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Milla Handley, gone to the winery in the sky

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I was shocked and immensely saddened to learn of the death of Milla Handley, the co-owner and winemaker at Handley Cellars.

We met a long time ago; I can’t remember the year, but it was when I was working at Wine Spectator, so it must have been around 1990. It was my first trip to Anderson Valley, the Mendocino County wine region, where Milla had founded her winery, in the hamlet of Philo, in 1982.

I liked Milla instantly. She was a rare combination of earthy, country common sense and what I thought of as an Old World dignified charm. A woman of few words and a soft voice, she always had a sparkle in her eye, and a sense of humor that was restrained, but once you learned to detect it, you couldn’t miss it. But of more importance to a wine critic were Milla’s wines.

She specialized in Burgundian varieties—Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that did so well in Philo’s cool, foggy climate—and also in the sparking wine she made from the same grapes. She also was an early enthusiast of Alsatian varieties—Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewurztraminer—which thrive in Anderson Valley. Over the years, I’d run into Milla over and over, because as proprietor of a small, rural family winery, she had to get out there, in front of the public and merchants, and hand-sell her wines. I’d see her at nearly every event in the Bay Area, standing there quietly behind her table, pouring, answering people’s questions, busy; but whenever our eyes met, there was that silent smile, as if to say, “Hello there, old friend.”

Milla, who died of COVID-19 at the too-young age of 68, was a Grande Dame of California wine. She will be missed, and long remembered.

* * *

Too often, these days, they’re leaving us, these pioneers of the boutique era of California wine. What a privilege it was to grow up during it and find a place in the burgeoning industry that was about to take its place on the world stage. Almost everyone you met “back in the day” was famous for one thing or another. Everybody had a compelling story. By 2000 or so, “the story” had become, all too often, a fabricated or exaggerated concoction dreamed up by P.R. specialists. But early on, the stories were real, the characters straight out of O. Henry. Most founding winemakers of the 1970s and 1980s were authentic startups, with little money but big dreams, as opposed to a later era, when the winery “lifestyle” became buyable by rich outsiders. Milla was the opposite of the rich outsider, but she came up in wine in high-class style, working, straight out of U.C. Davis, for Richard Arrowood at Chateau St. Jean (which invented the concept of single-vineyard Chardonnay) and Jed Steele at Edmeades, just down the road from Philo; and if Milla’s Zinfandels lacked the elegant sophistication of those from Edmeades, they were gulpable and affordable.

The wine press today rightfully is headlining Milla’s demise. She wasn’t the best-known winemaker in California, but she symbolized the grit, integrity and can-do spirit of amateurs who succeeded in the industry when it was still an adventurous frontier that rewarded innovation. She symbolized, too, a quality that is fast disappearing in our multi-billion dollar wine industry: humility. Rest in peace, old friend.


Ranking California wines

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I do a lot of reading in these shelter-in-place days. In fact, I’m cannibalizing my library—reading the same books over and over. One that I started yesterday is an old standby: The Wines of California, The Pacific Northwest & New York, by Roy Andries de Groot (1982). De Groot, a kind of minor James Beard, was a New Yorker with a reputation for being a gourmet and wine lover; he also was blind. In this book he developed what he called “the first classification” of the vineyards and wineries in the three states, a task he modeled after the 1855 Bordeaux Classification.

What is striking about The Wines of California is how dated it is. De Groot used a numerical rating system based on 50 points, and classified the wines into eight tiers; the top ones he called Noble, Superb and, at the pinnacle, Great. A good many of the wineries he included no longer even exist. Others, such as Beaulieu, have undergone corporate changes and are no longer what they used to be. And obviously, there are now hundreds of wineries in California alone that didn’t exist in de Groot’s day. For these reasons, de Groot’s classification is of no value today.

But it does make for interesting reading. I have to give him credit for at least attempting the task. Forty years ago, when de Groot was compiling his research (which meant traveling the country tasting wine), he had no reason to think that the wine industries of California, the Pacific Northwest and New York would not settle down and become as fixed and immutable as in Bordeaux itself. Bordeaux, after all, had remained relatively stable for 400 years of turbulent European history; there had been minor shifts in chateau ownership and vineyard holdings, but for the most part, the wineries and vineyards of Bordeaux in 1980 were much as they had been a hundred and fifty years earlier.

