude invested in their showing well. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I bring it up only in order to suggest that I, personally, was perhaps a little more objective in my appraisal.
Overall, the tasting was remarkable. Not a single one of the wines was dead—pretty astonishing considering their age. Here are some brief notes:
Heitz Martha’s Vineyard. Getting a little threadbare. The alcohol is showing through. Toast, caramel, loads of sweet blackberry jam, but getting tired and starting a downhill slide. Score: 89.
Mount Eden. Holding up well. Good, strong bouquet: blackcurrants, dried fruits, toast, spice. Hard to believe it’s 40 years old. Still, it’s beginning to unravel. Score: 90.
Ridge Monte Bello. A little funky. Tannins strong. Lots of blackberries and currants. A bit rustic and tired. But it held up well in the glass with some fruit gradually sweetening. Score: 89.
Villa Mt. Eden. Delicate. Earthy-tobacco. Oodles of cherries and blackberries. Very tasty—long sweet finish. Definitely in a tertiary stage, but clean and drinkable. As it breathes it opens up. Score: 92.
Mayacamas. Turning old. Cassis and blackcurrants. In the mouth, incredibly sweet and delicate, yet with California power and the ripeness of the vintage. Really classic. Will continue to evolve. Score: 94.
Conn Creek. Lots of sweet blackberry, mocha, spice. Insanely rich. Heady. Getting old, but still fresh, clean, muscular. Finish is sweet, strong, spicy. A great wine. Score: 96.
Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill. Firmer, with a hard foundation of stony mineral. Tons of blackberries and blackcurrants. Very high quality and still a ways to go. Really top quality. Heady and voluptuous. This was the wine of the flight. Scote: 97.
We also had, for starters, some older white wines:
1944 Wente Brothers Dry Semillon. Browning color. Sherried aroma, slightly maderized but pleasant: nutty, toffee. Very dry, good acidity, clean, but over the hill. Still, this wine is 70 years old!!!! Score: 88.
1974 Heitz Chardonnay. Golden-brown color. Not much going on in the nose. In the mouth, remarkably fresh and lively. Good acidity, dry, clean. “Old Chardonnay.” Fruit largely gone, but a good honeyed sweeteness. Score: 88.
1974 Phelps Syrah (Wheeler Vineyard). This Napa Valley bottling is said to be the first varietally-labeled Syrah in the U.S. Pale and translucent in color, with a brick color at the rim. Pretty bouquet: spices, dried mushrooms, raspberries. Complex, dry, good acidity. Slightly maderized. An interesting wine. Score: 90.
1974 Mount Eden Pinot Noir. Beautiful color: rich robe, still some depth of ruby-garnet in the center. Complex, lovely, delicate. Bone dry, but lots of sweet raspberry fruit. Clearly old, but attractive. Turns slightly brittle and dried-leafy on the finish. Score: 91.
I don’t expect to come across any of these wines again in my life, so this was a very special treat!
Okay, well, first, I don’t mean they have to know about the classics. It’s not like the occasional wine lover is going to die and go to some awful place reserved for ignorant drinkers if they don’t. Knowing about the classics is not mandatory if you’re like most people—occasional drinkers who like wine’s salutary, gustatory and social effects, all of which are fantastic.
But knowing about the classics of wine is important for people who aspire to be more than they are, to know a little more, to achieve a deeper level of understanding. Again, this isn’t for everyone. What do I mean, then?
By “aspire” I mean the person who, for whatever reason, finds that wine has struck a chord in their intellect and soul, a chord that prompts them to up their game. It is human to aspire; everyone wants to be more than they are, in some area. You may aspire to great wealth or power. You may aspire to be the greatest dobro player, or third baseman, or rapper, or jewel thief or brain surgeon or tattoo artist. Don’t we all want to be greater than we are, in some area? So there’s always going to be that 1 percent or 5 percent or whatever it is of wine drinkers who aspire to hit a higher level. (I like to think those are the kinds of people who read this blog.)
Okay. So two questions:
- Why should aspirational wine drinkers know about the classics?
