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Final thoughts on WOPN 2014

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World of Pinot Noir was a very great success despite 3 days of continuous rain (I hope all those poor people living in the foothills of the San Gabes are okay). The Bacara Resort turned out to be a lovely new venue; their staff was awesome. Personally, I want to thank the Uber people for taking such good care getting me back and forth. I stayed at Fess Parker’s Doubletree, a 25 minute drive from Bacara, and it would have been very difficult for me (and for Gus) without my wonderful driver, Ariane. Thank you, and thanks also to Andy.

WOPN has been such a great success that I wonder why more wineries from beyond California don’t participate. I think if Burgundy, Oregon, New Zealand and other Pinot-producing countries knew more about this event (and the upscale crowd it attracts), they’d come. As for tasting, I spent most of my time concentrating on the New Zealand and Oregon wineries that did attend. Partly, that was because I don’t taste much non-California wine. I also felt sorry for the non-California wineries, many of whom were stuck in a side room that frankly didn’t attract much of a crowd. People were lining up at the likes of Kosta Brown, which seems rather lemming-like to me. I mean, hey, okay, if you’ve never tried KB, fine, but why not go outside your critical comfort zone and discover something else? Isn’t that what wine is all about: discovery, surprise, evolution? It’s boringly easy to taste something that critic X or Y gave a million points to and then go home and yada yada about it. Well, if that’s the outermost limit you can soar to, my sympathies.

It was great to see Bob Cabral pouring at Williams Selyem. As most of you probably know, Bob gave them his notice, and will be moving on to unknown adventures, although he’ll oversee their 2014 vintage. The two of us had a good long talk–we go back a ways and Bob’s always been one of my favorite people, both for his superb attitude as a human being, friendliness and warmth, and because Williams Selyem’s wines rock.

Just a brief word on the Burgundy seminar. I had some favorites: Domaine Collotte 2012 Marsannay Rose. What a great wine for $18 retail. I wrote “I wish there were more California rosés like this, especially Pinot Noirs, which tend to be too heavy.” I loved the Domaine Mongeard-Mugneret 2010 Savigny-Les-Beaune “Les Narbantons,” not a Premier Cru but a gorgeous wine, rich and spicy and ready to drink now, at only $30. But my top wine was  Domaine Jean et Gilles Lafouge 2010 Auxey-Duresses “La Chappelle” ($36). I just couldn’t get enough of it: dry, acidic and spicy, with firm tannins and oh, so complete and wholesome. To me, it beat out the Grand Cru on the table, Domaine D’Ardhuy 2005 Corton Clos du Roi, which I called “very hard, undrinkable, all about tannins and acidity, showing no generosity, austere.” I have no idea if it will age, and neither, apparently, did Don Kinnon, who once again moderated this outstanding panel. He seemed almost apologetic about it. Of course, if you know this is a Grand Cru, and from a celebrated vintage, you’re going to hedge your bets and give it a great score, probably with a line like “Nowhere near ready, best after 2030.” If you don’t know what it is, you’ll just go “Uggh” and turn to something else, like the Auxey-Duresses, at one-third the price. This just shows that tasting occurs, not merely in the mouth, but in the mind.


World of Pinot Noir 2014: Random notes

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At the morning seminar on the Pinots of Willamette Valley, my friend Gillian Handelman, of Jackson Family Wines, remarked that Oregon winemakers seem to talk a lot more about soil and rocks than do California winemakers, who lean more toward climate in explaining their Pinots. That immediately rang true to me, and I wondered why it might be so. A few things occur to me:

The historical reference point for Pinot Noir in California is Sonoma County, where the soils are so impossibly jumbled, courtesy of the San Andreas Fault system, that you can walk two yards and find different structures. That may be one reason why: Winemakers were stymied trying to understand their soils, so they very naturally turned to climate. Then too, as someone observed, up in Oregon-Washington, every kid is raised with the story of the great Missoula Floods, which formed so much of those states’ terrain. “It was our creation myth,” said Oregon journalist Katherine Cole, who moderated the Willamette seminar. So it may be that Oregonians have rocks more deeply imbedded in their imaginations than do Californians. Finally, it may be because in Willamette, Pinot Noir is pretty much exclusively the red grape, whereas in California, it’s everything from Pinot to Cabernet and Zinfandel. Pinot seems to draw more from the dirt than most other red varieties, so maybe Oregon winemakers look more toward Burgundian explanations of terroir than Californians. I don’t know what the answer is, but I think Gillian hit the nail on the head.

