Let me tell you something about the Great Sioux Nation. This is a Native American people that settled the upper Great Plains, in what are now Nebraska, Minnesota, Montana, Manitoba, Saskatchawan and—more to the point—the Dakotas. The name Sioux comes from a Sioux word meaning “little snakes,” but there was nothing little about their ferocity. The various Sioux tribes fought back relentlessly against the incursions of the Anglos into their territories in the nineteenth century: the Dakota (or Lakota) wars of the mid-1860s, Red Cloud’s War of 1866-1868, the Great Sioux War of 1876, and the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890.
The Sioux always had great warrior-chieftains: Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, Rain-in-the-Face. Crazy Horse (who defeated Custer’s forces at the Little Bighorn) defined the Nation’s attitude toward the land they had lived upon for millennia when he observed, “One does not sell the earth upon which the people walk.” This insistence on defending their land was recently etched into the history books with the stubborn resistance of the Standing Rock Sioux, the dominant tribe in the Dakotas, against efforts to build the so-called Dakota Access oil pipeline, whose planned route brought it adjacent to the tribe’s reservation and threatened, in their view, their water supply from Lake Oahe. Starting last April, the Sioux established camps in the region to begin a peaceful protest of the project. By last November, the protests had erupted into violence with local police, as the Sioux were joined by thousands of non-Indian supporters, including at least 2,000 U.S. military veterans who formed a “human shield” between protesters and police. In early December, the U.S. Army, prompted by President Obama, stopped further work on the pipeline, leading some to call it a victory for the Standing Rock.
But most people knew what was going to happen next: Donald Trump had been a huge supporter of the pipeline and had promised to support it if he were elected, which he was. And so, on Tuesday, Trump issued an executive order ordering work on the Dakota Pipeline to be resumed.
Does anyone imagine that the Sioux are going to be cowed? This proud people, this warrior people, who for decades took on the American Army and inflicted upon it grievous losses? Of course not. Immediately following Trump’s unilateral move, they vowed in no uncertain terms to continue their resistance.
“We can’t back down now,” said a Sioux elder, even as other tribes around the country promised to help them as the protests flare up again. The Sioux said they did not want violence, but violence seems inevitable, even though local police said they have “no plans to forcibly remove people from the campsite.” But it’s hard to believe confrontation won’t lead to arrests and, possibly, bloodshed. As the camp swells from its current population of 500-600 to ten thousand, twenty thousand—who knows how many Americans will show up in solidarity, fueled by anti-Trumpism, once Spring arrives?—the pipeline’s owner, Energy Transfer Partners (which donated millions to Trump) is going to have to decide how rough to play—and so will this Trump administration. The right, predictably, already is gearing up for the fight: one of their main propaganda tools, the Wall Street Journal, in their lead editorial yesterday, called the Sioux’s claims about their water “fake news,” an insult, yes, but also a howler, coming from one of the twin pillars of Rupert Murdoch’s fake news clearinghouse (the other being Fox “News”).
So let’s unsheathe our swords and gird for battle. We all know Trump loves a good fight. He hasn’t really faced a tough opponent yet. But in the Sioux, he confronts a daunting, and dauntless, foe; their martial history suggests that they will not back down. When they talk about not selling their land, they’re dead serious. Things are about to get ugly up there on the Dakota plains, as a fractured America becomes even more broken and civil unrest mounts, instigated by an angry, divisive, uncompromising and reactionary demagogue.
Did you hear this? The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the nation’s lead government agency for protecting the public’s health, has “postponed” a major meeting of scientists it had called to investigate the effects of climate change on health.
The Atlanta meeting had been scheduled for next month and reflected the CDC’s concern that global warming is likely to pose major risks to huge swaths of the Earth’s population. On their own website, the CDC specifically points out that “Human activities are mainly responsible for the drastic warming we’ve seen in recent decades,” and they define the following places as being at particular health risk from such threats as rising sea levels, melting glaciers, extreme heat, and changing precipitation patterns, including drought:
- Poor communities
- Small islands and coastal regions
- Developing countries
- Mountain regions
- Polar regions
Well, that’s pretty much half the planet, isn’t it?
