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New Hall of Fame inductees, and a commentary

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I’m asked to nominate people every year for induction into the Vintners Hall of Fame, but I never do, for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on. Maybe it’s my aversion to groups, I don’t know. Anyhow, this year’s inductees were just announced, and I’d like to pay them hommage.

Peter Mondavi, Sr. Of course he belongs there, and it’s good that they put him in while Mr. Mondavi is still around to see it. He never was as famous as his older brother, Robert, but Mr. Mondavi truly is a living legend in Napa Valley, and it’s wonderful that the family has managed to retain ownership of Charles Krug Winery this long, while so many others have sold out to corporate interests or gone belly up. Here’s hoping Mr. Mondavi and his famous twinkle in the eye remain with us for many years to come.

Joe Heitz. People can quibble about what the first boutique winery and cult California wine were. For my money, it was Heitz, and the Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. It was the hottest wine in America for two decades; a great year, such as 1968 and 1974, set auction records. Heitz Cellars may not be as standout as it once was, but Joe Heitz, who started it all, deserves this recognition.

Myron Nightingale. He was Beringer’s chief winemaker for a long time, and trained his successor, Ed Sbragia, who brought Beringer to its highest highs during the 1990s. Mr. Nightingale less famously pioneered the use of the botrytis spore in the laboratory to artificially produce the dessert wine, called Nightingale in his honor, that is one of the best in California.

Richard Sanford. For my money, the most obvious choice this year. A Hall of Fame inductee should be a true pioneer, and Mr. Sanford is one of the most pioneering winemakers California has produced in the last two generations. He (and his former partner, Michael Benedict) practically invented the Santa Rita Hills appellation, planting its first grapes (at their Sanford & Benedict Vineyard) and early establishing its reputation for Pinot Noir. Mr. Sanford and his wife, Thekla, nowadays own and run the Alma Rosa Winery, continuing his still evolving legacy in Santa Barbara County.

John Parducci. Parducci Wine Cellars dates to 1933, the year Prohibition ended and so many new wineries sprang up. The winery has had its ups and downs, with the Parducci family eventually selling it, but Mr. Parducci has remained active in a number of ventures. He really helped put Mendocino County on the wine map.

With 2012’s five new inductees, the Vintners Hall of Fame now has 38 members. Only two of them are women: Zelma Long and Carol Meredith. I’m not smart enough to calculate that as a batting average (do you divide 2 by 38? 38 by 2?), but a major league baseball player would be returned to the minors if he was 2 for 38 (unless he was a pitcher. Timmy Lincecum AKA The Freak was 5 for 61 this year, for an average of .082). Granted that California (and the wine industry in general) has been female-weak for nearly all of its history, it’s still bizarre that the Hall of Fame can’t improve on this inequality. Maybe it’s partly my fault for not nominating anyone. Right off the top of my head, I can come up with suitable candidates, starting with Margrit Mondavi. And if a relatively young winemaker like Randall Grahm can be inducted (2010), how about Marimar Torres, Heidi Barrett, Genevieve Janssens, Margo van Staaveren, Merry Edwards? What about academics, like Linda Bisson and Ann Noble? Would anyone truly object to Julia Child, even though she wasn’t, strictly speaking, a wine person? I mean, neither was Gerald Asher (2009). While Mr. Asher was a wine writer while Ms. Child was a food writer, still, Ms. Child’s contributions to wine, via her books and T.V. shows, were stronger and more lasting than Mr. Asher’s, profound as his have been.


“Natural wine” — the latest trend

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What is “natural wine”?

Well, if you Google the term (with quote marks) you get 307,000 results, and I’m not about to go through them all the find out. Instead, I’ll quote from Wikipedia, which is the first result: “Natural wine is wine made with minimal chemical and technological intervention in growing grapes and making them into wine.”

That sounds pretty good. Who wants wine that’s been degraded by chemicals and technological interventions?

Like barrels. Like sulfur. Like fining agents. Like commercial yeast. Like acidity. If you’re in France, like sugar. Yes, sugar is a chemical, last time I checked. Here’s the formula for sucrose: C12H22O11

That’s a lot of yucky carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. I don’t want no feelthy atoms messing up my wine!

I started thinking along these lines when I read this article in our local free paper, the Bay Guardian, about “the high priestess of natural wines,” Alice Feiring. Now, I don’t know Alice and I haven’t read her new book (Naked Wine) and so this is not a commentary on her but rather just my (somewhat disorganized) thoughts on reading this particular article, and putting it together with other stuff I’ve been hearing and reading about concerning natural wine.

