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U.C. Davis V&E grads off to a promising start

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Speaking at U.C. Davis last night before a group of graduating students and faculty was really a thrill. As I told the audience in my opening remarks, to me, UCD’s Viticulture and Enology Department is like the Vatican City—not in a religious sense, of course, but as the spiritual center of winemaking in California, probably in the U.S., and as one of the greatest places to learn winemaking in the whole world.

As a budding wine reporter in the late 1980s and 1990s and on into the 2000s, many were the times I telephoned one of the famous professors there, to interview him or her for a story: Anne Noble, Andy Waterhouse, Mark Kliewer, Carole Meredith, James Wolpert, Linda Bisson, Roger Boulton, James Lapsley, Andrew Walker. These were often for articles of a technical nature, and I was always a little apprehensive that my ignorance of technical topics would bore these learned men and women. But they were patient with me, and I hope I didn’t make too many errors in my reporting!

Even before I was a wine writer, I was reading books by the likes of Maynard Amerine and Vernon Singleton, figures who were as historic, to a wine geek like me, as George Washington or Benjamin Franklin. I knew about Dr. Olmo, who created the “Olmo grape varieties,” although I never had the opportunity to interview him. I was aware of UC Davis’s history, its importance in the evolution of the California wine industry, and how nearly every winemaker I ever met in California seemed to have graduated from there. So in my mind, UC Davis’s V&E Department loomed large, and still does.

Dr. Boulton, who holds the Stephen Sinclair Scott Endowed Chair in Enology Department of Viticulture and Enology, was kind enough to give me an hour of his time. We toured the Robert Mondavi Institute and the nearby Jess S. Jackson Sustainable Winery Building,

BoultonDr. Boulton and the Jackson Sustainable Winery

both remarkable structures and centers of study and innovation, and both of them superb testaments to the legacies of two remarkable men. Then it was off to the Sensory Theatre, in the Mondavi Institute,

Theatre

for our actual tasting and talk. We went through five different clones of Pinot Noir all from the Cambria vineyard, in Santa Maria Valley, and all made identically, so that whatever differences there were had to come from the clones. That was interesting, and served the point of showing how different people discern different things in wine—even people of great education and training. Our conversation about the intricacies of marketing, critics and related topics became so involved that one of the event organizers had to cut it off, because time was up and the official program called for the presentation of awards to some of the top students. But afterwards, they had a most excellent barbecue on the lawn, and fortunately some of us were able to continue the conversation.

What a smart young group of future professional winemakers these grads are. Really brilliant, so well educated and conversant in the world’s wines. And they’re just getting started: most of them are now off to summer internships, in France, Chile, Napa Valley, all over the world—and then to their first jobs. Armed with such an excellent education, and with such smart, inquiring minds, they are a reassurance that the future of winemaking is in good hands.

 


A presentation at U.C. Davis

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Off to the University of California at Davis later today for a talk and tasting I’m giving this evening to DEVO, the Davis Enology and Viticulture Organization’s “190X,” an occasional discussion series at which “professionals in the wine industry” are invited to speak to about 70 V&E students and faculty members. They’ve asked me to talk about how the wine industry has changed over the course of my observations, and various aspects of marketing, and what I think of crowd-sourcing and the era of the Big Critics, so this should be a fascinating conversation.

Of course I’m including a tasting, of five different clones of Pinot Noir: 4, 115, 2A, 23 and 667, all made identically by winemaker Denise Shurtleff from grapes grown in Cambria’s vineyard, down on the Santa Maria Bench. I myself have never even done this particular tasting, so it will be interesting to see if we can detect significant differences in the wines (all 2013s), which would have to be due to the clones. I had made lists over the years of the generally-accepted qualities of the various Pinot Noir clones, but I have to say that actual tasting experience often belies these theoretical differences as they come up against the hard reality of site, farming practices, degree of ripeness and so on. However, even if we can’t agree on the particular tastes of, say, 2A versus 115, I’m sure we’ll be able to see differences. At any rate, these sorts of discussions—while they may not result in definitive conclusions—can be the launch-point for fun conversations.

