Regarding “bargains,” while it is undoubtedly true that it is harder to find a great CA Pinot under $30 than it is with some other varieties, I think CA Pinot provides superb “value” when you consider the full QPR. Consider that your top rated wines above are $100 and average maybe $60-70. Compare that to the prices of your highly-rated Cabs. It’s one of the things I’ve always appreciated about California Pinot Noir.
This is certainly true, but begs the question, Why? It’s not because there’s an inherent difference in quality between top Cabs and Pinots. A Janzen 2009 Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (97 points) is not a better wine than Failla’s 2010 Occidental Ridge Pinot Noir (also 97 points), even though the former retails for $135 while the latter is a “mere” $60. So what gives?
Here are some factors that could raise the price on the Napa Cabernet: buying grapes from Beckstoffer, who charges a lot, price of new barrels, cost of consultants, cost of bottles (Napa Cabernet generally is in heavier and presumably more expensive bottles), cost of corks. Without knowing the details, I will assume that all these costs were higher for the Janzen than for the Failla. Still, that can’t account for a difference in price of $75!
So we have to go to factors that are unrelated to the cost of production. One that’s obvious right off the bat is the influence of peer pricing. In Napa Valley, you can’t price a wine below the price of your perceived competitors (or so the argument goes). If your wine costs significantly less than the “neighborhood” you want to live in, then buyers—consumers, somms, retailers, even, alas, some “critics”—will perceive you as “lesser” and conclude that your wine cannot be as good, even if it is. This is why, when Screaming Eagle raised its list price some years ago, you saw a kneejerk reaction up and down Napa Valley: everybody who perceived himself as in the same elite category as Screaming Eagle felt it necessary to jack up their prices accordingly.
So that’s one reason, but there’s another, more related to history: California mimics Europe in its approach to the pricing aspects of wine, and Bordeaux in general always has been more expensive than Burgundy. While there are obvious exceptions, this statement is true. It’s curious, because the average Bordeaux chateau has a higher production than the average Burgundy domaine, so you’d think it would be the other way around. But no. For some reason, going back hundreds of years, consumers (wealthy white western Europeans and, a little later, Americans like Thomas Jefferson) were willing to pay astronomical prices for top Bordeaux wines like Lafite and Latour. That tradition is larded through our wine culture and remains in force today.
What’s changing, of course, is that an entire younger generation of Americans couldn’t care less about Bordeaux. Report after report proves this. As Eric Asimov wrote, for a greater number of Americans, especially younger ones, Bordeaux “is now largely irrelevant.” Pressure on the Bordelais to ease up on prices has been neutered only by the false and thus unsustainable popularity of these wines in Asia. But the marketplace eventually rationalizes everything (if Adam Smith is correct), and so we should see an equalizing of Bordeaux and Burgundy prices internationally sooner or later.
In California, the distorting effects of this historical imbalance between Bordeaux and Burgundy struck early, but are now in an interesting state of flux. We saw the Great Recession pose a threat to triple-digit Napa Cabernets. Now that we’re in recovery, we see a consumer who’s no longer willing to blindly plonk down whatever it takes to buy the Cabernet of the moment. And to the extent this consumer exists, he probably has gray hair.
This is Pinot Noir’s moment to shine, and it can happen, if—and it’s a big if—the top producers manage to resist their hubris and keep prices moderate. And by “moderate” I mean less than $100.
My love affair with Pinot Noir continued in 2012. When it comes to that variety, my tastes are all-embracing: as Eminem sings in Just Lose It, “Black girls, White girls, Skinny girls, Fat girls, Tall girls, Small girls, I’m calling all girls,” I like all Pinot Noirs, as long as they’re good.
Not for me ideological rigidities for or against yields, yeasts, alcohol level, whole clusters, degree of color saturation, toast levels, ageable or not, “Burgundian” or “New World” in style. Just bring on what Charlie Olken years ago called Pinot’s “richness, complexity and velvety texture” and I’m a happy camper.
Charlie wrote that (along with Earl Singer and Norm Roby) in their classic The Connoisseurs’ Handbook of California Wines, but in 1980, they had also to include this inconvenient truth: “California Pinot Noirs have too often been thin-flavored and simple.” Yes, back then, they were. But the decade of the 1980s and in particular that of the 1990s showed growers the best places to plant (cooler coastal regions), and they often planted with closer spacing, and the Dijon clones came in, and winemakers changed their fermentation techniques, and all sorts of other improvements were implemented, and voila, we saw the greatest changes to impact any variety in California’s modern history.
I tasted about 880 Pinots last year. About half scored more than 90 points. Score inflation? Or better wines? Most were from the 2009 and 2010 vintages, two excellent years for Pinot in California. Both were mild to cool, particularly the latter. But there was enough heat in both vintages to bring physiological ripeness. Alcohol levels tended to be moderate—say, from the high 13s through the mid-14s, although some areas that are prone to higher alcohol, like the Santa Lucia Highlands, as well as some individual wineries with higher-alcohol styles, like Sea Smoke, were exceptions.
By far most of my top-scoring Pinots bore a Russian River Valley appellation, but that’s undoubtedly because that valley has so many more wineries than any of the other top Pinot regions. Certainly, there were a slew of top-scoring Pinots from the Sonoma Coast, and by that I mean the true Coast, way out by the sea. The Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills also did well. They had some early heavy rain in mid-October, but most of the Pinot was picked by then. The Santa Maria Valley also produced some luscious Pinot Noirs, as did Carneros and Anderson Valley.
