I learn so much from my readers
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.