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Young people ask the best questions

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My favorite event of the year, at which I speak and taste with others, is my annual gig at the student wine club at the University of California’s Haas School of Business. I did it last night for, I think, the fifth year.

These future MBAs are so smart. At least half the questions they asked startled me with their freshness and straight-to-the-point accuracy. But then, they always do, which is why I so enjoy this class.

What do I think of score inflation? Why doesn’t Beaujolais ever get as high a score as Bordeaux? Do I find myself agreeing with other critics on the same wines? What makes one wine score 98 while another only gets 88? Are there different styles of wine writing aimed at different audiences or demographics (which made me recall the short-lived awfulness of Wine X magazine and the absurdity of Twitter reviews)? If I review the same wine twice over time, will I give it the same score? How do I know if a wine will age? How do I predict how long it will age for? Is there a relationship between price and quality? Do I think crowd-sourcing will become the wave of the future? And so on.

Each of these questions could exhaust an entire seminar, of course, and each of them got my brain cells all fired up.

What was equally interesting about the students was what they didn’t ask. No questions about the wines themselves. We tasted through four Cabernets: Von Strasser 2009 Estate Cabernet, Venge 2010 Silencieux Cabernet Sauvignon, Rock Wall 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon and Hawkstone 2011 Connoisseur Series Cabernet Sauvignon. All are from Napa Valley. I scored them from 98 points down to 82 points, and wanted to share with the students why my points varied so much. We started with the Hawkstone, which most people liked because it’s fresh and fruity. But when we reached the Venge, everyone could see how much better it was. A superb wine, really. Then came the Von Strasser. I asked for a show of hands: Who preferred the Von Strasser to the Venge, and vice versa? The Venge won, by a slim margin, which is what I expected. It’s a more accessible wine. I had to explain why I scored the Von Strasser higher, which led to a conversation about mountain fruit. I like an interactive teaching style. What (I asked them) is the biggest difference between dirt that lies on a horizontal angle (and here I held my arm up at 45 degrees) and dirt that’s level? Everyone practically shouted out at the same time: Water! Exactly so. I explained about drainage, and how the water carries away nutrients with it, leaving the land leaner than down in the valley below. They listened to all this eagerly; and, of course, when one has an eager audience, it reinforces one’s own sense of excitement. Small berries are concentrated berries: the skin-to-pulp ratio is greater, resulting in greater tannins, hence more ageability. These young  students were fascinated by the vagaries of aging, possibly because, being so young themselves, they cannot imagine the process of slow but steady deterioration (for that is what aging is. I reminded them of the old slogan that, according to the French, the British prefer their claret “in the first blush of death”).

It was inevitable that I would contrast these exchanges  with some of the other classes and panels I have the opportunity to serve on. There, an older audience asks (in my humble opinion) far less interesting questions. What are the clones? What kind of French oak do you use? What year did you start? Issues such as these do not, I think, make for useful conversations between winemakers and consumers; and I often think the consumers are asking them, not because they really care, but because they think these are the sorts of questions they ought to be asking, if they’re to appear to be intelligent wine people. As people age, the mind seems to grow less curious, less elastic, less, well, naïve: but naïve questions are the best of all. Out of the mouths of babes.

And not a single query about social media! Not one. There would have been no mention of Twitter or blogs, had I not introduced the topic. Some years ago, there were lots of questions about social media. Could this lacuna be canary in the coal mine stuff? At any rate, at the end, they asked me to write my blog’s URL on the white board and as I did so, one of the students said, “You just got 60 new readers.

Welcome!

  1. Great article Steve. And speaking of score swings, whenever one of the big wine publications does a “retrospective” tasting of wines now 10 years or more on, they seem to give wildly different scores to the same wine, which on one hand seems perfectly expected and on another hand sort of implies an expiration date to wine review scores in general. The question I would be more interested in hearing feedback on would be, in a theoretical situation, (don’t know if this has ever specifically been done) what do you think a “normal” or “reasonable” amount of score variation would be if you were to taste 10 bottles of the same wine (excluding faulted bottles)? I would expect that you wouldn’t know they were the same wine and would taste blind, to prevent any bias.

    People always say that there aren’t great wines, only great bottles, right?

  2. Your comment about the British drinking wine “in the first blush of death” reminds me of a related comment: “When is a wine ready to drink? If you’re French, you’ll drink it tonight. If you’re British, you’ll drink it in 10 years. If you’re American, you already drank it.”

