Back from New York and Wine Enthusiast’s truly fabulous Wine Star Awards, which we followed up with an intense day of meetings at the magazine. I always return from these trips to Enthusiast HQs thinking about larger issues within the wine industry and particulary about “trends” in the world of wine. Being something of an historian of wine, I’m fascinated by these longterm fluctuations that are so important to the industry’s future. So, on the airplane ride back, I made two lists: the first, of trends over the last few decades that actually happened despite being unpredicted, and second, of trends that were predicted, but never actually happened. Which just shows how flimsy predictions can be.
Here are three trends that really occurred in California. To the best of my knowledge, nobody saw them coming.
1. Pinot Noir. Whether “Sideways” pushed Pinot, or Pinot pushed “Sideways,” or they both were simultaneously pushed by some external force, Pinot has become THE varietal trend of the decade. Caught everyone by surprise.
2. Pinot Grigio. Acreage more than doubled since 2002, as Americans have embraced this variety. If anyone anticipated this, I don’t know who.
3. The rise of Moscato. I know for a fact that some of the biggest wine companies in the state had to scramble to find grapes after Moscato erupted, fueled by hop-hop lyrics. Completely unforeseen. Just goes to show how stuff can happen from the street on up, instead of being forced onto the street from above.
Here are three trends the “experts” predicted that flopped.
1. The rise of Sangiovese and the Super Tuscans. Hahahaha! You’ll have to forgive me, I just spurted Chardonnay through my nose. If you were around in the late 1980s-1990s you’ll remember the hype. Sangiovese is the Next Big Red! California will soon have its own Tignanellos! Didn’t happen. The “experts” said it would, but consumers didn’t listen.
2. Before the turn of the Millennium, French Champagne houses rushed to establish vineyards and brands in California. They figured that tens of millions of cases would be consumed for New Year’s Eve, 2000, and that the party would continue on into the 21st century. Alas, that didn’t happen, either, and the French either sold their properties, switched over to dry table wines, or otherwise stayed in business, but with reduced expectations.
3. Three, four years ago you had the social media mavens predicting social media would quickly become the main marketing and sales tool for wine. At the risk of yet again becoming the poster child for the “Steve Hates Social Media” crowd, let’s just say that predictions of the importance of social media for wineries were vastly overrated. Wineries continue to struggle to figure out how—or if—they should use it. The goal of determining how to calculate return on investment has proved elusive and may ultimately be impossible. I don’t expect that anyone who made these hyper-ventilated claims will come forward and admit they were wrong. But they were. At least for now.
So there you have it. I’m not making any predictions for wine in 2013. I just hope everybody who’s in business now still will be here next year, and that they’re making a little more money than they did last year. Salud!
David Biggar (Vintage Point) and me at Wine Star Awards
I experienced an interesting approach to wine-and-food pairing the other day at Hakkasan San Francisco, which opened recently in the Financial District.
The somm staff invited me to participate in their weekly tasting. This is where they take 5 or 6 wines they’re considering for placement on the wine list. Then, the kitchen prepares a dozen small plates of menu items. The team tries each of the foods with each of the wines; everybody gets a chance to voice an opinion, and, eventually, a decision is made as to whether or not the wine in question is versatile enough to go with the food.
Indulging in this kind of exercise seems like a lot of fun, and it is: Hakkasan’s Asian-inspired food is fantastic. But it also underscored the complexities of coming up with perfect pairings. For one thing, not everyone agrees about everything. What works for me might not work for you. Also, the kind of food they serve at Hakkasan is very complex. Each diner doesn’t just have one plate of food, like a steak or broiled salmon. Instead, there’s lots of little things, and I assume parties share their plates with each other. So everybody’s eating and drinking all kinds of stuff, which kind of makes the concept of “the perfect pairing” obsolete.
