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The Hill grape fraud case does NOT taint Napa Valley!



Last week’s very long (3,700 word) article in the New York Times about the Jeff Hill case has stirred up tension in Napa Valley, where some people think the author, Vindu Goel, went over the top in painting Napa as a place where wine quality is “built on quicksand.”

(Some of you might not be able to open the NYT link if you don’t have a Times subscription. Even if you can’t, you can probably find it on Google.)

Last Spring, Mr. Hill, a vineyard manager, was charged with grand theft for allegedly stealing tens of thousands of dollars worth of grapes from a client during the 2013 harvest.

Reporter Goel took the serious and significant charges of fraud in the Hill case and, some folks say, stretched them to tar Napa’s reputation in general. Prices of Napa wine, Goel wrote, are based more on consumers’ belief in the superiority of the region’s grapes than in the inherent quality of the liquid in the bottle.”

And “[M]any bottles on wine-store shelves aren’t what they seem because of loopholes in American wine labeling laws,” he added, based on an interview with the master sommelier, Emmanuel Kemiji. The inescapable implication is that a top-notch Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon may contain “a cheaper grape varietal like syrah or zinfandel” that could be from “anywhere else in the state, like Fresno.” Most damaging of all Goel’s assertions, perhaps, is this one, which suggests that spin and hype, rather than quality, are behind Napa Valley’s reputation as the supreme place to make wine in America: “Much of Napa’s price premium stems from savvy marketing, not any objective superiority of the wine.”

Reactions, mostly offended, have come from in and around Napa Valley. My friend Lewis Perdue (for whom I used to work, years ago), in Wine Industry Insight took particular umbrage over what he perceived as the Times’ unfair broadside.

“NY Times Uses Hill Wine Company Debacle To Take A Shot At Napa Valley,” he headlined, explaining that the article left an overall impression that varietal fraud and some level of adulteration were relatively common practices” in Napa.

Here’s my take. Most of what Goel wrote is objectively true, based on the facts. U.S. labeling laws do allow for up to one-quarter of a varietally-labeled wine to consist of varietal/s other than the named one. Those same laws also allow for a certain percentage of the grapes to come from areas other than the official appellation on the label. And, yes, part of the rationale for Napa Valley wine prices is due to Napa Valley’s reputation.

Did Goel go over the line? Yes. Dropping the word “Fresno” into that sentence was both unnecessary, and calculated to shock. It’s a little like the famously self-incriminating question, When did you stop beating your wife? Now that Goel has implanted the thought in people’s minds that Napa Valley wine may contain grapes from Fresno, there’s no way Napa vintners can convince them that it’s not true, no matter what they say.

Granted that Mr. Hill may (or may not) have been a crook, it’s hyperbole and unprofessional to use a single case to stain an entire region: it’s like saying that fraud is widespread in Burgundy based on the Rudy Kurniawan case, or that all of Bordeaux is suspect because a famous chateau once used illegal wood chips instead of real barrels.

It was also a little misleading for Goel to use Kemiji’s quotes to suggest that Napa Valley’s terroir is no different from any other place. Emmanuel (who I suspect didn’t know how his quote would be used) said, “You line up cabernets from Napa and good-quality cabernet from Sonoma and Lake County, and it’s really tough to say where they’re from.” This is true; as someone who’s tasted countless Cabs from those areas (and many others), I know it’s not easy pinpointing where a great Cabernet comes from. But still, it misses the point.

For the fact is that Napa Valley produces more great Cabernet Sauvignon than any other place in America, and has for a very long time, which surely gives it legitimate claim to prestige; and every prestigious region and wine in the history of the world has been considered more desirable—and thus more costly—than the competition.

As for Goel’s contention that “savvy marketing” is behind Napa’s success, this doesn’t stand up to the facts. Napa Valley achieved its success well before the modern era of marketing. The fame of the boutique wineries of the 1960s and 1970s wasn’t due to P.R., which most of those little wineries didn’t know anything about, but to the appreciation of educated wine lovers who recognized that what they were experiencing was something special. Besides, “savvy marketing” may give a winery or region fifteen minutes of fame—but if the stuff in the bottle doesn’t live up to the hype, the fame is fleeting. That is emphatically not the case with Napa Valley.

