Went to a very interesting tasting yesterday. It was a small private affair, held at the Restaurant at Wente, a chic place tucked into the southern foothills of the Livermore Valley. The subject of the tasting was 1974 Cabernet Sauvignon.
Now, anyone familiar with the modern history of wine in California knows that that vintage was a very famous one. Bob Thompson (1979) called it “strong, showy,” and added, “May be early maturing.” Sadly, for him—happily, for us–he was wrong. Charlie Olken (1980) was nearer the mark. “The best are dark, concentrated, tannic and potentially long-lived.” He even predicted the best “may last until the next century.” As indeed they have.
When tasting older wines like these, which were all 40 years of age, quite a bit of subjectivity rises to the surface. In general, most of the fruit has faded away, and turned into drier, secondary or tertiary notes. Any fatal flaws that were initially present in the wine, such as brett, overripe grapes or excessive tannins, rise to the surface. Then too, in a group such as the one that sponsored the tasting (which was open, not blind), familiarity with these wines is very high, which also raises expectations: The tasters, most of whom are collectors with vast cellars (indeed, it was they who furnished the wines), have a certain emotional attitude invested in their showing well. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I bring it up only in order to suggest that I, personally, was perhaps a little more objective in my appraisal.
Overall, the tasting was remarkable. Not a single one of the wines was dead—pretty astonishing considering their age. Here are some brief notes:
Heitz Martha’s Vineyard. Getting a little threadbare. The alcohol is showing through. Toast, caramel, loads of sweet blackberry jam, but getting tired and starting a downhill slide. Score: 89.
Mount Eden. Holding up well. Good, strong bouquet: blackcurrants, dried fruits, toast, spice. Hard to believe it’s 40 years old. Still, it’s beginning to unravel. Score: 90.
Ridge Monte Bello. A little funky. Tannins strong. Lots of blackberries and currants. A bit rustic and tired. But it held up well in the glass with some fruit gradually sweetening. Score: 89.
Villa Mt. Eden. Delicate. Earthy-tobacco. Oodles of cherries and blackberries. Very tasty—long sweet finish. Definitely in a tertiary stage, but clean and drinkable. As it breathes it opens up. Score: 92.
Mayacamas. Turning old. Cassis and blackcurrants. In the mouth, incredibly sweet and delicate, yet with California power and the ripeness of the vintage. Really classic. Will continue to evolve. Score: 94.
Conn Creek. Lots of sweet blackberry, mocha, spice. Insanely rich. Heady. Getting old, but still fresh, clean, muscular. Finish is sweet, strong, spicy. A great wine. Score: 96.
Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill. Firmer, with a hard foundation of stony mineral. Tons of blackberries and blackcurrants. Very high quality and still a ways to go. Really top quality. Heady and voluptuous. This was the wine of the flight. Scote: 97.
We also had, for starters, some older white wines:
1944 Wente Brothers Dry Semillon. Browning color. Sherried aroma, slightly maderized but pleasant: nutty, toffee. Very dry, good acidity, clean, but over the hill. Still, this wine is 70 years old!!!! Score: 88.
1974 Heitz Chardonnay. Golden-brown color. Not much going on in the nose. In the mouth, remarkably fresh and lively. Good acidity, dry, clean. “Old Chardonnay.” Fruit largely gone, but a good honeyed sweeteness. Score: 88.
1974 Phelps Syrah (Wheeler Vineyard). This Napa Valley bottling is said to be the first varietally-labeled Syrah in the U.S. Pale and translucent in color, with a brick color at the rim. Pretty bouquet: spices, dried mushrooms, raspberries. Complex, dry, good acidity. Slightly maderized. An interesting wine. Score: 90.
1974 Mount Eden Pinot Noir. Beautiful color: rich robe, still some depth of ruby-garnet in the center. Complex, lovely, delicate. Bone dry, but lots of sweet raspberry fruit. Clearly old, but attractive. Turns slightly brittle and dried-leafy on the finish. Score: 91.
I don’t expect to come across any of these wines again in my life, so this was a very special treat!
