It’s Time to Retire “Hipster”

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hipster 2We’re way past peak hipster but the media is still beating up on them; they love easy targets.

Now they’re being blamed for the absence of inexpensive groceries in gentrifying communities. The “Depressing Truth about Hipster Food Towns” screams the headline at Mother Jones.

They are also apparently to blame for the escalating prices of bones due to the obsession with bone broth, according to NPR’s The Salt.

The term hipster of course is largely meaningless. Back in the day it was a term of praise identifying beat poets and jazz musicians on the cutting edge of the counter-culture. More recently, anyone under 30 sporting a beard and showing some curiosity about culture can be so labeled. Today, apparently if you shop at Whole Foods or enjoy the mouth feel of denatured collagen you are a hipster. I guess my grandmother was a hipster.

Could the term be any more vacuous? It’s time to send it into retirement to join “yuppie” and “hepcat”.

Napa Under the Rader

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napaNapa is known as the “Disneyland” of wine, where opulent tasting rooms in modern architectural marvels await busloads of tourists intent on swilling overpriced juice standing three deep at the bar. The reputation of being expensive and snobbish is inevitable and partly deserved.

If you’re a wine lover, it’s worth patronizing these places despite the expense and the crowds if only because many are icons that once and, in some cases, continue to set the standard for quality American wine. But once you tire of the glitz and glamour and do a little hunting you can find something quieter, more authentic,  offbeat, and artisanal.

Here’s a few I discovered on our recent stay:

First up is Burgess located a few miles up Howell Mountain. They’re not exactly small although, by Napa standards, their 17,000 case production is on the small side. And they’re not new; they been around since 1972. That’s in part what makes visiting their tasting room interesting. Their staff has experience and they know the ins and outs of Napa as a wine region. The conversation was intimate and informative and the wines are excellent. I especially enjoyed their Petite Sirah.

Holed up in a small industrial park southeast of the city, Holman Cellars is about as artisanal as you can get. This is one small winery that supports several labels. Winemakers Jason Holman, proprietor of Holman Cellars, and Kevin Cadle  of Cadle Family Winery share the space and help each other out by pooling resources and labor but offer distinctly different wine selections from their respective labels. When you make an appointment, one or the other will show you around and pour wines from both labels. Holman’s Uncharted line is described as “unusual varietals”, from “secluded vineyards”, and using “unconventional production techniques” all in small lots that add up to about 600 cases per year. In other words, you don’t know what you’ll get when you walk through the door. Kevin Cadle produces wine from grapes sourced from Chalk Hill, Knight’s Valley and Carneros, also in small lots adding up to about 400 cases. With these production levels, you won’t find these wines in Safeway.

From Cadle the 2015 Gewurztraminer was Alsatian in style and quite lovely. The Sangiovese was ripe yet still Tuscan-like as the grapes held on to the acidity that gives this Italian varietal its freshness. The Malbec from Knight’s Valley was uniquely earthy and also with robust acidity. These are terroir focused wines made in an old world style (at least as old-world as you can get with warm California sun.) From Holman Cellars, the Grenache Blanc was outstanding with lots of hazelnut and layered textures, the Bordeaux-style blend sourced from the relatively cool Coombsville region was floral and elegant, and the Petite Verdot was rich and structured. This is an interesting tasting experience and unusual in Napa. You see up close how a small, artisan winery can survive in Napa where land, space and grapes are enormously expensive.

maisonrySituated on the main drag in Yountville just down the street from the French Laundry is Ma(i)sonry, an art, design, and wine gallery housed in an historic building. The art on display is impressive and continually changing  with a curator on site to keep the collection up to date. But for wine lovers it offers the opportunity to taste the offerings of 10-15 small Napa producers who don’t have their own tasting facilities. We made an appointment to taste the Pahlmeyer wines, which are poured here. Pahlmeyer is too well-known to be under the radar as they make one of most highly touted Napa Valley Merlots.  But the best was yet to come. Our host was kind enough to let us taste the Sauterne-style. late harvest wine from R.H. Harrison. That is what sold me on this venue. The wine is gorgeous with sumptuous apricot cosseting buttered almond aromas. Pear flavors emerge on the palate as well giving way to a candied citrus finish, pure, clean with a texture like satin and great length and life .

R.H. Harrison, for many years a winemaker at Beringer, started his own winery in 2006 to specialize in this delectable treat. His entire production is focused on botrytized, late harvest wines, a perilous adventure as he depends on nature to develop the botrytis spores each year. Sometimes it happens; sometimes it doesn’t, and even when it happens he has to harvest the grapes before the birds get them.

