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Monday Meanderings



To Napa today to explore the Coombsville region, where I’ve been only 2 or 3 times before. Although I’m armed with some pretty good directions, there’s an insecure part of me that always fears getting lost on these wine trips. Especially when it’s raining, as it will be today in Napa. Anyway, I’ve been tasting the wines from most of the producers from Coombsville lately and must say I’m impressed. I had only a vague notion of what that southeastern tip of Napa Valley is capable of. Now, I have a little more–which I hope will be augmented by today’s trip. I’ve always said, you can’t really appreciate terroir without walking it. I also love topo maps that show where the local weather influences come from (in Coombsville’s case, San Pablo Bay), but also how the lay of the land (in Coombsville’s case, the southern spur of the Vacas) helps shelter it from the winds of Carneros. Interesting stuff.

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Met up yesterday in San Francisco with two fine winemakers, Fintan Du Fresne, from Chamisal in the Edna Valley, and Michael Beaulac, who presides over Pine Ridge, in Napa Valley. A pleasure to taste through some of their latest releases, and also to learn a little more about their hopes and aspirations. I mentioned to Fintan that I don’t have a good understanding of the ageability of Edna Valley Pinot Noirs, so we’re going to try and get together a vertical of some of the wines from down there. Naturally, being with Fintan, the subject of screwtops came up, and I told him what a total non-issue it is for me. However, I understand that consumers remain puzzled. We writers are working on educating them, but it takes time.

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Thursday, I think, is Beaujolais Nouveau day, if I’m not mistaken. I haven’t had one in years, but I used to go to Kermit Lynch’s big parking lot party in Berkeley every Nov. 21, where he’d serve up vast quantities of that purple, slightly fizzy stuff, and serve it with what may be the best food to drink it with: grilled sausages. Here in California, Montevina used to make a Zinfandel Neuvo, using the carbonic maceration method, which was pretty much the closest to Beaujolais Nouveau we’ve ever had. (Am I forgetting someone else? I’m sure a faithful reader will remind me if I am.) That Montevina was a wine I loved! But alas, it didn’t seem too popular with the mass consumer market, and to the best of my knowledge Montevina discontinued it. Too bad; nice wine, and you could chill it. Yesterday, Fintan asked me what’s new in California wine, from my perspective. My immediate reaction: Two great vintages in a row (2012-2013) after two, and possibly three (counting 2009) difficult ones. But I added, also, that I find California to be in a very conservative mindset, vis a vis the wine industry. Not much innovation, like that Zinfandel Nuevo of long ago. I thnk the Recession scared the daylights out of producers, and when a producer is frightened, he’s loathe to try new things, instead doubling down on tried-and-true products.

If you’re in California–stay dry! But we need the rain.



Monday Meanderings: crop loads, Chinese wine and a student wine club

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It’s so interesting that the production of wine around the world fell to its lowest level in 37 years in 2012, due to dismal crops in France, Spain and Argentina. Contrast that with the all-time high, record grape crush last year in California, and it looks like good news for Golden State vintners who export their wines. But will it lead to spot shortages here in the U.S.?

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I’ve never tasted a Chinese wine. In fact, I wouldn’t even know where to buy one. I do a fair amount of shopping in Oakland’s Chinatown, but the only wines I see there are from the big California producers. But if I could try a Chinese wine, it would be Chateau Changyu. If it’s good enough for Berry Bros. & Rudd to sell it in London, then it must be pretty decent. The [British] Telegraph reports that the venerable British shop–314 years young–is “the first major British retailer to give tipples from [China] a permanent place on its shelves.”

I don’t know if Chateau Changyu is the same as the “Chateau Changyu-Castel” that Susan Kostrzewa, now Wine Enthusiast’s Executive Editor, reviewed back in 2007. She tasted 3 wines–a Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Gernischt–and gave them pretty mediocre scores. Maybe things have improved since then. We may be hearing more about this Chateau Changyu. It’s “the 10th largest winery in the world,” according to the winery’s website, and also is the 79th biggest company in the People’s Republic. If anybody wants to send me some samples, I’ll gladly accept them.

* * *

I’m going to be doing my annual wine tasting and educational seminar at the University of California Haas School of Business in a few weeks. They have a student wine club that has about 65 members. These kids are smart and curious and always ask great questions, which is why I like to go. This year, the club’s president told me the MBA candidates are really curious about how I view my job as a wine critic. Their other speakers this year have all been winemakers; as the president emailed me,

…there were two different schools of thought [among the winemakers], one positive and one negative. Some winery owners/ winemakers felt that critics have undue power. They brought up the “Parker-ization of wine”(and said they disliked it) and one of the wineries said they intentionally refuse to submit their wine to critics.  Another group said that critics play an important role because there is so much wine out there, it helps the public make educated purchases. This led to a discussion on what one should buy and brought up the question: “is it okay to buy bad wine if you like it?

