Bringing it all back home in Monterey
The year was 1979. I’d just moved to San Francisco, and bam! got bit by the wine bug, bad. Embarked on a wine education self-tutorial that’s still going on. At that time, generic wines (faux Burgundy, Chablis, etc.) still out-sold varietal wines in America. Having learned that varietal wines were better than generics, I decided to go out and find some.
It needs to be said I was broke. Seriously broke. Barely enough to pay the rent, but not electricity: that first winter I lived in a rented apartment in the Ingleside whose only heat (and source of cooking) was a hot plate. I’d read enough of the local experts (Bob Thompson, Andy Blue, Harvey Steinem, Charlie Olken, others) to know that Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay were the red and white wines of California, respectively. But I couldn’t afford both. So I got a bottle of Cabernet and instead of Chardonnay I bought Wente Brothers Grey Riesling, which was cheaper.
Those were the first two varietal wines I ever consciously bought and paid attention to. I remember really liking that Grey Riesling and turning a friend onto it, with the explanation (which must have sounded totally pompous) that it was a varietal wine, mind you, which made it honest and authentic. I doubt if my lesson had any impact whatsoever on my friend, but I never forgot that wine. You never forget your first.
Or, in my case, your second, for that Cabernet was also a very important wine to me. It was from Almaden and the label said Monterey County. That was the first wine I ever took notes on, red or white. I sat down in my freezing cold “living room” with a notebook and recorded my impressions. I remember liking it a great deal, so five or eight years later, when the critics (this was before I was one) were all complaining about “the Monterey veggies,” I thought, “Gee, maybe there are some vegetal red wines down there in the Salinas Valley, but that Almaden was pretty good.”
I say all this for a reason. This past weekend I was down in Monterey where I had the privilege of hosting (on behalf of Wine Enthusiast Magazine) the Founding Fathers Dinner for the Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association’s Great Wine Escape Weekend, which the magazine hosts every year. I found myself seated with the Founding Fathers of Monterey wine, who included, right across from me, Eric Wente, whom I’ve known for a long time, and, to my left, a man I’d never met before. Al Scheid is the owner and founder of Scheid Vineyards, which is in the far south of the Salinas Valley, on the 101 Freeway.
I’d temporarily forgotten about the Cabernet and the Grey Riesling until Al Scheid began telling me his story. He’d gotten into wine laterally (he started as an investment banker) by planting vineyards for others. He actually planted (or oversaw the planting of) the grapes for Almaden — the grapes for the Cabernet I’d so enjoyed. As soon as he said the name, that Cabernet came rushing back into my memory, and right alongside it, so did the Wente Grey Riesling.
So my first two loved wines — my first two varietals that I will remember always — both were associated with two of the people I was sitting with. It kind of blew me away. I had thoughts like “It’s a small world” and “what goes around comes around” and other clichés (including the Dylan rip-off in the headline) that try, however feebly, to express our astonishment when synchronicity strikes with such agreeable force.
It also made me think how far Monterey County’s grape and wine industry has come. Forty years ago it barely existed. Even thirty years ago, pretty much nobody knew what they were doing. The Founding Fathers — in addition to Eric and Al they were Phil Franscioni (Muirwood), Steve McIntyre (McIntyre Vineyards) and Rich Smith (Paraiso Winery) — were trying hard, but they were a century behind Napa/Sonoma (and even behind Santa Barbara County), and it’s no disparagement to say they barely had a clue what they were doing.
What they did have, though, was passion, a commitment to hard work, and spouses who understood and supported them. They also had (if they didn’t know it then they do now) some very good terroir, such as a cool climate, well-drained soils and (a fact often overlooked by wine-loving consumers) lots of water for irrigation, courtesy of the Salinas River aquifer. So here we are in 2009, with the Santa Lucia Highlands a certifiable superstar for Burgundian varieties (and, possibly, Syrah), the Arroyo Seco producing wonderfully pure, crisp white wines as well as — a new discovery for me — pretty darned good red Bordeaux wines (in sheltered places), the Pinnacles offering terrific values, and the warm south, in the Hames Valley and San Lucas appellations, getting its arms around Cabernet and Merlot. What a long way Monterey has come in so short a time. There’s no story like it in California.
Lifting a glass of Beaujolais to Beaujolais
This Thursday, Nov. 19, is Beaujolais Nouveau Day, that annual event — always the third Thursday in November — when retailers and restaurateurs release the latest vintage (in this case, the 2009) to great fanfare all over the world.
