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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.


Can Cameron Hughes negotiate good times as well as bad?

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Nice to see negociant Cam Hughes getting some love from Big Media, in this case Forbes, who says he “spends his time hunting opportunities that translate into great deals for wine buyers.”

I’ve been a Cameron Hughes Wine fan for years. I nominated Cam for Wine Enthusiast’s “Innovator of the Year” award this year (he didn’t get it, alas), because I believe the man has more or less reinvented the old art of the negociant in a way uniquely suitable for the 21st century.

Negociants used to be central to business practice in Bordeaux. Indeed, as Eddie Penning-Rowsell says  in his masterpiece “The Wines of Bordeaux,” “the wines of Bordeaux owe so much to the merchants (negociants) and their enterprise, and they are so entwined in the history of Bordeaux’s growth and production as well as the sale of wine, that to give them…no more than the passing attention they have received so far would be inadequate as well as ungenerous.”

Such names as Barton, Jernon, Skinner, Nerac, Lawton and Guestier are part and parcel with the rise of Bordeaux in the 18th and 19th centuries. They bought the wine in cask from producers, blended it and sold it on the market, at a time when the chateaux had not the ability to do so. To be sure, the negociants were not always trusted. Thomas Jefferson warned a friend not to buy from negociants: “I can assure you that it is from them [i.e., the chateaux] alone that genuine wine is to be got, and not from any winemerchant.”

In the 20th century, of course, the Bordeaux negociants lost their primacy, as chateaux developed estate bottling and rising prices enabled them to market their wines directly. The concept of the negociant, by contrast, never really caught on in California (unless you can call something like Gallo a negociant, which I would not). This is why Cameron Hughes is so important.

Not that he was the first. Don Sebastiani first brought the modern concept to my attention in a major way when he established Don Sebastiani & Sons, which did win Wine Enthusiast’s 2005 Wine Star Award for Best American Winery of the Year, on my nomination. But Cameron Hughes has expanded beyond anything Don Sebastiani & Sons envisioned, becoming a worldwide presence. The Recession may have been disastrous to high-end wineries, but it’s proved a boon to Cameron, who profits from Bad Times. He’s able to pick up superpremium wine at discount prices, bottle it under his brand with his now-famous Lot numbers, and give the consumer some of the best values out there.

Not everything Cameron touches is gold. A 2009 Meritage, with a Napa County label, even at $10 was barely drinkable, while a 2010 Field Blend, $11, was rustic and brusque. Perhaps this is solely a function of their prices, for above $15 or so, a Cameron Hughes wine is as near a guarantee of quality as you’re likely to find in a California wine. I don’t have the time or patience to count all the Best Buys and Editor’s Choices I’ve given them over the years.

Will the recovering economy hurt negociants like Cameron Hughes? Probably. When I asked him where his Napa Cabernets came from (the agreements are strictly proprietary), he replied, “If you drive Highway 29 between Yountville and Rutherford, you’ll see.” These are precisely the wineries that were caught in the wringer by the Recession; buying on the cheap must have been as easy for Cameron as shooting fish in a barrel. But we have every reason to suspect the economy is recovering, and as it does, these wineries should be able to return to their normal $40-$60 a bottle price point. It will be interesting to see how Cameron Hughes deals with Good Times as well as Bad Times.


Things to be thankful for: California wine keeps getting better

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Every once in a while I like to play around in Wine Enthusiast’s database and check out the trending of my scores. In years past, my highest ones have gone overwhelmingly to Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux blends, almost exclusively from Napa Valley. But since last Jan. 1, my 15 highest scores have been given to a Merlot, four Pinot Noirs, a sparkling blend, a red blend of Cabernet and Syrah, three Chardonnays, four Cabernet Sauvignons and, at a perfect 100 points, a Bordeaux blend. (You can check out the magazine’s free searchable database to see the specific wines.)

It’s remarkable for such a range of varieties and types to be among my best scorers, particularly if you consider that there are a couple Syrahs not far behind. I don’t think Merlot, sparkling wine or Syrah would have scored so highly five years ago, or even Chardonnay, for that matter. I’m a fan of Chardonnay, especially the big, buttery, oaky ones, but I also recognize that whatever such wines possess in sheer razzle-dazzle, they tend to lose in subtle complexity. That limits their score.

