Despite my Ph.D. in meteorology and the fact that I successfully predicted both the drought and the most recent lottery number*, I have no idea if this El Nino that seems to be brewing in the Pacific will have the desired impact here in dry, dry California, where we’re currently in the midst of a horrible fire season, and the worst months lie ahead.
No wonder everybody got so excited when predictions of a new El Nino started surfacing some months ago. I’ve been watching the media on this, and the drumbeat is getting louder and louder. Now, the San Francisco Chronicle (which has been covering the drought quite closely) is forecasting that this winter’s El Nino will be “worse than ‘97-‘98” and could in fact be a “monster.”
That is great news, but if you really pay attention to these things you know that El Nino, in and of itself, is a very poor indicator of coming precipitation. Just three days ago, the same Chronicle noted that “some of the state’s wettest winters have occurred when no El Niño was present, or during the opposite condition, La Niña, in which the Pacific Ocean is cooler than usual,” and they added this kicker: “Fact is, out of 23 El Niño events over the past 65 years, only nine resulted in wetter-than-average winters.”
Still, NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is bullish. In their most recent update, they predict “a strong [El Nino] event” that will achieve “peak strength” early this coming winter, followed by “a 90% chance that El Nino will continue through [the] Northern Hemisphere winter” and then “last into early Spring 2016.”
What does NOAA think it means for rain? Here’s a map showing the current prediction status for next December, January and February, traditionally California’s rainiest months.
You can see that NOAA is thinking the big rains will be in the far southern part of the state. According to the map, Northern California, from about Mendocino down to San Luis Obispo, might be slightly higher in rain than normal. From SLO down to about L.A. the chance of higher than normal increases, although not by much. It’s not until you get from L.A. south to San Diego and Mexico (where the darker green is) that there’s the greatest chance for significantly higher rainfall.
That’s too bad. The majority of California’s water comes from Northern and Central California’s reservoirs, water tables and Sierra snowpack, so even a ton of rain and snow in the San Gabriels and the deserts will make barely a dent in the drought. Still, one can always hope.
* Actually, none of these claims is true, but it was fun to say them
There are very few common Pinot Noirs in the Russian River Valley. Certainly, given the number of producers (in the hundreds), the level of quality is extraordinarily high, especially when we have two vintages in a row—2012 and 2013—that both were very fine, although it looks like ’13 has the edge in terms of consistency.
This was brought home to me following the tasting of RRV Pinot Noirs I arranged last week. In general, I found two different types of wines: darker, more robust and fuller-bodied ones that also tend to be higher in alcohol, and paler, more delicate ones. And yet, some higher alcohol wines can be delicate, while some lower alcohol wines can be dark and heavy. In wine, as in life, beware of generalizations; and don’t go drawing conclusions based merely on alcohol level!
All the wines were tasted blind; identities weren’t revealed until the very end. (Note: I am currently paid by Jackson Family Wines, which owns Hartford Court and Siduri.) We had six or seven people, and the conversation was lively. Not everyone agreed on everything, but I think there was plenty of unanimity in the room, especially concerning the overall quality of these dozen fine wines.
Here are my notes, with scores:
Peirson Meyer 2012 Miller Vineyard. $40, 14.9%, 150 cases. Loved this wine. Complex nose of red cherries, cocoa, sandalwood, cola, persimmons, orange zest, cinnamon and clove. A little heat from alcohol, but not too much. Very high quality. The vineyard is south of Graton, at an elevation of 500 feet. The winemaker/co-owner, Robbie Meyer, has worked at Peter Michael, Lewis and Jericho Canyon. Good for a newish winery to score this well against far more famous veterans. Score: 93.
Paul Hobbs 2013 Ulises Valdez Vineyard. $70, 14.1%. Darker in color, richer and denser than A, despite lower alcohol. Go figure. A bit soft and over-extracted, with cherry pie, cocoa and pruney flavors. Ripe and voluptuous, but a bit too thick for my tastes, and some hard, bitter tannins in the finish. The vineyard is in the Green Valley, near Sebastopol. Score: 88.
