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What is a “crown jewel”? Can there be more than one?

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In the mid-1970s, writer David Darlington tells us in the June issue of Wine & Spirits, Robert Mondavi defined [the Inglenook Estate vineyard] for [Francis Ford Coppola] as the crown jewel of Napa Valley.”

The wine world loves crown jewels. Petrus has been called the crown jewel of Pomerol; ditto the DRC in Burgundy. The concept stems, of course, from Old Europe, which bequeathed to us not only the idea of an aristocratic hierarchy of vineyards, with one or a few at the top and all the rest clustered below, but of a human aristocracy itself, whose royal heads were crowned with gemstones. It was as natural for 19th century France to elevate four vineyards in Bordeaux to First Growth status as it was to celebrate its Kings as les seigneurs grands plus among lesser royals.

If Robert Mondavi did indeed tell that to Mr Coppola (and we must assume he did, for Darlington, the author of Angel’s Visits, is a great historian of wine), his claim must be put into context. Inglenook’s Rutherford vineyard, on the bench just northwest of the Oakville border, was already 100 years old in 1970, and always had produced acclaimed Bordeaux-style wines. There were few, if any, contenders to the throne in Napa Valley that could boast that legacy (Martha’s Vineyard was a mere infant, Harlan a gleam in Bill Harlan’s eye). Napa’s mountains—Spring, Veeder, Diamond, Howell, Atlas Peak, Pritchard Hill—were completely undeveloped, or very nearly so. Thus Mr. Mondavi was on firm historical and qualitative grounds when he praised Inglenook to Mr. Coppola, who must have listened with wide-eyed alacrity.

Today, does anyone think Inglenook is Napa Valley’s crown jewel? I don’t think so. This is not to diss Inglenook as simply to point out that it now has plenty of competitors—so many, in fact, that it would be fatuous for me to try and list them. Let’s just agree that we can no longer identify a “crown jewel” in Napa Valley, or indeed in most of the world’s greatest wine regions. Instead of an aristocratic “crown jewel” we now have galaxies of jewels, glittering and precious and giving us incredible wine.

California, in other words, is a meritocracy, not an aristocracy. Inglenook, for all its past glory, has yet to prove its modern relevance; Mr. Coppola has his work cut out for him (and I wish him luck). Yesterday’s crown jewel may be today’s déclassé property. By contrast, yesterday’s underperforming (or even non-existent) vineyard may be elevated to glorification today, provided (a) it possesses inherently great terroir to begin with, and (b) is given the necessary nourishment (talent + money) to allow the winemaker to express that terroir to the highest degree of international reclaim.

There are not that many wineries with the wherewithal to pull off this feat. Even among those that are owned by the very rich, you’d be surprised how many stint on the required financial investment. Some proprietors, it is rumored, are not even in the game for the long haul, but only for investment or lifestyle purposes. Why invest tens of millions into a property you may not be able to make a profit on when you sell it off? Then too, some proprietors who spend millions on improving their vineyards, ill-advised from the start, may unfortunately own land that is not inherently capable of producing the greatest wine.

Others, a fortunate few, have the twin blessings of wealth and a discerning eye for land. It is with them that California wine’s future lies, and always will. This is the brilliance of our Western-style meritocracy: passion and generational commitment, and not  the mere lucky sperm of heredity, now transform vineyards, old and new, into crown jewels.


Rx for what ails ya: My prescription for wine magazines

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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.

And yet…

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.


How do you describe a wine region, anyhow?

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One of the constants of the wine writer’s job is describing wine regions. Whether it’s the Right Bank of Bordeaux, the Santa Rita Hills or the Finger Lakes, the wine writer is expected to understand the region’s terroir (climate, soils) and its impact on the major wine varieties and types produced there.

I don’t think there’s ever been a wine book that didn’t contain this information; at least, I’ve never seen one. It’s part and parcel of the wine writer’s challenge to explain why wine smells and tastes as it does. After all, if you take this away from the writer, there’s not much else to opine about!

So how’s it done? You’d think the wine writer would visit the region/s he’s writing about, but this isn’t always possible, given the financial constraints of the trade (don’t get me started). So the wine writer makes certain compromises: he looks up to see what others have written about the region in question—others with, presumably, more opportunities for world travel than he possesses (or who accept all those junkets!).

The traditional way of researching what others have written is, of course, books. But we’re in the Age of the Internet now. Why bother to read a book when Google can give you anything you want for free? The result is a new generation of wine writers that appropriates pre-digested information from the Internet.

