Just checked the vineyard after three cloudy days with some fairly significant rain on Sunday.
Less than 24 hrs later, a gentle breeze is drying off the clusters and we’re back on track for ripening. We’re not used to summer rains in Napa and tend to freak out a little, but mostly it just washes the dust off and makes the air smell nice. Even so, we’ll be a little more vigilant about botrytis, but for now things look great.
Here comes the inevitable harvest heatwave with HOT HOT HOT predicted starting tomorrow for the next week. With Brix still hovering around 22 we once again are thankful for our cooler microclimate 400 ft above the valley floor. Still we will give the vines plenty to drink to prevent a hyper sugar spike and keep the physical maturity, pH and BRIX all on our favored trajectory. The growing season always comes down to the nail-biting last four weeks. We’ll just keep sampling the pre-release 2006 to keep calm.
I’m not pulling the trigger just yet, but really liked what I saw this morning- especially blk 1, clone 7. Berries softening, even some dimpling, good tannin resolution in skins, color extracting easily, great fruit and brn seeds. The dimpling seems to be comparatively free of raisin characters. blk1, clone 4 still has some hard, green tannin in the skins- not uncharacteristically, and 337 is somewhere in between. Only see positive in waiting thru this cool week and into next, but I think we could see some action by the end of next week.
Blk1, clone 7- 24.7 B, 3.74
Blk 1, clone 4- 23.4 B, 3.58 pH
Blk 3, clone 337- 24.0 B, 3.64 pH
One of the most incredible things to watch over the last decade has been the growth of wine knowledge and consumption across the globe. It doesn’t matter if you are in Hong Kong, Moscow or Hawaii – people around the world are compelled by the worlds greatest wines.
In fact, Hawaii was one of the first places in the world to actively embrace the inaugural release of Meteor Vineyards. Warren Shon, one of the most savvy people in the wine trade the world over, has carefully culled some of the finest cabernets from Napa Valley (and Pinot Noir, Riesling, Gruner-Veltliner, grower Champagne et al.) to introduce to wine lists and retail shops throughout the islands.
On Maui, a thriving food and wine scene exists on both the West and South shores. On the West coast, the ever popular Lahaina Grill continues to offer one of the most interesting wine lists in Hawaii and the Kapalua Resort and it’s enclave of excellent restaurants continues to offer compelling food and wine destinations at the Pineapple Grill, Sansei and Merriman’s. The South shore is home to the ultra deluxe Four Season’s resort and Wolfgang Puck’s Spago and the incredibly excellent Duo. The other place that never disappoints is Capische! in the newly refurbished Hotel Wailea (one of the great deals in all of Hawaii).
Oahu, home to the bulk of permanent residents, has long been known for it’s cuisine and the wine programs have followed pace. From the original Roy’s in Waikiki to Alan Wong’s eponymous destination, from the ultra deluxe Halekulani to the adventurous retailers like Tamuro’s and HASR – the food and wine scene is HOT. Check out the wine bar Amuse in the Honolulu Design Center for some incredible wines by the glass!
One year after the economic meltdown or the “Great Deep-cession” business sectors are taking stock of where things are. With all of the focus on the bail-outs of the financial industry, and the desperate circumstances of US Auto manufacturing, it comes as no surprise that there aren’t many tears being spilled over the current state of the Wine biz. While there has been solid coverage by Sonoma’s Press Democrat of the local businesses, here in Napa Valley, there is much more of a stiff upper lip.
The fact is, there is quite a bit of turmoil around America’s (perhaps the world’s) leading wine region and considering the state of the economy, this should come as no surprise.
Before delving in, it’s worth a bit of a sidebar to note that the domestic wine industry is quite stratified into distinct market segments. The high volume, $20 and under category represents the big dollars and is really part of the broader beverage industry selling beer, soda, and other various bottled/canned consumables. As we venture up the chain above $25 we enter the premium wine category and a broad variation of products. Circa 2008 well crafted wines up to $75 might have been considered value wines. Over the last decade, the above $100 “A-list” of Napa fine wines has become increasingly populated . This list ranges from worldwide brands such as Duckhorn and Stags Leap to the boutique micro wineries. From there we go into pricing stratosphere. Everything from very select bottlings of names like Dominus, and Staglin to the highly inaccessible Shafer Hillside Select, Harlan Estate and Screaming Eagle. These, along with others have (prior to last year’s meltdown) have been rapidly pushing into the price zone of Bordeaux’s venerable first growths. $400- $800 and beyond on release. Note these very same brands were hovering around $250 per bottle about five years ago, so we have clearly experienced accelerated pricing expansion in the short period between the busts (post 2001-pre 2009) in the ultra-premium or so called cult wines.
But here we are in October of 2009 harvesting another crop while Napa is in the middle of real bottle shock. While the dust is settling and the economic fog starts to clear, there are two schools of thought about the lasting impact of this current meltdown:
1. Glass Half Empty: This is a forever re-calibration of the fine wine business. It will be a long long time, maybe never before we see high volumes of California wine selling at $100-200 price points.
