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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.


Wineries can’t have it both ways

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It’s an old story: Wineries that get mediocre scores from famous critics say they don’t care because critics are irrelevant. Wineries that get high scores love critics and cite their great reviews in their marketing materials. But what I mean by “you can’t have it both ways” is that you can’t criticize critics and then boast about the high score one of them just gave you.

Well, you can…but it’s a little disingenuous.

I am thinking about this because yesterday, via social media, I heard from a winemaker, quite a famous one, who happens to be an acquaintance of long standing and someone I have enormous respect for. S/he posted that, while the point-scoring system “is something we are not completely down with,” s/he then couldn’t resist citing two super-high scores from Parker. “It feels good,” the winemaker wrote, “when your work is recognized.”

Well, yes, it does. We all crave recognition, that validation in our lives, especially when it’s about our job performance. It feels horrible to be told that you suck, but it’s fantastic to be told you’ve done a great job.

These are the horns of the dilemma on which many winemakers find themselves impaled. They have this weird love-hate relationship with the critics that they don’t quite know how to deal with. I used to experience it myself, back in my day. I’d give a high score to somebody, and the next thing you know, they’d send me a thank-you card—as if I’d done them a favor. Then I’d give a lousy score to somebody, and they’d call me on the phone, complaining. I’d think, sigh… You just have to roll with the punches and not let the praise go to your head, but you also can’t let the anger get under your skin.

The smartest, or at least the most emotionally mature, winemakers I’ve known understand this. They don’t always get what they want in the way of scores, and that must hurt. They and their teams put in this amazing effort to produce what they hope and feel is great wine, and then some critic schlongs them with an 84 or a 67 or whatever. Very painful, and understandably so.

But emotionally mature winemakers don’t call up the offending critic. I mean, not to complain…they might ask for an extended explanation of the problem, and that’s all right. Instead, mature winemakers take a deep breath, send in the next sample, and get on with their lives. Today’s 84 may be tomorrow’s 97—you never know. Never give up hope, and make sure you don’t burn your bridges behind you.

I guess the hardest thing for a winemaker who gets a low score to figure out is this: If he honestly feels that his wine—the one that got criticized—is as good as one that the critic gave a high score to, it must be crazy-making. We’ve all been in life situations where you feel utterly misunderstood and wronged. It’s one of the hardest emotional wringers to go through. You think, “How could he possibly think that?” And you dwell on it, and mull it over and over in your head, but can come up with no explanation. So you might attack the messenger, or the very institution of wine reviewing. You start thinking that maybe the critic had ulterior motives. You begin to doubt your own palate—how could you find your wine so good when the critic found it so ordinary? You start wondering about all sorts of scenarios and fantasies. Maybe you get a little paranoid and resentful.

I would imagine this situation is compounded when you see a critic lavishing high scores over and over again on a wine you have no respect for. You think it’s overripe, flawed, undrinkable; meanwhile, the critic gives it high-90s vintage after vintage. That would make me crazy too.

But it is what it is. We have the wine reviewing system we deserve. It’s the one we must work within, regardless of how much it taxes our patience. So be of good cheer, ye winemakers. Go placidly through the noise and haste. All will be well.


How does our taste in alcohol change over time?

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When I was a young man I didn’t care at all for wine, except for its obvious ability to make a college freshman (me) drunk. Years later, I learned to appreciate and eventually love wine. At first I sought out Cabernet Sauvignon because that was the wine all the critics at that time (the 1980s) said was the most important grape and wine, at least here in California.

At about that time I got my first wine writing job, at Wine Spectator, where they assigned me The Collecting Page, which appeared in every issue. My job was to write articles of interest to wine collectors. I got to know most of the top collectors in America (they all wanted to have their pictures and names in the magazine, so they returned my phone calls and in some cases they sought me out). One thing I learned about these wealthy, white, middle-aged men was that, almost to a person, they had started out with a preference for Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux, then graduated to Pinot Noir/Burgundy. That was my first intuition that our tastes in booze change over time.

Of course it’s well known that many people begin liking sweet wines and only gradually move onto dry table wines, so that’s another calibration in the booze evolutionary scale. With me, a love of Pinot Noir took some time, because there wasn’t very much decent Pinot in California, and I certainly couldn’t afford to buy good Burgundy. But by the mid-1990s there was enough good Pinot, from the likes of Williams Selyem, Rochioli and so on, that I learned to love it. However, I never loved it more than Cabernet. To me, they were separate, but equal.

