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Gone Fishin’

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Thoughts on a Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet tasting

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In California, we don’t get the extremes of weather that Europe does, but still, our vintages vary considerably from each other. You just have to know how to read the subtleties. Four years ago, 2011 was “the year summer never came,” and many of the wines have a lean, green streak, if not actual botrytis. Still, the best wineries successfully negotiated the challenge.

Yesterday we tasted a Ridge 2011 Monte Bello. It did indeed have a streak of mint and dried herbs, but it was clearly a wonderful wine, an ager, and the star of our Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet tasting. If I were rating it, it would score an easy 94-95 points, and earn a Cellar Selection designation. The Monte Bello terroir is fabulous (if you know Ridge’s history, have done verticals and visited the property, you already know that), but, perhaps more important has been the quality level of Ridge’s viticulture. I’ve never seen a crush at Ridge, but I imagine (and the evidence of the wine supports it) that they have perfectionist practices, including an active sorting table.

Unfortunately, in our tasting were some pretty flawed wines. I’m not in the reviewing business, so I won’t identify them. But a couple were severely afflicted with brettanomyces, so stinky it was like Steph Curry’s armpit that had not been washed for several days. (Eeew.) I attribute this to well-intentioned but impoverished winemakers who can’t afford to completely sanitize their wineries.

Others were okay wines, perfectly drinkable; someone noted of one of them that, were he served it at a restaurant, he would happily have drank it. But nothing special. It’s hard to explain to someone what the difference is between a superb wine, like the Ridge, and an okay wine whose grapes may have been grown right next door to it, but just doesn’t have the razzle-dazzle.

This Santa Cruz Mountains appellation is an interesting one. It’s one of the biggest in California, a whopping 408,000 acres, but contains only about 40 wineries, most of them very small. The reason, I think, is because suburbanization claimed most of the available vineyard sites, and the rest is too rugged and mountainous for cultivation. I always like to tell people about the old Woodside Vineyards La Questa Cabernets, originally planted in 1884; that wine was said to be the finest in all of California in the early 20th century, and the vineyard still exists in the little (and ultra-expensive) town of Woodside. Had that region developed an intensive wine industry, the way Napa Valley did, the Santa Cruz Mountains (or perhaps a Woodside A.V.A.) would be as famous today as Napa Valley. But things didn’t turn out that way. (The appellation also grows very fine Pinot Noir. The latter tends to be on west-facing vineyards on the cooler side of the mountains; the Cabs are on east-facing sites overlooking Silicon Valley and San Francisco Bay.)

Someone at the tasting brought up the subject of how Santa Cruz Mountains Cabs differ from Napa Valley’s. Well, the most obvious distinction is alcohol levels: they’re quite low in the former. (The Ridge was only 12.8%, and if I’m not mistaken, Ridge has never had a Monte Bello in excess of 14%.) This is in part due to Napa Valley’s warmer climate, but also because Santa Cruz Mountains winemakers have resisted the pressure to emulate Napa Valley.

When you make lower-alcohol Cabs, any faults in the wine are more apparent than they would be at, say, 14.5% or higher. Alcohol covers a multitude of sins. Brett shows up more clearly; so do greenness and tannins; and those wines can’t handle as much new oak as Napa’s. There were a couple wines in our tasting where the oak just stood out like a sore thumb. I honestly will never understand how some people think you can take a more delicate wine and make it get a higher score by drenching it with oak. I suppose some critics will fall for that, but not the better ones.

This 2015 vintage is looking good so far. It’s a drought vintage, but that’s not necessarily harmful to quality. Spring has been cool, until this heat wave that’s striking today; but the heat will be short-lived, and is less damaging at this point in the vines’ lives than it would be towards harvest. Everyone is raving about the 2013s. The 2014s seem fine too. With 2015, we might be in for a three-fer. But it’s too soon to tell. Right now, all that the growers are hoping for is rain next winter—a good, long, drenching El Nino. And that’s exactly what we might get.

 


Learning how to learn about new wines

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I’ve been a California wine guy for a long time, but in the 1980s, I was happily catholic, in the old sense of the word, derived from the Latin meaning “universal.” I studied and drank every classic wine and region I could get my hands on, from Old Europe to New World California, and everything inbetween.

But by the 1990s my job was to write about and review California wine. Once I got a reputation as a go-to guy for California, the transom opened (do you know what a transom is? A free lifetime subscription to steveheimoff.com if you do), and I was swamped with wines from the Golden State—to my pleasure, I might add. But the corresponding sadness was that the wines from the rest of the world necessarily had to take a back seat.

