Earlier today I wrote a deeply ironic blog post encouraging young wine writers not to be too smart, because this would upset potentially helpful established writers. Some people have interpreted this the wrong way and have taken it literally, which would of course make it out to be deeply cynical.
It’s clearly bad advice. Indeed, I think that if you are a young wine writer or even an old one, you should be as brilliant as you can be. It’s just that you should expect your journey to be a difficult one. The people whose work you are taking will make your life difficult. And the journey through life for a smart person generally, is a difficult one. Be as smart as you can, but be prepared for the speed bumps.
One thing I have noticed, coming into wine writing from the outside, is that there’s generally a warm welcome for newcomers. Established wine writers are, in my experience, generally quite encouraging to newer, emerging voices. Up to a point. While there’s an enthusiasm for fresh faces, there’s also a reluctance to give up further slices of a diminishing cake to others.
My experience is that when I was starting out, everyone was totally charming and helpful, up to the point that they began to see me as competition, in some small way. It’s only understandable.
So my advice for young wine writers is don’t be too smart. If you come out of the hatches at full pelt, you’ll scare the established people whose help can be very useful at the beginning of your career. So there’s a balancing act. Be smart enough to get the gigs you need, but not too smart that you miss out on useful patronage.
It’s a bit like the situation with big corporations. Often, the people who rise through the ranks are the safe choices. Dependable, likeable, but limited. Insecure bosses don’t really want to promote people smarter than they are. It’s a problem. As Caesar remarked to Antony in Shakespear’s play, he wasn’t too keen on Cassius, who he regarded as lean and hungry. He’d rather have fat, satisfied, less disciplined people around him – they’d be less likely to cause trouble.
Generally, in life, I reckon that less smart people are often happier. If you are too smart, I suspect that you’d find popular culture so inane as to be depressing, you’d be frustrated by the general low level of most journalism, and you’d spend a lot of the time quite bored. And as a writer you’d find that anything you wrote would only really appeal to small segment of the population.
Antoine Sunier is a new name to me. He’s the brother of Julien Sunier, who has been making wines in Beaujolais since 2008, and he came to the region in 2014 to set up this new domaine. So I guess this makes these the first releases. The Sunier’s father was a barber from Dijon, so the two brothers have come into the region and started from scratch. Antione uses just a little sulfur dioxide at bottling, so I guess these would qualify as natural wines, whatever that means. I was impressed.
Antoine Sunier Régnié 2014 Beaujolais, France
12% alcohol. Floral violet and black cherry nose with hints of spice and meat, and some fresh raspberries, too. The palate shows bright raspberries and cherries with purity and power. There’s an almost chalky edge to the fruit. Lovely structure and precision here. Real finesse and focus. 93/100
Antoine Sunier Morgon 2014 Beaujolais, France
12% alcohol. Robust, spicy and a bit meaty with lovely raspberry and cherry fruit, as well as subtle herbal notes. Grippy and a bit peppery. This is a direct, edgy wine with good acidity and a savoury edge to the fruit. 92/100
UK agent: Indigo Wine
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Another lovely English fizz, this time from Gusborne. As I was writing this up I realized I’ve already reviewed in (back in November), and I was also impressed by their Blanc de Blancs Late Disgorged 2007.
Gusborne Estate Brut Reserve 2010 England
12% alcohol. Gusborne is based in Appledore, Kent, but they source their grapes from both Kent and West Sussex. This is quite superb. There’s some richness to the citrus and ripe apple fruit, and also some attractive toastiness. Keen acidity keeps this bright and pure with lovely balance between the richer fruity/toasty notes and the lemony brightness. 92/100 (£26-29 31dover.com, Oddbins, Lea & Sandeman, Tanners and others)
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Unbelievably, I am now at San Francisco International on my way home, and the Napa trip is over. It went in the blink of an eye, at warp speed. I think the limited sleep time and three strong shifts at Ana’s Cantina (the two were correlated) probably helped move things on so fast.
We were split into groups on Thursday morning. The idea was that we should all have the opportunity to experience vintage. It was called ‘Down and Dirty’ in the official schedule, which sounded a bit alarming, but it actually turned out to be very educational and quite a bit of fun. Matt, Eric and I were assigned to Anthony Truchard, of Truchard, to observe first hand the harvest in Carneros.
The Truchard family are growers with 400 acres of grapes in pretty, gently hilly Carneros, and also have their own wine brand (the Rousanne, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc are all excellent, if you can find them). Our job was to help harvest Chardonnay, which was being picked on Thursday morning. We joined in with the crew: they were fast and efficient. We were sluggish and a bit sweaty, trying hard to avoid cutting fingers off while still filling the small picking bins at a reasonable speed.
