Last week’s very long (3,700 word) article in the New York Times about the Jeff Hill case has stirred up tension in Napa Valley, where some people think the author, Vindu Goel, went over the top in painting Napa as a place where wine quality is “built on quicksand.”
(Some of you might not be able to open the NYT link if you don’t have a Times subscription. Even if you can’t, you can probably find it on Google.)
Last Spring, Mr. Hill, a vineyard manager, was charged with grand theft for allegedly stealing tens of thousands of dollars worth of grapes from a client during the 2013 harvest.
Reporter Goel took the serious and significant charges of fraud in the Hill case and, some folks say, stretched them to tar Napa’s reputation in general. Prices of Napa wine, Goel wrote, are “based more on consumers’ belief in the superiority of the region’s grapes than in the inherent quality of the liquid in the bottle.”
And “[M]any bottles on wine-store shelves aren’t what they seem because of loopholes in American wine labeling laws,” he added, based on an interview with the master sommelier, Emmanuel Kemiji. The inescapable implication is that a top-notch Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon may contain “a cheaper grape varietal like syrah or zinfandel” that could be from “anywhere else in the state, like Fresno.” Most damaging of all Goel’s assertions, perhaps, is this one, which suggests that spin and hype, rather than quality, are behind Napa Valley’s reputation as the supreme place to make wine in America: “Much of Napa’s price premium stems from savvy marketing, not any objective superiority of the wine.”
Reactions, mostly offended, have come from in and around Napa Valley. My friend Lewis Perdue (for whom I used to work, years ago), in Wine Industry Insight took particular umbrage over what he perceived as the Times’ unfair broadside.
“NY Times Uses Hill Wine Company Debacle To Take A Shot At Napa Valley,” he headlined, explaining that the article “left an overall impression that varietal fraud and some level of adulteration were relatively common practices” in Napa.
Here’s my take. Most of what Goel wrote is objectively true, based on the facts. U.S. labeling laws do allow for up to one-quarter of a varietally-labeled wine to consist of varietal/s other than the named one. Those same laws also allow for a certain percentage of the grapes to come from areas other than the official appellation on the label. And, yes, part of the rationale for Napa Valley wine prices is due to Napa Valley’s reputation.
Did Goel go over the line? Yes. Dropping the word “Fresno” into that sentence was both unnecessary, and calculated to shock. It’s a little like the famously self-incriminating question, When did you stop beating your wife? Now that Goel has implanted the thought in people’s minds that Napa Valley wine may contain grapes from Fresno, there’s no way Napa vintners can convince them that it’s not true, no matter what they say.
Granted that Mr. Hill may (or may not) have been a crook, it’s hyperbole and unprofessional to use a single case to stain an entire region: it’s like saying that fraud is widespread in Burgundy based on the Rudy Kurniawan case, or that all of Bordeaux is suspect because a famous chateau once used illegal wood chips instead of real barrels.
It was also a little misleading for Goel to use Kemiji’s quotes to suggest that Napa Valley’s terroir is no different from any other place. Emmanuel (who I suspect didn’t know how his quote would be used) said, “You line up cabernets from Napa and good-quality cabernet from Sonoma and Lake County, and it’s really tough to say where they’re from.” This is true; as someone who’s tasted countless Cabs from those areas (and many others), I know it’s not easy pinpointing where a great Cabernet comes from. But still, it misses the point.
For the fact is that Napa Valley produces more great Cabernet Sauvignon than any other place in America, and has for a very long time, which surely gives it legitimate claim to prestige; and every prestigious region and wine in the history of the world has been considered more desirable—and thus more costly—than the competition.
As for Goel’s contention that “savvy marketing” is behind Napa’s success, this doesn’t stand up to the facts. Napa Valley achieved its success well before the modern era of marketing. The fame of the boutique wineries of the 1960s and 1970s wasn’t due to P.R., which most of those little wineries didn’t know anything about, but to the appreciation of educated wine lovers who recognized that what they were experiencing was something special. Besides, “savvy marketing” may give a winery or region fifteen minutes of fame—but if the stuff in the bottle doesn’t live up to the hype, the fame is fleeting. That is emphatically not the case with Napa Valley.
