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Thoughts on a few reader comments from yesterday


I want to riff on some points that some readers made yesterday, as they raise issues that I’ve thought long and hard about for 20 years. In response to my post on California terroir, Corey wrote a long comment that included this:

It seems to me that your job as a full-time wine writer and critic should be to expand your understanding and appreciation to the utmost. That is to say, to develop as many independent reference points as possible and to push others with less opportunity to…think outside the “California sunset” box. After all, it’s easy to have a single reference point that we constantly come back to. It’s much harder to appreciate things independently for their own intrinsic qualities. It takes time and energy that most of us don’t have. Isn’t it your grand challenge as a pro to help guide us along and promote our deeper understanding instead of allowing our stagnation on what we already know so well?

And Tom Merle wrote: Trouble is Steve H, following the opening comment by Steve M, many of your readers are fans of Rhone/Spanish/Italian/German etc., etc. varietal wines and with your personal preference for Burgundian and Bordeaux style wines, are you not giving short shrift to these wine enthusiasts of which there are many?

Boiled down, the criticism these two gentlemen are offering of me (if I’m interpreting it correctly) is that (a) I don’t taste enough non-California wines, and therefore (b) I have no reference point except for California’s major varieties, (c) so I’m not doing a good enough job enlightening my writers by educating about (for example) the wines of Rioja or Barolo or Hermitage or the Rhinegau. (I’m sure Corey and/or Tom will let me know if I’ve misinterpreted their points.)

The basic theme here concerns whether a wine critic should have a regular “beat” (in the old newspaper sense) or be a roaming reporter. A critic with a beat focuses on a particular area or variety. For example, Alan Meadows, AKA The Burghound, writes only about Pinot Noir from his beloved Burgundy, as well as wines from California and Oregon. He’s a “beat” wine critic. On the other hand, Jancis Robinson covers the entire world of wine, fltting from Argentine Malbec to St. Estephe to Madeira with the effortless ease of a Cirque du Soleil trapezist.

Is one skill set better than the other? Is Meadows giving “short shrift” to the rest of the world’s wines by concentrating exclusively on Pinot Noir? I don’t think so. One could just as easily ask if Jancis gives short shrift to the complexities of the regions she covers, by looking only at a few top wines from each. With all due respect to Jancis, when’s the last time she tasted through a bunch of Sierra Foothills Zinfandels?

Corey said, “it’s easy to have a single reference point that we constantly come back to. It’s much harder to appreciate things independently for their own intrinsic qualities.” I suppose so, but in wine criticism, the appreciation of things for their own intrinsic qualities represents a slippery slope. Every wine has its intrinsic qualities, no? A Sauvignon Blanc laden with cat pee has the intrinsic quality of cat-peeness. But I’ll never be able to appreciate it and it will always get a low score from me.

Corey asks also “Do you really believe that Cab, Pinot, and Chard are, ‘the greatest’, or is it simply that they have been touted as such louder and longer than any others?” Well, yes, I do believe they’re “the greatest” wines in California. Does that mean I give “short shrift” to Tuscany because California can’t make a decent Sangiovese? Nope. Do I give “short shrift” to Piedmont because California Nebbiolo sucks? Nope. Do I give “short shrift” to the Rhinegau because California Riesling rarely amounts to much? Nope. I could go on and on. You get the point.

Sure, I’m exhibiting some defensiveness. But part of the transparency of this blog and of social media in general is that people like me make for easy targets. Whenever you’re visible, someone is going to pin a “kick me” sign on your butt. And someone else will take advantage of the invitation.

I wish — I really do — that I had more time to taste more of the world’s wines. I actually envy someone like Jancis who can jet her way around the world and taste so many great rarities. But I envy The Burghound, too, who knows more about Pinot Noir than anybody else in the universe, and is a flamboyant speaker, as well. Jancis and Alan both have great jobs. I do too, but readers need to take everything in the context of what it is. You can criticize anything you want for not being other than what it is. Meadows is not a Cabernet guy, or a Tempranillo guy or a Chenin Blanc guy. I suppose he could be, if he set his mind to it, but every bit of energy he put into understanding Tempranillo would be taken away from Pinot Noir. That would make him other than The Burghound, and diminish his worth.

