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Thursday throwaway: on “simple” wine appreciation, U.S. wine production and the status of reviewers



Why is “simple” the new mantra for everything, including wine?

Did it start with the “For Dummies” books? Then there’s that drumbeat in the blogosphere that peddles “unserious” wine appreciation. What’s that all about? I Googled the term “wine made simple” and got 181,000,000 hits! I have no problem with clarity and preciseness in speaking and writing about wine, but I don’t see how this dumbing-down of it to some kind of level of purported simplicity adds to the conversation.

We want everything nowadays to be fast, easy, quick, simple, mindless, whether it’s selecting a travel destination from a Top Ten list, a recipe, a life mate (“speed dating” got 127,000,000 hits on Google) or an understanding of the wines of Bordeaux.

It used to be that people understood that acquiring true knowledge was hard. Skilled practitioners took on apprentices, who studied for years to master iron work, or shoemaking, or stucco painting, or, yes, wine. Even 20 years ago, no one would have dared to write a book about wine without having first probed the topic for many years. Today, you can publish a book knowing almost nothing. Just have the word Simple in the title.

When did wine get so complicated that it had to be simplified, anyway? This meme that things were too hifalutin for the ordinary person to grasp is comparatively recent. It began in fact in the period immediately following the Repeal of Prohibition. Mary Frost Mabon called her 1942 book “ABC of America’s Wines” because, she wrote, “It takes the hocus-pocus out of wine-drinking.” When Leon Adams, the founder of the Wine Institute and no intellectual slouch, wrote his 1958 tome, he called it “The Commonsense Book of Wine” to combat the “nonsense” and “confusion” that, he claimed, had plagued the “bewildered layman.” Justin Meyer, well-known to generations of Napans as the founder of Silver Oak Cellars, called his book (with a forward by Robert Mondavi) “Plain Talk about Fine Wine,” a title meant to teach readers about wine “in straightforward language” (even Mr. Mondavi called it a “fun” read).

Nobody has to apologize for writing a good wine book that challenges readers to make some effort to understand a complicated subject. But people should apologize for writing a bad wine book, on the pretext that it’s “simple.”

* * *

Great news from Wine Institute: On the heels of two gigantic harvests (2012 and 2013), U.S. wine sales are up in both volume and value, with the most popular varieties remaining Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot still sells more than twice as much as Pinot Noir, while Moscato has overtaken Sauvignon Blanc! (That’s pretty amazing.) Even sparkling wine is up, a stimulus to those wineries who produce it or are considering doing so. California accounts for 90% of all U.S. wine exports—no surprise there. The state of the California wine industry, in other words, is sound.

* * *

Interesting article in the U.C. Santa Barbara student newspapercon how “experts” will rank the exact same bottle of wine differently at different times, and sometimes significantly, provided they don’t know what it is. There now have been enough credible studies on this topic to cast a general pall over the wine reviewing industry, and this is something that industry is going to have to address. I don’t think it’s a fatal flaw, but it does undermine public confidence in the ratings game.

I disagree, however, with one characterization that reporter Jay Grafft made: that in a competition, “just about every bottle of wine has the same exact chance of receiving first place–that is, a completely random chance.” If this were true, then, as Grafft writes, “a team of coin-flipping monkeys [could] decide” which bottle came in first place.

I remain convinced that, for all its subjectivity, there’s enough objective reality in wine quality for professional judges to single out the better ones from the not-so-good. Notice I wrote “professional judges.” By that I mean people with considerable experience under their belt. So I wouldn’t want to see the baby thrown out with the bathwater. Yes, let’s recognize the fact that there is—as I’ve written for years—a bothersome randomness to wine judging. The reviewing system is not perfect. But let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Reviewing remains necessary, if for no other reason than that consumers like it and depend on it to help them make buying decisions.

