There’s nothing quite like being a wine writer and hitting the road. Every trip I take begins with a sense of adventure and ends with a degree of exhaustion. Inbetween is all the fun stuff.
My most recent journey, from which I returned yesterday afternoon, was Santa Barbara County, where I spent four days. I like going to Santa Barbara for many reasons: it’s beautiful, the people there are very nice (both old and new friends), the weather is gorgeous, and above all the wines are very good. It always startles me, when I’m down there, to hear from vintners who are convinced the public at large and certain segments of the wine press remain ignorant of their wines. I don’t have a clue why that would be. Whatever the cause, it’s shameful, because Santa Barbara is an extremely important part of California’s coastal wine terroir, and it’s getting better all the time.
When you’re a writer visiting a region you can only get to two or three times a year, it’s vital to pack your schedule as fully as possible, to take advantage of every precious moment. That’s why I was on the go from breakfast through dinner, each day, with multiple stops at wineries inbetween. It all culminated in my big blind tasting on Saturday at Bien Nacido, where I went through about 80 wines that had been bagged for me by Chris and Dayna Hammell. He’s Bien Nacido’s general manager (I think that’s his title) and his wife, Dayna, is part of the team, and a more likeable, professional and helpful duo could not be imagined.
Eighty wines is a lot, for me anyway, so I needed to pace myself in the days leading up to the tasting. That required getting a good night’s sleep, which meant in some cases shortening the dinners (cutting out the dessert course isn’t a bad idea anyway), but I think my hosts understood; after all, they want me to be in good shape so that my judgment is sound, as much as I want to be in good shape. It may sound obvious, but it’s really unthinkable that a wine critic would taste wines when he or she is feeling lousy or tired. I’m sure it happens, but I wouldn’t want it to happen to me.
Of those eighty wines, perhaps one-third were Pinot Noirs, and many if not most of them were from either the Bien Nacido Vineyard or the Solomon Hills Vineyard, both of which are owned by the Miller family. The best way to taste wine is in flights of the same type, and the closer in origin the wines are, the better you can make minute judgments. In this case, all the wines were very closely related, so the quality differences between them stood out as clearly as if they’d been etched in stone. It also became clear afterward, as I debagged the wines, that some blocks in Bien Nacido are much better than others, and these are generally sold to longtime customers or, I think, to younger customers somehow lucky enough to get access to them. We all know that old saying “Great wine is made in the vineyard” and in the case of Bien Nacido it’s evident, but the vineyard is a large one, and some areas are better than others. The Pinot Noirs that came from these top blocks or rows clearly stood out above the others, not just in concentration but in complexity and overall balance. (Rick Longoria’s Bien Nacido Pinot was really great, even in that august crowd.)
After the tasting, my schedule mercifully permitted me to spend my last night, Saturday, alone, except, of course, for Gus. I’d earlier gone to one of my favorite roadside joints, Pappy’s, where the 101 hits Betteravia Road. Pappy’s is like stepping back to some retro 1950s era diner of big hair on waitresses wearing jeans perhaps wrapped a little too tight. There, I’d bought a gigantic chicken burrito to go (3 pounds? Felt like it) and taken it back to where I was staying in the Red House, right in the middle of Bien Nacido, where so many itinerant writers bed down for the night in simple but hospitable and certainly picturesque pleasure. As the sky darkened and the stars came out thicker than I’d seen them in years (Orion, directly overhead, shined as light as bulbs) I kicked back tired but happy, watched T.V. with Gus in my lap, and inhaled the better part of the burrito. I’d had quite enough wine; with my supper I drank Perrier.
If California has taught the world anything, and I hope and like to think it has, it’s that the first duty of a wine is to be delicious.
Not ageable. Delicious.
Some wine critics look at ageability as something desirable. They swoon over wines that are tannic, mute and stubborn in youth, rhapsodizing over what they will turn into some day—10, 20, 30 years down the road—when they become nectar. And sure, there’s a handful of wines in the world that do become special in old age
There are two flaws in this vision, though. The first is that the appreciation of old wine is an acquired taste. Most people who have never developed that particular esthetic would find an aged wine—I mean one that has actually developed bouquet and cellar character, not one that’s simply old—disagreeable.
The second fly in the ointment is this: Correct me if I’m wrong, but the entire notion of aging wine arose during the 1700s and 1800s (after proper bottles and stoppers were invented) because many of the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy were so tannic that they were basically undrinkable during their early years. The French figured out that if they lay the bottles on their sides, in a cool place where the temperature couldn’t do them any harm, those pesky tannins would eventually fall out. The wine then could be carefully decanted, with the sediment falling into the shoulder, and the resulting liquid would pour clear and sweet.
