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:
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.
One of the themes making the rounds at the recent Unified Wine & Grape Symposium was how poorly the Central Valley winegrape industry is faring.
You heard talk of it everywhere. As the Napa Valley Register reported, “In the San Joaquin Valley…bulk imports, costs, growing labor issues, water shortages and especially competition from beer and spirits are causing a market decline.”
The sad, bad news from the Central Valley contrasts with generally upraised spirits in California’s finer winegrowing regions along the coast. Yes, wineries are concerned with imports and the drought [see below]. But they’re also feeling upbeat about the future due to America’s rising economic conditions and the fact that the U.S. is now the world’s biggest wine market, and we’re apparently more willing to “buy more expensive wines.”
We premium wine drinkers have made fun of the Central Valley for years, but really, the valley has served a most useful purpose. Its grapes went into all those jug and boxed wines on the bottom shelf of the supermarket, which is where millions of Americans turn for their everyday wine; and, as Thomas Jefferson noted more than 200 years ago, “No nation is drunken where wine is cheap.” Of course, he added, “and none sober where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage.” It seems that our Founding Fathers had a rather negative view of spirits. Imagine how they would react if they came back today and could see what superstars our mixologists have become!
* * *
I obviously couldn’t be more pleased that Jackson Family Wines has purchased Siduri Wines. I’ve known Adam and Dianna Lee for a long time, profiled them in my second book, “New Classic Winemakers of California,” been a fan of their Siduri and Novy wines, and have valued Adam’s always insightful comments on this blog. So it’s an absolute pleasure for me to be able to call Adam and Dianna my professional colleagues. Welcome to the Family!
* * *
You’ve probably heard the startling news: San Francisco in had its first rainless January ever in 165 years of weather-keeping, after one of the wettest Decembers in history.
No wonder we Northern Californians are feeling a little whiplashed. The general feeling among growers is that, if February and March are rainy, we’ll be okay despite this arid January. If not, then things could get quite serious in California. (As I write this, the forecast is calling for rain this Friday and Saturday, but it doesn’t look like a soaker.) Along with competition from imports and the battle over immigration, water (or the lack of it) has emerged to the forefront as a chief concern of wineries. Everybody is going to be carefully watching the skies over the next three months.
* * *
By the way, it’s not “Cabernet over cardio,” as the writer of this article says, it’s Cabernet and cardio! A perfect pairing.
MGM, the Hollywood movie studio that brought us stars such as Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Errol Flynn, Katharine Hepburn and Judy Garland, as well as legendary films that included The Wizard of Oz, Ben-Hur and Singin’ in the Rain, just celebrated its 90th anniversary. No major film studio in history has shaped the American film as much as MGM.
Ninety years ago–1924–there wasn’t much going on in the wine business. The country was stuck in the middle of one of the most disastrously stupid political and social blunders in our history, Prohibition, wrought upon us by some of the same reactionary forces that still rear their heads today. While a few wineries, such as Beauiieu, managed to remain in business by producing altar wine, most California wineries closed up shop forever.
(Isn’t it interesting that the only reason wineries were permitted by those reactionary forces to stay open was for making wine for religious institutions? But then, for a nation whose First Amendment to the Constitution includes the famous “establishment clause,” which prohibits the formal “establishment of religion” by the Congress, the U.S. has always been leaky when it comes to religious intrusion into our laws.)
Once Prohibition ended, the California wine industry restored to health or newly developed its own legendary superstars. Compared to, say, Fred Astaire and Jimmy Stewart, I suppose Louis M. Martini, Inglenook, Beaulieu and Charles Krug weren’t exactly known and loved by tens of millions of loyal fans. But still, they, and others, kept the flame burning, until the 1960s and 11970s ignited a wildfire of boutique wineries that really did capture the nation’s attention. And here we are today.
* * *
Yesterday’s rain was pretty healthy. SFO had nearly an inch, but most of the Bay Area clocked in with less than a half-inch, and the further south you go, the less rain fell. Up in the Sierra, they had a couple feet, depending on which mountain you measure; but still, the morning paper describes the rain as “a drop in the bucket” with one meteorologist saying California will need rains “of Biblical proportions” to get us out of this drought, the worst ever. So efforts at water restriction are still coming on, and grapegrowers are still wondering what it all means for them. Yesterday’s storm was pretty much unpredicted, as was the cold that accompanied it. It seems to have blown in from nowhere, proving once again that long-range weather forecasts have their limits.
* * *
Big changes at the San Francisco Chronicle’s Wine & Food Section are afoot. The paper is shutting down the satellite office that housed Jon Bonné, Michael Bauer & Co. and bringing them back to the Mother Ship, at Fifth and Mish (as we say, short for Mission Street). That’s a bummer; with the demise of the Chron’s test kitchen, the paper will no longer run recipes (!!!). But management promises that food and wine coverage will not only continue, but be expanded, which is great news. Now, if we can only get Jon to give as much love to California wine as he does to, say, mead and orange wine, the paper will be truly representative of the region it serves.
