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Napa Valley Pinot Noir: gone, but not forgotten

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We were up at Freemark Abbey yesterday and some of the people who work there showed me some old bottles someone had found and brought to the winery. Among them was this bottle of Pinot Noir.

 

FreemarkPinot

Despite the “Selected Vintage” designation, it didn’t have a vintage date. But the thinking was that it could have been from the 1940s. Note that it has a California appellation.

Who knows what it really was? My first thought was that it probably wasn’t real Pinot Noir as we know it. Maybe Gamay Beaujolais, but actually, it could have been anything. Back then, there were no laws regulating the use of varieties on labels, so wineries could do whatever they wanted. Many wineries called any red wine that was lighter and more delicate than Zinfandel or Cabernet Sauvignon “Pinot Noir.” They could have called it “Burgundy”; many did.

Once upon a time, kids, Napa Valley produced quite a bit of Pinot Noir, or something called Pinot Noir, until the critics declared that Napa Valley Pinot Noir sucks, so they scared off anybody who had it or planned to try. I remembered a Pinot from the old Louis K. Mihaly Winery, a winery that has been almost completely eliminated from history. Frank Prial referred to it, in a 1988 New York Times column, as “also known as Silverado Cellars”; so did a 1989 LA Times article. Silverado Cellars, of course, is on the Silverado Trail, but in my memory, the Mihaly winery was on Highway 29, around St. Helena, in the early 1980s, when I liked their Napa Valley Pinot Noir so much, I bought half a case—a big purchase for a broke college student. But maybe my memory is playing tricks on me.

Years later, when I was writing A Wine Journey along the Russian River, Joe Rochioli, Jr., told me how he had gotten the cuttings for his first plantings of Pinot Noir, in 1968, for his Russian River Valley vineyard, from “this old grower in Napa Valley.” He couldn’t recall who it was; I’ve always wondered if it wasn’t Mihaly. But, seeing that Freemark Abbey bottle, maybe it was from Freemark, or whatever remained of the vineyards Freemark sourced .

Old bottles like that Freemark Pinot stir my imagination. So much history has been lost; so much is unrecoverable. It’s very sad. Most people don’t care about what happened before they were born. For some of us, a quirk in the brain, a peculiar wiring of our DNA, makes history irresistible. I love doing research, fitting the pieces of the puzzle together. Of course, not all the pieces can be found; but sometimes, enough of them can be gathered to being to paint a coherent picture.

Have a great weekend, and if you’re in California, stay dry! We’re in the throes of El Nino.


How does our taste in alcohol change over time?

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When I was a young man I didn’t care at all for wine, except for its obvious ability to make a college freshman (me) drunk. Years later, I learned to appreciate and eventually love wine. At first I sought out Cabernet Sauvignon because that was the wine all the critics at that time (the 1980s) said was the most important grape and wine, at least here in California.

At about that time I got my first wine writing job, at Wine Spectator, where they assigned me The Collecting Page, which appeared in every issue. My job was to write articles of interest to wine collectors. I got to know most of the top collectors in America (they all wanted to have their pictures and names in the magazine, so they returned my phone calls and in some cases they sought me out). One thing I learned about these wealthy, white, middle-aged men was that, almost to a person, they had started out with a preference for Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux, then graduated to Pinot Noir/Burgundy. That was my first intuition that our tastes in booze change over time.

Of course it’s well known that many people begin liking sweet wines and only gradually move onto dry table wines, so that’s another calibration in the booze evolutionary scale. With me, a love of Pinot Noir took some time, because there wasn’t very much decent Pinot in California, and I certainly couldn’t afford to buy good Burgundy. But by the mid-1990s there was enough good Pinot, from the likes of Williams Selyem, Rochioli and so on, that I learned to love it. However, I never loved it more than Cabernet. To me, they were separate, but equal.

However now my tastes are definitely changing. I’ve acquired, or I should say re-acquired, a taste for beer—good beer, craft beer, not the watery stuff produced by America’s gigantic brewers. I’m not sure why this has finally happened to me. Beer has an umami quality that I simply crave, especially for my first drink of the late afternoon. Maybe it’s the fizz.

I’ve also acquired a new-found appreciation for liquor, particularly vodka. Again, I can’t say why this is. My favorite is a gimlet: good vodka and freshly-squeezed limes. None of that sweet Rose’s, please, and if you happen to have a basil leaf, feel free to muddle it in, but not too much; the basil should be a subtle background taste.

