What are we to make of the winemakers quoted in Karen MacNeil’s latest column in The Somm Journal?
Asked by Karen their views on the word “cult” to describe their wines, the sextet unites in condemning a term they all say they loathe.
Bill Harlan says the word “implies blind followers who lack discernment.” For Doug Shafer, “It’s a manufactured term…I don’t understand what it means.” Dan Kosta calls it “lazy,” Celia Welch “something that simply has investment value,” while Sir Peter Michael dismisses it as “the so-called ‘cult’ status of a wine.” Ann Colgin cracks an uneasy joke: “I was born in Waco, Texas, why is why I’ve always hated the term ‘cult.’” (She refers, of course, to the infamous 1993 siege of the Branch Davidians.)
It may well be that these winemakers and winery owners are made uncomfortable by a term now so widespread that its use instantly telegraphs almost all that an English-speaking wine person needs to know about a “cult” wine: that it is red; that it is probably a Bordeaux-style wine from Napa Valley (Kosta Browne and Peter Michael excepted, but most of them are); that it is produced in small quantities; that it has achieved very high ratings from two, or three, or four top critics; that it is ultra-expensive and—as Ms. Welch implied—that it often is resold (via the Internet and auction houses) to amass sizable profit to the original purchaser. Indeed, as Karen herself, in her article, notes, “now…the term has been stitched into common wine language.”
My sympathies for the sextet, then. “I feel your pain,” as Bill Clinton, using that very phrase, famously said in a figure of speech in 1992 when responding to a critic of his AIDS policy.
So too is there a bit of figurative speaking when the sextet bemoans this most common and useful descriptor of their wines. They mean it, I guess—albeit with qualifications of which they may be unaware. So too there is a bit of disingenuousness. Harlan Estate’s fans may not “lack discernment,” but “blind followers” is a not inaccurate way of describing their lust, which most of us feel is inspired by high scores and the desire to show off, as much as by an appreciation of the wine itself. Dan Kosta’s “lazy” simply affirms that many layers of meaning—all of them accurate—are wrapped up in that single adjective, “cult”; there’s nothing “so-called” about it. As for the “investment value” part, well, that’s why people call it flipping.
The sextet has done well, extraordinarily well, with their wines, but it’s not as if their rare, exalted status happened ipso facto—by itself, with no external causation. The proprietors and their marketing advisors worked exceeding fine to manufacture exactly the desirability that is one of the layers of meaning of the word “cult.” I can speak only of my own personal experience, of course, but consider that:
Ms. Colgin pours her wines by appointment, in the Versailles luxe of her Pritchard Hill mansion. Mr. Harlan similarly tastes by appointment; he once requested that I taste BOND and Harlan Estate in separate places, a few minutes’ drive apart, in order, I suppose, to better appreciate their ambience. Sir Peter has been on endless magazine covers—with the honorific “Sir” conjuring up associations of English royalty and wealth (exactly as it is supposed to, and what is more cultish than the Royal Family of Great Britain?)—while Dan Kosta benefited from his “lazy” characterization to the tune of his share of the $40 million when Kosta Browne was sold, in 2009. So let’s not feel too sorry for these cult wine proprietors.
Look, I love their wines. Used to give ‘em high scores at Wine Enthusiast. I appreciate how hard it is to make them—how much effort goes into every aspect of growing and vinifying. I’m not even particularly bothered by the prices: crazy as they are, the market determines that. And some of these proprietors, the ones I know—perhaps all of them–are wonderful people. I’m just sayin’ that the “woe is me” croc tears aren’t credible. These guys are crying all the way to the bank.
You all know that I work for Jackson Family Wines. I have so say that upfront, because of what I’m about to write, which is how good and fine a place Sonoma County is for growing Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux varieties in general.
If I were still the California wine critic for Wine Enthusiast magazine and I made that statement, I think people would take it at face value. They might or might not agree, but at least they’d believe that it was my own opinion, unbiased and uninfluenced by personal or venal considerations.
When you work for a winery, though, and you make a statement in praise of their wines and vineyards, people tend to be skeptical. And that’s entirely understandable. Having been on the receiving end of press releases and hype from P.R. types for decades, I would be skeptical, too, if I were you, to hear me say how great Sonoma Cab can be. I accept that risk and that criticism. But I’m going to say it anyway.
