I don’t know what made me remember the old Chateau Woltner wines. The memory just popped into my head—who knows how these things work, or why. The winery had been started by an heir to the Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion dynasty. I don’t recall the details—here’s the Wikipedia entry that says after La Mission was sold, the owning family went their separate ways. Thus it was that Francis and Françoise DeWavrin took their share of the proceeds and moved onto something else. In this case, Napa Valley. They bought some land in 1980 on the lower slopes of Howell Mountain, above the Silverado Trail, and planted—not Cabernet, as you’d expect, but Chardonnay!
Even then, in the mid-1990s, this was a shocking thing to do. Napa Valley Chardonnay hadn’t yet acquired the reputation (unjust, in many cases) for being dull, but even so, Napa hadn’t been perceived as prime Chardonnay terroir for many years; and in any case, Howell Mountain was known to be superior Cabernet county. (Randy Dunn had seen to that!) So it was that, with pleasure and some curiosity, I accepted an invitation by the DeWavrins to visit their property.
The house and grounds had seen grander days. The DeWavrins themselves could not have been nicer. The Chardonnays? Well, to call them “minerally” would be an understatement. They were clean and elegant, yet hard in briny wet stone and metallic minerals. In other words, not the lush, fruity Chards California was known for.
Eventually the DeWavrins gave up their quest; I suppose the wines simply didn’t sell well. Today, I doubt there’s much Chardonnay remaining on Howell Mountain. The action has moved closer to the coast. Howell now is a hotbed of Cabernet and other Bordeaux varieties.
The lesson I glean from this is how hard it is to march against the popular drumbeat and try to grow varieties in places where tastemakers think they don’t belong. Critics seemed to resent those Woltner Chardonnays even before they tried them. Too expensive! Why is he growing them on Howell Mountain instead of someplace else? I suppose Francis DeWavrin had a bit of the contrarian in him—he certainly had some well-pronounced marketing genes and believed that he could develop a niche product. And then there was the Frenchman in him. When it came to world Chardonnay, his eye turned, not to Carneros or the Russian River Valley, but to Chablis.
If he were still making that wine today, I bet there would be sommeliers celebrating it as “Chablisian” and far more terroir-influenced than most other California Chardonnays, which so many somms say are overripe and flabby. This is a perfectly legitimate attitude, but it does tend to reinforce the tendency of California growing regions to become monocultures. Napa Valley once had, not just a lot of Chardonnay but a lot of Pinot Noir too, and it wasn’t bad stuff. But the critics of the 1970s and 1980s didn’t like it and badmouthed it, which meant proprietors couldn’t sell it, so they budded their vines over to the Cabernets, Sauvignon and Franc, or Merlot, or Petit Verdot, and that was that. A similar fate awaited Napa Valley Sangiovese, Semillon and other varieties that made honest, straightforward wines that consumers wouldn’t buy, because, after all, if it says Napa Valley on the label, it should be Cabernet Sauvignon, right? In fact, by 1990, it had become politically incorrect (from a varietal point of view) to grow much else in Napa Valley besides Bordeaux grapes.
Have a great weekend!
I had coffee yesterday with a winemaker from Napa Valley who works for a high-end winery: triple-digit Cabernet and all that. We were taking about marketing, when she said something about Napa wineries that intrigued me enough to write it down: “Do you want to sell wine,” she asked, “or do you want to be ultra-exclusive?”
Great question, especially in the context of Napa Valley Cabernet. She was referring to all these Cabs that cost an arm and a leg. In our conversation, we mentioned specific wineries, which I will not. What she meant, of course, is that these wineries seem to have a choice: they can get out there and market (in all its multi-faceted dimensions), or they can rest on their laurels and assume that their wines will be in demand for a long time to come.
Wineries that choose the latter—on the assumption that their cult status, high critical scores and in-demand waiting lists will always provide them with more customers than they can supply—somehow seem to think that marketing is a dirty word. There’s something grubby about it, they feel. Only pedestrian little wineries have to actually sell themselves; a great, grand winery does not. Does the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti have to get out there and hustle? Of course not, or so the argument goes.
