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’47 Cheval Blanc a precursor of today’s Napa style? And other Xmas Eve thoughts

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On this day before Christmas I was transported down Memory Lane after reading this blog, from the English wine merchant Nick Stephens, on “the world’s most expensive faulty wine–Chateau Cheval Blanc 1947.”

That is a wine I have some familiarity with, having written about it back in the early 1990s, and, a little later, having the good luck to taste it. I wrote about it, for Wine Spectator, when I was in charge of The Collecting Page (which I referred to as my ghetto: it always was the last page in the magazine). Through that gig I met many wealthy collectors, and I would always ask them about the greatest wine they had ever tasted. Invariably, the answer was “1947 Cheval Blanc.”

I remember the hassle of getting through to the chateau’s cellarmaster, in order to interview him for my article. I do not recall much of what he said, and I no longer have the article, but I do remember him telling me that the alcohol level was very high on that wine–in excess, I think, of 15%. My luck in eventually tasting it occurred when I made the acquaintance of young Billy Getty, who, with his friend Gavin Newsom (now California’s Lieutenant-Governor), was anxious to have their new wine shop, PlumpJack, written about. As part of that effort, Billy invited me with some frequency to parties at his parents’ Pacific Heights mansion. These were experiences that, for me at that early point in my career, when I wasn’t used to such attentions, were heady and flattering. (The effect wears off after a while, though.)

One day Billy called to tell me his mother had bought “an amusing little wine cellar” from a New York collector. He invited me to the mansion to taste some of the selections, including–gasp!–’47 Cheval Blanc. Needless to say I raced across the Bay Bridge, drove up Fillmore Street and parked in front of the mansion. Rang the doorbell–it was answered by the Gettys’ old butler, who formerly had worked for Joe Kennedy, JFK’s dad, when Joe had been ambassador to the Court of St. James. I walked into the livingroom [if that’s what it’s called: maybe it was a drawing room, or a ballroom, or a parade-ground; at any rate, it was bigger than my condo], where I saw Billy and a few others, plus lots of bottles. I asked for the Cheval Blanc. Billy found the bottle: Empty! My heart sank. He saw my disappointment and made some sort of signal, whereupon somebody appeared out of nowhere. “Bring us another Cheval Blanc,” Billy said. Within moments the functionary appeared holding the bottle, with the cork pulled. He handed it to me. I was alone, with my crystal wine glass and a full bottle of 1947 Cheval Blanc!

The wine was, as Nick Stephens (quoting Robert Parker) writes, as “unctuous” and “thick…as motor oil.” It was almost as sweet as Port, yet it was a dry sweetness, with no trace of the cloyingness of a poorly-made wine with too much residual sugar. Looking back, in retrospect, I can say it anticipated the modern, cult style of a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux blend: something like, say a Blankiet or Shafer Hillside Select. I take Parker’s word that the Cheval Blanc was “appallingly deficient in acidity,” with “volatile acidity [that] would be considered intolerable by modern day oenologists.” These charges also have been made against certain Napa Cabs. The difference between a young, fresh Napa Cab was that the Cheval Blanc, when I tasted it, already was more than 40 years old. It was showing bottle bouquet, and the fruit was drying out, yet it was remarkably fresh and clean.

I don’t think that wine would have blown my mind had I not known what it was. The fabulousness of tasting it was nearly 100% connected with knowing its identity. Tasted blind, it would “merely” have been a very rich, interesting, complex old wine, not necessarily the one I would have reached for at the table for repeated glasses with, say, lamb or beef.

But I did know what it was, and that made all the difference. Which leads to a theme we’ve explored many times here at steveheimoff.com. And that is the influence of seeing the label of a wine you’re tasting, as opposed to having it hidden by a paper bag. As my readers know, I consider this a very important topic to discuss, and not an easy one to arrive at definite conclusions. It is true that blind tasting eliminates all factors except for the actual organoleptic experience of the wine, whereas an open tasting expands the parameters of the experience in psychological and intellectual and even emotional ways. It is a pointless debate as to which is preferable. It all depends on the purpose of the tasting. In the case of that Cheval Blanc at the Getty mansion, my purpose was not to rate the wine, or to review it in any formal way. It was instead to experience the wine up close and personal. And, in that instance, having an entire bottle, and all the time in the world, made it possible for me to get to know that wine as much as I’ve ever known any wine.

