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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.


Why Taylor Swift likes Moscato

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One of the most fascinating cultural aspects of wine in America is the attitude people have that it’s something elite, difficult to understand and not for the common person.

I have a lot of younger friends who share these attitudes. It’s not that they don’t like to drink; they do. They like beer and cocktails and will get rip roaring drunk on a Saturday night. But wine? Something about it just doesn’t interest them. I will, on occasion, treat them to a wine I think is very good: a rich Napa Cabernet, a sweet dessert wine, sparkling wine. They’ll happily drink it, and concede it’s pretty good–but they’ll never buy a bottle of wine for themselves or order a glass of wine in a restaurant or night club.

Call it the Elite Paradox: wine’s upscale image keeps “ordinary” people from liking it.

How we arrived at this situation is complex. I’ve written about it before–the elitest image predates modern American society, having been imported from Old Europe, and then was boosted by inept advertising following the Repeal of Prohibition that sought to tell war- and Depression-weary Americans they could better their lives with a glass of vino. The epitome of this was a T.V. commercial, back when I was young, showing a wedding couple on a little boat in on a pond, he in tuxedo, she in bridal white. They were toasting with a domestic champagne. The message was that you can drink on your wedding day, but no other time. Wine, in other words, was an aspirational product.

For a more modern peek at how this attitude survives, look no further than Taylor Swift. The Grammy award-winning country music star recently told Esquire magazine that “she drinks wine on occasion because, ‘It makes me feel classy.’”

Analyze that. Here’s a young woman with, let us presume, more money than you or I will make in our lifetime. She has the ability to go anywhere at anytime, in high style, stay at fabulous resorts, eat at the best restaurants, party at the most “in” clubs and buy anything she wants. Sounds pretty classy to me. And yet, give her a glass of wine, and she feels “classy”–exalted, stylish, more fashionable.

And not just any wine. “If it doesn’t taste like candy or sparkles, I usually don’t drink it,” she adds. Taylor Swift, in other words, is The Sparkling Moscato Girl, the poster child for why Moscato is the hottest wine in the country.

I’m not criticizing her or anyone else, I’m just observing. Now, on a related note, I read that “By the middle of the coming decade, there will be more jobs in New York City in hotels and restaurants than on Wall Street and in banks…”.

The Financial Center of the World now has decided to be the Lifestyle Capital of the World, as jobs in the financial sector fall and profits at Wall Street banks topple. (Let’s pass the hat…) Somehow Taylor Swift’s “classy” feeling about wine and the proliferation of restaurants in New York seem connected. I feel it viscerally but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

Here in the Bay Area we have a restaurant boom too. It’s amazing. San Francisco’s food gossip columnists can barely keep up. In my home town of Oakland there’s been such an explosion of restaurants and bars in my neighborhood, they’ve had to give it its own name: Uptown. San Francisco also is enjoying a brand new tech bubble, mostly built on apps, and centered South of Market (SOMA), near AT&T Park, surely the hottest neighborhood in town. (Well, maybe the Mission is. But SOMA and The Mission are really one big connected neighborhood.) I think in the future historians will look back at this era–roughly defined as starting with the Great Recession and ending when?–as a Golden Age of eating and drinking, with young people (like Taylor Swift) spending whatever money they make enjoying themselves at night. Why not? They have no idea if they’ll be alive in 5 years. They’re young and good-looking now, so they might as well get their kicks while they can. From the clubs in my hood, across the Bay Bridge to the joints around North Beach and the Financial District, through SOMA and over to the Mission and on up into the Castro, they’re partying like it’s 2099. I like to think our young people like wine more than Taylor Swift does, but I could be wrong. One thing’s for sure: they like their Moscato and their sweet infused cocktails. And so, for that matter, do I.


No surprise that China is embracing California wine

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After all those stories from a few years ago about Chinese millionaires mixing Coca Cola into their Lafite, I figured it was just a matter of time before the Chinese discovered California wine, as Bloomberg is reporting.

Why would the Chinese do something so apparently preposterous as pouring cheap soda into one of the most expensive wines on earth? The initial supposition was that the Chinese were just too heathen or unsophisticated to drink Lafite neat, but I think that explanation was insulting and disingenuous to a culture far older than our own (Western) one. They were putting Coke into their Lafite for an obvious reason: to sweeten it! By itself, the Lafite was just too dry to the Chinese palate, which by and large likes its foods slightly sweet.

The Chinese began their fascination with French wines when they started getting rich. French wines were the most famous and prestigious in China, so all the new millionaires (yuannaires?) turned to France to show off their new wealth, the same way they bought Gucci and Pucci and whatever-ucci. But guess what? The found they didn’t like their French wines because they were too dry and austere for their tastes. Funny how that works: you think you’re supposed to like something but when you finally experience it, you don’t. Hence, the decision to blend with Coca Cola made perfect sense. And Americans have no right to snicker at the Chinese for being rubes. After all, we are now a nation that worships mixologists, for whom straight vodka no longer suffices: no, we have to gaga it up with Triple Sec, sour apple pucker, heavy cream and a splash of Sprite. Calling all tiny umbrellas: report to the martini glass.

The Bloomberg article says the Chinese are now falling in love with “mid-priced, boutique quality California wine.” But it also warns that China’s wine market is “rapidly changing,” which means there’s opportunity, but also risk, for everyone. In a land rush, you want to be the first to arrive at the best place; then you have to make sure someone else doesn’t poach it from you lest you return home to the mother country, empty-handed. I suppose that wineries that started exploring the Chinese market decades ago, like Wente (everybody thought they were crazy back then: crazy like a fox) are now enjoying the fruits of their labors. But the Chinese really are ignorant about California, and I mean that not insultingly, but just in the literal sense that they don’t know much about it. The Bloomberg article says the members of a private club in Shanghai, invited to an exclusive wine tasting, “had never heard of Mendocino.” Okay, maybe Mendocino isn’t as famous as Los Angeles, San Francisco or Disneyland, but this does suggest how much education is required to make it in China. If they haven’t heard of Mendocino, chances are they haven’t heard of Monterey, Sonoma or Santa Barbara And Lodi? Fageddabboutit.

It’s very exciting, actually, that Wine Enthusiast now has a Mandarin edition specifically for the Chinese market, making it–I believe–the first American wine magazine to go there. Wine publications have a very important role in educating the Chinese public, and American wine magazines in particular have that obligation and also that opportunity. Yao Ming’s success in Napa Valley will acquaint the Chinese with Napa, or reinforce their existing perception of it, if they have one. But much work remains to be done to let the Chinese know that California wines from all regions and varieties are much to their palates’ tastes: smooth, complex, a little sweet, spicy and, above all, filled with umami (for the most part).


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