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In Napa Valley, the past is prelude to the future



In a few paragraphs in “Winetaster’s Choice,” written 42 years ago, Harry Waugh anticipated much of Napa Valley’s modern history, although he likely did not know it. It was on March 30, 1972, that Harry, the “grand old man of the English wine trade” who also was on the board of directors of Chateau Latour, made his third visit to Napa and found the region so dry that “It is said to be the worst drought since 1870!” Those of us who live here know that every ten years or so we do have a drought, and while I don’t mean to sound dismissive of the water situation (after all, the population of California has more than doubled since 1970), sometimes the media does seem to make things sound worse than they really are. (By the way, the rains of February have switched this winter from being the driest ever to the third driest.)

Harry’s visit coincided with a time when Napa’s boutique winery era was reaching an apogee. He was friends with Belle and Barney Rhodes, who’d planted Martha’s Vineyard, from which Joe Heitz produced one of the first vineyard-designated Cabernet Sauvignons (and which can lay claim to being California’s first modern-era “cult” wine). Martha’s Vineyard is, of course, located in the same general area of Oakville as Harlan Estate and Far Niente.

A few days later, Harry also visited Mayacamas Vineyard, high up on Mount Veeder, way above Oakville, and was dazzled by the views, which visitors still are today. “For sheer beauty the views in every direction…are, to my mind, unsurpassed,” and this despite his penchant for “splendid Alsace” and “my beloved Beaujolais country.” Tasting with Mayacamas’s founder, Bob Travers, Harry sampled the winery’s Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon (the wines were made, partly or wholly, from purchased grapes, because Bob’s new vineyard plantings hadn’t yet matured). Mayacamas was, of course, recently purchased from the Travers family by Charles Banks, who has vowed to restore the estate to greatness.

Harry also tasted a Mayacamas 1968 Zinfandel, a wine he said “caused such a stir” for its alcohol of 17%! [The exclamation point was his.] Being possessed of a European palate, and particularly fond of Bordeaux, Harry might easily have pooh-poohed that Zin, the way certain of our Europhile writers do today to wines of high alcohol. But he called it “one of the richest unfortified wines I have ever tasted” and added, “It is gratifying to know already I have a case of this most unusual wine tucked away in London.” One of the reasons I admired Harry was because of the catholicism [small “c”] of his palate. He was always in search of what he called “the pick of the bunch,” the best wines in whatever country or region he was touring, and did not bring provincial or biased tastes to his experiences.

During that same period, as a sort of lark, Harry and his wife, Prue, traveled to Lodi, which is not so far as the crow flies from Napa Valley, but seems altogether different, being on lowlands in the Sacramento Delta. However this trip was not to sample its wines or tour its vineyards. He’d been invited by “Bob and Marge Mondavi” to “a square dance club” to trip the light fantastic. I wish Harry had described this scene in greater detail, but in 1972 he could not have known the iconic status Robert Mondavi would later achieve. Isn’t it fun to imagine Mr. Mondavi dosado’ing in jeans and cowboy hat.

Another winery Harry went to was Louis M. Martini, then under the control of the Martini family (Gallo bought it in 2002), where he tasted “1970 Mountain Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon,” with a Sonoma County appellation. Could this have been Monte Rosso? Harry loved its “rich, sweet nose” and called it “gorgeous, big”; it even reminded him of the 1970 clarets (“the best vintage there since 1961”), with “its fabulous colour…richness and complexity.” I wonder what the alcohol was on that wine; today, Monte Bello Cabs tend to be on the hefty side. Perhaps a Martini will read this and let us know.

You see why it’s such fun to read about the history of wine regions. We discover that the things we are concerned with today are not without precedent. Nothing springs parthenogentically from nothing; everything has origins, and if you love wine, you must love understanding how today came out of yesterday, and all the years before.

For Bordeaux, selling to Millennials will be harder than it seems



It’s astonishing to me, as I consider the last 30 years, how irrelevant Bordeaux has become in much of the American wine scene.

When I first became infatuated with wine, in the late 1970s and 1980s, Bordeaux was the Queen of the Wine World. (Burgundy was said to be King. We can talk about that gender confusion another time…). Everything in California pertaining to Cabernet Sauvignon was with reference to Bordeaux. Our vintners were going over there every chance they could to walk Classified Growth vineyards and study with Classified Growth winemakers. It was almost as if they were on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, seeking to bathe in the holy waters that would cure them of all their vinous ills.

That was then…today, who talks about Bordeaux? Who buys it, either for home consumption or at restaurants? All that most people know about Bordeaux is that (a) almost every year Parker declares a Vintage of the Century and (b) prices are ridiculous. Neither of those phenomena is designed to elicit respect for a wine that once was the most coveted in the world.