The growers and wineries have been working diligently to get this largish region on the official AVA list, and since they’ve been doing everything right, far as I can tell, it shouldn’t take the multiple years it took for Paso Robles to finally sub-appellate itself. They’re currently getting the paperwork together for the TTB, and hope to get an AVA as soon as a year or two from now.
The organizers are the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance, which has been around for about eight years. Despite their map (sorry you have to crane your neck to read it),
they warn the boundaries aren’t yet final, not just because of the usual who’s in, who’s out politics, but because the good ole TTB is giving people a hard time about new AVAs that overlap with existing ones, and the northernmost part of the proposed Petaluma Gap does include that new southern stretch of the Russian River Valley. So nobody knows what will happen with that, although if they have to revise the boundaries around the RRV extension, it would eliminate one of the more important parts of the Gap, home to many well-regarded vineyards.
It’s a cool-climate growing area, although not that cool: warmer than Carneros, which itself is warmer than Santa Maria Valley. Still, the Petaluma Gap clearly is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay country, with Syrah thrown in for good measure. At the Alliance’s tasting yesterday (held at the gorgeous Golden Gate Club in the spectacular Presidio National Park, with such dramatic views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the spires of San Francisco), the Syrahs were outstanding and so were the Chardonnays. The Pinots, less so, but then again, this is Pinot Noir we’re talking about, the heartbreak grape. I particularly liked the more delicate ones, for instance Greg LaFollette’s 2012 Sangiacomo and Keller’s 2013 El Coro. Some of the bigger ones, like the Kosta-Browne 2012 Gap’s Crown, were a little too extracted for my tastes.
The Alliance said they’re trying hard to pinpoint a “Petaluma Gap” style or flavor, but I have to say this is going to be hard. The region clearly is a high-rent district: the wines, red and white, have great acidity, are ripe and balanced, with silky tannins and, in the case of the Pinots, frequently with an earthy, Bay leaf-herbal tea-tomato note. But you could say that about lots of Pinot Noirs from other places. On reflection the Chardonnays were perhaps the standouts: dry wines, rich and tangy in acidity, bright in fruit and minerally. Once again Greg LaFollette’s entry stood out: his 2012 Sangiacomo was, I wrote, “Grand Cru quality.” I also liked the Fogline 2013 and the Keller 2013 La Cruz. But some of the other Chardonnays were just too oaky, which is the fault, not of the Petaluma Gap, but of the winemakers.
The TTB requires AVA applicants to explain what makes their region singular, and in this case, the Alliance people said it’s not the fog and it’s not the soils, it’s the wind. The “Gap” refers to an opening in the coastal hills, roughly between Bodega Bay in the north and Dillon Beach in the south, where the winds rush in before hitting Sonoma Mountain,about 20 miles inland, from where they go north up to Cotati and south towards Carneros and San Pablo Bay. The AVA, as proposed, will be a big one, occupying roughly the entire southern third of the Sonoma Coast AVA, and spilling a little bit into Marin County. In the west the boundary line would extend to the coast. My friend Charlie Olken asked why they drew the line all the way out to the sea, when it’s clear nothing will grow out there except artichokes and onions. I’m not sure the Alliance people answered that, except to say there may be little pockets here and there where growers could persuade Pinot and Chardonnay to grow, even if it’s just for sparkling wine.
The Petaluma Gap contains about 80 vineyards and nine wineries, although lots of wineries source fruit from there. I must say, judging by this tasting, that I’m heartily in favor of this new AVA. Not all AVAs make sense, goodness knows, and the Petaluma Gap as presently conceived is a little too big for comfort. Yet goodness knows it’s more intelligently crafted than Sonoma Coast was (and is), and represents a big step in the right direction for the future of Sonoma (and Marin) county winegrapes. So kudos to the Petaluma Gap Wine Alliance for going about this in a smart way.
Set out on my Santa Barbara trip yesterday around 9:45 a.m. It was still mild in Oakland, but those clouds were moving in in advance of a big storm. Which we need!
