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Winter is coming to California

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When I lived in the Green Mountains of Vermont the summers were long and warm but there was always a day—a particular moment, actually—when unexpectedly the air let you know that winter wasn’t far off.

It could have been in October, a lovely afternoon except that, suddenly, the leaves on the maples rustle and a chill hits the skin. There might be many weeks of Indian Summer to come, but the reminder is timely: Old Man Winter is coming.

In coastal California, the sign is subtler, but it’s there, and I felt it yesterday. I don’t think I’ve put on long pants for the last 5 or 6 months, nor have I often needed any outerware like a hoodie, except maybe when walking Gus early in the morning; but yesterday, it was long pants and a flannel shirt all day. It wasn’t particularly cold by Eastern standards: the high was around 65 degrees. But we Californians have thinner blood than those hardy New Englanders, and even 65 can feel cold, if you’re in a shadowed place with wind. You can feel the icebergs in the Aleutians. Winter is coming to us, too.

It’s been an incredible spring, weather-wise. The upside for us humans has been six months of dry, mild-to-warm-to-hot weather (at least here in Oakland), with very little fog–clear evidence of a changing climate. There were many, many days when I thought no place on Earth could have better weather than what we were having in Oakland. The downside, of course, has been the Fires and the resultant smoke (I capitalize “Fires” because of their historical import: 4 million acres burned so far—five times the size of Rhode Island, and more than double the previous record). The damage has been appalling. In Napa alone, 31 wineries, restaurants (including Meadowood) and resorts up in smoke.

As an old wine journalist whose stomping ground was Napa Valley, this makes me very sad. Some very famous names are gone. The arrival of cool weather is welcome news to the firefighters. There have been weather forecasts the last few days about possible rain this weekend, but I just checked the latest weather reports and they’re backing off, saying only that it will be partly cloudy. There is a storm up there in the Pacific Northwest, but its southern edge will reach down only to around Eureka, near the Oregon border—a classic weather pattern for this time of year. We’re going to have to wait a bit longer for the first rains in six months to hit Northern California. It will warm up again next week, but fortunately, nowhere near the triple digits that inland areas have experienced this summer and autumn.

For all the grief in Napa Valley—and it’s substantial—there’s also a lot of optimism. Many of those people have money and will rebuild. The vineyards that burned will take longer to restore, of course, but they’ll come back eventually. One should keep in mind that Old Europe’s wine country, from Bordeaux and Burgundy and Champagne to the German regions, have experienced 1,000 years of wars, plagues, plant diseases and economic collapses, but no matter how tough things get, those regions have survived and, most of the time, thrived. This isn’t to underplay the disaster of the Fires, but only to put things into perspective. Napa Valley, and Sonoma too (which was less affected this year) will get by, and rise again.

And from the consumer’s point of view (and that’s what I am, a consumer), the Fires might have the desired effect of lower prices on wine. I’ve never understood how a bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet could be $300 or even higher in many cases. When hundred-dollar Cabs became numerous in the 1990s, I scratched my head and wondered how it had happened. But wine pricing is one of the most irrational economic phenomena in the world. It’s completely based on supply and demand, not inherent quality; and wine’s appeal is as much to the ego and the imagination as it is to the senses. People lust after certain wines, which then become “first growths,” and their prices soar accordingly. People who can no longer afford them settle for the second most expensive, and those are the “second growths,” and so on, down the line. Thus are wine hierarchies, like Bordeaux’s, created. But as a reading of Penning-Rowsell’s “The Wines of Bordeaux,” with its price charts over the centuries, attests, prices go up rapidly and fall equally rapidly, in a cycle as dependable as the West Coast’s weather patterns.

And now—not to mix topics—on to the Election! Vote! And vote Blue. We mus stop this crazed, dangerous president and the religious fanatics who prop him up.


Napa Valley Cabernet: an endangered species?

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For many years I’ve watched as the price of Napa Valley wine has gone up—and up—and up—until it reached the stratosphere. And then it continued to go up.

Even twenty years ago, I wondered who was buying all that expensive Cabernet Sauvignon. I can’t remember when prices first hit triple digits—I think it was in the 1980s. But once they did, no respectable Napa winery wanted to be the last to retail for at least $100.

At the height of my working career as a critic, when I was paid to keep track of such things, I’d note every new, expensive brand that came on the market. I soon concluded that most were vanity projects: their owners were very rich, and they wanted “in” on the Napa Valley lifestyle that was so highly touted by aspirational magazines. You, too, could have the big mansion, set in a picturesque vineyard, surrounded by blooming gardens, with an azure-blue swimming pool, a grand deck complete with gigantic outdoor grilling station, and Napa’s beautiful mountains soaring in the distance. And all you needed was maybe $10 million to get started.

