I suppose I may be part of “The old guard who’ve long influenced our drinking habits (and resisted change in the industry),” but I’ll tell you what: I’ll give you a dollar for every bottle of Gruner Veltliner and Spanish Txakolina sold in this country this year, you give me a dollar for every bottle of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and we’ll see who ends up in the poor house and who can buy a beachfront manse in Malibu.
Well, we know who the loser will be: The Txakolina-istas. Because despite the prognostications of “outspoken personalities” and “social sommeliers” who supposedly are revolutionizing what we drink, America’s top-selling wines today are going to be the best sellers tomorrow and five years from now. And that’s all there is to it.
Why is it so important for some people to invest so strongly in a belief system that says the world of wine is turning upside down and nobody can stop it? Why are these same people so angry at “old guards”? What makes them so sure that “Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, and even Lebanon” are going to be the next superstar wine countries?
Look, it’s easy to dig up some young somms in L.A., anoint them as “the new guard,” and imply that they’re the vanguard of some vast, radical movement that’s sweeping the country. Only problem is, it ain’t necessarily so. The majority of somms are still opening bottles of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon for the majority of American wine consumers. Why is that so infuriating for some people?
There’s nothing wrong at all with a somm having a personal preference for whatever might turn her on, but we should realize—if we’re going to view the world realistically, which is usually a good thing instead of dwelling in fantasyland—that 99 percent of consumers don’t really care about wines from Lebanon, or biodynamic wines, or anfora-aged, skin-fermented whites, or any of the other “esoteric” wines that the author of this Los Angeles Magazine piece celebrates. There are, and always have been, plenty of esoteric choices when it comes to wine, and these alternatives can occasionally be amusing, delicious, even memorable. But I continue to shake my head at the ferocity of a small crowd of writers and critics who seem to have smoke coming out of their ears at the very mention of Chardonnay or Cabernet, or anything traditional. It’s as if they were bulls, and these wines that most of us like were red flags waving in front of their snorting noses. Hey, you iconoclastic lovers of the esoteric, lighten up!
As for “social sommeliers,” what’s up with that? This was the first time I’d heard that particular neologism, so I Googled it to see what else I could discover. Well, it doesn’t seem to mean anything, beyond some personal handles and a generalized marketing outlook. Is a “social sommelier” an advanced version of a regular sommelier, sort of a sommelier 2.0 that’s better than its predecessor? I always thought being a sommelier was social to begin with, so calling someone a “social sommelier” would seem to be gilding the lily. It’s like calling Stephen Curry an athletic NBA player. We can assume that, if he’s good enough to be in the NBA, he’s a pretty athletic guy.
Am I “resisting change”? If I am, it’s change for its own sake I’m against. Just because something is different doesn’t make it remotely interesting. There has to be a compelling reason for me to buy a wine, other than simply “I’m not like anything else you’re ever had, I’m different.” I’m not saying that a Finger Lakes Gewurztraminer or a Sicilian Grillo isn’t a nice wine. Not saying that at all. But it’s not likely that more than a handful of Americans has access to these wines, nor are they produced in the quantities needed to fill America’s belly. And there’s really no good reason for consumers to seek out esoteric wines when they’re perfectly happy with their Chards, their Pinots, their Cabs and Merlots and Sauv Blancs. Why are some people so angry at seeing American wine lovers happy?
Here’s the second part of my remarks last week, at Stonestreet:
I’ve spoken of varietal flavor and tannin structure, but obviously there’s more to wine than just those two factors. Next, I want to take up the topics of acidity and minerality.
Acidity in Cabernet, as in all table wines, is a key to providing life, zest and a keen mouthfeel. My favorite way of explaining the role of acidity is to revert to a tale from my youth. When I was a kid in the Bronx, we had “soda fountains.” If you wanted cola, the soda “jerk” didn’t open a bottle, he mixed it up right in front of you. First he’d squirt the cola syrup into a soda glass. If you tasted the syrup by itself, it was, well, syrupy. It was sweet and tasted like cola, but somehow had no pizzazz, no zest; it was flat and insipid. Then the soda jerk would squirt a little carbonated water into the glass, and voila. The carbonation added acidity, showing how important it is to balance fruity sweetness with tartness. If we recall that mountain vineyards are cooler during the daytime than valley floor vineyards, we can appreciate that mountain wines also are generally more balanced with acidity.