There is no evidence whatsoever—not a sniff or a shred—to suggest that the majority, or even a significant minority, of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons are not what they say they are: grown and produced in the valley, and made from Bordeaux varietals. (And besides, if adding 2% Syrah makes the wine better, who cares?) I also suspect that, when Kemiji told Goel that “there is an incentive to fudge [on blending] because the price of Napa cabernet is so high,” he didn’t know in what context his words would be used. I’m a longtime reporter myself; I know the game. Some questions are a form of entrapment. The reporter who goes into the interview knowing what points he wants to prove, and then asks set-up questions, is not being objective or fair.
Honestly, Goel’s story is a combination of personal anecdotes, irrelevant throw-ins and editorializing, in addition to the facts. Rather than illuminating an interesting story, it feeds into America’s current obsession with conspiracy theories, in this case that “wine quality” is an elitist myth, and that everything is equal because it’s not permitted for anything to be better. Breitbart.com, an online news service, covered the Hill case, and here’s a telling comment one of their readers sent in:
“I always got a kick out of these wine snobs. I knew you could give them a swig of Night Train™ and tell them it’s gourmet and they would believe it. sort of like the ‘art community’… a crappy painting of campbell’s soup cans garners millions ?????” The commenter is entitled to his opinion, of course, but it’s pathetic that the truth is lost in the shuffle: Night Train is not as good as Napa Valley Cabernet, period, end of story. And no “gourmet” in the world would ever confuse it for such.
I’m not saying the Hill case isn’t worthy of reporting, or that the Times shouldn’t have allowed Goel to run with it. What I am saying is that American journalism has sunk to its lowest level in my lifetime, in terms of scandal-mongering. What Woodward and Bernstein set in motion, nearly 40 years ago, has run amok. Not every instance of law-breaking is a major scandal. Sometimes an illegal act is just that: The isolated act of a single individual, not an indication that an entire region is unscrupulous.
It’s too funny, really. When I first started out in this biz, you couldn’t give Napa Valley wine away to the French. “Mais non!” was their attitude. It was vin de table, merde, Algerian plonk.
Some of us knew otherwise, and suspected that the French—so chauvinistic in the belief that no other culture could rise to their level, especially American culture—were simply whistling past the graveyard. After all, their run of dominance—lasting for centuries—had no assurance of lasting forever, and they were continually hearing California’s footsteps coming up behind them.
But now, listen to what the respected CEO of Moët Hennessey, Jean-Guillaume Prats, has to say about Napa Valley. He previously managed Cos d’Estournal, the Super-Second Bordeaux, which he took to new heights, according to Wine Spectator, so this isn’t merely some oddball voice out of France; his father, Bruno, owned Cos. So Jean-Guillaume is, in other words, the very establishment that once scorned Napa Valley.
Here’s what Jean-Guillaume said: “I do believe some of the great wine from Napa Valley will be the equivalent of the First Growths in years to come, not only in terms of price—it is already achieved—but in terms of perceptions, of quality, and in terms of being looked after and thought after by wine collectors around the world. So Napa, for me, is soon to become the equivalent of the great Medocs.”
Wow. They ought to put those words on a billboard right next to the “And the wine is bottled poetry” one on Highway 29. You wouldn’t need the whole quote: Just “Napa…the equivalent of the First Growths” would do it.
It doesn’t surprise me that the Bordelais are finally coming around to appreciating Napa Valley. After all, Christian Moueix and Baron Rothschild did it decades ago, visionaries that they were. What’s ironic is that nowadays it’s some Americans who continue to diss Napa Cabernet. Why they’re so stubborn in this attitude, when even representatives of the top French chateaux gaze with envy upon Napa’s near-perfect climate and soils, is beyond me.
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And now, from the Department of Ideas That Are Going Nowhere, let’s zip around to the other side of the world, Australia namely, where an article in the North Queensland Register is calling for wine grape prices to be more objectively determined, like meat prices.
Mr. Rob Hunt argues that, of all agricultural commodities, only the price of wine grapes “is determined using subjective criteria.” He contrasts this with “an objective system” of pricing, such as that employed by his country’s Meat Standards Australia system, in which, I gather, a short loin is a short loin no matter where it’s from, and priced accordingly. That is, indeed, an objective system. It is also very different from one in which (for example) a Cabernet Sauvignon bunch grown in Beckstoffer Tokalon costs much, much more than a similar bunch grown in Paso Robles.
