When I first started writing about wine, professionally, it was for Wine Spectator, but they also wanted me to write for their trade magazine, Market Watch, which I was happy to do, because it was more work for an underpaid freelance writer. I quickly learned to like that back end of the business, the intricacies of sales, marketing, P.R. and all the rest. I found it intellectually stimulating, like a chess game—and I still do.
I soon began to be invited to the numerous tastings in and around San Francisco. Among these were events specially designed by and for distributors and their clients. These were trade-heavy events. While there could be some pretty good wines served, most of the distributors didn’t seem particularly interested in them. They just wanted to be told how to sell them (and perhaps they also wanted just to drink wine and eat some good food!).
Those early experiences colored my view of distributors. As far as I could tell, they could just as easily have been selling widgits as wine. They didn’t care about the product itself (although they were willing to work hard), they wanted to maximize their sales. It was a rather demoralizing experience for me to realize that wine was being represented, through this important face to buyers, by such indifferent people.
Over the years, though, my attitude has softened. Every once in a while I complained (especially in this blog) about the inequities built into the distribution system, and I generally supported my friend, Tom Wark, in his American Wine Consumer Coalition efforts to bypass or improve the three-tiered system, which I felt unfairly discriminated against smaller wineries. However, every time I did so, someone I respected—usually a winemaker—would write in and tell me that I was failing to understand all the good that distributors do. So I began to double-check my premises, since some of these winemakers who were taking the time to write were highly respected by me.
So I’ve been open to re-evaluating my views on distributors for some time now, although I have to say my emotional sympathies still lie with Tom. Last Friday, I was invited down to participate in a meeting of Jackson Family Wines’ Southern California distributors. I couldn’t help but be struck by how much more educated—and interested—in wine today’s distributors are compared to their remote ancestors of twenty and more years ago. These people, gathered down in Orange County for a semi-quarterly meeting, struck me as young, really smart, eager and perhaps most of all, passionate about wine. Although I made a few comments, mostly the event was presided over by sommeliers and other wine experts, who led the rather largish group through some fairly serious tastings that everyone seemed to enjoy—and they were blind tastings, at that! The contrast between those widget distributors of the 1990s and these guys could not have been starker, or more welcome to behold.
There seems to be a tendency nowadays for the leaders of these guided tastings to provoke the audience to stretch their tasting vocabulary. For instance, when these leaders ask what flavors people are getting and someone says, “Mushrooms,” the leader asks, “What kind of mushroom?” I understand this approach, which gets the audience more intimately involved and stimulates their analytical powers. This isn’t particularly my way, since I tend to be more generalized about flavors, and I feel that structure is anyway more important that individual flavors, “structure” including the way the wine feels in the mouth, which is all-important. But if people want to talk about the differences between shiitake and hen-of-the-woods, that’s fine by me.
How much smarter and more educated everyone in the food chain has become: not just distributors, but bartenders, restaurant staff and, mostly importantly of all, the consumer.
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Finally—last words!—remember some years back when everybody was talking about the “Parkerization” of wine, that term referring to a supposed overripeness, over-oakiness and high alcohol content of wine? Well, whether or not it ever was true, nowadays I perceive another style-driving trend: Let’s call it the IPOB-ization of wine (after the In Pursuit of Balance organization). I will begin with a question: Are we seeing some vintners, particularly those producing Pinot Noir, now deliberately picking their grapes underripe, in order to appeal to that small, but influential, cadre of writers, critics and sommeliers who insist that Pinot Noir must be low in alcohol in order to be balanced? I invite your answers. For myself, I think the answer is “yes.” And, as a certain Mr. Parker recently implied, underripe fruit merely results in underripe wine.
Now, I haven’t really been clear on what “In Pursuit of Balance” means since I went to their last tasting, in San Francisco, and Rajat Parr said (I paraphrase), “Some people think IPOB means we only like wines below 14% but that’s not true.” Well, I suppose, then, that “balance” can be applied to any wine, of any alcoholic strength, so what else is new? I’ve never heard of anyone being in favor of unbalanced wines. Then I was reading, in the new April issue of The Tasting Panel (and what an interesting ‘zine that’s turning out to be) a little article by Randy Caparosa in which he made some salient points, most notably that, at the last World of Pinot Noir (which I attended; I was underwhelmed by Raj’s Domaine de la Côte Pinot Noir), “There is still talk of the ‘high-alcohol problem’ in American Pinot Noirs, but in the vast majority of 200-plus wines tasted [at WOPN], an overweening sense of alcohol or ripeness just wasn’t’ there.”
