I Googled the term (using both spellings, “zomby” and “zombie”) and came up empty-handed, but I’m hearing it bandied about more and more.
It refers to wineries that are in dead every respect, except that they still walk the Earth as though they possessed life. The Zombie Winery phenomenon is said to be most acute in Napa Valley, among high-end brands that got their butts kicked in the Great Recession, when demand for $50-and up Cabernets fell off the cliff.
Wineaccess, the online wine retailer, referred to “Napa’s crisis years (2008 to mid-2011)” in their most recent email blast, a suitably Götterdämmerung-esque description that communicates the angst that struck the valley at the Recession’s peak.
I well recall the rumors. Who’s in trouble? Who isn’t? Anecdotally, expensive wines–not just Cabernet Sauvignon–were suffering. Nobody really knew, in each specific instance, which wineries were hurting; only the proprietors and their bankers knew. But there were whispers. I asked owners every chance I could how business was doing: the answers ranged from “Great” (which I assumed to be an outright lie) to “Well, you know, these are tough times,” which at least was honest. The owner of one of the most famous cult wineries told me frankly, in that 2009-2010 period, that for the first time in the winery’s history, requests for inclusion on the mailing list had dropped, a kind of canary-in-the-coal mine symbol of the psychological toll the Recession took even on the well-to-do.
“Zombie” the word comes from Haitian Creole, which imported it from an African word; it referred to “an animated corpse” (Wikipedia). The word gained widespread currency with George Romero’s famous (and famously kitschy) “Night of the Living Dead” movie (1968), which depicted living dead horrors wandering the world, looking to shred, tear and devour (although the film itself never used the word “zombie”). A previous movie, “White Zombie” (1932), starring Bela Lugosi, however, imprinted the horrific image on the public’s mind of yet another form of monster (in addition to Frankenstein and Dracula, then popular among horror genre fans), one again based on a mutated human, stripped of living purpose except that it did not know that it was dead. (The self-knowledge of these mutants varies. Frankenstein had none, or very little, although he could feel tenderness. Dracula, of course, possessed full self-knowledge, which is what makes vampires so dreadful; what he lacked was moral compass, although it can be argued that, from the point of view of his kind, i.e., a vampire, his actions were fully in concert with morality as he understood it. Zombies, by contrast, are even duller and more primitive than Frankenstein, on a level of insectoid: If any movie in history ever depicted a zombie feeling tenderness or love, I am unaware of it.)
So are there Zombie Wineries in Napa Valley? Undoubtedly. Was Clos Pegase one of them? I wondered about last week’s sale to Vintage Wine Estates and Leslie Rudd. It’s hard for me to think Jan Shrem “needed the money.” I always thought Clos Pegase was quite profitable, a thought reinforced every time I heard the announcer on my public radio station thank the Shrems for their “generous support.” And the wines, made by Richard Sowalsky, always are good and sometimes great. My hunch–and that’s all it is–is simply that Jan is ready for the next chapter in his adventurous life.
BREAKING: Moments after I posted this, the news came in that Viansa has been bought by Vintage Wine Estates. While Viansa is in Sonoma County, not Napa, it appears to have been a Zombie Winery:
It happens all the time in wine: famous wineries overshadow the less famous. Bordeaux set the pattern: So luminous is the glare of the most celebrated Classified Growths that some perfectly fine chateaux are obscured. It being the purpose of wine writers to bring under-appreciated wineries to readers’ attention, here are my suggestions. I don’t mean to suggest that these wineries are coming out of the blue. Insiders know them; it’s the general public that doesn’t.
Goldschmidt Vineyards. Veteran winemaker Nick Goldschmidt’s carefully crafted Cabernets rival the best of Napa Valley. But for some reason, they haven’t garnered the acclaim of competitors such as Staglin or Dalla Valle. Representative wine: 2006 Game Ranch “Plus” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville; $150, 98 points.
