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Thursday throwaway: wine bloggers, aging wine, and a brand new AVA



More “aren’t they special” plaudits for young wine bloggers in this op-ed piece from the online edition of The author lets us know that—at long last!—bloggers are “telling the story” that presumably has not been told before: wine lovers now have “real” people, AKA wine bloggers, to help them in their quest to find good wine. Not “technical” academics, not “corporate” hacks, not dinosaur Boomer critics, but “real persons” who can “provide a crucial link between the industry and consumers” and who understand, as never before, the “passion” of winemakers.

Finally! After centuries of being hectored, lectured and bullied by wine snobs ranging from Thomas Jefferson and Professor Saintsbury to Dan Berger, Parker and (ahem) me, consumers are being spoken to by their peers, people they can trust to not bamboozle them. I wrote the other day, concerning National Drink Wine Day, that apparently anybody can declare a National Something Day, so I’m going to propose that the fourth Thursday of each February now and henceforth forever be #National Wine Bloggers Day. I created that hashtag on Twitter. I’m urging my Congressional representatives to make it a national holiday. No work, no school, fly the wine flag high and let the nation celebrate wine blogging by, well, wine blogging. Remember what Jefferson immortally said: “A nation of wine bloggers will be a bloggy nation.”

* * *

Speaking of Dan Berger, I associate myself entirely with his remarks the other day in his column, in which he cast considerable doubt on the ability of wines to age—even wines that are very expensive and that you think, for perfectly valid reasons, have the capacity to age well.

Dan writes, I have long noted the utter failure of some expensive reds to taste better with even as little as a year of age.” He adds that, as a reviewer, “It is one reason I am reluctant to assert wine has potential when I cannot be certain it does.” Consumers should take note: Dan Berger has tasted more old wines than most people ever will. I completely agree with his assessment. I’ve stored a lot of wine, mainly red, mainly California Cabernet Sauvignon, in various storages (small fridges, big wine units, professional wine lockers) and I can’t tell you how often I’ve been dismayed at the results. The wines become, not splendidly aged as one would hope, but “tired,” to use Dan’s word.

I believe that critics make far too much of aging wine. Bigtime “name” critics do it first, and then small wannabes mimic them. Consumers are left confused and frustrated, believing they have to age wines but not knowing which ones to age or for how long. I have my own theory how this all started: In France, a long, long time ago, winemakers did not know how to manage tannins. This was a problem compounded by often poor vintages caused by the Little Ice Age that struck Europe. The result was wines that really were “undrinkable” when they were young. Britain was the main buyer of French wine: Bordeaux and Burgundy, and for a while, when Britain was at one of her frequent wars with France, she turned to Portugal for wine, especially vintage Port: another wine impossibly tannic when young. What to do?

Turned out that many British consumers of wine, being wealthy, had large castles (ah, the good old days); and these castles had underground cellars where the temperature never warmed up much beyond the mid- to high 50s. Since these men bought their wines in enormous quantities rather than by the bottle (no corner wine store in those days), they stored the wines in these cold cellars, where they discovered—voila!—that after many years, even decades, the wines finally shed their tannins and became sweetly mellow. In this way there developed the custom of laying down wine for one’s children’s or grandchildren’s 21st birthdays, a custom we still see here in America.

But somewhere along the line arose the modern practice of tannin management, and lo and behold, most wines are perfectly drinkable upon release. They’re riper and softer than ever before in history, which makes them great to drink the first six years or so. My advice: Cellar stuff if you want to. But be prepared to be disappointed, especially with California wine.

* * *


As far as I can tell, most of the wines from Lamorinda (just approved by the Feds as an A.V.A.) are backyard hobby efforts. The name “Lamorinda” is an concoction of Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda, three very wealthy suburban towns just on the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel from Oakland, in the county of Contra Costa, so named by pioneers because it lay on the “opposite coast” of the Bay from San Francisco. I have long known men of wealth in that area who planted grapevines in their backyards, on slopes of the East Bay Hills; I’ve tasted some of their wines over the years, and they’re not bad. I don’t think anyone really knows if any one variety or family of varieties is best suited for Lamorinda. People grow everything from Pinot Noir to Zinfandel and, of course, Chardonnay. They even make sparkling wine. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for Lamorinda wines to pop up on store shelves or restaurant wine lists. Maybe some local restos, but not otherwise. Nor do I expect the somm community to discover and promote the red-hot wines of this new appellation. But good luck to my through-the-tunnel winemaking neighbors, and congrats on getting your appellation! I know what it takes, because I’m going through the process myself, up in Oregon.

