Here Lies the Carcass of Napa Valley Winemaking

or

A DEAD HORSE ;

The Tragedy of Napa Valley,

as Seen Through the Lens of

BV Georges de Latour Private Reserve


Two weeks had passed, and I still couldn’t bring myself to pour the 2010 Beaulieu Vineyard (BV) Georges de Latour Private Reserve down the drain. It had been offered to me as a gift, and I knew damn well how much it cost. After relegating the bottle to my fridge and checking in periodically hoping that either the wine or my palate would change, I tried one last time and then finally accepted the inevitable.

BV 2010 outclassed by Marmandais malbec
Who better accompanied smoked duck magret? You guessed it.

This $100 bottle of wine is an undrinkable monstrosity. The $10 2011 Château Terrebert Cotes du Marmandais aside it is a far more alluring wine. The Terrebert was finished; the BV was poured down the drain.

Even if there’s no correspondence between price and quality in wine, it’s a bit shocking: how did BV end up crafting a wine that was impossible to drink? And what could the BV have tasted like?

THE BEAULIEU VINEYARD: TCHELISTCHEFF’S LEGACY


André Tchelistcheff is a deity among California wine enthusiasts. If Georges de Latour — a French businessman who founded the Beaulieu Vineyard in Napa Valley in 1900 — was the visionary who selected the vineyard site and European vine clones to plant, Tchelistcheff was the humble master technician who would hone it to perfection. In 1938, when Georges de Latour went in search of a French cellar master in France, he surprisingly ended up with this 4’11” Russian emigrant as his companion.

Little did he know that this tiny man would leave a gigantic, indelible footprint on winemaking in America1. What Tchelistcheff lacked in English pronunciation2, he made up for in rapier wit, technical know-how, and chivalry (he constantly referred to women as “Madam”, like a nobleman stripped of his court3 ).

From his first vintage at BV in 1938, he opted for revolutionary new techniques: small-lot fermentations, malolactic fermentation as standard practice for reds, and aging in smaller French oak barrels4. By the golden age of the 60s and 70s, he’d firmly established BV as a competitor for Bordeaux reds: he’d put California on the map.  Over 10 US presidents phoned to order BV Private Reserve5.

Then things changed. In 1969, the Latour family sold the Beaulieu vineyard to Heublein, the A-1 Steak Sauce and mixed drink magnate. This was the first in a complicated succession of commercial behemoths into whose hands the sacred vineyard would shift.

Thus began a new era: Heublein cared only about getting the highest possible yields with the least hassle6. “It’s a tragedy”, Tchelistcheff lamented. “Things were never the same”7. Crestfallen, he retired from BV in 1973.

ANDRÉ’S LAST VINTAGE

Here is André’s very last vintage. Tasted August 10, 2014, alongside a couple of other things.

1973 Beaulieu Latour Private Reserve
The tiny giant, Mr. Tchelistcheff, sculpted this regal wine of indisputable pedigree 41 years ago. Maybe it’s not the equivalent of his 1958 or 1970, but it’s unforgettable wine. The texture has become silken, and if the wine retains a sense of leanness, it is nevertheless generous in its sweet fruit and tobacco aromas that at times attain a cocoa note. Even if the age is palpable on the nose, this wine still has poise; perhaps its best days are behind it, but it’s greying gracefully. The finish is all leather and toffee, and you know what? At 13% alcohol by volume (ABV), it’s not the least bit hot on the palate.

Which brings us back to the 2010. How does it taste? Hot. Burning hot. Like a nutmeg and capsaicin cherry-flavored vodka. Nutmeg from the oak élevage, and vodka, well …

WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?

The 2010 BV Private Reserve weighs in at a whopping 15.7% ABV.

It burns.
Stop this ride, I wanna get off.

Here lies the carcass of the Napa Valley winemaking tradition.

This graph demonstrates the desecration of Tchelistcheff’s legacy, charting ABV from 1958 to the absurd pinnacle 2010.  Why is BV’s current winemaker Jeffrey Stambor crafting wines in this style?

Here’s our first clue: Jeffrey Stambor speaking about the new $7 million facility dedicated to creating Georges de Latour Private Reserve:

You may have noted that in the chart above, the ABV went straight to Mars around the 2008 vintage. One wonders how much of a role this facility played.