Indeed. One could, I guess, argue that IPOB has had its intended effect, of driving down alcohol levels. On the other hand I could point out that high alcohol per se hasn’t been a problem in good Pinot Noir for years. Still isn’t.
If you’ve only come upon the California wine scene in, say, the last 15 years, you’d never know that, once upon a time, Carneros was one of the hottest appellations in the state.
I don’t have copies of articles from the 1980s that were calling Carneros “California’s Burgundy,” but that was the meme of the time in magazines and newspapers. I do have some older wine books that get the point across. E. Frank Henriques was a wine-loving Episcopal priest who wrote an obscure but useful book, The Signet Encyclopedia of Wine (1975, reprinted 1984), in which he says Carneros Creek’s Pinot Noirs (the winery was bought by Michael Mondavi in 2006) have “the classic Burgundy aroma,” whatever that means! Harvey Steiman, writing then if I recall correctly for the old San Francisco Examiner, similarly called a 1980 Carneros Creek Pinot “Burgundian.” John Winthrop Haeger, writing in 2004 in his fine book, North American Pinot Noir, wrote that Carneros Creek’s founder, Francis Mahoney, was “reminded…of Burgundy” when he first saw Carneros’s “hilly terrain and rocky subsoils.”
Another obscure but useful and, at the time, highly controversial book, Roy Andries de Groot’s The Wines of California (1982), referred to André Tchelistcheff’s description of Carneros’s climate as “so close to that of the upper [i.e., better] slopes of Burgundy that this would be an ideal place to grow a typical Burgundian grape…”. The Maestro did indeed grow Pinot Noir in Carneros, and he himself always said his 1968 vintage was one of his best ever; but it does not appear to have been particularly “Burgundian,” for in 1974 Robert Gorman, an amateur who seemed to know everyone who was anyone in Napa wine circles at that time, tasted the 1968 Beaulieu Pinot Noir and, in his book, Gorman on California Premium Wines (another fascinating obscurity), found it “unmistakably a Napa Valley wine [that] looks more like a Pomerol than a Burgundy.” That referred to its dark color: I myself tasted that wine in 2001, when it was 33 years of age. It was largely dead, but it still was big, dark and somewhat tannic and certainly not Burgundian.
Anyway, this introduction is simply to give some idea of the promise that Carneros held for Pinot Noir (and Chardonnay) from the 1970s into and through the 1980s. However, it’s fair to say that by the 1990s Carneros’s star began to fade. Other Pinot Noir regions—primarily the Russian River Valley, but also and increasingly, the westernmost part of the Santa Ynez Valley (now known as the Santa Rita Hills) were exciting critics, and Pinots from Anderson Valley, the Santa Cruz Mountains, San Luis Obispo County and the Santa Lucia Highlands were coming on strong. The combination of them eclipsed Carneros, which may also have suffered due to zoning restrictions that made viticulture possible only for larger wine companies that could afford great acreage, thereby shutting out the garagistes (of course that term didn’t yet exist) who had been the ones pushing the California Pinot Noir envelope.
At some point the Carneros Quality Alliance, a marketing consortium of local growers, was born, to boost awareness of this sprawling appellation that crosses two counties, Napa and Sonoma. I remember being in the thick of things in the 1990s and early 2000s when, as a wine critic, I was on the receiving end of press releases, invitations to tastings, etc. I never had the sense that the CQA was particularly well-organized or that it did a very good job of promoting the region, which seemed to slip further and further into marginality. It’s not that the wines weren’t good, occasionally very good. It was just that Carneros lost its luster by 2000, and seemed always to have to fight to be included on the short list of great wine regions.
