California wine is just too expensive. It really is. Not all of it, to be sure. There’s a lot of expensive wine that’s worth the price. But there’s a ton of badly made, mediocre wine that will set you back an arm and a leg, and that’s a real drag.
Of course, nobody’s forced to buy overpriced wine, and I don’t have any sympathy at all for people who are so ignorant or devoid of taste that they willingly plonk down $30, $40 or more for a wine that I would score, at best, 84 points. That’s their problem, and if they like what they’re getting, fine. But I can tell you that when I give a low score to an expensive faulty wine, it makes me mad.
The first thing I wonder is, does the winery team even have the slightest clue their stuff is average, at best? If they know, then they’re engaging in very ugly, nefarious behavior–all the more awful when the wine is accompanied by glowing “winemaker notes” telling us how glorious and rare it is.
If the winery team is unaware they’re sending out plonk, they should be fired. I was having this conversation yesterday with someone who works in marketing for a big winery. I wondered how it’s possible to have to sell something you know isn’t very good, and still keep your soul. Yes, your “soul,” meaning–not what some religious people say–but your integrity, conscience, love of truth. If your job is to sell something you know, in your heart of hearts, isn’t good, but you spend your time trying to convince people it is, then you’ve lost something you used to treasure when you were young. I can only imagine the rationalization that people engage in to dull the pain. I suppose a fat paycheck helps to narcotize.
I shouldn’t let my blood pressure be affected by a bad bottle of $50 wine, but I can’t help it. I think, “What in the world is wrong with you [meaning the producer]? What were you thinking?” The other thought that always follows is, how can this winery remain in business? Sometimes, when I review a bad expensive wine, I’ll go into Wine Enthusiast’s database (which you can access for free) and look at the winery’s track record. More often than not, these wineries have been producing dismal stuff, at inflated prices, year after year after year. How is this possible? Who buys it? Don’t they know that a 16% Syrah that tastes like sugared asparagus is a total ripoff? That a $36 Petite Sirah that tastes like melted jam is a joke? That a $55 Cabernet with nothing but caramelized oak is an insult? That it’s insane to pay $50 for a Port-style wine (in a half-bottle, at that) that’s thin and lacking in anything but sugar? That if you fork out $30 for a Chardonnay that tastes like buttered popcorn, you should have your head examined? These are all real examples from this past week, although obviously I’m not going to name names. And if I went back over the last year, I could write a book called “500 wines you should hate because they’re not only boring, but they’re trying to rob you blind.”
It all leads to a final question. Let’s say I blind taste a wine, think it’s pretty dumb and simple, but that I could imagine drinking it in a paper cup at a party some Saturday night and not actually throwing up. I give it 83 points. Then I see it costs $6 retail. I still think it’s a pretty boring wine, and I won’t adjust the score, but I will soften my language to suggest it might be a good buy for someone who’s looking to get off cheap. That kind of wine doesn’t make me angry. I’ll think, “Okay, I wouldn’t buy it, but at least the producer doesn’t have hubris, and millions of Americans will benefit from this cheap wine.” But those expensive ones really piss me off.
When you’ve been a critic for a while, as I have, it’s a lesson in humility. You realize that a lot of people must like stuff that you find execrable, because these wineries just keep on cranking it out. That makes me realize it’s just my opinion. But I know what I know, and I believe that what I think I know is true. There’s an awful lot of bad California wine out there that’s absurdly priced, and I wonder how long it can go on.
I’m still very much enjoying and learning from Rajat Parr’s new book, “Secrets of the Sommeliers” (co-written with Jordan Mackay), although I could live without his constant swipes against California wines.
