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A wine review, and an Overview of Napa Cabernet

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Nickel & Nickel 2009 C.C. Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley). The C.C. Ranch is in the eastern Rutherford appellation, just west the Silverado Trail, near the hilly knolls of Quintessa. It’s a younger vineyard, with planting starting in 2000 to Cabernet Sauvignon. The gravelly soils are well-drained. Nickel & Nickel gets a portion of the grapes of the 115-acre vineyard.

When I first reviewed this wine, in 2012, it was disagreeably hard in tannins—a trait that marks all of Nickel & Nickel’s single-vineyard Cabernets. Which suggests aging. So how’s this 100% Cab doing?

Splendidly. The tannins are still there, but they’ve grown softer and melted. The youthful blackberry, cherry, plum and raisin flavors, liberally enriched with oak and tangy spices (anise, Chinese 5 spice), are turning the corner into secondary character: dried fruits, cassis, dark chocolate, enlivened with acidity. With a complex, long finish, it argues the case for aging high-quality Napa Valley Cabernet; a decade is a good guideline. Does it have a future? Yes. Already throwing sediment, it should continue to glide through the next ten years. But right now is a good time to pop the cork. Score: 95.

My review of this Cabernet opens up the wider question of the role of Napa Valley Cabernet in today’s world. The glamor, I think, that haloed Napa Cab from the 1960s until the end of the century has largely faded. Like a famous movie star in her time—Garbo, Bergman, Dietrich—its luster necessarily diminishes. And yet, Napa Cab has achieved what its pioneers always dreamed of: reputational parity, or nearly so, with classic European wines: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, German Riesling. The words “Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon” finally signify something important, coveted and expensive.

Still, Napa Cab suffers from limitations that do not impact classic European wines. For starters, Napa Cab is notoriously difficult to pair with food. It can be done, of course: if you go to a steakhouse, chances are you’ll see a lot of Napa Cabernet on the wine list. But people are eating less beef these days. Between 2000 and 2017, beef consumption in the U.S. declined significantly, by 15.5%.

People are turning away from beef, in favor of lighter meats (chicken, pork, lamb) or plant-based foods. And the fact is that Cabernet is not a particularly deft partner for lighter meats. It swamps poultry, while for pork or lamb, lighter reds, such as Pinot Noir, and even white wines, are far more amenable.

I suspect that my experience with Cabernet Sauvignon is similar to that of many other Americans. I drink it less and less (even though I have a lot in my cellar), simply because it’s too heavy for my eating habits. (I also drink far less Cabernet in the summer, for that very reason.) Napa Cabernet is high in alcohol, relative to other dry red table wines, which is another reason to reduce my consumption of it. I’m not a Millennial, but my hunch, based on anecdotal information including my observation of “hot” wine bars in the San Francisco Bay Area, is that Millennials (Gen Y) and Gen Z (at least, those old enough to legally consume alcohol) are not drinking Cabernet Sauvignon. They’re looking for lighter, more interesting wines from around the world, not something expensive and heavy, which their parents and grandparents drank. Having said this, I’m aware that Cabernet Sauvignon, as an international varietal wine, is the most popular red wine in America, by far. But that’s everyday Cabernet, under $20 or so—the polar opposite of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: the former Toyota, the latter Porsche.

Napa Cabernet will be around for a long time, but I think it has now entered a period of stasis. It will rest on its laurels, enjoying its exalted status, but its best, most exciting days are behind, at least here in the U.S. This has long been foreseen by Napa wineries, at least those capable of forward-looking vision, which is why so many have labored for so long to establish overseas markets. But export markets aren’t a silver bullet: Trump’s tariff wars threaten the foreign importation of U.S. wines.

So if you’re a Napa Cabernet producer, what do you do? For one thing, you’re grateful you have a personal fortune (which is practically a prerequisite for owning a Napa winery). Your money will allow you to continue in business, despite headwinds, for some time to come. But your money can’t compel consumers to buy the product you’re selling, and eventually, for many upscale Napa producers, getting bought out by a large company is the only way out (Cf. the Pahlmeyer-Gallo deal).

Don’t get me wrong: as my review of the Nickel & Nickel ’09 C.C. shows, it is a fabulous wine. I enjoyed reviewing it, and, afterwards, drinking the remainder with a perfect hamburger I made myself, using good ground beef with 20% fat content. But that was the first hamburger I’d made at home in years; it was only the second hamburger I’d eaten in years, and in fact, the reason I chose to make a hamburger was because I wanted something to drink the wine with, and a hamburger seemed a healthier alternative to steak. None of my “normal” dinners (grains, vegetables, chicken, salmon, omelets) would have been suitable for such a rich wine, sweet in fruit and oak, and thick in tannins. And so, all those other older bottles of Napa Cabernet will remain in my cellar until the next time I chose to make a hamburger, much less a steak. All of which makes drinking my Napa Cabs, frankly, problematic…


“Parkerization” is not a myth or a lie

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Lisa Perrotti-Brown surprised no one with her glowing defense of her “greatest mentor,” Robert M. Parker Jr., which she published the other day, on the occasion of Parker’s “immediate” retirement from The Wine Advocate, the periodical he founded in 1978.

