I gave a little talk yesterday to a group of wine buyers yesterday at Stonestreet, as part of Taste Alexander Valley. I’m posting my remarks in two parts, because it’s rather longish. Here’s part 1.
I’ve been asked to talk about Napa Valley and Alexander Valley and how Cabernet Sauvignon from those two areas differs. But first, a disclaimer: As some of you may know from my writings, especially on my blog, I’ve argued for many years that these supposed regional differences between varieties are not as pronounced nor as concise as some wine writers portray them. After all, these both are large appellations: Alexander Valley is 66,000 acres, while Napa Valley is six times bigger, at 400,000 acres. Pauillac, by contrast – the Bordeaux commune – is only 3,000 acres.
Moreover, both Alexander and Napa are marked by mountain ranges that contain incredibly complex soils, all jumbled up by the San Andreas Fault System: my old friend, the wine writer Bob Thompson, once called them “a slagheap.” So we can see that the terroir in Napa and Alexander Valley is not easy to define. Add to that stylistic differences in winemaking techniques—from harvesting decisions to fermentation and oak — and it’s clear that defining regional characteristics is tricky, at best. It’s easy to discern a regional style when you already have a preconception of what it is, and you’re not tasting blind. However, after tasting well more than 100,000 wines, most of them blind, during my career, I can tell you that it doesn’t always work that way. Our very notion of regional styles in Cabernet Sauvignon was, in fact, a product of Bordeaux, where it used to be easy to state (as Oz Clark did) that Pauillac is “intense blackcurrant fruit with heady cedar and pencil-lead shavings” while Margaux is “rarely heavy and has a divine perfume.” Yet even the great Alexis Lichine wrote, of Pauillac, that “the wines do not possess much generic similarity.” And nowadays, a riper winemaking style, coupled with global warming, has clearly leveled the playing field between the Bordeaux communes, and the same is true here in California.
Well, that was my disclaimer: Having said that, there are distinctions to be made between Alexander Valley and Napa Valley. So let’s explore them.
Here at Stonestreet, we are now, as I’m sure you know, in the heart of Alexander Valley. The mountains to the east (which most non-Californians would call “hills”) are the Mayacamas, which rise to 4,700 feet, although most of the vineyards are below 2,700 feet. On the other side of the Mayacamas is Lake County and Napa Valley.
The legal A.V.A. here is Alexander Valley, which is silly, since there are so many mountain vineyards. There have been attempts in the past to appellate the mountains themselves, but so far these attempts have not been successful.
Historically, Cabernet Sauvignon in Alexander Valley has been grown on the valley floor, mostly in the southern part, along Route 128, on either side of the Russian River. SHOW MAP In the 1980s, vineyards began to creep up into the eastern hills, as wine prices rose and wineries could afford to develop these vineyards, which involve high set-up costs. In Napa Valley, mountain vineyards were installed earlier than in Alexander Valley, mainly because the money was there.
Alexander Valley and Napa Valley thus are two classic California coastal valleys, parallel to each other. They both run in a southeast-northwest orientation. Both would be far warmer than they are were it not for the influence of maritime air, which comes in from the Pacific and from San Francisco Bay, neither of which ever warms up much beyond 60 degrees even in high summer. Napa Valley gets fogs and winds from Carneros and also from gaps in the Mayacamas, such as one near Calistoga. Alexander Valley gets its maritime air from the Russian River Valley to the south, from the river itself, and also through gaps in the coastal hills, including the Petaluma Gap. Both valleys grow progressively warmer as you move towards the northwest: Cloverdale is Alexander Valley’s hotspot, while Calistoga is Napa Valley’s.
But elevation plays a crucial role in temperature. With every hundred feet of altitude, you lose about one degree on a summer day. On the other hand, due to a temperature inversion, it’s not as chilly in the mountains at night as it is on the valley floor, which is affected by radiational cooling. Mountains, then, are more consistently moderate places to grow grapes. Above 1,000 feet or so, they also are usually above the fogline.
