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The critics, not committees, have classified California wine

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In the Spring of 1969, Roy Andries de Groot, who turned to wine- and food-writing when he became blind, was sent to California by Esquire Magazine to write about the state’s wines, on the 200th anniversary of Junipero Serra’s planting of wine grapes in San Diego.

de Groot soon realized that what he really wanted to do was what he called his “immense project”: “a Classification of American Wines,” he called it, based on the sort of official hierarchy that had been developed by the French, in the famous 1855 Classification.

(de Groot also went on to classify the wines of the Pacific Northwest and New York State, hence his reference to “American Wines.”)

As he notes in his 1982 masterwork, “The Wines of California,” de Groot had pedigreed precedence for his audacious project. There not only had been the 1855 Classification, but, a century earlier, “in 1755, a first attempt had been made to rank the wines of Bordeaux,” he wrote, followed by another in 1833. So the project was neither as audacious nor as radical as it might have appeared.

Here in California, others have attempted, from time to time, to classify the state’s wines into quality tiers. Perhaps the most controversial has been Jim Laube’s 1989 book, “California’s Great Cabernets,” in which the Wine Spectator writer rather self-consciously established five “Growths” (just like the 1855 Classification), which he populated with dozens of wineries functioning at that time. It was a worthy effort—but one doomed to failure, as California, unlike staid Bordeaux, was in the process (and still is today) of sprouting new wineries like mushrooms after an Autumn rain. When Laube wrote his book, for instance, there was no Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Dalla Valle, Verite, David Arthur, Jarvis, Araujo. The book was destined for obsolescence even before it was published. (It does, however, remain an interesting read and is important as an historical document.)

de Groot established, not five, but four tiers in his classification, although he did not numerically denote them but instead used the adjectives “Great,” “Superb,” “Noble” and “Fine,” in descending order of quality. (The only wineries he put into the “Great” category were Heitz, Schramsberg and Stony Hill.) But, just as Laube’s book of seven years later was condemned to early obsolescence, so was de Groot’s, and for the same reason. As we look at his list today, we’re struck, not only by the non-inclusion of so many wineries that simply didn’t exist in 1982, but by others that were functioning at that time, but no longer are, or that continue to exist, but not at a very high level. The list, then, is sadly out of date, although like Laube’s book, “The Wines of California” makes for good reading.

I doubt that any wine writer will ever again attempt such a hopeless task as classifying the wines of California! But then, in this modern era of, say, the last 30 years, the public doesn’t need an official list. That task has been taken over, in practical effect, by critics. Can there be any question that California Cabernets and Bordeaux blends have been unofficially ranked already, through the reviews of Robert Parker, Wine Spectator and others? This ranking has the appearance of mathematical precision because it’s based on scores of the 100-point system. Thus, in order to determine the placement of any winery in the critical classification, all you have to do is look up its scores over the years, and that will determine its position in the hierarchy. Before you object that this is a pretty flimsy basis, remember that the 1855 Classification itself—which we all hold so dear—was based in part on the prices the wines had historically fetched. Since today, price and score are irretrievably intertwined, it’s not ludicrous to base a wine’s placement by its score: the highest-scoring wines will generally be the most expensive (although the opposite is not always the case!).

There’s one huge, qualitative difference, however, between an official classification, like that of 1855, and the unofficial one created by scores. The former can never change, or does so only agonizingly slowly (Mouton-Rothschild, originally a Second Growth, was not elevated to First Growth until 1973.) But the latter, unofficial classification is constantly morphing, as wineries come into and fall out of favor, reflected in their scores. The critical classification, then, has the advantage of a built-in resilience that makes it more adaptable to change and thus more descriptive of reality, as well as more useful. A critical classification can never become obsolete, by definition.

Where things get sticky, of course, is with the proliferation of critics. In 1855 the French had a single committee to make their classification. There was nobody to challenge it (although disgruntled proprietors always have complained about their placement). Twenty years ago we had only a tiny handful of critics to make their de facto classification, and few if any dared to challenge them. Today, everybody’s a critic. This is why we have the phenomenon of multi-source rating compilers, like CellarTracker, where consumers can track reviews from multiple sources side by side for the same wine.

What I find fascinating about the new order, with its proliferation of voices and the coming of age of a younger generation, is how impervious to change the old perceived hierarchy remains. In Bordeaux the First Growths still rule. In California, the Harlans and Screaming Eagles remain at the top, although they may have had to allow some room for a few other aspirants. Something about wine—or, rather, the way we perceive it—is remarkably conservative. I wish I had a time machine and could see what the top wines are fifty years from now. For some reason, I doubt if I’d be surprised.


