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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.


Young wine-loving students a breath of fresh air

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I did my annual tasting and presentation last night at the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business Wine Industry Club. This is a group of students, numbering about 60, with an interest in wine.

This is always one of my favorite things to do all year. I like being in the company of smart, young, curious people, and Lord knows the MBA students at Haas are smart. Diverse, too. You always expect diversity in the Bay Area, but U.C. Berkeley is like a miniature United Nations. The only question I have is, where are the African-American MBA candidates? Maybe they’re just not into wine, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a Black student in my four years of doing these classes.

They’re so curious, these young people, most of who seem to be in their twenties. They ask all the right questions: How do I taste? How do I decide on a rating? How do I keep my palate from being jaded? Do I feel badly when I give a mediocre score? One student in particular grilled me on why Wine Enthusiast won’t publish scores below 80. Don’t we have a responsibility, he asked, to warn consumers against flawed wines? (I told him I can see it both ways.) They wanted to know if I’m influenced by other critics, how I separate my own personal tastes from a wine’s objective qualities, about the relative merits of blind tasting vs. open tasting, about how many wines I can review at a time without tiring (I told them about Galloni doing 150 at a stretch), about whether my scores would be consistent if I reviewed the same wine over time, about reviewing wines that advertise in the magazine, about the merits of being a generalist versus a specialist taster.

In other words, they asked about all the things that this blog routinely deals with!

That was just the Q&A part. The actual content of the tasting was that the club’s chairman, who will graduate this Spring and go on to work at Deloitte, had asked that I talk about “What is the difference between an 80 pt wine, 90 pts, 95, 100?” So I got five wines, at five different score points, that we tasted through. They were:

80 points: Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon (California)
85 points: Louis M. Martini 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley)
90 points: Rodney Strong 2008 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley)
95 points: St. Supery 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (Rutherford)
100 points: 2006 Cardinale (Napa Valley)

It was most interesting revisiting the Cardinale. In the tasting I actually liked all the wines more than when I had first reviewed them, i.e., I would have scored them all a little higher (except,obviously, for the Cardinale). I was honest with the students and told them. They wanted to know how that could be, and I explained that most wineries rush me (and other critics) their wines almost immediately on release, whereas the wines really would benefit from sitting for another 3-6 months or even longer to settle down. But most wineries can’t afford to sit on inventory for that long. So it didn’t surprise me that, for example, the Woodbridge seemed more complete and wholesome than when I first tasted it, six months ago. Plus, last night’s Woodbridge was in magnum, whereas the wine I tasted last October was in a standard bottle. So these things–age and bottle format–make a difference.

I told the students that I have no control over when wineries send me wine, so, if I hold them all to the same standard and taste their wines when they get to me, I can sleep at night knowing I’ve done my best to be fair. They seemed to understand that.

The students had their own opinions, of course. One guy, from India, found the Rodney Strong (whose alcohol is 15%) “porty.” I explained that, yes, I’m well aware that some people with “European” palates might experience that, but that I have a California palate, thank goodness, as it would be pretty odd if I didn’t like the ripe, expressive style of some California wines.

The St. Supery really stunned me. The students asked me a lot of questions about how I come up with my descriptive vocabulary (fruits, flowers,  etc.) and I told them that organoleptic terms are fine, as far as they go, but at some point with a great wine, you have to elevate your vocabulary beyond metaphors and enter into a conceptual realm, such as elegance, balance, classicism, even emotional impact. I told them the story of how Napoleon allegedly used to make his troops bow down as they marched past the Clos de Vougeot. That, I said, was a form of wine description that captures, in a single gesture, what the wine is like, or what it means to the taster.

And then there was the Cardinale. I must say everyone liked it, although the club’s president warned them that they were no doubt being influenced by what they knew of its price and reputation. Perhaps. This elicited a discussion of how a taster must separate himself from external bias to the greatest extent possible. For myself, the Cardinale was everything I remembered from when I reviewed it, at the Napa Valley Vintners, 2-1/2 years ago. It had perhaps closed down a bit, entering that funny middle period when a wine is no longer quite as fat and gorgeous as it is in youth, but has not yet approached anything resembling secondary bottle development. In my review, I had written it would improve for at least eight years. Last night, I told the students that I would now extend my window of prognostication out to 2022. That, in turn, elicited a conversation about ageability: How does a critic know? I replied that, as in all things, particularly the economic field into which these students are embarking on careers, there are known unknowns; and ageability is one of those.

So smart, these Berkeley students. So international in outlook. Next time you get depressed about the state of things, go hang out with some smart kids. Works for me everytime.


With Cabernet and Pinot, you get what you pay for

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I like Allen Meadow’s dictum about Burgundy, expressed in his new book, The Pearl of the Côte: “You may not always get what you pay for, but one thing’s for sure: You’ll never get what you don’t pay for.”

I’m sure that’s true of a region as old, established and well understood as Vosne, where they figured out a long time ago that, say, La Romanée is great terroir whereas Echezeaux is slightly less so–hence the difference in price.

