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Napa Valley Cabernet, Russian River Pinot define California greatness

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I love Wine Enthusiast’s database. It’s my brain, with memory: I can barely remember what I tasted 2 days ago, but that database remembers every wine I’ve reviewed since the 1990s. Not only does it remember them, it knows the date of my review, exactly what the score and text were, and–if I entered the data in the first place–what the alcohol was and even the case production.

Those are powerful tools to discern patterns and trends, which are different: A pattern might be, say, that Paso Robles had a particularly good year with Zinfandel in 2010. A trend would be for Paso Robles to have good Zinfandels year after year after year.

If I look at my top-scoring wines over many years, it’s evident that two varieties, clustered into growing regions, really define California at its greatest. Those would be Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (including the Sonoma Coast appellation) and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux blends, including all the valley’s sub-appellations.

It’s important for a wine region to have top exemplars. It sets the bar higher for all other varieties and regions, which is vital if a region is to advance, as not all do. Big scores also help to convince skeptics that the region is right up there with the world’s other top wine regions. And they affirm the efforts of those hard working zealots who have labored for so many years. Nobody likes to work hard and have their achievements go unrecognized.

Why Napa should produce such great Cabernets is easy to understand. They’ve been working at it for 150 years. Even if you discount the period during and immediately after Prohibition, when everything was on hiatus, Napa Valley really started getting serious about Cabernet in the 1960s. So they’ve had the better part of 60 years to work at it: figure out the best places to plant (and the inferior places not to), to analyze the soil (which can take decades to properly understand) and combine the right rootstocks and clones to the right blocks, to tinker with canopy management and cropping levels and figure out the most beneficial way to sort their fruit and get it to the winery. And that doesn’t even begin to address the improvements in enology.

Napa’s climate is ideal for the ripening of Bordeaux varieties. Being an extra mountain range (the Mayacamas) inland from the sea than Sonoma County, it has that extra bit of heat. But Napa also has what all inland California coastal valleys have: a pretty fierce diurnal temperature swing. That means that, regardless of how hot it gets during the day, nighttimes cool off rapidly. That’s what Cabernet (and Merlot and Cab Franc and Petit Verdot) need to maintain acidity.

That the Russian River Valley should be so hospitable to Pinot Noir is the surprise of a lifetime, I think, even to the pioneers (some of them no longer with us) who planted it there in the 1960s and 1970s. I mean folks like Joe Rochioli, Jr., Joe Swan, and a couple of others. I don’t think they really understood what they were doing. No disrespect, but they were working more with hopes and fingers crossed than with any foreknowledge of guarantee. But look what they did!

What’s so spectacular about Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is the breadth and depth that it’s achieved in only 40 years. The variety is now widely planted there, from Fort Ross way out (and up) on the coast, through the Goldridge soils of the southerly Laguna Ridges, all the way on up to near Healdsburg, in the northeast. We thus have a wide spectrum of terroirs, with enough wineries in each to make solid generalizations, mostly concerning temperature variations, soil being (IMHO) less important in the Russian River Valley than geographic location relative to the maritime influence.

(I’m still reading and enjoying Allen Meadows’ new book, The Pearl of the Côte, and if I had a dollar for every time he expresses irony or surprise that a particular vineyard performs well despite its soil [i.e. in unexpected, unstereotypical ways], I’d be a rich man. The point being that while much is made of soil and its effects, climate is a much more reliable predictor of wine style.)

No other Pinot region in California besides the Russian River Valley possesses these factors of widespread plantings over a wide region, with a density of producers and a history of production. Not Santa Rita Hills, not Santa Lucia Highlands, not even Carneros. Anderson Valley is beginning to, but it will take a few dozen more wineries to really let us figure it out, and that may never happen, given the peculiarities of doing business in that far-off region, so remote from San Francisco or any other population center.

I feel like Napa Valley and Russian River Valley are California’s Bordeaux and Burgundy. I don’t think that’s too far-fetched. We’re blessed to have such markers to calibrate everything else.


Ever confuse wine varieties? “Not since lunch”

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I’m sure it used to be true, in France, that there were major differences between the tastes of Bordeaux (mainly Cabernet Sauvignon), Burgundy (Pinot Noir) and Hermitage (Syrah). The old wine books, our only and most trusted sources of knowledge of the wines of 100 years ago, tell us so. That heritage–that each region specialized in a different variety or varietal family, and thus the wines they produced were loyaux et constants to their type (in the old jargon, as Allen Meadows reminds us in The Pearl of the Côte)–was handed down to the New World, and particularly to California, where most winemakers from the mid-20th century were devoted to the ideal of being as Europeanized as they could be.

