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The solution to Napa Valley traffic? Not social media!



Last Wednesday’s public meeting of the Napa County Planning Commission, as reported by the Napa Valley Register, sounds like a typical exercise in broad-based bureaucratic eye-glazing bureaucracy.

Everyone got to say his two cents, and the rest of the audience had to sit through it and listen, no matter how rambling or opaque the remarks were. That is the essence, and the curse, of participatory democracy.

The main topic, so far as I could discern it, was the impact of growing winery infrastructure on traffic. This is a perennial concern in Napa Valley and a legitimate one. If you’ve driven Highway 29 lately, you know how awful it can be. Gridlock, sometimes stretching from north of St. Helena all the way through American Canyon down to the 101 Freeway, is the norm. It’s why I advise visiting tourists to avoid Napa and stick to Sonoma County. No fun sitting in your car inhaling gas fumes.

I don’t know what the answer to the traffic is, but I don’t think it involves social media. And yet, there at the meeting was the ubiquitous Paul Mabray, singing the social media halleleujah chorus to a roomful of voters and county officials who must have wondered just who he was, and why he was there, lecturing them about “digital human beings” and the mean number of times per day the average winery posts on Twitter (2.2 times a day, in case you’re wondering), when what they were there to talk about was traffic.

I mean, social media is very glorious and wonderful, and we all are grateful it exists and can hardly remember what life was like before it did. But social media has not yet turned into a deus ex machina–a miraculous intervention that solves all problems, like those quack nostrum peddlers used to claim when they sold horse linament to naïve uneducated people looking for a cure for their cancers, arthritis and venereal diseases.

I cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, see the relevance of “engag[ing] potential customers on social media networks” to local traffic conditions, unless Paul was trying to make the point that the more people who are buying wine online, the fewer people will be actually visiting Napa Valley. But I don’t think that was his point. And even if it was, it was effectively rebutted by vintner Michael Honig, who stated the obvious truth that “People…come and see our valley. They…see our barrels. They…kick the dirt.” That’s how you get a lifetime customer, not through tweeting 80 times a day.

Once Paul had his say, it seems that things got back to the topic at hand. The problem of traffic is insoluble, short of draconian steps that wineries would oppose, tourists would hate and would probably be doomed to fail at any rate. (Back during the gas shortages of the 1970s, you could only fill up on certain days of the week, depending on the numbers on your license plate. Maybe they could drop a similar dictat on touring Napa.)

My own feeling for traffic in Napa is to widen Highway 29. Make it four lanes instead of two–and put a detour around St. Helena, or perhaps a bridge over it, so you don’t have to drive through it. If four lanes is too much, make it three lanes, and have the directions change the way they used to at the Caldecott Tunnel before there were four bores: Two westbound lanes, one eastbound for morning commute, then switch it for the evening rush.

Of course, an elevated freeway over Highway 29, with on- and off-ramps for the townships, is the ideal solution. But it’s probably too expensive, and I’m sure the enviros would object. They’re against everything that makes our lives more efficient.

Malbec in California? Mixed bag, emerging story



I reviewed a very nice wine from Trefethen, the 2010 Dragon’s Tooth, a blend of 58% Malbec, 22% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Petit Verdot. (My full review and score will appear in an upcoming issue of Wine Enthusiast.)

In the paperwork accompanying the wine, Janet Trefethen had written of the winery’s “tinkering with Malbec for the past 12 years” and added, “Clearly, we are not alone in our interest in Malbec as Napa Valley plantings have tripled since the year 2000.”

That sent me to do my own research in the latest Grape Acreage Report, produced every year by the fine folks at the California Department of Food and Agriculture. According to it, prior to 2004 the state had 1,255 acres of Malbec. Last year, acreage had grown to 2,689–considerably more than double. Acreage of Cabernet Sauvignon in California, by contrast, increased in the same period from 71,472 acres to only 80,630–a much smaller rate of growth.

In Napa County, according to the Acreage Report, Malbec increased 70% in acreage between 2004-2012, from 230 acres to 392 acres. That’s still not a lot: There were just under 20,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in 2012. Still, this is evidence that vintners are taking a second look at Malbec and what it can bring to red wine.

