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Notes from the road, on AVAs, and a frown on orange wine

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Driving back from Oregon to California, I was really struck by how abruptly the climate changes in a relatively short distance.

I had stayed the night in Medford, in the interior section of Oregon, right on I-5. The daytime temperatures were very hot, well into the 90s. Then you climb into all the mountains—the Siskyous, the Klamaths, Mt. Shasta—where the temperature is still pretty warm, but this is also a very wet climate: hence the thickly-forested stands of fir (and so many ugly scars from clear-cutting).

Then, when you hit California and get into the top of the Sacramento Valley around Redding, how quickly things change! Suddenly the thick stands of trees are gone, and so is the greenery, replaced by mile after mile of the sere, golden hills that give California its nickname, The Golden State. Where there are trees they are drought-resistant eucalyptus. Otherwise, in this barren, droughty part of the state, nothing grows, except where it is irrigated. All this, within a few hundred miles.

* * *

I read in the news that the Petaluma Gap AVA petitioners still are waiting for TTB to approve their application (or not). I wrote about the effort in Nov. 2014, stating that I was “heartily in favor” of it, and that TTB would probably approve it “sooner rather than later.” Well, here we are, 20 months later, and still no approval! I don’t know if that qualifies as “later,” but it is what it is, and I still think the feds will allow it, although one of the petitioners was quoted in the article as saying, “It’s possible it could all be done this year,” which would definitely be “later” than I’d thought.

Here’s a list of all the other pending AVAs waiting for TTB action. As you can see, three of the nine are in California (although four of the nine are mere “expansions” rather than brand-new appellations). One of the pending ones is the Van Duzer Corridor, up in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. That’s where I’ve been spending time: the “Corridor” is a gap in the coastal hills, similar to the Petaluma Gap, that allows cool maritime air and wind to funnel in from the coast. Jackson Family’s Maple Grove vineyard is a little too far south to be influenced by the Van Duzer Corridor, so it wouldn’t be included, which is why we’re looking into an appellation for our area.

* * *

I’m sorry, but I still think “orange wine” is a flash in the pan. Just because pre-scientific winemakers made this kind of dirty stuff thousands of years ago doesn’t make it romantic if it tastes weird. It just means we humans have learned how to make clean wine.


If point scores give you reassurance, go ahead and trust them…

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…no matter how many articles like this one you read that tell you to ignore them.

Now, the first thing I’m going to tell you is that the author of the article, MJ Skegg—a good writer–got all nine of his bullet points correct! MJ is the wine writer for the Portland, Oregon, Mercury, and yes, he’s right, for the most part, when he makes his accusations against scores:

  1. It’s all subjective
  2. Wine critics are human
  3. The wines start to look the same
  4. Experts are inconsistent
  5. They ignore context
  6. They inflate prices
  7. The scores keep getting bigger
  8. The system is (allegedly) corrupt
  9. They’re prescriptive

I might dispute some of his points a little, and I will in a second; but by and large he’s correct (although he’s not really breaking any new ground. Other writers and bloggers have made the same points for years). So how come I say that, for all the correctitude of his points, they still are not (as the lawyers say) dispositive?

Because you could say the same things about any system of wine reviewing! Go down the list and substitute any system you want; each of them is capable of being critiqued for all nine of MJ’s reasons. So that means no system is better or worse than any other. You might as well pick and choose the one that works for you. That any system of judgment created by humans is fallible is obvious; that doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Besides, we all know that, of all the reviewing systems in the world, the 100-point system is the most popular. Like the old saying goes, fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong. Therefore, if you’re using it (and I do, when I’m looking for a wine), you shouldn’t feel guilty.

I will admit, as I have before, that MJ’s point (e), “scores ignore context,” is true. It’s hard to pack context into a number! However, every point score I’ve ever seen, including my own, also had a text review attached, which is where you’ll find the context. Granted, a 40-word text review isn’t very capacious, and I always found myself wishing I could write 100 words, or even more, for my reviews; one could write a book on some wines. But you have to draw the line someplace. In one of his articles, MJ’s reviews sound just like they came from Wine Enthusiast, only without the number! Not much context there. I also don’t quite “get” the accusation that scores inflate prices. Not sure how that works. Wine prices have been going up (like prices for everything else) since, like, forever. Take a peek at Eddie Penning-Rowsell’s “The Wines of Bordeaux” to track classified growth Bordeaux prices over centuries. Robert Parker did not create the demand for the First Growths; it’s been there since before America was a country.

So I would tell consumers, Hell, yeah, MJ’s brief concerning scores is spot-on. But rather than undermining scores, he actually makes the case for them, and for the wine critics who use them. Critics are human, just as MJ points out. They are fallible; they have their foibles; neither are they consistent. But don’t you want a human giving you their take? They, like you, me and MJ, are just out there, doing their jobs. If you find a critic you can relate to, at least you know whom you’re dealing with, as opposed to crowd-sourced-type reviewing platforms, which are a mobocracy. If Steve Tanzer or Paul Gregutt floats your boat—if you know them (or feel as if you do) through their writings—if you trust them—if you understand that, as MJ implies, point scores are figurative rather than literal, and you know how to use them as part (but not the whole part) of your buying decision—if you feel that you can use all the help you can get in making that buying decision (and don’t we all?)—then go right ahead, use point scores. Like I said, when I’m exploring a wine or region I’m not that familiar with, I always turn to my trusted bevy of 100 point-based critics, and I’ve not often been disappointed.

