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Happy 50th, Robert Mondavi Winery

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Believe it or not, kids, there was a time when Napa Valley possessed no Robert Mondavi Winery (RMW).

Prior to 1966 Napa was a sleepy little wine valley, dominated by legendary wineries already perceived as old-time, like Beaulieu, Inglenook, Charles Krug and Louis M. Martini. A few newer wineries had sprung up over the decades, including Mayacamas (1941), Stony Hill (1953) and Heitz (1961), so we have to take the claim, oft-repeated, that RMWwas the first new large-scale winery to be established in the valley since before prohibition” with a certain grain of salt. Still, the building of the physical winery itself, designed by the celebrated California architect Cliff May, was an extraordinary event. It brought to the valley a look that combined traditional Mission motifs with a modernity that seemed to express the essence of Napa Valley, and its wines; and, in becoming an almost instant tourist mecca, it opened the gates to Napa Valley as one of the most visited wine regions in the world.

There was, too, at the time a great deal of critical interest in the wines the brash, not-quite-so-young (53) Robert Mondavi was creating; but here, too, we have to hedge this statement with an explanation that there wasn’t much going on at that time in America in the way of critical coverage of the wine industry. That was to come, much later, in large part due to Robert Mondavi, the winery, as well as the man, who was such a relentless engine of exhortation for the wines of Napa Valley.

Early reporters, unsure of how to parse Mondavi’s wines, and understanding that such a new enterprise would take some time to find its sea legs, instead focused on the winery and Robert’s audacity. One of the first important wine books to be published after RMW’s founding was The Fine Wines of California (Hurst Hannum and Robert S. Blumberg, 1970). Mondavi’s wines, they wrote, “show[ed] breed and flavor”; they reserved their highest accolades to the ’68 Fumé Blanc, but were less enthusiastic when it came to the reds: the ’66 Cabernet was “pleasant, rather fruity,” but “not the most complex,” while the ’66 Pinot—a variety Robert’s winemaker son, Tim, would be famously associated with—was “sharp…light…[and] unpleasant.”

Three years later, Leon D. Adams, the former head of the Wine Institute, in his The Wines of America (1973) was astounded that, by that time, RMW was attracting visitors “at the rate of 1500 per week and are selling them a tenth of the winery’s output,” an impressive anticipation of direct-to-consumer sales. But Adams, an amateur historian and a fine one, did not pretend to be a wine critic, and did not venture into that area. That year, 1973, the same caveats issued by Hannum and Blumberg came from the pen of the man who arguably at that time was the dean of American wine writers, Nathan Chroman. In his The Treasury of American Wines, Chroman found Mondavi’s red wines “satisfactory, but [they] do not measure up to the whites…”, although he held out hope for the Cabernet Sauvignon. But he, too, love the Fumé Blanc.

Europeans were perhaps more welcoming to the wines. Three years before Adams wrote, the great British enophile (and Francophile) Harry Waugh was taken by his hosts to RMW, where, as he wrote in Pick of the Bunch (1970), he found “extraordinarily exciting…ideas and projects” bubbling forth: That 1968 Fumé Blanc—the one Hannum, Blumberg and Chroman loved (and Robert is credited with inventing the term)–had “the true smell” of “a blanc fumé from the Loire,” and received the ultimate Waugh plaudit of being a wine “which would go into my collection…”. He thought less well of a ’67 Chardonnay, but a ’66 Zinfandel was his favorite in a flight of five, and so was a ’66 Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, it was through the admiration of Harry Waugh and his London-based Zinfandel Club that the wines of the new “boutiques” such as RMW were introduced to and appreciated by the intelligentsia of Europe (except for the French), which gave them great cachet.

We can say, and be on sound historical footing, that the launch of RMW heralded in that boutique winery era—which saw, over the next 15 years, as stellar a flight of winery startups as ever has been recorded in history, on any continent. There was nothing like it: with the advent of that generation of young, determined, bold and visionary vintners, California experienced a land rush of new wineries that set the stage for its future success and made it the international capitol for wine excitement. Things are quite different today, when none but the über-rich have the means to establish a new winery, and the sparkle, steam and creativity that marked the 1960s and 1970s have faded away. But Cliff May’s arch and campanile still mark that glorious stretch of Highway 29 through Oakville, and the footprint of Robert Mondavi remains as large and indelible as ever.

 


French wine month names, the California drought, and growing weed in Napa Valley

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Here’s how a wine-crazed country thinks: On Sept. 22, 1792, the First French Republic was born, amidst the fiery pangs of the French Revolution.