Merry Edwards 2012 Meredith Estate. $57, 14.5%. Rich garnet-ruby color. Very aromatic, lots of crushed cherries, rose petal, tea, dried herbs, baking spices. Quite tannic at this time. Complex, layered, but very young. Give it at least six more years. The vineyard is in the Sebastopol Hills area. Score: 92.
Joseph Swan 2012 Trenton Estate. $59, 14.3%, 447 cases. Pale, translucent ruby color leading to delicate, complex aromas of golden tobacco, cranberries, persimmons, cola, cinnamon and clove, sandalwood. Feels delicate and silky, but quite intense in fruits and spices. Nice toast. Good finish. Gentle and lovely now. I thought it will age well, but others disagreed. Score: 93.
Siduri 2013 Keefer Ranch. $46, 14.2%. Pretty ruby color. Fine quality wine. Tasting a bit one-dimensional now, but it’s a pretty dimension. Classic Russian River Pinot: dry, silky, good acidity, nice cherry-cranberry fruit. Lovely to drink now. If I were teaching a class in Pinot Noir 101, I’d use this. Score: 91.
Rochioli 2013 Estate. $60, 14.5%. Good color. Jammy pie flavors (raspberries, cherries). Nice dusty tannins, good acidity, smooth finish. Somewhat oaky and a little rustic. A bit on the light side. This is Rochioli’s basic estate Pinot Noir, not the block bottlings which tend to be superior. Score: 89.
Hartford Court 2012 Fog Dance. $65, 14.7%. Big aromatics: baking spices, smoke, masses of cherries, raspberries, blackberries, plums, sweet vanilla, balsam, wild mushrooms. Ripe, flashy tannins, good acidity. A flamboyant, showy wine that drinks well now and will improve. Also, ironically, an intellectual wine: I kept coming back and finding more. Score: 94.
Failla 2013 Keefer Ranch. $45, 13.7%. A pretty wine, polished and supple. A little disconnected now in the mouth: the oak, raspberries, tannins, acidity and spices haven’t knit together yet. I suspect most people will drink it now, but you really should age it unti 2020. A few tasters found it a bit hollow, but not me. Score: 92.
Dutton-Goldfield 2012 Dutton Ranch Freestone Hill Vineyard. $58, 13.5%, 613 cases. Pretty dark. Feels big and full-bodied despite the lowish alcohol. Dense, glyceriney. Could be more delicate, but it could be an ager. Oodles of black cherries and blackberries, orange rind, cinnamon, smoke. Considerable oak is evident. Hold until 2020, when it could easily be a 93-94 point wine.
Gary Farrell 2012 Hallberg Vineyard. $39, 14.2%. Nice to see this venerable winery doing well despite all the ups and downs of ownership. Combines delicacy with power. Intense flavors, firm tannins, some minerality underneath the bitter cherry candy and mushroom flavors. Very complex and layered, but needs time. Best after 2020. The vineyard is in Green Valley, near Sebastopol. Score: 93.
Dehlinger 2012 Altamont. $70, 14.8%. Oak wood and spice notes dominate, along with strong tannins. Buried underneath is raspberry compote, sour cherry Lifesaver candy and exotic baking spices. Supple mouthfeel, very high class wine, noble, but young. Altamont is from a hilly section of the estate vineyard, which is south of River Road, in the cool, foggy Laguna Ridge section of the valley. Wait until 2020. Score: 94.
Hartford Court 2012 Hailey’s Vineyard. $65, 14.6%. A wonderful wine. At first I was suspicious of the tremendous extract (raspberries, black cherries, kirsch liqueur) and considerable oak (44% new French) but then the innate strength and elegance hit me. A flashy, sexy wine that grew complex as it breathed, giving off notes of balsam and tamari. There is a core of iron-driven firmness I associate with Gold Ridge soils. Very impressive for drinking now and will age. Score: 94.
The most interesting, or at least memorable, California wine I ever had was a 1977 Chateau Montelena when it was fifteen years old.
I’d gotten to know a fellow by the name of Albert Dupont, a Belgian, who was at that time one of the more interesting characters running around Napa Valley. He and his wife had a lovely home in southern Napa, filled with antiques. I never could quite figure out how Albert made a living, but he seemed to live well. He had a sort of gig wherein he would occasionally recork old bottles for wineries. This is a tricky business, because you have to pull the old cork and replace it with a new one, which involves exposing the wine to oxygen, which is something you don’t want to do very much, if at all, because oxygen as we all know will kill an old wine.
