And as proof I offer wine.com’s #1 wine of the year, Cambria 2006 Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the Santa Maria Valley.
Each year for the last 3 years, wine.com, the nation’s largest online wine retailer, publishes its Top 100 wines list, but it’s different from the top wine lists published by most newspapers and magazines, including Wine Enthusiast. Wine.com’s list is “based entirely on customer preferences,” the web site explains. “The ranking reflects the top 1% of wines sold nationally on Wine.com during 2009 based on unit volume.” In other words, in wine.com’s list, the company’s customers vote with their wallets, instead of editors voting their personal preferences.
But hold on. There’s one big thing wine.com’s list has in common with Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 Wines list of 2009. Our #1 wine also was the Cambria 2006 Julia’s; our list came out a week before wine.com’s. I can explain why the Cambria was our top wine, since I’m the guy who reviewed it and gave it 93 points. What I can’t do with precision is tell you why the Cambria was wine.com’s #1 wine. But I can make an inference that’s pretty plausible.
It’s this: wine.com cites two reviews from wine magazines for the Cambria. One was mine, which appeared in Feb., 2009 in Wine Enthusiast; the other was a 90-point score from Wine News (which I believe was given by my old friend, Steve Pitcher). Add to that the fact that wine.com is selling the wine for $17.79 — considerably less than the $21 suggested retail price — and you had lots of customers buying it. A 93-point Santa Maria Pinot for under $20? Grab your credit card and start shopping!
So I’d venture to say my review in Wine Enthusiast pushed the Cambria into the stratosphere. Not bad for a paper-based wine magazine published in a time when strident voices are predicting (and possibly hoping for) the “death of print” we’ve heard so much about. If being a potent driver of sales is an indication of a terminal disease, we’re going to have to reconsider what “healthy” means.
I daresay that even if the top 10 blogs, or the top 25 or what have you, all agreed on their #1 wine of the year (which obviously isn’t going to happen), it wouldn’t be enough to cause a #1 wine at wine.com. We’ve all heard anecdotes of a few success stories here and there — Capozzi selling out 1,700 cases of Pinot pre-release purportedly on the strength of pinotblogger’s blog, or Gary V. pushing product through winelibrarytv. But what you’re not hearing are the hundreds or thousands of wines that have gotten good reviews on blogs (and some of them pretty famous blogs) where the net impact on sales was lighter than a gnat’s poop.
What I’m driving at is that the better wine magazines are going to be around for a long time because, frankly, they work. As the recession lifts and the advertising climate improves, the difficulties of the past year or so will increasingly be behind us. Americans still like to read their wine magazines. That doesn’t mean lots of stuff isn’t shifting online. But when it comes to wine reviews that actually sell cases, I don’t think it’s moving to blogs or Twitter. Amazon’s Kindle, maybe, and similar portable reading devices. People may well move away from paper-based to an e-book platform, but I’m predicting that even as/when that happens, the wine magazines they’ll turn to will be the same ones they’ve always turned to, such as Wine Enthusiast. And as the wine.com #1 wine of 2009 makes clear, reviews, including those from Wine Enthusiast, will remain the single biggest driver of sales (yes, even bigger than peer recommendations!).
I thought it was pretty clever for Wine Spectator to choose that Columbia Crest 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which retails for $27, as their Wine of the Year.
The Spectator has gotten a heavy reputation over the years for being a snobby, rich man’s (emphasis on man’s) magazine that caters to collectors and puffed-up winemakers who want to sell to collectors at inflated prices. That reputation worked back in the old days (i.e. pre-Fourth Quarter 2008), when money was flowing and everybody wanted the latest cult wine. But it’s a lousy rep to have today, being totally inconsistent with the new national trend of modesty and inconspicuous consumption. I obviously have no way of knowing the internal workings at Wine Spectator, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the word hadn’t gone out to the effect that “Let there be something inexpensive this year.” And, lo and behold, there was something inexpensive, not to mention relatively accessible, and from a major commercial producer.
