Skip to content

Are You Experienced? Galloni, California, and that Old-School Style

2011 March 22
by Mike

Last week, I was asked in the comments section if I was surprised that Antonio Galloni, who will now be reviewing California wines for the Wine Advocate, has only visited Napa and Sonoma twice. I said that two visits struck me as a somewhat flimsy foundation but that I was more interested to know how much experience he has of older California wines—of wines from the 1960s, and 70s. This brought a response from Adam Lee, the owner of Siduri Wines, which produces California and Oregon pinot noirs. In addition to being a respected winemaker, Lee is a stalwart of the wine discussion boards and an energetic participant in the roiling debate over alcohol levels, balance, and California pinot. As it happens, he is the talk of the wine world today: New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov has just published a column chiding Lee for a stunt that he pulled at a recent pinot noir seminar in California.

Lee was on a panel that also included Raj Parr, who runs wine operations for Michael Mina’s restaurant group and who has a policy at one of his restaurants, San Francisco’s RN74, of not serving pinots that are above 14 percent alcohol. Unbeknown to his fellow panelists, Lee had switched the labels on the two pinots that he served at the seminar. One had 13.6 percent alcohol, the other 15.2 percent. Parr liked one of the wines so much he asked Lee to buy some. It turned out that the one he requested was the higher alcohol pinot. I’m not sure why Asimov, who moderated the panel, was so put out. Parr, who is a terrific guy and by all accounts a gifted taster, was evidently a good sport about the whole thing, and I think Lee’s ruse very effectively demonstrated the perils of dogmatism when it comes to wine.

Anyway, prompted by my remark about older California wines, Lee posted a comment that I think could serve as the basis for an interesting discussion. With his permission, I am reprinting his comment here:

Mike

An interesting point about having knowledge of past wines. Got me to thinking. Can you expound on it a bit? For example, in a region as new (relatively) as CA — what does that knowledge give you? I’ve been reading an interview with Martin Ray where he complains that a wine only has to be 50% of one varietal to be called that varietal. That’s changed a lot since then (though it is only 75%). So what does that knowledge of Cabernet back then teach you today with such different standards?

Would wonder also if it is only important to taste the great wines from the 70s, etc (like the two you mentioned) or would it also be important to have tasted how many wines weren’t very good?

Any thoughts?

Thanks,

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Lee raised some fair questions, and he clearly saw right through my comment: I think California used to do better, especially with cabernet sauvignon. Are there more quality wines being produced in California now than there were 30 years ago? Undoubtedly. But for my taste, the finest California wines of the 60s and 70s were superior to the wines that are considered today’s standard-bearers—the Harlans, Shafers, Scarecrows, etc. Wines like the 1970 Ridge Monte Bello and the 1978 Phelps Eisele had plenty of ripeness, but they had freshness and elegance, too, attributes that are hard to find in most of the so-called cult cabernets. Lee suggests that these comparisons are misguided because the laws governing varietal composition were so different back in the day. With all due respect, I think the blending issue is a red herring. For one thing, it’s my understanding that the better producers of the 60s and 70s, the guys who made the wines that we’re still drinking and talking about, tended to use a significantly higher percentage of cabernet than the regulations required. More importantly, though, it’s not the grapes that account for the contrast between California wines past and present: it’s the alcohol and the new oak.

As I said, one shouldn’t be dogmatic on the issue of alcohol. It is certainly possible for higher octane wines to come across as balanced. However, I think those wines are a distinct minority; in my experience, cabernets, pinots, and syrahs that are 15 or 15.5 percent alcohol are much more likely to be hot, syrupy, and disjointed, and they certainly don’t have the freshness that I want. I definitely don’t find freshness in most of the cult cabs and wannabe cults. And while climate change has had an effect on alcohol levels, I think stylistic trends have had a far greater influence: winemakers have ratcheted up the alcohol because they recognized that it was catnip in certain quarters. The same goes for the new oak, which is being used with a very heavy hand nowadays. The combination of the alcohol and the wood has rendered many of these wines distinctly inelegant, a problem I don’t think is going to be solved by cellaring them for a decade or two. Indeed, I suspect that a lot of them will fall apart as they age.

