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