What brought this thought process to my mind was this article, from the drinks business, that describes how Verité, a Jackson Family Wines winery in Sonoma County, was the favorite wine in a recent tasting of “50 of London’s leading sommeliers.” The tasting included the esteemed Napa properties, Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle and Scarecrow. My friend Julia Jackson, the daughter of Barbara Banke and the late Jess Jackson, told the drinks business, accurately, “that it’s not necessarily the right decision to go to Napa for cult Cabernet,” and that Sonoma is in “its infancy” when it comes to Cabernet and Bordeaux blends.
Julia alluded to another point, that Napa Valley has achieved its greater fame for Cabernet, even though the history of winemaking in Sonoma is older, because Sonoma doesn’t “have the same marketing resources as Napa.” That is undeniably true. The campaign waged by Napa Valley wineries over the last 40 years, to promote in particular Cabernet Sauvignon, has been relentless, well-financed and highly successful.
This obviously is not to say that Sonoma makes better Cabernet and Bordeaux blends than Napa Valley, or the other way around. It might actually be more accurate to say that northern California has a superb Cabernet zone that sweeps from the west-facing ridges of the Vaca Mountains, across Napa Valley, up and onto the east-facing slopes of the Mayacamas, then extends to the west-facing slopes of the Mayacamas and its associated foothills, which are largely situated in the A.V.A. of Alexander Valley. The political lines of counties were not designed by nature, and are irrelevant from the point of view of terroir.
Napa’s aptitude for marketing was the topic of an opinion piece in yesterday’s Napa Valley Register newspaper that had to do with what the writer calls “extravagant marketing.”
He defines that as “circus acts, jazz concerts, drive-in movies and very expensive wine/food pairing meals on winery grounds…designed to attract tourist dollars.” His point is that this “extravagant marketing” is responsible, to a large degree, for the tourism and associated congestion that many Napa residents (and those in other wine regions) have been complaining about.
Without getting into that thicket, it is reasonable to assert that the investment Napa vintners have made in these “extravagant events” has been responsible, to a large degree, for the worldwide fame Napa has achieved. I’m not putting Napa down for that, or suggesting that it’s in any way improper. Vintners have promoted their wines, and tied them to glamor, since time immemorial; it’s not like the Napans invented marketing!
But we do seem to be living at a time when old stereotypes are being discarded, and one of them, it seems to me—an important one—is that Napa Valley is the go-to place for high-end Bordeaux-style red wines in California. Not true. Alexander Valley, Knights Valley, Chalk Hill, sometimes Dry Creek Valley and Sonoma Valley—they all have their share of wonderful Cabs, usually at a fraction of the price of Napa. I hope that the Millennial bloggers and critics, who say they are entirely willing to topple old clichés, will recognize this truth, and write about it.
I do not suppose there can any longer be even the pretense of justification for critics, or would-be critics, who have negative things to say about the quality of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
That quality is stupendous, and I’m hardly alone of thinking so. After I wrote this post, I got my new (Nov. 15) Wine Spectator in the mail, and saw, in the joint editorial piece by Shanken and Matthews, the headline, “Great Days for California Cabernet.”
Still, the naysayers are out there. As Eric Asimov recently (March, 2015) pointed out, many people “have no use for [Napa Cabernet]. They don’t drink it, which doesn’t stop them from saying they don’t like it.” Eric, on that occasion, begged to differ, which is why he headlined his N.Y. Times article A Return to Classic Napa Style.
Before we go any further, I should point out that, from my experience of tasting Napa Cabernet—many thousands, perhaps tens of thousands over the last 25 years, but who’s counting?—the style has not really changed over time. Napa always has been about ripeness, powerful fruitiness, oakiness and decadence—what Gavin Newsom the other day described, in these pages, as “smash-mouth.” If anything, Napa Cab has gotten “smashier.” But at it’s best, it’s balanced and harmonious.
