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Aging Cabernet Sauvignon

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When I was a wine critic, I used to say that nobody really knows how these opulent Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons will age, because the world had never seen wines quite like them (in ripeness, in fruity phenolic richness, in tannic quality, in alcohol level, in softness), and so there was no evidence upon which to base any conclusions.

Granted, I played the prediction game—when you’re a wine critic, you have to, especially with Cabernet Sauvignon. But I was never terribly comfortable saying that such-and-such a wine would be better fifteen or twenty years down the road, and so, by the early 2000s, I began shortening my window of ageability. Instead of advising (as some other critics did) to hold that Cab until 2027 or some equally far-off date in the future, I became considerably more guarded; my window tightened to maybe eight years or a little bit longer. This wasn’t just because of some intellectual hedging of bets; it was also because of my own experiences in pulling older Cabs from my cellar and finding that they hadn’t age well.

So it was pleasing to read the comment of Michael Weis, Groth’s winemaker since 1994, that “We don’t know how these wines will age.” That’s a frank statement and Weis is to be commended. It was in an article by Laurie Daniel, of the San Jose Mercury News, whose experiences apparently match mine, for she wrote: “I’ve found that some of the riper Napa Cabs from other producers start to fade after just a few years.”

We’ll never conclusively resolve this question of “To age or not to age,” but a little objectivity is helpful. The concept of aging wine, especially in Bordeaux, arose because until fairly recently viticulture and enology were simply not advanced enough to tame the tannins that Cabernet Sauvignon (and other red Bordeaux variety) grapes can imbue in the wines. Through time and experimentation, people discovered that aging the wines in a proper cellar—cool, damp and dark—allowed the tannins to precipitate out, as sediment, which is why the modern wine bottle evolved to include the “punt” at the bottom.

Well, aging Bordeaux or Cabernet Sauvignon became an idée fixe in the minds, first, of tastemakers (merchants, writers, collectors) and from them it migrated into the minds of the average consumer. I’ve always thought it remarkable and odd how many strange conceptions the average wine drinker has about aging wine. No more than one or two percent of the world’s wines ever “need” aging to begin with (whatever “need” means), but I’d wager that most people think that any wine will improve if you age it.

With these big, lush and luscious Cabernets that California is now making, we really have to abandon the pretense that Cab needs age. But wait, there’s more! I’ll go one step further and say we have to abandon the notion that, if a Cab isn’t ageable, it somehow occupies a lower rung on the ladder of nobility. This is a mistake commonly arrived at by a kind of intellectual default: One starts the thinking process with old-fashioned ideas about ageability that are no longer relevant to our times. Then one holds onto those ideas despite the fact that they don’t conform to reality—and winds up blaming the wine for not being ageable in line with one’s conceptions, instead of blaming himself for applying anachronistic thinking to our modern times.

Anyway, welcome to my brain: This is the kind of stuff I think about. Have a great weekend!


Thursday throwaway: Restaurant tipping, and Alexander Valley Cab

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When the restaurant reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle—arguably the most important reviewer in California, and one of the most important in the whole country—comes out and says it’s time to end the practice of tipping, people should listen.

That’s exactly what Michael Bauer did yesterday.

“Increasingly, it’s becoming apparent that it’s time for tips to make a graceful exit.” For the reasons why he’s taking this radical position, Michael cites the fact that it’s happening anyway—Bar Agricole, Trou Normand and Camino, among others, have already done away with tipping. He notes also that this “new tipping paradigm” is “civilized”–no more calculating percentages, no more discomfort or uncertainty—and is “the wave of the future.” Adding an overall service charge, instead of tipping, also ensures that back-of-the-house staff is paid more equitably (at least, one would hope so!).

I’m in favor. I’ve never been comfortable with the concept of tipping, so I won’t miss it. I have two huge problems with tipping: (1) it’s not fair to the kitchen staff, and (2) it implies that servers aren’t professional, which certainly isn’t the case, particularly in a good restaurant. I mean, you don’t tip your doctor or car mechanic; why do we have to tip our servers?

Nor have I ever particularly subscribed to the notion that tipping is good because you can tip higher for great service and lower (or not at all) for lousy service. The truth is, 99% of all restaurant service seems pretty good to me. Maybe it’s because I live in the very professional, restaurant-conscious Bay Area. Maybe it’s because I’m not a fussy, demanding diner; I don’t expect everything to be perfect. In fact, on occasion when I’ve dined at  restaurants like French Laundry or the old 231 Ellsworth in San Mateo, I’ve sometimes been uncomfortable with the service because it’s so self-consciously perfect that it makes me self-conscious! (Thanks, but I can put my own napkin in my lap!) So I rarely have cause to complain about restaurant service, except when I feel like I’ve been forgotten about, and that usually happens in an inexpensive restaurant where I’m there, not for cuisine, but for sustenance.

