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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.


2010 Crush Report: tidbits

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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.


Good wine, like life, can be from anywhere

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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.

* * *

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 jbrinley@ucdavis.edu. Hope to see you there!


Whither Meritage?

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Although California winemakers had been making so-called “Bordeaux blends” for years — Inglenook and Martini pioneered mixing Merlot or Cabernet Franc in with Cabernet Sauvignon, and Joseph Phelps’ Insignia was a blend from its first vintage, in 1974 — it wasn’t until 1988 that a group of Napa Valley vintners decided the blends needed a collective identity.

The founding wineries included Lyeth, Flora Springs, Franciscan and Dry Creek Vineyard. “Back then, you’d see a wine labeled ‘red’ or ‘table wine,’ and since consumers weren’t very knowledgeable, they assumed it would be inferior. We needed a categorization that felt right,” Kim Stare Wallace, Dry Creek Vineyard’s second-generation owner, said.

The wineries launched a nationwide competition to come up with a name; the winner would get a case of wine from each member winery, on an annual basis, for the rest of his or her life. I entered that contest, but did not win. Instead, a young man who was the wine buyer for an East Bay supermarket won by coming up with the term “Meritage,” and the wineries eventually formed themselves into the Meritage Association.

The Association has always had marketing issues, always struggled to make “Meritage” a universally-accepted term in the on-premise, off-premise, critical and consumer communities. Some of the original member wineries have since quit the Association; some important wineries that make Bordeaux blends never joined; and although the 250 members today are scattered across six countries, including Israel and Mexico, most of them remain located in California.

The Association’s president is Kim Stare Wallace. Its treasurer is Bill Smart, a likeable young guy who is Dry Creek’s communications director. I ran into Bill at the Wine Bloggers Conference last week, where he reminded me that the Association is engaged in a renewed P.R. push to increase its visibility. Here’s a brief Q&A:

Steve: Why do you need a special word for Bordeaux blends? Why not just educate the public about blending in general, and that any wine with less than 75% of the varietal can’t be named after a grape?

Bill: Well, it’s a valid point if you’re saying “Meritage is a dead term, so why have it?” But the reason there’s no credibility there is because we haven’t been consistent with marketing and messaging. Why is Rhone Rangers and ZAP what they are? Because they do a really good job of promoting. And we feel this category is worth promoting.

How are you promoting Meritage?

In 2011, our dream is to have the first ever consumer tasting of Meritage. It will be in San Francisco. We’ll partner with Wine 2.0, and it will benefit the Multiple Sclerosis Society. Our hope is to get 50 wineries pouring.

Why wouldn’t they all come?

Well, there’s an extreme amount of apathy, because most members have less than 250 cases [of Meritage], so it’s not a focus. They focus on their 5,000 cases of Sauvignon Blanc [or whatever] they have to sell.

How come so many wineries that make Bordeaux blends won’t join the Meritage Association?

You know, it’s the old explanation, “I have a proprietary red wine and I don’t need ‘Meritage’ to promote it. I already have enough credibility, so I don’t need you.” I always reply, “Well, you can throw ‘Meritage’ on the back of your wine label. It’s not that big a deal.”

[This is Steve again, opining.] I have mixed feelings about “Meritage” and its usefulness or lack thereof. I am, of course, entirely in favor of Bordeaux blends, red and white, if that’s what a winemaker wants to do. And I do understand that some education has to be given to consumers, who might expect to see a varietal name on every bottle of wine. The object, I think, is to explain that Bordeaux itself — which everybody’s heard of — is never a varietal wine, but always a combination of certain varietals. You could tell people, “This is a blend using the noble Bordeaux varieties,” and I suspect they’d be impressed. So why saddle consumers with yet another complicated word to remember and understand, when they’re already overwhelmed with wine minutiae?

