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Thursday throwaway: Drink while you shop, and cookie-cutter Napa Valley Cab

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It hasn’t come to my local Whole Foods yet, but it looks like it’s on the way: “Sip ‘n Shop.” According to yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, that’s where “Some high-end supermarkets are turning into neighborhood watering holes. Many have set aside space for wine bars…Some stores encourage shoppers to ‘sip ‘n shop,’ drinking while pushing a shopping cart for a more relaxed shopping experience.”

I had mixed reactions when I read the article. On the one hand it’s really cool and very European to be able to have a nice glass of wine while you’re shopping. On the other hand it’s clear why some of these high-end supermarkets are doing it: a “more relaxed” shopper is a shopper who will be more relaxed about spending more money. I think it’s also a little concerning that if this tendency spreads, we’ll have more cars on the road driven by people who are a little tipsy.

Still, on balance, how civilized it is, being able to shop leisurely while sipping something. When you think about it, we’ve historically compartmentalized the different culinary parts of ourselves: we eat food and drink wine at restaurants and bars, while we buy food and wine at retail outlets. Who says you can’t blur the lines and combine the two?

* * *

Had lunch yesterday with an old friend who’s sort of a representative for small wineries. He hooks them up with distributors, who then resell to their on- and off-premise clients. My friend was telling me about one Napa Valley winery he represents that makes quite a good mountain-grown Cabernet that retails for $80. As soon as he began telling me this, I thought, “Uh oh.” That’s because there’s about a gazillion Napa Valley Cabs in that price range that are quite good, meaning that if I were scoring them, I’d give them at least 90 points.

It is as easy as falling off a log to make a 90-point Napa Cabernet Sauvignon these days, which is why there are so many of them. And that’s the problem: the market for these types of wines is limited, and yet supply is constantly expanding, as more and more people with a little money come in and buy themselves a lifestyle.

My friend was telling me he’s trying to think up innovative ways to interest buyers in this Cab, but honestly, it’s like Sisyphus pushing that rock uphill. There are a lot of cookie-cutter Napa Cabs out there, and the fact that none of these newer ones has a particularly interesting story doesn’t make selling them any easier. I mean, what is the tableside conversation between a somm and the customer? “This winery is owned by a [fill-in-the blank, Silicon Valley venture capitalist, mortgage king, neurosurgeon, engineer, Hollywood mogul, professional athlete]. It was made by [fill-in-the-blank, famous consulting winemaker],” blah blah blah, Tweedledum and Tweedledee. When I used to taste these wines for Wine Enthusiast, pretty much on an everyday basis, I was able to appreciate them for their beauty and richness, the sheer sense of drama they convey. They can be gorgeous. But after a while there were so many of them that I started wondering, “Where the heck do all these people sell all these wines?” I figured that a lot of the owners were so rich, they didn’t care if they sold anything, because they could afford to keep the winery going for years, and besides, it gave them immense bragging rights to their friends to be able to say that they got 91 points from Enthusiast, or 90 points from Spectator, or 92 points from Advocate, or 93 points from Galloni, whatever. So, like I said, as soon as my friend gave me the bare outlines of his Napa client, I smelled trouble. In so many respects, Napa Valley has become a vanity playground for outsiders who want to be able to own a Cabernet winery. They all claim to be unique but they’re not, not by a long shot. I don’t envy my friend his job. And, hey, I’m not talking about the really truly unique Napa Cabs that are out there, the 95-pointers and above. Maybe this just indicates that Napa has reached a certain level of maturity, like Bordeaux. Yet I still wonder who’s buying all these Cabs, $80 and above, into the triple digits.


Wednesday Wraparound: Wine as intellectual delight, and a new Freemark Abbey

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Wine writer Gus Clemens must be a man after my own heart. In this lovely column he wrote for the San Angelo [Texas) Standard Times, he writes of wine’s “intellectually challenging” dimension—a dimension I love.

