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How bad is the California drought? Very bad

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We all know California’s in another historic drought, but until I checked the actual rainfall data, I had no idea how severe it really is.

From the desert southeast to the Pacific coast, on up to the Oregon border and out to the Sierra Foothills, the rainfall amounts are staggeringly low. And keep in mind, it’s June now: there’s not going to be another drop of water falling in California until next October or November, except, possibly, for a wandering summer monsoon that drops a quarter-inch in some rare place. And even that’s unlikely.

Check out these numbers:

Bakersfield: Season to date: 2.77” Normal to date: 6.33”

Los Angeles: Season to date: 5.80” Normal to date: 14.55”

San Diego: Season to date: 4.50” Normal to date: 10.07”

San Francisco: Season to date: 8.91” Normal to date: 23.22”

Oakland: Season to date: 7.61” Normal to date: 20.35”

San Jose: Season to date: 5.32” Normal to date: 15.50”

Eureka: Season to date: 27.25” Normal to date: 46.15”

You can see that rainfall this 2020-2021 season ranges from one-half to one-third of normal. That’s not just low, it’s insanely low. Already, wildfires have been erupting, not big ones—yet—but for them to happen in Northern California in May is shocking. We’ve been lucky because May was unusually chilly, and June is starting out that way too. But the heat waves are coming.

You can also get a sense of the drought’s severity from these flow charts for some California rivers.

The bar graphs compare this year’s flow with those of 2014 and 2015, when California was in the grips of “the two driest years of our driest drought,” according to the California Department of Water Resources. In other words, in 2021, we’re as starved for water as we were seven years ago, at the peak of the last severe drought.

Of course, California may be spared from great conflagrations this year. We may not have those big lightning events that can spark dozens of fires in a matter of hours. We may not have idiots who drop cigarettes in dry tinder. We may not have sociopathic arsonists who get their jollies by setting fires. But in all probability, it’s going to be a bad year. This is why our Governor, Gavin Newsom, announced he’s budgeting two billion dollars for fire prevention this year, doubling the previous amount. Cynics immediately said that Newsom is doing that because he’s facing a recall, but that’s a scurrilous charge. He’s going to win the recall handily—everyone knows it. He’s throwing money at fire prevention because it’s his job to save lives, property and wildlands.


CALIFORNIA’S DROUGHT: ROUND 3

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“Let’s face it, it’s over.”

That was the grim prognosis this morning from the T.V. weatherman. He was talking about the 2020-2021 rainy season in California. It’s been dry as a dog’s bone, and warm too. We hit 80 a couple times even here in cool, coastal Oakland.

How dry is it? The normal rainfall in San Francisco for the rainy season (Oct. 1-Sept. 30) is 23.65 inches. This season, we’ve had only 8.72 inches. April has seen no rain at all, and the long-range forecasts predict no rain for the remainder of the month—which is why the weatherman said it’s over. By the time May arrives, we’re entering the Dry Season. So whatever water the State of California is going to need for the next year has already fallen.

And California needs a lot of water, not only for our 40 million people but for agriculture. California supplies 13% of the total cash agricultural receipts in the U.S. It’s the sole producer (or very nearly so) of these crops: almonds, peaches, artichokes, kiwi, pomegranates, olives, dates, pistachios and rice, and in large part accounts for the nation’s greens and other row crops. These commodities not only keep food on American tables, they undergird the California economy. The current drought (which, in retrospect, has to be seen as a continuation of the drought that lasted from 2006 until 2017) threatens the state’s farms, and suggests a revival of the infamous Water Wars that have long plagued the state, as portrayed most dramatically in the movie Chinatown.

Already in the Bay Area, counties are warning residents and farmers to expect strict water controls this summer. For example, Santa Clara County—home to Silicon Valley—asked residents to step up water conservation, and hinted that mandatory water restrictions might become necessary. Last month, the state Department of Water Resources announced severe cutbacks in the amount of water available for the state from Sierra snow melt. The Department released data showing that the percentage of water equivalent in snow this year averages between 29% and 52% of normal, with the driest conditions in the south.