We were asked to rate each wine and food pairing on a scale of 1-5, where 1 is “undrinkable” and 5 is “thrilling.” I had only one five: a sake made from red rice with braised pork belly. (The other somms seemed surprised I had only a single five.) I had no “undrinkables,” but I did have a bunch of 2s (acceptable). These were mostly for a Kabinett Riesling from the Nahe. I found it too sweet for most of the plates, which again surprised the somms: they loved it. To me, sugar in a wine should never dominate the food, but with this Riesling, it did. For example, the jasmine tea chicken had an earthy, flowery bitterness that the wine’s sugar clashed with. In theory you might think that a slightly sweet Riesling, with its natural high acidity and low alcohol, would go well with Chinese food, but for me, it didn’t.
The most surprising wine was a Wynns 2011 Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon, from Coonawarra (13.5% alcohol). Cabernet with Chinese food? Absolutely! I wouldn’t have known that before the tasting. It went well with almost everything, from the har gau (shrimp dumplings) and puffed daikon to the vegetarian chicken, tofu aubergine clay pot and Champagne cod.
Another wine that was tremendously versatile was a Chardonnay-Roussanne, made privately for Hakkasan by Qupe from Bien Nacido fruit. It was so balanced that it seemed to find its sweet spot beside almost everything. Another red wine, a Chateau Unang Grenache-Carignane from the Côtes du Ventoux, was fine with some things (scallop shumai, crispy duck salad) but disturbing with others (the har gau brought out its tannins, while its fruit overwhelmed the daikon puff).
The more I hang out with sommeliers the more interesting I find their job. I asked them what their biggest problems or hassles were; I thought they’d say impolite, pushy customers but, no, it was merely the organizational and logistical difficulties of being on the floor during dinner and having so many things happening at the same time. Lots of juggling. You have to multi-task to be a somm (or server, for that matter).
Thinking about perfect pairings, there are really very few of them, especially with Asian fare, which can be mild, savory, sweet, spicy and fatty, all at the same time—plus packed with umami. It’s not like 100 years ago, when you drank Yquem with the foie gras or red Bordeaux with the beef—simple pairings that made sense because they didn’t have this fantastic array of international ingredients available. Nowadays, a wine has to do double- or triple-duty, pairing well with a myriad of things, and if there are 4 or 6 people in the party, it has to be as nimble on its feet as a Cirque du Soleil acrobat. The somm’s job is to find those wines and then help the customers understand them. (Of course, they also have to work within a financial framework so that the wines they buy make business sense.) I find myself continuing to be fascinated by the evolving role of the sommelier in today’s modern American restaurant scene.
Last Friday’s Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting was a big deal. The crème de la crème of San Francisco’s wino high society turned out, and even in a city where “Friday casual” tends to be seven days a week, there was enough Armani to gag a Milan runway.
It’s a fun tasting, although the most famous Growths (Margaux, Lafite, Latour, Mouton, Haut-Brion, Petrus, Cheval Blanc, Ausone) never seem to come. I guess they don’t have to market their wares. But everybody else does, apparently.
I don’t even attempt to taste everything. It’s simply not possible, unless you power-taste your way through (which some people do, although it’s a pointless exercise, IMHO). Instead, I selectively taste. How to decide what to selectively taste? Ask others who know more than you do! I spotted the immortal Fred Dame, who immediately steered me to a pair of Right Banks, La Conseillante (Pomerol) and Figeac (Saint-Emilion). The former was amazing: fat, soft, unctuous, while the latter showed its composition of one-third Cabernet Sauvignon with hard tannins.
By the way, the French hate it when we American reporters ask them what the blend is. They expect the question, they know it’s coming, and they’ll rattle off the answer, but you can see their inner eyebrows rising to the tops of their têtes in exasperation, as if to say: What is wrong with these people? One is supposed to look for terroir, not burden oneself with such trivial pursuits as the percentage of this or that variety. Sometimes, I ask the pourers anyway, but I don’t like to—they make me feel guilty and provincial. (Or do I do that to myself?)
