One of the biggest challenges to the wine critic is determining if a wine is ageable and, if you think it is, then how long to recommend that your readers age it.
This is irrelevant for most wines, but for that small handful of wines that do indeed improve with age, it’s perhaps the single most important piece of information the critic can convey. After all, when you look at the prices people pay for some of these wines, they deserve to know if their bottle is drinkable now or will improve in the cellar.
If the critic tastes openly, it makes the task a lot easier. You’re at Chateau Figeac tasting the 2009? It’s tight and tannic and oaky, but then, it is Figeac. Tell your readers to cellar it. That’s a no-brainer.
If you’re tasting blind, it’s a different story. Lots of wines are tight, tannic and oaky, but they can’t all be ageable. So there’s got to be something else the critic looks for. In the absence of external information (you don’t know the name of the winery, so you don’t know if the wine has a history of aging), you have to look for other cues. What are they?
That’s why I call it “one of the biggest challenges,” because it’s really hard to make this determination.
You can start by a process of elimination. Think of all the reasons why the wine couldn’t possibly improve in the cellar. It may be too thin, or out of whack in acidity, too obviously hot in alcohol, or flawed in some other general way. This is the easy part. It’s when you’re gotten your flight down to the dense, balanced, tannic young wines that the difficulties mount.
It used to be said (and some people may still believe it) that a wine that’s delicious on release isn’t ageable. People thought that an ageable wine had to be tough and resistant in youth. That may have been true a long time ago, but it isn’t true anymore. Many California Cabernet Sauvignons, in fact most, that age well are super-good on release, and the same is true of many classified growth Bordeaux that I have occasion to sample every year. I was reminded of this fact when I read, in Benjamin Lewin’s Claret & Cabs, the quote from Eric d’Aramon, concerning his father-in-law, the owner of Figeac. “When I did my first tasting [with him]…every cuve that he selected for the grand vin, I selected for the second wine, and vice versa.” This naturally shocked Eric, “but [then] he explained to me, ‘you have been selecting the vats for drinking now, I am selecting them for future potential.’”
Eric, in other words, thought less of the harder, more austere batches than he did of the lusher, more fruit-forward batches. This is perfectly understandable, but it leads back to the conundrum of how to tell the difference between a hard, austere wine that will improve with age and one that won’t.
Here’s how I do it. Since I don’t know the identity of the wine while I’m reviewing it, I’ll work up some preliminary thoughts about it [flavors, structure, balance, length and so on], and also assign it a score. Those things are invariant. Then, when the bottle comes out of the bag, I work on my final review, before sending it electronically to Wine Enthusiast. So how I do decide whether or not to give a wine a “Cellar Selection” designation? Well, it’s not necessarily because I’m familiar with the aging histories of many of these wines. For example, I’ve recently given Cellar Selections to Cabernets from Hunnicutt, V. Sattui, Bjorn, Venge, Redmon and B Cellars, and I’ve never had any older wines from any of them. I did it because the wines seemed to me to possess all the stuffing and equilibrium to go the distance–and they are all from Napa Valley. On the other hand, I’ve also given Cellar Selection recommendations for the likes of Ridge Montebello, Corison and Beaulieu Private Reserve in Cabernets, and some of Williams Selyem’s single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, all of which are wines I’m familiar with as they age. With those, I feel like I’m on surer footing than with wines Ive never tasted old. But I wouldn’t give a Cellar Selection unless I was sure in my own mind that the wine would age well, which is why, for example, I gave a good score to Raymond’s 2009 District Collection Cabernet, and suggested it could do interesting things in eight years, but ultimately didn’t give it a Cellar Selection. I just wasn’t sure enough to go there.
People ask me why I don’t score more wines 100 points. Other critics who use the 100-point system are far more lavish than I am. I’ve only given five perfect scores in all these years. Parker by contrast had 19 perfect 100s (for 2009 Bordeaux) in issue #199 of the Wine Advocate.
I’m not here to criticize him or anyone else for awarding perfect scores with a certain promiscuity, shall we say. I’m here to explain why I’m stingier. It all comes down to how you view the 100-point system, wine as an esthetic accomplishment, and your understanding of the meaning of perfection.
When it comes to these perfect scores, I think there are only two valid intellectual positions. One is to be liberal in awarding them; the other is to make it extremely rare. To be in the muddled middle is weird, if not outright dishonest.
