It is fairly common, in the anecdote-sphere (a universe parallel to the blogosphere), for knowledgeable people to say that superpremium California wine is nearly impossible to sell back East, or even east of the Rockies.
According to this take, nobody in America likes California wine anymore, except, possibly, Californians—and even they (or so it’s claimed) are having second thoughts. The culprit? According to the anecdote-spinners, it’s due to the “imbalance” of California wine, an accusation that usually includes alcohol levels, fruity extraction and oak.
The latest expression of this theory comes via a regular reader and valued commenter on my blog. I don’t know if he wants me to name him, so I won’t, but here’s part of what he wrote yesterday, on my “I weigh in on Jamie Goode” post. I will quote him in some detail, because his points are powerfully expressed, and, as I say, one often hears similar views expressed.
“Last Winter [he wrote], I counted the glass pours at three Michelin 1* restaurants while in Chicago, all of whom carry some California wines. The breakdown for 54 total glass pours was 39 European, 9 Southern Hemisphere and 6 Domestic (of which some were Oregon, Washington and Midwestern). That is marginalization [of California], and if the Lords and Ladies of Napashire dare not speak of it with wine writers or their neighbors and let the unsold cases quietly pile up in American Canyon awaiting the longed for Chinese buyer, you can damn well bet that it is coming up in conversations with their accountants.”
I’ll quote more of his comment in a minute. First, let me weigh in that my commenter is absolutely correct that Napa Valley winemakers and owners do not speak of their cases “piling up in American Canyon,” presumably at one of the wine storage warehouses along Highway 29. At least, they don’t speak of it to me. So my commenter is right about that. And although I have no certain knowledge that such is the case, the anecdote-sphere also contains numerous allegations that it is indeed the case: that is, cases and cases of unsold triple-digit Cabernet piling up someplace.
My commenter also wrote: “there are a lot of good, well balanced and not excessive California wines that are probably being unfairly excluded from restaurants and wine bars. Unfortunately, these exceptions that prove the rule are suffering for the sins of the last two decades of excesses in both winemaking style and hubris that came to define California and Napa Valley.”
The reason I’ve long been in such disagreement with the anti-California (and anti-Napa Valley) bashers is because, due to my recent job, I had the opportunity to taste so much great, interesting California wine. And while it’s true that there’s a lot of crapola out there, you can say the same thing about every wine country and wine region in the world. Let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater! I simply have tasted too many wonderful California wines to not realize that our state makes incredible wines; and I often pitied the bashers for not being able to taste all the good stuff I was privileged to try.
So my commenter also is correct when he states that the “good, well balanced” California wines are “unfairly excluded” from the conversation. But whose fault is that? And when did we arrive at this weird, bizarre situation where so many influential and apparently knowledgeable people—Americans all!—are so down on California wine?
It’s quite unprecedented for a large chunk of a wine-producing country’s cognoscenti to hate their own country’s wine. I can’t think of anything similar, in the long history of winemaking in Europe. If anything, the French (and, to a lesser extent, the Germans and Italians and Spanish) have been positively chauvinistic about their wines, as well they should have been; they were proud of what their nations contributed. I, too, am immensely proud of California’s contributions to the world wine scene. So, from an historical persepctive, does the situation here in the U.S.—with so much self-loathing–say something about California wine? Or does it say more about the people bashing it? “The question,” as Jesse Jackson, playing himself on Saturday Night Live, once said, “is moot.”
As reluctant as I am to enter the minefield of any discussion about “natural wine,” I’m going to do so, because I have views on the topic, and because Jamie Goode just won a Wine Bloggers Award and if he can opine on the subject, so can I!
Jamie supported natural wine rather obliquely the other day on his blog. He didn’t quite come out and praise natural wine in multi-faceted specifics so much as give a face smack to another writer, Bruce Palling, who it seems had the temerity to criticize natural wine. Palling called the product of natural winemaking techniques “undrinkable rubbish,” a characterization Jamie took issue with, and he (Palling) also said wine writers have “a tendency…to try and keep their head down for a quiet life and never actually articulate how much of it [i.e., natural wine] they believe to be undrinkable…”.
