If there’s a godfather of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (now that Robert Mondavi and André Tchelistcheff no longer are with us), it has to be Warren Winiarski.
Although he sold Stags Leap Wine Cellars years ago, it was he who crafted the 1973 Cabernet that won the red wine prize at the Paris Tasting (1976), the signal event that launched Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon onto the world stage (although it would have gotten there sooner or later anyway, and an argument can be made that it already was out of its chair and advancing toward the stage, when it was catapulted there by Steven Spurrier’s timely contest).
And now Winiarski, comparing today’s Napa Cabs to “milkshakes,” has told the Washington Post that he considers them to be “one-dimensional behemoths that lack complexity and elegance.” (I am quoting here the author of the WaPo article, Dave McIntyre, who, since he did not put these words in quotation marks, hopefully was correctly paraphrasing Winiarski.)
This has got to come as a blow to certain quarters in Napa Valley, and also as relief to the [many] critics who have been slamming Napa Valley Cabernet the past several years. They now have, on their side, a true valley insider. And Winiarski is not alone. The article goes on to include Bernard Portet (founder of Clos du Val) among the critics of high-octane Cabs. Portet resurrects the theory that too many Napa winemakers, in an effort to get high scores from certain critics, deliberately forego “modesty” and “elegance” for power.
That there is a backlash against Napa Cabernet, and a serious one at that, can hardly be disputed. The piling on has begun in earnest when senior voices within Napa itself are joining in. So we have to step back and take a closer look.
Consider two wines. First there is the Stag’s Leap 2009 Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon (94 points, $210; all cited reviews are mine in Wine Enthusiast). The alcohol was a reasonably modest 13.5% (according to the label), but then, as I noted in my review, that was undoubtedly because of the cooler vintage: the 2008 Cask 23 had measured 14.5%. (For the record, I gave it 97 points.)
The other wine I want to discuss is the David Arthur 2009 Elevation 1147 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (99 points, $150). The official alcohol was 14.8%. I take it as a given that this is the type of wine the critics of opulence and power have in mind. (Do you have a better candidate? If so, what?) I tremendously enjoyed and respected both the David Arthur and the Stag’s Leap, and it would be a mistake to assume that, just because I gave the former 5 points more than the latter, that I thought it was a better wine. On another day, under blind-tasting circumstances, the scores might have been tighter. (What other critic will tell you that?) So both of them were very, very good Cabernets.
Now, the difference in alcohol between the Stag’s Leap 2008’s 14.5% and the David Arthur’s 2009 14.8% isn’t very much, is it? And I did score them within two points of each other. Admittedly, the Stag’s Leap 2009 was a full 1.3% by volume lower than the David Arthur; but then, I gave the 2008 a higher score, which suggests to me that there is a direct relationship between plushness (as I perceive it) and alcohol level–although you cannot carry this argument so far that you would say a 16.2% Cabernet would be even better. Clearly, we’re talking about a sweet spot for Cabernet, below which the wine is unripe and above which it loses balance.
The question becomes, where is that sweet spot? For me I’d put it somewhere around 13.5% at the lower end and around 15% at the upper end. This doesn’t seem to me to represent an intellectually indefensible spread. The high-octane critics (among whom we now must include Winiarski and Portet) would suggest otherwise, and they have a right to their opinion, but I don’t see vast differences (in pleasure or ageability) between the Stag’s Leap 2008 and 2009 and the David Arthur 2009. Different wines, certainly. This gets us into the “how many glasses can you drink before the wine palls” debate, which is the slickest of the anti-high alcohol arguments. Portet used a form of it in the article: “[M]ake a wine that tastes good, which means when you have a meal with family or friends, it invites you to have a second or third glass. If you only want one glass, get back to work,” i.e., you have not succeeded in making a balanced wine.
These angels-dancing-on-pinhead debates remind me of my Yiddish forebears arguing over the meaning of a phrase or even a letter in the Torah. I personally could drink an entire bottle of a Cabernet like the David Arthur (over many hours, with the right foods), so to me the Portet criticism doesn’t work. But so too could I drink a bottle of the Stag’s Leap 2009. It perhaps is a slightly more elegant wine, so I might prefer it with a simply grilled steak, whereas I might pile on the mushrooms and wine reduction sauce with the David Arthur. In this endless hassling over alcohol level, too often people forget to include food in the equation. No Cabernet Sauvignon is meant to be consumed by itself; the food provides the context that makes the wine perfect, or not.
