Wednesday, February 27, 2019
The HoseMaster of Wine™ Among the Wine Illuminati at Dalla Valle Vineyards: My Oh Maya
A friend of mine in Los Angeles was an annual seat filler for the Grammy Awards. Awards shows hate for there to be an empty seat when they cut to a shot of the audience. They want to give the impression that their inevitably tedious production is riveting. Yet, as it turns out, even famous musicians need to urinate. The wealthiest rock musicians hire underlings to urinate for them, of course, but, for the most part, urinating is the rare instance they unpack their own instruments. My friend Joe worked the Grammys as a seat filler every year. Eventually, he became a seat filler for the biggest stars, the stars who sit down front. One memorable year, he was the seat filler for Sting. He never did get the pollen out of his suit pants.
That year, I arrived home from work in time to watch the end of the Grammy Awards. I don’t remember the year, and I don’t remember why the hell I was watching such a stupid award show. What I remember was that Carlos Santana was presenting the big award of the night—Best Album. The tension was palpable as he read the names of the five nominees. Santana opened the envelope, which had been sealed in a glass jar on the porch of Funk and Wagnall’s until noon that day where no one could ascertain its contents, and said, “And the Grammy goes to…” The crowd gasped and cheered at the winner’s name (I have no idea who it was), and the television director cut to Sting for his reaction. Only Sting was draining his stinger, and he had cut to Joe.
I imagine 20 million people watching the Grammys at home saying to themselves, “Who the fuck is that guy?” Me, I leapt from my couch screaming, “It’s goddam Joe Lozano! Oh my God, it’s goddam Joe Lozano!” Joe had no idea he was on camera, but there he was, nicely tuxedoed, smiling, and applauding vigorously for whomever had just won the big Grammy of the night. It was his five seconds of fame. It was the Seat Filler’s Wet Dream.
In Napa Valley, the third week of February is when the Napa Valley Wine Writers’ Symposium is held, and on the following Saturday, it’s Napa Valley Premier, a barrel tasting and charity auction of some of the best wines in the Napa Valley. There are a lot of wine writers and other disreputable people around, so many wineries schedule other private events. I was kindly, if inexplicably, invited to Dalla Valle Vineyard for a special vertical tasting of both their estate Cabernet Sauvignon and of Maya, their proprietary blend. Among the dozen or so wine writing Illuminati gathered at the vineyard, I was, by all measures, the seat filler.
Gustav Dalla Valle was a legend in the diving business, like Jacques Cousteau or Jake LaMotta. He spent more time underwater than New Orleans homeowners. In the early 1980’s, he and his wife Naoko purchased a 25 acre property in the hills to the east of Oakville intending to build a luxury hotel on the property (the Dalla Day Inn, I imagine). Instead, the Dalla Valles planted a vineyard, though with a free buffet breakfast. The first winemaker for Dalla Valle was Heidi Barrett, and, if I’m not mistaken, it was Heidi’s first consulting job after she left winemaking duties at Buehler Vineyards. It was Heidi who put Dalla Valle on the map, though she had trouble folding it afterward. And it was Gustav, I believe, who recommended Heidi go directly down the hill from the estate and help the woman who had been Gustav’s real estate agent, Jean Phillips, make wine from her property. That vineyard was Screaming Eagle.
In the 1992 vintage, Heidi managed what was then a very rare feat. She received two perfect 100 point scores from Robert Parker. One for the 1992 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon, the other for the 1992 Dalla Valle proprietary wine Maya. Parker anointed Heidi Barrett “the first lady of wine,” but I’m thinking that may have been some sort of weird marriage proposal. Thanks to Heidi and Parker, Dalla Valle Vineyards, and especially the Maya bottling, was officially a cult wine.
The definition of a cult wine is, “You can’t get it, and if you could, you can’t afford it.” You post pictures of a cult wine on your Instagram account, and everyone knows you’re lying when you claim that you actually drank it. I’m looking at you, Raj. In order for me to believe them, photos of rare wines on Instagram need to be accompanied in the picture by a newspaper with the day’s date prominently featured, and/or, even better, the severed finger of the person who purports to have consumed said cult wine, as proof. That’s how you know it’s a cult wine. You drink it and give everyone else the finger.
The Illuminati and I sat down to taste seven vintages of both the Dalla Valle Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and the Maya. The vintages were ’92, ’01, ’08, ’09, ’13, ’15, and the unreleased ’16. I was filling the seat between the inimitable Karen MacNeil and urban legend Elaine Brown (California correspondent for Jancis Robinson, but you knew that). Next to Karen was Deborah Parker Wong, seated next to Elaine was Tina Caputo, and across the table was The San Francisco Chronicle wine critic Esther Mobley and Laurie Daniel, who was in the San Jose Mercury News weekly for 30 years for a crime she did not commit. Like my old friend Joe, you’d look at that group shot, spot me, and wonder, “Who the fuck is that guy?”
Maya Dalla Valle was also in attendance, as was the current winemaker for Dalla Valle Vineyards, Andy Erickson. I’d never met Maya before, but I used to sell her. Insert Robert Kraft joke here. Maya has a wonderful energy, an obvious intelligence, and a welcoming and warm presence. It can’t be fun to have your first name on a bottle of wine and have so-called “influencers” making Robert Kraft jokes at your expense, but Maya radiated a sweet but firm authority. Her father Gustav, who would have been justifiably proud of such a lovely and brilliant young woman, was a larger than life figure, a man who didn’t just take over a room, he damn near dismantled it. Maya didn’t inherit that gift. Rather than dismantle the room, she brought it light and warmth. It was a pleasure to meet her.
