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Three cheers for Zaca Mesa!

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Forty years isn’t particularly old for a European winery, but in California, it’s positively Methuselean. A handful of wineries began in 1972—Caymus, Jordan, Silver Oak, Stag’s Leap, Edmeades—almost all of them in the North Coast. This was a time when viticulture in Santa Barbara County was mostly a gleam in people’s eyes; Richard Sanford was busy with his Pinot Noir, in the western Santa Ynez Valley region that’s now called the Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills. But inland the valley was still mainly cattle and horses.

In 1972, though, a group of friends bought some land in the Foxen Canyon region, north of Los Olivos. The next year they planted grapes to the usual mishmash: Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Chenin Blanc, Grenache and so on, “to see what would work,” as they say on Zaca Mesa’s website.
They hired a guy named Ken Brown as their first winemaker, then planted Syrah in 1978—the first planting of that variety in the county. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Zaca Mesa now is celebrating their birthday with some big events that will culminate in May with the 40th Anniversary Celebration.
What makes the winery so unique is not only its age and the quality of the wines, but the roster of winemakers who’ve worked there. It’s literally a who’s who of winemaking in Santa Barbara County: not just current winemaker Eric Mohseni, but Brown himself, who went on to establish Byron, Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climate), Bob Lindquist (Qupe), Daniel Gehrs, Adam Tolmac (Ojai), Chuck Carlson (Carlson), Benjamin Silver (Silver), Clay Brock (Wild Horse—the list goes on and on, making a stint at Zaca Mesa University almost a prerequisite for winemaking in the Central Coast.
I’ve been fortunate to be able to review Zaca Mesa’s wines for many years, and can say that few wineries anywhere have such a distinguished track record. The throwing-spaghetti-at-the-wall approach to see what would stick gradually evolved into a Rhône specialization, which in itself helped make the Santa Ynez Valley a hotbed of Rhône activity. (It’s fair to say that only one region specializes in Rhône-style wines, and that’s the Santa Ynez Valley.) Zaca Mesa’s top wine always is their Black Bear Estate Syrah, from a small block on the estate vineyard that was planted with cuttings from Hermitage. I don’t know if it’s the pedigree of the Chapoutier vineyard or the terroir of Santa Ynez Valley that makes this one of the greatest Syrahs in California, but it is. I gave the 2009 ($60) 96 points, but production was a mere 367 cases.
Other Zaca Mesa wines that always are good include the Z-Cuvée red blend (often a bargain), the fancier Z Three GSM and the Z Blanc, one of the better white Rhône blends in California.


Wine writing as entertainment, winemaking as showmanship

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Got the following comment on my Facebook page concerning my recent post (“How will the 22nd century view wine critics?”):

Enjoyed your blog very much, I don’t read too many facebook links but I’m very glad I did. This may be a bit off the topic but it touched a little on something I’ve been mulling over for the past few months. Is the role of a wine writer heading more toward the service or entertainment industry, or is there room for both? I feel like at least since the sixties being a winemaker has involved more showmanship which of course leaves less time for other things. At first it really bothered me but now I feel as long as everyone is having fun and your not hurting anyone go ahead.

The writer, who apparently is a winemaker, raises several interesting issues. “Is the role of a wine writer heading more toward the service or entertainment industry, or is there room for both?” is a question I hadn’t thought of quite that way. Wine writing always has been a service, in the sense that it seeks to educate readers and consumers, but since it’s writing done professionally, for profit, it also has to have an element of entertainment. I mean, we read Hugh Johnson not only to get educated about wine but also because he’s such a good writer. The first edition (1984) of The University of California Book of California Wine is such a good read, I’ve read it cover to cover more than once. Same with Alexis Lichine’s 1981 New Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits and, more recently, The Billionaire’s Vinegar and Tom Stevenson’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine. So good wine writing always has had both educational and entertainment value.

