The buzz at yesterday’s second annual In Pursuit of Balance tasting was all about low alcohol, as in below 14%. Vintners were excited about the 2011s, still in barrel. David Hirsch told me some of his lots clocked in at 13.1%, low even for Hirsch Vineyard. “And what do they taste like?” I asked. David just smiled and said “Fabulous.” Unfortunately the ‘11s won’t begin to come out for at least 18 months or so, so we’ll just have to wait. But in the meanwhile we can savor the 2010s, another cool vintage that offers tantalizing hints of yet to come.
Jon Bonné, the San Francisco Chronicle’s veteran wine writer (he’s now been around long enough to merit the v-word) was there. I congratulated him on his column, from Sunday, in which he officially blessed the cool 2009, 2010 and 2011 vintages, writing that they “proved the virtues of restraint.” It was interesting that he made a comparison between 2011–so much cold and rain and, in some cases, mold–and 1998, a vintage universally panned here in California for much the same reasons. However I know a lot of people who say the ‘98s were better than originally portrayed, and are in fact aging well. As if in proof, at In Pursuit of Balance Josh Jensen had a bottle of his Calera 1998 Pinot Noir (I forget which vineyard from his estate on Mount Harlan; sorry. Reed?) that he particularly wanted me to try because of the vintage’s evil reputation. It smelled and tasted just fine, a wine of purity, elegance and harmony, and still fresh in fruit. So next time somebody says a vintage sucked, don’t believe them (unless it’s me!).
I won’t remark on individual Pinots I tasted, because my formal reviews will be appearing in Wine Enthusiast.
I have a big Chardonnay article coming up, so I was also interested in tasting as many Chards as I could, determined to get to the bottom of what makes for balance in that variety. The thing that fascinates me is how some Chardonnays taste too oaky even if the amount of new oak isn’t particularly high. Vice versa, too: some 100% new oak Chards are balanced. Lots of this is dependent on the base wine, of course: a big, fruity Chardonnay can take more oak than a thinner one. Still, I don’t think there’s any one right answer. Some vintners–Adam Tolmach, at Ojai–have largely moved away from new French oak because they prefer to let the fruit talk about the terroir. Others aren’t afraid of new oak and love it. Emmanuel Kemiji, M.S., whom I knew when he was sommelier at the Ritz Carlton San Francisco and who now owns the fine brand, Miura, lavished 50% new French oak and 50% one-year old barrels on his 2009 Chardonnay, from the Talley Vineyard. I love Ojai Chardonnays and I loved that Miura. But, as Kemiji pointed out, if he didn’t have grapes from Talley, with all that natural stone fruit and acidity, that much oak would be too much.
From Allen Meadows’ new book, The Pearl of the Côte: The Great Wines of Vosnes-Romanée, we can garner lessons in almost every paragraph. This from page 16:
Almost overnight [following the French Revolution], Burgundy went from a land where the idea of terroir was sacrosanct and implicit in the production of wine, to one where it was a secondary consideration as wine became a wholly commercial product.
What Allen means by “sacrosanct” is a vin de terroir, which long has signified, to the true wine lover, the highest aspiration of which wine is capable. I always understood that, but I never knew how this notion arose in the first place–and how many ancillary issues it raises.
Allen traces the notion of terroir to the Druidic “concept of animism,” according to which “all things, animate and inanimate, possess a spirit or soul.” Light, darkness, a grove of trees, an individual plant, an insect, they all were inhabited by a god or goddess, which made each thing alive and distinct from all other things, no matter how similar in appearance they might have been.
From this ancient belief, Allen continues, came the corrollary that “the wines of one vineyard were fundamentally different from those of its direct neighbor.” We accept this today; it lies at the heart of terroir, and particularly with noble wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling, whose greatest expressions people are willing to pay high prices for. Carried to an extreme, as in Burgundy (Allen’s specialty), we have the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, whose six climats [seven, counting Montrachet] can be said to represent modern-day Druidism applied to wine, through the filter of terroir.
We know today that “all things, animate and inanimate” are not inhabited by gods or goddesses (don’t we?), but we still love the concept of terroir in vineyards. So from an untruth has come a truth. But it’s a relative truth, because no one can claim, with absolute certainty, that a vin de terroir is objectively better than the best blended wine (for example, the 2006 Cardinale, to which I gave 100 points). Yet most of us, pressed, would concede that a vin de terroir is the noblest expression of wine.
