Last week the Napa Valley Vintners association had a general meeting where we discussed the state of Napa Valley wines. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that after our business meeting, we would be hearing from Wine Spectator's James Laube.
Jim spoke beautifully about his first assignment in Napa in 1978--a magical time by anyone's standards--and why he decided to move here. On his first day writing about wine (a piece on how to tour Napa Valley), he met Jerry Luper (who was at Chateau Montelena and also made Diamond Creek’s wines at the time), Nils Venge (who was at Villa Mt. Eden) and Charlie and Chuck Wagner and Randy Dunn at Caymus.
Jim soon found two mentors, who encouraged him to write about things that were important to him and not to fear being critical of the industry. They were the revered legends André Tchelistcheff and Robert Mondavi. Jim's speech was even more poignant because Robert Mondavi was in the room, too.
Laube said he was able to taste with Tchelistcheff, who helped him to hone his palate and understand Napa and California's wine history. He also described an incident when Mondavi opened his eyes to the importance of honest criticism, saying that the industry already had enough cheerleaders. Tchelistcheff had told him one day, out of the many that they had spent together, that the winemakers may not know it yet, but they needed him (and critics) more than the critics needed them, because he could tell their story for them in a way that opened the world to them.
Jim's speech was touching and dignified, and his sincerity was obvious. He spoke from the heart.
But in keeping with his mentors' advice, Jim didn't shy away from raising a few sensitive issues, such as how Napa's success may be endangering what is special about it. It is true that rampant tourism, while injecting cash into the local economy, could also turn wine country into an overdeveloped business park, with a perpetual tangle of gridlocked vehicles. (Jim said he left Orange County when they started to tear down the orange groves.)
The good news is that Napa has some protection from overdevelopment in the form of the Agricultural Preserve Act. It isn't perfect, but it has saved most of the land from being turned into townhouses and strip malls. Rubicon Estate is a perfect example of this; we were the original estate saved from the bulldozers in 1972. Today we are also cutting back on visitors, being more selective by asking anyone wanting to visit us to take an educational tour and taste wine.
Cutting back on tourism is harder for the local economy, but it probably will happen naturally. A reduction is better for Napa in the long run to preserve the peaceful agrarian atmosphere as much as possible. The model here would be something like Carmel, but with vineyards. The long-term problem of urban encroachment all around Napa and Sonoma is a more difficult social issue, and I don’t think Jim or I will be able to solve that one.
Even more contentious was the issue of Napa Valley appellations. Jim wanted a few subregions thrown out—especially poor Chiles and Pope valleys. It is true that entitlement to a Napa Valley appellation extends to the whole county. There’s plenty wrong with the AVA regulations. But I doubt that they can be fixed at this date without a huge uproar over who now would be excluded. Napa was one of the first proposed AVAs, and subsequent regulation has been better.
Jim also accused many winemakers of being in denial about the serious problem of tainted corks. He is probably right in this case because even though we all know that wines can be spoiled by corkiness, the extent of the problem is rarely understood. However, I think that we are probably going to turn the corner on this fairly soon, because so many wineries and even whole regions are converting to screw caps, bag in the box or other alternative closures for wines that are meant to be drunk young. But I could talk for an hour (hours?) about TCA and where it comes from and where you can find it (try in the hotel carpeting or in the egg cartons at your local grocery, or in your own basement).
Maybe I better devote my next blog to Stelvin caps, the Diamant process for extracting TCA, Vino-Lok closures and cork.
Larry Schaffer — Central Coast — February 14, 2007 12:30am ET
Jesse Calderon — February 14, 2007 6:56pm ET
Don Rauba — Schaumburg, IL — February 16, 2007 11:18pm ET
Larry Stone — Rutherford, CA — February 18, 2007 2:31am ET
Larry Stone — Rutherford, CA — February 18, 2007 11:31am ET
Jesse Calderon — February 19, 2007 4:02am ET
Larry Stone — Rutherford, CA — February 19, 2007 10:10am ET
Larry Schaffer — Central Coast — February 19, 2007 2:06pm ET
Mark Lewis — Napa — February 23, 2007 1:16am ET
Larry Stone — Rutherford, CA — February 25, 2007 5:04am ET
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