Thursday, October 17, 2013

Rocca in My Head

Rocca Family Vineyards Wines I’m Using to Talk About Myself
Rocca 2009 Syrah Grigsby Vineyard Yountville $50 (262 Cases)  
Rocca 2009 Vespera Napa Valley $50 (641 Cases)
Rocca 2009 Merlot Grigsby Vineyard Yountville $50 (174 Cases)
Rocca 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Collinetta Vineyard Napa Valley $85 (420 Cases)
Rocca 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Grigsby Vineyard Yountville $80 (469 cases)

I’m one of those goofy wine guys who actually likes to attend the annual Family Winemakers of California tasting each year. As wine tasting events go, it’s pretty nuts. At this year’s event, there were something like 200 wineries. It’s a stupid place to taste wines critically, as most tastings are. When I read a wine blogger’s notes that were taken at one of these large industry, cattle-call tastings, I cringe, and instantly dismiss them—the notes, and the blogger. The conditions are terrible for evaluating wine. Publishing scores and tasting notes taken at a large public tasting is like writing a restaurant review while eating the food in your car. Or maybe writing music reviews listening in an elevator. It’s just human folly, and those who publish those sorts of notes are, when it comes right down to it, insulting the intelligence of their eleven readers. 

I attend those sorts of large industry tastings for the nostalgia, for the pathetic satisfaction I get from remembering when I was someone in the wine business. As the author of HoseMaster of Wine™, I usually remove my name tag. I’m not that well-known. I don’t mean to seem impressed with my own reach, and I’m certainly aware that I have no influence. But, within the industry, I’m more and more recognized, and not always warmly. Though it’s primarily other wine bloggers who shun me, not winemakers or winery owners. I can certainly understand why. You kick Poodles, they end up either biting you or avoiding you. Some pee.

At the 2013 Family Winemakers tasting, I stopped by the Rocca Family Vineyards table to taste. From their first vintage, I’ve been a fan of their Cabernet Sauvignon. It was always on my wine list--an elegant, understated, beautiful Napa Valley Cabernet to serve as counterpoint to the prevailing steroid-era Cabernets often labeled “cult.” I find it interesting that Robert Parker is blamed for the heavy-handed, extracted style of wines that Napa Valley slavishly produced through much of the ‘90’s, and even now. He didn’t invent the style, he only praised it. That he had enormous power wasn’t his doing either. And if the wines hadn’t delivered some kind of pleasure, the style would have eventually died out. Some folks think it is dying out, but I’m unconvinced. 

I’m not sure who first came up with those insanely ripe, bombastic, muscle-bound wines. (When I taste many of those “cult” wines, Bryant Family or Colgin or Maya, for example, I often flash on lady wrestlers. Exaggerated body type, overblown and entertaining in a twisted way, but the results are clearly fake.) I’m tempted to blame Helen Turley, but, truthfully, I just don’t know who to blame.

When I see that a wine received a perfect score, 100 Points from somebody or other, I assume that it says more about the critic than it does about the wine. It reflects their tastes, and probably not mine. I might like the wine if I taste it, but it’s unlikely, and I speak from lots of experience, that I’ll find it perfect also. Ever notice how men and women rarely agree about beauty? A woman tells me her friend is gorgeous, I meet her, and, inevitably, she isn’t gorgeous to me. But I learn a lot about the woman’s taste in beauty. That’s why blind dates almost always suck. Wine is just like that. Wine recommendations, wines that received high scores, are usually equally disappointing as blind dates. In both cases, it feels like you threw your money and time away. Chasing wines with high scores is like spending your life on a series of blind dates. Except with wine, you’re pretty likely to get screwed.

I chatted with Rocca’s winemaker, Paul Colantuoni, at the Family Winemakers tasting, though I have no idea what we chatted about.  But a few days later I received an email from John Taylor, Sales Director at Rocca Family Vineyards, offering to send me samples. You’d think that I’d get dozens and dozens of offers like that, wouldn’t you? What winery wouldn’t want the HoseMaster of Wine™ reviewing its wines? Apparently, the other 199 out of 200. I might get an offer of samples every few months or so. But that’s plenty. Everyone hates these “Wine Essays,” anyway. John Taylor claims to be a fan of HoseMaster, “fan of HoseMaster” being one of the newest categories in the DSM-5, and shipped me these consistently winning red wines. So blame him.