Terra Valentine. I’ve been giving this winery high scores since the late 1990s. They do a fantastic job with their Spring Mountain fruit, but you seldom hear of them in the same breath as the cults. Representative wine: 2010 K-Block Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain; $65, 95 points.
B. Cellars. The winery really caught my eye with their 2004 vintage, and I’ve been a fan ever since. Cabernet is the speciality, although they also try their hand at Syrah and Chardonnay. Representative wine: 2009 Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville; $165, 95 points.
Summers Estate. Calistoga-based Summers has been crafting terroir wines of distinction since at least the late 1990s. But the last 10 years have really shown the fruits of success, not just with Cabernet but with Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Charbono. Representative wine: 2010 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Calistoga; $50, 92 points.
Sodaro Estate. I felt this winery’s struggle in the mid-2000s, but by the 2008 and 2009 vintages, they started to rock. That may have been due to the involvement of May-Britt and Denis Malbec, the consulting winemakers. Representative wine: 2009 Doti/Sodaro Blocks 2 and 6 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley; $125, 95 points.
Amici. This is former Beaulieu winemaker Joel Aiken’s baby, and while it took him a while to find his footing, he’s now established it securely. A flagship wine is certainly the 2009 Morisoli Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford; $125, 95 points. But for the representative wine, I’m choosing Amici’s 2007 Olema Cabernet, Napa Valley; $20, 97 points. It stood out in a blind tasting several years ago of more than 60 Napa Cabs, almost all of which cost far more.
Prime Cellars. The celebrated winemaker, Ted Henry (Jarvis), and his wife, Lisa, own the brand, and he crafts the wines (she does the marketing). With the sole exception of a so-so 2005 Cab and a 2008 Chardonnay, I’ve given all their releases 90 points or higher. Representative wine: 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville; $64, 93 points.
KaDieM. This is a brand new brand, a partnership between friends. The winemaker is Michael Trujillo, who was mentored by the likes of André Tchelistcheff and Tony Soter. The representative wine is their 2009 Inaugural Vintage Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley; $85, 95 points.
Patland Estate. Winemaker Jay Buoncristiani [ex-Hess Collection] crafts rich Cabs, Syrahs and Malbecs from the winery’s estate vineyard and from purchased grapes, notably the Stagecoach Vineyard, which straddles the Atlas Peak AVA. Representative wine: 2009 Stagecoach Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley; $90, 94 points.
Turnbull Wine Cellars. Turnbull isn’t new. In fact, it was one of the first wineries I ever wrote about [in its Johnson-Turnbull era]. Although the winery is set on Highway 29 in the heart of Oakville, its wines tend to pass unnoticed, which is really a pity. Representative wine: 2009 Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville; $100, 95 points.
The Holy Grail for California wine has been China. With its hundreds of millions of emerging upper-middle class consumers, Cali producers see a vast new source of demand. The problem is how to persuade all those Chinese that they want California wine.
We already know they want French wine. Parker has been investing his time and energy heavily in China for many years (I remember raised eyebrows when he started visiting with regularity, but he was ahead of his time, wasn’t he?), and now, of course, a Singapore outfit owns Wine Advocate.
RMP himself is now back tasting California wine. (Ironic, isn’t it? First he said he didn’t want to anymore. Then “the troubles” went down with Galloni, and The Man Himself was compelled to return to a beat he’d previously said he was tired of.) So, while the Wine Advocate is competition for the magazine I write for, Wine Enthusiast, I do think that Parker is in a position to publicize to wealthy Chinese consumers the Napa cult wineries he likes. If I were a cult Napa producer, I’d be all over Parker, inviting him to the winery, getting my wines into his hands, then keeping my fingers crossed for a 99 or even a perfect 100.
But I also think Wine Enthusiast has growing clout in China, a clout that will only increase over time. Last year we began a Mandarin edition of the magazine, and my understanding is that it’s doing quite well. It was, I believe, the first important English-language wine periodical to be published in the Chinese language. And, as that edition also reports on my scores and reviews of Napa cult wines, I think it’s likely that those scores will drive sales, too.
