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A Golden Age for the Golden State

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Much is made of so-called “golden ages”: of television (the 1950s), of Hollywood films (1930s-1940s), of rock and roll (the 1950s and 1960s), of Ancient Greece (somewhat mythic; Hesiod referred to it as the time of heroes, gods and men).

In wine, Bordeaux is sometimes said to have enjoyed its golden age in the 18th century, as the great chateaux were consolidated, often with architectural gems, and the wines were widely exported, resulting in an increase in price. What about California?

Earlier this year, Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer penned a piece, “Is this really a golden age for wine?” When he turned his attention to California, he saw only a single place–Napa Valley–and answered his own question in the negative. “Napa’s golden moment,” he declared, “is now past.” True, Matt did perceive golden age-iness in other places in the world, such as the Cote d’Or, Central Otago and Willamette Valley. But as for the rest of California outside of Napa, nada.

Well, he’s entitled to his opinion, although that Napa-centric shortsightedness is harder to forgive. But let me suggest why I think this is the golden age for California wine as a whole. I actually agree with Matt that Napa Valley is getting “a little thick around its middle.”  He’s right that Napa no longer bursts with the sense of excitement it did in the 1960s and 1970s. In Napa’s behalf, though, it can safely be said that it’s making its best wines ever. Napa Valley remains the point of reference for all of California, and for that matter, for the New World. You’re either for it or against it, but you can’t escape Napa: any statement about California automatically includes a reference to it. Napa’s sort of like the Clintons are to American politics: you may love them or be tired of them, but they are still the 800 pound gorillas.

Matt erred in not considering other regions in California. I have argued, passionately and publicly, for Paso Roble’s recognition as a hotbed of innovation at this time. Nearby Monterey also is in a state of remarkable ferment, with younger winemakers moving there to see what they can do (just as they did in Napa in the 1960s and 1970s). As for Santa Barbara County, I’m a huge fan: there’s no thickness to its middle. Santa Barbara growers and vintners absorbed the lessons of more northerly wine regions, improved their viticulture and enology to the most exacting standards, and now are turning out impeccably tailored wines, of nearly every variety and blending type in California. I could continue to list smaller appellations that I think are performing at very high levels.

There are additional factors at play that keep California exciting. Vintners have developed an exquisite sensitivity to their vineyards: the degree of coordination of root stocks, varieties and clones, trellising, pruning and harvesting decisions has never been as well understood as it is now. (Obviously, I’m referring to the highest level of wineries.) The inrush of young blood is having exactly the kind of galvanizing effect it always has in all areas of life: winemakers in their twenties and thirties, who hope to establish good careers, realize they have to do things differently from their forebears, and this they are doing: witness the explosion of serious new wines from varietals that were hardly ever planted in California before the 2000s.

In furtherance of California’s Golden Age, we’re now going into two consecutively great vintages–2012 and 2013–that will result in stellar wines. Quality is going to soar as they are released over the next 5-6 years. It’s an exciting time to be making, and drinking, wine: A Golden Age for the Golden State.


How the Baby Boomers invented wine

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The Baby Boomers, of which I am one, were born during an era (1946-1964) when Americans did not drink wine. If the average U.S. adult drank anything alcoholic at all, it was the occasional beer or cocktail.

Yes, there was plenty of plonk coming out of California with names like Roma Sauternes, Petri Port, Guasti Pale Dry Sherry and, on a higher note, varietal wines from the likes of Sebastani, Charles Krug and Inglenook. But for the most part wine was a special occasion beverage. Consumers didn’t understand it; and why should they have, when for a generation it had been illegal under Prohibition?

That wine appreciation in America exploded as soon as the Baby Boomers came of age is indisputable. But I don’t think the story has been told concerning how and why this happened. Certainly, two forces intersected: one was the Boomers’ disposable income. When they began reaching adulthood, in the late 1960s but especially in the 1970s, they went to work and suddenly had money in their pockets–money they were willing to spend on wine.

The other force–connected to the first–was the rise of the boutique winery movement in California. This meant an increasingly steady supply of high-class wine product to the restaurants and stores of the nation. Boomers with an appetite for fine wine had no trouble finding it, despite the mangled and anachronistic distribution laws left in place after Repeal.

But why were Boomers willing to spend their hard-earned money on wine? I can come up only with anecdotal conjecture, but I think it’s largely accurate. Boomers had grown up with a philosophical attitude of openness to anything life has to offer. They (we) were willing to try anything at least once, be it pharmaceutical, sexual or lifestyle-related, in order to see if that thing provided pleasure. If it did–and if it didn’t entail excessive risk (as, say, heroin did)–then Boomers were happy to incorporate it into their lifestyle.