Parr is at his best when writing, of course, about his beloved Burgundy. Whenever I read good writing about Burgundy it turns me on, for the explanation of this region surely is one of the most rigorously intellectual in all of winedom. Who among us doesn’t remember the first times he was taken, through the written word, on a tour of the famous slopes of the Cotes d’Or, by a writer who knew what he was talking about? In my case, my first tour guide was Alexis Lichine who, although a Bordelaise (he owned a couple of chateaux), knew Burgundy in his blood. I must have spent dozens of hours close-reading the Burgundy sections of his immortal “New Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits”, memorizing the appellations controlées, studying the map, understanding the millennial history, and wishing I could have the opportunity “to perceive the difference between a…Charmes-Chambertin and the contiguous Clos de Beze,” which, sadly, didn’t happen nearly enough.
It was those tiny, mystical differences between vineyards and parts of vineyards so close to each other that inflamed my mind. I took it as part of God’s plan for an ordered Earth that it should be so–that the Pinot Noir grape (and to a lesser extent the Chardonnay) grown in Burgundy should express itself in so complex a tapestry, in what is really a fairly compact region.
Parr takes us over much the same territory as did Lichine, albeit in language not quite so poetic. Reading Parr on, say, Vosne-Romanée, the old fire returned to light up my brain. The old passion was rekindled, as it was when, in 1982, I bought (for $30!) my Lichine “Encyclopedia.” But I reflect also that there’s a huge difference between then and now, in terms of how I apply the knowledge of Burgundy to the situation of Pinot Noir here in California.
It was the particular French genius for (or obsession with?) classification that provided the underpinnings of my fascination with Burgundy, and in the 1980s there was no reason why I, or anybody else, would have been blamed for believing that California too would someday be organized into communes and villages and premier and grand crus. They might not be called by those words, but we would someday have identified the precise slopes where our Vosnes and Cortons and Chambolle-Musignys grew, and even the tenderloins within them in which our Bonnes-Mares and La Taches displayed exquisite grandness.
That is what I thought in the 1980s, at any rate. Today, it’s a very different story. We have superb Pinot Noir regions scattered for hundreds of miles, from the Anderson Valley down to the Santa Rita Hills, from Fort Ross to the Santa Cruz Mountains, from Carneros to the Santa Lucia Highlands. Far from having a single range of hills to understand, we have multiple valleys, even whole mountain ranges that have just begun to be poked and prodded. We have, too, a vastly greater range of clones, rootstocks, farming techniques, barrel regimens and winemaking practices available than the Burgundian vignerons ever did, each of which minimizes the contributions of terroir, making them harder to discern. I could go on and on about all the reasons why classifying California Pinot Noir, at least in the way it’s done in Burgundy, will never be done.
Does that leave me disappointed? No. My expectations from the 1980s have turned out not to be achievable, but then, I had many fantasies back then that never panned out. There is, though, a definite satisfaction in knowing that, although things here are much more complicated than I, or anybody else, thought, still, we as a state have reached the point where I can taste masterpieces like Merry Edwards’ 2007 Meredith Estate, Lynmar’s ‘07 Five Sisters, Byron’s ‘08 Nielson, Samsara’s ‘08 Las Hermanas, and appreciate them for what they are, even though they don’t seem to be arranged into any sort of coherent order (and even despite Rajat Parr’s back-handed compliments).
And who’s to say that the dream is truly dead? It won’t be my generation that finally and fully explains Pinot Noir in California. It won’t be the Millennials, because even if they have writing careers of thirty years or more, vintners and growers still will be scratching away in our appellations like chickens looking for a tasty grub. I think we may be able to make sense of some of our AVAs sooner than others–the Santa Lucias seem more logical than, say, the Sonoma Coast. Westside Road may someday be plotted out in a more or less thorough way. We may have some clearer understanding of the Santa Rosa Road corridor in the Santa Rita Hills, brief as that place’s viticultural history is.
But much work remains to be done, and one thing wine writers will have to be careful of is not to jump to unwarranted conclusions, just because they sound good and are easily repeated. In a day and age of instant truthiness, spread virally over the Internet, writers should avoid parroting something that somebody else said. That’s not how the Burgundians understood their land. It took them a thousand years, and from what I’ve read of their history, they were in no hurry. Neither should we be.
