I almost did a spit-take on reading that the organization that oversees the 1855 Bordeaux classification is applying for UNESCO World Heritage status.
UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which is sort of the U.N.’s kumbaya wing; and part of it is the World Heritage Centre, which recognizes world sites of great historical and cultural importance and seeks to protect and preserve them. Among the 962 recognized World Heritage sites are Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the historic center of Vienna, the Magao caves of China, the Acropolis, Israel’s Masada, the Pyramids of Egypt and, here in the States, Mammoth Cave, Yellowstone and the Statue of Liberty.
And now–let me get this straight–the Bordelais want to include a list of wineries? What am I failing to understand here?
The Classification was drawn up, let us remember, by wine brokers, who had been asked by the Emperor Napoleon to choose wines to display at a Paris exposition. It was nothing more nor less than a price list. True, it has assumed far more importance over the decades, but it’s hard to see how a “classification” can be included on a list of World Heritage sites. I suppose I might have more sympathy with the nomination if they had suggested Bordeaux itself as a region, rather than the 1855 Classification. But then, Bordeaux already received World Heritage status (in 2007), so what is it that the nominators are looking for, beyond that? All we have to go by is the Decanter story; I could find no additional information on the Internet. Here’s how the magazine quoted Phillippe Castéja, president of the Conseil des Grands Crus Classés, in explaining his group’s nomination:
The 1855 classification is the fruit of both natural and human factors and it has only gained in importance over time. Its value lies not just in the excellence of the wines, but the architectural richness its chateaux have brought to Bordeaux, the artisanal trades that it supports, from hand-picking of grapes to traditional vine pruning skills, to the renown that it has bought to France across the world.
This is true, as far as it goes, but Bordeaux’s architectural heritage already was honored in that 2007 World Heritage status, and it’s not clear to me (from an admittedly inadequate but nonetheless fairly closely scrutinized review of the existing list) that there are any other World Heritage sites that are devoted to “trades” and “skills,” as opposed to places. Nor is it clear from the Operational Guidelines whether such recognition is even possible.
It may be that the Bordelais are seeking recognition, not as a “natural heritage” (such as Mammoth Cave) but as a “cultural landscape,” which is allowed. The Guidelines define “cultural landscape” as, briefly, “the combined works of nature and man,” and as “illustrative of the evolution of human society and settlement over time.” But it’s very hard to see how the 1855 Classification would qualify as a “cultural landscape” the way, say, the Honghe Hani Rice Terraces of China (which is currently nominated for Heritage status) are. It looks to me like the Bordelais, having achieved their World Heritage status six years ago, are looking to gild the lily.
Maybe I’m wrong. But if the 1855 Classification is worthy of World Heritage status, then so are the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence. I therefore officially nominate our founding documents.
I meet a great many people in the wine industry. They are of all ages. Many of the older ones are big successes, while many of the younger ones are just starting out. They may someday be big successes, but not yet.
Part of my job at Wine Enthusiast–an increasingly bigger part–is to be alert to trends. Magazines perceive their role, in part, as educating the public to what’s happening before everybody knows it. (I remember a criticism of the old Esquire magazine was that it was always discovering the avant garde when it already had become the rear guard.) So, when I’m chatting with people, I invariably ask, “What’s new?”
From Millennials I am hearing about a focus on “authenticity.” Now, I know what the word “authentic” means: it means real, not phony. There’s an authentic hundred dollar bill, for example, and a counterfeit one. But I’m never sure what “authenticity” means when someone in the wine industry tells me they’re trying to be authentic. I mean, there are gigantic brands out there that lay claim to the mantle of authenticity, and there are tiny little family winemakers who don’t claim to be authentic, but nonetheless are, if you know what I mean. (And of course, each of us is going to be the judge of what we perceive as authentic.)
