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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.


Wednesday Wraparound

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I’ve been getting into a category of wine I don’t write about much, dessert wines. Although they’re largely absent from my consciousness for much of the year, about this time they start coming in for review, probably, I suspect, for the holidays. Right now I’m drinking and vastly enjoying Quady’s 2009 Essensia Orange Muscat. It’s decadently sweet, and to sip it you’d swear you were transported to some heaven where the streets are lined with oranges and tangerines. At just $25 for a full 750-milliliter bottle (most dessert wines are in 375s), it’s a good value. I could see drinking this wine almost anytime–at lunch with a smoked trout salad or ham sandwich, at 5 p.m. as a refreshing cocktail, even during dinner with a steak. Steak and Orange Muscat? Why not. Professor Saintsbury reports a dinner he served, probably in the late 1800s, at which 1870 Yquem was paired with “consommé and grilled red mullet” and another when “Sauterne, 1874” went with a “Zootje of Sole” and “Mutton Cutlets.” (And as best as I can tell, “Zootje” is a traditional Dutch dish of poached sole and potatoes in a butter sauce.) Then there is the marriage of Yquem with roast beef, a combination that goes back at least to the 19th century, and was resurrected (in Jeremiah Tower’s first book, “New American Classics”), in which he praised Yquem with with a ”rich, aged, perfectly cooked roast beef.”

So Orange Muscat and steak isn’t a stretch.

* * *

I’m reading a terrific wine book, Rhône Renaissance, by Remington Norman, with a forward by Hugh Johnson. Although it was published more than ten years ago, I’d never heard of it, until I found it in a local used bookstore. At $2.99, I had to snatch it up.

It’s definitely in the Johnson mold, hard-covered, good paper, great, detailed maps and written in a literary style (although it is not without typos. I don’t think I ever saw a typo in a Hugh Johnson book). I’m reading the section on Côte-Rôtie and am struck, once again, by the complexities and peculiarities of France’s appellation system. The Côte-Rôtie appellation apparently has been changed several times in recent decades, swelling to far beyond its original 1940 boundaries until it had extended into areas that were patently unsuitable. The result of that was a 1993 readjustment of the boundaries that shrank it back to its present size. It all goes to show how political appellation lines are, although it must also be conceded that, in the best of cases, they rest on firm realities. In the case of Côte-Rôtie, of course, these realities include, most importantly, southern or southeastern exposures and steep slopes. The actual Côte-Rôtie appellation makes a great deal of sense.

What appellations in California make the most sense? It’s easier to list the ones that don’t, which would be most of them. The bigger an appellation is, the less you can say about it, except in the most general terms. “Burgundy” and “Sonoma County” both are big appellations; the former makes a little more sense because the authorities limit the grapes there, so at least you can declare that a red Burgundy will have a certain varietal character. You can’t say that about a red Sonoma County wine, which could be made from any variety in the world. So “Sonoma County” is of limited usefulness, unless you believe that, if it comes from Sonoma County, it must be good.

But just because an appellation is small is equally meaningless. The smallest AVAs in California, by acreage, are Cole Ranch (150), El Dorado (416) and McDowell Valley (540). There’s not much you can say about any of these. (“El Dorado” is not the same as “El Dorado County,” which measures 410,000 acres.) On the other hand, the fourth-smallest AVA in California (I’m going by Wine Institute figures) is Anderson Valley, at 600 acres, and you can definitely point out a distinguishing, and fine, character to its wines. So let’s postulate for now that Anderson Valley is the sine qua non of California appellations.

Another point that author Norman makes in Rhône Renaissance is how, when Côtie-Rôtie had fallen more or less into irrelevance, its boosters did certain things to restore it to its previous greatness. They lured in investment money to replant on the best slopes. They formed a Syndicat, or regional growers association. They created a tourist infrastructure in and around the town of Ampuis, with restaurants, shops and winery signposts. They “brought…media to the region in unprecedented numbers.” Surely, these are lessons some California appellations have learned, and that others are in the process of learning.


Wednesday wraparound

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“Wine critic buys $145k truffle” is hard enough to wrap your head around, but how about “French wine sells for $300k at auction”?

The wine was a 6-liter bottle of 1947 Cheval Blanc, a wine I’ve been lucky enough to taste twice. However, I believe the story, which was widely reported across the world’s news services, got it terribly wrong when it describes the bottle as a “white wine.” So far as I know, Cheval Blanc produces no white wine; the vineyard consists of red varieties. Perhaps the writer was confused by the fact that Cheval Blanc, translated into English, means “white horse.” At any rate, this is a prime example of how bad reporting can spread virally across the Internet, with no corrective except for a little blog like this. (And if I’m wrong and the wine really was blanc, I’m sure someone will correct this corrective.)

