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,
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.
We had a perfectly lovely blind tasting yesterday, 12 Sauvignon Blancs, six of them from Jackson Family Wines wineries, and the others from around the world. It was a bit of a hodgepodge but I just wanted to assemble a range that showed the extremes of style, from an Old World, low- or no-oak, high acidity, pyrazine-driven tartness to a bigger, richer, riper New World style of [partial] barrel fermentation. Here, briefly, are the results. The entire group of tasters was very close in its conclusions—a highly-calibrated group where we achieved near consensus.
94 Matanzas Creek 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County
93 Robert Mondavi 2013 To Kalon Vineyard Reserve Fumé Blanc, Napa Valley
93 Matanzas Creek 2013 Journey Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County
92 Stonestreet 2013 Alexander Mountain Estate Aurora Point Sauvignon Blanc, Alexander Valley
90 Merry Edwards 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, Russian River Valley
89 Peter Michael 2014 L’Apres-Midi Sauvignon Blanc, Knights Valley
88 Jackson Estate 2014 Stitch Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) NOTE: This is not a Jackson Family Wine.
87 Francois Cotat 2014 La Grande Cote, Sancerre
87 Arrowood 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, Alexander Valley
87 Cardinale 2014 Intrada Sauvignon Blanc (Napa Valley)
86 Goisot 2014 Exogyra Virgula Sauvignon Blanc (Saint-Bris)
85 Sattlerhof 2014 Gamlitzer Sauvignon Blanc, Austria
The JFW wines certainly did very well, taking 3 of the top 4 places. The surprise was the Matanzas Creek Sonoma County—it’s not one of the winery’s top tier Sauvignon Blancs (which are Bennett Valley, Helena Bench and Journey) but the basic regional blend. But then, I’ve worked with small lots of all Matanzas’s vineyards, and know how good the source fruit is. This is really a delightful wine, and a testament to the fact that great wine doesn’t have to be expensive. It’s also testament to the art of blending.
But I want to talk about the Francois Cotat, as it raises important and interesting intellectual considerations.
The Cotat immediately followed the Mondavi To Kalon, always one of my favorite Sauvignon Blancs, and the first thing I wrote, on sniffing it, was “Much leaner.” Of course the alcohol on the Cotat is quite a bit lower, and the acidity much higher: it was certainly an Old World wine. But here was my quandary. In terms of the reviewing system I practiced for a long time, this is not a high-scoring wine; my 87 points, I think, is right on the money. It’s a good wine, in fact a very good wine, but rather austere, delicate and sour (from a California point of view). I could and did appreciate its style, but more than 87 points? I don’t think so.
And yet, I immediately understood what a versatile wine this is. You could drink and enjoy it with almost anything; and I was sure that food would soften and mellow it, making it an ideal companion. Then I thought of a hypothetical 100 point Cabernet Sauvignon that is—let’s face it—a very un-versatile kind of wine. It blows you away with opulence, and deserves its score, by my lights. But the range of foods you can pair it with is comparatively narrow.
So here’s the paradox: The higher-scoring wine is less versatile with food, while the lower-scoring wine provides pleasure with so much. It is a puzzle, a conundrum. I don’t think I’m quite ready to drop the 100-point system as my tasting vernacular, but things are becoming a little topsy-turvy in my head.
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While I am affiliated with Jackson Family Wines, the postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the postings, strategies or opinions of Jackson Family Wines.
Did my annual tasting session/seminar for the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business Wine Club last night. This must have been my tenth year, something like that. This time, I brought along my friend and Jackson Family Wines colleague, Vito Parente, an expert on Italian wine. I figured the MBA students would want to learn more about Italy, and Lord knows, I do too. I think of Italian wine as the ultimate challenge: you could study if for a lifetime and still barely scratch the surface.
Vito gave a really instructive powerpoint and as usual these budding MBAs asked the greatest questions. You can always tell when someone asks a great question when the person being questioned says, “Wow, that’s a great question,” as Vito frequently did. I had told him that these supersmart young kids have curious minds that would surprise him with their ingenious queries, and indeed they did.
After the slideshow the conversation turned towards things of a marketing nature and I told the students this: “Consumers your age are the obsession of the industry. They want to know what you buy, and why, and what you’ll buy in five years. They want to know if you’ll be as influenced by a handful of major critics as your parents and grandparents have been, or if you’ll turn more towards peer recommendations and crowd-sourced opinions like CellarTracker. And the truth is, nobody really knows.”
I shared my long-held opinion that, because wine is the most complicated thing to buy in America—there are something like 4,500 wineries in California alone, and another three or four thousand in the rest of the country, not to mention the thousands of imported brands—consumers will always value the reviews (and scores) of critics, without whom they would be helplessly overwhelmed in the supermarket Wall of Wine. Vito asked them if, while shopping for wine, they’re influenced by shelf-talker scores, and they said Yes—even if they don’t know the source of the scores, the number is a reassurance. And some of them didn’t know who Parker was and seemed surprised to learn that one person could have that much influence.
