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A Brief Appraisal of California Pinot Noir

47 comments

 

I was reading excerpts from Jon Bonné’s new book, The New California Wine, that were published in the S.F. Chronicle earlier this week. (I haven’t seen a copy of the book itself, yet.) In it, Jon deals with California Pinot Noir, largely fairly. He has associated himself with the anti-high alcohol movement in recent years, which is fair enough; to each, his own. But I do want to talk about this issue of what Jon calls “brawn” in Pinot Noir.

Certainly, Pinot Noir can be made in a variety of styles, as can any wine. One does, however, expect a proper Pinot to be dry, silky in the mouth, bracing with acidity and (here in California, anyway), fruity. But within those parameters, Pinot can display a wide spectrum of weight.

Jon mentions Loring Wine Company’s Pinots as examples of “irrational exuberance.” Consider their 2006 Clos Pepe Vineyard Pinot Noir, a wine I reviewed five years ago, and gave 94 points. The official alcohol level on the label was 14.7%, which I suppose is highish (from the point of view of an In Pursuit of Balance aficienado), and I suppose it might have been slightly higher even that that, given the government’s tolerance of alcohol ranges, rather than specifics. But it was an awfully good wine, one I’d love to try today.

Jon included the Pinots of Kosta-Browne in his “irrational exuberance” category. I must say that I have not been a fan on those wines, either. They’re too big for me–“brawny.” Although the official alcohol levels are in the 14.5% range, they do seem over the top–there’s something exaggeratedly Caifornian about them, like that suntan George Hamilton always had, even in the dead of winter: or maybe the late, great Tammy Faye Bakker’s over-cosmetized face is the better comparison.

What makes Loring’s Pinots balanced and Kosta-Browne’s less so for me? Who’s to say? It’s a matter of taste. The greatest, most consistent Pinot Noirs in California, IMHO, are produced by Williams Selyem. Their alcohol levels are reliably moderate–usually in the low 14s. Yet I also love Brewer-Clifton’s Pinots, which can run a point higher; their 2004 Cargasacchi (such a noble vineyard) was 15.1%, yet that wine was so far from “brawny”, I can’t even tell you. I had to give it 97 points. Was it better than Siduri’s magnificent 2007 Hirsch, which I gave 96 points, and whose alcohol was 13.5%? No. Both wines rocked, in their own universes. It would be patently unfair to force them into some kind of mixed martial arts slapdown. Apples and oranges, as it were, but both distinctively Pinot Noir.

Here are the “crimes” California Pinot Noir can commit: residual sugar. Thinness. Simplicity. I don’t care for Pinots with too much oak, especially on an over-cropped wine. Unripeness (some critics love the 2011s. Not me. Too much mushroomy, veggie herbaceousness and mint, even some mold). Or, the opposite, overripeness: Loring’s 2007 Russell Family Vineyard, from Paso Robles, was raisiny, even though the alcohol was a relatively modest 14.4%. Sometimes, in warmer years, Pinot ages prematurely–why, it’s hard to tell, so that even at four years, it can be tired. A Steele 2000 Bien Nacido, tasted in May, 2004, was like that.

Have a good weekend!

  1. Brilliant! and I for one am sick and tiring of the silly media debate of high abv vs modest abv. Everyone’s entitles to their opinion. When you taste blind and prefer the one with the higher alc. Where’s the debate? I agree 100% that thin, sweet, over oaked, simple, acidic, adding syrah etc. those are “crimes” not an elevated abv. Pinot is all about the balance. Oh, and drink what you like, cheers to another great post Mr Steve.

  2. Everything I read of Mr Bonné’s is suggestive of a crusading ideologue. I have no issue with, nor care about, his personal tastes (though I am suspicious of the honesty of anyone who’s tastes in anything are so dogmatically one sided). It is the charientisms and bouts of smug derision that pepper his writing in the Chronicle, his Tweets, and apparently his book(s), which put me off his writing and make him subpar.
    He seems to see the wineworld in a binary state much the way most “tea party” drones see the socio-political landscape

    As an aside, I’ve often wondered if that “overripe” flavor in wines of reasonable alcohol was down to including sunburned and/or desiccated grapes(?)

