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Three — count ‘em, 3 — for the price of one!

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Hey, who says you don’t get your money’s worth for this blog? Here’s a Threefer.

1. Talkin’ Sonoma County

Somebody from the Sonoma County Wine Library called the other day to do a little phone interview with me. She wanted to know, basically, how I thought the Sonoma County Wineries Association could do a better job of marketing and promoting Sonoma County wines. My answer was: it can’t.

This stuff is going to appear in print someplace. The interviewer sent me a draft of her article, and while I completely approve it, and am sure I really said all the things she quotes me as saying, I want to put my remarks in context. This was, after all, a long conversation we had, and the quotes were preceded and followed by other statements that gave more complete meaning to them.

(I should add that, as a news guy myself who’s conducted literally thousands of interviews over the years, not just with wine industry people but with cops, politicians, business tycoons, lawyers, doctors, crime victims, artists, judges, kids, dying people, you name it, I understand the challenges of getting quotes right, and of presenting them in a way that doesn’t distort their intended meaning. It can be difficult.)

So here are the quotes, with my amplifications.

1. “Sonoma County should not market itself as a region. The only region that means anything to anyone,” Heimoff says, “is Napa.”

What I meant: What I was saying was that I don’t think the words “Sonoma County” have much meaning to the average wine consumer. They do to people in the know, like you and me, but we’re not average consumers. To me, “Sonoma County” is a virtual guarantee of quality, of good viticulture and enology, of smart, hard-working people. But to most Americans, it’s like, “What part of Napa is Sonoma in?” They just don’t get it, and I don’t know if they ever will. So I’m not saying Sonoma “should not” in the moral, prescriptive sense of “Thou shalt not kill.” It’s more like I’m saying, “I wouldn’t spend a whole lot of marketing money promoting Sonoma County, because it’s not likely to be effective.”

2. He believes Sonoma was, “very promiscuous in the 80s in developing its AVAs.” Napa “was deliberate and said it did not want to rush. Sonoma is now paying the price,” he believes, with too many AVAs which mean nothing to the consumer, though an AVA like Russian River, he declares, has been very adroit in its marketing.

What I meant: Sonoma rushed out in the 1980s making all these AVAs before the terroir was properly understood. That caused bafflement, even among wine writers, but it also robbed the “Sonoma County” brand as a whole of the potential for respect and recognition, and fed (or attempted to feed) that energy into the sub-AVAs. Trying to promote “Sonoma County” now is a little like trying to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again.

3. Much more important, he says, for Sonoma’s future is that, “people buy brands. In fact, brands are the only thing that people look for. I think in tough economic times people tend to stay with what they know, so to me, that would bode well for some of the more reputable brands in the country.”

What I meant: With hundreds of wineries in Sonoma County, they’re not all going to succeed, even if the public suddenly starts thinking that Sonoma County is the greatest thing since sliced bread, which they won’t. No, the most visible, respected brands will sell because people know and trust them. At the high level, a Williams Selyem doesn’t have to rely on a relationship with Sonoma County; people line up to buy it because it’s a brand. The same goes for Chateau St. Jean or Sebastiani or Geyser Peak; people buy the name, not the grape source. In Napa Valley, it’s a little different; people are so mesmerized by those two words, they believe anything from Napa Valley has to be great, which of course is nonsense.

4. “Newer vintners need to be aware they will have to build their brands by getting high scores for their wines from good critic. There is nothing,” he says, “that moves bottles off the shelf better than a high score from a reputable critic.”

What I meant: This would be self-serving if it weren’t true. The single best way for a winery (especially an unknown or little-known one) to sell wine is to get a high score. We can argue about who’s a “good critic” and who’s not, but not today. Put it this way: Which will sell more wine, an Enthusiast 100 or a Sonoma County AVA? Duh.

5. His tough-love wisdom at the moment: “Focus. It’s hard right now. And it’s every brand for itself. It’s definitely dog eat dog out there.”