Why is this so? Is it the residue of ancient thinking that still survives, in some deep part of our reptilian brain? I would argue that the appeal of vins de terroir is based, not on sensory distinction, but on intellectual appreciation. There are not five senses (hearing, sight, touch, smell, and taste), but six, the sixth being thought. It is in our brains, in our capacity to form esthetic judgments and in our intellectual faculties, that the appreciation of the finest wine exists, lending pleasure to sensory perceptions and lifting them, at the highest level, to divinity or making them, in Allen’s word, “sacrosanct” (which is why praise of such wines often sounds like a religious benediction).
This isn’t an argument for or against blind tasting, but it is to suggest that the appreciation of fine wine can best be accomplished with the knowledge of where it comes from. Whether or not the professional wine critic can perform his or her job better with or without that knowledge is something that reasonable people can disagree about.
This is the second and final part of my conversation with Allen Meadows, the Burghound. Allen is the author of a brand new book, “The Pearl of the Côte: The Great Wines of Vosne-Romanée,” available here at Burghound’s website. I will be reviewing “The Pearl” in an upcoming post.
SH: Do you collect?
Would I find all three of those regions [i.e., California, Burgundy, Oregon] in your cellar?
Would you care to name any particular producers you’re fond of?
Well, in Burgundy, because that’s always been my interest, it would take quite a while to name them all. I would say, though, that I collect producers, but I also collect by appellation. A lot of people imagine that I have only Grand Crus and that’s absolutely not the case. I collect very broadly.
You made a beautiful argument [in his World of Pinot Noir symposium] for Volnay Villages. But let’s talk about California, because I’m a California guy. Would you care to name some of your highest-rated brands in California?
Sure. There are a number I admire, but Anthill comes to mind. Rhys is another I admire greatly. I think Joe Davis, at Arcadian, is doing some really beautiful work. Some of Jim Clendenen’s stuff is really, really pretty. It’s a little austere when you start, like Davis’s stuff, but given time in bottle, it really matures. There are certainly others.
Am I mistaken in thinking that these are all lower alcohol wines, by California standards?
No, I don’t think you’re mistaken at all, because the whole aspect of balance and food-friendly wines I believe are the future, if California is going to be in the eyes of the serious consumer and compete favorably with Burgundy, because high alcohol wines, in general, age less well, less gracefully than lower alcohol wines. But I don’t want to beat this to death either, because high alcohol, in certain vintages, if the wines are balanced–it’s still not my personal preference, but I wouldn’t say they’re incapable of aging.
So if I’m a California producer and my wine happens to be 15.5%, should I say, “I’m not going to send it to Meadows because he’s going to give it a low score?”
Well, chances are good it’s not going to get a great score. What I try and do is try to separate style and content, and if I think the wine is not too warm, and has at least some semblance of balance, I’ll say, “This is very well done in its style, but it isn’t for me personally.” But that isn’t to say that the wine isn’t any good, because the whole philosophy of “I like it, therefore it’s good” or “I don’t like it, therefore it’s bad” I think is intellectually bankrupt.
You may not know the answer to this, but over the years, how many 100s have you given to all your regions?
What was that?
A 1945 Romanée-Conti, and it didn’t appear in the pages of Burghound, it appeared in the book.
How many 99s?
I’d have to look, but probably 6,7.
What’s the highest score in California, if you remember?
I believe 95.
It was one of the Rhys wines. But I believe that one of the Anthill wines was, if not there, then close.
So you’re a fairly stingy rater. That’s my word.
Yes. I’d say that’s probably true, relative to many of my colleagues.
Do you think that there’s a such thing as score inflation going on?
Care to say anything more about that?
Well, I think there is unfortunately a commercial relationship between certain reviewers who give good scores and retailers who can use those scores to their benefit. So someone starting out as a critic is probably well advised to give very high scores to gain some notoriety. The problem is, those scores have to bear up in the eyes of the consuming public, and as we spoke earlier, I think that 90 points is supposed to mean something, as opposed to where you start, and a lot of wines that are submitted to me are in that 86-89 point range, meaning that they’re not technically flawed, but they’re not necessarily greatly distinguished either. But if I give something a 90 or above, I want the consumer to say to himself or herself, “I got something really good.”
Do you taste blind or unblind?
I generally taste unblind. This is not to say 100%, but the vast majority of what I taste is not blind.
Given that this is a somewhat controversial issue, can you explain why you choose to taste unblind?
I can. There are both sides to the argument, and I believe I appreciate and understand both. However, if part of what my clients are paying for is the benefit of my perspective and my, in many cases, intimate knowledge of ageability and style of a given domaine or winery with that particular terroir, to taste blind is to deprive the readership of that perspective. Now, am I influenced by the label? Perhaps. It’s impossible to know for sure. I try and step back and judge that vintage against what I have tasted before.