    Lastly, whilst I quite like many of these “new California” wineries (I LOVE Littorai’s wines, but “new”???), I’m starting to fear that there is a bit of a pissing contest going on to see who can pick earliest. A few, certainly not all, recent samples of wineries I generally quite like, have been thin and green. Picking on ideology rather than aesthetics and what nature gives you???

  3. Thank you Mr. Tim!

  4. Jim Johnson says:

    As you noted Pinot can be stylistically diverse. The key is getting ripe flavors at abv in the neighborhood of 13% (like Burgundy, DUH!!!). I want acid, I want earthiness, I want ageability in the form of ripe well structured tannins.

    On one occasion while tasting Pinot in Oregon one was poured that if tasted blind might have been mistaken for Zinfandel. When the winemaker asked my opinion I offered that Pinot Noir is a female gymnast, not a Sumo wrestler. Pretty much the last time he solicited my opinion.

  5. “charientism”? Mistype or obscurity? Stumps all the dictionaries that I have

  6. David Vergari says:

    Jim…methinks that you’re asking Pinot producers on the Left Coast to make PN with alcohol levels a la Burgundy, correct?

  7. I loved your George Hamilton comparison! From a producer’s standpoint, the range of stylistic idioms of Pinot Noir are the fun flipside of the heartbreak variety. True, it is more difficult to make a rich, velvety California Pinot Noir under 14.5% than 15+% (of which winemakers often can’t resist the challenge), but the “guilty pleasure” of the higher alcohol style cannot be denied. I concur with your Pinot Noir “crimes”, especially over-oaky, because it spoils the seductive texture that distinguishes this variety. Some say that the balanced style pairs well with a wide range of dishes, while the “irrational exuberance” style wants a dripping ribeye steak.

  8. Thanks Steve,
    Always a pleasure to read. Balance is not abv… abv is not balance. Taste is subjective and style diversity is a good thing. Black/white right/wrong binary choices don’t exist in winemaking, and should not in wine tasting.
    Jim, as a Cali Pinot Noir winemaker I am NOT trying to make Burgundy; I’m trying to make Sonoma Coast. The best burgundy in the world is from… burgundy. Why would I try to imimate something I can’t achieve?
    If you want Sonoma Coast, buy Sonoma Coast. Oregon? Buy Oregon! Burgundy? Buy Burgundy! The consumer has the power here.

  9. Jim Johnson, that’s a great description (gymnast-Sumo). Wish I’d thought of it!

  10. Jim Johnson says:

    Dave, great to hear from you. Yes, with a qualifier. I want Burgundian alcohol levels with ripe flavors. If the grape is being grown in the right place that is not an unrealistic expectation. Your 2004 DuNah Vineyard Pinot was a perfect example of what I look for in a Pinot. Copain is another example that comes to mind.

    Big extract, big alcohol and big tannin can make for some very nice wines but they will not be confused with anything Burgundian. Well conceived and executed Pinot should provoke reflection and contemplation, those kind of big alcohol wines provoke wine bar fights.

    Cheers, mate.

  11. Jim Johnson says:

    Alex, you make some great points. I am not arguing against allowing the wine to express its placeness, I’m just suggesting that for most people that varietal name on the label creates a set of expectations that probably don’t include lots of alcohol, inky color and tannins better suited to young Cabernet.

    I’ve had a lot of wines that were not what I expected them to be when I bought them yet managed to enjoy them anyway. In fact, I would imagine that there is a legion of younger Pinot drinkers for whom real Burgundy would be a disappointment. So be it.

    What’s your label, I’d be interested in trying your wines.

  12. Alcohol, like all numbers, can be manipulated. I agree that taste is the only way to measure a wines “balance”

  13. I only trust a wine label to be accurate as whether the wine is above 14% ABV or not. Excise taxes depend on that being accurate. Those that get worked up about ABV are, most likely, speaking from a position of ignorance. Seems like a waste of time.

    Wine regions where a ripe grape can have relatively high sugar levels while maintaining reasonable acid levels are extremely rare. The undercurrent of the ABV discussion is that these regions are somehow lacking. Makes no sense to me.

