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Should a California critic taste everything, or just from certain areas?

33 comments

I think about my job of wine tasting and reviewing a lot. One aspect of it that I turn over in my mind is, Would my take on wines change if I reviewed only wines from prime coastal areas? Now, as you know, I taste everything that’s sent to me, whether it’s from the Central Valley or the Anderson Valley and all points inbetween.

California, being the vast state it is, produces a vast range of different quality wines. Some are truly dreadful. Some are world class. That’s no insult. I could say the same about France or Italy.

Since I taste everything that comes in, that means I’m tasting a lot of awful wine. Readers of Wine Enthusiast will never know just how many awful wines I actually taste, because it’s the magazine’s policy not to publish scores below 80, not even in the public online database. But there are plenty of them, believe me. And due to the limited number of pages in the Buying Guide, most scores from 80-82 don’t get published either. So let’s just say I’m tasting a great many flawed, indifferent wines.

I’ve often wondered how tasting bad wine affects my palate and my judgment. Does Rajat Parr taste bad wine? Does Parker? I honestly don’t know, but I doubt it. I think Rajat Parr and Mr. Parker taste only good wines — or, at least, wines that come from “superior” growing regions and are likely to be good if not great.

I put the word “superior” into quotation marks for a region. I don’t think anyone would differ if I said that Pauillac or Corton-Charlemagne are superior growing regions. I would hope no one would object if I say that Oakville is a superior growing region. Of course, that doesn’t mean everything from those areas is a great wine, but you get my point.

However, I want to be fair and delicate in how I phrase this. Is Lodi a superior growing region? Well, lots of people who make wine from there think it is. And maybe it will be, someday. But, to judge from my scores over many years — which is really the only objective way I have of knowing — Lodi is not a superior growing region. There may be good wines coming out of Lodi. There may be bargains. But for whatever reasons (we can debate that at another point), Lodi has not yet demonstrated that it is superior, the way Oakville is superior.

That means that the wines of Lodi are not as good as the wines of Oakville. What agonizes me is that there are some really smart, committed winemakers working in inland California whose efforts I support. Twisted Oak, for example. They’re in Calaveras County, which has not been a hotbed of quality. But they’re doing some really interesting things, and I wouldn’t want anyone to think that just because they’re in Calaveras, their wines aren’t worthy of attention.

But I’m just trying to make a point. No one person can taste everything. So, if you’re a critic like I am, is it better for your palate to taste just wines from superior growing regions, or to at least try to taste everything, until the quantity of incoming becomes impossible? (Which, in my case, is not the case. Yet.)

I can see an argument on both sides. If I taste everything, I’m better able to draw distinctions between greatness and mediocrity. That seems obvious. On the other hand, tasting a lot of bland wine can have a coarsening effect on the palate. That can be detrimental to one’s ability to detect very fine differences, even between great wines, such as come from Oakville. That would not be a good thing to happen to a wine critic.

So I’m torn. I really wonder what my readers think. The great tasters of history and literature — Michael Broadbent, Hugh Johnson, Alexis Lichine, Professor Saintsbury, H. Warner Allen — tended to taste only great crus and growths. In our own time, the master sommeliers probably tend only to taste wines that, in their estimation, are likely candidates to be served in their white tablecloth restaurants. They taste, in other words, at the most rarified levels. Whereas I, Steve, in California, am the most democratic (with a small “d”) of tasters, treating the Central Valley and Napa Valley with precisely the same level of respect, namely, wrapped in a brown paper bag.

Would I do my job better if I gave up the “inferior” places and concentrated only on the coast? Would that be an insult to all the hard-working winemakers who labor inland? Would it make me — Steve — a better, more reliable taster? Like I said at the beginning, I think about my job a lot, and I’ve just taken you on a little tour of my mind.

  1. Carlos Toledo says:

    Good morning.

    Why do people submit bad/flawed wine for tasting anyway? Don’t they have an idea that the wine will be tasted and easily trashed? Or do they think just the love they may have for the farm, winery, grapes and vines will be enough to compel customers and critics to love the lousy liquid?

