Early conclusions from a Napa tasting
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.