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Lessons learned from old tasting notes

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Why I did 25,000 tasting notes before I ever even had a job reviewing wine remains a mystery to me to this day.

I guess it was that overused word, “passion.” It’s not that I couldn’t help myself, as can happen with other less desirable addictions. I didn’t want to stop; I loved taking wine notes. I felt I was performing a useful act (if only to myself), and I’ve always derived intense pleasure in learning and mastering new talents. In the end, though, it really is a mystery, this “getting bit by the wine bug.”

I kept all eight of my hard-cover volumes as well the thick files of my written notes, and I’m glad I did.

NOTES

I don’t think I’m going to publish a “Great Vintage Wine Book,” but re-reading them makes so much fun. Here’s one from the summer of 1991 or 1992;

GAVIN

Gavin Newsom, today our Lieutenant-Governor (and the odds-on favorite to be California’s next Governor) was about to open his first Plump Jack wine store, down in Cow Hollow, and he invited me to be part of a small tasting group that met weekly to taste wines that salesmen had dropped off. The wines were written by Gavin himself, the notes are mine. We marked them simply “Yes” or “No”; a group consensus determined if the wines would be sold in the store on Day One.

Here’s another, from a Bon Appetit tasting panel shortly before Christmas, 1990 (and a big, belated Thank you! to Andy Blue for inviting me to those wonderful tastings for so many years).

 

DUNN

I don’t know if you can read it, but my notes concerning the 1979 Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon—then 11 years old–are interesting. Here they are:

Me: “Inky black, orange at rim. Dead? Raisined nose—some licorice, tar. Massive tannins either hiding it all, or this wine’s gone.” Andy himself was there and so was Jim Laube, so I asked them both, separately, what they thought. I wrote:

“Laube says 91 [points], hold 5-6 years. Dias Blue agrees with me [i.e. that the wine is dead].”

That was a teaching moment for me. Andy and Jim were just about the most famous critics in California in 1990. As an aspiring critic myself, I looked up to them as mentors. And yet, here they were, coming down on diametrically opposite sides about a wine. I remember thinking, “Maybe there is no objective truth about these sorts of things. People will differ. The best course is to state your opinion honestly and confidently. Others can agree or disagree.” And that is the philosophy that guided me for the next 25 years after I really did become a professional wine critic. (And by the way, I still think that ageability predictions are crap shoots.)

One other thing I noticed going over my old tasting notes, and that’s how relatively low my scores were. From the same page as the Dunn: 84 points for Keenan ’87 Cab. A measly 86 points for La Jota ’86 Cab Franc. On other pages, I found lots and lots of scores in the mid-80s for wines that, today, I probably would score above 90. Why is that? Only two possible explanations: Score inflation, or a definite improvement in quality. I think it’s the latter. Vintners are picking riper these days than they did in the 1980s (which is a good thing, if they don’t let the grape sugars run away). They’ve learned how to tame those tannins, and they’re also far more educated about how to oak their wines; many from the old days were simply too oaky. That makes for better wines. On the inflation part, I’m willing to admit that there may have been psychological factors involved in my higher scores over the years. I don’t fully understand that part. I didn’t particularly feel pressured, from either external or internal sources, to score higher. I wasn’t aware of any shifting in my thinking or motives; Wine Enthusiast certainly never hinted to me they’d like more high scores. But I think my notes from the 1980s and early 1990s prove that my scores did tend to get higher, especially after the year 2000. I’ll leave it to others to ascribe the reasons why.

* * *

I’m on my way to Oregon’s beautiful Willamette Valley today. The weather will be absolutely gorgeous, warm and blue skies, so unlike my last trip when it was cold and wet, and the Siskyou Pass was treacherous driving. More tomorrow.


Introducing the robot wine critic

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In the next five years, when you call customer service or technical support for help with your checking account, internet connection or credit card, you’re likely to speak—not to a real human being—but to a robot.

“Hello,” it might say, in its weird, Stephen Hawking-like drone, “my name is Robbie, and I’m here to assist you.”