All too often, in our industry, we reduce wine to its objective components. Master somms analyze it to a degree unmatched in rigor, winemakers themselves analyze it for technical flaws and blending opportunities, and wine critics (ahem…) analyze it for its hedonistic attractions. We give scores and numbers and puffs and stars to wine, we talk about raspberries or currants or lemongrass or vanilla, about attacks and finishes and ageworthiness—in short, about every physical dimension of the wine we can possibly say anything about. But we too seldom talk or write about its intellectual component, which is to say: we ignore wine’s appeal to that part of ourselves that is distinctly human, distinctly thoughtful, distinctly divine.

Gus Clemens touches on this component, but it’s really worth volumes. I stand second to no one in falling in love with a gorgeous wine, a “100-pointer,” if you will. I’ve had my share; when you experience a perfect wine, the top of your head blows off, your taste-memory explodes, you want to shout about it from the rooftops. But imagine how much richer your experience would be—not only of a perfect wine, but of all wines—if it included the context of history, geography, politics, economics, philosophy, invention, human boldness, notions of the godhead, the presence of the spirit–the entire panoply of conscious adventure we call the human journey. When I think about wine from this perspective, wine turns Biblical: the ancients believed it was a gift from God, or the gods. Perhaps it really is. I will not apologize for “reducing” wine to a point score, but I will hope that it never becomes only that.

* * *

I want to bring to my readers’ attention the fact that the newly refurbished Freemark Abbey Winery is now open for business. As this article from the St. Helena Star explains, the Jackson Family has invested heavily in the 100-year-old-plus winery, restoring the old stone buildings, building a new restaurant, and launching a museum-style exhibition space, whose content I was honored to help devise. Ironically, Freemark Abbey was the first winery in Napa Valley I ever visited, in 1979, so it has a special place in my mind and heart. I was just getting into “important” wine and wanted an “important” Cabernet Sauvignon to cellar, and so I asked for one in the tasting room. The lady suggested I buy their Cabernet Bosché. In my ignorance, I said I didn’t want “Cabernet Bosché” but Cabernet Sauvignon. The lady told me that Cabernet Bosché was Cabernet Sauvignon. I didn’t trust her; alas, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and I had just enough knowledge to think that I knew what I was doing. Clearly, I didn’t. I have often recollected that incident to remind myself of an important lesson: when it comes to wine knowledge, everybody starts from the beginning. There are no stupid questions. No one of us should ever be impatient with anyone for not knowing what we know. (That is the basis of snobbery.) Besides, what we think we know today may be what future generations call ridiculous. So take things in context; don’t be ideological; be generous, and realize you’re not the measure of all things in wine! And I hope you’ll drop by Freemark Abbey to check out the new digs.


Paso Robles, Sonoma, Napa: What’s the right amount of growth?

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The thing about America is that the easy issues have been solved. What’s left are the hard ones, and among those—hardly the most pressing, but troubling if you live in wine country—is how much development to allow.

Basically, the two sides are these: on the one hand are tourists who bring in the dollars that pay for police, firemen, road repair, teachers and the like. They want to visit wine country and have a lot of fun stuff to do, and wineries are eager to provide them with the opportunity.

On the other hand are people who actually live in wine country and find the increasingly crowded roads a real hassle. Whether you’re a fourth generation Napan, Sonoman or Paso Roblan, or someone who moved there six months ago for a quieter, simpler way of life, the influx of thousands of extra tourists has got to be annoying.

This is not a new issue in wine country, but it is increasing to epic proportions. As Angela Hart, at the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, and Esther Mobley, at the San Francisco Chronicle, point out, things are reaching the boiling point.

Both Hart’s article, in Saturday’s Press-Democrat, and Mobley’s, in yesterday’s Chronicle, are balanced and objective looks at the two sides. Mobley provides continuing coverage of the brouhaha over Justin Winery’s removal of oak trees, which really freaked out lots of locals. Hart looks at Sonoma County’s approval of 300 new wineries in the last sixteen years, which opponents say sparks “unruly crowds, loud noise and traffic on narrow, winding roads [that] is detracting from the peace and quiet of their neighborhoods.” Neither of these journalists takes a side; neither do I. These are political decisions and a reporter should not engage in politics.

