If the predictions in this just-released study are true, then Napa Valley will be too hot for fine winemaking in a generation or so. That being the case, today’s young bloggers, who hope to make money writing about wine someday, might find it in their interests to take up residence in Billings or Fort St. John, and focus on the budding wine industries of Montana and British Columbia.
I believe in climate change, but I do think that the term “global warming” is misleading. It doesn’t seem to be getting warmer everywhere. My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that coastal California–which includes Napa and Sonoma–is getting cooler, at least in the summers, because the interior West is getting warmer, creating a vast thermal low pressure system that sucks in air from the west. And, as we all know, to our west is a large, cold body of water. The Sacramento Valley may be heating up, but our little coastal strip seems safe.
Indeed, the San Francisco Chronicle, citing meteorological analyses, reported in 2011 that “California’s coastal regions appear to be getting more rain and cold weather while inland areas such as Fresno are getting hotter.”
The reason? “If you have more warm days in the Central Valley, you are going to have a stronger sea breeze so you will cool off the coastal areas. That certainly does not contradict any of the models about global warming. This is what is to be expected.”
Is the eastern Pacific Ocean cooling or warming? I don’t know, but neither do climatologists. As far as I can determine, the cyclical effects of El Nino and La Nina are the biggest drivers of the ocean’s temperature. The former warms it, the latter cools it. At any rate, I don’t think anyone expects the eastern Pacific to warm up dramatically enough to impact California viticulture anytime soon.
I’m not taking sides in the brouhaha down in Santa Barbara County, where winery owner Blair Pence wants to expand the borders of the Santa, err., Sta. Rita Hills appellation to include some of his vineyards that are located further inland, to the east.
I haven’t seen any statistical data that would indicate, one way or the other, that the proposed added acreage is, or isn’t, similar to the terroir of the existing AVA. As usual in such matters, we have dueling opinions expressed in the media, with Pence insisting it is, and Wes Hagen, of Clos Pepe (who was the guiding light behind the original appellation) saying, Nope, it isn’t.
I do know that the further east you go from the central Sta. Rita Hills, the warmer it gets. By the time you reach, say, Los Olivos, it’s much warmer than out by Lompoc. Maybe the climate on Pence’s property really does show the same maritime influence as it does to the west. Their Pinots certainly indicate a cool climate, and I’ve given the wines respectable scores, even recommending a few of them as Cellar Selections.
But I will say the controversy underscores once again something I’ve said for a long time: the matter of AVAs, at least in California, is more about marketing and money than about terroir and tasting.
Even Pence concedes as much, when he suggests he can’t get as high a price for his grapes as he could if the wines could bear a Sta. Rita Hills appellation. Currently, Pence Ranch’s Pinot Noirs have to settle for a comparatively “lowly” Santa Barbara County AVA.
We saw the same kinds of issues arise when Gallo successfully fought to have the Russian River Valley boundary moved southward so that their Petaluma Gap vineyards could be included. Some RRV winegrowers were violently against that. They lost.
The fact of the matter is that appellation boundaries are fungible. They may be more fixed in Old Europe than they are in California, because Europe has had centuries of tradition. But California is so new that the wise consumer should take an appellation name with a grain of salt. An appellation is a generalization. It means that a wine bearing that origin should conform to certain expectations of, say, dryness, acidity, fruit profile and weight. But it does not guarantee that any particular wine will meet those specifics. All that an American Viticultural Area guarantees is that 85% of the grapes come from there.
There are some very ordinary wines in the Sta. Rita Hills. If you look up my scores in Wine Enthusiast’s Buying Guide, you’ll find some that are consistently unable to get beyond a certain quality level. Even if Pence manages to get the boundaries of Sta. Rita Hills redefined, that probably won’t make any difference in how good his wines are or are not–unless there’s something he could do with the extra $1,000 a ton to improve quality (and maybe there’s a lot he could, like better barrels or dropping more potential crop).
In general, I think that appellation boundaries should be altered only with the greatest reluctance. There should be compelling physical reasons to do it–not because somebody wants to get a better deal on grape or wine prices, and has the money to afford the lawyers and/or appellation experts who draw up the paperwork. (And Pence has hired one of the best in the business.) The public–which includes wine writers–should have faith in the meaning of AVAs, but if boundary lines are shifting all the time, that confidence is undermined.
Far be it from me to dispute the findings of a survey conducted by a reputable outfit, but I’m not buying the portentous headline, “Popularity of chardonnays declines” and the report that “consumption is down,” as this study contends.
It was done by Napa Technology, whose website describes it as “dedicated to designing innovative Intelligent Dispensing Solutions and Products that drive wine revenues, operating control, and growth for the Restaurant, Retail, Entertainment, and Hospitality industries.”