But nobody ever said wine grape prices are objective. They’re not, because wine wholesale prices aren’t subjective. We pay for certain names and reputations, and I for one assume that more rigorous vineyard practices go into a highly-reputed wine than into an everyday one. So it’s not likely that we’ll be grading wine grapes the same way we grade meat anytime soon.
On the other hand, Mr. Hunt is entirely correct when he observes, “I suspect there’s nothing more frustrating for growers than to see their carefully tended grapes dropped into the same receival bin as others of lesser quality.” That is a very sad situation for growers who work hard to grow quality fruit. We saw something similar happen in the early histories of counties like Santa Barbara and Monterey, where those grapes—fine quality for the most part—were shipped north or east, to be lost into vast blending vats destined for jug wines. The solution, as it turned out, was not to regulate prices, but to elevate the reputation of those counties, through small-production wineries making wines of critical esteem. You have to have the reputation first; then you can raise prices, not the other way around.
I’ve wondered for many years if the big, oaky, ripely sweet Napa Cabernets I’ve given high scores to will age or not. In most cases, my suspicion had been “only moderately,” but it was awfully hard to tell, since not even I, as a wine critic, could frequently get my hands on older bottlings—and besides, many of the famous “cult” Cabs weren’t old enough to be considered “old,” by the time I stopped reviewing California wine, last March.
Still, my reviews over the years show my increasing skepticism about these wines’ longterm performance. Where once I might have suggested 15 or 20 years for my top-rated California Cabs and Bordeaux blends, by 2005 or so I was lowering my estimates, and advising readers to drink their wines immediately, or over the ensuing six years.
Much of this was based on my own experience. I would routinely pull older (ten-plus years) bottles from my cellar, only to find them prematurely old and tired. The superripe fruit had turned raisiny; the alcohol had turned hot as the fruit dropped out, and the oak, which seemed like a pleasant skein of toasty richness in youth, now appeared merely clumsy.
This is why I increasingly raised an eyebrow at some critics’ prognostications about the ageability of Napa Valley and other Cabernet Sauvignons. It did not seem likely to me that many would survive twenty years, or even fifteen, or even a dozen, for that matter. But one of the glaring deficiencies of our system of critical writing is that journalists never investigate ageability recommendations of famous critics ten of fifteen years after they’ve been issued. The reasons why not are obvious: Nobody’s got the time, nobody’s got access to the wines, and ten or fifteen years after a review has been published, nobody knows or cares about it anymore. Thus, the question of the ageability of these Big Cabs has never been adequately answered, which is really a shame.
Now, in a very important article, Decanter has addressed the situation, calling into question the ability of certain Barolos, Napa Cabs, Bordeaux, Rhones and Burgundies to age before they start exhibiting “exotic scents of prunes and figs, the burnt toast undertones of barrel ageing, the silky mouthfeel and unmistakable heat of high alcohol.” The article adds, “Before you decide whether this sounds appealing or not, consider that these signs of a sunshine-filled wine from a hot vintage might just also be indications of a wine crisis hiding in plain sight.”
It seems that more and more people who do have access to older bottles of these big wines are discovering “premox,” or premature oxidation, in them. After premox issues with certain white wines, a professor of enology in Bordeaux told Decanter, “I believe there is a similar scandal with red wine, and that in 10 years’ time it will be just as explosive as the one affecting white Burgundy has been. And it’s not limited to one region; all red wines that are expected to be aged for long periods of time – so Barolo, Napa, Bordeaux, the Rhône, Burgundy and others – are in danger of ignoring this threat.”
The article’s author, Jane Anson, pulls no punches. “I first wrote about the subject [of premox] for Decanter.com last year and quickly realised that the findings throw into doubt not only the leading viticultural practices of the past decade, but also the work of several leading critics who have amply rewarded low acidity and super-ripe fruit; two of the leading offenders for rapid ageing.” We can debate just who those “leading critics” are. The point I would like to contribute is this: I too gave very high scores to these types of wines. But I did so based on their sheer impressiveness at the time I reviewed them, which was almost always just as they were being released. I stood by my scores then, and I stand by them today, because these wines are magnificent creatures, as rich and delicious as any wines produced in human history. Thus they fully merited their high scores.
But, like I said, I increasingly warned that these wines are not long agers. I did not bemoan this fact: most people nowadays don’t care about aging wine for a long time, anyway, even if they have a decent storage area to do it.
