Nice to see negociant Cam Hughes getting some love from Big Media, in this case Forbes, who says he “spends his time hunting opportunities that translate into great deals for wine buyers.”
I’ve been a Cameron Hughes Wine fan for years. I nominated Cam for Wine Enthusiast’s “Innovator of the Year” award this year (he didn’t get it, alas), because I believe the man has more or less reinvented the old art of the negociant in a way uniquely suitable for the 21st century.
Negociants used to be central to business practice in Bordeaux. Indeed, as Eddie Penning-Rowsell says in his masterpiece “The Wines of Bordeaux,” “the wines of Bordeaux owe so much to the merchants (negociants) and their enterprise, and they are so entwined in the history of Bordeaux’s growth and production as well as the sale of wine, that to give them…no more than the passing attention they have received so far would be inadequate as well as ungenerous.”
Such names as Barton, Jernon, Skinner, Nerac, Lawton and Guestier are part and parcel with the rise of Bordeaux in the 18th and 19th centuries. They bought the wine in cask from producers, blended it and sold it on the market, at a time when the chateaux had not the ability to do so. To be sure, the negociants were not always trusted. Thomas Jefferson warned a friend not to buy from negociants: “I can assure you that it is from them [i.e., the chateaux] alone that genuine wine is to be got, and not from any winemerchant.”
In the 20th century, of course, the Bordeaux negociants lost their primacy, as chateaux developed estate bottling and rising prices enabled them to market their wines directly. The concept of the negociant, by contrast, never really caught on in California (unless you can call something like Gallo a negociant, which I would not). This is why Cameron Hughes is so important.
Not that he was the first. Don Sebastiani first brought the modern concept to my attention in a major way when he established Don Sebastiani & Sons, which did win Wine Enthusiast’s 2005 Wine Star Award for Best American Winery of the Year, on my nomination. But Cameron Hughes has expanded beyond anything Don Sebastiani & Sons envisioned, becoming a worldwide presence. The Recession may have been disastrous to high-end wineries, but it’s proved a boon to Cameron, who profits from Bad Times. He’s able to pick up superpremium wine at discount prices, bottle it under his brand with his now-famous Lot numbers, and give the consumer some of the best values out there.
Not everything Cameron touches is gold. A 2009 Meritage, with a Napa County label, even at $10 was barely drinkable, while a 2010 Field Blend, $11, was rustic and brusque. Perhaps this is solely a function of their prices, for above $15 or so, a Cameron Hughes wine is as near a guarantee of quality as you’re likely to find in a California wine. I don’t have the time or patience to count all the Best Buys and Editor’s Choices I’ve given them over the years.
Will the recovering economy hurt negociants like Cameron Hughes? Probably. When I asked him where his Napa Cabernets came from (the agreements are strictly proprietary), he replied, “If you drive Highway 29 between Yountville and Rutherford, you’ll see.” These are precisely the wineries that were caught in the wringer by the Recession; buying on the cheap must have been as easy for Cameron as shooting fish in a barrel. But we have every reason to suspect the economy is recovering, and as it does, these wineries should be able to return to their normal $40-$60 a bottle price point. It will be interesting to see how Cameron Hughes deals with Good Times as well as Bad Times.
A reader made the following comment yesterday on my most recent post, Terroir and cru: an exploration. I don’t usually reproduce reader comments in full, but this one contains many interesting and complex points I want to address. Here’s his comment:
Steve, there are many problems with California ever establishing a reputation with any level of authenticity.
First and foremost is one of genuine sincerity. Quite honestly this just reeks of Napa’s latest marketing gimmick. It’s hard to listen to anyone from Napa/Sonoma discuss terroir knowing full well that during their heady Parker fueled era of success, they stenuously discounted the notion of terroir. It was, after all, about what happened in the cellar when (fill in name), superstar-genius-rockstar winemaker made the magic happen.
So, where does this newfound respect for terroir come from? Could it be borne of the desperation of market rejection, particularly in those sought after major metropolitan markets? In Chicago, you can’t give away expensive California wine, and I’ve heard that the situation is similar in New York, Washington, Boston and even San Franscisco. I can’t count how many restaurants have opened with all-euro winelists in the Chicago market over the last eighteen months. Conversely, I can’t think of one (outside of steakhouses) that’s opened that prominently featured high end Napa/Sonoma wine and none (even counting steakhouses) that focused on it exclusively.
