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Happy 40th Judgment of Paris! But you had a downside

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This year, 2016, marks the 40th anniversary of the Judgment of Paris, which was one of the most important events in the history of the wine industry.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’re tuned into history, so I will recapitulate only an abbreviated version. Before 1976 California wines were widely perceived as who-cares? After the Judgment, they were launched onto the world stage. That’s the kind of paradigm shift Thomas Kuhn would have loved.

The paradigm did not change overnight. Even by the early 1990s the French still were largely dismissive of California wine. They heard, or thought and feared they heard, footsteps coming up behind them that threatened their world supremecy in wine; but they told themselves, and everyone else who would listen, that, no, California was nothing to be feared, because (as the head of the INAO said in 1989 and I was there so I heard him) “Caifornia can steal our grape varieties. They can steal our techniques. But they cannot steal our terroir.”

California responded with, Hey, guess what? We don’t need your terroir, we got our own, thank you.

However great the Judgment of Paris was for California wine, it did have a downside: Americans learned, or thought they learned, that the only wines they ought to like were Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Those two varieties are of course immensely important and there’s a reason they’re both considered noble varieties; but they hardly exploit the entire range of varieties California could grow well. We can in fact grow anything well here. Without the Judgment of Paris, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Trebbiano, Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Tempranillo, and who knows what else might have had a tail wind that sent it soaring. Instead, everybody concentrated on Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. The rise of Pinot Noir was an exception: but it received its own boost in the media, in the form of Sideways.

The Naples Daily News just ran a story about the Judgment of Paris, and asked, in their opening sentence, the interesting question, “What if there had never been a Judgment of Paris?” That’s the kind of conjectural thinking I like, so I read the article, but was enormously disappointed that the author never answered her own inquiry. Why ask it if you’re not going to have some fun speculating? My take is that other grape varieties would have had a greater opportunity to show what they could do. Instead, California went chocolate-and-vanilla (with, as I said, Pinot playing the spoiler of strawberry). Whether that’s good or bad, I’m not prepared to say. But if you’re playing the “what if” game, you have to wonder how things would have turned out if, say, the boutique wineries of the 1970s and 1980s had decided to turn their attentions to varieties other than Chard and Cab. Some tried: Sangiovese had its moment in the sun. But by then, the die was cast: Americans wanted only Cabernet and Chardonnay. The marketing and sales people took over; production had to listen to them, and we are where we are.

Have a great weekend!


Pinot Gris gains at Chardonnay’s expense

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We all know that Chardonnay is the leading wine grape in California, in terms of both acreage and sales, right? So tell me, did planted acreage go up or down last year?

Answer: Down. After hitting an all-time high of 94,854 acres in 2013, acreage dropped to 94,279 in 2014, a reduction of 575 acres. That’s not very much, but it’s a reduction nonetheless, and calls for further analysis. So let’s turn to individual coastal counties—Chardonnay’s premium home—for a closer look.

The two counties with the highest concentrations of Chardonnay grapes, Monterey and Sonomoa, together accounted for about half of the total loss: 226 acres between the two of them. Throw in Mendocino, Napa and Santa Barbara—all down—and it adds up to almost the entire statewide loss. So why are these prime coastal counties retreating from Chardonnay?

Well, grape growers are in the unique position of having to understand where the market is going five, ten years down the road. Growers don’t like surprises: they were caught with their pants down when Moscato unaccountably exploded, and they had to rush to catch up. (In 2007, there were only 101 acres planted statewide of the leading forms of Moscato: Moscato Gaillo, Muscat Blanc, Muscat of Alexandria and Muscat Orange. By 2014, there were 8,414 acres, an increase of more than 8,000 percent.) Many must be the conversations around growers’ tables concerning what consumers will be drinking in the year 2020; we have to conclude, given the reduction of coastal Chardonnay, however slight, that the conclusion is that people will be drinking less Chardonnay.

And more of…what? Well, presuming that they will still want white wine, what could it be? Statewide planted acreage of Sauvignon Blanc also was down this year from last year, suggesting growers don’t particularly believe in its future. Pinot Gris, on the other hand, was up—way up in acreage, 9.1% last year, and a whopping 80% more than in 2006. If Pinot Gris was on the futures market, someone would have made a bundle had they bet on it nine years ago.

Pinot Gris now is the third most widely-planted major white wine variety in California, behind only Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc (not counting the inferior French Columbard, a staple of jug wines), and is only 1,701 acres behind Sauv Blanc; at the current rate, Pinot Gris will actually surpass Sauvignon Blanc in a few years. Of its statewide total of 15,009 acres, 1,930 acres, or about 7.8%, are non-bearing—that is, they’ve been planted but are too young to bear fruit. That represents a hopeful belief on growers’ part.

