Reflecting on the Golden Age of Wine Critics

 

 

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 overdo for a paradigm shift in wine?

 

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.

Thinking about history, while it’s being made all around us

  In these dog days of summer, with dangerous wildfires burning up and down the coast, and the country in a state of political hallucination, I retreat into the pleasanter realms of wine history, where everything is neat, tidy and comprehensible.

Well, almost. Dan Berger’s recent column on Santa Barbara wine history ignores one of the Founding Fathers of modern-day viticulture and winemaking in that county, H.W. “Bill” Collins, whose Tepusquet Creek vineyard was planted as far back as 1964, according to the historian Leon Adams, in his signature 1973 book, The Wines of America. It was Collins, Adams tells us, who planted 100 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Johannisberg Riesling, Sylvaner and Chardonnay “on virgin land in a sparsely populated area where nobody had ever tried to grow grapes before.”

That area was, of course, the Santa Maria Valley, and specifically a high bench of the San Rafael Mountains above the winding Sisquoc River, 20 miles inland from the sea. Those first grapes, Adams reports, were bought by the old Mont La Salle winery, belonging to Christian Brothers, in Napa Valley; the winemaker who bought them was then-Brother Justin Meyer, who famously went on to found Silver Oak. Meyer, says Adams, “said the wines were of superior quality.”

One wonders what the Cabernet tasted like. Back then, more than fifty years ago, growers had little idea which varieties to plant in which locales. The notions of site-specificity, terroir and even of climate regions were little developed. In their place, the Marketplace ruled; growers planted what they thought would sell, and they planted it anywhere they could. Today, of course, practically nobody would think to plant Cabernet Sauvignon in the Santa Maria Valley, where the average summer temperature is barely in the mid-70s; Cabernet doesn’t get ripe there (which is why Santa Barbara vintners developed the more inland Happy Canyon region). As for Sylvaner, I don’t know if it would ripen in the Santa Maria Valley, but who cares? Nobody would buy it anyway; maybe a somm here and there. Instead, the valley has become a hotbed (pardon the pun) of Pinot Noir, but fifty years ago, only a clairvoyant could have known that Pinot would become a superstar.

History is a very important thing to “get right” but it’s all too easy to get it wrong, or at least to omit the details, like that of Collins planting his vineyard well before the other vintners Berger mentions (Mosby, Zaca Mesa, Firestone, Fess Parker) planted theirs. Having said this, as one who’s done a lot of historical wine reporting over the years, I’m the first to testify how hard it can be to pin down the facts. My own employer, Jackson Family Wines, who owns the Tepusquet Vineyard, on their own website states that the vineyard “was planted between 1970 and 1971.” But whether or not the Tepusquet Vineyard was or is the same thing as the Tepusquet Creek vineyard of which Adams wrote, I have no idea. A tantalizing hint is contained in this reporting from The Prince of Pinot, who states that a certain “Bill Collins” was—not the owner, but the vineyard manager of that original vineyard, which was owned by Uriel Nielson and Bill De Mattei. (The Prince of Pinot article agrees that the planting dates to 1964.) And Uriel Nielson, we know, planted his eponymous vineyard, now owned by Byron (also a Jackson property) in 1964. Coincidence? Was Nielson’s Tepusquet Creek vineyard that which today is known as Nielson?

All this at any rate suggests how slippery history can be, an alarming thought when we consider Santayana’s prescient warning (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”) and also how certain politicians in this country try to take cynical advantage of certain people’s ignorance in order to launch themselves into power. An ignorant fool is always more susceptible to the snake oil of a charlatan than an educated man or woman, who cannot be persuaded by some charlatan’s blatant lies on Twitter. An ignorance of wine history, fortunately, is not nearly so dangerous to the republic as ignorance of political and cultural history. But still, ignorance, in any field, never is a good thing. One might object—it certainly is feasible—that it hardly matters who planted what, when; what counts is how the wines are today. That is certainly true. But anyone who enjoys a good glass of wine, from a property with significant history behind it, will find her enjoyment of that wine immeasurably enhanced by a proper understanding of that history.

