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Critics and older wines

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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.


Trying to rescue a failing appellation

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Anyone who’s followed my reviews for a while knows I haven’t been a fan of Livermore Valley wines. In a column I once wrote, I described Livermore as the weak link in the chain of appellations that limns the San Francisco Bay region, from Anderson Valley through Napa Valley and Sonoma County, down to the Santa Cruz Mountains. All are great wine areas, except Livermore.

Why this is so is because of several reasons. For starters, there’s suburbanization. Livermore has been particularly hard hit by it (just like the Santa Clara Valley, which is present day Silicon Valley). Both once had vast acreage of vineyards and produced wine. But Livermore was unable to escape Santa Clara’s fate: tracts of land, including ranches, were sold to housing developers, and the vineyards, in large part, went away. Even Livermore-based wineries like Wente turned to other parts of the state, like Monterey County, to boost their grape supplies.

I think another reason is that the winemaking bar in Livermore has been set lower these days. There are complicated reasons for this, and if you’re curious, I can give you my thoughts later.

There are certainly wineries remaining in Livermore Valley. The Livermore Valley Wine Country website says there are more than 40. I can’t claim to have tasted all of them or even most of them, and there surely are many wineries I’ve never tasted at all. But those I have have tasted over the years have been disappointing, and I have no reason to suspect there are hidden gems in Livermore I don’t know about.

I’m not sure why quality isn’t higher. It can’t be terroir. Livermore Valley was one of California’s earliest grapegrowing regions and one of the best. We all know the story of how Charles Wetmore planted cuttings of (presumably) Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon from Yquem in 1882, turning his Cresta Blanca winery into one of California’s most famous. Livermore Valley wineries were the first to bottle varietally labeled Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Petite Sirah, according to the Livermore website, and their Cabernets once had a high reputation. The soils are well-drained and alluvial, and while the weather is hot, Livermore boosters argue it’s no hotter than the St. Helena-Calistoga area. So the problem must be in the winemaking. There simply aren’t enough qualified, or quality-oriented, vintners working there.

The Livermore wineries are probably grateful that I no longer review Livermore wines. Virginie Boone now does for Wine Enthusiast, and I hope she likes them more than I did. Maybe the Livermore winemakers are getting their act together and making better wines, which would give Virginie the opportunity to score them higher.

There has been one Livermore winery I’ve admired over the years, and that’s Steven Kent. The owner-winemaker is Steven Kent Mirassou, of the old Mirassou Winery, which was bought out by Gallo years ago. I’ve given his wines high scores since the 1999 vintage, with the Cabernet Sauvignons particularly impressive. These are wines that can stand against Napa Valley and I have told Steven so.

I get asked to lunch by a lot of winemakers and 99% of the time I decline, but Steven Kent Mirassou is one of the few I readily consent to. Why? Because I admire what he’s doing. It doesn’t make me happy to write off an entire region, the way I have with Livermore Valley, but it makes me glad to see somebody there who’s attempting to elevate it. Steven is scrappy and visionary. He sees, not the present sorry state of Livermore Valley, but its glorious past and what he hopes will be its glorious future.

At lunch we talked about whether and how much Steven should market Livermore Valley as a region, as opposed to just forgetting about Livermore Valley and plugging the Steven Kent brand. These are very difficult decisions with no easy answers. My advice to Steven was to forget about Livermore Valley and promote the Steven Kent brand. That’s just my two cents.

Wine Enthusiast Toast of the Town San Francisco

is Thursday April 7, in the evening at City Hall. I’ll be there and I hope you are too. If you want to get together, let me know, and we can make an arrangement.


RIP LIZ TAYLOR!


The wine blogger as journalist entrepreneur

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If you had told me 25 years ago that wine was going to be as popular as it is in America, I wouldn’t have been surprised. I learned a long time ago that, whenever I get passionate about something in the culture, millions of others are getting excited by the same thing. I might have latched onto wine a little earlier than most people, but ultimately, we’re all just riders on the huge demographic waves that sweep back and forth across history.

What does surprise me, though, is the interest in writing about wine. It not only surprises me, it blows my mind. If you’d told me, 25 years ago, that thousands of people would be writing about wine, I would have suggested you get your head examined. But here we are, with 1,000 wine blogs or whatever it is and counting, and even a Wine Writers Symposium that’s held at (of all places) Meadowood.

Why do so many people want to write about wine?

The first thing that’s so strange about it is that people are actually writing. That’s counter-intuitive. Conventional wisdom is that nobody writes anything anymore, unless they have to. But here we have millions of people across the world writing blogs of all types. That suggests to me a longing to communicate, which is, of course, the best thing about the Internet. You can communicate to everyone, instantaneously, at the push of a button. (Never mind that it’s not face to face. It’s still communication.)

