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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 (It does, however, remain an interesting read and is important as an historical document.)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.


Friday fishwrap: mediocre wines, an upcoming Pinot tasting, and props to Von Strasser

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I’ve given brutal scores lately to some expensive wines, most of them new entrants to the California marketplace. When a wine costs $40, $50 or more, and it’s not even as good as some other wine that costs $15, it gets me irked.

Of course, I can’t allow my emotions to enter into my scores. But if you read between the lines of my reviews, you might occasionally glimpse a certain dismay.

This is the critic’s conundrum. We’re only human. We get dazzled by great wines, even if they’re hugely expensive. Sometimes, I have to hold myself back a little in praising a great wine, or risk being accused of score inflation, which I believe is an issue that has not been seriously addressed. On the other hand, it’s easy to get bored with mediocre wines, which dominate every region no matter how famous.

I always wonder if a winemaker or proprietor who’s putting out a $50 bottle of wine that scores 84 points knew in advance that the wine was mediocre. Maybe they did, and cynically released it anyway, knowing that people will buy it because of its pretty label, or at the tasting room, or whatever. On the other hand, maybe they didn’t. It would be a huge mistake to assume that all winemakers have good palates. I know some who put out mediocre wine year after year after year. (Why they still send me samples, when they have good reason to know I don’t like their style, is a riddle to me. It’s that old definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result.)

* * *

Speaking of winemakers, I’m getting ready to assemble my panel for March 9th’s Pinot Noir Summit, at the Golden Gate Club, in San Francisco’s Presidio National Park. I haven’t decided on a theme yet, but am tinkering with the notion of regional differences between the southern Russian River Valley (including Green Valley) and Fort Ross-Seaview. In general, the south valley is chillier and foggier, because it’s low-lying and gets a strong push of maritime influence coming up from the Petaluma Gap. Most of the Fort Ross-Seaview vineyards, on the other hand, lie at altitudes above the fog line, so they bask in sunshine while their sister vines down in the valley are swathed in fog. You’d expect this situation to express itself clearly in the Pinot Noirs from both regions, and it does: valley wines are darker and more tannic on release, while Fort Ross Pinots tend to be more accessible early. I don’t think either is more ageable than the other; I wouldn’t mind having a couple cases of Flowers alongside a couple cases of Joseph Swan in my cellar.

Finding themes for public tastings can be challenging. There’s a tendency on the part of some people to make the topics too geeky, but it’s my impression that the public gets bored with abstruse discussions of technique. People want fairly simple, accurate information, in an easy-to-digest form. They don’t want to wade through the intricacies of grape chemistry, irrigation, maceration techniques and tannin management. A little of that goes a long way. They also want personality: not all good winemakers are good panelists (and not all good panelists are good winemakers!). A few years ago, I had a certain winemaker on one of my panels and he/she was as boring as a doorknob. Won’t make that mistake again.

* * *

A quick word of praise in passing for Von Strasser’s latest batch of Cabernet Sauvignons from their Diamond Mountain estate. Great wines, and all the more impressive for coming from a 2011 vintage that was as challenging as any in memory. These wines show the importance of well-drained mountain vineyards in a cold year, and of vigorous pruning and sorting decisions. Of the six new ‘11s, I gave my highest score to the Estate, but Spaulding, Sori Bricco, 2131, Post and the regular ’11 Cab weren’t far behind. All are ageable. I don’t think Von Strasser gets the recognition they deserve, but they should.

Have a great weekend!


Why my dog is like some winemakers. Or the other way around.

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Gus ate a pound of salami a couple days ago. It was an accident on my part. Someone sent it to me in a box–I thought it was a book and left it in the iivingroom, unopened. In the middle of the night, Gus’s magnificent olfactory sense discovered it. The next morning, there was nothing left, except the shredded box.

The next morning, Gus was vomiting it up. He knew he’d been a bad dog. He got that guilty look in his eyes, tucked his tail down below his hind legs, and followed me around the house wherever I went, looking morose and mopey. Dog owners know that look: “I’ve been bad, I feel terrible about it–but really, I just couldn’t help myself. Please don’t hate me.”

