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SF’s housing woes spread to wine country

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Picked up the latest issue of the Sonoma County Gazette at the Starbucks in Fulton, and came across this article, Healdsburg at a Crossroads, that underscores just how acute that tony town’s housing crisis has become.

It recalled an era that was just coming to a close when I first visited, some 35 years ago, when Healdsburg was “a rough farm and lumber town with more bars than churches.” But by the mid-1990s, things started turning fast, as Healdsburg got “a dose of Windsor-like development” and the area around the Town Square began to look like a smaller St. Helena, with posh restaurants and upscale boutiques and galleries. By the 2000s, my former magazine, Wine Enthusiast, was writing stories about this must-visit showplace of Sonoma County wine country. (I know, because I was writing them!)

Nowadays, the cost of housing is such that the town is in a bit of a quandary over what to do about it. As are the citizens of San Francisco and my own home town, Oakland. All over the Bay Area and wine country, the tech boom has ignited a housing frenzy, forcing the poor and middle class out and bringing in a new class of wealthy individuals. The question confronting Healdsburg, as posed in the Gazette article, is whether to “try to ‘manage’ growth” or conduct “an aggressive community building program.” Both of these present difficult choices, and both approaches have solid blocks of citizens for them and against them.

All this would not be happening in Healdsburg were it not for the fact that the town is so ideally located in wine country. It’s at the juxtaposition of Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley and Chalk Hill, making it a great place for tourists to stay. And man oh man, are the tourists showing up. That, in turn, is leading to quite a forceful little argument over how much tourism is too much. Just last Sunday, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat ran an op-ed piece whose writer warned Sonoma County officials that Tourism can only be sustainable if planning is carefully managed so that the financial benefits are not permitted to outweigh the negative impacts on the community.” People like the money that tourists bring to their regions, but they don’t like the traffic, litter, crime, increased housing costs and other impacts that can accompany tourism.

Nor is the issue just a California one. As I was writing this post, I got the e-issue of wineindustrynetwork.com which contained this article on Iowa’s burgeoning wine industry. Where before “mile upon mile of fields of corn and soybeans” dotted the land, increasingly the “Iowa Wine Trail” is marked by vineyards. And with the wineries come—you guessed it—tourists. Iowa, in contrast to California, is only in the earliest stages of developing a wine tourism culture; a few years ago, an Iowa State U. professor cited a study touting the “economic boom” the wine industry is bringing to the Hawkeye State. One wonders, though, how long it will be before the small towns impacted by the new tourism—Decorah, Fredricksburg, Waukon, Marquette—might find that unrestricted tourism is not an undiluted positive.


A vertical tasting of Beekeeper Rockpile Zinfandel

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Beekeeper Cellars started in 2009, a partnership between Ian Blackburn and Clay Mauritson. Mauritson owns the Madrone Spring Vineyard and was a principle in creating the Rockpile AVA, in 2002, They sent me a mini-vertical of four bottles of the Zinfandel, 2010-2013. I must say how wonderfully each of them shows off the terroir of the vineyard. These are big, voluptuous, heady Zinfandels, and they are picture-perfect exemplars of that style.

95 Beekeeper 2013 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (Rockpile): $65. This beautiful, picture-perfect Zinfandel is ripe, dry and heady. The alcohol is quite high (15.4%), but the wine wears it well, with a slight, prickly heat to the superripe black currants, blackberry jam and black licorice. Thick, fine tannins and just-in-time acidity give it needed structure. I had never tasted a Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel before, but I have reviewed several Mauritson Petite Sirahs from the vineyard, and except for an overripe ’08—a hot vintage—I came away with great respect for the grape sourcing; and, after all, Clay Mauritson co-made this wine. It really defines this intense, concentrated style of Zin. My friends at Connoisseur’s Guide gave it 97 points, and while I wouldn’t go that far, I know where they’re coming from. The fruit is complexed with dark chocolate, sage and black tea notes that grow more interesting with every sip. The wine will hold in the bottle for a long time, but there’s no reason not to drink it now.

95 Beekeeper 2010 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (Rockpile): $65. The fruit is just starting to turn the corner, going from primary to bottle bouquet. Where the ’13 is all jam and licorice, this nearly six-year old Zinfandel tastes of dried fruits and prosciutto. It’s still vibrant and fresh, but, even with alcohol at a heady 15.4%, it feels light and lithe on its feet, an Astaire of a wine. Mid-palate, cocoa dust kicks in, sprinkled with cinnamon. The tannins are thick but so remarkably soft and silky, the wine just glides across your tongue. I have no doubt it will hold and change in interesting ways over the next 15 years, but it’s really compelling now.

94 Beekeeper 2012 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (Rockpile): $65. There’s a succulence to this Zin that testifies to intensely ripe fruit, which of course the grapes do get in this hot, sunny appellation that rises above Dry Creek Valley. The wine brims with raspberries, blueberries, blackberries and mocha, while alcohol brings a pleasantly mouth-warming quality; fine acidity provides clean balance. Thirty percent new French oak is discernible in the form of toast and vanilla bean, but it’s completely balanced with the fruit. The tannins are smooth, complex and sweet. With a briary, brambly spiciness, this really is picture-perfect Sonoma Zin. It seems to be hovering at that interesting point where the primary fruit is evolving into secondary characteristics, shifting to reveal notes of bacon fat and leather. A wonderful, complete, wholesome Zinfandel, definitely big, but never ponderous. It should hold and evolve in interesting ways over the years.

94 Beekeeper 2011 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (Rockpile): $65. The 2011 vintage was the coolest in a long time, and we certainly haven’t seen any cool vintages since. It was the year summer never came; grapes along the far Sonoma Coast in some cases failed to ripen, or were moldy, but Rockpile is a hot inland region. So here we have a wine that, while in the Beekeeper Rockpile Zin tradition, is somewhat more structured and not as massive as the ’10, ’12 and ’13. That’s in the wine’s favor. It still has the cassis and wild black currant fruit, the briary leather, and the spices, but there’s a savory herbaceousness, like dried sage and thyme, and tangy volcanic red rock iron. The wine has power, but also elegance and control: there’s a tension within that’s delightful, in no small part due to excellent acidity. Quite a bit of French oak, too, but it’s seamless. This distinctive wine makes a case for Rockpile Zinfandel even in difficult vintages that is persuasive. I quite like it. Only 90 cases were produced.


On geological faults in Burgundy and Sonoma County

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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.”


On the inaugural Sonoma Barrel Auction–a great success–and meeting old friends

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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.

Berglund

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.

GRose

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.

GregLaF

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.

 

LisaMattson

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.

JGordon

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.

TMcD

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.

Anakota

This man surely needs no introduction. He is Adam Strum, my former boss at Wine Enthusiast,

Strum

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.

Seghesio

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.

Boisset&Cabral

And here’s a new friend, Mike Osborn, who founded wine.com.

MOsborne

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!


Pouring in Sonoma (wine, not rain) & Gus!

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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.

GusFGI

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.


Why Napa Cabernet costs so much

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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:

Sonoma: $3,078

Santa Barbara/San Luis Obispo: $2,586

Mendocino: $2,652

Statewide: $1,594

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.


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