The CDC long has studied the impact on health by such weather events. For instance, vector-borne diseases, like Lyme disease and West Nile Virus, may be accelerated by climate change, and air quality may be lowered, due to increased wildfires and ozone. Given the CDC’s mission, which includes identifying preventable health problems and conducting research on disease prevention, the Climate Change and Health Summit—which was attracting scientists from around the world—fell right into the agency’s bailiwick.
And now this postponement. It has caused consternation around the world, as scientists—most of whom already made plans to attend—are forced to scramble and wonder what caused the CDC to change its mind. The agency didn’t explain its reasons, but here’s a hint. “Global warming…is a con,” Trump told Fox News. And on twitter, he said, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” Again, on twitter: “Global warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax!”
Who runs the CDC? The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Whom did Trump just nominate to be Secretary of HHS? Georgia Republican congressman Tom Price. What do we know about his views on climate change? He called the science of global warming “allegedly settled” rather than established, as most climate scientists believe it is. He has consistently voted against Democratic measures to curb greenhouse gas emissions. He’s an artful dodger who knows how to avoid answering a question that makes him uncomfortable. Last week, during Senate confirmation hearings, he insisted that “from a scientific standpoint,” the effect of human behavior on climate change “needs to be studied and evaluated.” Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Except that most scientists—including those at the CDC—have concluded that the time for “study and evaluation” is over, and it’s time for action. When a Republican says he’s in favor of “study and evaluation” about climate change, what he means is: “Let’s just kick this can down the road forever.” (This stalling, based on ideological beliefs rather than science, is disturbingly reminiscent of the CDC’s behavior in the early and mid-1980s, when it was appallingly lax in responding to the AIDS epidemic while the anti-gay Reagan was President.)
One cannot escape the inevitable conclusion that the CDC’s top brass decided to “postpone” the climate change conference because they didn’t want to piss off their new bosses. They knew that Trump probably would have cancelled the conference anyway. Yes, readers, this is the point that’s been reached: Trump, who is a tool of the anti-science Biblical crowd if not a true believer himself, now has cast such a climate of fear onto scientific research that the CDC is censoring itself. What cowards.
You recall that CDC quote I cited earlier? “Human activities are mainly responsible for the drastic warming we’ve seen in recent decades.” How much longer do you think it will remain on their website after Secretary Price takes over? Tick tick…
Chuck Todd for once went beyond his usual “Let’s be nice and fair to everyone, Democrat and Republican alike,” when he confronted Kellyanne Conway on Sunday over Sean Spicer’s bogus claim concerning the inauguration. Still, Chuck couldn’t manage to say the word “lie.” The best he could come up with was “falsehood.”
Well, that’s better than nothing. But, really, the legitimate media—and by this, I exclude Fox, where poor Brett Baier does his best but doesn’t have a chance—has to do a far better job calling out this administration’s lies. And you know what? There are hopeful signs they’re doing just that.
We’ll see how Chuck Todd fares in coming days. But more and more writers are addressing this issue of the Trump administration’s fundamental disregard of facts in favor of Conway’s “alternative facts,” and I can’t recall another time in American history—either that I’ve personally lived through or read about—where the conversation about truth and lies has become so pertinent.
I think it’s fair to say that most of the reporters who cover politics, even the Republicans, know that Trump is a congenital liar. They’re used to lies from politicians, of course, since all politicians do it; lies are the vernacular of politics. But what Trump and his surrogates, like Conway and Spicer, do on a routine basis is far beyond mere lying. Kellyanne Conway gave a garden-variety lie when she said “People don’t care” about Trump releasing his tax returns; actually, 74% of Americans want him to.
But when Spicer, Conway and Trump insist that Trump’s inauguration drew the biggest crowd in history—and comparative photos, shot from the same vantage point, of Obama’s and Trump’s clearly prove this not to be the case, by a wide margin—that is not simply a lie. It is a willful distortion of reality, Orwellian in scope, insulting to intelligence, and violently arrogant because it is so easily disproved.
We’ve come to expect this sort of thing from Trump, the original birther, to whom lies come so easily. We’ve also come to expect a press corps that’s complacent and easily intimidated by powerful politicians. Spicer again lied about the inaugural attendance numbers in his first official press briefing yesterday. Then he lied about lying, claiming that “Our intention is never to lie to you.” But he had the media cowed: nobody really followed through, and there wasn’t a furor in the briefing room, as there should have been.