So let’s see how this “end-of-tipping” thing goes. California is where most trends happen: maybe this will sweep the country.

* * *

I’m interested in what my readers think of Alexander Valley. Here are a couple of my thoughts:

  1. Great Zinfandel, much of it from older vines.
  2. Surprisingly good Chardonnay given the valley’s warm climate. Those old Chateau St. Jean Chards, made by the great winemaker Richard Arrowood from vineyards like Belle Terre, rocked.
  3. Very fine Cabernet Sauvignon. Along these lines, I make a distinction (which may not be as important as it used to be, due to precision farming) between the higher, western slopes of the Mayacamas and the flatlands. Still, Alexander Valley is one mountain range closer to the Pacific than Napa Valley, which makes it cooler. The Cabs as a result are somewhat earthier or more herbaceous, with pleasing tobacco-green olive-sage notes: you can actually taste those things because the Cabs aren’t as fruit-driven as they are in Napa Valley. I think, also, that Alexander Valley Cabs aren’t as high in alcohol as Napa’s, and that they’re more capable of aging. I’m always surprised they’re not more popular with somms.

Care to offer your thoughts, esteemed readers?


Napa’s traffic crisis: Alternate touring days?

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You know that old saying about how you can’t put the toothpaste back into the tube? That was my feeling when I read this article, from Monday’s Napa Register, on a debate taking place in Napa Valley. And, no, it’s not about wine.

The topic is nothing new: Growth versus preservation. In its latest incarnation, it shape-shifts into whether Napa should be (in the words of a county official) “a resort area [or] an agricultural area.” California, with our natural beauty, always is a hotbed of such debates, and Napa Valley, for many reasons, is no exception. This conversation has been going on for as long as I’ve been aware of the valley.

In particular this brouhaha over the number of tasting rooms and wineries hosting “events” like weddings has also been around for a long time. It’s only natural that some valley residents would be upset over the traffic (truly, truly awful on Highway 29) and the feeling that their pastoral little slice of heaven is turning into a tourist-drawing WineryLand theme park.

So is it time to take drastic action, like limiting the number of tasting rooms, or wineries, or vineyards, or resorts and hotels? This is the problem of the toothpaste. Napa can’t go backwards to the bucolic 1960s or 1970s. And there are limits to how much it can do to prevent the invasion of the tourists, which now seems to occur year-round, not just in the summer, as the climate dries and warms.

It’s interesting to read the comments to the Register article. Typical of the slow-growthers is this one from a reader who’s had it up to here: “Anyone catch the traffic on 29 today? Basically heading south it was backed up from the light in yountville all the way to the CIA. It was almost just as bad heading North. It was still backed up at 6:45 at night, about 35 minutes to get from st Helena to yountville. That should be a 7 minute drive.” And this from someone else: “Experiencing the growth in the last fifteen years, one could argue that the tipping point has already been reached. Does one honestly wish to make the traffic even more intolerable?”

It’s not clear what the solution is, but we should be looking at this from a wider perspective, namely: Napa Valley isn’t the only place in California where traffic is an enormous, and growing, problem. It’s a problem throughout the state, from our local city and suburban streets to the freeways and bridges that form California’s nervous system, from the Pacific Coast Highway to the byways of the Sierra Nevada and all chokepoints inbetween. Californians have always complained about traffic in our state’s notorious car culture, but things are worse than they’ve ever been, and if you’re wasting hours of your life everyday sitting idle, you’re understandably frustrated. And what I can’t for the life of me understand is why our government isn’t taking the problem more seriously. This isn’t something that local government can tackle. It’s a gigantic elbow to the throat of California’s economy (not to mention drivers’ peace of mind) and only government has the means to address it.

Maybe, in Napa’s case, the answer is to limit the number of tourists (especially on weekends) in some way that’s legal and fair. Of course, the state would have to be involved, too, and possibly the Feds. Back in the 1970s, when we had the nation’s first gas shortage, you could only fill your tank on certain days, depending on the number on your license plate. I don’t recall there being any riots; people understood that there was a crisis and we all had to be a part of the solution.

Could something like that work in Napa’s case? There are really just two main ways in, from the south and north, Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. Maybe they could build checkpoints with automated cameras, like the ones they use for FasTrak. Get the word out, through media and signage, that Saturdays are for “x” drivers and Sunday’s are for “y” drivers, and then levy a hefty fine on anyone who’s caught cheating (just the way FasTrak works). Of course, you’d have to figure out some way to screen out locals so they didn’t get caught in the net. This would inconvenience many tourists, granted; but once they got the hang of it, they’d get used to it, and they’d probably eventually welcome the more open roads.

