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World of Pinot Noir 2014: Random notes

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At the morning seminar on the Pinots of Willamette Valley, my friend Gillian Handelman, of Jackson Family Wines, remarked that Oregon winemakers seem to talk a lot more about soil and rocks than do California winemakers, who lean more toward climate in explaining their Pinots. That immediately rang true to me, and I wondered why it might be so. A few things occur to me:

The historical reference point for Pinot Noir in California is Sonoma County, where the soils are so impossibly jumbled, courtesy of the San Andreas Fault system, that you can walk two yards and find different structures. That may be one reason why: Winemakers were stymied trying to understand their soils, so they very naturally turned to climate. Then too, as someone observed, up in Oregon-Washington, every kid is raised with the story of the great Missoula Floods, which formed so much of those states’ terrain. “It was our creation myth,” said Oregon journalist Katherine Cole, who moderated the Willamette seminar. So it may be that Oregonians have rocks more deeply imbedded in their imaginations than do Californians. Finally, it may be because in Willamette, Pinot Noir is pretty much exclusively the red grape, whereas in California, it’s everything from Pinot to Cabernet and Zinfandel. Pinot seems to draw more from the dirt than most other red varieties, so maybe Oregon winemakers look more toward Burgundian explanations of terroir than Californians. I don’t know what the answer is, but I think Gillian hit the nail on the head.

The seminar on the wines of Louis Jadot’s Beaune Premier Cru Clos des Ursules was stunning. I’ve gone to few vertical tastings in my life in which a continuity of style was clearer, or where the necessity of aging more apparent. We tasted eight wines, from 2010 going back to 1985, and it was easy to find the same elements in them all. But really, only the 1985 was drinkable (to me)–and that, just barely; I’d love to try it in another 20 years. Jadot’s winemaker, Frédéric Barnier, conceded as much. When asked by an audience member if he didn’t feel the need to change the style in response to consumer demand for earlier-drinking wines, Barnier said, in effect: No way. Good for him.

Later, at the walkaround tasting, I found myself gravitating toward the 2011s, from both Oregon and California. Some of them were stunning. The one I particularly recall was the Baxter 2011 Valenti Vineyard, from Mendocino Ridge. (I no longer review Mendocino wines for Wine Enthusiast; Virginie Boone does. She scored it 92 points. I might have gone a little higher, and added a Cellar Selection designation. But Virginie and I are in the same ballpark.)

I’m still formulating my views on the 2011 Pinots. Katherine, the Willamette moderator, told a story about a Burgundian producer she interviewed. When she asked him about a certain vintage would develop, he crustily replied (I paraphrase Katherine’s quote), “How am I supposed to know? You can’t understand a vintage for at least fifty years.” While I wouldn’t go that far, I do think it takes time, and any serious reviewer who doesn’t revise his estimations of a vintage is lazy or dead. Early on, I had serious problems with 2011 Pinots from California. Lots of mold. But there always were some great wines from producers who either sorted out the moldy berries or who sourced their grapes from vineyards (often mountains or hillsides) where mold was not a problem, even in the cold 2011 vintage. So at the walkaround tasting I was really blown away by some of the 2011s. The Baxter is the only one I’ll mention here, but the great ones all were low in alcohol, incredibly streamlined and elegant, brisk in acidity and not overwhelming in fruit. You can call them Burgundian, I suppose. This raises the question of how to evaluate a vintage, overall, when it contains extremes of both sides: extraordinary wines as well as moldy ones. My feeling is to lower the overall score, in terms of numbers, but try to express, in the text, that consumers who choose well will find unbelievably gorgeous wines. This is not always an easy message to get across, but then, of course, the individual scores and reviews of the wines also express how I feel about them.

Finally: Frédéric Barnier on numerous occasions made a distinction between wines that are “good” and those that are “interesting.” I raised my hand five or six times, during the Q&A, to ask him to elaborate; but alas, Katherine never called on me, so all I can do is surmise. I wanted to ask him: Can a wine that’s not good be interesting? Can a wine that’s good be uninteresting? This is fascinating stuff, and I hope to muse on these concepts in the future.

 


Ongoing thoughts on the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignons

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I remember when the 2010 vintage was finished, how everyone was predicting that the wines, especially the Cabernet Sauvignons, would be the most balanced California had produced in years.

