I gave a little talk yesterday to a group of wine buyers yesterday at Stonestreet, as part of Taste Alexander Valley. I’m posting my remarks in two parts, because it’s rather longish. Here’s part 1.
I’ve been asked to talk about Napa Valley and Alexander Valley and how Cabernet Sauvignon from those two areas differs. But first, a disclaimer: As some of you may know from my writings, especially on my blog, I’ve argued for many years that these supposed regional differences between varieties are not as pronounced nor as concise as some wine writers portray them. After all, these both are large appellations: Alexander Valley is 66,000 acres, while Napa Valley is six times bigger, at 400,000 acres. Pauillac, by contrast – the Bordeaux commune – is only 3,000 acres.
Moreover, both Alexander and Napa are marked by mountain ranges that contain incredibly complex soils, all jumbled up by the San Andreas Fault System: my old friend, the wine writer Bob Thompson, once called them “a slagheap.” So we can see that the terroir in Napa and Alexander Valley is not easy to define. Add to that stylistic differences in winemaking techniques—from harvesting decisions to fermentation and oak — and it’s clear that defining regional characteristics is tricky, at best. It’s easy to discern a regional style when you already have a preconception of what it is, and you’re not tasting blind. However, after tasting well more than 100,000 wines, most of them blind, during my career, I can tell you that it doesn’t always work that way. Our very notion of regional styles in Cabernet Sauvignon was, in fact, a product of Bordeaux, where it used to be easy to state (as Oz Clark did) that Pauillac is “intense blackcurrant fruit with heady cedar and pencil-lead shavings” while Margaux is “rarely heavy and has a divine perfume.” Yet even the great Alexis Lichine wrote, of Pauillac, that “the wines do not possess much generic similarity.” And nowadays, a riper winemaking style, coupled with global warming, has clearly leveled the playing field between the Bordeaux communes, and the same is true here in California.
Well, that was my disclaimer: Having said that, there are distinctions to be made between Alexander Valley and Napa Valley. So let’s explore them.
Here at Stonestreet, we are now, as I’m sure you know, in the heart of Alexander Valley. The mountains to the east (which most non-Californians would call “hills”) are the Mayacamas, which rise to 4,700 feet, although most of the vineyards are below 2,700 feet. On the other side of the Mayacamas is Lake County and Napa Valley.
The legal A.V.A. here is Alexander Valley, which is silly, since there are so many mountain vineyards. There have been attempts in the past to appellate the mountains themselves, but so far these attempts have not been successful.
Historically, Cabernet Sauvignon in Alexander Valley has been grown on the valley floor, mostly in the southern part, along Route 128, on either side of the Russian River. SHOW MAP In the 1980s, vineyards began to creep up into the eastern hills, as wine prices rose and wineries could afford to develop these vineyards, which involve high set-up costs. In Napa Valley, mountain vineyards were installed earlier than in Alexander Valley, mainly because the money was there.
Alexander Valley and Napa Valley thus are two classic California coastal valleys, parallel to each other. They both run in a southeast-northwest orientation. Both would be far warmer than they are were it not for the influence of maritime air, which comes in from the Pacific and from San Francisco Bay, neither of which ever warms up much beyond 60 degrees even in high summer. Napa Valley gets fogs and winds from Carneros and also from gaps in the Mayacamas, such as one near Calistoga. Alexander Valley gets its maritime air from the Russian River Valley to the south, from the river itself, and also through gaps in the coastal hills, including the Petaluma Gap. Both valleys grow progressively warmer as you move towards the northwest: Cloverdale is Alexander Valley’s hotspot, while Calistoga is Napa Valley’s.
But elevation plays a crucial role in temperature. With every hundred feet of altitude, you lose about one degree on a summer day. On the other hand, due to a temperature inversion, it’s not as chilly in the mountains at night as it is on the valley floor, which is affected by radiational cooling. Mountains, then, are more consistently moderate places to grow grapes. Above 1,000 feet or so, they also are usually above the fogline.