Tasting wine for formal reviewing purposes is a job, and a rather unnatural one, at that. The kind of people who do it are wine reviewers, winemakers, sommeliers, merchants and others involved in the wine trade. We do it, not for enjoyment, but because it’s part of our professional standard of excellence. For the ordinary wine lover, blind tasting can be an educational diversion–you certainly learn about the palate’s shortcomings! But it’s not really the best way to understand and appreciate wine. The anticipation of knowing about a wine–the experience of savoring its history and, particularly with a wine like ’47 Cheval Blanc, knowing that so many people with access to the greatest wines in the world have declared it be the best they’ve ever had–those are integral to the enjoyment of the wine. It gives you something to think about, and thinking about wine is part of its enjoyment.

By the way–isn’t it funny that a wine like the ’47 Cheval Blanc, that by all rights shouldn’t have aged well, has? It makes me wonder about my own aging prognostications, not to mention those of all other wine critics, no matter how famous. I have friends and relatives who think that critics have crystal balls that provide perfect clarity into the future, but guess what? We don’t. As I’m sure the best critics will happily concede. All that an aging prediction amounts to is an educated guess. As with all guesses, however, they can be wrong.

Anyhow–Please accept my heartiest wishes for a merry Christmas and a Happy 2014!


High hopes for Mayacamas in a new era

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For those of you who don’t understand the role Mayacamas plays in Napa Valley’s history, consider this: When a former owner produced the winery’s first Cabernet Sauvignon, in 1962, Mayacamas joined only a handful of Napa wineries (including Charles Krug, Beaulieu, Inglenook and Louis M. Martini) that specialized in the variety.

And Mayacamas is even older than that: it was originally founded in 1889, then re-established in 1941. The name most closely associated with it, Bob Travers, purchased the winery in 1968, and ran it for all these years, until selling it recently to Charles Banks.

Among critics, Mayacamas had a very special role. Bob Thompson called its Cabernets and Chardonnays (all grown on the Mount Veeder estate) “two of the region’s most praised wines.” Hugh Johnson, no huge fan of California wine, dubbed it “first rate.” When the late, great Harry Waugh (who was on the board of Chateau Latour) visited, in 1969, he declared the 1967 Cabernet “another for my collection”; even the 1968 Chardonnay was “one of the wines I would buy for my own collection.” (That was high praise indeed from old Harry.)

Travers always made his wines lean. Even as the world marched away from that spare, angular style, Bob kept at it; as a result, his critical acclaim fell, to some extent. I liked his Cabernets well enough, but the highest score I could ever give one was 92 points, for the 2004. Even in that hot year, its alcohol was only 13.8%, and the wine showed a certain ungainly character, with streamlined, herb-infused fruit cast into fierce tannins. Bob’s style was more amenable, I thought, for white wines: his Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs benefited from that grave linearity, and often reflected the terroir of their mountain soils.

I think it’s fair to say that Mayacamas, for many years, has been underperforming. Oh, I know this is all in the eye of the beholder. If you dislike that lush, fat modern style, you might find yourself inclined to favor Mayacamas. But the truth is, the modern style, which 99% of Napa has embraced, left Mayacamas at the station long ago; or perhaps Travers simply chose not to board that train. Either way, I always review its wines with a certain wistfulness. Such a great name (said to be Native American, for the howl of the mountain lion), such an iconic history, such a noble perch up there on the mountain. Surely, I always thought, Mayacamas could do better.

But there were tales of vineyards in sorry shape, of an aging leadership, of run-down facilities; and even the price of the wines, which hardly varied over  the years, put them into the dreaded “relative value” category; the Cabernet, for instance, remained at $65 for a long time. Perhaps Bob Travers felt he dare not raise the price in order to be able to afford improvements in the vineyard and barrels. Perhaps he was philosophically against high prices.

