One of the most interesting and controversial topics of the modern wine industry is the phenomenon of the “flying winemaker.” This is the term, which I first heard in the 1990s, that refers to a class of men and women who hire themselves out to wineries as consultants; they are “flying” because their preferred mode of transportation is of course the jet plane.
But they are much more than mere consultants. Their name, attached to a wine on a press release, automatically confers prestige, the way, say, Steven Spielberg’s name as producer of a movie is a sort of guarantee of the film’s pedigree.
The name most often conjured up by “flying winemaker” is that of Michel Rolland. I knew he consults for a lot of wineries around the world, but I never knew that the number was up to two hundred, according to this article in Harpers. Among his Napa Valley clients, current and/or previous, I’m aware of are Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Alpha Omega, Dancing Hares, Staglin, Dalla Valle and Sloan—in other words, absolutely the peak of Napa Valley (if not the New World) in terms of price and quality (at least, as judged by the top critics). These are the famous “cult wines” that define a region’s reputation and in fact establish its upper or outer limits of quality and perception by the wine world’s cognoscenti.
This would be all well and good, except that over the last fifteen years or so—let’s say, roughly from the start of the new century—a certain drumbeat of criticism has arisen among some critics, to the effect that an increase in the activities of these flying winemakers has resulted in a standardization or sameness in all the wines with which the consultant is associated. In fact, this critique goes even further: it says that all flying winemakers bring a similar approach to all their client wines, making these wines all taste similarly to each other, regardless of who made them or whether they are from Napa Valley or Pomerol or Chile. This sameness has been referred to as the “globalization of wine” or “the international style,” terms meant to suggest that all wines of the same varietal type—most usually, Cabernet Sauvignon and its allied varieties—smell and taste alike. In the eyes of the critics of such globalization, this is tantamount to a crime, since it obliterates the notion of terroir.
This is a serious debate and a good one to have. I’ve never been one to take an extremist position one way or the other, as some American critics and newspaper columnists do in utterly condemning these “international” wines. Their criticisms usually also have to do with what they perceive as excessive ripeness, over-oakiness and an alcohol level (often approaching if not exceeding 15%) which, they claim, elevates technique over terroir.
My reluctance to join these reporters has been based on the simple fact that many of the Cabernets associated with Michel Rolland and other flying winemakers are, in fact, gorgeous. They are among the richest, most sumptuous wines ever produced in the history of the world, and it is churlish, if not somewhat childish, to object to them based on some philosophical or ideological notion. This deliciousness seems to be what Rolland himself referred to when he told Harpers that all he strives to do is to produce wines that are “intense, full bodied, balanced, harmonious, with delicate tannins and a long finish.” This description certainly fits the Napa Valley wines I’m familiar with that Rolland consults for, but the problem, which you see is obvious by now, is that the same description fits all of them, which seems to hoist Rolland on his own petard. He has provided us with the template for an international style of Cabernet Sauvignon. And here, I must say that, in California at least, there is an ersatz style that mimics the international style on the surface, but that on closer examination results in lazy, flamboyant but eventually tiring wines. One has to be very careful in approaching the international style, lest he throw the baby out with the bathwater!
Harpers headlines their article “Michel Rolland defends his ability to manage wines on up to 200 wineries around the world,” and while the word “defends” is perhaps hyperbolic on Harper’s part, Rolland no doubt feels a little beleaguered. He must be aware of the criticism (although one suspects he cries all the way to the bank). Supporting the critics is the commonsense notion that one can only be in one place at a time, and even in this age of the jet plane, to have to be in so many places all over the world, having to apply one’s conscientious attention to so many properties, especially at the harvest, must be challenging to say the least. Heidi Barrett, herself one of California’s most famous flying winemakers (although she more properly might be called a “driving winemaker,” for she only accepts clients that are “within a half hour” drive of her Calistoga home), notes that she limits her number of clients for the most pragmatic of reasons. “Realistically, when things are fermenting I must taste every tank, every day, and so I’m going to four locations, and that maxes me out. Some days I barely get everywhere.” (These quotes are from my 2008 book, “New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff.”)