Then I ran into an old acquaintance, Jean-Noel de Formeaux du Sartel, the proprietor of Chateau Potelle, who reminded me that my story on him, back around 1990, had been the first I ever wrote for the Wine Spectator, when I worked there. Jean-Noel—“Johnny Christmas”—has had a lot of adventures lately, with some health issues and a trek through India to rediscover the wellsprings of his being. He insisted on my tasting Leoville-Poyferré, the Saint-Julien, which I found a little rustic, and Brainaire-Ducru, another Saint-Julien, whose rôti fruit, cocoa and meat flavors were so good, I wrote, “I would buy this.” I tasted also the Pomerol Clinet (“shows the power of the Merlot”), Haut-Bailly, filled with Pessac-Leognan stones and tannins, and a four or five others. Then I headed over to the Pauillac table to compare the two Pichons, Longueville and Lalande.
There I met another old friend, Gary Cowan, sales manager at Fine Wines International and also at Vineyard 7 & 8, who was doing the same thing. I think we agreed that the Lalande was more beautiful and approachable now—more feminine?–than the Longueville, whose tannins were like a Denver Boot on the mouth.
Wine chit-chat at these events is inevitable, but can be tiresome. A guy who knew who I was (I never did get his name) wanted to talk about precisely when a particular wine’s tannins kicked in. Was it mid-palate, 60%, or what? I don’t like to be rude to anyone, but that’s a situation I had to extricate myself from quickly, so I made some lame excuse and crawled away. That’s when a cool-looking dude with spiky hair introduced himself to me.
“Hi, I’m Josiah,” he said. That would be the exquisitely-named Josiah Baldivino, head sommelier at Michael Mina San Francisco, whom I’d spoken with on the phone earlier that day. He was with his lovely wife, Stevie. We talked about the evolving role of the somm, a subject of endless fascination for all three of us, so much so that we agreed to take it up again in the near future.
The 2010 Bordeaux vintage has generated a lot of buzz. I’m not a Bordeaux critic, so I’m not making any grand, informed statements, but I’d love to have a cellarful of any of the wines I tasted. Where we can only surmise at the ageworthiness of a great Napa Cab, these 2010 Bordeaux are stone cold guarantees. I don’t think that makes them better, just different. Young Napa is flamboyance, flash and instant bedazzlement. Young Bordeaux lets you know it won’t show you anything anytime soon.
Josiah and Stevie
I was talking with a Russian River Valley winemaker the other day, and she told me that, of all the American critics she follows, I have the most “European palate.”
I was surprised, although I didn’t say anything, because I always think of myself as having a Californian palate. After all, I love our wines (at their best), even as others—mainly Europhiles and New Yawkahs—slam them for being too ripe/sweet/fruity/oaky/alcoholic/name your insult. I’m a sucker for a complex Chardonnay, captivated by Cabernet, sent into swoons by a great Syrah, tickled pink by Pinot Noir, and since I’m running out of alliterative steam, I’ll stop here.
But my fondness for California wine doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate wines from Old Europe. I’ve tasted a lot of Spanish, Italian, French and German wines in my time, and been knocked out by great bottles old and new. The winemaker who told me I have a “European palate” did so, I think, because I give her Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays high scores, even though they’re comparatively acidic and tannic compared to many of her California colleagues’ wines that are riper and more accessible. So she figures I must like a more austere wine, one that only shows its glories with some bottle age—in other words, that I have a European palate.
The truth is, I like to think I have a catholic [small “c”] palate, which is to say I appreciate quality no matter how it expresses itself. That’s why I can never understand these California bashers. After all, if I can find pleasure in a European wine, then why can’t they find pleasure in a California wine?
* * *
In another conversation I had, with a second Russian River Valley winemaker, we were talking about the 2012 vintage (which believe me is being hyped up and down the state like no other vintage in years), and he offered the only criticism I’ve heard so far. “At the very least it’s a very good year,” he began. “The easiest thing to tell early on [with a vintage] is when it’s a bad year!” Then he added, “If I have a worry, yields were too high, so we did a lot of bleed off, saignée. Like in 1997, some of the wines developed a bit of a hole in the middle, and that’s a concern this year.”