I’m not saying there’s anything immoral about this, but it can be dangerous. The reason is obvious: You can’t trust everything you find on the Internet. Few people, I admit, have the motive to lie about something as dull as the effects of the mistral in the Rhone Valley, so the wine writer who depends on the Internet as his source of this kind of information is on generally solid ground. Still, second-hand sourcing can be risky.

I don’t think readers want, as their first choice, a wine writer who gets her facts from the Internet. They prefer, or at least deserve, hearing from writers who actually go to the places they write about. And not only go to them—but spend time in them, year after year walking the land, breathing the air, listening to the leaves rustle in the wind, smelling the earth and the soils and the underbrush, sensing how the temperature and wind patterns shift hour-to-hour, talking to anybody and everybody about anything and everything, and drinking the wines from that place to determine for oneself what they’re like. Well-heeled writers, sometimes sponsored, can travel vast distances of the globe, parachuting in and “reporting” on Austria or Crete or someplace else the sponsors send wine writers to for 3 or 4 days. But is this the best kind of wine writing ?

The worst thing in the world for the wine industry is for old myths to be repeated. There are so many of them; so many are wrong. If every wine writer took the following oath, wine writing would take a great leap forward: “I vow not to automatically believe things just because I read them or heard them from someone. I vow to come to every wine experience with fresh eyes and an open, inquisitive mind.” Wouldn’t that be something?


Conversations with Carlo: whole cluster fermentation of Pinot Noir

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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.

Carlo
Carlo Mondavi

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!


The state of the wine blog

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I go to the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference next month, for which we (the organizers and myself) already are deep in the planning stages. I’ll participate in three panels, and each requires a great deal of forethought in order to maximize the chances that the audiences will be happy they came, which is what we all want.

Aside and apart from, and perhaps above, those immediate considerations, I’ll be looking for any evidence concerning the State of the Blogosphere. Having been deeply involved in wine blogging since 2008 (late, by some standards, but six years after all is a pretty good tenure), I’m in some position to weigh in on blogging’s evolution. And it seems to me that things are a bit static.

We saw initially a great deal of excitement with wine blogs. In the period 2007-2009, not only was the wine blog a new, shiny toy, but traditional print journalism was going through its most arduous and tumultuous times in recent history, what with the recession and the subsequent loss of advertising experienced by so many magazines and newspapers. Thus, it sounded almost reasonable when wine bloggers pronounced that “Print is dead, long live wine blogging!”

I, myself, never bought into that theory. I was aware that (a) recessions, no matter how severe, never last forever and (b) as soon as the current recession was over, advertising would return, and print publications would be back on track. At the same time, it would have been unduly credulous for me, or anyone, to suppose that print periodicals would return to the robust health they had enjoyed for so long in the twentieth century. Change certainly was upon print—but of what kind, and how and when it would arrive, no one could say.

Here we are now, the recession having ended, print having bounced back, and the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference upon us. My sense is that blogging has lost some steam. That heady rush of excitement of four and five years ago isn’t there anymore. We’ve seen some well-known blogs go by the wayside and some new ones pop up, while the mainstays (including this one) keep on keeping on. We ought at least to give credit to blogs like Vinography, Dr. Vino, Fermentation and 1WineDude for longevity, or perhaps “stick-to-it-tiveness” is a more apt description.

Yet with the recovery of print publications has come the corresponding diminution of the wine blog. It was inevitable; it is a zero-sum game, this business of writing about wine, for there are only so many eyeballs out there who care to read about wine, and they have only so many hours in the day in which to do so. Besides, one senses (dare I say it?) a certain fatigue in the wine blogosphere. So much of what was so captivating five years ago has now become, well, the online equivalent of vin ordinaire. Of course the newer blogs still have the sense of awesome discovery that budding wine aficienados have displayed always, but their readers, such as they are, may be forgiven for being less than thrilled by yet another recitation of Argentine values or the best wine to drink with pizza. (I might say the same thing about wine magazines. They endlessly run the same cycle of articles over and over and over. Next November it will be “what wine to drink for Thanksgiving.”) At the same time, winery proprietors must take the blogs into consideration, regardless of what they personally feel or think about them (and believe me, in many cases, it’s not much), because you never know whose blog will help you move product. So that is where we are: a strange place, no doubt, and one that is evolving.

It was against this conceptual backdrop that I read that “Making an emotional connection with consumers, and creating personalized, shareable and useful content, is vital to selling wine.” This was the conclusion of “experts from major wine retailers” who gathered at the recent London Wine Fair, as reported in Harper’s.

