My head should be filled with thoughts of Cabernet Sauvignon, after spending a large part of last week at Premiere Napa Valley and its associated events. Most of the more than two hundred barrel lots were from the 2011 vintage. Despite much chatter among winemakers about the season’s difficulties, I found the wines I tasted concentrated, balanced and delicious, and not too high in alcohol. Ageworthy, too. But then, two things have to be pointed out: Napa Valley has the best grape sorting regimes in the world, and these Premiere Napa Valley lots are the best wines the winemakers can produce. They may or may not be indicative of the commercial releases, which should start appearing in 2014. But I strongly suspect we’re going to see a solid vintage.
However, it’s Pinot Noir I’m thinking about, because I’m leaving this Wednesday for the the 13th annual World of Pinot Noir, one of my must-attend events of the year. I’ve been going since the very first one. It started off as a modest little thing, sponsored by Central Coast wineries. But over the years, WOPN has expanded its reach, attracting winemakers from around the world, and is now the premier Pinot Noir event in California.
I remember being so impressed by that first WOPN that I told Wine Enthusiast they ought to figure out some way to co-sponsor it. They did. Keep in mind, WOPN was launched well before Sideways, at a time when California Pinot Noir wasn’t exactly a household name.
Historians will someday pinpoint just when California Pinot took center stage. For me, I felt it coming before it actually arrived, which is why I went to WOPN in the first place. It was in Shell Beach, a pit stop on the drive between S.F. and L.A., and that first year attracted only a handful of wineries. But something told me both that Pinot was about to erupt, and that WOPN had the potential to be important.
Why did I think Pinot Noir was on the verge of fame in 2001? Because I’d been following it for a long time. It’s like anything else that has to do with intuition or hunches; you have a feeling of growing momentum. During the 1990s there had been interest in Pinot among the people who mattered: writers, critics, educators, somms, even some forward-thinking collectors (the words “forward-thinking” and “collectors” do not often unite in comfort). The California wine community was a very small town back then (in some respects, it still is), and information passed quickly. I heard about Williams Selyem and Rochioli by 1990, had begun visiting, and of course had known about Richard Sanford in Santa Barbara County, even though I didn’t get down there for a few more years. It was the excitement of the older professionals I knew, my mentors, that infected me and informed me that Pinot Noir was the coming variety.
Even though I began writing for Wine Enthusiast by 1993, for various internal reasons I didn’t start reviewing wines for them until the mid- 1990s. I just looked up my earliest Pinot reviews and they make for interesting reading. My top names from that era remain some of the best Pinot houses around today: Testarossa, Fess Parker, Hanzell, Iron Horse, MacRostie, Acacia, Robert Mondavi, Talley, Marimar Torres. When I look at the prices for vintages from the 1990s, they were high for back then, but have remained relatively stable ($35-$50) over the years, showing that Pinot Noir has not experienced the same price inflation as Cabernet Sauvignon. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps Pinot producers remember the bad old days, when everybody said California was patently too hot for Pinot Noir; maybe they think they lucked out, and that to raise prices to triple digits would kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Whatever the reason, consumers are the beneficiaries. Compared to dozens of Cabernet Sauvignons that cost in excess of $100 (often far more), Pinot Noir is a bargain.
Starting this Thursday, I’ll be blogging live from WOPN, including throughout the weekend; I am, it seems, the Official World of Pinot Noir Blogger! I’ll be talking about the best wines, the most interesting winemakers, the food, the personalities and whatever nuggets of news and information I can gather. Twitter too.
We’re in the middle of winter now, and even though the rest of the country laughs at Californians when we complain about 40 degrees, to us, it feels really cold. When I have my first drink of the day, around 5 p.m., I might start with a sip of white wine, just to get myself comfortable. But these chilly nights call for red.
Red wine is warming, to the blood, the mind, the soul. There’s something about it that’s like a soft blanket you wrap yourself in that keeps you cozy. I suppose the relatively higher alcohol of red wine also helps with this warming process. I don’t like to put the heat on, even when my home is chilly, so I’ll often be wearing a sweatshirt and even a woolen cap to keep myself warm. But I always notice, after a glass or two of red wine, that my body temperature rises enough that I can take off the sweatshirt and cap and feel comfortable, even though the actual room temperature hasn’t changed. I like that feeling. It’s as though red wine boosts my body’s ability to balance itself to external conditions.