But wait, there’s more. Where are these growers planting all that Pinot Gris? On the coast, where it makes the best wine? Nope. In the interior valleys, Sacramento and San Joaquin, which account for 1,866 acres of those 1,930 acres of non-bearing grapes. I believe that we’re going to be seeing an increasing amount of inexpensive California-appellation Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio on store shelves and in family-style restaurants in the coming years.

And why not? Since the Great Recession Americans have been more budget-minded than in many years. Even here in booming San Francisco, where the streets sometimes seem like they’re paved in gold, the San Francisco Chronicle reported yesterday on a “post-recession chill on holiday sales”; retailers “hope they can grow sales…in the low single-digits,” if, in fact, they can grow sales at all. The article quoted a retail expert: “There will be no surprise boost in spending [this holiday season]. Retailers are just grabbing market share at the expense of someone else.”

Simply put, consumers just don’t have as much money as they used to, a situation that may turn out to be the new normal for years to come. So, with Chardonnay averaging $860.00 per ton of grapes in California, and Pinot Gris averaging $580.30, it’s obvious wineries can sell a bottle of Pinot Gris a lot more cheaply than a bottle of Chardonnay. And that, in the new economy, makes all the difference.


Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay: a tasting

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I have to say the results were mixed in this latest tasting, which we did on Friday. All the wines were tasted blind. Several were stunning; most were delicious despite imperfections; a few were just average.

These hills and valleys, west of Buellton, are of course famous for running on an east-west orientation, allowing the cool maritime air to funnel in over the vineyards, so that, despite being at quite a southerly latitude—about the same as parts of Algeria and Tunisia—the climate is cool. The average water temperature in the Pacific in these parts is only in the low 60s, and the average high temperature in Lompoc, where the winds come from, in July is a measly 72 degrees, cooler even than in Burgundy.

The soils are variable: the appellation is not particularly large (30,720 acres), but spans two separate hill ranges and the valleys between them, making for differences in exposure and wind patterns, although it can be said that a fair amount of limestone makes the soils somewhat unique for California. This limestone can add a tang of minerality, especially to the white wines.

All of the wines were current releases, 2012s and 2013s. I bought most of them direct from the winery. The wines were poured about 90 minutes prior to the tasting, which enabled them to lose a bit of their chill, and breathe.

My top-scoring wine, at 96 points, was the Longoria 2013 Fe Ciega (13.5%, $50), a marvelous wine that only got better in the glass. So delicately structured, with such finesse, brilliant acidity, perfect integration of oak (only 18% new) and with bracing minerality. The vineyard of course is Richard Longoria’s own, located in the cooler, western end of the AVA. This is Richard’s first bottling of Fe Ciega Chardonnay, and what a stunning debut it is, an utterly captivating,  first-class Chardonnay.

Close on its heels—nipping, you might say—was the Liquid Farm 2013 “Four” (14.2%, $74). This is a blend of four vineyards (Rita’s Crown, Clos Pepe, Kessler-Haak and Radian) and is the winery’s most expensive Chardonnay. I gave it 94 points for its ripe flamboyance, chalky-minerally mouthfeel and superb peach, pineapple and nectarine fruit. “Very fine, dry, will age, “ I wrote.

Not far behind that was veteran Babcock, in the form of the 2013 “Top Cream” (14.5%, $45). At 93 points, it’s a big wine, flooded with apricots, pineapples, buttered toast and honey. All that volume could be a catastrophe, but Brian pulled this off with distinction. “Top Cream” refers to the layer of gravely loam in which the vines grow, although the wine itself is also creamy rich.

I also loved the Sanford 2012 Rinconada (14.5%, $45), which I gave 92 points. Although Richard Sanford long ago lost his eponymous winery, the fine Rinconada vineyard, which he planted in 1995 adjacent to the famous Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, in the southernmost hills of the appellation, continues to produce glorious wine. The perfume on this—pineapples, peaches, buttered toast, cinnamon—is alluring, while the wine itself turns citrusy and delicate, an “intellectual” Chardonnay, I wrote.

I liked the least expensive wine in our flight, the Kessler-Haak (14.6%, $29) enough to give it 91 points. It came immediately following the magnificent Longoria, and although made in a total different style—riper, bigger—it hardly suffered in comparison. Tiers of pear drop, white flowers, banana cream pie and butterscotch, and the complexity was fine.