But this isn’t enough to explain just why Boomers so forcefully turned to wine. Part of it also had to do with their embrace of a food culture. Prior to the rise of the Boomers, food in America was a pretty dreary part of life: necessary but uninspiring. The woman took care of the shopping and cooking; the men occasionally took the wife and kiddies out to a restaurant. What differentiated the Boomers, male and female alike, from their parents was an eagerness to explore the further reaches of food. Sometimes this meant explorations into vegetarianism or macrobiotic cooking; sometimes it was inspired by the new phenomenon of televised cooking shows, such as Julia Childs’s. Young Boomers also were great travelers. In the 1970s, it seemed like everyone was spending a summer on Ibiza, or Mallorca, or in Nepal or Tangiers or Tokyo, or just hitchhiking their way across the U.S., coming across regional cuisines. At that time, American tastes in food hadn’t yet been homogenized: there still were authentic cuisines from the south, midwest, Texas, New England, San Francisco. Returning home, the kids brought their new-found food fondness with them.

In the early 1970s I had a friend who started a restaurant in western Massachusetts, The Noble Feast, that was the first “nouvelle cuisine” place in that part of the state (although we didn’t think of it that way). Alan Harris’s menu emphasized fresh, regional ingredients, and while it leaned on French technique, there was something fresh, pure and, yes, “American” about it. People drove for miles to eat at The Noble Feast because they couldn’t find food like that anyplace else.

This still doesn’t fully explain the Boomers’ mad love of fine wine. By the late 1970s there had arisen a cottage industry of wine writers publishing how-to pocket guides; but it’s a chicken-and-egg argument over which came first: the writers or the consumers, and at any rate it’s likely that both of these phenomena were created by the same underlying force.

In the end, I think the miracle of the Boomers love affair with fine wine is inexplicable, as so many other cultural milestones are. Sometimes you can pin huge shifts in the society on specific things: J.F.K.’s assassination, whose 50th anniversary is coming up, marked the end of a certain political naivete in America and inaugurated a heightened level of dark skepticism that persists to this day.

No such single event can be attached to wine’s rise, not even the 1976 Paris Tasting which, important as it’s become in retrospect, was not particularly noticed at the time. We can assign perhaps other tendencies on the part of the Boomers that fueled their appreciation of wine. With the country’s demographic shift westward, California’s population exploded during those years, bringing Boomers closer to both a lifestyle that embraced wine and to the actual physical centers of production. (It wasn’t until I moved to California in 1978 that I discovered wine.) A steadily expanding national economy throughout the 1980s and 1990s (ah, the good old days) assured Boomers of having the cash for a nice bottle. And an expanding sense that wine was part of “the good life” (a sense echoed in the popular media, which always is looking to report on trends) somehow impinged upon the brains of countless Boomers, for whom living a good life always was a high priority.

The result has been what we see today: Wine at the forefront of American culture. Before the Boomers, wine was nothing. Once they came upon the scene, wine exploded in popularity. No Boomers, no wine. (No rock and roll either.) Give us credit.


Why big is better (but just up to a point)

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In my job as a critic who gives point scores to wines, even after all these years I still think all the time about just why I give high scores to certain wines and not-so-high scores to most others.

Just what is it that, in my head, makes one Cabernet score 96 points and another “only” 89? It’s not that the latter Cab is bad. In fact, it may be better to drink (under certain circumstances) than the former. This is where a certain arbitrariness comes in–but it’s an arbitrariness with rules.

The main thing I look for in a wine is power. There are synonyms for power: concentration, intensity, volume, size, mass. (These are all nouns; their corresponding adjectives would be words like intense, massive, powerful, huge, etc.). The more mass a wine has, the more likely I am to give it a high score.

It can be tricky, though, determining the line between mass that’s pleasingly balanced, and mass that’s just power for its own sake. I hate to engage in meaningless metaphors, but I sometimes make analogies in my mind to power that’s controlled, as opposed to uncontrolled power. Imagine a large dam, like Hoover Dam or Boulder Dam. Controlled power is when the dam’s walls hold; the force of all that water can be used for productive ends, such as the manufacture of power to turn turbines. That’s controlled power. Imagine next that an earthquake destroys the dam’s foundations, resulting in a great flood that destroys forests and buildings and lives. That’s uncontrolled power.

I realize the comparison isn’t perfect, but that’s how it feels to me when I taste–the kind of sense impression the wine gives, from my first glimpse and sniff to the way it occupies my mouth. And quite often, I find the balance of power, especially in red wines, slipping away from control into abandonment and chaos.