The CQA now has morphed into the Carneros Wine Alliance (CWA), and they’ve lately embarked on a revised marketing and promotional effort, described in the April issue of Wines and Vines as a “new focus” to “raise awareness” of Carneros. Even some of the CWA’s leaders, such as Garnet’s Allison Crowe, concede that the CWA and Carneros the appellation “lost its focus in recent years.” In all the years I reviewed wine for Wine Enthusiast, the number of Carneros Pinot Noirs that scored very highly was disappointingly small, compared to California’s other coastal regions. I did give a Donum 2009 West Slope 97 points, a couple of Etudes 95 points (the 2006 Heirloom and the 2007 Deer Camp), also 95 points to the La Rochelle 2009 (which was from Donum Estate); there was a 94 point wine, the 2010 Mira, from Stanly Ranch (which Louis M. Martini purchased in 1942 and planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, six years later), but these sadly were outliers. My chief gripe with Carneros Pinot Noir was that the wines could be overly acidic and a little earthy if not one-dimensional.
(I should add that Jackson Family’s La Crema brand produces a Carneros Pinot Noir that I’ve given generally good scores to for many years. They also have a Hartford Court “Seven Benches” Pinot, but I haven’t tasted it for a long time. Finally, the company bought the old Buena Vista Carneros production facility, and I’m highly looking forward to tasting those wines when they’re released at some point (not under the Buena Vista name, because Jean-Charles Boisset owns that). Historically, Buena Vista was capable of producing fine Pinot Noir from their Ramal Road vineyard.)
I do think that Carneros has not been at the forefront of Pinot Noir in California, but there’s no intrinsic reason why they couldn’t once again be there. After all, if André Tchelistcheff himself saw its promise, it must be there—and there are simply too many Carneros Pinots that more than hint at its potential. And so I eagerly welcome the CWA’s effort, which involves hiring a new P.R. firm for the appellation, which turns 30 years old next year. But success depends on more than public relations, obviously; the wines have got to be good to the point of compelling, in order for Carneros to regain the luster it showed twenty and more years ago.
Lots of buzz at Monday’s In Pursuit of Balance seminar and tasting in San Francisco, held at the Bluxome Street Winery, in the far South of Market and just west of AT&T Park. Moderator Jamie Goode choose the seminar topic: Defining ripeness in Pinot Noir. “Too much alcohol [in Pinot Noir] is a huge problem,” Jamie said in his opening remarks; “it masks aromatic expression,” he noted, adding that alcohol can also create a “distinct mouthfeel [of] sweetness,” which robs Pinot Noir of its essential Pinot Noir-ness.
Here are my brief remarks on the wines we tasted: The two Tylers [2011 Sanford & Benedict, 13.4% and 2011 Bien Nacido Old Vine, 13.6%] both were delicate and lovely, with the Bien Nacido more powerful, the Sanford & Benedict more elegant, yet both fresh and keen in red fruits.
The two Caleras, both barrel samples from 2013 [Mills Vineyard Lot A, 12.9% and Mills Lot B, 13.8%] were perhaps the most controversial of the tasting. Jamie asked for a vote of preference and 90% of the crowd liked Lot B, which in fact was a bigger, warmer, more generous wine. Jamie preferred Lot A. Both of the wines had been made with whole cluster fermentation, which made them darker, spicier and more tannic than the other wines. More on the Caleras in a minute.
The two LaRues [2012, 12.6% and 2010 Rice-Spivak Vineyard, 13.2%] more closely resembled the Tylers than the Caleras. They were translucent in color and bright in acidity, with sour cherry candy and cranberry tartness; the 2010 was just starting to unravel. Both showed their unmistakable coastal terroir [the vineyard is in the Sebastopol Hills].
The two Copains [2007 and 2010 Kiser En Bas, from Anderson Valley] both showed an exciting tension of tartness and ripeness. I like that nervous edge that a fine Pinot can tread, but the 2007 was starting to show its grey hairs, picking up a distinct mushroom aroma. To my sensibilities, it’s going downhill–but then, it’s nearing seven years of age.