Soils also change with altitude. The lower in elevation you are, the more granular the soil gets. The valley floor is largely the product of sedimentary runoff from the hills and flooding from the Russian and Napa Rivers. The soils are deeper, richer and more fertile, which is why both valleys used to grow things like plums and nuts. The higher up you go, the drier and poorer the soils are. Whatever rainfall does fall runs off almost instantly to the valley below, leaching out elemental nutrients, both organic and inorganic. These soils can barely hold humidity. The grapevines thus have to struggle to survive. We’re all familiar with this phrase, and we all understand that struggling vines produce more concentrated, interesting fruit than well-nourished and well-irrigated ones.
So is there a difference between Cabernet grown in Alexander Valley and Napa Valley? Yes, in general. Napa Valley is one mountain range further inland than Alexander Valley, so it’s a bit warmer. Thus, you’d expect Napa Cabernet to be a little riper than Alexander Valley Cab, and that has in fact been my experience. In general – on average — Alexander Valley Cab is slightly more herbaceous than Napa Cab.
But terroir – understood as the combination of physical factors such as climate and soil – is only a part of why wine tastes the way it does. The other part is the human factor – what the great French enologist, Emile Peynaud, calls Cru. When you add human activity to terroir, you end up with Cru. I would argue that the human factor in Napa Valley plays a more important role than it does in Alexander Valley. For example, the modern tendency is to let Cabs get ultra-ripe, in the Parker style. This has particular relevance in Napa Valley, Parker’s Happy Hunting Ground for Cabernet Sauvignon; since the 1980s, as we all know, Napa Cabs have been getting riper, as the wineries chase those high Parker scores.
This phenomenon is less true in Alexander Valley. Vintners just don’t feel the same pressure – from critics or consumers – to make big, lush, ripe, splashy, extracted Cabernets. Therefore, in a very real sense, Alexander Valley Cabernet is more of a wine of terroir than Napa Valley Cabernet. This statement is, I realize, controversial. We’ve all heard much of a new direction in California wine that’s less ripe and supposedly more “elegant” and “balanced.” I would suggest that this new style is not so new in Alexander Valley. I’ll return to this topic later.
* * *
Let’s focus in more closely on Alexander Valley. The most celebrated Cabernets, for the most part (certainly the most expensive ones) are grown on the foothills, slopes, benches and mountains of the eastern side of the valley, which is the western face of the Mayacamas. There is, as I said, a lot of Cab planted down on the valley floor These are the wines that established Alexander Valley’s reputation – along with Zinfandel. But I think it’s fair to say that the Cabernets that have raised Alexander Valley’s profile are those from the higher elevations.
In fact, for the most expensive Cabs, we have to turn to altitude — and in some cases, quite a bit of altitude. In addition to the temperature distinctions I referred to earlier, there’s also more intense solar radiation in mountains. We tend to overlook solar radiation in discussions of terroir, possibly because our notion of Cabernet terroir was formed from Bordeaux, where elevation plays almost no role.
The role of solar radiation on grapes is only partially understood. High-altitude grape skins are thicker, in part because the fruit tries to protect itself from intense sunlight. This, along with the poor, dry soil, makes mountain grapes more tannic. Research suggests that these mountain tannins are qualitatively different from the tannins of valley floor grapes. They’re softer and rounder, giving the wines plenty of structure, yet they also possess a suppleness that makes them appealing even in youth.
There’s also evidence that, at high altitudes, the sun’s UV rays are better able to penetrate the skins of the grapes despite their thickness. This has an obvious implication for the pips, which are more easily ripened.
Elevation also allows grapes to more easily achieve a balance of sugar ripeness and the expression of varietal character. In wine, we often speak of “sweet spots,” and this concept applies to mountain vineyards. Too low down, and sugar accumulation may outpace the full expression of varietal flavor. Too high up, and the temperature is too cool, leading to sharp, green wines. In the Mayacamas, the sweet spot seems to be between 400 and about 2,400 feet.
I’m back from our big Southern California trip, where we attended Leo’s bar mitzvah. After the formal ceremony, we had dinner at an Italian restaurant, where we had some decent wines—one Sangiovese, one Pinot Grigio, both Italian.
