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Now the 100 point bashers are taking aim at tasting notes

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First it was the 100 point system that was under attack. Now, they’re after the tasting notes themselves!

The blogger Talia Baiocchi writes that “…a question is being asked with greater frequency: Is the listing of fruits and adjectives actually helping or hurting the consumer understand” wine? Then, she answers her own question with a curt “no, not really.”

Really? I have a couple questions myself. Who’s asking “with greater frequency” if tasting notes are irrelevant? Ms. Baiocchi never says; indeed, she asks the question in that intransitive, unattributed way that people always use when they want to suggest that “everybody’s talking about it” when in fact nobody is.

Now, I’m first to admit that some wine descriptors can be pretty over the top. It’s easy to poke fun at some of the more grandiloquent ones. But there’s nothing new about critiquing flowery wine descriptors. That’s been going on forever, so it’s not as if Ms. Baiocchi is breaking any new ground here. But I’ve got to tell you, as far as I can tell, in recent years wine writers have been toning down the silly stuff, turning toward simpler, more streamlined descriptions. I know I have. I’ve eliminated half, or more, of the analogies I used to use (fruits, flowers, specific herbs and minerals) and pared my descriptions down to an almost austere modesty. This isn’t only because I thought my descriptors were too flowery. No, it’s because the more I taste, the more I focus on a wine’s structure, rather than merely its flavors. Structure (which includes length, depth, finish and overall balance) is what makes or breaks a wine anyway, not whether those berries are loganberries, mulberries, blackberries or your great-grandma’s elderberries.

Actually, Ms. Baiocchi does the best job she can to defend her position. She cites a Robert Parker review that really does read like something from Mad magazine or a Saturday Night Live spoof (“shrimp shell reduction and iodine”) and uses it to tar and feather the entire field of wine writing, such as most of us practice. Well, that Parker review really is pretty silly, but Ms. Baiocchi must have spent a considerable amount of time searching for the dumbest one she could find.

Yet she betrays herself in the final paragraph when she states, with the definitiveness of the oracle of Delphi, that “the idea [of a wine review] is to inspire adventure, not dependence.” What does that mean? Dependence? Adventure? I’m not writing travel brochures of 12-step books, I’m writing wine reviews. All this sound and fury signifies nothing except the old message, which I’ve been preaching forever, that good writing is good writing, and bad writing isn’t.

It’s so easy to criticize when you’re on the outside looking in. It’s hard to actually do the job of being a wine writer, tasting everyday, and trying your level best to express your thoughts and impressions into words. Each of us has our own style, and our styles, hopefully, evolve over time, getting better and better. We become “more ourselves” and so our writing becomes clearer and more transparent.

I guess what I’m trying to say is I’m getting tired of wine writers and critics being punching bags for cranky people. Now, I’m off to the Napa Valley Vintners for my big tasting–blind–of red wines. I had my heart set on eating at Ubuntu, but, alas, their website says they’re “closed for a sabbatical.” Fortunately, there’s no shortage of good restos in Napa!


Musings on minerality in wine

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I stumbled across Master of Wine Mary Gorman-McAdams’ blog on minerality in wine yesterday, and read it through with interest. She nails the topic, in all its complexity and irresolution, pointing out that we talk about this thing called “minerality” but that no one can properly define it, or even agree whether or not it has an aroma, taste or mouthfeel.

Potter Stewart on porn, anyone?

It’s true, as Gorman-McAdams points out, that certain Old World wines are more apparent in minerals than are California wines. Being grown more northerly in latitude, most European wines simply aren’t as fruity as California wines; that transparency allows the taster to discern background “minerality” if it’s there, whatever it is.

I don’t know what minerality is, any more than anyone else, but I do use the term a fair amount. I went back over my reviews from the past few months and chose out the following wines, for all of which I used the word “minerals” or “minerality.”