Jamie returned to the subject matter, ripeness, asking the panelists how they decide when to pick. Several referred to their techniques: by sight, by taste, by laboratory analysis, but as LaRue’s owner-winemaker Katy Wilson remarked, picking decisions tend to be predicated on the schedules of the pickers, not on some arbitrary preference on the winemaker’s part. This led to the question, Can you pick too early? This is not an entirely superfluous inquiry. The rise of IPOB and its low-alcohol adherents may well have forced vintners to harvest sooner than they would normally like to, in order to satisfy the under-14% crowd. Jamie expressed this concern, that picking too early results in a Pinot than can be lean and green. Someone asked Josh Jensen about the low alcohol [12.9%] on his Mills Lot A, and with his disarming grin Josh replied that he had perhaps “jumped the gun” on that one, harvesting the grapes before he should have. He himself did not care for Lot A, he implied. Pressed, Josh explained, “But I’d rather jump the gun by picking too early than too late.”
Afterwards, I told Josh that I found his Caleras the outliers of the tasting. At first he was dismayed, thinking I’d disrespected them. But then I explained that, at the end of the tasting, I found that the only two glasses I’d completely drained were his two Caleras. Josh’s face softened as I added, “They were like food groups rather than particular flavors, wholesome and nourishing.” Josh enjoyed hearing that.
Balance is, of course, an impossible term to define, and different tasters will disagree concerning any particular wine. Raj Parr himself, IPOB’s co-founder, seemed to concede as much, during some very brief welcoming remarks he made, when he said (I paraphrase), “Some people think that In Pursuit of Balance seeks only wines below 14%, but that’s not true.” I’m glad Raj cleared that up, because I too was one of those who was mistaken about that. I’ve written for years that any wine can be balanced, even a Pinot Noir with alcohol well into the 14s; it all depends. So it’s no longer clear to me what In Pursuit of Balance’s mission is, except that under its auspices it brings together interesting wines and engaging winemakers with writers and sommeliers, for a fun time of chit chat and information exchange. Surely that in itself is enough of a rationale to celebrate IPOB, and anything else wine-related, for that matter.
I got a bunch of single vineyard Pinot Noirs for review yesterday from Sojourn Cellars, a fine producer whose Pinots, Cabernets and other wines I’ve liked over the years. I haven’t reviewed the new batch yet, so this post isn’t about them. It’s about the phenomenon of wineries producing multiple vineyard-designated Pinots (in Sojourn’s case, six).
Lots of wineries practice this business model. Among those who come to mind are Siduri, Testorossa, Williams Selyem, Loring, Failla, Merry Edwards, MacPhail. Some of these also produce estate wines from their own vineyards; others own no vineyards, but buy their grapes, usually under longterm contracts, from vineyards up and down the coast.
(Some Pinot houses–Marimar Torres, Flowers, Rochioli, Lynmar, Calera, Joseph Swan, among others–of course bottle multiple Pinots in every vintage, but they own their vineyards exclusively.)
It’s an odd model, bottling multiple Pinot Noirs from vineyards often scattered hundreds of miles apart, from Santa Rita Hills to Anderson Valley. I don’t think you’d find that in Pinot Noir’s natural home, Burgundy. There, producers make such a big deal about their terroir (mainly soils) that it would be scandalous for them to secure grapes from someone else’s vineyard. That would go against the whole grain of what it has historically meant to produce grand vin in France.
But California isn’t France. We’ve always been an entrepreneurial state, from the Gold Rush days to Silicon Valley, and there is indeed something entrepreneurial about a producer crafting multiple Pinot Noirs, from as many great vineyards as he can get his hands on. And certainly, we have no shortage of great Pinot vineyards: just as someone like Adam Lee’s business model is crafting a dozen or so Pinots, so too there are vineyard owners whose model is to grow and sell grapes, rather than make their own wine. That too is an unlikely scenario in Burgundy. Then there are vineyards that bottle their own wine and also sell some: Cargasacchi, Clos Pepe, Hirsch and Pisoni come to mind.
Here’s what I wonder about. It’s kind of an intellectual question, but I think it bears on wine quality. Is it possible for a vintner to produce great Pinot Noir from multiple, scattered vineyards? Logic tells you that the vintner’s attention must surely be divided: he’s having to maintain relationships with multiple growers, from up and down the state. He has to arrange delivery of the grapes to his crush place, which may be hundreds of miles away from the vineyards. Above all, he has to try and capture the essential personality of the vineyard (or, expressed another way, he has to do nothing that would impede the grapes from expressing that personality). And he has to do all of this during the busiest time of the year, crush, with a million other things competing for his attention, not the least of which often includes making wines other than Pinot Noir.