But that’s only part of the story.

SHOW ME THE POINTS: COMMERCIAL BEHEMOTHS

If Tchelistcheff lamented the arrival of Heublein in 1969, he could never have imagined what Diageo and the future of wine criticism had in store.

Diageo, the beer, wine and spirits behemoth, has owned BV since 1997 when former owner Grand Metropolitan became Diageo through a merger with Guinness. I found something quite odd on the Internet: the PR film that made a promotional video for Diageo left their strategic planning notes8 online for all to see. Highlights:

• Robert Parker said “x” – find quote

• GDL (Georges de Latour) is authentic luxury – the look is timeless sophistication with rich colors – not sleek modern luxury. Think Ralph Lauren, Burberry, the detailing in classic vintage cars/watches, scripted bank notes

• The tone is an ENTERPRISING SPIRIT, CHARMING (LIKE A TRUE GENTLEMAN), AND DISTINGUISED (sic)

• Voiceover: if not Jeffrey Stambor, then a sophisticated woman’s voice; although this is a masculine brand, the female voice coupled with the male imagery will be in balance

Whoa;  let’s take stock here! A blind adherence to Robert Parker’s gospel as a sales totem; an inalienable kinship with luxury brands; an outdated notion of gender … it’s all here.

And of course, it’s all here in the cringeworthy promotional video Diageo birthed unto the world in 2009:

http://www.bvwines.com/video-gallery

(I just LOVE when ‘Suit Man’ rushes on screen late for his cameo at 1:13).  “Thirteen consecutive vintages scoring 90 points or higher.” To me, this encapsulates everything wrong with modern, branded wine — in its desperate struggle for elegance, it’s the inelegant antithesis of André’s legacy. Nothing feels natural: it’s all dinner party dresses, collared long-sleeved shirts, makeup, glamor, giant estates, and somehow feels like a timeshare commercial. This sort of “brand marketing” is happening in any number of wine-producing historic centers of wealth all over the world: Bordeaux, Champagne, and Tuscany are equally plagued by this point-chasing, glamorized marketing culture.  This is exactly what folks fear with LVMH’s acquisition of Clos des Lambrays in Burgundy: that luxury brands will squeeze all of the authenticity out of the estate, leaving behind a wake of fake gold veneer, conspicuous consumption, and botched facelifts.

Commercial behemoths still lazily rely on points to market wines. And those damned points ended up conditioning winemaking itself. Many believe the trend towards jammy, alcoholic wines all began with Robert Parker’s appreciation of the 1982 Bordeaux vintage9, and things grew progressively worse. A seemingly infinite feedback loop of “higher extraction and alcohol = higher score = higher priced wine = greater profits” generated a beast that for decades fed on its own progressively higher alcohol, palate-burning, gloppy feces10.  And, in turn, helped Diageo make dumptrucks of money.

Until consumers suddenly realized they preferred lower alcohol wines that played well with dinner.

IN PURSUIT OF BALANCE

Even before sommelier Rajat Parr began the Holy Crusade for more balanced Pinot Noir in 2011, Napa producers began crying out for balance as well: Clos du Val wrote a “Declaration of Vindependence”, calling for an end to the high-octane trend.

3065326218_9dc65b6e47_o
Big isn’t always bad.

I’m NOT going to make the blanket assertion that either “big” wine or high alcohol wine is systematically bad. That is untrue. High alcohol wines are just bad the vast majority of the time, and given their characteristically low acidity and tannins probably won’t age well.  “Big” and high alcohol aren’t necessarily synonymous. Just as one isn’t obliged to listen to a great symphony at 180 decibels, one might also enjoy a “big” wine without setting one’s palate aflame with high alcohol.  Big wine? We can talk. Let’s drink some dry-farmed Zinfandels, Rimbert Saint-Chinian, or Frappato, which all clobber you with fruity love. Or how about the 2007 Tenuta di Trinoro “Le Cupole”, Andrea Franchetti’s Super Tuscan fruit-bomb that clocks in at a hefty 13.5%. And — future post forthcoming! — my fetish Burgundy producer, Domaine Maume, crafted gigantic 2009 Gevreys that attain a fruity, bourbon-like ripe quality at 13%, but are kept in check by a feral, skunky earthiness.

