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Noble and Rot ... The Good and the Bad
By Linda Murphy
Sep 9, 2014
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Rot: The 6.0 earthquake that jarred Napa Valley on Aug. 24 injured more than 200 people, damaged historic buildings in downtown Napa city and homes in the southern end of the valley, and sent wine barrels and bottles tumbling from cellar racks and shelves. The damage to Napa’s wine and agricultural businesses is estimated to be $80 million, and that figure that will likely increase as losses are fully assessed. Wine-filled tanks and oak barrels tumbled, spilling wine throughout cellars. Bottles in tasting rooms and retail shops crashed to the floor.

Noble: The quake hit at 3:20 a.m., so wineries, restaurants and other businesses were not occupied at the time. A 3:20 p.m. rattler would most certainly have injured (or worse) many more people on a tourist-packed summer Sunday and with workers at wineries. And the loss of wine could have been worse, as many barrels and tanks were empty, awaiting juice and wine from the just-begun harvest.

Rot: While the larger wineries that experienced earthquake damage suffered financial losses, they can rebound. But some small producers lost their entire 2013 wines in barrel, and recovery will be difficult. Not only did they lose wine made from very expensive grapes, they lost French oak barrels costing $1,000 or more. Few wineries have earthquake insurance, due to its exorbitant cost, and the little guys will suffer the most.

Noble: The quake brought out the best in the Napa Valley community, with city and county agencies and neighbors working together to dig out from the rubble and provide water and shelter in the aftermath. Total loss is estimated at $320 million. Neighborhoods held aftershock parties, locals patronized restaurants and tasting rooms, and fundraising concerts were scheduled. Napa Valley Vintners, the powerful organization the represents nearly all of the valley’s wineries, donated $10 million to the Napa Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund.

Noble: The harvest continued in Napa and neighboring Sonoma (which suffered some, yet lesser, earthquake damage). Despite one of the driest years on record, the 2014 harvest is expected to produce high-quality wines in the North Coast.

Noble: Creeks in Napa and Sonoma have dramatically increased water flows since the earthquake, the seismic action cracking open underground springs and providing much-needed water in severe drought conditions.

Rot: Experts say the new-found gushing won’t last long, perhaps a few more months.

Noble: Changing course, a recent visit to France’s Champagne region confirmed my long-held belief that flutes are not the best glassware in which to serve sparkling wine.

The coupe, the broad, shallow glass said to be modeled on the breast of Marie Antoinette, was, thankfully, replaced over time by the long, slender flute, which allowed Champagne’s glorious bubbles to stream from the bottom of the glass to the top, making for a most attractive drink.

Yet the flute has limitations, its narrow width allowing little aeration of wine. Contact with air releases the aromas and flavors lurking underneath the carbon dioxide blanket in sparkling wine, and the flute does little to release them. So it was with great appreciation that I was served Champagnes in France not in flutes or coupes, but in glasses with deeper bowls and more open mouths.

At the least, producers poured their wines into medium-width, white-wine stems (and stems are important, separating warm hands from cold bubblies), or in tulip-shaped glasses that, while relatively narrow, offer more generous sensory evaluation than flutes. At the best -- especially at Louis Roederer and Veuve Clicquot -- proprietary glasses with generously wide bowls and focused rims offered optimum evaluation and enjoyment of their Champagnes. I would gladly replace my Spiegelau Chardonnay glasses, in which I taste sparkling wine, with the stylish stems of Roederer and Clicquot.

The flute is dead. Long live wider bowls for sparkling wine appreciation.

Rot: The legal battle between Mendocino Wine Co. and Paul Dolan is over, yet the bitter taste of the settlement lingers on the palate.

After a two year-long fight, Dolan and Mendocino Wine Co. agreed to drop the lawsuits against each other, filed after the company fired Dolan in 2012. The story is too complex to detail here, yet the upshot is that Dolan is no longer tied to the Paul Dolan Vineyards brand, and that Tom Thornhill, CEO of Mendocino Wine Co., is continuing to produce wines under the Paul Dolan Vineyards label.

Huh? Why would a wine company want to continue using a label named for the man it fired? There are myriad sides to this story, yet the bottom line is that Mendocino Wine Co. is happy to continue the Paul Dolan label, even though it had a nasty divorce from Dolan. What are consumers to make of that?