However now my tastes are definitely changing. I’ve acquired, or I should say re-acquired, a taste for beer—good beer, craft beer, not the watery stuff produced by America’s gigantic brewers. I’m not sure why this has finally happened to me. Beer has an umami quality that I simply crave, especially for my first drink of the late afternoon. Maybe it’s the fizz.

I’ve also acquired a new-found appreciation for liquor, particularly vodka. Again, I can’t say why this is. My favorite is a gimlet: good vodka and freshly-squeezed limes. None of that sweet Rose’s, please, and if you happen to have a basil leaf, feel free to muddle it in, but not too much; the basil should be a subtle background taste.

This isn’t to say I don’t still appreciate wine. I certainly do. I continue to love a good, dry white wine, no matter where it’s from: California, Sancerre, Chablis. It’s in the matter of red wines that I find my bodily tastes changing the most. I can still appreciate a red wine, but it really has to be a very good wine. For me, red wines show their flaws more readily than any other wine; and the chief flaw is a certain heavy blandness that can come with an over-emphasis of fruit. Many, many California red wines suffer from this flaw; a little fruitiness goes a long way, and if the wine is out-of-balance in acids and tannins, the flaw is even more obvious. Another way of putting this is that I can appreciate a good beer, white wine or cocktail by itself, but most red wines are more difficult for me to enjoy unless they’re coupled with the proper food.

It’s funny, though, because I still find myself mentally rating wines, even though it’s going on two years (!!!) since I was a working wine critic. Old habits die hard. Take California Cabernet Sauvignon. There are lots of them I’ll score at 92, 93 points, even though they’re not particularly wines I care to drink, except, as I said, with the right foods. But there’s a twist: most of these big red wines call for beef, and I’m not much of a beef eater. (I think of lamb as a Pinot Noir food. Pigs and Pinot, as we say.) So even though my formal training is in rating and reviewing big red wines, and I’m pretty good at it, those same wines play less and less of a role in my private life.

I’ve also evolved to another more interesting point, at least for me. I’ve cellared wine since, like, forever! But I’m finally at the point where I’m starting to drink my older bottles. I figure, I’m not going to be here forever, and those special occasions I always fancied would justify popping the cork on a 15-year old wine seem to come a lot less frequently than they used to. So why wait? What’s the old saying, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

El Nino is starting to hit us here in California. One storm after another, with a biggie scheduled to roll in on Thursday. But the week beyond that is dry, and our state water officials are warning us, with some urgency, not to stop conserving just because the “monster” El Nino is coming. So we’ll just have to wait and see what January, February, March and April bring.


The score as shortcut

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Richard Hemming MW had a provocative posting last week on Jancis’s Purple Pages. The header says it all: Excoriating Scoring. It was in fact a commentary, fairly scathing at times albeit with some fine and amusing phrases, on “nonsensical rating systems masquerading as obdurate fact,” and compared the writers of such scoring systems to “a doomed army… marching blithely onward with…deluded confidence…”.

Ouch! That sounds like something 1WineDude might have written seven years ago. Wait a minute, he did.

Bashing point scores in 2008 was already jumping the shark, but it could at least be understood in the context of blogging being a young sport, and bloggers who couldn’t get paid were perhaps understandably eager to upset a few Big Critic apple carts and vie for the majors. I got it then; I get it now; it’s the way things go.

But at this point in the history of wine writing and reviewing, do we really have to bash this, that or the other rating system? I mean, we’re all in this together; why be partisan about it? We can all get along if we just try, because each system, each approach has its pluses and minuses.

Richard Hemming MW himself concedes that scores do possess a certain usefulness. Good thing, since apparently he uses a 20-point system. I can trust that I’ll like whatever I score above 17 more than anything I score below 16,” he says. I actually said almost the same thing last Wednesday, when I was holding a tasting for young sommeliers on the beautiful Maya Riviera. One of them asked if my personal taste comes into play when I score a wine. “No,” I said. But, I added, “it’s much more likely that I would want to drink a wine I give 95 to than one I give 84.”

