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Chardonnay Symposium winners tell a story

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Looking at the medal winners from the International Chardonnay Symposium, I’m struck by the geographic diversity of origins of the top-ranked California Chards. They range from Napa Valley down to the Santa Maria Valley, with Paso Robles, the Santa Lucia Highlands, Livermore Valley, Arroyo Seco, Sonoma Valley and the Russian River Valley inbetween. (I personally think you’d have to add Anderson Valley to the mix, although no Chardonnays from there were listed among the winners. Maybe there were no entrants.)

So from Mendocino to Santa Barbara for California’s best Chardonnays. That’s a big spread, about 375 miles. In France, we tend to think of the best Chardonnays as coming from a relatively narrow spread: Chablis down to Macon.* That’s a north-south distance of about 136 miles, but you’d obviously have to deduct most of the Cotes de Nuit from that, because it’s mainly Pinot Noir. So we have a Chardonnay terroir in coastal California that’s far bigger than the Chardonnay terroir of Burgundy.

Why is that? Examining California first, there is a true coastal terroir running along the Pacific Coast that’s obvious to anyone who regularly travels that route. Everybody knows the typical pattern: bone dry summers and autumns, warmish, sunny days and cool nights, as the maritime intrusion sweeps in dependably and bathes the land in fog. Yes, the soils differ. And yes, it is true that the further south you go the more of a change there is, especially in the quality of light. Cezanne would have loved painting the Santa Barbara mountains and coast. One senses it, also, in the softening of the air you feel as, driving from San Francisco, you hit Pismo Beach on any given summer day, then make your way southward down to Buellton. It feels different to us humans, so it must feel different to grapes, too.

But still, the terroir, in a macro way, is of one piece, and given the similarly of viticultural and enological practices nowadays, I doubt if anyone could tell the difference, on a consistent basis, between a Chardonnay from the Santa Maria Valley and one from, say, Carneros. Stones and minerals, green apples, tropical fruits, bright acidity, the usual impact of oak and lees and malo—this is why the coast makes such fine Chardonnay.

Perhaps the Chardonnay-growing area of France would be larger if it weren’t for the French system of appellation controllée, which is so much more rigid than ours. But it is what it is; the French system tends to favor a multiplicity of varieties. Ours—not molded by centuries of precedent, nor by Napoleonic law—is market-based; and the market being what it is, has resulted in only a handful of varieties, including Chardonnay, dominating vast regions.

It is a common notion nowadays that this system is changing. Led by sommeliers, responsive to a taste among younger consumers for the new and different, a new reality supposedly is emerging, of new varieties, tinkered with by a new generation of winemakers born in the waning decades of the 20th century, willing to venture where their fathers would or could not. This new paradigm—if that is not too strong a word—has much to recommend it, but it also faces stiff opposition. There is, for example, a Chardonnay Symposium in California, but not a Tannat or an Assyrtiko Symposium. One has to be careful predicting the future of anything, much less consumer preferences in foodstuffs; but we can allow History to be our guide. History tells us two things: First, what was popular, wine-wise, 100 years ago is popular today, and secondly, once a wine region becomes dominated by certain varieties, it tends to remain planted to those varieties. The two things are, of course, related.

But, you will object, younger people are turning away from the Chardonnays, Cabernets and Pinot Noirs, towards other varieties, said to be fresher, lower in alcohol, crisper and more interesting. Is this true? The media makes much of this meme. But is it more than just a story? Is it really a trend? The media loves trends, and has been known—shockingly!—to manufacture new ones for its own purposes. So, while I’m sure there will be new wines and new varietals that come and go, I’m equally sure that one grape variety—Chardonnay—will always be around. And I’m proud of my state of California for doing such a magnificent job with it.

* I suppose you could argue for extending the Chardonnay region south of Macon through the Beaujolais, but I wouldn’t go that far, either geographically or qualitatively.

OrlandoRemember the Orlando Martyrs


Carneros Chardonnay (and a little Pinot Noir)

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Spent the day yesterday in Carneros. It had been a while since I really walked the vineyards, smelled the flora and felt and tasted the dirt and rocks up there, so my visit was overdue. Plus, it was an unbelievably gorgeous day, the sort of Spring weather that tells you Winter will soon be but a distant memory. Carneros’s famous hills indeed were rolling, and as green as Irish grass after this winter’s rains.

Carneros

We started out at the Coteau Blanc Vineyard, which is source for one of the two single-vineyard Chardonnays from the JFW winery, Chardenet (itself part of Carneros Hills Winery). Parts of this vineyard were planted, or I should say replanted, about ten years ago, but the larger vineyard was long part of the Buena Vista’s old Ramal Road Vineyard, whose wines I always liked. It is said of Coteau Blanc that it contains rare limestone deposits—unusual for Carneros—and seeing is believing, for where the ground has been bared of cover crop you can easily see the white rocks.

CoteauDirt

The Chardonnay in particular has a tangy minerality that gives the wines grip and structure, but it is really the acidity that does it for me, so bright and crisp. It just highlights the green apples and tropical fruits, and winemaker Eric Johannsen never overoaks them. By the way, the 2013 is my preference over the blowsier ‘12s; by all accounts 2013 is going to be recorded as one of the most magnificent vintages in recent California history—and that’s saying a lot.