The vintage was the chilliest people could remember–2011, of course, was even colder–but the spin was that the cool conditions meant that the grapes would physiologically ripen at lower brix, resulting in Cabs and other wines that would taste good at lower alcohol levels.

Well, I’ve now reviewed about 750 Cabernets and Bordeaux blends from the 2010 vintage, and I’ve got to say, from the evidence presented to me, the theory hasn’t panned out. The simple fact of the matter is that a cold vintage is a cold vintage. You can’t spin your way out of that.

Look, California isn’t Bordeaux. Whatever happens at the latitude of Bordeaux to a Cabernet Sauvignon grape is not what happens to a grape at the latitude of Napa Valley. The light is different; the length of day is different, and of course the climate is totally different, California being warmer and drier than Bordeaux. So to suggest that “all California needs” is a cool vintage that will result in more Bordeaux-like wines is simplistic and incorrect.

It’s not that 2010 was a bad vintage for Cabernet. In fact, it was a very good one, in the sense that it resulted in many high-scoring wines, particularly (as you’d expect) from Napa Valley and its subappellations. But, looking over my reviews, 2007 outclassed 2010. So did 2008 (a fairly warm year) and, by a hair, 2009. (As for 2011, that icebox of a vintage, all the Cabs have not yet been released. But so far, I’ve given the lowest number of high scores to 2011 Cabs than I have in many years.)

Case in point: Sequoia Grove’s Rutherford Bench Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. I gave the 2010 a perfectly respectable 92 points. But I gave the 2007 96 points. The ’10 was a shade less rich, not quite as vast as the ’07. Ditto for Alpha Omega: I gave the 2010 Beckstoffer Tokalon Cab 91 points (they actually had two bottlings, a “North” and a “South,” but they both got the same score), while the 2007 Beckstoffer Tokalon got a whopping 97 points. Then there’s Moone-Tsai, whose 2010 Cor Leonis I gave 90 points, compared to the 96 points and 95 points I gave, respectively, to their 2008 and 2009.

I should also point out, in fairness, that I recommended a lot of 2010s for cellaring, precisely because they started out so tannic and tight. However, if you’ve followed my reviews for any length of time, you’ll know that I have mixed feelings about longterm prognostications when it comes to California Cabernet Sauvignon. Predicting which one will actually improve with more than 8 or 10 years in the cellar, as opposed to which one will simply become old and boring, is an inexact science, and anyone with experience in these things is bound to agree.

Is a tight, tannic young Cab “better” with food than one that’s fat and opulent? That’s the standard wisdom–if fact, it’s common to hear that those huge, rich Napa Cabs are “cocktail wines” rather than food wines. Well, I haven’t found the 2010 Cabs to be particularly modest in alcohol, which was also one of the early prognostications. Among my highest scorers, the Yao Ming was 14.9% (these are all official readings, but–again, as my regular readers know–I sometimes am forced to conclude that some wines are higher in alcohol than the label says), the Laird Flat Rock is 14.8%, Venge Bone Ash is 14.9%, JCB No. 10 is 15%, Lamborn Vintage VIII is 14.8%, Hall Exzellenz is 15.5%, Terra Valentine K-Block is 14.9%, Janzen Beckstoffer-Missouri Hopper is 15.2% and David Arthur Elevation 1147’ is 14.9%. I don’t have a problem with these alcohol levels, but they do lend the lie to the notion that the 2010 Cabs are more elegant because they’re lower in alcohol.

In the end, one is left having to sort out what’s true and what’s not true about the old notion that “every year is a vintage year in California.” It’s quite true in the sense that California or, more properly, its various sub-regions hardly ever have uniformly bad years. Yet it’s also true that some years can be tough on certain varieties and regions. Sauvignon Blanc had a particularly difficult time in 2011. It was so cold that the grapes just couldn’t fully ripen, resulting in an ocean of green, minty wines. And yet, certain producers (the usual suspects, one is tempted to say), did just fine: Mondavi, Grgich Hills (whose ’11 Essence is fabulous), Margerum down in Happy Canyon, Brander, Rochioli and others. But all in all, if you’re perusing a wine list and see a 2011 California Sauvignon Blanc and don’t know the producer or that particular wine, you’re best off buying something else.


How dry was California in 2013?

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It’s official: 2013 was the driest year ever in recorded California history.

