subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

PinotFest 2019: Reviews and an Appreciation

0 comments

You can take the boy out of the wine critic business, but you can’t take wine criticism out of the boy…or something like that. All of which is to say that, although I’ve been happily retired for years, I still love wine tasting. It’s given me pleasure since the 1970s; why stop now?

PinotFest is a big event in San Francisco, especially since In Pursuit of Balance went out of business. It’s the annual Pinot Noir tasting, held at Farallon Restaurant, to benefit The Watershed Project, which seeks to protect the vulnerable, fragile watersheds of the Bay Area. So you not only get to taste some terrific Pinot Noirs, you also help the environment! (And thanks to Peter Palmer for always inviting me.)

One thing that’s so much fun about tasting wine is to experience how different two wines can be even when they’re grown in close physical proximity. For example, the Byron 2014 Julia’s Vineyard (94 points) and the Foxen 2016 Bien Nacido Vineyard Block 8 (92 points) were grown within about 400 yards of each other; both vineyards are on the Santa Maria Bench. And yet the wines are utterly different: the Foxen big, dark, ripe and juicy, loaded with fruit, while the Julia’s is pale in color, delicate and pure, with a tea slant to the fruit. Granted, the Byron is two years older, and the clones and vine age are different. But Bien Nacido Pinots always show this power, while Julia’s tends towards elegance. Incidentally, Foxen’s co-owner, Dick Doré, was doing the pouring honors. Great to see him looking so good.

At the same time, the Foxen 2016 Julia’s (93 points) was very close in style to the Byron ’14: pale-colored and delicate, with tea, spice and raspberry flavors. It gave me great pleasure to see these two Julias drinking so well, as that was a vineyard I was fond of even before I went to work for Jackson Family Wines. During my tenure there, I spent a lot of time in the vineyard, and watched the Jackson team work very hard to refurbish the Julia’s Pinot Noirs (which had been selling for very inexpensive prices) and boost the quality. It was crazy to name an under-$20 Pinot Noir for Jess Jackson’s and Barbara Banke’s daughter, Julia; surely that wine deserved more attention and a higher price, both of which it now has. Julia—a lovely person, who recently lost her home in the Kincade Fire—must be proud to see her namesake wines doing so well.

It also was lovely to have Byron’s winemaker, Jonathan Nagy, pour for me. I got to know Jonathan well while I worked for the Jacksons, and you couldn’t ask for a nicer man, as well as a more accomplished winemaker. He poured me the Byron 2012 Monument Pinot Noir (93 points), from the Nielsen Vineyard, on the Santa Maria Bench hard-by Julia’s. At the age of seven years, it was really beautiful: perfectly aged, a supple, lively mouthful of Pinot Noir goodness.

A few tables down from Byron’s was Calera. Now, one of the first stories I ever was assigned when I wrote for Wine Spectator was on Calera. I remember the long drive down and up into the isolated hills above Hollister, where the owner/winemaker, Josh Jensen, did me the honors of touring and tasting. Josh and I both are older now; the first thing he told me was, “I’ve retired.” Good for you, Josh: join the club! He poured me his 2016 Jensen Vineyard (94 points), from Mount Harlan, a wonderful wine. I wrote “Shows the spice and fruit and balance of this famous vineyard, but very young. Needs time.” While I was with him, Josh had me taste his 2016 Central Coast (90 points), which retails for $29. It reminded me of the old Central Coast bottling of Ken Volk’s Wild Horse Pinot Noir (a tremendously successful restaurant wine in its day), rich, fruity and racy, with some real complexity, and a good value.

Reverting back to my Santa Barbara County theme, I wandered over to Au Bon Climat’s table, hoping to catch Jim Clendenen. Sadly, he wasn’t there, but I tasted his 2016 Bien Nacido “Historic Vineyard Collection” (95 points). I last tasted that wine in the 2010 vintage, when I gave it 96 points.

I’ve always admired ABC’s wines, and this one didn’t let me down. It somehow combined that fruity power of Bien Nacido with Jim’s ability to wring elegance and translucence out of his wines. A superb Pinot Noir that will improve with time.