There’s another potential danger: The wines may lose something of their terroir when made as a part of multiple batches by a vintner who cannot be intimately familiar with the vineyards, and whose winemaking technique may be the exact same with all the wines.
A final challenge is that every vineyard, no matter how famous, has bad grapes–bad in the sense they may be too young, or a moldy lot that somehow escaped scrutiny, or was overcropped or otherwise compromised. So just because a wine bears an esteemed vineyard designation doesn’t mean anything.
I guess the lesson is, buyer beware. Not every famous Pinot Noir vineyard will compromise its reputation by selling crappy fruit, but some will. And not every winery will compromise its integrity by buying crappy fruit, but some will. The consumer has to learn to tell the difference.
That’s a tall order. You might think it can’t be done–but it can. I routinely give high scores to many of these multiple Pinot houses, vintage after vintage. In fact, combing through my reviews over the years, I can detect no preference on my part to wineries that own vineyards versus wineries that buy grapes. So this California model seems to be working, at least, in the case of Pinot Noir. It reflects technical progress, in transportation, fruit preservation and communications, of a type that didn’t exist not that long ago; it’s impossible to think that a vintner like Adam Lee could have made this work in the 1980s.
World of Pinot Noir was a very great success despite 3 days of continuous rain (I hope all those poor people living in the foothills of the San Gabes are okay). The Bacara Resort turned out to be a lovely new venue; their staff was awesome. Personally, I want to thank the Uber people for taking such good care getting me back and forth. I stayed at Fess Parker’s Doubletree, a 25 minute drive from Bacara, and it would have been very difficult for me (and for Gus) without my wonderful driver, Ariane. Thank you, and thanks also to Andy.
WOPN has been such a great success that I wonder why more wineries from beyond California don’t participate. I think if Burgundy, Oregon, New Zealand and other Pinot-producing countries knew more about this event (and the upscale crowd it attracts), they’d come. As for tasting, I spent most of my time concentrating on the New Zealand and Oregon wineries that did attend. Partly, that was because I don’t taste much non-California wine. I also felt sorry for the non-California wineries, many of whom were stuck in a side room that frankly didn’t attract much of a crowd. People were lining up at the likes of Kosta Brown, which seems rather lemming-like to me. I mean, hey, okay, if you’ve never tried KB, fine, but why not go outside your critical comfort zone and discover something else? Isn’t that what wine is all about: discovery, surprise, evolution? It’s boringly easy to taste something that critic X or Y gave a million points to and then go home and yada yada about it. Well, if that’s the outermost limit you can soar to, my sympathies.
It was great to see Bob Cabral pouring at Williams Selyem. As most of you probably know, Bob gave them his notice, and will be moving on to unknown adventures, although he’ll oversee their 2014 vintage. The two of us had a good long talk–we go back a ways and Bob’s always been one of my favorite people, both for his superb attitude as a human being, friendliness and warmth, and because Williams Selyem’s wines rock.
Just a brief word on the Burgundy seminar. I had some favorites: Domaine Collotte 2012 Marsannay Rose. What a great wine for $18 retail. I wrote “I wish there were more California rosés like this, especially Pinot Noirs, which tend to be too heavy.” I loved the Domaine Mongeard-Mugneret 2010 Savigny-Les-Beaune “Les Narbantons,” not a Premier Cru but a gorgeous wine, rich and spicy and ready to drink now, at only $30. But my top wine was Domaine Jean et Gilles Lafouge 2010 Auxey-Duresses “La Chappelle” ($36). I just couldn’t get enough of it: dry, acidic and spicy, with firm tannins and oh, so complete and wholesome. To me, it beat out the Grand Cru on the table, Domaine D’Ardhuy 2005 Corton Clos du Roi, which I called “very hard, undrinkable, all about tannins and acidity, showing no generosity, austere.” I have no idea if it will age, and neither, apparently, did Don Kinnon, who once again moderated this outstanding panel. He seemed almost apologetic about it. Of course, if you know this is a Grand Cru, and from a celebrated vintage, you’re going to hedge your bets and give it a great score, probably with a line like “Nowhere near ready, best after 2030.” If you don’t know what it is, you’ll just go “Uggh” and turn to something else, like the Auxey-Duresses, at one-third the price. This just shows that tasting occurs, not merely in the mouth, but in the mind.