  14. Really Steve … drawing analogies of Kosta Browne wines to George Hamilton and Tammy Faye?! As always, you are most welcome to come by our winery anytime to see and taste what we’re up to.

  15. Michael Browne says:

    Now that was a nice swift kick to the soft parts. Bandwagon anyone?

  16. So Steve, see you at KB with Tony?

    Jim, I’m a partner with my parents for Kanzler Vineyards.I reckon you’d be into our 2011 but I can pull 10 and/or 12 for comparison… vintage dictates style for us!
    Cheers!

  17. Alas, no, but Tony knows he can send me wines anytime he wants!

  18. Im just echoing what Alex and Brad have already said but simply reading the label gives you no indication of the true %ABV. Even with the 1% margin plenty of wineries take the risk of forging the number because the risk of getting “audited” by TTB is extremely low. A critic like yourself should take one of two paths; either disregard the printed ABV completely or use a lab to determine actual ABV. Any other judgements regarding “balance” are baseless because you do not know the true alcohol. Phenolic ripeness, RS, and pH/TA all determine the wines balance at any given alcohol level. I’ve had wines at 14% that seem hot and out of balance and wines at 16.5% that seem utterly perfect. If you are going to make claims based on statistical data make sure that the data is verified.

  19. Adrien,

    Just wondering where you get the idea that, with a 1% margin, plenty of wineries are “forging the number?”

    The biggest study that I know of in this regard came from the LCBO that tested over 129,000 wines and discovered that many of the tested alcohols were not exactly the same alcohol as they were labeled….but that the alcohols were largely within legal limits. http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2011/jul/05/wine-alcohol-strength-understated

    I don’t disagree at all with the sentiment that alcohol and balance are often exclusive terms and I am in favor of ignoring the number, but I just didn’t know where the idea came from that variation from the legal limits was so common.

    Thank you,

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  20. Steve and Everyone,

    Thanks for the enlightening discussion. I am concerned about the tone of the discussion on Pinot Noir styles. Good honest debate amongst those who respect the other’s work, is IMO healthy. When the debate is framed in terms of “culture wars” (as Jon did in a recent interview) or using terms like Anti-Flavor-Wine-Elite (as Bob did some time back), then I become concerned. I find myself wondering if this discussion isn’t mirroring the state of our political discourse, where increasingly extreme sides are taken leading to little truly being accomplished, and the respect of all sides plummeting. The media that are involved, in playing up the extreme, gets an audience, at least temporarily (but I wonder if that too isn’t fleeting).

    Currently the United States remains 52nd in the world in per capita wine consumption. It seems to me that much benefit could be gained by winemakers and winery owners working together to get more people in the states to drink more wine, without regard to the style.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  21. Amen brother Adam!

  22. Adam – I agree and have written extensively about matters of taste and style. The problem with this egalitarianism is that it suggests that all wines are of equal quality and it all depends on one’s preferences. Surely you don’t agree with that. To borrow a phrase from Huxley, all wines are equal but some wines are more equal than others. We will never achieve 100% agreement among all critics concerning all wines, so the individual critic can only point out the flaws he perceives [such as excessive oak, heat or super-ripeness] and let the chips fall where they may.

  23. Steve,

    I am definitely not trying to conflate wine styles with the judgment of individual wines. To my mind, a critic’s job is to taste wines in an objective manner, and to judge the wine based on its quality, using standards that he or she has established.

    When it comes to individual wines, I personally would have difficulty if a critic rated my Siduri Hirsch Pinot Noir that you referenced in your blog higher because it possesses 13.5% alcohol. Or if a critic rated the Loring Clos Pepe Pinot Noir higher because of 14.7% alcohol, that would also be problematic to me. — I do think that there are currently some critics that seemingly judge individual wines by placing them into broader categories such as alcohol levels, winemaking techniques, or other measures, without examining them for their unique strengths and weaknesses.