* * *
A quick shoutout to the Feb. 8 River Road Passport, the big tasting of Monterey County wines produced along the base of the Santa Lucia Highlands. It’s a good event to get off the beaten path and discover some of the charming wines from this region. Not all of the Highlands’ best wineries are represented, but that’s always the case with these public events. Some of the more in-demand wineries want to stay that way–in-demand–and not showcasing your stuff to the public is one way to maintain the illusion of exclusivity.
As we wrap up another year, I find myself, like so many others, looking back over the old one, and wondering what it all meant.
I’m not going to do any sort of list, but instead want to let my mind wander free-range over the past 365 days. It’s been a year of gradual and welcome emergence from the despairs of the Great Recession. Here in California, as you may know, our economy is booming, particularly in the coastal areas, and most especially in Northern California. Fueled by the growth of Silicon Valley, NoCal is experiencing low unemployement, high salaries, and most notably a housing boom. Prices (and rents) are soaring, bringing to mind the housing bubble of the early and mid-2000s–but this time, the experts are telling us there’s no chance of a burst. I don’t know that I believe them, though.
Wineries seem to be doing all right. Like I always say, nobody can really know a winery’s bottom line unless you’re the banker or owner, so any conjectures about the industry’s health are only that: conjectures. But business seems to be back on track. I’m sure there are individual wineries that are struggling, but sales, bankruptcies and the like don’t seem to be any higher than they’ve been in the 25 years I’ve been watching the California industry.
The Holy Grail for wineries is, of course, direct-to-consumer sales. I can’t even remember when I first heard that phrase. I do recall the first time it was brought to my attention that a direct sale brings the proprietor 100 cents on the dollar, rather than the split he has to eat when dealing with the three-tiered distribution system. That was years ago, when I was touring the wineries of the Sierra Foothills, particularly those along Highway 49, in Gold Country, and also located conveniently between the population centers of the coast and the ski resorts around Tahoe. All the owners told me how much wine they were selling through their tasting rooms, up to 90% of their production. That was a good thing, for them–but a bad thing, as far as I was concerned, because too many of the wines were (in my opinion) flawed, and yet the owners had no motivation at all to clean up their acts.
Anyhow, tasting room sales obviously are a subset of direct-to-consumer. So, today, are wine clubs that are active through the Internet. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’d love to be around in, say, 20 years, to see if wineries are still at the mercy of a (fairly heartless) distribution system, or if they’ve managed to figure out how to sell direct. At this point, I don’t have a clue.
Two other aspects of the past year intrigue me: the excellence of the 2012 and 2013 vintages. After a difficult 2011 and challenging 2010, California enjoyed two of the nicest years, weather-wise, in memory. The main wines have yet to appear from either, but theoretically, both 2012 and 2013 look to have the qualities of stellar vintages. One cloud that’s hanging over the coming 2014 vintage is California’s severe drought. As I write these words, 2013 is shaping up to be the driest year in California’s history–which goes back in record-keeping to the 1850s. It’s appalling how dry conditions are. On Jan. 1, 2014 (i.e., tomorrow), if the national (which is to say, East Coast) media don’t make a big deal about this, they discredit themselves, and show their right coast bias. How the drought will impact the grapes is complicated, a story that will play itself out next summer. Of course, the weather could change on a dime: January-March could be real drenchers. We’ll just have to wait and see.
A final observation: In all my years of wine reporting I’ve never appreciated so much as I have this year the importance of a younger generation coming up. I guess this is a natural result of the fading away of the original boutique winery proprietors, who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. There are ambitious, talented young winemakers all over the place. I’ve written about this extensively in my articles about Paso Robles and Monterey, but it’s not just along the Central Coast, it’s statewide. What energy these winemakers are bringing, what innovation, what risk-taking. California is a very conservative state, wine-wise (the opposite of our political liberalism), and it’s a bold move for a young, unproven winemaker to try her hand at something new, rather than “just” another Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon (not that there’s anything wrong with either!). But I do see a cadre of vintners in their 20s and 30s tinkering with less familiar varieties–and often they’re crafting them at lower alcohols and with higher acidity than has been the case. I’m looking forward to experiencing more of these wines in 2014.
I’d like to thank my readers for sticking with steveheimoff.com for another year; I’m now going into my sixth on this blog. Thank you, too, for all of you who take the time to comment. Your feedback always is welcome and sometimes educational. I wish you all a happy, healthy New Year.