Just to make sure whiskey doesn’t feel left out of the ridiculously-priced sweepstakes, somebody just paid a record amount for an old Macallan.

Anyhow, the wine world has been dying to know who is paying these sky-high prices for truffles, wine and Scotch. Now it can be told. In a steveheimoff.com exclusive, I have learned this person’s identity. He is none other than The World’s Most Interesting Man, the Dos Equis guy.

* * *

It was over a leisurely lunch of paté, crevettes in a sauce boursin, portobello mushrooms stuffed with four cheeses, smoked salmon on toasted baguettes and a lovely bowl of onion soup (all of it washed down with 20-year old vintage Champagne) that I learned of the United Nations’ decision to declare French gastronomy a treasure of world culture.

French food and wine, and the art of enjoying it with family and friends at the table, now joins 911 other “properties” identified by UNESCO as “forming part of the [world’s] cultural and natural heritage.” These include Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the Historic Centre of Vienna, California’s own Yosemite National Park and Israel’s Masada where, in the Spring of 73 A.D., 960 Jewish inhabitants committed mass suicide in order to prevent their capture by Roman legions.

In a world gone mad, it is good that the U.N., that maligned organization, can recognize French cuisine as one of the greatest cultural achievements ever devised by humanity.

* * *

With the coming of the Holiday Season, wine writers ascend into a frenzy of activity recommending what wines to drink with whatever is on the table, which is usually a lot of everything. You don’t really want to over-stress on the wine-and-food pairing thing. Put out a bunch of stuff and let people reach for whatever they want. Happy Thanksgiving!


Wednesday Wraparound

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Wash. bloodmobile offers beer to blood donors

A Washington state blood center is offering donors a deal: Give a pint of blood, get a pint of beer.” Fine for a ragamuffin state like Washington, which has little to offer, besides seafood in Seattle. (What, you like Yakima?) But this is California! We can do better. How about for each ounce of blood, a glass of Chardonnay, some Dungeness crab, and a hunk of sourdough with butter.

Sorry, Dan. I disagree!

I’ll defer to no one in my admiration for Dan Berger, but he’s off the mark when he writes, in yesterday’s Santa Rosa Press Democrat, of “The sad decline of cabernets.” He calls Cab “more than a parody of itself,” a “mediocrity…I cannot figure out why so many people are still buying them.”

I understand, of course, what Dan is talking about. There are a great many bad Cabernets. Without going into too much detail, they’re boring, over-oaked, simple nuisances, and they often cost too much. I, too, don’t know why anyone would buy them. But you could say that about anything in California, including Pinot Noir. Besides, Cabernet is the biggest-production red wine in California, so you’d expect there to be an ocean of plonk. Is it any different in Bordeaux? Je ne le croit pas. On the other hand we have Cabernets to die for. Just in the last 3 months, here are a few that have thrilled me: 2006 Cardinale, 2005 Reserve and Estate from Trefethen, a  pair of 2006s from two wineries previously unknown to me, Redmon and Napa Angel, a pair of ‘06 Hestans (regular and Stephanie), and various bottlings from Rodney Strong, Baldacci and Freemark Abbey. No flies on Frank, as we used to say.

Joel Aiken is looking for work

Did you know he left Beaulieu last June, after 27 years? It was very quiet. There was a minor contretemps with Diageo. “I’d wanted to make my own wine for a long time,” Joel told me. “Diageo said ‘Maybe,’ but it never happened.” He also grew weary of “all the meetings in a company of that size.” When you’re stuck in a meeting you’re not making wine and that’s what he wants to do.

Joel’s new wine project, which is yet to be named, will consist of a pair of 2009s: a Sonoma Mountain Pinot Noir from Silver Pines Vineyard (source of excellent Pinots for Tandem), and a Howell Mountain Cabernet. Joel also wants to increase his consulting. “I can help people in a couple ways at high-end winemaking.” If I was making wine and needed help I’d certainly turn to this former protege of Andre Tchelistcheff. You can reach him at 707-337-0584.

WTF?

