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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!


They said it on Facebook: The origins of that 1973 Montelena Chardonnay

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While researching an upcoming article in Wine Enthusiast, I asked my Facebook friends if anyone knew the source of the grapes that went into the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, which took first place among white wines in the famous 1976 “Judgment of Paris” tasting.

Good old Facebook! My friends dutifully replied. I cannot myself vouch for the accuracy of their comments, but they sound plausible, to one degree or another. The strongest-sounding claim, from multiple people, is that a portion of the grapes came from the Bacigalupi Vineyard, which is in the northeastern part of Russian River Valley, hard by the entrance to Dry Creek Valley and thus one of the warmest places in the RRV appellation.

This claim also is supported by an article that appeared last June in Wine Business.com, in which Helen Baclgalupi says the old block, which still exists, now is called the Paris Tasting Block. Another of my Facebook respondents, Rich Reader, says Bacigalupi accounted for 85% of the Chardonnay, a claim that is problematic given Katie Bacigalupi’s statement that “Our family supplied 40% of the Chardonnay grapes that were used to produce the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that won the 1976 Paris Tasting.”

Harry Wetzel, of the Alexander Valley Vineyards family (and thus in a position to know), adds that “a significant portion [of the Montelena Chardonnay] was from the Alexander Valley,” although he does not elaborate as to where in Alexander Valley. However, another Facebook respondent, Bob Foster, attached this link, which says that, in addition to the Bacigalupi grapes, “about 20 tons [came] from Henry Dick in Alexander Valley…and the remainin 5 tons from Napa Valley growers John Hanna and Lee Paschich.” I’d never heard of “Henry Dick,” but another Facebook commenter, Nicole Carter, wrote that “The other source was Belle Terre Vineyard Chardonnay (owned by Ron and Kris Dick) part of Chateau st Jean single vineyard series since 1974.” And certainly, those old Belle Terre Chardonnays, produced by the great Richard Arrowood at St. Jean, were famous wines in their day.

Who were John Hanna and Lee Paschich? I don’t know, but yet another Facebook responder, Gabrielle Shaffer, wrote, “Pretty sure a portion came from Bill Hanna’s Oak Knoll vineyard,” which of course is (or was) in Napa Valley. Reader Whitney Yates agrees. “Some of those grapes from the ’73 came from the John Muir Hanna vineyard in Oak knoll. Those grapes have been in every vintage of Montelena since.” I’m not familiar with that vineyard, but Practical Winery & Vineyard reported, back in 2006, that Montelena “leases a 55-acre vineyard in the Oak Knoll District at the base of Mt. Veeder near Dry Creek Road, where mostly Chardonnay grapes are grown.” And “the hands-on manager at Oak Knoll is Bill Hanna.”

So it would appear that famous ’73 Montelena Chardonnay was a blend of three vineyards, at least: Bacigalupi, Belle Terre and Hanna. An interesting combination; perhaps we’ll be lucky enough to get Mike Grgich to weigh in on how and why he decided on that particular cépage. I imagine the Oak Knoll provided the backbone of structure and acidity that Bacigalupi, in itself, did not, although those Belle Terre Chards always had a graceful tartness. On the other hand, Belle Terre would have contributed the layers of opulent tropical fruits that lifted up Hanna’s minerals and herbs. As for Bacigalupi, that vineyard today is far better known for Zinfandel and Pinot Noir than for Chardonnay, although I did review a Gary Farrell 2011 Bacigalupi Chard, gave it a respectable 91 points, and praised its “deliciously ripe” flavors. That wine also was (probably) far oakier than the ’73 Montelena Chard.

History is a wonderful thing, but it’s protean (an adjective derived from the Greek god Proteus, who could change his appearance at will; protean thus means “readily changeable, capable of taking on different shapes and forms”). This makes history, which is among the more fallible of the social sciences, particularly subject to loss, distorted memory, bias and derangement. The Internet clearly is a two-sided blade: It helps to preserve facts (forever, as it turns out), but it also enshrines as “fact” things that may not actually be true; and their appearance in digital form (“It says so right here on my computer”) may lend them the appearance of truth, even when they’re false. On balance, though, first-hand accounts (like those of the Bacigalupis) are the most reliable verifications we have.

The case of the ’73 Montelena Chardonnay also shows that a blended wine–indeed, a two-county, three-appellation blend–can be as great as, and potentially better than, a vineyard-designated one. Did the surprised French judges in Paris, in that May of 1976, know that the winner was a mongrel? Their humiliation at being bested by California would have been all the sharper, with the understanding that this upstart New World Chardonnay did not even possess the prestige of terroir, the way their own Meursault Charmes Roulot (which took second place) did.


More on the drought

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I know I’ve been harping on this damned drought out here in California for months, ever since it appeared (by early December) that 2013 was going to be the driest year in California’s history, with records going back to the Gold Rush.

That’s exactly how it turned out. People were hoping the rains would return in January, but now, with the month half over, that hasn’t happened, and the extended forecasts–completely dry and warm–mean we’ll now have to pin our hopes on February and March, both of which can be extraordinarily wet. February historically has been the wettest month of the rainy season, with 4.61 inches falling, on average, in San Francisco. That’s about one-fifth the seasonal total. This is why Gov. Jerry Brown has not yet declared a Drought Emergency in California, although he’s been urged to do so by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and others; the Governor feels it’s a little too early to panic, and he may be right.

On the other hand, vintners, as well as farmers of all crops, are starting to panic. Or maybe “panic” is too strong a word. They’re concerned. They’re forming contingency plans. What will they do if there’s no water to fight off Spring frosts? What will they do for irrigation when the heat spells return next summer? There are no easy answers. The San Francisco Chronicle reported a few days ago that “residents in many parts of California are being asked – and sometimes ordered – to scale back their water use.” It’s not only been a dry winter, it’s been a warm one. Yes, we had an unusually chilly early December, but since then, it’s been more like May. Oakland, where I live, has set numerous high temperature records lately, including yesterday, when it was 74 degrees. Other records were set in San Francisco, San Jose and Santa Maria, where it was an unbelievable 83 degrees. The flowering trees in Oakland (magnolias, plums) are in full bloom. We’re in Day Three of a high fire danger, Red Flag warning in the East Bay and North Bay hills. This morning, the situation has grown even worse; the state now is under an Extreme Fire Danger alert, and Southern Californians are on edge, as those dreaded Santa Ana winds kick up, howling through the canyons where wildfires erupt and roar through places like Malibu and Laguna Beach. The warnings extend all the way up and into the Sierra Foothills.

I see red-breasted robins, honeybees and tiger swallowtail butterflies flying around–things you shouldn’t see in the Bay Area in deep winter. It doesn’t make sense. My T.V. weatherman last night called the weather “eerie,” a good word. He’s a trained meterorologist and he doesn’t understand what’s happening. Nobody does.

As the website, Wunderground.com, reported today, “The prospects for any significant rain or mountain snow in California over the next seven to 10 days look dismal, according to the latest computer model forecast guidance. If this type of pattern were to persist through the final week of the month, many January precipitation records could fall by the wayside.” That should cause everyone–not just Californians–deep concern.


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