Whether other nations make better wine than we do is debatable, although readers of this blog know that Your West Coast Oenophile has intoned mightily on this subject many times over the past several months. One thing that is inarguable is that they do know how to say certain things better, like the title to this installment.
I am not hesitant to concede the rather pedestrian perspective that shaped my introduction to wine. Wine selections at most of the suburban establishments where I dined consisted of an unidentified red or white and sometimes rosé, which was often a house-made blend of the other two offerings.
On the next level were the myriad imports. Italian wines consisted of Verdicchio or Soave, Valpolicella or Montepulciano from such august houses as Bolla or Cella; Chiantis, in their straw cradles, were mostly distinguished by competing lengths of their bottle necks. French wines meant a cheap Louis Jadot négotiant blend or one of Stiller & Meara’s totems to kitsch and tastelessness (the other being the films of their unctuous offspring, Ben). From Portugal came the tangy twins, Mateus and Lancers, whose ceramic bottles formed candle holders at nearly every red-checkered tablecloth spot I can remember.
The aforementioned generic white and red wines, frequently labeled Chablis and Burgundy, heralded from a quintet of California jug producers and their New York compatriot, Taylor (later on, Coca Cola bought up Taylor and launched Taylor California, which subsequently purchased both Almaden and Paul Masson en route to becoming the behemoth we now know as Constellation). All six brands produced an inventory of red, white and rosé in a variety of bottle sizes; Almaden, if memory serves correct, complicated the equation by offering a choice in whites: Chablis or Rhine. The backbone of all these wines were cheap, plentiful table grapes like Thompson seedless and Tokay, grown in abundance throughout the Central Valley. Of the six brands, Gallo was then, as it is now, predominant. In turn, Paul Masson distinguished itself with the overdramatic promotions of their pompous pitchman, Orson Welles, and atypical bottling in a glass carafe that usually found itself recycled next to the Lancers candlesticks.
The breakthough to this monotonous ensemble came with Robert Mondavi’s Woodbridge Winery and their ever-popular 1.5 liter blends, affectionately known as Bob White and Bob Red. These may not have been GREAT wines, but, at least, here were California jug wines that were PRETTY DAMN GOOD. Though not labeled as such, these wines had varietal character (Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon) and easily held their own as everyday table wine or as a thoughtful contribution to a BYOB party. Besides providing Mondavi with the funds he needed to establish his Oakville labels, these wines compelled the folks in Modesto to launch an aggressive advertising campaign** to assert their wine’s quality.
Focus groups automatically eliminate anyone in the advertising filed from participating on their panels. Advertising is an astoundingly cutthroat profession, curiously so in that one would think people ought to be able to rise to the top based on talent and the quality of their work, as opposed to certain industries where the hyper-aggressive accrual of money is the only barometer of success. But it is not so much a disdain for this sordid occupation as a belief that people who work in advertising might skew the results that causes marketing researchers to preclude them.
In its struggle for self-preservation, the hierarchy in advertising strives to maintain mediocrity and marginalizes individuals who might upend this equilibrium. Having been deemed too talented for my own good, I spent years outside the inner sanctum, churning out a modicum of subsistence as an indentured freelancer. As such, I never felt any compunction at not disqualifying myself when offered the opportunity to participate in a focus group. My responses have always been honest and unbiased by my professional activities. However, on topics of which I have a strong familiarity, like Apple-related products, I have not been at all reticent in displaying my acumen.
Such has been the case a number of times that I have participated in wine marketing reviews. It’s sad, of course, when a great label is acquired by one of the major conglomerates, who then systematically the brand. Twice I’ve asked to new launches from the once-esteemed Beaulieu Vineyards, first their BV Coastal label, then their subsequent BV Century Cellars, which, to my highly-vocal dismay, did not supplant the former sideline but was placed alongside it as part of Diageo’s reckless pursuit of market saturation. More recently, I was asked to preview the design for Solaire, a Central Coast designation apocryphally attributed to Robert Mondavi. Here was everything true wine lovers had long feared when Constellation bought up Mondavi’s portfolio; rather than restore the label to the prominence it had once enjoyed (over the several years preceding this acquisition, certain scions within Mondavi Generation II had eviscerated the brand, with a watered-down Coastal appellation and a fantasy of planting grapes on Mars), the astute folks from Canandaigua, NY continued the erosion with this blasphemous derivative.
Of course, it is highly improbable that California wine will return to its inglorious past and produce the markedly inferior jug wines of a generation ago. And, despite my continuing trepidation, I suspect its giant corporate parent will still manage to preserve the quality of Robert Mondavi Reserve and, of course, Opus One. But the devolution of this brand in particular, which has done so much to elevate the quality of wine grown here, as well as others like BV, into massive, almost generic factories under the guise of industry conglomerates is an atrocity, with little sign of mitigation portending.
