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Calistoga to challenge Napa City for Luxury Supremecy?

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Both cities have come a long way over the last ten or fifteen years. When I began visiting Napa Valley, in the 1970s, Napa city was (let’s face it) kind of a drag from a tourist point of view, although it did have that All-American City cleanliness. Downtown was a heap of mattress stores and “antique” parlors that were little more than flea markets. As for Calistoga, it was the redneck side of the valley. My roommate Eugene’s parents lived up there, in a trailer park. Nobody I ever heard of went to the mud baths, except Eugene himself, for his arthritis.

Napa city was first to change. New restaurants began to go in. They developed that Riverfront area, and built all the flood control projects to keep downtown from its periodic inundations. COPIA brought in some travelers, but even its closure didn’t seem to put a dent into Napa’s attractiveness as a destination.

Calistoga by contrast seemed content during the first decade of the 2000s to glide by on sleepy feet. A few good, new restaurants went in, but otherwise, Calistoga remained more or less a backwater. When Solage opened, I took notice, but it seemed more of a standalone luxury resort than a reflection of any underlying change in the town of Calistoga; it wasn’t even within walking distance of the town center, but a schlep down the Silverado Trail.

Now, however, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat is reporting that Calistoga is “shifting to more emphasis on the high-end, luxury tourists,” to quote its city manager. New “luxury resorts,” priced at “$300 to $1,200 a night,” are going in, financed by the likes of the Four Seasons and Hong Kong billionaires. That this will change the character of Calistoga is granted by everyone. The Press Democrat article correctly surmises that the changes will bring more traffic and will result in much more water use; critics of the development managed to put initiatives limiting it on the local ballot, but these were defeated by the voters, who evidently felt that Calistoga’s chronic budget shortfalls, which impacted such local services as police and fire, would be made up for by increased tax revenues and tourist spending.

It’s not for any of us to judge whether Calistoga’s new ambitions are a good or bad thing. It’s for the people of Calistoga to decide, and they already have. What’s certain is that Napa Valley, from Yountville north through St. Helena to Calistoga, now has become a luxe destination for upscale travelers from all over the world—whether they’re into wine or not. Outside of San Francisco, Napa Valley is the culinary capitol of Northern California (The Restaurant at Meadowood and French Laundry alone would suggest that). It’s also the golf capital and the spa capital. And all in all, the politicians and city fathers and mothers who manage Napa Valley’s growth have done a good job of managing development and keeping its too-ugly side from creeping in.

Except for the traffic. It’s very bad now, and bound to get much, much worse. I know of no plans in place to expand or allieviate automobile access into and out of the valley, on either the Silverado Trail side or the Highway 29 side. (They certainly can’t add new lanes to 29 between St. Helena and Oakville, can they?) Napa Valley seems to have accepted the conventional wisdom that gridlock is the inevitable cost of development. It’s too bad, but what are you gonna do?


Alexander Valley and Napa Valley Cabernet: A study in contrasts

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I’m going to be doing an event soon on Alexander Valley and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and the differences between them. This is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. As a working critic for many years, I of course had the opportunity to taste many if not most of the Cabs from both those regions, over many vintages, and so I formed a picture in my mind of their differences.

I keep in mind that Napa Valley is one mountain range further inland than Alexander Valley, so it’s a bit warmer and drier. (Of course, it needs to be said that Napa is incredibly more complicated than Alexander Valley, terroir-wise. The west-facing slopes of the Vacas in Oakville, at Dalla Valle for instance, are much warmer than, say, conditions at Dominus.) You’d expect Napa Cabernet to be a little riper than Alexander Valley Cab, and that has in fact been my experience. I’ve always thought of Alexander Valley Cab as slightly more herbaceous than Napa Cab. There’s frequently an edge of tobacco, or sage, or green olive in Alexander Valley Cab that frankly makes the wines more Bordeaux-like.

In Napa, too, the tendency to let Cabs get ultra-ripe, in the modern Parker style, is also much more pronounced than in Alexander Valley. This is primarily for economic reasons; wineries that have gotten very high Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast scores naturally are reluctant to change their house style, and those high scores are generally a reflection of their wines’ opulence. I don’t feel bad at all for whatever I contributed to encouraging that style, despite the fact that it’s come under some assault lately. I like a big, rich, dramatic, powerful Napa Cabernet.

But Alexander Valley wineries never felt the same pressure to mimic that Napa style. I suppose some tried to get their grapes ultra-ripe, but it really doesn’t work in Alexander Valley. The best growers realized they had to do more to achieve success than simply copy Napa. Even if they wanted to, Alexander Valley’s cooler climate would have made it more difficult.