What about California? Let’s take Allen’s Dictum and apply it to certain wines and regions.

Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux blends.

“You may not always get what you pay for.” True enough! I can’t tell you how many 85-87 point Cabs I’ve reviewed that cost more than $50, and sometimes a lot more, into triple digits. (Readers of my blog know that I don’t identify specific wines in a critical way. But you can always go to Wine Enthusiast’s free database and look up my scores. Then you’ll see who I’m talking about.) I don’t know about you, but I think it sucks when an 86 point wine costs $70. That is the very definition of “not getting what you pay for.”

However–and it’s a big however–the truth about Napa Valley is that, in general, you do get what you pay for. To pick one example, $275 for 2007 Araujo Eisele? At 98 points, it’s worth every penny (unless you happen to be of the Fred Franzia school of thought which declares that no wine is worth more than $10).

Do you have to pay that much for a 98 point wine? Nope. Consider Vine Cliff’s 2007 Oakville Cabernet, which also got 98 points, and costs “only” $75. The difference, I suppose, is bragging rights. I guess it’s flashier to put Araujo on your table than Vine Cliff.

Now, how about “You’ll never get what you don’t pay for” in Napa Cabernet. That, too, is true. You simply have to pay a lot of money for a top Cabernet (although, as we just saw with the Vine Cliff, “a lot of money” is a relative term). Still, the fact is that most of my very top scoring Cabs do cost in the triple digits. If you can’t afford that, then I’m afraid you’ll rarely get a great Napa Valley red wine.

California Pinot Noir.

This is a different story. “You may not always get what you pay for.” Well, that’s always true, across the board, in every variety, wine type or region in the world. But here, we have to be careful, because the statement “You may not always get what you pay for” is actually very complicated. Break it down, and you’ll see that it has to do with expectations. What if you’re disappointed when you taste an expensive Pinot Noir?

It could be that the wine actually is very good, only it’s not to your liking. Young Pinot is notoriously more difficult to appreciate than young Cabernet, especially if you don’t have a lot of experience. Maybe you prefer a lush, rich, high alcohol Pinot, and the one you bought is made in an earthier, more acidic style. (Of course, you should have done your homework before you spent, but that’s another story.) Still, it’s absolutely true that, in California Pinot Noir, “You may not always get what you pay for” occurs more frequently than in Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

How about “You’ll never get what you don’t pay for” in Pinot Noir. That, too, is true, and it’s even truer than it is with Cabernet Sauvignon. In Cabernet, there’s a chance that, with careful selection, you can get a fine Cabernet for $25. To pick but a single example (and there are many), I gave 91 points to Raymond’s 2008 Family Classic Cabernet Sauvignon, which has a Napa-Sonoma-Lake appellation. That’s a pretty good wine. Why Cabernet is easier to make good and inexpensive is because Cabernet isn’t really that hard to make to begin with. Get the grapes ripe, have sound winemaking practices, give it a little oak, and voila. Much of the rest is sizzle, not steak.

Good Pinot under $25? Fageddaboudit. Sure, dig through my database and you’ll find some 91s and 90s in the $11-$20 bracket, but not too many. It’s not much easier finding great Pinot from $21-$30, and such as there are tend to be notable for instant gratification rather than true, ageworthy complexity. Example: Melville 2010 Verna’s Estate Pinot Noir ($26), which I scored at 93 points. That’s an amazing bargain, which is why I gave it an Editor’s Choice special designation. But again, it’s an exception to the rule.

What about all those other varieties–Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc? Allen’s Dictum is far less relevant. It’s easier to find good versions of all these varieties at lower price points, while super-expensive bears less relation to quality than in Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon. (I consciously include Chardonnay in this generalization.) I guess that’s why Cabernet and Pinot are described as noble varieties. You do get what you pay for.


Now the 100 point bashers are taking aim at tasting notes

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First it was the 100 point system that was under attack. Now, they’re after the tasting notes themselves!

The blogger Talia Baiocchi writes that “…a question is being asked with greater frequency: Is the listing of fruits and adjectives actually helping or hurting the consumer understand” wine? Then, she answers her own question with a curt “no, not really.”

Really? I have a couple questions myself. Who’s asking “with greater frequency” if tasting notes are irrelevant? Ms. Baiocchi never says; indeed, she asks the question in that intransitive, unattributed way that people always use when they want to suggest that “everybody’s talking about it” when in fact nobody is.

Now, I’m first to admit that some wine descriptors can be pretty over the top. It’s easy to poke fun at some of the more grandiloquent ones. But there’s nothing new about critiquing flowery wine descriptors. That’s been going on forever, so it’s not as if Ms. Baiocchi is breaking any new ground here. But I’ve got to tell you, as far as I can tell, in recent years wine writers have been toning down the silly stuff, turning toward simpler, more streamlined descriptions. I know I have. I’ve eliminated half, or more, of the analogies I used to use (fruits, flowers, specific herbs and minerals) and pared my descriptions down to an almost austere modesty. This isn’t only because I thought my descriptors were too flowery. No, it’s because the more I taste, the more I focus on a wine’s structure, rather than merely its flavors. Structure (which includes length, depth, finish and overall balance) is what makes or breaks a wine anyway, not whether those berries are loganberries, mulberries, blackberries or your great-grandma’s elderberries.

