Part One: The 1970 and 1980s
I boarded a plane during a blizzard at Boston Logan in December, 1978, and, six hours later, stepped into the bright, T-shirt warmth of SFO sunshine, where my cousins were waiting for me.
I was to live with them in Benicia, as I readied myself to go to graduate school. My goal was to be a psychotherapist. That, I thought, would combine my interests in philosophy and human nature, and also allow me to be self-employed, as it were: I seldom do my best work as a team member. That’s why my athletic pursuits have always been solitary ones: competitive running and karate.
The psychotherapy part, alas, didn’t work out. I visited the campus one day before the semester began (John F. Kennedy University, in Orinda), for a meeting with my new Dean. When I couldn’t find his office, I asked a student, who promptly inspected my palm and told me I had a good lifeline. When I found the dean’s trailer, he invited me in. He had an Indian name, Hatha S.___, but somehow didn’t seem Indian. When I asked him where he was from and he said, “The Bronx,” I laughed. “I am, too! What neighborhood?”
But Dean Hatha would have none of it. He explained that he’d left his past far behind when he’d changed his Jewish name, and preferred not to relive it.
Well, those two experiences were enough for me. I’d borrowed $30,000 to get a degree from JFKU, which now seemed to me to be living a loony tunes existence. That, plus the fact that every waiter and carpenter I’d met in San Francisco had a degree in psychotherapy, made me realize that I didn’t want to be the ten thousandth unemployed, heavily indebted therapist in the Bay Area. So I informed JFKU that I would not be attending after all, and set out to discover what else I could do, now that I was a bona fide Californian.
But that’s getting ahead of the story. Meanwhile, my cousin Maxine, with whom I’d more or less grown up in New York, set out on that first day to the local Benicia Safeway, where she and her partner, Keith, picked up some steaks to barbecue in the back yard. (Toto, I don’t think we’re in Boston anymore, I reflected: barbecue in late December!) After she’d loaded the shopping cart up with steaks, potatoes and sourdough baguettes, she wheeled it into the wine aisle. I trod dutifully alongside.
Picking up one bottle of red wine after another, she studied the front and back labels, reading them with a scrutiny I didn’t understand. Finally, after the sixth bottle, I asked Maxine, “What are you doing? Just grab one. They’re all the same.”
Big mistake. Maxine gave me one of her infamous looks I call Schoolmarm’s Raised Eyebrow. It’s a combination of scold and amazement. She said, “You don’t just grab a bottle of wine. You think about it.”
Well, that made about as much sense as if she’d said, “You don’t just grab a bottle of ketchup.” Why not? What’s different about wine? Isn’t it just like any other food you consume?
As it turned out, the answer is No. But in that moment, in the wine aisle of the Benicia Safeway, something happened to me that I later called “Getting bitten by the wine bug.” Years later, when I was at Wine Spectator, I wrote an article about it, interviewing numerous psychoanalysts and therapists I’d met through the magazine, all of whom were wine collectors. What is this “wine bug” thing?, I wanted to know.
Today, I remember nothing of what they said, except for one—a famous collector from Marin—who mumbled something about being anally retentive. So I can’t really explain what happened that day in Benicia. Whatever it was, it seized me by the collar and never let go. Within weeks I became a wine fanatic. I bought all those little pocket guides (Bob Thompson’s and Charlie Olken’s were my favorites), and began visiting wine shops. A year later (1979) I moved to San Francisco, to a hideous, unheated little apartment just below Top of the Hill Daly City, and there, the patterns of the rest of my life were established. Among them was the wine craze. I was working fulltime, going to grad school (at S.F. State) fulltime, trying to get to the gym every day, volunteering for the first AIDS assistance group, Shanti Project, and attempting to maintain a social life and a live-in relationship. But somehow, I managed to squeeze in plenty of wine stuff. I joined the old Les Amis du Vin and was asked to lead the San Francisco chapter (which I declined). And every weekend, while my friends were flying kites on Marina Green or sunbathing at Dolores Park, I was hitting up every major wine shop in town. I’d start in the east, at Draper & Esquin on Montgomery Street, then head out to the Avenues. Inbetween were the Jug Shop, down on Polk, Hennessey’s, in Upper Market, Ashbury Market, and the old Liquor Barn, on Bayshore in the south. I can’t even remember the others. In each store, I’d pick the brains of whoever I could find: Why does this Cabernet Sauvignon cost $4 while this one is $14? How are they different?
