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Exploring Willamette Valley

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I’ve drank my share of Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs over the years and enjoyed them very much, but I hadn’t been up there since the 1990s. So it was with eager anticipation that I few to McMinnville yesterday for a short but intensive crash course in all things Willamette.

I was lucky in having as my tour guide the invaluable services of Eugenia Keegan, whom I’ve known since her days at Bouchaine. She now is in charge of Jackson Family Wines’ winemaking efforts throughout Oregon, which is to say Eugenia’s got a big, important job.

Prior to my trip I had a fairly sound academic knowledge of Willamette. You could hardly call it exhaustive or even particularly current: I can hardly keep up with all the new brands in California, much less in a state that’s not my own. So how does a curious wine writer even begin to take in and learn about a wine region as large and diverse as Willamette Valley?

Slowly and patiently. I decided not to try and cram dozens of details of scattered bits of knowledge into my brain, but to sit back and absorb. Just let the sights, sounds, scents and information from Eugenia seep in, sort themselves out, and settle, like lees in a barrel. Fortunately, the day was superb, the weather chilly and cloudy in the early morning, but clearing by 11 a.m. to reveal blue, expanseless skies. The temperature quickly warmed up to the high 70s.

My impression of the Willamette is a compound picture of wide spaces flanked by mountains on both sides, but the mountains are much further apart than they are in any California wine valley. Nor is there the grapevine monoculture one sees in California wine valleys, with vast, unbroken carpets of grapes lining the floor and slopes. I found the vineyards relatively scattered, interspersed with hazelnut trees, feed grasses and bovines, and the most insanely cute little towns. I also gained an appreciation of different terroirs: Someone had mentioned that two ranges of hills, miles apart, had very similar conditions of soil and climate; but when we drove from the first to the second one, great differences of terroir leaped out to my eye. The soil was beige-white, not orange; and the foliage was completely different, being lusher than in the first vineyard. Then I learned that the second vineyard was considerably further inland. That made total sense: the further inland you go, the warmer it gets.

I mention these relatively trivial details only to share how my mind works. At some point I will throw myself into the details of weather, soils and history in the Willamette Valley. But I think the best way to newly learn about a wine region is simply to open the senses to their maximum extent and allow yourself to be assaulted by impressions. It’s getting a feel for a place, as opposed to forming an opinion or stereotype about it, which one then imposes on the region.

On the short flight back home we passed right over the Lake County burn area, which was very sad. The Valley Fire has largely passed out of the daily news, but the many victims, who lost so much, will endure their harrowing ordeal for a long time. It was a sobering reminder of the vagaries of daily existence—a message from the Universe to appreciate what we have right now, in the moment, because it could all disappear in an instant.

A busy week

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Off to Willamette Valley today, my first trip there in many years. This is to check out some of Jackson Family Wines’ vineyard holdings. Yesterday, after a brief meeting at JFW in Santa Rosa, I zoomed back to Oakland to get to BART to go to San Francisco for a greatly anticipated meeting with California Lieutenant-Governor Gavin Newsom. I’ll be doing a Q&A with him on the blog early next week, when I get a chance to transcribe our long interview. Then, on Thursday, it’s the final baseball game of the year, Giants versus Dodgers, with old pal Jose Diaz. On Friday, another tasting with my JFW family, this time of Santa Rita Hills Chardonnays. So it’s been and will be a busy week.

I will offer this little peek into my conversation with Governor Newsom. (“Governor” actually is the proper honorific; not “Lieutenant-Governor.”) He is very optimistic about the future of the wine, food and entertainment industries in California, which is why his PlumpJack Group of companies is rapidly expanding.


People, especially younger ones, want to enjoy the good life, and in coastal California, the good life is all about eating and drinking well, with friends, in a companionable atmosphere. Throw in a little music and dancing, and that’s it! I remember when I moved to San Francisco, longer ago than I care to remember. I was young, happy, and had a little money. There was nothing better than being with pals, out on the town at night, laughing and having a great time. Of course, the problem now is that, in the late Seventies and Eighties, you didn’t need a lot of money to have fun in San Francisco. Now, you do. Even so, I knew people at that time who remembered the San Francisco of the 1950s and 1960s, and who complained that the City was changing too fast, was becoming too expensive, etc. etc.

