Cabernet Franc’s a terribly hard grape to vinify all by itself in California and make pleasant. The wine can suffer from all sorts of problems: a leafy vegetativeness, high alcohol that makes it hot especially when the underlying wine itself is thin, aggressive tannins, too much residual sweetness, or just a simple candied flavor.
Yet I’ve had some really good Cab Francs over the last 18 months, and surprise, they’ve come mostly from Napa Valley. Of my top 14 Cab Francs tasted since Jan. 2011, fully 13 bore either a Napa Valley appellation or one of its sub-apps: Howell Mountain, Oakville, Diamond Mountain.
Why Napa Valley should produce California’s best Cabernet Francs is no mystery: it produces the best of the state’s Bordeaux varieties, period, including (obviously) Cabernet Sauvignon, but also Merlot and what little Petit Verdot there is.
When you analyze why a region is tops in any given variety or wine type, the answers are complex. Terroir tops the list, and Napa’s terroir is perfect for Bordeaux grapes. One mountain range further inland than Sonoma County, it’s just that much warmer, and Bordeaux varieties love the warmth they need to fully ripen. It gets hotter down on the valley floor than it does up in the mountains, and that can be a double-edged sword: a heat wave can massacre valley grapes, but a chilly year (like 2010 or 2011) can help them achieve ripeness when their mountain brethren struggle. But it all depends, of course, on the vineyard’s exact exposition, orientation and the expertise with which the vines are farmed.
Napa’s soils also are ideal, whether they’re the thin, well-drained dirts of the mountains or the richer clays and loams of the floor. River bottom land isn’t supposed to be good for Cabernet, but there are some fine vineyards bordering the Napa River, including some of Beckstoffer’s. But it’s not just climate and soil that make Napa Valley Cabernet country, it’s the human culture that pervades the valley. Napa’s been making Bordeaux-style wines for something like 150 years. Cabernet is in Napa’s bloodstream, its DNA. We’re now five or six generations into experienced winemakers who understand Cabernet the way a parent understands her child. People like Philippe Melka, Andy Erickson, Austin Peterson, Heidi Barrett, Chris Carpenter, Sara Fowler, Nick Goldschmidt, Elias Fernandez, Mia Klein, Kirk Venge, Steve Leveque, Ted Henry, Tim Mondavi, Allison Tauziet–the ties between these talented individuals are deep, forming a sort of biodiverse ecology in which collective consciousness (of the Jungian variety) is as much a part of the terroir as the weather. Emile Peynaud, the great Bordeaux enologist, captures this concept nicely in his The Taste of Wine when he describes “cru” as combining not merely “the wine-producing property, the chateau” but also “the three activities of production, processing and marketing.” All of these elemental components of cru are “supported by a tradition of quality and the owner’s particular care…”.
Marketing as part of cru? Yes. We often forget what an essential part of great wine marketing (and sales and public relations) are, which is just fine by the marketing, sales and P.R. people I know. They don’t want to be out front; they want the wine to star, along with the winemaker and/or proprietor. The people behind the scenes know the importance of the part they play, and are content to be largely invisible to the public. Just as it should be.
The best Cabernet Francs I’ve had this year include Merryvale’s 2008, Peju’s 2008 Reserve, La Jota’s 2009, Oakville Ranch’s 2007 Robert’s Blend, and a 2007 Jarvis called “Estate Grown Cave” (and if you’re ever been in Jarvis’s cave, you’ll understand why they pay it hommage. It’s the size of Rhode Island.) Try one or several of these wines, and when you’re drinking it–or any superior Napa Valley Bordeaux red–think about the fact that it’s a product, not simply of that particular vineyard or winery, but has emerged from a complex cultural web of ideas, emotions and shared experiences called Napa Valley. As with a child, it takes a village to raise a wine.
There’s so much misunderstanding out there concerning American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) that it’s important to have this conversation from time to time, just to set the record straight.
I’m pretty sure the vast majority of my readers know precisely what an AVA is and isn’t, but this blog does spill over into the non-industry world, which is where enlightenment is needed. Some people still believe that an AVA on a label guarantees something about the wine’s terroir. This is, as we’ll see, a mistake. It guarantees nothing except the origin of the grapes. And that, in turn, says little to nothing about the wine in the bottle.
