Off to Willamette Valley today, my first trip there in many years. This is to check out some of Jackson Family Wines’ vineyard holdings. Yesterday, after a brief meeting at JFW in Santa Rosa, I zoomed back to Oakland to get to BART to go to San Francisco for a greatly anticipated meeting with California Lieutenant-Governor Gavin Newsom. I’ll be doing a Q&A with him on the blog early next week, when I get a chance to transcribe our long interview. Then, on Thursday, it’s the final baseball game of the year, Giants versus Dodgers, with old pal Jose Diaz. On Friday, another tasting with my JFW family, this time of Santa Rita Hills Chardonnays. So it’s been and will be a busy week.
I will offer this little peek into my conversation with Governor Newsom. (“Governor” actually is the proper honorific; not “Lieutenant-Governor.”) He is very optimistic about the future of the wine, food and entertainment industries in California, which is why his PlumpJack Group of companies is rapidly expanding.
People, especially younger ones, want to enjoy the good life, and in coastal California, the good life is all about eating and drinking well, with friends, in a companionable atmosphere. Throw in a little music and dancing, and that’s it! I remember when I moved to San Francisco, longer ago than I care to remember. I was young, happy, and had a little money. There was nothing better than being with pals, out on the town at night, laughing and having a great time. Of course, the problem now is that, in the late Seventies and Eighties, you didn’t need a lot of money to have fun in San Francisco. Now, you do. Even so, I knew people at that time who remembered the San Francisco of the 1950s and 1960s, and who complained that the City was changing too fast, was becoming too expensive, etc. etc.
So some things never change. San Francisco always is in the process of becoming. People move there, fall in love with it, and want it to stay exactly the same as it was in their glory days. Not going to happen. Nothing stays the same. I’ll venture a prediction: Twenty years from now, that technie who’s now in his 20s is going to gripe about how the San Francisco of the 2030s isn’t the same as it used to be! But San Francisco, whenever you move there, always retains its charm, its hold on you, its power to mesmerize you into thinking it’s the center of the Universe. Well, of the West Coast, anyway.
Anyhow, I’m looking forward to my visit to Willamette Valley. In our Pinot Noir tastings, the Willamette Pinot Noirs really dazzled me. If I had to choose a favorite, from all the appellations that we blind-tasted over six months, I’d have to say that Anderson Valley and Willamette were the standouts. I think it was because, as the most northerly in latitude, both of those regions offered earthy, mushroom and forest complexities to the fruit. They were the most “intellectual” Pinot Noirs. I always feel funny using that word, because it suggests that you have to think about the wines, not just enjoy them. Nothing could be further from the truth. But if you’re the sort of wine drinker who enjoys thinking about the wines you’re drinking, because they have so much going on, then they’re for you.
Have a great day!
Good for President Obama for choosing to serve a screwtop wine at last Friday’s State Dinner for Chinese President Xi Jinping. I do believe that’s a first for this White House, or any other for that matter.
Historically, the White House has served very expensive wines, finished with corks, at State Dinners. For a long time, these wines were mainly French. Thomas Jefferson served Lafite Rothschild; JFK served Haut-Brion Blanc; and when Nixon was President, he loved Chateau Margaux, although an anecdote revealed in Woodward and Bernstein’s “All the President’s Men” told how Tricky Dick would have his butlers discretely pour him Margaux, wrapped in a white cloth napkin, while the other guests got Mouton Cadet.
That all began to change during Reagan’s administration (he was justifiably proud of California wines), and today, it would be very strange for a President to pour foreign wine, unless it was from the country of the visiting dignitary (at last week’s Xi-fest, for example, the White House served Chinese Shaoxing rice wine). Many are the California wineries that proudly display a menu in their tasting room or office showing how and when one of its wines was served at the White House. And, of course, these tended to be expensive wines.
Four years ago, Republicans predictably and harshly criticized Obama for serving an expensive Washington State wine at a State Dinner for then-Chinese President Hu Jintao. The Tea Party website, Gateway Pundit, slammed the President for pouring a $399 bottle of wine to “Chi-Coms” [Chinese Communists], heading their hit piece “Sacrifice is for the little people,” and conveniently overlooking the fact that their hero, Ronald Reagan, also served very expensive wines: at one State Dinner, he poured a trio of California wines that, for the time, were quite pricy: Clos du Bois Calcaire Chardonnay, Carneros Creek Pinot Noir and Schramsberg Cremant Demi-Sec. More recently, there was President George W. Bush, who once served a Shafer Hillside Select ($245) at a similar dinner.