So some things never change. San Francisco always is in the process of becoming. People move there, fall in love with it, and want it to stay exactly the same as it was in their glory days. Not going to happen. Nothing stays the same. I’ll venture a prediction: Twenty years from now, that technie who’s now in his 20s is going to gripe about how the San Francisco of the 2030s isn’t the same as it used to be! But San Francisco, whenever you move there, always retains its charm, its hold on you, its power to mesmerize you into thinking it’s the center of the Universe. Well, of the West Coast, anyway.

Anyhow, I’m looking forward to my visit to Willamette Valley. In our Pinot Noir tastings, the Willamette Pinot Noirs really dazzled me. If I had to choose a favorite, from all the appellations that we blind-tasted over six months, I’d have to say that Anderson Valley and Willamette were the standouts. I think it was because, as the most northerly in latitude, both of those regions offered earthy, mushroom and forest complexities to the fruit. They were the most “intellectual” Pinot Noirs. I always feel funny using that word, because it suggests that you have to think about the wines, not just enjoy them. Nothing could be further from the truth. But if you’re the sort of wine drinker who enjoys thinking about the wines you’re drinking, because they have so much going on, then they’re for you.


Have a great day!

A roundup of my Pinot Noir tastings, and now, here comes Chardonnay



At our weekly tastings at Jackson Family Wines, we’ve now finished with West Coast Pinot Noir and are ready to tackle Chardonnay.

I started Pinot many months ago with a roundup of wines from Santa Maria Valley. After that, in order going northward, came Santa Rita Hills, San Luis Obispo (Edna and Arroyo Grande valleys), Monterey County, the Santa Lucia Highlands and Chalone, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Carneros (both Napa and Sonoma), Russian River Valley, the “true” Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley and, finally, Willamette Valley.

What did I find after this intensive tour de force?

All West Coast Pinot Noir is more alike than not. This is not to discount variations in alcohol level, ripeness and so forth; merely to ascertain that Pinot Noir, made competently in California and Oregon, has a character of delicacy, soft tannins, bright acidity and a juicy berry-ness that persists through changes in terroir and winemaking technique.

Still, there are broad differences. To me, Santa Maria Pinot Noir is characterized by black and blue fruits, brown spices, acidity and minerality. Santa Rita Pinot is balanced and complex, also with acidity but somehow more generous when young. San Luis Obispo Pinot can be variable: Edna Valley has varietal purity, Arroyo Grande ageability, in the best cases. Monterey County-appellated Pinots are simple but can be good values. Santa Lucia also is variable, depending on north or south; the wines are full-bodied and dense. Of Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir, it is difficult for me to judge, since there is so little, and what there is is scattered over vast differences of terroir. Carneros Pinot Noir is earthy and minerally and sometimes soft; newer plantings are helping to increase quality. Russian River Pinot Noir is another case study in difficulty of specificity, since the appellation is so broad. In general, it is rich and balanced, often veering towards cola, sassafras and winter fruits (persimmons and pomegranates), and the best are classic. Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir is just beginning to declare an identity, and what a glorious one it is: wild, feral and intricate, and, at the top levels, spectacular. Anderson Valley possibly triumphs over all its southern neighbors in sheer balance and harmony, especially in great vintages, like 2012 and 2013; but there is so little of it, quantity-wise. Up in Oregon, Willamette Valley Pinot, equally as vintage-driven as Anderson Valley, is the most “Burgundian” of American Pinot Noirs, with earthy, mushroom and tea notes. My most recent tasting of them blew me away. Anyway, what an exciting six months this has been for us tasting freaks!

And now here comes Chardonnay. I’ll round the wines up in the same south-to-north geographic order, starting again with Santa Maria Valley. How do I chose which wines to include in our tastings? It’s purely arbitrary, although there is a method to my madness. Since I can’t have every wine from each appellation, I have to pick and choose. My first parameter for choosing is my own experience: I select wines I’ve reviewed for many years and have given good scores to. I’m also interested in wines I haven’t tasted (at all, or recently), if a publication I regard gives them good scores. For example, the October 2015 issue of Wine & Spirits has a “Year’s Best Chardonnay” section that will give me some guidance. Many of these wines are not available on the current market, but I keep my fingers crossed and hope that, when I call the winery and identify myself, I have just enough name recognition remaining (after being largely out of circulation for 1-1/2 years) to wangle myself a bottle.

