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Lessons Mayacamas and Inglenook (may) teach us

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I must admit that I find the ongoing industry-wide conversation about ripeness levels to be the most confounding I’ve been involved in, lo these many years.

Where did it start, anyway? I suppose it’s been going on for decades, in one form or another. Even before the launch of In Pursuit of Balance, which seems concerned mainly with Pinot Noir, there were hints of this brouhaha all the way back in the Seventies, with Cabernet and Chardonnay. It’s actually a question of style, not just alcohol level: and questions of style are never fully arbitrated.

A recent interesting example is in David Darlington’s (well written) story of the reinventions of both Inglenook and Mayacamas, in the June issue of Wine & Spirits. (“Napa’s New Old School”) The story teaser suggests that David “digs deep into the question,” hinting at some resolution for those of us who are scratching our heads at what’s going on. But there is no resolution to be had, only more wonderment, which is not David’s fault at all. The problem is the setting up of artificial sets of parameters, with an expectation that one set is correct and the other wrong, and the corresponding assumption that simple changes and fixes will solve the “problem” of overripeness.

Were it only that simple.

It is naive to the point of foolishness to think it’s all a matter of picking the grapes “less ripe or more ripe.” In interviews, both Francis Coppola and Charles Banks confess as much, although not in so many words. As any writer would, David tries his hardest to get them to come out and say something definitive, like Charles saying, “Bob Travers picked the grapes when they were still green. We’re going to let them get riper.” Or Francis saying, “Scott McLeod picked the grapes too ripe, so we’re going to pick them leaner.” No such luck.

That’s because neither Charles Banks nor Francis Coppola knows what to tell their new winemakers to do—and their new winemakers (Andy Erickson and Phllippe Bascaules, respectively) also don’t really know what to do. How could they? It takes an estate decades if not centuries to find its way. Although Mayacamas dates to the 1940s (or the 1960s depending on which ownership you choose to start the count at), the assumption in the critical industry is that Mayacamas lost its way under Bob Travers, a good man who just didn’t have enough money to turn things around, and so lost traction. The other assumption, concerning Inglenook, which dates to the 1800s, is conceded by Francis Coppola: that although he was making 90 point-plus wines, Rubicon never achieved the status of First Growth of Napa, according to the critics. So while Francis says he disdains point scores, his shakeup at Rubicon/Inglenook suggests that he really doesn’t.

Myself? I had more respect than love for Mayacamas; in this business, you have to take your hat off to a winery that’s been around for so long—and has done things so consistently honestly. I did like Rubicon, quite a bit—enough to buy a case of the 2002, which I rated 98 points. But other critics didn’t seem to care for it as much as I did, so Francis turned to Philippe, whom he got from Margaux, in hopes of a shakeup. (At least, by his own recounting, he didn’t hire Michel Rolland.)

Philippe confesses he had “no data” when he arrived at Inglenook (he now has three vintages under his belt), and is trying to steer a middle course between overripeness (he says he finds too many Napa Cabs “taste like Port”—an IPOB-style criticism). His goal is “to reduce alcohol levels,” but he is frank enough to state he doesn’t really know how to go about it; and it sounds like he certainly doesn’t want to do it with technology. You can’t just pick at 23 degrees Brix, the way Inglenook did in the old days, because everything—rootstocks, density, trellising, perhaps even the climate—is different. “I don’t want to do exactly what Inglenook did in the 40s and 50s,” Philippe says. Precisely: he couldn’t, even if he wanted. This is why Coppola, his employer, peers far into the future and concludes, “I don’t necessarily expect to give full blossom to Inglenook in my lifetime.” The critics will just have to wait.

As for Mayacamas, Charles Banks echoes Coppola. “We’re not doing this for short-term gain.” What is this “this” to which he refers? Will the team pick the grapes riper than Bob Travers did? If lean, underripe wines used to be the problem, the solution should be obvious. But Banks hedges his answer. “I am [as] opposed to pruney, stemmy wines as others are to herbaceousness. At the same time, I don’t want green, harsh, underripe tannins.” Well, who would? The Mayacamas team may be crossing their fingers in hopes that other modernizations—replanting with closer spacing, newer clones, tinkering with trellising regimes, extensive winery investment—will help them avoid having their hands forced regarding picking decisions. But the answer, as at Inglenook, will not be known for a long time.