Lagging interest in the States has not gone unnoticed along the banks of the Garonne and Gironde. No doubt chateau owners wish to regain the interest of the U.S. market, but it’s hard to discern a realistic marketing strategy. Yes, the Union des Grands Crus does their annual tour, attracting the usual cadre of sommeliers, merchants, writers and other denizens of the trade. But what happens inside the glittering ballroom of the Palace Hotel seems to stay there.

Along these lines, the Washington Post two days ago published this analytical piece on how the Bordelaise are “out to attract a younger American audience” in order to overcome Bordeaux’s “tarnished image” here.

A top guy at Sherry-Lehmann, one of New York’s leading wine shops, told the Post writer, “We’ve locked up the 70- and 80-year-olds. We need to convince the younger generation to drink Bordeaux.”

Wow. Why not try to interest “the younger generation” in Depends© ?



To understand where Bordeaux went wrong in America, let’s break down this comment from Cos d’Estournal’s director: “Bordeaux forgot to speak to one or two generations of sommeliers in the United States, and naturally the share of Bordeaux wines in restaurants dropped dramatically.”

I don’t think Bordeaux stopped “speaking” to somms, I think that somms just didn’t like what they were hearing. They didn’t like the prices they were forced to inflict on their customers. They didn’t like the rigid formalism that surrounds every sip of Bordeaux with the  solemnity of a Papal audience. Their own lifestyles (the somms, I mean) were seriously at odds with Bordeaux’s regalism. Somms tend to be edgy, young and urban. They like to find new things that are off-the-beaten path, which they can then share with their customers. Bordeaux may be many things, but it isn’t edgy or off-the-beaten path.

I suppose Bordeaux’s chief selling point these days is that it’s not California Cabernet! Oh, the irony. The Post article cites a New York somm who showed some Bordeaux to her staff members, “all in their 20s.” The experience was “eye-opening,” the somm said, explaining that the staff was “shocked” to find the wines so much more “interwoven and integrated” than “powerful California Cabernets.”

To think that Bordeaux has come to this: “We’re not California.” !!! Twenty years ago Bordeaux barely deigned to acknowledge Napa Valley’s existence. Now Napa has become the focal point against which conversations about Cabernet are conducted–the way Bordeaux used to be. What goes around comes around, as they say.

All this is not to suggest that Bordeaux did anything wrong, or that it could have done anything else. Bordeaux is a victim of its own success. In an era where the issues of the 99% are at the top of everyone’s concern (in a bipartisan way), Bordeaux has been unable to shed its 1% image. Nor is it easily conceivable how it could do so even in theory. The best Bordeaux is necessarily expensive and will remain so. Ordinary Bordeaux is more affordable, but it’s also less good, and there’s no compelling reason for an American to buy a $30 Bordeaux over an Argentine Malbec, Carmenere from Chile, Cabernet from Chateau Ste. Michelle, a sound Vacqueyras or Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Stellenbosch Syrah/Shiraz or any one of dozens of other world wines that frankly have more interesting stories to tell–and do not demand of their drinkers that they remove their caps before imbibing.


A mid-winter Bay Area evening


Had dinner last Thursday night with Keith at a little place in San Francisco, Paul K restaurant, I can definitely recommend.

It’s in Hayes Valley, on the corner of Hayes and Oak. Twenty-five years ago that was a disreputable neighborhood. It lay under the dark, cold shadow of the Central Freeway; the local population seemed to consist of drifters, prostitutes, drug casualties and other unsavory types. There were a few mom and pop markets, a hardware store, a junk shop or two. Even though Hayes Valley was just a few blocks from Civic Center and City Hall, it was not a place you wanted to go.

The first sign that things were changing was in the mid-80s. Suddenly you started seeing Lesbians. This is always an early indication of a rising neighborhood. Because the rents were super-cheap compared to other parts of San Francisco, and because Hayes Valley was so centrally located, they began colonizing it, opening little shops and tidying the place up. Following the Lesbians came the gay boys. After them came the Yuppies, and a wave of condo conversions. Yes, some people complained about gentrification, but not me.

Today, Hayes Valley is a cool, hip urban center of restaurants and cafés, wine bars, nightclubs, chic clothing shops, art galleries, theater and dance studios. They tore the ugly old Central Freeway down after the ’89 earthquake, opening the streets up to light and warmth. Hayes Valley now has that eclectic, exciting buzz associated with neighborhoods where people want to live, work and visit. The streets are crowded, the restaurant windows aglow at night. It feels fine to be there.

