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The last word, literally, on In Pursuit of Balance (well, maybe…)

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Jon Bonné, the San Francisco Chronicle’s former wine critic and, now, occasional columnist, has much to say about the demise of In Pursuit of Balance that is on point: that the organization was controversial, that it stimulated a valuable conversation over Pinot Noir style, that it received a disproportionate amount of attention and media coverage,” that the ending, after five years, was “a shock” to the group’s members and fans, and—ultimately—that IPOB “served its purpose.”

Bonné can be a good reporter when he sticks to the facts and leaves aside his personal piques, but here, his dislike, verging on hatred, of larger wineries lends his analysis an off-putting hysteria. This is further fueled by his ongoing antagonism towards Big Critics, especially Wine Spectator, some of whose writers consistently raised legitimate questions about IPOB. Raising questions is the lifeblood and purpose of journalism—no reporter would be worth anything without raising questions–but Bonné calls it “savaging” IPOB, an odd but telling choice of verbiage. He goes on to accuse these Wine Spectator commentators (and, by extension, all of us who raised similar questions) of being “fearful of change.” That there is no evidence of such “fear” on the part of anyone who asked IPOB’s creators to more precisely define the “balance” that was their hallmark should be clear to all impartial observers. I myself asked, frequently, because IPOB never could iron out their internal contradiction, which was that they seemed to be suggesting that “balanced” Pinot Noir had to be below 14% in alcoholic strength, but even Raj Parr himself repeatedly had to backtrack from that assertion, for obvious reasons: It is on its face silly, and besides, there were members of IPOB whose wines were well in excess of 14%. Thus IPOB was forever hoisted on a petard of its own making, its “message” smudged into incoherence: If, indeed, they could not define “balance,” then what were they “in pursuit” of? IPOB’s inclusion of only certain wineries to their road show—the hottest ticket in London, L.A., Prowein, San Francisco or wherever else they poured–could only be seen as an arbitrary illustration of what has come to be known, in California circles, as the Cool Kids’ Club: We’ll invite our friends to the party. Don’t bother coming if you’re ugly.

I went to just about every IPOB tasting in San Francisco since the group’s founding in 2011, and yes, they were wonderful tastings. But they were wonderful not because they represented some sort of curated selection of the best and most balanced Pinot Noirs, but because they showcased many small producers whose wines most people—even I, as Wine Enthusiast’s senior California reviewer—didn’t have access to. I would have gone no matter who sponsored the event or what it was called; but the weight under which it was placed by that word “balance” cast a more lurid and ominous glow over the proceedings. One felt one was entering, not a mere arena for tasting, such as World of Pinot Noir, but a political convention, complete with party platform and ideological frisson, that just happened to feature wine. Since we knew that a cadre of insiders—including Jon Bonne—was responsible for the decision of what to include, out of all the bottles submitted for consideration, the implication was that all other Pinot Noirs were somehow unbalanced, an unsettling thought to a wine critic who might have given years of high scores to wines that, presumably, had been rejected by IPOB’s overseers. I should think James Laube and Matt Kramer felt quite the same: and why not? Thus to publicly air their concerns was not to “savage” In Pursuit of Balance. It was not to “savage” Raj Parr or Jasmine Hirsch or even Jon Bonne. It was to wonder, just as you might in a similar situation, why there was such a discrepancy between something you liked and something that IPOB appeared to find “unbalanced,” which, when you get right down to it, has to be seen as defamatory.

Not all of the kinds of wines IPOB loved, however, were good, and some were disasters. The 2011 Pinot Noir from Raj Parr’s Domaine de la Cote, which I tasted not at IPOB but at a World of Pinot Noir tasting, was among the worst Pinots I’ve ever had. In that cold vintage, Raj picked too early, motivated, I supposed, by ideology; the wines tasted like Listerine. (In fairness, his 2012s, which I tasted the next year at IPOB, were utterly magnificent.) This served to underscore what always was IPOB’s Achilles heel: its apparently slave-like devotion to a concept—low alcohol—at the expense of a far more important concept: deliciousness. Let the vintage tell you when to pick, not your frontal lobe. Incidentally, the limits, indeed the dangers, of sticking to this low-alcohol ideology were graphically illustrated at a World of Pinot Noir tasting some years ago when Siduri’s Adam Lee pulled a switcheroo on Raj Parr, at a public panel, an event Bonne alludes to in his opinion piece but whose implication he does not explore: that when you blind taste Pinot Noir without the ability to form a pre-conception due to knowledge of the alcohol level, you just might find yourself loving something you thought you were supposed to hate. Sic temper alcoholis.

