Thursday, August 11, 2016

Napa Valley Then and Now: A HoseMaster of Wine™ Book Club Selection

A few months ago I wrote a Blind Book Review of Kelli White’s “Napa Valley Then and Now.” I
love writing Blind Book Reviews. It may be my favorite all-time HoseMaster premise. I certainly abuse it like it is. The best part is, I don't actually have to read the books, which are so often dismal or derivative, and I don't have to lie about having read the books like most of the other wine book reviewers in the blogosphere. I just admit I haven't read it, and then I talk about it anyway. It's so liberating! Sort of like Trump with the Constitution.

I ran into Kelli White at a party in Yountville not too long ago. She and I had never met. Kelli was very gracious about my stupid satiric review (and believe me, many authors are not), and even presented me with a copy of her book. I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do with it. I felt a little silly, a bit awkward with this new book. What the hell does one do with a book? I finally figured out to put it on my Kindle, but that broke the damn thing.

So I began to read Kelli’s book. Out of idle curiosity at first, and then for enjoyment. I have never written a review of a book I’ve actually read on HoseMaster of Wine™. I wasn’t convinced I should. But then I skimmed many of the reviews of Kelli’s book, and most of them were dull, poorly written and had very little insight. Hell, I can do that! The worst of them were putrid, as well as poorly written and devoid of thought. You know who you are. We gripe about the quality of wine reviewing online, but these book reviews seem to have been written by people who learned English from Scooby Doo cartoons, and literature from Cliff’s Notes. My blind review of Kelli's book was insane, but I like to think it wasn’t dull.

I haven’t written a critical book review since college. I decided Kelli White’s book would be a fun starting point, though, depending upon how this goes, it may also be my finish line. Though Kelli and I have become casual friends (that might be presumptuous—Kelli?), I will attempt to be as objective as possible. My starting point is that “Napa Valley Then and Now” is an important book for any serious wine lover to own. Though I’d rather know a lot fewer serious wine lovers. Serious wine lovers, go and buy “Napa Valley Then and Now”! And leave me the hell alone.

A lot has been written about the physical size of the book. It’s the first wine book I’ve ever owned that has its own terroir. I had the heater on in my room one day, and it started a thunderstorm. Yet, I’ve come to love its size. Like I love the feel and weight of an Imperial of a great wine. It seems like too much, and yet you find it somehow comforting and abundant. White’s book is an abundant book in so many ways. Abundant in history, abundant in useful and historic tasting notes, abundant in her raw talent as a writer. It also weighs a lot. But I’m old-fashioned; I like a reference book with heft. White’s has physical heft, but also intellectual heft. I can’t explain it. I have come to love that it’s so large. Reminds me of my Dad’s ’58 Buick. I loved that car. It was a two-hour hike to the back seat.

There cannot be very many people who have tasted more older vintages of California wines than Kelli White. Probably Charlie Olken and Stephen Eliot of “Connoisseurs’ Guide,” and a few collectors I know, but that adds up to a small number of humans. Many of the older wines reviewed in White’s book I’d had when they were released—but I’m old. In her position as sommelier at PRESS in St. Helena, Kelli and her fiancé Scott Brenner used Leslie Rudd’s resources to assemble an unrivaled list of vintage Napa Valley wines. The majority of wines White writes about in “Napa Valley Then and Now” were sourced directly from the wineries. Not a Rudy fraud among them. Though, after this brilliant book, that’s probably next. No one has, to my knowledge, done this before, assembled this kind of wine knowledge as well as tasting notes of older vintages—not for Napa Valley. I’ve always referred to Michael Broadbent’s books for tasting notes on older Bordeaux. Amazingly, she’s only 36 (I started as a sommelier at 36!), White’s book is now my resource for tasting notes on older Napa Valley wines. It’s a very valuable resource.

Before she gets to writing about the 200 Napa Valley wineries she chose for the book, White writes some wonderful pages about her own criteria for tasting “…I prefer narrative tasting notes,” White writes, “and am wary of the way a number can reduce a wine’s worth to a single fixed value.” That’s perfect tone, and smartly said. The brief history of Napa Valley that follows is especially wonderful reading. White is a very talented, if still unpolished, writer (I cringed when I read “undeniably unique”) whose ability to communicate an enormous amount of information in a relatively brief section is breathtaking. There are better, more in-depth, histories of Napa Valley, which she acknowledges, but none as concise, entertaining and easy to read. White’s strengths as a writer—precision, pacing, insight, style—are on glorious display. I found that I was not only learning a lot, I was thoroughly enjoying her company. It may not rise to the heights of literature, little wine writing does, but it is very fine work. When reading White’s brief history of Napa Valley, I felt as I once felt reading an old Decanter wine column of Gerald Asher’s. There isn’t higher praise than that. If you ever plan a trip to Napa, just those sixteen pages will enlighten you more than a hundred stupid guide books.