I love a good Pinot Noir, but on these really cold nights I want something with more body. Zinfandel is a full-bodied wine, but I find that even a good one palls on me after a glass. It’s too strong, too spicy, too briary, often overripe and hot. Even the best Zin doesn’t contain mysteries, which is what makes me want a second or third glass of wine–it contains subtleties that require repeated examination. I might dwell on a Merlot for a few glasses, but it would have to be a very good one: La Jota, Shafer, Rutherford Hill, Turnbull, Hunnicutt, all from Napa Valley. A new Napa winery that’s impressed me is Crosby Roamann; they have a Merlot from Oak Knoll that’s really good. There’s not much Merlot out there in California to challenge Napa Valley, although I recently enjoyed a Happy Canyon Vineyard 2007 “Barrack Brand” Merlot. That new Happy Canyon AVA is one to watch.
Syrah, for me, often has the same limitation as Zinfandel. That first sip can be deliriously delicious. But does it keep you coming back for more? A few do. Syrah, though, is one variety that Napa Valley doesn’t dominate. Since winter began, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Syrahs from Donelan (Cuvee Keltie), MacLaren (Judge Family Vineyard) and Del Dotto (Cinghiale Vineyard), all from Sonoma County. But it’s Santa Barbara County Syrah that’s really surprised me. Among the best are Andrew Murray, Brander, Rusack, Whitcraft, Larner, Margerum and La Fenetre. What is it about Santa Barbara that’s so hospitable to Syrah? Food for thought.
Still, when all is said and done, on those cold nights when I want to snuggle in with a red wine, it’s invariably Cabernet Sauvignon. It has the rich body I want, also the intrigue and complexity that make it so interesting as it breathes and changes. I suppose this is why they call Cabernet a “noble” variety, a word that’s hard to define, except to imply that it has layers you keep discovering, one by one, like the experience of great music or literature or painting.
Here are some great Cabs I’ve been drinking this winter: Goldschmidt, World’s End, Venge, Trefethen, Turnbull, B Cellars, Patland, PerryMoore, Hunnicutt, V. Sattui, Arger-Martucci, Altvs [the “v” is not a typo, it’s the way Bill Foley wants it), Antonio Patric, Tudal and Napa Angel by Montes. These are all from Napa Valley and its various sub-appellations, and most of them are single vineyard wines. Two vineyards show up repeatedly: Stagecoach and Beckstoffer To Kalon. When people say great wine is made in the vineyard, they’re talking about wines like these.
I had the distinct pleasure and privilege last night of introducing Merry Edwards at her induction into the Vintners Hall of Fame, in a glittering ceremony held at the Culinary Institute of America.
Seldom is so much star power gathered into a single space. Had one of those errant meteors hit the CIA yesterday, the California wine industry would have been decimated. Fortunately it didn’t! And it was wonderful as always to see people whom I’ve now known long enough that I can call them old friends: Bill Harlan, Andy Beckstoffer, Tim Mondavi, Archie McLaren, Randall Grahm, David Breitstein and far too many others to mention.
Merry had asked me to introduce her because, as she told me, I’m “an historian.” So in my prepared remarks, I gave myself the liberty of placing Merry and her accomplishments into what I perceive as California’s historical sweep. [For the full text of my remarks, see below.] Merry had emphasized, as I knew she would, that she didn’t see how “the woman thing” had been a factor in her career; but of course, it was, and had to be stated.
First, a word on the other award recipients. Two were deceased: César Chavez and Frank Schoonmaker. Mr. Chavez needs no introduction to readers of this blog. Accepting the award on his behalf was his young, energetic grandson, Anthony Chavez. Anthony gave a powerful, passionate and, yes, political speech that galvanized everyone in the room and reminded Napa Valley that it’s not only about glamor and glitz, it’s about leading the way in worker’s rights and even on subjects far beyond but inevitably related: food safety and climate change.
Many of you probably never heard of Frank Schoonmaker, who died in 1976. But wine writers know him well. He was one of the earliest and best wine writers post-Prohibition (in addition to founding his eponymous importing company), and I have several of his books in first print. They have been a source of enormous knowledge and insight for me. Perhaps Schoonmaker’s chief claim to fame in the wine industry was his absolute insistence, in the 1930s, on varietal labeling. He won that fight, of course. Now, you can argue the case of varietal labeling for and against. It has its pros and cons. But there’s no question that it’s better than the stupid, phony Ports, Sauternes, Champagnes and Sherries that dominated California during the 1930s, and for that, Schoonmaker deserves his bronze plaque.