“There were giants in those days”

 

The news that Paul Draper is retiring came, not as a complete shock, because after all, he’s 80 years old. Rather, it was a realization, the latest in a sorry series, that “the mighty men of old, men of renown” are passing from our scene like the last of a fine vintage gone to frost.

I did not know Mr. Draper well, although well enough for him to return my phone calls and to invite me to Ridge, where he was winemaker for more than 45 years. In fact, it was at one of those visits that he tasted me to about 30 vintages of Monte Bello, a tasting I will never forget. The quality was of course high, vintage variation was terribly interesting, and I found it fascinating that no Monte Bello had even been produced in excess of 14% alcohol. I also had the opportunity to interview Mr. Draper many times on the telephone.

That he was a “giant” is true in this sense: Certain industries, or perhaps “human practices” is a better term, seem capable of launching men and women to the status of “gianthood.” This is a near-mythic status in which we sense something more noble and inspirational than you might find in, say, insurance salesmen (with all due respect to insurance salesmen). The wine industry, and particularly its production side, seems always to have produced giants. I think of, for instance, of the winemaker, his name lost to history, who made the Falernian wine from the Opimian vintage of 121 BC, which Julius Caesar himself loved when the wine was more than sixty years of age. I think also of Arnaud III de Pontac, the proprietor of Haut-Brion, who hauled, with great difficulty and at great danger, his wine across France around 1660, so that the English King Charles II would fall in love with it, as Pontac knew he would.

I think of the Widow Cliquot, and the Finnish sea captain Gustave Niebaum, and Andre Tchelistcheff, and Max Schubert at Penfolds, and of course of Robert Mondavi, a giant if ever there was one. These were men and women whose visions were capacious, and upon whose shoulders not only their own fates rested, but the fates of entire generations of vintners and wine drinkers. And they knew it, these giants, knew how large were the tasks they assigned themselves, respected the challenges and difficulties, and gladly accepted them; for they knew, also, that to trod the well-worn path would lead them only to well-trod places. In their fertile imaginations, they perceived places no man had perceived before them, and, in going boldly to those places, enabled the rest of us to follow their paths.

Mr. Draper’s story is well-known and need not be repeated here. What is interesting is that he helped, with his partners, to create, not only a First Growth of California, but to do it in a place—the Santa Cruz Mountains—that was not named Napa Valley. It is true that those mountains had a very noble place in California’s vinous history: the La Questa Bordeaux-style red wine, planted in the 1880s supposedly from cuttings obtained at Margaux, was one of the first “cult” wines. But by the time of Ridge’s founding, in 1959, the gaze of the industry already had turned to Napa Valley, which makes the decision of Ridge’s founders to locate in Cupertino all the more curious, and Draper’s achievement all the more noteworthy.

That Mr. Draper’s style of Cabernet—leaner, more elegant and ageworthy—also marched to a different beat from that of Napa Valley also contributes to his legend. He never deviated from his style, as wine writer Laurie Daniel noted in the San Jose Mercury News. That style, which she accurately called “graceful,” does not seem to have inspired other California Cabernet makers, aside from perhaps a Cathy Corison or two; instead, others marched towards higher alcohol, greater extraction, more new oak. Mr. Draper realized that if he allowed the grapes to reach the high sugars necessary for superripeness at the cool Monte Bello ridge site, they would result in a bizarre, unbalanced wine, of limited ageability. So he “danced with the one that brung him,” to the joy of Monte Bello fans everywhere.

Still, it would be misleading to ascribe Mr. Draper’s achievements solely in technical terms. The things that result in men being thought of as “giants” have less to do with their specific behaviors or creations, and more with something mysterious and inchoate which they inspire in others. (Alexander the Great had this very impact.) Some of that has to do, of course, with personality, and the fact that Mr. Draper was a consummate gentleman should not be overlooked. Nor should it be forgotten that he was a tireless worker and representative of Ridge, if not as indefatigable as Robert Mondavi, then at least in the same mold. Men like these—giants—are aware that they have a responsibility to the aura of legend others have built up around them; and they rise to that responsibility with, yes, grace.

