(and don’t ask me what those Scottish “rites” are, cuz I don’t know!) yesterday. As this is just a hop, skip and jump from where I live, I took a walk along the Lake to catch up on what’s been happening down in that beautiful part of the Central Coast, whose wines I was one of the earliest national wine critics to commend.
(Incidentally, thank you to the Alliance for choosing Oakland. This is a great city to have wine events in, and I’m grateful for you for selecting us!)
Since 2014, Paso Robles has had eleven sub-AVAs within its greater borders but, as the Alliance’s communications director, Chris Taranto, told us, it took seven years to make that happen! Which sort of made me shudder, because as you probably know I’m trying to get a new AVA up in Willamette Valley. But I don’t think it’s going to take seven years…
I’m not going to publish all my tasting notes from the event. But here’s one I really liked:
Jada Vineyards 2013 Strayts, $50. This is a blend of 75% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon. The alcohol is a hefty 15.2%, but the wine isn’t at all hot…I’d call it mouth-warming. Black in color, with impressive aromas of dark chocolate, bacon, violets, blackberry jam and smoky oak. A big, thick, dramatic wine with a wonderful texture: caressing and lively. Rich in tannins, sweet in fruit, but fully dry. I thought the wine is best consumed early, to appreciate its fresh, vibrant fruit, and scored it 92 points.
Paso still seems to have that element of experimentalism that always made me admire it. When I was at Wine Enthusiast, I wrote (and blogged) about how some Napa Valley winemakers were migrating there because, they told me, they felt that in Napa their hands were tied, making expensive Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas in Paso, they felt they could be free. Since Paso had no overwhelming reputation for any particular variety or style, they could make anything they wanted, any blend, no matter how weird or unconventional. I think Paso Robles still has that admirable quality: a place that, like the Wild West, lets you be whatever your aspirations envision.
Before the big tasting, they had a seminar, and, having been on a zillion of those in my time, it brought back memories of sitting on panels and hoping to have an excited, happy audience. I must admit to thinking there’s got to be a better format for these things. As it is, everybody sticks the winemakers at a table on a dais in front of the audience. There’s a moderator, the audience tastes wines in turn, and the winemakers talk about their wines, usually in technical terms. You can see people zoning out, in some cases, as the winemakers go on and on about clay and fog and barrels. I wrote, “We need a new conversational model for these things. How can we make them more lively and interactive?” I admit I don’t have any good answers. I’m good at diagnosing the problem but the solution, if any, is eluding me. Maybe there is no solution; it comes down to personalities. Some speakers are more exciting than others. And some audiences are more participatory and more willing to get involved than others. Whenever I’ve been on a panel, I try to stir things up a little bit, and whenever I’m in the audience, I feel like I have a responsibility to make this thing a success, so I ask a few questions and make a few remarks. It takes a village to pull of a successful wine event.
Have a lovely weekend!
Spent a delightful and as always an educational day yesterday accompanying some of our Sales people to a couple San Francisco restaurants. I always look forward to these trips, because they are sheer adventure. You never know what you’re going to get.
We went first to a small eastern Mediterranean place in the Mission District, Tawla, which has been getting huge press lately. It’s on Valencia at Duboce, a neighborhood that’s been undergoing a lot of pressure lately due to gentrification. But you know what? I was hanging out there 35 years ago, and it hasn’t changed that much! Still gritty, with (let us say) an interesting local street population. The somm was a guy who’s worked at a lot of Michelin restaurants but, he explained, wanted something smaller, where he could have a more creative, curated wine list.
Now, if you don’t know Scoma’s, it’s one of the mainstays of Fisherman’s Wharf. As I told the wine guy, who’s been there for 20 years, he’s probably served several generations of my family over the decades.
Each of these places and people was totally different. But each is part of the mosaic that makes up San Francisco. Although I’ve lived in Oakland for close to 30 years, I lived in San Francisco for a decade prior to that, and I still love going there. It’s only 3 subway stops away from my place, so it’s easy; driving and parking in S.F. is a total nightmare. Everybody gripes about housing prices in the City, but when I moved there, in 1979, everybody was griping then about the same thing! As I suppose they were in the 1940s. So the more things change… I think San Francisco is fundamentally unalterable, and I mean that in a good way. You can bend it, stretch it, but you can’t break it. It’s the old Barbary Coast: a little bit nice, a little bit naughty, and heart-achingly beautiful.
