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From the Sayings of Chairman Harry

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I’m still re-reading Winetaster’s Choice, one of Harry Waugh’s wine diaries, this one from 1972. While in Bordeaux he visited the chai, or wine cellar, of Chateau Bouscaut, where the proprietor, Jean Delmas, prepared for him a tasting of the 1970 vintage red wines, presumably still in barrel or perhaps just recently bottled.

Harry was famous for appraising chateaux based on how they actually tasted, not the order in which they had been hierarchized in the famous 1855 Classification of Bordeaux. Thus, reading his many books, one frequently comes across his assessment that a chateau performed above its status, or disappointingly below it. This, he attributed almost exclusively to the owners, since “the soil always remains the same but it is the men who change and even in my lifetime I have seen chateaux, as it were, go up and down the scale.” We certainly have seen the same thing with respect to Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and although it would be tactless for me to name any that have gone “down the scale,” they certainly are out there, and anyone in the trade knows who they are.

(On second thought, I will mention one: Inglenook used to be a “great growth” of Napa Valley but then went into a long, sad decline when it passed into corporate hands. Francis Ford Coppola has refurbished the brand and promised to elevate it to its historic level. Whether or not he succeeds, only time will tell.)

Being of modest means himself (a fact he frequently alludes to), Harry had perhaps a little more sympathy for the lesser growths of the Médoc than some others had who were possessed of deeper pockets. (I identify with him in that respect.) I feel him always rooting for the little guy, the cru bourgeois, which he calls “a fascinating field.” Why? Probably, mostly, because his company could sell them in England, at a good price; but also because so often, when he tasted these supposedly lesser wines against their classified growth brethren under blind conditions, the bourgeois beat out the greater growths.

For instance, “On several occasion, in blind tastings, I have put Gloria [a cru bourgeois] above even some of the second growths and once again, this was certainly the case with the 1970 vintage.” I did not realize that there were computers at that time that were capable of the feat Harry goes on to describe. “[A] computer-maker…told me that he had put my tasting notes…through one of his machines and that Chateau Gloria had emerged on top,” that is, on top even of the First and Second Growths of the Médoc!

Well, that’s blind tasting (and objective computers) for you. During my time at Wine Enthusiast this truth was hammered home to me repeatedly. There are Cabernet Sauvignons, costing not much more than $50-$75, that consistently give triple-digit priced wines a run for their money. I could mention Von Strasser, Stonestreet, Krutz, Sequoia Grove and Goldschmidt, for example, but I once gave 97 points to an Amici 2007 Olema Cabernet Sauvignon, with a Napa Valley appellation, that retailed for $20! I tasted that wine blind, and believe me it took some courage to publish my notes; I was afraid of being ridiculed. Later, I learned that the fruit came from St. Helena hillsides as well as Merlot and Petit Verdot from Spring Mountain, and that the Amici project benefited by the participation of Joel Aiken (the longtime winemaker at Beaulieu, who mentored under Tchelistcheff), while the official winemaker was the former Flora Springs and Spring Mountain Winery vintner, Jeff Hansen. So I felt better. Who knows how that particular wine came about? All we know is that it did, and lends the lie to anyone who thinks that wine quality can be judged from price alone–either that high price means superiority, or that modest price means averageness.

Harry ended one of his morning’s tastings, of 22 wines, by calling it “a tiring affair, even if one does spit out all the wine…I had to be particularly careful during the forty mile drive back to Latour” [where he was staying]. I don’t think France had DUI laws in 1972. We do, today, in America, and I doubt if Harry were alive today and on another of his pleasant visits to California, he would have driven himself for 40 miles, or perhaps even four miles, after such a big tasting. I myself wouldn’t.

  1. Thank you for your nice comments, Steve. That 2007 Olema Cabernet was yet another example of just what you say: that wine quality can’t be judged by price alone. There are other amazing deals out there in the marketplace also, and people just need to find them (with the help of professionals like you, and the staff in their local wine store). Thank your for having an open mind to what can lie behind a $20 price tag!

  2. I’ve been telling consumers for years that price along is not a reliable metric for judging wine!

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