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Nice to see the Cabernet bashers come around

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I’m glad I never joined the bandwagon of protest against California (mainly Napa Valley) Cabernet Sauvignon. It garnered a lot of naysayers, but, as Jancis (what, you need a last name?) blogged the other day, even the naysayers are changing their minds. “There has recently been a resurgence of interest in these wines on New York restaurant wine lists,” she writes, an especially notable statement considering that it was New York somms and critics who led the charge against Cabernet.

They claimed Napa Cabs were too much of everything: too ripe, too oaky, too alcoholic, too extracted. I never could quite understand what they were talking about. Of course there were Cabs that were unbalanced, but there also were hundreds of fabulous Cabernets that weren’t—that were utterly delicious and dazzling. And it’s not as if everything from Bordeaux is fabulous. I wondered if perhaps the New York critics actually had the tasting experience with Cabernet to know what they were talking about. I wondered, too, if they went into their tastings with an inherent bias. When you’re tasting wine, you find what you’re looking for.

It’s become a repeating meme in the last year or two for writers to claim that Napa Valley Cabernet is being made differently than it was even four or five years ago. Jancis herself writes of the “increasing restraint” she finds in the wines. Is there evidence of such restraint, beyond the assertions of critics? Are alcohol levels in Cabernet lower than they used to be? I haven’t seen any proof. On the other hand, winemakers have definitely been feeling the backlash from the anti-Cabernet crowd and, in many cases, took corrective action to lower alcohol levels, but how have they done so? There are known methods for reducing alcohol, adding water, spinning cones and reverse osmosis among them. But winemakers are reticent about talking about these practices, because wine writers—usually the same ones that complain about high alcohol—then criticize them for “manipulating” wine.

Well, I always knew that the anti-Cab crowd would run out of steam sooner or later, and I guess they now have. There is a bandwagon effect in wine criticism whereby somebody—usually a thought leader—coins a critique, which then is borrowed by everyone else, lemming-like down the line, and repeated endlessly; that, indeed, is the definition of “meme.” Yet memes have lifecycles. “Successful memes remain and spread, whereas unfit ones stall and are forgotten.” The bashing of California Cabernet has proven to be an “unfit” meme and therefore it is quickly being forgotten. The fortieth anniversary of the Judgment of Paris—which is actually what prompted Jancis’s July 9th post—has been extensively covered in the media, with California Cabernet receiving near-unanimous praise. As Jancis notes, just about every time the Judgment is replicated, Napa Cabernet beats Bordeaux. So we need a new meme here: California Cab really is as good as Bordeaux (albeit different), by almost every objective standard (and you can’t get more objective than a blind tasting conducted by professionals).

Which is why I say I’m glad I never bashed Cabernet. Now, I don’t have to explain why I changed my mind.


Paso Robles, Sonoma, Napa: What’s the right amount of growth?

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The thing about America is that the easy issues have been solved. What’s left are the hard ones, and among those—hardly the most pressing, but troubling if you live in wine country—is how much development to allow.

Basically, the two sides are these: on the one hand are tourists who bring in the dollars that pay for police, firemen, road repair, teachers and the like. They want to visit wine country and have a lot of fun stuff to do, and wineries are eager to provide them with the opportunity.

On the other hand are people who actually live in wine country and find the increasingly crowded roads a real hassle. Whether you’re a fourth generation Napan, Sonoman or Paso Roblan, or someone who moved there six months ago for a quieter, simpler way of life, the influx of thousands of extra tourists has got to be annoying.

This is not a new issue in wine country, but it is increasing to epic proportions. As Angela Hart, at the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, and Esther Mobley, at the San Francisco Chronicle, point out, things are reaching the boiling point.

Both Hart’s article, in Saturday’s Press-Democrat, and Mobley’s, in yesterday’s Chronicle, are balanced and objective looks at the two sides. Mobley provides continuing coverage of the brouhaha over Justin Winery’s removal of oak trees, which really freaked out lots of locals. Hart looks at Sonoma County’s approval of 300 new wineries in the last sixteen years, which opponents say sparks “unruly crowds, loud noise and traffic on narrow, winding roads [that] is detracting from the peace and quiet of their neighborhoods.” Neither of these journalists takes a side; neither do I. These are political decisions and a reporter should not engage in politics.

