Robin Williams, RIP

California Political Review wishes to offer a word about Robin Williams.  Monday August 11 we learned the sad news of his death at age 63.  Born in Chicago, his early years were spent in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan where his father was an executive with Ford Motor Company.  California became his home for much of his life though, and he attended Redwood High School in Marin County, and Claremont College in southern California.

Williams went on to study acting at the Juilliard School in New York City and his acting and comedy genius was recognized there, including in an advanced program with famous actor John Houseman.  Williams was often seen in the early stages of his career at comedy clubs in southern California and in San Francisco where he honed his skills, and got his first big break early in life being cast as the alien “Mork” in some episodes of the “Happy Days” television series which lead to his own successful comedy series in “Mork and Mindy”.  His film achievements, indeed his many life achievements, are too much to detail here, and are well known, including his Oscar-winning performance in the movie “Good Will Hunting” with a young Matt Damon.  He was generous in work with charities such as St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Williams was a most interesting person.  He seemed always coiled up and on edge, and it came through in his humor, yet he was capable of quiet and intense dramatiRobin_Williams_2008c roles as well.  A distant grandfather had been a Senator in Mississippi.  He was an Episcopalian, which he described in his comedy act as “Catholic Lite – same rituals, half the guilt.”  He entertained us in so many ways, made positive contributions to society, and will be missed.

Bordeaux ain’t bad, even for a Californian

My eyes were opened on French wine labels and tastes during my recent summer trip to Paris.  I have enjoyed the well-known French wines, but I have considered them impractical as too expensive, and the labels too confusing, to really try to enjoy them much.

But even as a boorish booster of California wines, I had the pleasure of attending a wine-tasting luncheon at an interesting local establishment called “ÔChateau” housed in the former residence of Madame de Pompadour.  The Madame, Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, was “the official chief mistress” of French King Louis XV, and as such had actual duties, such as arranging the King’s schedule while at the same time trying to not alienate the Queen.  That was in the late 1700s.  Today her former residence is a bustling wine bar set in the heart of Paris that offers several different types of introductions to French wines each day, through fun activities such as wine-tasting lunches and dinners, cruises, and outings to some of France’s best wine regions, including the Champagne region around Reims.

My French wine guide was Pierre, who grew up near Strasbourg, a city in France near the famous Alsace wine region, where many light and sweet French wines are made.  Our lunch at ÔChateau included tastes of five different French wines, all from different regions, paired with five different cheeses and lots of other luncheon goodies including French breads.  The wines tasted were all middle-priced and included a Champagne, Chenin Blanc, Gamay Beaujolais, Haut Medoc Bordeaux, and a Semillon.  The cost was 75 euros (about $100) but well worth it for both the lovely food and wine, but also the wine education, lasting almost two hours, in a beautiful private wine cellar.

My biggest takeaway was understanding from Pierre how the French think of wine labels and choosing a wine, which is quite different from my experience in California.  Here, I have come to think of selecting a wine by thinking of what food I want to pair it with, selecting a grape, such as a Cabernet Sauvignon, and then considering vintners, such as Caymus from Napa Valley.  Pierre, who has spent his lifetime in the wine industry (but actually did some studies at our own UC Davis!) says this is not how the French, with so many potential wine choices (some reference guides say there are 27,000 wineries in France) chose their wine.  Instead of thinking of a grape and vintage to match their meal, the French consider matching a meal to a wine from a “terroir” of the country.  Thus, a selection becomes very much more about the region that the wine is from, and not the reputation of the vintners’ label.  Where in California I might consider that a Caymus is a synch to match a juicy steak dinner, a French wine lover would more likely consider a region, such as the Medoc region pictured in the graphic attached to this article, rather than a particular vintner.

The Médoc region is known for its good red wines, usually Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon blends.  Médoc is in Bordeaux to the west of France and separated by a river.  According to Pierre, the wines north of the river are known to the French to produce red wines based mostly on Merlot.  But to the south of the river, the blends are based mostly on Cabernet.  And at the northern tip of the district south of the river, the Cabernet-dominated wine blends have especially well-known characteristics.  These wines are labelled as “Haut Médoc”, a description I have seen many times but never really understood.  They are from the “high Medoc” terrior and are just excellent.  Due to tight controls on how the wines are made, their taste all pretty equally reflect the unique “terrior” from which they originate – soil, climate conditions, pollination and methods all pretty much being the same for the dozens of wineries in a particular terrior.  The “Haut Médoc” we tasted at ÔChateau was not expensive, either.  It was a Château Belgrave and it retails in France for just 21 euros ($28.22).  It was paired with a true roquefort cheese and the two together were amazing!  A few days later as I was leaving France, I bought a bottle of Chateau le Legune Haut Médoc at the duty free at Charles de Gaulle airport for 31 euros ($41.66), tried it, and am very impressed.  It is available and retails at $69.99 at here in California.  That is not cheap, but it is Grand Cru Classé (meaning it is made to top standards) but a heck of a value compared to the more well-known French wines we see on the lists at our better restaurants that bear both incomprehensible and inapproachable pricing.

