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Is there a “glass ceiling” when it comes to scoring certain wines? (Hint: yes)

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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:

  1. 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?
  1. 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.


Why a famous critic’s 100 point wine may disappoint you

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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.


A wine lunch at Michael Mina

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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.


Happy birthday Stags Leap District!

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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.


On an Argentine Torrontes and how critics come up with those numbers

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I drank a very nice wine from Argentina last night, Michel Torino 2013 Don David Finca La Primavera #3 ($23), made from the Torrontes grape. It was quite delicious, offering layers of lime, quince and tangerine, with wonderfully brisk acidity, and while there was a honeyed richness, the finish was absolutely dry.

After 25 years of tasting mostly California wines, I now have the time to branch out. When I tasted that Don David (not blind!), my first thought was to compare it to what I know best: California. Had you given it to me without telling me what it was, I might have guessed Pinot Gris—or Sauvignon Blanc—possibly Chenin Blanc–but not quite. It had oakiness, but in a balanced, low-key way. Gorgeous acidity, too, mouthwatering and clean. There was minerality, but also something vegetal, not in a bad way, but in a wonderful way. I know this sounds weird, but it reminded me of lightly salted cream of broccoli soup. What’s not to like about that?

I liked it so much I looked to see if it had been reviewed in Wine Enthusiast, and there it was. The review was by my former colleague, Mike Schachner, who covers South America and Spain. He gave it 89 points and wrote: “This single-vineyard Salta Torrontés is virtually as good as it gets for the variety. Pure lychee, lime and mineral aromas precede a crisp, focused palate. Flavors of steely citrus are chiseled, while the finish is long and juicy. Drink prior to fall 2014.”

(Note: Salta is a region in Argentina. I have no idea if the name if related to salt, but there was definitely a saline character to the Don David that added to its savory character.)

I always admired Michael’s palate, and I thought, Wow, he really nailed it. I, personally, might have mentioned the honey, since the impression of sweetness is, it seems to me, a vital one to convey to readers. But that’s just me. And I also totally supported Michael’s judgment that the wine is best enjoyed soon. Its delicate structure, and rich fruit will fall apart sooner rather than later.

I mention all this because I’m fascinated by the concept of consumers having so many multiple sources of wine reviews. In addition to all the major wine magazines and newsletters, we have, at last count, 1.3 gazillion bloggers who review wine, not to mention the people who write all those shelf talkers at supermarkets and wine stores. If I put myself into the shoes of the wine consumer trying to figure out what to buy, I feel total sympathy if they feel dazed and confused.

I wondered about Michael’s 89 points. For those of us who work (or used to work) the 100-point system, the biggest decision in our everyday job is whether to give a wine 89 points or 90 points. That is the dividing line between life and death. I don’t work in sales, but I’ve been told for many years that 90 points is the cut-off for many buyers. If you’re trying to sell a 90-point wine from a major publication, it’s not that hard. If it’s below 90 points, well, good luck.

Had I formally reviewed the Don David, blind (as I’m sure Michael did), I think I would have given it an initial rating of 89 points too. Let me try to explain my rationale. The message of an 89-point rating is “This is a really good wine. If you drink it under the right circumstances, it can be a fantastic wine. However, objectively, and tasted by itself under laboratory circumstances, it fails—by a hair—to rise to the standards of what I consider a wine worthy of scoring in the nineties.”

I don’t know the details of how Michael considers, or reconsiders, his scores, or how long he takes for each review. But once I had given that Don David an initial 89 points, I suspect I would have raised it to 90 points, maybe an hour or so later, because I liked it so much. I would have put it in the fridge and then, unable to stop thinking about it, I would have tried it again, and given it the extra magic point simply because it had fired up my imagination.

Is that fair—I mean, to give a wine a second chance or reconsideration? Maybe not. But it happens with all critics, whether they admit it or not. I point all this out simply to illuminate the somewhat capricious nature of critical reviews. A score is serious business, and should be considered so by readers. But it should also be taken into context for what it is: fungible. Today’s 88 can be tomorrow’s 92, tomorrow’s 100 can be yesterday’s 92. It all depends. But it’s also important to understand that critics have been known to “adjust” their scores to keep them consistent with past ones, and if you don’t believe that, there’s a bridge in San Francisco I’d like to sell you.