And then there’s the scariest aspect of this water shortage: wildfires. I don’t have to cite statistics. Anyone who has watched the news over the last 5 years knows how devastated California has been by these tremendous conflagrations that wipe out entire communities and destroy human lives. The drought, with its tinder-dry grasslands, can only bring about more and worse fires this year.

When I moved to California in 1978, the state was experiencing one of its worst droughts in history. The first thing I was told, concerning going to the bathroom, was, “If it’s yellow, it’s mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.” People back then were told not to wash their cars or water their lawns. We dutifully obeyed; the drought ended, and we got through it none the worse for wear. But now, the drought is back with a vengeance. With the current attitude among large segments of the populace of not trusting or listening to the advice, or even the pleading, of government—an attitude exacerbated by Republicans–I wonder if Californians will rally this summer, as we did 43 years ago.


Reflecting on the Golden Age of Wine Critics

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Michael Mondavi, whom I’ve known for a long time, invited me to lunch the other day. Over a leisurely meal of sushi at Ozumo in Oakland, our chat naturally ranged all over the board, wine-wise, but it certainly included a good deal of reminiscing.

Hey, that’s what you do when you reach a certain age!

Michael, who’s a few years older than I, told me many charming anecdotes about his Dad I’d never before heard. Surely Robert Mondavi’s legend will only continue to grow as his place in wine history—iconic and inimitable—becomes ever more heroic. Tinged throughout our conversation was a certain wistfulness that bordered on nostalgia. The “good old days” seemed just fine to us, although one does always have to keep in mind Proust’s epigram: “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”

Be that as it may, Michael prompted me to reflect on my time as a wine writer and critic, and it immediately became clear to me that I had lived through, and thoroughly enjoyed, being a part of the Golden Age of Wine Critics. One must be careful, too, of promiscuously applying the term “golden age” to things. There was a golden age of Greece, for sure, but the phrase contains a pejorative in its implication that the high point is over; never again will Greece be as spectacular as she was in 500-300 B.C.

We were long told that television’s golden age was in the 1950s: I Love Lucy, Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, Alfred Hitchcock, Gunsmoke, The Twilight Zone, and some of the greatest live drama ever on such series as Kraft Television Theatre and Playhouse 90. But some critics also celebrate the television of our current era as the golden age, with Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Homeland, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, The Sopranos and others too numerous to mention. So when was T.V.’s golden age–in the past, or is it all around us right now? One might paraphrase Zhou Enlai, the former Chinese foreign minister (under Chairman Mao), who, in reply to a query concerning his opinion of the French Revolution, said, “It’s too early to say.”

Still, I don’t think it’s too early to say that the years (roughly) from 1978 to 2008 were the Golden Age of Wine Critics. I date the start at 1978 because that is the year some of the major guidebooks to California wine first appeared; also the year Wine Spectator began gaining traction, and was in fact the year Robert Parker launched The Wine Advocate.

As for my end date, 2008, that was the year the Great Recession struck in all its force, with still unquantifiable repercussions in the wine industry; but more importantly 2008 marked the emergence of social media onto the American and world stage, as cultural pattern-shifters of major import. The important critics remained vital, but you could feel their importance fading among a younger generation that preferred the crowd-sharing intimacy of twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blogs to the sage counsel of older white Baby Boomer males pronouncing verdicts from lofty ivory towers.

Thus we had a span of thirty years, which is just about right for a cultural era, before it expends its energies and is replaced by some other paradigm. And it was my privilege to have been a successful part of that brief, shimmering illusion.

What a time it was! To have been at or near the center of vitality in the industry, especially here in California, which in many ways established itself as the center of the wine world. Not only in production, but in media, in the emergence of “celebrity winemakers,” in a wine-and-food culture especially along the coast, in wine getting interwoven into popular movies (Disclosure, Sideways), in wine becoming a huge public interest, when consumers needed all the help they could get figuring out what to buy, and we wine critics were more than happy to help them.

