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Pit bulls and Pinot Noir, or how IPOB changed the way I think

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That old saying “It changed the conversation” needs explanation. Not everybody in America is talking about the same things at the same time. We say Donald Trump has changed the conversation but there are lots of people who couldn’t care less about him. We say Ellen DeGeneres changed the conversation about gays when she came out on T.V. but there were millions of people who didn’t know that and wouldn’t have cared if they had. We say mounting evidence of massive, manmade climate change has changed the conversation, but we all know there are still so many Americans who refuse to believe even the basic science. So we have to be careful when we talk about conversation changers.

Now consider In Pursuit of Balance. It too is said to have changed the conversation, specifically about Pinot Noir, and more specifically, about West Coast (California and Oregon) Pinot Noir. Did it? I can speak from my own experience: Yes, it did. I’ve been a staunch defender of Pinot Noir for years and battled against what I perceived as IPOB’s irrational stance towards alcohol levels. I will yield to no critic for having done more to protect Pinot Noir from assault. I have the scars to prove it. I maintained from the get-go that just because a Pinot Noir was below 14% didn’t automatically make it “balanced” and just because a Pinot Noir approached 15% didn’t make it unbalanced. I consistently argued that if the wine tastes good, who cares what the alcohol is?

But slowly I’ve been looking at things differently. This has been evolving over the past two years. It actually began with my tasting Raj Parr’s 2012s from Domaine de la Côte. Those wines were quite low in alcohol (Bloom’s Field is 12.5%, La Côte is 13%), and while I was prepared to dislike them, after Raj’s execrable 2011s, they actually blew me away, and I began to think that maybe there was something to this low-alcohol thing after all.

Since then I’ve been finding more and more Pinot Noirs excessively heavy. These are mainly the 2013s: celebrated as a near-perfect vintage, it did result in grapes that were intensely fruity, but in many instances I’ve thought it was more successful for Cabernet Sauvignon than Pinot Noir, because Cabernet’s bigger tannins and structure can carry more fruity weight and oak. Pinots that are super-ripe (and oaky) can be heavy, hot and monolithic, lacking the delicacy and cerebral complexity that the wines should possess.

Every once in a while I’ll taste such a West Coast Pinot Noir and think, Wow, this really needs steak or something to balance it out. When the wines are that dark, tannic, ripe to the point of raisins, hot and oaky, they can be hard to appreciate; but rich, fatty fare will take care of that, right? Of course, as a former critic, I’m aware that when we taste wine, it’s without food: you’re sampling the wine in and of itself, without ameliorating factors. Maybe that’s unfair. Probably it is. Normal human beings don’t drink wine (especially red wine) without food. Wine is made to be drunk with food. Still, you need to have consistent rules about wine tasting, and you can’t taste every wine with food. So we taste without food.

But if I think, “Wow, this Pinot is so heavy, it needs beefy fat to balance it out,” isn’t that making excuses for the wine? It’s like a pit bull that snarls and lunges at you on the street, scaring you, but the owner insists “Oh, Molly is a goofball, you should see her with little kids.” You think, “If I had little kids I wouldn’t let them anywhere near Molly,” and you think that Molly’s mommy is making excuses for her out-of-control dog: She doesn’t even realize that Molly is a ticking time bomb. So when I taste a big, thick, heavy Pinot and think “Steak!”, am I Molly’s mommy, making excuses for my pit bull of a wine?

Would I have been thinking along these lines had it not been for IPOB? It’s a hypothetical, but I think the answer is that, as harshly as I criticized IPOB for being ideological, they have changed my way of thinking about Pinot Noir. For the better.