Of course, some Napa wineries don’t have to worry about scores. Yao Ming’s wines ($625 for the 2009 Family Reserve) were an instant hit in China, for obvious reasons. I suspect that Screaming Eagle and Harlan also are doing well. The kind of people in China who can afford them have extensive connections with the west. They tend to speak English and are aware of the consumer goods, including wine, that are popular and prestigious in America. They take their cues from rich Americans and are ever alert to symbols of status and preference. Since critics like Parker tend to rate these wines highly, that should make them in high demand in China.
What about the other hundred or so Napa cult Cabs?
It’s terribly difficult for individual wineries to market themselves in China. But the Napa Valley Vintners has been plying those waters for a long time. This article, from the Huffington Post, does a good job describing the general contours of breaking into the Chinese market, but to me, the bullet quote is from Harlan’s GM, Don Weaver: “Trying to solve the China puzzle is the most exciting part of my job right now.” The adjective “exciting” is an interesting choice; Don might have used “challenging,” but when you rise to meet a challenge, and then perhaps exceed it, it is exciting. (I felt that way when I was awarded my first Black Belt in karate.)
Napa wineries (and others in California) also recently got a boost from Gov. Jerry Brown, a longtime friend of the wine industry, when his April trade mission to Shanghai (which included Wine Institute’s CEO, Bobby Koch), promoted the state’s wines; the promotion also included a “Taste Napa Valley” event sponsored by Wine Institute.
These activities all are promising, and the people organizing and managing them are very good at what they do. But there’s a limit to how effective they can be at the individual winery level. If you’re selling a 93 point Cabernet for $100 or more, and you don’t have an ultra-famous name and have only been around for a few years, you’re going to have a tough time, whether it’s here in the States or in the People’s Republic. It’s those Napa Cabs I wonder about. Who’s buying them? Who will be buying them? Maybe their proprietors are so rich they can afford to break even, or even lose a little money, for a decade or two. I have a feeling they’re about to find out.
This opinion piece by the president of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, Jon Ruel, is eloquent and inspiring, and gives a spacious perspective on many important things to consider, on this July 4th holiday weekend.
I heartily endorse everything Ruel (who also is COO of Trefethen) says. Each of the ideals he sets out will take determination and diligent intelligence to achieve, but there’s no doubt that, if any grapegrowers group in the world can succeed at such admirable goals, it’s Napa Valley’s.
Here’s the one statement I want to weigh in on:
Succession is another important topic. Many of the local figures who helped shape the success of the Napa Valley over the past 45 years are now retiring. Who will succeed them and maintain the vision? Similarly, we will see succession in our customer base as the baby boomers move on. Can we engage future generations of consumers with our story and our wines?
This is something I’ve thought about for many years. Robert Mondavi no longer is with us; no one has managed to flll such gigantic shoes, and in all likelihood, no one ever will. Still, there’s little evidence that since his 2008 passing, Napa has suffered from an absence of leadership. Perhaps Robert Mondavi’s greatest achievement was that he set the ship of Napa Valley asail and, once free and steered by the trades upon the open sea, it no longer requires anyone to command it.
No shadow, then, is as long as Robert Mondavi’s, but Napa Valley has leaders. I think of proprietors like Bill Harlan, who sees things generationally not quarterly, or the Staglins, who put their money where the mouths are. I think of people who believed early in Napa, like Bernard Portet at Clos du Val, Christian Moueix at Dominus, the Trefethen and Chappellet families and so many others, too numerous to list. I think particularly of that younger generation coming along to “engage future generations.” Among them are Robert Mondavi’s grandchildren and also those of his brother, Peter Mondavi, Sr., at Charles Krug, kids who bear the weight and responsibility of their famous names with dignity and good cheer. Others with less famous names populate the valley; some are mere cellar rats at this point but will go on to become celebrated winemakers in their own right.
Napa Valley has no succession problems. Ruel need not worry. The valley is in good hands.
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.