Thursday throwaway: Ballard Canyon, 2011 Pinots and Screwtops



I’m not always thrilled when the TTB grants official appellation status to a new region in California. Most of them seem like vanity projects, or else they cover areas with very little in the way of wine-producing history, and in many cases they don’t even make sense from a terroir point of view.

(No, I won’t name names.)

But every once in a while a new American Viticultural Area is approved that entirely deserves it. Ballard Canyon is the latest.

I’ve been following wineries and vineyards (Rusack, Larner, Stolpman, etc.) in that central portion of Santa Barbara County for years, in addition to newer ones (Jonata) that have come to my attention. The quality is exceptionally high across the board (as it tends to be in the greater Santa Ynez Valley). Aspirations are high, too, and the terroir, as I understand it, seems perfectly suited for what folks are doing down there. So welcome to the AVA family, Ballard Canyon! And congratulations in particular to Michael Larner, who filed for the appellation back in 2011 and waited patiently for his application to wend its way through the government bureaucracy!

* * *

I’ve been tasting a great deal of Pinot Noir lately, mainly from the 2011 vintage, whose overall character is becoming clearer to me with each bottle I review. The year was not the miracle some had predicted it would be. The original spin on the chilliness was, “Isn’t this special! Now we’ll finally get some nice, elegant, low alcohol Pinots.” Good theory, but as usually happens with good theories, it kind of got its face smashed in by reality. The truth is that there were a lot of green Pinots produced in 2011–some moldy ones, too, and that has marred the vintage.

However, the best wineries did succeed in producing elegant, classy Pinots that are ageable. Williams Selyem, Rochioli, Failla, Merry Edwards, Dutton-Goldfield, Lynmar, W.H. Smith, Coup de Foudre and Flowers all made magnificent wines from the Russian River Valley/Sonoma Coast. Down in Santa Rita Hills, so did Foxen, Bonaccorsi, Tantara and Testarossa. In neighboring Santa Maria Valley, Bien Nacido Vineyard produced exceptional fruit for its clients. The new Caleras hit benchmark highs up on Mount Harlan. In the Santa Lucia Highlands, Roar, Tantara, Testarossa and Bernardus (from Pisoni) all had good bottlings. Even Carneros–never my favorite spot for Pinot Noir–over-performed, with some great wines from Mira, Donum and Stemmler.

Why did these wineries succeed in such a challenging year? I suspect it had a lot to to with viticulture, especially sorting. They simply had the commitment to get rid of bad bunches of grapes. No amount of new oak, by the way, can mask the green taste of unripe grapes and stems. Nothing can.

* * *

During my tasting session yesterday, I had a number of wines in screwtops. Good wines, too: high-scoring. And I realized it’s been years since I mentioned “screwtop” in a wine review. I used to do it, in the sense of saying something like, “Don’t worry about the screwtop. It doesn’t mean that the wine is cheap.” I felt I had to reassure readers that it’s legitimate to put a screwtop on an ultrapremium wine–more than legitimate, actually, since it assures that the wine will never be corked!

But I don’t mention screwtops anymore because, to me, it’s a non-issue. In fact, I wonder why more wineries haven’t turned to them, instead of corks and (worst of all), artificial corks. I suppose it’s because the public at large still considers screwtops the sign of a cheap wine. We educators will just have to work harder to let them know otherwise.

Thursday throwaway


Vintage 2012

Vintage 2012 so far has been the most “normal” year I can remember.

No frost last Spring. No damp, rainy conditions into June. Here we are, just days away from Labor Day, and there hasn’t yet been one of those notorious heat events that lasts for days, wrecking havoc in the vineyards.

Of course, good could turn to bad before all the grapes are picked. (Harvest actually began a week or two ago for the sparkling varieties.) The last of the Cabernet probably won’t be crushed until sometime in October; rains could come as early as mid-September, compromising the fruit.

But let’s not worry about what hasn’t happened. So far, so good. Moderate to warm temperatures during the day, cool at night, just the right amount of fog and sun. It seems like a miracle after the weirdness of 2011, 2011, 2009, 2008, even 2007. I just hope I don’t have to eat my words by the time vintage 2012 is over.

