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California Cabernet Sauvignon: Wines in “crisis”, or just best enjoyed young?

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I’ve wondered for many years if the big, oaky, ripely sweet Napa Cabernets I’ve given high scores to will age or not. In most cases, my suspicion had been “only moderately,” but it was awfully hard to tell, since not even I, as a wine critic, could frequently get my hands on older bottlings—and besides, many of the famous “cult” Cabs weren’t old enough to be considered “old,” by the time I stopped reviewing California wine, last March.

Still, my reviews over the years show my increasing skepticism about these wines’ longterm performance. Where once I might have suggested 15 or 20 years for my top-rated California Cabs and Bordeaux blends, by 2005 or so I was lowering my estimates, and advising readers to drink their wines immediately, or over the ensuing six years.

Much of this was based on my own experience. I would routinely pull older (ten-plus years) bottles from my cellar, only to find them prematurely old and tired. The superripe fruit had turned raisiny; the alcohol had turned hot as the fruit dropped out, and the oak, which seemed like a pleasant skein of toasty richness in youth, now appeared merely clumsy.

This is why I increasingly raised an eyebrow at some critics’ prognostications about the ageability of Napa Valley and other Cabernet Sauvignons. It did not seem likely to me that many would survive twenty years, or even fifteen, or even a dozen, for that matter. But one of the glaring deficiencies of our system of critical writing is that journalists never investigate ageability recommendations of famous critics ten of fifteen years after they’ve been issued. The reasons why not are obvious: Nobody’s got the time, nobody’s got access to the wines, and ten or fifteen years after a review has been published, nobody knows or cares about it anymore. Thus, the question of the ageability of these Big Cabs has never been adequately answered, which is really a shame.

Now, in a very important article, Decanter has addressed the situation, calling into question the ability of certain Barolos, Napa Cabs, Bordeaux, Rhones and Burgundies to age before they start exhibiting exotic scents of prunes and figs, the burnt toast undertones of barrel ageing, the silky mouthfeel and unmistakable heat of high alcohol.” The article adds, “Before you decide whether this sounds appealing or not, consider that these signs of a sunshine-filled wine from a hot vintage might just also be indications of a wine crisis hiding in plain sight.”

It seems that more and more people who do have access to older bottles of these big wines are discovering “premox,” or premature oxidation, in them. After premox issues with certain white wines, a professor of enology in Bordeaux told Decanter, “I believe there is a similar scandal with red wine, and that in 10 years’ time it will be just as explosive as the one affecting white Burgundy has been. And it’s not limited to one region; all red wines that are expected to be aged for long periods of time – so Barolo, Napa, Bordeaux, the Rhône, Burgundy and others – are in danger of ignoring this threat.”

The article’s author, Jane Anson, pulls no punches. “I first wrote about the subject [of premox] for Decanter.com last year and quickly realised that the findings throw into doubt not only the leading viticultural practices of the past decade, but also the work of several leading critics who have amply rewarded low acidity and super-ripe fruit; two of the leading offenders for rapid ageing.” We can debate just who those “leading critics” are. The point I would like to contribute is this: I too gave very high scores to these types of wines. But I did so based on their sheer impressiveness at the time I reviewed them, which was almost always just as they were being released. I stood by my scores then, and I stand by them today, because these wines are magnificent creatures, as rich and delicious as any wines produced in human history. Thus they fully merited their high scores.

But, like I said, I increasingly warned that these wines are not long agers. I did not bemoan this fact: most people nowadays don’t care about aging wine for a long time, anyway, even if they have a decent storage area to do it.

Can the problem be reversed? The Decanter article quotes another French researcher as claiming it can be, if “two principal risk factors” are avoided: leaving the grapes on the vine to get overripe, and then using too much oxygen during the winemaking process.

But these are difficult practices to get away from. Winemakers can pick their fruit a little earlier than they used to, but not too much: if the grapes haven’t lost their green tastes and high acids then the wine won’t be any good. And exposing Cabernet to oxygen, however it’s done, is almost de rigeur these days (through pumping over, racking and various micro-ox techniques), in order to tame the troubling tannins that can be so fierce in Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

It’s worth noting, too, that Michael Rolland’s wife was interviewed for the Decanter article, and she believes that the problem of premox in red wines is overstated. “We simply protect the fruit and ensure stable conditions throughout the winemaking process,” she said.