There have always been gay and Lesbian people in the wine business, of course; some pretty famous winemakers have been, not to mention a contingent on the P.R. and marketing side.
But the wine biz is inherently a conservative one, not so much politically (I think most of the California industry tends to be liberal), as socially. There are certain modes of behavior that are expected (don’t get drunk unless you can hold your liquor, treat your colleagues with respect, don’t gossip too much, avoid cursing), and it is expected that things such as sexuality are not flaunted (whatever the orientation) but are treated with discretion.
This doesn’t mean that late night conversations, after copious amounts of alcohol have been consumed between trusting adults, don’t sometimes wander into…well, let’s just call it terra rauncho. It happens, even in mixed company. (I could relate a certain chat in the bar of the Ritz Carlton Kapalua last week that made even my limited amount of hair stand up.) Still, the topic of sexuality has been largely kept in the closet (pun intended).
This is changing. There are people who are “out” in a big way. Older gay men and women tend to be quieter about it, but a younger generation is bolder, and good for them, I say. There also are wineries that are overtly gay-friendly; this article mentions a few of them, but I think there are more. Certainly the wine industry is wise to welcome all of America’s demographics into its embrace. A gay dollar is as green as a straight one.
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Much has been made of the “difficult” 2010 vintage in California. Jon Bonné, for example, calls it “complicated,” and certainly it did throw some curve balls to vintners. The cold was the main problem; I’ve detected a large number of Pinot Noirs, in particular, that smell moldy. Heavy rains in mid-October came right in the middle of the Cabernet harvest. Earlier, record heat in late September cooked some Bordeaux varieties. Despite the rosy scenarios issued by the Napa Valley Vintners, in their annual harvest report, winemakers off the record were less optimistic. Or perhaps the better word is “philosophical.” In November of 2010, after all the grapes were in, I had a conversation with Merryvale’s assistant winemaker, in which he conceded that the vintage would be “atypical” (in the sense of lacking the expected Napa lushness), but insisted that the Cabernets would still have “quality, regardless of what form it takes.” What did he mean? “Yes, maybe there’s a mintiness to this, and maybe there’s an herbalness to it, but these are still quality wines.”
I’ll leave it to others to decide how much mintiness and herbalness they like in their Cabernets. I haven’t had Merryvale’s 2010 Cabernet because they haven’t yet sent it to me. But I have reviewed some terrific 2010 Cabs that prove great wineries can produce great wines even in a tough vintage. Among the best have been Flora Springs Rutherford Hillside Reserve, all the Von Strassers, Terra Valentine K-Block, Stonestreet Rockfall and also Stonestreet Christopher’s and Jarvis Estate–all mountain or hillside vineyards, where presumably the September heat was not quite as intense, while the October rains drained off.
The 2013 Auction Napa Valley Barrel Auction now is history, and what a grand event it was.
I drove up early, because it was at Raymond Vineyards, where I hadn’t been despite having been invited umpteen times by Jean-Charles Boisset, so I really wanted to see it: the crystal room and the red room and everything else. Almost as soon as the shuttle bus let me off, I saw Jean-Charles on the lawn, being interviewed by a camera crew. He saw me, and the next thing I knew he was personally touring me. When I saw his Frenchie Winery–with spacious pet kennels–I realized I could have brought Gus. If you’re a dog-loving family touring Napa Valley, Frenchie/Raymond is a great place to visit.
The first part of my experience was eating. OMG I can’t tell you how good the food was. I tried everything (burp) because I want to write about my 5 or 6 favorites in Wine Enthusiast (with recipes). There was a single disappointment, and from the most unlikely of restaurants: Meadowood, a little paper cup stuffed with green peas and other tiny pieces of garden veggies, dressed (I think) in a Champagne vinaigrette, with a sad little chunk of feta adrift in a vegetable sea. When restaurants have finger foods at an event like the Napa Valley auction, those munchies should be dazzlingly Wow!, but this wasn’t. I can understand keeping things simple, but not to the point of bland.
