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To Santa Maria Valley, and my dinner at RN74

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Off to Santa Barbara today, for a quick trip to the Santa Maria Valley and Cambria and Byron. I always like traveling through coastal wine country, especially at this time of the year; as you pass by the Santa Lucia Highlands, and the vast stretches of southern Monterey and the San Bernabe Vineyard – as you zip through the Central Coast, with Arroyo Grande and Edna Valley just to the east, marked by the Seven Sisters – as you come into Los Alamos and the vineyards pick up again, sprawling on both sides of the road – you get a real sense of the terroir of the coast. Always just to the west is the mighty Pacific. Sometimes you can see it, sometimes the road curls too far inland, cutting the ocean off from sight; but always you can feel it in the cool winds, and I swear I can smell it, a sort of ionized, salt-laden scent that reminds me of Manzanilla sherry.

This sense of terroir is very different from the more technical analyses that we writers love to engage in, but to get a more generalized sense of the lay of the land – one which you feel subtly in your fingertips but can’t precisely define – is perhaps the more important way to understand terroir. The emotive and intuitive sense always has been important in a thorough understanding of wine. I had dinner last night with the Master Sommelier, Sur Lucero, who spoke of perceiving wine in terms of colors and shapes. I, myself, do not. When it came my turn to describe what we were drinking, I turned to human characteristics, for different wines always remind me of different sorts of people. There are shy, reticent wines, boastful wines, wines of elegance and charm. There are common wines, rude and ill-raised; then there are what I can wines of breed. We drank, courtesy of the sommelier at RN74, an older Burgundy, a Latricieres-Chambertin, whose vintage was unknown; the label bearing the year had fallen off. Sur guessed it to be 1985. It was a magnificent specimen that changed constantly in the glass, never drying out even after several hours but always gaining in force. With beef tartare it was excellent; ditto with gnocchi, and at the end of the meal, when the server brought a little plate of chocolates and other sweet dainties, that Burgundy was a fine partner. As I ate my first little chocolate and sipped the wine, and before I could say anything, Sur observed – correctly – “Stripped away the fruit, didn’t it?”

“Yes,” I replied, “but still a good pairing.” With the fruit, which was massive, now having receded, one could appreciate the wine’s structure even more. Sur seemed to like that, so I continued. There is a concept, I told him, of being raised properly by one’s parents, to be kind and respectful to everyone, King and servant alike. I always had been struck by interviews with people who met Queen Elizabeth. “Such a nice lady” is the usual take. “Puts you at your ease. So easy to talk with.” This is the sign of good breeding. In the same way, that red Burgundy got along with every food I had it with. I’m sure someone could have come up with something it clashed with, but it was a wine whose very universality was perhaps its greatest recommendation. A wine like that possesses, not so much a distinct personality, as the absence of a personality: it is the Platonic ideal of wine, and as such embraces, with love, any food with which wine, even theoretically, can be enjoyed. For that reason it was what some people call a conceptual wine.

At any rate, it was a lovely evening, and even though Sur and I didn’t agree 100% of the time on things like In Pursuit of Balance, I was very grateful to benefit from his take on wine. He also has a great (if frightening and sobering) personal story of the Napa earthquake.

Have a great weekend!


Vintage 2014, and California declares war on small wineries

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With the first (light) rain of the season expected tomorrow (today, as you read this) north of the Golden Gate Bridge, I thought it was a good time to consider the 2014 vintage in California. So, as usual, I asked my loyal Facebook friends, who responded in force.

The story is this: short, compressed harvest. Record early, in many cases a month before normal. (This means that Autumn rains should not be a problem. If they actually come, which everyone is hoping they will.) A good crop, tonnage-wise, not a record, but then, it comes on the heels of two record-setting years (2012, 2013).

Quality? Overall, pretty good. The wines should be plump and approachable. Several people commented on soft acids, but that can be corrected in the winery. On the other hand, others remarked about high acidity, which also can be corrected, partially, through the malolactic fermentation. The exceptional drought has resulted in small berries but that should make for intense flavors.

