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Appellating an area tends to restrict the range of varieties grown there

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Was chatting yesterday with Matt Dees, the talented young winemaker who’s doing such a great job with Bordeaux varieties (as well as Syrah) down at Jonata Wines, in the Ballard Canyon part of the Santa Ynez Valley. A handful of local wineries and growers have petitioned the TTB for a Ballard Canyon appellation (which they tell me they expect to be approved pretty soon). They’ve formed a Ballard Canyon Wine Growers Alliance whose website says “…the Alliance feels that the focus of the AVA will be Syrah and its Rhone counterparts, such as Grenache, Mourvedre, Viognier, etc…”

 Well, Jonata also makes Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, not to mention Sangiovese and Sauvignon Blanc, which are hardly Rhone varieties, so I wondered how Matt (who’s an integral part of the Alliance) felt about promoting it as a Rhone zone. Pretty good, as it turns out. “We’re making our own history, writing our own rules, learning what that little AVA does best,” he told me, adding, “and it’s obvious to me it can do a lot of things well.”

No doubt most appellations can do a lot of things well. Napa Valley used to make everything from old field blends to Johannisberg Riesling, Gamay and Pinot Noir, and from what I remember, most of them were pretty good. It’s fashionable today to say that Napa is “inappropriate” for many varieties, but that’s not really true. What’s true is that the conventional wisdom has shifted from “We can grow everything in Napa” to “Napa’s only good for a narrow range of varieties.” So the majority of the varieties Napa used to grow are long gone.

Who wins and who loses under such a scenario? I suppose you could say the consumer wines, because she has access to some of the greatest Cabernets in the world, now that Napa’s become a virtual monopole. But this has come at two costs: (1) the world will never know what a properly made Napa Valley Pinot Noir tastes like (with certain exceptions, like El Molino), and (2) the monopolization of Napa by the Bordeaux family of varieties has sent prices sky high, well out of reach of the ordinary consumer.

I’m certainly not saying that the Ballard Canyon people shouldn’t specialize in Rhone-style wines. That horse is out of the barn, the wines are very good, and prices will probably be going up. I do wonder at all the wines we’re not able to taste anymore in California. How about Russian River Valley Cabernet Sauvignon? There’s never been much, but Longboard did a fine job. How about Sonoma Coast Sangiovese or Grenache? I bet there are fabulous sites up on those ridgetops, but the Sonoma Coast is becoming a Burgundian monopole (with Burgundian prices), so it’s not likely a vintner or grower will have the audacity to plant much beyond Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.


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.


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