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Wine Country: gated communities?

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It comes as no surprise to me that Napa County is the seventh least affordable housing market in the country.

We know that places like San Francisco, Marin and Manhattan are unaffordable to all except the wealthiest of our citizens, but Napa? True, it’s never exactly been Motel 6 country, but in Napa City you didn’t used to need millions of dollars to afford a fixer-upper.

Now you do. The media price of a home in Napa just it $545,000, about one-half that of a house in San Francisco, but 2-1/2 times more than the average price of a U.S. home.

The reasons why are not hard to discern: Napa Valley, like all of California’s valleys, is visually beautiful. The weather is outstanding. San Francisco is only an hour away (depending on traffic). Ski country to the east, the Pacific to the west, lakes, mountains and wilderness all around, what more could you ask for? Throw in the glamor of wine, and the cost of entry suddenly shoots sky-high.

It wasn’t that long ago that Napa City was a dumpy place. The upper classes didn’t live there, or even visit; they went to St. Helena, or Calistoga, or the south valley to dine, or drove into the Bay Area. But in the 1990s and early 2000s the city began all that work along the riverfront. Hotels and posh resorts went in, along with expensive restaurants, and voila, Napa City became chic. And now, the French are invading Napa Valley: S.F. Eater reports that, “From Mount Veeder to Calistoga, Napa estates are selling fast to Bordelais vintners.” In other words, when it comes to real estate prices, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The situation “on the other side of the hill” in Sonoma County is pretty much the same, at least in Healdsburg, which by the year 2005 had become so tony, it started topping the list of wine destinations to visit and spend a lot of money. Today, Healdsburg’s average home price is higher even than Napa’s: $699,600, although Sebastopol’s is even more, at $725,000. (I think that Healdsburg and Sebastpol are not populous enough to be considered “housing markets.”)

Funky $ebastopol! Where is the pot and patchouli crowd going to live? Maybe Guerneville, where the median home price is a comparative bargain, at $366,100.

Now consider Cloverdale. If you know it, it’s as the one-stoplight town, at the crossroads of Highway 101 and Route 128, in the center of the Alexander Valley. Entrepreneurs have tried for years to gussy up Cloverdale, but the farm town firmly resisted their efforts, remaining stubbornly rural and slightly shabby.

Until now.

Sonoma Magazine asks, “Could Cloverdale be the next Healdsburg?” They reference New restaurants and boutiques. A coffeehouse that’s a community gathering place. A burgeoning arts scene. Fresh ownership of tired businesses. Summer concerts on the plaza that draw 2,000 adults and kids. City slickers, drawn by the rustic beauty and calm, are relocating to Cloverdale — some bringing high-end businesses with them.”

It’s not really likely that Cloverdale will be the next Healdsburg. There’s not enough housing stock, and I think that local zoning laws would prohibit development from occurring. Still, Cloverdale might turn into a kind of Los Olivos of the north, a precious, expensive tourist mecca of galleries, cafés and upscale inns. (Cloverdale actually is the most centrally-located town from which to explore Alexander Valley’s many charms.)

As a homeowner myself, I am benefitting from this stupendous rise in coastal California real estate values. My city, Oakland, is “poised to be the Bay Area’s hottest [housing] market in 2016,” says the San Francisco Chronicle.

Still, I worry about the people who can’t afford to live here, or anywhere else along the coast. From San Diego and La Jolla up through Big Sur, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and northward into wine country, California is becoming a Disneyland for the privileged classes. I don’t know the answer, any more than anyone else. This trend may be unstoppable, except for one force stronger even than the market force of supply and demand: the San Andreas Fault.

QuakeMap


A new wine book, and some 23-year old predictions

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Every wine writer eventually has to make the Big Decision: How deep into the tall weeds of technicalities do you want to go?

I’m talking about everything from solar radiation and new vineyard roping systems to row spacing, different types of trellising, spraying, leaf pulling, clones, rootstocks, the chemical properties of grapes and wines, the details of carbonic maceration, cold soaking, skin contact, yeasts—and I’m just getting started! After all, this is why students spend years at V&E school.

Some writers are naturally attuned to these things and actually get a pretty good handle on them, but most don’t. I’m in the latter camp. I know a lot about wine tasting, history and California, but I’ve largely avoided tackling that university-level stuff any more than I had to—as I suspect most writers have. You can get by quite well with a minimum of knowledge in this business, although it does help to have some technical books on your shelves to look stuff up if you really need to know.

