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!
It’s astonishing to me, as I consider the last 30 years, how irrelevant Bordeaux has become in much of the American wine scene.
When I first became infatuated with wine, in the late 1970s and 1980s, Bordeaux was the Queen of the Wine World. (Burgundy was said to be King. We can talk about that gender confusion another time…). Everything in California pertaining to Cabernet Sauvignon was with reference to Bordeaux. Our vintners were going over there every chance they could to walk Classified Growth vineyards and study with Classified Growth winemakers. It was almost as if they were on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, seeking to bathe in the holy waters that would cure them of all their vinous ills.
That was then…today, who talks about Bordeaux? Who buys it, either for home consumption or at restaurants? All that most people know about Bordeaux is that (a) almost every year Parker declares a Vintage of the Century and (b) prices are ridiculous. Neither of those phenomena is designed to elicit respect for a wine that once was the most coveted in the world.
Lagging interest in the States has not gone unnoticed along the banks of the Garonne and Gironde. No doubt chateau owners wish to regain the interest of the U.S. market, but it’s hard to discern a realistic marketing strategy. Yes, the Union des Grands Crus does their annual tour, attracting the usual cadre of sommeliers, merchants, writers and other denizens of the trade. But what happens inside the glittering ballroom of the Palace Hotel seems to stay there.
Along these lines, the Washington Post two days ago published this analytical piece on how the Bordelaise are “out to attract a younger American audience” in order to overcome Bordeaux’s “tarnished image” here.
A top guy at Sherry-Lehmann, one of New York’s leading wine shops, told the Post writer, “We’ve locked up the 70- and 80-year-olds. We need to convince the younger generation to drink Bordeaux.”
Wow. Why not try to interest “the younger generation” in Depends© ?
To understand where Bordeaux went wrong in America, let’s break down this comment from Cos d’Estournal’s director: “Bordeaux forgot to speak to one or two generations of sommeliers in the United States, and naturally the share of Bordeaux wines in restaurants dropped dramatically.”
I don’t think Bordeaux stopped “speaking” to somms, I think that somms just didn’t like what they were hearing. They didn’t like the prices they were forced to inflict on their customers. They didn’t like the rigid formalism that surrounds every sip of Bordeaux with the solemnity of a Papal audience. Their own lifestyles (the somms, I mean) were seriously at odds with Bordeaux’s regalism. Somms tend to be edgy, young and urban. They like to find new things that are off-the-beaten path, which they can then share with their customers. Bordeaux may be many things, but it isn’t edgy or off-the-beaten path.
I suppose Bordeaux’s chief selling point these days is that it’s not California Cabernet! Oh, the irony. The Post article cites a New York somm who showed some Bordeaux to her staff members, “all in their 20s.” The experience was “eye-opening,” the somm said, explaining that the staff was “shocked” to find the wines so much more “interwoven and integrated” than “powerful California Cabernets.”
To think that Bordeaux has come to this: “We’re not California.” !!! Twenty years ago Bordeaux barely deigned to acknowledge Napa Valley’s existence. Now Napa has become the focal point against which conversations about Cabernet are conducted–the way Bordeaux used to be. What goes around comes around, as they say.
All this is not to suggest that Bordeaux did anything wrong, or that it could have done anything else. Bordeaux is a victim of its own success. In an era where the issues of the 99% are at the top of everyone’s concern (in a bipartisan way), Bordeaux has been unable to shed its 1% image. Nor is it easily conceivable how it could do so even in theory. The best Bordeaux is necessarily expensive and will remain so. Ordinary Bordeaux is more affordable, but it’s also less good, and there’s no compelling reason for an American to buy a $30 Bordeaux over an Argentine Malbec, Carmenere from Chile, Cabernet from Chateau Ste. Michelle, a sound Vacqueyras or Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Stellenbosch Syrah/Shiraz or any one of dozens of other world wines that frankly have more interesting stories to tell–and do not demand of their drinkers that they remove their caps before imbibing.
The most interesting part of Silicon Valley Bank’s new report on the future of the wine industry concerns its predictions about Millennials. As Baby Boomers age and die off, Millennials will become the U.S.’s dominant wine purchasers, but “The big issue with millennials is they’re the largest buyers of international wines. They’re also really good with buying the discounted bottles,” said the bank’s founder, Rob McMillan.
International wines and discounted bottles. Hmm. That’s good news for South America, Australia and old Europe, and also good news for California companies like Cameron Hughes, Gallo, Bronco, The Wine Group and others who sell inexpensive wines. But what are the implications for high-end wine, particularly Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon?