Potential problems? Smoke taint tops the list. The Sierra Foothills have been hit heavy by wildfires. So has the extreme North Coast, but that smoke drifts down to the south. A second potential issue is that the warmth, combined with the drought, has resulted in fairly high sugars, especially in reds, but true phenolic ripeness lags a bit behind. I wouldn’t call this a statewide problem but it could result in some structural and balance problems. In a few cases, the crush rush could be a challenge for vintners running out of cellar space.

Several respondents commented on the inverted order of picking, with Cabernet coming in earlier than Pinot and some of the whites, a situation that has vintners scratching their heads, and which may be due to the drought.

Overall, the mood among vintners is positive. I’d call 2014 the third year in a row where there’s more cause to celebrate.

* * *

I must say I find this story disturbing. In brief, the State of California has fined a local winery for using volunteers. Seems the winery didn’t pay them wages, or worker’s comp, so Sacramento has cracked down with a fine so heavy, it looks like it will put this little family winery, in business since 1986, out of business.

The story was so preposterous, I called the winery to see if it’s true. I spoke with Westover Winery’s owner, Bill Smyth, who confirmed it. “The State is out of control,” he told me. What will happen now? “We’ll go out of business, 900 of our club members and thousands of customers will lose, and wineries all over California will be devastated.” Bill contacted his state assemblyman, who’s calling for hearings to “do something,” Bill says. But what exactly can be done isn’t clear.

What were the volunteers doing? “The same things as they do at all other wineries: work behind the bar, making wine,” Bill says. They’re friends of the winery who loved participating.

I’ve volunteered at wineries. I’ve punched down, cleaned tanks and worked in the vineyard, and enjoyed and learned from it. There’s something seriously wrong with this development. I hope things work out for Bill Smyth, and I hope that the California Legislature changes the law to allow volunteers to work at wineries. And how about Wine Institute? Guys, it’s time for you to use your clout in the State Capitol.


A writer and his voice

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It’s been six years since I started steveheimoff.com. I had no idea what I was getting into back in those pre-Recession days. But I knew that blogging was something I wanted to do.

People sometimes ask me why I started blogging. After all, I already had a pretty good job, was rather well-known in the wine community, and I didn’t envision blogging as a career move, as apparently others did.

The truth is, I wanted to develop my writing skills further—to push into new areas of creative expression, in a way that had previously been denied me. As California editor of Wine Enthusiast, my writing style was severely restricted by the formal norms of the genre: 40 words per wine review, “Voice of God” tone, avoid the first person singular, stay away from emotional or political content, etc. etc. True, in my books for University of California Press, there was more leeway. But still, a part of me that felt essential—the first consciousness I’m aware of when I awake in the morning, the “me” that I tune into when I meditate—seemed unable to find a place in my writings. That’s what I wanted to capture in my blog.

It turned out to be not so easy. There are many pitfalls in capturing that essence. What writers call “the writers voice” isn’t immediately discernible, drowned out as it often is by other voices in one’s head. These other voices clamor for attention, can be sulky or petulant or angry, and of they are expressed, they lead no one to enlightenment, for they are false voices. Good writers struggle for years to find their authentic voice, which is why avid readers seek good writers: No one wants to hear a false voice.

It took me a few years to find my proper blogging voice. I tinkered here and there, trying on this persona, then that persona. Of course, they were all “me,” in the sense that all came from my mind. But it wasn’t until the summer of 2008 that I found it: the voice that came from my deepest, most seamless place, and one moreover that connected with readers.

Finding your voice as a writer is very similar to finding your palate as a wine professional. In both cases, you have to do the same thing over and over again (writing or tasting) before the pieces begin to fall into place. You begin to see the forest for the trees. It might be, say, Raj Parr developing an appreciation for lower alcohol wines, or Bob Parker falling in love with the big Napa style. I doubt that either of them knew, in advance, what wines they would come to appreciate, and which in turn would help to formulate their reputations in the industry. This is good, and as it should be. What we want, in our writers and in our critics, is authenticity: to find a voice that’s been around the block a few times, knows what it’s talking about, and knows how to express itself. Now, this isn’t to say that all strong and self-confident voices are equal. There is a regrettable tendency in wine blogging for shouters to drown out reasonable conversation. Like yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, these voices certainly are heard—but it’s the wrong thing to do.