We have to ask, Why not? Reporters are employees, and very often their bosses are powerful publishers who are conservative Republicans, or the country club chairmen of the boards of the conglomerates that own the TV networks. One reason for media timidity in the face of Republican lies, then, is the fear of being fired. Another is what I alluded to above: they get cowed by a Presidential press secretary like Spicer or a powerful aide, like Conway, much less by the President himself. They don’t want to be personae non gratae, locked out of the room. It would affect their jobs. This is exactly what Conway threatened after Todd confronted her: “We’ll have to re-examine this relationship,” she told him when he pressed her, meaning that she—and anyone else from the Trump administration—just might stop showing up on Meet the Press, which would hurt the program’s ratings.
Journalists, print and electronic, have got to get over this anachronism that they can be impartial reporters of the news. This used to work, but it doesn’t anymore, because the Republican Party, which used to occasionally resort to lies, now grovels in them. A media outlet that pretends that true statements and false statements are somehow equivalent, and debatable, is a disaster and an embarrassment to journalism: look at CNN.
What can you do? Contact the big cable networks when you see their on-air talent let Republicans get away with lies. And don’t forget your local media outlets. TV anchors are hired because of their looks, not their journalistic skills. This issue of fake news, of alternative facts, is the first crack in Trump’s façade—his Achilles heel. Just look how defensive he is over it. It’s possible we can splinter some of his more moderate supporters away from him, honest, well-intentioned people who may be conservative but really don’t want to see a pathological liar in the White House.
Saturday’s massive turnout for the Women’s Marches around the country and the world, which brought millions upon millions of people together in protest of the new American regime, made history. Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017 will long be remembered for the record crowds, which were entirely peaceful, and for the way we finally stood up to a year of being bullied and misled. We have thrown down the gantlet to Trump and his minions: The line has been drawn. You are an illegitimate President, Mr. Trump, and you are on notice that the American people are fighting back.
And now, on a related topic:
Does Character Count?
We are assured by his friends and supporters that Donald J. Trump is really a different person from the angry, vengeful insulter who stalked the campaign trails of America, hurling libels at his many perceived enemies, making false statements, striking the most aggressive poses even at times when he easily could have been conciliatory, and telling lie after lie after lie.
“That’s not the real Trump,” his friends tell us. “In person, he’s actually kind, soft-spoken and caring, with a great heart. Don’t be fooled by how he ran. Watch what he does.”
Really? If it walks like a duck…
I was talking to a dear friend on Inauguration Day, a lifelong Democratic woman who concedes that she has a certain sympathy with the tea party and with Trump. Her main concern is that politicians of all parties run for office on promises to make life better for “the people,” and then do nothing except enrich themselves at the public coffer. This message was a huge part of Trump’s campaign spiel; it appealed to many who felt the same way. Surely, they reasoned, Trump is so rich, we need have no concern he will do things for his own benefit. And so, my friend told me, she agrees with Trump, on this and some other issues.
So when this dear friend told me she was planning on participating in the Women’s March against Trump, I asked her why, since, according to her, he’s right.
She took umbrage and responded, her voice rising in tone, “Because he’s a bad man!”
This is the thing. We’ve seen it from Day One: the arrogance, the smears and slanders, the fact-free rants, the disinformation, the pandering to the worst instincts of the American people, the sexual predation, the anti-Mexican rhetoric, the anti-Islamic demagoguery, the mocking of that disabled reporter, the falsehoods, the continued questioning of Obama’s birthplace, the depreciation of science, the thin skin that showed the insecurity and resentment roiling inside him, the flipping off of more than half the country that voted for Hillary, the palling around with white supremacists, the wink-wink at homophobic groups, the willing misunderstanding of history, the dismissal of expertise, the hubris and authoritarian tendencies, the impeachable collaboration with the Russians, and what seems like sheer vindictiveness when it comes to undoing President Obama’s legacy: It all testifies to a character that is bad.
