I’ve been tasting a lot of Cabernet Sauvignons lately. The 2010s are entering the market in full force; meanwhile, there’s still a good quantity of 2009s also arriving. The fun is in comparing the vintages.
As a wine critic, I’m loathe to come to premature conclusions about vintages. I do it, of course, like just about everyone else; but I don’t particularly like to. My feelings about vintages change over time. My current thinking is that 2009 was the more difficult of the two. It was the first of our recent series of cool years; as Nick Goldschmidt told me at the time, “I don’t think 2009 will be well received. It was just too cool. When you look back at the great vintages in California, they tend to be warmer ones.” The year wasn’t just cool, it rained in the middle of October, just when the Cabernet grapes were entering their final push. Dawnine Dyer, at Dyer Vineyards on Diamond Mountain, told me (on Oct. 30, 2009), “The rain will define the harvest, depending on which side of it you were on.” Jeffrey Stambor, at Beaulieu, told me on the same day, “The rain set up challenging winemaking conditions.”
Some 2009 Napa Cabs just didn’t have the stuffing you expect for the prices they fetched. Not bad wines, but a little broad, lacking focus. Some were marred by high alcohol. When a Cabernet is rich in fruit, it can handle alcohol, but a thin one with lots of alcohol is a misery; and there were plenty of them in Napa Valley in 2009.
On the plus side, those wineries who always make their wines meticulously–the usual suspects–did fine. I loved Goldschmidt’s 2009 Game Ranch Single Vineyard Selection Cabernet (although the name isn’t particularly elegant). Ditto for Freemark Abbey’s 2009 Sycamore, their finest ever. Sodaro, a winery I was unfamiliar with, had an amazing ’09 Doti-Sodaro Blocks 2 and 6 Cabernet. (I later found out that Bill and Dawnine Dyer had made it, which makes this the second mention Dawnine gets in this post!) And B Cellars had a really good portfolio of 2009s (and I did not know at the time that Kirk Venge was their winemaker. He is hands down turning into one of the best in the valley). All in all, though, 2009 was a routine year.
Then we come to 2010. It blew everyone’s mind because it was so cool (before 2011 came along, which was even colder). Oddly, the late summer also was punctuated by severe heat waves. A huge one around Sept. 27 was so severe, Genevieve Janssens, at Robert Mondavi, told me that “the Petit Verdot and Malbec are largely burned out.” (That heat wave lasted for days. Sept. 29 was the hottest day ever recorded in Los Angeles.)
Following the heat, the weather was a roller coaster of picture-perfect days, rain, followed by more perfection. I made the following note in my vintage diary, on Oct. 23: “Mountain Cabernet could be fine,” because the rainwater runs off.
And in fact, when I look at my highest-scoring 2010 Napa Cabs, they’re from mountains and hillsides: Flora Springs Rutherford Hillside Reserve, everything from Von Strasser on Diamond Mountain, Terra Valentine K-Block, from Spring Mountain, Communication Block Lampyridae, from Mount Veeder (made by Aaron Pott). Beckstoffer’s To Kalon also produced some fabulous 2010s; it’s not a mountain vineyard, so it must be the super-fantastic viticulture Andrew B. and his team practice.
Instead of reading second- and third-hand accounts of that notorious National Academy of Sciences report on the impact of climate change on the world’s grape growing areas, let’s do something radical: look at the actual report itself, to see what it does–and doesn’t–say.
I don’t know about you, but after reading different articles about it in newspapers and magazines, and hearing about it on the tube, it seems to me that all the reporters are fastening onto the sexy prediction that coastal California will be too hot for premium winegrowing by 2050. (In reporting lingo, that’s known as a Wow! headline.)
So onto the report. Its most attention-grabbing sentence is “the impacts of climate change on viticultural suitability are substantial,” but this is, of course, a sweeping statement, and the devil is, as usual, in the details. If we grant that “25% to 73%” of suitable areas in “major wine producing regions” are in jeopardy (a big assumption), we have to ask if coastal California is among them. We have also to look at the water situation; the NAS study suggests that warmer climates may increase the need for water use (such as to combat heat stress), although it does not state categorically that climate change will bring decreased precipitation. It “may,” in “some regions,” says the report; but again, that’s pretty abstract, and can mean whatever the reader wants it to mean (which if often true of these long-range predictions).
