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The End of Terroir

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One of the most enduring memes in wine is that of terroir. (A meme, by the way, is a cultural idea that spreads virally from human to human. Memes have been compared to genes in that they may mutate in response to environmental pressures, a concept I’ll return to in a minute.)

We all know the origin of the concept of terroir: France. That it was borrowed by American wine growers and vintners, primarily here in California, is perfectly understandable, especially after the boutique winery boom pushed prices high enough that vintners had to come up with some rationale to convince consumers to dig deep. Their rationale: Mass-produced wines have no terroir. The word “terroir” went beyond its original French meaning of referring to a given set of growing conditions, to acquire qualitative and even esthetic dimensions. One might say that the terroir meme mutated.

In the 1980s and 1990s, as I was learning about wine and becoming a wine writer, the concept of terroir was all-pervasive at the higher levels of California. Napa Valley was said to make the best Cabernets because of its terroir. When Pinot Noir started to become popular, there were fierce intellectual discussions of the difference between the terroirs of, say, the western part of the Santa Ynez Valley (now called the Sta. Rita Hills) and the Russian River Valley. One might say that being able to describe his region’s unique terroir was as integral a part of the winemaker’s job as producing good wine. Certainly, it became a necessary part of the job description with the rise of the wine media.

Personally, I always had my doubts. While I could certainly tell that Napa Valley Cabernet was better than Cabs from elsewhere (as a general rule; not always in every instance), I always felt some skepticism when someone told me about how radically different Rutherford and Oakville were, or Howell Mountain and Mount Veeder. I didn’t see it quite that way. But one learns to keep one’s mouth shut in such cases: I feared that perhaps it was my lack of ability that prevented me from detecting what seemed so obvious to others. The guilty fear of many writers, maybe all of us for all I know, is that nagging feeling that you know less about wine than people think you do. So when I wrote about terroir, I dutifully quoted winemakers, while myself seldom if ever proclaiming terroir distinctions in my own voice. There’s a big difference between quoting others and making your own declarations, and I have never been confident making the kind of ultra-fine statements that would be needed in distinguishing Rutherford from Oakville.

Or Sta. Rita Hills from Russian River Valley. Or Santa Lucia Highlands from Sonoma Coast. Or even Carneros from Russian River Valley. Which is a problem for a wine writer expected to know these things. I can describe the differences, intellectually, based on my knowledge of climate and soils, and from things I’ve been told by winemakers over the years. But I would hate to be put to the acid test of having to identify these wines in a blind tasting in a public format, for a simple reason I’ve been hesitant to express, before now: The truth is, Pinot Noirs from all California’s top regions taste more alike than not, and so do Cabernets from Napa’s appellations; and now we are seeing the emergence of Cabernets from other parts of the state (not just Sonoma County, but Paso Robles and Santa Barbara County) that one might easily confuse with the real thing from Napa Valley.

Wine writers aren’t supposed to admit such things, and few do, at least in public. Which is why I have been so enjoying Benjamin Lewin’s new book, Claret & Cabs. He does such a superb job of demolishing the terroir meme, not because he doesn’t believe in terroir–he does– but because external factors are minimizing its impact, to the point where traditional terroir concepts in Bordeaux–the mothership of terroir–have become so blurred as to be largely unintelligible. (My words, not his.)

Lewin, who’s an M.W., compiles a list of reasons why terroir distinctions in the Médoc have gotten so fuzzy. Vintners pick riper. Some varieties, like Malbec and Carmenere, are being eliminated, in favor of more Cabernet Sauvignon–which may be making all Bordeaux wines taste more alike than they used to. Cabernet is being planted in areas where it didn’t used to, even at the top chateaux. Wines from lesser parts of Bordeaux are fast becoming as good as classified growths. Most importantly, perhaps, global warming is doing away with climate patterns that dominated when the communal distinctions were first established–patterns that made for perceptual differences between cooler and warmer micro-terroirs. As he writes, “I suspect…that [terroir] differences were brought out in the past by marginal conditions”–conditions that less frequently apply in today’s Bordeaux, so that “it would be a fine taster who could always tell the difference between St. Julien and Pauillac.”

