I haven’t written much about my new job because it’s been important for me to keep steveheimoff.com a place independent of whatever job I have, whether it was the guy who wrote wine reviews for Wine Enthusiast or my new position at Jackson Family Wines.
The reason it’s important for me to preserve and protect this space as a sort of safe house is because I have (or think I have) a compact with my readers. That compact is terribly important to me. It’s almost a marriage—I mean, that’s how seriously I take it.
The thing to understand is how hard I’ve had to fight to maintain this blog’s independence. My former employer strongly encouraged me to end it—why, I never could understand. Obviously, I refused. After that experience, I am tremendously grateful to Jackson Family Wines for being supportive of the blog’s continuation.
My official title is director of wine communications and education. As such—and things are still evolving—my work is mainly confined to three areas: writing (they call it “content” creation), giving advice on various matters of my expertise to colleagues within the company, and working with outside gatekeepers in the ongoing work of tasting Jackson Family Wines.
This latter task is driven largely by the fact that there is a body of opinion among some people that Kendall-Jackson is a single wine company and that all of the company’s other brands must somehow be associated with K-J. That perception—real or imagined—is, of course, nonsense. Mentioning only some of the California wineries, it is clear, or should be to anyone who pays attention to these things, that Champ de Réves, Edmeades, Stonestreet, Verité, Hartford Court, Cambria, Atalon, Cardinale, Freemark Abbey, Mt. Brave, Lokoya, Byron and Matanzas Creek, etc. (I could go on) are wineries of the highest caliber; in my years as California editor of Wine Enthusiast I gave many high scores to their wines, including several 100 point scores (and I had the reputation of being stingy with perfect scores). I personally long ago formed the opinion, which was based on fact, that Jackson Family Wines was a large company, with brands at virtually every price point, and moreover, those brands met or exceeded in quality their competitors—and often at a lower price. This gave me great respect for the company.
So when I began to hear, from various others in this company, of an outside attitude that K-J somehow impugns the other brands in the portfolio, it was rather shocking. I wonder how anyone working in this business could fail to make the distinction between price tiers. After all, one doesn’t hear of a gatekeeper’s revolt against Mouton Rothschild because its parent company also produces Mouton Cadet, which is said to sell around 1 million cases annually, making it very much a commodity wine. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Besides, I have never heard anyone offer any reasonable argument to dispute the concept that a large wine company can walk and chew gum at the same time: that is, produce fairly-priced wine in large quantities for the everyday wine drinker, and simultaneously make ultrapremium wine, based on estate-grown grapes from the finest coastal appellations, and vinified by some of the top winemakers in California.
If I have any gripe at all with the upper tier of the industry—not the wines themselves, but the critics and somms who concern themselves with those wines—it’s that they so often give the impression that the everyday consumer doesn’t matter—that everyday-priced wines, the kind you find in a supermarket, are somehow illegitimate when compared to the little garagiste labels. This, too, is nonsense, and patently unfair. At Wine Enthusiast, I developed an affection for the everyday segment of the market (and the magazine reflected that affection). It always made me happy to give a Best Buy to an under-$15 wine, because I appreciated, having come from that part of the population that can’t afford expensive wine, that some wine companies take seriously the notion of making inexpensive quality wine, and I also knew how technically difficult that can be on a consistent basis, across vintages. That is one reason why Kendall-Jackson so often got my nod.
So what is it about some gatekeepers that makes them unable to appreciate the qualities of an ultrapremium wine made by the same company that produces an everyday wine? I have to confess that this is an aspect of my job I take most seriously, as I have great respect for “the truth,” and truth, after all, ought to live at the heart of every conversation about wine. Does the wine taste good? Is it clean and well-made? Does it drink well with food? Does it have the interest and complexity to satisfy over the course of a meal? These are the criteria by which sommeliers and gatekeepers should judge wines—not some hocus-pocus about scarcity or romance or garages.
I mean not to impugn any gatekeepers. I was one myself, so I know how hard these people work, and how honest they feel in their own hearts regarding the wines they recommend. I simply look forward to sitting down with them, as best I can, and asking them to put aside whatever stereotypes they may harbor, and perceive reality as it actually is: the wine inside the glass.