With the blogs, including wine blogs, that are seeking to make money, there’s also an element of entrepreneurialism. In America post-Sept. 11, with life as we know it changing in radically unpredictable ways, and especially since the Great Collapse of 2007-2008 which has left many with scary financial futures, people seem to feel that they’re going to have to make it on their own, rather than depend on a company or employer to take care of them. There’s also this tremendous burst of creativity that’s been unleashed by the Internet and the access it gives everyone to information and expression. Put those two things–insecurity and creativity–together, and it helps explain the explosion of entrepreneurialism that underpins the wine blogging phenomenon.

Paul Kedrosky, who writes one of my favorite (non-wine) blogs, analyzed this recently in a post he called The “Tilt” Thing and the Case for Journalist Entrepreneurs.

Briefly, his take is that Silicon Valley is seeing less entrepreneurialism than might be expected, and he wonders why. Then he postulates it may be because the kinds of risk takers who become entrepreneurs are being “sucked…out” of science and technology into “other sectors.” His reference to “journalist entrepreneurs,” I think, is a metaphor for these “other sectors,” which he doesn’t really define, except to say that, compared to science and engineering, they offer “societal benefits [that] are much smaller, and arguable even negative.” I’m not sure I agree with that: the implication is that science gives people “positive” benefits, while journalism (the liberal arts?) yields smaller and “even negative” benefits. But then, Kedrosky is a techie, and maybe that’s why he sees the liberal arts as less positive than science.

Where he’s spot on, though, is in insisting that “Entrepreneurship is and should be irrational. You are taking on huge risks, showing immense ego, and trying something with an absurdly high failure rate.” That describes every major wine blogger in America. Anybody who hopes to make money at wine blogging is completely irrational, as there’s not a shred of evidence it can be done. Those who try to do it anyway, year after year, are showing colossal egos; my Hebrew ancestors would describe it as chutzpah. Kedrosky admits he “teases” journalist entrepreneurs but adds, in a begrudgingly admiring way, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Neither would I. The essence of entrepreneurialism is absurd: you invent something in a garage, your friends and family all think you’re nuts, everybody’s always asking you why you’re wasting your time on something so profitless. But you have a feeling. An instinct. A dream. So you push. Yes, there’s “an absurdly high failure rate.” You know that. But no risk, no reward, as the saying goes.


Thinking about wine writing

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I read this blog, which had some things to say about me, and liked it. Beyond that, it made me think about wine writing.

One of my earliest, most distinct memories is of pretending to write. I would sit at my mother’s vanity table, pencil in hand, and fill the blank pages at the front and back of my mother’s bound volumes of classic literature with broad, looping scribbles. I could not have been more than three.

I can’t understand why my mother didn’t object to my defacing her books. These were expensive collections of classic authors: Balzac, Tolstoy, Shakespeare. Not that I believe either of my parents ever bothered to read so much as a page of them; they were the kinds of household ornaments aspirational middle class Jews of that period liked to adorn their apartments, to show that they had good taste. (A next door neighbor had lamps with pedestals based on Michaelangelo’s David.) Still, defacing her books I was. Maybe my mother was proud that her youngest child was intent on learning how to write. Still, she could have given me notebook paper.

I don’t know or remember what I thought I was writing, but it was cursive, not print. It’s difficult to explain why a three-year old would be so desperate to learn how to write, much less in books, but I was. If you believe in karma, maybe I’d been an author in a previous life, working on a novel, when I’d died an early death, and couldn’t wait to be reborn so that I could resume it.

However you explain it, it’s fair to say that I was born to write. To read, also. I always had a profound delight in the written word and respect for books. To this day, I need to read. On the toilet (you’ll excuse me for saying so), I need a good book. If there is no book around, I’ll read the back of a box of soap powder. In many respects, I’m more comfortable with a book than I am with people. I must have got that from my mother who, at the end of the day, when her housework was done, would curl up in her favorite green stuffed chair in the livingroom room with a novel, while the rest of us watched television. My mother wasn’t a T.V. person, unless Judy Garland was on.

