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California AVAs as splintered broomsticks in “Fantasia”

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The Federal government, in its bureaucratic wisdom, is exhaustive in spelling out the rules and regulations concerning American Viticultural Areas, defining everything from the percentage of grapes required to originate from the AVA to the point size of the appellation on the label. So complex has the process become that the Tax and Trade Bureau, the responsible agency, issued a 27-page Manual for Petitioners.

But there’s one thing that TTB does not and cannot do, and that is to describe the organoleptic qualities a particular AVA should have. Nowhere in the Manual will you find a description of, for instance, what the Cabernet Sauvignons of Happy Canyon ought to taste like, much less how (or if) they differ from the Cabernets of Paso Robles or Atlas Peak.

Petitioners to the government, who wish to establish a new AVA, need to document all sorts of things: not only where the proposed boundaries are, but upon what criteria they were established; how and why the proposed name is “appropriate”; whether or not the proposed name could be confused by consumers with existing brand names; how the AVA’s “distinguishing features” differentiate it from surrounding areas, and so on. So extensive are all these regulations that AVA petitioners usually must hire professionals to prepare the paperwork, and the process itself lasts for years.

Wine writers, of course, have a different set of concerns. We like knowing about the technical stuff (that’s why they call us geeks), but above and beyond everything else, we insist on trying to understand just what it is about any particular AVA that expresses itself in the resulting wines. This understanding can be elusive; it’s the stuff of endless seminars and studies, none of which is ever conclusive and probably never can be. Call it the Wine Writers Full Employment Act: as long as there are AVAs, there will be people struggling to analyze them. Including me. My latest excursion into AVA Land is with the upcoming Pinot Noir Summit, where, after some back and forth with the organizers, I finally decided on this topic for my panel: Carneros vs. Russian River Valley: Is there a difference?

It sounds a little simplistic, but the best questions are the most fundamental ones. After all, if there’s not a difference between two neighboring appellations, then why bother with appellations in the first place?

I doubt if we (the panelists and the audience) will arrive at any firm conclusions, but that doesn’t prevent the exercise from being fun and informative. Myself, I have a generalized sense of Carneros Pinot Noir with respect to Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. In my mind, the former wines are more acidic, lighter in body, earthier and more minerally than the latter wines, which tend to be bigger, richer and heavier. This is mainly due to Carneros being cooler than most of the valley, and also to its soils, which have large quantities of water-retaining clay.

But the devil is in the details. The Carneros appellation spreads from the flatlands alongside San Pablo Bay (which I think of as bas Carneros) to the foothills of the lower Mayacamas (haut Carneros), meaning that soils and temperatures can vary significantly. Meanwhile, the Russian River Valley itself shows huge terroir differences, the most important of which being that the climate varies significantly from the cooler, foggier southern portions to the warmer, drier area along Westside Road.

Thus the effort to discern regional distinctions will be hampered. This difficulty is made all the more problematic by winemaking techniques (especially picking decisions), which vary from winery to winery and can mask the wine’s underlying terroir.

Do you remember the broomstick scene from the 1940 Disney movie, Fantasia? It’s one of the most remarkable feats of animation ever. Mickey Mouse “borrows” the Sorcerer’s hat and makes a broomstick come to life to perform his chores. Alas, the broomstick does the work a little too well: the next thing Mickey knows, he’s drowning. Attempting to stop the broomstick, Mickey takes a hatchet to it, and chops. And chops. Each splinter turns into a new broomstick that ruthlessly, robotically, mechanically repeats the original broomstick’s function–until Mickey finds himself in a nightmare, saved only by the sudden reappearance of the Sorcerer, who reclaims his hat, and all is well, except that a chastened Mickey has to resume his work.

I sometimes feel AVAs are like that broomstick. They metastasize endlessly; currently, no fewer than 14 new ones are pending in California alone, on top of the hundred-plus we already have. And just as Mickey was overwhelmed with all those marching broomsticks, the poor wine writer sometimes flounders to understand all of California’s AVAs.

No doubt a technical case can be made for each, but from a terroir point of view, it can be very hard to detect a rationale. One likes to think there is a rationale. If we can’t discern the rationale (we tell ourselves), it’s not because there isn’t a defining terroir, it’s because we are insufficiently qualified to find it. We thus take the burden of proof onto ourselves. Which is why I’m doing this Carneros vs. Russian River panel. It obviously won’t be definitive, but it might get us a little closer to the truth.