Now on to winemakers. Yesterday I heard from one, whom I respect a great deal, and whose wines I usually–not always–score well into the 90s.  He wrote of his 2011s, “they probably won’t get high scores, they are not showy wines, but there is not a musty or lacking wine in the bunch.”

In other words, he was apologizing for his wines even before I’d tasted most of them! (He’s already sent a couple of the less expensive ’11 early releases, but not his heavy hitters.) This is what reminds me of Gus. My dog didn’t have anything to apologize for–really. I wasn’t angry at him; he was just doing his doggie thing, and after all, it was my fault for leaving the meat out where he could get to it. If I was mad at anyone, it was me.

Now, this isn’t to single this winemaker out. He’s a fine gentleman who’s earned his celebrity status in the wine industry. But I do want to use his “probably won’t get high scores” comment to make an important point. Why do people feel the need to apologize for not making the kind of high alcohol, ripe, oaky wines that tend to get the highest scores? (Believe me, he’s not the only one.) If this winemaker sticks to his guns (and he has) and lets his terroir tell him what to do, rather than to try and appeal to the palate of 2 or 3 critics, then he’s going to be a better, more honest winemaker.

The wider problem is when winemakers are so insecure and needy that they deliberately undercut their own terroir, not to mention their natural instincts. They take fruit that is not naturally geared toward high alcohol, ripeness and oak, let it hang until the last possible minute while the acidity drops lower and lower and the sugars rise as much as they physically can, ferment the hell out of the grapes to maximize every molecule of fruity essence, and then load up on the new oak (and possibly the Mega Purple too). That may fool some critics, but discerning ones will simply find the wine overworked and tedious, and say so in their review.

I think a certain steadfast attitude is necessary for a winemaker, as it is for all of us in every aspect of our lives. One should not fear letting the wine be what it wants to be, just because it might not get 97 points. If winemakers need scores to market their wines, they should know that there are many critics around who can appreciate a lighter-bodied, more elegant wine just as much as a big, heavy one. Winemaking at the highest levels should be all about what the terroir wants to express, guided perhaps by the winemaker’s hand, but gently.

If the winemaker who wrote me those comments reads this, I’d tell him not to worry, not to apologize, to stand tall and respect the values that got him into winemaking in the first place. I’m sure that, 25 years ago, he didn’t stress out over scores. He doesn’t have to today. His wines are respected in the right venues, and so is he.


The art of the blend: What I won’t be telling the Unified Grape & Wine Symposium

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I was asked to moderate a panel next month at the Unified Grape & Wine Symposium in Sacramento, and while I had to decline due to circumstances beyond my control, I was intrigued by the topic: The Proprietary Wine: Rethinking the Constructs of Blended Wine.

The person who invited me, David Akiyoshi, is winemaker at Lange Twins Winery. (I remember years ago visiting them, when I covered the wines of the Sierra Foothills.) David explained to me, in an email, what he was looking for:

“The moderator should have the ability to provide an overview of historical wine trends from the generic 70’s chablis/burgundy, the demographic shift beginning in the 80’s to wines with varietal labels and the latest trend of proprietary red/white wine blends. There has always been a market for these wines such as with the European Meritage or Rhone blends and today’s consumers are more accepting of this category. Significant for the success of these wines is that there is less need for consumers to be a connoisseur or to be handcuffed by the latest 100 pt score.  Quite simply, it is all about the enjoyment of wine as a beverage without artifice or social stigma of making the ‘wrong wine choice.’” 

One could obviously write a book about all this, but I’ll try to fit it into a blog-length post. We know, of course, that from the end of Prohibition up to some point in the 1970s, American wines (mainly from California) labeled “Burgundy,” “Chablis,” “Rhine,” “Sauternes” and the like dominated sales in this country. Educated people understood the wrongness of this; as early as the 1930s, folks such as Frank Schoonmaker argued for true and honest labeling: “Napa Valley Red Wine,” that sort of thing. By the time the boutique winery era was rolling, in the late 1960s-1970s, and mainly in Napa and Sonoma, this point of view had become the accepted norm. Varietal labeling was celebrated as being refreshingly honest and distinctly American, an early practice of truth-in-labeling.

