When I first moved to the Bay Area, I was astonished at how radically the weather can change within the smallest areas. I was living in the North Bay–Solano County–and I remember driving for the first time through the Caldecott Tunnel, which runs from Orinda, in Contra Costa County, beneath the East Bay Hills for a mile or so, emerging through its west portal in Oakland.
It was summertime. The temperature in Orinda must have been in the high 80s or low 90s. I had the car window open. As soon as I came into the Oakland daylight I felt the cold air. Maybe the temperature was in the low 60s. We’d lost up to 30 degrees from one end of the tunnel to the other.
The East Bay Hills are, of course, part of the California Coast Ranges that cut off maritime air from the cold Pacific, so that areas east of them grow progressively warmer. Orinda is dependably warm to hot in the summer, but nowhere near as hot as the Sacramentio Delta and the Central Valley, which are much further inland.
For example, the Delta city of Brentwood accumulated 3,470 degree days in 2011. That’s pretty toasty, even for that cool year; Brentwood is in eastern Contra Costa County, an area known for old-vine Zinfandel, where the wines are high in alcohol. Compare that to Oakville, in Napa Valley, where the average annual degree days are 2,798.
In Oakland proper, the warmest part of the city tends to be the easternmost, where the flatlands begin to rise into the East Bay Hills. There, in 2011, the degree day accumulation was 2,173, according to data by the Lamorinda Winegrowers. So you can begin to appreciate the temperature spectrum: too chilly in most of Oakland for proper winegrowing, hottish in the Delta, just right (for Bordeaux varieties, anyway) in Oakville.
“Lamorinda” is a neologism created from the names of three contiguous towns in Contra Costa County: Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda; the word has been in common usage for decades to describe these posh suburbs, just east of the Caldecott Tunnel. Each town is different, of course, but what they share, among other traits, is that they are plopped into the inland side of the East Bay Hills, which rise to about 2,000 feet at their highest. Depending on the exact location, some of the ridges and slopes would seem ideal for growing vitis vinifera: sunny and warm enough to ripen the grapes, not too cold nor too hot, just Goldilocks right.
I remember about 20 years ago being invited to the home of a automobile tire magnate who was experimenting with growing grapes up in those hills, in the expansive backyard of his home, which was technically in Oakland–but these boundaries between towns are, of course, artificial. He was growing several varietals on his sunny slope, and tasted me to them. I was impressed by all of them, across the board, from a rich, opulent Cabernet to a brut-style sparking wine made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
These days, many well-to-do homeowners in the Lamorinda area have followed suit and are planting grapes. (My friend Rajeev, who owns the UPS Store where I receive my wine, recently installed a vineyard on his property.) In fact, there are now 121 planted acres of winegrapes, across 42 vineyards, according to a petition filed with the TTB to establish a Lamorinda American Viticultural Area. The petition was written by my old acquaintance, Patrick Shabram, a professional AVA petition-writer whose previous successful efforts include the Alexander Valley expansion, the Mpon Mountain AVA, and Fort Ross-Seaview. Here’s the link to the formal petition.
It’s not clear what varieties are the most successful for Lamorinda and it may never be, for two reasons: One, the terrain is so jumbled and crazy (courtesy of the San Andrea Fault system) that micro-climates vary radically, making one spot cool enough for Pinot Noir and another warm enough for Cabernet, “within a single vineyard,” as Patrick writes. The second reason is because Lamorinda, if and when it’s approved as an AVA, is never going to be a commercial winegrowing area. Such wines as are made will be consumed by the grower, his family and friends, or will be sold at local restaurants and markets.
I’m in favor of this AVA. Like any appellation, it’s not perfect, and won’t provide the consumer specific information about its wines. But Lamorinda does have a “thereness” and, if approved, will stimulate growers and winemakers to step up their efforts. Which is a good thing.
