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Peter Mondavi, Sr.: A vision held steadfast

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I’ve held off commenting on Peter Mondavi, Sr.’s death, because it’s been well covered elsewhere, and also because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to bring to the conversation.

It’s already been noted, for instance here in Wine Spectator, how much Mr. Mondavi contributed to modern winemaking techniques, such as cold fermentation and the use of French oak barrels. Important as those were, on reflection I think his greater contribution was to the sense of continuity he brought to a valley in which well-heeled newcomers enter the arena all the time, often acting as though Napa’s history hadn’t really been complete until they arrived.

This is not to say that Mr. Mondavi’s importance simply was longevity, although that, in itself, is an achievement. It also was an achievement of the first rank that he, together with his family, was able to keep Charles Krug Winery strong and in their hands; this was one outfit that, no matter how hard things might have been here and there, refused to sell out, although I’m sure they had opportunities aplenty.

But perhaps Mr. Mondavi’s greatest achievement—which he has bequeathed to Napa Valley—was that of a vision held steadfast. It can be difficult to define “vision.” Wealthy newcomers to the valley have visions, too; of Parker 100s, $300 wholesale prices on their wines, and all the glitz and glamor that go with the cult wine lifestyle. That is, to paraphrase Churchill, at least a vision…but it is not a particularly savory one.

The vision Mr. Mondavi possessed, he inherited from his parents, Cesare and Rosa, themselves saturated in the traditions of grapegrowing and winemaking. From their humble beginnings in Lodi, in the darkest depths of Prohibition, they were practically the living incarnation of the modern evolution of California wine. Peter Mondavi, Sr. and his brother, Robert, you might say, were born in barrels.

Why does continuity matter? It may be that I perceive its value more today than I might have twenty years ago. Continuity, in the person of a man or woman, is the residual compilation of all that has occurred up to that moment: the person becomes the living embodiment of it, and thus worthy of respect. If a wine region such as Napa Valley can be said to have a soul, then that soul resides not so much in its terroir, nor in its buildings, and certainly not in its newcomers, but in its enduring legends. And Mr. Mondavi was an enduring legend.

You know, in the last several years of Mr. Mondavi’s life, his family made a great deal of him walking up and down that famous flight of stairs on his way to work, even at his centennial age. They were proud of his health and grit, as well they should have been. But whenever I read that he was still climbing those stairs, I thought, not just about a single individual, but about Napa Valley. That it is still there, ascending, persevering, reporting to work every day, despite the nonsense that sometimes threatens to overwhelm it and, in our lemming-media culture, usually does. In that sense, Mr. Mondavi was a metaphor for Napa Valley itself. Just imagine what his eyes perceived over his long lifetime: the events, personalities, achievements, the drama, the ups and downs and tumult–a sweep of history encompassing, through his parents and his own life, most of the twentieth century and, through his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, born and not yet born, what likely will be a good part of the twenty-first and even the twenty-second. That is what Mr. Mondavi means to me. If I ask myself who else in Napa Valley is like him, or ever will be, the answer is: No one.


Happy 50th, Robert Mondavi Winery

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Believe it or not, kids, there was a time when Napa Valley possessed no Robert Mondavi Winery (RMW).

Prior to 1966 Napa was a sleepy little wine valley, dominated by legendary wineries already perceived as old-time, like Beaulieu, Inglenook, Charles Krug and Louis M. Martini. A few newer wineries had sprung up over the decades, including Mayacamas (1941), Stony Hill (1953) and Heitz (1961), so we have to take the claim, oft-repeated, that RMWwas the first new large-scale winery to be established in the valley since before prohibition” with a certain grain of salt. Still, the building of the physical winery itself, designed by the celebrated California architect Cliff May, was an extraordinary event. It brought to the valley a look that combined traditional Mission motifs with a modernity that seemed to express the essence of Napa Valley, and its wines; and, in becoming an almost instant tourist mecca, it opened the gates to Napa Valley as one of the most visited wine regions in the world.

There was, too, at the time a great deal of critical interest in the wines the brash, not-quite-so-young (53) Robert Mondavi was creating; but here, too, we have to hedge this statement with an explanation that there wasn’t much going on at that time in America in the way of critical coverage of the wine industry. That was to come, much later, in large part due to Robert Mondavi, the winery, as well as the man, who was such a relentless engine of exhortation for the wines of Napa Valley.