What I meant: Exactly what it says. Woof woof.

2. Wine Fraud hits Canada, no longer limited to Europe

I’m continuing to read and enjoy Benjamin Lewis’s “What Price Bordeaux?” book, which is a romp through everything you ever wanted to know about the great wines of the Left and Right Banks. Each chapter is immensely interesting in its own right. I’m up to “Plus Ça Change” — “the more things change,” as in “the more they stay the same — which is about fakery, fraud, aduleration, mislabeling, and the entire Rogue’s Gallery of crooked practices which seems to have infected the world of fine wine forever.

When I was reading the chapter on Sunday morning I wondered if fakery exists in California. Just a little while later I sat down at the computer, went to Meininger’s Wine Business International to check on the day’s news, and saw this headline, from The Vancouver Sun: Canadians react angrily to faux wines.

Seems that some pretty big wine companies “buy bulk wine from cheap sources outside Canada, bottle it here and sell it in the B.C. [British Columbia] Wines section of government liquor stores.” This “could even be a violation of the criminal provisions of the federal Competition Act [and] at the very least it’s unethical.” Some of the wine apparently is labeled “Cellared in Canada” which, apparently, does not mean that the grapes are from Canada, although the average consumer might be forgiven for thinking so.

This brouhaha brings to mind the famous WineGate Scandal, which Lewis recounts in Plus Ça Change. In the mid-1970s, a negociant house bought cheap Vin de Table red wine. He also bought some real AOC Bordeaux white wine. He then changed the color of the wine on the paperwork for his AOC Bordeaux from white to red, which allowed him to sell it for much more money than a table wine would fetch. Of course, he had to correspondingly lower the price on his white wine, since it was “demoted” from AOC Bordeaux to Vin de Table. But he still made “several million francs of profits in a period of four months” before the fraud was discovered by shocked, shocked authorities. (Only the previous year, the President of the INAO, the AOC’s governing body, had insisted that “Our system of control has been perfected so that [fraud] is impossible.”)

So it can happen in Canada. But here in California? Well, we all remember that in 1994, Fred Franzia “pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud with Bronco by falsely labelling grapes,” according to the story about him in last May’s edition of The New Yorker. But that was 15 years ago, and to the best of my knowledge, California wine has seen no fraud since. Every once in a while the question arises of whether or not wineries send critics like me “special” bottles for review — bottles that aren’t the real wine — and while it wouldn’t surprise me if that were true, there’s no way to know. (All you investigative bloggers out there, here’s the route to stardom: Find such a case and bring the winery down.) There are, of course, rampant tales of fraud in the wine auction and old bottle communities, but I can’t get too upset about that, since it doesn’t impact 99.9% of consumers.

I think the Franzia case was a shot across the bow to California (and American) vintners, a warning from federal law enforcement officials that they won’t tolerate such outrageously deceptive practices. Perhaps far more interesting than outright fraud is adulteration — the “improvement” of wine by adding chemicals for flavor, texture and the like. Although the practice is frequently deplored by winemakers, it’s widespread, and there are currently no regulations, state or federal, to disclose them to the public. Should there be? I don’t know. How many more words can you squeeze onto a label? They’re already getting pretty crowded. Maybe wineries could make the information available online.

3. How to make cult wine and be graceful

And speaking of Plus Ça Change, I read with great interest yesterday’s front page article on Dick Grace in the San Francisco Chronicle, in which Mr. Grace skillfully administers the coup de main to the dozens of Napa Valley cult wines that regularly exceed the $225 price tag on his Grace Family Cabernet. The Chron’s wine editor, Jon Bonné, wrote that Grace “is credited with creating California’s first cult Cabernet,” a citation that may be undermined by the craze that attached to Joe Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon when that wine first appeared in the 1960s. But it’s true enough, and the point is that Mr. Grace views the metastasis of cult Cabs with some proper skepticism. He told Jon, “We have to get over what I call the trophy mentality,” and Jon quoted his wife, Ann, as saying that some of the newer cult wines say more about “an address” than anything else.

