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Happy Memorial Day



Cocktails and varietal promiscuity



I’m not a big cocktail drinker, but I do like one or two from time to time when I’m having a nice dinner at a restaurant. My preference is vodka. The taste of Scotch has never appealed to me, although I do appreciate the complexities of a single-malt. Rum and bourbon, ehh, I sometimes like to venture over to Pican on a late night and have some of their Bourbon classic cocktails, but I have to be in the right mood. On my to-do list is to explore tequila. Now that I’m not immersed in a tsunami of California wine, like I was for so long, I have the time to explore other beverages!

I used to be a dirty vodka martini guy, but the excessive salt in the olives and brine eventually bothered me. So I asked a bartender at a hotel where I was staying to recommend a vodka drink that was simple but not salty, and he gave me a gimlet. Now, that particular gimlet was not very good. It was too soft and sweet and simple. So when I had dinner recently at Ozumo, I tried again, and bingo! That was a superb gimlet, as were the two I had the other night at Boot and Shoe Service, here in Oakland. I asked the bartender lady why it was so good, and she said it was because they freshly squeeze their own limes, instead of using the classic Rose’s Lime Juice, which to my understanding is sweetened. Perhaps that was the problem with that hotel gimlet, which tasted like liquid candy.

Before I was a wine writer, I drank widely and prolifically. My old tasting diary is filled with notes on Alsace, Chianti, Bordeaux, Germany, the Loire—not so much Italy, alas. These are the wines I plan to start re-enjoying in this new phase of my life and career. But I’m sure the majority of the wines I drink will still be from California.

When I began enjoying California wine, the state hadn’t yet turned into what we may today call the appellation-varietal complex (a term I borrowed from Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex”). Even in Napa Valley, which shortly was to become a varietal monoculture, with primarily Cabernet Sauvignon planted, you still saw vineyards with Zinfandel, Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet next to each other. When Harry Waugh visited the valley, in the mid-1980s, he was astonished to see, at the S. Anderson winery, only Chardonnay and sparkling wine produced, which he called “another new trend…What a contrast [to when] every winery used to produce and sell half-a-dozen varietals!”

I’m not here to defend varietal promiscuity in a vineyard, but it wasn’t the worst thing in the world in the 1960s and 1970s and it wouldn’t be today, if someone did that sort of thing. We got into this topic last week on my blog, where someone wrote critically of Trefethen for having Riesling growing in the same vineyard as their Cabernet. That person felt it was terroir-ly (is that a word?) impossible for both varieties to thrive in close proximity. I suppose his thinking was that Riesling needs Alsatian or German weather and soils whereas Cabernet needs Bordeaux weather and soils, and since the weather and soils in Alsace/Germany are different from those of Bordeaux, it must ipso facto be impossible for both varietals to thrive in Oak Knoll!

That’s an example of what I call ideological thinking. It may seem logical, but you really have to taste the wine to see what’s real. In the case of Trefethen’s Rieslings, I’ve always liked them. They’re dry (as the label says), and most of the time make for excellent drinking, at a fair price. I gave 91 points to the 2009, 87 to the 2010 and 89 to the 2012 (I didn’t review the 2011—did they make one?). I’m also a huge fan of Trefethen’s Cabernets, so for me, the argument that you can’t grow Riesling and Cabernet in the same vineyard just doesn’t hold water.

In part what I’ve learned and tried to communicate during my entire career can be boiled down to this: Whatever you think is real may not be. The best way to find out is to have an open mind. If you can’t have an open mind, then taste blind. You discover the most surprising things that way.

Steve’s blog is down for the day

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Denial of service attacks due to a huge quantity of spam in the contents. Back tomorrow [fingers crossed!]


Just thinking on a wet Tuesday morning



All the rain we’ve had lately is making me introspective. I may have a slight case of S.A.D.–seasonal affective disorder. When the sky turns a dull gray, it rains for a week and the sun seems like it’ll never return, all I want to do is curl up with a good book and wait until Spring.