At first, I had thought my search would focus more on white wines than on reds, but no, there are plenty of reds I found minerality in. Then I thought Cabernet Sauvignon would be scarce in minerals, but it showed up, too. Here’s the list. All of these wines, by the way, received high scores; I think minerality is a good thing. Below each category of variety, I’ll talk about my conclusions.

Chardonnays

Freestone 2009 Estate Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast)
Carneros Highway 2010 Nueva Chardonnay (Carneros)

Conclusion: Chardonnay needs a cool climate to show minerality. There seems to be a connection between minerality and acidity. There also seems to be a connection with lower alcohol.

Viogniers, Albarinos & various white blends

Kennefick Ranch 2010 Estate Pickett Road White (Calistoga); Viognier, Grenache Blanc and Marsanne
Calera 2010 Thirty-Fifth Anniversary Vintage Viognier (Central Coast)
Trenza 2009 Blanco (Edna Valley); Albarino and Grenache Blanc
Tangent 2010 Paragon Vineyard Albarino (Edna Valley)

Conclusion: As with Chardonnay, these whites show minerality when they were grown in the coolest coastal regions. Edna Valley whites always show this firmness; you can almost taste the wind, stones and fog. Calistoga, where the Kennefick Ranch white blend is from, obviously isn’t a cool coastal region,  but 2010 was chilly, even there.

Pinot Noirs

Kendric 2008 Pinot Noir (Marin County)
Dierberg 2008 Pinot Noir (Santa Maria Valley)
Calera 2008 Jensen Vineyard Pinot Noir (Mt. Harlan)
Calera 2008 MIlls Vineyard Pinot Noir (Mt. Harlan)

Conclusion: The Kendric and Dierbeg Pinots come from cool coastal climates. Mount Harlan isn’t particularly cool, but keep in mind that Josh Jensen chose this location because of the deposits of limestone that vein the soil.

Sauvignon Blancs

Mayacamas 2009 Sauvignon Blanc (Mount Veeder)
Hall 2010 T Bar T Ranch Sauvignon Blanc (Alexander Valley)
Pont de Chevalier 2009 Sauvignon Blanc (Knights Valley)

Conclusion: Minerality in California Sauvignon Blanc is very difficult to achieve because you need coolness, but that same cool climate can make Sauvignon Blanc green and cat pee-y. What these three have in common is mountain fruit. (T Bar T is high in the Mayacamas, not on the Alexander Valley floor.)

Cabernet Sauvignons

Volker Eisele 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
Storybook Mountain 2010 SEPS Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
Thomas Fogarty 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon (Santa Cruz Mountains)
Atlas Peak 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon (Spring Mountain)

Conclusion: The key to minerals in Cabernet is the proper soil. It can be mountains or benches. If the minerality is there, it’s subtle, in a wine as rich and full-bodied as Cabernet, so the wine has to be fully dry in order to detect it. But properly grown, with limited yield, a great Cabernet will offer a taste of the dirt in which it it was grown. It’s harder to describe what “minerality” tastes or feels like in Cabernet than in lighter wines. For me, it’s as if specks of lead pencil or ground-up steel shavings were in the mix.

I’m interested to hear my readers’ takes on minerality in wine.


Wine writer ethics, an obituary, and a segue to Tom Jones

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When I was still a beginning wine writer, one of the giants of our trade was Nate Chroman, who died last Friday at the age of 83.

I am looking now at his 1973 book, The Treasury of American Wines, which I have owned for many years. It’s a fine read, although for me its usefulness is limited by the fact that it has no index.

Nate was the wine critic for the Los Angeles Times in the 1970s and 1980s, but lost his job after another Times reporter, the paper’s media critic, David Shaw, wrote a series of articles on wine writing in which he questioned Chroman’s ethics. (I wonder if they ran into each other at the water cooler.) Nate, it seems, had accepted meals and travel from wineries, whose wines he then reviewed in the paper. This was the first instance, so far as I am aware, of a wine writer’s ethics being questioned in the media. My oh my, how far we’ve come. As we all know, gotcha! articles about wine writer ethics have become a staple these days, especially in the blogosphere (paging Jay Miller). Nate Chroman had the dubious distinction of being the Alan Shepard of that agonizing trip.

