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What I’m reading

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A few new books to recommend for summer reading before summer ends.

Divine Vintage: Following the Wine Trail From Genesis to the Modern Age [Joel Butler and Randall Heskett] is, as its title states, an encyclopedic narrative of the story of wine from its misty origins at the dawn of time. The authors trace wine’s appearance on the human scene from pre-Biblical days, basing their history on archeological and other physical evidence, and then turn to Biblical exegesis to explain the Noah story of the planting of the vine, followed by wine’s steady penetration of Jewish culture. Then they trace wine’s path through ancient Greek and Roman societies, and end with an amusing chapter: Seriously, What Wine Would Jesus Drink? [You'll have to read it to find out.] It’s a good book, a little dry, but packed with scholarly information. Joel Butler is one of the first two Masters of Wine in the U.S., and an old friend of mine. Randall Heskett is a Ph.D biblical scholar and president of Boulder University. Read their book for a solid background on wine’s role as nurturer of the culture.

Pairing with the Masters: A Definitive Guide to Food & Wine [Ken Arnone and Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan]. I can hear you thinking, “Oh, no, not another wine and food cookbook!” Well, yes…and no. It’s laden with recipes that are more conventional than exciting (tandoori chicken, cheese ravioli, beef bourgignon); if your library resembles mine, you probably have a dozen cookbooks with the same recipes. But what makes Pairing fun and useful is its treatment of wine. The authors recommend one wine for each dish [moderately priced and relatively easy to find), but they devote considerable energy to explaining just why that particular wine works so well, so that if you can’t find it, you have enough information to substitute something similar. For example, they recommend a Cantravelli Taurasi Riserva for grilled lamb chops with mint emulsion. I might not have the time to look all over town for this Italian Aglianico, but reading that the chops want a wine that’s “full-bodied, dark fruit (blackberry), earthy, grilled meat flavor, gripping tannin, slightly rustic,” I might choose a dry, cool-climate California Syrah. Surely that wouldn’t lead to disaster?

The authors also do something I’ve never seen before: they pair each dish with several wines that didn’t work, and explain where things went south. With the lamb chops, Washington Merlot and California Chardonnay are no-no’s because they clashed in some way with the food. The Chardonnay, they write, worked well on several layers with the lamb, but ultimately “the dish and the wine end up canceling each other out.” That’s an interesting take on wine and food pairing. Ken Arnone, by the way, is a Certified Master Chef (whatever that is), while Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan is a Master of Wine.

I’ll mention also Doug Shafer’s new reflection on the story of Shafer Vineyards, A Vineyard in Napa. Some great personal histories here of his Dad, John Shafer, himself and the inimitable Elias Fernandez, everybody’s favorite winemaker (I gave him and Doug a chapter in my second book, New Classic Winemakers of California). And, when I have a chance, I’ll try Amarone: The Making of an Italian Wine Phenomenon, just out from The Wine Appreciation Guild.

Never stop reading! (And I don’t mean tweets.)


Reviewing wine: subjectivity is part of the complexity

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I finally finished Allen Meadows’s The Pearl of the Côte: The Great Wines of Vosnes-Romanée. I took my time, as I do with things of great pleasure I don’t want to end.

I highly recommend it. Even if you’re not a Burgundy lover, or able to afford these wines (who is?), you’ll learn a lot. It’s not every book that has so many things in it that make you think. This one is rich in provocative statements, such as this one, right near the end. Allen is recounting a tasting of 1945 Romanée-Conti, the only wine he’s ever given 100 points to. He wonders, “Had I been transported to another emotional dimension because of something in me, in the wine, or a combination of the two?”

What is striking about this isn’t that Allen was transported “to another emotional dimension.” Anyone who loves wine has probably had that experience. It doesn’t occur often in one’s life; it may never occur, but when it does, you remember it. No, what hit me was that Allen allowed as to how “something in me” might have been responsible, or equally responsible, for whatever the experience of that wine did to him.

To me, the question–which Allen doesn’t directly answer, but I think his conclusion was that it really was “a combination of the two”--implies something I think we all know, but tend to overlook. Our experience of wine isn’t limited only to its hedonistic qualities, “hedonistic” in this case meaning the way it presents itself to the five senses. There is a sixth sense–call it esthetic, spiritual or emotional–we don’t understand well, because it’s not measurable, or even explainable, in common physiological terms. It is, in fact, the thing that makes up happy, that lifts our spirits, that makes us simply thankful it exists. Now, wine may be a feeble vehicle in which to arrive at such peak experiences. Other human beings, a painting or a poem, the sight of a puppy or kitten napping, hearing the speech of Dr. King may send us there far more frequently than a sip of wine. But when wine does it, it remains seared into the memory.

