Friday, December 30, 2011

Wine Writing Draws A Fresh Crop Of Talent

I'm back. More importantly, I like to think, this here blog is back. I've been in Thailand; the blog has been in Blogger limbo. As I packed for my trip I forgot to renew the annual fee for my domain name. When the due date arrived, Google was quick to disable it. And very slow to straighten out the issue and get the blog back online when I returned. Fortunately, a real-live Google support person in Canada worked diligently and patiently to help correct the issue, which proved much more complicated than it should have been.

On the up side, the interruption gave me a chance to catch up on some of my reading. A big chunk of that involved going over the submissions of 41 applicants seeking 10 fellowships for the annual Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood in Napa Valley. For several years now I've been one of three judges who review their writing and pick the 10 we feel are the most deserving candidates. Each submits two examples of something about wine they have been written. Many have been published in newspapers or magazines. Some are raw manuscripts. They can be feature articles, scripts for podcasts, blog postings, essays and the like. We don't know who wrote them or where they might have been published. We are to judge them primarily for writing quality, knowledge of wine, how informative, entertaining and inspirational their approach is, and their potential.

In the past, the packet that symposium director Jim Gordon dispatched to the judges has left me more disappointed than uplifted. Much of the writing was uninspired and trite. Candidates too often returned to the same tired topics; they rarely took risks. This year, however, the writing, by and large, was a pleasant surprise. Rather than write of Napa Valley and Bordeaux, they addressed such underappreciated regions as Madeira and the Languedoc. Rather than cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, they wrote of moscato, marsala and even scuppernong. Here's how I put it to Jim when I turned in my scores:

"Wow! What happened this past year? This batch of fellowship candidates is the strongest ever, to judge by their writing examples. Almost without exception, the reporting and writing is smarter, clearer and more balanced and compelling. Several examples are fresh and daring in subject matter and approach. Their subjects are more diverse, and their articles, scripts and posts show more personality, more timeliness, more details and more color, with a much firmer grip on the topic at hand. A more professional attitude runs through the stack of material, but without sacrificing the enthusiasm that wine generates. Wine writing clearly is attracting people well grounded in related topics - science, travel, food - and for that the future of the craft is looking pretty bright this morning. In short, the screening was tougher than ever. On my tally sheet, six of the 41 writers scored in the 90s, 21 in the 80s. Only one was below 70. Sure, there were some organizational shortcomings, and some over-writing, but these generally were with raw manuscripts, not published works, and a competent editor could help rectify those."

I've a hunch why the material overall was more professional this year: Word has gotten around about the strength of the program that Jim coordinates. This year's program, for example, includes presentations by Eric Asimov, chief wine critic of The New York Times; Guy Woodward, editor of Decanter magazine in London; Joshua Greene, editor of Wine & Spirits magazine in New York City; Michael Gelb, author of "How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci"; and Antonia Allegra, a culinary and writing coach who several years ago founded the symposium.

This year's symposium will be at the posh Napa Valley resort Meadowood Feb. 21-24. For more information, check out the symposium's website. Incidentally, I've no vested interest in the gathering; my involvement is voluntary. I've never attended, but Jim has extended an invitation to do so, and I hope to one of these years.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Losses To Wine Culture, Here And Abroad

- Grab a hat. Practice your dance steps. Prepare to share or at least hear giddy stories about the jovial and colorful Ralph Kunkee, who died last month. Officials and graduates of the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis, where he had a long and influential career teaching and researching the microbiology of wine, have settled on Jan. 7 as the date for a memorial service and celebration of the life of Ralph Kunkee. It begins with the memorial service at 11 a.m. in the Buehler Alumni Center at the southern reaches of campus, to be followed by the celebration in the Sensory Building of the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science. Organizers stipulate that persons who plan to attend must register here so they can be sure to have enough food and wine for everyone. There will be no charge for the events. More information is to be posted on the department's Facebook page. The dancing, incidentally, no doubt will be to the Village People's "Y.M.C.A.," with which Ralph Kunkee liked to cap a party.