That Parker was the most famous and influential wine critic of the last 35 years, as Perrotti-Brown writes, cannot be disputed. In making the following arguments, I cite my own position: as the lead California critic for Wine Enthusiast Magazine for many years, I had a privileged seat at the high table of wine criticism—a seat that enables me to make these observations with some degree of eye-witness veracity.

I would not challenge a single word of Ms. Perrotti-Brown’s encomium. Bob Parker absolutely was “the father of modern wine criticism”; he did indeed “raise the bar” for all of us who followed. But where I part ways with Perrotti-Brown is in her unfettered denial that Parker created an “international style” of ripe, high-alcohol wines. This is not a “big lie,” as she asserts, but the pure, unadulterated truth—and everybody in the wine industry knows it.

Perrotti-Brown has been trying to undo or obfuscate this truth about the “Parkerization of wine” for years. Last June, she wrote her piece de résistance on the topic, a robust rebuttal that does not stand up to scrutiny. Parkerization is “a myth,” she says. It is “a lie.” Its effect on wine is “purported.” Yes, Parker’s reign, she admits, coincided with a time when “wineries…developed styles that fit the trend” of riper, fruitier wines. But “it was not Parker who created the trend, consumers did.” Those who continue to decry Parkerization and the international style, she states, are merely seeking “a villain.” Wine writers who dare to suggest that Parkerization is real are just “looking for something to write about that attracts more viewers.”

These are patronizing, insulting remarks that Perrotti-Brown did not have to make. But she did, and they need to be addressed. I’m certainly not looking to “attract more viewers” by writing these words, and I never thought Parker was a “villain.” I admire the man tremendously. But I was there, in the front row, watching this whole phenomenon unroll, from the early 1980s until I formally retired from wine criticism in 2013 (and even since then I’ve kept my eye on the scene). And I can state with clear conscience that Parkerization was and is real.

We all know that alcohol levels in wine rose drastically during Parker’s era. Bordeaux, Burgundy and California in particular, as well as the Rhône, saw these increases—all regions Parker specialized in. During my heyday (and Parker’s as well), alcohol levels in California Cabernet Sauvignon, especially from Napa Valley, soared. Frequently, levels of more than 15% were seen, and many of us—aware of the fudge factor the Federal government allows in wine labeling—suspected that a Cabernet of official 15.5% strength might in reality be in excess of 16%. This is not a “myth” but a fact.

Why did it happen? Perrotti-Brown says that “consumers created the trend.” That is a misstatement. Consumers do not create such trends in wine; they respond to them. Consumers enjoyed wine before the Parker era when alcohol levels were between 11% and 13%. There is no evidence that a consumer uprising occurred in the 1980s, in which these consumers demanded riper, higher-alcohol wines. Talk about “myths”!! It simply didn’t happen.

What did happen was that wine periodicals, like The Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator, assumed a far greater importance than ever before, as a maturing and wealthier Baby Boomer generation realized it needed help figuring out what to buy (and cellar) among the thousands of competing brands. Parker’s Wine Advocate wasn’t the first to fill that market niche, but it was the most successful and influential. The 1982 Bordeaux vintage, which Parker lionized, did indeed cement his reputation. After that, he was golden.

I can’t prove the following assertion but I strongly believe it: wine critics who became well known after Parker’s rise, including James Laube, James Suckling and myself, felt they had to praise the same sorts of wine as did Parker. This may not have been a conscious thought on their part; but wine critics don’t work in a vacuum. The handwriting on the wall was very clear by the late 1980s: Parker was giving huge scores to wines like Groth’s 1985 Reserve (the first California wine to get 100 points from him). With each high score, not only the winery’s reputation was boosted, but Parker’s, as well. Wine writers took note! The concept that big, fruity, high-alcohol Cabernets were better than their thinner, less ripe but often more elegant counterparts became entrenched. No wine critic is immune to his environment; like artists, they are affected by their contemporaries. There has got to be a scale or continuum of hedonism in criticism; otherwise, criticism makes no sense; and what Parker bequeathed the rest of us was to define the upper scale of this continuum.

This is what is meant by “Parkerization.” Parker himself never denied his personal preference for big wines; he simply recoiled from what he felt was the smear of calling them “Parkerized.” And now, his successor at Wine Advocate, Perrotti-Brown, has picked up the mantle of outraged indignation. But I really don’t see why. Why is it so irksome to her (and to her “greatest mentor”) that Parker had this impact on wine? The only reason I can surmise—and it’s just my guess—is because Perrotti-Brown shares to some degree the belief common among younger (and some older) critics and sommeliers that some wines have indeed become too ripe, too alcoholic; and to the extent there’s a reason for this, it’s because of Robert Parker and the Wine Advocate.

History will be the final judge of all this. Does anyone doubt that History will record that Parkerization and the international style he inspired were real and not fake news? Meanwhile, Perrotti-Brown should calm down. The more she denies the reality of Parkerization—the lady doth protest too much–the more defensive she appears. As for Bob Parker, I salute you, sir, and–speaking as one whose retirement preceded yours–I welcome you to our ranks, and wish you peace and health!


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.


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