I’ve followed these debates for a long time. There’s never an easy answer. You can’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg, which in this case is the dollars the flow into formerly rural communities that badly need the money. But you can’t take a farming community and turn it, willy nilly, into Fisherman’s Wharf. What is needed is a reasonable amount of growth. You can’t have no growth; that train has left the station long ago. Nor can you have unlimited growth: nobody wants to see Motel 6’s and Taco Bells sprawling along the Silverado Trail.

The Justin case is not quite the same as the Sonoma case. Justin did something that even they admit was a horrible mistake, and they’re trying their hardest to apologize and make amends. Still, Mobley got it right in her analysis that this tempest has brought Paso Robles, formerly a sleepy little wine community, its “first real dose of Wine Country growing pains.” Wine country is nothing if not charming, but as we all have experienced, there’s nothing charming about a traffic jam that extends from Yountville to Calistoga—20 miles—that takes 45 minutes to negotiate.

The answer? Like I said, the easy issues have already been solved. What we’re left with in America—problems of policing, of homelessness, of the environment and climate change and healthcare—are seemingly intractable. They can only be addressed when both sides are reasonable and open to compromise—and “compromise” has turned into a dirty word, in all too many cases. Wine country should be an exception. It should be a place where reasonable people can get together and reach reasonable accommodations that may not satisfy everyone, but that give enough to all parties to keep the peace, allowing for managed, but not unlimited, growth.


Does a grower’s personality enter into the wine?

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In our ongoing attempt to understand terroir, or cru–the sum total of influences upon the character and quality of a wine—we now come across the statement by Eric Lebel. He is (or was, when Champagne, Uncorked was published, earlier this year), the Chef de Cave, or cellarmaster, at Krug Champagne.

The book’s author, Alan Tardi, interviewed him extensively; Tardi wanted to know in particular what makes for the highest quality in a Champagne. Lebel told him this: “For Krug, it all begins here, in the vineyards…by carefully selecting the specific parcels we want, those that produce high quality, yes, of course, but also high personality. The character of the grapes from the individual parcels, and the characters of the individuals that grow them, are preserved by this approach, and all of them will eventually turn up to play their part in the wine.”

“The characters of the individuals that grow them…in the wine.”  Wow. Really? Krug buys many of its grapes from local growers, some of whom are portrayed in Tardi’s book: Gerard Moreau, taciturn, “solid, like the earth.” Robert Blanc, “gregarious, extraverted, the complete opposite of Gerard Moreau,” and others. Each sells fruit to Lebel, “and this is a big part of where complexity comes from,” Lebel tells Tardi; “this mix of personalities contributes as much to the [Krug] Grande Cuvée as the meteorological events of the season or the terroir where the grapes are grown.”

When I read these words I had to put down the book, rub my eyes and think. Grower personality as important as weather and soil? Sacre bleu! It’s not just that each grower takes a different approach to his viticulture; in fact, it’s not even clear that they do. By and large, growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Champagne is all about beating the climate and coming up with a good, clean crop. But here is Lebel stating, as fact, that somehow, beyond all measurable weather and soil conditions or physical practices in the vineyard, the personality or soul of the grower finds its way into the final wine.

This is an exceptionally curious and provocative thing to say. How does the “personality” of a grapegrower enter into the wine? Can it really be as important as chalk? We are talking about sheer mystery…the inexplicable. It would be easy to dismiss this as humbug, except that Lebel has a great deal of credibility. One has to believe that he knows what he’s talking about. I have no idea if Moreau’s earthiness or Blanc’s gregariousness actually play a role in what I experience when I drink Krug Grande Cuvée (which I wish I could more often). But I really, really like the thought that, somehow, these gentlemen’s spirits are in the wine. That is about the most romantic thing I’ve heard in a long time–and what is great wine, if not romantic?

Have a lovely weekend, and if you can, drink Champagne!


Has Vintank tanked? Not clear. My thoughts

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Some years ago, around 2011 or 2012, Jo Diaz, the winery publicist, set up an event at U.C. Davis that featured a showdown, of sorts, between me and Paul Mabray, who had created VinTank in 2009. VinTank has been described in this article as “the wine industry’s most powerful social media monitoring and data distribution platform…designed to help revolutionize the wine industry through monitoring and analyzing blogs, social media, and tasting note platforms and distributing that information to those in the wine and restaurant industries.” The idea behind Vintank, I gathered, was Paul’s strongly-held belief that social media was becoming, or already had become, a very important tool for wineries to sell wine, something VinTank could help them achieve, and that wineries had better hop onboard—at the risk of missing the boat.