    I do still believe that it doesn’t do any winery long-term good to promote itself at the expense of others. The larger pie remains the immense number of Americans that don’t drink wine….and we would be better served as wineries to concentrate on getting those folks to drink wine….no matter it be 12% or 16% alcohol.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  24. Adam: True enough (re: the larger pie). Also — not enough is made of blind tasting. As you well know (!!), when an expert tastes blind without knowing what the alcohol level is, he/she is unable to place the wines into broad categories, such as alcohol level. I honestly, truly do not understand why California winemakers don’t insist that critics taste blind! Well, actually I do…but it’s not pretty.

  25. Richard – excuse me for using something you said as an example, but let’s look at these two sentences:

    “I want Burgundian alcohol levels with ripe flavors. If the grape is being grown in the right place that is not an unrealistic expectation.”

    I do believe that be unrealistic when applied to California, and I also believe it to be anti-terroir. What if I changed the geography a bit and said this in reference to Burgundy:

    “I want Champagne alcohol levels with ripe flavors. If the grape is being grown in the right place that is not an unrealistic expectation.”

    Since Champagne picks ripe fruit at 11% potential alcohol, all the Burgundies at 12%+ would be “high alcohol”. And lacking in the acidity levels of Champagne.

    It’s a matter of latitude. The farther north you go (in the northern hemisphere) the longer the daylight hours during the peak of the growing season – and the shorter the overall length of the growing season. The result is you get fruit ripe at lower sugars. And that effect gets exacerbated the farther north you go. That doesn’t mean you can’t find small pockets or individual sites that can go against that, but they would tend to be the exception.

    Sure, you can seek out those sites, but many of us choose instead to explore the larger expanse of California terroir. Personally, I’d rather fail at that than become a Burgundian clone.

  26. Steve –

    If you’re saying that a wine to which you gave 97 points is not better than a wine to which you gave 96 points, then what you’re conceding is that points are irrelevant. Why use them at all? It’s obvious that you loved both wines. But if you don’t think the higher-scoring wine is better, then scrap the points. And no, I don’t seek another point score imbroglio. Wow, though. The higher scoring wine is supposed to be better, no?

  27. Bob Henry says:

    STEVE,

    REGARDING YOUR COMMENT . . .

    “Sometimes, in warmer years, Pinot ages prematurely — why, it’s hard to tell, so that even at four years, it can be tired.”

    . . . LET ME REINTRODUCE THIS ARTICLE TO YOUR GROWING READERSHIP, WHO MIGHT NOT HAVE SEEN IT AS A “COMMENT” TO AN EARLIER POSTING.

    ~~ BOB

    Excerpt from Decanter
    (May 24, 2013):

    “Red Wines May Have Premature Oxidation Problems, Say Bordeaux Researchers”

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

    By Jane Anson
    Reporting from Bordeaux

    Denis Dubourdieu, professor at the faculty of oenology (ISVV) in Bordeaux and author of a leading study into premature oxidation in white wines, told Decanter.com, ‘Ten years ago, many people were aware of the premature oxidation problem in white wines, but didn’t want to talk about it. For me, it’s a similar situation now with red wines.’

    Dubourdieu points to the 2003 vintage as the most obvious example, although any very ripe vintages – such as 2009 – could be at risk. ‘And it is not limited to Bordeaux – any region that makes long-living red wines, from Tuscany to Napa, should be aware of the potential issues.’

    Red wines have greater natural protection against premature oxidation, as the tannins and phenolics are natural buffers against oxygen. ‘But I have seen issues with a number of classified wines that are potentially storing up trouble for later,’ warns Dubourdieu. ‘The Right Bank is the worst affected because Merlot is so vulnerable.’

    The warnings signs of premox in reds comes through the appearance of certain aroma markers such as prunes, stewed fruits and dried figs, and is often linked to a rapid evolution in colour, as with whites.

    Dubourdieu, along with Valérie Lavigne and Alexandre Pons at the ISVV, has found two specific molecules – ZO1 giving the prune aroma and ZO2 giving a stewed fruit smell – that develop rapidly in the presence of oxygen.

    The causes are numerous, Dubourdieu believes: harvesting later in a bid for riper grapes with low acidity, and winemaking practises including too much new oak barrels, or low doses of sulphur dioxide particularly when coupled with a high pH (over a pH of 4, SO2 loses almost all of its effectiveness).”

