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Why tasting plonk, not just great wine, is important

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I taste a lot of common wine, vin ordinaire, plonk, call it what you will. Some of it is pretty awful stuff. I also taste a lot of very expensive wine, the kind sometimes called, for lack of a better word, “cult.” In this, I’m different from some other critics, who taste only the top stuff. Me, I taste everything in my portfolio, which includes “California” appellation wines that often contain Central Valley fruit.

There’s a school of thought in wine tasting that tasting mediocre wine long enough eventually compromises the palate to the point where it cannot recognize the elite qualities of higher-toned wines. The suggestion has a human parallel. It’s like saying that someone from the ghetto can’t appreciate fine art, because he’s been raised under vulgar circumstances and thus his capability to appreciate the finer things in life is limited.

Leaving aside the racist implications of this theory, I would argue exactly the opposite: that tasting mediocre wine makes it more possible for me to appreciate great wine.

The defects of mediocre wines are many, but the most common simply is the absence of concentration. “Concentration” is very important to wine. Its opposite is thinness, wateriness, which is often the result of overcropping the wines. Blending press juice into wine can also make it harsher and contribute to an absence of concentration.

Many, many California wines are mediocre (which means “ordinary, neither good nor bad”). There’s an ocean of mediocre Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay produced for the average drinker who doesn’t want to spend a fortune. Lately, we’re seeing more and more mediocre Pinot Noirs, as that variety spikes in popularity, and let me tell you, a mediocre Pinot Noir is even less pleasant than a mediocre Cabernet!

It can be depressing to taste mediocre wines. Even when it’s not actually a drag, it’s not a whole lot of fun. It’s work. You think the critic’s day is spent lounging around in silk pajamas sipping wine, occasionally taking time to snack on a little foie gras or smoked trout? Let me tell you, a flight of Central Valley Cabernets is tough. But I console myself considerably when I find one that’s actually pretty good. If the price is low enough to make it a Best Buy in Wine Enthusiast, that’s a happy day for me.

There’s a part of me (and of every wine aficienado, I suppose) that yearns to taste great wine. There’s a hedonistic and intellectual appeal to such adventures that’s part of the reason why we became wine fanatics in the first place. This is why tasting mediocre wine can be so valuable. It’s as if, after a long trek through the desert, you’re so parched with thirst, that when you finally come across some cool, potable water, it tastes like ambrosia–not just plain old H2O, but some nectar of the gods. You can appreciate the highs all the more, for having gone through the lows.

I wrote last week about score inflation, and how a number crunch of our database at Wine Enthusiast suggests that, in recent years, my very high scores have been inching up–not by a lot, but ever so steadily. I wrote that this could be due to the fact that California wine is simply getting better, which I happen to believe is true. But it also could be true because I’m tasting more mediocre wine than ever, and I think I’m also more acute to discerning mediocrity in a wine than I used to be. That discernment for recognizing problems in wine has a counterpoint in an equal discernment for recognizing superlative quality.

One final phenomenon occurs to me, and it’s something I’ve thought of often over the years but never fully worked out in my mind. What exactly is the difference between a 100-point wine and an 85-point wine of the same type? Are they so completely different that they may as well be thought of as different species–not just apples and oranges, but apples and zebras?

Well, no. An 85 (or 84, or 86, or 88) point wine often isn’t all that different from a 100 point wine. That’s the truth that amateurs often pick up on, but are ashamed to admit, because they think it makes them look stupid. An 86 point Cabernet from Napa Valley is pretty much the same as a 100 point Cabernet from Napa Valley, except for that “concentration” I spoke earlier about. There are other rather abstract qualities that go along with concentration, such as balance, elegance and the finish, but these do require discernment of a type it takes many years to acquire. So, while a discerning palate can appreciate those higher-toned qualities, the mind that rules that palate also understands that we’re talking about shades of difference, not evolutionary paradigm shifts.

Anyway, I’ve wandered a bit from my original premise that tasting plonk can make the palate appreciate great wine even more, so let me reprise with it. Part of me wishes it didn’t have to taste mediocre wine, but my better angels recognize that it’s an important and educational part of my job.

Let’s all wish our friends and loved ones in the path of the eastern storms good luck!