After these five 90-plus wines we come to the 2012 Sandhi (12.8%, $36), low in alcohol as you’d expect, which I gave 89 points. I found myself lowering the score as the wine aired, because its initial impression, with a muted arom, lots of tart acidity and a certain thinness, never went away. In fact, since I had a “mystery” ringer in the flight, I wondered if this were the white Burgundy I’d snuck in. I settled on 89 points because it was elegant and “a food wine,” but it was really outclassed in richness by some of the other wines.

Just one point below the Sandhi, at 88 points, was the Bonaccorsi 2013 Melville (12.8%, $40). I liked it quite a bit, finding it “brimming with honey, tropical fruits, smoke and buttered toast,” but there was some peach-pit bitterness throughout that lowered the score.

Then we come to an 87 pointer. Sanguis is a label I’ve been acquainted with since meeting Matthias Pippig years ago. The wines seem somewhat modeled after Sine Qua Non. The reds can be spectacular, the whites exotic. This 2012 “Loner” (13.8%, $60) is 100% Bien Nacido Chardonnay, which means it is NOT Santa Rita Hills, but Santa Maria Valley, an AVA that’s right next door, and with a similar climate. It was included in the tasting due to a miscommunication with the winery. The first thing I wrote on tasting was “Ripe, California style,” packed with guavas and pineapple jam. My score of 87 was a difficult one for me to settle on. At various points the wine seemed oxidized, maybe even bretty; then, a few moments later it recovered its poise, then lost it, then regained it. Sometimes you get a wine you just aren’t sure how to deal with. This was one of those.

At 86 points was my “mystery” wine, a 2011 Meursault from Pascal Marchand. The vintage was by all accounts a good one but I must say this wine did not please me. Perhaps it’s my California palate. From the get-go I found it oaky, and the acidity was, I wrote, “brutal, almost sour.”

Eighty-six points was the best I could do for the Brewer-Clifton 2013 Hapgood (14.7%, $70). It was a bit hot in alcohol, although it did offer a great big mouthful of pineapples, peaches, lemons and minerals. I had started off giving it a higher score, but as the wine warmed in the glass the alcohol really showed through. Parker loved this wine, by the way. He called the winery’s 2013s “a significant change in style,” being “more exuberant…and ripe,” but in my opinion, this change, if in fact it occurred, was not favorable.

We also had the Brewer-Clifton 2013 “3D” (14.0%, $75), at 86 points another disappointment, although Parker loved it too. I wrote “disjointed” as soon as I smelled it; another taster called it “hostile.” It just seemed harsh and over-oaked.

Also scoring 85 points was the 2012 Sea Smoke “Streamside” (14.9%, $90). After the first whiff I wrote “Ripe, fleshy, maybe some brett.” It had solid pineapple and grilled oak flavors, but there was “something off” that made it clumsy and let the oak show through. It had sort of a sweet-and-sour Chinese sauce flavor. I think the main problem was the alcohol level. I realize this is a shockingly low score for this wine. Most critics were kinder. But you have to go with your impressions, and in a blind comparative flight like this one, I trust mine.


Is Chardonnay “back”? No, because it never left. Plus, a comment on wine writing

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There long has been a lot of Sturm und Drang about an “anything but Chardonnay” movement, but it was all talk and no action. As usual, elite “gatekeepers” pronounced Chardonnay passé (and felt all the more elite for doing so); meanwhile, hundreds of millions of Americans, apparently not having gotten the memo, continued to love Chardonnay. It never “went” anywhere, so how can it “come back”?

Well, it has, according to this article, from the drinks business, that says “consumers are getting into [Chardonnay] all over again”—at least down in Australia, with “the Chinese” poised to “go wild” for it “in time.”

In this country, if grape growers thought that Chardonnay was a dying variety, they wouldn’t continue to grow it. While it’s true that, between the years 2004-2013, Chardonnay increased only very modestly in acreage in California, at least it increased (unlike Merlot and Zinfandel). It’s still the top-selling wine in this country, red or white. So can we please begin looking at Chardonnay for what it really is—a noble variety that’s being made better and better all the time, not as buttery, oaky and sweet as it used to be, but much more balanced? Take it from me: You don’t have to be ashamed for loving Chardonnay anymore, because—it’s baaak!

And speaking of Chardonnay, one of my faithful readers, who read this post from last week, sent in the following comment:

You mentioned that Boomers saw the cultural “wisdom” of their elders as prejudiced and outdated.

Many young wine drinkers see the wine “wisdom” of their elders as prejudiced and outdated.

Three examples:

  1.  The way establishment wine writers view the wines of “The Other 47 States.”
  2.  The Hegemony of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
  3.  The bias against pink wines as ‘not-serious.’