The Decanter article certainly doesn’t resolve the issue; nothing will, at this point. But it’s an important article because it raises a profoundly important question. What’s been your experience with older (say, ten-plus years) Napa Valley Cabernet and Bordeaux blends, particularly from the 21st century?


NIMBYism? Or just plain common sense?

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COPIA crashed and burned pretty spectacularly. Some said it was because the location—on the “wrong” side of the Napa River—was ill-chosen. Others said the concept itself never made sense: What was COPIA anyway, a restaurant? Wine tasting place? Museum (and a pretty boring one, at that)? Turns out, COPIA did have an identity problem, and the location was a little out-of-the-way, so it was probably a combination of all factors.

Now, a Napa developer has applied to Napa City to build “a large event center and winery” at the well-traveled corner of Trancas Street and the Silverado Trail that would offer “wine tasting, a deli, gift shop, restaurant, offfices, meeting rooms and a wedding site,” not to mention “extensive outdoor areas for public gathering.”

Sounds like the only different between the proposed Altamura Wine Center and COPIA is that the former won’t have a museum. And it’s in a different, more crowded place.

The proposal has caused lifted eyebrows throughout the valley, as you might expect. Of the 23 comments published in the Napa Register as of yesterday, 15 were against, six were for, and two fell into the hard-to-tell category. Most of those opposed cited several reasons: increased traffic, earthquake and flood dangers, and overall resistance to further development in Napa Valley, which has been anti-development for decades.

NIMBYism isn’t new to Napa Valley, or to wine country in general. Remember the furor over Larner Winery’s now-failed plan to build a center for guest events? The neighbors rose up in arms and killed that one. My personal view, for what it’s worth, is that these things are best left to the locals, but those locals should take as broad a view of things as possible and make sure they’re not against something just for the heck of it. A little development is good for us all. Napa Valley survived the Wine Train, which lots of people predicted would be a horrible thing; and if the Altamura Wine Center eventually is built, Napa will survive that, too. Although I will say that it’s true that that particular corner of Trancas and Silverado Trail can get pretty crowded.

I liken this to my own reality. I live in a very dense, crowded urban neighborhood in Oakland. There’s talk of building a new Oakland A’s stadium nearby. I realize it will increase traffic, noise and a bunch of other hassles, but at the same time it would be good for the local economy. So I’m in favor.

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By the way – was this guy deceived, or was he just woefully ignorant? I’m thinking the servor who said “thirty seven fifty” was at fault. What do you think?


The embarrassment of the rich when it comes to wine

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While we’re on the subject of Bill Harlan (and we have been lately), you may know that he’s a partner in something called The Napa Valley Reserve, an ultra-high end sort of wine club you have to buy your way into to get the wine. And we’re not talking about a small amount: When I first wrote about the project, back in 2005, for Wine Enthusiast, I headlined my article “Toys for (very rich) boys and girls,” and noted that it cost $125,000 to become a member, for which you got wine that you had a hand in making, under the guidance of Harlan’s winemaker, Bob Levy. The price per bottle was a bargain: $50, but of course, there was that entry fee.

Anyway, the price has apparently risen to $140,000 (a rise of 12% since 2005, not bad considering inflation), according to some political reporting done by the Chicago Tribune, which wrote about the current Republican candidate for Governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner, who admit[ed] he is a member of a wine club that costs $140,000 to join.” I got the story from the local Chicago NBC news affiliate, NBC5. NBC5 asked Rauner if he was a member of The Napa Valley Reserve, but “Rauner refused to confirm” it. When the reporter persisted, the most he got out of Rauner was a qualified, I have many investments, I’m a member of many clubs.” The story went viral: The Washington Post yesterday picked up on it, reporting “Bruce Rauner spends more on wine than average Illinois households spend on everything,” Ouch! (Actually, I shouldn’t say WaPo “reported” the story; it appears in the paper’s snarky “The Fix” column, which is pretty opinionated. But nobody’s denying the facts.)

However, this is not a political rant on my part, but something more important, and that is to ask the question, Why are some people embarrassed by their wealth and how much they spend on wine? I suppose, in the case of a Republican candidate for Governor in a swing state that’s had its share of economic woes, it doesn’t look good for said candidate to have so much money for things that are the height of non-discretionary spending—especially snobby, elitist wine. Then, too, what first alerted reporters to Rauner’s free-spending ways was a photo of him and Rahm Emanuel, who was Obama’s very Democratic chief of staff and is currently Chicago Mayor. What the heck is a Republican doing running around drinking expensive wine with a liberal?