I’ve long maintained that there are two legitimate ways to be a professional wine critic: You can specialize in a region (as I have done), or you can generalize. Some people think nothing of covering Australia, Austria and Anderson Valley. They bring their innate sense of tasting to whatever region they’re in, and if they’re lucky enough to have a budget to fly all over the place, they can actually bring a sense of the ambiente of the region to their writing.

That was, alas, not to be my fate. But California is a big place, one that you can spend a lifetime traveling through and trying to understand. That ended up being my forte.

Lately, I’ve been tackling Italy. Now, Italy is probably the greatest challenge for the person seeking to understand an entire country. It’s so vast, with so many regions and varieties. I suspect my friend and former colleague, Monica Larner, who now reviews wines for The Wine Advocate, considers herself still a student of Italy, despite her vast knowledge of that country. I am by contrast an absolute dilettante.

How does one go about understanding a brand new region? Carefully and humbly. I’ve always known at least the fundamentals of Italian wine, but to delve into it and be immersed in its fantastic intricacies is something else. It’s not only the technical details of the denomination system, it’s tackling the flavors and textures, which are so different from our wines here in California.

For example, last night I drank a Dolcetto d’Alba from the Tenuta I’Illuminata winery. It’s a Piedmont wine and I don’t think there’s anything remotely resembling it in California. So dry and tart, so bitter on its own, nothing you’d want to drink as a cocktail sipper, the way a fresh young Cabernet or Pinot might suffice. I went through my Wine Enthusiast reviews, and the highest score I ever gave a California Dolcetto was 88 points. That was for the Acorn 2010 Alegria Vineyard, in the Russian River Valley. To read the text of my September, 2013 review—“you might think it was Pinot Noir”—I can almost recall its succulent fruitiness, but this L’Illuminata Dolcetto is anything but sucuulently fruity. How, then, does a “California palate” make sense of such a wine?

Well, by expanding your mind. We all get used to certain kinds of things in our lives. We settle into our routines, hang out with the same people, go to the same places, eat the same foods. It’s understandable, but at the same time, when you’re plunged into a world profoundly different from the one you’re used to, you have two alternatives: to reject it as weird, or to set aside your predilections and try to understand it.

As a wine critic, there’s really only one legitimate approach, the latter: to try and understand something that, at first, doesn’t make sense. And for this, you need two things: study, and imagination. The “study” part mean that you need to read up on what smart people have had to say about that region and wine. The “imagination” part means that you have to understand how people actually drink the wine, in the region where they live. This is the “ambiente” I’m talking about.

With this Dolcetto d’Alba, I can imagine drinking it with very rich foods. Take some fatty meat (beef, sausages), put some tomato sauce on it, add some mozzarella cheese into the equation, figure out how to work in wild mushrooms, don’t be shy about the garlic and black pepper. Decant the wine for an hour or two. You know how some people complain that the opulent red wines of California pale after a while? This Dolcetto is the opposite: it gets more interesting.

Does it matter that it’s an 88 point wine and not a 98? Not to me. Am I embarrassed to admit I don’t know much about Italian wine? Not at all. I’ve learned, through blogging, the importance of telling the truth—transparency, they call it. “The truth will make you free.” And—even more importantly—I’m happy that I retain the ability to learn, to be surprised, even after all this time. How cool is that?


Gay-friendly: Progress in the wine industry, but a long way to go

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Years ago—it has to be at least ten—I wrote an article for Wine Enthusiast about the emerging gay market for wine, and how important it was proving to be. I was seeing more wine advertisements aimed at gay people, and a handful of wineries was reaching out to them, albeit quietly.

At the time, I knew quite a number of gay people in the wine industry, among them winemakers and P.R. folks, but they were mainly in the closet. The wine industry is generally a pretty open place, but there are pockets of conservatism, and many gay people did not feel comfortable enough to come out.

My oh my, how that has changed. As American attitudes towards gay people (and we’ve now expanded that to the acronym GLBTQ) have softened, the presence of gays in wine, always there but largely invisible, has become clearer. It is due to a generalized spirit of welcoming that inspired the wine community, but it’s also recognition that the gay community has a lot of disposable income—and gay people like to drink wine (according to The Daily Beast, Gay people drink 16 percent more than straight people”).

I’ve never been one to lump Americans, though, into separate-but-equal identity groups. It seems to me that, since we’re all in this together, we ought to find ways of association that transcend things like gender, race, religion, age, ethnicity and sexual orientation—even political persuasion, which sometimes can be the most difficult difference to bridge. But that’s idealistic, I’m sure; the truth is that we do tend to feel binding ties with people who are like us, and I suppose that’s good, as long as it doesn’t make us so chauvinistic that we forget that we’re actually tied to everyone.

