Critics and older wines
Wine lovers who go by the critics should realize that critics, even the most famous, hardly ever get to taste vertical flights. Probably 99% of what we review are new releases. This has had important consequences over the years.
Speaking for myself, I certainly get to taste a lot more older wines than most people. Not that I have a great cellar, but I get invited to a lot of events at which older wine is formally poured. And from time to time a winemaker or owner will graciously open something old.
But even if I taste, say, 200 older wines a year, it’s in a random, scattershot way. Five old Burgundies at a World of Pinot Noir lunch. Ten old Cabernets courtesy of a winery hosting a vertical. An odd old bottle of Riesling here, Pinot Noir there, an ancient Barolo, a 25-year old Champagne.
It’s all very educational, and having a sensory memory of all the older wines I’ve tasted in the last 25 years gives me some ammunition in making predictions about a wine’s ageworthiness. But I always feel guilty at how few older wines I taste, compared to the actual number of older wines I would like to, and should, taste.
It’s all a question of numbers. If I taste, let’s say, 4,500 new releases this year (and it could be more than that), that averages out to more than a dozen wines a day. Every day. I’m talking 24/7/365. Now, limiting the field strictly to California, how many wineries do you suppose there are that make wines considered “ageworthy”? This is off the top of my head, because I never sat down to actually work it, but let’s estimate there are 75 Napa Cabernet houses. Any one of them might produce multiple bottlings, though; for instance, yesterday I reviewed a bunch of Flora Springs Cabs and they had at least 5 different ones, all of which seemed ageable. So there could be many, many hundreds of individual Napa Cabernet bottlings that one could set up vertical tastings for.
Then there’s Pinot Noir. Think of all the great Pinot houses, from Santa Rita Hills up through SLO county, Santa Lucia Highlands, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Sonoma Coast, Russian River and Anderson Valley! Probably at least another 50 wineries, and you know how many of them love to bottle as many single vineyard wines as they can get their hands on. So many more hundreds of possible verticals.
We haven’t even gotten to Syrah, Zinfandel, red Rhône blends, Petite Sirah, am I forgetting any other reds? Fortunately, I think we can all agree the number of ageable California whites is negligible. But what about sparkling wine?
And then, how many years do you go back? A winery like Joseph Swan can do 40 years of verticals. Hanzell, even longer. Rochioli must be able to go back 25 years. How about all those old Sanford & Benedict wines that span about 40 years? Beaulieu Private Reserve Cabs? That’s about 75 years. Mondavi? 45 years. And so on and so forth and still counting. Add them all up, people, and you have thousands upon thousands of older wines, an impossible number from a time management point of view.
And even if you could add more hours to the day for vertical tasting, where are you going to get the wines? You have to depend on the kindness of winery owners, and a lot of them are going to refuse to open $10,000 or $25,000 worth of library wine just to satisfy your curiosity.
By the way, another consequence of critics tasting mostly newer wines is that we critics develop a palate for freshness and fruitiness. That has helped drive the style of today’s riper wines.
Beyond my feeling sad and frustrated that I can’t taste more older wine, there’s yet another consequence of practical importance to readers. When you see a critic saying when the wine should be ready, raise a skeptical eyebrow. Most of these estimates are pure fiction. They are literally made up out of thin air. Mr. Parker is most infamous for tasting a young Cabernet and giving it a 25 year lifespan, but he’s not the only one. That’s why I have pulled in my window of ageability on all but the rarest and most exceptional California wines. For Pinot, I’m good with 6-8 years. For Cabernet, I can maybe stretch it to ten years. But how I am supposed to advise a reader to hold a Cabernet from “XYZ” Winery for 20-25 years when I’ve never had an older bottle of it? I couldn’t do that in good faith.
So keep that in mind whenever you read aging predictions. I will add this: I’m jealous of Parker’s new job of tasting older wines. As he wrote to his online subscribers:
I will turn to something I have long played around with in The Wine Advocate but have rarely had enough time to do. Older readers may remember the vintage retrospectives called “What About Now?” With Antonio turning his attention to California, I am going to begin a series of horizontal and vertical tastings of perfectly stored California wines that will give readers insight into how they are developing. It has been a long-term ambition of mine to include more reports on older vintages, and this change will allow me to do this not only in California, but also to increase the older vintage reports for Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley.
He’s a lucky guy to now be able to do that. But he may in fact be the only critic on Earth in that position.