I’ve followed these debates for a long time. There’s never an easy answer. You can’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg, which in this case is the dollars the flow into formerly rural communities that badly need the money. But you can’t take a farming community and turn it, willy nilly, into Fisherman’s Wharf. What is needed is a reasonable amount of growth. You can’t have no growth; that train has left the station long ago. Nor can you have unlimited growth: nobody wants to see Motel 6’s and Taco Bells sprawling along the Silverado Trail.

The Justin case is not quite the same as the Sonoma case. Justin did something that even they admit was a horrible mistake, and they’re trying their hardest to apologize and make amends. Still, Mobley got it right in her analysis that this tempest has brought Paso Robles, formerly a sleepy little wine community, its “first real dose of Wine Country growing pains.” Wine country is nothing if not charming, but as we all have experienced, there’s nothing charming about a traffic jam that extends from Yountville to Calistoga—20 miles—that takes 45 minutes to negotiate.

The answer? Like I said, the easy issues have already been solved. What we’re left with in America—problems of policing, of homelessness, of the environment and climate change and healthcare—are seemingly intractable. They can only be addressed when both sides are reasonable and open to compromise—and “compromise” has turned into a dirty word, in all too many cases. Wine country should be an exception. It should be a place where reasonable people can get together and reach reasonable accommodations that may not satisfy everyone, but that give enough to all parties to keep the peace, allowing for managed, but not unlimited, growth.


Wine Country: gated communities?

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It comes as no surprise to me that Napa County is the seventh least affordable housing market in the country.

We know that places like San Francisco, Marin and Manhattan are unaffordable to all except the wealthiest of our citizens, but Napa? True, it’s never exactly been Motel 6 country, but in Napa City you didn’t used to need millions of dollars to afford a fixer-upper.

Now you do. The media price of a home in Napa just it $545,000, about one-half that of a house in San Francisco, but 2-1/2 times more than the average price of a U.S. home.

The reasons why are not hard to discern: Napa Valley, like all of California’s valleys, is visually beautiful. The weather is outstanding. San Francisco is only an hour away (depending on traffic). Ski country to the east, the Pacific to the west, lakes, mountains and wilderness all around, what more could you ask for? Throw in the glamor of wine, and the cost of entry suddenly shoots sky-high.

It wasn’t that long ago that Napa City was a dumpy place. The upper classes didn’t live there, or even visit; they went to St. Helena, or Calistoga, or the south valley to dine, or drove into the Bay Area. But in the 1990s and early 2000s the city began all that work along the riverfront. Hotels and posh resorts went in, along with expensive restaurants, and voila, Napa City became chic. And now, the French are invading Napa Valley: S.F. Eater reports that, “From Mount Veeder to Calistoga, Napa estates are selling fast to Bordelais vintners.” In other words, when it comes to real estate prices, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The situation “on the other side of the hill” in Sonoma County is pretty much the same, at least in Healdsburg, which by the year 2005 had become so tony, it started topping the list of wine destinations to visit and spend a lot of money. Today, Healdsburg’s average home price is higher even than Napa’s: $699,600, although Sebastopol’s is even more, at $725,000. (I think that Healdsburg and Sebastpol are not populous enough to be considered “housing markets.”)

Funky $ebastopol! Where is the pot and patchouli crowd going to live? Maybe Guerneville, where the median home price is a comparative bargain, at $366,100.

Now consider Cloverdale. If you know it, it’s as the one-stoplight town, at the crossroads of Highway 101 and Route 128, in the center of the Alexander Valley. Entrepreneurs have tried for years to gussy up Cloverdale, but the farm town firmly resisted their efforts, remaining stubbornly rural and slightly shabby.

