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The vagaries of vintages

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I’m calling this post the vagaries of vintages because you never know what the weather is going to be during the growing season.

Farmers have known this forever, of course, ever since our farmer ancestors began harvesting crops, which is one of the things that made us human and led to civilization. European grapegrowers have known it, too, for thousands of years, but here in California, we’re still learning that not every vintage is the same, as was long thought. Granted, our annual variations are far less extreme than they are in, say, Burgundy, but they’re extreme enough, in their own way, and with what appears to be the effects of climate change, they’re becoming ever more bizarre.

For example, this past winter of 2014-2015 was exceptionally warm and dry. During January and February we had temperatures in the 70s, even the 80s. As a result, budbreak was early in wine country, and it looked like it would be another record early harvest.

Then came May. Wham, a persistent trough parked itself over the eastern Pacific, and for the last three weeks, we’ve had fog, drizzle, rain, below average temperatures and a generally gloomy blah to the atmosphere all along the California coast. Everyone’s talking about it. The grapevines are feeling it.

What this dreary weather does, of course, is to slow down the ripening process, which is good in a way, because you don’t want the grapes ripening too quickly, but is bad, because the longer those grapes hang on the vine, the higher the possibility that Autumn rains will strike before the fruit is gathered. We haven’t had a bad rain harvest for a long time—1998 comes to mind—but it’s always a worry.

What this May reminds me of is 2011. That was the year that summer never came to California, and it was, of course, an unsuccessful vintage, in some cases disastrous, although I wouldn’t want to paint the entire vintage with an overly-broad brush. It was a year that botrytis hit many coastal grapes, and I don’t think vintners would like a repeat.

It’s only May 26, of course, way to early to predict anything, which gets us back to the vagaries of vintages. The seven-day forecast calls for some modest warming up, but nothing radical, and I see that near the end of the coming week, temperatures are set to fall back. That means virtually no sunshine along the coast, only occasional afternoon sunshine here along the Bay, and cool temperatures in wine country. But even winemakers who have followed vintages for many decades have no idea what’s to come. Regarding California’s historic drought, May rainfall has certainly helped, although it’s been under-reported in the media, and apparently a strong El Nino, which brings bigtime rainfall to California, is in the works for this coming winter, although we’ve heard those predictions before, and they failed to come true. If you’re a grapegrower, all you can do, really, is to cross your fingers and hope for the best. Which is funny, because, for all our modern sophistication, farmers today are basically in the same place they were thousands of years ago.

P.S. I want to apologize to my readers who tried to comment during the past week and found that the capcha! code wasn’t working coherently. Thank you to those who contacted me through Facebook or email; if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have known there was a problem. We think we’ve corrected it now. I hate it when weird computer stuff happens that’s beyond my control, but that’s how it is when we assign our fates to these machines—or to the weather, as do our farmer friends.


Musings on Diageo’s rumored sale of its wineries

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I hope Diageo is doing all right financially, but to judge from all these rumors that the London-based company is going to sell its iconic wine brands, maybe they really are experiencing some difficulty.

Their California brands from Napa Valley or County include Sterling, Beaulieu, Acacia and Provenance. The first two will be familiar to anyone who knows the history of Napa Valley. Beaulieu, founded in 1900, defines the classic old-line, pre-Prohibition winery; Sterling, which began in 1967, was one of the boutique wineries that made Napa famous in the modern era. Meanwhile, Acacia, dating to 1979, helped launch Carneros to the forefront of Pinot Noir. Provenance, whose inaugural vintage was 1999, is far younger, but has had a good run—I always did like their Cabernets.

So what’s up with Diageo? To begin with, the company’s stock price had a pretty good run-up to the Great Recession, but then plunged like everyone else. In 2009, it hit its nadir, then peaked again in 2013, only to experience a steady slide since then—leading the Motley Fool to recommend Diageo as a good buy.

That same article, suggesting Diageo is going through a “phase of lackluster performance,” attributed the drinks giant’s problems to “tough trading conditions in emerging markets, subdued consumer demand in some developed markets” and bad exchange rates.

