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The World Atlas didn’t get Paso Robles right

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In their splendid new book, The World Atlas of Wine (which I am devouring), Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson devote all of two paragraphs to Paso Robles (which Wine Enthusiast just declared our Wine Region of the Year). That is not near enough–for such an emerging region –and those two paragraphs could have been written ten years ago, for all the reader knows, because the information is so out of date.

The only Paso wine companies the authors name are Constellation, Treasury and J. Lohr, east of Highway 101. As for west of the Freeway, the only winery mentioned is Tablas Creek. This is what I mean by my “ten years ago” remark. Is it surprising that the only winery on the West Side the two Brits would think to mention was started by the Perrin family, of Chateauneuf-du-Pape?

I’m not bashing Jancis and Hugh so much as pointing out the difficulties of writing a coffee table book that purports to report the latest information on the wines and regions of the world, when the authors really have not kept abreast of what’s actually happening on the ground. This is always a challenge for the wine writer who’s a generalist, as opposed to a specialist (like me), who focuses on a single region. No one approach is perfect–but the Atlas’s sadly out-of-date reporting on Paso Robles (a region I happen to know quite well) makes me wonder about the accuracy and timeliness of the book’s reporting on other regions.

Jancis and Hugh did write a sentence that hints at what’s happening in Paso: “Paso Robles has earned a reputation for its array of blended reds and blends of Rhôn-ish whites…”. That is accurate–but I wish they’d gone into a little more detail. As I’ve written frequently the past few years, Paso Robles is creating the most innovative and stylish blends in California, and I wish they had singled out for mention (if not praise) some of the smaller, exciting wineries in Paso Robles. I finally wish they had moved beyond the stereotyped “east of Highway 101 is decidedly hot” producing wines that are “fruity, though hardly demanding” meme. If all you’ve ever tasted are the mass-produced wines of the east (and there are plenty of them) without checking out smaller wineries, like Vina Robles, then you’re not current on developments. While it’s true that the “Templeton Gap” influence, which brings cooler maritime air to western Paso Robles, grows weaker as it approaches the 101 Freeway, the cool air doesn’t just stop there. And in cool vintages, the east can actually excel over the west. And how about some mention of Gary Eberle in the Atlas? He’s east of the Freeway and producing fine wines.

Look, Paso Robles is soon likely to be sub-divided into 11 distinct AVAs. We have got to get over this simplistic east-vs.-west mentality. Things are a lot more complicated than that, and Paso Robles is a lot more exciting than the Atlas makes it sound.


Presenting the 2013 Wine Enthusiast Wine Star Award winners

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I couldn’t be more pleased by the California winners of Wine Enthusiast’s 2013 Wine Star Awards.

Barbara Banke is a natural for Wine Person of the Year. After Jess Jackson’s 2011 passing, Barbara stepped up to the plate to shepherd Kendall-Jackson to unprecedented new heights, not to mention the smaller wineries in the Jackson Family Wines stable. In my short article accompanying the announcement, I only begin to describe what Barbara has accomplished over the last two years. A classy lady leading a great company.

Rodney Strong Vineyards easily merits their selection as American Winery of the Year. They do such a great job, and the wines just keep getting better and better. They’re a fairly big winery, but the wines almost always taste artisanally hand-crafted. Rodney Strong’s commitment to Sonoma County’ fruit is admirable.

I’m particularly glad that Paso Robles is our Wine Region of the Year. Paso faced pretty tough competition (Douro, Rías Baixas, Stellenbosch, Walla Walla), and those were the finalists: in our actual meeting last summer to develop that list, even more famous wine regions were put forth by various editors. Paso emerged triumphant over all of them. Congratulations to everyone down there in this Central Coast appellation!

Last but not least there is Peter Mondavi, Sr., recipient of the magazine’s American Wine Legend Award. Who better to get that recognition than the 99-year old scion of the legendary Napa family of Mondavis, who to this day remains happily active at Charles Krug. It will be wonderful to see and hear him at the awards ceremony, in January. I can already see the audience of hundreds of dignitaries rising to their feet in thunderous applause when his name is called.

You know, in California there is such constant reinvention–new winemakers, new wineries, new wines–especially in Napa Valley that it can be easy to lose a sense of historical continuity, especially in the 140-character amnesia of Twitter. One day, a palatial new winery goes up. The next day sees the latest $300 Cabernet. The day after that comes a listing of Hottest New Winemakers Under 30. That’s all very well, but somebody has to make sure the train stays on the track. Peter Mondavi, Sr. is nonesuch: he remains a guiding inspiration in Napa Valley and has been for more decades than most of us have been alive. We ought to reflect more on the history of our great wine regions and personalities and understand how they got to where they are today, instead of being mesmerized by the latest this or that.