But does character still count in a President? His fans might argue that, No, it doesn’t. What counts, they aver, are his policies, not his personality: if he can build that wall, deport the illegal immigrants, overturn Obamacare, cut taxes, make government smaller, eliminate regulations, create jobs, crush the coastal elites, restore family values, make better trade deals, destroy ISIS and “make America great again,” then who cares about his character? If he’s a schmuck, at least he’s their schmuck. In their own naïve way, these supporters have reached the same position Winston Churchill did in the early days of World War II (although they’ve probably never read him and may never even have heard of him); when asked why he was supporting the Soviet Union—Churchill’s lifelong bête noir—after Nazi Germany invaded her in June, 1941, Churchill replied:
“If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”
As much as he hated Hitler (Churchill implied), he hated the devil even more. This is how, in politics as in war, strange bedfellows may lay down with each other.
My point is that even Republicans understand the serious inadequacies of Trump’s character, but they are willing to overlook their own reservations because he agrees with their positions. That this makes them—let us be blunt about it—hypocrites is clear, but beside the point. “Perhaps it is a little hypocritical to pardon his moral lapses,” they say, “but if you were trapped in a burning house and a fireman rushed in to save you, would you first demand to know about his moral philosophy?”
Fair enough. But America is not a burning house. By every measure you can think of, things are better—far better—than they were when Barack Obama took office. He successfully reversed the Great (Republican) Recession: unemployment is the lowest it’s been in many years as the number of jobs explodes, the gross domestic product is rising, household income, including for the middle class, is up, inflation is fully under control, the poverty rate is falling, the wage gap between men and women is narrowing, the number of uninsured Americans is way down, violent crime in the U.S. is falling, our air and water are cleaner than ever, the U.S. is making rapid progress in fighting climate change including the Paris Agreement, and of course we have the Iranian nuclear deal that has made the world safer and the end of two major ground wars (although both Iraq and Afghanistan remain problems the new President will have to deal with).
No mean achievements! Not that any Republican will ever give Obama credit, and as these tremendous trends continue into 2017 and beyond, we can be sure that Trump will pretend he caused them to happen—and be believed by his low-information supporters.
Which brings us back to character, or the lack of it. I like this definition of the word “character,” from a non-profit educational group:
Character is a pattern of behavior, thoughts and feelings based on universal principles, moral strength, and integrity – plus the guts to live by those principles every day. Character is evidenced by your life’s virtues and the “line you never cross.” Character is the most valuable thing you have, and nobody can ever take it away.
“…the line you never cross.” Barack Obama never crossed that line into vile indecency because he had—has—character. Donald J. Trump crosses it every day; he lives on the other side of the line. He does not have good character. And character counts.
The San Francisco Chronicle, my paper, has a new columnist by the name of David Talbot, and his opinion piece from yesterday is spot on. His topic isn’t new—the income gap between the one percent and everybody else—but he articulates the facts succinctly—and facts are something we’re going to have to protect, as we descend into this maelstrom of fact-free trumpism.
Entitled “Growing wealth gap is recipe for disaster,” it cites a brand new Oxfam report whose title is absolutely shocking: “Just 8 men own the same wealth as half the world.”
I mean, we knew that a handful of superrich men owned a lot of money, but just eight owning 50% of Earth’s wealth? That is beyond shocking. It’s inexcusable. Now, here from the Oxfam report are those eight men:
- Bill Gates: America founder of Microsoft (net worth $75 billion)
- Amancio Ortega: Spanish founder of Inditex which owns the Zara fashion chain (net worth $67 billion)
- Warren Buffett: American CEO and largest shareholder in Berkshire Hathaway (net worth $60.8 billion)
- Carlos Slim Helu: Mexican owner of Grupo Carso (net worth: $50 billion)
- Jeff Bezos: American founder, chairman and chief executive of Amazon (net worth: $45.2 billion)
- Mark Zuckerberg: American chairman, chief executive officer, and co-founder of Facebook (net worth $44.6 billion)
- Larry Ellison: American co-founder and CEO of Oracle (net worth $43.6 billion)
- Michael Bloomberg: American founder, owner and CEO of Bloomberg LP (net worth: $40 billion)
I’m not saying that these are evil people. Some of them are the biggest philanthropists in the world. Some have pledged to give almost all their money to charity, not to their kids, when they die. I have a great deal of respect for Bloomberg, and several of them—Gates and Zuckerberg in particular—have altered our lives in immeasurably positive ways. So this is not a criticism of them.
