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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.


The heat is on

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“Be careful what you wish for!” That’s what Rob Mondavi told me at lunch yesterday. He was referring, of course, to the heat — the baking, relentless heat that’s caused records to topple from the North Bay to L.A., which recorded its hottest day ever: 113.

I’d been complaining about the cold since last winter. Cold, wet Spring, cold, foggy summer, the vines weeks and weeks behind schedule. Then California had a few days of heat a month ago, and a lot of stuff got baked. Then it got chilly again. Everybody was worrying, especially in the North Coast, because just around the corner are the winter rains.

And now this!

My colleague, Joe Roberts, at 1WineDude, reported today on the heat. I had the same instinct yesterday, when I asked my winemaker friends on Facebook to report in from their regions and let me know what’s happening. Judging from some of the replies, things are looking up:

Jason Haas, Tablas Creek, Paso Robles: Things are accelerating a little, but the vineyard still looks in good shape…high temperatures at Tablas of 105 (today), 104 (yesterday), 101 (Sunday) and 97 (Saturday) aren’t really that unusual for late September. It’s cooled off nicely, into the 50s, each night. I’m more worried for places/grapes that don’t usually get hot. San Luis Obispo hit 110 yesterday (!).

Jeremy Kreck, Mill Creek, Russian River Valley: Sugars are really starting to move after stalling out for a couple weeks. We’re bringing in Sauvignon Blanc, and I expect to roll right into the Gewurz, followed by the Chard. Flavors are really starting to develop as well.

Eric Keating, Keating Wines: I think this heat helped overall. Took a berry sample of my Beckstoffer Georges III Rutherford valley floor Cabernet, 22.9 with pH of 3.40. Tasting nice, acid still high at the moment. Still a bit behind. With 1-2 days more of this heat… …followed by dry, moderate weather for a couple of weeks, it could be a great vintage. My mountain fruit (Rockpile and also Mayacamas on the Sonoma side) is a little different. Those vineyards were waaay behind and absolutely needed this heat. The previous two vintages, my Napa Cab was the last to come in, and this year it could possibly be the first. Short answer, in my opinion, this heat not only helped but was necessary in most cases.

Dan Tudor, Tudor Wines: we’ll be picking soon. The heat hasn’t been too bad in the Santa Lucia Highlands.

Karl Wente, Wente Bros., Livermore Valley: Moving things along quite nicely. Not too hot and a welcomed change from generally cooler weather. Chard all ready or close and merlot right behind.

Laura Zahtila, Zahtila Vineyards, Napa Valley: From Calistoga – it got to 107 degrees here today. We’ve been hydrating the vineyard for the past couple of days. Also walked our growers vineyard in Dry Creek this morning. The heat wave a couple of weeks ago really burned up some crop. Wish we could have some low 90′s to finish this off. Still about a week to 10 days before harvesting zinfandel.

John M. Kelly, Westwood Wines, Sonoma County: Might get young-vine Pinot up to 23 Brix by Friday. Soil profile is dry – we’re irrigating. Will be interesting to see if our earlier predictions for high natural acids pan out for the reds.

Stacy Vogel, Napa Valley: The heat helped our chardonnay with a nice final jump in ripeness. Bringing in all CH from Stagecoach Vineyard today and tomorrow, with most of Carneros not far behind. Finally!

Darek Trowbridge, Old World Winery, Sonoma County: First time I’ve ever picked Pinot Noir this late and the flavors are extraordinary! Zin and Chardonnay we have to remove the sunburn…

Karen Steinwachs, Buttonwood, Santa Ynez Valley: Well…we needed a little heat, but this is ridiculous. Next time you come to Santa Ynez, Steve, don’t bring 108 degrees! SRH is picking now (mine is all in), but Chard still ripening. Sauv Blanc in Happy Cyn mostly picked – I’m starting my pick in the LOD on Thursday. Sugars rising, but acids also still high. Weird. I agree with Darek – berries all taste amazing!

Richard Davis, Londer, Halleck and Calstar: ask me again in a week, trying to get stuff to ride it out and picking where it won’t

Gary Agajanian, Agajanian Vineyards, Central Valley: Temperatures in the high 80′s to low 90′s are the best. The extremes are difficult to manage. Grapes in the cool regios either got burned because of excessive leaf pulling , or benefitted if the canopy was intact. The grapes in the hot regions, said “what the f___!, you call this hot? This is normal.”. So, instead of 3 weeks behind, we are only two weeks. Overall quality will be good and clean, but you must be on top of it to get the best quality.

