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A conversation with The Burghound, Allen Meadows, Part 2

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This is the second and final part of my conversation with Allen Meadows, the Burghound. Allen is the author of a brand new book, “The Pearl of the Côte: The Great Wines of Vosne-Romanée,” available here at Burghound’s website. I will be reviewing “The Pearl” in an upcoming post.

SH: Do you collect?

I do.

Would I find all three of those regions [i.e., California, Burgundy, Oregon] in your cellar?

You would.

Would you care to name any particular producers you’re fond of?

Well, in Burgundy, because that’s always been my interest, it would take quite a while to name them all. I would say, though, that I collect producers, but I also collect by appellation. A lot of people imagine that I have only Grand Crus and that’s absolutely not the case. I collect very broadly.

You made a beautiful argument [in his World of Pinot Noir symposium] for Volnay Villages. But let’s talk about California, because I’m a California guy. Would you care to name some of your highest-rated brands in California?

Sure. There are a number I admire, but Anthill comes to mind. Rhys is another I admire greatly. I think Joe Davis, at Arcadian, is doing some really beautiful work. Some of Jim Clendenen’s stuff is really, really pretty. It’s a little austere when you start, like Davis’s stuff, but given time in bottle, it really matures. There are certainly others.

Am I mistaken in thinking that these are all lower alcohol wines, by California standards?

No, I don’t think you’re mistaken at all, because the whole aspect of balance and food-friendly wines I believe are the future, if California is going to be in the eyes of the serious consumer and compete favorably with Burgundy, because high alcohol wines, in general, age less well, less gracefully than lower alcohol wines. But I don’t want to beat this to death either, because high alcohol, in certain vintages, if the wines are balanced–it’s still not my personal preference, but I wouldn’t say they’re incapable of aging.

So if I’m a California producer and my wine happens to be 15.5%, should I say, “I’m not going to send it to Meadows because he’s going to give it a low score?”

Well, chances are good it’s not going to get a great score. What I try and do is try to separate style and content, and if I think the wine is not too warm, and has at least some semblance of balance, I’ll say, “This is very well done in its style, but it isn’t for me personally.” But that isn’t to say that the wine isn’t any good, because the whole philosophy of “I like it, therefore it’s good” or “I don’t like it, therefore it’s bad” I think is intellectually bankrupt.

You may not know the answer to this, but over the years, how many 100s have you given to all your regions?

Exactly one.

What was that?

A 1945 Romanée-Conti, and it didn’t appear in the pages of Burghound, it appeared in the book.

How many 99s?

I’d have to look, but probably 6,7.

What’s the highest score in California, if you remember?

I believe 95.

For…?

It was one of the Rhys wines. But I believe  that one of the Anthill wines was, if not there, then close.

So you’re a fairly stingy rater. That’s my word.

Yes. I’d say that’s probably true, relative to many of my colleagues.

Do you think that there’s a such thing as score inflation going on?

I do.

Care to say anything more about that?

Well, I think there is unfortunately a commercial relationship between certain reviewers who give good scores and retailers who can use those scores to their benefit. So someone starting out as a critic is probably well advised to give very high scores to gain some notoriety. The problem is, those scores have to bear up in the eyes of the consuming public, and as we spoke earlier, I think that 90 points is supposed to mean something, as opposed to where you start, and a lot of wines that are submitted to me are in that 86-89 point range, meaning that they’re not technically flawed, but they’re not necessarily greatly distinguished either. But if I give something a 90 or above, I want the consumer to say to himself or herself, “I got something really good.”

Do you taste blind or unblind?

I generally taste unblind. This is not to say 100%, but the vast majority of what I taste is not blind.

Given that this is a somewhat controversial issue, can you explain why you choose to taste unblind?

I can. There are both sides to the argument, and I believe I appreciate and understand both. However, if part of what my clients are paying for is the benefit of my perspective and my, in many cases, intimate knowledge of ageability and style of a given domaine or winery with that particular terroir, to taste blind is to deprive the readership of that perspective. Now, am I influenced by the label? Perhaps. It’s impossible to know for sure. I try and step back and judge that vintage against what I have tasted before.

To play Devil’s Advocate for a second, why not taste blind, and then look at the label and bring your context and experience to the review?

