Sunday, July 12, 2015

The California Drought Report: Déjà vu and other ramblings while driving on the Silverado Trail at midnight.

It was déjà vu. The tinderbox conditions we were sitting in must have made it seem like it. It was an early summer night, just like before. And there was the same warm breeze that cooled as the sun disappeared behind the mountain range. We were sitting outside at the restaurant attached to the Solage resort in Calistoga. And the subject of the drought came up. I made the comment that it seemed a lot like 1976, which was the first of two drought years that produced some good wines. “I remember being here; the conditions seem the same.” A guest at our table asked me what Solage was like 40 years ago. “I wouldn't know. I was parked nearby in a lot near the fairgrounds; my wife was 6 months pregnant and she and I and her daughter were sleeping in the ‘62 Falcon wagon, hoping not to be awakened in the middle of the night by the local police.” A stretch from the luxe setting of Solage.

Sipping on an old-vine dry-farmed Zinfandel grown steps from our table; a pleasant wine, balanced, even at 15.4%. My mind wandered back and forth between 1976 and now. How much had changed. Talking a few days later with Dante Mondavi about it, and how simple and un-self-aware we all were. Now, it is recollected as a golden time.

Later in the week, sitting at a posh bar in St. Helena, sipping on a magnum of 2011 Mayacamas Chardonnay, visiting with a local writer/sommelier friend. Again clocks turn back. Mayacamas seemed to be holding steady; acid, fruit, citrus, balance. My young friend asks, “Do you think we’ll ever get back to a time when the young wine professionals won’t aspire to be rock star sommeliers and we’ll actually see people embracing a more academic approach?” It appears more than one generation is weary of a world of wine being hijacked by arrogance and egotism; was this what the wine gods had in mind?

Earlier that day, tasting some very presentable Pinot Noir from Russian River with the winemaker- his recollection of Robert Parker tasting with him: “He’d tasted through the line-up and then he came back to the third one and said, ‘That North Slope is so consistently good, year in and year out.’” They were tasting blind. Robert Parker may be dead to the young generation of wine-abee rockers, but he’s far from that in the mind of these producers. He still sells more wine than all of our blogs, podcasts and tirades put together. And his memory, and his palate, still matters. Don’t deceive yourself.

A winemaker walks over to me and my writer/sommelier friend. He started a little project in the Carneros ten years ago. He just got back from tasting with “Bob”, a ten year retrospective of his wines. “He didn’t know me from Adam and he came up to me years ago, in this very spot and asked who the winemaker was. I said ‘why, did you like the wine? Because if you did, I was the winemaker. If you didn’t, the guy next to me made it.’” A simpler time, yes. Crush the grapes, make the wine, sell it, hopefully with a little help from an appreciative chef or a wine scribe. And do it again. And again. No pyrotechnics. No screeds posted to the door of the cathedral ( or Facebook page). Just the work. Over and over and over again.

Earlier that week, on a long afternoon drive up the Silverado Trail, on the way to see another wine, another winemaker, I thought about Philip di Belardino. Before lunch, sitting with a friend who writes and educates the bewildered about Italian wine and she brought him up. “I remember first meeting him. He was such a good ambassador,” she recalled. “And two or three years later, he came across me at a tasting, stopped what he was doing, addressed me by name and asked how I was doing!” Today we think it’s a miracle when someone "important" returns an email (some of them don’t). Pippo knew he was a player in the band, not the soloist. He didn’t aspire to stardom, but his compassion and his love for people and wine will be remembered long after the delectable superstars have posted their umpteenth unicorn wine. And I will miss his emails, much more than the emails that never get replied to.

There’s a rough edge that’s made its way into the wine-stream. A young writer writes a good piece about an offbeat wine region. A friend, the world expert on the subject, makes an observation about the piece and gets head chewed off by the now-defensive author. What, 5,000 followers on Instagram make one bulletproof? And when one with expertise patiently and courteously elaborates, what is said author’s reply? Crickets...

Sure, it’s not like the days, as I was telling Dante, when you could roll your ’62 Falcon next to the Benny Bufano sculpture and moments later be sipping Fumè Blanc with Nonno Bob, as plain and natural as a sunny day in St. Helena. Yeah, I miss the innocence and the restraint, both in the wines and in the egos of that time. We could sure use a bigger dose of 1976 than just the arid dearth of moisture. We could use a couple of amphorae filled with humility and deference. Like the Carneros winemaker said, “it’s just crushed grapes.” Considering the nearest galaxy, Andromeda, where there are 1 trillion stars,what’s 9,000 twitter followers? Put in the scale of this limitless universe, that should easily recalibrate a thoughtful person. Perhaps we should concern ourselves less with pursuing balance in our wines and focus more putting our selfie-obsessed lives in perspective. Yes, it’s just a bunch of crushed grapes. But as well, the span of our life, shouldn’t it mean something more than a collection of photographs of wine bottles, of opinions about this or that style of wine? Why do we care about a 30 year retrospective of Solaia or Gaja? How about arriving to a more humble seat in the orchestra, maybe the third violin or the fourth oboe? Isn’t the music sweeter when everyone plays their notes at the right time in the right place?

Yeah, we could sure use some rain, all around…

written and photographed by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy
wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W
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