* * *

Sorry for not posting yesterday. I’m in Oregon. These travel days don’t leave a lot of extra time for creative writing, and I don’t want to put up crap.

 


Introducing the robot wine critic

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In the next five years, when you call customer service or technical support for help with your checking account, internet connection or credit card, you’re likely to speak—not to a real human being—but to a robot.

“Hello,” it might say, in its weird, Stephen Hawking-like drone, “my name is Robbie, and I’m here to assist you.”

In fact, “Robots already are starting to displace some humans from low-end tasks,” reports the Wall Street Journal, and “within five years” they’ll be “smart enough to replace the human phone operators who do jobs like fielding calls from bank clients or helping people reset their modems.”

Given Moore’s law and the advances in artificial intelligence, it’s only a matter of time before human wine critics are also replaced by machines. It’s not hard to imagine how this might work. Say you’re in the wine aisle at the supermarket wondering which wine to buy. You’ll take your smart phone, ask Siri about it, and be connected instantly to a cloud-based “wine taster” who will tell you everything you want to know about the wine. This wine taster will be as human as anyone “real” you could talk to. It will ask you questions to establish your personal preferences (which, of course, it will remember, the way iTunes does), and will be able to tell you if you can find a better deal down the street. Eventually, it will even have an emotional component, possessing the ability to get excited about certain wines and, if you wish, to rate them on a numerical basis. It will be tireless, able to review thousands of wines a day, and its reviews will be utterly consistent—unlike those of human tasters, who are subject to frailty and fallibility. And there never will be any suspicion of ulterior motives (such as advertising) in a robotic review. Like the Mentats in Dune, robot reviewers will be objective and truthful to a fault.

Looking out even further, it’s entirely possible that your smart device will be able to let you actually taste a wine you’re interested in. There’s already talk of “food-focused virtual reality”; meanwhile, Fast Company reports on a “simulate[d]…sensation of taste digitally,” whereby “a new methodology” can “deliver and control primary taste sensations electronically on the human tongue” that “trick” taste sensors “into thinking they are experiencing food-related sensations…”. Throw in a virtual reality headset, and you have what Britain’s Sky News calls an “immersive [wine] tasting experience.”

Looked at from this perspective, what we now call “wine critics” will someday be as antiquated as streetlamp lighters or rotary phone operators.

Geraldine

But wait a minute, could there be a fly in the ointment? There could indeed. Who will pay for all this gimmickry? It won’t happen for free. Moreover, how would you prevent a nefarious influence from hacking into the system? At the first sign of untoward activity, the system’s credibility would be compromised, as Yelp’s has been. There will still be millions of people who will believe in their robot wine reviews, but eventually a small cadre of wine lovers who think of themselves as special will revolt against the machine. They will find their own gurus—human, not automated—and anoint them to exalted status. This is precisely what happened in the 1970s and 1980s with the rise of Parker, Wine Spectator and the others. It seems likely to have been a process that will replicate itself.

I’m off to Oregon tomorrow and will try to blog from there. Salud, and stay safe.


Those “semi-generic” European place names? Let’s ditch them

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In law, the concept of “grandfathering” certain parties into new laws is quite old in America, dating back to post-Civil War days. It occurs, says Wikipedia, when an old rule continues to apply to some existing situations while a new rule will apply to all future cases.” The concept applies across many areas of technology, law and sports. For example, the Green Bay Packers of the NFL are grandfathered out from a rule that prohibits corporate ownership of teams, because their corporate ownership dates to a time before the no-corporations rule was adopted.

When the U.S. and the European Union signed a trade deal, back in 2006, regarding American use of “geographic indications” on wine labels, the deal specified 16 “semi-generic” European place names that could no longer be used on American wines, including Burgundy, Madeira, Sherry, Port and Rhine.

However, under the deal’s terms, American wineries that were using these prohibited place names before March 10, 2006, were permitted to continue to be able to use them; they were grandfathered in. As the Department of the Treasury stated at that time, If there is any question of eligibility for the ‘grandfather’ provision, we will rely on the information that appears in the ‘Brand Name’ and ‘Fanciful Name’ fields on the COLA that was approved before March 10, 2006.”

The deal had a ten-year time period; it expired this year, which led to the parties having to renegotiate it. Politico is reporting that, while both the U.S. government and the Napa Valley Vintners wish for a permanent ban on purloined place names, “the rest of the U.S. wine industry” is pushing to allow “American vintners to keep labeling their products with such regional designations as long as they were doing so before the agreement was struck.” This divide, between the Obama administration and Napa Valley Vintners, on the one hand, and “the rest” of the industry, on the other, “sets up a major showdown” between the U.S. and the E.U.

