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Tuesday Twaddle: “Offloading” brands, and the old spinning cone

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When is it time for a winery to “offload” underperforming brands?

It happens. You’ve had a line, or SKU, in the market for years, but for some reason, it’s never gained traction. So the hard decision must be faced: Is it time to pull the plug on Grandma?

This is the situation Treasury Wine Estates is facing. The Australian company, which lost more than $100 million in 2013-2014, has brands “that [are] not a priority and may be retired [or] offloaded,” according the industry publication, The Drinks Business.

This can never be an easy decision for a big company like TWE. Companies love all their brands, the same way parents love all their children. You can’t throw an underperforming child under the bus, of course, but companies aren’t families, they’re business; and sometimes, “retiring non-priority brands”, or repurposing them in some way, is the only way to stay healthy.

 

* * *

Does this shock you? It shocks me. “One in four bottles of Californian Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have been through the industrial alcohol removal process supplied by ConeTech in the past year.” That’s another report by The Drinks Business, which adds that the spinning-cone process of lowering the alcohol content of wine is more popular than ever because “winemakers would rather take out alcohol from a ripe wine than risk creating lighter, possibly greener wines from harvesting earlier for naturally lower abvs.”

Well, as Dana Carvey’s character, The Church Lady, used to say on Saturday Night Live, Isn’t that special?

I’ve written before that I don’t mind some technological intervention to produce sound, clean, drinkable wines. These are what Americans want. Critics denounce them as Franken-wines, but to me, that just seems derogatory and mean. Besides, the truth is, since this de-alcoholization is done secretly, no one can ever know just which wines have passed through the spinning cone, so before you give such a wine 96 points and then have to appear foolish when someone outs you, restrain thy criticism.

However, I will venture to say that winemakers are resorting to this somewhat risky procedure because the public drumbeat against higher-alcohol wines has reached such a fever pitch that they feel they have no choice. Many of them, themselves, probably hate themselves for doing it—for giving in. Some of them may be under orders to do it, by the people who sign their paychecks. It’s hard for me to believe that any winemaker willingly and happily sends her wine to the spinning cone.

Speaking of those “greener wines” that are the potential result of picking early—which is the natural way to produce lower-alcohol wines—I’ve tasted some of them at big Pinot Noir tastings, and they’re dreadful. Well, I suppose if you like dried oregano, mint and green tomatoes, they’re all right, but if you prefer cherries and raspberries (which I do), you’ll be disappointed.

Thus we find ourselves staring directly at the schizophrenia running through our modern California wine business. The bullet quote in The Drinks Business article is this: “The consumer preference is for riper style wines, with juicy fruit, but consumers want this with more moderate alcohol levels.” Someone should politely tell consumers you can’t get ripe fruit without high brix, which in turn translates into healthy alcohol.

But that’s not a message that consumers want to hear, and so producers—caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place—increasingly are turning to the spinning cone. And if California goes back to a series of warm vintages, like we used to have, we’ll see even more wines spun out.


My thoughts on the S.F. Chronicle’s Top 100 Wines of 2014

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Of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 Wines of 2014,

  • 9 of the 12 Chardonnays have alcohol below 14%
  • 13 of 16 Other Whites have alcohol below 14%
  • 8 of 9 Sparkling Wine, Rose and Others have alcohol below 14%
  • 18 of 23 Pinot Noirs have alcohol below 14%

Did these wines make the cut because they really are the “top” wines of the vintage, or because the alcohol is low, which is where Wine Editor Jon Bonné prefers it to be?

Jon did select numerous Cabernet Sauvignons, red Rhone-style wines, Zinfandels and Other Reds that have well above 14% alcohol, but I suppose that’s because he had to include those varieties on his list, and for the most part, those grapes just don’t make good wine unless the brix is elevated enough to produce wines in the 14%s and even approaching if not exceeding 15%.