California looked to repeat the pattern. There were a handful of high-quality wineries of longstanding pedigree (Inglenook, Beaulieu, Louis Martini, Charles Krug) and, more interestingly from de Groot’s point of view, there had been a rash of new “boutique” wineries from the 1960s onward: Joseph Heitz, Robert Mondavi, Burgess, Carneros Creek, Fisher, Matanzas Creek, Chateau Montelena. De Groot was well aware of the burgeoning nature of California wineries: how relatively easy it was for a young winemaker, especially one of means, to plant a little vineyard and start a winery. Still, he believed that the California wine industry was settling down, the same as Bordeaux had, and that the U.S. consumer needed a reliable guide to choosing its wines.

De Groot had a good palate and a deep understanding of viticulture, enology, cuisine and history. Despite the book’s datedness, it’s fun to read for the snapshot it gives us of what the wine landscape looked like in the early 1980s. But it also is an object lesson in what not to attempt in a wine book. No wine writer in his right mind would attempt to classify the “wineries and vineyards” of California today; if one were to try, no publisher would be interested, for such a book would be an anachronism before the ink was dry.

De Groot noted, correctly, that the 1855 Bordeaux Classification had been based partly on the prices then obtained for the wines, and partly on the wines’ reputations among people of knowledge: brokers, mainly. Today, we still unofficially “classify” wines based on the same or similar criteria. Ask someone with a fairly good understanding of California wine what the “top” Cabernets are, and he will likely include Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate, Bryant, Abreu, Phelps, Diamond Creek, Dalla Valle and perhaps a few dozen others. Has that person tasted all these wines? Probably not. Few have. He will have based his conclusions on what he’s heard of the reputations of those wines as well as what he knows of their prices.

That’s the way human judgment works. Reputation is everything. The Bordelais proprietors of the 19th century knew this as well as the owner of Screaming Eagle knows it today. Their methods are similar, although the details have changed. You have to identify the tastemakers and then get them to authenticate your product. You spread the news via word of mouth or, in these modern times, through print media and social media. You induce the best restaurants to carry and promote your wine. You introduce the notion of scarcity: there’s not much of this, folks, and everybody wants it, so you better get yours while to can.

Back to Bob Thompson’s “rabbit hutch.” Just as it’s nearly impossible to take a census of, say, 1,000 bunnies in a pen, because they’re reproducing so fast, so it’s nearly impossible to count the number of wineries in California. Some are “virtual” wineries, possessing no “bricks and mortar” facilities, merely buying grapes, must or finished wine from someone else and bottling it under their brand. The same wine might appear under a dozen labels. There are probably fewer wine brand startups these days, with the pandemic; but before the era of the virus, the explosion of labels, some tiny to the point of vanishing, was significant, and the explosion likely will begin again once the pandemic is over (may it happen soon).

All these factors mitigate against formulating a new classification, but somehow, we humans end up classifying wineries anyway, in more indirect, subtler ways. There’s something in our brains that longs to create order out of chaos. We’re uncomfortable with thousands of winery brands in California; it’s too messy and incomprehensible. So we classify and rank and compare in any way we can and, as the saying goes, perception is reality. Is Screaming Eagle really the best Cabernet in California because it’s the most expensive? No. But if enough people—people who count, that is—think it is, then it is.



Wine rating systems: time for a change

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I spent the better part of 30 years living and working in 100-point land: the wine-rating system used by my two former employers, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, as well as by Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.

The 100-point system surely is the most popular in the world. It has survived decades of often fierce criticism. Critics said it was arbitrary and capricious, that it presented itself as scientific when it was anything but, that it had a deleterious effect on wine style because the most powerfully extracted, oakiest wines got the highest scores. All these things were true, but the 100-point system proved remarkably robust. When I retired from formal wine tasting eight years ago, it dominated the market, and, as far as I can tell, it still does.

The 100-point system looks like it’s here to stay, at least in America. There’s nothing looming on the horizon to replace it. Oh, sure, a new generation of wine drinkers has increasingly turned to peer-reviewing on social media; they no longer care what some (usually white) wine critic says, and that’s fine. But in that sense, the market may be ahead of the industry. Winery P.R. communications continue to tout high scores (anything over 90 points) in their campaigns. As long as that’s the case, wine samples will continue to be mailed to wine critics, who will continue to publish reviews using the 100-point system, which will continue to be touted by winery P.R. people, and on and on…It’s a cycle, and like most cycles, it’s hard to stop.