Let’s begin with the Rocca Family 2009 Syrah. I find that what’s interesting about tasting yet another California Syrah is that I need a taste or two to calibrate what kind of Syrah I’m tasting. You just never know what you’re going to get when you open a bottle of Syrah from California you haven’t tasted before. I have an idea what to expect from Hermitage or Côte-Rôtie, an expectation for Barossa Valley Shiraz, but who knows what you’re going to come across in a bottle of Sonoma Coast Syrah, or Napa Valley Syrah, or Paso Robles Syrah? It could be anything. So I open the bottle, take a sniff or two, get a sense of the style, I hope, how much whole cluster fermentation went on, how ripe the wine smells, and try a few tastes before I start analyzing the Syrah. It’s almost like the first time you try some new and exotic food. Will I like it, or will it just be too weird? It’s like oral sex for the first time—should I really put that in my mouth? (See, this is the kind of wine review you just don’t get in the New York Times.) I don’t seem to have those thoughts when tasting Cabernet or Pinot Noir.

The Rocca Family Syrah took quite a while to come around. It's dense and brooding in its first impression, like that dumb kid you sat next to in home room. Eventually, though, the aromatics that emerge are those of Syrah from a moderately warm climate—intense dark fruit aromas, either blackberries or blueberries, mixed with a bit of white pepper (the signature of cool climate Syrah) and just a whisper of stemminess. It’s definitely Syrah, and one with very big shoulders. The wine kept improving over the course of the evening, filling out, gaining richness and depth. That sweet, dark fruit was very intriguing. Toward the end it began to
Stu Smith, right
show a wild cherry cough drop character—a character I like very much, a reminder of those Smith Brothers cough crops of my childhood (remember those crazy bearded brothers on the box of cough drops?—a foreshadowing of Stu Smith of Smith Madrone winery, I always think).

I liked the 2009 Syrah very much, though it didn’t unnerve me, as the best Syrahs can. That is, I liked it, would highly recommend it, but, in some strange way, the wine just seemed distant to me, a wine that didn’t engage me emotionally. But that’s me. Anyone who is a fan of full-throated, powerful, yet elegant, Syrah will undoubtedly adore it.

The Rocca Family 2009 Merlot completely enchanted me. It reminded me of a really fine Graves, even though Graves is usually dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. It was the distinct gravelly character of the Rocca Merlot, the vibrancy and weight, the wine’s urgency, that brought Graves to mind. I loved this Merlot right from the start. It’s just so perfectly integrated, so much a seamless whole, a Merlot with brilliant red fruits, plums and cherries and raspberries, a pinch of spice, maybe cinnamon, and that ever-present edge of fine, gravelly tannin and structure. The Rocca Family 2009 Merlot is Merlot dressed in its finest, truly elegant and sexy, not the common, trailer trash Merlot that has come to stand for Merlot in too many consumer’s minds. It’s Charlize Theron, not Miley Cyrus. It’s been a really long time since I’ve tasted a Merlot this astoundingly beautiful. It’s worth every dime of its $50 price tag.

Does anyone still believe Merlot was killed by a simpleminded Hollywood movie, “Sideways?” It wasn’t. Only simpletons think that. Merlot was killed by its own popularity, by the tidal wave of mediocre Merlot that filled Trader Joe’s shelves and populated lousy by-the-glass lists in the wake of the success of Merlots like Duckhorn and Rutherford Hill and Clos du Bois back in the ‘80’s. “Sideways” merely kicked a dead dog. The success of that film has always baffled me. It’s the tritest kind of Hollywood buddy film, filled with telegraphed plot points, and relationships that never ring true for even a moment. Four talented actors with almost no chemistry between them. It didn’t kill Merlot, but it certainly murdered two hours of my life.

