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I learn so much from my readers

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Some interesting comments from yesterday’s post, in which I suggested that some of these top-scoring Cabs don’t pair all that versatilely with many foods.

If that’s so, a few readers wondered, then why give them high scores?

Fair enough. By way of explanation, I need to put the whole concept of wine reviewing into some historical context. The world always has had wine critics, whether they were poets and physicians in the ancient world who advised Caesars what to drink, Thomas Jefferson who was such a gadfly when it came to French wines, or that amazing crop of American wine writers who came of age after the Repeal of Prohibition to educate a thirsty but ignorant country about the intricacies of wine.

Even with today’s modern sophistication of big publishing, social media and the like, we wine critics haven’t changed all that much. We’re just simple folk with an outsized affection for vino, doing our best to write about it, and lucky enough to have access to a lot more of it than the average Joe or Jane.

Now, I will admit to being an inheritor of a system in which certain wines are routinely experienced as “better” or “superior” to all others. This in itself is anti-democratic (with a small “d”). In fact, it’s downright elitist. And while I personally abhor economic elitism, I do recognize that in other spheres, it has its place. We have elite athletes, whom we love to watch on T.V. We have elite universities, elite clothing and elite technology, elite vacation destinations, elite neighborhoods in our cities, elite rock stars and elites among the intellectual classes. So “elite” is a fact of human existence, no matter how you feel about it.

In this system I fell into, wines like Classified Growth Bordeaux, top-ranked Burgundy, grand Champagnes, Riojas, Barolos, cult Napa Cabernets and so on are automatically granted the top place. Is it fair? Maybe, maybe not. But you have to start someplace in creating a hierarchy if you’re going to judge anything–otherwise, everything is the same, which does no one any good. So it makes it a lot easier if a majority of the world’s critics agree as to the top ranks of the hierarchy (even if we may disagree about individual wines). At least, we’ve created a lingua franca in which we can have a coherent discussion.

Now, once upon a time the top wines of Old Europe might have been more drinkable with food than are today’s Napa Cabs, for instance. In fact, there’s every reason to believe that part of what made Thomas Jefferson like top Bordeaux so much is that it was cleaner and more technically correct than some of its neighbors (and so, by the way, was his food), which may have had actual faults. Today, the situation is completely changed. Few wines have technical faults, at least in California. So what the elite wines have had to do is not only be cleaner and more correct than everything else, they’ve has to become something that the other wines cannot be, whether for reasons of terroir or expense. And that is what we mean by the big, opulent, modern Napa style of cult Cabernet (as well as its high alcohol). When it’s done well, it truly is impressive–but it’s not always done well, and when the job is botched, the result is clumsy.

The problem, of course, is that the big, opulent style is so powerful in itself that it’s practically a food group. That’s what I wrote about yesterday, when I said if I was cooking something at home to go with a huge Cab, I’d probably stick to grilled steak. That doesn’t mean just the steak and nothing else. I might try and steal a beat from Gary Danko and fancy it up, filleting some tenderloin and serving it with potato gratin, Swiss chard, cassis-glazed shallots and Stilton butter. But so many things could go wrong with such a complex dish that I’d probably decide beforehand not to even try, and keep things simple: since I live in a condo and can’t barbecue, I’d sear the steak in a heavy skillet, toss it with some brown butter, salt and pepper, maybe glaze some onions or sauté a Portobello, and keep my fingers crossed that the marriage between the food and, say, the Shafer Hillside Select would be a happy one. On the other hand, if I poured a nice Zinfandel with the filet, I think everyone would be happy, with a lot less at risk. The K.I.S.S. formula is a good one.

The thing to understand is that these elite wines are meant to be understood on their own. I don’t want any producers to get mad at me when I say that, but it’s true: the amount of work and artistry that goes into them is such that they don’t need a whole lot of anything to help them along. In fact, the more you try to help them with food, the more you reduce them to ordinariness. And there’s nothing sadder than opening a bottle of expensive wine, only to find that it performs in a mediocre way at the table.

