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Playing “what if?” with California wine regions

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It’s really an accident of history that we here in the U.S. and in California decided to name wines by grape variety rather than by region.

We have Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Petite Sirah, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and so on. In Europe, of course, it’s a different story. There (for the most part) they named wines after the regions they came from: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Sancerre, Champagne, Chianti, Barolo, Rheingau, Ribero del Duero, etc.

The reasons why California went the varietal route as opposed to the regional route are many and complex. It made sense to men like Frank Schoonmaker, in the 1930s, following the Repeal of Prohibition, to get away from the false and misleading names of California wines like “Claret,” “Burgundy”, “Port” and “California Champagne”, and take a more honest varietal approach. Their hearts and minds were in the right place: simple, candid truth-telling on the label.

Unfortunately, it seems not to have occurred to them to name California wines after their regions. Think how everything would be so different if we’d chosen names like Oakville, or Glen Ellen [the town, not the wine brand], or Salinas Valley, or Geyserville, or Los Olivos, or Oakley, or Edna Valley.

If that had happened, we might have developed a regional-varietal family coordination like they had in Europe. Instead of having Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrahs, Petite Sirahs, Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs, Tempranillos, etc. with an Oakley appellation, the pioneers of post-Prohibition viticulture and enology might have figured out that a red blend based on 2, 3 or 4 varieties worked best for their climate and soils. You’d be able to say “Oakley Red Wine” and know exactly what that meant, same as “Pauillac” means a Cabernet Sauvignon blend. As things now stand, however, “Oakley Red Wine” could be anything.

Red blends have become quite the thing lately, with more and more wineries mixing varieties willy-nilly. Some of them aren’t very good, and I get the feeling the wineries do it because they had the grapes or bulk wine available and couldn’t think of anything better to do except to stick them in a big tank and call the resulting wine some wacko name. Marketing departments also get involved, perhaps advising their employers that problems with existing varietals suggest staying out of that game. For example, the market’s already crowded with Cabernet. Syrah doesn’t sell. Nobody wants Zinfandel anymore. No one’s ever heard of Tempranillo. And we can’t call lit Moscato because it’s not. And so on and so forth.

However, there are some really wonderful blends out there. To mention a few, Seghesio San Lorenzo Estate, which is Zinfandel and Petite Sirah; Krupp 2009 The Doctor (Tempranillo, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Cab Franc); Chateau Potelle 2009 Explorer The Illegitimate (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel and Syrah), Shafer 2009 Relentless (Syrah, Petite Sirah).

Is it good or not so good that California went down the varietal path instead of the regional one? Hard to say. The government developed a system of American Viticultural Areas that kinda sorta looked to the French appellation system as a model, but differs from it in that the Tax and Trade Bureau doesn’t have any quality standards for an AVA. So really, an appellation doesn’t mean very much. Still, it’s fun to play “What if?” And there’s this, too: some of our better appellations have become so varietal- or varietal family-specific that they’re practically synonomous. Say “Napa Valley red wine” and most people will think of Cabernet or a Bordeaux blend. Say “Santa Rita Hills red wine” and most people will think of Pinot Noir. Say “Amador County red wine” and most people will think of Zinfandel. So, in a way, despite the fluctuations and randomness of human decision making, grape variety and region find each other in a most serendipitous way.


The Central Valley’s silver bullet doesn’t exist

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I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there is no “breakthrough variety” of wine that’s going to suddenly make the Central Valley of California the new, umm, hot place to grow grapes.

The Western Farm Press reported yesterday that San Joaquin Valley growers “gathered in Fresno recently” to brainstorm “what the future could hold in terms of new varieties that could be used for blends or could even rival other accepted varietals that include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Sauvignon Blanc.”

(For non-Californians, the term “Central Valley” refers to both the San Joaquin Valley, in the south, and the Sacramento Valley, in the north. Both are the hottest winegrowing regions in California, with temperatures routinely topping 100 degrees in the summer.)