    I’m really curious to know why “they” insist.

  2. Carlos:

    I think it is because they don’t know. And I think the answer to Steve’s question is the same answer these folks need, albeit from a slightly different perspective.

    Unless you are, as a producer, tasting as many other producers’ wines as possible, you can never truly evolve beyond the “house” palate. Your view of the wine world can only be myopic. And for those who are drawn to the making and selling of wine, you have to “believe” in the quality (or price point) of your wine to sustain yourself.

    As for Steve, same sort of thing. Unless you are willing to venture outside of what are currently considered to be superior growing areas, you will only be reinforcing what is just perceived wisdom. You won’t be open to other growing areas that are capable of producing the quality of the “superior” areas but that are slow to show on the radar for whatever reason.

    I think for both parties the desire to “know,” to learn, to be open to the many small surprises that await those who are, says everything of worth about that individual (and his world view).

  3. Why do you think master sommeliers only taste good wine? Distributors/Reps show up at restaurants to sell wine and all distributors carry substandard products. Most somms taste a lot of plonk.

  4. First off the more bad wine you taste the better you palate will become. Second I feel focusing on on California on a whole is better than the other
    option which is say the coast. Sooooo

    Steve’s questions…
    Would I do my job better if I gave up the “inferior” places and concentrated only on the coast? My Answer: No

    Would that be an insult to all the hard-working winemakers who labor inland? My answer: Not an insult, they would find someone else…

    Would it make me — Steve — a better, more reliable taster? My answer: No way.. you palate would be very one demensional.

    My opinion is taste from everywhere… too bad the magazine limits your reviews to Cali….do I have that right Steve?

    Cheers, Keith Miller

  5. If you are going to rank wines on a 100-point scale, then you have an ethical obligation to taste a lot of plonk to establish a credible and market-realistic floor to your rankings. Right?

  6. If one’s job is to taste CA wines, then by all means, taste all the CA wines that fit the profile of your mag. I have a similar job although I am not limted to CA and thus review wines from all of the West Coast, as well as anything else that might suit the fancies of my readers–like Rieslings from all over the U. S.

    But, for me at least, there are limits. Few people who subscribe to a wine mag want reviews of the least expensive wines. So, no Two-Buck Chuck and its playmates.

    No wines made in miniscule amounts. No wines available to reviewers only at the wineries with the labels showing.

    Other than that, I taste them all–and it is my view that wine critics ought to taste them all–especially Lodi and Calaveras and Nevada City, etc. If they are sold in stores in the Bay Area, I will buy them and taste them. That is the job of the “comprehensive critics” like Steve and the WS guys and me.

    Oh, and one more thing. We owe it to you, our readers, to taste across the entire spectrum of wine so that we bring the widest possible knowledge to our roles as critics. It helps to know about the wines of Tuscany when one is reviewing Sangiovese. It is immensely useful to have tasted broadly of the Rhone, and to have visited there when tasting Syrah and Grenache. I know much more about the enormous potential of Grenache also from having tasted widely of Spain and in Spain.

    The short and long answers are the same. Taste everything that fits the job and then taste all the peers from the rest of the world. Taste, study, learn, share. Those are the requirements of the job, and we do our jobs better the more broadly we taste.

  7. John, well that’s why I’m asking. I want to see what people think. I am also painfully aware of the fact that there are physical limits as to how many wines a person can taste in a day. “A lot of plonk” is A LOT OF WINE. And if you subscribe to Charlie Olken’s position, you also have to taste wines from around the world. I taste close to 5,000 wines a year and I feel pretty maxed out. Every taster needs to set limiting parameters. I’m just trying to figure out where those parameters are.

  8. Pamela, you may be right. I hope some somms weigh in.

  9. Carlos, I’ve wondered about this for years. I think in some cases producers really don’t know how mediocre their wines are. In other cases, they may know, but are crossing their fingers and hoping it won’t be apparent to the reviewer.

  10. There’s already too much CA-goggles-tunnel-vision going on in the CA wine scene. What it needs is more diversity of experience for comparison, not less!

