Sonoma Diary 4: The Style Continues at Merry Edwards under Roederer

Widely regarded as a pioneer winemaker in California, Merry Edwards established a reputation for Pinot Noir at Mount Eden Vineyards in Santa Cruz from 1974, followed by Chardonnay at Matanzas Creek in 1977.  When she founded her own winery in 1997, it became a leading source for single-vineyard releases of Pinot Noir. She sold the estate to Roederer in 2019, and stayed on for a year to help the transition. She had already hired Heidi von der Mehden from Cabernet-specialist Arrowood in 2015, with the idea of handing over winemaking to an experienced winemaker who had no preconceptions about Pinot Noir.

When I visited Merry Edwards in 2011, she said: “I probably have two stylistic aims. I like the fruit to come through, I view this as the personality of the wine. And I like to see the texture come through.” The style still holds through two AVA wines and eight single-vineyard releases. The Sonoma Coast is based on purchased fruit from a single vineyard; the Russian River comes from the same vineyards as the individual single-vineyard releases (some in the estate, some from fruit purchased from plots farmed to specification. “We feel that farming is the only way to come to great Pinot and that is what we have based everything on,” Merry said.). Winemaking is similar for all the Pinot Noirs. The AVAs have 45-50% new oak, the single vineyards have 55-60%. (This is down from 55-60% for AVAs and 75-80% for single vineyards, ten years ago.) Wines are usually bottled in August following the vintage, so they spend 10-11 months in barrique.

Just off the Gravenstein highway, manicured vineyards surround the Merry Edwards winery.

The Russian River Valley release shows a restrained style with a sense of structure. Coopersmith is the vineyard at the winery that Merry planted in 2001; this is a relatively cooler site. Farther north, Georganne is a warmer vineyard that Merry planted in 2005. Both were planted with the UCD37 clone that she developed at Mount Eden. They show as more refined versions of the AVA wine, a little smoother and deeper on the palate, with greater sense of structural support. The first vineyard she planted was the Meredith Estate in 1997; this gives a more varied impression on the palate and is more elegant.

Olivet Lane is the vineyard with which Merry had the longest association, making wine there for 46 years. The vineyard was planted in 1973, and Merry started making wine from it in the late seventies; it’s now the oldest single vineyard of Pinot Noir in Russian River Valley. In a horizontal tasting of the 2018 single vineyard releases,  Olivet Lane offers the greatest sense of sophistication and elegance. When I tasted the 2008 Olivet Lane at the winery in 2011, it seemed to be the most complete of the single-vineyard wines; when I tasted it again this week, it seemed to have reached a peak, and you could see the same potential in the 2018.

From 1998 to 2002, Merry followed her intention of making Pinot Noir focusing on single vineyards, but she had established a reputation with white wines, and then returned to making Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Both show a rich, textured style.

Tasting Notes

2018 Pinot Noir
Restrained nose shows dark fruits. Faintly nutty palate shows soft black fruits with hint of bitter cherries at end. This needs a little time for tannins to lighten. 14.5%   91 Drink 2022-2030

2018 Coopersmith Pinot Noir
Richer impression than Olivet Lane. Black cherry fruits show on palate with tannins on finish, giving a sense of structure. Some bitterness lingers on the finish, but overall this is softer than Georganne. 14.5%   92 Drink 2023-2033

2018 Georganne Pinot Noir
Faint spicy notes to nose. Palate shows more grip than Coopersmith, greater sense of dryness from the tannins on the finish and a hint of menthol. Fruits are a little darker and deeper, with good grip on the palate. 14.5%   92 Drink 2024-2034

2018 Meredith Estate Pinot Noir
Reserved nose, Sweeter but tighter impression on palate than Coopersmith and Georganne with hints of red fruits as well as black. A hint of eucalyptus in background enhances sense of tightness. Precision gives this a sense of elegance. 14.5%   93 Drink 2022-2032

2018 Olivet Lane Pinot Noir
Lighter color than the Russian River or other single vineyards. Restrained nose shows faintly earthy notes in the background. More sense of tension balancing the fruits than the Russian River Valley AVA release. Mix of red and black fruits on palate are followed by touch of tea-like tannins. This has the most elegant balance of the single vineyard wines. 14.2%   93 Drink 2022-2032

