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Early conclusions from a Napa tasting

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My big tasting at Napa Valley Vintners last Friday contained the usual surprises. Some inexpensive wines beat out some expensive ones. Why should anyone be surprised? It was a blind tasting, the staff having kindly put all 72 bottles into paper bags. I occasionally caught a glimpse of the names on the corks, but I didn’t know whether or not staff had switched corks from bottle to bottle, and at any rate, I don’t think it affected my conclusions, except if you think that we have all kinds of subliminal things going on in our subconscious minds. Maybe we do, but I was concentrating so hard that by the time I found myself actually scribbling my notes and scores, any conscious realization of what I’d glimpsed on the cork was long gone.

Particularly in the red wines of Napa Valley we are dealing with really small distinctions. I know this goes against the conventional wisdom–much of it supplied by producers themselves who are not without bias, and then confirmed by writers overly influenced by producers–but the differences between the various Cabernet Sauvignons are considerably smaller than most people would think. In general Napa Valley Cabernet will be full-bodied, dry and tannic, displaying aromas and flavors of blackberries and black currants. We can argue that sometimes these aromas and flavors are more suggestive of cherries than of blackberries, and we can debate whether the cherries are red or black, but is this really worth a fight? Napa Cabs also usually have two other important aspects: the tannins will be refined, reflecting superior viticulture and Napa’s preternatural ability to ripen Cabernet, and the oak appliqué will be smooth and fancy, for the reason that most Napa producers have money and can afford to buy the best barrels. (Concerning alcohol levels, I don’t want to wade into that pond today.)

Of course, some Cabernets also variously display other scents and tastes, like minerals (granite, steel,), herbs, violets and smoky proteinic things reminiscent of bacon and cured meats; these latter seem to arise out of the interaction of the char of oak barrels and subtle ingredients in the wines, as well as, sometimes, from small amounts of the aromatic yeast, brettanomyces. This bacony smell is not unpleasant unless it overpowers the other elements, which it rarely does in a Napa wine, and should not be considered a flaw. Having said all this, it’s important to explain how and why I give wines that are similar in most respects scores that can vary by as much as 15 or 16 points.

Here we get into attributes that are difficult to break down analytically. I, and most other critics, use words like balance, finesse, complexity, authority, power, subtlety, depth, structural integrity and impressiveness as if their meanings are obvious, which they are, in a dictionary sense. But just the other day I was with a few friends (okay, the tattoo guys), and one of them, Miah, had a copy of Wine Enthusiast and was reading aloud from my reviews in the Buying Guide. I have to admit, in that context, it sounded kind of funny and pretentious. I mean, we–the people who read this blog and the people I know in the wine industry–are comfortable with saying a wine is “notable for its depth” or some such phrase, but to the outsider, it’s the stuff of a New Yorker cartoon. (Nobody alive will ever forget Andy Blue’s contribution to the lexicon: “prismatic luminescence,” and the funny thing is, I think I know what he meant.) Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about how outsiders interpret my remarks. I say all this only as a way of explaining that these qualities–balance, etc.–are the ones I look for in differentiating wines from each other, but they’re hard to explain with precision.

That’s why, when I’m writing strictly organoleptically or sensorily, the descriptions can sound startlingly similar. It’s when, in the course of a review, that I range beyond mere physical description and launch into the higher gear of subtle structural qualities that the true rationale for my point variations becomes apparent, although it’s true that this apparency is only for those “with eyes to see and ears to hear and understand.”

Among all these impressionistic words (and I could list a score more in addition to the ones I mentioned above), I think the most important is balance. Balance is central to wine’s quality. The concept of “balance” has been appreciated by every culture we know. For the ancient Greeks, it was central to how they perceived art (and great wine is certainly art) as well as the way they conducted their lives. The Biblical Jew laid great store by balance, both in weights and measures and in how God might judge man’s behavior. The Renaissance painters, harkening back to the Greeks, sought balance and harmony in their creations. We still value Aristotle’s Golden Mean, even if, in our politics, it often gets lost. To bring wine into a discussion of the Greeks, Jews, God and Renaissance painting is not an odd interlocution, but a reminder of how great an achievement wine is in humankind’s long march up from the mud. Anyhow, this is just a prelude to saying that I found plenty of Napa Valley red wines exhibiting very great harmony and balance. They got high scores, regardless of bottle price, for that reason.

  1. Bro – this post (and our recent discussion in comments on both our blogs regarding balanced wines) inspired me to spin-off my own related topic today (and break my publication schedule to do it!). So – thanks for that, man!