Then there’s minerality. I dare to venture into these tall weeds only because minerality has been a subject of intense discussion lately. I don’t claim to be able to define minerality, or to pinpoint exactly where it comes from. But since we all talk about it – and we all seem to think that we know what we mean when we use the word – I will assume that you, too, are familiar with minerality.
Let me just say that minerality is something that I do find in wines, both red and white. And I find it more in mountain, bench and hillside wines than in valley floor wines. One theory is that mountain grapevines, being parched for water, send their roots more deeply into the ground than do valley floor vines, where the water table is higher. As those roots dig deep into the earth, they encounter more and different minerals than are present near the surface. The supposition is that the roots take up the flavors of these minerals and transmit them to the grapes. As I say, I’ve never seen absolute proof of this, but it sounds right, and certainly, my wine reviews over many years substantiate the theory. Minerality gives wine additional structure. It’s not a taste, exactly, but a sensation, like the feeling of touching steel with your tongue. And I always find this minerality in mountain Cabs from both Napa and Alexander Valley.
For example, I once reviewed the Vineyard 7 & 8 Cabernet, from the 2008 vintage. I gave it a generous 96 points and wrote that “It startles for the intensity of mountain blackberries and raspberries, and then a firm minerality kicks in, along with the tannins, providing grounding structure.” This is to cite but a single example: I could come up with hundreds of others. Vineyard 7&8 is located about 2,000 feet up on Spring Mountain, which is on the Napa side of the Mayacamas range, about the same alltitude as the Stonestreet Cabs grown on the Alexander Valley side of the Mayacamas. This language of “intense,” “firm minerality,” “tannic,” and “grounding structure,” can in fact be applied to any great Mayacamas Cabernet, from either Alexander Valley or Napa Valley. They describe the terroir signature of Mayacamas Cabernet.
However, one of the chief differences – perhaps THE chief distinction – between Alexander Valley and Napa Valley Cabernet is the tannins. In 2003, when I was writing my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, I asked Jordan’s winemaker, Rob Davis, to set up a blind tasting of Cabs from both Alexander Valley and Napa Valley. From Alexander Valley we had Jordan, Simi Reserve, Silver Oak, Alexander Valley Vineyards Cyrus, Stonestreet Christopher’s Vineyard and Robert Young Scion. From Napa Valley we had Phelps Insignia, Chateau Montelena, Quintessa and Far Niente. When the brown bags were taken off the bottles, it was clear to all of us that the chief difference was the quality of the tannins.
How to describe that difference? Alexander Valley tannins are dustier and softer than in Napa. They’re more fine-grained, but they’re also a little more chewy, not as ripe as in Napa Valley. It’s something you can feel in the mouth. I think in the past Alexander Valley tannins used to be clunkier than Napa’s, which is part of the reason why Alexander Valley earned a reputation as more rustic than Napa. But a modern Alexander Valley Cabernet is not a rustic wine.
If I had to describe these Alexander Valley tannins in a single phrase, I’d call them more astringent than in Napa Valley. But this description requires fine-tuning on my part. To begin with, Napa Cabernet is frequently a very tannic wine – more tannic than Bordeaux. But Napa tannins are so lush, finely-ground and smooth that most of the wines, even the mountain Cabs, can be enjoyed in youth. Alexander Valley mountain Cabs by contrast are tougher in youth, and probably more ageable. This is because of the cooler conditions in Alexander Valley, especially in the mountains. A good example is another wine I reviewed, Stonestreet 2007 Monument Ridge Cabernet, which comes from the winery’s Stonestreet Estate Vineyard. I scored it at 96 points and want to read my entire review, because it’s instructive:
“A dramatic wine, authoritative in tannins, bone dry and noble. Withholds its best under a cloak of astringency, but already shows its mountain terroir in the complexity of its structure and deep, intense blackberry, currant, blueberry and dried herb flavors. Should develop bottle complexities for at least a decade and probably longer.”