For “How has the California wine industry changed?” I’ll start off with the 5-point timeline I’ve been developing in the last few months, specifically regarding Pinot Noir, but really, you can apply it to any variety in California.

  • plant anything anywhere 1940s-1950s (e.g. Pinot Noir in St. Helena)
  • better understanding of variety:region. Pinot to the water [1940s-current: Tchelistcheff, Martini to Carneros]
  • find best sites in best regions (e.g. not all of Carneros good: slopes best, mud flats not so much] 1980s – current
  • improve plant material, clones, rootstocks, canopy mgmt.1990s – current
  • find best blocks within vineyards. Ongoing and into the future.

As an example of 5.0, I cite the contrasting examples of Jackson Family’s Gran Moraine vineyard, up in Oregon, and the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. I tell people that Gran Moraine, at 150 acres, is a pretty big vineyard, right? And they all agree. Then I ask them how many acres they think the DRC is (I mean all seven vineyards-within-a-vineyard, or climats). No one ever knows precisely, but they usually guess that it’s far less than 150 acres (some think as few as ten), and they’re surprised when I tell them the DRC totals 198 acres (according to Richard Olney’s little book, Romanée-Conti).

The point I wish to make is that the DRC in addition to being a big vineyard is a very old vineyard. Olney cites a reference to a “Romanis” vineyard in Vosne from the year 282 A.D., and suggests that “La Romanée may have belonged to the Roman emperors” of that era. Certainly the vignerons of Vosne have had a long time to figure out which climats are which: why La Tâche is different from Richebourg, not to mention Montrachet, where they grow, not Pinot Noir, but Chardonnay. Why, then, should we not look at a vineyard like Gran Moraine and imagine that, with due diligence, some future grower/winemaker in the 22nd or 23rd century should not have discovered tiny blocks within the greater vineyard that are the equivalents of Grand Crus?

Of course, in California some vintners have already been engaged in that process. I think of Josh Jensen, at Calera, who has sub-divided his Mount Harlan vineyard into at least six climats (Selleck, Mills, Reed, Ryan, Jensen and de Villiers), and the Rochiolis, whose teardrop-shaped vineyard off River Road in the Russian River Valley is broken into distinct climats: River Block, Mid 40, Little Hill, Sweetwater and so on. Granted, Josh Jensen and the Rochiolis did their sub-dividing more quickly than it took the Romans or Burgundians to figure out the subtleties of the Cote de Nuits. And granted (as I am reminded by people whenever I talk about the DRC), marketing has played a perhaps pre-eminent role in shaping our perceptions of the seven climats. Still, and for whatever reason/s, the identification of climats in these famous vineyards seems to be inherent in their evolution, and in our relationships with them; consumers and connoisseurs like it, and owners are happy to provide it.

I plan also in my talk to cover the waterfront of other influences on the wine industry, from demographic shifts and the rise of the Big Critics to the advent of social media. But this post is already getting a bit long, so I’ll hold off for now and report on that tomorrow.

 


Carneros Chardonnay (and a little Pinot Noir)

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Spent the day yesterday in Carneros. It had been a while since I really walked the vineyards, smelled the flora and felt and tasted the dirt and rocks up there, so my visit was overdue. Plus, it was an unbelievably gorgeous day, the sort of Spring weather that tells you Winter will soon be but a distant memory. Carneros’s famous hills indeed were rolling, and as green as Irish grass after this winter’s rains.