Concerning that “subdued consumer demand in some developed markets,” I would suggest that the problems at Sterling, Beaulieu et al. stem from the consumer (and sommelier) perception that those are tired brands. Indeed, you could teach a college seminar on the ups and downs of an American winery by using the example of Beaulieu alone.

That Beaulieu was one of the great wineries of Napa Valley, and California, for many decades is indisputable. The winery helped to invent Napa Valley; it pioneered in Cabernet Sauvignon from the Rutherford Bench, and in hiring Andre Tchelistcheff, in 1938, Beaulieu gave California is greatest and most influential winemaker ever. “The Maestro” was mentor to multiple generations of winemakers before passing into the Great Vineyard in the Sky, in 1994.

Even had Beaulieu maintained quality in the 1980s and 1990s it probably would have slipped in the public’s estimation, due solely to the natural lifespan of most wineries. But quality did vary, and the winery seemed to lose focus. I always admired, and gave high scores to, the Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, and their Bordeaux blend, Tapestry, also was quite good. But the Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays were inconsistent, and whenever Beaulieu tinkered with Rhone-style varieties, as they frequently did, they seemed in over their heads.

As for Sterling, which was such an exciting winery in the 1970s, the glitter wore thin, as the winery hit a patch of averageness. The Cabernet, particularly the Reserve, could still be quite good; but really, there was little to differentiate it from dozens of others, a dilemma given the fickleness of the American wine consumer, who’s always looking for the next new thing. Despite a considerable marketing budget from Diageo, both wineries also were debilitated by the release of large-production, inexpensive lines, in Sterling’s case the Vintner’s Collection, in Beaulieu’s the Coastal Estates, both of which tended to confuse gatekeepers and consumers as to what either winery actually was. In this, Beaulieu and Sterling erred in the same way as did Robert Mondavi Winery, which tried—and failed—to be all things to all people.

Beaulieu remains a good winery and Sterling can be restored to glory; it’s never too late. If Diageo does sell either or both, I hope it’s to a new owner who will love them for what they have been and for what they can once again be.


Moving away from “the wine list”

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Lucy Shaw’s interview with Christopher Cooper, reported in the drinks business, contains some wise and useful insights, especially Cooper’s contention that sommeliers “need to work harder, take more risks and open their eyes to the bigger world of drinks, taking in beer, cider, cocktails and spirits.” Declaring the traditional wine list “dead—boring…wine bibles [that] are crap,” he even charges that customers “are being forced into buying wine rather than other drinks in restaurants as it’s profitable.”

Wow, lots to break down here. It’s true that restaurants make a lot of money selling wine, although I don’t know if wine is more profitable than beer and cocktails—perhaps someone can enlighten me.

Since I’m a wine guy, representing wineries, I do wonder if this suggestion—that restaurants open their wine lists more or less equally to beer and spirits—will cut down on wine sales. This would be a serious impediment to wineries, especially in this day and age when on-premise is so important to them. But I don’t think so. Here’s why.

To begin with, the gigantic wine list—the size of the Manhattan telephone directory—has clearly had its fifteen minutes of fame. It won’t disappear overnight, but I assume and hope than eventually it will be seen for what it is: a bloated appeal to snobbery. Diners don’t even want such mammoth wine lists anymore; they want something with, maybe, 30 wines and an attractive by the glass selection, creatively chosen, moderately priced and—this is key—curated by someone who knows and loves wine, and doesn’t just throw the Big Names on there for the hell of it.

So restaurants shouldn’t just add beer and spirits to already-overweight wine lists, they should shorten their wine lists. Who gets to stay on such coveted real estate? Ahh, glad you asked. It’s the wineries that offer the most bang for the buck.

The real action these days isn’t in the critical scores or the latest magazine cover stories, it’s on the sales turf. Everybody—Bill Harlan to Fred Frenzia—is out there thinking of how to stay relevant. Nobody really understands the rules because frankly, my dears, there aren’t any, or very many, and such rules as there are tend to get broken quickly as the landscape undergoes constant mega-change. There’s a lot of bull out there that masquerades as expertise when in reality it’s just another service being pitched. The details differ at each price scale, but basically, the question for vintners is: Am I still going to be able to sell this stuff five, ten, twenty, a hundred years from now?

