Having lunch with Gavin Newsom yesterday put me in a nostalgic mood. Actually, it doesn’t take a lot these days [daze?] for me to take a little trip down memory lane, because I have a lot of memories in this wine business, and most of them are good ones.
Gavin is of course the Lieutenant Governor of California whose future may hold far more glorious office. It was about 21 years ago that a very young Gavin, with various partners including the billionaire Gordon Getty, decided to open a wine shop in the Cow Hollow neighborhood of San Francisco.
At yesterday’s lunch, I reconnected with Pat Kelley, a wonderful woman I met back in the day but haven’t seen for many years. She’d been a partner in the Balboa Café (since acquired by Gavin’s PlumpJack Group), who reminded me how controversial the decision was in 1992 to open a new wine store just up the block. Wine shops were not opening then in San Francisco. The town was dominated by a handful of old stalwarts (Draper & Esquin, Hennesey’s, The Jug Shop, Connoisseur’s). And certainly no one was opening a wine shop in Cow Hollow, which then was known as The Bermuda Triangle: With its pick-up fern bars, even post-AIDS, there was still a Tales of the City vibe:, the saying was that singles would go there at night and never be seen again.
And yet Gavin, through sheer hard force, made it happen; and that original PlumpJack wine store proved to be the seed for a range of businesses that now includes resorts, restaurants, night clubs and wine shops, not to mention of course his political achievements, which include two terms as San Francisco’s Mayor.
In 1992, Gavin had asked me to be a part of a small group that included his Dad, Judge Newsom (and it was wonderful to see him at lunch, looking dapper). The idea was for us to gather once a week, at night, and go through a bunch of wines that distributors or vintners had dropped off for possible inclusion. This was months before the shop opened; Gavin wanted to be able to tell his customers that each and every bottle of wine on the shelves had been personally selected by him and a cadre of experts.
So the day came when the store opened. I wasn’t there, but, returning from some event at Fort Mason a few days later, I stopped by on Fillmore Street to see how things went. Gavin was working the register. The conversation went something like this:
S: So how’d it go?
G: [frowning] This guy comes in and says he wants to buy a mixed case of wine. He doesn’t care which ones–we can pick them ourselves. There’s just one requirement.
S: And what was that?
G: [face darkening] He said that every bottle had to have at least a Parker score of 90.
S: [!!!] What did you do?
I won’t say what Gavin said next, except that Gavin is of Irish extraction, so use your imagination.
I was raised to have respect for our elected officials, so it’s hard for me to call our Lieutenant Governor “Gavin,” even though his employees do and I’ve known him way longer than they have. His proper title is “Governor” [notwithstanding Jerry Brown, whom I met way back in the day, and was my Mayor here in Oakland, and the only successful one we’ve had in the last 20 years]. I admire Gavin’s forward thinking, so visionary, entrepreneurial and daring: to think he put PlumpJack into screwtops so many years ago, and is a champion of LEEDS-thinking, not to mention so many fabulous politics in other spheres. He has a taste for the niche, not the safe that advances us nowhere, but intelligent innovations that actually progress human life and its enjoyment.
PlumpJack’s most recent acquisition, Odette Estate, was carved out of Steltzner’s Stags Leap District vineyard; it is a new brand that won’t appear on the market for a while. I will be reporting more on Odette and Gov. Newsom in a future Wine Enthusiast article, so I don’t want to steal its thunder. I will say that it’s refreshing to see new entrants into Napa Valley who understand how to make balanced wine (not just a consultant-fueled fruit bomb) and have the means, understanding and dedication and–let there be no mistake–taste to make that happen. But I do wish Gov. Newsom would heed my advice and try his hand at Far Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. He admits to a partiality for Burgundy; I’ve tried to convince him for several years to try his hand at Pinot. So far, he’s not listening. But I think a successful politician, such as he is, always has his ear to the ground.
Carlos Danger didn’t show up, but that was probably a good thing, for we could concentrate on the task at hand: tasting wine, at this trade and media “Wines of Danger” tasting, held Monday at San Francisco’s tony, modernistic Press Club.
Why they called it “Wines of Danger,” I couldn’t say, except that it seems like every event needs a catchy moniker these days. At any rate, I took BART into the City, for there were (a) a few winemakers I already know and wanted to see, and (b) quite a number of wineries I’d never heard of and wanted to discover.
Part of my job for Wine Enthusiast is to make sure that “not a single sparrow can fall to the ground” [Matthew 10:29] without me knowing it. I obviously can’t taste everything in my region of California (the coast), but I can try and be aware of new wineries. So here are a few of my discoveries. I am not assigning numerical ratings, as I do at Wine Enthusiast, although, if I did, all these wines would score highly. While these are not formal reviews, I do hope the winemakers will add me to their samples lists.