Seems my perfect match with Rocca Merlot is a side of pauline kale. Bitter shit.

Rocca also makes an estate blend called “Vespera.” Catchy. The Rocca Family 2009 Vespera is a blend of Cab, Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot, and a tiny bit of Syrah. It’s obvious that this blend is meant to be accessible and fun to drink—so why wouldn’t you use Petite Sirah and Petit Verdot? Ah, well... Vespera, the winery fact sheet tells me, is Latin for “Evening, a time of gathering with family and friends.” Isn’t vespera really just Latin for evening prayers? Which, if you’re doing with family and friends, comes off as creepy to me. OK, that's my problem.

The 2009 Vespera shows all of Rocca Family’s house style of finely polished, elegant, supple red wine. It’s quite good, very big and broad, black fruit all the way, mostly blackberries and dark currants, spicy, and refined. For the same amount of money, I’d buy the Merlot every time. As good as the Vespera is, and it’s damned tasty, it comes off as rather muddled to me, a hard wine to define or get a grip on, more monolithic than mesmerizing. Is it great to drink? Sure. Is the Merlot a better, more interesting wine? Absolutely.

The stars of the show are the two Rocca Family Cabernet Sauvignons. Yum! I wish I could remember who it was who said to me (this was several years ago), “Cabernet is, genetically, just a perfect grape. Easy to grow, easy to make, yet produces profound and great wine.” Lots of truth in that, I think. Carole Meredith (man, if you haven’t had Lagier Meredith Syrahs, you just don’t know diddly about great Syrah in California), the famous grape geneticist who, among other accomplishments, discovered the origins of Zinfandel, thus earning the moniker Tribidrag Queen, told me that Cabernet Sauvignon is a relatively new grape on the scene, perhaps only 300 years old or so. Whereas Zinfandel, Carole told me, goes back almost 800 years. (Forgive me, Carole, if I’ve misquoted you.) And Pinot Noir is even older than that. So what was the variety Jesus had at the Last Supper? I don’t know, not sure anyone does, but I’m guessing it was a cross.

Rocca Family makes two vineyard-designate Cabernets, one from their original Yountville property, christened Grigsby Vineyard, and the other from their newer Coombsville Vineyard, Collinetta Vineyard. These two wines are sure things. In the world of Napa Valley Cabernet, they represent great quality at reasonable (for Napa Valley) prices. And, unlike many Cabernets from Napa that command more money, these are wines that will age beautifully, evolve gracefully, for at least 20 years, I’d guess. In my mind, that makes them worth the money. Of course, nothing’s worth the money if you don’t have the money.

The Rocca Family 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Collinetta Vineyard is delicious. Its central core of fruit is impressive and generous, intense and luscious without the least bit of jammy character. One thing about all the Rocca Family wines, they are perfectly composed. The tannins are seamless, and effortlessly carry the gorgeous, sexy blackberry, cassis and cocoa flavors while never getting in the way. For folks who think they can’t taste the difference between cheap wine and fine wine, this Cabernet is unmistakably fine. (And why would those folks be reading HoseMaster of Wine™? Maybe they can’t tell the difference between fine and cheap jokes either.) You just can’t wipe the smile off your face while you’re drinking this Cabernet. And I do so love great Cabernet.

If I had to pick my favorite of all these fine wines, I’d probably choose the Rocca Family 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Grigsby Vineyard. This wine has absolutely everything going for it. The nose draws you in immediately with a gorgeous rendition of Napa Valley Cabernet—very Stags Leap District, in a sense, with its purity and elegance and insistent black fruit with just a whisper of olives. It isn’t Stags Leap Cabernet, but it fits the profile. There isn’t a moment when this Cabernet disappoints. It has vivacious fruit, like the 2009 Merlot, but is much richer, and more classically structured. As good as it is now, make no mistake, this wine is a keeper. The captivating finish, longer than one of these annoying Wine Essays, and more interesting, and it’s classic structure foretell great things another generation down this long and bumpy road.

