I tasted yesterday through a bunch of single clone and clonal blends of Pinot Noir from a Russian River Valley winery. There were six in all. I don’t want to single the winery out, which is a practice of mine in this blog. But I do want to use this occasion to express my views on clonal bottlings, which are almost invariably disappointing.
There can be only one legitimate reason for special designating Pinot Noir by clone (or by vineyard block, for that matter): specialness. All the rest of the reasons can be attributed to marketing. It’s sad to think that a marketing person could trump the taste of a winemaker, but that’s preferable to thinking that a winemaker doesn’t have the taste to begin with to recognize the limitations of a single-clone Pinot Noir.
This all started with the various block bottlings from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Although they’re all part of the same vineyard, the various blocks were so different from each other, they deserved separate bottlings. Hence La Tache, Echezeaux and all the rest. I’m not here to argue that Romanée-Conti shouldn’t be block designated. I’m suggesting that, in all too many cases, California wineries that do clonal bottlings are making a mistake. Each clone by itself has a theoretical divot that other clones or selections can fill in to make a better wine. If you see a clonal bottling as part of the winery’s Pinot lineup, be skeptical.
* * *
Pacific Rim, which makes Riesling from Columbia Valley grapes, seems to have struck gold, via the artful use of Twitter, Facebook, their own website, and a series of giveaway campaigns designed to lure customers in and, once they’re there, give them reasons to stay (not the least of which is quality: my colleague, Paul Gregutt, has given them consistently good reviews over the years).
This is one of the few instances I’ve seen where social media apparently has had a positive impact on the winery. I wish the New York Times, which reported the story, had done a little more research proving that it was social media, and not other factors, that was responsible for Pacific Rim’s success. It’s conceivable that the winery would be selling 200,000 cases a year without social media. Still, it’s pretty impressive. The company’s leaders seem to have a coherent vision how to use a coordinated social media approach, instead of just throwing a bunch of spaghetti against the wall and hoping a few strands will stick.
* * *
Tom Wark called me yesterday to ask if I think that a wine sent out for review when it’s very young is not as good as one that’s been held back by the winery for a few years.
My answer was, of course not.
Apparently, some other writers make the assumption that if “x” winery sends out its $80 2010 Cabernet now, it’s because the wine isn’t very good, whereas if “y” winery sends its 2009 out, the wine must be good because it’s older.
If that isn’t the silliest thing I ever heard, I don’t know what is. I don’t make any assumption about the quality of a wine based on how long the winery did or didn’t sit on it. (If you’re tasting blind, you wouldn’t necessarily know the vintage or release date anyway.) The one assumption I do make, when I see an expensive Cabernet that seems like it was rushed to market, is that the winery may be having liquidity problems. But that has nothing to do with the quality of the wine. When producers ask me when to send their wine, I always tell them: When the winemaker says it’s ready to be tasted. This is not a decision that should be left to marketing, sales or P.R. Unfortunately, all too often, it is.
* * *
Wine of the Week
Summers 2009 Checkmate Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain
Summers has produced solid, if relatively uninspiring, Cabernets for years. With the release of this small production (200 cases), expensive ($100) wine, they’ve outdone themselves. It was my highest scoring wine of the week.
Do you care which wines Obama served British Prime Minister Cameron at the White House? I don’t. But some muckraking journalists do. They’re making a big fuss over the secrecy because the President’s staff is all mum’s the word. Even BloombergBusinessWeek has waded into the pseudo-controversy, as if this were another “Gate” scandal akin to Watergate. People, get a grip. We have more important things to worry about than which wine was poured and how much it cost.
* * *
In a related absurdity, the inevitable has finally occurred in China, as concerns over fake Bordeaux mount following the bubble-like price explosion of Lafite, etc. Why nobody saw this coming is beyond me. China bootlegs everything else of value; why not fine wine? When I was at Screaming Eagle on Wednesday we had a long talk about counterfeit wine. The management of Screaming Eagle, understandably concerned (the wine sells for $750 a bottle on the mailing list), described to me in some detail the steps they go through to avoid it. I’ll skip some of the details, but let’s just say that every bottle is “tagged” in the same way my dog, Gus, has a microchip in him that’s exclusive to him.
