In their splendid new book, The World Atlas of Wine (which I am devouring), Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson devote all of two paragraphs to Paso Robles (which Wine Enthusiast just declared our Wine Region of the Year). That is not near enough–for such an emerging region –and those two paragraphs could have been written ten years ago, for all the reader knows, because the information is so out of date.
The only Paso wine companies the authors name are Constellation, Treasury and J. Lohr, east of Highway 101. As for west of the Freeway, the only winery mentioned is Tablas Creek. This is what I mean by my “ten years ago” remark. Is it surprising that the only winery on the West Side the two Brits would think to mention was started by the Perrin family, of Chateauneuf-du-Pape?
I’m not bashing Jancis and Hugh so much as pointing out the difficulties of writing a coffee table book that purports to report the latest information on the wines and regions of the world, when the authors really have not kept abreast of what’s actually happening on the ground. This is always a challenge for the wine writer who’s a generalist, as opposed to a specialist (like me), who focuses on a single region. No one approach is perfect–but the Atlas’s sadly out-of-date reporting on Paso Robles (a region I happen to know quite well) makes me wonder about the accuracy and timeliness of the book’s reporting on other regions.
Jancis and Hugh did write a sentence that hints at what’s happening in Paso: “Paso Robles has earned a reputation for its array of blended reds and blends of Rhôn-ish whites…”. That is accurate–but I wish they’d gone into a little more detail. As I’ve written frequently the past few years, Paso Robles is creating the most innovative and stylish blends in California, and I wish they had singled out for mention (if not praise) some of the smaller, exciting wineries in Paso Robles. I finally wish they had moved beyond the stereotyped “east of Highway 101 is decidedly hot” producing wines that are “fruity, though hardly demanding” meme. If all you’ve ever tasted are the mass-produced wines of the east (and there are plenty of them) without checking out smaller wineries, like Vina Robles, then you’re not current on developments. While it’s true that the “Templeton Gap” influence, which brings cooler maritime air to western Paso Robles, grows weaker as it approaches the 101 Freeway, the cool air doesn’t just stop there. And in cool vintages, the east can actually excel over the west. And how about some mention of Gary Eberle in the Atlas? He’s east of the Freeway and producing fine wines.
Look, Paso Robles is soon likely to be sub-divided into 11 distinct AVAs. We have got to get over this simplistic east-vs.-west mentality. Things are a lot more complicated than that, and Paso Robles is a lot more exciting than the Atlas makes it sound.
I couldn’t be more pleased by the California winners of Wine Enthusiast’s 2013 Wine Star Awards.
Barbara Banke is a natural for Wine Person of the Year. After Jess Jackson’s 2011 passing, Barbara stepped up to the plate to shepherd Kendall-Jackson to unprecedented new heights, not to mention the smaller wineries in the Jackson Family Wines stable. In my short article accompanying the announcement, I only begin to describe what Barbara has accomplished over the last two years. A classy lady leading a great company.
Rodney Strong Vineyards easily merits their selection as American Winery of the Year. They do such a great job, and the wines just keep getting better and better. They’re a fairly big winery, but the wines almost always taste artisanally hand-crafted. Rodney Strong’s commitment to Sonoma County’ fruit is admirable.
I’m particularly glad that Paso Robles is our Wine Region of the Year. Paso faced pretty tough competition (Douro, Rías Baixas, Stellenbosch, Walla Walla), and those were the finalists: in our actual meeting last summer to develop that list, even more famous wine regions were put forth by various editors. Paso emerged triumphant over all of them. Congratulations to everyone down there in this Central Coast appellation!
Last but not least there is Peter Mondavi, Sr., recipient of the magazine’s American Wine Legend Award. Who better to get that recognition than the 99-year old scion of the legendary Napa family of Mondavis, who to this day remains happily active at Charles Krug. It will be wonderful to see and hear him at the awards ceremony, in January. I can already see the audience of hundreds of dignitaries rising to their feet in thunderous applause when his name is called.
