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Exploring wine in and around San Francisco.

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A liquid (and print) tour of Napa’s winemaking history

A Book Review of Kelli A. White’s Napa Valley Then & Now

Given Napa Valley’s reputation as North America’s most established wine growing region, it’s no wonder that some outsiders prejudicially view it as stodgy, stuffy, and staid. I made that mistake before moving to Napa three years ago. But as I quickly found, if you’re willing to scratch the surface, you’ll discover a local wine community in a state of constant evolution.  One of the key drivers of the region’s ongoing development is its ability to consistently attract newcomers — Andre Tchelistcheff in the 1930, Warren Winiarski in the 1960s, and John Williams in the 1970s —  who contribute to Napa’s growth and success by fostering a willingness to explore and learn.

There is no doubt that Kelli White’s move from New York to Napa has had a positive impact on Napa’s wine community.  White is part of the team that establish the extensive Napa-focused library wine program at Press Restaurant in St. Helena.  The place has become a classroom of sorts for local winemakers and cellar rats, allowing them to taste wines from various decades, providing what Food & Wine magazine called “a liquid trip through Napa’s winemaking history.”

White has poured all that she learned from meeting with producers, tasting wines, and compiling the Press cellar into a new book, Napa Valley Then & Now.

Napa then and nowIt’s a massive and hefty tome totaling 1250 pages, and primarily serves as a compendium of producer profiles, organized in alphabetical order, each based on interviews and information collected by White over the past five years.  In addition to the standard overview of each winery’s history, White delves into vineyard and cellar practices, provides an overview of the winery’s different winemakers over time,  and includes tasting notes of decades-worth of vintages. Although the book includes a short overview of Napa’s history in the introductory sections, this book is not a narrative, chronological history of Napa. It does serve, however, as a great encyclopedic reference for those wishing to learn about Napa through the region’s brands and bottles.

The breadth of producers selected – old and new, cult and classic – is itself a demonstration of the diversity in Napa Valley. Massican and Matthiasson are sandwiched between Louis Martini and Mayacamas; Scholium Project is placed just after Scarecrow.  As White notes, the selection of producers is not meant to be a “best of” list, but is instead an attempt “to portray the full range of Napa’s potential, from the utilitarian up to the ultra-elite, from full-throttle to restrained, and from the broad-market to the extremely rare.”  The beauty of this is that White, in her selection process, draws attention to the continuing evolution of the region, the ongoing discovery process that continues to make Napa vibrant and exciting.

The book is ideal for folks that have, or intend to build, a wine library.  The extensive tasting notes and the vintage guides have been useful to me as I scour online wine shops and auctions for Napa wines with a few years in the cellar.  It would also be a useful gift for that person who has fallen in love with Napa wines, but needs some help in expanding their knowledge of the breadth of producers in the region.

The only criticism I have is that the short but well written introduction leaves me wishing to see more of White’s opinion and insight.  Instead, the book is written from a “just the facts” approach (tasting notes aside). There is an ongoing debate on how Napa Valley and the local wine industry will grow over the next few years and decades, and some have argued that the dream of the small producer and of innovation in Napa is dead.  White knows better, and her opinion is needed to help inform this discussion.  “Napa Valley is an incredibly dynamic, unique place full of some of the brightest minds in the wine industry,” she writes.  “It’s history is dramatic, exciting — imbued with the thrill of discovery and the honest pursuit of excellence — themes that continue to resonate today.”

White’s selection at Press and her new book will contribute to the overall understanding of Napa’s winemaking history and help cement Napa not just as one of the world’s leading and established wine growing regions, but one whose future is still being shaped.

Disclaimer: I received a free print and electronic copy of the book from the author for review purposes.  I was not required to write a positive review, and the opinions I have expressed are my own. I am providing this disclosure in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s guidelines.  

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California’s Historic and Ongoing Pursuit of Balance

Now in its fifth year, In Pursuit of Balance sets sail for Japan later this week, expanding the geographic scope of its efforts to “promote dialogue around the meaning and relevance of balance” in California wine. I’ve been an unabashed fan of this event since it first launched in 2011, and am interested to see how critics and consumers will receive the wines featured at IPOB. More to the point, I wonder how IPOB and the discussion of “balance” fit within the global definition and understanding of California wines.

Critics of IPOB seem to view the event and it’s focus on “balance” as a counter cultural set of wines embraced by young winemakers and hipster big-city sommeliers out of touch with the rich, fruit driven, powerful wines that seem to be championed in wine publications and (some argue) favored by consumers.

But balanced wine — specifically, the pursuit of growing and making balanced wine — is central to California’s wine history.

