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.
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.
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!
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.
This is the second and final part of my conversation with Allen Meadows, the Burghound. Allen is the author of a brand new book, “The Pearl of the Côte: The Great Wines of Vosne-Romanée,” available here at Burghound’s website. I will be reviewing “The Pearl” in an upcoming post.
SH: Do you collect?
Would I find all three of those regions [i.e., California, Burgundy, Oregon] in your cellar?
Would you care to name any particular producers you’re fond of?
Well, in Burgundy, because that’s always been my interest, it would take quite a while to name them all. I would say, though, that I collect producers, but I also collect by appellation. A lot of people imagine that I have only Grand Crus and that’s absolutely not the case. I collect very broadly.
You made a beautiful argument [in his World of Pinot Noir symposium] for Volnay Villages. But let’s talk about California, because I’m a California guy. Would you care to name some of your highest-rated brands in California?
Sure. There are a number I admire, but Anthill comes to mind. Rhys is another I admire greatly. I think Joe Davis, at Arcadian, is doing some really beautiful work. Some of Jim Clendenen’s stuff is really, really pretty. It’s a little austere when you start, like Davis’s stuff, but given time in bottle, it really matures. There are certainly others.
Am I mistaken in thinking that these are all lower alcohol wines, by California standards?
No, I don’t think you’re mistaken at all, because the whole aspect of balance and food-friendly wines I believe are the future, if California is going to be in the eyes of the serious consumer and compete favorably with Burgundy, because high alcohol wines, in general, age less well, less gracefully than lower alcohol wines. But I don’t want to beat this to death either, because high alcohol, in certain vintages, if the wines are balanced–it’s still not my personal preference, but I wouldn’t say they’re incapable of aging.
So if I’m a California producer and my wine happens to be 15.5%, should I say, “I’m not going to send it to Meadows because he’s going to give it a low score?”
Well, chances are good it’s not going to get a great score. What I try and do is try to separate style and content, and if I think the wine is not too warm, and has at least some semblance of balance, I’ll say, “This is very well done in its style, but it isn’t for me personally.” But that isn’t to say that the wine isn’t any good, because the whole philosophy of “I like it, therefore it’s good” or “I don’t like it, therefore it’s bad” I think is intellectually bankrupt.
You may not know the answer to this, but over the years, how many 100s have you given to all your regions?
What was that?
A 1945 Romanée-Conti, and it didn’t appear in the pages of Burghound, it appeared in the book.
How many 99s?
I’d have to look, but probably 6,7.
What’s the highest score in California, if you remember?
I believe 95.
It was one of the Rhys wines. But I believe that one of the Anthill wines was, if not there, then close.
So you’re a fairly stingy rater. That’s my word.
Yes. I’d say that’s probably true, relative to many of my colleagues.
Do you think that there’s a such thing as score inflation going on?
Care to say anything more about that?
Well, I think there is unfortunately a commercial relationship between certain reviewers who give good scores and retailers who can use those scores to their benefit. So someone starting out as a critic is probably well advised to give very high scores to gain some notoriety. The problem is, those scores have to bear up in the eyes of the consuming public, and as we spoke earlier, I think that 90 points is supposed to mean something, as opposed to where you start, and a lot of wines that are submitted to me are in that 86-89 point range, meaning that they’re not technically flawed, but they’re not necessarily greatly distinguished either. But if I give something a 90 or above, I want the consumer to say to himself or herself, “I got something really good.”
Do you taste blind or unblind?
I generally taste unblind. This is not to say 100%, but the vast majority of what I taste is not blind.
Given that this is a somewhat controversial issue, can you explain why you choose to taste unblind?
I can. There are both sides to the argument, and I believe I appreciate and understand both. However, if part of what my clients are paying for is the benefit of my perspective and my, in many cases, intimate knowledge of ageability and style of a given domaine or winery with that particular terroir, to taste blind is to deprive the readership of that perspective. Now, am I influenced by the label? Perhaps. It’s impossible to know for sure. I try and step back and judge that vintage against what I have tasted before.
To play Devil’s Advocate for a second, why not taste blind, and then look at the label and bring your context and experience to the review?
There are times I do that, in particular when we do staged tastings where it’s a theme. In other words, it’s a given producer, or a given vintage, or a given terroir. Those are often done blind, and then the review is after the fact, and then you can adjust. But in a way, if you’re going to all of a sudden rate something 83 points, and you find out, Well, jeez, that’s a famous name, now it’s 93–what have you really done? To me, not much, other than you say to yourself that either your palate isn’t as fine-tuned as you think it is, or this really wasn’t very good after all. I can see both sides of it. People who taste blind and believe that’s the best way–it’s the results, ultimately, that count, and the quality of the guidance. I’m less convinced that the method by which you get there is the driving force. So I wouldn’t do it that way, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t entitled to do it the way they see fit.
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.