You know, some people have asked me if it’s not odd for me to have gone from being a wine critic to working for a wine company. My answer is always the same: not at all. I’ve always been a bit of an iconoclast (if that’s not already obvious) and I still am. I didn’t fit into a neat, tidy little package as a wine critic, and I don’t fit into a neat, tidy package working for Jackson Family Wines. The most important thing to me, in the intellectual sense, is honesty. I don’t lie well, I don’t spin well, it’s hard for me to hide my feelings (as my Facebook friends and Twitter followers no doubt are aware). When I meet people at restaurants and wine stores on these sales trips, I act exactly the same as I would at a cocktail party: put on a smile, try to engage, find things in common to talk about. If the people want to talk about the wines, I’m down with that, and the Jackson sales people I’m with often know more about the technical details than I do; together, we can answer any question (almost).
But from these trips I’ve learned something I really didn’t understand when I was a wine critic, and that’s the value of relationships. Wine critics don’t need to establish relationships in the industry. They can, of course (and we all do), but the essence of being a wine critic is that you’re a loner. I was a bit of a loner as a critic. You have to be; you have to keep your emotional distance from people whose wines you might have to trash. In sales, it’s different, and I truly enjoy making these connections. People are fabulous treasure troves to dig through, to discover who they are, where they’re coming from, what makes them smile. Which makes me look forward to next week, when I’ll be in Texas, from which I hope to be able to blog every day.
What are California’s grand cru vineyards? Somebody at work asked me this question, for a project they’re working on, so it got me to thinking.
Some years ago, I wrote an article for Wine Enthusiast (which I no longer have available, alas) on California’s five greatest vineyards. Before I could make that determination, I had to define what I meant by “greatest.” There’s no objective definition; it’s purely subjective. Besides, there are so many fantastic, famous vineyards, you really have to cull the field to make your article manageable. So I decided on the following parameters:
- The vineyard must have a long, consistent history of producing great wines. (“Long,” by California standards.)
- Following #1, the vineyard probably will be known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (on the one hand) and Cabernet Sauvignon, on the other. (Sorry, other varieties, you lost out on that one.)
- The vineyard must not be the exclusive monopole of a single winery. Although it may primarily be associated with a single winery, it must also sell some of its fruit to other wineries. In this way, the vineyard’s name and fame are spread, and a fairer assessment can be made.
This last rule was a little controversial, I must admit. It excluded vineyards including Harlan’s Estate, or Screaming Eagle. But it left enough room for Beckstoffer-Tokalon, Pisoni, Sanford & Benedict, Bien Nacido and Rochioli to make the list. They all sell fruit to other wineries, they’ve all been around long enough to have established track records, and surely nobody would quibble about any of them.
Today, ten years later, I have mixed feelings about this sort of thing. The historian in me reveres the notion of great vineyards, Grands Crus, First Growths and the like. If you’re a wine geek with a penchant for reading about the history of wine, you know that certain vineyards always have been considered the greatest, from time immemorial.
On the other hand, part of me–the democratist–realizes that “grands crus” are not as rare as may once have been thought! In other words, they’re not exactly unicorns. With modern advances in viticulture and enology, vineyard managers are now able to deliver far more distinguished fruit, from far more sources, than ever before. Indeed, if we look to Mother France for a clue, we see a near-constant reshuffling of reputations in Bordeaux, for example: Second- and Third Growths now said to rival Firsts. In Burgundy, in Champagne, in many places, the traditional hierarchies are falling, as tastes change and opportunities arise for garagistes or for long-established wineries that are cleaning up their acts. I also know, as a media maven, that the reputation of the so-called top (or cult) vineyards often is based, not on objective quality, but on the decision of wine writers to include them on their “best” lists! With all due respect, Screaming Eagle is not the best Cabernet in Napa Valley. It’s one of dozens that are “the best.” There is no “best,” nor can there be, unless you are absolutely ideological about it and don’t care about fairness. So I’m somewhat loathe to say “These are California’s great vineyards,” because that implies that the rest of them—the 99 percent—are not great.
