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Why Napa Cabernet costs so much

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The most interesting quote in the Napa Valley Register’s article on the 30th birthday of the Carneros Wine Alliance is from David Graves. The co-founder of Saintsbury said, “There’s no ‘Napa of pinot noir.’ No one place dominates the market.”

Isn’t it interesting how the cultural evolution of the market has treated our two leading red wine types so differently? One, Cabernet Sauvignon, has become almost exclusively dominated, in the mind of the consumer, with a single appellation: Napa Valley. The other, Pinot Noir, resists being associated with a dominating region. Indeed, if you were to ask leading wine critics, What is California’s top Pinot Noir appellation, they would tell you the question makes no sense.

Beyond being merely of academic interest, this is a pocketbook issue. How much a winery gets for its wine (and how much, in turn, the consumer pays for it) are intimately linked with the wine’s origin. While the average statewide price for a ton of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in 2013 was $1,339, in Napa Valley it was $5,469, a difference of 308 percent. Pragmatically, this is why the average bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet is many times higher that the average bottle of Cabernet from, say, Alexander Valley.

This is not true of Pinot Noir, whose price tends to be more consistent across all the top coastal growing areas. Here are some examples, all reflective of the price of a ton of grapes in 2013:

Sonoma: $3,078

Santa Barbara/San Luis Obispo: $2,586

Mendocino: $2,652

Statewide: $1,594

Indeed, as I have long suggested, when it comes to Pinot Noir, it is somewhat misleading to focus on individual growing regions. Instead, the way to look at things is that we have a single Pinot Noir terroir that stretches from Anderson Valley down to Santa Barbara County, extending inland perhaps 20 miles. No single A.V.A. within this vast stretch can plausibly pretend to supremacy because, in truth, all of them are roughly equal, although, of course, wine writers and critics make their livings discerning differences within the similarities.

In the case of Napa’s lopsided price for Cabernet, this cannot be credited to matters of terroir. Napa Valley demonstrably is not the best, only place to grow qualitatively significant Cabernet Sauvignon in California. Alexander Valley has equal precedence. So too do the Santa Cruz Mountains, Paso Robles, the easternmost parts of Santa Barbara, Lake County and other regions of Sonoma County, including Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Knights Valley and Chalk Hill. (I refer, in all cases, to the top wines.) I don’t think any critic who’s being objective would object when I say that prime Cabernet growing areas in California are at least as widespread as those for prime Pinot Noir.

Why, then, the incredible price differential on behalf of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon? One reason and one reason only: perception. Napa Valley is perceived as being the best place to grow Cabernet. That perception clearly impacts the choice of consumers (and the restaurateurs and merchants who sell wine to them), but it also distorts the impressions of a surprisingly high number of critics, who do not taste blind and thus are subject to the biases within their own unconscious or subconscious minds.

Now that I’ve been “relieved” of the job of tasting many thousands of wines a year, I find I’m developing a refreshingly clearer sense concerning these matters of terroir. Perhaps it’s a form of now being able to see the forest for the trees. If one is looking for pleasure and complexity in wine (and what else would one look for?), then it’s simply astonishing how easy it is to find those qualities in California wine. This is not to suggest that quality differences do not exist, but it is my considered judgment that these differences are neither as vast as I once thought, nor as distinctive as consumers believe. This may be due, in part, to the 100-point system, which I long employed and for which I will never apologize. But I am glad that, when it came to very high scores for Cabernet, I always included Alexander Valley right up there with Napa Valley, for I was able to get past the “perception thing” and focus on the wine itself.

The history of California wine is replete with paradigm-shifting events, such as the Paris Tasting, the advent of the current era of Pinot Noir, replanting after phylloxera, and, if we go back far enough, to the use of French barriques and the creation of the Federal labeling laws. To these, I will predict a gradual shifting in the consumer’s perception, a widening of appreciation that great Cabernet Sauvignon can in fact come from many more places than only Napa Valley. When this will occur is open to question, but I have no doubt that it will.


Widening the scope of what good Pinot Noir really is

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It’s lovely to remind people, as Randy Caparoso does in the April issue of The Tasting Panel magazine, that it’s not right to evaluate wines “in terms of varietal character rather than terroir or origin.”

What brought Randy to this evaluation was a tasting of Pinot Noirs. He’d encountered a 2013 Failla (Occidental Ridge Sonoma Coast) which he found to have “a dead weight on the palate.” This is not a favorable description.

