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Playing “what if?” with California wine regions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Labels, visceral responses and disruptive business models

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At dinner the other night a senior executive for a major wine company told me that labels are becoming one of the most important reasons why people make a spontaneous purchase of wine.

I’d always known that labels are important, but this executive stressed their importance even beyond what I’d thought. It’s difficult for me to put myself in the shoes of an uneducated shopper as she browses the wine aisle looking for something special to drink with the pesto pasta and fresh garden peas she’s making tonight. I would already have an idea in my head of what type of wine to drink with it–maybe a sprightly white wine, with good acidity and some sweetness; Gewurztraminer? From there, it would be a matter of selecting a trusted producer, at the right price. I might also be influenced by geographic origin. Alsace? Sure.

But our shopper doesn’t know anything about any of that. Instead, she has to rely on one of our oldest, most primitive forms of human sensibility: vision. What we see is immediate and powerful: it can do only one of three things: repel us, attract us, or leave us indifferent. Label designers know this, and design accordingly.

But this isn’t a posting about labels, it’s about buying wine based on “more visceral responses [of which] aesthetics is key.” Those are the words of a gentleman named Phil Hurst, who is board chairman of a newish company, H.D.D., which is described in this press release as “one of California’s newest and fastest growing wine companies,” with brands including Healdsburg Ranches, Stonegate, VML and Bradford Mountain. (I’ve reviewed all these wines in recent years. The results have been mixed.) What interests me about H.D.D. is their practice of what one of their angel investors, a San Franciscan named Daniel A. Carroll, calls “a truly disruptive wine business model.” Come again? “A Disruptive Business Model focuses on improving products and services in ways that the industry does not expect while designing for an evolving set of consumers in a new market environment,” explains the press release.

That’s a mouthful that I didn’t quite get, so I asked my friend, Mr. Google, about it. Here’s one definition: “The word ‘disruptive’ is bandied about when referring to surprising new entrants into an industry, new players with new technology, and sudden competition coming from unlikely sources.” Here’s another: “A disruptive innovation is an innovation that helps create a new market and value network, and eventually goes on to disrupt an existing market and value network (over a few years or decades), displacing an earlier technology.” And a third: “Disruptive business models focus on creating, disintermediating, refining, reengineering or optimizing a product/service, role/function/practice, category, market, sector, or industry. The most successful companies incorporate disruptive thinking into all of their business and management practices to gain distinctive competitive value propositions.”

Okay, I’m beginning to get it. The opposite of a disruptive business is a me-too business, one that uses stale, non-performing old models instead of revolutionary innovations.

Back to H.D.D. What are their disruptive models? One is direct to consumer. The other is that “visceral response” thing. “Decisions are made at point of purchase based on mood or occasion,” the press release says. That’s our pasta-cooking shopper. Perhaps she’ll buy H.D.D.’s Dearly Beloved Forever Red wine because the label’s so cool (especially if she’s a Deadhead).

Well, all right, this all sounds good, until you begin to think about it. What is really new about “a purchase based on mood or occasion”? Gallo understood that 60 years ago. Retailers have been trying to influence the shopper’s mood forever. So I’m not seeing what’s so disruptive about H.D.D., and it was even more surprising to see no mention at all of social media in the press release. I did an (admittedly quick) Google search to see if I could find any mention of H.D.D.’s online practices, and I couldn’t. I would think that a disruptive business hoping to upset apple carts would have social media as part of its practices. However, H.D.D.’s founding partners include Bill Hambrecht (he’s the H.) and Paul Dolan (he’s one of the D.s). Smart guys, industry vets. I’d put my money of them, if I had any.


Even a “natural” winemaker can’t define “natural wine”

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I haven’t been the most sympathetic guy out there when it comes to natural wines. My position all along has been that I care more about deliciousness than being politically correct, so if a winemaker has to do things to his wine that are inconsistent with being purely “natural,” then go for it.

I realize that a lot of people feel differently, though. Sometimes it seems like a red state versus blue state thing: the naturalists really dislike the “interventionists” (or whatever they’re called), while the interventionists pooh-pooh the naturalists as being driven by misplaced ideology. That’s why it was so refreshing and interesting to come across this article by a pro-naturalist winemaker, Fabio Bartolomei, who admits that the natural “movement” is really blurry and hard to define. It appeared online in the April 5 issue of the Organic Wine Journal.

Fabio’s winery is Vinos Ambiz, in Spain, which his blog describes as “Producers of natural, organic, healthful, sustainable wine.” We therefore can assume that Fabio is serious and genuine when it comes to natural wine, but he also is honest and humble enough to concede that “there’s a whole grey area” when it comes to defining what’s natural and what isn’t, and that any particular wine “may or may not be ‘natural’ depending on your definition.”