Soils also change with altitude. The lower in elevation you are, the more granular the soil gets. The valley floor is largely the product of sedimentary runoff from the hills and flooding from the Russian and Napa Rivers. The soils are deeper, richer and more fertile, which is why both valleys used to grow things like plums and nuts. The higher up you go, the drier and poorer the soils are. Whatever rainfall does fall runs off almost instantly to the valley below, leaching out elemental nutrients, both organic and inorganic. These soils can barely hold humidity. The grapevines thus have to struggle to survive. We’re all familiar with this phrase, and we all understand that struggling vines produce more concentrated, interesting fruit than well-nourished and well-irrigated ones.
So is there a difference between Cabernet grown in Alexander Valley and Napa Valley? Yes, in general. Napa Valley is one mountain range further inland than Alexander Valley, so it’s a bit warmer. Thus, you’d expect Napa Cabernet to be a little riper than Alexander Valley Cab, and that has in fact been my experience. In general – on average — Alexander Valley Cab is slightly more herbaceous than Napa Cab.
But terroir – understood as the combination of physical factors such as climate and soil – is only a part of why wine tastes the way it does. The other part is the human factor – what the great French enologist, Emile Peynaud, calls Cru. When you add human activity to terroir, you end up with Cru. I would argue that the human factor in Napa Valley plays a more important role than it does in Alexander Valley. For example, the modern tendency is to let Cabs get ultra-ripe, in the Parker style. This has particular relevance in Napa Valley, Parker’s Happy Hunting Ground for Cabernet Sauvignon; since the 1980s, as we all know, Napa Cabs have been getting riper, as the wineries chase those high Parker scores.
This phenomenon is less true in Alexander Valley. Vintners just don’t feel the same pressure – from critics or consumers – to make big, lush, ripe, splashy, extracted Cabernets. Therefore, in a very real sense, Alexander Valley Cabernet is more of a wine of terroir than Napa Valley Cabernet. This statement is, I realize, controversial. We’ve all heard much of a new direction in California wine that’s less ripe and supposedly more “elegant” and “balanced.” I would suggest that this new style is not so new in Alexander Valley. I’ll return to this topic later.
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Let’s focus in more closely on Alexander Valley. The most celebrated Cabernets, for the most part (certainly the most expensive ones) are grown on the foothills, slopes, benches and mountains of the eastern side of the valley, which is the western face of the Mayacamas. There is, as I said, a lot of Cab planted down on the valley floor These are the wines that established Alexander Valley’s reputation – along with Zinfandel. But I think it’s fair to say that the Cabernets that have raised Alexander Valley’s profile are those from the higher elevations.
In fact, for the most expensive Cabs, we have to turn to altitude — and in some cases, quite a bit of altitude. In addition to the temperature distinctions I referred to earlier, there’s also more intense solar radiation in mountains. We tend to overlook solar radiation in discussions of terroir, possibly because our notion of Cabernet terroir was formed from Bordeaux, where elevation plays almost no role.
The role of solar radiation on grapes is only partially understood. High-altitude grape skins are thicker, in part because the fruit tries to protect itself from intense sunlight. This, along with the poor, dry soil, makes mountain grapes more tannic. Research suggests that these mountain tannins are qualitatively different from the tannins of valley floor grapes. They’re softer and rounder, giving the wines plenty of structure, yet they also possess a suppleness that makes them appealing even in youth.
There’s also evidence that, at high altitudes, the sun’s UV rays are better able to penetrate the skins of the grapes despite their thickness. This has an obvious implication for the pips, which are more easily ripened.
Elevation also allows grapes to more easily achieve a balance of sugar ripeness and the expression of varietal character. In wine, we often speak of “sweet spots,” and this concept applies to mountain vineyards. Too low down, and sugar accumulation may outpace the full expression of varietal flavor. Too high up, and the temperature is too cool, leading to sharp, green wines. In the Mayacamas, the sweet spot seems to be between 400 and about 2,400 feet.
The most interesting quote in the Napa Valley Register’s article on the 30th birthday of the Carneros Wine Alliance is from David Graves. The co-founder of Saintsbury said, “There’s no ‘Napa of pinot noir.’ No one place dominates the market.”