Early reporters, unsure of how to parse Mondavi’s wines, and understanding that such a new enterprise would take some time to find its sea legs, instead focused on the winery and Robert’s audacity. One of the first important wine books to be published after RMW’s founding was The Fine Wines of California (Hurst Hannum and Robert S. Blumberg, 1970). Mondavi’s wines, they wrote, “show[ed] breed and flavor”; they reserved their highest accolades to the ’68 Fumé Blanc, but were less enthusiastic when it came to the reds: the ’66 Cabernet was “pleasant, rather fruity,” but “not the most complex,” while the ’66 Pinot—a variety Robert’s winemaker son, Tim, would be famously associated with—was “sharp…light…[and] unpleasant.”

Three years later, Leon D. Adams, the former head of the Wine Institute, in his The Wines of America (1973) was astounded that, by that time, RMW was attracting visitors “at the rate of 1500 per week and are selling them a tenth of the winery’s output,” an impressive anticipation of direct-to-consumer sales. But Adams, an amateur historian and a fine one, did not pretend to be a wine critic, and did not venture into that area. That year, 1973, the same caveats issued by Hannum and Blumberg came from the pen of the man who arguably at that time was the dean of American wine writers, Nathan Chroman. In his The Treasury of American Wines, Chroman found Mondavi’s red wines “satisfactory, but [they] do not measure up to the whites…”, although he held out hope for the Cabernet Sauvignon. But he, too, love the Fumé Blanc.

Europeans were perhaps more welcoming to the wines. Three years before Adams wrote, the great British enophile (and Francophile) Harry Waugh was taken by his hosts to RMW, where, as he wrote in Pick of the Bunch (1970), he found “extraordinarily exciting…ideas and projects” bubbling forth: That 1968 Fumé Blanc—the one Hannum, Blumberg and Chroman loved (and Robert is credited with inventing the term)–had “the true smell” of “a blanc fumé from the Loire,” and received the ultimate Waugh plaudit of being a wine “which would go into my collection…”. He thought less well of a ’67 Chardonnay, but a ’66 Zinfandel was his favorite in a flight of five, and so was a ’66 Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, it was through the admiration of Harry Waugh and his London-based Zinfandel Club that the wines of the new “boutiques” such as RMW were introduced to and appreciated by the intelligentsia of Europe (except for the French), which gave them great cachet.

We can say, and be on sound historical footing, that the launch of RMW heralded in that boutique winery era—which saw, over the next 15 years, as stellar a flight of winery startups as ever has been recorded in history, on any continent. There was nothing like it: with the advent of that generation of young, determined, bold and visionary vintners, California experienced a land rush of new wineries that set the stage for its future success and made it the international capitol for wine excitement. Things are quite different today, when none but the über-rich have the means to establish a new winery, and the sparkle, steam and creativity that marked the 1960s and 1970s have faded away. But Cliff May’s arch and campanile still mark that glorious stretch of Highway 29 through Oakville, and the footprint of Robert Mondavi remains as large and indelible as ever.

 


French wine month names, the California drought, and growing weed in Napa Valley

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Here’s how a wine-crazed country thinks: On Sept. 22, 1792, the First French Republic was born, amidst the fiery pangs of the French Revolution.

It was a good day for the middle class of Paris, not so good for Louis XVI and his Queen, Marie-Antoinette, both of whom who already had been deposed and imprisoned (and would shortly be killed). The people were in such a radical mood that when deputies to the Convention gathered to draw up a new constitution for France, they even changed the names of the months. Instead of Roman-derived names usually dedicated to gods (i.e. January/Janus, the god of sunset and sunrise), the Convention created a calendar that began with the current revolutionary Year I and, starting with that dramatic Autumn month of “September,” redubbed the months this way:

Vendemiaire (Vintage)

Brumaire (Mist)

Frimaire (Frost)

Nivose (Snow)

Pluviose (Rain)

Ventose (Wind)

Germinal (Budding)

Floreal (Flowering)

Prairial (Meadows)

Messidor (Harvest)

Thermidor (Warmth)

Fructidor (Fruit)

The new month-naming scheme, as it turned out, didn’t last; Napoleon abolished it in 1805 (although it was briefly resurrected in 1871, when for two months a radical-socialist government took over Paris). But see how much the month-names of the Revolutionary Calendar reflected the annual cycle of the vineyard. How wonderful it was for France to consecrate their calendar to wine and other treasures of the harvest! Vintage-budding-flowering-fruit—these remain the annual stages of the grapevine around the world, but alas, no government any longer names months after them.