Let’s break this down. I referred to the “cloak of astringency.” This is, of course, the tannins. Winemakers on the Alexander Valley side of the Mayacamas will tell you that tannin management is their most formidable challenge. Fortunately, they’ve achieved a variety of ways to manage those tannins, but still, tannic intensity is often the first thing you notice about these Cabernets, or maybe the second thing – after the initial fruity intensity, the astringency kicks in.
I spoke, too, of “dried herbs.” This herbaceousness, in addition to the tannins, is a key differentiator between Cabs from Napa and Alexander Valley. The upper stretches of the Mayacamas on the Alexander Valley side are sparse in plant life, and only the hardiest, most drought-resistant things can grow up there. This is high Chaparrel country: Manzanita, live oak, Bay laurel, pepperwood, madrone, shrubby, scraggly bushes, lichens, anise weed, native grasses. These plants dry out in our summer droughts, scenting the air with spicy fragrance but also lending that herbaecousness to the wines. You don’t get this herbaceousness in Napa Valley side of the Mayacamas, the slopes above the Oakville and Rutherford benches. Those slopes are densely forested in redwood and pine because whatever water remains in storm clouds as they enter Napa from the west are wrung out by the Mayacamas peaks. They drop considerable amounts of rain on these Napa slopes before drying out as they pass eastward across the Napa Valley floor. This is why the Vaca Mountains are so barren and austere. In this, they’re similar to the west-facing slopes of the Mayacamas in Alexander Valley. Both sides are dry, and both get the full heat of the afternoon sun. Yet the Vacas, around Dalla Valle and Tierra Roja, are hotter, the soils are redder, and the wines are riper than anything in Alexander Valley.
So, overall, Alexander Valley Cabs tend to be drier, more elegantly structured and more ageable than Napa Valley Cabs, which are more dramatic and flashy. I think, also, that Alexander Valley Cabs are lower in alcohol, on average. I went over a great many of my reviews of both over the years, and this seems to be the case—although we know that the alcohol number on the label can be misleading.
Now, I want to move away from the inherent, objective qualities of the wines to considerations of perception and optics. We read much in the media that California Cabernet (as well as Pinot Noir) is undergoing a stylistic change, perhaps under pressure from the In Pursuit of Balance people. This new style is towards wines of lower alcohol and greater elegance. I don’t think there’s strong evidence of this stylistic shift in Napa Valley Cabernet, except with certain well-known examples such as Corison; nor is there any particular reason why Napa winemakers should change their style. Napa Cabernet isn’t broken: Why should they fix it? Parker established the template of ripe, rich, decadence, and Napans have no motive to switch horses.
Alexander Valley Cabernet, by contrast, is not well understood by the public, or by tastemakers, such as sommeliers and merchants. It’s so easy for people to understand Napa Cabernet. Everybody knows what it means: lush, New World deliciousness. With Sonoma, people have to do more work to understand it. Sonoma is complicated – it has all these little nooks and crannies, and the various sub-appellations can seem like a hodge-podge. Here’s a quote from a famous east coast wine critic; he wrote this in his column:
So who cares about Sonoma cabernet? Why, our wine panel! Contrarians by nature, we seek out the scorned and the ignored among regions and wines in hopes of finding surprising pleasures and fine values. This critic was being facetious, or so he thought; but in fact his words reveal a certain attitude towards Sonoma Cabernet that is widespread among tastemakers, if somewhat unconscious. This is at the root, I think, of why some gatekeepers who taste Sonoma Cabernet (which is usually Alexander Valley Cabernet) contrast it unfavorably with Napa Cabernet. They bring that attitude to the winetasting experience, and, behold, they experience what they thought they would. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In the end, I think that Alexander Valley Cabernet does offer an alternative to Napa Valley Cabernet—but only if its winemakers understand that their terroir is distinctive, and they don’t try to replicate Napa Valley. And I say these things not because I work for Jackson Family Wines and we’re at Stonestreet. After all, Jackson Family Wines also owns such Napa wineries as La Jota, Lokoya, Mt. Brave, Freemark Abbey and Cardinale. I am hopeful that the new direction in California wine that is being suggested in so many quarters is real, and that we can end decades of marching towards a sameness of style to enter into a new period of authentic, terroir-based wine.
