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If critics are going to pronounce on regions, they should at least know them in depth

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I‘ve been enjoying Benjamin Lewin’s new book, In Search of Pinot Noir [Vendange Press, 2011], which covers the Pinot grape and wine around the world. It’s really one of the best wine books of the year. Lewin, an M.W. who writes in an accessible style, is largely free of cant. He doesn’t repeat stale old chestnuts, the way so many wine writers do, if he doesn’t believe them for a fact, which makes his reportage credible, and he obviously knows his stuff.

In his section on California, Lewin makes a point that cannot be emphasized enough. Because California’s top Pinot Noirs are produced in such tiny quantities, “A system of managed scarcity” prevents most people from ever tasting them, “unless you are in the magic circle of aficionados…And if you can only taste the generic appellation wines because the best wines are never available… how can you appreciate their potential quality…? Does this [difficulty], Lewin asks, rhetorically, hold back recognition of the full potential of the [California] regions?”

My answer is a full-fledged Yes. We’ve all heard and read the critique that California Pinot Noir is flawed, compared to the best of Burgundy and Oregon. Too fruity. Too high in alcohol. Too oaky. But I would argue that a lot of the people who make these charges simply have not had the opportunity to taste California Pinot at its top levels, which is to say the single vineyard or best barrel bottlings from the best wineries. I would scarcely dare to pronounce on the quality of, say, the Portuguese red wines of Alentejano, Alentejo or Bairrada, which my Wine Enthusiast colleague, Roger Voss, recently gave high scores to, because I haven’t had enough of them. But I wonder how it is that a wine writer not actually living in California (or visiting here frequently), and who lacks full access to the top Pinot Noirs tasted on a consistent basis, can make sweeping generalizations and expect to be taken seriously.

I guess you can just fly into California once a year, arrange a whirlwind tasting, and render a verdict.

Lewin, on the other hand, has plenty of opportunity to taste California Pinot Noir, presumably through his duties writing for the World of Fine Wine and Decanter, and that’s why I say his writing is largely cant free. He displays an even-handedness concerning California, even though it’s pretty clear that he is, at heart, a Bugundian. He gives more four-star ratings to the likes of Chambertin than he does for anything in California; but his ratings for Williams Selyem, Sea Smoke and Au Bon Climat, to mention but a few, are quite similar to mine [albeit that I use numbers, not stars), which means that Lewin is right on the money, as far as I’m concerned!

If I only tasted the basic appellation Pinot Noirs from California–those available at supermarkets and distributor tastings–no doubt my opinion of Cali Pinot would be lower than it is. I too would probably criticize them. And in fact, I do criticize even some of the expensive, hard to get Pinot Noirs for obvious faults: over-extraction, too much oak, too much alcohol and (more rarely noted by critics, although it should be), bizarre acidity that has been added in a heavy-handed way.

But fortunately, I get to taste almost all the rare Pinot Noirs in California, and believe me, there are some spectacular wines out there, which is why I feel on firm ground stating how world class they are, and how ignorant the anti-California critics are–using “ignorant” in the sense of not possessing the necessary information to come to an informed judgment. Maybe the next time a critic bashes California Pinot, he or she should tell us precisely how many he’s tasted over, say, the last year, and exactly which ones. That at least would put some context into his remarks.

  1. “unless you are in the magic circle of aficionados…And if you can only taste the generic appellation wines because the best wines are never available… how can you appreciate their potential quality…?

    Wouldn’t this be just as true of Oregon and Burgundy? Can’t recall the last time I saw Antica Terra or Dujac Clos de la Roche case-stacked at Safeway. I think it comes with the territory of ambitious Pinot Noir.

    My guess would be that the Cali-bashers out there would often find more to grump about in higher end CA Pinot. On the other hand, I recently had a modestly-priced Irony Monterey Pinot Noir whose lightness and balance would charm any Beaune-head.

  2. Good points Steve. I’ve had some fantastic, world class ca pinots, but they do take some seeking out.

  3. If critics are going to pronounce on regions, they should at least know them in depth
    Posted by steve on Nov 7, 2011
    And your point is???

    Trying to rescue a failing appellation
    Posted by steve on Mar 23, 2011

    “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.”

  4. Christian – I think that’s largely true of any wine region. Having said that, we just need to be careful that we are not representing a region’s quality potential based on what might be the *exceptions* in a very small number of producers.