So Albert had invented a contraption, a kind of glove box whose inside was filled with an inert gas. He would put the bottle and the opener and the new cork and a wine glass inside the see-through box, then insert his hands into rubber gloves that protruded inside, so that he could perform all these delicate operations oxygen-free.
Montelena had hired him to recork their old library bottles, and Albert invited me to come along. Part of the operation involved tasting the wine to be recorked. After all, if the wine was already dead, or suffering from TCA contamination, there was no point in recorking it. So we were tasting all these Montelenas including that 1977.
It had already lost its primary character and was solidly in secondary or tertiary phases. So aromatic, so delicate, so complex and delicious, I could hardly find words to describe it. (Sadly, I didn’t take any notes.) But it struck a chord inside me, an almost satori-like moment I hadn’t even been looking for. I remember it to this day.
Can I say it was the greatest wine I ever had? Nope. I’m not sure I would call any wine the greatest, just as I couldn’t single out the person who had the greatest influence on my life. Many wines have blown my mind: a 1961 Heidsieck Monopole in magnum I drank in in 1991, a 40-year old Musigny. And not only old ones: my first Saxums wasted me, and there was a young Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris Vendange Tardive that a friend once kindly offered me when I was just starting out; I have a distinct memory of the top of my head exploding with the first sip.
But for some reason that Montelena occupies a special place in my mind. I can’t say why. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Italian word ambiente, which I learned about from Joseph Bastianich’s and David’s Lynch’s superb book, Vino Italiano. By it, the authors mean that everything concerning your experience of a wine—the time, the place, the people, the food, where you’re at in your life—contributes to how you perceive it. I suppose I had that Montelena at a happy time in my life; I had just been hired by Wine Spectator and considered myself a very fortunate young wine writer, indeed. (Of course, that’s not to take away from that ’77. It was a glorious Cabernet, and would have been great under any circumstances, I’m sure.)
I myself will probably never get the opportunity to taste or drink many older vintages of the world’s most famous wines the way some critics do, but that’s all right. I used to know a lot of wealthy people who could drink those wines every day, and I didn’t particularly find most of them to be interesting or vital human beings. Mostly they seemed consumed with their own success, which is a very un-Zen way to live. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve tried to live by the philosophy of “Be happy with what you’ve got.” That’s why I can be happy with perfectly ordinary wines (as long as they’re sound). I love Kendall-Jackson’s new Vintner’s Reserve Pinot Gris (yes, they pay me, but I wouldn’t mention it in print unless I really liked it), and you can get it for less than $15. Does it blow the top of my head off, like that Zind Humbrecht? No, it doesn’t. But I wouldn’t want my head exploding every time I sipped a wine, and besides, I should think I’d get jaded if I had a ZH Vendange Tardive every time I wanted one. Some things are all the more enjoyable because you don’t get the chance to enjoy them whenever you want, so when you do, you really appreciate it.
Have a great weekend!
Have you noticed? They’re everywhere. I swear, they’re reproducing like spores. Why, just the other day, I went down to my local 7-Eleven to get a quart of milk. The refrigerated section includes chilled wine, and when I was browsing the cooler looking for the non-fat, I must have seemed puzzled, for a well-dressed young man, the kind you might see downtown in the Financial District on any work day, approached me.
“Can I help you, Sir?” he asked.
Startled—for I’m not used to being approached in a 7-Eleven—I replied, “No thank you.”
But he was not to be dismissed. “Don’t be intimidated by all the wine,” he smiled kindly. “I’m here to help,” and with that, he showed me the silver tastevin he was wearing on a shiny red ribbon around his neck.
Yes, it turned out he was a sommelier, and 7-Eleven has hired somms to work in their stores in better neighborhoods such as mine.
If you think that’s freaky, last week, after I did my workout at 24 Hour Fitness, I went to the juice bar for a smoothie. Before I could even order, a sommelier came over and smiled. (I could tell she was a somm because she, too, wore the inevitable tastevin, plus she had on a big white plastic nametag that read, “Hi, I’m Pam, your sommelier.”) I had to fight her off, she was so determined to sell me a nice little Vermentino.
