Wine Enthusiast this morning announced the nominees for the 2012 Wine Star Awards. Here in the Golden State, California, they include Francis Ford Coppola, David B. Kent of The Wine Group and Joseph E. Gallo, of E&J Gallo, for Person of the Year [that’s 3 separate nominations], Philippe Melka as winemaker of the year, Raymond Vineyards, Yao Family Wines and Rodney Strong Vineyards as American Winery of the Year [in 3 nominations], Kermit Lynch as Importer of the Year, K&L Wine Merchants as Retailer of the Year, Dennis Kelly of The French Laundry and Shelley Lindgren of A16 (San Francisco) for Sommelier of the Year, Leslie Rudd, Cameron Hughes and Michael Mondavi, in 3 nominations, for Innovator of the Year, and Napa Valley as Wine Region of the Year.
That’s quite an impressive list. Winners will be announced later this year, so stay tuned.
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Muchos gracias to Ovid Winery and particularly to GM Janet Pagano and winemaker Austin Peterson for the lovely tour, tasting and luncheon yesterday. It was fun to run into Jeff Nead, of the great San Francisco-based P.R. firm, Glowdow Nead, with whom I laughed over memories of a very crazy visit to Telluride, years ago.
I wanted to visit Ovid because during my blind tasting of Pritchard Hill wines earlier this year theirs had done so well. Austin Peterson is a young, talented guy, part of a youthful contingent of Napa Valley winemakers that includes Cory Empting at Harlan Estate, Andy Erickson at Dalla Valle and Nick Gislason, at Screaming Eagle, who all look young enough to be freshmen in the Lit 101 class at City College. Or maybe it’s because everyone looks young nowadays, to me!
Here’s the lunch menu. Eat your heart out.
Grilled Flat Iron Steak with Plum Relish [hand made by Janet]
Romano Beans with Mint
Fresh Creamed Sweet Corn [Janet’s special ingredient is lime juice and lime zest.]
Heirloom Tomatoes with Ricotta Salsa [dressed with Ovid’s olive oil]
Gravenstein Apple Crisp [from Ovid’s orchard] with homemade Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
Ovid is making hella good wines. The main red, a Bordeaux blend of 4 varieties, is simply outstanding, at the top of the Napa heap. Austin also makes a second wine, Experiment, that can vary in blend in any given year. The 2009 is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. It was, in a word, stunning.
Have a great, safe weekend and I’ll be back here on Monday morning!
A reader griped the other day that I was writing too much about social media and not enough about wine. So here goes!
These are my 5 top-scoring wines from three popular varieties over the past several months. (All reviews and scores have been published, either in Wine Enthusiast’s print Buying Guide, online, or both. I’ve scored other wines higher, but they haven’t been published yet.) Within each variety, I consider the commonalities that made the wines so great, to me.
98 Goldschmidt 2006 PLUS Game Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville); $150
97 Shafer 2007 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon (Stags Leap); $225
97 Cardinale 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $250
97 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 2008 Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $195
97 Yao Ming 2009 Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $625
2. from Napa Valley or its sub-appellations
3. relatively high in alcohol [minimum: 14.5%]
4. relatively low production
6. quality factors: richness, full-bodied, ripe, oaky, dense, appearance of sweetness, complexity
98 Merry Edwards 2009 Klopp Ranch Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $57
97 Donum Estate 2009 West Slope Estate Pinot Noir (Carneros); $100
96 Rochioli 2010 West Block Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $100
96 Marimar Estate 2008 La Masia Don Miguel Vinyard Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $39
96 De Loach 2009 Pennacchio Vineyard Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $45
1. All from Russian River Valley except Donum, which is on the Sonoma side of Carneros
2. alcohols within a narrow range [14.4-14.7]
3. production relatively low [maximum: Marimar Estate, 3,300 cases]
4. all show oak, but balanced
5. quality factors: juicy in acidity, medium-bodied [not too light or too heavy], rich in fruits [generally red stone and berry], dry, spicy, silky, elegant, approachable
99 Failla 2010 Estate Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast); $44
96 Lynmar 2010 Susanna’s Vineyard Chardonnay (Russian River Valley); $50
96 Roar 2010 Sierra Mar Vineyard (Snta Lucia Highlands); $45
94 Sandhi 2010 Rita’s Crown Chardonnay (Sta. Rita HIlls); $55
94 Matanzas Creek 2010 Journey Chardonnay (Sonoma County); $75
1. Geographically diverse, so no common origin
2. alcohol levels diverse, ranging from Sandhi (13.0%) to Matanzas Creek (14.6%)
3. all show well-integrated oak
4 quality factors: all made in the popular style: oaky, creamy, rich, flashy fruit, spicy, good balancing acidity
In Cabernet Sauvignon the address remains Napa Valley, most often the hills but not necessarily. And you get what you pay for. Also, great Cabernet can come from any vintage, regardless of its challenges.