Pierre’s message was that one should not get too frustrated with learning all the wineries in France, and you don’t have to pay top dollar.  All one really has to learn is about the French wine regions – just seven of them – to get a decent handle on French wine appreciation and reduce mistakes in choosing a bottle.  It is surely a little different from the way some of us have looked at it in California, but increasingly California also is developing a wine industry that reflects a “terrior” palate rather than a common homoginized taste.  “Rutherford dust” is a distinct taste that many California cabernet fans understand is present in such wines as “BV” from the Rutherford district of Napa Valley.  Monterey county chardonnay fans often mention a crisp “pinneapple” taste they get from local wines in that region of California, distinct from other areas.  In California, our wine industry has had only perhaps 100 years of development and much is still new.  In France, dozens of generations have been growing grapes and making wine at the same locations.  It is perhaps no wonder that French wines can be distinguished more by “terrior” than vintner, because they have worked at it for centuries and have maintained standards that have created unique, but commonmap-vignoble-de-bordeaux-medoc local flavors.  In any event, I am glad to have learned something useful to my own hobby of wine appreciation and to understand that there are great, affordable French wines out there – but I won’t abandon California wines anytime soon!



The California Chardonnay Paradox

Is drinking Chardonnay a thing of the past?  That is what I used to think.

As a red wine drinker, enamored with the best that France has to offer, I rarely drank or even thought about California white wines or white wines in general (other than Burgundy’s Le Montrachet). The idea of opening up a California Chardonnay somehow seems pedestrian – just not what real wine connoisseurs do. Occasionally, when enjoying a food pairing, I would tolerate (and even secretly enjoy) a glass of Chardonnay picked out by the sommelier.  Still, on those rare occasions I drank Chardonnay without much reflection or appreciation of what this awesome grape has achieved for the wine industry, and its flock of loyal followers worldwide.

There seem to be at least two reason why Chardonnay, and particularly California Chardonnay, has a bad reputation among serious wine drinkers.  First, vast majority of California Chardonnay sells for less than $10 per bottle.  There is a monolithic assumption that inexpensive wine cannot be any good.  Second (and a related reason) is that California Chardonnay causes disdain among the cognoscenti due to the wine by the glass pandering to the masses and its “came-and-went” trend among people that typically drink cheap beer.  In fact, in the recent years there has been an ongoing movement that can be characterized as “Anything But Chardonnay”.  There is certainly at least some truth to the anti-Chardonnay sentiment.  But, it is only a small part of the Chardonnay story.

In many ways judging wine is a subjective exercise.  In fact, many will agree that to scientifically and objectively rate wine is impossible. Nick Passmore, in his Forbes article, The Finest California Chardonnay, likens wine rankings to “deciding the best actor at the Oscars or the best Chinese restaurant…”  Nevertheless, there are some objective parameters and clear differences between really bad and really great wines.  The difference between low end poorly made Chardonnay and its greatest examples is part perception, part personal taste, and part objective tasting characteristic assessed over time. This applies to all wine.

Chardonnay continues to sell very well and there are some very good California Chardonnays that, albeit distinctly Californian, can stand up to some tough competition from France and elsewhere.  For instance, Grgich Hills, Montelena, Kistler, Peter Michael, Kongsgaard Napa Valley, Aubert Lauren Estate, and Hanzell Vineyards Sonoma Valley make excellent Chardonnay wines.

Why Chardonnay?

After some thinking, reading, and tasting, I realized that Chardonnay from California is a worthy wine, especially when it comes to its many better examples.  Equally important, Chardonnay is a money maker for the wine industry.  Its detractors are too hung up on the mass marketing of cheap Chardonnay that does not reflect the amazing talent of California winemakers, and the fact that well crafted Chardonnay is truly priced at a fraction of what you would be paying for good quality red wines.  Those same critics also seem to fail to see that the cheap Chardonnay they so despise delivers new converts to the ranks of wine collectors.  Being an occasional contrarian in collecting wine, I have reassessed California Chardonnay.

The gold standard of all Chardonnay, Burgundy’s mythical Le Montrachet, is certainly the most expensive and most venerated white wine on earth.  With prices starting at several thousand dollars for its finest examples, Le Montrachet is an outlier white wine even for many of its peers in Burgundy.  Chardonnay’s true home is in Burgundy, but unlike, the fickle Pinot Noir, which also is perfected in

Burgundy, Chardonnay is utterly adaptable, and is perhaps even more robust than Cabernet Sauvignon when it comes to surviving and even thriving in virtually any environment.  It is, indeed, the ultimate survivor chameleon grape.  Here is why.

Chardonnay is very easy to grow in different climates and soils. Burgundian Chardonnay is known for displaying more layers of complexity, than its California peer.  As Passmore observes, California Chardonnay is “lean and plush, austere and rich, refined and rugged”.  Needless to say, not all Burgundy Chardonnay is worthy. Just as low quality California white wine is flat, obese, buttery, sweet and cheap, the bad examples from Burgundy are thick, unbalanced in minerals, funky smelling, stale, and oddly enough still expensive compared to the California swill.  Not surprising, as quality improves, the two versions of Chardonnay seem to get closer to one another in certain tasting notes.

The better producers from California are certainly different from the mass produced California Chardonnay from Gallo, BV, and Kendall-Jackson.  Most of the California Chardonnays, as most wines, are produced for immediate consumption.  As I pointed out there are a number of California Chardonnays that do age; in fact, they improve with age.  California Chardonnay is still the most popular wine sold in U.S., points out Robert Whitley, in his 2012 article on, called “The Mystery of California Chardonnay”.  Whitley observes that Chateau Montelena, Grgich Hills Estate, Nickel & Nickel, and Patz & Hall Zio Tony Ranch Chardonnays are some of the wines that fall into that age-worthy category.