I don’t exactly remember the first time I ever met Jean-Charles Boisset, but I do have a memory of seeing him across the parking lot of his Boisset America offices, which then were in Sausalito. I had driven there to interview him. It was a windy day, and as I got out of my car, I saw a youngish man, slender and terribly good looking, with his hair and scarf flapping in the breeze.
The scion of one of Burgundy’s most important families, Jean-Charles then was in the process of launching his California operation, which now includes Lyeth, De Loach, Lockwood, Raymond, Buena Vista, Frenchie, JCB, California Rabbit and Amberhill. (Those are only the California properties.) The company now is known as Boisset Family Estates.
The three flagship wineries are, of course, De Loach, Raymond and Buena Vista, which was Jean-Charles’ most recent (2011) acquisition.
The Boisset family is one of the few players able to buy California wineries these last few years, since the Great Recession. As a longtime observor of watching wineries pass hands (Buena Vista, for example, has gone through more owners than I can even remember), I’ve developed a single litmus test for whether these transations are good or bad–for the consumer, that is: Does the new owner trade on the good name of the winery by driving quality downward, or does he raise quality?
It’s an important question, because these wineries that are bought generally have names that are well-known to the general public, and even if quality gradually goes south, the wines continue to sell well for years, because the public doesn’t really understand that quality has been compromised. By the time it does–if it ever does–the owner then can resell the winery to someone else, and walk off with his profit.
I am not going to name names, obviously, but this kind of thing does happen in California. It’s always sad to see a winery that once had a great name run into the ground by new ownership anxious to squeeze out every cent of profit they possibly can. The opposite of that kind of sad transaction, of course, is when a new owner buys a winery that–while good–has been troubled, for one reason or another, and then, instead of running it into the ground, has the vision, taste and means to resurrect the winery. When you see these kinds of renaissances, it cheers your heart, and lets you believe that unbridled capitalism can have positive effects.
There are two gentlemen these last few years who have been buying wineries and, as best as I can tell, are intent on elevating them. One is Charles Banks, who recently acquired (wholly or in part) Qupe and Mayacamas. Those familiar with both wineries and with Charles Banks have to be thrilled, particularly with Mayacamas. How exciting it will be to experience future vintages, which I have no doubt will restore the great name of Mayacamas.
The other gentleman is, obviously, Jean-Charles Boisset. De Loach wasn’t exactly a slouch when Boisset bought it, but the wines have either maintained their quality in the years since, or actually improved, especially the single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and Zinfandels. Raymond’s progress has been spectacular (thanks, in part, to Philippe Melka’s role as consulting winemaker and the talented Stephanie Putnam). The style of its reds (Cabernets especially) is softly approachable and utterly delicious, wines of such immediate appeal that there’s no reason to cellar them–but they will mellow, too, with ten years in the bottle, if that’s how you roll. Concerning Buena Vista, it’s a little too early to tell. I’m not certain I’ve tasted any Buena Vistas produced since the Boisset takeover. I can say that, while I liked many of its wines in the 2000s, they were good rather than outstanding. Boisset did not acquire the winery’s sprawling Ramal Road vineyard, in the Carneros, which was the source of most of its top wines. I’m not entirely sure how Jean-Charles plans to replace those grapes, but I know that he will, and will do so with diligent intelligence. So, again, it’s very exciting to look forward to future releases from this legendary winery, California’s oldest (1857).
Beyond the quality of the wines, Jean-Charles certainly is one of the most colorful personalities in California. Few exceed him in the sheer, sunny force of his personality. It’s one thing to have an overwhelming personality; it’s quite another for that personality to be so affectionate, even lovable. Combine that with a passion to make great wine, and you have something that’s world class–that can, in fact, symbolize California’s own sunny, optimistic nature. Jean-Charles may have been born in Burgundy, but he has turned into the quintessential Californian.
With Jean-Charles at Raymond
If I see one more report of a “global wine shortage,” I’m gonna hurl.