The seminar on the wines of Louis Jadot’s Beaune Premier Cru Clos des Ursules was stunning. I’ve gone to few vertical tastings in my life in which a continuity of style was clearer, or where the necessity of aging more apparent. We tasted eight wines, from 2010 going back to 1985, and it was easy to find the same elements in them all. But really, only the 1985 was drinkable (to me)–and that, just barely; I’d love to try it in another 20 years. Jadot’s winemaker, Frédéric Barnier, conceded as much. When asked by an audience member if he didn’t feel the need to change the style in response to consumer demand for earlier-drinking wines, Barnier said, in effect: No way. Good for him.

Later, at the walkaround tasting, I found myself gravitating toward the 2011s, from both Oregon and California. Some of them were stunning. The one I particularly recall was the Baxter 2011 Valenti Vineyard, from Mendocino Ridge. (I no longer review Mendocino wines for Wine Enthusiast; Virginie Boone does. She scored it 92 points. I might have gone a little higher, and added a Cellar Selection designation. But Virginie and I are in the same ballpark.)

I’m still formulating my views on the 2011 Pinots. Katherine, the Willamette moderator, told a story about a Burgundian producer she interviewed. When she asked him about a certain vintage would develop, he crustily replied (I paraphrase Katherine’s quote), “How am I supposed to know? You can’t understand a vintage for at least fifty years.” While I wouldn’t go that far, I do think it takes time, and any serious reviewer who doesn’t revise his estimations of a vintage is lazy or dead. Early on, I had serious problems with 2011 Pinots from California. Lots of mold. But there always were some great wines from producers who either sorted out the moldy berries or who sourced their grapes from vineyards (often mountains or hillsides) where mold was not a problem, even in the cold 2011 vintage. So at the walkaround tasting I was really blown away by some of the 2011s. The Baxter is the only one I’ll mention here, but the great ones all were low in alcohol, incredibly streamlined and elegant, brisk in acidity and not overwhelming in fruit. You can call them Burgundian, I suppose. This raises the question of how to evaluate a vintage, overall, when it contains extremes of both sides: extraordinary wines as well as moldy ones. My feeling is to lower the overall score, in terms of numbers, but try to express, in the text, that consumers who choose well will find unbelievably gorgeous wines. This is not always an easy message to get across, but then, of course, the individual scores and reviews of the wines also express how I feel about them.

Finally: Frédéric Barnier on numerous occasions made a distinction between wines that are “good” and those that are “interesting.” I raised my hand five or six times, during the Q&A, to ask him to elaborate; but alas, Katherine never called on me, so all I can do is surmise. I wanted to ask him: Can a wine that’s not good be interesting? Can a wine that’s good be uninteresting? This is fascinating stuff, and I hope to muse on these concepts in the future.

 


WOPN HOPPIN’

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Off to World of Pinot Noir today, a great event for keeping track of what’s up with the variety, in California and around the world. I’m looking forward to seeing old friends and making new ones. Among the seminars I’m excited about are “The Insider Wines of the Cote d’Or” and a comparison of the wines of Willamette Valley and its sub-AVAs with the wines of Maison Jadot.

Less formally, I’ll be looking for information on how the 2012 and 2013 vintages are looking, and what winemakers are saying, not saying, doing or not doing about the question of alcohol level, an issue that just won’t go away.

It was put on the table, so to speak, with the 2008 formation of In Pursuit of Balance by Jasmine Hirsch and Raj Parr (I’ll be going to their March 10 event in San Francisco). In this era of wineries looking for magic bullets to launch them instant P.R., we should look no further than IPOB for an object lesson par excellence. Whether or not Jasmine and Raj had the intention of making their fledgling organization a vital pulse of the industry, that is what happened. I’ve been amazed by how central IPOB has become to almost every discussion of Pinot Noir–certainly in the circles I travel in. So I was not especially surprised when, last week, Jay McInerney wrote a glowing tribute to IPOB in the Wall Street Journal. When the author of the cocaine-saturated Bright Lights, Big City writes about cool somms partying until dawn in Manhattan clubs after an IPOB event, you know Jasmine’s and Raj’s homegrown enterprise has hit the bull’s eye of the zeitgeist.