I’m simply puzzled. There are so many great Pinots and Chardonnays out there that don’t fit Jon’s restricted mold. And what’s up with that Calera 2012 Central Coast Pinot that made the list? At 14.6%, it’s easily the highest-alcohol Pinot of Jon’s bunch, but it certainly isn’t a Top 100 Wine of the year. I reviewed it last March 1, just a week before leaving my job at Wine Enthusiast, and gave it 86 points. It’s just what you’d expect: Not Josh Jensen’s top Pinot, not anywhere close to it, but his least expensive ($26), a nice everyday sipper that’s a blend of multiple vineyards along the Central Coast. (I think Josh must be praising the Gods of Caprice for that one!)

Haven’t we ridden this low-alcohol train about as far as it can usefully take us? There’s something fundamentally mashugana about it. I use the word “mashugana,” which is of Yiddish origin, deliberately, for in my version of street parlance, it means, not just “crazy,” but nonsensical. For it’s nonsensical to demand that California wine be picked underripe, just to satisfy the intellectual inclinations of a small band of adherents.

Jon himself seems not to sense the inconsistencies in his approach. In his introduction to the Top 100 article (after mentioning he’d hung out recently with Steven Spurrier), he tells us that, back in 1976, California wine “was as good as French” (a fact obvious to anyone after Cali wine swept the Paris Tasting). Then he adds that, whilst in London, “Our [i.e. California’s] wine promise was again unmistakable.” In fact, repeating a theme he’s held for some years, he trumpets “This is a golden moment for American wine,” which presumably means California wine, or certainly West Coast wine, “which is the scope of our annual Top 100 Wines.”

Well, if California wine was great 38 years ago, and has been in a “golden moment” for the few years that Jon’s been praising it, are we then to assume that between 1977 and 2008 or 2009, California wine was bad, unbalanced, irregular? I don’t think any credible person could claim that. Certainly our wines are wonderful now (the best really are world class), but they were wonderful in the 1970s and 1980s (when I started paying attention to them) and they were wonderful in the 1990s and 2000s (when I was paid to review them). They were wonderful through the second week of March of this year, when I left my old job, and they’re wonderful now, although I will confess I no longer taste as widely as I used to nor as broadly as Jon. But how much can have changed since last March? I would say California is in a golden century, not just a moment.

It takes, I think, a special form of mental jujitsu to dismiss higher-alcohol California wine, as Jon does, and then to come out with a statement like “Eight years ago, it would have been hard to imagine a wine like the 2013 Lo-Fi Cabernet Franc,” a wine that made Jon’s list. Well, it took me all of 40 seconds to go to my database and find Jonata’s 2007 El Alma de Jonata Red, a wine that is largely Cabernet Franc. I gave it 96 points, and while I don’t know precisely what the alcohol was, I really don’t care, either. And how about Lang & Reed? Great Cab Franc house, and has been for years. I could also mention Merryvale, Pride Mountain, Jarvis (both the estate grown and Will Jarvis’ Science Project), Peju, Constant and La Jota. All great Cab Francs. There was a Niebaum-Coppola 2002 Cabernet Franc that was so good, I still remember it. But perhaps Jon never tried it; he only arrived at the Chronicle in 2006.

I don’t mean to pick on Jon or anybody else. Shortly after he came to the Chronicle, I invited him to dinner, because I thought we Bay Area geeks should all be friends. He’s a perfectly nice guy. But I just don’t get this addiction to below 14% wines. Blind tasting clearly is the way to figure out what’s really going on—just ask Raj Parr and Adam Lee, if you know what I mean and I think most of you do. (Hint: World of Pinot Noir, 2011.)

If the Chron’s tasting panel really were tasting blind, their list wouldn’t be so heavy on the under-14% wines. It’s just not fair to be so harsh against all the others. I thought critics weren’t supposed to let their personal preferences affect their reviews. Have times changed?


My Pinot Noir event in Los Angeles

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I did my first big event for Jackson Family Wines yesterday, and I think it went pretty well. Despite a downpour, we had a full house. It was on the wines of the Santa Maria Valley, especially Pinot. I didn’t want it to be a JFW thing, so I asked my dear friends Dieter Cronje, from Presqu’ile, Chris Hammell, from Bien Nacido, Dick Dore, from Foxen, and James Ontiveros, from Native9 and Alta Maria, to participate, along with Denise Shurtleff (Cambria) and Jonathan Nagy (Byron).