Not for nothing is the 880 Freeway known as the Nasty Nimitz. They don’t allow big rigs on the 580 freeway, so the 880 gets them all, rumbling along. The freeway, besides being a parking lot most of the time, is also an ugly freeway, 40 miles from Oakland to San Jose of strip malls and degraded infrastructure. In Milpitas, traffic came to a complete halt, but fortunately I had good radio to listen to. Michael Krasny was interviewing Jacques Pepin on KQED’s Forum. What a fascinating man Chef is. I recalled a time when the two of us, Pepin and I, had been at a gala gourmet thing down in Carmel Valley. I was going back to Oakland, so he hitched a ride to SFO with me, to catch a plane back east. We piled into my little Honda, but I proceeded to get lost—I missed the turnoff back to the 101, so we had to go over Highway 17 in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Poor Jacques was frantic that he’d miss his plane, but we got to the airport in plenty of time. But he was so nervous that I parked at the airport and accompanied him into the terminal, where we had coffee. So that’s my Jacques Pepin story.
Just before the 237 exit I saw why traffic was so backed up: a horrible accident. The fire department was loading someone onto a stretcher. You really take your life into your hands on these freeways, especially the Nasty Nimitz.
Well, as bad as 880 is, it’s always a relief to hit the 101 South at San Jose. You’re pretty much assured of smooth sailing for the rest of the way to Santa Barbara. Whenever I drive through the Coyote Valley, I always look to the mountains, to the west. Ridge is somewhere up there, although I’m not sure which peak. It’s funny, how the same thoughts hit me at the same places.
For the next hour or so, we (Gus and I) will be traveling through this part of southern Santa Clara and San Benito counties, until we come to the city of Salinas. This used to be one of the great vineyard regions of California. Today, it’s Silicon Valley; most of the vineyards are long gone, although I do notice a billboard advertising the Santa Clara Valley Wine Region, about which I know precisely nothing.
Of course, you also go through Gilroy along this stretch of 101. In high summer, the air is perfumed with that heady scent, slightly sweet and acrid, of garlic, and even now, with November just two days away, it’s there—such a good smell.
When I come to the big red Disneyana barn, we’re about one-quarter of the way. That barn is one of my landmarks for progress along the road. From here, the turnoff to Monterey is just down the road, if I were going that way. Then it’s Salinas City, and, just beyond, the opening up of the Salinas Valley, America’s salad bowl, and the tremendous wall of the Santa Lucias, a spine of the Coast Ranges that peters out west of Paso Robles, more than 100 miles to the south. Along the flank of the mountains are the Santa Lucia Highlands; I think of old friends, like Rich Smith, the Pisonis and Dan Morgan Lee, as well as new friends, like Kris Kato, at Carmel Road. This is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay country.
One by one the Salinas Valley’s little farm towns file past: Chualar, Gonzales, Soledad, King City, Greenfield. At Gonzales, I always remember my car getting stuck in the mud outside one of the Pisoni boys’ house, hard by the freeway. That was embarrassing. That was the same trip when Gary Pisoni kindly offered to share his game with me: an entire haunch of venison. I was grateful, but had to decline. I mean, what am I going to do with half a deer?
On this hazy but sunny day, the broad expanse of the valley lies like a sleeping infant cradled in the embrace of the Gabilans and the Santa Lucias. At Soledad, the temperature is 73 degrees. I used to get a lot of speeding tickets on this stretch of the 101 until I wised up and slowed down. How much earlier will I get to Santa Barbara if I go 80 instead of 70? Not enough to risk getting busted.
As we approach Soledad I see the big sign that always makes me grin: “It’s Happening in Soledad.” I’m not sure what’s “happening” there, but for me, it’s about a quick pit stop at Starbucks for a caffeine jolt and maybe a cookie. Now, we’re about halfway to my destination.
At Lagomarsino Avenue, approaching King City, comes another of my landmarks: a few miles of enormous eucalyptus trees, planted on the west side of the freeway, presumably as a windbreak. In the famous hundred year freeze of December, 1990, these trees froze to death in the 17-degree temperature. Or so it seemed: they remained blackened, with no foliage, that summer. But the next year, the leaves came back, and today they’re as sturdy as ever. Somewhere deep down inside their tree-souls, a spark of life remained.
