If you have 10 minutes, read this story on “The Rise of the American ‘Somm,’” by the engaing London writer, Francis Percival. In it, he tracks the evolution of “sommeliers”– a “previous generation of quiet professionals” who wore tastevins and tuxedos, and confined themselves almost exclusively to the wines of France–to today’s “somms”–with “tattoos on display,” dressed in “barely more than a t-shirt and jeans,” and possessed of a “relentlessly informal, swaggering” presence.
Obviously, Francis has mixed feelings about our beloved American somms! On the one hand, he recognizes that “the wines embraced by this new somm are diverse,” which surely is a good thing. But he seems a little put off by their new somm culture: it’s “fratty,” its language is “equal parts grifter slang and wine-service Urban Dictionary,” it’s addicted to “lots of photos on Instagram.” American somms have an annoying habit of “touching guests,” which is “unknown in most of Europe,” and “the public face of the American somm has become one of intense, but friendly competition with their bros.”
Good writing, and Francis concedes that, as an Englishman, his viewpoint may be biased. “It’s been staggering to me,” he writes, how “professional wine service has been refashioned into something close to the apotheosis of modern America,” which sounds like something between crowd surfing at a rock concert and smoking a blunt. So allow me, as an American (and a Californian at that, the apotheosis of casual, engaging America) to defend our tattooed somms.
I think we can all agree that it’s better for a wine service professional on the floor of a restaurant to be less stuffy than more stuffy, no? And today’s American somms certainly are. I also like it when a somm is younger rather than older. This may be a personal preference having little to do with the somm’s experience or knowledge–but I have a feeling that a younger somm is probably more in tune with today’s vast array of wine choices. Younger somms also are probably more likely to be studying for one of the gazillion levels of somm certification, which would increase their knowledge base.
I can remember those “quiet professionals” who used to populate the sommelier world. They were snobs. If it wasn’t French it didn’t exist. Well, maybe they would allow a Mosel or Chianti onto the list, but reluctantly. As for California, mais non! Do I have any New York friends who can tell me when California wines began appearing on the lists of chic Manhattan restaurants? I don’t know, but I bet it wasn’t until comparatively recently. So those “quiet professionals” of yesteryear certainly didn’t do their customers any good by expanding their palates. And they certainly didn’t help to expand the range of foods available in this country beyond French.
What a better country America is for having the most diverse food choices in the world. Here in Oakland, I feel infinitely lucky to have the cuisines of 100 nations at my disposal. If I was just starting out, I might choose to be a somm. What an exciting job, centered on wine, food, socializing and night life. Yes, there’s something “fratty” about somm “bros” and their culture, but what’s wrong with that? In the old days, one had the feeling those “quiet professionals” went home to quiet lives in quiet little apartments and quietly read books. Today’s American somm reeks with excitement and buzz (although perhaps not as much as mixologists). And it’s wonderful that women are now as welcome to the somm’s ranks as men, which never could have been the case even 20 years ago.
Today’s somm is a democrat with a small “d”. They’re not going to look down their noses at anyone. I certainly wouldn’t want my somm (or my server) to be in a tuxedo: I like the street aspect of t-shirts and jeans, which doesn’t seem shabby to me at all, but comfortable, easy to relate to and, yes, sexy.
These modern somms are open to any wine in the world. If I have any objection (and it’s a minor one), it’s that they can be a little too addicted to the obscure. But after all, that’s their passion; it’s what turns them on, and part of the reason for going to a cool little restaurant, with great food and a great somm, is to discover new foods and drinks.
So here’s to our American somms! Rock on, bros (and sisters!).
“I know never to take a wine for granted. Drawing a cork is like attendance at a concert or at a play that one knows well, when there is all the uncertainty of no two performances ever being quite the same. That is why the French say, There are no good wines, only good bottles.”
This quote, from Gerald Asher, is pretty alarming, if you think about it: it means that you can take a bottle of whatever you think is the greatest wine in the world–I don’t care what it is, Romanée-Conti or Petrus or whatever–and be completely underwhelmed by it. How could this be?
