I somehow found myself once again in the crosshairs over at Dr. Vino’s blog the other day (and what a great job Tyler Colman is doing there). Tyler was writing about “wine score inflation” (his term, not mine, and I’m not sure those words even refer to anything in the real world). Citing the writings of others, Tyler suggested that scores from the best known critics have been on the upswing, a fact (if true) he finds worthy of investigation. He didn’t exactly accuse the critics of anything nefarious, but the smell of “something’s rotten in Denmark” wafted over his post, as if from a nearby swamp.
I wrote in: “…if scores are rising for certain categories of wine, it’s because quality is improving. Critics are simply perceiving that increased quality, and rewarding it with higher scores.”
That seemed pretty innocuous to me, a statement so logical on its face, no one would even bother to dispute it.
But, wham! It hit the fan. The insults, I’m used to, especially from the usual tedious suspects. What did interest me, though, were some more thoughtful remarks that raised interesting questions. For example, Keith Levenberg (I don’t know who he is) wrote: “Steve Heimoff’s claim that ‘if scores are rising for certain categories of wine, it’s because quality is improving’ and ‘[c]ritics are simply perceiving that increased quality’ has also been Parker’s refrain for years, and it’s a complete fallacy.” Keith bases this statement on an assumption that seems highly questionable: that “critics are the worst-situated of any of us to make the determination whether quality is in fact improving, because the wines they are tasting are deliberately made to elicit their approval.”
I replied: “Are a thousand wineries in California deliberately ‘tinkering’ with their wines to match my ‘personal preferences’? I think not. That’s real conspiracy theory stuff. Instead, wineries are crafting their wines to what they perceive is a genuine shift in the consumers’ palate, of which I’m just one little part.”
The claim that winemakers are deliberately appealing to certain critics’ palates has been around for a long time. I suppose it’s true, in a way, but what’s so strange about that? A winery is a business, just like the movies or automobiles. Spielberg makes the kinds of films he believes Americans want to see. Detroit makes the kinds of cars they think Americans want to drive. If a winemaker decides to go counter to prevailing consumer preferences, chances are he’ll go bankrupt. The reason I have an impact in the sale of wine is because I reflect the general consumer preference in America. I don’t manufacture it and I don’t lead it. I like these wines because they’re good, made in a style to appeal to the wine-loving American, which includes me. When they succeed, they deserve the high scores I give them.
Then Daniel wrote (I don’t know him either): “Steve, Is every wine that you have reviewed 95 points better than every wine that you have reviewed 94 points?” I answered: “Yes.” Short and simple. Daniel replied: “So, a 97 point, $50 Calif PN, is a better wine than a $300 95 point Napa Cab?” Again, I replied: “Yes.” But, slightly troubled by something, I added, “’better’ is a complicated concept. I may blog on this soon, to better understand it myself.”
Is a 97 point $50 California Pinot Noir “better” than a $300 95 point Napa Cab? To begin with, let’s forget about the prices. They’re irrelevant. In what respect is a 97 point wine (at any price) “better” than a 95 point wine (at any price)? After all, it earned two points higher; it had to do something for those extra points, no?
This is a great question, raising profound issues that, frankly, haven’t been thoroughly explored by any critic I know of, including me (which is why I said to “better understand it myself”). For some reason, a lot more people these days care about these things than used to be the case–which may be due to an Internet generation coming of age that demands the utmost transparency and explanation. So I thank Daniel for asking this question. In tomorrow’s post, I’ll attempt to answer it, and if readers seem interested enough, perhaps the conversation will last through the week.
I reviewed about 4,800 wines in 2011, which works out to 13.1 per day, although I didn’t taste every single day. The top varietals tasted, by quantity, are listed below. (My top-scoring wines from each category follow in brackets):
1,003 Pinot Noirs [Williams Selyem 2009 Precious Mountain]
885 Cabernet Sauvignons [Venge 2008 Family Reserve]
767 Chardonnays [Foxen 2010 Block UU Bien Nacido Vineyard]
354 Zinfandels [Seghesio 2009 Cortina]
295 Sauvignon Blancs [Trione 2010 River Road Ranch]
295 Syrahs [Qupe 2006 Bien Nacido Vineyard 25th Anniversary X-Block The Good Nacido]
236 Merlots [Rutherford Hill 2007 Reserve]
177 Meritage-style [Von Strasser Reserve]
118 sparkling wines [Schramsberg 2004 J. Schram Rosé]
118 Petite Sirahs [Envy 2008 Nord Vineyard]
59 Cabernet Francs [Merryvale 2008]
59 Rhône red blends [Sanguis 2008 Endangered Species]
plus, of course, a bunch of everything else: Chenin Blanc, Nebbiolo, white Rhône blends, Tempranillo, oddball red blends, oddball white blends, dessert wines, Viogniers, Rieslings and so on.