* * *

The Press-Democrat reports that, thanks to El Nino, January was “the wettest since the drought began” in 2012, with more than 10 inches of rain falling in Santa Rosa. That has brought North Coast reservoirs up quite a bit, and the Sierra snowpack hit a five-year high last month, but “California is Still in Drought,” Scientific American says, adding, “It will take many more storms and almost assuredly more than a single winter—even one with a strong El Niño—to erase” the historic dry spell. Bring on the storms!

* * *

It looks like Napa city may be poised to allow medical marijuana dispensaries, including the possibility of “cultivation,” although both practices currently are outlawed. It’s likely that California will soon legalize even recreational use, not just medical use, giving a new state agency, the Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation, authority over growing it. No doubt the best pot farms will be located in precisely the kind of climate central and northern Napa Valley possesses: hot, sunny and dry in the summertime. Given the vast amounts of money that can be made in the pot business in California alone–$31 billion a year—why would a vineyard owner, given the legal ability to do so, waste his time on Cabernet Sauvignon when he could grow weed instead? Maybe not on those prime hillside and benchland vineyards, but in terroirs less suited to Cab, like the fertile flatlands along the Napa River? Hmm. Would you? I would. I’d find a consulting farmer who specialized in weed—kind of like the David Abreu of marijuana (and you know there are folks setting themselves up for it) and grow, baby, grow.


Teaching the history of wine to Millennials

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Drove up to St. Helena yesterday on a preternaturally beautiful day to have lunch with Freemark Abbey’s longtime winemaker, Ted Edwards, at a little restaurant I’d never eaten at before, Goose & Gander. I must say I’d go back for the charcuterie and beef tartare, both of which were excellent.

I don’t typically drink before driving—and I had the usual long schlep back to Oakland—but since Ted was pouring his Viognier, I made an exception. What a nice wine. Ted told me his story, and the tale of the winery’s Bosché Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, which goes back decades. I asked him if the Bosché is the oldest still-extant bottling of a vineyard-designated wine in Napa Valley.

We both thought for a moment, then almost simultaneously we blurted out “Martha’s Vineyard,” the quintessential Heitz Cabernet that dates back to (I think) 1966. After that, we couldn’t come up with other candidates. Can you? That led us to a conversation about history, new consumers and messaging. How do you educate a younger consumer about an older brand, without sounding like you’re a crusty old curmudgeon reliving his glory days to a youngster who doesn’t really care?

This is the dilemma faced by dozens of Napa Valley producers whose roots date back to the 1960s and 1970s. You have to stay relevant. You can’t coast on your laurels (although some try), because the demographic that’s familiar with your laurels is close to 70. But convincing a Millennial that history is important also is tough. We all know, anecdotally, that younger people are remarkably ill-informed about history. This must be because they don’t think it matters. It’s also why large tracts of the media have been reduced to writing about “the new [fill-in-the-blank],” the hippest this-or-that, the top ten trendiest blah-blah, up-and-coming whatevers, and so on. Publishers understand (or think they do) that younger consumers only care about the here-and-now, so that’s what they push. History tends to get thrown out, like that disposable baby with the bathwater. It’s sad, to many of us who believe that history is an essential component of the wine-enjoying experience. But what you are gonna do?

Why did I write that “history is an essential component of the wine-enjoying experience”? Because wine is so much more than merely what you’re experiencing in the mouth. As Matt Kramer points out in his latest column, there are “wines of pleasure” and “wines of experience,” the latter “deliver[ing] that sort of dimensionality, which, after all, is the distinguishing feature of all truly great wines…”. I would suggest that one of those “dimensions” is the intellectual one of understanding the vineyard’s and winery’s history. We tend to create a difference between “intellectual” and “sensory” pleasures that’s not really true. Any baseball fan knows that a huge part of the interest in watching a great ball game transcends what’s happening on the field to encompass statistics, strategy, the great plays and players of the past, the rivalry between the two games, and the sweet nostalgia of youthful memories of sand lots and bleacher seats. The appreciation of baseball is multi-dimensional.

