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Outlying regions, and their wineries, face uphill odds

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Having visited a few “outlying” areas lately — including Suisun Valley and Lake County (twice in the last 6 weeks) — I’ve been thinking about what it takes for a wine region to bust through the clutter and establish itself, favorably, in the consumer’s consciousness.

I call them “outlying” because they are, in two senses of the word: Suisun Valley lies just outside Napa Valley, within Solano County but literally just cross the street from Napa. And Lake County is one mountain range (the Mayacamas) away from Napa Valley, although, as a Lake vintner laughingly told me, when he told a visiting French winemaker that the Mayacamas were mountains, the Frenchman replied that, in France, they would more properly be called hills. And, in fact, when I drove early yesterday morning from Langtry/Guenoc winery, outside Middletown, along Highway 128 to Rutherford, I saw once again how close southern Lake County really is to Napa. A short hop, skip and jump across the Mayacamas and you’re at Pritchard Hill, which is one of Napa’s high-rent districts (Colgin, Bryant, Chappellet).

So how can a new region become known? What conditions must it fulfill in order to hit the bigtime? In my experience, the region must:

- attain a critical mass of wines that have been highly-rated by respectable writers
- be close enough to major transit routes to be easily visited by writers and tourists
- develop an infrastructure of amenities (restaurants, lodging, tasting rooms and other recreations) to provide hospitality for visitors

If you look at California’s best known regions (Napa Valley, most of Sonoma County, Santa Barbara County, San Luis Obispo’s Edna and Arroyo Grande valleys), all three conditions have been met. Even meeting two out of the three conditions can be enough, as the Sierra Foothills shows. It’s close to transit routes (various highways over the Sierra Nevada, and Highway 49, which winds through Gold County). And, of course, there are tons of restaurants and nice places to stay in El Dorado, Amador and Calaveras counties, as well as things to do besides visiting wineries. So even though the wines may not be as good as they could be (IMHO), the region is doing just fine.

Take away two of the conditions, though, and it’s much harder. Mendocino County makes pretty good wines, but it’s a schlep from the Bay Area, and the areas around Hopland and Ukiah lack the fine dining and lodging and overall excitement that wine country tourists seem to want.

Lake County is trying very hard to get on the consumers’ (and critics’) map. They’re pushing wine quality relentlessly, especially in the vineyard, and the wines are beginning to show marked improvement. At the same time, it is a longer drive than Napa/Sonoma (and if you’re talking about the areas around Clear Lake, it’s another 45 minutes beyond Langry/Guenoc). That’s no longer a day trip but a weekender, which eliminates lots of potential tourists.

While I was typing this my friend Scott Carpenter called and during our chat reminded me that without a great sales, marketing and distributor force, it doesn’t matter if you’re making good wine. You won’t be able to sell it anyway. And lots of the wineries in these outlying areas are small family outfits, who find it hard to get distributed. When you think about all the obstacles a little winery from an outlying area has against it — especially in this economy — it’s a wonder they even try. At the same time, in a way they’re able to be more innovative, since they have little to lose by being bold and creative; in a place like Napa Valley, wineries grow more and more conservative over the years, the operative philosophy being: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

In the end, it takes a long time for a wine region to establish itself. Doesn’t happen overnight, which is why I hope the family wineries and Lake County and Suisun Valley are committed to the long haul. At the very least, they should understand that some of us writers are out here watching them and, if there are positive developments, we’ll be the first ones to holler about it. I include the bloggers, too, not just paper reporters like me. In fact, with bloggers and twitterers and all that, the outlying areas and wineries may be able to radically shorten the time it takes to get known.

Dept. of What were they thinking?

