This week’s wine news: Two wine analysts may be even less optimistic about the future of wine than I am, plus Internet retailer Wine.com calls for three-tier system reform
• Napa Valley worries: Author James Conaway, who has written three books about California’s most prestigious wine region, is “pessimistic and alarmed about the valley’s state and direction.” That’s the word from Mike Dunne in the Sacramento Bee. Conaway is afraid Napa will morph into a “viticultural Disneyland, vineyards as sideshows, wineries as thrill rides.” “I don’t see any hope,” he told Dunne. “It’s too late for it to become an agricultural Yosemite.” That’s as gloomy a view as I’ve heard, but not surprising given the news out of Napa in the past decade as the region tries to decide how to manage its unprecedented growth. When land costs as much as $1 million an acre, it’s difficult to sustain an agricultural vision.
• Boxes, bulk wine, and blends: Or how about a wine business where what we drink is made like juice boxes, and varietal character is as quaint as the blacksmith? Elliott R. Morss, PhD, isn’t quite that alarming, but it’s not far from what he writes to that scenario: “The growth in blends is also notable. It means customers are focusing less on specific grapes and region and trusting more on the bottler. As the blend demand grows, so will the demand for bulk wines. …” The blog article is a little geeky, but the trends that Morss outlines apply to all of us who want our wine to taste like the grape and region it came from.
• Three-tier Ecommerce? Wine.com, the largest Internet wine retailer in the U.S., wants to reform the three-tier system to make it 21st century e-commerce friendly. You won’t learn much more that that – if that much – from this very poorly written news release, which combines PR-, wine-, and supply chain-speak to create a language that even I had trouble understanding. The point, though, is that the retailer sees U.S. wine sales declining and wants to do something to make it easier for consumers to buy wine. Says one Wine.com official: “Limiting the market size of your own customers is not a recipe for growth.”
In those long ago days before the recession, when price was no object for producers and their goal was to make Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon as over the top as possible, the Kelly Fleming cabernet sauvignon was not unusual. $90? No big deal. 14.8 percent alcohol? Nice, but not 15.1 percent.
What makes the Fleming (sample) unusual and worth reviewing six years later is that it held up in a way that many other wines from that fairy tale era have not. I cleaned out the wine closet at the end of this winter, working my way through a dozen or so bottles of similar wines that I got as samples when high-end producers still sent samples, and most of the wines were gone, faded and old. Some of the $100 wines had even started to turn to vinegar.
The Fleming, on the other hand, not only held up, but improved with age. Which I certainly didn’t expect. It was balanced in a way that it wouldn’t have been in 2011, with lots of black fruit but where the whole was greater than the sum of the fruit. The tannins were soft but noticeable, and the finish was spicy, long, and surprisingly complex. This is wine, and not something to marvel at — high praise from the Wine Curmudgeon for this style of wine.
Having said all of this, the Fleming is still a pre-recession, $90 bottle of Napa cabernet with all that entails. It is not subtle, but still showy in the way those wines are. Most of us will wonder why we would want to spend that much money. But if you like this style, and you have the money or dine at expensive steak houses, then you’ll enjoy this — and be glad you bought it and not something else.
The Wine Curmudgeon has a surprisingly long history with Caymus, considering how much its wines cost and that I don’t usually write about wines that cost that much. First, there was this, involving Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, as well as a big-time lunch last year when I tasted the 2003 Special Select, which someone mentioned sold for around $300 a bottle (assuming you could find it).
Which would have been fun, because this is an intriguing wine — full of fruit and oak in a style I don’t usually like, but put together with such passion and honesty that even I can appreciate it. In fact, I tasted the wine with The Big Guy and L. Kleinpeter, and each was raving: “Intense.” “Well integrated.” “Rich and luscious.” And, perhaps the biggest compliment: Both would buy the Caymus, and these are two people who spend a lot of time drinking cheap wine with me.
The Caymus is very young, and the dark fruit (black cherry? blackberries?) practically jumps off the glass when you put your mouth over it, though it should age gracefully over the next couple of years. This is a wine loaded with sweet fruit, as these wines almost always are, but the fruit is part of the whole, and the tannins are fine and almost tasty, something that is not easy to do. In this, it is a wine that is exactly what people who appreciate Napa cabernet want, and done impeccably.
? Head to Target: The Wine Curmudgeon is always encouraged when the non-wine media does a cheap wine story, since that’s another step in the right direction — helping Americans figure out wine. If the Los Angeles Times’ recent story recommending wine to buy at Target included too much boring Big Wine (Clos du Bois chardonnay, really?), the story’s heart was in the right place. How can I be unhappy with anything that recommends Beaujolais? Though, and I mention this as a cranky ex-newspaperman who wants to help someone who apparently doesn’t do a lot of wine writing, mentioning Robert Parker in the blurb for Sterling cabernet sauvignon was counterproductive. Anyone who cares about Parker scores probably isn’t going to buy $10 cabernet at Target.
? Stoned wine: Beppi Crosariol at the Toronto Globe & Mail answers a reader question about the wine term stony, complete with bad jokes. It’s actually a decent explanation, and includes a good description of minerality: “Flint, wet stone, chalk, limestone, slate, graphite ? various rocky words get trotted out with increasing frequency today…” and he notes recent scientific findings that the grapes probably didn’t pick up these qualities from the soil.
? How many wineries? The state of Texas, with 266,874 square miles, has about 300 wineries. Napa County, with 748 square miles, recently celebrated its 500th winery. This is a mind-boggling figure — there are more wineries in Napa than in all but two or three states (depending on whose figures you use). Is it any wonder that it’s the center of the U.S. wine universe, even for people who don’t know much about wine? Will we start hearing phrases like “carrying grapes to Napa?”
Yes, this seems like an odd choice for the Wine Curmudgeon, even for the expensive wine feature. It's a California merlot made, more or less, by the same people who make Silver Oak, which is a grape and a style of wine I'm not especially fond of. But, as I always insist, one should not judge the wine until after one tastes it.
And the Twomey ($40, sample) is very much worth tasting. I don't know that it's quite the French-style wine that the tasting notes say it is; it tastes very Napa Valley, though without many of the excesses that other wines of this kind have. How else do I know this? Many comments on CellarTracker for the Twomey are particularly vehement (and not fit for a family blog like this), criticizing the wine for not being big and over the top enough. There is even a plea for CellarTracker users to unite and overthrow the tyranny of wine critics, since the latter were so wrong about this wine. And, apparently, many retailers have been heavily discounting this vintage.
Otherwise, the Twomey features beautiful fruit made in the Silver Oak style — soft, rich and velvety. The longer the wine sits open, the more the parts come out, and the parts are impressive, mostly equal parts oak, chocolate, and red fruit. Let this sit for 20 or 30 minutes before you drink it, and pair with it with beef and anything with red wine sauces.