The Personal Pursuit of Balance

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This blog has been on a summer hiatus. After four years of devoting the bulk of my free time to this effort, I decided it was time to take stock of how much effort it requires, how little I am receiving monetarily from my writing and what else I could be profitably doing with that time.

I was also realizing I’m significantly heavier than I was when I started the blog, in much worse shape physically, and that I’d been spending precious little time in recent months with friends, or potential new friends, because I was so focused on getting to tastings, wine-related travel and meeting deadlines.

It’s also been clear to me for some time that I’m not really a blogger at heart. I don’t live to opine on the same things others in the wine blogging community are writing about. I like to write about things others aren’t exploring. I also like to take the time to be thoroughly conversant with my subject and get all my facts right.

This site has evolved in the four year since it started into more of a collection of long, reference quality pieces about producers, regions or varieties. Those pieces on a weekly basis have run from 5-12,000 words, are thoroughly researched and, usually, supported by extensive tasting notes. There’s no other wine blog that has had that kind of content, on a regular basis. I’ve started to see there’s a very good reason for that.

I’ve also been doing a condensed version of my weekly pieces here—less than 1,000 words—for the Huffington Post. That seemed like a great opportunity to reach a more general audience when it was first offered, and I am proud of the pieces I did for HuffPo.

HuffPo pays virtually none of their bloggers, me included, and after briefly highlighting wine related columns in their own Wine section, and promoting many of the pieces I wrote in their daily emails to subscribers, columns like mine eventually got relegated to the Taste section, where the main emphasis is on food, dieting and recipes. So my pieces have received significantly less traffic there than they did in the first year and a half or so on the site. And yet they require a lot of effort to condense, punch up for a general audience and completely reformat for HuffPo. I expect to still do some on occasion when I think it’s a particularly newsworthy topic for HuffPo, but not with my prior frequency.

Aside from the writing, tasting and research required as background for the writing, there’s been all the time required to set up and maintain a blog.

Initially I had to learn WordPress to get the site going. WordPress and its thousands of plug ins keep changing and expanding—which is a good thing, but also requires one to keep up.

When I was disappointed by my rankings on search engines after the first several months of writing for this site, I also had to learn about search engine optimization, which ultimately required weeks of re-doing my site, and its “metatags.”

Pictures are also vital to a successful blog, so I have spent a lot of time editing and uploading photos over the past four years too. Unfortunately, the site that had hosted my thousands of pictures for 10 years decided to go out of that business, so I lost the hundreds of photo links on my site overnight and had to spend weeks of time I could ill afford uploading my photos to a new site and rebuilding my photo links on Flickr, which I hope will be around for awhile.

In the last few years, I’ve enjoyed an unexpected opportunity that came to me as a result of my writing here: being invited on media press trips to wine regions in various parts of the world.

The invites started to come pretty regularly after pieces I did on trips to places like Rioja and Uruguay, and I had begun to set aside all my vacation time from work for those trips—trying to do one of these trips nearly every other month.

Two particularly arduous trips this year, however, made me rethink the wisdom of taking advantage of those opportunities.

RJ with circa 1960 Citroën convertible that was provided for a day of winery visits in Cahors

RJ with circa 1960 Citroën convertible that was provided for a day of winery visits in Cahors

The organizers typically overschedule us media types, and on my last couple trips, not only were we going at a breakneck pace, from early in the morning to very late at night, but also nearly half the time was spent on activities the organizers insisted we attend, even over protests, that were not something of interest to me or my readers. Traveling for an entire day each way, as was required to get to Israel or Cahors, in Southwest France, is also pretty arduous in itself. Between that and the non-stop pace when one gets there, I was feeling completely exhausted when I got back (after taking a week of “vacation” time).

Although I have particularly enjoyed and learned a lot on well organized trips to places like Rioja and Champagne, in the future I will mainly organize my own trips focused on the producers and topics that most interest me. I’m still open to a particularly interesting wine press trip, where I’m clear on the itinerary in advance (and said yes last week to an October trip to Tuscany that promises to be very well organized by the Chianti Consorzio), but will otherwise be turning down these opportunities in the future.

So what else have I learned in my several weeks off from the weekly grind of banging out pieces for this blog and HuffPo?

I am thrilled to have started to get in shape again. I’ve lost over 25 pounds so far, and am now working with a professional bodybuilder as my personal trainer to help me take off another 20 or so and to take advantage of all the new science of bodybuilding that seems to have developed since the last time I had a trainer.

working out, photo by James Hurst

working out, photo by James Hurst

I am going to fewer tastings, and being much more selective and strategic about what I attend. I continue to receive a lot of samples for tasting, many of which are quite excellent, and I’m trying to keep up with that flow and my reviews on CellarTracker without it negatively impacting my weight and health.

I’ve also begun to experiment with formats for reaching other and younger audiences with messages about wines of note. That means I’m now on Instagram and Tumblr, learning how to best take advantage of those apps. And I’m still trying to keep up a presence on Facebook and Twitter, which have helped drive traffic to my site and other writing efforts in the past.