2008 Olivet Lane Pinot Noir
Some orange showing on rim. Development shows on nose as less primary, more mature fruits, more red than black. With tannins resolving, you can see the elegance of the fruits, soft and ripe, with only a faint hint of dryness at the end. With the tannins resolving and the fruits maturing, this may now be at its peak. 13.9%    93 Drink 2013-2025

2017 Olivet Lane Chardonnay
Nose shows stone fruits with some exotic overtones, following to a textured palate. This flavorful style offers a fine expression of the typicity of Russian River Valley through the old vines (planted in 1973). Sense of viscosity to palate enhances the long finish. The wine was barrel-fermented, went through MLF, and aged in 40% new barriques.   93 Drink -2028

2019 Sauvignon Blanc (Sauvignon Blanc 55%, Sauvignon Musqué 45%)
The wine opens with typical herbaceous overtones tending to asparagus. The palate shows a rich Fumé Blanc style with herbaceous elements returning on finish to cut the richness of the stone and citrus fruits. The flavorful palate is quite viscous and round. The wine was barrel-fermented with 18% new oak and had battonage for 4-6 months.   90 Drink -2025

Napa Diary Day 11: From Europe to Napa at Grgich

“Everything is understated at Grgich, which is not necessarily the most popular style,” Ivo Jeramaz says. Ivo is Mike Grgich’s nephew, and came from Croatia to join his uncle when Mike set up his own winery in 1977. “What kind of wine do we want to make?” Ivo asks. “We want authentic wine… We are European, we believe in terroir not winemaking; winemakers are not artists. Of course, we have to be skillful, not to spoil the grapes, we like to say we raise our wines rather than make them.”

How have things changed at Grgich since I last visited, I asked. “The biggest change of my career was seeing the effects of regenerative farming. We’ve been organic for 20 years and became biodynamic in 2003, and we switched to regenerative farming in 2019. A major difference between organic and regenerative farming is not tilling the soil. I am fascinated by the microbes in the soil. Tilling means the microbes get killed by surface heat.” It’s too early to see all the effects, but Ivo says that already it’s been possible to reduce spraying for mildew by half.

In each of the major varieties, Grgich makes a range of styles. Essence is a top Sauvignon Blanc, made conventionally by whole cluster pressing, fermented in stainless steel, and then aged in neutral foudres. Skin Fermented is a new approach, treating the grapes like red wine winemaking, with fermentation including the skins (like an orange wine, but with maceration not long enough to get orange-like effects); the first vintage is about to be released. Essence is flavorful and the skin fermentation adds the sort of richness usually associated with barrel fermentation and new oak, but without the impressions of oak. 

“I judge Chardonnay on its minerality,” Ivo says, but he is a good enough winemaker to produce Chardonnay from Carneros, aged in neutral foudres resulting in a leaner style tending to salinity, as well as the Paris Commemorative Tasting Chardonnay from Napa, which is an attempt to reproduce the style of wine that Mike Grgich made at Château Montelena that won the Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976. This is fat, rich, and buttery, showing the use of new barriques. Chardonnay has become more precise since Ivo eliminated use of sulfur before fermentation and allows the phenols to oxidize. “They drop out and this reduces bitterness” he says.

“I would like our Cabernet to have more polished tannins,” Ivo says, and he has switched from racking the wine off immediately after malolactic fermentation to leaving it in the same barrel for 6 months before racking. The longer contact with the lees makes for more refined tannins. The Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon comes from Yountville, Rutherford, and Calistoga, including small amounts of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, and has an approachable style with the slightly lifted aromatics that are typical of Napa. The Rutherford Cabernet is 100% varietal from the vineyard at the winery.

Grgich has a 25 acre vineyard in Yountville that has some of the oldest Cabernet in Napa, consisting of the Inglenook clone planted on St. George rootstock in 1959. This makes the Yountville Old Vines cuvée, a dark, brooding wine that is a real vin de garde; it may need several years to come around, but it gives the impression it will last for ever.

An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.