The section on the appellations of Napa Valley is also very useful and informative. I was relieved to read it and find nary a single use of the word, “terroir.” Only a very confident and skilled writer, and White is all of that, could manage that. White summarizes succinctly the climate influences and soil types (always a yawn to me—like naming all the crus of Barolo—I just don’t care) of each appellation, and passes along interesting factoids (there’s a word I hate, “factoid”—sounds like a nasty polyp on your face). About Yountville, the hippest town in the Valley, White points out, “The buildings that now beckon with their restaurants and tasting rooms used to house an impressive selection of barrooms and brothels, with taxis lined out front to ferry the overindulged.” Not much has changed, except taxis are now Ubers, and brothels are now natural wine bars, with all the attendant and similar off-aromas.

As White herself points out, “It is quite likely the older tasting notes that give this book its true worth.” I did not read the winery profiles in alphabetical order. How anal would that have been? It would be like planting a vineyard in alphabetical order, the Abouriou next to the Alicante, next to the Barbera. Has Randall Grahm done that yet? If I have reservations with “Napa Valley Now and Then,” most lie in these pages, the bulk of what is a bulky book.

The tasting notes are fantastic. I might cite a hundred examples, but here are three. “2000 Maya [Dalla Valle’s prestige red wine]—One of the more soft-spoken and poetic vintages of Maya, the 2000 displays soft, refined fruit, an easy charm, and a compelling bouquet of baked cherries, mulch, sarsparilla, and mint.” I want that.  White can be sweet and lethal at the same time, a perfect quality for a wine writer. About a Scholium Project 2010 Androkteinos Syrah (is anyone more gleefully pretentious than Abe Schoener) White writes, “…scents of salted, candied violets, dried black currants, sweet garden soil, and smoked meat, punctuated with a ton of VA.” The wonderful back and forth of something that sounds appealing, dried black currants, with something that doesn’t, sweet garden soil, with the time bomb of a ton of VA at the end of the sentence gives you a real sense of the wine. That you might want to stay the hell away from it. Of a 1959 School House Pinot Noir (Oh, I’ve always loved School House—a real wine geek’s geek wine) White says, “Surely one of the greatest Pinot Noirs ever made in the United States…It was perfect, with a shockingly youthful nose of rich cherry fruit, a kiss of sweet earth, brown spices, and a beautiful floral tone.” I find this precise without being too precise. Though Kelli seems to be eating a lot of sweet dirt lately.

Writing tasting notes is a difficult, challenging, and unrewarding task. I would never read a lot of them in one sitting, I don’t care who the author is. White excels at it. Again, that’s like excelling at writing recipes, but try it, it stretches your sensory vocabulary and abilities. She makes it look easy. To a great degree, the book’s success is centered on those notes, on their reliability and precision. Tasting notes are easy to parody. Writing ones that are not self-parody is very challenging. White has a fine touch with tasting notes. I can’t think of higher praise than to say I wish I could taste alongside her.

There are too many wineries in the book. Too many selections smell of politics. Some of the new wineries in here don’t deserve to be. There are few notes for many of them, and White’s lack of enthusiasm starts to leak through. She’s going through the paces, and her own interest flags. I hated reading about newer projects. Too often the winery summaries smelled of a bad Laube article on “Ten Wineries to Watch.” They were treacle in an otherwise scintillating book. It is a mystery to me how quite a few of her selections made the cut, when, for example, Trefethen did not. Skip those, they don’t belong here.

I also felt White gives some folks an easy pass. There’s too much David Abreu worship, far too much. A lot of stricter environmental laws came to pass in Napa Valley as a reaction to Abreu’s disregard for simple nightmares like erosion. Yes, he’s an important figure in Napa Valley’s current history, but not simply a positive influence. White doesn’t need to be harsh, simply more objective and willing to be a little bolder and more opinionated. But she’s 36, and so supremely talented, that perhaps what she needs is simply more confidence in her gift.