Since I’ve been doing a lot of phone and website ordering of wines lately, I’ve encountered an aspect of the direct-to-consumer experience that I wasn’t very familiar with. Critics mainly depend on tasting samples being sent to us, which means we don’t have to hit the telephone and the Internet the way “ordinary” consumers do to buy wine. I must say that, by and large, the DTC system works quite well. Most wineries seem to use the same software (shopping carts, proceed to checkout, etc.), and it’s really easy and intuitive to use. The main problem is wineries who, deliberately or through ignorance, make it almost impossible to get in touch with them. There have been one or two instances where the phone tag got so severe that I gave up trying to obtain the wine. Why would a winery make it so hard for me to buy their wine? It is a mystery.

One other frustration: The rules concerning sending wine, even in-state here in California, are confusing when it comes to the details of how UPS, FedEx, GSO and other shippers work. I’m sometimes told that FedEx and GSO will not deliver wine to me at my local UPS Store—even though they have been doing just that for years. Some wineries tell me they’re not allowed to send wine overnight. What’s up with that, if I’m willing to pay for it? These rigidities all are the residue of Prohibition, that stupid “experiment” when alcoholic beverages were considered “demons” and their transport within the country was made almost impossible.

Anyhow, on to Chardonnay, still #1 in America after all these years. There’s a rumor going ‘round that says vintners are making it more “balanced.” That means, I suppose, picking it less ripe. That’s fine, but the risk is turning Chardonnay into a lean, green machine, instead of the opulent wine I, and most other people, like. As usual, it’s a balancing act.

TO ALL OUR FRIENDS WHO ARE SUFFERING FROM THE VALLEY FIRE: This is truly awful. Our hearts and prayers go out to you.

A grand dinner on the beach in Laguna



We had a great time down at my recent Jackson Family Wines dinner at the Driftwood Kitchen, a grand restaurant right on the beach in Laguna Beach.

Laguna Beach, if you haven’t been there, is one of those rich beach towns in Orange County where every view is a picture postcard. It’s California’s Riviera, Monte Carlo without the gambling. I must say that Chef Rainer Schwarz prepared an outstanding dinner: pan-seared John Dory with potato gnocchi in lobster sauce with caremlized fennel; duck breast with butternut squash galette, goat cheese salad and roasted candied beets in a huckleberry vinaigrette; and a pair of proteins, filet mignon and short ribs, swimming in a potato coulis with brussel sprout chips, almonds and an Umbrian truffle sauce.

Sound good? It was. We paired each course with two JFW wines:

Course 1: Matanzas Creek Bennett Valley Sauvignon Blanc and Stonestreet Knights Valley Sauvignon Blanc

Course 2: La Crema Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and La Crema Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

Course 3: Freemark Abbey Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and La Jota Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon.

Yes, the pairings were as good as they sound. Different people had their favorites as to which wine paired best with each course, and so did I; but it’s really senseless to make these sorts of things into contests.

As the resident wine guy, my job was to say interesting things and, hopefully, keep people’s attention. Hosting these sorts of meals is lots of fun, but there are risks. As the evening goes on, and people drink more wine, it’s harder to keep their attention. You don’t want to force them to listen to you: they’ve paid their good money and are entitled to laugh it up with the others at their tables. (We had two big tables and two smaller tables, total of 26 guests in all.) As a result, the experienced dinner speaker has his bag of tricks to resort to.

I don’t overly-rehearse for these events. I’ve seen other hosts who have delivered the same spiel a thousand times, and you can tell: it’s not fresh or spontaneous. I’m a big believer in spontaneity. Life is spontaneous. You can have your talking points, and your written notes to refer to, but you have to go where the energy takes you. In this case, I wanted to talk about the wines and the wineries and the appellations, but I also wanted to gauge our guests’ knowledge of Jackson Family Wines, and their overall wine knowledge. You don’t want to talk up or down to people. You want to talk to them where they are—and since 26 people are in 26 different places, you have to keep your fingers crossed that you’re appealing to the majority of them, if not all of them. Believe me, it keeps you on your toes.

