Kudos to Jancis Robinson for decrying the hubris-inspired prices on so many of the world’s wines these days.
I don’t know if this is a new position for her to take, or one she’s held for years, as I have; but either way, it’s refreshing to see the most famous female wine writer in the world join the anti-high price crowd.
Jancis points out, in particular, three red wines, one from the Languedoc, one from Australia and one from our friend Raj Parr, a $90 Central Coast bottling I have not yet had the pleasure of reviewing. But since I know Raj, and I know California wine, let me share with you some thoughts.
First of all, it is simply fantastic that a new wine brand can charge $90 a bottle and expect to get away with it. I mean “fantastic” as in unbelievable, mind-blowing, and wrong. But what is even more unbelievable is that people are actually going to be lining up to buy that wine. Why?
For the answer, you have to look no further than the great People’s Republic of China. We Americans love to giggle at the Chinese, so pretentiously buying Lafite and putting it on the edge of the table in the restaurant so everybody can see just what they’re drinking. For we are defined by what we possess and consume, aren’t we? And if we lack the self-esteem to value ourselves intrinsically for who and what we are, then we turn to possessions, to fill that gap. I may be a worthless nothing, but if I can afford Lafite, that makes me better than you.
Well, I exaggerate, of course, but that is the view many Americans have of the Chinese. But let’s look at ourselves. Americans, too, line up to buy the most expensive, talked-about wines (if they can afford them). Why doesn’t everyone laugh Ray Parr right out of his shoes for attempting to foist an unknown, unproved wine on us at such a ridiculously high price?
Because he’s Raj Parr. He’s associated with Michael Mina. And that, my friends, is your window into the world of celebrity and wealth, a world closed to most of us. Yet the more closed it is, the more we want in, to make ourselves feel better than we are, to reassure us that we really are as good as the handsome, well-dressed and tasteful people whom we see laughing in the windows of Michael Mina as they dine on herb-roasted lamb ($47) washed down with Raj Parr’s new wine.
So you see the phenomenon is fundamentally psychological. Yes, it can be dressed up in Armani and Gucci and made to appear natural and tasteful, but this aspirational behavior, I would argue, is fundamentally neurotic. These vintners can get away with charging an arm and a leg for wines that–let’s face it–no matter how good they are, are not worth the price, because they take advantage of the human tendency to associate high price for quality, even when reason and common sense tell us this is a false association. In this sense, the enemy is not Raj Parr, or the Australian or Languedocian vintner charging those prices. No, as Pogo pointed out a long time ago, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
One of the most pleasurable bottles of wine I ever drank was a 1978 Almaden Cabernet Sauvignon, with a Monterey County appellation. I’d just moved to San Francisco and was poor, renting an unheated apartment, in the dead of winter, in the Ingleside District, just below Top of the Hill Daly City (and if you know that neighborhood, you know that it’s a cold, foggy, working class, decidedly unglamorous place, then as well as now).
That wine was the first Cabernet Sauvignon I’d ever consciously purchased, as a varietal wine to try and understand the meaning of “Cabernet Sauvignon”. It probably cost all of $3. I remember sitting at my desk, on that chilly December night, shivering in my bones, but delighting in the velvet caress of the wine. I took notes, recording every facet of the tasting experience: the texture, the flavors, the body, the finish. (At that time, I did not know that Monterey Cabernet was under fierce attack by critics.) With that act, I had opened the door to becoming a true wine lover: more than opened it, I had marched proudly right through it, never to go back again.
These memories came rushing back to me when I read these words in Pete Townshend’s superb memoir, Who I Am (HarperCollins, 2012): Referring to a family vacation he’d taken in the early 1970s through the South of France, Pete writes: “When we shopped, Karen [his wife] and I bought huge flagon-baskets of cheap local wine–tasting better than claret…”.
Who knows what the Townshends drank? Probably at the time not even they knew. Perhaps it was a modest little Vin de Pays d’Oc. (A “flagon,” by the way, is a sort of pitcher or rustic bottle; the word, of Latin origin, is related to the Italian fiasco, the traditional straw-matted Chianti bottle.) Yet the memory of that wine, and the pleasure it gave him, remained in Pete Townshend’s mind for 40 years. (And how many of his memories of Lafite, Cristal or Dom perished in that time span?)