These are issues of longstanding commentary here at, and I think most of my readers know where I stand. However, it’s important to keep in mind that a new generation mostly in their twenties hasn’t really digested the role and importance of critics, and has real questions about what we do, and about how they should behave with respect to us. Are we dinosaurs in the Age of Twitter, or are we experts worth heeding? I look forward to enlightening them on these points. As for “is it okay to buy bad wine if you like it?”, Wow. Where to begin? That could be the topic of an entire class.

Monday Meanderings


I’ll be in New York as you read this, at our big, annual Wine Star Awards ceremony, held at the historic Public Library on 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan. Wine Enthusiast announced the winners late last Fall. I’ll be introducing the one nominee I argued for who won this year: Bob Cabral, for winemaker of the year. I doubt if I have to tell anyone who reads my blog who Bob is, or why he so deserves this honor. But just in case, Bob is now the veteran (I think we can call him that) winemaker at Williams Selyem. That alone puts him in pretty rarified company, but the fact that he makes so many great wines is what makes him special.

Each of the editors at Wine Enthusiast has her or his own special area of coverage, and we nominate these people and argue for them to be the winner. I don’t nominate in each category. For example, I don’t know a whole lot about cocktails, so I wouldn’t weigh in on Mixologist of the Year. Nor do I know much about importers, so I leave that category to my betters. It’s fun to learn about these people when they deliver their acceptance speeches and also when we show the videos they prepared in advance. It makes me realize how huge the world of wine, beer and spirits is.

* * *

I want to apologize to Rick Bakas. He had just been hired as St. Supery’s Social Media Director back in July, 2009, when I reported that his salary would be $90,000 a year. I can’t remember where I came across that number–whether it had been officially announced or somebody I trusted told me. At any rate, Rick commented on a post I wrote last week: “…you lost my trust in 2009 when you inaccurately publicly shared my salary at St. Supéry…”. It was the first time I learned that he’d been upset after all those years. If his salary was not public knowledge, I had no right to make it so; and if the number was incorrect, then I misrepresented a fact. Either or both ways, I’m sorry that I lost Rick’s trust, and I hope to earn it back.

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Maybe I shouldn’t admit it, but I’m a fan of The Bachelor. I probably would never have even heard of it, but last year, I did a little story about Ben Flajnik, who is this year’s Bachelor, because he was then a contestant on ABC-TV’s “The Bachelorette.” Ben is a partner in a Sonoma County winery, Envolve, which made it a wine cum celebrity story, the kind that can be fun to write every once in a while for a hardcore wine guy like me. Anyway, I’m not much of a reality TV fan (with the exception of Project Runway), but once I got to know Ben, it was hard not to watch the shows. It was like, Hey, I know that guy! And once I started watching them, I quickly got addicted.

Who’s gonna “get” Ben? Monica seems to have the inside track, but you never know. And who knows how much of this reality show is “real” and how much is made up by the writers and producers? Anyway, if any of the ladies ends up marrying Ben, she’s lucky: she’s not only getting a great guy, she’ll be living in beautiful Sonoma County (or, possibly, San Francisco, which is where Ben hangs his hat for now), and living the wine life. Nothing wrong with that!

Monday Meanderings


I do not make this stuff up, people. “Hormel is positioning Spam in China” to sell as “a cult brand…a premium product.”

Hmm. The perfect pairing, I would think, is Lafite, mixed with Coca Cola.

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My home town of Oaksterdam had our wonderful annual Urban Wine Experience on Saturday down at Jack London Square, on the Estuary. It was the best one yet, with 21 wineries participating, and practically as many restaurants. All that for $40. I’m happy when Oakland has something good to talk about, instead of all the crap the media always jumps on.

* * *

Isn’t it time California flat-out legalized marijuana?

We’ve already legalized it for medical reasons. Now, since so many people smoke it anyway, and it’s not particularly a health risk, let’s just go ahead and decriminalize it. Our jails are bursting at the seams, last May the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the state to decrease the inmate population, and the most obvious way to to that is to stop busting people for possessing pot. This new measure trying to get onto the ballot would not only legalize pot, it would tax it, which sure would help with California’s budget deficit. I can’t imagine why anyone in their right mind would object to treating marijuana exactly the same way we treat alcohol.