Still, I think there’s a useful purpose in trying to identify the top vineyards, although this has to be based on clearly spelling out your parameters, with all the caveats that this imprecise effort involves. It’s also fun: we all like reading about this stuff, don’t we? And so, dear readers, what are your nominations, and why?
I’m glad they’ve finally figured out what to do with the old COPIA building, after all these years. And what is that, you ask? The facility will become “a satellite of the Greystone campus” of the Culinary Institute of America, which itself is in St. Helena, according to Eater.
I wonder if it will work, though. The description of its planned use—“demonstration kitchens, a new restaurant, and an outdoor amphitheater [and] food and wine events…a shop with cooking equipment, books, and specialty foods…and private events such as weddings, business events, and the like,” sounds awfully like what the old COPIA did, minus the museum, which, with all due respect, was never very interesting to begin with. COPIA was a hodgepodge whose total was less than the sum of its individual parts. It never did catch on with the public.
It was said that one of the reasons COPIA never made it was due to the location, on the “wrong” side of the Napa River from downtown Napa. Well, the facility is still in the same place. Granted, more people are lured across the river these days by such attractions as the Oxbow Market. But still, you have to ask yourself if you’d make a destination of seeing a “demonstration kitchen.” I’ve been in a zillion demonstration kitchens, and unless you’re an actual student, studying the technique of a chef, it’s pretty boring. As for a new restaurant, well, Napa Valley has a lot of restaurants. This one will have to be pretty special and different if it wants to survive.
The idea of a “shop” is interesting. What will it be, a sort of Williams Sonoma? (And by the way, there will be a “Chuck Williams tribute museum” on the premises; he was the founder of Williams Sonoma. What sorts of things will they display—his original whisk? An old omelet pan?) And what’s this “books” thing? Cook books? Wine books? John Grisham? I like the idea of shopping for “specialty foods,” but between Oxbow and various markets in St. Helena and Napa (which already has a Whole Foods), that market is going to have to be pretty fantastic to lure people to the location.
Of course, the new center will probably be a very nice place to have a wedding or corporate retreat, but again, it’s going to have to compete against all the country clubs, wineries and restaurants in Napa Valley that already cater to that crowd. So I’m kind of scratching my head. I wish the new CIA center good luck, but if it was an IPO, I wouldn’t buy in.
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Just for the heck of it, I Googled “wine,” then clicked on “News,” and the number one hit was this Wall Street Journal article on New Jersey wines.
I have no opinion whatsoever on New Jersey wines, never having had any, unless you count the Manischewitz I occasionally tasted and hated when I was a little boy at my cousins’ house in Teaneck. But I do have questions about this result. Why is the WSJ article #1 on Google News/wine? How do you get to that coveted position? I feel like I should know; I’ve asked lots of people to explain it to me, and many have, in endless prose, until my eardrums revolted. But I still don’t get it: how do you end at the top of a pretty generalized Google search? Does it cost a lot of money? If so, the “hit” results should have asterisks, indicating they may have been purchased. This is called transparency, the value we all claim to worship.
There’s a less sinister explanation: The Wall Street Journal is one of the nation’s most important newspapers. Lettie Teague has earned her way into the top ranks of today’s thoughtful wine writers. These things in themselves may explain the Google rankings: sheer popularity. Still, I wish somebody could really explain it to me in a way that makes sense.
In these dog days of summer, with dangerous wildfires burning up and down the coast, and the country in a state of political hallucination, I retreat into the pleasanter realms of wine history, where everything is neat, tidy and comprehensible.
Well, almost. Dan Berger’s recent column on Santa Barbara wine history ignores one of the Founding Fathers of modern-day viticulture and winemaking in that county, H.W. “Bill” Collins, whose Tepusquet Creek vineyard was planted as far back as 1964, according to the historian Leon Adams, in his signature 1973 book, The Wines of America. It was Collins, Adams tells us, who planted 100 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Johannisberg Riesling, Sylvaner and Chardonnay “on virgin land in a sparsely populated area where nobody had ever tried to grow grapes before.”