It was a good day for the middle class of Paris, not so good for Louis XVI and his Queen, Marie-Antoinette, both of whom who already had been deposed and imprisoned (and would shortly be killed). The people were in such a radical mood that when deputies to the Convention gathered to draw up a new constitution for France, they even changed the names of the months. Instead of Roman-derived names usually dedicated to gods (i.e. January/Janus, the god of sunset and sunrise), the Convention created a calendar that began with the current revolutionary Year I and, starting with that dramatic Autumn month of “September,” redubbed the months this way:

Vendemiaire (Vintage)

Brumaire (Mist)

Frimaire (Frost)

Nivose (Snow)

Pluviose (Rain)

Ventose (Wind)

Germinal (Budding)

Floreal (Flowering)

Prairial (Meadows)

Messidor (Harvest)

Thermidor (Warmth)

Fructidor (Fruit)

The new month-naming scheme, as it turned out, didn’t last; Napoleon abolished it in 1805 (although it was briefly resurrected in 1871, when for two months a radical-socialist government took over Paris). But see how much the month-names of the Revolutionary Calendar reflected the annual cycle of the vineyard. How wonderful it was for France to consecrate their calendar to wine and other treasures of the harvest! Vintage-budding-flowering-fruit—these remain the annual stages of the grapevine around the world, but alas, no government any longer names months after them.

* * *

The Press-Democrat reports that, thanks to El Nino, January was “the wettest since the drought began” in 2012, with more than 10 inches of rain falling in Santa Rosa. That has brought North Coast reservoirs up quite a bit, and the Sierra snowpack hit a five-year high last month, but “California is Still in Drought,” Scientific American says, adding, “It will take many more storms and almost assuredly more than a single winter—even one with a strong El Niño—to erase” the historic dry spell. Bring on the storms!

* * *

It looks like Napa city may be poised to allow medical marijuana dispensaries, including the possibility of “cultivation,” although both practices currently are outlawed. It’s likely that California will soon legalize even recreational use, not just medical use, giving a new state agency, the Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation, authority over growing it. No doubt the best pot farms will be located in precisely the kind of climate central and northern Napa Valley possesses: hot, sunny and dry in the summertime. Given the vast amounts of money that can be made in the pot business in California alone–$31 billion a year—why would a vineyard owner, given the legal ability to do so, waste his time on Cabernet Sauvignon when he could grow weed instead? Maybe not on those prime hillside and benchland vineyards, but in terroirs less suited to Cab, like the fertile flatlands along the Napa River? Hmm. Would you? I would. I’d find a consulting farmer who specialized in weed—kind of like the David Abreu of marijuana (and you know there are folks setting themselves up for it) and grow, baby, grow.


A tasting of Sonoma County Cabernets and Bordeaux blends: Call me a Verité kinda guy

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I couldn’t have been more pleased that in yesterday’s tasting I gave the Verite 2012 La Joie * a perfect 100 points. (All wines marked with an asterisk are from Jackson Family Wines.)

It was back in 2009 that I gave the 2006 La Joie a near-perfect 98 points. A year later I gave the 2007 Verite La Muse 100 points. So you could say these wines, produced by Pierre Seillan, delight and amaze me and rise to my highest expectations of what California-Bordeaux can and should be.

Our tasting was entirely blind. The other wines and their scores were Matanzas Creek 2011 Journey * (96 points), Rodney Strong 2012 Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon (88 points), Hall 2012 T Bar T Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (90 points), Hidden Ridge 2012 Impassable Mountain Reserve 55% Slope Cabernet Sauvignon (91 points), Lancaster 2012 Nicole’s Red Wine (91 points), Arrowood 2012 Reserve Speciale Cabernet Sauvignon * (92 points), Stonestreet 2012 Legacy Red Wine * (98 points), Stonestreet 2011 Christopher’s Cabernet Sauvignon * (88 points), Silver Oak 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon (92 points), Cenyth 2010 Red Wine * (93 points), Anakota 2012 Helena Montana Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon * (93 points) and Kendall-Jackson 2012 Jackson Estate Hawkeye Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon * (93 points).

The vintages all were either current releases or the most current releases I was able to obtain buying direct from the wineries. I should add that I also was pleased that one of my fellow tasters, Chris Jackson, also scored the Verite ’12 La Joie a perfect 100 points. When the paper bags came off, it was high-five time.