What I think my questioner was aiming at, though, is contained in his use of the word “heading.” Is wine writing becoming more like infotainment and less like education with an entertainment twist? Here, I fear the answer is yes. Especially in the blogosphere, but also in the rash (I use the word deliberately) of bad wine books that show up dependably at Barnes and Noble, you’ll find tired old retreaded material, often packaged with silly pictures and graphics, that dumb wine down to the lowest common denominator. Fortunately, there’s still enough serious writing around that discerning readers can find and enjoy. But, like “journalism” in general (both print and broadcast), entertainment is trumping serious content, and that’s sad.

My questioner’s other point concerns the showmanship winemakers are expected to demonstrate. That’s certainly true. I’ve asked scores of winemakers, maybe hundreds, over the years (privately, off the record) if they enjoy being little dancing monkeys for legions of tourists tramping through the winery, or for guests at meet-the-winemaker dinners that could be in Omaha on Tuesday night, Cleveland on Wednesday, then it’s on to Charlotte and Atlanta. The reason I ask is because I myself would not like that kind of itinerant lifestyle where you’re schmoozing from breakfast until midnight with people asking the same old questions over and over again, like a bad episode of Groundhog Day. “What’s the pH of the grapes?” “What’s the toast level on your barrels?” “What’s the precise blend on your Cabernet?” The winemaker, no matter how bored she feels internally, must put on her game face, smile and be fascinating. Similarly, a winemaker conducting a group of tourists on a tour of the winery has to point out fascinating things about destemmers and tanks to people who may be almost as bored hearing about them as the winemaker is talking about them. Yet the winemaker must always keep that brio, that vital elan that’s the mark of the Vegas crooner or standup comic.

My questioner said this sort of thing used to bother him but no longer. I’m glad. It’s part of the winemaker’s job, so even if it does bother him, he’s got to do it anyway, and do it well. Even the most famous winemakers at the most famous wineries have to do the dancing monkey bit. Personally, when I’m with winemakers, I try to let them off the hook by letting them know they don’t have to feel they have to entertain me. Once you get the platitudes out of the way, you can have a real conversation, which is the only kind I like.


Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, or A Moralistic Tale of Getting 100 Points

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Just when you thought things couldn’t get any weirder, here comes the famous Portuguese winemaker, Dirk Niepoort, complaining that a certain critic named Parker just gave his wine 100 points.

Dr. Vino reported it, paraphrasing Niepoort as saying the Big Score “would raise prices and alienate the customer base he’s trying to build.” Then, curiously, Niepoort added this little fillip: “it’s too early to have 100 points.”

Okay, kids, deconstruction time or, as an old semiotician I once knew would have asked, What’s he really saying?

“would raise prices” Why? Well, we all know that a Big Score from any of the major critics is like waving a red flag in front of a bull, the red flag being the Score and the bull being the proprietor. Yes, Big Scores often result in price hikes, but nobody is forcing said proprietor to jack up the price. He does it freely, of his own will, because he wants to and thinks he can get away with it, based on that Score. It’s not like there’s some ineluctable law of the universe that goes “Cause: Big Score. Effect: price rise,” like the law of gravity that mandates that everything that goes up must come down (or, in this case, the reverse: Everything that was down must go up, providing it receives enough stimulus in the form of a Big Score).

Now, you can argue that the price of Niepoort’s wine will rise no matter what he does or doesn’t do, because it will immediately find its way onto the aftermarket, where bidding will be intense; or that retailers (on- or off-premise) themselves will raise the price, when their customers start demanding the wine. What’s wrong with that? It’s the essence of capitalism, and, after all, wine isn’t some esoteric practice like meditating or sodoku, it’s a business. The greater the demand, the higher the price goes.

Now, I’ve talked to plenty of winemakers (mainly in Napa Valley) who’ve told me, privately, they’re concerned that their pricing is going too high, because they don’t want their wines turning into commodities. I can understand their concern, but the fact is that the final price is absolutely a function of the release price, which is determined by the winery. If the winery doesn’t want to see prices get too high, all it has to do is lower the release price. But you never see that, unless the winery is in trouble. And why do most wineries get in trouble? Because they don’t get high scores.