Here are some statistics for selected cities. The number represents the percentage of normal seasonal rainfall that has fallen so far during this year’s rainy season. (Figures courtesy of San Francisco Chronicle)

Bakersfield: 16.7%

Eureka: 12.5%

Los Angeles: 6.4%

Oakland: 7.7%

Sacramento: 8.6%

San Diego: 21.7%

San Francisco: 8.7%

San Jose: 9.8%

Santa Rosa: 6.2%

Napa City, meanwhile, had only 22.7% of its normal yearly precipitation average, according to the Napa Valley Register, making 2013 “the driest year since reliable records started being kept nearly a century ago in Napa.”

Granted, the 2013-2014 rainy season still has many months to go. But we’re getting off to a bad start, and people are scared.

The numbers clearly are unsustainable, and reflect the fact that the drought is statewide and not merely regional. All previous drought records, dating back to 1850, have not only been surpassed, but pulverized. “The official drought map of California looks as if it has been set on fire and scorched…”, a reporter wrote in the San Jose Mercury-News.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein in early December asked Cal. Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a drought emergency, an action Brown so far has resisted taking, although a week after Feinstein’s request, he did form a task force to study the issue. Some municipalities aren’t waiting for statewide action. The city of Folsom on Dec. 23 mandated a 20 percent rationing order. Three days later, Sacramento County asked some residents to reduce water consumption of 20 percent. In Sonoma County, the County Water Agency has asked permission from the state “to slash flows from Lake Mendocino to the Russian River,” in order to keep the reservoir’s dwindling water level from falling even more.

Other cities are expected to enact similar water-saving mores in January.

The American Geophysical Society announced that California, and large parts of the West, may be experiencing a “megadrought” that could last for decades. They released this drought map

 

drought map

showing the extent of “severe” and “extreme” drought, with the worst areas centering on California and northwestern Nevada.

What impact could the drought–if it continues through the rest of the winter and spring–have on California wine? Vintners fear there won’t be enough water to spray for frost protection during the crucial early budding season. And there won’t be enough water for vine irrigation next summer, especially if we have heat waves. This enforced dry-farming probably means lower crop levels, especially compared to the last few years. Catastrophically dry conditions could spark massive wildfires that take out vineyards.

Is the drought related to climate change? I’m not prepared to go that far.


Happy New Year! Reflections on 2013

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As we wrap up another year, I find myself, like so many others, looking back over the old one, and wondering what it all meant.

I’m not going to do any sort of list, but instead want to let my mind wander free-range over the past 365 days. It’s been a year of gradual and welcome emergence from the despairs of the Great Recession. Here in California, as you may know, our economy is booming, particularly in the coastal areas, and most especially in Northern California. Fueled by the growth of Silicon Valley, NoCal is experiencing low unemployement, high salaries, and most notably a housing boom. Prices (and rents) are soaring, bringing to mind the housing bubble of the early and mid-2000s–but this time, the experts are telling us there’s no chance of a burst. I don’t know that I believe them, though.

Wineries seem to be doing all right. Like I always say, nobody can really know a winery’s bottom line unless you’re the banker or owner, so any conjectures about the industry’s health are only that: conjectures. But business seems to be back on track. I’m sure there are individual wineries that are struggling, but sales, bankruptcies and the like don’t seem to be any higher than they’ve been in the 25 years I’ve been watching the California industry.

The Holy Grail for wineries is, of course, direct-to-consumer sales. I can’t even remember when I first heard that phrase. I do recall the first time it was brought to my attention that a direct sale brings the proprietor 100 cents on the dollar, rather than the split he has to eat when dealing with the three-tiered distribution system. That was years ago, when I was touring the wineries of the Sierra Foothills, particularly those along Highway 49, in Gold Country, and also located conveniently between the population centers of the coast and the ski resorts around Tahoe. All the owners told me how much wine they were selling through their tasting rooms, up to 90% of their production. That was a good thing, for them–but a bad thing, as far as I was concerned, because too many of the wines were (in my opinion) flawed, and yet the owners had no motivation at all to clean up their acts.

Anyhow, tasting room sales obviously are a subset of direct-to-consumer. So, today, are wine clubs that are active through the Internet. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’d love to be around in, say, 20 years, to see if wineries are still at the mercy of a (fairly heartless) distribution system, or if they’ve managed to figure out how to sell direct. At this point, I don’t have a clue.