I’m not going to play that silly game that determines an artificial alcohol level and then say anything above that is unbalanced. I went over my highest ratings for Pinot Noirs in the last year; the alcohol levels range from 12.4% on Flowers 2011 Moon Select to Rochioli’s 2011 West Block, at 14.5%, with most of the wines hovering between 13.5%-14.2%. All of these wines scored at least 95 points; most of them are ageable. By contrast, I also checked out Pinots with my lower scores, and could detect no correlation with alcohol levels: most of the wines I gave paltry 84s and 85s to had alcohol levels in the 13s and on up to 14.5%, same as the high-scoring ones. If you want to look for a number to estimate the quality of a Pinot Noir, look at its price, not its alcohol level.

I do have the sense that winemakers are more conscious of alcohol levels than they used to be–or, to put it bluntly, conscious of the buzz that alcohol levels engender, largely because of IPOB’s influence, among the cognoscenti. Nor is it merely IPOB itself that is so causative of the discussion: IPOB has a strong following among sommeliers, whose roles as tastemakers are more potent than ever before. (We used to live in the era of the celebrity winemaker. This current one is the era of the celebrity sommelier and mixologist. The non-tattooed need not apply.) Indeed, it’s fair to ask: Is IPOB leading somms, or are somms informing IPOB’s weltanschauung? It’s probably a feedback loop with both sides reinforcing each other.

 


Enjoying Petite Sirah at Dark & Delicious

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I went to Dark & Delicious, the big Petite Sirah event that my friends, Jo and Jose Diaz, hold every year, through their P.S. I Love You advocacy group. As usual, it was at Kent Rosenblum’s Rock Wall Wine Co. facility,  in an airplane hangar at the old Alameda Naval Air Station, which was given up by the U.S. Defense Department years ago, and whose extensive buildings now are available for rent by private companies, like Rock Wall.

It was a gorgeous night; the island city of Alameda is located across the Bay from San Francisco, and I only wish I’d taken some photos of the S.F. skyline and the amazing new eastern span of the Bay Bridge, all lit up against a starry night sky. But I didn’t. Sorry ‘bout that.

I love Dark & Delicious for several reasons, among them the quality of the food. Jo and Jose recruit local restaurateurs and caterers, and because the wine is Petite Sirah (and “dark and delicious” are perfect descriptors for the wines), the food tends to be rich and heavy: lots of barbecue, sausages, paella, pork, beef, wild boar, Ahi tuna, not to mention irresistable chocolate. I have to admit I’m a bit of a ravenous carnivore at these things: it’s with a mild sense of guilt that I make my rounds of the tables, inhaling everything, stuffing myself silly. Food, or rather the enjoyment of it, is one of the distinctive properties of being alive, particularly for us humans, who, if we’re lucky, have access to such gorgeously prepared delicacies. If I was a young pup and just starting out, I might consider being a chef, like a guy I met at D&D, Tyler Stone, who was making Petite Sirah sorbet using liquid nitrogen with a huge machine that puffed out clouds of white smoke. Tyler reminded me of a young Tyler Florence or Bobby Flay–an ambitious, good-looking chef whose name just might be a household word someday (well, at least, in foodie households).

The Petite Sirahs themselves were amazing. A Mounts and a Tedeschi in particular blew me away. How good Petite Sirah has gotten over the years. It used to be a big, brawny, tannic wine, a sort of redneck cousin to Cabernet Sauvignon, but nowadays the best wines have polished up their images and become truly elegant–although they still have Petite Sirah’s swagger.

Just for the heck of it, here are the top Petite Sirahs I’ve reviewed for Wine Enthusiast over the last six months: Stags’ Leap 2010 Ne Cede Malis, Ballentine 2010 Fig Tree, Grgich Hills 2009 Miljenko’s Vineyard, J. Lohr 2011 Tower Road, Retro 2009 Old Vine, Raymond 2010, Galante 2010 Olive Hill, Peachy Canyon 2011, Ancient Peaks 2010 and Alta Colina 2010 Ann’s Block. Note the proliferation of Central Coast sources; Petite Sirah no longer is just a Napa-Sonoma phenomenon.

A tip of the hat to Jo and Jose, for always pulling D&D off with such artful precision. Unless you’ve done one of these big events yourself, you can’t even imagine all the prep work that goes into them–not to mention all the opportunities for disaster. That D&D goes off so effortlessly is a testimony to their organizational skills.