They can’t be good. Millennials didn’t grow up worshiping at the shrine of Bordeaux, which is the model that Napa Valley mimics, and so far they [Millennials] haven’t given any indication they’re in the thrall of the cults. And why should they be? Millennials pride themselves on their independence. They’re not as hidebound as their parents, and they’re a lot more open to new experiences. Nor are they as hung up with matters of prestige and conspicuous consumption, which are two phenomena that–like it or not–are associated with the allure of cult Cabernet Sauvignon.
There are so many anecdotes about high-end Napa wineries having difficulty unloading product. Like the old saying goes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Triple-digit Cabs took a real hit during the Recession, and there’s no evidence that they’re recovering now. What I hear through the grapevine is remarkably consistent: retailers who traditionally dealt with expensive Napa wine tell me they can’t even give it away anymore.
Here’s a bullet quote from the Silicon Valley Bank report: “Today we find ourselves at a crossroads, one in which the younger consumer is being trained to believe luxury purchases should come with a discount, and wine is as good or even better coming from foreign sources. With Boomers hitting retirement age, we have a real question about the ability to increase wine sales when older generations who are willing to pay for a good bottle simply can’t consume the volumes they used to, and younger generations can’t afford a good bottle but could consume more.”
That’s an uh-oh moment for the cults. But there is a potential bright spot: “But as Millennials age if they develop the capacity (income) to buy wine, and if their appreciation for wine is strong as reported in the press, they will be the long-term growth opportunity we can anticipate in the business out past 2020,” McMillan writes.
That’s a big “if.” Actually, two big “ifs.” It means that a generation that grew up on Madonna, Pixar movies, Friends and the Internet is suddenly going to turn 40 (starting around 2022) and then develop an infatuation with Screaming Eagle, Colgin and Bryant. Exactly how is that supposed to happen? Why? Isn’t it easier to think it won’t? Besides, even if their income rises so high that they can afford triple digits for wine, why should Millennals restrict their appetites to Napa Valley? McMillan repeatedly stresses the “international” orientation of Millennials. They would look abroad for prestige wines, further eroding the market for high-end domestic wine.
Ever since I started visiting Napa Valley, in the late 1970s, it’s been clear to me that the vintners up there, who are a smart bunch, looked to Bordeaux as their model and inspiration. They wanted their wines to have the worldwide prestige of Bordeaux–and they also wanted Bordeaux prices. That tendency only grew more pronounced in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, it’s the prevailing model in Napa Valley.
But could it be based on a false assumption? That assumption was, if Bordeaux could do it, Napa can, too. However, history (and markets) are replete with singularities. Bordeaux came of age when good wine was scarce. Because the Bordelaise, and the Englishmen who drank their wines, were masters of the export trade, which was then a virtual monopoly of the English by the 18th and 19th centuries, Bordeaux became the lingua franca of great wine, for the wealthy white landowners who could afford it,
Do any of those conditions exist today? There is no monopoly of trade. Instead, we have free trade across the world, making it much more difficult for any one product or region to dominate the market. A few gatekeepers can no longer influence whatt everybody else drinks. And good wine is no longer scarce. It’s ubiquitous. You can’t swing a dead chicken without hitting a bottle of something tasty. Nor are most consumers any longer wealthy, white, or landed gentry. There also is the problem, in Napa Valley (to which I alluded the other day in this post) that Napa is not proving to be adept at new forms of communication. There’s a growing hideboundness affecting the culture up there. Of course, we do hear from the “Next Gen” of Napa winery families that they’re concerned about this or that, and intend to craft a message that relates better to average people. But this article, which appeared last week in the San Francisco Chronicle (and has been widely ridiculed, even in Napa Valley), suggests that the Napans may have an uphill battle in their quest for Millennial credibility
Have a great weekend!
On this day before Christmas I was transported down Memory Lane after reading this blog, from the English wine merchant Nick Stephens, on “the world’s most expensive faulty wine–Chateau Cheval Blanc 1947.”
That is a wine I have some familiarity with, having written about it back in the early 1990s, and, a little later, having the good luck to taste it. I wrote about it, for Wine Spectator, when I was in charge of The Collecting Page (which I referred to as my ghetto: it always was the last page in the magazine). Through that gig I met many wealthy collectors, and I would always ask them about the greatest wine they had ever tasted. Invariably, the answer was “1947 Cheval Blanc.”