This absence of a proper definition, Fabio asserts (and I agree) may upset some people, but not Fabio. “I personally don’t [care]!,” he writes. “Life is short! Let’s just all get on with it and stop fretting.” This doesn’t mean Fabio doesn’t care how he makes his wine. All it means is that he doesn’t care about technical definitions of “natural” wine, as long as he’s free to make wine the way he wants to. Which he is.

Fabio’s last two lists–“It does/doesn’t contain the following” and “I did/didn’t do these things to it”–are the best short course in winemaker interventions I’ve ever seen. I salute his honesty and commitment. The question he raises- whether his statements would be legally permitted on the back label of his wines in America–is something I can’t answer. If he could, then would consumers demand to know what all other wines have in them, or have had done to them? We’ve already seen the beginnings of this, as for instance in this New York Magazine article.

I myself think it would be very stupid to carry this idea to its logical conclusion. For one, it would make for very big, clumsy back labels on bottles of wine. For another, it could startle a sizable number of wine consumers into shunning perfectly fine wines, just because they think that anything that sounds vaguely “chemical” must be bad for them. (People who get upset about chemical additives to food, such as preservatives, forget that food itself is nothing but a collection of chemicals.) I realize that, in this Age of Transparency, it’s probably inevitable that sooner or later wineries will be pressured into full disclosure; or perhaps the government will make them do it. However the question is, and always will be: What does the wine taste like? If it’s good, nobody should care what the winemaker did. If it’s bad or mediocre–despite being politically correct in being entirely “natural”–then would you want to drink it? That would be carrying ideology to the point of ridiculousness.

Anyhow, I really do thank Fabio for such a well-written and provocative article. I hope to someday taste his wines and then blog about how good they are–despite being natural!


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.


Is The Golden Age of Wine Writing over?

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This question hit me last night shortly before I went to bed. I come from an era when wine writers took the art of writing very seriously. They actually sweated over each word, using Thesauruses (Thesauri?) and dictionaries, piling sentences elaborately upon sentences, building up paragraphs into a narrative, worrying over leads and looking always for the flourishing finish.

Of course, it all had a purpose and was well-rewarded. One wrote for a publication — be it a book, magazine or journal. One had the option of writing at length. One was aware that, even though we were merely “lowly” wine writers rather than serious novelists or investigative journalists for the New York Times, we nonetheless were members of an elite: writers. And I think we wine writers, who became active in the 1970s and 1980s, were aware, at least semi-consciously, that we had plunged into a Golden Age of Wine Writing that had been going on for quite some time, and showed no signs of waning.

What is a “Golden Age”? The term is most commonly used to refer to the Greek Age of Pericles (c. 440 BCE), when Athens was at its classical height. Sophocles was writing his plays, Socrates was busy corrupting Athenian youth by encouraging them to think, Democritus was theorizing the atom, Protagoras was inventing a little theory that someday would be named for him, and Herotodus and Thucydides were recording it all, and inventing History in the process. Several centuries later, the Greek poet, Hesiod, wrote that during the Golden Age “Men lived like gods without sorrow of heart…with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all devils.”

All Golden Ages end, sadly. Hesiod accorded the demise of Greece’s Golden Age to the time when Prometheus gave mankind the gifts of architecture, mathematics, astronomy, navigation, medicine and fire, among other blessings. For this, Zeus “became angry at Prometheus for making people powerful by teaching them all these useful skills.”

The Chief of the Gods, of course, famously punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock and causing an eagle to forever eat his liver.  Why was Zeus pissed at Mr. P. for elevating mankind? Probably for the same reason the Hebrew God was angry at Adam and Eve for eating of the tree of knowledge. Gods are jealous. They want all the power to themselves. Perhaps they fear that a mankind made equi-powerful to them will bring about destruction and madness. It’s hard to know just what a God is thinking.

We wine writers of a certain age had our Golden Age. We had our Platos and Sophocles, our Pythagorases and Pericles, and long, sunny days in which to labor at our love of writing. Now, who was our Pericles, what was the fire he delivered to mankind, and how are the Gods punishing mankind today? Our Pericles was the two Steves (Jobs and Wozniak) and Bill Gates. The fire — the great power — they gave us was the personal computer and the Internet. To what rock are we now chained, and what eagle is it that eats our livers?

Hence the decline of the Golden Age of Wine Writing.

Who writes anymore? People tweet. They misspell (on purpose?). They Facebook. They churn out silly little books like Crush It! and 101 Wines: Guaranteed to Inspire, Delight, and Bring Thunder to Your World that nobody cares about and nobody will read tomorrow because they have nothing to say. I’m not complaining, exactly. Life goes on. The Millennials deserve their chance. Will the wine writers amongst them reverse the decline and restore the Golden Age? Golden Ages, once gone, do not typically come back. I can see a time, in 300 years, when somebody says to somebody else, “Can you believe that once upon a time there was a class of wine writers that was like a priesthood, elevated and slightly mysterious but revered, who pronounced mystically upon wine, and wrote lengthy treatises on it, which were purchased and studied by the masses?” To which the other person replies, “You have got to be kidding!”

