I reviewed a very nice Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc yesterday, the Robert John 2012 ($30), and while I won’t reveal my score until it’s published in some future edition of Wine Enthusiast, I will say that it caused me to write, “One of Napa’s secrets is how good its Sauvignon Blancs can be.”
A secret, of course, based on the subtext of this comment, which is Chardonnay. Napa has been horribly bashed over the years for it, which is all right with me: while I think the bashing can be a little mean, for there are some consistently good Napa Chards (Jarvis, Vine Cliff and Krupp come to mind), I will be first to admit this warmish, inland valley doesn’t have what it takes to produce world-class Chardonnay on a consistent basis, especially considering what even the merest Napa Chardonnay costs these days.
Sauvignon Blanc is, however, a different story. It’s America’s number two white wine (or is Pinot Grigio? Whatever; Sauvignon Blanc qualitatively is a better wine). SB wants a little heat for ripening. Grow it in a coolish area (the western Sta. Rita Hills, for example, where Chardonnay can thrive) and it’s too strong in those stringbeany, ammoniated cat pee aromas that, quite frankly, make me gag, especially in the cool vintages we’ve had the last three years.
Grow it too far inland, and it’s an insipid fruit cocktail, sugary, soft and spittable, often overcropped and clumsily acidified.
The Santa Ynez Valley has laid some claims among coastal appellations (among which I do not include Lake County) as a Sauvignon Blanc specialist; but other than that, no region wants to “own up” to this great Loire and, blended, Bordeaux white variety. Why this should be has been hard for me to understand for years, except to come up with the theory that a producer willing to invest in great Sauvignon Blanc can make more money, at perhaps not even the same costs, if he produces an average Chardonnay. There is probably a view among producers that consumers are only willing to pay so much for Sauvignon Blanc (perhaps less than $20), so why should they fuss about it.
Well, they should fuss about it because Sauvignon Blanc can make one of California’s great white wines. I attribute Napa Valley’s affinity for it to two factors: The climate, which is just warm enough but not too hot, midway between coast and the Delta; and Napa’s money. Proprietors there can afford to invest in Sauvignon Blanc if they wish to. Most of them presumably are making their real profits off Cabernet Sauvignon anyway.
Among the consistently fine Napa Valley Sauvignon Blancs I have reviewed over the years are Mondavi’s (especially the Fumé Blancs from Tokalon), Ehlers Estate (St. Helena), Atalon, Stag’s Leap, Cade, Hand Made by Marketta (from the former co-owner of Chateau Potelle), Long Meadow Ranch (bearing a Rutherford appellation), Snowden, V. Sattui’s Carsi Vineyard, Round Pond, Bougetz, Kelleher, Laird and Raymond. All are distinguished wines, dry and fruity and crisp, with floral and mineral notes, and their prices are relative bargains compared to Chardonnays of equal quality. In fact, a good California Sauvignon Blanc is far more versatile with a wide range of food than an equivalent Chardonnay.
In my job as a critic who gives point scores to wines, even after all these years I still think all the time about just why I give high scores to certain wines and not-so-high scores to most others.
Just what is it that, in my head, makes one Cabernet score 96 points and another “only” 89? It’s not that the latter Cab is bad. In fact, it may be better to drink (under certain circumstances) than the former. This is where a certain arbitrariness comes in–but it’s an arbitrariness with rules.
The main thing I look for in a wine is power. There are synonyms for power: concentration, intensity, volume, size, mass. (These are all nouns; their corresponding adjectives would be words like intense, massive, powerful, huge, etc.). The more mass a wine has, the more likely I am to give it a high score.
It can be tricky, though, determining the line between mass that’s pleasingly balanced, and mass that’s just power for its own sake. I hate to engage in meaningless metaphors, but I sometimes make analogies in my mind to power that’s controlled, as opposed to uncontrolled power. Imagine a large dam, like Hoover Dam or Boulder Dam. Controlled power is when the dam’s walls hold; the force of all that water can be used for productive ends, such as the manufacture of power to turn turbines. That’s controlled power. Imagine next that an earthquake destroys the dam’s foundations, resulting in a great flood that destroys forests and buildings and lives. That’s uncontrolled power.
I realize the comparison isn’t perfect, but that’s how it feels to me when I taste–the kind of sense impression the wine gives, from my first glimpse and sniff to the way it occupies my mouth. And quite often, I find the balance of power, especially in red wines, slipping away from control into abandonment and chaos.
