Saturday’s two wine panels at the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival were both on Pinot Noir. The first, “In Pursuit of Balance,” was about a newer generation of winemakers: Rajat Parr (Sandhi), Pax Mahle (Wind Gap), Jamie Kutch (Kutch) and Gavin Chanin (Chanin). The theory, I think, was that these are all wines of lower alcohol (although we weren’t told what the ABV was, so I’m only guessing. The only winemaker to tell us the alcohol level on one of his wines was Kutch, who said it was 12.8% on his 2011 Sonoma Coast).
Here are my very abbreviated notes:
Wind Gap 2011 Gap Crown (Sonoma Coast). Vibrant, delicate, ripe. Cola, cherry pie, cranberry sauce.
Wind Gap 2010 Gap Crown. Keen acidity, similar to but less advanced than the ’11 despite being a year older. The ’10 was made in concrete while the ’11 was in neutral French oak.
Kutch 2011 Sonoma Coast. Blend of 3 vineyards: Annapolis, Petaluma Gap, Sebastopol. A pretty wine, ripe and savory. Root beer, cherry pie.
Kutch 2011 McDougall Ranch. The vineyard is in the Fort Ross area and the wine showed that distinctly feral, foresty quality I always get from there. A brooding wine, tannic. 50% whole cluster gave lots of dark spice. Needs plenty of time.
Chanin 2011 Los Alamos (Santa Barbara County). From this unappellated region between Santa Ynez Valley and Sta. Rita Hills. Bit of mushrooms, sweet red fruit, complex and lovely.
Chanin 2011 Bien Nacido. Much tougher and more tannic, lots of spice. Needs plenty of time, as BNV Pinot always does.
Sandhi 2011 Sta. Rita Hills. Vinous, sappy, rich and sweet in baked cherry pie. Villages-style, young, but will make a sound bottle in a year or two.
Sandhi 2011 Sanford & Benedict. Really classic S&B. Spicy, earthy, red fruit, minerally, dry, complex. Needs plenty of time.
A remark about In Pursuit of Balance (the organization): In response to a question from the audience, Raj seemed to feel the need to defend the group, which perhaps has come under some criticism for the perception that IPOB claims that low alcohol Pinots are “better” than those over, say, 14.0%. To the extent this was the public’s perception (it certainly was mine), it cannot have gone over well with many of Raj’s (or Jasmine Hirsch’s) friends and colleagues. So Raj explained that this is not what they’re saying–although if it’s not, then it’s hard to know just what IPOB’s message is, beyond a vague “We’re trying to make the most balanced wines we can.” Well, who isn’t? I do think IPOB at first gave the impression of being an Old Boy’s (and Girl’s) network, an exclusive club of friends to which outsiders need not apply. They now have a “committee of wine professionals” (from their website) that decides who’s in and who’s out; that committee consists of Ehren Jordan (Failla, whose wines I’ve praised to the utmost for years), Jon Bonné (wine editor, San Francisco Chronicle, who’s been on something of an anti-high alcohol crusade himself), Raj Parr and Wolfgang Weber (an editor at Wine & Spirits, whom I do not know anything about). This selection committee certainly wouldn’t inspire me to ask to join IPOB if I were, say, Rochioli or Williams Selyem, two wineries (among many I could mention) I would hope we can agree make outstanding, balanced, ageworthy Pinot Noirs even though they dare to occasionally sneak over the 14.2% line and even approach –gasp!–14.5%.
The second Pinot Noir panel was named “Heroes of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay” and was meant to counter-balance the first by featuring an older generation of famous winemakers: Fred Scherrer (Scherrer), Gary Pisoni (Pisoni), Michael Browne (Kosta Browne) and Geoff Labitzke (Kistler’s sales and marketing director, representing Steve Kistler).
These noteworthy names grabbed the audience’s attention; mine, too. Here are some very brief remarks. I found the 2 Kistlers (2011 Stone Flat Chardonnay and 2011 Kistler Vineyard Pinot Noir) to be the most classic in the lineup, in the sense that they showed everything you want in Sonoma County wines: acidity, depth, length, dryness, varietal typicity, complexity, ageability, intellectual stimulation and no particular eccentricities.
Fred Scherrer (what a lovely man) chose an older Chardonnay, 2007 Scherrer Vineyard (Alexander Valley) which didn’t do much for me at first. In fact I thought it was too old, although I loved his 2007 Russian River Pinot Noir. But after 45 minutes that old Chardonnay emerged from its tomb like Lazarus, alive and vital and remarkable, and I told Fred so. He said, “That wine never shows well right out of the bottle. It needs time” despite its age. California Chardonnay that ages well is so rare; that was one I’ll remember years from now.
