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A Sauvignon Blanc tasting that raises questions about point scores

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We had a perfectly lovely blind tasting yesterday, 12 Sauvignon Blancs, six of them from Jackson Family Wines wineries, and the others from around the world. It was a bit of a hodgepodge but I just wanted to assemble a range that showed the extremes of style, from an Old World, low- or no-oak, high acidity, pyrazine-driven tartness to a bigger, richer, riper New World style of [partial] barrel fermentation. Here, briefly, are the results. The entire group of tasters was very close in its conclusions—a highly-calibrated group where we achieved near consensus.

My scores:

94 Matanzas Creek 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County

93 Robert Mondavi 2013 To Kalon Vineyard Reserve Fumé Blanc, Napa Valley

93 Matanzas Creek 2013 Journey Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County

92 Stonestreet 2013 Alexander Mountain Estate Aurora Point Sauvignon Blanc, Alexander Valley

90 Merry Edwards 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, Russian River Valley

89 Peter Michael 2014 L’Apres-Midi Sauvignon Blanc, Knights Valley

88 Jackson Estate 2014 Stitch Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) NOTE: This is not a Jackson Family Wine.

87 Francois Cotat 2014 La Grande Cote, Sancerre

87 Arrowood 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, Alexander Valley

87 Cardinale 2014 Intrada Sauvignon Blanc (Napa Valley)

86 Goisot 2014 Exogyra Virgula Sauvignon Blanc (Saint-Bris)

85 Sattlerhof 2014 Gamlitzer Sauvignon Blanc, Austria

The JFW wines certainly did very well, taking 3 of the top 4 places. The surprise was the Matanzas Creek Sonoma County—it’s not one of the winery’s top tier Sauvignon Blancs (which are Bennett Valley, Helena Bench and Journey) but the basic regional blend. But then, I’ve worked with small lots of all Matanzas’s vineyards, and know how good the source fruit is. This is really a delightful wine, and a testament to the fact that great wine doesn’t have to be expensive. It’s also testament to the art of blending.

But I want to talk about the Francois Cotat, as it raises important and interesting intellectual considerations.

The Cotat immediately followed the Mondavi To Kalon, always one of my favorite Sauvignon Blancs, and the first thing I wrote, on sniffing it, was “Much leaner.” Of course the alcohol on the Cotat is quite a bit lower, and the acidity much higher: it was certainly an Old World wine. But here was my quandary. In terms of the reviewing system I practiced for a long time, this is not a high-scoring wine; my 87 points, I think, is right on the money. It’s a good wine, in fact a very good wine, but rather austere, delicate and sour (from a California point of view). I could and did appreciate its style, but more than 87 points? I don’t think so.

And yet, I immediately understood what a versatile wine this is. You could drink and enjoy it with almost anything; and I was sure that food would soften and mellow it, making it an ideal companion. Then I thought of a hypothetical 100 point Cabernet Sauvignon that is—let’s face it—a very un-versatile kind of wine. It blows you away with opulence, and deserves its score, by my lights. But the range of foods you can pair it with is comparatively narrow.

So here’s the paradox: The higher-scoring wine is less versatile with food, while the lower-scoring wine provides pleasure with so much. It is a puzzle, a conundrum. I don’t think I’m quite ready to drop the 100-point system as my tasting vernacular, but things are becoming a little topsy-turvy in my head.

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While I am affiliated with Jackson Family Wines, the postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the postings, strategies or opinions of Jackson Family Wines.


Another wine-rating system, this time based on 1,000 points

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Forget about arguing over the differences between 96 and 97 points. Now we can debate the finer distinctions between a score of 875 and 876. Or 943 and 944. Or 563 and 562. Whaaat?? That’s right. There’s a new wine rating kid in town, called Wine Lister, and it uses, not the familiar 100-point system, but a thousand point system.

No, this is not The Onion. How’s it work? Well, according to their website, they gather data from multiple sources “to give a truly holistic assessment of each wine,” and the reason for a 1000-point system is because Wine Lister “can actually differentiate to this level of precision [which protects] the nuance and meticulousness of the exercise.”

Well, yes, I suppose a 1000-point system can be described as more “nuanced” than a 100-point system. But really, people who believe in score inflation now have a powerful new arrow in their quiver with which to criticize numerical ratings. From their press release, Wine Lister seems to be using only three critics at this point: Jancis Robinson, Antonio Galloni and Bettane+Desseauve (a French-based, sort of a Wine-Searcher website).