Do you think the French would have made less tannic wines if they’d possessed the ability to do so? I do. There was nothing particularly advantageous in having to store wine for so many years. It took up space, it required management, it was tedious, and the bottles developed notoriously unevenly. The French (and their English, Belgian, Swiss, Danish and other customers) just wanted something to drink that was, well, delicious. That they had to wait for years was simply an accident of technology: modern methods of tannin management, including developments in the vineyard and in the winery, didn’t yet exist.
Well, they do now. Take Napa Valley Cabernet. I’ve heard many French people say how tannic they find it, which is weird, because I think Grand Cru Bordeaux is really tannic. Regardless of who’s right or wrong on that score, Napa Valley Cabernet is tannic, because the grape’s thick skins make it so. But vintners have developed all sorts of ways to soften those tannins, fundamentally changing their molecular structure to make them feel silkier. The result, in a wine like (for example) Monticelllo’s 2008 Corley Reserve, is spectacular deliciousness. Nor is this yummy factor limited to Cabernet, as evidenced by (another example; I could have cited dozens) Roessler’s 2009 Hein Family Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the Anderson Valley, rich, glyceriney and delicious.
Had the Bordelais and Burgundians been able to produce wines like these, I’m positive they would have, and this whole notion of cellaring wines would never have assumed the proportions it has. An entire industry of refrigerated storage units and customized residential cellars might not even exist. But that’s not how things turned out. The French were utterly unable to manage their tannins, and so history took a different turn.
I sometimes think that the anti-California wine crowd out there has a problem with immediate gratification. They’re like Puritans who think life should be hard. Any joy, in the way of dancing, movies, sex, luxuriating in food and drink, is bad. It’s not just California wine they complain about, it’s the California style itself: hedonistic, sensuous, physically beautiful, playful, sexy, celebratory rather than stoical, fun. To condemn California for being all glittery surface and no substance is very old and widespread, but isn’t it always tinged with a little jealousy? Our wine, too, is criticized, but it has taught the world to see fruit in a different way that has improved wine everywhere.
Continued thanks to all of you who have taken the time to fill out my reader survey. I’m up to 205 responses, which is incredible. If you’d like to participate (it’s completely anonymous), you can click here to access it. I hope you will.
* * *
Can a Pinot Noir that’s blended from different vineyards be as good as or better than one from a single vineyard?
I asked that question years ago in my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, and I never did get around to answering it, for a good reason: there is no right answer. Several famous Pinot Noir winemakers told me the same thing. We all know that the most expensive Pinot Noirs do bear vineyard designations, but there’s no reason, in theory, why you couldn’t blend barrel samples from Anderson Valley, the Russian River Valley and the Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills and come up with something amazing.
Thought experiment: carefully make such a blend and then serve it, under blind tasting circumstances, to the proponents of terroir who insist they can tell a Sta. Rita Hills from a Russian River Valley with both hands tied behind their backs. Wouldn’t it be something if some great palate sniffed it and declaimed, “Aha! A blend of the North and Central Coasts!” But that’s the stuff of fiction.
At any rate, as I said, you could make such a blend, but then it would have to have the lowly “California” appellation on the label, and you know what that means: nobody would want it. Oh, there’s be a few sommeliers and critics here and there who raved about it, but most consumers would shy away, believing that a despised “California” origin on a wine means it probably comes from the Central Valley and isn’t any good.
This is why folks with access to grapes from up and down the coast, like Siduri, Loring and Patz & Hall, generally don’t make California-appellated Pinot Noirs, preferring the single-vineyard approach. (There are exceptions: Testarossa has a Cuvée Niclaire that’s a blend of their best vineyards and it’s also their most expensive Pinot. But Testarossa is decidedly the outlier here.) This is, of course, the Burgundian approach: your most expensive and theoretically “best” wines are your vineyard designates or blocks within vineyards. The communal wine is your next, less expensive tier, while your regional bottling (“Burgundy”) is your least expensive.
It’s not strange that the Californians borrowed from the Burgundian model, which itself is the product of that region’s particular history, culture and law. But it is worth considering that 12 different single vineyard Pinot Noirs, good as they may be, might not be quite as good as a wine made from blending them all together, which could even out some of the divots.
But these are angels-dancing-on-pinhead musings, and we can put them aside for the moment and consider just how interesting it can be when a talented winemaker gets his hands on fabulous grapes from different vineyards and, with hardly any care about how much money it takes, crafts Pinot Noirs from each of them of the highest quality. Who do you think of when reading these words? I think of Bob Cabral, at Williams Selyem, whose Fall releases I tasted yesterday.