Up through 1966, fortified wines outsold still wines in the U.S. , and that year, California wineries produced 86 million gallons of fortified wine and only 55 million gallons of table wine. Warren Winiarski became the founding winemaker for Napa’s Robert Mondavi winery that same year.

Fast forward 10 years. California produces 300 million gallons of table wine, and only 14 million gallons of fortified wine, and Winiarski’s inaugural 1973 vintage of his Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon beat out a number of French wines in winning the Judgment of Paris tasting.   In the early 1990s— well before IPOB was launched — Winiarski discussed the wine that helped California wine garner international prestige:

[T]here are certain wines which are regional, and their excellence is understood as an expression of the region, and that would have been the wines that many people in California were trying to make then which were wines that had very rich, very powerful, very ripe fruit characteristics, and possessed great abundance of varietal character. There are also some others that we didn’t often make then, which possess the characteristics of “restraint, which I call the third “r.” There are two “r’s,” “richness’ and ripeness,” and there’s another one which might be called “restraint” or moderation, and my goal with the 1973 fruit was to give it this quality of moderation. The Paris Tasting showed what California grapes, with all their richness and ripeness, could attain if the wines also were styled to embody a certain restraint. These would not be wines noted for the most massive expression of ripe fruit but would be wines expressing our regional abundance, balanced by moderation and restraint. That is to say that the level of fruit character would be moderated to the point required for a wine to qualify for the name “classic.” (emphasis in original transcript).

Winiarski went on to discuss alcohol as a component of balance:

To a certain extent we were dazzled by our own potential. The richness that our fruit was capable of was simply dazzling – the high alcohol, the powerful extractives, the tanning, the rich and powerful fruit, the heady aromas. All of these things are impressive in themselves, but they do tend to fatigue. You cannot have a wonderful aesthetic experience where you are at the edge of fatigue every moment, engrossed. So I think that element of restraint was very important, and it still is important. … You had all these 14-percent-alcohol and highly extracted wines, these late-harvest Zinfandels, the Cabernets to end all Cabernets, the Chardonnays to end all Chardonnays. The most powerful, authoritative statement seemed to many to be a statement of beauty, but beauty doesn’t need excess.

While the definition or perception of balance may have shifted over time, it is impossible to deny that winemakers like Winiarski that embraced restraint and balance helped bring California wines international acclaim in the 1970s.

Given this context, I hope that people attending IPOB for the first time will understand that the pursuit of balance is not simply a fad, but instead has deep roots in California’s winemaking history.

Winiarski quotes are from Warren Winiarski, “Creating Classic Wines in the Napa Valley,” an oral history conducted in 1991, 1993 by Ruth Teiser, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1994, available at http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/ROHO/projects/food_wine/wine.html


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Parker, Bloggers, and Fair Use

Lawyers for The Wine Advocate, the publication made famous by Robert Parker, recently fired off a letter to wine writer Tyler Coleman, demanding that he “immediately remove content on [his blog] http://www.drvino.com that was copied from eRobertParker.com,” claiming that Coleman’s use of this material “blatantly infringes upon [The Wine Advocate’s] copyright protected content.” Under federal copyright law, Coleman’s use of that material may be protected by the “fair use” doctrine.  

Click here for the full article on LexVini.com



Arlequin Beaujolais Bash – This Thursday


A wine retail friend of mine recently told me about a customer who was a bit wary about accepting her recommendation that he should add a bottle of Jean Foillard’s Morgon Cote du Py to his shopping cart. The conversation went something like this:

“Do you think I’ll like it?”

“Do you kick puppies?”


“OK. You’ll like it.”

Because seriously people: how can you not love Cru Beaujolais / Bro-jo / Bo-jo / Gam-gam or whatever pet nickname you’ve adopted for one of the happiest wines on the planet. It is pure pleasure.

And there really is no better way to enjoy Beaujolais then being surrounded by friends, which is why for the past few years, I’ve done my darndest to get down to Arlequin Wine Merchants for their annual Beaujolais Bash. It takes place on Thursday, from 6-8pm ($35). Don’t miss it!

Here’s what is on tap for the tasting:

Guy Breton Regnie

Marcel Lapierre Morgon

Jean Foillard Morgon, Fleurie & Nouveau

Cheateau Thivin Cote de Brouilly

Chanrion Cote de Brouilly

Diochon Moulin-a-Vent

Julien Sunier Fleurie, Morgon & Regnie

PUR Regnie, Village & Nouveau

Dupueble Nouveau

Bruno de Bize 3 separate Beaujolais cuvees

Terres Dorees/Jean-Paul Brun Cote de Brouilly, Fleurie &Morgon

George Descombes Brouilly & Morgon

Champier Brouilly & Villages

Clos de la Roilette Fleurie