Such a statement would have been heresy in Michael Broadbent’s, Hugh Johnson’s or Alexis Lichine’s heyday. Today, as established a figure as Lewin (who may be the most prolific and best wine writer in the English language) can come out and say the unsayable, the truth about terroir that dare not speak its name. He blew my mind when he called terroir “a point of faith in Bordeaux.” Faith is something you believe in despite evidence to the contrary. But for how long, and at what price?

TOMORROW: Part 2.

 


A critic confesses: California wine can be too sweet

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Lord knows I’m a big defender of California Cabernet Sauvignon against the bashers who say it all tastes like a candy bar, but I will admit to occasionally having my own moments of despair.

It happens when I set up a flight of 10 or 12 Cabs to review. Normally, I try to segregate them by appellation–all Napa Valley, for instance. But it doesn’t always work out that way. For example, lately I’ve been concentrating on the wines of Paso Robles, including Cabernet and Bordeaux red blends. It’s seemed to me that the wines have been getting better, for a variety of reasons. One way to check that out is to taste Paso Cabs against Napa Cabs, which are the gold standard, to see if they have anything to be ashamed of.

As far as I can tell, few other reviewers do it that way. They’ll go to Paso Robles and taste, or they’ll receive the wines at home, and then taste them openly–which invites preconceived notions about Paso Robles. And we all have them, don’t we? It’s too hot, etc. etc. Yes, it is hot, but no more so than Calistoga (I can send you the temperature statistics if you want), and there are areas in Paso (particularly in the west and south) that are cooler than, say, the Estrella flats along 46E. So its only fair to take ambitious Paso Cabs and set them next to the best of Napa and see what’s up.

I can see some eyebrows rising high in scandalized incredulity. What? Taste Paso Robles Cabernets next to great Napa Cabernet? Yes; why not? It’s not against the law. And I’ll tell you that some of these Paso Cabs stand up remarkably well.

But what I was writing about was my moments of despair. Let me explain. If you do a search on my wine reviews using the words “candy,” “candied,” “sugary sweet,” “jammy,” you’ll get an awful lot of hits, and not just for Cabernet. Syrah, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Petite Sirah, there really is a lot of treacly stuff out there, the kind that drives the Europeans mad. Tasting through a flight of such wines can start to be tedious, so much so that, on occasion, I start thinking to myself, “Maybe Terry Theise has a point. Maybe even Raj Parr has a point.”

There used to be a saying, “Where you stand depends on where you sit,” which makes no sense at all literally. It means that the way you see and experience things depends on your perspective. Now, having a perspective is complicated business. You may have inherited a perspective from the way you were raised. You may have developed a new perspective through education. The Europeans, who grew up with wines in the 13%-14% range, naturally recoil from a 15.5% L’Aventure Cabernet. To them, it tastes utterly bizarre, not like wine at all.

I didn’t grow up with a European perspective. When it came to wine, I had no perspective, as we didn’t drink it in my parents’ home. My perspective concerning wine developed after I moved to California, and fell in with other amateurs who liked California wine quite a bit. In that environment, I developed an affection for our style, which may be riper and sweeter than it was 30 years ago, but not all that much. California wine (especially red) has always been about fruit.

So when I start thinking that there’s an awful lot of candied sameness out there, it forces me to dive deeper to discern which wines are balanced with candied sweetness and which ones aren’t. For there is such a thing as a Cabernet that’s sweet and jammy and chocolatey, yet maintains perfect balance. To give just one example, the Paul Hobbs 2009 Beckstoffer To Kalon, which clocks in at a hefty 15.2% alcohol, and which I gave 96 points. That wine has balance, despite the glyceriney, fat unctuousness. I sometimes think the people who bash this style throw the baby out with the bathwater. They dismiss all California wines of this style without realizing or understanding that there are grand wines made in all styles.

Having said that, yes, my Europhile friends, there are a lot of candy bar wines in California.


Wilfred Wong, the Mondavis, and how Chardonnay got to be #1

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At the Michael Mondavi tasting the other night, Rob Mondavi, Wilfred Wong and I were tasting a Chardonnay from the Isabel Mondavi brand, when the question arose of how Chardonnay came to be the top-selling wine in America.

Between the two of us, Wilfred and I have approximately 400 trillion years of experience in wine, and so we began to offer our own explanations of this phenomenon. Rob listened to us gently correct each other, interrupt with added details, agree on a shared memory; at one point he laughingly described us as an old married couple, which I suppose most old friendships become, in the best sense.