There is no evidence whatsoever—not a sniff or a shred—to suggest that the majority, or even a significant minority, of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons are not what they say they are: grown and produced in the valley, and made from Bordeaux varietals. (And besides, if adding 2% Syrah makes the wine better, who cares?) I also suspect that, when Kemiji told Goel that “there is an incentive to fudge [on blending] because the price of Napa cabernet is so high,” he didn’t know in what context his words would be used. I’m a longtime reporter myself; I know the game. Some questions are a form of entrapment. The reporter who goes into the interview knowing what points he wants to prove, and then asks set-up questions, is not being objective or fair.

Honestly, Goel’s story is a combination of personal anecdotes, irrelevant throw-ins and editorializing, in addition to the facts. Rather than illuminating an interesting story, it feeds into America’s current obsession with conspiracy theories, in this case that “wine quality” is an elitist myth, and that everything is equal because it’s not permitted for anything to be better., an online news service, covered the Hill case, and here’s a telling comment one of their readers sent in:

“I always got a kick out of these wine snobs. I knew you could give them a swig of Night Train™ and tell them it’s gourmet and they would believe it. sort of like the ‘art community’… a crappy painting of campbell’s soup cans garners millions ?????” The commenter is entitled to his opinion, of course, but it’s pathetic that the truth is lost in the shuffle: Night Train is not as good as Napa Valley Cabernet, period, end of story. And no “gourmet” in the world would ever confuse it for such.

I’m not saying the Hill case isn’t worthy of reporting, or that the Times shouldn’t have allowed Goel to run with it. What I am saying is that American journalism has sunk to its lowest level in my lifetime, in terms of scandal-mongering. What Woodward and Bernstein set in motion, nearly 40 years ago, has run amok. Not every instance of law-breaking is a major scandal. Sometimes an illegal act is just that: The isolated act of a single individual, not an indication that an entire region is unscrupulous.

On the benefits of estate bottling



At a meeting yesterday at Jackson Family Wines, several people made the point that wines that are estate bottled—that is, where the grape source is controlled 100% by the vintner, either by owning the vineyards or by longterm contracts—are preferable for wine quality to grapes that the winemaker has to scramble for each year, or that are not farmed to his or her exact specifications.

This got me thinking back to my days as a critic, and the wines I reviewed that I gave high scores to, yet were not made from grapes that could properly be called “estate.” So, as usual per Heimoff’s Axiom, not every rule in wine is iron-clad; there are exceptions to each, and in some cases, notable ones.

But I would have to say that, in general, having the precision control that estate bottled wines have is a huge plus. It’s not only a matter of where and how the grapes are grown; in order to quality for “estate bottled,” according to Wine Spectator, “the winery listed on the label owns or controls 100 percent of the grapes that went into the bottle, and the wine was crushed, fermented, finished, aged and bottled all in the same place, and that place has to be located in the same viticultural area that’s stated on the label.”

That’s a high bar to clear. If you think about it, each of those specifications might in itself be of minor importance, but when you add them all up and take them together, they make it far more likely that the resulting wine will be of high quality. Having that precision control over farming is certainly the most important of the “estate bottled” requirements, but to have the entire winemaking process “in the same place,” usually the winery or a facility located very nearby, removes the risky transportation elements that can drag down wine quality. You want to move grapes, must, fermented wine or bottled wine as little as possible; wine is living food, and doesn’t like being manhandled.

By the same token, a winery that has the means (intellectual and financial) to estate-bottle its wines is far more likely than one that doesn’t to invest in the highest winemaking talent available. Why go through all the trouble to estate-bottle your wine, only to have a mediocre vintner dumb it down?

These are all reasons why estate bottled wine almost always costs more than wine that isn’t estate bottled. The costs of production are higher.

I believe all of Jackson Family’s high-end wines are estate bottled; they include Mt. Brave, Stonestreet, Matanzas Creek, Verité, Freemark Abbey, Edmeades, Hartford, La Jota, Lokoya, Cardinale and Byron, in addition to many others. What a great portfolio. It’s one of the reasons why I took this job. Jackson Family Wines, IMHO, has the greatest portfolio of wines in the world, at almost any price point except the bottom feeders—a realm Jess had no interest in entering. If you know of another family-owned company that can make that claim, let me know.

