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.
* * *
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.
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!
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.
I was really surprised and saddened to learn yesterday, from a Facebook post by my friend Fred Swan, that the Hospice du Rhone event is pulling up stakes. After 20 years, HdR is no more.
It was the first great varietally-dedicated event in California. I used to go to HdR every year for Wine Enthusiast. I loved it. It had its own special feeling, held at the fairgrounds in Paso Robles, where they also have rodeos and summer rock concerts. HdR really was the model, I believe, for many other California wine events, including the World of Pinot Noir: large public tastings dedicated to a single family of wines, high-level seminars featuring great winemakers, and wonderful food. The Chardonnay Symposium is a direct inheritor of this heritage.
I read Fred’s article (in the link above), so all I know about the demise of HdR is what he wrote. He quoted John Alban, one of the event’s co-founders (and a great winemaker whom I covered in my last book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff), on one of the reasons for ending the event: “Hospice du Rhone needs to attract, respond to and employ a new generation. I really think it is that next generation that can tell us what they want. I think you’re going to see them transform it.”
Although I haven’t been to HdR for a couple years (I keep meaning to go, but something always comes up), I think I know what John means, though. The audience does seem to be an older one. I guess that’s only natural, since these events are fairly expensive: not just the price of admission, but hotels, travel expenses, meals and everything else. John is saying that these Rhône varieties have to catch onto Millennials, Xers and Yers, and perhaps HdR itself wasn’t really accomplishing that.
Lord knows, Rhône-style wines in California have their work cut out for them. I won’t even mention the Syrah-as-pneumonia jokes making the rounds. As for Grenache and Mourvedre, they can be good, but more often aren’t. I like some of the Chateauneuf-style blends, but they haven’t exactly caught fire. The whites–Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc–are gambles. The latter, Grenache Blanc, for my money is the best, overall. With Viognier, you never know what you’re getting. Sweet? Dry? Fruity? Minerally? Who knows?
I’ll miss HdR. California is poorer without it. According to the press release John and Vicki Carroll, HdR’s director, put out on the HdR website, HdR as an organization isn’t going anywhere; it’s just the annual event that’s ceasing. They say they plan to hold smaller events. I think that’s a great idea. I hope they can do a sort of road show, hitting major cities like New York, Miami, Chicago and San Francisco, maybe having tastings and food pairings at restaurants or wine bars. I don’t know exactly what the plan is to reach out to younger wine lovers. HdR has a blog, but no one seems to be keeping it current; the last post is dated Feb. 2. They have a Facebook business page, but like many FB business pages (including, sadly, my own) it’s pretty inert. You can also find them on Twitter.
I sincerely wish John, Vicki and all the other friends of HdR luck in the future.
I interviewed the great musician Boz Scaggs yesterday, and something he said made me think about how, sometimes, serendipity in the wine business pays off.
My full conversation with Boz will appear in an upcoming issue of Wine Enthusiast, so I don’t want to steal its thunder. The only part I’ll reveal is what Boz said when I asked him why he didn’t plant Cabernet Sauvignon instead of Rhône varieties on his property on Mount Veeder, a Napa mountain famed for the quality of its Cabs and Bordeaux blends.
“I wasn’t aware that it was!” was Boz’s reply. Instead, he put in the Rhônes, and I have to tell you his 2008 Scaggs Vineyard Montage GSM is an absolutely fabulous wine.
I imagine if someone had advised Boz that Mount Veeder was Cabernet country, he might have planted it instead, and the resulting wine no doubt would have been excellent. His property has great terroir, and Boz’s winemaker is the talented Ken Bernards (his brand is Ancien). We then would have had one more good Mount Veeder Cabernet, in addition to other great ones from Kendall-Jackson Highland Estates, Trinchero, Atlas Peak, Yates Family and Cuvaison. But we would not have had Boz’s Montage.
Who’s to say what other varieties could perform well on Mount Veeder, if only they were planted? Sky, a small winery on the mountain (I haven’t reviewed their wines for many years), made an outstanding Zinfandel; I hope they still do. So did Chateau Potelle; their VGS Zin off Veeder was absolutely one of the best in California. I don’t imagine there’s much Zin left on Mount Veeder, though, because it’s a tough sell.
There also used to be a winery, Veedercrest, up there that made one of the best Rieslings in California. It was so good, I bought it by the ton in the Eighties; it was a house fave. I don’t think Veedercrest exists anymore, and I seriously doubt anyone’s growing Riesling on Veeder; in all the years I’ve reviewed for Wine Enthusiast, I’ve yet to see a Veeder Riesling (although I’m sure if there’s any out there, someone will let me know!). If Americans cared about California Riesling, more people would grow it, and Mount Veeder would be a natural home. But that’s not the case.
Chardonnay, by the way, does well on Veeder, as evidenced by the likes of Mayacamas, Y Rousseau and those old Chateau Potelles. They’re steely, minerally Chardonnays, not fat, unctuous ones like you get from, say, Alexander Valley or Santa Rita Hills…the kind of Chardonnays that can take some bottle age and actually improve.
It’s true throughout California wine country that grape varieties that performed perfectly well have been ripped out and replaced, generally by Cabernet, Chardonnay or some other popular wine. I’ve struggled over the years about what to think of this. On the one hand, it’s sad. But on the other, the focus on Cabernet, Chardonnay, etc. has led to amazing progess in the quality of those wines. And if we look at every wine district in the world, they tend to be focused on one variety or family of varieties or, at most, a few families of varieties. Back in the day, Napa Valley had 20, 30 varieties or more, all intermingled. In some ways it was a more interesting period than today, but the wines weren’t as good.
And then along comes a Boz Scaggs, unaware of Veeder’s reputation for Cabernet, so he plants the Rhône varieties he loves instead, and voila! turns out a magical wine. (His Grenache rosé is no slouch either.) It’s wines like those that are so much fun to discover.