This concept of “a hole in the middle” refers to wines that may smell great and enter powerfully, but then something falls off in the concentration or intensity that lowers the score. I find this a lot, and it’s always disappointing; it can resemble the effects of overcropping. In any wine, you want concentration that’s consistent all the way through. That doesn’t mean sheer power. Power by itself is boring. Concentration means power + elegance. Clearly, the Russian River Valley winemaker’s concern is that the high yield will dilute concentration, especially in that middle palate which is so sensitive to the slightest variations of intensity. That is why the winemaker practiced saignée, which normally is used in the production of rosés. The juice is drained or “bled” off after limited contact with the skins, meaning that the remaining juice has greater time on the skins and presumably becomes fuller-bodied.
I’m not sure that’s the best way to restore concentration. After all, if it’s not there initially, then skin contact isn’t going to restore it. But a wine with a hole in the middle can be made to feel fuller through this method. However, I haven’t heard this concern from any other winemaker in the few months since the vintage ended. Indeed, last week in Santa Barbara they were practically turning cartwheels over 2012. Winemakers always fib about vintages, of course; even in a notoriously bad one they’ll tell you that their neighbors suffered from frost/smoke taint/mold/rain/whatever but they didn’t. But in the case of 2012 the hurrahs are so widespread I just have to assume there’s a “there” there. We’ll see.
There’s nothing quite like being a wine writer and hitting the road. Every trip I take begins with a sense of adventure and ends with a degree of exhaustion. Inbetween is all the fun stuff.
My most recent journey, from which I returned yesterday afternoon, was Santa Barbara County, where I spent four days. I like going to Santa Barbara for many reasons: it’s beautiful, the people there are very nice (both old and new friends), the weather is gorgeous, and above all the wines are very good. It always startles me, when I’m down there, to hear from vintners who are convinced the public at large and certain segments of the wine press remain ignorant of their wines. I don’t have a clue why that would be. Whatever the cause, it’s shameful, because Santa Barbara is an extremely important part of California’s coastal wine terroir, and it’s getting better all the time.
When you’re a writer visiting a region you can only get to two or three times a year, it’s vital to pack your schedule as fully as possible, to take advantage of every precious moment. That’s why I was on the go from breakfast through dinner, each day, with multiple stops at wineries inbetween. It all culminated in my big blind tasting on Saturday at Bien Nacido, where I went through about 80 wines that had been bagged for me by Chris and Dayna Hammell. He’s Bien Nacido’s general manager (I think that’s his title) and his wife, Dayna, is part of the team, and a more likeable, professional and helpful duo could not be imagined.
Eighty wines is a lot, for me anyway, so I needed to pace myself in the days leading up to the tasting. That required getting a good night’s sleep, which meant in some cases shortening the dinners (cutting out the dessert course isn’t a bad idea anyway), but I think my hosts understood; after all, they want me to be in good shape so that my judgment is sound, as much as I want to be in good shape. It may sound obvious, but it’s really unthinkable that a wine critic would taste wines when he or she is feeling lousy or tired. I’m sure it happens, but I wouldn’t want it to happen to me.
Of those eighty wines, perhaps one-third were Pinot Noirs, and many if not most of them were from either the Bien Nacido Vineyard or the Solomon Hills Vineyard, both of which are owned by the Miller family. The best way to taste wine is in flights of the same type, and the closer in origin the wines are, the better you can make minute judgments. In this case, all the wines were very closely related, so the quality differences between them stood out as clearly as if they’d been etched in stone. It also became clear afterward, as I debagged the wines, that some blocks in Bien Nacido are much better than others, and these are generally sold to longtime customers or, I think, to younger customers somehow lucky enough to get access to them. We all know that old saying “Great wine is made in the vineyard” and in the case of Bien Nacido it’s evident, but the vineyard is a large one, and some areas are better than others. The Pinot Noirs that came from these top blocks or rows clearly stood out above the others, not just in concentration but in complexity and overall balance. (Rick Longoria’s Bien Nacido Pinot was really great, even in that august crowd.)
