Night of the Living Reds: Napa Valley Edition
“The future always looks good in the golden land,” wrote Joan Didion, a native Californian, “because no one remembers the past.” Sometime in the early nineties, the golden land is where I learned to like wine. It seemed to me then that its zinfandels and petite sirahs—black and the flavor of homemade preserves—tasted the way children believe wine to taste when they first read about it in books. “I want my wine to have balls,” is something you hear in California, often from men with no demonstrable homoerotic urges. But for me those West Coast reds remained there, in the past; after years of drinking them I became enamored with the delicate, high-strung wines of Europe that smell of rocks and rotting leaves and dung. But when from time to time I thought about the last major California recession and the elation of uncorking those hard-won bottles of Rosenblum and Turley, I wondered about what I’d been missing.
I got a chance to find out in October, when my friend Steve called with a last-minute offer of a $250 ticket to the California Wine Experience—brainchild of the Wine Spectator magazine that promised access to the kind of esoteric wines that store owners sometimes keep behind alarmed glass. Steve and I shot up in the see-through elevator in the vertiginous Times Square Marriott Marquis and bounded into The Grand Tasting; around our necks we wore laminated tags like top-secret government scientists. Nearly every winery in the place was pouring one its most expensive wines and right off the bat we landed in front of the Mondavi table. “Yes please, “ we said in unison. Sniff. Gulp! The Napa cabernet was mouth filling and dense. It began with a pond of blackberry jam and only a hint of acidity followed by a blast of raw oak that was almost cough-syrup-like in the way it coated the tongue. The wine definitely had balls. We made our way down the rows of famous names; there was Staglin and Bond and Niebaum-Coppola and others I’d merely read about, never having been of a buyer of $150-a-bottle reds. To my surprise, the cabernet at the adjacent table tasted identical to Mondavi’s, the next one tasted almost exactly the same, and so on. I don’t mean the wines were stylistically similar—they were pretty much indistinguishable. Nearly all of them had been aged in new oak barrels and many were pushing 16% alcohol. After tasting six or seven I felt like I’d been drinking straight Scotch—my numb purple tongue curled up in my mouth like a dead minnow. Steve, an admitted wine novice who’d come by the tickets through a well-connected friend, glanced at me wanly. “I can’t drink any more,” he moaned, “lets get some food.”
The night went on like this for another hour—cultured pearls, metallic suits, firm handshakes. So I was happy to spot Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, sporting the tight blond curls of a Renaissance Faire escapee, laughing with Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm, the two looking like stoners in the back of trigonometry class. Then I glimpsed Paul Draper. He looked like The Most Interesting Man in the World from those beer commercials—I’m pretty sure he was wearing an ascot—and he smiled a cunning, beatific smile. The ruby-colored stuff he was pouring—his Ridge Monte Bello cabernet—smelled of forest and wildflowers and in the mouth its mellow flavors twined around each other like morning glory vines before fading in a long, worrying finish. Even dispensed from a little plastic glass, it was one of the most exciting reds I’d tasted. Draper showed me the label—1978. Under the Marriott’s fluorescent lights there was something undeniably punk in Draper’s quiet posture. He was pouring a thirty-year-old wine—an age at which most of his neighbors’ jammy reds would have long ago turned into expensive vinegar—a cabernet from the Santa Cruz mountains that had been made naturally and vinified at just over 13% alcohol. It was a ringer for a great Latour and stood as a silent reminder of a past that most California winemakers have now chosen to misremember.
Draper, after all, had been one of the Americans whose wine prevailed in the notorious Judgement of Paris, a 1976 blind tasting where a panel of mostly French judges preferred a California cabernet to first- and second-growth Bordeaux. Those West Coast reds tasted little like the ones at the Marriott—they were much lower in alcohol, less bombastic and oaky, more balanced, and aged better. To find out what had happened in the intervening years I called Warren Winiarski, whose Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 cabernet was chosen as the top wine in Paris. “In winemaking I’ve always believed in the three R’s,” Winiarski told me. “Richness, ripeness and restraint. These days, the last of these has gone missing in California. When you allow grapes to become overripe it makes the differences between the wines insignificant.” Winiarski has sold Stag’s Leap and the new proprietors make cabernet in a style that’s trailing further away from any traditional notion of restraint. His historic trouncing of French is viewed widely in California as a confirmation of the majesty of local wines, even though most of them no longer resemble his own. Talking about the current wine scene seemed to elicit caution and melancholy in Winiarski. “Why don’t you call Paul Draper?” he said.
To Draper I related what more than a few California winemakers have told me: that the climate, especially in Napa and Sonoma, is too hot to make moderate-alcohol wines with good acidity, and that fermentations have to be strictly controlled with laboratory-sourced yeasts and lots of sulfur dioxide, an additive that kills bacteria in the fermenting juice. “Nonsense,” Draper shot back. “All of them used to make balanced wine. It’s not rocket science. You simply pick earlier.” Draper told me that he picks grapes before anyone else in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley, that he works with indigenous yeasts and only tiny amounts of sulfur, and that his vineyards are a few years away from being certified organic. But he saved his ire for the winemaking practices that he sees around him. “What goes on in vineyards is benign compared to what goes on in wineries. You wouldn’t believe the devices and chemicals we’re offered.” Then he enumerated a panoply of laboratory products and processes, an arsenal used to wage high-tech warfare on simple grapes: micro-oxygenation, used to zap tannins out of wines, an additive called Mega Purple to sweeten and thicken them, a compound Draper referred to as the “death star” that kills the Brettanomyces yeast, and so on. Winemakers use these widely though few will admit to it. The resulting pinots and cabernets are completely stripped of the living substances that give wine complexity and character. “They taste like they could come from anywhere,” Draper said, “they are dead.” Like gin, they are made year-to-year in an unchanging style designed to get 90-plus scores from critics and appeal to wine drinkers looking for powerful, thick wines meant to be drunk by themselves, because they tend to overwhelm the flavors of food. “The saddest thing,” Draper added, “is that many winemakers here now think of these overripe, sterilized wines as the California terroir, as the unique commodity they have to offer to the world.”
Jancis Robinson has written that more than ninety percent of the world’s wines are industrial. That’s a term usually identified with $8 reds from Chile, and it’s sobering to consider that California is now in the business of making industrial wines that cost as much as a night in a four-star hotel. “Consensus wines,” Draper called them. It made me think of California’s other boom industry. Users of the Internet Movie Database have voted The Shawshank Redemption the greatest film of all time. The Shawshank Redemption has everything—A-list stars, seven Oscar nominations, huge box office returns. It’s a perfect studio movie, a triumph of sound business practices, of giving the public what it wants, of consensus filmmaking. That it isn’t actually any good hardly rates as a problem. There are winemakers in California making natural, delicious, even important wines, and their numbers are growing—more about them later. For the moment, many are still content to launch one Shawshank Redemption after another down the assembly line toward your glass.
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