Beyond issues of sincerity and authenticity is the issue of establishing terroir in California where the notion of vineyard designates has been corrupted to utter irrelevancy. When an admittedly quality vineyard such as Truchard of Hudson encompossas hundreds of planted vines, how does one seriously maintain that it has any real sense of terroir. Lee Hudson’s vineyard would, by European standards, encompass hundreds of indivdual terroirs–some premier cru, some village level and maybe even a couple of grand cru. Is Lee going to allow an outside authority to determine that–and thus what he can charge for his grapes? I doubt it. Also, simply calling a particular piece of land a vineyard (a’la “my daughter/wife/great grandmother’s vineyard” or “dollarsaddlehidestick vineyard” and have it immediately mean something is not how the game works. That’s marketing not the estblishment of a true AOC/DOCG sytem.
The notion of California terroir will go nowhere because their [sic] is no genuine belief in it by those who will tout it only for marketing reasons and there are powerful vested interests who will line up against it.
Many of the opinions expressed above are widely shared throughout American wine circles. Anyone in this industry is aware of them. In essence, it’s a critique of California wine reduced to the following points:
-California wine has become Parkerized.
-Parkerization is a code word for too high in alcohol, too ripe, too oaky.
-As a result, the wines lose their connection with terroir–the ground in which they were born–and become internationalized in style.
-There is a movement afoot now whereby consumers are rejecting such wines.
-Producers of these wines increasingly must resort to marketing tricks in order to sell them.
We’ve heard all this before. It’s an old argument but it does have its adherents and the issues need to be addressed whenever they arise. The truth is that the style of ultraripe wines, especially in Cabernet Sauvignon, is one that people like. That’s why producers make these wines: because they find favor among buyers. I myself reject the argument that high alcohol trumps terroir because it makes no sense. Logically, there is no reason for that to be true. Those who believe it have to assert that something in the ground that is transmitted to the wine can only be expressed if the ABV is below a certain number. That is implausible to me. After all, alcohol levels have been rising in France, too, so one would have to argue that even in France, the notion of terroir is being lost. Eventually one becomes a terroir-ideologue, finding violations everywhere, fixated on a romantic notion that doesn’t exist.
Some consumers may well be rejecting high-end, expensive, high alcohol Napa Valley Cabernets, but I would suggest that is due more to the economy than to any shifting in taste. When the Recession hit, everything pricy got hit. Napa Valley wine will find its way, I’m sure, as recovery occurs.
As for those “marketing reasons” producers rely on to tout their terroir, nothing new there either. Bordeaux and Burgundy have been doing it forever. That’s what high-end wine does: tries to convince people it’s special due to its ground and that no other wine can ever be quite like it. The Napans learned that from the French. Yes, Colgin does it. Continuum does it. Harlan does it. Screaming Eagle does it. Ditto Araujo, Dalla Valle, anything with the word To Kalon or Tokalon on it, Shafer, Staglin, Ovid, Diamond Creek, Vineyard 7&8, Duckhorn. Lord knows I’ve criticized some proprietors for not letting me taste their wines blind, which is a marketing trick if you ask me. But that’s not to say they’re not in possession of spectacular terroir capable of producing spectacular wines. They boast about their terroir because it’s real, not because they’re trying to trick people into thinking it’s real. In other words, if you’ve got it, flaunt it.
So you can see I reject most of my reader’s comment. But I do thank him for reading my blog and for taking the time to express his opinions, which I respect. I just don’t happen to agree with them.
Cabernet Franc’s a terribly hard grape to vinify all by itself in California and make pleasant. The wine can suffer from all sorts of problems: a leafy vegetativeness, high alcohol that makes it hot especially when the underlying wine itself is thin, aggressive tannins, too much residual sweetness, or just a simple candied flavor.
Yet I’ve had some really good Cab Francs over the last 18 months, and surprise, they’ve come mostly from Napa Valley. Of my top 14 Cab Francs tasted since Jan. 2011, fully 13 bore either a Napa Valley appellation or one of its sub-apps: Howell Mountain, Oakville, Diamond Mountain.
Why Napa Valley should produce California’s best Cabernet Francs is no mystery: it produces the best of the state’s Bordeaux varieties, period, including (obviously) Cabernet Sauvignon, but also Merlot and what little Petit Verdot there is.
