Thinking about tasting on a Friday morning
I taste every wine the same procedural way, but I can’t say my excitement level is the same. Some wines are boring, boring, boring; nonetheless they must be formally reviewed. With boring wines, it’s hard to find 40 or 50 words to say, without adding gratuitous verbiage just for the heck of it. Sometimes I just want to say something like, “This wine would be okay in a paper cup at a barbecue” but that’s snarky. But in general when I use the word “barbecue” it means a wine you don’t have to think about. It’s not an insult, just a fact.
But some wines are interesting. These wines make me think. They make everything above my neck come alive, including my mind. This past week has been a good one for good wines. Among the best have been Viader 2010, Au Bon Climat 2010 Historic Vineyards Collection Bien Nacido Pinot Noir, Iron Horse 2004 Brut LD, Terra Valentine 2010 Yverdon Cabernet Sauvignon, Blackbird 2011 illustration, Clendenen 3008 Le Bon Climat Chardonnay, Stonestreet 2011 Upper Barn Chardonnay, Gary Farrell 2011 Lancel Creek Pinot Noir, Isabel Mondavi 2010 Pinot Noir and a 2003 LD Brut from J. These wines get my pulse racing. They’re why I fell in love in with the stuff in the first place.
More and more do I find myself seeking ethereal structural elements rather than more immediate and accessible taste sensations. You’d think that after all these years wine would be demystified for me, but exactly the opposite is true. It is a greater mystery than ever what makes one wine special when everything else is merely adequate. One struggles to put this sense of specialness into English. The numerical rating is the easiest way to signify specialness: A score of 97 or above instantly telegraphs it. But a written review accompanies the score; and while I (and many other critics) lament the fact that few people apparently read the review (we know this from anecdotal evidence), I still spend quite a bit of time crafting it. It may not matter to Joe Blow or Susie from Kokomo what I say, but it matters to me.
My greatest struggle–let’s get this out of the way–is with very good Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Some will disagree with the following statement, but I’ll make it anyway: At the top levels, these wines in California tend to be more alike than not. For better or for worse, we’ve reached a stage where everyone is basically growing their grapes and vinifying the wines the same way. Oh, someone may put 30% stems into the fermentation whereas someone else puts in 60% and a third winemaker destems everything, but really, that does not result in fundamentally, dramatically different wines. The parent material–the grapes themselves–determines everything: all else is simply tinkering around the edges.
The best way–the only way I know of to discern minor differences between wines made of the same variety is to let the wines breathe for as long as possible. Fresh out of the bottle all oaky Chards, Cabs and Pinots converge along the same horizon lines. There is, however, a limit to how long the critic can allow a wine to breathe before practical logistics set in. In my case, it’s longer than for many others: tasting at home, at my leisure, means I can take my time. It is only after time in the glass that Au Bon Climat’s Los Alamos Pinot Noir seriously begins to diverge from the winery’s Bien Nacido bottling, referred to above, the latter being considerably more powerful and superior (even though it costs only $5 more). This is why I would never want to taste in the wham-bam style some of my critic friends employ: 30 seconds or so per taste. How are you supposed to get to nuance, subtlety, the hidden stuff that emerges only with time? You can’t.
Have a great weekend!