Here’s the thing: each of these wines retains a sense of place. The Cupole still tastes unmistakeably Italian to me. Maume will always taste like Gevrey. The Sicilian reds have poise and freshness. Each resists forfeiting balance and terroir in the name of higher ripeness and extraction. For some wines, notably Southern French reds, or Zinfandel, or warmer Barolo vintages, it’s inevitable that we crawl past 13.5%. But while any blanket statement is layered with exceptions, for most wines, as ABV rises past 14%, terroir expression plummets.

THE SOLUTION

Look: I don’t want anybody’s scalp here. The PR firm was just PR firming. Diageo is just another company trying to earn money hand over fist. And I’m sure Jeffrey Stambor is a great guy whose palate has simply grown used to these abominations and is trying his best.  Lord knows BV isn’t alone in this trend. But given the Tchelistcheff legacy and the sharp spike in ABV from 2008, this is a rather telling diagnostic of what’s not working in Napa Valley.

So, maybe BV never got the memo that lower alcohol wines are the new trend, and they’ll continue in the direction of the glittery glam-marketed, trophy wine-producing, point-chasing dodos; but their market is waning. I’m honestly saddened that they’re already $7 million deep in what may be a commitment to this style.

Is it really too late to dial it back to drinkable? Do a retrospective vertical and revisit those hallowed vintages: what’s wrong with 13.5%? Shift back to dry farming: if it worked for Tchelistcheff11, why can’t it work for you? Harvest some sections of your vineyard earlier, and age them separately in your nifty, expensive new individual casks. Rebrand; bring the old label back. Can’t we repurpose the $7 million Death Star? Come back down to earth, to the legacy that André entrusted you with … before it’s too late.

dodo_bird

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  1. http://themaestrofilm.com/news.htm – a film, entitled “The Maestro”, is currently in post-production. Can’t wait to see it! []
  2. Allegedly his English was so burdened by his accent that it was easier to understand his French []
  3. http://www.nytimes.com/1994/04/07/obituaries/andre-tchelistcheff-92-authority-on-wine.html []
  4. http://bvwines.com/winemaking/the-maestro []
  5. http://www.nytimes.com/1981/08/16/magazine/wine-a-premium-red-from-the-west.html []
  6. A Sense of Place: An Intimate Portrait of the Niebaum-Coppola Winery and the Napa Valley, Steven Koplan, p. 81-82, visible via: http://books.google.com/books?id=K9v8y9-OFUEC&q=Heublein#v=snippet&q=Heublein&f=false []
  7. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-andre-tchelistcheff-1369921.html, and: “Mr. Tchelistcheff later said his relationship with the corporate entity was never the same as it had been with the de Latour family.” http://www.nytimes.com/1994/04/07/obituaries/andre-tchelistcheff-92-authority-on-wine.html []
  8. http://www.pbdesigns.net/home/organiz/videomgmt/video-outline-GDL.pdf , whose website seems mind-bogglingly ugly and outdated for a PR firm []
  9. All Parker’s fault via critical praise of 1982 Bordeaux, says http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/wine-becomes-more-like-whisky-as-alcohol-content-gets-high/ []
  10. “For a working paper published last May by the American Association of Wine Economists, tens of thousands of alcohol levels for wines imported between 1992 and 2007 by the LCBO, the powerful liquor monopoly of Ontario that buys wines from all over the world, were analysed and compared with actual temperature increases in their regions of origin. The wine economists were able to show that the increase in average alcohol levels was much greater than could be explained by any change in climate and concluded ‘our findings lead us to think that the rise in alcohol content of wine is primarily man-made’. They cited in particular ‘evolving consumer preferences and expert ratings’ as more likely to have driven up alcohol levels. In other words, wine producers perceive that wine consumers and authorities alike want wines that taste riper and in particular have softer tannins and lower acidity (acid levels fall as grapes ripen) and have deliberately chosen to have grapes picked later than they once were.” http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/why-wines-are-stronger-now. Critics like James Laube of the Wine Spectator helped compel Napa winemakers to pick later and craft ever higher levels of extraction and alcohol: “Jim Laube, the chief reviewer for the wine magazine The Wine Spectator, favors opulent, powerful, high-alcohol wines in his ratings”, cf. http://www.creators.com/lifestylefeatures/wine/wine-talk/the-lowdown-on-high-alcohol-content.html []
  11. “All the great wines that established the reputation of Napa Valley were from dry-farmed, unirrigated vineyards, and that’s the way we continue to farm,” he says. “Irrigation was introduced in the ’80s and became popular in the ’90s. http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/frogs-leap-winery-owner-jumps-into-celebration-mode-on-leap-year-day/2012/02/21/gIQAfOnOgR_story.html , cf. also: “…the wines that formed the classic Napa Cabernets–Inglenook, Beaulieu …. were from dry farmed vineyards.” http://www.winesandvines.com/template.cfm?section=features&content=51150 []