Perhaps it was criticisms like the one from Gateway Pundit, however selective and unfair, that prompted Obama to go screwtop. The particular wine he chose was a Penner-Ash 2014 Viognier, from Oregon, which retails for $30. It was paired with lobster (“poached in butter and served with traditional rice noodle rolls embedded with spinach, shiitake mushrooms and leeks.” Mmmm….but can we get rid of the word “embedded”?).
Obama’s screwtop embrace isn’t the most earth-shattering news ever. But it is a nice development in the sense of underscoring a new and, dare I say it, more democratic [small “d”] attitude towards wine that seems to be permeating across America, and that reflects an emerging sensibility that the most expensive things aren’t necessarily the best. Indeed, as I’ve long argued (and most critics agree), price is not always a reflection of quality; beyond a certain price point, you’re paying for image and psychological satisfaction.
Now, as to why wineries continue to be so resistant to screwtops, that’s another story!
Interesting article by the Chronicle’s occasional wine writer, Jon Bonné, in yesterday’s paper, on a range of topics related to wine prices, but mainly more or less of a warning that they may be too high to be sustained.
Jon fairly points out that labor costs in California are very high (just look at the cost of housing), and vineyard prices also are increasingly beyond the means of all but the superrich, at least in prime coastal growing regions. These things all contribute to the cost of the bottle—but perhaps the prime culprit is a “we’re-worth-more argument” that prompts many winery owners, maybe too many, that they can charge just about any price they feel the market will bear, because…well, just because.
You can’t go into a fine wine shop and not agree. Prices really have shot through the roof—despite the Great Recession, which may temporarily have halted the inflation in some cases, but if it did, no more. At the ultrapremium end, prices just keep going up, and up, and up, which leads Jon to ask the (rhetorical) question, “Wouldn’t it be a shame if…progress was halted because the people…decided it just wasn’t worth the money?”
Good question. What will it take for consumers to say, The heck with it, I’m not paying $80 for a bottle of Pinot Noir when I can get something just as good for half that price, or less—whether it’s from California or some foreign country?
I myself can’t see far enough into the future to make a prediction. Ten years ago and more, I was wondering how so many Napa Valley wineries were able to get away with charging triple-digits for their Cabernets. I thought then that lots of them would be forced out of business. That didn’t happen. So I’m out of the prognostication game. In fact, nobody knows where prices are going, but in the history of wine in California and in Europe, they seldom, if ever, go down, so we can only assume that they’ll continue to increase, albeit possibly at a slower rate.
Some commodities and consumables do decrease in price or at least hold steady when market conditions aren’t so good. That’s why we’ve seen basically flat inflation in the U.S. ever since the Great Recession. Things just aren’t getting more expensive. But wine seems to able to disobey the classical laws of supply and demand. I’m not sure why that is. I think, in many cases, winery owners are independently wealthy, so they can ride out periods of decline, sometimes for many years. I think also that wine, alone of all alcoholic beverages, has the allure of luxury: it’s an aspirational drink. Like diamonds, or sports cars, or designer clothing, wine has managed to furbish itself with a glow, in a way beer and spirits haven’t. True, both beer and spirits are available in very expensive bottlings. But think about it: beer’s fundamental image, at least in America, is of a cheap buzz, in front of the tube on Football Sunday. The image of spirits is more complicated, but then, spirits are cheaper than wine, when you compare the two ounce-per-ounce in terms of alcoholic strength. A good bottle of Scotch might set you back $60, but you’ll get a lot of mileage out of it over time, and unlike wine, it won’t go bad in a few days.
Wine by contrast seems to lift any occasion into the realm of special and celebratory. People still ooh and aah over wine: even a meal in a place like Chili’s or Applebee’s is heightened when wine is set on the table. People perceive this about wine, consciously or not; either way, wine makes their meal feel more special. And because wine has this quality of glamour, consumers seem willing to pay extra for it.