That area was, of course, the Santa Maria Valley, and specifically a high bench of the San Rafael Mountains above the winding Sisquoc River, 20 miles inland from the sea. Those first grapes, Adams reports, were bought by the old Mont La Salle winery, belonging to Christian Brothers, in Napa Valley; the winemaker who bought them was then-Brother Justin Meyer, who famously went on to found Silver Oak. Meyer, says Adams, “said the wines were of superior quality.”
One wonders what the Cabernet tasted like. Back then, more than fifty years ago, growers had little idea which varieties to plant in which locales. The notions of site-specificity, terroir and even of climate regions were little developed. In their place, the Marketplace ruled; growers planted what they thought would sell, and they planted it anywhere they could. Today, of course, practically nobody would think to plant Cabernet Sauvignon in the Santa Maria Valley, where the average summer temperature is barely in the mid-70s; Cabernet doesn’t get ripe there (which is why Santa Barbara vintners developed the more inland Happy Canyon region). As for Sylvaner, I don’t know if it would ripen in the Santa Maria Valley, but who cares? Nobody would buy it anyway; maybe a somm here and there. Instead, the valley has become a hotbed (pardon the pun) of Pinot Noir, but fifty years ago, only a clairvoyant could have known that Pinot would become a superstar.
History is a very important thing to “get right” but it’s all too easy to get it wrong, or at least to omit the details, like that of Collins planting his vineyard well before the other vintners Berger mentions (Mosby, Zaca Mesa, Firestone, Fess Parker) planted theirs. Having said this, as one who’s done a lot of historical wine reporting over the years, I’m the first to testify how hard it can be to pin down the facts. My own employer, Jackson Family Wines, who owns the Tepusquet Vineyard, on their own website states that the vineyard “was planted between 1970 and 1971.” But whether or not the Tepusquet Vineyard was or is the same thing as the Tepusquet Creek vineyard of which Adams wrote, I have no idea. A tantalizing hint is contained in this reporting from The Prince of Pinot, who states that a certain “Bill Collins” was—not the owner, but the vineyard manager of that original vineyard, which was owned by Uriel Nielson and Bill De Mattei. (The Prince of Pinot article agrees that the planting dates to 1964.) And Uriel Nielson, we know, planted his eponymous vineyard, now owned by Byron (also a Jackson property) in 1964. Coincidence? Was Nielson’s Tepusquet Creek vineyard that which today is known as Nielson?
All this at any rate suggests how slippery history can be, an alarming thought when we consider Santayana’s prescient warning (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”) and also how certain politicians in this country try to take cynical advantage of certain people’s ignorance in order to launch themselves into power. An ignorant fool is always more susceptible to the snake oil of a charlatan than an educated man or woman, who cannot be persuaded by some charlatan’s blatant lies on Twitter. An ignorance of wine history, fortunately, is not nearly so dangerous to the republic as ignorance of political and cultural history. But still, ignorance, in any field, never is a good thing. One might object—it certainly is feasible—that it hardly matters who planted what, when; what counts is how the wines are today. That is certainly true. But anyone who enjoys a good glass of wine, from a property with significant history behind it, will find her enjoyment of that wine immeasurably enhanced by a proper understanding of that history.
Gus and I headed up to the Alexander Valley yesterday for a tasting. It was chilly and foggy in Oakland when we left early, and the ride could have been worse: only 1-3/4 hours. We drove up the 101 to Alexander Valley Road, turned east through some awfully pretty wine country, and then—before reaching the winery—stopped by the old Jimtown Store
for a late breakfast and bracing cappuccino. The temperature in the valley already was in the 80s, under a cloudless, azure sky. While I was eating Gus checked out the flowers.
Our destination was right around the corner:
Stonestreet Wines, owned by my employer, Jackson Family Wines. From the winery itself
you can look further east, to the west wall of the great Mayacamas Mountain Range, and see the mountain
Jess bought years ago, for which we’re currently trying to establish an A.V.A., since it makes no sense to say that mountain wines come from a valley appellation. The family long has called it Alexander Mountain Estate, and it was the Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays off this sprawling, beautiful property I had come to taste.