But Jon is correct that IPOB “served its purpose,” if its purpose was to stimulate just the sort of discussion we’re having and have been having for some years. What had been esoterica has now become a standard part of the conversation about Pinot Noir, and for that we have to thank Raj and Jasmine. You have done the industry a service, monsieur et mademoiselle, and it is now time for you, and us, to move on.


From the road: Portland Oregon

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Up here in Portland, Oregon, a town I haven’t really spent much time in, and I must, what a cool place. Of course it helps that the weather has been so beautiful—much better than in Northern California, where the past week has been dismal and cold. The neighborhood they call the Pearl District reminds me of parts of Baltimore, where I was two weeks ago, and also the area of San Francisco around the Barbary Coast: old brick buildings (fortunately seismically retrofitted!) that have been rehabbed and loved back to their exciting historical roots, making them great places to live and work. We had dinner at Paragon Restaurant & Bar, in the heart of the Pearl. With the warm night, the ‘hood was swarming with life, and I swear, there were ten bars and cafés on every block. Portland clearly is a town that loves to eat and drink! Young, too. But, as I discovered from talking with some locals, they are experiencing the same difficulties with rising housing prices as is happening up and down the Pacific Coast, from Vancouver to La Jolla, although rents and home prices aren’t anywhere near what they are in San Francisco and, increasingly, Oakland.

Anyhow, I could live up here! The Pearl is exactly the kind of neighborhood I’ve always lived in: inner city-urban, densely packed, with old buildings and lots of stuff going on.

* * *

Why do some people call “Parkerization” a dirty word?

They do, you know, as a symbol for wines that are overblown, over-alcoholed, over-oaked, overpriced and over-manipulated.” With Parker’s recent retirement from reviewing Bordeaux, the topic of Parkerization has re-arisen. For instance, in this reporting by Yahoo, they refer to his “his preference for predominantly wood flavours, strong tannins and high alcohol content.” Well, naturally, nobody wants wines that are over-anything, whether it’s oak, alcohol, blown, manipulated or priced; and certainly there are plenty of those kinds of wines. But let it not be forgotten that there’s a Good Twin to the Evil Twin of Parkerization: too many wines pre-Parker were thin and boring and, quite frankly, not well made. Parker dragged sometimes reluctant wineries into modern times, forcing them to clean up their acts and actually get the grapes to ripen correctly so that they tasted good. He doesn’t get enough praise for that—people fasten on the excesses and thus end up throwing the baby away with the bathwater.

* * *

Well, tomorrow (Tuesday, today as you read this) it’s off on a whirlwind visit to Seattle that will be over so fast, I won’t even have time to see my family up there. The temperature is supposed to be in the mid-80s, which I personally love, but really, seems pretty hot considering we’re halfway to the Aleutians. They tell me the Pacific Northwest has been very rainy lately, but also very warm: Global warming, I should think. Then, after Seattle, it’s another whirlwind trip to L.A. and back home—and to Gus—on Friday. I’ll try to blog everyday this week but with this schedule, don’t blame me if my posts seem a little slapdash—like this one.


A pinky of wine for baby: Are you creating a future alcoholic?

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For yesterday’s flight from SFO to Reagan Washington Airport I bought a New York Times, which always gives me a couple hours of good reading when I have the time—and what else is there to do on a long flight?

So in the Science Times section (sorry, no link—firewall!) they had an article called “Alcohol’s Parental Gateway.” Some inflammatory words in that header: must read! It dealt with the question of whether parents who give their young children even “a token sip of wine at Passover” somehow contribute to their children’s later drinking problems.

This sort of “gateway” issue has worried parents for decades. No mom or dad wants to suffer the guilt and pain of thinking they somehow contributed to their child’s mental or behavioral aberrations. Once upon a time, I don’t think parents even worried about this sort of thing, but in our post-Dr. Spock era (Benjamin, not Star Wars), they do. Books, academic studies reported in the media, talk radio and pseudo-scientific T.V. shows like Dr. Phil’s provide endless fodder to make parents wonder if they’ve done a good job or a horrible one raising little Johnny or Susie. The very difficulty of determining precisely what leads to a teen’s or adult’s drinking problem means that the answer is largely unknowable; hence, the never-ending proliferation of studies of the type the Times article cites, which—it seems to this childless adult—only pile on the confusion ever thicker. (It is the pH.D’s full-employment act.)