Etude was there, admittedly not a Santa Barbara County winery but a famous Carneros one. I used to admire their Heirloom Pinots, even as I recognized they can be bruisers when young: thick and a little heavy, loaded with fruit. So I tried the 2016 Heirloom (90 points). Yes, it was still like that. “A bit rude,” I wrote. I’d love to try some of these Heirlooms when they’ve acquired, say, 15 years of age, but I never have and probably never will.

When I saw Kathy Joseph presiding over the Fiddlehead table, I beelined over. I have fond memories of Kathy: once, when I visited her vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills, she made me a lunch of homemade tacos (I think beef, but they could have been chicken) and served one of her Pinot Noirs. It was fabulous: a perfect pairing, simple and delicious, and of course the fact that I was sitting with the winemaker, in the middle of the vineyard where the wine was made, added to the charm. Her Fiddlehead 2013 Lollopalloza, Fiddlestix Vineyard (94 points), was drinking very well, turning the age corner a little bit, but dry, crisp, subtle and complex. “Superb!” I wrote. Kathy’s 2014 Seven Twenty Eight bottling (89 points) is a sort of poor man’s Lollapalooza, a perfectly drinkable, fruity wine for drinking now.

There was a winery there I’d never heard of, Lando. They started up in 2012, the year I retired from formal reviewing and went over to Jackson Family Wines. The Lando 2017 Russian River Valley (92 points) was classic, with masses of red berries and fruits, root beer and spices, with good acidity and lots of class. The 2017 Sonoma Coast (93 points), which I believe is Petaluma Gap, appealed to me slightly more, with bright acidity and bright fruit. “Super yummy!” I wrote (that’s winespeak for delicious).

Finally, I just had to stop by Siduri’s table to pay my respects to the great Adam Lee, more white-haired than last I saw him but, hey, at least he has hair! I’d known Adam before I went to work for Jackson Family Wines, which bought Siduri in early 2015. In fact, I’d profiled Adam (and his wife, Dianna) in my 2008 book, New Classic Winemakers of California, so when Adam joined the Jackson team, I was delighted. He was pouring his 2018 Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir (89 points), a blend of Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills. A nice, fruity wine with some class, and easy to drink. Far better was Siduri’s 2016 John Sebastiani Vineyard Pinot Noir (92 points), from the Santa Rita Hills. “A huge wine,” I wrote, “tons of fruit. Could be more delicate, but fresh and savory.” (As I write these words, I ask myself if it’s fair to expect a “huge” wine to be “delicate,” as these terms seem oxymoronic. Maybe that’s the essence of a great wine: it combines contradictory qualities.)

Here’s to California Pinot Noir and the wonderful women and men who produce it! Salud!


A wine from my cellar, plus Bordeaux at a Basque restaurant

3 comments

 

A few nights ago I pulled the Charles Krug 2008 Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley), which cost $75 on release. The color was still as inky dark as a young Cabernet, but after almost precisely ten years, the aromatics and flavors had turned the corner, picking up secondary (although far from tertiary) notes. The fresh blackberries and black currants I found when I initially reviewed the wine, in the Autumn of 2011 when it was three years old, were still there, but “growing grey hairs,” as they say, becoming more fragile, and showing leathery notes and, perhaps, a little porty, due to high alcohol, namely 15.7%.

In my early review, I wrote that the wine was “certainly higher in alcohol than in the old days, but still maintains balance.” In those olden days (never to come again, alas), Krug’s Vintage Selection, always 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, hovered in the 12-1/2% range. Gerald Asher, writing in the early 1980s, credited Krug’s “influential legacy” (along with Beaulieu, Martini and Inglenook) as having contributed to “the seeds of all [stylistic Cabernet] options available to winemakers today,” a statement that remains true. His fellow Englishman, the enormously influential Michael Broadbent, in The Great Vintage Wine Book, went him one better. He gave the 1959 Krug Cabernet his highest rating, five stars, calling it “most perfect” and “a lovely rich wine,” and added, amazingly, that his friend, Edward Penning-Rowsell, who wrote the best book on Bordeaux ever (The Wines of Bordeaux), “could not fault it,” rare praise indeed from an oenophile who opined about his specialty, Bordeaux, for decades in the Financial Times. James Laube, the most important American wine critic after Robert Parker, was of more ambivalent opinion. While he called Krug’s Cabernets (first produced in 1944) “grand, distinctive [and] long-lived,” his scores on the 100-point scale were less impressive. In his 1989 California’s Great Cabernets he managed only two 90-plus scores over more than four decades of vintages of the Vintage Select (as it was then called).