I gave a little talk yesterday to a group of wine buyers yesterday at Stonestreet, as part of Taste Alexander Valley. I’m posting my remarks in two parts, because it’s rather longish. Here’s part 1.
I’ve been asked to talk about Napa Valley and Alexander Valley and how Cabernet Sauvignon from those two areas differs. But first, a disclaimer: As some of you may know from my writings, especially on my blog, I’ve argued for many years that these supposed regional differences between varieties are not as pronounced nor as concise as some wine writers portray them. After all, these both are large appellations: Alexander Valley is 66,000 acres, while Napa Valley is six times bigger, at 400,000 acres. Pauillac, by contrast – the Bordeaux commune – is only 3,000 acres.
Moreover, both Alexander and Napa are marked by mountain ranges that contain incredibly complex soils, all jumbled up by the San Andreas Fault System: my old friend, the wine writer Bob Thompson, once called them “a slagheap.” So we can see that the terroir in Napa and Alexander Valley is not easy to define. Add to that stylistic differences in winemaking techniques—from harvesting decisions to fermentation and oak — and it’s clear that defining regional characteristics is tricky, at best. It’s easy to discern a regional style when you already have a preconception of what it is, and you’re not tasting blind. However, after tasting well more than 100,000 wines, most of them blind, during my career, I can tell you that it doesn’t always work that way. Our very notion of regional styles in Cabernet Sauvignon was, in fact, a product of Bordeaux, where it used to be easy to state (as Oz Clark did) that Pauillac is “intense blackcurrant fruit with heady cedar and pencil-lead shavings” while Margaux is “rarely heavy and has a divine perfume.” Yet even the great Alexis Lichine wrote, of Pauillac, that “the wines do not possess much generic similarity.” And nowadays, a riper winemaking style, coupled with global warming, has clearly leveled the playing field between the Bordeaux communes, and the same is true here in California.
Well, that was my disclaimer: Having said that, there are distinctions to be made between Alexander Valley and Napa Valley. So let’s explore them.
Here at Stonestreet, we are now, as I’m sure you know, in the heart of Alexander Valley. The mountains to the east (which most non-Californians would call “hills”) are the Mayacamas, which rise to 4,700 feet, although most of the vineyards are below 2,700 feet. On the other side of the Mayacamas is Lake County and Napa Valley.
The legal A.V.A. here is Alexander Valley, which is silly, since there are so many mountain vineyards. There have been attempts in the past to appellate the mountains themselves, but so far these attempts have not been successful.
Historically, Cabernet Sauvignon in Alexander Valley has been grown on the valley floor, mostly in the southern part, along Route 128, on either side of the Russian River. SHOW MAP In the 1980s, vineyards began to creep up into the eastern hills, as wine prices rose and wineries could afford to develop these vineyards, which involve high set-up costs. In Napa Valley, mountain vineyards were installed earlier than in Alexander Valley, mainly because the money was there.
Alexander Valley and Napa Valley thus are two classic California coastal valleys, parallel to each other. They both run in a southeast-northwest orientation. Both would be far warmer than they are were it not for the influence of maritime air, which comes in from the Pacific and from San Francisco Bay, neither of which ever warms up much beyond 60 degrees even in high summer. Napa Valley gets fogs and winds from Carneros and also from gaps in the Mayacamas, such as one near Calistoga. Alexander Valley gets its maritime air from the Russian River Valley to the south, from the river itself, and also through gaps in the coastal hills, including the Petaluma Gap. Both valleys grow progressively warmer as you move towards the northwest: Cloverdale is Alexander Valley’s hotspot, while Calistoga is Napa Valley’s.
But elevation plays a crucial role in temperature. With every hundred feet of altitude, you lose about one degree on a summer day. On the other hand, due to a temperature inversion, it’s not as chilly in the mountains at night as it is on the valley floor, which is affected by radiational cooling. Mountains, then, are more consistently moderate places to grow grapes. Above 1,000 feet or so, they also are usually above the fogline.