The nice thing about finding your voice as a wine blogger is that even when you have nothing in particular to write about, you can crank out a readable post, like this one. It’s like they say about the First Growths of Bordeaux: Even in an indifferent vintage, they make wine that’s interesting.

See you tomorrow!


The World Wine Guys on their new book

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Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen, “the World Wine Guys,” have a new book out, Wines of California: The Comprehensive Guide, with a foreward by Michael Mondavi and a preface by Kevin Zraly. It’s quite good, certainly the best of the genre in a long time, and a useful companion for the wine lover’s bookshelf. We met up yesterday at one of my favorite San Francisco restaurants, Chaya, where, over sushi and wine, we had a little chat. Mike and Jeff are, of course, the entertainment and lifestyle editors at my old stomping ground, Wine Enthusiast, so we’ve been buddies for years.

SH: Why another California wine book? It seems like there’s been a lot of them recently.

MD: Actually, it’s been a long time since there was a comprehensive California wine book.

JJ: The last book was by James Laube, back in 1995, California Wine, but it was really focused on Napa and Sonoma.

MD: There’s a number of books that have covered specific regions, or a specific area, for example The New California Wine, which covered some of the new producers. We wanted to cover the entire state, top to bottom, Mendocino down to Temecula. And we wanted to create a book that reaches people in different ways, because there’s geography, history, there’s an explanation of AVAs, major grapes, up-and-coming grapes, and specific listings on wineries we consider to be the most notable in the state.

SH: You guys live in New York, but you’re in San Francisco for your book tour. Where else are you going?

JJ: Wow. Besides San Francisco, there’s New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and Boston. We’re really excited. It’s a big book tour.

SH: Do you like being on the road?

JJ: I love it. We’ll be traveling today, back to New York, then flying back here to go out to Lodi, where the winegrowers have invited us to do a party out there. Then Saturday night, we’ll be at Ordinaire

SH: In my neighborhood!

JJ: So for all your readers in the area, please come down to Oakland and see us.

SH: You guys started as lifestyle writers and now you’re doing wine.

MD: We like to do both. If you look at the book, we have interviews with wine people, but we also have recipes from noted wine country chefs. So we really do straddle the lifestyle, because wine in a vacuum might be more for your collector, but really, I think wine should be enjoyed with food, and with friends.

SH: Finally, what’s next for World Wine Guys?

MD: We’re actually working on another cookbook and another wine book. I’m not going to say what it is; we’ve done the Southern Hemisphere, we’ve done California. Next time, we’re doing something that’s more general, but we’ll talk about that when the time is right! And we’re working on a couple T.V. projects. We have a lot of stuff going on.

The World Wine Guys will be at Ordinaire Wine Shop and Wine Bar, 3354 Grand Ave., Oakland, this Saturday, Sept. 20.

Mike&Jeff
That’s Jeff on the left, Mike on the right


Thinking about tasting

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Lots of food for thought in the Fall 2014 issue of Wine & Spirits, which is devoted to “The art and science of wine tasting.” There’s so much thoughtful content, I could write a post on each sentence. Surely that’s the mark of a good wine magazine.

The fun starts with editor Josh Greene explaining why he never pursued a Master of Wine certification. Although Wine & Spirits is rather M.S.- and sommelier-oriented (IMHO), Josh says his mind isn’t geared toward “dissecting wine.” Instead, he’s interested in what he calls “pattern recognition,” a softer, more intuitive way of experiencing wine. This leads him to be struck by “how many ways there are to approach wine.” Amen brother!

This multiplicity of approaches is nicely illustrated early on, in a section in which a couple dozen wine pros describe how they “improved their game.” These include Master Somms, MWs, restaurateurs and retailers, critics and writers. Their individual approaches are all over the board, as you’d expect, but a read-through of them all suggests two over-arching themes that are inextricably at odds with each other. These are:

  1. a focus on, indeed practically an obsession with, identifying precise food-related aromas and flavors, versus
  2. a tendency to pooh-pooh this approach in favor of something broader, which we can call “structure.”