The Press article quoted a Constellation winemaker, Oren Kaye: “We haven’t found that shining star yet,” but winemakers are looking at everything from Durif, Tannat and Fiano to Sagrantino and Marselan Noir, as potential “breakthrough” wines with their “own signature style.”

Central Valley winemakers and business interests have been looking for that “shining star” wine for decades. Twenty years ago I went to a seminar on this very topic at U.C. Davis. They had some pretty good wines, as I recall: the Port varieties, vinified dry, were quite appealing, and there were some Sicilian varieties I liked. But Touriga Nacional or Nero d’Avola haven’t exactly become household names in America.

There are solid reasons why consumers won’t budge beyond the current dozen or so varieties that dominate the market. (The Press article states that “Fewer than 10 wine grape varieties account for 80 percent of the varietal wine grapes grown in the United States.”)

1. Consumers are conservative about the things they buy. Once they come to trust a brand (or service provider or wine type), they tend to stick to it. The nervous uncertainty caused by the economy further exacerbates this cautiousness.

2. The wine industry has proved exceptionally incoherent when it comes to marketing. The article glides over this difficult by merely pointing out that “The challenges for new varieties include difficulty in mass marketing.” That’s putting it mildly. Proctor & Gamble and Apple know how to mass market a new product. The wine industry does not.

3. Consumers are happy with the choices they already have. They’re not looking for anything else (except, maybe, less expensive wines). You can’t sell somebody something she’s not looking for.

I know, I know, you’re asking “What about Moscato?” Yes, it’s true that Moscato came out of nowhere, and I think researchers are going to be studying that phenomenon for a long time. Putting aside the theory (highly debatable) that hip-hop can create a trend (maybe it happened once, but lightning isn’t going to strike twice), I think Moscato’s popularity is because the variations of that variety have long been some of the most popular wines in Europe, providing clean, crisp, refreshing and slightly sweet alternatives to dry white wines. That niche hadn’t been filled in the U.S. Moscato just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

The Central Valley has a role to play in American wine. It can provide inexpensive, high-quality everyday versions of the popular varieties, with California appellations. No shame or guilt in that! Central Valley growers should be proud of the role they play in helping tens of millions of consumers drink good wine everyday.

As for all those researchers looking for “the breakthrough variety,” there’s certainly no harm in what they’re doing, and if they manage to make some pretty good wines along the way, great. The fact that they’re unsellable is unfortunate, but it’s part and parcel of the marketplace. If you ask me, they should get over the concept of a “variety” and experiment with blends, red or white. Give them an appealing name, great packaging, an affordable price and a bit of a story line, and then put the marketing muscle of, say, a Constellation behind them. And when I say an appealing name, I don’t mean something pandering and trendy, like anything with the word “bitch” in it. I mean something tasteful, that’s meant to last.


Are Americans ready for “weird” varieties?

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This is a very interesting read, as anything Randall Grahm writes tends to be. Randall raises multiple issues but the germ of his thesis is that we, the wine-buying public, are locked into a chocolate-vanilla-strawberry straitjacket of a few famous varieties that may, in fact, not even be the grape types best suited to our soils.

This is a very old Grahmian argument; indeed, Randall was making it more than 20 years go when I first met him. As an argument, it’s a strong one. It takes no great intellectual effort to imagine wines whose varietal names you and I have never even heard of offering pleasure, complexity and value when grown and produced in California. That’s the easy part–it’s tantamount to the thesis that there will be actors we’ve never heard of coming up in future movies to rival Angelina, Brad, Meryl, Leo and Cate. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that.

The problem, as Randall so correctly perceives, lies in the “agora,” or marketplace, which is exactly where the straitjacket has been fitted. Whether to blame consumers for “a severely Attention Deficit-afflicted” disorder, or simply to recognize that human beings generally dislike and are uncomfortable with overwhelming choice, isn’t so much the issue. Either way (and the answer is ultimately unknowable), Randall is correct that the marketplace likely will not reward someone who introduces Sagrantino or Aglianico but instead will probably punish them, in the only way the marketplace knows how to punish: with profound indifference.

