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Going Rhône in Cabernet country

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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.


Supporting our farm workers is NOT political

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My readers have asked me to kindly refrain from politics here at steveheimoff.com, and I generally do, reserving that kind of stuff for my Facebook page (where we frequently get pretty fierce!). But an article I just read in the Dec. 18 issue of The Economist has got me thinking about the plight of undocumented farm workers (including vineyard workers), and that, combined with the unfortunate refusal of Senate Republicans earlier this month to even consider the Dream Act, has me riled up enough to politicize, just a bit, on my blog.

Actually, I don’t really consider the issue of undocumented farm workers to be a political one, in the sense of partisan politics. I mean, whatever your politics, you have to eat, right? And with at least 40% of all of America’s crop workers being undocumented, mostly Mexicans (with other estimates ranging up to 90%), that means most of what we eat (and drink) has been processed, at some point in some farm, orchard or vineyard, by someone who is sin papeles (without official U.S. papers). (Note: just about all the facts I state here are from The Economist article.)

It has been more or less proven that American citizens will not perform agricultural labor. Only the blindest and most cynical opponents of immigration reform argue to the contrary. Studies show that, of those Americans who are willing to stoop down, bend over, work in unendurable heat and cold, skin their hands to bleeding, break their backs and do other uncomfortable and unhealthy work connected with crops, most of them demand wages and benefits (such as health insurance, pension contributions, paid vacations and so on) that are so high, the price of a head of lettuce would skyrocket to $10, and Two Buck Chuck would cost $8. I think the most disingenuous argument in politics (and there are some pretty disingenuous arguments) is that, if we sent all the undocumented farm workers back to Mexico, their places would be taken by grateful unemployed Americans willing to work for minimum wage. Ain’t. Gonna. Happen.

The Economist article illustrates vividly and compassionately why these people cross the border illegally to come to America. It’s not to “come and dump” babies, as some Republicans have crudely and hatefully stated. Children born on American soil, regardless of their parents’ status, have been considered citizens at least since the 14th Amendment was passed, in 1868; it is true, also, that there are serious rumblings in the Republican Party to undo the 14th Amendment supposedly in the interests of “national security,” but, since “national security” can be used as an excuse for almost anything, you have to wonder why the same people who want to deport all the undocumented workers also want to deny their American-born children citizenship. Can there be other, less respectable motivations going on? Yes, there can.

My main problem with ideologues is that they are so addicted to what they perceive as the correctness of their ideas that they fail to consider the implications of what would actually happen if their ideas were implemented into law. Who exactly is going to tend the fields and pick the crops if the right wing of the Republican Party succeeds in frightening Americans enough to actually legislate some of these wild concepts (not that I believe President Obama would sign them). As for the Dream Act, well, it makes so much common sense, and seems so compassionately the right thing to do, that it was absolutely right for President Obama to vow to continue pushing for its passage in 2011.

As I said earlier, I can’t for the life of me see why this issue of undocumented workers and their children has become politicized to the extent it has. You’d think that a country with the I.Q. of a doorknob would figure out that (a) the undocumented workers aren’t going anywhere, (b) there’s no way to make them leave, (c) most of them just want a better life as do we all and as did our ancestors, (d) our food economy would collapse instantly if they did go back to Mexico (and who would clean our hotels and office buildings?) and (e) if their kids satisfy all the Dream Act’s requirements (brought to the United States before they turned 16, are below the age of 35, have lived here continuously for five years, graduated from a U.S. high school or obtained a GED, have good moral character with no criminal record and attend college or enlist in the military), they’re more likely to be model citizens than a good many kids who were born in this country to legal citizens.

Every time I travel to wine country, I see and meet the workers. The wine industry could not possibly exist without them. I would not presume to ask an owner or winemaker if he or she knows whether all the employees are legal; but I have to assume that some of the workers are not, especially the ones who get hired by the day. The situation as it stands is lousy. These people live with fear and stress of arrest and deportation even as they pick our grapes and radishes and beans. I hope that each one of you, if you agree with me, will contact your Senator and Congressperson, find out where they stand on the Dream Act, and urge them to support it, if they don’t already. And I hope you’ll also find it to your practical advantage, if not in your heart, to support some kind of path to citizenship for the millions of these sin papeles who sweat, bleed and hurt so that we may eat and drink.