At first consideration the notion of a 1000-point system sounds dubious. It does present us defenders of the 100-point scale a certain conundrum: after all, if the 100-point system is good, then a 1000-point system has to be better, right? Maybe even ten times better. Of course, this can lead to a logical absurdity: How about a 10,000-point system? A million-point system? You see the problem.

Of more interest to me than how many points the best system ought to have are the larger questions concerning the need for a new rating system, and the entrepreneurial aspects of Wine Lister’s owners to launch one at this time. Consumers already have many, many wine rating and reviewing sources to which to turn, both online and in print. They don’t seem to be demanding yet another one. Why does Wine Lister feel their time has come?

Well, maybe it has. Any startup is a gamble, and in the entrepreneurial world of wine reviewing, which seems to be undergoing tumultuous changes, anyone can be a winner. Antonio Galloni took a huge gamble when he quit Wine Advocate to launch Vinous, which has turned out to be such a huge success. Will Wine Lister be? I don’t know, but it has good credentials. What it has to prove is that it’s more than a simple compilation of Jancis-Antonio- Bettane+Desseauve reviews. They’re also factoring in Wine-Searcher, and there’s even an auction-value component (although most consumers won’t care about that). But beyond being a “hub of information” (from the press release), I think Wine Lister’s limitation is that wine consumers seem to want a personal connection to the recommender they listen to, which an algorithm cannot provide. I could be wrong. I’ll be following them on Twitter @Wine_Lister and we’ll see what happens.

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While I am affiliated with Jackson Family Wines, the postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the postings, strategies or opinions of Jackson Family Wines.


Scores, stores and wineries: a new analysis

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Every day, I get blast email advertisements from wineries or wine stores touting the latest 90-plus point score from Suckling, Parker, Vinous or some other esteemed critic. Here’s an example that came in on Saturday: I’m reproducing everything except the actual winery/wine.

_____ Winery’s ____ Napa Red Wine 2013 Rated 92JS.

Notice how the “92JS” is printed in the same font type and size as the name of the winery and wine. That assigns them equal importance; the rating and critic are virtually part of the brand. Later in the ad, they have the full “James Suckling Review” followed by a full “Wine Spectator Review” [of 90 points]. This is followed by the winery’s own “Wine Tasting Notes,” which by and large echo Spectator’s and Suckling’s descriptions.

Built along similar lines was a recent email ad for a certain Brunello: The headline was “2011 ____ Brunello di Montalcino DOCG”; immediately beneath is (in slightly smaller point size), “94 Points Vinous / Antonio Galloni.”

We can see that, in these headline and sub-heads, through physical proximity on the page or screen, the ads’ creators have linked the name of the winery and the wine to the name of the famous critic and his point score. One of the central tenets of advertising is to get the most important part of the message across immediately and strongly. (This is why so many T.V. commercials begin with the advertiser’s name—you hear and see it before you can change the channel or click the “mute” button.) In like fashion, most of us will quickly read a headline (even if we don’t want to) before skipping the rest of the ad. The headline thus stays in the brain: “Winery” “Wine Critic” “90-plus point score.” That’s really all the winery or wine store wants you to retain. They don’t expect you to read the entire ad, or to immediately buy the wine based on the headline. They do expect that the “Winery” “Wine Critic” “90-plus point score” information will stay embedded in your brain cells, which will make you more likely to buy the wine the next time you’re looking for something, or at least have a favorable view of it.

This reliance of wineries and wine stores on famous critics’ reviews and scores is as strong as ever. There has been a well-publicized revolt against it by sommeliers and bloggers, but their resistance has all the power of a wet noodle. You might as well thrash against the storm; it does no good. The dominance of the famous wine critic is so ensconced in this country (and throughout large parts of Asia) that it shows no signs of being undermined anytime soon. You can regret it; you can rant against it; you can list all the reasons why it’s unhealthy, but you can’t change the facts.

Wineries are complicit in this phenomenon; they are co-dependents in this 12-Step addiction to critics. Wineries, of course, live and die by the same sword: A bad review is not helpful, but wineries will never publish a bad review. They assume (rightly) that bad reviews will quickly be swept away by the never-ending tsunami of information swamping consumers.

Which brings us back to 90-point scores. They’re everywhere. You can call it score inflation, you can argue that winemaking quality is higher, or that vintages are better, but for whatever reason, 90-plus points is more common than ever. Ninety is the new 87. Wineries love a score of 90, but I’ve heard that sometimes they’re disappointed they didn’t get 93, 94 or higher. Even 95 points has been lessened by its ubiquity.

