I’ve been tasting a lot of Cabernet Sauvignons lately. The 2010s are entering the market in full force; meanwhile, there’s still a good quantity of 2009s also arriving. The fun is in comparing the vintages.
As a wine critic, I’m loathe to come to premature conclusions about vintages. I do it, of course, like just about everyone else; but I don’t particularly like to. My feelings about vintages change over time. My current thinking is that 2009 was the more difficult of the two. It was the first of our recent series of cool years; as Nick Goldschmidt told me at the time, “I don’t think 2009 will be well received. It was just too cool. When you look back at the great vintages in California, they tend to be warmer ones.” The year wasn’t just cool, it rained in the middle of October, just when the Cabernet grapes were entering their final push. Dawnine Dyer, at Dyer Vineyards on Diamond Mountain, told me (on Oct. 30, 2009), “The rain will define the harvest, depending on which side of it you were on.” Jeffrey Stambor, at Beaulieu, told me on the same day, “The rain set up challenging winemaking conditions.”
Some 2009 Napa Cabs just didn’t have the stuffing you expect for the prices they fetched. Not bad wines, but a little broad, lacking focus. Some were marred by high alcohol. When a Cabernet is rich in fruit, it can handle alcohol, but a thin one with lots of alcohol is a misery; and there were plenty of them in Napa Valley in 2009.
On the plus side, those wineries who always make their wines meticulously–the usual suspects–did fine. I loved Goldschmidt’s 2009 Game Ranch Single Vineyard Selection Cabernet (although the name isn’t particularly elegant). Ditto for Freemark Abbey’s 2009 Sycamore, their finest ever. Sodaro, a winery I was unfamiliar with, had an amazing ’09 Doti-Sodaro Blocks 2 and 6 Cabernet. (I later found out that Bill and Dawnine Dyer had made it, which makes this the second mention Dawnine gets in this post!) And B Cellars had a really good portfolio of 2009s (and I did not know at the time that Kirk Venge was their winemaker. He is hands down turning into one of the best in the valley). All in all, though, 2009 was a routine year.
Then we come to 2010. It blew everyone’s mind because it was so cool (before 2011 came along, which was even colder). Oddly, the late summer also was punctuated by severe heat waves. A huge one around Sept. 27 was so severe, Genevieve Janssens, at Robert Mondavi, told me that “the Petit Verdot and Malbec are largely burned out.” (That heat wave lasted for days. Sept. 29 was the hottest day ever recorded in Los Angeles.)
Following the heat, the weather was a roller coaster of picture-perfect days, rain, followed by more perfection. I made the following note in my vintage diary, on Oct. 23: “Mountain Cabernet could be fine,” because the rainwater runs off.
And in fact, when I look at my highest-scoring 2010 Napa Cabs, they’re from mountains and hillsides: Flora Springs Rutherford Hillside Reserve, everything from Von Strasser on Diamond Mountain, Terra Valentine K-Block, from Spring Mountain, Communication Block Lampyridae, from Mount Veeder (made by Aaron Pott). Beckstoffer’s To Kalon also produced some fabulous 2010s; it’s not a mountain vineyard, so it must be the super-fantastic viticulture Andrew B. and his team practice.
The 2012 California Grape Acreage Report is hot off the presses and the most noteworthy fact is that white winegrape acreage is down from 2011 while red winegrape acreage is up, but just barely: a mere 274 acres, about a tenth of one percent over 2011.
This actually continues the trend of the last ten years: acreage of both red and white varieties has remained nearly constant since 2003. To put this into perspective, in the ten years prior to that (1994-2003), white winegrape acreage increased, albeit only by about 5 percent, while red winegrape acreage during the same period soared, nearly doubling, from 142,000 acres in 1994 to 263,000 acres in 2003
What I make of this, in broad sweeping terms, is:
1. White winegrape varieties have remained fairly constant in acreage for twenty years because growers know that consumers are buying pretty much as much white wine as they’re capable of.
2. Growers planted a boatload of red varieties from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s because all the evidence pointed to increased consumption of Cabernet Sauvignon, in particular. Between 1995 and 2003, Cabernet acreage increased by 174%, a greater percentage than any other major red variety. (I think we also can assume that lots of white winegrape vines were budded over to reds.)