How much extra? That is the question. I’m not as worried as Jon is about California wine pricing itself out of the market. There will always be moderately priced California wine—say, under $20—and as for the under-$10 segment, I don’t really think that much about it, except that I’m glad it’s there because it gets people to drink wine who might not otherwise.
But I do continue to wonder about these Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and, now, Chardonnay prices that are skyward bound. I suppose the wineries who are taking price increases know what they’re doing. At least, I like to think so. But Jon, coining a phrase, referred to “the neuroses of [California’s] prestige” as a way to pointing out that some wineries are taking increases, not because they know what they’re doing, but because they think they do; they think they’re riding the same bubble as Bordeaux.
Maybe they are. Maybe they’re not. Maybe Bordeaux’s bubble is unsustainable. Like I said, I don’t play the prognostication game anymore. But, if you look at the history of Bordeaux prices over the centuries, they have just one direction: up.
This is the latest of my occasional wine reviews. I hope you enjoy.
Vina Robles 2013 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (Paso Robles); $24. There’s a tartness to this Cab that gives it a cranberry-like bite. The acidity is quite high, which makes me wonder if it was added or is natural. At any rate, it does throw the mouthfeel off balance. Flavorwise, everything is perfect. Blackberry preserves, dried black currants, cassis liqueur and a fine layer of smoky oak. The tannins are just right for Cabernet: thick, dusty and intricate. And the finish is long and impressive. If it weren’t for that acidity, I’d give it a much higher score. Drink now, with fatty, greasy foods, like barbecued beef. Score: 88.
Healdsburg Ranches 2013 California Coastal Cabernet Sauvignon (California): $14. Every great wine-producing region needs a good, sound, affordable bottling that shows what it’s capable of. We call these sorts of wines “rustic” or “charming” or whatever, and what that means is, “Hey, this is a really nice, easy-drinking wine, and it won’t cost you an arm and a leg.” This is that kind of wine. Who knows where the grapes came from? Who cares? It’s dry, full-bodied and tannic, the way Cabernet should be, with flavors of black currants, raisins, mushu plum sauce, unsweetened baker’s chocolate and a touch of smoky oak. It all leads to a peppery, slightly bitter finish. Score: 88.
Stonegate 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon (Rutherford): $35. Here’s a big, juicy, ripe Cabernet, brimming with the pure essence of blackberries and black cherries. There are complexing notes of black tea and licorice, while oak adds a delicious coating of smoky toast and vanilla bean. The all-important tannins are strong and sweet, while just-in-time acidity adds to the structural integrity. All in all, a very good Cab, easy to drink now with steak. It will hold in the bottle for five years or so. Score: 90.
Healdsburg Ranches 2013 “The Ranch Reserves” Chardonnay (Russian River Valley); $19. Ripe and oaky, this will please Chardonnay fans who like this style. The underlying fruit flavors are strong in pineapples, peaches, limes and kiwi fruits, while oak brings those toasty vanilla notes that come from wood. There’s a buttered popcorn taste that may come from the malolactic fermentation. Meanwhile, the acidity is nice and crisp, and the mouthfeel smooth and creamy. There may be some residual sugar, to judge by the sweet finish. Not bad for the price. Score: 87.
Senses 2013 Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast): $35. There seems to be a movement towards drier, lower alcohol, more minerally and less fruit-driven Chardonnays, and this bottle could stand as its poster child. It’s all those things, and more, with the sleek stone profile of Chablis, relieved by hints of golden apricot, orange peel and Meyer lemon. There’s some new French oak, not too much, just enough to provide a jacket of vanilla bean and smoke. In such a wine, the lees play an important part, giving it a yeastiness that becomes an integral part of the profile, the way it does with Champagne. Acidity also plays an important role. I continue to believe there’s a place for lush, ripe, buttery, flamboyant Chardonnays in California, but it’s interesting that wines like this are emerging to give consumers a choice. Score: 90.