I scored the 2008 Vintage Selection 93 points in 2011, and would do the same now. Admittedly, that wine took an enormous departure from the Krug Cabernets Asher and Broadbent loved. The high alcohol is a conceptual problem, and perhaps makes pairing it with food more challenging, but these are matters for our imaginations, not our palates. Organoleptically, the wine still provides good drinking. Even on release the $75 price was a bargain, when, for example, Grgich Hills already was $150, and Jarvis was a sky-high $315. Charles Krug had by then long lost its luster among the label chasers, a fickle bunch, and it must have been hard for Krug, used to being at the top, to be so overlooked, or maybe disrespected is the better word.

It’s always risky to predict the future of such wines, but I would not be surprised if the ’08 Vintage Selection is still purring away contentedly in 2028.

Tasting Légende Bordeaux at Piperade

In France “piperade” (pronounced something like “pip-rod”) is a Basque stew of onions, green peppers and tomatoes, spicy and garlicky. In San Francisco, it’s the name of Gerald Hirigoyen’s restaurant, which opened in 2002 and has long been a fixture on the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 Restaurants list. It’s situated on Battery Street, an old-timely San Francisco neighborhood at the junction of North Beach, Chinatown and the Financial District, just below the cliff of Telegraph Hill: old brick buildings, lovingly restored, that now house tech hubs and architectural firms.

Piperade was where an interesting tasting of Bordeaux took place on Monday. I was invited despite my status as a retiree and had the privilege of being seated to the right of Diane Flamand, the winemaker for Légende, the Bordeaux brand that sponsored the luncheon. (I think this honor was because I was the eldest person in the room!)

Légende is owned by Domaines Barons de Rothschild (DBR), which also owns Lafite-Rothschild. It produces five what might be called “entry-level” Bordeaux: a basic red and white Bordeaux, a Médoc, a Pauillac, and a Saint-Emilion. (This latter is, of course, not within DBR’s traditional wheelhouse, but was developed in response to the market.)

I have to say how impressed I was by all five wines. The white, which was served as a conversation starter before we sat down for the meal, was fine, clean and savory, a blend of 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 30% Semillon. The red Bordeaux was equally satisfactory, being dry and somewhat austere, although elegant. The official retail price of both–$17.99, although I’ve seen them for less—made me inquire where in the Bay Area I could find them.

As we progressed through the lineup, the red wines all showed true to form: the Médoc more full-bodied than the Bordeaux, the St. Emilion wonderfully delicate and silky, and the Pauillac the darkest and sturdiest of all, as you might expect. The flight was capped off with 2010 Carruades de Lafite, the “second wine” of Lafite-Rothschild, just for the sake of comparison. As good as it was–and it was!–the other wines had nothing to be ashamed of.

During the meal, where most of the other guests (about 15 in all) seemed to be bloggers, the topic arose concerning Bordeaux’s status and popularity in the California market. I weighed in, as is my wont : ) I mentioned that younger people are looking for unusual, often eccentric wines—the kind their parents never drank—which means they’re not drinking Bordeaux. But, I added, there’s a reason why Bordeaux has been the classic red wine in the world for centuries; and that, as they get on with life, I was sure these drinkers would eventually discover Bordeaux—especially reasonably-priced Bordeaux that shows the classic hallmarks of the genre.

At any rate, if you can find these Légende wines, they’re worth checking out!


San Francisco and Oakland: cities in change–and crisis?

0 comments

 

Spent the day yesterday with my family in San Francisco (only three BART stops from my house). We started with something that’s now become a bit of a tradition: dollar oysters with drinks at Waterbar at noon. I had mine with a glass of “J” brut, such a good drink with oysters.

Waterbar is an absolute joy to go to, with its expansive views of the Bay, the Bridge and the East Bay, which the Spanish Californios called “Contra Costa”: the opposite coast.