But the more Randy thought about it, the more he realized that the Failla was a true representative of where it came from: “a deep, foggy pocket of Sonoma” whose cool climate yields wines that are hard and tannic when young. That made him reconsider it, as well as other wines he tasted: A Merry Edwards 2012 Meredith Estate (similarly cool climate Russian River Valley), and an Adelaida 2012 from Paso Robles, from a cool, high elevation vineyard in the western part of the appellation. What Randy realized, mirabile dictu, is the importance of appreciating these wines “within their own context… [When you do], it’s amazing how bright and diverse the wine world turns out to be.”

Thank you, Randy. I’ve been making this case for many years: that you can’t ask all Pinot Noirs to conform to your notion (whatever it is) of Pinot Noir perfection, because to do so is to totally trash the notion of terroir that is the basis for all Pinot Noir interpretation. Pinot likes a cool climate, but The Green Valley of the Russian River Valley is not the same as a 2,000-foot elevation Mendocino Ridge vineyard, high above the fogline, or western Paso Robles. Although all three regions are cool climate, they will yield different kinds of Pinot Noirs. It’s simply wrong to denigrate one at the expense of the other—provided they’re all fine examples of their terroir.

How do you know if they are or aren’t “fine examples of their terroir”? Well, that’s the professional task of a wine reviewer. A pro should be able to discern quality in a wine, even if it’s not a wine he savors. Too often in contemporary wine reviewing, we have a situation in which a reviewer (or somm, or whoever it may be) raves about a wine that’s to his liking, and disparages those that are not. In so doing, he does away with terroir’s fundamental premise: that of individuality.

I love Randy’s take on this delicate topic, but it does have to be said that there’s a risk in tasting every wine “within its own context.” And that is—you probably guessed it by now—that this is a slippery slope. Since every wine exists “within its own context,” how do you ascertain that one is better than another. After all, aren’t all contexts equal?

Well, no, they’re not. Any wine pro knows that quality levels vary dramatically in wines. So how is the pro to distinguish between a wine that really is mediocre, versus one that (as with Randy’s Failla) is “aggressive” in tannins and “plop[s] like a dead weight on the palate”?

This is an extraordinarily important question. Although Randy (by his own admission) doesn’t like numerical scores, I had the feeling that, had he rated the Failla, he would have given it somewhere around 86 points and complained that it wasn’t “a little finer, limber, more lifted and delineated,” like a Baxter 2012 Valenti Vineyard he tasted, from Mendocino Ridge. But—and this is the whole point of his column–when he understood its origin, he was willing to give the wine a second chance.

I’ve long argued that blind tasting is the only way to completely eliminate bias—and Randy’s palate did exhibit a certain bias towards “more lifted and delineated” Pinot Noirs, whatever that means. So how does he intellectually justify re-assessing a wine when he knows where it comes from?

This is the conundrum all reviewers face. But although it seems almost impossible to resolve it, it’s actually not. Even when tasting blind, the reviewer has to ask himself, “Is this actually quite a good wine that displays the qualities of its terroir, even if they’re qualities I don’t like or understand? Or is it actually mediocre?” This can be a hard nut to crack, but it is crackable. One way to approach it is to ask yourself another question: “Is it ageable?” Young Pinot Noirs, especially from cooler regions, can be aggressive and hard in youth. When you’re tasting such a wine, you have to imagine it six years down the road. (I use six years because in my experience that’s the turning point for most Pinots that are resistant upon release. A good one will open up at six years, whereas a mediocre one will simply remain mediocre.)

Randy’s column is one of the most interesting op-ed pieces I’ve read lately (you can find the digital edition of The Tasting Panel here, although you might have to scroll through to page 26). It raises questions of profound importance. I’m so glad that Randy has widened the scope of how we perceive Pinot Noir here in California—a scope that’s been unreasonably narrowing lately due to ideological concerns among some critics.


California Pinot Noir: A followup consideration

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A question arose on my blog late last week, after my March 27 post, What about those reports that “weaker wines are better than stronger ones”?

When the comments turned to a discussion about soils, the topic of limestone arose. Now, as any historian of Burgundy (including Chablis), the Loire and Champagne is well aware, limestone (or chalk) has been considered the “bedrock” (pun intended) of those regions’ terroir. Hugh Johnson, in his “World Atlas,” praises the limestone of Nuits-St-Georges (to use a single instance) for causing “the inimitable sappy richness of the Pinot Noir.” James E. Wilson, in his book, “Terroir,” titles his chapter on Champagne “Chalk Country” and reminds us that it took centuries for “the significance of the relationship of this lifeless-looking white rock and the soils of Champagne” to be recognized.