Some of my commenters fastened on these points and made interesting suggestions. (I don’t want to name names because I don’t have their permission, but you can read them yourself in yesterday’s post.) B.__ suggested I make a note in my reviews that certain wines are “cocktail wines,” rather than food wines. S.___ strongly agreed. G.___ raised the delicate issue of point scores: that wines meant to go with food get lower scores than do “stand-alone wines.”

These are a good points. One problem that comes to mind, though, is that we would have to agree on what is a “cocktail” wine versus a “table” wine. I can see me describing a wine as “cocktail” and raising the infuriated hackles of the winemaker who made it! I don’t think any winemaker in the world thinks of himself as a “cocktail-winemaker.” So we can throw out the “cocktail” word. It’s a non-starter.

No, I think the best way to communicate to people the idea that “with food pairing, the highest scoring wine isn’t always the best” is to say it over and over again, until it sinks into peoples’ heads. Also, to point out in the text of the review (I would hope people read the text, not just the point score!). It’s in the text, with all its word-space limitations, that I try to convey my thoughts about food. I like the word “versatile.” It means a wine (like that Hendry Zin) that will go with just about everything in a particular style (red, white, light and delicate, full-bodied, tannic, whatever, etc.). Happily, more and more restaurants are beginning to divide their wine lists up into helpful categories like that.

  1. I think the problem is that there a lot of wine styles out there but only one global points system. It’s not at all useful (IMO) to use the same scale to give a score to, for example, a big Napa Cab style wine and also, for example, a light fruity ‘cocktail’ style wine, and somehow compare one to the other. Why should one style be any ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than any other style? Is this the way it worked back in the old days before Mr.Parker and the WS?
    Yes, ‘elite’ is a fact of human existence, who can deny it? But so what? That fact still doesn’t make the ‘one scale fits all’ scoring system any more sensible or useful, no?

  2. “automatically granted the top place.”

    So, you are incapable of determining which wines YOU find best and just give the top scores to the wines that the people before you said were the best? What is the point of reviewing wines and assigning scores if the outcome is predetermined by reputation and price?

    I do agree with you with the fact that differentiating between “cocktail” and “table” wines would be futile because a common defition of each would be next to impossible to agree on.

  3. First, you can always use my name. The “S” is mine and I stand behind what I said there, as a retailer that has been dealing with the wine buying, like shopping for, public for 17 years. I’ve actually had that oyster discussion that I brought up in your last post, just as I have when someone wants a “highly rated” wine to go with their poached white fish. Interestingly however, when I ask “highly rated by whom?” they shrug. So your question about text and looking at just the score, well there you are. With some, it is just the number they seek…I say we let those nimrods drink Shafer Hillside with oysters.

    Second, if a winemaker is gonna get his panties in a wad over having his wines called cocktail wines, (which I think most of us can agree are fully fruited, rich and extracted, and that is NOT a bad thing, for a cocktail) then maybe he might wanna think about making the wine another way?

    Third, who are you writing for? The winemaker or the consumer?

  4. Samantha, I write for the consumer, first, foremost and always.

  5. Steve, you really are one of the best wine writers I’ve ever read

  6. Kurt Burris says:

    Steve: I have often been envious of you because of the wines you get to sample on a regular basis. But, reading that you cannot barbeque at home brings that envy crashing to earth. You have my sympathy! I’ll raise a glass in your honor the next time I fire up one of my three grills.

  7. Bill Haydon says:

    Great column, Steve. I agree with you that the term “cocktail wine” would undoubtedly be taken as a pejorative by a winemaker making….well, cocktail wines. I can’t help but think of a certain winemaker who makes some of the most overblown cocktail wines on the planet yet can’t string two sentences together without dropping the word “Burgundian” in when discussing his wines. The cynic in me says that perhaps that’s just the kind of criticism that winemaker needs to see. The realist in me understands the indelicate position in which it would place you and your publication.

