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Do wine critics always “critique” the wines they drink?

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I suppose the general public, and even professionals in the wine industry, think that critics (or former critics) analyze every wine they drink, whether it’s in a restaurant setting or just something at home, in front of the television.

Well, I don’t…and yet, in another sense, I do. Let me explain.

If I’m at somebody’s house and they’re pouring something that I know is inexpensive, of course I would never complain about it, even if I thought it was dreadful. But usually, it’s not dreadful. There are very, very few dreadful wines anymore in the U.S. distribution system, regardless of what country it’s from. Americans have very discerning taste when it comes to wine; even people who say “I don’t know anything about wine” know more than they think they do. What they want is a decent wine, and for the most part, that’s what they get in supermarkets, big boxes and even in most local wine shops.

I can deal with a decent wine. In fact, I can quite enjoy one. I happily take off my (former) critic’s hat and go with the flow. Now, I might, somewhere in the back of my head, think, “This is a pretty ordinary wine, and if I was scoring it, I’d give it 84 points.” But that’s a fleeting thought, and I wouldn’t hold it against the wine, or my host.

The critical mindset is a very specific one. For me, it’s reserved for the circumstance of formal tasting. When I know I’m tasting for a professional reason, I definitely enter into Critic Mode, which is inherently a negative state. That means that I’m looking for anything and everything wrong with the wine. And believe me, most wines, probably 99.9%, have something wrong with them. Sometimes, this wrongness is glaring: exceptionally high brett, or searing acidity, or massive domination by oak, or something equally awful. But most of the time, the problem with a wine is minor. It’s the sort of thing most wine drinkers wouldn’t even notice—which is as it should be. But, when I’m in Critic Mode, I notice the slightest fault. That’s why I’ve given so few 100 point scores to wines. Most wines have some kind of fault, which automatically makes them less than perfection.

But, like I said, for me to go into Critic Mode is extremely rare. It’s the same with movie critics. I love our local film reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle. People sometimes ask him if he can just “go to the movies” and not be critical, and he says, Sure he can. That doesn’t mean that he won’t perceive some weird plot thing that makes no sense, or bad acting, or something else. His brain is trained to do that, as mine is trained to detect faults in wine. But it doesn’t make him walk out of the theatre. He can enjoy a film even though it has little glitches here and there.

The interesting thing, for me, is that, if I’m at a party at your house and you give me a glass of wine that, under critical circumstances, I might score at 100 points, I’m not sure that I would be overwhelmed by it under non-critical conditions. I’d probably think that it was a very good wine, and I might ask you what it was; but, since I wouldn’t be in Critic Mode, I wouldn’t be going into overdrive praising it. That would be inappropriate for a social setting. If you invite me to your house for dinner or a party, it’s not a winetasting event, it’s a social event at which wine is incidental. What this suggests to me is that finding perfection in a wine is possible only when you’re in Critic Mode, which is a Heisenberginan phenomenon: you tend to find what you’re looking for (physicians found the Higgs boson because they were looking for it). This has a further implication: it means that, if you’re not looking for a 100-point wine, then you probably won’t find one, even if you’re a critic. The 100-point wine, then, exists, not in the real world, but in the critic’s mind.


What happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas!

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My voice may never be the same after today’s wine event at the M Resort and Casino in Henderson, just outside Las Vegas. It was in a large banquet room and they had six of us “experts” each presiding over a tasting station. Each of us had a dozen guests at a time (general managers of restaurants) coming through six times (a total of 72 in all), so I had to repeat the same tasting six times, which was great fun—don’t get me wrong—but the other experts were doing the same thing, the acoustics were pretty bad, and so we were all hollering at the top of our lungs. That comes easy to Larry O’Brien, M.S., who—as I told someone—is invariably referred to as the Great Larry O’Brien. He’s got a big, booming voice. I’m small; fortunately, I do have that Bronx thing which can out-yell almost anyone, but after two hours of hollering, I just know tomorrow I’ll be hoarse as a frog. Oh well. That’s the occupational hazard to this job and you know what? I don’t care. What a fantastic time!

