Wine Talk

Snooth User: Richard Foxall

What's wrong with California Cabernet (and lots of other things) revisited

Posted by Richard Foxall, Mar 7, 2013.

Elsewhere you can read about the offline I attended with OT and GdP and a bunch of winemakers, winelovers, and the like.  But on the way there, I think I solved a major problem with California wine; over conversation with GdP and an assistant winemaker from Napa, my belief was confirmed.

I read in an obituary of Aldo Conterno that he had come to the Napa Valley as a young man and been mortified that the vines were planted on the valley floor and not the hillsides.  (In Dry Creek Valley, the older vines were mostly planted on the benches above the prime crop growing areas.  Wine was something you made for yourself after you sold the crops that sustained you. How things change.)  That's been sitting in the back of my mind as I drive through prime wine growing areas ever since.  It bubbled back up as I drove to dinner the other night, noticing more and more vines being planted in areas that had been pasture or crops, sometimes very close to wetlands at the foot of the Carneros area.  Vines need to send deep roots and struggle so that the berries are small to concentrate the flavors and tannins.  A lot of valley floor soil is richer and wetter than is ideal. 

Equally importantly, the valley floor stays hotter during the day, and the grapes--for the time being, I'm limiting this to Cabernet--develop really high sugar content before the phenolic compounds contained in the seeds have matured.  "Unripe" phenols cause wines to taste excessively vegetal or green peppery, which is undesirable.  (A little can be a trademark--like everything, it needs to be in balance.)  To avoid those green flavors, or maybe to make low acid, fruit forward wines, hard to say which came first--winemakers let the grapes get super ripe, which means super sweet, which means that the potential alcohol can reach 15, 16% easily.  And the wine loses acid balance.  So, what do growers do?  They pick the grapes, water back the wine so it isn't so huge and they add acid so it doesn't all taste as flabby as merlot.  I'm skeptical of the whole idea that any modern wine can be truly called natural, but this is ridiculous.  After all that tinkering. the vintage and terroir matter a lot less than the chemistry lab.

GdP and I were sitting with a winemaker from a well-regarded Napa winery--big RP scores for their wines.  He told us that, with the valley floor grapes, you HAVE to pick them at up to 30 brix (in the old days, 23-25 was fine, apparently) because if you didn't they were just too green.  We talked a bit about growing season variation, and then we said, yeah, somehow when they plant on the hills, those mountain/hillside wines don't get picked at that crazy level.  Right, said the winemaker, they get phenolic ripeness because the sugars develop more slowly in the cooler reaches of the hills.  So, there I was, a rank amateur, wondering if I had the nerve, when GdP said, "So maybe the valley floor is just the wrong place to grow grapes."  Bingo.

Of course, that would severely limit the amount of grapes that could be called "Napa Valley," and drive up prices even more, I suppose.  But at this stage of my drinking, "Napa Cab" means nothing to me unless I have a good idea where within the appellation it came from.  Most of what I buy is mountain fruit based:  Chappellet, from Pritchard Hill, Dunn from Howell Mountain, and the like.  If I find a bottle discounted from those areas, almost no matter who makes it, I buy it.  But if it just says "Napa Valley," and I don't know more, I will probably give it a pass.  Sadly, though, the Napa brand is much stronger with most consumers who have come to expect something special and are willing to pay for it.  In an effort to meet the demand and maximize profits, wineries are buying grapes from vines planted on the valley floor and doing their best with lawful but dubious winemaking techniques to produce what the consumer of the Napa brand expects.  Luckily for these wineries, one influential critic and public taste have lined up pretty well with what Napa can do, for now.  But there are rumbles.

That critic seems to be heading into semi-retirement.  Wine drinkers are also looking for a story, and Napa isn't the story--authenticity is.  Again, I'm dubious that wine can fully escape its cultural roots as a manufactured good, but adding water, acid, color and the lot, well, if the free-range egg eating, local produce buying public knew, it wouldn't look good.  Also, a couple of difficult vintages--difficult if you need super high sugar content, anyway--forced winemakers to play it differently.  Grapes didn't get super ripe, and those consumers will have to be educated or there will be two years of wine that will be hard to sell.  Let's call it a classic Bordeaux vintage, shall we? Plus a few winemakers have decided that making wine they like is important, and a few have had success by never betraying that philosophy at all.

So here's the recipe to fix Napa Cab:  Head for the hills.  Leave your valley floor for the fruit and nut trees that populated it before, the things that need topsoils deposited by the occasional Napa River flood, that like to have their feet in the less rocky and wetter soils.  Don't carpet every inch of the valley floor with trellised vines that can be harvested by machine.  Maybe the ghost of Aldo Conterno will walk your fields, look up at the vines growing on the hills and smile.


