I’m not taking sides in the brouhaha down in Santa Barbara County, where winery owner Blair Pence wants to expand the borders of the Santa, err., Sta. Rita Hills appellation to include some of his vineyards that are located further inland, to the east.
I haven’t seen any statistical data that would indicate, one way or the other, that the proposed added acreage is, or isn’t, similar to the terroir of the existing AVA. As usual in such matters, we have dueling opinions expressed in the media, with Pence insisting it is, and Wes Hagen, of Clos Pepe (who was the guiding light behind the original appellation) saying, Nope, it isn’t.
I do know that the further east you go from the central Sta. Rita Hills, the warmer it gets. By the time you reach, say, Los Olivos, it’s much warmer than out by Lompoc. Maybe the climate on Pence’s property really does show the same maritime influence as it does to the west. Their Pinots certainly indicate a cool climate, and I’ve given the wines respectable scores, even recommending a few of them as Cellar Selections.
But I will say the controversy underscores once again something I’ve said for a long time: the matter of AVAs, at least in California, is more about marketing and money than about terroir and tasting.
Even Pence concedes as much, when he suggests he can’t get as high a price for his grapes as he could if the wines could bear a Sta. Rita Hills appellation. Currently, Pence Ranch’s Pinot Noirs have to settle for a comparatively “lowly” Santa Barbara County AVA.
We saw the same kinds of issues arise when Gallo successfully fought to have the Russian River Valley boundary moved southward so that their Petaluma Gap vineyards could be included. Some RRV winegrowers were violently against that. They lost.
The fact of the matter is that appellation boundaries are fungible. They may be more fixed in Old Europe than they are in California, because Europe has had centuries of tradition. But California is so new that the wise consumer should take an appellation name with a grain of salt. An appellation is a generalization. It means that a wine bearing that origin should conform to certain expectations of, say, dryness, acidity, fruit profile and weight. But it does not guarantee that any particular wine will meet those specifics. All that an American Viticultural Area guarantees is that 85% of the grapes come from there.
There are some very ordinary wines in the Sta. Rita Hills. If you look up my scores in Wine Enthusiast’s Buying Guide, you’ll find some that are consistently unable to get beyond a certain quality level. Even if Pence manages to get the boundaries of Sta. Rita Hills redefined, that probably won’t make any difference in how good his wines are or are not–unless there’s something he could do with the extra $1,000 a ton to improve quality (and maybe there’s a lot he could, like better barrels or dropping more potential crop).
In general, I think that appellation boundaries should be altered only with the greatest reluctance. There should be compelling physical reasons to do it–not because somebody wants to get a better deal on grape or wine prices, and has the money to afford the lawyers and/or appellation experts who draw up the paperwork. (And Pence has hired one of the best in the business.) The public–which includes wine writers–should have faith in the meaning of AVAs, but if boundary lines are shifting all the time, that confidence is undermined.
Albarino is one of those grape varieties nobody in California thought too much of, like Pinot Gris and Gruner Veltliner, until comparatively recently.
Why should they have? California vintners fell into two categories in the modern era: those who wanted to sell commodity wines to lots of average consumers, and those who wanted to create prestige brands along the lines of Bordeaux chateaux or Burgundy domains. Either way, that meant producing those old familiar varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. If variety for variety’s sake was desired, the vintner could always throw in a little Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel or something Rhônish.
But something in the California psyche started shifting around the year 2000. I haven’t read much about what instigated this shift, which saw the beginnings of the emergence of what are usually called aromatic whites. There had long been plantings of Riesling and Gewurztraminer in California, but suddenly, one started hearing about Pinot Gris/Grigio, Viognier, Albarino, Gruner, Torrontes and others. Whaf the wines had in common were low to moderate alcohol, keen acidity, bright floral, citrus or green notes and, perhaps most importantly, little or no oak influence to mask the fruit.
What instigated this shift is hard to tell. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. Grape growers are very conservative when it comes to planting; they’re not going to stick anything in the ground they don’t think they can sell. So it didn’t come from the growers. But growers are sensitive to signs around them, and the more acute of them, who have their fingers in the wind all the time to detect changing consumer preferences, know what’s happening before most of the rest of us. Maybe they have a good network of restaurateurs and distributors to keep them abreast of what’s happening out there. Maybe they watch the critics, to see what new variety is being touted. Maybe the appeal for fresh, vibrant white wines really did start among consumers, and then traveled from the ground up. Who knows?