The report does flat out say that the suitability of “the Bordeaux and Rhone valley regions [and] Tuscany” is “projected to decline.” It also predicts that “more northern regions in America” should have increased suitability (hence all those silly headlines about “Chateau Yukon Cabernet”). As for California, the part of the study that has gotten the most attention in the media here is the map, on page 2, that seems to suggest a swathe of prime coastal land, from Santa Barbara up well north of the Golden Gate and including Napa and Sonoma, will experience “decreases [in suitability] by mid-century.” But look closely at the map: I did, zooming in to 200%. From the coast to what looks like about 50 miles inland, there are alternating stripes of (from west to east), blue [indicating “novel” or increased suitability for premium grape growing], dark green and light green [both indicating “current suitability that is retained"], then red [“current suitability that decreases by mid-century”]. So you can appreciate that defining precisely where the boundaries are between colors is important. But this is nowhere explained in the text. The map, then, with its generalized colors, is the only guide we have, and an imprecise one at that.
So what are we to make of it? The blues along the immediate coast seem to indicate that the narrow coastal strip where, say, the Russians found viticulture impossible at Fort Ross, in 1812-1813, might by 2050 be warm enough to grow Chardonnay. The greens, where suitability is retained, look like they include most of the tenderloin growing areas from the Santa Ynez Valley, up through the Central Coast and into Napa-Sonoma. The reds seem to this observer to lie from about 35 miles inland to the borders of the Great Central Valley–if you’re familiar with the Bay Area, the red zone would start on the east side of the East Bay Hills, in what is now Livermore Valley. Other red regions include the far eastern parts of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties and, perhaps, Lake County (although Clear Lake would have a cooling effect, wouldn’t it?).
But interpreting specific conditions from a colored map is dangerous. It’s like trying to figure out if your house will fall down from a USGS earthquake shaking map. There is, in fact, no mention at all in the report of individual coastal California counties, American Viticultural Areas or general winegrowing regions. There is a single reference to Napa, but it is to housing development and its impact on wildlife preservation–an issue that is not pertinent to Napa’s suitability as a winegrowing region. And that is that: the study is remarkable for its silence about the California coast.
The authors seem to understand that much of their report is obscure. “Uncertainties in our estimates of viticulture suitability,” they write, change[,] and its conservation consequences arise from climate models, concentration pathways, wine suitability models, and estimates of water stress and habitat condition.” I’m not one of these ridiculous anti-science people, and I deplore the know-nothingness of certain parts of the American political spectrum that deny, for example, evolution, or age models of the physical universe. But I also think that research scientists get grants to conduct research, in a kind of publish-or-perish model; and the media, being what it is, is in the position of a heroin addict who knows he shouldn’t be looking for another fix, but just can’t help himself. A report, such as the one from the NAS, is hedged by all sorts of provisos and fine print warnings that it should not be considered as the gospel truth, and next thing you know, the media is reporting it as the gospel truth, lazy reporters are predicting that Napa vineyards are going to have to be relocated in Montana, and wine company executives start shopping around for land in Tasmania. No wonder that distrust of the media in America has hit an all-time high.
My head should be filled with thoughts of Cabernet Sauvignon, after spending a large part of last week at Premiere Napa Valley and its associated events. Most of the more than two hundred barrel lots were from the 2011 vintage. Despite much chatter among winemakers about the season’s difficulties, I found the wines I tasted concentrated, balanced and delicious, and not too high in alcohol. Ageworthy, too. But then, two things have to be pointed out: Napa Valley has the best grape sorting regimes in the world, and these Premiere Napa Valley lots are the best wines the winemakers can produce. They may or may not be indicative of the commercial releases, which should start appearing in 2014. But I strongly suspect we’re going to see a solid vintage.
However, it’s Pinot Noir I’m thinking about, because I’m leaving this Wednesday for the the 13th annual World of Pinot Noir, one of my must-attend events of the year. I’ve been going since the very first one. It started off as a modest little thing, sponsored by Central Coast wineries. But over the years, WOPN has expanded its reach, attracting winemakers from around the world, and is now the premier Pinot Noir event in California.
I remember being so impressed by that first WOPN that I told Wine Enthusiast they ought to figure out some way to co-sponsor it. They did. Keep in mind, WOPN was launched well before Sideways, at a time when California Pinot Noir wasn’t exactly a household name.