I also really wish California could escape from the chocolate-vanilla cage of Cabernet and Chardonnay and get serious about other varieties. A few winemakers are, here and there, but the market tends to shackle serious efforts to expand our varietal spectrum. That’s too bad. Until that fact changes, I’m going to have to keep Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir as my reference points — wines of quality to which all other California varieties aspire.

  1. Steve-

    You are being to hard on yourself and a wienie in response to some comments.

    Ms. Amy Mumma (Head-World Wine Program @ Central Washington University and Wine Woman of the Year-08′) have had this discussion many times and she concurs that depending on where you ‘cut your teeth’, (i.e. learn to appreciate wine for the first time) your taste will forever be tainted with that Terroir.

    It only stands to reason that if she got her degree in France/tasted the great French Bordeaux blends and I got mine at WAZZU (Washington State University) grow winegrapes in the Columbia Valley AVA/craft Washington Bordeaux blends, our base tastes will differ.

    Hence, it stands to reason that you must become an ‘expert’ for that region and sing the praise/cast the stone if they be good/bad. One should expect nothing more/less.


  2. Steve,

    Can you expand on your last comments. By “get serious about other varieties” do you mean make them taste like a Cab, Pinot, or Chard? I don’t think that’s what your saying, but what’s serious? Thanks.

  3. Articulate and perfectly reasonable response. You’re a specialist. An expert who dives deep in his subject matter. And an entertaining writer. Unnecessary to justify yourself, but I can understand your defensiveness.

    Also, as a guy with a cellar full of mostly California wines I appreciate that you are a champion of sorts for the state.

  4. Matt, no, that’s not what I’m saying. I mean to make a Nebbiolo, say, or a Sangiovese that is flawless. It won’t be Piedmont or Tuscany. It will be California, or wherever in California it comes from. But it will have no flaws. That’s the first thing I usually detect when I’m reviewing wines: flaws. I guess you could say that, the higher a wine scores in my book, the fewer flaws it has.

  5. Gary, you are right!

  6. Steve,

    Thanks for the comments, but no defensiveness required! You lament that, “part of the transparency of this blog and of social media in general is that people like me make for easy targets”. I didn’t intend to make you a target. I’d say that part of the transparency of this blog is that people can have an honest and frank conversation with you about questions that matter to them. That’s a great thing and one that I appreciate!

    The general point I was trying to make is that, as a winemaker focused on a Spanish variatals project, it’s frustrating to know that my wines will be compared, if I understand your previous post correctly, to California’s great Cabs instead of the world’s great Temps. We’ve worked our butts off to pick extraordinary sites, push our winemaking, blah, blah, blah. But what’s the point if a critics tasting note is going to read:

    “Packed with dark cherry, licorice, earth, and leather. A serious wine from a serious vineyard but doesn’t quite measure up to Ann Colgin’s Cabs from the next hill over.”

    Of course not! It’s Tempranillo!

    You seem frustrated that my comments questioned your approach. But you must be able to see that, after re-reading your last post, anyone taking risks in California winemaking might be frustrated as well. The bottom line is that by pushing back against each other, it forces us to think a little about our positions. I hope you think that’s as a good a thing as I do. I love the blog and being able to drop honest comments when I feel strongly about something. After all, isn’t that the point of putting your thoughts out here in such an open forum?

    Thanks again for the response, and hopefully we’re friends again by the time you taste our wines (that give me a year to suck-up 🙂

  7. Besides, these little spats are great for readership. It’s only 9am and you’ve already got three comments!

    So, you’re welcome! I’ll take a check by mail.

  8. It really does not matter whether you are the guru of the western wine world or just the guru of the WE world. It really does not matter that you are not trying to be the wine educator for everyone and everything. In that sense, Tom Merle had it right. And more on Merle in a minute.

    But, what does matter is that you have an educated palate especially for CA wines, an ability to communicate with a wide audience and a passion that gets communicated along with the content.

    Given your mandate with WE, it would be folly to be Alan Meadows. So, let’s leave him out of the equation. And so the real question for me is whether you are doing a good job serving your mandate. There are three ways we can get answers to that question.