When Banks bought Mayacamas, last April, there were high hopes that he would spruce things up. After all, the guy had money (he’d formerly owned Screaming Eagle, and recently bought Qupe). He seemed to have discernment and taste. I met him only once, a few years ago, when he and his wife, Ali, brought me to dinner, just the three of us, in Los Olivos. We talked for a long time, and he convinced me of his sincere commitment to quality, in whatever properties he owned. (This isn’t always easy–I mean, convincing me. Everyone talks the talk but few walk the walk!) But Charles did. Thus, yesterday, when I got the latest Mayacamas newsletter and order form in the mail, I paid it more than the usual amount of attention.

The first thing of note is that the newsletter is signed by a familiar winemaker: Andy Erickson, who has been associated with, in one way or another, Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, Harlan, Spottswoode, Dancing Hares and Ovid. Banks, I’m sure, has offered Andy a great deal of money to oversee the renaissance of Mayacamas, but it will have been money well spent.

Andy vows “to continue crafting wines of elegance, longevity, and rustic mountain power.” I don’t think he would come right out and say that he’s going to entirely revamp Bob Travers’ approach; that would be disrespectful. But reading between the lines, you can infer that Andy knows exactly what’s wrong up on Mount Veeder, and how he intends to fix it, starting with the vineyard. “We’ve also been analyzing the unique soils and how they contribute to making such distinctive wines,” he writes, suggesting that “new vines planted this year” will help bring about a quality revolution in the near future.

And Banks himself, in his cover letter, says “We’ll be…upgrading winery equipment, and renovating some of the facilities.” More money out of pocket: Ka-ching! But that’s what it takes. In this day and age, you can’t make great wine on the cheap.

I’m thrilled to see what’s happening at Mayacamas, and can’t wait to follow their progress, especially the Cabernets!


Cult Napa Valley Cabernet as Drag Queen

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An admiration for female beauty, brought to extreme, over-the-top stylization, is what characterizes the Drag Queen: the man who takes on the appearance of a particular sort of woman, often a celebrity: Judy Garland, Cher, Diana Ross, Carol Channing, Joan Crawford, Dolly Parton, Barbra Steisand. These are women already exaggerated, by hairstyle, makeup, attire, fame and attitude, to iconic excess. The Drag Queen, in turn, exaggerates the exaggeration, creating (she hopes) a work of art and wonder.

Almost always, Drag Queens take on an assumed name that is as much a parody of real names as their appearance is of real women. Divine, Chi Chi LaRue, The Lady Chablis and, from La Cage Aux Folles, Miss ZaZa Napoli suggest the sexually exotic plumage of their owners. The true Drag Queen, as the U.C. Berkeley philosopher Judith Butler notes, “radicalizes the norms of gender performance,” making drag far more than mere masquerade; indeed, no Drag Queen in history ever intended to pass as a woman (the way a cross-dresser might). Butler correctly understands that Drag is performance art, combining the flamboyance of Hollywood with the mind-bending challenge of genderfuck.

Is Drag then deliberately provocative? Considering that most Drag Queens restrict their professional activities to appropriate circles (drag balls, drag bars, GLBT parades) in which no one is particularly shocked, but rather gladdened by them, the answer is no. Drag Queens wish to be taken seriously, but on their own terms, and mainly (and this is an important consideration) by those who understand them. Drag isn’t easy. The successful Drag Queen has spent many years and thousands of dollars to create her own, special brand. She doesn’t just throw on a wig, paint her eyelids blue and put on a ball gown. The costs are considerable, involving waxing, wigs, jewelry, false fingernails, lipsticks, hair sprays, brushes and puffs, perfumes, fake eyelashes, designer shoes, foam rubber breasts, and, of course, the dresses and accessories themselves, which can cost as much as a new car. Beyond all that, the most successful Drag Queens are expected to throw extravagant parties, especially if they are running for election in the numerous “Royal Courts” that practically every American city has. Empress V Cha Cha, a famous queen from San Francisco, once told me she’d spent $22,000 on entertainment expenses in a single season, all of it out of her own (not very well-padded) pocket.