Historians will someday pinpoint just when California Pinot took center stage. For me, I felt it coming before it actually arrived, which is why I went to WOPN in the first place. It was in Shell Beach, a pit stop on the drive between S.F. and L.A., and that first year attracted only a handful of wineries. But something told me both that Pinot was about to erupt, and that WOPN had the potential to be important.
Why did I think Pinot Noir was on the verge of fame in 2001? Because I’d been following it for a long time. It’s like anything else that has to do with intuition or hunches; you have a feeling of growing momentum. During the 1990s there had been interest in Pinot among the people who mattered: writers, critics, educators, somms, even some forward-thinking collectors (the words “forward-thinking” and “collectors” do not often unite in comfort). The California wine community was a very small town back then (in some respects, it still is), and information passed quickly. I heard about Williams Selyem and Rochioli by 1990, had begun visiting, and of course had known about Richard Sanford in Santa Barbara County, even though I didn’t get down there for a few more years. It was the excitement of the older professionals I knew, my mentors, that infected me and informed me that Pinot Noir was the coming variety.
Even though I began writing for Wine Enthusiast by 1993, for various internal reasons I didn’t start reviewing wines for them until the mid- 1990s. I just looked up my earliest Pinot reviews and they make for interesting reading. My top names from that era remain some of the best Pinot houses around today: Testarossa, Fess Parker, Hanzell, Iron Horse, MacRostie, Acacia, Robert Mondavi, Talley, Marimar Torres. When I look at the prices for vintages from the 1990s, they were high for back then, but have remained relatively stable ($35-$50) over the years, showing that Pinot Noir has not experienced the same price inflation as Cabernet Sauvignon. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps Pinot producers remember the bad old days, when everybody said California was patently too hot for Pinot Noir; maybe they think they lucked out, and that to raise prices to triple digits would kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Whatever the reason, consumers are the beneficiaries. Compared to dozens of Cabernet Sauvignons that cost in excess of $100 (often far more), Pinot Noir is a bargain.
Starting this Thursday, I’ll be blogging live from WOPN, including throughout the weekend; I am, it seems, the Official World of Pinot Noir Blogger! I’ll be talking about the best wines, the most interesting winemakers, the food, the personalities and whatever nuggets of news and information I can gather. Twitter too.
We’re in the middle of winter now, and even though the rest of the country laughs at Californians when we complain about 40 degrees, to us, it feels really cold. When I have my first drink of the day, around 5 p.m., I might start with a sip of white wine, just to get myself comfortable. But these chilly nights call for red.
Red wine is warming, to the blood, the mind, the soul. There’s something about it that’s like a soft blanket you wrap yourself in that keeps you cozy. I suppose the relatively higher alcohol of red wine also helps with this warming process. I don’t like to put the heat on, even when my home is chilly, so I’ll often be wearing a sweatshirt and even a woolen cap to keep myself warm. But I always notice, after a glass or two of red wine, that my body temperature rises enough that I can take off the sweatshirt and cap and feel comfortable, even though the actual room temperature hasn’t changed. I like that feeling. It’s as though red wine boosts my body’s ability to balance itself to external conditions.
I love a good Pinot Noir, but on these really cold nights I want something with more body. Zinfandel is a full-bodied wine, but I find that even a good one palls on me after a glass. It’s too strong, too spicy, too briary, often overripe and hot. Even the best Zin doesn’t contain mysteries, which is what makes me want a second or third glass of wine–it contains subtleties that require repeated examination. I might dwell on a Merlot for a few glasses, but it would have to be a very good one: La Jota, Shafer, Rutherford Hill, Turnbull, Hunnicutt, all from Napa Valley. A new Napa winery that’s impressed me is Crosby Roamann; they have a Merlot from Oak Knoll that’s really good. There’s not much Merlot out there in California to challenge Napa Valley, although I recently enjoyed a Happy Canyon Vineyard 2007 “Barrack Brand” Merlot. That new Happy Canyon AVA is one to watch.
Syrah, for me, often has the same limitation as Zinfandel. That first sip can be deliriously delicious. But does it keep you coming back for more? A few do. Syrah, though, is one variety that Napa Valley doesn’t dominate. Since winter began, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Syrahs from Donelan (Cuvee Keltie), MacLaren (Judge Family Vineyard) and Del Dotto (Cinghiale Vineyard), all from Sonoma County. But it’s Santa Barbara County Syrah that’s really surprised me. Among the best are Andrew Murray, Brander, Rusack, Whitcraft, Larner, Margerum and La Fenetre. What is it about Santa Barbara that’s so hospitable to Syrah? Food for thought.
