Of the five wines I gave perfect scores of 100 points to during my years as a wine critic, two were blends: Cardinale 2006 and Verite 2007 La Muse.
(Yes, both were Jackson Family Wines, which is one of the reasons I love working here.)
If I’d thought, by the time I reviewed them, that single-vineyard wines are better than blends, those experience disabused me of that notion. The Cardinale, as it turned out, was a blend of six Napa Valley appellations: Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder, Oakville, Stags Leap, Spring Mountain and St. Helena. The Verite consisted of grapes from Alexander Valley, Bennett Valley, Knights Valley and Chalk Hill.
I think most people, including critics, believe that single-vineyard wines are the best. Why is this so? Because throughout the modern classic history of wine, from the 1600s onward, the wines from specific estates—which is to say, single vineyards—from France and Germany were considered the best in the world. And they probably were.
A mythos thus arose around these wines. Those great Bordeaux, Burgundies, Hocks and Mosels were so famous, so good, people figured there had to be a reason for it. And the reason was easy to discern: terroir. Wine experts, such as there were, sleuthed out these vineyards, and in every case discovered tangible physical distinctions that lifted the vineyards to grand cru status over their neighbors.
It’s odd that no one questioned this leap of faith. If there had been an internet and wine bloggers, someone might have wondered why the wine from a single vineyard was, ipso facto, better than one blended from multiple great sites. But then, blending from multiple great sites was not in the European tradition of chateaux, domaines and schlosses. It took the Californians, in the modern era, to do that—and to prove that a blend didn’t have to be a high-production common wine, but one that could play at the highest world level.
Indeed, why should it not be so? It is logically coherent to say that a blended wine can correct for the divots, or faults, of a wine from a single vineyard. The latter may, in any given vintage, be incomplete in some way: acidity, texture, fruit, complexity. Give the winemaker extra colors to play with on her palatte, and she can create a Renoir, not just an Ansel Adams.
“Just” an Ansel Adams? Well, frankly, yes. Compare a black-and-white photo of Half Dome with the cost of a Renoir at auction.
Now, before y’all start in on the hate mail, I also gave 100 points to Shafer 2004 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, a fabulous expression of a vineyard. So I’m not saying “Blends are the best.” But I do think it’s time to evaluate our attitude toward blends as somehow lesser creatures.
Does that include Pinot Noir? Yes. There’s no reason a blend of, say, Russian River Valley and Santa Rita Hills couldn’t kill. The fact that marketing, commercial and other perfectly understandable considerations make that unlikely should not discredit the point I’m trying to make.
Quite a lot of buzz in the brouhaha-sphere over all the perfect 100s Parker have been bestowing lately. This time the commentary is from Narsai David, the food and wine critic for our local KCBS radio affiliate in San Francisco, and an old acquaintance.
The most common reaction in the commentariat has been to use the word “exponential” or a variant of it to describe the increase in Parker 100s. Wine-Searcher used it last Wednesday (“the list is growing with exponential speed”), while Narsai’s phrasing elevated the adjective to adverbial status (“this number has grown exponentially in recent years”). This naturally all gets picked up and echoed on social media; Terroirst blog quoted the Wine-Searcher article, while Narsai’s column also was reprinted, as for instance here, at the Daily Meal.
First, the numbers: As Narsai writes, “Wine Advocate has given a perfect score to a total of 511 wines, but this number has grown exponentially in recent years. Just five years ago, only 69 wines scored 100 ‘Parker Points’ and in 2004, the number of perfect bottles was only 17.” Narsai calls this rapid increase in 100s “a little troubling,” because it implies (to Narsai, anyway) wines that are higher in alcohol than some vintners who are “trying to satisfy Parker” would prefer, thereby leaving them in “a real quandary.”
[Fantasy segue: A conversation between a winemaker and her priest-confessor:
Winemaker: “Father, I would like to keep the alcohol-by-volume on my Cabernet under 14%, but then it would never get a hundred points from Parker.”
Priest-confessor: “My daughter, wherein lies your heart?”
Winemaker: “That’s the problem. I have expenses…”.
Priest-confessor: “You are in a real quandary.”