A good cause to support…
My friend, David Le, is hosting a fundraiser for Big Brothers and Big Sisters of the Bay Area. It’s on Sat., Oct. 16, at his Garden Hortica garden center in Oakland, 668 Seventh Street, near Jack London Square.
Although California winemakers had been making so-called “Bordeaux blends” for years — Inglenook and Martini pioneered mixing Merlot or Cabernet Franc in with Cabernet Sauvignon, and Joseph Phelps’ Insignia was a blend from its first vintage, in 1974 — it wasn’t until 1988 that a group of Napa Valley vintners decided the blends needed a collective identity.
The founding wineries included Lyeth, Flora Springs, Franciscan and Dry Creek Vineyard. “Back then, you’d see a wine labeled ‘red’ or ‘table wine,’ and since consumers weren’t very knowledgeable, they assumed it would be inferior. We needed a categorization that felt right,” Kim Stare Wallace, Dry Creek Vineyard’s second-generation owner, said.
The wineries launched a nationwide competition to come up with a name; the winner would get a case of wine from each member winery, on an annual basis, for the rest of his or her life. I entered that contest, but did not win. Instead, a young man who was the wine buyer for an East Bay supermarket won by coming up with the term “Meritage,” and the wineries eventually formed themselves into the Meritage Association.
The Association has always had marketing issues, always struggled to make “Meritage” a universally-accepted term in the on-premise, off-premise, critical and consumer communities. Some of the original member wineries have since quit the Association; some important wineries that make Bordeaux blends never joined; and although the 250 members today are scattered across six countries, including Israel and Mexico, most of them remain located in California.
The Association’s president is Kim Stare Wallace. Its treasurer is Bill Smart, a likeable young guy who is Dry Creek’s communications director. I ran into Bill at the Wine Bloggers Conference last week, where he reminded me that the Association is engaged in a renewed P.R. push to increase its visibility. Here’s a brief Q&A:
Steve: Why do you need a special word for Bordeaux blends? Why not just educate the public about blending in general, and that any wine with less than 75% of the varietal can’t be named after a grape?
Bill: Well, it’s a valid point if you’re saying “Meritage is a dead term, so why have it?” But the reason there’s no credibility there is because we haven’t been consistent with marketing and messaging. Why is Rhone Rangers and ZAP what they are? Because they do a really good job of promoting. And we feel this category is worth promoting.
How are you promoting Meritage?
In 2011, our dream is to have the first ever consumer tasting of Meritage. It will be in San Francisco. We’ll partner with Wine 2.0, and it will benefit the Multiple Sclerosis Society. Our hope is to get 50 wineries pouring.
Why wouldn’t they all come?
Well, there’s an extreme amount of apathy, because most members have less than 250 cases [of Meritage], so it’s not a focus. They focus on their 5,000 cases of Sauvignon Blanc [or whatever] they have to sell.
How come so many wineries that make Bordeaux blends won’t join the Meritage Association?
You know, it’s the old explanation, “I have a proprietary red wine and I don’t need ‘Meritage’ to promote it. I already have enough credibility, so I don’t need you.” I always reply, “Well, you can throw ‘Meritage’ on the back of your wine label. It’s not that big a deal.”
[This is Steve again, opining.] I have mixed feelings about “Meritage” and its usefulness or lack thereof. I am, of course, entirely in favor of Bordeaux blends, red and white, if that’s what a winemaker wants to do. And I do understand that some education has to be given to consumers, who might expect to see a varietal name on every bottle of wine. The object, I think, is to explain that Bordeaux itself — which everybody’s heard of — is never a varietal wine, but always a combination of certain varietals. You could tell people, “This is a blend using the noble Bordeaux varieties,” and I suspect they’d be impressed. So why saddle consumers with yet another complicated word to remember and understand, when they’re already overwhelmed with wine minutiae?
On the other hand (there’s the Gemini in me), it does seem reasonable to make the case that these Bordeaux blends should be independently categorized. A categorization is always a justification for existence; the justification, in this case, is that a winemaker might be tempted to make a varietally-labeled Cabernet Sauvignon (i.e., containing at least 75% of that grape) merely in order to put Cabernet Sauvignon on the label, and not necessarily because it makes the best, most rewarding and complete wine. Meritage adherents thus are in a position to argue that they have freed themselves from the addiction to varietal labels. That’s a simple message to deliver, and one the public would understand.