Mike Brown, Cantara Cellars, Lodi: Harvest has been great in Lodi. The heat is speeding up a slightly late harvest, with moderate alcohol levels and great acid.

[Steve again]
In non-Facebook conversations, vintners also weighed in to me:

Matthias Pippig, Grassini and Sanguis wineries, Santa Ynez Valley: The recent weather has everyone a little panicked now, but after touring all of my vineyards this morning, I have to say so far so good. The numbers haven’t jumped too dramatically but development has definitely been affected positively after the long cool (non-)summer.

Genevieve Janssens, Robert Mondavi Winery, Napa Valley: We have some baked fruit, 15-20% loss on Sauvignon Blanc. Pinot Noir is dehydrated a little, not too bad, finishing this week. Petit Verdot, 70-80% dehydration, lost it bigtime. Raisins. Cabernet Sauvignon is great, like nothing happened. Chardonnay is fine, too. Malbec dehydrated like the Petit Verdot. Merlot is okay, fine.


On the road in Santa Barbara

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I’m in the little town of Santa Ynez, in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barbara County. The weather is coolish. As in the North Coast, Central and Southern California have had their coldest summer since the 1940s. Meteorologists are now saying it’s because there’s been a big old low pressure trough cleaving the West Coast for the last six months, but they seem unable to say why the normal weather pattern of trough-ridge-trough-ridge has been discombobulated, let us hope temporarily.

Vintners down here don’t seem as freaked out about the vintage as those in the North Coast, though. I think the main reason for that is because they basically don’t have to worry about rain, even though the harvest is 2-3 weeks later than normal. Precipitation falls off rapidly south of San Francisco, although it’s also true that in an El Nino year, L.A. can have more rainfall than the City by the Bay.

I like the drive down from Oakland to the Santa Ynez Valley — that is, once I’ve busted out of Bay Area traffic. The drive this morning was a nightmare. Every freeway in the area was gridlocked. Even the traffic reporters were impressed, and they’re a pretty hard-boiled bunch. It took me 1-1/2 hours to get to San Jose. That’s only 40 miles. Thank goodness for CDs. I put on “Revolver” and it hasn’t lost a thing over the last 45 years. The Beatles are rock’s Beethoven.

Past San Jose, the 101 opens up. People knock the 101 but to me, as a wine lover and someone who appreciates California geology, geography and history, it’s a fabulous road. First you hit the Coyote Valley, still verdant despite on the verge of being gobbled up by San Jose. Then there’s that long, tortured stretch through the hills of San Benito County, old, rugged, rural California, at this time of the year golden and craggy and just fine to see. I always look for the turnoff to the Monterey Peninsula. It’s a sign I’m about to break out of Northern California to the Central Coast.

Then you come to the city of Salinas, so drab, so ugly, and yet so useful — California agriculture wouldn’t exist without it (and vice versa). All of a sudden, you pass a little curve, and wham! There it is, the great Salinas Valley, America’s salad bowl, all green and flat like a vast billiard table. To the west, the majestic Santa Lucias, gleaming purple and beige in the Fall sunshine. What an amazing success story for Pinot Noir. I always keep an eye out for Mark Pisoni’s little house in Gonzalez, just off the freeway.

At this time of the year the Salinas Valley is a beehive of activity. Not so much for grapevines, which are mainly in the hills, but for row crops. Mile after mile, field after field I saw workers, hunched over, picking our lettuce, radishes, the pricy arugula we munch in restaurants. These people are mainly Mexicans. Some of them, I would think, are illegal. It fills me with shame to know that these hard working men and women, and their families, are the targets of such political venom.

I like to stop at the Starbucks in Paso Robles for a pick-me-up cappuccino. I know a lot of people who won’t patronize Starbucks, but the fact that it’s a chain doesn’t really bother me. Then you drive down over the Morro grade from inland San Luis Obispo to San Luis, the temperature drops, and a little while later comes another place I always look forward to seeing: where the 101 comes to Pismo Beach and, with breathtaking suddenness, there it is, the blue Pacific.