Yet the myth persists that it does. Consider, for example, this report, from Yahoo news, on the recent legalization by the TTB of some new AVAs. The headline reads “Wine country in the US expands with designated ‘terroir’ areas.” Now, I don’t know why they put “terroir” inbetween apostrophes. Usually, a writer does so to suggest something suspect about the word in question–that the reader ought to take it with a grain of salt. In this case, though, it could just have been that the writer understood that “terroir” is a foreign term. Either way, the article goes on to state something untrue: “a bottle of champagne or Bordeaux wine is instantly recognizable by its place of origin in France, American wine growers are hoping to distinguish themselves from the competition with labels that denote their terroir — a taste profile specific to the area the product was made in, influenced by climate and soil conditions.”
First off, a bottle of Bordeaux is not “instantly recognizable by its place of origin.” There are thousands of individual Bordeaux brands and they have little in common except that they’re dry, fairly full-bodied and tannic. That describes half the red wines on earth, not just Bordeaux.
Now, the second part of that statement merits attention. “American wine growers are hoping to distinguish themselves from the competition with labels that denote their terroir,” defined as “a taste profile specific to the area the product was made in.” Yes, American growers and winemakers do hope to distinguish themselves from the competition, and the place of origin on the label is one way to do that. But what does that have to do with “a specific taste profile”? Very little. Does a “California”-appellated wine have a taste profile? Nope. Does a “Russian River Valley”-appellated wine have a taste profile? Well, what does a 15.7% RRV Zinfandel with residual sugar have in common with a 13.2%, dry Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir? Nothing. Therefore, “Russian River Valley” on the label tells the consumer nothing about the wine’s character, or its quality. The consumer may believe that a bottle of wine from “Russian River Valley” will be a good one, and generally, it will be. But the AVA itself is fairly meaningless.
The smaller AVAs get, the more meaning they tend to have. Russian River Valley is a big place, 96,000 acres on the Wine Institute’s website, although it’s probably a little bigger than that after its recent expansion south. It should in theory be a little easier to find a common “taste profile” in the Santa Lucia Highlands, at 22,000 acres. But is it? I could say SLH Pinot Noirs are ripe, juicy, big wines, often tannic, and dry, with a minerality rare in Russian River Valley, and who could argue with that? And yet that’s just a generalization: the actual wines are variations on this theme, some closer to it, others further away. Compare a Pisoni estate Pinot Noir with a Sleepy Hollow (say, Testarossa’s) and you’re really talking about two different places.
Then we get down to an even smaller appellation, Oakville. At only 5,760 acres, it’s compact enough for a hiker to walk its boundaries in a few hours. There is something “Oakville-ish” to the Cabernets, but again, the rule is more often than not thwarted by the exceptions. East Oakville Cabernets tend to be very ripe and sweet, with a roasted red berry taste. West Oakville Cabernets tend to be tighter, more tannic, veering to black and blue fruits. They’re both Oakville, but of two different species.
All right, you say, let’s get even smaller, and find an AVA that really does mean something. Searching the list, I see an AVA of 2,560 acres: Solano County-Green Valley. Does that mean anything? Not to me. I see a mere 1,300 acres for River Junction, but I couldn’t even tell you what county that’s in. Stags Leap District, at 2,700 acres, maybe comes closest to actually meaning something, but I’m not going to say it’s “an iron fist in a velvet glove” even though that old chestnut is hauled out by every budding wine writer. About the most I can say truthfully about a Stags Leap Cabernet is that it’s almost bound to be a distinguished wine, and ageable too, the way you might describe a Saint-Julien Bordeaux.
Don’t misunderstand me, I like having a system of appellations. It is helpful for consumers to know where the wine is from, and anybody who wants to is free to dig deeper into appellations, to expand their knowledge. But the entire process of wine education and evaluation consists in learning when the rules apply, and when they don’t. Wine is very complicated, very mysterious, very confounding stuff. Maybe it was simpler, in bygone times, but no more. Human intervention, the explosion of vineyard acreage, climate change, a huge diversity of material (from rootstocks to barrels) and a more internationalized winemaker community mean that, today more than ever, a bottle of wine refuses to be trapped into the straitjacket of an “appellation.”
One sign of a good wine book is when I find something on nearly every page to blog about. By that standard, Benjamin Lewin’s In Search of Pinot Noir is a very good wine book.
Besides being a handsome publication, physically speaking, and well graphicked with superb maps and charts, In Search is written with plenty of informed opinion. I like opinion and even attitude from a wine writer, but only when the writer actually possesses a vast well of knowledge. There are plenty of opinionated wine writers out there whose knowledge suffers from, shall we say, de paucité. When Mr. Lewin, who is an M.W., contends something, it has the ring of truth.