Maybe it’s just me, but when a passenger drinks five airplane-sized bottles of wine, then goes into the plane’s lavatory where he takes off his shoes, socks and shirt, and then refuses to come out when flight attendants so request, and then accuses the flight crew of being disrespectful, I’d throw him behind bars without a get out of jail card. His name was Muhammad Abu Tahir, but even if it had been Steve Heimoff, he was behaving like an asshole. Don’t people understand that you can’t do stuff like that anymore? Book him, Dano.

The Pattern Is Changing-Here Come the Storms

That’s the header from AccuWeather describing how the El Nino may finally be kicking in. “It now looks like next week we could be seeing a series of major storms…heavy to very heavy rain and snow over all of California.” (It’s just begun raining here in Oakland as I type these words.) The forecast has all the winemakers buzzing. Once the ground is saturated, how much more precip can it absorb? We want and need the water to end the drought, but nobody wants flooding or mudslides. Stay tuned.

I don’t get it

It’s rare for me to admit puzzlement, but I confess I don’t know why Sarah Palin has agreed to address The Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America’s convention next April. I’m assuming that everything SP does is to get her elected President in 2012. How could this help? Campaign donations, obviously, from a powerful lobby. Sarah and her hubby, Todd, don’t seem like fine wine drinkers to me. More like beer types — not that there’s anything wrong with beer! But why did WSWA invite La Palin? Tom Wark, do you know the answer?

* * * Please help the people of Haiti * * *


Wednesday wraparound

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I enjoyed Tom Wark’s blog yesterday where he reported on his readership. Tom frequently writes about his inner state of mind — his feelings. Now, you might wonder why a wine blogger’s inner state of mind would be of importance or interest to readers. The readers of a technology blog or one on the petroleum industry might not want to hear about the blogger’s inner life, and might even be put off if the blogger admitted to having an inner life. But for wine blogs, the rules are different, which is proven by the fact that Fermentation remains the most read blog in America.

I think I know why. It’s because wine drinkers are different.

After all, wine is one of the few (legal) consumer products out there that actually alters the psyche of the person consuming it. (Well, maybe you could include chocolate on that list.) When all the swirling and sniffing and tasting is done, the fact remains that our brains get high from a glass or 4 of vino. Our perceptions and moods change, and for the better, in my (considerable) experience. We get more mellow and relaxed, more social, less stressed out. Drinking wine reminds us that the essence of our state of mind is benign and loving — qualities that can get seriously unhinged during the craziness of the business day.

I think wine drinkers, and people in the wine business, have richer and more liberal interior lives than the average person because we drink more. Is that controversial to say? Very well, than I am controversial. Blame it on Bacchus. It may be that wine drinkers were drawn to wine in the first place due to greater creativity and imagination and generosity of spirit. (Why is it that so many religious conservatives don’t drink alcohol, or, if they do, stick to beer or hard liquor, accusing wine of being — gasp — for effeminate, brie-chewing lefties?) The most interesting people I know all love wine. They combine pleasant, funny personalities with an introspective bent, intellectual curiosity and a progressive compassion. There are a lot of authentic people in the wine business. That’s why industry folk read Fermentation. Tom wears his heart and mind on his sleeve, and people relate.

But there is such a thing as too much…

Down in the Peachtree State, a judge ruled that the mistress of a deceased millionaire was not entitled to the $7,900 a month his will bequeathed her, because she was “a canny manipulator who used sex and alcohol to influence [him] into changing his will.” Seems that the guy “was drinking more than a gallon of wine a day by the time he made changes to his will…”. Yikes. I am assuming it was not wine, and if it was, it was Two Buck Chuck, not Petrus.

Best non-wine headline of the week

From the N.Y. Daily News: Neighbors thought dead man on balcony was Halloween display

Sounds like one of those “only in New York” stories, but in this case, it was in El Lay.

The House that K-J Built

Huge wine warehouse soon to open in American Canyon trumpets the Napa Valley Register.

Kendall-Jackson will use the 650,000-square foot building, the size of 9 football fields, to consolidate existing distribution facilities. Background to the story: The warehouse connects to Union Pacific’s rail line via newly built spurs. This will greatly decrease K-J’s carbon footprint because they won’t have to depend on trucks so much. It’s also an economic booster shot for American Canyon, a burgeoning city between Napa and Vallejo. K-J officials tell me that although the huge new facility was planned before the Recession, there are no financial problems. Sounds like a win-win for everybody: K-J, AmCan, the environment. It’s also a throwback to a bygone era: Viticulture developed in the Alexander Valley in the 19th century because the trains ran through it, connecting the North Coast to the Bay Area.


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