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Clapton and Bach as wine: equals?


I was up at Jeremy Nickel’s again yesterday for another of his blind tastings pitting his wine, The Vineyard House, against more famous and expensive bottles from around Napa Valley. (He did quite well.) Poor Jeremy couldn’t make it, being stuck in bed with the flu I had 2 weeks ago that’s been going around. But he did phone in via speakerphone.

My #1 and #2 wines were very close in score. I gave the nod to the 2006 Schrader T6 Beckstoffer To Kalon, but very nearly as good was the 2006 Futo. Afterward, Carlos Falla, from V Wine Cellar, a very nice Yountville tasting bar and lounge, who presided over the tasting in Jeremy’s absence, said to me, “I noticed that your number one and two wines were made in completely different styles.” He was right, of course. The Futo was lush and sweet and instantly drinkable, which I think is because it has Merlot and Cabernet Franc (although it will certainly age). The Schrader, which I’m pretty positive is 100% Cabernet, had fierce tannins, and really needs time in the cellar.

I’ve always been of the opinion that wines made in different styles can be equally good. In this wine reviewing business, a lot of people have the impression that a critic has to have a certain set preference for a particular type of wine. When he reviews a wine that meets those pre-conditions, he rates it highly. When he reviews a wine that doesn’t–that may be made in a polar opposite way–he rates it lowly.

This may be true for some critics, even the majority of critics, but it’s not how I operate. I can appreciate a super-tannic Cabernet Sauvignon for its polish, structure and ageability, but I can also love something like the Futo, or the Cardinale I gave a perfect score to a year ago, for its instant love.

The reason this is important in the world of wine criticism is because people want their critics to be consistent. You hear that all the time. People will say, “Critic so-and-so likes ripe, soft, oaky wines, not big, hard tannic ones. We might not agree with him, but at least he’s consistent.”

I like to think I’m consistent, but unpredictable, because there really is no particular style I’m looking for in California wine. I can fall in love with a light, silky, elegant Pinot Noir, and fall equally for a big, brooding one that will take years to come around. Why be forced to say one style is better than the other?

What I look for in wine is a kind of fascinated interest it arouses in my mind and in my senses, and this can be caused by any wine, old or new, dry or sweet, red or white. Hugh Johnson expressed it perfectly (as usual) in a recent issue of The World of Fine Wine magazine (the following is from editor Neil Beckett’s column): Is there any one quality “that is absolutely sine qua non, without which all else is unsatisfactory? To me there is, and I call it refreshment. […] It is the gleam in the eye of a dense and tannic barrel sample and the reason to return to a fading rose of an ancient bottle. For some wines, it is almost the whole point.”

I’ve never been a technical guy, the kind of reviewer who’s fascinated by clones, rootstocks, trellising systems, barrel makers, pH and T.A. levels and all that. That’s for winemakers to worry about. When I see a wine reviewer (or just a consumer) asking a winemaker a whole bunch of questions about technique, I see a person who’s not really sure about his palate. That person is asking about particulars; I’m interested in Hugh Johnson’s “whole point.”

It may sound like romantic tommyrot, but what I look for in a great wine, one to which I assign a high score, is something so far beyond technique and numbers, it’s barely describable in the English language. It’s a sense of lyricism. It’s the enjoyment music gives me. To make an analogy, I heard Clapton’s Layla on the radio the other day on the drive up to Napa. It made me deliriously, insanely happy. But on the same drive, later on, I put on a CD of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, the first movement of which always, inevitably blows my mind. Just stuns me every time. Is Mass in B Minor “better music” than Layla? Hey, I know I’m skating on thin ice here, so I won’t make that particular judgment. But I will say that the sheer sense of joy I get from both pieces is pretty much the same.

They make me happy, albeit in different ways. Layla is rock and roll, with all that implies: joy, mirth, sexiness, energy. It’s also my youth. The Mass in B Minor is as majestic as the Heavens themselves. It appeals to my intellect. I wouldn’t want to have to choose between them, and of course, I don’t have to.

So that’s what went through my head when Carlos made his statement. I had a momentary twinge of “Uh oh, he thinks I’m inconsistent.” But then I realized the only consistency I, as a critic, am concerned with is quality. And any wine, made in any style, can be very great in quality.

People who knock my scoring system, and the abbreviated nature of my reviews in Wine Enthusiast, may sometimes think I’m just cranking out a product, like boxes of cereal from General Mills. Nothing could be further from the truth. When I taste wine, I experience it deeply in my soul (for want of a better word). It’s too bad I can’t give high scores to everything; but then again, not every rock song is Layla, and not every piece of classical music is the Mass in B Minor.

  1. And, inter alia, not every one of Clapton’s songs is Layla!

    In other words, once we know that that, on occasions, you rate a particular label (Clapton), and that your highest-rated variety from that label is Layla, it would then put your judgment of another variety (I Shot the Sheriff?) into perspective.

    It’s all about benchmarks…

  2. I like I shot the Sheriff too but not as much as Layla. 92 points vs. 100 points.

  3. ‘When I see a wine reviewer (or just a consumer) asking a winemaker a whole bunch of questions about technique, I see a person who’s not really sure about his palate. That person is asking about particulars; I’m interested in Hugh Johnson’s “whole point.”’