Historically, we are at a point now where there is more or less an equilibrium between the international or global style, which admittedly is a ripe, expressive one, and a more restrained (one could almost say timid) approach, encouraged if not caused by the critics of the international style, who tend to have big platforms and the egos to fill them. I said we’re at “a point,” not “a tipping point.” I don’t think the balance will alter anytime soon, one way or the other. The wine market is simply too big and fractured for any large-scale revolutions to happen, despite alleged claims from some quarters that one is underway now. In the midst of such a complex market, winemakers hedge their bets; better to stick with a style that’s worked for you up to now, than to throw the dice and risk unnecessary changes that might alienate your customers. Finally, we come to the cases of new entrants to the production game, a younger generation that’s decided to live the wine life. They have, it seems to me, two choices, in the widest sense: to appeal to the international style, or to make wines more severe and that will, they hope, win the praises of the newspaper columnists who like that streamlined approach. They might as well flip a coin, given the standoff, and follow their hearts—always the best thing to do.
Twenty-five years for a French wine region is the blink of an eye, but it’s a pretty good age for a California AVA to reach. Stags Leap District has just hit the quarter-century mark, as Decanter reminds us, so it’s time to wish them happy birthday and consider what that appellation has brought to the spectrum of Napa Valley wine.
Actually, it’s a little strange it took Stags Leap so long—1989–to be formally recognized: at least fifty California AVAs are older, including the likes of North Yuba, Merritt Island, Pacheco Pass, Willow Creek and Cole Ranch, proving that organizational power, and not necessarily the provenance of the terroir, is the governing force behind appellation formation. But I digress.
André Tchelistcheff of course said the most famous thing that was ever said or ever will be said about Stags Leap, that its wines were “an iron fist in a velvet glove,” but he did not invent this phrase. Napoleon did, apparently, according to Thomas Carlyle, who defined it as a person being “soft of speech and manner, yet with an inflexible rigour of command.” I don’t know about the Napoleon origin, and I’ve never been able to discover the exact citation for Tchelistcheff. The Maestro was of course familiar with Stags Leap District, long before it was officially called that: In the 1970s he consulted for Warren Winiarski, at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, and he had at the very least a hand in making the 1973 Stag’s Leap Cabernet that won the Paris Tasting. Winiarski’s homage to André, in Benson’s Great Winemakers of California, is worth quoting in depth:
“In André Tchelistcheff…I feel you have the combination of technology and love, because he combines the spirit and the science in himself. He has been a great influence, as a consultant here.” Winiarski pointed out the fact, which has been unappreciated, that André had been “the common bond between the two wines that placed first in the Paris tasting,” his own and Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay, in that Mike Grigich, who made the Montelena, worked under Tchelistcheff, at Beaulieu.
Whenever or however André made his “iron fist” remark, writers ever since have used it freely, as I did in 2005 in reviewing the 2002 Chimney Rock Elevage. “If Tchelistcheff were still here,” I wrote, “he might describe this Cab as an iron fist in a velvet glove.” I meant that it had a fruitysoftness I called “deceptive” because of the huge structure.
I’ve always had a warm spot for the Cabernets of Stags Leap District. The roster of wineries is impressive: older ones like Chimney Rock, Stag’s Leap and Stags’ Leap Winery, Shafer (one of my few perfect 100s), Pine Ridge and Clos du Val, newer ones like Baldacci and Odette and Cliff Lede. I remember the first time I tasted a Baldacci Cab, the Brenda’s Vineyard from (I think) the 2005 vintage, which just blew me away, and sent me on a special search for find out who made it (Rolando Herrera). There is something special about a well-made Stags Leap Cab: it’s not quite as apparently tannic as, say, Oakville, Rutherford or Howell Mountain, but has great weight and density. Yet it seems so silky—that’s the velvet glove. I remember, also, tasting the very early Clos du Vals, which always seemed too hard and brittle to me, not quite ripe: I think the winery miscalculated for a number of years, thinking that if they picked the grapes earlier than their neighbors, they’d get something more “Bordeaux-like.” But this didn’t work. If you pick the grapes before they’re fully ripe, you get big tannins and acids and underripe fruit. (This problem may have been compounded by excessive vigor as well as the cool winds that invade Stags Leap coming up from the south. The grapes need hang time.) The best Stags Leap Cabernets show an exquisite tension of all parts; they seem, also, to have a taste of the earth that you don’t get in the wines of Highway 29. I’m not sure what why that is, this grippiness and chewiness. It’s more of a texture than a taste. It may be more noticeable in those Cabs from the east side of the Silverado Trail, where the soils contain more volcanic debris. But this is speculation.