It is so difficult to answer this question, despite the temptations of doing so, precisely because, as H. Warner Allen wrote, in his 1932 classic, The Romance of Wine: “Great wines are possessed of an individual personality, an originality of character, which varies, not merely from one district, vineyard or vintage year to another, but also from one bottle to another bottle of the same wine.” Another way of phrasing this is to say that there are no great vintages, only great bottles (and a free subscription to this blog to whomever comes up with the person who first said that).
For Cabernet in California, let’s first consider district. The grape needs moderate to full warmth to ripen. Plant it too close to the coast, and the thick-skinned grapes will never mature. The resulting wine will have a green character, of the sort that used to be called the Monterey veggies. On the other hand, if you plant Cabernet in too warm an area — the Central Valley, say — the grapes will lack sufficient acidity, and also the bunches will likely contain some raisined fruit, which will give the wine a pruny taste.
So you need something in the middle. Look at this map of California’s wine districts
and draw a diagonal line, running northwest to southeast, starting from Lake County and parallel to the coast. You’ll see how it goes through Napa Valley, then hits a little piece of Solano County and slices through Livermore Valley. Then it runs through a couple of counties that are not colored or named on the map; they are, respectively, Santa Clara and San Benito. After that, the line crosses the southeastern tip of Monterey County, crosses the eastern part of San Luis Obispo County, and trails off in the far eastern part of Santa Barbara County, where the coast turns inland in the Transverse Range.
That is California’s Cabernet line. All things being equal, that’s where the great Cabs grow.
Not all things are equal, though. The reason Napa Valley makes the best Cabernet Sauvignon is because things got started a lot earlier there, and a lot more money flowed in. What about Sonoma County? You’ll notice it lies west of the Cabernet line, making it, in general, too cool for Cabernet, although the Alexander Valley, and especially the western ridges of the Mayacamas Mountains, can be fine. The problem with Lake County is twofold: it got started a lot later (not really until the 1990s), and, being more landlocked and further from any coastal influence at all, Lake may prove ultimately to be too hot for Cabernet. We’ll have to see. As for that little piece of Solano County, it has its own AVA, Suisun Valley. There’s no reason Suisun shouldn’t be making good Cabernet, since its climate isn’t that different from Napa’s. Maybe some day, it will.
Livermore should be making better Cabernet. It has a long history; the reasons why it’s not probably have more to do with political, cultural and economic factors than terroir. Then we come to Santa Clara. You might not know it, but this county used to have the reputation for making the finest Cabernet Sauvignon in California — before it turned into Silicon Valley and subdivisions. (And by the way, most of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is not in Santa Cruz County!) San Benito probably could make good Cabernet somewhere, but nobody I know of is trying. In the southern part of Monterey County, the Hames Valley and San Lucas AVAs are trying to grow better Cabernet, but once again, the amount of money a Monterey Cabernet can bring is not high enough for growers and vintners to invest a lot into the wine; and one of the things that makes a great Cabernet (or a great anything) is investment.
Then we come to San Luis Obispo. I’ve heard that people in the eastern, warmer part of the county are trying to grow good Cabernet, but none of it has crossed my desk so far. Finally, the Cabernet line crosses that eastern part of Santa Barbara County, the region that just got its own AVA, Happy Canyon. I’ve blogged about it before. The people promoting it are making a huge deal about its Cabernet potential, and I will admit I’ve had a couple of really good Cabernets from down there. They’re not as rich as Napa, more like a Graves, with a certain blackcurrant, mineral and herb essence. As a critic, I’m perfectly happy to let Happy Canyon prove itself (and believe me, there’s lots of money there).