- In this homage, veteran wine writer Dan Berger reports that plans also are taking shape for a memorial service for another grand old man on the wine scene, writer and teacher Robert Lawrence Balzer, who died last week at 99. In addition, Michael Rubin, a seasoned Napa Valley wine publicist, posted this telling anecdote on his Facebook page:  "I think they invented the phrase 'one of a kind' for the late Mr. Balzer. One of his charms was the ability to laugh at himself. He told of a wine trip to Australia back in the 1970's. Somewhere off tracks way back in a wine region that took a small plane to reach, he'd gone to lunch with his hosts in a local pub. Often attired in eye-catching garb, he was wearing bright red pants, a checked red vest and a large red bowtie. He said he was in the men's room standing at a unrinal when a dusty local in blue jeans and boots walked in, gave him a thorough up and down look and said, 'Say, mate. Wore on a bet, didin't ya?' Rolbert knew everyone, at a time when that was possible, and his books on California wine remain classic historic looks at a sleepy industry before the explosive 1970's and onward. He wasn't alone in thinking he'd make it to 100. A personality from a very different time." Also, the Wine Spectator's James Laube provides this affectionate and comprehensive look at Robert Lawrence Balzer's impact on the California wine trade.

- Thailand isn't exactly recognized for its wines, but it does have a nascent winemaking trade. One such brand goes by the name Mythical Garden in Thailand, Radee in the United States. The wines are made with fruits other than grapes, notably mangosteen, pineapple and litchi. I was looking forward to visiting the facility where they have been produced during a forthcoming visit to Bangkok, but just learned that the plant was inundated by about five feet of water during the city's prolonged recent flooding and has been abandoned. Production may resume eventually, but for now it's on hold, says one of the principals behind the product. In the meantime, persons looking for a rare kind of wine during the holiday season - and one that basically is about to be extinct, at least for awhile - they best get over to the grocery store Corti Brothers, where Darrell Corti still has about a case each of the mangosteen ($31.50) and the pineapple ($27); the litchi is sold out.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Robert Lawrence Balzer, Character

From left, Robert Lawrence Balzer with fellow judges Ann Littlefield and Don Galleano, Long Beach Grand Cru, 2007
Robert Lawrence Balzer, an effusive and engaging wine writer for much of the 20th century, died this past weekend, half a year shy of his 100th birthday. What a soiree that would have been. I didn't know him well, but by what contact I did have I found him to be a rare embodiment of sensuality and intellect. Given his innate confidence, theatrics and grace, he might have been more at home in ancient Rome than in modern American culture, which could explain why he settled in Los Angeles after growing up in Iowa.

I'm not really surprised that his passing has gone largely unrecognized by writers of the wine blogosphere, with the notable exception of Cyril Penn's fine tribute at, available here. As Penn notes, Balzer wrote a wine column for the Los Angeles Times for 32 years. Balzer wrote his first wine book about 70 years ago. His contributions to wine culture were monumental - he still was teaching wine-appreciation classes until just a year or so ago - but he was a member in good standing of a different era, when not everyone had a keyboard and the nerve to expound on what he tasted. What's more, he did his homework. He talked with grape growers and winemakers, and learned why a wine had this or that to say.

When I first sat on a judging panel with Robert Lawrence Balzer, I suspected that we'd have to make some allowances for him, not for his age but for his tendency for storytelling. He was colorful, precise and captivating, and when he got to talking of his time on the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary, or about when he sold this or that bottle of wine to this or that Hollywood celebrity, you didn't want to interrupt him to point out that the next flight of wines was aging more than it should. No less an American icon than Will Rogers Jr. is said to have urged Balzer to start writing a wine 1937.

I was seated with Balzer at the Long Beach Grand Cru in the summer of 2007. He was 95. I was struck by several things about Balzer. He tasted faster than the rest of us. He put off telling his many stories until the cocktail hour afterwards. He was uncanny in his ability to pinpoint just what appellation produced this or that wine, whether it be Santorini or Napa Valley, something we could confirm only later, after the coded results from the blind tasting were made available. He showed us the proper way to taste and evaluate a wine, which involves placing one hand over the top of the glass, swirling it a few times on the table, and then quickly releasing your hand and sticking your nose into the glass. And when we took a break, Robert Lawrence was the first up and out of his chair, charging for the exit, pulling a cigarette from his pack, ready to strike a light the moment he punched open the door and stepped outside. His agility and timing were a wonder to behold.