But a new development in China throws all this into an interesting perspective. Mike Veseth, the respected wine economist, just published an issue of “The Wine Economist” that reports on “China’s 10-Point Scale.” That gigantic country apparently is launching an official, national rating system of 10 points that will “score…each wine on the market taking into consideration…Chinese tastes, cuisine, and culture.” The new system is being rolled out in stages. It was introduced late last year, but The Drinks Business publication reports it “is not yet compulsory for all wines sold inside China [and] may serve as a base for formulating a national [wine] recommendation system.” That article quoted a Chinese expert as predicting that, eventually, “[the] majority of wines sold in China will adopt this system.”

Now that I’m not living and working in 100-point land, I have the benefit of hindsight about the 100-point system that provided such a nice job for me for so long. And the more I think about it, the sillier it seems to be. I used to be quite sincere when people asked how I could determine the difference between, say, 87 points and 88 points.. I would say, “Easy. To me, it’s obvious.” And I could go into great detail, if they wanted. At the same time, I always admitted that, if I tasted the same wine (from different bottles) on separate occasions, chances were good that I’d give it different scores. But, I argued, in general the scores would be close together. In the end, I always said, a wine review ought to be looked at as the taster’s impression of that wine, at a particular moment in time, and consumers were free to accept, reject or ignore the review.

Nowadays, I often cringe when I see how wine scores are used. There are so many critics across this land (and elsewhere) that a P.R. person has her pick of dozens of reviews to use in an advertisement. We, the consumer, often don’t know the qualifications of the reviewer, or the circumstances under which he reviewed the wine (blind? Open?), nor do we always know with precision what the relationship is between reviewer and winery. Has the reviewer been paid? These are important considerations. (Of course, the new Chinese system suffers, I would think, from the same drawbacks.) I turn to critics and scores to inform my own buying decisions, but I always feel a little guilty about it. I wish that all numerical rating systems would go away, and be replaced by something more esthetically satisfying: a short essay, for example, that showed real writerly qualities.

I think there’s a place for more intelligent, nuanced wine reviewing. As we emerge from the pandemic, it’s going to be a different world. After all these months of sheltering in place, people may well be more reflective, and less reflexive. I know that social media tends to work in the opposite direction, making people think less; but here and there I pick up on clues that younger people are getting tired of social media. They’re reading more books and spending less time scrolling through meaningless Twitter feeds. I’m hoping to see new publications emerge that treat wine consumers as intelligent, thinking adults, instead of like cows lining up for silage.


Here’s the marketing message that’s saving wine

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My generation, the Baby Boomers, gets blamed for a lot of stuff, but one thing we got right was wine. We “made” the U.S. wine industry back in the 1970s and 1980s, when we were developing our esthetic and culinary tastes, and wine fit the bill quite nicely.

I speak of “esthetic” tastes, although I could have referred to “cultural” or “lifestyle” tastes. As a demographic—the largest in U.S. history–we Boomers understood by the late 1970s that we had changed the way America does things, and that anything we embraced en masse was likely to be a trend. Baby Boomers had been trendsetters since we were born, and embracing wine was simply another wave in the demographic tide we launched upon the country.

Wine suited our slightly outlaw sensibilities. It was alcohol, after all—a mind-altering drug, and Boomers knew a thing or two about mind-altering drugs. Alcohol, during the heyday of the Sixties, had a negative aura around it: Bowery bums, cheap bottles of Ripple, throwing up, that sort of impedimenta. No pot smoker or acid head with any self-respect would have been a drinker! But a new generation of vintner-entrepreneurs in California—not Baby Boomers, but older—was completely shifting wine’s rather tarnished image. Wine was no longer booze, but an upscale foodstuff, something you could talk about, study, appreciate intellectually as well as hedonistically, and it fitted in perfectly with our newfound appreciation of food. There was something authentic about wine—and Boomers prided ourselves especially for our authenticity.

It was always a question of whether we could bequeath that appreciation of wine on to the generations who came after us. The industry-wide conversation of the last twenty years, in fact, can in retrospect be viewed as trying to answer that question.