So, to Mr. Draper I say, enjoy your retirement! Well done, sir, well done.

Happy birthday to a very special winery

 

When Robert Mondavi first walked the ground where his winery now stands, in early 1966, he was struck by something profound, a sense that in retrospect sounds mystical.

“I knew this was a very special place,” he wrote in his memoir, “Harvests of Joy.” “It exuded an indefinable quality I could not describe…of calm and harmony.” The To Kalon vineyard that surrounds the winery now must have been brown and barren at that time of the year, as the leafless vines sprawled from Highway 29 to the lower foothills of the Mayacamas. But already, Mr. Mondavi was envisioning great wines from that great vineyard, made in the winery he would commission his architect, Cliff May, to erect.

Later that year, Mondavi began his first harvest, “before the attractive mission-style building was half finished,” the historian Leon D. Adams tells us, in “The Wines of America.” Even then, Mondavi’s fertile mind was imagining, not only making fine wines to match the Europeans’ best, but “visitors, art exhibit[s], tasting rooms…concerts and plays…” and direct sales to account for “a tenth of the winery’s output.”

Mondavi was, in other words, a visionary. While others were quietly making wine in what was then still a rather sleepy little place that saw the occasional tourist drive up from San Francisco, Mondavi was reinventing Napa Valley’s entire weltanschauung. He knew it could be a mecca for wine lovers from all over the world, who would not only visit the Robert Mondavi Winery (and other wineries), but spend the better part of their day—and perhaps their dollars—carousing and having fun as they came to the winery and to the “lawn space for visiting groups” where so much public activity has taken place at RMW over the years.

It was in that lawn space that I last saw Robert Mondavi, on a warm Spring day in 2006.  The winery was celebrating an occasion, I believe their 50th birthday; there were hundreds of visitors, and the old trooper was wheelchair-bound. But still, he knew that many of them had come with a wish to see him, and he would not disappoint. A visit to Robert Mondavi Winery, he always insisted, must be memorable.

Here we now are, sixty years after Robert Mondavi’s first harvest, and what a three-score of years it has been. There were a handful of “boutique” wineries established prior to 1966, but the proliferation afterwards, lasting roughly until the late 1970s, was truly extraordinary, establishing Napa Valley (and California) as a vital player on the world wine map. And historians generally credit the founding of Robert Mondavi Winery as the era’s ur-event.

We do not even need to dwell on Mr. Mondavi’s accomplishments in viticulture and enology, which are well-chronicled. He urged the industry onward and upward every chance he got, constantly stressing quality. The upheavals of the later years of his life—the sale of the winery to Constellation, the failure of his (and Julia Child’s) COPIA the same year as his death—no doubt were sources of sadness to him, as his life ebbed. But Robert Mondavi was nothing if not the eternal optimist. “Always stay positive,” he wrote in “Harvests.” [H]ave faith and confidence in yourself.” He always had something of the preacher in him, and grew, in maturity, almost ministerial, as if speaking a sermon from the pulpit. “Don’t be judgmental. Instead, cultivate tolerance, empathy, and compassion…listen carefully, and when you talk, make sure people understand you.”

It is never easy to predict how famous people will be remembered long after their deaths. We know that historians change their minds: one day, Harry Truman is considered a failure. The next, he’s a great President. How will Robert Mondavi be remembered? People may be unable, some far-flung day in the future, to rattle off his specific accomplishments—that he was the man, for example, who invented Fumé Blanc. But they will remember that he was a great man. They will feel his spirit radiating across space and time; they will sense, in some inchoate way, that every era raises up some special persons, who summarize in their beings the essence of their time, the zeitgeist. And they will know that Robert Mondavi did that for the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, for wine, when his powers were at their zenith, and every road seemed to lead to the famous arch and campanile, on Highway 29 in Oakville, and to the man who caused it, and the modern California wine industry, to arise.

So happy 60th birthday Robert Mondavi Winery!

