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A short history of why Cabernet is King in America, and why that could be changing

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Whenever people of similarity spend most of their time together they tend to develop the same esthetic tastes. This is known as class identification and has been developed through evolution to keep tribes cohesive.

When it comes to wine one singular and rather insulated tribe defined for centuries what was good and bad. This tribe was Caucasian, Western European, male and wealthy, and thus deeply conservative in its social and political outlook. It consisted mainly of the British upper classes, an amalgam of landed gentry, aristocracy, academics and clergy. What they favored was Bordeaux. Without this group of what, today, we call tastemakers or gatekeepers, Bordeaux likely would not have reached the pinnacle of wine fame it  still enjoys today.

The tastemakers eventually branched out, a little bit, to appreciate a few others wines: Burgundy, Port and Champagne, but Bordeaux remained their obsession and exclusive province. When our own country, America, was formed, it was mainly by the descendents of those Britishers, which is why we saw the founding fathers similarly obsessed with Bordeaux . (Madeira too appealed to them, but there were other economic reasons for that.)

As long as America remained a fairly tight little country, with poor internal communications, the tastes of these original British (and some German) founders dominated the country’s esthetic. (We might credit the Germans with establishing the beer culture that has always gone hand-in-hand with the wine culture, and more than occasionally dominated it.)

Even as late as the 1960s, the country’s internal communication was fairly dismal. The large newspaper chains tended to speak with one voice; wine writing and criticism remained in its infancy, with a “preaching to the choir” mentality in which, yet again, Bordeaux was extolled, now joined by its California cousin, Cabernet Sauvignon. Some insiders understood that it would take a revolution to shatter this template, but what would the revolution be?

We know now: The internet. More specifically, the proliferation of social media. All the old institutions in this country are being fractured and disrupted. We see this in politics first and foremost, with the rise of movements as disparate as greens/environmentalists, on the one hand, and the Tea Party on the other. We see it in the wild fractionalization of popular music. No longer do we simply have rock and roll, jazz and classical music; nowadays the most particularist genres appeal to their tribes. Ditto with the multitude of televised broadcast sources we have to choose from: hundreds on my cable system alone. We see it in the very diversity of the American people: California is no longer a white-majority state, but is the first truly rainbow state in the nation.

How long will it be before this stranglehold of a handful of wine varieties is loosened? Just today, a local wine writer and restaurateur writes in the San Francisco Examiner of the world “beyond the 93 percent prime grape varieties” that are “opening the eyes” of sommeliers, leading one to remark that “The potential [for new varieties and wine types] is something we haven’t even scratched the surface on.”

I’m seeing this up close and personal. If you go into a wine bar, nobody is ordering Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. Visit Uva Enoteca, in the Haight, and you’ll find lagrein, schiava, refosco, gattinara, nero d’avola among reds by the glass. Head over to Hotel Biron, in hot-hot-hot Hayes Valley, and you have your choice of Mendoza Torrontes (a variety that’s quickly grabbing my attention), South Portuguese whites, South African Pinotage, plenty of German Rieslings, and a nice range of a California wine that deserves to be consumed in restaurants more than it is: Zinfandel.

This is encouraging news. It means that a new generation of wine drinkers is willing and able to expand their experience well beyond where their parents and grandparents went. It doesn’t mean that Cabernet, Chardonnay and the rest of the 93% “prime grape varieties” are going away anytime soon. But it does bring a welcome diversity to our wine (and restaurant) scene, and it seems particularly strong here in the Bay Area, where so many cultural trends begin.


Post-Haas School thoughts

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We did my annual tasting and seminar last week at the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business’s Wine Club, “we” being myself and Randy Ullum, K-J’s head winemaker.

I’ve long been a fan of Randy. I included him in my 2008 book, “New Classic Winemakers of California,” which I organized by the decade when the winemaker began his or her career. Randy was part of the 1980s section that also included (for good measure), Bob Levy, Heidi Peterson Barrett, and the brains behind Shafer, Doug Shafer and Elias Fernandez.

What a decade that was. I’ll write more about it soon, but for now, I just want to say how the boutique winery movement of the 1960s and 1970s might have fizzled out, were it not for the energy the Eighties gave it. Like a shot in the arm, you might say, with the brilliance of Napa Valley now being—if not joined, then at least other regions were permitted to co-star in the play.

