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