Saturday, March 20, 2010

An Exception To Every Rule

“You’ve got to be freaking kidding me” my response like ten years ago after tasting Havens Albarino. The geek side of me was absolutely intrigued by an Alabarino from Napa, the whole “Well that’s kinda cool” deal and the wine was good, not profound but good as is typical of my feeling about Albarino. The thing that had me making the “I’m sorry, are you high?!” face was the price, it would retail for around twenty dollars. “You are aware that you can get like the best….from Spain, for about half that right?” was my crinkled face comment to our sales rep. “Well it costs more to grow it here” our rather Eddie Haskell like sales rep quipped giving my boss the she-doesn’t-get-it face, “Well maybe they shouldn’t then” I snipped while walking away from the tasting table.

That exchange would start a long string of moments much like it, me scrunching up my face and thinking, “Just because you can does not mean you should”. I know there are winemakers that like to play around in the vineyard, grow and produce different things, I get that but I just think they should keep a couple of things in mind not the least of which is, “Are they making this wine as good or better somewhere else for less money?” if the answer is yes than maybe keeping it in the wineries tasting room is the best option. In the tasting room you have an audience that is there to taste your wines and having an Arneis or whatever is wicked cool. You can charge $20.00 and sell it all day but as a retailer, when someone asks me for the best Albarino I’m taking them to the best and I’m sorry more often than not it aint from Napa.

Now this is not me railing against domestic wines, I am not talking about Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah or any of the many varieties that thrive here in California. Those wines have a place here and a market that is thirsty for them but if you are going to grow varieties that much of the market knows nothing about, either price it accordingly or make it exceptional. The “Oh that’s cool” curiosity thing is only sustainable for so long. Chenin Blanc is a great example, the best Chenin hands-down comes from the Loire and it seems like growers in California figured that out and either ripped up their Chenin and planted Chardonnay or kept the price equal to what was in the bottle….we can sell a tasty little under $15.00 Chenin from California all day long, but price it at $20.00 and off to France we go. Like I said, “Are they making this as good or better for less money?”

Just to show I am all fair and junk I also point the same knock-it-off finger at the Old World, get all pissy with them as well but the one thing they are doing right is making it cheap. Sure they are cranking out a crap load of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (labeled as such) from the Languedoc but at least they are charging what they are worth…like $10.00. When someone comes at me with a “Ultra Premium” (and a quick word about that stupid term…it sounds like gasoline or maxi pads when you say that) bottling of Languedoc Pinot Noir….which means oaked to hell and sappy AND sporting an over $20.00 price tag I give them the same, “Are you high?!” face.

As with any rule there are exceptions. I have recently fallen in love with the wines from the Palmina Winery in Lompoc and I admit they are making wines that I would normally scrunch my face at, “Italian varieties grown in Lompoc?! What the hell?!” but here’s the thing….they are making them so freaking well and at very fair prices. The wines are so pure and fresh tasting, they haven’t been “Ultra Premiumed” (or maxi padded) and I truly believe their Dolcetto is on par with anything coming from Italy….and for about the same price, so very fair and I can easily recommend them as I really do find them, well exceptional.

Now aside from Italian grapes being grown in California the other panty twister for me has been Chardonnay grown in Italy, ugh why bother? Sure you can but….damn, most of it is insipid at best and usually kind of pricy. I mean if I want to spend $30.00 on a Chardonnay there are any number of Chablis or Macon I can choose from and for my customers I either go there or to California, the wines just offer more richness and complexity….you know the stuff that you expect to find in Chardonnay. If you just want a light white then Italy has quite a few other options but Chardonnay? Pass. That was until….the exception.

“Damn, that smells like Puligny-Montrachet” I was floored, even more stunned three days later when I retasted the open bottle and the wine seemed to be even fleshier, sexier, rounder and giving up even more for me to wrap my lips around. Never thought I would say this but this $33.00 Italian Chardonnay is one hell of a bargain.

2007 Vie di Romans Ciampagnis Vieris Chardonnay, ($32.99) is a wine that Randy opened when we were trying to find a partner for Piave, a cheese that was proving difficult to pair….a wine that knocked me on my ass, (and off my soap box might I add) and haunted me for days, still haunts me really. This is the kind of wine that scares the shit out of a white Burgundy buyer and finds me split in two when helping a customer. Do I kill a $50.00 Burgundy sale by introducing my French wine lovers to this brilliant Italian wine? Kinda have to, they have to taste it…feel it spread across their palate, taste the roasted pears, spice and toasted nuts. Let the long, sumptuous, caramel rich finish linger upon their palate and have them say, “Fuck, this is from Italy?” Not just an exception, truly exceptional.


Arthur said...

There is a good deal of Albarino (fair to very good quality) in the Central Coast. The pricing, for the most part, seems to be in line with the Havens.

Thomas said...

I love it when the kids start to grow up and learn that nothing is certain--and that each wine must be treated as an individual.

Makes me feel like I can leave now and not worry about the legacy...if I had a legacy, of course.