But this isn’t about what I perceive as authentic, it’s what Millennials mean when they say they perceive a lack of authenticity in the older generation, and wish to replace it with the real thing. This is where the Socratic method comes in handy. When I don’t understand what someone means, I’ll ask, “What do you mean?” They need to explain it in terms that a simple guy like me can comprehend.
Now, I don’t want to get anyone into trouble or embarrass anyone or for that matter harm any friendships I have with millennial winemakers, so I’m going to avoid identifiable specifics. But I was talking to a young winemaker yesterday who told me he and his Millennial gen friends don’t think the older generation of winemakers is authentic. Well, I did my Socrates thing and as it turned out, he had a difficult time explaining to me just what was unauthentic about the older generation, or how he hoped to replace it with authenticity. He’s making the same kinds of wines as people in their 50s and 60s, is charging the same [high] prices, so he didn’t seem to be doing anything differently from the older generation.
The journalist in me has had a long time to develop a radar that picks up on inconsistency, vagueness, spin and just plain incoherence. That radar detects these things, and something in me can’t let them go unchallenged. If you tell me you’re seeking to do business in authentic ways that the older generation did not, then I’m afraid you have to explain to me (a) how and why they’re inauthentic and (b) how you plan not to be. And you’re going to have to be specific. You can’t just say “Well, I won’t hype anything.” That dog won’t hunt. Give me a specific example of a wine brand that hypes (and where do they hype?). In their marketing? In the production of the wine itself? Do you mean you’ll make unadulterated wines while everyone else is adding Mega Purple? Then say so.
I believe that these younger winemakers mean it when they say they want to be authentic. I want them to be authentic. But if they can’t explain to me what authenticity means, then how can they be? It’s just a word to express a feeling. If I can insinuate myself into their heads (never easy or guaranteed, but you have to try), it may be that they see a certain stuffiness that’s infiltrated the wine industry, especially in a place like Napa Valley; and they wish to air the place out, make it more accessible and friendlier, more human, as it were. If that is their goal–if that’s their definition of “more authentic”– then I’m all in favor of it. Young people, in particular, don’t like people who put on airs; they sense them the way Gus smells stuff on the sidewalk. I’ve recently met a lot of young winemakers in Paso Robles (I’ll be writing about this in the magazine in a few months) and am thrilled by their attitude down there: Let’s not do things the old way, let’s try new things. They’re not just talking about it, they’re doing it, with wacko (but very good) red and white blends that no one in Napa could or would ever consider (because Napa is so tradition-bound. It would be like someone in Pauillac making a blend of Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc).
It may be easier in a place like Paso for a young winemaker to be “authentic” than in Napa Valley, because the marketplace inserts itself more potently in the latter than in the former. Doing business in Napa is expensive, no matter your age, and you have to sell your stuff, so you have to hew to a tighter template in order for the marketplace to take you seriously. This means, in effect, that regardless of how “authentic” a young Napa winemaker wants to be, he or she is probably going to end up making an expensive Cabernet Sauvignon–which may or may not be “modest” in alcohol. So where is the authenticity? Is it in the tasting room, where Rhianna is playing instead of Bach? Is it at a winemaker dinner, where the winemaker shows up in blue jeans and tattoos instead of a suit and tie? Is it in the places the young winemaker hangs out–dark, hip clubs instead of The Restaurant at Meadowood? Is it because the young winemaker is hot while the 60-year old winemaker no longer is? And what does any of this have to do with the actual quality of the wine (or, if the wine is authentic, maybe quality doesn’t matter?).
You see where this is going. It’s one thing to talk “authenticity” but quite another to pull it off. Whatever “it” is.
There have always been gay and Lesbian people in the wine business, of course; some pretty famous winemakers have been, not to mention a contingent on the P.R. and marketing side.
But the wine biz is inherently a conservative one, not so much politically (I think most of the California industry tends to be liberal), as socially. There are certain modes of behavior that are expected (don’t get drunk unless you can hold your liquor, treat your colleagues with respect, don’t gossip too much, avoid cursing), and it is expected that things such as sexuality are not flaunted (whatever the orientation) but are treated with discretion.
