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What is West Burgundy Wine Collective?

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The announcement the other day that Jackson Family Wines has bought Copain Wines, which comes on the heels of JFW’s acquisition of Oregon’s Penner-Ash Wine Cellars, has brought renewed attention to JFW’s West Burgundy Wine Collective. So I thought I’d try to explain to my readers just what WBWC is and why it exists, because I feel it’s not really understood.

This is the way I see it, anyhow: Jess Jackson started Kendall-Jackson, and it turned out to be a tremendous success: the #1 selling Chardonnay in America for 25 years in a row, etc. etc. Jess was understandably proud of KJ, but he also wanted to show the world he was not merely a one-trick pony. He wanted to compete with wineries at the highest quality levels around the world; hence the purchase of wineries such as Matanzas Creek, or the creation of others like Verité.

The JFW portfolio now contains more than 50 wineries on five continents; most of the wineries are small, although sometimes that fact tends to get lost in the glare of the larger wineries, including KJ and La Crema. Since I’ve been working at JFW (March, 2014), this has been a source of some frustration, as people (consumers and trade alike) often refer to everything as “Kendall-Jackson,” or say that “Kendall-Jackson owns Verité,” etc., which just isn’t true. It is a constant challenge—and opportunity—to remind people that KJ is but one winery in a portfolio—the biggest winery, yes, but just one. I sometimes make the analogy that nobody holds Mouton-Cadet (which is, I believe, one of the biggest selling Bordeaux in the world) against Mouton-Rothschild. But I’ve met sommeliers at top restaurants who won’t list Stonestreet, for example, because “It’s Kendall-Jackson.” It’s enough to make me want to pull out what few hairs I have left in my head!

This recent Pinot Noir quest on the part of Barbara Banke (Jess died back in 2011) is because she is of the view—quite rightly, in my opinion—that Pinot Noir’s opportunities are limitless, in terms of the public’s embrace of it, and that West Coast (California and Oregon) Pinot Noir makes some of the best in the world (also quite rightly IMHO!). The Copain and Penner-Ash acquisitions are part and parcel of that view; so was the purchase of Siduri. These three wineries join others that JFW started itself: Wild Ridge, on the far Sonoma Coast at Annapolis; Champ de Reves, high on a mountain above Boonville, in Anderson Valley; and Gran Moraine, in Oregon’s Yamhill-Carlton AVA. Collectively, they live in the West Burgundy Wine Collective portfolio. The thing to realize is that these are truly small, estate-driven Pinot Noir houses. (Some produce other wines, like Chardonnay and Viognier, but Pinot is obviously the focus.) Each of these wineries is inspired by Burgundian notions of terroir; each is presided over by ambitious, smart, passionate winemakers; each is given the resources to do what has to be done to produce world-class Pinot Noir; each is largely left alone by JFW management to do their own thing. This is a continuation of Jess’s (and Barbara’s) desire to succeed at the highest levels of what is possibly the world’s most difficult wine to grow and produce at grand cru levels, Pinot Noir. And each is a wine I’m proud to pour.


Carneros Chardonnay (and a little Pinot Noir)

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Spent the day yesterday in Carneros. It had been a while since I really walked the vineyards, smelled the flora and felt and tasted the dirt and rocks up there, so my visit was overdue. Plus, it was an unbelievably gorgeous day, the sort of Spring weather that tells you Winter will soon be but a distant memory. Carneros’s famous hills indeed were rolling, and as green as Irish grass after this winter’s rains.

Carneros

We started out at the Coteau Blanc Vineyard, which is source for one of the two single-vineyard Chardonnays from the JFW winery, Chardenet (itself part of Carneros Hills Winery). Parts of this vineyard were planted, or I should say replanted, about ten years ago, but the larger vineyard was long part of the Buena Vista’s old Ramal Road Vineyard, whose wines I always liked. It is said of Coteau Blanc that it contains rare limestone deposits—unusual for Carneros—and seeing is believing, for where the ground has been bared of cover crop you can easily see the white rocks.