My topic was comparing mountain and benchland Cabernet Sauvignons in Napa Valley. Most of the GMs, I’m told, have completed some early phase of the WSET, so they have some general knowledge of wine. My mountain wine was 2011 Mount Brave and my bench wine was 2004 Freemark Abbey Bosché.

When I do these sorts of presentations, I like to involve my audience by having them answer questions–testing  their knowledge, and encouraging them to think. So I asked each of my six groups to tell me one thing they know about mountain soils. What I was driving at was, of course, the lack of water-holding capacity: the aridity and low nutrient value, the runoff. Instead, four people in four of my groups responded with the same word: “Rocks.” (The other two groups didn’t want to say anything.) I thought that was interesting. Yes, mountain soils often are rocky—but flatland soils can be, too. But it wasn’t what I was looking for. Anyway, “rocks” was a good enough segue to get into the water-holding capacity (or lack thereof) of mountain dirt, so all was good. Incidentally, that ’11 Mt. Brave absolutely rocked. The ’04 Bosché was pretty good, having entered a secondary phase, and I’d drink it anytime with roast chicken. But OMG was that Mt. Brave awesome, and three of the GMs volunteered to me how much they like Mt. Brave.

Here’s a picture of some of the folks after our session.

people

I hadn’t been to Vegas in a long time and it kind of freaks me out. For one thing, it’s insane the way the irrigated landscapes are surrounded by desert.

desert

I mean, nature obviously doesn’t intend for anything to grow here except creosote or whatever those scrubby little bushes are, yet Vegas is an explosion of golf courses, parks, grassy yards and swimming pools, not to mention the insatiable water need of the hotels. And I saw all sorts of billboards advertising future planned communities. Where are they gonna get the water? My driver told me they’re hoping for a big El Nino this year, same as we are in California. Good luck.

Then there’s the casino. They wouldn’t let me take pictures, but it’s sad, very sad. Isolated, unhealthy-looking people throwing their money away, staring into computerized machines like zombies. I’ve seen the commercials showing beautiful, sexy young men and women at the tables and slots, laughing and hitting jackpots, having the time of their lives, but I didn’t see anything remotely like that. All the lonely people, where do they all come from? Then I think: Who am I to judge? Are they any different from me watching TV for hours?

Tonight, it’s onto some well-deserved sushi for dinner, a vodka gimlet, and then back home tomorrow to Gus, who’s lucky enough to be watched by my cousins. They tell me Gus is lonely for me. I am for him, too.

Gus

Have a great day. Back tomorrow.


The San Francisco Chronicle’s wine coverage, and Vegas, here I come!

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I got my Sunday San Francisco Chronicle and, what do you know, there was an entire section on California Wine! Sixteen pages. That’s the most wine coverage I’ve seen in the paper in years. Maybe they got the message—not just from me, but from others, including the Napa Register’s Paul Franson–about how skimpy their wine writing has been. I don’t know, but Sunday’s section was a welcome surprise.

Still no appearance by their supposed new wine writer, Esther Mobley. Maybe she’s getting up to speed. [EDITOR’S NOTE: I’ve since learned that Ms. Mobley had an article on Aug. 15.] There were several articles by local freelance writers; I particularly liked Luke Sykora’s on the drought. But it’s not clear whether this new, expanded coverage will be permanent. Maybe not; on the paper’s website, the wine section is tagged under “California Wine Month,” which is officially this September.

* * *

Meanwhile, as part of my Jackson Family wines job, I’m off to Las Vegas for Darden’s Specialty Restaurant Group conference at the M Resort. (Darden owns everything from Olive Garden to The Capital Grille.) I’ll be doing a seminar on Napa Valley mountain Cabernet Sauvignon “versus” Napa Valley valley floor Cabernet.

