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Lessons In Longevity: Tim Mondavi’s Continuum, And The Coming Of Age Of World-Class Napa Reds

Vinted on March 10, 2011 under best of, California wine, kick-ass wines, on the road

Tim Mondavi’s eyes betray almost everything in their expressiveness; probably more than he realizes.

One moment, when recalling some memory or detail of spearheading the development of Opus One, they might be bright, almost dancing, even though his demeanor is serious and workmanlike – as if there’s something fond and comforting about revisiting the time for him.  The next, they’re sharp and piercing despite his relaxed posture and polite phrases (in this case, when I mentioned someone in the CA wine industry with whom I suspect Tim doesn’t see eye-to-eye).

Occasionally eyes, words, and demeanor align like stars in a constellation: for instance, when Tim recounts – using a rather damn good Godfather impersonation – his frustration in once having to hold up a large canvas over a series of days in Mondavi’s famed To Kalon vineyard so that his daughter, Chiara, could finish painting the image (titled “Light  of the vine”) that would grace the label for his budding high-end red wine project, Continuum.

I spent the better part of five hours picking Tim Mondavi’s brain on a sunny day in late February, when visiting Continuum’s Pritchard Hill estate as a lunch guest; as far as Tim knew, I was coming to get a taste of the 2008 vintage of a wine brand that I’ve already publicly praised as being well-worth seeking out even if it is pricey. But as far as I was concerned, class was in session, the topic was the history of Napa winemaking, and I was the student.  I just had to convince Tim – who has been around since the earliest days of the development of Napa’s modern fine wine industry – to start teaching.  Not easy – but turns out it was well worth the effort.

Lesson one: the only living things in the Valley with more wine-related history than the Mondavis probably have wood for arms and grapes for children; that history doesn’t guarantee great wine, but it sure as hell doesn’t hurt your chances any.

Sunny days on Pritchard Hill, in Napa’s eastern ridge, provide for a glorious view (Oakville and Lake Hennessey are a stone’s throw away, and on a good day you can pick out buildings in downtown San Francisco), so we took to a 4×4 and toured the forty-odd acres of Continuum’s vineyard plantings, on land that once belonged to a former marine biologist.  Stopped for a moment at a spot that overlooks the estate’s farmhouse, Tim recalled how his father reacted to the site.

“In 2008, just before my father left for the great vineyard in the sky, we took him up here to see the vineyard, right before we purchased it,” he said, pointing directly to the spot where he helped an ailing Robert Mondavi take in the view. “He was in a wheelchair by then, and he couldn’t talk much.  But when he saw this vineyard, his eyes lit up.”

That explains the eyes, right?…

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Is There A New Pecking Order For Cult Napa Cabs? (Records Are Busted At Premiere Napa Valley 2011)

Vinted on February 28, 2011 under best of, California wine, on the road, wine industry events

Is there a new pecking order for cult Napa Cabs?

Well, the case could certainly be made after this past Saturday’s Premiere Napa Valley: the part-auction, part-networking-event, part-total-insanity in which small, selected barrels/lots from some of Napa’s most celebrated wine producers are auctioned off to collectors, buyers and importers, as special, once-in-a-lifetime future bottlings.  The idea is that those wines are unique to each winning bidder, as the small lots from each producer are sold in their entirety to the winning bidder for that lot (I attended on the heels of the 2011 Pro Wine Writers Symposium).

Last year’s auction started off a little grim due to the down economy.  The atmosphere was a little more convivial this year and when the biddings kicked off, the auction room was packed and the excitement, to my eyes and ears anyway, was more palpable.  But when a Japanese importer got into a friendly-but-intense bidding battle over Scarecrow’s 5-case 2011 Premiere lot, the festivities took on the air of a rock concert, with cheering, clapping and smiles.  No dancing or head-banging, though.

The winning bid by the Japanese importer was $125,000 – roughly $2,000 per bottle of Scarecrow’s stuff on offer that day.

We may just have a new King of cult Napa Cabs, and a renewed focus on Scarecrow’s winemaker Celia Welch – not only was the $125K the highest bid of the day for any of the 200 auction lots on offer, it was the highest winning bid in the history of the Premiere Napa Valley auction.