As many critics of the 100-point system have pointed out many times, there cannot be any great difference between 99 and 100. Or 98 and 100. Or 97 and 98, and so on down the line. I’ve never disagreed with this argument. On the contrary, I’ve said that a critic might give the same wine different scores on different occasions (although hopefully the scores wouldn’t be too far apart!). Once you accept the notion that anything above 96 or 97 points is in fact a very great wine, then you have to accept that–of a large number of wines falling in that range–more than a few will be disputably perfect. By “disputably perfect” I mean that it would be a mean-spirited critic who would willingly refuse to give those wines 100 points, simply because he or she did not want to appear to be a promiscuous scorer. Critics should never be afraid of anything anybody says or thinks about them.
So, by way of example, if a critic tastes 80 or 100 Bordeaux from a vintage deemed to be great, then there’s no reason why he shouldn’t entertain the possibility of giving many of them perfect scores. Perfect vintage + chateaux that know how to make perfect wine = perfect wines. It just makes sense. That’s why only Parker haters bashed him for 19 perfect scores in one issue. They have a misguided understanding of the 100-point system.
At the other extreme is someone like me. I think that, in every large tasting (“large” being at least 50) of important wines, one wine always will stand out above all the others. Sometimes it takes a long time to determine which one it is. When I gave 100 points to 2006 Cardinale, in November of 2009, it was at a blind tasting of about 70 wines organized for me by the Napa Valley Vintners. Now, when NVV arranges a tasting of top Cabernets, the critic might approach it expecting that there could be several perfect wines among them. (The question of expectations is important, I know, but I don’t want to get into it here.) For example, when Parker tasted all the 2009 Classified Growths (over what time period, we don’t know), he must have assumed (having already been impressed by the vintage) that there could easily have been more than one perfect 100 among them; he thus gave himself permission to “find” those perfect wines and reward them accordingly.
I might have done the same thing at NVV, but my mind doesn’t work the way Parker’s does. As good as the wines were (and they were fantastic), according to my approach, one of them had to stand above the crowd. And so, after five hours of tasting and retasting (with a short break inbetween for lunch), I kept on coming back to that bagged wine that had impressed me from the very beginning. I’d first tasted it at around 10:30 a.m. and it immediately blew my mind. I must have returned to it 5 or 6 times over the following hours, and each time, it exceeded my expectations. Each time I tasted a wine that was fabulous, I checked it against that wine, and each time I did, the original wine triumphed. At the end of the day, it seemed obvious to give it, and it alone, 100 points.
Might I have given 2 or 3 other wines 100 points? In theory, sure. But in fact, that Cardinale (I didn’t know what it was until I got home and looked at the folder NVV gave me) was just that much better than anything else. By “better” I mean sheer, dazzling, opulent, luxurious, structured Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. The first duty of Napa Cabernet is to deliver “Napa Cabernet-ness” in the most awesome way possible. The Cardinale did.
By the way, I also gave 100 points to the Verité 2007 La Muse. Both Cardinale and Verité are owned by the Jackson family, which testifies, I believe, to the vision of the late Jess Jackson to make the greatest wines in the world. Last Fall, I gave 99 points to the David Arthur 2009 Elevation 1147 Cabernet Sauvignon, from his estate on Pritchard Hill. Why not 100? I can’t explain it with the precision of a mathematical statement, except to say, it was perfect…almost.
Lord knows I’m a big defender of California Cabernet Sauvignon against the bashers who say it all tastes like a candy bar, but I will admit to occasionally having my own moments of despair.
It happens when I set up a flight of 10 or 12 Cabs to review. Normally, I try to segregate them by appellation–all Napa Valley, for instance. But it doesn’t always work out that way. For example, lately I’ve been concentrating on the wines of Paso Robles, including Cabernet and Bordeaux red blends. It’s seemed to me that the wines have been getting better, for a variety of reasons. One way to check that out is to taste Paso Cabs against Napa Cabs, which are the gold standard, to see if they have anything to be ashamed of.