I don’t think, even when I was younger (when such an event would have been unthinkable), that I would have gone to Out in the Vineyard’s recent Gay Wine Weekend, held in Sonoma County. And now, when I’m old enough to be most of the attendees’ father, I’m not sure I would have been comfortable had I gone. But I sure am glad Out in the Vineyard exists, and I’m super-glad that Jackson Family Wines, exemplified by La Crema, supports it. This company is strongly pro-GLBTQ, a progressive stance I wish more California wineries shared.

Some wineries feel that being too closely identified with GLBTQ issues—which remains contentious among some unkind people in America—will hurt their bottom line. The wine industry, like most industries, constantly keeps tabs on how it’s perceived. Wineries don’t want to be thrust into the position of being on the backlash end of a homophobic boycott, as Wells Fargo recently was when the celebrity-preacher, Franklin Graham, exhibited narrow-minded and hateful behavior in criticizing Wells for having the temerity to put on a gay-friendly T.V. commercial. Graham, who seems not to understand the direction of history, or perhaps just doesn’t care, no doubt instilled fear among some winery proprietors who, personally, have no problem with the GLBTQ movement, and might even privately support it; but who fear the wrath of a popular religious leader whose admonitions are obeyed by millions.

One can hardly blame wineries for being afraid of such pressure; I cast not the first stone. But it does make me even prouder of gay-friendly wineries, not only Jackson Family but also J, Windsor Oaks, Sebastiani, DeLoach, Francis Ford Coppola, Ravenswood, Gary Farrell, Iron Horse, Lynmar, Korbel, E&J Gallo and many, many others. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that wineries (like most U.S. corporations) still tread exceedingly carefully using obviously gay people in their marketing and, especially, their advertising. Rev. Graham, and people like him, unfortunately have succeeded in getting their threatening message across: The stifling of free speech.


When Mohammed won’t come down from the mountain

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So I called up this winery the other day. It’s not too far away from Oakland. I’m putting together another tasting and asked if I could buy a bottle of their Cabernet Sauvignon and have it shipped to me. The guy—the owner-proprietor, I think—said no. He said it’s not worth his while to “drive down the mountain” to send a single bottle. If I wanted to buy a case, he explained, that would be a different story.

I thanked him and told him I wasn’t looking for an entire case, so goodbye. No $ale. But the incident bothered me and so I put it up on Facebook and asked my friends, “What kind of a business model is that?”

Lots of comments, as usual. I suppose I think more about these marketing and sales issues since I’ve worked at Jackson Family Wines than I would have when I was at Wine Enthusiast. I thought the winemaker’s attitude was pretty dumb (not that he was rude about it; he wasn’t. In fact, he couldn’t have been nicer. He simply explained that he was way up in the middle of nowhere). The bottle price, by the way, was $27.

What did my Facebook friends say? You can read all the comments here. Most of them roundly criticized the guy. Jeff Stai, from Twisted Oak, wrote I’m way up in the mountains and I’ll sell you a bottle. wink emoticon.” He added Today’s one bottle sale is next month’s five case sale.” Bill Smart said the guy’s business model is “One that is not going to last for very long?” (Bill did put it in the form of a question.) Chris Sawyer said the business model is a “case study [in] how to inflict bad mojo on your brand.” Sean Piper said “If you ever buy a bottle of my wine I’ll personally hand deliver it to you.”

And yet, the guy had his defenders. Neil Monnens wrote, “More power to him…Imagine you are his friend or family and he leaves you to go down the mountain to sell one bottle of wine to someone…it’s not worth it. Good for him.” Victoria Amato Kennedy wondered “What was the profit margin on the one bottle after factoring in gas/shipping costs/time?” I understand that, but I would have paid whatever shipping cost the guy charged me. The fact of the matter is, he was too lazy to drive down the mountain. As Patrick Connelly wrote, “Bad customer service = increasing selling difficulty.”

If I had a little family winery (which this was) I’d drive down the mountain! How hard can it be? It’s summertime, no rain, easy-breezy. Besides, even if it’s a 30-minute drive to the UPS Store, aren’t there other things the guy can do while he’s in town—buy groceries or supplies, call on an account, have a nice meal, see a friend? I’m sure that people who live up in the mountains always have lists of stuff to do when they’re in town.

As I’m constantly reminding people nowadays, you do what it takes to sell your wine. Establishing customer relationships is one of those things. Although I didn’t identify myself to the guy, how did he know I wasn’t buying the wine for a Parker tasting? I could have been some rich Silicon Valley venture capitalist looking for a house Cabernet. You never know. Sending somebody a bottle of wine can sometimes change your life in unexpected, great ways. But first, you have to be willing to come down from the mountain.