The good thing about these conversations about ripeness levels is that we’re having them. The bad news is that we’re having them—at least, with such passionate irresolution. The game is largely driven by critics, whom proprietors and winemakers privately say they loathe; yet nobody dares to ignore them. The result is a kind of navel-gazing, similar to the wine blogging world, where content-poor wine bloggers blog about—wine blogging.

Everybody (well, almost everybody) complains about California wine tasting “like port,” but nobody wants to make a Cabernet that tastes like a boiled bell pepper. Nor do people necessarily want to hold onto their wine for twenty years. Everybody talks about finding the sweet spot, but nobody seems to know exactly where it is, or even how to recognize it if they were knee-deep into it. (And variable vintages don’t help them find it.) The discussion has turned into an echo chamber, where everybody has taken a side, and listens only to people who speak their language—like cable T.V. news shows, there’s a lot of cacophony and very little harmony.

There’s no way to turn the conversation off. Now that it’s started, we’ll have to let it run its course, like a storm, and hope it doesn’t do too much damage.


A day in coastal California’s micro-climates

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It was 101 degrees in Calistoga yesterday when I left, around 4:30 p.m. By the time I reached St. Helena it was down to 94. Then 87 in Napa city. As I crossed the Benicia bridge, across the Carquinez Straights on the 101 freeway heading back to Oakland, I could see, there in the distance, a huge, glowering wall of dark gray hovering on the horizon. At first it looked like the smoke from a forest fire; but it wasn’t, it was the coastal fog.

Bigger and more looming it grew as I drove south. In Richmond, I entered the maelstrom. The blue sky, the picturesque distance disappeared into the gloom; Mount Tam, to the west, vanished as completely as if it had been wiped off the face of the world. The temperature dropped until it was 65 degrees: nearly 40 degrees lower than when I’d left Calistoga, just 1-1/2 hours before. The fog hung low through Albany and north Berkeley, then evaporated as I got to Oakland, where it was again sunny, and the temperature had gone back up to the mid-70s. This was as beautiful, as classic an illustration of Cailfornia’s summer coastal climate as you could possibly wish for. It’s why northern Calistoga specializes in Cabernet Sauvignon (good Charbono, too), why Carneros is good for Pinot Noir, and why the near East Bay is too cold for any serious grapegrowing.

I’d been in Calistoga for a visit and tasting (of various Pinot Noirs) at Atalon, which is part of Jackson Family Wines’ portfolio. It’s on Tubbs Lane; nearby are Summers, Chateau Montelena, Tamber Bey and others. This is the warmest part of Napa Valley, its northwestern-most pocket, where the cooling influence from the Bay pretty much fizzles out. Bo Barrett once told me that there’s something he calls “the Calistoga Gap”—no, not part of the clothing store chain, but a low place in the Mayacamas through which, he said, cooler air from the Russian River Valley funnels in, moderating the temperatures. This may be so; to get to Calistoga from the Russian River Valley (as I’d done that day), you drive east up Mark West Springs Road as it roller-coasters over the mountains, twisting and turning its way towards Highway 128/29. But it’s not clear to me that the Russian River Valley air can actually find its way “over the hill”, to any meaningful extent. Maybe one of my smart readers can explain this. (I had Gus beside me, in the passenger seat, and for a while he seemed like he might throw up, because his little tummy doesn’t do well on twisting mountain roads. But he didn’t.)

The Tubbs Lane part of Calistoga is a distinctive place. To my eye, it’s a bowl of sorts: not like Napa Valley further south, in, say, Oakville or Rutherford, where you have the mountains (Mayacamas and Vacas) neatly lining the western and eastern sides, with the valley broad and expansive inbetween, like the sheet on a bed. Along Tubbs Lane there seem to be mountains everywhere except to the south; it is thus more of an amphitheater. Mount St. Helena looms immediately to the east: this picture, taken at Atalon, only hints at its majestic presence.

StHelena

 

On the other side of the mountain, of course, is Lake County.