The explanation is that wine is among the most psychologically complicated of all the world’s consumer products. By which I mean, subjectivity enters into your perception of it more than with anything else, with the possible exception of modern art. (The most subjective perception of things is, of course, a parent’s view of her child, but then, children are not consumer products.)
I’ve always been fascinated by the psychology of the enjoyment of high-end wine. I’ve tasted enough of the world’s most famous ones to assure you that there’s not that much of a difference between a fabulous, high-scoring wine and one that’s “merely” very good. The producers of fabulously expensive wines–in Napa Valley, Bordeaux or wherever–don’t want you to know this. They go to great lengths to prevent you from knowing it, and they go to equally great lengths to persuade the wealthy people who buy their wines that there really are quantum qualitative differences that justify their prices. And in this dual quest, they are aided and abetted by certain critics, in what we might call the producer-critic complex, in which both sides stand to gain by the perpetuation of the existing system. (I adapted this term from Pres. Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” remark in his Farewell Address.)
But really, most of the heavy lifting in this persuading is done by the buyers themselves. When they put so much money on the line, they have a psychological investment in finding the wine incredible. And, most of the time, they do. Notice I didn’t say the wine is incredible; I said they find it incredible. Big difference. In fact, what the wine is, is impossible to discern or define. The “thing in itself,” as Kant observed, is unknowable, because, even if it has a real nature, that nature is obscured in a welter of human expectations, thoughts, emotions, motives and conflicts.
This is precisely why alleged crooks like Rudi Kurniawan are able–for a time, at least, until they get caught–to get away with their counterfeit bottles. Even though the stuff being passed off as Romanée-Conti and de Vogüé obviously wasn’t, the suckers who bought it thought it was, because after all, (a) the labels said so and (b) they paid so much money for the bottles that their pride could not admit they’d been bamboozled. The kind of men (high-end “collectors” usually are male) who buy these rarified wines tend to have out-sized egos; they don’t suffer fools gladly, but neither do they suffer many intrusions into their inflated view of their own discernment. So Rudi was able to prey on them with their willing cooperation.
Thus we return to Gerald Asher’s wise dictum to “never take a wine for granted.” Each bottle in and of itself is a complete, indivisible reality. But, like all fragments of reality that we experience, it is nearly impossible to separate out what we, the perceiver, bring to the phenomenon, as opposed to what it is “in and of itself.” When I explain to wine novices how best to appreciate wine, the first thing I do is dissuade them from the stereotypes they’ve heard all their lives concerning “great wines.” There are no great wines, only great bottles. So lesson no. 1: Never take a wine for granted. Not a $700 one and not even a $7 one.
Am I part of the producer-critic complex? I have been. In this job, you can’t help but be part of something larger than yourself, unless you go entirely off the grid–in which case, my friends at UPS and FedEx couldn’t find me to deliver those samples. So, yes, I’m culpable. But I recognize it–I see the perniciousness that can result when critics who have given ultra-high scores to certain wines year in and year out feel that their reputations are on the line unless they continue doing so. What makes me different, I think, is that I give high scores to wines that aren’t on the A-list of cultdom, and so-so scores to wines that are. And the reason I do so is because in every case, they deserve them. Like Gerald Asher said, never take a wine for granted.
GUS! Is probably the best known wine critic dog in California. Wherever I go, people ask me about him. So I figured it’s time to Spotlight Gus here on the blog, so his many fans can learn a little more about him.
Gus is about 4-1/2 years old. We met at the East Bay SPCA, here in Oakland. There was an immediate attraction on both sides, so we decided to live together. Although Gus is naturally shy, he agreed to this interview, which took place last Friday.
Steve: So Gus, do you like wine?
Gus: Yes, I do. I didn’t used to, but it’s pretty hard to live with you and not get into wine!
S: What are some of your favorite wines?
G: I like Chateauneuf-du-Pup, Chateau Pup-Clement and Puppynet Sauvignon.
S: What was your favorite wine-and-food pairing ever?
G: Remember that time when you gave me kibble mixed with chicken gizzards? I had an Italian Dogcetto that brought out all the smoky, meaty notes.