This usually happens when a winery has two (or more) tiers of a wine, often expressed as a “regular” regional bottling and a “reserve.” Most often the reserve is a more concentrated version of the regular; that is, whatever characteristics the regular has (specific flavors, quality of tannins and oak, acidity, alcohol), the reserve will possess also, but in spades: everything will be more, greater, more evident. Sometimes, this works. Sometimes, it doesn’t. Sometimes, more is more; sometimes, more is less. Just because the wine goes from 60% new French oak to 100% (or 200%) new French oak doesn’t make it better; it can make the wine merely oakier, which in itself is not balance but imbalance. Same with fruity concentration. There are technical ways of increasing the extract in wine, but the winemaker has to be very careful with tinkering, because there’s a thin line between “massive fruit” (a term I might use positively) and a fruit bomb. Sometimes, I taste these reserve-style Cabs and I’ll give it a lower score than the regular Cab (even though it costs a lot more money) for the very reason that the winemaker tried too hard to impress with sheer force. There is something to be said for finesse, restraint, elegance: Just because the California sunshine and warmth allows you to make a fruit bomb doesn’t mean you ought to.

The final step in my thinking process when reviewing such wines is, inevitably, this: Granted that the wine tastes clumsy now, might it age? Part of the problem is that the way I was educated about wine. I read the likes of Professor Saintsbury and Eddie Penning-Rowsell and learned to appreciate that a fine Bordeaux that tastes hard and unyielding in youth might turn out silky and delicious if given enough time in the cellar. Well, that’s true, as far as it goes: But there’s a big difference between a young wine that’s clumsy because it’s hard and tannic, and one that’s clumsy because it’s a fruit bomb. I don’t think it’s right to assume that a wine will age simply because (a) it’s a Napa Valley Cab, (b) it costs triple digits and (c) it has more fruit than a roadside fruit stand in August.

If there’s a cautionary tale here, it’s to advise vintners that just because you can extract massive fruit doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Show some restraint, please. Not just in reds but in whites: I’ve seen too many perfectly fine Chardonnays ruined by massive applications of oak, or oak-like aromas and flavors. I’ve always defended California from the naysayers who claim it’s too hot here to grow fine wine (a patent absurdity), but it is getting difficult to defend these over-extracted, overly-oaked, too soft and too sweet wines that seem to be popping up even in the $30-$40 and up ultrapremium range.


Live from New York: Cabernet, and the changing nature of wine journalism

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When you read this, I’ll be in New York, at Wine Enthusias headquarters, where we’re gathered to plan out the 2014 editorial calendar of the magazine and website.

No easy task, that. There are only so many pages in the print edition; story ideas (“pitches,” in the weird jargon of journalism) vie with each other for space, in a Darwinian struggle that sees some of them triumph as cover stories, while others die an inglorious death (often to be repitched and hopefully resurrected at a later date).

Next year will be my 25th as a published wine writer. I started in 1989 (very much against the odds) at Wine Spectator, when it was still published out of San Francisco, from their old offices on Van Ness Avenue, near the Opera House and Symphony (but before Hayes Valley was hot; back then it was ho’s and drug dealers). I was determined to make a living as a wine writer–which would be pretty audacious today, but wasn’t then; while there were far fewer venues for which to write (and no Internet!), there also were far fewer people who wanted to be wine writers, so there was practically no competition. Still, I doubt that I would have succeeded had I lived in, say, the Midwest, or even in the San Joaquin Valley. It was proximity to San Francisco (I’d moved to Oakland in 1987) that afforded me the opportunity to hang out the Spectator’s staff, and to hand-deliver (yes, in those pre-email days) my hard copy, which entailed a BART trip of six stops (to Civic Center, then a five-minute walk to Van Ness).

The method of transmitting articles these days certainly has changed, from taking the subway to clicking the “send” button on my email. So, too, has the format of articles changed. We used to write long articles (3,000-plus words) on individual wineries; among my first assignments were Eberle, down in Paso Robles, Calera, in the Pinnacles, and Flora Springs, in Rutherford. And even those were short, compared to the example of a 7,000-word article my friend, the late wine writer, Steve Pitcher, wrote for Wine News on California Sauvignon Blanc!

Nowadays, few wine magazines would devote that much space to a single winery or variety. Twelve-hundred words is about tops, broken down into breakout boxes for easier digestion. The Internet (some would say MTV, some would say People magazine) has caused readers’ attention span to shrink; the conventional wisdom among publishers is that no one will read a long article anymore. I’m not convinced that’s true, provided that the article is compellingly written. But there is for sure a fine line between a boring, hard-to-read long article and a scintillating one, the latter being rare; and perhaps publishers, not being quite sure of the talents of their hired writers, prefer not to risk boring readers. Yet too often the short form fails to inspire or educate. This loss of long-form wine journalism ought to worry lovers of wine.

Here are a few things I’m going to be watching carefully in 2014:

-       the 2011 vintage. I’m lowering my expectations of it. The initial hype was, “Great, a cool vintage will result in balanced wines.” But my experience so far is of a lot of unripe wines, and some botrytis problems too. Pinot Noir has suffered, particularly from the coolest places, like the northern Santa Lucia Highlands. Some Grenache and Chardonnay has been iffy. As for Cabernet, well, no important ’11 Cabs have come out yet, so I’ll be waiting for those.