Yes, we need the water. Everybody says so, and so I tell myself that I’m being selfish for being so bored stiff by the rain. Every night it drizzles; every morning I wake up to drizzle; is this California, or Seattle? You’d think that the talk about drought that dominated December and January would start to fade away, but no, the news is that no matter how much it’s rained lately, the drought still is upon us. Typical is this headline from last Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle:

More rain this week but it’ll fall short

“[San Francisco] has recorded just 8.01 inches of rain this season, far below its usual tally of 18.21 inches by the start of March,” says the article. Last week’s big storm–the one that hit when I was in Santa Barbara at World of Pinot Noir–apparently was more powerful in Southern California than up north, which must have helped with the water situation down in the Central Coast, where the drought has been particularly severe. Maybe some of my readers will let us know how things are doing from Paso Robles south. I do know that, driving home on Sunday, the hills and fields were bright green in native grasses, something I hadn’t seen in a long time. (California is called the Golden State not for the Gold Rush, but because gold is the color of our hills and mountains during the dry season.) But I suppose that when the rain falls so hard, so fast, that most of it runs off into streams and rivers that eventually empty into the Pacific.

Sometimes I like the rain. I spent a night once in a little cabin in the middle of a Redwood forest in the Russian River Valley, just outside Forestville. It was a wild night, stormy and windy and cold: a gale had swept down out of the Gulf of Alaska. The rain track for Northern and Central California can come down from the north, or it can come in from the west, via Hawaii, which is why it’s called the Pineapple Express. From the point of view of the water supply, it’s better to have Gulf of Alaska storms, because they’re colder; hence the snow level in the Sierra is much lower, and that’s where much of our water comes from. Unfortunately, all these storms have been Pineapple Expresses: warm storms, high snow levels.

I remember lying in bed, that stormy night in Forestville, and listening to the sounds of nature: the rain pounding on the roof and windows, but also the limbs of the trees rubbing against each other in the wind, making low, moaning sounds, like sad cellos. I thought of all the critters that live in the woods: the skunks and raccoons and rabbits and badgers. Do they have dry holes where they burrow and stay warm? Our distant ancestors, recently become human, must have relished a nice cave, and whoever could make a fire must have been seen as special, godlike. At some point in pre-history those ancestors discovered fermentation, and made wine. That too must have seemed miraculous. Fire and wine: two divine gifts that make life bearable, even joyous. We worship them both today.

See, I told you I’m feeling introspective.

My respectful reply to criticism of my reviews



Well, it happened again. A winemaker took umbrage at the scores I gave his wines, and emailed me with all the reasons why I was wrong.

So let me take a few minutes to explain. As I told the winemaker, I never mind it if someone reaches out to me to complain about my reviews. It’s fine to call me. We can agree to disagree, and just because you disagree doesn’t mean you have to be disagreeable. (That goes for me as well as for winemakers.)

That doesn’t mean I like it when I hear from a disappointed winemaker. I’m only human. I’d much rather someone call me up and say, “Way to go, Heimoff!” than “You really got that wrong.” Usually, these unhappy winemakers have three “facts” they cite in order to prove I’m wrong. They’ll tell me that the grapes came from a great vineyard and therefore it can’t deserve a middling score. Or they’ll tell me that other critics gave it higher scores than I did, and so I must have missed discerning its true qualities. Or they’ll simply cite their sincerity and passion as reasons why their wines should have scored better.

To all of which I say: That’s silly. Just because a wine comes from a “great vineyard” doesn’t mean that it has to be a great wine. We all understand that, don’t we? I should think so. And don’t even get me started on comparing my reviews to those of other critics. That’s fine, if you want to do it, but it carries no weight with me if you point out that ___ and ___ gave your wine 90-plus points while I didn’t. As for the sincerity thing–“We work our tails off to make the best wine we can”–a score in the 80s doesn’t mean to suggest that you don’t care, or that you’re not trying hard. I assume that every winemaker in the business is working his or her tail off and trying their best. The point is that trying one’s best isn’t good enough. The resulting wine has to deserve a great score.

I guess I should add a fourth “fact” often given to me by unhappy winemakers. They’ll review their own wine, find qualities in it that I didn’t, and hope thereby to persuade me that I somehow missed all that good stuff. Well, I think winemakers are the least objective appraisers of their own wines! They’re like doting parents who can’t bring themselves to perceive all the qualities–good and bad–about their children. We all know parents like that, don’t we? The same thing goes for dog owners. I know certain dogs that are not very nice animals. They’re angry, they snap at people and other dogs, they bark when there’s no reason to. And in some of these cases, their mommies and daddies are clueless that their pet has an attitude problem. It’s that way with some winemakers, too. Of course they love their product, and it’s only natural they’d be defensive about it, when and if it’s criticized. But winemakers also need to stand back and at least try to be objective. If they think highly enough of a critic to be upset if that critic doesn’t fall in love with their wine, then instead of complaining to the critic, they should read his words and try to understand the nature of the criticism. On the other hand, if they think the critic doesn’t have the chops to understand their wine, then why would they care what he says?

