I was up in Sonoma late last week for my annual tasting of the new Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve and Highland Estates wines. I do this each year with Randy Ullom, who’s K-J’s chief winemaker, and the man responsible for overseeing the winery’s vast production of millions of cases. (I profiled Randy in my last book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff.)
The Grand Reserves are reserve-style varietals that are priced a few bucks higher than K-J’s Vintner’s Reserves and are worth the extra cost. Like the V.R. wines, they’re produced in significant quantities (except for a spartan 1,000 cases of a North Coast Sauvignon Blanc). The Grand Reserve tier is a solid one; this year I gave 90s and 91s to the Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, whose suggested retail prices range from $21-$27, but in reality you should be able to find them for less than that.
It’s the Highland Estates line, however, that always impresses me. Not that many people realize Kendall-Jackson produces such high-quality wines, in such miniscule quantities, at such fair prices. The highest production, on the 2007 Camelot Highlands Chardonnay from Santa Maria Valley, is only 3,700 cases, but most of the wines are well below 1,000 cases. These are truly artisanal wines. Randy has explained to me how the team — which certainly includes Jess Jackson — studies potential vineyard sites for years before making the decision to go ahead and bottle any one of them. Currently, there are 13 Highland Estates wines, including 3 Chardonnays, 3 Pinot Noirs, 1 Syrah, 2 Merlots, 3 Cabernet Sauvignons and 1 red Bordeaux blend, called Trace Ridge. These are serious, pampered wines that can compete with almost anything in California. Pricing on the Pinots, Chardonnays and the Syrah is below $35, making them real bargains. The Bordeaux reds get up to $50-$70, but they’re easily as good as wines costing far more. (The Trace Ridge, at $125, is the outlier.) Two things to know about these wines are that K-J uses only grapes grown in premium coastal regions (i.e., NO Central Valley or Lodi), and that the K-J philosophy is to provide quality for less money than the competition. If all this sounds like I’m shilling for K-J, I’m sorry, but this is a great company, and you have to give credit to Jess Jackson’s impeccable taste.
I also stopped by Hartford Court to taste through 9 of their new 2007 wines, with Don Hartford and winemaker Jeff Mangahas. (Hartford Court is part of the Jackson Family of wines.) If you’re not familiar with Hartford Court, it’s because they keep a low profile, but I can tell you that this is an extraordinary winery producing some of the most distinctive Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Zinfandels in California. Don Hartford explained how they source fruit only from vineyards with forceful personalities that, somehow, manage to be different from their neighbors. This is, of course, the essence of terroir. You need only to taste the nervy elegance of the Seascape Chardonnay, or the Chablis-like limpidity of the Stone Côte Chardonnay, or the power and authority of the Hailey’s Block Pinot Noir, to understand that these are wines of intricate authority.
My full reviews on all these wines will appear in upcoming issues of Wine Enthusiast.
An interesting back-and-forth happened here yesterday following my post, Waterford Wedgwood bankruptcy: lessons for high-end wine. One commenter, Corey Miller, asked a two-fold question: If $200 Napa Cabs “aren’t the way anymore,” what will replace them? And are there any former cult wines that have re-invented themselves to suit this new, troubled era? In a later comment, Corey asked two more good questions: “What qualities would get you [me, Steve, the critic] excited” about a new wine discovery. And “How does one build prestige into a wine while avoiding the leftover stale aftertaste of the Napa cult Cab era?”
Let me try to answer. Not that I have all the answers, or even any of them. But the mere struggle of trying to answer a hard question makes you think more deeply about it, which is good.
What will replace $200 Napa Cabs?
Let’s posit that a lot of high-end wines are going to get slammed in this recession. I don’t know if anything will “replace” them. If 20 Cabs that now cost in excess of $80 have to lower their prices or even disappear, that doesn’t mean that 20 other expensive wines will pop up someplace else and take their place. It’s not a zero-sum game. Sometimes less is less.
Are there any former cult wines that have reinvented themselves?
None that I can think of. Once you’re yesterday’s papers, it’s hard to become front page news anymore.
What qualities get me excited about a new wine?
Quality, first and foremost. Extra features that can be hard to define — what the Germans call Prädikat: special distinctions or attributes. Standing out from one’s peers. For example, a couple years ago I was at a big Pinot Noir walkaround tasting with lots of big names. I came across a brand I’d never heard of, Anthill Farms. The wines were so compelling, especially coming from a total unknown, that it put them on my radar. It didn’t hurt that the owners were a bunch of young guys who had a great back story. As I ponder my career as a wine critic, I’m struck by how often this happens — you stumble across some new little brand that blows you away.