No, it’s a criticism of our American system of taxation, including the income tax and the estate tax. That individuals are allowed to accumulate such obscene wealth, while there’s so much poverty and suffering, is the indictment of our age. Look, our tax system didn’t come to us from heaven, like the Ten Commandments: it was written by congressional politicians at the behest of rich people who contributed to their campaigns–people who want to hold onto every dollar they have, and to hell with everyone else. I believe in confiscatory taxes: people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett would remain unbelievably rich even if they were taxed at the 95% level. And even Warren Buffett has remarked how unfair it is that his secretary is taxed at a higher rate than he is.
I’m not going to let Democrats off the hook, because they’ve been a little too cozy with Wall Street and Goldman Sachs and have not pushed as hard as they could for higher taxes on the rich. But you know who’s worse—much worse—than Democrats? Republicans. Everybody knows they’re the party of the rich. Always have been. They’re always calling for lower taxes, even on the Warren Buffets of this country, and they want to do away with the estate tax completely. Now, let me tell you something about the estate tax: as currently constructed, it’s disgusting. I know a family in San Francisco that is uber-wealthy. They now have a third generation living on grandpa’s inherited wealth, and believe me, the kids do absolutely nothing that contributes to the general welfare. (It’s not the Jacksons. They don’t live in San Francisco, and those Jackson kids are terrific, hard workers with social consciences.) That this San Francisco family should be allowed to transfer their wealth, largely untouched, from generation to generation to ne’er-do-wells is appalling, and I will never understand why Republicans let them get away with it: both the Republican politicians and the blue collar types who vote against their own interests in electing these protectors of billionaires.
And now we have a President who is one of them, who has pledged to cut taxes on Warren Buffet and Bill Gates even further (to a maximum 25%), and has vowed to repeal the estate tax, a move that would financially benefit him and his Cabinet—the richest in American history, by the way, collectively worth $14 billion.
It’s disgusting; I think Trump is an oligarch and a fascist, but then, I’m a liberal Democrat, so the teabaggers out there can say “Heimoff is just pissed that his side is losing.” Yes, I am. But I look at the laid-off blue collar dude in Pittsburg or Cleveland and I wonder what he must think when he reads about Trump’s Goldman Sachs administration and the billionaires that are running it. Here’s what he’s probably thinking. “Well, I’m not completely comfortable with some of that, but as long as Trump brings the jobs back, I’m willing to cut him some slack.” Freud would call that rationalization: “A defense mechanism in which controversial behaviors or feelings are justified and explained in a seemingly rational or logical manner to avoid the true explanation, and are made consciously tolerable—or even admirable and superior—by plausible means.” In this case, the “true explanation” is that these blue collar people voted for a man who is completely at odds with them, their families and their friends—a man who would not allow them into his mansions unless they were there to clean the bathroom. These voters make Trump “consciously tolerable” to themselves because to admit the extent of the mistake they have made would be intolerable. Man, do they have a surprise coming at them. And P.S. Trump isn’t going to bring the jobs back, although he’ll lie about that, too.
Like many of you, I watched President Obama’s final press conference yesterday, glued to the television for a last glimpse at one of the greatest Presidents of my lifetime. My emotions were distinctly mixed. On one side I was so proud of this still-young (to me), charismatic man, whom we’ve been fascinated with ever since his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention. On the other side, I was—am—bereft. The thought of losing him, and Michelle, and those beautiful daughters, fills me with no end of distress—especially given what is to replace them in the White House.
Even those Republicans who hated Obama (and almost all of them did), who fought him to the bitter end, not just disagreeing with his vision and policies but insulting him and his family in the vilest way, had nice things to say: about his temperament, his grace and dignity, his personal decency. Obama was certainly all that, and more. He made me (and, whenever I use that first-person pronoun, I know it stands for tens of millions of others) feel so glad to have such a fine human being in the Oval Office. Of course, I agreed with most of his positions (or, rather, he agreed with mine), but I also thought he was splendid as a person. Obama possessed that rarest of human qualities, virtue.
“You were not made that you might live as brutes,” said Dante, in the Inferno, “but so as to follow virtue and knowledge.” In this Canto, Dante addresses, not a man, but a city: 14th century Florence, where the Renaissance was aborning, but where also the Black Plague had decimated the population, and the Medici were undermining democracy. It was to spare his countrymen from Hell that Dante reminded them of their duty “to follow virtue and knowledge.”