A few California Pinot pioneers with experience in the vineyards of Burgundy recognized it. They sought chalky soil when they developed their properties. Foremost among them was perhaps Josh Jensen, at Calera, who once described to me how he had scoured the state of California, armed with geology maps and a little vial of acid, in search of limestone, which he eventually found on Mount Harlan. (“Calera” itself is the old Spanish word for “lime kiln.”)

When I began visiting the Santa Rita Hills, local vintners made a big deal of pointing out the white-stone outcroppings that burst through the soil along the shoulders of Santa Rosa Road—limestone, uplifted or exposed from the now-retreated sea bed. In western Paso Robles, too, one can see these eroded white rocks, evidence not only of the California coast’s birth deep below a long-gone ocean, but of the fact that there is more limestone in our state than anyone had previously thought.

The comments on my blog concerning limestone underscored its importance for Pinot Noir at such wineries as Calera and Chalone. This may well be true, although in the case of Calera the terroir is dominated by the warm summers, which in my judgment trump soil there. As for Chalone, its changes of ownership over the years have resulted in some inconsistency of the wines, which makes them difficult to appraise. If we view the broader Santa Rita Hills (and Santa Maria Valley, as well), with its fossilized seashells, it’s easy to apprehend that these old chalky deposits lend a certain something to the wines (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay especially), but precisely what that “something” is, is hard to say, beyond the intriguing but amorphous word “minerality,” which almost everyone in California claims to find in their wines, whether it be Zinfandels from the Sierra Foothills or Cabernets from Oakville. I will not at this time venture any further into the tall weeds of minerality.

So I see limestone, if a Pinot vineyard is lucky enough to have it, as a good thing. But so are the Gold Ridge soils of the Sonoma Coast, the barren, austere dirts of the Mayacamas stretch of Alexander Valley, the volcanic soils of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and indeed the clays and pebbles of Carneros. This is the puzzle of Pinot Noir in California: that so vast and turbulent an array of soils can consistently produce so fine a wine.

Which leaves us, then, with the only thing these regions have in common to explain wine quality: climate. (Obviously, all the different soils are well-drained, no matter their chemical composition. Well-drained soil is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the production of fine wine.) These regions all are within the Region I-Region II spectrum of the old U.C. Davis scale. I look to the warmer parts among them, such as the Middle Reach of the Russian River Valley, to give dense, textured and frankly flamboyant Pinot Noirs. The cooler areas yield silkier, more delicate and perhaps more complex Pinots, with the most complex of all coming from those places so impacted by the coast that, in a chilly year like 2011, the grapes might not get fully ripe. But in a more moderate year, like 2012, look out.

There’s no point in pitting these styles one against the other. It’s petulant to do so. Which is why I hold that, when it comes to Pinot Noir, California has achieved—finally—a degree of variation, based on terroir, that we long envied among the French. We need envy France no more—what we need is further exploration, fueled and paid for by consumers willing to pay the bottle price, because they know that California coastal Pinot Noir needs to offer no apologies, to anyone, for being what it is.

I do think that the lower the alcohol is on Pinot Noir, the more it will reflect its particular soil conditions; there is an inverse relationship between ripeness and the soil part of terroir. In this respect, it’s important to keep in mind that the soil part of terroir is to some extent at odds with the grape itself. Which will dominate? I see this as a pitched battle between two sides. There is a school of thought that roots for terroir, another school that roots for the fruit itself. (One might almost conclude that this is the essence of the difference between “old world” and “new world” palates.) Ideally, Pinot Noir, and all wines actually, is the result of an exquisite balancing act between terroir and grape, the sort of equilibrium sometimes referred to as “tension” or “nerve,’ which is more than just piquant acidity. It’s rarely achieved; one hopes that any wine that gets a high score from a reputable critic comes close. This touches upon the ripeness conversation we’ve all been having, but does not resolve it because, in truth, there is no resolution.


In Pursuit of Balance tasting, San Francisco

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A lovely tasting today at In Pursuit of Balance, really the best they’ve ever had. The venue was new: City View, in the Metreon Center, instead of RN74 like it was the last time I went. And what a crowd! This was clearly the buzziest place to be today if you were anywhere near San Francisco.

It’s impossible to taste everything, but I did get to quite a few Pinot Noirs, mostly 2012s. In general, you can say that this is a generous vintage, yielding balanced, supple and frankly delicious wines of great structure, although in a few cases, the acids were too fierce. The best of them need age. Here are a few standouts:

Domaine de la Cote. I have not been a fan of the 2011s which were green, but 2012 was a great success. The Bloom’s Field (12.5%) is sleek and streamlined, with a core of raspberries. It needs time.

Sandhi. Their ’12 Sanford & Benedict (13.5%) is a real beauty, charming and supple.