    Just MHO, but anything that reminds a winemaking area/region that other wine styles exist is a good thing.

  11. I have certainly developed a greater appreciation for well-made wines from well-respected growing regions by judging amateur wines over the past few years. By that token, I agree with the other commenters that you should continue to taste both the good and the bad.

    One point not mentioned is that reviewers with gifted palates do help producers get a less myopic view of the quality of their wines. The reviews then shape winemaking decisions that may very well raise the quality of the wines made. (Of course this can go to extremes, as in “Parkerization.”)

    Another factor is that if you give up on a developing region, you miss making those “diamond in the rough” discoveries (i.e., Twisted Oak, as you mentioned).

    In Lodi, for example (an area to which I am extremely biased in the positive), I feel we are only beginning to discover some of the unique and exciting terroir nooks and crannies within the huge AVA.

  12. Steve, I don’t envy you at all. I have the greatest respect for the work reviewers like you and Charlie have to put in to turn out your product.

    In the jobs I have had where I needed to taste a lot of wines, I found my limit was 100 wines a day. Other people were responsible for opening bottles, cleaning glassware, recycling, etc. If I was not writing extensive notes I could knock it out in about 2-3 hours.

    I just can’t imagine doing it day in, day out, 5 days a week, year-round. Theoretically 25,000 wines a year, but that is my personal idea of hell – somewhere around Dante’s 7th circle of violence to self.

    IMHO there’s a lot to recommend focusing one’s efforts on one area, with some lesser amount of time spent tasting wines from around the world for context.

  13. Just like it was always silly to ask, “Is Napa Valley a superior growing region compared to Bordeaux?”, it’s never made sense to compare even regions from California to each other. You would think we’ve gone past that long ago, what with so many wonderful wines coming from so many regions, be it Napa, the sub-areas of Sonoma and Santa Barbara, Mendocino, even Lodi, Calaveras, Amador and El Dorado. I find terrific, “world beating” wines (and yes, also “bad” wines) in all these places; and going by how many of them performed in double-blind formats like LA County Fair, San Francisco International Wine Comeptition, etc., etc., obviously many highly qualified wine judges find the same things.

    In other words, the question of which area is “better” is a non-starter, always has been. The best Lodi wines come from Lodi, and the best Oakville wines come from Oakville — not the Pauillac, not Rutherford, not Ballard Canyon, et al.

    The only good, responsible reviewer of wines keeps an open mind when tasting wines from all parts of the world; never comparing the regions but rather, finding the qualities of grape, terroir, traditiona and winemaking unique to each area.

  14. Carlos Toledo says:

    Steve and Steven, i think you got it. I remembered of this episode when one given producer (we’re still good friends) came in to my store to offer his wine. His wine is made in the worst possible way, but he couldn’t understand why i asked him what in hell had happened to his wine during harvest, fermentation, storage or anything related to wine since it tasted so awful. These people keep drinking the same wines for generations and will seldom have the chance to taste someone else’s wine or even from some other region. I’ve seen that in Italia too where the producer got offended by my comment that his wine was good, but hardly worthy €15.00 a bottle. He knows only wine from his region…. has never tasted anything outside a 10km radius.

    Finally, just like you say, they bluff and uhla-la…. they may sell magical beans to an unaware being….

    Thanks for the lesson guys.

  15. Spot on, Randy, in most respects. I am guessing you will agree, but you did not add, that while comparisons are not required, the knowledge of the possibilities is needed to inform the judgments that are being formed of any wine.

    It is impossible, in my view, to judge a Lodi Zin or a Dry Creek Zin or a Paso Zin without knowledge of all of those places and their potentials. And if the grape is Chardonnay or Pinot Noir or Riesling or Sangiovese, any critic who would judge them needs to know what they produce elsewhere. One does not compare directly Nahe Riesling with Napa Riesling, but it sure helps to know what Rhine and Eden Valley and Finger Lakes Riesling can produce in order to evaluate the focus, concentration and balance of Monterey County Riesling. A good critic needs to know, understand, be able to apply “context” to any review.

