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Dog Whistle Wines

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“Even as Americans chug down Chardonnay in record quantities, few buyers are dropping more than $50/bottle on the coast’s most popular white. Unless your name is Kistler, Ramey, Kongsgaard, or Peter Michael, there’s no market at over $50,” a popular online wine retail site declares. We’ll call these Chards the KRKPM group.

Well, a quick search of my Wine Enthusiast database found the following brands all of whom have at least one over $50 Chardonnay: Rochioli, Williams Selyem, Jarvis, Joseph Phelps, Del Dotto, Hanzell, Paul Hobbs, Lynmar, Stonestreet, Martinelli, La Crema, Ram’s Gate, Carte Blanche, Signorello, La Rochelle, Knights Bridge, Sanguis, Two Sisters, Merry Edwards and Migration. And I’m sure if I’d spent another three minutes poking around, I would have found even more.

So why would that online pub say “Unless” you’re a KRKPM nobody cares about you? Because it’s written for a type of wine snob who only buys the “big names.” This person either doesn’t know of the existence of any other wines, or, if he does, thinks that nothing can be as good as his KRKPMs. And of course, the situation is mirrored by other varieties for which Mr. Snob also has his “must buys”. (Click on “Napa Cabernets” on the aforementioned website and the first name that shows up is Abreu. If that’s not the snobbiest wine in California, I’d like to know what is.)

I’m not here to complain about the quality of the KRKPM Chardonnays. I just want to delve a little deeper into my ongoing exploration of the snob mentality that sees the world in such pigeon-holed blightedness that it honestly believes “there’s no market” for any wine not anointed with its imprimateur. Let me start with a question: Do the people who covet the KRKPM Chardonnays not also covet Williams Selyem, Rochioli and Merry Edwards? That’s hard for me to believe. But then, I don’t hang out in KRKPM circles. (I can’t afford to.) It is true that I occasionally run into these people, usually at events that attract a wealthy crowd. There, you do see them marching with zombie-like outstretched arms to the Kosta Browne table (and by the way, how come the online pub didn’t include Kosta Browne on their Chardonnay short list?), passing right by perfectly fine Chardonnays that don’t happen to have been raised to sainthood by the Popes of point score perfection. It always makes me sad, and a little mad.

I headlined this post “Dog Whistle Wines” because the term dog whistle, when used metaphorically (and usually politically), refers to “coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup.” (Thank you, Wikipedia.) In politics, to use one example, “family values” is a dog whistle term, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

In the case of the online wine pub, the KRKPM brands mean nothing to the general population, but to the “subgroup” who must have only the approved wines of the world, they mean something far different. The dog whistle message here is that the online pub is their kind of retailer–one of us, so to speak, not them, “them” being the unwashed, unsophisticated booboisie who think that La Crema (gasp!) is great Chardonnay. * This need for exclusivity separating them from the common man is one way that snobs are different from you and me (and this certainly is not a blanket indictment of the rich, per se, but of an attitude one occasionally finds among them).

I like to think that with the coming of age of a younger generation in this new millennium, we in America are moving away from this crass fixation on dog whistle wines, and I think we are. I’ve spent a great part of my career trying to get people to break their addiction to a handful of “cult” wines, but sometimes it’s like Sisyphus rolling that rock up a very steep hill because it’s trying to change human nature, and human nature changes very slowly, if at all. (And the older I get the less I think it ever changes.) Just when you think American consumers might be making progress, as an older generation of dog whistle wine-slaves dies off, here comes China, which seems to be the new market for dog whistle wines. Sigh.

* I’d like to see the Ayatollahs of cult wines taste blind a La Crema 9 Barrel Chardonnay against any of the KRKPMs.


Lots of good values in wine, as the economy recovers

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This article about how well Gallo is doing in the super-premium tier ($15 and above) squares well with the chatter at the recent Napa Valley wine auction concerning the rather sudden turnaround in the wine business. From misery to marvahlous was the song on everyone’s lips, cults and commoners alike, leading me to believe that, while the general U.S. economy may still be tottery, wine has become a leading indicator of recovery.

(Until yesterday I might have said wine has become the canary in the coal mine of recovery, but Chuck reminded me that that metaphor has a rather unfortunate implication.)