S: Do you read wine blogs?
G: I don’t know how to read, but if I did, I would read yours, of course. And I hear good things about 1WineDog.
S: Do you like visiting wineries?
G: That is my favorite thing! Usually there’s a nice doggie or two for me to play with. My favorite winery to visit is Frenchie, where they always make me feel special! But I had a very nice time visiting Martinelli and running around that Redwood forest.
S: What do you think of the 100-point system your Daddy uses?
G: I can’t count, but if Daddy likes it, then so do I!
S: Do you help your Daddy review wine?
G: Well, of course, that’s his job, not mine. However, I do like to sit in his lap while he’s tasting. Sometimes a drop of wine will spill on me and I like to lick it off.
S: Do you ever get drunk?
G: I don’t think so. What does that mean?
S: Like, you slobber and fall asleep on the floor. And sometimes you pee inappropriately.
G: Well, I do all those things anyway, so I guess I get drunk.
S: What do you think of social media?
G: It’s very nice, but you can’t eat it, so that limits its usefulness, as far as I’m concerned. And if the social media crowd doesn’t like my answer, they can rub my tummy!
S: What’s the best part of living with a wine critic?
G: Being with him 24/7!
S: And what’s the downside?
G: I don’t like it when he’s recycling those bottles. So noisy!
S: Besides your Daddy, who’s your favorite wine critic?
G: Jancis Doginson. Only I can’t afford her purple pages because my Daddy doesn’t give me any money.
S: What do you think of Parker?
G: Does he make bacon?
S: No, he’s from Monckton.
G: I never had any Monckton. I like bacon.
S: What’s the best wine to drink with bacon?
S: Gus, do you ever feel like you’re losing your mind?
G: Sometimes, but then I look at my Daddy and I feel pretty normal.
S: Do you help your Daddy come up with ideas for his blog?
G: I want him to change it from a BLOG to a DLOG. That’s much nicer, don’t you think?
S: Who’s the cook in the Heimoff household, you or your Daddy?
G: Well, Daddy prepares most of the food himself, but I help him keep the kitchen tidy by eating any little tidbits that fall to the floor.
S: Do you like the Riedel “O” or do you prefer a glass with a stem?
G: Actually, scientific research has proven that wine tastes best when it’s lapped up from a plastic bowl.
S: I did not know that.
G: Now you do.
S: How does it feel to be such a famous dog in wine circles?
G: I like it. I get lots of belly rubs. But don’t ask for my autograph, because I don’t know how to write!
S: Finally, Gus, if you could be a tree, what kind of tree would you be?
G: That’s an easy one. Dogwood!
Yesterday’s Winery P.R. class, led by Rusty Eddy at the University of California, Davis, was a great success. I’ve been a speaker there for many years, and always enjoy interacting with the students, who for the most part are aspiring or actual winery public relations agents, or winery owners, or even social media consultants.
This year Rusty asked me to address some questions. Here are five, with my summarized answers:
How important to you is a good/unique winery story?
The conventional PR wisdom is that the winery needs to tell a “good story” or a “unique story” in order to capture media attention. That’s partly true, but I’m here to tell you why there’s less to this than meets the eye. I get pitched all the time about “stories” and to tell you the truth, they all start to sound alike. “Bill was a great success in [fill in the blank: investment banking, high tech, selling widgets] but one day, he and his wife, Sally, were visiting [fill in the blank, Napa Valley, the Russian River Valley, Santa Barbara] when they came across a [fill in the blank, lovely piece of land, gorgeous house, vineyard]. They decided to radically change their life, and…”. Etc. etc. So for me, personally, a “good story” isn’t terribly important. There’s something else, too: I’m a writer. My task when interviewing someone is to look for the most interesting aspects of their life, and then explore them. It doesn’t matter what official “story” the P.R. advisor has devised in advance: the story will become what I find in my autopsy of the subject’s life, achievements and character.
How important to you is a good/socially adept winery spokesperson?