In the wine biz, if you stick around long enough you’ll come to recognize when a new trend pops out of nowhere. Natural wine is a new trend–or, let me rephrase that. Natural wine–the actual beverage–is not a new trend, but talking up natural wine is the new trend. Actually, that’s what makes a trend: suddenly people are talking about it. Organic was a trend a while back (“natural wine” has little to do with organic wine). Then came biodynamic. There are equivalents in food. Locovore is a big trend, and possibly an important one, but there also have been silly food trends, like “beds” of this or that, and foam, and elaborate constructions that look more like museum pieces than something you’re supposed to eat. Possibly, “meat” cocktails are a new trend. Hot young mixologists as our new rock stars may be a trend, although it’s not necessarily one I oppose. So you see that trends can span the gamut from the vital to the vacuous; the one thing they have going for them is buzz, which is why God invented publicists.

But I digress. The topic is natural wine. Let us gently dispose of the concept that no chemicals or technologies should ever be allowed to tarnish a wine. Under that definition, the only natural wines are those which are created when birds puncture grapeskins on the vine, and then the juice inside ferments with wild yeasts to produce wine that those same birds sometimes get drunk on. That’s natural wine. Any wine that comes in a bottle is not “natural” because a human made it and did what he or she had to to make it taste good. And you and I won’t necessarily know what that entailed, because the winemaker isn’t necessarily going to tell us. If the winemaker says the wine is “natural” you’re free to believe whatever you want. Sometimes what winemakers say is true. Sometimes it isn’t. It’s not that they’re liars. They just human beings, and occasionally a small sin of omission just can’t be resisted.

Besides, some wine that’s made “naturally” isn’t very good. There are a few so-called “natural” wineries listed in the article. I’ve reviewed some of them; they vary from undrinkable to pretty good. But here’s the context you need to understand about this natural wine trendy thing: the reason this article is in the Bay Guardian is because anything with the word “natural” stuck to it is going to be popular with the greenie Whole Foods crowd (just as anything with the word “chemicals” attached to it will arouse their ire). If there’s a trend happening anywhere on the political/environmental left, it’s going to find its way into the Bay Guardian, whose editors like such things, and are happy to pay reporters to write about glowingly.


Winery highlight: Favia

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I met Andy Erickson when I was at Dalla Valle researching an upcoming story for Wine Enthusiast. Andy is DV’s winemaker and was, until recently, Screaming Eagle’s. He told me he and his wife, Annie, have their own personal brand, Favia, and when I expressed interest in tasting the wines, he said I’d have to check with Annie (who’s last name is Favia).

Now there’s a properly trained husband!

I did, and she was cool about it. So last week Andy and Annie drove down here to the East Bay and we had lunch at the Chez Panisse cafe, where they poured two of their Favia wines, the 2008 La Magdalena and 2008 Cerro Sur.

I don’t feature very many individual wineries here on the blog, but Andy and Annie’s story is a good one. The couple met in 1995, made a little wine together in 1996, and wed in 1998. Annie got her degree in viticulture and has had a stellar career, doing stints at Cathy Corison and Newton, with John Kongsgaard. She also did the replanting at Screaming Eagle. Andy began his wine career working at the barrel producer, Sequin Moreau, but, realizing he wanted to make wine, went to U.C. Davis, got his master’s in enology, and went on to work everywhere from Saintsbury to Spotteswood, Harlan/BOND and Staglin. Andy was, in effect, the Cabernet Sauvignon king of Napa Valley, while Annie was one of the valley’s most extraordinary viticulturalists.

In other words, just your ordinary young Napa power couple.

In 2003, Andy  left Staglin to be a consulting winemaker. His path took him to Ovid, Dancing Hares, Arietta and Hartwell, as well as Screaming Eagle and Dalla Valle. It was Dalla Valle, and specifically Andy’s love for Maya, the Cabernet Sauvignon-Cabernet Franc blend off the estate, that led to the creation of Favia.

Andy: “Maya is what drew me into Cabernet Franc.” Annie: “Dalla Valle is the wine Andy wanted to make.”

The 2008 La Magdelena is 60% Cabernet Franc and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2008 Cerro Sur increases the Cabernet Franc to 70% while reducing the Cab Sauv to 30%. The grapes come from different places–Magdalena from the foot of Spring Mountain, Cerro Sur from the valley’s southeastern hills, above Wooden Valley–so it’s not quite fair to compare them strictly on a basis of varietal percentage. But it’s fair to say that Cerro Sur is a bigger, richer, more tannic and spicier wine, while Magdalena is sexy and voluptuous. Both wines are awesomely delicious, and if I were scoring them on Wine Enthusiast’s 100-point scale, which I’m not, they’d rate well into the 90s. (Both retail for $120.)