We also tasted, right in the vineyard, a Carneros Hills Pinot Noir, and it indeed had that earthy, slight herbaceousness I’ve associated with Carneros. I think that’s from the very cool conditions as well as the wind. With the warm, dry weather we’re enjoying, the cut grasses were all dried out and golden-colored, so I scooped up a bunch and shoved my nose into it and did find similarities between that clean, inviting spicy hay aroma and something in the wine. But then, maybe my mind was looking for it, and we do usually find what we’re looking for, don’t we. But the Pinot Noirs from that vineyard are quite good.

Then it was on to an old favorite, the Fremont Diner,

Fremont

which hasn’t changed a bit in all the years I’ve gone there. The food can be a little, uhh, cholesterolly [neologism alert!], but it’s fun and easy and has lots of parking, and is right there on the Carneros Highway, so easy to get to both Napa and Sonoma. I took this picture of our group having lunch,

Lunch

and it reminds me of an old Brueghel painting of a bunch of people having fun.

Breughel

Then we drove a few miles northwest to the famous Durell Vineyard. It’s right at the intersection of where the Sonoma Coast and Sonoma Valley AVAs come together, and I think the Carneros line is mixed up somewhere around there, too. An interesting, complex region where site is all-important. Chardenet bottles a Durell Chardonnay that is broader-shouldered, softer and more powerful than the Coteau Blanc, but then, the weather is a little warmer at Durell than Coteau Blanc, which is right near San Pablo Bay, so that on a clear day you can see the office towers of downtown San Francisco. Here’s a picture of Eric Johannsen in Durell.

EricDurell


A conversation with Press Club’s Aram Roubanian

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Aram Roubinian is the thirty year old assistant GM and beverage manager for Press Club, the hot, stylish wine bar and lounge on Yerba Buena Lane, tucked between Market Street and Yerba Buena Gardens. I asked Aram, who’s been there for five years, to tell me a little about Press Club.

Aram: Right after we opened, in 2009, the economy tanked. Trying times. The original concept was, we had contracts with different wineries—Miner, Chateau Montelena, Mount Eden, Hanna, Saintsbury and Fritz—with each occupying a different space. But it became apparent that wasn’t viable, so now, we showcase California wine, as well as Old World wines that inspired the wine renaissance in California, like classic Burgundy and Bordeaux. We also offer crafts beers and small plates, paired with the wine and beer.

SH: How would you describe your clientele?

AR: I’d say a Financial District crowd, mostly female, but professionals both men and women, and lots of corporate events, a nice range. I’d say the average age range is 30-40, but we do have some more mature clientele.

SH: What’s the customer’s sweet spot, price-wise?

AR: By the glass, $12-$14, and for bottles, $60-$80.

SH: What’s selling well?

AR: Whatever Sauvignon Blanc we have just flies off the shelf–doesn’t matter if it’s winter or summer. Our Pinot Noirs are very popular and, surprisingly, price point doesn’t matter. Our clientele likes premium Pinots and popular price points as well. Right now, our most popular Pinot is Stoller, from Dundee Hills, which is right in the middle, pricewise ($18 – $82). I’m also seeing a spike in Spanish wine; Tempranillo is very trendy. But the hottest trend going is Prosecco.

Aram

SH: What’s not hot now, compared to when you first came?

AR: Chardonnay is losing traction, especially the oaky style.

SH: Why do you think that is?

AR: I think it’s a little bit of what happened to Merlot after Sideways: a lot of people began to bash it–the media and, these days, everyone has Facebook, twitter, and a lot of people get their info from peers, as opposed to only from the media or a conversation with a sommelier, so I think of it as a whole collective, people were influencing each other. People call it “cougar juice,” the big buttery oaky Chards. It has this connotation that old women drink it.

SH: Kiss of death!

AR: Yes, right, especially for the female clientele, they don’t want to be perceived as older, out of touch. And also, with our younger clientele, they don’t want to drink domestic wines. Which is scary for the domestic market.

SH: Again, why is that?

AR: This Millennial generation, the rebels and hipsters, want to go back to more of the old world wines. But I feel like that too will change in time, and people will discover there’s wonderful wine everywhere.

SH: Where do you see the Millennials going in the future?

AR: I see a move towards more natural winemaking–that’s on everyone’s mind. Not a wine that’s necessarily certified organic or biodynamic, but a more natural process, with less pesticides, sustainable, and people are conscious about the environment, global warming. And I see more solar power being used; it’s growing in production. People want to know what they’re consuming. These days, there’s a lot of fillers in wine, and people are becoming more aware that wine can be easily manipulated. Ridge lists all the ingredients. I like that; I like the transparency there. But overall, I see people becoming a more self-sophisticated wine consumer. They realize, while they may have enjoyed consuming that buttery chardonnay and it was pleasure to the palate, they found out with a more delicate, balanced wine they could find more nuances and actually enjoy it more.

SH: Thank you Aram!


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.


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