* * *
I’m seeing a lot of mold on the 2010 Pinot Noirs, which are now rushing in for me to review. In my Vintage Diary that year, I quoted, on Oct. 28, an article from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat that said “Last weekend’s rain added to an already miserable season. It spawned mold…Damaged fruit was left hanging on the vine.” I’ve encountered it particularly in Sonoma Coast and Carneros Pinots.
* * *
Yes, the price on California wine is going up. We all know that. It’s due to several factors: light crops due to the weather, a lack of new plantings due, in part, to the recession, and increased demand. This article describes how it’s playing out in the Central Coast, but the same is true of the North Coast. That doesn’t mean consumers won’t be able to find inexpensive California wine. They will, but it will increasingly come from Central Valley grapes. Central Valley grapegrowers are aware of this, and are reacting accordingly. They’re planting new vineyards, improving quality and are no longer content with being known as a source of inferior jug wine. As a result, “the wine grape industry in the Central Valley has strengthened,” according to the Porterville Recorder.
Don’t forget, the Feds require only 75% of a varietal wine to be made from the named variety. That means 24.9% can come from someplace else. Next time you drink a nice coastal California wine, remember that factoid.
Finding the right balance between tourism in wine country, while protecting the privacy of residents, is never easy, especially in California, where these things always tend to get politicized and people get passionate on both sides.
I remember the brouhaha over the Napa Valley Wine Train, the tasting room ordinances, the protesters in Knights Valley upset with the late Jess Jackson’s plans there, even the worries of the remote Anderson Valleyites that their rural back country is being developed too fast.
Now, down in the gorgeous Santa Ynez Valley, there’s another ruckus, this time concerning the plans of the Larner family to “develop a winery, convert a structure into a tasting room, and host a series of special events,” according to this article in the local paper. [Note: Monica Larner, a member of that family, is the Italian editor for Wine Enthusiast, and a good friend.]
I don’t see these issues as either/or propositions. Surely it’s possible to allow wineries to do a little expansion, while taking the fears of neighbors into consideration. Each side has to give a little to get a little. It’s the American way.
* * *
I’ve been arguing for years that Napa Valley is not getting warmer, nor is coastal California as a whole [“coastal” defined as about 40-50 miles from the shoreline and inland]. Actually, it’s getting colder. We just went through another bizarrely chilly, wet Spring and Summer in 2011, the seventh year in a row that threw vintners a curveball. So it’s puzzling to me to see yet another story on how Napa must learn to adapt to global warming, this one from NPR’s website on Nov. 3.
It quotes Andy Walker, probably the most respected viticultural scientist in California; he’s at U.C Davis. Prof. Walker doesn’t actually make the statement that Napa is warming up. That’s implied by the writer. He does mention varieties like Barbera and Nero d’Avola that could do well in a warmer climate, but I would suggest that Napa Valley is not the place to plant them, even if they were marketable, which they’re not. Napa Valley rolled the dice on Cabernet and Bordeaux reds, and it’s worked quite well, wouldn’t you agree? Don’t mess with success, as the old saying goes. Where I would look to plant these warmer climate varieties, as well as other southern Mediterranean varieties including the Port grapes, is in hot areas like Temecula, which have tried to compete, unsuccessfully, in the continental climate sweepstakes of Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah. They might as well try something different. Napa Valley will continue to produce some of the greatest Cabernets in the world for the rest of the 21st century (barring some unpredictable catastrophe). If I were growing grapes in Napa, I wouldn’t lose any sleep worrying about whether I should rebud the Tokalon Vineyard to Barbera.
* * *
Smirnoff’s Nightlife Exchange Project is a fascinating instance of how to run a wildly successful social media campaign to promote an alcoholic beverage. So successful, in fact, that you could use it as the poster child for what 99.9% of wineries will never be able to do, and hence of little informational use to them.