When you consider all the above, you realize that California still is a young winegrowing place. They’ve had a thousand years, or whatever, in Bordeaux to figure it out. In most of the areas where, theoretically, Cabernet could thrive in California, we’ve had a few decades, and even in Napa Valley, just 150 years, more or less, which is a drop in the historical bucket.
Well, I said we’d start with district in determining what makes great Cabernet Sauvignon. And that discussion has eaten up this whole post. I’ll have more to say about other Cabernet factors in the future.
I was shopping at Rockridge Market the other day and stopped by the Goodwill Store to check out their books. Came across a familiar old one I hadn’t thought about for years: The Wines of California, by Roy Andries de Groot (Summit Books, 1982). Its subtitle: “Including the First Classification of the Best Vineyards and Wineries.”
I read that book when it was new, and it made quite an impression on me. Twenty-five years ago, I was a novice wine amateur, reading everything I could get my hands on. Of course, back then the bedrock of all wine knowledge rested in Europe, and in France in particular. I was very familiar with the Classification of 1855 and was in awe of it. It seemed to represent the pinnacle of everything California aspired to: great wine, grown in the right places, organized into established tiers of quality. Before I came across the book, I had wondered if California wines would ever be classified. It seemed like a natural thing to do. So the book really grabbed my attention.
If there was an inherent weakness in de Groot’s book, it was that it didn’t distinguish clearly between wineries and vineyards. That distinction is crucial in Europe. The Clos de Vougeot is classified as a Grand Cru vineyard of Burgundy, not the wineries who buy its grapes and bottle it. So when de Groot classified, say, Heitz Wine Cellars as one of his three highest-ranked (“Great”) wineries, mainly on the strength of Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, he failed to note that Heitz bought those grapes, whereas Stony Hill (another “Great” winery) grew all of its own grapes. (The third “Great” winery was Schramsberg.) If Heitz had lost access to Martha’s Vineyard grapes, it could not have remained a “Great” winery.
Still, what de Groot did was audacious and interesting for the time. And where he led, others followed. There were numerous attempts to classify California wineries over the next several years, most notably by Wine Spectator’s Jim Laube. In his 1989 “California’s Great Cabernets,” he stole the five-tier Bordeaux model and applied it to Cabernet Sauvignon.
We haven’t heard much about California classifications since the turn of the 21st century, and for good reason. As sincere as these attempts were, they were naive. A moment’s reflection would have prompted the following objections to any sort of California classification:
- as noted, a failure to distinguish between wineries who own their vineyards, and thus can never lose that fruit, and wineries who buy their grapes. Even a long-term contract may end someday.
- an inability to include wineries that did not exist at the time of the classification. This is not such a problem in the Médoc, where new wineries arise only rarely. But in fecund California, a classification would be futile because new wineries pop up all the time. For example, Laube did not include Harlan Estate, Cardinale, Staglin or Araujo in his book.
- the difficulty of revising the classification should a winery move up or down in quality. This problem afflicts all classifications in Europe. But it would be particularly misleading in California. Laube classified Shafer as a Third Growth, but surely, Hillside Select is of First Growth quality. De Groot placed Glen Ellen as a “Superb” winery — his second-highest tier. But that clearly was before Glen Ellen became a jug wine producer.
- it’s unlikely that any single wine critic could ever review all of the wines of California. There are simply too many brands (about 4,000 and counting). So any classification would be faulty for not considering everybody equally. True, a critic could focus his attention only on the more famous, culty wineries, but that would be patently unfair to the others, and could even reflect a pre-existing bias.
Despite the inherent weaknesses of a classification, the spirit of the 1980s permitted these efforts. It was a time of great optimism when anything seemed possible. We were still in thrall of Europe. Their systems had withstood the many tests of time; they must have been good, no? So why not try the same thing over here. Besides, the Baby Boomers were discovering fine wine by the millions; not only that, they were buying wine books. A wine book that purported to classify California wine was bound to sell lots of copies.
How times have changed. Can you imagine anyone having the temerity to classify California wineries? It would be ridiculous, and would meet up with the ridicule it deserved.