In fact, “Robots already are starting to displace some humans from low-end tasks,” reports the Wall Street Journal, and “within five years” they’ll be “smart enough to replace the human phone operators who do jobs like fielding calls from bank clients or helping people reset their modems.”

Given Moore’s law and the advances in artificial intelligence, it’s only a matter of time before human wine critics are also replaced by machines. It’s not hard to imagine how this might work. Say you’re in the wine aisle at the supermarket wondering which wine to buy. You’ll take your smart phone, ask Siri about it, and be connected instantly to a cloud-based “wine taster” who will tell you everything you want to know about the wine. This wine taster will be as human as anyone “real” you could talk to. It will ask you questions to establish your personal preferences (which, of course, it will remember, the way iTunes does), and will be able to tell you if you can find a better deal down the street. Eventually, it will even have an emotional component, possessing the ability to get excited about certain wines and, if you wish, to rate them on a numerical basis. It will be tireless, able to review thousands of wines a day, and its reviews will be utterly consistent—unlike those of human tasters, who are subject to frailty and fallibility. And there never will be any suspicion of ulterior motives (such as advertising) in a robotic review. Like the Mentats in Dune, robot reviewers will be objective and truthful to a fault.

Looking out even further, it’s entirely possible that your smart device will be able to let you actually taste a wine you’re interested in. There’s already talk of “food-focused virtual reality”; meanwhile, Fast Company reports on a “simulate[d]…sensation of taste digitally,” whereby “a new methodology” can “deliver and control primary taste sensations electronically on the human tongue” that “trick” taste sensors “into thinking they are experiencing food-related sensations…”. Throw in a virtual reality headset, and you have what Britain’s Sky News calls an “immersive [wine] tasting experience.”

Looked at from this perspective, what we now call “wine critics” will someday be as antiquated as streetlamp lighters or rotary phone operators.

Geraldine

But wait a minute, could there be a fly in the ointment? There could indeed. Who will pay for all this gimmickry? It won’t happen for free. Moreover, how would you prevent a nefarious influence from hacking into the system? At the first sign of untoward activity, the system’s credibility would be compromised, as Yelp’s has been. There will still be millions of people who will believe in their robot wine reviews, but eventually a small cadre of wine lovers who think of themselves as special will revolt against the machine. They will find their own gurus—human, not automated—and anoint them to exalted status. This is precisely what happened in the 1970s and 1980s with the rise of Parker, Wine Spectator and the others. It seems likely to have been a process that will replicate itself.

I’m off to Oregon tomorrow and will try to blog from there. Salud, and stay safe.


Microflora as terroir influence?

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Former colleague Harvey Steiman at Wine Spectator has a nice piece on terroir in his latest blog. It actually breaks some new ground to the usual, predictably tedious conversations the wine media entertains itself with on this complicated topic. Yes, indeed, climate, elevation, the tilt of the slope or exposure to the sun”—the usual suspects—are an integral part of the mysteries of terroir, but Harvey, citing a new study out of U.C. Davis, suggests that “microflora” could be just as important.

What are “microflora”? “Bacteria and microscopic algae and fungi, especially those living in a particular site or habitat,” according to Google. The study Harvey referred to was published in the June, 2016 issue of the online medical journal, mBio, from the American Society for Microbiology.

Its main finding, which contributes importantly to the ongoing terroir discussion, albeit in “unclear” ways (a word the study itself uses), is that these microflora can account, at least in part, not only for terroir characteristics we find in “viticultural area designations” such as AVAS, but even in “individual vineyards” (and, one would expect, in individual blocks within vineyards).

The upshot? “Grape and wine microbiota exhibit regional patterns that correlate with wine chemical composition, suggesting that the grape microbiome may influence terroir.”

Scientists already had known that these microflora or microbiota exhibit identifiable…patterns across large distances,” but what surprised them seems to have been the vineyard-to-vineyard differences they found. The scientists were careful to point out that much work remains to be done before “causation” can be claimed, in the sense of why different wines of the same variety can be different when grown in close physical proximity, winemaking technique aside. But they do now believe that these neighboring microflora “demonstrate that the microbial composition of grapes accurately predicts the chemical composition of wines made from these grapes and are therefore biomarkers for predicting…terroir.”