So my heartiest congratulations to all the winners, not just California but across the globe. I’ll see you in New York!

 


Why high end wines are entitled to hype themselves

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This fellow Rob Asghar wrote a very clever and accurate piece about wine marketing in Forbes, and I am not going to disagree with a single thing he said.  It’s all absolutely true, and shows a keen perception into the minds of high-end wine marketers, who have to have a little P.T. Barnum-style hucksterism in their hearts.

But rather than jump on the bandwagon of criticizing the high-end for “suckering,” “cajoling” and “hustling” consumers, I’m going to try to understand them.

What critics of expensive wine fail to understand is that the wine drinking experience is infinitely more complex than mere tasting. It involves every aspect of what it means to be human. Yes, perhaps it’s true that “a supposed 1982 Margaux” that’s actually “a $90 knockoff” might fool all but the most discerning taster, but that’s not the point. It doesn’t mean that the experience of drinking ’82 Margaux isn’t worth the price (about $1,000 retail). Here’s why.

Every day, I look at my Facebook timeline and see photos of faraway places my “friends” are visiting. It might be a view from a hotel window in Greece, or a tropical beach in Fiji. It might be rolling vineyards in Croatia, or a plate of steamed clams in Italy. Whatever the image, the message can be boiled down to this: “I am experiencing something unique and vastly pleasurable.” Of course, this experience comes with a price: it costs money to travel, to stay in a nice hotel and eat good food. But that doesn’t matter. The message continues: “It’s my money, I can spend it however I like, and if it buys me something this special, it’s worth it.”

When people spend money on something discretionary, they want to feel that there’s something extra special about it. Value-added, you might say–it brings them to a heightened level of pleasure and perception. And the more money it costs them, the more they want, and expect, to reach that heightened level. I suppose one might object to this and ask, What’s wrong with ordinary life? Why do people always have to be seeking higher experiences? Well, if you’re some kind of renunciate, sitting in a cave, then the tedium of ordinary life might be your thing. But most of us haven’t renounced pleasure: indeed, we seek it out. And on occasion, we seek it out with relentless enthusiasm. One sublime experience might be enough to get you through a string of ho-hum days.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s only human. Translated to the world of fine wine, it means that the guy who paid $1,000 for the ’82 Margaux doesn’t really care if the wine is the real thing. I mean, he does, on some level; but he’s not going to send it to Enologix and have it tested. Instead, he’s willing to buy into the romance, the fantasy of drinking ’82 Margaux, with all the implies.

What does it imply? Vintage of the century. Parker 100 [or whatever his score was]. First Growth of Bordeaux. Thirty one years old. And so on and so forth. The pleasure, then, is just as much in the mind as in the mouth. It is glorious fun to turn over these pleasurable thoughts as one is experiencing the wine. They augment the experience, the way a soundtrack augments a movie, making it more than the simple fact of images and voices on celluloid. (Do movies still use celluloid?) Can you imagine “The Godfather Part 1” without that music? For that matter, part of the thrill of “The Godfather Part 2” was knowing that it was the next installment of “Part 1.” The greatest movie of all time! Coppola! Oscars! Brando! Pacino! In other words, one viewed “Part 2” with heightened anticipation, based on the previous understanding of “Part 1.” The pleasure was in the mind, and when the film reached those lofty expectations, the pleasure was all the greater.

Critics of this subjective interpretation of wine enjoyment often point to studies proving that consumers prefer a wine with a higher price point than a lower one, even when the two wines are the same. Well, sure: you can always design a lab study to show that humans are basically idiots who can be programmed to believe anything, even if it defies their senses. We know that. “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts…”. In this sense, we’re all ventriloquist’s dummies, marionettes whose strings are jerked around by some playwright we cannot even perceive.

But this fails to do justice to what makes us particularly human: our aspirations, and the dignity with which we pursue them. That is what is involved in a heightened wine experience: it is as much philosophical and physical.

Now, if you want me to relate all this to the 100-point system, I’d be happy to. Another time, perhaps.


Why I didn’t include Sonoma County as part of California’s Golden Age

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I caught a little flack last week for leaving Sonoma County out of a blog on California’s Golden Age of Wine.

