It’s odd, when you think about it, that the Chinese have embraced French wine so fervently. I mean, why wasn’t it California wine? China, over the course of its long history, has had very little to do with France. But the relationship between China and California goes way back–to a sad time (the 1800s) when California imported Chinese laborers to build its infrastructure, including some of Napa Valley’s buildings and wine caves. But today, that relationship is thriving. San Francisco is the gateway from China to the rest of America, the city’s Mayor is Chinese-American, and business interests in and around the Bay Area have been cultivating ties with their Chinese counterparts for decades.
So why did France beat California in the Chinese wine sweepstakes?
The conventional wisdom is that the Chinese are motivated by status, and nothing says “status” louder than a bottle of Lafite. That may partly be true, but it doesn’t fully explain the phenomenon. Of equal, and perhaps greater, importance has been the investment, in time and money, of the French government in promoting French wines abroad, and especially in China. Such organizations as the French Wine Society, which is endorsed by a range of French agencies as well as regional-based ones, have long been actively educating consumers and trade in China. And the CIVB–the Bordeaux Wine Bureau–has cultivated ties to Chinese consumer organizations. As links between the two nations have thickened, the French government has stepped up its efforts to promote wine to China’s growing legions of middle class. As Decanter recently reported, “France accounts for around half of the wine leaving the EU for China annually and the French government has not missed an opportunity to build bridges with the Chinese authorities.” (This is despite issues of taxes and “dumping” that have arisen between the two countries.)
I know that Wine Institute has been trying to cultivate ties with China for a long time. But my sense is that the American government, riven by political differences, has been hesitant to support or promote the sale of wine abroad, to a degree not present in France. That is, I think, due to the historic role wine has played in France. It is part of the essential French patrimony.
Still, I can’t understand why France beat California. It seems so counter-intuitive. As usual when I want more information on something, I turned to my Facebook friends and asked them, “Why do you think the Chinese prefer French wine to California wine?” I got a ton of replies. Here are some of them. Since their names already are public, I repeat them here.
Chris Kassel: “Cachet. Credit the CIVB for having done the required footwork…”.
Peter Nowack agrees. “French has more cachet than Californian. A lot of wine that moves into China is given as business gifts, so prestige plays a role…”.
Fred Swan: “Outreach and availability. European wine merchants have spent a lot more time reaching out to the Chinese market.”
Tim Vandergrift: “Fred Swan is correct. At a trade show I went to the French didn’t have booths: they had pavilions three stories tall, and they knew how to flatter, coax, schmooze and outright bribe Chinese buyers…”.
Bob Cranston: “Having lived and worked in Hong Kong I can tell you it’s simply a matter of familiarity. The French have been working the market in Asia for a very long time.”
Raymond Tosti: “The Chinese are still neophytes to the wine game, and probably still buy into the pre-1970s dogma of how the French are at the pinnacle of quality and California wines are the Charles Shaw of the world!”
Chris Brown: “Newer wine drinkers like lighter wines.”
Bartholomew Broadbent: “The answer is culture. Red is culturally a very important color [in China], so red is the wine of choice. And the Chinese are hardly exposed to anything worth drinking [from California]. Look at the wine list in a Chinese restaurant. They’re serviced by big distributors who put really bad wines on the list.”
Robert Conrad: “In Chinese culture, older is better. If something has been around for a long time it is more respected.”
Sheldon Richards: “I would suggest the British influence in Asia and the French wines they drank when they dominated.”
Doug Wilder: “From Wikipedia: French wine was the first foreign wine imported into China, in 1980.”
Barbara Lardiazbal: “This is a generalization, but in my experience Chinese people like French people more than they do Americans.”
Well, there were a lot more comments; you can see them all here.
As usual, thanks to my Facebook friends for always being so enlightening!
“Food without wine is a corpse; wine without food is a ghost; united and well matched they are as body and soul, living partners.” So said André Simon, wine merchant, gourmet, and co-founder (in 1933) of the Wine & Food Society, the editorship of whose journal passed, in 1963, into the hands of a rising young British writer named Hugh Johnson.