I know it’s a crazy idea, but maybe it could work. And if things get bad enough (and they’re heading in that direction) it may be the only way.


Wine needs a message for the iGeneration

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The wine industry is always worried about something, especially here in California. (Maybe it’s because we live in earthquake country!)

The theme is almost always some version of “The sky is falling.” Back in the 1990s it was phylloxera: it was going to wipe out everything. Didn’t happen; the wine industry not only survived the bug, it emerged better than ever. Growers tore out sick vines and replanted, using better rootstocks and clones, often reconfiguring their vineyard orientations, and more precisely matching variety with terroir. It was another happy instance of “Every cloud has a silver lining.”

The latest gloom and doom? The Wine Market Council’s fear that craft beer and spirits will turn younger consumers away from wine. But it, too, has a potential silver lining.

One can’t dispute the facts the WMC cites–facts underscored by anecdotes. My younger friends, those in the so-called iGeneration (born after 1995, and 61 million strong), really love their craft beers and whatever cocktail they’re into. But when it comes to wine, meh. It’s all pretty much the same to them. Try as they might, they can’t really understand why one wine costs ten times the price of another, when they seem to taste pretty much the same. Their social lives are centered around noisy bars, house parties and clubs, not the sedate dinner table. One of wine’s central messages—often promoted by its loyalists—is lost on them: that wine is the intellectual alcoholic beverage. Intellect, schmintellect: it’s not that they’re not thoughtful, but they want to laugh and dance—carpe diem!–and beer and spirits are way better at promoting a party than wine.

Among my younger friends also is a surprisingly high number of people who don’t drink. Whether it’s because they’ve had drinking problems in the past, or for health or religious reasons, I don’t know and don’t ask, because it’s none of my business. But even the WMC survey found that more than one-third–36 percent–of the population abstains from alcohol.

These are all formidable findings, but I remain optimistic about wine’s future in the U.S. For one thing, people’s drinking habits change over time. Wine has never been the preferred booze among young people: it’s always been beer and spirits. When the iGeneration gets older, there’s no reason not to believe they’ll discover wine, the same as their forebears did. Even some proportion of non-drinkers will realize that a glass or two of something won’t hurt and might even make them feel better.

The WMC survey also points the way towards opportunities for the wine industry to better market itself. There’s nothing wrong with the meme that wine is family, life and celebration, but these terms have to evolve, in order to appeal to younger consumers. Consider the contemporary meaning of “family”: The Norman Rockwell scenario of mom, dad and two kids sitting around the nightly dinner table no longer holds true for tens of millions of adult Americans. Families now are just as likely to be single parents, or same-sex parents, or interracial parents, or childless couples, or people living alone with a cat or dog. They’re just as likely to be Vietnamese, Mexican or Somali as they are to be of European descent (at least, here in multi-ethnic Oakland, which is the face of what America is going to look like).

So wine has to figure out a better way to present itself as the alcoholic beverage for everyone. Beer’s managed to do that for decades. So have brandy and cognac, and even sparkling wine to some extent, which is why its sales are surging. The spirits industry, led in my opinion by vodka, has done an amazing job over the last twenty years promoting itself as exciting and cool, especially with this current surge of celebrity mixologists.

But wine? It persists with the same tired message that you have to be old, white and rich to drink it. It’s time for wine to glam up. The good news is that a younger generation of wine marketers has arisen. Born with an easy comfort around computers and social media, literate in the changing demographics of America, and armed with an urban sensibility, they understand the challenge of appealing to the new consumer.


Wine writing when you can’t taste or smell?

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Lovely, inspiring article on the BBC’s website about about Andrew Hedley, a British-born New Zealand winemaker (Framingham Wines) who developed throat cancer and had to have his larynx removed, which had a devastating effect on his ability to smell and taste.

“Anything that goes into my nose or mouth now goes straight to my stomach,” he says, meaning, according to the article, that he “had to come up with a new way of smelling and tasting the wines he created.”

Andrew did indeed come up with a new way of smelling and tasting that works so well, he said, “We’ve actually won more awards since I had the cancer surgery.” This is indeed an inspiring story of the ingenuity and triumph of the human spirit.