Knez 2013 Demuth Vineyard Chardonnay (Anderson Valley): $39. Knez is a new winery for me. I’m including them in my upcoming tasting of Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs. I bought that bottle; they graciously included a free Chardonnay in the box, so I’m reviewing it. The vineyard sits at 1,500 feet, in the mountains above Boonville. Way back in late 2004, I reviewed a 2002 Demuth Chardonnay (from the winery of that name). My description of it could fit this 2013 from Knez. I called it dry, leesy, acidic and streamlined, “doesn’t hit you with fruit,” but I liked the minerals. Same here. I guess it’s the extreme elevation. This is an elegant, rather austere and bone dry wine whose limey acidity makes the mouth water. Fruit-wise, it suggests Meyer lemons, grapefruits and perhaps some tropicality and white floweriness. If they had let the grapes hang longer, it would be a richer wine, but then, the alcohol wouldn’t be a mere 13.2%. So what you see is what you get: severe, Chablisian, an acquired taste. But if you can dig that taste, you’ll find lots to be intrigued by. Score: 90.
The Wine With No Name 2013 (Central Coast); $15. From Truett Hurst. They don’t tell us what the blend is. It could be anything, but who cares? Anonymity is the name of the game. It’s a lovely wine, dry, tannic and full-bodied, with good acidity. Spicy, too, with black currant, tobacco, blackberry and blueberry jam and leathery flavors. All in all, somewhat rustic, but easy to like, especially with barbecue. I’m giving it an extra point or two because it’s so easy to drink, even though it’s not particularly complex. Score: 90.
Vina Robles 2012 Estate Petite Sirah (Paso Robles); $29. To call this wine “rustic” is accurate. Its tannins are a little awkward, and the flavors veer towards briary, brambly wild blackberries, tobacco, sweet leather, teriyaki beef and chamomile. The finish is entirely dry, but what’s harder to put into words is the feeling that this is a wine that no doubt tastes better where it was made, with a locally-grown meal, than it does if bought in a store or restaurant. It’s certainly impressive for the sheer volume of fruit: so ripe and savory and delicious. The grapes were grown all over the extensive Paso Robles region and then blended “for overall synergies,” says winemaker Kevin Willenborg. It’s a big, hearty wine you want to drink with hearty fare: short ribs, certainly, or barbecued beef in these waning days of summer. It will warm your bones during the cold winter months. I like it a lot, but the basic rusticity keeps on coming back. Score: 89.
A pair of Petite Sirahs from Retro Cellars
Retro 2011 Petite Sirah (Napa Valley); $35.
Retro 2011 Petite Sirah (Howell Mountain); $45.
I have long admired these two bottlings from Retro, which has done a good job with Petite Sirah from both appellations.
Of the two, the Napa Valley is firmer, drier and more structured. It’s quite dry, with substantial tannins and a leathery earthiness to the blackberries, raspberries, cocoa powder and soy sauce. The finish is long and spicy, like red licorice. It is a wine that can take some time in the cellar, but it’s drinkable now, although I would decant it. The vineyard where the grapes were grown is in the Pope Valley region. The official alcohol is 13.4%, which is lower than you’d think tasting it. Given the tannins, I would drink this wine with the richest, most complex foods possible: short ribs of beef, Chinese Mongolian beef, or beef or chicken in a Mexican mole sauce. Definitely for fans of big, full-bodied, complex red wines. Score: 91.
Then we come to the Howell Mountain. It is completely different, as opposite in flavor as you can imagine. The wine is softer, sweeter and riper than the Napa Valley, although the word “sweeter” is misleading, for it’s completely dry. But it does dazzle with the ripest, most succulent raspberries and red licorice, and seems oakier too, with that sweet, wonderfully toasted wood quality. It is perhaps notable that the wine was aged in 100% new French oak for 30 months. That amount of wood would swamp most red wines. Not this one. Once again, the official alcohol level, 12.8%, seems weirdly low, given the ripeness. Considering the wine’s forwardness and accessibility, I would pair it with a good steak, and drink it soon. Score: 92.
