The country’s greatest annual food and wine event with an emphasis on wine—featuring some of the world’s finest and most exclusive wines–ended this past Sunday in Pebble Beach, California.
This was the seventh edition of Pebble Beach Food & Wine (PBFW) based at the Inn at Spanish Bay in Pebble Beach, but utilizing additional locations throughout the area.
When this annual event began in 2008, it followed in many ways in the footsteps of the legendary Masters of Food & Wine extravaganza that was likewise very much focused on the world’s most elite wines. That event had taken place in nearby Big Sur for two decades until 2007.
As far as other food events featuring the world’s top chefs, PBFW probably runs second only to the Aspen Food & Wine Classic. That event, in late June, has been running for over 30 years. Its wine seminars, however, led mostly by celebrity somms, are easily outshown by those of PBFW.
The event is well supported by local residents, but I met many attendees who had flown in from the East Coast and elsewhere. Conrad Kenley is a longtime food and wine event veteran and prominent wine collector based in Washington, D.C. He told me he previously attended the Masters of Food & Wine and now regularly attends PBFW because of the wine seminars and presence of representatives from some of the world’s great estates. He credits the latter with a lot of what he’s learned about wine.
This year’s high end wine seminars included a vertical tasting back to 1990 of arguably the greatest, and certainly most innovative, of the Bordeaux First Growths: Château Latour, with Latour President Frédéric Engerer on hand.
Spain’s most famous wine was featured in a seminar on the wines of Vega Sicilia Unico with samples going back to 1983. Napa’s storied Mayacamas—which began in 1889 on Mt. Veeder–was the subject of another tasting seminar, with a panel that included internationally renowned wine critic Antonio Galloni and winemaker Andy Erickson. That tasting included wines representing five decades of Mayacamas.
Galloni himself was featured at four different wine seminars, including one devoted to top Barolos from the excellent 2008 vintage where some of the bottles tasted were from Galloni’s own cellar. Other wine experts and leading sommeliers on hand for wine seminars included renowned somm turned winemaker Raj Parr, wine book author Jordan McKay, Food & Wine’s executive wine editor Ray Isle, Master Sommelier Larry Stone and Somm film stars Ian Cauble, Dlynn Proctor, Brian McClintic and Eric Railsback.
For me, the single most memorable wine seminar this year was a vertical tasting of one of Champagne’s rarest and most sought after top cuvees, Salon. Champagne Salon head Didier Depond was on hand for this very unusual retrospective, which included magnums of this fabulous Champagne going back to 1983 and the first public showing of the soon-to-be-released and highly anticipated 2002 vintage.
Antonio Galloni and Didier Depond at Champagne Salon seminar
For a little perspective on the level of wines poured, I taste over 7,000 wines per year. Usually only one or two of those per month merit a rating of 96/97 points. At this event alone, I got to taste 13 wines I rated 96 points or higher–i.e., for me, essentially a year’s worth of very top wines–including two I rated 99 points (both of them Salon Champagnes).
Like other major food and wine events across the country, PBFW also includes grand tastings featuring hundreds of wines. PBFW actually hosts three such tastings that go for three hours each: a welcome event Thursday evening, and Saturday and Sunday afternoon grand tastings. The latter two took place in the 66,000 square foot Lexus Grand Tasting tent erected on the grounds of the Equestrian Center.
Big commercial brands are among the wines featured at these large scale tastings, but there were also many high quality, smaller production wineries represented. This year those included Archery Summit, Arietta, Blackbird Vineyards, Carlisle, Donelan, DuMol, Hestan, Jonata, Kistler, Kosta Browne, Pisoni, Ridge and Sandhi. I also enjoyed a very interesting lineup of Aussie wines thoughtfully selected by Wine Australia.
For these grand tastings, top chefs from restaurants around the country create specialty dishes for attendees to nosh on between sips of wine, cocktails or spirits.
Among the dozens of chefs creating dishes this year, many of whom also offered cooking demonstrations during the event, were the following San Francisco Bay area luminaries: SPQR’s Matthew Accarrino, Plumed Horse’s Peter Armellino, Tracy Des Jardins, Hubert Keller and Charles Phan. They were joined by other prominent national chefs like José Garces, Masaharu Morimoto and Nancy Silverton, as well as by TV celebs Guy Fieri, Tyler Florence and Andrew Zimmern.
The special lunches and dinners at this year’s PBFW included one in memory of Chicago restaurateur Charlie Trotter. Restaurant 1833, where I enjoyed a delicious meal on the Friday evening of the event, hosted a “4 Martini Lunch” featuring some of their signature cocktails alongside those of Las Vegas’s new club at The Cosmopolitan, Rose. Rabit. Lie. Stars of the Los Angeles food scene were featured at another dinner that included Ori Menashe of Bestia, Animal’s Jon Shook and Michael Voltaggio of ink.
I attended the Grand Finale Dinner, which was held in the relatively intimate dining room of Pebble Beach’s The Beach & Tennis Club. The glassed walls there afford diners a glittering view of Carmel Bay. Chefs Masaharu Morimoto, Dean Fearing, José Garces, Ken Frank and Johnny Iuzzini each prepared a dish for this dinner, which included wines from Champagne Louis Roederer, Rochioli, Burgundy’s Domaine de Bellene and Napa’s Brand.
The event’s co-founders are Robert Weakley and David Alan Bernahl, II, and it is currently owned and run by Coastal Luxury Management. Major sponsors include Food & Wine Magazine and Lexus. Although passes for the entire weekend run about $5,000, tickets to individual events are priced as low as $100. PBFW has also raised over 1.5 million dollars for local charities since its inception.
Below is the profile of Antonio Galloni I wrote for epicure, the magazine/program of Pebble Beach Food & Wine, whose 2014 extravaganza (PBFW2014) ended today. Antonio led four seminar panels for the event, and I can confirm he did a terrific job as I attended three of them. I particularly appreciated the wealth of background he brought to the 2008 Barolo seminar, where some of the fabulous wines on hand were from his own cellar.
