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.
I’ve suggested repeatedly on this blog over the years, and especially since the extent of the Great Recession became apparent in 2009-2010, that Napa Cabernet Sauvignon was in danger of pricing itself out of the market.
This was due, not only to the effects of the Recession itself, when even the Rich were trending down their spending habits, but to the simultaneous rise in this country of a new demographic: MIllennials, now hitting their 30s, whose tastes in wine (and in much else) are radically different from those of their predecessors.
For one thing, Millennials are much less interested in what “everybody else is drinking” or in what “historically has been regarded as famous” than in finding things that are unique, different, unexpected, surprising, edgy, story-driven, bold, undiscovered, hip and (let us not forget) affordable. That certainly does not bode well for triple-digit Napa Cabernet, which is none of the above.
The people who do like the cult wines are the kind that collect and store wine in large cellars, who dine at Michelin-starred restaurants with wine lists the size of phone directories, and whose selection of these wines may be inspired as much by the desire to show off than by actual interest in them. Don’t believe me? Talk to any [honest] sommelier who works in such a restaurant. They’ll tell you [off the record] exactly what they deal with, night after night.
But these customers—these sorts of wine harlots—are an endangered species. It’s so clear: it couldn’t be more apparent if the Finger of God appeared out of the sky and wrote it on a vast wall. Even in Bordeaux, the top Chateaux are struggling: Decanter yesterday reported that “American merchants bought less high-end and high-priced Bordeaux 2010 en primeur than they had for the 2009 vintage,” with buyers gravitating toward crus bourgeois and balking at the likes of Angelus, Palmer and Leoville-Las-Cases. A buyer for Sherry-Lehmann said anything above $25-$40 U.S. was just “far too high” for his clientele.
I doubt if the Bordelais care. They’ve been through the ups and downs of the economic cycle for centuries, through wars, peace, phylloxera, revolutions, depressions, recoveries, and they know that, no matter how long the market stays down, it always come back up again. This may still be true with regard to Bordeaux.
But Napa isn’t Bordeaux. It’s become so crowded in $100-plus wines that they seem to be more the rule than the exception. For every expensive Cabernet with a true pedigree–Phelps Insignia, Harlan, Stag’s Leap Cask 23, Diamond Creek, Mondavi Reserve–there are 3,4,5 newcomers with no provenance, no history behind them, manufactured ersatz out of thin air by hiring an expensive viticulturalist and consulting winemaker, slapping something together in the bottle and then hoping enough gullible snobs will buy it.
Unfortunately, this is all too often the case. But how long can they get away with it? I suspect there remain enough white-tablecloth restaurants with big spenders who want wine lists containing verticals of big names, and that isn’t going to go away anytime soon. But it cannot last; its days are numbered; that game is going to be over, whether in five years, ten or fifteen, I cannot say.
Yet there has to be a tipping point at which Napa no longer can sustain so many overpriced wines. I don’t expect Napa itself to understand where the tipping point is, or will even recognize it when it comes: Napa is very, well, Napa-centric, as perhaps it should be; but it does tend to see the world from within its own rarified bubble.
No, the tipping point will be installed upon Napa by that outside force, the free market. We’ll know it has happened only when we begin to see prices start to plummet on the most expensive wines. I myself believe I’m already seeing that, but to accurately track it, one would need the services of a staff, utilizing databases able to track real-time information in individual markets, across hundreds of individual brands, including their clubs, mailing lists and favored accounts. This forensic accounting is obviously beyond my capabilities. The tipping point therefore already could be happening, but be invisible.
Grub Street, the San Francisco food blog, is reporting that “Masa’s, the fine dining staple opened by chef Masataka Kobayashi in 1983, is closing after 30 years.”
Masa’s is, of course, the Michelin-starred, legendarily expensive ($154 five-course wine-and-food tasting menu) restaurant, north of Union Square, that’s lured in generations of foodies. For sheer luxe, it’s had few rivals.
Founder Masataka worked at Auberge du Soleil before launching his eponymous restaurant. He was found murdered in 1984, a crime that has never been solved; subsequent chefs have been a who’s who of culinary superstardom (Julian Serrano, Ron Siegel, Gregory Short). Masa’s wine list was as celebrated as its food.
Why is Masa’s closing? Grub Street blames it on “formal, tablecloth’d fine dining [that] has gone out of fashion.” The San Francisco Chronicle’s “Inside Scoop” food columnist, Paolo Lucchesi, reports that the building’s owner “wants to install a more casual restaurant in the space.”