Isn’t it interesting how the cultural evolution of the market has treated our two leading red wine types so differently? One, Cabernet Sauvignon, has become almost exclusively dominated, in the mind of the consumer, with a single appellation: Napa Valley. The other, Pinot Noir, resists being associated with a dominating region. Indeed, if you were to ask leading wine critics, What is California’s top Pinot Noir appellation, they would tell you the question makes no sense.
Beyond being merely of academic interest, this is a pocketbook issue. How much a winery gets for its wine (and how much, in turn, the consumer pays for it) are intimately linked with the wine’s origin. While the average statewide price for a ton of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in 2013 was $1,339, in Napa Valley it was $5,469, a difference of 308 percent. Pragmatically, this is why the average bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet is many times higher that the average bottle of Cabernet from, say, Alexander Valley.
This is not true of Pinot Noir, whose price tends to be more consistent across all the top coastal growing areas. Here are some examples, all reflective of the price of a ton of grapes in 2013:
Santa Barbara/San Luis Obispo: $2,586
Indeed, as I have long suggested, when it comes to Pinot Noir, it is somewhat misleading to focus on individual growing regions. Instead, the way to look at things is that we have a single Pinot Noir terroir that stretches from Anderson Valley down to Santa Barbara County, extending inland perhaps 20 miles. No single A.V.A. within this vast stretch can plausibly pretend to supremacy because, in truth, all of them are roughly equal, although, of course, wine writers and critics make their livings discerning differences within the similarities.
In the case of Napa’s lopsided price for Cabernet, this cannot be credited to matters of terroir. Napa Valley demonstrably is not the best, only place to grow qualitatively significant Cabernet Sauvignon in California. Alexander Valley has equal precedence. So too do the Santa Cruz Mountains, Paso Robles, the easternmost parts of Santa Barbara, Lake County and other regions of Sonoma County, including Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Knights Valley and Chalk Hill. (I refer, in all cases, to the top wines.) I don’t think any critic who’s being objective would object when I say that prime Cabernet growing areas in California are at least as widespread as those for prime Pinot Noir.
Why, then, the incredible price differential on behalf of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon? One reason and one reason only: perception. Napa Valley is perceived as being the best place to grow Cabernet. That perception clearly impacts the choice of consumers (and the restaurateurs and merchants who sell wine to them), but it also distorts the impressions of a surprisingly high number of critics, who do not taste blind and thus are subject to the biases within their own unconscious or subconscious minds.
Now that I’ve been “relieved” of the job of tasting many thousands of wines a year, I find I’m developing a refreshingly clearer sense concerning these matters of terroir. Perhaps it’s a form of now being able to see the forest for the trees. If one is looking for pleasure and complexity in wine (and what else would one look for?), then it’s simply astonishing how easy it is to find those qualities in California wine. This is not to suggest that quality differences do not exist, but it is my considered judgment that these differences are neither as vast as I once thought, nor as distinctive as consumers believe. This may be due, in part, to the 100-point system, which I long employed and for which I will never apologize. But I am glad that, when it came to very high scores for Cabernet, I always included Alexander Valley right up there with Napa Valley, for I was able to get past the “perception thing” and focus on the wine itself.
The history of California wine is replete with paradigm-shifting events, such as the Paris Tasting, the advent of the current era of Pinot Noir, replanting after phylloxera, and, if we go back far enough, to the use of French barriques and the creation of the Federal labeling laws. To these, I will predict a gradual shifting in the consumer’s perception, a widening of appreciation that great Cabernet Sauvignon can in fact come from many more places than only Napa Valley. When this will occur is open to question, but I have no doubt that it will.
Both cities have come a long way over the last ten or fifteen years. When I began visiting Napa Valley, in the 1970s, Napa city was (let’s face it) kind of a drag from a tourist point of view, although it did have that All-American City cleanliness. Downtown was a heap of mattress stores and “antique” parlors that were little more than flea markets. As for Calistoga, it was the redneck side of the valley. My roommate Eugene’s parents lived up there, in a trailer park. Nobody I ever heard of went to the mud baths, except Eugene himself, for his arthritis.
Napa city was first to change. New restaurants began to go in. They developed that Riverfront area, and built all the flood control projects to keep downtown from its periodic inundations. COPIA brought in some travelers, but even its closure didn’t seem to put a dent into Napa’s attractiveness as a destination.
