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Why my dog is like some winemakers. Or the other way around.



Gus ate a pound of salami a couple days ago. It was an accident on my part. Someone sent it to me in a box–I thought it was a book and left it in the iivingroom, unopened. In the middle of the night, Gus’s magnificent olfactory sense discovered it. The next morning, there was nothing left, except the shredded box.

The next morning, Gus was vomiting it up. He knew he’d been a bad dog. He got that guilty look in his eyes, tucked his tail down below his hind legs, and followed me around the house wherever I went, looking morose and mopey. Dog owners know that look: “I’ve been bad, I feel terrible about it–but really, I just couldn’t help myself. Please don’t hate me.”

Now on to winemakers. Yesterday I heard from one, whom I respect a great deal, and whose wines I usually–not always–score well into the 90s.  He wrote of his 2011s, “they probably won’t get high scores, they are not showy wines, but there is not a musty or lacking wine in the bunch.”

In other words, he was apologizing for his wines even before I’d tasted most of them! (He’s already sent a couple of the less expensive ’11 early releases, but not his heavy hitters.) This is what reminds me of Gus. My dog didn’t have anything to apologize for–really. I wasn’t angry at him; he was just doing his doggie thing, and after all, it was my fault for leaving the meat out where he could get to it. If I was mad at anyone, it was me.

Now, this isn’t to single this winemaker out. He’s a fine gentleman who’s earned his celebrity status in the wine industry. But I do want to use his “probably won’t get high scores” comment to make an important point. Why do people feel the need to apologize for not making the kind of high alcohol, ripe, oaky wines that tend to get the highest scores? (Believe me, he’s not the only one.) If this winemaker sticks to his guns (and he has) and lets his terroir tell him what to do, rather than to try and appeal to the palate of 2 or 3 critics, then he’s going to be a better, more honest winemaker.

The wider problem is when winemakers are so insecure and needy that they deliberately undercut their own terroir, not to mention their natural instincts. They take fruit that is not naturally geared toward high alcohol, ripeness and oak, let it hang until the last possible minute while the acidity drops lower and lower and the sugars rise as much as they physically can, ferment the hell out of the grapes to maximize every molecule of fruity essence, and then load up on the new oak (and possibly the Mega Purple too). That may fool some critics, but discerning ones will simply find the wine overworked and tedious, and say so in their review.

I think a certain steadfast attitude is necessary for a winemaker, as it is for all of us in every aspect of our lives. One should not fear letting the wine be what it wants to be, just because it might not get 97 points. If winemakers need scores to market their wines, they should know that there are many critics around who can appreciate a lighter-bodied, more elegant wine just as much as a big, heavy one. Winemaking at the highest levels should be all about what the terroir wants to express, guided perhaps by the winemaker’s hand, but gently.

If the winemaker who wrote me those comments reads this, I’d tell him not to worry, not to apologize, to stand tall and respect the values that got him into winemaking in the first place. I’m sure that, 25 years ago, he didn’t stress out over scores. He doesn’t have to today. His wines are respected in the right venues, and so is he.

  1. Steve let’s not forget to mention that today’s clients are buying these juicy overripe big wines. After all we are in business to sell wine.

  2. Bill Haydon says:

    The dichotomy that these people are facing–whether they are willing to acknowledge and confront it or not–is whether they want the scores or the on-premise market (at least that of the Northeast+Chicago) because right now those two goals (score and market) to be diverging almost to the point of being mutually exclusive. The megablockbuster wine to which RMP is going to award 97 or 98 points is going to be dead on arrival when offered to the wine bar in NYC or Michelin one-star in Chicago.

    Napa can’t have it both ways anymore, and winemakers on an individual basis are going to need to choose a path.

  3. Having said similar things before, I think it’s more an attempt to be honest about a vintage than about being insecure. Many of the vineyards we buy fruit from produce bigger, richer wines. Not because we force that, but rather because that’s what we feel the true terroir of the site is.

    But in some years, especially years like 2011, some of those sites didn’t acheive what we’d consider to be optimal ripeness, either due to cold weather and/or rain. So the wines are somewhat “less than” in our eyes because they aren’t a true representation of the terroir as we’ve come to understand it. It doesn’t mean that some people won’t actually prefer them to other vintages – or that we ourselves aren’t happy with the final product.

    So, IMHO, the “apology” isn’t insecurity. To me, trying to spin the quality and style of wines from vintages like 2011 into something they’re not comes from insecurity. The insecurity to be honest, and an unwillingness to admit that sometimes Mother Nature obscures terroir.

  4. Bravo Steve. And please winemakers, don’t ever apologize from moving away from the California over ripened ‘phenolic ripeness b.s.

  5. 2011 was a beautifully restrained vintage which was challenging from a winemaking persepective. If one was able to overcome the challenges (mold, underripe characters, etc…) the wines resulting wines are really exciting. Are the reds the typcial California style? No, but in the global perspective some really nice wines.

    Steve, do you think that the people scoring these wines (including yourself) will take the 2011 vintage personality into account as well, not just style?

  6. Nova C, speaking for myself only, I always take vintages into account. If I find a 2011 wine is elegant and wonderful, but not as fat as previous vintages, I’ll say that in my review. The score might not be quite as high but on the other hand the wine may be more ageworthy.

  7. Elegant, wonderful, not as fat, more ageworthy = lower score???

  8. I almost missed the the moral of the story: Gus didn’t care whether the salami was an 85 or a 95, he scored it just the same. Unlike Gus, some consumers devour those bigger wines because of the scores alone, rather than for the hedonistic pleasure any wine at any point level can give. That is why some producers live by the score rather than the Terroir.

    Unfortunately, Mega Purple or over-oaking happen in any vintage, because some winemakers blindly see them as tricks to make potentially higher scoring wines. That is their habit, and I am sure there is a lot more up the sleeve. Sometimes humbleness is refreshing, and if you will permit me to say; a winemaker should not deliberately undercut their efforts just like a critic should not undercut a vintage. Sure they will both have to work hard finding the best expressions, but that drive is why we both do it year after year.

    Something tells me that Gus might of felt bad physically the next day, but I bet you put another temptation on the table again that won’t stop him. I read your title more as “Why my dog is like some consumers”, hopefully they will act like all dogs do when food is in front of them, enjoy it all the same.

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