Now, one of the guests, whom I’d never met, is apparently a wine aficienado, and had brought a few bottles of something “special,” one of which made its way to my table. I tasted; didn’t particularly like it. It was an Amarone, and possibly it was just too young. It was a wine I’d call “rude,” although I realize that’s an obsolete term. (The guy sitting next to me, a family member who knows a little about wine, thought it “heavy.”) Somehow, my judgment of the wine came back to the attention of the guest who brought it. He cornered me and said, “I hear you didn’t like my wine.”
Oi. Now, this happens quite often to us wine critics. We’re seen as wizards who know everything about wine. Our opinions are highly sought after. And when someone, like the guest, brings a wine he prizes and the resident critic doesn’t care for, this can be a flashpoint. Suddenly, we had a clash of wills: the guest defending his wine, and me, put on the spot by what seemed like an uncharitable attitude.
This isn’t a situation I’d either sought or relished. My inclination was to smile and excuse myself. I have never liked being the wine expert in these social settings. I mean, a bar mitzvah? I’d rather talk about anything else than be the resident snob. But here I was, challenged. The guy whipped out his cell phone and showed me pictures of his recent visit to Amarone, with the dessicated grapes and all that. He was obviously very proud of the wine and somewhat hurt that “the wine expert” didn’t like it.
Well, I was hurt by his hurt. I felt some responsibility to reassure him that (a) although the wine wasn’t to my liking, (b) that didn’t mean it wasn’t very good. And so I pointed that out to him. And I added that, very possibly, the Amarone was simply too young for be properly enjoyed now. I think it was that statement that finally settled the matter. I hadn’t exactly rejected his wine completely; I’d simply said it was too young. That got him off the hook, and me too, and so we were able to bypass this tricky impasse and get on to other, more enjoyable topics.
Anyhow, we just made it back from L.A. It took an epic eight hours on the 101!!! Mother’s Day and all that. The P.C.H. was jammed with beach traffic on the first warm, sunny day after nearly a week of gloom and rain. Then it was a solid hour to get from Salinas to Gilroy. We were catatonic when we got home. I just had a glass of Manzanilla, a wine I’ve always loved, and the awfulness of our drive is swiftly receding. They say that Manzanllla always has a salty tang of the sea, and this one indeed does have a brininess that brings to mind an Islay Scotch. Too bad more Americans don’t love Sherry, but that helps keep the prices modest for those of us who do.
We decided to stop for the night at Pismo Beach for a little R&R before heading down tomorrow to L.A. I took some pictures along the way to share.
How Pismo has grown in the 30 years since I’ve been coming through these parts! It’s turning into a major little city on the Central Coast, populated, I’m told, mostly by retirees and the service-industry people who cater to their needs. Here’s a view from my hotel balcony:
Although the day was cool and sunny, the fog was blowing in towards sunset, as it usually does. Just down the freeway, by the way, is the little town of Arroyo Grande, and adjacent to it is the fine valley appellation of the same name. Next to that, in turn, is the Edna Valley AVA. Both are upscale growing regions, not as well known as their sister coastal appellations, and thus the wines aren’t as expensive, which makes them, on average, better values.
Along the way to Pismo, we stopped in the coastal town of Cayucos, where I’d never been. It’s much like other small California coastal towns—Cambria, Pacifica—an old fishing town, now trying to go glitzy and glam, with wine bars, restaurants and antique shops. Here’s a picture Maxine took of me and Gus:
If I lived in Cayucos (and real estate is super-expensive down here), I’d probably be hanging out in this joint every night:
One of the shops has an old cigar shop Indian, so I took this selfie:
Then it was a little further down the coast, to Morro Bay & “the rock.” Here it is from the dunes on the edge of town (located, unfortunately, next to a hazardous materials treatment plant):
And here it is from the bayside part of town, still a fishing village:
These rather phallic things are also in Morro Bay. I think they’re part of a PG&E plant, maybe not. Gus wanted to smell them but I wouldn’t let him.
