Monday, November 3, 2014

Terroir fight! Napa vs. Anderson Valley vs. Finger Lakes vs. Santa Barbara

Napa Valley from Smith-Madrone Vineyards on Spring Mountain
A dirty secret of the U.S. wine industry is that among themselves, many sommeliers disparage Napa Valley wines.

They don't want to rip Napa publicly because that would insult the taste of many of their wealthiest customers. But I overhear all the time, "Napa Cabernets don't show any terroir."

Wine & Spirits magazine staged an interesting competition last month in San Francisco. The magazine asked five teams of sommeliers to investigate a type of wine in a region and then present 6 wines that would represent that region's terroir. In other words, the winners would find not just the best wines, but wines that said something about the place.

Here were the regions/wines:

Anderson Valley Pinot Noir
Finger Lakes Riesling
Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Santa Barbara County Chardonnay
Washington Bordeaux blends

Looking at that list ahead of time, I expected Finger Lakes Riesling to win easily, Anderson Valley Pinot to do well, and Napa Valley Cab to get trash-talked by a room full of somms and like-minded writers.

Boy, was I wrong.

Really really wrong. Wrong like somebody who picked the Dodgers to win the World Series because of Clayton Kershaw.

It didn't bode well for Napa that its sommelier team was New York-based and its head, Bar Boulud sommelier Michael Madrigale, is an official ambassador for the Bordeaux Wine Council (CIVB).

But Napa kicked ass, took no prisoners, and left even those of us in the room who know how good its wines can be astonished at how well they can show terroir.

Here are the 6 wines Madrigale and teammates chose:

Robert Sinskey "SLD Estate" Stags Leap District Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2009
Robert Mondavi To Kalon Vineyard Reserve Oakville Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
Corison Kronos Vineyard Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
Mayacamas Vineyards Mt. Veeder Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
Smith Madrone Spring Mountain District Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill Diamond Mountain District Nap Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2008

The Smith Madrone was one of the most impressive wines of the day, with garrigue-like notes of the native California flora on the rugged forests on Spring Mountain. The 2011 vintage in Napa will never score well with Parker et al, but I believe great Napa wines from 2011 will be the best wines in those wineries' cellars two decades from now, and this is a terrific example.

What won the day for Napa, though, wasn't just that all six were excellent wines. It was their statement of terroir. They share a generosity of fruit you expect from Napa Valley, but they differed substantially based on where in Napa they came from. Sinskey SLD (my second favorite) has the gentle elegance of Stags Leap District. Mayacamas is taut and firm. Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill is dark, rich and lengthy. Corison is lively and juicy, and the Mondavi To Kalon has the characteristic Cabernet herb note that so many Napa producers are afraid of.

This wasn't the only revelation from the day, though.

Team Santa Barbara Chardonnay had the advantage of being based in San Francisco. They were led by Absinthe wine director Ian Becker, a fan of natural wines who said he expected to taste a lot of old-style overripe Chardonnay.

Best of a strong group
Instead, Becker and his team showed off the terrific, racy Chardonnays being made in the Sta. Rita Hills and at Bien Nacido Vineyards. They didn't win the sommelier competition because they didn't bounce around the county showing differences. But they did put together a group of 6 wines that were eye-opening not just in their deliciousness, but also their freshness and complexity. Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay deserves a seat at the table with the best Chardonnays of the world.

We expected the Finger Lakes Rieslings to do well, and they did. Washington Bordeaux blends was probably too broad a category to show in 6 wines, though there were some nice ones.

The other revelation was negative: how poor the Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs were as a group. Five were from 2011, which the sommelier team from Texas said they preferred to the 2012s. All things being equal, I'm more a Pinot than a Cab guy, like most somms, but at my table we were shocked by how uninteresting these were. And yes, there were some well-regarded names on the list.

Nobody would have expected Napa Valley to crush Anderson Valley in a taste-of-terroir contest judged by sommeliers. But then, nobody expected the Giants. Again.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


  1. What wines were chosen from AV. I am a huge fan of Anderson Valley Pinot and am shocked they didnt do better. Maybe it was poor choices.

  2. Rollie: I want to leave something for Wine & Spirits to report in its December issue, as it was nice of them to let me attend.

  3. Seriously, should have been Red Mountain Cab or Walla Walla merlot. Whoever-it-was either doesn't know squat about Washington or wanted to ensure that the northern neighbor lost.

  4. Thanks for giving us a peek at this prior to W & S Mags issue. As a writer I appreciate you leaving some of the drama of the event for the Mag.

    I believe that the failings of Santa Barbara and Anderson in this experiment are due to the recency of both regions rise to relevancy. When a wine region gains the markets attention everyone begins swimming the same direction with the same style and identity gets a bit muddled. Napa has a had enough time for the Caymus' et al to go the brand direction and then the Cathy Corison's et al (where was Forman in this) to go the land direction.

    I have a restaurant client that I direct the wine program and have Portuguese/Paris Bar Manager/Sommelier who's tastes on Domestic wines is a great barometer on wines that show terroir character.