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I had mixed feelings on learning that the Seghesios have sold their family winery. I’ve followed them for a long time. As a matter of fact, Pete, Jr., was a big part of my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, and his cousin, Ted, had a whole chapter in my second book, New Classic Winemakers of California. Great wines, great people, a noble family legacy. In the Press Democrat interview, Pete, Jr. sounds relieved to no longer have the burden of shouldering all that responsibility (he now “just works” there; Crimson Wine Group will run the place). But I have to believe there’s some Kübler-Rossian stages of grief going on. I wish that life was fair, and that a wonderful family winery like Seghesio could just go on an on, always getting stronger, and rewarding the stakeholders. But life isn’t fair. Pete, Jr. hit the nail on the head when he spoke of “brands stuck in the middle [that]…have large challenges.” Seghesio wasn’t big enough to command the attention of distributors, and wasn’t small enough to be a cult little niche player. All they were was a great mid-sized winery putting out some of the best Zinfandels in California. I hope and assume Crimson, which has been assembling quite an impressive little portfolio since its founding about 4 years ago, realizes what a treasure it has in Seghesio, and will invest whatever’s necessary to keep it at the top.

Monday meander: Pinot Noir and Lot18


It wasn’t inevitable that I could wrap my head around a low alcohol California Pinot Noir, for the simple reason that low alc Pinots historically haven’t been very good. They’ve been overcropped, thin little things, showing more tannins and tobacco than fruit. When California learned how to make Pinot Noir rich, it did so by making them ripe, hence my years of high scores for Pinot Noirs in the 14.5% and up category. I relished the richness and opulence of, say, Goldeneye, Merry Edwards and Lynmar, none of which have been shy in alcohol. I liked the weight, the velvety mouthfeel, the density, not to mention the marvelous fruits that rolled through the finish. These were Pinot Noirs I thought were serious, and they merited serious scores.

Then there is another expression of Pinot Noir that clocks in under 13.9%. Copain 2009 Monument Tree, many if not most of Au Bon Climat’s and Babcock’s, a Lioco 2009 Hirsch that’s a mere 13.5%, ditto for a Tyler 08 Clos Pepe. Yesterday I tasted and reviewed Ghostwriter 2009 Woodruff Family Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the Santa Cruz Mountains, that was 13.5%. These wines are considerably lighter than the 14.5% and up boys. Paler, too. But they are very good and deserve their high scores. It made me wonder how one Pinot Noir could be pale and light-bodied and boring while another can be pale and light-bodied and scrumptious. It’s all about stuffing, isn’t it? And that’s the glory and genius of great Pinot Noir–how it can be the most ethereal thing you’ve ever tasted, and also at the same time be explosive. With Pinot Noir as with no other variety does my vocabulary struggle to come up with oxymorons: delicate power, airy potency, silky depth. I’m not saying my palate preference is moving away from the 14.5% crowd, as many other critics seem to be doing. I’m just saying I’m gaining a new appreciation for a lower alcohol Pinot Noir that manages to be at the same time complex and rich. These cool vintages we’ve been having may give us more of them in years to come.

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I’ve been keeping my eye on Lot18 lately. That’s the website that sells a handful of wines at deep discount for a limited period of time. I’ve been hearing about it, and then on Sunday (yesterday) Jon Bonné had an article on Lot18 on the front page of the Chron’s Food & Wine Section called “A wine site flexes its muscle.” Jon had generally good things to say about it, although he did point out that Lot18’s offerings can be “a release valve for inventory.” Jon also nailed something Lot18 does that only a practiced eye, like Jon’s, would catch: that the critical reviews may “bypass a rating for a blurb on the vineyard or winemaker–not the specific wine.” The example Jon uses is when he quotes Philip James, Lot18’s (and Snooth’s) founder, as claiming it’s okay to say a wine was made by “the same guy who made Robert Mondavi’s Cabernet” even though the wine in question isn’t a Mondavi. It’s almost like saying, “This Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is actually made within sight of the famous Williams Selyem Winery.” It’s glitter-by-association and has nothing to do with the actual wine in the bottle.

It’s also troubling to me that so many of Lot18’s reviews are by the wine’s winemaker–for example, Marco DiGiulio, on Hidden Ridge’s 2006 55% Slope Cabernet Sauvignon. I grant that $25 is a good deal off the wine’s release price of $40. But I reviewed that wine in April, 2010. Here’s what I wrote, in part: “It may be a little too ripe for its own good, though, as it’s pretty jammy. For some reason, the winery lowered the price considerably from the 2005, which was a much better wine.” Not having tasted the wine lately, I can’t say I like it or not. But I wouldn’t pay $25 for it without an assurance it was fresh and complex and has benefited from the extra 14 months in bottle. This does seem to be, to requote Jon, an “inventory valve.” There’s a place for such practices, but caveat emptor has to be the guideline for consumers.

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