On the way to dinner and a well-deserved cocktail, I saw the shore birds hunkering down against a cold, windy night on the PCH by gathering closer:
It was really cloudy and foggy but as the sun sank it did cast a silver glow on Morrow Bay:
Then it was time for Gus’s last walk of the evening. He’d had a long day in the SUV and was very good and patient. He had a lot of fun sniffing the grounds of our pet-friendly hotel.
Then it was composing this post, and off to bed for the next round of our trip: four days of family in L.A. Which sounds rather like the title of a country music song.
The cousins, Gus and I are driving down to L.A. this morning for five days of family fun, centered around a bar mitzvah. We didn’t want to make anything elaborate for dinner, so opted for burgers on the grill. I’d been given this bottle of Kendall-Jackson 2006 Napa Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, from Mount Veeder,
as a welcome gift when I joined Jackson Family Wines in March, 2014, so it seemed appropriate to drink it on this occasion. With the salad, we had the Paco & Lola Albarino
I liked so much last year when I first encountered it.
I made the burgers, with store-bought organic, grass-fed beef.
I mixed in a little salt, pepper and garlic powder, plus a bit of Dijon mustard, then Keith grilled ‘em up nice and rare. For the buns, I like an English muffin, in this case sourdough. Some horseradish-infused mayo, backyard-grown romaine, thinly-sliced red onion, home-grown tomatoes and avocado, and of course some melted cheddar, and voila.
We had a nice Caesar salad
and the acidity on the Paco & Lola stood up well to the anchovies.
Meanwhile, the cork on the Cab had broken halfway while I was pulling it, and then the bottom half plunged into the bottle, so I had to resort to a coffee filter and a mason jar to strain it. (Necessity, the mom of invention.)
But the result—sort of an inadvertent double-decant—was glorious. At 8-1/2 years of age, this Mount Veeder Cab was everything you’d want a mountain Cab to be, and with years ahead of it. Melted tannins, gobs of Veeder blackberries, cherries and chocolate, fine acidity, a glorious, delicious wine.
I entitled this post “the simple pleasures” because in truth I think that most reports of wine-and-food pairing tend towards fine restaurants or expensive foods. But that’s not the way we drink and eat most of the time, is it? It’s not the way I do. You don’t need to be in a white-tablecloth restaurant paying a fortune to enjoy great wine and food. Our hamburgers would have been a treat anyway for a non-beef eater like me, but having such a nice wine uplifted the experience, making it a special treat on the evening before our trip.
Actually, we don’t have to be in L.A. until Thursday, so tomorrow, Wednesday, we’re spending the night in Pismo Beach. This is a place most people, I suspect, drive right by on the way to, or from, L.A. and San Francisco. I once spent a weekend down there, years ago, just to check it out, but I’m sure Pismo’s changed a lot since then. I’ll report on what I found tomorrow.
On Friday, when you read this, I’ll be up in Santa Rosa, at John Ash & Co., pouring wine for Jackson Family Wines at the Sonoma County Barrel Auction (which by the way raises lots of money for charity).
The wine I’m responsible for is Stonestreet 2012 West Ledge, a blend of 95% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Malbec. It’s a special blend, i.e., non-commercial, as is the habit for wineries at these specialized barrel auctions, where folks who drop big bucks want something unique.
I like pouring wine for people, interacting with the public and in general yakking it up. In my previous job as a wine critic, much of my time was quite solitary, so I always welcomed these occasions when you get to mix it up with people. I will admit to getting a little nervous before I go “on,” not so much for an event like the barrel auction, which is pretty informal, but for standup things, like presenting wine to an audience, large or small. For example, last week, in Maine, I did a dinner for about 100 people, and was a little on edge right before I took the floor. But I know that I do that to myself, and I know that it’s quite common, so it’s okay. I’ve read numerous interviews with theatre actors and they almost always admit to feeling a little queasy in the belly right before taking the stage. That’s par for the course, human nature. The trick is to shed that nervousness as soon as your shtick begins. For me, that’s not too hard, fortunately. (Of course, it helps to be prepared!)
