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Live from New York: Cabernet, and the changing nature of wine journalism

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When you read this, I’ll be in New York, at Wine Enthusias headquarters, where we’re gathered to plan out the 2014 editorial calendar of the magazine and website.

No easy task, that. There are only so many pages in the print edition; story ideas (“pitches,” in the weird jargon of journalism) vie with each other for space, in a Darwinian struggle that sees some of them triumph as cover stories, while others die an inglorious death (often to be repitched and hopefully resurrected at a later date).

Next year will be my 25th as a published wine writer. I started in 1989 (very much against the odds) at Wine Spectator, when it was still published out of San Francisco, from their old offices on Van Ness Avenue, near the Opera House and Symphony (but before Hayes Valley was hot; back then it was ho’s and drug dealers). I was determined to make a living as a wine writer–which would be pretty audacious today, but wasn’t then; while there were far fewer venues for which to write (and no Internet!), there also were far fewer people who wanted to be wine writers, so there was practically no competition. Still, I doubt that I would have succeeded had I lived in, say, the Midwest, or even in the San Joaquin Valley. It was proximity to San Francisco (I’d moved to Oakland in 1987) that afforded me the opportunity to hang out the Spectator’s staff, and to hand-deliver (yes, in those pre-email days) my hard copy, which entailed a BART trip of six stops (to Civic Center, then a five-minute walk to Van Ness).

The method of transmitting articles these days certainly has changed, from taking the subway to clicking the “send” button on my email. So, too, has the format of articles changed. We used to write long articles (3,000-plus words) on individual wineries; among my first assignments were Eberle, down in Paso Robles, Calera, in the Pinnacles, and Flora Springs, in Rutherford. And even those were short, compared to the example of a 7,000-word article my friend, the late wine writer, Steve Pitcher, wrote for Wine News on California Sauvignon Blanc!

Nowadays, few wine magazines would devote that much space to a single winery or variety. Twelve-hundred words is about tops, broken down into breakout boxes for easier digestion. The Internet (some would say MTV, some would say People magazine) has caused readers’ attention span to shrink; the conventional wisdom among publishers is that no one will read a long article anymore. I’m not convinced that’s true, provided that the article is compellingly written. But there is for sure a fine line between a boring, hard-to-read long article and a scintillating one, the latter being rare; and perhaps publishers, not being quite sure of the talents of their hired writers, prefer not to risk boring readers. Yet too often the short form fails to inspire or educate. This loss of long-form wine journalism ought to worry lovers of wine.

Here are a few things I’m going to be watching carefully in 2014:

–       the 2011 vintage. I’m lowering my expectations of it. The initial hype was, “Great, a cool vintage will result in balanced wines.” But my experience so far is of a lot of unripe wines, and some botrytis problems too. Pinot Noir has suffered, particularly from the coolest places, like the northern Santa Lucia Highlands. Some Grenache and Chardonnay has been iffy. As for Cabernet, well, no important ’11 Cabs have come out yet, so I’ll be waiting for those.

–       The continuing evolution of California cult wines. Have they recovered from the Recession? Will they still be in demand as an older generation fades from the scene? Can the marketplace handle 200 Napa Valley Cabs (my estimate) that all cost more than $100? Will younger consumers who currently spurn these wines eventually covet them, as their salaries increase over time? Or will History look back at the period 1990-2010 as a bubble for cult wines? Stay tuned.

–       And, of course, I’ll always be on the lookout for younger, interesting winemakers who are trying to do new things. If you’re one of them, talk to me.

I will try to post regularly from New York, but with round the clock meetings, it’s hard. Bear with me.


Napa Valley succession in good hands

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This opinion piece by the president of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, Jon Ruel, is eloquent and inspiring, and gives a spacious perspective on many important things to consider, on this July 4th holiday weekend.

I heartily endorse everything Ruel (who also is COO of Trefethen) says. Each of the ideals he sets out will take determination and diligent intelligence to achieve, but there’s no doubt that, if any grapegrowers group in the world can succeed at such admirable goals, it’s Napa Valley’s.

Here’s the one statement I want to weigh in on:

Succession is another important topic. Many of the local figures who helped shape the success of the Napa Valley over the past 45 years are now retiring. Who will succeed them and maintain the vision? Similarly, we will see succession in our customer base as the baby boomers move on. Can we engage future generations of consumers with our story and our wines?

This is something I’ve thought about for many years. Robert Mondavi no longer is with us; no one has managed to flll such gigantic shoes, and in all likelihood, no one ever will. Still, there’s little evidence that since his 2008 passing, Napa has suffered from an absence of leadership. Perhaps Robert Mondavi’s greatest achievement was that he set the ship of Napa Valley asail and, once free and steered by the trades upon the open sea, it no longer requires anyone to command it.