Paro. The owner/winemaker, Patrick Ridder, works at Fieldstone for his day job; Paro is his own baby.
2010 Sonoma Mountain Pinot Noir ($30). Nice, Burgundian touch of earth and mushrooms to the cherry pie and cola. New oak not yet integrated; needs time.
2011 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($30). From the Laguna area, deep, dark aromas and flavors of cola, rhubarb, black cherries, highlighted with brisk acidity. Classic Laguna, but needs 8-10 years.
2011 Tudor House Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($30). So different from the others. Softer, almost sweet, but complex and fruity. The alcohol is fairly hefty.
2012 Jasper Vineyard Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($30). Just bottled. Tight, but very rich, a full-blown Burgundian Chard, barrel fermented and 100% malolactic fermentation. I would buy this.
People’s Wine Revolution. One of the owner/winemakers is Matt Reid, who makes the wine at Ballentine. The brand name refers, not to politics, but to Matt’s desire to make wine affordable.
2008 Bea’s Knees Petite Sirah, El Dorado County ($15). Rich and full-bodied, with sweet blackberry, licorice and cedar. Give it a breather.
2011 Massa Ranch Syrah, Yountville ($18). After a bit of swirling opened to reveal bacon, black pepper, mulberry and cedar. Needs a few years. Good price.
2012 The People’s Viognier, Salem Ranch, Yountville ($15). Classic varietal, with tropical fruits, peaches, limes. Crisp, acidic and rich.
Site. Owner/winemaker Jeremy Weintraub makes the wines at Adelaida; this was his first showing ever of his own brand.
2012 Roussanne, Santa Ynez Valley ($40). Huge amounts of tropical fruits, honey, buttered toast, but balanced with acids. This is a blend of the Stolpman and Larner vineyards.
2012 Larner Vineyard Viognier, Santa Ynez Valley ($25). Almost blowsy, with sweet tropical fruit, citrus, white flower (honeysuckle), but saved at the last moment by acidity and minerality.
2012 Bien Nacido Vineyard Syrah, Santa Maria Valley ($50). Very tight and youthful, rich in acids, blackberry jam and coffee notes. Not ready. Better towards 2020.
2012 Larner Vineyard Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley ($50). Gorgeous aromatics. Black pepper, blackberry jam, dark chocolate, roasted meat. A sensation. Drinkable now despite the tannins, but will age.
2012 Larner Vineyard Grenache, Santa Ynez Valley ($50). Extraordinarily rich, with raspberry, mocha and cedar flavors. Almost sweet, but pulls back into dryness at the finish. Give it 4-5 years.
I was down at the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association’s 21st annual Winemaker’s Celebration event (which Wine Enthusiast sponsors) this past weekend. It’s not one of those big, fancy extravaganzas, with tablesful of prosciutto and wine geeks who look for scores. Instead, it’s an intimate get-together of “just wine-loving folk,” who come and go throughout the afternoon in an outdoors setting in Carmel Valley, just off Highway 1. An old-fashioned, friendly event, relaxed and casual, and you didn’t have to wait in long lines to get up close and personal with the winemakers. (And, by the way, kudos to the young cadets of the Naval Postgraduate School, in Monterey, for providing such excellent volunteer service!)
I didn’t have any formal “duties,” such as moderating a panel or conducting a tasting, which was fine with me, since it gave me the opportunity to simply chill. I like just wandering around an event like that, connecting with whoever, chatting about wine and other things, tasting wines I haven’t had before, meeting new people and learning about things. For example, I was speaking with Ian Brand, the young proprietor (Le P’tit Paysan and La Marea) and winemaker (Coastview), whom I’d interviewed previously for Wine Enthusiasts’s “bookazine”, a special collector’s edition on California wine, food and lifestyle that will be published this Fall.
Ian mentioned he’d been thinking about an appellation based on the Gablian (or Gavilan) Mountains, a part of the California Coast Ranges that runs through San Benito and Monterey counties. That was a real head-smacker, because an hour before, I’d made the same suggestion to someone else at the event (I don’t remember who). I’m not generally a fan of new AVAs in California, but a Gabilan one makes sense (and I may be writing more about that soon).