I have my favorite landmarks, but Gus has one of his own: The Camp Roberts Rest Stop in Bradley, with its dog walk!
“I give this rest stop 100 points.” — Gus
I always try to imagine what goes through Gus’s mind when he does all his sniffing. One analogy is a big wine tasting. All those different scents. Probably Gus is looking for the best ones, the most interesting and savory. Some don’t interest him at all: those are the smells ordinaires. Gus, a connoisseur of smells, is looking for the Grands Crus of scent!
Beyond the rest stop we come to the oil wells on the east side of the freeway. I always wonder why some are pumping and some aren’t. Guess I’ll never know, but those rigs do signal that Paso Robles is just down the road.
The temperature gradient between the northern Salinas Valley and Paso Robles is well known. It heats up rapidly in summer. Even though winter is just around the corner, this season has been so mild that there’s still a temperature effect. At Paso it’s 82 degrees as I drive by. After that, the landmarks pile up: The slow, gradual climb to the top of the Cuesta Grade, and then the 1,500-foot, roller-coastery plunge through the Los Padres National Forest (so fire plagued), with its dramatic canyons and soaring vistas. Then past SLO town (I could live there). Then the 101 veers closer and closer to the coast, so on a typical summer day you lose all the heat of Paso as you approach the Five Cities, whose names I always try to remember, usually unsuccessfully: Shell Beach, Pismo Beach, Arroyo Grande, Oceana and Grover Beach. (Calling them “cities” is s stretch, but that’s what the locals like.) At Shell Beach is one of those dramatic views when the freeway rounds a curve and suddenly the Pacific Ocean is revealed in all its blue glory. (Another one is on Highway One, just south of San Francisco, as you drive into Pacifica.) Today, it’s not blue, because the fog is rolling in as the big storm front approaches. By the time we hit Pismo, Santa Maria is so close, you can smell it: just 26 miles away. At some point, south of the Five Cities, coastal vineyards pop into view. The best known is Laetitia’s, in the Arroyo Grande Valley, a fine if underappreciated terroir for Pinot and Chardonnay. A few miles south of that, and the vista to the east levels out and opens up to show the San Rafael Mountains, the northern boundary of the Santa Maria Valley. Just inside the Santa Maria city limits, the mountains take an abrupt curve to the southeast, and on a clear day you can see Bien Nacido, a little carpet of greenery on the brown slopes of the Santa Maria Bench. Just next to it, but not visible, is Cambria.
And that is my destination for Friday, when I’ll be tasting and chatting with my remarkable panel of winemakers for our big Dec. 2 event in L.A., of which I will be writing much more.
Have a great weekend!
I’ve always liked talking about wine with whomever—I mean, it can be someone more knowledgeable than me, or someone who’s just starting out. As long as they’re interested, I’ll go on all day.
It’s amazing how much information we store in our brains about certain subjects that attract us. I’ve forgotten many things in my life, probably most of what I’ve experienced—but my store of wine knowledge appears to be intact. When I really get going, facts spring to my mind and thence to my tongue that I read about decades ago. But they’re still there.
This is so, I think, because of the passion I have for wine. From the very beginning (1979), I learned everything about it I could. I read, read, read, asked questions of people, and took tasting notes. I would have thought most of it was long gone, but it’s still in there, because it was assembled with loving care, and what you learn with love seems to stick with you.
And I’ve been talking about wine a lot, more than I usually did when I was at Wine Enthusiast. That was a fairly solitary gig. You’re tasting at home, and most of the writing is done at home, too. Of course, there are road trips, but when you’re a working wine critic, being on the road has to be balanced with work: the more you travel the less actual work you get done. It’s important to get out into wine country and meet new people, experience new things and walk the ground, but I found, in my later years at the magazine, that it was increasingly difficult to balance work and travel in a way that was comfortable for me. That was one of the reasons—although far from the only one—that I left Enthusiast.