Calistoga by contrast seemed content during the first decade of the 2000s to glide by on sleepy feet. A few good, new restaurants went in, but otherwise, Calistoga remained more or less a backwater. When Solage opened, I took notice, but it seemed more of a standalone luxury resort than a reflection of any underlying change in the town of Calistoga; it wasn’t even within walking distance of the town center, but a schlep down the Silverado Trail.
Now, however, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat is reporting that Calistoga is “shifting to more emphasis on the high-end, luxury tourists,” to quote its city manager. New “luxury resorts,” priced at “$300 to $1,200 a night,” are going in, financed by the likes of the Four Seasons and Hong Kong billionaires. That this will change the character of Calistoga is granted by everyone. The Press Democrat article correctly surmises that the changes will bring more traffic and will result in much more water use; critics of the development managed to put initiatives limiting it on the local ballot, but these were defeated by the voters, who evidently felt that Calistoga’s chronic budget shortfalls, which impacted such local services as police and fire, would be made up for by increased tax revenues and tourist spending.
It’s not for any of us to judge whether Calistoga’s new ambitions are a good or bad thing. It’s for the people of Calistoga to decide, and they already have. What’s certain is that Napa Valley, from Yountville north through St. Helena to Calistoga, now has become a luxe destination for upscale travelers from all over the world—whether they’re into wine or not. Outside of San Francisco, Napa Valley is the culinary capitol of Northern California (The Restaurant at Meadowood and French Laundry alone would suggest that). It’s also the golf capital and the spa capital. And all in all, the politicians and city fathers and mothers who manage Napa Valley’s growth have done a good job of managing development and keeping its too-ugly side from creeping in.
Except for the traffic. It’s very bad now, and bound to get much, much worse. I know of no plans in place to expand or allieviate automobile access into and out of the valley, on either the Silverado Trail side or the Highway 29 side. (They certainly can’t add new lanes to 29 between St. Helena and Oakville, can they?) Napa Valley seems to have accepted the conventional wisdom that gridlock is the inevitable cost of development. It’s too bad, but what are you gonna do?
I’m going to be doing an event soon on Alexander Valley and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and the differences between them. This is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. As a working critic for many years, I of course had the opportunity to taste many if not most of the Cabs from both those regions, over many vintages, and so I formed a picture in my mind of their differences.
I keep in mind that Napa Valley is one mountain range further inland than Alexander Valley, so it’s a bit warmer and drier. (Of course, it needs to be said that Napa is incredibly more complicated than Alexander Valley, terroir-wise. The west-facing slopes of the Vacas in Oakville, at Dalla Valle for instance, are much warmer than, say, conditions at Dominus.) You’d expect Napa Cabernet to be a little riper than Alexander Valley Cab, and that has in fact been my experience. I’ve always thought of Alexander Valley Cab as slightly more herbaceous than Napa Cab. There’s frequently an edge of tobacco, or sage, or green olive in Alexander Valley Cab that frankly makes the wines more Bordeaux-like.
In Napa, too, the tendency to let Cabs get ultra-ripe, in the modern Parker style, is also much more pronounced than in Alexander Valley. This is primarily for economic reasons; wineries that have gotten very high Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast scores naturally are reluctant to change their house style, and those high scores are generally a reflection of their wines’ opulence. I don’t feel bad at all for whatever I contributed to encouraging that style, despite the fact that it’s come under some assault lately. I like a big, rich, dramatic, powerful Napa Cabernet.
But Alexander Valley wineries never felt the same pressure to mimic that Napa style. I suppose some tried to get their grapes ultra-ripe, but it really doesn’t work in Alexander Valley. The best growers realized they had to do more to achieve success than simply copy Napa. Even if they wanted to, Alexander Valley’s cooler climate would have made it more difficult.