I remember in the 1980s when Beaujolais Nouveau was a huge deal. Even though wine critics routinely bashed the just-released wines as functionally undrinkable, the fun and festivity were what counted. Kermit Lynch always held a Beaujolais Nouveau party in their Berkeley parking lot, with grilled sausages (actually a fine pairing with the spicy, grapey wine) and fresh baguettes from the bakery next door. And it was fun to think that people were doing exactly the same thing in New York, Paris and London.
Beaujolais Nouveau has lost some luster since then, although the French still try to market it for all it’s worth, putting it right up there with the Tour de France, Cannes Film Festival and Paris Gay Pride Day as one of the year’s top events. FIAF, the French Institute Alliance Francaise, in mid-town Manhattan, will hold their Beaujolais Nouveau party with the French consul-general, LVMH’s New York Chairman and Macy’s Fashion Director, thereby putting the right spin of culture, politics, fashion and frivolity on the event (complete with charcuterie and paté). Across the continent, Kermit Lynch once again will have his parking lot party. And down the block from me, Whole Foods will have their own BN label with a wine from the Maestro of Beaujolais himself, Georges duBoeuf. Across the Bay (let’s hope the Bridge is open) restaurants hope to recover from this dismal year by hosting Beaujolais Nouveau parties, such as this one at the Sofitel luxury hotel.
Beaujolais Nouveau is all rather silly but that’s exactly why people love it — if not the wine, then the fun surrounding it. It’s one day of the year when wine’s simple, unassuming nature is allowed to shine — when we forget about cults and point scores and rarity and simply eat, drink, laugh and get a little red in the nose.
I’m told, mainly by my friends in wine P.R., that the topic of my palate is of some interest to winemakers. It’s flattering, I guess, to think that people try to discover trends in my reviews; and certainly, the trends are there to be found. I don’t like table wines with residual sugar. I don’t like dirty, flawed wines. I don’t care for green, unripe tannins.
Beyond that, it’s harder to pinpoint just what makes for a “95” as opposed to an “88.” Words such as “intense,” “complex” and “brilliant” can only begin to describe qualities that are, essentially, indescribable. So I thought it would be worthwhile to look at some of my highest-scoring wines over the last 3 months and try to analyze just what it was about them that I liked.
My highest-scoring wines since June 1 consisted almost entirely of Pinot Noir, sparkling wines and Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux blends. There were one or two Chardonnays and a handful of Syrahs or red Rhône blends. Pinot Noir clearly dominated the field, though. Why? Because of the great distance this grape and wine have come in California; also, because of Pinot Noir’s inherent nobility. Again, “noble” is a difficult word to explain when applied to wine, but I think most readers will understand.
My top Pinots — almost all from the great 2007 vintage — were a pair from Occidental Coast (Occidental Coast and Two Daughters vineyards), a duo from Lynmar (Hawk Hill and Quail Hill Bliss Block), three Faillas (Vivien, Occidental Ridge, Hirsch), two from Dutton Estate (Thomas Road and Karmen Isabella), Etude’s Heirloom bottling, Patz & Hall’s Jenkins Ranch, two from De Coelo (Terra Neuma and Quintus), J’s regular 2007 and a Roessler from Ollie & Hazel’s Block. Except for the Etude, each of these is from the far Sonoma Coast or darned close to it (for example, Green Valley). That has got to be more than coincidence, and it is. It’s fair to say that the “true” Sonoma Coast is the most exciting place for Pinot Noir in California.
My top sparklers were Iron Horse’s non-vintage Joy!, the same winery’s 2002 Brut Late Disgorged, Schramsberg’s 2002 J. Schram, Mumm Napa’s 2001 DVX and a blush, Roederer’s L’Ermitage Brut Rosé. All are from the North Coast, obviously, and all are from producers with long track records of sparkling wine who never stinted from their devotion to it, through all the vicissitudes of the market. The best of California sparkling wines can stand next to anything from Champagne.