No shadow, then, is as long as Robert Mondavi’s, but Napa Valley has leaders. I think of proprietors like Bill Harlan, who sees things generationally not quarterly, or the Staglins, who put their money where the mouths are. I think of people who believed early in Napa, like Bernard Portet at Clos du Val, Christian Moueix at Dominus, the Trefethen and Chappellet families and so many others, too numerous to list. I think particularly of that younger generation coming along to “engage future generations.” Among them are Robert Mondavi’s grandchildren and also those of his brother, Peter Mondavi, Sr., at Charles Krug, kids who bear the weight and responsibility of their famous names with dignity and good cheer. Others with less famous names populate the valley; some are mere cellar rats at this point but will go on to become celebrated winemakers in their own right.

Napa Valley has no succession problems. Ruel need not worry. The valley is in good hands.


How bad is California’s drought?

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If you live in California, you know what happened this winter and spring.

In December, it rained, and rained, and rained or, if you were in the mountains, snowed and snowed. In parts of the Sierra Nevada, December, 2012 was the second snowiest ever measured.

It was reassuring news to a state that gets most of its water from snowmelt–especially after the parched December of 2011, when the snowpack was only 14% of average.

But a funny thing happened as soon as 2012 turned into 2013. The rain stopped. Seriously stopped. January and February were the driest months ever recorded in California. March brought a little rain, but not enough to help. Last week, the government released its “drought monitor”, which declared that most of Central and Southern California is suffering from “severe” drought, while the north is experiencing moderate drought.

Moreover, the National Weather Service is predicting “Persistent” drought throughout all of California (and most of the West).

Just this past week, the California Department of Water Resources published, on their website, a drought statement that begins with this alarming statement: “It’s official. The 2013 January-May period is the driest on record (since 1920) for all regions of the Sierra.”

The arid conditions already are beginning to threaten vines. San Luis Obispo County (including Paso Robles) “face[s] spending hundreds of millions of dollars for new water sourcesleaving the area even more short of water at a time when vineyards are planting as many as 8,000 new acres of wine grapes.”

In the North Coast, Sonoma County has been under an official federal “disaster declaration for drought” since January, 2012,

Grapes being the thirsty plants they are, California growers are having to look at their options, including more efficient use of existing water sources. Those who dry farm–a minority–are on safer ground than those who depend on irrigation. California’s senior Senator, Dianne Feinstein, just two days ago, noting “how bone dry the state is so early in the summer season,” called for “[e]xpanding and improving California’s water storage capacity”; if that is not done, she predicted, “California is at risk of becoming a desert state.”

Water shortages are nothing new for California, but they seem to be happening more frequently; and with vineyard acreage expanding, water–or, more precisely, the lack of it–could emerge to be the biggest problem the wine industry faces.


Aromatic whites, including Albariño, come of age

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Albarino is one of those grape varieties nobody in California thought too much of, like Pinot Gris and Gruner Veltliner, until comparatively recently.

Why should they have? California vintners fell into two categories in the modern era: those who wanted to sell commodity wines to lots of average consumers, and those who wanted to create prestige brands along the lines of Bordeaux chateaux or Burgundy domains. Either way, that meant producing those old familiar varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. If variety for variety’s sake was desired, the vintner could always throw in a little Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel or something Rhônish.

But something in the California psyche started shifting around the year 2000. I haven’t read much about what instigated this shift, which saw the beginnings of the emergence of what are usually called aromatic whites. There had long been plantings of Riesling and Gewurztraminer in California, but suddenly, one started hearing about Pinot Gris/Grigio, Viognier, Albarino, Gruner, Torrontes and others. Whaf the wines had in common were low to moderate alcohol, keen acidity, bright floral, citrus or green notes and, perhaps most importantly, little or no oak influence to mask the fruit.

What instigated this shift is hard to tell. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. Grape growers are very conservative when it comes to planting; they’re not going to stick anything in the ground they don’t think they can sell. So it didn’t come from the growers. But growers are sensitive to signs around them, and the more acute of them, who have their fingers in the wind all the time to detect changing consumer preferences, know what’s happening before most of the rest of us. Maybe they have a good network of restaurateurs and distributors to keep them abreast of what’s happening out there. Maybe they watch the critics, to see what new variety is being touted. Maybe the appeal for fresh, vibrant white wines really did start among consumers, and then traveled from the ground up. Who knows?