Montelena, one of the most famous California Chardonnays proved its worth in 1975 at the Judgment of Paris, standing up to some serious Burgundy white wines.  This wine can easily age for 12 years +.  These better wines range from $35 to $55 retail, which is a bargain compared to Chardonnays from Burgundy or most red wines.  Chardonnay is a malleable and moldable grape that comes in a variety of styles. “Chardonnay comes in a wide range of styles, from the green-tinged, racy wines of Chablis to the rich, powerful grand crus of Corton and Chassagne. There are fruit-filled oaky Australian chardonnays and the new wave of lean, unoaked, non maloed examples emerging from the Yarra Valley.  Even California’s straw-colored, mineral chardonnays display a radically different approach to the variety, accentuating its chameleon character,” explains Stephen Yafa in his article, California Chardonnay: from Butterball to Balance, published on February 18, 2013 on wine-searcher.

Chardonnay makes up approximately 30% of all the table wine shipped from California to the U.S. marketplace, and yet “no one seems to drink it,” quips Whitley.  Whitley, argues that this apparent contradiction can be explained.  He calls California Chardonnay “the Wonder Bread of Wine”.  It is predictable from vintage to vintage, cheap, and generally has appealing taste for many people.  In other words, it is easy to produce and is accessible to the untrained palate.  It is a huge money maker for the wineries, producing easily several tons per acre.  The more expensive, but not deserving (in my view) California Chardonnay such as Rombauer or Far Niente tends to be rich, creamy, buttery, and almost oily.

No one cared or knew of Chardonnay until the mid 1970s before the Judgment of Paris declared that Montelena produced an amazing wine, elevating the Chardonnay grape to quasi-celebrity status.  Prior to that California Chardonnay was a cocktail wine made in one predictable style.  Whitley observes that, there has not been a dwindling of the planted acreage in California. 53 Million cases of chardonnay are shipped to U.S. consumers each year (California Wine Institute statistics as sited in Yafa’s article).  The sales of Chardonnay wines top those of Cabernet and Champaign combined.  According to New York based Impact Databank, practically 1 in 3 bottles of wine drunk in the U.S. is a California Chardonnay.

Chardonnay is also the good will ambassador of wine.  It is likely the first wine that people who don’t drink wine start drinking.  These tyro wine drinkers will often move to reds, and will finally graduate to the better Chardonnays, whether from famous Burgundy or from California’s top producers such as Steve Kistler.  Ergo, not only is Chardonnay the missionary that recruits and converts new generations of wine lovers, it is also a money maker for the wine industry, and in its better examples it is truly exquisite.

What Might the Future Hold?

Yafa seems to suggest where California Chardonnay is heading.  It is no longer a monolithic butterball saturated with residual sugar and Costco-style powdered vanilla flavors best paired with popcorn or potato chips, he whimsically seems to indicate.  Leaner, more complicated Chardonnay wines are finding their way into the marketplace.  Yaffa refers to it as the “anti-chardonnay rebellion” that is leaving the mass produced white swill and its diabetic higher priced cousins – epitomized by Rombauer and Far Niente – in the dust.

Many Chardonnay drinkers still prefer the less expensive and more accessible white wine.   This is not such a bad thing.  Chardonnay is the gateway drug that pulls wine novices into the world of wine. People who don’t understand wine may start out with the monolithic entry level Chardonnay, but can graduate to the Kistler style or Burgundian, more nuanced wines, and ultimately move into Pinot, and other varietals, gaining true appreciation for wine.  There is a redemption in sight for California Chardonnay, and its drinkers.  We should not underestimate the benefit and beauty of California Chardonnay.

(Yuri Vanetik is a private investor and wine collector.  He resides in Southern California, but travels and tastes wine all over the world.)

In Search of the Best Pinot Noir in California

As wine connoisseurs know, regardless of one’s taste preferences, the most coveted wines in the world hail from the comparatively tiny region in France called Burgundy.  The red wine from Burgundy is made from the notorious and mysterious Pinot Noir grape.  No California Pinot can truly be compared to the most famous Pinot on the planet, Domain Romanee Conti, which is also known as DRC for short  Having said this, DRC, in my opinion, may have a California counterpart – none other than Marcassin.  Marcassin, which means young wild boar in French, is arguably the most coveted and most expensive New World Pinot Noir.  However, before we get to the story of how Marcassin came about, we ought to take a brief survey of what Pinot Noir is all about.

Pinot’s New World (as opposed to “Old World” wines such as those hailing from Europe) resurrection may have been triggered by thecultish 2004 film Sideways, where the film’s protagonist, Miles, extols the virtues of the Pinot Noir grape, as he deals with personal and professional challenges while wine tasting around Santa Barbara, California.  Pinot Noir wines are generally paler in color than other red wines.  They are often referred to as translucent and their flavors are more subtle than the typical cabs or merlots, or any other reds.
The Pinot Noir grape itself is weak and fickle; it struggles and suffers from a variety of ailments, and its genetic makeup causes it to be highly susceptible to mutation.   Despite the difficulty in growing the Pinot grape, prices for a bottle of Pinot Noir are generally more than a similar quality red wine from other grapes.  Typical Pinot Noir taste is cranberry, cherry, raspberry, vanilla, clove, licorice, mushroom, wet leaves, tobacco, cola, and caramel.  It is often considered a wine suitable for virtually any food, but many purists would submit that the best Pinot should be consumed on its own…or with very lightly flavored foods, such as Gruyere de Comte cheese.
Unlike stoical Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot is, indeed, temperamental and oscillates from perfection to disappointments.   As perhaps the most fickle grape, Pinot can have a range of flavors depending on the region that it is from, how it is produced, and how it is stored.  The wine’s vintage also matters, of course  In Burgundy, the Pinot Noir wine is typically herbaceous with aromas of earth, mushrooms, wet leaves, with notes of roses, fresh cherries, and various light floral hints.  As with cabs and other wines, California Pinots are bigger than those of the Old World.  They are fruit forward, offering flavors of sweet black cherry, raspberry, with secondary aromas of vanilla, clove, and caramel – just to name a few.  Incidentally, Oregon Pinots are lighter and more tart with flavors of cranberry and truffle mushroom.   Oregon Pinots are considered more austere than those from California.