My top Cabernets were from Far Niente (2006 Oakville), Etude (2005 Oakville), W.H. Smith (2007 Purple Label, from Howell Mountain), Atlas Peak’s 2005, also from Howell Mountain, Beaulieu’s ‘06 Private Reserve, Stonestreet’s 2005 Black Cougar Ridge from Alexander Valley, a surprisingly good Hanna 2005 Reserve, also from Alexander Valley, and Corison’s outstanding 2005 Kronos. Some observations: Napa Valley and its sub-regions continue to dominate; no surprise. Howell Mountain again and again proves its greatness. The Alexander Valley Cabs come, of course, not from the “valley” itself but from the high ridges and hills on its east side, which are the western slopes of the Mayacamas. These are world-class wines that easily deserve the highest scores.
The one Chardonnay that crashed this exclusive list was Gary Farrell’s 2007, from the Rochioli Vineyard. Almost nobody gets Rochioli fruit, but Gary Farrell goes way back with that family, and even though he doesn’t own the winery anymore, I guess the new owners still have a deal. The lone Syrah at the top was another one from Failla, the 2007 Estate, from the Sonoma Coast.
Ehren Jordan, Failla’s owner/winemaker, got Wine Enthusiast’s “#1 Wine of the Year” award last year for his 2006 Phoenix Ranch Syrah. This young man has surged to the top in California. If you’ve never visited his estate vineyard, in the wild coastal highlands above Fort Ross, do so, but bring your four-wheel drive and GPS. You’ll probably get lost, and cell phones don’t work in those tortured mountains.
Next, the entire Planet Earth!
“The USA will soon have the world’s largest wine appellation,” Decanter is reporting, with its tongue just ever so slightly in its staid British cheek. The happy new AVA baby is dubbed Upper Mississippi River Valley, and it is, Decanter tells us with a touch of malice, “more than double the size of Wales…and fifty times greater than Bordeaux.” (Just to prove I, too, can look stuff up on Google, at 30,000 square miles the appellation is larger than ten American states.)
Of course, an appellation this gigantic is silly to the point of meaningless. The only unifying terroir the TTB apparently could find was “evidence of a glacial retreat 15,000 years ago.” Under the circumstances, they might as well approve a Planet Earth AVA, because after all, we’re all products of the Big Bang. (I guess they couldn’t call it an AVA if it was the whole world, could they.)
So here’s what I don’t understand. Why is it easier for TTB to approve something so big, when they couldn’t even do Westside Paso Robles? I’m not saying they should have — I came out against Westside for the same reason TTB did: It didn’t make any sense. But neither does Upper Mississippi Valley. As my homes say, Wassup wid dat?
I’d love to, but I can’t remember where I left the corkscrew
The big news of yesterday was the headline, trumpeted around the world, that “Glass of wine a day can stave off Alzheimers”
The good, no, make that the great news is that “Moderate consumption of wine could reduce the risk of contracting Alzheimer’s disease among those over 75, according to a study revealed at a conference in Vienna.” The downside, unfortunately, is that “For those already suffering minor memory problems who drank more than two glasses a day, the risk [of Alzheimer’s] was twice that of non-drinkers with similar impairment.” I suppose that includes many readers of this blog, but since active intellectual exercise also helps to prevent Alzheimer’s, I recommend you continue stretching your gray matter by reading me.
A word on Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc (and more to come later)
I’m glad Joe Roberts, over at 1WineDude blog, wrote about Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, which has been much on my mind lately. Two years ago I wouldn’t have said Napa was home to some of the best SBs in California, but I’ll say it now. Peter Franus, Cockerell, Illumination, Robert Mondavi Tokalon Reserve (Fumé Blanc), Honker Blanc (from Duckhorn, a steal at $12), Toquade, Cade, Crauford, Alpha Omega, Broman, Girard, St. Clement, the list of great Napa Sauvignon Blancs goes on and on. I don’t know what they’re smoking up in the valley, but the collective Napa consciousness apparently has decided to reinvigorate their efforts at this oftentimes cranky variety. I do have to part company with Joe, however, on his praise of the St. Supery SBs. Too feline for my sensibilities.
What did I do now?
Zinfandel from Bordeaux! Sacre bleu! Yet it could be a reality someday. So could a Bordeaux Chardonnay, Syrah, Chenin Blanc and several other grape varieties, if the heretofore hidebound INAO (National Institute of Appellations), the formal body that regulates such things, decides at the end of this month to allow vignerons to plant grape varieties that have long been illegal in Bordeaux. That’s according to this report from Decanter.