Things went very well. I can always tell from the feel of the guests; and the feel was happy and upbeat. Afterwards, 6 or 7 people came up to shake my hand and tell me how much they enjoyed the evening. That’s a great sign, when a quarter of your guests deliberately seek you out to say “Thank you.”

I will admit that, at the very end, things got pretty boisterous; and while I still had lots to say, I had to realize that my part—the formal part, anyway–of the night was over. At that point, people just wanted to enjoy themselves, not listen to a spiel about cepages and terroir. So I concluded, but it’s always nice, afterwards, to make the rounds of the tables, introduce yourself to folks you haven’t met, and continue the conversation more informally and intimately. And it doesn’t have to be about wine! When people are relaxed and comfortable at the end of a great meal, they know what they want to talk about. It might be their families, or something about work, or sports, or, well, romance. It’s called “hanging out” and it’s all part of the job.

And it’s a part I love. I get nervous before these things start, although maybe “nervous” is the wrong word. I conserve my energy. I center myself to be prepared for anything. I go internal. I imagine that Broadway actors go through the same thing. But once I’m out there, on my feet, wham! The ham in me loves it.

By the way, someone at the restaurant had the great idea of starting the night by putting KJ’s Grand Reserve Rosé, which we drank with passed-around appetizers, into a black glass. You couldn’t see the wine, so you didn’t even know what color it was. The idea was for me to explain to the guests how hard it can be to assess a wine when you don’t know anything about it, even the color. Of all our guests, I’d say about three-quarters thought it was white. A few thought it was red. But only one nailed it: when I asked him the color, whether he thought it was red or white, he said, “Could it be inbetween?” Good palate! I don’t know if I could have done that.

Have a lovely weekend. Back Monday.

What makes a successful tasting event?



My event yesterday in Monterey was even better than I’d dared to hope. You never know, when you put together a complex tasting like this, for a high-level audience of wine professionals, how it’s going to go. In this case, we decided to have a “Sur and Steve Road Show,” Sur being Sur Lucero, one of Jackson Family Wines’ Master Sommeliers, and Steve being me, the former critic who works with the 100-point scale. The idea was for the audience to get inside our heads and see how differently we think: Sur the analyst, looking for typicity, zeroing in on variety, region and even vintage based on his long experience at double-blind tasting; and me, not really having the same skill set, but being able to determine the quality of the wine, based on the 100-point system.

It was something of a gamble: this could have been a disaster. But somehow, it worked. I think it helped that Sur and I have great respect and affection for each other. As he goes through his Master Sommelier grid, explaining how through the process of deduction he works from the general to the specific, I am in awe of the experience required to taste a wine, double-blind, and determine that it must be a Riesling from California! Wow, how good is that. And yet, Sur is the first to admit he’s not really looking for a qualitative analysis, especially one based on a numerical scoring system. He could be entirely dismissive of the 100-pont scale—lots of somms are—but he isn’t. It’s wonderful and rewarding for me to have someone of Sur’s talents tell me how much he wants to learn how my mind works when I analyze the wine—not in an M.S. way, but in my own, developed over decades—and then decide what the score ought to be. And, judging from the reaction of our guests, they were fascinated by these twin tours through the brains of two pros.

The risk for the sponsoring winery, in this case Jackson Family Wines, is that I, as the critic, am going to declare an absolute quality to each wine. And that may not be equivalent to a high score. Sur isn’t going to do that: if you’re in the audience, you have to read inbetween Sur’s lines, decipher his comments, to decide if he likes the wine. With me, you don’t have to guess: I’m telling you upfront, with the score. I’m not always in love with every one of JFW’s wines, and I’ll tell you so. But that’s part of keeping it real.

I’ve been in plenty of public events that were duds. I don’t think that any of the events I was responsible for and led was a dud, because on those occasions when it’s entirely up to me, I usually come up with something offbeat enough to be of interest. However, I’ve been invited to be a part of events that fizzled instead of sizzled, and my after-analysis of them is that they were too mundane and predictable. There’s a certain template to having a nice, safe event, where nobody feels like they wasted their time, but they also don’t go home excited, or having learned anything. I don’t want to be part of such blah events.

