Lord knows I haven’t been a big fan of California Sauvignon Blanc over the years. I thought that, compared to white Bordeaux, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, and even Marlborough, my state has been a distant second, or third. The wines have tended to be either overly sweet, or green, or just plain thin and acidic.
But in the past year, I noticed I’m giving some pretty good scores to Sauv Blanc. I gave a little thought to blogging about it, but the moment never seemed right, until yesterday, when, by coincidence, two things happened. First, I got an email telling me I was mentioned in a Facebook post, so I clicked on the link, which took me to the feed page of a winery, Vellum, where the poster had written: “The 2010 VELLUM White was awarded 92 points from our friends at Wine Enthusiast Magazine. A wildly high score for a white Bordeaux blend!!” (The wine actually is 80% Sauvignon Blanc and 20% Semillon, and was raised in neutral oak.)
At the same time, I was about to review a bunch of Sauvignon Blancs that had come in from Flora Springs, Dutton Estate and J Ludlow. I enjoyed that flight very much, for the most part, and once again found myself giving out some pretty good scores.
I checked out Wine Enthusiast’s database for my highest scoring Sauv Blancs over the past 365 days and found about 40 that got between 90 and 93 points. The four 93 pointers were Trione 2010 River Road Ranch (Russian River Valley), Duckhorn 2010 (Napa Valley), Robert Mondavi 2008 I Block Fume Blanc (Oakville) and Hall 2010 T Bar T Ranch (Alexander Valley). Except for the Trione, the others are wines I’ve known and praised for years; Hall bought T Bar T from Iron Horse some years back. Iron Horse, I believe, used to jazz their Sauv Blanc up with a little Viognier, to brighten it and give it some uplifted floral notes. I don’t know if Hall still does. And then, of course, Mondavi’s I Block always is triumphant. And by the way, that wine ages.
Anyway, people sometimes ask me why I don’t give Sauvignon Blanc scores as high as Chardonnay. For example, in the past year I’ve given two 96s, to Shafer 2009 Red Shoulder Ranch (Carneros) and Foxen 2010 Block UU Bien Nacido Vineyard (Santa Maria Valley). The answer probably won’t satisfy everyone. It’s simply that I don’t think Sauvignon Blanc–at least in its California incarnation–has the depth and richness of Chardonnay.
I admire Sauvignon Blanc more than I love it. I respect its dryness (when it is dry, which too often it isn’t), its acidity, its streamlined minerality, its spiciness, its exotic range of flavors, its palate-cleansing properties. Those are all good things, especially at the table. Sauvignon Blanc is probably the most food-friendly white table wine in California. But when I’m in the mood for a cold white wine, it’s almost never a Sauvignon Blanc that I grab, but Chardonnay. That’s why they call Chardonnay a “noble” variety, but not Sauvignon Blanc. Even in France, Sauvignon Blanc never elicited the profound excitement that white Burgundy, including Chablis, did and still does.
Hey, I’m used to getting some tough reaction from wineries over my scores, but really, this is the most violent blowback I ever got. I’m not going to identify the emailer, but you can determine for yourself if it’s psycho talk. Read it, then I’ll continue with my remarks.
A Small Man in Many Ways
S-tupid, small minded
T-atooed like a fool
E-rectile inversion, get the pump
H-omosapien, poor excuse for one
M-ean, will someday meet his maker like all the rest of us but how will he explain the…
O-ff putting, odorous, bullshit he feeds people, his malicious intent reeks
The sender followed this up with a long email the next day. It was laced with obscenities and sexual innuendo. Here’s a taste: “FUCK YOU, YOU LITTLE PIECE OF SHIT.”
What happened was, I gave one of this winery’s wines a score they didn’t like (84). This evidently led to a situation with one of their distributors that was not in their favor. The writer also disliked the text part of my review. “The written portion of your reviews reveal your lack of tact, lack of poise and expose you as a bully,” she wrote.
I want to say something here about my written reviews. I taste a lot of wine that is mediocre and some that is outright bad. Long ago, I developed a philosophy I’ve hewed to for years. It goes something like this: If a wine is mediocre, give it the appropriate numerical rating, but write the review up in more positive terms, for the sake of compassion. There’s no sense kicking a man when he’s already down on the ground. There’s always a way to say something critical in a kind way, as opposed to being downright nasty.
Some other parts of the email:
Most of the wines submitted to you had received gold medals Do you expect me to be impressed that a wine got a gold medal someplace? Should that make me think twice about my impression of it?