    Really? What matters is in the glass ultimately, but when I see a critic who doesn’t care at all about process, I see a critic who is overconfident in his palate. I think process adds context provided the wine is tasted first in a blind or at least well-controlled environment. Critics who don’t care about how or why are lacking intellectual curiosity. Ultimately this leads to the mindset of a critic proclaiming wine X is objectively bad, when really he should be saying wine X is not to his taste for reasons Y and Z.

    Of course, this a very accurate description of a guy like Suckling who cares above all about the point score he may bestow on a wine. He’s the poster child for those lacking intellectual curiosity, and ideal leader for the LA flash mentality.

  4. Greg, what I mean is that I’ve seen people who seem to need a lot of technical information before deciding what to think about the wine. To me, that’s putting the cart before the horse.

  5. “When I see a wine reviewer (or just a consumer) asking a winemaker a whole bunch of questions about technique, I see a person who’s not really sure about his palate”.
    Steve, you chose the wrong composer to validate your line of reasoning.
    Bach is pure (Fractal, Non-Euclidean) geometry, and one cannot “grasp his essence” without understanding technique. His fugues, canons, inversions and other contrapuntal devices are logical constructs that are more related to math than anything else.
    I have to agree with Greg in this one: “when I see a critic who doesn’t care at all about process, I see a critic who is [naively] overconfident in his palate”.

  6. Excellent points Steve. I look to reviewers who can succintly and accurately describe a wine. Period. Let the reader make a judgement as to whether the style is compatible with his or her own peramiters. I don’t care whether or not a critic “likes” a wine. Is it well made? No flaws or issues? What are the stylistic attributes? For the same reason, I am irritated when wine buyers refuse to put a particular wine(White Zin) on their list or store shelf. If your consumer base wants it, your job is to find the best white zin you can find. Period. Oh, and Peter O’Connel…I suck @ math, and resent your elitist addmonition that “one cannot “grasp his essence” without understanding technique.” You miss the very essence of Art…it speaks to the heart, not the brain. The first music I heard as an hours old newborn was Bach…His music speaks to my soul with a passion that surpasses disection. As do many different wines. Besides, Steve doesn’t say he doesn’t care about the technical process…he’s just not so fascinated by it that it warrents taking up valuable print space going on and on about it when he knows that that is not what readers of wine reviews (excluding you I guess) are looking for.

  7. Steve,

    An interesting, complex topic. I do agree that what’s in the glass is what matters most and that over reliance on technical info betrays a a lack of confidence. Some technical info can be helpful, but it can also create taster bias for the simple reason that people tend to see what they’re expecting. If I know a wine was made with American oak, I’m probably more likely to notice the flavor of coconut. Whether I’d notice that flavor truly blind is another matter. There’s also the not-insignificant issue of the BS factor. Winemakers are not always entirely candid about their production practices, especially about hot button issues such as yields, filtration, etc.

    If you have not already, I encourage you to read Why We Make Mistakes, by Joseph T. Hallinan. The book considers some of the reasons behind human error, in many different contexts. People in general tend to grossly overestimate their capacity for objectivity. And while I agree that some critics are much better at recognizing the virtues of different wine styles, objectivity is always the goal but never a reality. Kind of like being a judge on the Supreme Court.

    I think your musical analogy is a case in point. What can be more subjective than what gives you joy, or what touches your soul? In this case, I suspect we differ on the meaning of lyricism. So when you bundle it all together in in an effort to provide “objective” guidance that’s helpful to the consumer, there’s a whole lot of potential for blurriness.

    Thanks for an intriguing post.


    Dan Sogg

  8. I feel how we experience music is such an excellent allegory for understanding wine and food. Not just in the sense of how different styles of wine or music can be excellent or terrible. More importantly it is the way they interact with our environment and emotions. How else could one of the 5 greatest wines I’ve ever had be a 2002 Samos Vin Doux? My future wife and I looking at Aegean Sea with a plate of freshly grilled octopus. I’ve tried sweet muscats many times since, and never could one of them match it regardless of actual quality. How else could dinner at Jardiniere followed by Michael Tilson Thomas leading the SF Symphony be the equal of The Cheese Steak Shop followed by My Morning Jacket at the Fillmore? Sometimes I want to feel sorry for myself and walk the streets alone with Elliott Smith in the headphones. But filled with joy, dancing with my infant son in my living room, Elliott will currently get skipped for some Phoenix 10 out of 10 times.
    I think you alluded to this situation in your post yesterday about some wineries only wanting one to experience their wine when they have control of the environment. Of course they desire this because it is a huge factor in the overall experience of the wine. To think otherwise is lunacy. Is it possible for a wine to taste the same in a solo blind tasting and at a wonderful dinner with friends? Maybe it is, but I have yet to experience that being the truth.
    Understanding this, I can not see how the critic can not accept the ideological bankruptcy of giving numerical scores to wine, music, or food. Outside of simplified marketing, what does the score or even brief tasting notes filled with descriptions of various produce offer the consumer looking for emotional or environment context? I enjoyed your mentioning of tasting California Cabs after a Bordeaux tasting. Your intellectual honesty hinted to the fact that your palette may have been altered not only by the physical structure of the Bordeaux wines, but by the emotional expectation of flavor as well.
    Again, thank you for writing this blog Steve, as it is a great forum for thinking about the larger realities of wine.