This is a worthy question for a vintner to ask—indeed, the only worthy one. I have a feeling that wineries that can prove to the world that they are in this for the long haul, will find themselves a leg up, because having a real long-range plan means they’re performing at the top of their game. Nobody wants overnight successes, built on some phony formula, that won’t exist tomorrow. We want to support wineries that have been doing a good job for a long time and haven’t gotten complacent.

And that gets us back to wine lists, which, according to the Cooper theory of reality, should actually be called “wine, beer and spirits lists.” It’s a good idea that will upset the wine industry temporarily, but in the long run will be good for consumers, and that’s what it’s all about.


Why expensive wine doesn’t always offer more pleasure

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I’ve long been a critic who agrees that expensive wine isn’t always or necessarily better than inexpensive wine. This conclusion is based, not solely on common sense, but on experience. It’s a topic that’s of interest to people because, after all, we’re all limited in how much we can spend on stuff (especially a discretionary item like wine, although I realize that for some people wine isn’t discretionary but mandatory, and I’m one of them). You can’t blame anyone who likes a $12 wine for wondering what they’re missing in a $120 bottle.

Well, I’ve tried to wrestle with this concept for a long time, and here I go again. This video quotes a “Princeton economist” on the topic of expensive wine to this effect: there is an unhappy marriage between a subject that especially lends itself to bullshit and bullshit artists who are impelled to comment on it. I fear that wine is one of those instances where this unholy union is in effect.” This quote leads the article’s author to opine that “layered onto [objective qualities] is a mountain of subjective opinions, people trying to prove their sophistication, and a whole lot of marketing. The nature of wine makes it really hard to tell the difference between expertise, nonsense, and personal preference.”

The writer strongly implies that “subjective opinions” are irrelevant in wine appreciation—that they distort the wine experience so much that the drinker is hopelessly misled by her own feelings about the wine, which have nothing to do with its objective qualities.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Yes, it’s true that a very expensive wine might not be objectively better than an affordable one, in the same way that, say, a Jackson Pollock splatter painting may seem to be nothing more than the dribbles of a child. However, the art market doesn’t view things that way, and neither do I. Having tasted a gazillion wines in my career, here’s what always gets overlooked in claims that there’s no difference between amateur and high art beside subjectivity: People don’t drink wine simply for its objective quality. Or, to put it another way, wine is one of those life experiences that can’t be reduced to simplistic analyses.

The best way to appreciate the truth of this statement is to think about your own life and the things you love. It may be a partner, or kids, or a job or hobby, a favorite sweater or hoodie, a café, a dog, a plant in your yard, a house in your neighborhood. There’s something about it that turns you on. You don’t look at it objectively, you look at it in terms of how it makes you feel. And feelings, I would argue, trump objective qualities every time.

In terms of expensive wine, people buy it because of the way it makes them feel. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, the wonderful thing about wine always has been that it makes us feel better about ourselves, the people we’re with, and the world. Even after all these years of tasting and reviewing wine, I still get excited when I pop certain bottles. I suppose that means I’m biased in favor of liking them, but it could also result in disappointment, if a highly-anticipated bottle disappoints. But that’s beside the point. The point is, my emotional pleasure in drinking certain wines is at least as important to me as the external, objective qualities of the wine.

So it’s rather mean-spirited for people to point to these laboratory studies as “proof” that “expensive wine is for suckers.” That is a very cynical, naïve way of looking at things. It disregards romance, love, intuition and creativity, which are the true wellsprings of pleasure. It disregards how what we eat, drink and experience adds pleasure to our lives—and who is anyone to dictate to me what pleasure means?

It seems to me that these writers who are constantly trying to disparage expensive wine are missing the point. Perhaps they’re not really wine lovers. The love of wine is impossible to define: It’s irrational. It has nothing to do with blind tasting and everything to do with emotions that get us swept up into the moment. As a former critic, I do agree that wine reviews ought to be conducted blind and thus objectively, but as a wine consumer I understand the objections to this rule. I’m caught between the two extremes. Look, the writer in the piece I referred to talks about how a white wine that was dyed red “can dominate wine students’ sense of smell” in a laboratory study. Well, sure, that’s always a possibility. But what does that have to do with the love of wine—with the way it makes you feel? Nothing. It’s like reducing human behavior to that of a rat running through a maze. Don’t we feel we’re more than that?