    I think the problem ultimately comes down to critics seeing extract, ripeness, heavy oak and high alcohol as inherent qualities in and of themselves completely out of context of the table. That question, I don’t know precisely how to address. Perhaps, if one doesn’t want to upend the whole scoring paradigm, being bluntly direct about a wine’s table compatibility in the tasting note would be a start. Winemaker X would still get his 96 points, but he would have to stomach that sentence noting that the wine is best enjoyed in the absence of food and as an apertif. It would be a great service to your readers in my opinion.

    I can’t help but think of the super ripe Spring Mountain ($85/95 point) Chardonnay given to me by a industry colleague. I knew enough to not drink it with oysters…..or even lobster. I did, however, think that it might be a decent match for a veal chop with a dijon-cognac pan sauce. Opened the bottle, poured a glass, took one sniff/swallow, took a second. It was buttered popcorn in a bottle, literally. Buttered popcorn notes dominated the wine. I dumped it down the drain and opened a $25 bottle of Alsatian Riesling.

  8. As I assumed Steve. Just makes it easier to call a cocktail wine just that I would think. I mean when the end result is a consumer getting the most from their wine, and having the wine show in its most marvelous light. I’d think that a win/win no?

  9. Bill Haydon, point taken about that Spring Mountain Chard! Been there, done that.

  10. I have and would like to make the distinction between “wine critic” and “wine writer”. There’s a huge difference there. Back, post-prohibition and into the ’70′s, people like Frank Schoonmaker, BobThompson, NormRoby, JasonBrandtLewis, HankRubin, BobFinnigan, NateChroman, LeeAdams, RobertLawrneceBalzer, GeraldAsher, etc, all heroes of mine, were “wine writers”. Their primary role was to write about wine and communicate knowledge to no-nuthin’ doofuses like myself. And they did that very/very well.
    Nowadays, most of these so-called writers are actually “wine critics”, people whose primary role in life is to review wines and assign scores to them so that doofuses who are reluctant to buy wine based on their own palate (or…gasp….listen to the advice of a good wine merchant…and some of those still exist) and rely on a critic to tell them what to buy. That may be communicating knowledge on some level, but it’s knowledge I place little value upon. I don’t like to “feed from the firehose of scores” as Jon terms it. And I think there is a certain segment of those like me out there in the wine market.
    Obviously, there is a spectrum between those two extremes. PatrickComiskey is almost exclusively a “wine writer”. CharlieOlken is primarily a “wine critic”. RobertParker is almost exclusively a “wine critic”. JamesLaube is primarily a “wine critic”. SteveHeimhoff is mostly a “wine critic”, but also a “wine writer” somewhat based on his (very good) books. Jon is primarily a “wine writer” and the “wine critic” is a minor part of his writings.
    Alas, the wine world is afloat in “wine critics” and there is a real paucity of (good) “wine writers” these days. It takes a lot more work to be a “wine writer”…you have to do some homework and then write a cogent piece of literature. It is much easier to review a Rombauer or Ch.Woltner Chard, throw a number at it, describe it as “apple-wood smoked Thai kumquats w/ hints of AcmeLeVain pain grille” and pretend that is wine writing.
    It’s a sad situation, alas.
    Tom

  11. TomHill, yes, much so-called wine writing today is very sad, especially those who reduce their “reviews” of scattered wines to a tweet! By the way — is Chat. Woltner still around? I remember them from 20 years ago but have heard nothing since.

  12. You do realize that Joe gets so many scattered wines because producers care about his social media influence… or his boyish good looks.