I suggested Chardonnay’s triumph was due to a small cadre of California-based wine writers in the 1970s–Bob Thompson, Charlie Olken, Norm Roby, Earl Singer, Gerald Asher, Robert Lawrence Balzer, Nate Chroman–who told a wine-ignorant but increasingly wine-curious America what to drink and what to avoid; and when it came to white wine, it was Chardonnay, “the great white grape and wine of Burgundy” (as they used to put it), they pushed. Theirs were just about the only voices of knowledgeable wine opinion in the country; it was so unlike today’s cacophony. But, far from people resenting these “top-down” critics for their dictatorial approach, consumers were happy that someone impartial and knowledgeable was willing to teach them, and they were equally happy to buy their handbooks and subscribe to their newsletters.

Then Wilfred, with a gleam in his eye, said I’d forgotten someone very important. When I asked for a clue, he said his name started with “R.”

I racked my brain, but couldn’t recall anyone. So Wilfred had to tell me: Robert Finnigan.

I had indeed forgotten Finnigan, who died in 2011. He published one of the earliest newsletters, Robert Finnigan’s Private Wine Guide (this was well before Wine Advocate), and was hugely influential among restaurateurs and merchants. I knew Bob for a while in the 1990s, when he was perhaps a little past his prime, but still active, and certainly a pleasant, dignified San Francisco gentleman. He was running the old CMCV society in San Francisco, a marketing group sponsored by the Champagne houses that had established wineries in California. (I can’t remember what CMCV stood for; can someone help me?) Bob also was sort of the personal wine consultant for the Getty family, and it was in that connection that we were brought together. Billy and Gordon Getty had teamed up with a very young and ambitious Gavin Newsom to launch their first wine shop, PlumpJack, and Gavin asked me to join a small circle who would taste wine together, once a week for six months, in order for management to decide what wines to stock on the shelves for opening day. The whole idea was to choose only the best, so that staff could assure customers that every single bottle in the store had been hand-selected.

Well, the Big Day finally came, and PlumpJack opened their doors to the public. I wasn’t there, but about a week later, I stopped by on my way home from a tasting at nearby Fort Mason. Gavin was working the register. I asked him how things had gone, and he scowled. On the very first day, a customer had come in, told Gavin he wanted a mixed case of wine, and added that he didn’t care what the particular bottles were, so long as each had scored 90 points or higher from Parker. (This was in 1992, as I recall, maybe ’93.) After all the diligence Gavin and the rest of us had applied in personally selecting the store’s stock, Gavin’s Irish temper was–most properly–aroused.

Anyhow, Wilfred was right, and he made me apologize for forgetting Finnigan, right there in front of Rob Mondavi, which I, having no ego, was happy to do.

The point remains that Chardonnay was launched on its path to superstardom by a small group of smart, visionary writers who understood that it was the greatest white wine in California, which made it the greatest white wine in the America. And such was their power, nearly 40 years ago, that America listened to them. That was the kind of top-down, one-way conversation so loathed today by the social mediacs, and it worked. No group of writer/critics will ever approach that degree of authority, much less unanimity, in our quarrelsome times. But you know what? It’s all good.


There’s no danger in bashing California wines, which is why people do it

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A few days go I blogged that there’s a certain sameness to much of California wine–the same top 5 or 6 varieties, made in the same style–and I was willing to take some of the blame, as a critic who bears some responsibility for what people drink.

Then a reader who identified himself as Blovinum commented, “I agree to you that America and much of the world is a homogenized society (so in wine) and 2nd. I agree to the statement that you as a critic is in a part responsible for that fact. But man himself is the reason why there is, like I call it, a ‘Coca-Cola taste’. Everyday, everytime the same preferences, whatever it is. Most of us behave like a cattle in a flock. No individuality, no self-confidence in the own sense of taste and no courage to discover ‘new land’.”

I replied, “Dear Blovinum, I completely agree with your analysis of humanity! It seems to be in our genes to obey the herd mentality. I’m sure there are solid reasons of survival for banding together, as opposed to each of us going our own way. If you’re out there on the edge of the crowd, it’s easier to get picked off by a hungry wolf.”

The reason this is such an interesting point is because it has to do with this ongoing discussion in the wine community about wine style. You know the outlines: On the one side are those who like lower alcohol European wines that, they say, show terroir, while on the other side are those who enjoy the big, rich, fat California style of high alcohol and fruit, which makes (some say) all wines taste more or less alike, at the expense of terroir.

