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. 2 …do I care what Parker/Rolland think?

I’ve looked at wine from both sides now,
from up and down, and still somehow
it’s wine’s illusions I recall.
I really don’t know wine at all.

– with just a tad of literary license from Both Sides Now, by Joni Mitchell

If the above causes you to ask if he doesn’t know wine, why write a blog? TB would answer, “I know something about wine but I don’t know what you, dear reader, like. Neither do the guru’s: Robert Parker, who gave us the 100 point grading system back in 1978, and which is now copied by at least half a dozen other wine writers/critics; or Michel Rolland, who consults for over two hundred wineries, and whose goal is to bring the same attributes to all of them. Rolland was immortalized in Mondovino, as a Tiparillo-smoking, jovial fellow being chauffeured all over France…and elsewhere in the world, along with the Mondavis (not to be confused with the MonDAVIES – Bob’s estranged brother). Interestingly, Mondavi was at its zenith when the documentary came out in 2004, but then was sold to Constellation, and has lost its aura…and when you lose your aura in wine, the fall from grace – Can be a long plunge.

Let’s get this straight: if you like Two Buck Chuck (now $3.89 by the way), or Gallo Hearty Burgundy, who is Parker, or Rolland, or Trader Bill, or anyone to set you ‘straight’? What a boring world it would be if everyone liked exactly the same wines…oops, the wine snobs already do which has escalated the price of those 90-100 point wines as speculators, not consumers, buy them and trade them among one another further driving up the price. Some people have never even seen the wines they own and never will.

In Red Obsession, it was said that the Chinese could become the buyers of all the Bordeaux in the world. Flash back to about 1988 and the same was being said about: the Japanese! Arigato! If you don’t believe this, go to this link, just published today: Lower wine prices, less Chinese demand

The above is as negative as you will see in this blog and it is not intended to harm anyone named, but when TB saw this cartoon (sorry, unable to find it so will just have to quote it), at his 50th birthday on the Napa Valley Wine Train, it became indelibly printed in his brain:

Customer tasting at wine shop: “This wine is terrible!”

Clerk: “Really? Parker gave it a 90…

Customer: “I’ll take two cases!!!”

That epitomizes the wine snob who knows little about it but thinks he can look smart by serving and pointing out, “this is a 90-point wine.” It brings about the question: when is the last time you saw a wine displaying a rating below 87 in any store?

In Sideways, Miles was the epitome a wine snob (by the way, it was more disgusting than funny in the book). He loathed Merlot – as if there were no good Merlots, only plonk. He had obviously never tried a Duckhorn, especially the Three Palms, or any of the other wines not produced for the ‘cocktail’ crowd. Instead, he loved Pinot Noir, especially Burgundies. Yet his favorite wine was Cheval Blanc, a beautiful St. Emilion, which is…100% Merlot (in the book he only mentions Chateau Petrus, also 100% Merlot)! For all you France haters, how do you think they feel about us for all those ‘burgundies’, and ‘chablis’ we sold for a couple of bucks a bottle?…not to mention Champagne!

One of TB’s favorite wine writers in San Francisco…sadly, he can’t recall the name…once spent a column on wine writers. He posed: how can you use someone’s wine recommendations without knowing if what they like in a wine is the same as what you look for? Good question…any takers?

Also in Sideways: it was amazing how Miles always brought out the best and most expensive wine when he was trashed! By the way, TB has had this happen after several glasses of wine at a dinner and had that urge to (and satisfied it), bring out some of his best bottles…with little or no recollection of how they tasted with the palate numbed. There’s a lesson here!

TB observed ‘the Sideways effect’ almost immediately when in wine shops the Merlot came down from the eye level shelf to the bottom, changing places with the Pinot Noir…and TB has had some not-so-well -made Pinots. Note that Robert Veseth, now professor emeritus at Puget Sound University, observed the same thing and wrote a paper on it from an economics point of view, the impetus for his blog The Wine Economist and a new career.

Let’s go back to the Parker/Rolland paradox: for all the good they did in improving the quality of wine – globally – they have homogenized it…like buying one brand of milk over another…ok, maybe buying Coke (the drink) over Pepsi. What is missing is something found in the best wines: terroir (tere-wahr).

Terroir is the summation of all that goes into a wine from the soils and climate, to the way the vines are planted. It is what distinguishes a Heitz Martha’s Vineyard from other Cabernets, or a fine Chablis with its flintiness, from any other Chardonnay.

Now for the consequences: imagine a farmer growing corn, and some ‘expert’ comes along and says he is rating your corn an 87? What would he do? Escort the guy off his farm…and probably not in a pleasant way. But take away all the romanticism and wine is just that: farming, and farming means you can do everything right and still have a bad crop…you hope, (pray ?), for the best. But the farmer doesn’t see the price of his wine double or more with a 100 point score, instead the independent wine buyer who does his own research pays for it. Relief may be in sight as this 2015 prediction states: 2015 wine predictions

On this you don’t need to take TB’s word. He was told this by none other than Joe (Joseph) Heitz. TB, with a group of friends, which included Joe’s nephew from Reno, Nevada, was invited to lunch on the Heitz’ deck and enjoyed some of their Riesling and wonderful sausages on a beautiful Napa morning. This was followed by a tour, in which, Joe said that vineyard land could not go any higher and still allow the buyer to make money. I bought a case that day of the 1974 Martha’s Vineyard Anniversary Cabernet…$40 a bottle, I believe. Remember, Heitz was the most sought-after Cabernet Sauvignon in America. At that time Mondavi Cab was about $7.50 a bottle (don’t laugh, TB bought the 1972 with $4.95 price tags). In 2000, TB put some of his older wines up for auction, including his last bottle of the Heitz: it sold for $400 – is any wine worth that much? It’s WINE, not art, and meant to be consumed…and don’t forget old wines don’t taste anything like they did when young.

If you want proof of just how much impact Parker and Rolland have had consider this article published on Aug. 6th 2014 – my 45th wedding anniversary by the way – remember 1976 was pre-Parker AND Rolland, then came the conversion (capture?); are we about to go round trip? You decide…1976 Wine Judgement: then and now

Maybe you should just trust your own taste buds. If you like a wine, buy a case of it and drink it over the next 3-5 years…be able to serve it a dinner when it might be worth 2-3 times what you paid for it. That is the fun of wine…not ‘hoarding’ it, right?

If you can find it, Jancis Robinson wrote a book, Vintage TimeCharts, which graphs how wines she tasted lasted over the years…it is extremely valuable in knowing just how long most wines will keep, and how long the best can keep. It tracks wines from as far back as 1989 to 2000…some of the best! Highly recommended, and here’s the good news if you are interested: you can buy it online for $4.95 or less! A wonderful addition to any wine library. TB would add that Jancis is one of the great wine writers, long on fact, short on ego.

Well, dear reader, hope you found this as interesting as the trip down memory lane was for TB. Ah, but there are a million wine stories in the Naked City…this is just one of them (anyone remember?).

TB

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