One person, Judi, commented, “not even a mention of Sonoma?” Another–actually, Hank Wetzel, from Alexander Valley Vineyards–wrote, “I was thinking, wow he did not mention Sonoma County, and then I saw Judi’s comment. I am sure living in a golden age. From cattle land my family and staff have created vineyards and a winery that are bountiful. Sonoma County is so complex, with diverse growing areas, each influenced in a unique way by soil and proximity to the Pacific ocean. This has helped to create an abundance of successful grape growers and wine producers that thrive.”

So I should probably clear this up.

To begin with, assessing the “golden ageworthiness” of a region is obviously a deeply subjective thing to do. There are no objective criteria by which to measure it; it has to do with one’s perceptions. In the case of California regions, my selection of Paso Robles and Monterey and (to a lesser extent) Santa Barbara as being in a golden age is because those regions had very little prior celebrity as wine regions. Paso Robles was long bashed as too hot, while Monterey was criticized as too cold! So for both of them to be producing such good wines, with such a groundswell of young energy, is worthy of note.

You can’t say that Sonoma County is suddenly producing great wine. You can’t argue that it came out of nowhere. Sonoma County is one of the historic birthplaces of California wine. The Russians planted grapes out at Fort Ross in the early 1800s, quickly followed by Spanish Franciscan missionaries. We all know about Haraszthy and the generations of immigrants who widely planted the county, beginning in the 1850s. Sonoma Valley was one of the earliest American Viticultural Areas to be approved (1982), and the astonishing advent of Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley (approved in 1983) moved the county into the forefront of California wine. So it’s not as if Sonoma has been some kind of concealed secret.

Another part of the problem (not that it’s a problem, really–it’s something to celebrate) is that Sonoma is such a huge place, as Hank Wetzel stated. It’s so big and diverse that making any statement about it is like making a generality about France. I once read there are more soil types in Sonoma than in all of France. So many moving parts to Sonoma: how can a single statement connect them all? One might conceivably say this is a golden age for the [far] Sonoma Coast, I suppose, but that area remains too small (from a vineyard acreage point of view) to thus characterize it. Is this a golden age for the Chalk Hill appellation? For Rockpile? I don’t think so. That doesn’t mean that all of Sonoma’s 15 AVAs aren’t producing good wine. They are–as good in some instances as anywhere else in California. It’s just that, in my view, you can’t say that Sonoma County is currently enjoying a golden age.

I suppose that golden ages can occur more than once in the lifespan of a wine region, provided that region is old enough. Bordeaux’s original golden age, of the 18th century, was replicated in the 1980s. In that 200-year interregnum, Bordeaux experienced declines that nearly obliterated it, and that resulted in some very poor wines. No California wine region, however, is yet old enough to have experienced a second golden age. Sonoma County already has had its, in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, it’s the turn of regions to the south.


Has Yellow Tail hurt Australia’s reputation?

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I’ve never had Yellow Tail, I’ve never slammed it, but nonetheless I was intrigued by this article about how John Casella, whose Casella Wines produces Yellow Tail, “slammed critics who blame his winery’s Yellow Tail label for undermining premium wine sales abroad.”

Not identified in the article was just who those critics are, but perhaps this four-year old article from Slate is indicative of them. “[W]hat was good for Yellow Tail wasn’t so great for the Australian wines as a whole,” it argues, adding that “consumers came to equate Australia with wines that were flavorful but also cheap and frivolous.”

Mr. Casella takes this theory head-on and counters with a strong argument: “Is Barefoot…destroying the image of American wine?” he asks, logically, concerning the top-selling wine in the U.S. (Yellow Tail is number two.) The answer, obviously, is no, Barefoot is not harming anything. Mr. Casella hits the nail squarely on the head when he asserts that Yellow Tail is “supplying one end of the market that has one type of consumer.” That type of consumer clearly is the value-oriented person who wants a sound varietal wine, at a fair price, which is exactly what Yellow Tail offers.

I’ve never understood this argument that low-priced wine drags down the reputation of its region. That’s just dumb. We have something called market segmentation in wine, as in clothing, cars and just about every other consumer good and service; that’s the way economies work, particularly in complex societies. Nobody ever suggested that a Chevy Aveo was dragging down Cadillac’s reputation, simply because both cars are manufactured by General Motors. Similarly, nobody ever said that Two-Buck Chuck was harming the reputation of California wine. (And by the way, oceans of plonk certainly didn’t interfere with France’s reputation for fine wine.)