Everybody did such a great job; I’m so proud of them. The idea was to give gatekeepers—somms, bloggers, writers, restaurateurs, merchants—a better idea of what the Santa Maria Valley is because, frankly, in my opinion, people don’t fully understand it. That’s because it’s fairly isolated and hard to get to, without great restaurants or hotels, and the valley floor is more about row crops than winegrapes. But, oh, the terroir is perfect on the benches and hillsides for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and other cool-climate varieties, as our tasting amply demonstrated.

The temperature warms up a degree or two with every mile you go inland in this west-east-running valley (courtesy of the transverse deforming action of the San Andreas Fault), so it was fascinating to taste the Pinot from the westernmost area, Presqu’ile, compared to the Pinot from the easternmost area, Byron, and everything inbetween. Sometimes, data actually verify hunches, and in this case, the data beautifully illustrate this temperature gradient. Check it out, from west [cool] to east [warmer]:

Presqu’ile [westernmost]: alc. 13.2%

Fermentation: 100% whole cluster

 

Native9 [very western]: alc. 13.5%

Fermentation; 100% whole cluster

 

Bien Nacido (central): alc. 13.7%

Fermentation: partial whole cluster

 

Foxen Julia’s Vineyard (toward the east): alc. 14.2%

Fermentation: 100% destemmed

 

Cambria (toward the east): alc. 14.6%

Fermentation: 100% destemmed

 

Byron (easternmost, warmest): alc. 14.4%

Fermentation: 100% destemmed

 

Alcohols go up as you travel to warmer inland areas. As for the fermentation, the Presqu’ile and Native9 winemakers felt the wines could benefit from the added tannins and body of stems, whereas the inland winemakers felt their wines were full-bodied and tannic enough to not need stems. Right in the middle is Bien Nacido, where you get partial whole cluster.

Isn’t that pretty? Such a sweet illustration of the way climate impacts winemaking decisions. And yet all the wines, in my opinion, showed a distinct Santa Maria Valley character: Spicy. Silky tannins. Great fruit, running towards the red: pomegranates, cherries. Great balance and complexity, as well as dryness. And great ageability. Afterwards, we had a library tasting, and the oldest bottlings, dating to 1997, were superb, among the best California Pinot Noirs I’ve ever had.

I ran into a few diehard somms who would never sell anything in their restaurants besides Burgundy, and that’s just fine, it’s a free world. But really, this was a sensational tasting, one of the best I ever went to. I wish you could have been there. We had it at Republique restaurant, on La Brea in L.A., which is on the site of the old Campanile, a restaurant I enjoyed ages ago. Chef Walter Manzke prepared some small plates to enjoy with the older wines, and that food was uncannily good. I’m still thinking about it.

Afterwards a group of somms and I hung out in the front of the restaurant, talking about cocktails. I do like a good vodka gimlet. But I have to say, in all sincerity, these Santa Maria Valley Pinots are awesome, from a cru as great as any in California, even if it doesn’t get the love of Santa Rita Hills or Russian River Valley. Maybe it will now start to.

See you tomorrow!

 


Terroir in Pinot Noir: an approach, and a problem

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When it comes to coastal California Pinot Noir, we make much of the distinctions of terroir (“we” being the wine media, some winemakers and everyone else involved in this rather arcane conversation).

We know the regions we celebrate: Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Carneros, Anderson Valley, Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey County, San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Rita Hills and so on. We say (and may actually believe) that each region is unique. If this were not the case, then what difference would an appellation of origin make, anyway? If each of these regions is not truly different, the only thing we’d concern ourselves with would be the reputation of the winery and the quality of the wine.

