Regions

Putting Napa On The Map

16 May 2019

Napa doesn’t get a lot of coverage on Odd Bacchus. Its Chardonnays and Cabernets are the antithesis of “the unusual and obscure.” Napa is the wine powerhouse of the United States, and it’s as famous as any other wine region. I wonder if there’s a single steakhouse any place on the planet that doesn’t have at least one Napa Cabernet on its wine list (steakhouses in countries that ban alcohol excepted)? No, Napa’s wines are world-famous and very popular.

But it wasn’t always so. Indeed, very much within living memory, Napa was a vinous backwater. The name “Napa,” which nowadays connotes serious wines and serious luxury — there is no shortage of hotels in the valley that charge upwards of $1,000 a night — connoted little of anything to most people as recently as the early 1970s. France produced the world’s greatest wines, and that was that. Napa was small potatoes.

Then, in 1976, Steven Spurrier organized the famous (or infamous, if you’re French) “Judgment of Paris” tasting, as it’s now known. He gathered six Napa Chardonnays and four Premier Cru and Grand Cru Burgundies (also Chardonnay, of course), and had nine French wine critics and sommeliers blind-taste them. He did the same with several Napa Cabernets and top Bordeaux wines. The tasters were shocked, even outraged, to learn that their first choices of wines, both red and white, came from California.

The 2008 film dramatizing the event, “Bottle Shock,” ranks as one of my favorite wine-themed movies. Far better than “Sideways,” the popularity of which continues to mystify me.

In any case, although the French press refused to report on the event for quite some time, the tasting sent shock waves around the wine world and put Napa on the map. The winner of the Chardonnay tasting, Chateau Montelena, had Mike Grgich as its winemaker. His 1973 Chardonnay beat out some of the very best white Burgundies, a feat which still impresses me, considering how much I love white Burgundy.

Although many disputed the statistical validity of the tasting, it left no doubt that Napa could produce world-class wines, and Grgich bore no small amount of responsibility for that. He went on to found Grgich Hills Estate, in partnership with the Hills Brothers Coffee family, and he still has a hand in making its wines.

But most of the winemaking responsibility now belongs to his nephew, Ivo Jeremaz, who, like Grgich, was originally born in Croatia (the Grgich family has a second winery there, which makes excellent Pošip and Plavac Mali). Liz Barrett and I recently had the chance to interview Jeremaz on our web series, Name That Wine, and taste three of his bottlings. He farms his vineyards organically and strives for elegance in the bottle, not just power.

I sometimes poo-poo Napa Cabs and Chards, but I can’t deny that I loved these wines. I was also impressed by Jeremaz’s Zinfandel. Zins can often be ponderous jam bombs, but the Grgich Hills version managed to be ripe as well as light on its feet. I suppose it makes sense that Jeremaz produces a great Zinfandel; the grape originated in his home country. Making a graceful Zinfandel happens in the vineyard, I learned, and it’s fascinating to hear how he does it:

What a joy to taste these wines, and considering the balance and richness they deliver, they’re awfully good values for the money. Good value Cabernet and Chardonnay from Napa? Who would have guessed?

And as for the statistical validity of the tasting… Well, Francophiles kept trying to redo the tasting in the hopes of getting different results. Arguing that French wines age better than American wines, some wine critics repeated the tasting two years later, in 1978, holding the tasting in San Francisco. The three top Chardonnays and the three top Cabernets in this tasting were all American (the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay placed second this time, after a 1974 Chalone).

Lest you think that not enough time had elapsed for the French wines to show their age-worthiness, the French Culinary Institute held an anniversary tasting in 1986. They blind-tasted the same vintages of Cabernets and Bordeaux from the same wineries as in the original 1976 tasting. Napa Cabernets from Clos Du Val and Ridge earned the top two places.

But is 10 years really enough time? Perhaps, given a little longer, the results would be different? Spurrier organized a 30-year-anniversary tasting in 2006, opening up those same Cabernet and Bordeaux bottlings from the same 1970s vintages as before. This time, all five of the top ten slots were awarded to Napa Cabernets. Haut-Brion, for example, came in eighth!

That’s four separate tastings, and in all of them, Napa wines came in first. I’m no statistician, but I’m sensing a trend.

You can read about the tastings in more detail here.

I’ve written about Bordeaux and Burgundy on this site with some frequency. Perhaps it’s time I give Napa a little more of a shot. It certainly was a great pleasure to meet Ivo Jeremaz and taste his Grgich Hill wines, especially since they come with such a memorable story.

Now if only someone would offer to help with those $1,000-a-night hotels…

Note: The wines tasted in this episode of Name That Wine were provided free of charge.