As I read it I recalled the travails of my own wine-writing hero, Harry Waugh, who following a car accident in which he landed on his head lost his own sense of smell. Yet Harry, who was on the board of Chateau Latour in addition to his other considerable achievements which included writing some of the most influential books in the history of California wine, developed alternative ways of tasting that ensured his continuation as one of the great wine tasters and writers of the second half of the twentieth century.

What are we to make of great wine people who, suffering awful loss of a good part of their sensory equipment, nonetheless remain at the pinnacle of their careers?

Well, for me, the big takehome is that you don’t have to be the awesomest palate ever in order to be a big success. Both Andrew and Harry, and indeed anyone of us, had their limitations: they did what they could do with what they had. And yet something in their skill set enabled them to rise above their limitations.

I don’t know Andrew but I knew Harry. What made him great was his absolute devotion to the grape and wine as well as his ability to put complex thoughts into writing that was easy to comprehend. I have no idea how he managed to tell the difference between a vin ordinaire and a grand vin or vin de garde after his automobile accident, but he did. People still cared about what he said.

We make too much of “expertise” in wine and I realize I need to explain that. With all this attention to Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers, we tend to think that you need some letters after your last name to be taken seriously if you opine about wine. While I bow to no one in my regard and respect for MWs and MSs, I have to say that when it comes to wine writing of the kind Harry—and a generation of wine writers of the last 30 years, including me—represented, there’s a case to be made that you don’t want so much expertise that it removes the reviewer from the common realm of the 99% who actually buy and drink wine.

There’s another important lesson to be learned from Andrew’s experience. The BBC reporter interviewed a head and neck surgeon who told him, To be able to differentiate between subtle aromas and tastes of wines must be very difficult and to be honest, it almost never happens in cases where surgery has been performed.” Well, even if you haven’t had your larynx removed, “to be able to differentiate between subtle aromas and tastes of wines” is very difficult anyway! It’s not objective science; even professionals will disagree about what they’re smelling and tasting, which is why my recent blending sessions at Matanzas Creek have been so educational. Taster “A” may find quince and guava, taster “B” may find nectarine and white peach, who’s to say who’s right or wrong? No one, that’s who. But what we can all agree on—at least, I would hope—is that beyond specific flavor descriptors we can all recognize essential quality, which when all is said and done is a function of intellectual interest. For what is great wine, if not a wine that stimulates your mind? And it would seem that, even when your sense of smell or taste is impaired, your ability to be intellectually interested and flattered remains. How cool is that?


Throwaway Thursday: Notes from the road

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Spent part of yesterday blending again with Marcia Monahan, the winemaker at Matanzas Creek. This time, it was putting together the winery’s flagship “Journey” Sauvignon Blanc. This would be a tedious exercise, if one didn’t enjoy it so much, which I certainly do. It makes it all the more pleasant in that Marcia and I agree more than often. It truly is amazing when one particular sample pops! after a string of several that don’t, due merely to the barrel. I can honestly say I never really understood the importance of barrel and toast levels until I began blending with Marcia.

* * *

My sympathies are with the good people of Boston, where I see by today’s forecast it will be bone chilling for at least a week. Meanwhile by contrast (and this isn’t to rub it in, honest), here in Northern California wine country it will be close to 80 this week. This is, as I understand it, because the West is under the influence of a huge high pressure system that’s sending the jet stream “up and over,” as our meterologists call it, into Canada, whence it dips back down into the American Midwest and east coast. I don’t think that’s particularly climate-changy in itself; it’s a question of how persistent the pattern gets. Our drought here in California is temporarily on reprieve, no thanks to record-dry January but to superwet December and a pair of back-to-back February storms. However, if you dig deeper, you find that those storms were warm ones—they call it the Pineapple Express because it comes from Hawaii, not the Gulf of Alaska. This means that, while the Coast got drenched, snow levels in the mountains were quite high—and the Sierra Nevada is where you want that nice, thick snow pack next Spring and Summer, when the runoff will fill the California aqueduct. So far, no luck on that front.

* * *

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat is reporting that the 2014 “Grape Crop Sets Record,” based mainly on “strong demand for top-quality Cabernet Sauvignon.” The value of the North Coast grape crop hit $1.45 billion last year, a new record, and while the paper reminds us that was despite the 2014 crop begin lower than in 2012 and 2013, it still was the third-biggest crop ever.

Well, good for Cabernet Sauvignon! I still love a good one but have reached the point where, most of the time, I’d rather have a Pinot Noir. Meanwhile, the poor Central Valley continues to struggle with maintaining prices and production. Whenever someone says consumers are “drinking less but better,” the viticulturalists from Fresno and Madera must wince.