Kosta Browne showed 2011 “One Sixteen” Chardonnay and 2011 Russian River Pinot Noir. I have never particularly been a fan of KB’s wines, suspecting that their popularity is due to the lemming-like tendency of consumers to believe anything some reviewers say (and then to find in the wines what they expected to find, in a gorgeous proof of the theory of the self-fulfilling prophecy). The ’11 Chardonnay was, I wrote, “over the top.” I did find the Pinot more interesting, “flashy” in fact, and in need of age.
Gary Pisoni’s 2011 Lucia Chardonnay was, in a word, dee-lish. I had formally reviewed it earlier for Wine Enthusiast and, while it wasn’t in the same league as Lucia’s ’11 Soberanes Chard (not included in this tasting), it was close, and also ten bucks less. Gary’s 2010 Estate Pinot Noir is a young, vinous, serious Pinot with vast tastes of the earth. It is just beginning to throw off its cloak and show some flesh. It needs lots of time.
I’ll report another time on my “Pritchard Hill Gang” seminar, which was the last of the festival.
After a boring but easy flight from Oakland, I arrived at Kahalui Airport safe and sound at 8.25 a.m. yesterday Maui time, despite having left Oakland at 7 a.m., which was kind of weird. The same dense fog that had covered the Bay Area extended well out to sea, so it wasn’t for many hours that the blue waters of the Pacific became visible.
At the car rental desk I ran into Carlo Mondavi. We were on the same flight but didn’t know it. He’s in the ocean now; I’m writing this; what’s up with that? Anyway, shortly it will be mai tai time.
The Ritz Carlton Kapalua certainly is a grand resort. Michael Jordan, M.S., who runs (or co-runs) the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival, told me how he used to surf at this very spot, before the resort, with its heavy footprint, was built. Michael also told me about the festival’s 32-year history. I didn’t know it was that old. He just took it over two years ago, and is elevating it. Certainly this year’s collection of chefs and winemakers (and Master Somms: they’re everywhere) is one of the greatest assemblages I’ve ever seen. (The only way to experience it all and not leave ten pounds heavier is to hit the gym every day.)
At the opening reception I was talking with a winemaker who complained how so many winemakers nowadays talk about what brix they picked their grapes at. He was referring to the “In Pursuit of Balance” thing that’s been so hot in media circles lately. It seems that the aggressive criticism of high alcohol wine is having its effect on certain winemakers, so much so that the first thing they say is, “I picked at 23, so don’t accuse me of making unbalanced wines.” Well, that is ridiculous, of course. Ten years ago everybody wanted to make Parkeresque wines of high alcohol. Now they want to make Parr-esque wines of low alcohol. How about making delicious, balanced wines, and stop worrying how the media will react to your alcohol level?
After an interesting chat with Fred Scherrer about rosé–interesting because he understands what a good, dry one should be–I ran into Matt Trevisan, from Linne Calodo. I told him how high I’ve been lately on these Paso blends, and he said, “You know how that started?” Actually, I didn’t. “The acids are so high in Westside Zinfandel,” he said, “that the only way to balance it is to blend higher pH wines into it, to help lessen the total acidity.” One of Matt’s wines, for instance, is his Cherry red, a blend of Zinfandel, Syrah and Mourvedre. This fits in with my “divot” theory, that in Paso (at least), a single variety or single vineyard wine may have holes (in color, aroma, flavor, texture, whatever) that the addition of other varieties, no matter how weird, can fill in. Paso Robles can get away with this, where Napa can’t, because Napa is expected to make template wines–Bordeaux blends and Cabernet Sauvignon–while Paso’s absence of tradition allows younger winemakers to explore the possibilities. Matt also said in fifty years, we won’t be talking about varieties anymore. We’ll refer to a Napa Valley wine, or a Paso Robles wine, the way people talk about a Bordeaux or a Rioja wine.
I sincerely hope so, and I hope it won’t take fifty years.
Everybody’s going to be jumping on poor Robert Parker because of this deal he struck over the “Robert Parker Selection” Bordeaux.
Actually, it doesn’t seem to have been Parker who struck the deal but his new bosses in Singapore, who appear set on maximizing the money they can make off the Parker brand.
Robert himself no longer seems like the towering figure he was just two years ago. He’s become a mere player within his organization, a kind of chess piece being moved around by his masters (“Go back to California.” “Let the French use your name,” etc.), and I wonder how he feels about all this, being (as I believe him to be) a man of integrity. It’s easy to paint him as a mercenary who sold out, and many will. It’s also easy to suggest that, as the Parker/Wine Advocate brand loses steam in the West, it’s turning to the inscrutable East for a new breath of air and cash.
Well, what’s wrong with that? Wineries are turning East, too, because that’s where the customers are. I figure Robert knows that his time is almost up (simply as a function of his age and health, not his intellectual capacity), and wishes to make as much as he can before the well runs dry. Would anyone in his position do differently?