    The first is to listen to you, and as a competitor of yours, and admittedly a fan of this blog, I would argue that you give your audience all that is asked within the framework that is set out for you.

    The second way to determine how well you are doing is to ask your readers. Any critic will never please everyone, but there is plenty of evidence that your writings in WE, which pays the bills after all, are followed and appreciated.

    And the third is to ask the person who employs you. I won’t speak for him, but I will notice that he keeps you in pocket change and has for some time.

    What I do not get is the criticism that you are not Cellar Tracker or world wine educator. These kinds of comments fail to understand what your role truly is. Nor do I get the need to define and justify a “California palate” as if it were something that needed justification.

    Does Therry Theise need to justify his aromatic whites from middle Europe palate? Does Huon Hooke (for my money, the top Aussie reviewer) have to justify his Aussie palate.

    We all come to our jobs as critics with our own palates and no two of them are alike. The funny thing is that Parker is never slammed for having a CA palate, and yet he likes heavier, riper, fatter, softer, oakier wines than you or I do.

    Wine appreciation is about knowing what you like, but it is also about recognizing that there are wines of many stripes all over the world. There are lean Aussie and CA Chards and there are fat French Chards. OK, there are few Chablis equivalents, but there are plenty of hyphenated-Montrachet equivalents.

    I thought yesterday’s column was eminently sensible. I think today’s response was unnecessary in many of its details because some of what you are responding to is the equivalent of questions like “When did you stop beating your wife…or dog…or boyfriend”.

    And finally about Tom Merle. What a load of silliness to attack you for not reviewing every wine he can find somewhere else. It is the same tired line of unprovable opinioin that he has been hawking here like he owns a piece of that other site. Boring, Tom. Boring.

  9. Thanks Charlie. I feel like I have a relationship with my readers and I want them to feel that they’re comments are read and appreciated, even though I may not agree with them.

  10. Corey, well, as I’ve written many times, I continue to learn from my readers. I just have to be careful about moving the goalposts too rapidly.

  11. Clinton, I definitely feel like a champion of California wines. So many people knock them that somebody has to stand and defend. Besides, it would be bizarre if I — as Wine Enthusiast’s California reviewer — didn’t like California wines!

  12. Steve, so a 100 point wine has no flaws, and you have yet to taste a Sauvignon Blanc that is flawless. I’m cool with that. Would you be open to sharing the flaws in the 06 Tokalon and the 08 Illumination?

  13. Seems to me there is room in the world today for both generalists and specialists. As a producer, I make five wines out of six varieties, and no whites at all. I don’t think I’m doing my customers a disservice by not trying to make every wine that will grow in California. The market is increasingly an assembly of niches, I believe for wine writing as much as for the wines themselves.

  14. Matt, the Illumination is a fantastic wine. I gave it 95 points and could well have gone higher. If there was a flaw, it was that it lacked a certain rich complexity. Maybe I’m being too hard on it. That’s the challenge in California for a white Bordeaux-style wine: to pack in layers of interest. Part of the reason for that, I think, is that the market won’t reward a Meritage-type white wine they way it rewards a great Chardonnay. The Illumination retails for $40. I suspect the Quintessa people could refine the wine if they thought they could get $80 for it. As for the 06 Mondavi I Block Tokalon, it too was a great wine, but there was some bitterness in it, maybe a certain linearity. Again, a question of packing in layers of complexity. Genevieve Janssens would never blend any Semillon into I Block, but a few percentages might make for a more nuanced, fatter wine.

  15. Steve,

    First let me say how impressed I am that you are engaging in this sensitive topic so openly and forthrightly.

    All my comments focused on what a WE editor covering California wines should do. I did not intend to call you on your understandable inability to keep up with releases from other parts of the world. Rather, I was pointing to the California AVA versions of varieties whose origins like Pinot Noir can be traced back to some part of the Old World. No reference between Tempranillo crafted by Corey and one crafted by a counterpart in Rioja need be made. It is what it is in CA and there are ones that are more enjoyable than others. Very enjoyable. And, it seems to me, he is rightly miffed that he can’t seem to get a fair hearing at Wine Enthusiast. But I may have this wrong.