Short post today, as I’ve been down here in Santa Barbara County shooting videotapes (or rather, being shot) for a project for Cambria’s blog. It was a very long day yesterday, shooting from just past dawn until after sunset, because the videographer wanted to take advantage of the “golden hours,” when the sun is low in the sky and bathes everything in a 24-karat glow.
As a result, when the day was over, Ellen and I headed back to the guesthouse, instead of going out to eat. There was some pizza at home plus, of course, a lot of wine, including one of my favorites, Cambria’s Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, so we just kicked back and went to sleep early. There were coyotes all over the place—at Cambria, at dusk, a large pack of them howled so loudly that the hair on the back of Gus’s neck bristled, and, later, back at the guesthouse, when I took him out for his nightly ritual, he refused to walk beyond the small circle of light provided by the front door light, but instead peered fitfully out into the shadows, his little nose quivering. There were beasts out there; I couldn’t see them or smell them, like he could, but I could sense them. Our in the country, I’ve been repeatedly warned to keep a close eye on my dog. If it’s not a coyote, it could be a hawk, or a rattlesnake. In Oakland, the main thing Gus and I have to worry about is cars. Vive la difference!
Cambria’s winemaker, Denise Shurtleff, and I talked a lot about the “Santa Maria Bench,” the unofficial name for the stretch of Santa Maria Valley where the best wines are made. This includes, of course, Bien Nacido Vineyard, which is right next to Cambria’s vineyard. I have written and blogged several times over the years about Santa Maria Valley, which is little known, not only to the general public, but even to the so-called gatekeepers, sommeliers and folks like that. They may understand that it’s in Santa Barbara County, but less well comprehended are its special qualities: the well drained, gravelly-limey soils, the long, dry growing season, the moderately warm days and, especially, the downright cold nights. This is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay country par excellence, as well as cool-climate Syrah. The near total absence of water makes for small grapes that result in concentrated flavors, which natural acidity brightens.
Part of Santa Maria Valley’s problem is that there’s very little infrastructure for tourists to enjoy, unlike the neighboring Santa Ynez Valley. Santa Maria Valley has almost nothing in the way of charming little towns, B&Bs, good restaurants, art galleries and so on, and so wine lovers don’t really know about it, or its wines. Some of us are thinking of putting together an educational road show; if anything happens, I’ll let you know.
Meanwhile, thanks as usual for sticking by my blog during these days of personal transition for me. I’ll continue to post five days a week insofar as that’s possible, and I don’t see why it wouldn’t be.
I’m at the Cambria Winery guest house this cold but clear May morning, in the Foxen Canyon part of Santa Barbara County, a beautiful, hilly region I think of as midway between the cooler, more austere Santa Maria Valley and the warmer Santa Ynez Valley. You take Foxen Canyon Road all the way through the Santa Maria Valley until the road winds south and starts to climb into the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains. That’s Foxen Canyon.
Gus and I drove down here yesterday. It was a beautiful day for driving, sunny and warm, and also a good day for judging the climate differences along the Central Coast. Around Gilroy the temperature already was in the high seventies. As you come into the Salinas Valley, it cools down to the low seventies, then soars as you hit Paso Robles, where it was over ninety. Then down the dramatic Cuesta Grade toward the coast, and it gets downright cool again, back into the low seventies, before rising once again here in Foxen Canyon, where it was about 84 degrees at mid-day yesterday.
We passed Bien Nacido Vineyard on the way into the Santa Maria Valley, and I appreciated once again how beautiful its vineyards are, set on the benches and then climbing into the hills. There, the climate is cool; with an east-west orientation, the valley is so wide and flat, there’s nothing to stop the foggy maritime influence from sweeping in from the Pacific, across the city of Santa Maria. Right next door to Bien Nacido is the expansive Cambria vineyard, set, like its neighbor, on the Santa Maria Bench, about which Cambria’s winemaker, Denise Shurtleff, and I will be talking later today.