    . . .

    ‘These are practices that winemakers are doing with the best intentions,’ Dubourdieu said. ‘Riper grapes, new oak, low sulphur use – these are all things intended to improve the wine and to benefit the consumer. But I would prefer to warn winemakers now that it’s possible to go too far, rather than say nothing simply to be politically correct.

  28. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    Regarding this comment . . .

    “Certainly, Pinot Noir can be made in a variety of styles, as can any wine. One does, however, expect a proper Pinot to be dry, silky in the mouth, bracing with acidity and (here in California, anyway), fruity. But within those parameters, Pinot can display a wide spectrum of weight.”

    . . . I find the Santa Cruz Mountain Pinots to be more coarsely (not “silky”) tannic and more full-bodied (heavier “weight”).

    I don’t know if this is attributed to the clones that have been planted in the region, or the terroir.

    (Aside: the ahead-of-his-time vintner Martin Ray planted his Pinot Noir — now known as Mt. Eden — from budwood that purported was sourced, legally or “extra-legally” from DRC.)

    I invite others with insights into these Santa Cruz wines to “weigh in” (no pun intended) on the subject.

    ~~ Bob

  29. Bob Henry says:

    DR,

    I concur with your vote of enthusiasm for Littorai wines. I think Ted Lemon is turning out the “best” Pinots in the nation.

    Link to Jon Bonné profile of the winery:

    http://www.sfgate.com/food/article/Ted-Lemon-of-Littorai-Wines-winemaker-of-the-2452201.php

    Link to PinotFile profile of the winery:

    http://www.princeofpinot.com/article/780/

    As someone who was on the mailing list patron of Williams Selyem Pinots dating back to the late 1980s, I find their current releases pale in comparison to Burt and Ed’s handiwork.

    Link to James Laube column on what Burt Williams is up to these days:

    http://www.winespectator.com/blogs/show/id/45707

  30. Bob Henry says:

    Adam,

    Roughly 80% of all wine is domestically consumed by 13% of all wine drinkers. Marketing efforts to persuade those laggard 87% to drink more wine have failed.

    From a marketing perspective, it is easier and more profitable for a winery to capture incremental market share gains from other producers, than it is to expand overall demand for wine from the general populace that drinks irregularly, little, or none at all.

    Don’t take my word for it. Check out former MIT Sloan School of Management professor Michael Treacy’s book titled “Double-Digit Growth: How Great Companies Achieve It No Matter What” (Portfolio Trade).

    Link to Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Double-Digit-Growth-Companies-Achieve-It-No/dp/159184066X

    Link to Advertising Age column on the book and its author:

    http://adage.com/print/103337

    Link to interview with Treacy:

    http://managementconsultingnews.com/interview-michael-treacy/

    ~~ Bob

  31. Bob Henry says:

    EVAN,

    REGARDING YOUR QUESTION . . .

    “If you’re saying that a wine to which you gave 97 points is not better than a wine to which you gave 96 points, then what you’re conceding is that points are irrelevant. Why use them at all? It’s obvious that you loved both wines.”

    . . . I AM REMINDED OF THESE QUOTES FROM ROBERT PARKER:

    “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)]

    — AND —

    “… 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):

    “ . . . 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. ”

    THE ZEITGEST OF WINE IS SUCH THAT OUR RATINGS (SHOULD WE ADOPT THAT RANKING SYSTEM) VARIES OVER TIME.

    SEE THIS ARTICLE FROM CALTECH PROFESSOR LEONARD MLODINOW:

    From The Wall Street Journal “Weekend” Section
    (November 20, 2009, Page W6):

    “A Hint of Hype, A Taste of Illusion;
    They pour, sip and, with passion and snobbery, glorify or doom wines.
    But studies say the wine-rating system is badly flawed.
    How the experts fare against a coin toss.”

    Link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703683804574533840282653628.html

    Essay by Leonard Mlodinow

    [... teaches randomness at Caltech. A recent book is
    "The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives." He devotes a chapter to wine scoring scales.]

