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What’s my favorite wine?

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People are always asking me, “What’s your favorite wine?”, to which I invariably reply, “The one I’m drinking now.” If they press me, I’ll say Champagne (or sparkling wine). If they really want to get down with me, I’ll tell them Pinot Noir.

I decided some years ago I liked California Pinot Noir even more than Cabernet Sauvignon, but I was never entirely sure about it. Whenever I tasted a great Pinot Noir, I’d be thrilled not only with the wine itself, but with an appreciation of how far, how fast this variety has come in California. It would have been inconceivable in the 1990s for me to have preferred Pinot over Cabernet, and I think the same could be said for most of the working critics of that time. However by the late 1990s, certainly by the early 2000s, if someone knowledgeable had said they thought Pinot had overtaken Cabernet, at least nobody would have suggested a forced trip to the psycho ward.

As much as I’ve liked Pinot, the reason I wasn’t quite sure it was my favorite was because every time I did a great Cabernet flight, it would blow my mind and remind me once again that Cabernet had been my first love and, while I might have flirted a bit with this racy young upstart, Pinot Noir, I was destined always to return to Cabernet. Dance with the one that brought ya, the old saying goes, and it was Cabernet Sauvignon that had brought me to the ball.

So I went into the database today so see what my top wines have been so far this year, and, not surprisingly, Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the list. The top 5 are all Cabernet or Bordeaux blends. What is surprising, though, is that two of them are not from Napa Valley! Those would be Stonestreet’s 2007 Rockfall and Verité’s 2006 La Joie, both astounding wines. Of course, one could argue that both of them are from the west-facing slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains, separated only by an accident of geography from being in Napa County, instead of Sonoma County.

My #6 wine was Williams Selyem’s 2008 Litton Estate Pinot Noir, a wine I’ve loved ever since I first tasted it. (The name henceforth will be Estate, not Litton.) It’s a big Pinot Noir, not for the faint-hearted, and I guess you could criticize it for not being “Burgundian” enough, but that’s not a criticism I share. My #7 wine was a sweetie, Dolce 2006, and it should never be surprising to see Dolce appear on anyone’s top list. It’s consistently one of California’s great dessert wines. What perhaps is a little surprising is that my #8 wine is a sparkler: Schramsberg’s 2004 J. Schram Rosé, possibly the greatest California sparkling wine I’ve ever had the pleasure to review. After that, we revert back to Pinot Noir for the #9 wine, Joseph Swan’s 2007 Trenton Estate, which with its acids and tannins reflects its southern Russian River Valley roots. In tenth place, last but not least, is Qupe’s 2006 X Block “The Good Nacido” Syrah.

This list makes me happy and proud. It certainly wasn’t premeditated for me to have Cabernets, Pinots, a sweet wine, a sparkling wine and a Syrah in my Best of 2011 (so far) list. But there you are. What it tells me is how well California is doing in many different varieties, at least at the upper tier.

After that Qupe Syrah, #11 is another Syrah, Donelan’s 2008 Richards Vineyard, from Sonoma Valley. But get ready for this: #s 12-22 are all Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux blends. I don’t see another Pinot Noir until #27, the Babcock 2009 Microcosm. So I guess I’d have to say, if you make me put my hand on a Bible in a court of law and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth concerning my favorite wine, I’d say, “Based on the evidence, it would be Cabernet Sauvignon.” But in my heart of hearts, I wouldn’t really believe it.

  1. Hi Steve, how often do you publish that list (or if ever)? Would make for a fun tasting adventure (even if you don’t publicly admit that you love those Pinot Noir!).

  2. Catherine Liao, you can access (for free) my reviews at http://www.winemag.com.

  3. The best answer to this question I’ve ever heard was when a quivering, nervous young woman posed it to Hugh Johnson and his reply was: Well the first bottle is always good, the second one is usuallly terrific, but the third bottle is my favorite.

    I’m of course paraphrasing from memory. But it was such a clever answer, I’ve kept the spirit of the answer intact.

  4. Christophe Hedges says:

    Steve,

    With all due respect, does this show your bias towards other varietals, regions, etc, that are not CS dominate?

    If I were a Merlot producer, or a Chardonnay producer from Humboldt county, I would be weary about sending you samples for review.

    Just wondering. Please explain this.

    ch

  5. Here’s a thought: tasting and drinking are two entirely different things. Perhaps you like to drink Pinot, and taste Cabernet. Cabernet fits better into the narrow set of criteria of a wine that is tasted for review–dark, tannic, extracted, exuding gravitas. A wine that scores high for tasting and a wine that is pleasurable to drink and intellectually stimulating are not necessarily the same thing.

    For me this is a fundamental divide in the wine world. As much as tasters do their best to extrapolate to how a wine drinks, tasting is not the same thing. As a result, the perceived highest form of wine appreciation is tasting many wines side by side in small pours. This is folly–it’s like saying it’s better to run through a museum and see every piece of art rather than carefully study a few works of interest. (Though I am loathe to extend the analogy too far since wine is not art.)

    I wonder if you put your top 10 wines side by side, which you would prefer to have a full glass or two to drink. The correlation to ranking might not be that strong.

  6. Donn Rutkoff says:

    Greg hits on a point I make all the time on the sales floor to customers. Wines that taste powerful at first, might be less interesting (less complex) after 10 minutes, and the less intense but more complex, takes over the lead in time. Scoring versus drinking. My 2 cents worth on why the 100 point scale or any point scoring system leaves a lot of room open for a saleperson to assist the customer to make good choices. But, Steve, how about Burgundy??? No Bonnes Mares? No Vosne Romanee wines??? (How about a green, unripe, 2006 La Tache? — jes kiddin)

  7. Roger Ivy says:

    After my 3 plus decades in the wine biz, reading your “favorite wines” experience pretty well sums up my exact feelings about “my favorite wines. my earliest experiences in the mid 70′s in Santa Barbara were growth Bordeaux and Burgundy, highlighed by yearly drink-fests at the Hueblein Rare Wine Auction Tastings in S.F. or L.A.. Then later, it was California Cabs and Champagne and always Burgundy and very good Calif. Pinot. But over the last 15 years my wife and I have enjoyed the growing bounty of very good Calif and Oregon Pinot’s more then any other wine (Except Champagne and sparkling wines)and this preference has been arguably easier on the pocketbook as well.
    And while I am at it, DOWN WITH WINE SCORES!!!

  8. Steve
    Now, THAT’S what I’m talkin about! Good for you. How can one decide if one likes a person or not if one doesn’t even know what wines they like? So, I don’t know all those wines, but I know I LOVE YOU for saying what you feel. No blog BS, no “what does this do for ME?” BS. I may or may not share your perceptions and opinion, but I LOVE YOU, MAN, for putting it out there. I always had a smidgeon of faith in your integrity, despite your chosen profession. You are the whore with a golden heart- a universal icon. Hugs, Bunt

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