Antonio has agreed to extend to RJonWine readers for the next three days the code his team established for PBFW2014 that will allow you to get a free preview of the rich content and admirable technology on his terrific website, VinousMedia.com. I urge my readers to check out the site before the end of the day Wednesday, April 23, using the following credentials:
Pebble Beach Food & Wine is fortunate to have Antonio Galloni on hand for four of its wine events this year. Antonio has ascended to prominence as an internationally renowned wine critic faster than anyone since the meteoric rise of his former employer, Robert Parker, Jr., in the mid-1980s.
Some might say part of Antonio’s success was a matter of luck. Antonio launched the first English language publication on Piedmont wines at a time—2004—when there was something of a vacuum in English language coverage of this important region. Subscriptions grew faster than Antonio ever imagined. And he was fortunate to be introduced to Robert Parker through a professor at his business school.
Antonio was well poised for success, however, having grown up in his family’s wine business and being able to speak four languages, including his native Spanish, Italian and French. In my view, however, the real key to Antonio’s growing influence in the world of fine wine, besides his keen intelligence, is his tremendous work ethic. When asked about the latter, he attributes it to the example of his dad.
Antonio was born in Caracas, Venezuela, to an American citizen mother and Italian-born father. Antonio’s dad built up his own wholesale and import/export fish and seafood business, serving Latin America generally. By the time Antonio was 11, business conditions in Venezuela had become less favorable so his parents moved to Sarasota, Florida, where they had close friends.
Antonio’s parents opened a food and wine store there specializing in Italian wine and Bordeaux futures. Antonio worked at the store evenings and weekends during high school. He continued to work there on breaks after he went away to study music in Boston at the Berklee School.
Antonio became fascinated by wine as a result of this exposure. His mother’s father was a fine wine aficionado who introduced him to the great wines of Burgundy. For Antonio’s dad, though, the world’s greatest wines were Barolo and Champagne.
After graduating Berklee in 1992, Antonio played gigs with his rock band and waited tables. That’s when he became acquainted with the hot new California wineries that began to receive a lot of attention in the mid-1990s.
In 1997, his then girlfriend convinced him to get a “more serious job.” He applied for an entry level position with Putnam Investments, and moved quickly from there into the firm’s sales and marketing training program. From 2000 to 2003, he was posted to Putnam’s office in Milan, Italy.
In this position, Antonio wined and dined clients at some of Italy’s great restaurants. He spent many of his weekends visiting winemakers.
Ultimately, he decided it was time to get a formal business education. When he was accepted at MIT’s Sloan School of Business, it seemed only natural to return to Boston to reconnect with his network there.
While at Sloan Antonio started writing about wine for himself. Eventually he started sharing pieces with friends, who encouraged him to continue and to think about making his passion for wine into a business.
At that time, the only person writing regularly about Italian wines in English was James Suckling. Antonio thought there was room for another voice reporting on this important area, so by the end of 2004, he started an online publication called The Piedmont Report.
Much to Antonio’s surprise, within several short weeks he had picked up subscribers in over a dozen countries, and producers and retailers were starting to quote his ratings and tasting notes. Antonio’s Italian wife, Marzia Brumat Galloni, who had been born into one of Friuli’s top winemaking families, served as the publication’s editor.
A Sloan professor whose class Antonio audited referred him to a Sloan alum who was running Parker’s website. This introduction led to Antonio meeting Parker, who invited him to write for Parker’s publication, The Wine Advocate. Upon his graduation from business school in 2005, however, Antonio decided instead to take a job with Deutsche Bank in New York City.
After the birth of Antonio’s first child in 2006, he re-evaluated the demands of having a full-time job and running a newsletter business. He therefore accepted Parker’s offer and started reviewing Italian wines for Parker as a consultant beginning in September 2006.
In 2008, Antonio’s portfolio for TWA expanded to include Champagne. In early 2011, Parker stepped down from writing about California wine and turned that prestigious assignment over to Antonio, along with coverage of Burgundy. Antonio by then had left his bank job to write about wine full time.
Many presumed Parker planned to eventually put Antonio in charge of TWA. It was a major surprise, then, when Parker announced the publication’s sale to Singapore investors toward the end of 2012. Antonio subsequently announced he was leaving TWA and starting his own Internet publication.
Launched in May 2013, VinousMedia.com contains everything Antonio has published since beginning The Piedmont Report, including his TWA reviews in which Antonio had wisely retained copyright. It is also beautifully designed and a tremendous resource for those of us interested in the wines of Italy, Champagne, Burgundy and California.
Antonio and his team have built a platform aimed at making the experience of fine wine and food more immediate and accessible through updates a few times a week. The site employs a variety of tools, including video and interactive vineyard maps. Antonio writes in a welcoming, conversational style that readily conveys his enthusiasm for particular wines and fine wine in general. It is also the first major wine publication to be fully optimized for smart phones.
With his reputation as a wine writer and critic already firmly established, Antonio has set his sights on nothing less than raising the bar on wine media. Given the results so far, and knowing how hard Antonio works, following his father’s example, I have no doubt that Antonio will be a leading voice in the world of wine for decades to come.
Santa Barbara area grape growers nearly gave up on Bordeaux varieties planted here in the 1970s after they failed to ripen sufficiently to eliminate green flavors more vintages than not. There are exceptions, of course, and Jonata in Ballard Canyon proved there are warmer areas where Bordeaux varieties can do very well.
Santa Barbara’s hottest growing region, on the far eastern edge of Santa Ynez Valley, has also shown that Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, as well as Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec, can produce superlative results.
Some Cabernets and Bordeaux blends I’ve rated highly in the past year–93 points and higher–hail from this region. This includes Goodland Wines’ 2011 Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Red, and Star Lane’s 2007 Astral and 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon. In the works is the new Crown Point flagship wine, based on the 2013 vintage, being made by former Harlan assistant winemaker Adam Henkel. It is rumored to have a planned sales price in the $200 range. Our next stop then on our in-depth tour of Santa Barbara’s sub-AVAs is Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara.