Besides, I think a slight case of nerves serves a purpose. It makes you gird your loins. Who was it that said “When a man knows he’s about to be hanged, it concentrates the mind”? Not that I’m comparing public speaking to being hanged, but a mild case of the jitters does cause me to focus intensely on what’s coming. It’s like being spring-loaded: as soon as the spring is released, the tension ebbs.
Communicating to the public about wine forces you to think on your feet. You have to gauge—quickly—where someone is coming from. Is the person a total amateur? An expert? Trade or consumer? And you have to be able to have an intelligent conversation with all of them (provided they want to have a conversation with you. You never want to force yourself on people). But above all, you have to be enjoying yourself. I’ve been served by pourers who hated what they were doing, or were bored out of their minds. Not a good thing.
By the way, many of you have expressed interest in how Gus is doing. He suffered a ruptured anal sac, which is not as bad as it sounds. Some dogs, especially small ones, get impacted glands (this is the organ that dogs use to spray and mark with), and on occasion, the impacted gland bursts. The solution is antibiotics, but since dogs will chew on irritations, we have to keep Gus from doing that until the thing heals. Ergo, the blow-up collar.
The great thing about dogs is how well they adapt. Gus didn’t like the collar at all yesterday. He was practically catatonic. But today, he hardly notices it. That’s the thing about dogs: They don’t sit there and stress over stuff. They are the ultimate optimists. All Gus asks for is love, and in turn, he gives me unconditional love.
Meanwhile, the Great Drought goes on. Wildfires, smoke taint, it’s going to be a long, hot summer.
Haven’t blogged in about a week partly because I wanted to see what the reaction would be when I said I might cease writing steveheimoff.com, and partly because I’ve been on a weeklong sales trip for Jackson Family Wines that has been exhaustive in every sense of the word.
For example, last Friday began with waking up slightly hung over after a very late night, following the previous two days of lunches, dinners, tastings and the inevitable late nights at bars with sales guys. Then it was off on a 250-mile round trip from Boston out to Lenox, near the New York State border, a lovely old town (f. 1767) in the Berkshires. That was for a lunch for local restaurateurs at a place I’d never heard of, The Wheatley. The mansion was built as a wedding gift for his daughter by a wealthy New Yorker in the 1870s. She had married an impoverished Spanish nobleman. (That story is straight out of Edith Wharton or Henry Adams, isn’t it?) The owners have turned it into a fabulous destination resort and restaurant. We saw a room that costs $1,800 a night—without breakfast! Anyhow, it’s a beautiful place and the Berkshire setting was very nostalgic for me.
I lived in those mountains for close to 16 years, enduring blizzards, sub-zero cold and the most wonderful springs, summers and falls imaginable, at a time of my life filled with the wonder, love, friendships and the discoveries of youth.
Then it was back (through rush hour traffic) to the Liberty Hotel, on Charles Street in Boston, where I had an appointment with a blogger, Terry Lozoff, who writes about wine, beer and spirits at Drink Insider.
He grilled me for more than two hours, tape recording the entire session. Nice young guy, smart, and I hope he gets my quotes right! After that, I was ready for a nice martini and some pizza in the hotel restaurant, and then it was straight to bed. Saturday, it was a rental car drive up to Ogonquit, Maine, to a grand old resort on the Atlantic, The Cliff House, where I presided over a dinner for 90 people (more on that later).
In response to last week’s post, I did get a ton of comments on the blog, on Facebook and in my private emails from people urging me to continue blogging. They apparently like reading this blog over their morning coffee! I’m not sure why, but I have a few guesses. I think people crave good writing, and by that I mean not only technically accurate (no misspellings, run-on sentences, etc.) but also honest, colorful writing from someone who might actually have something interesting to say. Terry and I talked about this at some length. He asked me what effect blogging and social media have had on my writing and I told him how I’d discovered (or been introduced to) both transparency and immediate communication. Also that my writing continuously has become simpler and more pared down. But harder to define is how to pour your self, your spirit and soul, mind and heart into the written word. Terry asked me, if I stopped my blog, would I consider podcasts, and I said, no, because, for me, there simply is no replacement for writing.
