I know, bubeleh; I know. After earning your MBA from the Carnegie Mellon School of Business and your Ph.D from MIT, after a brief teaching stint at Stanford Graduate School (for which you wrote three textbooks on macroeconomics) and your subsequent position on the President’s Council of Advisors and later, as Chairman of the Federal Reserve, you’ve decided that you’d rather have my job. A wine writer.
Guess what, boychickel… You can bloody well have it.
Vos iz? A problem? You don’t know from grapes? Or phenolic bioflavonoids, like quercetin-3-glucoside? But you do, as the following exercise shall demonstrate:
I will list four wines, and then, in no particular order, a set of vintner’s tasting notes. You tell me which Napa varietal goes with which winemaker description:
- Napa Cellars Chardonnay, 2010
- Napa Cellars Zinfandel, 2008:
- Napa Cellars Sauvignon Blanc, 2010
- Napa Cellars Merlot, 2009
The notes, from winemaker Joe ‘You Can, In Fact, Call Me Shirley’ Shirley:
- Zesty aromas of grapefruit and mandarin orange followed by orange blossom and passion fruit on the palate. A warm climate wine, it displays bright acidity on the well-rounded finish.
- Warm and inviting aromas filled with blackberry, plum and a faint touch of raspberry. Savory hints of olive round out the beautiful nose.
- Bright brambly fruit, berry cobbler and classic spice on the nose are complemented by juicy raspberry, baked cinnamon apples, and dried cherries on the palate.
- Rich, buttery, spicy and toasty, boasting beautiful aromas that conjure scents of home-baked apple crisp. The flavors are lush with ripe pear, apple and a touch of tropical pineapple and guava. The wine is delicately balanced with a long and sweet toffee finish.
See that—it’s easy. It goes like this:
- = Sauvignon Blanc
- = Merlot
- = Zinfandel
- = Chardonnay
You’re not such a shmeggegie after all, are you, tchatzhkellah?
What Was All That About?
Fair question. It’s this: I have been reviewing California wines for more than twenty years, and so generic have the above varietal descriptions become that most winemakers and wine writers could do them in their drink-induced sleep. They are of some use at blind tastings, where—using these profiles—you can generally pick out a given varietal quite easily, thus allowing more time for the esoteric guesswork of vintage, AVA and label. But for a consumer looking to evaluate a wine’s unique profile before purchasing it, it must become rather pointless to read the same ol’ same ol’ in tasting notes.
And I’m as guilty as anybody. In trying to define the often indefinable, it’s easy to fall back on hackneyed descriptors rather than really digging deep. For example, I—like many of my bro’s and sisters in scribedom—have used ‘lychee’ ad nauseum to characterize gewürztraminer, but truth told, I’d seen that odd Middle Eastern fruit in other reviews first and had to figure out where I could buy one in meat-and-taters Detroit to find out what a lychee actually tastes like. Guess what? I found one, and it tastes exactly like Alsatian gewürztraminer. Okay, so the representation is accurate, but to be really true to myself I’d have to quit the wine biz, become a Israeli fruit critic and described lychee nuts as having ‘a bouquet and palate strongly reminiscent of a 2010 Hugel Gewürztraminer’.
Likewise sauvignon blanc and gooseberries. I’d wager that not one American wine critic in ten is really all that familiar with the nuance flavors of gooseberries—I know I’m not, and I used to have a gooseberry bush in my backyard. But it pops up endlessly in reviews. And don’t get me started on ‘cat pee’. Every bit as ubiquitous as ‘gooseberry’ in tasting notes, there’s actually a New Zealand sauvignon blanc called ‘Cat’s Pee On A Gooseberry Bush’ . But, what component of cat urine makes it unique from, say, dog, gerbil, ferret or human urine? I suppose it’s down to marketing mitigation; ‘cat pee’ sounds sort of cute—almost dainty—whereas if you wrote that the wine ‘tastes like a houseful of piss’, you might start getting nasty-grams from your editor.