As far as I can tell, few other reviewers do it that way. They’ll go to Paso Robles and taste, or they’ll receive the wines at home, and then taste them openly–which invites preconceived notions about Paso Robles. And we all have them, don’t we? It’s too hot, etc. etc. Yes, it is hot, but no more so than Calistoga (I can send you the temperature statistics if you want), and there are areas in Paso (particularly in the west and south) that are cooler than, say, the Estrella flats along 46E. So its only fair to take ambitious Paso Cabs and set them next to the best of Napa and see what’s up.
I can see some eyebrows rising high in scandalized incredulity. What? Taste Paso Robles Cabernets next to great Napa Cabernet? Yes; why not? It’s not against the law. And I’ll tell you that some of these Paso Cabs stand up remarkably well.
But what I was writing about was my moments of despair. Let me explain. If you do a search on my wine reviews using the words “candy,” “candied,” “sugary sweet,” “jammy,” you’ll get an awful lot of hits, and not just for Cabernet. Syrah, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Petite Sirah, there really is a lot of treacly stuff out there, the kind that drives the Europeans mad. Tasting through a flight of such wines can start to be tedious, so much so that, on occasion, I start thinking to myself, “Maybe Terry Theise has a point. Maybe even Raj Parr has a point.”
There used to be a saying, “Where you stand depends on where you sit,” which makes no sense at all literally. It means that the way you see and experience things depends on your perspective. Now, having a perspective is complicated business. You may have inherited a perspective from the way you were raised. You may have developed a new perspective through education. The Europeans, who grew up with wines in the 13%-14% range, naturally recoil from a 15.5% L’Aventure Cabernet. To them, it tastes utterly bizarre, not like wine at all.
I didn’t grow up with a European perspective. When it came to wine, I had no perspective, as we didn’t drink it in my parents’ home. My perspective concerning wine developed after I moved to California, and fell in with other amateurs who liked California wine quite a bit. In that environment, I developed an affection for our style, which may be riper and sweeter than it was 30 years ago, but not all that much. California wine (especially red) has always been about fruit.
So when I start thinking that there’s an awful lot of candied sameness out there, it forces me to dive deeper to discern which wines are balanced with candied sweetness and which ones aren’t. For there is such a thing as a Cabernet that’s sweet and jammy and chocolatey, yet maintains perfect balance. To give just one example, the Paul Hobbs 2009 Beckstoffer To Kalon, which clocks in at a hefty 15.2% alcohol, and which I gave 96 points. That wine has balance, despite the glyceriney, fat unctuousness. I sometimes think the people who bash this style throw the baby out with the bathwater. They dismiss all California wines of this style without realizing or understanding that there are grand wines made in all styles.
Having said that, yes, my Europhile friends, there are a lot of candy bar wines in California.
Testarossa, Siduri, Williams Selyem, Merry Edwards, Failla, Bonaccorsi, La Follette, De Loach, Bjornstad, MacPhail–what do they (and many other California wineries) have in common?
Yes, they’re all Pinot Noir houses (in addition to whatever else they make), but they also play the interesting game of buying Pinot Noir fruit from multiple vineyards and bottling them with vineyard designations. For the wine taster, this presents unique opportunities, as well as challenges.
I suppose the allure of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti was such that it was only to be expected serious Pinot winemakers would want to try their hands at expressing the terroir of different vineyards. (I don’t mean wineries who own estate vineyards and produce different designations, like Lynmar, Donum, Rochioli or Talley, I mean wineries that buy their fruit. And yes, I know that some of them, like Williams Selyem, own their own vineyards.)
I don’t know who was first to play the multiple vineyard game in California. Williams Selyem certainly was an early adapter. Testarossa seems to have followed their model in the 1990s. The entrepreneurial aspect of the template is perhaps most perfectly expressed by Siduri. But over the last 2-3 years, more and more wineries are getting into the act.
The opportunity for the taster in these cases is twofold: (1) to see if you can detect the winemaker’s signature across multiple terroirs, and (2) to see if you can detect the vineyard’s terroir across multiple winemakers. This latter opportunity is true only of those vineyards large enough to sell fruit to multiple winemakers; among them would be Bien Nacido (among the largest) and smaller ones like Rosella’s, Precious Mountain, Olivet Lane and Fiddlestix. This isn’t as easy as it seems, though, because winemaker techniques can differ widely (some pick earlier than others) and because of micro-terroir differences in vineyard rows and blocks.