Personally, I don’t think California Malbec, bottled on its own as a varietal, is very interesting. Dark, tannic and fruity, yes: compelling, rarely. My scores tend to be in the 86-88 point range. There are, as always, exceptions: Mt. Brave’s 2009, from Mount Veeder, is an awesome wine.

But as a blender, well,…Some wineries in Paso Robles (Bon Niche, for example) are tinkering with Malbec as a component, as are others in Napa: Michael Pozzan’s 2010 Marianna, a Bordeaux blend, is excellent, as is Mount Veeder’s 2009 Reserve Cabernet, blended with Malbec and Petit Verdot. That formula is hewed to at CADE, which adds a little Merlot to it, with their 2009 Napa Cuvée. Newton, meanwhile, replaces the Petit Verdot with Cabernet Franc in their delicious 2010 Unfiltered Merlot. Across the hill, Lancaster, in their 2009 Nicole’s, deepens the interest of their Cabernet Sauvignon with 25% Malbec, bringing a brooding, earthy quality. In all these cases, what the Malbec brings is depth, color, and a certain juicy softness despite the tannins.

Just yesterday morning, Peter Cargasacchi had asked, via Facebook, what the components of the 1961 Cheval Blanc had been. I went to Eddie Penning-Rowsell’s 1969 The Wines of Bordeaux where he wrote that the vineyard, in the Sixties, was “37% Merlot, 43 Bouchet and 20% Pressac (Malbec).” (“Bouchet” apparently was not the Alicante that we know in California, but an old name for Cabernet Franc.) Michael Broadbent, in The Great Vintage Wine Book, ranked that wine higher than Ausone of the same vintage, although not as highly as the five First Growths of the Médoc. The point, anyway, is that Malbec in Bordeaux and especially in the Right Bank historically was considered good enough to put into the cuvée, but I think it’s lost its luster in recent decades; after the devastating 1956 frost in Bordeaux, which killed much of it off, it was replaced with other grapes, in the belief perhaps that Malbec is a bit rustic. (That is precisely the word Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson use to describe it, in The World Atlas of Wine.)

It is rustic, although I certainly wouldn’t complain if you opened a bottle of Catena Zapata for me. I suspect that Malbec’s recent popularity in Napa Valley is as much due to the search for novelty (and playing off its popularity in Argentina) as anything else. Sometimes, winemakers “throw spaghetti at the wall” to see what sticks. I suppose you can’t blame them for not wanting to rest on their laurels, but sometimes I wonder where the line is between innovation that actually improves things, as opposed to change for its own sake.

Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc: An appreciation



I reviewed a very nice Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc yesterday, the Robert John 2012 ($30), and while I won’t reveal my score until it’s published in some future edition of Wine Enthusiast, I will say that it caused me to write, “One of Napa’s secrets is how good its Sauvignon Blancs can be.”

A secret, of course, based on the subtext of this comment, which is Chardonnay. Napa has been horribly bashed over the years for it, which is all right with me: while I think the bashing can be a little mean, for there are some consistently good Napa Chards (Jarvis, Vine Cliff and Krupp come to mind), I will be first to admit this warmish, inland valley doesn’t have what it takes to produce world-class Chardonnay on a consistent basis, especially considering what even the merest Napa Chardonnay costs these days.

Sauvignon Blanc is, however, a different story. It’s America’s number two white wine (or is Pinot Grigio? Whatever; Sauvignon Blanc qualitatively is a better wine). SB wants a little heat for ripening. Grow it in a coolish area (the western Sta. Rita Hills, for example, where Chardonnay can thrive) and it’s too strong in those stringbeany, ammoniated cat pee aromas that, quite frankly, make me gag, especially in the cool vintages we’ve had the last three years.

Grow it too far inland, and it’s an insipid fruit cocktail, sugary, soft and spittable, often overcropped and clumsily acidified.

