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No such thing as the “best” wine

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It’s interesting how different media outlets described the wines that were recently stolen from the French Laundry.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s headline reads “Wine thief with nose for best reaps huge haul from French Laundry.”

Calling the Domaine de la Romanée Conti and Screaming Eagle the “best” grants the highest esteem to these wines, suggesting to readers that no other wines in the world can approach them in quality. KRON Channel 4, one of the Bay Area’s leading news outlets, took a more cautious approach, calling the purloined wines “high-end,” which carries vastly different connotations than “best”: ‘high-end” implies a certain rare desirability that gives the wines prestige, but does not elevate them to the highest category of perfection. The Contra Costa Times took a decidedly neutral approach: They called the wines merely “expensive,” a just-the-facts-ma’am description of reality, for in truth, those bottles certainly are among the most costly in the world. Still, they are not “priceless,” as USA Today trumpeted in a flashy headline.

This may all seem trivial, but for students of the media, who wish to understand how news is actually communicated in this country, it underscores the importance of optics—perceptions that become fixed ideas among the public. Now, the job of the headline writer is different from that of the reporter. Usually, reporters don’t write their own headlines; that is considered a special art and is reserved to editors. But no matter who writes the headline, it can achieve a life of its own. When a criminal killed a bar owner and then forced a hostage to decapitate him in New York City back in 1983, the New York Post certainly was correct to give it full front page coverage. They could have headlined, as the New York Times discretely did, “Owner of a bar shot to death; subject is held,” and then relegated the gory details of the “head in a box” to the fourth paragraph. But that headline never achieved anywhere close to the immortality of the Post’s “Headless body in topless bar,”

 headless

which has become one of the most famous headlines in the history of American journalism. (Its author, Vinnie Musetto, excelled at eye-catching headers. He also penned the Post’s “Khadafy Goes Daffy,” about the former Libyan strongman’s antics.)

Long before there was an Internet or social media, headlines like these went viral: they were repeated in many media outlets, proving that a great headline is at least as important, in terms of popularity, as what is actually contained in the article itself. This is where, however, a sort of Continental drift between the headline and the actual news can open seismic chasms. In the story about the French Laundry theft, it is only natural that some headline writers would decide that the word “best” sounds stronger than “high-end” or “expensive.” High-end, expensive stuff is stolen all the time, but when “the best” is taken, people pay attention.

However, the fact is that Romanée-Conti and Screaming Eagle are not “the best” wines in the world. There are no “best wines” in the world. Any critic will tell you so. What these wines are, indisputably, are among the most expensive wines in the world. But there’s a big, huge difference, and to call these wines “the best” only reinforces the public’s perception that they can’t get really great wine unless they pay really high prices. That’s the biggest myth in all of wine.


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To each restaurant there is a season. Alas, some of San Francisco’s old guard went the way of the dodo in 2014.

As Paolo Lucchesi reports in his article on the biggest closures of the year in the S.F. Chronicle, Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor shut their doors. They were perhaps the best-known names of now-shuttered restos. Another that’s gone is Daniel Patterson’s Plum, just down the street from me.

As archeologists can tell a lot from digging down into the ruins of an ancient settlement, so too can we glean some hints about the state of our food (and wine) culture by examining who went out of business. It’s not always possible to determine exactly why a restaurant closes, but we can assume that, in general, it’s because the times have passed them by. Whatever pulse they held on the weltanschauung has, for various reasons, gone away.

In the case of Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor—both of which I was familiar with for many years—it was because our times no longer favor old-fashioned palaces of fine dining, with white tablecloths, snooty servors, and rather predictable food at stellar prices. In a sense, San Francisco simply outgrew that experience. People today want to eat out in relaxed comfort, in a place where the food is exciting and reassuring. True, in the place of Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor we now have destinations like Saison and Benu, with their prix fixe multi-course extravaganzas. But there’s something different about the latter two that makes them a better fit for today’s ethos. There’s nothing stodgy whatsoever about them. Both places are culinary adventures with a sense of adventure that looks forward, not backwards, as Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor did. Where Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor were Paris vacations, Saison and Benu are more Iceland, Antarctica or Myanmar—exciting, off-the-beaten path destinations you’ll remember for a lifetime. Saison and Benu may not last for many years, as Fleur de Lys did (it gave up the ghost at the age of 28 years), but they fill an important niche now for a destination.