Still, when all is said and done, on those cold nights when I want to snuggle in with a red wine, it’s invariably Cabernet Sauvignon. It has the rich body I want, also the intrigue and complexity that make it so interesting as it breathes and changes. I suppose this is why they call Cabernet a “noble” variety, a word that’s hard to define, except to imply that it has layers you keep discovering, one by one, like the experience of great music or literature or painting.
Here are some great Cabs I’ve been drinking this winter: Goldschmidt, World’s End, Venge, Trefethen, Turnbull, B Cellars, Patland, PerryMoore, Hunnicutt, V. Sattui, Arger-Martucci, Altvs [the “v” is not a typo, it’s the way Bill Foley wants it), Antonio Patric, Tudal and Napa Angel by Montes. These are all from Napa Valley and its various sub-appellations, and most of them are single vineyard wines. Two vineyards show up repeatedly: Stagecoach and Beckstoffer To Kalon. When people say great wine is made in the vineyard, they’re talking about wines like these.
I had the distinct pleasure and privilege last night of introducing Merry Edwards at her induction into the Vintners Hall of Fame, in a glittering ceremony held at the Culinary Institute of America.
Seldom is so much star power gathered into a single space. Had one of those errant meteors hit the CIA yesterday, the California wine industry would have been decimated. Fortunately it didn’t! And it was wonderful as always to see people whom I’ve now known long enough that I can call them old friends: Bill Harlan, Andy Beckstoffer, Tim Mondavi, Archie McLaren, Randall Grahm, David Breitstein and far too many others to mention.
Merry had asked me to introduce her because, as she told me, I’m “an historian.” So in my prepared remarks, I gave myself the liberty of placing Merry and her accomplishments into what I perceive as California’s historical sweep. [For the full text of my remarks, see below.] Merry had emphasized, as I knew she would, that she didn’t see how “the woman thing” had been a factor in her career; but of course, it was, and had to be stated.
First, a word on the other award recipients. Two were deceased: César Chavez and Frank Schoonmaker. Mr. Chavez needs no introduction to readers of this blog. Accepting the award on his behalf was his young, energetic grandson, Anthony Chavez. Anthony gave a powerful, passionate and, yes, political speech that galvanized everyone in the room and reminded Napa Valley that it’s not only about glamor and glitz, it’s about leading the way in worker’s rights and even on subjects far beyond but inevitably related: food safety and climate change.
Many of you probably never heard of Frank Schoonmaker, who died in 1976. But wine writers know him well. He was one of the earliest and best wine writers post-Prohibition (in addition to founding his eponymous importing company), and I have several of his books in first print. They have been a source of enormous knowledge and insight for me. Perhaps Schoonmaker’s chief claim to fame in the wine industry was his absolute insistence, in the 1930s, on varietal labeling. He won that fight, of course. Now, you can argue the case of varietal labeling for and against. It has its pros and cons. But there’s no question that it’s better than the stupid, phony Ports, Sauternes, Champagnes and Sherries that dominated California during the 1930s, and for that, Schoonmaker deserves his bronze plaque.
Robert Parker, alas, was a no-show. He’d evidently hurt his back and was too much in pain to travel. But he did thoughtfully send a pre-recorded video in which he humbly apologized for not being there and seemed genuinely touched by the honor. He was introduced by an old friend of his, an elderly collector from back east who told us a little bit more about his 81,000-bottle wine cellar than I think we needed to know.
And then there was Merry. Accepting her award, she wept; so did many in the audience.
Here’s my intro:
Merry Edwards is in an ironic position. She’s a famous, successful woman winemaker, in a field that was notoriously unfriendly to women until comparatively recently. And yet she’s also a human being who says, quote, “I had been totally unconscious of my sex. I consider myself a winemaker first, and I don’t see how gender comes into that.”
Well, gender shouldn’t come into that, of course, any more than race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Ability is what counts, and Ability is why Merry Edwards is being honored today. But she did have to struggle to get where she is precisely because she is a woman. And this fact cannot and should not be overlooked.