Hosemaster lampooned this, likening 100-point scores to Oprah Winfrey giving out cars to the studio audience on her T.V. show. (“You get a car! And you get a car! And you get a car! And YOU get a car! Everybody gets a car!”) Why does this sort of thing happen? Enquiring minds want to know. In legalese, one must ask, “Cui bono?”—Who benefits? In Oprah’s case, she’s not paying for the cars herself; they’re provided by the manufacturers, who presumably take a tax writeoff. It’s a win-win-win situation for Oprah, the automakers and the audience.

Cui bono when it comes to high scores? The wineries, of course, and the wine stores that sell their wines (and put together the email blast advertisements). And what of the critics?

Step into the tall weeds with me, reader. A wine critic who gives a wine a high score gets something no money can buy: exposure. His name goes out on all those email blast advertisements (and other forms of marketing). That name is seen by tens of thousands of people, thereby making the famous wine critic more famous than ever. Just as the wine is linked to the critic in the headline, the critic’s name is linked to the 90-plus wine; both are meta-branded. (It’s the same thing as when politicians running for public office vie for the endorsement of famous Hollywood stars, rock stars and sports figures: the halo effect of fame and glamor by association.) There therefore is motive on the part of critics to amplify their point scores.

But motive alone does not prove a case nor make anyone guilty. We cannot impute venality to this current rash of high scores; we can merely take note of it. Notice also that the high scores are coming from older critics. Palates do, in fact, change over the years. Perhaps there’s something about a mature palate that is easier to please than a beginner’s palate. Perhaps older critics aren’t as angry, fussy or nit-picky about wine as younger ones; or as ambitious. They’re more apt to look for sheer pleasure and less apt to look for the slightest perceived imperfection. With age comes mellowness; mellowness is more likely to smile upon the world than to criticize it.

Anyhow, it is passing strange to see how intertwined the worlds of wineries, wine stores and wine critics have become. Like triple stars caught in each others’ orbits, they gyre and gimble in the wabe, in a weird but strangely fascinating pas de trois that, for the moment at least, shows no signs of abating.


The Critic vs. the Computer: A case of perceptual discrepancy

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Did you know that I prefer organic wines to non-organic wines? I didn’t, either. But then I read this new paper from the American Association of Wine Economists, entitled “Does Organic Wine taste better? An Analysis of Experts’ Ratings,” and I found out that, yup, I do.

Well, kinda sorta. See, the paper’s authors decided to study “data from the three influential wine expert publications: Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, and Wine Spectator,” and as it turned out, “During our period of study [74,148 wines produced in California between 1998 and 2009], the main tasters for California wines for Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator were Robert Parker, Steve Heimoff, and James Laube, respectively.”

The big P-H-L! They took our scores, crunched them in that esoteric way only economists can, and lo and behold, “Our results indicate that the adoption of wine eco-certification has a statistically significant and positive effect on wine ratings.”

How much? Not a lot: Being eco-certified,” the authors found, “increases the score of the wine by 0.46 point on average.”

Well, one hardly knows where to begin. Right off the bat, I have a problem when the lesson that people will take away is that P-H-L (and by extension major critics) prefer organic wines to non-organic ones. Less than half a point difference? I suppose if they fed 74,148 scores into a computer and found a 0.46 point difference, then who am I to argue with HAL? But a 0.46 point difference doesn’t seem like very much to me. It’s not even round-uppable to the higher score (87.46 rounds down to 87).

But wait, there’s more. The following factors also had an impact on the scores of organically-certified wines, according to the paper:

  • ” a 1% increase in the number of cases will decrease score by 0.003

point.”

  • ” An increase in the number of years of certification experience by one [winery] decreases score by 0.09 point.”

Confused? I am. So the more cases wine the winery produces, the lower the score is; but the longer the winery has been certified organic, the lower the score also is!

How about the winemaker’s hair color? Did they include that?

The authors also counted the number of words in each review and found this: “Next, we examine the impact that eco-certification has on the number of words used in wine notes. As shown in regression (1) of Table 6, wine notes of eco-certified wines are not significantly longer than those of conventional wines. However, as shown in regressions (2) and (3), eco-certification increases the average number of positive words by 0.4 but has no statistically significant impact on the number of negative words.”

My interpretation of this is that it’s gibberish. The authors compiled a list of words [Table 7] but I don’t understand how they infer whether their use is positive or negative. Is “jammy” positive or negative? Do Parker, Laube and I even use it in the same way? How about “offbeat”? Is that good or bad? And “peat”: if I tasted that in an Islay Scotch it would be good, but in a Chardonnay?

The authors also state something that I don’t think is objectively true, or, even if it is, is irrelevant. “Second, as a related point, wine experts have a better knowledge about wine eco-certification and are able to differentiate between different types of eco-labels, namely organic wine and wine made with organically grown grapes, which represent different wine production processes with different impacts on quality.”