Writing this makes me think about the 100-point system, about rating wines, about blind tasting. The critics of all these things point out, with some justification, that in order to truly appreciate a wine, you must drink it in the full knowledge of what it is. That is the way Allen tasted the ‘45 Romanée-Conti and is in fact the way he tastes most of the wines he reviews. My own inclination, at this point in my career, is to taste wines blind, but still, I do wonder. Question: If you read the transcript of Dr. King’s I have a dream speech, would it have the same impact as hearing it? Put another way, do you think that if Allen had tasted the ‘45 Romanée-Conti blind, in a flight of old Burgundies, he would have given it the only 100 point score in his career? I don’t think so.

Allen–an intellectually honest man–recognizes that his experience with the ‘45 Romanée-Conti raises the question of consistency, which he calls “the greatest of all attributes for a critic.” Readers want to be reassured that a wine review from a trusted critic hews closely to, if it is not identical with, a second review of the same wine, by the same critic, written within a similar time period. It would serve the consumer poorly if, on one occasion, the critic gave the wine 84 points, and then on another occasion scored it 94 points. Readers would rightfully question that critic’s credentials.

But here’s another reflection Allen makes on that ‘45 Romanée-Conti. “Peak experiences require a certain moment in time, under just the right circumstances, with a certain knowledge, experience, and emotional state. Rarely can those circumstances be replicated.”

Think about that. Allen is basically saying that the wine tasting experience is not replicable! Granted, his proviso is for “peak experiences,” such as the ‘45 Romanée-Cont. But it’s not clear to me why those parameters should not apply to one’s experience of every wine, whether it’s a Napa cult Cabernet or Two Buck Chuck.

This is a conundrum I think about all the time: Since “just the right circumstances…and emotional state” are so variable over time, then why should we expect any consistency from wine critics? I suppose the answer is at once simple and complex, like most things. It’s simple, because if a wine is, say, horribly flawed, we would expect the critic to pan it regardless of how his own personal circumstance varies over time. Similarly, if a wine is absolutely fabulous (to that critic), then we should expect him to praise it every time, although it would be unreasonable for us to demand that he score it precisely the same. (I personally think a range of 4 points is perfectly acceptable for repeat tastings, given bottle variation and things of that sort.)

But then there are all the wines in the middle: neither horrible nor fabulous. That’s the neighborhood where most wines live. The truth is, they’re the hardest to score consistently, precisely because, as Allen says, no “moment in time” is ever quite the same as another. It’s these middle wines that can score the most inconsistently in repeated blind tastings. They have positive and negative qualities: and depending on where the taster is at that moment, the positive qualities may outweigh the negatives, or vice versa. That’s the subjective side of wine reviewing.

Does this irresolution make the reviewer’s job irrelevant or, worse, useless? I don’t think so. The one conclusion the reader should take away from every review is that, while the review may not have been carved in stone and handed down from the Deity to the critic, still, the reliable critic has tasted lots and lots of wines over time, and is in a better position than most people to make a pronouncement. In other words, the “truth” of a review is never absolute, but only relative. And that’s better than no truth at all.


Single vineyard wine: Is this our inheritance from the Druids?

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From Allen Meadows’ new book, The Pearl of the Côte: The Great Wines of Vosnes-Romanée, we can garner lessons in almost every paragraph. This from page 16:

Almost overnight [following the French Revolution], Burgundy went from a land where the idea of terroir was sacrosanct and implicit in the production of wine, to one where it was a secondary consideration as wine became a wholly commercial product.

What Allen means by “sacrosanct” is a vin de terroir, which long has signified, to the true wine lover, the highest aspiration of which wine is capable. I always understood that, but I never knew how this notion arose in the first place–and how many ancillary issues it raises.

Allen traces the notion of terroir to the Druidic “concept of animism,” according to which “all things, animate and inanimate, possess a spirit or soul.” Light, darkness, a grove of trees, an individual plant, an insect, they all were inhabited by a god or goddess, which made each thing alive and distinct from all other things, no matter how similar in appearance they might have been.