Blogging would seem perfectly positioned to express “personalized, shareable and useful content.” Blogging is, by its very nature, personalized, in the sense that there is real connectivity, almost intimacy, between blogger and reader, the way there isn’t in print. This is especially true when readers can instantly comment on a blog, which certainly isn’t the case with a magazine or newspaper. I write Letters to the Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle with some frequency, but 95% of them never are published, which distances me from the paper and makes me wonder if my opinions are truly valued. Not so at many blogs; you can comment on steveheimoff.com, and your comment will instantly go up, with no prior approval from me, as long as I’ve previously approved a first comment from your computer. That is truly personalized service, and shareable, too. (I leave it to my readers to decide if my content is “useful.”)

But blogging has not yet achieved the gravitas of newspapers or magazines. Perhaps it’s that very personalized, easy-breezy quality that makes a blog feel like, well, just a blog—a fancy email–while a newspaper or magazine has the weight of authority and tradition and all the labor and costs that go into the production process. That may never change; the low bar to entry works against taking individual blogs too seriously, or investing your energy into them (not to mention your money). Still, I have to say that wine blogs have been the most innovative development in wine writing of the 21st century.

At any rate, that’s the view from where I sit!


My early career as an amateur wine buff

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I remember it as if it all happened yesterday instead of 35 years ago. I was newly arrived in San Francisco, had no money and needed a place to live. So I answered an ad on the S.F.S.U. housing board for a house sitter. It was for a dilapidated old four-room cottage in the southwestern neighborhood known as Top of the Hill Daly City, although in this case, it was at the bottom of the hill. The owner for some reason had the electricity shut off throughout the place, except for my bedroom. There was no heat. Because it was such a hardship case, the owner charged me only $15 a month–although he should have paid me for tolerating such a crummy place. It was wintertime, which can be very cold in San Francisco, and that, added to the location near the ocean, made it really damp and uncomfortable. My only source of heat—and cooking—was a hotplate. But I didn’t care. I was young, strong and adventurous, and, hey, I was living in San Francisco and having the time of my life!

I’d started getting into wine, mainly by buying those little handbooks that were so popular back then: Olken, Singer & Roby’s “The Connoisseurs’ Handbook of California Wines” and Bob Thompson’s “The Pocket Encyclopedia of California Wines.”

handbooks

Since I couldn’t afford to buy much I also depended on local critics’ reviews in the various newspapers. Here’s a photo from my little notebook of that time where I kept track of their reviews:

winebook

 

W. is Wilfred Wong, RH is Richard Paul Hinkle, H.S. is Harvey Steiman, J.M. is Jerry Mead, W.B. was something called the Wine Buying Guide, B.G. is the Bay Guardian, ADB is Anthony Dias Blue and the Best Buys were from the San Francisco Chronicle.

After a couple years I could finally afford to start buying some nice bottles, so I began to keep my Tasting Diaries. Here’s a page for a 1978 Lytton Springs Zin I reviewed in late 1984.

mynotes

By now, I had developed a tasting template: date, occasion (“Thanksgiving at Maxine’s”), and the standard color-nose-taste three-pronged approach. As you can see, I was already beginning to appreciate that some wines need age (“Disappointing; too young”) and also had come up with a rudimentary rating system of stars (to be replaced by the 100-point system when I started doing that).

This Montelena 1979 Chard, which I tasted in 1983, is interesting for three reasons: I was blown away by the price ($12, so expensive at the time. Today it’s $50), I included a food pairing, and,, via the “NOTE” section, I began to introduce more subjective commentary into my reviews. I was much fascinated back then by the French word goût (as in goût de terroir); it shows up a lot in those early reviews.

montelena

 

I wish I still had the first note I ever wrote. It was in 1979 in that awful, cold, barren house at Top of the Hill Daly City. It was for an Almaden Cabernet Sauvignon with a Monterey County appellation. I recall with crystal clarity sitting in the freezing cold at the little table off the kitchen and making my notes. I cannot remember a word of what I wrote, but I know that I concentrated on it very carefully. I think I liked it; at that time I was not aware of the issue of “Monterey veggies.”

It’s hard to know with any precision why a person gets hooked onto something virtually overnight (I don’t mean drugs, I mean hobbies). In 1979 I knew no one at all who cared a thing about wine. My family and friends were oblivious to it, although they were increasingly having to put up with my blather about the latest bottle I’d enjoyed. Looking back, it blows my mind that I was so feverishly making all these notes (my Tasting Diaries eventually filled five hard-cover volumes, amounting to thousands of wines). Why was I doing all that work? For whom? For nobody; for myself. There was no payoff. I never expected anyone to care about what I thought about wine.


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