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Confessions of a wine critic

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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.

  1. GrapesRGreat says:

    Good post Steve. I might add, though, something that you did not address but that I find to be a common response in this situation. When I am in a tasting group doing a horizontal tasting such as this with various tiers of similar wines, it is nearly inevitable that when popular opinion falls on anything other than the most expensive wine, the winemaker or winery representative will respond that this is a result of the top wine being made to drink best with more age, while the lesser bottles are more approachable now (and hence come across as “better”/more delicious). I’m sure you’ve experienced this? I’m not giving this answer merit or denying it any, but just a thought.

  2. GrapesRGreat, I agree. In fact, some people have suggested that I prefer more approachable, open wines, rather than tight, tannic ones that age.

  3. Grapes sez:”the top wine being made to drink best with more age, while the lesser bottles are more approachable now (and hence come across as “better”/more delicious).”

    This is really not the case. When wine critics award scores, they are awarded based on what/how good the wine is at its peak, down the road, not at this point in time of the tasting. At least that’s the case for Parker & the WS…don’t know how the WE does it. So…if the wine critic is doing his job, the fact that the better wine needs age will be reflected in the score that is awarded it. He will not be seduced by the pretty face, but give the highest score to the wine that will eventually be the best.
    Tom

  4. The problem with Tom Hill’s analysis is that it is difficult to know if a wine will age well, especially if you’re tasting it blind. The history of such predictions is replete with wrong guesses, particularly with respect to Bordeaux. Of course, if the critic is openly tasting a wine with a tradition of aging well (let’s say, Cos d’Estournal), it’s easy for him to give it a high score based on what it might be 20 years from now. But if you stick that same wine into a double blind flight, it’s anyone’s guess what the same critic would score it.

  5. Well, Steve….my post was a bit TFIC. The point I was trying to make is that Parker (and WS) assert that their scores are based on what the wine is going to be at its peak, not what it is at the current time of tasting. And they would like you to believe they are unerringly accurate in that prediction. That’s why when Parker re-reviews a wine and marks the score down (or up) a few points, the whole InterNet gets their knickers in a knot. It implies that he’s made a mistake in his original scoring. That don’t play well in Monktown.
    As you point out, the accuracy of predicting what wine is going to age well and what it will be like at its peak is a pretty dicey proposition and you have to rely (a great deal) a lot on that wineries track record. It’s a lot of guesswork. And if you’re doing it blind, that track record is not available to your prediction/scoring.
    It always amuses me when some critic tastes a wine from a new wnry, no long-term track record, and proclaims the wine will age well for 20 yrs. And uttered w/ a high degree of confidence. Whatta crock. Like the late JohnBrennan predicted the DavidBruce LateHrvst Zin ’70, as black & extracted as any wine I’ve ever seen, would peak in 2010-2020. How the heck would he know that?? He could never have possibly tasted a 40-50 yr old LateHrvst Zin. Then wine was actually in its death throes in the mid-’80′s.
    (Chime in here, Charlie).
    Tom

  6. Bill Haydon says:

    Gotta wonder if people really are holding onto Kongsgaard Chardonnay for ten to fifteen years like Parker predicts. I’d love to see their faces when they finally open those bottles.

  7. Kudos, Steve, for this column of confessions. Few wine critics are as open as you are about various pitfalls of the job.

  8. FROM http://www.wine.com/v6/Bond-Matriarch-2005/wine/119353/detail.aspx:

    “This year’s [2005] Matriarch is very similar to Harlan Estate in structure, and in some ways, a superior wine, or at least more delicious now. Shows the most beautiful black currant, cedar, blueberry pie and Asian spice flavors. What makes the structure so gorgeous are the firm tannins. Ultimately, it’s a refined, exquisite red wine. Hard to imagine a better one for drinking over the next decade, and just shows that price sometimes has no relationship to quality.” 98 Points Wine Enthusiast

    FROM: https://bondestates.com/matriarch/:

    “The lush, opulent, flamboyant 2005 Matriarch offers copious quantities of black cherry and black currant fruit, lead pencil, and earth. Already delicious, it hits just about every sweet spot on the palate. Enjoy it over the next 12-15+ years.” 93 Points
    Robert M. Parker, Jr.’s The Wine Advocate (December 2008)

    FROM https://www.klwines.com/detail.asp?sku=1054085:

    “Good deep ruby-red. Blackcurrant, minerals, mocha and sexy spices on the musky, slightly gamey nose. Big, lush and sweet but with sneaky acidity giving shape to the creamy flavors. I like this very rich wine’s exhilarating high tones in the middle palate. Finishes with substantial dusty tannins and noteworthy energy. A worthy follow-up to the excellent 2004.” 92 points Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar (6/ 2008)

    “Notes of smoky currant and black and red licorice, with herb and cedar hints, give this a nice range of flavors, firming up on the finish. Best from 2010 through 2017.” 90 points Wine Spectator (10/ 2008)

  9. Tom, I’ll chime in.

    Quoting from Wine Spectator (March 15, 1994, page 90):

    “How We Do the Tastings … Ratings are based on potential quality, on how good the wines will be when they are at their peaks. …”

    High numerical scores for most ageable young wines can be misleading, as these wines generally do not reach their peak “potential quality” (sic) until many years after their public release. For example, if a red wine merits a “96” point score reflecting its “potential quality” some ten-plus years into the future, then how do we assign a comparable 100-point “quality” score when sampled today in less-than-peak condition?