Nobody ever said that point scores are the perfect solution for anything. Like democracy itself, they’re messy—but as Richard Hemming MW writes, “there is simply no better alternative” to the point system. I myself have long been uneasy with point scores, as I am about many things, but I have become reconciled to the fact that the world is not a neat place in which all the pieces of the puzzle fit tidily together. This is a frenzied globe we inhabit. We do our best with the muddle in which we find ourselves. That includes ways to taste, review, write and talk about wine. A part of me wishes I had been born in the mid-1800s, in England, into the cadre of British dons who gloried in the Golden Age of Bordeaux and wrote about it in prose that may strike some as purple, but that nonetheless outshines in literacy anything you’re likely to find today. Alas, my fate, for better or worse, was to be born a Baby Boomer, riding the crest of the wave that brought wine from an infinitesimal and rather obscure element in America to the behemoth it is today, with somms the new rock stars and companies from airlines to newspaper conglomerates peddling their wine clubs. Part of that crest was the 100-point system, a bit of flotsam Baby Boomers, reared on school exams, understood in their bones. Maybe you had to be there, thirty years ago and more, to appreciate how radical and revolutionary, how wonderful and beautiful those scores were to those of us who subscribed to Parker, or, as I did, to Wine Spectator when it was still a tabloid published in San Francisco. Maybe I am just wistful for the lost days of youth, gazing through the misty veil of nostalgia at a past that will never be again. Still, it was really something.

I suppose there is a legitimate school of thought that says all things must pass; what worked 30 years ago does not work today. But, really, is that true? You can argue for or against anything, but it does help to understand History before brandishing contempt for things whose roots go deep into time. Parker’s invention of the 100-point system was actually designed to help budding wine drinkers—a noble goal, and one that demonstrably succeeded. He did not wish to dominate wine drinkers, or to cater to “our collective human desperation to impose order on things” (Richard Hemming MW), as if there were something wrong with the human desire to make sense out of chaos.

At any rate, it’s my belief that people—consumers—want visual, not just written, guidance concerning the things they spend their money on. Here in San Francisco our movie reviewer uses The Little Man

the_little_man

who may or may not be jumping out of his seat. The Chron’s restaurant reviewer, Michael Bauer, uses stars (including half stars), as does, of course, Michelin. A score, even a 100-point score, is nothing more than a visual icon, plain and simple. Scores may be shortcuts, but we all like to take the quicker route sometimes, don’t we?


Crying all the way to the bank

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What are we to make of the winemakers quoted in Karen MacNeil’s latest column in The Somm Journal?

Asked by Karen their views on the word “cult” to describe their wines, the sextet unites in condemning a term they all say they loathe.

Bill Harlan says the word “implies blind followers who lack discernment.” For Doug Shafer, “It’s a manufactured term…I don’t understand what it means.” Dan Kosta calls it “lazy,” Celia Welch “something that simply has investment value,” while Sir Peter Michael dismisses it as “the so-called ‘cult’ status of a wine.” Ann Colgin cracks an uneasy joke: “I was born in Waco, Texas, why is why I’ve always hated the term ‘cult.’” (She refers, of course, to the infamous 1993 siege of the Branch Davidians.)

It may well be that these winemakers and winery owners are made uncomfortable by a term now so widespread that its use instantly telegraphs almost all that an English-speaking wine person needs to know about a “cult” wine: that it is red; that it is probably a Bordeaux-style wine from Napa Valley (Kosta Browne and Peter Michael excepted, but most of them are); that it is produced in small quantities; that it has achieved very high ratings from two, or three, or four top critics; that it is ultra-expensive and—as Ms. Welch implied—that it often is resold (via the Internet and auction houses) to amass sizable profit to the original purchaser. Indeed, as Karen herself, in her article, notes, “now…the term has been stitched into common wine language.”

My sympathies for the sextet, then. “I feel your pain,” as Bill Clinton, using that very phrase, famously said in a figure of speech in 1992 when responding to a critic of his AIDS policy.

So too is there a bit of figurative speaking when the sextet bemoans this most common and useful descriptor of their wines. They mean it, I guess—albeit with qualifications of which they may be unaware. So too there is a bit of disingenuousness. Harlan Estate’s fans may not “lack discernment,” but “blind followers” is a not inaccurate way of describing their lust, which most of us feel is inspired by high scores and the desire to show off, as much as by an appreciation of the wine itself. Dan Kosta’s “lazy” simply affirms that many layers of meaning—all of them accurate—are wrapped up in that single adjective, “cult”; there’s nothing “so-called” about it. As for the “investment value” part, well, that’s why people call it flipping.

The sextet has done well, extraordinarily well, with their wines, but it’s not as if their rare, exalted status happened ipso facto—by itself, with no external causation. The proprietors and their marketing advisors worked exceeding fine to manufacture exactly the desirability that is one of the layers of meaning of the word “cult.” I can speak only of my own personal experience, of course, but consider that:

Ms. Colgin pours her wines by appointment, in the Versailles luxe of her Pritchard Hill mansion. Mr. Harlan similarly tastes by appointment; he once requested that I taste BOND and Harlan Estate in separate places, a few minutes’ drive apart, in order, I suppose, to better appreciate their ambience. Sir Peter has been on endless magazine covers—with the honorific “Sir” conjuring up associations of English royalty and wealth (exactly as it is supposed to, and what is more cultish than the Royal Family of Great Britain?)—while Dan Kosta benefited from his “lazy” characterization to the tune of his share of the $40 million when Kosta Browne was sold, in 2009. So let’s not feel too sorry for these cult wine proprietors.