What I admired then about Randy, and still do, was his ability to craft small-lot wines alongside something like Vintner’s Reserve. And not just any small lots, but really great wine. Randy’s also a humorous, affable guy, and it was obvious the future MBAs at Haas liked him. The laughed a lot more at his jokes than they did at mine!

The cool thing about hanging out with the Millennials /Gen Yers who comprise the Haas Wine Club is that they offer a window into tomorrow’s smart wine consumers. They’re also tomorrow’s well-to-do wine drinkers; an MBA from Haas School ain’t chopped liver! So it’s interesting to know what they’re thinking.

Most wine tastings and seminars are given for an older crowd: for example, the folks who pay big bucks to go to something like the World of Pinot Noir. They are more or less settled into their ways. They’ll go to a Burgundy seminar because they like and collect Burgundy. Their minds are made up, you could say; older drinkers are not as open as younger ones to new wines, or from places they may be unfamiliar with. This is why there’s no event in California called World of Pinotage or World of Trebbiano or World of Croatia.

But Millennials are wide open when it comes to preferences. That’s why they’re such a huge target for wine marketers, who believe that, if they can catch a fan at a young age, they’ve got a customer for life.

Randy tasted the group, which numbered about 60, through five various tiers of Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay, from Vintner’s Reserve up to small production, vineyard-designated bottlings. The students were eager to learn, asking lots of good questions. I know, from having done this class for the last 7 or 8 years, that among them, you’ll find varying degrees of wine knowledge. Some are absolute neophytes, while others have done a lot of tasting and reading. When you’re doing a seminar like that, you have to try and make everyone happy. In the case of the Haas School Wine Club, it’s never hard. They’re a very un-snobby bunch, but at the same time they’re there to learn. I would rather speak to people like that, who have few if any preconceptions about what’s good or bad, important or unimportant, and just want to soak up every bit of knowledge they can.

I never rehearse for such classes. What’s the point? I like to keep things impromptu, on the theory that what’s real is better than a canned speech. And besides, those kids’ questions keep it real. I don’t have any problem thinking on my feet, which is probably partly because I’m from The Bronx (if you’re not on your feet in The Bronx, you’re on your back), but also because I have a lot of thoughts in my head all the time about wine—or about the particular wine topics I’m interested in—so it’s easy for me to expound on them. Just don’t let me go on too long!

I covered the first part of the two-hour class; these Haas students always are interested in things pertaining to being a wine critic. Then Randy took over, and he was smart enough to realize that the class would be interested in some of the business-related aspects of the K-J company. So he intertwined talk about that, even while he presented a thorough tasting and explanation of the various terroirs from which the Chardonnays came.

My favorite among the five Chards (with all due respect to the others) was the 2012 Camelot Highlands, from Santa Maria Valley. I’ve given that wine 90-plus scores over nine vintages, a pretty good track record for a Chardonnay. My readers know I’m a Chardonnay guy anyway, but that Camelot, which is from the so-called Tepusquet Bench of the valley, a hop and skip away from Bien Nacido (Cambria is inbetween), is one I could drink all the time.

As for my new gig, well, so many of you want to know how it’s going that I’ll report here from time to time. In short, it’s great. I’m settling into the new routine, which continues to evolve in the scope of my responsibilities. One of the best parts is that K-J encourages me to bring Gus along with me (for the most part—obviously there are limitations), whereas at my last job, Gus could sometimes be an issue. As I’ve said before, a challenge of my former profession was to get people to see me as me, not their image of me. I never liked that part of the job—being defined by my job. I respected people for seeing me that way, but I always tried to show them the real me. I think all well-known wine critics feel the same way. The job description comes with humility. Or at least, it had better.


Praising California Chardonnay, and a remark about my new job

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Wines & Vines last Friday reported that Oregon winemakers, like their counterparts in California, are trying to understand how best to grow and vinify the variety, “but defining Oregon Chardonnay remains an ongoing work.”

There were a couple things in the article that struck me. One is the opening statement that “Chardonnay is enjoying a revival of sorts.” I hadn’t been aware that Chardonnay was in need of a revival. It certainly isn’t here in California, where plantings are at an all-time high, of 101,900 acres, far more than any other grape variety.

So maybe there’s a Chardonnay revival in Oregon. Everywhere else, as far I’m aware, Chardonnay is the definitive white wine in America. For all the ABC sentiment that may or may not exist among some aficionados, when the typical consumer asks for a glass of white wine, more often than not it’s Chardonnay.

