Monday, 19 August 2013

Napa changing?

It seems to be in the air. The September edition of  'Decanter' has an interesting supplement on California stressing the diversity to be found there among a new wave of small producers (Jon Bonne; 'The new California'). Alfonso Cevola's blog 'On the wine trail in Italy' chimes in with a post on the same subject (July 21st - 'What does a native Californian drink in California on his birthday?'), all co-inciding with our own trip to Napa and our researches into the same widening of choices available to the consumer.

We had registered the fact that California is more diverse than its reputation already in our post of December 9th, 2008 ('American Diversity after all') but this was our first opportunity to investigate in person. With only half a day to look at one of the most valuable areas of wine real estate in the world we set out early from San Francisco hoping also to make contact with the maker (Matthew Rorick) of our Slotovino Red of  the Year (2012/13), the 'Suspiro del Moro' Alvarelhao of Forlorn Hope and acquire some more of this and other wines.Rorick may live in Napa but he takes his grapes from many different parts of California, notably Lodi and always credits the growers and their Vineyards.

In preparation we had surfed the internet and discovered a charming Riverside operation called 'Forgotten Grapes' run by Chris Kern.

As the name suggests, he specializes in all kinds of wines not found in the supermarket or most other places for that matter; certainly not abroad. We were able to arrange for a shipment including the following Californian mono-varietals to be made to an accommodating wine bar in San Francisco for collection on our arrival;

Alicante Bouschet
Baco Noir
Cabernet Pfeffer
Pinot Blanc
Touriga Nacional

As we have mentioned in this Blog, it was Andrew Jefford who had tipped us off about 'Forlorn Hope' and also 'The Scholium Project', both leaders in the New California. 'Forlorn Hope' uses uncommon varieties and Scholium uncommon (natural) procedures. On our quest we found plenty of examples of both of these trends as we shall see.

The town of Napa itself was not quite what we had imagined.

Entering, we followed a sign to the Opera House and indeed there it was - a small but handsome Victorian building with columns. We searched in vain for the placard for last season or next.

Not expecting 'Der Ring des Nibelungen' exactly there was not even a mention of anything perhaps more appropriate such as 'L'Elisir d'Amore'.

Similarly there was an air of dejection in the town with an entire shopping centre opposite the Opera House closed down and what was a large wine shop over the river also out of business.

Numerous tasting rooms suggested a stream of visitors on the wine trail but that was about it. One person we spoke to said the city of Napa was"struggling".

Clueless as to where to go in the short time available, we stopped in at the Railway Station which now serves the Napa Wine Train.

This seems to be a popular tourist attraction whereby you can visit 4 wineries between Napa and St. Helena 18 miles away, taste the wines, have a meal and be spirited through beautiful countryside consisting of vines,

more vines and even more vines, uniformly neat and tidy with machines we have never seen before no doubt for the purpose of managing climatic conditions.

Taking the Wine Train itinerary, we set off by car along what is a first class 'Weinstrasse'. Legendary and celebrated names passed by one after the other; Mondavi,



Grgich etc., surprisingly at this part of the Napa, all on the floor of the valley. Yountville is to the side of the road so that would have to wait for another time

but St. Helena is right on it and there the atmosphere was more salubrious than that of Napa and much more how we had pictured things in the valley.

The pretty main street has nice boutiques such as you may find in Carmel with an attractive wine merchant where we had to buy the poster of co-incidentally the 13 major Napa varieties to hang alongside the poster 'La Symphonie des 13 Cepages' we was picked up in Chateauneuf du Pape. The varieties listed for Napa are, in what order we know not;

Petite Sirah
Cabernet Franc
Sauvignon Blanc
Pinot Noir
Cabernet Sauvignon

Some of these are quite a surprise even if they don't include some of the really interesting varieties rumored to be grown in California (Poulsard, Peloursin!).

California is the world's 4th largest wine area after France, Italy and Spain. 90% of US wine comes from this state. One can now talk of wine production here almost over hundreds of years but what we think of as Californian wine dates only from the 1960s or 70s. The image we have of California wine is not at all the whole story. The original plantings were brought by missionaries.

In the 19th century, the manic entrepreneur Agoston Haraszthy who (apart from a bewildering number of other achievements was the first Hungarian immigrant to the United States) brought in 300 cuttings from France, Germany, Switzerland and Spain. His Buena Vista estate may even have been the origin of the Phylloxera plague.

 Ancient Tokay vine (planted 1888) in Jessie's Grove, showing some of vestiges of the early July heat wave ("fried" grapes)
an 1888 Tokay vine survivor, Jessie's Vineyard, Lodi

Miraculously not all the original plantings were lost and it was of course the Americans who were first to find a solution to the problem. For an overview of Haraszthy's other achievements (founding cities, building factories and jails, being the first Mississipi steamer operator as well as being the father of Californian wine, going bust and possibly meeting his death by being eaten by alligators)  see the particularly good entry in Wikipedia. Werner Herzog seems to have forgotten to make a biopic about him.

Later immigrants often brought their vines with them from home so there are diverse varieties to be found in plantings of various sizes all over California, often farmed by the same family over generations. Winemakers have become expert at seeking these sources out. Ridge, no less being an early one to exploit these resources. For fascinating examples see

Prohibition was just as bad a scourge as Phylloxera but a peculiar side-effect was the introduction of further diversity as vine growers exploited a loophole in the law which allowed them to grow grapes for individuals to make 'Grape Juice'. These grapes had to be hardy enough to withstand shipping to the private addresses all over America so hardy varieties had to be sought out.

So there has always been greater diversity in California that its image has suggested and now a new generation of pioneering winemakers are using more and more interesting varieties to make fascinating wines unlike anything you might have found before. They call themselves the Seven Percenters because 93 percent of vineyards in the North Coast are planted to eight grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. The remaining seven percent of vineyard land is left for those interested in making wine from other varieties. It has to be said Napa is not an area prominent in supplying grapes as yet to these Seven Percenters but there are grapes other than these eight varieties grown there so who knows, col tempo...

Due to the particular situation in America concerning distribution, these Seven Percenters do not get a look in internationally or even nationally. they are told by the few giant distribution companies that their "books are full" and even if they were not, the small production would not be of interest to these companies.

So they mostly sell to mailing lists, online, at the cellar door and to local wine shops.

Just recently, Chambers St. Wines - the paragon of winemerchants which leans towards Natural, Organic and Biodynamic wines announced they they had bought in wines from the following;

Dirty and Rowdy
Farmers Jane
Field Recordings
Forlorn Hope
Porter Creek
The Scholium Project

with others from Oregon and New York State.

These names may be added to make up a roll-call of like-minded producers;

Arnot Roberts
Bedrock Wine Co.
Idlewild Wines
Leo Steen
Ryme Cellars
Stark Wine
Two Shepherds
Unti Vineyards
Wind Gap

and no doubt many others little known outside their immediate circles.

This is a pity because they should be among the standard bearers for Californian wine and would provide a valuable counterweight to what is often an industrial product so sadly to be found on supermarket shelves all over the world. Nevertheless, these wines are beginning to make an impact across the US and now abroad. They will do wonders for the image of Californian wine.

On our brief visit to Napa we determined to track down one of the leading lights of this group, Matthew Rorick of Forlorn Hope, mentioned above who will be the subject of our next post.

1 comment:

Kate said...

Goodness, a cliffhanger no less!

Ted and I went to Napa Valley once. I remember it quite
fondly, we did the Mondavi tour, and then ended up at a lovely informal wine tasting for some little winery whose name I don't think I ever knew. Delicious red, though, I do remember that.