Anyhow, we had a great time, Vito and I, and I hope they invite me back next year!
We were up at Freemark Abbey yesterday and some of the people who work there showed me some old bottles someone had found and brought to the winery. Among them was this bottle of Pinot Noir.
Despite the “Selected Vintage” designation, it didn’t have a vintage date. But the thinking was that it could have been from the 1940s. Note that it has a California appellation.
Who knows what it really was? My first thought was that it probably wasn’t real Pinot Noir as we know it. Maybe Gamay Beaujolais, but actually, it could have been anything. Back then, there were no laws regulating the use of varieties on labels, so wineries could do whatever they wanted. Many wineries called any red wine that was lighter and more delicate than Zinfandel or Cabernet Sauvignon “Pinot Noir.” They could have called it “Burgundy”; many did.
Once upon a time, kids, Napa Valley produced quite a bit of Pinot Noir, or something called Pinot Noir, until the critics declared that Napa Valley Pinot Noir sucks, so they scared off anybody who had it or planned to try. I remembered a Pinot from the old Louis K. Mihaly Winery, a winery that has been almost completely eliminated from history. Frank Prial referred to it, in a 1988 New York Times column, as “also known as Silverado Cellars”; so did a 1989 LA Times article. Silverado Cellars, of course, is on the Silverado Trail, but in my memory, the Mihaly winery was on Highway 29, around St. Helena, in the early 1980s, when I liked their Napa Valley Pinot Noir so much, I bought half a case—a big purchase for a broke college student. But maybe my memory is playing tricks on me.
Years later, when I was writing A Wine Journey along the Russian River, Joe Rochioli, Jr., told me how he had gotten the cuttings for his first plantings of Pinot Noir, in 1968, for his Russian River Valley vineyard, from “this old grower in Napa Valley.” He couldn’t recall who it was; I’ve always wondered if it wasn’t Mihaly. But, seeing that Freemark Abbey bottle, maybe it was from Freemark, or whatever remained of the vineyards Freemark sourced .
Old bottles like that Freemark Pinot stir my imagination. So much history has been lost; so much is unrecoverable. It’s very sad. Most people don’t care about what happened before they were born. For some of us, a quirk in the brain, a peculiar wiring of our DNA, makes history irresistible. I love doing research, fitting the pieces of the puzzle together. Of course, not all the pieces can be found; but sometimes, enough of them can be gathered to being to paint a coherent picture.
Have a great weekend, and if you’re in California, stay dry! We’re in the throes of El Nino.
We had a quiet, low-key Christmas Eve dinner down in San Mateo. Maxine made a prime rib of beef, perfectly cooked, with her specialty creamed broccoli and good old-fashioned baked potatoes with butter. I paired it all with a Corison 2002 Kronos Cabernet Sauvignon. That particular wine is well-known for aging, but at 13 years, it was still filled with juicy black currants and dark chocolate, although it was showing its age a bit around the edges. I preferred it straight out of the bottle, young; after an hour in the glass it grew a little ponderous, which makes me wonder if perhaps another ten years might not be kind to it.
Before the meat course, however, we started out with some appetizers, particularly ahi tuna tartare I made from scratch. I like to almost mince the fish, then macerate it in a mixture of soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, ginger, capers, cilantro and lime juice. Some recipes call for adding things like avocado or roasted macadamia nuts, but I don’t; they make the tuna cumbersome and the dish doesn’t need all that frou-frou. Let the fish be the star, I say. Tuna tartare needs something to place it on or in. I’ve tried just about everything: toast, bruschetta, rice crackers, butter lettuce leaves and so on, but for the past few years I’ve stuck with potato chips, although in that case you have to spoon the fish onto the chip because if you try to use the chip to scoop out the fish, it (the chip) will break. But then, that gives you an excuse to use those weird little spoons that live in your utensil drawer. With the tuna, I opened a “J” 1997 Late Disgorged Brut, which I’ve been hanging onto for about ten years (it must have been released around 2005). Some critics say you shouldn’t age an LD after it’s been released, but I’m glad I did. The wine really was superb. It had lost about 70% of the bubbles, and was all nice and leesy-yeasty-toasty, and while the fruit had evolved into secondary characteristics (dried lime, grapefruit rind), it had a core of caramel sweetness. That was really a memorable wine.
We also had a wee sip of Highland Park 25 Year Old Single Malt. I gave that bottle to Keith a few years ago; I’ve always liked it, but never understood how valuable it is. We Googled it and found prices averaging between $500 and $600. How does Scotch get that expensive? Supply and demand, I guess. At any rate, a fabulous sipper, smooth, mellow, endlessly complex and satisfying especially on such a cold evening.