    The CA PN example holds up I think because when you take, say, the body of great PN being made in the west Sonoma Coast by very small producers, enough examples of those small producers constitutes a strong body of evidence, etc.

  5. Joe hints at the reverse problem, which Steve ignores. Namely, writers often ONLY taste the top wines. They tour a region, see a few estates, and taste a couple dozen wines. They taste the top scorers. Then, they proclaim some level of regional quality, even though the average consumer will never find that quality.

    The issue with wines like California Pinot Noir is that there is a tremendous gap, it seems, from mid-level, easy-to-find stuff, and the very top bottlings. In, say, the Loire Valley, the easy-to-find Chinon and Bourgueil is often very good, and maybe just a notch down from the top bottlings. Many Rhone wines are solid, and good reflections of the region, even if they lack the complexity of the very best. So this issue is not so easily boxed, as Steve makes it seem.

  6. Evan, you’re right to observe that many writers visit the state and taste only the top wines. That’s another reason to trust a regionally-based writer, like me. I taste it all: the good, the bad and the ugly!

  7. Jim, tasting in depth doesn’t mean tasting everything! No one can taste everything. Your point has some validity, though, and that’s one reason why I no longer review Livermore Valley for Wine Enthusiast. My colleague, Virginie Boone, is able to do that now in depth.

  8. Steve. You should take your own advice from the title of this post.
    Hanging out with only a select group of winemakers at Bien Nacido for a day or two once a year does not give you the “in depth” knowledge of Santa Barbara County, its sub-apps, or the vintage variations.
    Oh wait, you don’t believe that is discernible. Wait again, now you do… Which is it?

  9. This is my own recycled content, but this post gets at the core of why I follow the blog. I am for the time being rather focused on California wines, so it makes sense to follow a blog by arguably one of the most California educated critics.

    If and when I spread my wings more, I might seek out a few appropriate voices. I do trust Steve to the point that I know several of his friends in the Santa Barbara area, and when he comes to taste he definitely gets into all of it.

    By the way, I think people that get to hung up on “this region is better than that,” or “this variety is superior to that,” miss the whole point of wine, which is to find what is unique in any given area or any given wine.

  10. SAUMW, all do respect, but I don’t think this is what Steve does at all.

  11. Wayne, “in depth” obviously is relative. I don’t just “hang out for a day or two” at Bien Nacido, I taste California wines constantly at home, every day of the year, or almost. I would venture to say I’m as sunk down into California wine as anyone in the world, which is why I think I’m in a good position to write about it.

  12. Steve,
    Ben Lewin is an amazing guy! I’ve had the opportunity to chat with him on several occasions now and on top of being a wine expert he is a very humble person which is refreshing in this industry. I haven’t read his most recent book but I’m sure I would enjoy it from the tone of this post.

  13. “Does this [difficulty], Lewin asks, rhetorically, hold back recognition of the full potential of the [California] regions?”

    I’d say that if the “best” of CA Pinot Noir (or any variety from anywhere) is made is such small quantities that too few people can appreciate them, then those wines do not represent any region in a meaningful way. That is, if they did, then there would simply more of it.

    These wines likely represent specific viticulture and cellar procedures and not a “region” in general.

  14. Jason, you’re right, in a sense. One of the things I like abut Lewin is that he repeatedly questions the notion of “terroir,” wondering if winemaker techniques (including ripeness at harvest) trump regional character.

  15. Jason,
    I think the issue is that there is a small quantity of great wines from a region, its that teh region is broken up into so many small producers; while the overall quatity may be significant, the production of any one winery is tine. In the Russian river for instance, there are several hundred wineries and several hundereed growers. There are more soil types in teh russina River than in Burgundy. Pinot the the perfect grape to expoloit that diversity, but unlike other areas where vinrads my be large, here they are tiny. I would rather show off a great one acre vineyard (Windhorse in this case) and only make 50 cases, than blend it into a Russina River appellation wine and make a thousand cases of it. That’s what makes pinot so special.

  16. Hey, I think you might have mistaken my comments (in support of your work in CA) with SAUMW’s comments regarding you paling around at Bien Nacido.