Look, I love their wines. Used to give ‘em high scores at Wine Enthusiast. I appreciate how hard it is to make them—how much effort goes into every aspect of growing and vinifying. I’m not even particularly bothered by the prices: crazy as they are, the market determines that. And some of these proprietors, the ones I know—perhaps all of them–are wonderful people. I’m just sayin’ that the “woe is me” croc tears aren’t credible. These guys are crying all the way to the bank.


What makes a wine region classic? What does it say about 100-point wines?

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If you were a wine critic, do you think you could give 100 points to a wine you tasted double-blind?

Let’s assume that your educated palate determined it was a very, very good wine. You might taste it and think, “Wow, this is really great,” and then consider giving it a perfect score. But then, not having the slightest idea what it was, you might hedge your bet and give it, say, 96 points. You could, of course, give it 100, but my hunch is that you’d second-guess yourself enough so that you wouldn’t. Psychology plays a bigger role in these decisions than you might think—or that critics want you to know!

On the other hand, say you weren’t tasting the wine blind. Say you knew it was 2009 Latour. You know Latour’s history and reputation, you know it’s one of the most ageworthy wines in the world, you know, in short, that this wine in front of you is absolutely classic, from a classic vintage. Now, is that enough information to make you more comfortable about giving it 100 points?

I should think so, and so, apparently, does Jim Laube, who wrote a very good column in the July 31, 2015 issue of Wine Spectator about what makes any particular winery “great” in the eyes of critics and wine historians. (Sorry, if you’re not a Wine Spectator subscriber, you can’t read the entire column.) Along these lines, he mentions La Tache specifically by name, and more generically, he mentions Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone and Sauternes in France, and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, as possessing the “pedigree” needed to be a classic—that is, to be worthy of getting 100 points.

Now, if you’re in Paso Robles or the Sierra Foothills or someplace that doesn’t have the impressive history of these classic regions, you probably wonder how long it will take for your region to be considered classic, and thus worthy of consistently producing 100 point wines, at least in a great vintage. This is an excellent question, and of course Jim Laube is the perfect person to raise it, since he’s the dean of California wine critics and a very thoughtful man. He rightfully speculates that newer regions might someday enter this pantheon of the classics, as well he should: it would be intellectually disingenuous to say that the pantheon is closed, that no poseur can ever enter the top rank because it’s been shut for years.

What’s so fascinating about this topic is that it calls into question the validity of the 100-point system. If you posit that only certain regions are even capable of achieving 100 points, then you’re basically an ideologue; and we mere mortals, who read the reviews of these famous critics, have to wonder if they’re really tasting everything blind. Now, Jim Laube is honest enough to suggest that more information than merely the taste of the wine is needed in order to “identify the best wines.” “A wine requires some credentials in order to be measured among the elite.”

Let me repeat that. Jim said “A wine requires some credentials in order to be measured among the elite.” This means that double-blind tasting can never result in a super-high score because the taster is, by definition, ignorant of its credentials.

Would it trouble you to say that I agree with Jim? He has to tread a careful line here, because Wine Spectator claims, in their Buying Guide, that “Wines are always tasted blind.” But they do offer the caveat that this is not double-blind: they taste “in flights organized by varietal, appellation or region…and the vintage.”

That’s quite a lot of important information. If you know that you’re tasting white Burgundy from a great vintage, you have to allow for the possibility of a very high score. Can it score 100 points? Well, does the taster know if it’s Grand Cru or Premier Cru or some vlillage wine? The critic has to make this kind of judgment based not so much on the individual wine, IMHO, but on his track record, and on the acceptance of the market.

This conversation about point scores and perceptions is more necessary than ever. Am I refuting the 100-point system? No. But I am calling into question the circumstances under which it is utilized. I think there’s a place for it. But I also think that we need far more transparency about how these tastings are conducted, in order for them to be credible. I don’t mind an open tasting when critics let us know they were excited as hell, and so their enthusiasm might be biased. But I do mind it when critics put on the fig leaf of “blind tasting” when they actually know a lot more about the wines than they lead us to believe.

Have a great weekend!


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