I like it when people take creative and entrepreneurial risks to do their own thing. No doubt that Andy could do quite well continuing to be an in-demand consulting winemaker, with that roster of stellar names on his resume. Ditto for Annie, who, having trained with David Abreu, could probably develop any vineyard she wanted to, for an appropriate price. But they have their eyes on the prize: their own brand. It’s not easy, not even for these two talented young people. They still have to get out there and sell the wine. But when the wine is that good, it’s hard for sommeliers to say no. Favia is represented in some of the country’s greatest restaurants, including Per Se, French Laundry and Momofuko.


What a tattoo artist has to teach winemakers

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Can a winemaker make artisanal wine without knowing how to make academically correct wine?

The great Philip Milic, my tattoo artist at Old Crow, was teaching his newest student, Ciara, a lesson in drawing. Ciara had drawn a kind of angel-lady with long, Pre-Raphaelite braided hair and a tropical bird, and also a grinning skull. Philip critiqued them. Some of Ciara’s lines, he told her, were out of balance, too thick, crooked. He pointed out aspects of the skull’s teeth and the nymph’s hair and the bird’s wing, and, with a few corrective strokes, vastly improved them. He said, “If you want to draw like that after you know how to draw well, it looks cool. Otherwise, it just looks amateurish.”

I knew what he meant, because it’s the same thing with writing. You have to know how to write really well before you can abandon traditional classical English grammar and syntax and write in your own voice. In other words, you have to learn the rules before you can break them. Same with painting. When some people see Picasso, they say, “Why, my kid could paint like that,” but what they don’t know was that the young Picasso could draw exquisitely in the realist style. In the merest Picasso doodle is the essence of everything he learned from Raphael, Goya and Cezanne.

In wine, there is the eternal debate between classic university training versus developing a more intuitive or natural style. In California, this debate often takes the form of “To Davis, or not to Davis?” There are some who feel that formal training at a school of enology like U.C. Davis or Fresno State robs winemaking students of their originality and forces them to mainstream their talents in predictable, conventional ways. I remember when I met Josh Jensen, at Calera. He told me that when he hired his first assistant winemaker, his one job qualification was: “Must not be a U.C. Davis graduate,” because he wanted his A.W. to possess the skills of creativity and innovation he felt Davis stifled.

There is mounting talk in California about “natural” winemaking–hands off stuff, involving a minimum of manipulations, organic grapegrowing, use of native yeasts, and so on. Often, it is assumed that a smaller winery can make wine more “naturally” than a big one. There’s something attractive in this notion of the rugged individualist who goes up against the big guys by doing something they institutionally cannot–make wines of personal artistic interpretation.

There’s some truth in this, but there’s also a lot of romantic hooey. Just because the wine comes from some little winery, presided over lovingly by the winemaker and his kin, doesn’t make the wine good, interesting or even drinkable. Believe me, there’s a lot of bad wine out there, and a lot of it comes from artisanal wineries.

So I’m not one to be impressed by a press release that tells me how small the production is, or how personally involved so-and-so is in every step of the wine production process. Many a bad smell has come out of the artisanal vat. Having said that, most of the wines I think most highly of do come from small wineries. How to account for this paradox? I think the difference is because the best winemakers learned how to make good, clean, well-made wines first. (Of course, they also need good grapes.) After they knew what to do and what not to do, they could move to the next level: crafting wines of personal distinction and artistic merit. They know the difference between safely running risks, and foolish abandonment of long-held rules. When I taste something truly dreadful, I always wish the person who made it would take a year off and do some remedial V&E at one of our teaching schools, the way Ciara is learning the basics from Philip. She won’t be doing simple angels and skulls when she turns pro, but she has to learn to do those basic forms correctly before she can explore her own inner promptings and create the kind of splendor Philip does.


Cosentino closing? But Mitch marches on

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I heard from a friend this morning (who in turn learned about it from a friend of his who worked there, so this is third-hand) that yesterday was the last day that Cosentino Winery would be open to the public. “Another victim of the tough economy,” the person who worked at Cosentino wrote him. (For  the record, I called the winery early this morning and a recording said the tasting room is still open.)

I hope it’s not true that Cosentino is moribund. It’s sad when a winery stumbles, especially one you’ve known and liked for a long time. I met Mitch Cosentino, who started the winery in 1980, many years ago, when I was still at Wine Spectator. There was a period of time, during the 1980s and 1990s, when Cosentino the brand had some renown. Its Napa Valley Cabernet, especially the reserve and the Meritage they called CE2V, could be quite good, although they never attained the heights of which Napa Cabernet is capable.

Sometime in the early 2000s, though, Cosentino seemed to have lost its way. Over the years I formed the impression that they were getting stuck in the same trap as Robert Mondavi Winery did: making too many SKUs in an attempt to please everyone, with the result that too little attention was paid to anything. In addition to the Napa Cabernets there was Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay and Merlot and Zinfandel and Gewurztraminer and a white Meritage and Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir and even an execrable Sangiovese. It reached the point where, by 2003, I was thinking, “What the heck is going on at Cosentino?”

