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Wednesday Wraparound

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The 2012 Wine Star Award winners have been announced by Wine Enthusiast, and it’s a fine list indeed.

I wrote the citation articles on Joe Gallo and David Biggar that will appear in a upcoming issue of the magazine. What accomplished professionals they are, as are all of the winners. I didn’t get all of my nominations; I argued strongly for Napa Valley to be the Wine Region of the Year, because of all the fabulous wines coming from there and because the excitement factor of Napa–America’s premier wine region–is always so high. But I certainly have no problem with Ribera del Duero getting the nod, especially after the tasting I went to a few weeks ago, when I was blown away by the quality-price ratio. So congratulations to all the winners, and I’ll see you in New York in January!

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Off to Fort Ross-Seaview this Friday for a comprehensive tasting of the new AVA’s wines. It’s been some time since I last visited these wild, remote coastal mountains. If you live in Annapolis or Cazadero or even Guerneville, I suppose the area isn’t that far away; but most of us don’t live in those little towns, and it is a schlep, although it’s certainly not as far as Anderson Valley. Distance from major metro areas is the limiting factor on how much a wine district can become a tourist mecca, but I suspect that for the folks in Anderson Valley and Fort Ross, that’s just fine. I do recall meeting a winemaker who worked way out in the middle of nowhere in Fort Ross, and he told me how, when he went shopping for supplies, he had to check his list three times to make sure he got everything. You don’t want to get home and discover you forgot the toilet paper–not with the nearest supermarket an hour away. Eventually that poor winemaker took a job with a winery in Forestville. He simply got tired of the loneliness and isolation, despite that fact that from his little cabin he could see down the coast all the way to the Golden Gate, on a clear day.

* * *

To lunch this afternoon at one of my (and everybody’s) favorite San Francisco restaurants, Boulevard. From the moment Nancy Oaks opened this icon in 1993, it was a star, and remains–nearly 20 years later–a destination eaterie. It’s really a default restaurant if you want total gratification and the certain knowledge that all will be well, not to mention the central location, so easy to get to for me via BART as it’s only steps from the Embarcadero station, three stops from my home in Oakland. The occasion today is a Chablis tasting. I have always loved Chablis, from my humble beginnings in the 1980s when you could get a Premier Cru for a couple bucks. While I love the rich, full-blown white Burgundy and California style of, say, Au Bon Climat, an authentic Chablis–so minerally, racy and dry–never fails to excite me. I’ll write more about Chablis tomorrow.

* * *

“Outstanding” and “ideal” are just a few of the superlatives vintners continue to use to describe the 2012 vintage. From Washington State down through the Central and South Coasts, it was as preternaturally perfect a year as I’ve ever experienced in 34 years of living in California. Read this account, from the Wine Institute, for a hint of its potential glory. Of course, every vintage has great wines and less successful wines, so the point of a fabulous vintage, as 2012 is shaping up to be, is that there are more great wines, at every price point, than usual. We’ll have to see if the hype outraces the reality; the proof is in the tasting. But I can’t think of a single reason why this shouldn’t be a memorable year. There were no problems at all, just steady as she goes. Even that rain the third week of October in retrospect did nothing except wash the dust off the Cabernet. Frosting on the cake is that yields were higher than anyone forecast. With all the doom and gloom global predictions of dire grape and wine shortages, this surely is good news for California.


Wednesday Wraparound

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Wines & Vines magazine has their annual Wine Industry Metrics report out, and as usual it contains some useful and interesting factoids.

Most of the details point to a healthier wine industry in 2012 than last year. Off-premise sales and direct-to-consumer (DTC) shipments are both up, the latter by a whopping 36%. Winery jobs posted an impressive 18% gain for the last 12 months. The hottest DTC varieties were Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, while Cab Franc and Merlot dropped a little and Syrah tumbled [again] by a lot. In stores, red blends and Meritage were way up, and so were Sauvignon Blanc/Fume Blanc.

That Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc are becoming consumer favorites doesn’t surprise me in the least. Pinot is just about the food-friendliest red wine and Sauvignon Blanc one of the most versatile white wines you can buy. This suggests to me that people are drinking dry table wine to go with their meals, rather than to slosh by themselves. We’ve been waiting for a long time for America to be a wine-drinking country. Maybe it’s time to recognize that we’re there.

* * *

The news from Europe about the vintage just keeps getting worse. Now, they’re saying it’s “the worst wine harvest for the region in up to half a century.” This is due to rain, cold and hail, especially in Champagne and Burgundy. What a contrast to California, where the #1 news topic is the fantastic harvest conditions.