Only 14 red and white grape varieties are now permitted to be grown in Bordeaux, under INAO laws dating to 1935. Given France’s history of bureaucratically-mandated viticulture (who could forget Phillip the Bold’s 1395 banishment of “disloyal Gamay” from Burgundy?), if the authorities permit an expansion of the varietal palate, it would be a major departure from centuries of established practice.
It all stems from the Syndicat des Vins de Bordeaux, the producer organization for AOC Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur, who asked the INAO for permission to plant the non-native grapes. “Bordeaux wines are blend-wines. We wish to test new varietals to know if they can enhance the complexity of our wines,” a spokesman from the Syndicat was quoted as saying on the website, VinoWire. The deal, apparently (if INAO allows it to go ahead), is for 4 estates to vinify the new wines over the next 5 years. Then, “if the results are satisfactory,” reports the blog Bordeaux Undiscovered, “the use of the new grapes will be permitted in the Bordeaux regulations…up to 10% in the blend.” No explanation is provided as to how the results will be determined to be satisfactory or not.
Predictably, the trial balloon is raising some hackles among traditionalists, who don’t want to see change come to Bordeaux. Nick Stephens, who writes Bordeaux Undiscovered, calls it “half-baked,” and wonders if the Syndicat des Vins de Bordeaux is “attempting to change the character of Bordeaux wines to that of their New World cousins?” On that VinoWire website, a guest contributor and wine writer, Hervé Lalau, said it was “pathetic to hear a spokesman of what used to pass as the wine Mecca speaking of ‘enhancing Bordeaux’s complexity’. Does it lack complexity so much that even Bordeaux people confess it?” Then Lalau asked the big question: “This could be like Pandora’s box. If the INAO accepts these new grapes in Bordeaux, then how could it refuse Cabernet in Burgundy, Sauvignon in Châteauneuf and Sémillon in Sancerre?”
Well, it sounds like Bordeaux is becoming California-ized! I personally don’t see what the problem is with Bordeaux trying out new varieties and blends. Bordeaux has to compete in the international wine market just like everybody else. If they can make better, more interesting wines by tinkering with new varieties, great. Here in California, wineries such as Buoncristiani, Swanson, L’Aventure and Treana have achieved stunning success with Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah blends that blow your sox off. Who says that Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur — not the greatest wines to begin with — can’t be better by adding some exotic varieties to the mix?
P.S. Here’s the URL for Tom Wark’s American Wine Blog Awards. If you like my blog, you might consider nominating it in one of these categories, or all three:
– Best writing wine blog
– Best industry/business-oriented wine blog
– Best overall wine blog
Here are some of the California whites I’ve been tasting lately: Albariño, Verdelho, Torrontes, Vermintino (AKA Malvasia Bianca), Tocai Friulano, Gruner Veltliner, Cortese, Edelzwicker and Muscat Blanc.
Who woulda thunk? We’ve certainly moved beyond the Usual Suspects, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc! Not to mention Chenin Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Pinot Gris/Grigio and Grenache Blanc
It would have been impossible for me to have tasted this wide a variety of white wines even five years ago, because few wineries, if any, were making them. For example, in 2002 there were less than 100 tons of Tocai Friulano crushed in the state. Last year, it was over 400 tons. Ditto for Verdelho, 169 tons in 2007 versus a paltry 14.8 tons in 2002. Six years ago, there were about 950 acres of Muscat Blanc planted. Last year, it nearly doubled, to 1,700 acres.
So what’s up?
Partly, I guess, it’s vintners looking to hop on the next variety train before it leaves the station. After all, look what happened with Pinot Grigio. But it got me thinking about how to identify the early warning signs of a coming trend. I went down to our big BevMo store in Oakland and asked the guy who works the floor what was happening with white wines. Not much, he said. It seems that retail stores are not the leading indicators of trends. Nor, apparently, is the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Grape Acreage Report; the 2007 edition doesn’t even list Gruner Veltliner, Edelzwicker, Torrontes or Albariño as growing in the state, even though I’ve been drinking them! So I’m concluding that one early indicator of a coming trend — maybe the best one — is what wines are being discovered by critical critters like me (and being reviewed favorably, I might add).
If there is a new wave of whites, it’s great news. It indicates that the A.B.C. movement (“Anything But Chardonnay”) is working. Growers and vintners are thinking that the American consumer is ready to try new things, and they’re responding by making new kinds of wines.