Normally, on a day as cloudless and sunny as yesterday, you’d be able to see Mount Diablo, the second-tallest peak in the Bay Area (3,849 feet). But the mountain was totally obscured by smoke hazing up the sky, drifted down from the wildfires up north that continue to ravage the state. My heart goes out to the people around Redding, who have suffered relentlessly from this scourge.

As a kid I wouldn’t have eaten an oyster if you’d paid me, but now, you can’t hold me back. They whet rather than satiate the appetite, even with bread and butter. Hemingway praised oysters “with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away.” Afterwards, we sought lunch. Maxine wanted to check out the rooftop garden in the just-opened Salesforce Transit Center. I hadn’t been there yet, so we walked the few blocks and took the longest escalator I’ve ever seen up to the gardens. (They’re also going to open an aerial tram.) All I can say is, visit this place if you haven’t already. It’s an instant classic. The terminal itself is an architectural marvel (it’s probably the most earthquake-proofed structure in the world), but most marvelous is the rooftop garden. It must be a quarter-mile long, with twisting trails and little nooks where you can rest and eat. The entire site is surrounded by a wall of skyscrapers, including Salesforce Tower, the tallest building west of Chicago.

This is really a spectacular achievement for San Francisco, a futuristic marvel; I don’t think there’s anything like it anywhere else in the center of a big city. It’s part of a chain of stunning development that stretches from the Embarcadero, on the Bay, west to Moscone Center. Absolutely stunning.

This elicited lots of political talk between us about gentrification and people losing their places to live. It’s stunning to see the brilliance of imperial San Francisco at this, its greatest, richest moment. But it’s sobering to think of all the people forced out of their apartments, many of whom, presumably, are now living on the streets, in BART corridors and God knows where else. I actually wondered how long it would be before there are tent encampments in the Transit Center garden, which is free to access. I doubt that the authorities would permit that, but still…things are tough in the Bay Area if you don’t have money.

The same thing is happening in Oakland albeit at a lesser pace. In my neighborhood alone an entire city-within-a-city is going up, all in the space of the last year or so. I’m glad I got rid of my car (I’m now carless) because traffic here is going to be horrible once all the new residents move in. Being carless (it’s been a month now) has been hassle-free. In fact, I’m enjoying it. I gather that carlessness is more or less a trend among Millennials, what with all the options (Uber, Lyft and so on), which makes me think that all of my life I’ve done things I thought were the products of my rational choices but which, as it turned out, tens of millions of others were simultaneously doing, which made them trends. What does this say about free will?

Anyhow, I personally welcome this new development but I know lots of people adamantly oppose it, for all the reasons I cited above. I think you can’t stop progress. You can manage it intelligently, but you can’t build a wall around a city like San Francisco or Oakland and say, “No more people allowed” when so many people want to live here. And yet the homelessness is extremely troubling. With it comes an increase in filth, litter, crime, human excrement in the streets, and vandalism, and at night, when I’m out and about downtown, the streets are scary, something out of Night of the Living Dead: zombies roaming around, muttering to themselves, gesticulating crazily. I’m an old man now: it’s discomfiting.

And yet I have no more answers than anyone else. The extreme liberals in Oakland insist that the city pay for housing, food and healthcare for the estimated 4,000 homeless people who live here. They even go so far as to say that the Police Department should be defunded, with the money going to homeless services. That’s insane, and is not going to happen. But it is, I fear, the sort of talk that Trump and his followers use as wedge issues to appeal to their white followers, who want simplistic solutions to enormously complicated problems.

 

 


My road trip: Day Six. A little ranting…

0 comments

 

Drove from Portland to Olympia, Washington (where I write this), about midway on my road trip, and I have a few observations to make about some things I encountered.

Not to complain or anything, but the road people really have I-5 torn up, resulting in pretty massive backups. On the plus side, there are no fires this far north, a relief after Northern California and Southern Oregon, where the skies were leaden with smoke and the air thick with the stench of ashes for hundreds of miles. The temperature is a lot lower here than it was in Medford and Salem by a good 30-40 degrees or more. As I write, it’s about 63 degrees and overcast, with drizzle. But this is the Pacific Northwest! You want heat, go inland.