I remember obtaining a few bottles of the 1992 100 Point Maya for my wine list back in the day, but they vanished quickly from the list. I was eager to taste it 24 years later. (Spoiler Alert! It didn’t disappoint.) We tasted quietly, then Maya opened the table to discussion.
It’s safe to say that the Illuminati and I were suitably impressed by the wines. The vertical of Maya bottlings was brilliant. I’m sure that many of the writers and wine critics there will also write about the experience, going into great detail about the wines, their ABV, their flavor profiles, the terroir of Dalla Valle and other technical data. While I understand all of that, when I write about it, I come off like Jamie Goode writing satire. Jaws drop in disbelief and shock, as when one sees a baboon in a wedding dress. It seems funny, but, really, it’s just a monkey more reluctant to wear a wedding dress than Andrea Dworkin. You feel sorry for the primate. That might be the weirdest analogy I’ve ever done. You’re welcome.
I also don’t award points to wines when I write about them. I think it’s safe to say that my writing about wine is completely pointless. I’m not good with points. I find them useless, like music in pornography. Why the hell does this have a score? I don’t need a score. I’m not interested in the score. I just want to put my nose in it.
The flight of Cabernet was, I thought, pretty erratic, like a Mexican free-tailed bat. The wines were all over the place. Yet there was an iron-rich character that ran through all the wines that one would have to think emanates from the site. The vineyard is currently organically farmed, and Maya mentioned that she intends to begin biodynamic practices. Oy. There’s enough pseudo-science in the world, the results of which lead to climate change deniers and Reidel stemware, so why does the wine business so love biodynamics? If the result of being certified biodynamic is that you pay more attention to each grapevine, you pay more attention to the health of the soil, you pay more attention to your entire biosphere and its health, why don’t you simply do all of that and leave out the magic tinctures, the selenophilia, the stuffed cow horns (I’ll have mine lightly breaded), and the rest of the hogwash that crazy Rudy Steiner invented? Steiner was famously a teetotaler. As is Trump. Two of a kind, both residents of the Offal Office. Can we just lose both of them, please? But I digress.
Of the seven Cabernets tasted, my heart was won by the ’09 in particular, as well as the ’15 and the ’16. The ’09, it seemed to me, was a sort of benchmark for what Dalla Valle represents, or could represent. Of all the Cabernets, it displayed the most restraint, walked that perfect line between power and grace. There was intensity, but it wasn’t showy. It was poised and beautiful; Misty Copeland in a bottle. And that’s what I love in great Cabernet. Ballet analogies! I think the ’15 and the ’16 will get there, too. The ’15 showed clearly the iron rich nose of Dalla Valle Cabernet. The note I wrote for it read, “Flirtatious.” Mind you, I was sitting next to Karen MacNeil, and she rubs off on you. The ’16, not yet released, was full of energy, a Jack Russell terrier on dog crack. It will settle down, I feel certain, and achieve that achingly beautiful elegance of the 2009. Many of the Illuminati loved the ’92 Cabernet. It was my least favorite of the day, and, I thought, had the least in common with its siblings. Whereas the ’92 Maya was splendid.
Maya blends Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, and is one of Napa Valley’s greatest wines to feature Cabernet Franc, if not the greatest. I think of Crocker and Starr’s Cabernet Franc as its main rival, as well as the more Loire-styled Lang and Reed wines (if you’ve never had either of these two wineries’ wines, just go out and get some) but there may be others as well. Nevertheless, Maya really shines. Cabernet Sauvignon, the most full-bodied of the Cab on the property according to Andy Erickson, slightly dominates the percentage in the blend, but it’s the Cabernet Franc that makes it so ineffably sexy and seductive.
The 1992 Maya, which received the 100 points from Robert Parker (I think it was the second
California wine to receive those pointless points), was glorious. At 27, it still possessed a wonderful sweetness of fruit, and didn’t strike me as particularly tired at all. One of my notes reads, “Cheval Blanc?” Though I’m far from an authority on Bordeaux (I’m more of a bridal baboon), something about the ’92 Maya reminded me of Cheval Blanc in its prime, there's a richness that both possess, and a sense of soil that is hard to express but easy to pinpoint when you taste it. I thought about the ’69 Chappellet I was lucky enough to taste a few years back because the ’92 Maya strikes me as a wine that just might achieve that legendary status. I wish I owned a bottle.
Yet all the Mayas were splendid. Esther Mobley remarked that compared to the Cabernets, the Mayas had a “quiet” about them. I think I know what she meant, which can be frightening. They’re centered. They have an innate balance that astounds you, the unwavering sense of a Wallenda walking a tightrope. As great as the ’92 was, I think the 2016 is its equal. The density and purity of its fruit is breathtaking. There’s the floral quality of great Cab Franc in its nose, the spice box, the whisper of pyrazine. It sings on the palate, the notes carrying on and on like a string quartet holding the last note of a Beethoven concerto. Yup, it’s that good. But it’s a cult wine, so if you can get it, you can’t afford it anyway.
That’s the thing about being a seat filler/influencer. I don’t think any of the Illuminati at the table could easily afford a bottle of 2016 Maya (it’s somewhere near $400 per bottle). We were there to praise it in print so that our wealthy readers will want to buy it. Though why anyone thinks the wealthy read my blather is beyond me. It’s often been said that my writing is poverty defined. We, at least, were able to taste both the ’92 and the ’16 Maya. Readers have to take our word for their greatness. But we’re influencers, dammit! You can trust us. We all drink.