Gallo is selling a lot of MacMurray Ranch, Louis M. Martini, Frei Brothers and Ghost Pines, all of which indeed do offer sound wines reasonably priced. So I thought I’d dig through the Wine Enthusiast database and see what some of my best-reviewed wines have been over the last year in the $11-$20 category.

Exactly 50 scored 90 points or above. Several brands appear more than once: Cameron Hughes, Minassian-Young, Tangent, Rodney Strong, Courtney Benham, Zaca Mesa. These may be described as a deep bench of talent. Of course, some of them also produce much more expensive wines (Zaca Mesa’s Black Bear Block Syrah, for example, is $60 retail), but I like it when a winery can do more than one thing well.

Other names on my list appear only once, but that was over the past year. If you go back further, they appear with greater frequency. Longboard, Sebastiani,  Huntington, Tercero, Claiborne & Churchill, Firestone, Kendall-Jackson,Vina Robles, Geyser Peak–we’re lucky to have them (or the consumer is). It is brands like these (and again, some of them produce super-ultra-premium wines) that make me put on my populist hat and be happy that someone is giving consumers wine they can afford.

On the other hand, here are two very good but expensive Chardonnays I’ve enjoyed lately. Both are from the Russian River Valley, and both are 2011: Rochioli River Block ($60) and Lynmar Quail Hill ($55). It never fails to amaze me how River Block–which as its name implies is on a bank above the Russian River, and whose soil consequently is pure, crumbly sand and gravel–can produce, not just Chardonnays of such exquisite poise, but Pinot Noir. In theory, it should not do so; and Tom Rochioli himself told me he doesn’t consider River Block his best. But don’t tell that to the wines! It just shows to go that, once again, the conventional wisdom isn’t always right. Or maybe all it shows is that great viticulture can make up for deficiencies in the soil. Or both.


From Kapalua, Two Pinot Panels, and a Parsing of “In Pursuit of Balance”

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Saturday’s two wine panels at the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival were both on Pinot Noir. The first, “In Pursuit of Balance,” was about a newer generation of winemakers: Rajat Parr (Sandhi), Pax Mahle (Wind Gap), Jamie Kutch (Kutch) and Gavin Chanin (Chanin). The theory, I think, was that these are all wines of lower alcohol (although we weren’t told what the ABV was, so I’m only guessing. The only winemaker to tell us the alcohol level on one of his wines was Kutch, who said it was 12.8% on his 2011 Sonoma Coast).

Here are my very abbreviated notes:

Wind Gap 2011 Gap Crown (Sonoma Coast). Vibrant, delicate, ripe. Cola, cherry pie, cranberry sauce.

Wind Gap 2010 Gap Crown. Keen acidity, similar to but less advanced than the ’11 despite being a year older. The ’10 was made in concrete while the ’11 was in neutral French oak.

Kutch 2011 Sonoma Coast. Blend of 3 vineyards: Annapolis, Petaluma Gap, Sebastopol. A pretty wine, ripe and savory. Root beer, cherry pie.

Kutch 2011 McDougall Ranch. The vineyard is in the Fort Ross area and the wine showed that distinctly feral, foresty quality I always get from there. A brooding wine, tannic. 50% whole cluster gave lots of dark spice. Needs plenty of time.

Chanin 2011 Los Alamos (Santa Barbara County). From this unappellated region between Santa Ynez Valley and Sta. Rita Hills. Bit of mushrooms, sweet red fruit, complex and lovely.

Chanin 2011 Bien Nacido. Much tougher and more tannic, lots of spice. Needs plenty of time, as BNV Pinot always does.

Sandhi 2011 Sta. Rita Hills. Vinous, sappy, rich and sweet in baked cherry pie. Villages-style,  young, but will make a sound bottle in a year or two.

Sandhi 2011 Sanford & Benedict. Really classic S&B. Spicy, earthy, red fruit, minerally, dry, complex. Needs plenty of time.