So maybe Rauner had that Gotcha! feeling deep down in his pockets, I don’t know. But why the mealy-mouthed dodging when asked directly if he was a Napa Valley Reserve member? Especially if he’s from the party of free enterprise and pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, why didn’t he just say, “Hell, yeah, I’m a member. I came by my money honestly, and I love wine. Say, what are you doing now? Wanna head over to my cellar and try some?” I remember when Ronald Reagan had his “Nashua moment”: in a 1980 Presidential debate he non-apologetically said, “I paid for this microphone!” Everybody loved it (me too), and it set candidate Reagan in motion to become President. Now, another Republican candidate in an election year seems embarrassed that he paid for something.

I don’t resent people for being successful, and I don’t really understand why anyone else does. But especially, I don’t understand why politicians try to hide their wealth by these squirmy non-denial denials. If I had a few extra tens of millions of dollars I too might join The Napa Valley Reserve. If the wines, which I’ve never had, are anything like Harlan Estate, BOND, The Maiden and The Matriarch, which I have reviewed over the years, they’re fabulous.


More on the earthquake

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You’ll have to forgive me for feeling a little philosophical today about our wine industry, but a disaster will do that to you. We still don’t know the full extent of the damage from the big Napa earthquake, and we may never, but the fact is, if you escaped unscathed—as most wineries and wine businesses did—you’re counting your lucky stars. But if you were one of those impacted, I just hope your earthquake insurance was paid up.

Here’s a roundup from the Napa Valley Register, as of late yesterday afternoon. As you can read, some wineries are going to be digging themselves out of the damage for a long time. My heart goes out to Trefethen, Sciandri and others in that terrible situation, and to the local businesses in downtown Napa for whom life may never be the same.

How things can change in an instant! We go about our lives complacently, planning on the next dinner, the next meeting, the weekend—and then, Boom! Literally out of the blue something happens and the proverbial apple cart is not only upset, in some cases it’s turned into splinters. It’s happened to me, it’s probably happened to you although I hope not for it’s truly terrible when it does. What the answer is, I don’t know (I told you I’m feeling philosophical), except to expect the unexpected. Or “hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” as the old saying goes.

Actually, the epicenter of the event they’re now calling the South Napa Earthquake occurred, not in American Canyon as was at first widely reported (based on the USGS), but in Napa itself—specifically, beneath the Napa Valley Marina, on the Napa River. The break was in the West Napa Fault, believed to be an offshoot of the Calaveras Fault, which runs through the far East Bay,

 

faultmap

 

more or less parallel to the Hayward Fault, on which I live; all are, of course, part of the infamous San Andreas Fault System. The West Napa Fault has been active before: it was responsible for the sizable Yountville Hills Earthquake of 2000 (magnitude 5.2), so to have called it a relatively unknown fault isn’t quite accurate. What geologists have learned in California, though, is that they’re far from having a complete understanding of just where all the fault lines are, or how powerful an earthquake any of them can trigger. We saw that after the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, which seemed to take everybody by surprise, and led to a rather alarmed discussion about so-called blind thrust faults, which are like blind wine tastings in that nobody knows quite what’s going on. Los Angeles supposedly is riddled with such blind thrust faults; the speculation that one (or more) of them could rupture is one of the more dire scenarios for a city not short on apocalyptic futures.

Anyhow, the cleanup in Napa, Vallejo, AmCan and the surrounding areas goes on. Have a great day.


Earthquake rattles nerves, causes extensive damage in Napa area

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The shaking woke me up at exactly 3:19 a.m. early Sunday morning. It woke Gus up, too. I’ve been awakened many times in the middle of the night by earthquakes but Gus never was. The last several years have been remarkably quiet in the Bay Area, enough so that I’ve had several conversations lately about how “overdue” we seemed to be. The thinking is that small quakes act as a pressure valve to release seismic energies building up underground, so if there aren’t small quakes for a while, you end up with a big one.

