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Why tasting plonk, not just great wine, is important

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I taste a lot of common wine, vin ordinaire, plonk, call it what you will. Some of it is pretty awful stuff. I also taste a lot of very expensive wine, the kind sometimes called, for lack of a better word, “cult.” In this, I’m different from some other critics, who taste only the top stuff. Me, I taste everything in my portfolio, which includes “California” appellation wines that often contain Central Valley fruit.

There’s a school of thought in wine tasting that tasting mediocre wine long enough eventually compromises the palate to the point where it cannot recognize the elite qualities of higher-toned wines. The suggestion has a human parallel. It’s like saying that someone from the ghetto can’t appreciate fine art, because he’s been raised under vulgar circumstances and thus his capability to appreciate the finer things in life is limited.

Leaving aside the racist implications of this theory, I would argue exactly the opposite: that tasting mediocre wine makes it more possible for me to appreciate great wine.

The defects of mediocre wines are many, but the most common simply is the absence of concentration. “Concentration” is very important to wine. Its opposite is thinness, wateriness, which is often the result of overcropping the wines. Blending press juice into wine can also make it harsher and contribute to an absence of concentration.

Many, many California wines are mediocre (which means “ordinary, neither good nor bad”). There’s an ocean of mediocre Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay produced for the average drinker who doesn’t want to spend a fortune. Lately, we’re seeing more and more mediocre Pinot Noirs, as that variety spikes in popularity, and let me tell you, a mediocre Pinot Noir is even less pleasant than a mediocre Cabernet!

It can be depressing to taste mediocre wines. Even when it’s not actually a drag, it’s not a whole lot of fun. It’s work. You think the critic’s day is spent lounging around in silk pajamas sipping wine, occasionally taking time to snack on a little foie gras or smoked trout? Let me tell you, a flight of Central Valley Cabernets is tough. But I console myself considerably when I find one that’s actually pretty good. If the price is low enough to make it a Best Buy in Wine Enthusiast, that’s a happy day for me.

There’s a part of me (and of every wine aficienado, I suppose) that yearns to taste great wine. There’s a hedonistic and intellectual appeal to such adventures that’s part of the reason why we became wine fanatics in the first place. This is why tasting mediocre wine can be so valuable. It’s as if, after a long trek through the desert, you’re so parched with thirst, that when you finally come across some cool, potable water, it tastes like ambrosia–not just plain old H2O, but some nectar of the gods. You can appreciate the highs all the more, for having gone through the lows.

I wrote last week about score inflation, and how a number crunch of our database at Wine Enthusiast suggests that, in recent years, my very high scores have been inching up–not by a lot, but ever so steadily. I wrote that this could be due to the fact that California wine is simply getting better, which I happen to believe is true. But it also could be true because I’m tasting more mediocre wine than ever, and I think I’m also more acute to discerning mediocrity in a wine than I used to be. That discernment for recognizing problems in wine has a counterpoint in an equal discernment for recognizing superlative quality.

One final phenomenon occurs to me, and it’s something I’ve thought of often over the years but never fully worked out in my mind. What exactly is the difference between a 100-point wine and an 85-point wine of the same type? Are they so completely different that they may as well be thought of as different species–not just apples and oranges, but apples and zebras?

Well, no. An 85 (or 84, or 86, or 88) point wine often isn’t all that different from a 100 point wine. That’s the truth that amateurs often pick up on, but are ashamed to admit, because they think it makes them look stupid. An 86 point Cabernet from Napa Valley is pretty much the same as a 100 point Cabernet from Napa Valley, except for that “concentration” I spoke earlier about. There are other rather abstract qualities that go along with concentration, such as balance, elegance and the finish, but these do require discernment of a type it takes many years to acquire. So, while a discerning palate can appreciate those higher-toned qualities, the mind that rules that palate also understands that we’re talking about shades of difference, not evolutionary paradigm shifts.

Anyway, I’ve wandered a bit from my original premise that tasting plonk can make the palate appreciate great wine even more, so let me reprise with it. Part of me wishes it didn’t have to taste mediocre wine, but my better angels recognize that it’s an important and educational part of my job.

Let’s all wish our friends and loved ones in the path of the eastern storms good luck!