Tasting Notes

Sauvignon Blanc

2020  Napa Valley Skin Fermented
Quite a reduced nose. Rich impression on palate with powerful sense of granular texture, more viscosity than Essence. Palate inclines to stone fruits. 92 Drink -2025

2019 Napa Valley Essence

Faintly reduced nose. Palate is full of flavor, more stone fruits than citrus (with some apricot impressions), very smooth on palate, faint sense of bitterness lends support on finish.    91 Drink -2025

2013 Napa Valley Essence
Faintly nutty notes have developed with age and the palate is richer than the current vintage. but the wine has stayed fresh. Fruits are mature moving towards beeswax (giving something of the impression you get from some Semillon, even though this is100% Sauvignon Blanc). Certainly makes Ivo’s point that Sauvignon Blanc can age.    91 Drink -2023

Chardonnay

2018 Carneros (Miljenkos Selection)
Lean style is quite Burgundian, with good acidity enhancing sense of salinity. The salinity has refreshing more-ish quality. Plays to elegance rather than power.    90 Drink -2027

2018 Napa Valley 
Label says Napa but Ivo says the grapes come from Carneros. Sweet ripe impressions with typical viscosity of Carneros. Good acidity with a touch of lime and a hint of exotic fruits. The ripe fruit character is certainly Napa but it’s not overblown. I suspect the exotic notes will take over with aging. 14.1%   Napa21 89 Drink -2025

2018 Napa (Paris Tasting Commemorative)
Restrained nose. Palate shows its acidity on opening. Rich fat style with impression that development will start quite soon. Already shows some faintly nutty impressions.    89 Drink -2024

2014 Carneros (Miljenkos Selection)
More restrained nose and an altogether leaner style than the Paris Napa cuvee. More a sense of salinity than minerality to the palate, still fresh, with lots of flavor variety, and still time to go. 14.1%    91 Drink -2023

2014 Napa (Paris Tasting Commemorative)
This has a typically Napa texture, fat and buttery, and you can see the effects of aging in barriques with some new oak, although the oak is no longer not directly obvious. The nose becomes a little nutty as it develops in the glass. Hints of tertiary notes on the palate suggest it is time to drink up. It’s a bit obvious. 14.1%    89 Drink -2021

Cabernet Sauvignon

2016  Yountville Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon

Round ripe black fruit nose with hint of piquancy. Deep intense blackberry palate with brambly fruits showing good freshness, and some bitter aromatics at the end. This really needs time for the tannins to resolve.    92 Drink 2026-2041

2013 Yountville Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon
Reserved nose with smoky notes on top of black fruits. Has softened only marginally by comparison with 2016 (although this vintage had the highest IPT ever recorded). Tannins are still suppressing the fruits on the palate, but you can see the intensity behind. Actually the palate is relatively soft with a long aftertaste, but the finish is still a bit bitter. Still a few years off being ready.    92 Drink 2024-2039

2010 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Faintly smoky notes and some mineral overtones on nose lead into brambly blackberry fruits. Nice sense of freshness with lifted aromatics showing black fruits tending towards cassis.   91 Drink -2030

2009  Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Softer impression to the nose than 2010, with minerality pushed more in the background. Smooth, ripe, and round on palate with soft viscous impression on finish. Not so aromatically lifted on palate, although fruits still in direction of blackcurrants.   91 Drink -2031

Napa Diary Day 9: New Wines at Accendo from an Old Team

“We sold Eisele but we still wanted to make wine and this property came up,” says Daphne Araujo as we walk through the winery at Wheeler Farms. “It came with a permit to produce 30,000 gallons, which was much more than we needed, so we made it into a custom crush.” It’s a practical operation, with modern equipment in a warehouse on the ground level, and a barrel room underneath. Wheeler Farms was a large property, with 376 acres in 1926, but today it is just 12 acres on Zinfandel Lane. It services about 6 winemakers and 11 brands in addition to the Araujo’s own wines.

Wheeler Farms is a custom crush facility on Zinfandel Lane

The objective at Eisele, which Daphne and Bart Araujo purchased in 1991 and sold in 2013, was to make wines in a European aesthetic, and the same objective applies at their new venture, Accendo, made at Wheeler Farms together with another label, JH Wheeler. The focus is on the same varieties as before, split between Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Daphne summarizes the approach: “You make a wine with 16% alcohol and you get noticed, but that’s not what we want to do, we are more European.”