The Santa Ynez Valley has laid some claims among coastal appellations (among which I do not include Lake County) as a Sauvignon Blanc specialist; but other than that, no region wants to “own up” to this great Loire and, blended, Bordeaux white variety. Why this should be has been hard for me to understand for years, except to come up with the theory that a producer willing to invest in great Sauvignon Blanc can make more money, at perhaps not even the same costs, if he produces an average Chardonnay. There is probably a view among producers that consumers are only willing to pay so much for Sauvignon Blanc (perhaps less than $20), so why should they fuss about it.

Well, they should fuss about it because Sauvignon Blanc can make one of California’s great white wines. I attribute Napa Valley’s affinity for it to two factors: The climate, which is just warm enough but not too hot, midway between coast and the Delta; and Napa’s money. Proprietors there can afford to invest in Sauvignon Blanc if they wish to. Most of them presumably are making their real profits off Cabernet Sauvignon anyway.

Among the consistently fine Napa Valley Sauvignon Blancs I have reviewed over the years are Mondavi’s (especially the Fumé Blancs from Tokalon), Ehlers Estate (St. Helena), Atalon, Stag’s Leap, Cade, Hand Made by Marketta (from the former co-owner of Chateau Potelle), Long Meadow Ranch (bearing a Rutherford appellation), Snowden, V. Sattui’s Carsi Vineyard, Round Pond, Bougetz, Kelleher, Laird and Raymond. All are distinguished wines, dry and fruity and crisp, with floral and mineral notes, and their prices are relative bargains compared to Chardonnays of equal quality. In fact, a good California Sauvignon Blanc is far more versatile with a wide range of food than an equivalent Chardonnay.

Why big is better (but just up to a point)



In my job as a critic who gives point scores to wines, even after all these years I still think all the time about just why I give high scores to certain wines and not-so-high scores to most others.

Just what is it that, in my head, makes one Cabernet score 96 points and another “only” 89? It’s not that the latter Cab is bad. In fact, it may be better to drink (under certain circumstances) than the former. This is where a certain arbitrariness comes in–but it’s an arbitrariness with rules.

The main thing I look for in a wine is power. There are synonyms for power: concentration, intensity, volume, size, mass. (These are all nouns; their corresponding adjectives would be words like intense, massive, powerful, huge, etc.). The more mass a wine has, the more likely I am to give it a high score.

It can be tricky, though, determining the line between mass that’s pleasingly balanced, and mass that’s just power for its own sake. I hate to engage in meaningless metaphors, but I sometimes make analogies in my mind to power that’s controlled, as opposed to uncontrolled power. Imagine a large dam, like Hoover Dam or Boulder Dam. Controlled power is when the dam’s walls hold; the force of all that water can be used for productive ends, such as the manufacture of power to turn turbines. That’s controlled power. Imagine next that an earthquake destroys the dam’s foundations, resulting in a great flood that destroys forests and buildings and lives. That’s uncontrolled power.

I realize the comparison isn’t perfect, but that’s how it feels to me when I taste–the kind of sense impression the wine gives, from my first glimpse and sniff to the way it occupies my mouth. And quite often, I find the balance of power, especially in red wines, slipping away from control into abandonment and chaos.

This usually happens when a winery has two (or more) tiers of a wine, often expressed as a “regular” regional bottling and a “reserve.” Most often the reserve is a more concentrated version of the regular; that is, whatever characteristics the regular has (specific flavors, quality of tannins and oak, acidity, alcohol), the reserve will possess also, but in spades: everything will be more, greater, more evident. Sometimes, this works. Sometimes, it doesn’t. Sometimes, more is more; sometimes, more is less. Just because the wine goes from 60% new French oak to 100% (or 200%) new French oak doesn’t make it better; it can make the wine merely oakier, which in itself is not balance but imbalance. Same with fruity concentration. There are technical ways of increasing the extract in wine, but the winemaker has to be very careful with tinkering, because there’s a thin line between “massive fruit” (a term I might use positively) and a fruit bomb. Sometimes, I taste these reserve-style Cabs and I’ll give it a lower score than the regular Cab (even though it costs a lot more money) for the very reason that the winemaker tried too hard to impress with sheer force. There is something to be said for finesse, restraint, elegance: Just because the California sunshine and warmth allows you to make a fruit bomb doesn’t mean you ought to.