But by the time you get to where I am now, in the guesthouse, just about a mile south of Foxen Winery, the hills pretty much cut off the coastal influence—not entirely, not as much as, say, in Happy Canyon, but largely. This is still a coolish climate, but it’s getting warm, which is why the great wine from these parts—evidenced by Foxen’s and Cambria’s bottlings–is Syrah. We had a glass late last night of Cambria’s Tepusquet Vineyard, following a wine-filled dinner at Grappolo, and it was damned good.
On this trip down from Oakland to Santa Barbara, I always have three must-stops: first, the Rest Area in Bradley, which is where Gus has his first break of the journey. Then, ten miles later, I pull in for a quick pit stop at Starbucks, in Paso Robles, for a java jolt. In wintertime I’ll have a hot cappuccino. Yesterday, in that 90-degree heat, it was a cold vanilla latté. Finally, when you hit the ocean at Shell Beach, my third stop is DePalo’s Market, for a sandwich, which I’m afraid to admit I eat while driving.
I’m here at Cambria to do a video with Denise Shurtleff. My cousin, Ellen, is joining me; she lives in Malibu, and almost always drives up for my visits to Santa Barbara County, just to hang out with me. Her being with me on these expeditions makes them immensely more enjoyable. My job is a nice one, but don’t let anyone tell you these long trips to wine country can’t be lonely for a writer.
Last Saturday’s tasting and panel discussion on “The Neighborhoods of the Russian River Valley,” sponsored by the Russian River Valley Winegrowers Association as part of their winter “Pinot Classic” event, was interesting, as these terroir-oriented seminars always are. But, as I told the audience, for me at least it smacked of “déja vu all over again.”
The theme was to see if we could isolate and identify the characteristics of Pinot Noirs from three different “neighborhoods” of the greater Russian River Valley: Green Valley, Laguna Ridge and the Middle Reach.
To help walk us through an understanding of these regions were four talented winemakers: Michael Browne (Kosta Browne), representing Green Valley; Rod Berglund (Joseph Swan), representing Laguna Ridge, and Mark McWilliams (Arista), representing the Middle Reach. Our panel moderator was Mike Sullivan (Benovia), whose long career in the Russian River Valley gives him broad, general oversight.
My role, in Rod Berglund’s words, was to be “the cleanup hitter and let us know if what, from an outside observer standpoint, what we say makes sense or if we are all just full of [it].” I thus spoke last.
I must now briefly digress to quote some passages from my 2005 book, “A Wine Journey along the Russian River.” This is from a section called “Carving Up the Valley”:
After the 2001 harvest, a group of [Russian River Valley winemakers] began gathering to taste the wines from different parts of the appellation. Their focus, obviously, was on Pinot Noir … The object was to see whether it made sense to carve up the valley into sub-AVAs … The vintners would get together every so often for a few hours to taste and see whether they could detect consistent differences in the wines … Exactly where these divisions are and what they should be called are years away from being determined … the Russian River Valley Winegrowers Association itself has suggested three sub-AVAs: the Middle Reach, Laguna Ridges [sic] and the Santa Rosa Plain (counted as one), and Green Valley, which has had AVA status since 1983. You can think of this as a warm-cool-cold continuum.
I wrote those words in 2004. Now here we are, ten years later, and it’s as if I wrote them yesterday. Pretty much the same winemakers, talking about the same topic—it’s as if the last ten years hadn’t ever happened.
Why these new AVA processes take so long (and they always do) is a matter of complexity; no small reason is simply because people are busy, and it takes a great deal of effort to come to agreement (especially in so large and crowded a place as Russian River Valley). Still, I confess to finding it surprising that this particular process has dragged on for so long. There’s no question that the Russian River Valley needs to be broken up into smaller, more meaningful AVAs. At 96,000 acres (according to Wine Institute), it’s the 21st biggest AVA in California (of more than 100), bigger than Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill, Sonoma Valley and Sonoma Mountain combined—and you can throw Santa Rita Hills in there for good measure and there’s still a skosh of acreage left over.