Carneros

We started out at the Coteau Blanc Vineyard, which is source for one of the two single-vineyard Chardonnays from the JFW winery, Chardenet (itself part of Carneros Hills Winery). Parts of this vineyard were planted, or I should say replanted, about ten years ago, but the larger vineyard was long part of the Buena Vista’s old Ramal Road Vineyard, whose wines I always liked. It is said of Coteau Blanc that it contains rare limestone deposits—unusual for Carneros—and seeing is believing, for where the ground has been bared of cover crop you can easily see the white rocks.

CoteauDirt

The Chardonnay in particular has a tangy minerality that gives the wines grip and structure, but it is really the acidity that does it for me, so bright and crisp. It just highlights the green apples and tropical fruits, and winemaker Eric Johannsen never overoaks them. By the way, the 2013 is my preference over the blowsier ‘12s; by all accounts 2013 is going to be recorded as one of the most magnificent vintages in recent California history—and that’s saying a lot.

We also tasted, right in the vineyard, a Carneros Hills Pinot Noir, and it indeed had that earthy, slight herbaceousness I’ve associated with Carneros. I think that’s from the very cool conditions as well as the wind. With the warm, dry weather we’re enjoying, the cut grasses were all dried out and golden-colored, so I scooped up a bunch and shoved my nose into it and did find similarities between that clean, inviting spicy hay aroma and something in the wine. But then, maybe my mind was looking for it, and we do usually find what we’re looking for, don’t we. But the Pinot Noirs from that vineyard are quite good.

Then it was on to an old favorite, the Fremont Diner,

Fremont

which hasn’t changed a bit in all the years I’ve gone there. The food can be a little, uhh, cholesterolly [neologism alert!], but it’s fun and easy and has lots of parking, and is right there on the Carneros Highway, so easy to get to both Napa and Sonoma. I took this picture of our group having lunch,

Lunch

and it reminds me of an old Brueghel painting of a bunch of people having fun.

Breughel

Then we drove a few miles northwest to the famous Durell Vineyard. It’s right at the intersection of where the Sonoma Coast and Sonoma Valley AVAs come together, and I think the Carneros line is mixed up somewhere around there, too. An interesting, complex region where site is all-important. Chardenet bottles a Durell Chardonnay that is broader-shouldered, softer and more powerful than the Coteau Blanc, but then, the weather is a little warmer at Durell than Coteau Blanc, which is right near San Pablo Bay, so that on a clear day you can see the office towers of downtown San Francisco. Here’s a picture of Eric Johannsen in Durell.

EricDurell


Three cities in five days: A week on the road

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I felt horribly guilty at not posting for two days in a row, last Thursday and Friday, for the first time in 8-1/2 years. But, as this little photo essay suggests, we were really busy all week, so much so that when I finally got back to my hotel rooms late at night, all I wanted to do was brush my teeth and fall into bed. So I have a good excuse.

To begin with, I was on a tour for West Burgundy Wine Collective (WBWC), a new portfolio within Jackson Family Wines that specializes in small production, estate-driven Pinot Noirs from JFW’s best coastal vineyards. The wines are Gran Moraine (Yamhill-Carlton, in the Willamette Valley), Wild Ridge (Annapolis, on the Far Sonoma Coast), Champ de Reves (high above Boonville, in the Anderson Valley), Chardenet (our Carneros winery, with Chards from the Coteau Blanc estate and the nearby Durell Vineyard), and Siduri. The latter is, of course, produced in Santa Rosa, but winemaker Adam Lee crafts Pinots from dozens of vineyards up and down the West Coast, among them Hirsch, Pisoni and Cargasacchi.

These were my fellow panelists:

FullPanel

From left to right, Eugenia Keegan (Gran Moraine), Julia Jackson (Jess Jackson’s and Barbara Banke’s younger daughter), Eric Johannsen (Champ de Reves and Chardenet), Craig McAllister (Wild Ridge), Adam Lee (Siduri) and yours truly. Not in the picture was moderator Gilian Handleman. Our traveling band of road warriors hit up three cities in four days: Seattle, Portland and L.A. This photo was at the Montage, in Beverly Hills. Fancy-schmancy.