Here are some of the more interesting of these new whites I’ve had lately. The italicized numbers are my Wine Enthusiast scores:
88 Cambiata 2007 Albariño (Monterey); $24
87 Dancing Coyote 2007 Albariño (Clarksburg); $11
90 Lee Family Farm 2007 Silvaspoons Vineyard Verdelho (Alta Mesa); $15
88 Stevenot 2007 Verdelho (California); $14
87 Stevenot 2007 Gran Reserva Torrontes (California); $22
87 David Noyes 2007 Pagani Vineyard Tocai Friulano (Sonoma Valley); $20
87 Von Strasser 2007 Gruner Veltliner (Diamond Mountain); $40
88 Navarro 2007 Edelzwicker (Mendocino); $13
88 Gianelli 2007 Vermentino (Tuolumne County); $18
P.S. Please check out my new blog post at Wine Enthusiast’s Unreserved.
I was visiting Ryan over at Paul Marcus Wines, in Oakland’s Rock Ridge district. I asked how Syrah was selling and he made a long face that didn’t require any words to explain.
“In fact,” he said, “I was dusting the shelves the other day and there was more dust in the Syrah section than anyplace else.” (Ryan said Spanish reds are his hottest sellers now.)
Ryan’s quip accorded with numerous complaints I’ve heard from winemakers and winery owners that they can’t sell Syrah. Which is strange, because Syrah would seem to have everything going for it: It’s a pretty French word (like Merlot) that’s easy for Americans to pronounce. It usually makes a good wine and occasionally a great one in California. And it costs less than Cabernet Sauvignon. So why aren’t people drinking it?
Ryan speculated consumers may be confusing Syrah with Shiraz and thinking that Syrah is a big, hearty, robust and rustic wine, as Aussie Shiraz can be. If that’s how people view it, then they’re correct not to spend upwards of $20 or $30 for a bottle of something they think is boonie plonk.
Planted acreage of Syrah has been rising over the years, but not as dramatically as other premium red wine grapes, such as Pinot Noir (double since 1999). There’s 50% more Pinot Noir planted in California than Syrah, whose total statewide acreage, believe it or not, is only a little more than double that of Grenache.
And in the prime coastal areas new Syrah plantings have practically halted. Napa, Sonoma, Monterey, Mendocino and Santa Barbara have added only paltry amounts in the last 5 years. Purchased Syrah grapes actually declined in value last year, falling from $680 a ton to $660 on average. Compare that to Pinot Noir ($2,028 a ton), Cabernet Sauvignon ($998) and even Petite Sirah ($882). In fact, 42 other red varietal grapes cost more to buy in California than Syrah!
I mean, this is Syrah, one of the world’s most noble grape varieties. And people won’t drink it?
There are signs the industry is concerned about a Syrah slump and is gearing up to do something about it. In May, Gallo sponsored a Syrah Symposium in Santa Ynez, and they’re planning on investing in it in coming years to promote both it and Syrah; I know for a fact they want this Symposium to become a Very Important Event. At one of the Symposium seminars, I was struck when several of the panelist-winemakers blamed the wine media for Syrah’s failure to win hearts, minds and wallets. “You guys have to do a better job of educating consumers,” one said.
Well, it’s not the media’s job to promote any one variety, and besides, we in the wine press can only do so much. We can’t force consumers to buy a wine they don’t want.
But I’ll do my part by recommending the best Syrahs I’ve had lately. The numbers in italics are my Wine Enthusiast scores.
95 Novy Cellars 2005 Syrah (Santa Lucia Highlands); $27
95 Sonoma Coast Vineyards 2004 Syrah (Sonoma Coast); $45
95 Failla 2006 Phoenix Ranch Syrah (Napa Valley); $42
95 Signorello 2005 Estate Syrah (Napa Valley); $36
94 Kendall-Jackson 2005 Highlands Estate Alisos Hills Syrah (Santa Barbara County); $40
94 Rubicon Estate 2004 RC Reserve Syrah (Rutherford); $62
94 Kenneth-Crawford 2004 Lafond Vineyard Syrah (Santa Rita Hills); $32
94 Château Potelle 2005 V.G.S. Syrah (Mount Veeder); $75
93 Rusack 2004 Ballard Canyon Reserve Syrah (Santa Barbara County); $36
93 Luko 2005 White Hawk Vineyard Syrah (Santa Barbara County); $52