When you analyze why a region is tops in any given variety or wine type, the answers are complex. Terroir tops the list, and Napa’s terroir is perfect for Bordeaux grapes. One mountain range further inland than Sonoma County, it’s just that much warmer, and Bordeaux varieties love the warmth they need to fully ripen. It gets hotter down on the valley floor than it does up in the mountains, and that can be a double-edged sword: a heat wave can massacre valley grapes, but a chilly year (like 2010 or 2011) can help them achieve ripeness when their mountain brethren struggle. But it all depends, of course, on the vineyard’s exact exposition, orientation and the expertise with which the vines are farmed.
Napa’s soils also are ideal, whether they’re the thin, well-drained dirts of the mountains or the richer clays and loams of the floor. River bottom land isn’t supposed to be good for Cabernet, but there are some fine vineyards bordering the Napa River, including some of Beckstoffer’s. But it’s not just climate and soil that make Napa Valley Cabernet country, it’s the human culture that pervades the valley. Napa’s been making Bordeaux-style wines for something like 150 years. Cabernet is in Napa’s bloodstream, its DNA. We’re now five or six generations into experienced winemakers who understand Cabernet the way a parent understands her child. People like Philippe Melka, Andy Erickson, Austin Peterson, Heidi Barrett, Chris Carpenter, Sara Fowler, Nick Goldschmidt, Elias Fernandez, Mia Klein, Kirk Venge, Steve Leveque, Ted Henry, Tim Mondavi, Allison Tauziet–the ties between these talented individuals are deep, forming a sort of biodiverse ecology in which collective consciousness (of the Jungian variety) is as much a part of the terroir as the weather. Emile Peynaud, the great Bordeaux enologist, captures this concept nicely in his The Taste of Wine when he describes “cru” as combining not merely “the wine-producing property, the chateau” but also “the three activities of production, processing and marketing.” All of these elemental components of cru are “supported by a tradition of quality and the owner’s particular care…”.
Marketing as part of cru? Yes. We often forget what an essential part of great wine marketing (and sales and public relations) are, which is just fine by the marketing, sales and P.R. people I know. They don’t want to be out front; they want the wine to star, along with the winemaker and/or proprietor. The people behind the scenes know the importance of the part they play, and are content to be largely invisible to the public. Just as it should be.
The best Cabernet Francs I’ve had this year include Merryvale’s 2008, Peju’s 2008 Reserve, La Jota’s 2009, Oakville Ranch’s 2007 Robert’s Blend, and a 2007 Jarvis called “Estate Grown Cave” (and if you’re ever been in Jarvis’s cave, you’ll understand why they pay it hommage. It’s the size of Rhode Island.) Try one or several of these wines, and when you’re drinking it–or any superior Napa Valley Bordeaux red–think about the fact that it’s a product, not simply of that particular vineyard or winery, but has emerged from a complex cultural web of ideas, emotions and shared experiences called Napa Valley. As with a child, it takes a village to raise a wine.
You know what an intervention is, right? “An orchestrated attempt by one or many people – usually family and friends – to get someone to seek professional help with an addiction,” says Wikipedia. There’s even a T.V. show on interventions, called Intervention.
The concept started back in the hippie days, when parents would hire somebody to abduct a son or daughter who had dropped out of society to join a cult. Nowadays, it’s more about rescuing people who have a serious addiction to drugs, alcohol or both.
What does “addiction” mean? We throw that word around as though its meaning were transparent. My Webster’s dictionary defines “addiction” as “the condition of being addicted” [presumably, to something], so we have to look up the root word “addict.” There we find the word “addict” to be derived from the Latin; an addict is someone who “gives himself up to some strong habit” and, more specifically in the modern sense, “a person addicted to the use of a narcotic drug.”
Now we’re getting someplace. What is a “narcotic” drug? From a Middle English root-word that means stupor, from which the word “stupid” also derives– and we all know what that means! “Stupid is as stupid does,” in the immortal words of Forrest Gump’s mom. So we can connect the dots: addicted people do stupid things due to their addiction.
See what fun etymology can be?