That 101 temperature yesterday in Calistoga shows how we’re in the midst of a long, severe heat wave here in California. That’s on top of the drought. The state has had some forest fires, but mainly in the Sierra Foothills and around Yosemite; the coast has largely been spared—so far. Everybody’s hoping it will continue to be. The heat is expected today—as I write these words—to be even worse than yesterday, not good news for anyone, including the grapevines that are so close to being harvested in record-early time.

Although it’s only August 1, I haven’t heard that growers are particularly worried. In fact, the scoop is that it will be another fine harvest, coming after 2012 and 2013. Lest anyone think vintage doesn’t matter in California, the evidence proves otherwise. At the Pinot Noir tasting at Atalon, which we did blind, we tasted through multiple Anderson Valley and Russian River Valley wineries, in two flights: the 2011 and 2012 vintages. There was no comparison. The 2011 flight contained some good wines but overall was disappointing. The 2012s by contrast were fat, lush, opulent. There wasn’t a single loser among them.

Have a great weekend!


Is “terroir” a social construct, or an objective fact?

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If the definition of insanity (as Albert Einstein is reputed to have said) is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results, then I must be insane for delving yet again into a discussion about the meaning of terroir—even when I know that such exercises will result in utter futility, as they always do.

Even so! The topic is irresistible to me; like momma’s milk to a thirsty baby, I’m unable to turn my head away when someone makes claims as absolute and contrary to accepted wisdom as those of Valéry Michaux, a French professor whose work was summarized (all too briefly) in the online edition of yesterday’s the drinks business.

Her position, as I understand it, is that there is no such thing as terroir, if by terroir we mean the chemistry of the soil, the climate or [even] local knowledge.” (By inserting the word “even”, I mean to associate Michaux’s position with that of another professor, the esteemed Emile Peynaud, who holds that the combination of natural terroir—soil and climate—together with the creativity of man elevates the entire wine-forming formula into what he calls “cru.”)

Whether or not you include the grower and winemaker along with climate and soil in your definition of terroir, for Michaux, is irrelevant. For she believes that the end quality of a wine, as well as its critical reception in the marketplace, is due to neither (or not much, anyway), but instead is the result of “the cluster effect,” a term borrowed from economics and sociology that refers to the type of activity that happens when “interconnected businesses working together in a region” collaborate, in a “very focused and strategic approach…to bring partnerships for funding, research and revenue opportunities.” This latter definition, from Forbes, uses Silicon Valley as the prima facie example of how the cluster effect works: small startup companies, rather than taking a “go it alone” approach, instead use a “strength in numbers” strategy to “accelerate…commercialization activities, raise additional capital, and attract new companies.”

Michaux also turns to the Silicon Valley model of the cluster effect in her thinking about wine. She attributes the success of certain wine regions, including Champagne and Rioja, to the same forces of “a strong entrepreneurial culture, direct competition, continuous experimentation, innovation and mutual help and solidarity” that characterize Silicon Valley firms, who engage in mutual-aid activities based on the “rising tide lifts all boats” theory.

Tantazlizing stuff. Since the drinks business abstract was so short (only 249 words), I turned to the Google machine for more information on Michaux, and found this longer coverage at The Australian, which says her theory may “horrify oenologists everywhere,” by throwing into academic doubt the entire collage of “climate [and] chemisty of the soil” as being responsible for the world’s greatest wines. Their greatness has nothing to do with the “myth” of terroir; it is a function solely of “strong governance creating a single territorial brand” [e.g. Champagne, Rioja] welded to “an alchemy between different virtuous circles” [professionals from various occupations] resulting in “the dominance of the best-known wines.”

Let’s break it down by taking Napa Valley as an example of a successful area. Michaux surely is onto something when she suggests that “an alchemy of circles” is at least partly responsible for Napa’s success. These circles surely include the historical figures that settled and elevated Napa, the George Younts, Captain Niebaums and de Pins who helped make Napa Valley a household name.