You know, in California there is such constant reinvention–new winemakers, new wineries, new wines–especially in Napa Valley that it can be easy to lose a sense of historical continuity, especially in the 140-character amnesia of Twitter. One day, a palatial new winery goes up. The next day sees the latest $300 Cabernet. The day after that comes a listing of Hottest New Winemakers Under 30. That’s all very well, but somebody has to make sure the train stays on the track. Peter Mondavi, Sr. is nonesuch: he remains a guiding inspiration in Napa Valley and has been for more decades than most of us have been alive. We ought to reflect more on the history of our great wine regions and personalities and understand how they got to where they are today, instead of being mesmerized by the latest this or that.
So my heartiest congratulations to all the winners, not just California but across the globe. I’ll see you in New York!
My first thought after going to the big Grands Crus Classés Saint-Emilion tasting yesterday in San Francisco was: Wow, someone secretly put California wines into bottles with St.-Emilion labels.
No one had, of course. But many of the wines were so ripe and fruity, so extracted and oaky, and so high in alcohol, they might have come from Paso Robles, Napa Valley or Sonoma Valley.
Nothing wrong with such wines, of course. I give them good scores all the time. But I was hoping for something different and distinctly non-Californian. I didn’t find it, for the most part.
I know that St.-Emilion traditionally makes two kinds of wines. Michael Broadbent decades ago described these as a “Côtes” style of “deepish but quick-maturing wines, loose-knit, sweeter on the bouquet and palate,” and a “Graves” style “with hint[s] of iron/earth.” Almost everything I tasted seemed more like that Côtes style.
The Merlot is king in St.-Emilion, which accounts perhaps for the wines’ approachability. Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson, in their new The World Atlas Of Wine, praise “the solid tastiness of St.-Emilion,” wines that “grow almost sweet as they mature.”
Still, the wines were much more Californian than I had thought they’d be. And I wasn’t the only one with that impression. All the friends I talked to–other critics, merchants, marketers–felt the same way. I heard the word “approachable” over and over; also, a more troubling term: “almost overripe.” The vintage I tasted was 2009, which has an outstanding reputation; my Wine Enthusiast colleague in Bordeaux, Roger Voss, rated it 96 points. But I have to say I was, not exactly disappointed, but surprised.
How to account for this ultra-ripe style? Three factors: (1) the Parker influence, with his penchant for ripe, big wines, (2) global warming, which seems to be impacting Bordeaux more than California, and (3) the influence of a cadre of flying consultants, who are bringing about an international style all over the world. An example of this is the 2009 Chateau Fleur Cardinale, whose alcohol level is 15%. “Californian,” I immediately wrote in my notes. “Rich, lush and forward.” It might have been from Rutherford.
Don’t get me wrong, these California-style St.-Emilions still are very good wines. I gave most of them scores in the 88-91 range. But, like I said, I found their internationalism troubling.
Here, however, were my top-scoring wines. They seemed to have been made in a more old-fashioned way. (All are 2009s.) Chateau La Commanderie struck me for its fine, distinguished mouthfeel and dryness. It is a significant wine that needs many years. So does the Chateau Fonroque, so fleshy and meaty and dry. Chateau Jean Faure was based on Cabernet Franc rather than Merlot, and its small percentage of Malbec gave it a firm structure. The two wines of the tasting for me were Chateau La Dominique, firm, dry and tannic yet packed with fruit, and a gorgeous La Tour Figeac. I wish I had a case of each for my cellar.
Incidentally, I walked to the tasting, which was on Harrison Street, all the way down First Street from Market, and have never seen so much construction going on in San Francisco in the 35 years I’ve lived here. The city is in the boom of its life, and everybody seems to be a 28-year old tech worker. I’ve seen San Francisco go through several iterations over the years. This has to be the most interesting yet, but it’s coming at a price: S.F. now is the most expensive city in America in which to rent an apartment. I think all those young techies are living four to the room.
The advent of the Millennials and social media is said to be revolutionizing consumer behavior in wine to such an existential extent that the Old Order is in dire threat of imminent demise.