From a quality point of view, the top appellation, arguably, among Monterey’a nine AVAs is the Santa Lucia Highlands, which exploded on the scene 10 or 15 years ago. I say “arguably” because you could make an argument for Carmel Valley; but comparing them is really apples and oranges. Chalone is, of course, a great appellation, but with only handful of wineries up there, it’s too small to garner the top slot. Monterey’s other small AVAs–Hames Valley, San Antonio Valley, San Lucas, San Bernabe–have yet to achieve a solid identity in my mind. These southerly regions, on the road to Paso Robles (or away from it, depending on which direction on the 101 you’re driving) could do exciting things in the future; it’s a question of time, money and will-power. Arroyo Seco, right in the middle of the Salinas Valley, at the base of the Santa Lucias, is an up-and-comer I’m keeping my eye on. I think of it as a coolish place that makes dry, varietally pure wines of brisk acidity and fair pricing. Its best wines have been whites (Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris), as well as Pinot Noir. Syrah can be good; so, too, the occasional Merlot and Grenache. Cabernet Sauvignon, not so much. Jekel and Muirwood get credit for trying.
Then there are the Monterey and Monterey County appellations. These are in general good, everyday wines, and usually don’t cost too much. In this sense Monterey is like the vast Languedoc region of France, the source of oceans of vin ordinaire. Every wine producing country needs a Languedoc. Monterey is America’s.
Very short post today, as we met all day yesterday at Wine Enthusiast for the third day in a row, for our final session on planning out the 2014 editorial calendar, then there was the traditional final dinner (in the incredible wine cellar of the Kittle House, where the somm refused to give me a Melchior [24 standard bottles] of Romanée-Conti despite my promise to send him $100), followed by the inevitable Partay back at the hotel with the team, in whoever had the biggest room, which lasted until midnight at which point I dragged my sorry-ass tired butt back to my room and collapsed in bed, only to wake up just now, at 5:15 a.m. N.Y. time today, to catch a limo pickup to JFK (which we have to get to through early morning rush hour from up here in Westchester) to make my 10 a.m. flight back to Oakland and to–Gus!, who is the only reason I don’t want to crawl back in bed this very moment and sleep for the next billion years.
And with that you have just read the longest and most incoherent sentence ever in steveheimoff.com.
Oh, and did I mention the Kittle House is haunted?
We drank some awfully good wines over the last few days, of which a 1951 (!!) Banyuls for some reason sticks out in my mind; but I took no notes, as this drinking was purely for pleasure. What I can promise readers of the magazine is not only some compelling news, stories and opinions, but also a gorgeous new look for 2014. We have some new reviewers (in Italy and the Pacific Northwest) you’ll soon be meeting, as well as some hot new young talent (editorial, computer, social media, etc.) in the offices in N.Y. whom you won’t meet, but without whom the magazine, website and events would never even exist. So kudos to a vast team effort. In my 21st year at Wine Enthusiast I’ve never seen a more dedicated, smarter, funnier, wiser or more hip group of people. If you don’t regularly read Wine Enthusiast, I urge you to check it out.
Now to pack my stuff, making extra sure I don’t leave anything behind the way I left my YSL blue blazer with the gold buttons last year (never to see it again), and rush off to the airport. Ciao bella! Good luck. Be happy. I will be back tomorrow (Friday) in my right mind. Well, as right as it ever gets, anyway.
I’m in New York at Wine Enthusiast’s annual summer editorial meeting, where the days are long and so are the nights, and everyone ends up a little sleep-deprived. But that is the cost of intense creativity, which is how I would characterize these rites of planning out the next year’s magazine calendar.
From around the Web:
“There’s no reason for you to buy expensive wine.” That’s the headline on this article from Slate. Well, of course there’s no reason–unless you actually want good wine! I’m here to tell you Heimoff’s Axiom: Not all expensive wine is great. No all inexpensive wine is bad. But more expensive wine than inexpensive wine is great, just as more expensive clothing or cars or cookware is generally better than cheaper versions of same. You just can’t get around it.
I haven’t been closely following this China-France dispute concerning Chinese claims that the French are dumping wine onto their market. It seems an odd accusation considering the prices the Chinese are willing to pay for Bordeaux, but maybe it’s true. It’s funny that wine would be the source of friction between two major countries. But why would the Chinese object to cheap European wine for their thirsty masses, if they weren’t thinking they have a domestic wine production industry they need to protect? So they must be thinking that. How long do you think it will be before the first Chinese cult wine hits the West?
Speaking of the Chinese, the “Communist Party has disciplined or scolded several officials for holding lavish wedding banquets, drinking wine at lunch and other extravagances as it tries to show progress on a frugality campaign aimed at addressing public anger.” I don’t know about the wedding banquets, but wine at lunch is the mark of a civilized society. Don’t forget that other group that’s down on alcohol: the Taliban.