There is an irony at the heart of his book, or maybe an inherent contradiction is the better way to put it. This is not Mr. Lewin’s fault. Rather, it is due to his honesty and perceptiveness that it found its way into the book in the first place. One could suggest that the first duty of a wine book on Burgundy is to celebrate the terroirs of the Côte d’Or, and generations of writers have risen to the occasion, repeating truths they heard from others. This, Mr. Lewin reverentially does, in his discussions of Chambertin, La Tâche and the rest. But he does something else that is rare and refreshing: he raises the question (which he is candid enough to imply has no final answer), Are the historic variations between these wines due to actual terroir, or are they due to differences in the human approach to growing grapes and making wine (including, significantly, ripeness levels, stem inclusion in the fermentation and the amount of new oak)? For, make no mistake, if it is the latter, then not only is our historic understanding of the various vineyards of Grand and Premier Burgundy build on sand, but so is the entire notion of terroir, which as we all know has been appropriated from France to California, especially when it comes to Pinot Noir.
I love that Mr. Lewin testifies to the difficulty of cracking this issue. On the one hand, he can’t quite bring himself to say that “The concept of terroir is B.S.” That would be a bridge too far; besides, he evidently doesn’t believe it. But, having studied his subject matter long and hard, he knows that every theory of Burgundy is shattered by experiences of individual bottles that are the exception to the rule. Read this book, and the take home lesson is that the notion of terroir in Burgundy–specifically, of hard and firm vineyard characteristics–might be true from a bird’s eye view, 500 feet in the air. But get down into the tall grass, and it begins to fall apart, when the wines of two different proprietors, made from grapes grown right next to each other, are so different. Nor is Mr. Lewin enough of an apologist for terroir to claim to find a common thread running through these wines. He might say there seems to be one, but he might also say there doesn’t. Good for him.
What this means for the theory of Pinot Noir terroir we’ve created in California over the last 30 years is that it’s nowhere near as simple as it seems, or as producers of highly coveted wines want you to believe. One of the most frustrating and troubling experiences of my career has come when I’ve tasted with producers who claim that there are vast, solid and obvious differences between single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, when I myself cannot perceive them. Of course, when you’re with a highly regarded Pinot Noir winemaker who tells you how different (say) Cargasacchi Vineyard is from Mount Carmel, you tend to believe him, and you tend to look for the differences he is describing. It isn’t surprising when and if, therefore, you actually find those differences.
What’s scary is when you taste these wines objectively and do not find differences. Then you’re forced to come to one of only two possible conclusions: either you’re a bad taster–and who wants to admit that?–or the person who told you about those vast, obvious differences between vineyards was himself mistaken. Or, if “mistaken” is too prejudicial a word, then he was seeing things that don’t exist because he wanted to. I suppose there’s a third possibility, now that I think of it. It may be that a winemaker who consistently tastes the wines of various vineyards, year in and year out, blind and not blind, as part of his job really will learn to detect the subtle distinctions between them that the majority of us, no matter how gifted, cannot. This shouldn’t be surprising, any more than if your neighbor down the street had identical twins, and you were unable to tell Peter and Paul apart, at least during their childhoods. “What? You can’t see that Pete is totally different from Paul?” dad might ask. “Actually, no, I can’t,” you want to reply. “They both seem the same to me.” (But you don’t want to be rude).
Once again we bump up against the principle of uncertainty, by which what we perceive is relative to how we examine the data. This isn’t to say that there are not ironclad differences between, say, Wllliams Selyem’s Allen Vineyard Pinot Noir and their Estate Pinot Noir. There may well be, because although these two properties are quite close to one another on Westside Road, they are obviously different places. And Bob Cabral, who must live as intimately with these wines as he does with his own family, may well learn to be particularly sensitive to their differences. But that doesn’t mean he would be as sensitive to the differences between Cargasacchi and Mount Carmel, since he does not routinely taste their wines. So do the differences between them, as expressed by those who know them best, actually exist? Probably yes. But do they matter to the rest of us? Probably no.