And I read, read, read. I began assembling my wine library, which today numbers hundreds of books. My favorite at the time was Alexis Lichine’s Encyclopedia. I devoured it. I crammed in trips to Napa Valley and the Russian River Valley when I could. Meanwhile, I got my M.A. from S.F. State, got my first “real” job running the Career Center at the California College of Arts and Crafts, in Oakland, moved to that great, crazy city to avoid the commute across the Bay Bridge, ended a relationship, and began a new life, while the wine bug continued to bite me deeper and deeper. I’d subscribed to Wine Spectator since the early 1980s, when it was a tabloid published out of its San Francisco offices, at Opera Plaza on Van Ness. One day in 1989, I sent them my resume. I was still running the Career Center at the College, but it wasn’t what I really wanted to do. What I wanted to do was be a wine writer. I pestered the Spectator’s editor, Jim Gordon, so much that I eventually told him, “One of two things is going to happen. Either you’ll hire me, or you’ll have me arrested for harassment.” In the event, it was the former that turned out to be true. But that’s the subject of tomorrow’s post.
It’s lovely to remind people, as Randy Caparoso does in the April issue of The Tasting Panel magazine, that it’s not right to evaluate wines “in terms of varietal character rather than terroir or origin.”
What brought Randy to this evaluation was a tasting of Pinot Noirs. He’d encountered a 2013 Failla (Occidental Ridge Sonoma Coast) which he found to have “a dead weight on the palate.” This is not a favorable description.
But the more Randy thought about it, the more he realized that the Failla was a true representative of where it came from: “a deep, foggy pocket of Sonoma” whose cool climate yields wines that are hard and tannic when young. That made him reconsider it, as well as other wines he tasted: A Merry Edwards 2012 Meredith Estate (similarly cool climate Russian River Valley), and an Adelaida 2012 from Paso Robles, from a cool, high elevation vineyard in the western part of the appellation. What Randy realized, mirabile dictu, is the importance of appreciating these wines “within their own context… [When you do], it’s amazing how bright and diverse the wine world turns out to be.”
Thank you, Randy. I’ve been making this case for many years: that you can’t ask all Pinot Noirs to conform to your notion (whatever it is) of Pinot Noir perfection, because to do so is to totally trash the notion of terroir that is the basis for all Pinot Noir interpretation. Pinot likes a cool climate, but The Green Valley of the Russian River Valley is not the same as a 2,000-foot elevation Mendocino Ridge vineyard, high above the fogline, or western Paso Robles. Although all three regions are cool climate, they will yield different kinds of Pinot Noirs. It’s simply wrong to denigrate one at the expense of the other—provided they’re all fine examples of their terroir.
How do you know if they are or aren’t “fine examples of their terroir”? Well, that’s the professional task of a wine reviewer. A pro should be able to discern quality in a wine, even if it’s not a wine he savors. Too often in contemporary wine reviewing, we have a situation in which a reviewer (or somm, or whoever it may be) raves about a wine that’s to his liking, and disparages those that are not. In so doing, he does away with terroir’s fundamental premise: that of individuality.
I love Randy’s take on this delicate topic, but it does have to be said that there’s a risk in tasting every wine “within its own context.” And that is—you probably guessed it by now—that this is a slippery slope. Since every wine exists “within its own context,” how do you ascertain that one is better than another. After all, aren’t all contexts equal?
Well, no, they’re not. Any wine pro knows that quality levels vary dramatically in wines. So how is the pro to distinguish between a wine that really is mediocre, versus one that (as with Randy’s Failla) is “aggressive” in tannins and “plop[s] like a dead weight on the palate”?