I’d never been to Paul K, but Allison, at the magazine, said she liked it a lot. I arrived early and sat at the bar, where a friendly mixologist poured me a crisp, dry Sancerre. I’d brought with me, from my cellar, a 1996 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon. I’d opened it at home just to make sure it was okay, and it was, although it was still very dry and tannic. I hoped it would blossom in the bottle.

Keith and I split a big appetizer plate of pomegranate braised lamb riblets in a garlic yogurt sauce. The four riblets were perfectly tender and juicy. The yogurt sauce was a little unusual, Middle Eastern or North African I suppose, but it worked. Keith drank a Caipirinha, a Brazilian cocktail he’d heard about, which was a little too sweet for me. I nursed my Sancerre, and started in on the Mayacamas.

For dinner, he had the grilled hanger steak with shoestring potatoes (mmmm), mushrooms and harissa butter. I ordered the milk-braised pork shoulder with grilled radicchio and a very buttery polenta. Both dishes were awesome.

The Mayacamas was an interesting wine. To begin with, the alcohol was 12.5%. How ‘bout that! It was an old-fashioned trip back to the way Napa Cabernet used to be. Mayacamas has gotten riper over the years, but is still pretty earthy compared to most of Napa Valley. The 2005, which I reviewed last summer, clocked in at 13.8%, very low for a Napa Cabernet. The ’96 definitely was not one of your big, fat, sweet cult wines (and I’m not putting them down, I’m just sayin’). It was still tightly wound in tannins and acids and, even after the bartender kindly brought an unsolicited decanter and the wine sat in it for a while, it remained lean and minerally. But the food teased out sweet blackberry notes and it was really a very nice wine to drink. I suspect its best days lay ahead.

Later, back in Oakland, I stopped by the new wine bar in the hood, The Punchdown. It’s at the same site where the old Franklin Square Wine Bar used to be (it folded a year ago). Rick Mitchell still owns the property, but the management is different, a young couple, D.C. and Lisa, who decided to try living their dream. It’s a tough economy out there, and this area of Oakland, or “Uptown” as people are calling it, is edgy despite the burst of restaurants, galleries and nightclubs that have arisen lately. Maybe the edginess makes it interesting. As D.C. noted, what Uptown needs now is retail. Uptown reminds me of nothing so much as Hayes Valley, twenty years ago. It’s gathering momentum.

Anyway, I wanted one more glass of wine for the road (or the sidewalk, so to speak, since it’s only a 10 minute walk home), so I asked D.C. to recommend something. He immediately suggested a 2009 Commanderie de Peyrassol, from Provence, a rosé. I just looked it up in Wine Enthusiast’s database; the great Roger Voss gave the 2006 90 points, and the retail was only $17. At The Punchdown they’re selling the ‘09 for $11 the glass, but it’s a big pour, easily a good six ounces. The blend is Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah and Mourvedre, and while we have similar blends in California, they don’t seem as cleanly structured and crisp.

It was a lovely night to stroll home. After our bitterly cold December and first week of January (cold by California standards, that is), on Jan. 12 the pattern completely reversed itself. Except for a little storm on Jan. 30 that barely washed the dust off my car, the weather has been gloriously sunny and warm, with temperatures approaching if not exceeding 70 in Napa-Sonoma (and on Sunday night, as I edit this, it was 80 today in Oakland!). And things don’t appear to be changing anytime soon. The long-range forecast shows the possibility of light rain on Feb. 13, but nice until then if not quite so warm. This is what I love about the Bay Area. Great weather, exciting, vibrant neighborhoods, cool people, wonderful food, and wine country just a short drive away.

The pleasures of the road


One of the most satisfying parts of my job is traveling. I love hitting the road and spending time in California’s various wine regions. I nearly always have, at the outset of a journey, a childlike sense of impending adventure, as though anything could happen.

We all have our little traveling rituals, I suppose. Mine begins with a sheet of paper I have held to my refrigerator door by a magnet. The paper is entitled “Steve’s traveling shit” and consists of a list of things to bring, or to not forget to do, before I walk out that front door. It’s been growing lengthier over the years. One entry reads “be sure which road you’re taking” because, once, I set out for Santa Rosa, only to find myself on the way to Stockton because I was sleepy and not paying attention.

The word “clothes” is also on there, hastily penned in, after a trip I made to the Central Coast, two years ago. On arriving, I discovered, to my horror, that I’d left my packed suitcase on my bed, at home; I was forced to go to a local K-Mart and buy myself 3 days of shirts, pants and underwear. Also on the list are headphones (for airplanes), hand sanitizer and sunglasses. I’m always forgetting my sunglasses, and have about 6 pairs of those clip-ons I’ve had to buy over the years.