  32. Bob,

    Thanks for the link….it has been awhile since I read either one of Michael Treacy’s books (and he’s probably had others since we got involved in the wine business). I think the one you are referencing came out around when we started the winery (at least that is when I read it).

    If I recall correctly, he does talk about looking for growth where it is likely to be found. Currently, most wine sales efforts are focused on what wineries consider to be major markets….go to the Coasts, etc. But I believe that there is a great potential for wine consumption growth in the rest of the country (what is dismissively known as “fly over country” by some). Looking at those markets are, IMO, taking advantage of what Treacy talked about when he discussed looking for growth where it is likely to be found.

    I think taking consumers from others makes sense in a somewhat mature marketplace, but much less so in one in its infant stages as is wine consumption in the United States, which is why I think Treacy mentioned that as a means of increasing business after looking for growth where it is likely to be found.

    All relying on old memory of mine, so feel free to correct me if I am wrong.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  33. Adam,

    I read Treacy’s book last month (shame on me for not getting to it earlier — as I’ve kept a copy of the Ad Age column in my “hoary archive” of business newsclippings since it was first published).

    You are indeed correct that one strategy is “going where the business will be.” But it takes a long time for the market demand to generate.

    The “low hanging fruit” is existing demand from customers already in the market who may be poorly served by current product or service providers, and who (if solicited or “nudged”) might “defect” to an upstart provider.

    The challenges of the “three-tier distribution system” for marketing alcoholic beverages in the United States is the patchwork nature of state regulatory laws.

    Compounded for small producers by trying to find an enthusiastic and financially stable in-market broker.

    Wineries sell into large population cities on the Coasts because those retail markets are mature: the distribution infrastructure is in place, the regulatory laws are rational, and the consumer demand is proven.

    Lots of folks in “fly over country” would love to be mailing list patrons, but the state laws thwart them.

    ~~ Bob

  34. Bob,

    Let me just say that I haven’t found what you write to be the case for me personally.

    Our 3rd biggest state for wine sales in the country is Missouri. Wisconsin outsells any East Coast market except for New York. And the most populous states that strictly prohibit direct shipping are MA and PA.

    Maybe I should just keep my mouth shut and sell all I can.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  35. Adam,

    Congratulations on being an “outlier” in finding a way to overcome the impediments to distribution.

    Keep picking that low-hanging fruit wherever you find it,

    ~ Bob

  36. Bob –

    I’m well aware of Parker’s comments as well. They only strengthen the notion that point scores are arbitrary and silly. And yet they persist. At the very least, if a critic insists on using points, that critic should pretend that a wine that gets a higher score is a better wine. Otherwise, why bother?

  37. I recently became aware of a wine writer/critic who will not accept or taste samples unless they are accompanied by laboratory analysis because he will not taste and review wines testing above a certain numerical parameter. In this case it is not ethanol %, but rather pH. Anyone else out there aware of this?

  38. Bill Dyer: I never heard of that. Crazy.

  39. I agree with Adam, I think the 3-tier system makes it easier for small wineries to get national distribution

  40. Evan,

    Elaborating on my reply to your comment.

    Robert Parker has TWO wine-scoring scales:

    90-points maximum for wines that don’t improve with bottle age (e.g., almost all dry white wines, rosés, and Beaujolais),

    — and —

    100-points maximum for wines that could or should improve with bottle age.

    See Steve’s earlier wine blog titled “Young People Ask the Best Questions” for my comment posting the pertinent text from a 1989 interview with Wine Times: http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2013/04/25/young-people-ask-the-best-questions/.

    (Most folks don’t know this little … ahem … “difference with a distinction.” I brought to it Screaming Eagle winemaker Heidi Barrett’s attention — and she turned her subsequent conversation with Parker on the subject into a newsletter for her La Sirena brand.)

    Quoting Parker from a 1989 interview with Wine Times magazine, his scoring system has “a 10-point cushion on top for wines that have the ability to age. …the [balance of] 10 points are … simply awarded to wines that have the ability to improve in the bottle. This is sort of ARBITRARY and gets me into TROUBLE.” [CAPITALIZATION added for emphasis. – “the other Bob”]

    Parker may enjoy two wines equally well, but believes that one will make “old bones” (one of his favorite phrases) better than another. So the one that will “live” longer gets a higher score based on those 10 “bonus” points.

