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“Obscure” varieties a hard sell


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


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.

Monday Twosome


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.

What I like, and why


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.

Tuesday twaddle


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?

Bordeaux to explore non-Bordeaux varieties? Could happen as soon as this month


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


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