Why do scores matter so much to sales people, and so little to buyers?

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I was talking yesterday with someone who’s deep in the wine industry, and he made a remark that surprised me at first, but then, the more I thought about it, the more sense it made.

I was asking him (as I ask almost everyone these days) if critical scores and reviews still matter, and he said, “To sales forces, yes. To most buyers, no.”

Now, we have to define a couple terms. By “sales forces” he meant the people who actually go out on the road to sell wine. They work for wineries or for distributors. Their job is a hard one: they not only drive (or fly) a lot, they’re trying to sell to buyers who are jaded, who are pitched daily by other sellers, and who demand deals and specials often beyond the ability of sellers to comply with.

By “buyers” he meant the people in decision-making positions, at restaurants or stores, who filter the world’s supply of wine into a single wine list or store offering. That’s a very important job: The world contains approximately a gazillion wineries. A restaurant or store can offer maybe a few hundred different brands (maybe a few thousand, if you’re a BevMo! or some similar big box). Thus, these buyers are coveted among wineries and their sale forces: Whether or not the winery makes any money is largely in their hands.

So why do scores matter so much to sales people, and so little to the actual buyers?

Well, the case against sales people is that they could be selling anything: widgits, or bananas, or components for the space station. Their expertise is in selling and its components: the pitch, the deal, the personal relationship, the profit. Sometimes, sales people are too busy to master the actual intricacies of the wine they’re selling. They speak a different language from sommeliers or conscientious merchants. There’s a limit to how much knowledge they can master about any given wine, so they’re sometimes looking to telegraph information about the wine in a fast, easy way. And the fastest, easiest way to convey such information is to quote a score, preferably from a famous critic. That, they hope, will do the job of selling the wine, without asking them to take too much time and energy into being able to converse about it at a higher level.

I completely understand that attitude. But why don’t buyers attach as much importance to scores as do sellers?

Well, some of them do. Stores or (more rarely) restaurants that are score-driven will have shelf talkers or newsletters that advertise a famous critic’s score, if not actual facsimiles on the wine list. That not only reassures customers that “someone important” liked the wine, even if they don’t know who that someone was (it might have been the wine columnist for the Podunk Shopper’s Guide), it also relieves the restaurant or wine shop of the necessity (and cost) of having someone on the floor who actually knows what she’s talking about.

And even in high-end restaurants and stores, where they go to great lengths to employ knowledgeable people, why would they quote a critic’s score, when they employ people who are perfectly capable of forming their own opinion about the wine?

So we have this divide between sellers and buyers in our wine system, and in my opinion the divide is widening, as buyers are smarter than they’ve ever been, and more and more sellers are out there trying to sell their wine. In fact, it’s a buyer’s market. Never in history has their been such intense competition to land on a wine list or store shelf.

As a former critic, I always was flattered whenever I saw someone using a score of wine to sell wine. Sometimes it was a shelf talker; sometimes it was a newsletter report. Whatever it was, it made me feel good—because someone valued the work I had put into reviewing their wine.

Now that I’m no longer a critic, my feelings are more mixed. I would never, ever disparage the critic’s job. At the same time, I do understand that buyers are less invested in critics than they used to be. They’re trying to figure out ways to sell the wines they’ve bought, and loved, without having to resort to the coincidental opinion of a third party whom they may not necessarily even respect. This disparate choice confronts every buyer in the country with a dilemma. Everywhere I go, I try to understand how these buyers are dealing with that conundrum, and as I learn, I enjoy sharing those lessons with you.


From the Old Guard to the New Guard: Lighten up

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I suppose I may be part of The old guard who’ve long influenced our drinking habits (and resisted change in the industry),” but I’ll tell you what: I’ll give you a dollar for every bottle of Gruner Veltliner and Spanish Txakolina sold in this country this year, you give me a dollar for every bottle of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and we’ll see who ends up in the poor house and who can buy a beachfront manse in Malibu.