Thus Randall’s dilemma: for decades he has tried to thread the needle, the thread being the wines “of terroir” he wants to make, the needle’s eye being the narrow gate of the market, to which many [varieties] are called but  few [varieties] are chosen. I commiserate with Randall. I wish things were different. I wish American wine consumers were more liberal when it comes to varieties and blends, more adventurous, more willing to take “risks” that aren’t really risks at all, but just seem to be. Randall is also correct when he notes that more people would rather drink a mediocre wine whose varietal name they know, than a good wine whose varietal (or proprietary) name they don’t.

All right, that’s the reality of the implacable laws of supply and demand, but what role can wine writers play in all this? If you believe (as I do not) that wine writers no longer have significant impact on the market, then the answer is: not much. If, on the other hand (as I believe), wine writers still have enough clout to perturb markets one way or another, then what Randall (and people like him) can do is to reach out to writers with new, interesting wines–I mean compeling wines that writers will want to write about, not simply because they’re new and different–and certainly not simply because they were made by Randall (who gets a lot of mileage from the media for that very reason)–but because they really do express that terroir he speaks of.

The problem is that most of the time, when winemakers talk about their wines of terroir, the wines are not very interesting. I don’t mean high-end winemakers crafting Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs, Cabernet Sauvignons and Zinfandels from great sites. Those wines are fantastic, precisely because the winemakers have found great pieces of land in which to grow them. But that’s not what Randall’s talking about. He is, it seems to me, a bit curmudgeonly when it comes to giving credit where it’s due: namely, to the great varietal wines that the agora has embraced (rather than mourning the wines it has not). Randall may choose not to make these popular varieties, but that doesn’t mean they’re not great wines. He’s simply decided to go in a different direction.

I would welcome sitting down with Randall and having him educate me through a range of the kind of obscure wines he loves and that could or do grow well in California. I’m more than ready to recommend them, to push them, to alert the public that they should know about them and be buying them. But–and it’s a huge but–the wines have to truly be good. Like I said, they can’t simply be different and “made by Randall.”


My ten highest scoring wines of 2011

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No 100 point wines this year, but who cares? What a list this is. Diverse both type-wise and regionally. Four wines from Napa Valley, four from Sonoma County, one from Santa Barbara, and that North Coast bubbly from Schramsberg. A bunch of Cabernets, a Pinot Noir, a couple sparklers, even a dessert wine. I round the list out with the Qupe Syrah, at 97 points, because although I had 9 other 97 pointers, the Qupe was First Among Equals. All of these wines are fantastic, world class; they would easily hold their own against peers from any wine region on earth. All are ageable, I’d lay odds on the Von Strasser and Williams Selyem being still fine in 15 years. Maybe they’ll all be fine in 15 years. If I’m around in 15 years, maybe someone will be nice enough to treat me to a tasting of these magnificent nectars of the gods.

Venge 2008 Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville. $125, 275 cases, 14.9%. Score: 99 points.

Stonestreet 2007 Rockfall Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley. $75, 212 cases, 14.5%. Score: 99 points.

Williams Selyem 2009 Precious Mountain Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $94, case production unknown, 14%. Score: 99 points.

Araujo 2007 Eisele Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. $275, case production unknown, 14.8%. Score: 98 points.

Verité 2006 La Joie, Sonoma County. $300, 1,201 cases, 14.7%. Score: 98 points.

Von Strasser 2008 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain. $125, 278 cases, 14.2%. Score: 98 points.

Dolce 2006 Semillon-Sauvignon, Napa Valley. $85/375 ml., 3,300 cases, 13.8%. Score: 98 points.

Schramsberg 2004 J. Schram Rosé, North Coast. $130, 1,000 cases, 12.7%. Score: 98 points.

Iron Horse 1997 Joy! Blanc de Blancs, Green Valley. $179/1.5L, 50 cases, 13%. Score: 97 points.