(For the record, Wine Enthusiast on Dec. 2 reveals our Top 100 Wines of the Year.)
To some extent this reputation for Spectator snobbery has never been a fair one. The magazine always has value lists and value articles, and I don’t think their staff shies away from reviewing inexpensive wines. But perception is reality, as they say, and whether fair or not, the Spectator has been saddled as the publication of, by and for the cults and triple-digit wines. When I began at Wine Enthusiast, fresh off my stint at Wine Spectator, the decision already had been made by our management to be a (hopefully refreshing) alternative, which is to say a magazine dedicated to the average wine consumer, not merely the collector. That was a philosophy I could buy into, because I have always been an average wine consumer, if by “average” you mean someone who doesn’t have the means to buy lots of expensive bottles. And, I must confess, I had been rather put off by the collector types I met while at the Spectator, who seemed to exist on a plane that was hard for me to relate to.
I think Wine Enthusiast has accomplished our goal. People, both in the industry and “just” consumers, tell me all the time they think the Enthusiast “shares their values” more than the Spectator, which often puts me in the odd position of defending the Spectator, even though they’re “the competition.” I suppose people think if they say something anti-Spectator I’ll like it, but I don’t, not really. It makes me uncomfortable.
Does the selection of the Columbia Crest signifies a sea change at the Spectator — a re-orientation toward more popularly priced wines? Probably not. I’m sure there will be upcoming verticals of Mouton, or the latest $400 garragiste wine, etc. But for the time being the Columbia Crest award removes the elitist bull’s-eye from the Spectator’s tuchas.
Incidentally, Wine Enthusiast’s Pacific Northwest Editor, Paul Gregutt, reviewed the C.C. 2005 Reserve Cab and gave it 89 points, a very good but not great score. On the Seattle Yelp page, public reaction to the award seemed proud that Washington State was honored, but at the same time, bemused. One person called the wine “very flat [and] one dimensional.” Another called it “boring,” while still another said “the choice really has made me wonder what the criteria were.” You can wonder whatever you want to about the selection, but this is true: it created buzz, it got people talking, and it’s better to have people talking about you — even controversially — than not.
Wes Hagen, at Clos Pepe, sent me (and also Mr. Laube) a PDF of an old wine book he stumbled across. “It’s an 1892 book on the evaluation of wine, written in CA!,” Wes wrote. “Note his suggestion of a 6 point and 10 point wine evaluation scale. I’m sure you guys get questions all the time about ‘points’—it may be the idea’s been around for longer than 100 years.”
The book, published in 1892 by the University of California’s Viticultural Section (in its pre-Davis, Berkeley era), is entitled WINE: Classification – Wine Tasting – Qualities and Defects. Yet it was written, not in California or by a Californian but an Italian (Grazzi-Soncini), and happened to be translated by F.T. Bioletti, the polymath whose work at U.C. included classifying vinifera grapes in California, founding the school’s grape breeding program, and research into grape diseases. He also was the V&E department’s first chair.
Grazzi-Soncini begins by making a vital distinction between “the taster” and “the chemist.” The former is able to make inferences about wine’s quality and defects, even without a thorough understanding of “the physical components of wine,” while the latter “is limited to making a diagnosis,” which Grazzi-Soncini implies is not particularly useful for the wine drinker or wine seller. He then lays out his own classification system, dividing wine into “High-class Wines” (Lafite, la-Tour [sic], certain Chiantis), “Fine Wines” (Saint-Julien, St.-Estephe), “Fine Common Wines” (“produced in large quantities in Italy”), and “Common Wines, or Wines of the Plains,” which are for “the working classes.” Finally there are “Low-grade Wines,” of which the less said, the better. So once again we see the universal need, which seems always to have existed, at least since the Greeks, for classifying wines.
Having set the stage, Grazzi-Soncini now moves to his chapter on “Tasting.” His cogent point is that “Any one can say whether a wine pleases him or not” but “only the experienced taster can pronounce with any degree of certainty…”. Without “long practice” the “somewhat difficult art” of tasting “cannot be acquired” (which will frustrate some of my young blogger friends but is inescapably true).
