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Napa Valley Pinot Noir: gone, but not forgotten

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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.

 

FreemarkPinot

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.


Christmas, and here’s El Nino!

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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.


A rainy interlude in the Willamette, then snow

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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.

MapleGrove

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.

Shasta

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.

SnowyGus

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.


On the road to Willamette Valley

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It was a pretty ride up to Oregon yesterday, bright sun and blue skies the whole way. Shasta looked like a Japanese painting,

Shasta

although when we got to the Siskiyous the fog descended. I think that this part of the land must be behind the rain shadow: the conifers suddenly disappear, so does the snow although you’re still at a good elevation, and instead everything is the barren beige dry blandness of high desert. These rain shadows have always fascinated me: Eastern Oregon is a good example, but so to some extent are the Vacas in Napa Valley, which have considerably less rainfall than the Mayacamas, which is why east Oakville is so different from west Oakville.

It was cold in northern California and southern Oregon, and considerable snow already had fallen. Poor Gus, who had never experienced snow before, didn’t know what to make of it. I think this picture of him is a WTF moment.

GusSnow

I stayed the night in Ashland, a cute little town, and across the street from my hotel was a wine bar, Liquid Assets. Quel coincidence: they had a Freemark Abbey 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon on the by-the-glass list.

FreemarkBar

Tomorrow—today, as you read this—I complete my journey to McMinnville. Jackson Family Wines has a vineyard up there, in the south-central part of the Willamette Valley, and we’re interested in seeing if we can get a sub-AVA going in the Monmouth area. It’s a terribly interesting project that involves going deep into the tall weeds of TTB policy, but it’s right up my alley. The first thing to do is determine a name, which TTB requires be anchored in historical documentation. So for the next several days, you’ll find me in local museums, historical societies and libraries, doing my research.

A big reason why I drove up to Oregon rather than flew was because I want to get a sense of the lay of the land. It’s one thing to study USGS maps and soil surveys, but important as those are, they provide only limited information about terroir, which after all involves all sorts of other elements. The human brain and especially our eyes are equally needed, to show the relationship of valley and bench to slope and hill, to see variations in soil color, to breathe the air and detect subtleties of wind, temperature, humidity and plants. I think the most important thing about the terroir of wine grapes is to learn to perceive everything from the point of view of the vine. Years ago I used to lie down in vineyards. Dissociating myself from my mind, I’d experience the wholeness of being a living thing at that place at that time. That’s what terroir means, isn’t it?


Putting wine into a greater context

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When educators talk about wine at the kinds of consumer events I’m doing this week at Karisma Resort, it seems to me that more than just the hedonistic and technical aspects of the wines should be discussed.

I mean, wine is more than just “cherries” or “limes” and bright acidity or steak-worthy tannins and an AVA. Yes, those kinds of things—its flavors and textures, it’s varietal mix, its appellation—are important, and consumers want and need to know about them. After all, the reason why folks pay to go to these sorts of events is because they’re hungry for more knowledge about wine (and bless them for that!).

But there’s so much more to wine. For example, it’s important for people who are tasting wines from the company I work for, Jackson Family Wines, to understand things like the Jacksons’ commitment to sustainability. It’s one thing to talk about (for instance) Stonestreet Christopher’s Cabernet Sauvignon, but that wine needs to be put into the context of the fact that Jess loved that mountain so much, he’s buried there, his wife, Barbara, lives there, and “Christopher” is the name of their only son. It helps consumers to know about (and I think it’s terribly interesting in itself) how Jess left corridors of pathways open throughout the vastness of the Alexander Mountain Estate, to let the critters who have lived there forever—cougars, bears, deer, wild boars and so on—prowl. These things may not have anything to do with the wine’s flavors, or how it ages, or the way it pairs with steak. But in a funny way, they do. It places the wine into a greater context, one you can call “intellectual” and “emotional” rather than (merely) hedonistic; and it’s in the brain—the seat of intellect and emotions—that wine’s greatest appeal lives.