Is there any more proof that wine need not be famous and expensive in order to have such lasting impact? Here’s Hemingway, from A Moveable Feast: “As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
We know as little of what wine the narrator drank with those oysters as we know of the Townshends’ South of France wine. It could have been a minerally Muscadet-Sevre et Maine, or maybe even a simple Petit Chablis. Whatever it was, it likely was not costly. Yet it formed a sense impression on Hemingway that not only persisted, but was so brightly etched in his mind that he labored to express it in words.
The point, I guess, is that any wine, from anywhere, can make you happy. That is wine’s glory and distinction. It’s why I’ve always had an anti-elitist attitude. The point of view that only famous, acclaimed wines are worth anyone’s attention is repugnant to me. Of course, I have my own opinions, which I express freely in my job as a wine critic, but I never lose sight of the fact that they’re just opinions. Someone, somewhere, is going to fall in love with a wine I give 84 points to, and that’s just how it should be. Salud!
By the way: Was there a wine that stands out in your memory?
This blog is generally religion-free, but I read this article yesterday in the Jewish Journal and, with the High Holidays coming up (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) I find myself thinking of how my Jewish ancestors really, in a way, invented wine, or at least our modern understanding of it.
That there are scores if not hundreds of references to wine in the Old Testament is well known. Of course they were not entirely positive: some people got drunk. But overall, wine was such an integral part of ancient Jewish (and even pre-Jewish, Semitic life; don’t forget Noah’s grapevine) that we don’t even know how far back it goes in the mists of pre-history. What is clear was that it was considered very important.
In my own family, wine wasn’t a big presence. Neither for that matter were beer or spirits; my family weren’t drinkers. Mom liked a Bloody Mary at a restaurant, and I can’t remember anymore what Dad drank, but it wasn’t very much. They were water drinkers.
The first wine I ever tried was given to me by my Uncle Teddy, at a Passover seder. I must have been around five. He gave me a glass of Manischevitz and, when I gagged and spat it out, everyone around the table laughed. (Torturing the kids was considered fun in our family.) It’s a wonder I ever tried wine again after that.
Notwithstanding the absence of booze in the household, I was raised to have a neutral to positive feeling about it. Certainly no one in my family ever expressed anything negative about alcohol or wine. I personally knew next to nothing about wine until I was in my early 30s; but when I began studying it, I was proud to discover the role the Jews had played. Later, Greeks and Romans spread viticulture throughout the river valleys of Europe, leading down the millennia and across the seas to our present day. Somehow, the two cultures that were so different in so many different ways–Jewish and Greco/Roman–found commonaility in their embrace of wine. Both cultures recognized its essential goodness and holiness, even though both were aware of its dangers in excess.
Anyway, if you’re of the Jewish persuasion, let me wish you a good Rosh Hashanah (which this year is Sept. 5-6, in the Jewish year 5774). Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the year, follows a week later. I am not particularly observant, myself, but I have set photos of my late mother and father in a central place in the livingroom, where I will do my best, in my inadequate way, to remember them. I cannot promise that the wine I toast them with will be kosher. I can, however, promise that it will be very good.
It may be somewhat brash for Tom Wark to call his new group the American Wine Consumer Coalition (AWCC) and make the claim that it “is the only national advocacy group that works to advance the interests of America’s wine consumers.”
I doubt that masses of consumers voluntarily gathered into a coalition and then asked Tom to run it. But you know what, folks? That’s how you get things done these days. You don’t wait for the public to organize themselves. Instead, you create a group that purports to represent the public, and then wait for them to join up.
There’s a big difference, though, between an Astroturf group and one with a valid claim to legitimacy, such as AWCC has. An Astroturf group is phony, like the ones funded by the Koch brothers that sound legitimate but are just false fronts designed to promote the [hidden] interests of [unidentified] sponsors. That’s bad (except that, in this post-Citizens United era, our SCOTUS has made it inevitable).
On the other hand, AWCC really does represent the interests of American consumers, even if it’s presently leading a parade with a very small following. I hope that changes.
