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!
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!
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.
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.
It’s official: 2013 was the driest year ever in recorded California history.
Here are some statistics for selected cities. The number represents the percentage of normal seasonal rainfall that has fallen so far during this year’s rainy season. (Figures courtesy of San Francisco Chronicle)
Los Angeles: 6.4%
San Diego: 21.7%
San Francisco: 8.7%
San Jose: 9.8%
Santa Rosa: 6.2%
Napa City, meanwhile, had only 22.7% of its normal yearly precipitation average, according to the Napa Valley Register, making 2013 “the driest year since reliable records started being kept nearly a century ago in Napa.”
Granted, the 2013-2014 rainy season still has many months to go. But we’re getting off to a bad start, and people are scared.
The numbers clearly are unsustainable, and reflect the fact that the drought is statewide and not merely regional. All previous drought records, dating back to 1850, have not only been surpassed, but pulverized. “The official drought map of California looks as if it has been set on fire and scorched…”, a reporter wrote in the San Jose Mercury-News.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein in early December asked Cal. Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a drought emergency, an action Brown so far has resisted taking, although a week after Feinstein’s request, he did form a task force to study the issue. Some municipalities aren’t waiting for statewide action. The city of Folsom on Dec. 23 mandated a 20 percent rationing order. Three days later, Sacramento County asked some residents to reduce water consumption of 20 percent. In Sonoma County, the County Water Agency has asked permission from the state “to slash flows from Lake Mendocino to the Russian River,” in order to keep the reservoir’s dwindling water level from falling even more.
Other cities are expected to enact similar water-saving mores in January.
The American Geophysical Society announced that California, and large parts of the West, may be experiencing a “megadrought” that could last for decades. They released this drought map
showing the extent of “severe” and “extreme” drought, with the worst areas centering on California and northwestern Nevada.
What impact could the drought–if it continues through the rest of the winter and spring–have on California wine? Vintners fear there won’t be enough water to spray for frost protection during the crucial early budding season. And there won’t be enough water for vine irrigation next summer, especially if we have heat waves. This enforced dry-farming probably means lower crop levels, especially compared to the last few years. Catastrophically dry conditions could spark massive wildfires that take out vineyards.
Is the drought related to climate change? I’m not prepared to go that far.
I was asked to moderate a panel next month at the Unified Grape & Wine Symposium in Sacramento, and while I had to decline due to circumstances beyond my control, I was intrigued by the topic: The Proprietary Wine: Rethinking the Constructs of Blended Wine.
The person who invited me, David Akiyoshi, is winemaker at Lange Twins Winery. (I remember years ago visiting them, when I covered the wines of the Sierra Foothills.) David explained to me, in an email, what he was looking for:
“The moderator should have the ability to provide an overview of historical wine trends from the generic 70’s chablis/burgundy, the demographic shift beginning in the 80’s to wines with varietal labels and the latest trend of proprietary red/white wine blends. There has always been a market for these wines such as with the European Meritage or Rhone blends and today’s consumers are more accepting of this category. Significant for the success of these wines is that there is less need for consumers to be a connoisseur or to be handcuffed by the latest 100 pt score. Quite simply, it is all about the enjoyment of wine as a beverage without artifice or social stigma of making the ‘wrong wine choice.’”
One could obviously write a book about all this, but I’ll try to fit it into a blog-length post. We know, of course, that from the end of Prohibition up to some point in the 1970s, American wines (mainly from California) labeled “Burgundy,” “Chablis,” “Rhine,” “Sauternes” and the like dominated sales in this country. Educated people understood the wrongness of this; as early as the 1930s, folks such as Frank Schoonmaker argued for true and honest labeling: “Napa Valley Red Wine,” that sort of thing. By the time the boutique winery era was rolling, in the late 1960s-1970s, and mainly in Napa and Sonoma, this point of view had become the accepted norm. Varietal labeling was celebrated as being refreshingly honest and distinctly American, an early practice of truth-in-labeling.
In the late 1980s, a group of vintners who were producing Bordeaux-style wines in California became frustrated with varietal labeling. They were blending the major Bordeaux varieties to produce the best wines they could, but the amount of any given variety was insufficient to meet the Federal government’s requirement of at least 75% of that variety in order to so label the wine. So they held a contest to come up with an alternative name (a contest I entered, and lost). The word “Meritage” won. The concept was good, but unfortunately, that term proved not to have staying power. Although some wineries still use it, it never caught on, and seems to me to be in dimenuendo.
However, that never stopped vintners from blending to below the 75% threshold. They simply called their wine by a proprietary name, like Joe Phelps did with Insignia. At first, these blends were almost exclusively Bordeaux varieties, but by the 1990s, Rhône-style blends began appearing. Spearheaded by the “Rhône Ranger” movement and the Hospices du Rhône organization, these wines were modeled after southern Rhône blends, usually based on GSM: Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. They, too, could not be called by a varietal name, so the wineries gave them proprietary names, such as Tablas Creek’s Esprit de Beaucastel. (Some of these wineries also produced white wines, most often based on some combination of Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier and Grenache Blanc.)
David Akiyoshi asks, “Are [these] blended wines merely a fad, or are they creating a new and lasting category of wines that promises to bringing new consumers to the table?” My answer, clearly, is a loud NO, they are not merely a fad, and YES, they are a lasting category, although I couldn’t say whether or not they’re “bringing new consumers to the table,” which is a complicated issue.
I’ve blogged about this and written about it in Wine Enthusiast, and in fact, one of the main reasons why I successfully argued for Paso Robles to be the magazine’s Wine Region of the Year was due to the success of the blends, red and white, made there, often of varieties previously unrelated by region or historical practice (Tempranillo, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Merlot, for example).
There’s no reason why a varietally-labeled wine is necessarily better than a blended one. Bordeaux itself is always a blend of varieties. One could even argue that so is red Burgundy, given Pinot Noir’s proclivity to spontaneously mutate to different clones. The Federal government’s requirement of 75% for a variety is patently arbitrary: Why not 60%, or 90%? The only reason, in my opinion, why so many vintners choose to label their wines varietally is because the consumer believes that varietally-labeled wines are superior to wines with other names.
When David says “It is all about the enjoyment of a wine as a beverage without artifice or social stigma of making the ‘wrong wine choice,’” he’s onto something. It’s the job of us educators to teach the public that varietal labeling in and of itself is meaningless. The problem, of course, is that this is an uphill battle, and will take time.
Where I digress from David’s point of view is when he says that the success of blending as a consumer category will result in “less need for consumers…to be handcuffed by the latest 100 point score.” I can understand why he (or anyone else) would object to the 100 point system, but I don’t see what varietal labeling has to do with it. I gave 100 points to La Muse 2007, which has no varietal labeling, just as I gave 100 points to the Shafer 2004 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, which obviously does.
In the end, it’s a sign of a culture’s wine maturity when the populace understands that the ultimate duty of a wine is to provide pleasure, not to adhere to some government rule. If it can best do so by the winemaker crafting the most perfect blend he or she is capable of, then why should anyone care that the wine doesn’t have a varietal name? This may sound like Jesuitical, angels-dancing-on-pinheads rhetoric, but it actually strikes the point that American consumers, still rather infantile about wine, have stereotypes and preconceptions that must pass, before we can truly become a wine-appreciating country.