    Jason, I think I agree and disagree. I think there are a lot of good wines, but due to many facotrs (finances being chief amongst them), winemakers are not able to do everything they would like to to express that area in the absolute best terms. There are only so many acres of prime vineyard locations and only so much fruit a lot of producers can afford to drop. But I wouldn’t say what Black Angus does with steak is the pinnacle of beef just because it is more common than one prepared by a master chef.

  17. In response to my cousin Evan (; + >), for wines made prior to 2002, I’d have to agree with you. But since 2002, I think David Ramey (Ramey Wine Cellars), Wells Guthrie (Copain), Eric Sussman (Radio-Coteau), Andy Smith (DuMOL), Fred Scherrer (Scherrer Winery), and many others have done a fantastic job in capturing the strengths of the vintage for Pinot Noir, Syrah, and/or Chardonnay at both the appellation level as well as at the single-vineyard-designate level. Even La Crema, which is a Kendall-Jackson winery, turns out appellation Pinots with noteworthy balance, acidity, structure and flavor.

    True, the price point for these appellation Pinots, Syrahs, and Chardonnays is higher than a lot of Loire or Rhone appellation or village-level wines. But I believe the quality on the whole is as good if not better in California. That said, very, very few California Chardonnays at the appellation level are going to come close to the quality of Roulot’s Bourgogne Blanc, but neither are most Burgundians for that matter.

    As to the supply-demand issue in relation to consumer awareness: I don’t expect the yields to go up from the best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay sites currently planted. Instead, I expect more great sites to be planted (or re-planted), and consolidation of prime Pinot/Chardonnay vineyard holdings by a select few. There will be more of the best that California has to offer in the market, but it will never be ubiquitous. Consumer awareness will improve as trade association groups like West of West and Pinot Days put on more tastings of the best producers, and as these relatively small and perhaps somewhat “new-ish” wineries do more dinner events at their wineries and on the road.

    The fact remains, when it comes to farming Pinot Noir grapes in Sonoma and Mendocino, the sites that offer the greatest potential for complexity, ageability, balance, and flavor potential are USUALLY cooler sites with serious diurnal temperature shifts that are subjected to persistent fog and driving wind currents. Low yields and calamitous weather events are part of the ballgame in these parts. Yields in these sites typically run between zilch to 2.5 tons to the acre. I’d bet the average over the past 5 years is 1.75 tons per acre. There just aint that much to go around.

    [FWIW, The sites/producers I'm thinking of include:

    Occidental (Summa, Thieriot, Coastlands, Evening Land Vineyards, Littorai, Charlie Heintz's ranch, Cobb, Red Car, Rivers-Marie, Ceritas' Escarpa Vineyard) Bodega (Platt Vineyard, Kistler's Bodega Headlands, Radio-Coteau Terra Neuma), Freestone (Freestone), Sebastopol Hills (Falstaff), Annapolis (Peay), Cazadero (Three Sisters, Hirsch, Cinghale), and the Deep End of Anderson Valley (Copain Kiser).]

  18. Jason wrote: “These wines likely represent specific viticulture and cellar procedures and not a “region” in general”.
    Absolutely. Due to an unprecedented supply of credit, and US’ hugely affluent domestic market, California high-end wine industry can afford (IMHO, temporarily) to be largely aesthetic/cult/ego driven. There is little economic reasoning, and only a handful of growers/investors truly care whether vineyards/meso-climates (in the high profile areas) are suitable for the chosen varieties; which invariably turn out to be (the usual suspects) Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and, to a lesser degree, Syrah.
    And despite the fact that there are small groups seeking to unveil and develop local identities, the majority of small (high-end) producers still follow the mainstream ideology of fitting/adjusting/conforming wines to a preconceived ideal of fabricated “balance”.

  19. “…the majority of small (high-end) producers still follow the mainstream ideology of fitting/adjusting/conforming wines to a preconceived ideal of fabricated “balance”.

    Peter, I’d make the argument that every wine (or winemaker)in the world does this, to a greater or lesser extent. The wine in which nothing has been done to it is not something that would be held in high regard. Fine wine is not simply fermented grape juice, but rather a processed beverage. These processing techniques may be traditional and time-honored, but they are processing techniques nonetheless. How state-of-the-art viticulture and winemaking techniques are regarded is more a question of culture than anything else.

    There was a time hundreds of years ago that Bordeaux wines were (by current standards) rose colored and 11% alcohol. I’d doubt any connoisseur or critic today would praise those wines for reflecting terroir.