Simon was part of a [mainly British] fraternity of gourmands in the first half of the twentieth century, men (including Professor George Saintsbury), whom today we’d call “foodies.” They enjoyed good food, good wine and good conversation, in an era when the Port was always passed to the left. They were not necessarily men of means; the Society’s other co-founder, A.J. Symons, wrote, for his own epitaph, “No one so poor has lived so well” (a sentiment with which some wine writers might agree!). In the 1920s and 1930s, when the movement was perhaps at its apogee, prices for claret–Bordeaux–came under pressure due to a variety of reasons: the lingering effects of the Great War, the worldwide Depression, the collapse of the French franc, bad vineyard practices, a mummified contract system. Edmund Penning-Rowsell, in The Wines of Bordeaux, has carefully analyzed the “poor succession of [Bordeaux] vintages after 1900” (certainly compared to the Golden age of 1858-1878), pointing out the “not…very satisfactory prices” the chateaux received. Prices even for the great 1929 vintage sank to historic lows, coming as they did mere months after the stock market crashed, in October of that year. “Within eighteen months [afterwards] the first-growth ‘29s could be re-bought for 10,000 frs., exactly half their opening prices.” Quel désaster for the chateaux; a stroke of luck for the gourmands.
The members of the Wine & Food Society would not have understood our modern practice of reviewing wine. They would have been puzzled by the 100-point system (although, one hopes, they might have been more receptive had it been thoroughly explained to them, for they were, above all, rational men). They might have reserved their puzzlement for our tendency today to critique wines with little or no reference to food. If “wine without food is a ghost,” then a wine review without food pairings would have been judged a sacrilege.
Be that as it may, that is our modern way. Yet even those of us who make our living doing wine reviews understand, in our private lives, the importance of the “body and soul” of proper wine and food pairing. So it was that, the other day, talking with cousin Maxine, she remarked on the collection of older California Cabernet Sauvignons that are piling up in our collective cellar. “We don’t have much opportunity to drink them,” she fretted, “because we’re eating less beef.”
Cabernet and steak: it’s the classic pairing. But, like Maxine, I too have been eating less steak for years. Health aspects aside, I don’t make it at home because good cuts are hard to get and even when I can buy it, the risk of overcooking is too high; and nothing is more frustrating than paying good money for a bad steak. In restaurants, I tend not to order steak. Unless the place is a beef specialist (like House of Prime Rib or Harris’, in San Francisco), the risk also is unacceptably high that steak is merely a token item on the menu and will not be satisfying–for the privilege of paying $30 or $40, or more: we ate last night at Bocanova, one of my favorite Oakland restaurants, but I would never order the $48 steak.
So I wondered, What non-beef dishes pair well with a high-end, aged California Cabernet? As usual in such situations, I asked the question on my Facebook page. I expected good answers from my friends; I was not disappointed by the results.
That pairings other than beef were well known to the gourmands is obvious from the menus many of them left behind in their written journals. Professor Saintsbury, in his famous Notes on a Cellar-book, devotes an entire chapter to “records of meals and wines discussed in my own houses, and mostly devised by ourselves.” Forty- and fifty-year old First Growths were commonly consumed at the Professor’s table; what is notable is the relative absence of beef, the result of bad economic times that resulted in an “absurd modicum of meat that was allotted…and when one had to be content with sprats and spaghetti.” With Margaux 1868 and again with ’78 Latour he ate “haunch of mutton,” with ’70 Margaux there were “cutlets a l’Americaine” [presumably veal?], with ’76 Mouton came “mutton cutlets” and “chicken salad,” with ’62 Lafite “Virginian Quails” and with ‘93 Latour and ’96 Leovillle Poyferre “beans and bacon” (!!!!). True, there was one dinner at which 1870 Latour was poured with “Braised Fillet of Beef” but that indulgence seems to have been the exception. At any rate, it’s evident that our modern preoccupation with steak as the perfect Cabernet partner is of fairly recent origin.
I wouldn’t have enough time to try all the pairings my Facebook friends suggested, but there are many tantalizing ones: braised pork loin with mushrooms, cheese sauce and a red wine-bouillion reduction; mushroom-stuffed raviolis and cheese; rack or leg of lamb (of course); grilled halibut with black olive butter; a “warm corn tortilla black bean taco with a subtle fire-roasted salsa and queso fresco” (from Amelia Ceja); applewood-smoked barbecued salmon; braised lamb shanks; lamb and goat cheese lasagna; porcini mushroom risotto; ham with black cherry reduction; coq au vin. For something culinarily different (and perhaps more interesting), Michael Turner suggests Cabernet with “foot rubs and hot tubs”; I might add the Cheez-its Shauna Rosenblum swears by.