    “Case study”: 1986 Mouton. Parker awarded it 100 points, with the caveat that the wine is s-o-o-o-o-o-o tannic that collectors shouldn’t even consider drinking it until sometime around . . . 2025? And that the wine will “keep” until at least 2050? (Aside: I don’t have my Wine Advocate newsletters or Bordeaux tomes open in front of me as I compose this note. But the paraphrase is pretty accurate.)

    I have tasted the 1986 Mouton. An atypically massive Bordeaux (more akin to Randy Dunn’s Howell Mountain Cabs from the 1980s). You might have admiration for the effort — but little if any pleasure in drinking it.

    Because it will last until the mid-century, Parker gave it the maximum “bonus” points for longevity: hence a 100-point score.

    But if you ask him which 1986 Bordeaux he would PREFER to drink TODAY, I doubt that would be it.

    (I suspect a more approachable, hedonistic 1986 like Margaux or Cheval Blanc.)

    Summing up: a wine critic like Parker can award a high score based on hedonistic pleasure, or admiration for the winemaker’s craft.

    Unless you know what his “bias” is, you can easily confuse one for the other.

    And therefore misinterpret what information he is trying to convey.

    A closing quote from that same Wine Times interview:

    “… The newsletter was always meant to be a guide, one person’s opinion. The scoring system was always meant to be an accessory to the written reviews, tasting notes. That’s why I use sentences and try and make it interesting. Reading is a lost skill in America. There’s a certain segment of my readers who only look at numbers, but I think it is a much smaller segment than most wine writers would like to believe. The tasting notes are one thing, but in order to communicate effectively and quickly where a wine placed vis-à-vis its peer group, a numerical scale was necessary. If I didn’t do that, it would have been a sort of cop-out.”

    ~~ Bob

  41. Adam,

    A corollary to the Guardian article . . .

    http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2011/jul/05/wine-alcohol-strength-understated

    . . . is a consideration of the size of the wine glass, and therefore the size of the pour when it comes to alcohol intake.

    See this article on the subject. And see this wine blog:

    http://www.academicwino.com/2013/09/distractions-influence-wine-pours.html/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+TheAcademicWino+%28The+Academic+Wino%29

    ~~ Bob

    Excerpt from The Wall Street Journal “Personal Journal” Section
    (May 1, 2007, Page D1):

    “The Accidental Binge Drinker: How Much We Really Pour”

    Link: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB117797544301787472

    By Tara Parker-Pope
    “Health Journal” Column

    Chances are you’re drinking far more alcohol than you think.

    The reason? Wine, beer and spirits glasses are surprisingly deceptive, and most of us — even professional bartenders — are over-pouring the alcohol we serve.

    While too much alcohol obviously adds calories to your diet, other consequences of supersizing alcoholic beverages are even more worrisome. The health benefits of alcohol disappear and risk increases when you drink more than a few servings a day. And because over-pouring can double or even triple a standard serving size, many of us are technically “binge” drinking without knowing it, wreaking havoc on our livers and overall health.

    A standard “serving” for an alcoholic beverage is 5 fluid ounces of wine, 12 ounces of regular beer or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All three portions contain 0.6 ounce of alcohol. But glasses today come in so many different shapes and sizes — tall “highballs,” wide tumblers, bowl-shaped wine goblets and now the new popular stemless wine glasses — it’s virtually impossible to estimate the right serving amount. …

  42. Jim Johnson says:

    Here’s a link to a John Mariani article that pretty well sums up my thinking with respect to Pinot.

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-11-11/californian-pinots-to-beat-blockbusters-john-mariani.html

    He says pretty much what I said, that Pinot should be about elegance, not power and more about seduction than assault.