So why have the last ten years seen a virtual moratorium on new plantings? It’s puzzling. Maybe a closer look at the data will give some answers.
Of the red varieties, all of the following are down in acreage, since either last year or since 2003: Zinfandel, Merlot, Grenache and Barbera. This suggests that growers believe these varieties don’t have a future (although individual wineries, of course, will continue to specialize in them).
These varieties are up since 2003: Cabernet Sauvignon (+12%), Petite Sirah (+103%), Pinot Noir (+89%) and Syrah (+27%). These are the varieties growers feel are likely to increase in consumption.
The only major white variety that significantly increased in acreage over the last ten years is–you guessed it–Pinot Gris. It’s up 380%, although the starting point was low. Pinot Gris now has 12,473 acres planted in the state, and is poised to overtake Sauvignon Blanc (14,911 acres, and dropping) as the #3 most widely-planted white variety, after Chardonnay and (sigh) lowly French Columbard.
The inescapable conclusion is that California growers are conservative. They plant what has been selling and what they believe will sell. Of course, the public doesn’t necessarily listen to growers; consumers, always a step ahead of the experts, drink what they want. Growers didn’t see Moscato coming, which is why plantings of the various Muscat varieties in California shot up from 2011 to 2012. Nor did growers see Pinot Noir coming before 2004’s Sideways. After that phenomenon, they planted it ferociously.
Still, there’s no escaping the fact that California continues to be basically a chocolate-vanilla-strawberry state when it comes to red and white wine. And that’s a situation unlikely to change anytime soon.
Running into Gary Eberle again at this weekend’s big Cab event in Paso Robles brought back beautiful memories. I first met Gary when I was sent by the magazine I used to work for to write a story about him.
That must have been around 1990. I’d heard of him, of course, for by then, he was already famous as one of the founding fathers of Paso Robles (the old Estrella River brand, followed, in 1981, by Eberle). But Paso, unfortunately, back then was not particularly esteemed as a wine region, so Gary’s wines had more respect than love among the critics’ club I was about to join. One of the country’s top critics said his Cabernets “ha[d] shown promise at times” but were “variable in quality.”
Now, before I go any further, it’s time to deconstruct this off-used critics’ meme. When a winery “shows promise” it means that it’s officially on the critic’s radar, and that he has some reason to like it. However, what troubles the critic is that he can’t quite convince himself that the wine is worth really committing himself to. If I may indulge in a gender metaphor, it’s like he’s dated her a few times, is interested…but he’s interested in a lot of different wines and isn’t ready to go steady yet.
Still, he can’t quite bring himself to throw the wine under the bus. They had some fun times together…remember that summer night with the barbecued steak? Things were just about perfect, with the stars twinkling in the black sky and the soft August breeze teasing out the jasmine, and the second bottle nearly drained. But she’s only a working girl, a Paso chick with sunburn on the back of her neck, more Brad Paisley than will.i.am. The critic isn’t sure she’s the girl he wants to bring back and introduce to Mom…or bear his children.
Hence “variable in quality.” Do not, gentle reader, make the mistake of thinking this means that the critic has tasted every one of the winery’s wines over many vintages and found that, one year, the Cabernet is 91 and the next it’s 83. That may be the case; it may not; it may simply be that the critic (for whatever reason) is loathe to commit, and the finest excuse for not committing–a 24 karat excuse, one no one can ever disprove–is that the wines “are variable.” Who would argue with such a statement? “You think the wines are NOT variable?” the critic exclaims, his eyes wide and pitying. “Then, my friend, I’m afraid you haven’t tasted them consistently. Or, even worse, you do not have the palate to discern variable quality.
Then it hits Twitter: “Big critic says wines variable.” Next thing you know, the guest wine blogger for the Cedar Rapids Press Blowhard writes, “The wines are known to be variable” and, voila! a reputation is cemented.
End of segue: Back to Gary Eberle. At Saturday’s Cabernet Collective event, most of the younger winemakers on the panel paid homage to Gary. As well they should have. It’s hard to exaggerate Gary’s influence on Paso Robles. It’s a sign of a maturing wine region when a new generation comes in and recognizes the role that the pioneers played. That’s not always the case: there are appellations in California where new people come in and act like they invented everything…as if nothing had existed before they arrived..how ridiculous. It’s beautiful and refreshing when new people give props to those who came before them.