Grazzi-Soncini’s 10-point scale, like his classification system, also testifies to the need in the human soul or mind for hierarchies and tiers, of which the 100-point system (actually in Wine Enthusiast’s case a 21-point system) is merely an elaboration. I quote from Grazzi-Soncini:
9. Almost perfect.
8. Quite good.
7. Relatively good.
6. Fair; sound, but not harmonious.
From 5 to 0 indicates various defects, according to their gravity.
(Could this have been the origin of the famous U.C. Davis 20-point scoring system?)
Grazzi-Soncini reserves his longest chapter for wine defects. Then, as now, it was more difficult to pinpoint why a wine is good than explain why it is not. When a wine is good, all you can do is use qualitative adjectives, such as “Perfect” or “harmonious,” which really have no meaning at all to anyone, unless you know what they mean or think you do. It is much easier to explain that a wine is, for example, “decrepit” and “past its prime” because it has lost “all, or nearly all, of [its] color” and become “disagreeable” in bouquet and “vapid, flat, insipid” in the mouth. (All italicized descriptors are Grazzi-Soncini’s.)
If Grazzi-Soncini were involved in the conversation or debate that occurs frequently here on my blog in the Comments section, I think he would side with those who say a wine taster doesn’t need rigorous scientific training or academic winemaking credentials to be good at his job. Rather what is needed is, as I have quoted, “long experience,”…“a clear eye [and] very delicate organs of taste and smell.” Here’s a key phrase: “When the last two organs [i.e. taste and smell] have the requisite sensibility, practice alone is necessary to give [tasters] the skill needed in tasting a wine.” Not viticultural and enological aptitude; not a thorough knowledge of wine chemistry; not even (dare I say it?) a moment of work-time in a winery. A sharp eye, nose and palate, and long, practical years of experience: that’s what it takes to be a good wine critic.
Bulletin: Just in (8:05 a.m. California time, Oct. 8): “TTB ANNOUNCES ESTABLISHMENT OF HAPPY CANYON OF SANTA BARBARA VITICULTURAL AREA.” We knew that was coming. I blogged about it more than a year ago.
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I got an email the other day from a winery representative who complained about some of my scores. “The last 4 months of reviews have been in the low 80′s and we have been getting much higher scores from wine competitions and other publications for the same vintages of wines,” the person wrote, asking, “The reason for my email is concern that our wines are somehow getting cooked, or something, from here to there. Can I give you a call to see what we can do differently to insure the wines arrive fresh?”
I want to blog on this, because so many important issues are at stake. To begin with, I double-checked my scores for the wines since June 1 and discovered I’d given 87 points to a Cab, 86 points to a Chardonnay, a pair of 84s to a Zin and Syrah, and a couple of 83s. One or two of the wines did indeed score in the low 80s, but I emailed the P.R. person back that 87, 86, 84 and even 83 are not “low 80s” but mid- to high 80s. To this, the person responded, “Our distributors and many of the wine buyers look at anything below an 86 as a ‘low score.’”
What can I say. I can’t teach remedial arithmetic to distributors. All I can do is point out that 87 and 86 are not low scores and neither is 85 or even 84 points. All are “very good” and “good” scores by Wine Enthusiast’s definition. Of course, if a wine scores 85 points and retails for $50, then there is a problem, but it’s not my problem, it’s the problem of the people at the winery who establish the price.
Another issue that really gets my goat is when a winery rep tells me, “Parker (or ____, fill in the blank) really liked this wine, and it got a double bronze at the Cleveland International Wine Fair, so how come you only gave it 87 points?” Well, at the risk of being obvious, let me point out that my name is not Parker or Cleveland or anybody or anything else. It’s Heimoff. I don’t check in with other critics before I make a review. Just sayin’…
The final issue involved in this situation is shipping or, to be more precise, wines getting cooked in the back of a UPS or FedEx truck during a heat wave. For many years, I’ve urged wineries to check the 7-day forecast before sending samples out for review, and I’m glad to say they’re listening. This September, the quantity of incoming wines was at a near-record low, because September is our hottest month and we did in fact have several heat waves. I was happy to see my storage closet actually empty out at one point.
