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Why big is better (but just up to a point)

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In my job as a critic who gives point scores to wines, even after all these years I still think all the time about just why I give high scores to certain wines and not-so-high scores to most others.

Just what is it that, in my head, makes one Cabernet score 96 points and another “only” 89? It’s not that the latter Cab is bad. In fact, it may be better to drink (under certain circumstances) than the former. This is where a certain arbitrariness comes in–but it’s an arbitrariness with rules.

The main thing I look for in a wine is power. There are synonyms for power: concentration, intensity, volume, size, mass. (These are all nouns; their corresponding adjectives would be words like intense, massive, powerful, huge, etc.). The more mass a wine has, the more likely I am to give it a high score.

It can be tricky, though, determining the line between mass that’s pleasingly balanced, and mass that’s just power for its own sake. I hate to engage in meaningless metaphors, but I sometimes make analogies in my mind to power that’s controlled, as opposed to uncontrolled power. Imagine a large dam, like Hoover Dam or Boulder Dam. Controlled power is when the dam’s walls hold; the force of all that water can be used for productive ends, such as the manufacture of power to turn turbines. That’s controlled power. Imagine next that an earthquake destroys the dam’s foundations, resulting in a great flood that destroys forests and buildings and lives. That’s uncontrolled power.

I realize the comparison isn’t perfect, but that’s how it feels to me when I taste–the kind of sense impression the wine gives, from my first glimpse and sniff to the way it occupies my mouth. And quite often, I find the balance of power, especially in red wines, slipping away from control into abandonment and chaos.

This usually happens when a winery has two (or more) tiers of a wine, often expressed as a “regular” regional bottling and a “reserve.” Most often the reserve is a more concentrated version of the regular; that is, whatever characteristics the regular has (specific flavors, quality of tannins and oak, acidity, alcohol), the reserve will possess also, but in spades: everything will be more, greater, more evident. Sometimes, this works. Sometimes, it doesn’t. Sometimes, more is more; sometimes, more is less. Just because the wine goes from 60% new French oak to 100% (or 200%) new French oak doesn’t make it better; it can make the wine merely oakier, which in itself is not balance but imbalance. Same with fruity concentration. There are technical ways of increasing the extract in wine, but the winemaker has to be very careful with tinkering, because there’s a thin line between “massive fruit” (a term I might use positively) and a fruit bomb. Sometimes, I taste these reserve-style Cabs and I’ll give it a lower score than the regular Cab (even though it costs a lot more money) for the very reason that the winemaker tried too hard to impress with sheer force. There is something to be said for finesse, restraint, elegance: Just because the California sunshine and warmth allows you to make a fruit bomb doesn’t mean you ought to.

The final step in my thinking process when reviewing such wines is, inevitably, this: Granted that the wine tastes clumsy now, might it age? Part of the problem is that the way I was educated about wine. I read the likes of Professor Saintsbury and Eddie Penning-Rowsell and learned to appreciate that a fine Bordeaux that tastes hard and unyielding in youth might turn out silky and delicious if given enough time in the cellar. Well, that’s true, as far as it goes: But there’s a big difference between a young wine that’s clumsy because it’s hard and tannic, and one that’s clumsy because it’s a fruit bomb. I don’t think it’s right to assume that a wine will age simply because (a) it’s a Napa Valley Cab, (b) it costs triple digits and (c) it has more fruit than a roadside fruit stand in August.

If there’s a cautionary tale here, it’s to advise vintners that just because you can extract massive fruit doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Show some restraint, please. Not just in reds but in whites: I’ve seen too many perfectly fine Chardonnays ruined by massive applications of oak, or oak-like aromas and flavors. I’ve always defended California from the naysayers who claim it’s too hot here to grow fine wine (a patent absurdity), but it is getting difficult to defend these over-extracted, overly-oaked, too soft and too sweet wines that seem to be popping up even in the $30-$40 and up ultrapremium range.

  1. Bob Foster says:

    I think you left out the single most important factor, something I look for in every wine, is balance.

  2. You mainly look for power? Perhaps this works with Cab…but with Pinot Noir, anything beyond a wine’s point of balance come in a single (or few) dimension…making the wine more simple, monolithic and powerful. Not that this doesn’t make for a delicious wine to have occasionally. And for some wines (Pinot Noirs), this is the right direction to take because the vineyard might not be capable of sufficient complexity. But a lot of our best vineyards/wines are being masked because power is what’s primarily being rewarded.

    Also, Pinot Noirs that are made to age will have high(er) acidity and, in it’s youth, this acidity can tend to cause the power the wine does have to ‘go into hiding’.