I keep in mind, too, that when we speak of “Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon,” we’re really talking about Cabs from the foothills, slopes and mountains of the eastern side of the valley, which is the western side of the Mayacamas Mountains. (It’s silly to have to call them “Alexander Valley,” but until there’s some new A.V.A., that’s all we have.) There’s a lot of Cab planted down on the valley floor, mainly along Route 128, but the best Cabs have some elevation—and in some cases, quite a bit of elevation. Being 800 feet or 1,400 feet up in those mountains creates vastly different terroir conditions from lower down on the valley floor. The temperature is cooler during the daytime, but warmer at night due to an inversion layer, and the vines are generally above the fog, even on the foggiest days when the valley floor is smothered in the white stuff. There’s also more intense solar radiation up on those mountains, and while I’m not an expert in precisely how that affects the grapes, I think it tends to make the fruit more intense.

The fruit also is more intense up on those mountains because the soil is really sparse. Not much grows up on those west-facing slopes of the Mayacamas except madrone and other drought-resistant flora. The native grasses and herbs pretty much dry out and turn golden during our summers, and you can sometimes find those dried herb touches in the Cabs. This too helps to make Alexander Valley Cabernet distinctive.

Then there’s the tannins. They’re dustier, sometimes a little grittier or greener in Alexander Valley than in Napa, particularly in a cool year. Overall, Alexander Valley Cabs tend to be drier, more elegantly structured and more ageable than Napa Valley Cabs, which are more dramatic and flashy. Having said all this, it can be hard to pick out Alexander versus Napa in a blind tasting, even for an experienced taster. I don’t think it would be hard to tell a Colgin from a Jordan, because they’re made in such different styles. But a 2008 Lancaster from a 2008 St. Supery? Not so easy.

I do think this is a good time for Alexander Valley Cabernet to shine. It’s been a little lost in the glare of Napa Valley, as have all of California’s other Cabernet regions (Paso Robles in particular). But we’re in new times, when new consumers are more open to exploration and discovery. And Alexander Valley Cabernet is better than it has ever been. Lots of restaurants feel they have to have Napa Cab on their wine lists because their well-heeled customers expect it, and that’s totally understandable. But if I were a somm, I’d be looking at Alexander Valley mountain Cabernet. It’s a story waiting to be told, and worth the telling.


Sangiovese’s bold, noble road to nowhere

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Reading about Piero Antinori in the April 30 issue of Wine Spectator brought back memories of the early and mid-1990s, when the Marchese had hundreds of acres of Sangiovese growing in a beautiful section of Atlas Peak.

The sprawling vineyard was a fine sight to see. Sangiovese, the grape and wine, still was on the upswing in Cailfornia. Many winegrowers and critics thought it could be California’s answer to Tuscany—indeed, the term “Cal-Ital” was coined to express this desire.

To understand Sangiovese’s allure at that moment, you have to put it into context. Cabernet Sauvignon was the undoubted king of red wines. Pinot Noir was not then seriously considered to be a candidate for anything. Merlot was on the rise. Zinfandel, as always, was in one year, out the next. Petite Sirah? Hmmph. It was okay for blending, but nobody took it seriously as a standalone. So people were left to wonder: What is the “next big red wine?”

In California, with its edge-of-the-continent tradition of radical reinvention, there always has to be a “next” everything. The next big movie star. The next big politician. Even the next big earthquake. This concept of “nextness” is uncomfortable with tradition—tradition, after all, is what drove so many people to leave their homes and travel westward, where they would be free from stifling oppression. So it was with wine.

Sangiovese was crowned early on with this crown of nextness. But there was a problem—a big one. It never seemed to make very good wine. Grown on fertile flatlands and benches in Napa Valley, it made a light, pale, savory wine, almost a rosé, at places like Flora Springs. But its lightness disqualified it from being the next big red wine. So it was that growers and vintners headed to the hills.

Enter Piero Antinori. The Atlas Peak vineyard, as I’ve said, was gorgeous, and the fact that the master of Tuscany presided over it was inspirational. However, once again, Sangiovese failed to live up to expectations. The tannins in the wines were enormous, gigantic, impossible. I remember attempting to review them and fundamentally giving up. Would these wines age well in 15 or 20 years? Who knew? Who cared?

So it was that, as the Wine Spectator explains, Antinori eventually gave up on Sangiovese and replaced almost all the Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon, which he bottles under the Antica brand.

As for Sangiovese in California, it’s one of the really few disasters in the state’s wine varietal history. Acreage over the last ten or fifteen years has remained practically stagnant statewide. In Napa, less than 300 acres remain. I can barely remember the last one I reviewed for Wine Enthusiast.