Well, I don’t know if Romanée-Conti has to market or not, but I would think so. Wilson-Daniels, who distributes them in the U.S., used to invite me up to their St. Helena chateau once a year, along with a few other writers and critics, to taste through the entire range of seven new DRC releases of the vintage (La Tache, Romanée-St-Vivant, Romanée-Conti, Richebourg, Echézeaux, Grands-Echézeaux and Montrachet). It was terrific fun, but I think you’d have to view that as marketing, although I don’t know if Wilson-Daniels does it anymore. Anyhow, the lesson for me was “Even the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti has to market.”
And yet, quite a few Napa Cabernet houses don’t seem to think that they do. The apparently feel that what has worked for them in the past will work for them into the future. Marketing would dull the perception of exclusivity that they currently benefit from, and their fear is that, once a super-expensive wine is no longer perceived as exclusive, it may no longer be in demand from wealthy customers who don’t want to drink what everyone else is.
The thing to consider here is inventory. Now, you and I will never know how many unsold cases of (fill-in-the-blank winery) are piling up in some temperature-controlled warehouse. It may very well be that the winery everybody thinks is selling out every vintage actually has back vintages piled up to the ceiling. (This would be one of the winery’s closest-held secrets.) But I think this is the case far more than you’d think, and certainly, one hears rumors to that effect. Of course, a rumor is just that, but like they say, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
When there were only a handful of Napa Valley Cabs that cost $100 or more, this was not a problem. But nowadays there are scores of them. I’ve long believed that it’s impossible for all of them to be selling everything, every year. There just aren’t enough people out there to buy it all up, even when you roll in China. Thing is, many of these proprietors are so wealthy that they’re not really concerned about selling everything. They can afford to sit on inventory for a long time, and besides, the wine may actually be getting more valuable as it ages. I knew someone who once bought out the entire production of a well-known Napa Valley Reserve Cabernet for an entire vintage, and then warehoused for resale it for ten years. They made a lot of money on that one.
Lest you think I’m suggesting that fostering the perception of exclusivity is somehow tainted or wrong, rest assured I am not. Rarity and desirability are integral to marketing anything, be it artwork, writing pens or wines. More than two thousand years ago, certain Roman and Greek vintners figured out how to do it (where do you think the concept of “the Comet vintage” came from?). The Bordelais proved masterful at it four hundred and more years ago, and they’re still pretty good at it. All that the Napans have done is to learn at the feet of the masters.
Bordeaux is Bordeaux; it probably will never go out of demand, even though that demand waxes and wanes throughout the centuries. But one cannot say the same of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, or so it seems to me. It has certainly solidified its hold on the imagination of wine lovers, but Napa does suffer from certain potential problems: it’s under attack from the low-alcohol crowd, prices are ridiculous, competition from elsewhere (including Bordeaux) is increasing, and younger consumers don’t seem to have the infatuation with Napa that their parents had. These things aren’t deal-killers, quite yet. But any one of them could prove hurtful to Napa, and a combination of them all might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
I hope Diageo is doing all right financially, but to judge from all these rumors that the London-based company is going to sell its iconic wine brands, maybe they really are experiencing some difficulty.
Their California brands from Napa Valley or County include Sterling, Beaulieu, Acacia and Provenance. The first two will be familiar to anyone who knows the history of Napa Valley. Beaulieu, founded in 1900, defines the classic old-line, pre-Prohibition winery; Sterling, which began in 1967, was one of the boutique wineries that made Napa famous in the modern era. Meanwhile, Acacia, dating to 1979, helped launch Carneros to the forefront of Pinot Noir. Provenance, whose inaugural vintage was 1999, is far younger, but has had a good run—I always did like their Cabernets.