Speaking of events, here are a few I’ll be going to in the near future: World of Pinot Noir, the Pinot Noir Shootout, In Pursuit of Balance, the Paso Robles Cabernet Collective, the Chardonnay Symposium and the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival. The Wine Bloggers Conference invited me back, after a lull of a couple years, to be on a panel for their Santa Barbara conclave, July 11-13, although I won’t know for two or three weeks if I can make it. I like getting out on the road and going to stuff, especially if I can bring Gus, which I usually can. If you’re planning on attending any of these events, look me up.Gus

 


California AVAs as splintered broomsticks in “Fantasia”

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The Federal government, in its bureaucratic wisdom, is exhaustive in spelling out the rules and regulations concerning American Viticultural Areas, defining everything from the percentage of grapes required to originate from the AVA to the point size of the appellation on the label. So complex has the process become that the Tax and Trade Bureau, the responsible agency, issued a 27-page Manual for Petitioners.

But there’s one thing that TTB does not and cannot do, and that is to describe the organoleptic qualities a particular AVA should have. Nowhere in the Manual will you find a description of, for instance, what the Cabernet Sauvignons of Happy Canyon ought to taste like, much less how (or if) they differ from the Cabernets of Paso Robles or Atlas Peak.

Petitioners to the government, who wish to establish a new AVA, need to document all sorts of things: not only where the proposed boundaries are, but upon what criteria they were established; how and why the proposed name is “appropriate”; whether or not the proposed name could be confused by consumers with existing brand names; how the AVA’s “distinguishing features” differentiate it from surrounding areas, and so on. So extensive are all these regulations that AVA petitioners usually must hire professionals to prepare the paperwork, and the process itself lasts for years.

Wine writers, of course, have a different set of concerns. We like knowing about the technical stuff (that’s why they call us geeks), but above and beyond everything else, we insist on trying to understand just what it is about any particular AVA that expresses itself in the resulting wines. This understanding can be elusive; it’s the stuff of endless seminars and studies, none of which is ever conclusive and probably never can be. Call it the Wine Writers Full Employment Act: as long as there are AVAs, there will be people struggling to analyze them. Including me. My latest excursion into AVA Land is with the upcoming Pinot Noir Summit, where, after some back and forth with the organizers, I finally decided on this topic for my panel: Carneros vs. Russian River Valley: Is there a difference?

It sounds a little simplistic, but the best questions are the most fundamental ones. After all, if there’s not a difference between two neighboring appellations, then why bother with appellations in the first place?

I doubt if we (the panelists and the audience) will arrive at any firm conclusions, but that doesn’t prevent the exercise from being fun and informative. Myself, I have a generalized sense of Carneros Pinot Noir with respect to Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. In my mind, the former wines are more acidic, lighter in body, earthier and more minerally than the latter wines, which tend to be bigger, richer and heavier. This is mainly due to Carneros being cooler than most of the valley, and also to its soils, which have large quantities of water-retaining clay.

But the devil is in the details. The Carneros appellation spreads from the flatlands alongside San Pablo Bay (which I think of as bas Carneros) to the foothills of the lower Mayacamas (haut Carneros), meaning that soils and temperatures can vary significantly. Meanwhile, the Russian River Valley itself shows huge terroir differences, the most important of which being that the climate varies significantly from the cooler, foggier southern portions to the warmer, drier area along Westside Road.

Thus the effort to discern regional distinctions will be hampered. This difficulty is made all the more problematic by winemaking techniques (especially picking decisions), which vary from winery to winery and can mask the wine’s underlying terroir.

Do you remember the broomstick scene from the 1940 Disney movie, Fantasia? It’s one of the most remarkable feats of animation ever. Mickey Mouse “borrows” the Sorcerer’s hat and makes a broomstick come to life to perform his chores. Alas, the broomstick does the work a little too well: the next thing Mickey knows, he’s drowning. Attempting to stop the broomstick, Mickey takes a hatchet to it, and chops. And chops. Each splinter turns into a new broomstick that ruthlessly, robotically, mechanically repeats the original broomstick’s function–until Mickey finds himself in a nightmare, saved only by the sudden reappearance of the Sorcerer, who reclaims his hat, and all is well, except that a chastened Mickey has to resume his work.

I sometimes feel AVAs are like that broomstick. They metastasize endlessly; currently, no fewer than 14 new ones are pending in California alone, on top of the hundred-plus we already have. And just as Mickey was overwhelmed with all those marching broomsticks, the poor wine writer sometimes flounders to understand all of California’s AVAs.

No doubt a technical case can be made for each, but from a terroir point of view, it can be very hard to detect a rationale. One likes to think there is a rationale. If we can’t discern the rationale (we tell ourselves), it’s not because there isn’t a defining terroir, it’s because we are insufficiently qualified to find it. We thus take the burden of proof onto ourselves. Which is why I’m doing this Carneros vs. Russian River panel. It obviously won’t be definitive, but it might get us a little closer to the truth.