CoteauDirt

The Chardonnay in particular has a tangy minerality that gives the wines grip and structure, but it is really the acidity that does it for me, so bright and crisp. It just highlights the green apples and tropical fruits, and winemaker Eric Johannsen never overoaks them. By the way, the 2013 is my preference over the blowsier ‘12s; by all accounts 2013 is going to be recorded as one of the most magnificent vintages in recent California history—and that’s saying a lot.

We also tasted, right in the vineyard, a Carneros Hills Pinot Noir, and it indeed had that earthy, slight herbaceousness I’ve associated with Carneros. I think that’s from the very cool conditions as well as the wind. With the warm, dry weather we’re enjoying, the cut grasses were all dried out and golden-colored, so I scooped up a bunch and shoved my nose into it and did find similarities between that clean, inviting spicy hay aroma and something in the wine. But then, maybe my mind was looking for it, and we do usually find what we’re looking for, don’t we. But the Pinot Noirs from that vineyard are quite good.

Then it was on to an old favorite, the Fremont Diner,

Fremont

which hasn’t changed a bit in all the years I’ve gone there. The food can be a little, uhh, cholesterolly [neologism alert!], but it’s fun and easy and has lots of parking, and is right there on the Carneros Highway, so easy to get to both Napa and Sonoma. I took this picture of our group having lunch,

Lunch

and it reminds me of an old Brueghel painting of a bunch of people having fun.

Breughel

Then we drove a few miles northwest to the famous Durell Vineyard. It’s right at the intersection of where the Sonoma Coast and Sonoma Valley AVAs come together, and I think the Carneros line is mixed up somewhere around there, too. An interesting, complex region where site is all-important. Chardenet bottles a Durell Chardonnay that is broader-shouldered, softer and more powerful than the Coteau Blanc, but then, the weather is a little warmer at Durell than Coteau Blanc, which is right near San Pablo Bay, so that on a clear day you can see the office towers of downtown San Francisco. Here’s a picture of Eric Johannsen in Durell.

EricDurell


Three cities in five days: A week on the road

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I felt horribly guilty at not posting for two days in a row, last Thursday and Friday, for the first time in 8-1/2 years. But, as this little photo essay suggests, we were really busy all week, so much so that when I finally got back to my hotel rooms late at night, all I wanted to do was brush my teeth and fall into bed. So I have a good excuse.

To begin with, I was on a tour for West Burgundy Wine Collective (WBWC), a new portfolio within Jackson Family Wines that specializes in small production, estate-driven Pinot Noirs from JFW’s best coastal vineyards. The wines are Gran Moraine (Yamhill-Carlton, in the Willamette Valley), Wild Ridge (Annapolis, on the Far Sonoma Coast), Champ de Reves (high above Boonville, in the Anderson Valley), Chardenet (our Carneros winery, with Chards from the Coteau Blanc estate and the nearby Durell Vineyard), and Siduri. The latter is, of course, produced in Santa Rosa, but winemaker Adam Lee crafts Pinots from dozens of vineyards up and down the West Coast, among them Hirsch, Pisoni and Cargasacchi.

These were my fellow panelists:

FullPanel

From left to right, Eugenia Keegan (Gran Moraine), Julia Jackson (Jess Jackson’s and Barbara Banke’s younger daughter), Eric Johannsen (Champ de Reves and Chardenet), Craig McAllister (Wild Ridge), Adam Lee (Siduri) and yours truly. Not in the picture was moderator Gilian Handleman. Our traveling band of road warriors hit up three cities in four days: Seattle, Portland and L.A. This photo was at the Montage, in Beverly Hills. Fancy-schmancy.

MontageBevHills

We also traveled with a complement of JFW folks including the great Lou Rex, the best event organizer I’ve ever met (and I’ve known a lot). A trip like this requires a vast amount of preparation: You’re responsible for 13 people for five days, and for all the details, from luggage delivery to placemats. Lou does this with tremendous professionalism, and always remains smiling, gracious and encouraging. Well done, Ms. Rex, well done!