This doesn’t mean that late night conversations, after copious amounts of alcohol have been consumed between trusting adults, don’t sometimes wander into…well, let’s just call it terra rauncho. It happens, even in mixed company. (I could relate a certain chat in the bar of the Ritz Carlton Kapalua last week that made even my limited amount of hair stand up.) Still, the topic of sexuality has been largely kept in the closet (pun intended).
This is changing. There are people who are “out” in a big way. Older gay men and women tend to be quieter about it, but a younger generation is bolder, and good for them, I say. There also are wineries that are overtly gay-friendly; this article mentions a few of them, but I think there are more. Certainly the wine industry is wise to welcome all of America’s demographics into its embrace. A gay dollar is as green as a straight one.
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Much has been made of the “difficult” 2010 vintage in California. Jon Bonné, for example, calls it “complicated,” and certainly it did throw some curve balls to vintners. The cold was the main problem; I’ve detected a large number of Pinot Noirs, in particular, that smell moldy. Heavy rains in mid-October came right in the middle of the Cabernet harvest. Earlier, record heat in late September cooked some Bordeaux varieties. Despite the rosy scenarios issued by the Napa Valley Vintners, in their annual harvest report, winemakers off the record were less optimistic. Or perhaps the better word is “philosophical.” In November of 2010, after all the grapes were in, I had a conversation with Merryvale’s assistant winemaker, in which he conceded that the vintage would be “atypical” (in the sense of lacking the expected Napa lushness), but insisted that the Cabernets would still have “quality, regardless of what form it takes.” What did he mean? “Yes, maybe there’s a mintiness to this, and maybe there’s an herbalness to it, but these are still quality wines.”
I’ll leave it to others to decide how much mintiness and herbalness they like in their Cabernets. I haven’t had Merryvale’s 2010 Cabernet because they haven’t yet sent it to me. But I have reviewed some terrific 2010 Cabs that prove great wineries can produce great wines even in a tough vintage. Among the best have been Flora Springs Rutherford Hillside Reserve, all the Von Strassers, Terra Valentine K-Block, Stonestreet Rockfall and also Stonestreet Christopher’s and Jarvis Estate–all mountain or hillside vineyards, where presumably the September heat was not quite as intense, while the October rains drained off.
Saturday’s two wine panels at the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival were both on Pinot Noir. The first, “In Pursuit of Balance,” was about a newer generation of winemakers: Rajat Parr (Sandhi), Pax Mahle (Wind Gap), Jamie Kutch (Kutch) and Gavin Chanin (Chanin). The theory, I think, was that these are all wines of lower alcohol (although we weren’t told what the ABV was, so I’m only guessing. The only winemaker to tell us the alcohol level on one of his wines was Kutch, who said it was 12.8% on his 2011 Sonoma Coast).
Here are my very abbreviated notes:
Wind Gap 2011 Gap Crown (Sonoma Coast). Vibrant, delicate, ripe. Cola, cherry pie, cranberry sauce.
Wind Gap 2010 Gap Crown. Keen acidity, similar to but less advanced than the ’11 despite being a year older. The ’10 was made in concrete while the ’11 was in neutral French oak.
Kutch 2011 Sonoma Coast. Blend of 3 vineyards: Annapolis, Petaluma Gap, Sebastopol. A pretty wine, ripe and savory. Root beer, cherry pie.
Kutch 2011 McDougall Ranch. The vineyard is in the Fort Ross area and the wine showed that distinctly feral, foresty quality I always get from there. A brooding wine, tannic. 50% whole cluster gave lots of dark spice. Needs plenty of time.
Chanin 2011 Los Alamos (Santa Barbara County). From this unappellated region between Santa Ynez Valley and Sta. Rita Hills. Bit of mushrooms, sweet red fruit, complex and lovely.
Chanin 2011 Bien Nacido. Much tougher and more tannic, lots of spice. Needs plenty of time, as BNV Pinot always does.
