By | December 5 2012
I just wish the base level of California wine agreed with me better. I am as likely to go into any diner where the food looks good as into a sommelier-savvy restaurant. Where there are oysters around as good as those from the Hog Island Oyster Co of Bolinas, or many far up the coast in Washington, nothing needs cooking, so why bother a proud chef? And my, do they get proud!
This is not the place to start on my problem: the fact that American menus are peppered, these days, with the word "and." Every dish I meet in the States has the word "and" three or four times in its description. Faites simple doesn’t seem to translate into American, except in bare-table diners where you order oysters (or a steak or shrimp) and that’s just what they bring you. Then it’s the wine that’s the problem.
We were in Tadich Grill the other night-corny, I know, but it’s still the heart of San Francisco. The "ands" at Tadich are sometimes completely off the wall. Brussels sprouts heaped on the sublime sanddabs you find nowhere else (or if only I knew).
Having sipped the Sauvignon and smelled the Chardonnay of the house (authenticity is a big thing with me), my brainwave was to order the house bubbly, on the basis that the first principle of bubbly-making in California is to avoid varietal flavors. It worked. It was cold, clean, just fruity enough, and just the thing with sanddabs in their butter (and with a magnificent chunk of bread). You see my problem: The taste of Chardonnay gilded by the California sun is just too rich for me. And the taste and smell of Sauvignon Blanc to the power of endless sunshine makes me reel.
Pearls before wine
It doesn’t have to be so. Coup de coeur number one in this context was something I never expected to see: a Sauvignon from Joseph Heitz-or rather, his daughter Kathy. If I remember right, Joe could be as rude about Sauvignon as anything else he didn’t take to. In fact, he could give lessons. I was introduced to this bottle by Bob Thompson, my old writing partner from St Helena whom I see far too seldom. In 1975, Bob and I set out to write the then much-needed guide to California wine. We were sued by a vintner whose name I quickly forgot.
Otherwise, perhaps you’d have seen the book (William Morrow & Co, $15.95 till they dumped it). Bob is one of the judges of an annual competition to find America’s ten best wines for sluicing oysters. What do you look for in an oyster wine? The Breton standard, of course, is Muscadet. A good creamy Belon, though, makes most Muscadet taste meager. Chablis, of course-but you need a premier cru or a white Graves of a few years’ maturity, especially with the Bordeaux practice of little hot sausages on the side. And what oysters? It’s no simple matter.
The Heitz, however, asserted its class with oyster after oyster. How does the quality of balance (so essential above all in Sauvignons) come through a tasty mouthful? Super-tasty (as in Kiwi) Sauvignons taste absurd. Little Loire ones get drowned all too easily. A German Riesling trocken, from the Nahe, for example, saved from dryness by a puff of fruit, can do it nicely. This is the balance you need: a dry finish but the awareness of fruit and fragrance en route. The Heitz version was ideal-memorable, in fact. Heart A thought so, too.
Pale 22-carat maturity
A side effect of the recent panic (not so recent now, perhaps) over white Burgundy and its shelf life is that we are opening beautiful Chardonnays, Burgundy or not, before they bloom. Sommeliers are offering wines that deserve five or ten years in bottle as fast as they can open them. I never found raw Chardonnay particularly seductive, so when Paul Draper gave us his 2004 in its golden maturity, I rejoiced.
There is gold and gold. The brassy sun-ripened gleam is not the same as pale 22-carat maturity, bringing with it something both creamy and alert, sap gone, the flavors of the flesh emerging. The man from Montebello was indulgent, elegantly demonstrating the span of great Cabernet with his 2009 and 1992. I have seen enough ’09s to realize what a lovely vintage this can be in California, too, and how the douce effects (editor, can I speak old Scots for a minute? It means sweet, seemly, agreeable) of timely rainfall can tune the bugle blast California so often delivers.
"Elegance" in wine-speak can mean the catwalk look: not enough flesh. What word to use for the real thing -proportion and grace? That was certainly the Montebello, tight and deep as it is at this young age; in Bordeaux terms, a first growth. And the ’92? As I always thought in the days when it was my duty to drink every vintage of Château Latour, they all have the same taste, just emphasized or not, diluted or not, by temporal events. If I could imagine the ’09 in 17 years’ time, it would taste as fine, as glowingly transparent, as the ’92.
Other 2009 Cabernets I drank only confirmed my view that this is a vintage for me. The Trefethen is in the trim, perfectly tailored style of the winery; the Chappellet has the resonant ripeness you find on Pritchard Hill (where two new wineries, Ovid and Continuum, are following the Latin fashion started, presumably, by Pétrus, then Dominus). From the vineyards at the top of Pritchard Hill, the view is clear to San Francisco 60 miles (100km) to the south, the night air cool, the drainage deep, and the wine remarkable.
How remarkable it can be was demonstrated by Donn Chappellet opening his Pritchard Hill 2004, 1995, 1980, and 1970 at a dinner party on the winery’s famous party lawn, emerald green in the sunset. I have been watching the 1970 since it was hatched, in the year I first visited Donn’s still-cutting-edge winery, a three-sided pyramid of rusted steel that sits in the steep slope like a geological feature. It reminded me then of Château Latour, and I have served them since many times, the two 1970s together. They have both been tortoises, but the Latour gave up first. The Chappellet 2004 and 1995 are still hunkering down, judging by the 1980 (like an open jar of whatever is most fragrant) and the seemingly perpetual 1970.
A matter of time
No one deliberately makes wine to run for 40 years or more. Or do they? The great vintages of wellmade wines are like igneous rock, embedded in a limestone cliff. Old friends came together around John and Janet Trefethen’s table to look back over some old Napa classics. Inglenook 1955 was a little sweetie, now light, beautifully fragrant on a faintly green note. Of the trio of BVs-André Tchelistcheff’s 1968, 1969, and 1970-the 1968 was noble, the ’69 faded, and the 1970 highly aromatic, but of varnish. 1968 (retail price $5.49, alcohol 12.2%) had such heavenly purity, scented, at the same time, like tea and Havana tobacco, that I lost all sense of where I was- until refreshed by a magnum of Trefethen Reserve 1997.
His heart, I hear you say, is wobbling badly. Is it Heart A or Heart B palpitating so? A week in the Napa Valley is teaching me a timely lesson. Two hearts soon become synchronized. It is only a matter of time.