Then the Chardonnay was brought back to the winery in half-ton bins, and put directly into the press. The resulting juice was a slightly alarming murky grey/brown colour, but this is quite normal with Chardonnay. Anthony admitted that this block was picked a little late and had some sunburn. When we looked with the refractometer we saw that the juice was at 26 Brix, which is higher than they’d like.
We all lunched together at Rubissow, a beautiful property in the foothills of the Mount Veeder appellation.
This was followed by some free time. I filled mine by visiting Mayacamas, and it was potentially the highlight of my trip. This is a super place – high up in Mount Veeder with vineyards ranging from 1800-2400 feet. Bob Travers, the previous owner, completed 44 vintages at Mayacamas, and the wines have always been outliers: mountain fruit, picked early, with very traditional winemaking, creating wines that are very tight in their youth but which age beautifully. Charles Banks and a business partner bought the property from Bob in May 2013 and have pledged to keep the wines in the same style. They have already begun an extensive replanting program to restore the vineyards to top condition. The place is amazing. The wines are amazing. In a way, it is Napa’s Wendouree.
I headed straight from here to Round Pond for the evening event with the group, complete with a bloodied face, sustained by falling over on the rocky soils of Mayacamas. My camera survived the fall, though, which was a relief. At Round Pond we had a lovely dinner and a fireside chat with second generation vintners, talking about the future of Napa and what changes they have seen since they took over from the previous generation.
Then it was out for a final night bash with the group in St Helena. Just one beer, I said to myself, then bed…
Over the last few days we’ve tasted quite a few wines. It seems a bit unfair to pick favourites, but here are is a personal selection of some highlights.
Antica Townsend Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 Atlas Peak, Napa
This is from the Foss Valley, which is a valley in the Atlas Peak AVA above Napa Valley, at 1500-1800 feet. ‘We are not in the style of making monumental wines,’ says Glenn Salva, and from rocky hillside soils this is a really expressive wine. It is fresh, vital and floral with sweet blackcurrant fruit and lovely freshness and acidity. There’s a floral, black cherry character here, as well as good structure. Stylish and vivid with just a hint of roast coffee oak that should integrate in time. 95/100
Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadow 2008 Napa
This wine has a lovely core of black cherry and blackcurrant fruit, and a structured, savoury side that I’d describe as gravelly and a bit tarry. It’s supple and quite elegant by Napa standards, with lots of potential for future development. Not showy – more brooding and restrained, yet certainly fully ripe. 93/100
Schramsberg Late Disgorged Brut 1999 Carneros, Napa
This deliciously rich sparkling wine is mostly Chardonnay, and was disgorged in 2012 . It’s toasty and rich with nice depth, and lovely citrus, pear and spice notes. Complex, rich and bold, it’s quite delicious in this bigger style. 93/100
Trefethen Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 1999 Napa
This is from hillside vines. It has a spicy blackcurrant nose with hints of earth and leather. Fresh with nice structure and lovely blackcurrant and spice flavours. Well balanced, this is drinking really well now. 93/100
Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1975 Napa
There’s a blood and iodine edge to the nose, which is showing some maturity, with spice and hints of earth. But it’s when you get this into your mouth that you realise what a superb wine it is. It’s really fresh and elegant with nice spiciness underpinning the lovely blackcurrant and black cherry fruit. It’s still got an amazing core of fruit, and now at almost 40 years old it is incredibly elegant and at ease with itself. Just 13% alcohol. 96/100
Niebaum Coppola Rubicon 1989 Napa
I liked this a bit more than some of my fellow tasters. It’s fresh, supple and balanced with lovely sweet blackberry and black cherry fruit, as well as a nice savoury spiciness. This midweight wine has aged beautifully and now has lovely focus and balance. 95/100
Corison Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 Napa
It was nice to finally get to meet Cathy Corison (above). She was pouring here 2012, and it’s brilliant. Refined, pure and very fresh with lovely blackcurrant fruit, and hints of chalk and gravel. This doesn’t lack concentration, but it is so fresh and light on its feet. Smooth and elegant with pure, fresh black cherry and black fruits to the fore. 94/100
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So, I’m in the Napa Valley. This is actually day 3 (we arrived on Monday afternoon): I would have posted something earlier, but it has been full on with barely a moment to spare. So just some pictures and captions will have to suffice for now. Our first appointment took us into the hills out east – this is Somerston Estate, where we had an informal pizza evening with several Napa Valley vintners, including Vivien Gay of Silver Oak (below).
Then on Tuesday morning we began at Cain, with the thoughtful Chris Howell, discussing mountain viticulture versus valley floor. From the vineyards at Cain we looked down to see the valley floor still covered in fog.