Sandhi 2011 Sta. Rita Hills. Vinous, sappy, rich and sweet in baked cherry pie. Villages-style, young, but will make a sound bottle in a year or two.
Sandhi 2011 Sanford & Benedict. Really classic S&B. Spicy, earthy, red fruit, minerally, dry, complex. Needs plenty of time.
A remark about In Pursuit of Balance (the organization): In response to a question from the audience, Raj seemed to feel the need to defend the group, which perhaps has come under some criticism for the perception that IPOB claims that low alcohol Pinots are “better” than those over, say, 14.0%. To the extent this was the public’s perception (it certainly was mine), it cannot have gone over well with many of Raj’s (or Jasmine Hirsch’s) friends and colleagues. So Raj explained that this is not what they’re saying–although if it’s not, then it’s hard to know just what IPOB’s message is, beyond a vague “We’re trying to make the most balanced wines we can.” Well, who isn’t? I do think IPOB at first gave the impression of being an Old Boy’s (and Girl’s) network, an exclusive club of friends to which outsiders need not apply. They now have a “committee of wine professionals” (from their website) that decides who’s in and who’s out; that committee consists of Ehren Jordan (Failla, whose wines I’ve praised to the utmost for years), Jon Bonné (wine editor, San Francisco Chronicle, who’s been on something of an anti-high alcohol crusade himself), Raj Parr and Wolfgang Weber (an editor at Wine & Spirits, whom I do not know anything about). This selection committee certainly wouldn’t inspire me to ask to join IPOB if I were, say, Rochioli or Williams Selyem, two wineries (among many I could mention) I would hope we can agree make outstanding, balanced, ageworthy Pinot Noirs even though they dare to occasionally sneak over the 14.2% line and even approach –gasp!–14.5%.
The second Pinot Noir panel was named “Heroes of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay” and was meant to counter-balance the first by featuring an older generation of famous winemakers: Fred Scherrer (Scherrer), Gary Pisoni (Pisoni), Michael Browne (Kosta Browne) and Geoff Labitzke (Kistler’s sales and marketing director, representing Steve Kistler).
These noteworthy names grabbed the audience’s attention; mine, too. Here are some very brief remarks. I found the 2 Kistlers (2011 Stone Flat Chardonnay and 2011 Kistler Vineyard Pinot Noir) to be the most classic in the lineup, in the sense that they showed everything you want in Sonoma County wines: acidity, depth, length, dryness, varietal typicity, complexity, ageability, intellectual stimulation and no particular eccentricities.
Fred Scherrer (what a lovely man) chose an older Chardonnay, 2007 Scherrer Vineyard (Alexander Valley) which didn’t do much for me at first. In fact I thought it was too old, although I loved his 2007 Russian River Pinot Noir. But after 45 minutes that old Chardonnay emerged from its tomb like Lazarus, alive and vital and remarkable, and I told Fred so. He said, “That wine never shows well right out of the bottle. It needs time” despite its age. California Chardonnay that ages well is so rare; that was one I’ll remember years from now.
Kosta Browne showed 2011 “One Sixteen” Chardonnay and 2011 Russian River Pinot Noir. I have never particularly been a fan of KB’s wines, suspecting that their popularity is due to the lemming-like tendency of consumers to believe anything some reviewers say (and then to find in the wines what they expected to find, in a gorgeous proof of the theory of the self-fulfilling prophecy). The ’11 Chardonnay was, I wrote, “over the top.” I did find the Pinot more interesting, “flashy” in fact, and in need of age.
Gary Pisoni’s 2011 Lucia Chardonnay was, in a word, dee-lish. I had formally reviewed it earlier for Wine Enthusiast and, while it wasn’t in the same league as Lucia’s ’11 Soberanes Chard (not included in this tasting), it was close, and also ten bucks less. Gary’s 2010 Estate Pinot Noir is a young, vinous, serious Pinot with vast tastes of the earth. It is just beginning to throw off its cloak and show some flesh. It needs lots of time.