Obama tried similarly to spare us from a sort of Hell: a divided, rancorous population that had fallen far from grace and was given to petulance, resentment, hatred and ignorance. That he failed is not his fault, for he was undermined, not only by Republicans, who pandered to those ill feelings, but by history itself: America may simply not be ready for healing, or we may have moved past the point where it is possible (although I hope not). These lamentable thoughts went through my mind watching the President yesterday, his face lined with the weariness of knowing that, although he had given it his best, his best was found wanting.
And now, on to what is to come next, and this is the saddest, most depressing part. What is the antithesis of grace? It has a name. Trump ran the foulest, most vulgar, mendacious and base campaign in modern American history. Even his fellow Republicans acknowledge this: most of them found it impossible to support him until he had actually won. That a person this ignoble should live in the House where Obama lived, sit in his chair and work at his desk, is obscene. We watched Sasha and Malia grow up, lovely, intelligent, scandal-free children and, now, young women. And Donald Trump’s children? Two spoiled sons whose idea of fun is to kill exotic animals. We watched Michelle Obama indelibly mark the First Lady’s office with sensitivity, intelligence and graciousness. We now have an incoming First Lady who posed in Lesbian pairings as a model before she married her current husband, whose wife is his third. In Obama, we saw the most respected man in the world, with the possible exception of Pope Francis. In Trump, we have the least respected.
Well, I could go on, but this is a time to sadly reflect on what we are about to lose: Obama, and what we are to inherit: Trump, an unvirtuous brute, with little respect for knowledge. It is sad. It is mournful, for each of us individually, for America, and for the world. But we have got to pick up the pieces and get on with the job of regaining America so that another Obama may someday arise. And a good place to start will be this Saturday, when marches occur the length and breadth of this nation to let the incoming administration know that they will not be allowed to impose a hateful agenda on our country. I was watching the television yesterday and they were talking to a lady who is helping to organize the Women’s March on Washington. She said, “You know, people are talking about this march as if it’s going to happen and then go away. This won’t be the end of anything. It’s the beginning.”
Be of good cheer. You are not alone.
Aratas 2012 Shake Ridge Ranch Petite Sirah (Amador County): $52. Alcohol 14.9%. This is a real mountain wine, grown at an elevation of 1,700 feet. The climate in this part of California is wild, with very hot summer days that turn rapidly chilly at night, as cold air sinks down from the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The wine is 100% Petite Sirah, aged in 50% new Hungarian oak. The wine itself is dramatic. I love the intricate blackberry jam and cassis flavors that ooze across the palate, complexed with grilled meat bone, crispy bacon, crushed black pepper, espresso, umami tamari, wood spice, mocha and smoky oak. I love the mouthfeel, rich and deep in finely-meshed tannins, enlivened by bright, citrusy acidity. And I love the finish, which is as satisfying as the attack. The founding partners come from a restaurant background, and it shows in this wine, which tames Petite Sirah’s sometimes brawny character and makes it elegant. This is the best, most satisfying Petite Sirah I’ve ever reviewed, and I have no problem giving it the highest rating I’ve ever given to a Petite Sirah. Score: 97 points.
Aratas 2012 Petite Sirah (Napa Valley): $48. Alcohol 14.9%. The winery’s 2012 Shake Ridge was the best Petite Sirah I’ve ever reviewed. This one’s nearly as good. Clearly, winemaker Matt Sunseri, who has worked with Helen Turley, Heidi Barrett and Paul Hobbs, understands this variety as few do. The wine has Cabernet-like elegance, which is really hard to translate to Petite Sirah. The vineyard is in Oak Knoll, in other words, a cooler, southerly district of Napa. The wine is 100% Petite Sirah, and spent 27 months in a combination of new and older oak before bottling—a long time by any standard, which gives the wine a smokiness throughout. Black currants, blackberry and cherry liqueur, umami charcuterie and baking spices comprise the fascinating array of flavors. I wish I had a case of this. Score: 96 points.