What is it about Chardonnay that keeps generations of winemakers seeking to understand it? In some respects, Chardonnay isn’t any different than Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon: there will probably be panels on them forever. When winemakers and wine lovers stop inquiring about “defining” the major varietals, we’ll have a definite clue that the world is coming to an end.

The Oregonians apparently are determined to establish a style of Chardonnay that’s different from either Burgundy or California, the two regions that are most famous for Chard. Veronique Drouhin, the winemaker at Domaine Drouhin Oregon, was quoted as saying that following the California model of buttery, oak-warmed Chardonnay would be “a disaster.” I myself don’t care for buttery, popcorny, butterscotchy-sweet Chardonnay–I’ve reviewed enough of it to last a lifetime–but I sometimes fear we’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater, with all this hating on oak, malolactic and fruit. I don’t mind a good unoaked Chardonnay, but to me, that defeats the whole purpose of Chardonnay, which is to be rich and opulent, in an oaky, buttery, creamy but balanced way. Unoaked Chard is like going on vacation to Maui and staying in your hotel room the whole time, never enjoying the sun, the balmy air, the rustle of the wind in palm trees, the scent of passionflower and night jasmine, the romantic chords of Hawaiian music. Surely, the Oregonians would not want to avoid a “California style” Chardonnay, if that style were defined by, say, the likes of Flowers, Williams Selyem, Stonestreet, Failla, Joseph Phelps, Hartford Court, Talley–all fabulous, world-class Chardonnays that are, or ought to be, the envy of Chardonnay producers wherever they are.

Okay, let’s get this out of the way. I just praised Hartford Court and Stonestreet. They are part of the Jackson Family Wines portfolio, where I just started work as director of communications and wine education. Before some of you start freaking out, let me just say this: I’ve been giving those two wineries, as well as others in the JFW portfolio, high scores for many, many years. I am not about to stop praising them, just because somebody thinks I’m trying to please my employer. That’s not how I roll, and I should hope everyone knows that.


Upcoming Pinot Noir and Chardonnay events to check out

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The Chardonnay Symposium, with which I’ve been associated, has new ownership and a new location that will make it easier for Northern Californians to go. The details are still being worked out, including those of the panel I’ll be moderating, but here’s the basic 4-1-1: instead of being held at Byron Winery, in the Santa Maria Valley, the event is moving up the coast to the Dolphin Bay Resort & Spa, whose official home city is Pismo Beach, but it’s actually in little Shell Beach, just to the north–and by coincidence is right next door to The Cliffs Resort, which was the longtime home of World of Pinot Noir, until WOPN decided to move south this year to Santa Barbara and into Bacara Resort. As you know, I’ll be “the official blogger” again of WOPN.

This bit of musical chairs is interesting because it sheds light on the evolution of wine events. WOPN’s directors for years had been talking about moving into a bigger, more urban locale, in order to accommodate more people, and Bacara certain fulfills that requirement. Meanwhile, The Chardonnay Symposium, which consciously patterned itself after WOPN, similarly waited for the day that the rather austere, amenity-less Santa Maria Valley would no longer be big enough to accommodate it; and, that day having arrived, its officials made the decision to move to Shell Beach. Maybe in ten years, The Chardonnay Symposium will move to a big Santa Barbara hotel-resort, or even up to San Francisco. You never know.

Choosing a topic for an event panel always is a challenge. You don’t want it to be too geeky-technical because that would bore a lay audience (and, to be quite honest about it, geeky panels bore a lot of winemakers, too). On the other hand you don’t want the topic to be too broad and simplistic. You have to find something in the middle. Last year, our topic was unoaked-vs.-oaked Chardonnay, one I did not choose personally but did my best to make interesting. I don’t think it was the most stimulating topic ever; if I was rating it, I’d give my panel 88 points. This year, we’re still talking about the topic. At any rate, we’ll try to get the best winemakers we can, so attendees will be able to meet some superstars and taste their Chardonnays.

I’ve also agreed to be part of this year’s Pinot Noir Shootout & Summit. Details are extremely sketchy, but I’ll be talking about it when I find out more. I think our topic will differing styles of California Pinot Noir. I broadly classify the variety into two styles: lighter, lower-alcohol wines and darker-colored, fuller-bodied ones. I do not favor one over the other. Both have their uses at the table, and both are ageworthy, provided they’re balanced to begin with.

