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Thinking of Tchelistcheff on the 20th anniversary of his death

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Can it really have been 20 years since André Tchelistcheff died?

I met and interviewed the man they call The Maestro a couple times, in my guise as a reporter, although I can’t claim to have known him well. His heavily Russian-inflected English could be hard to understand, especially on the phone, but he was unfailingly polite, in an Old World, almost Victorian way; more importantly, he was the foremost mentor to several generations of winemakers. It’s amazing how often his name comes up in conversation even today.

To me, as an historian, André’s greatest achievement was bringing a European sensibility of winemaking to the industry, at a time—the 1930s through the 1970s—when that’s what was most needed. When he came, famously, to Beaulieu, in 1938, America still had its rear wheels stuck in the muck of Prohibition. What few Americans there were who actually drank wine had little besides ersatz “Sauternes,” “Port,” “Sherry,” “Vermouth” and unidentifiable bottles with proprietary names, like Don Juan and Mission Bell, to choose from.

One of the best ways to appreciate a historical person’s contributions is through the eyes of his contemporaries. Here, we’re fortunate that Tchelistcheff’s advent on the scene occurred at the same time as an explosion of wine books. (The two phenomena are not unrelated!) In 1948 the Chicago journalist Julian Street, in the second edition of his book “Wines,” praised Beaulieu’s George [sic] de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon—Tchelistcheff’s crowning glory—as “stepping up into another class,” while he called the Pinot Noir “among the best of its type.” Pinot Noir  was (I think it’s fair to say) Tchelistcheff’s own personal favorite variety, probably due to its challenge. He told the lawyer and amateur wine lover, Robert Benson (who quoted him in the latter’s 1977 book, “Great Winemakers of California”), that he, Tchelistcheff, had produced only three “high standard” Pinot Noirs in 35 years: the 1946, 1947 and 1968, successes he deemed “accidental” although, of course, they were no accidents; but Tchelistcheff appears at that time not to have realized exactly what he had done right.

Eleven years after Street’s little book, Alec Waugh (Evelyn’s older brother) authored “In Praise of Wine,” a book so dismissive of California wine that he relegated coverage of it to two pages in the appendix. Even so, Waugh managed to mention a handful of wineries he did “greatly enjoy,” and Beaulieu was one of them. By 1973, when the founder of the Wine Institute, Leon Adams, wrote his influential “The Wines of America,” he was able to state definitively that BV Private Reserve had become “the single most-praised and most-sought after American wine.”

Why did experts like it so much? We can only begin to guess what Private Reserve tasted like young. Michael Broadbent sipped a 1941 Private Reserve (from a celebrated vintage) in 1972; the then 31-year old wine was “extremely rich…with [an] extended finish,” and despite this rather abbreviated review, Broadbent awarded it 4 stars. But a few years later, he added a coveted fifth star to the 1946 Private Reserve, which Tchelistcheff himself had poured for him at a tasting; “the ’46,” Broadbent wrote, clearly in ecstasy, “was a great wine by any standards, perhaps Tchelistcheff’s supreme masterpiece.”

It was this accomplishment—the ability to make wine so good that even a confirmed Europhile like Broadbent would swoon in its presence—that was André’s great contribution to California wine.

By the 1990s, well into his own Nineties, André’s best days were behind him. He died in 1994, his intellect and humor intact. As Rod Smith reminds us (in “Private Reserve,” published by Beaulieu in its centenary year, 2000): “Just before [Tchelistcheff] died, he exclaimed, ‘We still don’t know what kind of rootstock is right for Carneros!’”

It was that unflagging drive to know, to perfect, to achieve that marked André Tchelistcheff. He was among the first to understand that Napa Valley’s temperature gradient between Carneros, in the south, and Calistoga, in the north, mandated the planting of different grape varieties—an axiom so fundamental to our knowledge of Napa Valley today that it’s hard to fathom that it was not always known. His work with Pinot Noir has never yet been fully acknowledged. His background as a technologist showed in his never-ending experiments with different kinds of fermentation techniques, including the malolactic. Robert Mondavi, who loved him, has written (in “Harvests of Joy”) how he “often turned to André for advice” after launching Robert Mondavi Winery, and paid The Maestro the supreme compliment of calling him “one of the most influential figures in twentieth-century American wine making.” André also put his stamp on stylistic matters. His remark (to Benson) that “oak in the bottle is nothing else but seasoning” and accompanying criticism that “Some people overdo it [oak]” surely were prescient and have been echoed by latter-day aficiendos of balance.

