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.
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.
Why are Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay “noble” varieties? Why isn’t Zinfandel? Can Syrah be “noble”? Is sparkling wine “noble”?
First, we have to define “noble.” It’s an oldish word when applied to wine. From Wikipedia: “Noble grapes are any grapes traditionally associated with the highest quality wines. This concept is not as common today, partly because of the proliferation of hybrid grape varieties, and partly because some critics feel that it unfairly prioritizes varieties grown within France. Historically speaking, the noble grapes comprised only six varieties: Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.”
It’s tempting for me to side with the democrats [small “d”] in this argument–the ones who feel that de-nobleizing certain varieties because they’re not French is unfair and patronizing. But there are sound reasons for preserving our current understanding of varietal nobility.
The most important of these reasons is that, in California as in France, a handful of varieties clearly makes the best wines, and has for pretty much as long as the state’s wine industry has existed. All I need do is go to Wine Enthusiast’s database to confirm this. Since the first of this year, all 30 of my highest-scoring wines have been either Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, with the single exception of a Nickel & Nickel 2010 Merlot, from the Harris Vineyard, in Oakville. (And I, personally, would not include Merlot among the nobles, at least in California.)
Why do these wines score higher than other varieties? Ahh, here we get into the fuzzy details, which are impossible of proof. But let me try. First and foremost, there is structure, a word that seems comprehensible at first. Structure is architecture: just as you can have the most beautiful stuff (paintings, carpets, furniture, vases) in the world, but it’s only a mere pile if it doesn’t have a room or home in which to reside, so too wine needs walls, a floor, a ceiling, a sense of stolidity and solidity, else it become simple flavor. And flavor, in and of itself, has never been the primary attribute of great wine.
California, of course, has no problem developing flavor, in any variety. That’s due to our climate: grapes ripen dependably. To the extent California wines are the target of criticism, it is because Europhiles find a dreary sameness to too many of them. Even I, as staunch a defender of California wine as there is, find this to be true. Too often, the flavors of red wines suggest blackberries and cherries and chocolate, whether it’s Syrah, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Grenache, Cabernet, Merlot, Tempranillo. It’s easy for such wines to score 87 points, or 89 points, or even 91 points: these are good scores, but not great ones, limited by the wines’ lack of structure.
Structure, of course, is composed primarily of acidity and tannins, the latter of which may come from both the grapes and the oak treatment. (I won’t get into the mysteries of minerality.) Yet there are elements of structure that are more difficult to define. Texture is an element of structure, just as the way a room feels is an element of its architecture. Imagine a room with soaring roof and large windows that let in the sunlight, as opposed to a cramped, pinched room, a closet or storage area. The former feels more satisfactory to our senses and esthetics. So too does a wine with great texture feel superior. It can be the hardest thing in the world to put into words, but even amateurs will appreciate the difference between a beautifully-structured wine and its opposite. (I have proven this many times, with my wine-drinking friends who have but limited understanding of it.)
So why don’t we allow Zinfandel into the ranks of noble wines? I suppose an argument could be made that we should, for at its highest expressions–Williams Selyem, De Loach, Elyse, Ravenswood, Bella, Turley–Zinfandel does fulfill the structural and textural prerequisites of a noble wine. But too often, it does not: a Zinfandel can be classic Zin for its style (Dry Creek Valley, Amador County) and yet be a little rustic, in a shabby-chic way. Sometimes this is due to excessive alcohol, sometimes to overripened fruit, but no matter the cause, and no matter how much fun that Zin is to drink with barbecue, the last thing I’d call most Zins is noble. Zinfandel is Conan the Barbarian, ready to chop your head off and stick it on the tip of a spear.
Can sparkling wine be said to be noble? It is most often, of course, a blend of two noble varieties, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, so why not? The answer is as simple as this: We call varieties “noble,” not wine types. Perhaps we should expand the definition of “noble” to include types, not just sparkling blends but Sherry and Port. Certainly these are great wines, if underappreciated nowadays. I keep my eye, also, on some of the surprisingly eccentric red blends being produced lately, mainly by younger winemakers (often in Paso Robles), who are mixing varieties in unprecedented and triumphant ways, proving that a wine doesn’t have to be varietal (as defined by the TTB) in order to be great.
But I’m comfortable for the time being restricting nobility to just a handful of varieties in California: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Not Riesling, not yet, in our state. Not Sauvignon Blanc, not yet, in our state. Not Syrah, not yet, in our state. And not, as I have said, Merlot. Any one of these latter varieties can produce great wine, but it will be the exception.
The 2013 Chardonnay Symposium is all over. My panel was on clones, and the challenge was to take something that could be really dry and academic and make it interesting–not just for the audience, but for me. Because, as I explained in my remarks, when you’re moderating a panel, you’re midway between the audience and the speakers. The latter are the experts, there to deliver high-level information. But the danger with winemakers is that they can get a little too technical and geeky, thereby losing the audience. For an ordinary, wine amateur audience–as this one was at the Chardonnay Symposium–a little geek goes a long way. Fifteen or twenty seconds of segue into clonal trials, framed in high techno-speak, is just about the limit of toleration. Beyond that, you start to see people’s eyes shifting. They look down at their cell phones. You can tell they’re drifting. My job is to hasten things along.