A remark about In Pursuit of Balance (the organization): In response to a question from the audience, Raj seemed to feel the need to defend the group, which perhaps has come under some criticism for the perception that IPOB claims that low alcohol Pinots are “better” than those over, say, 14.0%. To the extent this was the public’s perception (it certainly was mine), it cannot have gone over well with many of Raj’s (or Jasmine Hirsch’s) friends and colleagues. So Raj explained that this is not what they’re saying–although if it’s not, then it’s hard to know just what IPOB’s message is, beyond a vague “We’re trying to make the most balanced wines we can.” Well, who isn’t? I do think IPOB at first gave the impression of being an Old Boy’s (and Girl’s) network, an exclusive club of friends to which outsiders need not apply. They now have a “committee of wine professionals” (from their website) that decides who’s in and who’s out; that committee consists of Ehren Jordan (Failla, whose wines I’ve praised to the utmost for years), Jon Bonné (wine editor, San Francisco Chronicle, who’s been on something of an anti-high alcohol crusade himself), Raj Parr and Wolfgang Weber (an editor at Wine & Spirits, whom I do not know anything about). This selection committee certainly wouldn’t inspire me to ask to join IPOB if I were, say, Rochioli or Williams Selyem, two wineries (among many I could mention) I would hope we can agree make outstanding, balanced, ageworthy Pinot Noirs even though they dare to occasionally sneak over the 14.2% line and even approach —gasp!–14.5%.

The second Pinot Noir panel was named “Heroes of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay” and was meant to counter-balance the first by featuring an older generation of famous winemakers: Fred Scherrer (Scherrer), Gary Pisoni (Pisoni), Michael Browne (Kosta Browne) and Geoff Labitzke (Kistler’s sales and marketing director, representing Steve Kistler).

These noteworthy names grabbed the audience’s attention; mine, too. Here are some very brief remarks. I found the 2 Kistlers (2011 Stone Flat Chardonnay and 2011 Kistler Vineyard Pinot Noir) to be the most classic in the lineup, in the sense that they showed everything you want in Sonoma County wines: acidity, depth, length, dryness, varietal typicity, complexity, ageability,  intellectual stimulation and no particular eccentricities.

Fred Scherrer (what a lovely man) chose an older Chardonnay, 2007 Scherrer Vineyard (Alexander Valley) which didn’t do much for me at first. In fact I thought it was too old, although I loved his 2007 Russian River Pinot Noir. But after 45 minutes that old Chardonnay emerged from its tomb like Lazarus, alive and vital and remarkable, and I told Fred so. He said, “That wine never shows well right out of the bottle. It needs time” despite its age. California Chardonnay that ages well is so rare; that was one I’ll remember years from now.

Kosta Browne showed 2011 “One Sixteen” Chardonnay and 2011 Russian River Pinot Noir. I have never particularly been a fan of KB’s wines, suspecting that their popularity is due to the lemming-like tendency of consumers to believe anything some reviewers say (and then to find in the wines what they expected to find, in a gorgeous proof of the theory of the self-fulfilling prophecy). The ’11 Chardonnay was, I wrote, “over the top.” I did find the Pinot more interesting, “flashy” in fact, and in need of age.

Gary Pisoni’s 2011 Lucia Chardonnay was, in a word, dee-lish. I had formally reviewed it earlier for Wine Enthusiast and, while it wasn’t in the same league as Lucia’s ’11 Soberanes Chard (not included in this tasting), it was close, and also ten bucks less. Gary’s 2010 Estate Pinot Noir is a young, vinous, serious Pinot with vast tastes of the earth. It is  just beginning to throw off its cloak and show some flesh. It needs lots of time.

I’ll report another time on my “Pritchard Hill Gang” seminar, which was the last of the festival.


Are vineyard designates better than blended wines? Not necessarily. So why do they cost more?

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I was reading Peg Melnik’s article on Chateau St. Jean’s 2010 Belle Terre Vineyard Chardonnay, in yesterday’s Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which reminded me that Chateau St. Jean pretty much single-handedly created the vineyard-designated Chardonnay market in the 1970s, with a brilliant series of wines crafted by their then-winemaker, Richard Arrowood. Belle Terre, Les Pierres and Robert Young were perhaps the best known, but one year, Arrowood produced 9 individual Chardonnays. (He also made vineyard-designated Fume Blancs and Rieslings.)

It got me thinking of how obsessed we are today with single-vineyard wines in California, not just Chardonnay, obviously, but everything, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.