I doubt I would have discovered R.H. Harrison if not for the venue at Ma(i)sonry. What other gems lurk on their tasting menu? Only another visit will tell. The rooms have the feel of a well appointed living space and the courtyard is enticing when the weather is good.

corisonLastly, it’s odd to refer to Cathy Corison as under the radar; among insider’s she’s anything but, having won several awards for her distinctive wines. However, to the larger public she may be little known since she produces only about 2500 cases per year. Corison’s approach to winemaking exemplifies what Napa Cabernet used to be before the trend toward ripeness and high alcohol took hold. Her wines are restrained yet taut and elegant with savory herbal notes complementing the fruit and plenty of fresh acidity. The staff is experienced and knowledgeable and the tasting flight often includes a wine from their library. We were treated to their 1999 Napa Cabernet, one of the finest wines I’ve tasted all year. Putting library wines on the tasting flight is a sign of quality and care; it demonstrates the winery’s commitment to showing their wines when they are at their peak. Since these wines are inherently rare it also shows a winery not interested in entertaining the hordes. The tasting room is comfortable but decidedly unglamorous since it occupies one corner of the barrel room. Best of all, there is no room for limos in the parking lot and not a faux Romanesque statue in sight.

This is artisan winemaking at it’s best and a great place to forget you are visiting the “Disneyland of wine”.

If you’ve been avoiding Napa because of the crowds and the hype just do a bit of research and look for unusual experiences. The expense unfortunately is unavoidable but the experience can be worth every penny.

Ageing Report: Dierberg Estate Pinot Noir Santa Maria 2008

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dierberg pinotWhen it is right there is no finer wine than a Pinot Noir but it’s hard to find one that ticks all the boxes. This one does. It is an aging beauty at the peak of its perfection.

Ripe strawberry jam, chocolate, and smoke-tinged mushroom are the dominant aromas, with a hint of barnyard, wisps of mint and the vestiges of vanilla playing minor roles.

On the palate, the initial impact is gentle but with an underlying, ingratiating richness that wins you over immediately . It acquires dimension midpalate as cola notes become more forceful, but then finishes with the texture of cashmere, the tannins now so delicately woven they’re but a spectral presence. Yet, the finish is surprisingly long given how softly the tannins and acidity sing in melodious rhyme.

Wu Wei, the Confucian term translated as “effortless action” describes the languor and ease of this wine.

It’s another data point in the debate over whether ripe California Pinot Noir will age well. When it was young I thought it was a bit over-ripe and I laid it down as an afterthought. But that ripeness has now become an asset contributing to its pliable tenderness.

Score: 94

Price: $42 at release

Alc: 14.1%

Neither bright nor crisp , it has a slow bluesy vibe like this Ellington/Strayhorn tune performed by Allen Toussaint

This Challenge to Labeling Laws Seeks Permission to Mislead

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minnesotaThis is a disturbing development and one not unique to Minnesota:

Two Minnesota winemakers have gone to court to overturn a state law they say is hampering their livelihoods – even though the law in question was designed to protect the state’s wine industry.

Nan Bailly, owner of Alexis Bailly Vineyard – Minnesota‘s first winery – and Next Chapter’s Tim Tulloch have taken the extraordinary measure this week in an attempt to have the 1980 Farm Wineries Act struck down, according to Minnesota’s Star Tribune newspaper.

The law stipulates that wineries must use more than 50 percent of Minnesota-grown grapes in order to label the result as Minnesota wine, but Bailly and Tulloch are arguing that it unconstitutionally prevents them from sourcing grapes from out of state, forcing them to make wines that appeal to neither their bottom line nor consumers’ palates.

I understand the motivation but not the logic. Minnesota is a cool weather region that has trouble protecting vinifera vines of favored varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from winter cold and getting these grapes ripe in the summer. So they want to import grapes from the West coast in order to make wines their customers want to drink. There is no problem with that and nothing in current law prevents them from doing so. What they can’t do now is label their wines as being made from Minnesota grapes. And there is good reason for that. They aren’t made from Minnesota grapes. Labeling them as coming from Minnesota would be false advertising.

The aim of this lawsuit is to give them permission to mislead their customers.

Minnesota wine is distinctive because of the characteristics imparted by Minnesota climates and soils. There is unlikely to be anything distinctive about Minnesota wines made from California grapes unless the winemaker has some unusual talent or unique style. But in that case, his/her wines will attract attention regardless of what region is on the label.

This lawsuit appears to be nothing but an attempt by larger influential, producers to flood the market  with generic wine pushing out producers struggling to give Minnesota wines an identity. If successful it will destroy the industry. Why would Minnesotans go out of their way to buy wines made from California grapes when the local liquor store has hundreds of California wines for sale?

The successful wine regions in the world are those who are able to figure out what makes their wines distinctive. The last thing we need is more generic wine.