This usually happens when a winery has two (or more) tiers of a wine, often expressed as a “regular” regional bottling and a “reserve.” Most often the reserve is a more concentrated version of the regular; that is, whatever characteristics the regular has (specific flavors, quality of tannins and oak, acidity, alcohol), the reserve will possess also, but in spades: everything will be more, greater, more evident. Sometimes, this works. Sometimes, it doesn’t. Sometimes, more is more; sometimes, more is less. Just because the wine goes from 60% new French oak to 100% (or 200%) new French oak doesn’t make it better; it can make the wine merely oakier, which in itself is not balance but imbalance. Same with fruity concentration. There are technical ways of increasing the extract in wine, but the winemaker has to be very careful with tinkering, because there’s a thin line between “massive fruit” (a term I might use positively) and a fruit bomb. Sometimes, I taste these reserve-style Cabs and I’ll give it a lower score than the regular Cab (even though it costs a lot more money) for the very reason that the winemaker tried too hard to impress with sheer force. There is something to be said for finesse, restraint, elegance: Just because the California sunshine and warmth allows you to make a fruit bomb doesn’t mean you ought to.
The final step in my thinking process when reviewing such wines is, inevitably, this: Granted that the wine tastes clumsy now, might it age? Part of the problem is that the way I was educated about wine. I read the likes of Professor Saintsbury and Eddie Penning-Rowsell and learned to appreciate that a fine Bordeaux that tastes hard and unyielding in youth might turn out silky and delicious if given enough time in the cellar. Well, that’s true, as far as it goes: But there’s a big difference between a young wine that’s clumsy because it’s hard and tannic, and one that’s clumsy because it’s a fruit bomb. I don’t think it’s right to assume that a wine will age simply because (a) it’s a Napa Valley Cab, (b) it costs triple digits and (c) it has more fruit than a roadside fruit stand in August.
If there’s a cautionary tale here, it’s to advise vintners that just because you can extract massive fruit doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Show some restraint, please. Not just in reds but in whites: I’ve seen too many perfectly fine Chardonnays ruined by massive applications of oak, or oak-like aromas and flavors. I’ve always defended California from the naysayers who claim it’s too hot here to grow fine wine (a patent absurdity), but it is getting difficult to defend these over-extracted, overly-oaked, too soft and too sweet wines that seem to be popping up even in the $30-$40 and up ultrapremium range.
I Googled the term (using both spellings, “zomby” and “zombie”) and came up empty-handed, but I’m hearing it bandied about more and more.
It refers to wineries that are in dead every respect, except that they still walk the Earth as though they possessed life. The Zombie Winery phenomenon is said to be most acute in Napa Valley, among high-end brands that got their butts kicked in the Great Recession, when demand for $50-and up Cabernets fell off the cliff.
Wineaccess, the online wine retailer, referred to “Napa’s crisis years (2008 to mid-2011)” in their most recent email blast, a suitably Götterdämmerung-esque description that communicates the angst that struck the valley at the Recession’s peak.
I well recall the rumors. Who’s in trouble? Who isn’t? Anecdotally, expensive wines–not just Cabernet Sauvignon–were suffering. Nobody really knew, in each specific instance, which wineries were hurting; only the proprietors and their bankers knew. But there were whispers. I asked owners every chance I could how business was doing: the answers ranged from “Great” (which I assumed to be an outright lie) to “Well, you know, these are tough times,” which at least was honest. The owner of one of the most famous cult wineries told me frankly, in that 2009-2010 period, that for the first time in the winery’s history, requests for inclusion on the mailing list had dropped, a kind of canary-in-the-coal mine symbol of the psychological toll the Recession took even on the well-to-do.
“Zombie” the word comes from Haitian Creole, which imported it from an African word; it referred to “an animated corpse” (Wikipedia). The word gained widespread currency with George Romero’s famous (and famously kitschy) “Night of the Living Dead” movie (1968), which depicted living dead horrors wandering the world, looking to shred, tear and devour (although the film itself never used the word “zombie”). A previous movie, “White Zombie” (1932), starring Bela Lugosi, however, imprinted the horrific image on the public’s mind of yet another form of monster (in addition to Frankenstein and Dracula, then popular among horror genre fans), one again based on a mutated human, stripped of living purpose except that it did not know that it was dead. (The self-knowledge of these mutants varies. Frankenstein had none, or very little, although he could feel tenderness. Dracula, of course, possessed full self-knowledge, which is what makes vampires so dreadful; what he lacked was moral compass, although it can be argued that, from the point of view of his kind, i.e., a vampire, his actions were fully in concert with morality as he understood it. Zombies, by contrast, are even duller and more primitive than Frankenstein, on a level of insectoid: If any movie in history ever depicted a zombie feeling tenderness or love, I am unaware of it.)