The thing to understand is that this very large estate is broken into a series of smaller vineyards, with extensive wildland corridors inbetween through which wildlife–bears, cougars, deer–can pass on their millennial expeditions. Each smaller vineyard was planted to particular varieties depending on soil analysis, elevation and exposure. (They have this wonderful schematic model in the tasting room that explains everything, but if you can ever arrange a tour of the mountain, I highly recommend it.)
The first flight was white; the second, red. All the wines are Stonestreet. Here are my abbreviated notes. There was no need to taste blind.
2013 Broken Road. Rich golden color. Complex aromas of wet stone, tropical fruit, white peach, crème brulée, baking spices. Rich and delicious, with bracing acidity and a creamy texture. Score: 95.
2013 Upper Barn Vineyard. Rich golden color. Similar to Broken Road, but more saline and minerals. Ripe white peaches, tropical fruits, buttered toast, crème brulée, vanilla bean. Insanely rich, with bracing acidity. Notable for its superior structure. Score: 96. This is the white wine I brought home with me.
2013 Gravel Bench Vineyard. Rich golden color. The oak is more apparent (it’s the only Chard aged in 100% new French oak). A big, exuberant wine, with tropical fruit, nectarine and white peach fruit. On airing the oak got more integrated. Score: 92.
2013 Gold Run Vineyard. Rich golden color. Nice, firm flintiness, but the fruit and oak star. Tiers of golden mango, crème brulée, lemon meringue, vanilla bean, honey custard. Excellent acidity. A real star. Score: 95.
2013 Bear Point Vineyard. Good golden color. Nose a bit shy, suggesting lemon verbena, honey, golden mango, white peach, vanilla bean, buttered toast. Really rich and wonderful, in a way my favorite for its exquisite tension of parts. Score: 97.
2013 Cougar Ridge Vineyard. Good golden color. A tangy green apple note brings a bite to the mango, grilled pineapple and crème brulée richness. Lots of oak in the mouth: vanilla bean, buttered toast, smoke. Soft, creamy and opulent. Score: 94.
2012 Bear Point Vineyard. Pitch black color at the center, garnet at the rim. Very young and closed now. Jammy plums, tar, coffee and smoke. Thick tannins, bracing acidity. Dense and concentrated. Needs plenty of time. After 2020. Score: 94.
2010 Rockfall. Similar color to Bear Point. At six years, still closed, mute, resistant at first. On airing, hints of dark chocolate, olive tapenade, plums, black currants. Very tannic. Great structure, lots going on down underneath the astringency: creosote, blackberry jam, black licorice, cedar, toast, mushu plum sauce. Reminds me of Lynch-Bages. Needs time. After 2020. Score: 95.
2012 Rockfall. Midnight black without a moon, turning purple at the rim: young, young, young. Hints of blackberry jam, sweet oak, cocoa, rum, plums. Great primary fruit sweetness, plump, fat, rich, but very tannic. Good acidity, elegant structure, great weight and balance, with a very long, spicy finish. Superior if possible to the 2010. Needs time. After 2020. Score: 96.
2011 Christopher’s. The highest point on the mountain, at over 2,400 feet. The blackest color of all, impenetrable. Tight, closed; airing shows blackberry jam, clove, mint (eucalyptus), dust, smoke. Extremely complex but very tannic. Massive core of ripe summer blackberries and cassis; creosote, minerals. Needs lots of time. Drink after 2020. Score: 96. This is the bottle I brought home with me.
2012 Legacy. Another dark black wine with glints of ruby and garnet at the rim. The 30% Merlot in the blend is immediately apparent, giving a floral-violet scent to Cabernet’s blackberries and plums. In the mouth, complex, smooth, more forward than the other Cabs, but still very tannic, with blackberry, cherry, shaved chocolate, anise and baking spice flavors. You could drink it now but it will age for decades. Score: 94.
I picked up an older issue of Bon Appetit in which the “Starters” column (a sort of “Ask Bon Appetit anything you want” feature) has the following question from a reader: Dear BA, I often hear chefs on cooking shows…talking about a person’s palate…What exactly does that mean, and can I train my own palate?
