An open letter to certain wine critics
Can we get one thing perfectly clear? California Cabernet Sauvignon is big.
End of story. Stop your whining that it’s too fruity, oaky, alcoholic and sweet. You want dry and earthy, go get some Bordeaux Superiéur and enjoy. And stop, puh-leeze, trotting out Cathy Corison every time as your poster child for what you think Cabernet should be.
The latest is Jon Bonné, in yesterday’s San Francisco chronicle, who says the 2008 Napa Cabs “swagger.”
swagger. To walk with a bold, arrogant or lordly stride; strut. To boast, brag, or show off in a loud, superior manner. [from Webster’s New World Dictionary]
Interesting choice of words. Whether or not it occurred to Jon spontaneously, or he turned to his Thesaurus, it’s clear he was looking for some form of insult. It’s all right for somebody not to like Napa Cabernet, but Jon’s complaint is a continuation of his meme that there’s “a general move [in California]…toward lighter winemaking and more nuance. For better or worse, Napa’s fame is still built on a big foundation of impact.”
His theory is that 2008, a cool vintage (although not as cool as 2009 or 2010 or as 2011 so far is looking) might have been “a year that could offer subtlety. Yet subtlety has been harder to come by in this realm [of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon]. For all the talk of ripeness being dialed back and a lighter hand in the cellar, we’re still plodded [another interesting choice of word] through a forest’s worth of oak…and alcohol levels that averaged in the high 14 percents.”
A “straw dog” is something (an idea or plan) set up to be knocked down. There’s a bunch of critics out there who have set up the idea that California wine is way too high in alcohol. They then further posit some kind of “general move” toward lighter alcohol which they assert is a historical imperative. Then, when they find wines that are “in the high 14 percents” if not even higher, they accuse them of marching against history–of being out of touch “swaggerers” in need of slapping down.
Let’s get the record straight. There is not nor has there been a “general move” to lower alcohol levels on Cabernet Sauvignon nor should there be. Cathy Corison aside (and I have great respect for her wines), the best Cabernets are going to average from the mid to high 14s through the low to mid 15s in percent of alcohol, and if a critic can’t handle that fact, he or she should just get out of the business of reviewing Cab and stick to European wines or maybe Pinot Grigio.
Some of my top scoring Cabernets over the last year or so have been from Stonestreet, Venge, Trefethen, Araujo, Vine Cliff, Paul Hobbs, Krutz and Au Sommet, and all would, I imagine, be in the crosshairs of critics like Jon. I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree, but I do find it odd that, after his lamentation (I won’t call it a rant), Jon’s team found themselves able to recommend a clutch of ‘08 Cabs with fairly high alcohol, like Rock Wall’s, Chappellet’s Pritchard Hill and even Mondavi’s, which officially clocks in at 15.3% (and as we all know, the real numbers could be considerably higher than what the label says, a point dramatically illustrated by Jon a few months ago when he exposed the discrepencies between claimed and actual ABV that are so routine).
So if I could persuade these critics to do one thing, it would be to cease complaining about alcohol levels in Cabernet Sauvignon. Cab got to where it is today–America’s top red wine–because it’s ripe, lusty and delicious. The top wines do not “swagger.” They sing, as Keri Hilson does on “Pretty Girl Rock”:
All eyes on me when I walk in,
No question that this girl’s a 10 Don’t hate me cause I’m beautiful. Don’t hate me cause I’m beautiful. My walk my talk the way I dress It’s not my fault so please don’t trip
Don’t hate me cause I’m beautiful Don’t hate me cause I’m beautiful