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.”
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.
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.
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.
California’s 2010 Crush Report is out, and as usual it makes for some fine geek reading.
It was a big crop, the third largest since 1988, although off the pace of the record setting 2007 and 2009 vintages. The average price for all varieties was down 5% from 2009, which surely was the result of the Recession, coupled perhaps with the big crop. Napa as usual had the highest average price per ton ($3,238), with Sonoma/Marin the next highest ($2,011), which just shows that Cabernet Sauvignon is much, much pricier, at the highest level, than Pinot Noir. Interestingly, the average price for purchased Cabernet statewide was $1,078, a mere one third the price of Napa Cabernet. That accords with my experience: your average bottle price of Napa Cab is about three times that of a Cabernet from anywhere else (say, $25 versus $75).
I looked at the cost of Cabernet per ton from District 8, which is all of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. I wish they would divide this ungainly region into smaller pieces. The Grape Crush Report references specific transactions, and it would be nice to know who down there paid $5,000 a ton for Cabernet, rather than the District 8 average of only $966. I bet it was one of those fancy new Happy Canyon Cabs. I suppose it could have been something from Paso Robles, but my instinct tells me Happy Canyon. By contrast, the most expensive Cabernet from Napa (District 4) was listed at $31,241 (base price per ton). Holy Cow. I wonder where those grapes were grown. Screaming Eagle? Harlan? We’ll never know. (If there’s anyone out there who knows, or thinks they know, come sit here beside me and let’s talk. I promise not to tell!)
There are other little weirdnesses in the Crush report. Despite prices being down across the board, a few red varieties registered notable upticks: Aglianico, Aleatico, Alvarehao (the official spelling), Counoise, Early Burgundy (what?!?), Grand Noir, Sagrantino, Tinta Madeira. I wouldn’t read too much into this, but it might suggest a burgeoning interest among certain niche players for more exotic wines. Beclan, an old French variety that used to pop up in California field blends, also was listed in the Crush Report for the first time. And what a debut: 1,000 acres, almost as much as Malbec! I’d love to know who’s doing what with all that Beclan. But its base price is very cheap: only $281 a ton.
We talk a lot about alcohol levels in Cabernet. Guess which District had the highest brix at crush? If you guessed a Central Valley District, you’re right. It was District 15, San Bernardino County, at 25.9. The next three highest brix levels were from Solano, Sacramento and San Joqauin counties and the Sierra Foothills. No surprises there. Napa, at 24.5, was just about the same as District 8 (San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara again), at 24.3.
In whites, average prices also fell across the board, with the following notable exceptions: Arneis, Grenache Blanc, Malvasia Bianca, Moscato, Muscat of Alexandria, Palomino, Picpoul Blanc (listed for the first time, at an amazing $2,200 a ton), St. Emilion (up hugely in price; also known as Ugni Blanc and Trebbiano) and Verdelho. Explanation? What I said above, about niche players.
The biggest mystery is why in 2009 the average price for Scheurebe was $1,400 a ton and then in 2010 it is listed at 0.00. Was no Scheurebe purchased last year? Why? Is someone looking into this? Did it have anything to do with the Rapture not occurring? Inquiring minds want to know.
When I was a kid, there were lots of scientific articles that purported to explain how lucky we were here on Earth to exist–how many miracles had to occur for us to be here. They explained how, if our planet weren’t exactly “x” miles from the Sun, and if it didn’t have just the right magnetic poles, and if the elements weren’t distributed in exactly the precise way, if pi didn’t exactly equal 3.14 and the laws of physics weren’t the way they were, and if the Earth’s atmosphere didn’t shield us from cosmic rays, etc. etc., then Life wouldn’t exist. It made it seem as if Earth was, after all, a pretty privileged place.
But even at the age of seven or eight, I would think, “Wait a minute. Who’s to say that Life can’t be based on an entirely different set of circumstances than our carbon-based life form is?” It seemed to me that Life–whatever it ultimately was or is–is sufficiently ingenious to figure out how to arise and exist in any environment it cares to, even one that would be noxious to us and every other form of life we know.
Well, now comes this fantastic NASA report that “life” can arise under circumstances scientists previously thought were impossible. “Arsenic-eating bacteria suggests extraterrestrial life possible” is how one newspaper headlined it. If “life” in the form of bacteria can “grow entirely off this deadly chemical,” then maybe life can exist anywhere and everywhere–on deadly cold Pluto, on the sunny side of deadly-hot Venus, or on some methane-cloaked rock circling some far distant star millions of light years from home. Maybe even in the vast, intergalactic spaces of the Universe.
My childhood fantasies were stirred by the NASA report, but so were my hopes for California wine. The connection? Simple. We think that great wines can exist only in certain areas along the coast. Too many of us tend to shuck off inland as some inhospitably hostile environment for great wine.
I will admit to occasionally succumbing to this opinion myself. The wines from places like Lodi, Temecula, Livermore Valley, the Sierra Foothills and much of interior California are California’s vin de pays, I have thought in the past. When Wine Enthusiast split the state between me, on the coast, and Virginie Boone, inland, I was not entirely unhappy. I tended to break California into east-west divisions much as France is divided into north-south divisions, with Bordeaux, Burgundy and the northern Rhône as “superior,” and the vast Midi being viewed as of lesser quality.
But I’m beginning to think this view was over-simplistic, for several reasons. There’s a new generation of inland vintners who are starting to work hard and figure out what varieties, clones and rootstocks do best in their soils. Also, how to train and manage the vines’ canopies to maximum advantage, and keep crop yields modest. This has been a far greater problem inland than it has been on the coast, for various reasons, and has been, in my judgment, the single biggest impediment to quality. But it’s fast changing.
If you think about it, there’s just no reason why fine wine shouldn’t be able to be made inland, just as there’s no reason (we now are learning) why life can’t exist pretty much anywhere. We think of inland as hotter than the coast, and it is; and while Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay (to name a few) may not be suitable inland, there are other varieties that thrive in hot climates. Their names may be strange to most Americans–Nero d’Avolo, Gaglioppo, Greco di Tufo, the various Tourigas, Tinta Amarela, Trincadeiro, Corvina, Coda de Vole, Graciano, Mando–but this need not always be the case. Meanwhile, heat-loving varieties such as Nebbiolo, Verdelho and Vermentino are gaining traction, especially among sommeliers, while more recognizable names, like Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, thrive in these warmer climates.
I do think it’s going to be necessary for inland vintners to eventually turn away from Continental varieties (the aforementioned Cabernet, Pinot, etc.), unless they’re content to compete with the Coast, and that’s a fight they cannot win. Their solution lies in these Mediterranean varieties that have had centuries to adapt to a warm, dry climate. But the new generation I earlier referred to is doing precisely that, and in a way I envy Virginie for being able to experience this exciting transition.
Meanwhile, the next time you’re tempted to diss inland, remember those bacterium that love arsenic. Anything, it appears, can be made to adapt to anything else, including wine to an inland climate.
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I’ll be at Rusty Eddy’s “Public Relations for Small Wineries” class Friday, Dec. 10, at U.C. Davis. My fellow guest lecturers will be Jose and Jo Diaz, of Diaz Communications. It’s a fun, instructive session. For more info, call U.C. Davis at (530) 757-8608, or email Julie Brinley at email@example.com. Hope to see you there!