“The objective for the Sauvignon Blanc was to produce a wine in the style of white Graves. We started at Eisele using stainless steel as we found that too much oak lost freshness. Now we are sourcing grapes from farther down the valley we use more oak. The style is to have freshness, but to make a serious wine that is savory with a long finish. It has some Sémillon and Sauvignon Musqué,” Daphne says.

Accendo started with a single wine, and then Laurea was introduced with the 2018 vintage with the intention of producing a wine that is a little more juicy, a little more quaffable. It’s predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, but labeled as a proprietary red to keep blending options open. “We don’t like to call it a second wine, it’s a different wine. It has the same aging as Accendo but is released sooner. Everything is made as though it will go into Accendo until blending. We choose the lots for Accendo first and then start over.”

Accendo itself is a Cabernet Sauvignon blend from various sources including some Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. It’s very fine, and the current vintage seems virtually drinkable on release. How will it age? “Accendo’s first release was 2013 so we don’t have a ten year perspective yet.”

The JH Wheeler range is made by the same winemaker, Nigel Kinsman, who was the winemaker at Eisele, but it’s kept separate from Accendo. Wheeler has single-vineyard wines from grapes purchased from sources such as Beckstoffer and Vine Hill Ranch. The price point is a little lower than Accendo. The Wheeler wines are very good, but don’t have the absolute refinement of the Accendo. Accendo makes about 1000 cases of the main wine, Laurea is about 600 cases, the Sauvignon Blanc is 900 cases. There are 2000 cases of Wheeler Farms.

An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.

Tasting of Accendo Cellars

2019 Sauvignon Blanc
Light golden color. Nose more inclined to stone fruits than citrus with some faint hints of oak. Smooth and fruity, in fact unusually fruity for the variety, showing good ripeness, with a sense of viscosity on the palate that gives more of an impression of breadth from maturation in oak than the aggressive character of stainless steel. 91 Drink -2024

2018 Laurea Red
Quite lifted aromatics give the impression of pure black fruits. Very fine silky texture, you hardly see the tannins except for a slight dryness on the finish. Those black fruit aromatics poke up from the palate and the wine seems virtually ready to drink already. 91 Drink -2029

2017 Cabernet Sauvignon
This is a blend with Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Sterner black fruit aromatics than Laurea, deeper, blacker impression on palate, more sense of tannic structure on the finish. Texture is very fine. Great potential for aging, with elegant balance promising savory development in the direction of delicacy. 94 Drink -2040

Tasting of JH Wheeler

2018 Napa Red
Faintly spicy nose shows red and black fruits. Smoother and softer than Accendo, not as lively, tending towards a chocolaty texture on palate. Nicely balanced, already ready. 91 Drink -2029

2018 Beckstoffer George III Cabernet Sauvignon (Rutherford)
Very restrained nose. Silky, smooth palate, very fine texture, you can hardly see the tannins at first, then very slowly some dryness becomes evident on finish. Black fruit aromatics are just beginning to emerge. The fine, almost tight, texture reminds me a bit of St. Julien. 94 Drink -2037

2017 Missouri Hopper Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville)
Slightly spicy black fruit aromatics on nose, a bit closed at outset. Deep palate with intensity of black fruits joined by a gritty texture. Not as fine as George III. Cassis comes out on finish. Aromatics become more obvious in glass. 93 Drink -2036

The Pseudo-Science of Investigating Terroir (and Why Some Reports May Prove the Opposite of What They Think)

I am fed up with reading reports in the press that scientists have shown a role for microorganisms in terroir. I don’t know which is worse: the lack of logical analysis in the original scientific papers, or the uncritical acceptance of the conclusions by the press.

The running defect in all these papers is a misunderstanding of the meaning of terroir. The concept of terroir is simple enough: fruit grown in one place will have consistently different characteristics from fruit grown in another place. In the case of grapes, this translates to differences in wines according to their origins. But a crucial feature is consistency: it does not prove a basis for terroir to show a difference between grapes from different sources, but that difference has to be persist over multiple vintages.