So why are my highest-scoring wines so much more broadly based than they used to be? There are probably multiple explanations, but my guess would be vintage. Most of my top-rated wines this year have been from the 2009 and 2010 vintages, both of them cool years that resulted in wines of lower alcohol, greater clarity and elegance, and more overall balance. (And soon to come, the remarkable 2011s, followed by the much-hyped and possibly stupendous 2012s.)

Elegance and balance: those are two descriptors that are hard to define, but make all the difference in the world. Any wine can be ripe, especially from sunny California. Any wine can be oaky. Any wine can have its natural acidity adjusted, if need be, or have its tannins refined. California leads the world in the production of well-made, clean, properly varietal table wines filled with sunlight and fruit. But these are wines that score in the mid- to high 80s, maybe 90 or 91–in other words, good, but not great. What makes a wine superlative are elegance and balance; and for those, you really need, not just a good vineyard or vineyards, but for the weather to cooperate.

If you’re the winery, you also need, I suppose, money–cash to invest in the most finicky vineyard techniques, equipment, sorting and barrels, costs that are passed onto the customer. These top wines are not inexpensive. They range in price from $44 (for one of the Chardonnays) to $450; six are in triple digits.

This increase in quality as well as price over the years can be explained simply: California wine has come of age. We’re no longer the scrappy “boutique” upstart in the world of wine. California is a fully matured wine region, “New World” in only the geographic sense. Where, in the 1970s, the possibilities were endless, and California “style” was something no one quite knew how to define, today the horizon has shrunk. We can sense a limit to the possibilities (although, within that limit, there is endless range to explore). As for a California style, well, we know what that is: fruit. There’s no getting around it, so people might as well stop complaining and apologizing. The trick is to have fruit along with balance and elegance. What more could anyone ask for?

Happy Thanksgiving! Back on Monday morning.


Tasting old whites from Stony Hill, plus a new red

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The conversation of whether California Chardonnays or Rieslings age or don’t age rarely happens, and for good reason: few do, and most people don’t care about aging white wines the way they do with reds. Of course, it all depends on what you mean by “age.” Most any wine will last for a while before becoming utterly undrinkable, whatever that means. By “aging” we mean to indicate several qualities about a wine: that it becomes better (again, whatever that means) – that it becomes more interesting (but this is in the eye of the beholder) – that the connoisseur will appreciate it whereas a novice might not (but we have to be careful with such descriptors) – that it is worthy of respect to still be clean and drinkable at a great age – that it has transcended its fruity origins (primary) and achieved secondary or tertiary characteristics.

That long opening paragraph is meant to indicate some of the problems or issues involving older wines. Tasting an old wine that is, by some sort of common critical consensus, “properly aged” is not a simple matter, cut-and-dried, like determining whether or not milk is fresh or spoiled.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I can tell you about a tasting yesterday at RN74 in San Francisco of some wines from the famous Stony Hill Vineyard. In case you don’t know, Stony Hill is one of California’s and certainly one of Napa Valley’s oldest, continually-operated wineries, run by the founding family–in this case, the McCreas. Fred and Eleanor bought their property high up on Spring Mountain in 1943, and nine years later, in 1952, they produced their first vintage of Chardonnay. Riesling subsequently followed, and, in 2009, they made their first-ever Cabernet Sauvignon, released just a month or so ago.

(Trivia segue: Only three wineries in Napa Valley that were in business in 1952 are still owned and operated by the same families today: Stony Hill, Charles Krug [by the Peter Mondavi family] and–who’s the third? Guess. The answer is at the end of this post. First to get it right gets a free lifetime subscription to steveheimoff.com.)

Anyway, here are my notes. I’m not scoring the wines because in my judgment it’s harder to rate old white wines like these than younger ones since the perception of them is so varied. Besides, I obviously tasted them openly and that is not my usual tasting procedure.

2010 Chardonnay: Classic Stony Hill style, dry, minerally and citrusy, with little apparent oak. (The alcohol on all the Chardonnays is in the 13% range, give or take a little.)

2006 Chardonnay: Shy at first, then lemon verbena and mineral notes. Drying out a little. Somewhere between fresh and aged, indeterminate. Something mushroomy suggests wild mushroom risotto.

