I will tell you that the easiest, laziest meme making the rounds of wine writing today is that California is in the throes of some massive “anti-high alcohol” revolution.
Lazy, biased or ill-informed journalists often resort to the conventional wisdom of the moment when, under the pressure of deadlines, they receive assignments from their editors, or are just looking for something controversial. Not just in wine, but anything: politics, entertainment, the cultural zeitgeist. Somebody begins by writing an article that causes a modest stir: then somebody else has to write about it. She or he knows little or nothing about the topic, so they turn to the magic of Google. And lo and behold, they come across the first person’s article, the one that purported to report on the “new” craze. And so reporter #2 writes a photocopy of article #1, sometimes even calling the same people as sources, who will, naturally, say the same thing. Now you have 2 articles coming up on Google searches both reporting on the same phenomenon, which of course makes it mandatory for reporters 3, 4 and out to infinity to repeat the “news.” And once you have a hundred or so articles on the phenomenon, it truly becomes–not reality–but the perception of it. Which, as they say, makes it reality.
That is the dark side result of our Internet-based “reporting.” Lemming-like me-too writing always has been an inherent virus in authentic journalism, but the Internet has caused it to go pandemic. So much easier to parrot what someone else said than to do real reporting based on the facts.
The latest periodical to report on the “anti-high alcohol revolution” which is not actually happening is Newsweek, a magazine that’s been faltering for years. Wherever the author got her inspiration, the article uses a standard, shopworn–and phony–device: it develops a thesis, then finds a few people who agree with it, and quotes them to “prove” that the thesis is correct. I’m a reporter; believe me, this tail-wagging-the-dog stuff goes on all the time. It isn’t journalism, it’s telling stories.
Another writer who’s been on the anti-alcohol bandwagon (and sometimes seems to think he’s leading it) is our own local Blake Gray. Here he is again, admitting he must “sound like a broken record on the lowering alcohol trend in California,” which indeed he does. Again, he uses the tail-wagging trick, by finding somebody who says he wants to make lower alcohol wines and then identifying it as part of “a trend.” The funny thing is that Blake can’t even get Gavin Chanin to come out and say anything bad about high alcohol. The furthest Gavin will go, in talking about the Pinots from Durell vineyards, is to say “Even though the [Durell] vineyard has that reputation for super ripeness, it’s interesting to see what it’s like when it’s not that.” Not exactly a stinging assault on high alcohol wines, nor a passionate defense of lower ones. Just “it’s interesting…”. The other weird thing is that Blake implies that Gavin left Au Bon Climat in order to make low alcohol wines (at least, that’s the spin I think he put on it). But ABC’s Pinots routinely are in the 13s.
Look, high alcohol California wine isn’t going anywhere. It’s baked into the souffle. Cabernet is going to stay high, 15ish or so, especially in Napa Valley, where it makes one of the most exciting wines in the world. Pinot will stay in the high-13s to the low 15s but mostly in the mid- to high 14s. There is no trend against high alcohol in California. There are people playing with lower levels, to see what they can do, like Gavin. There are always winemakers tinkering with technique; that’s the nature of winemaking. But please, can we fold up this “trend” nonsense and throw it away with yesterday’s papers? There are better things for wine writers to write about, like: Why our climate mitigates against low alcohol wines. You can’t just pick Pinot Noir at 21 degrees of brix and make a 12% wine because you want to, or because some writer told you to.
P.S. I’ve been experiencing hacking issues with this blog. The blog itself is safe; you can access it through a URL entry or bookmark and navigate safely. But searches for it, through Google and Yahoo and other engines, appear compromised. My web host is working on solving it.
Came across this blog post in the San Francisco edition of the Huffington Post on the wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s well written and makes some good points, but is a little incomplete, so I wanted to round out the picture.
The writer, Richard Jennings, correctly notes that “a few driven producers over the years have made some brilliant, minerally, complex, cool climate Pinot in these parts.” He refers particularly to Mount Eden and Rhys, whom he calls the “only two exceptional producers.” The others, he laments, “score from average to below average.”
I would add Thomas Fogarty (whom Jennings does not mention) and Clos LaChance (whom he does) to the list. Both produce very good Pinot Noirs, although they are vintage-driven. So does Bargetto, on occasion, and Cumbre of Vine Hill. I’ve also enjoyed good Pinots from Ghostwriter, Windy Oaks, Sonnet and Heart O’The Mountain.