To play Devil’s Advocate for a second, why not taste blind, and then look at the label and bring your context and experience to the review?
There are times I do that, in particular when we do staged tastings where it’s a theme. In other words, it’s a given producer, or a given vintage, or a given terroir. Those are often done blind, and then the review is after the fact, and then you can adjust. But in a way, if you’re going to all of a sudden rate something 83 points, and you find out, Well, jeez, that’s a famous name, now it’s 93–what have you really done? To me, not much, other than you say to yourself that either your palate isn’t as fine-tuned as you think it is, or this really wasn’t very good after all. I can see both sides of it. People who taste blind and believe that’s the best way–it’s the results, ultimately, that count, and the quality of the guidance. I’m less convinced that the method by which you get there is the driving force. So I wouldn’t do it that way, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t entitled to do it the way they see fit.
Allen Meadows is the author of Burghound, one of the premier Pinot Noir review publications in the English language. I’ve known Allen, not well but cordially, for some years. Now 57 years old, Allen was at last weekend’s World of Pinot Noir, where he kindly consented to let me interview him. The conversation was entirely spontaneous; I had no prepared questions in advance. And like my Antonio Galloni Q&A of last week, this one’s virtually unedited; what you read is what we said. This is Part 1. The final part will appear tomorrow.
SH: Where do you live?
AM: Tarzana [California] for less than half the year, Burgundy for less than half the year, and another two months, you pick a place.
As long as they grow Pinot Noir?
And what is the Burghound? What do you do?
Well, Burghound was a vision I came up with in the middle ’90s and finally had the nerve to realize in the Fall of 2000, to take the wine publishing approach of doing the world and stand that model on its head and do one thing, which was Burgundy, but do it in real depth. I emailed 20 of my friends who were into Burgundy and said, “Do you think that a review that is devoted to one thing only could work,” and it was zip for twenty. Nobody thought it would be a good idea. But, like some good ideas that don’t seem to make any sense at the time, it worked in spite of itself, and so, 12 years later, we’re still here.
And what is the publication?
It’s a newsletter.
How often do you publish?
What does it cost per year to subscribe?
It is about to be moved up to $145 a year from $125, which is the first increase we’ve had in six years.
And what do I get every issue?
You get a series of reports that, by the way, have no advertising and no photos, so it’s quite dry, by intent. What you get is in-depth reviews of Burgundy, Pinot Noir and, from time to time, Champagne. And the coherence between those three is, it’s all the same grapes. The other thing that comes with it is a searchable database with, at this point, almost 60,000 Burgundies and Pinots in it, that is searchable all the way back to 1845.
What is the typical word length of a single review?
Probably 30-50 words, depending.
And how many reviews per issue?
I would say it varies, but the average is probably 1,250 wines an issue, so the average is 150 to 200-plus pages.
So that’s about 5,000 wines a year you’re doing.
Five to six, yeah, depending.
And you use the 100-point system?
Because I think to be commercially relevant you really don’t have a choice. I could have tried to pioneer a different approach, but I think that English-speaking consumers are comfortable with the scale. You can debate whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. It’s something I actually looked at carefully before I chose to use it. In fact, I almost thought about trying to grade wines using that scale, but within a hierarchy, because if it’s a really fantastic Bourgogne, and it gets 90 points, you could still easily have a Grand Cru that’s not really all that special, getting the same score. Yet in its class, the Bourgogne is much better. So if you use something that’s an absolute hierarchy, sometimes it doesn’t quite impart the value and just how good something at the lower end of the hierarchy is.
So name the Pinot Noir regions of the world you cover.
I cover basically Burgundy, California and Oregon. Once in a while, I’ll do an article on New Zealand, but it’s occasional, as opposed to systematic.
Why not include New Zealand full time?
Simply because I barely have time to do what I’m doing now. I’m not complaining, but I haven’t had a vacation in 8 years, so it’s just one of those things where there’s only so much time.
Well, some people would say your work is a vacation!
Well, they would, and I wouldn’t disagree. I do it because I love it, and I’m not about to complain, but it is real work.
Where do you do most of your tasting?
Put it this way: Most of Burgundy, in spite of the fact that a lot of importers send their wines to me at home, I would say that 98% of Burgundy is done in Burgundy, whereas most of the U.S. Pinot reviews as well as Champagne are done in my home office.
