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Wine Train highlights problems, opportunities of vino-tourism

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I’m always fascinated by the tension that so often arises in wine country between those who promote tourism and locals who don’t want a bunch of strangers traipsing all over their neighborhoods — even if they come armed with credit cards to spend in the stores and restaurants.

A couple years ago, I recall, there was a big brouhaha up in Knights Valley, that tranquil stretch of the Mayacamas Mountains that separates Alexander Valley from Napa Valley. Kendall-Jackson had wanted to build some kind of visitor’s center. Local residents opposed it. They called me up to see if I’d write about it. I decided not to, but in essence, their complaint was “Look, we have a nice, quiet little piece of God’s country up here, and we don’t want tour buses and traffic jams screwing it up.” I never did find out what happened.

There’ve been similar eruptions of passion in wine country. Another longstanding complaint is that when a region decides to glamorize itself as wine country, the price of real estate soars (well, it used to, anyway, before the housing bubble burst), forcing locals to pull up stakes and move. That happened in the Santa Ynez Valley, where lots of winery employees, who can no longer afford to live there, have to reside in faraway places like Lompoc or Santa Maria. And I remember when Wente wanted to develop the Ruby Hills area of Livermore Valley. Some bad feelings about that one.

Back in the ‘90s, when the owners of the Napa Valley Wine Train wanted to activate it as a tourist draw, the citizens of Napa Valley reacted with fury. It was a real pitched battle. Eventually, of course, the Wine Train was allowed to run along a stretch of Highway 29, but not as far as St. Helena, which surely is the leading tourist destination in the central-north part of the valley. Some of the local shops in St. Helena wouldn’t have minded the train coming into town and discharging tourists eager to spend money in the fancy chochky shops, clothing stores and art galleries. But St. Helena’s general citizenry said, Hell, no.

That was before the Great Recession. Now, the St. Helena Star is reporting that “[T]here’s been a thaw in the cold war between the Napa Valley Wine Train and the city of St. Helena.” Seems the city council has agreed to a trial period in which the train would bring passengers into town at 11 a.m. and let them wander around and spend money for two hours.

The issue of “sustainable tourism” is of worldwide concern, from scuba diving in endangered barrier reefs to eco-tourists plundering through the ancient preserves of indigenous people. In the case of wine, or what has come to be called vino-tourism, the downside was aptly described in this essay about wine tourism in Mexico’s Baja peninsula. Rising real estate prices are bringing about “land wars with aggressive buyers trying to corrupt land transactions,” and hotel and resort owners and wealthy Americans looking for second homes “roaming the valley…bused in from Ensenada to ride ATVs and ORVs, drinking wine and roaming the formerly quiet and peaceful neighborhoods.” Nor is there enough water for all the newcomers.

I imagine this is the very sort of thing the people of St. Helena wish to avoid.


“Regional character” is not a reliable way to judge wine

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I have to respectfully take issue with Dan Berger’s recent post at Appellation America, in which he sets up something of a straw dog.

Straw Dog [from the Urban Dictionary]: something (an idea, or plan, usually) set up to be knocked down. It’s the dangerous philosophy of presenting one mediocre idea, so that the listener will make the choice of the better idea which follows.

In this case, Dan postulates two competing approaches to wine reviewing.

1. One that is “based [merely] on…A person’s likes.” Dan charges that the 100-point scoring system is devoid of “essential criteria.” And “If no criteria exist, the score means nothing other than someone’s lame attempt to say, ‘I like it.’ Higher scores call for, ‘I like it a lot,’ or ‘I really like it a lot,’ or ‘I really, really like it a lot, a lot.’”

2. This is as opposed to his trademarked Best-of-Appellation program, which he describes as a “template that allows for each wine from a region to be credited with ‘bonus points’ for its regional distinctiveness.” Under this approach, a critic may not care personally for a wine, but still praise it for displaying proper “regional character.”

The straw dog Dan sets up here is that he makes the first approach sound so lame that any intelligent reader would have to reject it — and correspondingly be in favor of the second approach.