So what’s up with Diageo? To begin with, the company’s stock price had a pretty good run-up to the Great Recession, but then plunged like everyone else. In 2009, it hit its nadir, then peaked again in 2013, only to experience a steady slide since then—leading the Motley Fool to recommend Diageo as a good buy.
That same article, suggesting Diageo is going through a “phase of lackluster performance,” attributed the drinks giant’s problems to “tough trading conditions in emerging markets, subdued consumer demand in some developed markets” and bad exchange rates.
Concerning that “subdued consumer demand in some developed markets,” I would suggest that the problems at Sterling, Beaulieu et al. stem from the consumer (and sommelier) perception that those are tired brands. Indeed, you could teach a college seminar on the ups and downs of an American winery by using the example of Beaulieu alone.
That Beaulieu was one of the great wineries of Napa Valley, and California, for many decades is indisputable. The winery helped to invent Napa Valley; it pioneered in Cabernet Sauvignon from the Rutherford Bench, and in hiring Andre Tchelistcheff, in 1938, Beaulieu gave California is greatest and most influential winemaker ever. “The Maestro” was mentor to multiple generations of winemakers before passing into the Great Vineyard in the Sky, in 1994.
Even had Beaulieu maintained quality in the 1980s and 1990s it probably would have slipped in the public’s estimation, due solely to the natural lifespan of most wineries. But quality did vary, and the winery seemed to lose focus. I always admired, and gave high scores to, the Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, and their Bordeaux blend, Tapestry, also was quite good. But the Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays were inconsistent, and whenever Beaulieu tinkered with Rhone-style varieties, as they frequently did, they seemed in over their heads.
As for Sterling, which was such an exciting winery in the 1970s, the glitter wore thin, as the winery hit a patch of averageness. The Cabernet, particularly the Reserve, could still be quite good; but really, there was little to differentiate it from dozens of others, a dilemma given the fickleness of the American wine consumer, who’s always looking for the next new thing. Despite a considerable marketing budget from Diageo, both wineries also were debilitated by the release of large-production, inexpensive lines, in Sterling’s case the Vintner’s Collection, in Beaulieu’s the Coastal Estates, both of which tended to confuse gatekeepers and consumers as to what either winery actually was. In this, Beaulieu and Sterling erred in the same way as did Robert Mondavi Winery, which tried—and failed—to be all things to all people.
Beaulieu remains a good winery and Sterling can be restored to glory; it’s never too late. If Diageo does sell either or both, I hope it’s to a new owner who will love them for what they have been and for what they can once again be.
Here’s the second part of my remarks last week, at Stonestreet:
I’ve spoken of varietal flavor and tannin structure, but obviously there’s more to wine than just those two factors. Next, I want to take up the topics of acidity and minerality.
Acidity in Cabernet, as in all table wines, is a key to providing life, zest and a keen mouthfeel. My favorite way of explaining the role of acidity is to revert to a tale from my youth. When I was a kid in the Bronx, we had “soda fountains.” If you wanted cola, the soda “jerk” didn’t open a bottle, he mixed it up right in front of you. First he’d squirt the cola syrup into a soda glass. If you tasted the syrup by itself, it was, well, syrupy. It was sweet and tasted like cola, but somehow had no pizzazz, no zest; it was flat and insipid. Then the soda jerk would squirt a little carbonated water into the glass, and voila. The carbonation added acidity, showing how important it is to balance fruity sweetness with tartness. If we recall that mountain vineyards are cooler during the daytime than valley floor vineyards, we can appreciate that mountain wines also are generally more balanced with acidity.
Then there’s minerality. I dare to venture into these tall weeds only because minerality has been a subject of intense discussion lately. I don’t claim to be able to define minerality, or to pinpoint exactly where it comes from. But since we all talk about it – and we all seem to think that we know what we mean when we use the word – I will assume that you, too, are familiar with minerality.