Jamie shot that statement down, too, although it’s funny that in his article he manages to avoid any definition of “natural wine”; in fact at one point he writes, “Forget the discussions about the term ‘natural’ because that’s a sideshow.” I don’t see how defining the term to which we’re referring is “a sideshow” because, after all, if we don’t know what we’re talking about, then we shouldn’t be talking about it, should we? But for Jamie, the importance of defining the term “natural wine” is insignificant, compared to the “truly great” nature of “some natural wines”; people who don’t “get” these wines don’t have “the energy or inclination” to try them because they’re “slightly smug,” which is what he accuses Palling of being.
Well, talk about “slightly smug”! I do agree with Palling on the “head down for a quiet life” thing: there are certain topics most wine writers approach with trepidation, because these topics are complicated, controversial and ill-defined; they thus are the source of major risks (to one’s reputation; to one’s mental state; who wants to be attacked on the twittersphere over such perilous issues?). “Natural wines” is such a topic; there are others for which the philosophy “Life’s too short” apply. What is natural wine? What is sustainably-made wine? What is biodynamic wine, organic wine, green wine? I now have some knowledge of what “sustainable” means due to my job, because Jackson Family Wines is committed to sustainability and so I have caused myself to study it more closely.
But “natural wine”? I have no more idea what it really is than does Jamie. I do admit to having a sense that the whole concept is slightly muddled; there can be a cultish aspect to it, as there can about anything arcane, in which a few people believe passionately and the rest of us worry that we may be missing out on something vital. But in this case I’m not really worried. My attitude toward natural wine is the same as my attitude toward religion: You’re free to believe anything you want, as long as you don’t try to make me believe it.
Besides, I part ways with Jamie when he implies that the only “vital, dynamic stream of fine wine that is really exciting” these days is coming from the natural wine camp. That is just not true. It reminds me of the old saying “to go native,” which came from British colonial officials, living in conquered places like India, who under the influence of local conditions take on the sympathetic airs of natives, gradually losing their British ways. Or perhaps “Stockholm syndrome” is more apt: hang out long enough with radicals and you might eventually find yourself rather liking them, enough so that their beliefs start to make sense.
Anyhow, I don’t trust the claims of “minimal chemical and technological intervention” made on behalf of natural wine. No winemaker I’ve ever met claims to be in favor of “maximum” chemical and technological intervention. They all talk about hands-off approaches. It’s the first thing a winemaker says when you ask about their winemaking philosophy. But if natural wine consists of, in part, the following: no commercial yeast, no adjustment for acidity, no added sulfites, no fining or filtration (which can lead to instability), can it be any wonder that, every now and then, one runs across natural wines that taste (in Palling’s words) “like putrid apple cider, stale sherry or just as bad – characterless, bland and acidic.” We’ve all had “natural” wines out there that are that bad; one hesitates to mention names (another reason to keep one’s head down in such politically-charged waters is to avoid personal antagonisms), but I could name multiple critics and somms who agree with what I just wrote (and will name names off the record), even if they’re not ready to say so publicly.
So I’m not advocating making natural wines illegal or anything like that. I am saying that sometimes in this modern world, ideology can capture even the most well-meaning wine critic in its grip; and ideology is never a good thing, is it, because it insists that one way, and one way only, is the approved way, and everything else is false. As Palling writes, referring to the D-Day invasion of Europe that spelled the doom of Hitler’s Nazis in World War II, “it personally pains me when anyone tries to force their opinions or taste onto me or anyone else. That, after all, is what thousands of people laid down their lives to prevent, on those beaches in Normandy, precisely 70 years ago.”
It starts today. Although I’m not one of those FWCs (famous wine critics) anymore, the WBC people nonetheless invited me down to do a series of panels on wine writing, apparently because I’m still a wine writer! There are actually two related panels: One on the art of wine writing itself, and in the second, each of us panelists has been assigned to read 13 essays pre-submitted by WBC attendees, in order to critique them. I haven’t read my quota yet—will tomorrow (today, as you read this). Don’t know what to expect; heard from another panelist the submissions are pretty dreadful; hoping for the best.