At the morning seminar on the Pinots of Willamette Valley, my friend Gillian Handelman, of Jackson Family Wines, remarked that Oregon winemakers seem to talk a lot more about soil and rocks than do California winemakers, who lean more toward climate in explaining their Pinots. That immediately rang true to me, and I wondered why it might be so. A few things occur to me:
The historical reference point for Pinot Noir in California is Sonoma County, where the soils are so impossibly jumbled, courtesy of the San Andreas Fault system, that you can walk two yards and find different structures. That may be one reason why: Winemakers were stymied trying to understand their soils, so they very naturally turned to climate. Then too, as someone observed, up in Oregon-Washington, every kid is raised with the story of the great Missoula Floods, which formed so much of those states’ terrain. “It was our creation myth,” said Oregon journalist Katherine Cole, who moderated the Willamette seminar. So it may be that Oregonians have rocks more deeply imbedded in their imaginations than do Californians. Finally, it may be because in Willamette, Pinot Noir is pretty much exclusively the red grape, whereas in California, it’s everything from Pinot to Cabernet and Zinfandel. Pinot seems to draw more from the dirt than most other red varieties, so maybe Oregon winemakers look more toward Burgundian explanations of terroir than Californians. I don’t know what the answer is, but I think Gillian hit the nail on the head.
The seminar on the wines of Louis Jadot’s Beaune Premier Cru Clos des Ursules was stunning. I’ve gone to few vertical tastings in my life in which a continuity of style was clearer, or where the necessity of aging more apparent. We tasted eight wines, from 2010 going back to 1985, and it was easy to find the same elements in them all. But really, only the 1985 was drinkable (to me)–and that, just barely; I’d love to try it in another 20 years. Jadot’s winemaker, Frédéric Barnier, conceded as much. When asked by an audience member if he didn’t feel the need to change the style in response to consumer demand for earlier-drinking wines, Barnier said, in effect: No way. Good for him.
Later, at the walkaround tasting, I found myself gravitating toward the 2011s, from both Oregon and California. Some of them were stunning. The one I particularly recall was the Baxter 2011 Valenti Vineyard, from Mendocino Ridge. (I no longer review Mendocino wines for Wine Enthusiast; Virginie Boone does. She scored it 92 points. I might have gone a little higher, and added a Cellar Selection designation. But Virginie and I are in the same ballpark.)
I’m still formulating my views on the 2011 Pinots. Katherine, the Willamette moderator, told a story about a Burgundian producer she interviewed. When she asked him about a certain vintage would develop, he crustily replied (I paraphrase Katherine’s quote), “How am I supposed to know? You can’t understand a vintage for at least fifty years.” While I wouldn’t go that far, I do think it takes time, and any serious reviewer who doesn’t revise his estimations of a vintage is lazy or dead. Early on, I had serious problems with 2011 Pinots from California. Lots of mold. But there always were some great wines from producers who either sorted out the moldy berries or who sourced their grapes from vineyards (often mountains or hillsides) where mold was not a problem, even in the cold 2011 vintage. So at the walkaround tasting I was really blown away by some of the 2011s. The Baxter is the only one I’ll mention here, but the great ones all were low in alcohol, incredibly streamlined and elegant, brisk in acidity and not overwhelming in fruit. You can call them Burgundian, I suppose. This raises the question of how to evaluate a vintage, overall, when it contains extremes of both sides: extraordinary wines as well as moldy ones. My feeling is to lower the overall score, in terms of numbers, but try to express, in the text, that consumers who choose well will find unbelievably gorgeous wines. This is not always an easy message to get across, but then, of course, the individual scores and reviews of the wines also express how I feel about them.
Finally: Frédéric Barnier on numerous occasions made a distinction between wines that are “good” and those that are “interesting.” I raised my hand five or six times, during the Q&A, to ask him to elaborate; but alas, Katherine never called on me, so all I can do is surmise. I wanted to ask him: Can a wine that’s not good be interesting? Can a wine that’s good be uninteresting? This is fascinating stuff, and I hope to muse on these concepts in the future.