This isn’t to say I don’t still appreciate wine. I certainly do. I continue to love a good, dry white wine, no matter where it’s from: California, Sancerre, Chablis. It’s in the matter of red wines that I find my bodily tastes changing the most. I can still appreciate a red wine, but it really has to be a very good wine. For me, red wines show their flaws more readily than any other wine; and the chief flaw is a certain heavy blandness that can come with an over-emphasis of fruit. Many, many California red wines suffer from this flaw; a little fruitiness goes a long way, and if the wine is out-of-balance in acids and tannins, the flaw is even more obvious. Another way of putting this is that I can appreciate a good beer, white wine or cocktail by itself, but most red wines are more difficult for me to enjoy unless they’re coupled with the proper food.

It’s funny, though, because I still find myself mentally rating wines, even though it’s going on two years (!!!) since I was a working wine critic. Old habits die hard. Take California Cabernet Sauvignon. There are lots of them I’ll score at 92, 93 points, even though they’re not particularly wines I care to drink, except, as I said, with the right foods. But there’s a twist: most of these big red wines call for beef, and I’m not much of a beef eater. (I think of lamb as a Pinot Noir food. Pigs and Pinot, as we say.) So even though my formal training is in rating and reviewing big red wines, and I’m pretty good at it, those same wines play less and less of a role in my private life.

I’ve also evolved to another more interesting point, at least for me. I’ve cellared wine since, like, forever! But I’m finally at the point where I’m starting to drink my older bottles. I figure, I’m not going to be here forever, and those special occasions I always fancied would justify popping the cork on a 15-year old wine seem to come a lot less frequently than they used to. So why wait? What’s the old saying, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

El Nino is starting to hit us here in California. One storm after another, with a biggie scheduled to roll in on Thursday. But the week beyond that is dry, and our state water officials are warning us, with some urgency, not to stop conserving just because the “monster” El Nino is coming. So we’ll just have to wait and see what January, February, March and April bring.


Is it possible to create a new cult wine?

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Some years ago (and I quoted her in New Classic Winemakers of California), Heidi Barrett told me that the success of Screaming Eagle surprised even her, the winemaker. It was like a “prairie fire,” she said: lightning struck ready ground, and the winery became a legend.

Recent developments and discussions have led to me inquire about the possibility of creating a new cult wine in California. A “cult wine,” of course, is one that is of relatively low production, that amasses, not jus good, but ecstatic reviews from the most influential critics, that has a “story,” and—bottom line—fetches the highest prices. The sanctum sanctorum of cult wines is a situation where the wine doesn’t even appear in retail contexts. In order to buy it, you must get on a waiting list for a mailing list.

Before analyzing how a cult wine might be created, let’s look at a few that already exist and see how they happened. I spoke of Screaming Eagle: before it became Screaming Eagle, it was just another Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Heidi Barrett was not then the ultra-famous consulting winemaker she has since become. Screaming Eagle’s location, off the Silverado Trail in east Oakville, was not considered the best. There was indeed a “lightning strikes” serendipity to the process that is very hard to explain.

Another cult winery is Saxum, which I also wrote about in New Classic Winemakers. Rhône blends from Paso Robles weren’t exactly cult darlings when young Justin Smith began his West Side project. It took some stellar reviews from top critics to launch him to the top. Ditto for Helen Turley at Marcassin, Williams Selyem and Rochioli, Manfred Krankl at Sine Qua Non, John Alban and, up in Washington State, Charles Smith and Cayuse. They would not be where they are today without the help of famous wine critics.

On the other hand, there are wineries that have spent tens of millions of dollars to produce quite respectable wines that, while very good, have not launched into cult status. They hired the most famous flying winemakers, the hardest-to-get viticulturalists and the most expensive P.R. firms, and still they remain on the almost-cult list. Napa Valley is replete with such examples. Could it be that the era of the cult winery is over—that it’s not possible to make a new one from scratch?

That is a plausible theory. The field is so crowded that it hardly seems to have room for yet another cult wine. A younger generation is not as interested in them as were their parents and grandparents. A meme has swept the country, along the lines of “Just because it’s expensive and gets high scores doesn’t make it better.” In fact, people, especially below the age of 30, understand that to some extent the system is rigged. They may not know the details, but their cynicism has been sharpened by exposure to a U.S. media that seems to advance people and things for its own purposes, rather than for the general well-being. In this sense, it would be very, very difficult if not impossible to make a new cult wine.