I’m also moderating a panel sponsored by my employer, Jackson Family Wines, on “How the pros taste.” On that one, my co-panelists are Joe Roberts AKA 1WineDude and Patrick Comiskey, senior correspondent for Wine & Spirits Magazine. I’ve known Patrick for many years, mainly because he’s always at the same San Francisco tastings I am. I met Joe through this blogging gig, and I always thought, from the very beginning, that he was talented and weird enough to make it (yes, you have to be weird to be a successful wine writer). We’re going to explain to the audience how we taste. The particular wine I’m using is the Cambria 2012 Clone 4 Pinot Noir, an interesting wine that, in my opinion, shows off the qualities of Santa Maria Valley very nicely, and also illustrates the earthy, mushroomy quality of that clone, also called the Pommard clone, which so many people find “Burgundian.”
Well, you did ask. We’ll also be doing a blind tasting of a mystery wine.
My own feelings toward blind tasting are well known to readers of this blog over the years. At the magazine, I tasted single blind: I knew the general scope of the lineup (e.g. Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon) but not the individual wines. I believe in single-blind tasting. I want some context to the wines. It helps me frame, in my mind, what to expect. Also, because I’m tasting in flights of similar wines, single-blind tasting is a great way to compare and contrast the wines, which is how the scores are arrived at.
But there are many ways to taste. I don’t believe in wine writing for its own sake. I believe in getting paid to write about wine, because getting paid makes you a better writer. But each job is different, and mandates a different approach to tasting as well as writing. MWs like to taste double-blind; they don’t know where they’re going to end up working, so they have to have a wide knowledge of all the wines in the world, and double-blind tasting is a good way to get that. Many of them will end up working the floor of a fine dining establishment that may offer everything from Mount Etna to South Africa to Greece to Napa Valley, so the MW has to have her pulse on everything.
Other wine careerists will gravitate to different jobs. My own brought me to be a specialist in the wines of California. I’ve tasted 100,000-plus California wines over the last quarter-century and not that many wines from elsewhere. I try to get to international trade tastings as often as possible, but every employed wine person has to recognize his or her limitations. I wish I were stronger on international wines, but it is what it is. Parker probably wishes he was stronger on the wines of Italy; Laube probably wishes he was stronger on the Loire. You can’t be all things to all people because there’s only 24 hours in the day. Such is life.
So like I said, I believe in getting paid to write about wine, and not every job entails a worldwide knowledge of wine. My first panel at the Bloggers Conference, after all, is about wine writing, not tasting. Not all of these bloggers are going to end up working the floor of a restaurant. MWs may be able to double-blind identify a Ribera del Duero, but they may suck when it comes to writing, and writing, to me, is the essence of wine communication, especially if you’re reaching out to a wide audience, and especially if you’re trying to do the kind of writing I’m trying to do, which is great writing, memorable writing, writing that people like to read, not just now but for generations. That was my driving ambition with A Wine Journey along the Russian River. Sorry to sound self-serving, but I want that book to be read 100 years from now, not just make Eric Asimov’s next Christmas list and then disappear forever. So that’s what I mean when I say how you taste depends on your job. My job is to be a great wine writer (and a credible California taster), not the guy in the room who gets the gold medal for Best Identifier.
Still, I acknowledge that the times are different from when I started. Today, anyone and everyone in the wine biz seems to need some kind of diploma so they can put some letters after their last name. There’s a clamor for a certain kind of academic expertise that’s a product of our current career-driven environment. My friend Ron Washam, the Hosemaster of Wine, is famous (infamous?) for signing himself H.M.W., a conscious act of parody (but not sarcasm: Ron, as do I, recognizes the tremendous amount of work that goes into acquiring an M.S. or an M.W.). But he likes to poke fun at what he perceives as the snobbery that sometimes goes along with those titles. And I pretty much agree with The Hosemaster.
If I have one lesson to teach to the #WBC2014 participants, whether they’re in the writing breakout or the tasting breakout, it’s this: Be yourself. Learn your chops, yes; memorize the rainfall patterns in Beaujolais in 2009, if you want to, and be able to explain how all that acidity got into Pommard, if you have to: but ultimately, that won’t differentiate you from the pack—and the pack is growing bigger every day.