From this historical vantage point, some people say that the wine world has gone through two major eras and is now entering a third. Wine 1.0, which lasted for a millennium, saw a few European regions dominating that continent; wine was virtually non-existent in the rest of the world. Wine 2.0, which began roughly in the late 19th century and continues today, saw the emergence of the New World, but that, in reality, was actually (and merely) an extension of Wine 1.0, because the New World mostly meant the former colonies of England (Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, America), who carried English traditions to the farthest points of the globe, resulting in the continuation of the domination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, etc. This continuity of English tradition, with its focus on rank, privilege and status, also guaranteed the public’s ongoing fascination with the Great Growths/Grand Crus of France, as well as their equivalents (decreed by cognoscenti) in the New World (Penfolds Grange, Harlan Estate, for example).
Now, according to the new historians, we see the nascent parameters of Wine 3.0. These are clear and distinct. One is that the world has shrunk so that ideas are now global rather than regional. Another is that technology has made the spread of ideas instantaneous. For the first time in history, an idea does not need a physical mode of transportation to convey it to the farthest reaches of the planet: the mere click of a mouse now does that. A third leg of this analysis is that a new generation (Millennials) is fundamentally different from its forebears, if for no reason other than that they grew up in a reality in which the first two parameters (a shrunken world and instantaneous transmittal of information) were taken for granted. The result, says this new interpretation, is that wine has been liberated from the shackles that bound it for centuries.
This is an attractive analysis for those who argue for a more liberal interpretation of history–such as, for example, the one governing a view of America that sees our country continually spiraling upward and outward in recognizing the human rights of all its inhabitants (notwithstanding that the reality of this view is not always consonant with the theory). Thus, the democratization of human society both anticipated and parallels the democratization in consumer wine preferences. According to this view, wines of any variety, style or flavor now may be permitted to stand beside glorious Bordeaux/Cabernet Sauvignon or Burgundy/Pinot Noir: younger consumers don’t care anymore about those old paradigms, nor do they care about Authority. Tannat, Furmint, Rkatsiteli, Welschriesling, Savtiano–Millennials happily embrace them all, perhaps all the more exuberantly due to the fact that they were formerly under-appreciated by those very Authorities whom they reject as arrogant and irrelevant.
This certainly is a viable, even compelling way of looking at things; the fact that it accords well with our own American experience in democratization adds vigor to it. (White male property owners at first had all the rights. Then came non-property owners, women, 18-year olds, African-Americans, the handicapped, the GLBT community; PETA is hoping animals may be next. If white male property owners were Bordeaux, the GLBT community is Rkatsiteli.) The argument becomes even more enhanced when critics of the old school embrace it, as Jancis Robinson did last week, when, in Washington, D.C. to promote her new book (“The World Atlas of Wine,” co-written with Hugh Johnson), she declared that “This democratization of wine is great.”
Jancis might have been reciting the talking points of the blogging community when she added, “No longer are wine critics and reasonably well-known wine writers like me sitting on a pedestal, haughtily handing down our judgments.” This is if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em-ism at its most resilient, although I do wonder if Jancis really thinks of herself (much less Hugh Johnson, God forbid) as “haughty.” At any rate, you can hardly blame a critic these days for going over to that side of the fence.
But I would like to segue now into history to make my point, which is that (as your financial statements constantly remind you), “past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.” If the study of history proves anything, it is how utterly useless it is in predicting the future. We in the West like to assume that history proceeds according to some kind of orderly, predictable template, like the unfolding of a computer program, so that a proper understanding of the past can result in a fairly accurate knowledge of the future: not necessarily in detail, but in general outline. This philosophy was most famously summed up in Santayana’s slogan that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We study history in order to more perfectly align with its forward direction.
Alas, reality has the unpleasant tendency to throw curveballs at us, upsetting the best-laid plans of men. (Heisenberg understood this tendency toward the erratic in the realm of the sub-atomic.) I referred earlier to Wine 1.0, which was totally dominated by Europe (“Old Europe,” Donald Rumsfeld contemptuously called it.) So, too, has the long political history of the West been dominated by events in Europe (and, after the year 1000 A.D. or so, the entire planet: when Europe coughed, the World caught cold). We saw this appalling phenomenon with the two World Wars, and then with the advent of the Cold War, which quickly spread to every continent on Earth.