This is an extraordinarily important question. Although Randy (by his own admission) doesn’t like numerical scores, I had the feeling that, had he rated the Failla, he would have given it somewhere around 86 points and complained that it wasn’t “a little finer, limber, more lifted and delineated,” like a Baxter 2012 Valenti Vineyard he tasted, from Mendocino Ridge. But—and this is the whole point of his column–when he understood its origin, he was willing to give the wine a second chance.
I’ve long argued that blind tasting is the only way to completely eliminate bias—and Randy’s palate did exhibit a certain bias towards “more lifted and delineated” Pinot Noirs, whatever that means. So how does he intellectually justify re-assessing a wine when he knows where it comes from?
This is the conundrum all reviewers face. But although it seems almost impossible to resolve it, it’s actually not. Even when tasting blind, the reviewer has to ask himself, “Is this actually quite a good wine that displays the qualities of its terroir, even if they’re qualities I don’t like or understand? Or is it actually mediocre?” This can be a hard nut to crack, but it is crackable. One way to approach it is to ask yourself another question: “Is it ageable?” Young Pinot Noirs, especially from cooler regions, can be aggressive and hard in youth. When you’re tasting such a wine, you have to imagine it six years down the road. (I use six years because in my experience that’s the turning point for most Pinots that are resistant upon release. A good one will open up at six years, whereas a mediocre one will simply remain mediocre.)
Randy’s column is one of the most interesting op-ed pieces I’ve read lately (you can find the digital edition of The Tasting Panel here, although you might have to scroll through to page 26). It raises questions of profound importance. I’m so glad that Randy has widened the scope of how we perceive Pinot Noir here in California—a scope that’s been unreasonably narrowing lately due to ideological concerns among some critics.
There’s a movement afoot in corporate America that doesn’t get enough attention but is gaining traction and could be a game changer. This movement is about inculcating social, environmental and health concerns into the sale of goods and services: call it Capitaltruism, where traditional capitalism meets idealistic altruism. And nowhere is it being embraced more heartily than by Millennials, who may feel that—since neither the government nor corporate America by itself is tackling important issues—it’s up to them.
Two recent developments illustrate this movement. The first is reflected by the rise of the “B Corporation.” The “B” stands for “beneficial.” A B Corporation is “a for-profit company committed to social or environmental goals in addition to its financial obligations.” That’s according to this article in the San Francisco Chronicle that describes how such corporations try “to benefit not [just their] shareholders, but also society.”
Millennials in particular are “drawn to firms that do good.” B Corps are certified by a third party, B Corporation, that claims to have registered 1,247 companies in 38 countries, across 121 industries, including wine. A Brookings Institution study found that the “desire on the part of Millennials for their daily work to reflect and be a part of their social concerns” is a chief factor in their choice of careers—and in their purchasing decisions.
The second development, reported courtesy of the Wall Street Journal, is of two California restaurateurs, Daniel Patterson (of Michelon-starred Coi in San Francisco but also of Plum Bar in Oakland) and Roy Choi, who got his start with L.A. food trucks. The pair have started up a company, Loco’l, whose aim is to replace the dismal diet of unhealthy fast food that now dominates less affluent neighborhoods with what Patterson calls a “natural, cooked-with-integrity alternative.” The first two Loco’ls will open in San Francisco’s Tenderloin and in Los Angeles’ Watts district. The foods will cost between 99 cents and $6 and will include things like a “Burg”: a beef-grain-garum [fish sauce] patty with Awesome Sauce, Jack cheese, grilled scallion and lime relish, on a Tartine Bakery bun. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
What do these two initiatives have in common? For one thing, both the Loco’l people and the B Corp people want to make money. But they want to do so in a way that addresses serious social concerns that, frankly, are not yet being addressed adequately. Both ventures are fueled by idealism and creativity, and both fill an important niche in a consumer market that’s been waiting for somebody to give them something worth spending their money on. What a fabulous idea!