Friday fishwrap: mediocre wines, an upcoming Pinot tasting, and props to Von Strasser

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I’ve given brutal scores lately to some expensive wines, most of them new entrants to the California marketplace. When a wine costs $40, $50 or more, and it’s not even as good as some other wine that costs $15, it gets me irked.

Of course, I can’t allow my emotions to enter into my scores. But if you read between the lines of my reviews, you might occasionally glimpse a certain dismay.

This is the critic’s conundrum. We’re only human. We get dazzled by great wines, even if they’re hugely expensive. Sometimes, I have to hold myself back a little in praising a great wine, or risk being accused of score inflation, which I believe is an issue that has not been seriously addressed. On the other hand, it’s easy to get bored with mediocre wines, which dominate every region no matter how famous.

I always wonder if a winemaker or proprietor who’s putting out a $50 bottle of wine that scores 84 points knew in advance that the wine was mediocre. Maybe they did, and cynically released it anyway, knowing that people will buy it because of its pretty label, or at the tasting room, or whatever. On the other hand, maybe they didn’t. It would be a huge mistake to assume that all winemakers have good palates. I know some who put out mediocre wine year after year after year. (Why they still send me samples, when they have good reason to know I don’t like their style, is a riddle to me. It’s that old definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result.)

* * *

Speaking of winemakers, I’m getting ready to assemble my panel for March 9th’s Pinot Noir Summit, at the Golden Gate Club, in San Francisco’s Presidio National Park. I haven’t decided on a theme yet, but am tinkering with the notion of regional differences between the southern Russian River Valley (including Green Valley) and Fort Ross-Seaview. In general, the south valley is chillier and foggier, because it’s low-lying and gets a strong push of maritime influence coming up from the Petaluma Gap. Most of the Fort Ross-Seaview vineyards, on the other hand, lie at altitudes above the fog line, so they bask in sunshine while their sister vines down in the valley are swathed in fog. You’d expect this situation to express itself clearly in the Pinot Noirs from both regions, and it does: valley wines are darker and more tannic on release, while Fort Ross Pinots tend to be more accessible early. I don’t think either is more ageable than the other; I wouldn’t mind having a couple cases of Flowers alongside a couple cases of Joseph Swan in my cellar.

Finding themes for public tastings can be challenging. There’s a tendency on the part of some people to make the topics too geeky, but it’s my impression that the public gets bored with abstruse discussions of technique. People want fairly simple, accurate information, in an easy-to-digest form. They don’t want to wade through the intricacies of grape chemistry, irrigation, maceration techniques and tannin management. A little of that goes a long way. They also want personality: not all good winemakers are good panelists (and not all good panelists are good winemakers!). A few years ago, I had a certain winemaker on one of my panels and he/she was as boring as a doorknob. Won’t make that mistake again.

* * *

A quick word of praise in passing for Von Strasser’s latest batch of Cabernet Sauvignons from their Diamond Mountain estate. Great wines, and all the more impressive for coming from a 2011 vintage that was as challenging as any in memory. These wines show the importance of well-drained mountain vineyards in a cold year, and of vigorous pruning and sorting decisions. Of the six new ‘11s, I gave my highest score to the Estate, but Spaulding, Sori Bricco, 2131, Post and the regular ’11 Cab weren’t far behind. All are ageable. I don’t think Von Strasser gets the recognition they deserve, but they should.

Have a great weekend!


Sideways is ten years old!

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Can it really have been ten years since Sideways came out?

Yup. It was in 2004 that the movie hit the big screen. I remember going to see it–if there was ever a “must-see” film for a wine critic, Sideways was it. To tell you the truth, I didn’t care all that much for it at the time. I was a bit peeved that it made the Miles character such an a-hole; since he was “the wine guy,” I identified with him, and I thought he made people who were passionate about wine seem neurotic, even petulant and infantile. (Maybe we are.)

But with the passage of time I’ve come to think more highly of Sideways. I recently saw it again and thought that it really is quite a pleasant flick. But I still admire and respect it more for its historical import than for its filmic values.

Did Sideways prove to be the impetus behind Pinot Noir’s startling rise to fame? On the “yes” side is the testimony of Santa Barbara County vintners who say they saw their sales soar in the months following the movie’s release. Tourists allegedly flocked to the Santa Rita Hills in droves, buying Pinot like there was no tomorrow.

