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What Rudi taught us: The producer-critic complex, and never taking a wine for granted

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“I know never to take a wine for granted. Drawing a cork is like attendance at a concert or at a play that one knows well, when there is all the uncertainty of no two performances ever being quite the same. That is why the French say, There are no good wines, only good bottles.”

This quote, from Gerald Asher, is pretty alarming, if you think about it: it means that you can take a bottle of whatever you think is the greatest wine in the world–I don’t care what it is, Romanée-Conti or Petrus or whatever–and be completely underwhelmed by it. How could this be?

The explanation is that wine is among the most psychologically complicated of all the world’s consumer products. By which I mean, subjectivity enters into your perception of it more than with anything else, with the possible exception of modern art. (The most subjective perception of things is, of course, a parent’s view of her child, but then, children are not consumer products.)

I’ve always been fascinated by the psychology of the enjoyment of high-end wine. I’ve tasted enough of the world’s most famous ones to assure you that there’s not that much of a difference between a fabulous, high-scoring wine and one that’s “merely” very good. The producers of fabulously expensive wines–in Napa Valley, Bordeaux or wherever–don’t want you to know this. They go to great lengths to prevent you from knowing it, and they go to equally great lengths to persuade the wealthy people who buy their wines that there really are quantum qualitative differences that justify their prices. And in this dual quest, they are aided and abetted by certain critics, in what we might call the producer-critic complex, in which both sides stand to gain by the perpetuation of the existing system. (I adapted this term from Pres. Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” remark in his Farewell Address.)

But really, most of the heavy lifting in this persuading is done by the buyers themselves. When they put so much money on the line, they have a psychological investment in finding the wine incredible. And, most of the time, they do. Notice I didn’t say the wine is incredible; I said they find it incredible. Big difference. In fact, what the wine is, is impossible to discern or define. The “thing in itself,” as Kant observed, is unknowable, because, even if it has a real nature, that nature is obscured in a welter of human expectations, thoughts, emotions, motives and conflicts.

This is precisely why alleged crooks like Rudi Kurniawan are able–for a time, at least, until they get caught–to get away with their counterfeit bottles. Even though the stuff being passed off as Romanée-Conti and de Vogüé obviously wasn’t, the suckers who bought it thought it was, because after all, (a) the labels said so and (b) they paid so much money for the bottles that their pride could not admit they’d been bamboozled. The kind of men (high-end “collectors” usually are male) who buy these rarified wines tend to have out-sized egos; they don’t suffer fools gladly, but neither do they suffer many intrusions into their inflated view of their own discernment. So Rudi was able to prey on them with their willing cooperation.

Thus we return to Gerald Asher’s wise dictum to “never take a wine for granted.” Each bottle in and of itself is a complete, indivisible reality. But, like all fragments of reality that we experience, it is nearly impossible to separate out what we, the perceiver, bring to the phenomenon, as opposed to what it is “in and of itself.” When I explain to wine novices how best to appreciate wine, the first thing I do is dissuade them from the stereotypes they’ve heard all their lives concerning “great wines.” There are no great wines, only great bottles. So lesson no. 1: Never take a wine for granted. Not a $700 one and not even a $7 one.

Am I part of the producer-critic complex? I have been. In this job, you can’t help but be part of something larger than yourself, unless you go entirely off the grid–in which case, my friends at UPS and FedEx couldn’t find me to deliver those samples. So, yes, I’m culpable. But I recognize it–I see the perniciousness that can result when critics who have given ultra-high scores to certain wines year in and year out feel that their reputations are on the line unless they continue doing so. What makes me different, I think, is that I give high scores to wines that aren’t on the A-list of cultdom, and so-so scores to wines that are. And the reason I do so is because in every case, they deserve them. Like Gerald Asher said, never take a wine for granted.


How people buy wine: friends vs. scores

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I was pleased to read yesterday that Wine Enthusiast is considered to be one of the two most influential wine magazines in America.

That’s the result of a survey taken by respected veteran market analyst, John Gillespie, who runs Wine Opinions, which describes itself as “the only Internet research organization devoted exclusively to wine.” (John also is President of the Wine Market Council. You may not have heard of it, but it’s a hugely important wine industry trade group whose Board of Directors includes Michael Mondavi, my friend Xavier Barlier of Maisons Marques & Domaines, Mel Dick of Southern Wine & Spirits, and the publisher of Wine Enthusiast Magazine, Adam Strum.)