It’s been a picture perfect growing season: no rain, no frost, no cold like 2010 and 2011, no wildfires, nothing to compromise grape quality. Yes, we had that brief, odd day or two of scattered showers and T-storms on Oct. 10-11, mainly in the Central Coast, and a couple of days of heat the week before that. But the heat was neither excessive nor long-lasting, and simply hurried up the picking. We’re now enjoying the most glorious weather ever. Maybe a little rain next week–too soon to tell. The hype on this vintage is going to be over the top.

* * *

Speaking of the harvest, it will soon be over, and that Whooshing sound you hear will be thousands of winemakers and their helpers, rushing off to the airport to catch the quickest flight to Hawaii or Mexico, where they intend to flop down on beaches and soak up the sun, remaining as motionless as possible except for the lifting of an arm to take another sip of maragarita. They haven’t slept, or barely, for the last month, what with grapes pouring into the winery and tanks to be managed. It’s cold and damp at night, and s**t happens with relentless regularity. Come November, wine country will again be quiet, the tourists gone, the restaurants half-filled. Winter actually is a lovely time to visit, even when it’s raining. I have a lot of travel coming up: Monterey next month for the annual Party in the Hangar, the Fort Ross-Seaview area at the end of the month, and Santa Barbara County in December. I always cross my fingers and hope it won’t rain, but sometimes it does, and a California rain can be a cold rain. I prefer dryness and warmth, but, like all Californans, I remind myself that we live 12 months a year off the water that falls during 3 or 4 of those months, so might as well accept it for what it is, a gift.


Wednesday Wraparound

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Did she really say that?

Washington governor Chris Gregoire, at a public event: “Someone asked me what about California wine, and I said they make jug wine.  We make fine wine!”

Who writes her lines, Paul Gregutt?

* * *

“Wine investments: how to avoid the £100m scammers” is the headline on this Yahoo Finance story out of the U.K.

Seems “A recent BBC investigation estimated that as much as £100 million may have been lost by investors over the past four years.” So, the writer asks, how best to protect yourself from getting ripped off? The solution is–ta da!– “…critic Robert Parker [who] is the Warren Buffett of the wine investment world. What he says goes.”

Gag me with a spoon.

Here’s my advice on how not to get ripped off: Stop looking at wine as an investment and start drinking it!

* * *

Go spruik yourself

The headline of an online article from thewest.com, an Aussie pub:

Wine growers spruik new law

Not being of the Australian persuasion, I had to Google “spruik.”

To promote a thing or idea to another person, in order that they buy the thing, or accept the idea. e.g., Lennon spruiks laptop 28 years after his death — Headline, Sydney Morning Herald, December 30, 2008

Now, if I could only get Elvis to spruik my blog, it might actually make money!

* * *

And finally, some advice to “Bachelor Ben” Flajnik: I love you, baby, and your pals Mikey and Danny, but dudes, that Bachelor thing is so over! I mean, Ben, you’re still milking it even after nobody remembers a thing about the actual show, except that those grrrrlz were really baring their claws all season while you just, well, looked cute. It doesn’t help to grant an interview and then play make-believe by saying (as you did to Peg Melnik, at the Press-Democrat) that you’d only talk to her on “wine-related” issues, when you knew fer sher she’s gonna go there because, Ben, Peg wouldn’t have asked to interview you in the first place if you hadn’t starred in The Bachelor!

You guys should stop all interviews now. Immediately. Concentrate on the business. Make great wine. Get your s**t together. Then wait for the reporters to come to you cuz you’re making killer wine. I will, if you do. Promise.


Wednesday Wraparound

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I don’t know Jennifer Porter, the new head of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, but I wish her well. She’s got big shoes to fill, taking over from Stacie Jacob, with whom I and Wine Enthusiast worked on several occasions over the years. Paso Robles is one of the big success stories in California. There was no guarantee this inland San Luis Obispo County appellation could become a hit, but it has. Good luck Jennifer!

* * *

What’s that old saying, Dance with the one that brung ya? It’s meant to suggest loyalty to those who never let you down, and I guess that’s why Diageo renewed their contract with Southern Wines & Spirits.

These are two big companies that have discovered life is infinitely better together than apart. Readers of this blog know that I’ve expressed frustration with the three-tiered system and its domination by big distributors, like Southern. But I’ve been put in my place on more than one occasion by people I respect who explained to me that lots of wineries simply couldn’t do business without the distributors. So I’ve officially taken a neutral position on this topic.

* * *

Speaking of happy marriages, one of Bordeaux’s oldest, most prestigious wine schools is fighting falling enrollment by extending its arms to–who else?–Chinese students. I guess you sell your stuff to whoever’s buying!