At one point (I think it was in the early 2000s) I did a count of all the $100-plus wines in Napa Valley, and the total was well into the hundreds. I began to wonder, “Who’s buying all that Cab?” It was easy to understand that the critically-acclaimed cult Cabs (Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Bryant, Colgin, Dalla Valle, and so on) were desired by many wealthy collectors, but what about the hundreds of lesser-known brands? Every week seemed to bring a new family winery with a fill-in-the-blank back story:

Pete, together with his lovely wife Maggie, made a fortune in (computers, engineering, construction, oil, stocks) but there was something missing in their comfortable life. In (date), they bought a small property in (Rutherford, Pritchard Hill, Oakville, Spring Mountain, Atlas Peak) and planted some Cabernet. Now, they produce some of Napa Valley’s most coveted wines, assisted by their consulting winemaker (Michel Rolland, Heidi Barrett, Andy Erickson, Mark Aubert, Phillippe Melka)…

The stories all ran together; so did the wines. They were functionally interchangeable, 95-pointers that all tasted the same. It was impossible to answer the question, “Who’s buying all that wine?” just as it was impossible to answer the question, “Is the winery actually making money?” I suspected, even by 2000, that many, if not most, of these vanity wineries were not profitable, but were kept alive by their owners’ personal fortunes.

The other day, a friend emailed asking my opinion about reports that sales of California wines are weak, with a troubling future. Was it tariffs? Younger consumers wanting something “natural” and eccentric? The greater popularity of craft beer and spirits? I replied, “All the above—plus the fact that California wine, driven by Napa prices, is just too damned expensive!”

And now comes this report, via Wine-Searcher, that “California’s top producers might be pricing themselves out of the market,” with the top culprit being Napa Valley wine.

The article was based on a new report whose startling conclusion was this: “The demand for Napa Valley wines is flat and heading toward a decline. Last year, this report speculated that price increases at Napa wineries may have finally priced out enough buyers to curtail growth. It now seems this is likely the case.”

Will 2020 be the year that Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon experiences a price crash? It’s in the self-interest of the producers to prevent this, so I expect they’ll do everything in their power to hold on. But if this represents a permanent trend, how long can they keep on? Will their heirs be content to underwrite a losing proposition, just so they can sit around the pool watching the sun set over the Mayacamas?

One interesting development was the purchase earlier this week of Flora Springs by the Bordeaux winery, Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte. Flora Springs was, back in the day, a highly respected winery. (One of the first articles I ever wrote for Wine Spectator was a profile of them.) They had exquisite vineyards on the Rutherford Bench, and produced various Cabernets and Bordeaux blends that were very good. But Flora Springs, like so many other wineries, gradually saw competition arising all around them: no longer a darling boutique winery, but one of hundreds to choose from. The ownership was quite wealthy (of course), but Flora Springs was precisely the kind of winery I wondered about. “How are they doing? How long can they hold on?”

Well, now they’ve sold. The question isn’t whether the ownership was or wasn’t making money, it’s “Why does Smith Haut Lafitte think Flora Springs is a good investment?” (Their purchase doesn’t include the brand or “Napa Valley vineyard sources,” according to the article.) One thinks of the Bordelais as very astute businessmen—after all, they’ve managed to stay at the top of the heap for multiple centuries. So there must be something Smith Haut Lafitte sees in Napa Valley.

At the same time, I remember when the Woltner family, heirs of Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion, started a winery back in the late 1980s. Chateau Woltner was in the Vacas, on the east side of the Silverado Trail, on lower Howell Mountain. They put out a Chardonnay that was then the most expensive ever in California. It was pretty impressive: Bordeaux Second Growth invests in Napa Valley! What could go wrong?

Well, everything. The brand didn’t last for very long. It was sold for $20 million in 2000.

I don’t know what eventually happened to the Chardonnay vineyards, nor do I care. The point is, just because a French Bordeaux family buys a Napa Valley winery doesn’t guarantee its success. The eventual outcome of Flora Springs will depend on the continuing popularity of Napa Valley Cabernet and Bordeaux blends; and if this category is pricing itself out of existence, there’s little anyone can do to save it. Of course, as we know from Eddie Penning-Rowsell’s classic The Wines of Bordeaux, prices of Bordeaux have been a roller-coaster ride for centuries: sometimes way up, sometimes way down. But Bordeaux persists. Maybe Napa’s future will be as tumultuous.