André himself wrote what could perhaps be his epitaph, although he meant it as praise, not for himself, but for Benson’s book: in its Preface, he called the book “full of depth, full of reflections of winemakers struggling to open the gates to tomorrow.” Those words easily describe André Tchelistcheff’s own triumphant struggle: if we now stand in tomorrow, it is because we have walked through the gates André opened for us what seems like just yesterday.

Andre


These days, a man’s place is definitely in the kitchen

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But it wasn’t always.  If you came of age before the era of Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay and Mario Batali, you might be surprised to learn that, until comparatively recently, men were considered genetically and temperamentally unfit to cook.

That was certainly true when I was a little boy. Mom’s place was in the kitchen. Dad’s place was in front of the T.V., there to remain until Mom announced, “Dinner’s ready.” The only time dads were allowed to cook was in the backyard, over the barbecue.

I was reminded of all this when I bought a book in one of our great used bookstores in Oakland. “Cooks, Gluttons and Gourmets” was written by Betty Watson and published in 1962–well before the modern era of cooking began. Fifty one years ago, “cuisine” in America meant French food, snootily served in restaurants with heavy red leather banquettes. Italian meant lasagna, Chinese meant chop suey, Jewish meant corned beef, and that was that. It was the age of iceberg lettuce and frozen T.V. dinners. And nobody had ever heard of Julia Child.

In the 1960s that began to change, albeit quite slowly at first. “It was the popularity of outdoor barbecues that led most American husbands to take an interest in cookery,” Watson writes. “While the kitchen had come to be regarded as woman’s sphere from frontier days onward, cooking out of doors was different. It reminded grown men of Boy Scout days when they roasted hot dogs over campfires. [!!!] Building up a good fire in the charcoal grill was thoroughly masculine. So was the cooking of a steak.”

We’ve come a long way, babycakes! Building a good fire always makes me feel more masculine.

Yet Watson, in her research for the book, was “astonish[ed]…to learn…that cooking in ancient Greece was regarded as an art and cooks were men of stature.” For emphasis, she adds, “Men, yes–note that.” Citing Athenaeus, a second century Greek writer, she refers to his masterwork, Deipnosophistae, in which he “mentions by name twenty authors of cookery books and not one by a woman.”

(Incidentally, here’s one of Athenaneus’s recipes, for Gastris, a sweet nut cake:

Ingredients: 100g each of poppy seeds, ground walnuts, ground hazelnuts and ground almonds; 100g of dried and stoned dates and dried figs; 150g sesame seeds; 75g clear honey; 1/2 tsp ground black pepper; Olive Oil .

Chop the dates and figs then place in a pan with 30ml of the honey, 4 tbsp water and a little olive oil. Bring to a gentle simmer, cover and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the fruits are soft. Take off the heat and allow to cool, then turn into a mortar and pound in the ground poppy seeds, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds and black pepper until your have a smooth, thick, dough-like paste. Turn into a pan and cook until the dough is thick and of a consistency that can be rolled out. Roll out the fruit and nut paste and cut into squares. Heat the remaining honey in a pan, dip the fruit and nut paste in this then coat in the sesame seeds.)

Men were the chefs to royalty for most of history, and even royalty took a turn in the kitchen. Peter the Great “would often go into the kitchens to knead bread dough with his own hands or pour cheese into molds,” Watson writes. Thomas Jefferson was as interested in food and cooking as he was in wine. Watson tells us he introduced spaghetti into the Americas, was “the first to serve French fries with beefsteak” (and we can imagine that at one time French fries were considered special), “the first to use vanilla as a flavoring,” and “learned to make ice cream while in France, writing down the recipe in his own hand…He imported olive trees” and grew “many rare vegetables such as broccoli and asparagus.” Once in the White House, he “personally supervised the planning of state dinners.” Can you imagine a modern U.S. President being a foodie? He’d be mercilessly mocked, especially by Fox News.

When did men drop out of the kitchen? It seems to have been a by-product of the Industrial Age and of the rise of American capitalism. The man was expected to leave the home early in the morning, work all day, and come home, late and hungry. The little woman was expected to remain barefoot and in the kitchen, and have dinner ready for her man. (See almost any episode of “Mad Men” with Betty Draper in it.) This model remained the dominant one throughout the first half, even the first two-thirds of the twentieth century.

By the 1980s, it definitely had changed. Why? Historians of American culture will have the last word on that. Certainly the re-entry of the man into the kitchen paralleled the rise of the boutique winery movement in California. I can’t prove it, but I suspect the two were related.


Wine writer? Historian? Blogger? All the above–and more

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When Merry Edwards asked me to introduce her at her induction Feb. 18 for the Vintners Hall of Fame, my first question was “Why me?” I was obviously honored, but really had no idea why Merry selected yours truly.