[to be continued]


Thoughts on a few reader comments from yesterday

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I want to riff on some points that some readers made yesterday, as they raise issues that I’ve thought long and hard about for 20 years. In response to my post on California terroir, Corey wrote a long comment that included this:

It seems to me that your job as a full-time wine writer and critic should be to expand your understanding and appreciation to the utmost. That is to say, to develop as many independent reference points as possible and to push others with less opportunity to…think outside the “California sunset” box. After all, it’s easy to have a single reference point that we constantly come back to. It’s much harder to appreciate things independently for their own intrinsic qualities. It takes time and energy that most of us don’t have. Isn’t it your grand challenge as a pro to help guide us along and promote our deeper understanding instead of allowing our stagnation on what we already know so well?

And Tom Merle wrote: Trouble is Steve H, following the opening comment by Steve M, many of your readers are fans of Rhone/Spanish/Italian/German etc., etc. varietal wines and with your personal preference for Burgundian and Bordeaux style wines, are you not giving short shrift to these wine enthusiasts of which there are many?

Boiled down, the criticism these two gentlemen are offering of me (if I’m interpreting it correctly) is that (a) I don’t taste enough non-California wines, and therefore (b) I have no reference point except for California’s major varieties, (c) so I’m not doing a good enough job enlightening my writers by educating about (for example) the wines of Rioja or Barolo or Hermitage or the Rhinegau. (I’m sure Corey and/or Tom will let me know if I’ve misinterpreted their points.)

The basic theme here concerns whether a wine critic should have a regular “beat” (in the old newspaper sense) or be a roaming reporter. A critic with a beat focuses on a particular area or variety. For example, Alan Meadows, AKA The Burghound, writes only about Pinot Noir from his beloved Burgundy, as well as wines from California and Oregon. He’s a “beat” wine critic. On the other hand, Jancis Robinson covers the entire world of wine, fltting from Argentine Malbec to St. Estephe to Madeira with the effortless ease of a Cirque du Soleil trapezist.

Is one skill set better than the other? Is Meadows giving “short shrift” to the rest of the world’s wines by concentrating exclusively on Pinot Noir? I don’t think so. One could just as easily ask if Jancis gives short shrift to the complexities of the regions she covers, by looking only at a few top wines from each. With all due respect to Jancis, when’s the last time she tasted through a bunch of Sierra Foothills Zinfandels?

Corey said, “it’s easy to have a single reference point that we constantly come back to. It’s much harder to appreciate things independently for their own intrinsic qualities.” I suppose so, but in wine criticism, the appreciation of things for their own intrinsic qualities represents a slippery slope. Every wine has its intrinsic qualities, no? A Sauvignon Blanc laden with cat pee has the intrinsic quality of cat-peeness. But I’ll never be able to appreciate it and it will always get a low score from me.

Corey asks also “Do you really believe that Cab, Pinot, and Chard are, ‘the greatest’, or is it simply that they have been touted as such louder and longer than any others?” Well, yes, I do believe they’re “the greatest” wines in California. Does that mean I give “short shrift” to Tuscany because California can’t make a decent Sangiovese? Nope. Do I give “short shrift” to Piedmont because California Nebbiolo sucks? Nope. Do I give “short shrift” to the Rhinegau because California Riesling rarely amounts to much? Nope. I could go on and on. You get the point.

Sure, I’m exhibiting some defensiveness. But part of the transparency of this blog and of social media in general is that people like me make for easy targets. Whenever you’re visible, someone is going to pin a “kick me” sign on your butt. And someone else will take advantage of the invitation.

I wish — I really do — that I had more time to taste more of the world’s wines. I actually envy someone like Jancis who can jet her way around the world and taste so many great rarities. But I envy The Burghound, too, who knows more about Pinot Noir than anybody else in the universe, and is a flamboyant speaker, as well. Jancis and Alan both have great jobs. I do too, but readers need to take everything in the context of what it is. You can criticize anything you want for not being other than what it is. Meadows is not a Cabernet guy, or a Tempranillo guy or a Chenin Blanc guy. I suppose he could be, if he set his mind to it, but every bit of energy he put into understanding Tempranillo would be taken away from Pinot Noir. That would make him other than The Burghound, and diminish his worth.

I also really wish California could escape from the chocolate-vanilla cage of Cabernet and Chardonnay and get serious about other varieties. A few winemakers are, here and there, but the market tends to shackle serious efforts to expand our varietal spectrum. That’s too bad. Until that fact changes, I’m going to have to keep Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir as my reference points — wines of quality to which all other California varieties aspire.


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