I’d rather deal with a socially adept spokesperson than an incompetent one! The truth is, the vast majority of winery spokespersons are cordial and smart. I don’t really want a winery spokesperson to do anything for me, except assist with my needs [getting info, samples, arranging a visit]. I don’t particularly like it when a PR person sits in on an interview or tasting with me and the winemaker. The winemaker isn’t comfortable being scrutinized, and may be so guarded in his remarks that it effectively kills the chance for a good interview.
How has winery public relations changed in practice over the last ten years
I don’t think winery PR has changed much. Obviously the tools are different [social media] and this necessitates different skills. But the actual practice remains the same. Get your clients out in front of the media. Get good coverage, if you can. Be active, not passive.
How have wine media people/writers/news outlets changed over the last ten years?
The biggest change, again, is obvious: there’s a new generation of Millennials in the wine critic/writing business. This shouldn’t come as a shock! Every 15 or 20 years, it happens, and it’s happening again. As for new news outlets, obviously the existence of a thousand wine blogs means that wineries have vastly more opportunities for publicity. On the other hand, most of these blogs have little influence with the buying public. So if you’re in charge of that sort of thing at a winery, you have to do your homework and know which blogs are the real thing, and which ones aren’t.
What is the one most critical part of a successful small winery PR effort, assuming excellent wine quality to begin with?
When I look back over recent years, the most successful winery PR efforts have been those that involved social media, and then went viral, like Murphy-Goode’s “A Really Goode Job” contest. Another effort that comes to mind is Lisa Mattson’s work with Jordan Winery and their YouTubes, which have given the winery widespread visibility. The challenge with these efforts, especially single-episode ones like A Really Goode Job, is to maintain the momentum as time passes. That can be very hard. It’s not easy coming up with brilliant social media ideas.
Everybody else is making their top list, so why not me? I’ve never done it before, so here goes. And not just one, but two. All reviews have been published in Wine Enthusiast, with the identical score. In this post, I’ve shortened the descriptions a little.
First, the top wines: ageable and classic.
Williams Selyem 2010 30th Anniversary Cuvée Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir. 97 points, 25 cases produced, 13.8% alcohol, $125. If you think great Pinot Noir has to come from a single vineyard, this wine will set you straight. It’s a blend of Bob Cabral’s various vineyards, and he has access to some of the greatest in the Russian River Valley.
W.H. Smith 2010 Hellenthal Vineyard Pinot Noir. 96 points, 241 cases, 14.2%, $48. The vineyard is way out there in the Fort Ross-Seaview section of the Far Sonoma Coast, in the neighborhood of Hirsch, Flowers and Failla. The wine is classic coastal, and at this price, a great bargain, and quite cellar-worthy.
Terra Valentine 2010 K-Block Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon. 95 points, 106 cases, 14.9%, $65. I like Terra Valentine. They always make great wine and their prices have remained modest, by Napa standards. This is not just a lovely Cab, it’s ageable too.
Stonestreet 2010 Rockfall Cabernet Sauvignon. 95 points, 2331 cases, 14.5%, $100. Just to prove that Napa Valley doesn’t have the lock on ageable Cabernet. Of course, the winery’s Alexander Valley appellation hides the fact that the high mountain vineyard is actually just on the Sonoma side of the Mayacamas Mountains, giving the wine something of a Spring or Diamond Mountain tannic intensity.
Merry Edwards 2010 Meredith Estate Pinot Noir. 95 points, 1450 cases, 14.2%, $57. Year in and year out, Merry Edwards rocks. The cool vintage shows in the tangy acidity, which makes this wine so racy and pure.
Clendenen 2005 Bricco Buon Natale Nebbiolo. 95 points, 418 cases, 13.5%, $50. You can count successful California Nebbs on one hand. This is surely among the best the state ever has produced. I believe the grapes are from Bien Nacido. The wine is luscious and spectacular and, at eight years of age, still has a long future.
Testarossa 2010 Rincon Vineyard Chardonnay. 95 points, 229 cases, 14.4%, $39. Talley’s version of Rincon Chard is more famous, but now the peripatetic Testarossa, always on the lookout for a great vineyard, gets to dip into this Arroyo Grande property. Mmmmmmm good, so tart and fruity.