Do you solicit bottles, or just take what comes in?
Both. For the first 5 years, I didn’t do U.S. Pinot, and then I decided to branch out and do that, because there was a good deal of request for it from my readership, so initially I solicited. Now that people–I mean reviewers–are used to me reviewing, they typically just send the wines on a schedule of whenever they’re due to be released, but also in the last 7 years there have been a lot of new wineries that have just sent things, in one of two ways: they either write and say “May we submit and if so, how do we go about that?” and then other people just send it.
Do you review everything that comes in?
Yes, although I’m starting to wonder whether I can continue to do that, for the simple reason that there’s only so much time, and therefore, just because somebody sends something…in the past, I’ve tried to honor that. So for the moment, I taste everything, but I don’t know that I’m going to continue that policy. Sometimes, when people send things, it’s not necessarily of the highest quality.
Well, how do you know, unless you try it?
Well, you don’t, and therein lies the trick that I will taste everything, but I don’t know that I’m necessarily going to write up everything.
Does that mean you sort of have a policy that you don’t trash wines?
That’s a very, very good question, because to this point, if a winery presents it, either on site, like in Burgundy, or sends it, it gets reviewed. So people don’t have to worry about what you just said, which is, if it’s not very good, then I won’t review it. But in this case, with stuff that I haven’t solicited, that just gets sent, I may in fact have to start a policy where I taste and then I don’t review it if it’s not very good.
Would you ever consider hiring an assistant taster? I mean, Parker branched out eventually.
A great question, and thus far, no. I think that a unique voice still has a place. I mean, I know that Steve Tanzer has done it, I know that Bob [Parker] has done it, obviously the Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast have various reviewers with expertise in their areas, and that makes sense. But for somebody who is specifically devoted to Pinot Noir-based wines, with obviously white Burgundy thrown in, I’m not sure that that policy makes sense. So for the time being, there are no plans.
So Burgundy, Oregon, California. Who gets the best scores?
That’s a good question too. I would say that, in my eyes, the reference standard still remains Burgundy. But when you look at the scores that some California wineries, as well as some Oregon wineries, are receiving, that difference that used to exist 7, 8 years ago is definitely narrowing. I would not say Oregon and California have caught Burgundy yet. But the difference continues to narrow.
In what respect does the difference continue to narrow?
Well, just the sheer quality. I think that, as wineries here better understand their terroirs, as the vines continue to mature, they’re getting better fruit. And it takes a long time to understand the terroir. I mean, even Burgundians will tell you that when they lease or buy a new parcel, it takes them time to understand it.
That raises an interesting question. You said that the quality of California and Oregon fruit is improving. But the style of Burgundy remains quite different from the style of California.
Characterize briefly the three styles.
When I talk about quality, obviously “beauty” is in the eye of the beholder. I think most arguments come down to, What is beautiful? You have a vision of beauty, I have another, another person has a third, and sometimes the minds meet and sometimes they don’t. So my point is, Burgundy should not try to emulate the New World, any more than the New World should try and emulate Burgundy. But if your definition of great wines are wines that can age and change and mature and evolve in a positive sense, enduring is one thing. But we’re talking about evolving, and become more interesting, then that is the way I view both Oregon and California improving. And so, if I were to characterize the three regions, Burgundy is Burgundy, vins de gardes, tends to be a little more austere, tends to have a little more acidity. California, due to the weather, tends to be more opulent, lush, it’s riper, tends to be more generous. Oregon has a foot in both camps. It’s not California, but it’s still riper than Burgundy.
Tomorrow, the concluding part of my conversation with Allen Meadows.
As I write this (early Monday morning Cali time), we’re all still on edge from a very sharp, violent earthquake that hit at 5:34 a.m. this morning. No apparent damage, but reports are still sketchy.
Anyhow, here are some random notes from a fabulously successful WOPN 2012 event:
What’s up with all these Santa Rita Hills producers making sparkling wine? Sea Smoke’s “Sea Spray,” Clos Pepe, Brewer-Clifton?
John Haeger’s annual Friday morning seminar a sellout. Among his interesting remarks [paraphrased]: “Pinot Noir in California would have taken longer to happen if not for the burst of French Champagne houses that invested here in the 1970s-1980s.” And “The push to cool areas wasn’t so much because winemakers were seeking the coastal influence but because you could make sparkling wine even if the grapes weren’t ripe.” Think of Anderson Valley’s Deep End [Roederer] or the cooler parts of Arroyo Grande Valley [Maison Deutz, now Laetitia].
