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Friday fishwrap: mediocre wines, an upcoming Pinot tasting, and props to Von Strasser

15 comments

 

I’ve given brutal scores lately to some expensive wines, most of them new entrants to the California marketplace. When a wine costs $40, $50 or more, and it’s not even as good as some other wine that costs $15, it gets me irked.

Of course, I can’t allow my emotions to enter into my scores. But if you read between the lines of my reviews, you might occasionally glimpse a certain dismay.

This is the critic’s conundrum. We’re only human. We get dazzled by great wines, even if they’re hugely expensive. Sometimes, I have to hold myself back a little in praising a great wine, or risk being accused of score inflation, which I believe is an issue that has not been seriously addressed. On the other hand, it’s easy to get bored with mediocre wines, which dominate every region no matter how famous.

I always wonder if a winemaker or proprietor who’s putting out a $50 bottle of wine that scores 84 points knew in advance that the wine was mediocre. Maybe they did, and cynically released it anyway, knowing that people will buy it because of its pretty label, or at the tasting room, or whatever. On the other hand, maybe they didn’t. It would be a huge mistake to assume that all winemakers have good palates. I know some who put out mediocre wine year after year after year. (Why they still send me samples, when they have good reason to know I don’t like their style, is a riddle to me. It’s that old definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result.)

* * *

Speaking of winemakers, I’m getting ready to assemble my panel for March 9th’s Pinot Noir Summit, at the Golden Gate Club, in San Francisco’s Presidio National Park. I haven’t decided on a theme yet, but am tinkering with the notion of regional differences between the southern Russian River Valley (including Green Valley) and Fort Ross-Seaview. In general, the south valley is chillier and foggier, because it’s low-lying and gets a strong push of maritime influence coming up from the Petaluma Gap. Most of the Fort Ross-Seaview vineyards, on the other hand, lie at altitudes above the fog line, so they bask in sunshine while their sister vines down in the valley are swathed in fog. You’d expect this situation to express itself clearly in the Pinot Noirs from both regions, and it does: valley wines are darker and more tannic on release, while Fort Ross Pinots tend to be more accessible early. I don’t think either is more ageable than the other; I wouldn’t mind having a couple cases of Flowers alongside a couple cases of Joseph Swan in my cellar.

Finding themes for public tastings can be challenging. There’s a tendency on the part of some people to make the topics too geeky, but it’s my impression that the public gets bored with abstruse discussions of technique. People want fairly simple, accurate information, in an easy-to-digest form. They don’t want to wade through the intricacies of grape chemistry, irrigation, maceration techniques and tannin management. A little of that goes a long way. They also want personality: not all good winemakers are good panelists (and not all good panelists are good winemakers!). A few years ago, I had a certain winemaker on one of my panels and he/she was as boring as a doorknob. Won’t make that mistake again.

* * *

A quick word of praise in passing for Von Strasser’s latest batch of Cabernet Sauvignons from their Diamond Mountain estate. Great wines, and all the more impressive for coming from a 2011 vintage that was as challenging as any in memory. These wines show the importance of well-drained mountain vineyards in a cold year, and of vigorous pruning and sorting decisions. Of the six new ‘11s, I gave my highest score to the Estate, but Spaulding, Sori Bricco, 2131, Post and the regular ’11 Cab weren’t far behind. All are ageable. I don’t think Von Strasser gets the recognition they deserve, but they should.

Have a great weekend!

  1. Kurt Burris says:

    I sold Rudy Von Strasser’s wine when I first graduated from UC Davis in 1993 and not only are his wines wonderful, he’s a pretty stand up guy to. I opened a bottle of his 92 Cab last year and it was still showing great and by no means over the hill. Rudy: If you see this, Leslie and I may pop of last bottle of your 92 on our 30th anniversary this fall.

  2. Bill Haydon says:

    You’re too generous, Steve.

    I know producers who essentially bottle a bitch’s brew of press and bulk wine, throw it into an extremely heavy bottle with an extremely artful label and an extremely pretentious story about “secret vineyard sources” and “groovy winemaker friends who simply made too much wine” and charge $40 for it because it’s from Napa.

    Compared to that, a mediocre wine that was actually grown and produced by the person selling it is a beacon of integrity and decency.

  3. As a pro critic, does a wine have to be of a style that you have a demonstrated liking for in order to be judged fairly and or well? Or do you take pains to appreciate and report fairly even if you would never be found with it in your glass when your are off the clock? Seems that would be the most difficult balance to maintain for myself!

  4. Dear NRC, good question. The answer is the latter. But it can be a difficult balance.

  5. >>I always wonder if a winemaker or proprietor who’s putting out a $50 bottle of wine that scores 84 points knew in advance that the wine was mediocre. Maybe they did, and cynically released it anyway, knowing that people will buy it because of its pretty label, or at the tasting room, or whatever. On the other hand, maybe they didn’t. It would be a huge mistake to assume that all winemakers have good palates.<<

    Maybe the winemaker knew and understood (in a way that you couldn't) that the wine was good?

  6. Bruce G: No, I don’t think so. : >

  7. People do what they do. Many can’t explain why they do what they do. Is it any wonder the stories behind the wines are mostly very similar?

    The $50 price for a new entrant is explained by some combination of cost and marketing. A sincere effort can be expensive if you weren’t born into the wine business. The price may need to be $50 to survive. Perception is set by a more expensive price. If you reach for that price level and get a 94, then you’ve bypassed years and years of working up to it. You walk on water.