A new report by Silicon Valley Bank on the wine industry contains a mixed message. There’s good news: Yes, Baby Boomers continue to display “spending resilience,” which is a good thing for the industry, and “retiring baby boomers seem to have a long tail and fortunately aren’t quick to run to pasture,” which is also a good thing, especially if you’re a Boomer: it means we’re not all dying off!

But there’s also some bad news. Boomers’ “buying seems to be moderating, both on price and volume, as they age.” This makes sense to me: once we retire, most of us find ourselves on fixed incomes, meaning that we don’t drop $25 on a bottle as easily as we used to. (There’s also the reality that, for many of us, our doctors are telling us to moderate our alcohol consumption, if not eliminate it entirely.)

That means that the industry has “no choice except to market to them [i.e. a younger generation].” Unfortunately, “Millennials aren’t engaging with wine as hoped.” In fact, “millennials have made no move in taking share from boomers in several years.” This is really disappointing for producers. With crops continuing at record levels (meaning there’s plenty of wine in the supply chain), the industry is “at a position of oversupply…that extends through retail [outlets] and every growing region in California at every price point. For California,” the Bank’s forecasters warn, “this is the worst combination of market conditions for growers since at least 2001, and perhaps of all time.”

Scary words! But one of the benefits of advanced age is, perhaps, a more seasoned perspective on things, including disaster predictions. We’ve been here before! In the late 1980s and early 1990s, everyone was predicting the imminent demise of the California wine industry due to phylloxera. Didn’t happen. Similar dire prognostications were heard when lead wine capsules were implicated in human disease, when the dot-com collapse led to a recession, and certainly, when the Great Recession struck in 2008-2009. Then, too, the corporatization of wine signaled, to many analysts, the demise of the family winery. And even as recently as the 1990s, neo-prohibitionism still haunted the industry, as anti-alcohol forces, mainly in the Republican Party, threatened to bring back a [somewhat milder] form of Prohibition.

Happily, the wine industry survived all those threats. And here we are once again, facing another one: Baby Boomers eventually will die, Millennials will not take their place as wine drinkers in sufficient numbers to save the industry, and—the coup de grace?—these same Millennials are turning to craft beer and spirits, not wine, to satisfy their alcohol dreams.

What’s a vintner to do?

The Silicon Valley Bank forecast answers this question in an interesting way, by pointing out the truism that Baby Boomers consumed food “if it wasn’t bad for you,” while “the current generation wants to consume things that ‘are good for you.’” As a Boomer, I can confirm the accuracy of that statement concerning people born between 1946 and 1964. As for “the current generation,” I don’t know how much “what’s good for you” drives their food-and-beverage consumption. But when I see the droves of people in their 20s and 30s in the many wine bars in my neighborhood (many of which tout themselves as “natural”), I am struck by the fact that they’re leaner and apparently healthier than many of their generational counterparts, who so often are sadly obese. This suggests to me that younger wine drinkers are concerned about their physical health. They perceive wine, perhaps a bit inchoately, as somehow “healthier” than beer or spirits (or teetotalism). I’ve been critical of the hyperbole that attaches to the promotion of “natural” wine (which there’s no actual definition of), but I will give the naturalistas credit for this: they came up with a damned good marketing message that may, in fact, get wine through this current uncomfortable phase!


Napa Valley Cabernet: an endangered species?

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For many years I’ve watched as the price of Napa Valley wine has gone up—and up—and up—until it reached the stratosphere. And then it continued to go up.

Even twenty years ago, I wondered who was buying all that expensive Cabernet Sauvignon. I can’t remember when prices first hit triple digits—I think it was in the 1980s. But once they did, no respectable Napa winery wanted to be the last to retail for at least $100.

At the height of my working career as a critic, when I was paid to keep track of such things, I’d note every new, expensive brand that came on the market. I soon concluded that most were vanity projects: their owners were very rich, and they wanted “in” on the Napa Valley lifestyle that was so highly touted by aspirational magazines. You, too, could have the big mansion, set in a picturesque vineyard, surrounded by blooming gardens, with an azure-blue swimming pool, a grand deck complete with gigantic outdoor grilling station, and Napa’s beautiful mountains soaring in the distance. And all you needed was maybe $10 million to get started.

