I have not enjoyed my visits to Napa Valley in the same way I did in the early 1980’s. So, I have been asking myself if I am excited to be heading back to the Napa wine scene today after a purposely extended hiatus and so many years of waning interest in another visit to my interpretation of the “Disneyland of wine culture”? Ornate tasting rooms to seal off the real guts of a winery, tinted limo windows to hide the drunken loads they carry, pretty labels and bottles to mask pours of mediocre wine, handsome young tasting room staff to anesthetize against regrettable price escalation, gorgeous mountain and valley terrain downplaying tourist traffic creeping up and down valley border roads, and all else that camouflages any essence or connection to an authentic, indigenous, local wine culture and its people.
I prepared myself for this return visit using some skills I taught players during my ice hockey coaching days, “Keep the game small”. Hockey is a series of one-on-ones, two-on-twos, two-on-ones, and so on. Forget the arena and full sheet of ice, and stay focused on rewards from small vignettes you carve out of the natural flow of the game. Hating parts of Napa Valley is not intended to sound arrogant, but it smacks so much of everything that went bad over the last twenty years in our domestic lifestyle and economic universe. Over investment, creation of hype, price escalation, oversupply, lack of authenticity, thoughtless consumerism, and so on. Yet, like everything else, there are morsels of wonder and greatness to be found in it all, new young wine makers with passion and purpose that defy cult wine culture. Venerable old wineries that are staying with their game. That’s all good.
On this trip, I am traveling with a good group; some business colleagues, a group of good people we do business with that we enjoy spending time with, and one pretty special guy that I have been drinking wine with since the early nineties and have traveled around wine producing regions with some frequency. We are going to eat well, drink well, and connect and reconnect with some talented wine makers coaxing authentically California wine from their vineyards or acquired fruit. I am going to keep this Napa game “small” for me, staying focused on those vignettes.
One of the few wine blogs I try to read every day is written by Steve Heimoff. I have great respect for his perspectives and work. In a recent post he reminded me of how empty an ordinary visit to Napa’s tasting rooms can be:
I don’t do the tasting room thing anymore, since my job gets me past the tasting room right into the winery. But I understand that the tasting room is the average consumer’s window into wine country, and I have enormous respect for tasting room employees. They have to be nice to everyone, even when people aren’t being very nice to them. They have to know all about the wines they’re pouring, and they also have to be prepared to answer all kinds of off the wall questions.
And then there is the issue of personal taste. I have spent the last ten years shifting my wine interests away from domestic wines (or course, not completely, but mostly) to old world wines. It naturally occured, as did other phases during almost 30 years of appreciating fine wine. There are still many wines from California and Washington State that wow me; but the elegance, beauty, and purity in flavor that my palate has been looking for is more often than not found in old world wines. I was reminded of this when my friend Richard Auffrey at The Passionate Foodie recently shared some excerpts from Terry Theise’s book which represents this powerful, influential, and mystical importer’s interpretation of the “general” differences between old and new world wines:
“All things being equal, [old world wines are] more artisanl, more intimately scaled, humbler, and less likely to be blown about by the ephemeral breezes of fashion….Old World wines ….have about them a certain reserve. They’re not aloof, but neither are they extravagant, gregarious, life-of-the-party wines. They don’t play at loud volume, and they can seem inscrutable to people with short attention spans. They are, however, kinetic; they draw you in, they make you a participant in the dance.
New World wines are marked by a kind of effusiveness that turns the drinker from a participant into an onlooker. These big, emphatic wines put on quite a show: explosions and car chases in every glass. If you’re new to wine, this can be reassuring. You get it. You needn’t worry there are subtleties you don’t grasp
This week I look forward to drinking and discovering a few more US wines that live right in the middle of Theise’s two camps of experience. Cabernets, Chardonnays, and Syrahs that are in neat balance with good structure, providing richness of fruit that ought to dominate California wines, and not old world wines. They embody nuances gleaned from the Napa sun and red earth they are born out of, which neatly knit into the fabric of these well structured and correctly ripened California wines. They are the essence of California wines. So, we will be keeping our game small….focused on our own company and staying ready to be wowed by the selected few folks we have decided to seek out to tell us their stories of California wine.