-       The continuing evolution of California cult wines. Have they recovered from the Recession? Will they still be in demand as an older generation fades from the scene? Can the marketplace handle 200 Napa Valley Cabs (my estimate) that all cost more than $100? Will younger consumers who currently spurn these wines eventually covet them, as their salaries increase over time? Or will History look back at the period 1990-2010 as a bubble for cult wines? Stay tuned.

-       And, of course, I’ll always be on the lookout for younger, interesting winemakers who are trying to do new things. If you’re one of them, talk to me.

I will try to post regularly from New York, but with round the clock meetings, it’s hard. Bear with me.


Napa Valley succession in good hands

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This opinion piece by the president of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, Jon Ruel, is eloquent and inspiring, and gives a spacious perspective on many important things to consider, on this July 4th holiday weekend.

I heartily endorse everything Ruel (who also is COO of Trefethen) says. Each of the ideals he sets out will take determination and diligent intelligence to achieve, but there’s no doubt that, if any grapegrowers group in the world can succeed at such admirable goals, it’s Napa Valley’s.

Here’s the one statement I want to weigh in on:

Succession is another important topic. Many of the local figures who helped shape the success of the Napa Valley over the past 45 years are now retiring. Who will succeed them and maintain the vision? Similarly, we will see succession in our customer base as the baby boomers move on. Can we engage future generations of consumers with our story and our wines?

This is something I’ve thought about for many years. Robert Mondavi no longer is with us; no one has managed to flll such gigantic shoes, and in all likelihood, no one ever will. Still, there’s little evidence that since his 2008 passing, Napa has suffered from an absence of leadership. Perhaps Robert Mondavi’s greatest achievement was that he set the ship of Napa Valley asail and, once free and steered by the trades upon the open sea, it no longer requires anyone to command it.

No shadow, then, is as long as Robert Mondavi’s, but Napa Valley has leaders. I think of proprietors like Bill Harlan, who sees things generationally not quarterly, or the Staglins, who put their money where the mouths are. I think of people who believed early in Napa, like Bernard Portet at Clos du Val, Christian Moueix at Dominus, the Trefethen and Chappellet families and so many others, too numerous to list. I think particularly of that younger generation coming along to “engage future generations.” Among them are Robert Mondavi’s grandchildren and also those of his brother, Peter Mondavi, Sr., at Charles Krug, kids who bear the weight and responsibility of their famous names with dignity and good cheer. Others with less famous names populate the valley; some are mere cellar rats at this point but will go on to become celebrated winemakers in their own right.

Napa Valley has no succession problems. Ruel need not worry. The valley is in good hands.


How bad is California’s drought?

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If you live in California, you know what happened this winter and spring.

In December, it rained, and rained, and rained or, if you were in the mountains, snowed and snowed. In parts of the Sierra Nevada, December, 2012 was the second snowiest ever measured.

It was reassuring news to a state that gets most of its water from snowmelt–especially after the parched December of 2011, when the snowpack was only 14% of average.

But a funny thing happened as soon as 2012 turned into 2013. The rain stopped. Seriously stopped. January and February were the driest months ever recorded in California. March brought a little rain, but not enough to help. Last week, the government released its “drought monitor”, which declared that most of Central and Southern California is suffering from “severe” drought, while the north is experiencing moderate drought.

Moreover, the National Weather Service is predicting “Persistent” drought throughout all of California (and most of the West).

Just this past week, the California Department of Water Resources published, on their website, a drought statement that begins with this alarming statement: “It’s official. The 2013 January-May period is the driest on record (since 1920) for all regions of the Sierra.”

The arid conditions already are beginning to threaten vines. San Luis Obispo County (including Paso Robles) “face[s] spending hundreds of millions of dollars for new water sourcesleaving the area even more short of water at a time when vineyards are planting as many as 8,000 new acres of wine grapes.”

In the North Coast, Sonoma County has been under an official federal “disaster declaration for drought” since January, 2012,

Grapes being the thirsty plants they are, California growers are having to look at their options, including more efficient use of existing water sources. Those who dry farm–a minority–are on safer ground than those who depend on irrigation. California’s senior Senator, Dianne Feinstein, just two days ago, noting “how bone dry the state is so early in the summer season,” called for “[e]xpanding and improving California’s water storage capacity”; if that is not done, she predicted, “California is at risk of becoming a desert state.”

Water shortages are nothing new for California, but they seem to be happening more frequently; and with vineyard acreage expanding, water–or, more precisely, the lack of it–could emerge to be the biggest problem the wine industry faces.


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