What am I supposed to do if a wine suffers from heat damage? Obviously, if I know for sure it’s cooked, I can call the winery and request a resend, and I’ve done that. But I can’t always tell. Many California wines, especially red ones, are so overripe and soft anyway that they might as well be heat-treated — are the raisins from shriveled clusters or a hot truck? I also reason to myself that, if I started asking wineries to resubmit wines that just might have suffered from one problem or another, I’d basically be increasing the number of wines I taste by a huge percentage, and even then, how could I justify leaving a score at “83” unless I’d tasted the wine at least half a dozen times, so I could swear that I’d done my best to be absolutely, positively sure that it was really the wine, and not something external to it? But obviously, I’m not going to do that. I think for the most part that wineries need to take the responsibility for getting me (and all reviewers) their wines in the best shape they can. That’s their job.
But back to those pesky distributors. It’s a cliche to say that anything below 90 is dead on arrival. I’m not sure where that came from, historically, but it’s a horrible development. I don’t think that’s why Parker invented the 100-point scale and I know for sure that at Wine Enthusiast, we don’t turn our noses up at an 86 point wine. Wines that score in the 90s tend to be bigger, riper and probably oakier than those in the 80s. That’s the way the system works. But that doesn’t mean that a 95 point Pinot Noir is better for drinking tonight with lamb than an 87 point Pinot Noir. That’s what the distributors don’t understand. And what I don’t understand is how to get the word out that the 90 point threshold is not some magical, absolute event horizon, the dividing line between Heaven and Hell. It’s just a number. If you have any ideas of how to de-criminalize scores in the 80s, let me know, but please, don’t suggest doing away with the 100-point system altogether. That’s a non-starter. I think it has to do with educating distributors and point-of-sale people, both on-premise and off-premise. It’s a simple message to deliver to the customer: “Dear Sir or Madame, this wine is better for drinking tonight. I assure you.” If the customer doesn’t trust the seller, then that’s where work is needed, not in the scoring system.
Everybody knows that housing prices are still too high, especially in Sun Belt places like Las Vegas, South Florida and certain parts of California. Prices won’t stabilize until demand equals supply, and supply was way overbuilt to begin with. So housing prices continue to fall. You can only conclude that they were too high to begin with, and must plunge further before the bottom is reached.
The situation is analogous to California wine prices. There are simply too many wines out there in the $20-$50 and higher range that aren’t worth it. Once again, I’m not going to mention any names, because that would be unfair; for every “ABC winery” that’s overpriced I could name 5 dozen others.
First, let me start with a general observation that wines scoring between 83 points and 86 points are, by Wine Enthusiast definition, “good.” And the definition of “good,” in our view, is “Decently made, with varietal identity, serviceable. At most, minor deficiencies.” Now, there’s nothing wrong with a “serviceable” wine, but my Webster’s dictionary defines “serviceable” as “useful; usable; durable; ready for use,” which is not exactly a glowing endorsement. For example, if you drive a car, you probably want something that’s more than “useful.”
The majority of California wines are serviceable. They’re what a Frenchman might call vin de table or vin ordinaire, the kinds of wines most people drink on most days with very little fuss or clamor. A decent dry red, a crisp fruity white, or maybe a perky little rosé is a serviceable wine. How much should a serviceable wine cost? It’s in the eye of the beholder, but in my view, an everyday wine should be less than $15. And there are tons of everyday wines out there that go for less than $15, not only from California but from around the world.