Perhaps it might have been true, once, that California Cabernet, Pinot Noir and Syrah could have been as different from each other as were Bordeaux, Burgundy and Hermitage. If that had been the case, it would have occurred in an alternate universe. For historical reasons, only Cabernet Sauvignon has had enough time on the ground (roughly 150 years) to develop a true style, and that almost exclusively in Napa Valley (as it did in Bordeaux). Pinot Noir is getting there fast, in our accelerated society where everything happens at warp speed (except peace in the Middle East), while poor Syrah still scratches its head, wondering where it belongs, both stylistically and geographically (which may amount to the same thing). But then, in France, too, Syrah has an identity crisis.

I am thinking along these rather incoherent lines because I tasted a lot of wine, blind, on Friday at the Napa Valley Vintners. Although the whites and reds were in separate flights, they were all mixed up together, so that I did not know what variety I was tasting with any given wine. It was pretty easy to tell the Sauvignon Blancs from the Chardonnays, but the Viogniers were more difficult to identify; in some cases, they could have been either. Far more difficult, however, were the reds.

To begin with, they were all good. But the Cabernets, Pinots, Merlots and Syrahs were intermingled, and although I tried to ID what variety each was, I wouldn’t say I scored any better than a “B+” (all right, on the 100-point scale, I’d give myself an 87). Yes, it can be a little embarrassing, especially for a critic (even though I was alone and my blunders were unwitnessed), to unbag the bottle and see that the Merlot I’d liked so much was actually a Pinot Noir; or the Cabernet I found so rich and delicious was actually a Pinot Noir.

But then, this is 2012, not 1922. “We live in a wine world where, for the first time, there are wines that do taste like blackberry jam and are instantly intoxicating…I mean all the wines of the ‘Southern’ regions, the New Zealand Pinot Noirs and California Zinfandels and Australian Shirazes,” writes The New Yorker writer, Adam Gopnik, in his 2011 book, The Table Comes First. He might have added Cabernet, Merlot and Pinot Noir to his “California Zinfandels” that “all taste like blackberry jam” (although I think California Zinfandel is a lot more identifiable as Zinfandel than Cabernet or Merlot are as themselves). If you read into Gopnik’s remark a bit of a back-handed compliment, I don’t think he meant it that way. He was just making a point about the International Style. Still, there is a school of thought that criticizes New World wines for this very sameness that Gopnik describes.

I have never been part of that school, but having an experience like mine at the Napa Vintners does make you think. The fact is, California red wines are becoming more and more alike, across varieties. This is particularly true at the high price end (which is what I was tasting at Napa Vintners), because the alcohol levels tend to be higher (even with the Pinots), because the wines tend to be more extracted (by virtue of all the magic tricks vintners can apply) and because the quantity and quality of new, mainly French oak tends to be greater. Alcohol, extract and new oak: these mask inherent varietal character and push the wines toward one central point of richness and body.

My mentor, Harry Waugh, has perhaps the most famous quote in all of winedown. When asked, in his old age, over a long and illustrious career (among other things, he was on the board of Chateau Latour), if he had ever mistaken Bordeaux for Burgundy, he replied, “Not since lunch.” (Harry’s generation were heavy drinkers, starting early in the day and going all night. Don’t forget Winston’s Churchill’s penchant for brandy upon awakening.) This perhaps suggests that Burgundy and Bordeaux were not all that different even 80 years ago, as the writers said they were; but then, wine writers are trained, with the determination of Pavlov’s dogs, to point out differences between wine regions. At any rate, I always figured if old Harry could own up to confusing Burgundy with Bordeaux, so could I between Pinot Noir and Cabernet.

Nor does it bother me particularly that these red wines are conspiring toward a central point, as long as that point is so complex and delicious. We will, however, see if things are changing. If there is a trend toward lower alcohol wines (a product both of Mother Nature and conscious winemaking choices), then I might go to a Napa Vintners tasting in, say, the year 2018 and actually have my score for properly identifying varieties rise to 95 points. On the other hand, if global warming hits France as hard as it seems likely to, the differences between Bordeaux, Pinot Noir and Hermitage–whatever they used to be–will be further narrowed.