Let me just say that minerality is something that I do find in wines, both red and white. And I find it more in mountain, bench and hillside wines than in valley floor wines. One theory is that mountain grapevines, being parched for water, send their roots more deeply into the ground than do valley floor vines, where the water table is higher. As those roots dig deep into the earth, they encounter more and different minerals than are present near the surface. The supposition is that the roots take up the flavors of these minerals and transmit them to the grapes. As I say, I’ve never seen absolute proof of this, but it sounds right, and certainly, my wine reviews over many years substantiate the theory. Minerality gives wine additional structure. It’s not a taste, exactly, but a sensation, like the feeling of touching steel with your tongue. And I always find this minerality in mountain Cabs from both Napa and Alexander Valley.
For example, I once reviewed the Vineyard 7 & 8 Cabernet, from the 2008 vintage. I gave it a generous 96 points and wrote that “It startles for the intensity of mountain blackberries and raspberries, and then a firm minerality kicks in, along with the tannins, providing grounding structure.” This is to cite but a single example: I could come up with hundreds of others. Vineyard 7&8 is located about 2,000 feet up on Spring Mountain, which is on the Napa side of the Mayacamas range, about the same alltitude as the Stonestreet Cabs grown on the Alexander Valley side of the Mayacamas. This language of “intense,” “firm minerality,” “tannic,” and “grounding structure,” can in fact be applied to any great Mayacamas Cabernet, from either Alexander Valley or Napa Valley. They describe the terroir signature of Mayacamas Cabernet.
However, one of the chief differences – perhaps THE chief distinction – between Alexander Valley and Napa Valley Cabernet is the tannins. In 2003, when I was writing my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, I asked Jordan’s winemaker, Rob Davis, to set up a blind tasting of Cabs from both Alexander Valley and Napa Valley. From Alexander Valley we had Jordan, Simi Reserve, Silver Oak, Alexander Valley Vineyards Cyrus, Stonestreet Christopher’s Vineyard and Robert Young Scion. From Napa Valley we had Phelps Insignia, Chateau Montelena, Quintessa and Far Niente. When the brown bags were taken off the bottles, it was clear to all of us that the chief difference was the quality of the tannins.
How to describe that difference? Alexander Valley tannins are dustier and softer than in Napa. They’re more fine-grained, but they’re also a little more chewy, not as ripe as in Napa Valley. It’s something you can feel in the mouth. I think in the past Alexander Valley tannins used to be clunkier than Napa’s, which is part of the reason why Alexander Valley earned a reputation as more rustic than Napa. But a modern Alexander Valley Cabernet is not a rustic wine.
If I had to describe these Alexander Valley tannins in a single phrase, I’d call them more astringent than in Napa Valley. But this description requires fine-tuning on my part. To begin with, Napa Cabernet is frequently a very tannic wine – more tannic than Bordeaux. But Napa tannins are so lush, finely-ground and smooth that most of the wines, even the mountain Cabs, can be enjoyed in youth. Alexander Valley mountain Cabs by contrast are tougher in youth, and probably more ageable. This is because of the cooler conditions in Alexander Valley, especially in the mountains. A good example is another wine I reviewed, Stonestreet 2007 Monument Ridge Cabernet, which comes from the winery’s Stonestreet Estate Vineyard. I scored it at 96 points and want to read my entire review, because it’s instructive:
“A dramatic wine, authoritative in tannins, bone dry and noble. Withholds its best under a cloak of astringency, but already shows its mountain terroir in the complexity of its structure and deep, intense blackberry, currant, blueberry and dried herb flavors. Should develop bottle complexities for at least a decade and probably longer.”
Let’s break this down. I referred to the “cloak of astringency.” This is, of course, the tannins. Winemakers on the Alexander Valley side of the Mayacamas will tell you that tannin management is their most formidable challenge. Fortunately, they’ve achieved a variety of ways to manage those tannins, but still, tannic intensity is often the first thing you notice about these Cabernets, or maybe the second thing – after the initial fruity intensity, the astringency kicks in.