The World Atlas didn’t get Paso Robles right

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In their splendid new book, The World Atlas of Wine (which I am devouring), Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson devote all of two paragraphs to Paso Robles (which Wine Enthusiast just declared our Wine Region of the Year). That is not near enough–for such an emerging region –and those two paragraphs could have been written ten years ago, for all the reader knows, because the information is so out of date.

The only Paso wine companies the authors name are Constellation, Treasury and J. Lohr, east of Highway 101. As for west of the Freeway, the only winery mentioned is Tablas Creek. This is what I mean by my “ten years ago” remark. Is it surprising that the only winery on the West Side the two Brits would think to mention was started by the Perrin family, of Chateauneuf-du-Pape?

I’m not bashing Jancis and Hugh so much as pointing out the difficulties of writing a coffee table book that purports to report the latest information on the wines and regions of the world, when the authors really have not kept abreast of what’s actually happening on the ground. This is always a challenge for the wine writer who’s a generalist, as opposed to a specialist (like me), who focuses on a single region. No one approach is perfect–but the Atlas’s sadly out-of-date reporting on Paso Robles (a region I happen to know quite well) makes me wonder about the accuracy and timeliness of the book’s reporting on other regions.

Jancis and Hugh did write a sentence that hints at what’s happening in Paso: “Paso Robles has earned a reputation for its array of blended reds and blends of Rhôn-ish whites…”. That is accurate–but I wish they’d gone into a little more detail. As I’ve written frequently the past few years, Paso Robles is creating the most innovative and stylish blends in California, and I wish they had singled out for mention (if not praise) some of the smaller, exciting wineries in Paso Robles. I finally wish they had moved beyond the stereotyped “east of Highway 101 is decidedly hot” producing wines that are “fruity, though hardly demanding” meme. If all you’ve ever tasted are the mass-produced wines of the east (and there are plenty of them) without checking out smaller wineries, like Vina Robles, then you’re not current on developments. While it’s true that the “Templeton Gap” influence, which brings cooler maritime air to western Paso Robles, grows weaker as it approaches the 101 Freeway, the cool air doesn’t just stop there. And in cool vintages, the east can actually excel over the west. And how about some mention of Gary Eberle in the Atlas? He’s east of the Freeway and producing fine wines.

Look, Paso Robles is soon likely to be sub-divided into 11 distinct AVAs. We have got to get over this simplistic east-vs.-west mentality. Things are a lot more complicated than that, and Paso Robles is a lot more exciting than the Atlas makes it sound.


Psst: There’s a global wine shortage. Pass it on.

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If I see one more report of a “global wine shortage,” I’m gonna hurl.

It all started with a report from Morgan Stanley, the big investment bank, that “Global wine consumption has been on the rise almost without interruption…since the late 1990s,” while at the same time, “World production hasn’t managed to keep pace.” Next thing you know, every news outlet in the world is screaming that the sky is falling. My in-box has been filled with such reports, thanks to Google Alerts. Here, for instance, and here, and here, and here.

The Morgan Stanley report went viral, instantly, but does it hold water? My first reaction, yesterday, was not to believe it: California, which still supplies the lion’s share of wine to the U.S., had its biggest crop ever in 2012, and 2013’s harvest apparently also will be a large one. (We don’t have the details until the Dept. of Food and Agriculture issues its Crush Report next year.) And, this just in: In Washingron State, the 2013 harvest will be the biggest ever.

My skepticism also was fueled by my increasing suspicion of “news” on the Internet. Reporters eager to file deadlines rush to embrace findings from “authoritative” sources, and Morgan Stanley certainly seems like an authoritative source, doesn’t it? And yet we’ve seen all too often how “authoritative sources”, including–gasp!–banks, sometimes get things wrong. (Ever hear of sub-prime mortgages?)

Then lo and behold, Thursday morning’s San Francisco Chronicle had a front page article in the print edition on the subject. The online version was headlined “Experts dismiss prediction of global wine shortage.” Here it is.

In it, the paper’s reporter, Stacy Finz, cited numerous people holding important positions in the wine trade, banking and analysis, each of whom said, in effect, that the Morgan Stanley report is twaddle. Go ahead, read Stacy’s article.