At any rate, it wasn’t until 2003 that I reviewed my first Albarino for Wine Enthusiast, a late date. It was a 2002 from the Lodi winery, Bokisch. It was pretty good; I scored it 88 points and, at $16 in price, it was worthy of an Editor’s Choice special designation. But I can’t say it knocked my sox off.
The first 90 point Albarino I reviewed was the 2004 Havens. It represented a big step above the Bokisch, in terms of utter dryness, light alcohol and a flintiness that was like a lick of cold stone. It put the idea in my mind that Carneros, and cool climates in general, were what Albarino likes.
Since then, the 90 point or higher Albarinos haven’t exactly flooded my doorstep, but they are coming in with greater frequency. Three producers now stand out as the most dependable: Marimar Torres, Longoria and Tangent. Each takes a different approach, but what all have in common is a cool growing region: respectively, the Green Valley of the Russian River, the Santa Ynez Valley and the Edna Valley. I’ve also been impressed lately by Kenneth Volk’s 2011 Albarino from the Santa Maria Valley, a little more-full-bodied than the others, but still Albarino-ey.
This new penchant among consumers for light, aromatic white wines is a very good thing, and I suspect it’s being driven by younger wine drinkers. It takes a certain amount of courage for a diner to request a wine type he’s unfamiliar with and may not even be able to pronounce, even if the sommelier recommends it. My friends who are floor staff confirm that it is indeed younger people who are drinking these aromatic whites, including Albarino, which pairs so well with today’s fresh, ethnic, pan-Asian fare and tapas-style small plates.
Acreage of Albarino is up sharply, although it’s still miniscule compared to other white varieties: a total of 176 acres in 2011. But 72 acres of that were non-bearing, meaning they’d been planted in 2009 or 2010; and I suspect that when the 2012 Grape Acreage Report comes out, we’ll see even higher numbers. Critics have long lamented that Americans are not drinking adventurously, creatively and experimentally. But I think that trope can now be laid to rest.
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Paul Gregutt is my friend, the wine columnist for the Seattle Times, author of Washington Wines & Wineries, the Pacific Northwest Editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine, owner of the excellent blog, Paul Gregutt: Unfined & Unfiltered, and, as of this month–a wine producer!
It’s unusual for a wine writer to go over to–what can we call it–the Dark Side? No, that’s what it’s called when a wine writer does P.R. The only California wine writer I ever knew who made that transition to production was Jeff Morgan, whose brands include Covenant.
Anyhow, Paul and I had a little chat yesterday and we covered a lot of bases. Here’s a Q&A.
So how did Waitsburg Cellars come about?
The project began as a breakfast meeting conversation with Andrew Browne [CEO of Precept]. I’d done some educational work for their sales people and distributors. Andrew popped the question, Would you like to make wine? My first reaction was, Absolutely not!
I know too much! It’s very difficult to do it well. It’s highly competitive, and I know there’s a lot of real talent out there. There were two things I didn’t want to do under any circumstances: Buy a bunch of juice and throw a label on it, or get mired down in some expensive project that would eat me alive. But what Andrew proposed was, I come up with a concept and take advantage of their facilities and resources to realize that vision.
Do you have your own money in it?
I haven’t invested any funds. Precept is the financial backer.
So what is the concept?
Well, I was intrigued, and started giving it some thought. Okay, what can I do that I’ve never seen done that takes advantage of Washington’s strengths? Things that have been overlooked, or not done for whatever reason. So I started to develop the idea. I didn’t want to do just another red blend, so on paper I designed one I’d never heard of, but that made conceptual sense. Over many blending trials and barrel tastings, I made that blend. We call it “Three.” It’s 67% Merlot, 20% Malbec and 13% Mourvedre. [The 2011 retails for $21.]
That is a weird blend.
Thank you. I’m also making a line of aromatic whites to showcase Chenin Blanc in two different styles: a dry Savennieres style, called Cheniniere, and an off-dry Vouvray style we call Chevray.
So what’s it like for a writer to become a producer?
I didn’t want to do just a cameo, like a 30-second walkthrough on a movie, I wanted to be fully involved. I mean, I’m not picking the grapes and stomping them, but I am designing the wine, so it’s another extension of my love for all things wine. And it’s putting my ass on the line.