Now, I don’t know any fans of the California style who bash European wines as being too thin–I certainly don’t. The bashing seems to be one-way only, from the Europhiles. I’ve written plenty about this, so I don’t want to reprise the whole megillah again. But I do want to take a deeper look at why so many people around the world love the California style–and why a tiny minority doesn’t.

We humans do have it programmed within us to behave like what Blovinum calls “cattle in a flock,” and for the reason I stated. Our ancestors were smart, but they also were physically slow and weak. That made them vulnerable to predators, like saber-toothed tigers and wolves. They learned consequently to stick together, like antelope on the plains of Africa, to better protect themselves from being eaten.

That’s one reason for the herd mentality: People in general don’t like to stick out. The nail that sticks out gets hammered down, as the old saying goes. There’s something else: Humans have a sweet tooth. Chimps use twigs as tools to dig honey out of a hive. Sugar tastes good, of course, but the reason Mother Nature made it taste good is because sugar in its various forms is necessary for brain function. Sugar tastes good for the same reason sex feels good. Both are necessary for the species’ survival.

So if you add the herd mentality to this fondness for sugar, you have a lot of people who find a rich, fruity, slighty sweet California wine delicious. Including me.

That explains why wines the world over have been getting riper: Once advances in viticulture and enology made it possible, it only made sense for winemakers to produce wines that appeal to these built-in tastes. It’s a wonder that wine has been as popular as it was over the course of thousands of years of human culture, when so much of it must have been brutal, nasty stuff. That’s why the Greeks and Romans so often sweetened it with honey or resin. People drank wine even though it didn’t taste very good because they enjoyed its psychedelic effects.

What this explanation doesn’t fully account for is the violence with which the anti-California crowd attacks our wines. This gets us back to those iconoclasts who fancy themselves as refusing to go along with the common herd. They see themselves as independent minds, going against the tide of popular taste, ardent defenders of ancient values against a mindless rabble. They are, in other words, on the edge of the crowd. That’s no longer a dangerous place to be; there’s little risk of a wolf picking you off if you bash California wine.


Tasting Top Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. What a Treat!

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People sometimes ask me if it’s hard to taste wine every day, after so many years of doing it. Don’t I get tired, or bored, or burned out?

The answer is NO! In CAPS. Especially when it’s a great flight.

Oh, I guess plowing my way through 12 or 15 under-$10 Chardonnays has its elements of tedium. (And if this were an email I’d include a little smiley-face emoticon : > with that statement.) But let me tell you about the pleasures of going through a range of fantastic wines.

Like the ones I did yesterday. A very high-level flight of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons. Included were the following: PerryMore 2008 Stagecoach, Paradii, Beckstoffer To Kalon, Beckstoffer Dr. Crane and regular Napa Valley; Altvs 2009 (the “v” is not a typo. I guess it’s Bill Foley’s inner Roman coming out); three Raymond 2009 “District Collections,” St. Helena, Calistoga and Oakville; also Raymond’s 2009 “Generations. I threw in a Kunde 2010 from Sonoma Valley (at $25, the bargain of the lot) “just to see.” More on this in a moment.

My tasting was, of course, single-blind (which I define as knowing generally what’s in the lineup, but not knowing which bottle is which. We can argue ‘til the cows come home what the best way of tasting is. For me, this approach is what I’m used to, and so it works for me.) Now, right off the bat, I admit to starting out with a heightened sense of excitement. These are all well-regarded properties and/or vineyards, Raymond is in the process of being reinvigorated, and this is, after all, Napa Valley Cabernet, a place and variety for which (you might know) I have some affection. So this was a gratifying tasting for me.

“Happy families are all alike,” Tolstoy famously wrote, and I should say, of happy Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, that they are all alike. Lest readers begin barraging me with emails explaining how different Atlas Peak is from Calistoga, let me explain myself. A good Napa Valley Cabernet makes you reach for the Thesaurus for synonyms for “delicious.” I’m finding a lot of chocolate in my Napa Cabs these days, which probably is some alchemical synthesis of things in the berries and contributions from oak; but Cabernet’s classic black currants and, often as not, crème de cassis are there, and what’s not to like about those flavors? So, when I first attack my flight, my mind and palate are simply dazzled by this virtuoso display of richness.