My hunt for under-14% Cali Pinots was an abject failure, there were so few. But in a year, and definitely by the 2014 WOPN, they’ll be all over the place, I predict.
Winemakers on the 2011 vintage [if they’re honest, which not all are]: very difficult. Lots of mold.
Huge shoutout from me to the somms and other volunteers, without whom there would be no WOPN!
I went to the “media room,” where they have duplicate bottles of all the wines poured at the public event. It was very uncrowded so I got into a conversation with the somm who was managing it. He poured me a Pinot, blind, and asked what I thought. Terrible, I said: soft and sugary sweet, like a glutinous candy. Exactly he said, grinning. Then he explained that, earlier, the room had been crowded with writers, including a FWC [Famous Wine Critic]. They were talking about that wine, and the lesser luminaries didn’t want to speak up because they were unsure of themselves. Then the FWC said he thought it was great, and suddenly everybody else was, like, “Yeah, great wine!” The herd instinct is alive and well in wine criticism.
On Saturday morning, while others hiked and golfed [yawnnnn] I went to Allen Meadows’ Burgundy From the Ground Up seminar. Only Meadows [Burghound] could bring the Druids into a discussion of Burgundy. [By the way, the winemaker sitting next to me drank Diet Coke and munched on Danish throughout Allen’s tasting! But then again, he’s from Oregon...]. Allen’s two-hour master class alone was worth the price of admission to WOPN [not that I paid : >]… He’s forgotten more about Burgundy than the rest of us will ever learn. Except that he hasn’t forgotten… I’ve been to a gazillion wine seminars, most of which I forgot about 2 minutes later, but Allen always makes people think. If you think it’s easy keeping several hundred hungover, sleep-deprived winos captivated, on the edge of their seats, early on a weekend morning, you’ve never tried it. A real tour de force.
For me, the standouts of Allen’s tasting [all 2008s] were: Benjamin Leroux Volnay Premier Cru Clos de la Cave des Ducs; Comte Armand Pommard Premier Cru Clos des Epeneaux; Bruno Clair Vosne-Romanee Champs Perdix; and Bruno Clair Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru Cazetiers. After that magnificent tasting, the California Pinots under the tent seemed almost too much…but that lasted only for a minute or two until their sexy, plump opulence got to me. A standout: Failla 2010 Keefer Ranch (Russian River Valley), poured by Ehren Jordan himself. I haven’t yet formally reviewed that wine, so I won’t here, but my oh my, how great it is. For older wines, Rick Longoria poured his 2002 Fe Ciega, a wine I did review, eight years ago. I gave it 91 points, gave it an Editor’s Choice designation, and called it “serious Pinot Noir.” I should have added “and ageable.”
By the way, the Burghound gave me a long, fascinating interview. I’ll have a multi-part Q&A with him starting tomorrow.
I decided that my theme for today’s tasting will be Pinots under 14%. Unfortunately, the official program that lists the wines doesn’t include ABV, which will make my hunt problematic. I’ll have to look at every label, which means a lot of squinting.
I was chatting last night at the opening reception with someone over a glass of Claiborne & Churchill’s 2009 Pinot Noir, an awfully good wine, light and savory. Somehow, the conversation drifted to coffee styles, and then to beer. I remarked that the preference for big, extracted wines is similar to the love for high roast, Seattle-style coffee and IPAs in beer. The guy I was talking with said that lighter beers and coffees are coming back in style, which would coincide with a shift to lighter wines, if in fact there is one. Cooler vintages certainly are pushing the wines that way, but there’s also some movement among winemakers to keep ABV down. I’ve seen it in Cabernet and I’ve seen it in Pinot Noir, and I’m going to see it up close and personal today.
I want to understand if a below-14% Pinot from California can consistently deliver flavor, or if I’m going to find a lot of green minty stuff out there. I’m not talking about some mass produced, industrial grade 13.5% Pinot-in-name-only Pinot. I’m talking about serious Pinot Noir, probably single-vineyard, produced by ambitious coastal wineries. We’ve grown so used to high alcohol Pinots (I’m not knocking them, just saying) that this new emphasis on below 14% represents, not just a new taste experience, but an intellectual challenge. To say that they’re made in a different style is one thing; to say that they deliver pleasure and complexity and maybe even ageability is another.
I’m assuming that most of the Pinots poured today will be 2009s and 2010s, two cool years, so there should be lots of low alcohol wines for me to taste. There are also lots of Pinots here that are not from California. Maybe there will be some discoveries. I hope to report what I find on Monday.
Have a great weekend!