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Widening the scope of what good Pinot Noir really is

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It’s lovely to remind people, as Randy Caparoso does in the April issue of The Tasting Panel magazine, that it’s not right to evaluate wines “in terms of varietal character rather than terroir or origin.”

What brought Randy to this evaluation was a tasting of Pinot Noirs. He’d encountered a 2013 Failla (Occidental Ridge Sonoma Coast) which he found to have “a dead weight on the palate.” This is not a favorable description.

But the more Randy thought about it, the more he realized that the Failla was a true representative of where it came from: “a deep, foggy pocket of Sonoma” whose cool climate yields wines that are hard and tannic when young. That made him reconsider it, as well as other wines he tasted: A Merry Edwards 2012 Meredith Estate (similarly cool climate Russian River Valley), and an Adelaida 2012 from Paso Robles, from a cool, high elevation vineyard in the western part of the appellation. What Randy realized, mirabile dictu, is the importance of appreciating these wines “within their own context… [When you do], it’s amazing how bright and diverse the wine world turns out to be.”

Thank you, Randy. I’ve been making this case for many years: that you can’t ask all Pinot Noirs to conform to your notion (whatever it is) of Pinot Noir perfection, because to do so is to totally trash the notion of terroir that is the basis for all Pinot Noir interpretation. Pinot likes a cool climate, but The Green Valley of the Russian River Valley is not the same as a 2,000-foot elevation Mendocino Ridge vineyard, high above the fogline, or western Paso Robles. Although all three regions are cool climate, they will yield different kinds of Pinot Noirs. It’s simply wrong to denigrate one at the expense of the other—provided they’re all fine examples of their terroir.

How do you know if they are or aren’t “fine examples of their terroir”? Well, that’s the professional task of a wine reviewer. A pro should be able to discern quality in a wine, even if it’s not a wine he savors. Too often in contemporary wine reviewing, we have a situation in which a reviewer (or somm, or whoever it may be) raves about a wine that’s to his liking, and disparages those that are not. In so doing, he does away with terroir’s fundamental premise: that of individuality.

I love Randy’s take on this delicate topic, but it does have to be said that there’s a risk in tasting every wine “within its own context.” And that is—you probably guessed it by now—that this is a slippery slope. Since every wine exists “within its own context,” how do you ascertain that one is better than another. After all, aren’t all contexts equal?

Well, no, they’re not. Any wine pro knows that quality levels vary dramatically in wines. So how is the pro to distinguish between a wine that really is mediocre, versus one that (as with Randy’s Failla) is “aggressive” in tannins and “plop[s] like a dead weight on the palate”?

This is an extraordinarily important question. Although Randy (by his own admission) doesn’t like numerical scores, I had the feeling that, had he rated the Failla, he would have given it somewhere around 86 points and complained that it wasn’t “a little finer, limber, more lifted and delineated,” like a Baxter 2012 Valenti Vineyard he tasted, from Mendocino Ridge. But—and this is the whole point of his column–when he understood its origin, he was willing to give the wine a second chance.

I’ve long argued that blind tasting is the only way to completely eliminate bias—and Randy’s palate did exhibit a certain bias towards “more lifted and delineated” Pinot Noirs, whatever that means. So how does he intellectually justify re-assessing a wine when he knows where it comes from?

This is the conundrum all reviewers face. But although it seems almost impossible to resolve it, it’s actually not. Even when tasting blind, the reviewer has to ask himself, “Is this actually quite a good wine that displays the qualities of its terroir, even if they’re qualities I don’t like or understand? Or is it actually mediocre?” This can be a hard nut to crack, but it is crackable. One way to approach it is to ask yourself another question: “Is it ageable?” Young Pinot Noirs, especially from cooler regions, can be aggressive and hard in youth. When you’re tasting such a wine, you have to imagine it six years down the road. (I use six years because in my experience that’s the turning point for most Pinots that are resistant upon release. A good one will open up at six years, whereas a mediocre one will simply remain mediocre.)

