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.
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.
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.
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:
(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.
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.
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.
- http://themaestrofilm.com/news.htm – a film, entitled “The Maestro”, is currently in post-production. Can’t wait to see it! [↩]
- Allegedly his English was so burdened by his accent that it was easier to understand his French [↩]
- http://www.nytimes.com/1994/04/07/obituaries/andre-tchelistcheff-92-authority-on-wine.html [↩]
- http://bvwines.com/winemaking/the-maestro [↩]
- http://www.nytimes.com/1981/08/16/magazine/wine-a-premium-red-from-the-west.html [↩]
- 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 [↩]
- 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 [↩]
- http://www.pbdesigns.net/home/organiz/videomgmt/video-outline-GDL.pdf , whose website seems mind-bogglingly ugly and outdated for a PR firm [↩]
- 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/ [↩]
- “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 [↩]
- “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 [↩]