I’m reading Benjamin Lewin MW’s new book, Wines of France, and as usual with his books, there’s more thoughtful information packed into almost every paragraph than most other wine books contain in 100 pages.
I’ll have a more complete review in a few weeks, but for now I want to comment on the role of geological faults in Burgundy and in Northern California. As Lewin writes, “Burgundy is a land of faults that create intricate variations in terroir.” The major fault, the Saône, runs down the length of the Cote d’Or; the famous Route Nationale 74 more or less marks it.
The major terroir features that the fault contributes to the Cote d’Or are the hills themselves that are oriented towards the southeast, from where they pick up that beautiful morning sun. The fault also has brought, through uplifting I would imagine, limestone close enough to the surface for the vine roots to touch it, especially mid-slope, which is where the Premier and Grand Crus are.
Yet, to a Californian, to say that the Saône Fault has created “intricate variations in terroir” is almost laughable. Compared to, say, Sonoma County’s, the Cote d’Or’s terroir is as simple as a child’s toy. Where the Cote’s soils are (as Lewin writes) a mixture of various types of limestone and marl (clay and shale), the soils of Sonoma County are complex almost beyond understanding, encompassing everything from volcanic debris to ancient bedrock, sand, pebbles, dust and clay. And where the Cote is geometrically simple to visualize (close your eyes and try it), Sonoma County is a mass of jumbled hills, valleys, swales, cliffs, riverside flatlands and orientations. It defies visualization.
Our relevant fault system in California is the San Andreas. My friend, the well-known wine writer Bob Thompson, once described these soils as a “slagheap,” a word that only begins to describe the cluttered mess. It is often said that Sonoma County contains more soil types than all of France—I may be mis-remembering the specific reference, and I’m hoping someone will point me in the right direction. But you get the point. Walk ten feet from any given spot, and the soils (structure and chemistry) under your feet will change, sometimes drastically.
So if the Cote d’Or displays “intricate variations in terroir,” we’d have to search for a word for the terroir of Sonoma County that means “intricate on steroids.” This is the main reason why the Russian River Valley will never be classified according to vineyards in the orderly, logical way that the Cote d’Or has been. It cannot be done, because there is no pattern to the soils.
The climate is another matter. It is relatively easily explainable throughout Sonoma County. But climate alone cannot be the basis of terroir; indeed, climate plays a minor role in Burgundy, where soil is King (or Queen). There is something decidedly American about the disorderliness of Sonoma County. It’s untidy, a mélange. The French dislike untidiness; it goes against their grain for organization and classification. Lucky they were to have, in the Cote d’Or, a place that really can be organized and classified by soils. They would go crazy if they had to deal with Sonoma.
I doubt if the notion of terroir would have developed the way it has, if the wine world had been centered on California, instead of France. The French not only are obsessive organizers and classifiers, they also possess a sometimes exaggerated patriotism that can verge on chauvinistic. They feel that France is the supreme nation (I am not prepared to disagree in some respects), and, once they realized that the limestone and slopes of the Cote d’Or were responsible for the fabulousness of the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, they rightfully coined the concept of terroir to imply that no where else in the whole world—no country, no state, no region—could ever match the Cote d’Or in quality, because the Cote d’Or is, by definition, the place that it is, and no other place on earth can be identical to it. This is a redundant truth, and it is not entirely false. But it also is not entirely true. Great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay can be grown elsewhere. And it also is not entirely true that California cannot produce Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs that rival those of Burgundy, and can be very difficult to discern from Burgundy. What, then, does this do to the very notion of terroir? It suggests that all terroirs are equal (in a political sense, like the members of the United Nations all are equal), although, to torture George Orwell, “All terroirs are equal, but some terroirs are more equal than others.”
Hearty congrats to the first ever Sonoma County Barrel Auction, which raised a respectable $461,000 last Friday, under the big tent at the Vintner’s Inn, on Fulton Road in the gorgeous Russian River Valley.
I was there representing Stonestreet. That was fun, but even better was running into so many old friends, folks who’ve been there for and beside me for so long. Here are some photos of a few of them, with some memories.
Rod Berglund is the winemaker and co-owner of Joseph Swan Vineyards.
We probably met in the 1990s, but I got to know him better when I wrote A Wine Journey along the Russian River, in 2003-2004. Rod helped me with some history, including tales of the late, great Joe Swan himself, and, of course, Rod’s wines at Swan are nonpareil. They define the terroir of the southern, Laguna part of the Russian River Valley.