To Paso Robles this afternoon for a quick trip to moderate the first CAB Collective, a local group organized to promote the Cabernet Sauvignons of Paso Robles. Good timing: Paso is on the verge of a renaissance, if it’s not already happening, and tastemakers–sommeliers, writers, chefs–are starting to take note, especially of its red wines. Alcohol levels seem to have moderated in recent years, making the wines more balanced. Meanwhile, a new generation of winemakers (one might call them contrarians) is exploring Paso’s terroirs with renewed vigor, particularly on the west side.
There’s never enough time on these trips to do everything I want. For that matter, there’s never enough time in my life to go on all the trips I want. I’d love to get down to Paso, and Santa Barbara, and other destinations south four or five times a year; but that’s impossible. There’s been talk for years of sub-dividing Paso Robles into multiple AVAs. Some years ago, a proposal to establish an East Side and West Side appellation was killed amidst intense opposition. I’d love sometime to have someone familiar with the region drive me around and explain how the climate and soils change from place to place. Even after all these years, I feel the gaps in my knowledge. This map, courtesy of Tablas Creek, is helpful in understanding the wind flow patterns from west to east. It shows how the “Templeton Gap” effect is no simple thing, but instead is a spider-webby pattern that may impact one property while leaving another nearby alone.
Meanwhile, the battle over expanding the Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills AVA is heating up. I inadvertently got involved in it earlier this week, although I’ll spare you the dreary details. It’s a shame how these boundary line fights pit neighbor against neighbor, in a kind of Civil War. I recall a similar fuss some years ago concerning expanding the Russian River Valley’s lines (which eventually was approved despite some intense local opposition).
And who could forget the turmoil that arose when some folks in Napa Valley talked about establishing Rutherford Bench and Oakville Bench appellations? I was unable to find an online link to anything about it, but in the 1990s that brouhaha was tearing Napa apart. It went nowhere.
People take their AVAs seriously. An AVA is hard enough to get established anyway (consider that a branch of the Treasury Department is involved). It takes a lot of time and costs a lot of money, and I can understand why, once one is up and running, the people in it don’t want to tinker with it anymore. At the same time, the wine industry is a for-profit place, and, since wines from a smaller, prestigious appellation tend fetch higher prices than wines from bigger appellations, someone who’s outside is always going to want to be inside. It’s only human nature. But it can get ugly. I hope the Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills people get this situation under control soon. It’s not good for anyone. Can’t we all just get along?
My favorite event of the year, at which I speak and taste with others, is my annual gig at the student wine club at the University of California’s Haas School of Business. I did it last night for, I think, the fifth year.
These future MBAs are so smart. At least half the questions they asked startled me with their freshness and straight-to-the-point accuracy. But then, they always do, which is why I so enjoy this class.
What do I think of score inflation? Why doesn’t Beaujolais ever get as high a score as Bordeaux? Do I find myself agreeing with other critics on the same wines? What makes one wine score 98 while another only gets 88? Are there different styles of wine writing aimed at different audiences or demographics (which made me recall the short-lived awfulness of Wine X magazine and the absurdity of Twitter reviews)? If I review the same wine twice over time, will I give it the same score? How do I know if a wine will age? How do I predict how long it will age for? Is there a relationship between price and quality? Do I think crowd-sourcing will become the wave of the future? And so on.
Each of these questions could exhaust an entire seminar, of course, and each of them got my brain cells all fired up.