I spoke, too, of “dried herbs.” This herbaceousness, in addition to the tannins, is a key differentiator between Cabs from Napa and Alexander Valley. The upper stretches of the Mayacamas on the Alexander Valley side are sparse in plant life, and only the hardiest, most drought-resistant things can grow up there. This is high Chaparrel country: Manzanita, live oak, Bay laurel, pepperwood, madrone, shrubby, scraggly bushes, lichens, anise weed, native grasses. These plants dry out in our summer droughts, scenting the air with spicy fragrance but also lending that herbaecousness to the wines. You don’t get this herbaceousness in Napa Valley side of the Mayacamas, the slopes above the Oakville and Rutherford benches. Those slopes are densely forested in redwood and pine because whatever water remains in storm clouds as they enter Napa from the west are wrung out by the Mayacamas peaks. They drop considerable amounts of rain on these Napa slopes before drying out as they pass eastward across the Napa Valley floor. This is why the Vaca Mountains are so barren and austere. In this, they’re similar to the west-facing slopes of the Mayacamas in Alexander Valley. Both sides are dry, and both get the full heat of the afternoon sun. Yet the Vacas, around Dalla Valle and Tierra Roja, are hotter, the soils are redder, and the wines are riper than anything in Alexander Valley.
So, overall, Alexander Valley Cabs tend to be drier, more elegantly structured and more ageable than Napa Valley Cabs, which are more dramatic and flashy. I think, also, that Alexander Valley Cabs are lower in alcohol, on average. I went over a great many of my reviews of both over the years, and this seems to be the case—although we know that the alcohol number on the label can be misleading.
Now, I want to move away from the inherent, objective qualities of the wines to considerations of perception and optics. We read much in the media that California Cabernet (as well as Pinot Noir) is undergoing a stylistic change, perhaps under pressure from the In Pursuit of Balance people. This new style is towards wines of lower alcohol and greater elegance. I don’t think there’s strong evidence of this stylistic shift in Napa Valley Cabernet, except with certain well-known examples such as Corison; nor is there any particular reason why Napa winemakers should change their style. Napa Cabernet isn’t broken: Why should they fix it? Parker established the template of ripe, rich, decadence, and Napans have no motive to switch horses.
Alexander Valley Cabernet, by contrast, is not well understood by the public, or by tastemakers, such as sommeliers and merchants. It’s so easy for people to understand Napa Cabernet. Everybody knows what it means: lush, New World deliciousness. With Sonoma, people have to do more work to understand it. Sonoma is complicated – it has all these little nooks and crannies, and the various sub-appellations can seem like a hodge-podge. Here’s a quote from a famous east coast wine critic; he wrote this in his column:
So who cares about Sonoma cabernet? Why, our wine panel! Contrarians by nature, we seek out the scorned and the ignored among regions and wines in hopes of finding surprising pleasures and fine values. This critic was being facetious, or so he thought; but in fact his words reveal a certain attitude towards Sonoma Cabernet that is widespread among tastemakers, if somewhat unconscious. This is at the root, I think, of why some gatekeepers who taste Sonoma Cabernet (which is usually Alexander Valley Cabernet) contrast it unfavorably with Napa Cabernet. They bring that attitude to the winetasting experience, and, behold, they experience what they thought they would. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In the end, I think that Alexander Valley Cabernet does offer an alternative to Napa Valley Cabernet—but only if its winemakers understand that their terroir is distinctive, and they don’t try to replicate Napa Valley. And I say these things not because I work for Jackson Family Wines and we’re at Stonestreet. After all, Jackson Family Wines also owns such Napa wineries as La Jota, Lokoya, Mt. Brave, Freemark Abbey and Cardinale. I am hopeful that the new direction in California wine that is being suggested in so many quarters is real, and that we can end decades of marching towards a sameness of style to enter into a new period of authentic, terroir-based wine.