Have a great weekend!
Gus pointed this out to me: apparently the world’s first “pop-up restaurant dedicated to treating pampered pooches to a fine dining experience.” The chow includes “seaweed popcorn, fishcake of haddock, nettles and kelp with sweet potato served on a bed of seaweed with carrots and sesame seeds, and a poochie chia pud with coconut, honey, blueberry, almond milk for dessert.”
“I’m bored with Kibble,” Gus told me, looking at me with his big, brown, sad pleading eyes.
“I’m really sorry, Gus,” I replied. “But I’m not taking you to London just so you can gorge on stuff you don’t need.” Besides, Gus tends to be a little pudgy, and the last thing he needs is coconut and honey.
Well, that was that. Thirty seconds later, Gus didn’t even remember hearing about The Curious Canine Kitchen. He fell asleep in his little bed, and I watched as his legs twitched in some doggy dream, perhaps of fishcakes he himself caught in some wild mountain stream.
* * *
And another Master Sommelier gets into the wine biz! This time it’s old pal Larry Stone, whom I’ve known since his Rubicon days. He’s going to be making Pinot Noir up in Oregon.
Good for Larry! I wish him luck.
* * *
Went out last night with Miss Ariceli to our favorite local bar, Room 389, where we both had a couple Ketel One gimlets. Nothing but freshly-squeezed lime juice, please (although we did opt for a crushed basil leaf). I’m always surprised that bartenders are surprised that I don’t want any sugar in my gimlets. I want the taste of the vodka and the limes, not sugar! And I want my gimlet in an old-fashioned cocktail glass, not a whiskey tumbler. A gimlet should bring you back to the 1930s—should make you feel like William Powell and Myrna Loy are right there beside you, wise-cracking and glamorous.
* * *
Here’s the art of creative P.R. When I got up this morning I turned on the radio to NPR and there was a story about some Trappist monks up in Tehama County who are making wine. It was a sweet little story.
Then I went to the computer, and there in my new emails was the same story, this time in print.
That’s pretty good: tons of free publicity, to which I’m now contributing. Way to go, Trappist monks!
* * *
And finally, from the Department of No Comment: this headline out of the U.K.’s Daily Mail:
With the bashing that California wine sometimes gets from the old boy’s club (AKA the cool kid’s club), it comes as a refreshing reminder to learn that “beyond the beltway” of snobbery and exclusivity, ordinary people love our wines.
Up in Canada, the Ottawa Citizen yesterday reported on the upcoming “California Wine Fair” to be held this Friday. Ottawa is, of course, still gripped in winter: as I write these words, the temperature there is 32 degrees. That’s why the article’s headline is “Dreaming of California Wines,” and the lead sentence refers to our state’s balmy weather: “Just when we need it most,” it says, “A taste of sunshine and warm breezes—California wine is coming to Ottawa.”
This is the thing we mustn’t ever forget about California wine: People love it. They love it the same way they love California itself. For most people all over the world, California is a magical place, of sunny beaches and swaying palm trees, of jasmine-scented evenings and year-round backyard barbecues, of beautiful people and gracious living. Granted, those of us who actually live here know that it’s not always that way. But it is enough of the time. California really is “the golden dream at the edge of the world.”
Our wines reflect that notion. They’re rich, sumptuous and bold, reflecting a place and a people that are distinctly Californian. I know this, and it’s why I grow impatient with the accusations (which actually seem to be diminishing) that California wine is not delicate enough for some people. That may be so; but ordinary people everywhere love our wines. This may be part and parcel of the eternal struggle between the masses and the elite, a struggle you find reflected in every aspect of life and culture. But even if you consider yourself among the elite, you should remind yourself of certain verities.
Among them: As the Ottawa Citizen says, “California wines…strike a chord with many people. [They] consistently demonstrate a pleasant and appealing flavour profile…California vintners have learned from the traditions and history of others and have innovated and put their own spin on techniques and practices.”