Another circle would certainly be the wealthy friends of the wealthy Napa owners: they helped spread the word (and the wines) to their own circles in San Francisco, New York, London, thereby giving Napa international cred. Yet another circle consisted of the writers and critics who wrote about Napa Valley, making it famous; and the more they wrote, the more other writers visited Napa Valley, were wined and dined, and further embellished Napa’s halo. (I think of Harry Waugh as a perfect example of the overlapping of several of these circles.) A final circle is the international coterie of winemakers and consultants (Michel Rolland comes to mind) who work in Napa, and whose influence is worldwide and powerful. And then of course there were the critics, Parker especially, who early championed Napa Valley Cabernet in the circles among which they had influence.

Circles within circles within circles. Certainly Napa Valley would not have risen to its present-day esteem without the active cooperation of all these groupings. Where I take issue with Michaux, though, is in her abrupt dismissal of the notion of terroir as the physical properties of the region.She seems to have written her recent paper in response to a 2012 Call for Papers from the Reims Management School, in Reims, France, the topic to address a “provocative” statement contained in a 2011 book, by Roger Dion, that “’Terroir’ is a ‘social fact’, the human construction of a territory both historically and strategically, so as to make better use of its resources than other territories and to respond to the specific expectations of a particular clientele.”

Once again, there’s a lot of meat there: certainly, no wine “territory” can possibly be of any use for the commercialization of wine without “human construction”; for vinifera grapes do not grow by themselves and automatically turn themselves into fine wine. “Strategies” are indeed called for; and strategies require collaboration on the part of all stakeholders, and cost money. And just as certainly, the “particular clientele” that is willing to pay premium money for the wines of Champagne, Rioja or Napa Valley does so with the expectation of buying in, intellectually speaking, to the notion of “quality products” grown in “Grand Crus,” as has been the case since, at least, “the royal families and merchants” did so during the Middle Ages.

Still, this argument, convincing as it is in some respects, fails to account for the fact that most of the world’s wine regions never have achieved the acclaim for terroir as have Champagne, Rioja, Napa Valley and some others (Burgundy, Bordeaux and Germany’s better districts come to mind). What has held back the others? Was it the absence of “interconnected businesses working together” (armed, presumably, with fiendishly manipulative genius)? Or was it that these non-successful regions simply lacked the terroir to produce great wine?

I leave the answers to the conversation. Maybe, instead of futile insanity, we can actually advance the issue a little.


In the future, everyplace will be “the next Napa” for 15 minutes

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It’s a slow news day, it’s been a long week, so you’ll have to cut me some slack here with this rather tongue-in-cheek post that actually does contain a kernel of observational sanity. An online news site, Uncover California, has a story today that claims Many people believe the promising wine region of the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California, Mexico, has the potential to become ‘the next Napa Valley’…”.

I did a quick Google search on “the next Napa” and it resulted in 9,170 hits. The first was called “5 Reasons why Lodi, California is the Next Napa Valley.”

Another is headlined “Texas Hill Country: The Next Napa?” (I like the way it hedges its bets with that strategic little question mark, rather like the fig leaf that Renaissance painters used to discretely place over Adam’s private parts.)

Then there’s good ole Fox News, which doesn’t exactly call New Mexico, Virginia and Ohio “the next Napa” but but implies they could be: “Look out Napa: 5 up and coming wine regions.” (Hey Rupert Murdoch, tell your writers not to forget the proper use of the hyphen.)

Finally, “Is the North Fork the Next Napa Valley?” asks Hamptons, an online zine.

Some of this is crass promotional over-zeal. Some of it may actually be believed by the people claiming it. But it’s an interesting angle on the hold that Napa Valley has on our collective imagination.

That there currently is only one Napa Valley is indisputable, the way there is only one Pope or one World Series champ. But speculation over who the next one will be is one of the delights of the media, and especially of headline writers, a breed unto themselves whose role in formulating the template of the day has never been properly analyzed. (My favorite headline of all time goes all the way back to 1975: FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.” That would be President Gerald Ford and New York City, respectively.)

Sorry to end the fun, kids, but there won’t be a “next Napa Valley.” The time is gone when an American wine region can leap to the top of the charts and fire everybody up. That train left the station in the 1990s and isn’t coming back. The public is too smart to fall again for such an anointing by the media, especially the wine media, whom it doesn’t much trust these days.