The long sections on the truly historic wineries in Napa, among them Charles Krug, Mayacamas, Louis M. Martini, School House, Inglenook, Lail, Robert Mondavi and Stony Hill, are an incredible resource, and will be, I believe, for many future generations of wine lovers. White's comprehensive tasting notes of older vintages are a treasure trove, a serious study of wines that have been shamefully underestimated and overlooked. I am so envious of Kelli, that she was able to taste so many remarkable wines. She precisely and with great eloquence completely dismantles the old wisdom I’ve heard in the wine business for my entire long tenure in it, that California wines don’t age as well as their European counterparts. That has always been false. Leftover Old World elitism repeated ad nauseum by the uninformed, inexperienced and ignorant. With her deft use of language, original and valuable tasting notes, her enviable background and piercing intelligence, Kelli White has performed a miracle for the folks who made Napa Valley what it is today. Napa Valley has always commanded high prices. With the work of the young and talented Kelli White (I just may hate her), Napa Valley may finally command the high regard it richly deserves.

This is the best reference book for the historic wines of Napa Valley. It’s virtually the only one. It holds endless treasures. Flawless? No. Essential? To my mind, absolutely. It’s $95. That seems like a lot, but when you consider that $95 barely gets you a bottle of decent Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon these days, it’s a steal. You've spent far more money on crap less valuable.

"Napa Valley Then and Now" isn't available on Amazon, or anywhere else that I'm aware of. You can, and should, purchase it on her website:

Or write her at Tell her the HoseMaster sent you.


Orris Cowgill said...

Thanks HSM, Naps Valley Then and Now will go on my Christmas list.

Jörgen Lindström said...

It's an amazing book, written by a very likable person. I met her in Stockholm, earlier this year, when she was promoting her book over here, and she was so generous with her valuable time. Hell, she even paid for drinks… I hope to meet her again sometime! Comments in Swedish here;

Mike Dunne said...

While many California wines have shown over the decades that they can age exceptionally well, do you think the same will be said 20 or 30 years from now about today's high-alcohol, heavily oaked, low-acid releases, in particular Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons and Bordeaux-inspired blends? Granted, a stylistically correction looks to be under way, but the ageability of the more robust reds out of California from the past decade or so could set back the dawning perception that the state's wines can evolve quite melodiously.

Rico said...

Thanks for the book review but I still prefer your book reviews before you have read the book.

Francly Speaking said...

It was a little jarring to hear you be so nice but I would concur about Kelli's book, I left mine out on the dining room table and came home to the table sprouting cover crop! So much for terrior! I love the ribbon, so I can go back to where I left off- like that Oxford English Dictionary. The prose is so engaging and knowing how she portrayed our story and wines I know she speaks the truth and weaves the it with grace. I concur with the comparison to Broadbent's book and Asher's sensibility. Kudos to Kelli.

Karl Kelsey said...

Does it include Souverain? If it does i will invest. I am tempted in any case as praise from HMW is rare and interpretable.

susan wu said...

No no, I'm not buying that book. I'm a common tater. A 1959 SH Pinot Noir has youthful nose of cherry fruit? It's a 57-yr old wine and let's believe she drank it at some point in the last ten years. Then it was still a 47ish-yr old Pinot. Youthful nose? How about wait for a few short minutes and smell it again. Still youthful nose? Youthful nose of brown spices - that I believe.

A good line is "...I wish I could taste alongside her." Really like that idea.

A very belated congrats to HoseMaster for the Rogederer award! Hope you still accept it. The Brits have the vision. You're well-deserving.

Philip Reedman said...

Blind book reviews. The funniest idea I've heard for a long while...ranks up there with Barry Humphries' concept of the "unauthorised autobiography".

Bob Henry said...

No need to wait 20 or 30 years for reviews "about today's high-alcohol, heavily oaked, low-acid releases, in particular Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons and Bordeaux-inspired blends."

Start here:

From Jancis Robinson, Master of Wine Website
(posted April 15, 2001):

“Is California dreaming? -- an extraordinary assessment
of the cult wines that cost more than Bordeaux's first growths."


Bob Henry said...

At one time, this "FREE FOR ALL" article on Robinson's Purple Pages was . . . free.

Let me summarize through excerpts:

"About 20 of us, mainly the American visitors plus myself, Hugh Johnson and Michael Broadbent from Britain and Hardy Rodenstock and Hans Johannson from Germany ... tasted [alphabetically over a four-hour marathon lunch] flights of four to six vintages from the nineties [1990 to 1995] of seven of California's best Cabernets old and new: Araujo 'Eisele,' Caymus 'Special Select,' Dalla Valle 'Maya,' Harlan 'Estate,' Ridge 'Monte Bello,' Screaming Eagle and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars 'Cask 23' ...

"Tom Black, wine collecting owner of a bank services software company in Nashville, had donated the great majority of these wines. If it had been me I would have felt distinctly protective towards them but he is obviously made of sterner, more objective stuff. [Said Black:] 'In California this is what they like. We don't have to like it. We must understand it and recognize the shift in people's taste. I will never believe any of the cult wines in 20 years can compete with a Latour, Cheval Blanc, Pétrus or Haut Brion.'

