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First crush at Tim Mondavi’s new Continuum winery

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Tim Mondavi presided over yesterday’s blessing of the grapes at his new Continuum winery facility yesterday, in an ancient Catholic ceremony famously practiced every year by his late father, Robert Mondavi. Robert’s first blessing was in 1966, at his eponymous Oakville winery. His younger son’s ceremony was up on Pritchard Hill, where his estate vineyard is located. The wines up to now have been made elsewhere, but the new winery building is now completed, just in time for the 2013 crush–which falls on the 100th anniversary of Robert’s birth.

Continuum is one helluva wine. I’ve scored it in the 90s every vintage since 2005, with 2007 taking top honors at 97 points. But then, I’ve always been a big fan of the 2007 Napa Cabs. Plush and delicious right out of the bottle, but ageworthy.

Could 2013 develop into a super-vintage? All the indications are positive. The weather has been steady as she goes all year. Except for last Saturday’s gullywasher, September has been a dream month. I always say that grapes like the same kind of weather we humans do: warm, dry sunny days, nights chilly enough to need a blanket. And the long-range forecast, right into the beginning of October, is for more of the same. High pressure is keeping storms well to the north.

From what I hear, the crop yield will be large, although nowhere near the size of 2012. Vintners are always predicting a successful vintage even when they know it’s not, but this time, 2013 could be one for the history books. All the grapes ought to be in the cellar by the third week of October (except, I suppose, for the most late-ripening areas). The one problem I’ve heard of concerns water, or more properly, lack of it. We are in a drought. The Central Coast, where rainfall always is lower than in the North Coast, has been hard hit, with Paso Robles bearing the brunt. A local newspaper reported last month that the area’s water table has dropped by seventy feet since 1997. The problem is exacerbated by an increasing population, as more and more people desire to live in this beautiful country of vineyards, rolling hills and warm summers.

Anyway, congratulations to Tim Mondavi, his family and the crew at Continuum. Mazel tov on the new winery. Your father would be so proud of you. And what a great year for your first crush!


A perfect day in Napa Valley

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Some friends visited over the weekend, two lovely women I’ve known forever, including the daughter of one of them who has been admitted to the Culinary Institute of America’s Accelerated Wine and Beverage Certificate Program, an intensive eight-month course of study that will put 27 new students on the path to becoming sommeliers, or perhaps cicerones I suppose in this Golden Age of Beer.

The young daughter had never visited the CIA before, so we drove up there on Saturday to check it out. While walking the campus (where it appeared other AWBP students were early-arriving), we ran into a lady who runs part of the program. She recognized me; we all set to talking. Earlier, we’d tried to go into the CIA’s gift shop, but they wouldn’t let Gus in (perfectly understandable). Later, the lady told me that Robert and Margrit Mondavi also used to have a little dog, which they carried around with them everywhere in some sort of puppy-purse. That led to much laughter, and when someone said that there’s a pet store in St. Helena called (only semi-facetiously, I would think), Fideaux, I wondered if I should buy a Gus-sized leather doggy pouch from Hermes, perhaps. But I don’t Gus would like being schlepped around in a bag like a Christmas ham.

The temperature by mid-afternoon hit 100 degrees, in one of the few heat waves to occur in Northern California this summer, but other than things being a little toasty, it was as beautiful a Napa day as can be imagined. The sky was immaculately blue: not a cloud anywhere, and perfect visibility, so that the Mayacamas in the west and the Vacas in the east seemed close enough to touch. We drove up the Oakville Grade, about a mile past the old Vichon winery (which is in a state of deshabille, having been purchased by, I believe, Bill Harlan, who is reconstructing the facility for a new project). From that high vantage point, maybe 800 feet up, you could see the valley in all its glory, green and lush (through the miracle of irrigation) while the grasslands of the Vacas were gold and sere from drought. Since I was, on this occasion (and at my friends’ request), the educator-in-chief, I asked them to carefully study the Mayacamas range and the Vacas, only 4 miles apart, and perceive what makes them so different.

It didn’t take long for one of them to reply, “trees.” Exactly. I explained how fascinating it’s always been to me that rainfall falls off so rapidly in Napa as storms, robbed of their moisture by the wall of the Mayacamas, ebb their way eastward, losing their punch with every passing mile. The result, of course, is a heavily-forested Mayacamas versus a Vaca range almost brutally denuded of vegetation, except for the most drought-resistant shrubs, like madrone.

My friends wanted to visit a winery, but I talked them out of it. With the head charge–what is it now, about $25?–the crowds, the impersonality of the tasting room and the utter absence of anything to do while there except to take a slurp or three of something and then mindlessly pick up coasters in the gift shop, it hardly seems worth the time or the money. So we didn’t go to a tasting room. Instead, on the way up the Oakville Grade, we made that little oblique turn, across from the Carmelite monastery, where the Grade starts to climb, onto a narrow, twisty road that leads into the scenic foothills where Far Niente, Martha’s Vineyard, Casa Nuestra, Stelling, The Vineyard House, Futo and of course Harlan have their estates; and I explained how, acre for acre, this is probably the most expensive vineyard land in the New World. Even to me, after all these years, I get goose bumps.

I had pointed out the Oakville Grocery on the way up–a favorite place of mine for a snack and cappuccino–so on the trip back [south] they asked if we would stop there for sandwiches. I had to explain that the trick for managing Highway 29, on a tourist-choked day, was to never, ever take a left turn from the road (forcing you to cross oncoming traffic), which then, of course–when your mission is over–forces you to take an equivalent left turn out of the driveway to get back to the direction you want to go. (The preceding is probably the most inelegant sentence I’ve ever written, but you get the idea.) So, since we were headed south, back to Oakland, it was to Dean and DeLuca, on the west side of 29, we repaired. A great place for a quick bite to eat. (I had the chicken pesto sandwich on ciabatta. So good.) We ate alfresco, sitting on little stoops in front of the store, seeking refuge from the sun in the narrow shadow of the building itself. After a while, conversation stilled, and everyone was content to just sit there, in peace, enjoying the good food, drinking the cold bottled water, watching the traffic (limos, the Wine Train), and delighting in the eye candy of the valley, the Cezanneesque mauve rectangle of the Vacas, the azure sky, and feeling and breathing the clean, dry last air of summer. Ahh, Napa Valley.  I envy my friend’s daughter at the CIA. Her next eight months will be all discovery and delight.


The solution to Napa Valley traffic? Not social media!

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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

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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

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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)

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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.


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