I keep in mind, too, that when we speak of “Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon,” we’re really talking about Cabs from the foothills, slopes and mountains of the eastern side of the valley, which is the western side of the Mayacamas Mountains. (It’s silly to have to call them “Alexander Valley,” but until there’s some new A.V.A., that’s all we have.) There’s a lot of Cab planted down on the valley floor, mainly along Route 128, but the best Cabs have some elevation—and in some cases, quite a bit of elevation. Being 800 feet or 1,400 feet up in those mountains creates vastly different terroir conditions from lower down on the valley floor. The temperature is cooler during the daytime, but warmer at night due to an inversion layer, and the vines are generally above the fog, even on the foggiest days when the valley floor is smothered in the white stuff. There’s also more intense solar radiation up on those mountains, and while I’m not an expert in precisely how that affects the grapes, I think it tends to make the fruit more intense.
The fruit also is more intense up on those mountains because the soil is really sparse. Not much grows up on those west-facing slopes of the Mayacamas except madrone and other drought-resistant flora. The native grasses and herbs pretty much dry out and turn golden during our summers, and you can sometimes find those dried herb touches in the Cabs. This too helps to make Alexander Valley Cabernet distinctive.
Then there’s the tannins. They’re dustier, sometimes a little grittier or greener in Alexander Valley than in Napa, particularly in a cool year. Overall, Alexander Valley Cabs tend to be drier, more elegantly structured and more ageable than Napa Valley Cabs, which are more dramatic and flashy. Having said all this, it can be hard to pick out Alexander versus Napa in a blind tasting, even for an experienced taster. I don’t think it would be hard to tell a Colgin from a Jordan, because they’re made in such different styles. But a 2008 Lancaster from a 2008 St. Supery? Not so easy.
I do think this is a good time for Alexander Valley Cabernet to shine. It’s been a little lost in the glare of Napa Valley, as have all of California’s other Cabernet regions (Paso Robles in particular). But we’re in new times, when new consumers are more open to exploration and discovery. And Alexander Valley Cabernet is better than it has ever been. Lots of restaurants feel they have to have Napa Cab on their wine lists because their well-heeled customers expect it, and that’s totally understandable. But if I were a somm, I’d be looking at Alexander Valley mountain Cabernet. It’s a story waiting to be told, and worth the telling.
Reading about Piero Antinori in the April 30 issue of Wine Spectator brought back memories of the early and mid-1990s, when the Marchese had hundreds of acres of Sangiovese growing in a beautiful section of Atlas Peak.
The sprawling vineyard was a fine sight to see. Sangiovese, the grape and wine, still was on the upswing in Cailfornia. Many winegrowers and critics thought it could be California’s answer to Tuscany—indeed, the term “Cal-Ital” was coined to express this desire.
To understand Sangiovese’s allure at that moment, you have to put it into context. Cabernet Sauvignon was the undoubted king of red wines. Pinot Noir was not then seriously considered to be a candidate for anything. Merlot was on the rise. Zinfandel, as always, was in one year, out the next. Petite Sirah? Hmmph. It was okay for blending, but nobody took it seriously as a standalone. So people were left to wonder: What is the “next big red wine?”
In California, with its edge-of-the-continent tradition of radical reinvention, there always has to be a “next” everything. The next big movie star. The next big politician. Even the next big earthquake. This concept of “nextness” is uncomfortable with tradition—tradition, after all, is what drove so many people to leave their homes and travel westward, where they would be free from stifling oppression. So it was with wine.
Sangiovese was crowned early on with this crown of nextness. But there was a problem—a big one. It never seemed to make very good wine. Grown on fertile flatlands and benches in Napa Valley, it made a light, pale, savory wine, almost a rosé, at places like Flora Springs. But its lightness disqualified it from being the next big red wine. So it was that growers and vintners headed to the hills.
Enter Piero Antinori. The Atlas Peak vineyard, as I’ve said, was gorgeous, and the fact that the master of Tuscany presided over it was inspirational. However, once again, Sangiovese failed to live up to expectations. The tannins in the wines were enormous, gigantic, impossible. I remember attempting to review them and fundamentally giving up. Would these wines age well in 15 or 20 years? Who knew? Who cared?
So it was that, as the Wine Spectator explains, Antinori eventually gave up on Sangiovese and replaced almost all the Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon, which he bottles under the Antica brand.
As for Sangiovese in California, it’s one of the really few disasters in the state’s wine varietal history. Acreage over the last ten or fifteen years has remained practically stagnant statewide. In Napa, less than 300 acres remain. I can barely remember the last one I reviewed for Wine Enthusiast.