Can the problem be reversed? The Decanter article quotes another French researcher as claiming it can be, if “two principal risk factors” are avoided: leaving the grapes on the vine to get overripe, and then using too much oxygen during the winemaking process.
But these are difficult practices to get away from. Winemakers can pick their fruit a little earlier than they used to, but not too much: if the grapes haven’t lost their green tastes and high acids then the wine won’t be any good. And exposing Cabernet to oxygen, however it’s done, is almost de rigeur these days (through pumping over, racking and various micro-ox techniques), in order to tame the troubling tannins that can be so fierce in Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
It’s worth noting, too, that Michael Rolland’s wife was interviewed for the Decanter article, and she believes that the problem of premox in red wines is overstated. “We simply protect the fruit and ensure stable conditions throughout the winemaking process,” she said.
The Decanter article certainly doesn’t resolve the issue; nothing will, at this point. But it’s an important article because it raises a profoundly important question. What’s been your experience with older (say, ten-plus years) Napa Valley Cabernet and Bordeaux blends, particularly from the 21st century?
COPIA crashed and burned pretty spectacularly. Some said it was because the location—on the “wrong” side of the Napa River—was ill-chosen. Others said the concept itself never made sense: What was COPIA anyway, a restaurant? Wine tasting place? Museum (and a pretty boring one, at that)? Turns out, COPIA did have an identity problem, and the location was a little out-of-the-way, so it was probably a combination of all factors.
Now, a Napa developer has applied to Napa City to build “a large event center and winery” at the well-traveled corner of Trancas Street and the Silverado Trail that would offer “wine tasting, a deli, gift shop, restaurant, offfices, meeting rooms and a wedding site,” not to mention “extensive outdoor areas for public gathering.”
Sounds like the only different between the proposed Altamura Wine Center and COPIA is that the former won’t have a museum. And it’s in a different, more crowded place.
The proposal has caused lifted eyebrows throughout the valley, as you might expect. Of the 23 comments published in the Napa Register as of yesterday, 15 were against, six were for, and two fell into the hard-to-tell category. Most of those opposed cited several reasons: increased traffic, earthquake and flood dangers, and overall resistance to further development in Napa Valley, which has been anti-development for decades.
NIMBYism isn’t new to Napa Valley, or to wine country in general. Remember the furor over Larner Winery’s now-failed plan to build a center for guest events? The neighbors rose up in arms and killed that one. My personal view, for what it’s worth, is that these things are best left to the locals, but those locals should take as broad a view of things as possible and make sure they’re not against something just for the heck of it. A little development is good for us all. Napa Valley survived the Wine Train, which lots of people predicted would be a horrible thing; and if the Altamura Wine Center eventually is built, Napa will survive that, too. Although I will say that it’s true that that particular corner of Trancas and Silverado Trail can get pretty crowded.
I liken this to my own reality. I live in a very dense, crowded urban neighborhood in Oakland. There’s talk of building a new Oakland A’s stadium nearby. I realize it will increase traffic, noise and a bunch of other hassles, but at the same time it would be good for the local economy. So I’m in favor.
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By the way – was this guy deceived, or was he just woefully ignorant? I’m thinking the servor who said “thirty seven fifty” was at fault. What do you think?
While we’re on the subject of Bill Harlan (and we have been lately), you may know that he’s a partner in something called The Napa Valley Reserve, an ultra-high end sort of wine club you have to buy your way into to get the wine. And we’re not talking about a small amount: When I first wrote about the project, back in 2005, for Wine Enthusiast, I headlined my article “Toys for (very rich) boys and girls,” and noted that it cost $125,000 to become a member, for which you got wine that you had a hand in making, under the guidance of Harlan’s winemaker, Bob Levy. The price per bottle was a bargain: $50, but of course, there was that entry fee.
Anyway, the price has apparently risen to $140,000 (a rise of 12% since 2005, not bad considering inflation), according to some political reporting done by the Chicago Tribune, which wrote about the current Republican candidate for Governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner, who “admit[ed] he is a member of a wine club that costs $140,000 to join.” I got the story from the local Chicago NBC news affiliate, NBC5. NBC5 asked Rauner if he was a member of The Napa Valley Reserve, but “Rauner refused to confirm” it. When the reporter persisted, the most he got out of Rauner was a qualified, “I have many investments, I’m a member of many clubs.” The story went viral: The Washington Post yesterday picked up on it, reporting “Bruce Rauner spends more on wine than average Illinois households spend on everything,” Ouch! (Actually, I shouldn’t say WaPo “reported” the story; it appears in the paper’s snarky “The Fix” column, which is pretty opinionated. But nobody’s denying the facts.)