Randy’s column is one of the most interesting op-ed pieces I’ve read lately (you can find the digital edition of The Tasting Panel here, although you might have to scroll through to page 26). It raises questions of profound importance. I’m so glad that Randy has widened the scope of how we perceive Pinot Noir here in California—a scope that’s been unreasonably narrowing lately due to ideological concerns among some critics.

  1. Dan Fishman says:

    “How do you know if they are or aren’t “fine examples of their terroir”? Well, that’s the professional task of a wine reviewer.”

  2. Bob Henry says:

    “I’ve long argued that blind tasting is the only way to completely eliminate bias — and Randy’s palate did exhibit a certain bias towards ‘more lifted and delineated’ Pinot Noirs, whatever that means. So how does he intellectually justify re-assessing a wine when he knows where it comes from?

    “This is the conundrum all reviewers face. But although it seems almost impossible to resolve it, it’s actually not. Even when tasting blind, the reviewer has to ask himself, ‘Is this actually quite a good wine that displays the qualities of its terroir, even if they’re qualities I don’t like or understand? Or is it actually mediocre?’ This can be a hard nut to crack, but it is crackable. One way to approach it is to ask yourself another question: ‘Is it ageable?'”

    One observation:

    Why not taste wines “blind” by producer and designated vineyard, but assembled by known vintage and AVA?

    One question:

    If being “age-able” is the best empirical test of quality (and age a magnifying glass of mediocrity), then why don’t wine critics/wine magazines squirrel away bottles for long-term storage, and come back at six years/N-years intervals to re-review them?

    Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate have a history of conducting 10-year-interval California Cabernet Sauvignon retrospective tastings.

    I know of no wine critics/wine magazines that conduct N-year-interval retrospective tastings for any other California grape variety.

    A tacit assumption/acknowledgment/concession on the part of wine critics/wine magazines that the majority of the other California grape varieties don’t improve with bottle age?

    (So drink ‘em up early while on their ascendancy to maturity?)

  3. Bob Henry says:

    So that no one accuses me of denigrating California winemakers who don’t turn out Cabernets, let me emphasize from my empirical experience that the best versions of practically all California grape varieties improve with bottle age.

    I taste all types of older California wines from clients’ wine cellar reorganizations.

    And it is always a delight to taste a wine that (in the words of Robert Parker) “has made old bones.”

    (One recent example: a 1976 Stony Hill Chardonnay that eclipsed its 1996 and 2002 sibling bottlings, sampled side-by-side from a client’s collection — who thought they would be undrinkable at this late date, and asked me to kick them to the curb . . . literally, the city-supplied residential trash bin. I did an intervention, and saved from from that sorry fate.

    A second recent example: old Inglenook Charbonos.)

  4. Interesting piece, Steve. In a good way, it has further complicated the notion of terroir for me.

    What I get from the post are a) wines need to be seen within the context of their terroir (in part) in order to be fairly evaluated for quality whether one “likes” the terroir-driven characteristics of the wine or not. b) the reviewer needs to know what the terroir is (either before, but most certainly after tasting) in order to conclude that his/her remarks appropriately took into account the wine’s terroir.

    This brings to mind both Schrodinger’s cat and the limits of blind tasting. We can’t know for sure whether the wine is Green Valley until we open the box and look in, and – inevitably – one’s perception and conclusion about the wine’s quality will have to have been affected by this illumination if the reviewer is to use terroir as a guidepost for quality.

  5. Bob Henry says:

    Hi-Fi News & Record Review is the leading British magazine covering “high-end” audio equipment and “audiophile” record reviews.

    When they review a music recording, they use a twin scale:

    ~~ one assesses audio “high” fidelity (does a WAV [Waveform Audio File Format] file sound better than a SACD or CD or MP3 download?);
    ~~ one assesses musical interpretation and artistic expression.

    Wine reviewers can embrace that same approach.

    ~~ one rating for technical prowess/varietal “trueness”/”typicity”/”terroir” expression;

    ~~ one rating for “pleasure quotient.”

    A wine reviewer could begrudgingly accept an “Orange Wine” as “true to type” without actually liking it.

  6. Thanks for bringing the Randy Caparoso article to my attention Steve. It was one of the most interesting things about California Wine that I’ve read in a while.

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