Point score reflects quality, not my personal opinion
I spoke on the phone yesterday with a winemaker who wanted to know what I thought of his wine. He was very excited about it, he said; the wine was in high demand by restaurateurs. It was a Sangiovese-Cabernet Franc blend from up in the Foothills. Alcohol 14.8%, case production only 65, retails for $30.
I told the man I liked his wine okay and gave it a decent, but not great, score. Even though he was 200 miles away and I couldn’t see him, through the telephone line I could feel his spirits sink.
This happens a lot. It’s always a tough thing for me to tell someone I wasn’t doing handstands over their wine. Often, they’ll rebut by telling me how “X” or “Y” gave it a big score, or how it won this or that medal someplace. I listen. I commiserate. I feel bad. I try to figure out what to say next without being hurtful, prideful, defensive, whatever. These are real people, with real bills to pay.
I told the man that I could see why a restaurateur or sommelier would want his wine. It’s very high in acidity, as Sangioveses are. It also was a little green and minty, although it had some good, rich cherry fruit flavor and a spicy dose of pepper. I said that, while my palate veers more toward a softer, lusher style, as exemplified by Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, I could see how, if I were a sommelier looking for a food-friendly wine, I might choose his. Napa Cabernet is not particularly versatile with food. It’s practically a food group in itself. But this guy’s Sangiovese-Cab Franc blend would be pretty good with lots of different things.
But, I explained, I’m not a sommelier. I’m a wine critic. I’m not looking for food-friendly wines, although I like to praise them when I find them. I’m looking for wines of high quality, as we define them at Wine Enthusiast. Now, this gets back to some discussions we had here last week concerning typicity versus taste. Should a Sangiovese-Cab Franc blend from the Foothills be acidic and slightly green? I suppose a case could be made. If so, then was this man’s bottling a good example of one, and thus deserving of a higher score than I gave it? In other words, was it unfair or inappropriate for me to give it the score I did, simply because it lacked the richness of a Napa Cab?
Well, let’s break it down. High acidity works for me when it feels completely balanced with all the other parts. If it’s noticeable — if it tingles my mouth with tartness that’s almost sour — then it doesn’t work. A touch of green works for me, if it’s the kind of herbaceousness that Cabernet (or Cabernet Franc, or Bordeaux for that matter) sometimes shows. But too much green doesn’t feel right. Let’s admit these are questions of subjectivity.
Here’s another example. Somebody sent in a $75 Zinfandel from Paso Robles. This is a winery I’m quite familiar with. They make a lot of different SKUs, which I’ve tasted for years. Usually, I find the wines hot, sweet — and way overpriced (not that that has anything to do with the score). I don’t give them good numbers. The proprietor has let me know that others think a good deal more of his wines than I do. That’s fine. But here’s my question. Are we supposed to posit that Paso Robles Zinfandel should be hot and slightly sweet? After all, a lot of them are, maybe most of them. So am I being unfair, or biased, or inappropriate when I give them low scores?
I honestly don’t think so. There’s a slippery slope here. Consider Clarksburg Chenin Blanc. There’s not a lot of it, but it’s quite distinctive. I’ve had Chenins from Dry Creek, Vinum, Baron Herzog, Dancing Coyote, Ehrhardt, Bogle and others, and have given them a lot of Best Buys — 19, to be exact. That’s because, at average pricing between $9-$13, they’re exactly that, best buys.
Yet the highest score I ever gave a Clarksburg Chenin Blanc was 88 points, and that was only one of them, the Vinum 2007 ($12). All the rest scored 87 points or lower. So should I have given the Vinum a much higher score, because it was the best Clarksburg Chenin Blanc I ever tasted?
Again, I don’t think so. I have a Platonic vision in my mind of perfection. It’s a wine — white, red, dry, sweet, fortified, unfortified, oaked, unoaked, sparkling, still — in which all the parts are in the most exquisite harmony. I’ve never had a California Chenin Blanc where that was true, or even close. Ditto for Paso Robles Zinfandel.
Look, wine critics forever have made distinctions between great wines and coarse ones. One of the best literary examples of this was Professor Saintsbury’s very famous observation concerning Hermitage. “It was…not a delicate wine,” he wrote; “if you want delicacy you don’t go to the Rhône…But it was the manliest [italics Saintsbury’s] French wine I ever drank.” The Professor recognized Hermitage’s essential Hermitage-ness, and could not bring himself to put it on the same level as Bordeaux. Yet he found a way of praising it even while condemning it to lesser status. I try to do the same thing: I have described Paso Robles Zinfandel as lusty.
I suppose if I had a completely open mind, I would allow for the possibility of a 100 point Temecula Viognier. I do; and will let you know when, and if, I stumble across one.