Have a great weekend!


A family winery bites the dust

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It’s always sad when an old, little family winery shuts its doors, as Milat Vineyards & Winery is set to do by the end of this month.

I never formally reviewed any of their wines, because they never sent me tasting samples. They didn’t have a high profile in Napa Valley, and perhaps didn’t want one; as the Napa Valley Register, which reported the story, observes, “Unlike wealthy people who start wineries to enjoy the lifestyle, the Milats started the winery to make a living.” Playing the publicity game, with all the related frou-frou and social obligations, doesn’t seem to have been the Milats’ style.

Should it have been? There can be little argument that being skilled at marketing and promotion can increase a winery’s prospects. I’ve long been fascinated at how and why some small wineries make it big, while others get lost in the shuffle of history. Sometimes, fate, or destiny, plays a role that can’t be foreseen or managed.

Take a winery like Failla or Saxum. Neither Ehren Jordan nor Justin Smith had much money, connections or P.R. savvy when he started out. What “made” their reputations was a combination of interesting wines made from interesting vineyards, and a personal style that knew how to connect with the wine press. (In both cases, I was “present at the creation,” so to speak, and reviewed them early, so I know what I’m talking about.) They had, to use the current parlance, “stories” to tell, and both told them well.

Writers like me visit hundreds of vineyards and meet thousands of winemakers over our lengthy careers, so it is indeed saying something when we can recall individual visits, that occurred years ago, with crystal clarity. That’s the case with my first visits to both Failla and Saxum. Well do I remember roaming Ehren Jordan’s vineyard in the remote hinterlands high above the Fort Ross beaches. Equally vivid are my memories of Justin Smith guiding me along the terraced tracks of his James Berry Vineyard, where on a blazing summer afternoon he picked out the bleached fossils of whale bones from the white earth. This is not to say that either Failla or Saxum made the greatest wines of their generation. Both make very good, very specific “wines of a place,” although I would fault Saxum to the degree that the alcohol levels were immodest (but, oh, the wines! Amazing. Some of these West Side Paso Robles red blends are stunning.). But what both Jordan and Smith managed to do was impress themselves upon the thoughts of a writer (me, as well as, obviously, others), who then was in a position to afford them some publicity. And they did it without a P.R. department.

One could mention others in California’s long winemaking history who similarly succeeded based on the power of their personalities and the quality of their wines: Agoston Harazsthy, Robert Mondavi, Gary Pisoni, Jim Clendenen. They realized that the renown of a winery is tied to the acclaim its proprietor arouses in the media. This is not to say that such acclaim is the only thing factoring into the renown of a winery: Caymus achieved theirs without any ornate personalities at the helm; so did Ridge; so has Foxen (with the notoriously un-spinny, un-quoteworthy Bill Wathan), and so have many others who went about their work unostentatiously.

So there are different paths to success, but I have to wonder if Milat would have “made it” in the long run had they played the game with a little more perspicacity. But then, that would not have been them; it would have been inauthentic. This question of “authenticity” is, of course, currently much in vogue in wine country. Every winery and every winemaker wants to be seen as staunchly independent and free of the hyperbolic control of spin doctors and P.R. agents. It’s reached the point where hired P.R. personnel advise their clients on how to present the appearance of authenticity! Can a winemaker or winery be “authentic” while paying for professional public relations advice on how to be authentic? It’s a good question and I don’t claim to have the answer.

“Authenticity” is hard to define anyway. A strong, colorful personality can seem authentic simply because it is irreverent and impinges itself strongly upon an audience; but until we master the science of mind-reading, we cannot know to what degree a strong personality is “natural” to its holder, or to what degree it is a conscious construct, if not a fabrication, designed to attract attention (or if it is in fact a combination of both). What we can know—“we” being writers, reporters and journalists—is that some winemakers are more interesting and fun to write about than others; they get the press while the quieter ones often don’t. You have to wonder how much this gets factored into a winery’s success.