This appellation sped along a fast track, going from vineyards first being planted in 1996 to approval by the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), effective November 9, 2009. How did a fairly tiny area—with only about 500 total planted acres—accomplish this in barely 13 years?
It helps there are some very deep pockets amongst winery owners here. The group also enlisted the aid of Sta. Rita Hills’s successful TTB petition scribe—Wes Hagen. Foremost in its favor is the fact the area does have a real variety focus, and climate and soils that are readily distinguishable from those of their neighbors outside the appellation.
Bordeaux varieties planted here include Sauvignon Blanc, which has shown very good results. My favorites to date have been the 2012 Grassini Family (92+ points) and the 2012 Star Lane (91+ points). In addition, there are some acres of Rhone varieties here, primarily Syrah, but also Viognier, Grenache and Mourvèdre.
According to Wes Hagen, who extensively researched the area in compiling the petition for appellation status, the area’s name originated during the Prohibition era when it harbored the only still in Santa Barbara’s north county. According to an area realtor whose father told him what he’d heard from his own father, if you lived north of Santa Barbara and wanted some alcohol in those days, you had to “take a ride up Happy Canyon.”
The TTB initially objected to designating the area as Happy Canyon because there are 10 locations in a total of six states that have the same name, including a wine growing region in Oregon. The petitioners agreed to add “of Santa Barbara” to the name, figuring it would help not only identify the location for those outside the area but also link it to a region with growing cachet in the wine world.
The TTB, in its finding, indicated they were impressed with an unusual feature of the soils here, which is their Cation-Exchange Capacity (CEC). A cation is a positively charged ion (e.g., NH4+ or Ca2+). Since soil particles and organic matter have negative charges, minerals with positively charged ions can easily be asorbed by and stick with these soil particles. Soils in Happy Canyon, which have elevated levels of exchangeable magnesium, had CEC levels nearly three times those of Wes’s own vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills.
Temperatures in Happy Canyon, due to north-south mountain ridges lying 12 miles east that block the Pacific coastal breezes, can run into the 90s during the summer, but are tempered by wind that typically arises at 4 pm, and low evening temperatures. Doug Margerum, who makes wine for Happy Canyon Vineyards and his own Margerum label, claims that what’s great and unusual about the combination of the varieties grown here and the climate is that “the grapes become physiologically mature and ripe before they get a tremendous amount of sugar.”
It should be noted that many of the landowners in this area have traditionally been in the thoroughbred horse raising business. These wealthy landowners and horse fanciers don’t appreciate tourists, so none of the wineries here—and there are only three brick and mortar wineries so far located in the appellation—are permitted to have tasting rooms.
The first vineyards planted here outside of a very small planting dating to the mid-1970s were the McGinley Vineyard, originally called Westerly, and Happy Canyon Vineyards, both started in 1996.
McGinley was planted to Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Roussane, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. This vineyard is now owned by Roger Bower, a Texan who made millions producing fire-fighting foam. Bower also recently purchased the former Cimarone Vineyard here, renaming it Crown Point. The Westerly label is being used by Bower for wines both from Happy Canyon and the Sta. Rita Hills. Former Harlan assistant winemaker Adam Henkel is winemaker for both the Crown Point and Westerly labels.
Happy Canyon Vineyards is planted to Bordeaux varieties, including Sauvignon Blanc and some Cabernet Sauvignon plantings on their own roots. Doug Margerum serves as winemaker. The two top wines here are Brand and Ten-Goal, together with two other Bordeaux blends, Piocho and Chukker.
The next two major vineyards in the area, both planted beginning in 1998, are Star Lane and Vogelzgang.
Star Lane represents half the planted acreage in Happy Canyon, with about 250 acres of vines. It’s the furthest north and east of the area’s vineyards, and includes several clones of Cabernet Sauvignon, some of which are planted at the top of the vineyard at an elevation of 1500 feet on a 25 degree slope. There are also multiple clones of Cabernet Franc and Merlot planted, along with about 25 acres of Sauvignon Blanc that start on the lowest part of the vineyard, just as you enter the gate. It is 2.4 miles from this gate to the northern tip of the vineyard, which is fortunate to have access to water from 42 springs on the property. I visited here about a year ago and was very impressed by the quality of the plantings, as well as the Cab Franc and Merlot I sampled from barrel.
Star Lane is owned by Jim and Mary Dierberg, bankers who got their start in wine by owning the Hermannhof Winery in Hermann, Missouri, since 1974. They purchased the Star Lane property in 1996, and built a magnificent winemaking complex here, complete with hand excavated caves. This showcase facility is unfortunately not open to the public because of the area’s ban on tasting rooms. The Dierbergs also own a similar amount of acreage in Santa Barbara’s Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley appellations, from which they produce wines for their Dierberg label.
The new winemaker for both Dierberg and Star Lane is the talented and articulate Tyler Thomas, who was formerly winemaker at Donelan in Sonoma. Tyler started here last summer. I got to visit with him briefly at Star Lane at the end of last year, tasting some terrific barrel samples with him. I look forward to the new Star Lane and Dierberg wines he will produce over the next few years.
Vogelzgang was founded in 1998 and now has 77 producing acres of vineyards, planted to both Bordeaux and Rhone varieties. Winemaker Robbie Meyer, formerly assistant winemaker at Peter Michael, is working on estate wines for Vogelzgang, which first produced a Sauvignon Blanc from the 2005 vintage. Most of their grapes are currently sold to area wineries, including Foxen, Dragonette, Gainey and Ojai.
Grassini Family is among the newest arrivals, having started planting vineyards in 2002. They completed their winery in 2010. The vineyard includes 15 acres of Sauvignon Blanc, and I think that’s the best thing they make, by far, at this point.