In Pinot Noir, quality is considerably less tied to price: put another way, there are more bargains and also more overpriced ripoffs. Nor is geography as simple as with Cabernet: any of the coastal appellations can shine.
In Chardonnay, the same is true: great Chardonnay comes from the same areas as great Pinot Noir, with the single exception of Napa Valley, where very little reliably good Pinot Noir is produced. But then, I can remember a time when Napa Valley did produce interesting Pinot Noirs. The vines have all since been ripped out or budded over, victims of a critical mindset that determined Napa Valley cannot produce good Pinot Noir.
I’m amazed by how many Cabernets that cost triple digits I’m seeing lately. Once upon a time, a $300 Cab would have been an older one, with a decade of bottle age to justify its price. Or it might have been a currant release listed on the pages of an expensive restaurant’s wine list, marked up four times its retail price.
But in the last year, I’ve reviewed 156 Cabs and Bordeaux blends that cost $100 or more. That’s more than twice the total number of classified growth Bordeaux (not all of which retail for more than $100 US). And, as you’d expect, nearly all of these costly Cabs come from Napa Valley.
How are we to account for this breathtaking inflation in the price of Cabernet? One possible reason is that proprietors, with their fingers endlessly probing the retail winds, sense a new inclination on the part of the wealthy to spend money. This could be a canary-in-the-coal mine sign of the end of the recession–at least, at the upper end of the income bracket.
However, another theory is far simpler: proprietors have no more clue where the economy’s headed than you or I do, but they do have enough hubris to charge these prices. There’s a herd mentality at the upper end of the boutique winery class that mirrors that of the lower and middle classes of wine. If Fred Franzia establishes a benchmark price for Cabernet (or Pinot Grigio, or whatever), the brands that compete with him are forced to match it, or concede defeat. This is what goes on everyday in the wholesale wars. If Clos du Bois sets a price on a mid-tier Chardonnay, everybody who competes with Clos du Bois has to decide whether or not to meet it or even better it by a buck.
You might think this take-no-prisoners battle doesn’t occur in the rarified, dignified ranks of high-end wineries, but it does. When Screaming Eagle raised their price to $750 a few years ago, all those wineries who feel they compete with Screaming Eagle had to raise their prices. If they didn’t, they believed (correctly or not) that the market would perceive them as inferior to Screaming Eagle–or not caring enough to compete hard with them. In professional sports, the worst reputation an athlete can get is as a guy who doesn’t fight. That’s why Kobe Bryant is such a superstar. No matter what’s happening on the court, the guy is battling it out.
I called this pricing behavior “hubris” just now, but that may be a little unfair. No one would accuse Kobe of having hubris. Pride, yes. Competitiveness, yes. An utter belief in his ability, yes–that’s confidence. And the belief that, as a leader, he’s got to set an example for his teammates, and for his fans. Looked at that way, the behavior of the high-end Caberent houses in raising prices may be more a function of their belief in themselves and in the quality of their wines, than of any egotistical attention getting.
And let there be no mistake, the great majority of these $100-plus wines are very great in quality. A few outliers scored in the mediocre range, but mostly, these are wines that deserve their scores. Of course, the anti-Napa crowd will carp and complain that they’re all the same, a bunch of overripe, overoaked, high alcohol wines that “pall” after the first sip. That’s the standard gripe: the first sip is delicious, but you can’t finish a second glass, because the wines “tire the palate.”
Which is nonsense, of course. Most people I know would happily drain entire cases of these wines, if they could, which they can’t, because they can’t afford them. Anyhow, I think the reason prices are arching upward is a combination of my two theories: proprietors do sense an easing of tight money among the one (or two, or three) percent, who never were as hurt by the recession as the rest of us. And they do believe in the quality of their product. (I should also mention that these high-end Cabs are extraordinarily expensive to produce, when you consider the vineyard work, the price of new French oak, employee costs and the prices they have to pay to the new class of traveling consultants. Every high-end Cabernet seems to require a retinue of associated famous-name consulting viticulturalists and winemakers.)
Where these prices go in the future, though, is anyone’s guess. A year from now, will there be more or fewer $100-plus Cabs than the 156 I’ve reviewed in the last 365 days? I’ll let you know.
I had the privilege of taking a helicopter tour of the central Napa Valley the other day. We departed from the Melanson winery, which is above the Silverado Trail high in the Vacas, swept all around that area, then headed over the Stagecoach Vineyard down into Chiles Valley because Chuck, my intern, was with us, and he wanted to photograph the winery where he’s sales manager, RustRidge. From there, it was back over east Oakville, just above Screaming Eagle where the Oakville Cross Road hits the Silverado Trail. Our superb pilot, Greg Melanson, wanted to know if we wanted to see Spring Mountain. Of course! So we saw the beautifully tiered, terraced vineyards that dot that mountain, all the way up to Cain, then swept over St. Helena, soared over Howell Mountain, and came back to our point of origin.