Hindsight 2013 Bella Vetta Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Howell Mountain): $75. Alcohol 14.7%. By coincidence I had been working on a project involving describing Howell Mountain Cabs, so tasting this wine played right into that. We know that the mountain is a fabulous place to grow intense, concentrated Cabernets. What this wine brought home is how elegant they can be. It’s not a pitch-black monster, but rather gleams with ruby luminescence, a hint of its character. Despite the considerable black cherry, cocoa nib, smoked meat, spice and saline flavors and rich tannins, it dances on the palate, now lithe, now full-bodied and muscular. It grows more complex by the minute. I must admit I spent a lot of time with it. The winemaker is Jac Cole, whose resume includes time at Chateau St. Jean, Stag’s Leap and Stags’ Leap (both of them) and Spring Mountain. Cabernet Sauvignon, in other words, is in his DNA. (Jac also owns the vineyard.) I would happily drink this wine immediately and over the next ten years. Score: 96 points.
Robert Biale 2014 Palisades Vineyard Petite Sirah (Calistoga): $55. The trick with Petite Sirah is to balance the variety’s natural tendency toward bigness with the elegance we want in a red table wine. This single-vineyard wine succeeds. It was grown in the eastern side of Calistoga, a warm, sheltered region that is friendly to Cabernet Sauvignon, but also for Petite Sirah, which thrives in inland Napa Valley, from St. Helena up to Calistoga. The wine is rich, soft and heady (although the official alcohol is just 14.4%). The texture is pure velvet. Blackberry jam, black currants, white pepper, crisped bacon, cocoa nib, violets, a firm minerality—this is as complex as Petite Sirah gets. Definitely one of the best I’ve had in years. Score: 95 points.
Robert Biale 2014 Royal Punishers Petite Sirah (Rutherford): $45. Biale’s three new Petite Sirahs are all so good, it’s crazy. Is anyone else making multiple Pets, especially at this level? Not that I know of. This one is really good, but first, I want to criticize the winery for not letting us know why they call it “Royal Punishers” or providing any technical information as to grape sourcing. Is it a single vineyard? A blend? Some of us want to know! Anyhow, it’s a wonderful wine whose soft tannins and taste of the earth define “Rutherford Dust.” The wine is pitch black in color except for a glint of garnet at the outer rim. The flavors are fabulously deep in concentrated plum essence, espresso, blackberry jam, beef teriyaki and smoky cedar wood. I’ll give it 95 points, easily, which makes it as good as the E.B.A., which costs 30 bucks more.
Robert Biale 2013 E.B.A. Petite Sirah (Napa Valley): $75. The initials stand for extended barrel age, to suggest the long aging period, 30 months, in oak. The wine has begun its long process of softening and mellowing. Although it’s still pretty hefty in tannins, it’s fully drinkable now. Stuffed with blackberry jam, black currant and cassis flavors, it has a smoked meatiness that suggests pairing with short ribs, barbecue, Szechuan beef. Expensive, yes, but it brims with complex elegance and smooth grace despite high alcohol (15.5%). Drink now-2026. Score: 94 points.
Vina Robles 2013 Creston Valley Vineyard Petite Sirah (Paso Robles): $44. Creston is southeast of the city of Paso Robles, located in a hilly, arid and hot area that is a high region III on the UC Davis Winkler scale. That is too hot for many grape varieties, but not Petite Sirah, which thrives in such a climate. This single-vineyard wine is an excellent Petite Sirah, inky black, soft and thick in tannins, with the most delicious mulberry, chocolate, blackberry, espresso, cola, beef teriaki and spice flavors. Oak barrel influence shows up in the smokiness and caramelly-vanilla taste. The alcohol is a hefty 15.1%, and only 418 cases were produced. This is quite as good as any Petite Sirah I’ve ever encountered. Score: 94 points.
Hindsight 2013 Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon (Calistoga): $65. Hindsight is really killing it with Cab. This bottling is just lovely. It defines a more elegant, supple style (the alcohol is only 14.1%), although the tannins are rather hard at this time. They frame enormously complex black cherry, leather, licorice, teriyaki beef, espresso and smoky cedar flavors, and that just begins to describe it. Despite the hefty tannins the wine impresses for its balance and charm and overall fanciness. Drinkable now, but it will improve with 6-8 years in the bottle. Score: 94 points.