I’m not the biggest fan of AVAs in California, which can have a willy-nilly, haphazard character. But Stags Leap District surely is one that makes sense. If anyone knows of any upcoming tastings of the wines of Stags Leap, please let me know.
I’m not a big cocktail drinker, but I do like one or two from time to time when I’m having a nice dinner at a restaurant. My preference is vodka. The taste of Scotch has never appealed to me, although I do appreciate the complexities of a single-malt. Rum and bourbon, ehh, I sometimes like to venture over to Pican on a late night and have some of their Bourbon classic cocktails, but I have to be in the right mood. On my to-do list is to explore tequila. Now that I’m not immersed in a tsunami of California wine, like I was for so long, I have the time to explore other beverages!
I used to be a dirty vodka martini guy, but the excessive salt in the olives and brine eventually bothered me. So I asked a bartender at a hotel where I was staying to recommend a vodka drink that was simple but not salty, and he gave me a gimlet. Now, that particular gimlet was not very good. It was too soft and sweet and simple. So when I had dinner recently at Ozumo, I tried again, and bingo! That was a superb gimlet, as were the two I had the other night at Boot and Shoe Service, here in Oakland. I asked the bartender lady why it was so good, and she said it was because they freshly squeeze their own limes, instead of using the classic Rose’s Lime Juice, which to my understanding is sweetened. Perhaps that was the problem with that hotel gimlet, which tasted like liquid candy.
Before I was a wine writer, I drank widely and prolifically. My old tasting diary is filled with notes on Alsace, Chianti, Bordeaux, Germany, the Loire—not so much Italy, alas. These are the wines I plan to start re-enjoying in this new phase of my life and career. But I’m sure the majority of the wines I drink will still be from California.
When I began enjoying California wine, the state hadn’t yet turned into what we may today call the appellation-varietal complex (a term I borrowed from Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex”). Even in Napa Valley, which shortly was to become a varietal monoculture, with primarily Cabernet Sauvignon planted, you still saw vineyards with Zinfandel, Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet next to each other. When Harry Waugh visited the valley, in the mid-1980s, he was astonished to see, at the S. Anderson winery, only Chardonnay and sparkling wine produced, which he called “another new trend…What a contrast [to when] every winery used to produce and sell half-a-dozen varietals!”
I’m not here to defend varietal promiscuity in a vineyard, but it wasn’t the worst thing in the world in the 1960s and 1970s and it wouldn’t be today, if someone did that sort of thing. We got into this topic last week on my blog, where someone wrote critically of Trefethen for having Riesling growing in the same vineyard as their Cabernet. That person felt it was terroir-ly (is that a word?) impossible for both varieties to thrive in close proximity. I suppose his thinking was that Riesling needs Alsatian or German weather and soils whereas Cabernet needs Bordeaux weather and soils, and since the weather and soils in Alsace/Germany are different from those of Bordeaux, it must ipso facto be impossible for both varietals to thrive in Oak Knoll!
That’s an example of what I call ideological thinking. It may seem logical, but you really have to taste the wine to see what’s real. In the case of Trefethen’s Rieslings, I’ve always liked them. They’re dry (as the label says), and most of the time make for excellent drinking, at a fair price. I gave 91 points to the 2009, 87 to the 2010 and 89 to the 2012 (I didn’t review the 2011—did they make one?). I’m also a huge fan of Trefethen’s Cabernets, so for me, the argument that you can’t grow Riesling and Cabernet in the same vineyard just doesn’t hold water.
In part what I’ve learned and tried to communicate during my entire career can be boiled down to this: Whatever you think is real may not be. The best way to find out is to have an open mind. If you can’t have an open mind, then taste blind. You discover the most surprising things that way.