Robert Mondavi 2011 Fumé Blanc. 95 points, 1975 cases, 14.5%, $32. The appellation is Oakville, and I suspect that a good portion of the grapes come from To Kalon. What style and class you have here. I just wish all California Sauvignon Blancs were this dry and racy.
Nickel & Nickel 2010 Harris Vineyard Merlot. 95 points, 1639 cases, 14.3%, $53. I’m not the biggest Merlot fan ever, but you have to give credit to this single-vineyard, Oakville-grown wine. It’s intense, tannic and almost sweet in liqueur and oak notes, yet the finish is dry and complex.
Sanguis 2011 Incandescent Proprietary White Wine. 94 points, 275 cases, 14.3%, $50. The iconoclastic Matthias Pippig likes to shatter expectations with weird blends that shouldn’t work, but do. This one’s Roussanne, Chardonnay and Viognier, grown in Santa Barbara County. It scores high on the Wow! factor.
Next, ten Best Buys of 2013.
Kendall-Jackson 2011 Avant Chardonnay. 90 points, 84,000 cases, 13.5%, $15. It’s not quite sweet, not quite dry, but somewhere in the middle. Another inexpensive success story from K-J.
Firestone 2010 Gewurztraminer. 90 points, 1474 cases, 13.5%, $14. This Gewurz has all the spicy power you want in the variety. It’s from the Santa Ynez Valley.
Chalone 2011 Pinot Noir. 90 points, 40,000 cases, 13.5%, $15. Lord knows, there aren’t many decent Pinots at this price point. But Chalone knows from Pinot Noir. This is a good one, from Monterey County.
Vina Robles 2012 Sauvignon Blanc. 90 points, 2583 cases, 14.3%, $14. So tangy, clean and citrusy, it doesn’t need oak to succeed, which it does. Brilliantly.
Luli 2012 Rosé. 90 points, 610 cases, 14%, $15. The appellation is Central Coast, and the blend is Grenache and Pinot Noir. I’m a big critic of sweet, flaccid California rosés, but this is just the opposite. Dry, crisp and delicate.
Bogle 2010 Old Vine Zinfandel. 89 points, 240,000 cases, 14.5%, $11. Bogle knows exactly how to make good Zin at large case production numbers. I suspect the fruit, or most of it, comes from the valley or the Delta. Whatever, this is a sure-fire bargain.
Bailiwick 2012 Vermentino. 90 points, 325 cases, 13.5%, $15. California needs more wines like this. Dry, crisp, minerally and fruity, the perfect antidote to oaky Chardonnay or sweet Sauvignon Blanc.
Marilyn 2011 Norma Jean Merlot. 88 points, 4000 cases, 12.5%, $12. Enjoy this polished, supple, fruity Merlot, then keep the bottle as a souvenir. Marilyn Monroe remains as beautiful and mysterious as she was fifty years ago.
HandCraft 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon. 88 points, 7500 cases, 12.5%, $13. When I blogged the other day about how high-scoring wines aren’t always best for food, this is the kind of Cab I had in mind. From the Indelicato family.
Pepi 2012 Pinot Grigio. 87 points, 15,000 cases, 13%, $10. Just what an everyday PG should be: honeyed yet dry, crisp and utterly drinkable. Bring on the Thai food.
I travel to U.C. Davis this week once again for my old friend, Rusty Eddy, with his winery P.R class. He’s done this for years, and it’s always great fun.
This year, for the first time, the class spans over two days, Thursday and Friday. Friday, when I won’t be there, is devoted to what Rusty calls implementation. This is where the rubber hits the road. Instead of just telling these students what to do, Friday’s session will instruct them in the nuts and bolts of how to do it. I don’t know about you, but I myself need hands-on guidance when it comes to learning how to do stuff. For example, I’m getting better at recording on my new Yamaha P155 digital piano, but I find the manual useless. I need someone who knows his way around that piano to stand right next to me and tell me exactly what to do.