More value wines, in this case, Editor’s Choices

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Yesterday I wrote about Best Buy wines on the market now. Best Buys are defined rather strictly by Wine Enthusiast according to a price-score relationship. For example, if a wine scores 87 points and costs no more than $12, it automatically gets a Best Buy designation. The editor (in this case, me) has no discretion in the matter. It’s all in the numbers.

We also have another class of special designation called Editor’s Choice. This is where we editors can apply our discernment and judgment. The guidelines for Editor’s Choice are “wines that represent excellent quality at a price above our Best Buy range, or wines that merit special attention whether for quality or uniqueness regardless of price.”

This obviously opens up a whole world of possibilities. It would be easy, I suppose, to overdo the Editor’s Choice selections, since the parameters are so loose as to be almost subjective. But I’ve found, over the years, that I’m pretty selective about it. I don’t want my Editor’s Choices to seem promiscuously chosen, or selected for any reason other than that the wine really impresses me for something.

It’s hard to say, in the abstract, why I choose Editor’s Choices. A better approach is to use specific wines I gave the designation to and explain my thinking.

Often, even expensive wines can earn an Editor’s Choice:

Failla’s 2010 Chardonnay, from Ehren Jordan’s estate vineyard way up at Fort Ross, on the far Sonoma Coast, isn’t cheap. At $44, it’s pricier than most people I know would spend on a bottle of wine, except for a special occasion. But then, not every Chardonnay I review gets 99 points, which makes $44 seem bargainesque, which makes the wine an Editor’s Choice.

Ditto Von Strasser’s 2009 Estate Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, from up on Diamond Mountain. It’s not the only Napa Cab I gave 98 points to. But, at $70, it’s a helluva lot less expensive than its peers, not to mention dozens of triple-digit Cabs that aren’t even as good. That makes in unique.

Then there’s the De Loach 2009 Pennacchio Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the Russian River Valley, which I gave 96 points. Seriously good Pinot, and the price–$45–makes it a must buy. An easy winner for Editor’s Choice.

There’s another category that’s not super expensive, but not cheap either. Let’s say, from $18-$30. If these wines are outstanding or unique in some other way, I’ll give them an Editor’s Choice. For instance:

Arrowood 2009 Saralee’s Vineyard Viognier, from the Russian River Valley, got one for its 95 point score and (almost everyday) price of $30. It also earned the designation because good Viognier is rare in California, and this is a really good one.

This was a no brainer: Joseph Carr Dijon Clone Chardonnay, from the Sonoma Coast. 94 points for eighteen bucks? You have got to be kidding.

Another Duh! Editor’s Choice was the Tangent 2011 Paragon Vineyard Viognier, from Edna Valley. 92 points, $17. Can’t beat it. In the same everyday price/high quality realm is Gainey’s 2010 Limited Selection Sauvignon Blanc, from down in the Santa Ynez Valley. 92 points at $19 is a steal.

Sometimes I give an Editors Choice just because the wine is offbeat and different, or I get the feeling it will be great with a vast array of food. Some of the Pinots and Cabs I rate very highly are highly specialized wines that, good as they are, are necessarily limited in what foods to drink them with. I mean, Harlan and Colgin and Verité demand foods with a high degree of sophistication and specificity geared to the wine’s flavors and textures. On the other hand is a wine like Vina Robles’ 2010 Red4, from Paso Robles (90 points, $17). A Syrah-Petite Sirah blend, it’s so versatile and elegant, if I were a sommelier I’d buy it. Production was nearly 12,000 cases–ease of finding in the marketplace can also weigh in on the Editor’s Choice designation.

One of the least expensive wines I gave an Editor’s Choice this past year was the Sterling 2009 Vintner’s Collection Syrah, with a Central Coast appellation. Thirteen bucks, 87 points. Hey, at that price, it would be one of my house reds (if I had one). High case production, too. It’s a pleasure for me to be able to use my judgment and recommend a wine as an Editor’s Choice because I know a lot of people will be able to use that information and benefit from it.


More great Cabs than Pinots makes finding the great Pinot a real treat

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I’ve maintained for a long time that I like equally California’s two greatest red wine–Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. You can’t say that one is better than the other because it’s not. Two different wines, often starkly different, for different purposes, meant to drink with different foods (mostly. A char-broiled filet mignon will happily adapt to either).