It goes without saying that we ate a lot and drank a lot. I myself am not a particularly heavy drinker (I know that’s hard to believe but it’s true), but on a trip like this, you can’t help but imbibe a little more than is usual. In my case the drinks ran the gamut from wine to beer and Champagne and my favorite cocktail, a vodka gimlet, absolutely dry, on the rocks, with nothing but freshly-squeezed lime juice, which I enjoy at night. I pretty much crawled off to bed earlier than my [younger] colleagues, but that’s cool. I used to have that capacity but now find I need a solid eight hours of shuteye, and nine is even better.

I don’t want to tease anybody but here are some pictures of the food we ate at various venues in various cities. Sorry I can’t tell you what everything was but I wasn’t taking notes.

FamilyStyle

HotsHermosaThis was at Hots, in Hermosa Beach.

HerringboneThis was Herringbone, in Santa Monica, and man oh man, what great seafood.

Incidentally, when we were on the Seattle leg of the trip, I had the greatest steak in my life at John Howie, in the suburban town of Bellevue. I never order steak in a restaurant, not because I don’t like steak, but because I’ve been disappointed so often. Tough, gristly, dry, boring. But everybody said you have to have steak at John Howie, so I did, and OMG, seriously, this is profound protein. Unbelievable. I dreamed about it, couldn’t stop talking about it for days. I myself had the 4-ounce Japanese Wagyu filet, but I tried little bits of other people’s steaks and they were every bit as good. I’m just glad I didn’t have to pay the bill.

We were fortunate enough that the Jackson Family allowed us to use one of the company planes on this trip, which is a very great luxury, and don’t think for a moment that I take it for granted. Flying up to Seattle I took this picture of Rainer (I think),

Rainier

and although we flew right by Mount St. Helens, with its blasted-out north face, I didn’t take any pictures. I loved Portland, especially the Pearl District,

Portland

which reminded me of Oakland. Flying back from Oregon to Santa Rosa, we passed over the Willamette Valley

WillametteWayHome

then over Alexander Valley and I got this shot of Mt. St. Helena as the sun was setting in the west, and how beautiful is that.

MtStHelena

We also flew by a very active Geysers area.

Geysers

And coming back from L.A. we flew over the San Gabriel Mountains, although this picture doesn’t really do them justice,

SanGabesHome

and then just west of the Sierra, which actually has a lot more snowpack this year than in the past five.

 

SierraWayHome

 

On the Jackson plane we made the time pass quickly by playing Bananagrams.

Banana+Pommery

When I got home, it was great to see Gus, who was staying with a neighbor. He spotted me from half-a-block away and, while he doesn’t particularly enjoy running (he’s more of a pokey-sniffy dog), he came as fast as his little legs could carry him and gave me a good face licking.

As I told the audiences in all three cities, I want people to understand that the Jackson family is utterly committed to making really great Pinot Noirs from the most site-specific, terroir-driven vineyards in Oregon and California. I think sometimes people don’t realize that. Kendall-Jackson is certainly the base of the JFW pyramid, but as you ascend towards the summit you have other JFW estates on five continents that are striving to be the most profound wines in the world. Gran Moraine, Champ de Reves, Wild Ridge, Chardenet, Siduri’s tiny-production vineyard designates—these are really fabulous wines, and this Jackson family is committed to do whatever it takes to continue to up quality. And, as I also said, with young vineyards like Gran Moraine, Champ de Reves and Wild Ridge, it’s going to take generations to really get it right, but, after all, it took Burgundy a thousand years, so be patient; it will be worth the ride. I know the WBWC winemakers; they are real people, serious pros, driven, smart, sensitive, striving to understand every square inch of their sites in the grand Burgundian manner. Yes, I work at JFW, so you have the right to be dubious; but most of you know I don’t say shit I don’t believe or else you wouldn’t be reading me.

More tomorrow.


Terroir, briefly

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We had another lovely and successful event yesterday, a first-class audience of about 60 wine-savvy people in the Vintage Hotel in downtown Portland. You never know with this kind of audience what topics will prove to be the most interesting, but in this case (and maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise) it was terroir, or more precisely, the role of the human and whether or not man (and woman) is part of terroir.