A presentation at U.C. Davis

 

Off to the University of California at Davis later today for a talk and tasting I’m giving this evening to DEVO, the Davis Enology and Viticulture Organization’s “190X,” an occasional discussion series at which “professionals in the wine industry” are invited to speak to about 70 V&E students and faculty members. They’ve asked me to talk about how the wine industry has changed over the course of my observations, and various aspects of marketing, and what I think of crowd-sourcing and the era of the Big Critics, so this should be a fascinating conversation.

Of course I’m including a tasting, of five different clones of Pinot Noir: 4, 115, 2A, 23 and 667, all made identically by winemaker Denise Shurtleff from grapes grown in Cambria’s vineyard, down on the Santa Maria Bench. I myself have never even done this particular tasting, so it will be interesting to see if we can detect significant differences in the wines (all 2013s), which would have to be due to the clones. I had made lists over the years of the generally-accepted qualities of the various Pinot Noir clones, but I have to say that actual tasting experience often belies these theoretical differences as they come up against the hard reality of site, farming practices, degree of ripeness and so on. However, even if we can’t agree on the particular tastes of, say, 2A versus 115, I’m sure we’ll be able to see differences. At any rate, these sorts of discussions—while they may not result in definitive conclusions—can be the launch-point for fun conversations.

For “How has the California wine industry changed?” I’ll start off with the 5-point timeline I’ve been developing in the last few months, specifically regarding Pinot Noir, but really, you can apply it to any variety in California.

  • plant anything anywhere 1940s-1950s (e.g. Pinot Noir in St. Helena)
  • better understanding of variety:region. Pinot to the water [1940s-current: Tchelistcheff, Martini to Carneros]
  • find best sites in best regions (e.g. not all of Carneros good: slopes best, mud flats not so much] 1980s – current
  • improve plant material, clones, rootstocks, canopy mgmt.1990s – current
  • find best blocks within vineyards. Ongoing and into the future.

As an example of 5.0, I cite the contrasting examples of Jackson Family’s Gran Moraine vineyard, up in Oregon, and the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. I tell people that Gran Moraine, at 150 acres, is a pretty big vineyard, right? And they all agree. Then I ask them how many acres they think the DRC is (I mean all seven vineyards-within-a-vineyard, or climats). No one ever knows precisely, but they usually guess that it’s far less than 150 acres (some think as few as ten), and they’re surprised when I tell them the DRC totals 198 acres (according to Richard Olney’s little book, Romanée-Conti).

The point I wish to make is that the DRC in addition to being a big vineyard is a very old vineyard. Olney cites a reference to a “Romanis” vineyard in Vosne from the year 282 A.D., and suggests that “La Romanée may have belonged to the Roman emperors” of that era. Certainly the vignerons of Vosne have had a long time to figure out which climats are which: why La Tâche is different from Richebourg, not to mention Montrachet, where they grow, not Pinot Noir, but Chardonnay. Why, then, should we not look at a vineyard like Gran Moraine and imagine that, with due diligence, some future grower/winemaker in the 22nd or 23rd century should not have discovered tiny blocks within the greater vineyard that are the equivalents of Grand Crus?

Of course, in California some vintners have already been engaged in that process. I think of Josh Jensen, at Calera, who has sub-divided his Mount Harlan vineyard into at least six climats (Selleck, Mills, Reed, Ryan, Jensen and de Villiers), and the Rochiolis, whose teardrop-shaped vineyard off River Road in the Russian River Valley is broken into distinct climats: River Block, Mid 40, Little Hill, Sweetwater and so on. Granted, Josh Jensen and the Rochiolis did their sub-dividing more quickly than it took the Romans or Burgundians to figure out the subtleties of the Cote de Nuits. And granted (as I am reminded by people whenever I talk about the DRC), marketing has played a perhaps pre-eminent role in shaping our perceptions of the seven climats. Still, and for whatever reason/s, the identification of climats in these famous vineyards seems to be inherent in their evolution, and in our relationships with them; consumers and connoisseurs like it, and owners are happy to provide it.

