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“Intriguing blemishes” a factor in good wine?


Randy Caparosa, in the December, 2012 issue of The Tasting Panel, writes: You do not go to Mendocino in search of “perfectly balanced” wines. What you can find are wines with intriguing blemishes: strong earth tones, prickling acidity, stringy tannins, strange or exotic aromas, seemingly from another planet. But at least they are real—distinctly “Mendocino”—which is why many sommeliers are loving it!

It took me three days of thinking about this before I realized I didn’t know what it meant. Or do I? There is, indeed, something to be said about wines that march to the beat of a different drummer. They can surprise, stun, make you look differently at varieties you thought you knew, or regions you believed you understood. On the other hand, the concept of “intriguing blemishes” is new for me.

Inherent in Randy’s comment, of course, is the notion that “perfectly balanced” is not the sine qua non of great wine. I would have thought it was: if “perfectly balanced” is not the highest good to which a wine can attain, then what is?

Well, that was my immediate reaction. Then I dug into Wine Enthusiast’s database to find instances where I used “perfectly balanced” or its close kin, “perfect balance.” Here are some I found from the past year: J. Lohr 2009 Carol’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (92 points), Robert Mondavi 2011 Moscato d’Oro (88 points), Ram’s Gate 2010 Durell Vineyards Chardonnay (93 points), Round Pond 2011 Sauvignon Blanc (90 points), Morgan 2011 Double L Vineyard Riesling (88 points), Jarvis 2006 Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (96 points) and Sanguis 2010 Postcard From Morocco white Rhône-style blend (93 points).

This made me question what I mean by “perfect balance.” After all, if a wine can be perfectly balanced, yet score “only” 88 or 90 points, then “perfect balance” does not mean absolute perfection; if it did, the wine would score 100 points. So in what way is “perfect balance” merely a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition, for greatness?

When I think of balance, I think of a flawless equilibrium of the important parts of a wine that give it structure and overall integrity: acidity, tannins, oak integration [if any], minerality [ditto], and the spectrum of fruit-herb-earth-and spice flavors. If all these elements seem in harmony, with nothing sticking out (new oak is the sticky-outest thing a California wine can have, although acidity and tannins can be, too), then the wine is thought to have balance. Of course, “perfect” balance means calibrating degrees of balance; that is an angels-dancing-on-pinheads conversation we can have at another time!

What lifts a wine beyond “perfect balance” into true perfection is harder to define, and depends on certain assumptions, not all of which everyone may share. First is that certain varieties or families of varieties are noble whereas most others are not; and a non-noble wine cannot be perfect regardless of how good it is as an example of its type. I believe this. In California, it means that a Sauvignon Blanc-based white wine is never truly great, although the best of them can approach greatness. The same is true of a California Moscato or Riesling. This is why the Mondavi, Round Pond and Morgan wines are not perfect wines, despite their perfect balance.

The same is probably true of a California Syrah or Rhône red or white blend. In theory, I suppose, one could be perfect, especially a red, and especially if based on Syrah, which is a noble variety in France. I haven’t run across a perfect Rhône-style California red wine yet, but I’d like to, and I have an idea what it would taste and feel like: massive, dense, dark, deeply delicious, yet singularly well-structured and dry. We’ll just have to wait and see if one comes along.

Then we come to the Bordeaux-style wines I found to have perfect balance this past year, of which the Jarvis can stand as an example. At 96 points, it’s not far from absolute perfection. On another day, it might have shown even better. The thing to understand about these very high scores, from the mid-90s on up to 100, is that there is a certain subjectivity in these judgments. Perhaps “subjectivity” isn’t exactly the word I’m looking for. “Experiential variation of beauty” is more precise, although wordier. I hate to drag the psychedelic realm into this (and for me, it’s been many decades since I last tinkered), but on a high induced by a mind-altering drug, like LSD, one can experience beauty and meaning of such staggering power, in which the boundaries between self and not-self are transcended, that the memory remains forever seared into the mind. Yet at the same time, one realizes that this experience also is fragile to the point of ephemerality.

This ephemerality marks a perfect wine, or one’s appreciation of it. One captures it (or vice versa) at the most perfect moment in time—serendipitous for both the wine and for the person who drinks it. Mysterious, undefinable essences merge into something that overwhelms all further judgment into a single focus of wonder; one might even call it ecstasy. Whatever that thing is, or however you define it, “perfect balance” doesn’t adequately describe it.

I think that’s what Randy was hinting at. But we have to reconsider that more troubling phrase, “intriguing blemishes.” What does that mean?