    Back in 1996, I decided to track James Laube’s scores for the 1986 vintage California Cabs — initially upon release, and then again at 10 years of age . . . when the wines “should” have been reaching their peak.

    The upshot? With few exceptions, the scores were lower upon re-review than upon initial release.

    The conclusion: The best wines, touted to reach 20 or more years of age, were fading.

    Quoting Laube:

    “A word to the wise regarding the 1986 California Cabernets: Drink ‘em up if you got ‘em. Now that they’re 10 years old and fully mature, there are still enough outstanding Cabernets to consider this a great vintage. A few of the stars … [only three examples cited, out of 81 total wines re-reviewed in the December 15, 1996, pages 64-70 report. -- Bob] … are truly magnificent wines that should easily age for another decade. The top three dozen wines of the vintage offer enough complexity, depth and concentration to merit special attention, but most are ready to be drunk — and soon.”

    Following the publishing of the report, I wrote Marvin Shanken a two-part letter-to-the-editor challenging these projections.

    My missive was never printed.

    (Copies are available to anyone who wishes to read them.)

    ~~ Bob

  10. And remember: Robert Parker gives “bonus” points for longevity.

    Quoting from his 1989 interview with Wine Times magazine:

    WINE TIMES: “How is your scoring system different from The Wine Spectator’s?”

    PARKER: “Theirs is really a different animal than mine, though if someone just looks at both of them, they are, quote, two 100-point systems. Theirs, in fact, is advertised as a 100-point system; mine from the very beginning is a 50-point system. If you start at 50 and go to 100, it is clear it’s a 50-point system, and it has always been clear. Mine is basically two 20-point systems with a 10-point cushion on top for wines that have the ability to age. . . .

    It’s a fairly methodical system. The wine gets up to 5 points on color, up to 15 on bouquet and aroma, and up to 20 points on flavor, harmony and length. And that gets you 40 points right there. And then the [balance of] 10 points are … simply awarded to wines that have the ability to improve in the bottle. This is sort of arbitrary and gets me into trouble.”

    . . .

    WINE TIMES: “Do you have a bias toward red wines? Why aren’t white wines getting as many scores in the upper 90s? Is it you or is it the wine? ”

    PARKER: “Because of that 10-point cushion. Points are assigned to the overall quality but also to the potential period of time that wine can provide pleasure. And white Burgundies today have a lifespan of, at most, a decade with rare exceptions. Most top red wines can last 15 years and most top Bordeaux can last 20, 25 years. It’s a sign of the system that a great 1985 Morgon [cru Beaujolais] is not going to get 100 points because it’s not fair to the reader to equate a Beaujolais with a 1982 Mouton-Rothschild. You only have three or four years to drink the Beaujolais.”

    . . .

    WINE TIMES: “So it’s the aging potential that is the key factor that gets a wine into the 90s.”

    PARKER: “Yes. And it goes back to how I evaluate vintages in general. To me the greatness of a vintage is assessed two ways: 1) its ability to provide great pleasure — wine provides, above all, pleasure; 2) the time period over which it can provide that pleasure.”

    Read again Parker’s review of the 1986 Mouton: a tannic monster that (as memory serves me) he advised against drinking until 2020, and which would last until 2050.

    Quoting Parker:

    “An enormously concentrated, massive [1986] Mouton-Rothschild, comparable in quality, but not style, to the 1982, 1959, and 1945, this impeccably made wine is still in its infancy. Interestingly, when I was in Bordeaux several years ago, I had this wine served to me blind from a magnum that had been opened and decanted 48 hours previously. Even then, it still tasted like a barrel sample! I suspect the 1986 Mouton-Rothschild requires a minimum of 15-20 more years of cellaring; it has the potential to last for 50-100 years!”

    . . .

  11. Bill,

    If folks are holding out 15 years for a California Chardonnay, it had better be a non-malolactic fermentation example like Stony Hill.

    A client recently tasted me on the 1976 and 1996, each purchased upon release and resting undisturbed in his cellar ever since. The 1976 (a severe drought year in California) tasted more youthful than the 1996.

    See this article’s comment about the 1973:

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/print/2012-07-16/california-chardonnay-shines-as-stony-hill-turns-60.html

    If anyone has recently tasted recently the Montelena Chard that won the 1976 Judgment of Paris, how was it showing?

    ~~ Bob

  12. Steve, why wouldn’t you, or other critics, just taste in neutral environs only? Why subject yourself to the bias in the first place?

  13. Jason: Good question. My tasting parameters evolved over the years. At some point I gave up formally tasting wines at wineries, even under blind circumstances, and only reviewed wines in my home.

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