The critics, not committees, have classified California wine

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In the Spring of 1969, Roy Andries de Groot, who turned to wine- and food-writing when he became blind, was sent to California by Esquire Magazine to write about the state’s wines, on the 200th anniversary of Junipero Serra’s planting of wine grapes in San Diego.

de Groot soon realized that what he really wanted to do was what he called his “immense project”: “a Classification of American Wines,” he called it, based on the sort of official hierarchy that had been developed by the French, in the famous 1855 Classification.

(de Groot also went on to classify the wines of the Pacific Northwest and New York State, hence his reference to “American Wines.”)

As he notes in his 1982 masterwork, “The Wines of California,” de Groot had pedigreed precedence for his audacious project. There not only had been the 1855 Classification, but, a century earlier, “in 1755, a first attempt had been made to rank the wines of Bordeaux,” he wrote, followed by another in 1833. So the project was neither as audacious nor as radical as it might have appeared.

Here in California, others have attempted, from time to time, to classify the state’s wines into quality tiers. Perhaps the most controversial has been Jim Laube’s 1989 book, “California’s Great Cabernets,” in which the Wine Spectator writer rather self-consciously established five “Growths” (just like the 1855 Classification), which he populated with dozens of wineries functioning at that time. It was a worthy effort—but one doomed to failure, as California, unlike staid Bordeaux, was in the process (and still is today) of sprouting new wineries like mushrooms after an Autumn rain. When Laube wrote his book, for instance, there was no Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Dalla Valle, Verite, David Arthur, Jarvis, Araujo. The book was destined for obsolescence even before it was published. (It does, however, remain an interesting read and is important as an historical document.)

de Groot established, not five, but four tiers in his classification, although he did not numerically denote them but instead used the adjectives “Great,” “Superb,” “Noble” and “Fine,” in descending order of quality. (The only wineries he put into the “Great” category were Heitz, Schramsberg and Stony Hill.) But, just as Laube’s book of seven years later was condemned to early obsolescence, so was de Groot’s, and for the same reason. As we look at his list today, we’re struck, not only by the non-inclusion of so many wineries that simply didn’t exist in 1982, but by others that were functioning at that time, but no longer are, or that continue to exist, but not at a very high level. The list, then, is sadly out of date, although like Laube’s book, “The Wines of California” makes for good reading.

I doubt that any wine writer will ever again attempt such a hopeless task as classifying the wines of California! But then, in this modern era of, say, the last 30 years, the public doesn’t need an official list. That task has been taken over, in practical effect, by critics. Can there be any question that California Cabernets and Bordeaux blends have been unofficially ranked already, through the reviews of Robert Parker, Wine Spectator and others? This ranking has the appearance of mathematical precision because it’s based on scores of the 100-point system. Thus, in order to determine the placement of any winery in the critical classification, all you have to do is look up its scores over the years, and that will determine its position in the hierarchy. Before you object that this is a pretty flimsy basis, remember that the 1855 Classification itself—which we all hold so dear—was based in part on the prices the wines had historically fetched. Since today, price and score are irretrievably intertwined, it’s not ludicrous to base a wine’s placement by its score: the highest-scoring wines will generally be the most expensive (although the opposite is not always the case!).

There’s one huge, qualitative difference, however, between an official classification, like that of 1855, and the unofficial one created by scores. The former can never change, or does so only agonizingly slowly (Mouton-Rothschild, originally a Second Growth, was not elevated to First Growth until 1973.) But the latter, unofficial classification is constantly morphing, as wineries come into and fall out of favor, reflected in their scores. The critical classification, then, has the advantage of a built-in resilience that makes it more adaptable to change and thus more descriptive of reality, as well as more useful. A critical classification can never become obsolete, by definition.

Where things get sticky, of course, is with the proliferation of critics. In 1855 the French had a single committee to make their classification. There was nobody to challenge it (although disgruntled proprietors always have complained about their placement). Twenty years ago we had only a tiny handful of critics to make their de facto classification, and few if any dared to challenge them. Today, everybody’s a critic. This is why we have the phenomenon of multi-source rating compilers, like CellarTracker, where consumers can track reviews from multiple sources side by side for the same wine.

What I find fascinating about the new order, with its proliferation of voices and the coming of age of a younger generation, is how impervious to change the old perceived hierarchy remains. In Bordeaux the First Growths still rule. In California, the Harlans and Screaming Eagles remain at the top, although they may have had to allow some room for a few other aspirants. Something about wine—or, rather, the way we perceive it—is remarkably conservative. I wish I had a time machine and could see what the top wines are fifty years from now. For some reason, I doubt if I’d be surprised.


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