The first vineyard-designated Cabernet I ever heard of was Joe Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard. It was, back in the day, the most famous Cab in Napa Valley, and if it’s lost a little of its luster in the glare of so many newer brands, it’s still well-regarded. I don’t recall the first single-vineyard Pinot Noir I ever had. The first one I ever reviewed in my wine diary was a 1982 from Louis K. Mihaly, with a Napa Valley appellation. The label said “Produced and bottled by the estate of Louis K. Mihaly,” so I suppose that, technically, it was a single-vineyard wine; but I’m talking about vineyard designations on the label. Ditto for the Dehlinger 1985 Lot #2 Pinot I tasted (in 1990, by which time it had gone downhill).

Today, of course, many producers make single vineyard wines. They fetch a higher price, on average, than blended wines. (Even the word “blended” sounds pejorative. We need to come up with a better one.) When you think about it, though, there’s no reason per se why a single vineyard wine should be better than a blended one. The reason the Bordelais grew so many different grape varieties was because they knew that blending could fill in the divots that a single variety wine might otherwise have (unripe, too acidic, too tannic, not enough color, etc.).

It was in the 1990s that vintners opted to go bigtime with vineyard-designated bottles. They said they were spurred by the extra complexity that certain sites exhibited, but that’s only half the story. The other half was that, by then, it was apparent the public would pay more for single vineyard wines. (We can thank Heitz and Chateau St. Jean for that!) I myself have never quite bought into the theory that the wine from a particular place is necessarily better than a blend. Some critics make much of “wines of place” and, of course, to question the concept of terroir is to hold oneself up for ridicule. However, I don’t see how you get around the “divot” theory: in a perfect vintage, a particular site might yield a complete wine. But not all vintages are perfect, and it’s only logical to expect that, in other vintages, the grapes from a particular site will be lacking something and could benefit from being blended with the grapes from another place.

Today we have brands that specialize in single vineyard wines: Siduri, Loring, Testarossa and Williams Selyem (among many others) in Pinot Noir, and practically everyone making high-end Chardonnay. (Williams Selyem, Lynmar, Rochioli, Paul Hobbs, Marimar Torres, Martinelli, Talley and Thomas Fogarty in particular come to mind.) There also are an increasing number of wineries that bottle vineyard-designated Cabs. Sometimes they buy grapes from other growers, and sometimes they simply make block bottlings from their own vineyard or from separate vineyards in their own portfolio. (Sometimes it’s hard to say what the difference is between blocks from the same estate, and separate vineyards. Witness Diamond Creek.)

As I said, I’m not sure that the best, most wholesome and complete, not to mention satisfying, wines come from individual vineyards. But wine isn’t just about hedonism, it’s about intellectual fun. For me, as a wine lover and critic, I love these single vineyard or block designation wines because they’re so interesting in themselves, even if they’re sometimes a little lacking something essential. Just like some people.


Chardonnay clones: how much do they matter?

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I’m going to be moderating the panel on clones at The Chardonnay Symposium, which makes it sound like I know all about them when, in reality, I know very little. However, a panel moderator doesn’t have to know much about the topic at hand. The secret to moderating a panel is simply to get the panelists do the talking.

Well, I’m being modest. I do know a little about clones. Here’s what I know–or think I know. I’m hoping to learn more from comments by my savvy readers

–       There are many, many clones, or selections, of Chardonnay: Clone 4, the Wente selection, Mount Eden, Hudson, Rued, Dijons 7, 95, 96, 548, etc. I couldn’t tell you what each of them does, though.

–       Almost everybody grows the Wente selection (and to add to the confusion, there are different strains of Wente).

–       The various clones are sensitive to climate, which affects the wines’ acidity. That’s why some clones are preferred in Oregon and Burgundy, as opposed to others used in California.

–       It’s debatable whether certain clones succeed better with certain rootstocks.

–       That Rued clone often reveals itself with a Muscat-like scent.

–       Some vintners, including Marimar Torres and Elias Fernandez, believe that making a single wine from multiple clones lends complexity, and helps protect against vintage variation. (We see the same thing with Pinot Noir.) At Williams Selyem, Bob Cabral planted more than 20 clones in a single block.

–       Chardonnays made from different clones react differently to oak. Some seem better able to handle lots of new wood than others.

–       Some winemakers swear that certain blocks within their vineyards consistently produce superior Chardonnay, and they attribute this to the clone. But it could be the terroir, couldn’t it?

Obviously, any and all of these issues can make for lots of conversation, so I’m sure we’ll have lots to talk about.