Soils also change with altitude. The lower in elevation you are, the more granular the soil gets. The valley floor is largely the product of sedimentary runoff from the hills and flooding from the Russian and Napa Rivers. The soils are deeper, richer and more fertile, which is why both valleys used to grow things like plums and nuts. The higher up you go, the drier and poorer the soils are. Whatever rainfall does fall runs off almost instantly to the valley below, leaching out elemental nutrients, both organic and inorganic. These soils can barely hold humidity. The grapevines thus have to struggle to survive. We’re all familiar with this phrase, and we all understand that struggling vines produce more concentrated, interesting fruit than well-nourished and well-irrigated ones.
So is there a difference between Cabernet grown in Alexander Valley and Napa Valley? Yes, in general. Napa Valley is one mountain range further inland than Alexander Valley, so it’s a bit warmer. Thus, you’d expect Napa Cabernet to be a little riper than Alexander Valley Cab, and that has in fact been my experience. In general – on average — Alexander Valley Cab is slightly more herbaceous than Napa Cab.
But terroir – understood as the combination of physical factors such as climate and soil – is only a part of why wine tastes the way it does. The other part is the human factor – what the great French enologist, Emile Peynaud, calls Cru. When you add human activity to terroir, you end up with Cru. I would argue that the human factor in Napa Valley plays a more important role than it does in Alexander Valley. For example, the modern tendency is to let Cabs get ultra-ripe, in the Parker style. This has particular relevance in Napa Valley, Parker’s Happy Hunting Ground for Cabernet Sauvignon; since the 1980s, as we all know, Napa Cabs have been getting riper, as the wineries chase those high Parker scores.
This phenomenon is less true in Alexander Valley. Vintners just don’t feel the same pressure – from critics or consumers – to make big, lush, ripe, splashy, extracted Cabernets. Therefore, in a very real sense, Alexander Valley Cabernet is more of a wine of terroir than Napa Valley Cabernet. This statement is, I realize, controversial. We’ve all heard much of a new direction in California wine that’s less ripe and supposedly more “elegant” and “balanced.” I would suggest that this new style is not so new in Alexander Valley. I’ll return to this topic later.
* * *
Let’s focus in more closely on Alexander Valley. The most celebrated Cabernets, for the most part (certainly the most expensive ones) are grown on the foothills, slopes, benches and mountains of the eastern side of the valley, which is the western face of the Mayacamas. There is, as I said, a lot of Cab planted down on the valley floor These are the wines that established Alexander Valley’s reputation – along with Zinfandel. But I think it’s fair to say that the Cabernets that have raised Alexander Valley’s profile are those from the higher elevations.
In fact, for the most expensive Cabs, we have to turn to altitude — and in some cases, quite a bit of altitude. In addition to the temperature distinctions I referred to earlier, there’s also more intense solar radiation in mountains. We tend to overlook solar radiation in discussions of terroir, possibly because our notion of Cabernet terroir was formed from Bordeaux, where elevation plays almost no role.
The role of solar radiation on grapes is only partially understood. High-altitude grape skins are thicker, in part because the fruit tries to protect itself from intense sunlight. This, along with the poor, dry soil, makes mountain grapes more tannic. Research suggests that these mountain tannins are qualitatively different from the tannins of valley floor grapes. They’re softer and rounder, giving the wines plenty of structure, yet they also possess a suppleness that makes them appealing even in youth.
There’s also evidence that, at high altitudes, the sun’s UV rays are better able to penetrate the skins of the grapes despite their thickness. This has an obvious implication for the pips, which are more easily ripened.
Elevation also allows grapes to more easily achieve a balance of sugar ripeness and the expression of varietal character. In wine, we often speak of “sweet spots,” and this concept applies to mountain vineyards. Too low down, and sugar accumulation may outpace the full expression of varietal flavor. Too high up, and the temperature is too cool, leading to sharp, green wines. In the Mayacamas, the sweet spot seems to be between 400 and about 2,400 feet.
When it comes to developing new types of wines, wineries find themselves walking a narrow line. On the one hand, they want to stay on top of emerging trends in consumer taste, if not actually lead them. On the other hand, they don’t want to get too far out ahead of consumers, and risk making wines no one wants to buy.
Here in California, where you can grow just about any variety in the world, the question is of special poignance. The California wine industry was brilliant in its period of youthful creativity because vintners took risks that promised, and succeeded in delivering, great rewards.
