There’s an ill wind blowing in Napa these days. The county seems torn about how it sees its future, which is really about how it sees its current status and its past. This all was the subject of a letter in the St. Helena Star newspaper written by Bill Ryan, who I believe is a columnist. Development versus non-development always is an issue in wine country, but Napa seems to be the most sensitive about it of all regions, perhaps because it is the most famous and most sought after destination for wine tourism.
Mr. Ryan’s letter is a reply to critics who he perceives are “trashing” Napa Valley’s wineries. He seeks to convince readers that all is not “doom and gloom” in Napa. I agree with him—up to a point.
Here’s my take. Traffic really has risen to insane proportions along Highway 29. It’s terrible, but hardly unusual; in post-Recession California, traffic has become worse than ever, from L.A. through the Bay Area to Sacramento and right up to wine country, and it shows no signs of getting better. In my opinion, Governor Brown ought to declare a State of Emergency, summon the Legislature into Emergency Session, and convene a committee of wise men and women to figure out where we go from here. I myself have no idea if there’s a solution, but that’s why we need experts to consider all the alternatives.
To the extent Napa is battling with traffic, concerns about new wineries or winery permits for special events are understandable. I would hate to have to drive between St. Helena and anywhere south, in the morning or during the evening commute.
Mr. Ryan correctly points out that Napa’s golden age, the 1960s and 1970s, accomplished “something that had never been done before in all of history – create a New World wine district that competed favorably with the famous regions of Europe.” Indeed it did. He is proud of his compatriots for so doing. I am too. He suggests that today’s men and women of Napa Valley can help to “find a positive pathway to aiding winery growth and prosperity,” a judgment with which surely no one can disagree. There are such men and women. I don’t know if outsiders who got rich elsewhere and then bought themselves a Napa Valley lifestyle are the kind of people who can lead Napa through its travails, as opposed to the families who have lived there for a long time. Maybe some of them are.
Mr. Ryan also puts his finger on a big issue: “Our key item, cabernet sauvignon, is quickly losing sales and position against pinot noirs and other more drinkable reds.” This is surely true. The reasons are not clear. Is it because of alcohol levels? My own pulse-taking of the market suggests that Cabernet may be down, but you can never count it out. In modern America, fashion has the lifespan of a gnat. Woe be to the winery that bases its long-range business plan on temporary trends.
If Napa Valley really is losing traction to “Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley and Dundee Hills,” as Mr. Ryan fears, is it too late to reverse the trend? No. But Napa’s biggest enemy may be itself. When every winery in the valley started charging an arm and a leg just to taste a few wines, I thought that was a mistake. A weekend for two now in Napa, including lodging and good meals, will set the happy couple back close to $1,000. You can go out to Jenner or Boonville for a lot less, and less traffic, too. Napa Valley will never be a cheap place to go. But it really has to make sure that it doesn’t price everyone out except Silicon Valley millionaires and rich overseas tourists. The golden age that Mr. Ryan celebrates would have been shocked to sense that nobody except the uber-rich could afford to visit.
For years the meme has been out there that California wine is getting bigger, badder and bolder—wine on steroids. Some critics decry this, which is their right; but consumers by and large do tend to favor this riper, fruitier style. But why is this happening? Is it really the Parkerization of wine, as many have alleged, or is something else going on?
An answer may be found by turning to another popular beverage: coffee. A recent article by Marcie Hanel in the October 2015 issue of Food & Wine, called “The Coffee Conundrum,” maintains that “today’s coffee [may be] too strong to drink” and quotes a well-known chef, Jonathon Sawyer, that “Coffee is so powerful now [that] you can’t have a triple espresso cortado followed by a pour-over [or else] your heart’s going to explode.” (Blue Bottle is the poster child for this phenomenon.) Marcie herself attests to the “skyrocketing” of coffee’s caffeine content; Chef Jonathon even compares coffee to “weed”, in the sense of its powerful extraction—so much more intense than it used to be.
“Powerful extraction…”. Hmm, that’s exactly the phrase critics of the California style use to disparage wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, not praise them. Let us grant that many of the things we eat, drink and use are more powerful than they used to be: not only wine and pot and coffee, but spirits: The current issue of Food & Wine has an article called “The Secret to a Richer Rum,” as if Rum isn’t rich enough!