I put “versus” into quotation marks, because I don’t see this as a contest. Valley floor used to have a negative connotation (inherited from Europe, I guess, where the best vines are on slopes), but with modern viticultural and enological techniques, valley floor Cab can be quite good. Witness Beckstoffer’s Georges III Vineyard, close by the Conn Creek, in the Rutherford flats.

The two wines I’ll be presenting are Mount Brave, way up (1,600-1,800 feet) on Mount Veeder, which obviously is the mountain wine, and Freemark Abbey Bosché, which is not strictly speaking a “valley floor” wine but is on the Rutherford bench. (I think that one of these days there ought to be “Bench” appellations for Oakville and Rutherford, and possibly Yountville too, but politically, it probably won’t happen.) The main difference between viticulture in the mountains and the floor is that, in the latter, the soils are richer, so growers will often force the vines to struggle by dry-farming them. Growers also can leave more clusters on valley floor vines because the canopies are more extensive and can support more fruit. Of course, up in the mountains, there’s less fog and more sunlight, but as we’ve seen, this is a mixed blessing. The vines up there can bake in a heat wave. Mountain Cabs also tend to be more tannic than floor or benchland wines, so winemakers have to deal with that—typically, by letting the fruit hang longer, and then doing “aerative pumpovers” to expose the juice to more oxygen.

If I can tear myself away from the casinos and the nightclubs, I’ll be reporting from Vegas. Or, maybe not. What happens in Vegas…


A wine and food festival in The Bronx

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The Bronx Wine and Food Festival! Who woulda thunk?

I am a proud Bronxite. I lived at 760 Grand Concourse for seventeen years, in the same 4-room apartment with my parents and older sister. It wasn’t until I went away to college, in Massachusetts, that I left The Bronx—and even then, I returned often to my parents’ apartment, on holidays. So I know the Bronx inside out—and believe me, The Bronx is the last place on earth I ever expected to have a wine and food festival! (Well, maybe Kabul is more unlikely…but not by much.)

When I lived there, The Bronx was home to the greatest number of Jews in the world, outside Israel. But it was a very ghettoized borough. Across the tracks, in the East Bronx, were the Puerto Rican neighborhoods. Scattered here and there through central and North Bronx were Italian and Irish enclaves, marked by the presence of 19th century Catholic churches constructed invariably of red brick. There were African-Americans, but not many: in those years, black people tended to live in Harlem.

In other words, these were not populations that drank wine! But they did celebrate their food traditions. Jewish “culinary” tradition consisted of the foods our Eastern European and Russian ancestors ate in the shtetl—what we today would call “deli”: lox, smoked whitefish, brisket, egg noodles, bagels and lox, boiled meats like corned beef and pastrami.

Over the decades after I left, The Bronx, particularly the southern end where I grew up, went through another demographic shift. The Jews left; Puerto Ricans and other Caribbean nationalities (Haitian, Dominican) moved in. Once, when I visited my old homestead in the late 1990s, most signs of the Jewish past had disappeared: there were bodegas instead of delis, but what was eerie was that the infrastructure of my childhood—the six-story apartment buildings, the old wrought-iron lampposts, Joyce Kilmer and Franz Siegel parks, the imposing statuary of The Bronx County Court House—remained. It was a very emotional visit.

Since then, I’ve followed media reports on how The Bronx has become “the new Brooklyn,” with invasions of yuppies taking advantage of cheap rents and easy subway access to midtown and downtown Manhattan. (They also call Oakland “the new Brooklyn.”) It is, I suppose, this upscale-ization of The Bronx that prompted the organizers to launch this Bronx Wine and Food Festival, which occurs in conjunction with—hold your breath—Bronx Fashion Week.

Well, The Bronx as cultural hatchery is nothing new. My borough was the home of Hip Hop; also of Anne Bancroft, Carl Reiner, Penny Marshall, Gen. Colin Powell, Calvin Klein, Dominic Chianese, Tony Curtis, Ralph Lauren, John F. Kennedy (yes, he was born in the Riverdale section). E.L. Doctorow, Danny Aiello, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Incidentally, why do I capitalize “The” on “The Bronx”? Because we were taught as schoolkids that the borough was named after an early Dutch settler, Jonas Bronck. He had a farm up there when it was all countryside. If people from Manhattan visited Jonas, they’d say they were going up to “The Bronck’s place.” “Bronck’s” became “Bronx,” while the use of “the” was akin to the way in San Francisco they say “The Mission” (for the Mission District) or The Sunset (for the Sunset District).