Ironically, in this hiatus period, I’ve been interviewed/profiled by a couple of online wine websites. The first to appear was my responses to Jameson Fink’s very thoughtful questions for Grape Collective, where I also did a Top 10 list of wine and food destinations in the greater San Francisco Bay area. The second was, for which I wrote on assignment on a paid basis for about a year and a half, before they lost their budget for those assignments.

And I’ve been reconnecting with friends and family members, as well as making at least a couple nights a week “date night.” I’m thoroughly enjoying the time being social again.

So what’s ahead for me as a wine writer and this site, now that I’ve taken some time to think about it and put some balance back in my life?

I don’t plan to try to keep up with a weekly grind of pieces of the length and thoroughness that I was doing. It’s simply not sustainable, not if I want to continue to lead a balanced life, and I’m not sure there’s that much of an audience for them anyway.

Instead, I will be revamping this site from a blog into a wine reference website, with sections that highlight quick recommendations for some amazing, characterful and reasonably priced wines. That revamping will take several months to finish, including making my full database of tasting notes finally available on the site. I’m looking forward to the changes and creative process though.

I will also continue to work on longer pieces, but will do so with an eye to publishing them as eBooks on wine regions. I’ve got close to enough material on the wonderful Santa Barbara County wine region to make that my first eBook, to test out the format. I would probably follow that with an eBook on the terrific but still relatively low profile California wine region I happen to live in: the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA.

RJ getting a pump on at Gold's Gym, photo by James Hurst

RJ at Gold’s Gym in Santa Clara, photo by James Hurst

Now that I’m feeling much healthier again, I also want to explore wine as a part of a fit lifestyle—how to get the health benefits of wine without the negative consequences of overindulgence. And I will pitch stories to print and online publications on some of the regions and producers I’ve become expert on—something I’ve had little time to properly do while I was churning out my lengthy “blog” pieces.

I continue to be enthused about wine as a topic, and as one of the major delights of life. I also remain fascinated by the stories of artisanal winemakers and of wine regions and traditional types of wine. And I want to do a better job than I’ve done to date of highlighting excellent, reasonably priced wines that display exceptional character. By writing at such length here, I think I’ve buried the lead on occasion about some of those amazing wines. It’s time to shorten my coverage and punch it up, so those wines can hopefully benefit from greater attention.

I am thankful to my readers, wine writing colleagues, and the many whose work in wine continues to inspire me. Now that I’m feeling more fit, more balanced and clearer about how I can help get out the word about worthy wines, I look forward to doing a better job of that in the coming months.

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The Singular Greatness of Champagne Salon


Champagne is the hardest wine to make. To produce truly great Champagne requires top vineyard sources and the kind of ideal vintage conditions that used to occur only two or three times per decade. Of course you also need expertise and specialized equipment. And after you’ve made the wine, you must wait several years for it to age on the spent yeast cells from the secondary fermentation in the bottle before it’s ready to disgorge.

Wouldn’t it be totally outlandish, then, if someone decided to create such a truly great wine for only their own personal consumption? One would, of course, have to have both exceeding wealth and the connections necessary to access vineyard sources that are virtually unavailable. Even then, you would also have to possess tremendous patience.

Spending all that money and time to create the greatest anything in the world exclusively for one’s private enjoyment is virtually impossible to imagine. While it might serve as an unlikely premise for an elegant novel about the world’s most single minded epicure, it would hardly be believable as a true story.

Strangely enough, though, a man with such resources and widely acknowledged taste did pursue such a quest in the early years of the 20th century. He ultimately succeeded in producing—initially for his own enjoyment, then as a gift for friends with similarly refined tastes–what eventually became acknowledged as possibly the single greatest Champagne of its time.

Perhaps even more bizarrely, though, given modern demands of commerce and expectations for swift returns on capital, this rarefied bubbly continues to be made–in tiny amounts, in only excellent years–more than 100 years after this unlikely personal project began. What’s more, this unusual wine is still sourced from the identical vineyard sources originally selected by the legendary connoisseur who created it.

I’m talking about Champagne Salon, which began as the private and obsessive project of one Eugène-Aimé Salon.

Monsieur Salon was born in 1867 in the Champagne region village of Pocancy. As a boy, he assisted his brother-in-law, Marcel Guillaume, who was chef de caves for a small Champagne house that produced a single vineyard Champagne called Clos Tarin.

Salon went on to make his fortune in the Parisian fur trade at a firm called Chapel, where he started out as a messenger boy but eventually became its very successful head. He also had a political career.

In 1905, Salon acquired a one-hectare plot in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger—the great grand cru village in the Côtes des Blancs region where the best Chardonnay for Champagne is thought to be grown. His plan to make the greatest Champagne was to use only Chardonnay, only from this great grand cru village, and to produce the wine only in ideal vintages.

vineyards in the Côtes des Blancs region near Le Mesnil-sur-Oger

Up to that point, Champagnes were typically a blend of Chardonnay with Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier. Chardonnay was thought to contribute acidity, minerality and elegance, but producers deemed Chardonnay too light on its own and felt Pinot was needed to round out the wine and enable them to produce the fruitier style of Champagne that was most popular through the first half of the last century. What is now called “Blanc de Blancs,” a white sparkling wine made exclusively from Chardonnay, was unheard of until Salon began to produce his ideal Champagne.

