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Bring on the bubbly

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This time of year, one thing is certain. No, not that the kids return to school (although they do, but that’s not what I’m talking about). What happens like clockwork in late summer is that the California sparkling wines start arriving on my doorstep.

I always assume it’s because the proprietors want a fresh new review for bragging rights in order to boost holiday season sales. It’s too bad that so many people think the only time to drink bubbly is Christmas-New Year’s Eve, but they do. I myself like a nice glass of Champagne or sparkling wine whenever I can get one. Champagne, for me, is a nighttime beverage. I love it as an aperitif sipper, especially before dinner in a nice restaurant, although it would not be my choice for a postprandial drink (that would be Port or a dessert wine, or even a cocktail). I’ve even been known, on a hot summer afternoon, to mix a little orange or cranberry juice with sparkling wine and throw in some sliced strawberries. Why not? (I don’t think that’s as bad as mixing Coca Cola with Lafite!)

California sparkling wine has always been very good, IMHO, at least since I’ve been reviewing it, which goes back to the 1990s. But I think quality has been getting better. Prior to 2000, the highest score I could give one was 91 points, to a Domaine Carneros 1993 Le Rêve, always a compelling wine. I gave 90 points to a Folie a Deux 1995 Brut. Do they still even make a sparkling wine?

It wasn’t until after the turn of the Millennium that I was able to give a higher score. That was 95 points, but it was for a Louis Roederer 1994 Brut, from Champagne, so it doesn’t count. (We hadn’t yet established our formal reviewing turfs at Wine Enthusiast back then.) However, in 2000 I gave 93 points for the first time to a California sparkling wine, Iron Horse’s 1991 Brut LD. Also the same point score to a pair of Domaine Chandons, both non-vintage: Etoile Brut and Etoile Rose. Those are still some of my favorite bubblies, and it just proves that a sparkler doesn’t have to be a vintage wine to excel.

This year by comparison, getting at least 90 points for California bubbly is as easy as falling off a log. I’ve rated 21 this year alone at 90 or higher, and there are still more prestige bottlings to come in during September and October, so I expect that number will rise significantly. Schramsberg has, as usual, headed my list, in terms of scores, followed by Gloria Ferrer (such a fine brand), but even Mumm Napa and Chandon, which are not usually included in most critics’ Best Of lists, have scored remarkably well, suggesting that those houses have invested seriously in upping their games. J Vineyards & Winery also has been excellent. As for Iron Horse, they’re the best ever. I don’t necessarily think it’s because of the vintages, because, for example, Iron Horse’s six new releases are from four different vintages, yet all the wines are wonderful.

What I like in sparkling wine is the mousse. I want the wine to glide over my palate, like silk on silk. It’s not hard for sparkling wine to achieve delicious, complex flavors. All you need is good fruit, proper lees treatment for that hit of brioche, acidity and some slight seasoning from wood. What’s hard is to achieve the right texture. My point scores are based almost exclusively on texture. Scores in the 87-90 range mean the wine is very good, but a little scoury, i.e. to me the bubbles feel too big and rough. The smaller and more refined the bubbles feel, the higher the score goes. I think a fine mousse also is necessary for sparkling wine to age. As for sweetness levels, they tend to be all over the place in California. I may be one of the few critics who likes zero dosage, but I can understand those who find the resulting wines too severe. On the other hand, there are some sparkling wines that taste too sweet to me, and seemed designed for palates that like some sugary soda. My own preference is in the middle, toward the drier side.


What is “nobility” in wine?

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Why are Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay “noble” varieties? Why isn’t Zinfandel? Can Syrah be “noble”? Is sparkling wine “noble”?

First, we have to define “noble.” It’s an oldish word when applied to wine. From Wikipedia: “Noble grapes are any grapes traditionally associated with the highest quality wines. This concept is not as common today, partly because of the proliferation of hybrid grape varieties, and partly because some critics feel that it unfairly prioritizes varieties grown within France. Historically speaking, the noble grapes comprised only six varieties: Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.”