Because I’m the big wine critic, and now I have wines out there people will take shots at. Just this morning we got the list for who will be sent samples: All the major wine publications and a couple bloggers in Washington State.
So the worm has turned! The reviewer is about to get reviewed.
Yeah. But it’s okay. I’m very pleased with these wines. I know what I set out to do, and I know how close I came to achieving it. So the reviews should be entertaining!
One of the biggest challenges to the wine critic is determining if a wine is ageable and, if you think it is, then how long to recommend that your readers age it.
This is irrelevant for most wines, but for that small handful of wines that do indeed improve with age, it’s perhaps the single most important piece of information the critic can convey. After all, when you look at the prices people pay for some of these wines, they deserve to know if their bottle is drinkable now or will improve in the cellar.
If the critic tastes openly, it makes the task a lot easier. You’re at Chateau Figeac tasting the 2009? It’s tight and tannic and oaky, but then, it is Figeac. Tell your readers to cellar it. That’s a no-brainer.
If you’re tasting blind, it’s a different story. Lots of wines are tight, tannic and oaky, but they can’t all be ageable. So there’s got to be something else the critic looks for. In the absence of external information (you don’t know the name of the winery, so you don’t know if the wine has a history of aging), you have to look for other cues. What are they?
That’s why I call it “one of the biggest challenges,” because it’s really hard to make this determination.
You can start by a process of elimination. Think of all the reasons why the wine couldn’t possibly improve in the cellar. It may be too thin, or out of whack in acidity, too obviously hot in alcohol, or flawed in some other general way. This is the easy part. It’s when you’re gotten your flight down to the dense, balanced, tannic young wines that the difficulties mount.
It used to be said (and some people may still believe it) that a wine that’s delicious on release isn’t ageable. People thought that an ageable wine had to be tough and resistant in youth. That may have been true a long time ago, but it isn’t true anymore. Many California Cabernet Sauvignons, in fact most, that age well are super-good on release, and the same is true of many classified growth Bordeaux that I have occasion to sample every year. I was reminded of this fact when I read, in Benjamin Lewin’s Claret & Cabs, the quote from Eric d’Aramon, concerning his father-in-law, the owner of Figeac. “When I did my first tasting [with him]…every cuve that he selected for the grand vin, I selected for the second wine, and vice versa.” This naturally shocked Eric, “but [then] he explained to me, ‘you have been selecting the vats for drinking now, I am selecting them for future potential.’”
Eric, in other words, thought less of the harder, more austere batches than he did of the lusher, more fruit-forward batches. This is perfectly understandable, but it leads back to the conundrum of how to tell the difference between a hard, austere wine that will improve with age and one that won’t.
Here’s how I do it. Since I don’t know the identity of the wine while I’m reviewing it, I’ll work up some preliminary thoughts about it [flavors, structure, balance, length and so on], and also assign it a score. Those things are invariant. Then, when the bottle comes out of the bag, I work on my final review, before sending it electronically to Wine Enthusiast. So how I do decide whether or not to give a wine a “Cellar Selection” designation? Well, it’s not necessarily because I’m familiar with the aging histories of many of these wines. For example, I’ve recently given Cellar Selections to Cabernets from Hunnicutt, V. Sattui, Bjorn, Venge, Redmon and B Cellars, and I’ve never had any older wines from any of them. I did it because the wines seemed to me to possess all the stuffing and equilibrium to go the distance–and they are all from Napa Valley. On the other hand, I’ve also given Cellar Selection recommendations for the likes of Ridge Montebello, Corison and Beaulieu Private Reserve in Cabernets, and some of Williams Selyem’s single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, all of which are wines I’m familiar with as they age. With those, I feel like I’m on surer footing than with wines Ive never tasted old. But I wouldn’t give a Cellar Selection unless I was sure in my own mind that the wine would age well, which is why, for example, I gave a good score to Raymond’s 2009 District Collection Cabernet, and suggested it could do interesting things in eight years, but ultimately didn’t give it a Cellar Selection. I just wasn’t sure enough to go there.
My definition of a great wine book is one where there are things on every page about which I could write an entire essay. I don’t mean because the writers say such stupid things that common sense and good taste demand that they be challenged (which is the case with most new wine books). I mean because they’re so profound that they make you think about old subjects in new ways.