  1. Great post Steve! I have to agree completely with your thoughts on this subject. I think everyone has been friends with, or at least come across those wine drinkers that quickly got the wine bug and unleashed the full power of their wallet to only drink the best of the best. My wife and I use the term “jumping the line” to refer to these types, and I think they miss a lot in the overall wine picture. I know a few people that probably can’t remember the last time they had a wine that cost less than $40/btl. I love to find a bottle at $9 that somewhat resembles the grapes that comprise it, and even take particular (maybe sick) joy in drinking a $3.50 bottle once in awhile. It is still great to pop a $100 cab though, and come away thinking it is worth every penny.

  2. I really appreciated this post, Steve. As a person relatively new to drinking better wines (6-7 years) I continue to learn about and delight in beautiful wines. However, our budget simply won’t allow us to drink a $40, $70, or $100 bottle of wine nightly…What to do??? When I find a decent bottle of $10-$15 wine, which is usually an import, I’ll buy a case. Sadly, recently the difference between great and mediocre wines has become more apparent and you hit on it in this post. It’s concentration primarily as well as beautiful balance, finish, etc. Given the opportunity, I’d drink an awesome wine every night. That just ain’t gonna happen, so I keep looking for the best of the rest.

  3. Annie, thanks. Fortunately there’s a lot of good inexpensive wine out there, especially with imports flooding the market.

  4. I love that you share your process and thoughts so openly.

    What you need is a mini-Steve, a genetic clone with the same palate. Mini-Steve could sort the plonk from the 85-100’s, allowing you to taste through the ordinaire in jeans and a t-shirt with some potato chips at hand watching reality TV, then later lounge in your silk pj’s with fine nibbles listening to a lovely symphony and focus on the nuances among the 90-100’s. Personally, both activities sound pretty fun.

    My question: since you can’t legally build a clone of yourself, and if you agree the nuances would stand out more in a narrowly-arranged flight, how would you make that first cut?

    I ask because I sell a pretty nice wine for the lowest possible price I can be economically viable ($50), and my Napa Valley neighbors tell me I sell my wine for “too low” a price, limiting its potential appreciation. Setting aside those particular neighbors clearly have not left the county for awhile (and/or do not require economic sustainability in their wine “businesses”) I’m curious if you do taste blind through a big batch (30? 60? more?) of new California Cabernet Sauvignon wines and group them first into broader categories, then go back and refine?

    Or am I missing the point that an experienced pro can distinguish the full range in one pass, in any order, no matter what music is playing…?

  5. Emily, I do taste blind, although not usually in flights of 30-60. Maybe 3,4 times a year, more likely 12-15 wines at a time. Generally I try to group wines by peer–Napa Cab with Napa Cab, coastal Pinot with coastal Pinot, etc. I don’t always group by price, i.e. I will sometimes include a $15 Cab with $80-plus Cabs. Most often I can tell the difference due to concentration, but not always.

  6. When you are comparing these California wines to fine wines are those fine wines also California? I work in a tasting room on a small vineyard in central Kentucky. I know you are thinking Kentucky? Really? Yes, Kentucky is the 3rd largest wine producer in the United States and was numero uno before prohibition. That’s when Bourbon hit big. But we are here to talk about wine. As I was saying I work as the Tasting Bar Manager at a small up and coming Vinyard and winery. We have over 30 acres of grapes with over 10 varietals. One of those varietals inparticular being Norton or Cynthiana. This is an awesome grape however doesn’t grow well in California. It is an American grape typically growing in the eastern United States. We won a gold in the Finger Lakes Competition. We grow Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc as well. Our 2007 (San Fransico gold winner) and 2010 Cab Sauv’s have been compared to nice California wines. Merlot is not a great grow here so we imoprt form California, why not have the best right? No, I tasted a premature experimental Merlot the other day grown right here in Kentucky and I am here to tell you it knocked my socks off and I am by no means a huge Merlot fan. It was so oaky and fruity and juicy yet dry at the same time leaving my tounge to water with a smooth finish. So, with this being said, maybe a lot of California wines are just mediocre because they are being compared to other California wines.

  7. Dear mary, I have never had a Kentucky wine. If you want, you can send me a representative sample, and I’ll write up here on my blog what I think. Thanks.

  8. Though I am mostly focused on Napa (specifically Diamond Mountain) and Sonoma winemaking projects, I have found it very rewarding to be involved in winemaking in less established areas (Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, and Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California). Interesting wines can be made in many places. So my two cents is that everyone should be open minded about efforts in Kentucky. I’ve tasted Norton (or Cynthiana) from Missouri, and it is a very credible variety. It is truly an indigenous North American variety, with no “foxy” character. I think it is cool that Mary is enthused by her local wine!