"The market today is impatient for its thrills, and there is a place for wines that deliver something other than the long-term intellectual stimulation of a great claret. Any wine that can deliver as much pleasure as a Screaming Eagle 1992, a Harlan 1995 or an Araujo 1994 deserves to be celebrated not penalised for it. The world of wine is richer for the emergence of these overpriced, precocious beauties -- even if their crazy purchasers are not."

Nestor Milo said...

Hey Ron,
This is a very interesting post, undeniably uniquely-gentle. I have to say that we started on the wrong foot. The previous post caught me by surprise. It was the first article that I read from your blog and it did not make a very positive impression. It was an unexpected and confrontational introduction into your world. Humans, we get atached you know. Today's post, I like it. Very seductive, I almost want to buy the book. However, you said you dont get insulted enough, therefore have to do my part. How much did you get pay for this article?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Gang,
I haven't been here all day, but not because I was avoiding the place. My satellite internet was down all morning, I guess that Telstar thing isn't working out, and then I was at work. Thanks to all of you for being common taters.

One of the hardest parts of writing a wine blog is remembering to do what you want to do, not what you think you are expected to do. Most people come here for the stale jokes and the defamation of character. I get bored with writing satire and comedy. I do. I know, that sounds odd, but it's true. And the minute I lose interest in writing, I go away. Yes, that sounds lovely, doesn't it?

After reading Kelli White's book, not all of it, I didn't read all 200 winery entries, but I read most, I found it was a valuable and wonderfully written reference book. I know a LOT about California wine. I've been part of it for 35 years. This is terrific work. Not everyone's cup of noodles, but so what? When I skimmed the reviews already published, I thought they were stupid for the most part. Including my Blind Review, of course, but I'm stupid on purpose. Too many focused on the size of the book. That it was, perhaps, environmentally evil. The folks who wrote them are the same assholes taking all-expense paid junkets to Uruguay, or Hungary, or British Columbia, and think nothing of all the jet fuel wasted so that they can write pay-for-play articles on the glory of Tannat, Furmint, and Ice Wine. I got pissed, and I was tired of doing the same old comedy, so I decided I'd write a considered book review. I knew I'd catch crap for it, for not being the same old irascible, predictable HoseMaster of Wine™. So it goes.

I wrote what I believed about the book. I think it's a wonderful reference book about California wines. No, Karl, no Souverain, but a nice section about Burgess, the winery that stands where Souverain once did. Notes on Burgess Cabs going back to 1974. I still remember the '77 Burgess as a wine I loved. White's book is filled with cool things like that for old-timers, and young students of wine, to appreciate.

Thank you to all my common taters for their thoughts. I have no idea what I'll do next, but I won't be constrained from doing what I want to do. I'm short listed for a Roederer, dammit! I can do anything! Though Blinky won a Roederer, so, essentially, they're fucking worthless by definition.

Bob Henry said...

"I'm short listed for a Roederer."

I guess I misread it. I thought you were short-sheeted.

Bob Henry said...

And speaking of short shrift, are you being miserly in not praising of James Laube's "California's Great Cabernets"?

Contemporary collectors are (benignly) ignorant of that early compilation tome.

Bob Henry said...

Since Charlie is too modest to self-promote, I will shill for him.

"An Insignia Retrospective -- A Love Letter"


"Now, this is not an essay about drinking wine too young, but, if you will pardon a brief digression, yesterday’s lineup of Insignia bottlings pretty much reinforces the notion that Cabernet Sauvignon reaches its greatest expression when it has aged past its tenth birthday -- and then some.

"No need to recite the litany of every vintage tasted here save to say that Insignia pretty much reflects the growing conditions for Cabernet in the Napa Valley. That not so surprising finding may be the first thing that stood out for us, but it is the second -- that Insignia, despite its good manners, ages exceptionally well over ten, twenty, thirty and even forty years. That success is further proof that the riper style we make here in California ages every bit as well as Cabernet Sauvignon grown anywhere."

JP Bary said...

As long as you're being serious, I'm glad you dropped in some constructive thoughts on tasting notes. Some folks, maybe even a few who read your blog, think the world will be a better place if they share their tasting notes. A little bit of style helps; obsessing over minutiae misses the point. Love to hear you berate the raters, but that's because your nonsense makes sense.

Marcia Macomber said...

Loved it! Whether your reviews are blind or the real McCoy I definitely get a real sense of whether or not I should bother with a wine book at all! Kelli's looks like a valuable read. Thx.