I’ve long had a soft spot for Alexander Valley, the AVA in Sonoma County that stretches up from Healdsburg to the Mendocino County line, at Cloverdale.
I came to know the valley especially well during the year I spent writing my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River. I got it into my head to describe how the Russian River first “turned on,” and found that a description of its physical beginnings had never been written–at least, so far as I could tell. So I spent a great deal of time on and along the River, and talked to a great many geologists (none of whom agreed with the others), and then came to my own conclusions, which you can read in the first chapter, “Out of the Pangaean Mists a River is Born.”
It’s one thing to get to know a region through books and maps. It’s quite another to trek it. And I did trek the Alexander Valley, in all seasons. I got drenched in winter rains, almost died capsizing a canoe on a whitewatery part of the river just outside Asti, sweated in summer heat on Rattlesnake Hill and Iron Horse’s old T-bar-T ranch, heard the hoarfrost crackle on the cold night ground while I lit a fire in an old cabin in Geyserville, ate lunch and drank wine on a sandbar, crawled through the prickly, poison ivy’d, spider-webby undergrowth of the river’s banks, tasted in my mouth the stones and dirt from Seghesio’s vineyard, climbed to the top of Squaw Rock and got dizzy looking down, met all manner of characters, visited the valley’s oldest burial ground, did tasting after tasting at as many wineries as I could, ate and drank immoderately and in general absorbed the valley into my genes (or maybe it absorbed me).
My feelings concerning Alexander Valley’s wines have not changed a great deal over the years. I always had respect and affection for them, even if the appellation seemed to be missing the excitement and glamour of, say, the Russian River Valley or the Sonoma Coast. Solid wines, you might call them, but the appellation’s boundary’s are stupid beyond recognition. They extend from the shore of the Russian River to 2,800 feet up into the Mayacamas Mountains. Surely we can do better.
There’s a conservatism about the Alexander Valley that is partly explained by its geographical location. Anyone who knows Sonoma County understands that it is divided culturally into east and west. West Sonoma is Sebastopol and Guerneville: hippies, pot, incense, environmentalists, Democrats, anarchists, the counter-culture. Inland Sonoma by contrast has long been the farming community, by nature less open to change. I don’t mean to make this distinction hard and fast–and certainly, the gentrification of places like Cloverdale, and the wine lifestyle that has changed Healdsburg so remarkably, are shifting things. But these generalizations, I think, hold true.
Alexander Valley knows what it does well, wine-wise; it’s done it for a long time, and it would be imprudent to expect it to change course mid-stream (or mid-river, as the case may be). This weekend (May 18-19), the valley hosts the annual Taste Alexander Valley event. Wineries open their doors, there’s plenty of food and laughter, and the weather will be sunny and warm. I’ll be there today and Friday, doing a couple pre-event seminars, and I hope to run into you.
and then wake up at 6 a.m. the next morning (this morning, as you read it), there’s not much time or brain matter to come up with a detailed blog post. So today, there won’t be one! I’ll just say Le Cirque is old-fashioned NY, glamorous and retro. You expect the Rat Pack to come noisily in, already drunk. The wine list is Classic, which is to say it caters to a wealthy clientele who knows what they like and doesn’t want to be surprised. The food? So-so, from what I could tell. You don’t go to Le Cirque for culinary adventurism.
The Red & White Bash itself was loads of fun. The band played the Charleston,the crowd was happy, while the pretty acrobats in their swinging moons smiled down on it all like guardian angels. There were skinny guys on stilts and wine, lots of wine, oceans of wine. I didn’t drink much there (I never do when I’m “on”), just a few lovely glasses: K-J 2006 Stature (still with years of life ahead), a nice, buttery Gallo Chardonnay from the Santa Lucia Highlands. By the time we got to Le Cirque all I wanted was a dirty Ketel One martini.
Now I’m in our midtown hotel (The Hudson), with two hours to get it together and get to JFK. I cannot wait to see Gus.
Have a great weekend. I’ll be more coherent on Monday morning when the topic will be…CHINA!