    I don’t understand why a reviewer has to primarily look for any one thing when reviewing/scoring a wine. Why can’t you taste a wine, figure out what style it’s trying to achieve, tell us what that style is and review/score it on how well it pulls it off?

    Nice article tho, despite my complaints :)…and a good companion piece to your critique of 2011 Pinots.

  3. Bill Haydon says:

    Steve, I think you miss one of the main culprits keeping big California wines from being balanced, and that’s the over reliance on acidification. If these wines are coming in from the vineyard so utterly overripe, with very little TA left in the grapes and exceedingly high Ph, then they will need a massive acid adjustment just to remain stable. That acid is never a truly, harmonious part of the wine. It usually sticks out like a sore thumb upon release and only becomes more disjointed from the fruit the longer that wine stays in bottle.

    Longer, cooler growing seasons help, but there’s really nothing one can do about too vigorous, volcanic based soils. The biggest culprit those is the winemaker/winery owner himself who is too intent on following the Rolland cookbook.

  4. Bob Henry says:

    STEVE,

    IN RESPONSE TO YOUR LEAD-IN SENTENCE …

    “In my job as a critic who gives point scores to wines, even after all these years I still think all the time about just why I give high scores to certain wines and not-so-high scores to most others.

    “The main thing I look for in a wine is power. There are synonyms for power: concentration, intensity, volume, size, mass. (These are all nouns; their corresponding adjectives would be words like intense, massive, powerful, huge, etc.). The more mass a wine has, the more likely I am to give it a high score.”

    … HERE’S HOW ROBERT PARKER ANSWERED THAT SELF-IMPOSED QUESTION:

    “Readers often wonder what a 100-point score means, and the best answer is that it is pure emotion that makes me give a wine 100 instead of 96, 97, 98 or 99. ”

    [Source: Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate (unknown issue from 2002)]

    AND EXCERPTING YOUR SUBSEQUENT STATEMENT …

    “The final step in my thinking process when reviewing such wines is, inevitably, this: Granted that the wine tastes clumsy now, might it age?”

    … AND CONTRASTING IT WITH ROBERT PARKER’S 1989 INTERVIEW WITH WINE TIMES MAGAZINE:

    “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.

    “If a vintage can provide pleasure after 4 or 5 years and continue for 25 to 30 years, all the time being drinkable and providing immense satisfaction, that’s an extraordinary vintage. If you have to wait 20 years before you can drink the wines and you have basically a 5 or 10 year period to drink them before [the fruit flavors] ‘dry out,’ it’s debatable then whether that’s a great vintage.”

    “Most people are hung up on wines that are brawny and tannic. One thing I’m certain about in the wine business is that wines are often too tannic. People perceive that all that tannin is going to melt away and this gorgeous fruit will emerge. But that rarely ever happens. The good wines in good vintages not only have the depth but also the precociousness. I used to think some of the softer ones wouldn’t last more than a couple of years, but they get more and more interesting. Most California wines are not only overly acidified, but the type of tannins they have in most of their Cabernets — whether the vines are too immature, the climate is different, whatever — are too hard, too astringent. And you see that even in the older ones. …”

    THESE DIFFERING ORIENTATIONS UNDERSCORE WHY IT IS “FOLLY” FOR WINE ENTHUSIASTS / WINE COLLECTORS TO MATCH UP REVIEWERS’ SCORES FOR IDENTICAL WINES IN A FRUITLESS SEARCH OF “CONSENSUS.”

    THERE IS NONE. THE PREFERENCES (“BIASES”) ARE UNIQUE TO EACH REVIEWER.

    AS PARKER STATED IN THAT SAME 1989 INTERVIEW:

    “WINE TIMES: … What are your preferences in terms of types and styles of wine?

    “PARKER: I do want to taste fruit. …

    WINE TIMES: … What are your weaknesses as a taster?

    PARKER: … I don’t think these are weaknesses, just observations: I don’t like a vegetal character in wines. … I like delicate, elegant wines, … I also don’t like wines that are overly tart. Now that may be a weakness. I feel far too many California wines are excessively acidified. … if a wine tastes like biting into a fresh lemon or lime, I think that’s an objectionable character. …”

    OTHER SELECTIVE QUOTES ON PARKER’S PREFERENCES:

    “Long-time readers know that I am more critical of older wines than many other writers. To merit high ratings, an older wine must still be fully alive with its personality intact.”