As Lee rightly notes, California is a relatively young region, but it is old enough to have experienced a rather dramatic evolution in winemaking styles, and it seems to me that Galloni ought to be familiar not only with what California offers today, but what it offered in the past. Sure, there are still a few producers making what can be described, for lack of a more original phrase, as old-school wines—Ridge certainly comes to mind, as does Montelena. There are some others. But I think any critic who reviews California should be acquainted with the better wines from the 1960s and 70s, and it’s unclear to me why this would be a matter of dispute. Tasting older wines, regardless of the region, gives a critic invaluable perspective. Would we assign much credibility to a Bordeaux critic who hasn’t tasted anything older than an 1982, or to a Burgundy critic whose experience only goes back to the 1996 vintage? Obviously not, and I think the same thing applies to California wines, even if they don’t have as long and rich a history.

There’s another issue here. Robert Parker, Galloni’s boss (or is it now colleague?), has claimed that these ultra-ripe, high-alcohol wines are the truest expression of California’s viticultural bounty. You may recall Parker’s broadside against Robert and Tim Mondavi a decade ago. Unhappy that the Mondavis were making what he regarded as excessively light and restrained wines, he chastised them for “going against what Mother Nature has given California.” He said it was “obvious that the strength of California’s finest wines lies not in delicacy and finesse, à la Bordeaux, but in power, exuberance, and gloriously ripe fruit.” With their Bordeaux-like elegance and subtlety, these older California wines challenge that notion, and while I don’t expect Galloni to deviate from the party line, I would hope he’s at least tasted some of the classics from the 60s and 70s, which offer a strikingly different vision of what California is capable of.

Adam, fire away! And I’d be very interested to hear what other folks have to say on this topic.

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Bill permalink
    March 24, 2011

    Mike,

    I agree with David Rossi that the economics of the situation are driving a lot more of this than many of the other variables you and others have cited. There are two elements to what I mean:

    1) U.S. consumers at all ends of the spectrum have demonstrated a preference for the higher alcohol, syrupy, toasted oaky wines you deplore (and that I don’t like either). As David noted, this preference could be a result of our sugared-up diets or the fact that wine isn’t a fixture on most Americans’ dinner tables. Who knows? But when you said in your original post that “winemakers have ratcheted up the alcohol because they recognized that it was catnip in certain quarters,” I think that’s a mischaracterization. It’s catnip in ALL quarters, from the Parker-led trophy hunters who drop ridiculous coin on Screaming Eagle to your average Joe dropping 7 bones on Yellow Tail.

    2) The second element is the high price of land in prime California wine country. As you yourself noted (http://www.slate.com/id/2244439/), it’s extremely expensive, and if you’re a winemaker with huge loans to pay for that land, it’s going to make you risk-averse. Dunn, Montelena, and Ridge are all wonderful Bordeaux-style producers, but they had the luxury of getting in before the land became so inordinately expensive. They could afford to emulate the French wines they liked because the stakes were lower and the price of failure smaller. You think if someone were to buy a tract of land in Calistoga today like Montelena, knowing how much consumers across the board prefer the Parkerized style and carrying undoubtedly a big chunk of debt, they would take a chance, buck the trend, and make wines that a minority of folks prefer? Not bloody likely. It’s no surprise that the few who are making those “Euro-style” types of wine have either had the land for a long while (like Dunn and the others) or have pockets deep enough not to care if it fails or succeeds (like Kevin Harvey of Rhys). As long as the price of land stays high in Napa and elsewhere, I think you’ll see most producers looking to make the wines that consumers (and consequently, their creditors) like best.

    Bill

  2. David Rossi/Fulcrum Wines permalink
    March 24, 2011

    I suggest that this discussion about California styles over time is just part of an overall trend with consumers tastes. Working in both the food industry as well as in the wine world we see the palates of consumers being dulled and the need for bigger and bigger flavors.

    Julia Child would add salt and pepper to a roast and serve it with a ju made from pan drippings- Bobby Flay would put on a huge herb crust and figure out a way to get Chipotle in there.