    If Sierra Foothills Riesling tastes like Sylvaner, it may be a perfectly good wine, but it needs to not be judged only by other Sierra Foothill Rieslings.

  16. Hmmmmmm….I sorta cringed when I read your comments on Lodi, Steve. I was hoping Jon or somebody would chime in and take you to task. But Jon was pretty restrained, I thought. He being the winemaker of one of the best Lodi wines I ever done had and a Syrah that can go mano a mano w/ any in California.
    Lodi is an interesting AVA. It’s main claim to fame are the old-vine vnyds of Carignane and Zin, which can make some pretty decent and interesting wines, though not exceptional to my tastes. But there’s been a real rennisance going on over there as they have explored some of the cooler areas in the Eastern part of the AVA and, particularly, experimented w/ new varieties that are more suited to their hot climate. Even white varieties are doing pretty good.
    I’ve been pretty impressed w/ the wines from Bokisch, MokulumneGlen, Odessea, and Jon’s PantheonCllrs. Are they as good as the best from the costal regions? Maybe not, in most cases. But some of them are pretty darned good. And an interesting change of pace.
    The same can be said of places like HumboltCnty and NevadaCnty. Great wines as good as any in Calif?? Maybe not, but potentially maybe so. It’s interesting to watch these areas unfold.
    Tom

  17. John: 25,000 wines a year? Just shoot me.

  18. Dude, you’re tasting from a wide range of areas, but very shallowly. I’m tasting from a smallish area (California), but very deeply. It seems to me there’s no ideal approach. Tanzer tastes only Pinot Noir (if I’m not mistaken) so that works for him and his readers. If I tasted the rest of the world’s wines “for comparison” I’d be tasting 25,000 wines a year. So I’m just trying to figure out the fairest, most rational way to do my job.

  19. Steve, give it up. There is no “rational” way to do this job. As for all the plonk, you know and I know that it’s mostly just mass-market juice that is neither especially good or emphatically flawed. Truly flawed wines are pretty rare these days, wouldn’t you agree?

  20. Paul, uhh, I get a lot. Depends what you mean by flawed, I guess. I see rot/mold, VA, not so much brett as once upon a time but some. And would you consider RS a flaw when it’s a stuck ferment?

  21. Thank you for the kind words, Tom.

  22. I’m with Paul – there’s no “right” or “best” way to do this, aside from what works best for you and your readers.

    Having said that, I still think it’s a good idea to taste broadly, even if shallowly, though not to the same extent as I might and certainly not in any way that would work at odds with the depth of experience and knowledge that you need to maintain in order to cover a specific area with authority.

    Cheers!

  23. Outlaw drip irrigation and let’s see the multitude of terroirs express themselves. I know one thing, it would make your job of tasting much easier, Steve.

  24. I read a general wine magazine for reviews of all wines; granted, certain regions are covered by certain reporters/writers and until (and unless) you wish to change your coverage in WE to just certain regions of CA, I will expect to read about all kinds of wine from CA that you review.

    Movie critics should see all the movies that they can, especially the not-so-great and the outright bad movies. How else can you establish the left field and right field fences for what is good, great and truly crappy?

    I read Car & Drive and MotorTrend for reviews about all kinds of cars. Yes, I get a little peeved when they feature an inordinate amount of space to the latest Bentleys or Rolls Royce models. But at least they are including them; not that I’m ever going to ride in, much less buy, a Bentley — but the same can be said for Screaming Eagle. Yet, I still want to read an occasional article about it and gain some insights from a qualified reviewer who can give some information about something I wouldn’t normally otherwise experience.

    If you’re going to be a generalist (even if it’s “just” California), then that covers a lot of ground. You might specialize — but then you run the risks of reducing your readership.

  25. It would be nice to know that you were tasting wines from outside of California once in awhile, for instance, wines from Texas, Arizona, Oregon or Virginia just to name a few. You may find another hidden gem, like Twisted Oak. You never know. I also was sorry to hear how you feel about Lodi wines, since I personally feel like St. Amant, Bokisch and Harney Lane, to name a few, are making some lovely wines.

