Cabernet in Napa, Cabernet in Walla Walla

The following is a slightly edited version of a speech I delivered at the first Celebrate Walla Walla event held the third weekend in June, 2013, comparing cabernet sauvignon in the two regions:

I want to thank the Alliance for having me up here for the weekend, to join with the Celebrate Walla Walla program – which has, so far, been wonderfully diverse and creative. In fact everything’s been great except for the fact the Miami Heat beat the Spurs in Game 7 – but I don’t blame Walla Walla for that. No, that blame falls squarely on the shoulders of Manu Ginobili.

I’ve been asked to speak briefly about Napa and Walla Walla cabernets and blends, a set of wines that constitute some of the most satisfying and celebrated wines in the American repertoire, and the wines most prized in these two places. I think it’s true that Napa put American cabernet-based wines on the map. I also think it’s true that without Napa cabernet, Walla Walla cabernet would not enjoy the success it does today.

So there is a kind of symbiosis between these two places based on the wines that define them, and on the category they share. Comparisons, then, are inevitable.

In the market of course Napa still enjoys the pole position, while Walla Walla, and Washington more generally, is still – even after decades – seen as something of an outlier or an upstart.

Having said that, I think it’s also true that the market is maturing at a geometric pace. American wine drinkers are becoming both more receptive and more adventurous – even cabernet drinkers! – and that inevitably in the course of their maturity they will look beyond Napa for their thrills, which means that Washington will appear on their radar if it hasn’t already as one of those alternatives. In short, the notion of ‘upstart’ will no longer be a valid depiction.

And of course the number of wineries producing cab-based wines in Washington, in Walla Walla, continues to grow. What was once an alternative category is now simply a category, with attributes, shelf space, wine pages and blogospheres it can call its own.

And these attributes help to contribute to a sense of place in Walla Walla, just as similar mechanisms have been in place in Napa. So, to whit, some comparisons.

There are remarkable similarities, and remarkable differences, between the Walla Walla Valley and the Napa Valley.

Both are volcanic in origin though that volcanic origin is quite different in chemistry and expression.

The cumulative degree days in both places are remarkably similar (in the neighborhood of 2,800 to 3,000 degree day units) though of course where those degrees fall within the growing season differs dramatically, leading to very different flavor profiles.

Both enjoy dramatic diurnal shifts, though again the type and nature of those shifts differs, with Napa’s being maritime, and Walla Walla’s more comparable to continental or high desert fluctuations.

Not surprisingly Napa is wetter; on average, it gets 2.5 times the rain as Walla Walla, and so dry farming is a possibility (though rare). Dry farming was thought to be all but impossible in Walla Walla, but I’m hearing that’s no longer the assumption, which is a dramatic development indeed.

Walla Walla has a winter; Napa, not so much.

Finally, there’s location, Walla Walla’s latitude (46 degrees) is much higher than Napa’s (about 38 degrees) leading to greater sunlight hours and shorter autumn days, as well as cooler autumn nights.

By the way I love the fact that we can, in this instance, compare “quantities of light.” There is something so wonderfully ineffable about light that the very notion of trying to describe its qualities seems like folly, doesn’t it? That’s not even getting into the mysteries of its effect on growth, or how a vine responds. I’m looking forward to trying to pin down a few winemakers with that question in the next couple of days.

Nevertheless, the sunlight is one of the great selling points of Walla Walla terroir, and one which those who work beneath its rays rightly flaunt. According to gaisma.com, a website devoted to the world’s sunrises and sets, today – the longest day of the year – Walla Walla will receive one hour more sunlight than St Helena. We have to assume that that difference is profound, even if it is somewhat impossible to quantify.

Okay: Both regions have a history of winegrowing, though I would say that Napa’s is a bit more continuous and longstanding (taking Prohibition into account). There are vineyards planted in Napa that were vineyards in the 1850s. I’m not sure that can be said even about the 1950s here, much beyond the ‘dago red’ plots of the sort that Gary Figgins grew up with on his grandfather’s and uncle’s farms.

One thing that can be said with some certainty: Cabernet Sauvignon is here, in Walla Walla, because of Napa Valley cabernet, to the extent that Gary Figgins, of Leonetti Cellar, and Rick Small, of Woodward Canyon, No’s 1 and 2, probably wouldn’t have been put in mind about cabernet without having tasted some of the early iconic wines of  California. For Rick Small those wines included Stags Leap Wine Cellars early bottlings and a bottle of 1968 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, a wine, says Small, which was “nothing like I’d ever experienced before from America,” and which helped to inspire him to plant cabernet in 1976.

Culture:

So, two cabernet counties, two cabernet countries. Having compared their terroirs, having talked about climate differences, about variations in soil and heat and sunlight, let us add culture to the list of things to compare…and let’s not kid ourselves, there are some significant differences, occasionally profound.

Allow me to start with an offbeat comparison: You might be able to make some interesting inferences and correlations, if you compared the number of pairs of tasseled loafers in the Napa Valley and the number of same in the Walla Walla Valley.