Two other small vineyards in this area, for which I can find little info, are Three Creek Vineyard and Tommy Town. The former grows Bordeaux varieties as well as Syrah and Sangiovese. The latter produces a small amount of estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Kirby Anderson is the winemaker.
With all that’s going on in this area, I predict you will be hearing a lot more about Happy Canyon wines in the coming years.
Since there are no tasting rooms here, you should plan to visit Grassini and Vogelzgang’s tasting rooms in the City of Santa Barbara. Star Lane’s tasting room at 1280 Drum Canyon Road in Lompoc is open daily.
For my tasting notes on 23 wines from this appellation, see below.
- 2011 Anacapa Vintners Sauvignon Blanc Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Bright, light lemon yellow color; fresh, ripe grapefruit, tart peach nose; fresh, tart peach, ripe lemon, ripe grapefruit juice palate; medium finish (14.5% alcohol) 86+ points
- 2012 Dragonette Cellars Rosé Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Light pink color; appealing, ripe peach, ripe pear nose; tasty, juicy, refreshing, tart pear, ripe pear, mineral, light pink grapefruit palate; medium finish (75% Grenache, 20% Mourvèdre, 5% Syrah; 2 hour skin contact, neutral barrels; age on lees for 5-6 months) 91 points
- 2012 Dragonette Cellars Sauvignon Blanc Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Light yellow color; tart peach, lemon grass nose; ripe peach, fleshy palate; medium-plus finish (14.2% alcohol; 75% neutral oak, 25% stainless steel) 90 points
- 2011 Dragonette Cellars Sauvignon Blanc Vogelzang Vineyard Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Light yellow color; pungent, fresh grapefruit, mint nose; tasty, poised, ripe grapefruit, mint palate with tangy acidity; medium-plus finish (11 months on lees; after barrel selection, blended and held another 6 months in 25% new oak) 91+ points
- 2011 Foxen Cabernet Sauvignon 7200 Grassini Family Vineyard Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Very dark ruby color; lifted, ripe cassis, cherry, VA nose; ripe cassis, ripe cherry, berry palate; medium-plus finish (15.2% alcohol) 89 points
- 2011 Foxen Range 30 West Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Medium dark ruby color; appealing, ripe red currant, light olive nose: tasty, juicy, light-medium bodied bright, ripe red currant, cassis, cherry palate with firm, sweet tannins; good now but could use 2 years; medium-plus finish (60% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Franc) 91+ points
- 2011 Goodland Wines Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Light yellow color; appealing, ripe pear, tart peach, tart yellow apple nose; tasty, medium bodied, focused, tart peach, tart pear, mineral palate with medium-plus acidity; medium-plus finish (reminiscent of a Sancerre, with that level of acidity, but w/o the smoke; no malolactic fermentation; Musque clone and clone 1; all stainless steel and very neutral barrels; 3.3 pH) 91 points
- 2011 Goodland Wines Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Red
Opaque purple red violet color; wonderful, loamy, tart black currant, cedar nose; rich but very poised, elegant, ripe black currant, loam palate with a sense of salinity and good acidity; could use 1-plus year in bottle; medium-plus finish (100% Cabernet Sauvignon clone 4 grown at about 1600 feet; 14.7% alcohol; twice used barrels; like a throwback to traditional California Cabs of the 1960s and ’70s with good acidity) 94 points
- 2012 Grassini Family Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Light lemon yellow color; appealing, smoky, lime, tart green fruit nose; tasty, medium bodied, tart green fruit, lime, mineral, lightly smoky palate with rich mouth feel and medium acidity; medium-plus finish (13.5% alcohol; clone 1 planted in 2001) 92+ points
- 2011 Grassini Family Vineyards Articondo Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Very dark maroon color; appealing, black currant, mulberry, tobacco nose; plush, ripe black currant, ripe berry, blackberry, light tobacco palate, lacking structure; medium-plus finish (50% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot; 15.5% alcohol; 25% new oak) 89 points
- 2010 Grassini Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Almost opaque maroon color; stewed black fruit, baked black fruit, tart berry nose; medium-plus bodied, baked black fruit, baked berry palate with sweet oak and lowish acidity; medium-plus finish (90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot; 15.4% alcohol; 75% new oak) 87+ points
Happy Canyon Vineyards
- 2010 Happy Canyon Vineyards Merlot Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Very dark red violet color; stewed black fruit, plum jam, blackberry jam nose; tasty, ripe blackberry jam, ripe black fruit palate; medium finish (good value at about $20; 75% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Cabernet Franc, 2% Malbec, 1% Petit Verdot; 14.1% alcohol) 90 points
- 2010 Happy Canyon Vineyards Merlot Barrack Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Dark ruby color; aromatic, black currant, black raspberry, light menthol nose; rich, medium bodied, tight, tart black currant, black raspberry palate with firm, sweet tannins; needs 2 years; medium-plus finish (55% Merlot, 23% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot, 2% Malbec; 14.1% alcohol; pH 3.65, TA 6.5) 92 points
- 2012 Kunin Sauvignon Blanc McGinley Vineyard Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Slightly hazy, very light yellow color; smoky, tart grapefruit, lemon grass nose; tasty, medium bodied, smoky, tart grapefruit, lemon grass, mineral palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (13.5% alcohol) 90+ points
- 2012 Liquid Farm Mourvèdre Rosé Vogelzang Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Light orange pink color; appealing, Tavel-like, tart cranberry, tart pink grapefruit nose; tasty, poised, tart pink grapefruit, tart currant, mineral palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (95% Mourvèdre, 5% Grenache) 92+ points
- 2012 Margerum Sauvignon Blanc Sybarite Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Pale green-tinged yellow color; tart green apple, lime, light smoke nose; tasty, bright, clean, light-medium bodied, tart lime, bright citrus, mineral, tart green fruit palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (12.1% alcohol; pH 3.4, TA 6.5; 9% neutral oak; clone 1 picked at different stages, early and late; battonage every two weeks) 91 points
- 2010 Margerum Merlot Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Very dark red violet color; stewed black fruit, plum jam, blackberry jam nose; tasty, ripe blackberry, blackberry jam, ripe black fruit palate; medium finish (75% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Cabernet Franc, 2% Malbec, 1% Petit Verdot; 14.1% alcohol; good value at $14) 90 points
