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A wine lunch at Michael Mina



We had a fantastic lunch at Michael Mina yesterday (don’t even get me started on the short ribs!). It was my first sales trip (for Jackson Family Wines), to which they had invited a small bunch of top sommeliers in the Bay Area. The wines were no slouches: Matanzas Creek 2012 Bennett Valley Sauvignon Blanc (awesome with the hamachi sushi), Stonestreet 2011 Broken Road Chardonnay (so crisp and lemony-minerally), 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010 Cardinale and 2007 and 2009 Verite La Muse. Two of those wines (2006 Cardinale and 2007 Verite) were among the only five wines I ever gave perfect 100s to during all my years at Wine Enthusiast, so it was pretty special to taste them again. The ’06 Cardinale of course had more bottle age than it did when I reviewed it (in 2009, I think it was), and it was just about as beautiful as Napa-Bordeaux wine gets. OMG I wouldn’t mind having a few cases of that! The 2010 being younger was more tannic, and if it didn’t have the sheer dazzle of the ’06 it had plenty of elegance. As the late, great Harry Waugh would say, it will make a great bottle.

As for the Verities, what can I say. That Alexander Mountain Estate (where the grapes come from) is one of the world’s great vineyards and if you think I’m saying that just because I work for JFW you don’t know me or the estate. Somebody said that Verite wines have had ten 100s (one from me, nine from Parker), more than any other California wine. I don’t know that for an absolute fact, but there’s no question that Pierre Seillan is doing amazing things up there on that mountain. (By the way, this led to a little conversation about whether Bordeaux blends are better from a single vineyard or a blend. Unlike Verite, Cardinale is a blend: the 2006 was from Mount Veeder, Howell Mountain, To Kalon, Stags Leap, Spring Mountain and St. Helena, but, as I said, it was absolutely a 100-point wine. So, no, a great Bordeaux blend can be a blend OR a single-vineyard wine. And there’s no reason in principle why a great Pinot Noir can’t be a blend, if you think about it.)

I so enjoyed being with those smart, young somms. They ask the best questions. One in particular, Ian Burrows, from Atelier Crenn, in the Marina, really hit me up with some great ones. Why do I give high scores to some varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir) and not to others? I explained that, since I reviewed only California wines, although I might like, say, a Pey-Marin Riesling, I’m not about to give it 100 points, or a Charbono from Summers or a Gruner from Von Strasser, much as I like those wines. He pressed me, which was delightful, because it makes me think more deeply about stuff than if I’m just thinking off the top of my head. To be interrogated like that—not in a mean, threatening, third-degree way, but in a journalistic, curious way—is very good. It makes you justify your thoughts and actions and think about things you might not have fully thought out before.

The somms asked lots of questions about being a wine critic and scoring and how do you taste and so forth, and at one point—we were talking about blind tasting—I found myself saying something I’d never said before, at least, with such conviction. “Wine critics really should be held to higher standards of accountability,” I said. There is so much we don’t know about how they taste and review wines. I added, “With all the immense power they have in the marketplace, they should be far more transparent.” I believe that. When I was a critic, I tried, through my blog, to offer more openness and transparency about the actual process than any other critic I knew of (and I think I did a good job). I also was open about my own internal doubts. “Do you ever doubt yourself when reviewing?” Ian asked. “Yes!” I told him. You can’t not doubt yourself. Pride goeth before a fall. Of course, you need to be confident in your abilities, but you also must never forget that you are human and thus fallible. (If you do, experience has away of humbling you, as for instance when you call a Petite Sirah “Merlot” in front of a crowd.) You also must not forget that, if you’re a critic, you’re playing with people’s lives–I mean, the people from the winery whose livelihood you may jeopardize with a poor score. Believe me, that is a very sobering thought.

  1. Well said Mr. Heimoff. Nice that you see the need for some transparency and accountability among critics, however; add somms as well. Feel that both can be, and in most cases, sadly have become pompous buffoons pontificating simply to hear themselves above the carnival den of opinion, believing that they, most singularly, his or her self, is the true messiah of taste and as such, the arbiter of what should be consumed. Would be funny, really, but for all the harm caused to producers and consumers. Of the former, some craft deliciously intriguing wines, which those with sway may not find appealing on any given day, thus denying consumers the opportunity to discover something new, something outside the fickle and fashionable now. If only the average wine drinker could trust his/her own palate and had the time and money to spend exploring…if only. For now, they are doomed to dwell in the shadowy world where critics and somms, who receive free samples, trips, and other sorts of non opinion tainting freebies, decide what’s good now, with zero accountability. A tyranny of taste. Perhaps.

  2. You’re being a little harsh. Somms are hired to sell the wines on the list. Of course the list will reflect their own preferences, as well as their judgment (and that of the chef) concerning what goes best with the food. I’m sure that some somms pontificate, but not all–and I also think there’s a conscious movement among somms to humanize their practice and come down off their lofty perches. Maybe you’ve just had some bad experiences.

  3. Bill Haydon says:

    You figured out their game, CLawrence! Clearly all those somms’ allegiances are being bought and paid for with those immense marketing budgets being thrown around by the grower Champagne, Muscadet, Slovenian orange wine and Ruche di Castagnole producers.

  4. Steve,

    Know enough not to be swayed or bullied but yes, a few experiences not of the positive variety when somms were less than helpful. As a wine bar owner, I listen and act as a guide, not a taste dictator. Could go into detail but don’t wish to mention names.


    Exactly. You’re a genius. While I may enjoy those wine styles and include them on my list, do average consumers enjoy them and want to be pushed into buying one because it’s fashionable among bored industry professionals? Seriously? You miss the essence but then again, imagine you miss quite a bit. Oh well, keep trying sir. With luck, you may get there. Then again…

  5. Bill Haydon says:

    My, you’re a smug one. I think I missed nothing about the essence of your comment. You specifically linked the wine preferences of sommeliers to their accepting free trips etc. Here’s your exact quote;

    “…somms, who receive free samples, trips, and other sorts of non opinion tainting freebies, decide what’s good now, with zero accountability.”

    I merely pointed out the imbecilic and absurd nature of your accusation given that the wines that excite somms the most these days are almost invariably coming from small, foreign wineries (often from little known, obscure wine regions) coming in through small, boutique importers. That’s hardly the segment of the wine business that’s throwing money at accounts. We’re not talking about the Banfis, Jadots or Kendall-Jacksons of the wine world.

    While there are some legitimate criticisms of the current crop of younger somms to be made, that their buying decisions are based on graft, however, is not one of them.

    As for the matter of accountability, I think they face it every night that the restaurant opens its doors. Are people showing up? Are they ordering wine? Is inventory turning over or backing up in the cellar? Are their owners’ happy?

  6. Bill,

    Good points, excepting “imbecilic and absurd” as they do receive them. Also, as somms, being servers in nature, it is their job too offer not only the big boys you mention, but the smaller ones as well, however; it is not their place to be bullies or to be so pompous as to alienate those they are serving. I’m not the smug one in this, and neither am I imbecilic or absurd. Just a person who works as an owner of a wine establishment that treats guests as people, even those who don’t enjoy skin contact, non-sulfite Riesling fermented in amphora. You sir are the smug, imbecilic and absurd one in this. Perhaps you are one of the young servers you mention. Perhaps not. You most definitely are emotional. I now leave this this thread. Best to you and keep enjoying wine.

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