Is it really true, as Dan asserts, that some of us critics simply assign scores based on “I like it” or “I don’t like it” without reference to any external circumstances? Of course not. If I give a high score to a wine, obviously it’s because “I like it.” But what makes me “like” a wine is when it’s clean, balanced, harmonious, true to its variety or type, and utterly without faults. And the more that wine fascinates and impresses me, the more I “like” it, and the higher the score I give it. So, in that sense, Dan is correct that “score” = “like” and “high score” = “like a lot.” But to reduce it to “I really, really like it a lot, a lot” is a reductio ad absurdum, which, like a straw dog, is a rhetorical trick, not a serious argument. It’s like saying a movie critic should give a good review to a film he hates, because it had good cinematography, good acting, good soundtrack, good screenwriting and good direction. Well, if it was all good, then the critic wouldn’t hate the film, would he?

Now, the other part of Dan’s assertion I want to tweak is this notion of “regional character.” It sounds all well and good, but really breaks down on analysis. For instance, there may be a general Santa Lucia Highlands Pisoni Vineyard Pinot Noir character, but if Vintner #1 prefers to pick his fruit at 23 brix while Vintner #2 waits until 29 brix to pick, the resulting wines will be different. So different, in fact, that trying to pinpoint a “regional character” in both wines would require a very big tent. So that’s one problem  with the “regional character” argument.

There are others. Let’s assume there’s a “regional character” to Tuscan Sangiovese. Let’s further assume that the hidebound officials in Italy and Europe in general wished to protect that character for all time. So they mandate what grapes can be planted, when they must be harvested, and the like. Well, if the Tuscans went only by “regional character,” Piero Antinori would never have given the world Tignanello. So a slavish devotion to “regional character” can inhibit creativity.

Speaking of Europe, “regional character” is a lot easier to identify in wine regions that are 2,000 years old, like Bordeaux and Burgundy. But California is a young region! How do you define “regional character” in a place like Paso Robles, whose wine industry is barely 30 years old? Most of their wines have been soft in acidity, extracted in fruit, high in alcohol, and often with some residual sugar, especially whites. Is this the “regional character” of Paso Robles? Then what happens if someone down there figures out how to make a truly dry, balanced, elegant wine (which, in fact, is happening)? Does it get downgraded because it lacks “regional character”? So the “regional character” goalposts in a new region are constantly changing.

You can’t get away from the “I like it” nature of wine reviewing no matter what approach you take. All Dan is doing is equating “really, really like” with “I think this wine really, really shows regional character.” That’s the straw dog he posited, which I just demolished.


California Grape Acreage Report: Pinot Noir on a roll

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The 2008 California Grape Acreage Report is hot off the presses from the Dept. of Food and Agriculture, and as usual it makes for fascinating reading for statistically-minded geeks.

Highlights:

Overall acreage of all wine grape types remained virtually unchanged from the last 2 years. Both red and white wine bearing acreage was down slightly in 2008 compared to 2007, but non-bearing acreage increased slightly. Bottom line: statewide grapevine acreage is in a period of static activity.

The devil, as usual, is in the details.

Among major varieties, the following were all slightly reduced in bearing acreage in 2008, compared to 2007: Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Syrah, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc. The following varietals were all slightly up: Merlot, Petite Sirah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. The actual percentages, both of increased and decreased acreage, were very small (on the order of a few percentage points), but it’s interesting that the “hottest” varieties — Petite Sirah, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris — all saw increases. What growers plant, of course, is what they believe will be selling down the line.

Digging deeper, of all wine grape types, red and white, guess which one has by far the greatest number of non-bearing acres: Pinot Noir. In 2008, there  were 7,573 acres of the grape which had not yet yielded fruit. That is half of all the red non-bearing acres in California, and 5 times as much as the acreage of the #1 white non-bearing variety, Pinot Gris. This provides further testimony that growers are putting their chips on the two Pinots.