On the other hand are a couple of traits of human nature. One is that we seek novelty. Even cult wines gradually lose their appeal; I could name several that have over the last twenty years. Wine people are notoriously fickle. They are also are notoriously insecure, which is why wine critics are so easily able to influence them. Since we still have wine critics—and are likely to into the future—there is the distinct possibility that “the critics” (whoever they are) could anoint a new cult wine anytime they choose to do so. Yes, the Baby Boomer critics are leaving the scene but, as I have long predicted, they’re being replaced by a younger generation (Galloni is the prime example) that’s as influential as ever. Meanwhile, the most important wine magazines and newsletters maintain their critical power; even if their newer writers aren’t as well-known as Parker or Laube, they retain the power of the Score. So we still have the infrastructure in place to create new cult brands.

What varieties are most likely to be the new cult wines? Pinot Noir for sure. In my opinion, its future is unlimited; someone, somewhere, is going to make a single-vineyard Pinot Noir that rockets to the top. Cabernet and red Bordeaux blends are more problematic. There are so many; the market is so saturated. I suppose if a First Growth started a new Napa Valley winery (the way Petrus, or rather Christian Moueix, did at Dominus), the media at least would be waiting with baited breath for the first release, and if they universally praised it, it could soar to the top. But that’s unlikely. Nor is it likely that there will be a cult Chardonnay or Zinfandel. What about Syrah? It’s poised for a comeback. Growers are putting in new plantings in the best coastal locations, especially along the Central Coast. Prices for grapes are up. In selected locales, Syrah and red Rhône blends are doing very well, hand-sold by gatekeepers to audiences who don’t seem to be aware of, or care about, the conventional wisdom that red Rhônes are dead. So, of all the varieties, I think Syrah, or a Syrah-based Rhône blend, is in the best position to give birth to that rarest baby in the wine world, a cult wine.


A great Pinot Noir tasting

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Farallon, the popular seafood restaurant in San Francisco’s Union Square, is having their annual PinotFest taating of Pinot Noir this November 20, and I’m already champing at the bit. Look at this list: Alma Rosa, Archery Summit, Au Bon Climat, Bonaccorsi, Byron, Calera, Charles Heintz, Chehalem, Cobb, Costa de Oro, Domaine de la Côte, Domaine Drouhin, Drake, En Route, Ernest, Etude, Failla, Fiddlehead, Flowers, Foxen, Freeman, Gloria Ferrer, Greenwood Ridge, Handley, Hartford Family, Hendry, Hitching Post, Joseph Phelps, Keller Estate, Kendric, Kosta Browne, LaRue, Littorai, Lutum, Lynmar, Marimar Estate, Melville, Merry Edwards, Morgan, Patz & Hall, Paul Hobbs, Paul Lato, Peay, Radio Coteau, Reuling, Saintsbury, Siduri, Sinor-LaVallee, Soliste, Soter, Talisman, Talley, Tendril, Testarossa, Thomas Fogarty, Twomey, Wayfarer, Whitcraft, WillaKenzie, Williams Selyem.

Wowee zowee. That is Pinot heaven. I might have added some more wineries, but hey, you can’t have everything.

I asked myself, What if I’d been invited to a similar tasting, but of the best California Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux blends instead of Pinot Noir. Would my enthusiasm be as high? And the truth is, I had to answer in the negative. Sure, I’d go to a great Cab tasting—happily, willingly—and I’d have a ball while I was there. But, somehow, my excitement wouldn’t be as great.

Why is that? Well, it’s just me, of course: Maybe you, or someone else, would be more turned on by a Cab tasting than a Pinot tasting. As I scrape my brain trying to understand why the Pinot event is more exciting for me, I keep returning to the word “delicate.” To say that Pinot Noir is a more delicate wine than Cabernet Sauvignon is obvious. Is that what the explanation is? Maybe it’s because I can anticipate tasting through a few dozen Pinots without palate fatigue, as might be the case with Cabernet Sauvignon. The alcohol level tends to be lower in Pinot, the tannins certainly are, and the acidity tends to be a little higher. Pinot Noir is never, or should never be, full-bodied, as Cabernet always should be. Maybe my palate just doesn’t want to do all that heavy lifting anymore.