Well, we know who the loser will be: The Txakolina-istas. Because despite the prognostications of “outspoken personalities” and “social sommeliers” who supposedly are revolutionizing what we drink, America’s top-selling wines today are going to be the best sellers tomorrow and five years from now. And that’s all there is to it.

Why is it so important for some people to invest so strongly in a belief system that says the world of wine is turning upside down and nobody can stop it? Why are these same people so angry at “old guards”? What makes them so sure that “Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, and even Lebanon” are going to be the next superstar wine countries?

Look, it’s easy to dig up some young somms in L.A., anoint them as “the new guard,” and imply that they’re the vanguard of some vast, radical movement that’s sweeping the country. Only problem is, it ain’t necessarily so. The majority of somms are still opening bottles of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon for the majority of American wine consumers. Why is that so infuriating for some people?

There’s nothing wrong at all with a somm having a personal preference for whatever might turn her on, but we should realize—if we’re going to view the world realistically, which is usually a good thing instead of dwelling in fantasyland—that 99 percent of consumers don’t really care about wines from Lebanon, or biodynamic wines, or anfora-aged, skin-fermented whites, or any of the other “esoteric” wines that the author of this Los Angeles Magazine piece celebrates. There are, and always have been, plenty of esoteric choices when it comes to wine, and these alternatives can occasionally be amusing, delicious, even memorable. But I continue to shake my head at the ferocity of a small crowd of writers and critics who seem to have smoke coming out of their ears at the very mention of Chardonnay or Cabernet, or anything traditional. It’s as if they were bulls, and these wines that most of us like were red flags waving in front of their snorting noses. Hey, you iconoclastic lovers of the esoteric, lighten up!

As for “social sommeliers,” what’s up with that? This was the first time I’d heard that particular neologism, so I Googled it to see what else I could discover. Well, it doesn’t seem to mean anything, beyond some personal handles and a generalized marketing outlook. Is a “social sommelier” an advanced version of a regular sommelier, sort of a sommelier 2.0 that’s better than its predecessor? I always thought being a sommelier was social to begin with, so calling someone a “social sommelier” would seem to be gilding the lily. It’s like calling Stephen Curry an athletic NBA player. We can assume that, if he’s good enough to be in the NBA, he’s a pretty athletic guy.

Am I “resisting change”? If I am, it’s change for its own sake I’m against. Just because something is different doesn’t make it remotely interesting. There has to be a compelling reason for me to buy a wine, other than simply “I’m not like anything else you’re ever had, I’m different.” I’m not saying that a Finger Lakes Gewurztraminer or a Sicilian Grillo isn’t a nice wine. Not saying that at all. But it’s not likely that more than a handful of Americans has access to these wines, nor are they produced in the quantities needed to fill America’s belly. And there’s really no good reason for consumers to seek out esoteric wines when they’re perfectly happy with their Chards, their Pinots, their Cabs and Merlots and Sauv Blancs. Why are some people so angry at seeing American wine lovers happy?


My remarks at the Cabernet Academy: Part 2

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Here’s the second part of my remarks last week, at Stonestreet:

I’ve spoken of varietal flavor and tannin structure, but obviously there’s more to wine than just those two factors. Next, I want to take up the topics of acidity and minerality.

Acidity in Cabernet, as in all table wines, is a key to providing life, zest and a keen mouthfeel. My favorite way of explaining the role of acidity is to revert to a tale from my youth. When I was a kid in the Bronx, we had “soda fountains.” If you wanted cola, the soda “jerk” didn’t open a bottle, he mixed it up right in front of you. First he’d squirt the cola syrup into a soda glass. If you tasted the syrup by itself, it was, well, syrupy. It was sweet and tasted like cola, but somehow had no pizzazz, no zest; it was flat and insipid. Then the soda jerk would squirt a little carbonated water into the glass, and voila. The carbonation added acidity, showing how important it is to balance fruity sweetness with tartness. If we recall that mountain vineyards are cooler during the daytime than valley floor vineyards, we can appreciate that mountain wines also are generally more balanced with acidity.