Lots of work-related travel coming up. I’m off to New York for a quickie tomorrow to attend the big Red and White Bash, Wine Enthusiast’s 25th anniversary celebration, at the Hudson Hotel, on West 58th, in busy midtown. From the sound of it, it’s going to be quite the par-tay. I already have my red and white “costume,” and Chuck lent me a really cool papier-måché mask he bought in London.
Then next week, it’s up to Geyserville for the Alexander Valley Cabernet Academy. This is an offshoot of the annual Taste Alexander Valley consumer event, but the Cabernet Academy is an invitation-only thing for sommeliers. They fly in from all over the place for a series of seminars–four in all–which I’ll be moderating, at different locations throughout the valley.
The idea is to see if there are terroir differences between the southern, middle and northern stretches of Alexander Valley. This is a topic I hadn’t given much thought to before, so in the next week, I plan to study it. My impression, up to now, is that the major distinction in Alexander Valley terroir is between mountains and flatlands. If you take a property like Stonestreet, or Verité, they have to have an Alexander Valley appellation even though they’re thousands of feet up in the Mayacamas. That’s the same AVA all those wineries along Route 128 have, down on the valley floor, which makes no sense at all.
The late Jess Jackson tried for years to get his mountain vineyards under a new appellation. The mountain they’re on historically has been called Black Mountain. Jess wanted it changed to Alexander Mountain. He lost that one, a rare defeat for a man who seldom lost anything in his long, illustrious life. I don’t care what they call it, but that mountain does need a separate appellation.
At any rate, I think the temperature is a little hotter the further north you go in Alexander Valley, as it is in Napa Valley. The average high in July in Cloverdale, for instance. Is 93 degrees, while mid-valley, at Geyserville, it’s a little over 90. At Healdsburg, in the southernmost part, the average July high is 88.8 degrees. So there is that spread. But this is a simplistic way of looking at things, as there’s so much more involved. Along the Russian River, the soils are deep and fertile. As you climb the benches and get into the mountains, they become drier, thinner and less rich in nutrients. The mountains also are cooler, an important consideration in such a hot place.
Then, after Alexander Valley, I’m off to the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival, where I’ll be co-hosting, along with Michael Jordan, M.S., a tasting of the Cabernets of Pritchard Hill. (Michael told me he was inspired to organize this tasting after reading the article on Pritchard Hill I wrote last year for Wine Enthusiast. The confirmed winemakers and wineries for our panel at this point are Phillip Titus (Chappellet), Andy Erickson (Ovid), Phillipe Melka (Brand), David Long (David Arthur) and Carlo Mondavi (Continuum). This panel will be a high point of the festival, but only one of many: as you can see from the schedule of events, Kapalua is a fabulous four days of some of the greatest wines and winemakers in California (not to mention food. I’m assuming the hotel has a gym where I can burn off the calories!). I can’t wait to go. My only regret is that Gus won’t be able to come with me. He loves the beach.
Is great wine the product of terroir, technique, or both?
Regular readers of my blog know that this question, or concept, intrigues me as do few others. I’ve frequently quoted the great Prof. Peynaud, who says terroir is Mother Nature; when man brings his or her own touch to the finished product, the combination of the two, he calls “cru.” As he expresses it, somewhat complexly, in The Taste of Wine: The Art and Science of Wine Appreciation, “The cru…is the wine-producing property, the chateau, different from its neighbors.” At the same time, this definition includes not just physical attributes such as climate, soils, slope, elevation and so on, but “the three activities of production, processing and marketing.” And P.R.? Yes, that too.
This definition of terroir is pretty broad; it’s one I accept, and if everyone else did, we could cease these eternal hand-wringings on what constitutes terroir. Still, the definition raises exciting and troubling implications: If I take the grapes from a single wine-producing property, divide them into three parts, and give three different winemakers one of those parts to vinify, will the resulting wines all show the terroir of the site? Or will they be so different that we can only explain their distinctions by the technique of their winemakers?