15 comments

  1. Very fine article, and a true abomination in Andre’s name. Look forward to reading more. Currently living in Burgundy – check out my blog at http://amitiesjerome.com for reports on 2014 Cote d’Or vintage progress. And I agree, Maume is very fine Gevrey. You might also look for Domaine Henri Richard in Gevrey, biodynamic for 10 years, organic for nearly 20. Young woman winemaker.

    • Gargantua says:

      Thanks Jerome. Love the pictures and parcel-specific summation of damage. So sad to see my beloved Clos des Mouches ravaged, but as you know, “if it hails, it hails in Volnay”, and neighboring Beaune and Pommard. Really eager for 2014 to come out well in Burgundy so I can lay wine down for my godson.

  2. Jason Carey says:

    2010 was a cool year.. tell me how the grapes got to 15.7 percent alcohol.. how much did they do to this juice? or how late did they wait? Just what did they do to this poor juice.. how much technological whoowahatsits?

    • Gargantua says:

      If I had to guess based on research for this article, culprits would be, in order of severity: 1) picking later (to accommodate perceived mkt demand for riper style/point chasery); 2) practice of irrigation since 80s; 3) past high-yield rootstock and clonal selection; 4) new shitty canopy management. It is very difficult to find public data on harvest dates; I searched in vain…there’s no ban des vendanges. Sometimes I wonder if it’s a piss contest to see who can wait longer to pick. You cannot afford to miss this scathing Moueix interview by Jancis if you haven’t seen it yet: http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/dominus-and-whats-wrong-in-napa

  3. Darby Michie says:

    Let me begin by saying I am mostly in agreement with your premise but I think there are a few holes. My preference as well are wines that are in balance, but that term is so fantastically subjective that what it means to me may be different than the person next door. I’m saddened that it is becoming incredibly challenging to find Cabernet Sauvignon that has varietal character and that many producers, Napa and abroad (even Bordeaux), fear that varietal character should rear it’s ugly head. Most of the popular brands in Napa are not only incredibly alcoholic but downright syrupy sweet and they are selling furiously. Whether it’s Parker, Laube or whoever the Satan of today is the wine world is growing and people don’t seem to trust their own palates: sheep need a pastor to tell us what good is. Sorry state of affairs.

    Now. Because the world is large and and we are all generally lazy, companies large and small, public and private want the most bang for their buck. If a big name critic will act as their personal PR, and I am not insinuating that there is greasing, many are happy to go down that road. I beleive the market is pretty well saturated, surely this will continue and if a critic says the wine is 90-some-odd points, then it’s gotta be epic, right? Personally I love finding the jewels out there, but perhaps those with more disposable income than myself, those that want the prestige bottles on their tables want to have what somebody else is telling them what is quality. Points are dangerous game but many beleive they sell bottles.

    The Pursuit of Balance thing though so far is really in the eye if the beholder. Don’t forget that Raj at the infamous tasting pointed out exactly what he balance was and then proceeded to give an example of a balanced Pinot that by his standards was not balanced. Oops. He was fooled. Paying attention to the alcohol as the Holy Grail just doesn’t always work.