  1. “… apparently anybody can declare a National Something Day, so I’m going to propose that the fourth Thursday of each February now and henceforth forever be #National Wine Bloggers Day.”

    Rather than choosing the fourth Thursday of each February, how ’bout proposing the 29th of each February?

    Speaking as someone who organizes cellars for collectors — and samples a lot of old wines in the process — I concur about having doubts on the aging potential of a lot of contemporary wines.

    (For articles on “pre-mox” in white and red wines, query Decanter magazine.)

    Coincidentally, I gave across this old newspaper article yesterday . . .

    From The Sacramento Bee
    (November 6, 2013):

    “UC Davis ‘Vintages’ wine tasting event shows changes in time, technology and tastes”

    By Chris Macias

    UC Davis’ research winery may have all the latest equipment — including stainless steel fermenting tanks with high-tech sensors that download data in real time — but the vintages being poured there last week represented a blast from the past.

    An Oct. 29 event, dubbed “Vintage Wine Tasting,” featured Bordeaux wines from the 1960s, a time before computers were used by winemakers. Stainless steel tanks weren’t even part of the winemaking process then, which now seems primitive by comparison.

    The evening, hosted in part by renowned grocer and wine expert Darrell Corti, was more like a research seminar than a boozy bacchanal for its two dozen participants. What could these grandfatherly wines teach us about the durability of wine, and the pros and cons of contemporary winemaking methods?

    “This is not necessarily a wine tasting for pleasure,” Corti said as he led the class. “This is a wine tasting for information.”

    Then again, it was tough to not feel just a bit giddy, with the chance to sample some of Bordeaux’s signature wines from a time before man landed on the moon. Among them: 1962 Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron; 1963-64 Chateau Latour; 1964 and 1966 Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande.

    The $200 event was co-organized by wineCentric, a wine education company founded by Sacramento sommelier Matthew Lewis. The bottles were donated to the university and stored in the school’s special-collections cellar, which holds bottles for research and teaching. Proceeds from the event benefited UC Davis’ department of viticulture and oenology.

    “These wines certainly aren’t being made anymore,” Lewis said. “Darrell (Corti) went into great detail about the fact that NOBODY HAS ANY INTEREST IN MAKING THESE 50-to-100 YEAR WINES ANYMORE. This might be the last chance to try them.”

    That’s to say THE BULK OF CONTEMPORARY WINES ARE GEARED TOWARD IMMEDIATE GRATIFICATION, versus the long-term pleasures from a bottle evolving for many years in the cellar. Over time, a well-made wine sheds its puckery tannins and the fruit can blossom with complex secondary flavors not found in their youth.

    Given the technological limitations of the decade, these Bordeaux winemakers didn’t necessarily have much choice but to build wines for the long haul.

    “Those wines were made specifically with longevity in mind,” said Mark McKenna, winemaker for Amador County’s Andis Wines, who participated in the seminar and poured local semillon as an arrival wine. “Everything was slower — storage, transportation — and the wines almost had to be tougher. The wines are not only a product of place, but of time.”

    Roughly 50 years later, and more then 5,000 miles from their birthplace, these Bordeaux wines offered plenty to ponder at UC Davis.

    The wines were uncorked a few hours before the event and checked for flaws. None was found. Each bottle was then decanted for sediment before being served by Lewis and a small team of assistants.

    The wines were poured from oldest to youngest, starting with the 1962 Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron and concluded with 1970 Chateau Guiraud, a stunning and honey-sweet wine from Sauternes that showed no signs of fading.

    Tasters were also privy to a pour of non-vintage Lanson Black Label Champagne, which was disgorged in the early 1980s, as an example of mature Champagne. This wonderful sparkling wine was far from flat, with a pleasing fizz, dark golden color and flavors of baked apple.