I gave a little talk yesterday to a group of wine buyers yesterday at Stonestreet, as part of Taste Alexander Valley. I’m posting my remarks in two parts, because it’s rather longish. Here’s part 1.
I’ve been asked to talk about Napa Valley and Alexander Valley and how Cabernet Sauvignon from those two areas differs. But first, a disclaimer: As some of you may know from my writings, especially on my blog, I’ve argued for many years that these supposed regional differences between varieties are not as pronounced nor as concise as some wine writers portray them. After all, these both are large appellations: Alexander Valley is 66,000 acres, while Napa Valley is six times bigger, at 400,000 acres. Pauillac, by contrast – the Bordeaux commune – is only 3,000 acres.
Moreover, both Alexander and Napa are marked by mountain ranges that contain incredibly complex soils, all jumbled up by the San Andreas Fault System: my old friend, the wine writer Bob Thompson, once called them “a slagheap.” So we can see that the terroir in Napa and Alexander Valley is not easy to define. Add to that stylistic differences in winemaking techniques—from harvesting decisions to fermentation and oak — and it’s clear that defining regional characteristics is tricky, at best. It’s easy to discern a regional style when you already have a preconception of what it is, and you’re not tasting blind. However, after tasting well more than 100,000 wines, most of them blind, during my career, I can tell you that it doesn’t always work that way. Our very notion of regional styles in Cabernet Sauvignon was, in fact, a product of Bordeaux, where it used to be easy to state (as Oz Clark did) that Pauillac is “intense blackcurrant fruit with heady cedar and pencil-lead shavings” while Margaux is “rarely heavy and has a divine perfume.” Yet even the great Alexis Lichine wrote, of Pauillac, that “the wines do not possess much generic similarity.” And nowadays, a riper winemaking style, coupled with global warming, has clearly leveled the playing field between the Bordeaux communes, and the same is true here in California.
Well, that was my disclaimer: Having said that, there are distinctions to be made between Alexander Valley and Napa Valley. So let’s explore them.
Here at Stonestreet, we are now, as I’m sure you know, in the heart of Alexander Valley. The mountains to the east (which most non-Californians would call “hills”) are the Mayacamas, which rise to 4,700 feet, although most of the vineyards are below 2,700 feet. On the other side of the Mayacamas is Lake County and Napa Valley.
The legal A.V.A. here is Alexander Valley, which is silly, since there are so many mountain vineyards. There have been attempts in the past to appellate the mountains themselves, but so far these attempts have not been successful.
Historically, Cabernet Sauvignon in Alexander Valley has been grown on the valley floor, mostly in the southern part, along Route 128, on either side of the Russian River. SHOW MAP In the 1980s, vineyards began to creep up into the eastern hills, as wine prices rose and wineries could afford to develop these vineyards, which involve high set-up costs. In Napa Valley, mountain vineyards were installed earlier than in Alexander Valley, mainly because the money was there.
Alexander Valley and Napa Valley thus are two classic California coastal valleys, parallel to each other. They both run in a southeast-northwest orientation. Both would be far warmer than they are were it not for the influence of maritime air, which comes in from the Pacific and from San Francisco Bay, neither of which ever warms up much beyond 60 degrees even in high summer. Napa Valley gets fogs and winds from Carneros and also from gaps in the Mayacamas, such as one near Calistoga. Alexander Valley gets its maritime air from the Russian River Valley to the south, from the river itself, and also through gaps in the coastal hills, including the Petaluma Gap. Both valleys grow progressively warmer as you move towards the northwest: Cloverdale is Alexander Valley’s hotspot, while Calistoga is Napa Valley’s.
But elevation plays a crucial role in temperature. With every hundred feet of altitude, you lose about one degree on a summer day. On the other hand, due to a temperature inversion, it’s not as chilly in the mountains at night as it is on the valley floor, which is affected by radiational cooling. Mountains, then, are more consistently moderate places to grow grapes. Above 1,000 feet or so, they also are usually above the fogline.