    I grew up with gummy bears, now Sour Patch Kids are the norm. Food science and technology has worked hard to pack more flavor into products since the 1950s. Bolder more intense flavors are now the norm for consumers, in part, due to the foods we have been raised with. I think the wine world is just part of this and rather than looking at rootstocks, books like Sunlight in Wine, crop levels, the critics, the 100 point scale and all of the usual suspects we should take a step back and see that consumers are driving wine styles. If consumers really wanted 13.5% Alc Napa Cab with more elegance and finesse, that is what they would buy and we winemakers would make. The bottom line is that overall they don’t.

    Looking for answers within is certainly interesting, but ultimately you must look at the consumer.

  3. mikael gulyash permalink
    March 24, 2011

    I started sugar testing in Alexander Valley back in 80 just before we started seeing a lot of replanting ( the AXR ) and I’ve kept notes for 30 years, still do. Back then you could definitely see flavor development at 22 brix and still generally have good chemistry. Picking by mid 24 was pretty common and the flavors were well developed, not ” thin or green ” by any means. I tested grapes in Napa too but generally most everyone was on the same page.

    There always some exceptions, but it has been a long time since I could go through ANY ( replanted ) vineyard in Napa or Sonoma and makes the same notes of flavor development in cab until the sugars are past 24 and usually my notes find ” adequate ” flavor development near 26 – 27 brix.

    Yields on AXR were never a real problem, vigor was good but in most places not over the top and few people had to resort to methods to devigor, just some extra thinning and it was all good.

    At harvest there also wasn’t a lot of raisoning to contend with so generally juice chemistry was pretty good and you didn’t have the ” over-ripe ” character to deal with either.

    So the inherent alcohol production was lower and the juice chemistry was not problemmatical, better balance and aging.

    It is vastly more difficult now to arrive at that warm fuzzy place of ” balance ” today with higher alcohols. More alcohol extracts the wood more and faster. A tick off in the pH / TA and you get heat and hot. Certainly the wines ( can ) show more extract, but they ” want ” to show all the ” other stuff ” that comes with that. When you can get it right, you really won’t ” see ” the alcohol, but that’s an elusive place.

  4. March 24, 2011

    I can’t read through all the comments, but as Adam points out, rootstock is one of the big issues that no one talks about, especially WRT cabernet. This correlates strongly with the change in style in Napa cabernet based wines.

    The greater point is that it is a stylistic change brought about BY CHOICE. The big red herring in all of this is talk of physiological ripeness. If you can get ~100 days hang time, pick at 22 and you’ll get a more balanced wine. If it sucks, it means your grapes are planted on the wrong soil or in the wrong place or both.

  5. March 23, 2011

    Mike,

    With regard to phylloxera, you many want to check out this study from 1991 on rootstocks and Cabernet Sauvignon:

    http://www.avf.org/article.html?id=3587

    It show that AXR had higher yields (which usually lead to lower sugars, Laube even wrote a column about this recently), lower pHs, higher TAs, and utilized more water than many of the other rootstocks. I am not sure that the demise of this rootstock is a red herring in the change in CA wines over the years.

    Hope you have a good trip….

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  6. March 23, 2011

    Hi all,

    Thanks for some great comments. I’ve got a Slate piece closing that is tangentially related to this subject, and I’m heading out of town tomorrow, so I’m going to reply quickly and will try to circle back later with more detailed thoughts.

    Tom–thanks for the terrific comment. I agree; it’s early days in California, and we should be applauding and encouraging a spirit of experimentation. My attitude is that a 1000 pinots should bloom (and if Mao had been a pinot drinker, I’m absolutely sure he would have said exactly that). Indeed, I worry that one kind of absolutism is starting to yield to another in this discussion about alcohol, balance, etc. I think it’s an interesting and important discussion, but people need to keep in mind that there is no right answer and that it doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. Some people love Marcassin, others love Rhys, and neither side needs to defend its preferences. And after the experience of the last decade, in which a few critics crusaded on behalf of a particular style–and punished those who didn’t fall in line–I think we could use a break from the crusading.

    Bill–great point about Parker and Bordeaux, though Parker didn’t say that he liked the delicacy and finesse! I haven’t seen the Laube article, but that’s interesting that he is even acknowledging that there might be a problem. He hasn’t exactly been a champion of the old-school cabs, with their lower alcohol levels and felicitous green notes. He’s been as much a champion of the Parker pleasers as Parker himself. Are we about to see a crepuscular conversion?