    The red Bordeaux wines all featured various shades of brownish-red, a telltale sign of mature wine. Like all flights of wine, some examples show better than others, and the 1962 Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron was slightly one-dimensional with its acidity.

    But overall, none of the wines was D.O.A. Most were enjoyable, with heady notes of cedar, tobacco and tea as common flavor profiles.

    The 1966 Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande emerged as a favorite for many, with a eucalyptus character that suggested classic cabernet sauvignon. While such herbal notes were once embraced by winemakers — including those of California in the 1960s and 1970s — this approach has mostly fallen out of favor contemporary winemakers in favor of jammy and chocolate-ish expressions.

    Mature wines such as these aren’t going to hit the palate like the flavor bombs of today. Enjoying decades-old wine is a more subtle and ponderous experience — but that doesn’t mean tasting them has to be a stone-faced experience.

    The fun continued at Tucos Wine Market and Café in downtown Davis after the event. Joe Harbison, the former Sacramentan who owns Harbison Wines in Napa, shared a bottle of 1959 Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron with fellow participants. The wine was impeccable and intact, especially with its rich color, and easily could have passed for a 20-year-old wine instead of one that could have its own AARP card.

    “It was cool that the group of people weren’t a bunch of wine snobs,” McKenna said. “It was a whole cross-section of abilities and experiences, and all of whom were riveted and engaged. There was conversation, and laughter and enthusiasm all for that love of wine.”

    UC Davis and wineCentric are now exploring future vintage tastings, including detours to Burgundy, more Bordeaux and California circa the 1960s and 1970s.

    Check or call (970) 376-1222 for information.

  2. How about the 5th Thursday of February for National Bloggers Day? And I totally agree with you about aging reds. Although every once in awhile I have a red from my cellar that has aged beautifully. Never any high-priced wines (I don’t really have any of those). Just a well-made Loire Cabernet Franc or a Chateauneuf du Pape.

  3. Hi Steve, the next time you are in the area, stop by for a tour and wine tasting, you will be pleasantly surprised, many people at Yelp thought so for CaptainVineyards.

  4. Regarding the aging potential of CA reds, I do hope that someday, certain wine critics face accountability for some of their longevity predictions. Rattling off long-term dates for maturity has been a favored way of rounding off a review with a bang: “Drink now through 2060 and beyond” is only a slight exaggeration. And Steve, thank you once again for pointing out the BS.

  5. Steve,
    Not agonna touch your mocking rant on wine bloggers, though there’s
    plenty to comment on there.
    But Dan’s comments on aging does merit comment. I think he’s pretty
    much spot on there. It all depends on what you want from aging a wine
    (and that includes whites as well). To me, I like the wine to go beyond
    the primary fruit you find upon release. I would like the tannins to
    come into balance and, most importantly, for it to develop complexity,
    the smell & taste of other things beyond the primary fruit, things that
    were not there originally.
    For many a wine critic, if the (young) wine has massive extraction,
    black color, massive tannins, intense fruit….then…by golly…of
    course it’s going to age into something magnificent. And Dan is quite
    correct in calling these critics on that belief. I have plenty of those
    kind of wines (alas) in my cellar that are going nowhere fast, not
    showing any degree of evolution, and (alas)…even at 15-25 yrs of age
    are just as intense and showing primary fruit as they did when they were
    young. They’re not (necessarily) getting “tired”…they’re just going
    And there are any number of wines that, while not showing massive
    extraction upon release and seem sort of ho-hum at first…but are being
    transmogrified into beautifully complex wines that are a real pleasure
    to drink. ‘Tis a pity that Monktown critics don’t have the experience to
    call out these wines as being truly great. Can you say EdmundsStJohn,
    Qupe, Dehlinger, Ridge here??
    However…I would argue w/ Dan’s statement that “Moreover, cellaring
    conditions must be pretty cool to ensure any improvement in a wine set
    down to age.” I think that wine is a much more robust beverage and not
    nearly as fragile as many wine geeks make it out to be. And have a
    wealth of examples to back up that assertion.
    And there are plenty of white wines that improve with not just a
    “little time” in the cellar, but also lots of time. Try any JJPrum
    Auslese ’71 or ’76 to find that out.