I’ve resisted the temptation to boost or promote or praise the company that employs me for the last 3-1/2 months, since I took this job, and I’m not going to do it a lot. But I’m going to do it sometimes, including today, because it really has to be said: Too many people (so I’m learning) feel or think that all the brands under Jackson Family Wines’ roof are somehow or other Kendall-Jackson. That just isn’t true; in fact, it’s a perversion of the facts. While K-J accounts for the majority of bottles sold by the company (and, I suspect, the majority of profits), it’s simply one brand among many. Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke didn’t have to assemble this world-class portfolio (which includes high-end brands on four continents). They could well have been content to be “mere” billionaires off K-J. But Jess Jackson wanted to prove to himself, and to the world, that he could make wines to stand beside anything else, anywhere, in quality. He has done that—and estate bottling is a large part of the reason–but the story hasn’t adequately been conveyed. That’s part of the reason JFW hired me. I’m going to be telling that story, to sommeliers and other “gatekeepers,” and not just telling it, but proving it, by pouring them these wines to taste and see for themselves how great they are.

Alright, got that off my chest. Now, have a great weekend!

Global wine shortage could be good news for struggling wineries


The shortage of California wine is rippling through the system, causing serious if not quite catastrophic consequences.

Winery principles tell me that when their sales forces fan out across the country, buyers are unhappy at the lack of supply and in some cases are personally blaming the winery!

I’m sure that distributors as well as retailers both on and off premise find themselves in an uncomfortable position when wines they’ve sold for years are suddenly unavailable. Of course, the rational part of them knows that no one at the winery is responsible for short crops: Mother Nature is.

But there’s a vein of paranoia that runs through the end users of the three-tiered distribution system like a low-grade infection, and sometimes these buyers can’t be sure if the winery really is low on supply, or is just cutting them out and pretending to be short.

It’s bad for the winery. If buyers feel the winery is shorting them, they might turn to someone else they can get product from, thus terminating what might have been a long relationship.

We’ve all been reading about a wine shortage, for instance here and here, which cites BofA Merrill Lynch that “Global supplies appear to be tightening simultaneously,” with government policies in Europe and Australia deliberately discouraging production, while bad weather in South America had the same effect.

The problem is exacerbated by increasing demand from China for U.S. and particularly California wineries, some of whom are selling a surprisingly high percentage of their top wines there.

Several highly placed producers have openly fretted to me about the shortage, wondering what their companies are going to do. But the truth is, they have few options. They can’t turn to Oregon because crops there run so short due to natural circumstances. Washington has huge, fertile spaces in the east, but that state’s frequent hard winter freezes intimidate California producers, who aren’t used to having entire vineyards wiped out in a single night.

The 2012 vintage, California’s biggest ever, threw the industry a lifejacket, throwing it into temporary balance, but it probably won’t be enough to overcome the result of prior years of below-average crops, coupled with increasing demand. As Gomberg Fredrickson’s Jon Fredrickson told the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium earlier this year, “California ran out of wine.”

The result? Higher prices. The trend is especially notable at restaurants, where by-the-pour prices are inching up. It’s curious that all this is happening just as the country (and world) seems to be emerging from the Great Recession, putting a little more money into the average consumer’s pocket. Are consumers willing to dig deeper for their daily Pinot Grigio and Merlot? I expect they are–and that’s good news for wineries that have gone through the hell of the past five years, and survived.

Include me as another biodynamic debunker


I have to agree, strongly, with Tom Wark’s take on biodynamic winegrowing from his blog, although I won’t go quite as far as he did in calling it “a hoax.” A hoax is a fraud or, at best, a practical joke–in either instance, it’s something committed by someone on a consciously false basis. I don’t think the practitioners of biodynamism are consciously doing anything phony. I’m convinced they’re convinced of the truthiness of their commitment. In other words, they’re sincere.

But Tom did nail it when he wrote, “Suggesting that Biodynamics is somehow at the forefront of any movement to capture terroir in a bottle is…insulting to many fine winemakers who would never think of adopting Rudolph Steiner’s snake oil…”.

I first became acquainted with biodynamics in some detail when I wrote about Javier Tapa Meza, who then was (and still may be) Jim Fetzer’s winemaker at Ciego Vinegarden, up on the beautiful shores of Clear Lake. It was Javier–a great guy, with a great back story–who first told me all about the cow horns, the phases of the moon, the dung soups and so on.