And maybe part of my excitement is because I’ve been witness to the rise of Pinot Noir in California. What a thrilling ride it’s been! What a privilege to have been here “at the beginning” (well, since the late Seventies, anyway) and been able to see, and participate in, this amazing evolution, from a starting point where everyone—and I do mean all the then-important critics—insisted that fine Pinot Noir was impossible to grow in California. Everybody believed that—except for fanatics like Dick Graff, Richard Sanford, Joe Rochioli, Jr., Josh Jensen, Burt Williams and Ed Selyem (am I missing anyone?), true believers who refused to be deterred from their vision quest. Mazel tov to the Pinot-neers! (I just coined a neologism that deserves to be quickly interred.)

It’s very important for people who want to keep up with the evolution of our wines in California to go to tastings like this. It’s so easy to develop a cellar palate. It’s true that I work for a wine company, Jackson Family Wines, that produces a range of Pinot Noirs from different wineries; but I don’t always get to taste them all, nor do I get to taste any California wines with the breadth and depth I used to, when I was the wine critic at Wine Enthusiast, and the wines came cascading in every day. So I’m very grateful to Farallon for hosting this annual event. I’m assuming that “everybody who’s anybody” in San Francisco is going to be there. I’ll be looking forward to seeing some old friends, and making new ones. But you know what? I’ll also be missing the many faces that aren’t there, because they’ve passed onto that Great Big Tasting Room in the sky.

Well, that’s making me a little weepy, so let me just wish you all a pleasant weekend. I’ll be right here next week.


A busy week

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Off to Willamette Valley today, my first trip there in many years. This is to check out some of Jackson Family Wines’ vineyard holdings. Yesterday, after a brief meeting at JFW in Santa Rosa, I zoomed back to Oakland to get to BART to go to San Francisco for a greatly anticipated meeting with California Lieutenant-Governor Gavin Newsom. I’ll be doing a Q&A with him on the blog early next week, when I get a chance to transcribe our long interview. Then, on Thursday, it’s the final baseball game of the year, Giants versus Dodgers, with old pal Jose Diaz. On Friday, another tasting with my JFW family, this time of Santa Rita Hills Chardonnays. So it’s been and will be a busy week.

I will offer this little peek into my conversation with Governor Newsom. (“Governor” actually is the proper honorific; not “Lieutenant-Governor.”) He is very optimistic about the future of the wine, food and entertainment industries in California, which is why his PlumpJack Group of companies is rapidly expanding.

Gav

People, especially younger ones, want to enjoy the good life, and in coastal California, the good life is all about eating and drinking well, with friends, in a companionable atmosphere. Throw in a little music and dancing, and that’s it! I remember when I moved to San Francisco, longer ago than I care to remember. I was young, happy, and had a little money. There was nothing better than being with pals, out on the town at night, laughing and having a great time. Of course, the problem now is that, in the late Seventies and Eighties, you didn’t need a lot of money to have fun in San Francisco. Now, you do. Even so, I knew people at that time who remembered the San Francisco of the 1950s and 1960s, and who complained that the City was changing too fast, was becoming too expensive, etc. etc.

So some things never change. San Francisco always is in the process of becoming. People move there, fall in love with it, and want it to stay exactly the same as it was in their glory days. Not going to happen. Nothing stays the same. I’ll venture a prediction: Twenty years from now, that technie who’s now in his 20s is going to gripe about how the San Francisco of the 2030s isn’t the same as it used to be! But San Francisco, whenever you move there, always retains its charm, its hold on you, its power to mesmerize you into thinking it’s the center of the Universe. Well, of the West Coast, anyway.

Anyhow, I’m looking forward to my visit to Willamette Valley. In our Pinot Noir tastings, the Willamette Pinot Noirs really dazzled me. If I had to choose a favorite, from all the appellations that we blind-tasted over six months, I’d have to say that Anderson Valley and Willamette were the standouts. I think it was because, as the most northerly in latitude, both of those regions offered earthy, mushroom and forest complexities to the fruit. They were the most “intellectual” Pinot Noirs. I always feel funny using that word, because it suggests that you have to think about the wines, not just enjoy them. Nothing could be further from the truth. But if you’re the sort of wine drinker who enjoys thinking about the wines you’re drinking, because they have so much going on, then they’re for you.

 

Have a great day!


A roundup of my Pinot Noir tastings, and now, here comes Chardonnay

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At our weekly tastings at Jackson Family Wines, we’ve now finished with West Coast Pinot Noir and are ready to tackle Chardonnay.

I started Pinot many months ago with a roundup of wines from Santa Maria Valley. After that, in order going northward, came Santa Rita Hills, San Luis Obispo (Edna and Arroyo Grande valleys), Monterey County, the Santa Lucia Highlands and Chalone, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Carneros (both Napa and Sonoma), Russian River Valley, the “true” Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley and, finally, Willamette Valley.