Budget Wine Review: Trader Joe’s Cabernet Sauvignon Gran Reserva Colchagua Valley Chile 2014

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tj gran reservaAnother iteration in Trader Joe’s Grand Reserve line up of upper tier budget wines. This one is fine but it’s mood is downbeat.

Ripe dark fruit, dried fig, hints of warm spices and dusty earth aromas provide complexity, but there isn’t much intensity or life. Vanilla emerges with more air. It’s very laid back. At least there are no green, vegetal notes.

On the palate it’s not broad and dimensional enough to be lush but it is smooth with a layer of velvet fruit over supportive, unobtrusive tannins and a short finish exposing oak flavors. Very low acidity contributes to the impression of  lethargy. This is an easy drinker with plenty of flavor but a bit sullen and morose.

Highly recommended for those suicidal moments.

Score: 86

Price: $12

Alc: 14.5%

Bat For Lashes’ The Big Sleep has a similar mood.

Revisiting the Judgment of Paris

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judgment of parisThe famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) Judgment of Paris has rightly become an iconic moment in wine culture.

In 1976, a British wine merchant, Steven Spurrier, organized a blind tasting competition between high quality French and California wines, both white and red. To Spurrier’s surprise a California wine placed first in each category thus putting California on the wine map.

But there has always been controversy about this competition because in some ways the French wines were set up to lose. The French wines were from bad vintages unlike the California wines, they were too young to drink since the French make their wines to age, there were fewer French wines in the flights, and some of the French stars such as Lafite and Petrus were left out of the line up.

Like many before her, Master of Wine Jennie Cho Lee has taken on the enviable task of organizing a new competition between France and California with scrupulous attention to getting a fair representation from both regions:

The initial greatest hits list from Bordeaux and Napa included 64 legendary wines like Cheval Blanc 1947, Petrus 1961, Le Pin 1982, Heitz Cellars Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1974 and Ridge Montebello 1978. One theme emerged after analyzing this extensive list: the 1990s was a fantastic decade for both Napa and Bordeaux, which meant if we narrowed our selection to this decade, from 1989 to 1999, then both regions would have a fair shot of winning. Plus, the advantage of having about 20 years of bottle age would benefit the wines from both regions.

The lucky judges were Cho and several Hong Kong based collectors.

Here is the list of wines that ultimately made it into the competition.

1   1991 Dominus Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

2   1990 Chateau Margaux

3   1993 Abreu Madrona Ranch

4   1994 Le Pin

5   1996 Chateau Lafite Rothschild

6   1997 Bryant Family Vineyard Proprietor Grown Cabernet Sauvignon

7   1997 Colgin Herb Lamb Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

8   1996 Chateau Mouton Rothschild

9   1991 Harlan

10  1990 Chateau Montrose

11  1995 Dalla Valle Maya

12  1990 Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion

13  1995 Araujo Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

14  1989 Chateau Haut-Brion

15  1990 Petrus

16  1994 Screaming Eagle

Not a bad tasting—the article doesn’t say who paid for it.

So who won the competition? The scores and final verdict are here. The top five were all French, although the scores were close, with Chateau Haut Brion 1989 taking the top honor and Screaming Eagle 1994 placing 6th, the latter being the best liked Napa wine.

As Cho concludes:

At the pinnacle of quality, Bordeaux seems to have an advantage over Napa. Perhaps it is the older vines, or the multiple century’s head start on wine growing and making, or the cooler growing conditions, or the leaner frame that allows more detail and nuances to express themselves. Whatever the explanation, this blind tasting showed that for pure quality, Bordeaux is inimitable but Napa has its charm. At this extreme, high end of the quality spectrum, the difference between a 97-point or 100-point wine, comes down to personal taste.

This outcome does not surprise me. In my limited experience with wines of this quality when it comes to age-ability Bordeaux cannot be beat. I recently tasted a 1978 Chateau Margaux that was still exquisite. But if this competition were held with recently released wines, my guess is the results would be reversed.

The difference is not only terroir or winemaking skill but culture. The French value age-ability more than Americans do, which is not surprising given the resonance of their history that goes back several centuries.

Why Demystify Wine?

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demystify wineOne of the enduring mysteries of this moment in the culture of wine is why almost every wine writer from obscure bloggers to the most widely read critics think their job is to demystify wine. Why?

In most areas of life, mystery is a good thing. Literature, film and science depend on mystery for their very existence. It’s what drives an unfolding plot and the dogged search for an explanation. Religion is loved in part because it lends mystery to life. Yet, when it comes to wine, mystery is something everyone thinks we would be better off without.

Perhaps this zeal to eliminate mystery comes from wine’s position as a cultural symbol of sophistication. Perhaps people feel if they lack wine knowledge they appear unsophisticated so to relieve a sense of collective inadequacy we need to make wine into something ordinary and accessible. But, more likely, wine’s complexity seems like something nearly unmasterable and just too much work. So people involved in the selling of wine try to sell it as something as comprehensible as orange juice or soda.