In the past few weeks I’ve been on a number of trips for Jackson Family Wines, representing the company in various capacities. The people I’ve been meeting range from beginners (such as at tasting rooms) to the most sophisticated sommeliers and merchants. So, as you can imagine, the subject matter of our conversations varies. But one thing that doesn’t change is what I think of as the essence of a wine conversation: And that is that we’re talking about a beverage that lends itself to extended conversation regardless of your level of knowledge.
Isn’t that something? I suppose the manufacturers and salesmen of soup can talk about soup all day and all night, but this probably isn’t a topic that would interest most of us. And, with all due respect for soup, there’s less history, romance and intellectual interest about soup than there is with wine.
One interesting thing I’ve found being out on the road tasting with somms and other high-end buyers is that the technical stuff about the wines doesn’t seem to be what they want to talk about. This may partly be a function that it’s me they’re tasting with—there’s a great deal of interest in my former job—but, as someone remarked to me, they talk about technical stuff all day, and besides, if they’re really interested, they can always refer to a tech sheet.
Instead, our conversations seem to go more in the direction of stories, anecdotes, personal experiences we’ve all had, and it’s fun to share them. Of course, there’s also a lot of opinionating. I’m watching, as I write this, one of those innumerable sports talk shows on Fox where the TV guys are talking about who will win Tuesday’s game in Kansas City. (Go Giants!!) I love listening to this kind of stuff, even though in the long run it’s totally meaningless, because it has no bearing whatsoever on the actual game. It’s just a bunch of guys talking through their hats. But these guys love baseball, they live it and study it and thrive on it, and so their conversations are worth overhearing (assuming you like baseball). Same with wine. Put two of us together who live, love and thrive on wine, and you’re gonna get a gabfest.
To me here’s really no difference talking about wine with an expert or an amateur. When it comes to a nice conversation, it doesn’t matter. Someone always knows more than you, and someone always knows less. So just say what you have to say, and let the conversation begin!
What do you do when you’re tasting wine with a novice in a tasting room, and there are points you want to make—and the other person says something about the wine that you don’t understand?
Over the weekend I worked a shift at the Murphy-Goode tasting room, the second time I ever did that (the first was last month, at Kendall-Jackson), and I found there’s a very typical kind of taster: perhaps a little younger, enthusiastic, friendly, curious, there to learn about wine, open-minded in a way that older folks may not be. My approach is, I’m not going to do a hard sell. I’m not going to lecture them with some pre-set spiel. I’m going to find out where their interests lie—what direction of thought their mind is going in—what sorts of things they might want to learn more about. And then I’ll take it from there.
So, with this one guy, we were tasting a reserve Zinfandel, and we had it following the winery’s other tiers of Zin, Liar’s Dice and Snake Eyes. These three tiers are absolutely rational in terms of price and quality (which you can’t always say about tiers). I had joked with the guy (he was a firefighter), “I’m going to test you after we try the three Zins, and I’ll ask you how you perceive the reserve versus the other wines.” After we tasted the reserve, I asked him again to compare it to the first two. He was silent for a moment, thinking, and then he said, “The reserve is more consistent.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, because “consistent” isn’t a word I normally use to describe a wine. It’s more of a term I’d use to describe a wine that’s pretty much the same year in and year out from the winery (in which case, consistency is a good thing). But I don’t know I’d call an individual glass of wine “consistent.”
So I asked him what he meant, and he said, “Well, with the other wines, the flavors were kind of all over the place, but this one is more consistent.” And I thought to myself, “You know, it’s not how I would phrase it, but I kind of see what he means.” That made me really happy: the guy wasn’t using language that I’d use, but he was talking about the wine, describing it, in a way that perhaps was beyond his usual comfort zone.
I had wanted to point out that the wine was more full-bodied, richer and more complex than the other wines—more multi-layered. But I didn’t want to step on his remark: I wanted to understand how what he meant by “consistent” might actually be the same thing I meant by “more complex.” So I told him, “I know! You’re exactly right. It is more consistent.”
Now, in a certain sense, that was not an entirely true statement, because, as I said, “consistent” is not an adjective I would use under those circumstances. But I thought I knew what he meant by it, and what he meant was the same thing I meant, which was the thing I was trying to point out that actually made it a better Zinfandel, which justified its higher price.