I remember the hassle of getting through to the chateau’s cellarmaster, in order to interview him for my article. I do not recall much of what he said, and I no longer have the article, but I do remember him telling me that the alcohol level was very high on that wine–in excess, I think, of 15%. My luck in eventually tasting it occurred when I made the acquaintance of young Billy Getty, who, with his friend Gavin Newsom (now California’s Lieutenant-Governor), was anxious to have their new wine shop, PlumpJack, written about. As part of that effort, Billy invited me with some frequency to parties at his parents’ Pacific Heights mansion. These were experiences that, for me at that early point in my career, when I wasn’t used to such attentions, were heady and flattering. (The effect wears off after a while, though.)
One day Billy called to tell me his mother had bought “an amusing little wine cellar” from a New York collector. He invited me to the mansion to taste some of the selections, including–gasp!–’47 Cheval Blanc. Needless to say I raced across the Bay Bridge, drove up Fillmore Street and parked in front of the mansion. Rang the doorbell–it was answered by the Gettys’ old butler, who formerly had worked for Joe Kennedy, JFK’s dad, when Joe had been ambassador to the Court of St. James. I walked into the livingroom [if that’s what it’s called: maybe it was a drawing room, or a ballroom, or a parade-ground; at any rate, it was bigger than my condo], where I saw Billy and a few others, plus lots of bottles. I asked for the Cheval Blanc. Billy found the bottle: Empty! My heart sank. He saw my disappointment and made some sort of signal, whereupon somebody appeared out of nowhere. “Bring us another Cheval Blanc,” Billy said. Within moments the functionary appeared holding the bottle, with the cork pulled. He handed it to me. I was alone, with my crystal wine glass and a full bottle of 1947 Cheval Blanc!
The wine was, as Nick Stephens (quoting Robert Parker) writes, as “unctuous” and “thick…as motor oil.” It was almost as sweet as Port, yet it was a dry sweetness, with no trace of the cloyingness of a poorly-made wine with too much residual sugar. Looking back, in retrospect, I can say it anticipated the modern, cult style of a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux blend: something like, say a Blankiet or Shafer Hillside Select. I take Parker’s word that the Cheval Blanc was “appallingly deficient in acidity,” with “volatile acidity [that] would be considered intolerable by modern day oenologists.” These charges also have been made against certain Napa Cabs. The difference between a young, fresh Napa Cab was that the Cheval Blanc, when I tasted it, already was more than 40 years old. It was showing bottle bouquet, and the fruit was drying out, yet it was remarkably fresh and clean.
I don’t think that wine would have blown my mind had I not known what it was. The fabulousness of tasting it was nearly 100% connected with knowing its identity. Tasted blind, it would “merely” have been a very rich, interesting, complex old wine, not necessarily the one I would have reached for at the table for repeated glasses with, say, lamb or beef.
But I did know what it was, and that made all the difference. Which leads to a theme we’ve explored many times here at steveheimoff.com. And that is the influence of seeing the label of a wine you’re tasting, as opposed to having it hidden by a paper bag. As my readers know, I consider this a very important topic to discuss, and not an easy one to arrive at definite conclusions. It is true that blind tasting eliminates all factors except for the actual organoleptic experience of the wine, whereas an open tasting expands the parameters of the experience in psychological and intellectual and even emotional ways. It is a pointless debate as to which is preferable. It all depends on the purpose of the tasting. In the case of that Cheval Blanc at the Getty mansion, my purpose was not to rate the wine, or to review it in any formal way. It was instead to experience the wine up close and personal. And, in that instance, having an entire bottle, and all the time in the world, made it possible for me to get to know that wine as much as I’ve ever known any wine.
Tasting wine for formal reviewing purposes is a job, and a rather unnatural one, at that. The kind of people who do it are wine reviewers, winemakers, sommeliers, merchants and others involved in the wine trade. We do it, not for enjoyment, but because it’s part of our professional standard of excellence. For the ordinary wine lover, blind tasting can be an educational diversion–you certainly learn about the palate’s shortcomings! But it’s not really the best way to understand and appreciate wine. The anticipation of knowing about a wine–the experience of savoring its history and, particularly with a wine like ’47 Cheval Blanc, knowing that so many people with access to the greatest wines in the world have declared it be the best they’ve ever had–those are integral to the enjoyment of the wine. It gives you something to think about, and thinking about wine is part of its enjoyment.
By the way–isn’t it funny that a wine like the ’47 Cheval Blanc, that by all rights shouldn’t have aged well, has? It makes me wonder about my own aging prognostications, not to mention those of all other wine critics, no matter how famous. I have friends and relatives who think that critics have crystal balls that provide perfect clarity into the future, but guess what? We don’t. As I’m sure the best critics will happily concede. All that an aging prediction amounts to is an educated guess. As with all guesses, however, they can be wrong.