MontageBevHills

We also traveled with a complement of JFW folks including the great Lou Rex, the best event organizer I’ve ever met (and I’ve known a lot). A trip like this requires a vast amount of preparation: You’re responsible for 13 people for five days, and for all the details, from luggage delivery to placemats. Lou does this with tremendous professionalism, and always remains smiling, gracious and encouraging. Well done, Ms. Rex, well done!

It goes without saying that we ate a lot and drank a lot. I myself am not a particularly heavy drinker (I know that’s hard to believe but it’s true), but on a trip like this, you can’t help but imbibe a little more than is usual. In my case the drinks ran the gamut from wine to beer and Champagne and my favorite cocktail, a vodka gimlet, absolutely dry, on the rocks, with nothing but freshly-squeezed lime juice, which I enjoy at night. I pretty much crawled off to bed earlier than my [younger] colleagues, but that’s cool. I used to have that capacity but now find I need a solid eight hours of shuteye, and nine is even better.

I don’t want to tease anybody but here are some pictures of the food we ate at various venues in various cities. Sorry I can’t tell you what everything was but I wasn’t taking notes.

FamilyStyle

HotsHermosaThis was at Hots, in Hermosa Beach.

HerringboneThis was Herringbone, in Santa Monica, and man oh man, what great seafood.

Incidentally, when we were on the Seattle leg of the trip, I had the greatest steak in my life at John Howie, in the suburban town of Bellevue. I never order steak in a restaurant, not because I don’t like steak, but because I’ve been disappointed so often. Tough, gristly, dry, boring. But everybody said you have to have steak at John Howie, so I did, and OMG, seriously, this is profound protein. Unbelievable. I dreamed about it, couldn’t stop talking about it for days. I myself had the 4-ounce Japanese Wagyu filet, but I tried little bits of other people’s steaks and they were every bit as good. I’m just glad I didn’t have to pay the bill.

We were fortunate enough that the Jackson Family allowed us to use one of the company planes on this trip, which is a very great luxury, and don’t think for a moment that I take it for granted. Flying up to Seattle I took this picture of Rainer (I think),

Rainier

and although we flew right by Mount St. Helens, with its blasted-out north face, I didn’t take any pictures. I loved Portland, especially the Pearl District,

Portland

which reminded me of Oakland. Flying back from Oregon to Santa Rosa, we passed over the Willamette Valley

WillametteWayHome

then over Alexander Valley and I got this shot of Mt. St. Helena as the sun was setting in the west, and how beautiful is that.

MtStHelena

We also flew by a very active Geysers area.

Geysers

And coming back from L.A. we flew over the San Gabriel Mountains, although this picture doesn’t really do them justice,

SanGabesHome

and then just west of the Sierra, which actually has a lot more snowpack this year than in the past five.

 

SierraWayHome

 

On the Jackson plane we made the time pass quickly by playing Bananagrams.

Banana+Pommery

When I got home, it was great to see Gus, who was staying with a neighbor. He spotted me from half-a-block away and, while he doesn’t particularly enjoy running (he’s more of a pokey-sniffy dog), he came as fast as his little legs could carry him and gave me a good face licking.

As I told the audiences in all three cities, I want people to understand that the Jackson family is utterly committed to making really great Pinot Noirs from the most site-specific, terroir-driven vineyards in Oregon and California. I think sometimes people don’t realize that. Kendall-Jackson is certainly the base of the JFW pyramid, but as you ascend towards the summit you have other JFW estates on five continents that are striving to be the most profound wines in the world. Gran Moraine, Champ de Reves, Wild Ridge, Chardenet, Siduri’s tiny-production vineyard designates—these are really fabulous wines, and this Jackson family is committed to do whatever it takes to continue to up quality. And, as I also said, with young vineyards like Gran Moraine, Champ de Reves and Wild Ridge, it’s going to take generations to really get it right, but, after all, it took Burgundy a thousand years, so be patient; it will be worth the ride. I know the WBWC winemakers; they are real people, serious pros, driven, smart, sensitive, striving to understand every square inch of their sites in the grand Burgundian manner. Yes, I work at JFW, so you have the right to be dubious; but most of you know I don’t say shit I don’t believe or else you wouldn’t be reading me.