I like to leave Oakland after rush hour, around 10 a.m. or so, depending on where I’m driving. Napa is about an hour away; the Russian River Valley, 1-1/2 hours. Paso Robles is a solid 3 hours or even longer. There are certain bottlenecks that always threaten to slow down the trip. I-80, through Emeryville and Berkeley, is one; there’s no way of avoiding it; you just have to keep your fingers crossed. The 101 approaches to Santa Rosa are dependably jammed. Heading south, toward the Central Coast, the problem spot is the “Nasty Nimitz,” once voted the Bay Area’s most hated freeway. Once you break through to 101 South, at San Jose, things even out. But you can run into the odd jam anywhere.

I like the anonymity of travel, of being thrown, temporarily, off my routine.  There’s something to be said for not knowing anyone around you, and vice versa. I guess there’s an element of fantasy. Freed from regularity, you can experience the irregular, with all its tantalizing possibilities. But a wine writer never is completely alone on his travels. You meet with winemakers or P.R. people or the heads of regional wine associations, and of course with many other people, from chefs to mayors. You go to lunches and dinners or, alternatively, try to avoid them, because on such a trip it would be easy to find yourself invited to 4 lunches and 8 dinners each day, and there’s neither time, nor room in my stomach, for such grueling gastronomic gluttony. Sometimes, all I want is a supermarket broiled chicken, which I’ll devour holed up in my hotel room, watching TV. At Wine Enthusiast, I’m known as a “cheap” traveler, because of the frugality of my spending habits, acquired over a lifetime. This, of course, suits management.

I mentioned regional winery associations,  and now I want to praise them. I’ve always heard criticisms of them, but for myself have to say how helpful they’ve been, in so many ways. From Temecula and Santa Barbara northward through Paso Robles, Monterey, Napa, Sonoma, Lake County and up into Anderson Valley, you need only to pick up a phone or email the association chief, and your needs will be met: wines set up to taste, wineries made aware of your visit, meetings arranged, itineraries established. Thank you to the wine country regional associations from a grateful writer!

Sure, I’ve seen a million vineyards and bottling lines and barrel storage rooms, and have crushers and destemmers coming out of my ears. I’ve gotten mud in my sneakers in winter and dust on my boots during dry, parched summer. I’ve had the intricacies of cluster thinning and pumping over explained to me ad infinitum by an endless line of winemakers. Sometimes my eyes glaze over. But not always or even usually, for there is always something new to learn, some new personal connection to be made, and, of course, new wines to taste.

It’s with these thoughts that I set off this morning for three days in Paso Robles, where the Vintners & Growers Association is kindly arranging a large tasting, blind, of currently released red wines. I will try to blog from the road, not always an easy thing to do.

R.I.P. Ed McMahon


Friday Fishwrap

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Defining winery P.R. in a new era

Winery public relations used to be so simple. You got hired, usually on a retainer basis, to get your client’s name out there in the public sphere, with as spiffy an image as you could. It was a good way to make a living. But winery P.R. is hurting now. The recession has severely impacted it. I was talking the other day to the owner of a small winery P.R. firm who told me they’re worried about their financial future. They’ve lost clients, not because the firm isn’t well-regarded — it is — but because wineries themselves are hurting and many can no longer afford to keep a P.R. firm on retainer. When a winery has to cut costs, P.R. often is one of the first items to be slashed.

Meininger’s Business International reported yesterday on the “domino effect” of the worldwide economic slump on winery P.R. firms, as “activity budgets have been slashed and the incremental project work is simply not there. Vehicles such as the long lunch – led by a winemaker to showcase their range – are long gone.” (Well, the long lunch hasn’t entirely disappeared, but wineries aren’t doing as many as they used to. Or dinners.)

Another problem for standalone P.R. companies is that bigger wineries generally have in-house P.R. departments. I know a small P.R. company that recently lost a client, Bill Foley, because as his winery empire grows by leaps and bounds, he felt the need to bring the public relations in-house rather than continuing to farm it out.

Maybe the emergence of the wine blogosphere means that winery P.R. firms are no longer needed. That’s one theory, but I don’t buy it. I think, with such an explosive increase of in the number of potential platforms, it’s going to be more important than ever for wineries to hire savvy P.R. pros to help them break through all the noise and clutter and be visible.

And as if Parker didn’t have enough troubles,

Now the famous critic “has been ordered to stand trial in France next month for allegedly defaming a former assistant,” the Associated Press is reporting. The case is about a former assistant of his who wrote a book called (translated from the French): “Robert Parker: Anatomy of a Myth.”

And congratulations to…

Bailey Ungewitter, a Sebastopol gal who was just chosen as the Sonoma County Fair’s 2009 Miss Wine County Rodeo. Ride ’em, cowgirl!



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