Robert Parker, alas, was a no-show. He’d evidently hurt his back and was too much in pain to travel. But he did thoughtfully send a pre-recorded video in which he humbly apologized for not being there and seemed genuinely touched by the honor. He was introduced by an old friend of his, an elderly collector from back east who told us a little bit more about his 81,000-bottle wine cellar than I think we needed to know.
And then there was Merry. Accepting her award, she wept; so did many in the audience.
Here’s my intro:
Merry Edwards is in an ironic position. She’s a famous, successful woman winemaker, in a field that was notoriously unfriendly to women until comparatively recently. And yet she’s also a human being who says, quote, “I had been totally unconscious of my sex. I consider myself a winemaker first, and I don’t see how gender comes into that.”
Well, gender shouldn’t come into that, of course, any more than race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Ability is what counts, and Ability is why Merry Edwards is being honored today. But she did have to struggle to get where she is precisely because she is a woman. And this fact cannot and should not be overlooked.
Today, she can chuckle at her war stories: Of the time a Napa winery owner wouldn’t even consider hiring her at a job interview solely because of her gender. Of the tendency in the 1970s to relegate women to the laboratory because they were not considered suitable as winemakers. Of the Old Boy’s Network at U.C. Davis, under which male professors made sure their favorite graduate students–invariably men–got the good jobs. I said she can laugh at these things today. But at the time, these were stinging humiliations, and more: obstacles to be overcome. As with any struggle involving prejudice and civil rights, it takes a certain righteous anger to break down the barriers. Merry Edwards possesses this quality, too. She lets nothing stop her.
The first commercial Pinot Noir she made was at Mount Eden Vineyards; she was working for the late Dick Graff, who had co-founded Chalone. Dick was gay; so was the late Maynard Amerine, at Davis, who was indirectly responsible for Merry getting the Mount Eden interview. Merry once told me, “I had this little group of [gay] guys who understood that I was in the same position they were”–that of being isolated and rejected. “They were my moral support team,” she recalls. Just as she was mentored on her way up the ladder, Merry formed within herself the core value of helping others. Asked what she considers among her signal achievements, she cites her support of young women coming into the industry.
From Mount Eden she went to Matanzas Creek, where she was an early champion of French clones. Along the way she had two kids, and married her now husband and business partner, Ken Coopersmith. Her own Merry Edwards brand was slow in coming, because nobody handed her anything on a silver platter: It wasn’t until 1997 that she launched it, and it wasn’t until 1998 that she first planted her Meredith Estate.
Today, as the world knows, Merry Edwards is celebrated as one of the California’s greatest Pinot Noir masters, although it has to be pointed out that her Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay also are excellent. Merry has overcome every obstacle that Life threw her way, and done so with dignity. She’s now been in the business close to 40 years, but whenever Ken asks her if she’s going to retire, her response is: “Winemakers don’t retire! They just keep going until they drop by the side of the road.” Well, I think the road ahead for Merry is a long and productive one.
Perhaps we should start calling it “The Wine Hadvocate,” as in the past tense. Now that Antonio Galloni has quit that sinking ship, there’s little question the Beginning of the End is here for Robert Parker’s once vaunted newsletter.
That stomping sound you hear is hundreds of wine bloggers dancing on Parker’s grave. That other sound, like a miasmal wind blowing through a dead forest, is the groaning of all the snobby cult winery owners who gave Parker majesterial permission to pimp their wines, and who now have to wonder if they backed the wrong horse.
Answer: Yup, you did.
I personally wasn’t surprised by Galloni’s decision. After Parker sold the Advocate off to its new Asian owners, I thought that move must have come as a kick to Antonio’s gut. I’m sure he didn’t know anything about it until after the fact, just as I’m sure Parker knew he was going to be divesting even as he hired Antonio. That is Machiavellian politics, my friend. Poor Antonio. He didn’t anticipate reporting to some Singapore-based bureaucrat named Lisa Perrotti-Brown, and must have been frantically considering his options since last December. Now we know what his decision is.