I’ll report another time on my “Pritchard Hill Gang” seminar, which was the last of the festival.
The 2013 Auction Napa Valley Barrel Auction now is history, and what a grand event it was.
I drove up early, because it was at Raymond Vineyards, where I hadn’t been despite having been invited umpteen times by Jean-Charles Boisset, so I really wanted to see it: the crystal room and the red room and everything else. Almost as soon as the shuttle bus let me off, I saw Jean-Charles on the lawn, being interviewed by a camera crew. He saw me, and the next thing I knew he was personally touring me. When I saw his Frenchie Winery–with spacious pet kennels–I realized I could have brought Gus. If you’re a dog-loving family touring Napa Valley, Frenchie/Raymond is a great place to visit.
The first part of my experience was eating. OMG I can’t tell you how good the food was. I tried everything (burp) because I want to write about my 5 or 6 favorites in Wine Enthusiast (with recipes). There was a single disappointment, and from the most unlikely of restaurants: Meadowood, a little paper cup stuffed with green peas and other tiny pieces of garden veggies, dressed (I think) in a Champagne vinaigrette, with a sad little chunk of feta adrift in a vegetable sea. When restaurants have finger foods at an event like the Napa Valley auction, those munchies should be dazzlingly Wow!, but this wasn’t. I can understand keeping things simple, but not to the point of bland.
Much was made of the temperature. It was a toasty 98 degrees on my car thermometer by mid-afternoon, but much cooler in the cellar where the actual tasting occurred. I myself didn’t drink anything [except lots of water]. Ran into Bob Cabral, from Williams Selyem, who told me this was his first time ever “crossing the hill” for the Napa auction and he was looking forward to tasting Cabernet. Since he lives in Healdsburg, I asked if he wasn’t concerned about drinking and driving, and he assured me he wouldn’t have come unless his winery had supplied a car and driver. Bob knows perfectly well you cannot drink at an event like this and then drive home. The roads were crawling with CHP and Sheriff’s Dept. personnel (as well they should have been) and I for one was glad they were there. Which reminds me: Jean-Charles said he’s starting a new brand called Sheriff. Must find out what that’s all about.
I didn’t see as many winery proprietors or principles as I’d expected. This is probably because auction week is really a protracted, exhausting affair, and the owners and winemakers must attend to their nightly dinners and the live auction itself (as opposed to the barrel auction), so maybe not going to the latter provides them some respite. Certainly Premier Napa Valley is a more “glamorous” affair, in that you see more famous faces.
The buzziest conversational topic at the auction: How a turned-around economy is good for business. Everyone seemed happy that, after so many stagnant years, things are selling again. Domaine Chandon told me they can’t keep up with demand for bubbly, especially rosé. Let the good times roll!
-Garen Staglin, for chairing this year’s auction and his family’s charitable generosity over the years.
-Barbara Banke, Gina Gallo, Elias Fernandez, Janet Viader (drop-dead gorgeous in Argentine tango couture), Jay “Party Party Party” and Tim Mondavi. It’s always nice to see them.
-The one and only Jayson Woodbridge. He wasn’t at the auction, but we had dinner Wednesday night at his home. World-class raconteur, fascinating conversationalist, able to absorb the fullness of Heimoff (as I am of Woodbridge), a dervish of creative energy and riveting charm, Jayson truly is in a class by himself.
-The great, divine Genevieve Janssens. There she was as always, standing by her barrel, pouring for guests, inspiring and educating. A legendary Napa icon. Genevieve introduced me to Mondavi’s new red winemaker, a very young woman named Nova Cadamatre, whom I just had to congratulate. Imagine getting a job that important and having the opportunity to study with Genevieve Janssens!