The first vintage Salon created was a 1905. This was followed by a 1911. The latter, disgorged after lengthy aging on its lees, became so popular with Salon’s friends that they encouraged him to produce it commercially.

The first commercial release was the 1921. The fruit came from Salon’s one-hectare plot and from 20 other smaller parcels in le Mesnil located above the church, where the ideal balance of ripeness and acidity was most likely to be achieved. One of those plots was Clos Tarin, sold by the Tarin family to Krug in the 1970s, now the source for Krug’s single vineyard Clos du Mesnil bottling. So the vineyard sources for Salon to this day remain the plot Salon purchased in 1905, known as Le Jardin de Salon (Salon’s “garden”), and 19 of the remaining 20 le Mesnil plots Salon originally selected.

Eugène-Aimé presided over the House of Salon until his death in 1943. He lived to see the 1928 vintage released to wide acclaim. He arranged for Salon to become the house Champagne of Maxim’s of Paris, the celebrated restaurant of its time, which was the only customer of Salon until 1957.

Today, Champagne Salon is owned by the Laurent Perrier Group, the holding company of the Nonancourt family, which also owns Delamotte and De Castellane. Only about 60,000 bottles of Salon are produced in vintages deemed worthy, of which 2008 was the last of the past several years. In other vintages, Delamotte gets right of first refusal on wines made from Salon’s vineyard sources.

Salon is currently made by Laurent-Perrier cellar master Michel Faurconnet. The head of both Champagne Salon and Delamotte for the past 17 years has been Didier Depond.

Antonio Galloni and Didier Depond at Pebble Beach Food & Wine seminar

I was fortunate to attend the seminar at this year’s Pebble Beach Food & Wine featuring a vertical of Salon at which Monsieur Depond presided. The seminar included the U.S. debut of Salon’s latest release, the 2002. Both it and the 1983 Salon poured at the seminar from magnum are among the greatest Champagnes I have ever tasted.

Depond explained that the decision whether wines from a particular year justify the production of a Salon vintage are made after tastings conducted the following February through April. He planned to decide whether there would be a 2013 vintage when he returned to France later in April. What they will be looking for—Salon’s guiding principles—are “freshness, cleanness, elegance and precision.”

The wines are fermented in stainless steel tanks, with the temperature kept below 50 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure freshness and the development of very fine, tiny bubbles—the “prix de mousse.” Prior to the mid-1990s, neutral oak demi muids were used, but Depond indicated he was not a fan of oak for fine Champagne. Malolactic fermentation is also typically avoided.

The wines are kept on their lees for a minimum of 10 years. The 2002 was only disgorged in the Fall of 2013, in preparation for its Spring 2014 release. Depond also revealed that they disgorge in batches every six months for a two to three year period, holding back 10 to 15,000 bottles from the initial release.

The dosage—sugar addition—for Salon is typically quite low, around extra brut level: from five to seven grams. For London’s Sketch Restaurant, Salon bottled a special zero dosage version of the 2002, being offered by the glass for a limited period starting this month in special Salon-branded Zalto flutes alongside the 5.5 grams dosage regular bottling.

The 2002 is only the 38th vintage Salon has released since the house’s 1921 founding. The average price per bottle in the U.S. is $403—a staggering amount even for fine Champagne, but a relative bargain, I suppose, if you consider that top Bordeaux and Burgundies, made every year and not just in select vintages like Salon, now fetch upwards of $1,000 a bottle on release.

Typically only a small percentage of Salon’s production is released in magnum. We were privileged to sample the 1999, 1995 and 1983 from this format at the seminar. The 2008 will only be released in magnum—the ideal format as far as most Champagne aficionados are concerned.

For my tasting notes on the six vintages of Salon we sampled, see below. We also tasted three Champagnes from sister house Delamotte at the seminar, including the extraordinarily youthful 1970 from magnum.

While the vintage expressions of each of the Salon bottlings was different, all six are elegant, exhibiting precision, vibrant acidity and lengthy finishes. The 2002 and 1983 displayed the greatest complexity of all. I am quite confident Eugène-Aimé would be very proud of these bottlings. I also suspect, however, that even he would be amazed that, more than 70 years after his passing, those responsible for guiding the house he founded continue to adhere so closely to his original, obsessive criteria.