So are there Zombie Wineries in Napa Valley? Undoubtedly. Was Clos Pegase one of them? I wondered about last week’s sale to Vintage Wine Estates and Leslie Rudd. It’s hard for me to think Jan Shrem “needed the money.” I always thought Clos Pegase was quite profitable, a thought reinforced every time I heard the announcer on my public radio station thank the Shrems for their “generous support.” And the wines, made by Richard Sowalsky, always are good and sometimes great. My hunch–and that’s all it is–is simply that Jan is ready for the next chapter in his adventurous life.
BREAKING: Moments after I posted this, the news came in that Viansa has been bought by Vintage Wine Estates. While Viansa is in Sonoma County, not Napa, it appears to have been a Zombie Winery:
It happens all the time in wine: famous wineries overshadow the less famous. Bordeaux set the pattern: So luminous is the glare of the most celebrated Classified Growths that some perfectly fine chateaux are obscured. It being the purpose of wine writers to bring under-appreciated wineries to readers’ attention, here are my suggestions. I don’t mean to suggest that these wineries are coming out of the blue. Insiders know them; it’s the general public that doesn’t.
Goldschmidt Vineyards. Veteran winemaker Nick Goldschmidt’s carefully crafted Cabernets rival the best of Napa Valley. But for some reason, they haven’t garnered the acclaim of competitors such as Staglin or Dalla Valle. Representative wine: 2006 Game Ranch “Plus” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville; $150, 98 points.
Terra Valentine. I’ve been giving this winery high scores since the late 1990s. They do a fantastic job with their Spring Mountain fruit, but you seldom hear of them in the same breath as the cults. Representative wine: 2010 K-Block Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain; $65, 95 points.
B. Cellars. The winery really caught my eye with their 2004 vintage, and I’ve been a fan ever since. Cabernet is the speciality, although they also try their hand at Syrah and Chardonnay. Representative wine: 2009 Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville; $165, 95 points.
Summers Estate. Calistoga-based Summers has been crafting terroir wines of distinction since at least the late 1990s. But the last 10 years have really shown the fruits of success, not just with Cabernet but with Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Charbono. Representative wine: 2010 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Calistoga; $50, 92 points.
Sodaro Estate. I felt this winery’s struggle in the mid-2000s, but by the 2008 and 2009 vintages, they started to rock. That may have been due to the involvement of May-Britt and Denis Malbec, the consulting winemakers. Representative wine: 2009 Doti/Sodaro Blocks 2 and 6 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley; $125, 95 points.
Amici. This is former Beaulieu winemaker Joel Aiken’s baby, and while it took him a while to find his footing, he’s now established it securely. A flagship wine is certainly the 2009 Morisoli Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford; $125, 95 points. But for the representative wine, I’m choosing Amici’s 2007 Olema Cabernet, Napa Valley; $20, 97 points. It stood out in a blind tasting several years ago of more than 60 Napa Cabs, almost all of which cost far more.
Prime Cellars. The celebrated winemaker, Ted Henry (Jarvis), and his wife, Lisa, own the brand, and he crafts the wines (she does the marketing). With the sole exception of a so-so 2005 Cab and a 2008 Chardonnay, I’ve given all their releases 90 points or higher. Representative wine: 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville; $64, 93 points.
KaDieM. This is a brand new brand, a partnership between friends. The winemaker is Michael Trujillo, who was mentored by the likes of André Tchelistcheff and Tony Soter. The representative wine is their 2009 Inaugural Vintage Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley; $85, 95 points.
Patland Estate. Winemaker Jay Buoncristiani [ex-Hess Collection] crafts rich Cabs, Syrahs and Malbecs from the winery’s estate vineyard and from purchased grapes, notably the Stagecoach Vineyard, which straddles the Atlas Peak AVA. Representative wine: 2009 Stagecoach Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley; $90, 94 points.
Turnbull Wine Cellars. Turnbull isn’t new. In fact, it was one of the first wineries I ever wrote about [in its Johnson-Turnbull era]. Although the winery is set on Highway 29 in the heart of Oakville, its wines tend to pass unnoticed, which is really a pity. Representative wine: 2009 Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville; $100, 95 points.
The Holy Grail for California wine has been China. With its hundreds of millions of emerging upper-middle class consumers, Cali producers see a vast new source of demand. The problem is how to persuade all those Chinese that they want California wine.
We already know they want French wine. Parker has been investing his time and energy heavily in China for many years (I remember raised eyebrows when he started visiting with regularity, but he was ahead of his time, wasn’t he?), and now, of course, a Singapore outfit owns Wine Advocate.