“would alientate the customer base he’s trying to build.” I can see that some of Niepoort’s customers might be pissed off if next year they find themselves forced to pay 30% or 50% more for a wine they used to be able to afford. But the truth is, consumers are very fickle these days when it comes to wine. They buy “x” today and “y” tomorrow and “z” the next day. Partly this fickleness is because they’re constantly searching for bargains. Partly it’s because wine is like the fashion industry: as Heidi Klum says, one day you’re in, the next day you’re out. A winemaker who hopes to stay “in” must have a business plan that takes scores into account–whether they’re high or low. If a winemaker is relying on the critics to not give him a high score, then he doesn’t have a solid business plan.

But then there was that odd little remark Niepoort made: “it’s too early to have 100 points.” What can he possibly have meant? Would 100 points have been okay in 5 years as opposed to today? This suggests that Niepoort isn’t really against the 100-point system, he just wants to be able to choose the exact moment when he gets his blessing. Well, I’m sorry. The world doesn’t work that way.

The reader comments on Dr. Vino’s page were a propos. One said, “He doesn’t have to raise his prices. And he can have a few words with those who do inflate and gouge. I guess he would have been happier with an 80?” True, true and true. At any rate, I’ve never heard anyone complain about a high score before. It seems a little disingenuous and ungrateful.


What is an “intellectual wine”?

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I used the phrase “intellectually appealing” on a wine I reviewed yesterday. I’ve used it before; I know what I mean, in my mind, but I never really tried to define it before, and I think that some people who read a review that contains the word “intellectual” might scratch their heads or arch their eyebrows and think, “What the heck he is talking about?”

So it’s time for me to define it, both for you and for me.

The wine in question yesterday was Foxen’s 2010 Williamson-Dore Vineyard Syrah, from the Santa Ynez Valley. I went into my notes and looked up further instances where I recently used the word “intellectual.” There was Boheme 2009 Stuller Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the Sonoma Coast, which I described as “an intellectual wine, elusive and challenging, that makes you think.” And Lynmar 2010 La Sereinité Chardonnay, from Russian River Valley: “austere and tantalizing…an intellectual wine.” And Lucia 2010 Soberanes Vineyard Chardonnay, from the Santa Lucia Highlands: “An eccentric Chardonnay…well-made and has intellectual appeal.” And Korbin Kameron 2008 Cuvée Kristin, a Bordeaux blend from Sonoma Valley with “extra complexity that makes it intellectually interesting.” And Baldacci 2010 Sorelle Chardonnnay, Carneros, which has “a complex intellectual appeal.” And on and on.

What can “intellectual” possibly mean when applied as an adjective to wine? The word means “of or pertaining to the intellect,” so we must first come up with a satisfactory definition of intellect. The conventional dictionary meaning is “a mind or intelligence, especially a superior one,” but this hardly begins to scratch the surface of what I mean when I call a wine “intellectual.”

We all have minds. Some of us are more prone to live interiorly than others. To call a person “an intellectual” long has been a mixed message. On the one hand, the culture has a history of anti-intellectualism: “pointy-headed intellectual,” also known as “egghead,” has been an epithet applied to certain individuals by others who believe they think too much, or, at least, think the wrong thoughts.

On the other hand, our culture also has had a sort of grudging admiration for intellectuals. Albert Einstein was practically a national hero, even though almost nobody could say exactly what his intellectual achievements had been. People just knew he was smart and on our side, and that was enough to make him admired.

I’ve been perceived as an intellectual all my life (when I was younger, my friends used to call me “Professor”). I do tend to live in my mind: among other things, I’m fascinated by cosmology. Why are we here? Why does something exist, rather than nothing? What does it all mean? Thinking as hobby, as recreation, comes as naturally to me as jogging or lifting weights at the gym, or writing this blog, for that matter. I think Tom Wark picked up on this quality of mine when he wrote about me, one month after I launched this blog in 2008, and headlined it “Steve Heimoff and the Active Mind.”