There are several nuggets of interest buried in the Wine Opinions survey. Besides the obvious good news about Wine Enthusiast (which I don’t think is particularly surprising, as it’s been generally known in the industry for years), the other point John makes is that even more influential than any wine magazine or newsletter is “a wine knowledgeable friend” [or] sommelier.”

As an anecdotal example of this, John is quoted in the article as saying, “If you work at Binny’s [Beverage Depot] in Chicago and you have worked years to get [wine] certifications, and two people walk into your store and one leans into the other’s ear and says, ‘Buy that one,’ you’re finished. You can’t do your job. That must be frustrating.”

Indeed it must be. That’s the power of peer review, or word of mouth, whatever you want to call it. We all know that a friend’s recco is the strongest thing there is, particularly if the recommendee believes that the recommender knows what he’s talking about.

I do have a question, though. What percentage of wine do people buy based on a personal recommendation (from a friend or somm), as opposed to a score or review originally published in a magazine? I bet you it’s an extremely low percentage. I mean, Sure, if you walk into Binny’s with the guy in your office who’s known for his wine connoisseurship, and he tells you to buy bottle “x,” of course you’ll buy it, even if you see a bunch of shelf talkers touting 96 point wines, because he’s your friend, he means well, and his knowledge is far greater than yours.

But is every wine shopper accompanied by a trusted friend? I don’t think so. That’s not really how people shop. The way people really shop is to walk up and down the infamous Wall of Wine alone, trying to figure out what the heck to buy for dinner that night. There is no “wine knowledgeable friend” around. There’s not even a wine knowledgeable staff person around. The shopper is on her own, adrift in a sea of labels. As for buying on the advice of a sommelier, I do that whenever I eat at a nice restaurant. But I don’t eat out very often, and I suspect most other people don’t, either. Probably 90% of the wines people drink are at home, wines they themselves bought in a store.

This is precisely when the professional review has impact. The shopper may be aware of it through a shelf talker or bottle-necker, or perhaps an ad in the local newspaper. Scores and reviews are remarkably fungible things. Once they are born in a magazine or newsletter, they are apt to make their way around the world, through a variety of media and means, especially in our digital age.

So my feeling (not based on scientific research, obviously, but it makes sense) is that, while people might rate “the recommendation of a trusted friend” or a sommelier higher on a survey than “a score or review in a wine magazine or newsletter,” the majority of their wine purchases actually are influenced by scores and reviews. Which is just another way of saying that wine periodicals, including Wine Enthusiast, play a vital role in influencing wine buying patterns in the U.S.


Why big is better (but just up to a point)

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In my job as a critic who gives point scores to wines, even after all these years I still think all the time about just why I give high scores to certain wines and not-so-high scores to most others.

Just what is it that, in my head, makes one Cabernet score 96 points and another “only” 89? It’s not that the latter Cab is bad. In fact, it may be better to drink (under certain circumstances) than the former. This is where a certain arbitrariness comes in–but it’s an arbitrariness with rules.

The main thing I look for in a wine is power. There are synonyms for power: concentration, intensity, volume, size, mass. (These are all nouns; their corresponding adjectives would be words like intense, massive, powerful, huge, etc.). The more mass a wine has, the more likely I am to give it a high score.

It can be tricky, though, determining the line between mass that’s pleasingly balanced, and mass that’s just power for its own sake. I hate to engage in meaningless metaphors, but I sometimes make analogies in my mind to power that’s controlled, as opposed to uncontrolled power. Imagine a large dam, like Hoover Dam or Boulder Dam. Controlled power is when the dam’s walls hold; the force of all that water can be used for productive ends, such as the manufacture of power to turn turbines. That’s controlled power. Imagine next that an earthquake destroys the dam’s foundations, resulting in a great flood that destroys forests and buildings and lives. That’s uncontrolled power.

I realize the comparison isn’t perfect, but that’s how it feels to me when I taste–the kind of sense impression the wine gives, from my first glimpse and sniff to the way it occupies my mouth. And quite often, I find the balance of power, especially in red wines, slipping away from control into abandonment and chaos.