RMP himself is now back tasting California wine. (Ironic, isn’t it? First he said he didn’t want to anymore. Then “the troubles” went down with Galloni, and The Man Himself was compelled to return to a beat he’d previously said he was tired of.) So, while the Wine Advocate is competition for the magazine I write for, Wine Enthusiast, I do think that Parker is in a position to publicize to wealthy Chinese consumers the Napa cult wineries he likes. If I were a cult Napa producer, I’d be all over Parker, inviting him to the winery, getting my wines into his hands, then keeping my fingers crossed for a 99 or even a perfect 100.
But I also think Wine Enthusiast has growing clout in China, a clout that will only increase over time. Last year we began a Mandarin edition of the magazine, and my understanding is that it’s doing quite well. It was, I believe, the first important English-language wine periodical to be published in the Chinese language. And, as that edition also reports on my scores and reviews of Napa cult wines, I think it’s likely that those scores will drive sales, too.
Of course, some Napa wineries don’t have to worry about scores. Yao Ming’s wines ($625 for the 2009 Family Reserve) were an instant hit in China, for obvious reasons. I suspect that Screaming Eagle and Harlan also are doing well. The kind of people in China who can afford them have extensive connections with the west. They tend to speak English and are aware of the consumer goods, including wine, that are popular and prestigious in America. They take their cues from rich Americans and are ever alert to symbols of status and preference. Since critics like Parker tend to rate these wines highly, that should make them in high demand in China.
What about the other hundred or so Napa cult Cabs?
It’s terribly difficult for individual wineries to market themselves in China. But the Napa Valley Vintners has been plying those waters for a long time. This article, from the Huffington Post, does a good job describing the general contours of breaking into the Chinese market, but to me, the bullet quote is from Harlan’s GM, Don Weaver: “Trying to solve the China puzzle is the most exciting part of my job right now.” The adjective “exciting” is an interesting choice; Don might have used “challenging,” but when you rise to meet a challenge, and then perhaps exceed it, it is exciting. (I felt that way when I was awarded my first Black Belt in karate.)
Napa wineries (and others in California) also recently got a boost from Gov. Jerry Brown, a longtime friend of the wine industry, when his April trade mission to Shanghai (which included Wine Institute’s CEO, Bobby Koch), promoted the state’s wines; the promotion also included a “Taste Napa Valley” event sponsored by Wine Institute.
These activities all are promising, and the people organizing and managing them are very good at what they do. But there’s a limit to how effective they can be at the individual winery level. If you’re selling a 93 point Cabernet for $100 or more, and you don’t have an ultra-famous name and have only been around for a few years, you’re going to have a tough time, whether it’s here in the States or in the People’s Republic. It’s those Napa Cabs I wonder about. Who’s buying them? Who will be buying them? Maybe their proprietors are so rich they can afford to break even, or even lose a little money, for a decade or two. I have a feeling they’re about to find out.
This opinion piece by the president of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, Jon Ruel, is eloquent and inspiring, and gives a spacious perspective on many important things to consider, on this July 4th holiday weekend.
I heartily endorse everything Ruel (who also is COO of Trefethen) says. Each of the ideals he sets out will take determination and diligent intelligence to achieve, but there’s no doubt that, if any grapegrowers group in the world can succeed at such admirable goals, it’s Napa Valley’s.
Here’s the one statement I want to weigh in on:
Succession is another important topic. Many of the local figures who helped shape the success of the Napa Valley over the past 45 years are now retiring. Who will succeed them and maintain the vision? Similarly, we will see succession in our customer base as the baby boomers move on. Can we engage future generations of consumers with our story and our wines?
This is something I’ve thought about for many years. Robert Mondavi no longer is with us; no one has managed to flll such gigantic shoes, and in all likelihood, no one ever will. Still, there’s little evidence that since his 2008 passing, Napa has suffered from an absence of leadership. Perhaps Robert Mondavi’s greatest achievement was that he set the ship of Napa Valley asail and, once free and steered by the trades upon the open sea, it no longer requires anyone to command it.
No shadow, then, is as long as Robert Mondavi’s, but Napa Valley has leaders. I think of proprietors like Bill Harlan, who sees things generationally not quarterly, or the Staglins, who put their money where the mouths are. I think of people who believed early in Napa, like Bernard Portet at Clos du Val, Christian Moueix at Dominus, the Trefethen and Chappellet families and so many others, too numerous to list. I think particularly of that younger generation coming along to “engage future generations.” Among them are Robert Mondavi’s grandchildren and also those of his brother, Peter Mondavi, Sr., at Charles Krug, kids who bear the weight and responsibility of their famous names with dignity and good cheer. Others with less famous names populate the valley; some are mere cellar rats at this point but will go on to become celebrated winemakers in their own right.
Napa Valley has no succession problems. Ruel need not worry. The valley is in good hands.