After the tasting, my schedule mercifully permitted me to spend my last night, Saturday, alone, except, of course, for Gus. I’d earlier gone to one of my favorite roadside joints, Pappy’s, where the 101 hits Betteravia Road. Pappy’s is like stepping back to some retro 1950s era diner of big hair on waitresses wearing jeans perhaps wrapped a little too tight. There, I’d bought a gigantic chicken burrito to go (3 pounds? Felt like it) and taken it back to where I was staying in the Red House, right in the middle of Bien Nacido, where so many itinerant writers bed down for the night in simple but hospitable and certainly picturesque pleasure. As the sky darkened and the stars came out thicker than I’d seen them in years (Orion, directly overhead, shined as light as bulbs) I kicked back tired but happy, watched T.V. with Gus in my lap, and inhaled the better part of the burrito. I’d had quite enough wine; with my supper I drank Perrier.
Just back from Thanksgiving in Malibu with my family. We had the usual assortment of various wines with the usual assortment of holiday food, and everybody complained about eating too much before taking a second serving of pecan pie.
No particular wine stood out because wine isn’t supposed to star at Thanksgiving. Food is. That’s why I didn’t blog on “What wines to drink with cranberry sauce/pumpkin pie/gravy/stuffing” etc. because I don’t really care. That’s not what Thanksgiving’s about. I think too many people do worry, though, to judge from the avalanche of articles in every newspaper on the topic, which is a function of the lemming-like instinct that prevails in modern day journalism.
I said no wine stood out, but a beer did! And it wasn’t at the Thanksgiving table. On Friday evening Paula and I headed down to the Promenade in Santa Monica to check out the freak show (midgets dressed as Leprechauns, Johnny Depp pirate impersonators, numerous Michael Jacksons moonwalking down Fourth Street, Darth Vaders, you get the idea). Gus had a great time and so did I, but suddenly I longed for an IPA and after numerous enquiries into restaurants and bars (nobody would let poor Gus in) we found this dive on a side street where the bartender said Gus was cool if I kept him wrapped up in my jacket (which he actually loves to do). AND they had IPAs including one of my faves, Lagunitas. However the server strongly recommended a brand called Drakes Brewing,
namely their Double IPA. Oh man, that hit the spot. Rich, full-bodied, malty-sweet. It’s from San Leandro, the next town south from Oakland, so I plan to add it to my shopping list from now on.
Some people get so weird with wine. Linda, one of my family’s old friends, came up to me at Thanksgiving dinner with a glass of white wine in her hand. “Stevie, can you help me out?” she asked, in her Texas drawl. “I like to put an ice cube in my wine, but your cousin [who was our host] won’t let me. She said it’s heathen.”
I assured Linda it’s fine to put an ice cube in her wine if she wants to. I told her I sometimes do. And sometimes I put some pineapple juice in Chardonnay, or in Champagne. In fact, I told Linda, if you want to put a little umbrella and a cherry in your wine, go ahead! Celebrate! Be happy! Why is it that I, the “wine connoisseur,” am the least fussy person I know when it comes to the “rules”? I’ll never figure that one out.
And now, in California, here comes winter. It’s been a mild Autumn so far (close to 90 in L.A. on Saturday, and even in the Bay Area the temps have flirted with 70 for weeks). But the cold will come—cold by our standards, anyway, not by Minnesota’s or even New York’s. With the cold weather I turn to fuller-bodied reds to warm the body and soul.
To Santa Barbara next week to see what’s up. It’s one of my favorite parts of the state, as readers of this blog know. So “not Napa” (nothing against Napa there, just pointing out the obvious). Santa Barbara benefits from having a little bit of Hollywood’s glitz and glamor—not too much, just enough to make you feel you’re someplace special. If you’ve never been, as a tourist, I recommend a few days. Stay in Los Olivos or Santa Ynez town and explore the valley, including the Santa Rita Hills. I even give you permission to have wienerschnitzel in Solvang. Wash it down with a Drakes Double IPA.