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My remarks at the Cabernet Academy: Part 2



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.

  1. Patrick says:

    Nicely done. Most informative.

  2. Regarding ‘In Pursuit of Balance’, which you mentioned and another group, Seven % Solution and perhaps their influence on Cabernet Sauvignon and trends; Cabernet Sauvignon could have two options, the underdog or contrarian movement in Alexander Valley.

    S%S has made a market for eclectic varietals, low production wines, a cool thing to grow and sell, while Chardonnay and CS remain our top two wine varieties crushed each year. S%S is the underdog and everyone likes an underdog.

    Who’s heard of Trosseau gris? 38 sommelier’s in San Francisco, 49 in New York and 108 bloggers and they just bought the entire 1000 cases of production from the entire state of California from 5 producers at $29 a bottle and virtually no ratings or recognition. Who’s to say that those 5 producers of this fringe varietal in California are even that good? We only have 5 producers in California to compare it to and Jon Bonne to believe! These wines are all made in the same whole cluster, long skin contact, unoaked, low sulphite way. But these eclectic, underdog wines are selling (whether or not they sell during the next recession remains to be seen).

    Who’s heard of Cabernet Sauvignon? Nearly everyone and that’s the problem and the solution. CS homogenized into two things, high scores and higher prices, with Napa Valley CS as the standard bearer of both. Alexander Valley (I’d throw Dry Creek in to because I’m biased) could form an “underdog movement” as contrast to Napa Valley, but it needs a champion, similar to Jon Bonne to highlight the differences in region.

    This is Pepsi versus Coke. Both cola…different formula, plenty of markets, lots of sales.

    Steve are you up for the challenge as the voice and senior statesman of AV Cab?

    Cabernet Sauvignon (CS) doesn’t seem to have a ‘manifesto’ for bringing acidity, balance and “intention” to the masses, the way IPOB does and maybe CS doesn’t want to.

    From the IPOB website manifesto, “Pinot Noir grown on the west coast has been the next big thing for a while now, but perhaps that shouldn’t be the case. Popularity is an exaggeration, a distortion of Pinot Noir’s defining qualities and a distraction from what makes it truly great.

    As Pinot Noir lovers, we face a collective challenge in the search for truly expressive, honest wine: What must we do to achieve balance in California Pinot Noir?

    Few of us in the pro-Chardonnay camp would defend the über-industrial, over-produced California Chardonnays of the last 20 years. Rather we would be quick the make the distinction between wines with integrity and wines without.”

    Popularity as distortion. Honest wine. Wine with integrity. High minded principles to be sure, but I don’t think Cabernet is listening. I don’t think Cabernet cares.

    CS has no such contrarian movement to differentiate between Alexander Valley and Napa Valley, since most CS producers are chasing the ‘perfect (Popular!) homogenized score’ because they know they will be rewarded with higher demand and higher prices and therefore cannot be contrarian.

    I suppose you can get a handful of producers in Alex to go ‘contrarian’, but that’s a harder road to trench.

    I vote for the Underdog approach for highlighting Alexander Valley Cabernet. Besides, who doesn’t get inspired to hear the theme to Hoosiers or Rocky (Underdogs) versus the soundtrack to The Matrix (contrarian)?

  3. I am a big proponent of balance & acidity, & away from the Parker styles of over extraction, high alcohol & out of balance wines. Be they Pinot Noir, Cabernet, or Chardonnay. In fact I wrote an article about this several months back. Love your insight & knowledge. Keep up the great work!

  4. I went to the S%S tasting last week-end in Healdsburg (I dubbed it “50 shades of Gris) and more power to them. But I don’t feel I need a manifesto to keep making balanced Cabernet from a low yielding mountain vineyard in the Mayacamas, that just happens to be on the Napa side (Diamond Mountain).

    “Popularity as distortion. Honest wine. Wine with integrity. High minded principles to be sure, but I don’t think Cabernet is listening. I don’t think Cabernet cares.”

    Wow, that comment is hard to accept, working on growing our 20th vintage on an economy of scale that is very challenging. So easy for some of you to make these sweeping generalizations while gazing at the mass market-lifestyle magazines’ cover articles.

  5. David Scheidt says:

    Bill, I don’t need a manifesto either, I don’t think it’s necessary, but it is good marketing, which was my point. More power to them as well if they can make a buck.

    As for the comments regarding “honest winemaking” those are pulled from the IPOB manifesto as to how they make and understand Pinot. There is no such benchmark or group in the Cabernet world that I’m aware of which is what I make light of.

    I to make wine on an economically challenging scale without a manifesto.

  6. Bob Henry says:

    I have a modest manifesto: champion Cabernet Franc.

    Not in the tobacco leaf (sometimes even weedy) style hailing from the Loire Valley.

    Rather the voluptuous Cabernet Franc from Napa and Sonoma.

  7. Bob Henry says:

    Postscript: Cabernet Franc.

    Not exclusively a stand-out from Bordeaux or California.

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