The final step in my thinking process when reviewing such wines is, inevitably, this: Granted that the wine tastes clumsy now, might it age? Part of the problem is that the way I was educated about wine. I read the likes of Professor Saintsbury and Eddie Penning-Rowsell and learned to appreciate that a fine Bordeaux that tastes hard and unyielding in youth might turn out silky and delicious if given enough time in the cellar. Well, that’s true, as far as it goes: But there’s a big difference between a young wine that’s clumsy because it’s hard and tannic, and one that’s clumsy because it’s a fruit bomb. I don’t think it’s right to assume that a wine will age simply because (a) it’s a Napa Valley Cab, (b) it costs triple digits and (c) it has more fruit than a roadside fruit stand in August.

If there’s a cautionary tale here, it’s to advise vintners that just because you can extract massive fruit doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Show some restraint, please. Not just in reds but in whites: I’ve seen too many perfectly fine Chardonnays ruined by massive applications of oak, or oak-like aromas and flavors. I’ve always defended California from the naysayers who claim it’s too hot here to grow fine wine (a patent absurdity), but it is getting difficult to defend these over-extracted, overly-oaked, too soft and too sweet wines that seem to be popping up even in the $30-$40 and up ultrapremium range.

Do “Zombie Wineries” Exist?



I Googled the term (using both spellings, “zomby” and “zombie”) and came up empty-handed, but I’m hearing it bandied about more and more.

It refers to wineries that are in dead every respect, except that they still walk the Earth as though they possessed life. The Zombie Winery phenomenon is said to be most acute in Napa Valley, among high-end brands that got their butts kicked in the Great Recession, when demand for $50-and up Cabernets fell off the cliff.

Wineaccess, the online wine retailer, referred to “Napa’s crisis years (2008 to mid-2011)” in their most recent email blast, a suitably Götterdämmerung-esque description that communicates the angst that struck the valley at the Recession’s peak.

I well recall the rumors. Who’s in trouble? Who isn’t? Anecdotally, expensive wines–not just Cabernet Sauvignon–were suffering. Nobody really knew, in each specific instance, which wineries were hurting; only the proprietors and their bankers knew. But there were whispers. I asked owners every chance I could how business was doing: the answers ranged from “Great” (which I assumed to be an outright lie) to “Well, you know, these are tough times,” which at least was honest. The owner of one of the most famous cult wineries told me frankly, in that 2009-2010 period, that for the first time in the winery’s history, requests for inclusion on the mailing list had dropped, a kind of canary-in-the-coal mine symbol of the psychological toll the Recession took even on the well-to-do.

“Zombie” the word comes from Haitian Creole, which imported it from an African word; it referred to “an animated corpse” (Wikipedia). The word gained widespread currency with George Romero’s famous (and famously kitschy) “Night of the Living Dead” movie (1968), which depicted living dead horrors wandering the world, looking to shred, tear and devour (although the film itself never used the word “zombie”). A previous movie, “White Zombie” (1932), starring Bela Lugosi, however, imprinted the horrific image on the public’s mind of yet another form of monster (in addition to Frankenstein and Dracula, then popular among horror genre fans), one again based on a mutated human, stripped of living purpose except that it did not know that it was dead. (The self-knowledge of these mutants varies. Frankenstein had none, or very little, although he could feel tenderness. Dracula, of course, possessed full self-knowledge, which is what makes vampires so dreadful; what he lacked was moral compass, although it can be argued that, from the point of view of his kind, i.e., a vampire, his actions were fully in concert with morality as he understood it. Zombies, by contrast, are even duller and more primitive than Frankenstein, on a level of insectoid: If any movie in history ever depicted a zombie feeling tenderness or love, I am unaware of it.)