The use of the verb “train” is strange here. I’m reminded of what I had to do when Gus first came to live with me. There was a lot of dog training involved: he was pretty well housebroken, but not entirely, and he had to learn—and respect—my voice commands, including “no,” “stop,” “sit,” “stay” and “come.” This training involved me—the dad—imposing my will upon Gus, the child/dog. It was a process of issue command—wait for result—impose result if necessary—repeat—and repeat—until the result was an obedient dog, which Gus is.
Does one “train” a chef’s or wine lover’s palate in the same way? (“Sit, palate. Give me your paw, palate.”) Bon Appetit’s answer person, Andrew Knowlton, defined a “great palate” for chefs in two ways: a more fundamental level in which a talented chef can identify the flaws in a dish and know instinctively how to correct them: perhaps by adding a pinch of salt or squeeze of lemon.
On a higher level, Andrew defined a great palate by the degree of “taste memory” the taster possesses. According to this approach, the only way to acquire an extensive taste memory is to taste a ton of food (and, for our purposes, wine) over a long time. That way, when you judge a food (or a wine) you compare it to the greatest similar food or wine you’ve ever had. This presumes, of course, that you remember that greatest food or wine, which is why it’s a function of memory.
Well, most of you reading my blog probably have tasted a lot of wine in your time, and you no doubt possess an extensive taste memory (kind of like having a lot of books in your library). Still, I’ll bet you wonder if you have a truly “great palate,” or just an ordinary one. Am I right? Sure I am. I think most of us doubt our palates from time to time, even though we might never care to admit it. I do admit it, and I did throughout my long career as a wine critic. I always did the best I could, honestly and diligently, but I knew that there were palates more acute than mine. There’s always a palate more acute than yours, just as there’s always someone better than you at (name it: basketball, math, making an omelet, dancing, sodoku).
There’s a meme in this business that the best palates belong to those professionals who have undergone some sort of formal training: sommeliers and Masters of Wine. Winemakers, too, are often known as great tasters. I’ve known quite a few great palates in my time. One was (and still is) the longtime winemaker at Jordan, Rob Davis, whom I once saw correctly identify, blind, twelve Cabernet Sauvignons concerning their origin, Napa Valley or Alexander Valley. That’s pretty good.
I once knew quite well a person who was studying for his MW. He’d been at it for years, and was therefore completely saturated in that hard-nosed, analytical approach. When he tasted a wine, blind, he’d go into a sort of mesmerized concentration: eyes scrunched shut, brow wrinkled in thoughtful meditation. Swirling and chewing the wine, he’d begin his written analysis, slowly and methodically working through all the wine’s parameters—flavors, acidity, complexity and so on—until he felt he had a good handle on it. (Sadly, this person never did get his MW, and he eventually dropped out of the program.) Of course, the ultimate expression of this approach—the Gold Medal at the Tasting Olympics, as it were—would be to taste a wine double blind and announce that it is, say, a young Spanish Verdejo. Not Sauvignon Blanc, not Albariño, not Gruner Veltliner. This is the taster’s wet dream: to nail it in public. Polite applause (and perhaps envy) from the crowd—the taster’s reputation is enhanced—the story will go around the wine world via social media in no time.
Yes, that is one definition of a “great palate.” But you have to ask yourself, what’s the point of it all? You take years and years, do all that studying, all the hard work that goes into it, and for what?—so that you can nail Verdejo at a blind tasting? I’ve always said that the kind of tasting skills one develops depends on one’s job. Wine critics, of the kind I was and most of the well-known print critics are, do not need that particular skill. In fact, it may be detrimental to them doing their jobs well. Aspiring MWs and MSs do need it, for one reason only: to pass their respective examinations, so that they can get their credentials. Afterwards, such freakish analytical skills become less and less necessary, as the graduates find themselves careers in which other skills—business, teamworking, networking, accounting, organizing, writing, teaching, food pairing—take center stage. In fact, from the point of view of a consumer (which we all are), what skills do we want to see in the person who’s making buying recommendations to us? Personally, I couldn’t care less if my somm or critic can nail Verdejo blind. But I do want her to know her wines, tell me stories, answer my questions, impartially help me make my decision, and maybe even be able to have a good conversation about something besides wine.