The Times’ writer, Perri Klass, herself an M.D., asks a lot of questions of the “what does it all mean?” genre, without venturing her own opinions. What does “early sipping” do? Is there a connection to “high rates of alcohol use in adolescents”? Is childhood sipping “a risk factor for a lot of other problem behaviors”? Some psychiatrists and other professionals quoted seem to imply answers in the affirmative.

Now, someone once said that journalism—even the kind of even-handed journalism practiced by good newspapers like the New York Times—cannot by its nature be objective. The writer’s biases, sometimes unconscious, sometimes barely concealed, shape the narrative: what questions get raised, who is quoted, what direction the article seems to point in.

And so it is here. A reader who knows nothing about this particular epidemiological issue would not be faulted for coming away with the impression that parentally-sanctioned childhood sipping is, if not overtly dangerous, at least ill-conceived. Dr. Klass even seems to debunk the European theory that by “providing sips of alcohol to children, we are actually protecting them against problem drinking,” which is the theory I’ve long heard and believed (and which Thomas Jefferson apparently subscribed to, especially when wine is not expensive).

My own feeling is that some academicians, perhaps in the thrall of publish-or-perish, make too much of this childhood-sipping non-issue. We’re not talking about unfit parents who put vodka into baby’s bottle; we’re talking about civilized, responsible parents who believe that, starting with the lick of a finger dipped into wine, and graduating upwards to a full glass by, say, the age of thirteen, a growing child will learn to respect wine—and all alcoholic beverages—and therefore to drink responsibly. I think that is true: do we really need more studies to prove it?

* * *

By the way, on the drive from Reagan International to my Bethesda hotel, we passed the spotlit United States Capitol, Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. Truly beautiful and awe-inspiring.


Another consideration of terroir: the wine’s reputation

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If I asked you which aspect of terroir–soil or climate–the French attach greater importance to, which would you pick?

I bet you’d say soil. And yet, twenty-six years ago, in Friends of Wine magazine, Emile Peynaud, undoubtedly one the greatest enologists of the 20th century, and the father of modern cult winemaking, said, “I think it is really climate that makes the difference [in wine quality], not the soil,” when he was asked why Bordeaux is such a great winemaking region.

Climate! How very Californian. Still, Peynaud himself seemed as puzzled by this complicated equation as the rest of us; and he returned repeatedly to the subject of soil in his writings. In the English translation of his masterwork, The Taste of Wine (1987), he writes of the importance of the “soil” of the vineyard to wine quality: and breaks soil down into “the surface soil, the subsoil and its water content, and exposure.” Barely a word in this section (p. 226) of climate or weather; instead, “Wines can be classified according to the topology of their vineyards”—river wines, coastal wines, mountain wines, plateau wines, foothill wines, valley wines and wines of the plain. Peynaud’s use of topology suggests he was well aware that the physical parameters of the site—and not just the climate—were co-influencers of the wine.

Of course, implicit in any conversation about wine is the assumption—not really an assumption, since, in the case of France, it’s backed up by a thousand years of evidence—that certain varieties are best suited to certain climates: Chardonnay in northerly Chablis, for instance, and Grenache in the warmer south. That this is patently true is beyond dispute, given France’s reign at or near the top of the wine world. It also is true that Cabernet Franc, say, or Sauvignon Blanc might perform splendidly in Chablis. Wouldn’t the latter love Chablis’s chalky soil? But we will never know, at least, not anytime soon, given France’s stringent appellation controllée laws. So this is at least indirect evidence that terroir is shaped by culture and law.

I am, as my readers know, a climate guy. I don’t dispute the importance of soil, but I’ve long held that any soil can be amenable to great wine, provided (a) that it’s well-drained and (b) that the variety is suitable to the climate. In Willamette Valley, you have marine-sedimentary soils, for instance, at Adelsheim’s Calkins Lane, and volcanic basalt at Penner-Ash. Both produce high-level Pinot Noir; Wine Advocate, to cite but one critical source, routinely rates both from the low- to the mid-nineties. What they have in common is the northern Willamette’s cool, maritime climate.

Peynaud, in his formal analysis of terroir and cru, adds a puzzling element to the list of their constituent parts: reputation. Readers might not be blamed for scratching their heads at this point. Reputation? What does that have to do with the fixed and immutable aspects of cru? Yet so important is its role that Peynaud insists, “If one of this roll call were missing there would be no cru.” No “reputation”, no cru, and therefore no wine quality. So we have to inquire what he means.

