My favorite event of the year, at which I speak and taste with others, is my annual gig at the student wine club at the University of California’s Haas School of Business. I did it last night for, I think, the fifth year.
These future MBAs are so smart. At least half the questions they asked startled me with their freshness and straight-to-the-point accuracy. But then, they always do, which is why I so enjoy this class.
What do I think of score inflation? Why doesn’t Beaujolais ever get as high a score as Bordeaux? Do I find myself agreeing with other critics on the same wines? What makes one wine score 98 while another only gets 88? Are there different styles of wine writing aimed at different audiences or demographics (which made me recall the short-lived awfulness of Wine X magazine and the absurdity of Twitter reviews)? If I review the same wine twice over time, will I give it the same score? How do I know if a wine will age? How do I predict how long it will age for? Is there a relationship between price and quality? Do I think crowd-sourcing will become the wave of the future? And so on.
Each of these questions could exhaust an entire seminar, of course, and each of them got my brain cells all fired up.
What was equally interesting about the students was what they didn’t ask. No questions about the wines themselves. We tasted through four Cabernets: Von Strasser 2009 Estate Cabernet, Venge 2010 Silencieux Cabernet Sauvignon, Rock Wall 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon and Hawkstone 2011 Connoisseur Series Cabernet Sauvignon. All are from Napa Valley. I scored them from 98 points down to 82 points, and wanted to share with the students why my points varied so much. We started with the Hawkstone, which most people liked because it’s fresh and fruity. But when we reached the Venge, everyone could see how much better it was. A superb wine, really. Then came the Von Strasser. I asked for a show of hands: Who preferred the Von Strasser to the Venge, and vice versa? The Venge won, by a slim margin, which is what I expected. It’s a more accessible wine. I had to explain why I scored the Von Strasser higher, which led to a conversation about mountain fruit. I like an interactive teaching style. What (I asked them) is the biggest difference between dirt that lies on a horizontal angle (and here I held my arm up at 45 degrees) and dirt that’s level? Everyone practically shouted out at the same time: Water! Exactly so. I explained about drainage, and how the water carries away nutrients with it, leaving the land leaner than down in the valley below. They listened to all this eagerly; and, of course, when one has an eager audience, it reinforces one’s own sense of excitement. Small berries are concentrated berries: the skin-to-pulp ratio is greater, resulting in greater tannins, hence more ageability. These young students were fascinated by the vagaries of aging, possibly because, being so young themselves, they cannot imagine the process of slow but steady deterioration (for that is what aging is. I reminded them of the old slogan that, according to the French, the British prefer their claret “in the first blush of death”).
It was inevitable that I would contrast these exchanges with some of the other classes and panels I have the opportunity to serve on. There, an older audience asks (in my humble opinion) far less interesting questions. What are the clones? What kind of French oak do you use? What year did you start? Issues such as these do not, I think, make for useful conversations between winemakers and consumers; and I often think the consumers are asking them, not because they really care, but because they think these are the sorts of questions they ought to be asking, if they’re to appear to be intelligent wine people. As people age, the mind seems to grow less curious, less elastic, less, well, naïve: but naïve questions are the best of all. Out of the mouths of babes.
And not a single query about social media! Not one. There would have been no mention of Twitter or blogs, had I not introduced the topic. Some years ago, there were lots of questions about social media. Could this lacuna be canary in the coal mine stuff? At any rate, at the end, they asked me to write my blog’s URL on the white board and as I did so, one of the students said, “You just got 60 new readers.
I’m going to be moderating the panel on clones at The Chardonnay Symposium, which makes it sound like I know all about them when, in reality, I know very little. However, a panel moderator doesn’t have to know much about the topic at hand. The secret to moderating a panel is simply to get the panelists do the talking.
Well, I’m being modest. I do know a little about clones. Here’s what I know–or think I know. I’m hoping to learn more from comments by my savvy readers
- There are many, many clones, or selections, of Chardonnay: Clone 4, the Wente selection, Mount Eden, Hudson, Rued, Dijons 7, 95, 96, 548, etc. I couldn’t tell you what each of them does, though.