Whether local microbial populations – in particular yeast, which are responsible for creating most of the flavors of wine during fermentation – contribute to terroir is the subject of paper just published by a group led by Sarah Knight at the University of Auckland.[i] It goes so far as to put “evidence for a microbial aspect to terroir” in the title. But the work is fatally flawed.

The approach superficially seems controlled: yeast were collected from different vineyards and then used to ferment examples of the same batch of sterilized juice from Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Differences in the resulting wine must be due to the yeasts. The analysis rests upon previous work from the same group that showed genetic differences in S. cerevisiae populations in different locations in New Zealand.[ii] Ignoring the fact that only 4 yeast genotypes were found on grapes (potentially able to affect the properties of wine) while the remaining 21 genotypes were limited to soil, this makes the unsurprising point that there are variations in natural yeast populations.

Each isolated yeast population gave wine with a different profile of volatile compounds. Talking about reinventing the wheel! There have been too many demonstrations to count that different cultivars of yeast can have profound effects on the character of wine. Indeed, this is the basis for a sizeable industry in which yeasts selected to emphasize (or de-emphasize) particular aspects of wine character are available commercially. It’s almost trivial to choose yeast to bring out herbaceous character in Sauvignon Blanc, for example.

The logical error in the paper is to conclude that the observations demonstrate any role for microbes in terroir. Taking a single snapshot entirely misses the point, because the population of yeast may be quite different the next year. According to Ribéreau-Gayon’s authoritative book on viticulture and vinification: “In a given vineyard, spontaneous fermentation is not systematically carried out by the same strains each year; strain specificity does not exist and therefore does not participate in vineyard characteristics. Ecological observations do not confirm the notion of a vineyard-specific yeast.”[iii] Surely it behooves any new work to explain why this wrong?

A couple of years ago, a group led by Dr. David Mills at the University of California showed directly by DNA sequencing that different microbes were present on the skins of grapes in different vineyards.[iv] That work was fatally flawed because most of the microorganisms were what are known as spoilage organisms, and are probably not part of useful fermentation (see The Answer to Terroir Does Not Lie on the Skin).

After that, a group led by Régis D. Gougeon at the University of Dijon sampled two vineyards in Burgundy and claimed that they could find differences in both grapes and wine, although differences between vintages were more significant than differences between vineyards. I reckon their samples were too small to be significant because they analyzed only 100 berries from each vineyard, but anyway it’s interesting that vintage was a bigger effect than origin (see Will people please stop trying to prove terroir exists. It’s more useful to look for gold at the end of the rainbow).

These studies are naively touted in the press as showing the involvement of microbes in terroir, but to date there is really no evidence at all: in fact, if the microbes vary significantly from year to year, they may dilute the effect of terroir rather than contributing to it. One could make a career of debunking these studies, which could provide a really good exercise for students of science in how to misinterpret uncontrolled studies.

References

[i] Sarah Knight, Steffen Klaere, Bruno Fedrizzi & Matthew R. Goddard.Regional microbial signatures positively correlate with differential wine phenotypes: evidence for a microbial aspect to terroir. Nature Scientific Reports 5, 2015, doi:10.1038/srep14233.

[ii] Sarah Knight and Matthew R Goddard. Quantifying separation and similarity in a Saccharomyces cerevisiae metapopulation. (The ISME Journal (2015) 9, 361–370; doi:10.1038/ismej.2014.132; published online 25 July 2014).

[iii] Pascal Ribéreau-Gayon et al., The Handbook of Enology, Volume 1, The Microbiology of Wine and Vinifications, 2nd edition (John Wiley & Sons, New York, 2000), p. 46.

[iv] Nicholas A. Bokulich, John H. Thorngate, Paul M. Richardson, and David A. Mills. Microbial biogeography of wine grapes is conditioned by cultivar, vintage, and climate (Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA doi/10.1073/pnas.1317377110).

Even the Bad Times are Good: Mastering Sauvignon Blanc in Sancerre and Bordeaux

Visiting France in the Spring of 2013, it seemed likely it would be a difficult year: it was cold everywhere and bud break was substantially delayed. Things never really caught up during the growing season. Harvest was small and just about achieved ripeness.