In the first grouping, we might place Josiah Baldovino (Bay Grape, Oakland, and former lead somm at Michael Mina). He looks for “the nuances of wine. Not just, ‘this wine is fruity,’ but: ‘What kind of fruit is it? Citrus, stone fruit, orchard, tropical…maybe durian?’” Also in this group is another sommelier, Geoff Kruth, M.S.: “When I taste blind,” he writes, “I don’t worry about what the wine is; I worry about understanding the underlying aromas and flavors…”.

In the second group, the structuralists, there’s Eric Asimov (The New York Times): “The precise specifics of the flavors and the aromas [are] unimportant. The notion that we must challenge our senses to concoct a list of overly specific references…does not convey much of significance.”

Well, you can’t get any more opposite that those two points of view! My own tendency conforms toward that of Eric and Josh Greene. I veer also toward the approach taken by Patricio Tapia, a Wine & Spirits critic, who “realize[d] that I should be approaching wine in terms of structure rather than aromas. I’d never been particularly good at discovering roses or wild cherries in my glass…”.

We have to ask, at this point, if the reason some people (Asimov, Greene, Tapia, me) shy away from “overly specific references” is because we’re simply not very good at finding them (as Tapia concedes) or because we’re philosophically opposed to that methodology. To doubt oneself is an implicit part of the wine critiquing business. Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, from Champagne Louis Roederer, calls describing wine “a true act of humility,” while David Lynch, at St. Vincent Tavern & Wine Merchant (San Francisco), quotes Pio Boffa, of Pio Cesare: “When it comes to wine, I know nothing except the fact of my own ignorance.”

Knowing one’s own ignorance can be scary, especially for those in the public eye who are expected to know everything. Josh Greene, for instance, in explicating his “pattern recognition” approach, concedes that another reason he never studied for the M.W. is because “at the time, I feared the M.W. study process.” Who wouldn’t? It’s incredibly rigorous, takes a lot of time, and results most of the time in failure. Why would someone deliberately undertake such a perilous journey when it’s likely to end in an embarrassing (and public) rebuff?

One must then ask the question, What is the point of wine tasting, anyway? An obvious answer is that some people are paid to do it. But wine tasting—the kind practiced by the people interviewed by Wine & Spirits—is a very odd, even unnatural practice. Nobody would do it in real life. If we were simply drinking wine for the purpose it was made—which is to drink it—we all would agree with Paul Draper, who points out that analyzing and comparing is “wasting great wines…instead of enjoying them as they were intended: one or two at a time with friends and good food.”

(“Wasting great wines…” I couldn’t help but recall all the wine I poured down the kitchen sink, after I took my one-ounce tasting pour. I hated to do it—but what was the alternative?)

I think we’ve fallen through the rabbit hole into the “overly specific references” looking-glass world, and we’re not about to climb out of it anytime soon. My personal approach will remain what it was for all those years at Wine Enthusiast: to speak of wines in more or less general terms and refrain from the precious and pompous. To me, the ideal wine review is to give people some idea of the aromas and flavors – of the relative dryness level and acidity, the structure–a little bit of the history of the grape, winemaker or region–to touch on terroir, where appropriate, in order to explain its influence on the wine–and, of course, some recommendations for food. With this latter, too, I want to avoid “overly specific” or exotic references, and keep it veered towards stuff that real people actually make at home. When I review and describe a wine, I do so with a very specific person in mind: that average American wine lover who wants a memorable wine (and food) experience, and wants to know a little more about the wine than he or she otherwise would– nothing that’s going to weigh them down, or make them believe that enjoying wine is super-complicated or only for experts. My way, then, is K.I.S.S., keeping in mind Leonardo da Vinci’s observation that “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”


Here comes the Apple’s wine i-Tasting app!

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Tim Cook’s announcement on Tuesday of Apple’s new iTaste © app is exciting, and certainly represents a great leap forward in technology, but I wonder if it will really replace traditional human wine tasters.