There is, however, a lacuna of knowledge concerning Chardonnay clones, which is why there’s so much confusion about them. As Nancy Sweet, at U.C. Davis’s Foundation Plant Services, explained in her 2007 paper on Chardonnay, Formal grape clonal selection programs in the United  States have not received the financial support that has allowed European programs to progress. I would guess, given the dismal state of educational funding nowadays, that that situation is unlikely to improve.

So far, my panelists are Merry Edwards, Jeff Stewart (Hartford Court), Clarissa Nagy (Riverbench), James Ontiveros (Alta Maria and Native 9) and a Wente yet to be determined (but I think Karl is unable to come. The Wentes, of course, know a lot about Chardonnay clones). The Symposium is at Byron, down in the Santa Maria Valley, where we should have an audience of about 100-150.

One thing I want to avoid, as moderator, is the panel getting bogged down in technical minutiae. After all, this is a consumer event, not a graduate seminar at Davis. But I won’t let it get dumbed down. I was at a panel event recently (in the audience, not onstage) where the moderator tried to dumb it down by getting cutesy with the panelists. It wasn’t exactly “If you were a tree, what kind would you be?” but it was close. When you have smart people onstage, let them be smart.


Chardonnay declining? I don’t think so

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Far be it from me to dispute the findings of a survey conducted by a reputable outfit, but I’m not buying the portentous headline, “Popularity of chardonnays declines” and the report that “consumption is down,” as this study contends.

It was done by Napa Technology, whose website describes it as “dedicated to designing innovative Intelligent Dispensing Solutions and Products that drive wine revenues, operating control, and growth for the Restaurant, Retail, Entertainment, and Hospitality industries.”

The company counted “90 respondents” to a survey (not revealed is how many people they actually surveyed), and of them, “forty percent…said that Chardonnay is on the decline.”

Forty percent of 90 is 36. That means 36 people in America said Chardonnay is declining, out of a population of more than 300 million. The respondents were said to be “sommeliers, wine directors, restaurant and hotel operators, wine producers, media, analysts and wine buyers.” That’s eight categories, meaning that there were about 4.5 respondents in each category. Even if you round 4.5 up to 5, that means that 5 somms, 5 wine directors, 5 restaurant operators, 5 hotel operators, 5 wine producers, 5 media people, 5 analysts and 5 wine buyers in the entire United States said that Chardonnay is declining.

I’m no expert in statistical analysis, but that doesn’t sound like a scientifically valid poll to me.

There’s plenty of evidence Chardonnay is not declining. Planted acreage of it in California alone was the highest ever, with 95,511 acres recorded in 2011 (the last year for which I have Dept. of Food and Agriculture Acreage Report numbers). While it’s true that the pace of new Chardonnay plantings slackened off from previous years, that’s easily explainable by the Great Recession. Nobody knows what the future holds, of course, but there’s no group of human beings on Earth more knowledgeable about what wines Americans will be drinking in 5 years than grapegrowers. If they’re still growing it, it’s because they believe Americans are still drinking it.

And they are, in droves. Chardonnay consumption is enormous among American wine drinkers. As the Wine Institute reported in 2011, “Chardonnay far and away remains the most popular wine in the U.S. and has continued to be the leading varietal wine for the last decade, with sales increases every year.” I get more Chardonnay samples sent to me than any other type of wine, except for Cabernet Sauvignon. That tells me that winery sales and marketing execs also believe Chardonnay’s popularity remains high. Like growers, they get paid to figure out what Americans will be drinking in the future.

The problem with little studies like the Napa Technology one that seem to “prove” things that aren’t necessarily true is that, in this age of the Internet, the “fact” of Chardonnay consumption spreads far and wide–even if it’s false. Google “Chardonnay consumption” and the Napa Technology study, as reported in Nation’s Restaurant News, is the fifth result. That’s very high up on a Google search, meaning that a lot of people will inhale that information, believe it and repeat it. The “news” goes viral, with who knows what negative impacts.

I’m willing to bet a hefty amount that ten years from now Chardonnay will still be the number one most purchased white wine in America. I don’t believe for a moment that Chardonnay has anything to fear from Albarino, Torrontés, Cava or Prosecco–all wines that the Napa Technology study said are “increasing in popularity” to Chardonnay’s detriment. Nothing personal against Albarino, Torrontés, Cava or Prosecco, but does anyone really think any of them is the Next Big White Wine?


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