Jean-Charles Boisset is one of the most passionate of wine lovers, a man who reveres the concept embedded in terroir – the French belief that the locale of a vineyard produces wines that are unique from other areas.
Terroir fully supports the theory that place is vital to understanding fine wines.
Numerous examples of terroir exist, like the way the red wines from France’s Côte de Nuits mostly are darker and weightier than are the subtler reds of the more southerly Burgundy district Côte de Beaune.
Even though both are made entirely from Pinot Noir, the former shouts, “Look at me!” The latter whispers, “I ask nothing except your understanding.”
One aspect of this played out at the iconic Oakville Grocery a week ago Wednesday evening when its new owner Boisset, ever the showman, not only opened the doors to a newly renovated, spectacular reincarnation of the place, but did so with a dramatic evocation of his Franco-American spirit.
Everything was thought through with Swiss precision.
- He unveiled a limited-release wine called 6-6-44 to honor the Americans who helped liberate France from Nazi occupation on that date, 75 years ago. It’s an anti-terroir red wine blend that uses literally dozens of grapes from all Boisset vineyards! (And it’s excellent.)
- The wine is $44 a bottle to honor the year of American invasion at Normandy.
- To further celebrate the 25th anniversary of that date in 1969, he served his last six bottles of a 1969 Cote de Beaune that he originally acquired for and served at his 2009 wedding to Gina Gallo.
Many other date-related parallels gave meaning to the evening. And to support his belief in terroir, the irrepressible Jean-Charles, pointing to the expanded wine section of the Oakville Grocery, noted that he had hundreds of Cabernets representing every sub-appellation in the Napa Valley.
He spoke vibrantly of the importance of maintaining the vitality of those Napa sub-appellations. A noble idea, but one I realized as early as 27 years ago is as dead as Kelsey’s nutmeg.
The Napa Valley may be a classic case of the complete loss of sub-regional identity, which appears to have been, at first, accidental and then willful.
Anyone who has ever visited Napa would suggest there is virtually no difference between a red wine from Rutherford and one from Oakville. These two famous regions are separated by an imaginary line on a topographical map. You can have a foot in one appellation and a foot in the other.
Taking it a step further, locals will tell you there are differences between red wines from Oakville on the west and Oakville East. Yet wine labels say only Oakville, and do not tell you which sub-area is referenced.
Up against the western hills, the sun sets far earlier each day because of the high Mayacamas Mountains. Oakville East, far across the valley, daily faces the setting sun for a lot longer than it does on the western side.
The exact same argument could be raised between Rutherford on the west and that far different region on the other side of the Napa River.
The valley has many such anomalies regarding its Cabernets, proving only one thing: the inexact nature of the way the appellations were originally drawn up.
Forty years ago, we debated such things. We said Stag’s Leap made a Cab with a silkier structure; Howell Mountain was more tannic, Spring Mountain had a perfume unlike Mt. Veeder – which was more varietal than Diamond Mountain.
But we seemed to run up against a brick wall when we asked Napa wine people for particulars. In fact, many didn’t want any sub-regional characteristics discussed. No, that could divert attention from Napa’s main message:
“We ALL make great Cabernets that should be compared with Bordeaux (preferably First Growths) and buyers should pay a lot of money to get our wines.”
Call it intentional obfuscation if you wish. But wineries were thrilled no one wanted to hold them to a regional identity that might divert them from qualifying for a high score.
And the only wines that qualify for high scores were deep, dark, and dense. Such styles defy distinctiveness.
As a result many winemakers made red wines that were so ungainly that any regional differences were lost in the rush to get a high score, thus neatly solving regional identity issues.
In 1992, I attempted to stage a sub-regional tasting of 100 percent Cabernets using an evaluation system that had nothing to do with quality. A series of exceptional tasters were asked to identify regional characteristics in a five-point voting system.
Stag’s Leap was the only district that came out with a positive score; Rutherford was second-most identified. None of the others finished as even marginally identifiable.
Since 1992, things have only gotten worse. Today, I defy even the finest experts on Napa Valley Cabs to identify regional distinctiveness. The quest for scores, the inexact nature of the appellations, and other inconsistencies have played right into the hands of the people who think “Napa Valley” is a more important region than Rutherford or Pope Valley.
I commend Jean-Charles for his hope of protecting the terroirs of Napa.
But an entire generation has been handed a homogenous template that now means far more than any regional identifiability – an idea that once carried much meaning and today is but a footnote to history.
Wine of the Week: NV 6-6-44 Red Wine Blend: There is, fortunately, a lot of subtle complexity in this blend of numerous Boisset vineyards, including 50 percent each from from California and France. Made at Buena Vista, the wine is impeccably balanced and should be best in about a decade.