  2. Steve–

    Balance has always been the key. It is not a new concept. Did not get lost just because some winemakers went overboard. Was always a part of big wines like Shafer Merlot (praised by Dan Berger) and Newton Unfiltered Chardonnay (praised by Jon Bonne) and . . . . .

    And, we could make this list go on and on and on to point out that it is not (a) size that matters and (b) there is no “new California paradigm”. It has always been there. They continue to exist, are a major portion of what gets produced here in CA.

    For every Arnot-Roberts and Donkey and Goat, there is a Marimar, a Cuvaison, a Ridge, a Saintsbury, an Au Bon Climat and Sanford that have always made wines with balance. Only people who are new to CA wine make the mistake of thinking that balance is a new concept. How come none of these new prophets never mentions Stags’ Leap Wine Cellar. Warren Winiarski always made wines in the so-called new style. Apparently, if you are a successful winery making wines with restrained alcohols and high acidity, you do not count and thus do not exist.

    It is time to denounce this nonsense. CA wine was not borne yesterday and neither was balance, and when these prophets hold out wines like Pride, Newton, Shafer and others with alcohols running up into the 15% range, wines that have been here for decades, and proclaim them to be part of the “NEW CALIFORNIA”, well, thir words need to be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism, a grain of salt and a pat on the head. “Nicely done, young man, you are beginning to get it”.

    Steve, they are telling us that we are stupid, and then holding up wines we have praised for decades as examples of their new found wisdom.

  3. I concur with your statements about convergence, though baffled that you still scored these wines 16 /17 points apart which seems contradictory. Balance or lack thereof, or really any quality, can’t account for this discrepancy. To me, your experience simply underscores the rightness of the Rod Smith school of wine writing that you cited earlier in the year. Leave wine critiquing to those who pay for their wines; the market and various other user channels will identify favorites. One of the topics of the upcoming Professional Wine Writers Symposium sums it up for me: “All Good Wine Writing Is Travel Writing.”

  4. One of the reasons that we, as humans in general, seem to strive to acheive balance is that is sadly lacking in our daily lives. So when we do perceive it, whether it’s a painting, a well-made meal, a beautiful sonnet or pretty much anything by Beethoven, it strikes a chord amongst most of us.

    Part of the issue brought up by Mr. Olken is that the younger and less-experienced among us have yet to see how rare that balance is in life. When you’re young and wide-eyed (or is it “wide-palated”?), we seem to be drawn to the big, bold and brash. Maybe that’s why those “Parkerized” wines stand out in large-format tasting evaluations?

    Another issue here is that the divergent styles discussed here are also part of the *larger* balance — can’t appreciate the compact, restrained (initially) and well-balanced wines without something on the other end of the spectrum to show the contrast. The two styles then balance one another and show those among us “with eyes to see…” the differences in styles.

  5. El Grumpo, I fully understand the Rod Smith argument and I respect it. That approach works for Rod; it doesn’t work for me. What I have tried to explain to people is that those 16 point spreads are really about balance. Of course, balance covers a lot of territory — it’s not a small state like Rhode Island but a big one like Alaska, with a lot of different things going on. One problem with a 40-50 word review (which is the format I must use) is that it can be difficult to fully explain why one wine gets 84 and the other 99. One does one’s best.

  6. Charlie, as usual I agree. The last few times you’ve mentioned ABC, though, I’ve thought, “Wow, ABC wines are huge, not shy. I wouldn’t quite put them in the same category as, say, Marimar and Cathy Corison. But you’re right, they are so balanced despite the richness that they easily earn high scores. Which proves your point: balance, like integrity in a human being, can be found in any type of wine.

  7. When you are trying to summarize a wine’s general sensory impression it is hard to avoid subjective, and sometimes anthropomorphic words. The ones that sound the worst to “the tatoo guys” are probably the anthropomorphic words and are probably best avoided anyway – unless you are Wm. Hamilton writing for the New Yorker… “It’s a naive little wine, but I think you will be amused by its presumption.”

    Fortunately the English language provides a variety of for describing “balance” (or lack thereof) to the writer. In French, the list is probably smaller. For my purposes – since my tasting notes are just for me – balanced or unbalanced is enough, but I have seen these and probably more.

    balanced
    elegant
    finesse
    graceful
    harmonious
    layered
    nuanced
    proportioned
    structured
    suave
    subtle
    supple

    aggressive
    assertive
    austere
    awkward
    clumsy
    gutsy
    heavy
    inelegant
    meager
    nervous
    overbearing
    rugged
    unbalanced
    unresolved

  8. Julie Crafton says:

    How great to find that our wine tasting inspired you to reflect on the qualities of great wines – and that you found many Napa wines that exhibit the balance that you were looking for.

    I also had to pipe up to eliminate any confusion – the corks were switched! :-)

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