Someday, somebody might resurrect Sangiovese in California and make something of it, but I doubt if we’ll ever see it return to glory. It’s awfully hard to attempt something important in California wine, only to fail, and then to return. Some politicians have done it—Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan conspicuously come to mind, men who ran losing campaigns that embarrassed them, but then came back and triumphed.

Wine, however, is not man. Whatever niche Sangiovese once promised to fill has been replaced by Pinot Noir. Sangiovese’s experimental period in California was a bold and noble venture, but it led nowhere.


Napa’s traffic crisis: Alternate touring days?

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You know that old saying about how you can’t put the toothpaste back into the tube? That was my feeling when I read this article, from Monday’s Napa Register, on a debate taking place in Napa Valley. And, no, it’s not about wine.

The topic is nothing new: Growth versus preservation. In its latest incarnation, it shape-shifts into whether Napa should be (in the words of a county official) “a resort area [or] an agricultural area.” California, with our natural beauty, always is a hotbed of such debates, and Napa Valley, for many reasons, is no exception. This conversation has been going on for as long as I’ve been aware of the valley.

In particular this brouhaha over the number of tasting rooms and wineries hosting “events” like weddings has also been around for a long time. It’s only natural that some valley residents would be upset over the traffic (truly, truly awful on Highway 29) and the feeling that their pastoral little slice of heaven is turning into a tourist-drawing WineryLand theme park.

So is it time to take drastic action, like limiting the number of tasting rooms, or wineries, or vineyards, or resorts and hotels? This is the problem of the toothpaste. Napa can’t go backwards to the bucolic 1960s or 1970s. And there are limits to how much it can do to prevent the invasion of the tourists, which now seems to occur year-round, not just in the summer, as the climate dries and warms.

It’s interesting to read the comments to the Register article. Typical of the slow-growthers is this one from a reader who’s had it up to here: “Anyone catch the traffic on 29 today? Basically heading south it was backed up from the light in yountville all the way to the CIA. It was almost just as bad heading North. It was still backed up at 6:45 at night, about 35 minutes to get from st Helena to yountville. That should be a 7 minute drive.” And this from someone else: “Experiencing the growth in the last fifteen years, one could argue that the tipping point has already been reached. Does one honestly wish to make the traffic even more intolerable?”

It’s not clear what the solution is, but we should be looking at this from a wider perspective, namely: Napa Valley isn’t the only place in California where traffic is an enormous, and growing, problem. It’s a problem throughout the state, from our local city and suburban streets to the freeways and bridges that form California’s nervous system, from the Pacific Coast Highway to the byways of the Sierra Nevada and all chokepoints inbetween. Californians have always complained about traffic in our state’s notorious car culture, but things are worse than they’ve ever been, and if you’re wasting hours of your life everyday sitting idle, you’re understandably frustrated. And what I can’t for the life of me understand is why our government isn’t taking the problem more seriously. This isn’t something that local government can tackle. It’s a gigantic elbow to the throat of California’s economy (not to mention drivers’ peace of mind) and only government has the means to address it.

Maybe, in Napa’s case, the answer is to limit the number of tourists (especially on weekends) in some way that’s legal and fair. Of course, the state would have to be involved, too, and possibly the Feds. Back in the 1970s, when we had the nation’s first gas shortage, you could only fill your tank on certain days, depending on the number on your license plate. I don’t recall there being any riots; people understood that there was a crisis and we all had to be a part of the solution.

Could something like that work in Napa’s case? There are really just two main ways in, from the south and north, Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. Maybe they could build checkpoints with automated cameras, like the ones they use for FasTrak. Get the word out, through media and signage, that Saturdays are for “x” drivers and Sunday’s are for “y” drivers, and then levy a hefty fine on anyone who’s caught cheating (just the way FasTrak works). Of course, you’d have to figure out some way to screen out locals so they didn’t get caught in the net. This would inconvenience many tourists, granted; but once they got the hang of it, they’d get used to it, and they’d probably eventually welcome the more open roads.

I know it’s a crazy idea, but maybe it could work. And if things get bad enough (and they’re heading in that direction) it may be the only way.


Tastemakers are ready for a return to classicism

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You can’t really blame the famous Napa Valley wineries that came of age in the 1970s for running out of steam a little bit by now. The problem, to the extent there is one and I think there obviously has been, is that American wine writers and sommeliers (a group included in the larger group of “tastemakers”) tend to be a fickle bunch. Writers, especially, suffer from “what’s new?” syndrome: Witness the obsession verging on mania of all those “rising stars” and “wineries to watch” articles in the wine press. As a former member of that establishment, I can tell you that the pressure on “what’s new?”– from editors and publishers and your fellow writers–is tremendous. There’s little in it for the hard-working wine writer to remind the public that a forty-year old Napa Valley winery is producing fantastic wines. Nobody wants to hear it. They want to hear about the sexy newcomer who just got 100 points from [fill in the blank].