- What are the classics, anyhow?
Aspirational wine drinkers should know about the classics because people who know about the classics say they should. Now, that sounds tautological and elitist, and I suppose it is. But you can’t know where you are without knowing where you’ve come from, and people who know where they’ve come from know that, and are best listened to. Baseball fans need to know how Babe Ruth led to Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds, if they are to understand why we make such a big deal of Adrien Beltre. You can be a big baseball fan without knowing history (actually, that’s pretty unthinkable, but it’s theoretically possible), but knowing history will enable you to comprehend the game and talk about it (which is half the pleasure) at a higher level.
But there’s more reason than that to know about the classics. If you’re aspirational, you’re probably going to spend more money on wine than the occasional wine drinker, so if you want to know you’re getting your money’s worth, and not getting ripped off, you’d better know how that bottle of wine stands in relation to the wines that history, which after all is just your predecessors, has pronounced them to be. If you’re spending $50, $90, $200 on a bottle of wine, you want to know that it’s not some overnight sensation—a one-hit wonder that won’t stand the test of time, but is a wine that will justify your investment. If you know that your investment is justified, it makes that purchase all the more worthwhile—which increases your pleasure of the wine—which is what buying wine is all about.
I would even go beyond this and say: You cannot experience as high a degree of pleasure from a wine without knowing how it stands in relation to its peers and predecessors, which is to say, how it stands in history. Perhaps I can’t prove this; perhaps it’s an ideology I suffer from that breaks down under analysis. Perhaps. But I think that most experienced critics would agree with me. The same is true of any creative endeavor that requires people to spend their money. If you don’t understand how and why that thing (painting, suit, auto, whatever) is as good as it’s purported to be, then you might as well not buy it.
So that’s my argument for understanding the classics. What are the classics? That’s a whole other post. Suffice it to say that, since I specialize in California wine, for me the classics are those brands that have stood the test of time. We don’t have very many proven older brands in California. Most of our most celebrated wines are new: 15 or 20 years old at most, and often younger than that. But there are brands that were famous 30, 40, 50 years ago, and remain famous today, for a reason: Not just because they’re old (age is not a plus in itself) but because they have remained relevant all this time. And no wine brand remains relevant for a long time, in such a fickle culture as ours, unless it offers something truly remarkable. This remarkableness consists of two things: greatness in its own terroir and region, and ageability. This necessarily limits the number of remarkable wines. But if too many wines are remarkable, then remarkability is meaningless.
This is why I recommend to younger wine drinkers, who aspire to be more than they are, to investigate the classics.
Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen, “the World Wine Guys,” have a new book out, Wines of California: The Comprehensive Guide, with a foreward by Michael Mondavi and a preface by Kevin Zraly. It’s quite good, certainly the best of the genre in a long time, and a useful companion for the wine lover’s bookshelf. We met up yesterday at one of my favorite San Francisco restaurants, Chaya, where, over sushi and wine, we had a little chat. Mike and Jeff are, of course, the entertainment and lifestyle editors at my old stomping ground, Wine Enthusiast, so we’ve been buddies for years.
SH: Why another California wine book? It seems like there’s been a lot of them recently.
MD: Actually, it’s been a long time since there was a comprehensive California wine book.
JJ: The last book was by James Laube, back in 1995, California Wine, but it was really focused on Napa and Sonoma.
MD: There’s a number of books that have covered specific regions, or a specific area, for example The New California Wine, which covered some of the new producers. We wanted to cover the entire state, top to bottom, Mendocino down to Temecula. And we wanted to create a book that reaches people in different ways, because there’s geography, history, there’s an explanation of AVAs, major grapes, up-and-coming grapes, and specific listings on wineries we consider to be the most notable in the state.
SH: You guys live in New York, but you’re in San Francisco for your book tour. Where else are you going?
JJ: Wow. Besides San Francisco, there’s New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and Boston. We’re really excited. It’s a big book tour.
SH: Do you like being on the road?