Everybody in wine country knows and loves George Rose.
He’s a great picture-taker of rock stars and sunsets and vineyards, and, as I sometimes tease him, he seems to pop up everywhere these days, the Zelig of photographers. George also is one of the best-liked personalities in our industry. Whenever we run into each other, he makes me feel better.
The immortal Greg LaFollette seems to have been central to Sonoma’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay scene forever.
I’ve enjoyed, and given high scores to, his wines for twenty years, and also come to develop a great affection for this shy, smiling gentleman, who surely will go down in history as a pioneer.
I met Lisa Mattson in the early 2000s, I think.
Since then, she’s gone on to great success as Jordan’s effective communications ambassador, and particularly for her innovative videos. Lovely and charming, Lisa is a woman of great integrity and character.
In the case of Jim Gordon, I do remember precisely our first meeting.
He and Kim Marcus invited me to lunch in San Francisco when I was pestering them to hire me at Wine Spectator. Jim did, thus giving me my first big break as a wine writer. Since then he’s gone on to edit Wines & Vines, and, in an ironical twist, now covers part of my old territory as a reviewer for Wine Enthusiast. Thanks, Jim, for taking a gamble on me!
Tim McDonald is in that same league as George Rose, one of wine country’s inimitable presences.
Wry and witty, urbane and uber-smart, and a great success as a P.R. guy, Tim has been a happy presence in my career almost from the beginning.
By the way, the Anakota 2014 they poured at the barrel auction was spectacular. It really blew me away, a potentially perfect wine.
This man surely needs no introduction. He is Adam Strum, my former boss at Wine Enthusiast,
who hired me way back when, after I parted company with Wine Spectator. We’ve been through a lot together. Adam, thank you. We really have got to “do” lunch one of these days!
Ted Seghesio is the winemaker at Seghesio Family Vineyards.
I met him when I was writing A Wine Journey. But even before that, I adored his wines, which for me define Sonoma County Zinfandel and old vine field blends. His “Venom” Sangiovese, from the Rattlesnake Hill Vineyard, is just about the best in California.
Now, here are two very special people. Jean-Charles Boisset (on my right) is a quiet, unassuming man, not the sort to draw attention to himself. But seriously, folks, nobody in wine country brings more joy and laughter than JCB, and he’s done remarkable things with De Loach, Buena Vista and Raymond. I love you, man, but do be careful next time you pretend-punch me in the solar plexus. You might lose your hand! As for Bob Cabral (on my left), what can I say that hasn’t been said more eloquently about his talents. He was so kind to me when I was writing A Wine Journey, and we’ve remained friends since. Sweet, gentle, and one of the premier winemakers of the world, Bob is a winemaker’s winemaker and a true icon. I wish Bob (and I know we all do) great good fortune in his new gig at Three Sticks.
And here’s a new friend, Mike Osborn, who founded wine.com.
We met a while back when we did a Zinfandel tasting at his S.F. headquarters. Not only is he a lovely man and a fabulous entrepreneur, he’s got the world’s best smile, and is a fellow Oaklander! Mike, let’s have that meal we’re always talking about. How about Boot & Shoe?
Well, I could have taken pictures of 50 other people who were at the auction. As I read over what I’ve written here, it sounds a bit over-the-top in encomiums, but I meant every word. I’m very grateful for the people in the wine biz who have enriched my life. Thanks to all of you!
On Friday, when you read this, I’ll be up in Santa Rosa, at John Ash & Co., pouring wine for Jackson Family Wines at the Sonoma County Barrel Auction (which by the way raises lots of money for charity).
The wine I’m responsible for is Stonestreet 2012 West Ledge, a blend of 95% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Malbec. It’s a special blend, i.e., non-commercial, as is the habit for wineries at these specialized barrel auctions, where folks who drop big bucks want something unique.
I like pouring wine for people, interacting with the public and in general yakking it up. In my previous job as a wine critic, much of my time was quite solitary, so I always welcomed these occasions when you get to mix it up with people. I will admit to getting a little nervous before I go “on,” not so much for an event like the barrel auction, which is pretty informal, but for standup things, like presenting wine to an audience, large or small. For example, last week, in Maine, I did a dinner for about 100 people, and was a little on edge right before I took the floor. But I know that I do that to myself, and I know that it’s quite common, so it’s okay. I’ve read numerous interviews with theatre actors and they almost always admit to feeling a little queasy in the belly right before taking the stage. That’s par for the course, human nature. The trick is to shed that nervousness as soon as your shtick begins. For me, that’s not too hard, fortunately. (Of course, it helps to be prepared!)