On the “no” side, though, is ample evidence that Pinot Noir already was happening in America, and it was only a matter of time before it achieved superstardom. Maybe it would have taken a few years longer without Sideways, but Pinot was well on its way. Plantings were increasing in all the vital coastal appellations, from Santa Rita Hills up through the Central Coast to Sonoma County and into Anderson Valley. Critics–those who were paying attention–already had taken notice of Pinot’s charms. It was obvious to me: Well before Sideways, going back to the 1990s, I’d given extremely high scores to the likes of Belle Glos, Fiddlehead, Lynmar, Dutton-Goldfield, Patz & Hall, Goldeneye, Talley, Laetitia, Lazy Creek, Acacia, Testarossa, Gary Farrell, Williams Selyem, Rochioli, Merry Edwards, Fort Ross Vineyard, Hanzell, Longoria, Ancien, Tandem (miss them), Iron Horse, MacRostie, Mondavi Reserve and many others.

Has Pinot Noir changed in the last ten years? I don’t think all that much, not at the high end. The invasion of the Dijon clones already had occurred, bringing in that purity of fruit. There may be a slight tendency lately to consciously strive for lower alcohol [i.e. below 14%], but that may also partly be due to the 2010 and 2011 vintages being cool ones. Certainly the wines today seem cleaner and more focused; I hardly ever detect brett anymore (not the worst thing anyway, in small doses). And the best wineries remain rigorous in sorting out bad berries and bunches.

What has changed, though, is that the mosaic of individual wineries, working at great distances from each other (Anderson Valley is 500 miles north of Santa Barbara) is turning into a clearer image of coastal terroir. It’s amazing, when you think about it, that Burgundy is such a concentrated place; it’s only 75 miles from Dijon to Macon. Whereas we have in California that 500 mile stretch–and if you add Oregon to the equation (also a coastal winegrowing area) it’s more like a thousand mile stretch, of superb Pinot Noir terroir. Surely that must be unique in the world of wine.

The excitement of that post-Sideways moment has died down, probably a good thing, as it had become a bit of a fad to drink Pinot Noir, and fads always are eventually replaced by newer fads. Pinot Noir has proven to be no mere fad. The wine has taken its place in the pantheon of great California wines, in fact great world wine. How cool is that. And how interesting that it occurred just at the same moment in the evolution of California’s gastronomic culture as did our incorporation of practically every ethnic cuisine in the world (certainly those around the Pacific) into our foods. I don’t think there’s a better red wine anywhere to drink with everything from Vietnamese and Mexican to barbecue, Italian, French, Afghan, Chinese, fusion, modern American, you name it. Cabernet, with its heavier tannins, is not the most versatile red wine. Pinot Noir, pure silk and satin, and brimming with acidity, is.

The next step, one that will take a while, is to determine Pinot Noir’s ageworthiness. The oldest wines from many top wineries are not yet old. We need to see if the 2012s, which haven’t even started appearing yet in serious quantities, are 10 year wines, 15 year wines, 25 years wines, or even older. There’s no reason why some of them shouldn’t be. But I’ll leave it to a future generation of wine writers to figure that out!


Upcoming Pinot Noir and Chardonnay events to check out

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The Chardonnay Symposium, with which I’ve been associated, has new ownership and a new location that will make it easier for Northern Californians to go. The details are still being worked out, including those of the panel I’ll be moderating, but here’s the basic 4-1-1: instead of being held at Byron Winery, in the Santa Maria Valley, the event is moving up the coast to the Dolphin Bay Resort & Spa, whose official home city is Pismo Beach, but it’s actually in little Shell Beach, just to the north–and by coincidence is right next door to The Cliffs Resort, which was the longtime home of World of Pinot Noir, until WOPN decided to move south this year to Santa Barbara and into Bacara Resort. As you know, I’ll be “the official blogger” again of WOPN.

This bit of musical chairs is interesting because it sheds light on the evolution of wine events. WOPN’s directors for years had been talking about moving into a bigger, more urban locale, in order to accommodate more people, and Bacara certain fulfills that requirement. Meanwhile, The Chardonnay Symposium, which consciously patterned itself after WOPN, similarly waited for the day that the rather austere, amenity-less Santa Maria Valley would no longer be big enough to accommodate it; and, that day having arrived, its officials made the decision to move to Shell Beach. Maybe in ten years, The Chardonnay Symposium will move to a big Santa Barbara hotel-resort, or even up to San Francisco. You never know.