As I wrote in “Journey,” “[T]he Middle Reach does deserve its own AVA status.” I believe this on several bases: historical (the name “the Middle Reach” is very old, by California standards, and Pinot Noir there dates to the 1960s) and because the wine quality is so high and so consistent across all properties. Indeed, the Middle Reach probably has the greatest quality overall because, being the warmest part of the valley, it ripens the grapes well even in cooler years, whereas a place like Green Valley—the coldest neighborhood—may struggle in a chiller like 2011 and even in the more moderate 2012 vintage to get the grapes to full maturity. A well-made Middle Reach Pinot is spectacular on release, yet we know from the experience of older wineries (Rochioli, Williams Selyem) that the best bottles are capable of twenty years of development.
I think Laguna Ridge also makes sense. You have there wineries whose Pinot Noirs are lush, tannic and earthy, and need time to develop in the bottle. I think the current thinking now is to separate out Laguna Ridge (in the hilly south-central part of the valley) from the Santa Rosa Plain to the east, which makes sense; but that leaves unnamed a huge swathe of Russian River Valley, stretching roughly from Highway 12, east of Highway 116, northward almost to Windsor, and containing some of the Russian River Valley’s most famous wineries and vineyards. It surely deserves appellation status too, and why not Santa Rosa Plain? Although, as I noted in “Journey,” Rod Berglund at that time had suggested a Windsor Hills AVA for the more northerly part of this stretch.
I had written, too, that Bob Cabral had suggested a West River AVA (to pick up where the Middle Reach trails off), while Dan Goldfield had suggested dividing Green Valley into Upper and Lower (based on elevation); and I’m sure there are others with even more creative ideas. So we can begin to see why this process of new AVAs takes so long. This is complicated stuff!
I wish the Russian River Valley Winegrowers well in this latest push. As I wrote in 2004, things then seemed to have been put on hold, “but that has only slowed, not stopped, the momentum for sub-appellating the valley.” My hope is that, with last Saturday’s public event, the momentum has been regained.
(P.S. As I noted in “Journey,” and Rod Berglund again reminded us on Saturday, legally and technically there is no such thing as a “sub-AVA.” All AVAs are created equal, it seems, in the eyes of the government! But for conversational purposes, I have no problem referring to sub-AVAs.)
Gus was there too
We had a fantastic lunch at Michael Mina yesterday (don’t even get me started on the short ribs!). It was my first sales trip (for Jackson Family Wines), to which they had invited a small bunch of top sommeliers in the Bay Area. The wines were no slouches: Matanzas Creek 2012 Bennett Valley Sauvignon Blanc (awesome with the hamachi sushi), Stonestreet 2011 Broken Road Chardonnay (so crisp and lemony-minerally), 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010 Cardinale and 2007 and 2009 Verite La Muse. Two of those wines (2006 Cardinale and 2007 Verite) were among the only five wines I ever gave perfect 100s to during all my years at Wine Enthusiast, so it was pretty special to taste them again. The ’06 Cardinale of course had more bottle age than it did when I reviewed it (in 2009, I think it was), and it was just about as beautiful as Napa-Bordeaux wine gets. OMG I wouldn’t mind having a few cases of that! The 2010 being younger was more tannic, and if it didn’t have the sheer dazzle of the ’06 it had plenty of elegance. As the late, great Harry Waugh would say, it will make a great bottle.
As for the Verities, what can I say. That Alexander Mountain Estate (where the grapes come from) is one of the world’s great vineyards and if you think I’m saying that just because I work for JFW you don’t know me or the estate. Somebody said that Verite wines have had ten 100s (one from me, nine from Parker), more than any other California wine. I don’t know that for an absolute fact, but there’s no question that Pierre Seillan is doing amazing things up there on that mountain. (By the way, this led to a little conversation about whether Bordeaux blends are better from a single vineyard or a blend. Unlike Verite, Cardinale is a blend: the 2006 was from Mount Veeder, Howell Mountain, To Kalon, Stags Leap, Spring Mountain and St. Helena, but, as I said, it was absolutely a 100-point wine. So, no, a great Bordeaux blend can be a blend OR a single-vineyard wine. And there’s no reason in principle why a great Pinot Noir can’t be a blend, if you think about it.)