Benjamin Lewin’s Claret & Cabs is such a book. Every other sentence ignites a neural storm in my brain, setting off ideas that are kaleidoscopic in their complexity and implications. For example, Lewin quotes Rémi Edange, Domaine de Chevalier’s assistant manager:
The role of the Grand Cru Classé is to carry the values of the history of French wines.
Whatever can this metaphysical statement mean? Your guess is as good as mine. Whatever the meaning, such words would have no place in the modern Napa Valley. We have, in California, no formal ranking system, so there are no “Grand Crus” that have a “role” to play. The valley does have a history, but it is nowhere near as long that of Bordeaux. Besides, one does not get the sense, in today’s Napa Valley, that history weighs heavily on many people’s minds. A few, perhaps. Modern Napa is, well, modern. It is all about the now, with little reference to (or reverence for) the past. A millionaire makes his fortune elsewhere, moves in, hires the best talent money can buy, obtains grapes from some esteemed vineyard, puts out a $150 Cabernet, gets 95 points and is suddenly hot. That is not history, it is parody.
And what are these “values” of which M. Edange speaks? Lewin again quotes him.
The idea here is to keep the savage taste, the typicity of Domaine de Chevalier is not the technique of making Cabernet Sauvignon, it is to express the terroir.
Well, modern Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is all technique–and so may be modern Bordeaux, despite M. Edange’s assertion to the contrary. This is something Lewin, who is a Master of Wine, knows, since he immediately writes, in his own voice, “…savage is the last word I would use to describe Domaine de Chevalier: its style is the epitome of elegance, with a real precision to the fruits.”
This would not be the first time a proprietor made claims about his wine that did not bear up to the scrutiny of an educated writer. Proprietors always make claims about their wines that are not apparent to the most sincere observer. They may do this because they want to implant an idea in the outsider’s mind [yes, proprietors are not above manipulating critics], or because, being so close to their own “babies,” they actually believe [or have convinced themselves they believe] in what they claim. Does M. Edange really find Chevalier to be “savage”? What does “savage” mean? The word “Sauvignon” itself is said to come from the old French word “sauvage,” or “wild,” in the sense, not of some bestial, animal character in the wine, but because the grape was found growing in the wild. Cabernet Sauvignon certainly does not grow in the wild anymore. It is probably the best-cultivated grape in the world, the fruit equivalent of a cow, an animal that no longer exists outside of domesticity. So what can M. Edange possibly mean by Chevalier being “savage”?
I don’t know, I suspect you don’t know, and Lewin clearly doesn’t know. This confusion underscores the central point I want to make: Writers should never, ever simply pass along a quote from a winery principle, unless they’re sure they understand it completely and agree; or unless they’re willing to admit they disagree, as Lewin did, ever so diplomatically. Too many writers, unfortunately, don’t adhere to this rule, which is why there’s so much unhelpful wine writing. There’s nothing wrong or disrespectful about a writer telling an owner or winemaker, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” That is the stuff real reporting is based on, as opposed to, oh, I don’t know…free P.R.
It’s so interesting that the production of wine around the world fell to its lowest level in 37 years in 2012, due to dismal crops in France, Spain and Argentina. Contrast that with the all-time high, record grape crush last year in California, and it looks like good news for Golden State vintners who export their wines. But will it lead to spot shortages here in the U.S.?
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I’ve never tasted a Chinese wine. In fact, I wouldn’t even know where to buy one. I do a fair amount of shopping in Oakland’s Chinatown, but the only wines I see there are from the big California producers. But if I could try a Chinese wine, it would be Chateau Changyu. If it’s good enough for Berry Bros. & Rudd to sell it in London, then it must be pretty decent. The [British] Telegraph reports that the venerable British shop–314 years young–is “the first major British retailer to give tipples from [China] a permanent place on its shelves.”
I don’t know if Chateau Changyu is the same as the “Chateau Changyu-Castel” that Susan Kostrzewa, now Wine Enthusiast’s Executive Editor, reviewed back in 2007. She tasted 3 wines–a Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Gernischt–and gave them pretty mediocre scores. Maybe things have improved since then. We may be hearing more about this Chateau Changyu. It’s “the 10th largest winery in the world,” according to the winery’s website, and also is the 79th biggest company in the People’s Republic. If anybody wants to send me some samples, I’ll gladly accept them.