The previous year had been difficult in many places: conditions in the Loire and in Bordeaux were somewhat similar overall, with rain in July, dry conditions in August and September, and then rain again. Harvested earlier, the whites may have come off better than the reds in Bordeaux. At the eastern edge of the Loire, Sancerre and Pouilly Fume produced quite rich 2012s, better than 2011 where there had been problems with rot.

At tastings of the 2012 and 2013 vintages in Sancerre and Pessac-Léognan, I was struck by the comparison between the regions and the vintages. The whites from Pessac offer a fascinating contrast with Sancerre. They range from 100% Sauvignon Blanc, which should be more or less directly comparable, to wines with up to 50% Sémillon. The more common use of oak in Bordeaux tends to soften the wines; and where new oak is used the flavor profile is quite distinct at this young age. Where Sémillon is high there is more of a nutty texture.

But Sancerre is no longer as distinct from Bordeaux as it used to be: the consequence of greater ripeness is that there are Sancerres where the fruits point more to peaches and apricots than citrus. Today, effectively Bordeaux and Sancerre each show a range of styles, with quite a bit of overlap. The old image of grassy herbaceousness has definitely gone.

Bordeaux tends to be citrus driven when there is 100% (or close to it) Sauvignon, with only occasional notes of grassiness. With Semillon the fruits become rounder and more stone-driven. But Sancerre is achieving a similar effect through greater ripeness. The richest Sancerre might be confused with Bordeaux; and some of the 100% Sauvignons in Bordeaux might be confused with Sancerre.

There seems, at this stage anyway, to be more of a distinct difference between 2012 and 2013 in Pessac than in Sancerre. In Pessac, acidity is noticeably more pressing in 2013, with fruits tending towards lemon and grapefruit, whereas 2012 gives more of a stone fruit impression.

In Sancerre, I noticed a great difference as to whether the current wine on offer was the 2013 or 2012 vintage. The difference was not so much in the intrinsic quality of the vintages (barrel samples show that 2013 was actually quite successful in Sancerre) or even the fact that the 2012 had had a year’s extra aging. The real point was that producers whose current vintage was 2013 had bottled it after no more than about four months on the lees; whereas producers who had not yet bottled 2013 and whose current vintage was 2012 had usually given the wine around eight months on the lees. The extra complexity from longer exposure to the lees was really evident. Is this the major difference between the artisanal and commercial approach?

The High Life: Wine at 37,000 feet

Flying transatlantic isn’t a great opportunity for fine wine and dining, but there really isn’t much else to do on the flight besides eat, drink, and sleep, so I thought I’d make an assessment of the present state of the high life. Flying American Airlines from New York to London, en route to start research in Bordeaux for my book on Cabernet Sauvignon, my assessment got off to a poor start in the lounge before takeoff, when the sparkling wine was Gloria Ferrer Brut from Sonoma. Judged by the taste, Brut is clearly a misnomer. Sweet to the point of being sickly, the monotonic palate had a strong taste of green apples (although without the matching acidity you might expect), and if you had told me it was a sparkling apple cider, I would have been hard put to argue. There are some fine sparkling wines made in northern California, but this is not one of them, and proved to be a sad harbinger for what was to follow.

Things improved briefly after takeoff when the Champagne was Pommery. Now this has never been one of my favorites – it always used to strike me as too thin and lacking in fruit – but it has definitely improved since Vranken acquired the brand name in 1990. I don’t know whether taste is affected by the low pressure at altitude, but this now seems to be a respectable, if rather ordinary sparkling wine. There’s not much character to it, and the dosage is just a touch too high for my taste – I wonder whether my impression that dosage has been increasing is right or whether my palate has changed – giving an impression that sugar is being used to compensate for lack of flavor interest. The wine seems essentially uninteresting and its flat flavor profile gave me some trouble in trying to find descriptors for a tasting note. You don’t expect originality from Grand Marque Champagnes, but I still think Pommery could do a better job to disguise its mass produced origins.