Of course, yesterday’s 6.1 on the West Napa Fault wasn’t “the Big One.” Neither for that matter was 1989’s Loma Prieta, which was 6.9 magnitude. But it was still a big earthquake. It lasted for a long time, too. As I held onto Gus—who was freaking out—in the bed, I kept thinking it has to stop soon, because they always do. Loma Prieta, for example, was only 8-15 seconds long, depending on where you were. This one—which I don’t think the USGS has named yet—lasted for what seemed like at least 30 seconds in Oakland, which is an eternity when everything is rocking and rolling. A neighbor told me he’d heard it was 50 seconds long, although I can’t verify that. It was a very noisy event, too; everything in my place was jangling and rattling, although nothing fell down or over, and  strangely, no car alarms went off in my neighborhood.

As soon as the shaking stopped I took Gus and ran over to my computer. Went to the USGS “Latest Earthquakes” website, but it wasn’t even up yet. Then went to their “Did You Feel It?” site, where you can report your own experiences and also see the reports of others. This information is important for USGS to compile “shake maps.” I must have been one of the first to report it, because I didn’t see any other reports, but within minutes other reports popped up, from all over the Bay Area but especially in the East and North Bays. Then I went to Twitter—this was still within minutes of the event—and tweeted. I didn’t see any other tweets. Now, of course, as I write this (Sunday afternoon), #napaquake and #earthquake are the top two San Francisco trending topics. Number three is American Canyon.

AmCan is where lots of wineries store their wines, in the warehouses that line the west side of Highway 29. I suspect reports will slowly filter in over the next few days concerning the extent of the damage. I’ve also heard, at this time, of fairly significant damage at Trefethen, in the Oak Knoll Distrist, and at Sebastiani, which is way over in Sonoma Valley. I’m worried about Jackson Family’s own Carneros Hills Winery, right off the Carneros Highway, which itself suffered fairly significant damage in the way of huge cracks in the asphalt. The Napa Airport, as I write, reportedly is shut down because the control tower was badly damaged. And then there’s downtown Napa. What a mess. Poor little downtown, with its old brick and masonry buildings. They’re the first to topple, as they did in the 2003 Paso Robles earthquake, which killed several people. Fortunately, no one in this earthquake has been reported dead, although scores of people were injured, some seriously. Gov. Brown declared a state of emergency in the region. And CNN just reported that initial estimates of damage could run to $1 billion.

We live in earthquake country here in coastal California, that’s for sure. Just in case we ever forget it, something like yesterday happens to remind us. I myself live just about on top of the fault the USGS calls the most dangerous in California, the Hayward Fault. Hayward is the city just south of Oakland. It last ruptured in a big way in 1868; the periodicity is said to be every 120 years. Do the math. A 7.0 on the Northern Hayward would pretty much take out Berkeley, Oakland, Hayward and parts of Silicon Valley. This is a major fear on the part of elected officials; the most they can do is warn us to “get ready for it,” whatever that means. I suppose having an earthquake kit makes sense—some water, canned food (don’t forget the can opener), first aid kit—but what good will that do if your building falls down around you?

I wish all the people in the North Bay and Napa Valley good luck in your recovery efforts. Napa will bounce back, as Paso Robles did. Things could have been a lot worse yesterday, so let’s count our blessings and clean up. Here’s the link to the Napa Valley Vintners earthquake update page, which they promise to update on an as-needed basis. there’s also this Help Needed forum from wineindustryinsight.com.


Lessons Mayacamas and Inglenook (may) teach us

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I must admit that I find the ongoing industry-wide conversation about ripeness levels to be the most confounding I’ve been involved in, lo these many years.

Where did it start, anyway? I suppose it’s been going on for decades, in one form or another. Even before the launch of In Pursuit of Balance, which seems concerned mainly with Pinot Noir, there were hints of this brouhaha all the way back in the Seventies, with Cabernet and Chardonnay. It’s actually a question of style, not just alcohol level: and questions of style are never fully arbitrated.

A recent interesting example is in David Darlington’s (well written) story of the reinventions of both Inglenook and Mayacamas, in the June issue of Wine & Spirits. (“Napa’s New Old School”) The story teaser suggests that David “digs deep into the question,” hinting at some resolution for those of us who are scratching our heads at what’s going on. But there is no resolution to be had, only more wonderment, which is not David’s fault at all. The problem is the setting up of artificial sets of parameters, with an expectation that one set is correct and the other wrong, and the corresponding assumption that simple changes and fixes will solve the “problem” of overripeness.