I’ve long been a proponent of cheap wine. It allows people of modest means to drink wine (which I believe is in and of itself a good thing, since wine has a civilizing effect on humankind). Throughout all of history, people have had a need for inexpensive wine, and producers like Yellow Tail, Barefoot and Two-Buck Chuck fulfill that market niche with professionalism and aplomb.

Now, it may well be that some Americans viewed Australia through the lens of Yellow Tail (or other low-priced brands that flooded the U.S.). But that’s not Yellow Tail’s fault: it’s the fault of wine educators, including writers, somms and merchants. It’s a big, complicated world out there; I think consumers are interested in learning more about imported wines, if only someone would give them the chance.

Incidentally, although I’ve never reviewed Yellow Tail, my colleague at Wine Enthusiast, Joe Czerwinski, routinely does, and he’s given it lots of “Best Buys.” I have a feeling I would, too, if I covered the wines of Australia. So I give credit to Yellow Tail.


Vintage 2013: Looks like one for the books

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I am increasingly excited by prospects of a great vintage in California for 2013.

Longtime readers of mine know that my view of vintages is that, in general, you can’t really tell the overall quality until a number of years have passed and you’ve tasted enough wines in bottle to see how they’re actually doing, as opposed to how you thought they should be doing. It’s true that most wine periodicals, including Wine Enthusiast, ask us writers to predict the quality of a vintage almost as soon as it’s over, but I’ve always striven to let readers know that such appraisals are at best preliminary educated guesses.

The last time I felt in my bones that a vintage was great, and that predictions of its quality didn’t need to be hedged, was 2007. Even at the time, I was calling it “the vintage of the century,” and  quoting winemakers who were similarly excited. Jason Drew, at Drew Family Cellars, had told me “It’s hard for me to contain myself,” he was so pleased. True, some rain came by early October, as it almost always does; but, as I noted at the time, “Luckily, once it stopped raining, warm sunshine came back and late ripeners, like Cabernet, dried out.” And indeed, 2007 has turned out to be one of those perfect California vintages where the wines were opulent right out of the bottle, but also ageworthy.

This year has been even better. Steady-as-she-goes might be the byword. There was no killer frost in the spring, no wildfires to give smoke taint to the grapes, very little in the way of heat waves, no huge production as there was last vintage, and as for that pesky rainstorm a few weeks ago, despite some concerns at the time, all it ended up doing was washing the dust off the grapes.

I always say that grapes like the same kind of weather we humans do; and we humans have been liking this summer, especially the last two months, which are the crucial ones from the harvest’s point of view. I emailed my friend, our local Channel 2’s morning meteorologist, Steve Paulson, to ask him, “I know that Sept-Oct are always described as our best weather months [in California]. But, after 35 years in the Bay Area, I can’t remember more gorgeous weather than this year. Except for that weird storm a few weeks ago (which actually was good for the grapes), the weather has been spectacular. Do you agree?” Steve replied, “I would agree! Sept/Oct. 2013 has been beautiful. Best I can remember too. Cool nights, sunny and mild to warm days. No extremes either way. The ‘weird’ rain was great in my mind. Loved it. After nearly 9 months of no rain, it was what I hope is a good sign for more ran this Winter.” So even the weatherman knows which way the wind is blowing.

For those of you who don’t know, Steve’s reference to “nearly 9 months of no rain” underscores the severity of the drought that is gripping California the last two years. The Central Coast has been hard-hit; reports of not enough water for the grapes have been coming in for months. And just the other day, Western Farm Press reported on widespread “trepidation” among growers of all crops (not just grapes) due to “not know[ing] if they will have water…next season.”

At any rate, whatever late ripeners are left on the vine should be gathered in the next few weeks under fine, sunny skies. The next eight days or so will see continued warm [but not hot] days, with clear skies and breezy conditions. As for the winter of 2013-2014, Steve Paulson’s hope for more rain seems to be in the offing: AccuWeather is predicting that “From December through January, California will enter a period of heavy precipitation resulting in much-needed relief from the extreme drought.”

Nicholas  Miller, of the family that owns the Bien Nacido and other vineyards in Santa Barbara County, says of 2013, “From a quality perspective, this is what people dream of!” I’ll just add that, even before tasting a single barrel sample from 2013, I predict that this vintage will be one for the history books.


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