But California wine isn’t youthful anymore. It’s a mature, multi-billion dollar industry, and like most successful industries, its leaders have to decide when, and how much, to innovate. This involves no small amount of risk. Even Apple—widely regarding as the most innovative company in America—may have stumbled a bit with the Apple Watch. It’s not clear yet whether it has the staying power of, say, the iPod and iPhone. (And why didn’t they name it the iWatch?)
Similarly, wineries have to decide in advance if something will have the staying power to make investing in it worthwhile. But the history of wine is replete with examples of ideas that didn’t work quite as planned. For example, some years ago, Sangiovese—the Tuscan grape variety responsible for such great wines as Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino—was predicted to become “the next great red wine in America.” As a result, California vintners planted it extensively. By 1996, there were 1,359 acres of Sangiovese in the state, about 1/8 the total of plantings of Pinot Noir.
Fast forward to 2013, when there were 1,868 acres of Sangiovese in California, an increase of only 1.3%–one of the smallest increases in acreage of any major variety in California over that same period. By contrast, plantings of Pinot Noir in 2013 had exploded to 41,301 acres. There is now 22 times more Pinot Noir planted in California than Sangiovese.
What happened? Despite the rosy scenarios, Americans turned their backs on Sangiovese, For whatever reasons, they didn’t like it. Many wineries found that they had to tear out the vines, or bud them over to another variety, at great expense to their bottom lines.
This shows that good forecasting is a necessary part of running a successful winery. But forecasting is not an exact science. Winery owners are, at heart, conservative. I don’t mean that in a political sense, but in a business sense. They don’t like to lose money, which is why, when they find a formula that works, they tend to stick with it. They understand, most of them, that, if they hope to remain in business for the long haul, they have to have some sense of where the market is going. They understand, too, that things never stand still; the California wine market will change over the years. The question is, How? In reality, that translates to the question: Should we venture beyond (fill in the blank: Cabernet, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah) and try something out of the ordinary, that might possibly make great wine? But too often, in this conservative mindset, winery owners are opting to take the safe and tried route.
Yes, there are wineries tinkering at the edge, with Gruner Veltliner or Tannat or things like that. But really, we remain a chocolate and vanilla wine-drinking country. If I were a winery owner, would I roll the dice and gamble on something few people have ever heard of? Probably not. But I like to think that, if I succeeded in making and selling Cabernet or Pinot or Chardonnay, I’d devote a few acres to rarer varieties. After all, not that long ago Pinot Noir was a big nothing in California. But people, like Richard Sanford, Joe Rochioli, Jr. and Joe Swan, believed in it—and look where we are today.
I blogged the other day about a lawsuit brought by an L.A. guy against MillerCoors. He’s suing them because he found it “unsettling” to discover that they were really the producers of a beer he thought was a craft beer, Blue Moon.
Evidently, this topic—of when or whether a beer is an authentic craft beer as opposed to something else—has caused something of a brouhaha in the industry. This article, in Wine Industry Advisor, explains some of the complexities. Entitled “Craft: A term in controversy,” it points out the murkiness that a lack of definition of the word “craft” can cause.
I told a friend of mine, co-proprietor of a wine shop that also has a small but excellent selection of craft beers by the bottle, about the lawsuit, which she hadn’t heard of. I asked what she thought, and it was the same as I think: The L.A. guy is probably looking for some easy cash. Then she said, “If he wins, then half the wineries in the world will get sued.”
What did she mean? That wineries routinely use words and phrases that have no legal definition, but that have certain meanings or connotations in the consumer’s mind. “Reserve” is one such word. I wrote about numerous others several years ago in this blog post. At that time (2011), I suggested that the government should “clear up” these terms. But I’ve now changed my mind. As I’ve gotten older and, hopefully, wiser, I’ve become more concerned about the government getting its fingers into every aspect of our lives, so that now, I don’t think we need legal, binding decisions from On High on what things like “barrel select,” “Old Vines” or “Bottle Aged” mean. These are evocative terms that imply certain practices and conjure up pleasant visual images. That’s what marketers do, whether it’s with autos, high tech gizmos, perfumes, fashion or vacation spots, and if we forced every advertisement, commercial, brochure and packaging text to adhere to some strict, formal meaning of each and every word and phrase, we’d be even deeper into continuous litigation in America than we are today.