What was equally interesting about the students was what they didn’t ask. No questions about the wines themselves. We tasted through four Cabernets: Von Strasser 2009 Estate Cabernet, Venge 2010 Silencieux Cabernet Sauvignon, Rock Wall 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon and Hawkstone 2011 Connoisseur Series Cabernet Sauvignon. All are from Napa Valley. I scored them from 98 points down to 82 points, and wanted to share with the students why my points varied so much. We started with the Hawkstone, which most people liked because it’s fresh and fruity. But when we reached the Venge, everyone could see how much better it was. A superb wine, really. Then came the Von Strasser. I asked for a show of hands: Who preferred the Von Strasser to the Venge, and vice versa? The Venge won, by a slim margin, which is what I expected. It’s a more accessible wine. I had to explain why I scored the Von Strasser higher, which led to a conversation about mountain fruit. I like an interactive teaching style. What (I asked them) is the biggest difference between dirt that lies on a horizontal angle (and here I held my arm up at 45 degrees) and dirt that’s level? Everyone practically shouted out at the same time: Water! Exactly so. I explained about drainage, and how the water carries away nutrients with it, leaving the land leaner than down in the valley below. They listened to all this eagerly; and, of course, when one has an eager audience, it reinforces one’s own sense of excitement. Small berries are concentrated berries: the skin-to-pulp ratio is greater, resulting in greater tannins, hence more ageability. These young students were fascinated by the vagaries of aging, possibly because, being so young themselves, they cannot imagine the process of slow but steady deterioration (for that is what aging is. I reminded them of the old slogan that, according to the French, the British prefer their claret “in the first blush of death”).
It was inevitable that I would contrast these exchanges with some of the other classes and panels I have the opportunity to serve on. There, an older audience asks (in my humble opinion) far less interesting questions. What are the clones? What kind of French oak do you use? What year did you start? Issues such as these do not, I think, make for useful conversations between winemakers and consumers; and I often think the consumers are asking them, not because they really care, but because they think these are the sorts of questions they ought to be asking, if they’re to appear to be intelligent wine people. As people age, the mind seems to grow less curious, less elastic, less, well, naïve: but naïve questions are the best of all. Out of the mouths of babes.
And not a single query about social media! Not one. There would have been no mention of Twitter or blogs, had I not introduced the topic. Some years ago, there were lots of questions about social media. Could this lacuna be canary in the coal mine stuff? At any rate, at the end, they asked me to write my blog’s URL on the white board and as I did so, one of the students said, “You just got 60 new readers.
I was reading Peg Melnik’s article on Chateau St. Jean’s 2010 Belle Terre Vineyard Chardonnay, in yesterday’s Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which reminded me that Chateau St. Jean pretty much single-handedly created the vineyard-designated Chardonnay market in the 1970s, with a brilliant series of wines crafted by their then-winemaker, Richard Arrowood. Belle Terre, Les Pierres and Robert Young were perhaps the best known, but one year, Arrowood produced 9 individual Chardonnays. (He also made vineyard-designated Fume Blancs and Rieslings.)
It got me thinking of how obsessed we are today with single-vineyard wines in California, not just Chardonnay, obviously, but everything, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.
The first vineyard-designated Cabernet I ever heard of was Joe Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard. It was, back in the day, the most famous Cab in Napa Valley, and if it’s lost a little of its luster in the glare of so many newer brands, it’s still well-regarded. I don’t recall the first single-vineyard Pinot Noir I ever had. The first one I ever reviewed in my wine diary was a 1982 from Louis K. Mihaly, with a Napa Valley appellation. The label said “Produced and bottled by the estate of Louis K. Mihaly,” so I suppose that, technically, it was a single-vineyard wine; but I’m talking about vineyard designations on the label. Ditto for the Dehlinger 1985 Lot #2 Pinot I tasted (in 1990, by which time it had gone downhill).
Today, of course, many producers make single vineyard wines. They fetch a higher price, on average, than blended wines. (Even the word “blended” sounds pejorative. We need to come up with a better one.) When you think about it, though, there’s no reason per se why a single vineyard wine should be better than a blended one. The reason the Bordelais grew so many different grape varieties was because they knew that blending could fill in the divots that a single variety wine might otherwise have (unripe, too acidic, too tannic, not enough color, etc.).
It was in the 1990s that vintners opted to go bigtime with vineyard-designated bottles. They said they were spurred by the extra complexity that certain sites exhibited, but that’s only half the story. The other half was that, by then, it was apparent the public would pay more for single vineyard wines. (We can thank Heitz and Chateau St. Jean for that!) I myself have never quite bought into the theory that the wine from a particular place is necessarily better than a blend. Some critics make much of “wines of place” and, of course, to question the concept of terroir is to hold oneself up for ridicule. However, I don’t see how you get around the “divot” theory: in a perfect vintage, a particular site might yield a complete wine. But not all vintages are perfect, and it’s only logical to expect that, in other vintages, the grapes from a particular site will be lacking something and could benefit from being blended with the grapes from another place.