It’s funny that there’s no major statewide event for Cabernet Sauvignon. But how could there be? Anything that Napa Valley does (e.g., Premiere Napa Valley) is pretty much the equivalent of a statewide Cabernet event, so identified has that single appellation become with that wine type. I’ll be at Premiere too, and hope to see lots of winemakers there.

A final word about that Multifamily Social Media Summit I spoke at on Wednesday evening. First off, it was really interesting to explore this sub-culture of housing specialists. Who knew such a thing existed? But housing, of course, is a huge industry, and I felt right in the middle of its vital center for the few hours I hung out with those nice folks in Santa Rosa. They’re just getting into social media–how to use it in their jobs–and between me and the other speaker, Siduri’s Adam Lee, they definitely got some offbeat perspective. It was from the points of view of two people in the wine industry, with very different jobs but a common interest in social media. Hopefully, the housing people were able to extrapolate our experiences and advice and incorporate it into their own needs.

Have a great weekend!


They said it on Facebook: The origins of that 1973 Montelena Chardonnay

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While researching an upcoming article in Wine Enthusiast, I asked my Facebook friends if anyone knew the source of the grapes that went into the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, which took first place among white wines in the famous 1976 “Judgment of Paris” tasting.

Good old Facebook! My friends dutifully replied. I cannot myself vouch for the accuracy of their comments, but they sound plausible, to one degree or another. The strongest-sounding claim, from multiple people, is that a portion of the grapes came from the Bacigalupi Vineyard, which is in the northeastern part of Russian River Valley, hard by the entrance to Dry Creek Valley and thus one of the warmest places in the RRV appellation.

This claim also is supported by an article that appeared last June in Wine Business.com, in which Helen Baclgalupi says the old block, which still exists, now is called the Paris Tasting Block. Another of my Facebook respondents, Rich Reader, says Bacigalupi accounted for 85% of the Chardonnay, a claim that is problematic given Katie Bacigalupi’s statement that “Our family supplied 40% of the Chardonnay grapes that were used to produce the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that won the 1976 Paris Tasting.”

Harry Wetzel, of the Alexander Valley Vineyards family (and thus in a position to know), adds that “a significant portion [of the Montelena Chardonnay] was from the Alexander Valley,” although he does not elaborate as to where in Alexander Valley. However, another Facebook respondent, Bob Foster, attached this link, which says that, in addition to the Bacigalupi grapes, “about 20 tons [came] from Henry Dick in Alexander Valley…and the remainin 5 tons from Napa Valley growers John Hanna and Lee Paschich.” I’d never heard of “Henry Dick,” but another Facebook commenter, Nicole Carter, wrote that “The other source was Belle Terre Vineyard Chardonnay (owned by Ron and Kris Dick) part of Chateau st Jean single vineyard series since 1974.” And certainly, those old Belle Terre Chardonnays, produced by the great Richard Arrowood at St. Jean, were famous wines in their day.

Who were John Hanna and Lee Paschich? I don’t know, but yet another Facebook responder, Gabrielle Shaffer, wrote, “Pretty sure a portion came from Bill Hanna’s Oak Knoll vineyard,” which of course is (or was) in Napa Valley. Reader Whitney Yates agrees. “Some of those grapes from the ’73 came from the John Muir Hanna vineyard in Oak knoll. Those grapes have been in every vintage of Montelena since.” I’m not familiar with that vineyard, but Practical Winery & Vineyard reported, back in 2006, that Montelena “leases a 55-acre vineyard in the Oak Knoll District at the base of Mt. Veeder near Dry Creek Road, where mostly Chardonnay grapes are grown.” And “the hands-on manager at Oak Knoll is Bill Hanna.”

So it would appear that famous ’73 Montelena Chardonnay was a blend of three vineyards, at least: Bacigalupi, Belle Terre and Hanna. An interesting combination; perhaps we’ll be lucky enough to get Mike Grgich to weigh in on how and why he decided on that particular cépage. I imagine the Oak Knoll provided the backbone of structure and acidity that Bacigalupi, in itself, did not, although those Belle Terre Chards always had a graceful tartness. On the other hand, Belle Terre would have contributed the layers of opulent tropical fruits that lifted up Hanna’s minerals and herbs. As for Bacigalupi, that vineyard today is far better known for Zinfandel and Pinot Noir than for Chardonnay, although I did review a Gary Farrell 2011 Bacigalupi Chard, gave it a respectable 91 points, and praised its “deliciously ripe” flavors. That wine also was (probably) far oakier than the ’73 Montelena Chard.

