Confessions of a wine critic
At a blind tasting of all of Bill Harlan’s 2005 wines, held in 2008, I once rated The Matriarch higher than Harlan Estate itself.
The tasting was held, at my request, at Harlan’s lovely stone estate winery, in the hills above the Oakville bench. Seven wines–Harlan Estate, The Maiden, The Matriarch, and and 4 BONDs–were wrapped in tin foil and arranged on the big wooden table. After the tasting, which I did alone, Bill came back and we discussed my results. Needless to say, he was, shall we say, bemused by my favoring Matriarch, which was the least expensive of all the wines. (I’m told he still has a copy of my reviews on the wall of his office.)
Segue to Winston Lord. In the early 1970s, he was special assistant to Henry Kissinger, then President Nixon’s National Security Advisor, and as such, played a key role in planning Nixon’s historic trip to China and meeting with Mao Tse-tung. Lord reflects, in the book “Nixon: An Oral History of His Presidency,” on the psychodrama of Nixon being ushered into The Presence of Mao. “With a great historical figure [like Mao], there is the danger that you will be impressed by personal charisma and presence because you feel you ought to be,” he said. Even the President of the United States of America, Lord suggests, became a different person before the world figure of Mao.
The parallels between meeting Mao and tasting Harlan wines should be obvious. You can rejigger Lord’s quote this way: “With a great, historical wine [like Harlan], there is the danger that you will be impressed by its renown and presence because you feel you ought to be.” And then, of course, in most cases, you are, despite taking any psychological precautions you think will even things out. Every wine critic knows this. If you’re tasting Mouton-Rothschild at the chateau in Pauillac, your perceptions are altered in ways you might not even recognize. You can try to shift back to neutral ground by telling yourself, “Although I know where I am and what I’m tasting, I can be objective,” and perhaps you actually believe that; but it’s very, very difficult, and it may ultimately not even be possible.
Why should Harlan Estate be better than The Matriarch anyway? The former, in case you don’t know, is exclusively from the Oakville vineyard around the winery. The Matriarch is a “second wine” of BOND, which is the label for a series of single-vineyard bottlings from around Napa Valley which Bill Harlan contracts with but does not own. All of the BONDs are very great wines, farmed meticulously to Harlan’s standards, and made in a similar style to Harlan Estate. Even allowing that The Matriarch’s lots have been ajudged (by Harlan’s blending team) to be not up to snuff for the main BOND wines, keep in mind that this is just the team’s opinion; and we know, from experience and common sense, that a single-vineyard Cabernet may have divots, or slight defects (not faults) here and there, which wines from other vineyards may compensate for.
Keep in mind, too, that at the level of a Harlan Estate, price is almost solely determined by the market. It has little or nothing to do with the costs of production (admittedly high); at some point, consumer demand takes over. Consumer demand for all of Harlan’s wines is high, but it is highest for the Estate, hence its superior price. But the last time I checked, consumer demand does not necessarily correlate with quality. So we’re really dealing with some very subjective, personal issues here.
Which gets us back to Winston Lord’s observation about meeting Mao. The key phrase in his quote, I think, is “because you feel you ought to be.” Tasting Mouton, or Romanée-Conti, or Harlan Estate, or anything of that ilk, even the most famous taster in the world can be forgiven for feeling that he “ought to be” impressed. The question consumers should ask (at least, those who care about wine critics) is, To what extent is this “ought to be-ness” reflected in the critic’s reviews? If you have a critic who reviews all of Harlan’s wines every vintage, and consistently gives his highest scores to them in order of price (Harlan Estate highest, the Maiden and the BONDSs slightly lower, The Matriarch the lowest), then you might well have reason to arch an eyebrow and wonder what’s going on. It could be that Harlan Estate always is the “best” (again, whatever that means), but it also could be that the critic, tasting openly, either is (a) impressed by the wine’s charisma (for which we should deduct 2 or 3 points from the score) or (b) merely trying to be consistent with his past reviews. The consumer really has no way of knowing which it is.