As you’ve probably heard, the app, which runs on the new Apple Watch, is easy enough to use. You just put a drop of wine into a little hole in the watch, and in a nanosecond the screen gives you a complete readout of all the wine’s qualities: aroma, taste, finish, etc. The flavor descriptors run up to 120 words, and the iTaste can determine the precise blend. It can tell you where the oak came from, what the chemistry is, and even rates the wine on the beloved 100-point scale.

As Tim Cook explained, this frees wine lovers from “enslavement” to critics. “Forget about Parker, Wine Spectator, Enthusiast and all the rest,” the Apple CEO told an enraptured audience at San Francisco’s Moscone Center, who were sipping French Champagne. “They can be wrong, they can have their biases, they may be fatigued or sick or even drunk when they’re tasting.” The iTaste, by contrast, being a machine, “does not suffer from these human frailties. It is infallible.”

I was lucky enough to try out the iTaste, through the connections of a friend who asked not to be identified because he’s not authorized to speak for Apple or to provide the media with advance peeks of the product. It’s pretty cool, all right—as all Apple products are. It certainly knows more about wine than I do! I gave it a drop of a Slovenian Refosco, and it correctly identified it; it even knew it came from Dobrovo. I don’t think a Master of Wine could do that!

We should have seen this coming, right? I mean, everybody’s already convinced that wine critics are a dying breed, if not an anachronism. Millennial bloggers figured that they’d be next to take a bite of the golden apple—maybe in a crowd-sourced way—but instead, we may be leaving the human factor behind altogether, and plunging straight into robotics. If it happens, this will have broad impact in a number of areas: restaurants, publishing, retailing; the Wine Bloggers Conference will even go the way of the dodo. And what of shelf talkers? Would a wine store dare to put one up that says, “94 points, iTaste”?

I told my friend—the one who let me use the iTaste—how much I liked it, but I also asked him about a potential problem. Can the devices be hacked into? Even with Apple’s well-deserved reputation as being fairly immune to viruses, isn’t there a possibility that a powerful influence could tinker with the scores of certain wines, raising them or lowering them in such a way as would help itself and hurt its competitors?

My friend, who is highly placed within Apple circles, had no answer to this. As with all new leaps of technology, the early promise outshines the potential problems. Who, after all, could have foreseen that such a marvelous development as texting on mobile devices would lead to increased automobile accidents?

Another thing I wonder about is whether companies other than Apple will come out with their own reviewing software. This seems likely. Will we then have competing i-reviews and i-scores? If so, won’t this put consumers right back where they are now, into a situation of hopeless bafflement? Technology was supposed to make us all smarter. How has that worked out?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Luddite. I’m all in favor of advances. I, personally, will miss the good old days when we had actual human beings who associated their names with wine reviews. I mean, a guy like Charlie Olken could put his reputation behind a review, and we could trust it because it came from him. Will we be able to put the same trust into an iTaste review? After all, the fundamental rule of software is GIGO: garbage in, garbage out.

But I recognize the March of Progress. And there will be inevitable repercussions. Once we get rid of human wine critics, why not get rid of human winemakers? The entire winemaking process can be automated, like automobiles.

 


Tales from the AVA front

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“Democracy,” Winston Churchill told the House of Commons in 1947, “is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Churchill might still have been sour toward democratic forms of government, given the fact that, two years previously, he had been unceremoniously thrown out of office, in a free election, by a British public that—while grateful to “the old man” for winning World War Two—nonetheless found him insufficiently liberal and vigorous to lead them in peace.

I begin today’s post with the famous Churchill quote because it can be adapted to the topic of American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs. “An AVA is the worst way of categorizing winegrowing regions, except for all other forms.” Anyone who follows the AVA process, especially in California, knows how sloppy, irrational and unhelpful it can be. And yet (to paraphrase another politician, Donald Rumsfeld), we have to deal with the AVA system we have, not the one we might want or wish to have at a later time.

The talented blogger Hawk Wakawaka points out some of these incoherences in a Sept. 8 post in which she deftly brings readers up to date on the long simmering brouhaha down in the Santa Rita Hills, which some people are trying to have expanded eastward, a proposal that infuriates others. It’s not my goal today to do what Hawk has already done, and done better than I could. Rather, I’m fascinated by her contention, based on TTB’s published guidelines, that [as Hawk puts it] any sub-AVA “must be generally congruent with” the conditions of the existing AVA.