Lewis Perdue‘s Wine Industry Insight is reporting (and I don’t think he’s joking) that a British publisher, Kraken Opus, “is currently working on a wine book…that will retail for £640,000, (approximately US $1.12 million).” “The Wine Opus, an 850-page book, will feature the 100 best wineries in the world selected by a panel of as-yet-unnamed judges,” Perdue writes, adding, “Extravagantly thirsty purchasers will also get six bottles of wine from each winery in the book. Only 100 copies of the book will be released. The company says that 25 have already been pre-ordered. Kraken Opus is owned by former Goldman Sachs derivatives and tax expert Karl Fowler.”

I guess the Recession is over! Disclosure: I’ve ordered 3 copies of the book, myself. (I got a deal from Kraken, an unbelievable $3 million for all three.) And I’m announcing the first-ever steveheimoff.com contest: The winner of the most interesting comment to the following question will win one of those books and a dinner with me! Here’s the question: Why I want to have dinner with Steve.

(Could I get sued for lying? You know I am, don’t you?)


Is the European model of wine regions obsolete for California?

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I just finished my feature story on Paso Robles for Wine Enthusiast, and the process made me wonder how I (and other writers, I would think) go about reporting on wine regions.

The concept of wine regions comes to us via Europe, of course. In historic old wine countries like France, Italy, Germany and Spain, wine regions were more or less permanently defined centuries ago, in fairly narrow terms, so that we have come to define a place like Bordeaux with Cabernet Sauvignon and its allied grapes, or the Mosel with Riesling, Burgundy with Pinot Noir, Sancerre with Sauvignon Blanc, Tuscany with Sangiovese and so on.

Forty or fifty years ago, when Napa Valley had everything from Pinot Noir and Zinfandel to Chardonnay and Barbera all growing next to each other in the vineyard, Europeans were appalled. Because their wine regions had become varietal monocultures, they couldn’t understand how Napa — which was trying so hard to become an important place — could willy-nilly plant anything and everything. Shouldn’t Napa, like Europe, specialize?

The Napans of the 1960s and 1970s who came to define the “boutique winery movement” certainly thought so. Influenced by the Europeans (and anxious to gain their approval), they tore out everything and replaced it with Bordeaux varieties, and when they developed new vineyards, it was with Bordeaux varieties. Out went grapes that for decades had performed perfectly well: Chenin Blanc, Semillon, Pinot Noir, Gamay, Barbera, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel. In went Cabernet, Merlot and the rest.

Who’s to say that these varieties didn’t make great and distinctive wines? They did, often as not, but unfortunately, they no longer exist, because Napa decided to go to the European model. I can distinctly remember the first Pinot Noir from California I ever really liked, and you know where it was from? Napa Valley. Not Carneros, but from somewhere around Rutherford. I miss that wine; what’s more, it was really different from today’s Dijon clone, assembly line Pinots.

As Napa goes, so too do the other California appellations. By the 1980s and 1990s, everybody thought they had to specialize and become known for a particular variety or varietal family. It was the European model writ large. But now, I find myself wondering if the European model is appropriate for California in the 21st century, and if in fact it hasn’t caused more harm than good.

Think about it. Napa Valley has some seriously good Bordeaux-type wines. But it also has a huge, boring morass of mediocre Bordeaux-style wines. Would we all be better off if Napa had stuck with its old model, and continued to produce good Semillons, Pinot Blancs, Carignans, Chenin Blancs, and so on, as well as Cabernet? Yes. We’d also have wines from Napa Valley that didn’t cost an arm and a leg.

So, back to Paso Robles. What was so exciting about this trip (and you can read all about it in the Enthusiast’s October issue) was my realization that Paso Robles has decided to forego the varietal route. It wasn’t a conscious decision, like all the vintners getting together at a meeting and saying, “Let’s abandon the European model and go back to the old California model.” No, things don’t happen like that. But individually, growers and vintners there have decided to grow a lot of different things, sometimes all in one vineyard, then see what does best and make blends from the top barrels. Sometimes these are straight Bordeaux blends, but more often than not, they’re strange mixtures of Cabernet, Tempranillo, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel or what have you.