Well, I can’t argue with that. I don’t taste all the Napa cults but I do taste a lot of them and I can unhesitatingly say that your quality-price ratio is poor in many cases. (The Napa Valley Vintners kindly invited me to a private tasting of cult wines I don’t routinely get to taste. The tasting is Nov. 5. I’ll be reviewing the wines, blind and formally, for Wine Enthusiast, but I should be able to write about the tasting here.)

You can agree or disagree with Mr. and Mrs. Grace — I tend to agree — but what struck me, when I thought about it, were the parallels between their attitude toward the newby cult Cabs, and the way that some of the older, Baby Boomer wine critics view the younger bloggers. Not to paint everyone with the same broad brush (something I’ve been accused of), but you can say generally that some of the older writers saw the younger bloggers as upstarts, not fully qualified, yet out there making statements anyway. That’s kind of like the Graces saying that some (not all) of the newer cult wines are wannabes rather than proven commodities.

Are the newer cult owners resentful that the Godfather of Cult Cabs, Dick Grace himself, faulted them? Maybe there’s been some grumbling. The Chronicle is Northern California’s largest newspaper, and this article was on the front page of the Sunday edition, meaning that a lot of people read it. But if they have hurt feelings, I doubt if they’ll express them in public. Besides, I have to think that many of the newby cults know, in their heart of hearts, that what Mr. and Mrs. Grace said is true. These overblown wines, crafted with the help of hired celebrity winemakers and grapegrowers, are “marketing tool[s], as opposed to wines with a distinctive character,” as Mr. Grace asserted. The pendulum indeed “has swung too far.” And in at least one other aspect, the Graces are attempting to make up karmically for the wealth and luxury that their lives have accorded them. A Buddhist and follower of the Dalai Lama, Mr. Grace contributes large sums of money to humanitarian causes. He calls this act of charity a “self-correction” after realizing that there is a higher purpose than wealth or fame. It’s enormously gratifying to hear him concede that the prices his wine commanded were “an extension of my overblown ego” and to see him making up for it.

Maybe Mr. Grace could hold Buddhism classes for his fellow cult wine producers in Napa Valley and elsewhere. They have a lot to learn from him.

dalailama


What’s the best way to judge a wine?

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My bosses at Wine Enthusiast asked me to do a seminar at tonight’s Toast of the Town San Francisco, and I thought it would be fun to pick 6 of my top-rated wines over the last few months that show off their terroir or origin, and then explore the whys and wherefores of how they do so.

For the record, my selected wines are Geyser Peak 2007 Block Collection Russian River Ranches Sauvignon Blanc (Russian River Valley), Heintz 2007 Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast), Hall 2005 Bergfeld Cabernet Sauvignon (St. Helena), Beaulieu 2005 Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cab (Napa Valley), Morgan 2006 Double L Pinot Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands) and Gary Farrell 2006 Bradford Mountain Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley).

Like a good lawyer, I can argue for or against the notion of terroir. (My Gemini nature also contributes to that perennially bifurcated point of view.) Against appellation is the reality that you can have wines of the same variety, grown within a stone’s throw of each other, that are vastly different. But arguing in favor of terroir is the fact that there are wines, such as the six above, that are perfectly in alignment with the theoretical qualities of any given appellation. Each defines, in a stereotypical way, its origin’s personality.

When I rate wine, it’s generally on the basis of how good/bad/indifferent it is regardless of terroir. This is especially true when the tasting is done blind. A case can be made, however, that it’s pointless (no pun intended) to rate a wine unless it’s from the point of view of how well, or not, it expresses its terroir, so I was fascinated to read about this tasting that took place in New York State. It was of Finger Lakes wines, and they were “judged based on how well they express[ed] the environment in which they [were] grown,” not merely on how good they tasted.