That’s how the non-elite see things: not in terms of alcohol level, but in terms of how much pleasure they get from sipping our wines. To be truthful, if California wine can only appeal to one group—the elite, or the masses of everyday consumers—I’d much rather it be the latter. That’s the California way: open, free, egalitarian, meritocratic. We’re the State that developed the ballot initiative by which the people get to vote directly on important issues, instead of leaving them to the “experts” who, occasionally, may find their judgment clouded. I’m proud to be a Californian (by way of New York City and the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts), and I’m proud of California wine!
Both cities have come a long way over the last ten or fifteen years. When I began visiting Napa Valley, in the 1970s, Napa city was (let’s face it) kind of a drag from a tourist point of view, although it did have that All-American City cleanliness. Downtown was a heap of mattress stores and “antique” parlors that were little more than flea markets. As for Calistoga, it was the redneck side of the valley. My roommate Eugene’s parents lived up there, in a trailer park. Nobody I ever heard of went to the mud baths, except Eugene himself, for his arthritis.
Napa city was first to change. New restaurants began to go in. They developed that Riverfront area, and built all the flood control projects to keep downtown from its periodic inundations. COPIA brought in some travelers, but even its closure didn’t seem to put a dent into Napa’s attractiveness as a destination.
Calistoga by contrast seemed content during the first decade of the 2000s to glide by on sleepy feet. A few good, new restaurants went in, but otherwise, Calistoga remained more or less a backwater. When Solage opened, I took notice, but it seemed more of a standalone luxury resort than a reflection of any underlying change in the town of Calistoga; it wasn’t even within walking distance of the town center, but a schlep down the Silverado Trail.
Now, however, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat is reporting that Calistoga is “shifting to more emphasis on the high-end, luxury tourists,” to quote its city manager. New “luxury resorts,” priced at “$300 to $1,200 a night,” are going in, financed by the likes of the Four Seasons and Hong Kong billionaires. That this will change the character of Calistoga is granted by everyone. The Press Democrat article correctly surmises that the changes will bring more traffic and will result in much more water use; critics of the development managed to put initiatives limiting it on the local ballot, but these were defeated by the voters, who evidently felt that Calistoga’s chronic budget shortfalls, which impacted such local services as police and fire, would be made up for by increased tax revenues and tourist spending.
It’s not for any of us to judge whether Calistoga’s new ambitions are a good or bad thing. It’s for the people of Calistoga to decide, and they already have. What’s certain is that Napa Valley, from Yountville north through St. Helena to Calistoga, now has become a luxe destination for upscale travelers from all over the world—whether they’re into wine or not. Outside of San Francisco, Napa Valley is the culinary capitol of Northern California (The Restaurant at Meadowood and French Laundry alone would suggest that). It’s also the golf capital and the spa capital. And all in all, the politicians and city fathers and mothers who manage Napa Valley’s growth have done a good job of managing development and keeping its too-ugly side from creeping in.
Except for the traffic. It’s very bad now, and bound to get much, much worse. I know of no plans in place to expand or allieviate automobile access into and out of the valley, on either the Silverado Trail side or the Highway 29 side. (They certainly can’t add new lanes to 29 between St. Helena and Oakville, can they?) Napa Valley seems to have accepted the conventional wisdom that gridlock is the inevitable cost of development. It’s too bad, but what are you gonna do?
A question arose on my blog late last week, after my March 27 post, “What about those reports that “weaker wines are better than stronger ones”?
When the comments turned to a discussion about soils, the topic of limestone arose. Now, as any historian of Burgundy (including Chablis), the Loire and Champagne is well aware, limestone (or chalk) has been considered the “bedrock” (pun intended) of those regions’ terroir. Hugh Johnson, in his “World Atlas,” praises the limestone of Nuits-St-Georges (to use a single instance) for causing “the inimitable sappy richness of the Pinot Noir.” James E. Wilson, in his book, “Terroir,” titles his chapter on Champagne “Chalk Country” and reminds us that it took centuries for “the significance of the relationship of this lifeless-looking white rock and the soils of Champagne” to be recognized.