I say “strange” only because we’re not used to them, but when you think about it, isn’t Bordeaux itself just a classic “strange blend”? Who ordained that Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenere were the only permissable grapes? Nobody. The Bordelais realized over centuries that they worked, and so the system developed the way it did. The difference between them and us is that, with their system of government, they enshrined these varieties into law. That will never happen here.

What I’m suggesting is that Paso Robles could be opening up a whole new way of thinking about wine regions — not in terms of single varieties, but in terms of “What are the best wines we can make here?” What a giant leap forward that would be.


Climate change = coastal cooling

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I blogged a year ago that I don’t think coastal California is warming up. “It’s almost official — coastal California is getting colder, not hotter,” I wrote.

Well, now it is official.

Last week, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that scientists have concluded that “Global warming is warming the interior part of California, but it leads to a reverse reaction of more fog along the coast.” And fog, as we all know, is what makes the California coast cool during the summer months.

The article continues: “…colder summers are indeed in store for parts of the Bay Area.” And with the Pacific waters even colder than usual, the coast is in the midst of a chill-down of unknown length. The California Current brings polar water southward, past Washington and Oregon and off our coast, which is why swimming in the Pacific in Northern California is not advisable without a wet suit, even in high summer.

Just where the boundary line is between “interior” and “coast” is elusive. Sacramento is definitely interior. So is Livermore. Is Napa Valley interior? I don’t think so, especially the southern parts, which are more open to the maritime influence than Livermore. Even Calistoga gets some fog and maritime influence, which comes in from the Russian River Valley through a gap in the Mayacamas. (Bo Barrett, of Chateau Montelena, pointed that out to me.)

This past May was the foggiest in 50 years in and around the Bay Area. And June, as everyone knows who lives here, was a real chiller. Yes, we had mini-heat waves in both months, but by the end of June, everyone was talking about how cool it’s been. Even when the sun was out,  temperatures had a hard time busting out of the low 60s here in Oakland, and the mid-70s in wine country. For much of June, the weathermen were telling us  temperatures were running 20 degrees below normal inland. My local TV weatherman said June was the coldest in more than 100 years.

Actually, the fact that the coast is cooling was reported nearly a  year ago, in Scientific American magazine, which said that “A group of northern California scientists have found a new bend in the Gordian knot of global warming: coastal cooling…as temperatures rise in California, so do pressure differences that control cool Pacific winds. That means higher temperatures inland create lower ones at the coast.” One of the scientists made this interesting remark: “…the findings bode well for California’s wine regions…”.

I don’t know what exactly this means for coastal California’s wine regions, from Santa Barbara north to Anderson Valley. But it does seem like it’s not going to get as hot as people had feared. As for the Central Valley, if you think it’s hot there now, just wait. (Should be great for the grapes…)

By the way, as I write his on Sunday evening, the forecast is for a warming trend this week. Temperatures might hit 100 in the hotter inland valleys, including Napa-Sonoma. I realize the irony, in light of what I have written. But it doesn’t undermine the thesis: wine country is cooling off.


On super-tasting

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Doing gigantic tastings isn’t my favorite thing. I know how to, and have done so many times. But as I’ve written, it’s not the ideal way to taste.

However, as with everything else, there are pluses and minuses.

The minus side, of course, is the wham, bam, thank you ma’am syndrome. You have, what? A minute or two with each wine, and have to come to a quick and dirty decision before the clock inevitably ticks and you move on to the next wine. There’s little or no opportunity to return to a past wine, which at any rate won’t be the same wine you originally tasted, because it’s been exposed to the air and has had a chance to chemically change, for better or for worse.

I don’t totally condemn this method of tasting. It has the advantage of quantity. Among those who taste like this are my good friend, Wildred Wong, at Beverages & More, and, purportedly, Robert Parker. Under the forced circumstances of a gigantic tasting, you enter the “zone,” a mental and physical arena in which your total senses are concentrated on the wines before you, and the most subtle differences are highlighted. That is a distinct advantage, presuming you are able to hit this zone of peak performance and stay there for more than 100 wines. I can. But it is tiresome, and you pay for it afterward. Following my blind tasting of 106 wines, at 4 in the afternoon, I fell into a deep sleep. My body seemed intent on clearing and cleansing itself. But despite that penance, I would never reneg on any of my findings during the tasting.