Two other aspects of the past year intrigue me: the excellence of the 2012 and 2013 vintages. After a difficult 2011 and challenging 2010, California enjoyed two of the nicest years, weather-wise, in memory. The main wines have yet to appear from either, but theoretically, both 2012 and 2013 look to have the qualities of stellar vintages. One cloud that’s hanging over the coming 2014 vintage is California’s severe drought. As I write these words, 2013 is shaping up to be the driest year in California’s history–which goes back in record-keeping to the 1850s. It’s appalling how dry conditions are. On Jan. 1, 2014 (i.e., tomorrow), if the national (which is to say, East Coast) media don’t make a big deal about this, they discredit themselves, and show their right coast bias. How the drought will impact the grapes is complicated, a story that will play itself out next summer. Of course, the weather could change on a dime: January-March could be real drenchers. We’ll just have to wait and see.

A final observation: In all my years of wine reporting I’ve never appreciated so much as I have this year the importance of a younger generation coming up. I guess this is a natural result of the fading away of the original boutique winery proprietors, who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. There are ambitious, talented young winemakers all over the place. I’ve written about this extensively in my articles about Paso Robles and Monterey, but it’s not just along the Central Coast, it’s statewide. What energy these winemakers are bringing, what innovation, what risk-taking. California is a very conservative state, wine-wise (the opposite of our political liberalism), and it’s a bold move for a young, unproven winemaker to try her hand at something new, rather than “just” another Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon (not that there’s anything wrong with either!). But I do see a cadre of vintners in their 20s and 30s tinkering with less familiar varieties–and often they’re crafting them at lower alcohols and with higher acidity than has been the case. I’m looking forward to experiencing more of these wines in 2014.

I’d like to thank my readers for sticking with steveheimoff.com for another year; I’m now going into my sixth on this blog. Thank you, too, for all of you who take the time to comment. Your feedback always is welcome and sometimes educational. I wish you all a happy, healthy New Year.


More on the troubling 2011 vintage

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I was starting to feel like the only person on Earth who had concerns about the 2011 vintage, until I read this post from Jim Laube’s blog, in which he describes “a high presence of musty and even moldy flavors” in too many of the wines.

I’ve been telling Wine Enthusiast’s Tasting Department for the better part of a year the same thing. Of course, one is loathe to say, of any given wine, that it’s “moldy” because, unless you actually test it for, say, botrytis, you don’t actually know; that loaded word can kill the wine’s sales. But “musty” and “moldy” aromas and accompanying bad flavors are exactly what plagues so many 2011s. That, and a generalized unripeness across the board.

 

grape.27

The vintage was the coldest ever–well, in living memory, anyway. It was the year that summer never came. Brutal for people and grapes alike. This problem wasn’t limited just to the coolest regions: it was coastal-wide, extending into Paso Robles. I’m not going to identify any particular bottlings, but here are some Moldy Hall of Fame 2011 wines; maybe you can figure out what they are.

There was a single-vineyard Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands that was filled with fungus.  A Paso Robles red Rhône-blend that reeked of mushrooms, not in a good way. An expensive Russian River Valley Pinot whose asparagus smell reminded me of the Monterey veggies of long ago, as did one from Carneros. Another Pinot, with a Santa Barbara County appellation, smelled like green beans and tomatoes.

As I look over my notes, I see that the variety that was most susceptible to these defects was Pinot Noir, although I also found it in some Zinfandels, Sauvignon Blancs, Chardonnays, Viogniers, Syrahs and Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux blends, including some expensive ones. I guess Pinot was most affected because of its transparency: the very thing that lets us taste the most finely-tuned aspects of Pinot’s terroir also magnifies the slightest problem.

The thing about mold, unripeness and vegetal notes is that they don’t go away. You can’t blow them off with decanting. And they won’t age out. On Wine Enthusiast’s Vintage Chart for 2011 Pinot Noir, I gave Carneros my lowest score in many years. Ditto for Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley and Santa Barbara, including Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley. Having said that, the thing to realize is that 2011 was far from being a “bad” vintage. Yes, there were a lot of mediocre wines, more than usual; but there were also some fabulous one. The problem of moldy berries is easily addressed by the winery: If their viticulture can’t prevent it (and often it can’t, because botrytis moves in really fast), then the sorting table is where bad grapes are plucked out, before they go into the fermenter. Problem is, sorting is expensive. Not every winery can afford the equipment or the staff. It must be a terrible moral quandary for a winemaker to allow moldy grapes to pass into the wine–but what can she do? It’s economics.