Vina Robles 2014 White4 (Paso Robles); $16. I’ve always liked this interesting, offbeat white blend from Vina Robles. The quality is high, and the price is crazy good. This year, the blend is based on Viognier, with smaller quantities of Vermentino, Verdelho and Sauvignon Blanc. In the history of the world, these varieties have never met, but it works here to produce a pleasant wine, with great complexity. There are flavors of tangerines, white peaches and vanilla bean. No oak was introduced, so what you get is what the grapes give. There’s sweetness in the finish, but the acidity is great, providing balance. What a nice wine to drink with Asian fare: pot stickers, Vietnamese chicken or pork dishes, spicy Indian lamb or Thai fish cakes. The winemaker recommends fish tacos, which sounds good. Score: 89.
Senses 2013 Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $40. What a pretty Pinot Noir. It has the translucent clarity you expect from a Sonoma Coast Pinot, with fine acidity highlighting complex strawberry and cranberry fruit flavors. There are exciting hints of wild mushrooms, licorice, exotic Indian spices and cured golden tobacco, leading to a long, contemplative finish. The wine is fairly tannic, and has excellent brisk acidity, both of which give it structural integrity. The alcohol level is 14.2%, just enough to give body, but not so much as to give heat. As good as this wine is now, I would age it for four more years, and who knows, it could be rocking in 2023. Score: 91.
Senses 2013 Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $55. This is exactly the kind of Pinot Noir those clamoring for more “balanced” wines are asking for. The alcohol is officially 14.2%, lowish, if not super-low. The wine is bone dry. The mouthfeel is silky, and yet the flavor profile is deep and intense. The vineyard is in the Occidental area, on a hillside with good drainage. The 2013 vintage fully ripened the grapes, so that the wine has raspberry, cranberry and pomegranate flavors. The tannins are fine, the acidity brisk and mouthwatering. French oak has been tastefully applied, bringing notes of sweet vanilla and toast. All in all, this is a high-quality Pinot Noir, balanced and beautiful now on release, and capable of at least six years of aging. Score: 93.
Waits-Mast 2012 Wentzel Vineyard Pinot Noir (Anderson Valley); $45. The immediate impression of this wine is that it’s robust in flavor and quite tart in acidity. This hit of acid marks the winery’s 2012 Pinots in general. The wine, which is a combination of multiple Dijon clones, was grown in a tiny block of the vineyard, at a high-altitude above Philo. Production was a mere 48 cases. It is rich in raspberries and cherries, licorice, sassafras and pomegranates, as well as earthy, foresty things, like wild mushrooms and balsam. With alcohol at 13.5%, it has a delicate mouthfeel. The acidity calls for pairing with fatty foods: steak, tuna, lamb. But I have a feeling this is an ager. You can drink it now, after a few hours of decanting, and through 2025. Score: 93.
Waits-Mast 2012 Nash Mill Vineyard Pinot Noir (Anderson Valley); $40. The Nash Mill Vineyard is in the northwestern, cooler end of the valley, and is owned by the family that owns Husch. The wine is entirely dry, with significant acidity and yet a delicate mouthfeel. The flavors in this good vintage are quite ripe, suggesting raspberries and strawberries, with vast amounts of exotic spices and a fine earthiness. It has what might be called a gout de terroir. But it’s a touch hot in alcohol (officially 14.5%), which is a limiting factor. Some critics liked this wine more than I do. Drink now-2017. Score: 89.
Waits-Mast 2012 Mariah Vineyard Pinot Noir (Mendocino Ridge); $42. People grow old-vine Zinfandel in the high mountains of the Mendocino Ridge, so Pinot Noir can be a challenge, as this wine is. It feels a bit too hot in the mouth. The flavors are lovely, ranging from raspberries and strawberries to the most deliciously earthy wild mushrooms and Asian spices. The tannins are smooth and fine. Yet for me, it’s marred by the heat and also by high acidity, both of which combine to make it fierce. Score: 88.
Waits-Mast 2012 Oppenalnder Pinot Noir (Anderson Valley); $44. As with the winery’s other 2012 Pinots, I found this immediately to be quite tart in acidity, which emphasizes the alcoholic heat even though the official reading is just 14.2%. There are gorgeous flavors, of raspberry and cherry jam, with a nice earthy mushroominess and a good smoky overlay of oak. But when I taste a Pinot Noir I don’t want the first impression in my mouth to be of acid. Even as the wine warmed and breathed in the glass, which is when it might soften and become more mellow, it gave my palate the bite of a stingray. Very hard to explain this phenomenon. Score: 87.