Plum, too, offered adventurous cooking from Patterson, a Michelin-starred (Coi) chef. But where Daniel miscalculated was to think that downtown Oakland would support a place of high concept. From the decorative, Warholesque paintings of plums on the walls to the rather austere menu it never caught on. Let’s face it, beet boudin noir with Thai black rice, a sort of faux blood sausage served with caramelized Brussels sprouts and kohlrabi sauerkraut, simply isn’t a combination most Oaklanders can wrap their heads around. It shows once more than a chef makes a fundamental mistake if he serves only food that intellectually stimulates himself. Winemakers, too, must accommodate themselves to the public’s tastes. It’s a balancing act.

Comfort isn’t necessarily the new black; we’ve been through countless comfort food phases over the years, from the taco era to today’s obsession with noodles. But people do want something that reminds them of simpler, happier times, even if the past never was as simple and happy as we like to remember it.


Wine as “the good life”? The Wall Street Journal says so!

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I’ve been watching the case of the New York Times for many years, to see what would be the fate of the Gray Lady. At the height of the Great Recession, the paper was said to be perilously close to going under, the result of (a) declining readership because younger people were not reading newspapers, and (b) the dramatic falloff in advertising that crippled nearly all print publications.

The Times tried to stave off its financial problems: they went to an online subscription model that didn’t work, and they laid off or bought out employees. A year or two ago, the paper seemed to enjoy a modest turnaround, but apparently it wasn’t enough: A new round of layoffs has occurred because the paper had not received enough voluntary buyouts to cover newsroom budget cuts.” Despite executive editor Dean Baquet saying “We are coming to the end of a painful period for the newsroom,” those of us who grew up with the Times and love it can only hope that, this time, the paper will survive, and I expect it will. I point this out only because the Times is the example par excellence of the difficult journey print pubs have had over the last decade or so. It’s not just that I prefer reading print over digital, although I do, it’s that the Times represents the culmination of an epoch that was centuries in the making in which the idea of independent journalism, free from the grasp of lucre, or the ignorance of ideology, was ascendant in America. When our Founding Fathers wrote the U.S. Constitution, with its First Amendment guarantee of Freedom of the Press, they did so with the understanding and assumption that the Press really was fearlessly free. I wonder if they would do the same thing now that personal opinion and for-profit hidden agenda has largely taken precedence over independent reporting.

Speaking of newspapers, many of my readers will know I’m no fan of the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal. But the newspaper itself, when freed from the op-ed ideology of Mr. Murdoch, is top-rate, and I love, love, love this graphic they created for WSJ+,

 

WSJwine

 

which they tout as “a complimentary addition to your Wall Street Journal experience” for subscribers. How about that glass of wine? Don’t you just love it? The Journal is implying to readers—no, telling them, in compelling visual form and with all its magisterial New York City authority, that a glass of wine is as important to the complete, good life as anything else they could indulge in, from sports to fine art to “much more of the finer things of life.”

We can differ over our politics. But it’s wonderful that all of us, left, right, center, whatever, can agree that wine is central to the good life—the life that is examined, and self-examined, and enjoyed, with harm to no one–life that adds joy and laughter to the world. So bravo to the Wall Street Journal for putting wine right up there.


How about some fruit juice with that Chardonnay?

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It must drive some winemakers crazy to hear that two-thirds of younger wine drinkers (ages 25 to 40) in America are mixing their wine with fruit juice, that nearly half are making club soda-based “cocktails” with wine, and 46% actually add ice to their vino!

Those are some of the findings from a new consumer survey by E&J Gallo on “the current state of Americans’ wine drinking attitudes and behaviors.”

Things might not be as dismal as those anecdotal tales of Chinese pouring Coca Cola into their Lafite or vice versa, but a hard-working winemaker who has studied long and hard figuring out how to create wines of terroir cannot be blamed for tearing her hair out when she learns that a 20-something is mixing her Chardonnay with an orange-peach-mango drink from Safeway.

Well, that’s kids for you! I, myself, have done all the above: on a hot summer day I’ve been known to make a wine cooler, even to the extent of adding a couple ice cubes from the freezer. I’ve put sparkling water into red wine on occasion, and thoroughly enjoyed the results.