* * *

Targeting women wine drinkers

I like Chateau Ste. Michelle’s new campaign targeting wine to women, as reported in yesterday’s New York Times.

In general, I’m not a fan of targeting specific demographic groups, as it seems like pandering. I was interviewed the other day for Wine Crush Radio, and this topic of marketing to women came up, and I told the host I didn’t much care for it, any more than I would care about targeting wine to Black Americans, gay Americans or any other group.

But the Ste. Michelle campaign is tasteful and creative. Quoting from the Times: Users customize an equation that begins “Me + A glass of wine” and ends “ = My Chateau.” Within, users string together words and symbols to complete the equation. So one might formulate: “Me + A glass of wine + Camping — (symbol for thunderstorm) + my kids — (symbol for computer monitor) = My Chateau.”

Here’s my equation: Me + a bottle of Champagne + the perfect companion + a private beach in Hawaii + smoked salmon and caviar – rain – clouds – wind + plenty of SPF 70 sunscreen = My Chateau.”

* * *

Downtown Napa is so cool

Nice to see that Napa County has installed educational signs along the banks of the Napa River in downtown Napa city, to inform passersby of the flood control project that tore the area up for years, but thankfully and hopefully will prevent downtown from experiencing the kind of flooding that occurred routinely for so long.

Downtown Napa has really become a go-to destination. I remember in the 1980s when nobody went there because there was no place to go and nothing to do. Napa was a joke, a seedy place of thrift shops and old-fashioned clothing and furniture stores. No more. Napa is now the hottest town in the county, a real destination for fine dining, entertainment and, if you’re inclined to spend the night, first-class hotels and resorts. I can’t think of any wine country destination within two hours of my home I’d rather hang out in for a couple of days, including Healdsburg.

Thursday throwaway


I’ve said before that gigantic wine competitions are pretty worthless, and that’s my impression again after seeing the results of the latest West Coast Wine Competition, which have just been announced.

The first thing I’ve gotta get out of the way–full disclosure–is that I haven’t tasted each and every wine that won a medal. And so I’m not going to mention any particular wine. But looking at the California entries, I have a very strong hunch that these are not the best wines you can buy of their type and price.

There are problems aplenty in these competitions. For one, the entries tend to be supermarket brands, the kinds handled by large distributors and produced in sizable quantities. Most of the smaller boutique wineries would never consider entering, and so the list of possible winners is severely compromised. Another problem is that there are so many judges (23, some of whom are good friends of mine) that the final results are unlikely to represent the thoughtful conclusion of a seasoned taster, but an arbitrated consensus in which everybody gives a little to get a little. Believe me, I’ve participated in a few of these competitions, and I know. I have to believe also that, with so many wines tasted in so short a period, people’s capacity to handle alcohol was taxed.

It’s not that the results are completely useless. The recommended wines are fine, near as I can tell, particularly in the less expensive brackets. You probably won’t hate any of the winners. Most people in the industry understand the limits of a competition like this, but the average consumer would do well to take the results with a grain of salt.

* * *

I see my friend and colleague, Stacie Jacob, has stepped down from her job as executive director of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, in order to start the next chapter in her life, as proprietor of a marketing company. I wish her well. She did a great job. Paso Robles, as we all know, has become an important wine region, something that wasn’t guaranteed ten years ago, and Stacie had a lot to do with that.

Running a regional winery association is a hard, thankless task. It’s like herding cats, and some of those cats can get real hissy. The big cats always want to dominate the smaller ones, which the smaller ones resent because they’re also paying dues. There are competing agendas. Different people have differing views on how to promote the region, there’s never quite enough money to get everything done, and over this quarrelsome republic the Executive Director must reign with dignity and quiet aplomb, her job always on the line if something misfires.