This is the truth, but it isn’t entirely the fault of the people who are paid to market and promote these wineries. They’re fighting an uphill battle. Our throwaway culture wants youth, not longevity—ask any Hollywood actress over 40 (except Meryl Streep). One day, you’re 22-year old Winona Ryder, garnering wows for The Age of Innocence and Little Women. The next, you’re in your forties and doing Frankenweenie.

It’s sad and pathetic—tragic, even—but, like Tony Soprano always said, What you gonna do? There are two important take-homes here: One concerns how those 40-something year-old Napa wineries stay relevant in the second decade of the 21st century. The other is, How does a young modern winery plan to stay relevant in 2050?

To stay relevant, the older wineries have to be smart. Just as people of a certain age (me included) understand that, to keep the weight off and stay trim, you have to burn more calories than ever (because your metabolism slows down), so too the older winery needs to step up the pace. But that doesn’t necessarily mean working harder: It means being more intelligent and efficient. To continue my analogy, it doesn’t mean the older person has to stay on the treadmill twice as long (although it could), it also means she has to be more careful about the food she eats. When you’re twenty you burn off that double bacon cheeseburger in five seconds; when you’re older, it’s “from the lips to the hips.”

In the same way, the older winery has to work smarter. If that means learning about social media, even if they think it’s stupid, so be it. But it could also mean taking a long, hard, honest look at your wines and asking yourself if they’re really what people want to drink these days. If you’re convinced they are, then say so! Loud and proud.

The younger winery that’s planning to be around in 30 years also needs a game plan. Staying lean, limber and quick isn’t all that hard if you’re already lean, limber and quick. But it’s really hard when you’ve become bloated and lazy. If I was 28 and running my own winery, I like to think I’d know how to keep the ball rolling. Work on DTC. Be out there on the road, meeting consumers, accounts and tastemakers. Do social media. Connect, connect, connect. Taste widely and often. And please, understand history!!!

So what do I mean by the headline, “A return to classicism”? I truly think that in our world of wine the OCD of “new new new” is shifting as people realize that what’s “new” isn’t necessarily better. Not that there’s anything wrong with a new winery—not saying that! But we mustn’t get so mesmerized by these new cult wineries that we throw the baby out with the bathwater and relegate older wineries to some kind of netherworld populated only by your grandfather’s ghost. The truth is—and it bears repeating again and again—what has long been great is worth everybody’s attention. Wine has been the greatest beverage in history because it is the only one (beer and spirits included) that can follow the arc of greatness over centuries down to the individual winery level. Indeed, this is why Europe has Grand Crus. Well, guess what? So does California, albeit in a shrunken time span. If you’re a younger wine drinker, a younger somm or blogger, whatever, you owe it to yourself to understand the classic wines of California—and you owe it, not just to yourself, but to your customers and clients and, indeed, to the history and soul of wine itself.


The Hill grape fraud case does NOT taint Napa Valley!

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Last week’s very long (3,700 word) article in the New York Times about the Jeff Hill case has stirred up tension in Napa Valley, where some people think the author, Vindu Goel, went over the top in painting Napa as a place where wine quality is “built on quicksand.”

(Some of you might not be able to open the NYT link if you don’t have a Times subscription. Even if you can’t, you can probably find it on Google.)

Last Spring, Mr. Hill, a vineyard manager, was charged with grand theft for allegedly stealing tens of thousands of dollars worth of grapes from a client during the 2013 harvest.

Reporter Goel took the serious and significant charges of fraud in the Hill case and, some folks say, stretched them to tar Napa’s reputation in general. Prices of Napa wine, Goel wrote, are based more on consumers’ belief in the superiority of the region’s grapes than in the inherent quality of the liquid in the bottle.”

And “[M]any bottles on wine-store shelves aren’t what they seem because of loopholes in American wine labeling laws,” he added, based on an interview with the master sommelier, Emmanuel Kemiji. The inescapable implication is that a top-notch Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon may contain “a cheaper grape varietal like syrah or zinfandel” that could be from “anywhere else in the state, like Fresno.” Most damaging of all Goel’s assertions, perhaps, is this one, which suggests that spin and hype, rather than quality, are behind Napa Valley’s reputation as the supreme place to make wine in America: “Much of Napa’s price premium stems from savvy marketing, not any objective superiority of the wine.”