Besides, think how hard it would be to define these terms. Take “bottle aged.” Every bottle of wine sold anywhere has been aged in the bottle for some period of time, even if it’s just a few months. People may imagine dusty wine cellars where splendid old bottles lay sleeping until they’re nectar, but there’s nothing wrong with them having that mis-impression, especially if it adds to their pleasure when they actually drink the stuff. Do we really want or need to know that “bottle aged” means ten months, or fourteen months, or nineteen months? I mean, come on. Besides, if there was an overly-specific definition for “bottle aged,” wineries would just start using terms like “”aged in the bottle,” and then we’d have more regulations, more lawsuits and so on, ad infinitum. Ditto for “barrel select.” This, too, implies something very special about the wine, but in truth, most wine—whether sold in bottle, box or keg—has come out of a barrel. Can a stainless steel white wine be called “barrel select”? I wouldn’t go there, and I doubt if any winery would actually label a stainless steel wine “barrel select,” but if they did, I wouldn’t lose any sleep. (Besides, some investigative blogger would probably bust them for it.) And then there’s “old vines.” I, personally, think an “old vine” should be at least thirty years of age, but that’s just me. Besides, if a winery is really using ancient vines and is proud of them, they can always put that information on the back label. I’m a big fan of information on back labels—not ingredients, which I think can go on the winery’s website, but authentic, interesting information, like how old the vines are, what the varietal blend is, the vineyard’s elevation, amount of new oak, and so on.
This line of reasoning that I outlined above also touches on the nature of small wineries that claim to be, or are thought of as, “artisanal” versus larger wineries. I always said, as a wine critic who tasted many thousands of wines every year, that I didn’t care about the winery’s size. I cared about the wine: Was it good, savory, interesting, worth sipping and considering, or was it plonk? I always thought it was snobby to dismiss big wineries (whatever “big” means), and that it was disingenuous to celebrate small wineries (whatever “small” means) just because they were small. I had lots of wines from tiny little wineries that were awful, and lots of wines from “big” wineries that excited me. I still feel that way. We should experience things as they actually are, and not sweat the small stuff, like the way they describe themselves, or how many cases they produce. As for those fans of organic and biodynamic wines, I can’t tell you how many off-the-record stories I heard about bags of chemicals on the back loading dock of wineries that claimed not to use any. My advice: Don’t believe any hype. None of it. Taste the stuff, and if you like it, buy it, and tell the critics where to go.
I suppose it was inevitable that the wine industry would eventually develop something like the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), which is to wine what community colleges are to higher education.
In general it’s a good thing to have a college-level curriculum for wine knowledge and then force aspiring students to go through it. They learn about the entire gamut of wine and spirits: basic to advanced knowledge and service, graduating from Level 1 to Level 5. This professionalizes the wine industry. WSET, which is based in London, recently announced they’re expanding to China.
Prior to WSET’s founding, back in 1969, the wine industry had no central repository of knowledge. People learned on the job, in the country in which they lived, which is why they developed regional perspectives. A Londoner, for example, might apprentice at a wine shop or auction house, where Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhine wines predominated. He would become a master of them, but not necessarily of wines that were not widely distributed in Great Britain, such as the wines of Spain, Italy or, much less, the New World, including California, South Africa and Australia. Even French regions like the Rhone valley and the Loire were little understood in London. This tended to maintain the supremecy of Bordeaux and Burgundy. It was a self-reinforcing, self-referencing business model that worked for its time and place, but was essentially unfair.
Which is why a fellow like Harry Waugh was so unusual. Harry was at the peak of his game in the 1950s and 1960s. Sitting on the board of Chateau Latour, esteemed as a stately and principled wine merchant and gadfly, he was the consummate Bordeaux and Burgundy man. So when he began visiting California, at the behest of a small group of Napans, this was seen as an oddity by his fellow enophiles. They assumed Harry’s new-found interest in barbarous California would quickly fade, after which he would return to the fold.