Beyond booze, everything else in life seems to be getting plus-sized. Computer chips and all of the associated devices that use them are faster and more powerful than ever; Moore’s law applies to everything these days. Even in film we’ve seen an acceleration of “power” in the sense of more, and more graphic, violence and sexual activity. We see more or less the same thing in politics, where hyperbole and exaggeration have largely replaced reason, and in science, where technology is employed to peer further and deeper into the smallest and largest recesses of the Universe. And of course, with beer, we have the IPAs and the double IPAs, which a friend of mine once described as the beer equivalent of Napa Cabernet.
This penchant for “more” and “greater” obviously comes from the consumer; producers would not create and sell more powerful products if the masses weren’t buying them. When did Americans turn away from subtlety and embrace gigantism? Well, one synonym for “subtlety” could be blandness. Wine didn’t used to taste so good as it does today!
As I look back over the arc of my life, I can’t help but compare the placidity of the 1950s to the chaotic explosions of the 21st century. I can’t pinpoint when this penchant for power started; the advent of psychedelic drugs clearly was an expression of it (if not the cause), because drugs like LSD did “heighten” awareness far above the mundane level. Maybe it was that experience that created a craving for “more is better” among Baby Boomers, a heightened-everything craving which has been passed onto their children, the Millennials. Even heavy metal and thrash rock are more “heightened” versions of the rock and roll of yesteryear.
I offer this line of reasoning, not to justify the current trend towards richer, riper wines, but to explain it. Look at it this way: California wine—the majority of it, anyway—is pretty much on a par with Blue Bottle coffee, Led Zeppelin, IPAs and medical marijuana. That’s not bad company!
It’s been one of the big social stories for the last several weeks, this tale of the Black women who were escorted off the train. You know the facts; I don’t need to go through them. What I find interesting are (a) the reaction in Napa Valley itself, as I perceive it to be through letters to the editor at the Napa Register, and (b) what this says about race, culture and the very image of “wine country.”
Concerning (b), it’s no secret that wine country has always been pretty lily-white. It was in the 1970s when I first began visiting, and it still is today. Yes, you can find Blacks, Asians and Latinos in Los Olivos, St. Helena and Healdsburg, but not many—maybe more today than ever, but sightings are still pretty rare.
Why is that? The main reason, I think, is that people of color in this country generally make less money than white people. Wine is an expensive “hobby” and it’s even more expensive to visit wine country, which tends to be located in high real estate areas, with pricy restaurants and costly lodging. Add to that that the appreciation of wine has historically been a Caucasian thing. I think all races and ethnicities like to drink alcohol (provided they’re not on the wagon), but different races and ethnicities have preferred different alcoholic beverages, and wine, which really developed in Europe, has been a white drink. Finally, the “lifestyle” associated with wine has definitely been a white thing—and an elitist white thing, at that: Even many white people are turned off by the whole sipping-and-swirling thing. (Sometimes it even embarrasses me!)
I’ve celebrated the fact over the years that wine has become more and more appealing to non-white people. Based on economics alone, the wine industry can’t succeed simply by selling to a portion of the white population, it has to sell across all racial and ethnic demographics. That’s been happening, despite the fact that the wine industry was slow, very slow, to figure out how to appeal to non-whites—much slower than beer and spirits. I was pointing this out decades ago: the wine industry has to learn how to make itself appealing to non-whites.
The fact that the Black women’s book club was on the train in the first place is a good sign. That might not have happened ten years ago. So count that as progress. And what of “wine country”? Well, the concept of “wine country” is aspirational. It’s about making more money, living in a nicer house than perhaps you already do, in a nicer place, and being able to afford “the finer things in life.” There’s nothing wrong with aspirations. They’re a form of hope—and hope is important to staying alive and moving forward. I, personally, would not want to live in wine country, as I am city born and bred, and prefer the liveliness of the urban environment. But even I can see the graciousness, the cultivated ambience of wine country. Wine country doesn’t have to be lily-white—but it probably does need to be wealthy. I don’t see any way around that. And just because wine country is wealthy, doesn’t mean it’s bigoted or mean-spirited. In fact, the North Coast wine country has been represented in the Congress for many years by Mike Thompson, a good Democrat. So I don’t think there’s anything redneck or conservatively hateful or racist about wine country.
As to the reaction to the Wine Train event itself, the letters to the editor have been running fairly heavily against the women. The general reaction in the valley seems to be that the women were in the wrong, that they should have apologized (not the wine train), and that they’re only suing for the money.