    There are so many Tempranillos being made in California that the producers have set up their own marketing association, cutely named TAPAS – Tempranillo Advocates Producers and Amigos Society which holds its group tasting shortly. Ditto with Rhone varieties. I don’t believe it is necessary to keep up with what is happening in the northern Rhone Valley. It is hard enough to keep up with most of the wines being released in CA.

    It is because of the sheer quantity of wines that I found the John and Dottie approach of selecting a representative cross section so appealing. One can pick 50 Cali “Temps” one time, then CA Rhone whites, then CalItals, then, say, Central Coast Chardonnays and so forth.


    I did not mean to “attack” SH for “not reviewing every wine able to be found elsewhere.” Using Steve’s own reference I meant to underscore that there are some (many) special wines that fall outside of Steve’s taste preferences that might deserve coverage from a major wine magazine. I cited CT as one place to find this information and assessment (and sure I come down with the users).

    Also, I fail to understand the implications of citing specialists like Meadows and Theise. We are discussing what a generalist should do in this capacity, and no generalist has the time nor inclination to probe only one small realm of winemaking. The Robinson model is much more apropos. She covers the waterfront, missing inevitably some nooks and crannies. But if you scale back from the world to the state of California shouldn’t a critic assigned to CA seek to emulate Jancis? Given his assignment, he can’t afford to take the John Kelly’s approach.

    Perhaps Wine Eenthusiast can convene some panels of tasters, for example, that are fond of and conversant with the less popular wine types produced in CA, where the benchmark is based on the enjoyment of that particular variety, to place notes and scores in the back of the mag. With so much going on in the wine world, I believe Steve should be allowed to do what he does so well: articles on regions and vintners from Humboldt County to Calaveras to Temecula. And then pieces on Pinot, Cabs and Chards by the master. So John Kelly may be right about niches.

  16. Tom, I probably taste more California wines than all but 1 or 2 other critics. That includes wines from Temecula, Calaveras and Humboldt. To suggest, however, that the low scores I typically give to those 3 areas is due to me not being fond of, or conversant, with their wines, is ridiculous. I give them low scores because, in too many cases, they’re not particularly good wines.

  17. Thanks Steve

  18. Steve, you mentioned this in a comment that perhaps if a white meritage could sell for Chard price, it could be made just that much better. The natural question being how much is Cab, Chard and Pinot’s primacy a function of market value? You need good fruit to make good wine, of course. But investment is needed to get to a top-level end product. So the best Cab, Chard and Pinot gets the full treatment in the cellar. Maybe there is great terroir for Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, etc. but it doesn’t get properly utilized since the market doesn’t reward it.

    It’s kind of like classified growths in Bordeaux. Sure, they must have excellent terroir. But they always were richer and could make the most of it. It seems almost inevitable that there are equal if not better terroirs that were not blessed with wealthy owners. But the decision on best was made long ago, and nothing will ever compete with the big names. The same thinking seems applicable when the names involved are grape cultivars.

  19. Greg, you’re right. The market may be a more important determinant of quality than terroir. Don’t forget, the Classification of 1855 wasn’t based on “quality” but on pricing. The First Growths had been the most expensive for a long time, so they were put at the top of the list.

  20. Great read, just as much in the comments (social media equity is doing well). For me, wine appreciation is not about what you like at all.

    It’s about stepping away from what you like, and recognising the inherent quality or full worth of something. Going through a “structured” WSET tasting of a wine, you can identify that it could be well made, structured, reek the hell of cat’s pee and conclude that it’s a well made Marlborough sauvignon blanc, but still really hate it.

    And Steve (same one?) mentioned, the market is a determinant of quality — I don’t think so, at least not for Bordeaux classed growths. In this case, it’s only a determinant of demand and hence price. Nothing else.