It’s tempting for me to side with the democrats [small “d”] in this argument–the ones who feel that de-nobleizing certain varieties because they’re not French is unfair and patronizing. But there are sound reasons for preserving our current understanding of varietal nobility.

The most important of these reasons is that, in California as in France, a handful of varieties clearly makes the best wines, and has for pretty much as long as the state’s wine industry has existed. All I need do is go to Wine Enthusiast’s database to confirm this. Since the first of this year, all 30 of my highest-scoring wines have been either Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, with the single exception of a Nickel & Nickel 2010 Merlot, from the Harris Vineyard, in Oakville. (And I, personally, would not include Merlot among the nobles, at least in California.)

Why do these wines score higher than other varieties? Ahh, here we get into the fuzzy details, which are impossible of proof. But let me try. First and foremost, there is structure, a word that seems comprehensible at first. Structure is architecture: just as you can have the most beautiful stuff (paintings, carpets, furniture, vases) in the world, but it’s only a mere pile if it doesn’t have a room or home in which to reside, so too wine needs walls, a floor, a ceiling, a sense of stolidity and solidity, else it become simple flavor. And flavor, in and of itself, has never been the primary attribute of great wine.

California, of course, has no problem developing flavor, in any variety. That’s due to our climate: grapes ripen dependably. To the extent California wines are the target of criticism, it is because Europhiles find a dreary sameness to too many of them. Even I, as staunch a defender of California wine as there is, find this to be true. Too often, the flavors of red wines suggest blackberries and cherries and chocolate, whether it’s Syrah, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Grenache, Cabernet, Merlot, Tempranillo. It’s easy for such wines to score 87 points, or 89 points, or even 91 points: these are good scores, but not great ones, limited by the wines’ lack of structure.

Structure, of course, is composed primarily of acidity and tannins, the latter of which may come from both the grapes and the oak treatment. (I won’t get into the mysteries of minerality.) Yet there are elements of structure that are more difficult to define. Texture is an element of structure, just as the way a room feels is an element of its architecture. Imagine a room with soaring roof and large windows that let in the sunlight, as opposed to a cramped, pinched room, a closet or storage area. The former feels more satisfactory to our senses and esthetics. So too does a wine with great texture feel superior. It can be the hardest thing in the world to put into words, but even amateurs will appreciate the difference between a beautifully-structured wine and its opposite. (I have proven this many times, with my wine-drinking friends who have but limited understanding of it.)

So why don’t we allow Zinfandel into the ranks of noble wines? I suppose an argument could be made that we should, for at its highest expressions–Williams Selyem, De Loach, Elyse, Ravenswood, Bella, Turley–Zinfandel does fulfill the structural and textural prerequisites of a noble wine. But too often, it does not: a Zinfandel can be classic Zin for its style (Dry Creek Valley, Amador County) and yet be a little rustic, in a shabby-chic way. Sometimes this is due to excessive alcohol, sometimes to overripened fruit, but no matter the cause, and no matter how much fun that Zin is to drink with barbecue, the last thing I’d call most Zins is noble. Zinfandel is Conan the Barbarian, ready to chop your head off and stick it on the tip of a spear.

Can sparkling wine be said to be noble? It is most often, of course, a blend of two noble varieties, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, so why not? The answer is as simple as this: We call varieties “noble,” not wine types. Perhaps we should expand the definition of “noble” to include types, not just sparkling blends but Sherry and Port. Certainly these are great wines, if underappreciated nowadays. I keep my eye, also, on some of the surprisingly eccentric red blends being produced lately, mainly by younger winemakers (often in Paso Robles), who are mixing varieties in unprecedented and triumphant ways, proving that a wine doesn’t have to be varietal (as defined by the TTB) in order to be great.

But I’m comfortable for the time being restricting nobility to just a handful of varieties in California: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Not Riesling, not yet, in our state. Not Sauvignon Blanc, not yet, in our state. Not Syrah, not yet, in our state. And not, as I have said, Merlot. Any one of these latter varieties can produce great wine, but it will be the exception.