- Almost everybody grows the Wente selection (and to add to the confusion, there are different strains of Wente).
- The various clones are sensitive to climate, which affects the wines’ acidity. That’s why some clones are preferred in Oregon and Burgundy, as opposed to others used in California.
- It’s debatable whether certain clones succeed better with certain rootstocks.
- That Rued clone often reveals itself with a Muscat-like scent.
- Some vintners, including Marimar Torres and Elias Fernandez, believe that making a single wine from multiple clones lends complexity, and helps protect against vintage variation. (We see the same thing with Pinot Noir.) At Williams Selyem, Bob Cabral planted more than 20 clones in a single block.
- Chardonnays made from different clones react differently to oak. Some seem better able to handle lots of new wood than others.
- Some winemakers swear that certain blocks within their vineyards consistently produce superior Chardonnay, and they attribute this to the clone. But it could be the terroir, couldn’t it?
Obviously, any and all of these issues can make for lots of conversation, so I’m sure we’ll have lots to talk about.
There is, however, a lacuna of knowledge concerning Chardonnay clones, which is why there’s so much confusion about them. As Nancy Sweet, at U.C. Davis’s Foundation Plant Services, explained in her 2007 paper on Chardonnay, Formal grape clonal selection programs in the United States have not received the financial support that has allowed European programs to progress. I would guess, given the dismal state of educational funding nowadays, that that situation is unlikely to improve.
So far, my panelists are Merry Edwards, Jeff Stewart (Hartford Court), Clarissa Nagy (Riverbench), James Ontiveros (Alta Maria and Native 9) and a Wente yet to be determined (but I think Karl is unable to come. The Wentes, of course, know a lot about Chardonnay clones). The Symposium is at Byron, down in the Santa Maria Valley, where we should have an audience of about 100-150.
One thing I want to avoid, as moderator, is the panel getting bogged down in technical minutiae. After all, this is a consumer event, not a graduate seminar at Davis. But I won’t let it get dumbed down. I was at a panel event recently (in the audience, not onstage) where the moderator tried to dumb it down by getting cutesy with the panelists. It wasn’t exactly “If you were a tree, what kind would you be?” but it was close. When you have smart people onstage, let them be smart.
It’s so interesting that the production of wine around the world fell to its lowest level in 37 years in 2012, due to dismal crops in France, Spain and Argentina. Contrast that with the all-time high, record grape crush last year in California, and it looks like good news for Golden State vintners who export their wines. But will it lead to spot shortages here in the U.S.?
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I’ve never tasted a Chinese wine. In fact, I wouldn’t even know where to buy one. I do a fair amount of shopping in Oakland’s Chinatown, but the only wines I see there are from the big California producers. But if I could try a Chinese wine, it would be Chateau Changyu. If it’s good enough for Berry Bros. & Rudd to sell it in London, then it must be pretty decent. The [British] Telegraph reports that the venerable British shop–314 years young–is “the first major British retailer to give tipples from [China] a permanent place on its shelves.”
I don’t know if Chateau Changyu is the same as the “Chateau Changyu-Castel” that Susan Kostrzewa, now Wine Enthusiast’s Executive Editor, reviewed back in 2007. She tasted 3 wines–a Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Gernischt–and gave them pretty mediocre scores. Maybe things have improved since then. We may be hearing more about this Chateau Changyu. It’s “the 10th largest winery in the world,” according to the winery’s website, and also is the 79th biggest company in the People’s Republic. If anybody wants to send me some samples, I’ll gladly accept them.