The company counted “90 respondents” to a survey (not revealed is how many people they actually surveyed), and of them, “forty percent…said that Chardonnay is on the decline.”
Forty percent of 90 is 36. That means 36 people in America said Chardonnay is declining, out of a population of more than 300 million. The respondents were said to be “sommeliers, wine directors, restaurant and hotel operators, wine producers, media, analysts and wine buyers.” That’s eight categories, meaning that there were about 4.5 respondents in each category. Even if you round 4.5 up to 5, that means that 5 somms, 5 wine directors, 5 restaurant operators, 5 hotel operators, 5 wine producers, 5 media people, 5 analysts and 5 wine buyers in the entire United States said that Chardonnay is declining.
I’m no expert in statistical analysis, but that doesn’t sound like a scientifically valid poll to me.
There’s plenty of evidence Chardonnay is not declining. Planted acreage of it in California alone was the highest ever, with 95,511 acres recorded in 2011 (the last year for which I have Dept. of Food and Agriculture Acreage Report numbers). While it’s true that the pace of new Chardonnay plantings slackened off from previous years, that’s easily explainable by the Great Recession. Nobody knows what the future holds, of course, but there’s no group of human beings on Earth more knowledgeable about what wines Americans will be drinking in 5 years than grapegrowers. If they’re still growing it, it’s because they believe Americans are still drinking it.
And they are, in droves. Chardonnay consumption is enormous among American wine drinkers. As the Wine Institute reported in 2011, “Chardonnay far and away remains the most popular wine in the U.S. and has continued to be the leading varietal wine for the last decade, with sales increases every year.” I get more Chardonnay samples sent to me than any other type of wine, except for Cabernet Sauvignon. That tells me that winery sales and marketing execs also believe Chardonnay’s popularity remains high. Like growers, they get paid to figure out what Americans will be drinking in the future.
The problem with little studies like the Napa Technology one that seem to “prove” things that aren’t necessarily true is that, in this age of the Internet, the “fact” of Chardonnay consumption spreads far and wide–even if it’s false. Google “Chardonnay consumption” and the Napa Technology study, as reported in Nation’s Restaurant News, is the fifth result. That’s very high up on a Google search, meaning that a lot of people will inhale that information, believe it and repeat it. The “news” goes viral, with who knows what negative impacts.
I’m willing to bet a hefty amount that ten years from now Chardonnay will still be the number one most purchased white wine in America. I don’t believe for a moment that Chardonnay has anything to fear from Albarino, Torrontés, Cava or Prosecco–all wines that the Napa Technology study said are “increasing in popularity” to Chardonnay’s detriment. Nothing personal against Albarino, Torrontés, Cava or Prosecco, but does anyone really think any of them is the Next Big White Wine?
Hubris is the ancient Greek concept whose meaning can be roughly equated with the old saying, Pride goeth before a fall. Hubris is always a danger for high achievers in any field, including business, politics, sports and, yes, wine.
The opposite of hubris is what may be called humble gratefulness. Fortunately, there’s a lot more humble gratefulness in wine than hubris. Three examples of highly successful people who haven’t let it go to their heads are Heidi Barrett, Ehren Jordan and Bill Harlan. Heidi is, of course, the “Queen of Cabernet,” a first lady of wine, a leading light of Napa Valley, where she has been the winemaker behind some of the world’s most famous wines. She might have let her accomplishments swell her pride and become distant and unapproachable, but she hasn’t. Whenever I run into Heidi (which isn’t often enough), she has a grin on her face and a slightly wicked sense of humor that I can definitely relate to. Heidi has humble gratefulness.
I first met Ehren Jordan when I was researching my second book, New Classic Winemakers of California, in which I gave him a chapter. He had invited me to visit his estate vineyard at Failla, way up on the far Sonoma Coast, in what is now the Fort Ross-Seaview appellation. Ehren had built, with his own hands, a rickety little shack to stay in, with a wood-burning stove for his only source of heat. He was then the fulltime winemaker at Turley, in Napa Valley, but the drive time was such that he often found himself staying at Failla overnight.
The world didn’t know much about Ehren or Failla then. Today, of course, he’s something of a celebrity. I liked Ehren immediately for his boyish eagerness, for his friendliness and accessibility, and I also thought very highly of his wines. It was interesting that, when it came to doing his own thing, he chose to go with light, delicate Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, instead of the monster Zinfandels and Petite Sirahs he made at Turley.
I last saw Ehren at the World of Pinot Noir, earlier this month in Shell Beach, and he’s pretty much the same guy. Ehren has a puppy dog quality to him; if he had a tail, it would always be wagging. As well-known as he and Failla’s wines have become, he’s kept their prices modest, compared to the competition, and the wines–well, they are better than ever. Everybody likes Ehren Jordan and is happy to see his success. Ehren has humble gratefulness.