108-wines

106 wines in their bags

My preferred method of tasting is 12-15 per flight, with one flight a day. This gives you a lot more time with each wine, and also lets you go back and forth between the contestants in the “beauty pageant.” You can second-guess yourself, alter your impressions, decide that a wine that had seemed shy and austere is actually more interesting than you thought, or, alternately, that a big, powerful wine that originally impressed actually is overbearing. The more time you have, the more opportunity to trip yourself out, negotiate with yourself, change your mind. Is that good or bad? I prefer it, but philosophically speaking, I can see that it has a weakness. First impressions, as we know, are usually the most trustworthy. The more you think something over, the greater the risk of stumbling, of tripping yourself up the way the centipede did when it was asked, “How do you know where your 47th leg is when your 94th is going forward?” In the fable, the centipede became paralyzed with indecision.

There’s really no answer, beyond personal preference. I could not physically do this type of tasting every day. It would harm me. If I were a robot, maybe I could.

I did come away with the impression that Paso Robles’ best red wines are its Bordeaux blends. I’ll have much more on this in my upcoming article in Wine Enthusiast, slated for this Fall. Paso Robles is a young winemaking region with some ambitious and aggressive people at the helm, and it is making enormous strides. It’s best days clearly lie ahead.

Here’s a tip to bloggers and other up-and-coming tasters. If called upon to do super-tastings, get plenty of rest beforehand. Eat well, but not to the point of gluttony. Be in good physical shape. If you find yourself losing perpective during the tasting, get up and take a walk. Have some coffee. Smoke, if that helps. (I detest and condemn tobacco, but recognize it helps some people center themselves.) Make sure that the people who set up the tasting are aware of your needs (water, spit cups and buckets, crackers, napkins, comfortable physical conditions). You’re playing at the Olympic level of tasting, and you’ve got to be in Olympic condition.

blind-elements

The elements of tasting: paper and pens for notes, spit cup and bucket, napkins, crackers. Not shown: water.

* * *

michael

You thrilled us, Michael. RIP.


When rap stars do wine

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from Paso Robles

Seems there’s this rapper, Lil Jon, who started a wine company, Little Jonathan Wine Company, that made a Central Coast Chardonnay that just won a silver medal at the L.A. International Wine & Spirits Competition.

Now, readers of my blog may know what I think of such competitions, but that’s beside the point. What’s really interesting is that Lil Jon tweeted about the award, in caps: “FOR ALL YALL SUKKAS THAT WERE HATING ON MY WINE CHECK THIS OUT!! WE WINNING AWARDS TWITT!!! GET U SOME.”

We can presume that this is the written equivalent of the way Lil Jon talks on the street. It’s a form of urban speech I hear all the time, living in Oakland. Invented by black kids, it’s now been appropriated by some Asian and Latino kids (at least, those who yearn to live the hip hop lifestyle), as well as every white Eminem wannabe in the land.

On his winery’s website Lil Jon writes:

While traveling the world, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to experience some of the world’s greatest wines. My passion for enjoying those fine wines has led me to pursue my lifelong dream of starting my own winery. Our premium collection is simply some of the best wine that California has to offer. I’m very proud to present our rich, complex blends and world class varietals from the finest vineyards in the Central Coast, Monterey and Paso Robles regions. Our wines are hand-crafted to ensure excellence in evnry bottle and I personally invite you to try our wines and share in my passion.

How does he go back and forth from hip hop talk to the King’s English, with such ease? On his tweet he provides an insight: Jonathan Little Wine Company sounds “a little bit more upscale than regular ‘Lil Jon.’ … This is not no ghetto Boone’s Farm; this is some real wine.”