The tasting was conducted — not surprisingly — by the folks over at Appellation America. Last month, I posted about AA’s efforts to appellation-ize the U.S. in a piece I called “The Appellation Myth” in which my mixed feelings expressed themselves with classic duality. On the one hand I worried about “an appellation-literary complex…that seeks to make money” from writing about appellations. On the other hand, I acknowledged that appellations “are important, but not overly so.”

Regarding that AA competition in New York, it’s actually not a new-fangled way of judging, it’s an old one. The French historically interpreted their grands vins by how they expressed the attributes of their origins, and not merely by how they tasted (which is why, in the late 18th century, there was such a furor over “improving” the wines of the Médoc with darker wines from the south).

Tasting by terroir rather than strict hedonistic or organoleptic impressions provides endless opportunities for discovery, insight, conversation, debate and passion, which are all things that serious winos enjoy. Is tasting by terroir antithetical to the 100-point system? I don’t think so. They can be meshed together. When a wine is very, very good, as the six above are, and truly do seem to be expressions of where they were grown, it’s right to praise their typicity. But it’s important to remember that a wine may be very good even if it is not a precise expression of where it was grown. I have in mind certain sparkling wines from Schramsberg that are assembled from 3 or even 4 counties, or a Napa Cabernet that’s blended from vineyards up and down the Valley. So if I had to choose between wines that were defined by their terroir and those that were simply, purely hedonistic, it would be the latter. (Fortunately, no such choice is demanded!)


Top ten list of things gatekeepers could do a better job of explaining to consumers

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People call people like me “gatekeepers.” Beyond the obvious definition of a person who controls passage through a gate, the more modern meaning of gatekeeping is a cultural one: according to Wikipedia, gatekeeping is “the process through which ideas and information are filtered for publication.”

gatekeeper1

In the wine industry, in addition to writers and critics, gatekeepers include any professionals who interface with consumers and can influence what they buy: sommeliers, restaurateurs and wine shop personnel.

I have always taken my position as a gatekeeper very seriously. But I’ll be the first to admit we don’t always do a very good job at giving consumers true, useful information about wine they can use to bust through stereotypes. I was reminded of this yesterday when I wrote my post about screwtops and somebody commented that screwtops would be a lot more acceptable to diners if sommeliers pushed or at least didn’t oppose their use. That led me to think, What else are we gatekeepers not doing enough (or doing too much of)? Here’s my top 10 list of things that gatekeepers could do a better job of letting people know:

1 screwtops aren’t just for cheap wine
2. the relationship between price and quality is not as absolute as most people think
3. just because a wine comes from a single-vineyard that is designated on the label means nothing
4. a high score does not reflect a wine’s affinity for food
5. a particular varietal that comes from a region famous for that varietal can be terrible
6. the weight of the bottle is meaningless and can be misleading
7. ditto the beauty of the label
8. ditto the faux wax seal which is often just an excuse to charge an extra $15
9. a wine described as “dry” can actually contain residual sugar that interferes with food pairing
10. the official alcohol reading on the label can be seriously off

I’m sure I could come up with others, but then it wouldn’t be a Top Ten List.


Tasting the new K-Js

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I was up in Sonoma late last week for my annual tasting of the new Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve and Highland Estates wines. I do this each year with Randy Ullom, who’s K-J’s chief winemaker, and the man responsible for overseeing the winery’s vast production of millions of cases. (I profiled Randy in my last book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff.)

The Grand Reserves are reserve-style varietals that are priced a few bucks higher than K-J’s Vintner’s Reserves and are worth the extra cost. Like the V.R. wines, they’re produced in significant quantities (except for a spartan 1,000 cases of a North Coast Sauvignon Blanc). The Grand Reserve tier is a solid one; this year I gave 90s and 91s to the Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, whose suggested retail prices range from $21-$27, but in reality you should be able to find them for less than that.