Mr. Bill Harlan is as great a success story as California wine has ever produced. I couldn’t begin to list all his achievements, but then, most of my readers know what they are. Bill envisioned the heights of Napa Valley Cabernet in the 1970s and 1980s and then went on to scale the mountain and become one of its demigods. Yet everyone who knows him knows that he is a deeply humble, kind man, who always has a good word, a sincere smile and a quiet warmth that exudes from him. I only see Bill two or three times a year, but every time I do, I come away thinking, What a nice guy. Bill Harlan has humble gratefulness.
Then there are those infected with hubris. For some reason, regardless of how humble they started out, they’ve let success swell their heads. They’ve become legends in their own minds, too big too fail. They may make great wine, but as humans, they’re missing something important. They don’t have humble gratefulness. I don’t know what makes someone go from humility to big-headedness. It makes me think of George Harrison’s lyrics in While My Guitar Gently Weeps:
I don’t know how you were diverted
You were perverted too
I don’t know how you were inverted
No one alerted you.
I sometimes feel like some wine writers are losing their minds.
From about the time I started this blog, in May, 2008, there’s been this constant din about how “Print journalism is dying” and “Wine writers are dinosaurs” and “Social media is changing the world as we’ve known it” and so on and so forth.
To which I say: balderdash. Most of this is journalistic blather, the product of reporters who need to be seen as saying something important, even though it’s not true.
Look, human nature doesn’t change just because some fancy new technology comes along. In fact, human nature is pretty resistant to change. People are more or less the same, in their habits and predilections, as they were a thousand years ago, and we’ll remain so–despite Twitter and Google+!
The latest example of “Henny Penny the Sky is Falling” is courtesy of Jon Bonné, the wine writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. His article, Wine Criticism Faces a Shifting Future, has gotten quite a bit of play. After rehashing all the recent news about Parker, the Wine Advocate and Galloni [which actually no longer is news], Jon postulates a “broader set of questions about wine criticism” that sounds as if he’s about to say something pontifical. Among these contentions are rehashes of dreary points that have been repeated so often, by so many bloggers, that they’ve become clichés.
Let me deconstruct a few of Jon’s quotes by explaining that just because a writer says something is new and revolutionary doesn’t make it so.
1. “the Millennial surge [is] compelled by a wine’s story, not its score.” The implication here, of course, is that the generation that preceded the Millennials, the Baby Boomers, wasn’t interested in stories, just scores. This is transparently incorrect and insulting. Every generation likes “stories” in its newspapers and magazines. My generation, no less than any other, wanted to read about people, personalities, personal histories. I can’t believe Jon is implying that the Milllennials want to read “stories” more than their parents did. If anything, the Millennials are reading less. Their attention span has been miniaturized by social media and twitter to 140-character tweets. Some story! And scores are not going away, not soon, probably not ever. If anything, scores and other graphic indications of quality (stars, puffs, letter grades) are on the increase.
2. “This generation of new drinkers… want[s] wines that are relevant and forthright.” Again, is Jon implying that the Baby Boomers wanted wines that were irrelevant and–well, what is the opposite of “forthright” anyway? Whatever this statement means (and I don’t think it means much), this generation of wine drinkers wants the same thing its parents wanted: the feeling that the wines [and other beverages] they drink are interesting and cool. Whatever wine seems cool at the moment (Muscat, Bull’s Blood, Malbec, orange wine) is what they’ll drink–until something cooler comes along, and then they’ll drink that. That’s human nature, and it doesn’t change.
3. The new generation, according to Jon, wants to know all about “a winemaker’s ethical and technical decisions – about farming, about intervention in the cellar,” about issues of “broader cultural commentary.” This sounds like solid reporting, but it’s built on sand. First of all, the Baby Boomers wanted to know everything, and I do mean everything, about every technical aspect of wine, from soil pH and irrigation systems to the type of fermenter and crusher to the source of the oak, its toast level and how long the wine remained in barrel. If anything, Boomers got too obsessed with technical issues, an obsession that thankfully began turning around some time ago. I don’t believe Millennials care about “intervention in the cellar.” Some writers are always telling consumers they should worry about reverse osmosis, or mega Purple, or whatever, but really, aside from some geeks, nobody cares about these things, and rightfully so. Concerning “a winemaker’s ethical decisions,” I assume Jon means being green. Who isn’t green, to some degree or another? Everybody says they are, and since there’s no way to prove it, we have to take them at their word. But when I go to a club or bar at night and the kids are lining up for their drinks, I don’t hear anyone asking about whether the grapes were grown biodynamically. They’re more interested in feeling good and getting laid. This implication that Millennials care more about “farming” than simply enjoying a delicious glass of wine is the kind of reporter’s BS that proves the old adage, just because it’s in a newspaper doesn’t make it true.