JJ: I love it. We’ll be traveling today, back to New York, then flying back here to go out to Lodi, where the winegrowers have invited us to do a party out there. Then Saturday night, we’ll be at Ordinaire—
SH: In my neighborhood!
JJ: So for all your readers in the area, please come down to Oakland and see us.
SH: You guys started as lifestyle writers and now you’re doing wine.
MD: We like to do both. If you look at the book, we have interviews with wine people, but we also have recipes from noted wine country chefs. So we really do straddle the lifestyle, because wine in a vacuum might be more for your collector, but really, I think wine should be enjoyed with food, and with friends.
SH: Finally, what’s next for World Wine Guys?
MD: We’re actually working on another cookbook and another wine book. I’m not going to say what it is; we’ve done the Southern Hemisphere, we’ve done California. Next time, we’re doing something that’s more general, but we’ll talk about that when the time is right! And we’re working on a couple T.V. projects. We have a lot of stuff going on.
The World Wine Guys will be at Ordinaire Wine Shop and Wine Bar, 3354 Grand Ave., Oakland, this Saturday, Sept. 20.
1. Is the dive bar doomed?
I have two images in my head of the classic American dive bar. One is from the movies, where so many scenes of intrigue, drama and violence have occurred in them. I think of the Silver Bullet, the bar in Thelma and Louise, for example, with its country & western band, pool table and cowboy drifters chugging beer from the bottle. (You’d never order wine in such a place!)
The other image I have is from my own past. There used to be a place in San Francisco, South of Market, in Clementina Alley, which in the Eighties was not the yuppified haven it is now. It was called, for a variety of reasons, the Headquarters. On any given night you’d have drag queens and businessmen, Pacific Heights doyennes and dudes in leather chaps, hippies and hustlers and young straight couples out slumming, all playing pool or darts, or dancing on the postage stamp-sized dance floor to Blondie’s Rapture. I once brought Marilyn, who found it amusing, but, on emerging from the rest room, remarked that she should have brought her hip boots. That was the Diviest. Dive. Bar. Ever.
The dive bar played a role in America’s mythic development. The old saloons of the Wild West were dive bars, and so were the shadowy joints of film noir, if we go by Wikipedia’s definition: “Dive bars:disreputable, sinister, or even a detriment to the community.” Or, in Playboy’s view, “A church for down-and-outers and those who romanticize them, a rare place where high and low rub elbows—bums and poets, thieves and slumming celebrities. It’s a place that wears its history proudly.”
Yet last Friday’s San Francisco Chronicle headlined on its front page, “In boom time for booze joints, is it dive bar’s last call?” (The online version is headlined “Is it last call for dive bars in San Francisco?”) It seems that with rising rents and shifting demographics, dive bars are an endangered species, especially in neighborhoods like The Mission, SOMA and even to some extent the Tenderloin, that used to be their strongholds. I frankly doubt that the dive bar will go the way of the dodo bird, but the situation in San Francisco does bring to the fore a certain gentrification process that seems to be hitting many of our cities. Old-fashioned dives are turning into fancy little cocktail bars; bartenders are being replaced by tattooed “mixologists” for whom an appearance in The Tasting Panel is their Red Carpet; whiskey rocks has morphed into elaborate concoctions of flavored spirits, sweet liqueurs, bitters, candied fruits and sugar. Dashiell Hammett is turning in his grave. For that matter, so is Herb Caen.
* * *
2. My gig at K-J’s tasting room bar
When I gave a little talk to the Kendall-Jackson tasting room staff a while back, and I told them I’d never worked a tasting room, they very kindly invited me to work in theirs! I thought it was a splendid idea, so we made a date, and on Saturday I drove up and did a six-hour stint.
I was as nervous as an opening night understudy as I “went on” but the truth is, there was nothing to be scared of. I quickly learned that all you have to do is be yourself. And since I’m a pretty sociable guy, I had lots of great conversations, always including but not necessarily exclusively about wine.