SPECIAL NOTE TO MY READERS: I have been forced to install a Captcha! Code in order for you to comment here. Believe me, I didn’t want to. For many years you’ve been able to get your comments posted instantly (after one initial approval), and I like it that way. But the Comments section has been overwhelmed with spam, resulting in a denial of service shutdown yesterday. So I apologize for this extra hassle, but that’s the way it is in this age of spam.
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Regular readers of this blog know that I have expressed some puzzlement over the years at the proliferation of expensive, high-end wines–mainly Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux blends from Napa Valley–that are “lifestyle” wines, that is, the creations of wealthy people who made their fortunes elsewhere and now want to join the most exclusive vintner’s club of all: those who can say that they own a Napa Valley winery.
My curiosity has been how these brand-new brands can possibly succeed when they cost triple digits and yet have no provenance at all–provenance being a known history of proven performance AKA a track record. I once counted all the Cabs I’d reviewed in a year’s period costing over $100 retail and by the time I reached 400 my eyes had glazed over. That’s a lot of expensive wine and automatically leads to the question: Who’s buying it?
The conventional wisdom is that it doesn’t matter who’s buying it: these proprietors are rich enough to go for years losing money. After all, what price lifestyle? There is, however, now a bit of a hint that the audience for these wannabe cult Cabs may be coming from an unexpected place.
The evidence lies in the newly-rich techies for which San Francisco lately has become famous. There’s a lot of money being made, fast, in Northern California. Last year, 2013, was “a banner year” for initial public offerings, the biggest since 2000 (immediately preceding the dot-com collapse); more than $54 billion was raised, more than twice as much as in 2008 when the Great Recession started, and believe me, a lot of that money is washing around San Francisco, which is enjoying (if that’s the right word) its greatest glory days since, well, maybe since the Gold Rush.
San Francisco know it well, and is trying to adjust to the news. Now, even New York City has taken note, a little jealously, it seems, since the Big Apple is not used to having its supremecy challenged as the nation’s leading financial and cultural center. This article, from New York magazine, even compares San Francisco to “West Egg circa 1922” (i.e. the Great Gatsby, the Roaring Twenties); Fitzgerald’s North Shore mansions and balls have become San Francisco’s downtown condos with split-level swimming pools and personal masseurs. What particularly has grabbed New York’s attention are the “Upscale restaurants [that] pop up at regular intervals, each with a more elite clientele” chowing down on “kombucha pairings with sustainable-seafood dinners.”
I don’t think one can say precisely when this Age of Surfeit started, but for me it was 2011 when the launch of Saison signaled that something was up. A few months later, Josh Sens, the restaurant writer at San Francisco magazine, wrote this glowing review of the $498-per person chef’s 22-course, 18-wine menu. (Confession: at that time the restaurant invited me for a full dinner. It was very, very, very good!) Josh wrote about the “hyperdevoted food pilgrims, IPO millionaires, and other assorted members of the city’s discerning gourmand club” who were flocking to Saison, proof enough that the Recession–which hit San Francisco hard in 2008-2010, forcing the closure of many restaurants–had ended in the City by the Bay, even as it was tightening its grip on other parts of the country.
It wasn’t just the price of a meal that caught my eye: it was Saison’s locale, in a disreputable Mission District neighborhood far from the glamour of the Financial District and even from the shabby-chic of South of Market. Saison seemed to glory in its downscale digs; the come-as-you-are dress code blared that, no, you’re not at Fleur de Lys anymore.
It is not difficult at all to conjecture that these newly-rich folks who can afford a splurge at Saison also are on the receiving end of these rare, limited quantity Napa Cabs that most people will never experience in a lifetime. Somebody knows somebody who knows the owner, and gets a bottle. Friends go out to dinner and drink it–perhaps at Saison. What began as a little story ends as buzz. Everybody wants a bottle–for now. But at this level, the consumer is incredibly fickle. Today, winery “X” is a star. Tomorrow, somebody meets somebody who’s friends with a different owner, and procures a different bottle; the cycle begins a new. Only a few of these rare and expensive wines will make it in the long run: this is Darwinian natural selection among wines, as it is among living things.