  6. A came across this article today — so let me proffer it to two blog pieces: on aging wine, and on the passing of Peter Mondavi.

    A call-out to John Skupny, who has contributed comments to this wine blog: Wish to elaborate on this event as a participant?

    From the St. Helena Star “Wine Edition” Supplement*
    (November 2014):

    “Napa Valley & French Superstars;
    Carol & Bruce Macumber host amazing tasting of 50-year-old wines”


    By Catherine Bugue
    Star’s Tasting Panel Columnist

    It was by no means a mini Paris Tasting, and certainly not a competition of the wines presented, but there in the room stood some of Napa Valley’s and Bordeaux’s finest bottles.

    What they had in common was age — 50 years or so. The oldest wine was the dual vintage 1959-1960 Cresta Blanca, a sweet Semillon phenomenon of its time, and the youngest, a set of 1973 Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons.

    What the selections also shared, placing them on equal footing had a competition ensued, is the determination at the end of the evening that Napa Valley and Bordeaux wines alike had aged beautifully over the decades.

    Hosting the tasting and generously providing the wines were Carol and Bruce Macumber. Bruce Macumber was hired by Peter Newton to be vice president of National Sales at the opening of Peter’s new winery, Sterling Vineyards. That was in 1973. Bruce later founded a wine brokerage company, handling top Napa Valley brands such as Phelps, Caymus, and Chateau Montelena. Among those he hired was Beth Novak Milliken, now CEO at Spottswoode, when she was fresh out of UCLA. Following an import business where he sold Napa Valley wines in France, Bruce joined Kendall Jackson as VP, Sales Manager.

    The impact of his decades in the industry and the friendships forged were evident in the names and faces of the guests around the table:

    • John Skupny, owner Lang & Reed Winery, consultant
    • Beth Novak Milliken, CEO Spottswoode Winery
    • Stu Harrison, who launched Domaine Chandon, Opus One and Continuum
    • Greg DeLuca, past president of Sterling Vineyards and Chateau St. Jean
    • Joshua Arroyo, estate host at Chappellet and Certified Sommelier
    • Alex Dierkishing, owner All Seasons Bistro, Calistoga

    The tasting was aptly held at Alex Dierkishing’s restaurant; Alex and his wife, Gayle Keller, were one of the first in Napa Valley to receive the Wine Spectator’s Grand Award for their wine list selections. Within the bistro is a special room decorated with aging bottles and a massive wooden table; perfect for a tasting of a dozen to 20 or so guests.

    At the outset of the event, Bruce explained its purpose: “I was eager to finally share these 40-50 year old vintages with my Napa Valley friends.”

    The first group of wines were from the 1960s; the 1962, 1964, and 1966 Charles Krug Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignons. As guests tasted the 1962 Krug, it humbled them to recall that the grapes were harvested before the death of President John F. Kennedy.

    The 1964 and 1966 Krug wines, especially, still showed blackberry fruit behind the tertiary flavors of tobacco and leather which had developed over time. (Primary flavors are the fruit or floral flavors of the variety; secondary flavors are those created during winemaking, like toasty oak from barrels; and tertiary are the flavors that develop and start to dominate with age.)

    The 1970 wines followed; the first being the Oakville Vineyards Reserve Unfiltered Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine was called “brave” (a John Skupny term everyone appreciated) and “edgy” for its impressive fruit all these years later. The Oakville Vineyards was founded in 1968 by Bud and Jean Van Loben Sels. The couple is also known for the Oakville Grocery, and for purchasing the Niebaum property between owners John Daniels and Francis Ford Coppola. The second 1970 wine was the Chateau Latour, an exquisite example of balance and elegance.

    The set of 1973 wines included the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, famously known for its win at the Paris Tasting; the first vintage of the Caymus Reserve; and the Sterling Estate Reserve. Each wine held on to ruby color with the slightest of bricking, and each, along with the 1970 Oakville Vineyards, is proof positive of the aging capabilities of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon.