While researching an upcoming article in Wine Enthusiast, I asked my Facebook friends if anyone knew the source of the grapes that went into the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, which took first place among white wines in the famous 1976 “Judgment of Paris” tasting.
Good old Facebook! My friends dutifully replied. I cannot myself vouch for the accuracy of their comments, but they sound plausible, to one degree or another. The strongest-sounding claim, from multiple people, is that a portion of the grapes came from the Bacigalupi Vineyard, which is in the northeastern part of Russian River Valley, hard by the entrance to Dry Creek Valley and thus one of the warmest places in the RRV appellation.
This claim also is supported by an article that appeared last June in Wine Business.com, in which Helen Baclgalupi says the old block, which still exists, now is called the Paris Tasting Block. Another of my Facebook respondents, Rich Reader, says Bacigalupi accounted for 85% of the Chardonnay, a claim that is problematic given Katie Bacigalupi’s statement that “Our family supplied 40% of the Chardonnay grapes that were used to produce the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that won the 1976 Paris Tasting.”
Harry Wetzel, of the Alexander Valley Vineyards family (and thus in a position to know), adds that “a significant portion [of the Montelena Chardonnay] was from the Alexander Valley,” although he does not elaborate as to where in Alexander Valley. However, another Facebook respondent, Bob Foster, attached this link, which says that, in addition to the Bacigalupi grapes, “about 20 tons [came] from Henry Dick in Alexander Valley…and the remainin 5 tons from Napa Valley growers John Hanna and Lee Paschich.” I’d never heard of “Henry Dick,” but another Facebook commenter, Nicole Carter, wrote that “The other source was Belle Terre Vineyard Chardonnay (owned by Ron and Kris Dick) part of Chateau st Jean single vineyard series since 1974.” And certainly, those old Belle Terre Chardonnays, produced by the great Richard Arrowood at St. Jean, were famous wines in their day.
Who were John Hanna and Lee Paschich? I don’t know, but yet another Facebook responder, Gabrielle Shaffer, wrote, “Pretty sure a portion came from Bill Hanna’s Oak Knoll vineyard,” which of course is (or was) in Napa Valley. Reader Whitney Yates agrees. “Some of those grapes from the ’73 came from the John Muir Hanna vineyard in Oak knoll. Those grapes have been in every vintage of Montelena since.” I’m not familiar with that vineyard, but Practical Winery & Vineyard reported, back in 2006, that Montelena “leases a 55-acre vineyard in the Oak Knoll District at the base of Mt. Veeder near Dry Creek Road, where mostly Chardonnay grapes are grown.” And “the hands-on manager at Oak Knoll is Bill Hanna.”
So it would appear that famous ’73 Montelena Chardonnay was a blend of three vineyards, at least: Bacigalupi, Belle Terre and Hanna. An interesting combination; perhaps we’ll be lucky enough to get Mike Grgich to weigh in on how and why he decided on that particular cépage. I imagine the Oak Knoll provided the backbone of structure and acidity that Bacigalupi, in itself, did not, although those Belle Terre Chards always had a graceful tartness. On the other hand, Belle Terre would have contributed the layers of opulent tropical fruits that lifted up Hanna’s minerals and herbs. As for Bacigalupi, that vineyard today is far better known for Zinfandel and Pinot Noir than for Chardonnay, although I did review a Gary Farrell 2011 Bacigalupi Chard, gave it a respectable 91 points, and praised its “deliciously ripe” flavors. That wine also was (probably) far oakier than the ’73 Montelena Chard.
History is a wonderful thing, but it’s protean (an adjective derived from the Greek god Proteus, who could change his appearance at will; protean thus means “readily changeable, capable of taking on different shapes and forms”). This makes history, which is among the more fallible of the social sciences, particularly subject to loss, distorted memory, bias and derangement. The Internet clearly is a two-sided blade: It helps to preserve facts (forever, as it turns out), but it also enshrines as “fact” things that may not actually be true; and their appearance in digital form (“It says so right here on my computer”) may lend them the appearance of truth, even when they’re false. On balance, though, first-hand accounts (like those of the Bacigalupis) are the most reliable verifications we have.
The case of the ’73 Montelena Chardonnay also shows that a blended wine–indeed, a two-county, three-appellation blend–can be as great as, and potentially better than, a vineyard-designated one. Did the surprised French judges in Paris, in that May of 1976, know that the winner was a mongrel? Their humiliation at being bested by California would have been all the sharper, with the understanding that this upstart New World Chardonnay did not even possess the prestige of terroir, the way their own Meursault Charmes Roulot (which took second place) did.