Let us now consider cult Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux blends. Just as there is “regular” Napa Valley Cabernet (no slouch, that), so too the cults have to exaggerate that style and become much more than regular. If that means riper fruit and more new oak, and perhaps a little Mega Purple, then so be it: People expect flamboyance in their cult Cabs. A “regular” Cabernet doesn’t stun; it’s simply a good wine. A cult Cab is expected to stun, to stand out, to elicit gasps of surprise. It “radicalizes the norm” of standard Cabernet.

Nor are cult wines meant for the masses. Cult Cabs are designed (I choose that verb deliberately) for the connoisseur: the person who likes and appreciates them, who has some understanding of what goes on behind the scenes in crafting one (famous-name winemaker, equally famous flying winemaker, famous proprietor, the glamorous architecture and appointments of most cult wine headquarters, the expensive new French oak barrels, the exclusive mailing list). Just as you or I might try to keep from staring at The Lady Larissa (with her exquisitely blond beauty), but would steal glimpses of her because she is, after all, a work of art, so too is the connoisseur of cult wines above all fascinated by the artistry in the bottle (and often of the bottle). The connoisseur prides himself on possessing the knowledge to recognize the artistry of a cult wine, in the same way that the best admirer of a superbly-made up Drag Queen is another Drag Queen. Only they know how much trouble it takes to look that good.

What of names? Cult wine designations themselves can sound like Drag Queens: Maya. Les Pavots. Cariad. Screaming Eagle, when you think about it, could easily be Lady Screaming Eagle, part Joan Crawford “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” horror show, part vampiric Angelina Jolie. The camp aspect of cult wines lies in their appeal, in the way they elevate us by allowing us to share in their mystery–even if we ourselves are ordinary mere mortals. Just as Americans are fascinated by the celebrities who adorn the covers of supermarket tabloids, so cult connoisseurs are fascinated by the most elite and expensive Napa Valley Cabernets. These wines are the Drag Queens of wine: exotic, unfathomable, exaggeratedly gorgeous, glamorous, worshipful and a little insane: all that effort for something so ephemeral (wine is drank and pissed out; makeup is washed off when the party’s over). The quibble (which almost all wine critics routinely note) is that cult Cabernet, as a “star” wine, is not really suitable for everyday pairing with food; like diva Drag Queens, the cult Cab selfishly demands to be loved on her own, without competition. And, finally, like the great diva Drag Queens, each cult wine has its groupies. Drags have their courts; with cult wines, they’re called mailing list members.


First crush at Tim Mondavi’s new Continuum winery

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Tim Mondavi presided over yesterday’s blessing of the grapes at his new Continuum winery facility yesterday, in an ancient Catholic ceremony famously practiced every year by his late father, Robert Mondavi. Robert’s first blessing was in 1966, at his eponymous Oakville winery. His younger son’s ceremony was up on Pritchard Hill, where his estate vineyard is located. The wines up to now have been made elsewhere, but the new winery building is now completed, just in time for the 2013 crush–which falls on the 100th anniversary of Robert’s birth.

Continuum is one helluva wine. I’ve scored it in the 90s every vintage since 2005, with 2007 taking top honors at 97 points. But then, I’ve always been a big fan of the 2007 Napa Cabs. Plush and delicious right out of the bottle, but ageworthy.

Could 2013 develop into a super-vintage? All the indications are positive. The weather has been steady as she goes all year. Except for last Saturday’s gullywasher, September has been a dream month. I always say that grapes like the same kind of weather we humans do: warm, dry sunny days, nights chilly enough to need a blanket. And the long-range forecast, right into the beginning of October, is for more of the same. High pressure is keeping storms well to the north.

