Vol 3 No 8…a ‘sideways’ look at the Central Coast – prelude to a guide

Back in March, TB wrote a series of posts on his trip from the Central Coast up to Washington (Vol 3 No. 2.0-2.5). In light of all that has happened since I thought I would provide some ideas if you are making a trip there soon. This was prompted by a chance meeting with a friend…in a wine shop of course (Wine Republic, Excelsior MN), and promised to provide the names of some wineries to visit. Given the way the harvest is looking September would be a much better time to go than August…as always!

Let’s recap the weather in California (or the entire West Coast for that matter), over the past decade. Until 2016 it can be summed up in a word: drought!!! Not just drought, mind you, but the equivalent of right before the Great Flood. Imagine, a 900 year record drought…not just in one area of California but the entire state and much of the rest of the West Coast too!

TB grew up in Southern California…Santa Monica to be exact in the early years of surfing…although he was really a body surfer. In those bygone days one would go to the beach and spend a day – sans sunscreen, get a bad sunburn that peeled and then have a great tan for the rest of the summer…fortunately no melanoma so far!

About the time TB got married in 1969, he noticed a change. It didn’t take all afternoon to get burned…in fact he had it happen in about an hour at the beach one day! Rains? We always had a wet rainy season…can’t recall a dry years. Oh, and fires…Malibu, one year, Mandeville Canyon the next, Bel Air the next, then the San Fernando Valley…like clockwork. TB recalls being at school and knowing there was a fire starting: Santa Ana winds, a dryness in the hair, above normal temperatures and finally the sun would turn orange and the temperature would soar into the hundreds. Later, the destruction on the evening news…but it was simply a fact of life in Southern California.

So what happened to the weather? Dare I say climate change or the dreaded ‘global warming’? The naysayers…of which I have never found among winemakers…say it always changes…yes it does but over much longer time periods and we have, through burning fossil fuels destroyed the ozone layer which is our insulation from ultra violet rays, and in a nutshell, that is the argument for why we must change our ways or leave our grandchildren in a very precarious position. Take a look at Burgundy, where the weather is becoming more extreme, or Bordeaux where winemakers say there will be no more merlot in a decade or so. Alarmist? Hell no, that is their livelihood. Now you know.

To those who think we can relax again…think about the fires so far this year, following that incredible rainfall (except in the Central Coast between Santa Barbara and Santa Maria. Lake Cachuma provides the water supply for Santa Barbara and it was virtually empty at the start of the season and unlike the other dams in the state is the only one that isn’t full to capacity. Note that is the lack of rainfall that stresses the vines and produces rich, intense fruit, but this is ridiculous. As of yesterday, Cachuma is at just 49% of capacity! That is not much margin for error…or another dry year.

Ah, but there were few vineyards in the 1960’s…although there was one just east of Los Angeles that went back to the days of the Spanish explorers…Virgina Dare – now gone and the site was between two freeways (San Bernardino and Riverside). About the only other ones were in Livermore, where Wente, the first, and Concannon reigned supreme. Today there are about a dozen.

Moving north to Napa Valley there were also perhaps a dozen…mostly In Napa, such as Beaulieu (aka BV), Beringer, Inglenook, Charles Krug, Christian Brothers and a few others, until 1966 when Robert Mondavi built his beautiful winery and that kicked off a surge in winery openings. His was the only one that looked like a winery, sleek, and reminiscent of the California missions, instead of an industrial warehouse. That was all about to change. In 1969, vineyard land in the valley was $5,000 an acre…but you had to buy a minimum 20 acre parcel. Compare to today’s $350-450,000 an acre going price, and you cannot make money at that price…so more McMansions of the wealthy, producing their 50-100 cases of wine a year, getting 90 point ratings and selling for upwards of $150 a bottle. Still not profitable…but they don’t care…they call it passion but is it really? Not unless you do the grunt work yourself and few do (Rupert Murdoch bought one of the two in Los Angeles (Moraga), a second one is in Malibu…which also provides the name. Not recognized as great growing areas….unless the terroir is smog? But who cares?

Moving back to the north again, Contra Costa County had a few small ones, bulk producers where you brought your jug to the winery in those days. There are now even some in Orinda where TB lived before being transplanted to Minnesota (Lamorinda AVA…huh?). Oh, wait. Lake County had Konocti Winery and Sonoma had Buena Vista and a couple of others that went back to the 1800’s.

