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Grenache Blanc’s time to shine

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I’ve been reviewing some really good Grenache Blancs lately that me me wonder if this isn’t the up and coming white variety in California.

Other critics, it seems to me, give more emphasis to Roussanne and Marsanne than they do to GB. But good as those wines can be, they’re sometimes too oaky or heavy in some way. GB on the other hand is usually unoaked or just neutrally oaked, and so pure and bright in fruit and acidity, it offers something for everyone.

For example, the Jaffurs Vineyard 2011 Grenache Blanc, from the Thompson Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley, is one of the best I’ve reviewed this year. It was 35% stainless steel fermented and 65% fermented in neutral oak, which must be responsible for the creamy, smoky notes. But you’d never say this wine is oaky because it isn’t. Also typical of the successful GBs, the wine did not complete the malolactic fermentation, which is the secret behind the bite of green apple acidity that is so cool and refreshing.

I always get orange and tangerine fruit in GBs, although judging by winemakers’ notes, others find everything from melons (cantaloupe and honeydew) to peaches and citron. I can’t imagine a Chardonnay lover not enjoying the richness of a good GB, but I also can’t imagine someone who likes a crisp Pinot Gris or Sauvignon Blanc turning it away. It’s right in that middle of the spectrum, light-bodied, light-hearted and low in alcohol. Makes you think of a summer day in a garden (which is how Hugh Johnson used to describe Rieslings, but it applies equally to GB).

Other fine producers include Zaca Mesa, Tangent, Coghlan, Stark, Tres Hermanos and Tercero. Note the prevalence of Santa Ynez Valley origins. There’s no question that this wonderful, warmish inland valley, in the heart of Santa Barbara’s wine country, has established itself as the capital of Rhône varieties, red and white, in California. The Thompson Vineyard, by the way, is from the Los Alamos Valley, which, I understand, will be an official appellation sooner or later. It’s a very interesting part of the greater Santa Ynez Valley. I think of it as wedged between the warmer, more famous stretches around Los Olivos, Santa Ynez town and Ballard, and the cooler Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills to the west. Los Alamos Valley, then, sits at the balancing point where the valley goes from cool to warm, which is always a nice place for a wine region to be. I suspect somebody could grow a nice Merlot down there, but I don’t know anyone who does, because it would be a hard sell.

If you’re ever down that way, make a quick visit to the funky little town of Los Alamos, which is on the west side of the Freeway. It has some  big antique shops to browse. Eat at Full of Life Flatbread Restaurant, which makes pizzas to dream about. All the local winemakers hang out there. They have a great local wine list. If I lived in the area, I’d be at Flatbread all the time.


Meet Jeb Dunnuck, Wine Advocate’s new Central Coast reviewer

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Official word from my source is that The Wine Advocate has hired its new reviewer for the California Central Coast as well as the Rhône Valley.

He’s Jeb Dunnuck. I had never heard of him, which means absolutely nothing. So I pulled out the old Google machine and here’s what I found out.

Jeb is best known for his publication, The Rhône Report ($59 a year), which describes itself as being “dedicated to all things Rhône.” Jeb, whose age I don’t know but he’s good looking (kind of like a young Parker, with a little Russell Crowe for good measure) and could be in his 30s, “grew up on a farm in rural Indiana,” and worked in London for a while, where he became interested in wine. He used to be a software engineer, wrote “the image processing software for two NASA programs” [how cool is that!], and eventually took a job “working evenings” at a liquor store in Denver to further his knowledge of what he calls “ITB” (“the In The Business”) crowd. These days, Jeb writes, “I’ve since stopped working in the wine business, clock my 40 hours writing software and then read, post, drink and think about wine at home. Like anything worth pursuing, wine enjoyment is a journey and not a destination. I currently live in Broomfield, CO with my lovely wife Traci and adorable pooch Abigail.”

That’s good. Dog people make the best wine critics.