From this ancient belief, Allen continues, came the corrollary that “the wines of one vineyard were fundamentally different from those of its direct neighbor.” We accept this today; it lies at the heart of terroir, and particularly with noble wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling, whose greatest expressions people are willing to pay high prices for. Carried to an extreme, as in Burgundy (Allen’s specialty), we have the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, whose six climats [seven, counting Montrachet] can be said to represent modern-day Druidism applied to wine, through the filter of terroir.

We know today that “all things, animate and inanimate” are not inhabited by gods or goddesses (don’t we?), but we still love the concept of terroir in vineyards. So from an untruth has come a truth. But it’s a relative truth, because no one can claim, with absolute certainty, that a vin de terroir is objectively better than the best blended wine (for example, the 2006 Cardinale, to which I gave 100 points). Yet most of us, pressed, would concede that a vin de terroir is the noblest expression of wine.

Why is this so? Is it the residue of ancient thinking that still survives, in some deep part of our reptilian brain? I would argue that the appeal of vins de terroir is based, not on sensory distinction, but on intellectual appreciation. There are not five senses (hearing, sight, touch, smell, and taste), but six, the sixth being thought. It is in our brains, in our capacity to form esthetic judgments and in our intellectual faculties, that the appreciation of the finest wine exists, lending pleasure to sensory perceptions and lifting them, at the highest level, to divinity or making them, in Allen’s word, “sacrosanct” (which is why praise of such wines often sounds like a religious benediction).

This isn’t an argument for or against blind tasting, but it is to suggest that the appreciation of fine wine can best be accomplished with the knowledge of where it comes from. Whether or not the professional wine critic can perform his or her job better with or without that knowledge is something that reasonable people can disagree about.


Staying relevant: for wineries, it can be tricky

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W. Blake Gray wrote, on his blog, a pretty good book review on Loam Baby: A Wine Culture Journal’s inaugural edition, so I won’t, not just because Blake did but because I’d rather comment on some of the remarks that Greg Brewer made in the author’s (R.H. Drexel, a pseudonym) interview with him.

Greg is, of course, the winemaker at Brewer-Clifton, Diatom, and Melville (did I forget any?). He’s also emerging as a sort of mentor to a younger generation down in the Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills (although Greg’s hardly elderly; I don’t think he’s hit 40). I always liked Greg because he was one of the people who welcomed me to Sta. Rita Hills years ago when I first visited, driving me all around and telling me who’s who and what’s what. Reporters depend on the kindness of strangers like Greg, who is no longer a stranger but a friend; I profiled him in my second book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversation with Steve Heimoff, and I contact him from time to time with questions about wine, vintages and other things.

Greg has a reputation as an intensely thoughtful guy, a philosopher. He will go all esoteric on you, if you want, but won’t if you don’t. (I also dig his tattoos.) Anyhow, this R.H. Drexel (whoever he is) asked Greg a great question: “How do you stay relevant?”

The issue of staying relevant if you’re a winery or a winemaker obsesses me. The main place I look for clues is Napa Valley,  because of all the wine regions in California, it’s (a) the hardest place to achieve relevance and (b) the hardest place to stay relevant.

This past February I wrote an article in Wine Enthusiast called “The Class of ‘72.” It was about the wineries who began life in 1972. They’ve had a tumultuous ride and not all of them have ended up for the better, sad to say. Some are stronger than ever (Diamond Creek, Caymus, Montelena) while others have languished. There’s no better illustration of “staying relevant” than to look at the Class of ‘72 and see that while some have, others haven’t.

Getting relevant in the first place if you’re in Napa Valley is difficult for multiple reasons. First off, competition is fierce. Does the world really need another $80 or $100 Cabernet Sauvignon (which is probably what you’re going to do if you have a Napa Valley winery)? The economy suggests that, no, it doesn’t. Wineries try to achieve relevance in all sorts of ways, from sending samples to people like me (to get a high score) to not sending samples to people like me (to foster the illusion of exclusivity) to hiring Famous Name growers and winemakers for bragging rights. (It also helps to get an important somm in your corner.) Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. I never feel sorry for new Napa wineries that don’t really make it, because I figure that their owners are rich, and knew what they were getting into, although I’ve been around long enough to know that’s not always the case. Some of them may be rich, but they’re dumb as doorknobs when it comes to selling wine. Either way, I don’t feel sorry for them.