It’s the Highland Estates line, however, that always impresses me. Not that many people realize Kendall-Jackson produces such high-quality wines, in such miniscule quantities, at such fair prices. The highest production, on the 2007 Camelot Highlands Chardonnay from Santa Maria Valley, is only 3,700 cases, but most of the wines are well below 1,000 cases. These are truly artisanal wines. Randy has explained to me how the team — which certainly includes Jess Jackson — studies potential vineyard sites for years before making the decision to go ahead and bottle any one of them. Currently, there are 13 Highland Estates wines, including 3 Chardonnays, 3 Pinot Noirs, 1 Syrah, 2 Merlots, 3 Cabernet Sauvignons and 1 red Bordeaux blend, called Trace Ridge. These are serious, pampered wines that can compete with almost anything in California. Pricing on the Pinots, Chardonnays and the Syrah is below $35, making them real bargains. The Bordeaux reds get up to $50-$70, but they’re easily as good as wines costing far more. (The Trace Ridge, at $125, is the outlier.) Two things to know about these wines are that K-J uses only grapes grown in premium coastal regions (i.e., NO Central Valley or Lodi), and that the K-J philosophy is to provide quality for less money than the competition. If all this sounds like I’m shilling for K-J, I’m sorry, but this is a great company, and you have to give credit to Jess Jackson’s impeccable taste.

I also stopped by Hartford Court to taste through 9 of their new 2007 wines, with Don Hartford and winemaker Jeff Mangahas. (Hartford Court is part of the Jackson Family of wines.) If you’re not familiar with Hartford Court, it’s because they keep a low profile, but I can tell you that this is an extraordinary winery producing some of the most distinctive Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Zinfandels in California. Don Hartford explained how they source fruit only from vineyards with forceful personalities that, somehow, manage to be different from their neighbors. This is, of course, the essence of terroir. You need only to taste the nervy elegance of the Seascape Chardonnay, or the Chablis-like limpidity of the Stone Côte Chardonnay, or the power and authority of the Hailey’s Block Pinot Noir, to understand that these are wines of intricate authority.

My full reviews on all these wines will appear in upcoming issues of Wine Enthusiast.


Cult wines in a post-cult era

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An interesting back-and-forth happened here yesterday following my post, Waterford Wedgwood bankruptcy: lessons for high-end wine. One commenter, Corey Miller, asked a two-fold question: If $200 Napa Cabs “aren’t the way anymore,” what will replace them? And are there any former cult wines that have re-invented themselves to suit this new,  troubled era? In a later comment, Corey asked two more good questions: “What qualities would get you [me, Steve, the critic] excited” about a new wine discovery. And “How does one build prestige into a wine while avoiding the leftover stale aftertaste of the Napa cult Cab era?”

Let me try to answer. Not that I have all the answers, or even any of them. But the mere struggle of trying to answer a hard question makes you think more deeply about it, which is good.

What will replace $200 Napa Cabs?

Let’s posit that a lot of high-end wines are going to get slammed in this recession. I don’t know if anything will “replace” them. If 20 Cabs that now cost in excess of $80 have to lower their prices or even disappear, that doesn’t mean that 20 other expensive wines will pop up someplace else and take their place. It’s not a zero-sum game. Sometimes less is less.

Are there any former cult wines that have reinvented themselves?

None that I can think of. Once you’re yesterday’s papers, it’s hard to become front page news anymore.

What qualities get me excited about a new wine?

Quality, first and foremost. Extra features that can be hard to define — what the Germans call Prädikat: special distinctions or attributes. Standing out from one’s peers. For example, a couple years ago I was at a big Pinot Noir walkaround tasting with lots of big names. I came across a brand I’d never heard of, Anthill Farms. The wines were so compelling, especially coming from a total unknown, that it put them on my radar. It didn’t hurt that the owners were a bunch of young guys who had a great back story. As I ponder my career as a wine critic, I’m struck by how often this happens — you stumble across some new little brand that blows you away.

How do you build prestige into a wine while avoiding the Napa cult Cab era?