    I don’t want to speak for Joe, but to me he reduces his “reviews” to simplistic tweets because he knows that list of aromas, flavors and a number is just as frivolous…

  13. Uh, was I, like, supposed to say something here? ;-)

    Kyle, those tweets are often insanely hard to write. Trying to distill testing notes into such a brief format, then hopefully communicating some core aspect of the wine, along with ava, price and a grade… And of it’s a German wine, after typing the name and origin you’re lucky to have 35 characters left to do that, out of the 140! I’ve thought about giving up on it several times. One of those things that looks stupidly easy until you try it, and then you realize how f@$king difficult it is. But I like the dichotomy between those and the 1wd features, which have the opposite problem of begging far too wordy… Apologies for the slight comments thread hijack there.

  14. 1WineDude is always welcome here! No such thing as hijacking threads. The conversation goes where it wants to!

  15. “By the way — is Chat. Woltner still around? I remember them from 20 years ago but have heard nothing since.”

    Nope…..gone/gone. Sold in 2000 or thereabouts to the owners of Ladera & the Chard pulled out. But those Chards were really quite good; bit rustic but very structured.
    Tom

  16. ill, you’re dating yourself with remembering Woltner, but I guess I am too. That winery was established by a brand of the La Mission Haut Brion family. At one time their Chardonnay was the most expensive in California at $60 a bottle. I liked the wine, but it was, as you say, austere and rustic, with the fruit modulated beneath lots of minerals. It was one of the driest Chards I’ve ever had. I would love to try it today. It was sort of Chablisian.

  17. Funny, I didn’t think of it until someone mentioned it, but I suppose Steve is technically a wine critic. Personally, I discovered Mr. Heimoff through this blog, and bought his books as a result of that. I’m not much of a “tasting notes” guy, so I’ve never considered him a critic. I’m also not on Twitter, so I’ve never really considered 1WD a critic either. In my mind, you are both wine writers, and darned good ones.

  18. Thank you gabe. I consider myself both a wine writer and a critic. Criticism is my main gig at Wine Enthusiast, and I take it very seriously. But I love to write and considee myself a pretty good writer. I used to put my writing energies into my books, but since 2008 the blog has been my everyday writing focus. Of course, I do write articles for the magazine too, and I always try to make them as well-researched and well-written as I can. You might consider subscribing to Enthusiast.

  19. A good suggestion. Do you have any other books in the works?

  20. gabe: Sadly, no, in the formal sense. My blog is the equivalent of 2 books a year.

  21. Steve,

    Interesting thread as usual . . . and I gotta agree with those that have defined ‘cocktail wines’. I think they’ve done so perfectly, and I think that many of us (because ALL of us will never agree on ANYTHING) can point to one or more wines we’ve had that fall into that category.

    And if a winemaker does not realize that his or her wines are ‘in that vein’, then perhaps their ‘house palate’ is simply too subjective . . .

    I remember reading a story about a casual wine tasting in Napa many years ago. Most of those present were ‘drawn’ to the ‘occktail’ reds and whites before food came out, but once the food arrived, they were drawn to the acid-driven whites and reds. The ‘beauty pageant’ wines were left to sit there by themselves . . .

    Cheers!

  22. Bill Haydon says:

    I loved the Woltner Chardonnays. They were a true epiphany for someone who wasn’t even in the business at that point.

    I think had Napa followed their–and a few others–path in the nineties rather than following the fat man in Maryland further and further down the rabbit hole of stylistic excess, they wouldn’t be experiencing such an extreme backlash in the market today.

  23. “Cocktail style” and “beauty pageant” wines are pretty good descriptions of the overblown wine style. I also like “gladiator wines” and “bow-wow wines.”

    But Bill Haydon, note that some of us Napa Cab producers have resisted this wine style and are doing just fine making wines with balance and nuance.

  24. Bill Haydon says:

    Bill,

    I agree with you fully. Unfortunately, I feel it’s still a bit of an outlier movement, though definitely gaining momentum. Though I can come across as a bit of a bomb thrower at times, there are numerous California and Napa producers I respect. Hanzell and Edmunds St John have been long time favorites. The old Havens Merlot-Franc blends from the nineties were as beautifully balanced wines as anything I’ve ever tasted from Europe. Today, I’ll gladly seek out Gavin Chanin’s wines along with those from Scribe in Sonoma.