Never again, I suspect, will wine critics be treated with the reverence by producers as we were during those thirty years. We were courted and flirted with, wined and dined, as proprietors both wealthy and famous, and not-so-rich and obscure, sought the imprimatur of our good scores. We were interviewed by radio, television and magazine journalists seeking insight into our glamorous and esoteric lifestyles. We were asked to write books by major publishers, and trotted out as celebrities on the tasting and dining circuits. We were aware of that fact that a good review could deplete a particular wine overnight, while a bad one could jeopardize the owner’s ability to make payroll. We even, some of us, ended up in the movies.* We were part of an exclusive elite, and we knew it, although we tried to keep our fame in perspective. I did, anyhow: fame is fleeting, too soon gone, and containing nothing of value in itself, so that humility has much to recommend it.

I wonder how historical writers of the future will record this era of wine critics. Will they say the country went temporarily insane, giving so much power to such a motley crew? Will they view it as a necessary transition—sort of a set of training wheels–during which Baby Boomers went from near-total ignorance of wine to a near-obsession with it? Will there be a new golden age of wine critics that will be even more splendid than the old one? One thing’s for sure: no single wine critic will ever again enjoy the power that a handful of us did.

It was fun. Yet when I quit my job, on Sept. 2, 2016, I put the wine industry behind me forever. I think I left at exactly the right time: the torch was being passed, the times had changed, the practice of wine criticism was getting (for me) a little too baroque and stylized. And the playing field had definitely become mobbed. I personally like some elbow room. I have plenty of it, now. Goodbye, golden age of wine critics! It was a blast.

 

__________________________________________________________

 

* My brief appearance in Blood Into Wine

 

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1394383/fullcredits?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm

 

was the high point of my film career!


Are we overdue for a paradigm shift in wine?

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Copernican moments—also known as paradigm changes–don’t happen often. Change occurs constantly, but most changes shift reality only incrementally. Massive changes, the kind that set reality upside down, are fortunately few and far between—a good thing, otherwise life might prove unlivable. But, as Richard Mendelson, a Napa lawyer who recently interviewed Warren Winiarski, tells us, these Copernican moments are almost never foreseen, and can be identified only in retrospect. Such was the Paris Tasting of 1976, where Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, from the 1973 vintage, beat out a clutch of other wines, from both California and Bordeaux, in a blind tasting the consequences of which proved to be paradigm-shifting.

Copernican moments also can be personal rather than massively historical, and Winiarski describes his own falling-in-love-with-wine moment (which actually sounds a lot like mine: like me, Warren got bit by the wine bug in an unpredictable and mysterious way).

Warren, who worked early in his career for Robert Mondavi, describes another personal Copernican moment for himself: when Mondavi told him that a wine “must present itself to the eye by way of the building, making it esthetically pleasing, as much as it presented itself to the mouth.” I have never heard a Mondavi quote to that effect before, but it clearly sounds like something Robert Mondavi would have said; and when you think of the Cliff May-designed winery Mondavi caused to be built, it is indeed as esthetically pleasing as any winery in California, a delight to the eye, whose perfect lines and arches and earthy colors bring a sense of serenity and drama to the visitor even before she has had an opportunity to taste the wines. “No one,” Warren Winiarski says, “has looked at winery buildings after that the same way.”

This “esthetic experience,” Warren continues, “brought more than one sense into the experience of wine.” It brought, in fact, more than our five physical senses into the experience; it brought, and brings, an experience that is purely cerebral. Robert Mondavi understood that this meta-level experience might be the most important of all. How one feels about the wine one buys (or anything else one buys) is more than just the sum total of our sensory experiences. It’s about the feeling it evokes in us; and such feelings ultimately are irrational. They cannot be controlled. They can be prompted, and guided towards positive ends, but humans are not robots, and our feelings, evanescent and shifting, are what makes us distinctly human (among other things). Robert Mondavi knew that he wanted to influence our feelings. So has every other great winemaker in history. The best of them believed in the quality of their wine, of course, and worked very hard to ensure it; but they also understood that quality is not enough. A dubious or sated consumer has to be brought into the position where he can actually taste and appreciate that quality. Otherwise, what’s the point? And it does take a certain priming of the pump to get someone to appreciate quality: you have to make them believe that they are capable of appreciating it, and you have then to get them to take steps towards appreciating it, and you have to craft the entire environment within which the experience takes place so that it will increase the probability that the taster will experience quality in a high-minded way.

