Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES – March 5, 2016
The Napa Locomotive
By David Lawrason, with notes from Sara d’Amato and Michael Godel
Another batch of 20 California wines hits the LCBO’s VINTAGES shelves March 5. This makes 78 California labels released by VINTAGES so far this year, feeding the thirsty beast that makes California wine the number one imported wine in Ontario, and most Canadian provinces for that matter, except Quebec where French wine reigns. One could lament that other regions deserve more play, but VINTAGES is only reacting to what sells. You can skip directly to the California picks by Sara d’Amato, Michael Godel and myself, or read on for my thoughts on California, and Napa in particular.
California Value Proposition
Regular readers may be aware I have issues with the price/quality ratio of California wine – a straight value proposition that has nothing to do with style. Well perhaps just a bit when I detect overt residual sugar and mochafication that distracts from varietal character, and makes the wine a beverage rather than a product of place.
What makes California a tough value proposition is that, without question, it has the highest average price of any region on the shelves, and this will only become more dramatic in the months ahead as stock purchased with our weakened loonie begin to hit the shelves. I suspect we will also see shrinkage of selection as California producers shy away from our market, especially at the higher end. Why struggle with high priced wines here when it’s so much easier elsewhere?
Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon is the engine of California wine pricing. There are many regions in the Golden State where prices aren’t as high, and other varieties are cheaper as well. But “Napa Cab” has swept America and the globe as the New World’s number one prestige wine, creating a pricing up-thrust of San Andreas fault proportions for California wine in general. Nor does it hurt of course that the California marketplace is one of the wealthiest on the planet.
Last week I returned to Napa Valley after a long hiatus and got right into the boiler room of the locomotive that drives California wine pricing. I attended the annual Premiere Napa Valley auction, at the invitation of Napa Valley Vintners Association. It was a chance to re-calibrate what is happening in California’s flagship region by at least doing some intensive tasting to better judge if all the fuss is warranted by what’s in the glass.
The annual Auction is a showcase for the winemakers, each selecting a best barrel or three of this and that. Most of the 226 auction lots were barrels sold as futures from the hot, drought-stricken 2014 vintage, and many of the wines were certainly well concentrated and structured. A surprising number were 100% cabernet sauvignons, a statement that in this climate the king of Napa’s grapes can clearly stand on its own sturdy legs, without needing the Bordeaux-esque tweaking and coddling by blending merlot and cab franc. In fact more muscular malbec and petit verdot were just as likely to be the blending widgets.
The buzz in the spacious and hallowed halls of the Culinary Institute of America (one felt like one was in church) was about who bought what for how much. The lots were from five to twenty cases and by my rough math the average case price was about $1500 (probably higher). The auction raised over $5 million dollars in three hours of live bidding, and a new e-bidding program.
For those who might want some sense of who is “hot” in Napa the following fetched the highest prices: Memento Mori, Nine Suns, Realm Cellars, Rombauer Vineyards, Shafer Vineyards, TOR Kenward Family, Duckhorn Vineyards, Silver Oak Cellars and ZD Wines.
So who is buying these wines? Well doubtless some very wealthy folk, but with multiple case lots at play it was largely an audience of retailers and restaurateurs more so than individuals. There were only two successful Canadian buyers of which I am aware: Willow Park Wines that has several stores in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and Liquor Stores North America that owns the Liquor Depot and Liquor Barn chains in Alberta.
Out beyond the auction hall I got an even better perspective of Napa in 2016. The first shock was the growth of America’s most famous wine region, the wall-to-wall and up-the-wall vineyards that now encompass 43,000 acres on the valley floor and in five mountain appellations on either side of the valley. By comparison, all of Canada has about 30,000 acres.
There are over 500 members of the Napa Valley Vintners Association, with 80% producing fewer than 10,000 cases. And 95% are family owned! Several of the 226 wineries in the auction were producing less than 1,000 cases, some less than 500. I can only assume that with Napa prices so high, many can actually afford to make a go of small volumes – selling direct to mailing lists and key restaurant clients and skipping all the marketing and middleman costs.