    Winemaking is an easy craft to get into, but a hard craft to get better at. You only get one chance a year. Market pressures are there pushing you to make decisions you might not otherwise make. Nobody wants to get an 84. Nobody enjoys bad feedback. But, the sincere winery/winemaker will take that feedback and use it to improve.

  8. I agree with most of what Brad said. Setting a price, especially an initial price, can be a difficult thing. For wines at the $50 level, there are often real costs that drive that price. And remember, if you see a wine for $50 on a retail shelf, the winery probably sold it to a distributor for $25.

    I also understand that a winery with no track record charging $50 a bottle for their first release may seem aggressive. But if there are real costs behind that price, starting off lower has its own issues. Mostly when the price has to go up with subsequent releases, at which point people start complaining about the price hikes. Trust me, setting prices can cause a lot of sleepless nights.

    I understand Bruce G’s comment, but totally agree with Steve’s response. If the wine doesn’t taste good, knowing how it was made or the intent of the winemaker isn’t going to help :)

  9. >>I understand Bruce G’s comment, but totally agree with Steve’s response. If the wine doesn’t taste good, knowing how it was made or the intent of the winemaker isn’t going to help :)

    Hi, Brian.
    Apparently you don’t understand my comment. Apologies for that… I guess I wasn’t clear in stating my case.
    My post had nothing to do with production practices or intent, and everything to do with taste.

    How many times do you taste a wine (components and final blends) before it is released? Taking a red wine, and talking about only tasting post-ferm, that would be…. what?…. fifty to one hundred times?
    Now, let us suppose you tasted the wine this many times and consistently your opinion was “delicious… right where I want it to be”. This opinion holds true even up through bottling and into release.
    If a critic buys a bottle, tastes it, and rates it an “84″…. how do you explain that?

  10. Steve,

    I leave it others to ascribe motives to winemakers who release high priced wines that turn out to be mediocre.

    But the 2011 red Bordeaux I tasted in Los Angeles at the recent whistle stop tour of the United States will leave French wine enthusiasts underwhelmed.

    And looking over the horizon, the 2012s and more especially the 2013s red Bordeaux have profoundly [there's that word again] dire reputations.

    2012 link: http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/a201304181.html

    2013 vintage: http://www.thefinancialist.com/a-cure-for-the-bordeaux-blues-mike-steinberger/

  11. Bruce – sorry, I thought you were referring to a type of aesthetic about the wine, as opposed to its actual taste. Especially with the thought that winemaker understood something a reviewer didn’t. That seemed more “abstract” to me. Sorry if I misunderstood.

    As far as a critic’s opinion differing from mine – happens all the time. Sometimes it’s truely just a taste preference, but often I think it can occur due to winemakers developing a house palate, wherein we acclimate to our wines in barrel. That’s why independent review is so important, for both the consumer and (as Brad pointed out) for the winemaker. And I think the idea of a house palate can somewhat answer Steve’s question as to why a winemaker would knowingly submit a mediocre wine for review. I’d like to believe they truely thought it was good enough for review.

    One thing we do at our winery to help double check our impressions about our current release is to blind taste our wines along with some of our friend’s wines. Before we send any wine to reviewers, we’ve blind tasted them against Siduri and AP Vin’s wines from the same vintage – and they’ve done the same. And we’ve provided feedback to one another. Aside from a great learning experience, it forces us look at our wines more objectively. And while it doesn’t absolutely guarantee that reviewers will agree, if nothing else I can say we at least had a shared delusion with our pals :)

  12. >>As far as a critic’s opinion differing from mine – happens all the time. Sometimes it’s truely just a taste preference, but often I think it can occur due to winemakers developing a house palate, wherein we acclimate to our wines in barrel. That’s why independent review is so important, for both the consumer and (as Brad pointed out) for the winemaker. And I think the idea of a house palate can somewhat answer Steve’s question as to why a winemaker would knowingly submit a mediocre wine for review. I’d like to believe they truely thought it was good enough for review.

    Brian:

    Thanks for the reply.
    I can’t help but notice that you’ve avoided providing a direct response to the question I posed… very diplomatic of you.

    Putting myself into the scenario I proposed, I would probably figure that either the critic had got it wrong, or that he/she was working from a different definition of “quality”.

    Looking at Steve’s more moderately phrased parenthetical question… “Why they still send me samples, when they have good reason to know I don’t like their style, is a riddle to me.”… I imagine that some wineries operate under the dictum that good reviews help far more than bad reviews hurt.
    If a poor score from Steve is the status quo, then another poor score won’t really hurt all that much and the possibility (no matter how small) of a good review compels them to submit samples.
    Speaking suppositionally here… I don’t submit samples for review by publications, being less convinced of their utility than you apparently are.

  13. Steve,

    Not to get lost in the three subjects that comprise your blog: I have enjoyed Von Strasser wines over the years. Likewise wines from their Diamond Mountain AVA “neighbors” Reverie — two brands that rarely show up on the shelves of wine merchants in my environs (Los Angeles).

    The AVA flies under the radar of contemporary Napa Valley red wine enthusiasts. Schramsberg Vineyards has the greatest name recognition in the AVA, and yet I cannot recall their ever citing Diamond Mountain as their home.

    The “old guard” imbibers are well-acquainted with the pioneering work of Al Brounstein at Diamond Creek — with triple digit pricing equal to red Bordeaux to match.

    ~~ Bob

  14. Adding to the discourse on having a “house palate,” benchmarking against others’, and turning out wines that don’t impress the wine critics:

    http://www.winemakernotesblog.com/2013/11/are-winemakers-bad-tasters.html

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