Now this isn’t just an academic question. As I said in some of my remarks, terroir is more than however you define it; it is often the beginning of communication (sometimes heated) between people in seminars or informal chats. Talking about wine, rather than “just” consuming it, is of course one of the most pleasurable parts of the wine-drinking experience, and not just talking, either, but talking about the wine’s qualities, and the vineyard, and how and why it is unique, and what part the winemaker plays in all of this, with all the consequent complexities that involves; and of course, as you can see, this is how people like myself and my friends spend a good part of our days and nights. And the notion of terroir can be, more often than not, the icebreaker that sets it all off; and, to judge by our audience, it set them off, too.

I explained my own idea, which I have borrowed and adapted from Emlle Peynaud, that man is not part of terroir, but that terroir + man = cru. I haven’t fully worked this out in my head, but the Platonic-Descartesian philosophy distinguishes between the natural world (terroir) and mind or spirit as within the natural world, but somehow and mysteriously apart from it (the natural world does not think; man thinks, and therefore “is”), and since man, aided by his thought processes, which are creative (which is not to imply that nature is not creative), can profoundly shape and impact nature, then “cru” becomes that interplay of man and nature that makes (among other things) wine. Or, to put it is a less blowhardy way, God makes vinegar; man makes wine. (Someone else said that.)

When we were batting this around, my friend Julia Jackson asked how man could not be considered a part of terroir, since man-made climate change and global warming are having such an obvious impact on climate (cf. wine in Great Britain). That was a good question. My two cents: For the first time in history man is having an impact on climate and weather, i.e., the ability to alter it. That never happened before, so it was not necessary to consider whether or not man was part of terroir. He was not, because climate happened independently of anything man did. Now, though, climate does not happen independently. Well, it still “happens” all by itself, but is radicalized or perturbed so much by carbon emissions and other things that it is changing the weather in historic wine regions. Bordeaux is getting warm—Oregon, too. Someone told me they heard an eminent climate scientist saying the Aleutians could be a good cool-climate growing region in twenty years. So maybe you do have to say that man is part of terroir. When the unprecedented is happening, you have to throw out your old paradigms because they no longer work.

It delighted me that the younger members of our audience loved this conversation. They, like their predecessors (my generation, and the generation before me) love thinking and talking about wine. They will be talking about terroir when they are old men and women, and so will their children (assuming they are wine geeks), and their children’s children, because for wine lovers, terroir is the gift that keeps on giving (and the wine writer’s full employment act!).

 


From the road: Portland Oregon

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Up here in Portland, Oregon, a town I haven’t really spent much time in, and I must, what a cool place. Of course it helps that the weather has been so beautiful—much better than in Northern California, where the past week has been dismal and cold. The neighborhood they call the Pearl District reminds me of parts of Baltimore, where I was two weeks ago, and also the area of San Francisco around the Barbary Coast: old brick buildings (fortunately seismically retrofitted!) that have been rehabbed and loved back to their exciting historical roots, making them great places to live and work. We had dinner at Paragon Restaurant & Bar, in the heart of the Pearl. With the warm night, the ‘hood was swarming with life, and I swear, there were ten bars and cafés on every block. Portland clearly is a town that loves to eat and drink! Young, too. But, as I discovered from talking with some locals, they are experiencing the same difficulties with rising housing prices as is happening up and down the Pacific Coast, from Vancouver to La Jolla, although rents and home prices aren’t anywhere near what they are in San Francisco and, increasingly, Oakland.

Anyhow, I could live up here! The Pearl is exactly the kind of neighborhood I’ve always lived in: inner city-urban, densely packed, with old buildings and lots of stuff going on.

* * *

Why do some people call “Parkerization” a dirty word?