Napa’s Recent Vintages
So the critical mass is certainly apparent but what about the actual quality in the bottle? I tasted a number of great wines at the auction but there was so much hubbub it was very hard to focus. I fared much better the previous day at a well-executed blind tasting of the 2013, 2012 and 2011 vintages across 16 Napa wineries. These are the vintages on shelf or soon arriving in Canada, although few of the labels I encountered are available here.
Held at the historic Charles Krug Winery on a misty Napa winter morning, I spent three hours cross-checking variation of the three years. And yes vintages do matter in Napa! I was so pleased to see the consistency of the different years vintage to vintage. We also tasted flights of wines from the 2006, 2001 and 1996 vintages and the vast majority were holding and maturing very well, another barometer of quality.
The other overall observation was that the wines had more finesse and structure than I expected – there were very few jammy, soft, sweetish and hottish wines. They were very classy, and the vast majority easily scored over 90 points. So there is qualitative substance, and as for pricing – well that is clearly set by how much and how many people are willing to pay.
I was very taken by the quality of the soon arriving 2013 vintage (one of the first in Ontario being the Frog’s Leap arriving March 5). In most cases I was scoring the 2013s a couple of points higher than 2012 or 2011. Typical of young wines many of the 2013s were aromatically reserved at this point. But they have impressive colour depth, body, concentration and tannin. Indeed it is the tannic structure combined with the fruit depth and purity that portends a long-lived vintage. They do have tension, and brilliance, and fine moderate to warm climate black fruit detailing.
The 2012s tended to be the most plush, fruity and approachable now. There was great hoopla and relief over 2012, the first of three drought year vintages after the greener 2011s. Ripeness had returned. But in tasting through the 2012s last week I kept feeling that they hang a bit heavy, and lack some elan and poise.
The lighter 2011s were engaging on two fronts. First, from a cooler, wetter year several were already starting to show some evolution – good complexity, integration and refinement of the tannin. And second, if you like and are accustomed to some cabernet greenness as I am – from years of tasting Bordeaux and Canadian reds – the 2011s showed more “classic” character. I thoroughly enjoyed many and did not find them “weaker”. They were more linear.
It was out beyond the decanters and tasting halls that the real allure of Napa was to be found, one that has infiltrated me every time I return. The scenery is stunning, from the sweep of the valley floor to the vineyards perched high in the five mountain appellations, which I visited on a gorgeous five hour Sunday drive. If one wants a sense of place in wine, Napa has got it.
And the people I met are as pleasant and down to earth as anywhere in the world. Restaurant service is superbly friendly and genuine. And at two Napa restaurants I encountered ‘Bring Your Own’ policies with zero corkage! That alone is testament to the strength of the wine market in the New World’s epicentre. And that alone is enough to endear any Canadian.
Here are some California picks from the March 5 release, which should hold you until the California Wine Fair touches down in Ottawa, Friday April 8 and Toronto, Monday April 11.
Buyers’ Guide to California Whites
Kistler 2013 McCrea Vineyard Chardonnay, Sonoma Mountain ($120.95)
David Lawrason – Few California chardonnays crack the $100 mark, and when it happens one needs to look deep into the glass. What I found here, within the friendly ambiance, was a very generous, complex nose that weaves yellow fruits and flowers, hazelnut, lemongrass/conifer, gentle peat smoke and wet stone. It’s medium weight, very elegant, just a touch sweet on the palate, with a dry, stony finish. The focus and length are outstanding.
Michael Godel – Considered the most Chablis-like in the Kistler range from the eastern flank of Sonoma Mountain out of a rare mix of Sonoma volcanics and limestone. To my mind the McCrea Vineyard is the coolest climate Kistler, of gemstone and tart orchard fruit personality
Macrostie 2012 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, California ($35.95)
Michael Godel – A true melting pot Chardonnay of Sonoma Coast origins. Vineyards involved include Sangiacomo and Champlin Creek (Carneros), Dutton and Martinelli (Russian River Valley) and Wildcat Mountain Vineyard (Petaluma Gap). Really defines then territory.