The white wines offered a choice between L’Ecole No. 41 Chardonnay from Washington State and Thilion Torbato Sauvignon Blanc from Sardinia. I had some trouble distinguishing them. If I were to be unkind I would say that the Chardonnay was a forlorn attempt to achieve the New World style. The palate has been loaded with oak to disguise the lack of ripeness in the fruit. The oak flavors stand aside from the fruits, and if I didn’t know that the wine had been aged in barriques I would have wondered about the use of oak chips The oak gives a hard, disjointed, phenolic note to the finish. This is one of those rare wines that would have been improved by a shorter finish, as what mostly lingers on are those disjointed oak phenolics.

Despairing of the Chardonnay, I turned to my wife’s Sauvignon Blanc (actually a blend of Sauvignon Blanc with the indigenous grape Torbata), although its relatively deep golden color made me feel suspicious even before I tasted it. A sniff made things worse. Instead of the expected grassiness or herbaceousness came a sort of slightly astringent citrus note. Maybe this is due to the Torbata, which is supposed to have a smoky aroma. Again the palate was loaded with harsh phenolics. I would have placed this as an aromatic variety in a blind tasting, but I think I would have had some trouble recognizing Sauvignon Blanc in it. I wonder whether I would have been able to identify the wines, if I’d been given them blind and told that one was Chardonnay and one was a Sauvignon blend. It wouldn’t be easy to find varietal typicity in this pair, but perhaps the greater acidity and aromaticity would identify the Sauvignon.

On to the reds, where we tried the Villa Mount Eden Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa and the Tres Picos Garnacha. Now I remember a period in the late 1970s when Villa Mt. Eden had a great reputation. In fact, based on Robert Parker’s recommendation, I bought a case of the 1978 vintage and drank it for several years. It never achieved greatness, but was still holding up quite well in 1993 when I had the last bottle. Sic transit gloria mundi. I do not think the old style is remotely recognizable in the current wine. When I swirled and smelled the wine, I wondered if there had been a mistake as the aromas of black cherry fruits with some piquancy came up at me. No, I decided on smelling my wife’s wine, which was even more aromatic and piquant. Following to the palate, the Cabernet showed no more typicity of Cabernet than the Chardonnay had of Chardonnay. The only note of relief was an oaky vanillin that seemed artificial. I’ve never really thought of Cabernet Sauvignon as an intensely aromatic variety, but after this wine I might have to change my opinion. (To be fair, you can find some high-end Napa or Barossa Cabernets with fairly distinct aromatics, but although I don’t usually like the wines, at least I can recognize a matching concentration and fruit intensity that hangs together.)

After this, I approached the Grenache with trepidation. The only information American Airlines provided about its origins is that it is produced in Spain. It turns out to come from the Campo de Borja DO, just to the south of Navarra, where Grenache is the principal grape. I have to disagree with Robert Parker’s high ratings for this wine. Aromatic and piquant on the nose, it followed through to the palate with bright red cherry fruits and a piquancy that made me wonder about acidification, with a slightly sickly nutty end to the finish.  But I have an idea. Add a little sugar and the profile would be perfect for a dessert wine. (After this, I decided not to sample the dessert wine, which however seemed to be a perfectly respectable vintage port.)

I can’t completely exclude the possibility that my palate was out of whack at 35,000 feet, but at all events the common feature of these wines seemed to be excessive striving for intensity. Subtle they ain’t. Even at the crunched price point – I calculate that if every passenger had a glass of wine American would be spending about $2.00 per passenger – there could at least be more variety of choice.

The food was better than the wine but not by a large margin. In all the years I have been on American Airlines, the food has never been up to much. Ranging from barely edible to inedible, sometimes it strikes me as unfit for human consumption (well, consumption by this human, anyway). In the past year or two there’s been some slight improvement. There was always a tendency on American to make the food highly spiced – just what you want at 35,000 feet where you tend to get dehydrated anyway – I assume to disguise the poor quality of the ingredients, but fortunately that phase seems to have passed. Of course, the days of  Krug and caviar on transatlantic flights are long since gone, but surely they could do better than to serve dried out hot meals. I’d settle for cold salads made from better ingredients any time (but I guess the bean counters won’t wear it). In any case, I’ll leave the last word to an American flight attendant, who some years ago said to me, “We’re not fine dining, we’re transportation.”