This usually happens when a winery has two (or more) tiers of a wine, often expressed as a “regular” regional bottling and a “reserve.” Most often the reserve is a more concentrated version of the regular; that is, whatever characteristics the regular has (specific flavors, quality of tannins and oak, acidity, alcohol), the reserve will possess also, but in spades: everything will be more, greater, more evident. Sometimes, this works. Sometimes, it doesn’t. Sometimes, more is more; sometimes, more is less. Just because the wine goes from 60% new French oak to 100% (or 200%) new French oak doesn’t make it better; it can make the wine merely oakier, which in itself is not balance but imbalance. Same with fruity concentration. There are technical ways of increasing the extract in wine, but the winemaker has to be very careful with tinkering, because there’s a thin line between “massive fruit” (a term I might use positively) and a fruit bomb. Sometimes, I taste these reserve-style Cabs and I’ll give it a lower score than the regular Cab (even though it costs a lot more money) for the very reason that the winemaker tried too hard to impress with sheer force. There is something to be said for finesse, restraint, elegance: Just because the California sunshine and warmth allows you to make a fruit bomb doesn’t mean you ought to.

The final step in my thinking process when reviewing such wines is, inevitably, this: Granted that the wine tastes clumsy now, might it age? Part of the problem is that the way I was educated about wine. I read the likes of Professor Saintsbury and Eddie Penning-Rowsell and learned to appreciate that a fine Bordeaux that tastes hard and unyielding in youth might turn out silky and delicious if given enough time in the cellar. Well, that’s true, as far as it goes: But there’s a big difference between a young wine that’s clumsy because it’s hard and tannic, and one that’s clumsy because it’s a fruit bomb. I don’t think it’s right to assume that a wine will age simply because (a) it’s a Napa Valley Cab, (b) it costs triple digits and (c) it has more fruit than a roadside fruit stand in August.

If there’s a cautionary tale here, it’s to advise vintners that just because you can extract massive fruit doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Show some restraint, please. Not just in reds but in whites: I’ve seen too many perfectly fine Chardonnays ruined by massive applications of oak, or oak-like aromas and flavors. I’ve always defended California from the naysayers who claim it’s too hot here to grow fine wine (a patent absurdity), but it is getting difficult to defend these over-extracted, overly-oaked, too soft and too sweet wines that seem to be popping up even in the $30-$40 and up ultrapremium range.


Does anything matter besides the score?

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Sometimes I get weary. I work so hard on each and every review in Wine Enthusiast. I’ll use my Thesaurus to come up with just the right adjective. I’ll sweat the difference between black cherries and black raspberries because I want to nail that fruit. I’ll write a phrase, then decide it doesn’t work, get rid of it and start again. I’ll go into our database and see what I did with previous releases so I can make comparisons. I’ll try to work in a reference to the vintage. I’ll edit and re-edit the text of my reviews until they shine like a haiku, and I don’t hit that “send” button until I know it’s something I can be proud of. All for 35 or 40 words!

And then I go out on the road, and inevitably I’ll run into someone — a winemaker, P.R. person, winery executive or just plain consumer — who with brutal frankness says, “Steve, you know, all anybody cares about is the score. The actual review doesn’t matter.”

And that’s when I get weary and deflated. Has it come to this, where the only thing that matters is the number?

I understand the natural human tendency to want information instantly, to desire by some iconographic means to know what somebody thinks without having to go through the trouble of actually reading an opinion. I share that tendency myself. When Mick LaSalle, the S.F. Chronicle’s fine film critic, reviews a movie, the first thing I look for is what the famous Little Man is doing.

the_little_man

If the chair is empty I know Mick hated the movie. If the Little Man is leaping out of his seat, Mick loved it. Isn’t this the equivalent of a 5-point scoring system? It is.

But I also read Mick’s reviews. It’s not enough, for me at least, to just take in the image. I want to know exactly how and why Mick arrived at his conclusion. And I also want the pleasure of reading Mick’s reviews, because he’s an awfully good writer, and I infer that he edits and re-edits his copy as rigorously as I do mine. Probably more so.

On the other hand, I admit there’s a limit to how much “writerly-ness” a short wine review can contain. Yesterday, Tom Wark wrote a post over at Fermentation entitled “An Open Door To Real Wine Criticism.” If I read it right (and Tom’s dense, layered posts often lend themselves to various interpretations), Tom is calling for better written, more thoughtful wine writing that reflects, not only the writer’s opinion of the wine, but even “the current state of politics, culture or social interaction” in America. Tom alluded to my own post from last week (“Why wine criticism isn’t as important as film criticism”) to call for greater “intellectual heft” in wine writing. I could do that, I suppose (although it would be pretty hard to wax eloquently about politics and culture in a 35-word review and still get a word in edgewise about the wine itself!). But why bother, if nobody’s reading the text?