Here’s the problem. Over the last few months I’ve reviewed a lot of wines I scored at 84 points, which is right in the middle of the “serviceable” spectrum. Here are a few (without specific identities) and their prices:
a Central Coast Bordeaux blend with tutti-fruity flavors and tons of weird oak: $28
a Napa Valley single-vineyard Cabernet that had sharp, green tannins: $50
a Russian River single-vineyard Chardonnay that was too oaky and popcorny: $38
a Napa Valley rosé that tasted like cola: $35
a Paso Robles Viognier that was practically a dessert wine, it was so sweet: $29
a Sierra Foothills Syrah that was pleasant and simple, for $32
a Dry Creek Zin that should have been about $15 but was $40
Well, you get the idea. Each of these wines was basically decent, but why on earth would anyone pay the asking price? And keep in mind, these are prices that were established (either by the producer or someone along the distribution chain) after this past Spring — in other words, when the country already was deeply mired into a Recession, and everybody knew that consumers were diving down in terms of the prices they’re willing to pay for wine.
How do you account for a wine that’s overpriced and mediocre (definition: ordinary, average) being sold for so much money during a Recession? I, myself, don’t know how to. Is it blindness? Whistling past the graveyard and hoping there are enough gullible consumers out there who will buy it anyway? Is it simple ignorance of reality, a kind of cellar-vision whereby a winery owner lives in his own little world and doesn’t understand what’s going on? Is it a desperate act forced upon vintners by their banks? Is it the belief that their own particular wine — their love child — is actually worth the price they’re asking? Is it a form of lethargy? All the above?
Whatever the explanation, the fact is that every day I review wines that are average and ordinary, and when I see their prices I’m shocked and appalled. If a Recession is indeed a time for correction, of the same kind that housing is experiencing, then wine prices are going to have to be seriously corrected, and not just at the super-ultra-premium end. They’re going to have to be corrected in the $20-$40 tier, where, as Ricky Ricardo might have said, there’s a lot of ‘recting to do.
Conde Nast is closing Gourmet magazine!! The N.Y. Times announced it this morning. This is a major event in print publication. Gourmet in its time was required reading, especially for wine lovers who could revel in everything the great Gerald Asher wrote. Gourmet will be missed.
Hey, who says you don’t get your money’s worth for this blog? Here’s a Threefer.
1. Talkin’ Sonoma County
Somebody from the Sonoma County Wine Library called the other day to do a little phone interview with me. She wanted to know, basically, how I thought the Sonoma County Wineries Association could do a better job of marketing and promoting Sonoma County wines. My answer was: it can’t.
This stuff is going to appear in print someplace. The interviewer sent me a draft of her article, and while I completely approve it, and am sure I really said all the things she quotes me as saying, I want to put my remarks in context. This was, after all, a long conversation we had, and the quotes were preceded and followed by other statements that gave more complete meaning to them.
(I should add that, as a news guy myself who’s conducted literally thousands of interviews over the years, not just with wine industry people but with cops, politicians, business tycoons, lawyers, doctors, crime victims, artists, judges, kids, dying people, you name it, I understand the challenges of getting quotes right, and of presenting them in a way that doesn’t distort their intended meaning. It can be difficult.)
So here are the quotes, with my amplifications.
1. “Sonoma County should not market itself as a region. The only region that means anything to anyone,” Heimoff says, “is Napa.”
What I meant: What I was saying was that I don’t think the words “Sonoma County” have much meaning to the average wine consumer. They do to people in the know, like you and me, but we’re not average consumers. To me, “Sonoma County” is a virtual guarantee of quality, of good viticulture and enology, of smart, hard-working people. But to most Americans, it’s like, “What part of Napa is Sonoma in?” They just don’t get it, and I don’t know if they ever will. So I’m not saying Sonoma “should not” in the moral, prescriptive sense of “Thou shalt not kill.” It’s more like I’m saying, “I wouldn’t spend a whole lot of marketing money promoting Sonoma County, because it’s not likely to be effective.”
2. He believes Sonoma was, “very promiscuous in the 80s in developing its AVAs.” Napa “was deliberate and said it did not want to rush. Sonoma is now paying the price,” he believes, with too many AVAs which mean nothing to the consumer, though an AVA like Russian River, he declares, has been very adroit in its marketing.