I’d love to go to The Bronx Wine and Food Festival. I won’t make it this year: maybe in 2016!


The struggle of small wineries

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This is a sad story, told by the Vancouver Sun, about a small British Columbia winery’s legitimate fear that it may get squeezed out of the market. It’s the same old story: Getting harder and harder to compete with the big wineries in shelf space, distribution and price.

When I read a tale like this, my heart goes out to the proprietors. It’s never been easy to sell wine (in either Canada or the U.S.), but it’s getting more difficult. I can’t imagine how emotionally upsetting it must be to put your heart and mind into building a small family winery, then find yourself in danger of losing everything, through no fault of your own.

There are a couple ways small wineries can fight back. One is, obviously, to focus on direct sales. Everybody I know is doing that, but it’s an uphill battle. DTC is trickier than it sounds. You can’t just build a website, start tweeting and Facebooking, and expect customers to flock to your door. It takes years of continuous effort, and even then, there are no guarantees. Of course, if you’re located on a busy road in a popular wine region, you can sell a lot of wine out the door. But not everyone is, especially in a place like British Columbia.

Nor is getting shelf space any easier, particularly in smaller cities and towns and more rural parts of the country. I suppose there’s some motive for a store to sell the local wines, but there’s probably more profit for them to sell distributor’s wines from large wine companies. Here in California wine country, I know that local markets do try to stock the local stuff. But the fact is that small family wineries generally have to charge more for their wine than a big wine company.

Here’s a shocking statement from the Vancouver Sun article: it costs [small wineries] somewhere between $10 and $12 to produce a bottle of wine. If the price point drops below $17, a lot of them are going to be squeezed out of business.” It’s not clear to me if that “below $17” price point is wholesale or retail, but either way, those little wineries up in B.C. seem like they’re facing almost insurmountable odds against them.

In California, small wineries can get away with charging a higher price than they can in British Columbia, but even so they face a dilemma: Do they go up against the popular premium-priced wines from big wine companies (which is virtually impossible, and would probably mean they’d have to sacrifice quality)? Or do they produce a quality wine that costs more than a comparable wine from a big company? There will always be consumers that prefer to buy a wine from a smaller winery, even if it’s more expensive than they want to pay for, simply because it’s a small winery.

But the majority of American wine drinkers are looking for something affordable, and that’s exactly where the big wineries have the upper hand. With their economies of scale and ability to sink their profits into better farming and technology, the big wineries seem destined to grab more and more of the profits.

The only way out—and fortunately, it’s not a complete fantasy—is this current “artisanal” or “craft” movement we see that happened first in beer, then spread to spirits and, finally, wine. It’s wonderful that consumers, mainly younger ones, are committing themselves to products they sense are authentically made by smaller producers. This is not entirely a guarantee of quality, of course, but there is a sense in which small producers understand that the only way for them to compete with the majors is to make wines so good that consumers will happily pay a premium price for them. Of course, there’s an equivalent challenge for big wineries: they, too, have to be artisanal, or at least present the image of homegrown.


Wine Reviews: Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

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We had another of our periodic tastings yesterday, this time of Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs, and I want to focus on a couple of them, to show that stylistic differences in their production—mainly alcohol level—are really irrelevant when it comes to quality.

Consider these four wines, with price, alcohol level and my rating. All the wines were tasted blind.

WALT 2012 The Corners, $75, 15.2%, 91 points.

Kendall-Jackson 2013 Jackson Estate, $30, 14.7%, 94 points.

Anthill 2012 Demuth Vineyard, $46, 12.9%, 96 points.