Now a word about Google maps. Two words, actually: YOU SUCK. Google maps is okay in wide, open spaces and on freeways, but it suffered a complete nervous breakdown in Olympia, which is not a particularly big city (only 51,000), but it is the capital of Washington State, and is wedged in between two gigantic freeways (I-5 and 101). Man, oh man, did Google maps get lost! It had me driving round and around the State Capital Building, a lovely, Beaux Arts structure, but all I wanted was to get to my hotel. And it babbled like, well, a Trump tweet. “Turn left. Turn right. Turn left. Turn right,” all in the space of one block. What’s a lost driver to do? I actually stopped by a gas station, told the clerk my plight, and before I knew it, a cadre of local men, bless their souls, was debating over the best way to get me to my destination. Between the collapse of Google maps and the rather turbulent conversation, I was ready to find the nearest bridge and jump off. But somehow, we managed to find my hotel. And with all that twisting and turning and braking, Gus lost it, and vomited in my rental car. Fortunately, I’m always prepared for such incidents. Gus rides in the passenger seat, which I always line with a clean, white towel. I now have four vomit-dirty towels; tomorrow morning, I shall do laundry.

Anyhow, that’s more than you need to know about my road trip! I’ve been out of touch with the news all day, but a quick check gave me fodder for a little Trump bashing—in this case, the son, Donald, Jr.

Now I have to confess to a visceral dislike of him. Partly it’s his Gordon Gekko appearance, with the slicked back hair and the designer suits. But Gordon Gekko, as played by Michael Douglas, at least was good-looking. Junior thinks he’s a hottie, but he’s ugly as a horse’s rear end, with his lips permanently twisted into smug contempt, and jowls already testifying to a life of gluttony. He’s in the news a fair amount, unlike his younger brother, Eric, so we’ve been treated to many quotes from him, and they’re usually nasty insults—like his father’s. He’s the typical mean, rich lucky sperm kid.

He made waves yesterday with his comment that Democrats are like Nazis. Really, Junior? You’re comparing Democrats to Nazis? Your father is the one American Nazis worship. Your father is the one white supremacists love. Your father—well, what’s the point in going on. Donald Trump, Jr. is a POS. Don’t you long for the day when we’re rid of that entire Trump kleptocracy?

Well, it’s been a long day on the road, so I’m ready, on this Thursday evening, for some booze and food. And so, for that matter, is Gus (not the booze; just the food). Have a wonderful weekend, and remember to VOTE, and tell everyone you know to VOTE.


Fire and Fury: the Carr Fire in the heart of “Jefferson State”

0 comments

 

I left Oakland for my drive north at noon on Saturday. The morning fog had burned off, and the sky was sunny and blue. I first smelled the fire 125 miles south of Redding, in Yolo County, north of Vacaville, even with all the car windows shut and the AC on. By the Colusa County line, the sky had turned a milky, opaque silver. It looked like fog, but wasn’t. It was smoke from the Carr Fire, drifting south. I parked the car to walk Gus. The smell! Dirty dog, like when Gus needs a bath. But it wasn’t Gus. It was ash, burnt wood, and lots of other incinerated stuff.

The farther north we got up the I-5, the darker and hazier the air became. Visibility was sharply reduced, and it was fiercely hot. At 3 in the afternoon on a late July day in the Sacramento Valley, that sky should have been blindingly blue, not mother-of-pearl.

In Red Bluff, 27 miles south of Redding, things were really bad. The haze was super-thick—this picture hardly does it justice.

And the sun was a weird, reddish-orange smudge in the haze,

the way it must look from Neptune. The smell was very strong, very bad: a burnt-out fireplace. People were wearing face masks.

We stayed that night in Red Bluff. A few days earlier, I’d had an email from a guy who reads my blog, name of Alain Teutschmann, who owns Mount Tehama Winery, in Manton, a tiny town (population 347) southeast of Redding, in the Sierra Foothills. He’d read on my blog last week that I’d be in Red Bluff and wondered if we could meet. Sure. He took me to a dive bar—my favorite kind—out in the boonies, E’s Locker Room. They don’t have a website but they are on Facebook.