Tasting Notes from April 13, 2014, Pebble Beach Food & Wine Seminar

Salon vertical

2002 Salon Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs – France, Champagne, Le Mesnil Sur Oger
Light yellow color with abundant, speedy, tiny bubbles; light lemon yellow color; very appealing, almond, autolytic, almond cream, light ginger, tart pear nose; rich, tasty, delicious, poised, pear cream, light ginger, tart pear, tart lemon very tart lemon drop, mineral, saline palate; long finish (one of the greatest Champagnes ever) 99 points

1999 Salon Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs – France, Champagne, Le Mesnil Sur Oger
From magnum – light yellow color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; autolytic, dried mushroom, hazelnut, ginger nose; delicious, rich but focused, tart lemon, lemon curd, mineral, lemon drop palate with medium-plus acidity; long finish 95 points

1997 Salon Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs – France, Champagne, Le Mesnil Sur Oger
Light medium lemon yellow color with few, steady, tiny bubbles; aromatic, savory, autolytic, hazelnut, sauteed mushroom nose; rich, gorgeous, creamy textured, complex, autolytic, lemon peel, ginger, mineral, almond palate; long finish (disgorged in 2009) 98 points

1995 Salon Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs – France, Champagne, Le Mesnil Sur Oger
From magnum – light lemon yellow color with few, steady, tiny bubbles; autolytic, mature, lifted, hazelnut, dried shitake mushroom, porcini mushroom, butter nose; rich, poised, autolytic, tart lemon, dried mushroom, porcini, mineral palate; long finish (disgorged in 2007) 97 points

1988 Salon Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs – France, Champagne, Le Mesnil Sur Oger
Light medium golden yellow color with few, steady, tiny bubbles; mature, autolytic, oxidative, sauteed mushroom nose; rich, mature, creamy textured, tasty, savory, coriander, preserved lemon palate; long finish 96 points

1983 Salon Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs – France, Champagne, Le Mesnil Sur Oger
From magnum – light medium golden yellow color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; aromatic, savory, coriander, saffron, autolytic, almond sauteed mushroom nose; delicious, ethereal, weightless, lemon curd, mineral, light ginger, melted butter palate with medium acidity; very long finish 99 points

NV Delamotte Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs – France, Champagne, Côte des Blancs
Light yellow color with steady, tiny bubbles; tart lemon, light ginger, lightly yeasty nose; tasty, tart lemon, lemon drop, lemon curd, mineral palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (based on 2008 vintage) 93 points

2004 Delamotte Champagne Blanc de Blancs Millésimé – France, Champagne, Le Mesnil Sur Oger
Light yellow color with steady, tiny bubbles; appealing, ginger, lemon zest, lemon cream, autolytic nose; delicious, complex, tart lemon, mineral, lemon zest palate with medium acidity; long finish 94 points

1970 Delamotte Champagne Blanc de Blancs Millésimé – France, Champagne, Le Mesnil Sur Oger
From magnum – medium golden yellow color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; mature, savory, nut butter, dried mushroom, honey butter nose; rich, mature, tasty, lemon peel, preserved lemon, mineral, coriander, kumquat, tart kumquat marmalade palate; long finish (no dosage; disgorged June 2012) 95+ points

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Pebble Beach: Nation’s Premier Food & Wine Event When it Comes to Wine

Opening Night Reception at Pebble Beach Food & Wine (all photos courtesy PBFW)

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.

Château Latour’s Frédéric Engerer

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.

Guy Fieri cooking at Saturday Lexus Grand Tasting

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.

Grand Finale-6535
setting for Grand Finale Dinner

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.

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Profile of Antonio Galloni &

Antonio Galloni May 2011

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.

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, 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.

Antonio moderating 2014 Pebble Beach seminar on Salon Champagne, with Salon/Delamotte head Didier Depond

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Santa Barbara’s Happy Place for Bordeaux Varieties

view of Happy Canyon from northernmost vineyard at Star Lane

view of Happy Canyon from northernmost vineyard at Star Lane

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.

Matt Dees and Ruben Solorzano of Goodland Wines

Matt Dees and Ruben Solorzano of Goodland Wines

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.

rotunda entrance to extensive barrel rooms at Star Lane

rotunda entrance to extensive barrel rooms at Star Lane

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.

Star Lane & Dierberg Director of Winemaking Tyler Thomas

Star Lane & Dierberg Director of Winemaking Tyler Thomas

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.

Grassini CEO Katie Grassini

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

Grassini Family

  • 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

Liquid Farm

  • 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

Star Lane
Star Lane bottlings

  • 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
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Bubbles Rising: Sparkling Trend in Santa Barbara?

L to R: Riverbank's Clarissa Nagy; Don Schroeder of Sea Smoke; Dave Potter, Municipal Winemakers; Sonja Magdevski of Casa Dumetz; Brewer-Clifton's Greg Brewer; Blakeney Sanford

L to R: Riverbank’s Clarissa Nagy; Don Schroeder of Sea Smoke; Dave Potter, Municipal Winemakers; Sonja Magdevski of Casa Dumetz; Brewer-Clifton’s Greg Brewer; Blakeney Sanford

One thing I’ve learned from several trips to Santa Barbara County over the past year is that there’s tremendous potential for making sparkling wines here. The exciting news is that an increasing number of excellent Santa Barbara area producers are trying their hand at creating delicious sparkling wines.