Much was made of the temperature. It was a toasty 98 degrees on my car thermometer by mid-afternoon, but much cooler in the cellar where the actual tasting occurred. I myself didn’t drink anything [except lots of water]. Ran into Bob Cabral, from Williams Selyem, who told me this was his first time ever “crossing the hill” for the Napa auction and he was looking forward to tasting Cabernet. Since he lives in Healdsburg, I asked if he wasn’t concerned about drinking and driving, and he assured me he wouldn’t have come unless his winery had supplied a car and driver. Bob knows perfectly well you cannot drink at an event like this and then drive home. The roads were crawling with CHP and Sheriff’s Dept. personnel (as well they should have been) and I for one was glad they were there. Which reminds me: Jean-Charles said he’s starting a new brand called Sheriff. Must find out what that’s all about.
I didn’t see as many winery proprietors or principles as I’d expected. This is probably because auction week is really a protracted, exhausting affair, and the owners and winemakers must attend to their nightly dinners and the live auction itself (as opposed to the barrel auction), so maybe not going to the latter provides them some respite. Certainly Premier Napa Valley is a more “glamorous” affair, in that you see more famous faces.
The buzziest conversational topic at the auction: How a turned-around economy is good for business. Everyone seemed happy that, after so many stagnant years, things are selling again. Domaine Chandon told me they can’t keep up with demand for bubbly, especially rosé. Let the good times roll!
-Garen Staglin, for chairing this year’s auction and his family’s charitable generosity over the years.
-Barbara Banke, Gina Gallo, Elias Fernandez, Janet Viader (drop-dead gorgeous in Argentine tango couture), Jay “Party Party Party” and Tim Mondavi. It’s always nice to see them.
-The one and only Jayson Woodbridge. He wasn’t at the auction, but we had dinner Wednesday night at his home. World-class raconteur, fascinating conversationalist, able to absorb the fullness of Heimoff (as I am of Woodbridge), a dervish of creative energy and riveting charm, Jayson truly is in a class by himself.
-The great, divine Genevieve Janssens. There she was as always, standing by her barrel, pouring for guests, inspiring and educating. A legendary Napa icon. Genevieve introduced me to Mondavi’s new red winemaker, a very young woman named Nova Cadamatre, whom I just had to congratulate. Imagine getting a job that important and having the opportunity to study with Genevieve Janssens!
A final shoutout to Jean-Charles Boisset. When he moved into Napa Valley with the purchase of Raymond, I thought there might have been some raised eyebrows. Napa’s a pretty insular place: who’s this wealthy outsider and what is he going to do? I think Jean-Charles wisely decided to show the valley that he’s a team player. And he did. He’s done a great job, and people respect him for that.
I tend to name drop (as Party Party Party reminded me), so I want to give a huge shoutout to all the hard-working people from marketing, sales, P.R. and other less visible positions. They are in many ways the heart, soul and vital infrastructure of the industry. Without them, nothing happens, including Auction Napa Valley. I know and like many of them, and they read this blog, which makes me happy, so thank you.. You guys may not be in the spotlight, you may not get the hurrahs, but you make it all happen. Salud!
The valley is all atwitter. The private jets and limos will swoosh in, millions of dollars will be spent, endless quantities of gourmet food and wine will be consumed, and then the millionaires and billionaires will depart as quickly as they came, leaving the Napa Valley Vintners to count up the money for charity raised during Auction Napa Valley 2013.
To say this is Napa’s biggest extravaganza of the year is an understatement–and Napa has some pretty extravagant events. (Probably #2 is Premier Napa Valley.) Years ago, I used to bring a hand-held calculator and sit under the auction tent, tallying up the bids myself–a useless, pointless task, since the NVV does it anyway; but then, I was anxious to prove myself as a journalist. As many times as I saw Robert Mondavi, in his big straw hat, encouraging the high rollers, I never failed to be in awe. He was larger than life, legendary, and it’s been gratifying over the years since he passed away to learn more about him from his sons, Michael and Tim, and his grandchildren.
Nowadays I skip the auction and focus on the barrel tasting, held this Friday at Jean-Charles Boisset’s Raymond Vineyards. One can’t easily taste all 90 lots, much less take notes (although one or two bloggers try). I might taste a dozen or two (with spitting, of course), but informally, just enough to register a fast impression, which is usually “This is really a nice wine,” because, in fact, the majority of them are, which is what you’d expect. But a huge, crowded, noisy room is hardly the place to focus.
Sometimes, wandering through the crowd, my eyes will lock onto a proprietor’s eyes whom I recognize, and I feel compelled to walk over to his or her barrel and taste and chat. It’s an opportunity to catch up with old acquaintances and learn new things. Other times, I’ll see a brand I don’t know (and they don’t know me either), and I’ll ask a few questions and take a business card.