Her reply: “Because you’re an historian.”

Well, my reaction was, “I’m a wine critic.” I didn’t say that, but the thought instantly rose in my head. Somehow, Merry calling me “an historian” seemed to cast my role as a wine critic into a secondary light. And I take being a wine critic very seriously: rating and reviewing wine is the essence of what I do for a living.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how silly that thought was. After all, Merry knows me, not just as someone who reviews her wines, but as the author of A Wine Journey along the Russian River and New Classic Winemakers of California, in which she has her own chapter. So to Merry, I’m as much an historian as I am a critic.

And then it occurred to me: Why do we pigeonhole ourselves into categories anyway? Critic–historian–writer–journalist–blogger–these are all part and parcel of what I do. They’re just words for the totality of my love for, and interest in, wine and writing.

Actually, in terms of which came first, Merry’s right: I was an historian of wine well before I was a wine critic. I mean, in the sense that I’d made reading about the history of wine a consuming interest in my life by the late 1970s, ten years before I was ever paid to write about wine. I’m glad that, by the time I took wine writing on as a career, I’d built up a very extensive knowledge of wine history through the reading of books. That gave me a basis later on for making qualitative judgments about wine. I was able to understand that wine is (among other things) a hierarchy. There is nothing fundamentally democratic about wine, other than the fact that anyone can drink it. (Thank goodness.) Wine always has been about elitism: if you were wealthy you could afford to drink better wine than a poor man, because it costs money to produce a quality wine. It did when the Caesars had their favorites (which presumably few others could buy), and it still does. In fact, the history of Western civilization can largely be told through the spread of wine from its ancestral homeland somewhere in the Caucasus up the river valleys of Europe and, thence, to the New World.

It frightens me to think that there probably are wine “critics” out there right now–blogging away–who don’t possess a single good book on wine. Worse yet: it frightens me that there are wine writers whose chief resource is Google. I can’t imagine anything more contrary to the spirit of wine to have someone send you a sample of, say, a Muscadet, and then Google it in order to know what you’re drinking. This isn’t because there’s anything fundamentally wrong with a quick Internet search. I use Google all the time. But I use my library more. Why is a real library “better” (in every sense I can think of) than Google? Because I have inhaled my wine books until their information informs my DNA like genetic code. The patient acquisition of detailed knowledge, lovingly and painstakingly assembled over many years, can’t possibly be compared to a quick Google search. That is an insult to all great wine writers, living or dead.

And so I gratefully acceded to Merry’s request. To put her contributions in wine into historical perspective (and let us hope Merry’s career extends as far forward into the future as it does into the past), one must know the history, not only of California wine, but of world wine in general. One must understand, also, how Merry sees her own place in history (which is the purpose of the pre-interview). The history of wine involves elements from almost every aspect of human study, from anthropology to chemistry to religion to gender studies. It’s so much more than “Here’s what I think.”


Closure of Masa’s raises questions about cult wines

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Grub Street, the San Francisco food blog, is reporting that  Masa’s, the fine dining staple opened by chef Masataka Kobayashi in 1983, is closing after 30 years.”

Masa’s is, of course, the Michelin-starred, legendarily expensive ($154 five-course wine-and-food tasting menu) restaurant, north of Union Square, that’s lured in generations of foodies. For sheer luxe, it’s had few rivals.

Founder Masataka worked at Auberge du Soleil before launching his eponymous restaurant. He was found murdered in 1984, a crime that has never been solved; subsequent chefs have been a who’s who of culinary superstardom (Julian Serrano, Ron Siegel, Gregory Short). Masa’s wine list was as celebrated as its food.

Why is Masa’s closing? Grub Street blames it on “formal, tablecloth’d fine dining [that] has gone out of fashion.” The San Francisco Chronicle’s “Inside Scoop” food columnist, Paolo Lucchesi, reports that the building’s owner “wants to install a more casual restaurant in the space.”

In San Francisco, many high-end restaurants have shuttered their doors over the years: Trader Vic’s, Stars, Charles Nob Hill, The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton among others. All were hit by changes in taste that made them victims in the highly-competitive restaurant world, which depends on fickle customers always looking for the next hot spot. In the case of Masa’s, the Great Recession provided the coup de grace that finally put Masa’s out of its misery.