Reply by GregT, Mar 7, 2013.

Interesting musings Fox.

I've heard similar comments before and I'm not conversant with each different part of the topography to know, but I think it's partly true. On the other hand, Rutherford, Oakville, Yountville  and Stag’s Leap are all benchlands right? Valley floor, or at least benchland wineries that come to mind would include Corison and Caymus and Shafer and Mondavi, all of which make ageworthy wine, probably Beringer, as well as lesser-known wineries like Monticello.

Another issue may be global warming, yet another may be the replanting of many vines in the 1990s, both of which have been advanced to explain the increased size and ripeness of many valley floor wines. And then, you mention a few that I agree with, but not all mountain wineries are producing wine like Dunn. Pride, Foley and a few others are pretty much in the same boat as some of the valley floor people.

Don't know.

Maybe when the valley floor was planted, people just didn't know as much as they do today? But then Corison has been out there for like 25 years or so and you start to wonder.

Reply by Richard Foxall, Mar 8, 2013.

25 years isn't that long, but longer than many.  My own reference point is probably 35 years ago, when I was first tasting good wine with my family. 

Problem with a lot of the sub-AVAs is that they embrace really different kinds of land, from pretty high on the benchland to the middle of the valley floor, where they meet some other AVA that runs across the valley and up the other side. So even though they get the North/South splits right, they miss what happens with soils/rocks and altitudes. The benchlands behind the wineries have different conditions than the flats around the wineries, so probably there should be separate AVAs for that.  Rutherford Bench has been trying for one for a while.  Those east/west strips, notwithstanding the "Rutherford Dust" mystique, probably make less sense, although Yountville marks a natural end to a cooler area--I actually like Chardonnay from Yountville (at least before they go crazy with the oak) but I think it's too cool for Cabernet to do very well.  There's a pinch in the valley right there that catches the fog and holds it, making it cooler and more (dare I say) burgundian. 

BTW, Foley is using valley floor fruit for a lot of wine.  GdP can tell you how we know.  They defend the 30 brix mentality.

Mondavi is an interesting one:  Age-worthy wine from valley-floor, more or less, fruit.  Ditto the old BV George III.  The soils in the ToKalon and George III vineyards are not deposited from old river flooding, but decomposed rockier soil.  George III really rolls, it's not flat, and it's pretty big.  At least, that's my impression.

Monticello is pretty much right on the valley floor.  I am familiar with their wines, having bought quite a few.  Good, but not fantastic.  I like their story--really family owned--but wouldn't put them in the upper echelons.  I've never paid anything like full price for it.

I think global warming has been a factor, although I think we actually will see, paradoxically, cooler summers closer to the coast and bay, as Napa is, because the warmer ocean will form more fog close to the shore.  Our weather systems--huge convection from the blistering Central Valley pulling water into the air from the ocean, funneling it into the Bay--are going to combine with that warmer ocean water to create foggier summers that the ones we already have.  I think SF's summer temps could be a little less cold, as the fog itself starts off at a higher temperature, but for those of us surrounding the Bay, I think we'll just have fewer hours between the fog lifting and nightfall and the return of fog.  I'm no meteorologist, but that's my hunch.  Those parts of Napa that get very little fog--farther up the valley--will have hotter weather and more overripe grapes, but the opposite might happen south and southeast of Yountville.  Carneros could become even better for Pinot. 


Reply by JonDerry, Mar 8, 2013.

So is all the Beckstoffer fruit valley floor? ToKalon, George III, T6, Dr. Crane, etc.?

There are always exceptions like with Corison, Larkmead, etc. It's that combination of producer and terroir that make all the difference. Kapcsandy may also be mostly floor fruit, but their sorting process is built to ensure top quality and high prices.

For the record I've always preferred Mountain fruit in Napa, or of course certain Stag's Leap Hillsides ; )

Though I have to believe there will be producers to mess up the good grounds they may have in the hills, while others will do wonders with floor fruit if they are at the top of their game.

Reply by GregT, Mar 8, 2013.

It's really an open question. Some think that the vineyards that people know, like To Kalon, came to prominence before people found other, better places, like in the mountains, and consequently their reputations exceed what they should be.  Other people have said quite bluntly that the winemakers are intentionally making riper wine - Dunn used to make wine at Caymus and thinks the stuff today is completely different even tho it's from the same vineyards.

The one thing you can't overlook however, is that most places were replanted in the 1980s when the rootstock that was most popular was found to be susceptible to phylloxera. It's since been banned in France and discarded in the US. What it did was allow people to get big vines and one thing most people did was graft a less vigorous scion on top. After the replanting, they reversed the equation, using a less vigorous rootstock and a more vigorous scion. In addition, and probably even more importantly, they used different trellising systems and different row orientations. Mondavi in particular did a lot of trials with different planting systems, making wine from all and comparing them.