I was incredulous, and asked Javier all kinds of questions, to which he had ultimately to admit he had no actual proof these things worked. I left that visit thinking that a commitment to biodynamism was more of a religious conviction than a scientific approach to winemaking. That was about eight or ten years ago, and nothing I’ve seen or heard since then has changed my mind.

There are many talented and sincere people practicing biodynamism in California. Mike Benziger, at Benziger Family Winery, is one. They make very good wine, but there are others who profess to practice biodynamism who don’t. And there are dozens, even hundreds of wineries who don’t stick to 100% biodynamic practices that make wine so good, it blows my mind.

So what’s a wine critic supposed to conclude? This: I don’t care how you make your wine. Just make it compelling.

Do I care about the environment? Yes. Do I care about sustainability? Yes. But in the case of wine, I care far more about my actual experience of what’s in the bottle than I do about the political beliefs or agricultural practices of the proprietor. It seems to me that even when wine is made in the “ordinary,” i.e. non-biodynamic way, it’s a pretty clean, green product. Besides, most wine regions have strict local laws concerning runoff, watershed protection, etc., and I know for a fact that growers are loathe to use any chemical insecticides, pesticides or fungicides they don’t have to.

But let’s face it, grapegrowing is farming, and a grower can’t let some religious or spiritual belief prohibit him from saving his crop when mold is about to take it over. That’s the Christian Science way of farming: pray, and hope God rescues your babies. Well, that’s not the way it works.

If there were absolute proof that biodynamic wines are better, I’d be behind this movement. But believe me, there isn’t, so I’m not.

Playing with the Grape and Crush reports


My intern, Chuck, was telling me about a certain Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon we’re both familiar with that, while pretty good, could be better. He said the owner was looking for some Merlot to blend in, to improve it.

“Why Merlot?” I asked. “For softness,” Chuck answered. The Cabernet’s tannins were too raw.

“Why not Cabernet Franc or Petit Verdot?” I said. Based on my experiences, and some reporting I’ve been doing, both these varieties are increasingly popular, especially in Napa Valley, to blend in with Cabernet. I personally thought that Merlot was less resorted to, because it is such a difficult grape to grow right.

Well, in bridge they talk about taking the guess out of the finesse by peeking at your opponent’s cards. In wine, instead of guessing about what’s up, what’s down, and what’s sideways, we can always look it up in the two guidebooks the California Department of Food and Agriculture puts out each year: the Grape Crush Report and the Grape Acreage Report.

I predicted that I thought Petit Verdot was the most expensive red grape variety in California. We looked it up: weighted average dollars per ton: $1,192. A glance of the rest of the list shows that that isn’t even close to being the most expensive. Twenty varieties cost more, including Pinot Meunier, Lagrein and Counoise!

Okay, so my predictive powers as Chuck’s boss were proven to be a total sham. But wait! “Let’s look at District 4 instead,” I said, that being Napa Valley. “I bet Petit Verdot’s the most expensive grape there.”

Flip to page 63 of the Crush guide, and there it is: average price, Petit Verdot, District 4: $4,919. That’s higher than Cabernet Sauvignon ($4,456), Merlot ($2,518), Syrah ($3,015) and Pinot Noir ($2,473)–but not higher than Cabernet Franc, whose average Napa price last year was $5,238.

Still, I could just as easily have pulled a switcheroo with Chuck and said that I bet Cab Franc was Napa’s most expensive red grape, so I considered myself vindicated. The point being that Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot increasingly are being relied upon to complexify (is that a word?) Cabernet Sauvignon. Cab Franc gives, I think, aromatics and sometimes a lovely green note of olives and herbs (in contrast to Cab Sauv’s blackberry fruit), while Petit Verdot adds an elegant structure; it seems to have tannins that are at once smoother and denser than Cabernet’s, which can be prickly despite modern tannin management.

Next I turned to the Acreage Report to see if it jived with the Crush Report. There was in fact a big spike in plantings of Petit Verdot in 2010, but it wasn’t in Napa, as I’d expected; only 18 new acres were non-bearing last year. No, the big increase in California Petit Verdot (59 new acres) was in San Luis Obispo, of all places. It took me about 3 seconds to make the connection: right before meeting with Chuck, I’d been with Scott McLeod, who left Rubicon last year to consult and, possibly, do his own thing one of these days. Scott was telling me about the Adelaide Hills region of western Paso Robles, where one of his clients is located. He predicted, confidently, that this area will become known as a prime source of Bordeaux-style red wines.