In fact, the continuing effects of the Recession are hurting restaurants nationwide. On Friday, Nation’s Restaurant News reported, via Lewis Perdue’s News Fetch, that “Restaurant operators [are] downbeat as sales, traffic soften.” Of course, this doesn’t mean that high-end restaurants are on the verge of extinction. For every Masa’s that closes, a replacement opens: Hakkasan, The Sea by Alexander’s Steakhouse, Katsu. Local reviewers go wild, and those able and willing to afford them flock to their doors.

Yet you have to wonder, how long will they last? Ten years? Fifteen? Or, like Masa’s, thirty? These numbers seem highly unlikely; a restaurant’s life span is getting shorter, not longer.

Which brings us to the subject of cult wines.

I would imagine that the proprietors of cult wines, especially Napa Valley Cabs, like to think their brands will be around for a long time. After all, Lafite is still here after, what? 700 years? (“the estate was the property of Gombaud de Lafite in 1234” – Alexis Lichine)

But many a Napa cult winery is no longer as culty as it once was. We must assume that some of the famous names in Napa were hit hard during the Recession, and that it was only the owners’ deep pockets that enabled them to hang on. Their hope was that, with recovery would come improved sales, at traditional prices.

Yet are these expensive cults not the wine equivalents of Masa’s, “formal, tablecloth’d” wines that just may be out of step with today’s more casual approach? People, especially younger ones, are looking for things other than show-offy wines: they want wines of interest, of deliciousness, from all over the world, wines that are different and unique and that tell a story and are easy to drink with food. Above all, they want wines that are affordable. I believe that the weltanschauung of wine has shifted irrevocably, due not only to the Recession but to changes in America’s demographics. We are rapidly becoming poorer and less white, changes that cannot bode well for super-expensive wines. In a sense—and I don’t mean to get political here, but it’s just the truth—some of these cult wines are like the  Republican Party, out of step with the mainstream of where America is going. That’s why they lost so badly in the 2012 elections, and that’s why cult wines may be endangered in the next ten or twenty years.

Some will survive and even prosper. Brands as powerful and embedded as Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate likely are the Lafites of Napa Valley, and will be with us for a very long time (assuming their family ownership wishes to continue them). But I have to tell you, there are a lot of Masa’s in Napa Valley—wines that were hugely popular in their day, but are now increasingly anachronistic.


Playing “what if?” with California wine regions

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It’s really an accident of history that we here in the U.S. and in California decided to name wines by grape variety rather than by region.

We have Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Petite Sirah, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and so on. In Europe, of course, it’s a different story. There (for the most part) they named wines after the regions they came from: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Sancerre, Champagne, Chianti, Barolo, Rheingau, Ribero del Duero, etc.

The reasons why California went the varietal route as opposed to the regional route are many and complex. It made sense to men like Frank Schoonmaker, in the 1930s, following the Repeal of Prohibition, to get away from the false and misleading names of California wines like “Claret,” “Burgundy”, “Port” and “California Champagne”, and take a more honest varietal approach. Their hearts and minds were in the right place: simple, candid truth-telling on the label.

Unfortunately, it seems not to have occurred to them to name California wines after their regions. Think how everything would be so different if we’d chosen names like Oakville, or Glen Ellen [the town, not the wine brand], or Salinas Valley, or Geyserville, or Los Olivos, or Oakley, or Edna Valley.

If that had happened, we might have developed a regional-varietal family coordination like they had in Europe. Instead of having Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrahs, Petite Sirahs, Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs, Tempranillos, etc. with an Oakley appellation, the pioneers of post-Prohibition viticulture and enology might have figured out that a red blend based on 2, 3 or 4 varieties worked best for their climate and soils. You’d be able to say “Oakley Red Wine” and know exactly what that meant, same as “Pauillac” means a Cabernet Sauvignon blend. As things now stand, however, “Oakley Red Wine” could be anything.

Red blends have become quite the thing lately, with more and more wineries mixing varieties willy-nilly. Some of them aren’t very good, and I get the feeling the wineries do it because they had the grapes or bulk wine available and couldn’t think of anything better to do except to stick them in a big tank and call the resulting wine some wacko name. Marketing departments also get involved, perhaps advising their employers that problems with existing varietals suggest staying out of that game. For example, the market’s already crowded with Cabernet. Syrah doesn’t sell. Nobody wants Zinfandel anymore. No one’s ever heard of Tempranillo. And we can’t call lit Moscato because it’s not. And so on and so forth.

However, there are some really wonderful blends out there. To mention a few, Seghesio San Lorenzo Estate, which is Zinfandel and Petite Sirah; Krupp 2009 The Doctor (Tempranillo, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Cab Franc); Chateau Potelle 2009 Explorer The Illegitimate (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel and Syrah), Shafer 2009 Relentless (Syrah, Petite Sirah).