The word “quandary” derives from the Latin, and means “a state of uncertainty.” American Presidents routinely find themselves in quandaries during crises. Lincoln was in one after the Confederates seized Fort Sumter: Should he abandon it, or fight for it, thus starting a Civil War? FDR, a great Lincoln scholar, similarly faced a quandary after Britain declared war on Germany for invading Poland, in September, 1939. Should he support Britain with materiel, even though he had an election coming up, and the majority of the country was isolationist? And yet a winemaker’s “quandary” can hardly be in the same category as either Lincoln’s or FDR’s.]
The conventional wisdom is that the pace of 100s has picked up because, as Narsai observes, “wine [technology] production in the last 25 years has really improved.” That’s undeniable. We also have had, here in California, a series of excellent vintages. My own company, Jackson Family Wines, has certainly enjoyed Parker’s largesse: perfect 100s for Lokoya and Verite (multiple times), which puts them in the company they deserve: Colgin, Dalla Valle, Harlan, Screaming Eagle and Hundred Acre, among others in California. (Here’s a list of all Parker’s 100s.)
I’ve always said that, when it comes to 100-point wines, critics should be either remarkably stingy or generous. I was the former; Parker is the latter. There is intellectual support for both positions, but not for the muddy middle. To be stingy implies that perfect wines are so rare that the awarding of 100 point scores must necessarily be limited as is, for instance, the giving of the Congressional Medal of Honor. To be generous means that, once you have stipulated that perfection exists, you have to recognize that it’s more widespread than commonly thought. Both of these positions are sound. The muddy middle makes it seem like the critic who straddles the fence is simply indecisive.
So, to answer my question, Do all those Parker scores indicate score inflation? No. They suggest that wine really is better than ever, and, in California’s case, the meaning is clear: We are world class. No ands, ifs or buts about it. If certain critics can’t see that, they had best remove the beam from their eye.
The blog Gargantuan Wine has an interesting post, “Dark Secrets of the 100 Point Wine Scale,” that identifies a “pair of endemic faults” the author says are not only “shameful” but “which are seemingly never discussed.”
Well, never mind that they are constantly discussed, in blogs, newspaper columns and the like. The first “endemic fault” is what the author calls “glass ceilings for certain wines.” He points out that certain varieties never seem to get high scores, no matter how good they are. He cites the example of Beaujolais. He asks: “Why can’t a flawless vin de soif, or ‘quaffer’ — even if that very term conceals an unfair stigma — park itself in an upscale, 90 point neighborhood, without a stop and frisk? For some reason, we relegate even exceptionally tasty, inexpensive wines to an 86-88 point ghetto.”
This is true enough. There’s are reasons for it, which I’ll get to shortly, but first, I’ll point out that even when I was a working wine critic, I wondered about this. I myself gave comparatively few ultra-high scores over my career, but it is true that Chardonnay trended far higher than Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir trended far higher than Zinfandel, say, or Barbera or Sangiovese. Since I reviewed California wine, I didn’t have the pleasure of reviewing Beaujolais, Sancerre, Alsace, Hermitage or any of the other fabulous French wines I like. But I totally “get” Gargantuan Wine’s criticism, that a great Beaujolais seems to max out at 88 points regardless of how wonderful it is.
I said there are reasons for this. Here are two:
- In every sort of contest in which there are winners and losers, there are certain parameters. They may be spelled out explicitly, or they may be tacitly understood, but either way, they’re there. In the Academy Awards, comedies almost never win Best Picture. Why not? Don’t ask me, ask the members of the Academy who do the voting! But I can infer that most of them feel that drama has more importance, more classic virtues, than comedy. This may be unfair to a film like Tootsie, which lost out in 1982 to Gandhi; Gandhi was Cabernet Sauvignon, Tootsie Beaujolais. I personally think Tootsie is a better movie and will stand the test of time. But there you are. Like Tony Soprano always asked, What are you gonna do?
- The second reason is just as arbitrary: Generations of wine experts have determined that some varieties are inherently “noble.” These include Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, and possibly Syrah. Everything else, no matter how good the wine might be, is less than noble. This, too, is unfair: it’s based on outmoded European systems of royalty and class. But again, there you are: it’s how the system works. No critic is going to give a Beaujolais 100 points (or 5 stars, or whatever), because no critic, in his heart of hearts, believes that Beaujolais is capable of that sort of perfection.