Well, I defer to no one in my liking of and admiration for sommeliers, but isn’t this getting a little out of hand? Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times reported on how “growing numbers” of sommeliers are invading our public spaces. Trade tastings are “mobbed” by them; “Hundreds…are studying for the sommelier exams” (and that’s just in Los Angeles!). There have been reports of huge backups on the 405 on days when sommelier examinations are being held.
Wouldn’t you know there’d be a backlash? A friend of mine, who lives in Venice Beach, told me she’s seen people on the boardwalk this summer, in between storms, circulating petitions to limit the number of sommeliers in L.A. According to the petition, “Sommeliers have the same effect on neighborhoods and working people as Uber and Airbnb: they force rents up, driving poor people out of town.”
Here in Oakland, where the sommelier population has been growing faster than that of any other demographic group except for pit bull owners, the City Council has scheduled a public meeting for next Aug. 21 to discuss the issue. The problem seems to be that every store owner who sells alcohol feels he needs to employ a sommelier on the floor, and this, in turn, is causing runaway inflation in the cost of goods, and customer complaints of being accosted. Not only that, but so many people want to be sommeliers that companies are having a hard time attracting applicants for other types of jobs, such as janitors, fire fighters and code writers. One local politician was quoted in the newspaper as saying, “I’m not saying sommeliers are bad, but there has to be a balance, and finding where it is is the job of we elected officials.”
The situation reminds me of when I was a kid in The Bronx. At that time, housewives were just starting to enter the work force, and one of the jobs they did was to sell Tupperware at Tupperware parties. At one point, it seemed like half the ladies you met sold Tupperware. Eventually, of course, market forces resulted in a correction, and nowadays you run into very few Tupperware salespeople. I suspect the same thing will happen with somms. I did some back-of-the-napkin calculations, and it turns out that, for a population of 320 million people in America, we need 1 sommelier for every 126 citizens (I’m not counting illegals). That means we need 2,539,682 sommeliers to adequately serve us. I then did another quick count of the number of actual and potential sommeliers in the U.S., and it comes to 14,576,892, with a margin or error of plus or minus 4,730. That means that we are WAY oversupplied with sommeliers. I don’t know what all the somms who can’t get jobs are going to do. In fact, it’s already starting to hit home: Just this past weekend, I was driving in Oakland and came to one of our fabulous six-way stoplights. There was a grubby young dude sitting on the median strip, holding a cardboard sign that read HOMELESS, HUNGRY, PLEASE HELP. Being the compassionate guy I am, I rolled down my window and gave him a quarter; but, as I knew it would be at least five minutes before I could drive on, I asked him, “Stranger, how’d you come to be so down on your luck?”
“Ahh, t’is a sad story,” he replied, in an Irish brogue. His blue eyes were clear and sad, his face lined, his red hair stringy with dirt. He told me he’d gotten his Senior Sommelier Certification and was working at a top restaurant for a few weeks, but then lost his job when Occupy Oakland smashed his restaurant’s windows, and now he can’t get another job because for every opening there are at least 500 applicants.
We had better get used to this, because it’s going to be happening a lot. Perhaps, with their knowledge of wine, all these millions of unemployed somms can be wine critics. I hear it’s a good job and, while the pay isn’t so hot, the hours are easy and the perks are super.
When Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gregory Pardio hears “Bennie and the Jets”, something comes over him.
“I’ve always associated the song with abundant sunlight and clean-house smells and security,” he told the Wall Street Journal, explaining that when he was a little boy, his mother would clean their house “with the Elton John single playing.”
Now, I love “Bennie and the Jets” as much as anyone, but when I hear it I don’t smell Pine Sol and see sunlight streaming through Venetian blinds. Nor would my mother (who was not much of a house cleaner) have listened to Elton John under any circumstances. (Guy Lombardo was more to her taste.) But I take Gregory Pardio’s point that “Bennie” appeals to him on some highly personal level that ultimately is impossible to explain, even to himself. As he puts it, he adores the song “[e]ven if [I] don’t know the words or what they mean.”