Not all regions of wine country are “microbiologically unique,” the authors warn, and climate, soil type, topography and agricultural practices—long known to be part of terroir—also in turn may influence microflora. What, then, is the use of this study, which just seems to further muddy already muddied waters? “These markers could provide actionable information to winemakers to improve wine characteristics or mitigate problem fermentation…and could be practical for predicting the suitability of potential vineyard sites…”.

The challenges all of this poses for wine writers, which is what I’m interested in, would seem to make their tasks even more insurmountable, when it comes to writing about terroir. We at Jackson Family Wines have been doing a ton of research at understanding the various terroirs of the sub-AVAs of the Willamette Valley. It’s hard work, with source information often contradictory; the same platitudes seem to be repeated endlessly, without substantiation or proof, which, of course, only serves to prompt less diligent writers to repeat them. Getting an adequate explanation of the differences between, say, a Penner-Ash Estate and a Zena Crown Pinot Noir seems trickier than ever, now that we have microflora thrown into the equation.

The wine writer is tempted to throw up his hands in despair, but this is not allowed in analytic journalism. One must persevere, weeding out untruths from part-truths and absolute truths (which, on close inspection, often turn out to be not-so-absolute), and realizing that for every assertion, the contrary can be found; the best one can hope for is a valid consensus of all sources, rather the way things work in Biblical analysis. People—the general public—want simple, black-and-white truisms where, alas, they seldom exist. Usually, there are only shifting shapes of gray.


Happy birthday to a very special winery

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When Robert Mondavi first walked the ground where his winery now stands, in early 1966, he was struck by something profound, a sense that in retrospect sounds mystical.

“I knew this was a very special place,” he wrote in his memoir, “Harvests of Joy.” “It exuded an indefinable quality I could not describe…of calm and harmony.” The To Kalon vineyard that surrounds the winery now must have been brown and barren at that time of the year, as the leafless vines sprawled from Highway 29 to the lower foothills of the Mayacamas. But already, Mr. Mondavi was envisioning great wines from that great vineyard, made in the winery he would commission his architect, Cliff May, to erect.

Later that year, Mondavi began his first harvest, “before the attractive mission-style building was half finished,” the historian Leon D. Adams tells us, in “The Wines of America.” Even then, Mondavi’s fertile mind was imagining, not only making fine wines to match the Europeans’ best, but “visitors, art exhibit[s], tasting rooms…concerts and plays…” and direct sales to account for “a tenth of the winery’s output.”

Mondavi was, in other words, a visionary. While others were quietly making wine in what was then still a rather sleepy little place that saw the occasional tourist drive up from San Francisco, Mondavi was reinventing Napa Valley’s entire weltanschauung. He knew it could be a mecca for wine lovers from all over the world, who would not only visit the Robert Mondavi Winery (and other wineries), but spend the better part of their day—and perhaps their dollars—carousing and having fun as they came to the winery and to the “lawn space for visiting groups” where so much public activity has taken place at RMW over the years.

It was in that lawn space that I last saw Robert Mondavi, on a warm Spring day in 2006.  The winery was celebrating an occasion, I believe their 50th birthday; there were hundreds of visitors, and the old trooper was wheelchair-bound. But still, he knew that many of them had come with a wish to see him, and he would not disappoint. A visit to Robert Mondavi Winery, he always insisted, must be memorable.

Here we now are, fifty years after Robert Mondavi’s first harvest, and what a two-score-and-ten years it has been. There were a handful of “boutique” wineries established prior to 1966, but the proliferation afterwards, lasting roughly until the late 1970s, was truly extraordinary, establishing Napa Valley (and California) as a vital player on the world wine map. And historians generally credit the founding of Robert Mondavi Winery as the era’s ur-event.