I was surprised to see that Pinot Noir outnumbered Cabernet Sauvignon for the first time! Pretty impressive. Why? I can’t say, for sure, but here are some educated guesses: Pinot Noir is the hottest wine in California. More and more people are making it, so more and more are sending in for review. I, in particular, am getting a lot sent because producers know I like it, and so they hope they’ll get a good score. Also, I pay particular attention to Santa Barbara County–not all reviewers do, you know–and there’s a lot of Pinot down there.
Other than that, not too many surprises. Napa Valley dominates the above list, followed by Sonoma County and Santa Barbara County. I think we can safely say that, in terms of sheer numbers, those three areas are where the action is, although a great wine can show up anywhere. I was a little surprised, in a pleasant way, that my top Chardonnay was from Foxen. If you’d asked me, before I looked it up, I wouldn’t have guessed Foxen. Maybe something from Stonestreet, Williams Selyem, Hanzell, Lynmar, but not Foxen. However, in retrospect I shouldn’t have been surprised, because when I looked up all my Foxen Chardonnay reviews over the years, the scores run quite high. Still, something magical happened with that 2010 UU Block Chardonnay, and I’m guessing it was the vintage. I’ve tasted about 235 2010 Chardonnays so far, and excluding the cheapies, the scores are impressive, with about 12% scoring 90 or higher . But there are many more 2010 Chardonnays to come in, and they’ll be the better ones, too, because the cheapies were mostly rushed out the door in 2011.
Petite Sirah came onto my radar more than ever in 2011. It’s been there for some years, but more as a blip toward the outer edge than as something large and targeting the middle. But there it is. Vintners have refined their style to make Petite Sirah less brawny and more elegant, although it will never be sleek or refined–but then, you wouldn’t want Petite Sirah to be, any more than you’d want Jack Black to have a sixpack.
I’m always glad when a dark horse does well. I guess you could say the Foxen was a dark horse. So was the Venge, in Cabernet, the Trione in Sauvignon Blanc, the Envy Petite Sirah and the Sanguis red Rhône. Williams Selyem, Schramsberg and Qupe certainly aren’t dark hoses, and neither is Rutherford Hill for Merlot; hell, they practically invented upscale Merlot back in the 1970s.
It was a good year for tasting, 2011 was. Lots of extraordinary wines at the top end. I expect 2012 to be a good year for tasting, and 2013, too, because 2010 is beginning to look better and better. And 2011? After so much bad press [including some here and on my Facebook page], it may turn out better than anyone thought. These last two years have certainly been the coolest in a long time, which should give us wines of lower alcohol and greater elegance and finesse. I haven’t used the word “finesse” very often over the years. I hope to be able to use it a lot more in the future, but we’ll just have to wait and see.
By the way, unless a critic tastes at least as many wines a year as I do, they can’t credibly pronounce on a vintage. If they do, they’re full of it. All they’re doing is repeating stuff they’ve read and been spoon fed, instead of giving a knowledgeable impression. That’s not journalism, it’s gossip. Worse: water carrying.
Let’s say you’re fairly educated about wine. (If you read my blog, you undoubtedly are.) I invite you over to my place for dinner and open a bottle of Lafite Rothschild. You’re suitably impressed. I decant it, then pour you a glass, telling you as the purple liquid drizzles into the glass that this is a very great Lafite, that if I scored it I would probably give it 100 points. After that buildup, you taste the wine. It’s a virtual guarantee you’re going to like it.
Now let’s say that a little while later, I offer you another glass of wine. Only this time, I tell you that it’s not very good–that I wanted you to see how my job consists, in large part, of tasting mediocre wine. Handing you the glass, I frown; you can tell by my facial expression that I’m sorry to make you drink something so bad. After that buildup, or maybe we should call it a build-down, it’s almost certain you won’t like the wine.