Having tasted many of California’s high scoring Pinots, I have settled on Marcassin as the best expression of Pinot. It just so happens that Marcassin is also the rarest and the most expensive of California’s top Pinot Noirs.  
 Like most rare and expensive wines, Marcassin is often criticized as overrated and overpriced.  There is often some truth to this blanket criticism when it comes to any high scoring and tightly allocated wine made by a famous wine maker – regardless of whether they are the First Growths from Bordeaux or hyped up “Cult” wines from Napa.   I would agree thatMarcassin may be at times only marginally better than the runner ups, which I believe to be Pinots from Sea SmokeKistlerPeter Michael, and Aubert.   However, this marginal difference is what sets Marcassin apart.  Great wine often dwells on subtle differences and refinement.
Getting on the allocation list at Sea Smoke isn’t as difficult today as it once was.  Sea Smoke’s wines , (“Southing,” “Botella” or “Ten”)– are rich and concentrated, lacking the refinement of Marcassin. Viticulturist Mark Aubert has worked at Peter Michael and alongsideHelen Turley, but he is best known for his work with the producers of the extraordinarily expensive Napa Cabs: Colgin and Bryant Family. The wait to get on Aubert’s mailing allocation list is alsolong.  Peter Michael makes a great Pinot, but is best known for its dainty, Burgundy-styled Chardonnays, which have price tags similar to top-tier Burgundies.  Some of the lesser expensive and more accessible California Pinots worth drinking are Kosta Browne, Lynmar, Pahlmeyer, Rochioli, Skywalker, Williams Selyem.
These wonderful California Pinots are significantly less expensive per bottle, but as I pointed out, the so-called “marginal difference” in taste and character is actually substantial in the sense that it truly matters and sets Marcassin apart from other top tier California Pinots.  Price and value become somewhat relative when we look at top wines from Burgundy.  The restaurant retail for a bottle of Marcassin is a fraction of what you would expect to pay for a rare Burgundy.
High profile California winemaker, Helen Turley, made Marcassin into California’s first highly allocated and truly expensive Pinot Noir.  Even after the 2008 market collapse, the Marcassin mailing list is not easy to get on, and the secondary market prices for Turley’s Pinot are about $400 to $600 per bottle, depending on the vintage and where or how the wine is purchased.  Turley was arguably responsible in creating the cult wine phenomenon in California, with highly acclaimed wineries such as Aruajo, Grace Family, Bryant, Colgin, Screaming Eagle, Harlan, and a number of others.  In fact, just as influential in Napa as David Abrue, Turley has been the consulting winemaker for some of the best wineries in the country – Peter Michael Winery, Pahlmeyer, Colgin, Bryant Family, and many others.
Marcassin is Turley’s own label, which she owns in partnership with her viticulturist husband, John Wetlaufer. Together the couple produces just under 3000 cases of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with approximately 80% of the wine sold to the privileged mailing list clients. The waiting list to join the allocation group is long, and is rumored to be near 5000 people.  After 2010, Turley has only produced Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from her estate 20-acre Marcassin Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast which came into full production in 2009.  Prior to that, Marcassin was made at the Martinelli winery in the Russian River Valley.
The winery is very private and is not open to the public. Turley is said to plant her vineyard very densely, severely limit yields. In her winemaking Pinot Noir clusters are de-stemmed, cold soaked with one pump over per day.  Turley uses natural yeasts, mostly new oak, and leaves the wines on the lees after fermentation.  Typically, the wines are aged five years before they are released.  Stylistically, Marcassin is rich and opulent with noticeable sweetness reflecting generous alcohol. Notwithstanding, the wine tends to show more balance than its California competitors.  Marcassin has a reputation for aging beyond what one would expect from California Pinots.

(Yuri Vanetik is a private investor and wine collector based in Southern California.)

USC beats #5 Stanford! Will Orgeron stay on as Head Coach?!

After Stanford’s big victory last week against the #2 ranked Oregon Ducks, conventional wisdom called for the Cardinal players to be worked up for their meeting with the USC Trojans with a Bowl Championship game in sight.  Indeed, Las Vegas oddsmakers gave Stanford the edge in the match with USC this last weekend – by more than a field goal.  But the Trojans pulled an upset and won their fifth game in a row under Interim Head Coach Ed Orgeron, beating Stanford in the final minutes of the game with a 47-yard field goal, 20-17.

Orgeron had been the Trojan’s defensive coach and was hoisted to his position after former head coach Lane Kiffen’s messy dismissal on the tarmac of Los Angeles International Airport after an even messier performance by the Trojans, losing on September 28 to Arizona State, 62-41.  But since then, under Orgeron, the Trojans are 5-1.

Athletic Director Pat Haden, himself a former USC starting Quarterback, is in the process of finding a new Head Coach for USC.  Orgeron, who had a dismal 10-26 record as the top coach at Ole Miss over three seasons, was surely not seen as a top candidate for the job when Kiffen was ousted.   But players have come to like Orgeron’s style, which fits the “USC culture” far better than Kiffen’s.  Orgeron uses positive encouragement, team pride, cheeseburgers and milkshakes to help motivate his players, and at USC that gets results.  Players, fans and alumni have come to love his style, and during the Stanford game the USC rooting section could be seen doing Orgeron-specific cheers during the game, and with much delight.  Simply stated, following a terrible start this year, Ed Orgeron has given USC fans something to cheer about.