And Cosentino had their Mondavi Woodbridge/Private Selection problem: an inexpensive second label that was probably meant as a cash flow wine, but further diluted the company’s energies and reputation. That was Crystal Valley, which usually bore a California appellation.

I don’t know the precise impact of the recession on Cosentino’s fortunes. One heard, through the grapevine, that the winery was hurting even before the economy soured. I suppose the continuing deterioration of the marketplace simply accelerated Consentino’s problems. But there are lessons to be learned. Cosentino did try to expand too rapidly in too many directions at the same time. The financing didn’t seem to be there. Quality dipped, and the downward spiral built on itself. At the same time, the winery didn’t advance a coherent marketing strategy. As someone who sits, spider-like, at the center of the P.R. web in California, I get a sense of who’s reaching out, who’s thinking about communication, who’s doing a good job and who isn’t. By the time the 21st century arrived, Cosentino seemed to disappear. It had become almost a virtual brand. I would have largely forgotten about it if I didn’t pass the actual winery building, on Highway 29 just south of Oakville, every time I went to Napa Valley. I’d see it and feel bad.

I don’t know the particulars of the brand’s troubles, and I hope it’s not actually true. But I Googled “Cosentino” this morning and found this article from this morning’s Napa Valley Register that says Mitch Cosentino “has launched pureCru Napa Valley, a small producer of wines.” The new winery’s website says it will produce “small quantities of unique blends,” and quotes Mitch as saying he will “do it all myself again, like I did in the beginning.” So the cat has landed on his feet, to live again, which makes me happy and hopeful.


Winemaker hopes and dreams

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Had coffee yesterday with a winemaker named Darek Trowbridge and his assistant winemaker, Steven Washuta. Darek owns the brand Old World Winery, up in Sonoma County. He’s related to the Martinellis, and founded Old World when he learned that there was no place in that winery for him.

Darek told me he hadn’t put much time or energy into marketing Old World, a mistake he’s now out to rectify. He was describing his dreams and visions, when suddenly it occurred to me that Darek wasn’t just speaking for himself. He was speaking, albeit unwittingly, for an entire generation of young winemakers, men and women who are embarking on the adventure of a lifetime. They’re coming out of V&E school, or perhaps transferring into the wine business from other careers, and entering a field filled with challenges and stress, at possibly the worst time to launch a winemaking career in recent history; but they’re game for anything. I watched Darek’s handsome face as he talked about winemaker dinners, his small distributor in Louisiana, his and Steven’s nascent efforts at social media, people he buys grapes from, the production level he hopes to achieve, and I thought about the many young winemakers I’ve run into lately, from Santa Barbara up through the North Coast. They’re all so hopeful and enthusiastic, so filled with energy and ideas, willing to endure just about anything to realize their dreams. And it struck me that, of all occupations in the world, making wine has got to be the most optimistic.

I’ve been meeting a lot more of these younger winemakers who have been below my radar, after the magazine divided California up into inland and coastal tasters, leaving me freer to sink down into the coast and meet these small, exciting producers. When I put the word out, via my blog, Facebook and personal contacts, that I was in search of this more or less hidden level of winemaking activity, I wasn’t sure what the response would be. In part, I feared that the smaller, younger producers wouldn’t be interested in a print magazine writer reviewing their wines in the traditional way. Because of my experiences writing this blog, I’ve been exposed, and rather strongly, to an anti-magazine attitude out there, on the part of Millennials who feel that everything that needs to be done can and should be done through social media. It wouldn’t have surprised me, then, to learn that a newer generation of winemakers had no interest at all in connecting with me.

Instead, it’s been exactly the opposite. Everywhere I go, people seem interested in making my acquaintance, and I am certainly delighted to make theirs. It’s been reassuring to find out that actual (as opposed to digital) relationships still matter in this business.

I’m going to work very hard at cultivating these new relationships. I want to help these younger, less well known winemakers achieve success. I still get irritated by the snobbery out there on the part of certain sommeliers, writers and, yes, some winery owners, who promote the same old stable of aging elite brands and turn up their noses at everyone else. I was talking just yesterday to a P.R. guy, an old friend, who just got a job with a super-famous Pinot Noir house in Sonoma County. They’d never sent me wines to review. I asked if that could now change. My friend said no, they just don’t send wine to anyone. To no one, I asked? Well, he said, they send to Spectator. I replied, live by Spectator, die by Spectator. It’s so 1990s, so yesterday, such an anachronism in a wine world that’s forward looking and thinking and open to change.

So, to all my new winemaker friends, present and future, here’s looking at you, kids.


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