Tasting through these wines you get a strong sense of a winery that knows what it’s doing. We often don’t assign enough value to subtlety and complexity and simple elegance in wine, preferring, instead, when we take a small taste and assign a large number, the bombastic and the flashy. But when all is said and done, the bombastic and the flashy finally fade in our estimation, while the complex and elegant gain. The Rocca Family Cabernet Sauvignons will surely gain in your estimation the longer you spend with them.

And don’t forget that “fucking Merlot.”


Unknown said...

I wasn't familiar with this brand, I'm glad you reviewed it. And thanks for mentioning Charlize Theron and not Marilyn Merlot

Steve Pinzon

Charlie Olken said...

Nicely done, and a winery that certainly deserves a lot more credit than it receives.

But, of course, that is true for so many small and mid-sized Napa wineries who live in the shadows of their more famous cousins.

And, as you have said, those less well-known wineries get treated as if they all made the same, highly ripened, dense and intense, oak-elevated wines.

And, Jose, thanks for staying off my turf most of the time. I promise not to make more jokes if you promise not to review more wine.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I've had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Theron, and whatever it is that makes someone glamorous, elegant, and breathtaking, she has enough for ten people.

Rocca is a brand worth pursuing, if its in your price range. As is Ms. Theron.

When it comes to wine reviewing, I can't carry your luggage. But thank you for the kind words. There is something about Rocca's style that has always appealed to me--I'd call it restraint and elegance. I'm not opposed to the ripe, dense fruit bombs, just don't feel drawn to them as much.

I've been writing these "Wine Essays," which, let's face it, are as much about me as they are about the poor wineries, about once a month. It gives me a way to take a breather because they don't get many comments. And I'm pretty sure almost no one reads them through to the finish. So don't worry, I won't be cranking out the reviews. Of course, the main reason is, I rarely get offered wines.

renzo said...

"Everyone hates these “Wine Essays"
Your false modesty amuses ;)

"I've been writing these "Wine Essays," which, let's face it, are as much about me as they are about the poor wineries" ...

...And that is exactly what makes them a pleasure, Ron. I say that just in case you need reminding!

Ron Washam said...

It's only when I write the "Wine Essays," or the occasional "Reflection," that I step out from behind the HoseMaster persona. I think my biggest fear when I write is that I'll be dull. So much of what is published on wine blogs is duller than Glenn Beck fans. I can't believe, most days, the avalanche of crap out there. When I write about my wine career, it feels boring to me. It's that self-loathing thing that so many comedy writers endure. It generates that false modesty, which, I agree, is tiresome.

Thanks, Renzo, for snapping me out of it.

voice of reason said...

I am glad that you didn't shut down like the Government did. This is the style of wine writing that is truly needed in the industry, in that it shows honest opinion and honest emotion about a wine that other writers de-humanize.
Thanks for introducing me to Rocca, and thanks for bringing Charlize Theron to mind again...

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I started Wine Essays as a response to all the badly written puff pieces I'd read on other wine blogs. Bloggers regurgitating "facts" they'd gleaned from winery marketing departments, or clearly trying to gain favor in the industry by fawning over every stupid wine they were sent for free. Or taking yet another junket and, mysteriously, being impressed by every winemaker who kissed their sad blogger butts.

But there is so much wine, and so many wineries, and this style of wine writing takes a lot of time to think about and produce. The Wine Essays take twice the time it takes me to crank out the stupid satire, but are far more rewarding for me, personally. Trying to capture my honest reactions to a wine, rather than just recite a list of adjectives, or plagiarize a back label, is an interesting and enlightening exercise. It is about drinking a wine and not simply tasting a wine.

As for Charlize, oh, man, you have no idea... I still have the stains--I call them Charlize Angels.

Unknown said...

Guess you're quite the film buff eh Ron? .. I liked Sideways.. it was too bad Merlot got dumped on after but what was equally obnoxious was all these morons who started raving about KoolAid type Pinots.. got the Pauline Kael dig.. could never understand why everyone said she was such a populist.. I found her reviews condescending and obnoxious.. once sent an email to Roger Ebert why he gave so many thumbs up to so many bad movies such as absolute dreck like the Matrix II... a happy medium please...