The Napa Valley Vintners offers a stark illustration of why they’re siding with the E.U. on this one: With the “Napa Valley” mark already appearing on at least one Chinese wine, “How can we go fight for our integrity around the world when the United States doesn’t offer that same reciprocation?” asks a NVV official.

Makes sense to me. I don’t see why we have to have phony European place names on American-made wines. These names may have had a useful purpose in the period after Prohibition, but they no longer do; they are useless anachronisms.

I’m sure that wineries that have used semi-generic places names for decades will have to go through a period of adjustment, if they’re no longer allowed to do so. But the actual wines won’t change, and consumers are smart enough to figure out how to deal with name changes. It’s called “a teaching moment” for the consumer, and you can’t have too many of those. Besides, the historian in me thinks that there will come a day when California (and America) no longer has any of these European place names on labels, and that will mark a significant tipping point in our maturation as a wine-drinking nation, as well as  being a good partner to our European friends. And sometimes, in business, as in life, you have to take your friends’ feelings into consideration, even if it costs you a little.


Chardonnay Symposium winners tell a story

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Looking at the medal winners from the International Chardonnay Symposium, I’m struck by the geographic diversity of origins of the top-ranked California Chards. They range from Napa Valley down to the Santa Maria Valley, with Paso Robles, the Santa Lucia Highlands, Livermore Valley, Arroyo Seco, Sonoma Valley and the Russian River Valley inbetween. (I personally think you’d have to add Anderson Valley to the mix, although no Chardonnays from there were listed among the winners. Maybe there were no entrants.)

So from Mendocino to Santa Barbara for California’s best Chardonnays. That’s a big spread, about 375 miles. In France, we tend to think of the best Chardonnays as coming from a relatively narrow spread: Chablis down to Macon.* That’s a north-south distance of about 136 miles, but you’d obviously have to deduct most of the Cotes de Nuit from that, because it’s mainly Pinot Noir. So we have a Chardonnay terroir in coastal California that’s far bigger than the Chardonnay terroir of Burgundy.

Why is that? Examining California first, there is a true coastal terroir running along the Pacific Coast that’s obvious to anyone who regularly travels that route. Everybody knows the typical pattern: bone dry summers and autumns, warmish, sunny days and cool nights, as the maritime intrusion sweeps in dependably and bathes the land in fog. Yes, the soils differ. And yes, it is true that the further south you go the more of a change there is, especially in the quality of light. Cezanne would have loved painting the Santa Barbara mountains and coast. One senses it, also, in the softening of the air you feel as, driving from San Francisco, you hit Pismo Beach on any given summer day, then make your way southward down to Buellton. It feels different to us humans, so it must feel different to grapes, too.

But still, the terroir, in a macro way, is of one piece, and given the similarly of viticultural and enological practices nowadays, I doubt if anyone could tell the difference, on a consistent basis, between a Chardonnay from the Santa Maria Valley and one from, say, Carneros. Stones and minerals, green apples, tropical fruits, bright acidity, the usual impact of oak and lees and malo—this is why the coast makes such fine Chardonnay.

Perhaps the Chardonnay-growing area of France would be larger if it weren’t for the French system of appellation controllée, which is so much more rigid than ours. But it is what it is; the French system tends to favor a multiplicity of varieties. Ours—not molded by centuries of precedent, nor by Napoleonic law—is market-based; and the market being what it is, has resulted in only a handful of varieties, including Chardonnay, dominating vast regions.

It is a common notion nowadays that this system is changing. Led by sommeliers, responsive to a taste among younger consumers for the new and different, a new reality supposedly is emerging, of new varieties, tinkered with by a new generation of winemakers born in the waning decades of the 20th century, willing to venture where their fathers would or could not. This new paradigm—if that is not too strong a word—has much to recommend it, but it also faces stiff opposition. There is, for example, a Chardonnay Symposium in California, but not a Tannat or an Assyrtiko Symposium. One has to be careful predicting the future of anything, much less consumer preferences in foodstuffs; but we can allow History to be our guide. History tells us two things: First, what was popular, wine-wise, 100 years ago is popular today, and secondly, once a wine region becomes dominated by certain varieties, it tends to remain planted to those varieties. The two things are, of course, related.

But, you will object, younger people are turning away from the Chardonnays, Cabernets and Pinot Noirs, towards other varieties, said to be fresher, lower in alcohol, crisper and more interesting. Is this true? The media makes much of this meme. But is it more than just a story? Is it really a trend? The media loves trends, and has been known—shockingly!—to manufacture new ones for its own purposes. So, while I’m sure there will be new wines and new varietals that come and go, I’m equally sure that one grape variety—Chardonnay—will always be around. And I’m proud of my state of California for doing such a magnificent job with it.

* I suppose you could argue for extending the Chardonnay region south of Macon through the Beaujolais, but I wouldn’t go that far, either geographically or qualitatively.

OrlandoRemember the Orlando Martyrs


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.


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