More tomorrow.


From the road: Portland Oregon

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Up here in Portland, Oregon, a town I haven’t really spent much time in, and I must, what a cool place. Of course it helps that the weather has been so beautiful—much better than in Northern California, where the past week has been dismal and cold. The neighborhood they call the Pearl District reminds me of parts of Baltimore, where I was two weeks ago, and also the area of San Francisco around the Barbary Coast: old brick buildings (fortunately seismically retrofitted!) that have been rehabbed and loved back to their exciting historical roots, making them great places to live and work. We had dinner at Paragon Restaurant & Bar, in the heart of the Pearl. With the warm night, the ‘hood was swarming with life, and I swear, there were ten bars and cafés on every block. Portland clearly is a town that loves to eat and drink! Young, too. But, as I discovered from talking with some locals, they are experiencing the same difficulties with rising housing prices as is happening up and down the Pacific Coast, from Vancouver to La Jolla, although rents and home prices aren’t anywhere near what they are in San Francisco and, increasingly, Oakland.

Anyhow, I could live up here! The Pearl is exactly the kind of neighborhood I’ve always lived in: inner city-urban, densely packed, with old buildings and lots of stuff going on.

* * *

Why do some people call “Parkerization” a dirty word?

They do, you know, as a symbol for wines that are overblown, over-alcoholed, over-oaked, overpriced and over-manipulated.” With Parker’s recent retirement from reviewing Bordeaux, the topic of Parkerization has re-arisen. For instance, in this reporting by Yahoo, they refer to his “his preference for predominantly wood flavours, strong tannins and high alcohol content.” Well, naturally, nobody wants wines that are over-anything, whether it’s oak, alcohol, blown, manipulated or priced; and certainly there are plenty of those kinds of wines. But let it not be forgotten that there’s a Good Twin to the Evil Twin of Parkerization: too many wines pre-Parker were thin and boring and, quite frankly, not well made. Parker dragged sometimes reluctant wineries into modern times, forcing them to clean up their acts and actually get the grapes to ripen correctly so that they tasted good. He doesn’t get enough praise for that—people fasten on the excesses and thus end up throwing the baby away with the bathwater.

* * *

Well, tomorrow (Tuesday, today as you read this) it’s off on a whirlwind visit to Seattle that will be over so fast, I won’t even have time to see my family up there. The temperature is supposed to be in the mid-80s, which I personally love, but really, seems pretty hot considering we’re halfway to the Aleutians. They tell me the Pacific Northwest has been very rainy lately, but also very warm: Global warming, I should think. Then, after Seattle, it’s another whirlwind trip to L.A. and back home—and to Gus—on Friday. I’ll try to blog everyday this week but with this schedule, don’t blame me if my posts seem a little slapdash—like this one.


More adventures on the sales road

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Saturday afternoon, in-flight on United, somewhere above Iowa

Returning from my four days back East on a sales trip to the “DMV”—my friend Liz Kitterman’s acronym for the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia circuit she covers. I’m struck by the many kinds of people I interacted with as part of the job. Some were somms or other buyers for upscale restaurants, like The Capital Grille. Some were buyers for supermarket chains, like Wegman’s (and wow, what a foodie paradise that is), or for their own small wine stores, like finewine.com, which despite the dot-com is a bricks-and-mortar store, and a good one.

Some whom I met were floor staff at restaurants; some were “just the public,” people who don’t work in the wine, food or hospitality industries, but love wine and are curious enough to go to an event to learn more about it, like the lovely people I met at the chic and genteel Chevy Chase Club,

CHEVY

where we showed six wines over a nice dinner that included a first-timer for me: Maryland soft shell crab.