Loco’l: A review

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Daniel Patterson’s first attempt at this Oakland space (2214 Broadway), which he called Plum—located at ground zero of the city’s hot Uptown District–was a failure. Plum just didn’t work for Oakland. It’s true that Commis, James Syhabout’s Michelin-starred restaurant on nearby Piedmont Ave., had succeeded with expensive conceptual food, but there’s probably just enough room in Oakland for one such place. Besides, Piedmont, about a mile away, has an entirely different vibe from Uptown: whiter, less edgy, and more receptive to upscale dining; Bay Wolf was there for decades. Uptown was scruffy Downtown until a few years ago, when the Chamber of Commerce types reinvented it. Still, for the fancy new moniker, Uptown remains a little scroungy and rough, which is the way we like it. It’s most successful fooderies for years have been Ike’s Place (awesome sandwiches to go) and Luka’s Taproom, a neighborhood pub, where the old Hofbrau used to get all rowdy on Raider nights.

Daniel Patterson eventually learned—third time’s the charm–from looking around at his neighbors. What Uptown likes is good but casual food, served up in a friendly environment that reflects the town’s urban sensibility. Plum, which was fussy and precious if not pretentious, had none of that. As Eater explained in 2014, Patterson “struggled to find [his] footing,” which made it hard for it to establish a consistent voice.” If Patterson hasn’t exactly pulled a Syhabout*, he has at least paid homage to the concept that a Michelin chef can also sell street food, with pride.

After Plum closed, other restaurants (including Patterson’s Ume, which featured haut-Japanese fare) tried their hand, unsuccessfully, at the space, which is just off the busy Broadway-Grand Avenue intersection. Patterson, though, apparently is not a man to accept the sting of defeat. He still runs Plum Bar, just next door, in the same block, and now, he has opened Loco’L,

LocoL

which he dubs “revolutionary fast food.” With nothing on the menu more than $7, it goes to the opposite extreme of the old Plum: to get cheaper food, you’d have to go to Subway, around the corner.

Patterson’s (and co-founder Roy Choi’s) concept with Loco’l is to compete with the likes of McDonald’s and Burger King, especially in low-income neighborhoods.” The idea, says the San Francisco Chronicle’s Paolo Lucchesi, is bringing good food to the state’s food deserts – on a large scale.” Another Loco’L supposedly is set to open in San Francisco’s seedy Tenderloin District, with a third launching in L.A.

I don’t particularly see Uptown as “low-income” or a “food desert”—if anything, it’s just the opposite, especially judging from the legitimate concerns on the part of locals that they’re getting gentrified out of Oakland. Just two blocks down Broadway from Loco’L is the new Uber headquarters, while kitty-corner across the street are two of Uptown’s most expensive and prestigious restaurants, Pican and Ozumo. Still, the neighborhood (let’s define it as ten blocks in all directions) has plenty of people who are looking for a good deal. They will appreciate good food at Loco’L’s prices. And judging by the crowd last night–largely ethnic and young–that’s exactly what Loco’l is going to draw.

And what of the food? You order at the register—soon you’ll be able to do it from a countertop computer—then stand in line beside the counter until they call your number.

LocolLine

Even though the line was getting long, service was fast. But there are a few wrinkles to iron out. For instance, there’s no alcohol served in the restaurant. I asked an employee about that, and she said I could take my food—“pack it out,” in her words (put it into to-go containers)—

PackItOut

and bring it next door to Plum Bar.

PlumBar

Which is exactly what I did, only to be told by Plum Bar’s bartender that this was not allowed. So clearly, this is something for Daniel to rule on. (Please, Daniel, let us eat at the bar!!!) Besides I’m not sure that I’d like to eat at Loco’l’s seating, which is rather fundamental (the seats are hard upright rectangles and so are the tables).LocolSeating

At the bar, I ordered my standard Vodka Gimlet ($12) and set myself up.

MealAtBar

I had three things: a carnitas foldie ($3), a noodleman bowl ($7),

Noodleman

and a chicken nugs crunchie ($4), for a total of $14 before tax. The foldie was awesome: A soft, flat tortilla-type dough, stuffed with spicy meat, greasy and endlessly satisfying. The noodleman was a bit of a disappointment: filling enough, with spicy, chile-hot noodles, scallions and carrots, but it could have had more flavor. Then there were the crunchies, which I devoured: your basic fried, breaded chicken nuggets, but super-good, filled with dark meat flavor, moist and savory. For fifteen bucks and change, this was a hearty, satisfying and delicious meal. Nothing fancy, but fun and oh, so Uptown. I think this time Daniel has got it right. Loco’l will be a huge success. I just hope (memo to Daniel) they let us take the food and eat at the bar.

