Back in the 1980s, Vogue published a monthly column by Martin Gersh. A former high-school math teacher whose wife, Gloria, was the magazine’s photography editor, Gersh had developed his own legend around decanting wine. One of his favorite wines, Mayacamas Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, was noted at the time for being one of the most tannic and austere in Napa Valley. Once the wine had been gershed, however, its beauty came into focus and its age-defying structure became clear.
As a young editor, I was fascinated by Gersh’s theory and asked him to contribute to Wine & Spirits. He wrote a series of essays predicting the longevity of a wine by measuring the number of hours it needed in a decanter before the tannins softened and the fruit moved to the center. Long aeration did tend to suppress most wines’ aromas, a definite downside, unless, like Gersh, you were older, your sense of smell was diminished and your pleasure in wine derived more from the texture than the scent. But Martin was on to something.
Over the years, as our tasting process developed at W&S, we began to regularly set aside recommended wines from each panel tasting and consider them again later in the afternoon. Those that showed the most promise, we would consider again the next day, sometimes the following day as well. Aside from the fact that tasting the top wines from a group removes a lot of the nasty distractions, there is no question that considering a wine’s reaction to oxygen has a powerful effect on how our critics rate it.
This is especially true of cabernet-based wines, whether from California or Bordeaux. But the process lends perspective on most any wine’s potential to age. Recently, I was asked to present a seminar on 100-point wines at an event in Espirito Santo, Brazil. The organizers at the Encontro Internacional do Vinho wanted me to explain what would make a wine worthy of such a score.
Though I could share my philosophy of tasting and my own personal history with wines such as Château Latour (which earned the rating for its 2005) or Krug (with a similar rating for its 1996), I wanted to show what set these wines apart. So I paired off these great vintages with lesser vintages and planned to demonstrate how the pairs responded to oxygen. My request made the organizers a little nervous; when I arrived at the remote mountain resort at the foot of Pedra Azul (a vast, naked outcropping of granite and gneiss that rises to 5,976 feet), they had decanted the 2005 and 2000 Latour the day before, but could not convince themselves to decant the Champagne. We opened the Krug, decanted it and poured it back into the bottle, leaving the bottles open for the several hours that remained before the presentation. Then we served each participant a glass of the wine with and without airtime. Later, I was told that several of the participants were suspicious about this abuse of the wine—they were receiving a small allocation of each, and they wanted it to be good. But in the room-temperature glass of relatively flat Krug 1996, they could perceive the layers of flavor and the depth of complexity that was hidden in the cold, freshly opened bubbly. There was no great distance between the cold, fresh 1996 and 1998, but with air, the structural grace of the 1996 became clear.
As for the two Latours, I had tried to hide my disappointment when I tasted them out of open decanters at five in the afternoon, 24 hours after they had been opened and poured. In my instructions, I had tried to be as precise as Martin Gersh, though with my own method: In order to preserve some of the aroma, I prefer that the wine be decanted back into the bottle, leaving room for a little air, then recorked. This slows the aeration, but it tends not to diminish the scent. The aromas on both wines were pretty well shot, but the tannins in the 2005 did show their remarkable freshness. I asked the team to pour the wines back into the bottles, where they rested for three hours before the seminar.
What surprised me was how powerfully and beautifully the aromas came back. Jean-Pascal Lacaze, the winemaker for Domus Aurea in Chile, commented that he preferred the aroma of the 2000 Latour to the 2005 in the samples from freshly opened bottles, but his preference switched to the 2005 in the samples that had received a day of air. Nicolas Joly, who had presented a seminar on biodynamic wines earlier in the day, said the wines, once exposed to air, could not hide behind their makeup.
We could taste the expression of the terroir and the vintage: In 2000, the warmth was there in overtones of prunes and raisins, and a softer structure. In 2005, the freshness carried all the way through the wine, the tannins themselves tasting like deliciously tart black currants, the pure flavor lasting for minutes. I knew Martin would have been pleased that the gospel according to Gersh had arrived in Brazil.
Many contemporary wines are essentially gershed before bottling, which raises significant questions about what makes them great—or worth the ambitious prices they often command. Winemakers have adopted techniques such as “waiting for phenolic maturity” in the grapes and micro-oxygenation to produce wines that are soft and ready to drink on release, but these methods tend to blur the lines between wines from great terroirs and those from lesser sites. Not that it mattered much over the past decade, when the question of terroir in cabernet became less pressing than who was making it. Site-derived character was of less interest when the wines were purchased as rare collectibles that taste delicious on release, or investments that would rest, unopened, as trophies in a cellar.