This week’s forecast of warm temperatures, dry, sunny weather and above all gusty breezes is made to order for Northern California winegrowers who got a scary soaking on Saturday morning.
Precipitation records fell all over the place. Oakland Airport got nearly an inch of rain, smashing the old record. Mount St. Helena, at the head of Napa Valley, got an inch. As usual, the first rainfall of the season caught drivers unaware: there were accidents everywhere. This was the region’s first real storm since last January, and it came earlier than heavy rain usually comes.
What impact did the rain have on the grapes? As usual, I asked my Facebook friends. Here’s what they said.
While the drops were still falling, the mood was gloomy. “As a farmer/winemaker, [I am] not happy,” said a Spring Mountain vintner. “Scared to death for Petite Sirah,” replied a Sonoman, concerned about the potential for rot in that varietal’s tightly-clustered bunches. A Sonoma Coast winemaker wrote, “Glad I don’t grow Petite. Most Sonoma Coast Pinot is in the barn. All the Bordeaux always have to ride a storm before they get picked, them’s the rules, right?” Right. From down south in Paso (by which the storm had largely petered out), came this reply: “It’s not good for grapes when this happens.”
As morning rain gave way to parting clouds and even warm sun by Saturday afternoon, vintners got more perspective, and were able to put the drenching into context. “Rinse the dust over the canopy to give the vines a boost!” wrote a Sonoma vintner. A Rutherford winemaker predicted, “What we will do is leaf the cluster zone to favor air flow and dry it as fast as possible,” referring to the classic method of allowing mold-producing moisture to evaporate. A Pinot grower with vineyards in Sebastopol and the Anderson Valley must have seen the long-range forecast when he wrote, “It’s been quite windy this afternoon, and is supposed to continue to be very windy for the next couple days…that should help the situation a lot.”
What is that long-range forecast? Here’s from yesterday’s Napa Valley Register. Nice to see all those yellow suns lined up. Warm, sunny weather for at least the next nine days.
So the rain was unusual, and caused some pulse-thumping moments, but should end up being largely meaningless. The only one of my Facebook friends I’ll quote by name here is Mitch Cosentino, at PureCru Wines, whose long reply aptly sums up the situation. “This is my 34th harvest. I was more concerned about my tomatoes in my garden. We had 0.8 in Napa city area. After the rain, it was pretty windy before sundown (which was good). There should be no effect at all on Cab Sauv or Cab Franc. In fact it could help show down and spread out the harvest a bit because everything was getting a bit jammed up. Pinots should be fine. People in Burgundy would laugh at anyone with any concern with one day of rain. If there is any really ripe Sauv Blanc still out there that could have some issues. Ripe Zinfandels could have problems but not likely with it being only one day and breezy mid 70s predicted for the next few days. We have had a beautiful growing season one day is just a day off. Everyone relax, it is going to be a great vintage.”
I was sent a bottle to review. It was the Keller Estate 2009 Precioso Pinot Noir, with a Sonoma Coast appellation. As you can see from the picture, the neck is enclosed in black wax, with a bulbous top that hides the rim. As soon as I saw it,
my spirits drooped. Uh oh, one of those. I hate these wax tops, but still, it’s my duty to open them. Sometimes, it’s not hard at all. The screw goes right through the wax into the cork, and even though there’s no place to properly rest the claw when you extract, it’s usually doable, although I do use extra caution because I don’t want the claw to slip and gouge my palm.
However, sometimes that wax seal is so hard that I just give up. That’s what happened with the Keller. I tried cutting the wax with the blade on my somm’s opener; it was like trying to cut concrete. I thought about using the blunt end of my chef’s knife, to crack the wax until I could break it and chip the whole thing off; but then I thought about the hundreds of tiny little pieces of plastic-like wax that would litter my countertop and the floor. Been there, done that. A flash of resentment arose; the Keller people are just trying to justify the price by putting the wine into an extra-heavy bottle and then enbalming it in that ridiculous tomb of wax. So I gave up.
Went to Facebook, put the picture up, and wrote: “I tried to get the hard plastic capsule off this wine and couldn’t do it without risking driving the corkscrew into my palm! So sorry, I won’t be reviewing this wine.” Didn’t mention the brand; didn’t want anyone to think I was picking on Keller (although, yes, it’s obvious from the picture).