Like the great sparkling wine region of Champagne in France, Santa Barbara is blessed not only with a high proportion of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir plantings—the primary grapes used to make Champagne, along with Pinot Meunier—but also with cool climate sub-regions like Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley that have long, cool growing seasons, producing grapes that reach ripeness while retaining high levels of acidity.

There is, of course, a tremendous amount of extra work and time involved in making sparkling wine in a traditional style, with secondary fermentation in the bottle, as practiced in Champagne. This significantly raises the costs of making this kind of wine, which is also subject to three times the tax levied on still wines, with no tax credit for small producers as there is for still wine. It’s therefore tough to sell these wines for less than about $40 and even begin to break even.

Until recent years, it wasn’t clear there was much of a market for these kinds of wines. Most of what has been made to date has therefore been made in tiny quantities by winemakers who love Champagne and other sparkling wines so much that they were willing to put in the work simply to have some of these wines available for their own consumption.

Market research has shown, however, that the demand for sparkling wines in this country in recent years–both domestic and imported—-has been growing even faster than for still wines.

I had noticed a few Santa Barbara based producers–Flying Goat, Riverbench and Sea Smoke– were making increasing quantities of sparkling wine. As I continued to ask around about this phenomenon, I learned that even more producers had made small quantities, or were on the verge of doing so.

I therefore asked Santa Barbara-based wine publicist extraordinaire Sao Anash if she might organize a comparative tasting of Santa Barbara sparkling wines for me. I wanted to find out both what was motivating winemakers there to try making these wines, and to learn what techniques they were using.

So this past Friday, I braved California’s first massive rainfall in many months to zip down to Santa Barbara for a comparative tasting of Santa Barbara sparkling wines hosted by Sonja Magdevski at her Casa Dumetz tasting room in Los Alamos. My deep thanks to Sao, Sonja and the other winemakers who convened there for what proved to be a very enlightening tasting. On hand were Brewer-Clifton’s Greg Brewer, Sea Smoke’s Don Schroeder, Clarissa Nagy of Riverbench, Dave Potter of Municipal Winemakers, and Blakeney Sanford, representing her father, Richard Sanford, of Alma Rosa and formerly of Sanford.

Casa Dumetz

Before summarizing the brief history of Santa Barbara sparkling winemaking to date, it should be noted that sparkling wine has been made nearby this region since the early 1980s.

Maison Deutz was launched in 1982 in Arroyo Grande, 12 miles north of Santa Barbara wine country, as Champagne Deutz’s California venture, in partnership with Beringer Wine Estates and a San Luis Obispo landowner. The first sparkling wine from this project was released in 1986.

Christian Roguenant, previously assistant winemaker at Champagne Deutz, became Maison Deutz’s winemaker. In 1997, however, Deutz and Beringer decided to unload their interest to Jean-Claude Tardivat, who renamed the estate after his daughter Laetitia. Shortly thereafter, he resold the enterprise. It is now owned by Selim Zilkha and his daughter Nadia Wellisz. Laetitia’s focus these days is non-sparkling Pinot Noir, although they still make about 7,000 cases of sparkling wine per year.

The first to make sparkling wine commercially from Santa Barbara fruit, as best I can tell from my research, was Byron, with a 1992 Brut Reserve, and non-vintage sparklers after that. Richard Sanford then made a 1994 Brut Rosé, with Sanford & Benedict Mount Eden clone Pinot Noir, with help from Deutz’s Roguenant.

We tasted this 1994 Sanford bottling that Blakeney brought with her last Friday. Blakeney told us it was the only sparkling wine Richard Sanford ever made. It was mature, with wonderful buttery texture, good acidity and a long finish. Blakeney reported that Alma Rosa–Richard Sanford’s current winery, where Blakeney has begun working with her father—has started to make sparkling wines, both from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. 2013 will be the first vintage for these sparkling offerings.

As best I can tell, Fess Parker’s two vintages of Blanc de Blancs from Marcella’s Vineyard, made in 1996 and 1997, are the next historical Santa Barbara sparkling wines. When I met with Tim and Ashley Parker-Snider later that weekend, they explained those Blanc de Blancs had been created for millennium celebrations in 2000. They also told me their team is thinking about doing sparkling wine again—a Blanc de Noirs using the Sta. Rita Hills vineyard Rio Vista as the fruit source.

Fess Parker’s Ashley Parker-Snider and Tim Snider

Kalyra then made a 1999 Blanc de Noir, and has continued to make a non vintage Brut. Cottonwood Canyon made a 2000 Blanc de Blancs, a 2001 sparkling rosé, and has also produced non vintage bottlings. Lucas & Lewellen also started making sparkling wines in 2000. They were followed by both Mandolina and Mosby in 2004.

Oreana commenced making sparkling wine in 2005 and Norm Yost at Flying Goat produced that label’s first sparkling rosé in 2005, followed by a Blanc de Blancs in 2008.

Clos Pepe began making small amounts of Brut Rosé with the 2007 vintage, in conjunction with the sparkling wines Norm Yost was making from Clos Pepe fruit. Evans Ranch also produced a 2007 Brut.