Besides, I think a slight case of nerves serves a purpose. It makes you gird your loins. Who was it that said “When a man knows he’s about to be hanged, it concentrates the mind”? Not that I’m comparing public speaking to being hanged, but a mild case of the jitters does cause me to focus intensely on what’s coming. It’s like being spring-loaded: as soon as the spring is released, the tension ebbs.
Communicating to the public about wine forces you to think on your feet. You have to gauge—quickly—where someone is coming from. Is the person a total amateur? An expert? Trade or consumer? And you have to be able to have an intelligent conversation with all of them (provided they want to have a conversation with you. You never want to force yourself on people). But above all, you have to be enjoying yourself. I’ve been served by pourers who hated what they were doing, or were bored out of their minds. Not a good thing.
By the way, many of you have expressed interest in how Gus is doing. He suffered a ruptured anal sac, which is not as bad as it sounds. Some dogs, especially small ones, get impacted glands (this is the organ that dogs use to spray and mark with), and on occasion, the impacted gland bursts. The solution is antibiotics, but since dogs will chew on irritations, we have to keep Gus from doing that until the thing heals. Ergo, the blow-up collar.
The great thing about dogs is how well they adapt. Gus didn’t like the collar at all yesterday. He was practically catatonic. But today, he hardly notices it. That’s the thing about dogs: They don’t sit there and stress over stuff. They are the ultimate optimists. All Gus asks for is love, and in turn, he gives me unconditional love.
Meanwhile, the Great Drought goes on. Wildfires, smoke taint, it’s going to be a long, hot summer.
The most interesting quote in the Napa Valley Register’s article on the 30th birthday of the Carneros Wine Alliance is from David Graves. The co-founder of Saintsbury said, “There’s no ‘Napa of pinot noir.’ No one place dominates the market.”
Isn’t it interesting how the cultural evolution of the market has treated our two leading red wine types so differently? One, Cabernet Sauvignon, has become almost exclusively dominated, in the mind of the consumer, with a single appellation: Napa Valley. The other, Pinot Noir, resists being associated with a dominating region. Indeed, if you were to ask leading wine critics, What is California’s top Pinot Noir appellation, they would tell you the question makes no sense.
Beyond being merely of academic interest, this is a pocketbook issue. How much a winery gets for its wine (and how much, in turn, the consumer pays for it) are intimately linked with the wine’s origin. While the average statewide price for a ton of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in 2013 was $1,339, in Napa Valley it was $5,469, a difference of 308 percent. Pragmatically, this is why the average bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet is many times higher that the average bottle of Cabernet from, say, Alexander Valley.
This is not true of Pinot Noir, whose price tends to be more consistent across all the top coastal growing areas. Here are some examples, all reflective of the price of a ton of grapes in 2013:
Santa Barbara/San Luis Obispo: $2,586
Indeed, as I have long suggested, when it comes to Pinot Noir, it is somewhat misleading to focus on individual growing regions. Instead, the way to look at things is that we have a single Pinot Noir terroir that stretches from Anderson Valley down to Santa Barbara County, extending inland perhaps 20 miles. No single A.V.A. within this vast stretch can plausibly pretend to supremacy because, in truth, all of them are roughly equal, although, of course, wine writers and critics make their livings discerning differences within the similarities.
In the case of Napa’s lopsided price for Cabernet, this cannot be credited to matters of terroir. Napa Valley demonstrably is not the best, only place to grow qualitatively significant Cabernet Sauvignon in California. Alexander Valley has equal precedence. So too do the Santa Cruz Mountains, Paso Robles, the easternmost parts of Santa Barbara, Lake County and other regions of Sonoma County, including Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Knights Valley and Chalk Hill. (I refer, in all cases, to the top wines.) I don’t think any critic who’s being objective would object when I say that prime Cabernet growing areas in California are at least as widespread as those for prime Pinot Noir.
Why, then, the incredible price differential on behalf of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon? One reason and one reason only: perception. Napa Valley is perceived as being the best place to grow Cabernet. That perception clearly impacts the choice of consumers (and the restaurateurs and merchants who sell wine to them), but it also distorts the impressions of a surprisingly high number of critics, who do not taste blind and thus are subject to the biases within their own unconscious or subconscious minds.