Waits-Mast 2012 Deer Meadows Pinot Noir (Anderson Valley); $55. A fierce bite of acidity marks this young Pinot Noir. It has concentrated flavors of raspberry and cherry pie filling, with lots of dusty exotic spices, a rich coating of smoky, toasty oak, and an earthy taste of wild mushrooms. It also shows the wild, feral quality of Pinot Noir you associate with the Fort Ross-Seaview area, which is quite pleasant and complex. The problem is the acidity. It’s cuts like a razor blade through the palate, and doesn’t seem like it will fade away with time. Score: 88.
Truett Hurst 2014 Bluebird Sauvignon Blanc (Russian River Valley); $23. Classic Sonoma Sauv Blanc here, dry, brilliantly crisp in acidity, and with grassy flavors that venture into richer notes of green melons, peaches, limes and tropical fruits. The alcohol is a refreshingly low 13.8%. If there’s any oak, it’s not apparent. What you get is purity and cleanliness, and plenty of flavor, and a hint of honey on the finish. You have to give this wine credit for being so well-made and easy to drink. Score: 90.
Vina Robles 2014 Estate Sauvignon Blanc (Paso Robles): $16. Sauvignon Blanc may be Paso Robles’ little white secret. The wines across the board are good; Vina Robles’ 2014 Estate is very good. It fulfills all the basics, being dry and zesty in acidity, and the grapefruit, Meyer lemon, Asian pear and papaya flavors have a tart grassiness that’s lovely. No wood here, just clean, pure 100% Sauv Blanc. Winemaker Kevin Willenborg wisely chose not to put the wine through the malolactic fermentation. Score: 90.
Inconspicuous 2013 Zinfandel (Lodi); $20. Captures the essence of zinniness in its briary, brambly flavors of juicy summer blackberries, blueberries and dark chocolate. With sweet tannins and a dry finish, it’s smooth and round in the mouth, and wears its highish alcohol well. If it’s hot out, drink it with a nice summer barbecue. If it’s cold, this wine, which contains 20% Petite Sirah for body, will pair well with beef stew. Score: 88.
There’s an ill wind blowing in Napa these days. The county seems torn about how it sees its future, which is really about how it sees its current status and its past. This all was the subject of a letter in the St. Helena Star newspaper written by Bill Ryan, who I believe is a columnist. Development versus non-development always is an issue in wine country, but Napa seems to be the most sensitive about it of all regions, perhaps because it is the most famous and most sought after destination for wine tourism.
Mr. Ryan’s letter is a reply to critics who he perceives are “trashing” Napa Valley’s wineries. He seeks to convince readers that all is not “doom and gloom” in Napa. I agree with him—up to a point.
Here’s my take. Traffic really has risen to insane proportions along Highway 29. It’s terrible, but hardly unusual; in post-Recession California, traffic has become worse than ever, from L.A. through the Bay Area to Sacramento and right up to wine country, and it shows no signs of getting better. In my opinion, Governor Brown ought to declare a State of Emergency, summon the Legislature into Emergency Session, and convene a committee of wise men and women to figure out where we go from here. I myself have no idea if there’s a solution, but that’s why we need experts to consider all the alternatives.
To the extent Napa is battling with traffic, concerns about new wineries or winery permits for special events are understandable. I would hate to have to drive between St. Helena and anywhere south, in the morning or during the evening commute.
Mr. Ryan correctly points out that Napa’s golden age, the 1960s and 1970s, accomplished “something that had never been done before in all of history – create a New World wine district that competed favorably with the famous regions of Europe.” Indeed it did. He is proud of his compatriots for so doing. I am too. He suggests that today’s men and women of Napa Valley can help to “find a positive pathway to aiding winery growth and prosperity,” a judgment with which surely no one can disagree. There are such men and women. I don’t know if outsiders who got rich elsewhere and then bought themselves a Napa Valley lifestyle are the kind of people who can lead Napa through its travails, as opposed to the families who have lived there for a long time. Maybe some of them are.