Where is all the new non-bearing Pinot Noir acreage planted? The county with the most new plantings of the great grape of Burgundy is — ta da!Monterey. The Report doesn’t state where in Monterey the 2,558 non-bearing acres are, but my hunch would be a combination of the Santa Lucia Highlands, Arroyo Seco, and the Pinnacles area in the eastern Gavlian Mountains. After Monterey, the county with the second-highest acreage of non-bearing Pinot Noir is San Luis Obispo, most likely in the Edna Valley, with some Arroyo Grande Valley. Taken together, Monterey and SLO account for 3,650 non-bearing acres of Pinot Noir, nearly 50% of the non-bearing total for the variety in California, and exactly ten times the non-bearing Pinot Noir acreage in Sonoma County (although Sonoma has by far the highest bearing acreage of Pinot Noir in the state). If you add Santa Barbara, with its 830 non-bearing Pinot Noir acres, the Central Coast boasts nearly 60% of all the non-bearing Pinot in California.  This should convince anyone that these 3 Central California counties are making a serious play to become the Pinot Noir capital of the state.

Cabernet Sauvignon is striking in its contrast to Pinot Noir. Altogether, there’s only 1,578 non-bearing acres of it in California. That’s 1/5 the number of non-bearing Pinot Noir. Of course, there’s a lot more bearing acres of Cabernet (73,420) than bearing acres of Pinot Noir (25,737) in California. But Pinot Noir has been increasing in acreage literally twice as fast as Cabernet Sauvignon since 2000, and even faster post-Sideways. If that pace continues, Pinot’s acreage will equal Cabernet’s one of these days. (If I were handier with mathematics, I could tell you exactly when; maybe someone out there can figure it out.)

Anyway, the bottom line is that Pinot Noir is on a roll. It has become the most exciting wine type in California, red or white, and growers are betting the house on it.


Famously wrong predictions

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“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
– Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977

“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”
– H.M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927.

“Wine magazines are dead. Everything’s going online.”
– Just about everybody

We’ve all been pondering the future of wine writing vis a vis the Internet and/or print, and for all the verbiage, we’ve gotten exactly nowhere. Here’s what we know, or think we know:

- lots of stuff is migrating to the Internet
- “news” reporting, including wine reviewing, is becoming more democratic (with a small “d”) because everyone can Twitter, FB, blog
- younger people are doing everything digitally and since the future is theirs, print will shrink up and die
- no one has the slightest idea how to monetize the Internet, except the old-fashioned way, as Gary V. has shown: get paid for being famous, not for blogging

Nobody seems to be able to intellectually move beyond these bullet points, not even someone as savvy as Arianna Huffington. In a post she blogged last Friday, she admitted to being as in the dark as the rest of us concerning how a blog can make money. “[T]here is no question that, as the industry moves forward and we figure out the new rules of the road, there will be — and needs to be — a great deal of experimentation with new revenue models.” Great. I could have told her that.

Let me try one more time to peer into the future and see where this online/print thing is going. Let’s lift that heavy curtain and peer another millimeter or so down the line.

The year is 2013 (that’s about how long I think a good 2007 Pinot Noir will last, so it’s as far out as I’m willing to hazard a guess). There are still wine magazines around, including Wine Enthusiast. They remain important, because lots of people still get exposed to their reviews, not just by subscriptions, but pass-around copies, shelf talkers, email press releases, winery newsletters, citations in blogs and so on. (This is assuming the recession ends one of these days. If it doesn’t, it obliterates not only wine magazines and print journalism in general, but our way of life.)

There are still lots of blogs around, too. But wineries and advertisers don’t like working with an infinite number of people. They need to know who’s on the “A” list and who’s not. That there will be an “A” list, there can be no doubt, and the people on it will be taken seriously. They’ll get sent samples and invited to visit with the winemaker, their reviews will drive wine sales, and their names will be known to many people. By 2013, I don’t see any reason why a handful of bloggers won’t be serious rivals to the traditional wine press. (Obviously, the wine press will also be blogging. And we may need to come up with a new word instead of calling all online activity “blogging.”)

There. That advances things a half millimeter. Can I squeeze out one more tiny prediction? Try this. Once the recession is over, wine magazines, newly lean and mean, return to their positions of dominance. The kids who are all atwitter over Twitter grow up, get a little more conservative and traditional, and start subscribing to magazines again, just like their parents did. (Who knew?) What goes around comes around. Wine print journalism turns out not to be dead. Not even close.

That’s my prediction, and I’m sticking with it.

8-ball

DEPT. OF “HOW’S THAT, AGAIN???”