In the late 1980s, a group of vintners who were producing Bordeaux-style wines in California became frustrated with varietal labeling. They were blending the major Bordeaux varieties to produce the best wines they could, but the amount of any given variety was insufficient to meet the Federal government’s requirement of at least 75% of that variety in order to so label the wine. So they held a contest to come up with an alternative name (a contest I entered, and lost). The word “Meritage” won. The concept was good, but unfortunately, that term proved not to have staying power. Although some wineries still use it, it never caught on, and seems to me to be in dimenuendo.

However, that never stopped vintners from blending to below the 75% threshold. They simply called their wine by a proprietary name, like Joe Phelps did with Insignia. At first, these blends were almost exclusively Bordeaux varieties, but by the 1990s, Rhône-style blends began appearing. Spearheaded by the “Rhône Ranger” movement and the Hospices du Rhône organization, these wines were modeled after southern Rhône blends, usually based on GSM: Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. They, too, could not be called by a varietal name, so the wineries gave them proprietary names, such as Tablas Creek’s Esprit de Beaucastel. (Some of these wineries also produced white wines, most often based on some combination of Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier and Grenache Blanc.)

David Akiyoshi asks, “Are [these] blended wines merely a fad, or are they creating a new and lasting category of wines that promises to bringing new consumers to the table?” My answer, clearly, is a loud NO, they are not merely a fad, and YES, they are a lasting category, although I couldn’t say whether or not they’re “bringing new consumers to the table,” which is a complicated issue.

I’ve blogged about this and written about it in Wine Enthusiast, and in fact, one of the main reasons why I successfully argued for Paso Robles to be the magazine’s Wine Region of the Year was due to the success of the blends, red and white, made there, often of varieties previously unrelated by region or historical practice (Tempranillo, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Merlot, for example).

There’s no reason why a varietally-labeled wine is necessarily better than a blended one. Bordeaux itself is always a blend of varieties. One could even argue that so is red Burgundy, given Pinot Noir’s proclivity to spontaneously mutate to different clones. The Federal government’s requirement of 75% for a variety is patently arbitrary: Why not 60%, or 90%? The only reason, in my opinion, why so many vintners choose to label their wines varietally is because the consumer believes that varietally-labeled wines are superior to wines with other names.

When David says “It is all about the enjoyment of a wine as a beverage without artifice or social stigma of making the ‘wrong wine choice,’” he’s onto something. It’s the job of us educators to teach the public that varietal labeling in and of itself is meaningless. The problem, of course, is that this is an uphill battle, and will take time.

Where I digress from David’s point of view is when he says that the success of blending as a consumer category will result in “less need for consumers…to be handcuffed by the latest 100 point score.” I can understand why he (or anyone else) would object to the 100 point system, but I don’t see what varietal labeling has to do with it. I gave 100 points to La Muse 2007, which has no varietal labeling, just as I gave 100 points to the Shafer 2004 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, which obviously does.

In the end, it’s a sign of a culture’s wine maturity when the populace understands that the ultimate duty of a wine is to provide pleasure, not to adhere to some government rule. If it can best do so by the winemaker crafting the most perfect blend he or she is capable of, then why should anyone care that the wine doesn’t have a varietal name? This may sound like Jesuitical, angels-dancing-on-pinheads rhetoric, but it actually strikes the point that American consumers, still rather infantile about wine, have stereotypes and preconceptions that must pass, before we can truly become a wine-appreciating country.


The irrelevance of blogs that say the 100-point system is irrelevant

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Back in the 1990s I was supplementing my wine-writing income by doing a little healthcare reporting. As things turned out, I became known as something of an expert in the intersection of the U.S. healthcare industry–the nation’s biggest–and the emerging Internet. Everyone from pharmaceutical manufacturers to insurers, hospital administrators and individual doctors wanted to know what would happen when these two gigantic forces met, and how they could incorporate this new-fangled World Wide Web into their businesses. I didn’t have a clue, to tell you the truth, but I knew just enough more than most people (including my editors) to keep me gainfully employed and give my writing the semblance of expertise.