We do not even need to dwell on Mr. Mondavi’s accomplishments in viticulture and enology, which are well-chronicled. He urged the industry onward and upward every chance he got, constantly stressing quality. The upheavals of the later years of his life—the sale of the winery to Constellation, the failure of his (and Julia Child’s) COPIA the same year as his death—no doubt were sources of sadness to him, as his life ebbed. But Robert Mondavi was nothing if not the eternal optimist. “Always stay positive,” he wrote in “Harvests.” [H]ave faith and confidence in yourself.” He always had something of the preacher in him, and grew, in maturity, almost ministerial, as if speaking a sermon from the pulpit. “Don’t be judgmental. Instead, cultivate tolerance, empathy, and compassion…listen carefully, and when you talk, make sure people understand you.”

It is never easy to predict how famous people will be remembered long after their deaths. We know that historians change their minds: one day, Harry Truman is considered a failure. The next, he’s a great President. How will Robert Mondavi be remembered? People may be unable, some far-flung day in the future, to rattle off his specific accomplishments—that he was the man, for example, who invented Fumé Blanc. But they will remember that he was a great man. They will feel his spirit radiating across space and time; they will sense, in some inchoate way, that every era raises up some special persons, who summarize in their beings the essence of their time, the zeitgeist. And they will know that Robert Mondavi did that for the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, for wine, when his powers were at their zenith, and every road seemed to lead to the famous arch and campanile, on Highway 29 in Oakville, and to the man who caused it, and the modern California wine industry, to arise.

So happy 50th birthday Robert Mondavi Winery!


A tasting of Oregon Pinot Noirs

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I couldn’t be more pleased with my tasting yesterday, but I don’t give the credit to myself; I give it to the wines. The idea was to taste some of our Oregon Pinot Noirs to a select group of people in Marin County. In many respects, this was the best tasting I ever went to, because it satisfied the requirements of a good comparative wine event. The wines were conceptually linked: all Oregon Pinot Noirs. Seven of the eight wines were current releases, although they weren’t all from the same vintage. The eighth wine was from 2005, but from the same winery and vineyard as one of the current releases, so we could see how these fine Oregon Pinot Noirs age. And there was a ninth “surprise” wine, much older than even the ’05, that I’ll describe shortly.

But the best part of the tasting was the logic of the order of wines. Seldom have I experienced a better gradation from lighter and more accessible to richer and more ageworthy. I didn’t really understand how compelling this spectrum would be until I arrived early to open the wines and taste. It was so obvious, like ascending a ladder or climbing a mountain, as it were. To a wine taster like me, this is glory, this is as good as things get, when the order of a lineup makes perfect sense. It is a thing of beauty.

I started with the lighter wines, of course, worked my way through the more complex ones, and then there was that 2005, so you could see that we don’t only say these great Oregon Pinot Noirs are ageable, we demonstrate it. Here was the order of the lineup, with very brief notes.

La Crema 2014 Willamette Valley. It was what I think of as the La Crema style: broadly appealing, fruity, easy to like, with some complexity. The alcohol was the highest on the table, some 14.5%. It was easy to appreciate (and I say this as a Jackson Family Wines employee, but also as an objective reporter) why these La Crema wines have been so successful in the marketplace.

Siduri 2014 Willamette Valley. There was a definite step up in complexity here, not just fruit but tea, mushrooms, earth notes. Still a wine to drink now.

Siduri 2014 Chehalem Mountains. Even earthier than the Willamette Valley, with oodles with cherries and wild mushrooms. One of the guests, a restaurateur, said he would make a porcini mushroom risotto with this.

Penner-Ash 2014 Estate. So new is JFW’s acquisition of Penner-Ash that not even I have all that much familiarity with it. This is their estate vineyard, formerly known as Dussin Vineyard. It represented an entirely new leap into complexity, starting off a bit closed due to tannins, then erupting into pomegranates, tart cranberries and a wonderfully earthy mushroominess. I would surely age this wine.

Gran Moraine 2013. A new winery from the JFW portfolio, and so complex. It elicited a fierce discussion from our group concerning what to drink it with. Quail, veal, risotto, salmon, steak, take your pick. A mineral-driven wine of great terroir and ageability.