Even stranger is the common, and likely psychosomatic portrayal of Pouilly-Fumé—and by default Fumé Blanc—as ‘smoky’, no doubt because ‘fumé’ is French for smoke. But I have tasted both extensively and never once picked out anything like smoke—they tend to be mineral-focused wines possessing a certain stone character that can be called ‘flinty’, but flint is three degrees of separation from smoke—you use flint to make sparks, which makes fire, which makes smoke. Anyway, I’ve read that the fumé name comes from the smoke-like mist that often arises from the Loire River—or the grayish dust that sometimes settles on the grapes. Qui sait?
‘Barnyard’, ‘damp straw’, even ‘manure’ are fair evaluations for a lot of hot-climate, bret-tinged reds from Southern Rhône, Italy and Spain—these feral pheromones sometimes hit you in the muzzle with a blunt farm tool. But, ‘wet saddle leather’, which shows up as often? Far be it from me to judge the private lives of my fellow wine critics, but moi, I try to keep my nose as far as possible from anywhere a jockey’s sweaty ass has been.
On To Napa Cellars…
Napa Cellars—one of twenty-six siblings scrambling for alpha position within the Trinchero Family—is known for wines that can be called , without debate, textbook examples of the archetypal paradigm known as the quintessentially emblematic Napa style. Founded by Rich Frank and Koerner Rombauer in 1996, the winery nestles in the heart of Napa, surrounded by Oakville vineyards, and, on the Trinchero website, surrounded by labels with diverse genealogies. That includes wines by dead people with familiar names (Newman’s Own), wines from living people with past participle names (Joel Gott), wines with French names (Folie à Deux), wines with sexually-innuendoed French names (Ménage à Trois), wines with dopey names (Red Belly Black) and wines that are just plain dopey (fre—which has had the alcohol remove via centrifugal force).
In contrast, ‘Napa Cellars’ is—like Pat Nixon’s respectable Republican cloth coat—a sensible, utilitarian kind of a name, and by golly, the wines are level-headed as well.
Since 2007, that’s been down to Joe Shirley, a winemaker whose impressive pedigree was launched at Sonoma Cutrer in 1997 and augmented at Trinchero’s Napa winery. According to his boss Bob Trinchero (whose dubious legacy is having invented white zinfandel), Joe is a sensory-driven and artistic winemaker. But Joe sees himself as a more earth-driven fellow. He claims, “I spend a lot of time in the vineyards making harvest decisions. I find that every extra hour spent at harvest-time has way more impact than an hour spent in the cellar in the winter.”
I dig him for that. So, in the digging—along with the delving and the mining, I am going to use Shirley’s framework of notes (above), and try to unearth some of elusive and subtle flavor and aroma notes that burrow through the familiar song and dance.
And I promise not to use such descriptions as require a trip to Piggly Wiggly’s pricey produce aisle.
Napa Cellars Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, 2009, about $17: This unmistakably California sauvignon blanc has zesty aromas of sweet alfalfa and Key lime followed by geranium, sesame seed and baked apple on the palate. A warm climate Sauvignon Blanc, it displays bright acidity on the well-rounded finish.
Napa Cellars Chardonnay, Napa Valley, 2010, about $20: Tantalizing aromas of fig, peach pie and baby powder integrate seamlessly into luscious flavors of lemon zest, pineapple, and honeysuckle. This creamy chardonnay is soft up-front while nuances of butterscotch and walnut linger on the balanced finish
Napa Cellars Merlot, Napa Valley, 2008, about $20: The 2008 Merlot makes a beautiful first impression with a brilliant, clear garnet hue. Aromas of wild blueberry, cinnamon, horehound and mint lead to a very well balanced palate. Firm acidity supports fruit on the mid-palate with notes of dried dill, pomegranate and crème de cassis.
Napa Cellars Zinfandel, Napa Valley, 2009, about $20: Bright forest berries, loam, and classic zinfandel cinnamon and clove on the nose are complemented by candied apple, Raisin Bran, and hot chocolate on the palate. Petite sirah was added to enhance the color and fill out the mid-palate. This classic Napa Valley Zinfandel displays grippy tannins and nuances of peppercorn, blackberry jam and espresso bean flavors lead to a finish with creamy toast on the finish.
Napa Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2008, about $25: This Cabernet Sauvignon has a beautiful nose with layers of Bing cherry, flint and new leather with hints of roasted allspice. The tannins build a nice core structure with a round mouthfeel. Toasted almond, dried blueberry and Coca Cola flavors lead to a finish with well integrated oak.