Littorai 2013 Savoy Vineyard, $70, 12.7%, 95 points.

You can see right off the bat that, for me anyway, the alcohol levels didn’t matter, in the sense that I did not automatically reject the K-J or the WALT as being “unbalanced.”

The WALT was actually a delight. Yes, it didn’t score quite as high as the others—because the alcohol did give it some heaviness—but the flavors were fantastic: cherry pie filling, orange zest, cocoa powder and an exotic teriyaki savoriness. An easy, lush, fat wine that, frankly, expresses a certain California style, and would be fabulous to drink with steak. It’s a shame some people reject that approach: it’s simply one extreme of a spectrum of Cailfornia Pinot Noir.

The other end? How about that Littorai! Sometimes these low alcohol wines can flirt with greenness, but not the Littorai. It had a clear, translucent ruby color, suggesting its delicacy, and what an eruption of flavor and spice. Raspberries, cola, orange zest, a gorgeous, dramatic, silky wine. I’m sure this is the kind of wine the IPOB crowd loves, as well they should: but I wish the cool kids were more open to other styles.

And yet, good as it was, there was the Anthill, which was my wine of the flight (of 14 wines). I remember meeting the Anthill guys years ago and being so impressed by them, so it was nice to see another triumph. The mountain vineyard (Demuth) has been source to many famous Pinot Noirs. This one, with its low alcohol, was a triumph of silk and delicacy, and enormously complex and racy. Just a beautiful wine, and an ager too.

It was, I have to say, a particular delight that the Kendall-Jackson Jackson Estate scored so well, especially since we were tasting at K-J’s chateau and gardens, up in Fulton. Having been a small part of the launch of Jackson Estate, I know how excited K-J and the Jackson Family have been about the launch of Jackson Estate, which they meant to express the finest terroir of their vineyards. Really, the Jackson Estate knocked it out of the park. At 14.7%, it’s not low in alcohol, and yet the wine showed.—well, here are my notes. “A very pretty wine, easy to like. Lots of sweet, upfront raspberries and cherries. Some sweet heirloom tomato and prosciutto. Good acidity, smooth tannins. A bracing, wholesome wine, balanced and charming, with a long, rich finish.”

I might add that the Jackson Estate, at $30 retail, was by far the least expensive wine in the flight, further proof, as I blogged yesterday: “The new normal: just because it’s more expensive doesn’t mean it’s better.”

Did the flight show any particular Anderson Valley character? Not really. The wines were just too different to all be lumped together. Certainly, the uniform high quality testifies to Anderson Valley’s suitability at being included among California’s great coastal, cool-climate wine valleys. There was perhaps a certain mushroomy earthiness in many of the wines that was more prevalent in the Anderson Valley flight than in, say, Santa Rita Hills. One could say, poetically, that Anderson Valley Pinot Noir represents a middle ground between the fruit of Russian River Valley and the earthiness of Willamette Valley. But, as with any great growing area, there were wines that were not particularly successful; two or three were too heavy (despite being expensive), and lacked the vibrancy you want in any wine, especially Pinot Noir. I do not think that’s an Anderson Valley characteristic, though, as much as one of young vines, perhaps, or of the grapes being grown in a warmer spot, or something odd in the fermentation. As for alcohol level, I have to say that my lowest score, 86 points, went, sadly, to the Drew 2013 Morning Dew Ranch, a wine I’d had high expectations for, as the vineyard (not the winery) is Burt Williams post Williams-Selyem project. Its alcohol was a mere 13.3%; I found some vegetal notes. Oddly, the Williams Selyem Morning Dew, made from the same vineyard, I scored at 93 points. But then, its alcohol was 14.1%.

Have a wonderful weekend. Back on Monday.