A wine review, and an Overview of Napa Cabernet

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Nickel & Nickel 2009 C.C. Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley). The C.C. Ranch is in the eastern Rutherford appellation, just west the Silverado Trail, near the hilly knolls of Quintessa. It’s a younger vineyard, with planting starting in 2000 to Cabernet Sauvignon. The gravelly soils are well-drained. Nickel & Nickel gets a portion of the grapes of the 115-acre vineyard.

When I first reviewed this wine, in 2012, it was disagreeably hard in tannins—a trait that marks all of Nickel & Nickel’s single-vineyard Cabernets. Which suggests aging. So how’s this 100% Cab doing?

Splendidly. The tannins are still there, but they’ve grown softer and melted. The youthful blackberry, cherry, plum and raisin flavors, liberally enriched with oak and tangy spices (anise, Chinese 5 spice), are turning the corner into secondary character: dried fruits, cassis, dark chocolate, enlivened with acidity. With a complex, long finish, it argues the case for aging high-quality Napa Valley Cabernet; a decade is a good guideline. Does it have a future? Yes. Already throwing sediment, it should continue to glide through the next ten years. But right now is a good time to pop the cork. Score: 95.

My review of this Cabernet opens up the wider question of the role of Napa Valley Cabernet in today’s world. The glamor, I think, that haloed Napa Cab from the 1960s until the end of the century has largely faded. Like a famous movie star in her time—Garbo, Bergman, Dietrich—its luster necessarily diminishes. And yet, Napa Cab has achieved what its pioneers always dreamed of: reputational parity, or nearly so, with classic European wines: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, German Riesling. The words “Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon” finally signify something important, coveted and expensive.

Still, Napa Cab suffers from limitations that do not impact classic European wines. For starters, Napa Cab is notoriously difficult to pair with food. It can be done, of course: if you go to a steakhouse, chances are you’ll see a lot of Napa Cabernet on the wine list. But people are eating less beef these days. Between 2000 and 2017, beef consumption in the U.S. declined significantly, by 15.5%.

People are turning away from beef, in favor of lighter meats (chicken, pork, lamb) or plant-based foods. And the fact is that Cabernet is not a particularly deft partner for lighter meats. It swamps poultry, while for pork or lamb, lighter reds, such as Pinot Noir, and even white wines, are far more amenable.

I suspect that my experience with Cabernet Sauvignon is similar to that of many other Americans. I drink it less and less (even though I have a lot in my cellar), simply because it’s too heavy for my eating habits. (I also drink far less Cabernet in the summer, for that very reason.) Napa Cabernet is high in alcohol, relative to other dry red table wines, which is another reason to reduce my consumption of it. I’m not a Millennial, but my hunch, based on anecdotal information including my observation of “hot” wine bars in the San Francisco Bay Area, is that Millennials (Gen Y) and Gen Z (at least, those old enough to legally consume alcohol) are not drinking Cabernet Sauvignon. They’re looking for lighter, more interesting wines from around the world, not something expensive and heavy, which their parents and grandparents drank. Having said this, I’m aware that Cabernet Sauvignon, as an international varietal wine, is the most popular red wine in America, by far. But that’s everyday Cabernet, under $20 or so—the polar opposite of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: the former Toyota, the latter Porsche.

Napa Cabernet will be around for a long time, but I think it has now entered a period of stasis. It will rest on its laurels, enjoying its exalted status, but its best, most exciting days are behind, at least here in the U.S. This has long been foreseen by Napa wineries, at least those capable of forward-looking vision, which is why so many have labored for so long to establish overseas markets. But export markets aren’t a silver bullet: Trump’s tariff wars threaten the foreign importation of U.S. wines.

So if you’re a Napa Cabernet producer, what do you do? For one thing, you’re grateful you have a personal fortune (which is practically a prerequisite for owning a Napa winery). Your money will allow you to continue in business, despite headwinds, for some time to come. But your money can’t compel consumers to buy the product you’re selling, and eventually, for many upscale Napa producers, getting bought out by a large company is the only way out (Cf. the Pahlmeyer-Gallo deal).

Don’t get me wrong: as my review of the Nickel & Nickel ’09 C.C. shows, it is a fabulous wine. I enjoyed reviewing it, and, afterwards, drinking the remainder with a perfect hamburger I made myself, using good ground beef with 20% fat content. But that was the first hamburger I’d made at home in years; it was only the second hamburger I’d eaten in years, and in fact, the reason I chose to make a hamburger was because I wanted something to drink the wine with, and a hamburger seemed a healthier alternative to steak. None of my “normal” dinners (grains, vegetables, chicken, salmon, omelets) would have been suitable for such a rich wine, sweet in fruit and oak, and thick in tannins. And so, all those other older bottles of Napa Cabernet will remain in my cellar until the next time I chose to make a hamburger, much less a steak. All of which makes drinking my Napa Cabs, frankly, problematic…


“Parkerization” is not a myth or a lie

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Lisa Perrotti-Brown surprised no one with her glowing defense of her “greatest mentor,” Robert M. Parker Jr., which she published the other day, on the occasion of Parker’s “immediate” retirement from The Wine Advocate, the periodical he founded in 1978.