In most cases when I don’t enthuse over California wine, it’s because it suffers from one or more of the following issues:

1.   too sweet in residual sugar

2.   too fruity-extracted, i.e. a fruit bomb

3.   too soft or, conversely, too tart

4.   unbalanced in alcohol. I don’t object to high ABV, in and of itself, but I don’t like a wine that tastes and feels hot, which even some wines in the low to mid-14s do

5.   an overall simplicity or one-dimensionality

Notice that I’m not even mentioning true flaws, such as excessive brett, TCA, botrytis moldiness, heat damage, etc. I’m talking about wines that are technically “good” (by Wine Enthusiast standards) and drinkable, but just don’t deserve high scores.

Every winemaker wants those 90-plus scores. A part of me deplores that selling wine has come down to that, in order to market wine. But that is obviously beyond my control. I wish it weren’t so (and I know for a fact that every critic who uses the 100-point system feels the same way). I think we were as surprised as anyone when, in the 1990s and 2000s, the situation reached that point. I, myself, often drink wines at home that I’ve scored (or would score) in the middle 80s, and I like them. They’re good, sound, interesting wines that just don’t happen to have the extra levels of complexity required to lift a score over 90.

I have the utmost respect for California’s winemakers. I understand their jobs, not in the technical sense perhaps, but in the applied sense of having to sell their products. Some of them don’t have to worry about what people like me think; most of them do. It gives me no pleasure to disappoint them, but that’s my job, just as making wine is theirs. It just doesn’t work to turn out average quality wines no matter what your excuse is, and expect them to get 90 points or higher, especially at high prices. That dog won’t hunt. American consumers have too many choices from around the world these days for that to work anymore.

How dry was California in 2013?



It’s official: 2013 was the driest year ever in recorded California history.

Here are some statistics for selected cities. The number represents the percentage of normal seasonal rainfall that has fallen so far during this year’s rainy season. (Figures courtesy of San Francisco Chronicle)

Bakersfield: 16.7%

Eureka: 12.5%

Los Angeles: 6.4%

Oakland: 7.7%

Sacramento: 8.6%

San Diego: 21.7%

San Francisco: 8.7%

San Jose: 9.8%

Santa Rosa: 6.2%

Napa City, meanwhile, had only 22.7% of its normal yearly precipitation average, according to the Napa Valley Register, making 2013 “the driest year since reliable records started being kept nearly a century ago in Napa.”

Granted, the 2013-2014 rainy season still has many months to go. But we’re getting off to a bad start, and people are scared.

The numbers clearly are unsustainable, and reflect the fact that the drought is statewide and not merely regional. All previous drought records, dating back to 1850, have not only been surpassed, but pulverized. “The official drought map of California looks as if it has been set on fire and scorched…”, a reporter wrote in the San Jose Mercury-News.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein in early December asked Cal. Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a drought emergency, an action Brown so far has resisted taking, although a week after Feinstein’s request, he did form a task force to study the issue. Some municipalities aren’t waiting for statewide action. The city of Folsom on Dec. 23 mandated a 20 percent rationing order. Three days later, Sacramento County asked some residents to reduce water consumption of 20 percent. In Sonoma County, the County Water Agency has asked permission from the state “to slash flows from Lake Mendocino to the Russian River,” in order to keep the reservoir’s dwindling water level from falling even more.

Other cities are expected to enact similar water-saving mores in January.

The American Geophysical Society announced that California, and large parts of the West, may be experiencing a “megadrought” that could last for decades. They released this drought map


drought map

showing the extent of “severe” and “extreme” drought, with the worst areas centering on California and northwestern Nevada.

What impact could the drought–if it continues through the rest of the winter and spring–have on California wine? Vintners fear there won’t be enough water to spray for frost protection during the crucial early budding season. And there won’t be enough water for vine irrigation next summer, especially if we have heat waves. This enforced dry-farming probably means lower crop levels, especially compared to the last few years. Catastrophically dry conditions could spark massive wildfires that take out vineyards.

Is the drought related to climate change? I’m not prepared to go that far.

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