This can sound a little confusing. What does “congruent” mean? It’s easier to understand in the context of Ballard Canyon, which was granted AVA status by TTB last year. Here, the key is Hawk’s statement that “Ballard Canyon [is] considered to be distinctive enough to merit [its] own sub-AVA status, while still generally congruent with the conditions of Santa Ynez Valley as a whole.”

Well, anyone can see this is where we run into trouble. The main problem concerns how you define the terms “distinctive” and “congruent.” The two seem to be opposites. If a region is so distinctive that it merits its own appellation, fine: we can all understand that. But how can it be distinctive and still be similar [congruent] to other appellations nearby?

Clearly, these are angels-dancing-on-pinheads concepts. There are clear and distinct boundaries between, say, the ocean and the beach. One is wet and watery, the other dry and sandy. Although the waves occasionally wash over the sand, we still insist that the two places are distinct, and we are correct in asserting that.

But appellations are fuzzy. We know this, not only intuitively, but through witnessing the contention that underlies almost every single appellation petition. When Gallo wanted to move the boundaries of the Russian River Valley southward, people erupted in anger. (It got done anyway.) And now, in the case of Santa Rita Hills, we have the same thing going on. (I suspect that TTB will approve the expansion, but you never know.)

It’s confusing, because who’s to say exactly where a climate influence or a soil composition begins and ends? Obviously the west winds and fogs that sweep over the Santa Rita Hills don’t abruptly halt at the 101 Freeway. And you don’t have to be a geologist to suspect that neither does the chemical composition of the dirt, or its structure, radically change at the Freeway. Therefore the petitioners who want the eastward expansion seem to have some justification for their case.

But there’s a slippery slope. If you give the Santa Rita Hills another ½ mile or so to the east, why not give it ¾ of a mile? Or a full mile? At some point, we would all agree that pushing Santa Rita Hills—a cool-climate appellation—too far to the east would be ridiculous. But how are we to know exactly where the line is?

There’s another problem. Consider the Pisoni Vineyard. Many different wineries buy grapes from it; their contracts generally allow them to determine picking times. If one winery picks two weeks later than another, which factor influences the resulting wines more: the vineyard’s terroir, or the winemaker’s picking date? The one thing the two wines have in common is their vineyard source; the fact that both hail from the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA is basically irrelevant. We can see that, while defining AVAs is overall a good thing, from multiple points of view, at the same time it’s a bit of a distraction.

This reverts back to Churchill. Determining these AVA boundaries is messy and frustrating, which is to say the process is political. Boundaries end where they do when the fighting process ceases (often because TTB makes its final decision). In the wine educating I’ve done in my career, I’ve always tried to point out that appellations are useful, as far as they go, but that the ultimate appellation is the brand and winery.

Incidentally, the TTB currently is considering ten AVA petitions, of which I find two noteworthy. One is Lamorinda. For those of you who don’t live in the East Bay, this is an area on “the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel” in Contra Costa County that consists of the towns of Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda. It’s very suburban and upscale and, for that reason, lots of people with money have planted vineyards in their yards, and are making wine. They want their own appellation and I suppose they’re going to get it. Another proposed AVA is Los Olivos District. That’s a little puzzling to me. Los Olivos is, of course, within the Santa Ynez Valley, but then, so are the villages of Santa Ynez, Solvang, Ballard and Buellton. It’s not clear to me why the Los Olivos people want their own appellation. If anyone out there can explain the difference between the terroirs of Los Olivos and Santa Ynez town, please let me know. On the other hand, if eventually all those townships get AVAs, it will be the wine writer’s full employment act; we’ll spend decades talking about their differences, the same way we do now, fairly inconclusively, with Oak Knoll, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford and Calistoga.

My bottom line: There is congruency within AVAs and neighboring areas, but it’s a squishy type. Nonetheless, we should try to understand it, especially in California, where certain critics say all wines are starting to taste like each other.


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