‘Tis the season of the bubblies

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The sparkling wine is pouring in, literally. August marks the high point of my receipt of California champers, as producers hope that good reviews in October and November will lead to brisk holiday season depletions, “as the last eight weeks of the year account for one-third of annual [U.S.] sales” of sparkling wine.

You may not know it, but the sparkling wine industry has labored for years to figure out how to convince Americans to buy bubbly year-round, not just for Christmas and New Year’s Eve. It’s not that they don’t want consumers buying it for the holidays; they just wish we’d drink as much of it between January-November as we do the last month of the year.

So why don’t we?

Well, for one, the sparkling wine industry has no one to blame but itself. For decades, it promoted bubbly as the wine of celebration: of weddings, birthdays and anniversaries, of winning a World Series or getting a promotion at the office, of buying a new home or concluding a treaty between nations, of toasting in the new year, of graduating university or launching a ship. In other words, a wine to drink just a few times a year. This is hardly a strategy designed to increase sales.

The worst offenders have been the French and the Californians. They just can’t figure out a way to persuade people to drink sparkling wine year-round, the way the Italians have with Prosecco or the Spanish have with cava. Of course, if you have an inexpensive brand like Korbel (average price: $13 for their basic brut, rosé, etc.), you’re likely to sell throughout the year (although the holidays still are peak time). But what of pricier bubblies? Schramsberg ’04 Reserve ($110), Iron Horse non-vintage Joy! ($189 the magnum), Chandon ’01 Etoile ($100), Domaine Carneros ’06 Le Rêve ($95) all are super-delicious, ageable wines I’ve recently reviewed (and scored at least 95 points), but oi, the sticker shock. Not that there’s anything exorbitant about a hundred bucks compared to Roederer ’05 Cristal ($249), Veuve Clicquot ’90 Cave Privée ($208) or Bolly ’04 Grand Année ($235), each of which my colleague Roger Voss recently scored at least 95 points; but those wines are, after all, Champagne; as Bordeaux is Bordeaux, Burgundy, Burgundy and Barolo, Barolo, the consumer is willing to get fleeced, no, make that willing to pay a premium for the privilege of knowing that he is drinking wines of great fame and historicity. But expensive California sparkling wine possesses neither.

Is this right, or fair? No. The best California sparkling wines are among the greatest of that category in the world. (I wish someone would set up a “Judgment of Paris”-type blind tasting between French Tête de Cuvée Champagne and the best of California. Count me in.) The problem is that the world doesn’t understand this. And that problem in turn goes back to the question of timing: If you’re only going to splurge on sparkling wine a couple times a year, it’s probably going to be French–even if it’s something as mediocre as Moët White Star.

Do people then drink with their palates, or their brains? All the evidence points to the latter. When we critics (some of us, anyway) taste blind, we try to eliminate the brain’s interpretive functions in such a way as to render the most objective possible judgment. Do we lose something, in the process, concerning the wine’s historicity, context and reclame–do we throw the baby out with the bathwater? Probably. Blind tasting always opens itself to this critique (just as “open” tasting lends itself to the critique of bias).

But how we critics taste is less important than how consumers experience wine, which is by looking at the label and knowing what they’re drinking. If White Star lends a certain prestige to the occasion, it doesn’t really matter that it’s an 84 point wine. What the wine lacks organoleptically, it more than makes up for esthetically or intellectually: its divots, so the speak, are filled in by information: This is French Champagne, an elevating perceptual experience, as would be “I am sitting in George Clooney’s Tuscan villa and there he is, mixing me a martini, wearing a loose silk robe.” You could be drinking the exact same martini at your in-law’s, with Dad watching ESPN in his drawers, but the frisson wouldn’t be the same.

I started out talking about California sparkling wine and ended up with George Clooney in Tuscany. Somehow there must be a connection. Re-reading what I’ve written, I see that I made it sound as if California bubbly were confined to two tiers ($13 and $100) but of course that’s not true. We have a wide spectrum in the middle tier ($20-$30) that is probably superior in quality to French equivalents. (Chandon, Mumm Napa, Gloria Ferrer and Roederer Estate in particular have been impressive the last few years.)