So are there Zombie Wineries in Napa Valley? Undoubtedly. Was Clos Pegase one of them? I wondered about last week’s sale to Vintage Wine Estates and Leslie Rudd. It’s hard for me to think Jan Shrem “needed the money.” I always thought Clos Pegase was quite profitable, a thought reinforced every time I heard the announcer on my public radio station thank the Shrems for their “generous support.” And the wines, made by Richard Sowalsky, always are good and sometimes great. My hunch–and that’s all it is–is simply that Jan is ready for the next chapter in his adventurous life.

BREAKING: Moments after I posted this, the news came in that Viansa has been bought by Vintage Wine Estates. While Viansa is in Sonoma County, not Napa, it appears to have been a Zombie Winery:

Ten Napa Valley wineries that should be better known



It happens all the time in wine: famous wineries overshadow the less famous. Bordeaux set the pattern: So luminous is the glare of the most celebrated Classified Growths that some perfectly fine chateaux are obscured. It being the purpose of wine writers to bring under-appreciated wineries to readers’ attention, here are my suggestions. I don’t mean to suggest that these wineries are coming out of the blue. Insiders know them; it’s the general public that doesn’t.

Goldschmidt Vineyards. Veteran winemaker Nick Goldschmidt’s carefully crafted Cabernets rival the best of Napa Valley. But for some reason, they haven’t garnered the acclaim of competitors such as Staglin or Dalla Valle. Representative wine: 2006 Game Ranch “Plus” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville; $150, 98 points.

Terra Valentine. I’ve been giving this winery high scores since the late 1990s. They do a fantastic job with their Spring Mountain fruit, but you seldom hear of them in the same breath as the cults. Representative wine: 2010 K-Block Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain; $65, 95 points.

B. Cellars. The winery really caught my eye with their 2004 vintage, and I’ve been a fan ever since. Cabernet is the speciality, although they also try their hand at Syrah and Chardonnay. Representative wine: 2009 Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville; $165, 95 points.

Summers Estate. Calistoga-based Summers has been crafting terroir wines of distinction since at least the late 1990s. But the last 10 years have really shown the fruits of success, not just with Cabernet but with Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Charbono. Representative wine: 2010 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Calistoga; $50, 92 points.

Sodaro Estate. I felt this winery’s struggle in the mid-2000s, but by the 2008 and 2009 vintages, they started to rock. That may have been due to the involvement of May-Britt and Denis Malbec, the consulting winemakers. Representative wine: 2009 Doti/Sodaro Blocks 2 and 6 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley; $125, 95 points.

Amici. This is former Beaulieu winemaker Joel Aiken’s baby, and while it took him a while to find his footing, he’s now established it securely. A flagship wine is certainly the 2009 Morisoli Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford; $125, 95 points. But for the representative wine, I’m choosing Amici’s 2007 Olema Cabernet, Napa Valley; $20, 97 points. It stood out in a blind tasting several years ago of more than 60 Napa Cabs, almost all of which cost far more.

Prime Cellars. The celebrated winemaker, Ted Henry (Jarvis), and his wife, Lisa, own the brand, and he crafts the wines (she does the marketing). With the sole exception of a so-so 2005 Cab and a 2008 Chardonnay, I’ve given all their releases 90 points or higher. Representative wine: 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville; $64, 93 points.

KaDieM. This is a brand new brand, a partnership between friends. The winemaker is Michael Trujillo, who was mentored by the likes of André Tchelistcheff and Tony Soter. The representative wine is their 2009 Inaugural Vintage Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley; $85, 95 points.

Patland Estate. Winemaker Jay Buoncristiani [ex-Hess Collection] crafts rich Cabs, Syrahs and Malbecs from the winery’s estate vineyard and from purchased grapes, notably the Stagecoach Vineyard, which straddles the Atlas Peak AVA. Representative wine: 2009 Stagecoach Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley; $90, 94 points.

Turnbull Wine Cellars. Turnbull isn’t new. In fact, it was one of the first wineries I ever wrote about [in its Johnson-Turnbull era]. Although the winery is set on Highway 29 in the heart of Oakville, its wines tend to pass unnoticed, which is really a pity. Representative wine: 2009 Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville; $100, 95 points.

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