Robert Lawrence Balzer with fellow judge Ellen Landis
Such was Balzer's standing in the California wine community that when he celebrated his 90th birthday with a gala at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, actress Olivia DeHaviland flew in from her home in Paris to deliver a warm tribute, longtime wine writer Dan Berger recalls in his week's issue of his newsletter, Dan Berger's Vintage Experiences. Berger, a close friend of Balzer's for decades, recalled that Balzer, despite being surrounded by Hollywood money for much of his wine-selling and wine-writing career, was a champion of everyday wines. Early on, for one, he called E&J Gallo's Hearty Burgundy one of the nation's great wine values. When I last chatted with Balzer, he spoke warmly of the Franzia family and the quality of the bargain wines it was releasing under such brands as Charles Shaw ("Two Buck Chuck") and Salmon Creek. Of course, the Gallos and the Franzias long have been power brokers in the California wine trade, and Balzer was no dummy; he saw the benefits of cultivating the favor of movers and shakers.

While Balzer was most closely identified with Los Angeles, there's a Northern California angle to his story. As Penn notes, after World War II, during which Balzer was a pilot and flight instructor following graduation from Stanford University, he became a Buddhist and was ordained a teaching monk by a temple in Cambodia. His spiritual side drew him to Renaissance Vineyard & Winery at Oregon House in Yuba County, an offshoot of the Fellowship of Friends, a religious retreat and cultural center. He wrote favorably of the settlement's wines, and he'd planned to retire to the enclave, but changed his mind and stayed in Southern California for the rest of his life. If I remember correctly from our Long Beach chats four years ago, he had reservations about changes in the makeup of the community and about its isolation. He was one gregarious fellow, and perhaps a remote religious settlement might have been too tame for his tastes.

Balzer wrote and published 11 books. For years, he'd been working on his memoir. I hope he finished it, but I suspect he didn't. At Long Beach he said he'd written nearly 400 pages, and was up to only about 1940.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Cab Or Zin: Can You Tell The Difference?

For decades, I've heard it: Give cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel of the same vintage a decade or so of bottle age and in a blind tasting you can't tell one from the other. On the face of it, this seems preposterous. Cabernet sauvignon is the noblest of California wines, characterized by telltale fruit, complexity, solid structure and potential longevity; it commands the highest prices and the most prestige, and the more of it you have in your cellar the more highly regarded you must be as a connoisseur. Zinfandel, on the other hand, is your everyday blue-collar wine, inexpensive, rustic and best consumed in its youth; only the most enthusiastic fans give much precious cellar space to the longterm aging of zinfandel, so goes the conventional thinking.

A few months ago, I jumped at a chance to put this belief to a test. Sacramento Home Winemakers asked if I'd donate a lot to its annual auction. Coincidentally, I'd been rearranging and sorting the contents of my small wine collection. In doing so, I was surprised by the number of cabernet sauvignons and zinfandels I'd gathered from the 1997 vintage. Why I had so many was a mystery to me, but there they were. (The 1997 harvest in California, incidentally, was huge, 2.7 million tons, a record at the time. Yields were up in virtually every region, from 5 percent to 40 percent. Despite the jump, growers and vintners were ecstatic about the quality of the fruit, which they credited to a "very wet winter, an early spring and a long growing season of ideally dry and mild weather," the Wine Institute reported at the time.)

At any rate, when the request from the home winemakers came in I remembered that oft-repeated claim about how the aging of wine can obscure varietal characteristics, thereby either reducing or elevating cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel to something else on the wine spectrum, perhaps something grand, perhaps something not so distinguished, perhaps something equally rewarding, despite the varied expressions of the two varietals in their youth.