What I meant: Sonoma rushed out in the 1980s making all these AVAs before the terroir was properly understood. That caused bafflement, even among wine writers, but it also robbed the “Sonoma County” brand as a whole of the potential for respect and recognition, and fed (or attempted to feed) that energy into the sub-AVAs. Trying to promote “Sonoma County” now is a little like trying to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again.
3. Much more important, he says, for Sonoma’s future is that, “people buy brands. In fact, brands are the only thing that people look for. I think in tough economic times people tend to stay with what they know, so to me, that would bode well for some of the more reputable brands in the country.”
What I meant: With hundreds of wineries in Sonoma County, they’re not all going to succeed, even if the public suddenly starts thinking that Sonoma County is the greatest thing since sliced bread, which they won’t. No, the most visible, respected brands will sell because people know and trust them. At the high level, a Williams Selyem doesn’t have to rely on a relationship with Sonoma County; people line up to buy it because it’s a brand. The same goes for Chateau St. Jean or Sebastiani or Geyser Peak; people buy the name, not the grape source. In Napa Valley, it’s a little different; people are so mesmerized by those two words, they believe anything from Napa Valley has to be great, which of course is nonsense.
4. “Newer vintners need to be aware they will have to build their brands by getting high scores for their wines from good critic. There is nothing,” he says, “that moves bottles off the shelf better than a high score from a reputable critic.”
What I meant: This would be self-serving if it weren’t true. The single best way for a winery (especially an unknown or little-known one) to sell wine is to get a high score. We can argue about who’s a “good critic” and who’s not, but not today. Put it this way: Which will sell more wine, an Enthusiast 100 or a Sonoma County AVA? Duh.
5. His tough-love wisdom at the moment: “Focus. It’s hard right now. And it’s every brand for itself. It’s definitely dog eat dog out there.”
What I meant: Exactly what it says. Woof woof.
2. Wine Fraud hits Canada, no longer limited to Europe
I’m continuing to read and enjoy Benjamin Lewis’s “What Price Bordeaux?” book, which is a romp through everything you ever wanted to know about the great wines of the Left and Right Banks. Each chapter is immensely interesting in its own right. I’m up to “Plus Ça Change” — “the more things change,” as in “the more they stay the same — which is about fakery, fraud, aduleration, mislabeling, and the entire Rogue’s Gallery of crooked practices which seems to have infected the world of fine wine forever.
When I was reading the chapter on Sunday morning I wondered if fakery exists in California. Just a little while later I sat down at the computer, went to Meininger’s Wine Business International to check on the day’s news, and saw this headline, from The Vancouver Sun: Canadians react angrily to faux wines.
Seems that some pretty big wine companies “buy bulk wine from cheap sources outside Canada, bottle it here and sell it in the B.C. [British Columbia] Wines section of government liquor stores.” This “could even be a violation of the criminal provisions of the federal Competition Act [and] at the very least it’s unethical.” Some of the wine apparently is labeled “Cellared in Canada” which, apparently, does not mean that the grapes are from Canada, although the average consumer might be forgiven for thinking so.
This brouhaha brings to mind the famous WineGate Scandal, which Lewis recounts in Plus Ça Change. In the mid-1970s, a negociant house bought cheap Vin de Table red wine. He also bought some real AOC Bordeaux white wine. He then changed the color of the wine on the paperwork for his AOC Bordeaux from white to red, which allowed him to sell it for much more money than a table wine would fetch. Of course, he had to correspondingly lower the price on his white wine, since it was “demoted” from AOC Bordeaux to Vin de Table. But he still made “several million francs of profits in a period of four months” before the fraud was discovered by shocked, shocked authorities. (Only the previous year, the President of the INAO, the AOC’s governing body, had insisted that “Our system of control has been perfected so that [fraud] is impossible.”)