But of course they’re different. Aren’t they? Anyone classically educated in Burgundy understands that Chambolle-Musigny is “feminine, elegant,” Vosne-Romanée “deep, rich, velvety but not heavy.” Gevrey-Chambertin is “masculine, complex and long-lasting;” Echézeaux “close-knit and elegant.” (Descriptions are from Michael Broadbent.) To expect anyone who loves California wine not to transfer these templates to California—in Californian-ese–is, frankly, magical thinking.

And so we insist that the Pinot Noirs (and Cabernets, and Zinfandels, and Chardonnays, and so on) from our different AVAs must be different; and, when we discover (if we do) that they indeed are, we feel content and justified. To discover that the world is the way you expect it to be, is a verification of our moral and intellectual good judgment. Life is good, when you can make sense of it according to your own terms. Without that sense-making, life turns disturbingly chaotic.

And yet, anyone who’s been around for a while will tell you that, when it comes to California wine, things aren’t that simple. It is not always possible to tell an Arroyo Grande Valley Pinot Noir from a Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir, nor for that matter to tell a northern SLH Pinot (Morgan) from a southern one (Pisoni), as has historically been the case for the two Côtes, de Noirs and Beaune. As our grapes get picked riper than they used to, and vintages become warmer, regional distinctions become blurred. (This isn’t to say that picking early is a guarantee of terroir.) It may also be that the much-touted Dijon clones contribute a certain sameness to Pinot Noir. And there’s a standardization of winemaking technique (cold soaking the grapes, new French oak) that also covers or can mask terroir. It can be very difficult even for trained winemakers to discern their own wines in blind tastings—or even to agree on what characteristics their own terroir displays!

Terroir, then, is a conundrum, a paradox. In one sense, it’s a bunch of hokum. In another, common sense tells us it has got to be true. Are grapes not like humans? Someone from the Louisiana Bayou country is going to be a lot different than someone from the South Bronx (me). Where we were born and grew up puts an indelible stamp on us; no matter how much we might subsequently change, our upbringing never leaves us. This is the terroir of humans.

One could prove the truth of wine terroir and end all the discussions forever the following way: You could organize a blind tasting of all the experts. Give them flights of Pinot Noirs, from all of California’s major coastal regions, and ask them to come up with descriptors. Correlate all the findings in a statistically meaningful way. If there is such a thing as terroir, you should be able to tweak out reliable and consistent characteristics from each region. Then repeat the experiment for the next ten years.

But you can see that this is clearly impossible, on practical grounds, if no other; and whatever the conclusions, reputable people would object, and we would have to factor in their objections. We are therefore faced with the limitations of theory. Here, a few quotes are apt:

If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts.

Albert Einstein

The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees in every object only the traits which favor that theory.

Thomas Jefferson

The next quote isn’t specifically about theory, but it does say a lot about how Californians like to break society’s theories:

I moved to California because it’s a lot freer, you know? You can do what you want to do, and nobody bugs you.

Janis Joplin

And my favorite:

Before I got married I had six theories about raising children; now, I have six children and no theories.

John Wilmot

THE META-TAKE

I’m working on a project where we’re trying to figure out what makes Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir different and distinct from all other coastal California appellations. I think, in my bones, that it is; I believe I’ve noted those differences, over the course of many years, and can describe them, even if I can’t explain them; and I know for damn sure that the Santa Maria Valley is utterly unlike any other coastal growing region, in climate but perhaps even more in earth. Every fiber in me insists that there’s a Santa Maria character to Pinot Noir. At the same time, for all this certainty, I know the enormity of the challenge in nailing it. Wish me luck.


A visit to an old-new winery in Carneros

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I’m in Carneros today, visiting one of Jackson Family Wines’ newest estates, Carneros Hills, on the site the former Buena Vista vineyard and production facility on Ramal Road, on the Sonoma County side of that sprawling appellation, just over the Napa line.

Well do I remember the acclaim and hope that greeted Carneros’s emergence as an appellation on the wine scene. Los Carneros (the proper name) wasn’t declared an American Viticultural Area until relatively late, 1987,* by which time its neighbors—Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, even little Suisun Valley and Solano County Green Valley—already were AVAs. Why it took Carneros so long, I don’t know; perhaps it was because it crossed county lines, which was something the TTB hadn’t encountered before. It’s not as if Carneros was a new place to grow grapes: the Carneros Quality Alliance says wine grapes were first planted there in the late 1830s, and by the 1870s, the first winery had been built.