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I’m going to be doing my annual wine tasting and educational seminar at the University of California Haas School of Business in a few weeks. They have a student wine club that has about 65 members. These kids are smart and curious and always ask great questions, which is why I like to go. This year, the club’s president told me the MBA candidates are really curious about how I view my job as a wine critic. Their other speakers this year have all been winemakers; as the president emailed me,
…there were two different schools of thought [among the winemakers], one positive and one negative. Some winery owners/ winemakers felt that critics have undue power. They brought up the “Parker-ization of wine”(and said they disliked it) and one of the wineries said they intentionally refuse to submit their wine to critics. Another group said that critics play an important role because there is so much wine out there, it helps the public make educated purchases. This led to a discussion on what one should buy and brought up the question: “is it okay to buy bad wine if you like it?
These are issues of longstanding commentary here at steveheimoff.com, and I think most of my readers know where I stand. However, it’s important to keep in mind that a new generation mostly in their twenties hasn’t really digested the role and importance of critics, and has real questions about what we do, and about how they should behave with respect to us. Are we dinosaurs in the Age of Twitter, or are we experts worth heeding? I look forward to enlightening them on these points. As for “is it okay to buy bad wine if you like it?”, Wow. Where to begin? That could be the topic of an entire class.
Dinner last night at Ruth’s Chris, on Van Ness. It was a Treasury Wine Estates event. Treasury is a big company; here in California, they run Beringer, Chateau St. Jean, Etude, Stags’ Leap Winery and others. In other words, a pretty impressive portfolio.
The centerpiece of the menu was, as you might expect at a steakhouse, filet mignon, which they served with two Stags’ Leap Cabernets, 2008 and 2009, both very delicious, although the 2009 was considerably more forward than the rather acidic 2008. One of my dining companions was Jerry Comfort, Beringer’s longtime chef, who now does the wine education for Treasury. We talked a lot about how somms pair food with wine. On my right was the young, delightful PR manager for Stag’s Leap, Michelle Flores. She told me how challenging it is for her to pick a wine from the massive wine lists so many restaurants have these days, and asked me how I go about it. I told her, “For the most part, I put myself in the sommelier’s hands.” Somms know their wine list and menu far better than I do. I told Michelle that I’ll give the somm some dollar parameters for my wine, and then leave the specifics to him or her.
Then Michelle asked me if this approach has worked for me in the past. I shuffled through memories of dining experiences over the years and had to answer, in all honesty, no.
I’ve just had too many somm-inspired pairings that were bizarre. The most recent was at a restaurant down in Carmel-by-the-Sea, a very expensive, high-profile place. I had a little appetizer dish of a beautifully-grilled sea scallop that was all buttery and creamy and nut-sweet. With it, the somm suggested a nine-year old white Rioja. The server brought it and the scallops. I smelled the wine; very oxidized, unfresh. I tried it with the scallops. Pretty bad. Now, I think you should never criticize someone without trying to see where they’re coming from, so I analyzed this strange pairing to determine what the somm had in mind. No luck. I just couldn’t figure it out. Had I chosen my own wine for that scallop, it would have been Chardonnay. I would have tried a rich, oaky one, and an unoaked one, then gone with the winner.
Later, the server (not the somm) came back and asked what I’d thought of the pairing. I told her, “Since you asked, I didn’t think much of it at all.” She asked me what I would have recommended, and I said, “I respect the somm’s decision to pair an oxidized wine with this dish, although it’s not clear to me what his reasoning was. But, instead of a wine that’s oxidized because it’s too old, how about one that’s oxidized by design, so that it’s fresh. Sherry.” She just happened to have a manzanilla on the list, so out came a glass of that and a second plate of the scallop.
I won’t say that was a perfect pairing, but it was far better than the tired old Rioja. And it made me think: I bet the somm was one of these ABC guys: anything but Chardonnay. You do see a lot of this holier-than-thou attitude among somms. It was like he avoided an obvious pairing, a classic one that would have worked perfectly, in favor of the obscure, the “interesting,” the “surprising,” the off-beat, the eccentric.
What is this need to be different with some somms?