It all started with a report from Morgan Stanley, the big investment bank, that “Global wine consumption has been on the rise almost without interruption…since the late 1990s,” while at the same time, “World production hasn’t managed to keep pace.” Next thing you know, every news outlet in the world is screaming that the sky is falling. My in-box has been filled with such reports, thanks to Google Alerts. Here, for instance, and here, and here, and here.
The Morgan Stanley report went viral, instantly, but does it hold water? My first reaction, yesterday, was not to believe it: California, which still supplies the lion’s share of wine to the U.S., had its biggest crop ever in 2012, and 2013’s harvest apparently also will be a large one. (We don’t have the details until the Dept. of Food and Agriculture issues its Crush Report next year.) And, this just in: In Washingron State, the 2013 harvest will be the biggest ever.
My skepticism also was fueled by my increasing suspicion of “news” on the Internet. Reporters eager to file deadlines rush to embrace findings from “authoritative” sources, and Morgan Stanley certainly seems like an authoritative source, doesn’t it? And yet we’ve seen all too often how “authoritative sources”, including–gasp!–banks, sometimes get things wrong. (Ever hear of sub-prime mortgages?)
Then lo and behold, Thursday morning’s San Francisco Chronicle had a front page article in the print edition on the subject. The online version was headlined “Experts dismiss prediction of global wine shortage.” Here it is.
In it, the paper’s reporter, Stacy Finz, cited numerous people holding important positions in the wine trade, banking and analysis, each of whom said, in effect, that the Morgan Stanley report is twaddle. Go ahead, read Stacy’s article.
The dangers of mindlessly embracing every new report or study without subjecting it to proper journalistic scrutiny are obvious. A local ABC News affiliate in reaction to the report ran this online article suggesting that wine lovers “might want to start stockpiling your favorite bottles.” Forbes picked up on this and wondered if the looming “shortage” doesn’t “present a good investment opportunity.” Next thing you know, here’s the L.A. Times, parroting the warning: “You may want to start stocking up now.”
It’s like that old party game of telegraph, where one person whispers something in someone’s ear and then, ten people later, the message is total gibberish.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not disputing that there may be some upcoming shortage of wine in the future. Just last May, I blogged about similar reports that were surfacing about global shortages. However, as one of my esteemed commenters–the Hosemaster of Wine himself–wryly noted at that time, “isn’t there a shortage every ten years or so?”, the implication being that perhaps, just perhaps such dire predictions of shortages might benefit certain parties who stand to make more money if people start hoarding and prices rise. Who could such parties be? Hmm.
What troubles me about this latest feeding frenzy of media speculation is what has long bothered me about the Internet: “news” spreads virally around the globe and is routinely accepted as true by lazy reporters who then in turn are cited by even lazier bloggers, ad nauseum, until everybody believes it, except for the inconvenient fact that It may not be true. And if it’s not? Nobody’s going to come back in two years and accuse Morgan Stanley of getting their facts wrong. And even if someone did, I’m sure Morgan Stanley wouldn’t care.
I heard Roger Rosenblatt, the writer, on NPR yesterday, being interviewed about his new memoir, The Boy Detective: A New York Childhood.
(I haven’t read it, but plan to.) In the interview, Rosenblatt described how he used to pretend to be a detective when growing up in Manhattan’s Grammercy Park neighborhood, and how that sense of imagining later helped inform his writing.
When I was a boy, growing up in the borough of The Bronx, just north of Manhattan, I too used to play in the park, across the street from our apartment building, and would pretend to be an archeologist. I’d find scraps of discarded materials–the top of a cola bottle, a rusty nail, a crumpled piece of cardboard–and pretend that they were treasures I’d unearthed on an archeological scavenge or dig. I would make up, spontaneously and in the greatest detail, complete histories of those artifacts: who had owned them, how old they were, what they were used for. It was all silly, harmless pretending, but, looking back now, I can see that I was developing the intellectual tools (curiosity, improvisation, the elaborate construction of a narrative) that were later to prove so useful in my own career as a writer.