From what I hear, the crop yield will be large, although nowhere near the size of 2012. Vintners are always predicting a successful vintage even when they know it’s not, but this time, 2013 could be one for the history books. All the grapes ought to be in the cellar by the third week of October (except, I suppose, for the most late-ripening areas). The one problem I’ve heard of concerns water, or more properly, lack of it. We are in a drought. The Central Coast, where rainfall always is lower than in the North Coast, has been hard hit, with Paso Robles bearing the brunt. A local newspaper reported last month that the area’s water table has dropped by seventy feet since 1997. The problem is exacerbated by an increasing population, as more and more people desire to live in this beautiful country of vineyards, rolling hills and warm summers.

Anyway, congratulations to Tim Mondavi, his family and the crew at Continuum. Mazel tov on the new winery. Your father would be so proud of you. And what a great year for your first crush!


A perfect day in Napa Valley

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Some friends visited over the weekend, two lovely women I’ve known forever, including the daughter of one of them who has been admitted to the Culinary Institute of America’s Accelerated Wine and Beverage Certificate Program, an intensive eight-month course of study that will put 27 new students on the path to becoming sommeliers, or perhaps cicerones I suppose in this Golden Age of Beer.

The young daughter had never visited the CIA before, so we drove up there on Saturday to check it out. While walking the campus (where it appeared other AWBP students were early-arriving), we ran into a lady who runs part of the program. She recognized me; we all set to talking. Earlier, we’d tried to go into the CIA’s gift shop, but they wouldn’t let Gus in (perfectly understandable). Later, the lady told me that Robert and Margrit Mondavi also used to have a little dog, which they carried around with them everywhere in some sort of puppy-purse. That led to much laughter, and when someone said that there’s a pet store in St. Helena called (only semi-facetiously, I would think), Fideaux, I wondered if I should buy a Gus-sized leather doggy pouch from Hermes, perhaps. But I don’t Gus would like being schlepped around in a bag like a Christmas ham.

The temperature by mid-afternoon hit 100 degrees, in one of the few heat waves to occur in Northern California this summer, but other than things being a little toasty, it was as beautiful a Napa day as can be imagined. The sky was immaculately blue: not a cloud anywhere, and perfect visibility, so that the Mayacamas in the west and the Vacas in the east seemed close enough to touch. We drove up the Oakville Grade, about a mile past the old Vichon winery (which is in a state of deshabille, having been purchased by, I believe, Bill Harlan, who is reconstructing the facility for a new project). From that high vantage point, maybe 800 feet up, you could see the valley in all its glory, green and lush (through the miracle of irrigation) while the grasslands of the Vacas were gold and sere from drought. Since I was, on this occasion (and at my friends’ request), the educator-in-chief, I asked them to carefully study the Mayacamas range and the Vacas, only 4 miles apart, and perceive what makes them so different.

It didn’t take long for one of them to reply, “trees.” Exactly. I explained how fascinating it’s always been to me that rainfall falls off so rapidly in Napa as storms, robbed of their moisture by the wall of the Mayacamas, ebb their way eastward, losing their punch with every passing mile. The result, of course, is a heavily-forested Mayacamas versus a Vaca range almost brutally denuded of vegetation, except for the most drought-resistant shrubs, like madrone.

My friends wanted to visit a winery, but I talked them out of it. With the head charge–what is it now, about $25?–the crowds, the impersonality of the tasting room and the utter absence of anything to do while there except to take a slurp or three of something and then mindlessly pick up coasters in the gift shop, it hardly seems worth the time or the money. So we didn’t go to a tasting room. Instead, on the way up the Oakville Grade, we made that little oblique turn, across from the Carmelite monastery, where the Grade starts to climb, onto a narrow, twisty road that leads into the scenic foothills where Far Niente, Martha’s Vineyard, Casa Nuestra, Stelling, The Vineyard House, Futo and of course Harlan have their estates; and I explained how, acre for acre, this is probably the most expensive vineyard land in the New World. Even to me, after all these years, I get goose bumps.