However, this is not a political rant on my part, but something more important, and that is to ask the question, Why are some people embarrassed by their wealth and how much they spend on wine? I suppose, in the case of a Republican candidate for Governor in a swing state that’s had its share of economic woes, it doesn’t look good for said candidate to have so much money for things that are the height of non-discretionary spending—especially snobby, elitist wine. Then, too, what first alerted reporters to Rauner’s free-spending ways was a photo of him and Rahm Emanuel, who was Obama’s very Democratic chief of staff and is currently Chicago Mayor. What the heck is a Republican doing running around drinking expensive wine with a liberal?
So maybe Rauner had that Gotcha! feeling deep down in his pockets, I don’t know. But why the mealy-mouthed dodging when asked directly if he was a Napa Valley Reserve member? Especially if he’s from the party of free enterprise and pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, why didn’t he just say, “Hell, yeah, I’m a member. I came by my money honestly, and I love wine. Say, what are you doing now? Wanna head over to my cellar and try some?” I remember when Ronald Reagan had his “Nashua moment”: in a 1980 Presidential debate he non-apologetically said, “I paid for this microphone!” Everybody loved it (me too), and it set candidate Reagan in motion to become President. Now, another Republican candidate in an election year seems embarrassed that he paid for something.
I don’t resent people for being successful, and I don’t really understand why anyone else does. But especially, I don’t understand why politicians try to hide their wealth by these squirmy non-denial denials. If I had a few extra tens of millions of dollars I too might join The Napa Valley Reserve. If the wines, which I’ve never had, are anything like Harlan Estate, BOND, The Maiden and The Matriarch, which I have reviewed over the years, they’re fabulous.
You’ll have to forgive me for feeling a little philosophical today about our wine industry, but a disaster will do that to you. We still don’t know the full extent of the damage from the big Napa earthquake, and we may never, but the fact is, if you escaped unscathed—as most wineries and wine businesses did—you’re counting your lucky stars. But if you were one of those impacted, I just hope your earthquake insurance was paid up.
Here’s a roundup from the Napa Valley Register, as of late yesterday afternoon. As you can read, some wineries are going to be digging themselves out of the damage for a long time. My heart goes out to Trefethen, Sciandri and others in that terrible situation, and to the local businesses in downtown Napa for whom life may never be the same.
How things can change in an instant! We go about our lives complacently, planning on the next dinner, the next meeting, the weekend—and then, Boom! Literally out of the blue something happens and the proverbial apple cart is not only upset, in some cases it’s turned into splinters. It’s happened to me, it’s probably happened to you although I hope not for it’s truly terrible when it does. What the answer is, I don’t know (I told you I’m feeling philosophical), except to expect the unexpected. Or “hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” as the old saying goes.
Actually, the epicenter of the event they’re now calling the South Napa Earthquake occurred, not in American Canyon as was at first widely reported (based on the USGS), but in Napa itself—specifically, beneath the Napa Valley Marina, on the Napa River. The break was in the West Napa Fault, believed to be an offshoot of the Calaveras Fault, which runs through the far East Bay,
more or less parallel to the Hayward Fault, on which I live; all are, of course, part of the infamous San Andreas Fault System. The West Napa Fault has been active before: it was responsible for the sizable Yountville Hills Earthquake of 2000 (magnitude 5.2), so to have called it a relatively unknown fault isn’t quite accurate. What geologists have learned in California, though, is that they’re far from having a complete understanding of just where all the fault lines are, or how powerful an earthquake any of them can trigger. We saw that after the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, which seemed to take everybody by surprise, and led to a rather alarmed discussion about so-called blind thrust faults, which are like blind wine tastings in that nobody knows quite what’s going on. Los Angeles supposedly is riddled with such blind thrust faults; the speculation that one (or more) of them could rupture is one of the more dire scenarios for a city not short on apocalyptic futures.
Anyhow, the cleanup in Napa, Vallejo, AmCan and the surrounding areas goes on. Have a great day.