Having said all that, we did learn a lot, everything from the history of Chardonnay on Earth (from nurseryman Eckhard Kaesekamp) to that of the Wente clone (from none other than Karl Wente), to the trials and tribulations of the 1970s and much about the current situation in California. The most interesting question, for me–one that always fascinates me–is, What is the role or impact of the things that Mother Nature brings to wine, relative to that of the things the winemaker brings? Mother Nature is the terroir of climate and soils, as well as the DNA of the particular clone. If someone is making a big deal about the clone–“This clone is floral, or muscatty, or tropical fruity”–does that aspect invariably show with that clone, whether the grapes are grown in the warmer Alexander Valley or the cooler Edna Valley? To me, this is the stuff I love to investigate. The answer is, there can be no answer, which was summed up by Jeff Stewart’s (Hartford Court) assertion that “There are no blanket statements” about clones that are invariable. Comments from other winemakers, including Wente, Merry Edwards and James Ontiveros (Alta Maria and Native 9), made the same point: So much depends on the way that clone reacts to the soils, the weather, and also the rootstock, as well as to the way the winemaker does everything from barrel and malolactic fermentation to sur lie aging and battonage. Clarissa Nagy (Riverbench) described quite poetically this intersection between human and non-human; Matt Dees (Jonata) brought us into the winemaker’s head and how he thinks when approaching the topic of single-clone Chardonnays versus multiple clone blends. Chamisal’s Fintan du Fresne in particular stressed the importance of site over clone, a natural position for him given the intensity of fruit and acidity that Edna Valley wines always display. But in the end, it is really hard to come to any kind of bottom line conclusion concerning what any one clone brings to the table.
No conclusions. Think about it. Think about the millions of words we expend in our conversations about wine, whether they be verbally, in blogs or magazines or textbooks. Think of all the conversations trying to pinpoint just what something means, when the reality is, we never, or only rarely, can know. There are so many things about wine that are fundamentally indeterminate. This is why in olden times they saw wine as a spiritual miracle. Nowadays, despite our science, there remains something Heisenbergian about wine: it’s impossible to pin it down, to get it into clear focus and pick apart the exact function of winemaker technique and Mother Nature, with all their myriad subsets. It can never be done, but it’s wonderful to talk about. These things make for great panel discussions, and consumers obviously love it, which is why they’re willing to spend pretty good money to go to events like the Chardonnay Symposium, not only to sit there and listen and taste, but to raise their hands and ask questions. This intense interactivity goes to the heart of wine, which brings people together in thoughtful conversation.
One topic that Ontiveros introduced into the discussion, which I think is interesting, concerns the role of marketing. A lot of the conversation about clones is, How do they make the wine better, or more distinctive — what kinds of aromas and flavors and acidity does the clone bring? The fact is, just as often, or maybe even more often, as a clone is chosen for its qualitative aspects, so too is it chosen for its quantative aspects. There are certain clones that are good producers, and if a good Chardonnay can be made from a high-production clone, then the producer is going to use that clone. Vintners and growers are always looking to maximize their output; all their talk of quality is fine as far as it goes, but tends to obscure the hard facts of business.
The commercial implication made me remember something I wrote in one of my books: that for every descriptive word you can squeeze onto the front label, you can charge an additional $5 retail. For instance, if the label says “Dijon Clones”, ka-ching: Add ten bucks to the price. The consumer will think it’s a better wine than one that doesn’t have that designation, and will be willing to spend more for it.
Anyhow, we had eight awesomely good Chardonnays at our panel, underscoring once again why this varietal is California’s greatest white wine.
As I prepare to moderate the panel this week at The Chardonnay Symposium, I find myself thinking about this white wine, its phenomenal rise in popularity since the 1960s, and the fierce attack it’s come under, especially from the 1990s up to this day.
Forty years ago, there was very little Chardonnay planted in California, but today it’s grown virtually everywhere, from the Sierra Foothills, across the vast central Valley to the warmer inland valleys of the coast, all the way out to within sight of the Pacific Ocean. It is an easy plant to cultivate and a high producer, which is why wineries like to grow it. And, of course, Chardonnay is the #1 wine in America, meaning that its high production is almost automatically absorbed into the distribution system, and from there into the stomachs of wine drinkers.
Last year, there were 93,153 acres of Chardonnay planted in California, making it the most widely grown of any variety in the state, red or white; and those acres accounted for more than half of all white varieties (the runner-up, alas, being French Columbard; and I wonder how many varietally-labeled “Chardonnays” contain up to 24% of that inferior variety).
Where in the state is most of this Chardonnay grown? Fortunately, the majority is along the coast, in the counties of Napa (presumably mostly in the Carneros), Sonoma, , Monterey, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara. A good deal also can be found in the Central Valley counties of San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Fresno and Merced, but again, the presumption must be that most of that goes into inexpensive California-appellated Chardonnays, many of them in jugs and boxes.