Six traits of a successful regional winery association

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There’s always some tension between wineries and the associations that represent their regions. The association acts on behalf of its members, but ultimately, on behalf of itself: any organization’s #1 Darwinian duty is to survive. A winery, on the other hand, has first and foremost to promote its own interests. Sometimes, the interests of the association and the winery do not coincide.

There’s another problem, too. In some cases, winery members pay association fees based on their case production. That means that larger members can have more say in how the association is governed–or at least, be perceived as having more say. This can lead to sore feelings at little wineries, who may feel that their voices aren’t being heard at management level.

I’m not going to name any specific regional associations here. But I will say I’ve worked with them all, through many of their changes in personnel and strategy. I’ve gotten to respect some for their effectiveness, while not having a whole lot of respect for others that seem to just limp along year after year. So here’s my advice: six things a successful winery association should do.

1. Represent all your members without appearing to favor any of them. The worst thing that can happen to a regional association is to become riven with internal political strife. I’ve seen it happen. An association can go from relevant to irrelevant overnight, and it can take years to recover–if it ever does. The best association executive directors will stand up for what they think is right, even if it means disagreeing with powerful members.

2. Work hard to earn the trust of the media. The media, after all, is your amplifier to the consumer. You, the association, don’t communicate directly with the public, for the most part; the media does that for you. If the media likes and respects you, and if you’re helpful to them, they’re more likely to want to write about your region.

3. Understand things from the winery’s point of view. An association might believe its function is to promote the appellation it represents. This is only partially true. Yes, you want the public to know and trust the region, be it Dry Creek Valley, Santa Barbara County or Fort Ross-Seaview. You want to communicate the unique traits of your region, everything from the climate and restaurants to various recreational things to do. But individual wineries sometimes fear, and rightfully so, that promoting the region has the unintended consequence of promoting their competitors. This is the concern of proprietors. The successful executive director must combine the empathy of a mom for her child with the hard head of a corporate CEO.

4. The way people look for information these days is through the Internet, so why do so many regional winery associations have such boring websites? Granted, things are better than they used to be. But still, some websites are hard to negotiate. They’re clumsy looking, confusingly organized, with inadequate search functions. They’re not places that people want to return to every few days or weeks to see what’s up.

5. Figure out how to keep the association relevant. Wineries today have Twitter, Facebook and other social media outreaches to the public. They blog, make YouTubes, stage events (both virtual and “real”), and in general do a better job of getting out there onto the streets to greet old friends and make new ones. In a certain sense, they no longer even need a big winery association to help them with promotion. Granted, an association with clout can be influential in legislative, international trade and marketing areas, but not all associations have the clout to hire lobbyists or have an office in D.C. or overseas. So the smaller associations in particular really have to offer wineries a reason to support them.

6. Reach out to other, non-wine regional associations in your area and partner with them. Many regions have tourist, convention and other kinds of associations to promote their restaurants, recreational opportunities and the like. This is the age of networking. Nobody makes it alone anymore. It takes the power of collaboration to make things happen, to smash through the clutter of noise out there. As an example, consider ZAP’s (Zinfandel Associates & Producers) partnerships with businesses,  such as The Saint Francis Foundation, Lot18, Wine Enthusiast, BevMo and KQED television. Granted, ZAP is not a regional organization, but it behaves like one. ZAP shows how the power of “we” is greater than the power of “me.”


My ten highest scoring wines of 2011

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No 100 point wines this year, but who cares? What a list this is. Diverse both type-wise and regionally. Four wines from Napa Valley, four from Sonoma County, one from Santa Barbara, and that North Coast bubbly from Schramsberg. A bunch of Cabernets, a Pinot Noir, a couple sparklers, even a dessert wine. I round the list out with the Qupe Syrah, at 97 points, because although I had 9 other 97 pointers, the Qupe was First Among Equals. All of these wines are fantastic, world class; they would easily hold their own against peers from any wine region on earth. All are ageable, I’d lay odds on the Von Strasser and Williams Selyem being still fine in 15 years. Maybe they’ll all be fine in 15 years. If I’m around in 15 years, maybe someone will be nice enough to treat me to a tasting of these magnificent nectars of the gods.

Venge 2008 Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville. $125, 275 cases, 14.9%. Score: 99 points.

Stonestreet 2007 Rockfall Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley. $75, 212 cases, 14.5%. Score: 99 points.