This just in from Forbes:

Eric Arnold, one of their writers, wrote an article called Ten Great International Wine Destinations, and included nothing from California! Instead, he indulges in some Napa-bashing, complaining about “near-standstill traffic On Highway 29,” and the always-trendy lament about the French Laundry. “‘Call [them] two months in advance, to the day, but you’ll probably get a busy tone.”

Come on, Eric. California wine country extends bey0nd Napa Valley — and there are great restaurants other than French Laundry — but maybe I’m asking too much of a writer for Forbes to comprehend that. You don’t like crowds? Fine. Ever heard of Russian River Valley? Santa Ynez Valley? Anderson Valley? Eric cites the writer, George Taber’s, book on wine tourism and advises his readers to “Go somewhere better” than Napa, to wit: Tuscany, the Douro, Central Otago, the Rhinegau and so on. Look, those are nice places, but they’re not “better” than Napa, or any one of California’s beautiful wine regions. It’s churlish to say that a “tranquil atmosphere and stunning scenery” don’t exist in California. Eric should know better.


It all makes sense in the long run

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Got away for a few days on assignment for Wine Enthusiast. It involved a lot of driving through Northern California wine country’s back roads. Except for the last day, when a cold front moved through bringing showers, the weather was gorgeous — pure California spring, with temps in the 80s and the most gloriously blue skies. At this time of the year, most of the vines are in budbreak — not all of them, depending on location and variety. Budbreak is a pretty sight, with the bunny-soft green buds so bright against the mahogany-brown of the vines. The mustard-flower blossoms are still a cheery yellow, purple lupine dots the hills and fields, and flowering fruit trees — cherries, apples, plums — add splotches of pink and white against the sky, like an Impressionist painting. The brooks, streams and rivers are in their final rush toward summer, carrying what precious little water has fallen this season out to sea, and all the little animals seem to have a new-born sense of freedom after the long, dark, cold days of winter. Squirrels are running around with nuts in their fat cheeks. Raptors swoon above the roads and fields, whether hunting out prey or just enjoying the giddiness, it’s hard to tell. I’ve seen the season’s first robins and butterflies, and while the nights still are chilly, the promise of California summer is just around the corner.

That’s the pleasure of getting away out into wine country. You forget your troubles, and the hassles of the big city: the noisy neighbor, the rumble of garbage trucks at 6 a.m., the lurid headlines announcing the latest murder. Where I was staying — one night in Mendocino, the next in Dry Creek Valley — was in little cottages in the middle of vineyards, so on both days I watched out my window as the field workers, almost all Mexican I presume, worked the vines, driving the pickup trucks and tractors and performing the eternal rites of farming.

The tasting rooms seemed to be doing all right. At one place, in the Russian River Valley, the lady working the bar told me she’d been mobbed all morning — and it was a Tuesday workday in the off-season. On the other hand, I stopped by the Booneville Hotel, where the proprietor said the restaurant was experiencing hard times due to the economy, and she was uncertain about what days they’ll be open this summer. I remember when people would drive for hours just to eat at the Booneville Hotel.

Stopped by unannounced to see Bob Cabral at Williams Selyem and was not surprised to learn he and his family are on vacation. Someplace warm and tropical, I hope. This is a good time for winemakers to travel for pleasure. Pretty soon, they’ll have their hands full, as the vineyards swing into serious mode, and all kinds of blending and when-to-bottle and when-to-release decisions have to be made. Then it culminates in the harvest, 2, 3 and even 4 weeks of non-stop, no-sleep frenzy. If you’re going to get to Hawaii or Puerto Vallarta or wherever, early Spring’s the time to do it.

I’m back in Oakland now, the same-old same-old. But the memories of my little drive through wine country refresh and revive me. I highly recommend it. Just jump in your car, get off the main roads (Highway 29 in Napa, Route 12 through Sonoma Valley) and out onto the back roads, and take your time. The age-old rhythms of wine country put it all into perspective; somehow, it all makes sense.

jimtownstore


The 2006 wines from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti

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Thanks to Wilson-Daniels I’ve been able to taste the new releases of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti nearly every year for the last twenty. (I remember back in the 1980s when the tasting was at Fleur de Lys restaurant, in San Francisco, where chef Hubert Keller would occasionally join us. Today, it was in a grand meeting room at the St. Francis Hotel.)