On the other hand (there’s the Gemini in me), it does seem reasonable to make the case that these Bordeaux blends should be independently categorized. A categorization is always a justification for existence; the justification, in this case, is that a winemaker might be tempted to make a varietally-labeled Cabernet Sauvignon (i.e., containing at least 75% of that grape) merely in order to put Cabernet Sauvignon on the label, and not necessarily because it makes the best, most rewarding and complete wine. Meritage adherents thus are in a position to argue that they have freed themselves from the addiction to varietal labels. That’s a simple message to deliver, and one the public would understand.


“Obscure” varieties a hard sell

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It is true, as Laurie Daniel wrote in the San Jose Mercury-News, that so-called “obscure” grape varieties are on the rise in Calfornia.

Ten years ago, there were two acres of Albarino planted in the state. Last year, according to the Dept. of Food and Agriculture, there were 108 (bearing and non-bearing). The equivalent numbers for Verdelho were 12 and 94; for Teroldego they were 14 and 79. Touriga Nacional saw 65 and 220; Pinotage, 16 and 53; Lagrein was 65 and 157, Carmenere was 8 and 57, and Muscat Blanc went from 758 to 1,698.

These numbers cannot be accounted for by the simple inflation of California’s vineyard acreage, which has increased since 2000 by only 11.3%. The real reason, as Laurie writes, is that “some winemakers like to step away from the mainstream and [so] the planting of alternative varieties is on the rise.”

Well, yes…and no. Although Laurie quotes vintner Ken Volk as saying, “I like diversity,” and there’s no doubt that people who are planting these “obscure” varieties are passionate about them, I suspect there are other reasons a winemaker would plant a variety and then make a wine from it with a name that few Americans have ever heard of.

One reason that comes to mind is because there must be many winemakers who take one look at the crowded marketplace for Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel and other mainstay grapes, and realize they don’t stand a chance in that bloodbath. As the old marketing dictum goes, if you can’t compete in the niches that are, create a niche that’s not.

The problem, of course, is that the American consumer is a very cautious fellow or gal. She doesn’t like to buy things she’s unfamiliar with. It’s risky. That’s why Tide, Crest and Comet cleanser still dominate their fields. People have grown up with them; they know what to expect, and don’t want any surprises the next time they wash their clothes, brush their teeth, or clean the toilet bowl.

If I came up with a new toothpaste — let’s call it “Sparkle! by Steve” — it would take the biggest marketing campaign in history to persuade anyone to buy it, and even after a $100 million campaign, it still might fail. Remember Edsel and New Coke?

So “obscure” varieties represent a double-edged sword to the vintner. They open up potential niches, but, as with political parties, it’s hard to sell something that’s outside the mainstream.

There’s another problem, too: judging from my experience, lots of these “obscure” wines aren’t very good. Most are okay, but nothing special, and if the vintner tries to charge too much for them, they’re bad values.

It’s not surprising why quality on an “obscure” variety shouldn’t be very high. Little is known about where to plant, how to grow and how to vinify Gruner Veltliner or Aglianico in California. Even vintners who are serious about them will need years to develop their technique. Also, to the extent those vintners won’t be able to get high prices for the wines, there’s a limit to how much time and money they’re willing to invest in the vineyard and in the winery.

Still, there is hope for these “obscure” varieties. The Millennials may not be as obsessed with traditional varieties as are their parents and grandparents. (I say “may not” but there’s an equally good chance that they will be.) Then too, sommeliers and wine stewards in restaurants, who seem to be enjoying an unprecedented period of visibility and power, like discovering new things they can hand-sell to their customers. And, with the growing popularity of wine clubs and direct-to-consumer sales, club members like to be sent things that are limited in production and hard for anyone else to get.

So I welcome these “obscure” varieties and I’m supportive of winemakers who are making them. The next thing for us to do is come up with an alternative word to “obscure.”

Tomorrow I’ll have another Top Ten Wines of the Week, but I’ll also try to get something in from the Wine Bloggers Conference.