I won’t be there for the Friday class, but I’m sure that Paul Mabray wishes I was. : > Last year, we were both there on the same day, and some people were billing it as some kind of mixed martial arts smackdown: Ladeez and Gents: Step right up this way to see the most sensational, knock-down, drag-out battle in the history of social media-dumb. In this corner, the old dinosaur, who’s been around for a long time but still has a few tricks up his sleeve. In this corner the new pheenom, who came out of nowhere and is anxious to kick butt. Place your bets, ladeez and gents!
Well, of course that’s not how it was last year. Although there were some tense moments, overall it was a respectful exchange of ideas. Paul was frustrated that I tend to question some of his basic premises having to do with the efficacy of social media for wineries. And so the energy level in the room rose to a certain level, but it was nothing that grownups can’t handle.
But this year, no Paul and Steve in the same room! Instead, my co-panelists are Virginie Boone, my wonderful “other half” here in California for Wine Enthusiast, whom Rusty is also billing for her roles at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and the new Sonoma Magazine (what a great portfolio); and someone I don’t know, Steve Boone, of O’Donnell Lane, which calls itself a lifestyle company specializing in strategic planning, marketing and communications for the wine industry. As someone who has some skepticism about consultants like that (their job, after all, is to persuade potential customers that they, the consultants, have something the potential customer desperately needs, which may or may not be true), I’m all ears to hear Steve’s presentation.
My own presentation will be to describe the world of winery P.R. into which these Davis students are entering as realistically as possible. As someone on the receiving end of countless pitches, I feel I have some insight into what works and what doesn’t. Of course, that’s just me. A pitch that bores me might turn someone else on. On the other hand, it does seem to me that it would be pretty valuable for someone to successfully pitch me for a spot in the magazine, since that is very expensive real estate. An article, even a small one, in Wine Enthusiast will bring a winery vaster coverage than a hundred blogs ever could.
I do plan on taking a few minutes at the end of my presentation to tell the students my views on social media: the good, the bad and the ugly. As some of you may know, I routinely come under some pretty fierce attack on twitter and in blogs for failing to be a 100% card-carrying social mediaist. Sometimes these attacks are pretty ad hominem–you know, when you can’t debate someone’s points, then attack their personality. Alder Yarrow the other day–a fellow I’ve always tried to be nice to–called me a Chihuahua. Now, I am not offended. My family is not offended. But Gus, who is part Chihuahua, has taken this hard.
Alder’s rather sad remark shows how the conversation about the value of social media can really deteriorate into childish name calling, when its proponents lose their moorings and hit that “send” button before they’ve had a chance to sober up and be reflective. Alder claims to be “infuriated” by the questions I ask about social media. I wonder why. That’s such an extreme, irrational emotion. Infuriated? I mean, really…the Taliban gets infuriated. Adult Americans don’t. And Alder’s not the only one. Maybe someday someone will explain to me why these social mediaists have so much personal pathology bound up in it, and why they can’t tolerate even well-meaning, constructive criticism from a simple, likeable guy like me.
Some interesting comments from yesterday’s post, in which I suggested that some of these top-scoring Cabs don’t pair all that versatilely with many foods.
If that’s so, a few readers wondered, then why give them high scores?
Fair enough. By way of explanation, I need to put the whole concept of wine reviewing into some historical context. The world always has had wine critics, whether they were poets and physicians in the ancient world who advised Caesars what to drink, Thomas Jefferson who was such a gadfly when it came to French wines, or that amazing crop of American wine writers who came of age after the Repeal of Prohibition to educate a thirsty but ignorant country about the intricacies of wine.
Even with today’s modern sophistication of big publishing, social media and the like, we wine critics haven’t changed all that much. We’re just simple folk with an outsized affection for vino, doing our best to write about it, and lucky enough to have access to a lot more of it than the average Joe or Jane.
Now, I will admit to being an inheritor of a system in which certain wines are routinely experienced as “better” or “superior” to all others. This in itself is anti-democratic (with a small “d”). In fact, it’s downright elitist. And while I personally abhor economic elitism, I do recognize that in other spheres, it has its place. We have elite athletes, whom we love to watch on T.V. We have elite universities, elite clothing and elite technology, elite vacation destinations, elite neighborhoods in our cities, elite rock stars and elites among the intellectual classes. So “elite” is a fact of human existence, no matter how you feel about it.