With the formal creation of the Carneros AVA, the wine media went nutso over its prospects. This was just about the time I became a professional wine writer (although I’d been studying the wine industry and closely following developments in California for a decade prior to that). If I can sum up the general impressions conveyed by the then-famous writers, especially those in the San Francisco Bay Area, it was: At last! America’s (or California’s) “Burgundy” has been discovered! Finally Pinot Noir is being grown in the proper place, and vinified into wine by the proper winemakers! Now we’re going to see some world-class Pinot Noir! (Good Chardonnay, too, but it’s curious that Chardonnay has never “starred” in a California region or, to put it more bluntly, no region in California ever rose to fame on Chardonnay alone, the way Chablis, for instance, or Puligny-Montrachet did, in France.)

The excitement continued through, I’d say, the mid-1990s, but gradually subsided. Other Pinot Noir areas eclipsed Carneros: Russian River Valley (1983), Santa Lucia Highlands (1992), the western part of the Santa Ynez Valley now called Santa Rita Hills (2001), the Santa Maria Valley (1981), Anderson Valley (1983). It’s also curious that, while several of these preceded Carneros in the date of getting appellated, it was Carneros that generated the most excitement among the critical community at that time—at least, in my memory. The reason for that may well have been that wine writing in California in the 1980s and early 1990s was dominated by Bay Area and Northern California critics (it still is, although less so), who naturally would be expected to pay more attention, in those pre-Internet days, to their own back yard than to something far away.

By the early 2000s Carneros had lost much of its luster among that community. The reasons were varied, and had as much to do with law and social custom as with wine quality. One factor that led to the diminution of Carneros’s reputation was that the region, while a large one, simply lacked a critical mass of small, boutique wineries, the result of zoning regulations whose practical impact was that only large, well-heeled wine companies could afford to buy in. (The situation in, say, Santa Rita Hills and Anderson Valley was the exact opposite.) We can argue over whether a large wine company has the will to craft small, artisan wines, or not; but what is unarguable is that the critical community loves small, artisanal wineries, and is prepared to give them more of a break (if you will) than it is to large wine companies—an inequality of treatment that isn’t fair; but it is what it is.

I myself, during my years as a wine critic, had no problem with Carneros. I gave lots of its Pinot Noirs high scores: Etude was one of my perennial faves, as were MacRostie, Donum, Saintsbury’s single-vineyard bottlings, Kazmer & Blaise (the small project from Michael Terrien), Hartford, Signorello and the occasional Acacia. As for Buena Vista, it fared well, but wasn’t exceptional: some scores of 90, 91 and 92 points, but nothing more dramatic. Why that was, is hard to say. The wines seemed unable to push their way through excellence to brilliance. It’s always hard for a critic to discern why this is with a winery; the temptation to yield to simplistic explanations should be avoided. But wine writers hate to say they don’t know everything.

The Buena Vista winery and brand themselves have, of course, undergone vast changes in modern times. Once California’s oldest winery (1857), it went through several ownership switches; I’ve lost track of all the corporate parent companies, although I certainly remember Beam’s overlordship, when the great winemaker (and my friend) Nick Goldschmidt oversaw its production (along with that of Clos du Bois, Atlas Peak, William Hill, Gary Farrell and others). In 2011, Jean-Charles Boisset bought the brand name and the original stone winery, in Sonoma Valley. The next year, Jackson Family Wines purchased the Ramal Road vineyard and production facility, and announced the formation of a new brand, Carneros Hills.

Which is why I’m here today. The company has high aspirations for the estate. It ought to be able to rise to levels unattained in its prior history; the terroir is just fine, and the Jackson family has sunk a small fortune into winery improvements. We’ll have to wait and see how it all turns out.