I don’t have a subscription to The Rhone Report so I can’t tell you if I like Jeb’s writing, but I think I would. He’s clever with a phrase (La Peira en Damaisela is “the sine qua non of the Languedoc”), not afraid to be a kingmaker (it’s also “the leading estate in all the Languedoc and Roussillon.” If you think it’s easy coming out with a declaration like that, it’s not.), and has obviously been influenced by Parker, both in The Rhone Report’s structure and in Jeb’s rather straightforward, lucid writing style.

He’s active on twitter (1,496 followers), Facebook (1,427 friends, of which 371 are mutual with me), a Democrat (yay!), an atheist (not going there), likes Florence and the Machine, the Colbert Report and Dune, the book. His Facebook friends already are asking him if he’ll continue to write The Rhone Report; as of my writing this post, he has yet to respond. He tweeted earlier this year that the “top producers” in Paso Robles are “Saxum, l’Aventure, Epoch, Booker, Alta Colina, Denner, Terry Hoage, Villa Creek,” which perhaps is an indication of his palate. Big, ripe, fruity, high alcohol wines? That would be in keeping with Parker. In another tweet he had a big shoutout for the Melville 2010 Verna’s Syrah.

Jeb seems like he’s in the mold of Steven Tanzer and Allen “Burghound” Meadows, not a big media guy, but dedicated, professional and passionate–the kind of guy who can start a prestigiously small newsletter and be taken seriously by the collector crowd. That’s no mean feat, when there are scores of bloggers who wish they could do the same thing, but can’t. Robert Parker has chosen wisely, in my humble opinion. I congratulate Jeb on his new job, and am looking forward to meeting him.


Three cheers for Zaca Mesa!

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Forty years isn’t particularly old for a European winery, but in California, it’s positively Methuselean. A handful of wineries began in 1972—Caymus, Jordan, Silver Oak, Stag’s Leap, Edmeades—almost all of them in the North Coast. This was a time when viticulture in Santa Barbara County was mostly a gleam in people’s eyes; Richard Sanford was busy with his Pinot Noir, in the western Santa Ynez Valley region that’s now called the Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills. But inland the valley was still mainly cattle and horses.

In 1972, though, a group of friends bought some land in the Foxen Canyon region, north of Los Olivos. The next year they planted grapes to the usual mishmash: Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Chenin Blanc, Grenache and so on, “to see what would work,” as they say on Zaca Mesa’s website.
They hired a guy named Ken Brown as their first winemaker, then planted Syrah in 1978—the first planting of that variety in the county. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Zaca Mesa now is celebrating their birthday with some big events that will culminate in May with the 40th Anniversary Celebration.
What makes the winery so unique is not only its age and the quality of the wines, but the roster of winemakers who’ve worked there. It’s literally a who’s who of winemaking in Santa Barbara County: not just current winemaker Eric Mohseni, but Brown himself, who went on to establish Byron, Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climate), Bob Lindquist (Qupe), Daniel Gehrs, Adam Tolmac (Ojai), Chuck Carlson (Carlson), Benjamin Silver (Silver), Clay Brock (Wild Horse—the list goes on and on, making a stint at Zaca Mesa University almost a prerequisite for winemaking in the Central Coast.
I’ve been fortunate to be able to review Zaca Mesa’s wines for many years, and can say that few wineries anywhere have such a distinguished track record. The throwing-spaghetti-at-the-wall approach to see what would stick gradually evolved into a Rhône specialization, which in itself helped make the Santa Ynez Valley a hotbed of Rhône activity. (It’s fair to say that only one region specializes in Rhône-style wines, and that’s the Santa Ynez Valley.) Zaca Mesa’s top wine always is their Black Bear Estate Syrah, from a small block on the estate vineyard that was planted with cuttings from Hermitage. I don’t know if it’s the pedigree of the Chapoutier vineyard or the terroir of Santa Ynez Valley that makes this one of the greatest Syrahs in California, but it is. I gave the 2009 ($60) 96 points, but production was a mere 367 cases.
Other Zaca Mesa wines that always are good include the Z-Cuvée red blend (often a bargain), the fancier Z Three GSM and the Z Blanc, one of the better white Rhône blends in California.