    Adam–too much to respond to in one quick comment, and as I said, I will come back with more later. But just a couple things right now. I agree that things were very different 40-50 years ago, and that one should bear this mind. With regard to the overall quality in California now versus 40 years ago, there are obviously many more well-made wines available now than was the case back then. But for my taste, the better wines of that era are superior to the wines that are considered California’s standard-bearers now–the Harlans, etc. More importantly, those old cabs present a very different vision of California wines, and I think a critic should be familiar with those wines. As I said before, it gives some perspective, and that’s essential for any critic. Regarding your comment about phylloxera–it’s an interesting point, but like the blending issue, it strikes me as a bit of a red herring. The extreme ripeness levels, the oak–these are choices, and they’ve me with approval in some quarters, disapproval in others.

    So, Adam, any of this discussion tempting you to try your hand at cabernet?

    Anyway, I’ll try to come back with more later, and thanks to all of you for stopping by.

    Mike

  7. March 23, 2011

    Good thoughts, Mike. I don’t think knowing the wines from the 60s and 70s is a silver bullet to the issue, though. For Cabernet, certainly, there were more options among premier wines in the 12.5-13% alcohol range — the old Sterling Reserves, Montelena, Heitz, etc. You can still find some sleekly styled wines (Forman being a premier example in most vintages, though Montelena still is consistently excellent). But California wines for decades have shown a wide range of alcohol levels. There are Joseph Swan Pinots from the 1970s that hit 15%, yet still aged amazingly well.

    Adam’s point is an excellent one, that the California industry is still young and trying to figure out what really works and where. It’s only been within the last 20 years or so that the prime areas for Pinot Noir, for example, have truly been identified, and an even shorter time during which we know which clones and roostocks thrive in the many different terroirs. Indeed, Adam has been a leading figure in being open to experimentation and dedicating himself as a student of discovering what truly works. It shows in his wines over the years, which have become more balanced, perfumed, and age-worthy across the board.

    Because this is a youthful industry, it comes as no surprise that it has been susceptible to wide swings in style. Everyone wants to know what works. So when someone gains acclaim for something, everyone wants to try it out. (Californians aren’t the only groups that fall victim to fadism — the French are great at it, too, not to mention the Spanish and Italians and so on.) In the long run, however, it is serious experimentation and a dedication to quality — and not fads — that will win the day. I have a suspicion, though, that we may look back in 30, 40, 50 years on the 1997-2007 period of California wines and see them as a blip on the map, an aberration during which “ultra-premium” wines were equated with “ultra-ripe” before balance came to rule the day.

    This seems to be an inevitable part of the growing pains of California wine. But because of the dedication to quality by Adam and others — some new to the game, others long-time Napa and Sonoma stalwarts — this is an exciting time to be drinking wine. Quality is good, getting better, and certainly the best days are yet to come, as winemakers and growers figure out the terroir of California and how best to express it. Back in the 60s and 70s, they didn’t have a corner on the wisdom of California terroir. There were some great wines, for certain, and we should be grateful for their trailblazing efforts. But I don’t think the industry will move forward exclusively by looking back.

  8. Guglielmo permalink
    March 23, 2011

    Mike, don’t you think that Parker’s statement regarding the appropriateness of “delicacy and finesse” in Bordeaux is more than a little at odds with the direction in which he has led Bordeaux for decades now? It still exists, but only where Parker’s express or implied dicta (as well as his extremist misinterpretation of the work of Peynaud, and the extremist views of Peynaud himself) have been largely ignored. That said, a 14.2% 2009 Haut-Brion scares the shit out of me…