Sara d’Amato – A chardonnay that stands out in a release that features mostly creamy, full-bodied and oak-driven styles of times past. Although the palate offers creamy coconut and pineapple, there is a pleasant undercurrent of acidity that adds brightness and balance – a relatively fine value too!
Beringer 2014 Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($22.95)
David Lawrason – Although a touch sweet and obviously oaked I sensed some purity of fruit and genteel character here. This is generously flavoured yet refined chardonnay at a very acceptable price.
Buyers’ Guide to California Reds
Shafer 2013 Merlot, Napa Valley ($94.95)
David Lawrason – Doug Shafer and his wines hold sway in Napa. Everybody seems to love Shafer, but I think it comes down to a consistent sense of silk and purity in the wines themselves. This is a gorgeous merlot that I would drink nightly if it weren’t almost $100 a bottle. It has a lifted nose of currants, red plums, fresh herbs, lavender and a touch of pepper.
Sara d’Amato – A fine, age-worthy merlot, sleek and sophisticated. Like many of the wines in this feature, the alcohol is high and so it would benefit from a slight chill for best expression of the marvelous fruit and floral aromas.
Joseph Phelps 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($106.95)
David Lawrason – Another legendary Napa house that seems to deliver year and year out. This is beautifully rendered, fruity, elegant and finely-toned cabernet from the ripe 2012 vintage. All the classic cab and Napa elements are nicely layered. So smooth, dense and refined, with youthful tannin.
Sara d’Amato – A lovely vintage of this iconic cabernet sauvignon which is definitively Napa Valley. Best to wait another 2-3 years for the muscular tannins to mellow and the fruit and oak to coalesce. If you are in no hurry, there is a decade or more of time yet to enjoy this monumental tour de force.
Frog’s Leap 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford, Napa Valley ($83.95)
David Lawrason – One of the first 2013 cabs onto the market in Canada shows a deep colour and a fragrant, concentrated nose of red and blackcurrants, among other complexities. It’s medium-full bodied, fairly dense, vibrant, juicy and tannic, with excellent length. Cellar a bit.
Jonata Todos 2011 Red, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County ($79.95)
Sara d’Amato – This small, artisanal winery is the sister property to Napa’s Screaming Eagle and has had no shortage of critical praise. Vineyards are cared for using organic and biodynamic techniques and the resulting wines offer an abundance of character and impressive finesse. The 2011 blend is largely based on syrah with a peppery nose and kirsch-like flavours on the palate.
Michael Godel – Eighty dollars is not exactly pocket change but a scant few California peers compare at the price. Syrah leads a supporting cast of seven total grape varieties for a big, balanced and age-capable wine. Blending never tasted so worthy.
Frei Brothers Reserve Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County ($26.95)
Michael Godel – Purposefully ripe, dark and warm Pinot Noir from winemaker Scott Kozel who firmly believes in growing the right grapes in the right places and not messing with the purest expression of those grapes. This is Pinot Noir with commercial appeal and the quality to stand behind the product.
Josh Cellars 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, California ($17.00)
Sara d’Amato – Certainly the best value in this release, this generic California cabernet sauvignon is well balanced, mid-weight and with alcohol nicely in check. Expressive and aromatic with wide appeal.
Sommelier Fun & Fundraising
The Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers (CAPS) Ontario chapter is hosting a fundraising event on Monday, February 29th to celebrate Canadian wine talent. Join Sara d’Amato, John Szabo, Bruce Wallner and other guest sommeliers at Terroni’s new event space on Adelaide. They have a fun event planned with a blind tasting challenge, raffle prizes, great wine and tasty treats. Tickets are only $40 ($30 for CAPS members) – all to support your Canadian wine community. This event is open to the trade and the public. Hope to see you there. (You can find more info here: https://teamcanadacaps2016.eventbrite.ca)
And that’s a wrap for this week. John Szabo returns from Italy next week just in time to discuss the Brunello contingent on this release, along with other picks.
VP of Wine
From VINTAGES March 5, 2016
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