What got me thinking about addiction and stupidity? I got my latest copy of “Bounty Hunter.” That’s the marketing publication of Bounty Hunter Rare Wines & Provisions, in downtown Napa. Now, Bounty Hunter carries a lot of rare and expensive Napa Valley wines. Its founder and CEO, Mark Steven Pope, explains on the inside of the cover how he and his store’s employees go the extra mile to make sure their customers get only the best wines. “We taste between five and six thousand wines every year,” he writes. “Our Wine Scouts, AKA your Personal Sommeliers and Wine Country Advisors,” is how he describes the staff, implying that you can trust their palates. Which is as it should be in a great wine store.
So I’m browsing through the issue and by page 4 I’d had enough Robert Parker, Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator mentions to make me hurl. On page 2 alone, of 12 wines listed, 7 cited their names. Perhaps, in the booklet’s 41 pages, one or another critic or publication was mentioned, but if so, after scrutiny, I missed it. So here’s my question: If your staff are so smart, dear Mr. Mark Steven Pope, then why do you have to lard your reviews with Parker and Spectator? Isn’t that an insult to “your Personal Sommeliers”? I don’t know a single sommelier with any self-respect who would cite Parker, Spectator, me or anyone else, other than herself. It’s total rubbish.
Mr. Pope’s addiction to Parker and Spectator is merely the symptom, however, of something larger and more insidious in Napa Valley. He’s hardly alone in his craving for a Parker-Spectator fix. The line of addicts is long, populated by people who really ought to know better. But then, they’re addicts — in a stupor — literally unable to see things clearly.
I feel sorry for these people, I really do, just as I feel pity for the poor schlubs on the Intervention TV program. You look at them and think, “It’s so easy, just stop with the pills and the booze and the needles, and get a life.” But, of course, from the point of view of the addict, it’s not easy. That’s why they’re addicts. They’re not able to stop themselves from stupid behavior even though they may realize, in some dim little corner of their minds, that it is stupid and self-defeating, and that they publicly embarrass themselves with their sorry dependency. Unfortunately, for these particular addicts, there is no intervention I can think of–unless it’s reading this blog and coming to their senses.
Brian cut to the heart of the issue with this statement: “A long-standing stalwart for Napa wineries have [sic] been baby boomers, and now we’re trying to jump on the Millennial bandwagon. It’s not easy.”
He can say that again. To be frank, there are many top Napa wineries (and a few elsewhere) who have done a lousy job marketing themselves to the future, which starts now. For most of them, the story is the same: they made it bigtime in the 70s, 80s or 90s, found themselves on allocation and in high demand, and thought that things would always be that way.
How wrong they were. Things are never “always that way.” Nothing stays the same; all, as Heraclitus observed, is flux, especially in a fashion market like the wine industry where, to quote Heidi Klum, “One day you’re in, and the next day you’re out.” And given the Great Recession, it couldn’t be more wrong-headed to assume that these expensive wines would just “sell themselves” the way they always did.
Whether this is an example of poor marketing, hubris or both, it’s hard to tell. Probably both. Pahlmeyer hit it big after their 1991 Chardonnay played a starring role in Disclosure, the 1994 blockbuster movie with Michael Douglas and Demi Moore. I’m not saying Pahlmeyer wasn’t making wines worthy of their fame; they were. But so were a lot of other people, at that time and now. That doesn’t mean they’ll still be around in 20 years.
I think these wineries made and still are making the fundamental mistake of looking at Bordeaux and figuring that, Hey, Chateau “X” has been around for 250 years and they’re doing just fine, so why can’t we do the same? The reason why not is simple: When Chateau “X” got famous and captured its audience (probably in Britain, the Low Countries and Scandinavia, as well as in France), there was no competition. Nobody else was making the kinds of wines Bordeaux was, and that’s what everyone was drinking.
Well, lots of countries are making Cabernet Sauvignon now, as well as a hundred other varieties. Hilliard hit the nail on the head when he said, “Millennials are the future for us, and we need to figure opportunities to penetrate that.” The question is, How? Hilliard played his cards close to his vest. “There are a number ways addressing Millennials [but] we can’t divulge information this point.” I can’t imagine why not. There are no proprietary secrets on getting through to Millennials or anyone else. Everybody knows, in principle, what to do. Hilliard mentioned “the blogosphere” as one path–not exactly breaking news–without elaborating. Jayson mentioned his daughter who is now communications director; she is “moving up through ranks and appeals to the newer generation.” Fine, but exactly how does that ensure that Millennials will buy Pahlmeyer wine?
