The Chateau Montelena chardonnay remains classic California white wine
The Big Guy and I were drinking pricey California chardonnay, which is probably worth a blog post all by itself given our devotion to white Burgundy. The point here, though, is that the wines we tasted, which included the Chateau Montelena chardonnay, reminded us that California producers can make some of the best wine in the world.
The Chateau Montelena chardonnay ($48, purchased, 13.5%) remains the kind of California wine that helped earn the world’s attention at the Judgment of Paris in 1976. It’s elegant and balanced, without the too much of one thing or another that makes me crazy when I taste high-end California chardonnay. Yes, some of my colleagues may consider this a fuddy-duddy approach to winemaking, but it’s their problem if they can’t appreciate grace and virtuosity.
What makes the Chateau Montelena chardonnay so classic? Taste this – even just one sip – and you can tell it’s Napa Valley chardonnay. That means more fruit (a lovely, barely ripe green apple) and an undercurrent of minerality, as well as layers of structure. The oak is decidedly New World, but it isn’t over the top and will integrate into the wine over the next several years.
Highly recommended. This is a delicious wine that will only get better over the next five years and could last even longer.
This week’s news: An analysis of the scoring at the legendary Judgment of Paris, plus retailer Total Wine sues to lower prices, and a low alcohol wine brand.
• It’s all in the scores: David Morrison, writing on the Academic Wino site, discusses the scores given to the wines at the Judgment of Paris, where California bested France and established the U.S. as a top wine producing country. It’s a fascinating post, and the math isn’t too difficult to follow. In this, it shows just random the experts’ scores seem to be. As Morrison writes, “Instead, the differences among the judges were much larger than among the wines. Of the 11 judges, it seems that 5 were fairly consistent among themselves as to which wines they thought were high quality, while the other 6 were not, and these two groups provided rather different scores from each other.” And yet we use scores to continue to determine wine quality, despite all these limitations.
• Lawsuit for lower prices: Retailer Total Wine has sued the state of Connecticut, saying that state laws that set minimum prices for alcohol violate federal law. Connecticut prohibits liquor retailers from selling wine and spirits below cost in almost all cases, the only state in the union that does so (though other states have minimum pricing laws). The Total lawsuit, one more in a long line filed by the fast-expanding retailer, is yet another challenge to the three-tier system of regulation that has governed booze sales since the end of Prohibition. Ironically, the Connecticut law is only 35 years old, but was passed to update minimum pricing laws that had already been in place, and may have been there to regulate alcohol consumption as much as to protect retailers.
• Less alcohol, same taste: In the on-going debate over high alcohol wines, those who like high alcohol argue that it’s the only way to get big fruit flavors. That’s where a New Zealand producer says it has found a way to get those fruit flavors, but at lower alcohols. The idea sounds goofy to me – rocks in the vineyard that hold heat from sunlight – but Stoneleigh Vineyards says it can get fruit flavors and alcohol levels at less than 10 percent, about one-quarter lower than normal. The lower alcohol wines aren’t available in the U.S., so I can’t tell you whether they’re any good. But I will keep an eye out for them.
This week’s wine news: Pennsylvanians may be able to buy in the supermarket this fall, the 40th anniversary of the Judgment of Paris, and a new wine TV show.
• Maybe by Thanksgiving: Pennsylvanians may be able to buy wine in the grocery store by the holiday if all goes well, reports the Post-Gazette newspaper in Pittsburgh. The well-written piece explains the obstacles to be overcome and the bureaucratic tussle to be negotiated for grocery stores to sell wine for the first time in the state’s history: They need to get a retail license, renovate their aisles to make room for wine, and to work with distributors to make sure wine shows up at the store. For example, since no distributor in the state sells to grocery stores now, wholesalers will have to set up the process from scratch. Again, another example of how cumbersome and outdated the three-tier system is.
• Judgment of Paris: The Wine Curmudgeon mentions the 40th anniversary of the most important event in the U.S. wine business after Prohibition again for two reasons. First, this Jancis Robinson story focuses on Steven Spurrier, the Briton who put the Judgment together, something we don’t see much of in this country. Second, as you read this, I’m in Colorado with Warren Winiarksi, whose Stag’s Leap cabernet sauvignon was chosen best red wine in the blind tasting. Perhaps Warren and I can find time to record a podcast while we’re here if he doesn’t mind recounting yet again how the California wines bested the best wines in France.
• Making wine on TV work: The Wine Curmudgeon has often lamented that wine makes for lousy TV, because an interesting wine TV show could help boost wine’s popularity in the U.S. That may change in August, though, when Hulu airs the English “TV Wine Show” featuring two British actors who apparently make women swoon – Matthew Goode (hope he doesn’t read this) and Matthew Rhys. I have not seen the show, but will watch it and review it. Goode and Rhys are going to have to be very sexy to overcome the plot description, though, which sounds like another wine TV yawner: “[W]ine pros travel the world to experience international wine culture from experts.”
? 40th anniversary: One of the most important moments in the history of wine will be commemorated in May, when the Smithsonian — yes, that Smithsonian — will hold several events on the 40th anniversary of the Judgment of Paris. The judgment, a blind tasting in Paris between the best French and California wines and where the latter won, was the first time the wine world realized that California wine could be as good as it has become. The festivities include a winemakers’ dinner featuring several of the winning California wines, which I’m told by one of the winemakers are still pretty good.