  21. Steve, you raised (and Greg highlighted) a very interesting point.
    I do believe the market plays a very important role in establishing local varieties. In this case via the economic reward; which is the primary incentive to invest in quality.
    But there is also a combination of random and cultural processes at play in the natural/historical selection of grape varieties for a region.
    This process usually started with monks (Jesuits, Cistercians…) and migrants taking their region’s most popular varieties to another region/country. And along the centuries, through economic booms and busts, climate variability, catastrophes… some varieties survived and others did not; due to a series of factors like adaptation to climate, endurance, good flavor profile, productivity, economic reward, etc…
    In the end competitiveness (survival/success) was achieved through the historical compounding of a series of deterministic and random factors like: market demand, cultural aspects, regional tastes, economic efficiency/reward, clone selection, random mutations, physical adaptation…
    Could this at least partly explain why California, with many wine regions boasting some of the longest growing seasons in the world, never cared for real late ripeners like Tannat, Carménère, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Nebbiolo, Aglianico, Sangiovese…?

  22. Mr. O’Connor–

    Interesting question. But one which has been at least partially answered already not by the market place but by the vineyard. Other parts of the answer do have something to do with what arrived and where it got planted, and so there is no easy answer.

    Tannat, Mourvedre, Charbono, Nebbiolo have had their innings here and have yet to produce wines that have impressed.

    Grenache has seemed to be following that same path, but my Grenache tastings this year suggest that there is change afoot. There are now some very good Grenaches that are not heavy, dull and lacking in fruit character. I am guessing that more and more Grenache is going to get planted in places that will produce balanced, flavorful wines but we are still a long way from saying that Grenache will be a CA success.

    Sure, Carmenere, Malbec, Sangiovese have no real impact and may not–first because there is not much of any of them, and secondly because they are not grapes that make good wine in many parts of the world in any event.

    Thirty years ago, CA had Riesling coming out its ears. It is gone now, not because it was not planted, but because it was. My apologies to Steve for answering the question directed to him. It caught my attention because there could be an interpretation that says CA should produce everything that succeeds anywhere in the world.

    Just as winetasters do not need to be experts in 200 varieties, so too does CA not need to be expert in everything. We are doing enough right and the pace of change has not dramatically slowed down.

  23. Steve,

    My point wasn’t that you don’t get to the different grape growing regions. You do, and most of the wines are inferior for all sorts of reasons. I was trying to say that the CA wine critic for WE has to travel to the four corners of the state, which is a tall order, and try to find some winners. I happen to think that the more remote areas do have some swell wines and occasionally exceptional ones.

    For example… Dan Berger’s Riverside International recently gave three Chairman’s Awards (Unanimous golds) to a red Rhone blend, Rhone style white blend and a Semillon from the South Coast Winery in Temecula Valley, In addition, each wine is priced at under $20. But if these wines don’t interest you, which they seem not to generically, then the Wine Enthusiast won’t be offering up “it’s” opinion, which it hasn’t.

    And on the subject of varietals and not terroir, Christopher Creek, in a region you do cover extensively, Russian River Valley, received the Sweepstakes Red Wine for its… Petite Sirah, a wine that hasn’t been reviewed by WE for seven years, during which time new owners took over.

    I realize, as we’ve all acknowledged, that most of the better wines don’t enter such competitions, and most wines produced in the state can’t be reviewed, but still….

  24. Bob Rossi says:

    I didn’t read your original post on this, but I get thrust, and think your response is great. I rarely drink California wine, but I often read your posts. I don’t see why you would need to branch out. You write about California wines, and anyone who reads you knows that. I follow some writers who write only about the Languedoc, or the Loire, and I appreciate that. And I also think Jancis Robinson is the best wine writer around, and I appreciate her diversity. So why should you change?

  25. Bob, thanks. I have no intention of changing!

  26. Kind of fun being a pot-stirrer. But I really was just trying to get your answer to why a Chard scale for SB or a Cab scale for Sangiovese?

    I think it is reasonable for a producer of Spanish varieties or Italian, etc. in California to expect her wines to be compared to others of the same variety. As much fun as it is to talk and taste with you (and it is!), the reality is that good scores lead to more sales.

    If a producer, especially a new one, is producing top-notch grenache or tempranillo but the scores (read, the sales tool) are calibrated against varieties that have been planted in CA for decades and have a critical mass of producers and consumers, there is no way that new grape gets the score it would otherwise “deserve.”