This is precisely what The Cube Project explores. The brainchild of Anne Amie’s winemaker, Thomas Houseman, it was formed “to evaluate the impact of winemaking vs. terroir.” Anne Amie is in the Willamette Valley; its two partner wineries are Bouchaine, in the Carneros, and Lincourt, down in the Sta. Rita Hills. Each of the winemakers took a single block of Pinot Noir from the estate vineyard in the 2010 vintage, divvied it into three shares and sent two of them (very carefully) to the other two winemakers. Then all three crafted the best wine he or she could.
Two nights ago, the three winemakers–Andrew Brooks from Bouchaine, Leslie Renaud from Lincourt, and Houseman–hosted a dinner at Roy’s San Francisco. This was an event not even I, who generally eschew these kinds of trade events, could pass up–and not only because I love Roy’s Hawiaiian-fusion food!
There were so many questions to be answered. Could we really detect commonalities between the three wines from each place? I mean, we knew what they were; but, if you didn’t, could you have? I personally found all the Anne Amie wines quite a bit higher in acidity than the others, across all three winemakers, so maybe I could have nailed them in a blind flight. The Carneros and Sta. Rita Hills bottlings were closer in personality, with softer textures and brighter fruit.
Did I detect winemaker styles? Not really. I thought that Andrew (Bouchaine) and Leslie (Lincourt) succeeded in making fine wines from all three sites. Thomas, on the other hand, seemed like he struggled with the two California selections. As I told Andrew afterward, it was as if he didn’t “get” California, and couldn’t quite figure out how to get a handle on the (relative) softness and fruitiness. His own Anne Amie wine was complex and lovely, but the others were puzzling.
Leslie had described her thinking process this way: When the grapes show up at her winery, she tastes them, and then starts thinking how she’ll vinify them. I asked Andrew for some of his decision points in the process. Here’s a partial list:
Destemming or not?
To inoculate or not? And with what?
To pump over or punch down, and how frequently?
What’s your maximum fermentation temperature?
When to drain off the juice?
Include press wine?
How long to let the wine settle before putting in barrel?
Cooperage and toast level
Natural malo or inoculate?
Stirring, if any?
Racking, if any?
Time in barrel
You can see how Peynaud’s “production and processing” play a huge role in determining the wine’s final qualities. Each one of these steps has multiple solutions, and each can dramatically impact the final product.
Thomas made an interesting statement: “It’s easier to tell the winemaker’s hand when the wines are young. As they age, the terroir shows through.” I think that’s probably true, although it’s also true that bottle variation becomes greater the older the wine is. Meanwhile, it’s only fair to say that the statement, made by many fine winemakers, that “the wine is made in the vineyard. I have little to do with it” is untrue, if romantic. The winemaker has everything to do with it; but it’s equally true that even the greatest winemaker cannot make fine wine from merde.
Running into Gary Eberle again at this weekend’s big Cab event in Paso Robles brought back beautiful memories. I first met Gary when I was sent by the magazine I used to work for to write a story about him.
That must have been around 1990. I’d heard of him, of course, for by then, he was already famous as one of the founding fathers of Paso Robles (the old Estrella River brand, followed, in 1981, by Eberle). But Paso, unfortunately, back then was not particularly esteemed as a wine region, so Gary’s wines had more respect than love among the critics’ club I was about to join. One of the country’s top critics said his Cabernets “ha[d] shown promise at times” but were “variable in quality.”
Now, before I go any further, it’s time to deconstruct this off-used critics’ meme. When a winery “shows promise” it means that it’s officially on the critic’s radar, and that he has some reason to like it. However, what troubles the critic is that he can’t quite convince himself that the wine is worth really committing himself to. If I may indulge in a gender metaphor, it’s like he’s dated her a few times, is interested…but he’s interested in a lot of different wines and isn’t ready to go steady yet.