Mr. Ryan also puts his finger on a big issue: “Our key item, cabernet sauvignon, is quickly losing sales and position against pinot noirs and other more drinkable reds.” This is surely true. The reasons are not clear. Is it because of alcohol levels? My own pulse-taking of the market suggests that Cabernet may be down, but you can never count it out. In modern America, fashion has the lifespan of a gnat. Woe be to the winery that bases its long-range business plan on temporary trends.
If Napa Valley really is losing traction to “Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley and Dundee Hills,” as Mr. Ryan fears, is it too late to reverse the trend? No. But Napa’s biggest enemy may be itself. When every winery in the valley started charging an arm and a leg just to taste a few wines, I thought that was a mistake. A weekend for two now in Napa, including lodging and good meals, will set the happy couple back close to $1,000. You can go out to Jenner or Boonville for a lot less, and less traffic, too. Napa Valley will never be a cheap place to go. But it really has to make sure that it doesn’t price everyone out except Silicon Valley millionaires and rich overseas tourists. The golden age that Mr. Ryan celebrates would have been shocked to sense that nobody except the uber-rich could afford to visit.
For years the meme has been out there that California wine is getting bigger, badder and bolder—wine on steroids. Some critics decry this, which is their right; but consumers by and large do tend to favor this riper, fruitier style. But why is this happening? Is it really the Parkerization of wine, as many have alleged, or is something else going on?
An answer may be found by turning to another popular beverage: coffee. A recent article by Marcie Hanel in the October 2015 issue of Food & Wine, called “The Coffee Conundrum,” maintains that “today’s coffee [may be] too strong to drink” and quotes a well-known chef, Jonathon Sawyer, that “Coffee is so powerful now [that] you can’t have a triple espresso cortado followed by a pour-over [or else] your heart’s going to explode.” (Blue Bottle is the poster child for this phenomenon.) Marcie herself attests to the “skyrocketing” of coffee’s caffeine content; Chef Jonathon even compares coffee to “weed”, in the sense of its powerful extraction—so much more intense than it used to be.
“Powerful extraction…”. Hmm, that’s exactly the phrase critics of the California style use to disparage wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, not praise them. Let us grant that many of the things we eat, drink and use are more powerful than they used to be: not only wine and pot and coffee, but spirits: The current issue of Food & Wine has an article called “The Secret to a Richer Rum,” as if Rum isn’t rich enough!
Beyond booze, everything else in life seems to be getting plus-sized. Computer chips and all of the associated devices that use them are faster and more powerful than ever; Moore’s law applies to everything these days. Even in film we’ve seen an acceleration of “power” in the sense of more, and more graphic, violence and sexual activity. We see more or less the same thing in politics, where hyperbole and exaggeration have largely replaced reason, and in science, where technology is employed to peer further and deeper into the smallest and largest recesses of the Universe. And of course, with beer, we have the IPAs and the double IPAs, which a friend of mine once described as the beer equivalent of Napa Cabernet.
This penchant for “more” and “greater” obviously comes from the consumer; producers would not create and sell more powerful products if the masses weren’t buying them. When did Americans turn away from subtlety and embrace gigantism? Well, one synonym for “subtlety” could be blandness. Wine didn’t used to taste so good as it does today!
As I look back over the arc of my life, I can’t help but compare the placidity of the 1950s to the chaotic explosions of the 21st century. I can’t pinpoint when this penchant for power started; the advent of psychedelic drugs clearly was an expression of it (if not the cause), because drugs like LSD did “heighten” awareness far above the mundane level. Maybe it was that experience that created a craving for “more is better” among Baby Boomers, a heightened-everything craving which has been passed onto their children, the Millennials. Even heavy metal and thrash rock are more “heightened” versions of the rock and roll of yesteryear.
I offer this line of reasoning, not to justify the current trend towards richer, riper wines, but to explain it. Look at it this way: California wine—the majority of it, anyway—is pretty much on a par with Blue Bottle coffee, Led Zeppelin, IPAs and medical marijuana. That’s not bad company!
You want wisdom in wine words? Consider these: “In many centers of wine hipness these days, what matters is not how a wine tastes and how the associated sensory memories make you feel, but instead the social source of pleasure derived from tasting—and professing to like—a much ballyhooed wine that is made in a style that is currently in vogue.”