On Christmas Day we went to see The Big Short, which I highly recommend. It’s hard to say who should get the Oscar, Christian Bale or Steve Carell. Both were just terrific; the story itself—how bankers, through their greed and carelessness, almost brought down the world economy—is compelling, and director Adam McKay’s production was astounding. He used that “breaking the fourth wall” technique that The Office employed so well. Go see this movie.
Meanwhile, for those of you who have been enjoying a warm East Coast December, give us our weather back, you thieves! We’re freezing our butts off in California, where the daytime high has struggled to get out of the 40s and broad areas of the Bay Area have been dipping into the 20s at night. This morning—yesterday, as you read this—Oakland set a record low, at 30 degrees. Brrr. Gus didn’t mind it, but I did. Now I know that 30 degrees isn’t “cold” by Michigan or Vermont standards, but cut us a little slack here; we’re not used to it, and something about the Bay Area’s damp, fresh-off-the-Pacific wind makes 47 feel like 7.
But the big story isn’t the cold, it’s the rain. El Nino seems to be delivering as advertised, and since it’s not really supposed to kick in until January, we could be in for some extraordinarily soaking rains and blizzards in the High Sierra, which is where we get our water. In fact, the snowpack is twice what it was last year, and is at 111% percent of normal.
If El Nino is as “monstrous” as the scientists have been saying, we’re going to have to laud their predictive powers. When they get stuff wrong, everybody jumps on them. If they got this right—and it looks like they did—it will redound to the greater glory of climate science.
I’m back from my trip to Oregon, where I got to know the byways of the Willamette Valley a lot better than before! Nothing like going back and forth along highways 22, 99 and all those lonely little country lanes to finally figure out who’s who and what’s what. I’d planned my trip a few weeks ago when AccuWeather predicted that the week of Dec. 14-19 would have dry, sunny weather—a rare break in their usual pattern of rain. Well, the weather could have been worse, but it was far from sunny and dry, and in fact they had record rainfall on Wednesday. I tried to drive down to Jackson Family’s Maple Grove Vineyard, outside Monmouth, but never got there: this is a picture of Maple Grove Road, so far as I know the only way into that remote, hilly outcrop of the Coast Ranges.
I stayed in McMinnville, but the more I learn about the lay of the land, the better it seems to stay further south on future visits. Monmouth or Independence are sort of in the middle of where I need to be, but there are few hotels. Salem isn’t that far; it’s the State Capital, and a nice little city.
Each time I go to Willamette Valley its vastness impresses me. It’s not a compact little valley, like Napa or Sonoma, or even like the Santa Maria Valley. Napa is around 400,000 acres but Willamette is nearly ten times bigger, 3.4 million. It’s also really long from north to south and wide from east to west, and in between the hills and ranges the floor of the valley is flat. The grapes, of course, don’t grow on the flats, but on the slopes. I think it would take somebody a very long time to master an understanding of Willamette Valley terroir and Lord knows it’s not going to be me; but I know more than I used to, and in the future I’ll know more than I do now. So “the arc of Heimoff bends towards understanding.”
I do have to say, though, that I bought a bottle of Chardonnay, from a winery unknown to me, at a little wine shop in McMinnville, after the proprietress highly recommended it. (I won’t ID the brand.) She said it wasn’t oaky. Unfortunately, it was super-oaky, like drinking toothpicks. Mind you, this was a good wine store and the lady seemed like she knew what she was talking about. I find that disconcerting. Can’t we even agree when a wine is too oaky or not?
Anyhow, the Willamette is a warmish place due to the Pacific influence and despite its northerly latitude, so all the precipitation remained in the form of rain. My drive up had been gorgeous: sunny with impossibly blue skies. Here’s a picture of a spiritual-looking Mt. Shasta from that part of the journey.
But it was raining heavily on the way home yesterday (Sunday) and as we hit the Siskiyou and Shasta passes the rain turned to heavy, wind-driven snow. I haven’t driven in heavy snow since I lived in the Berkshires nearly 40 years ago, so this was a scary experience for me. The I-5 freeway was down to a single lane in places, the snow and fog made for whiteout conditions, and of course the grades were up to 6 percent not to mention the curves. Throw in all those awful big rigs and it was downright menacing. (We love our long-distance haulers, America wouldn’t be the same without them, but I could live without the trucks. Yes I know that’s a total contradiction.) At one point we stopped at a rest stop and when Gus saw the snow coming down he refused to get out of the car. But I made him see the light so he hopped down and seemed a little disoriented as the snowflakes piled up on his back.
People were giggling because he was so funny and cute in a WTF way.
Anyhow the trip back to Oakland (from Ashland, where we bunked for the night) took 7-12 hours because of the foul weather. (Ashland: another cute little town like McMinnville although a lot colder since it’s in snow country: shops, restaurants, holiday lights and hippies!) It’s nice to be back home after a week in Mexico and then my week in Oregon. Lots of work to jump on, including a great project concerning the Freemark Abbey renovation Jackson Family Wines is undertaking at the winery in St. Helena.
I’ll try to blog throughout this week. Take care.