Here are some wineries that obviously did have the means and will power to produce magnificent 2011 Pinot Noirs: Williams Selyem, Merry Edwards, Paul Hobbs, Rochioli, Lynmar, Dutton-Goldfield, Joseph Phelps, Failla, Thomas Fogarty, Flowers, Testarossa, Tantara, Freeman, Sojourn, Siduri and Foxen. The usual suspects, you say? Exactly. The reason they’re the usual suspects is because these wine companies do what has to be done to produce great wine.

Actually, the problems of 2011 (and, to an almost equal extent, 2010) underscore two important things to keep in mind: One, not every year in California is the same! And two, just wait until the 2012s start coming out. They will be superb.


Vintage 2013: Looks like one for the books

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I am increasingly excited by prospects of a great vintage in California for 2013.

Longtime readers of mine know that my view of vintages is that, in general, you can’t really tell the overall quality until a number of years have passed and you’ve tasted enough wines in bottle to see how they’re actually doing, as opposed to how you thought they should be doing. It’s true that most wine periodicals, including Wine Enthusiast, ask us writers to predict the quality of a vintage almost as soon as it’s over, but I’ve always striven to let readers know that such appraisals are at best preliminary educated guesses.

The last time I felt in my bones that a vintage was great, and that predictions of its quality didn’t need to be hedged, was 2007. Even at the time, I was calling it “the vintage of the century,” and  quoting winemakers who were similarly excited. Jason Drew, at Drew Family Cellars, had told me “It’s hard for me to contain myself,” he was so pleased. True, some rain came by early October, as it almost always does; but, as I noted at the time, “Luckily, once it stopped raining, warm sunshine came back and late ripeners, like Cabernet, dried out.” And indeed, 2007 has turned out to be one of those perfect California vintages where the wines were opulent right out of the bottle, but also ageworthy.

This year has been even better. Steady-as-she-goes might be the byword. There was no killer frost in the spring, no wildfires to give smoke taint to the grapes, very little in the way of heat waves, no huge production as there was last vintage, and as for that pesky rainstorm a few weeks ago, despite some concerns at the time, all it ended up doing was washing the dust off the grapes.

I always say that grapes like the same kind of weather we humans do; and we humans have been liking this summer, especially the last two months, which are the crucial ones from the harvest’s point of view. I emailed my friend, our local Channel 2’s morning meteorologist, Steve Paulson, to ask him, “I know that Sept-Oct are always described as our best weather months [in California]. But, after 35 years in the Bay Area, I can’t remember more gorgeous weather than this year. Except for that weird storm a few weeks ago (which actually was good for the grapes), the weather has been spectacular. Do you agree?” Steve replied, “I would agree! Sept/Oct. 2013 has been beautiful. Best I can remember too. Cool nights, sunny and mild to warm days. No extremes either way. The ‘weird’ rain was great in my mind. Loved it. After nearly 9 months of no rain, it was what I hope is a good sign for more ran this Winter.” So even the weatherman knows which way the wind is blowing.

For those of you who don’t know, Steve’s reference to “nearly 9 months of no rain” underscores the severity of the drought that is gripping California the last two years. The Central Coast has been hard-hit; reports of not enough water for the grapes have been coming in for months. And just the other day, Western Farm Press reported on widespread “trepidation” among growers of all crops (not just grapes) due to “not know[ing] if they will have water…next season.”

At any rate, whatever late ripeners are left on the vine should be gathered in the next few weeks under fine, sunny skies. The next eight days or so will see continued warm [but not hot] days, with clear skies and breezy conditions. As for the winter of 2013-2014, Steve Paulson’s hope for more rain seems to be in the offing: AccuWeather is predicting that “From December through January, California will enter a period of heavy precipitation resulting in much-needed relief from the extreme drought.”

Nicholas  Miller, of the family that owns the Bien Nacido and other vineyards in Santa Barbara County, says of 2013, “From a quality perspective, this is what people dream of!” I’ll just add that, even before tasting a single barrel sample from 2013, I predict that this vintage will be one for the history books.


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