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A few years ago, James Syhabout opened Hawker Fare, an inexpensive joint featuring the Thai street food of his youth. It’s about two blocks from LocoL; nothing costs more than $18.

 


Recent wine reviews: En Garde

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Csaba Szakal sent me some of his En Garde wines to taste, so here we go.

I preferred the Cabernets/Bordeaux blends, which are from Diamond Mountain, to the Russian River Valley/Green Valley Pinot Noirs. En Garde’s style veers in a bigger heavier direction, making the Cabs lush and flashy, but I wish the Pinots were more delicate–with the exception of the very good ’13 Gold Ridge. The Pinots are also quite oaky. They are all 2013s, a great vintage; no problem with ripeness and lots of fruit. The Cabs were split between 2011 and 2012. The ‘12s are riper, plusher and richer than in ’11 – and higher in alcohol, too, which doesn’t mean the ‘11s aren’t good. They’re a little leaner but more elegant, although if I had to choose, I’d go with the 2012s. There was one Petite Sirah, from Livermore, and quite good in its own right.

The Cabernet Sauvignons

95 En Garde 2012 Adamus (Diamond Mountain), $100. More Cabernet in the ’12 Adamus than the ’11, and higher alcohol (14.8%), too, all of which makes for a better wine. It has the black currants and cassis, the macaroons, the smoky blueberries and the chocolate, but that herby, olivey tapenade of the less ripe 2011 is gone. It’s richer, smoother, deeper and ultimately more satisfying and fun to drink. Really lovely and complete, and the famously hard Diamond Mountains tannins have been buffed as soft and satiny as a pearl. Delicious now, and will age seamlessly for at least ten years.

95 En Garde 2012 Le Bijou du Roi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain), $118, 14.9% alcohol. Fascinating to compare the ’11 and ’12 Bijous. The latter is of course higher in alcohol by a fairly significant amount because it was a warmer, drier vintage. It is thus richer, rounder and more opulent. Like the ’12 Adamus, it is also higher in the percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon, presumably because the Cab got riper in ’12. The result is a seriously good wine, delicious right out of the bottle, with soft, complex tannins framing blackberry jam, crème de cassis, dark chocolate, espresso and anisette flavors that finish long and spicy. As rich as the wine is, it’s dry, and the alcohol contributes a welcoming note of warmth. I’m not sure I would age this much beyond six years, but it sure is a rewarding Cab that shows the pedigree of its Sori Bricco Vineyard origin.

93 En Garde 2011 Le Bijou du Roi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain), $108, 14.2% alcohol. This is from the Sori Bricco Vineyard, whose grapes have gone to such wineries as Sterling, Stonegate and Nickel & Nickel. En Garde gets a significant quantity of fruit. The blend is 92.5% Cab, the rest being Petit Verdot and Malbec. As might be expected from a Diamond Mountain, the wine is very dark and quite tannic. For an ’11, it’s a big success, but the vintage, much maligned, was far from bad in the Napa mountains, where rainfall drains right off and the grapes did just fine. The wine brims with young, jammy blackberries and cassis, and the 100% new French oak in which it was aged seamlessly adds notes of vanilla and smoke. This is a gorgeous, sumptuous, elegant and rather fleshy young Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, full-bodied and powerful. Already throwing some sediment, it needs time. Give it at least six years, and it should hold and change in the bottle for a good many years afterwards.

93 En Garde 2011 Adamus (Diamond Mountain), $100, 14.2% alcohol. I must admit it’s not clear to me why En Garde bottles both the Adamus and Le Bijou du Roi. Both are Cabernet-based Bordeaux blends from the Sori Bricco Vineyard. The Bijou has more new oak and a little more Cabernet, and it costs a few dollars more, but still, they’re pretty similar, although I suppose the Bijou is worth an extra point for additional concentration. This ’11 Adamus, like the ’11 Bijou, is very rich and full-bodied. Packed with black currants, macaroons, vanilla and spices, it’s a young wine that really needs time. Like the Bijou, it has a suave, smooth, earthy fleshiness: think olive tapenade. Fancy and elegant, it’s a mountain wine of great intensity that will be better after 2018, and should last a long time.