The visitors are from all over the place, America as well as abroad, but the main thing they had in common was that they’re happy to be in wine country, at a winery they like, on a beautiful summer day. When you’re with happy people it rubs off. I met a Dad from Atlanta who was taking his daughter on a tour of California after she graduated college. I met a surgeon from U.C. San Francisco Medical Center and his wife and baby. I met a pair of chiropractors who told me about nervous system health. There were several folks from my home town of Oakland—even from my neighborhood. I met a family of Cuban-Americans from Miami who love wine and cigars. There was a woman from Canada and a young couple from Silicon Valley. And on and on. People have such amazing stories. Wine-wise, they all have different tastes, of course. Some only like sweeter wines, like Muscat Canelli. Some don’t like Pinot Noir, some shy away from Cabernet Sauvignon. G-S-M is new to almost all of them. Most are eager to learn, and of course one does one’s best to share information with them in a respectful manner. It being a Saturday, in this last gasp of summer, the tasting room was very crowded..
One thing I noticed is that sometimes people are shy about asking questions about wine. You don’t want to lecture them in a high-handed way; you want to respect their privacy and personal space. So it’s a balancing act: you infer when it’s appropriate to talk about the wine and, if so, to what degree. With most of the people, I found that even the reticent ones opened up once the conversation got flowing, and then their wine questions and observations came out. As I’ve always instinctively known, but have to constantly remind myself, there are no dumb questions about wine.
It is fairly common, in the anecdote-sphere (a universe parallel to the blogosphere), for knowledgeable people to say that superpremium California wine is nearly impossible to sell back East, or even east of the Rockies.
According to this take, nobody in America likes California wine anymore, except, possibly, Californians—and even they (or so it’s claimed) are having second thoughts. The culprit? According to the anecdote-spinners, it’s due to the “imbalance” of California wine, an accusation that usually includes alcohol levels, fruity extraction and oak.
The latest expression of this theory comes via a regular reader and valued commenter on my blog. I don’t know if he wants me to name him, so I won’t, but here’s part of what he wrote yesterday, on my “I weigh in on Jamie Goode” post. I will quote him in some detail, because his points are powerfully expressed, and, as I say, one often hears similar views expressed.
“Last Winter [he wrote], I counted the glass pours at three Michelin 1* restaurants while in Chicago, all of whom carry some California wines. The breakdown for 54 total glass pours was 39 European, 9 Southern Hemisphere and 6 Domestic (of which some were Oregon, Washington and Midwestern). That is marginalization [of California], and if the Lords and Ladies of Napashire dare not speak of it with wine writers or their neighbors and let the unsold cases quietly pile up in American Canyon awaiting the longed for Chinese buyer, you can damn well bet that it is coming up in conversations with their accountants.”
I’ll quote more of his comment in a minute. First, let me weigh in that my commenter is absolutely correct that Napa Valley winemakers and owners do not speak of their cases “piling up in American Canyon,” presumably at one of the wine storage warehouses along Highway 29. At least, they don’t speak of it to me. So my commenter is right about that. And although I have no certain knowledge that such is the case, the anecdote-sphere also contains numerous allegations that it is indeed the case: that is, cases and cases of unsold triple-digit Cabernet piling up someplace.
My commenter also wrote: “there are a lot of good, well balanced and not excessive California wines that are probably being unfairly excluded from restaurants and wine bars. Unfortunately, these exceptions that prove the rule are suffering for the sins of the last two decades of excesses in both winemaking style and hubris that came to define California and Napa Valley.”
The reason I’ve long been in such disagreement with the anti-California (and anti-Napa Valley) bashers is because, due to my recent job, I had the opportunity to taste so much great, interesting California wine. And while it’s true that there’s a lot of crapola out there, you can say the same thing about every wine country and wine region in the world. Let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater! I simply have tasted too many wonderful California wines to not realize that our state makes incredible wines; and I often pitied the bashers for not being able to taste all the good stuff I was privileged to try.
So my commenter also is correct when he states that the “good, well balanced” California wines are “unfairly excluded” from the conversation. But whose fault is that? And when did we arrive at this weird, bizarre situation where so many influential and apparently knowledgeable people—Americans all!—are so down on California wine?