Today we have brands that specialize in single vineyard wines: Siduri, Loring, Testarossa and Williams Selyem (among many others) in Pinot Noir, and practically everyone making high-end Chardonnay. (Williams Selyem, Lynmar, Rochioli, Paul Hobbs, Marimar Torres, Martinelli, Talley and Thomas Fogarty in particular come to mind.) There also are an increasing number of wineries that bottle vineyard-designated Cabs. Sometimes they buy grapes from other growers, and sometimes they simply make block bottlings from their own vineyard or from separate vineyards in their own portfolio. (Sometimes it’s hard to say what the difference is between blocks from the same estate, and separate vineyards. Witness Diamond Creek.)
As I said, I’m not sure that the best, most wholesome and complete, not to mention satisfying, wines come from individual vineyards. But wine isn’t just about hedonism, it’s about intellectual fun. For me, as a wine lover and critic, I love these single vineyard or block designation wines because they’re so interesting in themselves, even if they’re sometimes a little lacking something essential. Just like some people.
Before I was a wine critic–which is to say, before any of my publishers would let me actually review and rate wines–I was a wine reporter. For quite a few years, I worked for numerous publications that wrote about the nuts and bolts of the wine industry.
Those articles could be about almost anything: a study on some insecticide, fumigating soils, selling in China, pricing strategies, the economics of barrels, estate planning, the consolidating distribution system (yes, even then it was shrinking). That may not sound very glamorous, compared to the popular image of the wine writer hanging out with famous winemakers, eating fabulous foods prepared by superstar chefs, and drinking rare wines. But it was a good, solid job that taught me how to report quickly and accurately, and I loved it. Moreover, I learned a lot about what makes the industry tick.
Having a grounding in the basics of the wine industry has been very important to me. Although I don’t do much reporting anymore on hardcore industry topics, I carry with me to this day an interest in it, especially the marketing, sales and promotional side of the wine business. I also think it makes me a better writer for the kind of writing I now do. Knowing this industry in my bones helps to give me a perspective on things, which I can then pass onto my readers. It also helps to cut through the B.S. that, with some regularity, tries to pass through the reporter’s filter as news. That doesn’t happen much, not on my watch.
Does this industry experience make me a better wine critic? Not necessarily, per se. I’m not saying that to be a great wine critic you have to have done a lot of reporting. But it can’t hurt. Besides, wine criticism is only a part of what I do. And I’m glad it’s only a part. I wouldn’t want to write exclusively for a publication that only published reviews, and didn’t let its writers explore the industry’s other facets.
In my articles for Wine Enthusiast, I think I’m able to bring the perspective of those years of industry reporting to my words. It’s one thing to know, for example, that a winery is exporting to China. It’s another to have a sense of the history of California wine exports to China–to know how odd it seemed in the 1990s. (In retrospect, people like the Wentes who developed the China connection back then, and were thought a little loopy, look like geniuses today. They faced tremendous challenges: a lack of trusted partners on the ground in China, or even a distribution and sales system, not to mention language difficulties). I like to think that, even when I write a simple sentence like, “Wente, who has a long history of developing Asian markets…”), it’s informed with meaning.
I’m glad I didn’t just jump into wine reviewing with scarcely any knowledge of how the industry works, or why it came to be what it is today. When I started, of course, you couldn’t just jump in; you needed someone to let you write in their publication. Today, with the blogosphere, anyone can start reviewing wines with no experience, no background, not even any knowledge. This has been celebrated as a good thing: the end of elitism and all that, the victory of the little guy against the tyranny of the corporate gatemasters. Yes, we’ve gained that. But I wonder what we’ve lost. Does anyone really care that Sally or Jimmy reviewed a Beaujolais on their blog–when they may not know Brouilly from brie? It’s an indication of the desperate situation some wineries find themselves in (wherein wineries need all the help they can get, however dubious) that they’ll actually use Sally-Jimmy’s review. Hey, I’m just saying.