- 2012 Star Lane Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Light straw yellow color; tart gooseberry, smoke, tart green apple nose; tasty, medium bodied, ripe gooseberry, smoke, reduction, lime mid-palate, mineral palate with lime acidity; medium-plus finish (14.5% alcohol) 91+ points
- 2009 Star Lane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Opaque black red violet color; ripe black currant, deep berry, pencil lead, bittersweet chocolate nose; bittersweet chocolate, tart black currant, ripe berry palate with firm, fine, chalky tannins; could use 3-plus years; medium-plus finish (77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc, 8% Petit Verdot; 15.1% alcohol) 93 points
- 2007 Star Lane Vineyard Astral Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Opaque purple red violet color; appealing, pencil lead, cassis, tart black currant, mocha, dark chocolate nose; rich, ripe black currant, mocha, violets palate with sweet tannins; good now and should go for years; long finish (15.2% alcohol; blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc) 93 points
- 2005 Star Lane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Ynez
Opaque purple red violet color; appealing, black currant, blackberry, boysenberry nose; rich, delicious, tart black currant, berry syrup, dark chocolate palate with sweet tannins; medium-plus finish (15.1% alcohol) 94 points
- 2012 Westerly Vineyards Fletcher’s White Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Light yellow color; smoky, lime, lemon grass nose; smoky, lime, lemon grass palate; medium finish 89 points
- 2010 Westerly Vineyards Syrah Côte Blonde Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Dark ruby color; roasted black fruit, pepper, tar nose; roasted black fruit, pepper, tar palate; medium-plus finish (93% Syrah, 7% Viognier) 91+ points
This year’s Professional Wine Writers Symposium at Meadowood in St. Helena was the 10th anniversary of this annual event. It was my second time attending, and perhaps because I am further along in my career than I was when I first attended two years ago, it felt like a much richer and deeper experience for me this year.
Among the sessions that particularly impacted me were perspectives on photography from Bonjwing Lee, a food blogger and highly successful food photographer. I chatted with Bonjwing at the symposium’s first dinner and during other gatherings, as I wanted to learn as much as I could from him. A riveting talk by Columbia School of Journalism Professor Michael Shapiro will also stay with me for a long time. It included suggestions on methods of inquiry for getting past writer’s block, and enabling one to come from a place of authority and true “need to write” when composing a piece.
There were the usual helpful workshops on pitching pieces to editors, this time from the likes of wine writer David White, C Magazine’s Alison Clare Steingold and Travel & Leisure Senior Editor Jacqueline Gifford. And there were talks and panels that included distinguished wine writers like Eric Asimov, Jay McInerney and Ray Isles. McInerney’s segment, moderated by Ted Loos, was particularly entertaining and memorable.
The session that provoked the most ongoing debate through the succeeding three days of the symposium, however, had to be that of our keynote speaker, Robert M. Parker, Jr. It was also the event’s most newsworthy aspect, containing statements likely to be of interest both to the many who follow Parker as well as to those who find themselves periodically provoked by him. I therefore attempted, speed typist that I am, to take down the core of his remarks verbatim as much as possible.
I did not capture everything Parker said. I thought a couple of questions Parker was asked by fellow symposium attendees were not particularly good—-like “what’s your favorite wine?”—-so I’ve omitted those questions and their not surprisingly unenlightening answers. Below, however, you will pretty much find the gist of Parker’s presentation and most of his answers to our better questions.
I think I speak for everyone on hand when I say we were immensely appreciative to have Parker speak to us. This was his first ever appearance at the symposium. Although he did not stay to take part in the succeeding events, as speakers and faculty members traditionally do, it still meant a lot for him to address us and take some of our questions.
Many of us, like me, were avid readers of Parker when we first got into wine. Parker has obviously had a huge impact on wine criticism and wine education in the 30 years since he came to national and international prominence with his eventually triumphant opinion on the 1982 vintage of Bordeaux.
Parker published widely read books and is responsible for the influential 100-point rating scale, as well as the success of a great many now important wineries, from Bordeaux and the Rhone to Napa and Paso Robles. So for him to share his perspectives and attempt to give some advice to other wine writers was a significant moment.
As you will see from the summary below, he was very forthcoming with his thoughts and opinions. Even though I have issues with several of his statements, I applaud him for accepting the invitation to address us this year, and for being willing to speak before an audience that included many of us who have sharply criticized one or more of his actions or pronouncements in the past.
Parker’s symposium appearance comes at a time when a number of observers have suggested that Parker and The Wine Advocate’s influence has waned in recent years. Some say that’s because there are now many more good sources of information about wine, and because there’s been a shift away from the kind of big, intense, higher alcohol wines that typically receive high scores from Parker.
Ironically, the session that immediately followed Parker’s appearance included empirical data that further evidenced this decline in influence on the part of The Wine Advocate (“TWA”).
That data, presented by John Gillespie of Wine Opinions, was based on surveys last fall of Wine Opinions’ Drinks Opinions panel, individuals statistically chosen to reflect the 30% of U.S. wine buyers who are “high frequency wine drinkers.”
A portion of that data—presented on two out of a few dozen slides Gillespie shared with us, analyzed who had the biggest influence on wine buying decisions by this segment of the market. Gillespie explained that a mean score of six indicated the highest influence; a score of one indicated no influence.
Not surprisingly, the biggest influencers, with a mean rating of six, were buyers’ wine knowledgeable friends. Second most influential were wine shop staff, with a rating of 5.3 As far as major publications, Wine Spectator had the highest mean rating of influence at 4.7. Wine Enthusiast followed with a 4.4 score. A high Parker rating in TWA rated only 4.1. Newspaper wine columnists, several of whom were represented at the symposium, were only a notch below that at 4.0.