Actually, Ms. Baiocchi does the best job she can to defend her position. She cites a Robert Parker review that really does read like something from Mad magazine or a Saturday Night Live spoof (“shrimp shell reduction and iodine”) and uses it to tar and feather the entire field of wine writing, such as most of us practice. Well, that Parker review really is pretty silly, but Ms. Baiocchi must have spent a considerable amount of time searching for the dumbest one she could find.

Yet she betrays herself in the final paragraph when she states, with the definitiveness of the oracle of Delphi, that “the idea [of a wine review] is to inspire adventure, not dependence.” What does that mean? Dependence? Adventure? I’m not writing travel brochures of 12-step books, I’m writing wine reviews. All this sound and fury signifies nothing except the old message, which I’ve been preaching forever, that good writing is good writing, and bad writing isn’t.

It’s so easy to criticize when you’re on the outside looking in. It’s hard to actually do the job of being a wine writer, tasting everyday, and trying your level best to express your thoughts and impressions into words. Each of us has our own style, and our styles, hopefully, evolve over time, getting better and better. We become “more ourselves” and so our writing becomes clearer and more transparent.

I guess what I’m trying to say is I’m getting tired of wine writers and critics being punching bags for cranky people. Now, I’m off to the Napa Valley Vintners for my big tasting–blind–of red wines. I had my heart set on eating at Ubuntu, but, alas, their website says they’re “closed for a sabbatical.” Fortunately, there’s no shortage of good restos in Napa!


The 100 point phenomenon and score inflation

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Eighteen 100 point Bordeaux wine scores in a single issue of The Wine Advocate? That’s what Andrew Jefford reports on his blog on Decanter’s website. When I read that, I immediately flashed back to my conversation with Allen Meadows, the Burghound, who told me that he’s given 100 points to only one wine in all his years of reviewing (1945 Romanée-Conti, which already was very old when Allen tasted it).

There is a theory out there, called score inflation, which borrowed its name from “grade inflation”, which Wikipedia defines as “the tendency of academic grades for work of comparable quality to increase over time.” I don’t think anyone would mind if academic grades were increasing in America because kids are actually getting smarter, but sadly, that’s not the case. The reasons why grades are on the uptick (if they are) has to do with political and social issues I don’t pretend to understand, but I do understand that grade inflation troubles many people, who perceive it as somehow bad and indicative of deeper problems in the society.

This aspect of being troubling also accompanies wine score inflation. Dr. Vino touched on it the other day, and while he didn’t exactly condemn it, he did kind of cast a mild aspersion on it, especially in his opening question: “Is inflation crippling wine scores?” The answer seems to be inherent in the question: Yes.

Okay, kids, let’s talk about score inflation. Now, right upfront I don’t think you can accuse me of score inflation, because I’m almost as stingy as Allen Meadows about 100 point scores. Ninety-nines and 98s too, and even 97s are hard to come by if I’m doing the rating. I don’t feel any pressure to give more high scores–well, maybe a little pressure, here and there–but in general, I’m happy with my scores, my employer is happy with my scores, and the only people unhappy with my scores are wineries that get low ones.

I do think that being too generous with high scores isn’t a good thing, though. To me, a 100 point wine should be one of the most uncommon things in life, like a bar mitzvah, turning 21 or having sex for the first time (which makes me think of Oscar Levant‘s crack about Doris Day: “I knew her before she was a virgin.”). Well, all right, you can only have those things once in a lifetime, whereas you can have multiple perfect wines. But it makes me wonder, where’s the line when it comes to 100 points?

To me, 18 in a single issue is too much. Granted, I haven’t tasted those wines, so maybe Parker really did find 18 instances of sheer perfection (and, as Jefford reminds us, “And another eleven with 99 or 99+ points”). But when so many wines are “perfect,” then it’s the Moynahan effect of “defining deviancy down” applied to wine. Call it “defining perfection down.” Another way of looking at it is Garrison Keillor’s closing shtick from his Lake Woebegon routine on A Prairie Home Companion: “…all the children are above average.” Obviously, all the children cannot be “above average” because then there wouldn’t be an “average” for anyone to be above or below.

I don’t think there’s anything particularly ominous about score inflation. It doesn’t harm anyone, and it makes the proprietors who get the perfect scores happy. But to me, to call a wine “perfect” (which is what 100 points means) must necessarily be rare. I’m glad I’m not as stingy as Allen Meadows, but I’m also glad I’m not as promiscuous with high scores as the folks at The Wine Advocate.


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