But then I had the occasion to look at my scores over the past year in the database, and found that at the very highest levels–97 and above–there’s considerably more Cabernet than Pinot. Then, in the mid-90 point range, that dominance actually increases. It’s not until you get to the low 90s (still very good scores) that the scales even out, with Pinot showing up in slightly greater numbers than Cabernet.

I find this fascinating, because in numbers are contained patterns, and patterns reveal underlying truths that sometimes escape our casual eyes.

One reason why Cabernet gets more very high scores than Pinot Noir is because it’s relatively easier to make great Cab than to make great Pinot. Cabernet is a more forgiving grape for the winemaker. It’s less susceptible to vintage variations, weather and local micro-terroir perturbations, probably because of its thicker skins. That is to say, it’s not as transparent a reflector of its terroir as Pinot Noir.

There are many fabulous California Cabernet Sauvignons (and Bordeaux blends) and if they open themselves to the accusation of similarity (they all tend to feel and taste the same due to their international style), that feeling and taste nonetheless rank them among the top wines of the world. If you have a liking for this style (and I do), it’s easy to taste as many Napa Valley Cabs as I do and find yourself routinely awarding them exceptionally high scores. At the level we’re talking about–95 points and above–the distinctions between them are really very minor. One wine might score 97 one day, 96 the next day, 98 the day after, due to natural vagaries. This style of Cabernet has been heavily influenced by a variety of factors (names like Michel Rolland, David Abreu and Philippe Melka keep popping up), more proof of the old adages, (1) imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and (2) if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.

Pinot Noir on the other hand, as I stated, is transparent. What that means to me is that the slightest discrepancy is instantly perceived. It may have a little too much acidity, or a tiny bit of veggie. The mouthfeel can be off in some subtle but noticeable way. It could be over-oaked. Pinot Noir loves oak, but since it does tend to be delicate, all that sweet toast and vanilla can swamp it. You remember that old tale of the Princess and the pea? She was so physically sensitive that she was disturbed in her sleep by a tiny little pea buried underneath 20 mattresses and featherbeds. That’s how it is with Pinot Noir.

I think that accounts for the skew in scoring. Pinot just reveals its flaws in a way that Cabernet, being bigger and more tannic, doesn’t. Cabernet is not better than Pinot Noir at the highest levels in California, but there are considerably more great Cabernets than there are great Pinot Noirs. That seems destined to remain the case. California has found the best places to grow Pinot Noir. I don’t think there are any dark horses waiting to be discovered along the coast. This means that acreage of the top sites is tapped out, or will be within a few years. Cabernet Sauvignon on the other hand has plenty of room to grow. There are so many hospitable places for it beyond Napa Valley: Lake County and Happy Canyon, to name but two. I expect in ten years the ratio of great Cabs to great Pinots will be even greater than it is today, but perhaps, in a funny way, that makes coming across a great Pinot Noir even more exciting, because you know how rare it is.


Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, or A Moralistic Tale of Getting 100 Points

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Just when you thought things couldn’t get any weirder, here comes the famous Portuguese winemaker, Dirk Niepoort, complaining that a certain critic named Parker just gave his wine 100 points.

Dr. Vino reported it, paraphrasing Niepoort as saying the Big Score “would raise prices and alienate the customer base he’s trying to build.” Then, curiously, Niepoort added this little fillip: “it’s too early to have 100 points.”

Okay, kids, deconstruction time or, as an old semiotician I once knew would have asked, What’s he really saying?

“would raise prices” Why? Well, we all know that a Big Score from any of the major critics is like waving a red flag in front of a bull, the red flag being the Score and the bull being the proprietor. Yes, Big Scores often result in price hikes, but nobody is forcing said proprietor to jack up the price. He does it freely, of his own will, because he wants to and thinks he can get away with it, based on that Score. It’s not like there’s some ineluctable law of the universe that goes “Cause: Big Score. Effect: price rise,” like the law of gravity that mandates that everything that goes up must come down (or, in this case, the reverse: Everything that was down must go up, providing it receives enough stimulus in the form of a Big Score).