Zena Crown 2013 The Sum. This is another wine that was new to me. Wow, what complexity. Very low alcohol (12.9%), dry, fairly tannic in youth, and mushroomy, with a sassafras and cola taste many of us noted. Lots of acidity, a serious, intellectual, ageworthy wine.

Angela Estate 2012 Abbot Claim. This is not owned by JFW but sold in California by Jackson’s Regal Wine Company. For me it was the top current release, although not the most expensive. Gorgeous perfume, with foresty scents and tons of wild raspberries. At four years, it’s starting to show some age; the bottle was throwing some light sediment.

Penner-Ash 2005 Dussin Vineyard. Showing its age: orange-bricky color at the rim. But so clean and vibrant, with marzipan, cocoa, raspberry tea and spice flavors. It had that “sweet but dry” richness you sometimes get from older wines.

I finished with the surprise wine, the Penner-Ash 1998 Dussin Vineyard. This was a Wow! wine for everybody. At 18 years it was still vital and alert, a wine with nervous energy, plenty of spine, pure, bright and delicious, with sweet fruit and a long finish. Some wines of this age die quickly in the glass. Not this one. I brought it with me afterwards to lunch and it was fabulous.

And speaking of lunch, we had our event at Tamalpie, which calls itself a pizzeria, and it does have fabulous pizza, but also does wonderful Cal-Italian fare. I would eat there all the time if I lived closer to Mill Valley.


A comment on marketing, after receiving the latest Bordeaux hype from a press release

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You know, I understanding marketing. When a winery or wine region touts itself as the “best ever,” or “greatest vintage,” or simply uses self-reverential language that makes it sound like it’s sitting at the right hand of God, it’s merely putting its best foot forward in a formal situation—as most of us do.

Say you’re at a job interview, or maybe meeting your new boyfriend’s family for the first time. Of course you’re going to be charming and try to impress these people with what a special fellow you are. You might even do a little discrete bragging…nothing too over-the-top, just enough to let them know you’re better than the average bear. After all, as Rabbi Hillel said two thousand years ago, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

But really, there has to be a limit. Bordeaux (echoed by its various supportive critics) has proclaimed vintages of the century so often, we might have to reinvent the concept of “century” in order to accommodate all those special years. Its image, conjuring up marble palaces and royalty, is the nearest thing in winedom to the regality of the British royal house, itself a product of the greatest marketing the world has ever seen. And certainly, the proprietors of Bordeaux chateaux know a thing or two about pulling off the elite act! On the other hand, certain Napa proprietors who try to mimic the glamor, fashion and mansions of Bordeaux–and they’re out there–are plus royaliste que le roi, more royal than the King. Which makes them tres amusant, although they don’t intend to be.

* * *

A word about the commotion over Justin cutting down those oak trees. I have a long admiration for Justin, one of the icons of Westside Paso Robles. I always liked their wines, and when Justin Baldwin himself owned it, I thought he was a great guy who brought a lot of savvy to a region that needed it.

Now, Justin appears to be experiencing a rather serious backlash because of the tree cutting: restaurants are canceling their accounts and longtime customers say they won’t buy the brand anymore. As one of them noted, in the Paso Robles Daily News, Paso Robles itself is Spanish for “Pass of the Oaks.” Cutting down a bunch of old, beautiful oak trees must hit locals doubly-hard in that lovely part of Central California.

I couldn’t say if Justin’s ownership was right or wrong. There may be mitigating circumstances. Unlike many people, I’ve learned not to take fast positions on topics I haven’t studied. But I can say that the owners, The Wonderful Wine Company, showed surprisingly little foresight into how such a thing would be perceived. This is the age of the Internet, of social media; cutting down those trees provided perfect fodder to the nimbyism that often runs throughout wine country, where people understandably like the rural, scenic ambience and don’t want anybody or anything to mess with it. Surely, the Justin brouhaha testifies to the need to have a public relations consciousness within an enterprise—not necessarily a department, but somebody savvy who can anticipate public reaction and warn management of the potential risks. That does not seem to have been the case at Justin. There are lessons to be learned here for all wineries.