Why Altitude Matters In Wine

23 April 2019

Vineyards in Salta

There’s something of a fashion for wine from higher-altitude vineyards nowadays, perhaps coinciding with the fashion for cool-climate wines. I’m not one to follow fashions, of course, but in this case, I’m all for it. One of the reasons the wines of Argentina achieve such richness and fruitiness is because of the altitude of the vineyards.

Mendoza is already getting up there, set at the foot of the Andes at about 3,000 feet above sea level. But lesser-known Salta gets even higher, with vineyards at upwards of 6,000 feet.

But who cares? Why is altitude important?

I consulted my Oxford Companion to Wine, which had this to say about Salta, for example: “Even the lower vineyards in Salta are at 1,650 m/5,413 ft, and because of this elevation, the vine is forced to protect itself from extreme weather, resulting in lower yields and thick skins, which produce concentrated, full-bodied wines that are also extremely fragrant.”

Many argue that the diurnal temperature shift (the difference between the daytime and nighttime temperatures) at higher elevations help grapes ripen while maintaining their acidity, as opposed to grapes ripened somewhere uniformly warm, where they might simply end up too sugary.

But how much does elevation really come through in the flavor? Does it make a palpable difference, or is it just another marketing ploy? We did a highly unscientific experiment to determine the answer, blind-tasting a Norton Malbec from Mendoza and a higher-elevation Amalaya Malbec from Salta. Let’s see if we can tell which is which!

What Vintages Are Best?

28 February 2019

As I poured a glass of wine for a friend, she asked me a surprising question. “So, what makes a wine vintage? If it’s five years old or older?” I was taken aback at first, but I realized the question was quite reasonable. Vintage clothes, for example, don’t come from a specific year. “Vintage” in that case just means old.

Most wine drinkers already understand what a vintage wine is, but the question of which vintages are best is far less clear. Of course, vintages vary according to region. And certain authorities ascribe quality ratings to each year, which means that there must be general agreement on a region’s good years and bad years, right? Well, sort of.

If someone tells you to avoid a certain vintage, take that advice with a grain of salt. Just because the 2016 vintage in Burgundy was bad for growers, for example, it doesn’t mean that the bottle of 2016 Burgundy in front of you is bad. In our latest Name That Wine episode, we explain why.

We also tackle the challenge of chronologically ordering three different vintages of Alloro Vineyard Pinot Noir. As we blind-taste the 2015, 2014 and 2013, we talk about how wines change over time, and do our best to put that knowledge into practice. Alas, the wines we’re tasting aren’t very far apart, so we’ve set ourselves up for quite a difficult task! Well, if nothing else, we can laugh at ourselves:

Note: We received these three bottles of wine as complimentary samples for review on Name That Wine.

Book Review: Alice Feiring’s For The Love Of Wine

30 January 2019

Image courtesy of Amazon

I felt sad when I finished reading “For the Love of Wine: My Odyssey Through the World’s Most Ancient Wine Culture.” Sad and frustrated. I’d purchased the book to help me prepare for my trip to the Republic of Georgia last year. Published in 2016, it’s on many people’s suggested reading lists, and it’s still the first search result if you Google “Georgian wine book.” For the moment, “For the Love of Wine” seems to be the most important English-language book about the wines of Georgia.

When I read a wine-travelogue, I want two things. First, I want lots of good information about a place’s wine, culture and history, related in a readable way. Second, I want to wish that I had been traveling along with the writer, living vicariously through her experiences. “For the Love of Wine” provides the first, certainly, and most certainly not the second.

I agree with much of what she wrote about Georgian wine, and wine in general. The country’s wine is special, made from an array of unique indigenous grapes vinified using techniques that can be traced with startling directness back to the Neolithic era. Clay vessels that held wine some 8,000 years ago bear a striking resemblance to traditional Georgian qvevri, amphorae-like containers used to ferment wine to this day. And it really would be a shame if that heritage were to be cast aside in favor of more standard winegrowing and winemaking techniques.

What’s sad is that I found myself wanting to disagree with Feiring at every turn, because she has such a moralizing and combative tone. I very much enjoy the natural wines of Georgia as well as those from other countries, and there’s a case to be made that natural wines — made organically and with minimal intervention in the winery — deserve more attention and support. But for Feiring, natural wine is good and conventional wine is bad, full stop. The (conventional) wines of France are “weak,” for example, but the natural wines of Georgia are strong, wild, complex and full of emotion. I don’t trust a wine writer who dismisses 98-99% of the wines on the market (estimates suggest natural wines represent 2% or less of wines on the shelves).

Her uncompromising views unfortunately spill out into her interpersonal relations, and her descriptions of the interactions were painful for me to read. One young man she meets, for example, expresses a desire to make conventional wines. She proceeds to shame him:

“You just want it cushy,” I chided him, and he good-naturedly laughed. “You can get a job with a big factory, but would you be able to sleep well at night knowing you were making wine you didn’t really want to drink? Wouldn’t you rather make wine like Kakha’s?”