The challenge of growing Pinot Noir in this sprawling appelllation (besides weather variation) is a lack of vineyard acreage. Although the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA covers 408,000 acres (making it the eight biggest in California), planted acreage, as Jennings points out, is only 1,500 acres, of which only 375 acres are planted to Pinot Noir. The reason for this paucity is mainly due to the fact that the region, which used to be a major wine-producing one, has sprouted suburban housing developments over the decades. There’s many a ranch house in Cupertino, Saratoga, Santa Cruz, Los Gatos and so on that sits on land that could produce incredible Pinot Noirs, but we’ll never know.
The other thing about the Santa Cruz Mountains is that it also produces some stellar Cabernet Sauvignons. A good example is Ridge’s Monte Bello vineyard. I’ve also been an admirer of Cabernets from Cinnabar, Cooper-Garrod, Martin Ray, Mount Eden [redux], Thomas Fogarty [again], La Honda and Black Ridge. Many of these wineries also produce good Chardonnay. And there’s always the interesting Syrah, from the likes of Beauregard and Kathryn Kennedy.
In general, Pinot Noir is grown on the western side of the ridges that are open to the maritime influence, while Cabernet thrives on the warmer, eastern flanks.
Lots of people don’t know that the Santa Cruz Mountains once was one of the best winegrowing regions in California. In fact, the most famous Cabernet Sauvignon of the late 19th and early 20th century, Rixford’s La Cuesta (variously Questa), was from Woodside. The vine cuttings had been taken from Chateau Margaux, and Martin Ray in turn used cuttings from those vines to start his own winery. The present day Woodside Vineyards is still on the old Rixford site.
I don’t know if anyone’s working on sub-appellating the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s a good idea, given the Pinot Noir-Cabernet Sauvignon terroir split, but maybe not worth all the hassle, given the small acreage involved. In general, if you see a Santa Cruz Mountains origin on any wine, it’s more likely than not to be very good; and because the region doesn’t have the cachet of Napa Valley or some of the other Central Coast appellations, prices have remained moderate.
I finally finished Allen Meadows’s The Pearl of the Côte: The Great Wines of Vosnes-Romanée. I took my time, as I do with things of great pleasure I don’t want to end.
I highly recommend it. Even if you’re not a Burgundy lover, or able to afford these wines (who is?), you’ll learn a lot. It’s not every book that has so many things in it that make you think. This one is rich in provocative statements, such as this one, right near the end. Allen is recounting a tasting of 1945 Romanée-Conti, the only wine he’s ever given 100 points to. He wonders, “Had I been transported to another emotional dimension because of something in me, in the wine, or a combination of the two?”
What is striking about this isn’t that Allen was transported “to another emotional dimension.” Anyone who loves wine has probably had that experience. It doesn’t occur often in one’s life; it may never occur, but when it does, you remember it. No, what hit me was that Allen allowed as to how “something in me” might have been responsible, or equally responsible, for whatever the experience of that wine did to him.
To me, the question–which Allen doesn’t directly answer, but I think his conclusion was that it really was “a combination of the two”--implies something I think we all know, but tend to overlook. Our experience of wine isn’t limited only to its hedonistic qualities, “hedonistic” in this case meaning the way it presents itself to the five senses. There is a sixth sense–call it esthetic, spiritual or emotional–we don’t understand well, because it’s not measurable, or even explainable, in common physiological terms. It is, in fact, the thing that makes up happy, that lifts our spirits, that makes us simply thankful it exists. Now, wine may be a feeble vehicle in which to arrive at such peak experiences. Other human beings, a painting or a poem, the sight of a puppy or kitten napping, hearing the speech of Dr. King may send us there far more frequently than a sip of wine. But when wine does it, it remains seared into the memory.
Writing this makes me think about the 100-point system, about rating wines, about blind tasting. The critics of all these things point out, with some justification, that in order to truly appreciate a wine, you must drink it in the full knowledge of what it is. That is the way Allen tasted the ‘45 Romanée-Conti and is in fact the way he tastes most of the wines he reviews. My own inclination, at this point in my career, is to taste wines blind, but still, I do wonder. Question: If you read the transcript of Dr. King’s I have a dream speech, would it have the same impact as hearing it? Put another way, do you think that if Allen had tasted the ‘45 Romanée-Conti blind, in a flight of old Burgundies, he would have given it the only 100 point score in his career? I don’t think so.