Williams Selyem 2009 Precious Mountain Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $94, case production unknown, 14%. Score: 99 points.

Araujo 2007 Eisele Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. $275, case production unknown, 14.8%. Score: 98 points.

Verité 2006 La Joie, Sonoma County. $300, 1,201 cases, 14.7%. Score: 98 points.

Von Strasser 2008 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain. $125, 278 cases, 14.2%. Score: 98 points.

Dolce 2006 Semillon-Sauvignon, Napa Valley. $85/375 ml., 3,300 cases, 13.8%. Score: 98 points.

Schramsberg 2004 J. Schram Rosé, North Coast. $130, 1,000 cases, 12.7%. Score: 98 points.

Iron Horse 1997 Joy! Blanc de Blancs, Green Valley. $179/1.5L, 50 cases, 13%. Score: 97 points.

Qupe 2006 Bien Nacido Vineyard 25th Anniversary X Block, “The Good Nacido,” Santa Maria Valley. $100, 190 cases, 14.5% Score: 97 points.


Can other regions challenge Napa when it comes to Cabernet?

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After drinking and enjoying the Bernardus 2009 Marinus barrel sample of Marinus (which is from Monterey County), I started wondering, does any other region in California besides Napa Valley have a snowball’s chance in hell of gaining acceptance for ultrapremium Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux blends, or is the Napa brand simply too strong to compete with?

Off the top of my head, the answers, respectively, are No, and Yes. The Napa Valley brand is so connected with Cabernet Sauvignon, they’re effectively joined at the hip–the perfect Siamese twin conjunction of geography and wine, such as you find in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, Piedmont, Champagne, and just about every great wine region in the world.

And yet, vintners in California keep chasing after Napa, with the idealism (or is it naivete?) of Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Sonoma County has been doing it longest. They’re still trying in inland Mendocino. Lake County has made a very serious Cabernet play in recent years, especially with their Red Hills appellation on the southern slopes of Mount Konocti; and, of course, Cabernet super-grower Andy Beckstoffer is heavily invested up there. And then, more recently, the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara is doing the Cabernet thing, with big money backing it up.

There are multiple scenarios one can envision, leading to multiple outcomes. One, which is the most likely, is that Napa will continue to dominate. Of course, this is predicated on the likelihood that Cabernet Sauvignon will remain America’s favorite and top red wine. I think that, despite Pinot Noir’s rapid ascent, it will. There’s nothing else remotely in a position to knock off Cabernet.

But Napa has challenges. One is price. Napa Cabernet is expensive–the most expensive wine in America. If it costs a lot here, it is prohibitively expensive in Europe. There’s Asia, of course, but rich Asians seem interested only in Bordeaux. So cost is the biggest obstacle Napa faces. But it’s not insuperable. If high cost were enough to make something unpopular, then nobody would want Porsches, Dom Perignon and Rolex watches. But they do. Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon could be around for a long time as a luxury product, with even less expensive bottlings ($25-$50) benefiting from that perception.

There are other possibilities. Americans are a curious people, who like changes. They’re always looking for the next big thing, whether it’s an action hero movie, politician or fashion style. This trait presents the greatest opportunity for non-Napa Cabernet. No marketing wizard ever born could guarantee in advance to make her product a success, but we know certain things from the “evil art,” advertising, concerning what it takes to convince consumers to try something new. Among these are recommendations. The best reccos are from experts whom the public trusts, and “regular people,” the man or woman in the street.

Well, what makes people–experts or “just plain folks”–recommend something like wine? The expert will recommend something that surprises and delights himself or herself. It’s quite easy for me, in my position, to recommend (via a high score) any particular Napa Cabernet. I do it all the time. It’s something else for me to give a high score to a non-Napa Cabernet. In Sonoma County and particularly Alexander Valley, I do that pretty routinely, but when we get beyond Napa-Sonoma, my Cabernet scores fall off pretty rapidly. (There are exceptions in the Santa Cruz Mountains, but Santa Cruz Cabernet, like Santa Cruz anything, is rare these days, because of housing development.) Therefore, when I give a good score to a Santa Barbara Cabernet or one from Lake County (which I don’t do anymore, since Virginie Boone is now covering that region) or anyplace else, it may not be a 100 or 98, but even if it’s a 92 or 93, you might detect, from my text (if anyone bothers to read the text anymore, instead of just looking at the score) a sense of excitement. Do I get more excited by a 92 point Happy Canyon Cabernet than a 95 point Napa Valley Cabernet? In a way, I do. Because expectations were lower in Happy than in Napa.