I mention this only because seeing Napa Valley from 1,000 feet up (or whatever we were–it might have been a little higher), and from so many different points of view (as opposed to a fixed one, say a turnout on a mountain road) affords the rare opportunity of understanding the valley’s geographic situation in a way nothing else does. A map will show the proximity to the Carneros and San Pablo Bay; seeing downtown San Francisco directly for yourself, from a point exactly above the Napa River, gives you a much truer appreciation. You can see the lowness of the land that funnels down from the Napa Valley floor all the way to the Golden Gate. We know how cold San Francisco is on any given summer day; we know the winds carry that chill straight up to the valley, creating the cool nights and foggy mornings without which Napa Valley would be too hot for world-class viticulture.
However, the wind on that perfect day (blue skies, clement temperatures, near-perfect visibility) came not from San Pablo Bay but from the northwest. It was cool and refreshing, the kind of breeze a human seeks on a hot summer day, and it came from the Russian River Valley. How could that be? From the helicopter we could clearly see a gap in the mountains, up toward Calistoga, that had to be the breeze’s source. So I understood that Napa can be cooled, not just from the south, but from the west.
Our trip also afforded us the opportunity to witness once again Napa’s walls of mountains, the Mayacamas on the west, the Vacas on the east. We were fortunate that one of our fellow passengers was Tim Mondavi, who knows the lay of the land in Napa perhaps better than anyone alive. He was so helpful in pointing out geographic curiosities, but even he–born and reared in these parts–shook his head in amazement at the complexities of terroir. If it were only the valley floor, I suppose Napa would be comprehensible, the way the Médoc, say, is comprehensible. But Napa has this insanely crazy patchwork of slopes, hills, ridges, mountains and high valleys of every orientation, making the work of the geo-mapper challenging to the utmost.
That Napa Valley, with all its physical complexities, is an appellation at all is due to political, historical and cultural factors, many of them arbitrary and the result of compromises. This is true of Burgundy and Bordeaux, also, but at least those two old duchies had the benefit of a millennia or more of political and religious organization that more or less established their boundaries. Napa Valley–the current construction–did not. In itself it’s largely meaningless, as a plethora of mediocre wines bearing the valley’s name attests. It’s not until you zero in on the smaller appellations–Spring Mountain, Oakville, Mount Veeder–that much can be truly said about common characteristics across multiple wineries. But even then, “commonality” can hide particularity. The ultimate appellation, as Tim Mondavi said and as I have long maintained, is the brand and vineyard.
Above Pritchard Hill, with Lake Hennessey below.
I have a bit of a cold, so I just sort of lazed at home yesterday and watched the telly. Yes, the old boob tube. A local station was playing back-to-back episodes of Sex and the City, a program I always liked. In one of them, Carrie’s on-and-off-again boyfriend, Mr. Big, tells her he’s leaving New York City for Napa Valley, where he’s bought three-quarters of a vineyard. Carrie is shocked! When she asks him why, and he explains he’s just tired of New York, Carrie says, “If you’re tired, you don’t go to Napa, you take a Napa!”
Clever line. But it made me realize what a unique place Napa Valley occupies in the public mind. I doubt very much if the SATC writers even considered having Big move anyplace but Napa, once he decided to buy a vineyard. Temecula? I don’t think so. Is there anyone who hasn’t heard of Napa Valley? Maybe people don’t know where it is (I’m not talking about anyone you or I know, of course…), maybe they don’t even know it’s in California, but there’s one thing they do know: Napa Valley is synonomous with wine.
And not just any old wine…great wine, expensive wine, coveted wine. Wines to die for. I frequently share bottles of wine with friends who know very little about wine (which is fine; not everyone has to be obsessed with it), and when they see that “Napa Valley” on the label, their eyes widen–even when the wine itself is only so-so. Let’s not forget, Napa Valley does produce a lot of mediocre wine, “mediocre” in the Latinate sense of ordinary. But such is the valley’s prestige that most people perceive everything coming from there as superior.
It’s wonderful for America to have a Napa Valley. If Napa didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. Everything of value needs a hierarchy, where something is high up and something else is low down and everything else takes its place accordingly. We measure our films according to how closely they hew to Citizen Kane (or whatever film you think is great). We measure our Presidents by their similarities to Washington, Lincoln, F.D.R. and other Presidents who have had great impact on the country’s fortunes. Subconsciously, I think we measure everything we see, according to some Platonic ideal in our minds. In fact, some of the philosophical proofs of God’s existence are that, since we can conceive of a greatest good, therefore there must be a greatest good.