Some sports organizations don’t share that enthusiasm.  NBC Sports published a piece on Sunday claiming that USC “is bad at hiring Head Coaches” and strongly suggests that Orgeron is not the right person for the job.  But the colorful, froggy voiced Orgeron has shown a lot of character in helping USC to salvage a good season and get a big win against Stanford.  Orgeron seemed to get a big endorsement after the Stanford game in a tweet from popular former head coach Pete Carroll.  Another big win against nationally ranked rival UCLA would make it almost impossible for Haden to not hire Orgeron, whom we think is just starting a new historic run for the Trojans.




Stanford Stands Out, Beats Oregon 2nd Year in a Row

Stanford beat the #2 nationally ranked Oregon Ducks Thursday night at home in Palo Alto with unexpected ease for the first three quarters, and staved off a late fourth quarter resurgence by Oregon to win 26-20.  Observers now say that Oregon’s hopes for the national championship in college football are dashed, and that the #5 ranked Cardinal, who have lost only one odd-ball game to Utah, will now lead the PAC-12 North division and probably go to the Rose Bowl.  In fact, if one or two other top teams stumble, Stanford may now have a real shot to play in the BCS championship game.

Stanford running back Tyler Gafney ran for a solid 157 yards in the game, and Stanford, to many college football observers surprise, looked like the more powerful and better conditioned team in much of the match.  Quarterback Kevin Hogan ran for a touchdown and did not throw an interception or fumble – his performance was close to flawless.

Marcus Mariota, Oregon’s Heisman trophy candidate this year, was 20-34 in passing connections and after a poor start, threw two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter.


California Cult Wines: Why Should We Care?

As the name suggests, “cult wine” is a somewhat opaque reference to a group of wineries in California that have a strong (almost a pseudo-religious) following among wine enthusiasts and collectors.  The dynamics of this cult oeno-worship are such that the typically very small supply is faced with a high demand.  At that point, economics kick in, and combined with the psychology of coveting that which is difficult to obtain, a cult wine is born.  In less hyperbolic terms, California cult wines are generally Napa wines that have the following characteristics:

1. Very small production;

2. A famous or (at least) a highly respected local wine-maker;

3. Very high scores from established critics – particularly Robert Parker;

4. High prices (approx. “retail” of $300 to $1000+ per bottle);

5. Sales through mailing lists that are preceded by waiting periods on a waiting list, with occasionally targeted small allocations to Michelin-starred restaurants and highly regarded charity auctions.

There are no absolute lines here, other than small production, great reviews, and vertiginous prices. Ultimately, cult wines are a marketing marriage of quality and branding.  There are many self proclaimed California cult wines, and so-called emerging cult wines… There is no absolute consensus and no actual classification as that in Bordeaux in 1855 establishing a rigid hierarchy. Notwithstanding, many would agree that the following wineries produce cult wines:

Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Grace Family, Colgin, Bryant, Aruajo, Sin Qua Non, Dalle Valle Maya, and perhaps a relative newcomer – Scarecrow.

The “second tier” of what might be considered a California Cult wine (but is up for debate) casts a much wider net, and might be comprised of such wines as: Hundred Acre, Verite, Abrue, Marcassin, Kapcsandy, Dana Estates, Levy & McClellan, Dunn, Ovid, Schrader, Saxum, and probably a number of others.  Some industry veterans explain that the original “cult” wines was Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, and indeed, Heitz Martha’s Vinyard from 1974 is epic, and in my opinion transcends the cult label, as arguably the most important wine ever to be produced in U.S.  It is only possible rival in terms of rarity and prestige might be the first bottling of Screaming Eagle in 1992.

Cult wines are often seen as trophy wines to be collected, shown off, or put down in private cellars or storage facilities with an eye for future resale as an investment (an alternative asset class).  Unfortunately, as “investors” in California cult wines have learned during the recent economic crisis, the mythical mailing lists wilted away, and prices on most of the California cult wines dropped off – often even below the mailing list prices. Elin McCoy, writing for Bloomberg, points this out in her article, Cult Wine Crowd Drops Off Elite Mailing Lists with $350 cabs. “On wine Web site bulletin boards, collectors are trading tales of paring their lists. One planned to purchase from only three of the seven in-demand wineries whose mailing-list offers he received last month. Others are splitting their allocations,” she writes.

The emergence of the cult movement coincided with trends in the 1990s towards riper fruit and wines with bigger and longer fruit finish.  This was what presumably what earned high scores from the Warren Buffett of Wine – Robert Parker.  These wines are generally very expensive and with tiny production (often fewer than 600 cases per year) often commanded even several times their mailing list “release price” in the secondary market (i.e. speculators, auctions, restaurants).  This market crashed around 2008/2009.  Moreover, it has not come back, and it unlikely will to the same extent.  The three possible exceptions might be Screaming Eagle and to some extent Bill Harlan’s marquee wine, Harlan out of Napa.  The other wine that weathered the cult crash is Manfred Krankle’s Sin Quo Non, a strange brew born out of a barn-like winery with weird and sometimes risqué hand drawn labels, and an uber concentrated taste that drives the Francophile purists crazy.  It is hard to predict the future of these three cult survivors, and if I had to bet, I would probably pick Screaming Eagle as the only one that would at least maintain value.