  20. “taste California wines constantly at home, every day of the year, or almost”
    That is akin to reviewing automobiles on the basis on visiting a few car shows and looking at brochures.
    That is not being an expert. That is being a tool of the industry.
    “Relative” is often a convenient cop out in this business.
    There is absolutely nothing “relative” about saying something incorrect – like saying a vintage was hot based on a wine one tastes when in fact the vintage was cool and rainy in a particular AVA.
    It is by doing more than tasting “constantly at home” but by pounding the paths that one becomes an expert in a region – large or small.

  21. Steve,
    I have to disagree with Lewin. It’s not the scaricity that makes these Pinots hard to try. Do a search on the net and look at the top Internet retailers and online auction houses. You can find these wines.

    Rather, it’s the price and the legal problems with retailer to consumer shipping.

  22. Tom, what you say is true, but my point was that a lot of wine writers and critics hardly ever try these wines, regardless of the reasons why. In my judgment, a critic has to be thoroughly versed in a region, if he writes about it.

  23. Steve
    Nice post. Recently you admitted that you scored Pinots consistently lower than Cabs. I jokingly accused you of having a jaded palate (“wooden”, I think, was the exact adjective). I acknowledge that there’s not necessarily any contradiction between these two posts. Nonetheless, I’m very pleased that your mind and palate have suddenly expanded to include less emphatic wines- you even seem to defend subtlety! Maybe an old dog can learn new tricks. Or at least the old dog can still hunt? Lots of responses, and you’re back in the featured blog list. Seems CA Pinot is good for something, after all! Bunt

  24. Jason,
    Although I understand and partly agree with your point, IMHO, “reductio ad absurdum” arguments do not make sense outside the realm of pure logic; and are poorly suited for reconciling, accommodating, different worldviews.
    Furthermore, I believe the term “processing” is not appropriate for defining the (high-end) winemaking craft. The strict (and objective) meaning of “processing” is: to change (transform, manipulate) the physical and/or chemical properties of grapes (or grape must) from its natural state by subjecting it to special treatments that involve heat and/or high/low pressures.
    In this sense, great wines are rarely processed: they are, for the most part, made in the vineyard and crafted with the least invasive techniques available to the winemaker; so that grapes can (minimally) express their indigenous character.
    Cheers,

  25. Just to throw it out. Put my hat in the race for Rhys allocation yesterday and got a response that it was a 1-2 year wait. I think Sea Smoke is like 2-4 or something like that. So it isn’t just price, they are just hard to get.

  26. But California producers may still bear a responsibility in this matter. I once had the good fortune to speak to Eric Rousseau, who was gracious to a fault as he answered all of my questions. Without prompting, he spoke of his responsibilities as a Burgundian to make the best Gevery Chambertin AOC/Village wine that he can, since this is what most people will taste (I cannot recall if Gevrey Chambertin AOC is the largest supplier of bottled red wine among all the village appellations, but the jist is hopefully clear) and will judge what red burgundy to be. If California and its producers as a whole can produce a keenly priced and readily available bottle of Pinot Noir (as they probably do now–Au Bon Climat quickly springs to mind), then Cali producers may well enjoy a regard that I believe they do deserve (as I eagerly await to be included on the numerous Cali lists)……

  27. Steve, if I understand you correctly, you are saying that it is unfair to judge California Pinots based upon what the vast majority of consumers will ever have the opportunity to drink, because a dozen people make 200 cases each of something better, something not distributed to their states, and that they will never see or taste? I guess I was unfair to those late-70 American cars, because maybe there was some guy in Kalamazoo making 6 cars a year by hand, for individual customers at half a million a pop. With that in mind, who cares if Pintos tended to blow up and they were still shoving 8-tracks into underpowered Cadillacs and telling the old ladies they were “state of the art”?

  28. The term “managed scarcity” just about sums it up. Pinot does lend itself to site-specific bottlings–the differences always are apparent. As to whether they mean anything, though, I’m not so sure. The transparency of Pinot makes vintage, clone and vineyard a huge factor in expression, but if you switched the vineyard labels between two bottles, so what? Same differences, different labels.

    But from a marketing standpoint the collector wants a few of each. And since they can charge more, that’s better than blending it up and selling a whole case for 1/3-1/2 less. The pricing and labeling is about selling wine, not so much about quality. However the real quality wines usually go into this category.

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