Press release first lines we never read beyond: Dear Steve, Have you ever wanted to enjoy a night out with your adoring pet?


California terroir, c’est moi

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Readers of this blog know that I recently got a wrist tattoo, and subsequently decided to expand it up to the elbow. Which raised the question of design. What do I like? What “statement” do I want to make?

Philip, the tattoo artist, explained the options. There are varying degrees of what he called “saturation.” Apart from the particular images I want, I’d have to decide whether I wanted a dense, saturated pattern, or something less so, where some of the natural skin shows through.

I knew immediately that I wanted something dense and intense. As for the image itself, it should be jungle-y, with exotic tropical flowers, vines and leaves, in violent, explosive color. I said so on my Facebook page, and then, spontaneously, I added the comment, “I guess I like my tattoos the way I like my wines, with lots of saturated color.”

That was a spontaneous remark, but it was true. And it made me think about my taste in wines. I do like a big, rich wine, the kind they call California-style. When I look at my highest-scoring wines, they are big: There’s Williams Selyem’s 2007 Litton Estate Pinot Noir; nothing shy about that. Trefethen’s ‘05 Reserve Cab, a Sea Smoke 2007 “Ten,” Alpha Omega’s ‘07 Beckstoffer To Kalon, Blackbird ‘07 Illustration, Hestan’s “Stephanie” Cabernet, a Rodney Strong 2006 “Rockaway” bottling (whose high score, I hope, re-endears me to Robert Larsen!). These are all wines that critics routinely describe as “massive” or “monumental” or “huge” or, yes, extracted.

And then there are the Chardonnays! I tasted a bunch the other day. Marilyn was there; she’s one of the few people I’m comfortable being with when I formally taste. There were eight Chards in the flight. Four were from Stonestreet, specifically from the old Gauer Vineyard (no longer so-called), way high up on the Alexander Valley side of the Mayacamas. As I was tasting through the flight, I told Marilyn, “These are controversial wines. Some people detest them because they’re so rich and oaky. I love this style.” I gave them scores that reflect my appreciation for that style: the ‘08 Upper Barn, Lower Rim, Gravel Bench and Broken Road. The other four Chardonnays in the flight, which I won’t identify, all were good wines, but didn’t score as well. Compared to the Stonestreets, they lacked, well, extraction.

I can’t apologize for my taste, any more than you can for yours. More than that, I believe my taste reflects the best of California’s terroir. California wines are big, ripe and fruity. The climate insists that they be so. If they’re not ripe and fruity, they’re not really California wines. There are important exceptions, of course. I recently reviewed Mondavi’s 2006 Tokalon I Block Fume Blanc (Sauvignon Blanc), and it is a magnificent wine, complex, elegant, bone dry, even mysterious in its minerals. But it is not fruity. But then, fruitiness is relative. I want fruit in my Pinots, Cabernets and Chardonnays. I don’t necessarily want it in my Sauvignon Blancs, or Pinot Grigios or Chenin Blancs or Albarinos. Those are white wines that I expect to deliver dryness and racy acidity, mouth-cleansing properties that make an end-run around fruit. Maybe that’s why I never give those white varieties super-high scores. The highest score I ever gave a Sauvignon Blanc was 95 points, for Illumination’s 2008 (it’s from the Quintessa people). Is that wrong? Should I score a super-dry Sauvignon Blanc higher? Maybe. My intellectual processing of wine scoring is still evolving, and I wouldn’t want it any other way, even at the potential cost of some consistency.

So saturation appeals to me. Of course, saturation needs a framework, a structure in order to succeed; saturation all by itself is pure flab. That’s when you can look at my scores and draw conclusions. An “85” can be saturated in fruit but lack structure (or be too sweet). A “95” will almost invariably be a big, saturated but dry wine, red or white. That’s my palate, that’s California’s terroir, and there’s very little daylight between them.


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