Then there’s minerality. I dare to venture into these tall weeds only because minerality has been a subject of intense discussion lately. I don’t claim to be able to define minerality, or to pinpoint exactly where it comes from. But since we all talk about it – and we all seem to think that we know what we mean when we use the word – I will assume that you, too, are familiar with minerality.

Let me just say that minerality is something that I do find in wines, both red and white. And I find it more in mountain, bench and hillside wines than in valley floor wines. One theory is that mountain grapevines, being parched for water, send their roots more deeply into the ground than do valley floor vines, where the water table is higher. As those roots dig deep into the earth, they encounter more and different minerals than are present near the surface. The supposition is that the roots take up the flavors of these minerals and transmit them to the grapes. As I say, I’ve never seen absolute proof of this, but it sounds right, and certainly, my wine reviews over many years substantiate the theory. Minerality gives wine additional structure. It’s not a taste, exactly, but a sensation, like the feeling of touching steel with your tongue. And I always find this minerality in mountain Cabs from both Napa and Alexander Valley.

For example, I once reviewed the Vineyard 7 & 8 Cabernet, from the 2008 vintage. I gave it a generous 96 points and wrote that “It startles for the intensity of mountain blackberries and raspberries, and then a firm minerality kicks in, along with the tannins, providing grounding structure.” This is to cite but a single example: I could come up with hundreds of others. Vineyard 7&8 is located about 2,000 feet up on Spring Mountain, which is on the Napa side of the Mayacamas range, about the same alltitude as the Stonestreet Cabs grown on the Alexander Valley side of the Mayacamas. This language of “intense,” “firm minerality,” “tannic,” and “grounding structure,” can in fact be applied to any great Mayacamas Cabernet, from either Alexander Valley or Napa Valley. They describe the terroir signature of Mayacamas Cabernet.

However, one of the chief differences – perhaps THE chief distinction – between Alexander Valley and Napa Valley Cabernet is the tannins. In 2003, when I was writing my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, I asked Jordan’s winemaker, Rob Davis, to set up a blind tasting of Cabs from both Alexander Valley and Napa Valley. From Alexander Valley we had Jordan, Simi Reserve, Silver Oak, Alexander Valley Vineyards Cyrus, Stonestreet Christopher’s Vineyard and Robert Young Scion. From Napa Valley we had Phelps Insignia, Chateau Montelena, Quintessa and Far Niente. When the brown bags were taken off the bottles, it was clear to all of us that the chief difference was the quality of the tannins.

How to describe that difference? Alexander Valley tannins are dustier and softer than in Napa. They’re more fine-grained, but they’re also a little more chewy, not as ripe as in Napa Valley. It’s something you can feel in the mouth. I think in the past Alexander Valley tannins used to be clunkier than Napa’s, which is part of the reason why Alexander Valley earned a reputation as more rustic than Napa. But a modern Alexander Valley Cabernet is not a rustic wine.

If I had to describe these Alexander Valley tannins in a single phrase, I’d call them more astringent than in Napa Valley. But this description requires fine-tuning on my part. To begin with, Napa Cabernet is frequently a very tannic wine – more tannic than Bordeaux. But Napa tannins are so lush, finely-ground and smooth that most of the wines, even the mountain Cabs, can be enjoyed in youth. Alexander Valley mountain Cabs by contrast are tougher in youth, and probably more ageable. This is because of the cooler conditions in Alexander Valley, especially in the mountains. A good example is another wine I reviewed, Stonestreet 2007 Monument Ridge Cabernet, which comes from the winery’s Stonestreet Estate Vineyard. I scored it at 96 points and want to read my entire review, because it’s instructive:

“A dramatic wine, authoritative in tannins, bone dry and noble. Withholds its best under a cloak of astringency, but already shows its mountain terroir in the complexity of its structure and deep, intense blackberry, currant, blueberry and dried herb flavors. Should develop bottle complexities for at least a decade and probably longer.”