Will that Japanese importer ever break even on this weekend’s historic transaction?  Probably not, at least not when it comes to recovering the investment on that particular wine.  BUT… very likely the cache factor will send more business their way, so it seems a smart move commercially.

Is the news good for CA wine?  Probably – if there were a better indication of the economy for high-end wine recovering, I’ve yet to see it.  I did hear grumbling on the auction floor by other producers that the historic bid was more fanfare and marketing over substance, but there were plenty of people raving about the quality of the Scarecrow lot wine, and I think any Napa Cab producer needs to see the forest through the trees here – I can’t think of any way in which this won’t benefit the recovering industry here, generally-speaking.

More to come on all of this later in the week – including my notes on some of the other auction lot wines, and video of the history-making gavel being slammed on that Scarecrow auction (for now, you’ll have to settle for my crappy cell phone picture of the winning moment from the “results board”).

What do YOU think?  Is Scarecrow’s record-breaking success a boon for Napa Cab.?  or is it a score-whoring setback for fine wine at affordable prices?  Shout it out in the comments!

Cheers!

The Biodynamics Debate: The Aftermath

Vinted on February 1, 2011 under best of, commentary, interviews

Over the past two weeks, I’ve posted podcast interviews with leading voices on both sides of the debate over the merits of biodynamic viticulture (if you’re interested in why I chose to tackle the BioD topic in this way, read the backdrop story line for the interviews).

On the “Pro” side, we’ve heard from International viticulture consultant Alan York.

On the “Con” side, BiodynamicsIsAHoax.com author Stu Smith has had his say.

Now that the views of both camps have been aired, it’s time to ante-up, slap the cards down on the table of philosophical vinous clarity, and voice some opinions.  What conclusions should we draw from the BioD debate, and what opinions have been shaped by the voices of Alan and Stu?

Does “ongoing confusion” count as a valid answer to that question?…

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Am I Alone In Thinking That Brett Is A Flaw?

Vinted on January 26, 2011 under best of, commentary, going pro, wine review

Ok.  I know I’m not totally alone in thinking that Brett is a flaw.  Or at least I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.

Helloooooooooo?  Is anyone out there….???

The minor bought of vinous paranoia has to do with what seems like my inclusion in rarefied company, and I mean that in the “two percent of patients have a severe allergic reaction” sense or rarefied, and not in the “Emmy-award-winning drama for the seventh consecutive year” sense.  You see, sometimes, it feels like I’m part of a group, rather tiny in number, that thinks a certain range of smells – barnyard, band-aid, and (putting it in the most polite context I can muster) “dirty diaper” – aren’t indicative of terroir, or the almost-as-ubiquitous “character.”

Call it the anti-brett clan, maybe?

It’s the group that classifies the presence of brettanomyces (a yeast that imparts aromas of band-aid, barnyard, and sometimes meaty funk to wines) as… well, as a flaw.  No different than the unpleasant, musty odor cork taint, or the rotten-egg stench of sulfer.

Especially since, with increasing frequency, I seem to disagree with both the famous and not-so-famous wine critics and reviewers on how wines should be rated (in terms of recommending them to others) when those wine (to me, at least) very clearly display classic (nasty!) characteristics of brett.

I know that wine appreciation is subjective, and one person’s swill is another person’s prestige cuvee, but do people really enjoy the smell of band-aids and barnyard in their wines?  I sure as hell don’t – and while I enjoy a touch of funk in some of my wines (the kind that smells like Slim Jims, or smoked meat), my prevailing thought for some time has been that brett is actually a wine flaw – yes, even the interesting meaty funkiness that I happen to… well, not like exactly, but not hate, either.

I say this because brett yeasts cannot yet be controlled, and until such time as they can be controlled (so that winemakers can ‘dial-in’ the amount – and type, as there are many brett yeasts and they impart different ‘flavors’ of off-beat funk) then whether or not the wine has pleasant smoked meat characteristics or instead smells like one of my daughter’s diaper blow-outs is almost entirely dictated by chance.

The aspect that has me questioning my sanity in all of this is that other people seem to like those wines – lots of people… and in some cases, they seem to really like them.

Other people like Robert Parker and Stephen Tanzer, for example…

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