That Parker was the most famous and influential wine critic of the last 35 years, as Perrotti-Brown writes, cannot be disputed. In making the following arguments, I cite my own position: as the lead California critic for Wine Enthusiast Magazine for many years, I had a privileged seat at the high table of wine criticism—a seat that enables me to make these observations with some degree of eye-witness veracity.

I would not challenge a single word of Ms. Perrotti-Brown’s encomium. Bob Parker absolutely was “the father of modern wine criticism”; he did indeed “raise the bar” for all of us who followed. But where I part ways with Perrotti-Brown is in her unfettered denial that Parker created an “international style” of ripe, high-alcohol wines. This is not a “big lie,” as she asserts, but the pure, unadulterated truth—and everybody in the wine industry knows it.

Perrotti-Brown has been trying to undo or obfuscate this truth about the “Parkerization of wine” for years. Last June, she wrote her piece de résistance on the topic, a robust rebuttal that does not stand up to scrutiny. Parkerization is “a myth,” she says. It is “a lie.” Its effect on wine is “purported.” Yes, Parker’s reign, she admits, coincided with a time when “wineries…developed styles that fit the trend” of riper, fruitier wines. But “it was not Parker who created the trend, consumers did.” Those who continue to decry Parkerization and the international style, she states, are merely seeking “a villain.” Wine writers who dare to suggest that Parkerization is real are just “looking for something to write about that attracts more viewers.”

These are patronizing, insulting remarks that Perrotti-Brown did not have to make. But she did, and they need to be addressed. I’m certainly not looking to “attract more viewers” by writing these words, and I never thought Parker was a “villain.” I admire the man tremendously. But I was there, in the front row, watching this whole phenomenon unroll, from the early 1980s until I formally retired from wine criticism in 2013 (and even since then I’ve kept my eye on the scene). And I can state with clear conscience that Parkerization was and is real.

We all know that alcohol levels in wine rose drastically during Parker’s era. Bordeaux, Burgundy and California in particular, as well as the Rhône, saw these increases—all regions Parker specialized in. During my heyday (and Parker’s as well), alcohol levels in California Cabernet Sauvignon, especially from Napa Valley, soared. Frequently, levels of more than 15% were seen, and many of us—aware of the fudge factor the Federal government allows in wine labeling—suspected that a Cabernet of official 15.5% strength might in reality be in excess of 16%. This is not a “myth” but a fact.

Why did it happen? Perrotti-Brown says that “consumers created the trend.” That is a misstatement. Consumers do not create such trends in wine; they respond to them. Consumers enjoyed wine before the Parker era when alcohol levels were between 11% and 13%. There is no evidence that a consumer uprising occurred in the 1980s, in which these consumers demanded riper, higher-alcohol wines. Talk about “myths”!! It simply didn’t happen.

What did happen was that wine periodicals, like The Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator, assumed a far greater importance than ever before, as a maturing and wealthier Baby Boomer generation realized it needed help figuring out what to buy (and cellar) among the thousands of competing brands. Parker’s Wine Advocate wasn’t the first to fill that market niche, but it was the most successful and influential. The 1982 Bordeaux vintage, which Parker lionized, did indeed cement his reputation. After that, he was golden.

I can’t prove the following assertion but I strongly believe it: wine critics who became well known after Parker’s rise, including James Laube, James Suckling and myself, felt they had to praise the same sorts of wine as did Parker. This may not have been a conscious thought on their part; but wine critics don’t work in a vacuum. The handwriting on the wall was very clear by the late 1980s: Parker was giving huge scores to wines like Groth’s 1985 Reserve (the first California wine to get 100 points from him). With each high score, not only the winery’s reputation was boosted, but Parker’s, as well. Wine writers took note! The concept that big, fruity, high-alcohol Cabernets were better than their thinner, less ripe but often more elegant counterparts became entrenched. No wine critic is immune to his environment; like artists, they are affected by their contemporaries. There has got to be a scale or continuum of hedonism in criticism; otherwise, criticism makes no sense; and what Parker bequeathed the rest of us was to define the upper scale of this continuum.