I so enjoyed being with those smart, young somms. They ask the best questions. One in particular, Ian Burrows, from Atelier Crenn, in the Marina, really hit me up with some great ones. Why do I give high scores to some varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir) and not to others? I explained that, since I reviewed only California wines, although I might like, say, a Pey-Marin Riesling, I’m not about to give it 100 points, or a Charbono from Summers or a Gruner from Von Strasser, much as I like those wines. He pressed me, which was delightful, because it makes me think more deeply about stuff than if I’m just thinking off the top of my head. To be interrogated like that—not in a mean, threatening, third-degree way, but in a journalistic, curious way—is very good. It makes you justify your thoughts and actions and think about things you might not have fully thought out before.
The somms asked lots of questions about being a wine critic and scoring and how do you taste and so forth, and at one point—we were talking about blind tasting—I found myself saying something I’d never said before, at least, with such conviction. “Wine critics really should be held to higher standards of accountability,” I said. There is so much we don’t know about how they taste and review wines. I added, “With all the immense power they have in the marketplace, they should be far more transparent.” I believe that. When I was a critic, I tried, through my blog, to offer more openness and transparency about the actual process than any other critic I knew of (and I think I did a good job). I also was open about my own internal doubts. “Do you ever doubt yourself when reviewing?” Ian asked. “Yes!” I told him. You can’t not doubt yourself. Pride goeth before a fall. Of course, you need to be confident in your abilities, but you also must never forget that you are human and thus fallible. (If you do, experience has away of humbling you, as for instance when you call a Petite Sirah “Merlot” in front of a crowd.) You also must not forget that, if you’re a critic, you’re playing with people’s lives–I mean, the people from the winery whose livelihood you may jeopardize with a poor score. Believe me, that is a very sobering thought.
They started calling my neighborhood in Oakland “Uptown” a few years ago. That was when the restaurants began moving in, and the new condos and bars and clubs, making it one of the Bay Area’s hottest ‘hoods. But one thing Uptown never had was a fancy wine tasting event for the public.
Well, Saturday night brought a breakthrough of sorts. It was called the Spring Wine Event, and it was held in a place called Impact Hub, a former auto showroom (I think it was Cadillac-Porsche) back when this stretch of Broadway was called Auto Row. The redeveloper has taken the industrial-sized place and turned it into a high-ceilinged, post-modern space perfect for events of this sort.
I’d been invited to the tasting by a guy, Michael DeFlorimonte, whom I’d never heard of, so I called him up to ask why he’d reached out to me. Seems a winemaker had recommended he ask me, especially since I live only a ten-minute walk away. So Mike did, and I’m so glad. He explained to me that the event was largely for the African-American community, which is fantastic, because that community has been overlooked and underserved by the broader wine industry, which seems like it focuses its efforts (at the premium end, at any rate) elsewhere—why, I’ve never known.
Anyway, this was a glamorous event. I was underdressed, as I usually am. Most of the wines being poured were from tiny new wineries I’d never heard of, many of them produced at a facility on Treasure Island, which is familiar to Bay Area motorists as the mid-way point on the Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland. I’m going to have to go out there one of these days to check out this interesting, urban wine scene.
Here are some of the wines I really liked: L’Objet Wines 2009 Pinot Noir Reserve, a $32 blend of Russian River, Santa Maria Valley, Anderson Valley and Sonoma Coast; Longevity 2013 Pijot Grigio ($24), from Livermore Valley, actually a rosé and a very good one; Urban Legend 2012 Windem Ranch Sauvignon Blanc ($19), which confirms everything I’ve always liked about Lake County; and Greyscale 2011 Cuvée Blanc ($34), a Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend from Napa Valley made in the Graves style. There were a few wines that were pretty ordinary, and two in particular that were disasters: both from a high-end, expensive Napa Valley producer whose name I will not reveal, but whom you all would recognize. They were awful, horrible, crimes against wine, and my first thought on tasting them was, “Wow. They dumped these wines at a tasting where they thought people might not be that discerning.” I considered saying something to the pourer, but then reconsidered: not my problem. But it was very sad. Does this sort of thing go on very much? Did the winery think no one would notice because it was “only” downtown Oakland? Someone noticed: me.