? Supermarket influence: How much do grocery stores affect what wines we buy and what other retailers sell? Quite a bit, says this story by Liza Zimmerman on Wine-Searcher.com. The story is notable for several reasons, not the least of which is that an editor at Wine-Searcher once told me her readers weren’t interested in that kind of reporting. How times have changed, as supermarkets get closer to selling 50 percent of the wine sold in the U.S. The story talks about why grocery stores only carry the biggest brands (because they’re the only ones who have enough product), and how they can afford to sell wine more cheaply than independents. It’s well worth reading and shows that the Winestream Media does have an idea that the world is changing.
? If it works in Canada? The Canadian province of Ontario has decided to allow wine to be sold in 150 grocery stores, a significant move given how tightly booze sales are regulated in Ontario. But, reports the Business News Network, the provincial government is broke and needs the revenue from grocery store sales. The new system is still quite restrictive, though, and includes rules that require the retailers to sell Ontario wines and probably isn’t a model for the 18 or so U.S. states that don’t allow supermarket wine sales.
? Only 40 years? The 40th anniversary of the Judgment of Paris, when California wines bested their French counterparts in a taste-off that established the former as world class, comes next year, and plans are being made to celebrate it (though, apparently, only in the U.S.). How about a congressional lunch next spring with wine from all 50 states, including two of the California wines that won? Or a vertical tasting with some of the winning wines. It’s almost impossible to underestimate how important the Judgment of Paris was in helping California wine take its place as some of the greatest in the world, and it’s no coincidence that so many of the French critics who took part still refuse to accept the results.
? Not enough education: A Chilean wine expert who thought the world needed more wine education is surprised at how much he underestimated the market for his business. Raul Diaz told the drinks business trade magazine that “there is increasing demand for training that strikes a balance between being informative without being too intimidating or ‘know it all.’ ” Sound familiar? One of the moatr frustrating things about the wine business’ lack of interest in education is that not only ignore how much moe wine it would help them sell, but that they could make money with it. But, as I always note, I’m a lousy businessman.
? Italy back on top: World wine production estimates for 2015 are in, and the Italians have regained their place as the top wine producing country in the world, replacing the Spanish, who were tops in 2014 after a record harvest. France was second and the U.S. fourth, as the experts think world production will increas two percent this year. That’s an impressive number given declining consumption in Europe, the drought in California, and financial woes in Australia.
? Maybe it ?s all the gloomy weather: Tim Atkin, an English master of wine, has had quite enough, thank you. He goes off on British wine, which he calls disgusting; cheap wine, which he says is rarely a good value (what makes English wine types so sensitive about cheap wine?); and pinot grigio, a ?mostly dull grape variety ? in a 10-item rant. I can ?t speak to most of his broadside, but I can shed some light on the cheap wine parts, which are the first three items. Atkin, like Jamie Goode in the post linked above, is limited by the perspective of the British retail system, where cheap grocery store private label wine dominates the market and is often sold below cost. Maybe it is as awful as Atkin says, and maybe there isn ?t any Sicilian or Gascon wine available in Britain (and almost certainly no Bogle, Dry Creek, or Yellow + Blue), but dismissing all cheap wine is unnecessary. Take it from someone who knows a thing or two about rants.
? Let ?s try it again: A second movie version of the Judgment of Paris, the 1976 blind tasting in Paris where California wine beat French wine, is in the works. Turns out that many of the key figures in the tasting weren ?t happy with ?Bottle Shock, ? the first film version of what happened, and want to set the record straight. Steven Spurrier, who organized the tasting, was so unhappy with ?Bottle Shock" that he threatened to sue. No word yet on who will play George Taber, the U.S. reporter who covered the event, but I know several 30-something wine writers who would be perfect for the part.
? Bring out the bubbly ? sort of: How far has the Champagne market fallen since the start of the recession? So far that sales in the U.S. still haven ?t made it back to 2006 levels. Most of the shortish story is a lot numbers mumbo jumbo to make it look like things are going better for Champagne than they are, but the most interesting fact? That Mo t & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot combine for approximately 60 percent of the U.S. Champagne market. No wonder cava and Prosecco are doing so well.
? How tasting rooms work: Ever wonder why wineries have tasting rooms? Or if they make a lot of money? Or why a wine in the tasting room is often more expensive than in a store? Rob McMillan at the SVB blog goes a long way towards answering those questions, and asks one of his own: Do too many wineries use the tasting room to make money at the expense of the tasting room ?s ability to market the winery? This is the sort of analysis the wine business needs more of, and something that consumers need to know, too. It ?s one more advantage to know how the business works when it comes to buying wine.
? Breaking records: Remember that California grape shortage? Long gone, and probably not to be seen for a while. The official numbers are in, and the 2012 harvest set records. The crush totaled 4.4 million tons, up 13 percent from 2011 and 1 percent more than the previous high in 2005. Also significant: Red grapes accounted for more than half of that total, part of what may be a long-term trend toward red wine among consumers. Prices were also up quite a bit, in the double digits for many varieties, as producers were making up losses from the less bountiful 2010 and 2011 harvests.
? He was there: I ?ve never asked George Taber about the 1976 Judgment of Paris, probably the most important moment in the history of modern California wine. George, who worked for Time, was the only journalist present, and saw California wines best French wines in a blind tasting. You ?d think, as nosy as I am, I would have annoyed him about it over and over. Now I don ?t have to, thanks to this interview, which covers the event thoroughly: ?The story about the Paris tasting in Time magazine was only four paragraphs long. It was a secondary story in the Modern Living section, the filler. Nobody in the world except me will remember what was the first and more important story: It was about a new theme park in Atlanta ?. ?