* * *
A note on Zinfandel. I was thinking how nice it is that we have cool-climate Zins, like the ones from south of River Road in the Russian River Valley (exemplified by the likes of Joseph Swan) and warm climate ones from places like Paso Robles and Napa Valley.
Wine experts usually point to Pinot Noir, Riesling and Tempranillo as being acutely sensitive to the slightest changes in terroir, but so is Zinfandel. In fact, I think Zin shows its origins more clearly than does Cabernet (which may be a function of everyone making their Cabernet identically these days). In the interests of critical objectivity, I have to say that both cool- and warm-climate Zinfandels can be good, because they can, and each consumer will have his or her preference. For myself, I’d happily drink a southern Russian River Valley Zin any day. They’re wines of powerful dryness, and will age well. I’ve had Joe Swan Zins well over twenty years old and they were great: delicate, sweet, feminine, airy, charming. Those are words you’d never apply to a young Zin!
To Maui today for the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival. I’m co-chairing the Pritchard Hill event, so on the flight I’ll be brushing up on my notes. I have 10,600 words in interviews and fact-gathering I took for my Wine Enthusiast article last Fall, which I’ll be reading as we fly westward over the Pacific. And I’m sure I’ll have plenty to report on from Hawaii.
The 2013 Auction Napa Valley Barrel Auction now is history, and what a grand event it was.
I drove up early, because it was at Raymond Vineyards, where I hadn’t been despite having been invited umpteen times by Jean-Charles Boisset, so I really wanted to see it: the crystal room and the red room and everything else. Almost as soon as the shuttle bus let me off, I saw Jean-Charles on the lawn, being interviewed by a camera crew. He saw me, and the next thing I knew he was personally touring me. When I saw his Frenchie Winery–with spacious pet kennels–I realized I could have brought Gus. If you’re a dog-loving family touring Napa Valley, Frenchie/Raymond is a great place to visit.
The first part of my experience was eating. OMG I can’t tell you how good the food was. I tried everything (burp) because I want to write about my 5 or 6 favorites in Wine Enthusiast (with recipes). There was a single disappointment, and from the most unlikely of restaurants: Meadowood, a little paper cup stuffed with green peas and other tiny pieces of garden veggies, dressed (I think) in a Champagne vinaigrette, with a sad little chunk of feta adrift in a vegetable sea. When restaurants have finger foods at an event like the Napa Valley auction, those munchies should be dazzlingly Wow!, but this wasn’t. I can understand keeping things simple, but not to the point of bland.
Much was made of the temperature. It was a toasty 98 degrees on my car thermometer by mid-afternoon, but much cooler in the cellar where the actual tasting occurred. I myself didn’t drink anything [except lots of water]. Ran into Bob Cabral, from Williams Selyem, who told me this was his first time ever “crossing the hill” for the Napa auction and he was looking forward to tasting Cabernet. Since he lives in Healdsburg, I asked if he wasn’t concerned about drinking and driving, and he assured me he wouldn’t have come unless his winery had supplied a car and driver. Bob knows perfectly well you cannot drink at an event like this and then drive home. The roads were crawling with CHP and Sheriff’s Dept. personnel (as well they should have been) and I for one was glad they were there. Which reminds me: Jean-Charles said he’s starting a new brand called Sheriff. Must find out what that’s all about.
I didn’t see as many winery proprietors or principles as I’d expected. This is probably because auction week is really a protracted, exhausting affair, and the owners and winemakers must attend to their nightly dinners and the live auction itself (as opposed to the barrel auction), so maybe not going to the latter provides them some respite. Certainly Premier Napa Valley is a more “glamorous” affair, in that you see more famous faces.
The buzziest conversational topic at the auction: How a turned-around economy is good for business. Everyone seemed happy that, after so many stagnant years, things are selling again. Domaine Chandon told me they can’t keep up with demand for bubbly, especially rosé. Let the good times roll!
-Garen Staglin, for chairing this year’s auction and his family’s charitable generosity over the years.
-Barbara Banke, Gina Gallo, Elias Fernandez, Janet Viader (drop-dead gorgeous in Argentine tango couture), Jay “Party Party Party” and Tim Mondavi. It’s always nice to see them.
-The one and only Jayson Woodbridge. He wasn’t at the auction, but we had dinner Wednesday night at his home. World-class raconteur, fascinating conversationalist, able to absorb the fullness of Heimoff (as I am of Woodbridge), a dervish of creative energy and riveting charm, Jayson truly is in a class by himself.
-The great, divine Genevieve Janssens. There she was as always, standing by her barrel, pouring for guests, inspiring and educating. A legendary Napa icon. Genevieve introduced me to Mondavi’s new red winemaker, a very young woman named Nova Cadamatre, whom I just had to congratulate. Imagine getting a job that important and having the opportunity to study with Genevieve Janssens!