You never know when you put something on Facebook if you’ll get any replies or how many. In this case, as of this writing, 63 comments. Well, about 10 were replies from me, so let’s call it more than 50. That’s a lot of comments for a Facebook post.
One of the comments was from Keller’s proprietor, Ana Keller. A nice lady. She wrote her reply exactly 30 minutes after I posted. In other words, it took a mere half hour for my post to find Ana! It reminded me of Rick’s line, in Casablanca: Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine. That is the power of social media! I don’t know how Ana found out, who told her, etc. But it blows my mind that information passes so quickly around the world.
It seems to me, reading the comments, that other people are bothered by this trend to put wine into impressive packaging as a statement. I’m not picking on Keller; lots of wineries do it. I try to put myself into their shoes. Their thinking must be, “We worked really hard on making the best wine we could, and it deserves to be perceived as special.”
I can understand that. But there’s also a form of hubris behind it. What matters is what’s in the bottle, not what it looks like. In fact, if anything, when I see a big, heavy bottle and a fat, heavy blob of wax on it, my suspicions are aroused. Liptick on a pig? In most cases, I will admit, the wine inside a heavy bottle and a waxed seal is usually pretty good, but that’s not the point. The point is, We’re trying to make wine more accessible for people. Less intimidating, not more; friendlier, not less. By “friendly,” I don’t mean a simple, modest little wine, without presumption. I mean the physical act of opening it. Lots of people are actually intimidated by a corkscrew (which is why the screwtop has been so welcome). I sometimes wonder if the people who dream up these impossible seals have actually tried to open the bottle. If they’d put themselves in the customer’s shoes for a moment, instead of trying to make a statement, they’d realize that their creative bottling concepts can be self-defeating.
Maybe I’ll try again to open the Keller Pinot. I’ll use some of the suggestions in the comments: heating the seal. Heating a knife. That seems pretty silly to me–should a consumer really have to go through all that hassle?–but I have given the Precioso Pinot really high scores in the past (96 for the ‘05, 95 for the ‘07), so I might be missing out on something special. But I’m telling you, if I slice my hand open, Ana Keller is gonna hear from my attorney! (Just kidding.)
I don’t make this stuff up, kids, I just report the facts. I asked on Facebook, “What’s the dumbest thing you’ve heard lately about wine?” Dozens of comments. Here are a few. Enjoy!
“That shiraz and syrah are not the same grape.”
“that white wine has more carbs than red wine”
“Red wine is less fattening because it doesn’t have sugar.”
“You have to swirl your glass to the right in the northern hemisphere and to the left in the southern hemisphere.”
“I’m allergic to sulfides.”
“If there’s a punt in the bottom of the wine bottle…it’s a better wine.”
“That the vintage on the bottle has nothing to do with when the fruit was picked-and that I was an idiot for believing that!”
“That wine is actually made from the stuff mentioned in the reviews: raspberries, cherries, chocolate, cedar, road tar…” [This is one of my faves!]
“That if you lay down Sauvignon Blanc for 10 or more years, it will be worth a fortune.” [I wish...]
[Someone said] “Interesting, you’re copying the South Americans by putting Malbec in your Blend. You must not be a traditional California winery.”
“Consumer question: When it says the name of a river (i.e.Russian River) does that mean that was the water used to make that wine?”
“I’m allergic to the tannins in Merlot. Can I get a Syrah?”
“I was at a wine bar recently where the bartender told me that Piedmont does not have a classification system like the rest of Italy.”
“it was with a fellow tasting room person years ago, when a consumer asked, ‘What makes this wine sweet?’ The answer – from a supposed wine specialist – was, ‘It’s the kind of grape that it is.’”
“I found a mouse in my bottle, and, like, my cousin is a cop and he says I should get a free case.”
“(in discussing Champagne): Just like you can’t call a Pinot Noir a Bordeaux.”
“Oh look! Kendall Jackson is in California.” “What’s Kendall Jackson?” “It’s a white wine.”
“The cork is what removes the tannins.”
“Since you guys are a small winery, are your cases 6 bottles instead of 12?”
[from a winemaker] “pointing to my tasting menu [customer says]: ‘I’ll have a bottle of the number two.’ YUCK!”
“Do you still stomp the grapes like Lucy?” [Let’s not forget Ethel.]
“Wines over 14% alcohol absolutely do not age.”
[And the #1 Dumbest Thing Ever]: “Swirl Left for oak flavors and Swirl right for fruit flavors.”