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.)
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Trading down from Gucci to J. Crew may not seem like the toughest sacrifice in the world, but even the top 2 percent of upper-income Americans is “thinking twice” about spending their money on über-expensive goods, says Bloomberg News.
“These ‘2-percenters,’ unnerved by the most recent recession, are trading down to less-expensive” apparel and other items, the article says. It quotes the president of a luxury research firm: “The rich have lost their exuberance.”
Of course, “a small cadre of ultra-high net-worth individuals…is insulated and not cutting back,” but unless you’re in the yacht business, you’re not really concerned about these 1 percent of the 1 percent.
The article names names: On “the way down” in clothing and accessories are Prada, Armani, Gucci, Hermes and Gianni Versace. On “the way up” are Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Banana Republic and Urban Outfitters. In other words, brands that offer cachet and style, without the high price.
So the HENRYs (“high earner not rich yet”) are scaling back. What does it mean for luxury wine brands, particularly California Cabernet Sauvignons that have hit triple digits?
Unless you’re the owner or the winery’s banker, you can’t really know what the bottom line is. Is Screaming Eagle hurting? Harlan? How about Bryant, Colgin, Dalla Valle, Schrader, Abreu, Sloan? If these are the Armanis and Guccis of wine, then we have to expect that things are not quite as solid as they were pre-2008. The HENRYs are “thinking twice” about spending their hard-earned cash on them, and there’s no indication they’re going to return to their free-spending ways anytime soon.
Nor are there enough “ultra-high net-worth individuals” to absorb all of these expensive wines. I have to believe, based on what I’ve seen and heard, that the cults are hurting–although some of their owners are so rich that they can afford to ride out what they hope is a relatively brief soft period following the Great Recession.
What are the alternatives to the cults–the winery equivalents of the Banana Republics and J. Crews of California that the 2 percenters are turning to? Here’s my list of Cabernet Sauvignon producers whose wines are pretty much near as good as anything from the cults, but whose prices are more aligned with reality: Stonestreet, Von Strasser, Vine Cliff, Goldschmidt, Krutz, Hall, Sequoia Grove, Duckhorn, Conn Creek, Kendall-Jackson Highlands Estates, Long Meadow Ranch, Piña, Macauley, Stephen & Walker, Kuleto, Yates Family, Renteria, Creo, Snowden, Laird, Moone-Tsai, Hunnicutt, St. Supery, La Jota, Frank Family, Prime, Rubicon Cask Cabernet, Signorello, Trinchero, Stag’s Leap Artemis, Monticello, Charnu, KaDieM, Venge, Terra Valentine and Hidden Ridge. I’ve given scores of 95 points or higher in Wine Enthusiast to bottlings from each of them over the past few years, and none costs more than $90 retail.
Benjamin Lewis writes, in his superb new book, Claret & Cabs, that the Left Bank of Bordeaux, and to some extent the Right Bank, is undergoing an identity crisis, as more and more Classified Growth chateaux bottle second wines.
It used to be that the handful of chateaux that made a second wine used grapes that were considered not good enough to go into the main wine. But that started to change in the 1990s and 2000s. “[S]econd wines have become profit centers in their own right, and are no longer simply a way to mop up lots that are not successful enough to include in the grand vin,” Lewin writes. “Often enough they have become a separate brand in all but name.”
The result are wines that “have improved significantly” and, with the great 2009 and 2010 vintages, “seemed to reflect their origins more clearly” than the grand wines. In fact, Lewin quotes Bruno Eynard, director of Chateau Lagrange, that “The second wine of a great year today is better than the grand vin of a minor year previously.” !!!
Lewin is not suggesting that proprietors are reducing the quality of the main wine, only that there is now competitive selection to make it into the second wine–with the corresponding result that many chateaux now have a third brand, as well, often bearing a simple communal AOC.
This ties into a phenomenon we’re also seeing here in California, in which top Cabernet wineries, usually in Napa Valley, produce a hierarchy of wines. As readers of my reviews probably know, it is far from certain that the most expensive wine (which may be a vineyard designate or barrel selection) is “better” than the second wine. I’d say that in about one-third of the cases, it is not. (Whether that makes the second wine a value, or the main wine a rip-off, is debatable.) But when the winery has a third tier that bears a simple Napa Valley appellation, the chances of it being pretty ordinary rise significantly. Not naming names– my reviews speak for themselves–but some Napa wineries are releasing these third-tier Cabernets that frankly aren’t worth the price, but merely trade on the winery’s name.
There was a time when vintners had some pride in what they turned out. If they had a lesser quality wine, they’d bulk it out on the market, or else bottle it under a different brand name and do everything in their power to hide the link to the parent winery. Inherent in this strategy, obviously, was the possibility of a reverse one: Some marketing whiz, at some point, would have said, “Wait a minute. Why are we hiding the connection? If we actively promote it, we could charge more money for the lesser wine.” (Mouton-Cadet, anyone?)
Someone in the room, I would think, would have objected that a low score on the lesser wine would taint the image of the main wine. But with the Recession and the current struggle for survival, even of some pretty famous wineries, the marketing message increasingly is triumphing over the moral message.
Last year, Joe Gallo asked me a question: Was Opus One good or bad for the Robert Mondavi brand? I’d never thought about it, so I asked him to give me a few seconds to think about it, and then I said, “Good, because it associated Mondavi with prestigious Bordeaux.”
“Wrong,” Joe Gallo admonished me. “It was bad, because Opus One took all the best fruit, and the Mondavi reserve suffered.”
He may or may not have been correct: certain critics in the 1990s faulted Mondavi Cabernets for lacking power, but that wasn’t necessarily because “Opus took all the best fruit.” Tim Mondavi repeatedly insisted he was not interested in making powerhouse wines, preferring a French style; the criticism that the wines were light (which I never bought into) was therefore a misunderstanding of the winemaker’s intention.
However, Joe Gallo’s argument does underscore the danger when a winery, with only limited access to superior fruit (and what winery has unlimited access to the best fruit?), tinkers around with second and third tiers. Usually, something gets hurt: either the top wine is lowered because quality grapes are diverted from it, or the second or third tier suffers because it has only inferior grapes. This is not to say that a winery cannot successfully produce separate tiers that are each quite good on their own: Freemark Abbey reliably does (with Sycamore, Bosché and the Napa Valley), and so does Stag’s Leap (Cask 23, Fay and Artemis). But I’m afraid they’re more the exceptions that the rule.