I met David Shaw, who passed away in 2005, in the 1990s, at his home in the Silver Lake district of L.A., where he had a modest wine collection he wanted to show me. Yes, David was a wine lover, and a knowledgeable one. Although he’d come under fire for what some perceived as an unnecessary persecution of Nate Chroman, who evidently was well-liked (I never met him), David never apologized or reneged. He had a sense of justice, not to mention a nose for a good story (he won the Pulitzer Prize for reporting about a preschool child abuse scandal) and felt strongly that wine writers should accept nothing for free from the wineries they cover.

I think David was a little harsh. Reporters can err too much on the side of being judgmental, especially if it makes for lurid reading. The worst thing I heard about Nate (I can’t locate a copy of David’s series, so I don’t know if it was in there) was that Nate used to demand that winemakers who invited him to lunch or dinner bring super-expensive bottles of wine, like Lafite, which he then wouldn’t even drink, but take home! I don’t know whether or not that was true, but it made the rounds, in those pre-Internet days when you heard things from an actual person’s lips.

I personally don’t think it’s a big deal to occasionally accept a meal from a winemaker. I do it on rare occasions, almost always lunch at my local Whole Foods, not exactly the Everest of haute cuisine, but convenient for me. Obviously I would never ask a winemaker to bring an expensive bottle, especially one he didn’t himself make. That’s over the line.

This next is a little irrelevant to the topic, but mentioning Jay Miller made me think of Robert Parker, so I went to his website where he’s described as “the million dollar nose.”

That made me remember the actress Betty Grable, who was described as having “million dollar legs.”

Through the magic of The Google Machine I learned the following:

The TV star, Holly Madison, has a million dollar insurance policy on her boobs.

The porn star, Keiran Lee, has a million dollar policy on his penis.

Head & Shoulders shampoo took out a $1 million insurance policy on the hair of the NFL star, Troy Polamalu.

Gene Simmons, of KISS, insured his tongue for $1 million.

And according to the same website, Tom Jones “allegedly” insured his chest hair for $7 million.

When I was in my 20s I was in a rock band [on keyboards]. We were good enough for Mr. Tom Jones to audition us as the opening act for his upcoming tour. My band had 8 or 10 female backup singers (the number varied over the years). They were all beautiful, sexy women. It turns out that Mr. Jones didn’t hire us, but he did put the moves on the ladies, whose reactions can be summed up in the word “Eeeew.” And finally, for your listening pleasure, here’s Tom singing “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” on YouTube.


In Pursuit of Balance: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay

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The buzz at yesterday’s second annual In Pursuit of Balance tasting was all about low alcohol, as in below 14%. Vintners were excited about the 2011s, still in barrel. David Hirsch told me some of his lots clocked in at 13.1%, low even for Hirsch Vineyard. “And what do they taste like?” I asked. David just smiled and said “Fabulous.” Unfortunately the ‘11s won’t begin to come out for at least 18 months or so, so we’ll just have to wait. But in the meanwhile we can savor the 2010s, another cool vintage that offers tantalizing hints of yet to come.

Jon Bonné, the San Francisco Chronicle’s veteran wine writer (he’s now been around long enough to merit the v-word) was there. I congratulated him on his column, from Sunday, in which he officially blessed the cool 2009, 2010 and 2011 vintages, writing that they “proved the virtues of restraint.” It was interesting that he made a comparison between 2011–so much cold and rain and, in some cases, mold–and 1998, a vintage universally panned here in California for much the same reasons. However I know a lot of people who say the ‘98s were better than originally portrayed, and are in fact aging well. As if in proof, at In Pursuit of Balance Josh Jensen had a bottle of his Calera 1998 Pinot Noir (I forget which vineyard from his estate on Mount Harlan; sorry. Reed?) that he particularly wanted me to try because of the vintage’s evil reputation. It smelled and tasted just fine, a wine of purity, elegance and harmony, and still fresh in fruit. So next time somebody says a vintage sucked, don’t believe them (unless it’s me!).