Then it was off to Honig to discuss valley floor viticulture, and Silverado where we had a great tasting of some lovely Napa Cabernets – the highlight for me was the fresh, balanced, floral Antica Townsend Vineyard 2012.
This was followed by a ‘fireside chat’ (sans fireside) at Beringer, with Napa legends.
Beer followed. Ana’s, St Helena. Both nights so far.
Today was 0530 start for some balloon action. A great life experience.
We then had a really lovely tasting covering four decades at Black Stallion, in which this wine shone:
This was followed by a remarkable visit. Raymond, owned by Jean-Charles Boisset, who is married to Gina Gallo. He has done some fairly crazy things to his winery. Unlike any other winery I have seen.
A new discovery for me, courtesy of Roberson. The wines of Eleni and Edouard Vocoret. UK retailer Majestic used to stock the Vocoret Chablis in the early noughties, and they were OK if unspectacular. But Eleni and Edouard have taken over just a small slice of the family domaine (3.3 hectares), and are making these two wines. Dauvissat is the inspiration: Eleni works there part time and this is where they press their wine and get their barrels from, and do the bottling.
Domaine Eleni et Edouard Vocoret Chablis Le Bas de Chapelot 2013 Burgundy, France
12.5% alcohol. Complex, powerful and lively with ripe pear, peach and citrus fruit. Mineral and a bit smoky with high acidity. A lovely linear wine with real depth. Just a faint hint of cabbage and a lovely stony edge. Simply brilliant. 94/100 (£22.95 Roberson)
Domaine Eleni et Edouard Vocoret Chablis 1er Cru Les Butteaux 2013 Burgundy, France
12.5% alcohol. So aromatic, lively and perfumed with grapefruit, lemons and some spicy, rich pear and apple fruit. The palate is concentrated and shows richness and freshness, with pear, grapefruit and minerals, as well as some tangerine. Textured and mouthfilling, this is just sensational. 95/100 (£49.95 Roberson)
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This wine blew me away today at Sager & Wilde. It’s a varietal Trousseau (aka Bastardo) from the Stolpman Vineyards in Santa Barbara County. The soils here have a feature that’s quite rare in California: limestone. The Stolpman property is 220 acres and 153 are under vine. In 2013 they grafted across just one acre to Trousseau, and the following year had the first crop. And this is the debut release, made by Raj Parr and Sashi Moorman. They nailed it: this is a truly fabulous, drinkable, elegant, textured wine. It’s three-quarters whole cluster, and no oak was used in the elevage. Not much made, so hurry if you want to try it.
Stolpman Vineyards Ballard Canyon Trousseau ‘Combe’ 2014 Santa Barbara County, California
13% alcohol. This is sensational. Light in colour it has lovely sweet red cherry with a hint of marzipan and some meatiness. Such a lovely texture: almost weightless with amazing silky finesse. This has astonishing drinkability. A faint hint of green sappiness, too. 94/100
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I have discovered cycling. Don’t worry: I’m not about to don lycra, spend thousands of pounds on a racing bike, and start posting (boasting?) my Strava stats on social media. It’s just that I have discovered the pleasure that cycling can bring. Suddenly, on two wheels, any journey is fun.
I have my new Finnish friends Heidi and Matti to thank (pictured above). On Tuesday morning, after the wine symposium, they took me cycling round Tampere. Heidi’s boyfriend lent me his bike, which was very kind of him. It was great – although it had a pedal-backwards rear brake. I’ve never experienced one of these before, and it takes some getting used to.
We rode through parks, along woodland tracks, and beside a lake. We climbed quite high (at one point I confess I walked the steepest bit), and stopped to admire the view. We also stopped to climb a tower (the Pynnikki observation tower) and ate some of the world’s greatest donuts. And then headed back into town for some lunch in the marketplace (Kauppahalli).
It was such fun. So today I decided to replicate the exercise – to cycle in this corner of west London. First, I needed a bike. Younger son has a decent adult sized bike – a Ridgeback – but it hadn’t been used in ages, and he’d made some modifications that rendered it unusable. The handlebars were too loose, so I had to construct a shim out of garden wire, which worked nicely. The brakes needed adjusting. And the seat was far too thin: my bottom was still sore from Tuesday. So I bought a cheap soft gel saddle. But it didn’t fit the mount, so I had to improvise with a new seat pole, which was too thin. This had to be made thicker with plumbers tape – a total bodge, but it worked.
Along the Crane to Twickenham. Along the Thames to Richmond. Across the bridge and along the river to Teddington. Cross over the lock, then a pint of Sierra Nevada at the Anglers. Then through Bushy Park to Hampton Court. Then a coffee back in Bushy. Then home. So much fun. I think I shall be cycling more.