It’s quite unprecedented for a large chunk of a wine-producing country’s cognoscenti to hate their own country’s wine. I can’t think of anything similar, in the long history of winemaking in Europe. If anything, the French (and, to a lesser extent, the Germans and Italians and Spanish) have been positively chauvinistic about their wines, as well they should have been; they were proud of what their nations contributed. I, too, am immensely proud of California’s contributions to the world wine scene. So, from an historical persepctive, does the situation here in the U.S.—with so much self-loathing–say something about California wine? Or does it say more about the people bashing it? “The question,” as Jesse Jackson, playing himself on Saturday Night Live, once said, “is moot.”
In the mid-1970s, writer David Darlington tells us in the June issue of Wine & Spirits, “Robert Mondavi defined [the Inglenook Estate vineyard] for [Francis Ford Coppola] as the crown jewel of Napa Valley.”
The wine world loves crown jewels. Petrus has been called the crown jewel of Pomerol; ditto the DRC in Burgundy. The concept stems, of course, from Old Europe, which bequeathed to us not only the idea of an aristocratic hierarchy of vineyards, with one or a few at the top and all the rest clustered below, but of a human aristocracy itself, whose royal heads were crowned with gemstones. It was as natural for 19th century France to elevate four vineyards in Bordeaux to First Growth status as it was to celebrate its Kings as les seigneurs grands plus among lesser royals.
If Robert Mondavi did indeed tell that to Mr Coppola (and we must assume he did, for Darlington, the author of Angel’s Visits, is a great historian of wine), his claim must be put into context. Inglenook’s Rutherford vineyard, on the bench just northwest of the Oakville border, was already 100 years old in 1970, and always had produced acclaimed Bordeaux-style wines. There were few, if any, contenders to the throne in Napa Valley that could boast that legacy (Martha’s Vineyard was a mere infant, Harlan a gleam in Bill Harlan’s eye). Napa’s mountains—Spring, Veeder, Diamond, Howell, Atlas Peak, Pritchard Hill—were completely undeveloped, or very nearly so. Thus Mr. Mondavi was on firm historical and qualitative grounds when he praised Inglenook to Mr. Coppola, who must have listened with wide-eyed alacrity.
Today, does anyone think Inglenook is Napa Valley’s crown jewel? I don’t think so. This is not to diss Inglenook as simply to point out that it now has plenty of competitors—so many, in fact, that it would be fatuous for me to try and list them. Let’s just agree that we can no longer identify a “crown jewel” in Napa Valley, or indeed in most of the world’s greatest wine regions. Instead of an aristocratic “crown jewel” we now have galaxies of jewels, glittering and precious and giving us incredible wine.
California, in other words, is a meritocracy, not an aristocracy. Inglenook, for all its past glory, has yet to prove its modern relevance; Mr. Coppola has his work cut out for him (and I wish him luck). Yesterday’s crown jewel may be today’s déclassé property. By contrast, yesterday’s underperforming (or even non-existent) vineyard may be elevated to glorification today, provided (a) it possesses inherently great terroir to begin with, and (b) is given the necessary nourishment (talent + money) to allow the winemaker to express that terroir to the highest degree of international reclaim.
There are not that many wineries with the wherewithal to pull off this feat. Even among those that are owned by the very rich, you’d be surprised how many stint on the required financial investment. Some proprietors, it is rumored, are not even in the game for the long haul, but only for investment or lifestyle purposes. Why invest tens of millions into a property you may not be able to make a profit on when you sell it off? Then too, some proprietors who spend millions on improving their vineyards, ill-advised from the start, may unfortunately own land that is not inherently capable of producing the greatest wine.
Others, a fortunate few, have the twin blessings of wealth and a discerning eye for land. It is with them that California wine’s future lies, and always will. This is the brilliance of our Western-style meritocracy: passion and generational commitment, and not the mere lucky sperm of heredity, now transform vineyards, old and new, into crown jewels.