Well, let me address each of those. I suppose it is true that “establishment wine writers” view the wines of the other 47 states (presumably, California, Oregon and Washington being the exceptions) as in a lesser light. How could it be otherwise? California wine, in particular, has dominated the national scene (and the quality scene) for, like, forever! But I, myself, am acutely aware that I’ve never had the privilege of tasting wines from about 44 of the 50 states, so I would never presume to say they’re not as good as ours. But if you think about it, a wine writer has to make a living: and there are multiple reasons why the wines of other states get overlooked. One is it’s hard to get tasting samples. Another is it’s hard to find outlets to write about them (you can write an article but if a reputable magazine won’t publish it, what’s the point?). If I write an article on “Napa Valley Cult Cabernet” a lot of people are going to want to read it. If I write an article on “The Tempranillos of Tennessee,” I doubt if anyone would even click open the link. So you need an audience and, in the case of most U.S. wine, there just isn’t one for most of the wines of the other states except for places like OR, WA, NY, VA and a few others (although that is changing). Cold, hard fact.

The Hegemony of Cabernet and Chardonnay. Well, this is a true accusation, and it’s one I’ve bemoaned in the past. Still, the truth is the truth: These are America’s top varieties. The customer is never wrong. Cab and Chard also are two of the world’s “noble” varieties and while we can argue about what that means, one thing I think we can all agree on is that Cabernet (whether you like it or not) is one of the world’s greatest red wine grapes and wines, and Chardonnay (ditto) one of the greatest white grapes and wines. So, again, articles and reviews concerning Cab and Chard are simply of more inherent interest than they are for many other varieties.

The bias against pink wines. Look, pink wine—rosé—has had more favorable press in the media over the past few years than any other wine type! “Brosés” are all the rage; blush wine is everywhere! So you can’t say pink wine isn’t getting its fair share of publicity. Now, is pink wine “serious”? What do you mean by “serious”? It doesn’t fetch the price of luxury reds or whites, but then pink wine is often saignée wine, or made from younger or lesser quality grapes, so it’s not meant to be “serious.” What it is meant to be is seriously good and easy to drink and with the right foods, the best possible wine. So I’m not a rosé basher, and neither is any other reputable critic I know. Would the other critics give a rosé 99 or 100 points? Probably not. You can make a case they should, but if you were a critic using the 100-point system (or puffs, or stars, or letter grades, whatever) you probably wouldn’t give a rosé your highest rating, either. In wine reviewing, there have to be standards: wine is not like the children of Lake Wobegon, where they’re all above average. Some wines are average, some are below average, some are above average and some are way, way above average, “average” being an abstract quality tier that exists in the wine writer’s mind. Rosé in my experience is never “way, way above average.” I admit I haven’t reviewed a lot in my years (maybe 1,000 or so), but I can’t actually recall a single one that blew me away—the way I can for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, or various European wines.

Anyhow, it’s very easy to knock wine writers if you’re not one!


Is inexpensive wine better than expensive wine because more people buy it?

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I blogged the other day about price points in California Chardonnay, and how the best scores that inexpensive ones seem to be able to get is in the mid-80s, maybe the high 80s and, very occasionally, a 90 pointer. Then one of my readers sent in the following comment.

Just something to think about. If the biggest selling Chardonnay brands are rated in the 80’s and low volume $75 Chardonnay is rated in the 90’s maybe the critics are out of touch with what wine really should taste like. Maybe the biggest sellers deserve a higher score, they are after all 90+ point wines in the minds of those huge number of buyers.

This is a clever argument; one might even call it sophistic. It’s basically a version of “the customer is always right” or—in another era—“Forty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong.” It suggests that the fact that so many consumers love inexpensive Chardonnay means that inexpensive Chard is actually better than expensive Chard, or at least deserves a higher score.

Well, the obvious thing for me—a former wine critic—to say is, Nonsense. The millions of Americans who enjoy these inexpensive Chardonnays don’t have the experience we critics do. They [the consumers] don’t understand fine wine; they drink inexpensive stuff; like somebody dressing in clothes from Target, they think it’s high-end. (No disrespect to Target!) But as soon as I write those words I realize how wrong they are. It’s not that consumers prefer inexpensive wines to expensive ones, it’s that they can’t afford expensive wines, at least on an everyday basis. So it’s a little cray-cray to say “the biggest sellers deserve a higher score.” In fact, based on my experience, when I offer a “regular” consumer a high-quality expensive Chardonnay (or Cab, or Pinot, whatever), they invariably appreciate its Wow! factor, and understand that it’s better than their $10 bottle.