As some of my readers know who followed my career, I never gave very many 100 point scores, but one was that ’07 La Muse. These Verités are extraordinary wines. They are of course blends from mountain vineyards throughout Sonoma County; it was those wines, in part, that led me to understand that a California-Bordeaux does not have to be sourced from a single vineyard in order to attain perfection. In fact, quite the opposite can be argued: That having your choice of multiple pedigreed vineyards, rather than having to source from only one, allows the winemaker to fill in the divots in order to produce a more complete, wholesome wine. Of course, this implies a very high level of skill on the part of the blender! Nor would I concede that such a blended wine doesn’t display terroir. (Another blend I gave 100 points to was the 2006 Cardinale, made from grapes grown in Mt. Veeder, Howell Mountain, Stags Leap and Oakville.) I do think a great Pinot Noir should probably come from a single piece of dirt, but even here I could be wrong.

It often is said that the difference between Sonoma-grown Bordeaux wines and Napa Valley Bordeaux wines is that the former are earthier and more “French.” I think that is largely true; the tannins are firmer and there is slightly more herbaceousness in the form of sweet dried herbs and often a floral character reminiscent of violets. Most of the wines in yesterday’s tasting were grown on the western slope of the Mayacamas, not far from places like Spring Mountain and Diamond Mountain, in fact just on the other side of the ridge. But Napa Valley is one mountain range further inland and so is that much warmer and drier; the resulting wines tend to be lusher, more opulent, and higher in alcohol. But I would not want to over-emphasize those distinctions. Suffice it to say that some of these Sonoma Cabs, especially from the west side of the Mayacamas, are stunning and ageworthy.

I don’t hesitate to praise the Jackson Family wines just because I work there; in fact it makes me very happy to see them do so well. As I said, the tasting was absolutely blind. Nobody had any idea what the wines were, although that didn’t stop us from guessing. I was troubled by the relatively modest score of the ’11 Stonestreet Christopher’s, a wine I’ve always liked (I gave the ’06 and ’07 both 96 points, for example), but as you know 2011 was “the year summer never came,” and this wine, grown at 2,400 feet on the winery’s Alexander Mountain Estate, is exquisitely sensitive to vintage conditions. I think the fruit, in that brutal environment of 2011, just didn’t get ripe enough (although it’s only fair to add that Wine Advocate gave that wine 94 points. So maybe I just didn’t “get it”).

Anyhow, bravo to Sonoma County for doing so well. I think for our next tasting we’ll do Jackson Family’s Napa Valley Cab/Bordeaux blends against some of the top-rated wines in the valley. That will be interesting, if expensive, and I’ll report on the results right here!


When did Cabernet Sauvignon arrive in Napa Valley?

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I’m doing some research for a project I’m involved with at Jackson Family Wines, and one of the things I’m interested in establishing is when the first Cabernet Sauvignon vines were planted in Napa Valley, by whom, and where.

You’d think such things would already be well-documented. After all, Napa Valley is one of the most famous winegrowing regions in the world, and Cabernet is its crowning glory. And Napa Valley is not so old that its vinous origins are lost in the mists of time, as they are in Burgundy and Bordeaux.

So why is it so hard?

I have about a zillion wine books, and I couldn’t find the answers. So I turned to my trusty online source, Facebook, where a number of my friends weighed in. They suggested everybody from H.W. Crabb in 1868 to Capt. Niebaum in 1883, but one, Tom Ward, said “George C. Yount, in 1836, at the site of the current Napanook Vineyard,” a claim Tom says was substantiated by the winemaker at Dominus, Tod Mostero.

I’ll have to do some more fact-checking on that myself, but the point it raises is how easily we in California lose our history, in this fast-paced, twitterized world, where Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes have shrunk to 15 seconds.

I went to some of my California wine books to see what I could find on George Yount, after whom Yountville is of course named. He was the first white settler in what we now call Napa Valley, having come there from Sonoma. Leon Adams, in The Wines of America (1973) says Yount planted “Mission vines,” which he vinified in 1841: no mention, though, of Cabernet Sauvignon. Thomas Pinney’s “A History of Wine in America” (2005) does not even list Yount in the index, nor does his “The Makers of American Wine: A Record of Two Hundred Years” (2012). Then again, Yount doesn’t even appear in Frank Schoonmaker’s and Tom Marvel’s epochal 1941 book, “American Wines,”

Yount does make an appearance in Robert Mondavi’s charming memoir, “Harvests of Joy” (1998), in which Robert calls him “a tough, adventurous trapper”; but Robert does not say Young grew Cabernet (although he does refer to Crabb who in 1868 “obtained certified cuttings of ‘noble varietals’ from Bordeaux…” in the vineyard that eventually became Tokalon (or To Kalon).