But this attempt to demystify wine betrays the secret of all motivation–the fun is in the mystery, not the mastery. One of the loveliest facts of life is that the more you learn, the more there is to learn. Learning increases a sense of wonder because it expands the facts on which to build horizons. That is surely true of wine knowledge.

Wine is phantasmagorical, constantly mutating, reacting to geographical and environmental conditions, and changing shape depending on who you are, when you drink, where you drink and with whom. And always with the sense that there is something else there to be uncovered. Demystification means knowing exactly what your getting. Wine is fun because it can never be reduced to a set of fixed characteristics that one could simply know.

All those confusing labels, exotic locales, varying vintages, and proliferating varietals are stage setting for the unexpected and the astonishing. To demystify it is a crime.

Wine Review: Jura Pinot Noir

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jura pinotFor the past few years, the hottest wine region among New York somms and hipsters in the know has been Jura, a hitherto obscure wine region situated between Burgundy and the Swiss border. Interest in this region is in part explained by it not being Burgundy. If you’re a young winemaker in love with Burgundian Pinot, vineyard land in Burgundy is just too expensive. And if you’re a wine lover in love with Burgundian Pinot, the wines are just too expensive. Jura is just a few kilometers East with similar limestone and marl soils and cooler Pinot-friendly temperatures but with affordable land prices and thus affordable bottle prices as well.

But the region has more to offer than relative affordability. Isolated from the population centers in France, it has developed its own wine traditions using, in addition to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, grape varietals that are largely unique to the region. Vin Jaune, its most famous wine, is produced in an oxidative style akin to Fino Sherry from Savignin grapes. Poulsard and Trousseau are indigenous and found only occasionally outside Jura. Trousseau today accounts for only 5% of the plantings here. It is more prominent in Portugal where it’s called Bastardo and is often part of the blend for Port. Poulsard is indigenous to Jura and is so thin-skinned it is often used to make white wine.

I’ve long been curious about this region and finally had a chance to try two representative wines this weekend although these two Pinot Noir-dominant wines are only a small sample of the diverse styles found in this region.

My favorite was a 2010 Pinot Noir from Les Chais du Vieux Bourg. Enticing bright, fresh, red and black cherry aromas and soft herbal notes mingle with crushed rock and hints of mushroom. On the palate it’s ravishingly elegant, but oh so light on its feet, with its flavors just whispering until stony minerality emerges on the tart finish to give the wine backbone. Subtlety seductive and texturally sensual but very understated and delicate. The wine was made from the Savignin Noir grape which as far as I can tell is genetically related to Pinot Noir and has a very similar flavor profile. $26

The second wine was a Pinot Noir dominated blend, Trois Cepages 2014, by Domaine du Pelican from Arbois, the main appellation in Jura. With a blend of 60% Pinot Noir, over 30% Trousseau, and a splash of Poulsard this wine was fascinating. Like the Les Chais, the emphasis was on freshness and finesse. The nose of red raspberry melding with citrus aromas and sweet herbs was intriguing and the stony minerality on the palate bracing. This was an acid-heads dream, but the sourness on the finish was a little to prominent.   $40

These are cool climate wines, light bodied, lively but not rich or sumptuous. If you’re a fan of rich Sonoma juice you will probably find the Pinot Noir of Jura thin and too acidic. But I found these gossamer textures to be thrilling and the region is distinctive enough to warrant further study.

Budget Wine Review: Castle Rock Winery Pinot Noir Monterey County 2014

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castle rockCastle Rock is an interesting winery. Essentially a negociant making a variety of appellation-specific wines, they own no vineyards but source grapes from various vineyards on the West coast and use a variety of production facilities. Their annual production is approaching 1,000,000 cases of exclusively value-priced wines.

This Pinot Noir from Monterey is as odd as their business model. It shows prominent herbal aromas, mushroom, and bright rose petal with black cherry taking a back seat. The palate flavors are more fruit focused but with the addition of persistent bitterness from front to back. The bold herbaceous quality inhibits fruit expression and comes across as unbalanced although the complexity is nice for a value wine. On the heavy side of medium weight, the mouthfeel has a glycerin quality resolving to a short spicy finish. Tannins are supportive and nicely done, and there is no overt woodiness marring the experience.

It is hard to find good, budget Pinot Noir. This one is competent and unusual, a cut above the ordinary supermarket wines from the conglomerates.

Score: 86

Price: $13 but often discounted

Alc: 13.5%

This wine has a languid, quietly romantic mood that will resonate with languid, quietly romantic jazz such as Bobo Stinson’s Music for Awhile