As educators, we owe it to the next generation of wine lovers to pass on the history, traditions and tales of this wine business we love so well. This is the essence of the fabled “story-telling” that wineries are so engaged with lately. Winemakers understand that the appreciation of wine is so much more than just the organoleptic or analytical part. And thank goodness for that. In the 1980s budding wine aficionados thought they had to master an entire set of tasting skills in order to appreciate wine—as if they were preparing for an Enology class in sensory analysis at U.C. Davis. I always thought that was nonsense, as if you had to be able to deconstruct and then reconstruct a car in order to love driving it.

Fortunately, we’ve matured as a wine-drinking nation to the point where we understand that wine appreciation is, as Matt suggests, multi-dimensional. Still, I do wonder, and worry, about that non-appreciation of history among so many younger people. We just have to make the learning of history more tantalizing, by telling our stories better, don’t we?


A tale of two bars: dives and tasting rooms

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1. Is the dive bar doomed?

I have two images in my head of the classic American dive bar. One is from the movies, where so many scenes of intrigue, drama and violence have occurred in them. I think of the Silver Bullet, the bar in Thelma and Louise, for example, with its country & western band, pool table and cowboy drifters chugging beer from the bottle. (You’d never order wine in such a place!)

The other image I have is from my own past. There used to be a place in San Francisco, South of Market, in Clementina Alley, which in the Eighties was not the yuppified haven it is now. It was called, for a variety of reasons, the Headquarters. On any given night you’d have drag queens and businessmen, Pacific Heights doyennes and dudes in leather chaps, hippies and hustlers and young straight couples out slumming, all playing pool or darts, or dancing on the postage stamp-sized dance floor to Blondie’s Rapture. I once brought Marilyn, who found it amusing, but, on emerging from the rest room, remarked that she should have brought her hip boots. That was the Diviest. Dive. Bar. Ever.

The dive bar played a role in America’s mythic development. The old saloons of the Wild West were dive bars, and so were the shadowy joints of film noir, if we go by Wikipedia’s definition: “Dive bars:disreputable, sinister, or even a detriment to the community.” Or, in Playboy’s view, “A church for down-and-outers and those who romanticize them, a rare place where high and low rub elbows—bums and poets, thieves and slumming celebrities. It’s a place that wears its history proudly.”

Yet last Friday’s San Francisco Chronicle headlined on its front page, “In boom time for booze joints, is it dive bar’s last call?” (The online version is headlined “Is it last call for dive bars in San Francisco?”) It seems that with rising rents and shifting demographics, dive bars are an endangered species, especially in neighborhoods like The Mission, SOMA and even to some extent the Tenderloin, that used to be their strongholds. I frankly doubt that the dive bar will go the way of the dodo bird, but the situation in San Francisco does bring to the fore a certain gentrification process that seems to be hitting many of our cities. Old-fashioned dives are turning into fancy little cocktail bars; bartenders are being replaced by tattooed “mixologists” for whom an appearance in The Tasting Panel is their Red Carpet; whiskey rocks has morphed into elaborate concoctions of flavored spirits, sweet liqueurs, bitters, candied fruits and sugar. Dashiell Hammett is turning in his grave. For that matter, so is Herb Caen.

* * *

2. My gig at K-J’s tasting room bar

When I gave a little talk to the Kendall-Jackson tasting room staff a while back, and I told them I’d never worked a tasting room, they very kindly invited me to work in theirs! I thought it was a splendid idea, so we made a date, and on Saturday I drove up and did a six-hour stint.

I was as nervous as an opening night understudy as I “went on” but the truth is, there was nothing to be scared of. I quickly learned that all you have to do is be yourself. And since I’m a pretty sociable guy, I had lots of great conversations, always including but not necessarily exclusively about wine.

The visitors are from all over the place, America as well as abroad, but the main thing they had in common was that they’re happy to be in wine country, at a winery they like, on a beautiful summer day. When you’re with happy people it rubs off. I met a Dad from Atlanta who was taking his daughter on a tour of California after she graduated college. I met a surgeon from U.C. San Francisco Medical Center and his wife and baby. I met a pair of chiropractors who told me about nervous system health. There were several folks from my home town of Oakland—even from my neighborhood. I met a family of Cuban-Americans from Miami who love wine and cigars. There was a woman from Canada and a young couple from Silicon Valley. And on and on. People have such amazing stories. Wine-wise, they all have different tastes, of course. Some only like sweeter wines, like Muscat Canelli. Some don’t like Pinot Noir, some shy away from Cabernet Sauvignon. G-S-M is new to almost all of them. Most are eager to learn, and of course one does one’s best to share information with them in a respectful manner. It being a Saturday, in this last gasp of summer, the tasting room was very crowded..