    The critic isn’t the sales guy, of course, and he has no obligation to “help” a variety or a brand, but it would seem the fairer tact is to note that this was a 100-point grenache, but it’s not as interesting as a 90-point Cab.

  27. Steven, I just can’t conceive of a 100 point Grenache from California. I mean, it’s hard enough for me to give 100 points to a Cabernet! Are you saying that any variety grown in Cali can get 100 points, merely by being the best of its kind in the state? That’s a pretty low bar. How about a 100 point Thompson seedless wine? No, I think there have to be benchmarks.

  28. TomHill says:

    “Do I give “short shrift” to Piedmont because California Nebbiolo sucks?”
    Jerked the wrong chain here, Steve. That statement, and others made by certain Monktown attourneys, is just…dead wrong. Back in the ’60’s-’70’s, everyone proclaimed that Calif couldn’t make great PinotNoir. And the reason was (I claim) because they didn’t taste like great redBurgundy. Once Calif winemakers gave up the false God of replicating Burgundy in Calif and focused on making great Calif Pinot…voila…they did. Once Calif winemakers give up the holy grail (and I assert that they have already) of making Piedmontese Nebbiolo in Calif..they will make great Calif Nebbiolo. They will, and already do, taste more like wines from the Valtelline, or Colline Novarese; wines that I like way far better than the Piedmontese versions (which I describe as “like stuffing lilac petals up one nostril, violet petals up the other, sealing both nostrils with a plug of hot tar, and then sticking out your tongue betwixt the jaws of a vise and torquing that sucker down. There are some pleasurable sensations, but there’s a lot of pain invloved”). Maybe not any “great” ones yet, but they’re headed in that direction, and most don’t “suck”.

  29. No, Steve. I can’t conceive of ANY wine getting a 100 points.

    If I noted in my magazine, Writer’s Enthusiast, that Steve Heimoff only gets a 75 because I’m rating him on the William Faulkner scale, this would garner little reaction other than bafflement at comparing a magazine writer to a novelist. While it’s equally baffling to me that you would compare Cab to anything else, in the world of wine, the product of the (mis)comparison can also mean real bucks.

  30. Bob Rossi,

    Much wide raning debate here, but it has nothing to do with Steve “branching out” to wines from outside the sate. No one has suggested that the California Editor for WE review non California wines. Steve Mirassou’s last comment captures the core of the issue under discussion.

  31. Michael says:

    You get 99 pts for engaging in this conversation. My opinion would be that wines should be judged individually not compared to California cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay or pinot noir. Carignan fermented carbonic has nothing to do with Cab, Chard or Pinot and to use the later for comparison is doing a injustice to the person who had the balls to think out side of the box. Would the wine deserve 100 pts, maybe not, but what the Japanese aesthetic principle of Wabi sabi says is there are three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. If you were to compare a realist painting to an abstract would your fondness for realism negate the fact that the abstract painting is not a great painting? Different is good.

  32. Steven, like you said, your marketing issues are not my problem! : > Having said that (and you know I admire your wines), we do have a 100 point scale, and it does demand certain allegiances. As long as I work within that context (I am, after all, an employee of my magazine), I’m duty bound to respect the historic parameters of the 100 point system. I think consumers and the industry understand that system. They recognize its advantages and its limitations. It’s important that we all speak in a common vernacular when it comes to wine reviewing. So, right now, I see no problems with either the 100 point system, or my concept of benchmarks. But my mind is always open to change, as long as it’s reasonable and based on common sense.

  33. Tom, no one will be happier than I when somebody in California consistently makes great Nebbiolo. I wish I could get to taste more Cali Nebs. If you have any favorites you think I should know about, let me know. As for Pinot Noir, I think the reason people said it sucked in the 70s was because most of it was grown in the wrong areas, with the wrong V&E practices. Once people realized it had to be in a cool climate, the critical community was very fast to embrace it. I think the same will be true of other varieties, but it’s going to take time.