They do, you know, as a symbol for wines that are overblown, over-alcoholed, over-oaked, overpriced and over-manipulated.” With Parker’s recent retirement from reviewing Bordeaux, the topic of Parkerization has re-arisen. For instance, in this reporting by Yahoo, they refer to his “his preference for predominantly wood flavours, strong tannins and high alcohol content.” Well, naturally, nobody wants wines that are over-anything, whether it’s oak, alcohol, blown, manipulated or priced; and certainly there are plenty of those kinds of wines. But let it not be forgotten that there’s a Good Twin to the Evil Twin of Parkerization: too many wines pre-Parker were thin and boring and, quite frankly, not well made. Parker dragged sometimes reluctant wineries into modern times, forcing them to clean up their acts and actually get the grapes to ripen correctly so that they tasted good. He doesn’t get enough praise for that—people fasten on the excesses and thus end up throwing the baby away with the bathwater.

* * *

Well, tomorrow (Tuesday, today as you read this) it’s off on a whirlwind visit to Seattle that will be over so fast, I won’t even have time to see my family up there. The temperature is supposed to be in the mid-80s, which I personally love, but really, seems pretty hot considering we’re halfway to the Aleutians. They tell me the Pacific Northwest has been very rainy lately, but also very warm: Global warming, I should think. Then, after Seattle, it’s another whirlwind trip to L.A. and back home—and to Gus—on Friday. I’ll try to blog everyday this week but with this schedule, don’t blame me if my posts seem a little slapdash—like this one.


Would California wine have succeeded without the 1976 Paris Tasting?

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Come join me, readers, on a thought experiment. It is forty years ago, May 24, 1976. Gerald Ford is President. The Concorde has just flown its first commercial flight to America. Bob Dylan celebrated his 35th birthday. And, far more importantly for the California wine industry, “a publicity stunt for a small wine store in Paris changed the world of wine forever,” says this article in last Saturday’s Washington Post.

It long has been the conventional wisdom that that “publicity stunt,” which now bears the famous name “The Judgment of Paris,” launched California wine to worldwide fame, a lofty position it still enjoys. Indeed, even Steven Spurrier, who organized the tasting, is quoted in the article as saying, [T]he New World simply did not exist as a wine producer in the mind of the public.”

I wonder why Steven, who owned that “small wine store in Paris,” said “New World” instead of “California,” since the stars of the Paris tasting were from the Golden State. Slip of the pen, Dr. Freud? An Old World tendency to lump California, Australia, South Africa and Chile into the anonymous grab-bag of “New World”? Anyhow, back to our thought experiment. Imagine if you will that the Paris Tasting never took place. Steven Spurrier never scheduled it; George Taber, the TIME magazine reporter who broke the news to the English-speaking world, never wrote about it. The French were not outraged, because there was nothing to outrage them. The Judgment of Paris never happened.

Would it have made a difference to the trajectory of California wine? Let’s start with Steven’s remark that [T]he New World simply did not exist as a wine producer in the mind of the public.” ? Is that really true?

Well, it may have been true in Steven’s circle, which was based in mid-1970s Paris. By “the public” he might have meant his public: the winemakers, customers and acquaintances with whom he associated. But others beyond his circle already had noticed California wine, admired it, understood how well the best of it compared to the top French wines, and were spreading the word through their own circles, which were at least as influential, if not more so, than Steven Spurrier’s.

Among these was the man who had more influence on my own career than anyone else, Harry Waugh. In his series of Wine Diaries, which spanned twenty years, Harry shared with his many readers his growing appreciation of California wine, particularly from Napa Valley, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon; and Harry was well-connected, so when he spoke, people listened. He was on the Board of Directors of Chateau Latour (which for better or for worse was not included in the Paris Tasting), he guided Michael Broadbent’s career, and he practically introduced Pomerol to the British wine trade. Through his many tasting visits to California, which he faithfully recorded in the Diaries, Harry let the most influential gastronomes and enophiles in Britain and France (as well as America) know about the first wave of “boutique wineries” that arose in Northern California in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. To cite but a few examples, Harry compared a 1968 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon, from Monte Rosso Vineyard, to Mouton-Rothschild, and wrote, after tasting 1968 Martha’s Vineyard at Heitz and then 1968 Cabernet Sauvignon from the old Souverain, that traveling between those two wineries “could be compared with visiting Chateau Lafite after Chateau Latour.”