Until now.

Sonoma Magazine asks, “Could Cloverdale be the next Healdsburg?” They reference New restaurants and boutiques. A coffeehouse that’s a community gathering place. A burgeoning arts scene. Fresh ownership of tired businesses. Summer concerts on the plaza that draw 2,000 adults and kids. City slickers, drawn by the rustic beauty and calm, are relocating to Cloverdale — some bringing high-end businesses with them.”

It’s not really likely that Cloverdale will be the next Healdsburg. There’s not enough housing stock, and I think that local zoning laws would prohibit development from occurring. Still, Cloverdale might turn into a kind of Los Olivos of the north, a precious, expensive tourist mecca of galleries, cafés and upscale inns. (Cloverdale actually is the most centrally-located town from which to explore Alexander Valley’s many charms.)

As a homeowner myself, I am benefitting from this stupendous rise in coastal California real estate values. My city, Oakland, is “poised to be the Bay Area’s hottest [housing] market in 2016,” says the San Francisco Chronicle.

Still, I worry about the people who can’t afford to live here, or anywhere else along the coast. From San Diego and La Jolla up through Big Sur, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and northward into wine country, California is becoming a Disneyland for the privileged classes. I don’t know the answer, any more than anyone else. This trend may be unstoppable, except for one force stronger even than the market force of supply and demand: the San Andreas Fault.

QuakeMap


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.


A blind tasting of Mt. Veeder

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I gave 100 points in yesterday’s blind tasting of Mt. Veeder Cabernets and Bordeaux blends to the 2012 Freemark Abbey. I was pretty sure it was the 2012 Lokoya, a wine I’ve had on several occasions and have been dazzled by—and one, by the way, Parker gave 100 points to. I was wrong, but not by much: The Freemark Abbey grapes came from the same vineyard, Veeder Creek, as the Lokoya, although it was made by Ted Edwards, not Chris Carpenter. As for my score of the Lokoya, it was 96+. What does that + sign mean? That if I’d thought more about the wine and it had more time to breathe in the glass, I could easily have gone higher; but, as with all tastings, there is a time limit, so at some point you have to cut bait, or whatever the saying is.

At any rate, what a tasting this was! We’ve had a lot of these regional blind tastings where I pit Jackson Family wines against the most highly regarded wines from other wineries, but this Veeder tasting was a sensation. And why not? Mt. Veeder is one of Napa’s greatest appellations. It’s a cooler place, the southernmost of Napa’s western mountains, and benefits from a Carneros influence, although as you go from the cooler southern aspect to the more northerly aspect on the mountain, the climate warms up. I think of Veeder as the opposite of, say, Pritchard Hill, which is quite warm and gives lusher, softer, denser wines, although no less complex and delicious.

The complete lineup of Mt. Veeder wines:

Freemark Abbey 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, 100 points. Alc. 15.0%. The wine is for club members and I don’t know the price. I went back to it over and over during the course of the tasting and conversation. It’s easy to second-guess yourself during the subsequent discussion, when you are exposed to other, respected views. But sometimes you have to stick with what you know, or thought you knew. What made the wine so special was not only the fruit—all these Veeder wines have spectacular fruit—and not only the distinguished tannins, but a blood tang, the ionic intensity of iron, which must come from the soil. Just really a stupendous glass of red wine, beautiful, forceful and delicious. One of my fellow tasters called it “melodic.” Nice word. It is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon.

Edge Hall 2010 “Abel 1833”, 97 points. Alc. 14.6%. This is owned by Leslie Rudd and costs $110. I called it “sappy and resinous” but wrote that “it easily needs at least a dozen years.” It is huge, thick and fruity, with a subtle herbaceousness, an almost Shiraz-like Cabernet worthy of respect.