Despite the ambiguous attitude of Americans toward sparkling wine, we’re drinking more of it than ever before: 17.7 million cases last year, according to the Wine Institute. However, that generosity does not appear to be extending to the most expensive wines: while sales of California sparkling wine last year were the highest in at least 25 years, “Moscato based sparklers [drove] the growth.” My personal feeling is that high-end California sparkling wine will never burst out of its straitjacket until consumers understand it: and they will never understand it until they’re taught to think about it in the proper way. Every reputable critic I know has been trying to elevate Americans’ view of sparkling wine for years. It’s an uphill battle.


Sparkling wines for the holidays: why not all year long?

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The sparkling wines have been coming in over the last two months, as producers look for good reviews to use leading into the holiday season. They know they have to do well between now and New Year’s Eve, because that’s when they sell the overwhelming majority of their wine.

How did sparkling wine find itself in the trap of having its sales window of opportunity open for such a short period of time? It’s because the Champenois were the greatest marketers in the wine world. Man oh man, did they know how the sell the sizzle as well as the steak. Way back in the eighteenth century they convinced the world–well, Europeans and Russians, anyhow–that Champagne was the wine of glitz and celebration. The world took them at their word, and by the fin de siècle mauve decade of the 1890s, Champagne was the most famous wine in the world–for celebrating.

Double-edged sword, that. Most people only celebrate New Year’s Eve once a year. Maybe they have an anniversary, wedding, job promotion, birthday or some other special occasion to toast. But Americans by and large don’t see Champagne or sparkling wine as an everyday wine.

A few years back a discussion arose in which I was involved concerning how to persuade more Americans to buy the likes of Roederer Estate, Iron Horse and Schramsberg–in other words, California’s têtes de cuvée. The question producers wanted to know was how to persuade Americans to drink these as often as, say, a good Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir. My suggestion was to have the entire industry collaborate in a big advertising blitz, a marketing order similar to the Got Milk? campaign here in California. After all, a rising tide lifts all boats, right? If consumers could be broken of their habit of seeing bubbly as a special occasion wine, all bubblies–value as well as prestige–would enjoy increased sales.

The problem, from the point of view of the high-end producers, is that they don’t want to see their wines linked in any way to mass-produced sparkling wines, especially those made Charmat or bulk style. Of course, I totally understand. Of all wines, sparkling is most concerned with image. Still, there’s another side of that coin: the mass producers don’t necessarily want to be associated with the high-end wines. They’re the ones who pay for the advertising (Barefoot, Korbel, etc.), not the têtes de cuvée. They’re not about to push the sparkling wine category; they’re going to push their own brands in a way that offers little, if any, spillover benefit to the high-end houses.

I ran into one of California’s great modern day sparkling wine pioneers yesterday, quite by accident in Oakland. Michel Salgues for many years ran Roederer Estate. He left some years ago and I more or less lost track of him. Turns out he’s now the winemaker at a new Santa Lucia Highlands winery, Caraccioli Cellars, whose 2007 Brut Cuvée I tasted and reviewed less than a month ago. I gave it quite a high score (which will appear in the Dec. 31 issue of Wine Enthusiast), but it’s also a little pricey: $52. Michel and I talked about the reluctance of American consumers to pay a lot of money for sparkling wine.

This is, I think, a real challenge to Calfornia’s high-end sparkling wine producers. Even if someone does want a good bottle of bubbly, they’re more likely to reach for, say, a Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label (about $40), because they’re heard of it and because it’s from France (and they may even be aware of VC’s association with top prestige Champagnes). Yellow Label may not be anywhere near as good as, say, Roederer Estate’s L’Ermitage, which is about the same price, but they’ll buy it anyway because it comes with the insurance of being bullet-proof and with the image of France with all the prestige that implies.

I don’t know what the answer is to the dilemma of sparkling wine in America. The foundations of the problem were constructed over centuries, and its resolution will not take place overnight. All I, as a critic, can do–and I want to help–is to tell people that inexpensive bubbly is a great bargain that can be drunk regularly, and the high-end stuff is easily as good as anything in Champagne, with perhaps a few exceptions, and ought to be enjoyed as often as they can afford it. Beyond that, consumers have free will. You can’t make them buy something they don’t want.