In my gut I agree with Fox - logic tells us that the higher you go in the mountain, the harder it is to ripen your grapes and eventually you get into the snow line. It's perfectly clear in Argentina that travelling a few miles gets you into higher elevations around Mendoza and that's where the better wines come from. 

But it's really hard to make definitive comments about soil type, etc., w/out also taking into account the viticultural choices that in many cases may trump the other parameters. Even Dunn overrides site with wine making practices - he de alcs his wine if he thinks the alc level is too high. Recently I tasted through a bunch of Syrah where people are making really ripe and far less ripe wines from the same vineyards. Both claimed that it's the soil and terroir that really matter, but somehow their wines come out really different.

BTW Fox - Arnot Roberts is my new fave for Syrah. Don't know if they're higher or lower, but damn!

Reply by outthere, Mar 8, 2013.

BTW Fox - Arnot Roberts is my new fave for Syrah. Don't know if they're higher or lower, but damn!

Depends on the bottling. Clary Ranch is in the rolling hills between Petaluma and the Coast. No more hilly than the RRV. Land that has primarily been cattle ranching/dairy land for generations.

Alder Springs is up high in the Mendocino County Coastal Range west of Laytonville. Deer/pig hunting and logging  land at best.

While Alder Springs is hilly elevation and barren land driven Clary Ranch is just darn cool climate where the temps rarely hit higher than 70 degrees even on the warmest days and the sun probably burns off the fog only 2/3 of the growing season.

BTW, did you try that Baker Ranch yet? It's up high in the Anderson Valley AVA but planted on flat ground between  higher peaks.


Reply by amour, Mar 8, 2013.

The mere mention of Stag's LEAP!!!!

Thanks for that rewarding reminder JONDERRY.

Reply by Richard Foxall, Mar 12, 2013.

Need to get my hands on some Arnot-Roberts.  I'm doing a Syrah tasting this week (not the big one, just a couple bottles). But there are many good cool weather Syrahs, just check OT's threads. 

George III is really rolling, rocky soil.  ToKalon less so and the wines are becoming less interesting.  I'm not blown away by my Larkmead Vineyard Ramey so far, but I will give it time.  Seems ripe but kind of simple, so I don't have really high hopes.  I think that there's lots of difference in how winemakers handle grapes, but also different picking times, selection criteria, and all the things that GregT mentioned are a factor as well.  But on the whole, I think that the distinction between valley floor grapes and hillside/mountain grapes is worthwhile.  First, there's Conterno's comment.  GregT knows a lot, GdP knows a lot, but that guy knew more than a lot.  Secondly, when GdP and I started talking to the assistant winemaker from the valley, the AW was making the distinction, and it was clear that this is something that his winery and others talk about.  "We have to do that to valley grapes," was his answer to much of GdP's specific questioning.  That's what led GdP to ask, "Then is the valley floor the right place to grow grapes?" 

Don't get a ton of snow up on the Mayacamas, but the conditions in the growing season are different, the temp more consistent day to day, and in 2010 when the valley floor was in fog and people cut back canopy to get more sun only to see grapes burn in the heat waves, the mountains were relatively unscathed--they weren't getting much less sun than they were used to, and the heat waves weren't quite as intense up there.  Same story up by Rockpile--those 2010 Zins are hitting their window and the raves keep coming.  Cool weather Syrah is premised on eking out a little sun each day, so a little cooler summer was no cause to panic.  I think it's overcropping, too much sun, and the kowtowing to a style, not just the valley floor, that causes the problems, but most of those are improved just by getting up on the slopes.  My instincts, my reading, and my limited travels to other wine regions tell me that the floor is for ranches and orchards, not wine grapes, or the Central Valley would have made a lake of great wine a long time ago.

Reply by outthere, Mar 12, 2013.