    [Source: Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate (issue 84, dated 12-11-92)]

    “Readers should recognize that when tasting old bottles the expression, ‘There are no great wines, only great bottles,’ is applicable. . . . Long-time readers have noted that I prefer my wines younger rather than older. Therefore, regardless of its historical significance, no wine which tastes old and decrepit will receive a good review. Those old wines that receive enthusiastic evaluations do so because they remain well-preserved and loaded with remarkable quantities of rich, pure fruit. They possess a freshness, in addition to the profound complexity that developed with significant bottle age. . . . bottles that received perfect or exceptional reviews are living, rich, concentrated, compelling wines that justify the enormous expense and considerable patience collectors invest in maturing the finest young wines from top vintages.”

    [Source: Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate (issue 90, dated 12-20-93)]

    “Long-time readers know that I am a fruit fanatic, and if a wine does not retain this essential component, it is not going to receive a satisfactory review.”

    [Source: Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate (issue 103, dated 2-23-96)]

    “The 1990 Le Pin [red Bordeaux, rated 98 points] is a point or two superior to the 1989 [Le Pin, rated 96 points], but at this level of quality comparisons are indeed tedious. Both are exceptional vintages, and the scores could easily be reversed at other tastings.”

    [Source: Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate (issue 109, dated 6-27-97)]

    “Many of the wines reviewed have been tasted many times, and the score represents a cumulative average of the wine’s performance in tastings to date. Scores however, do not reveal the important facts about a wine. The written commentary that accompanies the ratings is a better source of information regarding the wine’s style and personality. Its relative quality vis-à-vis its peers, and its value and aging potential than any score could ever indicate.’ ”

    [Source: Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate (issue 111, dated 6-27-97)]

    IF THESE AREN’T YOUR READERS’ PREFERENCES, THEN PERHAPS THEY SHOULD SEEK WINE COUNSEL ELSEWHERE?

    ~~ BOB

  5. Bill Haydon says:

    Robert Parker; ” I like delicate, elegant wines”

    That’s the funniest thing I’ve read in a long time. That man seriously has the least self-awareness of any person on the planet.

    Almost as funny is,

    “I feel far too many California wines are excessively acidified”

    How the hell did he think those 15% alcohol cabs and chards were being made. What he really didn’t like were wines with natural acidity and lower alcohols.

    One day–and it seems to be accelerating–the wine industry will look back at Parker with a sense of embarrassment and wonder at how it possibly became so absurd….at how deeply down the rabbit hole of bad taste we went. Kind of like the way people from the 70s look back at leisure suits.

  6. Morgan Craft says:

    Amazing having POWER as the primary definitive of any wine. Winemakers worldwide have increased everything – alcohol, fruit, oak, sugar – in the name of receiving a favorable score based on power, scores selling more wine. This is the clearest overt statement yet that bigger is – in the minds of people like Steve – better. To everyday consumers it is not Steve! Tasting so many wines it seems evident that you focus on the ones that jump out at you. People buy wine that fits, that has balance and grace. You’re forcing winemakers to continually edge up the power quotient in the name of scores. The system is broken.

  7. Bob Henry says:

    Bill,

    To be fair to Parker, back in 1989 when he granted that interview, the style of California wines was much different.

    Alcohol levels were around 12 percent.

    Even “late harvest” California Zins were around 14-plus percent.

    Too many cool climate California Cabs exhibited excessive vegetativeness. (Today, we grow our grapes riper and practice revised canopy management techniques.)

    In vintages like 1985, some California winemakers followed the UC Davis playbook and “acidified” their Cabs — and today you taste it in those wines as an unnatural “mean streak” of tartness.

    And let’s not forget that many of those 1980s mountain grown California Cabs were tannic monsters.

    (How many readers have experience drinking then and now Dunn Howell Mountain Cabs? Early vintages of Niebaum-Coppola Cab — which purportedly Francis Ford Coppola instructed his winemaking team to make in the tannic style of Barolo?)

    Today we have riper, more extracted, higher alcohol, lower total acidity wines that are largely drinkable upon release.

    Wines that Bordeaux wine professor/researcher Denis Dubourdieu warns are at risk of “premature oxidation.”

    [Link: http://www.decanter.com/news/wine-news/583929/red-wines-may-have-premature-oxidation-problems-say-bordeaux-researchers

    Steve is well-acquainted with my late friend Robert Benson’s book “Great Winemakers of California.

    [Link: http://www.amazon.com/Great-Winemakers-California-Conversations-Interviews/dp/0884961079

    I highly recommend acquiring and reading a copy of Benson’s book for insights into how winemakers practiced their craft back then — juxtaposed to how they and their successors practice their craft now.

    [Link: http://www.amazon.com/New-Classic-Winemakers-California-Conversations/dp/0520247221/ref=pd_sim_b_1

    ~~ Bob

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