This putting-wine-into-greater-contexts presents more of a challenge to educators. They have to do more research than to just read a tech sheet and regurgitate it to whatever audience they’re addressing—which is something I’ve seen far too much of (and something I admit to being occasionally guilty of myself). But, after all, in this day-and-age of “the story,” when we’re told that every wine needs something to distinguish itself from every other wine, it does behoove us educators to go beyond the routine and really find out what makes that wine that wine. Especially when the story connected to it is compelling.

Back tomorrow, reporting from this delightful part of the Maya Riviera.


From Mexico, a great wine and food pairing, and the perils of poorly-conceived advertising

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I’m down here in Mexico on the fabulous Maya Rivera, at the Karisma El Dorado resort, south of Cancun, where I’ll be doing a bunch of wine education classes and dinners, some of them with the chef/partner of San Francisco’s new Aaxte restaurant, Ryan Pollnow. This is a very exciting opportunity for me. The resort itself is huge, more like a good-sized village, so yesterday afternoon some of the staff toured me around in a little shuttle cart so I’ll know where the various venues are located. The wines I’ll be talking about are from Jackson Family, representing a good cross-section of the portfolio.

In fact, we had our first wine dinner last night, and I must say it was really great. Chef Julio, of Karisma, prepared our food, creating wonderful Mexican dishes, and I found it thrilling. It was in one of Karisma’s food theaters; I was sitting with Chef Ryan, watching Chef Julio under the spotlights and in front of the cameras, which showed him on two big screen TVs, and when I suggested to Chef Ryan that the event had a certain theatricality about it, he said “Gastro-tainment.” That was a new one on me. I love it.

As soon as I got to Mexico I heard about a brouhaha concerning a Coca-Cola T.V. commercial that aired here that some people found culturally insulting, but that others thought was just fine. The commercial, which you can see here, keenly illustrates the potential mine fields companies must navigate in the images and messages their promotional materials convey.

The Coca-Cola commercial shows a group of young people (they look like American tourists to me)—good-looking hunky guys and long-haired young women in tight jeans and T-shirts—who seem to be on a Habitat-for-Humanity-style mission to build a giant Christmas tree in an indigenous Mexican town. To the saccharine strains of orchestral music, they paint and labor, high-fiving each other with white-toothed smiles, while the natives look on wondrously and gratefully. And, of course, there are coolers of Coca-Cola everywhere.

The style of the commercial is straight out of Coke’s 1971 “I’d like to teach the world to sing” post-hippie playbook: inspirational Kumbaya love. But some people didn’t get the good vibes. “Outrageous” and “racist,” they called it. Somebody tweeted, “When a company as big as Coca-Cola is saying #AbreTuCorazon [Open Your Heart] by giving Coca-Cola to indigenous ppl. what they are really doing is using them.” On the other hand, lots of the comments on the YouTube video either praised Coca-Cola for a sincere desire to help poor people, or wondered what the big deal was. “Couldn’t care less,” one person said; another pointed out a certain political correctness at work: “I love to laugh at freaking crybabies getting offended over nothing.”

At any rate, things got so hot that Coca-Cola issued a “rare apology” and pulled the ad, but versions it can still be found all over the Internet, as for example here, where it’s been retitled “The White Savior Ad.”

The take-home lesson for companies is that they really have to have culturally tuned-in people on their marketing and P.R. staffs. You can’t just let creative call the shots: you have to ask yourself how your images and messages will be perceived, not just by the people you think you’re talking to, but by everybody. Nobody thinks the Coca-Cola ad was intentionally racist or derogatory; no doubt the people who created it, and the managers who approved it, felt they were doing something lovely, in the spirit of Christmas. And perhaps, after all is said and done, that is exactly what the commercial is: a salute to cross-cultural brotherhood, good will and mutual respect.

Alas, in our world, even the most well-intended message can be wrongly interpreted.


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