I plan also in my talk to cover the waterfront of other influences on the wine industry, from demographic shifts and the rise of the Big Critics to the advent of social media. But this post is already getting a bit long, so I’ll hold off for now and report on that tomorrow.

 

Would California wine have succeeded without the 1976 Paris Tasting?

 

Come join me, readers, on a thought experiment. It is forty years ago, May 24, 1976. Gerald Ford is President. The Concorde has just flown its first commercial flight to America. Bob Dylan celebrated his 35th birthday. And, far more importantly for the California wine industry, “a publicity stunt for a small wine store in Paris changed the world of wine forever,” says this article in last Saturday’s Washington Post.

It long has been the conventional wisdom that that “publicity stunt,” which now bears the famous name “The Judgment of Paris,” launched California wine to worldwide fame, a lofty position it still enjoys. Indeed, even Steven Spurrier, who organized the tasting, is quoted in the article as saying, [T]he New World simply did not exist as a wine producer in the mind of the public.”

I wonder why Steven, who owned that “small wine store in Paris,” said “New World” instead of “California,” since the stars of the Paris tasting were from the Golden State. Slip of the pen, Dr. Freud? An Old World tendency to lump California, Australia, South Africa and Chile into the anonymous grab-bag of “New World”? Anyhow, back to our thought experiment. Imagine if you will that the Paris Tasting never took place. Steven Spurrier never scheduled it; George Taber, the TIME magazine reporter who broke the news to the English-speaking world, never wrote about it. The French were not outraged, because there was nothing to outrage them. The Judgment of Paris never happened.

Would it have made a difference to the trajectory of California wine? Let’s start with Steven’s remark that [T]he New World simply did not exist as a wine producer in the mind of the public.” ? Is that really true?

Well, it may have been true in Steven’s circle, which was based in mid-1970s Paris. By “the public” he might have meant his public: the winemakers, customers and acquaintances with whom he associated. But others beyond his circle already had noticed California wine, admired it, understood how well the best of it compared to the top French wines, and were spreading the word through their own circles, which were at least as influential, if not more so, than Steven Spurrier’s.

Among these was the man who had more influence on my own career than anyone else, Harry Waugh. In his series of Wine Diaries, which spanned twenty years, Harry shared with his many readers his growing appreciation of California wine, particularly from Napa Valley, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon; and Harry was well-connected, so when he spoke, people listened. He was on the Board of Directors of Chateau Latour (which for better or for worse was not included in the Paris Tasting), he guided Michael Broadbent’s career, and he practically introduced Pomerol to the British wine trade. Through his many tasting visits to California, which he faithfully recorded in the Diaries, Harry let the most influential gastronomes and enophiles in Britain and France (as well as America) know about the first wave of “boutique wineries” that arose in Northern California in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. To cite but a few examples, Harry compared a 1968 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon, from Monte Rosso Vineyard, to Mouton-Rothschild, and wrote, after tasting 1968 Martha’s Vineyard at Heitz and then 1968 Cabernet Sauvignon from the old Souverain, that traveling between those two wineries “could be compared with visiting Chateau Lafite after Chateau Latour.”

This is no mean praise; and Harry wrote these words (in “Pick of the Bunch”) years before the Paris Tasting. Nor was Harry Waugh by any means the first to compare California wine to the best of France. The American wine writer, Julian Street, in his 1948 book, “Wines,” tasted “a white wine of 1919 from Beaulieu which gave a Montrachet a run for its money,” and had high praise for Cabernets from Martin Ray (whose 1936 vintage he called “the best wine ever to be made of the Claret grape in the United States”), Fountain Grove (in Santa Rosa), and Inglenook.

I could cite many more examples; you get the idea. California wine was building in identity and momentum for decades before the Paris Tasting; indeed, possibly the reason Steven Spurrier devised his tasting was because of that very fact. My own educated opinion is that, even without the Judgment of Paris, California wine would have become as famous as it now is. Of course, this is a surmisal; I think also that Pinot Noir would have become as famous as it now is even without Sideways. Such contentions cannot be proven, but events like the Paris Tasting and Sideways do not happen in vacuo; they are prompted and shaped by phenomena already extant that give rise to the Steven Spurriers and Rex Picketts. California wine indeed has become a phenomenon, but it was a long time coming, and did not start with the Judgment of Paris.