By that time, I had acquired the reputation, mainly through this blog, of being something of a social media skeptic, although those who portrayed me as such tended to exaggerate the degree of my skepticism. I myself always took the position that social media’s ability to sell wine was limited. As I looked around, I saw an entrepreneurial explosion of social media consulting firms, all making inordinate claims about social media’s power, backing those claims up with Powerpoint-illustrated statistics, and, of course—so far as I could tell—hoping to be hired for the expertise they said they could bring to their clients, who all too often were hopelessly befuddled as to what they should do with this new-fangled gimmickry.

I never said social media was worthless. Far from it: I was a player myself, active not only on my blog but also on Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Twitter. In fact I advised every proprietor I talked to that they should practice social media to the extent of their ability to do so. At the same time, I said that social media was not, and could not be, the be-all and end-all for wineries: that it was but one tool in the toolbox, and wineries had best not forget the other tools, namely, good sales and marketing done the traditional way (not to mention making high-quality wine!).

Well, you know the media loves a good story of heroes and villains, so I got portrayed as this social media hater, and that was the point of Jo’s event at Davis. Jo thoughtful person she is, knew I didn’t hate social media. She knows me as well as anyone in the industry. At the same time, she thought it would make for good P.R. to present Steve vs. Paul as a gunfight, and I agreed to go along.

Things did get testy that day. I remember thinking that Paul’s claims for social media’s effectiveness were hyperbole, or at least unproven, and his comments about me went beyond objectivity towards the personal. Perhaps he felt the same way about me. At any rate, we parted in a friendly way, and, more importantly, gave the U.C. Davis V&E students “a good show,” which is always what these things are all about.

I largely lost track of VinTank after that. I knew that last year it was acquired by something called the W2O Group, when Paul told Forbes that, with the acquisition, “We can truly catalyze the industry into meaningful and healthy change in how they understand and relate to their customers.” But, like I said, I didn’t follow VinTank or W2), until yesterday, when Wine Industry Insight reported on developments with the headline, “Vintank dead? Vin65 customers left in lurch. Signs point to quiet euthanasia by private equity.” (VinTanke and Vin65 had previously partnered in 2013.) The article went on to quote from the Vin65 website that VinTank, “recently rebranded as TMRW Engine, will cease operations as VinTank…” and…”will no longer be supporting clients in the wine industry effective July 31, 2016.”

The actual details of VinTank’s complicated deals of recent years are hard to follow, and it’s not clear to me, at this time, if VinTank will continue to operate in one form or another, or what Paul’s role will be. (I reached out to him via Twitter, but didn’t hear back.) However, I think we can agree that social media has not turned out to be the savior of wineries, particularly smaller ones, who might have looked towards it for its supposedly miraculous abilities. If it’s true, as Wine Business Insight, reported, that VinTank is tanking, I feel bad for Paul, but I haven’t changed my position in nearly nine years. Social media is fun, it can be helpful for wineries, they should do it if they can, but it’s simply not as vital as some people initially portrayed it.

ED. NOTE: This version has been slightly edited from an earlier version.

 


Notes from the road, on AVAs, and a frown on orange wine

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Driving back from Oregon to California, I was really struck by how abruptly the climate changes in a relatively short distance.

I had stayed the night in Medford, in the interior section of Oregon, right on I-5. The daytime temperatures were very hot, well into the 90s. Then you climb into all the mountains—the Siskyous, the Klamaths, Mt. Shasta—where the temperature is still pretty warm, but this is also a very wet climate: hence the thickly-forested stands of fir (and so many ugly scars from clear-cutting).

Then, when you hit California and get into the top of the Sacramento Valley around Redding, how quickly things change! Suddenly the thick stands of trees are gone, and so is the greenery, replaced by mile after mile of the sere, golden hills that give California its nickname, The Golden State. Where there are trees they are drought-resistant eucalyptus. Otherwise, in this barren, droughty part of the state, nothing grows, except where it is irrigated. All this, within a few hundred miles.

* * *

I read in the news that the Petaluma Gap AVA petitioners still are waiting for TTB to approve their application (or not). I wrote about the effort in Nov. 2014, stating that I was “heartily in favor” of it, and that TTB would probably approve it “sooner rather than later.” Well, here we are, 20 months later, and still no approval! I don’t know if that qualifies as “later,” but it is what it is, and I still think the feds will allow it, although one of the petitioners was quoted in the article as saying, “It’s possible it could all be done this year,” which would definitely be “later” than I’d thought.