The critics of California cult wines have a great deal to say, and they have been saying for a long time – even before the cult wine mystique was shattered by the economy.  There are two, none mutually exclusive positions.  The first considers California cult designation elitist, and judges the distribution methods and attitudes as undeservingly elitist.  The underlying notion is that great wine should not be treated as a material obsession.  The second view comes from serious wine collectors and wine “purists”.  These are typically collectors of French wines – mostly Bordeaux and Burgundy.  They claim that California cult wines have no history, no mystique of French terroir, and that they are over-engineered, relying on clever marketing to earn their status and their coveted 100 points from Parker.

It is true that the best vintages of top Bordeaux and Burgundy stood up to economic downturns better than high priced California or other elite new world wines.  The best Burgundy wine has continued to increase in value, and may claim the investment wine status even more so than its much bigger neighbor, Bordeaux.  Regardless, California cult wines or those that claim to be the new cults are generally great wines, assuming you like California wine.  I believe that many could age longer than 10 years, but most of them are not an investment.  Ergo, California cult wines are more for drinking, and should be enjoyed just as many other attributes of California.

(Yuri Vanetik is a private investor, philanthropist, and wine collector.  He resides in Southern California, and occasionally writes about wine, politics, and the economy.)

EBay can turn a distant World Series memory to cash

IMG_1166I was doing a little “spring cleaning” recently, sending some old, useless files to the trash, when I discovered two bright yellow and green ticket stubs for the seventh and final game of the baseball World Series in 1973.  The game was played on October 21st, 1973 during the day at the Coliseum in Oakland, between the A’s and the New York Mets.  Gazing at the tickets I realized I was there, almost forty years ago.

Aided with a little internet research, I re-lived the thrill of attending a World Series and in the Bay Area, let alone a decisive game.  Oakland won the game 5-2 and Reggie Jackson hit a 2-run homer.  Ken Holtzman was the winning pitcher for the A’s, and he even hit a double and scored in the third inning.  (Though the “Designated Hitter” rule had just been adopted for American League teams in 1973, the rule did not apply to World Series games until 1976.)  And the tickets caused me to think of Game 1 of that same series, also played in Oakland and which I attended, where I saw my idol Willie Mays, by then a Met and in his final season, make his last start ever and get his final hit in Major League Baseball, a single.  I thought it was great that Mays came back to the Bay Area as a Met, where he had played so long for the San Francisco Giants, to get his final hit before a sympathetic Oakland crowd, in a World Series no less.  Seeing “Mr. October,” Reggie Jackson, live up to his reputation with his Game 7 home run was equally a thrill.  I thought fondly of my Dad, now long departed, who I attended Game 7 with.

The memory of that series and especially attending Game 7 is a treasure to me.  I wanted to keep the memory.  But I also needed to get back to reality and clean out my files.  I decided that in this digital world, that I could best keep the memory of the game by putting a picture of the tickets in my iPhoto library on iCloud, where I could have access to them anytime, anywhere.  Thus I could send the old stubs to the trash pile.

Then it occurred me.  Maybe they were worth sharing with someone else out there.

I am not a big Ebay person but I do have an account and occasionally will go on-line to buy a knick-knack.  For example, not too long ago I got a really good deal on a special Lalique crystal sparrow that completed a set of four.  I bought a perfect piece on Ebay for about 20% the retail value.  I had never really used Ebay to sell anything, but thought, well, maybe there is someone out there that might get a kick out of these old tickets and have their own treasured memory.

So I posted the old stubs on Ebay for a seven-day auction.  The initial price was set at $1.99.  Over the weekend, the auction ended and to my surprise the old stubs sold for $37.66.  And buyer is paying the postage.  The face value of the tickets in 1973 was $30 ($15 each).  But today, forty years later, the value of the used ticket stubs on Ebay exceeds the cost of the tickets themselves.

Not everything that has a memory attached to it yields much interest on Ebay.  I have a 1,000 Russian Ruble banknote dated 1917, the year of the two Russian revolutions, but learned there are plenty of those types of items on Ebay that don’t really get any bids.  Perhaps the memories associated with 1917 in Russia aren’t good ones, at least good enough to cause much interest in the old, worthless Imperial currency.  A 1953 series $2 bill really isn’t worth much more than $2 on Ebay.

But a Bay Area World Series is surely different.  I hope my old World Series ticket stubs might similarly stir fond memories in their new owner, who might also have the space and knowledge to display and enjoy them for the history they represent.  And I’ll take a look at a picture of them every now and then in my photo library.

And now forty years later, the Oakland A’s, still playing in the very same stadium, are battling for first place in the American League West and perhaps yet another World Series bid.  I really hope the A’s can bring another World Series to California.  Then the cycle of such memory building can start all over again.  And my advice to any young people that might attend a next World Series game in Oakland, is cherish your memories, and “hold on to your ticket stubs.”


Vega Sicilia: Spanish Wine of Grand Distinction

Photo courtesy photogism, flickr

Photo courtesy photogism, flickr

In case you did not know, Bodegas Vega Sicilia is a Spanish wine. It is true that wine connoisseurs rarely speak about Spanish wines in the same breath as French or even Italian wines.  However, Vega Sicilia is the Spanish wine game changer – and unlike new world cult wines or even French Garagiste and quasi-Garagiste Pomerol upstarts – has been such for many, many years.  Vega Sicilia has been produced in the Ribera del Duero region of Northern Spain for over 150 years.  It is made primarily from tempranillo grapes, which are typically blended with cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and malbec. Tempranillo is a thick-skinned grape that ripens early (the word temprano means “early”) and has power and concentration with alcohol levels between 13.5 and 14 percent. The Vega Sicilia wine ages extremely well, and is not readily available due to high demand and small production.