    Also you point out, “High alcohol wines are just bad the vast majority of the time, and given their characteristically low pH and tannins probably won’t age well.” Two issues that I have here are that most people don’t want a wine that ages well, they want a bottle that is ready to consume immediately. Most of us can’t imagine a place where you need potentially a decade or more before you can open a bottle but this was the system for a long time. To keep the juggernaut moving ahead sales need to keep going up. Again, I love opening older bottles that have age potential, but at this point most of us that do are the outlier.

    Secondly, you’ve got it backwards on pH: high alcohol wines are typically high pH leaving tannins in a less active form. Total acid and pH are not always fully correlated. Wine is a very complex food, pH and acid are determined in large part due to soil and the ion and mineral balance are a big part of it. Weather, vine nutrition, vine health, winemaking, etc. all have a big part as well, but typically the longer hang time to get tannins to mature is fully correlated to more sugar which will translate to higher alcohol and many time to higher pH.

    Not going to touch crop yields as most of Napa Valley floor has pretty rich soils and many esteemed vineyard scientists will argue to control vigor you need to increase bud count to balance out the fruit to canopy balance.

    Also of note, most people hope to make a living and if they can eke out more money successfully, they’ll do it. The population appears to be growing on your side, but I suggest we are still a long way from seeing their market wane.

    • Gargantua says:

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Darby. I was terrible in chem. I have amended the article to read “characteristically low acidity” to reflect the inverse pH scale (low pH=acid) paradigm. You know, it’s perfectly okay if your conception of balance differs from mine; so long as we agree a 15.7% cherry vodka of a Napa Valley Cabernet blend doesn’t enter into that Venn diagram, we have a common ground. I actually think the market will transform quicker than folks imagine. And, as potentially fallible as you seem to assert it is, ABV% is the single most reliable indicator for ascertaining whether a wine will be hot or not. What else does the consumer have? It’s somewhat rare that I taste a red Burgundy at 13.5% ABV that isn’t hot, and that it’s extremely rare at 13.8-14% ABV; given that state of affairs, you wouldn’t have me begin purchasing higher ABV wines on faith! It’s not because a few outliers exist that we suddenly become like so many firewalkers braving hot coals, emboldened by their faith in God (or here, balance in the face of high ABV). And while earlier drinking wines are unquestionably a trend in places like Bordeaux, I wonder if it’s perhaps a false dichotomy to suggest that because few people wish to age wines, we can’t have wines that age well. I feel as though many modern winemakers have found a happy medium. Produttori del Barbaresco and other northern Italian winemakers jump to mind. The wines are tannic and spiky in youth, but sell easily and still deliver great pleasure early for many, and certainly age well. Perhaps Bordeaux or Chateauneuf would have been a more valid counterexample; but as big of a mess as Bordeaux has become, I’m still hanging on as a fan of Smith Haut Lafitte, and Vieux Donjon, and each seem to be crafting wines that seem to be a fruitier concession to the modern consumer yet capable of longer aging, if doubtlessly riper. Although it would be disingenuous of me to say that I don’t prefer the late 90s wines of those producers. Anyhow, thanks for reading, thinking, and commenting. This is why I write this blog: to broach a dialogue with thoughtful folks like yourself.

  4. Adam Lee says:

    Pshaw…..Andre left in 1973 saying things were never the same since Hueblein bought them in 1969….but one thing that was the same was the alcohol levels…all the way up to 2003 (when they topped 14% and had to be labeled differently). Up to that point, the alcohols could have been all been the same (12.5 alcohol every year across the board every year? Give me a break, they just weren’t changing the alcohol on the label year to year — guess that is one thing Hueblein changed). To imply Andre’s disappointment in BV had anything to do with alcohol levels simply isn’t supported by fact.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

    • Gargantua says:

      That, sir, is a straw man. First, the alcohol levels vary, as visible on the chart. Second, pre-50s ABV was around 12%, even lower. Finally, and most importantly, no one ever meant to imply that the reason that Andre left was simply because of alcohol levels. If you read the footnote, the reason André left is because Heublein cared only about extracting the greatest yields possible from the vines–see the interview with Rafael Rodriguez regarding Heublein’s impact at Inglenook and BV, visible via Google Books. That the alcohol levels went up as this philosophy invaded the vineyard, leading to irrigation in the 80s, changes in canopy management, and perhaps changes of harvest dates, is only symptomatic of that change of mentality. Andre left because Heublein sucked, and because yet another hard-fought legacy fell into the hands of an uncaring corporate behemoth which then let it turn to shit (as happens so often in wine).