Hard to believe in just 37 days the first decade of the 21st century will end. Seems like only yesterday we were partying like it was 1999 (wait, it was 1999) and in a panic about the Y2K meltdown. Now here we are on the verge of 2010. In the blink of an eye, a decade has flown by.
It’s been ten years of discontinuity and discombulation for everything in America, and that includes the wine industry. I went back to review some things I wrote for Wine Enthusiast back in 2000, to see what we were thinking and talking about then. The wine market was, of course, robust in 2000, coming off the previous decade of up, up and away. In August of that year I wrote a column that reflected on the historical swings of the Bordeaux market over the preceding, well-documented two centuries. “Switch now from Bordeaux to California, and especially Napa Valley,” I said. “Many of the top wines, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, have doubled in price since 1990…the price of many, if not most, expensive wines has got to come down, and will…If you don’t believe that the world’s most prestigious wines can suddenly, exuberantly collapse in price, just read ‘The Wines of Bordeaux’ and find out.” That book, by Eddie Penning-Rowsell, traces the sine curves that Bordeaux prices always have described.
The dot-com bust and Sept. 11 dealt blows to the wine industry, but nothing like the staggering knockdown that the Great Recession of 2008-2009 delivered. I still see “suggested retail prices” of $100, $150, $250 for certain Cabernets, but frankly, I don’t believe them. A winery owner can claim to be asking (and getting) triple-digits for his wine but that doesn’t mean he is. So I was right that prices would collapse, but it’s a prediction anybody can make, at any time, because sooner or later, prices always tumble. But that has never stopped certain people from trying to talk prices back up, as for example this article from Investors Chronicle, which argues that “the market for quality wine has enjoyed a rapid turnaround” and cites somebody from something called The Wine Investment Fund as saying that fine wine “has earned it[s] place alongside gold, equities, bonds and other assets in an investment portfolio.” We may forgive The Wine Investment Fund, which is based in London, Bermuda and Hong Kong, for hyperbole, since it’s hardly a disinterested party.
I asked, also in a 2000 column, the following question: “Have you noticed that wine is getting sweeter and softer?” Apparently, I had, although 2000 was a little before I remember actually becoming convinced that California wine had a real problem, namely lack of acidity and excessive residual sugar. Later that year I wrote a little story about Jess Jackson stepping down as Board Chairman of Kendall-Jackson, and quoted him as saying, “I’m seventy. I’m retiring.” Some retirement! But along less happy lines, at the end of 2000 I reported on the news that Robert Mondavi Winery had “extended its reach to a fourth continent, Australia,” with its announcement of a joint venture with Rosemont. In retrospect we can see that this really was an early warning sign of the winery’s impending demise, caused by the hubris of exalted ambitions. RMW’s actual death dragged on for another four years, but finally occurred in December, 2004, when the company was sold to Constellation.
Several conclusions can be drawn. Wine prices are down now, but unless this is the End of History they will rise again, pace Penning-Rowsell, although it could take a while for the high end to recover; there were eras when Bordeaux took decades to come back. Softness and sugariness remain stubborn problems in California wine, but there’s evidence that that trend-line has peaked, thankfully (although it’s a Dracula that threatens always to rise again from the grave). Jess Jackson happily remains with us, at the helm of a great wine company. And the unhappy experience of Robert Mondavi should be a warning sign to ambitious empire builders. What are its lessons? Be careful what you wish for because you might get it. The Devil’s in the details. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Dot your i’s and cross your t’s. The fundamentals still apply as time goes by.
And speaking of the second decade of the 21st century
The world will have heard by now that Gary Vaynerchuk has won Wine Enthusiast’s “Innovator of the Year” Wine Star Award for WineLibrary TV. I am personally thrilled by the prospect of finally meeting Gary when we all gather, in black tie, at next year’s gala ceremony, at the New York Public Library’s 42nd Street branch. I feel like I know Gary from his comments on my blog, and he is obviously a force to be reckoned with as we head into the two thousand and teens. Congratulations to Gary and to all the Wine Star Award winners!