When you can conceive of a highest good, it puts the pressure on everything below it to be better. That’s the thing about hierarchies: they motivate things (people, qualities) lower on the scale to be better. That which is lower aspires to be higher, which is what makes human existence so dramatic. America, in particular, says anyone can be whatever he or she aspires to, unlike, say, the old class-based system of Europe, where you had to do what your father did, and his father before him, back into the generations. That’s why European wine changed so slowly. America’s genius was to say, “Imagine something really great for yourself. That’s what you can be, if you work at it.” That’s why American, and particularly California, wine is the most innovative on earth.
What Napa Valley represents to every other wine region in America is the possibility that it, too, can be great–that the mere mention of its name will cause even the wine-challenged to go, “Oh, that’s great wine.”
Is there room for other wine regions to achieve that pedestal? Practically speaking, you’d have to concede it’s very difficult. I don’t know much about other states, although I’ve heard there are fabulous wines from New York, Virginia, Texas and what-not. But I do know California. If there’s another region that comes anywhere close to Napa’s cachet, it would be the Russian River Valley, particularly with respect to Pinot Noir. But in all honesty, the distance between Napa Valley’s reputation and Russian River’s is vast, and not likely to close anytime soon.
I went to only two events at the Napa Valley Auction, a dinner on Thursday night at Kenzo Estate and, the next day, the big walkaround tasting at Jarvis Winery.
I’d never been to Kenzo before, although obviously I was aware of the tremendous publicity that accompanied the winery’s 2010 launch, when owner Kenzo Tsujimoto, who made his fortune in video gaming, reputedly spent $100 million to create the winery, on the 4,000 acres of land he already owned up Monticello Road, in the southern Vacas. (Four thousand acres, by the way, is four times the size of Golden Gate Park.)
Nor had I ever had the opportunity to taste the wines, which are crafted by winemaker Marc Nanes. He makes 6 wines (7, if you count a rosé that I think they use only for entertaining, but I could be wrong): Five Bordeaux blends (Asatsuyu, Rindo, Asuka, Murasaki and Ai) that are concentrated and impressive. Perhaps, if Kenzo will let me taste them blind, I’ll be able to review them for Wine Enthusiast. But this is currently not his policy. Winemaker Nanes also crafts a Sauvignon Blanc, Yui, that was easily one of the best I’ve ever had. Interestingly, the 2010 was rich and fruity, while the 2011 was green and grassy–not a bad wine, but an absolute testament to the cold vintage.
I usually don’t keep menus from winery dinners, but this one was so spectacular, I had to. The young executive chef, Fumio Yonezawa, was charming as he said, in his introductory remarks, that he was somewhat abashed to be cooking for Thomas Keller, who was one of the guests; but Fumio had nothing to worry about, for his four-course meal, with appetizers, was first class:
Soft boiled egg over truffled potato mash, vodka creme and caviar
Lobster tartare with a honey and tomato compote, strawberries, golden caro rich tomatoes and yuzu gazpacho
Smoked prosciutto wrapped zuke chu-toro tuna, crispy sansho pepper and unagi risotta
Roasted dry-aged Schmitz Ranch rib eye, creamy morel mushrooms and spring vegetables
Red bean and dark chocolate brownie, macha green tea and mascarpone mousse
I sat next to David Abreu, the noted viticulturalist whom I’d long wanted to meet. He was much in demand by the rich collectors there, who treated him like a rock star. I had the distinct impression that it made David uncomfortable. When things calmed down, we had a nice conversation, during which he gave me his views on Napa terroir that, in some cases, were controversial.
Friday’s walkaround at Jarvis, which is also on Monticello but lower down than Kenzo Estate, was wonderful, in part because the weather (unlike last year) cooperated. The estate is beautiful, offering plenty of rolling green grass lawn to stroll and sample some of the best finger foods I’ve ever had. The barrel tasting was inside the huge cave, one of the most elaborate I’ve ever seen, complete with a waterfall. I will say that these barrel walkaround tastings are notoriously difficult to find a proper venue for, and I do not think a cave is appropriate. A few years ago, chez Coppola was too small and cramped, which made people feel claustrophobic. While Jarvis was big, the echo from the stones was overwhelmingly noisy. Everybody I talked to kept pounding the side of their heads; it was like having water in your ears and, for me, the ringing didn’t stop for hours. I hope next year the Napa Valley Vintners will find someplace more comfortable. Not only that, but Monticello Road, a narrow lane at best, was gridlocked, and when you pair that with the one-lane entry to Jarvis Estate, the cars and buses carrying guests often became snarled, going nowhere fast.
At any rate, I guess it’s churlish to complain about little things like noise and traffic, because the event really was a spectacular success. And lest we forget, all the proceeds go to the most wonderful charities that help the field workers and their families, without whom there simply would be no Napa Valley wine.