      • Adam Lee says:

        No sir, you bringing Andre into the conversation is a straw man. Andre and alcohol aren’t connected (you say simply…there’s no there at all). I’d love for you to go back and watch and read the interviews with Andre…and pull out quotes that have to do with alcohol levels. I don’t think you could, because I haven’t been able to find them.

        Apparently, you are unaware of some important facts. Alcohol levels on the label have a range of accuracy — at 14% or below that range is 1.5%. So labeling the wines at 12.5% (as you show every vintage from 1950 to 1965 and 1969 to 1973 being) meant that the wine could have been 11% or 14%. And, in fact, all of the vintages up until 2003 could have been labeled at 12.5% completely legally. What changed (with regard to alcohol levels) apparently was the philosophy of what was going on the label, but not necessarily what the alcohol levels actually were.

        One thing you can find, however, is Andre’s concern about yields. He did think that Heublein was over cropping and that over cropping was a major problem with later Napa Cabernets. (Of course, higher yields lead to lower alcohols so not sure how you reconcile those). Part of the changes in alcohol levels corresponds to the end of AxR (a notorious heavy yielding rootstock). Yields in Napa have fallen (even though vine density has increased) and that has corresponded pretty nicely with increases in alcohols. I am not naïve enough to say that making wine for the approval of wine critics didn’t also figure into that in the minds of some (but not in all — some people like the wines that you don’t). But to talk about dry farming as the solution (which, by the way, would most likely to lead to higher alcohols as well with the newer rootstocks) isn’t looking at the whole picture.

        You also fail to mention why the new facility came on (the old one was infected the TCA — I doubt you like corked wines). Would you have not built the facility instead?

        Lastly, I’d say that one of the larger things that has changed is that wine critics (such as yourself) have moved away from simply being critical of the wines and moved into telling winemakers how to make their wines. That existed with Parker (no filtering, lower yields, etc) and exists with you as well. That wasn’t commonplace before. And, quite frankly, before following such advice, I’d at least make sure that the person telling me wasn’t “terrible in chemistry” and understood at least the reverse nature of the pH scale.

        Adam Lee
        Siduri Wines

        • Gargantua says:

          Sigh. Again, *no one is saying that Andre left because alcohol levels rose*. I thought I’d made that clear in the last comment, but apparently not. So please abandon that straw man. And yes, I am aware that “BV” was for a long time chided and taken to mean “Bottle Variation”, very rightly so because there was a TCA problem with one of their facilities. I don’t see why this necessarily would have entered into my discussion. But do you really think that TCA was the only compunction to build all the components of the facility? If so, why all the new fancy and allegedly unique barrel aging gadgets that have nothing to do with TCA levels that Stambor vaunts? And, why do you assume I am unaware of the accuracy range on ABV? Your argument that alcohol levels may have been misreported in the past has zero foundation in fact and pales vs the data once you actually take the time to wonder why the ABV reported is shifting over time and vintage (previous to any new reporting compliance from the TTB). If ABV was a fiction, then why bother to report a changing ABV over time? And besides: where does this all get us? Are you going to suggest that actually, we’ve been drinking 15.7% ABV wines all along without knowing it because of reporting discrepancies? That’s indefensible. Finally; it doesn’t take a PhD in chemistry to taste the wines from the previous era and taste the wines now, and realize that something is radically different. What’s changed? ABV levels; canopy management; irrigation; most likely harvest dates. These are all verifiable, chronicled factors. Where’s the mystery here? Oh, and could you please find, say, an example of a dry-farmed Zinfandel that ends up with a higher ABV than an irrigated one? I’m eager to see a Nalle or Frog’s Leap Zinfandel label with a 16% alcohol. I know thee well, sir. You are the troll in the comments section of nearly every single internet post lamenting high-octane wines, denying any credence in critiques of ABV spiking in wines. Well, fire away. But I doubt you’ll manage to shake me from my convictions, nor I from yours. Please talk to the graph, and read Christian Moueix’s comments in Jancis’ article. Good day, sir!