Yes, if you can hire Madonna as a collaborator, it’s easy to generate 1.8 billion online impressions across six continents. (Memo to Madonna: Will you help to promote steveheimoff.com? If not, I’ll ask Lady Gaga. Beyonce already turned me down.) But I can’t agree with Michelle Klein, Smirnoff’s digital expert, that there’s a take home lesson in Smirnoff’s campaign for anyone besides big corporate companies like Smirnoff. She talks about “linking digital and physical engagement” as the “sweet spot for marketers.” Well, of course ordinary people are going to vie for the chance to dance with Madonna on her next tour! That’s their reward for being one of those “impressions.” But how is an ordinary winery supposed to link the digital experience with a physical engagement, in quite the same way? Says Klein of the campaign: “It’s about people…It’s the spirit of a team that loves to take risks that makes it happen…the magic comes from the content that the consumer generates.” What does that mean for the average winery, which barely has the time much less the budget to lure consumers to their websites, Facebook page or Twitter feed? If I’m running a family winery and want to jump more deeply into social media, I read Klein’s statement and go, “Duh! What the heck does that mean to me?” Take risks? Spirit? Magic? Forget the gobbletygook, just tell me what to do!
Beringer to Latinos: Buenas dias!
It’s always been a matter of concern to me that wine consumption in America is overwhelmingly by white people. Ethics aside, if wine is only being enjoyed by Caucasians it’s bad business practice. In California, whites are already less than half the population. Why don’t more Blacks, Asians and Latinos drink? Cultural reasons, is why. Black people like to drink, but their alcoholic beverages of choice tend to be cognac and mixed drinks. Asians seem to prefer beer and rice wine, if they drink alcohol at all. Latinos, too, like beer and liquor.
The wine industry has been very bad at reaching out to these communities. Partly it’s because the industry has no coordinated marketing effort. It’s also relatively poor, compared to the beer and spirits industries. And maybe the wine industry didn’t want to seem like it was pandering to specific ethnicities, the way certain brandies do in Black communities with billboards that are frankly sexual in tone.
It’s nice to see that wineries like Beringer at least are finally starting to take Latinos seriously.
Another blast at critics
This time it’s from blogger Craig Camp, who reminds us again that wine “is indeed a social event, it’s what should be for dinner not ‘fodder for criticism.’” Wine and food should be about sharing and socializing, not scoring. “Critics rank wines and taste wines against each other, which is a cruel thing to do to wine of subtlety and grace.”
Well, of course there’s truth in that statement. Reviewing wine does reduce it somewhat to the status of a Miss America beauty pageant. But I don’t see why enjoying wine with friends, on the one hand, and critiquing it are mutually exclusive. A person can fit both comfortably into his life. Besides, millions of people enjoy reading wine reviews. They’re a helpful way to choose which wine to buy. And remember too that it’s not entirely true that “Critics rank wines and taste wines against each other” exclusively. I do do that, but I also write articles and books about wine, so I’m an educator, not just a critic. I think we critics are often easy targets for a kind of anti-elitist bashing that is a form of elitism in itself. Still, I commend Craig for reminding us that “Wine appreciation is about appreciating wine, more accurately about appreciating life.” True dat!
Does anyone care about Bordeaux anymore?
Mike Veseth had an interesting post the other day called “Is Bordeaux still relevent?” He wrote, “Relevant to those of us in the United States, I mean. It used to define fine wine, but now we don’t seem to buy much of it – the momentum’s shifted to Asia. It’s just another ‘brand’ to many Americans, and not one that is especially successful.”
I completely agree. Nobody I know is particularly interested in Bordeaux. Oh, the Napa winemakers are (to the extent they can afford it), and some über collectors are. But few others. Most of the cool restaurants I go to don’t even have Bordeaux on their wine lists anymore, or, if they do, it’s just for a token. Just as well. We Americans were mesmerized by Bordeaux for a few centuries. But time marches on.
The Gav was forced to drop out of the Guv’s race after his fundraising efforts pooped, despite a ballyhooed Facebook presence (his thousands of friends include moi). Now, in this sympathetic article by the normally ascerbic Maureen Dowd, The Gav sounds almost wistful, after the trauma of seeing his political life — which those of us who’ve watched him forever know was his abiding passion — go down the tubes. “This is it. God bless. It was fun while it lasted,” he is quoted as saying of politics, adding that, “In a couple of years, you’ll see me as the clerk of a wine store.”