That’s from Andy Peay, in his Peay Vineards Fall newsletter. Now, Andy was being diplomatic in his choice of words. Let me put the case more bluntly: There is an insidious tendency today for some sommeliers and insecure critics to praise obscure varieties and temporary styles that, when all is said and done, don’t actually taste very good. That a winemaker, like Andy Peay, has to come out and fulminate against “wine fads” is almost unprecedented—but then, so is the emergence of a maven class that seems hellbent on revolution for its own sake.
How else to explain the cult-like hosannas for low-alcohol Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in California? Andy Peay found a similar phenomenon for the offbeat in Copenhagen, where “all I could drink was wine esoterica” because the “tastemakers” are addicted to the strange and unfamiliar: Trusseau, Jura whites, Biodynamic wines “and other wine styles/regions currently in vogue” most of which Andy found “flawed and, mostly, downright unpalatable.” (Orange wine, anyone?) This is why Andy entitled his opinion piece “Yes, but be delicious”: It’s fine to be esoteric, but please, at least taste good! The first duty of wine, after all, is and always has been—not to satisfy the eclectic taste of bored gatekeepers—but to taste good and give pleasure.
Nor is this drumbeat for the “new” showing any signs of slowing down. Yestrrday’s San Francisco Chronicle, in the wine section, headlined the lead article “The next new wine thing,” a header that editors who have nothing else to say routinely trot out, offering timely proof of Andy Peay’s argument that “Wine writers need something new to write about.” Actually, they—we—do not; there is plenty to say about tradition. But wine writers’ editors and publishers, driven by more commercial motives than merely good writing, tell them to find something new—and so they dutifully do.
Go back to Andy’s phrase, “a social source of pleasure.” That is a compound noun containing a vast trove of implications. ”Social pleasure” is the opposite of “sensual pleasure.” It means, in essence, that when one of these wine faddists tastes something he or she believes to be “currently in vogue” among his peers, he actually is tasting—not the wine itself—but the idea of the wine in his mind! This is a form of idealism that is disconnected from reality and that, under different circumstances, could be described as hallucinatory.
Now, we don’t want our wine gatekeepers to be hallucinating, do we, but there is truth when Andy Peay continues: “Instead of highlighting the classic wines of the world, many tastemakers—including sommeliers, writers, and wine organizations—are focusing on what is novel in wine…”. There’s nothing inherently wrong with such a focus. Indeed, one could argue that somms and writers owe it to themselves and to their professions to seek out “what is novel in wine.” But all things in balance. There’s a huge difference between seeking out what is novel, and ignoring or, even worse, trashing everything that is traditional. But this latter approach marks too many modern tastemakers, who seem to believe that, if their father or grandfather liked it, then it is not worth considering.
One wonders if some modern tastemakers, and here I include bloggers, have even tasted the classics. Do they understand them? Do they know that there is a reason why some wines have been classic, and why some never have been–say, orange wine or Jura wine? Do they understand that, long after their careers have ended, the classics will remain the classics—and the obscure will be just as obscure as ever?
You know, sixteen years ago I went to a workshop at U.C. Davis entitled “Emerging Varietals.” Lots of important people were there: from Robert Mondavi, Silver Oak, Kendall-Jackson, Gallo, and the ubiquitous Randall Grahm. The purpose of the event: To discover “the next big things” in varietals. We tasted everything from Graciano and dry Touriga Nacional to Trinkadeira, Greco di Tufo and Gaglioppo—in order to, as one of the organizers explained, “take [winemaking in California] to the next level.”
Well, none of those varieties worked out particularly well, and I doubt, rather sadly, if any of Randall’s plans to breed 10,000 new varieties on his San Juan Bautista ranch will work out, either. (Randall was the subject of the Chronicle’s Sunday article, the one I referred to.) With all due respect to Randall, who has been interested in “emerging varieties” for a long time, the public has not been clamoring for them; and the gatekeeper somms and writers who get so worked up over obscure varieties seem to be a fickle bunch. They get bored easily; they do want some shiny new thing every five minutes. That does not seem to be a good audience to cultivate, unless you’re making, say, Gaglioppo, and if you are, good luck! I mean, seriously, does anyone think that in fifty years people are going to look back and say, “Gee, California really screwed up with Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc”? I don’t think so.