One memory stays with me of that period. Dot-com startups were as common in those days as the squirrels now gathering nuts in my neighborhood here in Oakland as Fall approaches. Here’s how it typically worked (and this is a fascinating and useful glimpse into the troubled, and troubling, nexus of marketing and reporting, as well). Someone starts a dot-com company; let’s say it purports to keep Internet-based communications between physicians secure. Somehow, that new business, which may not yet even exist (which would qualify it as “vaporware”), attracts the attention of one of the big investment banks. That bank would buy a piece of the company or otherwise associate itself with it. Then the bank would make its analysts available to journalists writing about that topic; the analysts would help the hapless reporters understand the finer points of whatever the topic was. If you’ve ever been a working reporter, you know how much we depend on the kindness of analysts whom we can quote with certain knowledge that the quotes are accurate, because after all, that analyst is an expert who works for an important investment bank.

Well, you see the obvious conflict of interest. The analyst talks up the new company, explaining how the product or service it provides is badly needed, and that this company (which he has analyzed in detail) is in a good position to succeed. The company is, according to the analyst, a sure thing. Meanwhile, the reporter–me–is typing all this down, to incorporate into the story. Next thing you know, a big, glossy healthcare magazine is running it, complete with the analyst’s spin (but now in my words) about how great this new startup company is. It’s a win-win-win for everybody: the startup’s owner, the investment bank, the analyst, me, and the publisher of the magazine who’s paying me.

Except for one little thing: in many cases, the analysts either lied or were entirely incorrect (for whatever reason) in their judgments. As we all know, the dot-com era crashed spectacularly in the early 2000s. A lot of “sure things” perished overnight; a lot of people lost everything. Many of the “sure thing” predictions turned out to be as premature as reports of Mark Twain’s demise. That horrible era taught me some important lessons I’ve carried through in my journalism ever since: Be skeptical of claims, even by so-called  “experts” who seem so self-assured. I developed a B.S. radar that to this day serves me well. That radar always asks these questions of anyone giving information or advice: Does this person have a hidden agenda? What does he or she have to gain (or lose)? Is there solid evidence of this person’s claims?

When the dot-com collapse finally happened, I’d been out of healthcare writing for a few years. But I was shocked that my reporting had had something to do with instilling a sense of trust in these startup companies–trust that, as it turned out, they didn’t deserve. People all over the country had read my articles and made decisions based upon facts provided to me, and by me to readers, that had turned out not to be true. I vowed never to let that happen again.

We come now, after this somewhat labored intro, to the subject of today’s post. Over the last number of years, we’ve had many reports of the Death of the 100 Point System. These have mainly come from the wine blogosphere. We can now see that these reports have been characterized, not by critical judgment or factual data, but by wishful (and even magical) thinking. Typical of the genre is this blog post from last week that incorporates the standard memes:

–       people, especially younger ones, don’t care about point scores

–       they would rather get a recco from a friend than from some famous [old] critic

–       wine criticism is subjective anyway, so giving it a number is crazy

–       the only way to judge a wine is to experience it yourself

The writer then offers examples from his own experience to “prove” the truth of each assertion.

Well, of course, each of these bullet points is true in its own way. But they’re no truer now than they were pre-social media. Only a tiny percentage of wine consumers ever cared about point scores. But in fact, more people today are influenced by them than ever. More and more big retailers (Beverages & More, Costco) are using point scores (by people like me) to market their wines, so that more and more consumers are exposed to them. And believe me, these retailers wouldn’t use point scores if they didn’t know a high score moves SKUs.