Why don’t people read the text? Is everybody so hurried and harried that we don’t have time to do anything anymore? Or is it that we, the wine writers, are failing to deliver prose that’s scintillating enough to turn readers on (which seems to be what Tom is saying)? I think some wine writers are tumbling to the truth that we do have to do a better writing job —  more elegant, more eloquent, more complex, just as we demand of the wines we review. Last December Asimov, at The Pour (and no slouch himself when it comes to writing), touched on this when he described wine writing that “reflexively resort[s] to…trite explanatory notions. Cobbled together, they can flesh out a standard-issue column or two” but, alas, they lack “more interesting and useful information.” Eric vowed to try harder.

But ultimately, maybe it doesn’t matter what Eric or I or any wine writer writes. In this age of Twitter Taste Mini Reviews, who’s got the time to worry about quality of writing? What counts is quantity, speed and the number of Followers you have.


Is it asking too much for California white wines to taste dry?

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It happened again. I got another email from a winemaker who was not happy that I called his white wines “sugary sweet” when, in fact, “All three of these wines are very dry” (as he wrote), and one of them was “a lot drier than the industry average.”

This is not the first instance of this sort and I suspect it won’t be the last. It raises important questions, one concerning the sensation of sweetness, and the other concerning the language critics like me use to describe that sensation. If you think about it, this is some of the most important information we can provide: where a wine falls on the dry-sweet continuum. If for no other reason, that determines what food to pair wine with, and accompanying food is wine’s supreme duty.

I think a lot of white California wines taste too sweet. What does that mean? Well, the most obvious sweet taste is sugar (or honey), so when I review a white wine that tastes like fruit juice — lemonade, limeade, pineapple — that’s how I describe it. Fruity-juicy sweet. That does not mean I have performed a technical analysis of the wine to measure exactly what the residual sugar is. I suppose I could buy some little kit that does that, but does my job include technical analysis of wine? Where would that stop? I could send my wines out to a lab for a stripdown on brettanomyces, TCA levels, etc. but I don’t see where that would make me a better wine writer. No, my job is to describe the wine the way it smells and tastes to me, as a normal human being, so if it’s “a little too sweet and sugary for comfort” (as I described one of the winemaker’s white wines), that’s what I write.

This brings up the issue of language. We wine writers do have to be careful not to make claims we can’t prove. Thus, instead of writing, “This wine has tons of new oak,” if I don’t know the precise oak percentages, I’ll write, “Smells very new oaky” or something like that. There’s a big difference. The former is a factual statement, while the latter is simply my considered opinion. You can’t sue me for stating an opinion, last time I checked.

How can a white wine taste overtly sweet when the residual sugar is .04% or .07%, as the winemaker in question told me his were? Most wine textbooks say the human threshold for perceiving sweetness is about 0.8%. I have spent the better part of my career trying to understand this anomaly. There are many reasons, in theory, why a “dry” wine can taste sweet. One is that the taster may have an unusually acute sensitivity to even the slightest amount of residual sugar, which for me is not the case. I don’t seem to have a freakish sensitivity to anything, including TCA, for which I am happy. High alcohol too can make a wine taste sweet and glyceriney. Insufficient acidity may permit a very fruity wine to taste cloying. Caramelized oak barrel staves or, even worse, phony oak infusions also can give a sense of sweetness. There are probably other factors that could account for the impression of sweetness in a technically dry white wine, and I invite people to comment on them.

At any rate, I admit to being very intolerant of white wines that taste sweet. If you read my reviews and you come across a statement that a wine “tastes sugary sweet,” let me explain right here, that doesn’t mean I’ve measured the residual sugar. It just means what it says: to me, it tastes sugary sweet.

If you’re a white wine and you want to be a little sweet, then for crying out loud, be Chardonnay (or, forgive me, Viognier). If you don’t want to be Chardonnay, then at least be dry and scoury and minerally, not a jellied fruit bomb. If you want to be an off-dry white wine (and there’s nothing wrong with that), then be off-dry and don’t be ashamed to admit it. And, of course, you can always be a full-blown dessert wine. These are California’s four choices in white wine. Anything whose image is dry when it’s really sugary sweet is not going to get a very good score from me.