I think that, until and if there’s a trial, and more witnesses step forward, none of us who were not actually on the train know what really happened. We know that at least one person complained; we have the Wine Train’s statement that the women were asked multiple times to tone it down, and apparently didn’t. There’s the issue of marching the women through several cars, but we don’t know why that was—many of the letters say that not all the cars are exit-able. I’d like to have more people who were on the train come forward and tell us what they saw and heard, but so far that hasn’t happened. We do know that the head of the Wine Train apologized and said that his employees were 100% wrong. If that’s the case, then perhaps the women do have a case. If the women really were obnoxious, and deserved to be removed (as apparently happens fairly often), then why did the Wine Train head say those things?
As for the charges of an ambulance-chasing lawyer, maybe the guy the ladies hired is, maybe he isn’t. But guess what? Suing isn’t a black thing or a white thing or a Latino or Asian thing, it’s as American as apple pie. We’re the most litigious country on earth, and, while I deplore that, it has nothing to do with the race of the lawyer or the litigants. If somebody thinks they can make a little money by filing a civil lawsuit, they’re going to do it.
We’re dealing, here, with the Rashomon Effect. It may never be possible to know exactly what happened. This is an age of “where you stand depends on where you sit.” Even if all the facts ultimately come out, people will argue about what they mean. So there’s always going to be some ambiguity.
I do think the discussion this has engendered in Napa Valley has been a healthy one. I don’t think the Valley needs to wear a hair shirt, but I do think that conversations of this sort always are helpful, even if they’re uncomfortable. I also think there should be a conversation in the Black community (as I believe there already is). I’m personally tired of some of the memes that are floating around: that there’s “Black behavior” as opposed to “White behavior.” I live in Oakland, one of the most racially- and ethnically-mixed cities in the U.S., and I don’t live in the Hills, I live downtown. I can tell you that when it comes to civility and respect, there’s only one behavior, and that’s human behavior, and it’s ultimately based on the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would have them treat you.
I got my Sunday San Francisco Chronicle and, what do you know, there was an entire section on California Wine! Sixteen pages. That’s the most wine coverage I’ve seen in the paper in years. Maybe they got the message—not just from me, but from others, including the Napa Register’s Paul Franson–about how skimpy their wine writing has been. I don’t know, but Sunday’s section was a welcome surprise.
Still no appearance by their supposed new wine writer, Esther Mobley. Maybe she’s getting up to speed. [EDITOR’S NOTE: I’ve since learned that Ms. Mobley had an article on Aug. 15.] There were several articles by local freelance writers; I particularly liked Luke Sykora’s on the drought. But it’s not clear whether this new, expanded coverage will be permanent. Maybe not; on the paper’s website, the wine section is tagged under “California Wine Month,” which is officially this September.
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Meanwhile, as part of my Jackson Family wines job, I’m off to Las Vegas for Darden’s Specialty Restaurant Group conference at the M Resort. (Darden owns everything from Olive Garden to The Capital Grille.) I’ll be doing a seminar on Napa Valley mountain Cabernet Sauvignon “versus” Napa Valley valley floor Cabernet.
I put “versus” into quotation marks, because I don’t see this as a contest. Valley floor used to have a negative connotation (inherited from Europe, I guess, where the best vines are on slopes), but with modern viticultural and enological techniques, valley floor Cab can be quite good. Witness Beckstoffer’s Georges III Vineyard, close by the Conn Creek, in the Rutherford flats.
The two wines I’ll be presenting are Mount Brave, way up (1,600-1,800 feet) on Mount Veeder, which obviously is the mountain wine, and Freemark Abbey Bosché, which is not strictly speaking a “valley floor” wine but is on the Rutherford bench. (I think that one of these days there ought to be “Bench” appellations for Oakville and Rutherford, and possibly Yountville too, but politically, it probably won’t happen.) The main difference between viticulture in the mountains and the floor is that, in the latter, the soils are richer, so growers will often force the vines to struggle by dry-farming them. Growers also can leave more clusters on valley floor vines because the canopies are more extensive and can support more fruit. Of course, up in the mountains, there’s less fog and more sunlight, but as we’ve seen, this is a mixed blessing. The vines up there can bake in a heat wave. Mountain Cabs also tend to be more tannic than floor or benchland wines, so winemakers have to deal with that—typically, by letting the fruit hang longer, and then doing “aerative pumpovers” to expose the juice to more oxygen.
If I can tear myself away from the casinos and the nightclubs, I’ll be reporting from Vegas. Or, maybe not. What happens in Vegas…
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.