Why do I say AWCC represents the interests of American consumers? It’s obvious: with all the stupid laws against direct shipping, particularly on the state level, consumers are ill-served by the present system, which is an anachronistic vestige of Prohibition and the Repeal laws that dissembled it, yet still left in place a very difficult situation for wineries to negotiate. It’s clear that behind the barriers to direct shipping lie two formidable forces: (1) an inherent anti-alcohol bias, and (2) the tremendous clout of Big Alcohol, especially Big Beer and Big Liquor, who really do not desire a truly free distribution system.
It’s fine for Big Alcohol to fight free and fair trade: they have their rights. The problem is that consumers, who should also have rights, have nobody to argue for them. In State capitals and in the nation’s capital, no paid lobbyists exist to argue for the rights of ordinary adult Americans to buy wine from anywhere they choose, and have it sent to them in the mail. That this is anti-consumer is clear, and it flies patently in the face of arguments, by Republicans and Democrats alike, who claim they’re in favor of the free market, competitive capitalism America loves to trumpet. I don’t see how any politician can claim to be in favor of free market capitalism and then say to little family wineries, in effect, “You’re free to market and sell your wine if you want to. But, oh, by the way, we’ll design the system in such a way as to make it impossible.”
I love that Tom writes, in the mission statement, his aim to “Gather under the AWCC roof a supportive and educated community of wine lovers who are willing to help advance a pro-consumer agenda where alcohol laws and regulations are concerned.” It will not be easy. One can look to past successful efforts to rally millions of Americans–the Civil Rights struggle was one, and so (regrettably) has been the advent of the Tea Party. Choice in purchasing alcohol, however, doesn’t rise to the level of such dramatic political upheavals; I doubt we’re going to see a mass movement of consumers to gather under AWCC’s roof, at least in numbers significant enough to make an impact on the addled attention of elected politicians. But I wonder why the libertarian wing of the Republican Party doesn’t support expanding these freedoms to Americans.
Still, I wish Tom and AWCC every good wish, and will do what I can to help. I hope Tom will reach out to those of us in the media and help us help him. This is potentially an important development, an opportunity for America to truly practice what it preaches when it comes to the freedom of choice in the marketplace. I think America is ready for it, and I congratulate Tom for spearheading the effort.
It happens all the time in wine: famous wineries overshadow the less famous. Bordeaux set the pattern: So luminous is the glare of the most celebrated Classified Growths that some perfectly fine chateaux are obscured. It being the purpose of wine writers to bring under-appreciated wineries to readers’ attention, here are my suggestions. I don’t mean to suggest that these wineries are coming out of the blue. Insiders know them; it’s the general public that doesn’t.
Goldschmidt Vineyards. Veteran winemaker Nick Goldschmidt’s carefully crafted Cabernets rival the best of Napa Valley. But for some reason, they haven’t garnered the acclaim of competitors such as Staglin or Dalla Valle. Representative wine: 2006 Game Ranch “Plus” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville; $150, 98 points.
Terra Valentine. I’ve been giving this winery high scores since the late 1990s. They do a fantastic job with their Spring Mountain fruit, but you seldom hear of them in the same breath as the cults. Representative wine: 2010 K-Block Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain; $65, 95 points.
B. Cellars. The winery really caught my eye with their 2004 vintage, and I’ve been a fan ever since. Cabernet is the speciality, although they also try their hand at Syrah and Chardonnay. Representative wine: 2009 Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville; $165, 95 points.
Summers Estate. Calistoga-based Summers has been crafting terroir wines of distinction since at least the late 1990s. But the last 10 years have really shown the fruits of success, not just with Cabernet but with Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Charbono. Representative wine: 2010 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Calistoga; $50, 92 points.
Sodaro Estate. I felt this winery’s struggle in the mid-2000s, but by the 2008 and 2009 vintages, they started to rock. That may have been due to the involvement of May-Britt and Denis Malbec, the consulting winemakers. Representative wine: 2009 Doti/Sodaro Blocks 2 and 6 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley; $125, 95 points.