It’s increasingly apparent that well-paid Millennials, at least in San Francisco, are looking for upscale new drinking experiences and willing to pay for them. Check out this article, from the March 24 Bon Appetit, which argues that Milllenials “love wine…even more than their parents love wine.” They love it “because drinking it is classy and it makes them feel sophisticated.” Of course, a Millennial making $60,000 isn’t going to buy expensive Napa Cabernet. But lots of San Francisco Millennials are making a lot more than that: median family income in The City is $91,037, and keep in mind that a lot of those “families” consist of unmarried persons without kids, so they have a ton of disposable income. And their salaries are only heading higher: the San Francisco Business Journal reports mobile app developer starting salaries at $135,500-$195,120.
Thiis New Money has got to be a good thing for a local wine industry that, only a few years ago, looked teeter-tottery. If I were doing outreach on behalf of wineries, I would make San Francisco the Mecca of my evangelism, and I’d go after the Millennials where they live, play and hang out, starting with online.
In a few paragraphs in “Winetaster’s Choice,” written 42 years ago, Harry Waugh anticipated much of Napa Valley’s modern history, although he likely did not know it. It was on March 30, 1972, that Harry, the “grand old man of the English wine trade” who also was on the board of directors of Chateau Latour, made his third visit to Napa and found the region so dry that “It is said to be the worst drought since 1870!” Those of us who live here know that every ten years or so we do have a drought, and while I don’t mean to sound dismissive of the water situation (after all, the population of California has more than doubled since 1970), sometimes the media does seem to make things sound worse than they really are. (By the way, the rains of February have switched this winter from being the driest ever to the third driest.)
Harry’s visit coincided with a time when Napa’s boutique winery era was reaching an apogee. He was friends with Belle and Barney Rhodes, who’d planted Martha’s Vineyard, from which Joe Heitz produced one of the first vineyard-designated Cabernet Sauvignons (and which can lay claim to being California’s first modern-era “cult” wine). Martha’s Vineyard is, of course, located in the same general area of Oakville as Harlan Estate and Far Niente.
A few days later, Harry also visited Mayacamas Vineyard, high up on Mount Veeder, way above Oakville, and was dazzled by the views, which visitors still are today. “For sheer beauty the views in every direction…are, to my mind, unsurpassed,” and this despite his penchant for “splendid Alsace” and “my beloved Beaujolais country.” Tasting with Mayacamas’s founder, Bob Travers, Harry sampled the winery’s Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon (the wines were made, partly or wholly, from purchased grapes, because Bob’s new vineyard plantings hadn’t yet matured). Mayacamas was, of course, recently purchased from the Travers family by Charles Banks, who has vowed to restore the estate to greatness.
Harry also tasted a Mayacamas 1968 Zinfandel, a wine he said “caused such a stir” for its alcohol of 17%! [The exclamation point was his.] Being possessed of a European palate, and particularly fond of Bordeaux, Harry might easily have pooh-poohed that Zin, the way certain of our Europhile writers do today to wines of high alcohol. But he called it “one of the richest unfortified wines I have ever tasted” and added, “It is gratifying to know already I have a case of this most unusual wine tucked away in London.” One of the reasons I admired Harry was because of the catholicism [small “c”] of his palate. He was always in search of what he called “the pick of the bunch,” the best wines in whatever country or region he was touring, and did not bring provincial or biased tastes to his experiences.
During that same period, as a sort of lark, Harry and his wife, Prue, traveled to Lodi, which is not so far as the crow flies from Napa Valley, but seems altogether different, being on lowlands in the Sacramento Delta. However this trip was not to sample its wines or tour its vineyards. He’d been invited by “Bob and Marge Mondavi” to “a square dance club” to trip the light fantastic. I wish Harry had described this scene in greater detail, but in 1972 he could not have known the iconic status Robert Mondavi would later achieve. Isn’t it fun to imagine Mr. Mondavi dosado’ing in jeans and cowboy hat.
