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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.


French attitudes toward Napa Valley, plus comparisons of winegrapes to meat?

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It’s too funny, really. When I first started out in this biz, you couldn’t give Napa Valley wine away to the French. “Mais non!” was their attitude. It was vin de table, merde, Algerian plonk.

Some of us knew otherwise, and suspected that the French—so chauvinistic in the belief that no other culture could rise to their level, especially American culture—were simply whistling past the graveyard. After all, their run of dominance—lasting for centuries—had no assurance of lasting forever, and they were continually hearing California’s footsteps coming up behind them.

But now, listen to what the respected CEO of Moët Hennessey, Jean-Guillaume Prats, has to say about Napa Valley. He previously managed Cos d’Estournal, the Super-Second Bordeaux, which he took to new heights, according to Wine Spectator, so this isn’t merely some oddball voice out of France; his father, Bruno, owned Cos. So Jean-Guillaume is, in other words, the very establishment that once scorned Napa Valley.

Here’s what Jean-Guillaume said: “I do believe some of the great wine from Napa Valley will be the equivalent of the First Growths in years to come, not only in terms of price—it is already achieved—but in terms of perceptions, of quality, and in terms of being looked after and thought after by wine collectors around the world. So Napa, for me, is soon to become the equivalent of the great Medocs.”

Wow. They ought to put those words on a billboard right next to the “And the wine is bottled poetry” one on Highway 29. You wouldn’t need the whole quote: Just “Napa…the equivalent of the First Growths” would do it.

It doesn’t surprise me that the Bordelais are finally coming around to appreciating Napa Valley. After all, Christian Moueix and Baron Rothschild did it decades ago, visionaries that they were. What’s ironic is that nowadays it’s some Americans who continue to diss Napa Cabernet. Why they’re so stubborn in this attitude, when even representatives of the top French chateaux gaze with envy upon Napa’s near-perfect climate and soils, is beyond me.

* * *

And now, from the Department of Ideas That Are Going Nowhere, let’s zip around to the other side of the world, Australia namely, where an article in the North Queensland Register is calling for wine grape prices to be more objectively determined, like meat prices.

Mr. Rob Hunt argues that, of all agricultural commodities, only the price of wine grapes “is determined using subjective criteria.” He contrasts this with “an objective system” of pricing, such as that employed by his country’s Meat Standards Australia system, in which, I gather, a short loin is a short loin no matter where it’s from, and priced accordingly. That is, indeed, an objective system. It is also very different from one in which (for example) a Cabernet Sauvignon bunch grown in Beckstoffer Tokalon costs much, much more than a similar bunch grown in Paso Robles.

But nobody ever said wine grape prices are objective. They’re not, because wine wholesale prices aren’t subjective. We pay for certain names and reputations, and I for one assume that more rigorous vineyard practices go into a highly-reputed wine than into an everyday one. So it’s not likely that we’ll be grading wine grapes the same way we grade meat anytime soon.

On the other hand, Mr. Hunt is entirely correct when he observes, I suspect there’s nothing more frustrating for growers than to see their carefully tended grapes dropped into the same receival bin as others of lesser quality.” That is a very sad situation for growers who work hard to grow quality fruit. We saw something similar happen in the early histories of counties like Santa Barbara and Monterey, where those grapes—fine quality for the most part—were shipped north or east, to be lost into vast blending vats destined for jug wines. The solution, as it turned out, was not to regulate prices, but to elevate the reputation of those counties, through small-production wineries making wines of critical esteem. You have to have the reputation first; then you can raise prices, not the other way around.

Cheers!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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