So in my lot for Sacramento Home Winemakers I offered a blind tasting that would involve three cabernet sauvignons and three zinfandels, all from the 1997 harvest, all from California. We'd taste them, attempt to identify which was cabernet, which was zinfandel, and choose our overall favorite of the six. The appellations were Napa Valley's Mt. Veeder, Sonoma Valley and Sonoma County for the cabernets, Shenandoah Valley, Amador County and Dry Creek Valley for the zinfandels.

Scientific? No way. This was purely casual, a fun exercise more than definitive study, though it was structured to be fair and, hopefully, enlightening. I knew the identities of the wine, and the order in which they would be tasted, so my vote didn't count. The three other participants didn't know which wine was which.

So, could the tasters, all of whom are experienced, enthusiastic and inquisitive, tell the difference between cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel after the wines have been aged for 14 years? For the most part, yes, but the margin was so thin that the results bordered on verifying rather than contradicting the belief that the two varietals are virtually indistinguishable after prolonged time in bottle.

On only one of the six bottles did three tasters concur it was a zinfandel. It's distinctive black-pepper spice, characteristic of zinfandel but not cabernet sauvignon, seemed to be what persuaded the three to dub it a zinfandel. The wine was the Sobon Estate 1997 Shenandoah Valley Rocky Top Zinfandel.

The votes on all the other wines were split 2-1, generally in favor of  the correct varietal. The only exception was the second wine in the lineup. Two tasters were sure it was zinfandel. "Totally Amador," said one. "It's got the spice of zinfandel," said another. The wine, on the other hand, was the Chateau Potelle 1997 Napa Valley Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon.

To me, the most gratifying aspect of the tasting was how well the wines had stood up. An aged wine is rewarding in ways difficult to convey. The expression of fruit for which California wines are recognized isn't very pronounced in an older wine. It slinks offstage, letting other elements command the spotlight. Those elements fall under the broad and loose umbrella of  "bottle bouquet," scents that don't convey so much the sunshine of fresh fruit as the filtered and somewhat hazy sunlight coming through a small window in a quiet attic, settling on trunks and crates packed with surprises and memories. By and large, the '97s had tension, balance, surprising acidity and smells and flavors in which a fleeting dustiness virtually eclipsed the remaining fruit, herbs and spices. The overall favorite was the elegant, complex and long Chateau Potelle 1997 Napa Valley Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon, its traces of eucalyptus, bay leaf, olives and cherries supported by a fine superstructure, gentle tannins and refreshing acidity. I also liked very much the Shenandoah Vineyards 1997 Amador County Vintners Selection Zinfandel, which while ripe and thick also was refreshingly refined and lasting.

The tasting may not have answered whether older cabernet sauvignons and zinfandels can be easily confused, but beyond that it provoked a few other thoughts. For one, the two wines with the highest alcohol also by far tasted the sweetest. The were the Sobon Estate 1997 Shenandoah Valley Rocky Top Zinfandel (14.6 percent alcohol) and the Forchini Vineyards & Winery 1997 Dry Creek Valley Old Vine Clone Papa Nonno Zinfandel (15.3 percent alcohol). They didn't taste so much of the jammy fruit for which zinfandel is celebrated as they did of just plain sweetness, which left me wondering about the possible correlation between the high alcohols and that sweet impression.

Secondly, I was left pondering about whether the vineyards responsible for the wines had yielded substantially more fruit than usual. Again, the crop in 1997 was larger than ever. Some of this had to do with newer vineyards coming online, but growers also reported that long-established vineyards gave more fruit than usual. A prevailing belief in California vineyards is that if they are limited to producing just a couple of tons of fruit per acre at harvest the wines will be superior. For a wine to be vivacious and graceful in later years, so goes the argument, it has to come from a relatively stingy vineyard. But what if the vineyards behind these wines gave up crops significantly more ample than that? In time, perhaps the yields of the contributing vineyards will become known. For now, we found that as a group these wines were glorious, their concentration vivid and persistent. Regardless of whether cabernet sauvignon or zinfandel, or the size of the crop, their energy and equilibrium made a pretty persuasive case for the aging of fine wine.