Allen–an intellectually honest man–recognizes that his experience with the ‘45 Romanée-Conti raises the question of consistency, which he calls “the greatest of all attributes for a critic.” Readers want to be reassured that a wine review from a trusted critic hews closely to, if it is not identical with, a second review of the same wine, by the same critic, written within a similar time period. It would serve the consumer poorly if, on one occasion, the critic gave the wine 84 points, and then on another occasion scored it 94 points. Readers would rightfully question that critic’s credentials.
But here’s another reflection Allen makes on that ‘45 Romanée-Conti. “Peak experiences require a certain moment in time, under just the right circumstances, with a certain knowledge, experience, and emotional state. Rarely can those circumstances be replicated.”
Think about that. Allen is basically saying that the wine tasting experience is not replicable! Granted, his proviso is for “peak experiences,” such as the ‘45 Romanée-Cont. But it’s not clear to me why those parameters should not apply to one’s experience of every wine, whether it’s a Napa cult Cabernet or Two Buck Chuck.
This is a conundrum I think about all the time: Since “just the right circumstances…and emotional state” are so variable over time, then why should we expect any consistency from wine critics? I suppose the answer is at once simple and complex, like most things. It’s simple, because if a wine is, say, horribly flawed, we would expect the critic to pan it regardless of how his own personal circumstance varies over time. Similarly, if a wine is absolutely fabulous (to that critic), then we should expect him to praise it every time, although it would be unreasonable for us to demand that he score it precisely the same. (I personally think a range of 4 points is perfectly acceptable for repeat tastings, given bottle variation and things of that sort.)
But then there are all the wines in the middle: neither horrible nor fabulous. That’s the neighborhood where most wines live. The truth is, they’re the hardest to score consistently, precisely because, as Allen says, no “moment in time” is ever quite the same as another. It’s these middle wines that can score the most inconsistently in repeated blind tastings. They have positive and negative qualities: and depending on where the taster is at that moment, the positive qualities may outweigh the negatives, or vice versa. That’s the subjective side of wine reviewing.
Does this irresolution make the reviewer’s job irrelevant or, worse, useless? I don’t think so. The one conclusion the reader should take away from every review is that, while the review may not have been carved in stone and handed down from the Deity to the critic, still, the reliable critic has tasted lots and lots of wines over time, and is in a better position than most people to make a pronouncement. In other words, the “truth” of a review is never absolute, but only relative. And that’s better than no truth at all.
I like Allen Meadow’s dictum about Burgundy, expressed in his new book, The Pearl of the Côte: “You may not always get what you pay for, but one thing’s for sure: You’ll never get what you don’t pay for.”
I’m sure that’s true of a region as old, established and well understood as Vosne, where they figured out a long time ago that, say, La Romanée is great terroir whereas Echezeaux is slightly less so–hence the difference in price.
What about California? Let’s take Allen’s Dictum and apply it to certain wines and regions.
Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux blends.
“You may not always get what you pay for.” True enough! I can’t tell you how many 85-87 point Cabs I’ve reviewed that cost more than $50, and sometimes a lot more, into triple digits. (Readers of my blog know that I don’t identify specific wines in a critical way. But you can always go to Wine Enthusiast’s free database and look up my scores. Then you’ll see who I’m talking about.) I don’t know about you, but I think it sucks when an 86 point wine costs $70. That is the very definition of “not getting what you pay for.”
However–and it’s a big however–the truth about Napa Valley is that, in general, you do get what you pay for. To pick one example, $275 for 2007 Araujo Eisele? At 98 points, it’s worth every penny (unless you happen to be of the Fred Franzia school of thought which declares that no wine is worth more than $10).
Do you have to pay that much for a 98 point wine? Nope. Consider Vine Cliff’s 2007 Oakville Cabernet, which also got 98 points, and costs “only” $75. The difference, I suppose, is bragging rights. I guess it’s flashier to put Araujo on your table than Vine Cliff.
Now, how about “You’ll never get what you don’t pay for” in Napa Cabernet. That, too, is true. You simply have to pay a lot of money for a top Cabernet (although, as we just saw with the Vine Cliff, “a lot of money” is a relative term). Still, the fact is that most of my very top scoring Cabs do cost in the triple digits. If you can’t afford that, then I’m afraid you’ll rarely get a great Napa Valley red wine.
California Pinot Noir.
This is a different story. “You may not always get what you pay for.” Well, that’s always true, across the board, in every variety, wine type or region in the world. But here, we have to be careful, because the statement “You may not always get what you pay for” is actually very complicated. Break it down, and you’ll see that it has to do with expectations. What if you’re disappointed when you taste an expensive Pinot Noir?