2. Glass Half Full: This is a normal part of the boom bust cycle, once the bust is over, the survivors (note those who survive) will pick up right where they left off.
Know one knows which theory is correct but there are a few clues and certainly historical patterns to follow. We have seen a great expansion of the wine drinking population in the last 20 years. This has been great for the industry. The very highly priced wines’ success is always closely associated with wealth and particularly the creation of new wealth. Our current financial crisis has hit people’s net worths very hard. It has smashed the Wall Street crowd and all but eliminated the NY power lunches replete with $1000 bottles of something Napa-licious. Yes there is still plenty of wealth around and love of great wine but ostentatious displays of excessive lifestyle are definitely not vogue at the moment. So I guess the bottles of Harlan are being opened in the pantry at Per Se.
The positive effect in the midst of all of this is that wine fans have turned their attention down-market and are discovering that there are indeed many many wonderful wines for $50 (and less) and there can be great joy in their discovery. After all, it doesn’t take much skill to buy the most expensive bottle on a wine list. Industry numbers are reflecting that the economic downturn has indeed been a boon to producers of lower priced wines. Two Buck Chuck a visionary indeed.
So how does all of this shake out? My own point of view is this crisis has always been a cyclic downturn. A deep and bad one, but a necessary release of hyper-growth. I am old enough to have lived through three of these and in each one the naysayers were predicting apocalypse and citing all the reasons why this particular crisis was different than all of the others. When you have a deep recession like this, Darwinian theory holds true: the strong survive. How do you define strong? Companies with products and services that have loyal customers who value them (no matter what the price). And Companies that have a solid enough financial foundation to tough it out. Those who were rapidly expanding and growing their expenses with the expectation of ever growing sales and those who are highly leveraged or require credit to sustain cash flow are having hard times. Newer brands that have not yet established a customer base and also are highly leveraged are the most vulnerable. There is plenty of inventory around and that will lead to lower production. Lower production and the growers get hammered.
And what of California wines rising to $200 and $400 and in some cases $700/bottle and beyond? Was that a simple blip, a short aberration or will they find a lasting sustainable customer base. If you turn to France and the history of the fabled First Growths you would conclude that if the wine is spectacular and gets even better over time, there will be an audience appreciates it and is willing to pay the price. Yes there will be ups and downs, but the great wines of France have survived world wars, recessions, depressions and phylloxera for centuries and have proven to be wines for the ages. Now we’ll see if Napa can as well. There clearly is plenty of pain going around, but long term my money is where my palate is, right here in Napa.
David Rosengarten’s recent article in Saveur, ‘The Evolution of Cabernet’ explores the changes in style that accompanied the spread of Cabernet Sauvignon in the Napa Valley and beyond. One word struck a chord; refinement.
That the style of wines produced in Napa has transformed over the years is clear. Those lucky enough to taste the great wines of the post prohibition years from Beaulieu and Ingelnook marveled at their balance and finesse (and those lucky enough to taste the wines now, 50-60 years on, still marvel at the same thing). Some of this elegance can be attributed to a more intuitive process of production; when the grapes tasted good you harvested, there was no triple sorting, de-stemming, multilevel toast barrel aging. Perhaps it was a more honest approach, devoid of scientific introspection and the debates and pressures of scores and global palates.
Several years ago I was at a lunch with a longtime Napa Valley winemaker who explained the trajectory of his own winery. He recounted that in the 1970’s the harvest included everything in the vineyard – green berries, sunburned berries, ALL berries – followed not by destemming and cold soak but with whole cluster fermentation followed by barrel aging. And we wonder why the wines of the 70’s seemed impenetrable until the late 90’s (some seems so even today). In the 1980’s advancements in vineyard management and research in ripeness led to some dramatic changes in the vineyard with green harvesting becoming the norm and destemming a part of the production process. The wines, though still structured, were rounded out along the edges, more supple and approachable. Phyloxera in the late 80’s provided the opportunity to look closely at the clones and rootstocks in the vineyard. Like many in the valley, he chose some of the new clones coming out of UC Davis, with a focus on ripe fruit character, smaller berries and intense fruit. The regimen of new wood used in the production was increased and the wines became fleshy and ripe, fruit driven in style.
All of this was presented as a logical process of evolution and at the time, many wine producers in Napa Valley could not see beyond the “valley palate” where this move towards ripeness was intricately tied to trying to create the types of wines that critics were writing about and recommending. The early wines of Bryant Family, Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate came to exemplify this style and their tremendous success ushered in a decade of copycat wines that searched out a formula to replicate the style. This is not solely a Napa reality – a tasting of recent Bordeaux
What was lost in the process, at least in my opinion is the elegance, the balance, the refinement.
As Rosengarten notes, these wines of refinement still exist. Meteor Vineyard, Corison, Dyer, VonStrasser. I anticipate seeing more wines produced in the style in the very near future (and NOT just due to the cooler weather in 2010).