At any rate, it wasn’t until 2003 that I reviewed my first Albarino for Wine Enthusiast, a late date. It was a 2002 from the Lodi winery, Bokisch. It was pretty good; I scored it 88 points and, at $16 in price, it was worthy of an Editor’s Choice special designation. But I can’t say it knocked my sox off.

The first 90 point Albarino I reviewed was the 2004 Havens. It represented a big step above the Bokisch, in terms of utter dryness, light alcohol and a flintiness that was like a lick of cold stone. It put the idea in my mind that Carneros, and cool climates in general, were what Albarino likes.

Since then, the 90 point or higher Albarinos haven’t exactly flooded my doorstep, but they are coming in with greater frequency. Three producers now stand out as the most dependable: Marimar Torres, Longoria and Tangent. Each takes a different approach, but what all have in common is a cool growing region: respectively, the Green Valley of the Russian River, the Santa Ynez Valley and the Edna Valley. I’ve also been impressed lately by Kenneth Volk’s 2011 Albarino from the Santa Maria Valley, a little more-full-bodied than the others, but still Albarino-ey.

This new penchant among consumers for light, aromatic white wines is a very good thing, and I suspect it’s being driven by younger wine drinkers. It takes a certain amount of courage for a diner to request a wine type he’s unfamiliar with and may not even be able to pronounce, even if the sommelier recommends it. My friends who are floor staff confirm that it is indeed younger people who are drinking these aromatic whites, including Albarino, which pairs so well with today’s fresh, ethnic, pan-Asian fare and tapas-style small plates.

Acreage of Albarino is up sharply, although it’s still miniscule compared to other white varieties: a total of 176 acres in 2011. But 72 acres of that were non-bearing, meaning they’d been planted in 2009 or 2010; and I suspect that when the 2012 Grape Acreage Report comes out, we’ll see even higher numbers. Critics have long lamented that Americans are not drinking adventurously, creatively and experimentally. But I think that trope can now be laid to rest.


Monday Meanderings: crop loads, Chinese wine and a student wine club

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It’s so interesting that the production of wine around the world fell to its lowest level in 37 years in 2012, due to dismal crops in France, Spain and Argentina. Contrast that with the all-time high, record grape crush last year in California, and it looks like good news for Golden State vintners who export their wines. But will it lead to spot shortages here in the U.S.?

* * *

I’ve never tasted a Chinese wine. In fact, I wouldn’t even know where to buy one. I do a fair amount of shopping in Oakland’s Chinatown, but the only wines I see there are from the big California producers. But if I could try a Chinese wine, it would be Chateau Changyu. If it’s good enough for Berry Bros. & Rudd to sell it in London, then it must be pretty decent. The [British] Telegraph reports that the venerable British shop–314 years young–is “the first major British retailer to give tipples from [China] a permanent place on its shelves.”

I don’t know if Chateau Changyu is the same as the “Chateau Changyu-Castel” that Susan Kostrzewa, now Wine Enthusiast’s Executive Editor, reviewed back in 2007. She tasted 3 wines–a Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Gernischt–and gave them pretty mediocre scores. Maybe things have improved since then. We may be hearing more about this Chateau Changyu. It’s “the 10th largest winery in the world,” according to the winery’s website, and also is the 79th biggest company in the People’s Republic. If anybody wants to send me some samples, I’ll gladly accept them.

* * *

I’m going to be doing my annual wine tasting and educational seminar at the University of California Haas School of Business in a few weeks. They have a student wine club that has about 65 members. These kids are smart and curious and always ask great questions, which is why I like to go. This year, the club’s president told me the MBA candidates are really curious about how I view my job as a wine critic. Their other speakers this year have all been winemakers; as the president emailed me,

…there were two different schools of thought [among the winemakers], one positive and one negative. Some winery owners/ winemakers felt that critics have undue power. They brought up the “Parker-ization of wine”(and said they disliked it) and one of the wineries said they intentionally refuse to submit their wine to critics.  Another group said that critics play an important role because there is so much wine out there, it helps the public make educated purchases. This led to a discussion on what one should buy and brought up the question: “is it okay to buy bad wine if you like it?

These are issues of longstanding commentary here at steveheimoff.com, and I think most of my readers know where I stand. However, it’s important to keep in mind that a new generation mostly in their twenties hasn’t really digested the role and importance of critics, and has real questions about what we do, and about how they should behave with respect to us. Are we dinosaurs in the Age of Twitter, or are we experts worth heeding? I look forward to enlightening them on these points. As for “is it okay to buy bad wine if you like it?”, Wow. Where to begin? That could be the topic of an entire class.


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.

 


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