All that I, as a critic, can do is review wines. I’m sure that a very high score attracts some attention in certain circles. But in order for a wine to be perceived as “the next classic,” something magical has to happen that’s beyond anyone’s control. Heidi Barrett once described it to me as “word of mouth, this wildfire undercurrent, person-to-person, friends to friends: ‘Have you tried this?’ It just spreads like wildfire.” (She was talking about what happened to her when she made Screaming Eagle, Grace Family and Dalla Valle Maya.) It used to be that a Robert Parker 100 could achieve this magical effect. I’m sure the Sage of Monkton can still launch a wine to stardom, BUT I think his power is reduced from what it used to be, and will never be the same. That’s because there are so many more critical voices out there, including the blogs. It’s also because a younger generation has come online, and they don’t care as much about Parker (or me) as their parents did.

Look, if there was a formula for “building prestige into a wine,” everybody would know what it was. But there isn’t. We don’t even know all the necessary and sufficient conditions — that’s why P.R. and marketing folks exist. So with the explosion of critical voices out there, it’s going to be harder than ever for any one new brand to be launched to cultdom. Anyhow, that’s my opinion, and I’m sticking to it.


2008: The year that was

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Everything looked so great last January, with the wine industry healthy and happy and the economy rolling along. Then, in the spring and summer, came dark hints of a problem in the home mortgage industry, which nobody quite understood. Suddenly, wham. September arrives, and the stuff hit the fan. Now here we are slouching towards 2009, wondering what the hell happened and how much worse things will get before they start to get better.

Still, in my job, there was a lot of great wine in 2008. Here are my top-scoring ones. My employer, Wine Enthusiast, already has released our Top 100 list, so I don’t mean to compete with that. That’s worldwide; these are all from California. (All wines have been published in our Buying Guide, or will be over the new few months.)

1. Shafer Hillside Select 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon
2. Arista 2005 Ferrington Vineyard Pinot Noir
3. Signorello 2005 Padrone Bordeaux blend
4. Colgin 2005 IX Estate
5. Stonestreet 2004 Christopher’s Cabernet Sauvignon
6. Iron Horse NV Joy! Sparkling Wine
7. Williams Selyem 2006 Rochioli Riverblock Pinot Noir
8. Nickel & Nickel 2005 John C. Sullenger Cabernet Sauvignon
9. Far Niente 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon
10. Hanzell 2005 Ambassador’s 1953 Vineyard Chardonnay

The list is heavy on Cabernet and Napa Valley, with a few cool-climate Pinots, a drop-dead gorgeous Chard, and one of the smoothest California bubblies ever. All are ageworthy, and all are expensive.

TOP TEN BEST BUYS

At Wine Enthusiast we have a specific bottle price/rating formula for the special designation of Best Buy. This is always an important category, but especially in these hard times.

1. Honker Blanc 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Napa Valley); $12. (From Tudal)
2. Vina Robles 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Paso Robles); $14.
3. Chelsea Goldschmidt 2006 Merlot (Dry Creek Valley); $14.
4. Hayman & Hill 2005 Reserve Selection Merlot (Napa Valley); $15.
5. Mandolin 2005 Syrah (Central Coast): $10.
6. Lee Family Farm 2007 Silvaspoons Vineyard Verdelho (Alta Mesa/Lodi); $15.
7. TAZ 2007 Pinot Gris (Santa Barbara County); $15.
8. Fortress 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Red Hills Lake County); $15.
9. Mirassou 2007 Pinot Grigio (California); $12.
10. Lake Sonoma 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Dry Creek Valley); $15.

An interesting list, dominated by white wines. Hmm. Not sure what to make of that.  Maybe it’s easier to make a good, inexpensive white wine than an equivalent red wine. Or maybe I just found these crisp, (mainly) unoaked white wines a refreshment after so many clumsily oaked ones.

Anyhow, here’s wishing you and yours a happy, healthy 2009, and may your year be filled with peace, prosperity  — and fine wine!

Cheers!


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