I had a chance to sample the latest bubbly Clos Pepe, a 2011 Brut Rosé, when I visited Wes Hagen at Clos Pepe last December. It was quite good—one of the best Santa Barbara sparklers I’ve tasted to date. Since it’s made in very small quantities, however, it’s mainly for Pepe family consumption, with perhaps a few bottles for wine club members.

Dave Potter of Municipal Winemakers (and one of four partners in Goodland Wines), is a talented and resourceful winemaker who got his degree in oenology and viticulture in Australia, where he also spent several years working at Henschke and Fosters. On his return to the U.S., he was associate winemaker at Fess Parker for six years.

Inspired by some of the ageworthy sparkling Shirazes he sampled in Australia, Dave has made several vintages of sparkling Shiraz, which he calls “Fizz,” starting in 2007. He shared a bottle from that vintage with us last Friday that was complex and impressive, definitely reminding me of the better, aged, sparkling Australian Shirazes I’ve tried. He also shared with us a sample of his 2012 Municipal Winemakers Blanc de Blancs, which will be disgorged this summer for a fall release.

The fruit source for this wine was the Mormann Vineyard in northern Sta. Rita Hills. Dave picked at 20.2 brix and inhibited malolactic. He has a total of two barrels, so will make about 50 cases. This is a delicious, focused sparkler with exceptional precision and a long finish. Dave used a fino style sherry he had made to supply the dosage, and he does all the work on his sparklings in house, using a riddling rack he obtained from Laetitia. He expects to sell the 2012 Blanc de Blancs for between $40 and $50. Based on these two samples, here’s hoping Dave continues to make sparkling wines for many years to come.

In 2008, Sea Smoke made their first sparkling wine, a Blanc de Noirs from Pinot Noir, called Sea Spray. At our gathering last Friday, Don Schroeder explained that Victor Gallegos, who became Sea Smoke’s Director of Winemaking in 2008, after being with Sea Smoke as VP and General Manager since its 2002 launch, wanted to try a sparkling. Way back in his career, in the 1980s, he had worked as a cellar rat for Carneros sparkling producer Domaine Chandon.

Don told us he and Victor were inspired by grower Champagnes. For the 2008, they picked between 18.5 and 19 brix. They made the base wine at Sea Smoke, with complete malolactic fermentation, and it was then finished at Rack & Riddle Custom Crush in Hopland, aging 16 months on the spent yeast cells from the secondary fermentation in the bottle, a period known as “en tirage.” A dosage of 11 grams was added before bottling. They followed a similar process in 2011 and 2012, but only completing 25-30% malolactic fermentation in 2012. They made about 1,000 cases both years.

I have sampled the 2011, which was disgorged in August 2013, on a couple of occasions. It is elegant, with a sense of minerality and chalk. I also think it would benefit from another couple years of bottle age.

For the 2013, Don told us all the work, including riddling and disgorgement, is being done in house at Sea Smoke. For that vintage too, the wine spent nine months in barrel and will be 24 months en tirage. They are also adding no dosage for 2013.

Riverbench, with vineyards in Santa Maria Valley, got into the sparkling wine business in 2008 as a project of their general manager, Laura Mohseni. They made their first vintage, a Blanc de Blancs, at Fess Parker. In 2010 they made a Blanc de Noirs, with a whopping production of 350 cases.

Riverbench winemaker Clarissa Nagy, who arrived there at the end of 2011, reports they are making about 900 cases of sparkling wines, including a demi-sec, from the 2013 vintage. They currently make the base wine and then send it to sparkling wine expert Gerald Ployez in Lake County for finishing. I’m looking forward to trying the 2013s, but the 2010 Blanc de Noirs was quite good, with complexity and a saline note.

Both Fiddlehead Cellars and Saarloos & Sons made sparkling wines in 2009. While in Santa Barbara’s Funk Town district over the weekend, I also sampled a very good 2009 sparkler from Carr, a Blanc de Noir from the Sta. Rita Hills Kessler-Haak Vineyard. I’m told that Kessler-Haak also recently made their own sparkling wine, but I don’t have any further details as yet.

Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton of Brewer-Clifton, who drink a lot of Champagne and sparkling wine according to Greg, made their first sparkling wine—a Blanc de Blancs, inspired by “linear, Chardonnay-based Champagnes”—in 2010. Of the 150 cases they made that year, that set aside 50 for release in five or six years as a late disgorged offering.

They produced 220 cases of Blanc de Blancs in 2011, and hope to grow production to 300 cases in future vintages. They do all the work—hand riddling, hand corking, hand cranking the cage, hand disgorging—in house.