But before I entirely dismiss the reader’s comment, he did make a point worth considering, and that was “maybe the critics are out of touch with what wine really should taste like.” Well, what should wine “really taste like”? Darned if I know! I suppose there are critics out there who “know” what St. Joseph or Barolo or Napa Valley Cabernet “should taste like,” but what does that mean when people are breaking the rules all over the place? And why should anyone care if a critic says something doesn’t taste the way it should (or the way he thinks it should) if in fact it’s delicious? What this all comes down to is, Do we judge wines by popularity, or by critical consensus? I would think the latter, especially as the price ascends. But if you’ve been reading what I’ve been writing here for the last seven years, you know that there’s no such thing as “critical consensus,” so we’re really in the dark. If I were to write a third wine book (and I won’t), it would be on this precise topic: varietal character, typicity and quality.

Why, exactly, is one wine 87 and another 97? You readers—consumers—deserve an explanation. Is it enough to trust the critic? In what other areas of your life do you turn over your decision-making to third parties? Your 401(k) advisor? ROTFLOL.

What does this all mean? I have a feeling wine criticism and reviewing is changing in profound ways, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. “Through a glass darkly” and all that. It’s related to demographic changes in America, mostly among Millennials and the generation coming up behind them, who seem to be increasingly fractionalized, tribalized, peer-group-ized, and impervious to authority. I wish I had a crystal ball.


In California, how different from expensive Chardonnay is everyday Chardonnay?

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I did a little experiment yesterday. Went down to the local BevMo, got six inexpensive ($10-$15) current release Chardonnays and tasted them, blind, along with a far more expensive one, also blind: the $75 Liquid Farm “Four” Chardonnay from Sta. Rita Hills.

First, the Liquid Farm review: A very rich wine, with strong, inviting aromas of golden apricot jam, tropical fruits, tangerines, honey and buttered toast. There may be a touch of botrytis that adds to the opulence, but the finish is dry. Crisp acidity, nice minerality, creamy smooth, a balanced and complex wine with tremendous concentration. Score: 92.

Then we move onto the six inexpensive wines, which I will not identify except to say that all are among the biggest Chardonnay sellers in the country, as measured by IRI. They are familiar presences on supermarket shelves, so when it is said that Chardonnay is the top-selling wine in America, these are the brands that are helping to make it happen. (For the record, Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, which is by far the number one Chardonnay in the country, was not in my tasting.)

What I found in just about all of the inexpensive Chardonnays was that they were marked by excessive oak. Some of the wines weren’t particularly fruity—had possibly been overcropped, so that the actual wine itself had the aroma and flavor of water, or watered down fruit juice (although, oddly, some of the wines were overripe). But then, it also is commonly said that lots of Chardonnay drinkers believe that oaky, buttery, smoke and vanilla flavors come from the Chardonnay grape, and not the oak regimen (one hesitates to say “barrels,” for some of these wines may never have seen the inside of an actual oak barrel).

Then too, some of the wines seemed to have residual sugar. There is a vast difference between the honeyed richness of the Liquid Farm, which is opulent but not insipid, and the white-sugary sweetness of cheap Chardonnay—not that a little R.S. can’t help Chardonnay, but it has to be balanced. Crisp acidity can help to balance out residual sugar, but in most of the inexpensive wines the malolactic fermentation was dominant; the buttered popcorn smell and taste added to the impression of movie-theatre candy. There was one wine, from the Central Coast, that retails for $15 and that rose above the other five inexpensive Chards; I think the reason was because it comes from a very cool region and possessed a varietal purity that made it a particularly good deal. You can grow very fine Chardonnay in warmer places—Alexander Valley is a good example—but you have to limit your crop and pick the grapes at precisely the right moment. It’s far easier to grow it in a chilly place, in a good year with long hangtime, as our recent vintages have been.

In the end, Chardonnay, being a “noble” variety, can rise to its peak expectations only in the same way that other noble varieties can: through growing in the most exquisite terroir, limiting yields and being vinified in an exacting way. The inexpensive Chards in my tasting certainly represent a triumph of American viticulture and winemaking in the sense that millions of cases of them can be produced, vintage after vintage, in a way that is acceptable and even loved by millions of Americans, so that if I score them (as I mostly did) in the 85-86 point range, that is not an insult but a compliment, especially given the prices. But the Liquid Farm (a blend of four top Santa Rita Hills vineyards, hence the designation “Four”), which is a very typical 92-point Chardonnay, shows how the essential element of balanced concentration lifts a wine out of the mid-80s doldrums. Whether a 92-point California Chardonnay is worth $75 the bottle is, of course, an entirely different question.


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