One thing I noticed is that sometimes people are shy about asking questions about wine. You don’t want to lecture them in a high-handed way; you want to respect their privacy and personal space. So it’s a balancing act: you infer when it’s appropriate to talk about the wine and, if so, to what degree. With most of the people, I found that even the reticent ones opened up once the conversation got flowing, and then their wine questions and observations came out. As I’ve always instinctively known, but have to constantly remind myself, there are no dumb questions about wine.

KJWEG


Fake wine? Nothing new

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Everybody’s shocked, shocked about what Rudi Kurwanian did, but faking wine is nothing new. Below is an extract from Cato the Elder (234 BC-149 BC), a Roman statesman, on how to fake Coan wine—a wine that should have been made from grapes grown on the island of Kos, but that, as Cato points out, can be fabricated using cheap Italian grapes. The addition of all the salt water was because Coan wine apparently was salty, perhaps like Manzanilla sherry.

“If you wish to make Coan wine (Cato says), take water from the deep sea on a calm and windless day, seventy days before the vintage, from a place where no fresh water can reach. When you have drawn it from the sea, pour it into a vat. Do not fill the vat, but leave an empty space of five amphorae [about 30 gallons]. Cover up the vat, but leave a space for the sea water to breathe. After thirty days, rack it off cleanly into another vat, leaving its sediment. After another twenty days, rack it again and leave it till the vintage.

“Leave the grapes from which you intend to make your Coan wine on the vines, and let them be thoroughly cooked and ripened. When it has rained and dried up again, pick them and expose them to the sun for two or three days out of doors if there is no rain, or if there is rain set them out on hurdles under cover, and pick off any moldy berries. Then pour ten amphorae of your sea water into a fifty-amphorae cask. Then remove the berries from the stalks and press them down into the cask with your hand until it is full, so that they may soak up the sea water. When you have filled the cask, close it, leaving a small space for the air to pass. After three days, take the grapes out of the cask, press them and store the wine in good, clean, dry casks.

“That it may have a good bouquet, do as follows: Take a pitched potsherd and put on it a glowing live coal, perfume it with various scents to be found at the perfumery, put it in a cask and cover it up, so that the fragrance may not escape before you put it in the wine. Do this the day before you rack your wine into the cask. Transfer your wine from the press to the cask as quickly as possible and leave it for fifteen days with a cover, leaving an air space, and then seal it up. Forty days later you will bottle it in amphorae, adding to each amphora a forty-eighth part of must boiled down to one half. Do not fill the amphora above the point where the handles start. Put your amphorae out in the sun in a place where there is no grass, cover them so that no moisture can get in, and do not leave them in the sun more than four days. Then remove them to the cellar.”

* * *

So you see, counterfeiting wine is just about as old as wine itself.

By the way, speaking of the Ancients, when they described their wine, in their treatises and poems, they didn’t use the kind of language we do today, which is of comparatively recent derivation. (I mean the analogies to fruits and flowers, and talk of acidity and tannins and oak.) Our winespeak would have puzzled them, perhaps even appalled them, as hopelessly mean and barbarian. They saw wine as a gift of the gods, and when they wrote of it, they tried to grasp—sometimes with success—its essential mystery as well as its divine properties. They did not attempt to describe what wine tasted like (as we do) so much as what drinking it felt like (as we do not). Here, for example, is Bacchylides, a Greek poet who lived around the time of Socrates and Alexander the Great, on a certain wine:

“Sweet compulsion flowing from the wine warms the heart, and hope of Love returned, all mingled with the gifts of Dionysus darts through the brain, sending the thoughts of men to heights supreme. Straightway it overthrows the battlements of cities, and every man dreams that he is heir to a throne. With gold, yea, and ivory, his house is gleaming, and wheat-laden ships bring him from Egypt over the flashing sea, wealth beyond count. Thus does the drinker’s heart leap with fancies.”

Are we better off with “notes of blackberries and cherries”? Not really. But we’re stuck with it, for the time being.


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