What the critic looks for–even if he cannot consistently detect the characteristics that various vineyards are said to exhibit–is the quality of the individual wine in the bottle. There may well be an underlying, everlasting quality to any wine from the Cargasacchi Vineyard. Peter Cargasacchi, an eloquent man and superb grapegrower, no doubt could express it convincingly. But one would be hard pressed to taste Cargasacchi bottlings from Siduri, Dragonette, Cargassachi itself, Ken Brown, Brewer Clifton and Loring side by side and come up with a pronouncement that holds true across all of them and across all time, unless it’s something so bland–like “all the wines are deeply concentrated”–that it could apply to most good Pinot Noir vineyards. I could, I suppose, comb through years of notes for every Cargasacchi Vineyard Pinot Noir I’ve ever tasted and see if there are words or concepts that apply to all of them. I should then, however, have to comb through reviews of all other Pinot Noirs I’ve tasted, to see if those same words or concepts popped up with the same frequency, before I could honestly write that the Cargassachi Vineyard alone is marked by those qualities. (For example, minerality, or crushed Indian spices, or firm tannins.) But I don’t know if we’ll ever have, in California, an example where one Pinot Noir is described as consistently feminine and another as consistently masculine. Too much depends on vintage variation, on age of vines, on clones and growing decisions, on ripeness, on maceration and fermentation techniques, on yeasts, on barrel type and length of aging and so on. In Burgundy, of course, they arrived at their famous conclusions centuries ago, and they may have been accurate then. The strength of Mr. Lewin’s book is that he shows how difficult it is now to hold onto those conclusions, much as even a diehard Burgundian may want to. And if it’s hard in Burgundy, it’s just about impossible in California.
They gave us attendees to the Wine Writers Symposium last March a free copy of The World of Fine Wine, issue 30. I didn’t get around to reading it until just the other day, and a fine magazine it is indeed.
One of the columnists is David Schildknecht, who is part of Parker’s team. He wrote a piece on terroir which, unfortunately, I was unable to find online, so I can’t link to it here. There was nothing particularly new in it; it’s pretty standard stuff, if a bit stuffy to read. But it was interesting because David revealed a certain Eurocentric view in referring to “the one-time heartland of terroir denial, Northern California.”
It seems that David believes that, after a long period of insisting that terroir doesn’t exist or matter, California now “champions site-specificity,” proving that “a paradign shift has clearly occurred…What too you so long?” David asks California.
Let us now deconstruct these remarks so that we can prove their untruth. David offered no evidence that California has only lately stumbled into an embrace of terroir, other than an interview with Tony Soter, who no longer makes wine in California but rather in Oregon. Hence, it’s not at all clear why he feels that way, i.e., that 5, 10, 15, 20 or 30 years ago California pooh-poohed the notion of terroir. (David cites Matt Kramer as having discovered the importance of place 20 years ago.) I mean, really, this is not only silly, it’s disrespectful of decades of history. Look at the boutique era for proof that the founding fathers of the modern wine period understood terroir perfectly well, even if they didn’t feel it necessary to use a Frenchified word for it. Did such pioneers as Donn Chappellet and Al Brounstein not pick their mountains for terroir purposes? They did. Did Josh Jensen not travel the state looking for limestone before he created Calera on Mount Harlan? He did. Did Patrick Campbell choose the vertiginous slopes of Sonoma Mountain because he knew it would make ageworthy Cabernet Sauvignon? Yes. Did the daring vintners who planted vineyards on the far Sonoma Coast not have a passionate dedication to terroir before they tackled that forbiddingly harsh region? They did. Was the late Jess Jackson unaware of “a sense of place” when he bought and developed the Verite and Stonestreet properties, high up on Alexander Mountain? He was not. Did Sir Peter Michael choose his spot high on Mount St. Helena by accident? No.
All these pathfinders sought terroir, and I could go on and on citing others who knew exactly what they wanted in a piece of dirt and then went on to realize it. Northern California, or California in general, has never been a bastion of terroir denial. We can agree on that. So what would lead David to say it was? Here we have to get inside the man’s head. There are several reasons, I think. One is the standard old European bias against California, and more broadly against the U.S., that we are a collection of idiotic boobs with no taste or discernment. Another reason is because there’s been a very tight little in-group of European wine writers and MWs who talk only to themselves–and they tend to be insulated and perpetuate the same myths over and over. The reason David doesn’t know that California has always been aware of and in search of the greatest terroir is because he doesn’t read people like me. I could have told him so a long time ago and prevented him from writing something so patently vapid. And a final reason may simply be the Francophilia that so many European wine writers feel in their bones–a belief that may not even be conscious, that only Old Europe can have true terroir, that all coastal California is, is a western extension of the Central Valley.
No, California’s great winemakers know perfectly well what terroir is. They always have. Nothing “took them so long.” What “took so long” has been for David to finally grasp that California “gets it.” Well, better late than never!