There’s something very churchlike about tasting DRC. I’m the first to poke fun at puffery and pretense, but a DRC tasting — especially with Aubert de Villaine presiding — really is something special. Yes, the hushed atmosphere and serious silence lend themselves to parody, but if ever there’s a wine event that approaches sanctity, it’s this one, even for a hard-boiled boozehound like me.

I won’t formally review the wines here, since France is the turf of my distinguished Wine Enthusiast colleague, the urbane Mr. Roger Voss. Suffice it to say that after all these decades of sampling DRC, the 2006s were the most classic in my experience, in the sense of each of the different bottlings tasting precisely as it is supposed to. Richebourg showed its authority and power yet also its sheer charm. La Tâche was enormous, gigantic, an impossibly large wine, but opulent and delicately refined. And then there’s Romanée-Conti itself. Coming right after the La Tâche, it seemed almost deferential, a David in the shadow of Goliath — not as dramatic or fleshy. But then, as Aubert pointed out, all the wines needed to breathe (they were poured straight into our glasses as we sipped, from bottles that had been opened only an hour before). As the Romanée-Conti took in air, it expanded and became something breath-taking. In Aubert’s words, “More than in any other year, this Romanée-Conti gathers and concentrates the characteristics of all the other wines.”

I had always wondered why the DRC presents Romanée-Conti, which is so delicate in many respects, after La Tâche; a case could certainly be made for reversing the order. This year, in the presence of distinguished writers and sommeliers, I mustered up the courage to ask Aubert. (You don’t want to ask a stupid question in such rarified company, although the truth is that there are no stupid questions. By the way, do you know how to tell the writers from the other members of the trade? We’re the ones without ties. Which reminds me: Why were 90 percent of those present men?)

Anyway, I asked Aubert, and here’s what he said: “Romanée-Conti is a feminine wine, and in a sense is moody.” [huge laugh from the audience] “It is very open, spheric, with length. La Tâche on the other hand is always more spectacular, direct, visible. I suppose that the size of La Tâche [tasted first] could hide the finesse of Romanée-Conti.” I thought he would follow that up with some kind of explanation of how he would allow Romanée-Conti’s finesse to be hidden, but he didn’t. Maybe he thought my question unworthy of a more detailed explanation. I think it’s mostly a matter of tradition to show La Tâche before Romanée-Conti. Certainly, if Aubert reversed the order, it would cause consternation among the Burghound crowd.

Aubert had other interesting things to say. “Forget about the idea of a great vintage versus a lesser vintage. They’re just different, each showing a different character. It’s like music: some years are symphonies, some are jazz.” He likened 2006 to “chamber music with more discrete notes.” Nice.

Someone asked a question about how barometric pressure affects wines. It seems that some people had detected differences during tastings in France, New York and, now, San Francisco. I thought, If we now have to worry about barometric pressure before we can drink wine, we’re in worse trouble than I thought. But it did bring up, indirectly, the question of bottle (or sensory) differentiation over time and place. Earlier, Aubert had actually revealed he’d discovered “deviations” from bottle to bottle in the 2006 Echézeaux.

Aubert always closes the red wine part of his DRC tasting with a treat: The new vintage of Montrachet. I must say the ‘06 was everything that fabled white Burgundy can be. It was a study in exquisite, dramatic tension: racy yet elegant — absolutely dazzling, but always refined and well-behaved — unctuous and oily, but firm and taut and dry. All 8 wines (Aubert also showed a wonderful Vosne-Romanée) are obvious cellar candidates. If you can afford them, they all, in their own ways, want a minimum of ten years, and in the cases of the bigger reds, 15, 20 and even 25 years are not out of the question. (The Vosne will be the earliest drinking, by this summer.) On the matter of ageability, the red wines, as Aubert pointed out, very shortly will enter into a period of “sleep,” a diminution that will last for many years. “We’re catching them [today] at the last minute when they’re showing their flesh. They will soon close.”

drc

By the way…

The forecast is for a really big storm to roll into California Saturday. Bigtime. And after that at least a week more of rain.This, after basically the last week of rain and showers. Could the drought be over? Stay tuned.


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