What did I find after this intensive tour de force?

All West Coast Pinot Noir is more alike than not. This is not to discount variations in alcohol level, ripeness and so forth; merely to ascertain that Pinot Noir, made competently in California and Oregon, has a character of delicacy, soft tannins, bright acidity and a juicy berry-ness that persists through changes in terroir and winemaking technique.

Still, there are broad differences. To me, Santa Maria Pinot Noir is characterized by black and blue fruits, brown spices, acidity and minerality. Santa Rita Pinot is balanced and complex, also with acidity but somehow more generous when young. San Luis Obispo Pinot can be variable: Edna Valley has varietal purity, Arroyo Grande ageability, in the best cases. Monterey County-appellated Pinots are simple but can be good values. Santa Lucia also is variable, depending on north or south; the wines are full-bodied and dense. Of Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir, it is difficult for me to judge, since there is so little, and what there is is scattered over vast differences of terroir. Carneros Pinot Noir is earthy and minerally and sometimes soft; newer plantings are helping to increase quality. Russian River Pinot Noir is another case study in difficulty of specificity, since the appellation is so broad. In general, it is rich and balanced, often veering towards cola, sassafras and winter fruits (persimmons and pomegranates), and the best are classic. Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir is just beginning to declare an identity, and what a glorious one it is: wild, feral and intricate, and, at the top levels, spectacular. Anderson Valley possibly triumphs over all its southern neighbors in sheer balance and harmony, especially in great vintages, like 2012 and 2013; but there is so little of it, quantity-wise. Up in Oregon, Willamette Valley Pinot, equally as vintage-driven as Anderson Valley, is the most “Burgundian” of American Pinot Noirs, with earthy, mushroom and tea notes. My most recent tasting of them blew me away. Anyway, what an exciting six months this has been for us tasting freaks!

And now here comes Chardonnay. I’ll round the wines up in the same south-to-north geographic order, starting again with Santa Maria Valley. How do I chose which wines to include in our tastings? It’s purely arbitrary, although there is a method to my madness. Since I can’t have every wine from each appellation, I have to pick and choose. My first parameter for choosing is my own experience: I select wines I’ve reviewed for many years and have given good scores to. I’m also interested in wines I haven’t tasted (at all, or recently), if a publication I regard gives them good scores. For example, the October 2015 issue of Wine & Spirits has a “Year’s Best Chardonnay” section that will give me some guidance. Many of these wines are not available on the current market, but I keep my fingers crossed and hope that, when I call the winery and identify myself, I have just enough name recognition remaining (after being largely out of circulation for 1-1/2 years) to wangle myself a bottle.

Since I’ve been doing a lot of phone and website ordering of wines lately, I’ve encountered an aspect of the direct-to-consumer experience that I wasn’t very familiar with. Critics mainly depend on tasting samples being sent to us, which means we don’t have to hit the telephone and the Internet the way “ordinary” consumers do to buy wine. I must say that, by and large, the DTC system works quite well. Most wineries seem to use the same software (shopping carts, proceed to checkout, etc.), and it’s really easy and intuitive to use. The main problem is wineries who, deliberately or through ignorance, make it almost impossible to get in touch with them. There have been one or two instances where the phone tag got so severe that I gave up trying to obtain the wine. Why would a winery make it so hard for me to buy their wine? It is a mystery.

One other frustration: The rules concerning sending wine, even in-state here in California, are confusing when it comes to the details of how UPS, FedEx, GSO and other shippers work. I’m sometimes told that FedEx and GSO will not deliver wine to me at my local UPS Store—even though they have been doing just that for years. Some wineries tell me they’re not allowed to send wine overnight. What’s up with that, if I’m willing to pay for it? These rigidities all are the residue of Prohibition, that stupid “experiment” when alcoholic beverages were considered “demons” and their transport within the country was made almost impossible.

Anyhow, on to Chardonnay, still #1 in America after all these years. There’s a rumor going ‘round that says vintners are making it more “balanced.” That means, I suppose, picking it less ripe. That’s fine, but the risk is turning Chardonnay into a lean, green machine, instead of the opulent wine I, and most other people, like. As usual, it’s a balancing act.

TO ALL OUR FRIENDS WHO ARE SUFFERING FROM THE VALLEY FIRE: This is truly awful. Our hearts and prayers go out to you.


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