You might think that wine writing has nothing to do with imagination, but you’d be wrong. At first glance, talking about wine seems to have nothing to do with anything but facts: where was it grown? What is the alcohol? What kinds of oak was it aged in? What are the specific flavors? But of course, such a recitation of facts would give nothing of value to consumers, who want to know: What do you think about the wine?
This is where imagination comes in. When I used to pick up a rusty piece of metal in the park, that was all it was: a rusty piece of metal. Garbage, most people would say. And in fact, if you simply looked at it as a rusty piece of metal, that’s all it was. It took imagination to see it as something left over from the Stone Age, a scraping tool to carve out a lump of stone formed into the shape of a fertility goddess. Yet that’s how my mind worked.
It’s pretty much the same with a glass of wine. At the most fundamental level, it is what it is. Even the greatest wine doesn’t blow your mind if you don’t know what it is. Wine is just fermented grape juice, sometimes elaborated with winemaker bells and whistles such as malolactic fermentation, lees aging and barrel fermentation and/or aging. There’s not much more going on, whether it’s Two Buck Chuck or Petrus. What you find in it depends in large part on what you bring to the experience: your expectations and imagination.
When I was a young druggie [yes, let’s get that out], Dr. Timothy Leary used to say that the acid experience depended on the combination of set and setting. “Set” was the underlying psychology you brought. “Setting” was your immediate environment. “Set” was unchanging: you are what you are. “Setting” varied enormously and could be the determining factor in whether you had a good trip or a bad one.
What all this has to do with imagination is that the judgment of a particular wine has to do with subjective factors. I believe that there is no “external reality” to a wine. The ultimate judgment is dependent on the setting: what do you know about it? How are you experiencing it–at the winery, tasted openly with the winemaker? Blind, in a paper bag among a flight? When you taste blind, you are in the same boat as an archeologist who comes across an artifact in a dig. What is it? You know very little, but your mind desperately tries to put the pieces together. And so you come to a conclusion: it’s early period Egypt, or pre-Columbian Native American, or a Neanderthal tool. You make inferences based on your knowledge, and your excitement level rises or falls with your conclusions. If you have no knowledge, you can make no inferences. You simply like the wine or you don’t, which is useless from the point of view of helping others understand it. If you understand a great deal about wine, you can develop a historical narrative that others will find useful and compelling. But to do so requires imagination. The wine writer’s seeds are found in his or her childhood fantasies.
“[Y]ou need time in the street,” says Sergio Hormazábal, an important figure in Chilean wine. He’s President of that country’s Association of Winemakers, and was recently asked, in an interview, about his views on marketing.
Here’s a fuller quote. “How to predict what will sell? What is the future? It is very complicated but I think the only way is…to be in places and talk with people…by looking at the street, in a place to catch a hint of what is to come.”
This is a very traditional way of looking at marketing. It means the winemaker (or whoever) should be on the road, traveling to different markets, interacting with people who may be potential customers, having actual personal experiences. “It is not scientific,” Sergio acknowledges, this mystical practice of traveling among the people and establishing bonds. “It is a feeling.” But it is a feeling well known to established marketers for whom numbers, statistics, studies and focus groups are, at best, ancillary parts of their jobs.
Sergio, who sounds like he knows a lot about human psychology, also remarks on how preferences are established. “We talk as if people know already what they want. People do not always know what they want. Instead, give them a taste of something. They like it? A moment before they had not had it. They did not know they would like it.” This fundamental truth also requires the winemaker, or her representatives, to be on the road, out there among the people, pouring and explaining. I would go a step further: it’s not enough to just “give them a taste of something.” Sometimes, people aren’t sure whether or not they like something even while they’re tasting it. This is why so many pourers at tasting rooms will tell you what you’re experiencing even before you’ve had time to decide for yourself. They know that slight open window of indecision is their opportunity to swoop in and influence your judgment and conclusion.