Ah, but the Central Coast? Nothing, nada, zip, zilch…not until 1978 when six investors took a chance and started Zaca Mesa in the belief that good wine could be made there. How right they were, especially when a young Ken Brown was hired as winemaker. Ken in turn hired numerous luminaries to work for him including Adam Tolmach, Jim Clendenon, Bob Lindquist, Lane Tanner and others. A ‘who’s who’ of the Central Coast!

Still, even as the winemakers above started their own wineries, the area was virtually unknown except to locals and people from Los Angeles. However, they started a project that continues today: the Central Coast Classic and Wine Auction organized by local radio personality, Archie McClaren. Only because we had friends who moved to Santa Maria did we learn of it in its infancy in about 1989…it began in 1986 and is a charitable event second only to the Napa Valley Wine Auction, but to TB a lot more fun. It became and remains the second largest wine event in California!

Still, it was pretty much virgin territory except to locals but that event started a change. This was augmented and superseded in notoriety by the movie, Sideways, which while fun, gave a distorted view of wine, denigrating merlot while elevating pinot noir to star status. Within weeks, merlot moved to the bottom shelf, replaced by pinot at eye level there is a certain irony to this as protagonist Miles’ favorite wine was Cheval Blanc which is…primarily merlot (by the way if you decide to read the book, you will find that Miles is really just another wine snob and it gets disgusting in the sequel – avoid!).

It also created so much demand for the grape that Napa vintners were buying it and driving the price up to where many of the locals couldn’t compete. Wait…what about Paso Robles?

There are two initiators of the fame of Paso: Gary Eberle and Kermit Lynch. Eberle was the first to plant syrah and also provided the shoots for Randall Graham who was called the ‘Rhone Ranger’ in an article in Wine Spectator and the name stuck for the region. However, he, Bob Lindquist and others traveled to Berkeley, California to talk to a budding wine importer with a penchant for Rhone style wines. After tasting them, including Vieux Telegraphe, Domaine Tempier, August Clape, and more.

Kermit’s book Adventures Along the Wine Route is a fantastic addition to anyone’s library and love of wine…highly recommended…it was a game-changer for TB!

All of the names in the previous paragraph our passionate about wine and winemaking…it is not a rich man’s hobby for them…respect that! Besides they make some of the best wines on the planet!

Wow…talk about a diversion from my original outline…so I will follow this up with suggested wineries to visit on the Central Coast.

Back soon.

 

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Vol. 1 No. 26 …not what I want to write about!

…BUT, I must. This website is about a passion for wine: winemakers, wine shops, wine enthusiasts, and of course, TB.

I read a blog yesterday that bothered me. Won’t go into who it was, but it was praising someone who runs completely counter to what we are about here. I will continue to read the blog because it is of interest to me, but have stopped reading another one that says you should never pay more than $20 for a bottle of wine, and developed a rating system (although the writer/author admits he has never taken a wine course, never participated in a wine tasting, which he is critical of, and to TB’s way of thinking is comparing apples to oranges – or should I say ‘wine’ to ‘plonk’).

While there are many good wines at less than $20, and some ‘passable’ ones (but lacking character), below $10, that is not what we are about here. Instead, we are about learning more about wine by trying new wines and most importantly, trusting your own palette as you are your own best wine judge. If you don’t like it, so what if Parker or some other wine writer gives it a 90? To do otherwise makes you a wine snob, not an aficionado.

The last three updates have been on, in order of appearance:

  1. the buyout of SAB Miller by ImBev, creating a global monopoly in Beer, and the corporate giants that are absorbing smaller, high quality wineries, which will ultimately result in lowering the quality of the wine due to the emphasis on ‘the bottom line’. The top three of these are Constellation Brands (virtually unheard of and with no quality label before acquiring Mondavi), Gallo, which is another of the top three globally, and Bronco Wines, maker of Two-Buck Chuck;
  2. a book, Tangled Vines by Frances Dinkelspiel, which covers the dark side of the wine ‘industry’ (don’t you hate that word?), and also the first California wines which were in Los Angeles in the 1800’s; and
  3. Dr. Konstantin Frank and the winery bearing his name. A true innovator, as was his friend Andre Tcheleschieff (the great California legend who trained so many well-known winemakers), and who collaborated with Doctor Frank.