  34. Michael, I guess I would say that currently, comparing a semi-sweet clumsy Viognier to a noble Cabernet Sauvignon is not like comparing realism with abstract. It’s more like comparing a child’s finger painting to David Hockney. Of course, you may prefer the finger painting. But most experts wouldn’t.

  35. TomHill says:

    We had the inaugrual meeting of NAP (Nebbiolo Advocates & Producers) up at Pax’s WindGap last August. WindGap, Novy, DueVigna (KenMusso’s ElDorado grapes), EmilioCastelli (GreenVlly grower, not yet commercial). Plus a few others from NapaVlly. Didn’t have the Palmina, Stolpman, or other CentralCoast producers. None of the wines were in the “suck” category. I liked all of them better than 90% of the Piedmontese Nebbs I try. None were what I’d term “great”, but they were headed in that direction.
    Nebbiolo is a terrific grape; the aromatics can be so incredible. It’s those tannins that are tough….in all sense of the words. I have little doubt that we’ll have, one day, great Calif Nebbiolo. There’s a quiet undercurrent of interest in the grape by winemakers that think they can pull it off. Heard out at HdR that there’s 10-12 acres of Nebb going into the EdnaVlly near Alban. Some folks in WestSide Paso are showing a lot of interest. But, again, I think it’s much a matter of changinf people’s perceptions of what “great” Nebbiolo is about.
    I agree (only partially) w/ your take on Calif Pinot. Certainly there’s a lot more grown in cold areas that makes more great Calif Pinot possible.

  36. Tom I will look into these Nebbs. Thanks.

  37. This guy won’t budge. If you make anything besides Cab, Chard and Pinot, it doesn’t seem advisable to send your wines to the Wine Enthusiast.

  38. Comparing art to paintings misses the point in most discussions, but I do agree with Steve H. about the difference between fat, sloppy Viognier and good Cab. Lousy wine is like finger painting. Great wine is like the best of Picasso or Renoir or Titian.

    There is a level of greatness, of complexity, of composition that transcends the ages in painting. The standards vary by period but we know the greatness of the period and can tell them from the also rans, the never wozzers, the pretenders and the could have beens.

    I get the argument about 100 point Sauvignon Blancs and Grenaches. Why aren’t the best of them simply rated as if they were as great as the best Pinots, Cabs, Chards?

    The answer is simple. They do not measure up to our standards for greatness. We certainly know a variety of ways to measure greatness, and while we may disagree about some wines, and while some writers overgrade so outrageously these days that OK Napa Cabs and Pauillacs of lesser vintages still rank in the mid-90s, the fact is that we have yet to (Steve and I) see a CA-grown Grenache, or Nebbiolo for that matter, that measures up on the greatness scale.

    Tom Merle’s unfortunate shot at Heimoff comes perilously close to a cheap shot. It is not Heimoff to whom you should not send you inferior wines if that is what you are making. Don’t send them any critic. The critic does not exist who finds the top CA Temperanillos or Grenaches or Nebbiolos to be as great as the top Pinots, Cabs and Chards.

    Most of us wish we did. In fact, I am guessing that all of us wish we did. We have no axe to grind with regard to a chosen variety. Find a way to make them all great if you can. We don’t start with a builit-in bias against particular grapes. We simply taste the wines and call them the way we taste them. To do anything else would be absolute folly.

    And Tom Merle knows this and so does everyone else who has ever made a judgment about anything. The best Yugo was never a great car. The best can of Chun King Chow Mein was never a great dish. The best loaf of sliced Wonder Bread is still Wonder Bread. We all agree on that principle if we think about it. And if the best Sauvignon Blanc is not as complete, complex, as ethereal in its ability to please as the best Chardonnay, then it cannot rate as highly.

    Thus the debate needs to turn to how great is the best Sauv Blc, the best CA Grenache, the best CA Riesling, etc. I know my answer. Despite the fact that Riesling is my personal favorite grape, I have yet to rate any CA Riesling as high as the top several dozen or more CA Chards.

  39. Thank you Charlie for bringing some sense to this discussion.

  40. Damn, Charlie. That may be the best single comment I have seen on a wine blog in a long while. You totally pwned this thread!