91 En Garde 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain), $78. There’s been some noise out there in the critical community that 2011 was a bad vintage because it was so cold. What they’re not telling you is that some appellations did better than others, and one of the exceptions is Napa Valley mountain Cabernet. This wine is lighter in body than you’d expect from a Diamond Mountain Cab, but it’s still quite tannic, with a fine core of blackberry and cassis fruit. And it’s very low in alcohol, compared to the winery’s previous vintages, only 13.6%, as opposed to, say, the 2008, which was 16%. The result is much more elegant, as opposed to opulent, with a sleek, streamlined angularity that makes you yearn for food. I would not age this wine beyond 3 or 4 years, though.

A Petite Sirah

92 En Garde 2013 Ghielmetti Vineyard Petite Sirah (Livermore Valley): $38. Alcohol 14.4%. A fine Petite Sirah, inky black at the center, yet with a gorgeous ruby-crimson hue at the very edge. It smells youthful and rich, giving a whiff of blackberries, blueberries, licorice, mocha and something animal, now sweet leather, now crisped bacon. These flavors are replicated in the mouth. The tannins are big and hard, exactly what you’d expect in a young Petite Sirah, and I would not recommend drinking the wine at this time because of the astringency. But there’s an impressive core of sweetness, just waiting to burst out. Best after 2020 and possibly well beyond, as it throws sediment.

The Pinot Noirs

92 En Garde 2013 Gold Ridge Pinot Noir (Green Valley): $54, alcohol 13.8%. The color is lighter and the mouthfeel more delicate than En Garde’s other 2013 Pinots, no doubt because the alcohol is considerably lower. The Gold Ridge soil in which the vines are growing is coveted in the Russian River Valley and along the Sonoma Coast; known as “desert rain forest,” it drains quickly, making it infertile, which is great for concentrated, complex wines. This is a tremendously enjoyable Pinot Noir, so silky and transparent that you can taste the minerality that girds the tart red cherries and cranberries. There’s a spicy, tannic, green tea earthiness that adds to that notion of terroir. The delicacy is pure joy: the wine is complex and experiencing it doesn’t tire the palate. I’m thinking of lamb chops or a filet of Wagyu Kobe beef when I drink this very fine wine.

90 En Garde 2013 Olivet Court Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley): $54, alcohol 14.2%. One presumes this is from the Olivet Road section of the valley, a cooler area to the southeast open to the winds and fogs of the Petaluma Gap. And in fact it shows juicy acidity that smacks of chilly, damp nights. Flavorwise, it’s rich in cherry pie filling, with sweet, toasty oak and tremendous spiciness. Very good, very easy to drink, very upscale, if a little full-bodied.

90 En Garde 2013 Starkey Hill Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley): $54, alcohol 14.2%. The winery says the vineyard is “just outside” Green Valley; It implies a cooler climate, and the wine does have that signature. It’s ruby-colored and translucent, and feels lightly alcoholic, with delicacy and silkiness. There’s a mushroomy earthiness, but by and large the flavors are of fruits: tart pomegranates and cranberries. It’s an intense wine whose 75% new French oak gives smoky, woody and vanilla-tinged notes. Give it 3-4 years in the cellar.

89 En Garde 2013 Pinot Noir Reserve (Russian River Valley): $60, alcohol 14.5%. This is the most expensive of En Garde’s Pinot Noirs, and also the oakiest. It’s highish in alcohol, and finishes a little hot, but it is very ripe and flamboyant, offering scads of black cherries, red currants, licorice, blueberries and tart cranberries. The oak is obvious, with toast and vanilla layered onto the fruit. It’s a bit ungainly in youth; my former colleague at Wine Enthusiast, Virginie Boone, described the 2012 as “wild and dense,” which applies also to this ’13. Might develop bottle complexity by 2018.