Since Jon bases all his premises on the Parker/Advocate thing, he has to return to it, in the form of a paeon of praise for Galloni’s new venture [and I wish Anthony all the luck in the world]. I’m not sure why Antonio Galloni quitting the Wine Advocate should stand as the symbol of The End of Wine Writing As We Know It, or of anything else, except, possibly, the continued weakening of the Parker brand. Along the way, Jon also references Wine Spectator–twice–although for what reason is unclear, except that Jon has always been bizarrely obsessed with the Wine Spectator. Perhaps he feels that an important article about the Future of Wine Criticism has to drop the S-word (Spectator) and P-word (Parker) in order to be taken seriously. Or to maximize search engine optimization. Whatever.
My point, folks, and I’ve been making it for going on five years now, is that the revolution is not at hand. We have new technology, in the form of smart phones, tablets, the Internet and social media, but humankind has always had new technology. Yet people remain the same. Consumers still want and need experts to guide them in purchasing decisions, whether it’s cars, DVDs, restaurants or wine. They still want to buy things that make them feel cool and plugged in. The Millennials are not so different from their parents. Journalists who wish to be serious need to get over their breathless embrace of social media and pseudo-intellectual analyses of how it’s changing the role of wine writing. It hasn’t, isn’t and won’t.
A few days go I blogged that there’s a certain sameness to much of California wine–the same top 5 or 6 varieties, made in the same style–and I was willing to take some of the blame, as a critic who bears some responsibility for what people drink.
Then a reader who identified himself as Blovinum commented, “I agree to you that America and much of the world is a homogenized society (so in wine) and 2nd. I agree to the statement that you as a critic is in a part responsible for that fact. But man himself is the reason why there is, like I call it, a ‘Coca-Cola taste’. Everyday, everytime the same preferences, whatever it is. Most of us behave like a cattle in a flock. No individuality, no self-confidence in the own sense of taste and no courage to discover ‘new land’.”
I replied, “Dear Blovinum, I completely agree with your analysis of humanity! It seems to be in our genes to obey the herd mentality. I’m sure there are solid reasons of survival for banding together, as opposed to each of us going our own way. If you’re out there on the edge of the crowd, it’s easier to get picked off by a hungry wolf.”
The reason this is such an interesting point is because it has to do with this ongoing discussion in the wine community about wine style. You know the outlines: On the one side are those who like lower alcohol European wines that, they say, show terroir, while on the other side are those who enjoy the big, rich, fat California style of high alcohol and fruit, which makes (some say) all wines taste more or less alike, at the expense of terroir.
Now, I don’t know any fans of the California style who bash European wines as being too thin–I certainly don’t. The bashing seems to be one-way only, from the Europhiles. I’ve written plenty about this, so I don’t want to reprise the whole megillah again. But I do want to take a deeper look at why so many people around the world love the California style–and why a tiny minority doesn’t.
We humans do have it programmed within us to behave like what Blovinum calls “cattle in a flock,” and for the reason I stated. Our ancestors were smart, but they also were physically slow and weak. That made them vulnerable to predators, like saber-toothed tigers and wolves. They learned consequently to stick together, like antelope on the plains of Africa, to better protect themselves from being eaten.
That’s one reason for the herd mentality: People in general don’t like to stick out. The nail that sticks out gets hammered down, as the old saying goes. There’s something else: Humans have a sweet tooth. Chimps use twigs as tools to dig honey out of a hive. Sugar tastes good, of course, but the reason Mother Nature made it taste good is because sugar in its various forms is necessary for brain function. Sugar tastes good for the same reason sex feels good. Both are necessary for the species’ survival.
So if you add the herd mentality to this fondness for sugar, you have a lot of people who find a rich, fruity, slighty sweet California wine delicious. Including me.
That explains why wines the world over have been getting riper: Once advances in viticulture and enology made it possible, it only made sense for winemakers to produce wines that appeal to these built-in tastes. It’s a wonder that wine has been as popular as it was over the course of thousands of years of human culture, when so much of it must have been brutal, nasty stuff. That’s why the Greeks and Romans so often sweetened it with honey or resin. People drank wine even though it didn’t taste very good because they enjoyed its psychedelic effects.
What this explanation doesn’t fully account for is the violence with which the anti-California crowd attacks our wines. This gets us back to those iconoclasts who fancy themselves as refusing to go along with the common herd. They see themselves as independent minds, going against the tide of popular taste, ardent defenders of ancient values against a mindless rabble. They are, in other words, on the edge of the crowd. That’s no longer a dangerous place to be; there’s little risk of a wolf picking you off if you bash California wine.