This long segue into the architecture of intellectualism is meant to shed light on what I, and others, mean when we describe a wine as having intellectual appeal. Lettie Teague, in Food & Wine, said she often was told that “Barolo is an intellectual’s wine,” although she admitted she wasn’t quite sure what to make of that claim. Another writer, from a New York wine store, called a 2007 Levet Côte-Rôtie La Chavaroche Côte-Rôtie “both intellectual and savage,” while the Montreal Gazette’s wine critic quoted Olivier Humbrecht, from Zind-Humbrecht, as telling him Riesling is “an intellectual wine” that “demands too much of wine drinkers to ever become a mainstream wine…”.

This last begins to get to the truth of the matter. An intellectual wine is not a hedonistic wine, one that charms you right off the bat. An intellectual wine tends to have a certain austerity. It most certainly possesses structure. There are many wines that are austere and have structure that are not intellectual wines: they are simply lean. An intellectual wine, on the other hand, makes you think, because you discern that there’s something elusively tantalizing about it you can’t quite put your finger on. But you want to. You long to understand what it is that titillates your imagination and keeps you coming back for more. You have to think about the wine, play with it, dig deeper down into the bedrock to see what you find. I will quote Quintessa’s former winemaker, Aaron Pott, who, although he is describing his own creation and therefore can be accused of some bias, wrote, of the 2003 vintage, “It is an intellectual wine requiring study to understand its full profound genius.” I myself reviewed that wine six years ago, and while I did not use the word “intellectual,” I scored it 94 points and called it “beautiful.” Yes, an intellectual wine can be beautiful, too.


The essence of reporting: communication and character

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Here’s Greg Brewer, a nice guy and a great winemaker [Brewer Clifton, Melville, Diatom], on Richard Sanford [Alma Rosa], quoted in R.H. Drexel’s inaugural issue of Loam Baby: A Wine Culture Journal.

Look at Richard Sanford. When I’m in his presence, it’s special because he deserves more and he’s never spoken ill of anyone. He’s so gracious. He’s put in 40 years around here [Santa Rita Hills], for crying out loud. And he’s rolling as quietly and supportively and as politely as anyone I know. That is really special, you know? No bravado. No pretense, no “Don’t you know who I am” or “Don’t you know how long I’ve been here?”

Greg is speaking of Richard’s character, a concept that doesn’t get examined much lately. What I want to talk about–as a reporter, journalist and wine writer–are the insights I get into human character from my job.

The essence of reporting is communication. A reporter doesn’t make stuff up. We depend on people telling us things, which we then write about to report to the people who read us. It’s a three-way conversation: source to reporter to reader. But, of course, the magic can only happen if the source talks to the reporter, and then, the information is only worthwhile to pass on if it’s genuine.

I should maybe come up with different words than “source” and “reporter” because that makes it sound like Deep Throat in the parking garage at night, leaking secrets off the record to an investigative journalist. That’s part of reporting, but it’s not really what wine writers do. We have conversations–with winemakers, grapegrowers, merchants, sommeliers and others in the industry–which we learn from, and then share the fruits of our knowledge with our readers, who presumably are hungry for more education.

Richard Sanford is, as Grew Brewer said, one of the politest, most respectful and helpful people in the industry. For a reporter like me, he’s a godsend. Fortunately, the wine industry is filled with such people. Well, Richard is a cut above most everyone. But in general, wine people are good communicators.

The reason this is important for consumers is because knowledge and information are vital aspects of wine appreciation. Wine is different from bread, soup or cereal. We may eat and enjoy those things, but we don’t care much about where they came from, or who made them. We don’t meet in groups to discuss the intricacies of cereal, nor do we buy books on soup. (I’m not talking about cookbooks, obviously.)