88 En Garde 2013 Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley): $38, Medium-bodied and a little hot in alcohol (officially, 14.5%), this is a good, all-purpose Pinot Noir for drinking now. It’s quite rich in red berries and cherries, while oak adds a vanilla-white chocolate sweetness. Nice and silky on the palate, with a pleasant, spicy finish. It’s super-easy to drink, with some fancy qualities, and ideal for a juicy steak or filet mignon.

87 En Garde 2013 Pleasant Hill Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley): $54, alcohol 14.5%. The vineyard is in Sebastopol, in the southwestern part of the valley, a cooler region. Yet this is among En Garde’s riper Pinots. The black cherry candy flavors veer into chocolate-coated raisins, and there’s some heat throughout. Yet there’s a fat deliciousness. The wine needs rich, fatty food to balance it out.


Memorial Day

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In honor of our  men and women who serve to keep us free.

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The last word, literally, on In Pursuit of Balance (well, maybe…)

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Jon Bonné, the San Francisco Chronicle’s former wine critic and, now, occasional columnist, has much to say about the demise of In Pursuit of Balance that is on point: that the organization was controversial, that it stimulated a valuable conversation over Pinot Noir style, that it received a disproportionate amount of attention and media coverage,” that the ending, after five years, was “a shock” to the group’s members and fans, and—ultimately—that IPOB “served its purpose.”

Bonné can be a good reporter when he sticks to the facts and leaves aside his personal piques, but here, his dislike, verging on hatred, of larger wineries lends his analysis an off-putting hysteria. This is further fueled by his ongoing antagonism towards Big Critics, especially Wine Spectator, some of whose writers consistently raised legitimate questions about IPOB. Raising questions is the lifeblood and purpose of journalism—no reporter would be worth anything without raising questions–but Bonné calls it “savaging” IPOB, an odd but telling choice of verbiage. He goes on to accuse these Wine Spectator commentators (and, by extension, all of us who raised similar questions) of being “fearful of change.” That there is no evidence of such “fear” on the part of anyone who asked IPOB’s creators to more precisely define the “balance” that was their hallmark should be clear to all impartial observers. I myself asked, frequently, because IPOB never could iron out their internal contradiction, which was that they seemed to be suggesting that “balanced” Pinot Noir had to be below 14% in alcoholic strength, but even Raj Parr himself repeatedly had to backtrack from that assertion, for obvious reasons: It is on its face silly, and besides, there were members of IPOB whose wines were well in excess of 14%. Thus IPOB was forever hoisted on a petard of its own making, its “message” smudged into incoherence: If, indeed, they could not define “balance,” then what were they “in pursuit” of? IPOB’s inclusion of only certain wineries to their road show—the hottest ticket in London, L.A., Prowein, San Francisco or wherever else they poured–could only be seen as an arbitrary illustration of what has come to be known, in California circles, as the Cool Kids’ Club: We’ll invite our friends to the party. Don’t bother coming if you’re ugly.

I went to just about every IPOB tasting in San Francisco since the group’s founding in 2011, and yes, they were wonderful tastings. But they were wonderful not because they represented some sort of curated selection of the best and most balanced Pinot Noirs, but because they showcased many small producers whose wines most people—even I, as Wine Enthusiast’s senior California reviewer—didn’t have access to. I would have gone no matter who sponsored the event or what it was called; but the weight under which it was placed by that word “balance” cast a more lurid and ominous glow over the proceedings. One felt one was entering, not a mere arena for tasting, such as World of Pinot Noir, but a political convention, complete with party platform and ideological frisson, that just happened to feature wine. Since we knew that a cadre of insiders—including Jon Bonne—was responsible for the decision of what to include, out of all the bottles submitted for consideration, the implication was that all other Pinot Noirs were somehow unbalanced, an unsettling thought to a wine critic who might have given years of high scores to wines that, presumably, had been rejected by IPOB’s overseers. I should think James Laube and Matt Kramer felt quite the same: and why not? Thus to publicly air their concerns was not to “savage” In Pursuit of Balance. It was not to “savage” Raj Parr or Jasmine Hirsch or even Jon Bonne. It was to wonder, just as you might in a similar situation, why there was such a discrepancy between something you liked and something that IPOB appeared to find “unbalanced,” which, when you get right down to it, has to be seen as defamatory.