Parker referred at length in the comments summarized below to the criticisms and attacks he’s received over the years. I have to note that, unlike other highly influential critics—people like Stephen Tanzer, Jancis Robinson and Allen Meadows—Parker often issues strident, strongly worded and combative statements. Arguably, Parker often has his own intemperate and extreme statements to thank for sparking many of the personal attacks he receives.
During the course of his keynote, Parker called for us wine writers to be more supportive of each other and less negative. Nonetheless, during this hour long session, he made remarks and affirmed recent prior statements that themselves could be read as highly negative and combative.
A final note: Parker’s physical appearance came as a surprise to many of us there. The last time I saw him speak—ten years earlier at a vertical tasting of Chateau Latour in San Francisco—he was well groomed. This time, he had long, unkempt hair and sported a shaggy beard. He walked slowly and hesitantly with the aid of two canes. Obviously he has had a very challenging recovery from extensive back surgery that he referenced at the beginning of his talk below. Nonetheless, one wonders what Asian audiences who are paying substantial fees to attend his talks over the coming month will make of his current wild and wooly appearance.
Synopsis and Excerpts from Parker’s February 19, 2014, Keynote Session
After walking very slowly up to his seat behind the microphone, Parker explained that he now has a “completely rebuilt lumbar spine.” This has taken “lots of metal and rehab,” but he reported that he is now in “no pain.” In fact, Parker claimed, “at 66 years of age, I feel about 20.”
Looking Back to His Beginnings
Parker spoke for about 25 minutes before opening the floor to questions. During these remarks, Parker reminisced that he, “came out of nowhere and a farming background and never dreamed of the success I’ve had.” He stated, “When I retire, I don’t want to see the wine writing profession wither away. There’s a lot of good talent out there.”
He told the familiar story of his dropping out of the University of Maryland to follow his then girlfriend (now wife, who was listening in the audience) to France in 1967-68, since he was afraid she might turn her attentions to a Frenchman.
“I got interested in wine by fortuitous circumstances. I went to France to protect my investment. I went to see her, and she made me drink wine. I wasn’t fond of alcohol. I thought liquor was numbing, and beer was so filling. We drank bistro wines, probably the kind I wouldn’t touch today. For me, the most important part was a nice euphoria that came incrementally. You could talk after drinking it.”
After six weeks in France, Parker returned to school and started a wine group. He bought the classic wine books of the time and started learning.
He told us he was fortunate that where he lived in Maryland was near the national headquarters of Les Amis du Vin. They had great speakers, like Peter Sichel, and he learned a lot.
When Parker was practicing law at a bank, he told us he looked forward to Wednesdays when he would buy The New York Times and Washington Post for the weekly wine columns there.
He found he hated the practice of law. In 1976 he got the idea of starting a wine newsletter. He ultimately launched it in 1978. From the eight-page newsletter he first produced, TWA is now up to 124 pages.
Parker told us, “1978 seems like yesterday to me.” He reminisced that, “Mohammed Ali was still boxing.”
Parker stated there were some very good wine writers back then, but most of them made their living in the wine industry. Parker wanted to take a “consumer-focused, independent approach.”
Parker told us, “I was extremely lucky. I wish you all the success I’ve had. And the climb to the top is what makes it all worthwhile. Once you get there, there’s nothing there.”
Parker reminded us that what brought him to international attention was the 1982 Bordeaux vintage. “It takes that threshold event that separates you from the pack.”
“Robert Finigan, whom I respected enormously, did not like the vintage. Nor did Terry Robards. I was the new guy and there was a real civil war as to who was right—this new guy who comes from nowhere, or these esteemed long time critics. Consumers ended up siding with me and I’ve never looked back. I believe in standing up for what you believe in. I’ll always do that, regardless of the fallout.”
“When I started in 1978, the greatest wine in Spain, Vega Sicilia, wasn’t even imported to the United States. The alleged greatest Australian wine, Penfolds Grange, wasn’t imported to the United States. There were no by-the-glass programs. Sommeliers were intimidating. They had kinky leather aprons with a lot of chains. They looked like they were working in a sex club.”
“The level of education in the wine community, among consumers and professionals, is 20 or 30 times what it was when I started.”
“My philosophy is to live and let live. Even though people accuse me of having a thin skin, I actually have a thick skin, and waistline.”
“Wine to me is something that brings people together. Wine does promote conversation and promote civility, but it’s also fascinating. It’s the greatest subject to study. No matter how much you learn, every vintage is going to come at you with different factors that make you have to think again.”
Advice to Wine Writers
Turning to one of the topics Parker was asked to speak to–suggestions on where opportunities were today for wine writers–Parker noted that the number of magazines and newspapers carrying wine columns had greatly decreased in recent years.
“Streaming, educational video programs that are professional but affordably priced is a great direction. The real growth market is in Asia. And virtual tastings with people.”
Parker told us he was on his way to Asia for a month of lectures, “all of which are sold out.”
“You have to find the right purveyor there,” Parker advised. “Everyone gets a commission. But you make it up in the volume of people looking for wine education there.”
“Women in China are a huge, huge resource. When it comes to wine, for some reason there is no ceiling for women in wine in those countries—positions as buyers and wine directors.”
“When you have a blog, you have to have original content. I may have been the first wine blogger when I was the wine expert for Prodigy. But there’s got to be real content. Not rehashed news or other people’s headlines. It has to be compelling and consumer-oriented. There has to be creativity. People buying this blog need to have a sense that there’s continuity. And you can’t give it away. The idea of giving it away when you have high quality content makes no sense. People will always be willing to pay for high quality content.”
“In the blog world, I see too much negativity and a lot that’s derivative of other sources. You may have to do something with four or five people to make it work and have enough to read.”