[A friend] said: Wow, what beef does he have with ___ Winery? I have no beef with any winery. Wine reviewing isn’t personal.
You’re one of those fame chasers, a popularity seeker Actually, it’s just the opposite. Ask around to find out how little I enjoy “fame.”
Your writing is mediocre at best. Now, that is below the belt! Give me credit at least for being a good writer, even if you don’t like what I say!
People are your ‘friends’ because they’re afraid of you I don’t know if she means my Facebook friends, or my actual friends. Anyway, if some people are afraid of me, there’s not a thing I can do about it. I tell them not to be. I hope no one is. I don’t know why they would be. I encourage people to call, email, whatever, and I tell them not to apologize for interrupting me, etc. When I’m on the road, I don’t throw any weight around. There’s no reason to be afraid of me. I try my best to let everyone know that I’m just this guy living in Oakland who’s paid to write about wine.
[You’re] just trying to get a free meal OMG! I hope all the winemakers and public relations people who know this isn’t true will write in! In the beginning, yes, I did accept every invitation to lunch or dinner. That was 20 years ago. The novelty wore off quickly. I go to about 10 lunches a year, max, and maybe half as many dinners. I do it for work, not because I want a free meal.
It’s funny how the writer uses the word “little” so much in both her emails. Yes, I’m short. So what? Do we have to resort to ad hominem attacks? She also called me “a trust fund type.” That’s a laugh, as my CPA will tell you. I’m “a bloodsucker.” An “oddity.” I “aspire to be accepted by the elitist pigs.” Really? Tell that to my friends in Occupy Oakland.
Okay, the emailer had to get it off her chest. I feel her pain. I need to vent, too, when stuff happens to me that I think is unfair. But really, have we descended so far down the etiquette chain that it’s now considered appropriate to send crap like this?
The thing about point scoring that makes some people so angry (more on this later) is that they say it represents a form of mathematical or epistemological certainty, of which something as subjective as the enjoyment of wine is incapable.
They have a point, if you assume that numbers in wine reviewing are used in the same way as in mathematics. However, when we critics–me, anyway–use numbers in wine reviewing, these numbers are employed in a different way. In math, numbers are nouns–treated as if they were real objects or concepts, corresponding to absolute equivalents in the Universe. In wine reviewing, however, numbers are used adjectively.
People use numbers adjectively all the time. “She’s a perfect ten,” a man will remark of a beautiful woman. “We’re number one!” fans of a sports team will chant. The Occupy people speak of “the 99 percent.” A political junkie will say a candidate’s odds of winning an election are “fifty-fifty.” Thomas Edison said “Genius is 2 percent inspiration and 98 percent perspiration.” Someone will says he’s “90 percent certain” of something. Running late for an appointment, a woman will call her friend and say she’ll be there “in thirty minutes.”
In none of these cases is the number in question meant to be taken literally or precisely. The speakers are speaking figuratively, trying to get a point across through the use of metaphor. In other words, these numbers are not nouns, referring to real entities in the world, the way, say, the number “32 degrees F” represents the freezing point of water. They’re adjectives, meant to communicate the approximation of a state of being that cannot be better or more accurately described. The person doing the communicating hopes and assumes that the person to whom he is communicating understands this metaphorical use of numbers. When he says he’s “90 percent certain” of something, he doesn’t expect to be grilled as to why he’s not 89 percent certain or 91 percent certain. He’s doing the best he can to express the quality of his belief, and he expects the other person to interpret it the way he means it.
That’s how I use numbers. If I rate something 94 points, I mean it’s around 94 points, meaning (I’m quoting from Wine Enthusiast guidelines): A classic wine. Truly superb. Highly refined. Superb harmony and balance. Great complexity. Great finesse and refinement. Memorable.
Could the 94 be a 92 or a 96 on another occasion? Certainly. I’ve been straightforward about that on my blog ever since I started writing it in 2008. The score can vary due to any number of reasons, bottle variation chief among them. Any critic who claims otherwise is in a state of denial, or simply fibbing. As I’ve said repeatedly, a wine review is that particular critic’s impression of that particular wine at that particular moment in time.
I don’t see what’s so difficult to accept about that. I think consumers get it. At the extreme are those critics of point scores who are so driven (consciously or not) by psychological factors, they fly into an ideological fury. It’s impossible to have a conversation with them, as it always is with ideologues, so I no longer try. But I do welcome legitimate conversations with people who are genuinely curious how my numbers come about. I hope this post has begun to explain it. Let me know, please, if you’d like more on this tomorrow, or if it’s getting stale.
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.