  5. Great article, Mr Gray. Just to respond to McSnobbelier re: Forman. We tried a few times to visit him with the hopes of tasting his wines but were refused. -Michael

  6. Nice writeup! I was there, and totally agree that those Anderson Valley pinots were wimpy, beyond the optimal lightness of a pinot presenting great terroir. I felt some of it was the heavy-handedness of the sommeliers -- they were playing the "New California" card too hard, and taking lightness into overdrive. In other words, they were accidentally providing an philosophical antithesis to Parker's "big" flavors. This is good, because the lower alcohol, more terroir-focused "new" California wines should fall somewhere in the synthesis of those two drastic attitudes. And good wine is balanced above anything else.

  7. Erika: I agree, that category was bound to fail.

    McS and Michael: Thanks!

    Robert: That's a very interesting hypothesis. The absence of flavor intensity isn't a good thing -- ask the Burgundians which wines are their favorites and they always pick the intense ones -- but I wonder if there's a misguided undercurrent for it.

  8. Blake,

    How knowledgeable and experienced where these Texans?

    "The other revelation was negative: how poor the Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs were as a group. Five were from 2011, which the sommelier team from Texas said they preferred to the 2012s. All things being equal, I'm more a Pinot than a Cab guy, like most somms, but at my table we were shocked by how UNINTERESTING these were. And yes, there were some well-regarded names on the list."

    The 2011 vintage North Coast Pinot Noirs have been criticized by many in the wine press.

    Three examples . . .

    "An inconvenient truth about Pinot Noir | STEVE HEIMOFF"

    Excerpt: "The problems I’ve encountered with ROT, MOLD, GREEN TANNINS AND FLAVORS and VEGETAL NOTES in Pinot Noirs from 2010 and 2011 are worse than anything in my previous experience. It’s been truly SHOCKING. Erratic, too: wineries that bottle numerous vineyard-designated Pinots (as so many do nowadays) will have one that’s ripe, and another that’s GREEN and MOLDY–often from the same appellation. There are some famous brands that, in my opinion, should have declassified their wines, especially the 2011s; but declassification is rare in California.

    The numbers express it interestingly:

    2011 Pinots I scored over 90 points: 127
    2009 Pinots I score over 90 points: 489"

    Link: Link:

    FOLLOWED BY . . .

    "More on the troubling 2011 vintage | STEVE HEIMOFF"

    Excerpt: ". . . 'MUSTY' and 'MOLDY' aromas and accompanying BAD FLAVORS are exactly what plagues so many 2011s. That, and a generalized UNRIPENESS across the board."



    "The Curtain Is Dropping on California's 2011 Vintage - Wine Spectator"

    Excerpt: "2011 is the first vintage I can recall where there are a significant number of wines marked by a high presence of MUSTY and even MOLDY flavors."


    ~~ Bob

  9. Bob: While I wasn't impressed with the wines the Texas somms chose, I don't think Steve Heimoff's opinion of the vintage is important. They tasted the wines and made up their own minds, which is what a sommelier is supposed to do.

  10. PREFACE: Through a computer hiccup, I may have lost this uploaded comment. (Unless it is awaiting "moderation.")

    So forgive me if this comment is redundant.

    This past Spring I attended the "Sonoma in the City" trade seminar and tasting in Los Angeles:

    At the Evan Goldstein, M.S. moderated "lecture," around 20 winery owners/winemakers each spoke for 5 minutes accompanied by a pour of their wines.

    I didn't even need to have heard the lecture comments to know which wines were from the panned 2011 vintage.

    The musty and moldy aroma and matching flavor was unmistakable.

    (Aside: I experience the same thing at last year's PinotDays trade and consumer tasting.)

    I haven't bought a single 2011 North Coast Pinot Noir for any wine store or restaurant client. I held out for the exemplary 2012s. (While snapping up "last call" 2009s.)

    Same as I haven't bought a single 2011 or 2012 or 2013 red Bordeaux for a client. (While snapping up "last call" 2009s.)

    They say "The best is the enemy of the good." The 2011 North Coast Pinots can't even rise to the level of "good."

    The last time I recall such a deficient vintage was 1983 California Pinot Noirs.

    ~~ Bob

  11. Supplemental:

    "While I wasn't impressed with the wines the Texas somms chose, I don't think Steve Heimoff's opinion of the vintage is important. They tasted the wines and made up their own minds, which is what a sommelier is supposed to do."

    Yes, but it begs the question: what is their internalized reference standard?

    How many California upper echelon Pinot Noirs actually make it to fine dining restaurants in Texas? Make it to wine stores?

    If Texans luxuriate in their home-grown cattle steaks and BBQ brisket and beef ribs, a Cabernet or Cab-blend typically accompanies such meals.

    Not Pinot Noir.

    Here in California, we have a tradition of promoting Santa Maria-style tri-tip with Pinot Noir. (Think Hitching Post restaurant and Hitching Post Pinot Noirs).

    I don't have the same mental association of beef and Pinot Noir in Texas.

    I've dined at Dallas's Mansion on Turtle Creek.

    Here's the link to their restaurant's wine list:

    Check out pages 20-21 for the domestic Pinot Noirs.

    W-a-y too many 2011s from California. W-a-y too many 2011s and 2010s from Oregon (two "off" vintages for that state.)

    Again: what's their internalized reference standard?

    Gawd forbid it be 2011 California . . .