What he says he’s doing with his new website looks a lot like what James Suckling did on his website, which seems to be less of a success than James hoped it would be. It’s not so easy to remain famous and influential when you leave the employ of the periodical that put you there. Not to say it can’t be done, just that it’s hard. Can Antonio remain “an authoritative voice in what is now a very big and very verbose world wine conversation,” as Eater New York wondered?
I hope so. I met the man once (last year, in fact, at Premier Napa Valley) and he was kind enough to give me a very long interview and pose for pictures. But it’s not Antonio I’m thinking so much about right now, as those snooty winery owners who lived and breathed by Wine Advocate’s blessing to the exclusion of almost anyone else, and who now have to figure out how to make their overpriced Cabernets sound exclusive when the bastion of exclusivity, The Wine Advocate, they were addicted to has been battered beyond the point of recognition. I always warned them (the winery owners) not to put all their eggs in that one basket but they did anyway. Well, maybe they put their eggs into two baskets, but the other basket isn’t what it used to be either, with the result that they now have only one basket for all those expensive, rather fragile eggs, and it’s looking a little tattered.
I’m here for you, brothers and sisters up Napa way. Here to help you in your time of need. No hard feelings. Life goes on. In a few months, you’ll get over the Advocate, over Parker, over Galloni, like your first husband or wife. It will all seem like a bad dream. One of these nights, maybe over drinks at the Rutherford Grill, you’ll be able to laugh about it, and wonder how you could have been so gullible for so long.
I’ve suggested repeatedly on this blog over the years, and especially since the extent of the Great Recession became apparent in 2009-2010, that Napa Cabernet Sauvignon was in danger of pricing itself out of the market.
This was due, not only to the effects of the Recession itself, when even the Rich were trending down their spending habits, but to the simultaneous rise in this country of a new demographic: MIllennials, now hitting their 30s, whose tastes in wine (and in much else) are radically different from those of their predecessors.
For one thing, Millennials are much less interested in what “everybody else is drinking” or in what “historically has been regarded as famous” than in finding things that are unique, different, unexpected, surprising, edgy, story-driven, bold, undiscovered, hip and (let us not forget) affordable. That certainly does not bode well for triple-digit Napa Cabernet, which is none of the above.
The people who do like the cult wines are the kind that collect and store wine in large cellars, who dine at Michelin-starred restaurants with wine lists the size of phone directories, and whose selection of these wines may be inspired as much by the desire to show off than by actual interest in them. Don’t believe me? Talk to any [honest] sommelier who works in such a restaurant. They’ll tell you [off the record] exactly what they deal with, night after night.
But these customers—these sorts of wine harlots—are an endangered species. It’s so clear: it couldn’t be more apparent if the Finger of God appeared out of the sky and wrote it on a vast wall. Even in Bordeaux, the top Chateaux are struggling: Decanter yesterday reported that “American merchants bought less high-end and high-priced Bordeaux 2010 en primeur than they had for the 2009 vintage,” with buyers gravitating toward crus bourgeois and balking at the likes of Angelus, Palmer and Leoville-Las-Cases. A buyer for Sherry-Lehmann said anything above $25-$40 U.S. was just “far too high” for his clientele.
I doubt if the Bordelais care. They’ve been through the ups and downs of the economic cycle for centuries, through wars, peace, phylloxera, revolutions, depressions, recoveries, and they know that, no matter how long the market stays down, it always come back up again. This may still be true with regard to Bordeaux.
But Napa isn’t Bordeaux. It’s become so crowded in $100-plus wines that they seem to be more the rule than the exception. For every expensive Cabernet with a true pedigree–Phelps Insignia, Harlan, Stag’s Leap Cask 23, Diamond Creek, Mondavi Reserve–there are 3,4,5 newcomers with no provenance, no history behind them, manufactured ersatz out of thin air by hiring an expensive viticulturalist and consulting winemaker, slapping something together in the bottle and then hoping enough gullible snobs will buy it.
Unfortunately, this is all too often the case. But how long can they get away with it? I suspect there remain enough white-tablecloth restaurants with big spenders who want wine lists containing verticals of big names, and that isn’t going to go away anytime soon. But it cannot last; its days are numbered; that game is going to be over, whether in five years, ten or fifteen, I cannot say.