Alain–a lovely, interesting man, with a great back story–had read my comments about “Red Trump Land” and wanted me to experience “Jefferson State.” Here’s a picture of Alain in front of E’s:

Here’s a poster on a tree that tells visitors they are now in the State, not of California, but Jefferson.

We met the owner and the bartender, two very nice, young (to me) guys. Hard not to like them: salt of the earth types. Alain’s girlfriend, Betty, had joined us. We talked pretty passionately—I did, anyway—about politics, and the owner and bartender listened, but didn’t add much. I mentioned the Jefferson demand for “Smaller Government.” Then Betty—who by the way had evacuated her home–asked an interesting question. “I wonder, if we were an independent state, who would pay for putting out the fire?”

“Good question,” said the bartender, without offering an answer.

I wish he had. This is what these anti-government, anti-tax types never consider. There are thousands and thousands of firefighters (some of them dying), rescue personnel, private contractors driving heavy equipment (also dying), doctors and nurses, cops and law enforcement—you name it, fighting the Carr Fire and helping the people. Someone has to pay them. Someone has to pay for the gasoline for the water-dropping planes and vehicles. For that matter, someone has to pay for the paved roads the firetrucks and ambulances drive on. Someone has to pay for all of the infrastructure. And yet these tea party types demand “no government, no taxes.” With all due respect, I think they sit around at night drinking and getting stoned and complaining about “Big Gummint” taking all their money and giving it to the Blacks and Mexicans. Yet when their community is on fire they expect the Feds and the State to come in and rescue them.

What can you say to such unreasonable people?

I awoke on Sunday morning to nonstop local T.V. coverage: evacuation centers, reports by officials on the fire’s progress, weather forecasts, road closures.

The weather was not favorable to the firefighters. The smell of ashes was stronger than ever. I departed Red Bluff northward with great trepidation, not knowing what I would find in Redding. Someone had said on Saturday night the I-5 was reduced to six miles an hour due to the gridlock of mass evacuations and ambulances and firetrucks. Getting through Redding, though, was easy. The freeway was mercifully free of vehicles. The good news, I suppose, was that the high temperature would be “only” 100 degrees, as against Friday’s 113. Humidity ten percent, winds gusting and erratic, exactly what the firefighters don’t need.

For the folks who live in these parts, the Carr Fire is a catastrophe. Redding has about 90,000 people. Add in a few thousand more for the little mountain towns to the west—the fire’s epicenter—and it’s still a small community. Thirty-eight thousand had already been evacuated—nearly half the entire regional population. Many roads were closed. And the death toll was rising: six by Sunday evening, with many areas still on fire, and thus unsearchable by rescue squads. As I drove on from Redding up towards my next stop, Medford, Oregon, I kept the radio on the local stations, and it seemed like everybody in the entire vicinity was volunteering to help: people offered their barns and pastures for displaced livestock, their homes for the evacuated, food, clothing, rides, cell phone chargers, prayers. That’s the best part of Jefferson State. But I like to think that would happen in Oakland, too, or anywhere in the U.S.

On the way to Medford, you pass Mount Shasta. Anyone who’s driven the I-5 knows how suddenly and awesomely it appears, this majestic, perfectly-shaped sleeping volcano, clad year-round in snow. There’s a Vista Point turnoff on the I-5. Here’s a rendition of what the mountain should look like from there:

Here’s what I saw:

Nothing. A nearly 10,000-foot tall mountain, totally obscured by smoke.

Even in Medford—200 miles north of Redding—the sky was filled with smoke, and the air quality was horrible. But there are fires here, too. There are fires up and down the entire West Coast. “Oregon is on fire,” the local T.V. news anchor in Medford said on Sunday evening. It’s terrible, horrible, heartbreaking. But Donald J. Trump and his allies tell us that climate change is a myth, that the weather isn’t getting hotter, that elite scientists and Democrats are lying. Please, Jefferson people, if you read this, think! Rise above your anger and use your God-given brain. You good people have backed the wrong side, and they’re screwing you blind.


« Previous Entries

Recent Comments

Recent Posts

Categories

Archives