Yount also makes a brief appearance in The Oxford Companion to the Wines of North America (2000), with information drawn from other sources. Ditto for Hugh Johnson’s Story of Wine (1999), with the added tidbit that Yount had started as a seal trapper. I could mention a dozen or more other books in my library that refer to Young, but with no additional information.

It seems important that we should establish these facts, of the origins of Cabernet Savignon in Napa Valley. It didn’t happen so long ago that it should be impossible. And yet, maybe it is. Today, everything is recorded. We tend to forget that, not that long ago, not everything was. Nor did men even have the notion that everything should be recorded. Marriages were, and births, and deaths; but the planting of agricultural crops? I mean, what man planted the first plums in Napa? The first nut trees? Then too, we must remember that our obsession (for that is what it is) with specific varieties is of comparatively recent origin. It hardly existed in Old Europe, where they made “Bordeaux” and “Burgundy” and “Hermitage,” not “Cabernet Sauvignon” or “Pinot Noir” or “Syrah.” It was, in fact, due in large measure to Mr. Schoonmaker that our present way of thinking about (and labeling) varietals came about. So maybe it’s not so strange, after all: Young made wines from his estate: what the particular grape variety or varieties was, nobody cared.

Do you know anything about the origin of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley? Can you document it? I’d love to hear from you.


Napa Valley Pinot Noir: gone, but not forgotten

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We were up at Freemark Abbey yesterday and some of the people who work there showed me some old bottles someone had found and brought to the winery. Among them was this bottle of Pinot Noir.

 

FreemarkPinot

Despite the “Selected Vintage” designation, it didn’t have a vintage date. But the thinking was that it could have been from the 1940s. Note that it has a California appellation.

Who knows what it really was? My first thought was that it probably wasn’t real Pinot Noir as we know it. Maybe Gamay Beaujolais, but actually, it could have been anything. Back then, there were no laws regulating the use of varieties on labels, so wineries could do whatever they wanted. Many wineries called any red wine that was lighter and more delicate than Zinfandel or Cabernet Sauvignon “Pinot Noir.” They could have called it “Burgundy”; many did.

Once upon a time, kids, Napa Valley produced quite a bit of Pinot Noir, or something called Pinot Noir, until the critics declared that Napa Valley Pinot Noir sucks, so they scared off anybody who had it or planned to try. I remembered a Pinot from the old Louis K. Mihaly Winery, a winery that has been almost completely eliminated from history. Frank Prial referred to it, in a 1988 New York Times column, as “also known as Silverado Cellars”; so did a 1989 LA Times article. Silverado Cellars, of course, is on the Silverado Trail, but in my memory, the Mihaly winery was on Highway 29, around St. Helena, in the early 1980s, when I liked their Napa Valley Pinot Noir so much, I bought half a case—a big purchase for a broke college student. But maybe my memory is playing tricks on me.

Years later, when I was writing A Wine Journey along the Russian River, Joe Rochioli, Jr., told me how he had gotten the cuttings for his first plantings of Pinot Noir, in 1968, for his Russian River Valley vineyard, from “this old grower in Napa Valley.” He couldn’t recall who it was; I’ve always wondered if it wasn’t Mihaly. But, seeing that Freemark Abbey bottle, maybe it was from Freemark, or whatever remained of the vineyards Freemark sourced .

Old bottles like that Freemark Pinot stir my imagination. So much history has been lost; so much is unrecoverable. It’s very sad. Most people don’t care about what happened before they were born. For some of us, a quirk in the brain, a peculiar wiring of our DNA, makes history irresistible. I love doing research, fitting the pieces of the puzzle together. Of course, not all the pieces can be found; but sometimes, enough of them can be gathered to being to paint a coherent picture.

Have a great weekend, and if you’re in California, stay dry! We’re in the throes of El Nino.


A Cameron Hughes Cabernet vertical

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Cameron Hughes Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. Sold as a six-pack vertical, 2006-2011 vintages, $449.

Cameron Hughes was kind enough to send me this six-bottle vertical for review. (Full disclosure: He also was kind enough to come all the way to Oakland and buy me a sushi lunch.) All the wines are obviously related to each other, being strongly similar except for bottle age; but negociant Cameron cannot reveal his precise sourcing, except to strongly hint we’re dealing with major sources and famous winemaking consultants.