My top-scoring wines of 2009

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Of my 32 highest-scoring wines of 2009, all but one were red (the sole exception was Iron Horse’s appropriately named Joy! brut) and of those, 18 were Cabernet Sauvignon or a Bordeaux blend. Except for two of those (Rodney Strong’s 2006 Rockaway, from Alexander Valley, and Kendall-Jackson’s ’06 Trace Ridge, from Knights Valley), all the Cabs were from Napa Valley — from Oak Knoll in the south through Stags Leap and Oakville on up to St. Helena.

However, of the top 16 wines fully 12 were Pinot Noir. They were concentrated in the Sonoma Coast, Green Valley and Russian River Valley, but Santa Rita Hills were well-represented, with ambassadors here and there from Santa Maria Valley, Anderson Valley and Sonoma Mountain. Somewhat surprising was the relative absence of Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noirs. Is it just me or are these wines a little top-heavy? (You can see all my published reviews at Wine Enthusiast’s Buying Guide.)

No dry white table wine enters the list until #32, Hartford Court’s Stone Côte Chardonnay, from the Sonoma Coast. After that three Chards in a row pop up: Boekenoogen  2007 from Santa Lucia Highlands, Gary Farrell 2007 from Rochioli Vineyard and Au Bon Climat’s apocalyptically-named Santa Barbara Historic Vineyards Collection Bien Nacido Vineyard, from the 2006 vintage. As many of you know, I do like and admire a rich, ripe, oaky Chardonnay.

What all this says is no surprise. California’s three greatest dry wines are Cabernet Sauvignon (or blends), Pinot Noir (never, one hopes, blended) and Chardonnay (ditto). The reds get the nod because they’re more interesting. The same also is true in France, where these three varieties (with the addition, some would say, of Syrah in the Northern Rhône) constitute the nation’s patrimony. (Would anyone add the Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc? Speak now or hold your peace.) Why Cabernet, Pinot and Chardonnay are “noble” will be argued in different ways by different people. From an esthetic point of view, I suggest that when properly sourced and produced these three types of wine are the most complete and complex. (I’m speaking of California.) They drink the deepest and last the longest, and are best adapted to take on new oak. They show the greatest balance and longevity. After Cabernet, Pinot and Chardonnay there simply are “all the rest.” But they include some very good wines.

I wrote two days ago about the problem with Syrah in California and that generated lots of comment from readers, most of whom tended to agree with me that the variety lacks identity here. But I did have some very high-scoring Syrahs. Qupe’s ‘05 Bien Nacido X Block was way up there and so was Failla’s ‘07 Estate. Stolpman’s 2007 La Croce also did well, and I was surprised to learn it’s a blend of Sangiovese and Syrah. Perhaps there is something to be said for co-fermenting these varieties, provided that the grapes are superior. The Sangiovese seemed to add structure and acidity while the Syrah brought richness.

Not too many Sauvignon Blancs or Bordeaux-style white wines on my upper tier. Illumination’s 2008, which is 92% Sauvignon Blanc and 8% Semillon and was partially barrel-fermented and then aged on the lees, clocked in at #25. I did not know, when I gave it 95 points, that it was made by Charles Thomas, whom I remember from his days at Robert Mondavi, where he presided over the Tokalon Fume Blancs that are consistently among California’s best of the genre. (I liked the actual Mondavi 2007 Tokalon Reserve Sauvignon Blanc well enough, and gave it 92 points.) There were quite a number of dessert wines I scored highly in 2009, but I’ll save that discussion for another time.

It’s not likely that Cabernet, Pinot and Chardonnay will be dislodged anytime soon from their commanding heights. What is there to threaten them? I speak not of the cascades of indifferent, wannabe examples but of the very best. You can be an A.B.C. person but really, a great Caifornia Cabernet or Chardonnay is a world-class event. As for Pinot Noir, I am reminded of the tale that Napoleon (? can’t remember which one) had his troops bow down on bended knee as they marched past the Clos de Vougeot. There is something about that wine that approaches, well, worship, then as now.

P.S. I said yesterday I would blog today on “ten things we need more of in 2010.” It was a good idea but when I tried to write it, nada. Maybe another time.


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