Now, I understand enough about this industry to know that if I excitedly recommend a wine, people respond by buying it. I’m just saying. And if someone buys a wine I recommend, and they like it, then they might just recommend it to someone else. And so on, down the line. Therefore, as the quality level of non-Napa Valley increases–and it is–and Napa Valley Cabernet continues to be expensive, while non-Napa Cabernet holds the lid on pricing, then we have the pieces in place for non-Napa Cabernet to be competitive.

Bordeaux survived and thrived because it had no competition whatsoever when it comes to Cabernet. It long ago reached the tipping point of being inexorably one of the world’s greatest wines, in perception if not in reality. I don’t think Napa Valley has reached the same point, or anywhere close. Napa Cabernet is a very glamorous wine, and a very great wine (despite the Europhiles who denounce it), but it cannot take its current reputation for granted. So I do think there’s an opportunity for other regions in California to be competitive (not to mention Washington State). I’m going to switch my answers to the questions I started with:

Does any other region in California have a snowball’s chance in hell of gaining acceptance for ultrapremium Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux blends?

Yes.

Or is the Napa brand simply too strong to compete with?

No.


Washington State: a hard sell

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I like Washington State wines all right, and whenever I go up there I’m impressed by the passion and drive of the winemakers and the quality of the wines. But I have to say the Washingtonians always seem to have a kind of resentment toward California.

On the one hand they’re always reminding us here in the Golden State that California’s too hot to make balanced grapes, our wines are too alcoholic and obvious, they lack elegance, we’re on the same latitude as the Sahara Desert or something like that. Whereas they, Washington State, are on the same latitude as Bordeaux, they make more balanced wines, et cetera.

On the other hand, California sells, what? Ten times more wine than Washington State. California wine is famous all over the world, while Washington wine isn’t. California wine has the “profile” that Washington wine doesn’t, and the Washingtonians don’t like that, but don’t know quite what to do about it.

Today the Associated Press is reporting that Washington State again is trying to “raise the industry’s profile,” this time by inviting dozens of wine buyers from “major U.S. restaurants” on a tour of wineries and vineyards.

It’s always helpful to invite gatekeepers to your wine region. A personal relationship between people is more likely to result in a sale and a dedicated customer. But these sorts of junkets also have their limitations. The kind of gatekeeper — be it restaurant owner, sommelier or buyer for a large chain — who gets invited to tour Washington wine country also gets invited to tour most of the other wine countries of the world. At the end of the day, the pleasant experience in Walla Walla is trumped by pleasant experiences in the Colchagua Valley and the Barossa. The wine buyer ultimately has far more reasons to buy wine, or not to buy wine, than the mere fact she’s toured a particular place.

This was pointed out in the A.P. article by the quote attributed to Michael Mina’s somm, Tony Cha. When asked if he intended to devote a section of his wine list to Washington State wines — which the Washington Wine Commission seemed to suggest would be a nice idea — Cha replied, discretely, “We have some Washington wines, but we’ve never had a section devoted to it,” he said. “I’d like it to change, but…”. That’s a big “but.” What Cha really meant was, “but it’s not going to change.” I can’t imagine a wine list having a section for Washington wines, unless it’s actually in Washington State, and even then, it would be weird.

Cha theorized that, as Napa gets more and more expensive, Washington could step in and benefit from being the lower-cost alternative in Bordeaux varieties and Syrah. I’m sure the Washington Wine Commission hopes that’s true. Problem is, the recession is driving Napa prices downward, and even as it does so, other areas in California are rapidly improving. If you’re a restaurateur trying to sell wine from a little understood region to a customer, is Walla Walla easier than Paso Robles? I don’t think so. What’s the story? “Walla Walla is this fine little appellation in eastern Washington State. No, not Washington D.C., Washington State. You know, where Seattle is. No, it doesn’t rain there all the time. In fact, Walla Walla is in what they call the ‘rain shadow’ and…”

and so on.

Versus: “Paso Robles is in the Central Coast of California, halfway between San Francisco and L.A. The region benefits from inland heat, but is cooled by breezes off the Pacific. Our sommelier is very excited about their wines.”

Now, that’s a message you can take to the bank.


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