My full reviews will appear in upcoming issues of Wine Enthusiast, so I won’t talk about them here today, except to say that there were 13 of them, and they were all 2010s. Most of the vineyards are ones that Bob has bought fruit from for a very long time (Allen, Rochioli Riverblock, Weir, etc.). Now, the 2010 vintage for Pinot Noir was heralded at the time (much as the 2012s are now being touted) because it was cool, and pundits predicted the grapes would get mature without the high alcohol that plagued earlier, warmer years. I’ve now tasted through many 2010 Pinot Noirs and can say that, while the cool weather did indeed result in relatively modestly alcoholic Pinot Noirs, some of them were marred by mold. I assume this was a case in which the winery didn’t do adequate sorting (which is very costly), so that moldy grapes passed into the fermenting tanks. The smell of a moldy wine (not TCA from corks, but more likely botrytis from dampness) is awful.
However, the best wineries have rigorous sorting regimes (which simply means they hire a lot of people to hand-sort through the grapes on a slow assembly line, picking out individual berries that look bad). And Williams Selyem certainly is one of the best wineries. In all thirteen wines there wasn’t a hint of mold. To the contrary, these are splendid Pinot Noirs. Some are more tannic than others, and will require aging. Some are so delicious, you can hardly keep your hands off them, but even the most delicious will age. (Bob and I went through 20-plus years of Allen last year and, while some vintages were weaker than others, it was clear that Allen is a wine for the cellar. But most of Bob’s vineyard designates are.)
Could Bob blend all 13 wines together and come out with something wonderful? Of course he could. He already does something like this with his “Westside Road” and “Eastside Road” Neighbors blends. These both are wines that can stand proudly beside their single vineyard (and more expensive) brethren (or sistren, as the case may be). Tasted blind, it would not surprise me if a seasoned critic preferred one of the Neighbors wines to one of the vineyard designates. I sat with Bob years ago when he was in his little office at the old Williams Selyem winery conducting trials to put together the first Westside Road Neighbors. It was a very informal process, taking little glass vials of the different barrel samples and blending them into a glass beaker. Had he tinkered with the blend on the day before or the next day, it undoubtedly would have been different. There’s an element of serendipity (or random chance) in such things.
But Bob Cabral has many compelling reasons for producing single-vineyard Pinot Noirs. They appeal to the intellect, especially of those with long association with the winery. The growers from whom he buys like seeing their vineyards’ names on a bottle of Williams Selyem wine. There also is, we must not forget, the commercial aspect, referred to above, whereby a winery can change more for a vineyard designate than for a wine with a regional or statewide appellation.
Of Bob’s 2010s, my nod goes to his Far Sonoma Coast Pinots: Hirsch and Precious Mountain. What exciting wines they are. I’ll be up in that neck of the woods next month, on an extended visit, my first in a few years. Can’t wait.
Further reflections on terroir: Does Pinot Noir show more of it than Cabernet Sauvignon? PLUS a reader survey
Before we get into terroir, I want to ask you to take a reader survey. You can click here to access it. My blog is 4-1/2 years old now, and it’s time for me to take it to the next level, whatever that is. The information this survey provides will help me enormously, and I’m grateful to you for taking a moment of your time. Rest assured, the information is completely anonymous. I’ll have no idea who you are. The survey software simply crunches the numbers I need. I’ll keep you posted on future developments. Thank you.
* * *
So does Pinot show more terroir than Cabernet? This question popped up in the comments section last week when I was exploring these issues of terroir. Then I got my latest copy of Anthony Dias Blue’s trade magazine, The Tasting Panel, in which the one and only Fred Dame, M.S., a former president of the Court of Master Sommeliers, has a conversation with his fellow M.S., Emmanuel Kemiji, whom I first met when he was wine director at the San Francisco Ritz-Carlton.
Emmannual made this remark:
Cabernet Sauvignon is a grape variety driven more by its character than where it comes from, quite unlike Pinot Noir.
When I read that, I went, Wow. When I was coming up in my wine education [early 1980s], everything I read–and I read a lot–addressed the importance of terroir in Bordeaux. The Classified Growths along the Haut Médoc were in the Goldilocks porridge geography of just right with respect to the Atlantic. They were far enough away from the marshy palus along the Gironde. The best growths were those with the best drainage. Haut-Brion was great because it sat on piles of gravel. And so on. Even within the individual communes, terroir showed its hand: Margaux were lighter and more elegant, Pauillac firm, Saint-Estephe tannic. For centuries Bordeaux–the region–defined Bordeaux–the wine–with its own inimitable character.