TB hasn’t said boycott the brands of those big wine companies (although he did suggest doing so with the breweries), especially Two-Buck Chuck. Instead, he took a positive approach: drink your ‘Chuck’ or other inexpensive wine during the week but experiment on the weekends with at least one new, quality wine.

So what made TB feel the urge to crusade today? the blog mentioned at the top of this edition which was about a wine event to be held in January, the Unified Wine and Grape Industry Symposium, the largest wine industry trade show in the U.S. Bet you won’t see a lot of the small wineries represented there, and if you do it will be to keep their presence known, perhaps looking for a buyer?

Now to the meat: the blogger noted that Fred Franzia, CEO of Bronco Wine Company will be the keynote speaker. Franzia is a super-salesman and innovator, having bought Charles Shaw, and turning it into Two-Buck Chuck with the help of Trader Joe’s (no relation to Trader Bill but along with Trader Vic part of the inspiration for his pseudonym). This winery produces 20 million cases (240 million bottles!) a year and has produce over 6 billion, yes billion bottles since inception in the 1970’s. It no longer sells for $2 but more like the $4-5 range, but Franzia has said “never pay more than $10 for a bottle of wine”. Is the fact that he didn’t say $5 a warning of a price hike ahead? Time will tell…always does.

The blogger had visited Bronco’s operations in Napa (distribution center), Lodi (some vineyards of the 40,000 total in their portfolio), and Ceres in the San Joaquin Valley where the bulk of the grapes come from. He commented on the cleanliness and attention to detail. That however, is disputed at http://www.snopes.com/business/market/shawwine.asp

In addition, as I pointed out to the blogger, Franzia was convicted of a felony for blending inferior grapes with zinfandel and others, resulting in a huge fine of $4 million, but allowing Franzia (no longer associated with the box wine company of the same name), to not go to prison as several others did. Don’t just trust Snopes on this, Tangled Vines, talks about it in length including comments by the investigator and the prosecutor.

Having the distribution center in Napa, Bronco called it Napa Valley wine, until the AVA objected but they can still say, Napa, California. Does that sound like a high quality wine to you?…or one that is out to make money on volume? Sadly, I find people, mostly seniors, that only drink, Two-Buck Chuck. As reported everywhere: good wine is forcing out bad all over the world. That, however, does not mean all wines are high quality, just no serious defects, i.e. you get what you pay for.

To TB, despite all the efforts by those truly interested in making high quality wine, not simply making money, these wines thrive but people are reaching ‘up’ according to a wine industry study which saw the most growth in sales in the $10-20 range instead of stagnating in the <$10 range.

Now let’s look at the profit: Gallo Hearty Burgundy, once a darling the late Robert Lawrence Balzer, the pioneer wine writer, who seemed to equate it with the best California Cabs, in his reviews, is sold in magnums, 1.5 liters, instead of the normal 750 ml bottles. The price of a magnum is considerably less than two bottles of TBC. Also, there are wines sold by the gallon or in boxes of 2 liters or more, that are as good or better and cheaper.

Trader Joe’s acts as distributor and retailer (except in New York which prohibits it). This may have been the impetus for Total Wines to do likewise. A normal discount to a distributor is 30%, so Trader Joe’s is making a nice profit, as Total does with its ‘bin’ wines where it too buys direct from the winery resulting in profits of 30% or more, while making small profits on high quality wines – which are actually the best value to you, the consumer. Keep that in mind when you are looking for ‘bargains’.

Now let’s look at this from an environmental standpoint. The San Joaquin aquifer is the second largest in the U.S. Believe or not in climate change, that aquifer has been largely depleted by well-drilling by farmers, largely grape growers in an area that was and is not a natural agricultural area (oldies like TB will recall the 1986 book, Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner, and last revised in 1993, one of the first ‘green’ books, as was the documentary movie, The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson written in 1951, and we didn’t learn from that either).

The depletion by wells deeper than the height of the Empire State Building, is causing the land to sink, and arsenic levels to rise; not a good combination. In fact, there has been at least one class-action lawsuit over arsenic levels in wine from the valley. To TB’s knowledge, all have been dismissed as the levels, while high were not serious in wine do to the low consumption relative to water. The valley is very heavy in Almond trees and grape production, both of which consume large amounts of water, and in the case of wine, for what? To enrich the winery owners?

That is now off TB’s chest so he will get back to the New York and California wine pieces discussed far too long ago.

Best,

TB

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