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On the road in Santa Barbara


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.


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


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.

Outlying regions, and their wineries, face uphill odds


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 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?


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


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


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.


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.


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

* * *


You thrilled us, Michael. RIP.

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