All posts by Wine Curmudgeon

Robert Mondavi: 1913-2008

image I was tasting wine on Friday with Joe Briggs of Napa’s August Briggs Wines when we heard that Robert Mondavi had died. “It’s the end of an era,” said Briggs. I nodded, and said: “Let me ask you something. Would we even be here now if wasn’t for Mondavi? Not just us tasting, but this place” — and I gestured at the wine bar where I meet visiting winemakers — “and everyone here?”

Briggs didn’t have to wait to answer. “No,” he said. “None of this — us, the other people, this place — would be here if it hadn’t been for Robert Mondavi.”

It’s easy to overestimate the importance of famous people when they die. If nothing else, it’s part of paying respect. But that’s not the case for Mondavi, who truly was the giant that his obituaries say he was. Mondavi had a hand in almost every major development in the wine world in the last 40 years. He believed California wine could be some of the best in the world, and his perseverance helped California become what it is today. Napa and Sonoma are among the greatest wine regions in the world, rivaling anything in France or Italy.

But that was only part of what Mondavi did. HIs Woodbridge line was among the first grocery store brands that offered quality at a fair price, helping wean entry-level consumers off poorly-made jug wine. He took his company public in 1993 and then sold it a decade later, both presaging major trends in the business. He was also ahead of his time when it came to family squabbles, extravagant excess, the spotlight of celebrity, and cult wines — and these things, too, are all part of today’s wine world.

Perhaps most importantly, Mondavi understood marketing at a time when most California winemakers didn’t even know it existed (and many, sadly, caught up in scores and the Wine Magazines, still don’t). In the late 1960s, Mondavi’s sauvignon blanc wasn’t selling, so he changed the name to fume blanc. Fume was easier to pronounce, and sales improved dramatically.

In all of this, Mondavi’s central theme was that Americans should drink wine, that it should replace iced tea and soft drinks at the dinner table. In this, he succeeded. When I grew up in the 1960s in a comfortable middle class suburb, wine was an exception — both at home and in restaurants. Today, U.S. wine consumption is at record highs, and even family-style chain restaurants have wine lists. When I was in college, it was a big deal to take a girl to dinner and order imported beer. Somehow, I don’t think Lowenbrau would do the trick anymore..

This culture, this lifestyle, this emphasis on wine — it’s Robert Mondavi’s doing. Others played a role, of course, but without Mondavi, Joe Briggs is right. We wouldn’t be here.

$70 wine: When is it really worth it?

image I was drinking wine with a couple of friends last weekend and mentioned that they would enjoy the sparkling wine. One of them took a sip and said, yes, that was pretty good. But it doesn’t taste like one of your $10 wines, she said. (Now I know how actors feel when they get stereotyped.)

The wine, of course, was not $10. It was Ruinart, perhaps my favorite bubbly and not cheap at all at $70. And, to add insult to injury to my reputation, the other bottle of wine that night was Domaine Borgeot Puligny-Montrachet Les Charmes 1999, which cost around $65.

Which raises the question: Is there something to these wines that makes them worth that much money? The answer is yes, but the point is not how much they cost, but what they deliver.

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Wine of the week: Raats Original Chenin Blanc 2007

image South African wine doesn’t get a lot of respect, and sometimes deservedly so. So when the Wine Curmudgeon finds one that is well-made, inexpensive and food friendly, it’s a reason to write about it.

The Original uses a grape that is too often mishandled in South Africa, producing sweet, uninteresting wines. Raats, on the other hand, treats the grape seriously, and turns out a dry, refreshing wine that is fruity (think pineapple and orange) and even has some minerality on the finish. It’s a lot to expect from a $12 wine.

Serve this chilled with salads, Thai food (though it’s not sweet, it’s fruity enough to stand up to spice) or on its own.

Cordon Bleu students turn wine critics

We do two tastings in my Cordon Bleu wine class — 10 or so red wines and 10 or so white wines. We talk about the flavors of the wines, about pairing them with food, and the differences in varietals across countries and regions.

So why not let them write about what they taste? (And a tip ‘o the wine glass to Ruth Reynard, with Cordon Bleu’s corporate parent, who jostled the Wine Curmudgeon into the Digital Age on this one.)

Hence LCB Anti-Wine Snobs, where the students blog about the wines. They picked the name, they designed the site, and they did the writing. I did a bit of editing and offered some technical advice. Otherwise, it’s all theirs.

And nicely done, too.

Tuesday tidbits 26

? The Wine Establishment strikes back:  Last week, I noted Alice Feiring’s criticisms of California wine, in which she called much of it “over-alcoholed, over-oaked, overpriced and over-manipulated.” Turns out she is a borderline Luddite and an ultra-conservative, says Matthew DeBord, formerly of the Wine Spectator. DeBord’s rebuttal is worth reading, if only because he lumps every single person who disagrees with him into the category of un-young, uncool and unhip. It’s such an over the top performance that I actually feel sorry for him. DeBord also uses the word prelapsarian and the word sucks in the same essay, which is not an easy thing to do.

? Sommeliers as sex symbols: Not quite as silly as wine writers as sex symbols, but sill enough. (We’ll pause now for a giggle, thinking of the Wine Curmudgeon with a stubbled face and an $800 Italian blazer). Nevertheless, I will pass this on from a Los Angeles publicist, plugging a forthcoming wine event: “They ?re hot. They ?re smart. They work for Batali, Fraser and Myers. They can tell the difference between an Austrian or Washington Riesling with a sniff. They ?re all under 35. … Wine & Spirits magazine will introduce 10 of the city ?s brightest young wine experts to a Gen Y group of wine lovers. ” Thank God, because we know no one who isn’t Gen Y can know anything about wine.

? Another example of why our liquor laws are crazy: The California liquor cops have told a home wine event organizer that they will raid his festival if he holds it. The details are complicated, but what it comes down is that amateurs aren’t allowed to hold wine competitions in California, though professionals are. Says one home winemaker: “”If that’s the case, then just about every county fair and club across the state is breaking the law.”

A handy guide to wine regions, part I

image This is the first of two parts looking at ways to decipher the world’s wine regions without making your head hurt. The second part will run on Monday.

One of the most difficult concepts to get across about wine is the idea of wine regions. You can get someone to acknowledge  that wine is different depending on where it’s from, but understanding that it is something else entirely. And I won’t even mention there are more than 3,200 wine regions in the world.

Yes, they’ll say, they realize cabernet sauvignon is different from merlot which is different from chardonnay. But doesn’t all French wine (or California wine or whatever) taste the same?

No, it doesn’t. But given how complicated wine regions can be — Quick: Name the sub-AVAs within the Sonoma AVA — and it’s easy to see why people give up in confusion.

Which is why the Wine Curmudgeon exists. Wine geography does not have to be a barrier to buying and enjoying wine. It’s helpful to know that the Rhone is divided into north and south, but not essential.

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