It could be that the wine actually is very good, only it’s not to your liking. Young Pinot is notoriously more difficult to appreciate than young Cabernet, especially if you don’t have a lot of experience. Maybe you prefer a lush, rich, high alcohol Pinot, and the one you bought is made in an earthier, more acidic style. (Of course, you should have done your homework before you spent, but that’s another story.) Still, it’s absolutely true that, in California Pinot Noir, “You may not always get what you pay for” occurs more frequently than in Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
How about “You’ll never get what you don’t pay for” in Pinot Noir. That, too, is true, and it’s even truer than it is with Cabernet Sauvignon. In Cabernet, there’s a chance that, with careful selection, you can get a fine Cabernet for $25. To pick but a single example (and there are many), I gave 91 points to Raymond’s 2008 Family Classic Cabernet Sauvignon, which has a Napa-Sonoma-Lake appellation. That’s a pretty good wine. Why Cabernet is easier to make good and inexpensive is because Cabernet isn’t really that hard to make to begin with. Get the grapes ripe, have sound winemaking practices, give it a little oak, and voila. Much of the rest is sizzle, not steak.
Good Pinot under $25? Fageddaboudit. Sure, dig through my database and you’ll find some 91s and 90s in the $11-$20 bracket, but not too many. It’s not much easier finding great Pinot from $21-$30, and such as there are tend to be notable for instant gratification rather than true, ageworthy complexity. Example: Melville 2010 Verna’s Estate Pinot Noir ($26), which I scored at 93 points. That’s an amazing bargain, which is why I gave it an Editor’s Choice special designation. But again, it’s an exception to the rule.
What about all those other varieties–Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc? Allen’s Dictum is far less relevant. It’s easier to find good versions of all these varieties at lower price points, while super-expensive bears less relation to quality than in Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon. (I consciously include Chardonnay in this generalization.) I guess that’s why Cabernet and Pinot are described as noble varieties. You do get what you pay for.
I love Wine Enthusiast’s database. It’s my brain, with memory: I can barely remember what I tasted 2 days ago, but that database remembers every wine I’ve reviewed since the 1990s. Not only does it remember them, it knows the date of my review, exactly what the score and text were, and–if I entered the data in the first place–what the alcohol was and even the case production.
Those are powerful tools to discern patterns and trends, which are different: A pattern might be, say, that Paso Robles had a particularly good year with Zinfandel in 2010. A trend would be for Paso Robles to have good Zinfandels year after year after year.
If I look at my top-scoring wines over many years, it’s evident that two varieties, clustered into growing regions, really define California at its greatest. Those would be Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (including the Sonoma Coast appellation) and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux blends, including all the valley’s sub-appellations.
It’s important for a wine region to have top exemplars. It sets the bar higher for all other varieties and regions, which is vital if a region is to advance, as not all do. Big scores also help to convince skeptics that the region is right up there with the world’s other top wine regions. And they affirm the efforts of those hard working zealots who have labored for so many years. Nobody likes to work hard and have their achievements go unrecognized.
Why Napa should produce such great Cabernets is easy to understand. They’ve been working at it for 150 years. Even if you discount the period during and immediately after Prohibition, when everything was on hiatus, Napa Valley really started getting serious about Cabernet in the 1960s. So they’ve had the better part of 60 years to work at it: figure out the best places to plant (and the inferior places not to), to analyze the soil (which can take decades to properly understand) and combine the right rootstocks and clones to the right blocks, to tinker with canopy management and cropping levels and figure out the most beneficial way to sort their fruit and get it to the winery. And that doesn’t even begin to address the improvements in enology.
Napa’s climate is ideal for the ripening of Bordeaux varieties. Being an extra mountain range (the Mayacamas) inland from the sea than Sonoma County, it has that extra bit of heat. But Napa also has what all inland California coastal valleys have: a pretty fierce diurnal temperature swing. That means that, regardless of how hot it gets during the day, nighttimes cool off rapidly. That’s what Cabernet (and Merlot and Cab Franc and Petit Verdot) need to maintain acidity.
That the Russian River Valley should be so hospitable to Pinot Noir is the surprise of a lifetime, I think, even to the pioneers (some of them no longer with us) who planted it there in the 1960s and 1970s. I mean folks like Joe Rochioli, Jr., Joe Swan, and a couple of others. I don’t think they really understood what they were doing. No disrespect, but they were working more with hopes and fingers crossed than with any foreknowledge of guarantee. But look what they did!