I make these prefacing remarks in my reviews of three new Napa Cabs because we are dealing, not only with a continuity of Napa style that should be clear to the most myopic critic, but with a recent vintage, 2012, that has given us a trove of beautiful Cabernets—and the 2013s are even better. There is not the slightest doubt that Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the greatest wines in the world. It may be overpriced, yes; that’s for the market to decide. The valley may be (read: is) infested with egotism. And I suppose it is true that one complaint that can be leveled against Napa Cab is that, beyond a generalized “Napa-ness,” it does not exude any particular individual terroir. (Can we truly say that a Diamond Mountain and a Spring Mountain are utterly different wines? A Rutherford and a Calistoga?) But these minimal gripes pale alongside the fact of the sheer, spectacular beauty of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
Revival 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley): $125. Flavor is easy to achieve in Napa Valley Cabernet. Just let the grapes hang long enough, and you’ve got an explosion of black currants, cassis, blackberry jam, dark chocolate, black licorice. The trick is to achieve balance. This wine has, expertly. It’s 100% Cab, grown south of Stags Leap, on the Silverado Trail, a cool (by Napa standards) region. The wine shows beautifully balanced acidity, and the sturdy, firm tannins of Cabernet, but those tannins are melted and ripe and sweet and utterly delicious. The wine was aged in 100% new French oak, which would swamp many Cabernets, but not this one. It’s big enough to stand up to that wood, which brings added layers of richness: vanilla bean, buttered cinnamon toast, sweet wood smoke. With alcohol of 14.8%, it’s certainly made in a riper style, yet there’s a touch of green olive that brings a salty, umami savoriness. The finish is very long, rich in exotic spices and a reprise of blackberries, but dry and elegant. What a great wine. Glorious and sophisticated. I can’t think of any reason not to drink it now, it’s so good, but it should have a grand future over the next six years. Score: 97.
Signorello 2012 Padrone Proprietary Red Wine (Napa Valley); $175. I’ve always liked Padrone, which sometimes is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon but more often includes Cabernet Franc, as does this ’12, which has 9 percent in the blend. My highest score over the years was the 2005, which I gave 97 points, and while this ’12 isn’t quite in the same league, it’s pretty dramatic. The mild, even vintage was kind to the grapes. Cabernet achieved near-perfect ripeness, characterized by intense black currant and cassis flavors, while the Cab Franc brings a note of cherries and a pleasantly complexing herbaceousness: think sweet green peas. The winemaker put 100% new French oak on the wine, but it’s not too much, adding the loveliest touch of smoke and sweet vanilla, and you can also taste the wood tannins that have married the grape skin tannins in perfect harmony. The wine is unfiltered; to the extent that matters, it seems to preserve a wild, yeasty complexity. I’d recommend drinking this wine now and for the next two or three years. Its ageability may be compromised by high alcohol. It’s a little tannic, as Cabernet should be, but a great steak will cut through the astringency. Score: 94.
Field Guide 2012 (Napa Valley): $42. Years ago the Garveys, who own Flora Springs, came up with the idea for Trilogy, a blend of three Bordeaux varieties. Now, a new generation of the family has the Field Guide brand, and this red wine is a blend of one-third each of the two Cabernets, Sauvignon and Franc, and Petit Verdot. It’s quite impressive. Your first impression is of absolute smoothness, a product of soft tannins and a cognac-like mellowness. Flavorwise, it’s huge, an explosion of red cherries, licorice, cassis and cocoa. Very complex, very upscale, it straddles a delicate balance between density and accessibility. My advice: pop the cork now or over the next two years. Score: 93.
There’s an ill wind blowing in Napa these days. The county seems torn about how it sees its future, which is really about how it sees its current status and its past. This all was the subject of a letter in the St. Helena Star newspaper written by Bill Ryan, who I believe is a columnist. Development versus non-development always is an issue in wine country, but Napa seems to be the most sensitive about it of all regions, perhaps because it is the most famous and most sought after destination for wine tourism.
Mr. Ryan’s letter is a reply to critics who he perceives are “trashing” Napa Valley’s wineries. He seeks to convince readers that all is not “doom and gloom” in Napa. I agree with him—up to a point.
Here’s my take. Traffic really has risen to insane proportions along Highway 29. It’s terrible, but hardly unusual; in post-Recession California, traffic has become worse than ever, from L.A. through the Bay Area to Sacramento and right up to wine country, and it shows no signs of getting better. In my opinion, Governor Brown ought to declare a State of Emergency, summon the Legislature into Emergency Session, and convene a committee of wise men and women to figure out where we go from here. I myself have no idea if there’s a solution, but that’s why we need experts to consider all the alternatives.
To the extent Napa is battling with traffic, concerns about new wineries or winery permits for special events are understandable. I would hate to have to drive between St. Helena and anywhere south, in the morning or during the evening commute.
Mr. Ryan correctly points out that Napa’s golden age, the 1960s and 1970s, accomplished “something that had never been done before in all of history – create a New World wine district that competed favorably with the famous regions of Europe.” Indeed it did. He is proud of his compatriots for so doing. I am too. He suggests that today’s men and women of Napa Valley can help to “find a positive pathway to aiding winery growth and prosperity,” a judgment with which surely no one can disagree. There are such men and women. I don’t know if outsiders who got rich elsewhere and then bought themselves a Napa Valley lifestyle are the kind of people who can lead Napa through its travails, as opposed to the families who have lived there for a long time. Maybe some of them are.