Someday, somebody might resurrect Sangiovese in California and make something of it, but I doubt if we’ll ever see it return to glory. It’s awfully hard to attempt something important in California wine, only to fail, and then to return. Some politicians have done it—Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan conspicuously come to mind, men who ran losing campaigns that embarrassed them, but then came back and triumphed.
Wine, however, is not man. Whatever niche Sangiovese once promised to fill has been replaced by Pinot Noir. Sangiovese’s experimental period in California was a bold and noble venture, but it led nowhere.
You know that old saying about how you can’t put the toothpaste back into the tube? That was my feeling when I read this article, from Monday’s Napa Register, on a debate taking place in Napa Valley. And, no, it’s not about wine.
The topic is nothing new: Growth versus preservation. In its latest incarnation, it shape-shifts into whether Napa should be (in the words of a county official) “a resort area [or] an agricultural area.” California, with our natural beauty, always is a hotbed of such debates, and Napa Valley, for many reasons, is no exception. This conversation has been going on for as long as I’ve been aware of the valley.
In particular this brouhaha over the number of tasting rooms and wineries hosting “events” like weddings has also been around for a long time. It’s only natural that some valley residents would be upset over the traffic (truly, truly awful on Highway 29) and the feeling that their pastoral little slice of heaven is turning into a tourist-drawing WineryLand theme park.
So is it time to take drastic action, like limiting the number of tasting rooms, or wineries, or vineyards, or resorts and hotels? This is the problem of the toothpaste. Napa can’t go backwards to the bucolic 1960s or 1970s. And there are limits to how much it can do to prevent the invasion of the tourists, which now seems to occur year-round, not just in the summer, as the climate dries and warms.
It’s interesting to read the comments to the Register article. Typical of the slow-growthers is this one from a reader who’s had it up to here: “Anyone catch the traffic on 29 today? Basically heading south it was backed up from the light in yountville all the way to the CIA. It was almost just as bad heading North. It was still backed up at 6:45 at night, about 35 minutes to get from st Helena to yountville. That should be a 7 minute drive.” And this from someone else: “Experiencing the growth in the last fifteen years, one could argue that the tipping point has already been reached. Does one honestly wish to make the traffic even more intolerable?”
It’s not clear what the solution is, but we should be looking at this from a wider perspective, namely: Napa Valley isn’t the only place in California where traffic is an enormous, and growing, problem. It’s a problem throughout the state, from our local city and suburban streets to the freeways and bridges that form California’s nervous system, from the Pacific Coast Highway to the byways of the Sierra Nevada and all chokepoints inbetween. Californians have always complained about traffic in our state’s notorious car culture, but things are worse than they’ve ever been, and if you’re wasting hours of your life everyday sitting idle, you’re understandably frustrated. And what I can’t for the life of me understand is why our government isn’t taking the problem more seriously. This isn’t something that local government can tackle. It’s a gigantic elbow to the throat of California’s economy (not to mention drivers’ peace of mind) and only government has the means to address it.
Maybe, in Napa’s case, the answer is to limit the number of tourists (especially on weekends) in some way that’s legal and fair. Of course, the state would have to be involved, too, and possibly the Feds. Back in the 1970s, when we had the nation’s first gas shortage, you could only fill your tank on certain days, depending on the number on your license plate. I don’t recall there being any riots; people understood that there was a crisis and we all had to be a part of the solution.
Could something like that work in Napa’s case? There are really just two main ways in, from the south and north, Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. Maybe they could build checkpoints with automated cameras, like the ones they use for FasTrak. Get the word out, through media and signage, that Saturdays are for “x” drivers and Sunday’s are for “y” drivers, and then levy a hefty fine on anyone who’s caught cheating (just the way FasTrak works). Of course, you’d have to figure out some way to screen out locals so they didn’t get caught in the net. This would inconvenience many tourists, granted; but once they got the hang of it, they’d get used to it, and they’d probably eventually welcome the more open roads.
I know it’s a crazy idea, but maybe it could work. And if things get bad enough (and they’re heading in that direction) it may be the only way.