This is what is meant by “Parkerization.” Parker himself never denied his personal preference for big wines; he simply recoiled from what he felt was the smear of calling them “Parkerized.” And now, his successor at Wine Advocate, Perrotti-Brown, has picked up the mantle of outraged indignation. But I really don’t see why. Why is it so irksome to her (and to her “greatest mentor”) that Parker had this impact on wine? The only reason I can surmise—and it’s just my guess—is because Perrotti-Brown shares to some degree the belief common among younger (and some older) critics and sommeliers that some wines have indeed become too ripe, too alcoholic; and to the extent there’s a reason for this, it’s because of Robert Parker and the Wine Advocate.

History will be the final judge of all this. Does anyone doubt that History will record that Parkerization and the international style he inspired were real and not fake news? Meanwhile, Perrotti-Brown should calm down. The more she denies the reality of Parkerization—the lady doth protest too much–the more defensive she appears. As for Bob Parker, I salute you, sir, and–speaking as one whose retirement preceded yours–I welcome you to our ranks, and wish you peace and health!


Thursday throwaway: Drink while you shop, and cookie-cutter Napa Valley Cab

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It hasn’t come to my local Whole Foods yet, but it looks like it’s on the way: “Sip ‘n Shop.” According to yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, that’s where “Some high-end supermarkets are turning into neighborhood watering holes. Many have set aside space for wine bars…Some stores encourage shoppers to ‘sip ‘n shop,’ drinking while pushing a shopping cart for a more relaxed shopping experience.”

I had mixed reactions when I read the article. On the one hand it’s really cool and very European to be able to have a nice glass of wine while you’re shopping. On the other hand it’s clear why some of these high-end supermarkets are doing it: a “more relaxed” shopper is a shopper who will be more relaxed about spending more money. I think it’s also a little concerning that if this tendency spreads, we’ll have more cars on the road driven by people who are a little tipsy.

Still, on balance, how civilized it is, being able to shop leisurely while sipping something. When you think about it, we’ve historically compartmentalized the different culinary parts of ourselves: we eat food and drink wine at restaurants and bars, while we buy food and wine at retail outlets. Who says you can’t blur the lines and combine the two?

* * *

Had lunch yesterday with an old friend who’s sort of a representative for small wineries. He hooks them up with distributors, who then resell to their on- and off-premise clients. My friend was telling me about one Napa Valley winery he represents that makes quite a good mountain-grown Cabernet that retails for $80. As soon as he began telling me this, I thought, “Uh oh.” That’s because there’s about a gazillion Napa Valley Cabs in that price range that are quite good, meaning that if I were scoring them, I’d give them at least 90 points.

It is as easy as falling off a log to make a 90-point Napa Cabernet Sauvignon these days, which is why there are so many of them. And that’s the problem: the market for these types of wines is limited, and yet supply is constantly expanding, as more and more people with a little money come in and buy themselves a lifestyle.

My friend was telling me he’s trying to think up innovative ways to interest buyers in this Cab, but honestly, it’s like Sisyphus pushing that rock uphill. There are a lot of cookie-cutter Napa Cabs out there, and the fact that none of these newer ones has a particularly interesting story doesn’t make selling them any easier. I mean, what is the tableside conversation between a somm and the customer? “This winery is owned by a [fill-in-the blank, Silicon Valley venture capitalist, mortgage king, neurosurgeon, engineer, Hollywood mogul, professional athlete]. It was made by [fill-in-the-blank, famous consulting winemaker],” blah blah blah, Tweedledum and Tweedledee. When I used to taste these wines for Wine Enthusiast, pretty much on an everyday basis, I was able to appreciate them for their beauty and richness, the sheer sense of drama they convey. They can be gorgeous. But after a while there were so many of them that I started wondering, “Where the heck do all these people sell all these wines?” I figured that a lot of the owners were so rich, they didn’t care if they sold anything, because they could afford to keep the winery going for years, and besides, it gave them immense bragging rights to their friends to be able to say that they got 91 points from Enthusiast, or 90 points from Spectator, or 92 points from Advocate, or 93 points from Galloni, whatever. So, like I said, as soon as my friend gave me the bare outlines of his Napa client, I smelled trouble. In so many respects, Napa Valley has become a vanity playground for outsiders who want to be able to own a Cabernet winery. They all claim to be unique but they’re not, not by a long shot. I don’t envy my friend his job. And, hey, I’m not talking about the really truly unique Napa Cabs that are out there, the 95-pointers and above. Maybe this just indicates that Napa has reached a certain level of maturity, like Bordeaux. Yet I still wonder who’s buying all these Cabs, $80 and above, into the triple digits.


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