What’s my favorite wine?

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People are always asking me, “What’s your favorite wine?”, to which I invariably reply, “The one I’m drinking now.” If they press me, I’ll say Champagne (or sparkling wine). If they really want to get down with me, I’ll tell them Pinot Noir.

I decided some years ago I liked California Pinot Noir even more than Cabernet Sauvignon, but I was never entirely sure about it. Whenever I tasted a great Pinot Noir, I’d be thrilled not only with the wine itself, but with an appreciation of how far, how fast this variety has come in California. It would have been inconceivable in the 1990s for me to have preferred Pinot over Cabernet, and I think the same could be said for most of the working critics of that time. However by the late 1990s, certainly by the early 2000s, if someone knowledgeable had said they thought Pinot had overtaken Cabernet, at least nobody would have suggested a forced trip to the psycho ward.

As much as I’ve liked Pinot, the reason I wasn’t quite sure it was my favorite was because every time I did a great Cabernet flight, it would blow my mind and remind me once again that Cabernet had been my first love and, while I might have flirted a bit with this racy young upstart, Pinot Noir, I was destined always to return to Cabernet. Dance with the one that brought ya, the old saying goes, and it was Cabernet Sauvignon that had brought me to the ball.

So I went into the database today so see what my top wines have been so far this year, and, not surprisingly, Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the list. The top 5 are all Cabernet or Bordeaux blends. What is surprising, though, is that two of them are not from Napa Valley! Those would be Stonestreet’s 2007 Rockfall and Verité’s 2006 La Joie, both astounding wines. Of course, one could argue that both of them are from the west-facing slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains, separated only by an accident of geography from being in Napa County, instead of Sonoma County.

My #6 wine was Williams Selyem’s 2008 Litton Estate Pinot Noir, a wine I’ve loved ever since I first tasted it. (The name henceforth will be Estate, not Litton.) It’s a big Pinot Noir, not for the faint-hearted, and I guess you could criticize it for not being “Burgundian” enough, but that’s not a criticism I share. My #7 wine was a sweetie, Dolce 2006, and it should never be surprising to see Dolce appear on anyone’s top list. It’s consistently one of California’s great dessert wines. What perhaps is a little surprising is that my #8 wine is a sparkler: Schramsberg’s 2004 J. Schram Rosé, possibly the greatest California sparkling wine I’ve ever had the pleasure to review. After that, we revert back to Pinot Noir for the #9 wine, Joseph Swan’s 2007 Trenton Estate, which with its acids and tannins reflects its southern Russian River Valley roots. In tenth place, last but not least, is Qupe’s 2006 X Block “The Good Nacido” Syrah.

This list makes me happy and proud. It certainly wasn’t premeditated for me to have Cabernets, Pinots, a sweet wine, a sparkling wine and a Syrah in my Best of 2011 (so far) list. But there you are. What it tells me is how well California is doing in many different varieties, at least at the upper tier.

After that Qupe Syrah, #11 is another Syrah, Donelan’s 2008 Richards Vineyard, from Sonoma Valley. But get ready for this: #s 12-22 are all Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux blends. I don’t see another Pinot Noir until #27, the Babcock 2009 Microcosm. So I guess I’d have to say, if you make me put my hand on a Bible in a court of law and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth concerning my favorite wine, I’d say, “Based on the evidence, it would be Cabernet Sauvignon.” But in my heart of hearts, I wouldn’t really believe it.


A sparkling lunch, maybe a blind tasting

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Besides the fact that the wine menu at Chez Panisse’s famous upstairs café has no sparkling wines from California — what’s up with that, Ms. locovore Alice Waters? –my sparkling wine lunch with Joy Sterling, Hugh Davies and Xavier Barlier was, well, sparkling.