They’re not all the same, though. Once the immediate dazzlement is over, then we get down to the serious business of finding differences. One wine’s tannins are firmer, another’s more pliant. One wine turns out to be a little thinner after it’s been in the glass for a while—but maybe that makes it more elegant? At any rate, you can see how much fun it can be to frolic among the glasses while all the while coming up with a conceptualization that’s accurate enough to send to the magazine’s database, on its way to being published: and let’s not forget associating a score with that description. In this way, the hours fly by, while I do my thing (with Gus nearby) and the outside world ceases to exist, for all I know or care.

Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, at the level of yesterday’s flight, is very great. If you don’t like that style, fine. Most of us do. Oh, that Kunde? Remarkable. Held its own right alongside the others, at a fraction of the price. I’d happily drink it anytime, with the best Cabernet food you can find. Was it just a shade less rich? Yes. But so balanced, so refined, and made in such good taste. In a way, California can be prouder of producing a great $25 wine like that, than of producing triple-digit cult idols. But that’s what makes California so cool: everything from $7 clean, everyday wines from Freddie Franzia to these wonderful premium varieties in the $15-$25 range to the spectacular heights of Napa Cabernet. I love this state!


Aging wine: an accidental result of bad technology

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If California has taught the world anything, and I hope and like to think it has, it’s that the first duty of a wine is to be delicious.

Not ageable. Delicious.

Some wine critics look at ageability as something desirable. They swoon over wines that are tannic, mute and stubborn in youth, rhapsodizing over what they will turn into some day—10, 20, 30 years down the road—when they become nectar. And sure, there’s a handful of wines in the world that do become special in old age

There are two flaws in this vision, though. The first is that the appreciation of old wine is an acquired taste. Most people who have never developed that particular esthetic would find an aged wine—I mean one that has actually developed bouquet and cellar character, not one that’s simply old—disagreeable.

The second fly in the ointment is this: Correct me if I’m wrong, but the entire notion of aging wine arose during the 1700s and 1800s (after proper bottles and stoppers were invented) because many of the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy were so tannic that they were basically undrinkable during their early years. The French figured out that if they lay the bottles on their sides, in a cool place where the temperature couldn’t do them any harm, those pesky tannins would eventually fall out. The wine then could be carefully decanted, with the sediment falling into the shoulder, and the resulting liquid would pour clear and sweet.

Do you think the French would have made less tannic wines if they’d possessed the ability to do so? I do. There was nothing particularly advantageous in having to store wine for so many years. It took up space, it required management, it was tedious, and the bottles developed notoriously unevenly. The French (and their English, Belgian, Swiss, Danish and other customers) just wanted something to drink that was, well, delicious. That they had to wait for years was simply an accident of technology: modern methods of tannin management, including developments in the vineyard and in the winery, didn’t yet exist.

Well, they do now. Take Napa Valley Cabernet. I’ve heard many French people say how tannic they find it, which is weird, because I think Grand Cru Bordeaux is really tannic. Regardless of who’s right or wrong on that score, Napa Valley Cabernet is tannic, because the grape’s thick skins make it so. But vintners have developed all sorts of ways to soften those tannins, fundamentally changing their molecular structure to make them feel silkier. The result, in a wine like (for example) Monticelllo’s 2008 Corley Reserve, is spectacular deliciousness. Nor is this yummy factor limited to Cabernet, as evidenced by (another example; I could have cited dozens) Roessler’s 2009 Hein Family Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the Anderson Valley, rich, glyceriney and delicious.

Had the Bordelais and Burgundians been able to produce wines like these, I’m positive they would have, and this whole notion of cellaring wines would never have assumed the proportions it has. An entire industry of refrigerated storage units and customized residential cellars might not even exist. But that’s not how things turned out. The French were utterly unable to manage their tannins, and so history took a different turn.

I sometimes think that the anti-California wine crowd out there has a problem with immediate gratification. They’re like Puritans who think life should be hard. Any joy, in the way of dancing, movies, sex, luxuriating in food and drink, is bad. It’s not just California wine they complain about, it’s the California style itself: hedonistic, sensuous, physically beautiful, playful, sexy, celebratory rather than stoical, fun. To condemn California for being all glittery surface and no substance is very old and widespread, but isn’t it always tinged with a little jealousy? Our wine, too, is criticized, but it has taught the world to see fruit in a different way that has improved wine everywhere.


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