I do have a couple books, but recently a publishing company sent me a book I wished I’d always had: The Business of Winemaking, by Jeffrey L. Lamy (Board and Bench Publishing, San Francisco). Lamy, who just died, was an Oregonian with deep roots in the wine business; his hard-cover book is really an indispensable guide to wine writers. Want more information on the distribution system, phylloxera, different kinds of tanks? Look it up in the index. This may not be a book to read yourself to sleep at night, but it is the best source of technical information I’ve seen.

************

And, on a different topic, I was doing some Spring cleaning and there in my bookshelf I found the June, 1993 issue of Decanter with the cover story, “What Will You Be Drinking in the Year 2000?” Being a Baby Boomer who was told (by the experts) that by the year 2000 we’d all be using our personal jet-packs to travel, I have an irresistible urge to see how wrong prognostications can be. So what did Decanter say?

Well, they had a bunch of different people make predictions. Here are some of the ones that weren’t quite accurate. I won’t name names, but they are (or were, in 1993) some of the biggest names in the business). One pundit said that Eastern Europe would offer the best value for the money. Didn’t happen, at least not here in the States (although, who knows, maybe it will someday). The same pundit predicted that Bordeaux and Burgundy would be “finished” and would be “buried.” That didn’t happen either. Two very famous personalities said that Cabernet Sauvignon’s position would be challenged by Syrah and Merlot. Wow. Talk about wrong.

A number of the pundits predicted that China would “develop dramatically” by 2000. I don’t claim to have much knowledge of Chinese wine, but I don’t think that in 2000 there was much going on there, quality-wise. Maybe there is today.

One interesting question was whether Champagne would continue to be the world’s best sparkling wine. Some (Hugh Johnson) said yes. But some people predicted that other regions (Australia, California, South Africa, Chile, Moldova) would rival Champagne. I, personally, think Champagne still beats California, but the best of California (hello Schramsberg) is pretty darned good.

Anyhow, it just shows to go that even the smartest people don’t have crystal balls.


When does “different” become “flawed”?

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Went to a nice little Sauvignon Blanc tasting yesterday at Josiah and Stevie’s Bay Grape wine store.

It was only four wines, but they pretty much spanned the gamut of world Sauvignon Blanc styles: cool-climate, warmer climate, unoaked, lightly oaked. For me, the top wine, an absolute charmer and classic, was the Francois Cotat “Les Caillottes “ 2013 Sancerre. Just what I want: bone dry, fierce acidity and super-racy, brimming with minerals and grapefruits. There was that slight herbaceousness, like a whiff of green bell pepper, that added to the complexity. For food pairings, I thought of a salad of frisée, goat cheese and grapefruit sections, in a vinaigrette; but something also made me think of tempura, in a light, tamari-based dipping sauce.

Next in my faves was Domaine d’Alliance “Definition” 2013, with an IGP Atlantique appellation. It was quite similar to the Sancerre in the racy acidity and lemongrass, but the addition of 50% Semillon fattened up the middle. A very classy wine.

Compared to those two the Sarapo 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, with a Sonoma County appellation, seemed somewhat flaccid and heavy-handed. A good wine, but this just shows the importance of context when tasting. We were told it’s a blend from Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast and Dry Creek Valley. I fancy Dry Creek brought a riper note of figs, but the wine just didn’t have the lift and savoriness that I want in Sauvignon Blanc. Others liked it more than I did.

If I were formally reviewing the fourth wine, I’d give it a failing grade: Momo 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, from Marlborough. One sniff was enough to make me wince: I picked up a strong, offensive smell of dirty, sweaty sox. To me that signals brett; another taster insisted there was no brett, that this was just a signature of Marlborough. The wine was fermented naturally—no store-brought yeast, which is a risk. It always troubles me when another respected taster has an opinion so different from mine. I looked up other professional critical scores: 86 from Wine Spectator with no mention of dirty funk; 87 in the Advocate; nothing in Enthusiast; and nothing for the ’14 in Vinous, but Tanzer did review the ’12 and called it “musky…with a complicating note of game.”

Fair enough: but speaking for myself I don’t want musk or game in my Sauvignon Blancs! I made this point rather forcefully at the tasting, and a few of my compatriots replied that, while the wine is not “classic” nor for everyone, it does represent a certain eccentricity that some people, somms in particular, are looking for these days.

Here’s what I think: There’s a reason why “the classics” are the classics. Being different just for the sake of being different does not mean the wine isn’t bad! Some people are looking to break the rules, but at what point does breaking the rules result in dirty wines that would get you thrown out of U.C. Davis? I realize that progress has to be made in wine—styles don’t always remain the same, otherwise we’d all be drinking the resinous wines of ancient Greeks. But I do think that there’s a tendency on the part of some somms and other younger tastemakers to go for the bizarre. If you have a wine like that, you may like it—or think you like it, because you think you’re supposed to like it, because somebody better known or more experienced than you liked it and therefore you fear that if you don’t like it, you’re not cool.