As a result, my generation–the Baby Boomers–was obsessed with Europe. As a history buff, I’ve read about Europe all my life, and can tell you that, before 9/11, there was hardly a serious history book that even mentioned Islam. The Muslim world was seen merely as an adjunct of the great Western powers (subsequently joined by China, hardly a Muslim nation). The study of Western history tended to be about the causes and aftermath of World War II and the Cold War, and how those continuing power politics were shaping the political and economic realities of the world.
Suddenly, 9/11 occurred–and now Europe, with all its past problems and glories, seems almost irrelevant. If you know history at all, you will find that shocking. And yet, it happened: Europe was wiped out of global historical calculations overnight. History threw a curveball at the world, which didn’t see it coming. And the world now is scrambling to catch up.
I say these things simply to point out the uselessness of predictions based on prior assumptions, that how things appear today is necessarily prescriptive of how they will be tomorrow. We do certainly have a spike of interest in this social media phenomenon–an interest pushed by a media eager to report on “trends”. But one cannot extrapolate from this any conclusions concerning how wines will be described, popularized, marketed or sold in the future, much less what kinds of wines the people of the world will demand. A fundamental truth of human experience is: For now, we see through a glass, darkly. Paul’s conclusion from that is that mankind ought to be charitable. Mine is that proprietors of wineries ought to be skeptical.
Could the Internet itself be the curve ball that history has tossed at the world? Yes. But the outcome of that phenomenon is no more predictable than that of the world’s current situation vis-à-vis the rise of militant Islam. Nobody knows where that is going, and to make any predictions whatsoever based on what has happened in the past is futile and possibly dangerous.
My friend Rajeev, whom I mention here from time to time because he is emblematic of so many other small business owners, just enrolled in a social media course in Palo Alto, which he will attend next week. He has been reading and hearing so much about how entrepreneurs like him should be diving into social media that he’s finally decided to tackle something he’d been avoiding for years. He told me of his hopes and expectations: that mastering the intricacies of Foursquare, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn will help him make more money. Rajeev even used the metaphor of exploring a new land. I listened sympathetically but with (I must admit) some inward humor, and thought of Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, in which the singer meets the captain of three ships sailing toward America, as the singer is heading in the opposite direction. “He said his name was Columbus,” the singer sings, “[and] I just said, ‘Good Luck.’”
I was reading excerpts from Jon Bonné’s new book, The New California Wine, that were published in the S.F. Chronicle earlier this week. (I haven’t seen a copy of the book itself, yet.) In it, Jon deals with California Pinot Noir, largely fairly. He has associated himself with the anti-high alcohol movement in recent years, which is fair enough; to each, his own. But I do want to talk about this issue of what Jon calls “brawn” in Pinot Noir.
Certainly, Pinot Noir can be made in a variety of styles, as can any wine. One does, however, expect a proper Pinot to be dry, silky in the mouth, bracing with acidity and (here in California, anyway), fruity. But within those parameters, Pinot can display a wide spectrum of weight.
Jon mentions Loring Wine Company’s Pinots as examples of “irrational exuberance.” Consider their 2006 Clos Pepe Vineyard Pinot Noir, a wine I reviewed five years ago, and gave 94 points. The official alcohol level on the label was 14.7%, which I suppose is highish (from the point of view of an In Pursuit of Balance aficienado), and I suppose it might have been slightly higher even that that, given the government’s tolerance of alcohol ranges, rather than specifics. But it was an awfully good wine, one I’d love to try today.
Jon included the Pinots of Kosta-Browne in his “irrational exuberance” category. I must say that I have not been a fan on those wines, either. They’re too big for me–“brawny.” Although the official alcohol levels are in the 14.5% range, they do seem over the top–there’s something exaggeratedly Caifornian about them, like that suntan George Hamilton always had, even in the dead of winter: or maybe the late, great Tammy Faye Bakker’s over-cosmetized face is the better comparison.