I wondered where to go from there (I’m basically winging it). I didn’t think he wanted a whole lot of blah blah technical non-sequitors from me. And, having done this only twice, I don’t really have what you can call a “tasting room approach” (if there is one). So I said, “Do you know, achieving that sort of consistency is one of the hardest things to do for the winemaker?” Since he knew what he meant by consistency (and it was clear he really liked the wine), I figured we could build on his understanding of it by me describing some of the steps that go into making a very good wine: the terroir of the vineyard, the age of the vines, controlling the yield, and so on. It’s not an accident that a wine is “consistent.” I could tell he was really into it by now. After a while, when he went away, he thanked me, with a big smile on his face. He had learned, not only that different wines made from the exact same grape variety can vary in quality, but why, and that is something he’ll carry with him for the rest of his life.
I went on a “go with” yesterday. That is (as I just learned) the jargon for a salesperson who calls on an account and brings “someone else” (like me) with him. In this case, I’m the “famous former wine critic” whom most of the accounts have heard of, and whose ratings might even appear on their shelf talkers; apparently, some of them at least like meeting me—a name they previously knew only in print, only now it’s in the flesh.
What I, and other critics like me, used to do is so mystical and mythical to these guys. Many of their questions are basic: How do you assign a numerical rating? What’s the difference between 89 (death) and 90 (glory)? How exactly do you taste? It’s a reflection of the secrecy of so many famous critics that even hard-core industry veterans don’t understand. I don’t think I, personally, am guilty of obfuscation, since in this blog I’ve explained every detail of how I did everything, over and over, for more than six years. But in all objectivity, I don’t think most other critics have been similarly straightforward, and that’s a shame.
I’ve always said I like the sales and marketing aspect of this business. The sales guys, in particular, fascinated me. These road warriors are out there every day, doing battle with on- or off-premise wine buyers who have heard it all, seen it all, done it all. So in other words, you have two battle-hardened guys, sellers and buyers, meeting on the playing field, and may the best man win.
One of the reasons why I took this job at Jackson Family Wines was, obviously, because it’s a great company, with the greatest portfolio of family-owned wines in California, maybe in all the world, IMHO. It was easy for me, in the comfort of my own home, to review their wines and form impressions of Stonestreet, Cambria, Edmeades, Hartford, Cardinale and all the rest, and know in my mind how good they were.
But the seller-buyer relationship is totally different, as I learned up close and personal yesterday. The sales guy I teamed with, Charlie, and I covered 150 miles of Bay Area freeways going from account to account at upscale wine stores. One thing I learned: you have to be very patient at dealing with traffic and driving long distances if you’re going to do sales! Another thing: each account is different. I mean, in terms of their personalities. One guy will be all business: no small talk here. Another might be just the opposite. One of our calls was a guy who majored in history at U.C. Berkeley. I asked him what his specialty was, and he said Post World War II Italy. Well, I’m a WWII freak, and the book I’m currently reading is a biography of Galleazo Ciano, Italy’s foreign minister during the war, and Mussolini’s son-in-law to boot: Ciano’s diaries (which I have), smuggled out of Italy during the war despite the Gestapo’s attempts to find them, did much to shed light—damaging and embarrassing light—on the Hitler-Mussolini relationship. Anyhow, that led to a long conversation between me and the sales guy that had nothing to do with wine—although we did return to that subject. The point I’m trying to make is that I’ve always valued relationships in this industry, and it’s fascinating to meet such a varied range of people with so many different interests and points of view.
I valued yesterday’s experience. It enriched my life, and helps me more deeply understand this complex thing we call the wine industry—such a multi-faceted thing, so driven by human personality. When I was a critic, I lived in a sort of bubble. I’m not complaining: it was a very pleasant bubble. But a bubble nonetheless. I had the time of my life, but I eventually came to believe that there was more to life, and to me and my career, than being a wine critic. I’m extraordinarily grateful for those years. At the same time, I’m also thoroughly ensconced in, and enjoying, this, my newest adventure.