John M. Kelly said...

Ah, Havens. What a shame. This is a story I know well, and a sad one. I lived with Michael and Kathie Havens through my first vintage in Napa, back in 1988 and we have stayed in touch ever since. Their Albarino story is that they were travelling in Galicia and fell in love with the wines. I believe they imported and certified budwood, and replanted some of their own vineyard (Syrah or Merlot) to a couple of acres of the grape. Michael wasn't high when he decided to do this - he thinks things through carefully and this was not an inexpensive proposition.

The first time I tasted this wine I was taking friends on a tour. We stopped in to Havens place on Hoffman Lane (on Hwy 29 sort of west of Trefethen). Michael was making one of the few California Merlots I could stomach, and I knew he had been working with micro-ox on his Syrah and wanted to see how that was going.

I was not expecting the Albarino. It blew me away with its unctuous depth - clearly a California adaptation of the lighter and simpler Portuguese and Spanish iterations of the varietal wine. I understood at the time he was doing a very slow (like, 3 month) very cold fermentation of the juice to maximize the aromaticity of the wine. Like Sam, I thought the price was crazy but I bought a couple cases anyway.

But alas, Havens is no more. I'll leave it to others to recount (or research) the tortured story of Michael leaving the winery he created. Last year the winery and vineyard, the inventory, and the brand were for sale together or separately - probably one or more have found buyers since, but I'm not aware of it.

So it is unlikely we will ever see another "Havens" Albarino, but if we do it will not be the same. As Arthur points out, the grape is more widely planted in CA now but it will be decades before we figure out where it is best planted and how to make the most locally charactersitic wine out of it. If I had all the money and time in the world I would love to see how the grape does in the pocket of decomposed schist at the north corner of Larkmead and Silverado Trail, just south of Three Palms Vineyard.

Sam, you have piqued my interest with the Italian Chardonnay.

Annie Browne said...

Sam lady, I'm gonna have to get a bottle of that Eye-tallion Chardonnay now! Love your description and feeling like I must have it. Speaking of Albarino, there are a couple of winemakers in the Paso Robles area doing pretty good ones - Steve from Silver Horse rocks one, and Amy Butler makes a vino verde style albarino called Brouhaha. That girl can make some wine, by the way!!!
Anyhooo, thanks for the cool visuals and descriptions. You rock! \m/

Samantha Dugan said...

Now that doesn't sound like much but like I said, 10 years ago...that was a lot for an Alabarino.

Sweetheart, I know nothing is certain....I have been working retail 14 years, teaches you quite a bit. I do take each wine on its own merit but like I said, "More often than not...." but don't leave! I still have so much to learn plus...I would miss you.

When I was writing this I was like, "Hmmmm wonder if this is gonna rub John the wrong way". I thought the wine was quite nice but could not shake the fact that it was twice the price and frankly, not twice the wine. I will admit that I have not had it since that afternoon like a million years ago but that moment stuck with me all these years. I am sorry to hear about the winery and your friends though, as much as that one thing bugged me I never wished ill on anyone. Thanks for sharing that story and seriously...that Chardonnay is wicked delicious.


Girlie you will not be disappointed, the wine is simply stunning. Not sure about the whole "rocking" bid-ness but I have been known to work a rather naughty spin of the hips...does that count?

Michael Hughes said...

I love your skewering of "Ultra Premium"! That term is such a crock of shit.

I wish I could get my hands on some Palmina in my poor little B-Market Memphis. Someday maybe.

As for the Vie di Romans I totally fell for their wines at the Vin DiVino trade show a couple years ago. Damn if I don't kick myself for not getting them.

Thomas said...


I know--was only tweaking you.

Samantha Dugan said...


You sly furry thing you....worked.

Thomas said...


Difficult to get across tongue-in-cheek without having a personal relationship with someone or without the use of those emoticon thingies.

Charlie Olken said...

Note to John K.

Why would you want to plant Albarino in any place other than somewhere cold and wet and hilly like Galicia?

The lightness, the delicacy of the Iberian versions, it seems to me, would be better suited to land very near the Pacific Ocean, land that is so cold and foggy that it could not ever grow even Chardonnay and Pinot Noir the way that most of Freestone is able to do.

Just speculation on my part. What your take?

Charlie Olken said...


There are lots of exceptions to the rule, especially when the rule is the so-called "common wisdom".

Argentine Malbec, now so overhyped that it has become a commodity, was one of those finds back not so long ago.

I am not all that fond of Nero D'Avola from Sicily, but some of the reds from the slopes of Mount Etna defy logic. Why are they so supple, velvety, long-aging and unknown?

It is easy to like wine that is popular--Malbec from A., Pinot Grigio (Italian for money--according to one famous, now retired blogger), Gruner Veltliner.

These varieties qualify for the Yogi Berra Wine Award. They are like some New York City restaurants--they are so popular that nobody goes there anymore.

Here's to the exceptions. Thanks for bringing some to us.

Today's magic word is: brompuxe, which sounds like something that happens when the bromo seltzer does not work.