Lampyridae 2012 Communications Block Cabernet Sauvignon. Score: 93 points. Alc. 16.6% !!! Price: $100. The aromatics blew me away: cocoa powder, blackberry jam, blood, toast, spices. But the first thing I wrote was “Heat from alcohol.” I noticed it when I lifted it to take a sip and inhaled through my mouth: It had that vapory, stinging heat of rubbing alcohol. This was very persistent and it made me lower my score: It would easily have been mid- to high 90s otherwise. The winemaker is the celebrated Aaron Pott; proceeds from its sale go to a fine charity, Napa Valley Kids.

Lokoya 2012, 96+ points. Alc. 14.5%. The price is $350. I wrote “feminine charm in a masculine appellation,” which prompted an interesting discussion of the use of gender terms in winetasting—a topic I will not explore right now. Masses of sweet cherry pie, licorice, toasty oak, with such a soft, supple mouthfeel. I would drink it now and over the next dozen years. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon aged in 99% new French oak for 20 months.

Mount Veeder 2012, 92 points. Alc. 14.5%. Price: $90. I called it “interesting” rather than awesome. A good, solid Cabernet, blended with Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot. Wine Enthusiast’s Virginie Boone gave it the same score as did I.

Beringer 2012 Lampyridae Vineyard. 96 points. Alc. 14.9%. The price is $110. A very great success for the winery. Clearly the Lampyridae Vineyard is one of the best on Mt. Veeder.

Mt. Brave 2012. 93 points. Alc. 14.5%. The price is $75. This wine got a pair of 92s from Parker and Spectator. Incidentally, I wrote “Blend” in my notes because the wine had more red fruit, herb and sweet tea notes than I’d expect from a 100% Cabernet. Indeed, it contains 5% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc and 3% Malbec.

Mayacamas 2010. 90 points. Alc. 13.25%. Price: $90. This is the current release. It was a good wine but the least in the flight. I found it grapey and a little rustic. Of course, Charles Banks has purchased the winery and is replanting. We can hope for greater things from Mayacamas in the future.

Yates 2012 Alden Perry Reserve. Score: 91 points. Alc. 14.8%. Price: $70. I wish I could say more favorable things about it than “proper” and “accessible” but, in this flight, it did not keep up with the competition. Nice cherry pie and kirsch notes.

Paon 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon. Score: 98 points. Alc. 14.7%. Price: $103. I hadn’t heard of this winery before finding the bottle at Dean & DeLuca. In my notes I wrote “100% Cabernet?” and indeed it is. You could tell from the inky black color and the fantastic ooze of black currants. I also wrote “scads of new French oak,” but the website doesn’t give the details. Someone asked if these mountain Cabs can have too much oak. I suppose they can, but given their power, the danger would be too little oak, not too much. The winemaker worked at PlumpJack, CADE and Newton, so I guess he knows something about mountain fruit.

O’Shaugnessy 2012. Score: 93 points. Alc. 14.8%. Price: $135. I might have been a little harsh. The other tasters liked it more. Parker gave it 97 and Galloni gave it 96. For me, it was flashy, decadent and flamboyant, dripping with cocoa and black cherries, but a little lacking in subtlety.

Trinchero 2012 Cloud’s Nest Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Score: 94 points. Alc. 14.2%. Price is $85. When I was the California critic at Wine Enthusiast I always loved these Trinchero Cabs. This one is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and was aged in 80% new French oak for 20 months. Wine Advocate gave it a score of 90-93 points.

It goes without saying that most of these wines will age for a very long time. We had a discussion of what that means and the answer is, if you like your Napa mountain Cabs young, then drink them young. If you like them old, drink them old. If you’re not sure, then 6-8 years after release is a good bet. There is no absolute rule and nobody should feel ashamed about liking any particular wine, no matter what everybody else says. (But you should be able to explain why.)

Mt. Veeder’s reputation as a singularly great place to grow Cabernets and blends is well deserved. There are also some great Syrahs on that mountain, although not as much Zinfandel as there used to be, which is too bad, given how good it was; but why would you grow Zinfandel for a $40 bottle when you can grow Cabernet for a $100 bottle?


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