Looked at from this admittedly peculiar angle, you could safely make the assumption that the number of pairs of tasseled loafers in the Napa Valley far exceeds the number found in the Walla Walla Valley.

Why is this important? It’s important because for the last decade or two Napa is no longer merely an agricultural region, it’s more of a lifestyle engine, and that engine is fueled, at least in part by cabernet sauvignon. And, to take this unwieldy metaphor even further, that fuel maintains its potency though the octane numbers it gets from the scores bestowed upon the wines by certain influential critics, to the point where the wine’s actual attributes – what it tastes like, the pleasure it can bestow – are obscured by the critical attitudes.

Napa is a place where winemakers, tourists, wealthy residents and influence peddlers mingle and presumably influence each other. And it is a place where a brand’s success with certain influential critics has created a fierce appetite for parity among its competitors. Suddenly we are a long way from describing an agricultural community, much less a wine. Tasseled loafers matter.

Moreover, Napa’s very geography contributes to this. The region is good sized, but it’s dominated by a single fanning valley that stretches from Calistoga to Carneros, funneling its inhabitants into a small number of valley-floor hamlets, where, like Manhattan, people brush up against one another, moreso than any other wine region in California. I invite you to imagine what it might be like, for example, to be the vineyard neighbor to Bill Harlan or Ann Colgin, or to be within earshot of all of those screaming eagles. Try to imagine the anxiety of influence.

Let’s not forget, after all, that one of the principle elements of terroir is people, and people talk. They talk to each other, they talk to their bosses and their mentors and their students and their peers and their vineyard workers, not to mention their wives and children and their dogs. They talk to their critics. In the case of the latter, there’s ample evidence, in Napa anyway, that they actually believe what those critics say. And what the critics say has, until recently, held more sway than all of the other voices in the valley, and it’s gotten passed around, to bosses and peers and vineyard managers, but also to publicists and marketing executives and promotional entities, and on and on.

The network of communication in the Napa Valley is one of the slickest and most efficient in the world of wine today. The channels of influence are well-established and deep, and, I submit, have contributed mightily to the flavors we taste in the wines there and, more broadly, from California, and on to the rest of the country. It has led to unprecedented success for Napa as a region, but it has also led to a certain homogeneity that has been disheartening to a passionate few who believe there’s strength in the sound of many voices.

Walla Walla has voice, of course. It has a human terroir. But until somewhat recently, the number winemakers here was so small that their influence on each other was, for all intents and purposes, negligible. In 2004 I wrote in Wine & Spirits: “The Walla Walla Valley was designated an AVA in 1983 and then, like a playground waiting for children, it sat for ten years, largely unused.”

The great Johnny Apple reported on the region in 2005 for the New York Times, and had a similar impression:

“It reminded me of St. Helena in the Napa Valley 35 years ago, he wrote, when that town was just emerging as a wine capital, before it was overrun by Silicon Valley zillionaires and tourists on excursions from San Francisco. It seems safe from that fate; the nearest big city, Spokane, 125 miles away, is short of both tourists and zillionaires.”

He may be right about Spokane, but he couldn’t have predicted Seattle, and its zillionaires, would have the influence it seems to enjoy. He certainly wouldn’t have predicted that Seattleites would move here, or take second homes. That Woodinville would become a satellite community – or Waitsburg, for that matter.

All of which is to say that Walla Walla has enough children in its playground to say, emphatically, “Game On!” In 2008 in the Los Angeles Times I described a party at the house of David ‘Merf’ Merfeld, of Northstar Winery, where the kitchen was full of winemakers tasting each other’s wines and comparing wines and sharing wines and spitting into the sink and making observations and in general totally neglecting the bushel of beer on the patio – and I remember thinking at the time, wow, not long ago Walla Walla didn’t even have enough winemakers to fill a kitchen.

So Walla Walla has its quorum. It has winemakers who’ve learned from the land and from each other and shared what they’ve learned and improved. It has homegrown talent and imported talent, like Chris Figgins and Kenny Hart and Norm McKibben and Greg Harringon and Jean Francois Pellet and Christophe Baron, taking what they’ve learned over decades and infusing new projects with this learning, or teaching their assistant winemakers secrets which advance the art, who themselves talk to each other, and push the valley further uphill.

What does all of this have to do with cabernet? Plenty, I’d suggest. Cabernet commands the highest prices in the American wine market, for American wine. It is like the darkest color in the crayon box and we’re all learning still just how to use it and shade with it and create with it, to use it well enough to advance the reputation of the region and the state. In the market these consequences, I submit, are volatile and dire (and to anyone who who would dare dismiss this, I have 2 words for you: American Syrah). Walla Walla and Napa are linked like this – together they’re close on defining a spectrum that hasn’t yet been fixed, but remains stubbornly and thrillingly fluid and vibrant.

And that just might be where the similarities end.