Anyhow, I wish the Milat family well. As the Chinese increasingly buy ownership of Napa Valley, which years ago began losing its identity as a tight, indigenous culture, we must mourn the loss of each of these little family wineries, which are the bedrock foundation of any wine region. Any winery’s death diminishes me (to misquote John Donne) and the industry as well. And I always have a special place in my heart for winemaking families who just work hard, year after year, against the odds but armed with great integrity, and who do so without resorting to flashy pretention.


Thursday throwaway: Rutherford dust, Bordeaux prices and Parker, Parker, Parker!

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Went up to Napa yesterday for the annual “Day in the Dust” tasting of the Rutherford Dust Society. I wanted to see if I could discern a “Rutherford dust” characteristic to the wines. If there was one, it was pretty well disguised. All the wines were very fine, as you’d expect, but they were different: Some more tannic, some less, some rustic, some refined. Some wines were oakier than others. The fruits tended toward reds: cherries, sometimes sour candy, sometimes freshly sweet, but there was plenty of blackberry and cassis and also, some pleasant herbaceousness. (The vintage was mostly the cool 2011.) Most of the wines were ageable. But Rutherford dust? I don’t think so. Andre Tchelistcheff’s phrase was pure marketing genius (or was made so after others latched onto it), but I defy anyone to consistently tell the difference between a Rutherford Cabernet and one from St. Helena, to use but one example.

* * *

The drinks business has a nice little article where they went back to something Parker said ten years ago, and it has proven to be right. “If my instincts are correct,” he predicted, “10 years from now a great vintage of these [Bordeaux] first growths will cost over US$10,000 a case…at the minimum.”

Well, that’s exactly what happened in some instances. Now I’m seeing certain recent Napa Valley Cabernets that cost close to $1,000 per bottle, which would put them well over $10,000 a case. I always have to rub my eyes at these nosebleed prices, but nothing seems to be slowing them down. Not the Great Recession, nor the incessant bashing Napa Cabernet has come under in recent years has changed wealthy people’s inclination to buy them at any price.

* * *

I’ve always held that wine tasting is both objective and subjective, even in the supposedly “greatest palates” in the world. How could it not be, when the proof lies in the prices I just referred to. Is any wine “worth” $1,000 a bottle? Not objectively. Instead, “emotional associations…affect what we taste,” says a scientist whose work was reported this month in The New Yorker.

By “emotional,” he means the “expectations” people have when they see a bottle of a wine they know to be rare, esteemed and expensive. “Every time we have a wine,” the article says, “we taste everything we know about it and other related wines.”

Fascinating statement. Think about it. I taste, let’s say, a Parker perfect 100-pointer and I know a lot about the history of the estate and the vineyard, the winemaker, the fact that the wine has been celebrated throughout the vintages as one of the world’s greatest. I know that it costs $1,000 a bottle or more on the wine lists of the world’s greatest restaurants. I know that it sells for multiples of that on eBay. I know that there are people who have been waiting for years to get on the waiting list for the mailing list. I know that the wine is so celebrated across the globe that counterfeiting it in China has become big business. I know that people buy it and put it in their cellars for their grandkids to drink (or sell). And that’s only the beginning: not only do I know stuff about that wine, I feel things about it that stir my emotions—that cannot be put into words, but are perhaps all the stronger for that very reason: they tap into my dreams, my fantasies, my hopes and aspirations. These are truths about wine as powerful as the objective truths of alcohol level, varietal composition or pH, and we should keep them in mind always when we ask the (now answered) question: Is the evaluation of wine objective or subjective?

* * *

Speaking of all the above, a bearded and hairy Robert Parker—looking more and more like Orson Welles in his Paul Masson days—has been on what looks like a P.R. fix-it campaign lately. First he gave a rare and unusual interview, published on the Hawk Wakawaka blog, that wasn’t so much about wine as RMP’s views on film, spirituality, raising kids, the 24-hour news cycle and lots more. It’s a compelling peek inside the head of the most famous wine critic in the world.

And now, today’s Wall Street Journal has yet another exclusive interview with Parker, not particularly interesting because it’s predictable and says the same-old, same-old things. So why is Parker on the mashed potato circuit?

My guess is that after all the bashing, he’s decided it’s time to rehabilitate himself in the public’s eye (and also to publicize his new magazine). And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with either of those motives.

That’s it for now! Have a nice day.


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