There was a minor brouhaha in the Napa Valley Register last week, in which the newspaper’s editorial board responded to suggestions that the auction isn’t really for “everyone” in the valley because it is largely “outside the economic reach of the vast majority of Napa County residents.”
That may be true; but the paper strongly defended the auction, and of course, they’re right. The auction has raised $110 million over the years which has gone to help mainly the agricultural workers and their families, through housing assistance and the provision of healthcare at Queen of the Valley Medical Center and local clinics, as well as a variety of non-profits that support the community in many ways, from schools to legal aid. That’s not even counting the money that auction attendees drop at local businesses, from gas stations to limos, restaurants and hotels . So obviously the auction is a huge boon to everyone who lives in Napa Valley.
I’m looking forward to this visit. You can criticize Napa Valley Cabernet all you want, especially if you’re an effete New York critic or California writer looking to establish a reputation. But the fact remains that Napa Valley changed the world conversation about Cabernet and (dare I call it?) Bordeaux-style blends to such an extent that we should never, ever again refer to Bordeaux again in any discussion of Napa Valley. Actually, they should refer to us.
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I’ve been invited to participate on a panel to be held at the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival early next month. The name of the panel is “The Pritchard Hill Gang Wine Seminar, co-hosted by Michael Jordan, M.S., and moi. We’ve got quite a lineup of winemakers: Phillip Corallo-Titus (Chapellet), Phillipe Melka (Brand), David Long (David Arthur), Austin Peterson (Ovid) and Carlo Mondavi (Continuum).
I’m especially jazzed, because this tasting is the direct outcome of an article I wrote for Wine Enthusiast last Fall on the Cabernets of Pritchard Hill. The article was, I’m told, the first in-depth ever on that region of Napa Valley, which is in the Vaca Mountains, above Lake Hennessey east of the Silverado Trail. I’d been fascinated by it, as a growing region of distinctive terroir, for several years, and wanted to investigate it with the object of writing about it, but just couldn’t find the time. Eventually, through a series of happenstances, Tim Mondavi (Carlo’s dad) reached out to me and offered to set up a blind tasting for me at Continuum.
One of the pleasures of my trip to Pritchard Hill was an invitation from Greg Melanson (Melanson Vineyard) to take me for an aerial ride over the region in his helicopter, which he parks (is that the right word?) just steps from his home on the Hill. Folks, the best way to understand a wine region is from the air, especially a region as undulatingly complicated as Napa Valley. (It was fascinating to see the topological connections between Pritchard Hill and Atlas Peak.) Tim Mondavi hitched a ride with us for that occasion, and what a great tour guide he was, pointing out every little landmark and connecting it to some memory from his childhood. (And I wish that Greg’s wines were included in our panel. I don’t know why they’re not. Other producers on Pritchard Hill include Colgin, Montagna, Gandona and Bryant.)
At any rate, Michael Jordan read my article and liked it. He told me it had inspired him to set up the Pritchard Hill event at Kapalua (he’d held an earlier one in, I think, Anaheim, which I was unable to attend). Michael is an exciting, interesting guy, not only an M.S. but a true entrepreneur in the restaurant field.
By another coincidence, just this past week I sat down with Carlo Mondavi (on the phone) and had a little chat for an article. I’ve never met him in person, and didn’t realize right away that he’d be representing Continuum at Kapalua (nor did he realize I was on the panel). So we both got a chuckle out of that and vowed to spend some time together on Maui.
I would think Pritchard Hill will be an American Viticultural Area someday, but it won’t be one for quite a while, as there is opposition to it from the Chappellets, who own rights to the name. In the end it doesn’t matter what the appellation is called; the wines speak for themselves.
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In the 1970s and 1980s, when I was coming up in wine, the conventional wisdom was that in order to be ageable, a young wine had to be undrinkable.
That made sense. After all, it was the case in most of Europe. Barolo, Rioja, great German Riesling, and especially Grand Cru Burgundy and the top Classified Growth Bordeaux all required years and years in the cellar.
I figured it was the same for the top California wines. The people whose guidance I was depending on–Charlie Olken, Norm Roby, Earl Singer, Bob Thompson, Harvey Steiman–were saying that Cabs in particular required aging, and sometimes for an extended period of time (10-15 years, said Olken-Singer-Roby in their “Handbook,” 20 years in Thompson’s “Encyclopedia”).