I’ve known quite a few winery association executives in my time and I’ve admired them all. Some have done a better job than others. I respect Rhonda Motil, at The Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association. She seems to wring a lot out of a buck. With a small staff, she’s really worked hard to make the wines and wineries of Monterey shine. The Napa Valley Vintners also does a great job, with the inimitable Terry Hall defining the “never let ‘em see you sweat” approach. (He’s communications director, not executive director; that’s Linda Reiff; but Terry’s the prime contact for ink-stained wretches like me.) I always imagine that working at Napa Valley Vintners must be the ultimate in pressure, with all those egos up there, but NVV pulls everything off with style.

That there are underperforming regional winery associations is an understatement, and they know who they are! A good association will help boost a region immeasurably, but in the event of a poor one, nature won’t tolerate a vacuum: if the association can’t get the job done, niche-savvy P.R. pros and wineries will do it for them.

Thursday throwaway: blogs, Calistoga and the flu


I was going to write more about blogging and making money, for which I got slammed in several recent posts, but then I thought, there’s a limit to how much of this stuff even I can tolerate before it gets boring. So I’m dropping it for a while.

In fact, in my flu-addled mind wine seems a distant topic. Right now all I can think of is sitting on some warm sunny beach far away from the rain and cold that has been afflicting Northern California lately. We deserve it, of course, after six weeks of unseasonably dry, warm weather. The mustard flowers this year seemed more glorious than usual, bursting in riotous yellow between the dormant vines, but I know that grapegrowers worried the buds would break prematurely and then be struck down by late winter or Spring frost. In my neighborhood, Uptown Oakland, the plum trees likewise flowered early, with the most delirious, heady perfume, but the Vietnamese kids always break off the lower branches for their New Year celebration, so even though the trees are old, they’re small and stubby, like bonsai.

It was rainy the last two days in Calistoga, too, where I was holed up for a story in an upcoming issue of Wine Enthusiast. My original concept had been to write mainly about tourism in that old town. I know people, mainly women, who go there routinely for the mud baths, facials and massages (none of which, except for massages, appeal to me). There are now some nice restaurants in Calistoga, which never used to be the case, but they’re not as good as the new crop in Napa. I also figured I’d write a little about Calistoga’s terroir, especially for Cabernet Sauvignon.

But running around Calistoga, visiting wineries and chatting up whoever was around, it struck me that I don’t know what Calistoga’s terroir is. The TTB only officially approved the Calistoga AVA in late 2009 (I think it was), so there are no red wines that say “Calistoga” on them. There are plenty of wineries that make red wines in Calistoga, but except for a handful (Montelena, Araujo) that use estate-grown grapes, it’s not clear to me where these wineries actually source their fruit. (I mean wineries like B Cellars, Clos Pegase, August Briggs, Twomey, Envy, Bennett Lane, Summers). So I’m on a mission now to seriously figure out Calistoga terroir, whatever it is, and I have about two weeks to do it before my deadline.

Ah, the good old deadline. Nothing like a deadline in the morning to clear the mind.

I’ll write all about this in the article, which I hope you’ll read. I’m fundamentally at heart a reporter. I like nothing better than to have to report on a good mystery, and have the clock ticking toward my deadline. I started as a writer working as a stringer (freelancer) for the Oakland Tribune. In those days, I’d have to go downtown to the city room personally every morning at 9 a.m., get my assignment, then have until 5 p.m. that day to file. I did murder cases, child abductions, politics and stupid human interest stories (like one on lady wrestlers my editor called the best she’d ever read). Sometimes, there was no way to make my 5 p.m. deadline because it involved a late night City Council meeting, so I’d have to telephone (!!) my copy in to some kid, probably stoned, at the late night city desk and dictate it to him word by word, pointing out every comma, apostrophe and semi-colon (those late night copy kids were notoriously illiterate). In a way I miss the excitement of those pre-Internet days, but not really. I’m glad I can still get excited over a story, the way I am with Calistoga.