In San Francisco, many high-end restaurants have shuttered their doors over the years: Trader Vic’s, Stars, Charles Nob Hill, The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton among others. All were hit by changes in taste that made them victims in the highly-competitive restaurant world, which depends on fickle customers always looking for the next hot spot. In the case of Masa’s, the Great Recession provided the coup de grace that finally put Masa’s out of its misery.
In fact, the continuing effects of the Recession are hurting restaurants nationwide. On Friday, Nation’s Restaurant News reported, via Lewis Perdue’s News Fetch, that “Restaurant operators [are] downbeat as sales, traffic soften.” Of course, this doesn’t mean that high-end restaurants are on the verge of extinction. For every Masa’s that closes, a replacement opens: Hakkasan, The Sea by Alexander’s Steakhouse, Katsu. Local reviewers go wild, and those able and willing to afford them flock to their doors.
Yet you have to wonder, how long will they last? Ten years? Fifteen? Or, like Masa’s, thirty? These numbers seem highly unlikely; a restaurant’s life span is getting shorter, not longer.
Which brings us to the subject of cult wines.
I would imagine that the proprietors of cult wines, especially Napa Valley Cabs, like to think their brands will be around for a long time. After all, Lafite is still here after, what? 700 years? (“the estate was the property of Gombaud de Lafite in 1234” – Alexis Lichine)
But many a Napa cult winery is no longer as culty as it once was. We must assume that some of the famous names in Napa were hit hard during the Recession, and that it was only the owners’ deep pockets that enabled them to hang on. Their hope was that, with recovery would come improved sales, at traditional prices.
Yet are these expensive cults not the wine equivalents of Masa’s, “formal, tablecloth’d” wines that just may be out of step with today’s more casual approach? People, especially younger ones, are looking for things other than show-offy wines: they want wines of interest, of deliciousness, from all over the world, wines that are different and unique and that tell a story and are easy to drink with food. Above all, they want wines that are affordable. I believe that the weltanschauung of wine has shifted irrevocably, due not only to the Recession but to changes in America’s demographics. We are rapidly becoming poorer and less white, changes that cannot bode well for super-expensive wines. In a sense—and I don’t mean to get political here, but it’s just the truth—some of these cult wines are like the Republican Party, out of step with the mainstream of where America is going. That’s why they lost so badly in the 2012 elections, and that’s why cult wines may be endangered in the next ten or twenty years.
Some will survive and even prosper. Brands as powerful and embedded as Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate likely are the Lafites of Napa Valley, and will be with us for a very long time (assuming their family ownership wishes to continue them). But I have to tell you, there are a lot of Masa’s in Napa Valley—wines that were hugely popular in their day, but are now increasingly anachronistic.
People sometimes ask me if it’s hard to taste wine every day, after so many years of doing it. Don’t I get tired, or bored, or burned out?
The answer is NO! In CAPS. Especially when it’s a great flight.
Oh, I guess plowing my way through 12 or 15 under-$10 Chardonnays has its elements of tedium. (And if this were an email I’d include a little smiley-face emoticon : > with that statement.) But let me tell you about the pleasures of going through a range of fantastic wines.
Like the ones I did yesterday. A very high-level flight of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons. Included were the following: PerryMore 2008 Stagecoach, Paradii, Beckstoffer To Kalon, Beckstoffer Dr. Crane and regular Napa Valley; Altvs 2009 (the “v” is not a typo. I guess it’s Bill Foley’s inner Roman coming out); three Raymond 2009 “District Collections,” St. Helena, Calistoga and Oakville; also Raymond’s 2009 “Generations. I threw in a Kunde 2010 from Sonoma Valley (at $25, the bargain of the lot) “just to see.” More on this in a moment.
My tasting was, of course, single-blind (which I define as knowing generally what’s in the lineup, but not knowing which bottle is which. We can argue ‘til the cows come home what the best way of tasting is. For me, this approach is what I’m used to, and so it works for me.) Now, right off the bat, I admit to starting out with a heightened sense of excitement. These are all well-regarded properties and/or vineyards, Raymond is in the process of being reinvigorated, and this is, after all, Napa Valley Cabernet, a place and variety for which (you might know) I have some affection. So this was a gratifying tasting for me.
“Happy families are all alike,” Tolstoy famously wrote, and I should say, of happy Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, that they are all alike. Lest readers begin barraging me with emails explaining how different Atlas Peak is from Calistoga, let me explain myself. A good Napa Valley Cabernet makes you reach for the Thesaurus for synonyms for “delicious.” I’m finding a lot of chocolate in my Napa Cabs these days, which probably is some alchemical synthesis of things in the berries and contributions from oak; but Cabernet’s classic black currants and, often as not, crème de cassis are there, and what’s not to like about those flavors? So, when I first attack my flight, my mind and palate are simply dazzled by this virtuoso display of richness.