The historic phases of Pinot Noir in California: 4.0…and counting

 

I blogged the other day about a tasting in which we tried four different versions of Clone 777 Pinot Noir from four Jackson Family wineries in four regions: Anderson Valley (Champ de Reves), Willamette Valley (Gran Moraine), Santa Lucia Highlands (Siduri-Sierra Mar Vineyard) and Annapolis (Wild Ridge, on the far Sonoma Coast). This was an attempt to see if we could detect the signature of the vineyards (terroir) in each case—which we could. The 777’s intense color, strong, aromatic profile and sturdy tannins always came through, but each barrel sample was different, which can only have been due to their differing origins.

But that was only half the story. That tasting was an in-house rehearsal at Jackson Family Wines for our full-scale public event yesterday, held at The Battery, which by the way is a fabulous place to have a tasting as well as a terrific bar and restaurant. (Segue: I walked there from Montgomery Street BART, which took me past the old Square One restaurant where I spent so many pleasurable hours in the 1980s and 1990s. Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory” chimed nostalgic-happy in my mind.)

For this tasting, which attracted about 40 industry pros, we repeated the Clone 777 tasting, and we also had each of the winemakers present to talk about his/her wines. For the icing on the cake we had each of the winery’s 2013 final bottled blends of Pinot Noir, which contained varying amounts of 777. The idea wasn’t so much as to see if we could detect the presence of the 777 in the final blend as it was to see if we could discern the terroir in both the Clone 777s and the final blended wines.

All of us on the panel—the winemakers, myself, our moderator Gilian Handleman and Julia Jackson, the youngest daughter of Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke—of course weighed in with our own impressions. For my part, and being the “senior” on the panel (as well as, pretty much, in the room), I shared my perspective on where we are concerning Pinot Noir here on the West Coast of America. Here’s my take on that, historically-speaking.

Pinot Noir 1.0 followed the Repeal of Prohibition. It occurred primarily in the 1930s and early 1940s. This was the “Plant Pinot Noir anywhere” era. It was put into central Napa Valley, into Sonoma County east of the 101 highway, and other warmish places better suited for Zinfandel; it took a while, but it was discovered those places were too hot for this variety.

Pinot Noir 2.0 followed a single imperative: “Go towards the water.” This was in the later 1940s. Pioneers like Andre Tchelistchef and Louis Martini went south, to Carneros. They understood that Pinot needs the cooling influence of (in this case) San Pablo-San Francisco Bay.

This water-seeking was a long period and lasted through the 1980s. Pinot also looked westward, towards the Pacific Ocean. Vineyards went onto the western slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains, into western San Luis Obispo County, the Anderson Valley, the western part of Santa Ynez Valley we now call Santa Rita Hills, and of course the Russian River Valley, as well as the far Sonoma Coast.

Pinot Noir 3.0 was the mighty effort to improve plant material. Now that we knew the best places to plant it, the next step was to improve the vines themselves: virus-free clones and selections. This phase occurred in the 1990s.

Pinot Noir 4.0 is where we find ourselves now: the focus is on the vineyard. Where are the best sites in the best regions? What are the best soils? The best viticultural practices? Volcanic-basalt soils are different from marine-sedimentary ones. How do you match clones to sites? What is the best oak treatment for your wines? This is the most intensive effort today in California.

I see this phase occupying our attentions for the next twenty years, at least. But it won’t be the final one.