* I relied upon Wine Institute data for this 1987 date. According to the TTB’s website, the date of approval for Carneros was 1983.


A day in coastal California’s micro-climates

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It was 101 degrees in Calistoga yesterday when I left, around 4:30 p.m. By the time I reached St. Helena it was down to 94. Then 87 in Napa city. As I crossed the Benicia bridge, across the Carquinez Straights on the 101 freeway heading back to Oakland, I could see, there in the distance, a huge, glowering wall of dark gray hovering on the horizon. At first it looked like the smoke from a forest fire; but it wasn’t, it was the coastal fog.

Bigger and more looming it grew as I drove south. In Richmond, I entered the maelstrom. The blue sky, the picturesque distance disappeared into the gloom; Mount Tam, to the west, vanished as completely as if it had been wiped off the face of the world. The temperature dropped until it was 65 degrees: nearly 40 degrees lower than when I’d left Calistoga, just 1-1/2 hours before. The fog hung low through Albany and north Berkeley, then evaporated as I got to Oakland, where it was again sunny, and the temperature had gone back up to the mid-70s. This was as beautiful, as classic an illustration of Cailfornia’s summer coastal climate as you could possibly wish for. It’s why northern Calistoga specializes in Cabernet Sauvignon (good Charbono, too), why Carneros is good for Pinot Noir, and why the near East Bay is too cold for any serious grapegrowing.

I’d been in Calistoga for a visit and tasting (of various Pinot Noirs) at Atalon, which is part of Jackson Family Wines’ portfolio. It’s on Tubbs Lane; nearby are Summers, Chateau Montelena, Tamber Bey and others. This is the warmest part of Napa Valley, its northwestern-most pocket, where the cooling influence from the Bay pretty much fizzles out. Bo Barrett once told me that there’s something he calls “the Calistoga Gap”—no, not part of the clothing store chain, but a low place in the Mayacamas through which, he said, cooler air from the Russian River Valley funnels in, moderating the temperatures. This may be so; to get to Calistoga from the Russian River Valley (as I’d done that day), you drive east up Mark West Springs Road as it roller-coasters over the mountains, twisting and turning its way towards Highway 128/29. But it’s not clear to me that the Russian River Valley air can actually find its way “over the hill”, to any meaningful extent. Maybe one of my smart readers can explain this. (I had Gus beside me, in the passenger seat, and for a while he seemed like he might throw up, because his little tummy doesn’t do well on twisting mountain roads. But he didn’t.)

The Tubbs Lane part of Calistoga is a distinctive place. To my eye, it’s a bowl of sorts: not like Napa Valley further south, in, say, Oakville or Rutherford, where you have the mountains (Mayacamas and Vacas) neatly lining the western and eastern sides, with the valley broad and expansive inbetween, like the sheet on a bed. Along Tubbs Lane there seem to be mountains everywhere except to the south; it is thus more of an amphitheater. Mount St. Helena looms immediately to the east: this picture, taken at Atalon, only hints at its majestic presence.

StHelena

 

On the other side of the mountain, of course, is Lake County.

That 101 temperature yesterday in Calistoga shows how we’re in the midst of a long, severe heat wave here in California. That’s on top of the drought. The state has had some forest fires, but mainly in the Sierra Foothills and around Yosemite; the coast has largely been spared—so far. Everybody’s hoping it will continue to be. The heat is expected today—as I write these words—to be even worse than yesterday, not good news for anyone, including the grapevines that are so close to being harvested in record-early time.

Although it’s only August 1, I haven’t heard that growers are particularly worried. In fact, the scoop is that it will be another fine harvest, coming after 2012 and 2013. Lest anyone think vintage doesn’t matter in California, the evidence proves otherwise. At the Pinot Noir tasting at Atalon, which we did blind, we tasted through multiple Anderson Valley and Russian River Valley wineries, in two flights: the 2011 and 2012 vintages. There was no comparison. The 2011 flight contained some good wines but overall was disappointing. The 2012s by contrast were fat, lush, opulent. There wasn’t a single loser among them.

Have a great weekend!


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