Not all of the kinds of wines IPOB loved, however, were good, and some were disasters. The 2011 Pinot Noir from Raj Parr’s Domaine de la Cote, which I tasted not at IPOB but at a World of Pinot Noir tasting, was among the worst Pinots I’ve ever had. In that cold vintage, Raj picked too early, motivated, I supposed, by ideology; the wines tasted like Listerine. (In fairness, his 2012s, which I tasted the next year at IPOB, were utterly magnificent.) This served to underscore what always was IPOB’s Achilles heel: its apparently slave-like devotion to a concept—low alcohol—at the expense of a far more important concept: deliciousness. Let the vintage tell you when to pick, not your frontal lobe. Incidentally, the limits, indeed the dangers, of sticking to this low-alcohol ideology were graphically illustrated at a World of Pinot Noir tasting some years ago when Siduri’s Adam Lee pulled a switcheroo on Raj Parr, at a public panel, an event Bonne alludes to in his opinion piece but whose implication he does not explore: that when you blind taste Pinot Noir without the ability to form a pre-conception due to knowledge of the alcohol level, you just might find yourself loving something you thought you were supposed to hate. Sic temper alcoholis.

But Jon is correct that IPOB “served its purpose,” if its purpose was to stimulate just the sort of discussion we’re having and have been having for some years. What had been esoterica has now become a standard part of the conversation about Pinot Noir, and for that we have to thank Raj and Jasmine. You have done the industry a service, monsieur et mademoiselle, and it is now time for you, and us, to move on.


U.C. Davis V&E grads off to a promising start

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Speaking at U.C. Davis last night before a group of graduating students and faculty was really a thrill. As I told the audience in my opening remarks, to me, UCD’s Viticulture and Enology Department is like the Vatican City—not in a religious sense, of course, but as the spiritual center of winemaking in California, probably in the U.S., and as one of the greatest places to learn winemaking in the whole world.

As a budding wine reporter in the late 1980s and 1990s and on into the 2000s, many were the times I telephoned one of the famous professors there, to interview him or her for a story: Anne Noble, Andy Waterhouse, Mark Kliewer, Carole Meredith, James Wolpert, Linda Bisson, Roger Boulton, James Lapsley, Andrew Walker. These were often for articles of a technical nature, and I was always a little apprehensive that my ignorance of technical topics would bore these learned men and women. But they were patient with me, and I hope I didn’t make too many errors in my reporting!

Even before I was a wine writer, I was reading books by the likes of Maynard Amerine and Vernon Singleton, figures who were as historic, to a wine geek like me, as George Washington or Benjamin Franklin. I knew about Dr. Olmo, who created the “Olmo grape varieties,” although I never had the opportunity to interview him. I was aware of UC Davis’s history, its importance in the evolution of the California wine industry, and how nearly every winemaker I ever met in California seemed to have graduated from there. So in my mind, UC Davis’s V&E Department loomed large, and still does.

Dr. Boulton, who holds the Stephen Sinclair Scott Endowed Chair in Enology Department of Viticulture and Enology, was kind enough to give me an hour of his time. We toured the Robert Mondavi Institute and the nearby Jess S. Jackson Sustainable Winery Building,

BoultonDr. Boulton and the Jackson Sustainable Winery

both remarkable structures and centers of study and innovation, and both of them superb testaments to the legacies of two remarkable men. Then it was off to the Sensory Theatre, in the Mondavi Institute,

Theatre

for our actual tasting and talk. We went through five different clones of Pinot Noir all from the Cambria vineyard, in Santa Maria Valley, and all made identically, so that whatever differences there were had to come from the clones. That was interesting, and served the point of showing how different people discern different things in wine—even people of great education and training. Our conversation about the intricacies of marketing, critics and related topics became so involved that one of the event organizers had to cut it off, because time was up and the official program called for the presentation of awards to some of the top students. But afterwards, they had a most excellent barbecue on the lawn, and fortunately some of us were able to continue the conversation.