He may have laughed good-naturedly, but I suspect he didn’t enjoy the conversation. Feiring claims to be an old lefty, yet she doesn’t seem to grasp how unpleasant poverty can be. She describes herself as “a writer with poverty always at the door,” but she has an apartment in Manhattan. It hardly seems fair to expect this young Georgian gentleman to follow a traditional agrarian life if he prefers to do otherwise, in order that Feiring can get the kind of wine she prefers to drink while living in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Unfairness becomes hypocrisy when a winemaker complains that he has trouble finding people willing to clean his qvevris. Feiring, who criticizes Georgia’s young winemakers more than once for wanting it “cushy,” does not put her money where her mouth is and volunteer to help. Instead, she nominates her traveling companion: “‘Here he is; here’s your guy,’ I said, offering up Jeremy for the task.” It’s difficult to empathize with Feiring’s judgmental attitude towards those unwilling to clean qvevri when she never does the dirty work herself.

Feiring shames other Georgians over the course of her travels as well. In this example, she shames a winemaker for not giving his wife some qvevri in which to make her own wine:

“And where’s Marina’s qvevri?” I asked, eager to see the continuation of his wife Marina’s wine. Iago looked hangdog. “But why!” I gasped. It seemed incomprehensible. The wine was so very good. It was so important for women to be seen in the wine world, as it can in truth get to be too much of a boys’ club. “There was no room; I needed all the qvevris this year,” Iago explained. “Marina and Téa didn’t get their qvevri?” I repeated. I mean, how could he? The doting husband Iago? How could he not take care of his wife? I was crushed. He looked crestfallen.

Of course he looked crestfallen. In this situation, Feiring exhibited no empathy towards Iago. All that mattered were her own feelings about the subject. Feiring admits in the book that her emotions are “too raw and intense for [her] own good.” She writes how she often feels “…too emotional to live in the real world, but in Georgia everyone seemed like a mythical human who felt first and thought later. [She] felt at home.”

But the problem is not emotions that are too intense. Everyone has feelings, often strong ones. The trick is to express one’s feelings, however strong they may be, in a non-shaming, non-judgmental way. It’s not easy for most of us, but it’s possible, and it’s necessary.

I’m calling out Feiring’s behavior because she, like all travelers, is an ambassador. I want representatives of America, and more specifically of American wine writers, to represent their constituencies well. It helps future travelers. On the other side of the coin, I also want the wonderful wines of Georgia to have the ambassador that they deserve.

Image courtesy of Amazon

In addition, I want wine and travel writing that is clear and well-crafted. When Feiring writes, “Soon he would add a veritable tasting room as well,” does she mean that it’s a true tasting room? Or not quite a real tasting room? I also felt confused when Feiring “took a cup of nubile juice from him” and when she described “hunting down nubile, home winemaking talent.” Was the juice sexually attractive? Is sexiness what they’re really looking for in a winemaker? But Feiring left absolutely no doubt about a certain local baked good: “There was bagel-like bread that immediately made me think of bagels…” Got it. Bagel.

Finally, Feiring’s economic analysis leaves something to be desired. She writes, “It was then that everything crystallized for me: communism under the Russians and modern-day capitalism were twins separated at birth. Neither fostered or celebrated the individual.” It escapes her notice that the free market, specifically the market’s demand for the supply of Georgia’s unique wines, is precisely what has allowed there to be a renaissance of traditional Georgian winemaking. As a utopian ideology, communism allows only its ideal: proletariat-run factories making wine for the proletariat. Capitalism is non-utopian, which means the system has room for factories and small family-run wineries alike. Communism destroyed the Georgian economy and its wine industry, impoverishing the nation and prioritizing wine quantity over quality. Capitalism has started to bring wealth back to Georgia, and it has thus far encouraged individual winemakers to excel.

It’s so frustrating to read Feiring’s book, because so much of it is fascinating and heartfelt. She relates some incredible experiences, and her love for Georgian wine and culture is palpable. It should be an inspiring work, a paean to the joys of natural wine and feasting with friends and family. But “For the Love of Wine” left a bad taste in my mouth.

If you’re looking for a book about Georgian food and wine — and I highly recommend looking for a book about Georgian food and wine — consider instead Carla Capalbo’s lavishly photographed “Tasting Georgia: A Food and Wine Journey in the Caucasus.” It’s more of a cookbook with additional essays, whereas “For the Love of Wine” is more of a wine/travel book with additional recipes. Even so, it contains excellent, concise information about Georgian wine and cuisine.

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