Not to pick on Pahlmeyer; at least, Jayson and Hilliard are asking the right questions. Unfortunately, I don’t see a lot of “cult” Napa wineries even asking the right questions! They believe they’re on generational missions, but they just might find that this current Millennial generation (not to mention the one that comes after it) doesn’t give a hoot about their wines.
Dinner last Saturday with Maxine and Keith featured barbecued pork ribs for the main course. Spicy, sweet, fatty, smoky, meaty and succulent. What to drink them with?
Maxine thought a white, but I vetoed that. I’m sure there’s a white wine somewhere in the world to pair with pork ribs (maybe an oaky Grenache Blanc or even Sauternes?), but all we had at the time was Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and sparkling wine, and I didn’t think any of those would work. I had earlier tasted some miscellaneous reds, so we had a pretty good selection to try out: a delicious Merriam 2008 Windacre Merlot, a fine Courtney Benham 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stags Leap, Krutz 2009 Krupp Vineyard Malbec, a spicy Kenwood 2010 Jack London Zinfandel, Krutz 2009 Stagecoach Vineyard Syrah, and another Merriam Windacre, this time the 2008 Cabernet Franc.
Which wine do you think paired best?
First, I should explain that the side dishes were Israeli cous cous with black beans, grilled zucchini squash and Brentwood butter and sugar corn grilled in the husk, so sweet it needed neither seasoning nor butter. But grillmeister Keith’s ribs dominated the room like Bill Clinton working a crowd.
I thought, intellectually, that the contenders were the Merriam Cab Franc and the Krutz Syrah. The Cab Franc struck me for its spiciness, and the way the fusion of cherries and oak had a jammy, brown sugary sweetness that would echo the sweet flavors of the ribs. As for the Syrah, well, it was so outstanding on its own, full-bodied and layered, and so smoky-sweet that it seemed like a no-brainer. When the actual taste test went down, the Merriam Cab Franc was okay, but the Krutz Syrah beat it by a mile. A brilliant pairing, really, in which the wine brought out the intensity of the ribs, and the ribs brought out the sweet depth of the wine, which had the volume to stand up to–but not be dominated by–the ribs’ fatty richness.
This Stagecoach Vineyard has entered my consciousness over the last several years as one of the most noteworthy in Napa Valley, which is to say in all of California. I’d long known the name from the many wineries that vineyard-designate it, but only visited the vineyard for the first time two years ago, when Dr. Jan Krupp, of the owning Krupp family, toured me for an article I was researching on the Atlas Peak appellation. I learned that the vineyard necessarily qualifies only for a Napa Valley AVA because just 30% of it is within the Atlas Peak boundary. The rest of it spills over a kind of canyon that leads to Pritchard Hill, on which another 30% lies. At that time, I had only an imprecise vision of Pritchard Hill (the October 2012 issue of Wine Enthusiast will have my big story on it) and the quality of its wines, but with my focus on it since last Spring, I’ve now realized what great real estate Pritchard Hill is, especially for Bordeaux varieties and Syrah.
There are differences between Atlas Peak, Pritchard Hill and the land inbetween, but the fundamentals still apply: mountain intensity, purity of focus, intense minerality from the rocks. Here’s something I hadn’t known: Dr. Krupp told me it in 2010, so I don’t know if it’s still true today, but “Atlas Peak has more vineyard acreage than all other Napa Valley mountain AVAs combined.”
The fact that Stagecoach qualifies “only” for the basic Napa Valley AVA is another proof that what counts in California is not the legal appellation on the label, but the vineyard name and, behind that, the quality of the viticulture and enology practiced by the producer. Years ago, I wrote an article on California’s greatest vineyards. Stagecoach wasn’t in it. Were I to write that article today, it certainly would be (and some of the vineyards I included would come off!). Cabernet is Stagecoach’s forté, as evidenced by wineries inlcluding Paul Hobbs, Krutz, Conn Creek, Sequoia Grove, Charles Creek, Krupp, Palmeri and Miner, but as we have seen Syrah can be spectacular. If all Syrah were that good, Syrah would have an honored place in the pantheon of California varietal wines, a place it does not current enjoy.