I won’t remark on individual Pinots I tasted, because my formal reviews will be appearing in Wine Enthusiast.

I have a big Chardonnay article coming up, so I was also interested in tasting as many Chards as I could, determined to get to the bottom of what makes for balance in that variety. The thing that fascinates me is how some Chardonnays taste too oaky even if the amount of new oak isn’t particularly high. Vice versa, too: some 100% new oak Chards are balanced. Lots of this is dependent on the base wine, of course: a big, fruity Chardonnay can take more oak than a thinner one. Still, I don’t think there’s any one right answer. Some vintners–Adam Tolmach, at Ojai–have largely moved away from new French oak because they prefer to let the fruit talk about the terroir. Others aren’t afraid of new oak and love it. Emmanuel Kemiji, M.S., whom I knew when he was sommelier at the Ritz Carlton San Francisco and who now owns the fine brand, Miura, lavished 50% new French oak and 50% one-year old barrels on his 2009 Chardonnay, from the Talley Vineyard. I love Ojai Chardonnays and I loved that Miura. But, as Kemiji pointed out, if he didn’t have grapes from Talley, with all that natural stone fruit and acidity, that much oak would be too much.


Single vineyard wine: Is this our inheritance from the Druids?

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From Allen Meadows’ new book, The Pearl of the Côte: The Great Wines of Vosnes-Romanée, we can garner lessons in almost every paragraph. This from page 16:

Almost overnight [following the French Revolution], Burgundy went from a land where the idea of terroir was sacrosanct and implicit in the production of wine, to one where it was a secondary consideration as wine became a wholly commercial product.

What Allen means by “sacrosanct” is a vin de terroir, which long has signified, to the true wine lover, the highest aspiration of which wine is capable. I always understood that, but I never knew how this notion arose in the first place–and how many ancillary issues it raises.

Allen traces the notion of terroir to the Druidic “concept of animism,” according to which “all things, animate and inanimate, possess a spirit or soul.” Light, darkness, a grove of trees, an individual plant, an insect, they all were inhabited by a god or goddess, which made each thing alive and distinct from all other things, no matter how similar in appearance they might have been.

From this ancient belief, Allen continues, came the corrollary that “the wines of one vineyard were fundamentally different from those of its direct neighbor.” We accept this today; it lies at the heart of terroir, and particularly with noble wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling, whose greatest expressions people are willing to pay high prices for. Carried to an extreme, as in Burgundy (Allen’s specialty), we have the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, whose six climats [seven, counting Montrachet] can be said to represent modern-day Druidism applied to wine, through the filter of terroir.

We know today that “all things, animate and inanimate” are not inhabited by gods or goddesses (don’t we?), but we still love the concept of terroir in vineyards. So from an untruth has come a truth. But it’s a relative truth, because no one can claim, with absolute certainty, that a vin de terroir is objectively better than the best blended wine (for example, the 2006 Cardinale, to which I gave 100 points). Yet most of us, pressed, would concede that a vin de terroir is the noblest expression of wine.

Why is this so? Is it the residue of ancient thinking that still survives, in some deep part of our reptilian brain? I would argue that the appeal of vins de terroir is based, not on sensory distinction, but on intellectual appreciation. There are not five senses (hearing, sight, touch, smell, and taste), but six, the sixth being thought. It is in our brains, in our capacity to form esthetic judgments and in our intellectual faculties, that the appreciation of the finest wine exists, lending pleasure to sensory perceptions and lifting them, at the highest level, to divinity or making them, in Allen’s word, “sacrosanct” (which is why praise of such wines often sounds like a religious benediction).

This isn’t an argument for or against blind tasting, but it is to suggest that the appreciation of fine wine can best be accomplished with the knowledge of where it comes from. Whether or not the professional wine critic can perform his or her job better with or without that knowledge is something that reasonable people can disagree about.


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