I’ve frequently encountered this myself, not in tasting rooms but when visiting with winemakers. They pour me something, often from a “thief” direct from the barrel, and start describing the aromas and flavors while I’m still swirling. This is always a delicate moment for the wine critic. On the one hand you want to say, “Please. I can make up my own mind.” On the other hand, you don’t want to be rude. So you end up saying nothing, just allowing the words to pass through your brain, but not letting them influence your own experience of the wine.
That can be difficult or easy. It’s easy if the wine is awful. But wines aren’t awful anymore, in most cases. Most wines are perfectly sound and usually quite good, right out of the bottle or barrel. So it takes a little thinking to get to the point where you’re ready to make a judgment, especially if you’re scoring a wine. Eighty eight points? Eighty seven? Ninety one? This is why I take so long to review wines–about eight minutes per, give or take. Some critics claim to be able to rattle off a wine a minute, or less. I don’t understand it.
Anyway, this isn’t an anti-social media rant, so let’s not go there. Just saying that, as Sergio notes, it’s all about face time, not Facebook time.
The issue of wine education always has lingered around the edges of those of us lucky enough to make our living, one way or another, through wine.
The question boils down to this: What sort of formal certification, if any, ought to be required? We all can agree that knowledge is needed, whether you’re a sommelier, writer/critic, merchant, or working in some other corner of the industry. But how should you get that knowledge?
Through most of history knowledge was acquired in informal ways. In the old days, if you wanted to work in the wine trade, you apprenticed with people older and more experienced than you. (Indeed, this is how people like Michael Broadbent and Harry Waugh got started.) Later–as my generation matured–you could self-educate yourself, through the many books and tasting societies that sprang up across the U.S.
Then wine became big business; and like all things when big money is involved, the rules began to change. As competition for jobs increased, employers felt they could tighten up the requirements. In the 1990s, it became evidently more important to have some sort of title: a Master of Wine, or a Master Sommelier. But it wasn’t until after the turn of the 21st century that certifying entities themselves began competing to attract candidates and their tuition dollars.
Today, I’ve lost count of how many different certifying entities there are. I hear from them all the time. In addition to the M.W. and M.S. programs, the Society of Wine Educators has their Certified Wine Educator and Certified Specialist of Wine certifications. The Culinary Institute of America runs several certification programs, and then of course there’s the well-known WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) program, which offers multiple levels of certification. (Jancis Robinson recently promoted it at a speech in New York.) I could list many other similar programs, but the point is that, to get a job these days in the wine industry, most likely you’re going to have to possess at least one certification.
I’ve long had mixed feelings about the process. I recognize the importance of certification for getting a job: it’s similar to the need for a college degree if you want a career in a profession. So I can’t blame anyone for doing whatever they have to do to work in the wine industry. At the same time, the proliferation of certifying agencies raises the prospects that some may not be the path to the gold ring they claim to be. After all, when everyone has some kind of certification, employers will just raise the bar even higher.
Jancis made a very interesting remark in her speech. “Without [certification], you just tend to stick to those regions or varieties that you personally like and you risk never being in a position to discover new things.” I agree with that, to a certain extent: All of these certification programs, as far as I can tell, educate the student about all the world’s wines, so that you come away with a catholic [small “c”] understanding of wine. Nothing wrong with that, but is a universal understanding of the world’s wines necessary for a job in the wine industry? Possibly for some sommeliers and merchants, it is. But I’d wager that 90% or more of jobs in the wine industry don’t call for a universal knowledge of wine. Many, perhaps most writers and critics do focus on a single region (I certainly do), and I don’t think that makes us less effective in our jobs. One could argue it makes us more effective: Perhaps not as broadly conversant, but more deeply knowledgeable than a universalist like Jancis. Let’s say you end up taking a job with a winery or wine company as, say, a brand manager. You don’t need a worldwide understanding of wine: If you’re marketing a California winery, then a knowledge of South African Chenin Blanc isn’t necessary. It can’t hurt, but it’s not integral to your job.