Ms. Sterling (Iron Horse), Mr. Davies (Schramberg) and Mr. Barlier (Roederer Estate) represent the trifecta of sparkling wine in California. The trio had once previously gotten together (at Celadon, in Napa) to talk shop, which in their case was the state of tête de cuvée sparkling wine in California, and, as Xavier emailed me afterward, “One seat was empty. We thought: ‘Who would be the perfect 4th whose company is always a treat?'”

I’m sure my company is not always a treat, but Joy’s, Hugh’s and Xavier’s is, for me, and as Chez Panisse (where parking is impossible; both Hugh and Xavier got parking tickets afterward) is only a couple subway stops away, I eagerly assented. Joy proposed, as a matter of logistics, that we structure the first part of the conversation this way: each person would explain why he or she was at the luncheon. That was fine with me, but I did ask to be allowed to go fourth (without multiplying), since it was no doubt clearer to them why they were there than it was to me, other than that I’d been invited.

After hearing them out, I intuited the following. Each was aware of his winery’s position and reputation in the hierarchy. Each was proud of its tête de cuvée (which means, if my high school French is correct, head of the class, i.e., the top wine the winery is capable of producing). And each, in his or her own way, came thiiiiissss close to admitting that selling an expensive wine, especially an expensive sparkling wine, isn’t the easiest thing to do these days.

They were concerned that such French wines as Dom Perignon and Cristal were grabbing market share for prestige bubbly in the U.S., even though (in their opinions) these wines are mass-produced and not particularly distinctive. (Xavier shared a case production figure for the former that, literally, blew my mind, but I can’t repeat it without risking a lawsuit.) I told them they must fight, fight, fight against the slanders that perpetually are hurled against California wine. When some Europhile puts it down, call him out. Expose the lies. (I’m afraid I got a little worked up at this point, but I think Hugh liked it.)

Finally it was my turn. They were asking me for advice. I gave it. “First, you can’t just sell tête de cuvée. You have to sell the entire category of sparkling wine, in order to persuade Americans it’s not just for holidays and weddings. Sparkling wine is the most versatile food wine in the world. If you can convince people to buy more, they will naturally buy it at whatever dollar level they’re prepared to invest. A rising tide lifts all boats.”

I’m not certain that argument worked. At least one of what Joy dubbed The Three Mousseketeers seemed dubious. After all, they wanted to advance the cause of their têtes de cuvées, not of some $8 bulk process “Champagne” manufactured in the tens or hundreds of thousands of cases.

I continued. “And you must get the tastemakers on your side, the writers, bloggers, sommeliers who have influence.” They agreed, but Joy pointed out that somms are less influential these days because people aren’t going out to expensive restaurants. All right, that left writers. That raised the question, which writers do you reach out to? And in what format? Here were the three of them, focusing in on one writer (me), which, I pointed out, was a time-consuming and expensive way to influence the Fourth Estate. Wouldn’t it be better to travel to a few important cities and host tastings with an invited audience of 10 or 12 influential local writers, instead of doing dozens of one-on-ones?

That’s when the discussion got interesting. One point of view was that no format is as successful as a one-on-one. Another, opposing viewpoint was that these collective group tastings are irresistible to writers, providing the venue is well-chosen and the wines are alluring. After much back and forth, Joy put forward a suggestion. What if I, Steve, hosted a tête de cuvée tasting in San Francisco? We could decide whom to invite (not just locals, but New York, L.A., etc.). We could expand the California presence from the three têtes de cuvées they represented to all wineries with a tête de cuvée (e.g. Chandon’s Etoile, Gloria Ferrer’s Carneros Cuvée, and so on). We could throw in some number of real Champagne têtes de cuvées, including Dom and Cristal. We would do the tasting blind. I asked the three of them, “Wouldn’t that be risky for you? I mean, if your wines came in last and the Champagnes came in first?” They all smiled knowingly. Joy said, “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

We’d all had our share of sparking wine by then, some of us more than the others; and maybe this happytalk of a big blind tasting was just a bunch of bubbles, fizzing and evaporating into Chez Panisse’s rarified atmosphere. But I have a hunch it will happen. I’ll keep you posted.


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