What’s notable about this, aside from a rapper turning into a winery owner (just another version of celebrity wines), is the glimpse it provides into the different ways we relate when we’re in different groupings of society; also, the way that Jonathan sees wine, which is probably the way most people see it. Lil Jon sees the world one way, and sings it the way he sees it, because his listeners see it the same way as he does, and he wants to relate to his listeners. But when Lil Jon becomes Jonathan Little, he’s no longer a rap star, or, more properly, he’s more than just a rap star: He’s a businessman, selling a product. So he has to act in a way that’s more appropriate to the business world, which is to say, speaking and writing the way business people, and most people in the wine industry, talk and write. No double negatives, no deliberate misspellings or mispronunciations.

We all do that, don’t we? When I’m in New York with New Yawkahs my speech reverts to the Bronx accents of my boyhood. When I’m with serious winos, such as my San Francisco tasting group, we talk in a way that would be as incoherent (and probably sound a lot more pompous) to outsiders as Lil Jon’s urban speech may be to some. Wine geek-speech is no different, in substance, than urban hip hop speech. Both are forms of communication that allow us to function in and bond with specialized groupings of people.

Hey Lil Jon, if you read this: let’s get together and drink some wine. I can teach you geek-speak and you can teach me hip hop talk.


Friday Fishwrap

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We say “Chateau,” Europe says “Shut up!”

The spat between the European Union and American wineries flared up again last week, as a group of members of Congress teamed together to urge the U.S. Trade Representative, the nation’s top trade negotiator and principal advisor to the President, to clear the “traditional expressions” logjam with the European Union.

So-called “traditional expressions” are words on labels. They include chateau, clos, classic, noble, vintage, sur lie, champagne and ruby, among others. The E.U. long has objected to their use on American wines, claiming they poach on traditional European territory and mislead consumers. Back in 2006, the U.S. agreed to stop using the terms, but under a “peace-making clause,” wineries using them at that time were grandfathered in, and allowed to continue their use for 3 years.

That 3 year exemption ended in March. The expectation was that the E.U. would issue 2-year renewals, in order to further the peace-making period, while the hard issues were hammered out. “But they didn’t renew it,” says a source with close ties to the industry. It is this impasse that the U.S. Trade Representative is now being pressured to resolve by the politicians.

(For a good background story on this issue, see this Wines & Vines article.)

I asked the industry source what is likely to happen next. “It remains unresolved what the people with trademarks are supposed to do, like Chateau Montelena or Korbel [Champagne Cellars]. So we probably have a case for the World Trade Organization,” the international body that resolves trade disputes between nations.

My guess is that every winery currently using traditional expressions will be allowed to keep them. After all, nobody expects Clos du Val to change their name! I also suspect the list of words the E.U. objects to will be narrowed. I mean, sur lie? Come on.

Beckstoffer’s big Mendocino gamble

“Are we really too early?” That’s the question top grower Andy Beckstoffer asked rhetorically when he was quoted, in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, concerning his planting of 300 acres of organic Chardonnay vineyards by the banks of the Russian River in Hopland, which is in central Mendocino County.

Andy B. is one of the smartest guys in the industry, a veteran who came up through the ranks and bears the scars to prove it. (I have a chapter on him in my book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff.)

Andy’s question concerns, of course, when the Recession will end. Since nobody knows, it’s something of a gamble to be developing a big new vineyard at this time. Beckstoffer’s optimism runs in his genes, but it’s based also on his assumptions that (a) downturns always end, and (b) inland Mendocino County has been underrated as a source of premium wine.

I remember when I first tasted a Chardonnay from the old Jepson winery, which was made from the same area as Beckstoffer’s new vineyard. I thought it was one of the best I’d ever had. Chardonnay remains America’s favorite white wine, and there’s no reason to expect that will ever change. So, if Beckstoffer can keep his prices moderate — and if the wineries that buy his grapes don’t charge too much — his gamble is likely to pay off. I’d expect the Chardonnays to retail in the $10-$15 range.


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