  9. “An 86 point Cabernet from Napa Valley is pretty much the same as a 100 point Cabernet from Napa Valley, except for that “concentration” I spoke earlier about. There are other rather abstract qualities that go along with concentration, such as balance, elegance and the finish, but these do require discernment of a type it takes many years to acquire.”

    You are saying that the difference between a stunning, once-in-a-lifetime wine and a good to very good wine is something marginal, intangible, and only discernible to you and maybe a handful of other critics with similar palates, no? I have my doubts that a special cabal of palate elite can discern what is first among equals. But if that is really the case, why should one care what the vinoscenti prefer if he is incapable of telling the difference? The cost will be $300 rather than $30 for an identical, to the palate of Joe Fresno Cabernet, tasting experience.

    In reality, I suspect you give too little credit to wine drinkers. Sure there are people who just don’t want to pay more than $10 and are content with watery, oak-chipped wine. Concentration, though, is a fairly noticeable trait that interested but casual wine drinkers just may not know how to phrase. It often seems to be concentrated wines–and sometimes extracted wines that spoof concentration–that get folks interested in wine beyond basic plonk.

    As for all the balance, elegance and finish business, these are terms that not even critics can agree upon. Their abstract meanings, yes, but in practice Parker or Miller’s 100 point balanced wine with a long finish might be your 86 point slightly stewed and hot, albeit concentrated, wine. So I guess you are right after all. The only difference is in whose definition of superior one prefers.

  10. Different strokes for different folks, I guess; I take great pains to avoid Napa Valley Cabernets with “concentration.” For me,dehydrated, overextracted Cabernets are the new plonk.

  11. Thom Calabrese says:

    Steve you responded to Mary from Kentucky about tasting their wine, but did not comment on “Yes, Kentucky is the 3rd largest wine producer in the United States”?????? I thought the top 3 producers were 1) CA, 2)WA, 3)OR.
    Mary what are you referring to saying Ky is 3rd largest wine producer in U.S.

  12. raley roger says:

    “Yes, Kentucky is the 3rd largest wine producer in the United States and was numero uno before prohibition.”

    This is not true!

  13. Morton, I hear you.

  14. @raley roger: Okay, I did a quick Google and found this from the KY Dept. of Agriculture: “Prior to prohibition, Kentucky was the third largest grape and wine producing state in the nation.” http://www.kyagr.com/marketing/grape-wine.html And obviously, KY is not the third biggest producer today.

  15. Kurt Burris says:

    A customer of a wine shop I sell to took a big hit in his investment portfolio and cut back on the price point of his everyday wines from $80 bottles to $20. The clerk asked him if he was enjoying wine less and he replied, “No more, now every bottle doesn’t have to be brilliant. I can just enjoy it.” I think not being able to enjoy a simple glass of plonk would be as bad as not being able to enjoy a good hamburger. It’s not what I want for my birthday, but for Tuesday, maybe so.

  16. carlos toledo says:

    Hey Steve.

    So, your definition of concentration is dry matter content, IF i understood correctly.

    What do you do with a great barolo that is quite thin in “concentration” and yet has forever long finish and endless complexity? Or some pinot noir unoaked with same trait?

    As much as i believe you know books about winemaking, i think that too much dry matter (aka concentration) isn’t just per se an indication of class, of quality.

    Tchau!

  17. Dear Carlos, I’m talking about California Cabernet and Pinot Noir. A California wine should be rich. That is our terroir. It’s completely different in Barolo.

  18. “A California wine should be rich. That is our terroir.”

    I was unaware CA had one terroir and all wines should be the same…

  19. carlos toledo says:

    Fair enough. Got your point.

    But when i see these rich new world wines i wonder for how long people can keep on drinking that highly concentrated produce. It comes a time in our lives our bodies demand lighter stuff.

    I’ve drunk some wines in this lifetime that i had to resort to hand-saw to drink through that. Thick, dense, pure brent petroleum. Can’t take them anymore…

    Steve, how often do you get in touch with other wines and regions besides californian ones? If you’ve written about it, i missed it.

    I bet the other american western states farther north must produce wonders and wonders…unknown to a vast number of beings.

  20. Carlos, I taste as widely as I can, but obviously my field is California, which is why I write so much about it.

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