Now, you can argue that the price of Niepoort’s wine will rise no matter what he does or doesn’t do, because it will immediately find its way onto the aftermarket, where bidding will be intense; or that retailers (on- or off-premise) themselves will raise the price, when their customers start demanding the wine. What’s wrong with that? It’s the essence of capitalism, and, after all, wine isn’t some esoteric practice like meditating or sodoku, it’s a business. The greater the demand, the higher the price goes.

Now, I’ve talked to plenty of winemakers (mainly in Napa Valley) who’ve told me, privately, they’re concerned that their pricing is going too high, because they don’t want their wines turning into commodities. I can understand their concern, but the fact is that the final price is absolutely a function of the release price, which is determined by the winery. If the winery doesn’t want to see prices get too high, all it has to do is lower the release price. But you never see that, unless the winery is in trouble. And why do most wineries get in trouble? Because they don’t get high scores.

“would alientate the customer base he’s trying to build.” I can see that some of Niepoort’s customers might be pissed off if next year they find themselves forced to pay 30% or 50% more for a wine they used to be able to afford. But the truth is, consumers are very fickle these days when it comes to wine. They buy “x” today and “y” tomorrow and “z” the next day. Partly this fickleness is because they’re constantly searching for bargains. Partly it’s because wine is like the fashion industry: as Heidi Klum says, one day you’re in, the next day you’re out. A winemaker who hopes to stay “in” must have a business plan that takes scores into account–whether they’re high or low. If a winemaker is relying on the critics to not give him a high score, then he doesn’t have a solid business plan.

But then there was that odd little remark Niepoort made: “it’s too early to have 100 points.” What can he possibly have meant? Would 100 points have been okay in 5 years as opposed to today? This suggests that Niepoort isn’t really against the 100-point system, he just wants to be able to choose the exact moment when he gets his blessing. Well, I’m sorry. The world doesn’t work that way.

The reader comments on Dr. Vino’s page were a propos. One said, “He doesn’t have to raise his prices. And he can have a few words with those who do inflate and gouge. I guess he would have been happier with an 80?” True, true and true. At any rate, I’ve never heard anyone complain about a high score before. It seems a little disingenuous and ungrateful.


Cheap vs. expensive? Yes, Virginia, there is a difference

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Forbes asks, “Is There Really A Taste Difference Between Cheap and Expensive Wine?”

In three words, the answer is Yes.

Actually, that’s only one word, but I feel it very strongly, so it’s worth repeating 3 times. YES there’s a taste difference between cheap and expensive wine. YES “you really [can] taste the difference between a $15 wine and a $150 wine.” (Most of the time.) And YES, usually expensive wine is better than cheap wine.

I know, I know, all those studies that embarass wine snobs by giving them Two Buck Chuck in a Lafite bottle and then they wet their pants at how good it is. I’ve reported on all of these studies. Heck, I’ve owned up to my own boners: mistaking Pinot for Cabernet, etc. etc. etc.

But if we’re talking about cheap versus expensive, then the point has to be driven home: usually, there’s a vast difference.

The difference is not only in flavor–richer, deeper, more intensely flavored wines–but in structure and mouthfeel–not to mention the absence of flaws. Consider Cabernet Sauvignon. An expensive Napa Cab will (or should) feel like sheer luxury in the mouth. There are no edges, no green tannins, no scouriness. The tannins may be very hard, and often, they are in Napa Cabernets, particularly from the mountains. Still, they’re creamy. “Hard creaminess” may be an oxymoron, but that’s what makes for a great Napa Cab.

The cheaper a Cabernet is, the less rich it feels in the mouth. Richness in texture is really hard to achieve. It starts with viticulture–expensive viticulture. It continues right through the winery, to hand sorting (also expensive), and to the quality of equipment and temperature control, not to mention oak barrels. All of these things cost money. I’m not saying Bryant Family, at $335 a bottle, is ten times better than, say, Louis M. Martini, at $35. (How would you measure “ten times better” anyway?) But the Bryant is clearly better. And both are far better than a Cabernet from Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi, which, at $8, is hard to drink (for me, anyway; I’m sure hundreds of thousands of people happily churn it down).

Do I sometimes give less expensive wines higher scores than more expensive wines?  Of course I do. Just because a wine costs $150 doesn’t mean it’s automatically 95 points or better. And just because a wine is $30 doesn’t mean it’s not 95 points.