So it can happen in Canada. But here in California? Well, we all remember that in 1994, Fred Franzia “pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud with Bronco by falsely labelling grapes,” according to the story about him in last May’s edition of The New Yorker. But that was 15 years ago, and to the best of my knowledge, California wine has seen no fraud since. Every once in a while the question arises of whether or not wineries send critics like me “special” bottles for review — bottles that aren’t the real wine — and while it wouldn’t surprise me if that were true, there’s no way to know. (All you investigative bloggers out there, here’s the route to stardom: Find such a case and bring the winery down.) There are, of course, rampant tales of fraud in the wine auction and old bottle communities, but I can’t get too upset about that, since it doesn’t impact 99.9% of consumers.
I think the Franzia case was a shot across the bow to California (and American) vintners, a warning from federal law enforcement officials that they won’t tolerate such outrageously deceptive practices. Perhaps far more interesting than outright fraud is adulteration — the “improvement” of wine by adding chemicals for flavor, texture and the like. Although the practice is frequently deplored by winemakers, it’s widespread, and there are currently no regulations, state or federal, to disclose them to the public. Should there be? I don’t know. How many more words can you squeeze onto a label? They’re already getting pretty crowded. Maybe wineries could make the information available online.
3. How to make cult wine and be graceful
And speaking of Plus Ça Change, I read with great interest yesterday’s front page article on Dick Grace in the San Francisco Chronicle, in which Mr. Grace skillfully administers the coup de main to the dozens of Napa Valley cult wines that regularly exceed the $225 price tag on his Grace Family Cabernet. The Chron’s wine editor, Jon Bonné, wrote that Grace “is credited with creating California’s first cult Cabernet,” a citation that may be undermined by the craze that attached to Joe Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon when that wine first appeared in the 1960s. But it’s true enough, and the point is that Mr. Grace views the metastasis of cult Cabs with some proper skepticism. He told Jon, “We have to get over what I call the trophy mentality,” and Jon quoted his wife, Ann, as saying that some of the newer cult wines say more about “an address” than anything else.
Well, I can’t argue with that. I don’t taste all the Napa cults but I do taste a lot of them and I can unhesitatingly say that your quality-price ratio is poor in many cases. (The Napa Valley Vintners kindly invited me to a private tasting of cult wines I don’t routinely get to taste. The tasting is Nov. 5. I’ll be reviewing the wines, blind and formally, for Wine Enthusiast, but I should be able to write about the tasting here.)
You can agree or disagree with Mr. and Mrs. Grace — I tend to agree — but what struck me, when I thought about it, were the parallels between their attitude toward the newby cult Cabs, and the way that some of the older, Baby Boomer wine critics view the younger bloggers. Not to paint everyone with the same broad brush (something I’ve been accused of), but you can say generally that some of the older writers saw the younger bloggers as upstarts, not fully qualified, yet out there making statements anyway. That’s kind of like the Graces saying that some (not all) of the newer cult wines are wannabes rather than proven commodities.
Are the newer cult owners resentful that the Godfather of Cult Cabs, Dick Grace himself, faulted them? Maybe there’s been some grumbling. The Chronicle is Northern California’s largest newspaper, and this article was on the front page of the Sunday edition, meaning that a lot of people read it. But if they have hurt feelings, I doubt if they’ll express them in public. Besides, I have to think that many of the newby cults know, in their heart of hearts, that what Mr. and Mrs. Grace said is true. These overblown wines, crafted with the help of hired celebrity winemakers and grapegrowers, are “marketing tool[s], as opposed to wines with a distinctive character,” as Mr. Grace asserted. The pendulum indeed “has swung too far.” And in at least one other aspect, the Graces are attempting to make up karmically for the wealth and luxury that their lives have accorded them. A Buddhist and follower of the Dalai Lama, Mr. Grace contributes large sums of money to humanitarian causes. He calls this act of charity a “self-correction” after realizing that there is a higher purpose than wealth or fame. It’s enormously gratifying to hear him concede that the prices his wine commanded were “an extension of my overblown ego” and to see him making up for it.
Maybe Mr. Grace could hold Buddhism classes for his fellow cult wine producers in Napa Valley and elsewhere. They have a lot to learn from him.