          • Adam Lee says:

            ” But do you really think that TCA was the only compunction to build all the components of the facility? ” — nope..never said that. The other components were added on to do what they thought best to increase wine quality. Andre (back to him) embraced a good bit about winemaking technology (including hiring Mike Grgich to run a state of the art, for the time, lab). The reason the walls came down, however, was largely due to TCA.

            Second, I assumed you didn’t know about the alcohol label variation because you wrote, “First, the alcohol levels vary, as visible on the chart. ” All I am saying is that the actual alcohol levels didn’t have to vary until 2003 (when legally they did as it was over 14%). I never suggested we’d been drinking 15.7% alcohol level wines all along so please don’t imply that I did. I would suggest that from 1956 to 2002 it is entirely possible however that the alcohol levels were low 13 to mid 13s. I think after that it isn’t possible to make that argument, however.

            And I certainly will not deny that harvest brix levels have risen (on Napa Cab and many other wines). In fact, 2013 was the highest average brix level ever recorded in Napa for Cabernet (I’ve got a chart on that).

            I think addressing dry farming without addressing rootstock changes and issues (and recommending then replanting entirely) doesn’t make a lot of sense.

            As I said, I have no problem whatsoever with you critiquing the wine as being hot and undrinkable. I haven’t had it, so how could I have a problem with that? I just question the inclusion of Andre at all and the rather simplistic formula you come up with for changing things.

            Adam Lee
            Siduri Wines

          • Gargantua says:

            Delighted to see we’re striking a more civil tone. My inclusion of Andre is simply that this vineyard, this brand was his legacy! We agree: low 13 to mid 13% is still no 15.7%, so, something’s gotta give, and these wines have nothing to do with those that he crafted other than the brand. Well; regardless of the solution–which I still suspect must entail picking earlier and a gradual return to dry-farming practices (otherwise how will we control ABV levels short of reverse osmosis or other chicanery) along with commensurate rootstock mods to reflect that new state of affairs–I really wouldn’t recommend you try the 2010 BV. I may disagree with you on certain points, but still wouldn’t want you to set your tongue aflame while blowing a Benji.

  5. Peter says:

    Well, I’m just seeing this now, while googling a BV wine that I was considering on its sale website, but this is a debate I do have some feelings about.

    Undeniably, some winemakers here in CA have gotten a bit lazy with their reds in the past decade, using extracted, high alcohol wines as a surrogate for more interesting and complex wines. Zins are the apogee of this trend to my mind, but it has sneaked into other varietals, including even (gasp!) pinots. This laziness is, to me, of a kind with putting too many hops into IPAs or making chards overly buttery/oaky.

    But this criticism has now, to my mind, gone equally off the deep end, with people looking at bottle labels for ABV the way a McCarthyite may have looked at books or movies for Communist influence in another era. The issue really is only peripherally ABV; it’s really does the wine keep good acidity, balance and structure? California, particularly Napa, with our soil and weather, is hardly Burgundy (as the winemaker at Shafer, whose Hillside Select you’re likely equally critical of–may I add parenthetically please notify me in advance of pouring any of *that* down your drain– said, I’d love to make grand cru Chablis, but I don’t have the soil and climate for it). Because, after all, when it comes to high ABV wines, we can’t touch Amarones, and I’m sure that you have no criticism of those, as old world wines.

    I must admit more sympathy for the Perfect Balance people when it comes to Pinots, because I do have concerns that acidity is being sacrificed there. But you should try Mr. Lee’s wine–I regularly do–which relatively high ABV aside, do keep quite good acidity.

    All of this said, I haven’t had the ’10 GDL , but I’ve had most of the aughts (most of which were considerably lower alcohol), and found them to be consistently excellent. I think that BV’s wines are all over the place; most of their Burgundian varietals are awful, but I do enjoy most of their Bordeaux based wines and blends. If you don’t, God Bless, let a thousand flowers bloom and all that, we all have our tastes, but please, in a world of true monstrosities, you might want to fire on a different target.

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