It’s not that reputation, per se, determines the qualities of any particular wine. That would be very odd. But from a “nature vs. nurture” argument, reputation is the nurturing aspect, terroir the nature aspect. Every winemaker producing wine in a recognized region is aware of the context of his activity; winemaking seldom occurs in a vacuum. If I am making Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley, I know its long and historic reputation (and if I were making Pinot Noir in Vosnes, its reputation would be even more daunting). I therefore would craft my wine in such a way that it would be a worthy reflection of its appellation. I would try and let my site “speak” in its own voice, but as the winemaker I would be in ultimate charge of making sure that voice came across in a pure way, a Russian River Valley (or Vosnes) way. I would not want the critics to howl at my wine being “atypical,” a cuss word among that elite group. Winemakers, too, feel these pressures. Next time you hear one say he does nothing but “let the vineyard speak,” realize he’s saying something he thinks he’s supposed to say. He may even believe it. But he’s also working within a rather narrowly defined context, and that context is reputation.

Indeed, this is why, in Taste, Peynaud concludes his section on Cru with this quote: “The cru is the qualitative expression, more often than not based on taste, of the biogenic capability of the environment.” He means that “the biogenic capability”, which is the natural components of terroir, is a mere potentiality that can be realized only by the taste, i.e. the consciousness, preferences and will, of the winemaker, who is aware of the region in which he labors and seeks to make wine compatible with its reputation. “The wine is made in the vineyard,” therefore, is a misleading, if humble, statement. As with all human creative activity, wine is made, first and foremost, in the mind.


A wine review, and a Millennial take on wine snobbery

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King Estate 2006 Block 4D Clone 777 Pinot Noir. Originally $75. The appellation on the label is “Oregon.” Wine Enthusiast (I think it was Paul Gregutt) gave it 92 points back in 2009; oddly, they said nothing about its ageability. Spectator gave it only 89 points and recommended drinking it only through 2014. I think Enthusiast was more accurate about the score. It really is a very fine wine; I’d rate it 94 if I were scoring it now. Here we are in 2016 and it’s rocking with a good future. Loads of blackberry, boysenberry, cassis, and such nice, sweet toasty oak and vanilla. Great tannin structure, good acidity, lowish alcohol (13.5%) and a rich earthiness, like Portobello mushrooms and an umami tang, like prosciutto. At nine years of age, a wonderful, rewarding, silky wine that offers plenty of pleasure. Just what you want in a fine West Coast Pinot Noir, and I think that earthiness signals its Oregon origin.

*****

And now to some controversy. This post raises so many issues that it’s impossible to address them all in a single post, but let me just say that I sympathize with the sentiment expressed by the author, Maxwell Leer, who says he’s a sommelier. To some extent it’s a rant against the 1 percent but, hey, that’s fine with me: Maxwell had me when he compared Cristal to Prosecco and said “you can…be fucking happy, too” with the cheaper wine.

Now, Maxwell’s position is something that every wine writer has expressed since, well, forever. I know that the meme of post-Prohibition wine writers was “Wine snobs make wine sound too fussy” and probably there was someone running around ancient Rome saying the same thing. Every generation has to discover the same truths, so I cut Maxwell some slack. Still, that doesn’t take away from the force of Maxwell’s argument, which he expresses strongly and well.

It’s funny when he writes about pouring Kistler Chardonnay into a glass that was rinsed with bourbon. I bet that’s a seriously tasty sip! Maxwell seems to be saying, don’t worship the Kistler itself and think you have to experience it in all the profundity that has been lavished on it by wine critics—which is exactly what you’d think from reading the critics. You want to have a few drops of bourbon in there? Fine! (Hey makes you think of an American Kir, doesn’t it?) What wine is about, as Maxwell writes, is love, peace, love, unity, and respect.” As I pointed out in my post the other day about Premier Cru’s troubles, wine is not about snobbery or elitism or the fear that just because you can’t afford Petrus you’re missing out on the best. You’re not! Maxwell understands that and it’s a message we have to continue to get across. My generation did a horrible job of it, despite our best intentions. We perpetuated the myth of “cult wines” and while I do have some issues with Maxwell’s suggestion of “simplifying” wine, he’s onto something, especially for younger drinkers. He’s right when he says that “Wine culture needs to evolve like everything else.” That doesn’t mean we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It doesn’t mean that you can’t trust anyone over thirty. It does mean that, as Maxwell says, “we have groups of people every day who come into the restaurant and literally say, ‘OK, show us what you got.’” They want interesting wines, wines with stories, wines that drink well with the foods they like. They don’t want to spend a fortune on them, and the good news is that they don’t have to.