At one point (I think it was in the early 2000s) I did a count of all the $100-plus wines in Napa Valley, and the total was well into the hundreds. I began to wonder, “Who’s buying all that Cab?” It was easy to understand that the critically-acclaimed cult Cabs (Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Bryant, Colgin, Dalla Valle, and so on) were desired by many wealthy collectors, but what about the hundreds of lesser-known brands? Every week seemed to bring a new family winery with a fill-in-the-blank back story:

Pete, together with his lovely wife Maggie, made a fortune in (computers, engineering, construction, oil, stocks) but there was something missing in their comfortable life. In (date), they bought a small property in (Rutherford, Pritchard Hill, Oakville, Spring Mountain, Atlas Peak) and planted some Cabernet. Now, they produce some of Napa Valley’s most coveted wines, assisted by their consulting winemaker (Michel Rolland, Heidi Barrett, Andy Erickson, Mark Aubert, Phillippe Melka)…

The stories all ran together; so did the wines. They were functionally interchangeable, 95-pointers that all tasted the same. It was impossible to answer the question, “Who’s buying all that wine?” just as it was impossible to answer the question, “Is the winery actually making money?” I suspected, even by 2000, that many, if not most, of these vanity wineries were not profitable, but were kept alive by their owners’ personal fortunes.

The other day, a friend emailed asking my opinion about reports that sales of California wines are weak, with a troubling future. Was it tariffs? Younger consumers wanting something “natural” and eccentric? The greater popularity of craft beer and spirits? I replied, “All the above—plus the fact that California wine, driven by Napa prices, is just too damned expensive!”

And now comes this report, via Wine-Searcher, that “California’s top producers might be pricing themselves out of the market,” with the top culprit being Napa Valley wine.

The article was based on a new report whose startling conclusion was this: “The demand for Napa Valley wines is flat and heading toward a decline. Last year, this report speculated that price increases at Napa wineries may have finally priced out enough buyers to curtail growth. It now seems this is likely the case.”

Will 2020 be the year that Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon experiences a price crash? It’s in the self-interest of the producers to prevent this, so I expect they’ll do everything in their power to hold on. But if this represents a permanent trend, how long can they keep on? Will their heirs be content to underwrite a losing proposition, just so they can sit around the pool watching the sun set over the Mayacamas?

One interesting development was the purchase earlier this week of Flora Springs by the Bordeaux winery, Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte. Flora Springs was, back in the day, a highly respected winery. (One of the first articles I ever wrote for Wine Spectator was a profile of them.) They had exquisite vineyards on the Rutherford Bench, and produced various Cabernets and Bordeaux blends that were very good. But Flora Springs, like so many other wineries, gradually saw competition arising all around them: no longer a darling boutique winery, but one of hundreds to choose from. The ownership was quite wealthy (of course), but Flora Springs was precisely the kind of winery I wondered about. “How are they doing? How long can they hold on?”

Well, now they’ve sold. The question isn’t whether the ownership was or wasn’t making money, it’s “Why does Smith Haut Lafitte think Flora Springs is a good investment?” (Their purchase doesn’t include the brand or “Napa Valley vineyard sources,” according to the article.) One thinks of the Bordelais as very astute businessmen—after all, they’ve managed to stay at the top of the heap for multiple centuries. So there must be something Smith Haut Lafitte sees in Napa Valley.

At the same time, I remember when the Woltner family, heirs of Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion, started a winery back in the late 1980s. Chateau Woltner was in the Vacas, on the east side of the Silverado Trail, on lower Howell Mountain. They put out a Chardonnay that was then the most expensive ever in California. It was pretty impressive: Bordeaux Second Growth invests in Napa Valley! What could go wrong?

Well, everything. The brand didn’t last for very long. It was sold for $20 million in 2000.

I don’t know what eventually happened to the Chardonnay vineyards, nor do I care. The point is, just because a French Bordeaux family buys a Napa Valley winery doesn’t guarantee its success. The eventual outcome of Flora Springs will depend on the continuing popularity of Napa Valley Cabernet and Bordeaux blends; and if this category is pricing itself out of existence, there’s little anyone can do to save it. Of course, as we know from Eddie Penning-Rowsell’s classic The Wines of Bordeaux, prices of Bordeaux have been a roller-coaster ride for centuries: sometimes way up, sometimes way down. But Bordeaux persists. Maybe Napa’s future will be as tumultuous.


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