Yesterday’s event, as I said, was exciting, because it was different. I’ve never even heard of anything like it. I specifically did not want it billed as the Sur Versus Steve Ultimate Blind Tasting Smackdown. Instead, I wanted it to be exactly what it was: Two professionals, both with long experience, both nice, sane, communicative guys who like each other, both explaining just how their gray matter works. The fact that things turned out so well is proof of the fact that, sometimes, when you take risks, they pan out. And I’ll tell you how I knew this was risky: it’s because I was nervous beforehand. No risk, no reward. I’d hate to have a road show that was so well-rehearsed, so perfected in all its parts, so been-there-done-that, that it no longer possessed any frisson of danger.

What happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas!



My voice may never be the same after today’s wine event at the M Resort and Casino in Henderson, just outside Las Vegas. It was in a large banquet room and they had six of us “experts” each presiding over a tasting station. Each of us had a dozen guests at a time (general managers of restaurants) coming through six times (a total of 72 in all), so I had to repeat the same tasting six times, which was great fun—don’t get me wrong—but the other experts were doing the same thing, the acoustics were pretty bad, and so we were all hollering at the top of our lungs. That comes easy to Larry O’Brien, M.S., who—as I told someone—is invariably referred to as the Great Larry O’Brien. He’s got a big, booming voice. I’m small; fortunately, I do have that Bronx thing which can out-yell almost anyone, but after two hours of hollering, I just know tomorrow I’ll be hoarse as a frog. Oh well. That’s the occupational hazard to this job and you know what? I don’t care. What a fantastic time!

My topic was comparing mountain and benchland Cabernet Sauvignons in Napa Valley. Most of the GMs, I’m told, have completed some early phase of the WSET, so they have some general knowledge of wine. My mountain wine was 2011 Mount Brave and my bench wine was 2004 Freemark Abbey Bosché.

When I do these sorts of presentations, I like to involve my audience by having them answer questions–testing  their knowledge, and encouraging them to think. So I asked each of my six groups to tell me one thing they know about mountain soils. What I was driving at was, of course, the lack of water-holding capacity: the aridity and low nutrient value, the runoff. Instead, four people in four of my groups responded with the same word: “Rocks.” (The other two groups didn’t want to say anything.) I thought that was interesting. Yes, mountain soils often are rocky—but flatland soils can be, too. But it wasn’t what I was looking for. Anyway, “rocks” was a good enough segue to get into the water-holding capacity (or lack thereof) of mountain dirt, so all was good. Incidentally, that ’11 Mt. Brave absolutely rocked. The ’04 Bosché was pretty good, having entered a secondary phase, and I’d drink it anytime with roast chicken. But OMG was that Mt. Brave awesome, and three of the GMs volunteered to me how much they like Mt. Brave.

Here’s a picture of some of the folks after our session.


I hadn’t been to Vegas in a long time and it kind of freaks me out. For one thing, it’s insane the way the irrigated landscapes are surrounded by desert.


I mean, nature obviously doesn’t intend for anything to grow here except creosote or whatever those scrubby little bushes are, yet Vegas is an explosion of golf courses, parks, grassy yards and swimming pools, not to mention the insatiable water need of the hotels. And I saw all sorts of billboards advertising future planned communities. Where are they gonna get the water? My driver told me they’re hoping for a big El Nino this year, same as we are in California. Good luck.

Then there’s the casino. They wouldn’t let me take pictures, but it’s sad, very sad. Isolated, unhealthy-looking people throwing their money away, staring into computerized machines like zombies. I’ve seen the commercials showing beautiful, sexy young men and women at the tables and slots, laughing and hitting jackpots, having the time of their lives, but I didn’t see anything remotely like that. All the lonely people, where do they all come from? Then I think: Who am I to judge? Are they any different from me watching TV for hours?

Tonight, it’s onto some well-deserved sushi for dinner, a vodka gimlet, and then back home tomorrow to Gus, who’s lucky enough to be watched by my cousins. They tell me Gus is lonely for me. I am for him, too.


Have a great day. Back tomorrow.

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