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.
There’s a Dutch-based website, QLI [pronounced “coolie”], that asked me to respond to the following question: Why do California wines show so little sign, or no sign at all, of terroir?
I suppose one hears this complaint a lot in Europe. Hell, one even hears it here in the States, and not just in New York; my own colleague at Wine Enthusiast, Paul Gregutt, has been known to lodge similar criticism of California wines.
I’m going to write someting up for the QLI people (who seem nice enough; they explain that they, personally, like California wines, it’s their friends who don’t). But I thought I’d take my answer out for a test run here on the old blog.
What I’ll begin with, I suppose, is to answer a question with another question: What is terroir? I mean, if terroir is the sum total of dirt and weather, then California wine has terroir because, obviously, every grape vine grows somewhere, in dirt that has weather. You may not like a 17.2% El Dorado County Zinfandel with 1.2% residual sugar–I don’t–but isn’t it true that such a wine possesses terroir? So right away I find the question a little incoherent.
However, obviously I don’t want to tell my new European friends they’re incoherent, so I have to frame the argument in a different way. Instead of answering the question literally, I need to deconstruct it and figure out what it really means.
What I think it means is that California wines don’t show certain nuances that, say, Bordeaux and Burgundy show, because we’re at too southerly a latitude and therefore the grapes get too ripe and therefore the alcohol levels get too high and the higher the alcohol, the more terroir is masked, and the problem is compound by winemakers giving a heavy-handed vinification, mainly oak that’s too strong. (Maybe the anti-California crowd also thinks we don’t have suitable soils anywhere in our gigantic state.) Anyway this is what I think the anti-Californians mean. There’s a variant of this argument that says it’s not that California is too southerly, it’s that the wrong (i.e. meridional) varieties are planted here, rather than the Mediterranean varieties that would do better. This was being pushed quite a while ago by Randall Grahm, but I don’t think he says that anymore.
If the anti-California crowd is saying something other than what I’ve described above, I don’t know what it is. So I’ll assume that’s what they mean: in short, California wines are too big, powerful, ripe and alcoholic.
Well, there are certain French and Italian wines that are also big, powerful, ripe and alcoholic, and they include some famous names sold at high prices; but maybe the anti-California crowd would say they, too, lack terroir. Then, too, there are some terrific California wines that clock in under 14%, or nearly so, which is lower than a good many classified growths. Another question I’d like to ask the anti-California crowd is, Are you saying that all Bordeaux and Burgundies have terroir? Mouton-Cadet has terroir? Possibly the problem is that, over there in Europe where they live, they’ve tasted only big-brand California wines exported to Europe by the mega-corporations that own them. (No names need be mentioned, but they would be the California equivalents of yellow tail.) I will grant that a mass-produced, California-appellated varietal wine probably doesn’t possess terroir, but surely it’s not fair to judge all California wines by the standard of a million-case production Chardonnay, is it?
I submit that California wines, at their highest, do show terroir, and in some cases, spectacularly. I blogged yesterday on my 20-year vertical of Williams Selyem Allen Vineyard Pinot Noir, a wine of such expressive terroir that it blows my mind anyone would ever say no California wine has terroir. There are many other wines I could name that possess fabulous terroir. Look up my highest scoring wines and you’ll see many, many with plenty of terroir. They tend to come from individual vineyards, as you’d expect; but I’ve always thought there was a bit of snobbiness to the position that only a single-vineyard wine can have terroir. I gave 100 points to the 2006 Cardinale last year, a wine comprised of grapes from Mt. Veeder, Howell Mountain, Stags Leap and Oakville. I suppose you could argue, purely intellectually, that that wine cannot have terroir because the grapes were grown in such disparate places, but really, who cares, when we’re talking about a wine that is, quite frankly, perfect? (Or maybe you could say that Cardinale has Napa Valley terroir.)
Besides, I’m sure that when the anti-California crowd is looking straight at the label of their garrigiste Bordeaux, grower Champagne or few rows of Vosne, they’re able to detect terroir because their eyes tell their brains, which then tell their ears, that it must be there. Strange, though, that in so many blind tastings, California wines outshine French wines. I’m not just talking about the Paris Tasting. Schramsberg has been doing blind tastings against the top Champagnes for years, and coming out pretty well.
I’d like to invite the anti-California crowd out here. We’ll drive up to Williams Selyem and do another vertical, maybe of Hirsch or Ferrington or Rochioli Riverblock. I think even the most jaded European palate will find the experience eye-opening.