What makes Loring’s Pinots balanced and Kosta-Browne’s less so for me? Who’s to say? It’s a matter of taste. The greatest, most consistent Pinot Noirs in California, IMHO, are produced by Williams Selyem. Their alcohol levels are reliably moderate–usually in the low 14s. Yet I also love Brewer-Clifton’s Pinots, which can run a point higher; their 2004 Cargasacchi (such a noble vineyard) was 15.1%, yet that wine was so far from “brawny”, I can’t even tell you. I had to give it 97 points. Was it better than Siduri’s magnificent 2007 Hirsch, which I gave 96 points, and whose alcohol was 13.5%? No. Both wines rocked, in their own universes. It would be patently unfair to force them into some kind of mixed martial arts slapdown. Apples and oranges, as it were, but both distinctively Pinot Noir.
Here are the “crimes” California Pinot Noir can commit: residual sugar. Thinness. Simplicity. I don’t care for Pinots with too much oak, especially on an over-cropped wine. Unripeness (some critics love the 2011s. Not me. Too much mushroomy, veggie herbaceousness and mint, even some mold). Or, the opposite, overripeness: Loring’s 2007 Russell Family Vineyard, from Paso Robles, was raisiny, even though the alcohol was a relatively modest 14.4%. Sometimes, in warmer years, Pinot ages prematurely–why, it’s hard to tell, so that even at four years, it can be tired. A Steele 2000 Bien Nacido, tasted in May, 2004, was like that.
Have a good weekend!
This fellow Rob Asghar wrote a very clever and accurate piece about wine marketing in Forbes, and I am not going to disagree with a single thing he said. It’s all absolutely true, and shows a keen perception into the minds of high-end wine marketers, who have to have a little P.T. Barnum-style hucksterism in their hearts.
But rather than jump on the bandwagon of criticizing the high-end for “suckering,” “cajoling” and “hustling” consumers, I’m going to try to understand them.
What critics of expensive wine fail to understand is that the wine drinking experience is infinitely more complex than mere tasting. It involves every aspect of what it means to be human. Yes, perhaps it’s true that “a supposed 1982 Margaux” that’s actually “a $90 knockoff” might fool all but the most discerning taster, but that’s not the point. It doesn’t mean that the experience of drinking ’82 Margaux isn’t worth the price (about $1,000 retail). Here’s why.
Every day, I look at my Facebook timeline and see photos of faraway places my “friends” are visiting. It might be a view from a hotel window in Greece, or a tropical beach in Fiji. It might be rolling vineyards in Croatia, or a plate of steamed clams in Italy. Whatever the image, the message can be boiled down to this: “I am experiencing something unique and vastly pleasurable.” Of course, this experience comes with a price: it costs money to travel, to stay in a nice hotel and eat good food. But that doesn’t matter. The message continues: “It’s my money, I can spend it however I like, and if it buys me something this special, it’s worth it.”
When people spend money on something discretionary, they want to feel that there’s something extra special about it. Value-added, you might say–it brings them to a heightened level of pleasure and perception. And the more money it costs them, the more they want, and expect, to reach that heightened level. I suppose one might object to this and ask, What’s wrong with ordinary life? Why do people always have to be seeking higher experiences? Well, if you’re some kind of renunciate, sitting in a cave, then the tedium of ordinary life might be your thing. But most of us haven’t renounced pleasure: indeed, we seek it out. And on occasion, we seek it out with relentless enthusiasm. One sublime experience might be enough to get you through a string of ho-hum days.
There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s only human. Translated to the world of fine wine, it means that the guy who paid $1,000 for the ’82 Margaux doesn’t really care if the wine is the real thing. I mean, he does, on some level; but he’s not going to send it to Enologix and have it tested. Instead, he’s willing to buy into the romance, the fantasy of drinking ’82 Margaux, with all the implies.