We all have “our songs,” I suppose. Or, to put it another way, we all have songs that strike a particular resonance with us, for reasons that usually occur on an unconscious or subconscious level involving memory, emotion, nostalgia. And I think it’s the same with wine. It’s a cliché to point out how travelers to some little Ligurian town discovered the best wine they’d ever had in a trattoria as the sun set over the sea. Would anyone else like that wine quite as much? Probably not. Same with “Bennie and the Jets” for Gregory. His fond memories of his mother and his childhood wonder set him up for that song to impact him every time he hears it.
What about a “great” wine, like a Grand Cru Burgundy, a First Growth Bordeaux or a cult Napa Cabernet? Do they have some kind of objective greatness that makes them instantly revered by anyone with any sort of understanding of wine? I don’t think so. Most people, even wine lovers with considerable experience, wouldn’t swoon over them if they tried the wine blind, with no context whatsoever. There might be a few people who “got it,” who even when tasting the wine blind experienced something so soulful that they had to stop everything and just experience the reverie. But I don’t think most people would.
There are rock songs that the majority of critics put on their top ten lists. Most reviewers would include Stairway to Heaven, for example. For me, Brown Sugar always does it, but then so does Pink’s You + Your Hand, or Superstition by Stevie Wonder, or almost anything early Beatles, for that matter. I’d be hard pressed to prefer one over the other and would hate to have to declare which is the best.
This is why I say that there are no great wines, just great bottles. Each bottle means something different to each of us, when we sip it. It may mean different things on different occasions. This is why so many wine aficienados say that, while they can appreciate an expensive, critically-acclaimed wine, they’d really prefer to drink something else (cost aside), that means more to them. They want, in other words, a “Bennie and the Jets” wine.
I’ve been in the business of declaring one wine to be greater than another for many years. I still basically stick to that concept. Whenever I have a tasting of wines, one of them always sticks out above all the others. At the same time, I can’t help but be influenced by the amazing revolution I’ve been privileged to be part of, wherein several new generations have arisen that question the pronouncements of “experts,” and share their views over social media. For me, the Big Question going forward isn’t whether or not we’ll still have a handful of “Great Wines” dominating the landscape, but if they’ll be the same “Great Wines” that have dominated it in the past. With everyone having his or her own “Bennie and the Jets” wine, I wonder if we’ll have room for “Great Wines” at all.
My weekly tasting at Jackson Family Wines tomorrow is exciting even for jaded old me. It’s of current release Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs. The lineup as now scheduled is:
Merry Edwards 2012 Meredith Estate
Dehlinger 2012 “Altamont”
Gary Farrell 2012 Hallberg Vineyard
Dutton Goldfield 2012 Dutton Ranch Freestone Hill Vineyard
Siduri 2013 Keefer Ranch Vineyard
Rochioli 2013 Estate
Joseph Swan 2012 Trenton Estate Vineyard
Failla 2013 Keefer Ranch
Paul Hobbs 2013 Ulises Valdez Vineyard
Peirson Meyer 2012 Miller Vineyard
Hartford Court 2013
La Crema 2013
Pretty impressive, eh? With the exception of the Peirson Meyer—which I’d never heard of until a friend recommended I try it—I have a long, rich relationship with each of these wineries and their winemakers/proprietors.
The Russian River Valley is such a vast place, with so many wineries, that I could have broken it down into several regional tastings, such as Middle Reach, Green Valley and Laguna Ridge. Maybe I should have, and maybe I will someday. As things turn out, most of the wineries in tomorrow’s lineup are from the southern stretch of the appellation, with quite a few from Green Valley, although nowadays that appellation seems to be falling out of favor; wineries seem to prefer Russian River Valley or Sonoma Coast. I wonder why that is. The Rochioli, which comes from the north, in that sense is an outlier, as is the La Crema, a blend from various valley vineyards. Still, I hope we’ll get a sense of what Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is all about. What makes one different from Carneros, or Fort Ross-Seaview, or anyplace else?