Mr. Ryan also puts his finger on a big issue: “Our key item, cabernet sauvignon, is quickly losing sales and position against pinot noirs and other more drinkable reds.” This is surely true. The reasons are not clear. Is it because of alcohol levels? My own pulse-taking of the market suggests that Cabernet may be down, but you can never count it out. In modern America, fashion has the lifespan of a gnat. Woe be to the winery that bases its long-range business plan on temporary trends.
If Napa Valley really is losing traction to “Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley and Dundee Hills,” as Mr. Ryan fears, is it too late to reverse the trend? No. But Napa’s biggest enemy may be itself. When every winery in the valley started charging an arm and a leg just to taste a few wines, I thought that was a mistake. A weekend for two now in Napa, including lodging and good meals, will set the happy couple back close to $1,000. You can go out to Jenner or Boonville for a lot less, and less traffic, too. Napa Valley will never be a cheap place to go. But it really has to make sure that it doesn’t price everyone out except Silicon Valley millionaires and rich overseas tourists. The golden age that Mr. Ryan celebrates would have been shocked to sense that nobody except the uber-rich could afford to visit.
For years the meme has been out there that California wine is getting bigger, badder and bolder—wine on steroids. Some critics decry this, which is their right; but consumers by and large do tend to favor this riper, fruitier style. But why is this happening? Is it really the Parkerization of wine, as many have alleged, or is something else going on?
An answer may be found by turning to another popular beverage: coffee. A recent article by Marcie Hanel in the October 2015 issue of Food & Wine, called “The Coffee Conundrum,” maintains that “today’s coffee [may be] too strong to drink” and quotes a well-known chef, Jonathon Sawyer, that “Coffee is so powerful now [that] you can’t have a triple espresso cortado followed by a pour-over [or else] your heart’s going to explode.” (Blue Bottle is the poster child for this phenomenon.) Marcie herself attests to the “skyrocketing” of coffee’s caffeine content; Chef Jonathon even compares coffee to “weed”, in the sense of its powerful extraction—so much more intense than it used to be.
“Powerful extraction…”. Hmm, that’s exactly the phrase critics of the California style use to disparage wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, not praise them. Let us grant that many of the things we eat, drink and use are more powerful than they used to be: not only wine and pot and coffee, but spirits: The current issue of Food & Wine has an article called “The Secret to a Richer Rum,” as if Rum isn’t rich enough!
Beyond booze, everything else in life seems to be getting plus-sized. Computer chips and all of the associated devices that use them are faster and more powerful than ever; Moore’s law applies to everything these days. Even in film we’ve seen an acceleration of “power” in the sense of more, and more graphic, violence and sexual activity. We see more or less the same thing in politics, where hyperbole and exaggeration have largely replaced reason, and in science, where technology is employed to peer further and deeper into the smallest and largest recesses of the Universe. And of course, with beer, we have the IPAs and the double IPAs, which a friend of mine once described as the beer equivalent of Napa Cabernet.
This penchant for “more” and “greater” obviously comes from the consumer; producers would not create and sell more powerful products if the masses weren’t buying them. When did Americans turn away from subtlety and embrace gigantism? Well, one synonym for “subtlety” could be blandness. Wine didn’t used to taste so good as it does today!
As I look back over the arc of my life, I can’t help but compare the placidity of the 1950s to the chaotic explosions of the 21st century. I can’t pinpoint when this penchant for power started; the advent of psychedelic drugs clearly was an expression of it (if not the cause), because drugs like LSD did “heighten” awareness far above the mundane level. Maybe it was that experience that created a craving for “more is better” among Baby Boomers, a heightened-everything craving which has been passed onto their children, the Millennials. Even heavy metal and thrash rock are more “heightened” versions of the rock and roll of yesteryear.
I offer this line of reasoning, not to justify the current trend towards richer, riper wines, but to explain it. Look at it this way: California wine—the majority of it, anyway—is pretty much on a par with Blue Bottle coffee, Led Zeppelin, IPAs and medical marijuana. That’s not bad company!
It’s been one of the big social stories for the last several weeks, this tale of the Black women who were escorted off the train. You know the facts; I don’t need to go through them. What I find interesting are (a) the reaction in Napa Valley itself, as I perceive it to be through letters to the editor at the Napa Register, and (b) what this says about race, culture and the very image of “wine country.”