The dangers of mindlessly embracing every new report or study without subjecting it to proper journalistic scrutiny are obvious. A local ABC News affiliate in reaction to the report ran this online article suggesting that wine lovers “might want to start stockpiling your favorite bottles.” Forbes picked up on this and wondered if the looming “shortage” doesn’t “present a good investment opportunity.” Next thing you know, here’s the L.A. Times, parroting the warning: “You may want to start stocking up now.”

It’s like that old party game of telegraph, where one person whispers something in someone’s ear and then, ten people later, the message is total gibberish.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not disputing that there may be some upcoming shortage of wine in the future. Just last May, I blogged about similar reports that were surfacing about global shortages. However, as one of my esteemed commenters–the Hosemaster of Wine himself–wryly noted at that time, “isn’t there a shortage every ten years or so?”, the implication being that perhaps, just perhaps such dire predictions of shortages might benefit certain parties who stand to make more money if people start hoarding and prices rise. Who could such parties be? Hmm.

What troubles me about this latest feeding frenzy of media speculation is what has long bothered me about the Internet: “news” spreads virally around the globe and is routinely accepted as true by lazy reporters who then in turn are cited by even lazier bloggers, ad nauseum, until everybody believes it, except for the inconvenient fact that It may not be true. And if it’s not? Nobody’s going to come back in two years and accuse Morgan Stanley of getting their facts wrong. And even if someone did, I’m sure Morgan Stanley wouldn’t care.


What we’ve been reading this summer

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The new wine books have been piling in all summer long. I’ve finally been able to get a handle on them, so here are my mini-reviews.

Hugh Johnson’s 2014 Pocket Wine Book, $18. Now in its 39th edition [!!!], this handy little guide–the “pocket” means it will fit into the back pocket of your blue jeans–has been educating wine lovers since 1977. I still have my original ’77 edition. It was a book I loved and treasured. The 2014 is easily twice its size, and probably won’t fit into anyone’s back pocket anymore. But it will be a good friend to a new generation of wine lovers.

The Book: Why the First Books of the Bible Were Written and Who They Were Written For, $17.95 soft cover. Michigander Allen Wright brings an academician’s eye to this easy-breezy account. I don’t think there’s much new here, but if you’re a history and/or religion buff, it makes for pleasant reading.

The Barefoot Spirit: How Hardship, Hustle, and Heart Built America’s #1 Wine Brand, $15.95. Barefoot founders Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey reminisce about their little startup company that went on to become a powerhouse brand and was subsequently acquired by E&J Gallo. The book will appeal to brand-builders, marketers and P.R. types more than it will to the average wine buff.

Extreme Wine: Searching the World for the Best, the Worst, the Outrageously Cheap, the Insanely Overpriced, and the Undiscovered, $24.95. Economist Wine Veseth is well known in the wine blog world for his interesting, if sometimes quirky, analyses of wine and economics. This is his personal take, covering everything from celebrity wines and critter wines to Antinori.

Postmodern Winemaking: Rethinking the Modern Science of an Ancient Craft, $?. Clark Smith is a winemaker, writer and academic. His hard cover book is a good read, filled with technical minutiae on the buzziest topics, including micro-oxygenation, flavanols, soil profiles, reverse osmosis and a few well-timed digs at “bullshit” in marketing.

Sonoma Wine and the Story of Buena Vista, $34.95. Napa wine historian Charles L. Sullivan wrote this fascinating account of the rise of California’s oldest winery (now owned by Jean-Charles Boisset) and its flamboyant founder, the Hungarian “Count,” Agoston Haraszthy. The book is filled with fascinating tidbits spanning the period 1783 to today.

Wine Marketing Online: How to use the newest tools of marketing to boost profits and build brands, $29.95. New Zealander Bruce McGechan is a true believer in the power of the Internet and social media to move cases. He explains how, in this geeky tome, which can sometimes be a little obscure and hard to follow. But there’s plenty of useful stuff.

The World Atlas of Wine, $55. If there’s one wine book you buy this year, either for yourself or as a stocking-stuffer, make it this grand, hard-covered coffee table work of art. Penned by two of the world’s most famous wine writers, Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, it’s worth the price for the maps alone. Johnson, of course, has been exploring this venue since 1971; I still have his 1977 World Atlas of Wine, a book I devoured and still turn to. Robinson joined up with him several years ago. For sheer beauty, precise writing and, again, those gorgeous maps, it’s a keeper, even if the capsule descriptions of wine regions can sometimes seem a little abbreviated.