My top Pinots of the year were a monumental pair of Williams Selyem 2010s, Hirsch ($75) and Precious Mountain ($94), both nearly perfect. (I can’t tell you the scores until they’re published, in the March 1 issue of Wine Enthusiast). Just below those stellar achievements were Flowers 2010 Sea View Ridge (98, $70), Merry Edwards 2009 Klopp Ranch (98, $57, and how lucky I am that Merry asked me to introduce her at her Vintners Hall of Fame induction next month), Donum 2009 West Slope (97, $100, the best Carneros Pinot in years), Failla 2010 Occidental Ridge (97, $60), Foxen 2010 Sea Smoke Vineyard (96, $57), Marimar Estate 2008 La Masia Don Miguel Vineyard (96, $39), Rochioli 2010 West Block (96, $100), De Loach 2009 Pennacchio Vineyard (96, $45, and how nice it is to see a resurrected De Loach under Jean-Charles Boisset’s stewardship), Talley 2010 Rosemary’s Vineyard (96, $70) and another Carneros, La Rochelle 2009 Donum Estate Vineyard (95, $75). Since the Donum vineyard occurs twice in this listing, it bears mentioning that it is adjacent to Buena Vista’s large estate Ramal Road vineyard, on the Sonoma side of the Carneros AVA. Just to close the loop, it will be exciting to see how Jean-Charles Boisset does with these estate grapes since buying Buena Vista in 2011.
Pinot Noir of all varieties least lends itself to bargains. Below $30 or so, you can’t expect that “richness, complexity and velvety texture.” Nonetheless, there are a few that give good value for the price. Among them in 2012 were Fort Ross 2010 Sea Slopes (95, $32), Joseph Swan 2009 Great Oak Vineyard (93, $35), Gallo Signature Series 2010 from the Santa Lucia Highlands (93, $35), Au Bon Climat 2009 Historic Vineyards Collection Bien Nacido (92, $30), Reata 2010 from the Sonoma Coast (92, $30) and Bratcher, from the La Encantada Vineyard down in the Sta. Rita Hills (92, $35).
Speaking of La Encantada, it was planted by Richard Sanford in 2000, close to the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard he also planted (decades earlier), on the Santa Rosa Road corridor, the less famous (after Highway 246) of the Sta. Rita Hills’ two wine roads. Richard has had a harder time on the business end of things than he deserved. First, he lost his vineyard and even ownership of the Sanford brand. Then he started up Alma Rosa Winery, which did a great job, but last summer had to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. This is sad, and raises profound questions of why bad things happen to good people and good brands.
I was talking with a Russian River Valley winemaker the other day, and she told me that, of all the American critics she follows, I have the most “European palate.”
I was surprised, although I didn’t say anything, because I always think of myself as having a Californian palate. After all, I love our wines (at their best), even as others—mainly Europhiles and New Yawkahs—slam them for being too ripe/sweet/fruity/oaky/alcoholic/name your insult. I’m a sucker for a complex Chardonnay, captivated by Cabernet, sent into swoons by a great Syrah, tickled pink by Pinot Noir, and since I’m running out of alliterative steam, I’ll stop here.
But my fondness for California wine doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate wines from Old Europe. I’ve tasted a lot of Spanish, Italian, French and German wines in my time, and been knocked out by great bottles old and new. The winemaker who told me I have a “European palate” did so, I think, because I give her Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays high scores, even though they’re comparatively acidic and tannic compared to many of her California colleagues’ wines that are riper and more accessible. So she figures I must like a more austere wine, one that only shows its glories with some bottle age—in other words, that I have a European palate.
The truth is, I like to think I have a catholic [small “c”] palate, which is to say I appreciate quality no matter how it expresses itself. That’s why I can never understand these California bashers. After all, if I can find pleasure in a European wine, then why can’t they find pleasure in a California wine?
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In another conversation I had, with a second Russian River Valley winemaker, we were talking about the 2012 vintage (which believe me is being hyped up and down the state like no other vintage in years), and he offered the only criticism I’ve heard so far. “At the very least it’s a very good year,” he began. “The easiest thing to tell early on [with a vintage] is when it’s a bad year!” Then he added, “If I have a worry, yields were too high, so we did a lot of bleed off, saignée. Like in 1997, some of the wines developed a bit of a hole in the middle, and that’s a concern this year.”
This concept of “a hole in the middle” refers to wines that may smell great and enter powerfully, but then something falls off in the concentration or intensity that lowers the score. I find this a lot, and it’s always disappointing; it can resemble the effects of overcropping. In any wine, you want concentration that’s consistent all the way through. That doesn’t mean sheer power. Power by itself is boring. Concentration means power + elegance. Clearly, the Russian River Valley winemaker’s concern is that the high yield will dilute concentration, especially in that middle palate which is so sensitive to the slightest variations of intensity. That is why the winemaker practiced saignée, which normally is used in the production of rosés. The juice is drained or “bled” off after limited contact with the skins, meaning that the remaining juice has greater time on the skins and presumably becomes fuller-bodied.
I’m not sure that’s the best way to restore concentration. After all, if it’s not there initially, then skin contact isn’t going to restore it. But a wine with a hole in the middle can be made to feel fuller through this method. However, I haven’t heard this concern from any other winemaker in the few months since the vintage ended. Indeed, last week in Santa Barbara they were practically turning cartwheels over 2012. Winemakers always fib about vintages, of course; even in a notoriously bad one they’ll tell you that their neighbors suffered from frost/smoke taint/mold/rain/whatever but they didn’t. But in the case of 2012 the hurrahs are so widespread I just have to assume there’s a “there” there. We’ll see.
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.
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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.