Here’s a list of all the other pending AVAs waiting for TTB action. As you can see, three of the nine are in California (although four of the nine are mere “expansions” rather than brand-new appellations). One of the pending ones is the Van Duzer Corridor, up in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. That’s where I’ve been spending time: the “Corridor” is a gap in the coastal hills, similar to the Petaluma Gap, that allows cool maritime air and wind to funnel in from the coast. Jackson Family’s Maple Grove vineyard is a little too far south to be influenced by the Van Duzer Corridor, so it wouldn’t be included, which is why we’re looking into an appellation for our area.

* * *

I’m sorry, but I still think “orange wine” is a flash in the pan. Just because pre-scientific winemakers made this kind of dirty stuff thousands of years ago doesn’t make it romantic if it tastes weird. It just means we humans have learned how to make clean wine.


Learning Willamette, one step at a time

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I just got back from up in the Willamette Valley working on that AVA project for Jackson Family Wines. Our particular vineyard is west of the town of Monmouth, in a part of the valley that does not have its own sub-appellation. That’s something I’m looking into, with the idea of coming up with a name that will satisfy our neighbors as well as the Tax & Trade Bureau of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the agency that oversees such things.

It’s been a long and winding road, so far, but I’m making good progress—I think (and I’m knocking on wood as I write this, being a superstitious type). My initial plan, for a larger AVA that would have included many more of our neighboring grapegrowers and vintners, seems in retrospect to have been a little too ambitious. I’ve since scaled back, towards a smaller, more focused appellation, which seems like a better idea anyway, because smaller appellations tend to make more sense (from a terroir point of view). I mean, I’ve been the first to criticize gigantic appellations all my years as a wine reporter. So I’m glad we’re able to aim for something smaller, which is easier to understand, and to bring our neighbors with us.

One thing I’ve discovered about TTB is, they do not want to get in the middle of somebody else’s fight! And I can’t say I blame them. They’re probably understaffed; they’re in no position to play Judge Judy. It’s not their job to intervene between quarreling neighbors who disagree about where a boundary is or isn’t. TTB wants us—the petitioners—to get our act together and come to them as a united group that has fulfilled TTB’s basic requirements for approval of a new AVA. That’s not asking too much of us.

Another thing I’ve come to appreciate is how important it is to really understand the land you’re trying to get appellated. I understood, back when I made my first visit up here (last Fall) that it would take me a while to “get” the physical parameters of this part of the valley. Now I’m on my fourth trip, and it’s starting to sink in: I am beginning to understand the slopes and contours, the directionality, where the hllls are, what the elevations are, where the pinot noir thrives and where the it’s better for hazelnuts. I’m getting the roads, too: no more need for GPS. More than that, I’m figuring out the big view: the macro-terrain, where the bowls are, the amphitheaters, the natural topographic features on a many-miles scale. I now have my eye on one such: it seems like a consistent place (in fact it reminds me of the Coombsville appellation in Napa Valley, it’s so compact and geometric). The soils seems to be more or less the same throughout, so does the rainfall, and—well, I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. But for me, this is the kind of stuff I love, the sleuthing, the research, the trying to make sense out of a whole lot of unconnected stuff until you begin to see the connections. And, of course, the people we are working with: growers and vintners. Hanging with them, picking their brains, sharing my thoughts, hearing theirs…it’s all so rewarding.

I’m still obviously an outsider, but it strikes me that the Willamette Valley is a huge place, 3.4 million acres, or 35 times bigger than the Russian River Valley; and lord knows, the Russian River Valley seriously needs to be sub-appellated. Willamette Valley already has six sub-AVAs (Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Yamhill-Carlton and Ribbon Ridge), but it seems to my outsider eye that it will take many years if not decades to really figure this place out. I mean every nook and cranny, every slope, every orientation; and this isn’t even to mention the potential Grand Crus. The area to the west and south of Monmouth, which is where I’m working, is very little understood, but I’ll wager it’s going to be important. The little city of Independence, just two miles to the east, has serious plans to develop a winetasting infrastructure on the banks of the Willamette River, and Monmouth is popping up with cute little tasting bars and restaurants. The tourists aren’t flocking here quite yet: they’re going a little further north up the 99, to Eola, Amity and McMinnville. But that’s the beauty of path-breaking winemakers: their curiosity. Tell a winemaker that there’s the potential for beautiful Pinot Noir in an undiscovered region, and light the fire in her eyes. I’m not a winemaker, but it’s fun for a writer to be part of the discovery process, too.