Fast-forward to last Saturday’s Uncorked! Wine Festival at Ghirardelli Square, a placed for which I had once designed a commercial with liquid chocolate bubbling forth from its court fountain (naturally, the myopic principals at the ad agency quashed the idea). Billed as a festival with 53 participating wineries, there were quite a number of corporate-held satellites among the booths. Given the proximity of this event to Cellar 360, it didn’t come as much of a surprise that nearly all of Foster’s Wine Estates’ California portfolio was present, and, in all fairness, the majority of these labels (Cellar No. 8, Beringer, Chateau St. Jean, Sbragia, Etude, Meridian, Souverain, Taz, Stag’s Leap Winery, St. Clement and Wattle Creek) have maintained a remarkable degree of autonomy. Jackson Family Wines was ably represented by Arrowood Vineyards, which, like all of the wineries in this portfolio has been allowed to stay true to its origins. Constellation, on the other hand, has shown itself to be far more intrusive with its acquisitions (as noted above), but I cannot attest to how much control Clos du Bois, their sole holding at this event, has relinquished.
The last heavyweight pouring at Ghirardelli Square was, of course, Gallo, which has battled Constellation for several years now for bragging rights to the megalomanic epithet World’s Largest Wine Company. Their attendees included a couple of labels Gallo Generation 3 has cultivated out of their Sonoma vineyard acquisitions: Frei Brothers and MacMurray Ranch, along with 1.5 liter titan Barefoot Winery (originally Barefoot Bynum), and their premium Napa acquisition, William Hill Estate and Louis M. Martini. Changes to these latter two brands may appear subtle to the consumer, but changes are indeed underfoot, despite previous declarations of a hands-off approach. What will come, now that William Hill’s winemaker has been “transfered” to Martini remains to be seen, but the alarming development has been the launch of a second label from Martini, the Napa-Sonoma hybrid known as Ghost Pines. Some may celebrate this development of reasonably-priced Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon from these leading AVAs, but I found them rather underwhelming. Worse, I fear, they will be harbingers of more diminution of the brand along the lines of what Robert Mondavi and BV has endured at the hands of their corporate parent, if not worse. Years ago, Louis P. Martini invited me to lunch at his winery, where I enjoyed an animated conversation and a 1984 Barbera that still brings tears to my eyes. “Louie,” I told the girl pouring for William Hill, ”is most assuredly rolling in his grave.”
But let me close on a more optimistic note, for indeed, there were many delightful discoveries among the hitherto unfamiliar labels I encountered at the Uncorked! event, be it a subtle Tempranillo from Berryessa Gap Vineyards or the splendid array of Italian varietals from Rosa d’Oro. I promised the pourer for Deerfield Ranch that if the Ginkgo Girl and I decide to solemnize our relationship, we would serve his Super T-Rex***, an artful blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, with a touch of Dolcetto. Fellow Hotchkiss internee Zelock Chow showed off a noteworthy Cabernet from his family’s Howell Mountain Vineyards, as did Charlie Dollbaum from Carica Wines. Another Howell Mountain venture, White Cottage Ranch, pleased with their 2006 Merlot, while Hall Wines showed exactly how organically-grown Cabernet shines. The 2006 Seven Artisans from RDJ Artisan Wine Company proved a more-than-competent Pomerol-style Meritage, while a chilled 2007 Roussanne from Truchard Vineyards offered a welcome antidote to the rather stifling afternoon heat. Yorkville Cellars, a Mendocino organic winery, boasts of being the only house in California to grow and produce each of the eight Bordeaux grapes as single varietals, and while they neglected to bring their much-anticipated Carménère, the five wines they poured did not disappoint. Another Mendocino operation, Zina Hyde Cunningham, managed to satisfy my Barbera craving, while DL Carinalli Vineyards made good with their 2007 Chardonnay and 2007 Pinot Noir.
Speaking of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, I do owe acknowledgment to my new acquaintance from Suacci Carciere, who enabled me to obtain tickets to this event; thankfully, the 2.5 mile pedal from Pacific Heights to this event was a whole lot easier than the 35-mile roundtrip I made the previous week to their Sideways tasting in Larkspur. And despite my long-winded perorations the Uncorked Wine Festival was a welcome urban escape for a Saturday afternoon, supporting a highly worthwhile cause (Le Cocina) in these economically-challenging times and giving voice to a number of promising, independent wine ventures, as well as their house brands.
**Despite the late Hal Riney’s gravel-voiced recitation, the slew of gold and silver medals were mostly awarded to The Wine Cellars of Ernest and Julio Gallo, one of the myriad labels they offered in the 1980s, which accounted for significantly less than 1% of their total production.
***There’s a subtle, inside joke that only people who know us would understand.