So how could it be that Cabernet is defined more by character than terroir?
And yet, the more I thought about it, the more I decided that, yes, Emmanuel is onto something. I’m not sure how he defines the “character” of Cabernet Sauvignon, but I would define the best of them from California (which is to say Napa Valley) as full-bodied, dry and tannic, with intense, spicy flavors to which oak often brings a hint of chocolate.
Having said that, the above description could apply to hundreds of California Cabernets, most of which are perfectly nice for drinking, but not major league. To achieve major league status, you have to have something more than merely that generic oak-aged Cabernet-y quality.
It’s not until you get to Napa Valley that you find that “something more.” Which isn’t to say there aren’t great Cabernets elsewhere, but they tend to be outliers. Napa sits in the sweet spot: warm-hot enough to get the grapes nice and ripe, yet not so hot as the Central Valley. Cool-foggy enough at night to preserve acidity, yet not as chilly as, say, Carneros. Another just-right case of Goldilocks porridge.
Cabernet does have powerful “character,” but just what it brings to Napa’s terroir, and vice versa, is ultimately unanswerable. They work in tandem. Each distinct area within the valley boosts them in different ways: Yountville will accentuate tannins and earth, Howell Mountain power-packs everything, Rutherford brings that dustiness and herbs and often pushes the black fruit into the red direction. Atlas Peak brings minerality, west Oakville perhaps the most opulent peacock’s tail of everything, Pritchard Hill that high-alcohol delirious headiness. Yet these are subdivisions of a single entity, Napa Valley, that you have to concede offers sublime Cabernet Sauvignon.
And then we come to Pinot Noir. Does Pinot, in and of itself, have less “character” than Cabernet Sauvignon, making it more contingent on where it’s grown? I suppose in one sense, that’s true, because Pinot is lighter and more delicate, which would suggest that it is a site-specific grape and wine.
But great Pinot Noir now comes from an extraordinary range of places, stretching along 500 miles or more of California coast, while we still have that anomaly of great Cabernet Sauvignon isolated in one small region, Napa Valley. So I’m not sure it’s true that Pinot Noir is more terroir-driven than Cabernet, unless you’re prepared to say that 500 miles of coast constitutes a single terroir. Moreover, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to tell the difference between, say, a Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir from a Santa Lucia Highlands or a Russian River Valley. (You can do it when you know what you’re tasting, but it’s much harder in a blind set-up.)
Still, I think I know what Emmanuel means because it’s that very lightness and transparency that make great Pinot Noir so exciting. In the end, though, I don’t think we have to compare Pinot and Cabernet and wonder which is more or less terroir-driven, more or less transparent, more or less susceptible to winemaker interventions, or which has more or less inherent character. It’s when we get into these angels-dancing-on-pinheads theological debates that we lose sight of the simple things: Napa Valley is great Cabernet terroir, coastal California is great Pinot terroir.
Please do my survey!
I’ve maintained for a long time that I like equally California’s two greatest red wine–Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. You can’t say that one is better than the other because it’s not. Two different wines, often starkly different, for different purposes, meant to drink with different foods (mostly. A char-broiled filet mignon will happily adapt to either).
But then I had the occasion to look at my scores over the past year in the database, and found that at the very highest levels–97 and above–there’s considerably more Cabernet than Pinot. Then, in the mid-90 point range, that dominance actually increases. It’s not until you get to the low 90s (still very good scores) that the scales even out, with Pinot showing up in slightly greater numbers than Cabernet.
I find this fascinating, because in numbers are contained patterns, and patterns reveal underlying truths that sometimes escape our casual eyes.
One reason why Cabernet gets more very high scores than Pinot Noir is because it’s relatively easier to make great Cab than to make great Pinot. Cabernet is a more forgiving grape for the winemaker. It’s less susceptible to vintage variations, weather and local micro-terroir perturbations, probably because of its thicker skins. That is to say, it’s not as transparent a reflector of its terroir as Pinot Noir.
There are many fabulous California Cabernet Sauvignons (and Bordeaux blends) and if they open themselves to the accusation of similarity (they all tend to feel and taste the same due to their international style), that feeling and taste nonetheless rank them among the top wines of the world. If you have a liking for this style (and I do), it’s easy to taste as many Napa Valley Cabs as I do and find yourself routinely awarding them exceptionally high scores. At the level we’re talking about–95 points and above–the distinctions between them are really very minor. One wine might score 97 one day, 96 the next day, 98 the day after, due to natural vagaries. This style of Cabernet has been heavily influenced by a variety of factors (names like Michel Rolland, David Abreu and Philippe Melka keep popping up), more proof of the old adages, (1) imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and (2) if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.