In the end, though, you have to wonder what makes a great AVA—or, at least, one that’s perceived as great. It can’t just be the mere establishment of a perimeter. It can’t just be the petitioner’s claim that the appellation is unique (for most AVAs aren’t, to be perfectly honest). I guess what it takes is a long track record of producing great wine, which doesn’t happen overnight.


“There were giants in those days”

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The news that Paul Draper is retiring came, not as a complete shock, because after all, he’s 80 years old. Rather, it was a realization, the latest in a sorry series, that “the mighty men of old, men of renown” are passing from our scene like the last of a fine vintage gone to frost.

I did not know Mr. Draper well, although well enough for him to return my phone calls and to invite me to Ridge, where he was winemaker for more than 45 years. In fact, it was at one of those visits that he tasted me to about 30 vintages of Monte Bello, a tasting I will never forget. The quality was of course high, vintage variation was terribly interesting, and I found it fascinating that no Monte Bello had even been produced in excess of 14% alcohol. I also had the opportunity to interview Mr. Draper many times on the telephone.

That he was a “giant” is true in this sense: Certain industries, or perhaps “human practices” is a better term, seem capable of launching men and women to the status of “gianthood.” This is a near-mythic status in which we sense something more noble and inspirational than you might find in, say, insurance salesmen (with all due respect to insurance salesmen). The wine industry, and particularly its production side, seems always to have produced giants. I think of, for instance, of the winemaker, his name lost to history, who made the Falernian wine from the Opimian vintage of 121 BC, which Julius Caesar himself loved when the wine was more than sixty years of age. I think also of Arnaud III de Pontac, the proprietor of Haut-Brion, who hauled, with great difficulty and at great danger, his wine across France around 1660, so that the English King Charles II would fall in love with it, as Pontac knew he would.

I think of the Widow Cliquot, and the Finnish sea captain Gustave Niebaum, and Andre Tchelistcheff, and Max Schubert at Penfolds, and of course of Robert Mondavi, a giant if ever there was one. These were men and women whose visions were capacious, and upon whose shoulders not only their own fates rested, but the fates of entire generations of vintners and wine drinkers. And they knew it, these giants, knew how large were the tasks they assigned themselves, respected the challenges and difficulties, and gladly accepted them; for they knew, also, that to trod the well-worn path would lead them only to well-trod places. In their fertile imaginations, they perceived places no man had perceived before them, and, in going boldly to those places, enabled the rest of us to follow their paths.

Mr. Draper’s story is well-known and need not be repeated here. What is interesting is that he helped, with his partners, to create, not only a First Growth of California, but to do it in a place—the Santa Cruz Mountains—that was not named Napa Valley. It is true that those mountains had a very noble place in California’s vinous history: the La Questa Bordeaux-style red wine, planted in the 1880s supposedly from cuttings obtained at Margaux, was one of the first “cult” wines. But by the time of Ridge’s founding, in 1959, the gaze of the industry already had turned to Napa Valley, which makes the decision of Ridge’s founders to locate in Cupertino all the more curious, and Draper’s achievement all the more noteworthy.

That Mr. Draper’s style of Cabernet—leaner, more elegant and ageworthy—also marched to a different beat from that of Napa Valley also contributes to his legend. He never deviated from his style, as wine writer Laurie Daniel noted in the San Jose Mercury News. That style, which she accurately called “graceful,” does not seem to have inspired other California Cabernet makers, aside from perhaps a Cathy Corison or two; instead, others marched towards higher alcohol, greater extraction, more new oak. Mr. Draper realized that if he allowed the grapes to reach the high sugars necessary for superripeness at the cool Monte Bello ridge site, they would result in a bizarre, unbalanced wine, of limited ageability. So he “danced with the one that brung him,” to the joy of Monte Bello fans everywhere.

Still, it would be misleading to ascribe Mr. Draper’s achievements solely in technical terms. The things that result in men being thought of as “giants” have less to do with their specific behaviors or creations, and more with something mysterious and inchoate which they inspire in others. (Alexander the Great had this very impact.) Some of that has to do, of course, with personality, and the fact that Mr. Draper was a consummate gentleman should not be overlooked. Nor should it be forgotten that he was a tireless worker and representative of Ridge, if not as indefatigable as Robert Mondavi, then at least in the same mold. Men like these—giants—are aware that they have a responsibility to the aura of legend others have built up around them; and they rise to that responsibility with, yes, grace.

So, to Mr. Draper I say, enjoy your retirement! Well done, sir, well done.


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