  41. Steve and Mr. Olken,
    (You forgot to praise CA Zins and Petite Sirahs; both world class benchmarks. Is there any negative bias against them?)
    Apart from the obvious positive correlation between the late ripening varieties, I mentioned earlier, and long growing seasons, there is a well documented case to support the thesis that CA has good potentiality for these grapes, which is Randall Grahm’s “Le Cigare Volant Red” track record. Even though its quality has been somewhat variable, it seems that when Mr. Grahm was able to buy honest grapes, the wine was very good.
    He cites a few examples in his blog: old-vine Grenache from Bertero Vineyard in Gilroy where, “the soil was much rockier and located on a north-facing slope. Because of the thinner soil, the head-trained vines were much smaller, and the clusters themselves more petite, the fruit more concentrated”; “Scheid Vineyard in the Arroyo Seco [AVA] of Monterey County in these [sic] years – essentially a gravel pit of a vineyard. The vines seemed always to be over cropped, and we often had to wait an eternity for them to ripen, but the grapes had wonderful acidity and were responsible for a unique quality of pepperiness in the wine”; “For a few vintages, we were privileged to obtain grapes from the Almaden Vineyard (later bought by Diageo) in the Paicines area of San Benito County. These were old head-trained vines, planted in the ‘40s”; “old-vine Mourvèdre [Mataro] at the DuPont vineyard in Oakley managed by the Cline brothers”.

  42. Mr. O’Connor–

    Yes, CA does set the benchmark for Zin and PS. But, then again, I can’t think of many from other areas of the world–although I have tasted Primitivo grown in southern Tuscany that smelled and tasted like Zinfandel–if one considers 15.7% alcohol Zins a standard to be admired by the world. And I have tasted several Aussie versions that, even given the benefit of the doubt, do not.

    But, if exclusivity equates to world benchmarks, then yes, we have that with Zin and PS.

    On the other hand, I think my comments about grandeur apply here. It is the rare Zin, not the unheard of Zin, that reaches to grandeur and greatness. Zin does come a lot closer in that regard than PS, however, which is a very acceptable grape and makes better wine than some have given it credit for making. But world class, in the same meaning of the word as world-class CA Chard, PN and Cab, that goes further than I am willing to go.

  43. Charlie,

    My last comment was close to a cheap shot. Yes, I let my ignorance and propensity to be a crank get the better of me. But…as I followed the exchange, it seemed to me that Steve H. brings a bias, as we all do, I suppose, to the evaluation of certain wines. We are not talking about 100 point wines here, but wines that merit something in the range of 85 to 93 and I concluded that Steve had decided on long experience that there are certain varieties that he finds less appealing and therefore start off with a disadvantage. But I’m running out the door and will read your comment more carefully.

    Mostly I wanted to offer an apology. I never want to bash Mr. Heimoff, whom I hold in the highest esteem.


  44. Tom, it’s not correct to say that I concluded certain varieties cannot score well. First of all I do not know what the wines are when I rate them, so my scores are based solely on inherent quality (or what I perceive as inherent quality). I have in fact given scores over 90 points to Tempranillo, Albarino, Barbera, Chenin Blanc, Charbono, Malvasia Bianca, Nebbiolo, Alicante, Pinotage and many other lesser known varieties. However I have never had one that had the nobility of a Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. All these other varieties are obviously capable of producing wines of very high quality, but for various reasons, they seldom do so. The market is one reason why. Since these varieties can’t be sold for high prices, vintners logically don’t devote lots of TLC to them.

  45. Charlie:

    You missed the point. In fact, you compounded the error that Steve is making, in my opinion. Nobody said that the best SBs match up to the best Chardonnays or that CA grenache is as ethereal as Pinot Noir; but by rating each of those wines on the Chard/Cab/PN scale you force them to, like Avis, try harder, instead of letting them be (and be judged against) the best of their type.

    I know words are important to you and Steve so this is where the text accompanying your score notes that “this is the finest example of CA SB I have tasted. It matches in every way the qualities I think a perfect SB should have. Though, it achieves SB perfection, it is not as interesting a wine as X.”

    You achieved both ends: you have compared like to like and you have placed that wine within you own personal hierarchy.

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