Of course it’s unfair, and Gargantuan Wine is well within his rights to be upset. When he asks, “Can’t a simple rosé…be scored properly for what it is?” I feel his pain. A few nights ago I drank a rosé that was so good, at that particular moment (a warm, muggy night, and I was tired after a long day), that I wouldn’t have traded it for anything else. But had I been reviewing and scoring it, which I wasn’t, I don’t think I would have scored it above 90 points. So I’m not defending the point system, so much as trying to explain why it is the way it is. Perhaps when a younger generation of wine critics takes over (which already is happening), they’ll get away from the “glass ceiling” and we’ll start seeing 100 point rosés and Pinot Grigios. That would be fine with me.
I don’t have much to say about Gargantuan Wine’s second “endemic fault,” what he calls “the deleterious effects of moderation drinking rationale.” It’s an interesting take, but when all is said and done, it’s just another version of the “alcohol levels are too high” critique, which frankly is getting a little stale.
Anyhow, I like Gargantuan Wine as a blog. It’s smart, witty and informative. But I do wish the “About Me” section contained more information. The author’s name, location and employment may be hidden somewhere, but I couldn’t find it. I don’t like “blind reading” blogs; I want to know who the writer is.
Have a great weekend! I’m having an adventure tomorrow: working in the tasting room at Kendall-Jackson. I’ve been in a zillion tasting rooms over the years, but this will be my first time on the other side of the bar. Will report on it this Monday.
Patricia Talorico’s column in Delaware Online, describing her disappointment at a tasting of 100-point wines, is worth reading, if for no other reason than to make the point that a famous critic’s taste may not correspond to yours.
And there are some good reasons for that, which I’ll get to in a moment.
As a journalist, Patricia went to a tasting in Wilmington that consisted of ten wines, each of which had received a perfect 100-point score from either Robert Parker, Wine Spectator, James Suckling or Wine Enthusiast. So excited was she in advance (I would be, too, and so would you) that she called it “a fantasy event not to miss.”
After all, on the roster were such celebrated bottles as 2010 Leoville-Barton, 2010 Dominus, 2001 Rieussec and 2006 Casanova di Neri Tenuta Nuova Brunello di Montalcino. Who wouldn’t be up for that?
But, alas, as Patricia reports, she was “Not…blown away by a majority of [the] highly rated wines.” For example, “I was less impressed” by a 2000 Krug Brut than were some of the other tasters. Then there was a 2009 Giovanni Chiappini Guado de Gemoli that, Patricia wrote, “got little more than a ho-hum” despite its 100 point score from Wine Enthusiast. She quoted others present as being highly critical of the Tenuta Nuova that Suckling gave 100 points to. “Over-ripe,” said one. “Not a perfect vintage,” sniffed another.
On the other hand, there was that 2010 Dominus, which everyone seemed to fall in love with. Still, that didn’t stop Patricia from offering readers this advice: “Wine lovers, save your money” when it comes to some of these high-priced rarities.
I couldn’t agree more. The thing the public has to keep in mind—actually, several things—when it comes to evaluating these high scores from famous critics is that the wines sometimes aren’t tasted blind. Sometimes, they’re tasted on the premises of the winery, alongside the winemaker or owner. (Wine Enthusiast has a firm policy against this, as I know well.) This has profound psychological effects, not the least of which is what we call “tasting room bias.” A wine will usually taste better under conditions of propinquity and proximity to its source of production, than it will at a distance. Put another way, if you’re an invited guest at [fill-in-the-blank] great winery, sipping the wine in the glamorous reception room with the world-famous winemaker, it’s far more likely you’ll be dazzled than if you tasted the same wine poured from a bottle in a paper bag, in a blind flight of its peers.
Another thing to keep in mind is that, when these famous wine critics are tasting the wine openly, they’re aware of such factors as the quality of the vintage (which they’ve probably also pronounced upon) and their own previous reviews of the same wine from prior vintages. There is a tendency (understandable) on the part of critics to want to be consistent in their reviews. Consistency is a large part of their credibility, after all, especially among the proprietors of great wineries who invite them to taste the latest vintage. I’m not saying that a scrupulous critic will deliberately stretch the truth for the sake of consistency. But it may be that his or her sensory impressions are skewed, at a subconscious level.