  9. Could not agree with you more on this one, Steve. And I often attempt to explain wines and wine sensory using musical analogy. Even as a winemaker, there are plenty of times that the technical aspects bore me to tears…at least once a wine is bottled (obviously it is imperative to concern ourselves with components in construction of the wine). Years ago I was chastised by a very talented, very “famous” winemaker during tastings for attempting to pick out and identify the components of the wines we were tasting. He said it was not important in the scheme of things and intimated that I would never be comfortable in my own skin until i’d learned to seek for the poetry in the finished product…to eschew the parts in pursuit of the whole.

    I understand that there are wine fans out there that are fascinated by the technical side…these hobbyists are what drives the passion of this industry when those of us within tend to not see the forest for the trees. However from a critic’s point of view as well as a genuine wine fan not concerned about the hows and how nots, the sum truly must stay greater than the whole of the parts in order to adequately convey to the world the feelings a wine can be expected to evoke. After all, we are talking about sensory-based products here…music AND wine.

  10. Hi Dan, nice to hear from you.

  11. Peter O’Connor, I don’t know squat about math. I can barely add anymore without a calculator. Does that mean I can’t go into swoons of ecstasy when I listen to Bach? And on winemaking process, let’s not exaggerate what I said. I said some writers seem to need to know every little detail from ground to bottling line before they feel they can write a coherent article. I’m not one of them. I’ve had winemakers themselves tell me how weird it is to be grilled by a wine writer on a million technical details. I think that the generalist wine writer–which I am and most of us are–needs to know a fair amount about technique. But we’re really talking about great wine writing skills, aren’t we, not technical knowledge? In my opinion, readers would rather read a beautifully-written article about wine instead of a technical paper on pH.

  12. To properly address this, I think it is important to know which version of Layla you are speaking of. If you truly mean “Clapton’s Layla”, then you’re talking about the version from the famous unplugged concert. If you mean the original (and vastly superior) version, then Derek and the Dominos is the artist.

    It may seem as if I’m splitting hairs, but the vast difference in the songs makes it worth clarifying.

  13. I’ll skate right out behind you onto that thin ice, Steve. Technically speaking, Bach’s Mass is better than Clapton’s Layla. Technically speaking, some wines are better constructed than others. In terms of enjoyment, as you say, there are times when enjoyment trumps sheer quality. The times when Layla hits just the right spot are the same times, perhaps, when I reach for a friendly $9 Argentinian temperanillo over my favorite Oregon pinot noir. Can we not find room for a breed of egalitarianism that recognizes a hierarchy of quality while appreciating the blessings and beauty of the whole gamut?

  14. Steve, As you like the Mass, find the No.2 Partita for Violin and listen to the last movement, the Chaconne. (144 variations solo violin I reccomend Hilary Hahns version)

    I see the difference here is that wines are very good and well crafted and some few others reach that synergy and the wine goes beyond craft to become an unforgetable almost art experience.

    Some folks just like to know all the details of trellising and such and if it builds their confidence, that is ok with me. The details of the craft are important and how the winemaker relates those details may also reveal how passionate he/she is about their craft.

    One of the differences between humans and other species is our ability to raise and elevate common activities to artistic levels of experience. Eating for survival becomes gourmet fetes. Pounding on a hollow log to ward of predators and signal your tribe becomes the tympany section of Beethovens 9nth 1rst movement. Making and preserving grape sqeezins’ becomes capturing the quintessence of the perfect grape.

  15. JB I guess I’m thinking of the D and the Ds version. I think that’s the one most DJs play on the radio.

  16. Erika, Yes! Egalitarianism! Love it. One of the pleasures of my job is to discover a wonderful $14 wine and rave about it.

  17. Fully comprehending Bach often requires having a look at the score. For instance, his Goldberg Variations are musically sublime and immensely enjoyable but the listener must learn the hidden architecture to receive Bach’s mind-blowing message. When first approaching one of his pieces, it is best to appreciate the work on an emotional level. Telling someone upfront about the layers of philosophical content diminishes the journey.

    I’m not sure Layla has a meta-physical meaning but is instead humanly grounded in love and pain. I’m not sure wine tries explain the universe but according to Sideways, Pinot Noir is about love and pain and apparently akin to Layla?

  18. Eric, I will probably think long and hard into the night about your remarks.

  19. Sorry Eric, but that is not just right. Not everyone who listens to Bach needs to be able to read and follow the score in order to fully enjoy that music.

    Where I cannot, in faith, compare the quality and depth of Layla to Bachs Mass. I can appreciate the quality of a performance or recording that can stir a persons soul. (In truth, I met Clapton once, that is ran into him backstage during a Cream concert in the 1970s)

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