It was 101 degrees in Calistoga yesterday when I left, around 4:30 p.m. By the time I reached St. Helena it was down to 94. Then 87 in Napa city. As I crossed the Benicia bridge, across the Carquinez Straights on the 101 freeway heading back to Oakland, I could see, there in the distance, a huge, glowering wall of dark gray hovering on the horizon. At first it looked like the smoke from a forest fire; but it wasn’t, it was the coastal fog.
Bigger and more looming it grew as I drove south. In Richmond, I entered the maelstrom. The blue sky, the picturesque distance disappeared into the gloom; Mount Tam, to the west, vanished as completely as if it had been wiped off the face of the world. The temperature dropped until it was 65 degrees: nearly 40 degrees lower than when I’d left Calistoga, just 1-1/2 hours before. The fog hung low through Albany and north Berkeley, then evaporated as I got to Oakland, where it was again sunny, and the temperature had gone back up to the mid-70s. This was as beautiful, as classic an illustration of Cailfornia’s summer coastal climate as you could possibly wish for. It’s why northern Calistoga specializes in Cabernet Sauvignon (good Charbono, too), why Carneros is good for Pinot Noir, and why the near East Bay is too cold for any serious grapegrowing.
I’d been in Calistoga for a visit and tasting (of various Pinot Noirs) at Atalon, which is part of Jackson Family Wines’ portfolio. It’s on Tubbs Lane; nearby are Summers, Chateau Montelena, Tamber Bey and others. This is the warmest part of Napa Valley, its northwestern-most pocket, where the cooling influence from the Bay pretty much fizzles out. Bo Barrett once told me that there’s something he calls “the Calistoga Gap”—no, not part of the clothing store chain, but a low place in the Mayacamas through which, he said, cooler air from the Russian River Valley funnels in, moderating the temperatures. This may be so; to get to Calistoga from the Russian River Valley (as I’d done that day), you drive east up Mark West Springs Road as it roller-coasters over the mountains, twisting and turning its way towards Highway 128/29. But it’s not clear to me that the Russian River Valley air can actually find its way “over the hill”, to any meaningful extent. Maybe one of my smart readers can explain this. (I had Gus beside me, in the passenger seat, and for a while he seemed like he might throw up, because his little tummy doesn’t do well on twisting mountain roads. But he didn’t.)
The Tubbs Lane part of Calistoga is a distinctive place. To my eye, it’s a bowl of sorts: not like Napa Valley further south, in, say, Oakville or Rutherford, where you have the mountains (Mayacamas and Vacas) neatly lining the western and eastern sides, with the valley broad and expansive inbetween, like the sheet on a bed. Along Tubbs Lane there seem to be mountains everywhere except to the south; it is thus more of an amphitheater. Mount St. Helena looms immediately to the east: this picture, taken at Atalon, only hints at its majestic presence.
On the other side of the mountain, of course, is Lake County.
That 101 temperature yesterday in Calistoga shows how we’re in the midst of a long, severe heat wave here in California. That’s on top of the drought. The state has had some forest fires, but mainly in the Sierra Foothills and around Yosemite; the coast has largely been spared—so far. Everybody’s hoping it will continue to be. The heat is expected today—as I write these words—to be even worse than yesterday, not good news for anyone, including the grapevines that are so close to being harvested in record-early time.
Although it’s only August 1, I haven’t heard that growers are particularly worried. In fact, the scoop is that it will be another fine harvest, coming after 2012 and 2013. Lest anyone think vintage doesn’t matter in California, the evidence proves otherwise. At the Pinot Noir tasting at Atalon, which we did blind, we tasted through multiple Anderson Valley and Russian River Valley wineries, in two flights: the 2011 and 2012 vintages. There was no comparison. The 2011 flight contained some good wines but overall was disappointing. The 2012s by contrast were fat, lush, opulent. There wasn’t a single loser among them.
Have a great weekend!
Sen. Pat Roberts, the Republican from Kansas, delivered a scathing attack the other day during hearings by the Senate Finance Committee on the proposed regulations by the European Community that would ban the use of certain geographic names on U.S. goods, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Black Forest ham, feta cheese and even bologna, unless they were made in those European regions.
Such names are known in the parlance as geographic indications, or GIs. The issue of GIs is part of a broader package of issues weighing down Senate consideration of a Trade Promotion Authority bill that the Obama administration supports. The administration was represented in the hearings by the U.S. Trade Representative, Michael Froman, who told the Senate committee that he largely agrees with Roberts, making for rare bipartisanship between the Republicans and Democrats.
The issue of geographic indication names has a long and contentious history, especially in the wine industry. The U.S. has already banned certain names, such as Burgundy and Chablis, unless they were grandfathered in before the laws went into effect. But the new regulations proposed by the E.U. apparently would go even further, possibly making it illegal even for older brands to use certain place names. For example, Korbel, which currently is allowed to use the word “champagne” as long a it’s preceded by “California,” might no longer be able to do so.
Other countries that have negotiated agreements with the E.U. have already banned certain GIs that are still allowed here. Singapore recently passed a tough GI law. South Korea no longer allows any liquor to be called “scotch” unless it’s from Scotland, nor any cheese to be labeled “feta” unless it’s from Greece. Here in the U.S., the rules are considerably looser. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has ruled that, “once a geographic designation is generic in the United States, any producer is free to use the designation for its goods/services.”
It is this lax approach that concerns the E.U.
Are the Europeans being too restrictive about their GIs? I don’t think so. In this era of intense global competition, American consumers have a right to know precisely where their food, including wine, comes from—and the people in ancient regions, like Chianti and Champagne, deserve the right to insist that only their locally-produced products can bear those names.
But the food lobby in this country is powerful, and the Congress doesn’t seem to be in the mood to pass new restrictions on products that have been sold here for a long time. Fortunately, the wine industry is only tangentially affected by this issue, since they’ve largely done the right thing and gotten rid of most of those purloined European place names.
But not all of them, as witness Korbel. And I still see American-made products like cooking sherry and sauterne on the supermarket shelf. I don’t blame the people of Spain and France for being bothered.
* * *
I love this time of year. Winter has been cold, if dry. But now you can sense the changing of the seasons. One day reminds you that the Gulf of Alaska is just up there, with its winds off the ice. A day later and Mexico beckons, tropical-warm and shirt-sleevy, as the temperature hits the 80s. Schizy weather, but most days are inbetween: get in the sun, out of the wind, and it’s summer. Get in a windy place in the shade, and you need a hoodie. That’s why they say the key to clothing in the Bay Area is layers. I should think wine grapes like the same weather as humans. Not too hot, not too cold, just right. Goldilocks weather. East coasters always say that coastal California has only two seasons, wet and dry, but they’re wrong. We have four seasons; the only thing is, they’re subtle, and you have to live here for a while to get it. Well, summer’s almost here, and so far, it looks like another great vintage, on the heels of 2012 and 2013, two masterpieces.
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.
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.
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)
Los Angeles: 6.4%
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
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.
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.