Pinot Noir 5.0 has barely begun. It will consist of an understanding of the individual vineyards so thorough that we will be able to identify individual blocks within them for site specificity. After all, the vineyard now owned by the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti was planted as far back as the twelfth century: it was not for additional centuries that the individualities of La Tache, Echezeaux, etc. were understood and appreciated. Hundreds of years to understand roughly 198 acres of vineyard (including Montrachet)! I hope it will not take us that long. Many of our vineyards are of considerable size; we need to break them down into block bottlings. We’re just scratching the surface—I love Josh Jensen’s exploration of his terroir at Calera, and the way the Rochiolis have put their Westside Road vineyard under the microscope and blocked it out. I told our audience yesterday (and most of them seemed to be in their twenties and thirties), “You guys are lucky. You will spend the rest of your lives understanding and writing about Pinot Noir phase 5.0” when we delve into the most exquisitely detailed comprehension of the micro-terroir of our vineyards. What a glorious epoch that will be.

When did Cabernet Sauvignon arrive in Napa Valley?

 

I’m doing some research for a project I’m involved with at Jackson Family Wines, and one of the things I’m interested in establishing is when the first Cabernet Sauvignon vines were planted in Napa Valley, by whom, and where.

You’d think such things would already be well-documented. After all, Napa Valley is one of the most famous winegrowing regions in the world, and Cabernet is its crowning glory. And Napa Valley is not so old that its vinous origins are lost in the mists of time, as they are in Burgundy and Bordeaux.

So why is it so hard?

I have about a zillion wine books, and I couldn’t find the answers. So I turned to my trusty online source, Facebook, where a number of my friends weighed in. They suggested everybody from H.W. Crabb in 1868 to Capt. Niebaum in 1883, but one, Tom Ward, said “George C. Yount, in 1836, at the site of the current Napanook Vineyard,” a claim Tom says was substantiated by the winemaker at Dominus, Tod Mostero.

I’ll have to do some more fact-checking on that myself, but the point it raises is how easily we in California lose our history, in this fast-paced, twitterized world, where Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes have shrunk to 15 seconds.

I went to some of my California wine books to see what I could find on George Yount, after whom Yountville is of course named. He was the first white settler in what we now call Napa Valley, having come there from Sonoma. Leon Adams, in The Wines of America (1973) says Yount planted “Mission vines,” which he vinified in 1841: no mention, though, of Cabernet Sauvignon. Thomas Pinney’s “A History of Wine in America” (2005) does not even list Yount in the index, nor does his “The Makers of American Wine: A Record of Two Hundred Years” (2012). Then again, Young doesn’t even appear in Frank Schoonmaker’s and Tom Marvel’s epochal 1941 book, “American Wines,”

Yount does make an appearance in Robert Mondavi’s charming memoir, “Harvests of Joy” (1998), in which Robert calls him “a tough, adventurous trapper”; but Robert does not say Young grew Cabernet (although he does refer to Crabb who in 1868 “obtained certified cuttings of ‘noble varietals’ from Bordeaux…” in the vineyard that eventually became Tokalon (or To Kalon).

Yount also makes a brief appearance in The Oxford Companion to the Wines of North America (2000), with information drawn from other sources. Ditto for Hugh Johnson’s Story of Wine (1999), with the added tidbit that Yount had started as a seal trapper. I could mention a dozen or more other books in my library that refer to Young, but with no additional information.

It seems important that we should establish these facts, of the origins of Cabernet Savignon in Napa Valley. It didn’t happen so long ago that it should be impossible. And yet, maybe it is. Today, everything is recorded. We tend to forget that, not that long ago, not everything was. Nor did men even have the notion that everything should be recorded. Marriages were, and births, and deaths; but the planting of agricultural crops? I mean, what man planted the first plums in Napa? The first nut trees? Then too, we must remember that our obsession (for that is what it is) with specific varieties is of comparatively recent origin. It hardly existed in Old Europe, where they made “Bordeaux” and “Burgundy” and “Hermitage,” not “Cabernet Sauvignon” or “Pinot Noir” or “Syrah.” It was, in fact, due in large measure to Mr. Schoonmaker that our present way of thinking about (and labeling) varietals came about. So maybe it’s not so strange, after all: Young made wines from his estate: what the particular grape variety or varieties was, nobody cared.

Do you know anything about the origin of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley? Can you document it? I’d love to hear from you.