This, Robert Mondavi understood. It’s not a complicated message. But it can be distorted. Not everyone is as adept at crafting a message of power and subtlety as was Robert, and some overdo it to the point of caricature. Not every winemaker has thought the thing through, which is why not every chat with a winemaker, or every taste of wine, brings about a Copernican moment, even to those of us who are (believe it or not) looking for just such revelation. To expect it to is to demand the unreasonable. The thing that’s so exciting about the wine business at this time is that, while it suffers from a certain stasis, we know that someplace there exists another Robert Mondavi. Not that he will ever be replaced, but somewhere in this world there is a young man or woman, with a vision and the talents to communicate it, who will upset things in the wine world and cause a Copernican Moment to occur—not a small, personal one, but on a global scale, like the Paris Tasting.

What could that be? Who knows. But I have a feeling there’s one right around the bend. We won’t know until it happens, or shortly afterwards. That’s the thing about paradigm changes: you don’t see them coming. But it’s what keeps some of us alert and alive to news from the world of wine.


What are California’s greatest vineyards?

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What are California’s grand cru vineyards? Somebody at work asked me this question, for a project they’re working on, so it got me to thinking.

Some years ago, I wrote an article for Wine Enthusiast (which I no longer have available, alas) on California’s five greatest vineyards. Before I could make that determination, I had to define what I meant by “greatest.” There’s no objective definition; it’s purely subjective. Besides, there are so many fantastic, famous vineyards, you really have to cull the field to make your article manageable. So I decided on the following parameters:

  1. The vineyard must have a long, consistent history of producing great wines. (“Long,” by California standards.)
  2. Following #1, the vineyard probably will be known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (on the one hand) and Cabernet Sauvignon, on the other. (Sorry, other varieties, you lost out on that one.)
  3. The vineyard must not be the exclusive monopole of a single winery. Although it may primarily be associated with a single winery, it must also sell some of its fruit to other wineries. In this way, the vineyard’s name and fame are spread, and a fairer assessment can be made.

This last rule was a little controversial, I must admit. It excluded vineyards including Harlan’s Estate, or Screaming Eagle. But it left enough room for Beckstoffer-Tokalon, Pisoni, Sanford & Benedict, Bien Nacido and Rochioli to make the list. They all sell fruit to other wineries, they’ve all been around long enough to have established track records, and surely nobody would quibble about any of them.

Today, ten years later, I have mixed feelings about this sort of thing. The historian in me reveres the notion of great vineyards, Grands Crus, First Growths and the like. If you’re a wine geek with a penchant for reading about the history of wine, you know that certain vineyards always have been considered the greatest, from time immemorial.

On the other hand, part of me–the democratist–realizes that “grands crus” are not as rare as may once have been thought! In other words, they’re not exactly unicorns. With modern advances in viticulture and enology, vineyard managers are now able to deliver far more distinguished fruit, from far more sources, than ever before. Indeed, if we look to Mother France for a clue, we see a near-constant reshuffling of reputations in Bordeaux, for example: Second- and Third Growths now said to rival Firsts. In Burgundy, in Champagne, in many places, the traditional hierarchies are falling, as tastes change and opportunities arise for garagistes or for long-established wineries that are cleaning up their acts. I also know, as a media maven, that the reputation of the so-called top (or cult) vineyards often is based, not on objective quality, but on the decision of wine writers to include them on their “best” lists! With all due respect, Screaming Eagle is not the best Cabernet in Napa Valley. It’s one of dozens that are “the best.” There is no “best,” nor can there be, unless you are absolutely ideological about it and don’t care about fairness. So I’m somewhat loathe to say “These are California’s great vineyards,” because that implies that the rest of them—the 99 percent—are not great.

Still, I think there’s a useful purpose in trying to identify the top vineyards, although this has to be based on clearly spelling out your parameters, with all the caveats that this imprecise effort involves. It’s also fun: we all like reading about this stuff, don’t we? And so, dear readers, what are your nominations, and why?


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