* * *

Oh, those naughty wine economists! Now they’ve discovered that “monogamous societies are bigger drinkers than those in polygamous societies,” or, to put it another way, “monogamy was indeed positively correlated with drunkenness.”

I wonder how they did their research? As much as I respect economists (did I really say that?), it’s hard for me to believe that the more you drink, the more likely you are to commit yourself to a single partner. But what do I know?

* * *

I have newfound respect for the people of Oregon–at least, those who listen to Oregon Public Radio. Their top story of the week was about Oregon’s cool, rainy wine season, which was even worse this year than California’s, because they’re that much closer to Alaska. I can’t imagine the top story of the week on KQED radio being the vintage weather. Go, Oregon wine people, go.

* * *

Finally, there’s this bizzaro story about a family who got lost in a corn maze and had to call 911 to rescue them. It was in Massachusetts, a state I lived in for 16 years after moving from NYC, and while I knew plenty of strange people there, I can’t imagine getting lost in a corn maze when actually they were only yards away from a nearby road. On the other hand, I did once get lost in a vineyard. It was Firestone’s, down in the Santa Ynez Valley, and the only reason I didn’t call 911 was because I would have been too embarrassed to tell them I  didn’t know where I was. Obviously, I survived.

* * *

That’s it for today. What, you expected Shakespeare?


Wednesday wraparound: vintage 2011 and Jordan

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There was a classic temperature spectrum yesterday in Napa Valley. At Pride winery, 2,200 feet up on Spring Mountain, it was 88 degrees on my dashboard thermometer when I left, around 1 p.m. At the Rutherford-Oakville line, about 20 minutes later, it was 100. This showed dramatically how true it is that the mountains are cooler than the valley floor on a hot summer day–although it’s true also that they’re warmer at night.

But wait, there’s more! That 100-degree reading lasted only for a few minutes. By the time I’d reached southern Oakville, it was 99, and it stayed in the high 90s all the way through Yountville and southward toward Napa city. This is just anecdotal, but in all the years I’ve driven Highway 29 I’ve been struck by how little the temperature cools down from Oakville to Yountville to Napa on a day such as yesterday. The conventional wisdom is, of course, that it does, but it never seems to on my dashboard thermometer. Sometimes it’s hotter.

Anyway, by Vallejo (which I guess you could call Carneros) it was 92. Those Bay breezes were kicking in. By the time I got to Emeryville, it was 77, around 2 p.m. But the temperature hit 93 yesterday at Oakland Airport, so, in the end, it was hot everywhere.

Just what the grapes needed! After all the talk about how cool the 2011 vintage has been, this multi-day heat event has vintners’ hearts fluttering. It’s been just warm enough to speed up the ripening process, but we haven’t got the kind of devastating heat wave we got, for instance, last year, when the last week of August blasted grapes. So the theory now is that the vintage, while light in crop, could be very high in quality. That is, if it doesn’t rain. A lot of the late-ripening grapes aren’t likely to be picked until October and some could go into November. As a matter of fact, at Pride yesterday, they were telling us how, on occasion, they’re still picking into December! But I don’t see that happening this year.

It’s not over until the fat winemaker crushes the last of the grapes, but 2011 could be a good one.

* * *

Nice to see Jordan getting a little love over at Forbes.com.

I like Jordan, both as a concept and as wine. By “concept” I mean the idea that they want to make wine that’s a little lighter in style than a lot of the competition. I seldom give Jordan Cabernet the high scores that, say, I give to Stonestreet or Rodney Strong (to pick two other Alexander Valley Cabs), nor do I give the kind of high scores to Jordan’s Chardonnay I give to other Russian River Valley Chards, such as Lynmar or Marimar Torres.

But I would happily order a Jordan wine from a wine list in a great restaurant (and Jordan is on many great wine lists), because I’d know that the wine would be balanced and complex and not try to compete with the food. Now, before the anti-score crowd jumps on me, let me explain that a high-scoring wine is based on intensity, or hedonistic fascination, or organoleptic richness (there are different ways of expressing it). They are wines, tasted without food, that impress for sheer power. That means, by definition, that they may not be the best accompaniment with actual food. By way of analogy, it’s like seeing a fabulous designer dress at a runway show. You might appreciate how well it’s made, how gorgeous it is to look at, how rich the fabric and stitching, etc. At the same time, you’d never wear it (if you’re a woman), and, if you’re a man, you don’t know anybody who ever would or could wear it; which makes it impractical for realistic purposes. Still, you can appreciate that it’s a better dress than almost anything you actually see on the street.

That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t happily drink Marimar Chardonnay or Stonestreet Cabernet whenever I can at the table. But I would also be happy with Jordan.