2016? Here’s what I think

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This is not a Top 10 predictions list. It’s just stuff I’ll be talking about in 2016.

Here in California, it’s all about the money: profits vs. losses. It comes down to the nesting circles of financial health:

  • how is the overall economy doing?
  • How does California fare within that?
  • How is my tier doing?
  • And how am I doing within my tier?

We do see the overall American economy recovering, but 2015 ended on a weak note, with many economists predicting a slide back into recession this year. Obviously, this is not an economics blog, and I claim no expertise in that area. But the economy feels shaky, and, since perception is reality, it’s likely that American consumers will continue to withhold spending, or limit it, while the insecurities persist.

This is good news for value wines; bad news for expensive wines. Within the overall economy, California will continue as a beacon of success, based on the gold mines of Silicon Valley and Hollywood. But California wine producers can’t depend solely on California consumers. They need the rest of the country, as well as foreign counties; and, abroad, China’s a mess and Europe’s barely breathing. So tough times for exports.

But individual wineries have to consider the tier/s in which they operate. As I said, the value tier seems likely to remain strong, but it also will become increasingly competitive. My feeling is that established value brands will go from strength to strength; the consumer is in no mood to experiment, when she has access to a few dozen wineries with proven track records. Just above the value tier is the ultrapremium tier—let’s say, $20-$35 a bottle. That always has been a challenging place to do business, and it remains so today. Laurels go to the cleverest; existing brands will have to double down on their efforts to stay relevant, but they do have the edge.

Finally we get into the super-ultrapremium luxury tier, and this is where I think things are the grimmest, especially if we do slide into a recession. Of course, the proprietors of many of these brands have almost infinite resources to hold on; but, despite the proliferation of Parker 100s in California, I see no way that enough people want these $80-and-up wines, especially when you consider that the few people that might want them tend to be older. Why would a Millennial want Harlan, Marcassin, Sine Qua Non? These are the very wines that represent the elitism of the old order—an order they renounce.

Finally, though, the performance of each winery is individual. You can succeed even when your tier is having trouble. It takes, beyond sheer luck, a remarkable amalgam of ingenuity, blood, sweat and tears, and a ground game. And this brings me to the marketing side of things we’ll be talking about this year.

Wineries will continue to try and find a balance of concentrating their efforts (and money) on social media and guerrilla marketing techniques, as well as more traditional ones such as magazine advertising and sales forces. This never-ending experiment will result in many anecdotal claims of success on both sides, but few provable ones; and what works for one winery—say, YouTube videos—cannot necessarily be replicated by another. There simply exists no demonstrable method of marketing that is guaranteed to work, although we do know demonstrably terrible ones, such as poor websites, lousy customer relations (which usually means lousy management above) and proprietors who are out-of-touch with the real world and thus not in a position to understand what consumers really want.

There will be more talk, and news, about winery consolidation. But big wineries buy smaller ones all the time: nothing new about that. Every ten years, a new generation of “wine writer” feels he has to discover this huge news, but it isn’t news. The usual number of wineries will be put on the market; the usual number will be bought. The news is that prices for California wineries have hit San Francisco real estate levels, which is to say: only gazillionaires need apply. Is that a bubble? Probably not. The few wineries that are gobbled up don’t represent enough of a critical mass to burst any emergent bubble.

Varietal-wise, we’re stuck in neutral in America. There will be no “breakthrough variety” in 2016, although umpteen bloggers and columnists will try to convince you otherwise because, hey, if there’s no real news, then invent it! (Orange wine, anyone?) The same wines that are popular today will remain popular in 2016 (and 2017, and 2018).

I suppose the best news on the horizon is that we—the chattering wine classes—will continue to explore the nuances of terroir in California. This is a good time to do it. The Coast is pretty much developed out. We pretty much have all the AVAs we’re likely to have, between Mendocino and Santa Barbara, for the foreseeable future. The thing to do now is to explore the nooks and crannies within those terroirs. (Of course, I don’t discount the creation of sub-AVAs within larger ones such as Russian River Valley and Santa Rita Hills; and I also think that parts of the vast Willamette Valley need to be sub-appellated.) This is fun, important, creative work, and it will occupy us for generations, as it has kept Europeans busy for a thousand years. In this sense, it’s a good time to be a wine writer. Now, if only wine writers could figure out a way to make some money! But most of them cannot, and that, too, will be something we’ll talk about this year.


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