How can a wine be better than 100 points?
It was out of the mouths of babes — or, in this case, my cousin Keith — that this interesting question sprang.
We were on our annual drive down to Malibu, where we always do Thanksgiving at Ellen’s house with the rest of the Southern California branch of the family. I was telling Keith and Maxine, his wife, about how I’d just given a rare 100 point score to a certain wine — a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
“Is it ageable?” Maxine asked. I assured her it was.
That’s when Keith asked, ever so innocently, “Why would you want to age it, if it’s a 100 point wine? I mean, how much better can it get?”
Well, I get asked a lot of questions about wine, and some of them are pretty lame. There’s a relative who always asks me what she should drink at Thanksgiving. I mean, I open 10 bottles — a little of this, a little of that — and tell people to grab whatever you want, it doesn’t matter when the table is laden with everything from cheese croquettes and cranberry sauce to green beans, mashed potatoes, cornbread stuffing, fruit, green salad, chocolate chip cookies and, of course, the turkey itself. But this relative always insists that I help her decide which is the perfect wine to have with it all, which is something I just can’t do, and anyway is antithetical to the whole spirit of a Thanksgiving family meal.
But Keith’s question came down like a thunderbolt. How much better can it get?
Of course, this introduces the concept of aging wine. Strangely enough, I found myself struggling to explain to Keith and Maxine what the answer was. I said something like, “Well, it’s 100 points because it was the best wine in a blind tasting of 52 top Napa Cabs I tasted last week, and structurally and in every other respect, it blew away the competition. But it could get even better with time in the cellar.”
In other words, it was a perfect wine, in both what it was and what I believed it will be. But then, why would I advise readers to cellar it? Does 100 refer to now, or to some theoretical future point?
At Wine Enthusiast we’re encouraged to rate wines based on their potential. But since all of us are merely human, and lack crystal balls, precise predictions are precarious. I’ve written before how disappointed I’ve been by California wines I expected to age that didn’t. So here’s my rule: when I give a red wine 100 points, it’s based on a combination of hedonism, which is the “wow now” factor, and optimism, which is my belief in its future.
When a great young wine ages, it undergoes complicated chemical transformations that change its character. The truth is, sometimes a perfect wine doesn’t age as we expected or hoped. I’ve been let down more than I’ve been thrilled by older wines. Aging wine is always a gamble; one can’t stress this enough. It’s utterly counter-intuitive to the average person’s belief that aging always makes wine better and that any wine can be aged. Not so in either case. It’s also true that California wines are being made softer and riper (more alcoholic) and sweeter (apparently so, if not technically so) than at any time in the past, so when a critic says such-and-such a Cabernet will live for 15-20 years, the wise reader should see it for what it is: an educated guess, or, more properly speaking, a hope. But nobody really knows.
So when I gave 100 points to that wine Keith was talking about, the sub-text readers should infer — and the answer to Keith’s question — is this: This is a perfect wine now, with, of course, the proper food to accompany it. It is absolutely the finest expression of its variety and terroir as anything in California today. It is also tannic, so if you’re sensitive to tannins, you’ll find it puckery and tough. It will not die an easy death. It will be with us for a long time. But can I guarantee that you’ll love it in 8 or 12 or 15 years? Nope. Can I guarantee anyone will? Nope. When it comes to predicting the future of California wines, we have the (mostly-nearsighted) blind leading the blind. That 100 point Cabernet could someday be so astonishing that everybody who tastes it — Keith, Maxine, me — will fall to our knees and lift our hands and sing hosannahs to the God of Wine who created such a masterpiece. But more likely is it that Keith, in 12 or 15 years, will taste that wine and ask his cousin Stevie, “Why did you say this was ageable?”
Keith, Maxine, Ellen, Steve, on Big Rock, in Malibu