Knez. This was a new winery for me, out of Anderson Valley. The ’12 Demuth (13.3%) and ’12 Cerise (about 13.3%) both are gorgeous, the former tight, the latter more generous. Both need time.

Hirsch. First, it was good to hear that David is back at work! The ’12 East Ridge (13%) is powerful but delicate, with awesome structure. The ’12 Reserve (13.1%) is a wine I’d describe as Burgundian, with mushroom and tea notes to the raspberry core. Both wines need time.

Au Bon Climat. The 2011 Knox Alexander (13.1%) is huge in flavor, explosive in raspberry essence, yet gorgeously structured and dry. It certainly needs 5-6 years in the bottle.

Wenzlau. Another new winery for me. The Estate Santa Rita Hills (13.0%) is very acidic, almost lemony, with with solid raspberry-cherry fruit. I would give it six years.

Kutch. A pair of 2013s, the Sonoma Coast (12.3%) and the Rohan Vineyard (12.3%), from the Bohan-Dillon area of Fort Ross-Seaview. Two great wines. The former is delicate, the latter more potent and dramatic. I would cellar the Rohan for six years.

Native9 2011 Rancho Ontiveros (13.4%). A great success for the vintage, pale in color, lots of acidity, plenty of finesse. Drinking beautifully now.

Here are a few pictures of some old friends.

SashiSashi Moorman pouring. Raj Parr in background.

ClendenenJim Clendenen, one of the immortals

StevieStevie Stacionis, of Bay Grape in Oakland

CarloCarlo Mondavi. Sorry you have to crane your neck!

 JamesJames Ontiveros, Native9 and Rancho Ontiveros

EhrenEhren Jordan, of Failla


Alcohol level in Pinot Noir: a question of shifting fashion

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Writer David Darlington makes the case, perhaps unwittingly, for how hard it is to explain why alcohol levels are higher in Russian River Valley Pinot Noir than they used to be, in his article, “Accounting for Taste,” in the April issue of Wine & Spirits. (Sorry, I can’t find a link online.)

After first positing that today’s wines are, in fact, higher in alcohol than, say, twenty years ago—an unarguable statement—David makes his position immediately known, calling “so many so monstrous.” At one point, he even calls them “dangerous.”

Now these are awfully harsh words: surprisingly so, coming from the guy who wrote what is possibly the best book on Zinfandel ever, “Angels’ Visits.” But let us grant that Pinot Noir is not Zinfandel.

After having slammed so many Pinots, David at least has the reportorial curiosity to ask why alcohol levels have risen. He phrases his question thusly: “Are the winemakers responsible, or is it attributable to something beyond their control?”

And then cannot answer the question. Which is, of course, beyond his own control, for the fact of the matter is, there is no one answer why alcohol levels have increased. David certainly did his homework, interviewing multiple winemakers in an effort to find out why. Here are ten causes they suggested to him:

  1. vertical shoot positioning, as opposed to the California sprawl of old
  2. the market
  3. ratings
  4. consumer preferences
  5. climate change/global warming
  6. Dijon clones
  7. longer hangtime
  8. super strains of yeast
  9. younger vines
  10. warmer fermentations

Well, that’s pretty much the whole nine yards! By article’s end, the reader’s impression can only be confusion. Why are alcohol levels higher now than they used to be? Who knows? Pick a reason—pick any reason—pick them all! But what does any of it have to do with Russian River Pinot Noir being “monstrous”? Well, with that remark, David at least is honest, if hyperbolic, about his bias.

The winery that David holds up for particular praise is Small Vines. I personally can attest to the quality of their Pinot Noirs: I gave them eight 90-points-or-higher scores over the years, and since I left, Virginie Boone has given them another four. With all this talk of low alcohol, I was curious to know what Small Vines’ levels have been. Google brought me to The Prince of Pinot; this article shows that alcohol levels in Small Vines Pinot Noirs varied between 13.2% and 14.5%, with seven of the 15 wines The Prince reviewed above 14%. This is not particularly low, and is in league with most of the Pinot Noirs I reviewed from coastal California, which were anywhere between 13.8% and 14.5%.

I’m glad David quoted the great Merry Edwards, who reduced the low-alcohol movement in Pinot Noir to incoherence. “The fashion norm is shifting now,” she told him; “people are listening to Raj Parr (the In Pursuit of Balance ringleader), and French marketing has convinced people that you should pay a lot of money for wines that are light and watery. I’m on the opposite side—we’re not in France, we’re in California”

Light and watery! You go grrl! When one has been in the arena as long as Merry (she’s been making wine since 1974), one sees “fashion” come and go with merry-go-round (excuse the pun) regularity—and one learns not to succumb to it.