Concerning (b), it’s no secret that wine country has always been pretty lily-white. It was in the 1970s when I first began visiting, and it still is today. Yes, you can find Blacks, Asians and Latinos in Los Olivos, St. Helena and Healdsburg, but not many—maybe more today than ever, but sightings are still pretty rare.
Why is that? The main reason, I think, is that people of color in this country generally make less money than white people. Wine is an expensive “hobby” and it’s even more expensive to visit wine country, which tends to be located in high real estate areas, with pricy restaurants and costly lodging. Add to that that the appreciation of wine has historically been a Caucasian thing. I think all races and ethnicities like to drink alcohol (provided they’re not on the wagon), but different races and ethnicities have preferred different alcoholic beverages, and wine, which really developed in Europe, has been a white drink. Finally, the “lifestyle” associated with wine has definitely been a white thing—and an elitist white thing, at that: Even many white people are turned off by the whole sipping-and-swirling thing. (Sometimes it even embarrasses me!)
I’ve celebrated the fact over the years that wine has become more and more appealing to non-white people. Based on economics alone, the wine industry can’t succeed simply by selling to a portion of the white population, it has to sell across all racial and ethnic demographics. That’s been happening, despite the fact that the wine industry was slow, very slow, to figure out how to appeal to non-whites—much slower than beer and spirits. I was pointing this out decades ago: the wine industry has to learn how to make itself appealing to non-whites.
The fact that the Black women’s book club was on the train in the first place is a good sign. That might not have happened ten years ago. So count that as progress. And what of “wine country”? Well, the concept of “wine country” is aspirational. It’s about making more money, living in a nicer house than perhaps you already do, in a nicer place, and being able to afford “the finer things in life.” There’s nothing wrong with aspirations. They’re a form of hope—and hope is important to staying alive and moving forward. I, personally, would not want to live in wine country, as I am city born and bred, and prefer the liveliness of the urban environment. But even I can see the graciousness, the cultivated ambience of wine country. Wine country doesn’t have to be lily-white—but it probably does need to be wealthy. I don’t see any way around that. And just because wine country is wealthy, doesn’t mean it’s bigoted or mean-spirited. In fact, the North Coast wine country has been represented in the Congress for many years by Mike Thompson, a good Democrat. So I don’t think there’s anything redneck or conservatively hateful or racist about wine country.
As to the reaction to the Wine Train event itself, the letters to the editor have been running fairly heavily against the women. The general reaction in the valley seems to be that the women were in the wrong, that they should have apologized (not the wine train), and that they’re only suing for the money.
I think that, until and if there’s a trial, and more witnesses step forward, none of us who were not actually on the train know what really happened. We know that at least one person complained; we have the Wine Train’s statement that the women were asked multiple times to tone it down, and apparently didn’t. There’s the issue of marching the women through several cars, but we don’t know why that was—many of the letters say that not all the cars are exit-able. I’d like to have more people who were on the train come forward and tell us what they saw and heard, but so far that hasn’t happened. We do know that the head of the Wine Train apologized and said that his employees were 100% wrong. If that’s the case, then perhaps the women do have a case. If the women really were obnoxious, and deserved to be removed (as apparently happens fairly often), then why did the Wine Train head say those things?
As for the charges of an ambulance-chasing lawyer, maybe the guy the ladies hired is, maybe he isn’t. But guess what? Suing isn’t a black thing or a white thing or a Latino or Asian thing, it’s as American as apple pie. We’re the most litigious country on earth, and, while I deplore that, it has nothing to do with the race of the lawyer or the litigants. If somebody thinks they can make a little money by filing a civil lawsuit, they’re going to do it.
We’re dealing, here, with the Rashomon Effect. It may never be possible to know exactly what happened. This is an age of “where you stand depends on where you sit.” Even if all the facts ultimately come out, people will argue about what they mean. So there’s always going to be some ambiguity.
I do think the discussion this has engendered in Napa Valley has been a healthy one. I don’t think the Valley needs to wear a hair shirt, but I do think that conversations of this sort always are helpful, even if they’re uncomfortable. I also think there should be a conversation in the Black community (as I believe there already is). I’m personally tired of some of the memes that are floating around: that there’s “Black behavior” as opposed to “White behavior.” I live in Oakland, one of the most racially- and ethnically-mixed cities in the U.S., and I don’t live in the Hills, I live downtown. I can tell you that when it comes to civility and respect, there’s only one behavior, and that’s human behavior, and it’s ultimately based on the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would have them treat you.