We sampled both the 2011 and one of the bottles of 2010 that is awaiting future disgorgement that Greg opened for us last Friday (an appropriate kickoff to celebrations for Greg’s birthday, which happened to be that day).

celebrating Greg Brewer's  birthday with an impromptu birthday cookie

celebrating Greg Brewer’s birthday with an impromptu birthday cookie

The 2010 was hugely impressive—definitely the best Santa Barbara sparkler I have tried to date, and one of the greatest domestic sparkling wines I’ve ever sampled. In 2011, they used 50% clone 76 and 50% Hyde clone from their 3-D Vineyard. Greg explained that they picked the fruit from the more sun exposed western cane of the vine’s two canes, bringing in the grapes at 21.5 to 21.8 brix. They did a cold ferment in neutral barrels, inhibiting malolactic, and used Montrachet yeast. They added no dosage, and don’t think dosage is necessary or desirable for making sparkling wines from Santa Barbara fruit, given the sugar levels achieved there with good acidity.

I’m very much looking forward to the disgorgement of the rest of those 2010 bottles some years from now.

The final sparkler we got to try at last Friday’s comparative tasting was the 2012 edition of the Casa Dumetz Sonja’s Suds, a sparkling Syrah rosé from Santa Ynez Valley fruit grown at Tierra Alta Vineyard. Sonja Magdevski created the original version of this wine with the 2010 vintage, after having received Syrah picked at 21 brix and figuring she’d be best off turning it into rosé.

At the suggestion of Tessa Marie Parker, who has been making a sparkling Vermentino under her Tessa Marie label since 2010, Sonja called Dave Potter for advice on how to make a sparkling wine from her Syrah rosé. Dave suggested using encapsulated yeast, available from Scott Laboratories, for a fast, efficient ferment in bottle. The double encapsulated yeast designed for sparkling wine secondary ferments is contained in alginate beads, made from a natural polysaccharide extracted from seaweed.

checking out the encapsulated yeast beads in Sonja's Suds

checking out the encapsulated yeast beads in Sonja’s Suds

With the first vintage, Sonja disgorged the wine, to remove the beads after the fermentation. She no longer goes to that trouble, however, explaining to customers who buy the wines through Casa Dumetz’s tasting room to simply leave the beads alone to settle at the bottom of the bottle. The result is a creamy textured, tart red currant flavored sparkler with abundant bubbles that Sonja is able to sell for only $35.

Other red sparkling wines reportedly produced from non-traditional sparkling varieties in Santa Barbara to date include Blair Fox’s “Foxy Bubbles,” made from Grenache; Cass’s 2010 Grenache Brut; and Palmina’s sparkling Nebbiolo.

A final, exciting source of traditionally made sparkling wines from this region that I happened onto at the end of my trip is The Ojai Vineyard. When I met with Adam Tolmach and assistant winemaker Fabien Castel this week, I found out that they’ve been making a small amount of sparkling wine since 2006. Adam says he expects the 2006, of which there will only be 15 to 20 cases, to finally be disgorged in the next year or so. From the 2013 vintage, they have the potential of making 200 cases. Like Brewer-Clifton and Municipal Winemakers, Adam and Fabien are doing all the work on their sparkling wines in house. Also like Brewer-Clifton, Adam believes Santa Barbara fruit can be made into good sparklers with either no or very low dosage.

Since I am a big fan of other wines from this producer, I can’t wait to have the opportunity to taste The Ojai Vineyard’s first, long aged sparkling wine.

Because most of the wines mentioned above are made in such small quantities, there is, unfortunately, relatively little on the market at the moment. Nonetheless, Brewer-Clifton’s 2011 edition is available from the winery for $68. Riverbench’s 2010 Blanc de Noirs can be purchased from the winery for $45, and can be sampled at Riverbench’s tasting room in Santa Barbara’s downtown Funk Zone.

Flying Goat’s Goat Bubbles are available from the winery and several outlets that specialize in Santa Barbara area wines for $40 or less. Palmina’s sparkling Nebbiolo, called Lumina, is available from the winery for $48. Lucas & Lewellyn is offering their 2011 Brut for $30. Sierra Madre Vineyard has a 2010 sparkling wine available on their website for $29. The 2012 Tessa Marie sparkling Vermentino is available from the winery for $38. And a number of outlets around the country are offering Sea Smoke’s 2011 Sea Spray at an average price of $94.

Since Santa Barbara has the grapes, acidity and talent to make terrific sparkling wines, I hope we’ll continue to see more bubbles from this region in the coming years.

For tasting notes on the sparkling wines from Santa Barbara that I’ve sampled to date, see below:

Brewer Clifton

  • 2010 Brewer-Clifton Blanc de Blancs 3-D Vineyard – Sta. Rita Hills

    Light lemon yellow color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; almond, tart apple, dried white fig nose; rich, tasty, almond, mineral, tart apple, tart pear, almond pasty palate with scintillating acidity; long finish (this bottle disgorged 2/28/14 for the occasion, from a batch being held for a late disgorgement release in 3 years or so) 92+ points

  • 2011 Brewer-Clifton Blanc de Blancs 3-D Vineyard – Sta. Rita Hills
    Light yellow color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; almond, saline, light honey, sesame seed nose, that changes after 20 minutes in the glass, to add floral and apricot aromas; tight, tangy, rich, tart apple, lightly oxidative, tart lemon, tart lemon drop, light honey palate; could use 2-3 years; long finish (all Chardonnay–50% clone 76 and 50% Hyde; no dosage; 13% alcohol; picked at 21.5-21.8 brix) 91+ points