They’re not all the same, though. Once the immediate dazzlement is over, then we get down to the serious business of finding differences. One wine’s tannins are firmer, another’s more pliant. One wine turns out to be a little thinner after it’s been in the glass for a while—but maybe that makes it more elegant? At any rate, you can see how much fun it can be to frolic among the glasses while all the while coming up with a conceptualization that’s accurate enough to send to the magazine’s database, on its way to being published: and let’s not forget associating a score with that description. In this way, the hours fly by, while I do my thing (with Gus nearby) and the outside world ceases to exist, for all I know or care.
Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, at the level of yesterday’s flight, is very great. If you don’t like that style, fine. Most of us do. Oh, that Kunde? Remarkable. Held its own right alongside the others, at a fraction of the price. I’d happily drink it anytime, with the best Cabernet food you can find. Was it just a shade less rich? Yes. But so balanced, so refined, and made in such good taste. In a way, California can be prouder of producing a great $25 wine like that, than of producing triple-digit cult idols. But that’s what makes California so cool: everything from $7 clean, everyday wines from Freddie Franzia to these wonderful premium varieties in the $15-$25 range to the spectacular heights of Napa Cabernet. I love this state!
I’m not going to do a full-blown “Best of” or “Top 100” list, but I will spend the next few days going through some of the wines I thought highly of, for various reasons, by variety or varietal family. We’ll start with a selection of Cabernet Sauvignons.
Most of the best Cabernets released in 2012 were from the 2009 vintage. It was a generally good year, on the cool side but not as cool as the next two vintages to follow. Napa Valley as usual dominated in this category, with excellent wines coming from all quarters of the appellation, both mountains and benches.
My highest scoring Cabernet of the year was David Arthur 2009 Elevation 1147 Estate (99 points, $150). This past year provided me with an in-depth exploration of the Pritchard Hill area (which really should have its own appellation) and the David Arthur represents all that area can be. To excel in that exalted terroir is no mean feat.
I always like to single out Oakville Cabs that express their Oakville-ness and this year it was Janzen’s 2009 Beckstoffer To Kalon (97, $135), but why oh why don’t they put Oakville on the label instead of Napa Valley? I will single out only one of Diamond Creek’s ‘09s, the Volcanic Hill (96, $175), for sheer, ageworthy tannins and mountain concentration, but all of Diamond Creek’s Cabs were spectacular, as were those of Von Strasser, also from Diamond Mountain.
Chimney Rock went through some doldrums in the early 2000s, but man, are they ever back. Their 2009 Tomahawk Vineyard Cabernet (96, $135) rocked. Duckhorn produced a splendid array of Cabernets, packed as always with hard tannins to ensure their safety down the line. These are always wonderful Cabernets to review; this year, their best was, not a 2009, but the 2008 Monitor Ledge Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (96, $95). Alongside these wines are Nickel & Nickel’s Cabernets, also always tannic ageworthy, but so complex and chewy. My preference this year was the 2009 Branding Iron (94, $100), but the entire lineup is exciting.
From Howell Mountain, Denis and May-Britt Malbec produced a huge wine, their 2008 Cabernet (94, $150) that must be cellared. I’ve enjoyed watching this young couple build up a track record. And a word of praise for Beaulieu’s 2009 Georges de Latour Cabernet (94, $125), often overshadowed but really as good and ageable as ever.
Finally, a few Cabs that got my Editor’s Choice designation because of their price-quality ratio: Yates Family 2008 Cabernet from Mount Veeder (95, $55), Robert Mondavi 2009 Cabernet from Oakville (94, $45), Terra Valentine’s 2009 Wurtele Vineyard off Spring Mountain (94, $65), Snowden’s lovely 2009 “The Ranch” Cabernet (93, $40), Neal Family 2007 Cabernet (93, $45), Long Meadow Ranch 2009 (93, $47) and Hunnicutt 2009 (93, $50). These wines demonstrate that you don’t have to break into triple digits to enjoy a great bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
Conclusion: Napa Cabernet is getting better all the time. Somehow vintners, aided no doubt by their growers, are learning how to achieve ripeness at lower brix levels, resulting in more balanced, graceful and elegant wines that still preserve the lush, sweet fruit you expect from a Napa Cab. I personally am looking forward to tasting the better 2010s, which should arrive in the coming year, and the 2011s that will dominate 2014
Monday: Bordeaux blends.