Human analogies are necessary. “Blemish” in the most common usage refers to skin conditions, usually on young people. They are not generally considered “intriguing,” which is why there are so many anti-pimple ointments on the market. There are other sorts of “blemishes” (or perhaps “imperfections” is a better word) that we treat more kindly. Barbra Streisand’s nose has been, next to her voice, her most salient physical feature, and I think it’s fair to say no one ever said she wasn’t a beautiful women despite it. Would you say “because of it”? I wouldn’t. I don’t think Streisand’s nose makes her more beautiful than she would be with a “perfect” nose (whatever that is). But on this, we can disagree.

I have never used the word “imperfection” in a wine review, but I do frequently use the word “flaw” or “flawed,” and by it I never mean anything other than a negative criticism. Medicinal tastes, green, vegetal notes, mold, volatile acidity, excessive softness, violent tannins, wateriness—these are flaws, perhaps not technical ones but flaws nonetheless; and they are never charming or “intriguing.” I do use the word “intriguing” with some regularity, and by it I mean to pay a compliment. Last year, for example, I plugged it into reviews for Cuvaison 2010 Chardonnay, Saxon Brown 2009 Durell Vineyard Hayfield Block Pinot Noir, Bella Victoria 2009 Elena Syrah, Cambria 2009 Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, and a few others. What I mean by “intriguing” are elements, usually beginning in the aroma and extending into the taste, that are not front-and-center (that’s usually, in California, the fruit), but pop up around the edges—things like bacon or charred meat, flowers, tobacco, stone, dried fruits, pine, mushroom, soy sauce, steel, mulch. These notes bring complexity to the wine: “intriguing” is a good word that connotes additional interest.

Still, I can’t in my mind conjoin “intriguing” and “blemishes” to come up with anything good. “Earth tones, prickling acidity, stringy tannins, strange or exotic aromas…” “Earthiness” isn’t a blemish, it’s a vital component of certain wines. If acidity is “prickling,” then it’s too high, unless it’s in a sparkling wine; “prickling” sounds like a secondary fermentation in the bottle that was unintended. I don’t know exactly what Randy means by “stringy” tannins; that’s a word I don’t use, but it doesn’t sound complimentary. “Strange or exotic” aromas? What are those? Exotic sounds okay, but strange? I don’t want no strangeness in my wine’s smells.

I’d love to hear from Randy and my readers more about specific wines that possess this oxymoronic quality of “intriguing blemishes.”



  1. Kurt Burris says:

    A couple of years ago I submitted some wines I was selling to Darrell Corti for his evaluation for his store. He commented that we “didn’t make enough mistakes”. When I asked for clarification, he said we were playing it too safe, and not making as good a wines as we could by pushing the envelope a bit. I personally am not a fan of Brettanomyces. I view if as a blemish, a definite flaw, and not an improvement. But I also concede a hint of it can make a wine more intriguing. I’m probably just arguing semantics, but I do not agree that intriguing and blemish are as oxymoronic as you state. Cheers and Happy New Year!

  2. Dear Steve,
    First off, cheers to the wine blogger who references psychedelics in an effort to explain the less quantitative aspects of tasting and scoring wines; that’s pretty awesome.

    Wanted to share a wine I had recently that had “intriguing blemishes”: Arnot-Roberts 2010 Syrah from Clary Ranch. Here is an immensely low- alcohol (12.2 on the label) wine loaded with what you’d call “intriguing” and what I learned to call “tertiary” flavors. The tannins were immensely round and succulent for what could easily have been an underripe monster, and while the wine disappointed some other tasters who wanted big, dark, fruity syrah I found the wine immensely intriguing. So, while some found blemishes in low alcohol, an absence of ripe-fruit-flavors, and a lean towards herbal, I found plenty of intrigue/tertiary complexities such as pencil-shavings, fried herbs, dusty red berries, and a touch of anise. Plus a great mouthfeel in absence of alcohol.

    So, I guess that while “intriguing blemish” isn’t a perfect term, I think I get what Randy was after. “Blemish” is inherently a negative term, and should probably be substituted, but truly special wines have intrigue beyond core flavor and great balance, like you’ve noted. I’m always charmed when tasters and other winemakers who have enjoyed Kanzler wines say they can “always” pick out the Kanzler in single-blind tastings, its marker being a distinct exotic spice. It seems several Pinot Noir vineyards in the Sebastopol/Freestone hills area of West County (Sexton Rd, Hawk Hill, Jenkins, Bondi Home Ranch, Rayhill, Suacci) share a unique spiceiness lingering around generous fruit; and that’s what makes this area and these wines so special and distinct.