I’m not going to sit here and tell you I know the difference between different types of eco-labels. There are so damn many (different certifying agencies, “natural,” biodynamic, etc.), I get confused—and, while I’ll let Parker and Laube speak for themselves, I bet they get confused, too. Besides, if “All the publications claim blind review,” as the paper’s authors write, then we critics don’t even see the labels when we’re tasting and reviewing (much less would we have a tech sheet in front of us).

But finally, this statistic seems to be to be the last nail in the coffin of the study: “On average, 1.1% of the wines in the sample are eco-certified.” By my calculations, that’s a little over 800 wines—out of 74,148. I fail to see how you can extrapolate any useful information from such a small sample, compared to the huge number of wines in the study. Apples and oranges.

I’m no economist, it goes without saying. If I were, I guess I’d spend my days crunching numbers and coming up with interesting factoids. But I have to say, I don’t see the point of this particular study—not if it’s going to be used to make a claim that I don’t regard as true. For the record, let me say that I do not think organic wine is better. And you know what? I don’t care what the numbers say.


A tasting of Sonoma County Cabernets and Bordeaux blends: Call me a Verité kinda guy

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I couldn’t have been more pleased that in yesterday’s tasting I gave the Verite 2012 La Joie * a perfect 100 points. (All wines marked with an asterisk are from Jackson Family Wines.)

It was back in 2009 that I gave the 2006 La Joie a near-perfect 98 points. A year later I gave the 2007 Verite La Muse 100 points. So you could say these wines, produced by Pierre Seillan, delight and amaze me and rise to my highest expectations of what California-Bordeaux can and should be.

Our tasting was entirely blind. The other wines and their scores were Matanzas Creek 2011 Journey * (96 points), Rodney Strong 2012 Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon (88 points), Hall 2012 T Bar T Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (90 points), Hidden Ridge 2012 Impassable Mountain Reserve 55% Slope Cabernet Sauvignon (91 points), Lancaster 2012 Nicole’s Red Wine (91 points), Arrowood 2012 Reserve Speciale Cabernet Sauvignon * (92 points), Stonestreet 2012 Legacy Red Wine * (98 points), Stonestreet 2011 Christopher’s Cabernet Sauvignon * (88 points), Silver Oak 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon (92 points), Cenyth 2010 Red Wine * (93 points), Anakota 2012 Helena Montana Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon * (93 points) and Kendall-Jackson 2012 Jackson Estate Hawkeye Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon * (93 points).

The vintages all were either current releases or the most current releases I was able to obtain buying direct from the wineries. I should add that I also was pleased that one of my fellow tasters, Chris Jackson, also scored the Verite ’12 La Joie a perfect 100 points. When the paper bags came off, it was high-five time.

As some of my readers know who followed my career, I never gave very many 100 point scores, but one was that ’07 La Muse. These Verités are extraordinary wines. They are of course blends from mountain vineyards throughout Sonoma County; it was those wines, in part, that led me to understand that a California-Bordeaux does not have to be sourced from a single vineyard in order to attain perfection. In fact, quite the opposite can be argued: That having your choice of multiple pedigreed vineyards, rather than having to source from only one, allows the winemaker to fill in the divots in order to produce a more complete, wholesome wine. Of course, this implies a very high level of skill on the part of the blender! Nor would I concede that such a blended wine doesn’t display terroir. (Another blend I gave 100 points to was the 2006 Cardinale, made from grapes grown in Mt. Veeder, Howell Mountain, Stags Leap and Oakville.) I do think a great Pinot Noir should probably come from a single piece of dirt, but even here I could be wrong.

It often is said that the difference between Sonoma-grown Bordeaux wines and Napa Valley Bordeaux wines is that the former are earthier and more “French.” I think that is largely true; the tannins are firmer and there is slightly more herbaceousness in the form of sweet dried herbs and often a floral character reminiscent of violets. Most of the wines in yesterday’s tasting were grown on the western slope of the Mayacamas, not far from places like Spring Mountain and Diamond Mountain, in fact just on the other side of the ridge. But Napa Valley is one mountain range further inland and so is that much warmer and drier; the resulting wines tend to be lusher, more opulent, and higher in alcohol. But I would not want to over-emphasize those distinctions. Suffice it to say that some of these Sonoma Cabs, especially from the west side of the Mayacamas, are stunning and ageworthy.

