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A conversation with the Burghound, Allen Meadows

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Allen Meadows is the author of Burghound, one of the premier Pinot Noir review publications in the English language. I’ve known Allen, not well but cordially, for some years. Now 57 years old, Allen was at last weekend’s World of Pinot Noir, where he kindly consented to let me interview him. The conversation was entirely spontaneous; I had no prepared questions in advance. And like my Antonio Galloni Q&A of last week, this one’s virtually unedited; what you read is what we said. This is Part 1. The final part will appear tomorrow.

SH: Where do you live?

AM: Tarzana [California] for less than half the year, Burgundy for less than half the year, and another two months, you pick a place.

As long as they grow Pinot Noir?

Exactly.

And what is the Burghound? What do you do?

Well, Burghound was a vision I came up with in the middle ’90s and finally had the nerve to realize in the Fall of 2000, to take the wine publishing approach of doing the world and stand that model on its head and do one thing, which was Burgundy, but do it in real depth. I emailed 20 of my friends who were into Burgundy and said, “Do you think that a review that is devoted to one thing only could work,” and it was zip for twenty. Nobody thought it would be a good idea. But, like some good ideas that don’t seem to make any sense at the time, it worked in spite of itself, and so, 12 years later, we’re still here.

And what is the publication?

It’s a newsletter.

How often do you publish?

It’s quarterly.

What does it cost per year to subscribe?

It is about to be moved up to $145 a year from $125, which is the first increase we’ve had in six years.

And what do I get every issue?

You get a series of reports that, by the way, have no advertising and no photos, so it’s quite dry, by intent. What you get is in-depth reviews of Burgundy, Pinot Noir and, from time to time, Champagne. And the coherence between those three is, it’s all the same grapes. The other thing that comes with it is a searchable database with, at this point, almost 60,000 Burgundies and Pinots in it, that is searchable all the way back to 1845.

What is the typical word length of a single review?

Probably 30-50 words, depending.

And how many reviews per issue?

I would say it varies, but the average is probably 1,250 wines an issue, so the average is 150 to 200-plus pages.

So that’s about 5,000 wines a year you’re doing.

Five to six, yeah, depending.

And you use the 100-point system?

I do.

Why?

Because I think to be commercially relevant you really don’t have a choice. I could have tried to pioneer a different approach, but I think that English-speaking consumers are comfortable with the scale. You can debate whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. It’s something I actually looked at carefully before I chose to use it. In fact, I almost thought about trying to grade wines using that scale, but within a hierarchy, because if it’s a really fantastic Bourgogne, and it gets 90 points, you could still easily have a Grand Cru that’s not really all that special, getting the same score. Yet in its class, the Bourgogne is much better. So if you use something that’s an absolute hierarchy, sometimes it doesn’t quite impart the value and just how good something at the lower end of the hierarchy is.

So name the Pinot Noir regions of the world you cover.

I cover basically Burgundy, California and Oregon. Once in a while, I’ll do an article on New Zealand, but it’s occasional, as opposed to systematic.

Why not include New Zealand full time?

Simply because I barely have time to do what I’m doing now. I’m not complaining, but I haven’t had a vacation in 8 years, so it’s just one of those things where there’s only so much time.

Well, some people would say your work is a vacation!

Well, they would, and I wouldn’t disagree. I do it because I love it, and I’m not about to complain, but it is real work.

Where do you do most of your tasting?

Put it this way: Most of Burgundy, in spite of the fact that a lot of importers send their wines to me at home, I would say that 98% of Burgundy is done in Burgundy, whereas most of the U.S. Pinot reviews as well as Champagne are done in my home office.

Do you solicit bottles, or just take what comes in?

Both. For the first 5 years, I didn’t do U.S. Pinot, and then I decided to branch out and do that, because there was a good deal of request for it from my readership, so initially I solicited. Now that people–I mean reviewers–are used to me reviewing, they typically just send the wines on a schedule of whenever they’re due to be released, but also in the last 7 years there have been a lot of new wineries that have just sent things, in one of two ways: they either write and say “May we submit and if so, how do we go about that?” and then other people just send it.

Do you review everything that comes in?

Yes, although I’m starting to wonder whether I can continue to do that, for the simple reason that there’s only so much time, and therefore, just because somebody sends something…in the past, I’ve tried to honor that. So for the moment, I taste everything, but I don’t know that I’m going to continue that policy. Sometimes, when people send things, it’s not necessarily of the highest quality.

Well, how do you know, unless you try it?

Well, you don’t, and  therein lies the trick that I will taste everything, but I don’t know that I’m necessarily going to write up everything.

Does that mean you sort of have a policy that you don’t trash wines?

That’s a very, very good question, because to this point, if a winery presents it, either on site, like in Burgundy, or sends it, it gets reviewed. So people don’t have to worry about what you just said, which is, if it’s not very good, then I won’t review it. But in this case, with stuff that I haven’t solicited, that just gets sent, I may in fact have to start a policy where I taste and then I don’t review it if it’s not very good.

Would you ever consider hiring an assistant taster? I mean, Parker branched out eventually.

A great question, and thus far, no. I think that a unique voice still has a place. I mean, I know that Steve Tanzer has done it, I know that Bob [Parker] has done it, obviously the Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast have various reviewers with expertise in their areas, and that makes sense. But for somebody who is specifically devoted to Pinot Noir-based wines, with obviously white Burgundy thrown in, I’m not sure that that policy makes sense. So for the time being, there are no plans.

So Burgundy, Oregon, California. Who gets the best scores?

That’s a good question too. I would say that, in my eyes, the reference standard still remains Burgundy. But when you look at the scores that some California wineries, as well as some Oregon wineries, are receiving, that difference that used to exist 7, 8 years ago is definitely narrowing. I would not say Oregon and California have caught Burgundy yet. But the difference continues to narrow.

In what respect does the difference continue to narrow?

Well, just the sheer quality. I think that, as wineries here better understand their terroirs, as the vines continue to mature, they’re getting better fruit. And it takes a long time to understand the terroir. I mean, even Burgundians will tell you that when they lease or buy a new parcel, it takes them time to understand it.

That raises an interesting question. You said that the quality of California and Oregon fruit is improving. But the style of Burgundy remains quite different from the style of California.

Yes.

Characterize briefly the three styles.

When I talk about quality, obviously “beauty” is in the eye of the beholder. I think most arguments come down to, What is beautiful? You have a vision of beauty, I have another, another person has a third, and sometimes the minds meet and sometimes they don’t.  So my point is, Burgundy should not try to emulate the New World, any more than the New World should try and emulate Burgundy. But if your definition of great wines are wines that can age and change and mature and evolve in a positive sense, enduring is one thing. But we’re talking about evolving, and become more interesting, then that is the way I view both Oregon and California improving. And so, if I were to characterize the three regions, Burgundy is Burgundy, vins de gardes, tends to be a little more austere, tends to have a little more acidity. California, due to the weather, tends to be more opulent, lush, it’s riper, tends to be more generous. Oregon has a foot in both camps. It’s not California, but it’s still riper than Burgundy.

Tomorrow, the concluding part of my conversation with Allen Meadows.

  1. Great interview, Steve. I really appreciate your line of questioning as a fellow critic here and on your previous interview with Mr. Galloni. Keep them coming…

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  1. Should Wine Critics Always Taste Blind? « Edible Arts - [...] of interviews hosted by Steve Heimoff, wine critic for the Wine Enthusiast.(Here is Meadows, Parts 1 and 2. Here …

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