  3. GrapesRGreat, you’re right. No great wines, just great bottles.

  4. Love this post Steve! I totally agree that the usual questions asked by most consumers really do not produce meaningful discussion with winemakers. Several years ago I was pouring at a tasting and a gentleman started grilling me on my barrel program.
    ; origin, toast, size etc. When he finally asked what forests did I use it became painfully obvious that he was only asking me the questions to show me he knew a little about oak. If he had wanted to understand my winemaking he should have followed my inital answers with the question “Why do you do that?” Then you have a meaningful and productive discussion!

  5. Napa Cab? What is there to learn when all taste about the same. It would be fun if the cabs came from different appellations. Sometimes writers play safe and become complacent on their wine experience. It is like a sommelier recommending screaming eagle cab with the your hearty food, though choice. Got to love wine writers and sommelier seldom think outside the box. Napa, Napa yada, yada…

  6. To bad all those To Kalon cabs on flat bench land will never compete with hillside raised fruit.

  7. Wow I really found this post exciting. Exciting to know you enjoyed talking to a younger crowd about wine! Is this the only time you get to talk anyone under 30 about wine? Would you be willing to do more speaking engagements like this? Perhaps you already participate in some and I never seem to know where or when those are going to be. I enjoyed hearing you speak at the UC Davis extension class earlier this year and if there are opportunities like that again I’d love to attend them. So long as they don’t cost me another $150.00. I don’t know why knowledge is so expensive these days, I hardly think the quality is getting better. (In my humble opinion) I wonder if you drank that Purple Thread I gave you… hum…. Cheers!

  8. Kayla, I enjoyed the Purple Thread, thanks. I talk to a lot of under 30s about wine because I’m lucky to be friends with a lot of young people. But I don’t officially speak at very many events like the Haas wine club. Most of the events I speak at attract an older crowd.

  9. Hallelujah! Great article Steve. And go bears! I couldn’t agree more about the questions one gets from older vs. younger audiences. How many times have I answered questions about the oak regime or varietal breakdown of our blend…? I do absolutely LOVE teaching people of all ages about wine, and think it’s awesome you hit the university crowd — our future customers! Btw, Napa’s doing something next weekend called “Afternoon in the Vineyards” which aims to educate the public about vineyard practices and lets them stroll through vineyard and gets them asking questions. Cheers!

  10. Steve next time you’re in Paso with some time let me know. I love road trips.

  11. Bob Henry (wine industry professional) says:

    Steve,

    Here’s a 20-plus year old insight into “why” Beaujolais garners such comparatively low scores by Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate.

    Excerpts from Wine Times (September/October 1989) interview with Robert Parker, publisher of The Wine Advocate (emphasis added through CAPITALIZATION of selective text).

    WINE TIMES: How is your scoring system different from The Wine Spectator’s?

    PARKER: Theirs is really a different animal than mine, though if someone just looks at both of them, they are, quote, two 100-point systems. Theirs, in fact, is advertised as a 100-point system; mine from the very beginning is a 50-point system. If you start at 50 and go to 100, it is clear it’s a 50-point system, and it has always been clear. Mine is basically two 20-point systems with a 10-point cushion on top for wines that have the ABILITY TO AGE. ..

    My system applies best to young wines because older wines, once they’ve passed their prime, end up getting lower scores. …

    WINE TIMES: Do you have a bias toward red wines? Why aren’t white wines getting as many scores in the upper 90s? Is it you or is it the wine?

    PARKER: Because of that 10-point cushion. Points are assigned to the overall quality but also to the potential period of time that wine can provide pleasure. And white Burgundies today have a lifespan of, at most, a decade with rare exceptions. Most top red wines can last 15 years and most top Bordeaux can last 20, 25 years. It’s a sign of the system that a great 1985 MORGON [CRU BEAUJOLAIS] is not going to get 100 points because it’s not fair to the reader to equate a BEAUJOLAIS with a 1982 Mouton-Rothschild. You only have three or four years to drink the BEAUJOLAIS.

    WINE TIMES: In your system, what would be the highest rated BEAUJOLAIS?

    PARKER: 90. That would be a perfect BEAUJOLAIS, and I’ve never given one. I have given a lot of 87s and 88s.

    [Bob Henry's aside: In 1990, Parker awarded a score of 92 points to the 1989 vintage Georges Duboeuf "Jean Descombes" Morgon Beaujolais, contradicting his then year-old statement above.

    Fast forward to 2011: the fabulous 2009 vintage cru Beaujolais garnered scores in the 91 to 94 point range from Wine Advocate.]

    WINE TIMES: So it’s the aging potential that is the key factor that gets a wine into the 90s.

    PARKER: Yes. And it goes back to how I evaluate vintages in general. To me the greatness of a vintage is assessed two ways: 1) its ability to provide great pleasure — wine provides, above all, pleasure; 2) the time period over which it can provide that pleasure. …

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