This is a big deal: Now you can take BART–the Bay Area Rapid Transit subway system–all the way from downtown San Francisco through to the Napa Wine Train. True, there’s a shuttle bus involved–and no one likes shuttle buses. Still, this is a significant step forward for the Wine Train, which almost everyone in Napa Valley hated when it was first proposed.
Is the guy who paid $41,500 for that case of 1998 Petrus “a moral monster”? The WaPo’s Wonk Blog thinks so. Here’s his take: “If you are about to drink a $3,500 bottle of wine, you have to think for just a minute about this option instead: Drink a $100 bottle of wine that is about as good, but from a less renowned chateau. And deploy the other $3,400 to pay for malaria-preventing mosquito nets in Africa that, by one charity’s calculations, would be enough money to save about 1.5 human lives.” Hard to argue with that.
I enjoyed Christopher Watkins ‘tribute to J.J. Cale on the Ridge blog, in which he compares the songwriter’s purity to Paul Draper’s decision to list ingredient’s on Ridge’s labels. It’s a good read.
Okay. Early Wednesday morning here in New York. Time to hit the shower, then back to Wine Enthusiast Boot Camp for the 2014 Wine Star Nominations. Always an interesting experience.
When you read this, I’ll be in New York, at Wine Enthusias headquarters, where we’re gathered to plan out the 2014 editorial calendar of the magazine and website.
No easy task, that. There are only so many pages in the print edition; story ideas (“pitches,” in the weird jargon of journalism) vie with each other for space, in a Darwinian struggle that sees some of them triumph as cover stories, while others die an inglorious death (often to be repitched and hopefully resurrected at a later date).
Next year will be my 25th as a published wine writer. I started in 1989 (very much against the odds) at Wine Spectator, when it was still published out of San Francisco, from their old offices on Van Ness Avenue, near the Opera House and Symphony (but before Hayes Valley was hot; back then it was ho’s and drug dealers). I was determined to make a living as a wine writer–which would be pretty audacious today, but wasn’t then; while there were far fewer venues for which to write (and no Internet!), there also were far fewer people who wanted to be wine writers, so there was practically no competition. Still, I doubt that I would have succeeded had I lived in, say, the Midwest, or even in the San Joaquin Valley. It was proximity to San Francisco (I’d moved to Oakland in 1987) that afforded me the opportunity to hang out the Spectator’s staff, and to hand-deliver (yes, in those pre-email days) my hard copy, which entailed a BART trip of six stops (to Civic Center, then a five-minute walk to Van Ness).
The method of transmitting articles these days certainly has changed, from taking the subway to clicking the “send” button on my email. So, too, has the format of articles changed. We used to write long articles (3,000-plus words) on individual wineries; among my first assignments were Eberle, down in Paso Robles, Calera, in the Pinnacles, and Flora Springs, in Rutherford. And even those were short, compared to the example of a 7,000-word article my friend, the late wine writer, Steve Pitcher, wrote for Wine News on California Sauvignon Blanc!
Nowadays, few wine magazines would devote that much space to a single winery or variety. Twelve-hundred words is about tops, broken down into breakout boxes for easier digestion. The Internet (some would say MTV, some would say People magazine) has caused readers’ attention span to shrink; the conventional wisdom among publishers is that no one will read a long article anymore. I’m not convinced that’s true, provided that the article is compellingly written. But there is for sure a fine line between a boring, hard-to-read long article and a scintillating one, the latter being rare; and perhaps publishers, not being quite sure of the talents of their hired writers, prefer not to risk boring readers. Yet too often the short form fails to inspire or educate. This loss of long-form wine journalism ought to worry lovers of wine.
Here are a few things I’m going to be watching carefully in 2014:
- the 2011 vintage. I’m lowering my expectations of it. The initial hype was, “Great, a cool vintage will result in balanced wines.” But my experience so far is of a lot of unripe wines, and some botrytis problems too. Pinot Noir has suffered, particularly from the coolest places, like the northern Santa Lucia Highlands. Some Grenache and Chardonnay has been iffy. As for Cabernet, well, no important ’11 Cabs have come out yet, so I’ll be waiting for those.
- The continuing evolution of California cult wines. Have they recovered from the Recession? Will they still be in demand as an older generation fades from the scene? Can the marketplace handle 200 Napa Valley Cabs (my estimate) that all cost more than $100? Will younger consumers who currently spurn these wines eventually covet them, as their salaries increase over time? Or will History look back at the period 1990-2010 as a bubble for cult wines? Stay tuned.
- And, of course, I’ll always be on the lookout for younger, interesting winemakers who are trying to do new things. If you’re one of them, talk to me.
I will try to post regularly from New York, but with round the clock meetings, it’s hard. Bear with me.