What a smart young group of future professional winemakers these grads are. Really brilliant, so well educated and conversant in the world’s wines. And they’re just getting started: most of them are now off to summer internships, in France, Chile, Napa Valley, all over the world—and then to their first jobs. Armed with such an excellent education, and with such smart, inquiring minds, they are a reassurance that the future of winemaking is in good hands.

 


As the Grand Crus are identified, prices will go even higher

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Those who read this blog and hear me speak know that I have been predicting the discovery or uncovering of small, stellar blocks within existing great vineyards in California and Oregon—blocks that can be called “grand crus” were we to adopt that French terminology. This process will take decades, but clearly it’s underway.

I have argued that this evolution of a vineyard into greater and lesser blocks or climats is inevitable. It happened in France and in Germany, and for the best of reasons: grower/vintners, usually monks, discovered over hundreds of years that some sites were naturally superior to others. These, they gave special names to, and when a market-based system of supply-and-demand replaced the old feudal system, these special blocks were prized, and priced, the highest.

Why this development is inevitable and unavoidable is because of the nature of wine: something in it, and in us, makes us sensitive to the slightest differences. We seek those differences, make judgments as to their relative merits, collectively decide which blocks are the best, and reward them, as the free market allows and even encourages.

Is this rewarding, this hierarchizing, justifiable? Is it based on true qualitative differences in the wines, or is it only the critical perceptions that we know can be shaped by marketing? Undoubtedly, a little of both. Great marketing cannot make a silk purse of a sow’s ear. It can, however, take two silk purses, both near each other in quality, and make one Prada and the other Sears.

As if in evidence of this line of thinking, Domaine Trimbach, the well-known Alsace winery, just announced that, for the first time, they are taking advantage of Alsace’s Grand Cru appellation system to market their wine, something they have been reluctant to do until now. Why? [W]e cannot today escape the grand cru any more because with all the media, with all the fuss and the buzz and whatever around the system,” says Jean Trimbach. Around the world, he argues, people know the names of the Alsace Grand Crus and demand them. The implication is that it’s not because a Grand Cru is better than a regular Alsace AOC wine, it’s because people “know exactly what the top grand cru[s] are, so you cannot escape the grand cru game any more.”

The grand cru game…is that all it is, a game? Is there any relevance to inherent quality? Or have the Alsatians, like the Bordelais and the Burgundians, been hoisted on a petard of their own making?

Being a fair-minded journalist, I must admit that the answer is not that simple—although we all wish it were. Those of us reared in this “game” of comparative terroirs have it emblazoned into our DNA that some plots are better than others. To deny that this is true is one of the few heresies of wine connoisseurdom. This is why land in Vosne-Romanée is much more expensive than land in Beaune, why land in Oakville is much more expensive than land in Paso Robles, even though, in a blind tasting, I can assure you that some Paso Cabs would give Oakville a run for its money.

Indeed, such is the power of appellation—or, I should more correctly say, the awareness of appellation—that we have a situation in which the price for an acre of “the choicest land” in Napa Valley is now $310,000, up a remarkable $40,000 over 2014.

“The wine grape vineyard market continues to operate in a universe of its own,” says an expert in land prices in yesterday’s Napa Valley Register, referring to a phenomenon known as “the pedigree of the parcel,” in which the “pedigree” is conferred as much by subjective factors as objective ones—and perhaps even more so.

Once a vineyard has been prized so astronomically, there’s only one direction to go: To find little pieces within the vineyard that can be priced even more astronomically. This is the basic duty of capitalism: to test what the market will bear. And, as another expert in the Napa Register article said, “Actual sales [i.e. prices] can go even higher.”

In other words, unless there’s a bubble—and I don’t see one coming—we’re in for more and more expensive wines from California and Oregon at the highest levels. There’s nothing to stop it. It is, indeed, inevitable.


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