“People do still want to read tasting notes. You may disagree, but I think it’s as true today as it was 35 years ago. They don’t have to agree with you, but people want some guidepost, some sign that this is what that guy or woman thinks about the wine.”
“I don’t think it’s easy. We’re in a tough, tough market for new and upcoming businesses, but you can still do it on a shoestring. Video to other countries, with translations, would be a huge success.”
“I don’t think there are enough positive stories. What’s happened in California in the last 25 years is remarkable. I see Chards and Cabs that can rival France’s best. And keep in mind I’m a Francophile–everything I learned about wine I learned in France.”
Closure of World’s Biggest Online Wine Community
I asked about the Fall 2010 shutdown of the world’s largest online wine community by far—the once very active bulletin board on eRobertParker.com, that financial types had estimated attracted an audience that was worth millions. I asked Parker to speak to the thinking that led to the decision to close the board, overnight and without warning, to everyone except TWA subscribers, and to say whether he had any regrets about that decision.
Parker responded that he knew it was the most open and active wine board. He also stated upfront, “No one at The Wine Advocate has any regrets about closing it.”
“When I was Prodigy’s wine expert, I saw a deterioration of communication standards beginning there. There was more and more aggressive stuff and hostile behavior. One person’s handle was ‘Not Fun to Play With.’ The breakdown in civility chased a lot of people away. And sinister, invidious trends started up.”
“My critics would say I didn’t like the criticism of me. But I still get criticized on the bulletin board by Advocate subscribers. There was a thread there recently about how many wines people ‘disagreed with Parker’ on.”
“[Bulletin board editor] Mark Squires kept throwing people off, warning them at first. It just got worse and worse though. [Squires] was turning into a schizophrenic because so many people were complaining.”
“We knew we were going to lose a lot of traffic and endure a lot of criticism. Now, however, the board is much more civil, but traffic there is high quality and people self police.”
“The mistake that was probably made was that I should have policed Mark a little better. I believe in ‘killing them with kindness.’” Parker indicated that, by contrast, Mark, an attorney, metaphorically “took a sledgehammer,” beat people down, and then “poured sulphuric acid over them. That doesn’t engender a lot of friends.”
Parker noted that Stephen Tanzer’s and Jancis Robinson’s boards are likewise closed [they were never publicly open to non-subscribers] “but they don’t get the same criticism.”
“Do I miss some of those high test posts that were on the edge? Yes, I do sort of.” But the eRobertParker.com policy of a bulletin board closed to non-subscribers is “not going to change. But then, who knows? I’m not the majority owner anymore.”
Defining Personal Success
Parker was asked, “What does success at this point mean to you?”
Parker explained that TWA “went through a transitionary stage with staff where there were some scandals.” Those scandals were “damaging and embarrassing and I was certainly at fault for not watching as carefully as I should have.”
“Now there are strict rules. Our writers are no longer independent contractors. And we’re not done hiring.”
“I think The Wine Advocate is as brilliant as it’s ever been. No one covers more wines under $25. We have a great team now and I’m excited about it. 2011-2012 were troublesome years. The appearance of doing something wrong is just as bad as the reality, and our writer in Spain, although he didn’t do anything seriously wrong, surely wasn’t careful.”
Success for Parker today, he continued, was “enjoying the new team we have.” Parker claimed, “I think we have some real superstars. You’ll see it two and three years from now.”
“I continue to cover the north coast of California, and Bordeaux, which is in a major, major bad patch right now. When some vintages came along, they should have dropped their prices. Napa and Sonoma, and bands of areas in Paso Robles are making great wine.”
“In my career I’ve been able to cross lines that haven’t existed before. I’ve received awards from kings and presidents that were unprecedented. I don’t want to be the last one to get those awards.”
“I want to leave some kind of legacy in Asia. I started going there in 1998. In China, although the government is a dictatorship, there is robust capitalism. The people there are great students and fast learners. They’re too respectful to challenge you on anything, but they’re learning. They’ve read all the books. And each year we see progress in Chinese wine. Last year we actually had an 85 pointer, didn’t we Lisa?”
Parker was directing that question to TWA Editor-in-Chief Lisa Perrotti-Brown, who was also scheduled as a speaker at the symposium, and who was sitting in the audience along with TWA correspondent Jeb Dunnuck.
“You can’t just say you’re going to be successful. You have to earn it and it’s hard work. You can’t do that and have an idyllic life. In the early days I was traveling three or four months a year. After tasting all day, you end up alone in a room, popping an Ambien to sleep. The next day it starts all over again. I missed a lot of my daughter’s growing up years.”
“My wife suggested that all the things that were written that were false and malicious about me be flashed up on the wall while I am talking. But I was getting criticism even before I was terribly well known. Criticism about the 100 point system. I’ve been told I’m the person people love to hate until they meet me.”
“The press has exaggerated my power and tried to pigeonhole my taste. They attributed power to me to make or break a winery, which I’ve never been able to do.”
“Virtually every one of those hateful things that have been written about me, they don’t bother me. I wish it didn’t happen but it does. You just let it slough off your back.”
“The wine world is so big. Yes, there are styles of wines I don’t like. Orange wine, natural wines and low alcohol wines. Truth is on my side and history will prove I am right.”
“I don’t think people making or drinking these wines should have a brain transplant. As a consumer advocate you are required, expected to state your opinion. Do I sometimes overdo it? Do I sometimes get carried away? Yes. Sure.”
“People who’ve written nasty things, people that fire back, I can’t get angry at them because I know it’s coming from passion.”
“As I look around the room now, I see a tiny number of people here that I have met. That’s sad. I am out in the boondocks, and I’m alone a lot while I’m traveling. Early on people told me I should move to New York or San Francisco if I wanted to cover wine. But I wanted to look at things through clear glasses and not live in a bubble.”
“2003 Pavie was a very controversial call. Jancis, for whom I have a lot of respect, said it was akin to late harvest Zin and basically undrinkable. Clive Coates, for whom I don’t have the same respect, said ‘Parker needs a brain transplant.’”