What does it imply? Vintage of the century. Parker 100 [or whatever his score was]. First Growth of Bordeaux. Thirty one years old. And so on and so forth. The pleasure, then, is just as much in the mind as in the mouth. It is glorious fun to turn over these pleasurable thoughts as one is experiencing the wine. They augment the experience, the way a soundtrack augments a movie, making it more than the simple fact of images and voices on celluloid. (Do movies still use celluloid?) Can you imagine “The Godfather Part 1” without that music? For that matter, part of the thrill of “The Godfather Part 2” was knowing that it was the next installment of “Part 1.” The greatest movie of all time! Coppola! Oscars! Brando! Pacino! In other words, one viewed “Part 2” with heightened anticipation, based on the previous understanding of “Part 1.” The pleasure was in the mind, and when the film reached those lofty expectations, the pleasure was all the greater.
Critics of this subjective interpretation of wine enjoyment often point to studies proving that consumers prefer a wine with a higher price point than a lower one, even when the two wines are the same. Well, sure: you can always design a lab study to show that humans are basically idiots who can be programmed to believe anything, even if it defies their senses. We know that. “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts…”. In this sense, we’re all ventriloquist’s dummies, marionettes whose strings are jerked around by some playwright we cannot even perceive.
But this fails to do justice to what makes us particularly human: our aspirations, and the dignity with which we pursue them. That is what is involved in a heightened wine experience: it is as much philosophical and physical.
Now, if you want me to relate all this to the 100-point system, I’d be happy to. Another time, perhaps.
My publisher at Wine Enthusiast, Adam Strum, sent me this video of a speech he gave to the French-American Foundation, in New York, at an event honoring Jean-Charles Boisset. Adam began his remarks with a memory of an exchange he had years ago with the legendary French chef, Andre Soltner, whose Lutece restaurant once was the de rigeur place for the elite to eat, back when French food defined haut cuisine.
At that time there were no California wines on Lutece’s wine list, and Adam asked Chef Soltner about it. Chef replied, “We do have California wine, but we cook with it. We do not have it on our wine list!” Ouch.
Adam’s point was that, not that long ago, the French attitude toward California wine was one of ennui. I immediately recalled an event I went to, more than twenty years ago. It was the first big wine article I ever wrote, for Wine Spectator. Many of the major French winemakers from the Rhône Valley had traveled to Napa Valley to meet up with their West Coast counterparts, the so-called Rhône Rangers, at Meadowood Resort, for a global summit on the grapes and wines of the Rhône. But what I recall most clearly is the disdain, bordering on hatred, that some of the French held toward California wines. This antipathy was in the air and was summed up by a leading French wine industry leader who angrily told the Californians in the audience, “You can steal our grape varieties. You can steal our techniques. But you cannot steal our terroir!”
How far we’ve come! Today, California wine is the envy of the world. Even the French have grudgingly accepted it.
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On the heels of my post yesterday about the pending Lamorinda AVA, I had a conversation today about a proposed Petaluma Gap AVA. Apparently, there’s controversy over where the lines should be drawn. Quel surprise! There always is with these appellation wars. I have a definite position on Petaluma Gap: Yes, it deserves an AVA. This is cool-climate viticulture and there are important sources of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay growing there. I’ll leave it to others to determine the precise boundaries, which at any rate will be decided on a political basis, as much as on issues of climate and soils.
The Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Association developed this map, which is unofficial, since the TTB hasn’t yet ruled on it. Looking at it, it does seem a little too broadly drawn, extending all the way from just west of Cline Cellars, in Sonoma Carneros, out to the Pacific beaches, and from Novato in the south all the way up to north of Rohnert Park and Bodega Bay. I’d hate to see a redux of the Sonoma Coast appellation, which most everyone admits was ridiculously large; the fallout from that will take years more to sort out, even with the worthy addition of Fort Ross-Seaview. But such is the nature of these appellations, far as I can tell, that they tend to be drawn too liberally at first, for an obvious reason: nobody wants to be left out. So they include everybody, and the thing ends up being too big. Then the sub-AVA debates begin. Well, it keeps wine writers busy, anyhow.