2001 Chardonnay: Spectacular. Roasted honey, dried lime, minerals, salt. Fruit fading into the background. Interesting and nuanced.

1997 Chardonnay: So clean and inviting. Really stands out. Honey, sweet cream, Meyer lemons, vanilla. Obviously no longer young, but fresh, tangy, vibrant.

1994 Chardonnay: Clearly an old Chard, but no trace of corruption. Nuts, sherry-like oxidation, dried fruits and honey. So dry, with mouthwatering acidity.

1982 Chardonnay: Botrytis shows in the sweetness. Impressive for 30 years in the bottle, but for me the sweetness is off-putting.

1978 Chardonnay: A touch of corkiness? Or just getting old? Whatever, it’s dry, creamy and nutty, with Meyer lemons, minerals and pears. Perfectly fine and complex. 38  years old and still kicking!

1992 White Riesling: At 20 years, such a wonderful wine. Off-dry, honeyed, brilliantly crisp, offering ripe orange blossom, green apple and mango flavors. Has at least 10 more years ahead.

1988 White Riesling: Has picked up an old gold color. Very pure aromas. Old, filled with tertiary notes, not for everyone. Dry, delicate, brittle, sweet toffee, grapefruit, lemon zest, salty. Some oxidation, like a manzanilla sherry.

2009 Cabernet Sauvignon: Their first Cab ever. Made in an old style: 13.5% alcohol, tight, tannic, bone dry, earthy, with sour red cherry and red currant fruit. Fans of ripe, opulent, high alcohol Cabs might not like it. Will age for many decades. I would love to taste this wine in 2029 and maybe I will.

Answer to trivia segue: Nichelini.


Aussies want to raise taxes on wine

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The classic way the government tries to regulate alcoholic beverage consumption is through so-called “sin taxes” that raise the price of booze, thus making it harder to people–especially poor people–to drink.

Our own U.S. government does it, and so do state governments. The federal and state governments collectively generated $5.8 billion dollars in alcohol beverage rax revenues in 2009, according to the Tax Policy Center of the Brookings Institution,

That’s the price consumers pay. Wineries in addition pay a tax to the Treasury Department, depending on the alcohol content of their wine: for example, $1.57 per gallon on wines between 14%-21%.

There are few people out there, I think, who would say that no taxes at all should be raised on alcoholic beverages (maybe a few extreme libertarians or Tea Party types). The question that has plagued our government for many years is exactly where to draw the line. How much tax is too much tax?

Years ago, in the early 1990s, there were a series of measures to raise taxes on wine in California. These were largely sponsored by a loose collection of individuals and organizations  commonly referred to as “neo-prohibitionists.” Those efforts were opposed most strenuously by the Wine Institute, the San Francisco-based trade group then under the leadership of John De Luca. I don’t know who came up with the term “neo-prohibitionists,” but it was brilliant marketing, as it made the pro-tax side look like a bunch of tight-ass teatotalers led by Carrie Nation-type angry non-drinkers who hated fun, sex and dancing. Needless to say, nothing came of these tax-boosting efforts, and I can’t recall any similar threat so far in the 21st century.

Well, not here in the U.S., anyway. But Down Under, it’s a different story.  The Australian National Preventative Health Agency, an official part of the government, is set to propose “that a ‘floor price’ and new taxes be calculated as a way to make alcohol dearer,” according to news.com.au.

And the tax hike would not be a modest one. “The cheapest wine would cost $8.40 for a bottle of white or $9.60 for a red.” (The U.S. and Aussie dollars are pretty much equal in value.)

The Australian Medical Association is pushing the pro-tax plan, while the country’s hotels, retailers and wine industry trade groups are fighting back. It’s a Battle Royale and the outcome isn’t clear.

I obviously hope this tax hike doesn’t go through. Prohibitionist schemes, whether for recreational drugs or alcoholic beverages, never work. Look at this country’s own sorry experience with Prohibition in the 1920s, which gave rise to organized crime’s lucrative choke hold on booze, or to today’s strictures against marijuana, which have turned Mexico into a narco-state whose violence routinely spills over the border into our own country.

Much better, in the case of alcoholic beverages, to teach young people to drink responsibly, at the table with food and companionable company. But I guess that’s asking too much in a country whose culture still has a streak of puritanism running through it.


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