But these are wines I call Andy Warhol wines: they will be famous for fifteen minutes, and then fade back into the obscurity from whence they came. There are standards; there are rules, established not by authoritarian fogies but by a thousand years of human experience. Outliers do not last.


A tasting of sparkling wine (mostly California)

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This was a most interesting and engaging tasting. We (me and my friends at Jackson Family Wines) hadn’t done a sparkling wine tasting before, and I was just “in the mood” for bubbly, what with summer coming on, so that’s what I did. Could have done BdB, BdN, Brut, etc. but decided on rosé because I love it and it’s the best wine for sushi IMHO.

As usual I rounded up most of the best of California and threw in a couple ringers: the Lanson (a real Champagne), and a couple cheapies: Ballatore (from Gallo) and Sophora.

The top wines among our five tasters by far were the Lanson and the Schramsberg. (Lanson got two votes, Schramsberg three.) The Lanson showed such a wonderful aged character, just a fabulous Champagne. The Schramsberg was pretty darn close. My take home lesson is that, perhaps of all wines, price bears the closest relationship to quality in Champagne/sparking wine. For instance, you can’t assume that a $300 Cabernet is way better than a $50 Cabernet. But in bubbly, you get what you pay for. In no other wine do the elusive qualities of elegance and finesse matter as much.

Incidentally, the color palate of this tasting was dazzling: everything from straw through partridge eye to deep orange-pink. It reminded me of one of those fabric cover sample books. Just a delight to the eye. This photo gives a suggestion.

Champs

Quick takes:

The most I can say for the Ballatore is, not for me! The Sophora, from New Zealand, is a good buy. The Iron Horse was a bit of a disappointment as were the Roederer and Mumm. Great job Gloria, Chandon, and in particular Domaine Carneros and Scharffenberger. I’ve long liked the Monterey-based Caraciolli, whose talented winemaker, Michel Salgues, used to head up Roederer Estate.

96 Lanson NV Rose Champagne Extra Age Champagne, $123

95 Schramsberg 2007 J. Schram Rose, North Coast, $150

93 Domaine Carneros 2010 LD Brut Rose, Carneros, $59

93 Scharffenberger NV Brut Rose Excellence, Mendocino County, ??

92 Chandon NV Etoile Rose, Sonoma-Napa-Monterey, $50

92 Gloria Ferrer 2012 Brut Rose, Carneros, $50

90 Caraciolli 2009 Brut Rose, Santa Lucia Highlands, $57

90 J Vineyards & Winery 2011 Brut Rose, Russian River Valley, $65

88 Sophora NV Sparkling Rose, New Zealand, $15

88 Roederer Estate 2006 L’Ermitage Rose, Anderson Valley, $68

87 Mumm Napa DVX Rose, Napa Valley, $70

86 Iron Horse 2008 Brut Rose, Green Valley of the Russian River Valley, $50

81 Ballatore Moscato Rose, California, $8

 


Good wines from Martin Ray

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Martin Ray winery sent me a few bottles of wine to review, so here they are.

93 Martin Ray 2013 Synthesis Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $?, 14.8%. What I like about this wine is how it manages to be big, dark, deep and profound, on the one hand, while retaining such delicacy and elegance in the mouth. It’s deft blend of Cabernet with 2% Petit Verdot from Stags Leap, Rutherford and Diamond Mountain. Made solidly in the modern style, it’s ripe, opulent and delicious, brimming with black raspberry, cassis liqueur, chocolate, fig, caramelized new French oak and an interesting coffee bean-earthiness. The tannins are thick, soft and sweet. A beautiful wine for drinking now and over the next few years.

92 Martin Ray 2013 Dark Star Hill Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $?, 13.9%. Well-made and obviously from good terroir, but young, with a juicy, saline-briny quality. The wine comes from a vineyard above Freestone. It’s intense and concentrated, with deep, broad raspberry, cranberry and pomegranate fruit flavors, and an ever-so-slight funkiness. Six months in 50% new French oak gives a nice appliqué of smoke and sweet vanilla. The finish is super-spicy, all about cloves, cinnamon, white pepper, star anise. A delicious, complex wine that you should hold for 2-3 years.