Now, what if I told you that both wines I gave you were the same wine? Would you be surprised? You shouldn’t be, especially if you’d come across this report about a new study out of Oxford University. Subjects inside a brain scanner were shown works of art, some of which were genuine Rembrandts and some of which were fakes. The subjects’ reactions to both pieces were identical, until they were told which pieces were fakes and which were real. In the former case (the “real” art), the revelation “raised activity in the part of the brain that deals with rewarding events, such as tasting pleasant food or winning a gamble.” In other words, the subject felt a form of pleasure. In the case of the latter (the “fake” art), “Being told a work is not by the master triggered a complex set of responses in areas of the brain involved in planning new strategies. Participants reported that when viewing a supposed fake, they tried to work out why the experts regarded it not to be genuine.” In other words, the subjects were troubled; confronted with a situation they could not fully understand, they were forced to improvise, to rationalize the discrepency.
The take home lesson of this little experiment at Oxford is a familiar one. People’s esthetic reactions to external stimuli are powerfully dependent on their expectations. They will look at a supposed Rembrandt portrait and, “knowing” that it was painted by the master, be suitably impressed. Indeed, this is why “people travel to galleries around the world to see an original painting.” Something in the knowledge that the painting is original arouses intense pleasure. It’s not so much the art work itself as that awareness that people enjoy. On the other hand, if people “know” that a painting is fake, they will experience far different, more complex and less pleasurable thoughts and emotions–even if the painting is, in fact, real.
Pretty weird, huh? Back to my opening example of offering you the Lafite. It almost doesn’t matter whether or not the Lafite is real, or just some little Sonoma County Cabernet that costs $14. It’s irrelevant. What matters, according to the Oxford study, is what you think you know about it. That, in turn, depends on what I told you–and that, in turn, has a lot to do with how much you trust me, since I’m the “expert” in wine, and you’re not.
It follows from this that blind tasting is the only objective way to come to a conclusion about wine, but something else follows, also, that isn’t generally discussed in these types of conversations: wines of a similar variety and style are more alike than not, even when their scores vary. If I show you an apple and tell you it’s a grape, you won’t believe me, even if I had a Ph.D in fruit sciences and owned an orchard and a chain of produce stores. That’s because apples and grapes are so different that anyone can tell them apart. You cannot fool anyone that an apple is a grape, or vice versa.
But if you can fool a fairly reasonable person into believing that wine “a” is Lafite and wine “b” is mediocre, when they may be the same wine (or if the case may be the opposite, that the “mediocre” wine is Lafite and the “Lafite” is the $14 Cabernet), then those wines must be more alike than not. They cannot possibly be apples and grapes: it’s more a case of apples and apples.
But wait, you say. What if the subject of any of these experiments were a trained professional? A great taster, formidable in the intricacies of wine, renowned for identifying vintages and chateaux in blind tastings, revered for his knowledge? Could that person be fooled? Probably the chances are less, but they never approach zero. As long as a person is human, that person can be fooled, sometimes spectacularly so, as we have repeatedly seen in blind tastings. I know that nothing I’ve written here will add significantly to the conversation about how to taste wine. But every little conversation advances the cause down the playing field, and besides, it’s fun to talk about this stuff. It never gets boring.
No 100 point wines this year, but who cares? What a list this is. Diverse both type-wise and regionally. Four wines from Napa Valley, four from Sonoma County, one from Santa Barbara, and that North Coast bubbly from Schramsberg. A bunch of Cabernets, a Pinot Noir, a couple sparklers, even a dessert wine. I round the list out with the Qupe Syrah, at 97 points, because although I had 9 other 97 pointers, the Qupe was First Among Equals. All of these wines are fantastic, world class; they would easily hold their own against peers from any wine region on earth. All are ageable, I’d lay odds on the Von Strasser and Williams Selyem being still fine in 15 years. Maybe they’ll all be fine in 15 years. If I’m around in 15 years, maybe someone will be nice enough to treat me to a tasting of these magnificent nectars of the gods.
Venge 2008 Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville. $125, 275 cases, 14.9%. Score: 99 points.