A final shoutout to Jean-Charles Boisset. When he moved into Napa Valley with the purchase of Raymond, I thought there might have been some raised eyebrows. Napa’s a pretty insular place: who’s this wealthy outsider and what is he going to do? I think Jean-Charles wisely decided to show the valley that he’s a team player. And he did. He’s done a great job, and people respect him for that.
I tend to name drop (as Party Party Party reminded me), so I want to give a huge shoutout to all the hard-working people from marketing, sales, P.R. and other less visible positions. They are in many ways the heart, soul and vital infrastructure of the industry. Without them, nothing happens, including Auction Napa Valley. I know and like many of them, and they read this blog, which makes me happy, so thank you.. You guys may not be in the spotlight, you may not get the hurrahs, but you make it all happen. Salud!
I’ve long had a soft spot for Alexander Valley, the AVA in Sonoma County that stretches up from Healdsburg to the Mendocino County line, at Cloverdale.
I came to know the valley especially well during the year I spent writing my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River. I got it into my head to describe how the Russian River first “turned on,” and found that a description of its physical beginnings had never been written–at least, so far as I could tell. So I spent a great deal of time on and along the River, and talked to a great many geologists (none of whom agreed with the others), and then came to my own conclusions, which you can read in the first chapter, “Out of the Pangaean Mists a River is Born.”
It’s one thing to get to know a region through books and maps. It’s quite another to trek it. And I did trek the Alexander Valley, in all seasons. I got drenched in winter rains, almost died capsizing a canoe on a whitewatery part of the river just outside Asti, sweated in summer heat on Rattlesnake Hill and Iron Horse’s old T-bar-T ranch, heard the hoarfrost crackle on the cold night ground while I lit a fire in an old cabin in Geyserville, ate lunch and drank wine on a sandbar, crawled through the prickly, poison ivy’d, spider-webby undergrowth of the river’s banks, tasted in my mouth the stones and dirt from Seghesio’s vineyard, climbed to the top of Squaw Rock and got dizzy looking down, met all manner of characters, visited the valley’s oldest burial ground, did tasting after tasting at as many wineries as I could, ate and drank immoderately and in general absorbed the valley into my genes (or maybe it absorbed me).
My feelings concerning Alexander Valley’s wines have not changed a great deal over the years. I always had respect and affection for them, even if the appellation seemed to be missing the excitement and glamour of, say, the Russian River Valley or the Sonoma Coast. Solid wines, you might call them, but the appellation’s boundary’s are stupid beyond recognition. They extend from the shore of the Russian River to 2,800 feet up into the Mayacamas Mountains. Surely we can do better.
There’s a conservatism about the Alexander Valley that is partly explained by its geographical location. Anyone who knows Sonoma County understands that it is divided culturally into east and west. West Sonoma is Sebastopol and Guerneville: hippies, pot, incense, environmentalists, Democrats, anarchists, the counter-culture. Inland Sonoma by contrast has long been the farming community, by nature less open to change. I don’t mean to make this distinction hard and fast–and certainly, the gentrification of places like Cloverdale, and the wine lifestyle that has changed Healdsburg so remarkably, are shifting things. But these generalizations, I think, hold true.
Alexander Valley knows what it does well, wine-wise; it’s done it for a long time, and it would be imprudent to expect it to change course mid-stream (or mid-river, as the case may be). This weekend (May 18-19), the valley hosts the annual Taste Alexander Valley event. Wineries open their doors, there’s plenty of food and laughter, and the weather will be sunny and warm. I’ll be there today and Friday, doing a couple pre-event seminars, and I hope to run into you.
and then wake up at 6 a.m. the next morning (this morning, as you read it), there’s not much time or brain matter to come up with a detailed blog post. So today, there won’t be one! I’ll just say Le Cirque is old-fashioned NY, glamorous and retro. You expect the Rat Pack to come noisily in, already drunk. The wine list is Classic, which is to say it caters to a wealthy clientele who knows what they like and doesn’t want to be surprised. The food? So-so, from what I could tell. You don’t go to Le Cirque for culinary adventurism.
The Red & White Bash itself was loads of fun. The band played the Charleston,the crowd was happy, while the pretty acrobats in their swinging moons smiled down on it all like guardian angels. There were skinny guys on stilts and wine, lots of wine, oceans of wine. I didn’t drink much there (I never do when I’m “on”), just a few lovely glasses: K-J 2006 Stature (still with years of life ahead), a nice, buttery Gallo Chardonnay from the Santa Lucia Highlands. By the time we got to Le Cirque all I wanted was a dirty Ketel One martini.
Now I’m in our midtown hotel (The Hudson), with two hours to get it together and get to JFK. I cannot wait to see Gus.
Have a great weekend. I’ll be more coherent on Monday morning when the topic will be…CHINA!