Parker then mentioned a recent charity event for the U.S. Seal Foundation, supporting Navy Seals, for which he provided Bordeaux from his cellar for a “master class,” and where the 2003 Pavie was poured. “Three quarters of the people there loved the wine. I was having problems with it though. The gritty tannins seemed to me to be excessive. It is a vintage that’s evolving very fast. I kept those problems to myself though, until today.”
Another attendee asked, “What is a Parkerized wine?”
Parker responded, “In the 1960s in Bordeaux, Emile Peynaud was very influential. Some of his critics started using the term Peynaudization. People said all the wines were tasting alike. I think Parkerization is a derivative of that. The people who use that term don’t read The Wine Advocate. It’s a gross simplification, an effort to pigeonhole my taste. People who know me are shocked by what they read, by what I’m supposed to drink.”
“I do believe flavor intensity is critical, and I look at what the wine is going to be. You need some power, some richness, some intensity. Otherwise, the wine will fall apart because there’s nothing there. And I am looking for wines that will be better in five to ten years than they are today. Some of the thin, feminine, elegant wines being praised today will fall apart. You can’t expect soft, shallow wine to get any better. You need some intensity.”
As an example of what he was talking about, Parker referred to recently drinking [at Press Restaurant two nights previously] “a last bottle of 1969 Chappellet. Philip Togni, the winemaker, said it was the greatest wine he ever made. Jay Miller found it on auction and bought four cases at $35 a bottle. The wine is brilliant, powerful and rich, with lots of nuances. It could go another 45 years.”
“I remember talking to Gerard Chave about the ’03. There was no acidity in it. The pH was over 4. He explained that it was just like his father said the ’29 was, that it had so much fruit and dry extract it would survive on that. “
‘Natural’ and Low Alcohol Wine
San Francisco Chronicle Wine Editor Jon Bonné asked a lengthy question involving Parker’s recent screed against “natural” and low alcohol wines, those who produce them and writers who champion them, that appeared on Parker’s website in January. Among other things, Parker referred there to an “anti-California, anti-New World movement by Eurocentric, self-proclaimed purists.” Concluding his question, Jon asked, “Under the philosophy of live and live, why not allow more diversity?”
Parker said he agreed with what Jon said, “even though the passage you read is a call to arms. I think it’s a mistake to have a formula to pick grapes at lower brix just so you can have low alcohol and then slam the word ‘elegant’ on it. You just have a wine with low alcohol.”
Parker referred to Steve Kistler’s new project, Occidental, “where he is able to get exceptional flavor concentration in his Pinot Noirs at 12.5 and 13%, due to the microclimate and viticulture.”
“I’ve never used alcohol as a criteria. It’s just not that important to me. Most of the labels lie anyway.”
“I am going to flunk a wine if it doesn’t have the requisite concentration of flavor. If you’re just picking under ripe fruit.”
“I had this argument with Adam Tolmach at Ojai. I used to visit there every year. One year he brought out a Chard that had no flavor and was too high in acidity. He said he was going to do this in the future. I just don’t think people making those wines should trash those that are big and alcoholic.”
“I wrote that column to encourage conversation on this subject. I think there are terroirs in California where you can get the concentration and flavor. If it isn’t ripe, you don’t get expression of grapes or the terroir or the vintage.”
“Excessive manipulation includes picking too soon, or too late. Or following a rigid non-intervention philosophy.”
“When I first started, there was too much fining and microfilters going on. I don’t know any quality producers that use megapurple and enzymes. If they do it, they’re doing it really well.”
“And I never talk about having a vineyard with my brother-in-law [Beaux Freres in Oregon’s Willamette Valley]. That vineyard in most vintages has sulfur levels that are sometimes so low we could have put no sulfur on the label. It is biodynamically farmed, which I am not in full agreement with, and I don’t allow him to put it on the label. We don’t fine or filter, and I think the wine is fairly delicate. Only two or three vintages have had alcohol over 15%. But I think the very best was the 1994, which came in at 15.5%.
“I would like to see more civility. If I had one hope, it’s that we stick together a little better than we’re doing and move forward together as wine lovers. And if you’ve got something that you really disagree with me on, or have a question, pick up the phone and call me. I’m not going to bite anyone.”
The (410) area code telephone number for TWA’s office was then given out.
Parker concluded by saying he would like to come back, and to do a tasting with us.
Again, I applaud Parker for coming to face a room full of fellow wine writers, including many of us who had written attacks on various things he has said or written in the past.
I am sure Parker meant well with his comment that he hoped “the wine writing profession” doesn’t “wither away” on his retirement, but it hit me as one of the single most arrogant statements I have ever heard him say. I think it’s safe to say that wine writing is more varied, robust and informed than it has ever been. It is in no danger of “withering away” when Parker hangs up his quill.
Parker’s suggestions as to current opportunities for writers struck me as surprisingly narrow and uninspired. Wine education videos for Asia? There are already people doing that, including people who actually speak Asian languages who are quite expert in wine. I have met some of China’s own wine experts and journalists on press trips and they are very knowledgeable and possess impressive credentials. And TWA is obviously now focused on providing wine education to Asia. I hardly see that as a growth area for the average Western wine writer.
Parker’s assertion that “truth is on my side” and “history will prove me right” sounded disturbingly Nixonian, or Dick Cheney-esque, to me. In my view, such arrogant and empty assertions are hardly valid, useful or reasoned arguments in support of his position.
As to Parker’s continued diatribe against orange, “natural” and low alcohol wines, I could go on at length, and some of my esteemed wine writer colleagues already have (e.g., Alder Yarrow and Eric Asimov). In sum, though, for Parker to follow his broad over generalizations and unfair blasts at producers and writers with a call for greater collegiality on the part of wine writers struck me as more than a little disingenuous. If that’s what Parker wants to see on the part of the wine writing community, I think he needs to learn to practice a little more thoughtful moderation of his own comments.