Choosing a topic for an event panel always is a challenge. You don’t want it to be too geeky-technical because that would bore a lay audience (and, to be quite honest about it, geeky panels bore a lot of winemakers, too). On the other hand you don’t want the topic to be too broad and simplistic. You have to find something in the middle. Last year, our topic was unoaked-vs.-oaked Chardonnay, one I did not choose personally but did my best to make interesting. I don’t think it was the most stimulating topic ever; if I was rating it, I’d give my panel 88 points. This year, we’re still talking about the topic. At any rate, we’ll try to get the best winemakers we can, so attendees will be able to meet some superstars and taste their Chardonnays.

I’ve also agreed to be part of this year’s Pinot Noir Shootout & Summit. Details are extremely sketchy, but I’ll be talking about it when I find out more. I think our topic will differing styles of California Pinot Noir. I broadly classify the variety into two styles: lighter, lower-alcohol wines and darker-colored, fuller-bodied ones. I do not favor one over the other. Both have their uses at the table, and both are ageworthy, provided they’re balanced to begin with.

It’s funny that there’s no major statewide event for Cabernet Sauvignon. But how could there be? Anything that Napa Valley does (e.g., Premiere Napa Valley) is pretty much the equivalent of a statewide Cabernet event, so identified has that single appellation become with that wine type. I’ll be at Premiere too, and hope to see lots of winemakers there.

A final word about that Multifamily Social Media Summit I spoke at on Wednesday evening. First off, it was really interesting to explore this sub-culture of housing specialists. Who knew such a thing existed? But housing, of course, is a huge industry, and I felt right in the middle of its vital center for the few hours I hung out with those nice folks in Santa Rosa. They’re just getting into social media–how to use it in their jobs–and between me and the other speaker, Siduri’s Adam Lee, they definitely got some offbeat perspective. It was from the points of view of two people in the wine industry, with very different jobs but a common interest in social media. Hopefully, the housing people were able to extrapolate our experiences and advice and incorporate it into their own needs.

Have a great weekend!


Wednesday wraparound: World of Pinot Noir, and Hearty Burgundy

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Once again the World of Pinot Noir is happening, the 14th annual. Pinot Noir producers and lovers will again gather for two days of sipping and savoring under the sun, except this year, for the first time, WOPN will no longer be held at its ancestral home, the The Cliffs Resort, in Shell Beach Instead, the event is moving south, to the Big City of Santa Barbara, and the luxury Bacara Resort and Spa. WOPN has outgrown its humble origins for fancier digs.

There had been talk for many years of migrating away from Shell Beach and “growing” WOPN. Not being on its board of directors, I wasn’t privy to the internal discussions. But I was close to the event (having gone from Day One) and close, too, to people within it. The move was delayed, I think, not because it didn’t make sense to find a larger venue, closer to a major population center, but due to simple inertia. The Cliffs was a really nice place to hang out for a couple days. Their staff did a great job handling the event. The weather almost always cooperated along that stretch of the Central Coast (which actually can boast the nation’s best weather in winter). It was nostalgic to return every year to Shell Beach, to the dog-friendly Cliffs, to have breakfast every morning at Marisol (I always sat next to the fireplace) and hang out on the terrace at night, drinking awesome Pinot Noir and Burgundy. It must have been hard for the organizers to say bye-bye to Shell Beach. But it had to be done.

And once again, this year I am “official blogger of World of Pinot Noir,” as I was last year. Woo hoo! In practice this means I’ll blog about it from time to time. Yes, this is a quid pro quo: They give me lodging (although not at Bacara itself) and waive the price of admission to all events.

The reason I like WOPN is because I like Pinot Noir. Not just the wine, but the culture it fosters. Pinot Noiristes are special people, different from Cabernet makers in important and not-so-subtle ways. Cabernet makers always seem a little snootier than Pinot makers. Maybe this is because Bordeaux–the city and its environs–is considerably more buttoned-up than Burgundy. In Bordeaux, the chateaux are elaborate Beaux Arts palaces whose sound construction suggests old, distinguished money. Burgundy by contract is a simpler place, more rural, less visibly defined by cash. This dichotomy has transferred to California. Pinot Noir winemakers seem less self-conscious, more connected to the earth, than Cabernet winemakers. They wear clothes more like mine. They’re no less serious than Cabernet vintners, but more approachable, and perhaps a little less sure of themselves. It’s almost as if Cabernet makers know they’re at the top of their game (I mean, where do you go from Harlan?), while Pinot makers have the attitude of, “Hey, I’m not even close to figuring this out!”

WOPN has grown up, and it’s been a pleasure to grow beside it. From a little Central Coast event it’s become a worldwide showcase. WOPN isn’t as big as the International Pinot Noir Celebration, nor will it ever be in all likelihood. But it is the biggest Pinot Noir event in California (and hence the second biggest in America) and I am glad to be able to return.