Suckling, ’07 Napa Cabs, 2010 vintage, Top 10 Wines of the Week

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Former Wine Spectator critic James Suckling, who’s been all over Facebook lately (Twitter, too; what’s up with that?), was tasting in Napa, and wrote that he wasn’t sure that 2007 is the “vintage of the century” for Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. That stirred up a bit of a hornet’s nest on his FB page! Even I felt compelled to write in, and while I didn’t declare ‘07 the vintage of the century (we still have, what? 90 years to go) I did say it has yielded some pretty sensational Napa Cabs and Bordeaux blends. And that was before I reviewed this week’s top ten wines. The list is heavy on ‘07 Napa Cabs. Special shoutout to Rodney Strong for their ‘07 Symmetry Meritage, from “just over the hill” in good old Alexander Valley.

1. Vine Cliff 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville. 956 cases, 14.5%, $75

also Vine Cliff 2007 16 Rows Cabernet Sauvignon, $150 and Vine Cliff 2007 Pickett Road Vineyard Cabernet, $150

2. Paul Hobbs 2007 Stagecoach Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley (actually, Atlas Peak). 498 cases, 15.1%, $150

also Paul Hobbs 2007 Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon, $235

3. Hall 2007 Kathryn Hall Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 2,763 cases, 14.8%, $80

also Hall 2007 Ellie’s Cabernet Sauvignon, $55

4. Paul Hobbs 2008 Ulises Valdez Vineyard Chardonnay, Russian River Valley. 423 cases, 14.5%, $70

5. Gloria Ferrer 1999 Carneros Cuvée Sparkling Blend, Carneros. 2,000 cases, 12%, $50

6. Vine Cliff 2008 Proprietress Reserve Chardonnay, Carneros. 349 cases, 14.7%, $60

7. Brogan 2007 Buena Prierra Vineyard Helio Doro Block Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley. 220 cases, 13.5%, $90

also Brogan 2006 Michaela’s Reserve Pinot Noir, $110

8. Rodney Strong 2007 Symmetry Red Meritage, Alexander Valley. 5,583 cases, 15.1%, $55

9. Iron Horse 2005 Ultra Brut, Green Valley. 500 cases, 13.5%, $50

10. Knights Bridge 2008 West Block Chardonnay, Knights Valley. 200 cases, 14.5%, $65

More on the weird 2010 vintage: As I reported here, many vintners have been pulling leaves off from the canopies, in order to hasten ripening due to the cold summer and to let the clusters dry out from the overnight dampness. Then came this week’s heat wave, with temps approaching 110 degrees. You can guess what happened. All those naked grapes, under the broiling sun: raisins! That’s why they call it “farming.” Mother Nature always has the last word.


Time to throw away the suitcase

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There’s been talk of suitcase clones ever since I’ve been in the biz. I wrote about the rise of illegally-imported budwood in my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River. Back in the 1990s, winemakers, mainly Pinot Noiristes, bragged about bringing in special stuff from Romanée-Conti or wherever. Some of their reputations were based, in part, on their scoundrelly behavior; they were legends for being outlaws. Even though it was always soto voce — under the table — everyone knew who’d done what. California’s a big state, but the wine community is a little village.

To tell you the truth, I never stopped to think about the downside of bringing in budwood that hadn’t gone through the proper channels. It seemed pretty harmless to me. After all, these winemakers or growers had good motives: to increase the quality of California wine. All they were doing was going around a slow, bumbling bureaucracy, right? So who cared?

Well, as things turned out, maybe we all should have cared. Check out this article, Moth forces wine country’s secret into the open,

reported from the Associated Press but widely repeated in the last 24 hours. This is good journalism, folks, and it’s made me rethink my formerly casual attitude toward smuggling in illegal budwood.

Turns out this new European grapevine moth that’s threatening Napa vineyards may well have hitchhiked straight into the heart of Napa Valley on smuggled wood. There’s no proof, but “Agricultural officials say that had the European grapevine moth (Lobesia botrana) innocently evaded inspectors on a container ship, the first trapping of the grape eater would have been near a port,” not 60 miles inland as Napa Valley is from my hometown port of Oakland, the leading port of entry into Northern California.

Makes sense to me. I guess what I don’t understand is why anybody would need plant material that’s not already widely available in the U.S., especially in Napa Valley, where the smuggled wood would almost certainly have been a Bordeaux red variety. Isn’t there enough good Cabernet, Petite Verdot, Merlot, etc. available commercially? Why would somebody need a few sticks from Pavie or Latour or wherever? Asimov had a nice post on suitcase clones a few years ago, in The Pour, where his money quote was this: “But the truth is that the origin of a vine, whether from a clone boldly swiped from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti or meekly purchased from the local nursery, is at best meaningless.”