Stonestreet 2007 Rockfall Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley. $75, 212 cases, 14.5%. Score: 99 points.
Williams Selyem 2009 Precious Mountain Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $94, case production unknown, 14%. Score: 99 points.
Araujo 2007 Eisele Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. $275, case production unknown, 14.8%. Score: 98 points.
Verité 2006 La Joie, Sonoma County. $300, 1,201 cases, 14.7%. Score: 98 points.
Von Strasser 2008 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain. $125, 278 cases, 14.2%. Score: 98 points.
Dolce 2006 Semillon-Sauvignon, Napa Valley. $85/375 ml., 3,300 cases, 13.8%. Score: 98 points.
Schramsberg 2004 J. Schram Rosé, North Coast. $130, 1,000 cases, 12.7%. Score: 98 points.
Iron Horse 1997 Joy! Blanc de Blancs, Green Valley. $179/1.5L, 50 cases, 13%. Score: 97 points.
Qupe 2006 Bien Nacido Vineyard 25th Anniversary X Block, “The Good Nacido,” Santa Maria Valley. $100, 190 cases, 14.5% Score: 97 points.
The reason why Eric Asimov’s column last week in the N.Y. Times is so interesting is because it provides the perfect defense of a point scoring system–although that was inadvertant on Eric’s part, and he’d probably deny it even after reading this post.
Eric wrote about a tasting of New Zealand Pinot Noirs he found “underwhelming.” Also: “boring,” “lacking a sense of place,” “not engaging in that come-hither dance in which a glass of wine implicitly says, ‘Drink me, drink me’” and suffering from “a lack of definition [and] a sense of muddiness.”
The wines were not undrinkable, Eric notes. They simply did not express themselves “with clarity and precision.” Some were “not bad,” just “not exciting.” They were “pleasant,” but ultimately “disappointing” for wine lovers seeking “liveliness…framing and precision” in Pinot Noir.
Sounds to me like Eric went through a garden variety tasting of common wines, the kind people drink mindlessly every single day of the year, around the world, and always have, since the dawn of wine. All of us critics routinely drink these kinds of wines all the time. It’s part of our job. For every Lafite Eric tastes (or every Harlan I taste), there are five hundred ______s (fill in the blank) that have no definition, don’t sing come-hither, and are disappointing.
That this should go without saying in the life of a professional wine critic is obvious. So what was the point of Eric’s column? It was contained in the headline (which Eric may not have written. In Wine Enthusiast, I rarely write my own headlines. That’s what editors do.). The header was “In Wine, Friendliness Isn’t Always Enough,” “friendly” being a term (which I also use) to describe a sound, but lackluster, wine. Eric’s contention, if I read him correctly, was that it’s not good enough for a common wine to be merely common. It should, instead, be–what? Great? But common wines are by definition not great. They are common. They often bore. So what is the point of criticizing common wines for being common? There always have been common wines and there always will be, until the Sun swallows the Earth.
In the technical part of his column, Eric discusses the “structure” that Pinot Noir should have. It should “never be coarse.” A Pinot Noir should never “play to the crowd,” or be “easy to drink.”
Well, I’m not about to argue with that!
Eric is absolutely correct to point these things out about Pinot Noir or any wine. I just don’t understand why he would take highly coveted real estate in the world’s greatest newspaper to point out something so self-evident. It seems to me that, if Eric had a methodology for dealing with mediocre wines, he would not have to express his frustration in such a regal setting as the wine pages of the great Grey Lady herself.
There is such a methodology: point scores. I don’t have to get upset that a wine is simple, uncomplicated, unexciting or doesn’t beckon me to come hither. I simply give it 83 points (or whatever) and do my best, in the 40 or 50 words allotted to me, to explain myself. There’s another thing about the point system I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about, myself, until just now: It assumes that there’s a proper place for every wine under the sun: for great wines (97 and up), near great wines (94-97), etc., right down to acceptable wines and undrinkable ones. That’s what Wine Enthusiast’s point-score brackets are: like the allowable electron orbits described by Bohr, they assume that every wine has its proper place in the scheme of things. When the critic discovers which “orbit” to most properly assign any given wine, he is content with its place: there’s no need to fret that the wine is unexciting because, having discovered that the wine is 83 points, the critic knows that it’s exactly where it belongs; he has no cause to complain. (Of course, one can always knock a wine for being too expensive for its quality, but that’s not what I’m talking about today.)