So writing and reading have been spotlights, goal posts, prime movers of my life for as long as I can remember. There’s been a lot of talk lately, in the blogs and elsewhere, about what makes for a wine writer: who is able to be a good wine writer, what the criteria are, is wine writing elitist or a pure democracy? My hunch is that a wine writer has to be insanely in love with the act of writing and all it involves: editing oneself, deleting, finding better metaphors and similes, more elegant constructions, greater balance, sweating over the details. What is balance in writing? It consists of two elements: clarity and complexity (the parallels with wine are not coincidental). “Clarity” means that the reader should not have to struggle to get the point. “Complexity” means that the point must expressed with reference to prior knowledge. Maybe there’s only a single parameter, and that is elegance.

I also think a good wine writer needs to develop a voice. A young man I know recently sent me a wine article he wrote and asked me to criticize it. I told him it was well-written, from a technical point of view, but that it was boring, because it was written like a press release, that is, devoid of point of view, personality, irony, anger, humor, self-awareness, contradiction, attitude, cynicism, passion, spirituality and all the other human elements that make writing interesting. He asked me how to develop a voice. I thought about it, and suggested that he first identify writers whom he likes, and then try to write in their style. There’s a Hemingway style, a Woody Allen style, a Garrison Keillor style, a Hunter S. Thompson style, a Churchill style that is really exquisite (check him out) and, in wine, a Gerald Asher style. (Leonard Bernstein used to delight people at parties by playing the same piece in the styles of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms and even Copland.) Once you study someone else’s style, you learn that there actually is such a thing as style. You learn how the words and the construction of sentences are only the written manifestation of that style–that it really comes from the person’s soul. And once you understand that, you can, with some effort, look into your own soul and learn how to express it in words.

It doesn’t always work. Not everyone is fit to be a good wine writer, because not everyone has an expressive soul. And you don’t necessarily have to be a good wine writer to “make it” as a “wine writer.” I mean, nobody thinks of Gary Vaynerchuk as a wine writer. A wine personality, maybe, but no Gerald Asher. There is a generation coming up that takes wine writing seriously–Jordan Mackey here in San Francisco is a good example–but I suspect the species is increasingly endangered. Then there’s someone like Joe Roberts, who epitomizes with dramatic clarity the challenge younger wine writers face: does he focus on real wine writing, a la Gerald Asher, which is a lonely, difficult task, or does he build a digital brand, a la Vaynerchuk’s personality-driven one? It’s hard, and maybe impossible, to do both.

In this age of twitter and instant messaging, I hope that some three year old kid is scribbling in his mom’s books, pretending to write and longing for the day he can. There are probably millions of kids who can’t wait to have a cell phone and start texting, but I’m pinning my hopes on that little girl or boy who wants to actually write long, interesting constructions of words. If that goes away, the human race will have devolved, no matter how glorious our technology becomes, IMHO.

Toast of the Town

If it’s Spring, it’s time for Wine Enthusiast’s Toast of the Towns. I’ll be at TOTT San Francisco this April 7, which is a Thursday. Hope to see you there.


Top 10 wines of the week

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The interesting thing about this week’s list is that all six Pinot Noirs are under 14% alcohol. I think we can safely say that the worm has turned: vintners are restoring balance to this variety, which ought to be delicate, not heavy. The days of 15% Pinot Noir are numbered. Why this is so is hard to say. It’s probably a number of factors: cooler vintages (just wait until the 2010s come out!), winemaker sensitivity to the bashing they’ve taken for years from critics for Rhône-style Pinot, and–often overlooked–the maturing of the grapevines. Older vines with deeper roots make more balanced and complex wines. At the same time, I see no evidence that California’s other great red wine, Cabernet Sauvignon, is lightening up. Many of the best still hover at 15% or higher, as witness the Meander Morisoli on the list. I think the critics of high alcohol are going to have to accept a split decision: they won with Pinot Noir and lost with Cabernet.

Copain 2009 Wentzel Pinot Noir (Anderson Valley). 13.7%, $50. Also their  ‘09 Monument Tree Pinot Noir, 13.7%.

Tyler 2008 Bien Nacido Vineyard N Block Pinot Noir (Santa  Maria Valley); 13.9%, $65. Also their ‘08 Clos Pepe, 13.5%, and ‘08 La Encantada, 13.7%.

Littorai 2008 The Pivot Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast); 13.9%, $65.

Meander 2008 Morisoli Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Rutherford); 15.2%, $120.

Yates Family 2006 Flower Red Blend (Mount Veeder); 14.5%, $50.

Volker Eisele 2009 Gemini Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc (Napa Valley); 14.5%, $25.

Morgan 2008 Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands); 13.8%, $48.

Trefethen 2009 Dry Riesling (Oak Knoll); 12.5%, $22.

Tyler 2008 Presidio Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Barbara County); 13.9%, $52.

Dutton-Goldfield 2009 Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); 13.5%, $38.


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