Here’s what you have to do to make a living these days: develop your own sense of style. The 21st century likes individuality. Develop your own way to describe wine. Be confident: you don’t have to slavishly adhere to anyone’s rules. You’d be amazed at the group-think mentality of the M.W. and M.S. communities., which gets boring even to them, believe me because I know what I’m talking about. Don’t be afraid to march to the beat of a different drummer. Extremely technical wine knowledge used to be the province of wine brokers only; it still is, but this time it’s brokers with many different sub-specialties. On the other hand are the poets, interpreters, chroniclers, historians, enthusiasts, balladeers, amateurs (in the Latin sense), dancers and diarists of wine; they know something above and beyond wine’s technical details . Who do we read, twenty, forty, sixty years after they wrote? The poets and romancers, not the lab technicians. I hope today’s bloggers never lose sight of that essential truth.
I’m a wine magazine guy—a product of that environment. I put 25 years of my life into writing about and reviewing wines for Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. I did pretty well, so I think I can say I “get” the culture. I was there in the 1980s, and I was there until earlier this year. What I’m about to point out, therefore, is based on experience, on a keen understanding of where wine magazines are at today, and on love.
First, what wine magazines are doing right. Their publishers and editors might regret it, but I think we can all agree that the primary focus of a wine magazine—from the public’s point of view, anyway—is the wine review. When all is said and done, it’s the reviews that people turn to first. And today’s consumer wine magazines continue to do a great job at it. Critics are, for the most part, honorable and sincere, and they pride themselves on being fearlessly independent of the advertising side of their companies. This independence is a credit to them, and to their publishers, who must occasionally cringe when an advertiser gets a lousy review. So a big thumbs up to magazines and critics for a job well done.
Now, I have to get onto what wine magazines could do better. I’m talking about what the trade calls the editorial side: the articles. If the reviews are the nervous system of the magazine, the articles are the flesh. They fill the pages; they provide the content (to use the word currently popular). The articles are what publishers and editors hope the public will actually read, after they’ve finished scrutinizing the reviews. But here, IMHO, wine magazines are letting the public down. Things could simply be better.
Twenty five and thirty years ago, the nascent American wine magazine was the most exciting thing a budding wine lover could lay his hands on. (Well, almost ; >) Wine writers, like consumers, were busily and happily discovering wine. Their articles brimmed with the joy of discovery, excitement and passion. There was a sense of shared adventure: writers invited readers to come along with them on the voyage, and readers eagerly participated.
We writers were young then, and our brains were ablaze. I remember my first winery profile. My first winemaker Q&A. My first interview with a collector, my first regional piece, my first wine-and-food pairing story, my first vintage report. And my first published review! It was like having sex for the first time. I was super-jazzed to write it all, and was able to transmute my joy into the written word, thanks to a God-given talent I was born with. So were the other writers with whom I was contemporaneous. Together, we invented a new type of wine writing. It was distinctly American: not too high-brow, but serious, enthusiastic, without guile or malice (common then in Europe), sincere, sunny, chatty. The world had never seen wine writing like that.
Most of the magazines of that era are still around; the wine magazine has proven to be (to quote Woody Allen) a resilient little muscle. For that, we may be thankful.
Do you ever get the feeling, when you read an article in a wine magazine, that you’ve read the same article 25 times before in the same magazine? Sure, the names and places may change, but the template is the same. You see the same “Vintage Report on California Zinfandel” (or whatever) repeated every few years, with the same predictable phrases (“a new, more balanced style”) as you read in the magazine’s 2009, 2005 or 1999 articles. The same routine lists of “winemakers to watch” who turn out to be, in many cases, winemakers who weren’t worth watching; but the wine writer is expected to turn these articles out every year or so. Ditto for regional pieces and the entire gamut of topics the wine writer is expected to cover.
When I read today’s wine magazines—and I read most of them regularly—I can’t help feeling a sense of ennui, of déja vu. I think I know the reason: today’s senior wine writers have been writing the same stuff for 20 years or more. They’re in their 50s and 60s now; it’s hard for them to conjure up the same sense of wonder they felt in 1994. They try their best, but they’re only human; the heart sinks when it realizes it has to write yet another “pairing wine with food at the Thanksgiving table”column for the zillionth time.
The American wine magazine is in a rut, but the way forward (or out) isn’t readily apparent. I think wine magazines have to come up with new ways of writing about wine that are inspired by social media: they have to be more transparent, more participatory, and more human. What do I mean by that? I mean that the writers can no longer be a distant, aloof “voice of God.” Readers don’t want that anymore, especially younger ones. They don’t want to be talked down to, they want to be invited to join a conversation.