As in any scheme of relativity, the existence of great wine not only assumes but demands the existence of a vast ocean of ordinary wine. Great wine is at the top of the pyramid, but there would not be a pyramid without a foundation of common, ordinary wines. It does no good to criticize common wines for being common; it’s like criticizing poor people for being poor, or uneducated people for not knowing who, for example, Nils Bohr was. One doesn’t need an extensive wine terminology to get the message across that a wine is common. One needs only a point system to communicate it clearly and distinctly. I highly recommend that Eric try using the 100-point system, or even a 20-point system, in the New York Times. It would make his job easier and also communicate better to the Times’ readers exactly what Eric is trying to say.
If you don’t think that wining and dining tastemakers isn’t one of the keys (if not the key) to boosting a winery’s reputation, then you don’t live in the real world.
I’ll get to examples in a moment, but first, let me explain what I just said. Take two wines that are equal in quality. Give one of them a huge budget to dazzle tastemakers (wine and food writers especially, but also sommeliers, merchants and so on). Let that budget be spent on fantastic tastings with unbelievably good food, held in fancy settings such as hotel ballrooms and four star restaurants. Even better if you can underwrite the attendees’ travel expenses, since wine and food writers aren’t exactly paid very well. As for the other wine–the one without the budget–let it depend on sending a sample out to the same tastemakers. Do you know which wine will be the cause celebre? I do, and it’s not the wine with the puny budget. They’re lucky if they can send a free corkscrew with the sample.
The fact is, dazzling tastemakers and influencers has been the way certain wineries and wine regions got famous to begin with, and it still is. When I wrote my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, Tom Jordan, who created Jordan Winery, told me how he got tastemakers to pay attention. Quote: “Early on, I realized the challenge was, How are you going to get recognized?” What Tom did was to invite restaurateurs, somms, wine merchants, distributors and food and wine writers to the winery (which is one of the showplaces of California wine country) and wow them. “We had guest suites and guest houses and a superb kitchen operation, and we brought chefs in from France to cook,” Tom said, adding, “I knew the wine was never going to taste better than it would in that nice setting…”.
Now, I don’t mean to criticize what Tom did. He had learned well from the Bordelais, who have been plying influencers with goodies for centuries. This is simply how the game is played, and the fact that it works is proved by Jordan’s being one of the top winery brands on American restaurant wine lists, a feat it has replicated for many years.
Which brings us to–where else?–Asia, the El Dorado of today’s wine trade, the Lost City of Gold, only it is no longer a lost city but one that definitely has been discovered and is in the process of being exploited by those who can afford it. Read this article about how the cellarmaster at South Africa’s Rupert & Rothschild (yes, that Rothschild, on the Baron Edmund/Lafite side, meaning there’s a lot of money) flew to Bangkok to host a dinner. I’ll quote just a little from the article so you get a general idea of what you missed: “After a refreshing round of amuse bouche, the action kicked off with the first course: poached seafood, mussel tomato gelee, kaffir lime, dill and smoked herring pearls paired with 2008 Rupert & Rothschild Baroness Nadine [Chardonnay]…Next up was seared Wagyu beef flank, mixed bean salad, rucola [sic] and red currant with raspberry, paired with 2008 Rupert & Rothschild Classique…” etc. etc.
Well, the guy who wrote this up was suitably impressed, for his descriptors were glowing (“perfect,” “classic,” “exciting”), and I bet anybody who read his account went away thinking, “Hmm, I sure would like to get my hands on those Rupert & Rothschild wines.” Which is the point, isn’t it? If you’re a little family winery, you’re not going to be able to wine and dine tastemakers in Bangkok (much less Hong Kong, Taipei, Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, Singapore, and so on). So you’re probably never going to get on the Asian “A” list, even if you’re making spectacular wine. (It can happen, but it would take a minor miracle.)
So consider today’s posting another in my occasional debunkings of how famous wines get and stay famous. Sometimes it’s about the quality, but sometimes it’s about the credulity of the tastemakers who are gobbling all that smoked salmon and filet mignon and then telling people how fabulous everything was. (Say, I wonder what was in the swag bag at the Bangkok dinner?)