Another winery Harry went to was Louis M. Martini, then under the control of the Martini family (Gallo bought it in 2002), where he tasted “1970 Mountain Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon,” with a Sonoma County appellation. Could this have been Monte Rosso? Harry loved its “rich, sweet nose” and called it “gorgeous, big”; it even reminded him of the 1970 clarets (“the best vintage there since 1961”), with “its fabulous colour…richness and complexity.” I wonder what the alcohol was on that wine; today, Monte Bello Cabs tend to be on the hefty side. Perhaps a Martini will read this and let us know.
You see why it’s such fun to read about the history of wine regions. We discover that the things we are concerned with today are not without precedent. Nothing springs parthenogentically from nothing; everything has origins, and if you love wine, you must love understanding how today came out of yesterday, and all the years before.
This Sunday, Feb. 9, marks the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.
I watched it, live, with a bunch of my friends. If you’re not old enough to remember the impact of The Beatles, you can’t possibly imagine what it was like. I don’t think there was an entertainment phenomenon like it before, and certainly there hasn’t been one like it since.
The entire country, it seemed, was in thrall to the Moptops (as they were lovingly dubbed, for their bowl-shaped hairdos). I don’t think we understood, at the time, exactly why The Beatles were so exciting. All we knew was that something amazing had happened in our lives, in the life of the country and of the world, for that matter, and that we were privileged to be a part of it.
That pregnant moment in U.S. history saw the birth, not just of a new era of rock and roll music that was to become the soundtrack of millions of people’s lives, but of cultural shockwaves that still are unfolding today. John F. Kennedy had been assassinated less than two months previously; his vigor remained with us, but we were still in shock that such a thing as a Presidential murder could occur in America. The Beatles helped nurse us through to recovery. Of course, the Civil Rights movement also was rapidly changing the face of America, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who that same year, 1964, won the Nobel Peace Prize.
In California, an echo of sorts was happening–one that was a West Coast, distinctly American version of the revolution that had arrived from England to New York City. Curiously, it was another English import, expat Peter Newton, who founded Sterling Vineyards that same year, 1964. The conventional historical wisdom is that the modern boutique winery era began with Robert Mondavi’s launch of his winery, in 1966. While that is a romantically appealing notion, it’s not strictly true. (Recall that Joe Heitz started his winery in 1961.)
Ironically, 1964 also was the year that one of a handful of truly historic boutique wineries, Ingelnook, was sold, to Heublein, which ran the winery into the ground, causing it to lose the luster it had acquired since its glory days under Gustave Niebaum and, later, John Daniel, Jr. One way to look at this yin-yang inversion (Sterling being born, Inglenook dying) is to see California at that moment in wine history as in a state of ferment (no pun intended). As in all revolutions, things came into being, and other things began their inevitable process of disintegration. In retrospect, we can appreciate that The Beatles helped demolish Doo Wop music, and also contributed to the demise of Elvis Presley (with all due regard to his legions of fans), or, if not the actual Elvis, at least his old-fashioned style of music. The Beatles bore much in common, in fact, with boutique wines: They were artisanal, honest, natural, fresh, innovative and above all interesting. Their music showed a complexity (there’s no other word) that Doo Wop, for all its teenaged pleasures, never did. Sterling’s first Merlots (the first to be varietally labeled in the U.S.) lifted the average Napa Valley red wine to unprecedented heights, in much the same way The Beatles elevated the quality of pop music.
One more comparison seems apt. The Beatles left us with a legacy of some of the most wonderful, unforgettable rock and roll songs in history. In much the same way, even as their careers unfolded throughout the 1960s, so too did winery after winery come into being in Napa Valley during that period and into the 1970s: great names like Freemark Abbey, Chappellet, Cuvaison, Clos du Val and Mondavi. Those names, to me, carry all the artistic lyricism of great Beatles songs: I Want to Hold Your Hand, I Saw Her Standing There, All My Loving. It is the winery as art, as dynamic human creativity. Robert Lewis Stevenson said, on those signs that frame the northern and southern ends of Napa Valley, that wine is bottled poetry. Perhaps it can also be said that wine is bottled music.
Have a lovely weekend!