Qupe 2006 Bien Nacido Vineyard 25th Anniversary X Block, “The Good Nacido,” Santa Maria Valley. $100, 190 cases, 14.5% Score: 97 points.


Missing Moscato: lessons from the bottom shelf of the supermarket

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We were talking at Wine Enthusiast the other day about trends in the wine world, and I admitted I’d missed Moscato. I blogged on this last October, so I won’t go into detail except to say that the Moscato thing started in the street (whether via hip hop or something else), then leaped onto the bottom shelf of the supermarket in the form of cheap, sweet wine. This is not the stuff of which I’m aware. My instincts are attuned to the higher shelves, where the premium wines are sold, and to wines that would never be caught dead in a supermarket. I can’t be bothered to bend over and see what’s selling way down there on the bottom shelf because frankly I don’t give a damn.

But that’s why I missed Moscato. And it made me wonder what other wine trends started in the street. One certainly was white Zinfandel, which of course was “invented” by Sutter Home, and the rest is history. Like Moscato, white Zin was sweet and cheap, and it swept the nation, making the fortunes of the Trinchero family and leading to a million copycats. Had I been writing about wine in the 1970s, when a stuck fermentation created that first white Zin at Sutter Home, I probably would have missed it, too. Another trend that began in the street was wine coolers, of which there have been multiple iterations. I think Gallo started that one with Bartles & Jaymes. Great concept, that; I always thought the fictional Frank Bartles and Ed Jaymes characters represented Ernest and Julio Gallo.

Other than Moscato, white Zinfandel and wine coolers, I can’t think of an instance in which a wine trend began with the booboisie, as H.L. Mencken called it. Pinot Noir, now there was a trend that’s still happening, but it was driven by the one percenters. Cult Cabernet Sauvignon, ditto. The most important, lasting wine trends, if they occur at all, usually start at the top of the economic pyramid and then trickle down, Reagan-style, to the masses.

Why should there be two focii of wine trends in America, the street and the country club? Because we’ve always been of two minds when it comes to wine. More so than with beer or hard liquor, wine lovers who enjoy “the good stuff” tend to have disdain, not only for cheap wine, but for the people who drink it. This is the definition of elitism, of course. It’s not politically correct to point out that there is elitism in our wine industry, but there is. It even affects me; if it didn’t, I would have been aware of Moscato’s emergence–especially since it was probably happening all around me, in the mean streets of Oakland. But  I kept my nose in the air, and so my eyes were blind to what was in front of me.

I don’t suppose the twain will ever meet, of the high end and the low end coming together. Most wine companies couldn’t stand the strain of catering to both. Robert Mondavi tried, and failed spectacularly. Gallo, I suppose you could say, comes close; but Gallo never really tried for the highest of the high end, not because they didn’t know how, but because the Gallo family were smart enough to know that you can’t be all things to all people, even if you can be many things to many people. High end wineries, for their part, would never think of catering to the masses; they’d think of it as craven. Even if they thought they could make some money, they wouldn’t, because a low-end wine would tarnish the high-end wine’s image.

Some wineries, of course, try to work both ends of the street by hiding the connection between the expensive and the cheap stuff. This seldom works, because a house divided against itself cannot stand. To prosper in this insane market, you have to be very good; and it’s very hard to be very good at very different things. Ibid, Robert Mondavi.

So I’m now keeping an eye on the supermarket bottom shelf. Don’t like it when I miss something. What do I see down there? Cheap, sweet red wine. Is this a trend the wine critic for a fine wine periodical should know about? Yes, but I’ll only write about it if my editors in New York want me to. I don’t think the cheap, sweet red wine thing will last, nor will the “Bitch” wines, or the athlete-themed wines aimed at men. Kooky critter labels are on the way out, mercifully. Sweet Moscato will have its 15 minutes and then fade away, and all that Muscat the big corporate wineries planted will end up going into blends or something. Maybe wine coolers will come back. The masses always need something sweet, cheap and alcoholic, although I can’t for the life of me tell why.


What’s my favorite wine?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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