The neat thing about these regional and varietal tastings is that the smallest imperfections, as well as the greatest highlights, of the individual wines are so much easier to perceive than if you’re just drinking the wine alone. Last week, for instance, the Donum 2012 West Slope really had everything a Carneros Pinot Noir should have—but if you’d tasted, say, the Saintsbury Lee all by itself, you might not have realized it was missing a certain something. Tasting is all about context, then, which can be a problem, because if you taste a lesser wine immediately following a very great one, the former will suffer by comparison. Yet if you’re tasting flights, there has to be some kind of order. The question is, how do you determine it?
Well, if you’re doing—let’s say for the sake of argument—Bordeaux, I suppose it makes sense to lead up to the First Growths by starting with Seconds or Thirds. And even with the Firsts you might want to put Latour after Haut-Brion and Margaux. But we don’t have classifications in California, so arranging the order of the wines is more of a problem. You could taste by alcohol level—going from lowest to highest. But if you did, it wouldn’t really be “blind” because you’d know the alcohol levels, which would tell you something you wouldn’t otherwise know, and possibly contaminate or bias your findings.
Anyhow, while worrying about the order of wines in a tasting of Carneros Pinot Noirs is the sort of thing I think about, it’s not going to keep me up at night.
* * *
I’m very glad to learn that Gallo has bought the old Asti property. I fell in love with this historic place in the Alexander Valley after researching and visiting it while writing my 2005 book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River.
The Asti campus is large and complex, with many beautiful old brick buildings, situated along the old railroad tracks that brought wine from these parts down to the big cities in the 1800s. It’s filled with history–Andrea Sbrabaro is a character out of a novel–and is a fabulous place to visit, only it’s never been open to the public, and most of the buildings were run down because nobody cared enough to restore and protect them. I hope Gallo does. Please Gallo, sink some money into Asti and build it into a historical/educational center!
It’s not an exact match, but if you superimposed a map of red and blue states on top of another map showing state per capita wine consumption in the U.S., there would be a lot of overlap.
So do Dems drink more wine than GOPers? The jury’s out on that one; lots of studies, but no definite conclusions. However, one interesting study does seem to suggest that liberals like wine more than their conservative counterparts. This scatter chart
has Democrat-skewing people drinking more alcohol than Republicans, and drinking different kinds, too: For example, Ravenswood and Charles Shaw veer Democratic, while Kendall-Jackson and Sterling lean Republican. Republicans, if they drink (and many don’t), also seem to like spirits more than Democrats (although you’d never know that after a night on the town here in Oakland!). I have no idea why that is, but I do know this: Wine and food trends start on the West Coast and then spread over the country.
This came to mind over the weekend, when the Wall Street Journal’s “Personal Journal” section published this piece, called “But How Will It Play in Portland?” The article was on how Portland, Oregon “is known…for setting food and restaurant trends that catch on around the U.S.” Despite the headline, there was nothing I saw in the article that particularly supported this argument—after reading it, I have no idea what trends Portland started.
So I interpreted “Portland” to mean the entire West Coast, especially Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area, both of which really have bequeathed food and drinking traditions to America, everything from coffee and sourdough bread to California cuisine, the farm-to-table movement, locovorism, freshness, Asian influences, craft beer and, of course, artisanal wine. The philosopher and mystical gadfly, Alan Watts, once referred to coastal California, including Big Sur and Marin County, as power centers for spirituality—magical places where magically creative people want to live, free of the shackles of conventional norms. Surely Seattle, Portland and San Francisco are such places. And surely, such an iconoclasm is necessary for true innovation in the creative arts.
We have, then, the Bay Area to thank for the gift of wine culture to America. (Proof? Just read Harry Waugh’s diaries to appreciate how a small cadre of wine-loving friends made it all happen in the 1960s.) Perhaps it would have happened if, say, the West Coast ended at Sacramento, perish the thought. Perhaps. But I don’t think so. For all the knocking of San Francisco, and the coastal Pacific Northwest, by certain elements in society, we have influenced this nation in a tremendous way, and will continue to do so, because in order for culture to spread to new places and populations—to go viral, as it were—it has to appeal to the best and brightest: the young, the inquisitive, the intellectual, the creative–the artists and musicians and writers and thinkers, the poets and philosophers and chefs and winemakers, who make America what it is.