It sounds sacrilegious, but why should we not feel free to fiddle with our wine? We paid for it, it’s our appetites we’re whetting, and there’s no law that says you can’t. After all, you can go to the finest restaurant in the world, and still feel that your food needs a little more seasoning. That’s not a criticism of the chef, it’s just personal preference. Nobody thinks twice about adding a little freshly-ground pepper to Thomas Keller’s sweet corn velouté, do they? What’s the difference between that and putting a splash of fruit juice into your wine?

I guess the bottom line is that we should all chill about wine more than we do. We get so uptight and fussy about it, no wonder wine seems like a huge and risky puzzle to so many people. I like this statement from the Gallo study: “Unlike previous generations, [younger wine drinkers are] seemingly unbound by traditions that have often governed wine.” That’s just fine with me. I love the good traditions behind wine—the history, the culture,  the magic of food-and-wine pairing, the way wine encompasses so many aspects of human knowledge—but there really is some silly baggage we should jettison, and one of the silliest is the utter seriousness, amounting almost to an autopsy, that accompanies some aspects of wine appreciation, especially at the high end.

Anyway, lest winemakers despair that their art and craft is being sluiced away by juice, take comfort: I think the Gallo findings are probably exaggerated. It may be true, as the study says, that 66% of younger drinkers mix fruit juice with their wine, but I doubt very much that they do it all the time, or even most of the time. Probably, they do it a little bit, same as I do. If someone had asked me “Do you ever mix fruit juice with wine?” I would have answered “Yes,” and then hoped they’d follow up with, “How often,” to which I would have replied, “Not very much at all, and only when it’s hot.” I suspect that most wine drinkers buy and drink wine for the reason people always have: Because wine is damned good, in fact irreplaceable, all by itself.


French attitudes toward Napa Valley, plus comparisons of winegrapes to meat?

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It’s too funny, really. When I first started out in this biz, you couldn’t give Napa Valley wine away to the French. “Mais non!” was their attitude. It was vin de table, merde, Algerian plonk.

Some of us knew otherwise, and suspected that the French—so chauvinistic in the belief that no other culture could rise to their level, especially American culture—were simply whistling past the graveyard. After all, their run of dominance—lasting for centuries—had no assurance of lasting forever, and they were continually hearing California’s footsteps coming up behind them.

But now, listen to what the respected CEO of Moët Hennessey, Jean-Guillaume Prats, has to say about Napa Valley. He previously managed Cos d’Estournal, the Super-Second Bordeaux, which he took to new heights, according to Wine Spectator, so this isn’t merely some oddball voice out of France; his father, Bruno, owned Cos. So Jean-Guillaume is, in other words, the very establishment that once scorned Napa Valley.

Here’s what Jean-Guillaume said: “I do believe some of the great wine from Napa Valley will be the equivalent of the First Growths in years to come, not only in terms of price—it is already achieved—but in terms of perceptions, of quality, and in terms of being looked after and thought after by wine collectors around the world. So Napa, for me, is soon to become the equivalent of the great Medocs.”

Wow. They ought to put those words on a billboard right next to the “And the wine is bottled poetry” one on Highway 29. You wouldn’t need the whole quote: Just “Napa…the equivalent of the First Growths” would do it.

It doesn’t surprise me that the Bordelais are finally coming around to appreciating Napa Valley. After all, Christian Moueix and Baron Rothschild did it decades ago, visionaries that they were. What’s ironic is that nowadays it’s some Americans who continue to diss Napa Cabernet. Why they’re so stubborn in this attitude, when even representatives of the top French chateaux gaze with envy upon Napa’s near-perfect climate and soils, is beyond me.

* * *

And now, from the Department of Ideas That Are Going Nowhere, let’s zip around to the other side of the world, Australia namely, where an article in the North Queensland Register is calling for wine grape prices to be more objectively determined, like meat prices.

Mr. Rob Hunt argues that, of all agricultural commodities, only the price of wine grapes “is determined using subjective criteria.” He contrasts this with “an objective system” of pricing, such as that employed by his country’s Meat Standards Australia system, in which, I gather, a short loin is a short loin no matter where it’s from, and priced accordingly. That is, indeed, an objective system. It is also very different from one in which (for example) a Cabernet Sauvignon bunch grown in Beckstoffer Tokalon costs much, much more than a similar bunch grown in Paso Robles.