Soils also change with altitude. The lower in elevation you are, the more granular the soil gets. The valley floor is largely the product of sedimentary runoff from the hills and flooding from the Russian and Napa Rivers. The soils are deeper, richer and more fertile, which is why both valleys used to grow things like plums and nuts. The higher up you go, the drier and poorer the soils are. Whatever rainfall does fall runs off almost instantly to the valley below, leaching out elemental nutrients, both organic and inorganic. These soils can barely hold humidity. The grapevines thus have to struggle to survive. We’re all familiar with this phrase, and we all understand that struggling vines produce more concentrated, interesting fruit than well-nourished and well-irrigated ones.
So is there a difference between Cabernet grown in Alexander Valley and Napa Valley? Yes, in general. Napa Valley is one mountain range further inland than Alexander Valley, so it’s a bit warmer. Thus, you’d expect Napa Cabernet to be a little riper than Alexander Valley Cab, and that has in fact been my experience. In general – on average — Alexander Valley Cab is slightly more herbaceous than Napa Cab.
But terroir – understood as the combination of physical factors such as climate and soil – is only a part of why wine tastes the way it does. The other part is the human factor – what the great French enologist, Emile Peynaud, calls Cru. When you add human activity to terroir, you end up with Cru. I would argue that the human factor in Napa Valley plays a more important role than it does in Alexander Valley. For example, the modern tendency is to let Cabs get ultra-ripe, in the Parker style. This has particular relevance in Napa Valley, Parker’s Happy Hunting Ground for Cabernet Sauvignon; since the 1980s, as we all know, Napa Cabs have been getting riper, as the wineries chase those high Parker scores.
This phenomenon is less true in Alexander Valley. Vintners just don’t feel the same pressure – from critics or consumers – to make big, lush, ripe, splashy, extracted Cabernets. Therefore, in a very real sense, Alexander Valley Cabernet is more of a wine of terroir than Napa Valley Cabernet. This statement is, I realize, controversial. We’ve all heard much of a new direction in California wine that’s less ripe and supposedly more “elegant” and “balanced.” I would suggest that this new style is not so new in Alexander Valley. I’ll return to this topic later.
* * *
Let’s focus in more closely on Alexander Valley. The most celebrated Cabernets, for the most part (certainly the most expensive ones) are grown on the foothills, slopes, benches and mountains of the eastern side of the valley, which is the western face of the Mayacamas. There is, as I said, a lot of Cab planted down on the valley floor These are the wines that established Alexander Valley’s reputation – along with Zinfandel. But I think it’s fair to say that the Cabernets that have raised Alexander Valley’s profile are those from the higher elevations.
In fact, for the most expensive Cabs, we have to turn to altitude — and in some cases, quite a bit of altitude. In addition to the temperature distinctions I referred to earlier, there’s also more intense solar radiation in mountains. We tend to overlook solar radiation in discussions of terroir, possibly because our notion of Cabernet terroir was formed from Bordeaux, where elevation plays almost no role.
The role of solar radiation on grapes is only partially understood. High-altitude grape skins are thicker, in part because the fruit tries to protect itself from intense sunlight. This, along with the poor, dry soil, makes mountain grapes more tannic. Research suggests that these mountain tannins are qualitatively different from the tannins of valley floor grapes. They’re softer and rounder, giving the wines plenty of structure, yet they also possess a suppleness that makes them appealing even in youth.
There’s also evidence that, at high altitudes, the sun’s UV rays are better able to penetrate the skins of the grapes despite their thickness. This has an obvious implication for the pips, which are more easily ripened.
Elevation also allows grapes to more easily achieve a balance of sugar ripeness and the expression of varietal character. In wine, we often speak of “sweet spots,” and this concept applies to mountain vineyards. Too low down, and sugar accumulation may outpace the full expression of varietal flavor. Too high up, and the temperature is too cool, leading to sharp, green wines. In the Mayacamas, the sweet spot seems to be between 400 and about 2,400 feet.