A few California Pinot pioneers with experience in the vineyards of Burgundy recognized it. They sought chalky soil when they developed their properties. Foremost among them was perhaps Josh Jensen, at Calera, who once described to me how he had scoured the state of California, armed with geology maps and a little vial of acid, in search of limestone, which he eventually found on Mount Harlan. (“Calera” itself is the old Spanish word for “lime kiln.”)
When I began visiting the Santa Rita Hills, local vintners made a big deal of pointing out the white-stone outcroppings that burst through the soil along the shoulders of Santa Rosa Road—limestone, uplifted or exposed from the now-retreated sea bed. In western Paso Robles, too, one can see these eroded white rocks, evidence not only of the California coast’s birth deep below a long-gone ocean, but of the fact that there is more limestone in our state than anyone had previously thought.
The comments on my blog concerning limestone underscored its importance for Pinot Noir at such wineries as Calera and Chalone. This may well be true, although in the case of Calera the terroir is dominated by the warm summers, which in my judgment trump soil there. As for Chalone, its changes of ownership over the years have resulted in some inconsistency of the wines, which makes them difficult to appraise. If we view the broader Santa Rita Hills (and Santa Maria Valley, as well), with its fossilized seashells, it’s easy to apprehend that these old chalky deposits lend a certain something to the wines (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay especially), but precisely what that “something” is, is hard to say, beyond the intriguing but amorphous word “minerality,” which almost everyone in California claims to find in their wines, whether it be Zinfandels from the Sierra Foothills or Cabernets from Oakville. I will not at this time venture any further into the tall weeds of minerality.
So I see limestone, if a Pinot vineyard is lucky enough to have it, as a good thing. But so are the Gold Ridge soils of the Sonoma Coast, the barren, austere dirts of the Mayacamas stretch of Alexander Valley, the volcanic soils of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and indeed the clays and pebbles of Carneros. This is the puzzle of Pinot Noir in California: that so vast and turbulent an array of soils can consistently produce so fine a wine.
Which leaves us, then, with the only thing these regions have in common to explain wine quality: climate. (Obviously, all the different soils are well-drained, no matter their chemical composition. Well-drained soil is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the production of fine wine.) These regions all are within the Region I-Region II spectrum of the old U.C. Davis scale. I look to the warmer parts among them, such as the Middle Reach of the Russian River Valley, to give dense, textured and frankly flamboyant Pinot Noirs. The cooler areas yield silkier, more delicate and perhaps more complex Pinots, with the most complex of all coming from those places so impacted by the coast that, in a chilly year like 2011, the grapes might not get fully ripe. But in a more moderate year, like 2012, look out.
There’s no point in pitting these styles one against the other. It’s petulant to do so. Which is why I hold that, when it comes to Pinot Noir, California has achieved—finally—a degree of variation, based on terroir, that we long envied among the French. We need envy France no more—what we need is further exploration, fueled and paid for by consumers willing to pay the bottle price, because they know that California coastal Pinot Noir needs to offer no apologies, to anyone, for being what it is.
I do think that the lower the alcohol is on Pinot Noir, the more it will reflect its particular soil conditions; there is an inverse relationship between ripeness and the soil part of terroir. In this respect, it’s important to keep in mind that the soil part of terroir is to some extent at odds with the grape itself. Which will dominate? I see this as a pitched battle between two sides. There is a school of thought that roots for terroir, another school that roots for the fruit itself. (One might almost conclude that this is the essence of the difference between “old world” and “new world” palates.) Ideally, Pinot Noir, and all wines actually, is the result of an exquisite balancing act between terroir and grape, the sort of equilibrium sometimes referred to as “tension” or “nerve,’ which is more than just piquant acidity. It’s rarely achieved; one hopes that any wine that gets a high score from a reputable critic comes close. This touches upon the ripeness conversation we’ve all been having, but does not resolve it because, in truth, there is no resolution.