  25. Sort of off topic but I was wondering Bill Dyer, how you feel when you hear the term “California style”?

  26. Samantha, I think that is quite on topic, especially the direction this thread has gone. Having made Cabernet in Napa from the 70′s to present, I have seen some shifts in style. In the 70′s there was what might be called a “classic” style–which was quite influenced by european influence (to some extent due to actual europeans having settled here, or locals having studied and trained there, or a least visited there). In the early 80′s there was a short variation into “food wines” somewhat driven by the idea that our alcohols were too high and grapes should be picked at about the same potential alcohol as wines from Bordeaux. This did not take into consideration the difference in climates, and some Napa Cabs got way too green, before harvesting targets rather quickly returned to “normal.” In the early ’90′s there was another shift, towards picking at dramatically higher maturities resulting in much higher alcohol levels. The cheerleading for this movement was led by the WA and soon the WS fell into line. I think part of the story is also the fast money made around this time in the Silicon Valley, with a lot of people with new wealth wanting to be perceived as having wine knowledge, without having a wine background. The rise of the 100 point scoring system was quite convenient for them, and fit right into a cultural fascination for ratings and lists: think of Letterman’s nightly top 10 list, all the sports top whatever lists, ditto music, and on Yahoo we constantly see everything ranked. In wine, this led to wines that strived for attention by overshadowing the competition–the “gladiator wines.” Some of us Cab producers did not go this direction–I am thinking of Dunn and Corison (who have both become somewhat the icon’s representing the more classical style). I think I have some of the same winemaking sensibilities as them, and am making Cabernet pretty much the same way as I did when I made wines like I did at the beginning–for instance the 1985 Sterling Reserve, the first one I was responsible for. When some people visit us on Diamond Mountain and taste the Cab from our vineyard, they will say “it tastes like Bordeaux” or “you guys are throwbacks.” I am not offended by these comments. So how do I feel when I hear the term “California style?” It depends. If it is dismissive, as in the Slanted Door position of refusing to have California wines on their list, I find it irritating for it’s narrow characterization. I guess I am saying it is a term that is too reductionist, as it doesn’t recognize that there is a range of wine styles made here. And it is a bone of contention for me that all too often ratings using the 100 point scale place only the “gladiator” wines at the top. But I do appreciate that Steve H. will give high scores for the wines with balance, finesse, and some restraint. I’m not sure what “California style” means. Perhaps it is like “California cuisine” which now seems kind of quaint.

  27. Bill,
    Thank you so much for the incredibly detailed and thoughtful response. I think you and I feel very much the same about the term “California style” and it is exactly the same way I feel when someone uses the term, “Burgundian”. Oh okay, there’s just the one style? Drives me crazy, and especially when it comes from critics and winemakers. I hear some jackhole tell me his Sonoma Coast Chardonnay is Chablisian and I know exactly what he means so I smile and say, “So you mean it’s aged in stainless steel?” to which they always grin back, seemingly impressed with my knowing that….that’s when I snap that there is far more to Chablis than a lack of oak, in fact many of the best wines from Chablis do see some oak treatment, “So not only are you a cheese for implying your fruity unoaked wine is anything like Chablis, you just proved to me that you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about”. Same thing when I hear someone use the loose, and sloppy term “California style”. Might as well just describe the wine as “wet” because Burgundian and California, as in styles, are just as vague.
    Don’t even get me started on the wine writer I saw saying that a Grenache from Sonoma was Burgundian….ugh.

  28. “Jackhole”. Lovely. Really digging the wine rhetoric these days. Nearly as delightful as the TeaBrain rhetoric.