This is no mean praise; and Harry wrote these words (in “Pick of the Bunch”) years before the Paris Tasting. Nor was Harry Waugh by any means the first to compare California wine to the best of France. The American wine writer, Julian Street, in his 1948 book, “Wines,” tasted “a white wine of 1919 from Beaulieu which gave a Montrachet a run for its money,” and had high praise for Cabernets from Martin Ray (whose 1936 vintage he called “the best wine ever to be made of the Claret grape in the United States”), Fountain Grove (in Santa Rosa), and Inglenook.

I could cite many more examples; you get the idea. California wine was building in identity and momentum for decades before the Paris Tasting; indeed, possibly the reason Steven Spurrier devised his tasting was because of that very fact. My own educated opinion is that, even without the Judgment of Paris, California wine would have become as famous as it now is. Of course, this is a surmisal; I think also that Pinot Noir would have become as famous as it now is even without Sideways. Such contentions cannot be proven, but events like the Paris Tasting and Sideways do not happen in vacuo; they are prompted and shaped by phenomena already extant that give rise to the Steven Spurriers and Rex Picketts. California wine indeed has become a phenomenon, but it was a long time coming, and did not start with the Judgment of Paris.


In Defense of BevMo!

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I’m not saying that what BevMo is accused of doing was cool—but it’s not the worst thing in the world, either, and the take-home lesson for consumers is not to base their entire buying decision on in-store displays, including shelf talkers.

The accusation in the class action suit against BevMo is simple: the vintages on the store’s “price signage” and the vintages on the bottles on the shelf were sometimes different. For example, one BevMo shopper complained to a CBS-TV reporter who accompanied her to a Manhattan Beach branch of the store, Look here, ‘Malbec Mendoza 2012’ and the bottle ‘2013.’” The consumer added, “The product should be what exactly it says it’s selling.”

Well, that is undoubtedly true, and I’m sure after all the negative publicity, BevMo is hugely embarrassed and will do their level best to make sure that doesn’t happen again! But, let’s face it, with so many different SKUs on their shelves, and more wines coming in and going out every day, and individual stores probably having to depend on corporate to provide the shelf talkers and other print materials, it’s awfully hard for the floor staff to keep everything current. I’ve seen the same vintage variation in other big box supermarkets, and also seen how not even some wineries can keep up with the current vintage on their own website!

So this isn’t to excuse BevMo, it’s just to provide a little context. Besides, do you think that there’s going to be a huge difference between a 2012 Malbec that gets a good score and a 2013? Probably not.

The shopper who complained about BevMo told the TV station she felt “swindled a little bit.” That’s an exaggeration. “Swindling” is the conscious act of defrauding somebody: My Webster’s dictionary calls it “to get [something] by false pretenses or fraud.” I don’t think that anybody at BevMo deliberately performed a fraudulent act upon the public. Surely it was, as I said, a simple mistake or oversight by a busy staff that just couldn’t keep up with everything.

Look, sometimes I think these class action lawyers have gone amok. As for the TV station, we’ve all seen local television news in our own cities and home towns. We know how desperate some of these “investigative” reporters are to find some scandal, some egregious violation of the public trust, to report on the 5 o’clock evening news. But I think we also know how they can make a mountain out of a molehill. Go to the article in the link I provided and read the snippets of transcripts of the conversation between the CBS producer and the BevMo clerks s/he confronted about the misleading vintage signs. It reads like a Saturday Night Live parody. Yes, BevMo store clerks—like clerks in all big boxes, and quite a few in small stores too—would benefit from additional training, not just in wine but in everything. But do you really expect a cash register clerk to be a wine expert—to understand the legalities of vintage dating? That seems unreasonable to me. I shop at BevMo and have ever since they opened. It’s a fine chain; there’s a nice one here in Oakland and I’ve bought wine and beer there for many years. When you shop at a big box liquor store, you sort of implicitly understand you’re not going to get the same level of professional knowledge as you would in a small fine wine shop. On the other hand, you usually won’t pay as much money, either. And there is a connection! So lay off BevMo, please. It can happen to anyone.


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