California!

Past the Seven Sisters of the Arroyo Grande, which always remind me of Brian Talley, because he told me about those bizarre volcanic peaks. But you really have to cross the Santa Barbara County line to feel like you’re in Southern California. It’s hard to say just why. There are palm trees in San Francisco. The hills and mountains aren’t that different. It’s a quality of the light. Cezanne would have liked to paint in Santa Barbara. If you know David Hockney’s landscapes, they have that luminous quality.

I pulled off the 101 in the Los Alamos Valley, at Highway 154, which takes you to touristy Los Olivos and, a few miles later, Santa Ynez, where I type these words. I like to stay at the Santa Ynez Inn. I stopped by to say Hi at winery on the way, and the owner, a friend, told me Parker prefers to lodge in Los Olivos. Chacun a son gout, as they say.

I had a small dinner at Grappolo, the local winemaker hangout (and why, oh why don’t they complain that the wine list features Parker and Spectator ratings? WTF is up with that? Santa Ynez winemakers, get on the ball!) Other than that, the evening is very beautiful and warming: a heat wave is setting in. If it’s 90 degrees in the North Coast, it will be a good thing. If it’s 100, it could doom this vintage. On this visit to Santa Barbara, I will blind taste a lot of wines, tour Happy Canyon and several properties, and do an amazing interview I’m not allowed to talk about yet. All this will duly appear in the pages or on the website of Wine Enthusiast. But tonight is all mine, alone by choice, under a harvest moon, with the crickets chirping, content to be in a place I love.


The way it used to be

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Got the Husch Vineyards newsletter in the mail yesterday. It was all about that Anderson Valley winery’s 30th anniversary under its current ownership. (The founding, by the Husches, actually dates to 1971, making Husch one of the older wineries in the North Coast.) The newsletter had the usual grainy pictures from the 1970s of longhaired guys and old cars, and it put me in a nostalgic state of mind for “the old days.”

Back when Tony and Gretchen Husch started their little winery, wine was still a fairly obscure thing in California and, even more, across the U.S. It was not perceived as a money-making occupation, nor did the title “winemaker” receive much respect among opinion makers. If you started a winery, you usually did so on a shoestring budget, borrowing from your parents or mortgaging your house, and you also were dependent on the kindness of other local vintners, who might lend you a tractor or let you use their bottling line.

The 1970s was a more innocent time, but it also preceded a lot of the controversial phenomena that have changed the wine industry — for the worse, some say. Back then there were no celebrity wines, no movie stars and superstar athletes who lend their names to marketing indifferent products, the way it is today. There were no “cult wines” to foster jealousy among those who couldn’t get them and distort the pricing structure of everything else. There were no “flying winemakers” to make those cult wines. There were no billionaires parachuting into Napa Valley in order to buy themselves an instant lifestyle. There was no “international style” of wine that made everything taste like everything else. There were a few large corporations actively involved in acquiring wineries, but nothing like the massively consolidated field we see today. Napa Valley still was a sleepy place, not the theme park, Disney-fied mecca it now is. Winemakers quietly went their way making the best wine they could, and depended on word-of-mouth to sell it, instead of hiring high-priced P.R. firms to issue press releases and slick marketing managers to make side deals with distributors. And wealthy people collected wine because they wanted to age it properly in their cellars, not because they expected to make double-digit profits on it as an investment.

Anderson Valley is still a 1970s kind of place. The locals have mixed feelings about being located so far north of San Francisco — really beyond the ability of the average wine tourist, who will drive as far as Sonoma County but no further. On the one hand, this keeps Anderson Valley from reaping the benefits of an active tourist industry, and to some extent prevents wine prices from getting too high. On the positive side, Anderson Valley and its three little villages — Boonville, Navarro and Philo — have not been overrun with outsiders, traffic jams and all the associated bedlam that tourists bring in their wake.

I’m not foolish enough to think the California wine industry will go back to the old ways. History doesn’t march backward. But sometimes, I do miss the sleepy days when wine was truly an amateur pursuit of love. Today, it’s Big Business. But thankfully there are still quiet, out-of-the-way places like Anderson Valley where you can get a sense of the way it used to be.


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