Today, she can chuckle at her war stories: Of the time a Napa winery owner wouldn’t even consider hiring her at a job interview solely because of her gender. Of the tendency in the 1970s to relegate women to the laboratory because they were not considered suitable as winemakers. Of the Old Boy’s Network at U.C. Davis, under which male professors made sure their favorite graduate students–invariably men–got the good jobs. I said she can laugh at these things today. But at the time, these were stinging humiliations, and more: obstacles to be overcome. As with any struggle involving prejudice and civil rights, it takes a certain righteous anger to break down the barriers. Merry Edwards possesses this quality, too. She lets nothing stop her.
The first commercial Pinot Noir she made was at Mount Eden Vineyards; she was working for the late Dick Graff, who had co-founded Chalone. Dick was gay; so was the late Maynard Amerine, at Davis, who was indirectly responsible for Merry getting the Mount Eden interview. Merry once told me, “I had this little group of [gay] guys who understood that I was in the same position they were”–that of being isolated and rejected. “They were my moral support team,” she recalls. Just as she was mentored on her way up the ladder, Merry formed within herself the core value of helping others. Asked what she considers among her signal achievements, she cites her support of young women coming into the industry.
From Mount Eden she went to Matanzas Creek, where she was an early champion of French clones. Along the way she had two kids, and married her now husband and business partner, Ken Coopersmith. Her own Merry Edwards brand was slow in coming, because nobody handed her anything on a silver platter: It wasn’t until 1997 that she launched it, and it wasn’t until 1998 that she first planted her Meredith Estate.
Today, as the world knows, Merry Edwards is celebrated as one of the California’s greatest Pinot Noir masters, although it has to be pointed out that her Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay also are excellent. Merry has overcome every obstacle that Life threw her way, and done so with dignity. She’s now been in the business close to 40 years, but whenever Ken asks her if she’s going to retire, her response is: “Winemakers don’t retire! They just keep going until they drop by the side of the road.” Well, I think the road ahead for Merry is a long and productive one.
Perhaps we should start calling it “The Wine Hadvocate,” as in the past tense. Now that Antonio Galloni has quit that sinking ship, there’s little question the Beginning of the End is here for Robert Parker’s once vaunted newsletter.
That stomping sound you hear is hundreds of wine bloggers dancing on Parker’s grave. That other sound, like a miasmal wind blowing through a dead forest, is the groaning of all the snobby cult winery owners who gave Parker majesterial permission to pimp their wines, and who now have to wonder if they backed the wrong horse.
Answer: Yup, you did.
I personally wasn’t surprised by Galloni’s decision. After Parker sold the Advocate off to its new Asian owners, I thought that move must have come as a kick to Antonio’s gut. I’m sure he didn’t know anything about it until after the fact, just as I’m sure Parker knew he was going to be divesting even as he hired Antonio. That is Machiavellian politics, my friend. Poor Antonio. He didn’t anticipate reporting to some Singapore-based bureaucrat named Lisa Perrotti-Brown, and must have been frantically considering his options since last December. Now we know what his decision is.
What he says he’s doing with his new website looks a lot like what James Suckling did on his website, which seems to be less of a success than James hoped it would be. It’s not so easy to remain famous and influential when you leave the employ of the periodical that put you there. Not to say it can’t be done, just that it’s hard. Can Antonio remain “an authoritative voice in what is now a very big and very verbose world wine conversation,” as Eater New York wondered?
I hope so. I met the man once (last year, in fact, at Premier Napa Valley) and he was kind enough to give me a very long interview and pose for pictures. But it’s not Antonio I’m thinking so much about right now, as those snooty winery owners who lived and breathed by Wine Advocate’s blessing to the exclusion of almost anyone else, and who now have to figure out how to make their overpriced Cabernets sound exclusive when the bastion of exclusivity, The Wine Advocate, they were addicted to has been battered beyond the point of recognition. I always warned them (the winery owners) not to put all their eggs in that one basket but they did anyway. Well, maybe they put their eggs into two baskets, but the other basket isn’t what it used to be either, with the result that they now have only one basket for all those expensive, rather fragile eggs, and it’s looking a little tattered.
I’m here for you, brothers and sisters up Napa way. Here to help you in your time of need. No hard feelings. Life goes on. In a few months, you’ll get over the Advocate, over Parker, over Galloni, like your first husband or wife. It will all seem like a bad dream. One of these nights, maybe over drinks at the Rutherford Grill, you’ll be able to laugh about it, and wonder how you could have been so gullible for so long.