I took them at their word. Trust was involved, because they were tasting a lot more and a lot better wines than I was able to (which was actually very little, given my limited budget and the fact that it was to be many years before wineries started sending me free samples), and so I had no basis other than their judgment on which to form a conclusion regarding ageability. I began collecting, modestly: Cabs from Freemark Abbey, Louis M. Martini, Beringer, Pinots from Carneros Creek and Acacia, and so on, and then aging them; but the results were disappointing. I’d open a bottle after 6 or 8 years and more often than not found the resulting wine dried up and boring.
Of course, my cellar conditions were inadequate then. You couldn’t even call it a “cellar.” I had a plastic contraption that I kept in my apartment. Whatever the temperature was in my apartment, that was the temperature in my “cellar.” I knew that was bad, but it was San Francisco, where it’s pretty cool even in summer, so I kept my fingers crossed.
At some point, there was a sea change in popular thinking concerning Cabernet and Pinot. The view began to be that a wine that was undrinkable (hard in tannins, biting in acidity) in youth would never age out. Instead, the theory now went, any California wine that was ageable should be good and drinkable on release.
I fully subscribe to that theory, but when did it start and how did it come about? I was thinking about this as I read the following quote from the winemaker Philip Togni (Philip Togni Vineyard), in Benjamin Lewin’s new book, Claret & Cabs:
“I used to claim that if the wine wasn’t pretty terrible coming out of the fermenter it would never amount to anything, but I no longer believe that.”
Given Philip Togni’s wealth of experience (Chateau Lascombes, Gallo, Chateau Montelena, Chappellet, Cuvaison), this is quite a statement: The confession of a great winemaker who’d essentially gotten something very important very wrong. The only “excuse” (if that’s the right word, and it isn’t, but I can’t think of a better one) is that pretty much everyone in the 1970s in Napa Valley thought that a Cabernet had to be “pretty terrible” coming out of the fermenter in order to age well. It was the weltanschauung of the era, and weltanschauungs are the hardest things in the world to see beyond.
The reason things began to shift was, IMHO, the rise of Parker. We can argue until the cows come home about him, but let’s not today. Parker pushed winemakers around the world to produce wines that tasted pretty darned good right out of the fermenter (and out of the bottle on release).
Do they age as well as the Bordeaux of old? The critical community is still debating that one, and since there are now billions and billions of critics (tip of the hat to Carl Sagan), the debate may go on forever. On the other hand, the attitude toward aging wines is shifting with tectonic force. The parents of Baby Boomers aged their wines. Baby Boomers themselves might have aged some of their wines (if they had some kind of cellar), but they were not as obsessed with aging as their Depression-era parents. Now, the children of Baby Boomers, and in some cases their grandchildren, are becoming the main consumers of fine wine in America, and as far as I can tell, they don’t give a rat’s patootie about aging wine. They want something delicious and interesting, at whatever price they’re prepared to pay, not something they have to stick away for some point in the future when they might not even be around to enjoy it.
Much is made of Cathy Corison’s Cabernets when it comes to Napa wines in the “older” style. And it is indeed true that her Cabs are lower in alcohol and age gorgeously–well, up to ten years anyway, which is the oldest Corison Cab I’ve had. (A 2001 was fantastic in 2011.) However, ageable as they are, they’re lovely on release. Here’s what I wrote about Corison’s 93 point 2007 regular (not the Kronos): A beautiful wine, dry and classically structured, showing the elegant balance for aging. Made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s long and deep in blackberries and cassis. Give it a brief decant if you open it now, but it should develop over the next six years, at least.
I suppose if Cathy had been making Cabernet in 1976 I might have written something like “Tough and tannic and sharp, almost undrinkable, a dark, brooding wine of astringency. It stubbornly refuses to reveal its inner nature. However, a deep core of fruit and cassis suggests 10, 15, even 20 years in the cellar.”
Well, that wine never existed, so we don’t know, do we? It might have aged gracefully, but it might have been one of those clunkers like the Cabs I tried aging from the mid- to late 1970s. Aging wine always is a crapshoot, and I’m not a gambler. I like a sure thing, which is why I like Napa Valley Cabernet nowadays: it’s drop dead gorgeous and sexy from the get-go, and whether or not it will go 20 years is pretty much irrelevant. (But a lot will.)