Even if you get relevant it’s hard to remain at the top. I’ll mention two names. Take Chappellet and Trefethen. Both are old wineries (by Napa Valley standards). Both make magnificent wine. Both are intensely relevant to me and to all serious writers. But I wonder if the collectors and showoffs, especially in China, who just want the latest new kid on the block could even be bothered to try Chappellet or Trefethen. That’s a mistake, of course, a big one. Their wines are better than ever. Winemakers learn from their experiences. They seldom make the same mistakes over and over again (well, some do, but not at the level of a Chappellet or Trefethen), and they learn new tricks to make their wines better.

I have no idea how Chappellet and Trefethen stay relevant, or if their owners even try to or care about it. Maybe they’re doing just fine; I hope so. But I’ve seen wineries that were stars for years before their ascent slowed and then they began the long, inevitable descent back to Earth. They couldn’t figure out how to stay relevant and so they didn’t.

In his interview Greg Brewer said he hopes to stay relevant by mentoring a new generation of talented young winemakers. If I were a 21-year old budding winemaker (oh, that would be nice!) I’d certainly hope that Greg would take me under his wing. But I also assume that Greg’s hardly ready to call it quits and just “mentor.” He and his wineries will stay relevant for just as long as he wishes to continue working. After that (and let’s hope it won’t be for many decades), his wineries will reach a turning point: all wineries do when their veteran winemaker dies, moves on or retires.


High alcohol in Pinot Noir? Maybe not so bad!

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As I continue to read and enjoy Benjamin Lewin’s In Search of Pinot Noir, I remembered the fuss last March at the World of Pinot Noir when Adam Lee slipped Raj Parr a 15% Siduri Pinot Noir in a doctored bottle and Raj liked it, even though he [Raj] had earlier declared he would never buy a Pinot above 14% for RN74.

That memory was triggered by this passage, on page 371 (of 424 pages. I hate coming to the end of a good book!):

I do not believe that Pinot Noir is a variety that tolerates too much extraction, and especially too much alcohol. I become concerned about preservation of varietal typicity once alcohol goes into the high thirteen percents, and I’m reluctant to give much leeway to wines over 14% (admittedly with some notable exceptions, and it’s true I’ve been forced to move my limit up).

Interesting remarks, no? Benjamin’s rigid rule about Pinot Noir above 14% has some notable exceptions. Might that Siduri wine, at 15%, be one of them? We can’t know, of course, but for such a bright man as Benjamin, who is a Master of Wine, to admit that there are notable exceptions to his views on alcohol is really–when you think about it–to throw the whole notion of objectionable alcohol levels out the window.

I mean, a rule is a rule only if there are no exceptions. Two plus two equals four does not allow for the existence of two plus two equals five. Therefore, any critique of high alcohol in Pinot Noir must be seen for what it really is: not a criticism of alcohol levels per se, but a criticism of imbalance. And cannot any wine be unbalanced, at any alcohol level? Obviously the answer is yes. So we have to dispose of the notion that a high alcohol Pinot Noir cannot dazzle even such sophisticated palates as Raj Parr’s and Benjamin Lewin’s.

Let’s consider varietal typicity. This is a fairy dust concept that’s always lurking in the background of any high level discussion of wine. Its thrust is that every great wine (we’re not talking about bag-in-a-box stuff) is a truthful expression of its varietal type (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel), as filtered through the lens of terroir (however you define it). However, you are not likely to hear the phrase “varietal typicity” from anyone under the age of 45. This is because it’s really an antiquated concept, left over from the days of English dons who knew Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne and perhaps a little Sherry, Madeira and Port, but little else. After all, what else was there for them to know? Those wines defined the landscape.

We are no longer in the eighteenth or even the nineteenth centuries, of course (good lord, it just occurred to me that we’re not even in the twentieth century anymore, which is where I spent the greater part of my existence). The concept of “varietal typicity” has much less meaning than it used to. Maybe it has none. Have you ever heard a young blogger use the term? When you taste a lot of wines from all over the place, you soon realize that “varietal typicity” in, say, Pinot Noir is as elusive as human typicity in the population of Oakland, which is one of the most ethnically diverse cities on Earth. It would be as improper to claim that Burgundy represents “varietal typicity” in Pinot Noir as to claim that true “human typicity” is found only in the white population of Oakland!