And younger people, of course, always have been resistant to the advice of elders. That’s what it means to be young: There’s nothing inherently different about kids in their twenties today than at any other point in history. They’ve always been more inclined to respect the opinions of their friends than of their elders. Social media hasn’t changed that. The point is that young people will someday be middle-aged people (that’s the way it goes, kids), and when they have a little more money in their pockets, they’ll do what people with disposable incomes have always done: seek the advice of experts when it comes to buying things, like autos, high tech devices and, yes, wine.

There’s simply no evidence that the 100-point system is endangered or irrelevant. In fact it’s at the height of its impact. Virtually every major critic in the world uses it (or some variation of it). The writer of the blog post I referenced understands this full well: in his concluding paragraph (which is where you always want to make an important point to leave with the reader), he writes: “Ultimately, the 100-point scale is here to stay.” That disclaimer, you’d think, would nullify everything he’d said up to that point. After all, you can’t be “here to stay” if you’re irrelevant, can you?


Why the guy from Hourglass is right about the 100 point system

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Stark Insider is a cool site that ventures into all kinds of interesting territory, including wine. Their intrepid reporter, Loni Stark, put up this video interview yesterday with Hourglass owner/winemaker Jeff Smith.

I learned about it from my Facebook feed, and just had to watch it after reading the message: “Will the 100 point scoring system survive?”

Here’s what Jeff told Loni, in response to her question on the system, “Do you think it’s here to stay?” He replied:

 “I think the whole landscape of wine review is going through a bit of a change. There’s all kinds of different movements with Wine Advocate and the whole blogger world. So there is a sea change–and the general consumer has more information and is more wine savvy and sophisticated. So this plays into this idea of wine review. There are more points [i.e. sources] to draw your information from. Do I think the 100 point scale will go away? Absolutely not. I think it’s proved to be the dominant form of how to rank and classify [wine]. It’s a very flawed system, but it’s here to stay. We are critical beings and we do hierarchically judge the world around us. Why should wine be any different? I’m not saying it’s a perfect system, but it is a powerful communicating tool that will not disappear overnight.”

I agree with everything Jeff said. Yes, there are a lot more sources of information these days; that’s good. Not all of them use the 100 point system, especially the bloggers; they hardly could, if they’ve previously attacked it, which many of them have. And the 100 point system does have its flaws: What system doesn’t? (One flaw is that two critics, both of them seasoned professionals, might give the same wine different scores, resulting in cognitive dissonance for the consumer. Another flaw is inconsistent results from the same critic for the same wine on different occasions. I’ve written about both of these numerous times.)

But Jeff also is correct when he calls it “the dominant form of how to rank and classify wine.” This statement is objectively true: You may not like the 100 point system, but it’s very hard to argue that it’s not the dominant ranking system in the world. All the major American periodicals use it, and so do many of the minor ones. The public instantly understands it, which is why Jeff called it “a powerful communicating tool.” Why would anyone want to ditch something that helps the wine industry speak coherently to consumers?

I can envision a future (and you can, too) in which consumers are so smart about wine that they don’t need help from anyone. I hope that day arrives. But it won’t come “overnight,” to use Jeff’s timeframe, nor do I think it will come in the next ten years, at the very least. The 100 point system is too entrenched.

One question I wish Loni had asked Jeff is: Do you think that a younger generation–people below, say, 30–care about the 100 point system? It may be that the circle Jeff  travels in is older, richer and more infatuated with critics who use the 100 point system. (This is an inference on my part, but Hourglass is very expensive, so my hunch seems justified, especially in light of his reference to Wine Advocate.) The most practical anti-100 point argument essentially boils down to the claim that young people don’t read the critics, don’t have much of an opinion about the 100 point system one way or the other, and hence are not likely to be influenced by it.

This may be true. The counter-argument, though, is that those under-30s will be over 30 someday. In fact, they’ll be over 40 (hard as it may be for them to believe), and eventually they’ll be making enough money to be able to afford a wine like Hourglass. That’s when, I predict, they’re going to start getting fussier about what they drop $125 on (as opposed to $12 for something their friends liked on Twitter today). And that’s when, I further predict, they’re going to seek guidance from whoever the major critics of the day are, who will be employing, I predict finally, the 100 point system.


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