The new normal: just because it’s more expensive doesn’t mean it’s better

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To have asked the question, “Do expensive wines taste better than inexpensive wines” just twenty years ago would have been absurd. Nobody doubted that they did. Throughout history—from the Greeks and Romans through the Middle Ages to the American Founding Fathers to the post-Prohibition boutique winery era to the rise of the modern critic—the conventional wisdom was that the best wines were the most costly, and vice versa. First Growth Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundy were expensive because of their quality. The implicit assumption, borne out by centuries of experience, was that the greatest terroirs had long been singled out, and therefore, the wines made from them deserved to fetch the highest prices.

Today, to ask the question “Do expensive wines taste better?” has become routine to the point of cliché. Here’s the latest example, from the Providence [Rhode Island] Journal. The author, Fred Tasker, whose column is widely syndicated, doesn’t reach any conclusions. But even to ask the question is to acknowledge that something fundamental has changed in the way Americans perceive wine.

What this “something” is that has changed has everything to do with the times we live in. Authority is breaking down. People mistrust conventional leaders, be they politicians or the pundits who tell us which wines are great and which are not. Social media obviously has accelerated this trend; I don’t think it caused it, because authority was eroding before social media was invented. Now, for the first time in the history of fine wine, people are widely wondering why they should pay so much money for a First Growth or Grand Cru (or cult Napa Valley Cabernet) when study after study proves that not even “experts” can tell the difference between expensive wine and inexpensive wine.

This is a serious issue the wine industry is going to have to address. Speaking as a critic, I can assure you that there are vast quality differences between wines. One bottle of Napa Cab or Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is almost always going to be better (sometimes much better) than another from a different winery, even when the grapes come from the same vineyard. And price does play a role: the higher the price, the more likely the wine is to be better. But I say these things from the point of view of a critic. If I were an ordinary consumer, I’d view people like me as simply defending the old order. “What a dinosaur,” I’d probably think. “He’s so wedded to his notion of things that he can’t see clearly anymore.”

Well, that’s all right. Like I said, authority is breaking down. As part of an “authority regime,” I understand that, and welcome it. Even if I didn’t welcome it, it would come anyway, so I might as well embrace the inevitable instead of fighting it. From a winery’s point of view, this breakdown of authority can be a good thing. The deck is being reshuffled, the playing field is being wiped clean, the chessboard is getting reset. (Stop me before I metaphor again.) What was, is not necessarily what will be. What was not, might be tomorrow. A winery can come from nowhere and suddenly be everybody’s darling. A winery that’s been on top forever could find itself overlooked and ignored, as its fan base ages and dies. Those upholders and defenders of the ancien regime, the Baby Boomer critics, are retiring. Even in the writings of such current writers as Benjamin Lewin, M.W. (whose “Wines of France” I am thoroughly enjoying), I sense a certain reluctance to make sweeping declarations—declarations that Michael Broadbent or Hugh Johnson, or the generations before them, happily would have made.

This movement away from declarations is symptomatic of the breakdown of authority. No longer is it entirely safe to say “Grand Cru is better than Premier Cru” or “First Growth is superior to Second Growth” or “$150 Cabernet is better than $40 Cabernet.” It once perhaps was; no more. Experience, and blind tasting, warn us against such cozy stereotypes.

Still, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. I do think there’s something in the nature of human beings that desires hierarchies. We want to know who’s the best basketball team in the NBA (go, Warriors), which restaurant has the best reviews—and what the best wines are. And we are willing to pay a premium for “the best.” So I think that even in the far-off future, the world of wine will be marked by common perceptions of “the best.” I, personally, believe that Bordeaux is on the way down, which is why the chateaux are marketing so heavily in naïve countries, like China. I think Burgundy may be heading south, too, if for no other reason than that it’s so expensive, no critic can afford to taste it anymore—which means the top wines will show up only in the most elite reviews—and out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes. I think Napa Valley faces the same dilemma, which presents a great opportunity for Cabernets from Sonoma County and Paso Robles.

Anyhow, it’s clear that, with Millennials, we’ve entered a new era. They don’t care what wine was famous for 500 years. They don’t care what region was exalted by their grandfathers. All bets are off. So to ask if an expensive wine is better than an inexpensive wine is the new norm that wineries are going to have to deal with.

 


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