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I’m going to be doing my annual wine tasting and educational seminar at the University of California Haas School of Business in a few weeks. They have a student wine club that has about 65 members. These kids are smart and curious and always ask great questions, which is why I like to go. This year, the club’s president told me the MBA candidates are really curious about how I view my job as a wine critic. Their other speakers this year have all been winemakers; as the president emailed me,
…there were two different schools of thought [among the winemakers], one positive and one negative. Some winery owners/ winemakers felt that critics have undue power. They brought up the “Parker-ization of wine”(and said they disliked it) and one of the wineries said they intentionally refuse to submit their wine to critics. Another group said that critics play an important role because there is so much wine out there, it helps the public make educated purchases. This led to a discussion on what one should buy and brought up the question: “is it okay to buy bad wine if you like it?
These are issues of longstanding commentary here at steveheimoff.com, and I think most of my readers know where I stand. However, it’s important to keep in mind that a new generation mostly in their twenties hasn’t really digested the role and importance of critics, and has real questions about what we do, and about how they should behave with respect to us. Are we dinosaurs in the Age of Twitter, or are we experts worth heeding? I look forward to enlightening them on these points. As for “is it okay to buy bad wine if you like it?”, Wow. Where to begin? That could be the topic of an entire class.
Far be it from me to dispute the findings of a survey conducted by a reputable outfit, but I’m not buying the portentous headline, “Popularity of chardonnays declines” and the report that “consumption is down,” as this study contends.
It was done by Napa Technology, whose website describes it as “dedicated to designing innovative Intelligent Dispensing Solutions and Products that drive wine revenues, operating control, and growth for the Restaurant, Retail, Entertainment, and Hospitality industries.”
The company counted “90 respondents” to a survey (not revealed is how many people they actually surveyed), and of them, “forty percent…said that Chardonnay is on the decline.”
Forty percent of 90 is 36. That means 36 people in America said Chardonnay is declining, out of a population of more than 300 million. The respondents were said to be “sommeliers, wine directors, restaurant and hotel operators, wine producers, media, analysts and wine buyers.” That’s eight categories, meaning that there were about 4.5 respondents in each category. Even if you round 4.5 up to 5, that means that 5 somms, 5 wine directors, 5 restaurant operators, 5 hotel operators, 5 wine producers, 5 media people, 5 analysts and 5 wine buyers in the entire United States said that Chardonnay is declining.
I’m no expert in statistical analysis, but that doesn’t sound like a scientifically valid poll to me.
There’s plenty of evidence Chardonnay is not declining. Planted acreage of it in California alone was the highest ever, with 95,511 acres recorded in 2011 (the last year for which I have Dept. of Food and Agriculture Acreage Report numbers). While it’s true that the pace of new Chardonnay plantings slackened off from previous years, that’s easily explainable by the Great Recession. Nobody knows what the future holds, of course, but there’s no group of human beings on Earth more knowledgeable about what wines Americans will be drinking in 5 years than grapegrowers. If they’re still growing it, it’s because they believe Americans are still drinking it.
And they are, in droves. Chardonnay consumption is enormous among American wine drinkers. As the Wine Institute reported in 2011, “Chardonnay far and away remains the most popular wine in the U.S. and has continued to be the leading varietal wine for the last decade, with sales increases every year.” I get more Chardonnay samples sent to me than any other type of wine, except for Cabernet Sauvignon. That tells me that winery sales and marketing execs also believe Chardonnay’s popularity remains high. Like growers, they get paid to figure out what Americans will be drinking in the future.
The problem with little studies like the Napa Technology one that seem to “prove” things that aren’t necessarily true is that, in this age of the Internet, the “fact” of Chardonnay consumption spreads far and wide–even if it’s false. Google “Chardonnay consumption” and the Napa Technology study, as reported in Nation’s Restaurant News, is the fifth result. That’s very high up on a Google search, meaning that a lot of people will inhale that information, believe it and repeat it. The “news” goes viral, with who knows what negative impacts.
I’m willing to bet a hefty amount that ten years from now Chardonnay will still be the number one most purchased white wine in America. I don’t believe for a moment that Chardonnay has anything to fear from Albarino, Torrontés, Cava or Prosecco–all wines that the Napa Technology study said are “increasing in popularity” to Chardonnay’s detriment. Nothing personal against Albarino, Torrontés, Cava or Prosecco, but does anyone really think any of them is the Next Big White Wine?