I don’t suppose anyone would mistake a Williams Selyem Russian River Valley Pinot Noir for Burgundy (all the newly released 2009s are officially around 14%, although it wouldn’t surprise me to learn the alcohol had been lowered by Bob Cabral). Such is their “extraction” (to use Benjamin Lewin’s word) that Burgundy would need a year like 2003 to approach those fruit levels (Jancis Robinson called it “a rum vintage”). Therefore, from a classical point of view, Williams Selyem’s Pinot Noirs lack varietal typicity. Yet they are indisputably very great wines. There are, of course, California Pinot Noirs that are too extracted and hot–Benziger’s 2008 San Remo Vineyard is one such, and if I had unlimited time I would go through my database and undoubtedly find many others. These wines are the poster children for Benjamin’s criticism.

But surely it is wrong to tar an entire region on the basis of irregular wines. If that were a valid criterion, we would write off Burgundy and Bordeaux in a single stroke, since there are unbalanced wines flowing from both. I therefore return to Benjamin’s spectacular dual confession: (…some notable exceptions, and it’s true I’ve been forced to move my limit up) to point out that rigid expressions of alcohol level in wine are more akin to ideology than to objectively experiencing reality and judging it fairly. And I thank Benjamin for being so candid about his evolving views.


A new book from Gerald Asher

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When it’s finally out in the market, give yourself a treat and buy Gerald Asher’s new book, A Carafe of Red, which is about to be published by University of California Press, our common publisher. I was sent an advance copy; it should be widely available soon.

The book is a compilation of Mr. Asher’s previous articles, mostly written for Gourmet magazine–articles that defined his style of lucid intelligence. Reading a Gerald Asher essay is more than just inhaling the written word, pleasant as that is. It’s like sitting in an easy chair in front of a warming fire on a chilly night, with a glass of Port in your hand, and Mr. Asher in a chair opposite you, explaining, in an indulgent way, whatever the topic is. The new book covers lots of territory, as you’d expect: everything from Côte Rôtie and Malmsey to Armagnac and Priorato.

I was especially interested, of course, in the chapter on California Cabernet Sauvignon, which originally appeared in the mammoth, authoritative The Book of California Wine, also published by U.C. Press. I’ve read that article many times. Like a great wine, it never palls, and seems to get better with time. It takes a bold, skilled hand to make sweeping pronouncements like this one: the “legacy of California Cabernet Sauvignon has been handed down by Louis M. Martini, Charles Krug, Inglenook, and Beaulieu Vineyard [which expressed] the seeds of all options available to winemakers today [i.e. 1984]. A writer needs not only vast learning to issue such declarations, but also the self-confidence to know that few will dare challenge him.

Sidelight: Is Mr. Asher’s statement true today? The “options” he referred to were that Charles Krug was 100% unblended Cabernet, with not too much oak. Inglenook on the other hand blended in Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Louis M. Martini was a master of blending, which produced “agreeable wines ready to be drunk early,” while Beaulieu used “young American oak…to dramatic effect on intense, unblended Cabernet” in the Georges de Latour Private Reserve.

Mr. Asher, 27 years ago, could not have foreseen the rise of Robert Parker and the dramatic tendency toward higher alcohol (and more new oak) that has characterized the “cult Cabernet” of today. We could, I suppose, add this as a fifth “option” for Cabernet (whether blended or not), but we could also view the modern style as an extension of the Krug style, “with fruit so persistent and finish so soft [Mr. Asher wrote] that the wine left a sweet impression…”. (He’s speaking of a 1956, tasted in 1979.) I might easily describe a Cabernet from, say, Hall or Maybach with those very words.

A particular joy of reading such a comprehensive and personal book as A Carafe of Red is that we get to experience, vicariously but no less intimately, Mr. Asher’s experiences of wines we will never otherwise have the opportunity to taste. (I love Michael Broadbent’s The Great Vintage Wine Book for that very reason.) For example, in his 1975 essay, A Morning Tasting with Joe Heitz, Mr. Asher describes tasting the 1966-1970 vintages of Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard, the most famous Cabernet Sauvignon of the 1960s (I suppose you could say the Beaulieu Private Reserve was more famous, but I don’t agree). There are other references to these wines from other writers–see, for example, Harry Waugh’s diaries. I’ve never had any of those wines and probably never will, but it gives me endless pleasure to read what great writers had to say about them, and to compare their impressions against each other. Both Harry and Gerald loved those Martha’s Cabernets, in their own ways, of course; both were British and somewhat reserved–Mr. Asher seldom gushes. In fact, one can say that Gerald Asher laid down his own option for stylish wine writing, an option that began to be perfected before him (for example, by George Saintsbury), but never with such precise clarity and authority. It is a style every serious wine writer would do well to study.


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