This is difficult when we’re dealing with the printed page. One might suggest that’s why print is in trouble—because it cannot be immediate and participatory, due to the nature of the publication process. Yet I would argue that this isn’t a fundamental weakness of print magazines, but a fundamental challenge: wine magazines need to take their authority and use it to overcome the temptations of utter predictability and repetiveness.
One thing that can to done to make wine magazines more relevant is for younger writers to come onboard, and this is, of course, happening even as we speak. But just because a writer is younger doesn’t protect her from falling into the same old templates that older writers have been practicing for decades. After all, younger wine writers shouldn’t strive to be mere iterations of older wine writers. They should develop their own styles, even if that means challenging assumptions at the magazines that hired them. The problem with that is that the younger wine writer is usually low man (or woman) on the totem pole, and also is answerable to publishers who are as old as, if not older than, their longtime writers. Thus, the younger writers may not feel emboldened enough to shake things up—and the wine magazine remains in the doldrums.
I’m not sure what the answer is, but as I began this post, let me repeat that I’m a child of the wine magazine. I love wine magazines, I believe they play an incredibly important role in educating the public, and I believe they’ll be around for a long time. I just think that some re-imagining and reinvention are in order if they’re to remain relevant.
The search for “the new” is the story of California. Whether it was the reinvention of the self, or the society, the Golden State always has lured those restless with the existing order, and anxious to replace it with something innovative and, they hope, better.
This reinvention reinvents itself constantly. Nowhere is it better reflected than in our cuisine, as Joyce Goldstein’s book, Inside the California Food Revolution, makes abundantly clear. But we have to look no further than the current contretemps over what makes wine “balanced” to see it in another, and possibly ideological, form.
Joyce wrote her book to chronicle the rise of California cuisine, with its emphases on freshness, locality and seasonality, but she turns her eye also toward the evolution of California wine. “As California chefs began cooking more innovative food,” she writes, citing names like Ridge, Chalone, Calera and Bonny Doon, “they began seeking more innovative wines.”
By “more innovative wines,” she meant wines that aspired to something greater than the jug ‘burgundies,” “sauternes” and “rhines” that dominated production up until that time (around the 1960s and 1970s). This surely was innovation which was needed; if California ever was to become a wine state (and it seems to have been destined to), it would have to turn more towards a European system of proper appellations and noble varieties.
It worked. But we also have to admit that there was much to be admired in those old wines, with their faux names. They were cheap, they were clean, they went well with food, and they were pretty good, if my memories of what I drank in the late 1970s (just as that era was trailing off) are correct, and I think they are. Those old jug wines were vin ordinaire that appealed to vast numbers of American consumers, and without them blazing the trail, the rise of the boutique winery would not have been possible. Far from condemning them, we ought to celebrate them.
Still, that period of innovation—the boutique winery era–was a good and necessary one. We come now to another period, which may prove to be more of a hiatus than a legitimate tipping point. It is characterized by a somewhat noisy cadre of wine writers, critics and restaurateurs critical of what they perceive as wines whose alcohol levels, fruit extraction and oak render them “unbalanced.” Rather, this cadre says, wines should revert back to their original purpose, of being less assertive and more amenable to accompanying food, rather than dominating it.
Which sounds rather like the role the jug wines played in this country post-Prohibition through the 1970s. They were wines to be enjoyed as part of the overall experience of dining and socializing, not wines that demanded to be the diva-like stars of the table. Now, it’s good that we have a movement that desires to see wine restored to its proper place in the hierarchy; but where the new critics have a bit of ‘splaining to do is this: there is nothing particularly affordable about the wines they celebrate. Unlike the jug wines of the past, which anyone could afford, these new darlings of the School of Balance can be as pricey as the big, oaky varietal wines they decry.
It would make more sense for a critic to scream from the rooftops the virtues of under-$10 wines that could slake the thirst of a nation that’s not as wealthy as it used to be. That would be one thing; I could jump onboard that train. Instead, the critics of the big California style are calling for a new elitism: of low-production wines, made by people they perceive to be personally interesting—wines with modest alcohol levels, and moreover made from grapes that in some cases aren’t even fully ripe. This is the result of the increasingly strident call for “more innovative wines,” which sometimes seem like it has more in common with obsessive-compulsive disorder than with providing us with wines of deliciousness. But then, every wine writer/critic also is a journalist, and journalism, in its essence, is the insatiable search for the new, the radical, the innovative, the undiscovered. That is the strength of good journalism: it prods a complacent culture onward. That also is the weakness of journalism that seeks simply to unearth whatever happens to be new that day, and disregards what is lasting. Innovation, for its own sake, is meaningless.