To Napa today to explore the Coombsville region, where I’ve been only 2 or 3 times before. Although I’m armed with some pretty good directions, there’s an insecure part of me that always fears getting lost on these wine trips. Especially when it’s raining, as it will be today in Napa. Anyway, I’ve been tasting the wines from most of the producers from Coombsville lately and must say I’m impressed. I had only a vague notion of what that southeastern tip of Napa Valley is capable of. Now, I have a little more–which I hope will be augmented by today’s trip. I’ve always said, you can’t really appreciate terroir without walking it. I also love topo maps that show where the local weather influences come from (in Coombsville’s case, San Pablo Bay), but also how the lay of the land (in Coombsville’s case, the southern spur of the Vacas) helps shelter it from the winds of Carneros. Interesting stuff.
* * *
Met up yesterday in San Francisco with two fine winemakers, Fintan Du Fresne, from Chamisal in the Edna Valley, and Michael Beaulac, who presides over Pine Ridge, in Napa Valley. A pleasure to taste through some of their latest releases, and also to learn a little more about their hopes and aspirations. I mentioned to Fintan that I don’t have a good understanding of the ageability of Edna Valley Pinot Noirs, so we’re going to try and get together a vertical of some of the wines from down there. Naturally, being with Fintan, the subject of screwtops came up, and I told him what a total non-issue it is for me. However, I understand that consumers remain puzzled. We writers are working on educating them, but it takes time.
* * *
Thursday, I think, is Beaujolais Nouveau day, if I’m not mistaken. I haven’t had one in years, but I used to go to Kermit Lynch’s big parking lot party in Berkeley every Nov. 21, where he’d serve up vast quantities of that purple, slightly fizzy stuff, and serve it with what may be the best food to drink it with: grilled sausages. Here in California, Montevina used to make a Zinfandel Neuvo, using the carbonic maceration method, which was pretty much the closest to Beaujolais Nouveau we’ve ever had. (Am I forgetting someone else? I’m sure a faithful reader will remind me if I am.) That Montevina was a wine I loved! But alas, it didn’t seem too popular with the mass consumer market, and to the best of my knowledge Montevina discontinued it. Too bad; nice wine, and you could chill it. Yesterday, Fintan asked me what’s new in California wine, from my perspective. My immediate reaction: Two great vintages in a row (2012-2013) after two, and possibly three (counting 2009) difficult ones. But I added, also, that I find California to be in a very conservative mindset, vis a vis the wine industry. Not much innovation, like that Zinfandel Nuevo of long ago. I thnk the Recession scared the daylights out of producers, and when a producer is frightened, he’s loathe to try new things, instead doubling down on tried-and-true products.
If you’re in California–stay dry! But we need the rain.
It’s so interesting that the production of wine around the world fell to its lowest level in 37 years in 2012, due to dismal crops in France, Spain and Argentina. Contrast that with the all-time high, record grape crush last year in California, and it looks like good news for Golden State vintners who export their wines. But will it lead to spot shortages here in the U.S.?
* * *
I’ve never tasted a Chinese wine. In fact, I wouldn’t even know where to buy one. I do a fair amount of shopping in Oakland’s Chinatown, but the only wines I see there are from the big California producers. But if I could try a Chinese wine, it would be Chateau Changyu. If it’s good enough for Berry Bros. & Rudd to sell it in London, then it must be pretty decent. The [British] Telegraph reports that the venerable British shop–314 years young–is “the first major British retailer to give tipples from [China] a permanent place on its shelves.”
I don’t know if Chateau Changyu is the same as the “Chateau Changyu-Castel” that Susan Kostrzewa, now Wine Enthusiast’s Executive Editor, reviewed back in 2007. She tasted 3 wines–a Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Gernischt–and gave them pretty mediocre scores. Maybe things have improved since then. We may be hearing more about this Chateau Changyu. It’s “the 10th largest winery in the world,” according to the winery’s website, and also is the 79th biggest company in the People’s Republic. If anybody wants to send me some samples, I’ll gladly accept them.
* * *
I’m going to be doing my annual wine tasting and educational seminar at the University of California Haas School of Business in a few weeks. They have a student wine club that has about 65 members. These kids are smart and curious and always ask great questions, which is why I like to go. This year, the club’s president told me the MBA candidates are really curious about how I view my job as a wine critic. Their other speakers this year have all been winemakers; as the president emailed me,
…there were two different schools of thought [among the winemakers], one positive and one negative. Some winery owners/ winemakers felt that critics have undue power. They brought up the “Parker-ization of wine”(and said they disliked it) and one of the wineries said they intentionally refuse to submit their wine to critics. Another group said that critics play an important role because there is so much wine out there, it helps the public make educated purchases. This led to a discussion on what one should buy and brought up the question: “is it okay to buy bad wine if you like it?
These are issues of longstanding commentary here at steveheimoff.com, and I think most of my readers know where I stand. However, it’s important to keep in mind that a new generation mostly in their twenties hasn’t really digested the role and importance of critics, and has real questions about what we do, and about how they should behave with respect to us. Are we dinosaurs in the Age of Twitter, or are we experts worth heeding? I look forward to enlightening them on these points. As for “is it okay to buy bad wine if you like it?”, Wow. Where to begin? That could be the topic of an entire class.