Of this latter group, of course a lot is plonk. The vines are made to yield very high tonnages of grapes; the resulting wines are thin, but have enough Chardonnay taste (peaches, pears) to get by, and of course the wineries then slather oak, or oak-like, substances upon them, to give the buttered toast and caramel aromas and flavors consumers think come from the grape.
It is often these wines that have been responsible for giving Chardonnay its bad reputation, but that is an irresponsible position to take. It’s as bad as if you defined white Burgundy only by the lesser, often mass-produced Chardonnays from the most basic Bourgogne, Macon-Villages and Chablis appellations.
To step up in quality in Burgundy you have to turn to the smaller prestige appellations: the Montrachets (Chassagne, Batard and Puligny), Corton-Charlemagne, Grand Cru Chablis, Meursault and the like. And even there, the producer is key, with names like Leflaive (Domaine and Olivier), Louis Jadot and Vincent Girardin often guaranteeing the highest Chardonnay character.
The situation in California is exactly the same. Ninety percent of California Chardonnays may well be boring or mediocre, or may pall after a sip or two, but that’s always the way it is in big appellations the world over. You have to head for the coast for the good stuff. In general, the further you get towards the Pacific, the more the wines turn steely, acidic and minerally–more “Chablisian” if you will. And the more the grapes come from the warmer inland valleys–the southern part of the Alexander Valley is a great example–the riper and more opulent the wines become. Vintage, too, plays a key role: Chilly vintages may favor the inland valleys, warmer ones the coast: but so much depends on the elevation, orientation and physical characteristics of the vineyard and diligence of viticulture. In general, you can think of the twenty or so miles from the beaches (or close to them) inland as the oscillating sweet spot for California Chardonnay, which despite the ABCers must be counted among the world’s greatest white wines.
It’s been so hot in California I don’t even want to think about red wines. So instead I’ll think about whites. Here are my 12 highest-scoring white wines of 2013 (so far):
Rochioli 2011 River Block Chardonnay
Lynmar 2011 Quail Hill Vineyard Chardonnay
Testarossa 2010 Rincon Vineyard Chardonnay
Lynmar 2011 Susanna’s Vineyard Chardonnay
Lynmar 2011 La Serenité Chardonnay
Gary Farrell 2010 Rochioli Vineyard Chardonnay
Paul Hobbs 2011 Chardonnay
Williams Selyem 2011 Olivet Lane Vineyard Chardonnay
Rochioli 2011 Sweetwater Chardonnay
Stonestreet 2011 Gravel Bench Chardonnay
Joseph Phelps 2011 Freestone Vineyards Chardonnay
Dutton Goldfield 2011 Walker Hill Vineyard Chardonnay
You’ll notice that all are Chardonnay. My highest-scoring white wine that wasn’t Chardonnay at least had Chardonnay blended into it, along with Roussanne and Viognier: That was the Sanguis 2011 “Incandescent.” My highest-scoring Sauvignon Blancs were Ehlers Estate 2012 (St. Helena), Ziata 2011 (Napa Valley), Brander 2011 Au Natural (Santa Ynez Valley), Robert Mondavi 2011 Reserve To Kalon (Oakville) and B Cellars 2012 (Napa Valley). Napa Valley really doesn’t get enough recognition for the quality of its Sauvignon Blancs. But why shouldn’t it? If it makes great Cabernet Sauvignon, it should make great Sauvignon Blanc which, after all, is one of Cabernet’s parents (along with Cabernet Franc).
You’ll notice, on my top Chardonnays, that all are from the Russian River Valley, with these exceptions: the Testarossa is Arroyo Grande Valley, the Stonestreet is Alexander Valley and the Joseph Phelps is Sonoma Coast. So does Russian River Valley make the best Chardonnay in California? Well, I have more scores, and higher scores, for RRV Chard than from other regions; but I also review far more RRV Chardonnays than from any other region, so the question is moot. What’s not in dispute is that RRV is a fabulous place for Chardonnay and even in the recent string of cool vintages a superior vineyard will shine.
I have encountered 2010 and 2011 Chardonnays that were leafy or moldy or vegetal, but not from top vineyards, where not only the viticulture is supreme, but the winery can afford the most scrutinized sorting regime, to weed out unfit berries. One word about that Stonestreet Gravel Bench Chardonnay: Yes it’s Alexander Valley but the vineyard is way the heck up in the Mayacamas. Some very famous wineries in the mountains prefer to put their Chardonnay at high elevations, sometimes even higher than their Cabernet vines. We don’t hear much about mountain Chardonnay but in general it shows the concentrated intensity of all mountain-grown fruit, red or white. These are Chardonnays whose underlying power easily accepts all those winemaker bells and whistles, from barrel fermentation and aging in new oak to malolactic fermentation and extended sur lie aging. Whenever I read some fancy pants critic complaining that California Chardonnay is too oaky etc. I always think “But they’re not tasting the good ones.” Because if they were, they wouldn’t say that.
P.S. Please offer a moment of grateful silence for the 19 fallen firefighter heroes in Arizona.