A final shoutout to Jean-Charles Boisset. When he moved into Napa Valley with the purchase of Raymond, I thought there might have been some raised eyebrows. Napa’s a pretty insular place: who’s this wealthy outsider and what is he going to do? I think Jean-Charles wisely decided to show the valley that he’s a team player. And he did. He’s done a great job, and people respect him for that.
I tend to name drop (as Party Party Party reminded me), so I want to give a huge shoutout to all the hard-working people from marketing, sales, P.R. and other less visible positions. They are in many ways the heart, soul and vital infrastructure of the industry. Without them, nothing happens, including Auction Napa Valley. I know and like many of them, and they read this blog, which makes me happy, so thank you.. You guys may not be in the spotlight, you may not get the hurrahs, but you make it all happen. Salud!
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Loathe as I am the wander into the blood alcohol limit debate, I’m making an exception this time, to come out against the proposal to lower the drunken driving threshold to .05, down from its current .08.
The idea is being floated by the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent agency of the U.S. government established in 1967 within the Department of Transportation. The NTSB plays an important part in keeping this country’s transportation infrastructure safe; for instance, it investigates airline and rail accidents. So I hope the government keeps them well-funded. It’s just that, this time, they’re wrong.
The .08 limit was signed into law in by President Bill Clinton, who at the time called it “the biggest step to toughen drunk driving laws and reduce alcohol-related crashes since the national minimum drinking age was established a generation ago.” The law’s passing exemplified the growing power of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in the power halls of Washington, D.C., throughout the late 1990s.
I have always had mixed feelings about any laws that curtail people’s freedom of behavior. Of course, we need a criminal code to keep people’s worst instincts from running amok, and there are many curtailments on human activities that are needed in order to protect the greater good and safety of our communities. The problem always is in defining precisely where the line should be drawn between freedom and government restriction. The recreational use of pot is a good example.
I suppose the .08 limit made sense. It seems to have worked: traffic fatalities in this country caused by drunk drivers are down since then. In 1999, they numbered 15,786; by 2011, that number had fallen to 9,878, a significant reduction. (Although it’s also possible that other factors, such as safer cars and increased driver awareness, contributed to the decline.) So why not go this next step and lower the limit to .05?
Couple reasons. For one, different people react differently to alcohol in the blood. There’s no question that alcohol, taken to excess, impairs driving ability, but it also seems obvious that millions of people have a drink or two and drive everyday, with no harmful results. A perfectly good, safe driver could find himself in jail simply for drinking a beer or two with lunch.
Another reason I’m against the proposal is because I don’t like laws that nobody obeys, with no consequences of punishment. I don’t like HOV lanes because single drivers abuse them all the time, with little fear of getting stopped by the Highway Patrol. This disregard of laws makes laws less esteemed among the public, and when a nation disregards and disrespects its own laws, it’s on some kind of slippery slope. So why criminalize a behavior (moderate drinking and driving) that tens of millions of Americans are going to completely ignore anyway? It just makes a mockery of the concept of “law.”
Moreover, the tests that measure blood alcohol are notoriously inaccurate. What if the machine says I’m .051 when I’m actually .049? How do I defend myself? Finally, why stop at .05? Why not come up with a law that prohibits any trace of alcohol in the blood, regardless of how low it is? If any drinking at all constitutes risk, then we should outlaw drinking and driving, period.
I should add that I, personally, never drink and drive. I haven’t since 2001. Not even a half-glass of wine or beer. I simply can’t afford the price that a DUI or collision would cost me, financially, legally and reputationally. Whenever I’m out drinking, I’m with someone else who’s doing the driving, or I walk or take the subway. (It does get to be an inconvenience!)
I understand the impulse to try and prevent all the death and injury we can. But I do think we need to draw the line someplace in our efforts to prevent every risk to life and limb imaginable through government intervention. There’s no way to make life risk free. The answer to drunk driving is to educate people (including to the need for designated drivers), to make them think smarter, and to be as respectful of our obligations to others as we are protective of our own personal freedoms. But that’s a whole other conversation.