* * *

It was announced yesterday that Jackson Family Wines has purchased Captûre Wines, the project from Denis and May-Britt Malbec. I had followed their wines quite closely, giving a pair of 95s to two 2009s, the Harmonie Bordeaux blend and the Revelation Cabernet Sauvignon, both of which had mountain intensity and ageability. Following on our acquisition of Siduri, this further fuels the company’s practice of partnering with small, prestigious wineries. Welcome, May-Britt and Denis!

* * *

Glad to see California Lieutenant-Governor Gavin Newsom announce for Governor in 2016. No surprise there: Once Kamala threw her hat in the ring for Senator, The Gavinator was a cinch. He’s likely to win the election, too—I mean, who else is there? He’s young, personable, visionary and made his reputation on gay marriage, which his opponent, I have no doubt, will try to hurt him with, but it won’t work in California. Gavin will be a great friend of wine: his PlumpJack wine empire owns several wineries. Gav is an old—well, I don’t be so presumptuous as to call him a “friend,” but he is an old acquaintance; we go back to the early 1990s when he was this tall, skinny, good-looking kid who wanted to get into the wine biz. So congratulations, Governor-to-be Newsom!


Could Sauvignon Blanc be entering a golden era?

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I’m not surprised that Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are “on the rise” in U.S. sales, as reported in Lewis Perdue’s Wine Industry Insight.

We all know Pinot Noir is hot, hot, hot. People also talk about the popularity of red wine blends but I have my doubts about their staying power. There have always been good red blends from California; the field blends of old, from gnarled century vines, caught my attention years ago, and I would welcome a good one onto my table anytime, especially with lamb or something with sausages. I’ve written about the quality of certain Paso Robles red blends, which can be very good indeed. But I just don’t see the red blend, per se, lasting as a category on its own. It’s too hard for consumers to wrap their heads around something so amorphous. Wineries usually give red blends a proprietary name, which makes it nearly impossible for people to form a unifying concept about them in their minds, the way they do with, say, Pinot Noir. So an individual, branded red blend might enjoy popularity, but I don’t think the category itself is a keeper. Am I wrong?

Back to Pinot Noir. Of course it’s hot, because it’s great wine. Being so light and delicate, and generally lowish in alcohol, it fits in perfectly with today’s health, legal and food-related concerns. But it’s the emerging popularity of Sauvignon Blanc that interests me.

To judge from acreage, you wouldn’t know that Sauvignon Blanc was hot. There’s not a whole lot planted and the amount isn’t really going up. Statewide, there were 16,700 acres planted in 2011, and only 16,900 in 2013. (Perhaps when the 2014 Acreage Report comes out, we’ll see an increase.) There’s still more Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Zinfandel planted than Sauvignon Blanc.

If a consumable is popular but isn’t increasing in production, then what happens? The price goes up. In theory, anyway. I looked at the 2013 Crush Report: The average weighted amount per ton of Sauvignon Blanc in California was a miserable $863.11. But—and it’s a big but—the equivalent price of Chardonnay was even less: $848.88. What this tells me is that most Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay produced in California is from the Central Valley and goes into cheaper wines.

So we look at the coast. What are the best Sauvignon Blanc districts? IMHO, Sonoma County, Napa County and Santa Barbara County. So how’s Sauvignon Blanc doing there?

Well, in District 4—Napa—the weighted average base price per ton for Sauvignon Blanc in 2013 was$1,899.95. In 2011, it was $1,829.80. So not a big increase, only 0.3 percent.

In District 3—Sonoma County and Marin, but you can dismiss Marin—the weighted average base price per ton for Sauvignon Blanc in 2013 was $1,469.52. The equivalent number in 2011 was $1,368.26. That’s a fairly sizable increase: 7.4 percent.

How about Santa Barbara? Well, they lump it in with San Luis Obispo and Ventura to make District 8, but I think most of the Sauvignon Blanc is in Santa Barbara. In 2013, the weighted average base price per ton was $1,141.13. In 2011, it was $987.32. That’s a huge jump, nearly 15.6 percent.

I think it’s fair to say, then, that the increasing popularity of Sauvignon Blancs at the higher end of the quality scale is coming from Sonoma and Santa Barbara counties, especially the latter. Like Pinot, Sauvignon Blanc is a lighter-style wine, which makes it a good match for a wide range of foods, especially our multi-country-inspired, spicy fare. It’s crisp, and getting drier, after years of too many of them being semi-sweet. It’s also the best-known of the non-Chardonnay white wines in America, where name recognition is very important in the market.

So, all in all, I’m bullish on coastal Sauvignon Blanc!

 

Dwight Clark at Pebble Beach: It’s incredible. I’ve been riding this one catch for 33 years!


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