Many wine authorities consider Vega Sicilia to be one of the most glorious wines that hails from Europe or the “Old World” as it is often referred to in among wine enthusiasts to contrast wine that are made in US or Australia – the “New World wines”.  Prominent wine critics believe that, at its best, Vega Sicilia transcends the paradigm of Spanish wines, and rivals the greatest Bordeaux and Burgundy wine.  This is not to say that the First Growth wines of the Bordeaux or the Nuevo Reich Petrus or the Garagiste leader, Le Pin don’t represent the venerated old world wine-making skills .  They do.   It is simply that arguably few can match the historical prestige of Vega Sicilia.

Even if you are not a fan of Spanish wine, you may have heard of Vega Sicilia, and if you tasted it, you may have fallen in love with this truly noble wine.  Its comparables may be the great vintages of the famous First Growths of Bordeaux.   It should be no surprise that behind many great wines lies a clever marketing story.  This is particularly true of some well regarded California wines.  This is not the case with Vega Sicilia.  Its winery is located in Valbuena de Duero. Its important history was not planned by high-paid wine or business consultants; it was not engineered by celebrity winemakers or erected by Wall Street egos.  It was made by history itself, with help from tradition and dedication.  It was made from ultra low yields and wine making that pays much attention to details.

Many believe its name refers to Saint Cecilia, venerated throughout Spain, explains John Mariani , who writes about wine for Bloomberg’s arts and culture section[I]. Although the exact origin of the name is not known, the word Vega refers to the green vegetation that grows along the riverbank of the Duero, and Saint Sicilia, is the patron Saint of musicians.  However, how the name came about remains a mystery.

The winery was founded by Don Eloy Lacanda y Chaves in 1864.  He brought French varietals like cabernet sauvignon and merlot to Spain’s wine region that became home to Vega Sicilia.  The story of this wine dates to the early to mid 1800s.  In 1848 a Basque landowner, Don Toribio Lecanda, met the bankrupt Marques de Valbuena and bought from him a 2,000 hectare estate, the Pago de la Vega Santa Cecilia y Carrascal.  At some point early on, the name was reduced to Vega Sicilia. For the first 16 years, the land was used for agriculture, until Toribio’s son, Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves, founded the winery in 1864.  From Monsieur Beguerié in Bordeaux he bought 18,000 young vines of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, Malbec, Merlot and Pinot Noir. They may have made some wine at that stage, but most of the production went into brandy and ratafia.

In due course Don Eloy went bust and the estate passed to the Herrero family, and another Basque, Domingo Garramiola Txomin, who had trained as a winemaker at the Haro Oenological Centre. At first most of the wine was sold in bulk and – presumably – passed off as Rioja. When the Rioja vineyards had recovered from Phylloxera in 1915, Garramiola turned to making estate bottled wine. Initially this wasn’t a commercial venture, but was given away to aristocratic friends and acquaintances of the Herrero family. The quality of these wines was obviously not an issue: the 1917 and 1918 wines won prizes at the World Fair in Barcelona in 1929, an achievement still celebrated on the labels of Vega Sicilia’s Unico – the rarest and grandest rendition of the wine.

According to Julian Jeffs in Classic Wines of Spain, the winery changed hands in 1952, and again in 1966.  The next major change was not until 1982, when the Denominacion de Origen Ribera del Duero was established. This move meant that Unico (and the other wines) was no longer classified as a “simple” table wine. At the same time, the Alvarez family bought Vega Sicilia, and began to modernize and expand, a process which has continued, including the creation of new estates: Bodegas Alion in 1992, Bodegas Alquiriz (in Toro) in 2001, and Tokaj Oremus in Hungary, founded in 1993.  Ultimately, from about 1915 through 1980s was the sole beacon of consistent high quality in Ribera del Duero, and arguably in Spain.

The wine takes time to mature, and that is why it is often not released for at least 10 years after production.  “The rare wines of the Vegas Sicilia winery reach their peak after decades – if you can get them,” writes Stan Sesser for the Wall Street Journal, in his piece, “Spanish Greatness, With a Long Wait”[II].   Herrero family’s wine-maker, Dominigo Garramoila Txomin’s “faith is inspiring. He held an unknown wine back for over 10 years confident that it would eventually change the world. It did. That heritage continues; the 1970 vintage spent over 16 years in barrel before release,” explains Paul Coker, Sommelier at St Regis in Monarch Beach, California.

Vega Sicilia is one of the most highly regarded and unusual wines, claim its quasi-fanatical followers world over. Of its two top labels, called Unico and Unico Especial, the first is released only after aging for at least a decade in barrels and bottles, compared with three years for the best wines from Bordeaux. The second, Especial, is a blend of grapes harvested in three different years, a rarity in the world of red wine, so the bottle doesn’t have a vintage date on it. And if Vega Sicilia’s winemaker is dissatisfied with the quality of the harvest in any year, the winery will refuse to produce a single bottle of Unico. This has happened four times in the last two decades: 1992, 1993, 1997 and 2001, points out Sesser.  Less than 7,000 cases of Unico are produced each year, and only about 10 percent of the production enters the U.S.  Paul Coker further distinguishes, Vega Sicilia by pointing out that, “unlike most top estates, Vega Sicilia will never sell off its wine to lesser estates. If the wine doesn’t go into Vega Sicilia, maybe it goes into their Valbuena (one of the greatest Reservas of the Ribera.) If it isn’t great enough for Valbuena, it is completely distilled into neutral grape spirit and made into brandy.”