First of all, don’t believe for a second that Dah Mayor is giving up on politics. Not in his dna. He lives and breathes the hurdy-gurdy life of political office, and no matter what he says, there’s still a Governor’s or Senator’s seat (or an Oval Office) he dreams of. But if by chance elected office isn’t in his karma, he’ll have an easy time finding a wine store to clerk at, since he owns a bunch of them through his PlumpJack group. I can still see The Gav working the register at the first PlumpJack wine store, on Fillmore Street. He was a good clerk, friendly, smiling and attentive to his customers’ wants. It’s hard to imagine him peddling wine now that he’s had a taste of the big time. But maybe.
Don’t try spitting after the first 500
This is a first-person account of a guy’s first experience judging at a monster wine tasting, the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Never mind that it’s eloquent testimony to the futility and inherent contradictions of such massive events, whose findings must be viewed with the utmost suspicion. I’ve blogged endlessly on the limitations of big competitions. What caught my eye was the author’s confession: As he began tasting the 544 wines, he had an epiphany: “I was finally going to have to learn how to spit.”
My embarrassing little secret: I, too, have never learned to properly spit.
I’ve tried to hide it for years, out of shame. I’m sure that lots of people noticed, and had the decency not to say anything. Bigtime critic whose scores can make or break a wine, but how does he spit? Like a girl. Either I expectorate back into my glass (eeewww) and dump it someplace, or I have to bend over and lean into the drain on the winery floor and let the stuff gurgle out from between my lips. Messy, stupid looking. I just never got the hang of ejecting a straight, strong, steady stream of wine through the air and having it hit its target like an arrow into the bull’s eye. I can’t whistle, either. Are the two related? But not being able to spit is the only thing I’m embarrassed about in my job. Everthing else is, well — as Oded Shakked would say — da kine.
Reserve? No, thanks, I’ll take the regular
Bill Daley has a nice Q&A with Randall Grahm in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune (another endangered newspaper, which reminds me: Did you see the other day that Media News, which owns practically all the newspapers in the Bay Area besides the Chronicle, filed for bankruptcy?). In addition to all the interestingly robust things Randall said was this sentiment: “Oak does not make everything taste better; generally one is better off passing on the special ‘reserve’ selections.”
True, true, true, true, true. I’ve found this to be so over and over in my career. Several times each week a winery will send me a “regular” and a “reserve” bottling and, almost invariably, I’ll give a higher score to the regular. The conceit behind a reserve seems to be to let the grapes get much riper than for the regular (or extract the hell out of them), then plaster as much new oak as you can on the wine. The result? Thicker, heavier, duller, and you get to pay an extra $10 or $20. Caveat emptor.
Snob wine magazines go head-to-head. Will they clobber themselves to death?
La Revue du Vin de France, a top French wine zine, announced it’s going international, in an effort to combat Decanter and Wine Spectator. Bring it on! RdV is a pretty technical publication; their Feb. issue has articles on “Oxidation of white Burgundy” and “Carbon balance: challenges in the wine estates,” which don’t exactly sound consumer-friendly to me. Nor has RdV shown that it has any appreciation of California wines, which account for about 70-80% of all wines sold in America. I went through their 2009 archives and couldn’t find a single article on a non-French wine. I suppose there may be a market for this, but not in America. Not really. But bon chance, Revue du Vin people!
Steve in New York
I’m off to The Big Apple Sunday for Wine Enthusiast’s annual Wine Star Awards, surely one of the most glamorous wine events of the year. In my tuxedo, I’ll be shmoozing with an amazing cast of true legends: Ted Baseler, Roger Trinchero, Gary Vaynerchuk, Scott McLeod, Leonardo LoCascio, Harvey Chaplin, Claudio Rizzoli, Robert Hill Smith and Josh Wesson, among other award winners. What a wonderful night this has become. My boss, Adam Strum, stood by it for years, and look what a success it is. It’s been my pleasure to contribute my small part.
I’ll try to post something before coming home next Thursday, but we’re pretty busy around the clock, and I may not be able to. Check in. In the meantime, stay happy, be healthy, eat good food and drink good wine.