White Rhône-style blends on the rise? Yes. And please take my reader survey

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First, huge thanks to all of you who took the time to fill out my reader survey yesterday. It had an unbelievable 117 responses the first day! If you still haven’t done it, you can click here to access it. I sure would appreciate it. In a few weeks, this information will help me figure out what to do with steveheimoff.com to make it better.

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I’m often asked which California wine type do I think has made the best improvement over the years. All of them, I usually say, because I think it’s true: California wine is better than I ever remember it, and I’ve been drinking it seriously (I mean studiously) for nigh on 35 years. (Does anyone under the age of 50 say “nigh on”? It means “almost,” of course, and comes from the old German word “Nahe” for “near.” Nahe” is also the name of the German wine region. Can anyone explain this connection? If you can, you get a free subscription to my blog.)

The problem with comparing wines separated by decades of time is that the comparison can only be done in memory, which is fallible. Did I really think David Arthur 2009 Elevation 1147 (99 points, $150), which I reviewed this summer, was better than a 1978 Clos du Val Cabernet (price and alcohol level unrecorded), which I had when it was a few years old? I didn’t rate the latter wine; why would I, years before I became a wine critic? But, to judge by my notes in my Tasting Diary, I thought it was superb (“Gorgeous, beautiful, tannic, but opulent, full of fruit and glycerine. Wish I had waited another 4-5 years [to open]”).

That I found both of these wines superlative, separated by nearly 30 years, is evident, so how can I say that one was better than the other? After all, if the Clos du Val actually was better–and had I been scoring it–I would have had to give it 100 points! So this illustrates some of the pitfalls in saying “California wines are getting better.”

This question of “Are California wines getting better” also arises during discussions of “score inflation” that pop up from time to time. If my scores are higher than they used to be (and they are a little, as Wine Enthusiast’s database shows), a rational explanation is that the wines have improved. However, an equally rational explanation is that my “palate” has changed in some way that prompts me to rate the wines higher. Or perhaps something in my mind has changed, which then influences my palate. It’s hard to say. To further confuse things, there are plenty of people (the anti-high alcohol crowd) who argue that California wines actually are worse than they used to be. They might accuse my palate (and those of critics like me) of having become jaded by these ultra-rich wines, so that anything with finesse or subtlety doesn’t get noticed.

Let’s take a step back. Strictly objectively, you’d have to say that California wines are better than they used to be because they’re less flawed. Fewer bad corks, cleaner wines due to cleaner wineries, healthier rootstocks and plant material, more grapes organically or sustainably grown, and so on.

So you can see that the simple statement “California wine are better than they used to be” is not so simple after all. It’s rather like asking, “Is America better than it used to be?” People of different ages and backgrounds will have all sorts of opinions, but nothing is provable, the way a mathematical equation (2+2=4) is provable to everyone’s satisfaction.

Still, I’d say California wines are better than they used to be. Can’t prove it. Just my opinion. Sue me if you disagree.

Having said that, it got me thinking about what wine type has improved (or seems to have improved) the most over the years. The answer, obviously, is Pinot Noir, but we all know that. Is there another type that’s less obvious? Yes: white Rhône-style blends. I’ve given more high scores to them in the last several years than ever before. Why this should be so, I think, is due to grapegrowers’ ability to better farm these often difficult varietals, and to winemakers’ increasing understanding of how to properly blend this family of grapes, which includes Roussanne, Marsanne, Picpoul Blanc, Grenache Blanc and Viognier.