Yet there has to be a tipping point at which Napa no longer can sustain so many overpriced wines. I don’t expect Napa itself to understand where the tipping point is, or will even recognize it when it comes: Napa is very, well, Napa-centric, as perhaps it should be; but it does tend to see the world from within its own rarified bubble.
No, the tipping point will be installed upon Napa by that outside force, the free market. We’ll know it has happened only when we begin to see prices start to plummet on the most expensive wines. I myself believe I’m already seeing that, but to accurately track it, one would need the services of a staff, utilizing databases able to track real-time information in individual markets, across hundreds of individual brands, including their clubs, mailing lists and favored accounts. This forensic accounting is obviously beyond my capabilities. The tipping point therefore already could be happening, but be invisible.
Grub Street, the San Francisco food blog, is reporting that “Masa’s, the fine dining staple opened by chef Masataka Kobayashi in 1983, is closing after 30 years.”
Masa’s is, of course, the Michelin-starred, legendarily expensive ($154 five-course wine-and-food tasting menu) restaurant, north of Union Square, that’s lured in generations of foodies. For sheer luxe, it’s had few rivals.
Founder Masataka worked at Auberge du Soleil before launching his eponymous restaurant. He was found murdered in 1984, a crime that has never been solved; subsequent chefs have been a who’s who of culinary superstardom (Julian Serrano, Ron Siegel, Gregory Short). Masa’s wine list was as celebrated as its food.
Why is Masa’s closing? Grub Street blames it on “formal, tablecloth’d fine dining [that] has gone out of fashion.” The San Francisco Chronicle’s “Inside Scoop” food columnist, Paolo Lucchesi, reports that the building’s owner “wants to install a more casual restaurant in the space.”
In San Francisco, many high-end restaurants have shuttered their doors over the years: Trader Vic’s, Stars, Charles Nob Hill, The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton among others. All were hit by changes in taste that made them victims in the highly-competitive restaurant world, which depends on fickle customers always looking for the next hot spot. In the case of Masa’s, the Great Recession provided the coup de grace that finally put Masa’s out of its misery.
In fact, the continuing effects of the Recession are hurting restaurants nationwide. On Friday, Nation’s Restaurant News reported, via Lewis Perdue’s News Fetch, that “Restaurant operators [are] downbeat as sales, traffic soften.” Of course, this doesn’t mean that high-end restaurants are on the verge of extinction. For every Masa’s that closes, a replacement opens: Hakkasan, The Sea by Alexander’s Steakhouse, Katsu. Local reviewers go wild, and those able and willing to afford them flock to their doors.
Yet you have to wonder, how long will they last? Ten years? Fifteen? Or, like Masa’s, thirty? These numbers seem highly unlikely; a restaurant’s life span is getting shorter, not longer.
Which brings us to the subject of cult wines.
I would imagine that the proprietors of cult wines, especially Napa Valley Cabs, like to think their brands will be around for a long time. After all, Lafite is still here after, what? 700 years? (“the estate was the property of Gombaud de Lafite in 1234” – Alexis Lichine)
But many a Napa cult winery is no longer as culty as it once was. We must assume that some of the famous names in Napa were hit hard during the Recession, and that it was only the owners’ deep pockets that enabled them to hang on. Their hope was that, with recovery would come improved sales, at traditional prices.
Yet are these expensive cults not the wine equivalents of Masa’s, “formal, tablecloth’d” wines that just may be out of step with today’s more casual approach? People, especially younger ones, are looking for things other than show-offy wines: they want wines of interest, of deliciousness, from all over the world, wines that are different and unique and that tell a story and are easy to drink with food. Above all, they want wines that are affordable. I believe that the weltanschauung of wine has shifted irrevocably, due not only to the Recession but to changes in America’s demographics. We are rapidly becoming poorer and less white, changes that cannot bode well for super-expensive wines. In a sense—and I don’t mean to get political here, but it’s just the truth—some of these cult wines are like the Republican Party, out of step with the mainstream of where America is going. That’s why they lost so badly in the 2012 elections, and that’s why cult wines may be endangered in the next ten or twenty years.
Some will survive and even prosper. Brands as powerful and embedded as Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate likely are the Lafites of Napa Valley, and will be with us for a very long time (assuming their family ownership wishes to continue them). But I have to tell you, there are a lot of Masa’s in Napa Valley—wines that were hugely popular in their day, but are now increasingly anachronistic.