90 Martin Ray 2013 Dutton Ranch Mill Station Vineyard Chardonnay (Green Valley); $35. This is a controlled wine of vibrancy and elegance. Grown in the coolest part of the Russian River Valley, it displays notes of pineapples, tart green apples, Meyer lemons, honeysuckle and crème brulée, but also a great tang of minerality that is accented by crisp acidity. The finish is thoroughly dry despite a honeyed richness. A lovely, delightful and easy-drinking Chardonnay from a great vintage that’s ready to drink now.

88 Martin Ray 2013 Pinot Noir (Green Valley of the Russian River Valley); $40, 14.1%. Lots of appealing sour cherry candy, pomegranate and persimmon fruit on this Pinot, which reflects its cool origins well. The wine is bone dry, yet with a fruity-oaky sweetness heightened by good acidity. Wonderfully silky texture—it glides over the tongue. My only complaint is a certain underripeness that suggests beetroot and tomato. Somms will have to think carefully about pairing.

88 Martin Ray 2015 Rosé of Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley): $28, 13.6%. Just the kind of rosé I like. Bone dry, with mouthwatering acidity highlighting orange zest, strawberry and white pepper flavors. Really likeable, and showing complexity. Great with sushi, tuna tartare, charcuterie, a great baked ham, or Sunday brunch with just about anything.

88 Martin Ray 2013 Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast); $35, 14.1%. There’s the official Sonoma Coast appellation, all 480,000 acres of it (five times larger than then Russian River Valley), and there’s the “true” Sonoma Coast, which is the best part. Martin Ray doesn’t tell us precisely where the grapes for this wine are from (I wish they did), except to say “the northwestern edge of the county.” To me, the wine is on the rustic side, with prickly acidity and big tannins. It displays a complex range of sour cherry, pomegranate, heirloom tomato, briary pinecone, espresso and exotic spice flavors, and feels robust and a little raw. I don’t think it’s an ager, so decant it and drink over the next few years.


The historic phases of Pinot Noir in California: 4.0…and counting

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I blogged the other day about a tasting in which we tried four different versions of Clone 777 Pinot Noir from four Jackson Family wineries in four regions: Anderson Valley (Champ de Reves), Willamette Valley (Gran Moraine), Santa Lucia Highlands (Siduri-Sierra Mar Vineyard) and Annapolis (Wild Ridge, on the far Sonoma Coast). This was an attempt to see if we could detect the signature of the vineyards (terroir) in each case—which we could. The 777’s intense color, strong, aromatic profile and sturdy tannins always came through, but each barrel sample was different, which can only have been due to their differing origins.

But that was only half the story. That tasting was an in-house rehearsal at Jackson Family Wines for our full-scale public event yesterday, held at The Battery, which by the way is a fabulous place to have a tasting as well as a terrific bar and restaurant. (Segue: I walked there from Montgomery Street BART, which took me past the old Square One restaurant where I spent so many pleasurable hours in the 1980s and 1990s. Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory” chimed nostalgic-happy in my mind.)

For this tasting, which attracted about 40 industry pros, we repeated the Clone 777 tasting, and we also had each of the winemakers present to talk about his/her wines. For the icing on the cake we had each of the winery’s 2013 final bottled blends of Pinot Noir, which contained varying amounts of 777. The idea wasn’t so much as to see if we could detect the presence of the 777 in the final blend as it was to see if we could discern the terroir in both the Clone 777s and the final blended wines.

All of us on the panel—the winemakers, myself, our moderator Gilian Handleman and Julia Jackson, the youngest daughter of Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke—of course weighed in with our own impressions. For my part, and being the “senior” on the panel (as well as, pretty much, in the room), I shared my perspective on where we are concerning Pinot Noir here on the West Coast of America. Here’s my take on that, historically-speaking.

Pinot Noir 1.0 followed the Repeal of Prohibition. It occurred primarily in the 1930s and early 1940s. This was the “Plant Pinot Noir anywhere” era. It was put into central Napa Valley, into Sonoma County east of the 101 highway, and other warmish places better suited for Zinfandel; it took a while, but it was discovered those places were too hot for this variety.

Pinot Noir 2.0 followed a single imperative: “Go towards the water.” This was in the later 1940s. Pioneers like Andre Tchelistchef and Louis Martini went south, to Carneros. They understood that Pinot needs the cooling influence of (in this case) San Pablo-San Francisco Bay.

This water-seeking was a long period and lasted through the 1980s. Pinot also looked westward, towards the Pacific Ocean. Vineyards went onto the western slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains, into western San Luis Obispo County, the Anderson Valley, the western part of Santa Ynez Valley we now call Santa Rita Hills, and of course the Russian River Valley, as well as the far Sonoma Coast.