I also thought about the subtle psychology between a somm and his customers on the dining room floor. I imagined a couple coming in to dine at the restaurant. They order that scallop dish. The somm recommends the white Rioja. They order it. They’re a little puzzled by the taste, and by the way the wine made the succulent scallop taste metallic. But, unlike me, they’re unsure of their palates. So when the somm returns, they ask him to explain the pairing, which he gladly does, in poetic detail. They take another little bite of the scallop, another tiny sip of the wine. Suddenly, it makes sense: they can taste what the somm described, and the synergies between the food and wine. They go away satisfied, and with a tale they can tell their friends about the strange white wine that went so well with the scallop they had at this restaurant in Carmel.
The power of suggestion.
Michael Mondavi hosted a small event last night at Epic Roasthouse, on the Embarcadero, and during it he poured me three of his M by Michael Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignons, the 2005, 2007 and 2009.
The ’05, which I hadn’t previously reviewed, was fabulous, and I couldn’t restrain my enthusiasm, which Michael shared. At 7-plus years, it’s mellowed into a rich, soft wine that’s just beginning to turn the corner from primary fruit to secondary notes and bottle bouquet
I did review the ’07, back in August, 2011, and gave it 92 points, as well as a Cellar Selection special designation, which I’m glad I did: that wine needs time. Two thousand and seven was, as most of you know, a ripe, forward vintage that resulted in a plethora of wines instantly lovely for their approachability. Yet on this occasion, the first thing I thought about the ’07 M–even just smelling it–was, “It’s in a slumber.” The mouth experience confirmed this. Everything was there: the fruit, the tannins, the acidity, the oak, the overall sleekness, but it was as if the actual experience of the wine were hidden behind a gauzy veil. I told Michael this, and he instantly agreed. I told him of something Bo Barrett, from Chateau Montelena, said to me, many years ago, concerning his Cabernets: they seem to drink well for 4 or 5 years after release, and then go into what he called “the dip” for another 6 or 7 years, during which they’re mute, and then re-emerge into cellared glory. Michael told me that, when he was younger and growing up with his father, he always thought that the aging curve of a wine was a simple sine curve. But now he knows it’s more like a roller coaster.
Why this “dip” should occur in so many ageable Cabernets is a mystery to me, but it does seem to be a general rule, especially for Napa Valley. If you cellar wine, it’s something to keep in mind.
The 2009, which I also have not yet formally reviewed, was very good, but far away from being drinkable because it’s simply too young. But, as my mentor Harry Waugh used to say, “It should make a good bottle.”
Incidentally, last night also was the inaugural display of the San Francisco Bay Bridge’s big light show, which the media have been touting for weeks. Now, Epic Roadhouse sits practically right under the bridge, so when I went earlier in the afternoon, I saw all the T.V. trucks lining up to shoot the event. I knew there was going to be a party, but what a party it turned out to be!
After the Michael Mondavi thing, Allison and I tried to find a restaurant or bar to sit down, have some munchies and a badly needed cocktail. The neighborhood of the Embarcadero and the adjacent South of Market extension of the Financial District is jammed with restaurants and hotel bars, probably hundreds of them, but we walked for block after block, and I can tell you there wasn’t a seat to be had, probably within a half-mile radius. There were lines stretching out the doors; at Ozumo, the hostess said she had a two-hour wait. We didn’t even bother going into Chaya, it was so mobbed. From the looks of it, it was a youngish crowd, stylish and thirsty. And this was on a Tuesday night! There may still be lingering effects of the Great Recession in many parts of the country, but not in San Francisco. The Chronicle recently had a front page story on rents; they’re so high that many people are now renting a single bed in a crowded bedroom, or a laundry room, or, in the case of one guy, a closet. I couldn’t help but wonder, looking at all the happy, drinking people, where they would end up sleeping that night.
Last Saturday morning’s seminar on “Terroir: The Soul of La Côte d’Or” was an absolute delight. It’s no easy thing to rouse an audience of several hundred at 9 a.m. in the morning of the second day of a major wine and food event, after a night in which most of them partied hard and went to bed late. But Don Kinnan did it.