I don’t hesitate to praise the Jackson Family wines just because I work there; in fact it makes me very happy to see them do so well. As I said, the tasting was absolutely blind. Nobody had any idea what the wines were, although that didn’t stop us from guessing. I was troubled by the relatively modest score of the ’11 Stonestreet Christopher’s, a wine I’ve always liked (I gave the ’06 and ’07 both 96 points, for example), but as you know 2011 was “the year summer never came,” and this wine, grown at 2,400 feet on the winery’s Alexander Mountain Estate, is exquisitely sensitive to vintage conditions. I think the fruit, in that brutal environment of 2011, just didn’t get ripe enough (although it’s only fair to add that Wine Advocate gave that wine 94 points. So maybe I just didn’t “get it”).

Anyhow, bravo to Sonoma County for doing so well. I think for our next tasting we’ll do Jackson Family’s Napa Valley Cab/Bordeaux blends against some of the top-rated wines in the valley. That will be interesting, if expensive, and I’ll report on the results right here!


What you know influences what you taste

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If I you were told that this was painted by a knockoff painter who specializes in fake Renaissance paintings, would you like it?

Raphael

Would you buy it? Would you hang it in your livingroom?

What if I told you that, actually, it was painted by Raphael—arguably the third most-famous Renaissance painter (after Leonardo and Michaelangelo)? Would knowing that change your perception, your feeling about it?

Would you be more exalted, more inspired, more impressed, more awed knowing it was an authentic Raphael masterpiece?

I suspect the answer is, Yes, you’d be more impressed knowing it’s a Raphael. But why? The painting itself, in either case, real or fraudulent, is exactly the same: same colors, same images, same glow. It clearly took talent to paint it: Whether it was Raphael, or the knockoff guy, is irrelevant in that respect. So why does knowing it’s a Raphael cause you to feel so differently about it?

This is a parallel to the question of great wines I’m so fascinated with. If I take a wine that is, by all critical consensus, a masterpiece—let’s say, 2010 Cheval Blanc, a Parker 100, Enthusiast 100, Spectator 98—and pour it for you from a brown paper bag, and I don’t give you any visual clue whatsoever concerning what I think about it (I am poker-faced, as it were), but just hand it to you and say, “What do you think?,” what do you think you’d say? Assuming you have a decent palate, you’d probably say, “Pretty good wine.” If I really pressed you to give it a score, maybe you’d do 94 or a 95; psychologically, it’s almost impossible for someone tasting blind or, in this case, double-blind, to rate a wine higher than that, because, in the absence of knowledge of its identity, the risks of being too high (or too low for that matter) are simply too grave. So 95 points is probably the best you’re going to be able to do, and I strongly suspect you’d be lower than that.

Instead of the double-blind thing, let’s say I give you a glass of the wine with a broad smile on my face—I’m clearly pleased—and say to you, “My friend, this is a masterpiece. Perfect scores from Parker and Enthusiast. Almost perfect from Spectator. Smell it; savor it; this is a wine you will remember for a long time.” I bet you’re going to agree with me (and with Parker, Spectator and Enthusiast) and be dazzled. (Yes, this presumes you can appreciate a great Bordeaux/St. Emilion. But of course you can; otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this blog.)

See, in this case the knowledge of the wine’s identity–with all the associations it conjures up—is silently working its magic on your brain, shifting your perceptions upward, inclining you to favor it—just as if I gave you a glass of wine I told you was Two-Buck Chuck, you’d probably be inclined downward in perception. Same phenomenon with the painting and the wine.

This analogy settles, I think, the objective-subjective question we’re always dealing with: Is wine appreciation objective? Yes, in the sense that a professional should be able to identify its quality up to a very high level. In terms of point scores, I’d put that level—as I said above—at about 95 points. All very great wines are 95 point wines.

But to get above 95 points you have to let the subjective appreciator within you have free range. That is the best way, the most logical way to stretch that 95 points up to 98, 99, 100. You have to know the wine is Cheval Blanc, just as you have to know the painting is by Raphael, to really experience its greatness. For a large measure of that greatness has nothing to do with what’s in the glass; it was created, and exists, in your mind.

By the way, the reason this is important, and not just some bit of esoteric sophism, is because it relates directly to prices. If we accept the fact that you can potentially add hundreds of dollars to the price of a bottle of wine solely due to its psychological-subjective impact on the brain, then we have opened up a can of worms, or perhaps the better metaphor is that we have carved out a slippery slope. For those of us witnessing mudslides in this El Nino California—events that destroy homes—a slippery slope, unrestrained, can wreck utter havoc on the things that slide down it.

P.S. This post was inspired by an article in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle about this painting, “Portrait of a Lady With a Unicorn,” said to be by Raphael.


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