The most interesting quote in the Napa Valley Register’s article on the 30th birthday of the Carneros Wine Alliance is from David Graves. The co-founder of Saintsbury said, “There’s no ‘Napa of pinot noir.’ No one place dominates the market.”
Isn’t it interesting how the cultural evolution of the market has treated our two leading red wine types so differently? One, Cabernet Sauvignon, has become almost exclusively dominated, in the mind of the consumer, with a single appellation: Napa Valley. The other, Pinot Noir, resists being associated with a dominating region. Indeed, if you were to ask leading wine critics, What is California’s top Pinot Noir appellation, they would tell you the question makes no sense.
Beyond being merely of academic interest, this is a pocketbook issue. How much a winery gets for its wine (and how much, in turn, the consumer pays for it) are intimately linked with the wine’s origin. While the average statewide price for a ton of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in 2013 was $1,339, in Napa Valley it was $5,469, a difference of 308 percent. Pragmatically, this is why the average bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet is many times higher that the average bottle of Cabernet from, say, Alexander Valley.
This is not true of Pinot Noir, whose price tends to be more consistent across all the top coastal growing areas. Here are some examples, all reflective of the price of a ton of grapes in 2013:
Santa Barbara/San Luis Obispo: $2,586
Indeed, as I have long suggested, when it comes to Pinot Noir, it is somewhat misleading to focus on individual growing regions. Instead, the way to look at things is that we have a single Pinot Noir terroir that stretches from Anderson Valley down to Santa Barbara County, extending inland perhaps 20 miles. No single A.V.A. within this vast stretch can plausibly pretend to supremacy because, in truth, all of them are roughly equal, although, of course, wine writers and critics make their livings discerning differences within the similarities.
In the case of Napa’s lopsided price for Cabernet, this cannot be credited to matters of terroir. Napa Valley demonstrably is not the best, only place to grow qualitatively significant Cabernet Sauvignon in California. Alexander Valley has equal precedence. So too do the Santa Cruz Mountains, Paso Robles, the easternmost parts of Santa Barbara, Lake County and other regions of Sonoma County, including Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Knights Valley and Chalk Hill. (I refer, in all cases, to the top wines.) I don’t think any critic who’s being objective would object when I say that prime Cabernet growing areas in California are at least as widespread as those for prime Pinot Noir.
Why, then, the incredible price differential on behalf of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon? One reason and one reason only: perception. Napa Valley is perceived as being the best place to grow Cabernet. That perception clearly impacts the choice of consumers (and the restaurateurs and merchants who sell wine to them), but it also distorts the impressions of a surprisingly high number of critics, who do not taste blind and thus are subject to the biases within their own unconscious or subconscious minds.
Now that I’ve been “relieved” of the job of tasting many thousands of wines a year, I find I’m developing a refreshingly clearer sense concerning these matters of terroir. Perhaps it’s a form of now being able to see the forest for the trees. If one is looking for pleasure and complexity in wine (and what else would one look for?), then it’s simply astonishing how easy it is to find those qualities in California wine. This is not to suggest that quality differences do not exist, but it is my considered judgment that these differences are neither as vast as I once thought, nor as distinctive as consumers believe. This may be due, in part, to the 100-point system, which I long employed and for which I will never apologize. But I am glad that, when it came to very high scores for Cabernet, I always included Alexander Valley right up there with Napa Valley, for I was able to get past the “perception thing” and focus on the wine itself.
The history of California wine is replete with paradigm-shifting events, such as the Paris Tasting, the advent of the current era of Pinot Noir, replanting after phylloxera, and, if we go back far enough, to the use of French barriques and the creation of the Federal labeling laws. To these, I will predict a gradual shifting in the consumer’s perception, a widening of appreciation that great Cabernet Sauvignon can in fact come from many more places than only Napa Valley. When this will occur is open to question, but I have no doubt that it will.