How do you build prestige into a wine while avoiding the Napa cult Cab era?
All that I, as a critic, can do is review wines. I’m sure that a very high score attracts some attention in certain circles. But in order for a wine to be perceived as “the next classic,” something magical has to happen that’s beyond anyone’s control. Heidi Barrett once described it to me as “word of mouth, this wildfire undercurrent, person-to-person, friends to friends: ‘Have you tried this?’ It just spreads like wildfire.” (She was talking about what happened to her when she made Screaming Eagle, Grace Family and Dalla Valle Maya.) It used to be that a Robert Parker 100 could achieve this magical effect. I’m sure the Sage of Monkton can still launch a wine to stardom, BUT I think his power is reduced from what it used to be, and will never be the same. That’s because there are so many more critical voices out there, including the blogs. It’s also because a younger generation has come online, and they don’t care as much about Parker (or me) as their parents did.
Look, if there was a formula for “building prestige into a wine,” everybody would know what it was. But there isn’t. We don’t even know all the necessary and sufficient conditions — that’s why P.R. and marketing folks exist. So with the explosion of critical voices out there, it’s going to be harder than ever for any one new brand to be launched to cultdom. Anyhow, that’s my opinion, and I’m sticking to it.
Everything looked so great last January, with the wine industry healthy and happy and the economy rolling along. Then, in the spring and summer, came dark hints of a problem in the home mortgage industry, which nobody quite understood. Suddenly, wham. September arrives, and the stuff hit the fan. Now here we are slouching towards 2009, wondering what the hell happened and how much worse things will get before they start to get better.
Still, in my job, there was a lot of great wine in 2008. Here are my top-scoring ones. My employer, Wine Enthusiast, already has released our Top 100 list, so I don’t mean to compete with that. That’s worldwide; these are all from California. (All wines have been published in our Buying Guide, or will be over the new few months.)
1. Shafer Hillside Select 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon
2. Arista 2005 Ferrington Vineyard Pinot Noir
3. Signorello 2005 Padrone Bordeaux blend
4. Colgin 2005 IX Estate
5. Stonestreet 2004 Christopher’s Cabernet Sauvignon
6. Iron Horse NV Joy! Sparkling Wine
7. Williams Selyem 2006 Rochioli Riverblock Pinot Noir
8. Nickel & Nickel 2005 John C. Sullenger Cabernet Sauvignon
9. Far Niente 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon
10. Hanzell 2005 Ambassador’s 1953 Vineyard Chardonnay
The list is heavy on Cabernet and Napa Valley, with a few cool-climate Pinots, a drop-dead gorgeous Chard, and one of the smoothest California bubblies ever. All are ageworthy, and all are expensive.
TOP TEN BEST BUYS
At Wine Enthusiast we have a specific bottle price/rating formula for the special designation of Best Buy. This is always an important category, but especially in these hard times.
1. Honker Blanc 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Napa Valley); $12. (From Tudal)
2. Vina Robles 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Paso Robles); $14.
3. Chelsea Goldschmidt 2006 Merlot (Dry Creek Valley); $14.
4. Hayman & Hill 2005 Reserve Selection Merlot (Napa Valley); $15.
5. Mandolin 2005 Syrah (Central Coast): $10.
6. Lee Family Farm 2007 Silvaspoons Vineyard Verdelho (Alta Mesa/Lodi); $15.
7. TAZ 2007 Pinot Gris (Santa Barbara County); $15.
8. Fortress 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Red Hills Lake County); $15.
9. Mirassou 2007 Pinot Grigio (California); $12.
10. Lake Sonoma 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Dry Creek Valley); $15.
An interesting list, dominated by white wines. Hmm. Not sure what to make of that. Maybe it’s easier to make a good, inexpensive white wine than an equivalent red wine. Or maybe I just found these crisp, (mainly) unoaked white wines a refreshment after so many clumsily oaked ones.
Anyhow, here’s wishing you and yours a happy, healthy 2009, and may your year be filled with peace, prosperity — and fine wine!
Hundred-point wines are the Cartier of the wine world, the Cullinan diamonds of wine. The idea implicit in awarding a wine a perfect score is that it’s just that: perfect.To quote from Wine Enthusiast’s ratings parameters, a wine that scores between 98 and 100 points is the “absolute best. Pinnacle of expression. Perfect grape, terroir, winemaking.”
The Cullinan Diamond, all 530.2 carats of it
So why is it that I’ve given only three wines 100 points over the years? For that matter, I’ve rated only one wine 99 points. There are some magazines that compete with Wine Enthusiast that have more perfect 100s in a single issue than I’ve given in my life!
I think it comes down to the way critics approach wine tasting. I’ve tasted wines I thought were magnificent on opening, and was tempted to give very high scores to. But, after a while in the glass, something happened to lower them in my esteem. Maybe, as they breathed and warmed up, they revealed a trace of bitterness. Maybe there was some green unripeness that jarred my palate, or maybe the oak was, on second thought, too clumsily applied. So down went the score by a couple points.
On the other hand, I’ve had wines that disappointed me right off the bat, to which I tentatively assigned only middling scores. But then the wine woke up and showed me something I hadn’t noticed before. It could have been that the rusticity I at first detected was in reality a youthful vigor that bode well for the cellar. So up goes the score — not to perfection, but higher than my previous rating.
What I’m trying to say here is that the critical judgment of wine is a moving target. Wine changes in the glass, sometimes within seconds after being poured, and most certainly after minutes. As the oxygen in the air invades wine’s being, subtle chemical changes occur, changes that can be even more profound in a white wine, since it’s also warming up to room temperature. This is why, when I taste my daily average of 12 wines, it takes me a minimum of 90 minutes. That’s about 7-1/2 minutes per wine, which in my opinion is barely enough time for a diligent reviewer to consider the wine from multiple perspectives, and with a depth of understanding that can’t be achieved with the kind wham, bam, thank you ma’am approach that some critics take. I mean, I know of critics who taste 100 wines in the same 90 minutes I take to do a dozen. That’s less than one minute per wine.
One minute per wine! Including writing! Under those circumstances, I can see how somebody would think, “Perfect!” and give the wine 100 points — especially if they know in advance they’re tasting potential 100-point wines, like Burgundy Grand Crus, Bordeaux First Growths, vintage Ports and the like. That’s one approach, but it’s not mine. I think of perfection the way William Faulkner described it: “All of us failed to match our dreams of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible.”
First I picked The Matriarch, the least expensive ($90) of Harlan’s 2005 lineup of 7 wines, as my top wine in a tasting at the winery. Then, a few weeks later, I chose a Paso Robles Pinot Noir (Adelaida 2006 HMR Estate, $30) over 11 others from the North Coast, including some famous, pricey bottlings. A couple days after that, my top Cabernet, in a tasting that included Staglin, Beringer Private Reserve, Flora Springs Trilogy, Rubicon Cask and Whitehall Lane Reserve, was Justin 2006 Reserve, also from Paso Robles.
What’s going on? Each of these three tastings was conducted blind. That eliminated the element of bias based on knowing what you’re drinking. Blind tasting is enlightening, but it also exposes the critic to the possibility of embarrassment. Reputations can be shattered. But truth is a higher value than a reputation, and if a Paso Robles Pinot bests several from the Russian River Valley, then so be it.
One thing my friends, my fellow bloggers, have taught me is the importance of truth and its handmaiden, transparency. Winston Churchill once remarked, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” But wine tasting is not war, and deception has no part in the critical process.
The reason why tasting wines blind is so important can best be illustrated by what may happen when you don’t.
When I did my annual tasting at Harlan in October, I was startled when Bill Harlan told me he had never tasted his own wines blind. Nor had he ever tasted all seven in a lineup. Nor had at least one of the world’s most famous über-critics who had just been there. In fact, Bill said, he was amazed that I had the cojones to taste his wines blind, and then inform him and his winemaker, Bob Levy, of my conclusions before the wines were unbagged. Wouldn’t I be embarrassed if I got them “wrong”?
Well, no. There’s never any reason for embarrassment if you’re truthful. You can’t be wrong if you tell it like you see it. The worst that can happen is someone will disagree with you. On the other hand, I think there would be room for embarrassment if you’re looking at the labels as you taste, and then conveniently rate Harlan Estate ($450) at the top, and score everything else down from there, based on descending price. That’s why The Matriarch got the highest score in my tasting. Since I didn’t know what it was, I had to go by one parameter only: How good it tasted. And let me assure you, that Matriarch was one gorgeous wine.
Ditto for the Adelaida Pinot Noir, which comes from one of the highest and coolest parts of the Paso Robles appellation, and whose vines are among the oldest Pinot plantings south of the Santa Cruz Mountains. A 1975 Pinot from the vineyard, crafted by André Tchelistcheff for the previous owner, Hoffman Mountain Ranch, may even have taken first place in a famous 1979 GaultMillau tasting in Paris that included Romanée-Conti (for a fascinating exercise in investigative journalism, check out this 2005 article on the tasting by my late friend, David Shaw). But the point is that far western Paso Robles is capable of producing excellent Pinot Noir, and the only reason a critic wouldn’t understand that is if he was so mesmerized by the words “Paso Robles” on the label that his brain was deceived into not appreciating what’s in the glass.
Today’s young bloggers talk about bringing revolutionary change to the entire field of wine writing and criticism. Imagine if everybody tasted completely blind, all the time, in such a way as to level the playing field utterly. How soon would it be before the great and famous wines of the world were losing out to less expensive, upstart rivals? That would be truly revolutionary. I urge young bloggers, as you increasingly get the chance to taste really famous wines — and some of you will — do so in lineups that include “lesser” wines, and do so blind. Many of America’s top critics — the ones you hope to, and maybe someday will, replace — don’t taste blind, even if they say they do. But you should.
THIS JUST IN
Rep. Mike Thompson, the Democrat from Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties, is said to be Barack Obama’s pick for Commerce Secretary. This is fantastic news for the wine industry. Mike is a solid friend to wineries, and he even owns vineyards in Lake County. Good pick on President-elect Obama’s part.
My buddy Paul Gregutt is The Man when it comes to the wines of the Pacific Northwest. He’s not only Wine Enthusiast’s regional editor up in that beautiful but damp part of the country, he’s the wine columnist for The Seattle Times and author of the best-selling Washington Wines and Wineries.
In The Times he recently had a column that attracted a lot of attention. In it, Paul criticized, once again, high alcohol in wine, something he detests. How high is too high? “When a wine finishes with a burning sensation — that’s too high,” Paul writes. “When the alcohol level is such that it must be masked by winemaking tricks such as massive amounts of new oak, or unwanted residual sugar — that’s too high. When a wine loses all traces of varietal character or the more subtle elements that contribute to its aroma, complexity, texture and balance — that’s too high.”
On the matter of alcohol, I have less of a problem with high levels than he does, which may be a function of where we both live. He’s in Seattle, more or less the same latitude as Bordeaux. I’m here in California, where it’s a lot sunnier and warmer (thank goodness) and the grapes get riper. So I guess I have a California palate.
What does a California palate mean? Well, take, for example, the wines of Saxum, a little winery up in the southern Santa Lucia Mountains, at the western edge of Paso Robles. Justin Smith, the owner/winemaker, makes gigantic Rhône-style reds that approach 16 percent of alcohol and occasionally exceed it. (Give Justin credit for at least being honest on the label. Lots of people aren’t.) Yet a wine like his 2005 James Berry Vineyard Bone Rock, a blend of Syrah and Grenache, is a sensation. I believe Saxum’s wines are the most coveted and expensive in Paso Robles.
(Incidentally, I profiled Justin in my book, New Classic Winemakers of California.)
There’s a fine line between having a California (or anything else) palate, and having a “cellar palate.” The latter is considered a bad thing. Jancis Robinson defines it this way:
‘Cellar palate’ is the common phrase for what happens when a wine producer becomes too acclimatised to their [sic] own wines or those of their neighbours.
It’s a negative because it presumes that the producer (or critic) cannot discern what’s good about wines made in different places and styles.
But we all have “palates” that incline this way or that, don’t we? You like your white table wines a little sweet; I don’t. You don’t like noticeable oak; sometimes, I do. I might adore a 30-year old Champagne that you find lifeless and dull.
One thicket Paul waded into was on the question of whether or not “the critics” are to blame for high alcohol wines. Paul says he’s certainly not to blame, since he generally doesn’t give them high scores. For my part, I think there are multiple reasons why alcohol levels the world over have crept upward, and critics are one of them. It doesn’t matter if Parker started it, the fact is that critics (including me) have rewarded wines like Saxum’s with high scores, and that drives the copycat factor. So I’ll take some of the rap.