So why would people like reading about the thoughts and adventures of an aging wine writer, who no longer wields clout as a critic? Search me. But they do. So I’ll keep on writing this blog until I don’t.
Meanwhile, my impression of the wine scene, in Boston, Maine and western Massachusetts, is that it’s very much alive and well, despite this talk about cocktails and craft beer eclipsing wine. I had many conversations with consumers about the popularity of California wine with respect to European, and apparently California is doing quite well. People, both younger and older, like it. So I think in this respect Boston is a little different from New York City. I’m glad that most of the consumers I’ve had contact with on this trip have been below 35 years of age. That’s an age group I feel close to (even though I’m old enough to be their grandfather). It’s exciting to talk with them, and when you really get deep into a conversation you learn that the stereotypes about them (they don’t read books, they live on their mobile devices, they’re clueless when it comes to news or politics or science) are ridiculous. It’s so easy to stereotype individuals and groups until you actually take the time to learn about them.
By the way, at Saturday’s dinner in Ogonquit, I put up a photo of the menu on my Facebook page
where they described me as “Celebrity Host Steve Heimoff.” That elicited the following comment: “You can get fat eating all of that. Mazel-Tov Mr Celebrity. Can I have your autograph please.” That little dig was from my first cousin, Alan. It is a poignant reminder that no matter how inflated your ego gets, your relatives who knew you when you were a snot-nosed, crying little brat will bring you down to earth.
Memory: the first wine I ever tasted was given me by Alan’s father, a legend in our family, the tallest of all the men of his generation, dark as a Spaniard (that was the Sephardic Jew in him), and with a Spaniard’s passions. (Memory-within-a-memory: Uncle Ted once disappeared for many weeks; nobody knew where he was, although we children heard rumors, whispered in hushed tones by the grownups, or in Yiddish which always meant that the subject was juicy, that he was involved in something Important and Secret. When Ted finally showed up one day—as if nothing had happened—there was a new, framed photograph in his livingroom, of him with President Kennedy.) At any rate, I would have been five or six; the occasion was either Chanukah or Passover, both of which meant large gatherings of our Diaspora-ed family, huge quantities of greasy food and raucous conversation. The wine connection? Uncle Ted gave me a glass, one of those thick, stout, etched crystal ones meant, I think, for a highball. It was filled with a red liquid. “Drink, Stevelah,” he said, while the other adults in the family—my parents and all my aunts and uncles and a few grandparents—watched and smiled. I trusted my Uncle Ted; I sipped, and spat the awful stuff out all over my plate. It was Manishewitz. The adults thought it was awfully funny. It is a wonder I ever drank wine again.
Back to the present: The Cliff House dinner was a smash if I do say so myself. Public speakers will understand it when I say that I found myself “in the zone.” I’m reading Lillian Hellman’s memoir “Pentimento” in which she describes how she could always tell, in live theater, whether the audience was enjoying themselves, or if she was losing them. Last night my audience really had a good time. I don’t drink when I’m working like that but nonetheless I get a contact high from the people who do. It then becomes a feedback loop where my excitement excites them and vice versa. The ultimate compliment is when lots of people come up to you afterwards and tell you how great you were, and how much they liked the wines, which really did show well, partly because they’re good anyway and partly because Chef did such a good job creating foods for them. I was invited to the bar by two couples and enjoyed my usual vodka gimlets while chatting with a guy who seemed to have some sort of U.S. security clearance to get into all sorts of classified places, but who also was wild about wine—and his wife was a confirmed Kendall Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay fan, so I told her she was in good company, as that wine has been America’s top-selling Chardonnay for 24 years and counting.
Well, this morning (Sunday) I’m still high from last night, although I shouldn’t be, because I just went through the hassle of driving down from Ogonquit back to Boston. Thank God for GPS and that eerily disembodied satellite lady who tells you exactly how to get where you want to go. At Logan, security wasn’t too bad, although United had yet another problem with their plane, which delayed our departure. By the time you read this on Monday, I will have been reunited with Gus and the thought of that makes me very, very happy.