There are times I do that, in particular when we do staged tastings where it’s a theme. In other words, it’s a given producer, or a given vintage, or a given terroir. Those are often done blind, and then the review is after the fact, and then you can adjust. But in a way, if you’re going to all of a sudden rate something 83 points, and you find out, Well, jeez, that’s a famous name, now it’s 93–what have you really done? To me, not much, other than you say to yourself that either your palate isn’t as fine-tuned as you think it is, or this really wasn’t very good after all. I can see both sides of it. People who taste blind and believe that’s the best way–it’s the results, ultimately, that count, and the quality of the guidance. I’m less convinced that the method by which you get there is the driving force. So I wouldn’t do it that way, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t entitled to do it the way they see fit.

Thank you!

  1. Steve,
    Please don’t take the “0” comments as dis-interest in this interview of Alan.
    I thought it was a very nicely done interview and appreciate your effort.
    I think Alan did a very good job of squarely addressing the (“controversial”?)
    issue of blind vs. non-blind tastings by a critic. It’s not an issue I get my knickers
    in a not over. When you’re addressing a subject as subtle as the differences in terroir
    between LaTache & Richebourg, those things are easily lost in a blind tasting. You are
    so focused on trying to identify if it’s LaTache or Richebourg. Knowing that it’s LaTache
    allows you to focus on if this is what I’ve tasted in LaTache before or not.
    It’s all pretty moot in my case ’cause I can’t drink those wines…nor particularly want to.
    Tom

  2. raley roger says:

    Great two part interview, Steve. Enlightening and educational. Wow, Galloni and Meadows in the span of a couple of weeks! Who’s next? You’re unstoppable.

  3. TomHill, I knew there wouldn’t be many comments. There’s nothing particularly controversial in this. But I also knew it would be a popular post. In fact yesterday’s views for part 1 were among my highest ever and probably part 2 will be too.

  4. James Rego says:

    I enjoyed both interviews as I once chased Burgundy and was a subscriber to Burghound; I have always admired his work and respected his opinions and reviews. I might add that I respect yours’ as well.

  5. Yet another voice chiming in to say that I thought the interview was a truly interesting read. I’ve always liked Allen and trusted his opinions on both Burgundy and the New World Pinots. I was also lucky enough to sit at a dinner table with him on my first trip to Burgundy and I can tell you that not only is he genuine in his passion for Burgundy, he is a wicked funny dude. This was fun for me to read.

  6. Both interesting and important interviews. I think you should do a follow up post with your thoughts on their answers and even interview yourself where you answer the exact same questions (or maybe do an interview with someone else… ;) ).

  7. Steve,

    I second the comment regarding two top-notch interviews with Galloni and Meadows. You asked excellent questions and helped us understand them as more than wine critics. I am very much in agreement with both gentlemen on how they approach tasting non-blind (credibility determined by results, rather than method)as well as respect and acknowledgement that blind tasting is OK too.

  8. [“This is very well done in its style, but it isn’t for me personally.” But that isn’t to say that the wine isn’t any good, because the whole philosophy of “I like it, therefore it’s good” or “I don’t like it, therefore it’s bad” I think is intellectually bankrupt.] This a pregnant philosophy for the rarified turf of the sommelier’s terroir, but for the commoner, what does this mean? I suppose this proves I’m out of my league, but when I’m with common people they either like the wine or they don’t. I guess there are experts for the experts and there are guides for the hoi polloi. Steve, I think it is was your commenting on the STYLE of high alcohol/fruit bomb Zinfandel wines (2005 Lust Zin) which exemplifies the issue: some people ‘love’ that wine (Not me)! Is this dividing the bone from the marrow?

  9. “[T]he whole aspect of balance and food-friendly wines I believe are the future”; and the past, too.
    Wine history and culture are deeply entwined with food, and exhibit an overwhelming bias towards chronic, long term, consumption.
    Regardless of personal preferences, this consumption profile demands food friendly, lower alcohol, healthy/unprocessed wines: so that one can minimize the (health) burden of daily drinking over a 30-40 years period.
    Conversely, the trend observed in California in the last decades towards high alcohol, stand-alone, model-fit (still) wines is, possibly, a phase transition from a largely predominant “beer and spirits” consumer market, to a complex, eclectic, civilized environment that encompasses a growing number of followers of the “wine and food” creed: which, sooner or later, will become California’s (wine macrocosm) mainstream belief system.

  10. David Rossi says:

    Meadows is exactly what an expert should be, expert. Great interview.

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