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.
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.”
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.
Monday was the 350th birthday of South Africa’s wine industry. The country is the world’s ninth biggest wine producer, and Wines of South Africa (WOSA), a trade group, is hoping to “reach a million people…worldwide” in promoting its wines.
Have you ever bought a South African wine? Neither have I. That’s exactly the problem for the South African wine industry, which has formed a brand new trade group, USA [Union of South Africa] Producer Association (USAPA), to promote consumption of South African wines here in the States.
The 100-member trade group, which had its first meeting on Jan. 20, the same day Barack Obama was inaugurated, could well have adopted the President’s catch-phrase of “Yes, we can.” Their stated aim: “to build a South African presence in the US market, set to become the biggest wine importer by 2012. We believe our mutual co-operation will help considerably to augment the impact of the South African wine category in this exciting market.” The South Africans have a certain resentment toward their fellow Commonwealth brethren, the Australians, “who just over a decade ago were only a fraction of the size of the South African industry,” but who conquered the American market through their Shirazes, Chardonnays and Yellow Tails. “Perhaps the time is ripe, now that Australia is starting to lose…consumers…, to make a relatively bigger noise in the right corners of the US market,” concludes a South African marketing guru, Greg Castle. He suggests appealing to “those [Americans] in more open minded wine circles, less blindly brand loyal to Californian or French wines; opinion leaders prepared to explore and try something new.”
Well, this is all well and good, and Castle and the South Africans are doing what they should be doing in promoting their country’s wines. But South Africa has a long way to go before it hits pay dirt the way Australia and New Zealand did in America. For one thing, South Africa has no particular image to hang its wines on, as Australia did and does. Australia is Oz, the Land Down Under, populated by friendly, grinning, good-looking types who toss shrimp on the barbie and who, descended from criminals, have a roguishness that appeals to Americans. But what is South Africa famous for, except (bless him) Nelson Mandela?
Then too, South Africa hasn’t attached its name to any particular wine types that aren’t already famous from other countries, with the possible exception of Pinotage — and who cares about Pinotage? Their Chenin Blancs are good, but I don’t see America being overwhelmed with Chenin Blanc-mania.
I don’t taste a lot of South African wines, so I went to Wine Enthusiast’s database to see what our other editors — primarily Roger Voss — think. Roger’s top-rated South African wines mostly are expensive ($30-$93), which is not the best way to break into the recessionary U.S. market. Castle wrote that “Once [Americans] get to try ‘Brand South Africa’, it must be ensured that they are suitably impressed by the value for money (not to be confused with cheap price) relative to the exceptional quality,” but it is not clear to me that “value for money” is a distinguishing feature of South African wines, the way it is with, say, Chile. Shifting “brand loyalty” is one of the most difficult tasks facing marketers, especially when economic times are uncertain; people tend to stick to the tried-and-true.
Finally, Americans already face a bewilderingly vast array of countries that produce good wine. They’ve shown their willingness to expand beyond California (and old Europe) to Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina, not to mention wines from their own backyards; all 50 States now possess bonded wineries. So I just don’t see U.S. consumers embracing wines from South Africa in any number. I could be wrong.
If I were giving the South Africans advice, it would be to personalize their wines, to attach them to a famous individual, a celebrity endorser, so to speak. In 21st century America, the way for trends to start is through stars. And South Africa could do no better than President Obama, who famously celebrated his November electoral victory by popping open some Graham Beck Brut, a South African methode champenoise bubbly. USAPA ought to be announcing that in every corner of the U.S. market.
Paso expansion goes through
Last Nov. I blogged on a petition to expand the Paso Robles AVA by 2,635 acres — about 4% of the current total — in a cooler region that’s a little closer to the Pacific Ocean. This was during a period of confusion at the Tax and Trade Bureau, the arm of the Treasury Department that approves AVAs. Well, effective Feb. 20, the TTB approved the expansion, according to their press release, based on the usual parameters of climate, geology and soils. I don’t really care one way or another. Its just one more AVA expansion; there have been many before, there will be many to come. The key sentence in the TTB’s statement is “After careful review of the petition and comments  received, TTB finds that the evidence submitted supports the expansion…”.
Now, anyone who’s ever worked in a government office (and I used to) knows how they work. This is from the same Federal govenment that “reviewed” Bernie Madoff’s outfit and found nothing out of order! I can imagine how the discussion went in the TTB’s AVA branch:
Boss: Jim, I want you to carefully review this Paso petition.
Jim: But boss, I’m swamped! I’ve got Leona, Calistoga, Snipes Mountain and Tulocay on my plate — and you just fired my assistant.
Boss: Well, times are tough. Have your decision to me by the end of January.
[Later that night]
Jim [to wife]: Honey, he wants me to do another expansion. This *&%$# is killing me. How am I supposed to get my work done when I don’t have any help?
Wife: Did any of the commenters object?
Jim: Out of 7 comments, only one.
Wife: Was it an important person?
Jim: No, just somebody little.
Wife: Well, screw it then. Approve it, and say you were really careful to examine all the evidence.
Jim: Gee, I guess you’re right. Hey, what’s for supper?
At Wine Enthusiast’s recent Wine Star Awards, which I reported on yesterday, one item making the conversational rounds was the dismal state of affairs in Australia’s wine industry. “Too many grapes” seemed to be the conventional wisdom. It’s the old story of supply and demand. Poor Australia.
Wine judges “inconsistent”? Say it isn’t so!