Still, he can’t quite bring himself to throw the wine under the bus. They had some fun times together…remember that summer night with the barbecued steak? Things were just about perfect, with the stars twinkling in the black sky and the soft August breeze teasing out the jasmine, and the second bottle nearly drained. But she’s only a working girl, a Paso chick with sunburn on the back of her neck, more Brad Paisley than will.i.am. The critic isn’t sure she’s the girl he wants to bring back and introduce to Mom…or bear his children.
Hence “variable in quality.” Do not, gentle reader, make the mistake of thinking this means that the critic has tasted every one of the winery’s wines over many vintages and found that, one year, the Cabernet is 91 and the next it’s 83. That may be the case; it may not; it may simply be that the critic (for whatever reason) is loathe to commit, and the finest excuse for not committing–a 24 karat excuse, one no one can ever disprove–is that the wines “are variable.” Who would argue with such a statement? “You think the wines are NOT variable?” the critic exclaims, his eyes wide and pitying. “Then, my friend, I’m afraid you haven’t tasted them consistently. Or, even worse, you do not have the palate to discern variable quality.
Then it hits Twitter: “Big critic says wines variable.” Next thing you know, the guest wine blogger for the Cedar Rapids Press Blowhard writes, “The wines are known to be variable” and, voila! a reputation is cemented.
End of segue: Back to Gary Eberle. At Saturday’s Cabernet Collective event, most of the younger winemakers on the panel paid homage to Gary. As well they should have. It’s hard to exaggerate Gary’s influence on Paso Robles. It’s a sign of a maturing wine region when a new generation comes in and recognizes the role that the pioneers played. That’s not always the case: there are appellations in California where new people come in and act like they invented everything…as if nothing had existed before they arrived..how ridiculous. It’s beautiful and refreshing when new people give props to those who came before them.
To Paso Robles this afternoon for a quick trip to moderate the first CAB Collective, a local group organized to promote the Cabernet Sauvignons of Paso Robles. Good timing: Paso is on the verge of a renaissance, if it’s not already happening, and tastemakers–sommeliers, writers, chefs–are starting to take note, especially of its red wines. Alcohol levels seem to have moderated in recent years, making the wines more balanced. Meanwhile, a new generation of winemakers (one might call them contrarians) is exploring Paso’s terroirs with renewed vigor, particularly on the west side.
There’s never enough time on these trips to do everything I want. For that matter, there’s never enough time in my life to go on all the trips I want. I’d love to get down to Paso, and Santa Barbara, and other destinations south four or five times a year; but that’s impossible. There’s been talk for years of sub-dividing Paso Robles into multiple AVAs. Some years ago, a proposal to establish an East Side and West Side appellation was killed amidst intense opposition. I’d love sometime to have someone familiar with the region drive me around and explain how the climate and soils change from place to place. Even after all these years, I feel the gaps in my knowledge. This map, courtesy of Tablas Creek, is helpful in understanding the wind flow patterns from west to east. It shows how the “Templeton Gap” effect is no simple thing, but instead is a spider-webby pattern that may impact one property while leaving another nearby alone.
Meanwhile, the battle over expanding the Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills AVA is heating up. I inadvertently got involved in it earlier this week, although I’ll spare you the dreary details. It’s a shame how these boundary line fights pit neighbor against neighbor, in a kind of Civil War. I recall a similar fuss some years ago concerning expanding the Russian River Valley’s lines (which eventually was approved despite some intense local opposition).
And who could forget the turmoil that arose when some folks in Napa Valley talked about establishing Rutherford Bench and Oakville Bench appellations? I was unable to find an online link to anything about it, but in the 1990s that brouhaha was tearing Napa apart. It went nowhere.
People take their AVAs seriously. An AVA is hard enough to get established anyway (consider that a branch of the Treasury Department is involved). It takes a lot of time and costs a lot of money, and I can understand why, once one is up and running, the people in it don’t want to tinker with it anymore. At the same time, the wine industry is a for-profit place, and, since wines from a smaller, prestigious appellation tend fetch higher prices than wines from bigger appellations, someone who’s outside is always going to want to be inside. It’s only human nature. But it can get ugly. I hope the Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills people get this situation under control soon. It’s not good for anyone. Can’t we all just get along?