Each of the people I met is different, and yet each is motivated by the need, or desire, to “up” their level of knowledge of wine. As the educator (I don’t really like that word, it sounds school-marmy, but it’ll have to do), it’s my job to have a mastery of all the information pertaining to the wines we’re tasting and talking about, but that’s not all, because the amazing and delightful thing is the unexpected questions people ask. You have to be able to think on your feet. For example, Friday night, at Chevy Chase, for a while there I felt like I was on the witness stand with the D.A. cross-examining me. Afterwards, a couple people came up and said, “Man, they were really grilling you,” and I replied, “I love it!” Because I do. There are two ways to go about this job. You can memorize a set of talking points, like a politician giving a speech, and hope they don’t ask you tough questions, or you can encourage people to use their noodles and think; and if that means they ask you tough questions, then great, because, let’s face it, honest people have nothing to hide, smart people like to have their intelligence put to the test, and sociable people like to engage. Tough questions are enlightening, not only for the asker, but for the askee.

Not that I don’t have my talking points. I’m out there to work: there are certain Jackson Family Wines that are being emphasized at any given event– the ones we’re pouring for the people–so I have to pretty much know everything about them. I always ask my colleagues at JFW to please tell me in advance what wines we’re going to be pouring, because JFW has more than fifty wineries on five continents, and I don’t think anyone, not even a Jackson, not even someone who’s worked there for thirty years, not even a Master Somm, knows everything about every SKU: history of the winery, elevation of the vineyard, age of the vines, fermentation regime, alcohol level, barrel type, precise nature of the soils, weather at harvest time, the blend, the clone/s, the latitude of the vineyard/s, how many acres of that particular variety are grown in France, or America, or wherever…that sort of thing; and all of those things have been asked of me. So you have to do your homework before you leave the house, and that’s why I ask my colleagues to please tell me which wines we’ll be pouring. (And, yes, I do have cheat sheets!)

We had long days and nights, and I got tired, especially with the jet lag, and sometimes, before a particularly big or important presentation, there’s some stage fright. But I’ve learned two things about myself. One is that, no matter how nervous I get right before I go “onstage,” it’s natural; the nervousness immediately disappears once “the curtain rises,” and I feel like the seasoned trooper I am: you have to have a bit of the ham in you to do this, and I am perhaps an actor manqué. Besides, there’s something strangely familiar and comforting about public speaking, which I did a lot of at Wine Enthusiast and when I wrote my books. Another thing I’ve learned is that fatigue can be illusory: you may think you’re tired, when in reality you’re really not, but instead you possess hidden reserves of energy just waiting to get out. After the big Friday night event (which followed a full day of things, which followed an equally busy Wednesday and Thursday), I was ready to hit the sack at my hotel, having already been sleep-deprived for most of the week, and needing to wake up at 5 a.m. the next morning to catch my flight back to SFO. Alas, my colleagues prevailed upon me to go with them to Black’s Bar & Kitchen, a supercool nightspot in Bethesda. I begged off; they insisted; I went, expecting to have just a quick nightcap and then go back to the hotel and blessed sleep. But such was the energy at Black’s, and so restorative were the oysters, and the fried clams, and the charcuterie, and my Ketel One Gibsons, and our server, not to mention the delightful company I was with, that I suddenly felt no fatigue at all; on the contrary was happy; and when confronted with the certainty of yet another sleep-deprived night, I thought to myself [rhymes with “bucket”], laissez les bon temps rouler. You need to savor the good times when they come, for they may not come again.

So now (Saturday afternoon), maybe over Nebraska, feeling sleepy yet peaceful, I write these words. I’ll catch some zzz’s here in seat 25-A before we land, then it’s a taxi ride home for a much-awaited reunion with Gus.

GUS


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