  9. Guglielmo permalink
    March 23, 2011

    Speaking of what went down 30 years ago in Napa, the thoughts from James Laube’s latest column need to be added to the discussion. (The piece is sporting a very nice new photo of old Jim, too!) His contention is that the solution to the high-alcohol fruit bomb problem, as well as high prices, is to start overcropping (by 21st century, cult Cab standards). He cited historic production numbers for Mondavi Reserve, Chateau Montelena and Phelps Insignia, and implied that the lighter-body, lower-alcohol high production years of those wines were among the best Cali Cabs. (He also noted that Fred Schrader cropped the To-Kalon vineyard at 5 tons an acre in 2005.) He also offered a Discussion Light of Emile Peynaud’s impact, and suggests that, beginning with the vaunted 1982 vintage, Bordeaux was better for his efforts, Peynaud having rescued Bordeaux from thin, green, acidic 12.5% alcohol wines (true dat in many cases, methinks). Lurking in the article, however, is the notion that both Bordeaux and Cali Cabs have suffered from too much of a good Peynaud thing. Laube seems to think that 13.5% Cabernet-based wines are a good thing. Me, too. The overcropping idea may not be a new one to California winemakers, but it is the first time that I have seen it in print, and it holds great appeal for me. I am sure that few will go that way, and equally sure that, for those that would, results would probably vary widely. Still, interesting stuff…

  10. March 23, 2011

    Mike,

    Thanks for the shout out here. I do appreciate it. — And thanks for the thoughts on my post. I don’t know that “fire away” is the correct phraseology, but I do have some further questions/thoughts:

    1) I think that what can be learned about current wines from tasting wines from the past is an interesting question. When I brought up the 50% varietal law, I wasn’t citing that so much as a reason as to why tasting older wines might not be relevant, but rather as just one example of how different many things were about CA wines just 30-40 years ago. I have recently been re-reading “Vineyards in the Sky” about Martin Ray and re-reading Robert Benson’s wonderful book from 1977, “Great Winemakers of California.” Doing so provides a fantastic perspective on how different things were in CA winemaking and viticulture 30+ years ago, and how some things were remarkably similar. I think that a full understanding of this would be remarkably helpful for anyone attempting to understand CA wine today, not just tasting some examples of great wines from the past.

    2) I have often wondered how we judge the strength of vintages….is a vintage great because the majority of wines in that vintage are great, or because the greatest wines of that vintage are greater than ever? To some extent that question is relevant here. You say that there are more quality wines than ever in CA. That could certainly be viewed as a positive endorsement of CA wines….a movement forward. But then you say that the greatest wines from the past were greater “than the wines considered today’s standard bearers.” That seems like an odd comparison….If you can make a comparison between overall quality of wines from then and now, why can’t you simply say that the greatest wines from the past are greater than the greatest wines from today? If I am interested in your opinion on what you considered to be the greatest wines from the past, then I am interested in your thoughts on how they compare to what you consider to be the greatest wines of today (not what others consider to be the greatest wines of today).

    3) I amazed that the effects of phylloxera and the subsequent replanting in CA are so rarely discussed by wine writers. If you go back in French viticultural history you see an incredible worry and fear that replanting would change French wines forever, and a belief by some old timers that it did and that the post-phylloxera wines have never been as good as those pre-phylloxera. Three quarters of a century later, between 50-65% of the vines in Napa and Sonoma were planted to AxR rootstock and had to be replanted due to phylloxera. This replanting happened recently, in the late 1980s and early to mid 1990s (here’s an interesting link about this from Wine and Vines: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m3488/is_n8_v75/ai_15728323/). — Many wine writers today, while claiming to be more focused on “terroir”, have seemingly chosen to ignore this huge shift in rootstock and in available vine age, and instead focused on eating their own, almost exclusively blaming Parker and the Spectator for changes in CA winemaking.

    4) I’d love to hear you expound a bit more on the effects of ripeness and the effects of alcohol. You mention wines being “hot” which certainly is relatably to alcohol. But the descriptors “syrupy” and lack of “freshness” can relate to ripeness not necessarily alcohol. Randy Dunn has published much about CA Cabs being too high in alcohol, and yet he picks very ripe and spins out the alcohol (something written about by Jim Laube in the Wine Spectator). Would those wines then be syrupy and lack freshness but not be hot? Or would the reduction in alcohol also make them less syrupy and more fresh? — What do you think of the Dunn wines?

    Wow, that’s more than I’ve written about Cabernet based wines in forever…..looking forward to hearing your thoughts back, Mike.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. Terroirist » Daily Wine News: Winemakers Debate!

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS