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Reflections on six of Wine Enthusiast’s top 100 wines of 2009

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Now that Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 wines of 2009 list has been published and absorbed, I want to talk a little about some of the California wines I reviewed which made the list. Some people have asked me how and why particular wines are chosen while others aren’t. Understand, these are group decisions and others involved will offer different perspectives. Here, though, as the reviewer/scorer, are mine.

I mentioned our #1 wine, the Cambria 2006 Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, yesterday in this blog. I’m sure that wine would have made any critic’s best-of-year list, because it’s such a genuinely fine wine in itself, and the fact most people will find it below $20 makes it a great value, which, in this economy in particular but also in Wine Enthusiast’s constant philosophy, is important. The wine is from the Santa Maria Bench, where Bien Nacido Vineyard also is situated. This terroir is extraordinary for Pinot Noir (and other cool-climate varieties but not, alas, for Bordeaux grapes which require warmth). The area isn’t well known to wine tourists because the Santa Maria Valley is a barren, windswept place with few amenities, although there’s talk down there about developing an infrastructure. Anyway, the wine’s price-quality ratio was the driving factor in giving it our top slot.

Our #4 wine was 2005 The Matriarch, from BOND, which is of course a sister wine line (if you will) to Harlan, although made from contracted, not estate-grown, grapes. Where the single-vineyard BONDs (such as Vecina, St. Eden and Melbury) all have lately cost well north of $200 a bottle to club members, The Matriarch 2005, a blend of them all, is priced at a relatively modest $90, suggesting that the Harlan team views it as “lesser”; yet I rated it (98 points) higher than any of the vineyard designates (which suggests, perhaps, a certain penchant for accessibility on my part). I once told Bill Harlan, only semi-jokingly, that The Maiden, the “second” wine of Harlan Estate, was getting so good it might soon rival the first wine, and so it was in 2005 with The Matriarch and its single-vineyard siblings. How and why would a “second” wine be as good as a “first”? Keep in mind these decisions (of which barrels to bottle under which labels) are made by mere human beings, in the guise of Mr. Harlan, his winemaker Bob Levy, their consultant Michel Rolland, the general manager Don Weaver, and perhaps one or two others; and humans, being only such, are capable of doing surprising things. No doubt the Harlan team believes in their decisions, but it is far from clear, in a blind tasting, that Harlan Estate or the single-vineyard BONDs are superior to the “second” Maiden or Matriarch. And that is why The Matriarch 2005 is one of the top wines of the year.

We then move to the #10 wine, Testarossa’s 2007 Brosseau Vineyard Pinot Noir. It comes from the Chalone appellation and costs $39 the bottle. To tell the truth, any number of other Testarossa Pinots might have taken this slot, or even some from other producers. I think there were lots of Pinot Noirs in our list this year because Pinot is obviously the hot variety from California, the 2007 vintage was so spectacular (but wait for 2009), and Testarossa deserves a nod because they do such a good job, so consistently, from so many different vineyards. They practically invented the concept of non-vineyard-owning people obtaining grapes from famous vineyards and then crafting beautiful wines, and their prices are generally $10-$20 lower than they might be. Then there’s our #12 wine, the Sequana 2007 Sundawg Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the Green Valley ($50). It is clearly a fabulous wine from that cool district bordering on the Sonoma Coast, but what made it especially fun for me was that it’s a first-ever bottling from a new brand. Wine writers love new discoveries. The pedigree of the people behind the wine did not surprise me, when I eventually learned of it. The owner is Donald Hess, of Hess Collection. The winemaker is James MacPhail, of MacPhail Family. And although it may not really matter, the wine was made at Copain.

Immediately following the Sequana is Au Bon Climat’s 2006 Santa Barbara Historic Vineyards Collection Bien Nacido Vineyard Chardonnay. It retails for $35, which is cheap considering the wine’s vast, Clendenenesque dimensions, which clearly put it near the top of the pile for white Burgundian-style California Chardonnays. At #18 is another Pinot Noir, Melville’s 2007 Carrie’s ($52, from the Santa Rita Hills), an achievement of considerable proportions even in this historically great vintage; Melville (with winemaker Greg Brewer) obviously deserves recognition for their long and distinguished performance. Finally, at #21, yet another Pinot, this time Lynmar’s 2007 Hawk Hill Vineyard. At $70 it’s not inexpensive, but it defines the southwestern Russian River Valley’s terroir. This is a wine I would like to have many cases of.

I had many other wines on our Top 100 list and if the interest is there I can offer brief sketches of them in future blogs.


Wine magazines dead? I don’t think so

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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!).


Spectator’s top wine a good choice, from a PR POV

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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.


A wine point-scoring system — from 1892!

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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:

10. Perfect.
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.


How can we get distributors and other wine buyers to get beyond their 90-point obsession?

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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.
* * *

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.


Wine prices are still too high

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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.

Breaking news!

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.


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