These days, a man’s place is definitely in the kitchen

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But it wasn’t always.  If you came of age before the era of Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay and Mario Batali, you might be surprised to learn that, until comparatively recently, men were considered genetically and temperamentally unfit to cook.

That was certainly true when I was a little boy. Mom’s place was in the kitchen. Dad’s place was in front of the T.V., there to remain until Mom announced, “Dinner’s ready.” The only time dads were allowed to cook was in the backyard, over the barbecue.

I was reminded of all this when I bought a book in one of our great used bookstores in Oakland. “Cooks, Gluttons and Gourmets” was written by Betty Watson and published in 1962–well before the modern era of cooking began. Fifty one years ago, “cuisine” in America meant French food, snootily served in restaurants with heavy red leather banquettes. Italian meant lasagna, Chinese meant chop suey, Jewish meant corned beef, and that was that. It was the age of iceberg lettuce and frozen T.V. dinners. And nobody had ever heard of Julia Child.

In the 1960s that began to change, albeit quite slowly at first. “It was the popularity of outdoor barbecues that led most American husbands to take an interest in cookery,” Watson writes. “While the kitchen had come to be regarded as woman’s sphere from frontier days onward, cooking out of doors was different. It reminded grown men of Boy Scout days when they roasted hot dogs over campfires. [!!!] Building up a good fire in the charcoal grill was thoroughly masculine. So was the cooking of a steak.”

We’ve come a long way, babycakes! Building a good fire always makes me feel more masculine.

Yet Watson, in her research for the book, was “astonish[ed]…to learn…that cooking in ancient Greece was regarded as an art and cooks were men of stature.” For emphasis, she adds, “Men, yes–note that.” Citing Athenaeus, a second century Greek writer, she refers to his masterwork, Deipnosophistae, in which he “mentions by name twenty authors of cookery books and not one by a woman.”

(Incidentally, here’s one of Athenaneus’s recipes, for Gastris, a sweet nut cake:

Ingredients: 100g each of poppy seeds, ground walnuts, ground hazelnuts and ground almonds; 100g of dried and stoned dates and dried figs; 150g sesame seeds; 75g clear honey; 1/2 tsp ground black pepper; Olive Oil .

Chop the dates and figs then place in a pan with 30ml of the honey, 4 tbsp water and a little olive oil. Bring to a gentle simmer, cover and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the fruits are soft. Take off the heat and allow to cool, then turn into a mortar and pound in the ground poppy seeds, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds and black pepper until your have a smooth, thick, dough-like paste. Turn into a pan and cook until the dough is thick and of a consistency that can be rolled out. Roll out the fruit and nut paste and cut into squares. Heat the remaining honey in a pan, dip the fruit and nut paste in this then coat in the sesame seeds.)

Men were the chefs to royalty for most of history, and even royalty took a turn in the kitchen. Peter the Great “would often go into the kitchens to knead bread dough with his own hands or pour cheese into molds,” Watson writes. Thomas Jefferson was as interested in food and cooking as he was in wine. Watson tells us he introduced spaghetti into the Americas, was “the first to serve French fries with beefsteak” (and we can imagine that at one time French fries were considered special), “the first to use vanilla as a flavoring,” and “learned to make ice cream while in France, writing down the recipe in his own hand…He imported olive trees” and grew “many rare vegetables such as broccoli and asparagus.” Once in the White House, he “personally supervised the planning of state dinners.” Can you imagine a modern U.S. President being a foodie? He’d be mercilessly mocked, especially by Fox News.

When did men drop out of the kitchen? It seems to have been a by-product of the Industrial Age and of the rise of American capitalism. The man was expected to leave the home early in the morning, work all day, and come home, late and hungry. The little woman was expected to remain barefoot and in the kitchen, and have dinner ready for her man. (See almost any episode of “Mad Men” with Betty Draper in it.) This model remained the dominant one throughout the first half, even the first two-thirds of the twentieth century.

By the 1980s, it definitely had changed. Why? Historians of American culture will have the last word on that. Certainly the re-entry of the man into the kitchen paralleled the rise of the boutique winery movement in California. I can’t prove it, but I suspect the two were related.


The End of Terroir

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One of the most enduring memes in wine is that of terroir. (A meme, by the way, is a cultural idea that spreads virally from human to human. Memes have been compared to genes in that they may mutate in response to environmental pressures, a concept I’ll return to in a minute.)