Tasting mountain wines in San Francisco

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Some blind tastings confirm what you know. Others do just the opposite, bringing a wrecking ball to your presuppositions. The best blind tastings are a little of both.

That was the case at yesterday’s “Altitude Matters” tasting, in San Francisco’s Financial District, where Stonestreet winemaker Graham Weerts and Gillian Handelman, Jackson Family Farms’ Director of Wine Education, presided over a blind tasting of six wines–four reds, two whites–about which we knew nothing, except that they could have come from anywhere in the world, but from elevations of at least 1,000 feet–and, presumably, that at least one of them was a Stonestreet wine, although not even that was assured.

The objective, Graham explained, was not necessarily to identify what variety or varieties the grapes were, or even where they came from, as this: To discern if we could “tie together” some themes common to the wines, which then might provide a better context for understanding all high altitude wines.

High altitude grapegrowing is itself marked by certain conditions, based on the nature of the terrain. Soils tend to be depleted; water is scarce; the roots of the vines find easy proximity to minerals in the soil, but, on the other hand, the grapes’ exposure to sunlight, and particularly ultraviolet light, is greatened. In the case of Stonestreet, whose vineyards are on Alexander Mountain above the Alexander Valley, the grapes often are above the fogs that swathe the valley and lower elevations, making daytime temperatures warmer, especially in the mornings. But due to the famous effects of temperature inversion, nighttime lows are higher than on the valley floor, making for more consistent overall conditions. Because the grapes struggle, they develop thick skins, hence bigger (often much bigger) tannins than valley floor grapes, but they also, oddly, develop higher acidity. These are all major factors in determining the flavors, textures and longevity of mountain wines; yet, as Graham took pains to state, “We’re not saying mountain wines are better, just different.”

Here are the six wines and some comments about them:

Picher Achleiten 2012 Gruner Veltliner. I didn’t know it was Gruner but neither did anyone else, to judge by the comments (the attendees, numbering about 50, seemed mostly to be somms). I liked the wine’s dryness, grace and power, its amazing minerality and acidity, as well as a touch of green pyrazine.

Finca Dofi 2011 Priorat. This was a massive wine, rich in iron and black currants, with grippy tannins and big acidity. I didn’t even try to guess what it was, but just marveled at its power.

Telle Nere 2011 Etna Rosso. Made from  variations of the Nerello grape, this might have been a Northern Rhône Syrah, for all the grilled meat and black pepper notes. But, nope, it’s from Sicily.

Stonestreet 2010 Rockfall Cabernet Sauvignon. I knew it was a distinguished, young wine, probably Cabernet. But with all that graphite and conifer going on, I missed its California origins.

Chave 2008 Hermitage. This was the tightest, most reserved wine of the tasting. I could barely get anything out of it for the first 30 minutes it sat in the glass. Then crushed blackberries and black licorice emerged. One or two of the somms got this right.

Stonestreet 2011 Upper Barn Chardonnay. I knew this instantly: that bright acidity, the pellucid mouthfeel, as pure as mountain stream water, the lemon verbena, peach and honey flavors that finish so dry. Surely it was a Stonestreet Chardonnay from a recent vintage.

But wait. This shows how psychology factors in. We already knew that Wine D was a Stonestreet. Would Graham have included two Stonestreets in a six-wine tasting? Thus I began to doubt myself. When Gillian asked for comments, I raised my hand and said I thought it was a Stonestreet Chardonnay, but, given Wine D, I was prepared for it to be something else.

Well, of course, Graham did include two Stonestreet wines, so it was gratifying to have gotten at least one of the lineup correct. It needs also to be said that I was impressed by how much the somms knew of such a wide range of world wines. I, by contrast, probably was more familiar with the world’s wines before I became a specialist in California wine. There’s only so much time in the day, and my emphasis, bordering on obsession, on tasting California wine leaves me few days in the year to taste much else. Afterwards, I was with my wonderful colleague at Wine Enthusiast, Virginie Boone, and I told her how much I admired the somms’ knowledge.

“Yes,” Virginie replied, “but they probably wouldn’t recognize a Lodi Zinfandel.” Touché.

What linked all six mountain wines?

-Intensity

-Not entirely fruit-driven, but herbs and minerals

-Great structure, including acidity (none of the wines was adjusted)

-Ageability

-Complexity


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