This is a very large part of the reason why the same wines keep on getting the same high scores over and over again from the same famous critics. It’s also why less famous (which is to say, less well-connected) wine writers, such as Patricia, often find themselves underwhelmed at tastings like the Judgment of Wilmington. She had no skin in the game, no reputational stakes on the table, no consistency to safeguard. All she had was her palate. As, indeed, do we all.
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.
Twenty-five years for a French wine region is the blink of an eye, but it’s a pretty good age for a California AVA to reach. Stags Leap District has just hit the quarter-century mark, as Decanter reminds us, so it’s time to wish them happy birthday and consider what that appellation has brought to the spectrum of Napa Valley wine.
Actually, it’s a little strange it took Stags Leap so long—1989–to be formally recognized: at least fifty California AVAs are older, including the likes of North Yuba, Merritt Island, Pacheco Pass, Willow Creek and Cole Ranch, proving that organizational power, and not necessarily the provenance of the terroir, is the governing force behind appellation formation. But I digress.
André Tchelistcheff of course said the most famous thing that was ever said or ever will be said about Stags Leap, that its wines were “an iron fist in a velvet glove,” but he did not invent this phrase. Napoleon did, apparently, according to Thomas Carlyle, who defined it as a person being “soft of speech and manner, yet with an inflexible rigour of command.” I don’t know about the Napoleon origin, and I’ve never been able to discover the exact citation for Tchelistcheff. The Maestro was of course familiar with Stags Leap District, long before it was officially called that: In the 1970s he consulted for Warren Winiarski, at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, and he had at the very least a hand in making the 1973 Stag’s Leap Cabernet that won the Paris Tasting. Winiarski’s homage to André, in Benson’s Great Winemakers of California, is worth quoting in depth:
“In André Tchelistcheff…I feel you have the combination of technology and love, because he combines the spirit and the science in himself. He has been a great influence, as a consultant here.” Winiarski pointed out the fact, which has been unappreciated, that André had been “the common bond between the two wines that placed first in the Paris tasting,” his own and Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay, in that Mike Grigich, who made the Montelena, worked under Tchelistcheff, at Beaulieu.
Whenever or however André made his “iron fist” remark, writers ever since have used it freely, as I did in 2005 in reviewing the 2002 Chimney Rock Elevage. “If Tchelistcheff were still here,” I wrote, “he might describe this Cab as an iron fist in a velvet glove.” I meant that it had a fruitysoftness I called “deceptive” because of the huge structure.
I’ve always had a warm spot for the Cabernets of Stags Leap District. The roster of wineries is impressive: older ones like Chimney Rock, Stag’s Leap and Stags’ Leap Winery, Shafer (one of my few perfect 100s), Pine Ridge and Clos du Val, newer ones like Baldacci and Odette and Cliff Lede. I remember the first time I tasted a Baldacci Cab, the Brenda’s Vineyard from (I think) the 2005 vintage, which just blew me away, and sent me on a special search for find out who made it (Rolando Herrera). There is something special about a well-made Stags Leap Cab: it’s not quite as apparently tannic as, say, Oakville, Rutherford or Howell Mountain, but has great weight and density. Yet it seems so silky—that’s the velvet glove. I remember, also, tasting the very early Clos du Vals, which always seemed too hard and brittle to me, not quite ripe: I think the winery miscalculated for a number of years, thinking that if they picked the grapes earlier than their neighbors, they’d get something more “Bordeaux-like.” But this didn’t work. If you pick the grapes before they’re fully ripe, you get big tannins and acids and underripe fruit. (This problem may have been compounded by excessive vigor as well as the cool winds that invade Stags Leap coming up from the south. The grapes need hang time.) The best Stags Leap Cabernets show an exquisite tension of all parts; they seem, also, to have a taste of the earth that you don’t get in the wines of Highway 29. I’m not sure what why that is, this grippiness and chewiness. It’s more of a texture than a taste. It may be more noticeable in those Cabs from the east side of the Silverado Trail, where the soils contain more volcanic debris. But this is speculation.
I’m not the biggest fan of AVAs in California, which can have a willy-nilly, haphazard character. But Stags Leap District surely is one that makes sense. If anyone knows of any upcoming tastings of the wines of Stags Leap, please let me know.