We all know the origin of the concept of terroir: France. That it was borrowed by American wine growers and vintners, primarily here in California, is perfectly understandable, especially after the boutique winery boom pushed prices high enough that vintners had to come up with some rationale to convince consumers to dig deep. Their rationale: Mass-produced wines have no terroir. The word “terroir” went beyond its original French meaning of referring to a given set of growing conditions, to acquire qualitative and even esthetic dimensions. One might say that the terroir meme mutated.

In the 1980s and 1990s, as I was learning about wine and becoming a wine writer, the concept of terroir was all-pervasive at the higher levels of California. Napa Valley was said to make the best Cabernets because of its terroir. When Pinot Noir started to become popular, there were fierce intellectual discussions of the difference between the terroirs of, say, the western part of the Santa Ynez Valley (now called the Sta. Rita Hills) and the Russian River Valley. One might say that being able to describe his region’s unique terroir was as integral a part of the winemaker’s job as producing good wine. Certainly, it became a necessary part of the job description with the rise of the wine media.

Personally, I always had my doubts. While I could certainly tell that Napa Valley Cabernet was better than Cabs from elsewhere (as a general rule; not always in every instance), I always felt some skepticism when someone told me about how radically different Rutherford and Oakville were, or Howell Mountain and Mount Veeder. I didn’t see it quite that way. But one learns to keep one’s mouth shut in such cases: I feared that perhaps it was my lack of ability that prevented me from detecting what seemed so obvious to others. The guilty fear of many writers, maybe all of us for all I know, is that nagging feeling that you know less about wine than people think you do. So when I wrote about terroir, I dutifully quoted winemakers, while myself seldom if ever proclaiming terroir distinctions in my own voice. There’s a big difference between quoting others and making your own declarations, and I have never been confident making the kind of ultra-fine statements that would be needed in distinguishing Rutherford from Oakville.

Or Sta. Rita Hills from Russian River Valley. Or Santa Lucia Highlands from Sonoma Coast. Or even Carneros from Russian River Valley. Which is a problem for a wine writer expected to know these things. I can describe the differences, intellectually, based on my knowledge of climate and soils, and from things I’ve been told by winemakers over the years. But I would hate to be put to the acid test of having to identify these wines in a blind tasting in a public format, for a simple reason I’ve been hesitant to express, before now: The truth is, Pinot Noirs from all California’s top regions taste more alike than not, and so do Cabernets from Napa’s appellations; and now we are seeing the emergence of Cabernets from other parts of the state (not just Sonoma County, but Paso Robles and Santa Barbara County) that one might easily confuse with the real thing from Napa Valley.

Wine writers aren’t supposed to admit such things, and few do, at least in public. Which is why I have been so enjoying Benjamin Lewin’s new book, Claret & Cabs. He does such a superb job of demolishing the terroir meme, not because he doesn’t believe in terroir–he does– but because external factors are minimizing its impact, to the point where traditional terroir concepts in Bordeaux–the mothership of terroir–have become so blurred as to be largely unintelligible. (My words, not his.)

Lewin, who’s an M.W., compiles a list of reasons why terroir distinctions in the Médoc have gotten so fuzzy. Vintners pick riper. Some varieties, like Malbec and Carmenere, are being eliminated, in favor of more Cabernet Sauvignon–which may be making all Bordeaux wines taste more alike than they used to. Cabernet is being planted in areas where it didn’t used to, even at the top chateaux. Wines from lesser parts of Bordeaux are fast becoming as good as classified growths. Most importantly, perhaps, global warming is doing away with climate patterns that dominated when the communal distinctions were first established–patterns that made for perceptual differences between cooler and warmer micro-terroirs. As he writes, “I suspect…that [terroir] differences were brought out in the past by marginal conditions”–conditions that less frequently apply in today’s Bordeaux, so that “it would be a fine taster who could always tell the difference between St. Julien and Pauillac.”

Such a statement would have been heresy in Michael Broadbent’s, Hugh Johnson’s or Alexis Lichine’s heyday. Today, as established a figure as Lewin (who may be the most prolific and best wine writer in the English language) can come out and say the unsayable, the truth about terroir that dare not speak its name. He blew my mind when he called terroir “a point of faith in Bordeaux.” Faith is something you believe in despite evidence to the contrary. But for how long, and at what price?

TOMORROW: Part 2.

 


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