Now that I’ve been “relieved” of the job of tasting many thousands of wines a year, I find I’m developing a refreshingly clearer sense concerning these matters of terroir. Perhaps it’s a form of now being able to see the forest for the trees. If one is looking for pleasure and complexity in wine (and what else would one look for?), then it’s simply astonishing how easy it is to find those qualities in California wine. This is not to suggest that quality differences do not exist, but it is my considered judgment that these differences are neither as vast as I once thought, nor as distinctive as consumers believe. This may be due, in part, to the 100-point system, which I long employed and for which I will never apologize. But I am glad that, when it came to very high scores for Cabernet, I always included Alexander Valley right up there with Napa Valley, for I was able to get past the “perception thing” and focus on the wine itself.
The history of California wine is replete with paradigm-shifting events, such as the Paris Tasting, the advent of the current era of Pinot Noir, replanting after phylloxera, and, if we go back far enough, to the use of French barriques and the creation of the Federal labeling laws. To these, I will predict a gradual shifting in the consumer’s perception, a widening of appreciation that great Cabernet Sauvignon can in fact come from many more places than only Napa Valley. When this will occur is open to question, but I have no doubt that it will.
Now, it’s here.
TTB first published the Notice of rulemaking only last June, which means the whole process took less than a year. That’s pretty good! Evidently there was no disputation, which is rare for a new appellation. Fountaingrove now becomes Sonoma County’s 17th AVA. Welcome!
At 38,000 acres, it’s mid-sized, a little bigger than Fort Ross-Seaview, a little smaller than Yorkville Highlands. The word “Fountaingrove” is an old one for this part of eastern Sonoma County. It was the name of a utopian commune founded near Santa Rosa in 1875; the winery of the same name quickly followed. (I mention the following historical footnote only because, well, I want to: Fountaingrove’s founder, and his commune, were said by the wine historian Leon Adams to indulge in “bizarre occult and sexual practices.”) Be that as it may, Fountaingrove had a good history: by 1942, our old friend, Mary Frost Mabon, was able to write, in her ABC of America’s Wine, that Fountaingrove was “a fascinating property with a romantic history [and that] tourists…find a very hospitable tasting-room.” She liked, in particular, the Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon, and especially a 1935 Pinot Noir she called “one of the top wines of California, and a true California Burgundy…”.
Fountaingrove’s boundaries run from just northeast of Santa Rosa almost to the Napa County line; it’s a hilly region that touches these other appellations: Chalk Hill, Diamond Mountain, Sonoma Valley, Calistoga and Russian River Valley. According to the TTB’s establishment ruling, the average growing season temperature is warmer than areas to the west but cooler than those to the east—as you’d expect. It is classified as a Region II on the old U.C. Davis scale. The soils are primarily Franciscan bedrock overlaid with volcanic residue, as they are throughout the Mayacamas. Elevations range from 400 feet to 2,200 feet.
I suspect, based on my past experiences, that the chief grape of Fountaingrove District is likely to emerge as Cabernet Sauvignon, which could be similar to Cabs from the higher stretches of Alexander Valley. There will be plenty of Chardonnay, too. We’ll see how Fountaingrove’s reputation evolves on Pinot Noir.
Interestingly, Fountaingrove became an AVA on the same day the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance announced they have officially submitted a petition for AVA status. I was interviewed yesterday on these topics by a reporter for the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, who asked me a number of questions, including why petitioners want their own AVAs. Two reasons, I answered: economics and pride. The smaller the appellation (in general), the more you can ask for the bottle. But also: Petitioners are proud of their terroir. They want consumers to know, with some precision, where the grapes come from—not just from someplace in a county, but a specific region in that county.
The reporter also asked me if I think Sonoma has too many AVAs. No, I said. France has, what? A gazillion. Rather than being confusing, I think AVAs are clarifying—but ONLY to the extent they’re well thought out. Sonoma didn’t used to be so good at thinking out their AVAs. But they’ve learned their lesson. They’re much more thorough in their research nowadays, much more sensible in defining boundaries, and also more collaborative, to avoid those unseemly internal battles that marked AVAs in the past, not only in Sonoma but just about everywhere. Finally, the reporter asked me if Sonoma is running out of new AVAs. Nope. They’ll sub-appellate Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast further, as they should.