Reactions, mostly offended, have come from in and around Napa Valley. My friend Lewis Perdue (for whom I used to work, years ago), in Wine Industry Insight took particular umbrage over what he perceived as the Times’ unfair broadside.

“NY Times Uses Hill Wine Company Debacle To Take A Shot At Napa Valley,” he headlined, explaining that the article left an overall impression that varietal fraud and some level of adulteration were relatively common practices” in Napa.

Here’s my take. Most of what Goel wrote is objectively true, based on the facts. U.S. labeling laws do allow for up to one-quarter of a varietally-labeled wine to consist of varietal/s other than the named one. Those same laws also allow for a certain percentage of the grapes to come from areas other than the official appellation on the label. And, yes, part of the rationale for Napa Valley wine prices is due to Napa Valley’s reputation.

Did Goel go over the line? Yes. Dropping the word “Fresno” into that sentence was both unnecessary, and calculated to shock. It’s a little like the famously self-incriminating question, When did you stop beating your wife? Now that Goel has implanted the thought in people’s minds that Napa Valley wine may contain grapes from Fresno, there’s no way Napa vintners can convince them that it’s not true, no matter what they say.

Granted that Mr. Hill may (or may not) have been a crook, it’s hyperbole and unprofessional to use a single case to stain an entire region: it’s like saying that fraud is widespread in Burgundy based on the Rudy Kurniawan case, or that all of Bordeaux is suspect because a famous chateau once used illegal wood chips instead of real barrels.

It was also a little misleading for Goel to use Kemiji’s quotes to suggest that Napa Valley’s terroir is no different from any other place. Emmanuel (who I suspect didn’t know how his quote would be used) said, “You line up cabernets from Napa and good-quality cabernet from Sonoma and Lake County, and it’s really tough to say where they’re from.” This is true; as someone who’s tasted countless Cabs from those areas (and many others), I know it’s not easy pinpointing where a great Cabernet comes from. But still, it misses the point.

For the fact is that Napa Valley produces more great Cabernet Sauvignon than any other place in America, and has for a very long time, which surely gives it legitimate claim to prestige; and every prestigious region and wine in the history of the world has been considered more desirable—and thus more costly—than the competition.

As for Goel’s contention that “savvy marketing” is behind Napa’s success, this doesn’t stand up to the facts. Napa Valley achieved its success well before the modern era of marketing. The fame of the boutique wineries of the 1960s and 1970s wasn’t due to P.R., which most of those little wineries didn’t know anything about, but to the appreciation of educated wine lovers who recognized that what they were experiencing was something special. Besides, “savvy marketing” may give a winery or region fifteen minutes of fame—but if the stuff in the bottle doesn’t live up to the hype, the fame is fleeting. That is emphatically not the case with Napa Valley.

There is no evidence whatsoever—not a sniff or a shred—to suggest that the majority, or even a significant minority, of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons are not what they say they are: grown and produced in the valley, and made from Bordeaux varietals. (And besides, if adding 2% Syrah makes the wine better, who cares?) I also suspect that, when Kemiji told Goel that “there is an incentive to fudge [on blending] because the price of Napa cabernet is so high,” he didn’t know in what context his words would be used. I’m a longtime reporter myself; I know the game. Some questions are a form of entrapment. The reporter who goes into the interview knowing what points he wants to prove, and then asks set-up questions, is not being objective or fair.

Honestly, Goel’s story is a combination of personal anecdotes, irrelevant throw-ins and editorializing, in addition to the facts. Rather than illuminating an interesting story, it feeds into America’s current obsession with conspiracy theories, in this case that “wine quality” is an elitist myth, and that everything is equal because it’s not permitted for anything to be better. Breitbart.com, an online news service, covered the Hill case, and here’s a telling comment one of their readers sent in:

“I always got a kick out of these wine snobs. I knew you could give them a swig of Night Train™ and tell them it’s gourmet and they would believe it. sort of like the ‘art community’… a crappy painting of campbell’s soup cans garners millions ?????” The commenter is entitled to his opinion, of course, but it’s pathetic that the truth is lost in the shuffle: Night Train is not as good as Napa Valley Cabernet, period, end of story. And no “gourmet” in the world would ever confuse it for such.

I’m not saying the Hill case isn’t worthy of reporting, or that the Times shouldn’t have allowed Goel to run with it. What I am saying is that American journalism has sunk to its lowest level in my lifetime, in terms of scandal-mongering. What Woodward and Bernstein set in motion, nearly 40 years ago, has run amok. Not every instance of law-breaking is a major scandal. Sometimes an illegal act is just that: The isolated act of a single individual, not an indication that an entire region is unscrupulous.


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