  • 2009 Carr Pinot Noir Blanc de Noir Kessler-Haak – Sta. Rita Hills

    Light pink yellow color with abundant, speedy, very tiny bubbles; lightly yeasty, almond, tart apple nose; tasty, tart apple, mineral palate with sprightly acidity; medium-plus finish (14% alcohol; aged 1 year in bottle, hand riddled; 1st vintage, 52 cases) 90+ points

Casa Dumetz

  • 2012 Casa Dumetz Syrah Sonja’s Suds Santa Ynez Valley

    Medium dark pink color with pale meniscus and abundant, speedy, tiny bubbles; reduction, tart plum, dried blood orange nose; creamy textured, tart red currant palate with near medium acidity; medium-plus finish 86+ points

Clos Pepe

  • 2011 Clos Pepe Estate Pinot Noir Brut Rosé – Sta. Rita Hills

    Very light salmon color with steady, very tiny bubbles and some large speedy bubbles; tart pear, chalk, unripe strawberry, light brown sugar, grapefruit peel, kirsch nose; delicious, poised, juicy, tart strawberry, tart pear, mineral palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (100% Pinot Noir, fermented with sparkling wine yeast UC1118) 91+ points

Flying Goat

  • 2010 Flying Goat Cellars Pinot Blanc Crémant Goat Bubbles Sierra Madre – Santa Maria Valley

    Light yellow color with few, medium-sized bubbles; tart apple, yeasty nose; tart green apple, lime, chalk palate; medium-plus finish 89 points

Municipal Winemakers

  • 2012 Municipal Winemakers Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs – Sta. Rita Hills

    Pre-release (to be disgorged in summer for fall 2014 release) – light lemon yellow color with steady, tiny bubbles; yeasty, chalk, tart baked pear nose; tasty, focused, precise, mineral, tart pear, lightly saline palate with medium acidity; long finish (clone 76 Chardonnay from sandy sites at Moorman Vineyard; free run juice only; picked at 20.2 brix, inhibited malo) 91+ points

  • 2007 Municipal Winemakers Shiraz Fizz – Santa Barbara County

    Medium dark ruby color with initial abundant mousse; aromatic, tart black cherry cotton candy, tart berry, black raspberry, black cherry leather, baked plum nose; tasty, creamy textured, tart black cherry, black raspberry, baked black plum, reminiscent of some of the better sparkling Aussie Shirazes with age on them that I’ve sampled; long finish (disgorged in 2009 and kept under crown cap; 13.5% alcohol) 89 points


  • 2008 Riverbench Vineyard & Winery Chardonnay Cork Jumper Blanc de Blancs – Santa Maria Valley

    Light yellow color with few, tiny bubbles; almond, safflower oil, honey, chalk nose; rich, almond, tart apple, mineral, safflower honey palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish 88+ points

  • 2010 Riverbench Vineyard & Winery Cork Jumper Rosé Blanc de Noirs – Santa Maria Valley

    Light pink color with abundant, speedy, tiny bubbles; appealing, lifted, almond, tart red raspberry, light saline, golden raspberry nose; tasty, amond, mineral, saline, golden raspberry palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish 90+ points

Sanford sparkling

  • 1994 Sanford Sanford & Benedict Vineyard – Santa Ynez Valley

    Light medium peach yellow color with steady, tiny bubbles; aromatic, oxidative, melted butter, almond butter, nutty nose; mature, oxidative, buttery textured, tart lemon, lemon cream, mineral palate with near medium acidity; long finish (made from Mount Eden clone Pinot Noir; 12.5% alcohol) 90+ points

Sea Smoke
Sea Smoke Sea Spray

  • 2011 Sea Smoke Pinot Noir Sea Spray – Sta. Rita Hills

    Light pink yellow color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; chalk, tart golden raspberry, very tart strawberry, light honey nose; tasty, tight, chalk, almond, mineral palate with firm, chalky tannins and medium acidity; could use 2-plus years; medium-plus finish (100% Pinot Noir; 12% alcohol; 100% malolactic, 6 months in barrel, 16 months en tirage) 91+ points

Posted in Santa Barbara, Sparkling Wine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Lion in Winter: Robert Parker Addresses Wine Writers

Robert M. Parker, Jr., addressing wine writers at Meadowood

Robert M. Parker, Jr., addressing wine writers at Meadowood


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.”

Wine Opinions' John Gillespie

Wine Opinions’ John Gillespie

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.

Parker at Chateau Latour tasting in San Francisco in 2003

Parker at Chateau Latour tasting in San Francisco in 2003

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.”

Parker 2014 Meadowood closeup

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, 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 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.”

Parker’s Critics

Parker 2014 Meadowood closeup 2“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.

Brief Reaction

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.

Posted in Wine Critic | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 40 Comments