* * *

Speaking of Pinot Noir–well, Burgundy–E&J Gallo has announced that this is the 50th anniversary of their Hearty Burgundy.

Surely HB is one of the most famous wines ever in America. Can you come up with another, home-grown? I used to drink a lot of that wine, and I’m sure lots of other people did. I didn’t know what grape varieties were in it and I didn’t care. All I knew was that it was cheap, dry and really good. To this day I have fond memories of it. Kudos to Gallo for that wine. By the way, thinking of it recalls an incident that happened in 2001, I think it was. It was the 100th anniversary of Beaulieu Vineyards. We were at a big event where then winemaker Joel Aiken presided over a tasting of every Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ever made. Robert Mondavi, who was among us, stood to deliver a stirring paeon of praise to the wines. Then Ernest Gallo clanged on his glass. We all fell into silence as he rose majestically from his chair. “These wines,” he said (and I paraphrase from memory) “are all dead. You want to drink a great red wine?” Here, he lifted up his glass and declared triumphantly, “Gallo Hearty Burgundy!”

Jaws dropped, but there was more amusement and affection than shock. That was Ernest Gallo, outspoken and direct. And who, after all, is to judge? Thank you, Gallo winery, and salud! for Hearty Burgundy!


My “sensational list” of California Pinot Noir

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Some years ago, at a blind tasting of California Pinot Noirs we did for a big story in Wine Enthusiast, Laetitia took highest honors in my scores.

The vintages 2003-2007 were fantastic ones for Laetitia, and while quality seems to have leveled off lately (could it be the cool summers in an already cool region, Arroyo Grande Valley, so that the wine aren’t as voluptuous?), the wines remain compelling. So I was not surprised to read this article, in The Drinks Business, which describes a tasting of California Pinot Noir, hosted by Karen MacNeil at the Rudd Center in St. Helena, in which Laetitia outclassed everyone else.

Karen’s panel tasted 126 Pinots; of these, 18 wineries made the final cut, and they certainly represent the pick of the litter in California: Brewer-Clifton, Au Bon Climat, Samsara, Martinelli, Joseph Swan, Williams Selyem, Kosta Browne, Failla, Littorai, Foursight, Peay, Scribe, Pisoni, ROAR, Siduri, Sanford and Paul Lato, in addition to top-ranked Laetitia. (Doesn’t this list make your mouth water?) Karen is certainly correct when she observes, “In the last 10 years, the quality [of Pinot Noir] has skyrocketed faster than any other variety.”

Karen also is correct in noting the vast geographic spectrum in California in which great Pinot Noir is produced: a stretch of 500 miles, from Anderson Valley all the way down the coast to the Santa Rita Hills. That’s pretty remarkable, in a world where most wine regions are maybe 20 or 30 miles across. You can attribute California’s success to the fact that the entire coast, despite being chopped up into the political subdivisions of counties, is essentially one vast terroir in which similarities of climate (always more important than soil in California) are far greater than differences.

I’d like to add some wineries to Karen’s list of “sensational” producers: Flowers, W.H. Smith, Bonaccorsi, Merry Edwards, Golden Eye, Talley, Tantara, Lynmar, Marimar Estate, Bjornstad, Hartford Court, Foxen, Longoria, Ojai, Sea Smoke, Babcock, Morgan, Testarossa, Rochioli, De Loach, Dutton-Goldfield, Paul Hobbs, Byron, Cambria, MacPhail, Gary Farrell for starters. The problem with trying to come up with a classification of great Pinot Noir wineries in California is that every month there seem to be a few more.

As for regions, I couldn’t pick any of California’s Pinot Noir appellations as being better than the others. They’re different. Santa Lucia Highlands Pinots are big, tannic and juicy; Carneros is more delicate. Santa Rita Hills Pinots are fabulously delicious and spicy, while the far Sonoma Coast’s brim with fresh acidity and wildland ferality.

Speaking of Pinot Noir, the schedule is out for 2014’s Kapalua Wine & Food Festival, at 32 years the nation’s oldest. It runs from June 12-15, at the beautiful Ritz-Carlton, on Maui. You may recall I headed up last year’s panel on Pritchard Hill. This year, we have something just as exciting: top wineries and wines from the Santa Lucia Highlands. Tickets go on sale starting Feb. 15. This is not an inexpensive festival to go to, but believe me, if you haven’t been, it’s worth every penny. And not just for the wine: those late nights by the pool are memorable.


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