Wonderful trip yesterday to Verité, the Jackson Family-owned property that quite frankly is killing it in Bordeaux blends. I’ve been on that opinion at least since I gave the 2006 La Muse a perfect 100 points, their first ever; but not their last, for Robert Parker recently gave no fewer than seven 100-point scores to Verité, an unprecedented fact that causes me to joke that he copied me. The winery was begun by Jess Jackson, who met winemaker Pierre Seillan, in 1996; Jackson wanted to know if Seillan, who was then working in Bordeaux, could “make a wine of equal quality to Chateau Petrus.”
Seillan has told this story over the years, always with an insructable grin on his face, but the fact is that, Petrus or no Petrus, he has succeeded at Verité in a huge way. So it was with eagerness (to say the least) that I drove up to Healdsburg in a heavy late August mist, the day after the big Napa earthquake.
The winery itself is fairly humble, on Chalk Hill Road, near where the appellations of Chalk Hill, Alexander Valley and Russian River Valley come together. The grapes come from various estate vineyards in Alexander Valley, Knights Valley, Bennett Valley and Chalk Hill; the wines thus are blends. There are three in each year: La Muse (mainly Merlot), La Joie (based on Cabernet Sauvignon) and Le Desir (primarily Cabernet Franc); the precise cepage of course varies from vintage to vintage.
Here are six notes on the wines we tasted. All are easily twenty year wines, maybe thirty.
2010 La Muse. Despite a difficult, cool vintage, the wine is flashy and explosive in cherries, blackberries, cassis, red licorice and toast. But it is very young and fairly tannic, a little soft, yet elegant. While bone dry, the finish is sweet in fruity essence and sweet spice. I would lay this down until 2018 and see how it develops through the 2020s.
2010 La Joie. The inky black color surely is from all the Cabernet Sauvignon (75%) in the blend. Huge cabernet nose, with intense black currant and cassis flavors, and a bracing minerality. Good overlay of smoky oak. Tight, dry, tannic, but extraordinarily powerful and impressive. Another wine that needs plenty of time. 2018-2030.
2010 Le Desir. The most expressive and feminine of the 2010s. Is that from the Cab Franc (50%)? Graceful, yet quite tannic. Sour cherry candy, red currant, cherry liqueur. Fabulous stuffing. A potential masterpiece, with time. Drink 2020 and beyond. This was indisputably the wine of the flight.
2004 Le Desir. Smells a bit hot, with grilled currant and cherry, toast, and spice notes. Such heady perfume. Grace, power, elegance, finesse. A bit spirituous, porty, but not too much. An interesting wine, still fresh. Bone dry, sticky tannins, aging well. Could improve, but for me, the alcohol (14.7%) is beginning to show through.
2004 La Muse. At ten years of age, turning the corner, developing bottle bouquet. Primary fruits turning dry: dried cherry, tobacco, raspberry, sous bois (could this be the Merlot, which comprises 85% of the blend?), orange zest, lots of sweet spice and smoke. Huge extract, sweet in fruit, yet dry in the finish. So expressive now, pure, generous, fat. Very complex and spicy. Will last for many more years.
2004 La Joie. A huge wine. At ten years, changing, with the fresh fruit drying out and developing secondary bottle notes. Power and elegance combined. Extraordinary complexity. Dried fruits, minerals, dried herbs, sweet licorice, sweet spice, espresso, orange zest. For me, the top wine of the flight, balanced and pure; but then, the alcohol is the lowest (14.2%). Elegant, great finesse and structure. Very great now, and will take another ten years, at the very least.
We were fortunate also to taste through three vintages of Cenyth, a sort of “junior” Verite ($60 to the latter’s triple-digit release price). Like Verite it is a Sonoma County blend; in three vintages the blend has varied, from Cabernet Sauvignon-based in 2009 to Merlot-based in 2010 and Cabernet Franc-based in 2011. Pierre’s daughter, Hélene Seillan, is gradually inheriting the winemaking role.
2009 Cenyth. Rich, opulent, a “Californian” wine. Oodles of blackberries and cherries. Good grip, soft acidity, spicy finish. Lots of admirable qualities. Drink now-2017.
2010 Cenyth. Softly tannic, fleshy (that has got to be the Merlot). Some floral notes, blackberries, cherries, currants. Lots of sweetness, an opulent, generous wine. Drink now-2018.
2011 Cenyth. The most elegant of the flight, drier and better structured than the others. Good acidity highlighting chewy fruit. Very dry, great charm and finesse, not as apparently sweet as the ’09 and ’10, which for me was a plus. Hélene explained how challenging the chilly vintage was; I told her Nature had given her a lemon from which she made lemonade.