A California white Rhône blend should be rich, fruity and balanced, although it will seldom equal the opulence of a great barrel-fermented Chardonnay. But the best of them are able to support some oak. Firmer than Chardonnay, nuttier and more floral, with more backbone, they pair well with a wider range of food than does Chardonnay. Some of the better ones I’ve had lately have been Krupp Brothers 2008 Black Bart’s Bride Marsanne-Viognier, Tablas Creek’s 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc and 2011 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (a nice value), Adelaida 2010 The Glenrose Vineyard “Version,” Calcareous 2009 Viognier-Marsanne, Demetria 2009 Cuvée Papou and Kiamie 2009 White Kuvée. Interesting that so many of them come from Paso Robles. Could a cool vintage in a hot climate be just what a white Rhône blend wants?

There still aren’t many of these wines produced. Statewide acreage of Viognier, the most widely-planted white Rhône variety, in 2011 was only 3,020, barely one-thirtieth that of Chardonnay, so the wines must necessarily be rare. Nor do they command particularly high prices, except for cult examples like Alban and Sanguis.

Still, the winemakers committed to making these wines are passionate. White Rhône-style wines haven’t made much of a dent on the national radar, yet; but sommeliers are well aware of them, and so are critics. They could be the Next Big Thing in white wine.


Syrah vs. Cabernet: no comparison

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A few days ago, I blogged on how Cabernet is more forgiving of slight problems than Pinot Noir, because it’s more tannic and fuller-bodied, whereas Pinot’s transparency reveals the slightest flaw.

Adam Lee, the co-proprietor (with his wife, Dianna) of Siduri and Novy, wrote in to ask if I think Syrah also covers its flaws, since it’s a full-bodied, somewhat heavy wine, like Cabernet. I replied, “my sense is that Syrah has more faults to begin with than Cabernet and doesn’t do a good job at all of hiding them.”

A tasting yesterday of coastal California Syrahs confirmed that impression. Although all the wines had good fruit, each displayed problems significant enough to keep the scores well below 90 points. In some cases, particularly along the Central Coast, acidity was too high, making the wines sour. In several cases, I detected the unmistakable smell of brettanomyces–that funky, disagreeable odor of stinky armpits. Now, a touch of brett doesn’t bother me, but on some of yesterday’s wines, it was so strong that, on the wine with the most powerful brett smell, my head actually recoiled as soon as I inhaled from the glass, and I had the fleeting sensation of whiplash. (That would be an interesting lawsuit: Wine critic sues winery over neck injury caused by ‘stinky’ wine”)

Even the best Syrah from yesterday’s tasting couldn’t rise above a certain simplicity. All jammy fruit and oak, no depth or complexity.

I went and looked at my Syrah scores since early summer, and, while there were a handful in the 92-95 point range, most suffered from one or more of the defects I mentioned above. It needs to be said that many of these Syrahs were not expensive: let’s say, they fell into the $20-$40 range. Yes, that’s not exactly an everyday price for most consumers, but it’s nowhere near what the best Cabernet costs these days, so I guess you get what you pay for.

It’s always a chicken-and-egg question with Syrah, whether it would be better if vintners could charge more for it, or whether they could charge more if it were better. Certainly, if you know the most you can wholesale your Syrah for is $12-$15, you’re going to cut a few corners. You’ll want to maximize yield, not invest in new barrels, and maybe be less discerning during the sorting process. When you can charge a lot of money for your wine–say you’re Jayson Woodbridge, at Hundred Acre ($300 a bottle for Cabernet)–you do whatever it takes to make the wine great.

Syrah’s easy to grow almost anywhere, just like Cabernet. It’s not a particularly fussy grape, like Pinot Noir or even Zinfandel, which ripens notoriously unevenly. Stick Syrah in the ground and you’ll usually get some pretty good grapes. In some ways it’s even more versatile than Cabernet, because it will grow in cool climates (Carneros, Sta. Rita Hills) or warm ones (Napa Valley, Paso Robles), and you can produce good wines from both regions.