Were it only that simple.

It is naive to the point of foolishness to think it’s all a matter of picking the grapes “less ripe or more ripe.” In interviews, both Francis Coppola and Charles Banks confess as much, although not in so many words. As any writer would, David tries his hardest to get them to come out and say something definitive, like Charles saying, “Bob Travers picked the grapes when they were still green. We’re going to let them get riper.” Or Francis saying, “Scott McLeod picked the grapes too ripe, so we’re going to pick them leaner.” No such luck.

That’s because neither Charles Banks nor Francis Coppola knows what to tell their new winemakers to do—and their new winemakers (Andy Erickson and Phllippe Bascaules, respectively) also don’t really know what to do. How could they? It takes an estate decades if not centuries to find its way. Although Mayacamas dates to the 1940s (or the 1960s depending on which ownership you choose to start the count at), the assumption in the critical industry is that Mayacamas lost its way under Bob Travers, a good man who just didn’t have enough money to turn things around, and so lost traction. The other assumption, concerning Inglenook, which dates to the 1800s, is conceded by Francis Coppola: that although he was making 90 point-plus wines, Rubicon never achieved the status of First Growth of Napa, according to the critics. So while Francis says he disdains point scores, his shakeup at Rubicon/Inglenook suggests that he really doesn’t.

Myself? I had more respect than love for Mayacamas; in this business, you have to take your hat off to a winery that’s been around for so long—and has done things so consistently honestly. I did like Rubicon, quite a bit—enough to buy a case of the 2002, which I rated 98 points. But other critics didn’t seem to care for it as much as I did, so Francis turned to Philippe, whom he got from Margaux, in hopes of a shakeup. (At least, by his own recounting, he didn’t hire Michel Rolland.)

Philippe confesses he had “no data” when he arrived at Inglenook (he now has three vintages under his belt), and is trying to steer a middle course between overripeness (he says he finds too many Napa Cabs “taste like Port”—an IPOB-style criticism). His goal is “to reduce alcohol levels,” but he is frank enough to state he doesn’t really know how to go about it; and it sounds like he certainly doesn’t want to do it with technology. You can’t just pick at 23 degrees Brix, the way Inglenook did in the old days, because everything—rootstocks, density, trellising, perhaps even the climate—is different. “I don’t want to do exactly what Inglenook did in the 40s and 50s,” Philippe says. Precisely: he couldn’t, even if he wanted. This is why Coppola, his employer, peers far into the future and concludes, “I don’t necessarily expect to give full blossom to Inglenook in my lifetime.” The critics will just have to wait.

As for Mayacamas, Charles Banks echoes Coppola. “We’re not doing this for short-term gain.” What is this “this” to which he refers? Will the team pick the grapes riper than Bob Travers did? If lean, underripe wines used to be the problem, the solution should be obvious. But Banks hedges his answer. “I am [as] opposed to pruney, stemmy wines as others are to herbaceousness. At the same time, I don’t want green, harsh, underripe tannins.” Well, who would? The Mayacamas team may be crossing their fingers in hopes that other modernizations—replanting with closer spacing, newer clones, tinkering with trellising regimes, extensive winery investment—will help them avoid having their hands forced regarding picking decisions. But the answer, as at Inglenook, will not be known for a long time.

The good thing about these conversations about ripeness levels is that we’re having them. The bad news is that we’re having them—at least, with such passionate irresolution. The game is largely driven by critics, whom proprietors and winemakers privately say they loathe; yet nobody dares to ignore them. The result is a kind of navel-gazing, similar to the wine blogging world, where content-poor wine bloggers blog about—wine blogging.

Everybody (well, almost everybody) complains about California wine tasting “like port,” but nobody wants to make a Cabernet that tastes like a boiled bell pepper. Nor do people necessarily want to hold onto their wine for twenty years. Everybody talks about finding the sweet spot, but nobody seems to know exactly where it is, or even how to recognize it if they were knee-deep into it. (And variable vintages don’t help them find it.) The discussion has turned into an echo chamber, where everybody has taken a side, and listens only to people who speak their language—like cable T.V. news shows, there’s a lot of cacophony and very little harmony.

There’s no way to turn the conversation off. Now that it’s started, we’ll have to let it run its course, like a storm, and hope it doesn’t do too much damage.


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