    Two dessert wines finished the evening, the Cresta Blanca Premier Semillon and a 1967 Chateau d’Yquem. Myron Nightingale created a sensation with the Cresta Blanca Semillon; believed to be California’s first experimentation with botrytis (noble rot.) The wine had wonderful caramel, honey, dried apricot and brandied-raisin flavors. The final jewel of the evening was the Chateau d’Yquem, the botrytis affected sweet wine from France, with its stunning structure and luxuriously unctuous flavor.

    Takeaways from the evening included buying tips for other collectable vintages: buy 1971 Latour and 1975 d’Yquem; and although the 1974 vintage was a breakout year for Napa cabs, the wines from 1973 and 1975 are aging better.

    The price Bruce paid for the 1967 d’Yquem? $14.97 retail in 1976 in Boulder, Colorado. That vintage today sells for an average of $1,500 per bottle on auction. The famous 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars? $3 wholesale back in the mid to late 1970s. For all of us who are old enough to have been able to buy these wines, it sure brings up a lot of “could have-should haves.”

    [*Full disclosure: I have a hard copy of this stand-alone supplement dated “November 20, 2014.”

    Whereas a search of the St. Helena Star’s online archive dates the article to “Aug 18, 2014.”

    The link is to the August 18, 2014 published version.]

  7. Tom writes:

    “… I have plenty of those kind of [massive extraction, black color, massive tannins, intense fruit] wines (alas) in my cellar that are going nowhere fast, not showing any degree of evolution, and (alas)…even at 15-25 yrs of age are just as intense and showing primary fruit as they did when they were young. They’re not (necessarily) getting “tired”…they’re just going nowhere.”

    Recall Parker’s reviews of the 1986 Mouton . . .

    At TEN years of age:

    “Clearly the youngest looking, most opaque and concentrated wine of the group, it [1986 Mouton] tastes as if it has not budged in development since I first tasted it out of barrel in March, 1987. An enormously concentrated, MASSIVE Mouton-Rothschild, comparable in quality, but not style, to the 1982, 1959, and 1945, this impeccably made wine is still in its infancy.

    “Interestingly, when I was in Bordeaux several years ago, I had this wine served to me blind from a magnum that had been opened and decanted 48 hours previously. Even then, it still TASTED LIKE A BARREL SAMPLE!

    “I suspect the 1986 Mouton-Rothschild requires a minimum of 15-20 more years of cellaring; it has the potential to last for 50-100 years!
    “. . . I wonder how many readers will be in shape to drink it when it does finally reach full maturity? Drink 2011 – 2096”

    At TWENTY years of age:

    “Still tasting like a BARRELL SAMPLE, the 1986 Mouton Rothschild is a monumental Bordeaux that WILL UNDOUBTEDLY OUTLIVE ANYBODY ALIVE TODAY. Amazingly youthful, with a dense purple color, it is an extraordinary wine that SHOUD AGE FOR A CENTURY OR MORE. Tasted blind, I WOULD HAVE GUESSED IT TO BE A 2 – 3 YEAR OLD FIRST GROWTH BORDEAUX.”

    A wine getting older.

    But is it getting better?

  8. Tom writes:

    “However…I would argue w/ Dan’s statement that ‘Moreover, cellaring
    conditions must be pretty cool to ensure any improvement in a wine set
    down to age.’ I think that wine is a much more robust beverage and not
    nearly as fragile as many wine geeks make it out to be. And have a
    wealth of examples to back up that assertion.”

    Let me proffer this article from Dan Berger (circa 1994) when he was a wine columnist for the Los Angeles Times “Food” section”:

    “Young Wines Built Tough”

  9. Thanks for the link to Dan’s 1994 article, Bob. I remember very well Dan’s article and the influence it had on my thinking at the time. His experience is pretty consistent w/ mine over the yrs. It always amuses me when some wine geek gets his knickers in a knot over his wine being delivered by UPS in 80F weather. “Get a life” I always think.
    As for the ’86 Mouton…it mirrors my experience w/ any number of wines. Can you say “Alban Syrah”. It always amuses me (obviously I’m easily amused!!) when some wine critic proclaims such & such a dense/extracted/black/tannic wine will peak in 2040 or some such nonsense. Some may recall the DavidBruce LateHrvst Zin/Carignan/Grenache/PetiteSirah of ’70/’71 vintage. The SanDiego wine critic, JohnBrennan, proclaimed (ca. 1974) that they would peak around 2010-2020. They were pretty much dead & gone by the mid-’80’s.