The Arnot-Roberts spring release hit my inbox today!
  • Clary Ranch Syrah - 15 year old vines planted six miles from the Pacific in the heart of the Petaluma wind gap. Fermented 100% whole cluster with native yeast, and basket pressed to neutral French oak barrels. 6 barrels produced.
  • Griffins Lair Syrah - 15 year old vines grown in sandy clay-loam at the southern end of the Petaluma wind gap. Picked October 14th. Fermented 100% whole cluster with native yeast, and basket pressed to neutral French oak barrels for ten months. 6 barrels produced.
  • Compagni Portis White Field Blend , Yum! -  58 year old dry-farmed white field blend of Sylvaner, Riesling and an assortment of other obscure varieties planted in fluffy white volcanic soils at the base of the western flank of Mount Veeder in the Sonoma Valley. Picked September 25th. Fermented with native yeast in stainless steel, and aged in neutral French oak barrels for 10 months. 2.5 barrels produced. Allocations are small due to the limited production. Please utilize the wish list function to request additional bottles beyond your allocation.
  • Ribolla Gialla, Vare Vineyard - 13 year old vines grown in gravelly loam at the base of the eastern flank of Mount Veeder in the Napa Valley. Picked September 27th. Fermented with native yeast in stainless steel after six hours of pre-press skin contact, and aged in neutral French oak for 10 months. 2 barrels produced. Allocations are small due to the limited production. Please utilize the wish list function to request additional bottles beyond your allocation.
  • Cabernet Clajeux Vineyard - 13 year old vines grown in volcanic soil at 800’ in the Chalk Hill AVA above the Russian River Valley. Picked October 21st. Fermented 30% whole cluster with native yeast, and basket pressed to 30% new French oak barrels for 22 months. 5 barrels produced.
  • Cabernet Bugay Vineyard - 15 year old vines grown in conglomerate volcanic rock at 1,000’ in the Mayacamas range overlooking the Santa Rosa plain. Picked October 23. 90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Petit Verdot, 5% Cabernet Franc. Fermented 20% whole cluster with native yeast, and basket pressed to 45% new French oak barrels for 22 months. 6.5 barrels produced.
  • Cabernet Fellom Ranch - 33 year old vines grown in Franciscan shale and sandy loam over limestone at 2,200’ in the Santa Cruz Mountains at the top of Montebello Road above Cupertino. Picked October 22nd. Fermented 30% whole cluster with native yeast, and basket pressed to 40% new French oak barrels for 22 months. 6.5 barrels produced.

Let me know if you want in.

Reply by JonDerry, Mar 13, 2013.

OT, that sounds too good to pass up.

I'd like in for 1 x Fellom Ranch, shall send you the moneys and a GSO label when applicable.

Reply by GregT, Mar 13, 2013.

So the Clary was the most herbal and even vegetal IMO. Very different style than most Syrah from CA, both nose and palate. Very distinctive. Had some of the funk people like in Burgundy and would appeal to people who like that, except that it was better because it didn't have that Pinot Noir flavor overlaying the wine.

All of them had relatively high apparent acidity and relatively high levels of tannins as compared to many Syrahs, although I don’t really know what the precise specs are. The Bugay showed the most acidity, but again, that may be relative to the fruit rather than by any absolute standard. At least to me, it was the least “fruity” of the line-up. Griffin’s Lair was somewhere in between. Since the North Coast was the first one he poured for me, that was the one that made me stand up and take notice that here was something different. All of them were very old-timey, a bit rough rather than elegant, but very good, at least to my humble opinion.

Nice job they're doing for sure.

Tried 2 Cabs - Clajeaux, which was good and which had a really dry finish as the tannins clamped down, and the Fellom Ranch, which was flat out delicious, spicy, and something to indicate that there's hope for Sonoma Cabs.

They do all their fermentations with ambient yeasts, but I think more importantly, their picking decisions and even their growing decisions have a huge effect on their wines. And that includes locations of the vineyards. Those vineyards near the ocean or that are getting the cold winds coming in are apparently perfect for Syrah and these guys figured that out. What's interesting is that the soil type seems to be less an issue, in that they're not claiming they have limestone soils, etc., which again leads me to think that it's the weather, climate, viticulture, and vinification that matters first and the soil's contribution is more basic, i.e. providing fundamental nutrients, water and drainage. But Arnot-Roberts is sure doing some good stuff and it's interesting that in this Cabernet thread, it appears that one of the problems with Cab is that there's too much of that and not enough Syrah!

OT - have not opened that Baker's yet. Will of course let you know!

Reply by outthere, Mar 13, 2013.

Yeah that Clary can be polarizing with its low alc, low ripeness and 100% whole cluster. I think it rocks, others think its flawed.

Reply by GregT, Mar 14, 2013.

I'm with you. Not flawed at all. Just distinctive.

Reply by Gregory Dal Piaz, Mar 14, 2013.

We should have been drinking the Clary at dinner!

Have to re-read this thread before adding more but there's some cool stuff to discuss here.

And that critic is coming out of semi-retirement so beware.

Reply by Richard Foxall, Mar 17, 2013.

Now I'm scrambling for stories about RP.  I guess to make his deal final, he can't leave his investors without a reviewer for California?  Listen, I have decades of experience with California Cab, and I am willing to hype stuff for the overseas market with the best of them. 

Seriously, GdP, give us a link, will you?  Then contribute to this thread--this really started when you started talking with AW at dinner. 

Reply by Gregory Dal Piaz, Mar 18, 2013.

I don't have a link, it's behind the paywall on the Parker site. But the buzz is he'll be back!

I will work on this thread as well, just sooo busy.

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