History is a wonderful thing, but it’s protean (an adjective derived from the Greek god Proteus, who could change his appearance at will; protean thus means “readily changeable, capable of taking on different shapes and forms”). This makes history, which is among the more fallible of the social sciences, particularly subject to loss, distorted memory, bias and derangement. The Internet clearly is a two-sided blade: It helps to preserve facts (forever, as it turns out), but it also enshrines as “fact” things that may not actually be true; and their appearance in digital form (“It says so right here on my computer”) may lend them the appearance of truth, even when they’re false. On balance, though, first-hand accounts (like those of the Bacigalupis) are the most reliable verifications we have.

The case of the ’73 Montelena Chardonnay also shows that a blended wine–indeed, a two-county, three-appellation blend–can be as great as, and potentially better than, a vineyard-designated one. Did the surprised French judges in Paris, in that May of 1976, know that the winner was a mongrel? Their humiliation at being bested by California would have been all the sharper, with the understanding that this upstart New World Chardonnay did not even possess the prestige of terroir, the way their own Meursault Charmes Roulot (which took second place) did.


2012 vintage: a report card

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I’ve tasted only about 700 wine for Wine Enthusiast  from the 2012 vintage (the number should eventually rise to several thousand), but based on what’s come in so far, this is going to be a hugely successful year for Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Most of the better red wines have yet to be released. But a few early Pinots show the vast promise of the vintage. Santa Arcangeli made a 2012 Split Rail Vineyard, from the Santa Cruz Mountains, that knocked my sox off, while early ‘12s from Siduri, Reaper, Orfila, The Gardener and Patz & Hall all scored above 90 points. I would expect that, in two years or so when we’ll have the lion’s share of top coastal Pinots in, there will be lots of 95-and-above scores, and maybe–who knows?–some perfect 100s.

Very little 2012 Cabernet has come my way yet, mostly under-$20 stuff, but even this grouping, which can be so mediocre, has lots of scores in the 86-88 point range, with wines showing plenty of vigor and good fruit. Cabernet in tnis price range is frequently disappointing, with thin flavors, so when you get a bunch of nice ones, it bodes well for what’s yet to come. So 2012 could really be a blockbuster Cabernet year.

The 2012 Chardonnays, however, are now pouring in. I would characterize them overall as elegant, well-structured wines. What they may lack in opulence they more than make up for in balance and class. I have a feeling, though I can’t prove it, that vintners are dialing back on ripeness and/or oakiness, in favor of acidity and freshness. A Foxen 2012 Chardonnay, from the Tinaquaic Vineyard of the Santa Maria Valley, typifies this lively style, combining richness with minerality and tartness and alcohol well under 14%. Even unoaked Chardonnays, such as Marimar Torres’ Acero bottling, are so delicious that they don’t really need any oak. So, again, 2012 should prove to be a fantastic Chardonnay year.

It’s not just the Big Three–Chardonnay, Cabernet and Pinot Noir–that show such promise in 2012. A handful of Sauvignon Blancs that have come in (Ehlers Estate, Atalon, Matanzas Creek, Cosa Obra, Capture, Rochioli, B Cellars, El Roy, Longmeadow Ranch) show the ripeness and acidity that variety needs, without any of that annoyingly unripe, cat pee pyrazine junk. And Viognier, which is probably the most difficult white variety of all to get right in California (not too green, not too flabby and sweet), shows real promise, as indicated by bottlings from Pride Mountain, Qupe, Kobler and Nagy. The wines are racy and balanced. I could say the same thing about rarer whites, such as Bailiwick’s Vermentino, Birichino’s Malvasia Bianca, Grüners from Zocker and Von Strasser, white blends such as Vina Robles’ White4, Roussanne (Truchard), Albariño (Longoria, La Marea and Tangent), and dry Gewurztraminers (Gundlach Bundschu, Claiborne & Chruchill)–all these are 90 points or higher, exciting to drink, mouthwatering, ultra-versatile with food. And finally, rosé. Up to now, it’s never been my favorite California wine (too flabby and sweet)–but 2012 could change my mind. The few I’ve had so far (Lynmar, Chiarello Family, Ousterhout, Gary Farrell, Demetria)–wow. Dry, crisp, delicate and fruity, just what a rosé should be.

So here’s to many more magnificent 2012s to come. It will be the best vintage in many years, at least since 2007–and all the early signs are that 2013 could exceed it.


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