But now a perfect storm has sucked all the air out of the high-end cabernet market. Wall Streeters, and those who aspired to work there, regularly dined on cabernet and steak. After the banking collapse of 2008, their numbers and their wallets have shrunk. Jon Fredrikson, who tracks the wine market as a consultant at Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates in Woodside, California, notes that even as sales of high-end California cabernet have plummeted, sales of “global cabernet” in US food stores are up, 7.7 percent year to date and 8.1 percent for the 52 weeks ending September 19, 2009. He reports that cabernet is the fastest growing of the major varieties. The challenge, as mentioned to me by a source at a major north coast producer, is that if you spent $70,000 on an acre of land and $50,000 to develop it, you cannot afford to sell cabernet for $20 a bottle.
And that’s what people want at the moment—especially since a lot of $20 cabernet doesn’t taste that different from a lot of $200 cabernet.
There are plenty of California cabernet loyalists, as I found when I asked Gary Vaynerchuk’s audience a Question of the Day on his Wine Library TV show. While many responded that the price-quality ratio was unacceptable, and that they had moved on to cabernet from Washington State or Chile, or to malbec from Argentina, a number said that they continue to look for California cabernet.
Surf City Jay wrote: “Always have, always will. As a person lucky enough to have been born in this great state, buying and drinking its ‘terroir’ is something I treasure and enjoy.” And he’s taking advantage of the discounted prices to buy California cabernets now.
RobRx, another cabernet loyalist, responded with a short essay on cabernet’s contemporary pricing malaise. He notes how prices shot up in the 1990s, and how styles changed: “California cabernets are now out of reach for the average person,” he writes, and continues that he has read about declining grape prices in Napa and Sonoma. “I am hopeful that a great winemaker will get together with some of those lower-priced purchased grapes and create an affordable Napa cabernet again. The demand would be there if the economics would allow for the creation of a great cabernet at, say, $37.95. Folks would buy it by the case.”
Offline, I contacted George Sape, a New York lawyer and noted collector of California wines. In fact, he’s been actively buying wine since 1966, and limits his cellar to California reds and French wines. He used to focus on cabernet, he says, but over the past five years, half of his California purchases are now pinot noir.
“For cabernet,” he says, “I used to be relatively broad-based. I wouldn’t jump into the cults right away, but I was on the list for Colgin as soon as the Herb Lamb came out; I have early releases of Screaming Eagle, Araujo and Hillside Select. I have stopped buying those wines in recent years, since the jump in prices. Screaming Eagle went from $250 a bottle to $1,200 in three years. The acceleration in price got very steep very quickly for the top of the food chain in California.
“So I’ve changed my buying pattern a little. I started reading and checking where the winemakers were that I liked. I’ve stuck with Chateau Montelena, Shafer Hillside Select and Caymus Special Select. They’ve increased but not as outrageously as some. And I have every vintage of Dominus made. The newer vintages in particular have been fabulous. For the price, it’s one of the greatest wines you can buy in California.
“I find that any wine that can match with roast chicken with rosemary—if you have a cabernet that doesn’t kill the chicken in your mouth—that’s a perfect cabernet. Anyone can produce a cabernet that will go with barbecue. It’s another thing to have a wine that has subtlety. That’s why Dominus is almost the perfect California cabernet—high quality, balanced, integrated, alcohol within the high 13s and low 14s, not overbearing, and it marries with a lot of different food. Try doing that with Bond—I like the wine, but it would crush a roast chicken.”
Dominus, in fact, is a wine that Martin Gersh had appreciated as well. It responds slowly and quite beautifully to air. Fortunately, its makers are well financed and are likely to weather what Fredrikson describes as the “ugliest times since the 1980s.” He says the current market retrenchment is not based on an oversupply of high-end Napa Valley cabernet. “We have a radical imbalance due to a lack of demand. So if [wineries] are able to survive, the long-term picture looks reasonable. There’s no more planting area and there are barriers to entry.” After the last decade, he says, most wineries are in healthy financial condition, without a lot of leverage. And they have, he believes, a great 2007 vintage to sell.
Perhaps they will take a moment to breathe, and, might I suggest, to open and gersh the last ten years of their wines. It’s one way to look past the expensive makeup, the incremental new oak and the high-priced consultant, and consider the land and the vine.