It was not to be. Harry found himself charmed at first by California wine, an enchantment multiplied by the worshipful treatment accorded him by the rich Californians who understood that he was an important factor in British, and thus European wine tastes. They flew him back and forth across the pond, provided his local transportation, took him to the best restaurants, served him their best wines and lavished their own personal bonhomie upon him and his wife.
Little wonder Harry quickly fell in love with California wine. Would he have done so had he experienced them under blind tasting conditions, in a dreary little room at Christie’s? Possibly. But to drink them under such lavish, friendly circumstances undoubtedly played a role.
At any rate, the tale of how Harry shipped California wine back to London and then coaxed his important friends in the industry to try it is now legendary. It was an essential part of why and how California wine succeeded in being viewed in the same league as Bordeaux and Burgundy, well before the Paris Tasting of 1976. (Indeed, it can be argued that Harry was at least partially responsible for Steven Spurrier including California wines in his lineup in the first place.)
Had there been a WSET back in the 1940s and 1950s, when Harry was coming of age in the British wine industry, I rather doubt he would have discovered California. He would have been confined to WSET’s curriculum, and had neither the time nor, probably, the energy to explore beyond it. All I mean to suggest is that formal education, in any field, can have its own set of internal restrictions. It’s important to students of wine to explore the world of wine on their own, developing idiosyncratic preferences (or antipathies) that may not be included in formal agendas of study. This not only opens them to new opportunities, it guarantees the wine industry an expanded set of palates. My main worry with the centralization of wine education is that it tends to develop a house palate that can be detrimental to differing styles. The wine industry should remain ever open to a spectrum of approaches to wine.
I’m back from our big Southern California trip, where we attended Leo’s bar mitzvah. After the formal ceremony, we had dinner at an Italian restaurant, where we had some decent wines—one Sangiovese, one Pinot Grigio, both Italian.
Now, one of the guests, whom I’d never met, is apparently a wine aficienado, and had brought a few bottles of something “special,” one of which made its way to my table. I tasted; didn’t particularly like it. It was an Amarone, and possibly it was just too young. It was a wine I’d call “rude,” although I realize that’s an obsolete term. (The guy sitting next to me, a family member who knows a little about wine, thought it “heavy.”) Somehow, my judgment of the wine came back to the attention of the guest who brought it. He cornered me and said, “I hear you didn’t like my wine.”
Oi. Now, this happens quite often to us wine critics. We’re seen as wizards who know everything about wine. Our opinions are highly sought after. And when someone, like the guest, brings a wine he prizes and the resident critic doesn’t care for, this can be a flashpoint. Suddenly, we had a clash of wills: the guest defending his wine, and me, put on the spot by what seemed like an uncharitable attitude.
This isn’t a situation I’d either sought or relished. My inclination was to smile and excuse myself. I have never liked being the wine expert in these social settings. I mean, a bar mitzvah? I’d rather talk about anything else than be the resident snob. But here I was, challenged. The guy whipped out his cell phone and showed me pictures of his recent visit to Amarone, with the dessicated grapes and all that. He was obviously very proud of the wine and somewhat hurt that “the wine expert” didn’t like it.
Well, I was hurt by his hurt. I felt some responsibility to reassure him that (a) although the wine wasn’t to my liking, (b) that didn’t mean it wasn’t very good. And so I pointed that out to him. And I added that, very possibly, the Amarone was simply too young for be properly enjoyed now. I think it was that statement that finally settled the matter. I hadn’t exactly rejected his wine completely; I’d simply said it was too young. That got him off the hook, and me too, and so we were able to bypass this tricky impasse and get on to other, more enjoyable topics.
Anyhow, we just made it back from L.A. It took an epic eight hours on the 101!!! Mother’s Day and all that. The P.C.H. was jammed with beach traffic on the first warm, sunny day after nearly a week of gloom and rain. Then it was a solid hour to get from Salinas to Gilroy. We were catatonic when we got home. I just had a glass of Manzanilla, a wine I’ve always loved, and the awfulness of our drive is swiftly receding. They say that Manzanllla always has a salty tang of the sea, and this one indeed does have a brininess that brings to mind an Islay Scotch. Too bad more Americans don’t love Sherry, but that helps keep the prices modest for those of us who do.