But nobody ever said wine grape prices are objective. They’re not, because wine wholesale prices aren’t subjective. We pay for certain names and reputations, and I for one assume that more rigorous vineyard practices go into a highly-reputed wine than into an everyday one. So it’s not likely that we’ll be grading wine grapes the same way we grade meat anytime soon.

On the other hand, Mr. Hunt is entirely correct when he observes, I suspect there’s nothing more frustrating for growers than to see their carefully tended grapes dropped into the same receival bin as others of lesser quality.” That is a very sad situation for growers who work hard to grow quality fruit. We saw something similar happen in the early histories of counties like Santa Barbara and Monterey, where those grapes—fine quality for the most part—were shipped north or east, to be lost into vast blending vats destined for jug wines. The solution, as it turned out, was not to regulate prices, but to elevate the reputation of those counties, through small-production wineries making wines of critical esteem. You have to have the reputation first; then you can raise prices, not the other way around.

Cheers!


What does the Galloni purchase of Tanzer mean to wine criticism?

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It is, I suppose, the fault of the historian and logician in me that I’m always looking for the meaning of things. I’ve always thought that all things are connected in some mysterious way, and that certain events have implications, not only for how the future will unfold, but for trying to understand where we are now. Such an event is the purchase of Steven Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar by Antonio Galloni, which hit the airwaves yesterday via dueling press releases.

The context here is several-fold. One, both Tanzer and Galloni are enormously influential in this little world of wine criticism in which I and, I assume, most of my readers dwell. Antonio got his fame after being employed by Robert Parker to write for The Wine Advocate, which is how I met him (for the first and only time), at a tasting at the Culinary Institute of America, where Antonio was kind enough to give me a very long interview, which I turned into a three-part blog post. (Here’s the link to part one.)

I was very grateful to Antonio for that (he probably knew enough about me to know that my blog could be, ahem, a little controversial). I went away from that experience thinking what a gallant, intelligent and well-bred mensch Antonio is.

Tanzer I never met; not that I recall. But he’s always loomed in my mind because of the huge reputation he’d garnered among the people I respect: winemakers, sommeliers and folks like that. Tanzer’s name was one of those that mattered in high-class wine reviewing. So what I’m trying to say is that both Galloni and Tanzer earned my respect.

For years we’ve been tracking the evolution of wine criticism, the dualism of print journalism versus online, the gradual fading away of my Baby Boomer generation, and we’ve all tried to figure out what’s coming next. Who will matter? How will wine criticism and recommending work in the next decade and beyond? For me, a major question has been: Will there continue to be super-important critics (and their associated publications), or will wine critiquing become so crowd-sourced (due to the sheer magnitude of blogs) that no one voice will have national or international authority?

My answer to the latter question has consistently been: We will continue to have “important critics” because some fundamental part of human nature demands it. Humans want “authorities” to tell them what to buy, and to justify their tastes, especially in an area like wine that’s so confusing, subjective, emotional and, let us admit it, irrational. A few years ago, at the height of the blogosphere’s insistence that “critics don’t matter,” I couldn’t bring myself to believe it. It seemed to me to be wishful thinking on the part of the many (who wanted a piece of the action), against the power and influence of the few (of which, until last Spring, I was part). But I always thought that someone would take the place of the Parkers, Laubes, etc. of wine criticism.

Now, with this acquisition of Tanzer, it appears that Antonio’s Vinous is moving forcibly into a position of great influence and its associated power. I welcome this. Both men seemed marked by fairness and objectivity, and an indifference to external influence. Both men, too (as well as their teams) are profoundly talented. So we could be looking at the next great force in wine writing.

The one question that remains for me is whether or not this new Vinous will address itself chiefly to super-ultrapremium wine, or will examine wines from all price points. This is a decision, obviously, that Antonio and his business partners will have to address, and I hope they will review everything, from under $10 wines to the rarest and most expensive bottles. If my two cents is worth anything, that’s the way to go.

So it seems to me that the meaning of this marriage is that wine criticism is consolidating among a younger generation, who will continue to publish both online and in hard copy. The torch is being passed, folks, and IMHO it couldn’t be placed into better hands.


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