  29. dr, Was that your Chardonnay?! You’re right however, I shouldn’t have called him jackhole. I simply forgot I was surrounded by such finery. Must be the old hood rat in me. Let me amend, Mr. Jackhole. Gotta be careful what I say out here in the interwebs, come off like too much of a savage or jerk and I might have to go about posting with a fake name…

    Now where did I set my Grey Poupon?

  30. Nope. Not even in the industry. Well, on the consumer end of the industry. Just growing tired of the rhetoric. It’s utterly laughable at this point.

  31. Samantha, here is another example of a wine writer making a simplistic, reductionist statement. There is a magazine that lands unsolicited in our mailbox called Tasting Panel. In it Andy Blue goes off on how winemakers don’t make good wine judges (and says they are no longer welcome at the SF Wine Competition he runs). His reasons include that they only taste their own wines, don’t know about wines of the world, and are too focused on finding defects. WTF! The winemakers I know belong to tasting groups, buy wines from around the world, and travel to other wine regions. The tasting group we belong to (all winemakers) tastes double blind (except for the host) and wines may be from anywhere in the world. We started tasting together in 1978 and it has been a very valuable way to learn about the wines of the world. We have traveled together to Tuscany and Bordeaux. I don’t think I need to point out that some wine writers seem blissfully unaware of some common spoilage defects

  32. And Samantha, there are reasons for not posting full names that don’t include “trolling”. By all means get my email address from Mr Heimoff if you’d like to continue this discussion with a named person

  33. Bill Dyer – you last two comments were so spot-on that I tip my chapeau. I had the same reaction to ADB’s weird little piece (even wrote about it).

    I too get annoyed with the laughable lather of rhetoric created by casual misuse of shorthand terms like “Burgundian,” “Chablis-like,” “Shiraz-style,” “Bordeaux-like,” “California-style,” and on and on, even “cocktail” and “gladiator” (I like that one a lot, BTW). A few knowledgeable communicators inside the industry use these descriptors with precision, but all too often I see them used artlessly in press material and media, apparently simply for emotional impact or because they sound fancy.

    There is little ambiguity in something like: “Bill Dyer’s Diamond Mountain Cabernet avoids the gladiatorial style of some of the wines coming out of Napa these days. Instead it shows a balance, restraint and finesse that is reminiscent of wines from Bordeaux, in the way it reminds me of a Ch. Gloria I opened recently. However, the ripeness and richness of the fruit places the wine squarely in the heart of Napa. Wines like Bill’s are to me the very definition of the best of the California style.”

    The key is to qualify the shorthand term with “reminiscent of.” And don’t get so sloppy as to use a place reference associated with a particular grape variety to shorthand a wine made from a different grape. In the example Samantha gave, if you tell me a Grenache is Burgundian I’m going to think two things: 1) that particular Grenache is not very well made, and 2) that the person saying such a thing doesn’t have much experience of either Grenache or of Burgundy.

    But “dr”? The term “jackhole” is neither shorthand, nor is it rhetoric. It is a precise pejorative term for an off-topic ass who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I believe the term is grossly under-used in this industry. ;-)

  34. dr, while I am confident that you are in fact the last bastion of both intellectual and comedic standards I’ll take a pass on that conversation offer. I miss my mother and all but I don’t need anyone telling me to watch my language.

    Bill, I had in fact read that drivel from ADB over on John Kelly’s blog and I actually laughed out loud. So funny how some seem to assume that their little corner of the wine world, be it critics, retailers, judges, consumers, bloggers and winemakers have more, or more rounded information than the next guy. Been guilty of the same many times. I dig the passion but I do get a little irked with some of the pomposity and snipping at times. I don’t want to yuck anyone’s yum and I think there are world class wines being made the world over. I have a preferred style, like most, but I don’t assume I’m more enlightened than someone drinking and swooning over something else. Only get irked with sloppy verbiage with regards to using place names, like Chablis, Burgundy and California. Thanks for the great comments and who is distributing your wines in SoCal?

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