Anyhow–Please accept my heartiest wishes for a merry Christmas and a Happy 2014!
For those of you who don’t understand the role Mayacamas plays in Napa Valley’s history, consider this: When a former owner produced the winery’s first Cabernet Sauvignon, in 1962, Mayacamas joined only a handful of Napa wineries (including Charles Krug, Beaulieu, Inglenook and Louis M. Martini) that specialized in the variety.
And Mayacamas is even older than that: it was originally founded in 1889, then re-established in 1941. The name most closely associated with it, Bob Travers, purchased the winery in 1968, and ran it for all these years, until selling it recently to Charles Banks.
Among critics, Mayacamas had a very special role. Bob Thompson called its Cabernets and Chardonnays (all grown on the Mount Veeder estate) “two of the region’s most praised wines.” Hugh Johnson, no huge fan of California wine, dubbed it “first rate.” When the late, great Harry Waugh (who was on the board of Chateau Latour) visited, in 1969, he declared the 1967 Cabernet “another for my collection”; even the 1968 Chardonnay was “one of the wines I would buy for my own collection.” (That was high praise indeed from old Harry.)
Travers always made his wines lean. Even as the world marched away from that spare, angular style, Bob kept at it; as a result, his critical acclaim fell, to some extent. I liked his Cabernets well enough, but the highest score I could ever give one was 92 points, for the 2004. Even in that hot year, its alcohol was only 13.8%, and the wine showed a certain ungainly character, with streamlined, herb-infused fruit cast into fierce tannins. Bob’s style was more amenable, I thought, for white wines: his Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs benefited from that grave linearity, and often reflected the terroir of their mountain soils.
I think it’s fair to say that Mayacamas, for many years, has been underperforming. Oh, I know this is all in the eye of the beholder. If you dislike that lush, fat modern style, you might find yourself inclined to favor Mayacamas. But the truth is, the modern style, which 99% of Napa has embraced, left Mayacamas at the station long ago; or perhaps Travers simply chose not to board that train. Either way, I always review its wines with a certain wistfulness. Such a great name (said to be Native American, for the howl of the mountain lion), such an iconic history, such a noble perch up there on the mountain. Surely, I always thought, Mayacamas could do better.
But there were tales of vineyards in sorry shape, of an aging leadership, of run-down facilities; and even the price of the wines, which hardly varied over the years, put them into the dreaded “relative value” category; the Cabernet, for instance, remained at $65 for a long time. Perhaps Bob Travers felt he dare not raise the price in order to be able to afford improvements in the vineyard and barrels. Perhaps he was philosophically against high prices.
When Banks bought Mayacamas, last April, there were high hopes that he would spruce things up. After all, the guy had money (he’d formerly owned Screaming Eagle, and recently bought Qupe). He seemed to have discernment and taste. I met him only once, a few years ago, when he and his wife, Ali, brought me to dinner, just the three of us, in Los Olivos. We talked for a long time, and he convinced me of his sincere commitment to quality, in whatever properties he owned. (This isn’t always easy–I mean, convincing me. Everyone talks the talk but few walk the walk!) But Charles did. Thus, yesterday, when I got the latest Mayacamas newsletter and order form in the mail, I paid it more than the usual amount of attention.
The first thing of note is that the newsletter is signed by a familiar winemaker: Andy Erickson, who has been associated with, in one way or another, Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, Harlan, Spottswoode, Dancing Hares and Ovid. Banks, I’m sure, has offered Andy a great deal of money to oversee the renaissance of Mayacamas, but it will have been money well spent.
Andy vows “to continue crafting wines of elegance, longevity, and rustic mountain power.” I don’t think he would come right out and say that he’s going to entirely revamp Bob Travers’ approach; that would be disrespectful. But reading between the lines, you can infer that Andy knows exactly what’s wrong up on Mount Veeder, and how he intends to fix it, starting with the vineyard. “We’ve also been analyzing the unique soils and how they contribute to making such distinctive wines,” he writes, suggesting that “new vines planted this year” will help bring about a quality revolution in the near future.
And Banks himself, in his cover letter, says “We’ll be…upgrading winery equipment, and renovating some of the facilities.” More money out of pocket: Ka-ching! But that’s what it takes. In this day and age, you can’t make great wine on the cheap.
I’m thrilled to see what’s happening at Mayacamas, and can’t wait to follow their progress, especially the Cabernets!