There also is the challenge of precisely how best to taste the Pinot Noirs of these multiple producers when they all arrive in one box. There is no one best way of tasting; each approach has its pros and cons. When Bob Cabral sends me 15 vineyard-designated Pinots, should I taste them in a single flight, or should I segregate them out by appellation and taste them against other Pinot Noirs from those appellations? I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule for this. My own preference is to taste them all together–to take a long, leisurely swim in the essence of Williams Selyem, as it were–but I can see where an argument could be made to taste Russian River against Russian River, Sonoma Coast against Sonoma Coast, and so on. It also would be instructive to do flights from the same vineyard from multiple producers, although tactically, this is more difficult for me to set up, as wines from the same vintage may arrive at widely different times across a calendar year or even two, depending on the winery’s release schedule.
I will say that tasting these multiple Pinots from the same producer is one of my most enjoyable tasks. Not every wine in the world is bursting with joy. Some, maybe most, are made grindingly, to pay the bills and fill the bellies of the masses. But when a California producer makes a range of Pinots from different vineyards, it’s because he wants to and loves to and can. This is the Happy Hunting Ground for the intrepid Pinot producer, and with each pop of the cork, I get to share in his joy.
Incidentally, it’s worth noting that few wineries play the multiple Cabernet game. Duckhorn and Nickel & Nickel do, Paul Hobbs a little, Chimney Rock’s getting into it as is a new player, PerryMoore, and there are others I could mention. But the multiple Cabernet thing is nowhere near as advanced as the multiple Pinot thing. I’m not sure why that is, but I don’t think it’s because “Pinot shows terroir more transparently than Cabernet Sauvignon,” which is the usual trope (and one moreover I’m not convinced of, not to end a sentence with a preposition). I think it has more to do with the availability of good Pinot fruit versus good Cabernet fruit. While there’s more than twice as much Cab planted than Pinot, there’s more Pinot going in by a long shot, which increases the availability of fruit. Great Cabernet for sale is restricted pretty much to some well-known Napa Valley vineyards, like Beckstoffer To Kalon and Stagecoach.
Michael Mondavi hosted a small event last night at Epic Roasthouse, on the Embarcadero, and during it he poured me three of his M by Michael Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignons, the 2005, 2007 and 2009.
The ’05, which I hadn’t previously reviewed, was fabulous, and I couldn’t restrain my enthusiasm, which Michael shared. At 7-plus years, it’s mellowed into a rich, soft wine that’s just beginning to turn the corner from primary fruit to secondary notes and bottle bouquet
I did review the ’07, back in August, 2011, and gave it 92 points, as well as a Cellar Selection special designation, which I’m glad I did: that wine needs time. Two thousand and seven was, as most of you know, a ripe, forward vintage that resulted in a plethora of wines instantly lovely for their approachability. Yet on this occasion, the first thing I thought about the ’07 M–even just smelling it–was, “It’s in a slumber.” The mouth experience confirmed this. Everything was there: the fruit, the tannins, the acidity, the oak, the overall sleekness, but it was as if the actual experience of the wine were hidden behind a gauzy veil. I told Michael this, and he instantly agreed. I told him of something Bo Barrett, from Chateau Montelena, said to me, many years ago, concerning his Cabernets: they seem to drink well for 4 or 5 years after release, and then go into what he called “the dip” for another 6 or 7 years, during which they’re mute, and then re-emerge into cellared glory. Michael told me that, when he was younger and growing up with his father, he always thought that the aging curve of a wine was a simple sine curve. But now he knows it’s more like a roller coaster.
Why this “dip” should occur in so many ageable Cabernets is a mystery to me, but it does seem to be a general rule, especially for Napa Valley. If you cellar wine, it’s something to keep in mind.
The 2009, which I also have not yet formally reviewed, was very good, but far away from being drinkable because it’s simply too young. But, as my mentor Harry Waugh used to say, “It should make a good bottle.”
Incidentally, last night also was the inaugural display of the San Francisco Bay Bridge’s big light show, which the media have been touting for weeks. Now, Epic Roadhouse sits practically right under the bridge, so when I went earlier in the afternoon, I saw all the T.V. trucks lining up to shoot the event. I knew there was going to be a party, but what a party it turned out to be!