Ultimately, Vega Sicilia is a true connoisseur’s wine.  Its commercial success is an externality of the implementation of the winery’s creed to patiently produce a special wine in the grandest of European traditions.  “There is no sign at the Vega Sicilia winery and no tasting room, and anyone uninvited who knocks at the door will be turned away. Waving a wad of money to buy a bottle of wine will do you no good; nothing at the winery is for sale,” points out Sesser, underscoring that it is no simply a commercial venture, but an artisan’s creation.  “The story of Vega Sicilia is the story of Spanish wines: a beautiful dichotomy of respect for heritage and a belief in greatness obtainable through innovation,” posits Coker, summing up the essence of this great European wine.   The faith in the future continues today with an oak forest that has been planted on the estate. When ready, this will allow Vega Sicilia to produce their own corks to prevent any outside influence that could compromise quality.

(Yuri Vanetik is a wine collector who lives in Southern California.)

[I] Mariani, John, “Spain’s Vega Sicilia Holds Its Own Against Bordeaux Wines,” May 3, 2013, Bloomberg.

[II] Sesser, Stan, “Spanish Greatness, With a Long Wait”, February 20, 2010, Wall Street Journal

Yasiel Puig’s Overnight Success and All-Star Nomination

yasiel puig

If you don’t follow baseball, you may be unaware of the controversy simmering around Dodgers rookie Yasiel Puig.  He came up from the minors less than two months ago, has played on a level comparable only to that of the early

Joe DiMaggio, and has singlehandedly (okay, with both hands) lifted the Dodgers from the ignominy of overpaid underperformer status into credible pennant contenders.  Fans nationwide gleefully wrote him onto the All-Star team by online ballot.

Puig has played fewer than 40 games in the Major Leagues.  The Dodgers, who had a lot of money, now have a lot less, because they agreed to pay him $42 million over seven years.

Old school baseball players and their managers take offense to the All-Star designation for a player who has barely gotten his uniform sweaty.  But the people want Puig, and Puig they shall have, when the All-Star Game takes place in New York next week.

Baseball traditionalists believe that All-Star status is something one earns over time.  Casual fans couldn’t care less about a player’s body of work; they’re just interested in stars, which Puig, at least for the short term, now is.  Sports talk radio commentators recognize that baseball has a phenomenon in Puig and that the All-Star game is a marketing showcase.  Failing to include Puig, therefore, would be an unpardonable offense.

Puig had the good fortune to come of age in the age of American Idol, when you can become a star literally overnight.  You don’t have to spend years paying dues; you just go viral.   Consider the difference between yesterday’s Frank Sinatra and today’s Psy.  Sinatra toured with big bands for years before he hit; Psy, the Korean voice of Gangnam Style (two billion YouTube hits and counting) became a planetary legend with one video.  If extraterrestrials exist, they are probably on Alpha Centauri doing the horse dance and singing, “Hey, sexy lady!”

And so it is in sports.  LeBron got his $60 million deal with Nike before he stepped on an NBA court.  Andrew Luck signed to quarterback the Indianapolis Colts for $22 million prior to throwing a single NFL pass.  And now Yasiel Puig has parlayed eight undeniably great weeks into eight figures.

The veteran players may or may not begrudge Puig the money; they definitely resent his sudden All-Star status.  That’s because they come from a world where what you do over a long period of time defines who you are.  Puig, baseball’s flavor of the month, leaves a sour taste in their mouths.

In baseball, hitters and pitchers “solve” one another.  Meaning that tendencies are analyzed and baseball experts do everything that can to drag outliers back to the mean.  In the sport’s language, the goal is to create a “book” on a player: identify his weaknesses and capitalize on them.  The fastball hitter may have trouble with a slider; a particular pitcher may struggle to keep the ball down.  Once word gets out, it’s much harder for a phenom to keep up that initial momentum.

This may or may not happen with Puig.  He could be the next Henry Aaron.  Or not.   He could also run into serious trouble.  If you listened to sports talk radio the week before the Dodgers elevated Puig to the majors, the topic was the fact that he had enormous trouble coping with authority.  Not quite “cancer in the clubhouse” material, but the verdict among baseball men was that he was too immature to handle the pressures of the big leagues.

So now they’re putting him front and center at the All-Star Game.

There’s something to be said for the old way of doing things, where you had to earn your stripes, pay your dues, work your way to the top.  That way allows people to make their mistakes in private, before all eyes are upon them.  Those of us who are a little older and come from that world are grateful that YouTube didn’t exist when we were in our twenties or Facebook when we were in our teens.  We’re very happy, thank you, that the mistakes we made in our callow years aren’t on our permanent technological record.

I have no problem with Puig playing in the All-Star Game; he’s definitely a star and baseball is the world’s worst sport at marketing itself.  We’ve just seen what happens to people, especially those in the public eye, who receive too much too soon.  From Aaron Hernandez (New England Patriot accused of homicide) to Lindsey Lohan (actress accused of everything), it often turns out that sudden success is no gift from the gods.

I wish Yasiel Puig the greatest of success, personally and professionally, not that he’s ever heard of me or cares about receiving my blessing.  I want him to stay on the baseball diamond and not the police blotter and enjoy his newfound celebrity.

It used to be that it took ten years to become an overnight success.  In today’s world, it can take ten years to get over having been one.

(New York Times best selling author Michael Levin runs, America’s leading provider of ghostwritten books.)

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