But those are the outliers, the exceptions to the rule. In general, the more expensive a wine is, the better it is. It’s been true for the Greeks and the Romans, in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, a hundred years ago, and it’s true today in California.

The problem with an article like the one in Forbes is that it takes a few isolated occurrances–mistakes by “experts,” studies in which tasters were fooled–and suggests they are the rule, rather than the exception. This is a common practice in journalism, where “man bites dog” makes the front page, even if happens only once in a century, while “dog bites man”, which happens every day, doesn’t appear at all (unless it’s a pit bull: pity that misunderstood breed. It’s not the pit, it’s the pathetic idiot that owns it). Sure, you can give a white wine to a blindfolded master sommelier, who then will tell you it’s red, but that proves nothing except that humans are, well, human, and thus fallible.

Happily, though, deception in judging wine quality is rare among professionals (although individual preferences are not). There is a difference between cheap and expensive. In my blind lineups, all it usually takes is a single sniff for me to determine that a wine is cheap, and I’m almost always right. A sniff that impresses me: now there’s something harder to determine. This is because, once quality starts to improve, it does so asymptotically, meaning that the rate of improvement slows down as it rises. This is why a 99 point wine is only marginally better than a 97 point wine and (truth to tell) on any given day, the order could switch. But then, a 97 point wine will never be “cheap.” I could never give a cheap, $6 82 point wine a much better score, on any day of my life, for the obvious reason that it is cheap, tawdry, common, disagreeable. So that’s one way of describing the difference between cheap and expensive: tawdry versus impressive.


Question: What do you call 5,000 dead wine collectors at the bottom of the ocean?

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Yesterday’s article in the San Francisco Chronicle about a woman who can tell a counterfeit collectible wine from the real thing is certainly current, which no doubt is why the Chron ran with it.

Her name is Maureen Downey, and she can determine if “your Romanee-Conti, Lafite or Sassicaia might not be legit.” Of course, there’s been a lot of other news lately over fake expensive wine, with some bloggers going apeshit over Rudy Kurniawan. It’s as if this whole issue of “collectible” wine and fakes thereof matters to the 99% of us who just like to drink.

Actually, it doesn’t. Do you care? I don’t. I have no sympathy for people with too much money who get ripped off for being stupid.

I used to write for another magazine, where they gave me the assignment to write “The Collecting Page,” a feature in every issue devoted to issues of interest to collectors. Nobody else at the magazine wanted to do it, because it was fundamentally boring: You had to become acquainted with the one or two dozen top wine collectors in the country, a group so self-centered that, when I got to know them, I would rather have had pins inserted under my fingernails than have to deal with them.

There was the guy who owned more Mouton even than Mouton-Rothschild itself. The egotistical Hollywood producer [is there any other kind?]. The medical device manufacturer from the midwest with his own personal wine locker at Fleur de Lys. There was the über-rich real estate magnate from Southern California, the Texas collector who became a born again Christian, the Tennesseans and the university professor whose hobby was putting on the greatest vertical tastings in the history of the universe.

All of them owned more wine than they, or any 100 of us, could drink in a lifetime. Even then, their pathology was evident.

Each and every one of these gentlemen wanted to be put into The Collecting Page. To be quoted by me on, say, what to eat with 60-year old Yquem drove them to orgasm; a quote plus a picture was the ne plus ultra of their existence, since their whole purpose was to out-do each other. I’m sure they were all nice family men and good Rotarians, but I saw their dark side: an acquisitive selfishness and reliance on expensive things to boost their self-esteem, when in so many respects they were miserable self-haters. Scary, sorry, sad psycho stuff.

It turned me off to this whole notion of “collecting.” Wine is not meant to be collected and hoarded while it goes up in value, then turned over to the auctioneer (a co-dependent in the addiction) in order to reap a profit. Honestly, if I were the proprietor of Sassacaia or Screaming Eagle, knowing that my honest efforts were going into something that a bunch of greedheads didn’t even see as art, but merely a commodity like pork bellies, I’d shoot myself. Not really, but better to be doing something useful in society, like teaching school or repairing automobiles, than to participate in so corrupt and venal a system.

Answer to the above question: A good start.


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