Carlo Mondavi, whom I got to know and like last year in Kapalua, emailed to bring me up to date on his new project, RAEN, a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir he’s making in collaboration with his brother, Dante.
His email prompted me to ask him some followup questions, which led to an exchange I thought is interesting enough to reproduce. The subject is Pinot Noir, and the role of stems in the fermentation.
Carlo had sent me this video of him and Dante making the wine. Along the way, Carlo says, concerning the whole-cluster fermentation he enjoys, “I can smell the greenness of these stems, they’re super-green.” My ears perked up at this, because I had thought that you don’t want green stems in the fermentation, you want brown, ripe ones, in order to avoid passing on that green, vegetal aroma and harsh tannins to the wine. So I asked Carlo, “If you whole cluster with green stems doesn’t that make the wine taste and smell green?”
He replied, “I…believe that the stems being green and thus under ripe or ideal is a complete misconception.” His response is worth quoting in full:
“In fact DRC and most of the best whole cluster examples are harvesting when the stems are electric green. This also means most likely and certainly for us that the sugars are lower and the extraction of bitter flavors will be lower. We also take into account sap flow…
“I believe that sap flow is greater in certain clones and in certain sites varying vintage to vintage… There is no perfect map so we go on taste and observation… To determine the amount of whole cluster vs destemmed fruit we ferment we run a quick tasting. We take the stem sans fruit, cut it up, put it inside a pastil bag and squeeze the sap out. We then observe the sap (how much, how sappy) then taste the sap to see how astringent it is. From there we make decide if we will use some, none or all of the whole cluster.… This past vintage we certainly used a great amount of whole cluster as it was a new moon and the sap seemed to much less than what we might have seen on a full moon.
“Thirdly I also like the balance of bitter and sweet… Stems add potassium and tannin to a wine and can balance the overly strawberry, cranberry, rhubarb fruit flavors… to me it gives the wine a middle palate of velvet and structure and in some examples and slight elevation of minerality.
“Waiting for full brown clusters is a major mistake in my opinion… If you wait that long you are looking at harvesting well north of 25 brix of sugar and in December in some sites. This would yield a wine of incredible bitterness and a PH that would be certainly unfermentable and unstable naturally. With that said where we make our cuts is where the rachis meets the shoot this area is brown and lignified. We make our harvesting cuts right in the middle of this browning area to minimize sap flowing out into the juice.”
Still puzzled, I asked Carlo, “In a vintage like 2011, I found some coastal Pinots to have a green, minty edge. So, where does that come from?”
Carlo: “Huh… That’s a Good question. I would think some stems, the local terroir and for late harvesters, botrytis… I see a bit of botrytis each year… Pinot noir clusters are so tight it just seems to happen when the heat comes after the rain or In some vintages with the humidity… With that said green can be no stems with green seeds or Rosie’s, tough under ripe skins or jacks… I have tasted de stemmed and 10 percent whole cluster wines and found them be more green than 100 percent whole cluster wines depending on the site and vintage… I also enjoy wine that can have a slight green note… I don’t see green to be bad so long as it is not over the top… Just like anything.”
I’ve never felt that whole-cluster fermentation is better than destemming, or vice versa. California Pinot Noir can be delightful either way. I do feel, as does Carlo, that stems can give Pinot Noir a fuller body and more tannins, not to mention spiciness. Still, I’m not quite convinced that green stems do not bring a green note to cool-climate Pinot Noir, and I’d love to hear the opinion of others.
This is one of the wine taster’s biggest conundrums: it’s easy to detect something in a wine but a lot harder to identify exactly what causes it. When I was a reviewer, I tried to avoid attributing specific results to specific causes, if I couldn’t be absolutely sure about the connection. Asking winemakers to explain can sometimes clear things up, but sometimes it can make you even more confused. Which is why I was always happy to leave the winemaking to the winemakers, if they’d leave the wine reviewing to me!