True, true, true. It would be like me playing a Stradivarius: no matter how good the instrument, the noise it made in my untalented hands would be awful.

We’ll probably never know how exactly the moth came into California, and even if the authorities could prove it was from vine wood, we’d never know who the culprit was who brought it in. The culprit himself might not even know. So California vintners and growers, it’s time to stop this dubious practice. It’s had its advantages in the past; no more. No more suitcase clones, period.


Terroir II: Thinking like a grape

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My post yerterday generated an interesting discussion in the “comments” section that attempted both to focus in on the true meaning of terroir and also to expand upon it. The issues raised included:

— can heavy winemaker intervention “overpower any sense of terroir”? [this is from Stephen Hare]

— What about “the heart, soul and dreams of the people farming the vineyard and making its wine” [from scott]. Romantic notions aside, what is the importance of the winemaker’s consciousness to a fine wine that expresses terroir?

— what is the nature of the interactive process that occurs between the vineyard and its manager/winemaker? Or, to use Joe’s phrase, how important is it for the winemaker “to learn from the vineyard”?

Books could be (and have been) written about all of these concepts, which are complex and interrelated. The notion of heavy winemaker intervention overpowering terroir is probably the hardest to answer. Before addressing it, it might be helpful to ask another question: If heavy winemaker intervention overpowers terroir, then does light intervention safeguard it? (By “light” I mean less new oak or less charred oak, non-dealcoholized wine, unfiltered, natural yeast, etc.) The answer obviously is no. It seems logical, then, to extrapolate that heavy winemaker intervention does not necessarily overpower terroir. Most people, when they think of winemaker intervention, mean oak. Many of the top Burgundies and Bordeaux are aged in 100% new oak, yet they are held up as prima facie examples of terroir. I suppose in theory it’s possible to take a perfectly good wine that does reflect its terroir and then bury it under this and that. I routinely complain about otherwise good Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Cabernet Sauvignons that are overoaked. But whether the amount of oak overpowers their terroir, as opposed to their being sound, non-terroir-driven wines that happen to be overoaked, is impossible to tell in a blind tasting. If you know the wine is from a great single vineyard with a high reputation, and the wine tastes overoaked, you can always say, “What a pity they overpowered the terroir with oak.” But what if the wine is (say) a Meritage sourced from various vineyards throughout Sonoma County? You can say it’s overoaked, but you can’t complain that the terroir has been compromised, because the wine by definition has no terroir, properly understood, unless you claim there is a special Sonoma County terroir; and if you do, you would have to claim there’s a special North Coast terroir, and even a special California terroir. It becomes more and more absurd and reductionist.

So it’s easy to show that winemaker intervention can just as easily enhance terroir as overpower it, and that leads to the notion of the winemaker learning from the vineyard. This is often overlooked, by the public and even by some critics, but it shouldn’t be. Christian Moueix once was quoted as saying it would take him 20 years to figure out how to make Dominus (and, in the event, he was right). Here, he strikes to the heart of the matter. It’s not just a question of the grower and vintner tinkering with oak forests or toast levels or yeast types. First they must listen to what the vineyard is saying to them. This is known by the producers of every great wine in the world. Just as a child with certain inherent talents may never be able to express those talents if he is forced into a role by his parents that doesn’t allow his inner uniqueness to express itself, so grapes need to be allowed to be themselves. If there is terroir in the vineyard, the winemaker must understand precisely how to allow it to be expressed through the proper oak regimen, canopy management, winery techniques, etc. It’s an ongoing process that implies an open-minded willingness to learn. But the proof is in the pudding, as reflected by the overwhelming dominance of single-vineyard wines in my highest scores over the years.

And that brings us to scott’s observation about “heart, soul and dreams.” It’s always tempting to get overly romantic and philosophical about fine wine, but in this care it’s justified. Scott is onto something. There is a relationship between terroir (which we think of as firmly rooted in physical parameters) and the winemaker’s mind or consciousness. A very fine wine reflects a very fine mind. There’s no blunter or more accurate way to put it. A wine mind, if you will. To make great wine, the winemaker first must think like a grape.

If a winemaker can obtain a great site and then think like a grape (and this implies his employer giving him the means to do so), then what you have is terroir + the human factor = what Peynaud calls cru. [pp. 225-226 in “The Taste of Wine”]. “A cru is the result of making the most of natural conditions, as we saw in the [discussion of the] human factors in quality.”


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