For this knowledge and information to be passed along, it’s necessary for knowledgeable people to share what they know with the public, through the medium of the reporter. A man like Richard Sanford knows so much that he could spend the rest of his life communicating it and still have oodles of information left over. And Richard is happy to communicate, in his own quiet, unassuming way. This is what Greg Brewer sees in him: Richard’s lack of pretense. If anyone in the industry has a right to “Don’t you know who I am?”, it’s Richard. But you’ll never get that from him.

Unfortunately, not everyone in the industry is like that. There are some people–I won’t name names now, although I’m tempted to, and one of these days, I will–some people in this industry who couldn’t be bothered. They’re too puffed up with their own self-importance. (I’m thinking of one such right now, who happens to live in Napa Valley.) They’re successful, which merits respect, but they’ve let their success go to their heads. They may fancy themselves a part of the wine community, but they’re really not. They’ve cut themselves off from the true community, and walled themselves into a tight little clique that reflects back only what they want to see and hear.

The wine community, happily, is so much bigger than that. It’s a place where people from every walk of life, with every kind of job, are united in one thing: the love of wine. It’s a place where people return phone calls and texts and emails, and drink and eat together, and have conversations, and pass knowledge back and forth, and laugh. Richard Sanford understands that and expresses it in everything he does. He has character. I wish everybody in the industry did.


Include me as another biodynamic debunker

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I have to agree, strongly, with Tom Wark’s take on biodynamic winegrowing from his blog, although I won’t go quite as far as he did in calling it “a hoax.” A hoax is a fraud or, at best, a practical joke–in either instance, it’s something committed by someone on a consciously false basis. I don’t think the practitioners of biodynamism are consciously doing anything phony. I’m convinced they’re convinced of the truthiness of their commitment. In other words, they’re sincere.

But Tom did nail it when he wrote, “Suggesting that Biodynamics is somehow at the forefront of any movement to capture terroir in a bottle is…insulting to many fine winemakers who would never think of adopting Rudolph Steiner’s snake oil…”.

I first became acquainted with biodynamics in some detail when I wrote about Javier Tapa Meza, who then was (and still may be) Jim Fetzer’s winemaker at Ciego Vinegarden, up on the beautiful shores of Clear Lake. It was Javier–a great guy, with a great back story–who first told me all about the cow horns, the phases of the moon, the dung soups and so on.

I was incredulous, and asked Javier all kinds of questions, to which he had ultimately to admit he had no actual proof these things worked. I left that visit thinking that a commitment to biodynamism was more of a religious conviction than a scientific approach to winemaking. That was about eight or ten years ago, and nothing I’ve seen or heard since then has changed my mind.

There are many talented and sincere people practicing biodynamism in California. Mike Benziger, at Benziger Family Winery, is one. They make very good wine, but there are others who profess to practice biodynamism who don’t. And there are dozens, even hundreds of wineries who don’t stick to 100% biodynamic practices that make wine so good, it blows my mind.

So what’s a wine critic supposed to conclude? This: I don’t care how you make your wine. Just make it compelling.

Do I care about the environment? Yes. Do I care about sustainability? Yes. But in the case of wine, I care far more about my actual experience of what’s in the bottle than I do about the political beliefs or agricultural practices of the proprietor. It seems to me that even when wine is made in the “ordinary,” i.e. non-biodynamic way, it’s a pretty clean, green product. Besides, most wine regions have strict local laws concerning runoff, watershed protection, etc., and I know for a fact that growers are loathe to use any chemical insecticides, pesticides or fungicides they don’t have to.

But let’s face it, grapegrowing is farming, and a grower can’t let some religious or spiritual belief prohibit him from saving his crop when mold is about to take it over. That’s the Christian Science way of farming: pray, and hope God rescues your babies. Well, that’s not the way it works.

If there were absolute proof that biodynamic wines are better, I’d be behind this movement. But believe me, there isn’t, so I’m not.


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