Amici. This is former Beaulieu winemaker Joel Aiken’s baby, and while it took him a while to find his footing, he’s now established it securely. A flagship wine is certainly the 2009 Morisoli Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford; $125, 95 points. But for the representative wine, I’m choosing Amici’s 2007 Olema Cabernet, Napa Valley; $20, 97 points. It stood out in a blind tasting several years ago of more than 60 Napa Cabs, almost all of which cost far more.
Prime Cellars. The celebrated winemaker, Ted Henry (Jarvis), and his wife, Lisa, own the brand, and he crafts the wines (she does the marketing). With the sole exception of a so-so 2005 Cab and a 2008 Chardonnay, I’ve given all their releases 90 points or higher. Representative wine: 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville; $64, 93 points.
KaDieM. This is a brand new brand, a partnership between friends. The winemaker is Michael Trujillo, who was mentored by the likes of André Tchelistcheff and Tony Soter. The representative wine is their 2009 Inaugural Vintage Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley; $85, 95 points.
Patland Estate. Winemaker Jay Buoncristiani [ex-Hess Collection] crafts rich Cabs, Syrahs and Malbecs from the winery’s estate vineyard and from purchased grapes, notably the Stagecoach Vineyard, which straddles the Atlas Peak AVA. Representative wine: 2009 Stagecoach Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley; $90, 94 points.
Turnbull Wine Cellars. Turnbull isn’t new. In fact, it was one of the first wineries I ever wrote about [in its Johnson-Turnbull era]. Although the winery is set on Highway 29 in the heart of Oakville, its wines tend to pass unnoticed, which is really a pity. Representative wine: 2009 Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville; $100, 95 points.
My Tasting Director at Wine Enthusiast, Lauren Buzzeo, who has a hard job but carries it off with aplomb, sent us reviewers a link to this article yesterday. It’s a defense of tasting notes by a Washington State guy who runs the wine department in a grocery store.
He begins by postulating that “Most of the stuff I have read lately suggests that tasting notes are a complete waste of time, and most people do not even pay attention to them.” He then proceeds, logically and patiently, to demolish this theory. Then, based on his own experiences with his customers, he concludes that “Tasting notes have an important place in the wine world. They give the consumer some insight into what they are to expect out of a wine.”
I’ve written endlessly about this topic on steveheimoff.com. As the Washington State writer noted, the issue of whether or not tasting notes are irrelevant “seems to be the hottest debate on most of the wine blogs or wine related blogs and websites these days.” As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, the fact is, quite obviously, that consumers do like to read tasting notes. As the writer stated, his customers love them–and by extension, that means that customers around the country feel a need and desire for expert tasting notes, for why would Washington State wine consumers be any different from those elsewhere?
But that’s not the point I want to make…again. Instead, I want to answer this question the Washington State guy posed: “Why are so many wine writers taking a negative stance towards tasting notes?” He himself posited a few possible reasons: (1) these critics don’t actually sell wine, so they don’t get the kind of positive feedback about tasting notes that he does; (2) the critics simply aren’t very good at writing tasting notes, so they prefer to just sit back and make fun of them instead of trying to do it themselves.
Both of these are completely true, but I’d like to offer a third reason for the continual bashing of reviews by certain writers: Jealousy. They can’t stand the idea that some wine writers actually make a living at writing wine reviews. If you look at who the review-bashers are, they’re mostly bloggers, and you know what that means: They’d love for somebody to pay them to be professional wine writers, but no one will, so their only outlet is their blog. I sometimes think the fierce attack we published critics come under is also motivated by the hope by these bloggers that somehow their criticisms will tarnish us so much that we’ll eventually fall, and guess who would take our places? The bloggers!
So I’d like to propose an end to this silly non-debate about whether or not tasting notes are useless or irrelevant. It is the biggest non-issue in the wine industry today. The only reason it gets any play at all is because the Internet is free and immediate, so anyone can make any idiotic claim they want, and launch it around the world with the push of a button. I will end simply by quoting the Washington State guy: “I write [tasting notes] for the consumer. I could care less what another columnist thinks about my notes and I certainly don’t agree with their criticism of the notes themselves.”