The problem seems to be that price point. Syrah is stuck. Winemakers can’t raise the price, which means they can’t raise quality. That’s an awful place to be, for any product. It’s almost as if consumers intuit Syrah’s problems and shy away from it. Certainly, all the Syrah jokes (comparisons with pneumonia and V.D.) are tragicomedies with real world consequences. Syrah is a noble variety and can do astounding things. But it’s not going to in California as long as those price and quality wheels are stuck in the muddy ditch. I don’t know what the answer is, but I’ll also say this: I do not think that Rhône red blends are the next big thing. If anything is harder to get right in California than Syrah, it’s Grenache and Mourvedre!


Further musings on Syrah/Rhone-style wines

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Considering that Rhone-style wines from California are such a hard sell, it’s strange that Rhone Valley wines–real ones, from France–“celebrated record levels of growth in the U.S.,” according to Inter Rhone, a marketing group, as reported here on Yahoo Finance.

The brief report doesn’t specify which appellations in the vast Rhone Valley so many Americans are buying, except it adds, almost as a side note, that “wines in the $10-$20 segment” are popular, which leads me to believe they’re from the Cotes du Rhone, (including Villages), Luberon, Vacqueyras, perhaps Crozes Hermitages and places like that, rather than the higher quality and pricier Gigondas, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Saint-Joseph and Hermitage.

Well, nothing unusual about that. More Americans buy cheaper wines from the Central Valley than cult Napa Valley Cabernets.

But why are they opting for Rhone Valley wines while spurning California Rhone-style wines? That’s the question.

That Syrah and its sisters are hard sells in this country is largely anecdotal, but the anecdotes are frequent and convincing. Planted acreage of Syrah in California actually fell between 2009-2011, as it did for Grenache. (Mourvedre held its own in those years.) This was, I suspect, because growers budded their Syrah and Grenache over to more sellable varieties, such as–climate permitting–Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon.

The answer is complex, but it can be boiled down to two factors: the continuing appeal of French wines to American wine consumers who may not have particularly sophisticated palates, but know what they like; and the sad fact that so many California Rhone-style wines just aren’t very good.

The appeal of French wines is longstanding and understandable. When you put it together with a price between $10-$20, you’ve got a marketing green light. The lighter alcohol of French wines also appeals to many supermarket buyers (which is where most of these wines are sold), who are looking for a medium-bodied, dry red wine to drink with roasted chicken, a backyard barbecue of steak and burgers, or even Mexican food.

California Rhone-style wines on the other hand are often heavy-handed, clumsily sweet and sometimes even vegetal (given the difficulties of ripening Mourvedre and Grenache). Since January, 2011, I’ve tasted about 100 of what could be called “Cotes-du-Rhone”-style bottlings, and gave 90 points or higher only to ten (my highest score was a Sanguis 2008 “Endangered Species,” but then, it costs $70 retail). More typical was a Paso Robles blend, which I won’t name, that was “soft, sweet and unripe.” I scored it 81 points.

There are far more varietal Syrahs bottled than Rhone-style blends, which means far more high-scoring Syrahs, such as almost anything from Qupe, Failla and Donelan. But these are destination wines: pricy, beyond the means of the average American, and even at its absolute best, California Syrah is, well, a peculiar wine. It’s full-bodied, but not as much so as Cabernet Sauvignon; velvety and soft, but so is Merlot, which has better structure; and rich in fruit (but what well-made California wine isn’t?). Dramatic, yes, even stunning, but a one-off, like a men’s velvet smoking jacket or (to drag in a culinary metaphor), a rich soufflé with shaved truffle: not something you wear or eat every day.

Hooray for the Rhone Valley people, I say, for making good wines at an affordable price. I used to drink a lot of Cotes-du-Rhone myself, back in the day (not to mention the Languedoc), and if I didn’t have this gig, I’d probably still be drinking it.


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