Hindsight 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley): $40. Right out of the bottle, the wine is tight and seems a little straightforward in fruit and oak. It offers tiers of black raspberry and cherry jam, mocha, fig, cassis, toast and cinnamon-spice flavors, swirling in soft, complex tannins. It’s tasty, but you really want to give it some time for the baby fat to start to melt. Made from 100% Cab, it’s full-bodied and dry, with an inherent sense of drama. Give it until the holiday season before popping the cork. It will drink well for another decade. Score: 92 points.
Vina Robles 2013 Estate Petite Sirah (Paso Robles): $29. What a delightful Petite Sirah. If you compare it with, say, the Robert Biales, it’s not as gigantic. But it is Petite Sirah-esque in its dark color, thick tannins and full-bodied, ripe blackcurrant, espresso, blueberry and dark chocolate flavors. It also has a real bite of acidity—technically, 7.6 grams per liter, which makes it a little tart on its own, so drink it with the appropriate foods. I can’t see it aging, so your window is over the next three years. The alcohol is 14.9%. Score: 91 points.
Hindsight 2012 Estate Grown Petite Sirah (Calistoga): $45. If size was everything, this would get a much higher score, because it’s a big, huge, gigantic Petite Sirah. By that, I mean inky black, tannic, and absolutely stuffed with blackberry, blueberry, blackstrap molasses, black licorice, charred meat bone, black pepper, tanned leather and smoky oak flavors, with a bone dry finish. It’s impressive, but kind of cumbersome, with something old-fashioned and rustic. It could age very well, and in fact probably will. If you can, give it ten years in the cellar. Right now, the score is 91 points.
Hindsight 2014 Chardonnay (Napa Valley): $28. Some people will find this Chard too oaky. Others, including me, will love the caramel vanilla richness, which meshes effortlessly with underlying tropical fruit flavors. The texture is creamy, the acidity is just right. This single-vineyard wine comes from the Oak Knoll District. It’s a little sweet on the finish, but sure is tasty, and easily deserves 90 points.
Paul Dolan 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon (Mendocino County); $20. Alcohol 14.5%. It’s not a back-handed compliment to call this one of the best $20 Cabs on the market. It has real character, from the rich tannins and oak-infused smokiness to the fresh blackberry and licorice flavors. It’s a little rough around the edges, but to tell the truth, it has quite a bit of sophistication, sort of a country cousin to Napa Valley. Score: 88 points.
Parducci 2013 True Grit Reserve Red (Mendocino County); $20. Alcohol 14.5%. This is one of those red wine multi-blends the oldtimers used to drink. In this case, it’s comprised of eight varieties, led by Carignane, Zinfandel and Grenache. The wine is briary and rustic, not as heavy as a Petite Sirah, in fact quite drinkable with the right foods: barbecue, tacos, chicken cacciatore, lasagna. It has the benefit of honesty: an old-fashioned wine with few pretensions, but solid. Good price. Score: 88 points.
Zin-Phomaniac 2014 Old Vines Zinfandel (Lodi); $15. Zin’s rustic personality has been preserved here, with plenty of baking spices and slightly overripe flavors of red currants and raspberry jam. Some 20% of new oak brings sweet oak flavors. The alcohol is a little high, 14.9%, and there’s evident glycerine in the wine, which makes it somewhat sweet, like sugared berry tea. This is a big, bold Zin for easy drinking. Score: 85 points.
Tie-Dye 2013 Red Blend (North Coast); $15. Crazy label, kind of a cross between a Sixties psychedelic rock poster and an auto repair shop pin-up. They’re clearly appealing to a crowd that eats pizza and such and doesn’t want to spend big bucks on their red wine. The blend is at least seven varieties, from Pinot Noir to Tempranillo and Barbera. The wine is decent and honest, with leather and blackberry jam flavors and scoury tannins. Score: 84 points.
Justice Grace 2013 Tenbrink Vineyards (Solano County): $30. Solano is the county to the east of Napa, almost in the Central Valley, but the climate is tempered by its proximity to San Pablo Bay. This wine, with a little Grenache from the Sierra Foothills, is rustic and drinkable. It has blackberry jam, bacon and espresso flavors, and is full-bodied and tannic. Score: 84 points.