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Notes on Some Wine-Review Books

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2. We come to Cabernet Sauvignon

Lest the reader fear that she’s in for a hundred and fifty thousand wine reviews, I promise that won’t be the case. I admired Michael Broadbent’s encyclopedic “Great Vintage Wine Book” and used to hope that someday I might compile all my notes into a volume of similar breadth and depth. But I quickly realized that (a) I couldn’t come close to Mr. Broadbent, (b) it would be far more trouble than the result would be worth, and (c) nobody would care anyway. It would be like reading thirty years of somebody’s taxes.

Instead, I propose to do what Professor Saintsbury did: write something first and foremost for myself, which might then be of interest to others, my philosophy of reporting always having been that something of interest to me will interest others. This philosophy guided all my reporting, no matter where I was working; it informed the longer, more literary articles I wrote in Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, and it even impacted my reviews, which I tried to make ever more haiku-like. That approach certainly guided my hand when I wrote A Wine Journey along the Russian River. One of the reasons why Professor Saintsbury is such a rewarding read is that his humanity—the spirit in his flesh, as it were—shines through the pages of Notes On A Cellar-Book. The man is scholarly, sometimes to the point of opacity (for those of us who didn’t go to Oxford or major in classical literature, and can’t read Latin). But he always radiates essential cheerfulness and enthusiasm. He is a man, albeit from another time and place, you think you would have liked to know.

His “concentrating on only the finer wines” constitutes both the book’s strength and its weakness. We (I mean the wine community; if you’re in it, you know what I mean) enjoy reading about the world’s most famous wines, which are also the most expensive. Even if we can’t afford Yquem, Romanée-Conti or Lafite (and most of us can’t), we imagine them in our minds, and that is why a book like The Great Vintage Wine Book is so much fun. How else would any of us have any idea what 1825 Chateau Lafite was like? Broadbent gave it 5 stars (his highest level, the equivalent, you could say, of 100 points), and called it “outstanding, enchanting” when he tasted it in 1979, at the age (the wine’s age, that is, not Broadbent’s) of 154 years. He mentions that he had it “At the Overton tasting,” a reference to a Texas neurosurgeon, Dr. Marvin Overton, who coincidentally died this past Spring (2020). I knew Dr. Overton, not well, and we spoke with some frequency over the phone. He was an informal member of a very small and exclusive group of [primarily male] wine collectors in the U.S. His collection was massive; as I recall, it contained hundreds of thousands of bottles. Dr. Overton used to share his cellar’s wealth with his colleague wine collectors and a small batch of influential people, like Michael Broadbent, although never, alas, with me. I remember the last time I talked with him—this must have been 25 years ago. He told me he had just converted to some form of evangelical Christianity, at the urging of his wife, who had persuaded him into giving up the consumption of alcohol! Dr. Overton as a result sold his massive collection, and presumably made a fortune, wine being a very great appreciator in value if it has the right pedigree and provenance.

But that exclusivity also is Saintsbury’s weakness, as he feared. I always was fascinated with the question of why Lafite, for example, costs so much more than Pontet-Canet or Batailley, which share the same commune in Bordeaux (Pauillac). Before I ever had an opportunity to taste any of these wines, the question thundered in my head. Was it really because (as conventional wisdom had it) that Lafite sat on a little mound with superior drainage than its neighbors? Did that result in something remarkably better? Could anyone discern this “betterness,” or was it something you only knew (or thought you knew) about, a knowledge that then elevated your experience of the wine? Or did mere market forces of supply and demand push Lafite’s price so astronomically? If the latter, then there was something decidedly less romantic, and more vulgar, to explain these price disparities. One could say the same about (venturing to another wine region) Burgundy. Was the Romanée-Conti vineyard and wine really better than Les Suchots, which adjoins it on the Golden Slope in the commune of Vosne-Romanée? Certainly the former is far more expensive. But why? I knew, from reading, that history accounts for a good deal of the explanation for such phenomena. I also knew, or was beginning to know, at that early stage of my wine reviewing career, that the beliefs wine people have had inculcated in them are fungible and often irrational. Word of mouth, and certification by authority, are powerful mental influencers. If Dr. Overton (to use him as an influencer) says that Lafite is worth far more effort and money to buy than Pontet-Canet, should we mere mortals not accept his word? After all, he, not we, has done the tasting and is thus the expert. Then, because a few dozen Overtons (or Desais, or Lawlors) praise Lafite, its price soars. But if this is true, then—again—a large part of the romance and mystery of famous vineyards is drained away, and we are left with the same simple economic facts as drive the price of soybeans and toilet-seat covers.

So it was that my tasting career began at a non-elevated level, which is a good place to start, I think, because a wine like that long-ago Kenwood 1980 “Vintage Red” provided a fine baseline against which to measure all subsequent wines, including Lafite and Romanée-Conti. Now, many a wine aficienado will be aghast at such a statement. Has Heimoff lost his mind, comparing a cheap Kenwood wine with a Grand Cru Burgundy? But why should we not do so? Nothing can in itself be evaluated; it can only be measured against other, similar things. We compare things all the time: a Tesla with a Prius, season five of The Sopranos with season six, early Beatles with Let It Be. By so doing, we learn to detect subtlety and calibrate quality, and can appreciate what we’re dealing with more fully.

The ninth wine I reviewed, in that little black-bound notebook, was the first pure Cabernet Sauvignon (or Bordeaux blend), other than the Kenwood, which with its Zinfandel was not a Bordeaux blend: Chateau Beauregard 1976. I had it on May 25, 1983 (that is, about three months after the Morgon-Macon Villages-Kenwood trilogy), and it cost me $4. Beauregard was then (I don’t know if it still exists as a chateau) a relatively minor Saint-Julien, but still, it was Saint-Julien, the home commune of Ducru-Beaucaillou, the various Leovilles and Langoas, Beychevelle and Talbot—in other words, famous, extraordinary wines. So I could hardly resist buying it at that price. I liked it a lot, and for the first time in those tasting notes, I used the French term goût de terroir, literally, “taste of the soil.” That term, like “fizzante,” I picked up from some book, and found useful at the time, although in later years I shied away from such borrowed foreign words and phrases. By it, I meant two things: that the wine, or something in it, smacked (or reminded me) of earth, stones and soil—I have been known to put all three into my mouth while wandering through vineyards–and secondly, that it seemed to me representative of its origin, in this case Saint-Julien, which (in my head) I had formed an opinion of: that its red wines were harmonious and elegant. I did not record the details of the cepage, or blend, but in addition to a majority Cabernet Sauvignon it probably contained lesser amounts of Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Certainly, it established a benchmark in my mind for dry red wines made with Bordeaux varieties, especially the California (“cult”) Cabernet Sauvignons that later became so important to my career. And it set up a tension between the Bordeaux style (lower alcohol, less overtly ripe fruit) with California Cabernets, especially from Napa Valley, which over the years became ever more ripe, heady, sweet and, sadly, hot. But I will have a lot more to say about that in coming pages.

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