  26. Yikes, Steve, I feel your pain – though I often find coastal Monterey offerings more punishing (or worse, blandly disappointing) than anything I’ve tried out of Anderson Valley. But your democratic tastebuds are certainly appreciated by the ailing CA wine industry, renegade winemakers who deserve their due, and the mom-and-pop start-ups you diligently cover alongside entrenched, large-scale operations. I know I pay far closer attention to unconventional Syrah blends out of Paso Robles because of the thoughtful, thorough consideration you’ve given the area. So if I could be so bold, I’d like to say: keep choking it down, sir. Others may implore you to do it for god, country, the American way, yadda yadda, but I suspect you’ll keep doing it for your fellow wine drinkers. Listen closely on any given California Friday night, and you’ll hear a thousand corks popping at your recommendation. What you probably don’t hear often enough is what so often follows: “Good call on the wine, Steve.”

  27. tannic, why outlaw drip irrigation in particular? I’m guessing you view it from a Eurocentric POV where dry farming is considered correct. But then what about the benefits of an arid climate in terms of lowered disease pressure? Surely there are locations that require little if any chemical treatment to prevent mold and rot due to low humidity. How would grapes in humid climates express their terroir with no chemical intervention? Usually without some human intervention there is no terroir expression. Ideally I’d like to drink dry farmed fruit with minimal chemical intervention in the vineyard–but that is not always going to be the case.

  28. On the subject of hot vineyards, though, I often wonder why the northern reaches of Napa are so revered. When I see tech sheets, the pHs are high, the ABVs are high. Low acid, high sugar, seems like the hallmark of hotter inland vineyards. But the wines get good ratings and sell well enough. Could it just be a case of more money and training invested there? With similar capital investment, I bet similarly good low acid, high ABV wines can be made from hot regions. There’s just not an incentive since people buy the Napa name, not Amador or Sierra Foothills or El Dorado.

    Probably the only constraint is the type of grapes and style of wine that can be produced in a region. If Napa dry port style Cab can be high quality, why can’t Amador dry port style Zin, assuming comparable skill and capital? Though for my money coastal acidity is where it’s at.

  29. Sergio Traverso says:

    Steve, it’s good karma to open your mind like you have done about your daily job of tasting wines from all over the state. In response to your question if you should do that the answer is a resonant yes. We live in a world were relativity is an invariable law. Without knowing what is bad we would not be able to know what is good.

    Beside that broad statement, let me say that the service you are providing to wine consumers and winemakers is of a great value. If a person in your position would be inclined to taste only what is supposed, or expected, to be good, and if in that way you would decline to taste what would not fall in that comfortable category, then you would never be able to detect the up coming wines even if they are made in an improvable region.

    Finally, your job is not about suffering too much. It takes only a few seconds to detect a wine that is awful but it takes several minutes to appraise a wine that is wonderful. Saludos!

  30. Sergio, I agree that it takes a while to appreciate a good wine. It needs time to breathe.

  31. Sergio Traverso says:

    Way to go Steve! I agree that it’s much more pleasant to allow a good wine to breath by itself than having to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a bad wine.

  32. Individual reviewers like S & C who make their living evaluating wines must do so in the confines of the readership they are serving. A great numbers of wines produced in the outlying AVAs will go ignored. Which is why one person, no mater who she or he is, finds themselves at a distinct disadvantage, and why we need, guess what…crowd sourcing.

    Steve Heimoff, I believe, is a damn good travel/food writer who focuses on appellations and interesting vintners, and he should continue to hone these skills. The job comes with tasting wines, which is really much less important, except to the producers seeking 90+ scores, and Steve gives out a fair number of these.

    If I were the publisher of WE or others I would instruct my “wine critic” to review widely within reason many wines but include only the standouts in the mag , i.e. 90+ vino particularly those with excellent QPR. But spend as much time as possible on telling the story of viticulture, wine, wine personalities, trends, and regions.

  33. Tom, what you described is pretty much what I do.

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