Pinot Noir 3.0 was the mighty effort to improve plant material. Now that we knew the best places to plant it, the next step was to improve the vines themselves: virus-free clones and selections. This phase occurred in the 1990s.

Pinot Noir 4.0 is where we find ourselves now: the focus is on the vineyard. Where are the best sites in the best regions? What are the best soils? The best viticultural practices? Volcanic-basalt soils are different from marine-sedimentary ones. How do you match clones to sites? What is the best oak treatment for your wines? This is the most intensive effort today in California.

I see this phase occupying our attentions for the next twenty years, at least. But it won’t be the final one.

Pinot Noir 5.0 has barely begun. It will consist of an understanding of the individual vineyards so thorough that we will be able to identify individual blocks within them for site specificity. After all, the vineyard now owned by the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti was planted as far back as the twelfth century: it was not for additional centuries that the individualities of La Tache, Echezeaux, etc. were understood and appreciated. Hundreds of years to understand roughly 198 acres of vineyard (including Montrachet)! I hope it will not take us that long. Many of our vineyards are of considerable size; we need to break them down into block bottlings. We’re just scratching the surface—I love Josh Jensen’s exploration of his terroir at Calera, and the way the Rochiolis have put their Westside Road vineyard under the microscope and blocked it out. I told our audience yesterday (and most of them seemed to be in their twenties and thirties), “You guys are lucky. You will spend the rest of your lives understanding and writing about Pinot Noir phase 5.0” when we delve into the most exquisitely detailed comprehension of the micro-terroir of our vineyards. What a glorious epoch that will be.


How to build an AVA

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As you read this, I’ll be on my way up to the Willamette Valley. Some of you may recall that I’m working on crafting a new American Viticultural Area for a region in which Jackson Family Wines has a vineyard. It’s in the central-western part of the Valley; as you can see, the current sub-AVAs are all in the northern part.

Willamette

The area I’m interested in is just south of McMinnville and Eola-Amity Hills, so if we get approval, it will represent a steady and logical expansion southward of AVAs in Willamette Valley.

It’s been a very interesting and thoughtful process so far, so I figured it might be of interest to you, too, to see some of the stuff I’ve been dealing with. There are two main factors to consider in getting the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) of the U.S. Treasury Department to approve a new AVA. You need a name, and you need to establish boundaries. Both can be challenging: the TTB is very rigorous, especially about the name, and my feeling is that they’ve been getting tougher over the years. Another way of putting that is that, in my estimation, they’ve approved AVAs in the past that they would not approve today.

I decided to start with the name. TTB has two over-arching requirements for a name: It has to have some documented usage in local history, and it has to have current and direct usage today. Of course, there are other parameters, but those are the big two.

One of the early lessons I learned was from another group that spent a considerable amount of time and effort to establish a new AVA whose name they more or less invented, willy-nilly, because it sounded nice. TTB said no, because the name had no roots in history. It was a big disappointment for the petitioners, and I certainly didn’t (and don’t) want to spend a bunch of time applying for something that has no chance of being approved.

We also wanted to make sure, as much as possible, that all the local growers, winemakers and other stakeholders were onboard with the name. It’s a simple matter of respect, unity and, yes, love: Love thy neighbor. In fact, my meeting today will, I hope, conclude the naming part of the deal. Then we have to begin the arduous process of delineating boundaries. We have to show that the entire proposed AVA shares a common terroir, inclusive of both soils and climate. This will require the pooling of a great deal of information, which would be difficult if not impossible if all our neighbor stakeholders weren’t part of the process.

So far everything has gone exceptionally smoothly, but I’m taking nothing for granted. I’m a big believer in Murphy’s Law, which can be mitigated to some extent through careful preparation, although it can’t be entirely eliminated, especially given when you’re dealing with a gigantic federal bureaucracy. I know something about the history of many of our California AVAs, because I reported on them at the time. There were so many unnecessary battles, so many needless delays, so much antagonism stirred up between discordant stakeholders, all because the crafters didn’t take the time to dot all their i’s and cross their t’s. I hope I’ve learned from that.

Why is it even important to further sub-appellate Willamette Valley? For the same reason we always have needed to refine the biggest appellations: to better understand them. Napa Valley has done a great job at sub-appellating itself. Sonoma County did it a little less coherently, but still, it works, although I’ve been asking for years for Russian River Valley to be sub-divided. More lately, we’ve seen in Paso Robles and Lodi how the imperative towards sub-AVAs is irresistible. France, of course, is the inspiration. This is good for the consumer, it’s good for producers, it’s good for everyone.


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