It can be hard to resist fashion, if all you want to do is appeal to the latest trend. But winemakers who are dedicated to their art are not slaves to fashion. They stay the course; they know that style goes in and out, but that true quality in winemaking, as exemplified by Merry Edwards, remains undeterred by these perturbations in the critical aether.


Is liking IPAs really as uncool as liking California Cabernet?

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I like beer, but didn’t have much of a chance to enjoy it when I was tasting and reviewing wine. Popping the corks on at least 15 different bottles a day, and then sitting there thinking and writing about them, took so much effort that I had little time or energy left over for any other kind of alcoholic beverage.

All that changed fairly dramatically a year ago, when I took my new job at Jackson Family Wines. Suddenly, I didn’t have to taste a gazillion wines anymore. (Not that I’d minded it—I loved, and still love, reviewing wine.) All the samples that had flooded my doorstep for so many years abruptly ceased.

Well, not 100%. Although Wine Enthusiast, and I personally, did our best to notify California wineries that I wasn’t working there anymore, wine still comes to me with some regularity. I always send it back, of course, but if you’re a California winery, and reading this, please take note: I DON’T WORK AT WINE ENTHUSIAST ANYMORE!

Anyhow, shortly after I started the new gig, I decided to get back into beer. Nowadays, you’ll always find a few bottles chilling in my fridge. Starting at 5 p.m.—Happy Hour, yay!–I like to have some in a frosty mug I keep in the freezer.

What kind of beer? It can be anything, but it’s often an India Pale Ale. I don’t claim to know much about beer, except that I like it (hey, if all there is on a hot summer afternoon is Bud Lite, count me in!). But I do know that I like that big, hoppy IPA style, which I also recognize as the California Cabernet Sauvignon-equivalent of beer: full-bodied, rich and heady.

This article, which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle’s Inside Scoop online portal, gives a nice summary of where beer trends are at here in the Bay Area. The author is Jon Bonné, who recently announced that he’s stepping down from his fulltime gig as wine editor of the paper, although he’ll continue a monthly column of some sort. Now Jon, as we all know, made his bones by coming out against the prevailing style of California wine, which is ripe, sunshiney power. Jon favors the In Pursuit of Balance style of lower alcohol wines that many in the IPOB crowd consider more classic and elegant than your typical Napa Valley Cab or, for that matter, Pinots that are riper than—oh, I don’t know, let’s say 13.8%. So I didn’t find it surprising that, in his article, Jon came out against “the hoppy amping-up of American craft beers” as evidenced by “the style that defines most IPAs…”. In fact—just to make sure that we readers understand that hoppy IPAs and big Cabernets are crimes against their respective beverage groups—the craftsmen who produce them, according to Jon, are profiting from a “follow-the-money argument,” which means, presumably, that the producers Jon doesn’t care for are venal.

Well, I’ll let those producers make their own rebuttals. Here’s Jon’s: “The arms race of oak, extraction and jammy flavors, which proved successful for a previous generation of Cabernet makers, is a direct parallel to the hoppy amping-up of American craft beers.” Both drinks are “flavor bombs”; neither is part of the “avant-garde” which Jon so assiduously courts.

I should think Jon might have modified his views following his recent visit to Paris—his beloved France, source of “balanced” wines, and original home of the avant-grade—where he discovered, evidently to his dismay, that “the French craft brewing renaissance is currently populated by hopheads, and obsessed with IPAs…”. I guess forty million Frenchmen can be wrong.

But the real point is that Jon has not served the California wine industry well. He dismissed a large part of its best wines, in many cases refusing even to review them in the Chronicle despite being sent tasting samples, and thus distorting reality to his readers. This has disturbed many California winemakers, who were afraid to criticize Jon publicly for fear of retribution. My own position has been consistent: It’s unprofessional for a wine critic to throw so many wines produced in his own home region under the bus by refusing to even taste them. It’s a fundamental axiom in wine criticism that you don’t have to like a wine in order to review it fairly. You review it within the context of what it purports to be. For example, I might not like Sherry (in fact, I do), but even if I didn’t, I’d feel honor-bound to recognize what a good sherry is, and then to give good sherries good scores.

Jon never gave so many California wines the chance to just be what they are, simply because of a number—alcohol percentage by volume. Instead, he trashed these wines with epithets like “fruit bombs” and “male swagger.” Such snarkiness may have made him a hero to IPOB, but not to many of our state’s winemakers, who might be forgiven for being happy now that he’s gone. Personally, maybe I can finally get into the cool kids’ avant-garde club even though I like Napa Cab and IPAs!


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