In this system I fell into, wines like Classified Growth Bordeaux, top-ranked Burgundy, grand Champagnes, Riojas, Barolos, cult Napa Cabernets and so on are automatically granted the top place. Is it fair? Maybe, maybe not. But you have to start someplace in creating a hierarchy if you’re going to judge anything–otherwise, everything is the same, which does no one any good. So it makes it a lot easier if a majority of the world’s critics agree as to the top ranks of the hierarchy (even if we may disagree about individual wines). At least, we’ve created a lingua franca in which we can have a coherent discussion.
Now, once upon a time the top wines of Old Europe might have been more drinkable with food than are today’s Napa Cabs, for instance. In fact, there’s every reason to believe that part of what made Thomas Jefferson like top Bordeaux so much is that it was cleaner and more technically correct than some of its neighbors (and so, by the way, was his food), which may have had actual faults. Today, the situation is completely changed. Few wines have technical faults, at least in California. So what the elite wines have had to do is not only be cleaner and more correct than everything else, they’ve has to become something that the other wines cannot be, whether for reasons of terroir or expense. And that is what we mean by the big, opulent, modern Napa style of cult Cabernet (as well as its high alcohol). When it’s done well, it truly is impressive–but it’s not always done well, and when the job is botched, the result is clumsy.
The problem, of course, is that the big, opulent style is so powerful in itself that it’s practically a food group. That’s what I wrote about yesterday, when I said if I was cooking something at home to go with a huge Cab, I’d probably stick to grilled steak. That doesn’t mean just the steak and nothing else. I might try and steal a beat from Gary Danko and fancy it up, filleting some tenderloin and serving it with potato gratin, Swiss chard, cassis-glazed shallots and Stilton butter. But so many things could go wrong with such a complex dish that I’d probably decide beforehand not to even try, and keep things simple: since I live in a condo and can’t barbecue, I’d sear the steak in a heavy skillet, toss it with some brown butter, salt and pepper, maybe glaze some onions or sauté a Portobello, and keep my fingers crossed that the marriage between the food and, say, the Shafer Hillside Select would be a happy one. On the other hand, if I poured a nice Zinfandel with the filet, I think everyone would be happy, with a lot less at risk. The K.I.S.S. formula is a good one.
The thing to understand is that these elite wines are meant to be understood on their own. I don’t want any producers to get mad at me when I say that, but it’s true: the amount of work and artistry that goes into them is such that they don’t need a whole lot of anything to help them along. In fact, the more you try to help them with food, the more you reduce them to ordinariness. And there’s nothing sadder than opening a bottle of expensive wine, only to find that it performs in a mediocre way at the table.
Some of my commenters fastened on these points and made interesting suggestions. (I don’t want to name names because I don’t have their permission, but you can read them yourself in yesterday’s post.) B.__ suggested I make a note in my reviews that certain wines are “cocktail wines,” rather than food wines. S.___ strongly agreed. G.___ raised the delicate issue of point scores: that wines meant to go with food get lower scores than do “stand-alone wines.”
These are a good points. One problem that comes to mind, though, is that we would have to agree on what is a “cocktail” wine versus a “table” wine. I can see me describing a wine as “cocktail” and raising the infuriated hackles of the winemaker who made it! I don’t think any winemaker in the world thinks of himself as a “cocktail-winemaker.” So we can throw out the “cocktail” word. It’s a non-starter.
No, I think the best way to communicate to people the idea that “with food pairing, the highest scoring wine isn’t always the best” is to say it over and over again, until it sinks into peoples’ heads. Also, to point out in the text of the review (I would hope people read the text, not just the point score!). It’s in the text, with all its word-space limitations, that I try to convey my thoughts about food. I like the word “versatile.” It means a wine (like that Hendry Zin) that will go with just about everything in a particular style (red, white, light and delicate, full-bodied, tannic, whatever, etc.). Happily, more and more restaurants are beginning to divide their wine lists up into helpful categories like that.