I’ve long watched the increasingly unaffordable cost of college tuition and wondered why this country doesn’t go over to a different form of career preparation. If someone wants to be an auto mechanic (actually, a pretty good job these days), or a lawyer, or a diplomat or clergyman or computer programmer or winemaker, is it really necessary to do four years of undergrad (learning about stuff you will never, ever have to use), not to mention additional years of post-graduate study, plunging the student ever deeper into debt? I don’t think so. The old concept–liberal in thinking, generous in outlook–that the model citizen ought to be widely educated in all areas of human knowledge necessarily is being replaced by a reality-based paradigm in which specific, vocational-based education is seen as more viable and affordable. In the same sense, I wonder if this new cottage industry of wine certification programs is really good for the industry. In my view, we’d be better off going back to an apprenticeship system where the ambitious young student finds herself a mentor in the area she wants to work in (and, vice versa, where a mentor is looking for a good mentee). If additional study of the world’s wines is needed, there will always be ways to get it. But I can guarantee you that, in most cases, it won’t be needed–and, if you do get certification, within a couple years you’ll forget three-quarters of what you paid for anyway.
I caught a little flack last week for leaving Sonoma County out of a blog on California’s Golden Age of Wine.
One person, Judi, commented, “not even a mention of Sonoma?” Another–actually, Hank Wetzel, from Alexander Valley Vineyards–wrote, “I was thinking, wow he did not mention Sonoma County, and then I saw Judi’s comment. I am sure living in a golden age. From cattle land my family and staff have created vineyards and a winery that are bountiful. Sonoma County is so complex, with diverse growing areas, each influenced in a unique way by soil and proximity to the Pacific ocean. This has helped to create an abundance of successful grape growers and wine producers that thrive.”
So I should probably clear this up.
To begin with, assessing the “golden ageworthiness” of a region is obviously a deeply subjective thing to do. There are no objective criteria by which to measure it; it has to do with one’s perceptions. In the case of California regions, my selection of Paso Robles and Monterey and (to a lesser extent) Santa Barbara as being in a golden age is because those regions had very little prior celebrity as wine regions. Paso Robles was long bashed as too hot, while Monterey was criticized as too cold! So for both of them to be producing such good wines, with such a groundswell of young energy, is worthy of note.
You can’t say that Sonoma County is suddenly producing great wine. You can’t argue that it came out of nowhere. Sonoma County is one of the historic birthplaces of California wine. The Russians planted grapes out at Fort Ross in the early 1800s, quickly followed by Spanish Franciscan missionaries. We all know about Haraszthy and the generations of immigrants who widely planted the county, beginning in the 1850s. Sonoma Valley was one of the earliest American Viticultural Areas to be approved (1982), and the astonishing advent of Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley (approved in 1983) moved the county into the forefront of California wine. So it’s not as if Sonoma has been some kind of concealed secret.
Another part of the problem (not that it’s a problem, really–it’s something to celebrate) is that Sonoma is such a huge place, as Hank Wetzel stated. It’s so big and diverse that making any statement about it is like making a generality about France. I once read there are more soil types in Sonoma than in all of France. So many moving parts to Sonoma: how can a single statement connect them all? One might conceivably say this is a golden age for the [far] Sonoma Coast, I suppose, but that area remains too small (from a vineyard acreage point of view) to thus characterize it. Is this a golden age for the Chalk Hill appellation? For Rockpile? I don’t think so. That doesn’t mean that all of Sonoma’s 15 AVAs aren’t producing good wine. They are–as good in some instances as anywhere else in California. It’s just that, in my view, you can’t say that Sonoma County is currently enjoying a golden age.
I suppose that golden ages can occur more than once in the lifespan of a wine region, provided that region is old enough. Bordeaux’s original golden age, of the 18th century, was replicated in the 1980s. In that 200-year interregnum, Bordeaux experienced declines that nearly obliterated it, and that resulted in some very poor wines. No California wine region, however, is yet old enough to have experienced a second golden age. Sonoma County already has had its, in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, it’s the turn of regions to the south.