Au revoir to the oversized wine list

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Hasn’t the day of the bloated wine list come, and gone?

How many wines do diners need to “peruse” on a list anyway? Obviously, there’s no correct answer, so I can only speak for myself. I, personally, like a list with perhaps 50 or 60 choices. It’s manageable; you actually have the time and mental energy to think about each wine, to talk about choices with your dining companions and have an intelligent conversation with your server or sommelier.

There’s another thing about a short wine list I like, and that’s that when you see a good one, you can tell it’s been curated intelligently. Somebody in the restaurant loved that wine list enough to really think carefully about what wines to include. That person truly considered chef’s food, diners’ habits and budgets, and the restaurant’s overall concept. That is so much different from a list whose creator simply threw everything on there he could, based on big names and in the hope of winning awards like the one The World of Fine Wine (WOFW) recently published.

Would you be more tempted to dine at, say, Robuchon du Dome, in Lisbon (one of WOFW’s winners) if you knew they have 12,700 wines on the list? I wouldn’t, nor would I be enamored of having to wade through all 24 pages of the list at Bobby Flay’s Atlantic City restaurant, Bobby Flay Steak—so extensive that, like an encyclopedia, it has a table of contents.

How many Bordeaux, Cabernets, Rhônes, Pinot Noirs, Barolos and Riojas do you need, just to have a decent wine to drink with steak?

Once upon a time, these massive wine lists had a purpose. They announced that the American restaurant had come of age, in terms of wine sophistication. Baby Boomers wanted more variation on lists than had been the case in the 1960s and even into the 1970s, and so restaurants gave them more variation…and more variation…and more and more and more. Then came the era of the wine list award. The result was that many wine lists became—not useful guides for diners—but trophies, in the literal sense: the restaurant could win a plaque, then hang it in their lobby.

But those days are waning. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Bauer, the senior wine critic in California newspapers, recently wrote, Wine lists have also become more compact,” an evolution paralleled by a similar shortening of menus themselves: shorter, more focused menus.”

Coravin, the wine closure and accessories company, wrote about this recently on their blog, quoting a somm who praised “smaller, more focused wine programs that are structured and presented in an approachable fashion for the consumer to extract the most pertinent information necessary”.

These twin developments–shorter menus, shorter wine lists–aren’t merely about helping restaurants save money. They’re due also to a shift in the customers’ thinking, and it’s not just because of Twitter and the 140-character brain. We have only so much time and energy in our lives; we want to devote our consciousness to important things, not minutiae. We also recognize bloat when we see it. What is more sorry than sitting down in a nice restaurant, with nice companions, only to have to trudge through a phonebook-sized wine list? Half the people at the table don’t care all that much anyway; they just want something good. So you inevitably get the “expert” studying the list, alienated from his companions, while the others, in the back of their minds, are thinking, “OMG, just pick something and get it over with.”

Here in Oakland, which is such hotbed of restaurant activity, we’re definitely seeing a move away from bloated wine lists. Oakland is the land of the pop-up restaurant, food trucks, shared kitchens, virtual restaurants, and ethnic fare from all over the world. The hot Wood Tavern, in the Rockridge District, exemplifies this new thinking about wine lists. Theirs is a bit on the longish side (about 65 selections), but it reads short and snappy, shows bottles from all over the world, both well-known and obscure, and is priced affordably. Similar in size is Flora’s wine list, easy to take in at a glance, but so well-crafted and thoughtful. Shakewell’s list is even more curated, a mere 27 bottles (not including Sherry), but really, it is positively Mondrian-esque in its spare, one might almost say spartan elegance. This is the direction I believe restaurants are headed. It’s not only easier on the diner, it means the list is more creative, and the restaurant can save money on inventory, can order more nimbly in order to take advantage of deals, and can keep prices lower. Nothing wrong with that.


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