So is western Paso Robles where all that Petit Verdot is going? I looked up Cabernet Franc. Only 21 non-bearing CF last year in SLO county.  Where’s most of the new California Cab Franc going? The Sierra Foothills, is where. Once again, it took me only seconds to realize what was going on. Many years ago, more than 10 and possibly even 15, after my first trip to Amador, El Dorado and Calaveras counties, I’d returned home convinced that the best grape and wine up there in the mountains wasn’t Zinfandel, as most would have said. No, based on my tasting, it was Cabernet Franc. I said so and wrote as much. Evidently the growers still believe in it, because between those three counties they had 130 acres of non-bearing Cab Franc last year, about as much as the rest of the state altogether.

This is super-geeky stuff, and I wouldn’t blame anyone from hanging themselves if they even got one-third of the way through reading it. But for some of us, it’s what we thrive on.

Going Rhône in Cabernet country


I interviewed the great musician Boz Scaggs yesterday, and something he said made me think about how, sometimes, serendipity in the wine business pays off.

My full conversation with Boz will appear in an upcoming issue of Wine Enthusiast, so I don’t want to steal its thunder. The only part I’ll reveal is what Boz said when I asked him why he didn’t plant Cabernet Sauvignon instead of Rhône varieties on his property on Mount Veeder, a Napa mountain famed for the quality of its Cabs and Bordeaux blends.

“I wasn’t aware that it was!” was Boz’s reply. Instead, he put in the Rhônes, and I have to tell you his 2008 Scaggs Vineyard Montage GSM is an absolutely fabulous wine.

I imagine if someone had advised Boz that Mount Veeder was Cabernet country, he might have planted it instead, and the resulting wine no doubt would have been excellent. His property has great terroir, and Boz’s winemaker is the talented Ken Bernards (his brand is Ancien). We then would have had one more good Mount Veeder Cabernet, in addition to other great ones from Kendall-Jackson Highland Estates, Trinchero, Atlas Peak, Yates Family and Cuvaison. But we would not have had Boz’s Montage.

Who’s to say what other varieties could perform well on Mount Veeder, if only they were planted? Sky, a small winery on the mountain (I haven’t reviewed their wines for many years), made an outstanding Zinfandel; I hope they still do. So did Chateau Potelle; their VGS Zin off Veeder was absolutely one of the best in California. I don’t imagine there’s much Zin left on Mount Veeder, though, because it’s a tough sell.

There also used to be a winery, Veedercrest, up there that made one of the best Rieslings in California. It was so good, I bought it by the ton in the Eighties; it was a house fave. I don’t think Veedercrest exists anymore, and I seriously doubt anyone’s growing Riesling on Veeder; in all the years I’ve reviewed for Wine Enthusiast, I’ve yet to see a Veeder Riesling (although I’m sure if there’s any out there, someone will let me know!). If Americans cared about California Riesling, more people would grow it, and Mount Veeder would be a natural home. But that’s not the case.

Chardonnay, by the way, does well on Veeder, as evidenced by the likes of Mayacamas, Y Rousseau and those old Chateau Potelles. They’re steely, minerally Chardonnays, not fat, unctuous ones like you get from, say, Alexander Valley or Santa Rita Hills…the kind of Chardonnays that can take some bottle age and actually improve.

It’s true throughout California wine country that grape varieties that performed perfectly well have been ripped out and replaced, generally by Cabernet, Chardonnay or some other popular wine. I’ve struggled over the years about what to think of this. On the one hand, it’s sad. But on the other, the focus on Cabernet, Chardonnay, etc. has led to amazing progess in the quality of those wines. And if we look at every wine district in the world, they tend to be focused on one variety or family of varieties or, at most, a few families of varieties. Back in the day, Napa Valley had 20, 30 varieties or more, all intermingled. In some ways it was a more interesting period than today, but the wines weren’t as good.

And then along comes a Boz Scaggs, unaware of Veeder’s reputation for Cabernet, so he plants the Rhône varieties he loves instead, and voila! turns out a magical wine. (His Grenache rosé is no slouch either.) It’s wines like those that are so much fun to discover.

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