    To be perfectly fair my wife and I, on a trip to the Burgundy region of France in March, did encounter a few Burgundies that were a bit on the assertive side, semi Californian in style. The common thread among those we liked the best, the more typical Burgundies, seemed to be bright acidity, purity of fruit and ripe well integrated tannins. We also tasted a few clunkers that seemed out of place in both worlds.

  43. Pinot should be what the terroir dictates it to be. Doesn’t mean everyone has to like it. But to say it must be a certain way is IMHO way too limiting.

  44. (A personal aside: Brian Loring is a friend and a fellow imbiber with roots here in Los Angeles. So “full disclosure” should some readers think there is a hidden agenda in my following comment.)

    If Pinot Noir is the “transparent” grape that so many of its admirers and proponents say it is, then it should reflect the terroir it comes from.

    I don’t expect Santa Cruz Mountain Pinots to taste like Monterey Pinots. Or Gavillan Mountain Pinots. Or Paso Robles Pinots. Or Sonoma Pinots. Or Napa Pinots. Or Mendocino or Anderson Valley Pinots.

    The producers in each region have adopted and propagated different clones (with a concerted effort to preserve “heirloom” or “heritage” clones like Martin Ray/Mt. Eden, Martini and Swan). Different planting densities. Different growing practices. Different picking practices based on brix measurements or perceived “physiological ripeness.” And different fermentation practices (e.g., wild yeast versus inoculated yeast).

    That matrix of decisions consequently leads to a continuum of styles.

    Extending the discussion, do we ask Pinots from different regions of Burgundy to taste alike – or do we “champion” their subtle differences? (As those with tasting experience know, the wines of DRC don’t taste alike – and their differences command disparate selling prices in the marketplace, not exclusively attributed to production scarcity.)

    Drink the style of Pinot that pleases you – and don’t be “cowed” by others who dismiss your choice.

  45. Not sure if this quote I’m told is credited to Robert Mondavi is accurate but:

    A good cab will knock your socks off but a good pinot will roll the off slowly. Sounds great to me.

  46. GABE,

    REGARDING YOUR COMMENT . . .

    “I agree with Adam, I think the 3-tier system makes it easier for small wineries to get national distribution.”

    . . . LET ME CITE TODAY’S POSTED WINE SPECTATOR NEWS REPORT:

    “West Coast Wineries Are Up for Sale — Quietly”
    A wave of recent deals show investors see opportunities in wine, while owners see an exit strategy.

    Link: http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/49221#.UoI_yAMMzG8

    SELECTIVE EXCERPTS:

    “… While small wineries can succeed by selling most of their inventory direct to consumers and large producers have muscle with wholesalers, those in the middle — annual production of 5,000 to 15,000 cases, for example — can’t get much attention from distributors unless the brand is hot.”

    AND:

    “… ‘I’ve never seen more wineries for sale in California than there are today,’ [said Charles Banks, who through investment groups such as Terroir Selections purchased Santa Barbara Syrah specialist Qupé in October and Napa veteran Mayacamas Vineyards in April.] Banks, who estimates that between 30 to 50 percent of California wineries are either in financial difficulty or aren’t as profitable as they could be.”

    ANNUAL CASE PRODUCTION OF 5,000 TO 15,000 CASES DEFINES MOST FAMILY -OWNED WINERIES.

    AND FROM MY CONVERSATIONS WITH SUCH OWNERS, THEY BEMOAN THEIR INABILITY TO ATTRACT THE SUPPORT OF DISTRIBUTORS.

    THIS IS THE “CHALLENGE” I WAS ALLUDING TO WITH THE THREE-TIER DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM.

    ~~ BOB

  47. An addendum to this news report:

    “West Coast Wineries Are Up for Sale — Quietly”

    Summary: A wave of recent deals show investors see opportunities in wine, while owners see an exit strategy.

    Link: http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/49221#.UoI_yAMMzG8

    “Over the last year there have been more than $335 million in sales of vineyards, vineyard estates and plantable land in Napa and Sonoma Counties.” – David Ashcroft Real Estate

    Summary: “This doesn’t even take into account confidential sales or wineries.”

    Link: http://vineyardandwinerysales.com/article_napa_sonoma_vineyard_wine_country_real_estate_november_2013.pdf

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