  3. doug wilder says:

    Happy New Year, Steve!

    This reminds me of a story that popped up in my web news yesterday, something like “Ten actors who would be hotter except for their horrible skin.” Intriguing blemishes?

    Randy Caparoso certainly knows wine, yet possibly some of the disconnect that you (and I) have in understanding what he means is because Randy’s extensive background is as a sommelier, not as a critic and as long as I have known of him and his work, I recognize we tend to describe wine somewhat differently based on our experience, training and how we communicate that information. As he points out, these ‘blemishes’ is what gets sommeliers excited about Mendocino. Somms like higher acid, lower alcohol wines from distinct terroir and Mendocino is a great place to find all of that. Consider if you were sitting at dinner with friends and drinking a wine that you just gave a WE96, you might very well describe the wine differently in conversation compared to how you wrote about it.

    I have likely called a wine intriguing if it reveals a particular character that compels me to revisit the glass and tighten my focus. Blemishes, I suppose, would be inherent to a wine that a taster considers less than flawless. Looking at it that way, it is an easy principle to rationalize, yet I couldn’t think of a time I would use the term. On the other hand, I actively push the term ‘perfect’ to the far end of my vocabulary, because every time it is used, it weakens the meaning. My database shows I used it twice in 2012, and in both instances it did not refer to wine.

  4. doug wilder, I like your phrase, ” a particular character that compels me to revisit the glass and tighten my focus.” That’s the sign of an intriguing wine.

  5. Alex Kanzler, thanks for that. I’d love to try that Arnot-Roberts Syrah.

  6. Dear Kurt Burris, “not enough mistakes” reminds of of something Josh Jensen (Calera) once told me. When he was hiring his first asst. winemaker, he had one qualification: must NOT be a UC Davis graduate!

  7. Kurt Burris says:

    As a UC Davis graduate I take exception to that. If they taught formulaic winemaking I missed that lecture. 🙂

  8. Steve
    I’ve recently seen that AR syrah at the wine shop in Market Hall in Oakland, along with a few other AR wines, FYI

  9. I second Alex’s recommendation of the 2010 Arnot-Roberts Syrah from Clary Ranch, only in the last year have I discovered the wines being produced from AR, they are quite nice and as Alex pointed out and while this Syrah registered lower then perhaps others might expect I can speak for myself and say that I was not disappointed. I also picked up a Trousseau from I may be incorrect Lucchsinger Vineyard in Clear Lake, looking forward to enjoying it on a warmer day here in Sonoma County. Hopefully you will find some near the big O and enjoy. Happy new year!

  10. This discussion reminds me of an insult I believe is applicable here: telling an artist that their work is technically perfect. Artist want to hear that their work has vision, provokes emotion, is moving. This is the idea I think Randy Caparosa is going for here. I think the use of the word “blemish” undercuts the argument.

  11. I have only been making wine for a few years, so I might not have the best insight into the subject, but I have spent many nights pondering wines that are technically flawed, but still delicious. And I have drunk many $5 wines from trader joes that exhibit no technical flaws, but taste like ass.

    the most obvious blemish that can make a wine better is volatile acidity (VA). In large doses, it can make your wine taste like vinegar; but in small doses it can amplify the aromatics and give wine a “red licorice” flavor. A common byproduct of native yeast fermentaion, most winemakers I know will agree that a little VA can be a good thing.

    By contrast, the idea of a wine being “too perfect” is a nice way of saying someone has polished out all the character from a wine. Think of a Southern California bleach-blonde with fake boobs. She may have all the components that are considered to be attractive, but I am certainly not a attracted to women who look like that.

    Finally, and most obviously, taste is always subjective. While some people consider a little brett to be “Burgundian”, other people think brett tastes like feet. While cross-flow filtration can kill brett, it can also strip character from a wine. Which wines you personally enjoy are obviously subjective. But I’ll take a flawed wine with character over a bland and techincally unblemished wine any day

  12. gabe, interesting comment. Thanks.

  13. My friend in Bordeaux tells me that a well made wine is one that is balanced – acid, alcohol, fruit, tanins – like a person you like to be around who is relatively well balanced. And a good wine is simply one that you like. I like your discussion of ‘intriguing elements’ that are, as you say, ‘not front and center’ and that bring complexity. Ah! Begin with balance (using ‘noble’ grapes when available), add a little intrigue with elements a bit out of kilter, and create complexity – layers that tantalize the taste buds. Good wine is like a good story…throwing in unexpected twists within a solid structure. Nice one.

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