The recent issue of Wines & Vines reports on a new survey suggesting that wine judges are inconsistent when it comes to judging big competitions like the California State Fair. For example, the judges on one panel were given the same wine three times, without knowing it. They rejected it the first two times, then loved it the third time. It went on to receive a double-gold medal. How embarrassing!
Yet how true. It’s not only judging panels that can be inconsistent. So, too, can individual judges, a truth I’ve pointed out here many times. There’s no loss of face if you rate a wine different ways at different times. Anybody who tells you a judge should give the same rating to a wine over multiple exposures is lying, or seriously misled. That’s why wine judging should be taken for what it is: A considered opinion at a particular time and place. It’s just like a movie review, in which the reviewer can change his mind at a second showing. Does that mean wine reviews are irrelevant? No. They’re have some value — and an individual wine review is better than a panel, which is why I’ve never participated in any of these big fairs, and never will.
A bare majority of the voting members of the Russian River Valley Winegrowers (RRVW) trade association cast ballots last week to oppose Gallo’s proposed expansion of the Russian River Valley AVA, but the vote was far from unanimous, and fewer than one-third of the membership even bothered to vote. (I blogged on proposed expansion on Nov. 20).
A Dec. 10 letter reporting the results, sent by the RRVW to the Tax and Trade Bureau, reveals that, of the RRVW’s 380 members, only 114 actually voted. Of those who voted, 71 were against the expansion, 18 in favor, and 25 cast a “neutral/withhold” vote.
That’s not exactly a ringing condemnation of Gallo’s proposal, although it is technically true, as a RRVW press release stated, that “Members of the Russian River Valley Winegrowers voted Tuesday to join the Russian River Boundary Integrity Coalition in opposition to a proposed expansion of the famous AVA.” That press release also called into question Gallo’s contention that the proposed expansion area, which is within the Petaluma Gap, has a climate similar to that of the current Russian River Valley AVA. “[T]he area in question was part of the ‘Petaluma Chicken Belt’ because it was really too cold to grow the prunes and apples that were the foundation of the area now known as the Russian River AVA,” it says.
A spokesperson for the RRVW, Paige Poulos, said the organization has no problem with a Petaluma Gap appellation. There is a Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance, but there’s no sign that anyone has begun the lengthy and expensive process of applying for a new AVA to the TTB. The leading AVA drafter in Northern California, Patrick Shabram, told me, “As far as I know, a petition has never been submitted to make it an AVA.”
Whatever the TTB ultimately decides concerning the Russian River Valley expansion, an appeal is likely, given the vehemence on both sides. An appeal has to go through complex TTB levels, each of which has long (45-90 days) time periods. Ultimately, a plea for appeal can be brought before the Federal courts, but only after the applicant has exhausted all TTB avenues.
CORRECTION: The spokesperson for the Russian River Valley Winegrowers is Chris Donatiello, not Paige Poulos. I regret any inconvenience caused.
One regional tasting I like to attend each year is Appellation St. Helena’s. Held last Tuesday, it’s a sitdown tasting in the Rudd Center at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, in a room ideal for tasting. The attendees are low in number (about 30), but high in knowledge, and they include many old colleagues. (It’s the one day a year I’m guaranteed to run into Dan Berger!)
The reason regions host media and trade tastings is simple: To make the argument that they’re worthy of their AVA designation. This is as much a political and economic point as it is one of pure terroir. In St. Helena’s case, I’ve always felt they have a little of that Rodney Dangerfield “I don’t get no respect” attitude. Oakville and Rutherford are more famous — I’m not saying deservedly so, just that it’s a fact. Calistoga isn’t more famous than St. Helena (except among mudbath aficionados) and so isn’t as much of a threat. Yountville hardly seems to count, as least from a Cabernet Sauvignon point of view. Then there are the Napa mountains, but comparing a village along Highway 29 to the mountains is apples and oranges. No, it’s Oakville and Rutherford that St. Helena is hard pressed to compete with and distinguish itself from, which explains why, every year preceding the tasting, the audience is treated to an overview of St. Helena’s terroir and how different it is from the two communes just to the southeast.
In these presentations, the speaker[s] always try to present their appellations in the best possible light, maximizing whatever makes them unique and minimizing those factors that resemble other growing regions. If it’s true that St. Helena is 5-1/2 degrees warmer on average than Rutherford, and 11-1/2 degrees warmer than Oakville (according to Flora Springs’ vineyard manager, Pat Garvey, but that seems way too high to me), it’s also true that the Cabernets and Bordeaux blends from Napa Valley tend to be more alike than not (variations of quality notwithstanding), and the efforts by promoters to create huge differences between them are often unbelievable. It’s easy, for example, to say that Oakville Cabs tend more toward blue and black stone fruits and berries, and Rutherford Cabs toward red ones, until you have a Cask Cabernet from Niebaum-Coppola, which is all blackcurrants despite its Rutherford location.
There are awesome Cabernets and blends with a St. Helena appellation that are as compelling as anything from anywhere in Napa Valley. Among my favorite wineries over the years have been Vineyard 29, various Duckhorn and Nickel & Nickel bottlings, Salvestrin, Whitehall Lane, Ehlers Estate, Hourglass, and anything from the Sacrashe Vineyard. Spotteswoode always is delicious and the 2005 was a masterpiece. If there’s a way to summarize St. Helena Cabernet (and there will be exceptions to every rule), they tend to be soft and dry, sometimes fleshy, fruity, and always firm in tannins. The best of the 2005s are eminently ageable: Anomaly, Crocker & Starr Stone Place, Flora Springs Rennie Reserve and Wolf, in addition to those mentioned above.