Wednesday Wraparound

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What would you do if you owned a popular vineyard, one whose name the public likes and trusts, and you were selling fruit to so many buyers that some of them were bound to make–indeed, have track records for making–mediocre wine?

Do you drop them from your list, hoping to preserve your vineyard’s good name? Do you let them continue to buy your grapes, because after all, cash is king these days? Or do you tell them they can continue to buy your grapes, but if you, the owner, don’t like the resulting wines, they can’t use the vineyard designation?

Big, complicated, important questions. I’ve asked it of many vineyard owners. Sometimes, they tell me they run taste tests on the wines, a la the third option I outlined above. But I don’t necessarily believe it. I taste too many mediocre wines from well-known vineyards.

The take home lesson for consumers is, just because a label sports a famous vineyard name doesn’t mean diddly. I suppose it increases the odds that the wine will be distinguished, but it doesn’t guarantee it. In wine, there are no guarantees.

How, then, is the befuddled consumer to know what to buy? Well, of course, she could always turn to a famous critic for his trusted advice. That’s how it’s been done traditionally.

But wait! “Tradition’s a thing of the past,” you say. “Nowadays we have the Internet, which is changing everything. Because of social media, wine critiquing can be democratized. Everybody has a vote, not just some critic in an ivory tower.”

Today, 1WineDude is recommending a radical change in how wine is critiqued on an institutional basis. (At least, I think he’s recommending it. His posting is full of all kinds of qualifiers. I think 1WineDude must be one of those “on the one hand, on the other hand” guys–a Libra or Gemini, maybe? Something schizy–because he often seems to wrestle with which side of an issue to come down on. Which isn’t a bad thing, actually. I wish more of our politicians would be so thoughtful. But I digress.)

The Dude is calling for Internet people to use a simple “Like button to indicate whether or not they care for a wine. That way, wine reviewing more closely resembles an election that the thoughtful, considered expertise of a professionally trained wine critic who has the knowledge, wisdom and background to properly evaluate a wine, as opposed to the animal urges of the great unwashed boobocracy, whose tragic misunderstanding of complicated issues gives us, through the magic of elections, the very nincompoops who are presently paralyzing our government…

Wait a minute, that was a rant! Let me try again.

1WineDude is offering this social media option as a viable and more democratic alternative to the current system. He says it’s inevitable anyway, and he’s probably right about that. But then, sickness, war and the Rick “Man on Dog” Santorum are inevitable too. Would you ever go out and buy a wine because you read someplace that 747,000 people “liked” it? You don’t know who these people are. They could be inmates in insane asylums. They could be in China. They could be zombies. I personally wouldn’t do anything on the recommendation of complete strangers. If my friend tells me to go see a movie, I might, and if someone whose palate I really trust tells me I simply must try a certain wine, I probably would. That’s how word of mouth works, and that’s how I think it’s going to work in the future.

Oh boy, here I am all worked up, and it’s not even 7:30 a.m.!

* * *

This morning’s S.F. Chronicle finally has the story (on page 1) I’ve been waiting to read for 5 years:

CA climate: inland warmer; coast cooler and wetter

“California’s coastal regions appear to be getting more rain and cold weather while inland areas such as Fresno are getting hotter,” the reporter writes. This has been obvious to all of us who live on the coast, where summers have been getting shorter and winters colder. A weatherman once explained to me that the interior mountain west is getting hotter, creating a gigantic suction cup that brings in cool air from the Pacific–and we all know where that maritime air hits first: the coast. This is climate change, and it is resulting in uneven distributions of temperature.

So I’m not buying into predictions that Napa’s going to turn into some kind of Sahara, with grapegrowing moving northward into the Yukon Territory.  Check out this article from a couple days ago, where the writer allows that “higher regional temperatures could make the Napa Valley cooler, as heat farther east creates a ‘vacuum effect’ that draws ocean fog inland”–just as today’s Chronicle says. What’s unknown is whether the fog belt might migrate closer to the coast than it is today, “leaving Napa Valley vulnerable to higher temperatures.”

If you know the Bay Area’s microclimates, you know how weird they are. But really, I can’t see Napa being out of the fog influence. The fog rushes into San Francisco Bay, heads up to San Pablo Bay, then spills over into the Carneros, from where it rides up the Napa Valley floor. You could argue that the northwestern Napa Valley–say, St. Helena and Calistoga–might get warmer, but everybody up there always talks about “the Chalk Hill” (or “Calistoga”) wind gap through which Napa Valley gets maritime influence from Sonoma. That doesn’t seem likely to change. Sacramento might find itself more out of the cool zone, but not Napa Valley. That’s just my opinion, but don’t forget, I have a Master’s Degree.


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