I begin with a lengthy discussion of the youngest wine (2006) and the oldest (2011), since they frame the conversation. Then it’s on to briefer considerations of the ’07, ’08, ’09 and ’10.

I expected more color differentiation between the 2006 and the 2011, with the older wine, at nine years, being paler. It is, kinda sorta, but you have to squint to see it, which means either of two things: The ’11 is looking old now, or the ’06 is looking young. In this case, it’s decidedly the latter, but that may be the high alcohol level. I would not guess the ’06 for being nine years old. It’s still dark, a gorgeous ruby garnet, like the ’11. So much for color: then I inhaled the wines, which is where the ’06 begins to show its age. Where the ’11 is all fresh black currants—sprinkled with cocoa nibs and anise, with that telltale hint of fine, smoked new oak—the ’06 (alcohol high, at 15.7%) is more yielding and pliant. No more currants: blackberry and blueberry jam, but what is that lurking underneath? Bay laurel? Violets? Teriaki? Definitely mocha. The new oak has evolved into old cigar box. These are scents that are hard to define, easy to appreciate. But it’s in the mouth that the vastest difference occurs: The ’11 (alcohol 14.5%) is so tannic, it assaults the gums and tongue like an attack tank, hard, raw in its immediacy, stinging. Old-style tannins, mind you. Mountain tannins. Who knows, given the secrecy. The wineries that sell to him are, presumably, in some kind of financial trouble. It seems to me that all the wines come from mountain vineyards, but in the ’11 the tannins are especially blunt. Of course, 2011 was a chilly year. Score for the 2011: 92.

Then we come to the ’06. It was not a particularly great vintage: okay, adequate, fine. I would not hold this wine much longer. It’s good to go now. The tannins are resolving: the wine has achieved a maturity where ripe, fresh fruit is fading. Complex, interesting, mellowing. But there still are those cabernet tannins. Give it greasy protein fat—a charbroiled steak—and it’s a match made in heaven. Score: 91.

By the way, I did let the ’06 and the ’11—the oldest and the youngest of the wines—sit in the bottle, opened, for 48 hours, to see what happened, which can be very interesting. Both wines went downhill, showing an overripe quality that wasn’t evident to me on opening.

Here are my notes on the other four wines:

2007: Alcohol 15.9%. Very dark, in fact midnight inky black. The aroma is oaky and quite rich in black currants, with shavings of baker’s unsweetened chocolate and black licorice. The flavors are similarly rich, and while the tannins are strong, they’re finely-ground and sweet. You can feel the high alcohol in the form of a slight jalapeno pepper heat. This is quite an interesting wine, one that fans of ripe Napa Cabernet will love. The alcohol level makes its future troubling. Drink now-2016. Score: 91.

2008: Alcohol 15.3%. A bit more elegant than the ’07, but still somewhat hot in alcohol, with similar flavors: black currants, baker’s chocolate, black licorice, and plenty of sweet, smoky oak. Bone dry, with good acidity, a wine to sip on a cold winter night. Score: 91.

2009: Alcohol 15.3%. Like the others, this is an ultra-ripe Cabernet, brimming with black currant, black licorice, shaved chocolate and oak flavors. The tannins are, like the other wines, exceptionally smooth, but they do have a fierce quality. You can taste that Napa Valley sunshine and heat all the way through. Almost identical to the ’08, this is a rich, somewhat Porty wine to drink with rich meats and cheeses on a winter night. Score: 91.

2010: Alcohol 14.9%. Fits right in with the rest. Super-dark black and garnet color. Rich, Porty aromas of black currants, dark chocolate, black licorice and oak. Deeply flavored. Cabernet doesn’t get any riper, yet still with that peppery heat from alcohol. Like the other wines, it will drink well with a rich, fatty steak or filet mignon. I would decant it first and drink it over the next three years before the overripeness takes over. Score: 91.

Discussion: At an average bottle price just under $67, these Cabernets are pricy. For the fullest intellectual appreciation, they require some belief on the buyer’s part that they are from super-famous wineries, or vineyards, or winemakers, that are distressed enough to have had to sell to Cameron Hughes. In their own way, each is distinctive, showing Napa’s classic Cabernet luxe. But each also is marked by overripeness and subsequent high alcohol, with a finish almost of sweetened crême de cassis liqueur and even, at the more chocolatey extremes, Kahlua. Although I recommended drinking them with steak, you could enjoy them slowly as after-dinner wines, like Port or a cordial, to be sipped on the way to oblivion and bed.


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