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Actually, I'm not at all a film buff. I very rarely watch films, but I did, unfortunately, see "Sideways." Dull script, as hackneyed a buddy picture as I can imagine. But so it goes...

I didn't love Kael, but she had guts and style. And anyone who found Kevin Kostner to be the worst actor of his generation, and "The Stepfather" to be a great scare flick (the original is a terrific film), is OK in my book.

Jack Edwards said...

The best part is they are nice people too. My wife loves the Rocca Syrah. I need to get some of the Cab!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I've only met Mary Rocca, and the winemaker, and they are, as you say, very nice folks. Though I try never to let that play into a review. I could write a book entitled, "When Bad Wine Happens to Good People." But it is nice when great people also make great wine.

Unknown said...

Well said. I think too many wine writers take themselves too seriously. Your humor is refreshing. As to Steve and Carole—two wonderful, giving, honest, hardworking, creative people. That they make great wine is a bonus! Let's raise a glass to the many small, unsung heroes of the wine industry.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

It does seem that too many wine writers believe they're doing something of great value to society when they're usually being ridiculously pompous and self-indulgent. One of the most joyous creations of man oddly generates mountains of joyless prose.

Thanks for chiming in. I still have a soft spot for your Paloma Merlots.

Joe Roberts said...

Rocca hired the right guy to take up their winemaking helm, I think. Anyway, I enjoyed this, particularly the excuse to use the wine to talk about yourself. But I still hate your wine essays, okay?

kschlach said...

Now this is what a wine review should be like. Well done! Except petit verdot should be spelled correctly...

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Paul's been there quite a while, and, yup, he's doing great things. I think Rocca is a sadly overlooked producer of Napa Cabernet. I've heard the '10's are equally good, but I've yet to try any.

I need a new title for the series. "Wine Essays" sucks, sounds like part of the exam for a MS. Thanks for hating them and making me look good.

Yup. Thanks for the catch. I'll correct it. Ah, but every great beauty has its flaw.

Unknown said...


Wow- thanks for your nice comments, and for such a great read! I'm not as witty as you, so I'll just make a few comments and float off on Cloud 9...

You mentioned that the Grigsby Cab fits the profile of a Stags Leap District Cab. Good call... we are officially in the Yountville Appellation, but we are bordered on two sides of our vineyard by the Stags Leap District. You know our valley, don't you?

Re: our winemaker Paul Colantuoni. Paul took over from Celia Welch in 2008. So the 2009 was only his second vintage with us. He is indeed a fantastic winemaker... an unknown gem, and also a hell of a nice guy.

I also have to mention our Vineyard Manager, Sergio Melgoza, who handles our farming for us. He lives at our Collinetta Vineyard, and takes great care of our vineyards- we couldn't do it without him...

Thanks again to you and everyone else for the nice comments. Our tasting room is almost ready- so come see us soon! (but call first)

Mary Rocca

Marcia Macomber said...

Still love the essays because the winery and the wines really stick in my memory, and I'm far more inclined to give them a shot having a good sense of what they'll taste like from your descriptions and stories.

I have long seen Rocca around but not known anything about them. Your story provides the impetus to buy them.

Funny that the satire comes so much easier to you, as I cannot imagine EVER coming up with 1/100th of the funny stuff on my own. Happily, I get to read yours instead!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hi Mary!
Thanks for gracing my humble little blog with your presence, and for the additional background notes. Not to mention the samples you sent, which I clearly enjoyed. I hope that I did them justice, especially considering I don't attach numbers or stars or smiley faces to them. I just prattle on endlessly.

Marcia Love,
Satire is easier for me. Wine, I find, is very challenging to write about. You can slap together some adjectives, assign a number, and let it go at that, but that is utterly worthless. I enjoy the conversation around good wine, the stories, not the stories of the winery marketing departments (which I studiously avoid), but the stories the wine brings to mind as I enjoy it. That's the feeling I try to capture, and, too often, that's beyond my scope as a writer.