I had pointed out the Oakville Grocery on the way up–a favorite place of mine for a snack and cappuccino–so on the trip back [south] they asked if we would stop there for sandwiches. I had to explain that the trick for managing Highway 29, on a tourist-choked day, was to never, ever take a left turn from the road (forcing you to cross oncoming traffic), which then, of course–when your mission is over–forces you to take an equivalent left turn out of the driveway to get back to the direction you want to go. (The preceding is probably the most inelegant sentence I’ve ever written, but you get the idea.) So, since we were headed south, back to Oakland, it was to Dean and DeLuca, on the west side of 29, we repaired. A great place for a quick bite to eat. (I had the chicken pesto sandwich on ciabatta. So good.) We ate alfresco, sitting on little stoops in front of the store, seeking refuge from the sun in the narrow shadow of the building itself. After a while, conversation stilled, and everyone was content to just sit there, in peace, enjoying the good food, drinking the cold bottled water, watching the traffic (limos, the Wine Train), and delighting in the eye candy of the valley, the Cezanneesque mauve rectangle of the Vacas, the azure sky, and feeling and breathing the clean, dry last air of summer. Ahh, Napa Valley.  I envy my friend’s daughter at the CIA. Her next eight months will be all discovery and delight.


The solution to Napa Valley traffic? Not social media!

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Last Wednesday’s public meeting of the Napa County Planning Commission, as reported by the Napa Valley Register, sounds like a typical exercise in broad-based bureaucratic eye-glazing bureaucracy.

Everyone got to say his two cents, and the rest of the audience had to sit through it and listen, no matter how rambling or opaque the remarks were. That is the essence, and the curse, of participatory democracy.

The main topic, so far as I could discern it, was the impact of growing winery infrastructure on traffic. This is a perennial concern in Napa Valley and a legitimate one. If you’ve driven Highway 29 lately, you know how awful it can be. Gridlock, sometimes stretching from north of St. Helena all the way through American Canyon down to the 101 Freeway, is the norm. It’s why I advise visiting tourists to avoid Napa and stick to Sonoma County. No fun sitting in your car inhaling gas fumes.

I don’t know what the answer to the traffic is, but I don’t think it involves social media. And yet, there at the meeting was the ubiquitous Paul Mabray, singing the social media halleleujah chorus to a roomful of voters and county officials who must have wondered just who he was, and why he was there, lecturing them about “digital human beings” and the mean number of times per day the average winery posts on Twitter (2.2 times a day, in case you’re wondering), when what they were there to talk about was traffic.

I mean, social media is very glorious and wonderful, and we all are grateful it exists and can hardly remember what life was like before it did. But social media has not yet turned into a deus ex machina–a miraculous intervention that solves all problems, like those quack nostrum peddlers used to claim when they sold horse linament to naïve uneducated people looking for a cure for their cancers, arthritis and venereal diseases.

I cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, see the relevance of “engag[ing] potential customers on social media networks” to local traffic conditions, unless Paul was trying to make the point that the more people who are buying wine online, the fewer people will be actually visiting Napa Valley. But I don’t think that was his point. And even if it was, it was effectively rebutted by vintner Michael Honig, who stated the obvious truth that “People…come and see our valley. They…see our barrels. They…kick the dirt.” That’s how you get a lifetime customer, not through tweeting 80 times a day.

Once Paul had his say, it seems that things got back to the topic at hand. The problem of traffic is insoluble, short of draconian steps that wineries would oppose, tourists would hate and would probably be doomed to fail at any rate. (Back during the gas shortages of the 1970s, you could only fill up on certain days of the week, depending on the numbers on your license plate. Maybe they could drop a similar dictat on touring Napa.)

My own feeling for traffic in Napa is to widen Highway 29. Make it four lanes instead of two–and put a detour around St. Helena, or perhaps a bridge over it, so you don’t have to drive through it. If four lanes is too much, make it three lanes, and have the directions change the way they used to at the Caldecott Tunnel before there were four bores: Two westbound lanes, one eastbound for morning commute, then switch it for the evening rush.

Of course, an elevated freeway over Highway 29, with on- and off-ramps for the townships, is the ideal solution. But it’s probably too expensive, and I’m sure the enviros would object. They’re against everything that makes our lives more efficient.


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