Pinot Noir on the other hand, as I stated, is transparent. What that means to me is that the slightest discrepancy is instantly perceived. It may have a little too much acidity, or a tiny bit of veggie. The mouthfeel can be off in some subtle but noticeable way. It could be over-oaked. Pinot Noir loves oak, but since it does tend to be delicate, all that sweet toast and vanilla can swamp it. You remember that old tale of the Princess and the pea? She was so physically sensitive that she was disturbed in her sleep by a tiny little pea buried underneath 20 mattresses and featherbeds. That’s how it is with Pinot Noir.
I think that accounts for the skew in scoring. Pinot just reveals its flaws in a way that Cabernet, being bigger and more tannic, doesn’t. Cabernet is not better than Pinot Noir at the highest levels in California, but there are considerably more great Cabernets than there are great Pinot Noirs. That seems destined to remain the case. California has found the best places to grow Pinot Noir. I don’t think there are any dark horses waiting to be discovered along the coast. This means that acreage of the top sites is tapped out, or will be within a few years. Cabernet Sauvignon on the other hand has plenty of room to grow. There are so many hospitable places for it beyond Napa Valley: Lake County and Happy Canyon, to name but two. I expect in ten years the ratio of great Cabs to great Pinots will be even greater than it is today, but perhaps, in a funny way, that makes coming across a great Pinot Noir even more exciting, because you know how rare it is.
A reader griped the other day that I was writing too much about social media and not enough about wine. So here goes!
These are my 5 top-scoring wines from three popular varieties over the past several months. (All reviews and scores have been published, either in Wine Enthusiast’s print Buying Guide, online, or both. I’ve scored other wines higher, but they haven’t been published yet.) Within each variety, I consider the commonalities that made the wines so great, to me.
98 Goldschmidt 2006 PLUS Game Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville); $150
97 Shafer 2007 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon (Stags Leap); $225
97 Cardinale 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $250
97 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 2008 Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $195
97 Yao Ming 2009 Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $625
2. from Napa Valley or its sub-appellations
3. relatively high in alcohol [minimum: 14.5%]
4. relatively low production
6. quality factors: richness, full-bodied, ripe, oaky, dense, appearance of sweetness, complexity
98 Merry Edwards 2009 Klopp Ranch Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $57
97 Donum Estate 2009 West Slope Estate Pinot Noir (Carneros); $100
96 Rochioli 2010 West Block Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $100
96 Marimar Estate 2008 La Masia Don Miguel Vinyard Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $39
96 De Loach 2009 Pennacchio Vineyard Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $45
1. All from Russian River Valley except Donum, which is on the Sonoma side of Carneros
2. alcohols within a narrow range [14.4-14.7]
3. production relatively low [maximum: Marimar Estate, 3,300 cases]
4. all show oak, but balanced
5. quality factors: juicy in acidity, medium-bodied [not too light or too heavy], rich in fruits [generally red stone and berry], dry, spicy, silky, elegant, approachable
99 Failla 2010 Estate Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast); $44
96 Lynmar 2010 Susanna’s Vineyard Chardonnay (Russian River Valley); $50
96 Roar 2010 Sierra Mar Vineyard (Snta Lucia Highlands); $45
94 Sandhi 2010 Rita’s Crown Chardonnay (Sta. Rita HIlls); $55
94 Matanzas Creek 2010 Journey Chardonnay (Sonoma County); $75
1. Geographically diverse, so no common origin
2. alcohol levels diverse, ranging from Sandhi (13.0%) to Matanzas Creek (14.6%)
3. all show well-integrated oak
4 quality factors: all made in the popular style: oaky, creamy, rich, flashy fruit, spicy, good balancing acidity
In Cabernet Sauvignon the address remains Napa Valley, most often the hills but not necessarily. And you get what you pay for. Also, great Cabernet can come from any vintage, regardless of its challenges.
In Pinot Noir, quality is considerably less tied to price: put another way, there are more bargains and also more overpriced ripoffs. Nor is geography as simple as with Cabernet: any of the coastal appellations can shine.
In Chardonnay, the same is true: great Chardonnay comes from the same areas as great Pinot Noir, with the single exception of Napa Valley, where very little reliably good Pinot Noir is produced. But then, I can remember a time when Napa Valley did produce interesting Pinot Noirs. The vines have all since been ripped out or budded over, victims of a critical mindset that determined Napa Valley cannot produce good Pinot Noir.