I wonder if having “Calistoga” on the label instead of “Napa Valley” will add value to the bottle’s price. The theory is that the smaller the appellation, the more you can charge for the wine. But like all theories, that one is often disproved by the exceptions. Lots of wineries refuse to put a smaller AVA on their label even if they can. Some wineries in Santa Ynez Valley put Santa Barbara County on the label. I imagine some Calistoga wineries will continue to use Napa Valley because they’re conservative, and they figure their customers might not understand the change. Myself, if I had a winery I’d use the smallest appellation I was entitled to.

Now I need one more day of rest to kick this flu or cold or whatever it is out of my body. Then it’s back to full speed, which I’ll need to be at for next week’s Wine Writers Symposium and all those associated activities, culminating in Premier Napa Valley. Nearly a week of non-stop schmoozing. You need to be well rested and healthy for that Olympian activity. Of course, I’ll be writing all about it.

Thursday throwaway


Wine May Cut Decline in Thinking Skills

is the headline in this new WebMD article that says wine “may even protect against dementia.” That’s wine, mind you — “not beer and spirits.”

Why am I not surprised? As any reader of this blog knows, wine drinkers are smarter, handsomer/prettier, healthier, funnier and in general better human beings than anybody else.

* * *

While we’re on the subject of scientfic studies, here’s another one that shows how your choice in wine “could also reveal [your] personality traits.” For example, sweet wine lovers are more impulsive while dry wine lovers are more open.

I have no idea what this study means or if it’s important or if anybody cares, but it did get two university professors that much closer to a cosseted life of tenured employment.

* * *

Some anecdotal talk out here in Cali that the over-$20 market is picking up steam again.

* * *

The weather has turned a little warmer, but it’s still below normal. Today’s Chronicle says the abnormally chilly summer has had the benefit of fewer smoggy days. Some of the comments from winemakers (both here and on my Facebook page) correct me that it’s not warmth that ripens grapes, but solar radiation; and, they say, 2010 could be a great vintage, because although it feels cold to humans (it does, it does), it feels great to grapes, who are soaking up the radiation, and could achieve true ripeness at lower sugar levels. This is, of course, the Holy Grail of California winemakers. They’ve been trying to do it for years, tinkering with canopies, trying new yeast strains and so on. Mother Nature, as it turns out, may do it for them. Now, all we have to do is convince her not to start the rainy season until November.

* * *

Lucky was the writer (David Elswood, of Christie’s, the British auction house), who was invited to Chevel Blanc to participate in the recorking of some bottles of the legendary 1947 vintage, perhaps the most famous wine of the 20th century.

I was fortunate to taste it twice, both times courtesy of the Getty family, in San Francisco. One time, Billy Getty phoned me (I was already living in Oakland) to say his mother had just bought “an amusing little cellar” from somebody in New York, and did I want to come over to the mansion to try some stuff, including ‘47 Cheval Blanc?

Did I! I’d written an article about it in Wine Spectator, and had interviewed all these famous collectors (Bipin Desai, Marvin Overton, Tawfig Khoury) who described it to me (they were only too happy to have their names in the magazine). So I jumped into my car and raced across the Bay Bridge and zoomed up Fillmore to Pacific Heights, made a quick left on Broadway, and parked opposite the Big House with its grand view of the Bay.

Knocked on the door. The elderly butler (who had worked for old Joe Kennedy when he’d been ambassador to the Court of St. James, during the war), opened it. Inside, in that marble room off to the left, was Billy, with two or three other friends, busily drinking wine. I asked for the ‘47. Billy brought me the bottle. I held it, turned it upside down over my glass — and nothing came out. Empty!

I was too late. But Billy Getty was nothing if not a charming host. He saw my face droop. What’s wrong? It’s empty, I sighed. No problem! Billy clapped his hands — the old butler appeared from nowhere — another bottle of the ‘47 Cheval Blanc! And that is the story of how I found myself with my very own bottle of that legendary wine. (And, yes, it was good. Rather Califorianian, I daresay.)

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