After the Michael Mondavi thing, Allison and I tried to find a restaurant or bar to sit down, have some munchies and a badly needed cocktail. The neighborhood of the Embarcadero and the adjacent South of Market extension of the Financial District is jammed with restaurants and hotel bars, probably hundreds of them, but we walked for block after block, and I can tell you there wasn’t a seat to be had, probably within a half-mile radius. There were lines stretching out the doors; at Ozumo, the hostess said she had a two-hour wait. We didn’t even bother going into Chaya, it was so mobbed. From the looks of it, it was a youngish crowd, stylish and thirsty. And this was on a Tuesday night! There may still be lingering effects of the Great Recession in many parts of the country, but not in San Francisco. The Chronicle recently had a front page story on rents; they’re so high that many people are now renting a single bed in a crowded bedroom, or a laundry room, or, in the case of one guy, a closet. I couldn’t help but wonder, looking at all the happy, drinking people, where they would end up sleeping that night.
My head should be filled with thoughts of Cabernet Sauvignon, after spending a large part of last week at Premiere Napa Valley and its associated events. Most of the more than two hundred barrel lots were from the 2011 vintage. Despite much chatter among winemakers about the season’s difficulties, I found the wines I tasted concentrated, balanced and delicious, and not too high in alcohol. Ageworthy, too. But then, two things have to be pointed out: Napa Valley has the best grape sorting regimes in the world, and these Premiere Napa Valley lots are the best wines the winemakers can produce. They may or may not be indicative of the commercial releases, which should start appearing in 2014. But I strongly suspect we’re going to see a solid vintage.
However, it’s Pinot Noir I’m thinking about, because I’m leaving this Wednesday for the the 13th annual World of Pinot Noir, one of my must-attend events of the year. I’ve been going since the very first one. It started off as a modest little thing, sponsored by Central Coast wineries. But over the years, WOPN has expanded its reach, attracting winemakers from around the world, and is now the premier Pinot Noir event in California.
I remember being so impressed by that first WOPN that I told Wine Enthusiast they ought to figure out some way to co-sponsor it. They did. Keep in mind, WOPN was launched well before Sideways, at a time when California Pinot Noir wasn’t exactly a household name.
Historians will someday pinpoint just when California Pinot took center stage. For me, I felt it coming before it actually arrived, which is why I went to WOPN in the first place. It was in Shell Beach, a pit stop on the drive between S.F. and L.A., and that first year attracted only a handful of wineries. But something told me both that Pinot was about to erupt, and that WOPN had the potential to be important.
Why did I think Pinot Noir was on the verge of fame in 2001? Because I’d been following it for a long time. It’s like anything else that has to do with intuition or hunches; you have a feeling of growing momentum. During the 1990s there had been interest in Pinot among the people who mattered: writers, critics, educators, somms, even some forward-thinking collectors (the words “forward-thinking” and “collectors” do not often unite in comfort). The California wine community was a very small town back then (in some respects, it still is), and information passed quickly. I heard about Williams Selyem and Rochioli by 1990, had begun visiting, and of course had known about Richard Sanford in Santa Barbara County, even though I didn’t get down there for a few more years. It was the excitement of the older professionals I knew, my mentors, that infected me and informed me that Pinot Noir was the coming variety.
Even though I began writing for Wine Enthusiast by 1993, for various internal reasons I didn’t start reviewing wines for them until the mid- 1990s. I just looked up my earliest Pinot reviews and they make for interesting reading. My top names from that era remain some of the best Pinot houses around today: Testarossa, Fess Parker, Hanzell, Iron Horse, MacRostie, Acacia, Robert Mondavi, Talley, Marimar Torres. When I look at the prices for vintages from the 1990s, they were high for back then, but have remained relatively stable ($35-$50) over the years, showing that Pinot Noir has not experienced the same price inflation as Cabernet Sauvignon. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps Pinot producers remember the bad old days, when everybody said California was patently too hot for Pinot Noir; maybe they think they lucked out, and that to raise prices to triple digits would kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Whatever the reason, consumers are the beneficiaries. Compared to dozens of Cabernet Sauvignons that cost in excess of $100 (often far more), Pinot Noir is a bargain.
Starting this Thursday, I’ll be blogging live from WOPN, including throughout the weekend; I am, it seems, the Official World of Pinot Noir Blogger! I’ll be talking about the best wines, the most interesting winemakers, the food, the personalities and whatever nuggets of news and information I can gather. Twitter too.