Let’s break this down. I referred to the “cloak of astringency.” This is, of course, the tannins. Winemakers on the Alexander Valley side of the Mayacamas will tell you that tannin management is their most formidable challenge. Fortunately, they’ve achieved a variety of ways to manage those tannins, but still, tannic intensity is often the first thing you notice about these Cabernets, or maybe the second thing – after the initial fruity intensity, the astringency kicks in.

I spoke, too, of “dried herbs.” This herbaceousness, in addition to the tannins, is a key differentiator between Cabs from Napa and Alexander Valley. The upper stretches of the Mayacamas on the Alexander Valley side are sparse in plant life, and only the hardiest, most drought-resistant things can grow up there. This is high Chaparrel country: Manzanita, live oak, Bay laurel, pepperwood, madrone, shrubby, scraggly bushes, lichens, anise weed, native grasses. These plants dry out in our summer droughts, scenting the air with spicy fragrance but also lending that herbaecousness to the wines. You don’t get this herbaceousness in Napa Valley side of the Mayacamas, the slopes above the Oakville and Rutherford benches. Those slopes are densely forested in redwood and pine because whatever water remains in storm clouds as they enter Napa from the west are wrung out by the Mayacamas peaks. They drop considerable amounts of rain on these Napa slopes before drying out as they pass eastward across the Napa Valley floor. This is why the Vaca Mountains are so barren and austere. In this, they’re similar to the west-facing slopes of the Mayacamas in Alexander Valley. Both sides are dry, and both get the full heat of the afternoon sun. Yet the Vacas, around Dalla Valle and Tierra Roja, are hotter, the soils are redder, and the wines are riper than anything in Alexander Valley.

So, overall, Alexander Valley Cabs tend to be drier, more elegantly structured and more ageable than Napa Valley Cabs, which are more dramatic and flashy. I think, also, that Alexander Valley Cabs are lower in alcohol, on average. I went over a great many of my reviews of both over the years, and this seems to be the case—although we know that the alcohol number on the label can be misleading.

Now, I want to move away from the inherent, objective qualities of the wines to considerations of perception and optics. We read much in the media that California Cabernet (as well as Pinot Noir) is undergoing a stylistic change, perhaps under pressure from the In Pursuit of Balance people. This new style is towards wines of lower alcohol and greater elegance. I don’t think there’s strong evidence of this stylistic shift in Napa Valley Cabernet, except with certain well-known examples such as Corison; nor is there any particular reason why Napa winemakers should change their style. Napa Cabernet isn’t broken: Why should they fix it? Parker established the template of ripe, rich, decadence, and Napans have no motive to switch horses.

Alexander Valley Cabernet, by contrast, is not well understood by the public, or by tastemakers, such as sommeliers and merchants. It’s so easy for people to understand Napa Cabernet. Everybody knows what it means: lush, New World deliciousness. With Sonoma, people have to do more work to understand it. Sonoma is complicated – it has all these little nooks and crannies, and the various sub-appellations can seem like a hodge-podge. Here’s a quote from a famous east coast wine critic; he wrote this in his column:

So who cares about Sonoma cabernet? Why, our wine panel! Contrarians by nature, we seek out the scorned and the ignored among regions and wines in hopes of finding surprising pleasures and fine values. This critic was being facetious, or so he thought; but in fact his words reveal a certain attitude towards Sonoma Cabernet that is widespread among tastemakers, if somewhat unconscious. This is at the root, I think, of why some gatekeepers who taste Sonoma Cabernet (which is usually Alexander Valley Cabernet) contrast it unfavorably with Napa Cabernet. They bring that attitude to the winetasting experience, and, behold, they experience what they thought they would. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the end, I think that Alexander Valley Cabernet does offer an alternative to Napa Valley Cabernet—but only if its winemakers understand that their terroir is distinctive, and they don’t try to replicate Napa Valley. And I say these things not because I work for Jackson Family Wines and we’re at Stonestreet. After all, Jackson Family Wines also owns such Napa wineries as La Jota, Lokoya, Mt. Brave, Freemark Abbey and Cardinale. I am hopeful that the new direction in California wine that is being suggested in so many quarters is real, and that we can end decades of marching towards a sameness of style to enter into a new period of authentic, terroir-based wine.


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