What’s so spectacular about Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is the breadth and depth that it’s achieved in only 40 years. The variety is now widely planted there, from Fort Ross way out (and up) on the coast, through the Goldridge soils of the southerly Laguna Ridges, all the way on up to near Healdsburg, in the northeast. We thus have a wide spectrum of terroirs, with enough wineries in each to make solid generalizations, mostly concerning temperature variations, soil being (IMHO) less important in the Russian River Valley than geographic location relative to the maritime influence.
(I’m still reading and enjoying Allen Meadows’ new book, The Pearl of the Côte, and if I had a dollar for every time he expresses irony or surprise that a particular vineyard performs well despite its soil [i.e. in unexpected, unstereotypical ways], I’d be a rich man. The point being that while much is made of soil and its effects, climate is a much more reliable predictor of wine style.)
No other Pinot region in California besides the Russian River Valley possesses these factors of widespread plantings over a wide region, with a density of producers and a history of production. Not Santa Rita Hills, not Santa Lucia Highlands, not even Carneros. Anderson Valley is beginning to, but it will take a few dozen more wineries to really let us figure it out, and that may never happen, given the peculiarities of doing business in that far-off region, so remote from San Francisco or any other population center.
I feel like Napa Valley and Russian River Valley are California’s Bordeaux and Burgundy. I don’t think that’s too far-fetched. We’re blessed to have such markers to calibrate everything else.
There’s something ironic about the fact that the New York contingent of wine writer/critics hates brash, in your face California Pinot Noirs. After all, isn’t that the essence of New Yawkahs–brash and in your face?
The latest would be John Mariani, writing this piece in Bloomberg decrying “blockbuster,” “fleshy,” “muscular,” and “hedonistic” Pinot Noirs, as though his delicate sensitivities as a Big Apple denizen allow him to covet only wines of timid, tremoring restraint. It’s passing strange.
But enough of the snark, let me defend why some of these high alcohol Pinot Noirs merit their place in the pantheon. Consider, for example, Armanino’s 2010 Amber Ridge Pinot Noir, from the Russian River Valley ($55). It clocks in officially at 15.1%, which in reality means the actual alcohol level may be slightly higher.
The overwhelming fact of that wine is deliciousness. In my review, which will be in the May 1 issue of Wine Enthusiast, I called it “vastly rich.” Amber Ridge Vineyard, which was planted in 2000, is just west of the 101 Freeway, near the town of Windsor and south of Healdsburg, making it somewhat warmer than, say, areas further west and south, such as Green Valley or the Laguna Ridges. That extra kick of heat no doubt accounts for the ripeness that translates into alcohol.
Yes, this region doesn’t yield your typical Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. The same vineyard, Amber Ridge, has been source to excellent Novy Syrah. But the Lees, who own Novy, also make an Amber Ridge Pinot Noir from their Siduri brand, with excellent results. And just to the south of Amber Ridge is Starr Ridge, a rather famous vineyard in its own right due to Gary Farrell’s consistent production of rich, ageworthy Pinot Noirs. So it’s not like this is no-man’s land for Pinot Noir. There certainly are cooling influences, from gaps that allow maritime air to filter in from Guerneville as well as the last punch that comes up through the Petaluma Gap. (Things heat up quickly as you cross the 101 and move into Chalk Hill, where the heat bunches up against the 1,500-foot Coast Ranges.)
Isn’t diversity of style a large part of the charm of Pinot Noir? Burgundians rave about the spectrum of wines within the Côte de’Or, everything from a big, sappy Vosnes to a lighter, more delicate Beaune. If there’s room for a spectrum in Burgundy, why not in California? That Armanino, and Pinots like it, shouldn’t be mindlessly thrown under the bus just because it doesn’t conform to a “Burgundian” template. Nor, I should add, ought a wine like the Patz & Hall 2009 Jenkins Ranch Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast, $55), with its alcohol level of 15.8% (another producer Mr. Mariani picked on). These wines may not be for everyone. But I’d like to see critics who don’t like that style at least credit them for being high-level examples of that style, instead of saying, “They’re not Burgundy.” They’re not supposed to be Burgundy. Their creators don’t want them to be Burgundy. They are legitimate expressions of their terroir, and they reflect house styles that have proven to be popular with many wine consumers and critics–including me.