Friday Fishwrap

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No new post today. We’re gearing up for the Warriors parade this morning in Oakland and are so excited we can’t even think! But I want to give a big “thank you!” to the lovely people who came to my talk last night at the Napa Valley Wine Technical Group.

Have a great weekend.


What are the traits of westside GSMs from Paso Robles?

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This was our objective at yesterday’s tasting. The answer:

  1. high alcohol
  2. tremendous fruity extract
  3. thick tannins
  4. soft acidity
  5. full-bodiedness
  6. a sense of sweetness

Think about each of those. Each element is at the utmost of the limits of a table wine to remain balanced. In this high-wire act, if you make the slightest error, you’re screwed.

The high alcohol means that, while it’s there (and we’re talking 15%-16% or more), if the wine is in the slightest degree hot, it loses points.

The tremendous fruity extract means that, if you get it wrong, you end up with a fruit bomb.

The thick tannins mean that you don’t want to end up with something that’s harsh in the mouth.

The soft acidity presents the danger of an insipid, boring wine, flashy, perhaps, with the first sip, but one that quickly palls.

So we’re talking about that elusive but vital element, balance. It’s funny that people always talk about a more delicate wine, like Burgundian Pinot Noir, as being so transparent that balance, or any hint of imbalance, is apparent. But that’s also true of these gigantic Paso Robles GSMs. Mere size isn’t enough to hide flaws. Nothing can hide a flaw to the discerning taste. And yet, a good winemaker can turn size to his advantage.

These winemakers—Matt Trevaison, Justin Smith, Stephen Asseso and the like–chose to make these sorts of wines, and by the standard of the market, they’ve been wildly successful. These westside GSMs have become Paso Robles’ most expensive wines. Produced in tiny amounts, they sell for far more on the aftermarket than their initial release prices. So, when my friends at Jackson Family Wines asked me to put together a Paso Robles tasting (and the family currently owns nothing in Paso Robles), I happily acceded.

I could have done a tasting of Paso Bordeaux blends. I’ve been a big fan; that was part of the reason why I successfully argued for Paso Robles to be Wine Enthusiast’s “Wine Region of the Year” a couple of years ago.

I could have done a tasting of what I call Paso’s “wacko blends,” those innovative blends of everything from Tempranillo and Zinfandel to Merlot, Sangiovese and Petite Sirah. I wrote extensively about them for Wine Enthusiast. These young winemakers, who invaded Paso Robles over the last 5-10 years, had nothing to lose by being creative. They knew they couldn’t compete against Napa Valley with Cabernet Sauvignon. Pinot Noir was out of the question. Why not create a blend that had never existed before in the history of the world, if it made a delicious wine? It was a niche to be explored and exploited.

But GSMs are the signature wines of Paso Robles, especially at the high-priced end. So here were the seven wines we tasted yesterday, in a blind tasting. (Sadly, although I ordered the L’Aventure 2013 Cote de Cote directly from the winery, and paid $120.68, including shipping, for it, it never arrived.)

The wines, with SRP and alcohol:

Saxum 2012 Heart Stone, $149, 15.1%

Tablas Creek 2013 Cote de Cote, $55, 14.5%

Law Estate 2011 Sagacious, $67, 16%

Linne Calodo 2013 Sticks & Stones, $79, 15.8%

Jada 2012 Hell’s Kitchen, $54, 15.5%

ONX 2012 Crux, $45, 15.2%

Booker 2013 Full Draw, $75, 15.3%

My favorite, and the group’s, too, was the ONX. It was closely followed by the Jada, Tablas Creek, Saxum, Linne Calodo, and Booker. The trick with wines of this sort, which are very popular with critics, is to keep them balanced. All the individual parts—tannins, fruity extract, alcohol—are so strong, in and of themselves, that if any one of them sticks out, it perturbs the entire wine. (One of my co-tasters called several of the wines “distracting,” for that very reason). In this modern In Pursuit of Balance world, we make much of the structure and finesse of lightly-structured wines, which are so transparent that inherent imbalances quickly reveal themselves. As we focus—properly—on these wines, we tend to forget that these big, rich wines have similar balancing challenges; like Bob Dylan’s “mattress balanced on a bottle of wine,” the equilibrium must be just-so, the poise exquisitely tense, or otherwise the wine just collapses under its own weight into a heap.

Still, these west side Paso Robles wines (which now come under a guise of AVAs since Paso Robles split up into 11 appellations) are attention-getting, although I’m not sure I’d want to split an entire bottle with someone over dinner.


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