Wine to wine comparisons are somewhat difficult, even contrived; both Napa and Walla Walla have a range of expression derived from high and low elevations, dry and not so dry sites, a myriad of soils and aspects and microclimates. Nevertheless I’m going to try and make a few generalizations about both places to give us a context from which to draw upon for the weekend. They’re not going to get to the heart of every nuance, naturally, but there are some basic points of divergence that are worth establishing.

To this end I opened 6 bottles on Sunday, 3 from Napa (Continuum, Shafer One Point Five, BV George de la Tour), 3 from Walla Walla (Pepper Bridge Cab, L’Ecole No. 41 Perigee, Leonetti Cab), and tasted them over 3 days, side by side, sip for sip. It is a shame we can’t replicate that experiment here – what I’m about to describe would, I think, be self-evident to everyone in the room if we could. But here goes:

Aromas:

In Napa cabernet and cabernet-based wines, the aromatics are always, always, driven by fruit. You could try and convince yourself otherwise, you could try and persuade someone that you’re smelling Rutherford Dust in the wine, for example, or Stags Leap minerality, or oak, of course. But I submit that in most cases you’d be ignoring the obvious in search of what it obscures. In great Napa cabs and even in mediocre Napa cabs, it is the same: fruit gets the discussion started. That fruit of course – purple plum, blackberry, cassis, blueberry, black cherry – is often exuberant, vibrant, sensuous, luxurious, voluptuous – at the very least compelling. You have to work hard not to love it, you have to engage in some sort of “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” gambit just to keep yourself from liking it.

In Walla Walla cabernet the aromatics are no less compelling. But in nearly every wine of quality from the region I’ve dipped my nose into – whether it’s from Pepper Bridge, Seven Hills, the Upland sites, the Rocks – fruit is not the driving force. Oh, there is fruit, and plenty of it (slightly brighter than Napa fruit) but it’s usually bound up with another important element, a savory aromatic component that I have described variously as tobacco leaf, sundried tomato, dried mushroom, cedar, consommé – a leafiness, an umaminess, that delineates all other aromatic components. I bank on this element showing through at least partly in nearly every Walla Walla cab or cab-based blend I try – if I were sitting for the Master Sommelier exam, with six unidentified wines in front of me, this savory note is the marker I’d be looking for.

Despite ample fruit and at times ample oak, that savory element, to me, gives the impression of lightness and lift – admittedly a rather strange impression when one is speaking of cabernet sauvignon – but it’s the sort of contradiction that translates, nearly always, into complexity.

Flavors and Textures:

In Napa the flavors and textures are again defined by fruit, the fruit experience now gauged by another vector: ripeness. The wine will be thought of as plush or silky, but if fruit is absent, it will be missed. In Napa these days it rarely is: There is this wonderfully archaic word that I always think of when I taste a good Napa wine, a wine of typicity. That word is ‘robe.’ It was used in the past to describe color and concentration, but to me the word captures the texture of a Napa wine perfectly, that sense of thickness, plushness, and most of all, comfort. (Napa wine is like a spa day in the glass.) In the most highly regarded wines of the valley, the point of pride is seamlessness, generosity, and completeness. Such attributes aren’t available without structure, of course, but structure is there in the service of fruit. Acidity remains modest, barely perceptible. Like a well-behaved child it’s meant to blend into the background, and not stick out.

The aromatic profile I established about Walla Walla – that savory note – recedes somewhat on the palate of a good cab – that is to say, fruit retakes the stage quite demonstrably again. Usually it is slightly brighter and redder than comparable Napa versions – with those savory elements lurking in the background, supporting, becoming part of the tannic structure of the wine, adding to the experience of red and black fruits. There is also demonstrable acidity in a Walla Walla cab, an edginess, contributes to lift and enlivens the palate on the finish. That edginess also serves to remind that cabernet may be close to its own edge of ripeness here.

Texturally, it’s usually firmer and tighter than a Napa wine; Napa cab tannins are thought of as smooth and polished. I wouldn’t necessarily use either of those words to describe a Walla Walla Cab – those wines are invariably more about firmness and grip. I also can’t help but extrapolate – an impression that’s reinforced by what I see on the hills above Seven Hills – that whenever I taste a Walla Walla cab that somehow I’m tasting the wind. It’s completely textural – a thick-skinned firmness of tannin, upon grapes that are wind-whipped like those windmill blades, creating, you might say, an energy that exists independent of fruit.

Energy is, in fact, is a word that Ken Hart likes to use when he speaks of soil amendments and infusions of nutrients in the soils he tends both off Mill Creek Road and further down-valley. To employ sustainable practices, he says, amounts to putting energy back in the soil. I can’t say whether he’s successful at this, but that energy is a useful word in describing Walla Walla Cab, an attribute frequently finds its way into the glass.

This afternoon we’ll get to taste 3 wines from each valley side by side and I hope that you find some of these observations helpful when you’re doing that. We can continue to speak of the differences then. But for now, I thank you.

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