Is it good or not so good that California went down the varietal path instead of the regional one? Hard to say. The government developed a system of American Viticultural Areas that kinda sorta looked to the French appellation system as a model, but differs from it in that the Tax and Trade Bureau doesn’t have any quality standards for an AVA. So really, an appellation doesn’t mean very much. Still, it’s fun to play “What if?” And there’s this, too: some of our better appellations have become so varietal- or varietal family-specific that they’re practically synonomous. Say “Napa Valley red wine” and most people will think of Cabernet or a Bordeaux blend. Say “Santa Rita Hills red wine” and most people will think of Pinot Noir. Say “Amador County red wine” and most people will think of Zinfandel. So, in a way, despite the fluctuations and randomness of human decision making, grape variety and region find each other in a most serendipitous way.


Where’s Napa Valley’s next Great Leap Forward in the 21st century?

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I am, as many of you know, something of a student of the history of wine, and of California wine in particular. I’ve always had a hankering for history–any era, any country–although I do have my favorites: World War II is one (I have almost as many books on that as I do on wine), and I also enjoy the history of science, especially of modern physics. But my wine education began with a study of California’s wine history, and it’s still going on. That’s the thing about history: it keeps on happening.

I’m mindful of this, because I’ve been thinking about how Francis Ford Coppola is engaged in restoring the historic Inglenook name, which really had been dreadfully mauled over the years, since it passed from the hands of the great John Daniel, Jr. to a series of corporate owners, including United Vintners, Heublein, Constellation and The Wine Group. No disrespect to any of those fine companies, but that’s a pretty sad track record for a winery that had been as great as Inglenook, which was founded in 1879 and therefore has a legacy as important as any winery in California.

When I first started learning about wine, Inglenook already was in its dog days. It was mainly known for the Inglenook Navalle bottling, which hardly was great wine. Those of us who knew history appreciated and respected Inglenook for what it had been, not what it was. We hoped that, someday, the glory that was Inglenook would be restored. But that seemed impossible. Even after Francis Ford Coppola successfully repatched together the original Inglenook estate vineyard, in Rutherford, with a series of purchases, the name “Inglenook” seemed deader than a doorknob. Coppola named his brand Rubicon, not Inglenook, because he didn’t own the rights.

That’s now changed, and is why it was so exciting to hear that Coppola had bought back the Inglenook name (from The Wine Group) and plans on resurrecting it for the wines that had been Rubicon Estate.

Inglenook was one of the Big Four that kept the reputation of Napa Valley for Cabernet Sauvignon going, post-Prohibition. The others were Louis M. Martini (now owned by Gallo), Beaulieu (Diageo) and Charles Krug, which thankfully remains in the hands of the Peter Mondavi, Sr. family. Each of these wineries is doing fine, although concerning Martini, I think the jury’s still out on precisely where the Gallos aim to take it. Beaulieu has been left marvelously intact by Diageo, who understands the truth of the old adage, If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it, and Charles Krug remains an outstanding exemplar of how good Napa wine can be at relatively affordable prices. Still, I think it’s fair to say that none of those three wineries has aspired to be the very best in Napa Valley.

Which leaves Rubicon/Inglenook. Can Coppola push it back to the top? I, personally, have always thought a great deal of Rubicon, the Bordeaux blend that was the Rubicon winery’s flagship wine. The old estate vineyard, west of Highway 29 on the Rutherford Bench, is one of the glories of Napa Valley, just beautifully situated. I’ve always given very high scores to Rubicon (culminating in 95 points for the 2008, which I reviewed last October), and I’ve also always enjoyed the Cask Cabernet Sauvignon, which is consciously modeled after Daniels’ Cabs, made during Inglenook’s glory days in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. That Cask Cabernet, for my money, is pretty much right up there with Rubicon, although it’s a different kind of wine, more closed in youth and, overall, more elegant. But it’s also $100 less.

When I think back over Napa Valley’s amazing history, I’m grateful to those who came later, but advanced the cause. Robert Mondavi clearly stands out, head and shoulders above anyone else in the second half of the twentieth century, with the possible exception of André Tchelistcheff. But we don’t have to choose between them. I also give great credit to Bill Harlan. He came along at a point when pretty much everybody thought Napa Cabernet was as good as it can get, and then he made it better. Without Bill, I wonder if there would be Screaming Eagle, Araujo, Staglin, Hundred Acre, Colgin and all the rest of what we nowadays consider “cult wineries.” Bill Harlan showed that Napa could reinvent itself, even when nobody thought it needed reinventing.

Sodden thought: I wonder what Napa’s next reinvention will be, and who will lead it?


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