  10. Tom,

    I used to “moonlight” on weekends at a leading San Fernando Valley wine store — located in a community that gets notorious hot.

    The owner had a favorite anecdote he told all new employees during initiaiton.

    One day years earlier, UPS rolled up to deliver around 40 cases of Opus One (all presold as “futures” to store patrons).

    The temperature in the shade that day was 109 degrees F.

    Inside the cargo hold of that UPS truck? I would guess in excess of 130 degrees F.

    The owner refused the shipment. Sent it back to Mondavi and requested replacement inventory. (And got it.)

    What became of those 40 cases of wines, I dunno.

    (Same concern about wines stored in restaurants in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Without electricity, those wine cellars heated up pretty quickly. The most ethical restaurants submitted claims to their insurance companies for their losses. And where did those “salvage” bottles go? Many collectors feared to wine auction houses . . .)

    ~~ Bob

    (Regarding drinking old German Rieslings. I have a wine cellar client who is the ultimate “pack rat.” Spent each weekend visiting wine stores across Los Angeles and Orange Counties buying one bottle of every wine that intrigued him. His game plan: drink it and decide whether he wanted to own a full case.

    Well, those 12 bottle mixed cases he bought at each store starting piling up. He never got around to sampling any of those wines between weekend excursions.

    I was asked to step in with an “intervention,” and impose order on the chaos of his wine collection.

    I did. And what did I find?

    He owned 110 mixed cases of German Rieslings — dating back to 1971.

    40 mixed cases of Alsatian whites (lots of Rieslings) — dating back to the 1980s.

    And so it went with every grape variety and region of the world.

    His collection looked like this scene from “Citizen Kane”:

    Last night I drank a 1996 Smith-Madrone Napa (Spring Mountain) Riesling.

    Wow — tasted like a dead ringer for Germany.

    Oh yeah, bottles of wine are much tougher than folks think.)

  11. Bob,
    I’ve been telling the story on WineBerserkers about my “orphan stash”, a stash of some 24-25 cases that got “lost” in my garage (don’t ask) for about 18 yrs. Standing upright, totally uncontrolled temps, around freezing during the Winters, probably up in the 90F’s, or above, during the Summers. The amazing thing is that the 3-4 cases of Alsatian/German wines, by & large, came thru unscathed. Some JJPrum Spatlese/Auslese’s were simply spectacular, only a few that showed a bit of dammage. Fared not so well w/ the Cabs/Zins. Most of the Syrahs were survivors, if not terrific. Of course, most wine geeks ignore my story because it’s so contrary to what they learned from the “wine experts”.
    And a lot of the Calif Rieslings age very/very well..not surprised at the Smith-Madrone.

  12. Tom,

    One more anecdote.

    Two years ago, another wine cellar client asked me on the first day I arrived to organize his home cellar to kick to the curb as trash cartons of wines he no longer wished to drink.

    Inside? 1976 and 1996 and 2002 Stony Hill Chardonnays.

    Knowing the revered reputation of these wines, I politely asked if I could take a sample bottle home to try, and report back to him at our next work session whether he should truly dispatch them to the landfill.

    He agreed.

    That night I opened all three.

    All where in great condition.

    And the drought year 1976 Chard tasted the youngest of all. All three were fresh and vibrant and had retained their color. (A hallmark of non-ML fermented wines.)

    I reported back my experience. The cellar owner reconsidered and kept the bottles.

    Like these Stony Hill Chards, your “orphan” German Rieslings boasted high levels of malic acid.

    Doesn’t surprise me that they aged well even under less-than-ideal conditions.

    Today, I can only think of one other California Chard producer who makes wine in that style: Terry Leighton of Kalin Cellars.

    From The San Francisco Chronicle “Livermore” Special Report
    (August 11, 2013, Page M7ff):

    “A Timeless Take on White Wines”


    By Jon Bonné
    Wine Editor


    From The San Francisco Chronicle “Livermore” Special Report
    (August 11, 2013, Page M8):

    “White Grapes Crucial to Livermore History”


    By Jon Bonné
    Wine Editor

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