John Haeger, who wrote North American Pinot Noir, used to have this time slot for his “Pinot Noir 101” seminar, which we always enjoyed (“we” meaning myself and all the other attendees; I haven’t adapted use of the Papal “We,” yet). But Mr. Kinnan, who appears to be of a certain age, was new to most of us, and we didn’t know quite what to expect.
Turns out he’s an ex-Kobrand guy, where he was director of education, and also holds the Certified Wine Educator certificate from the Society of Wine Educators. Don not only “knows his stuff” when it comes to Burgundy, but also made one of the greatest presentations (complete with Power Point) I’ve ever seen. He had everybody captivated with his graceful, informed and easy approach.
We tasted 9 wines, from 9 villages, 8 producers and 4 vintages, in order to penetrate more deeply into the mysteries of terroir. Don explained how Burgundy is comprised of 3,800 estates, not to mention 250 negociants, spread over 101 appellations, which makes it a terribly complicated place. “It takes faith to believe in [the reality of] terroir, which cannot be proven by the scientific method,” Don told us. Of course, I’ve grown up with conventional notions of Burgundian terroir: Volnay delicate, Vosne powerful, Beaune elegant, Chambolle feminine, but unless you really drink a lot of these wines, you don’t know these things first-hand. Don wanted to show us how the old notions of regional differences are true, and he largely succeeded.
First, he tackled an issue I’ve written much about on this blog: “terroir” is the soil and climate, but the human element has to be considered, in the form of vineyard management and the winemaking process. The combination of the two is what I have called “cru,” after Emile Peynaud, but of course, as Don said, in Burgundy the idea is for the human to stand back and let terroir star. (His most controversial statement may have been, “In the New World there’s more human influence than in the Old World,” which, if true, would minimize terroir.)
I won’t go through all nine of my tasting notes, except to say that Don had us taste blind, and, based on his superb and clear definitions of what to expect in the wines, I got all of them right. This surely is the highest performance a wine educator is capable of: To describe wines in such chiseled detail, in a way that makes so much sense, that you’re able to identify them blind. For me, the stars of the show were a Clos de Vougeot, Domaine Hudelot-Noellat 2004, and a spectacular Volnay, 2006 Taillepieds from Domaine de Montille, that was so good, it made my seatmate to the left, Dick Doré, from Foxen, smile ear to ear. I can only say that wine gave me a permanent Platonic idea of Volnay.
After that peak experience, it was hard to go back to California Pinot Noir. But I made a valiant effort, and have to say our state has no reason to hang its head. To fall ever so short of a world class masterpiece like that Volnay is not embarrassing. I tasted a lot of wine that Saturday, under the white tents on the bluffs above the Pacific beach as the fog rolled relentlessly in, but I took no notes. I never take notes at crowded venues like World of Pinot Noir. They’re not conducive to thoughtful tasting, and even logistically, you can’t hold your glass, your spit cup and your pad and pen in two hands! Not to mention a lack of level surfaces upon which to write.
But I do enjoy visiting the various wineries, trying new things, connecting with old friends, making new ones, and deepening my understanding of things in general. I will add only that, late Saturday afternoon, the WOPN people arranged for a final pair of seminars, including a Talley one to which I went, Talley being an old favorite and Brian Talley an old acquaintance. Brian brought along his winemaker, Eric Johnson, and together they made a formidable presentation, and the wines, of course, were great. However, by 5 p.m., several of the attendees were obviously drunk, and while some of us tried to get them to shut up by polite requests and tapping silverware on our crystal glasses, alas, it was to no avail. The silent, respectful majority of us were irritated, and I think Brian was, too (although he’s too much the gentlemen to reveal such things). It is really awful how thoughtless and rude some people can be. The WOPN organizers may want to rethink these 5 p.m. Saturday seminars.
But that was a minor cloud on an otherwise fabulous World of Pinot Noir. Check it out next year.