Gavin Newsom is Lieutenant-Governor of California. Prior to that, he was Mayor of San Francisco. He co-owns wineries, and his PlumpJack Hospitality Group operates night clubs, wine stores, resorts and restaurants throughout California. As Mayor, Newsom shot to fame—some would say notoriety—by backing the issue of gay marriage; that will probably be the most salient part of his political legacy, which seems likely to include being elected Governor of California next year. He leads all his rivals, both Republican and Democratic, at this time in fund-raising and in the polls. Which leads to the inevitable question: Does he have his eye on the White House? When and if he is elected Governor, he will immediately become “Presidential timber,” as they say—a young, handsome, articulate visionary from the nation’s biggest state. We spoke yesterday (Jan. 5) in his office in San Francisco.
Full disclosure: I met Governor Newsom (the correct salutation for a Lieutenant-Governor) 26 years ago, when he was becoming involved in the wine industry and starting his first PlumpJack wine store. I liked him then; I like him now. Although I had a list of political questions, I began our conversation by asking him about the news, breaking that morning, of John McCain’s extraordinary hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on the Russian hacking situation.
SH: Let’s start with the McCain hearing today. We have this seeming split in the Republican Party between the establishment and the intelligence community, on the one hand, and Trump. What’s going on?
GN: It’s par for the course, exactly what one would expect; if the President-elect doesn’t like the conclusion, he tries to change, not only the conclusion, but the process that actually determined the facts. And he clearly is not interested in the evidence; he hasn’t even had the comprehensive briefing yet, because it’s not convenient for him, and undermines his, quote-unquote, “success and credibility” as President-elect.
SH: Did you see the Wall Street Journal this morning?
SH: Banner headline: Trump Plans Spy Agency Overhaul—he intends to “pare back the nation’s top spy agency” [Office of Director of National Intelligence]. This is full-scale war.
GN: It is extraordinary. There are a couple thoughts. Don’t forget, it was not that many years ago when the Democratic Party was almost unanimous in their condemnation of and contempt for the intelligence community, so we have to be cautious not to over-indulge in a critique of the President-elect because now he might now share a similar point of view. That said, when you have seventeen intelligence agencies all on the same page, that is quite unique, and that is—
SH: –and today, McCain specifically asked [the intelligence chiefs] “Are you more confident today than you were five, ten, fifteen days ago [that Russia was responsible for the hacks],” and every one said yes.
GN: Now, don’t get me wrong, on the history of intelligence in this country, we have been wrong on many, many occasions—
GN: –even with that degree of confidence. But, look, it seems compelling. I haven’t been privy to the intelligence briefings—none of us have—nor has Obama today and the President-elect as of tomorrow, so we’re taking the word of folks that are right more often, it seems, than are wrong. But that said, it’s interesting to watch this and try to be objective. But it is rather remarkable, in such a public way, the President-elect is critiquing the intelligence community, and that is demoralizing to any organization.
SH: [James] Clapper (DNI chief] said this morning at the hearing, “It’s one thing to be skeptical about the intelligence community. It’s another thing to disparage it.”
GN: Disparage, overtly undermine, and reduce public trust in intelligence gathering. And by the way, it creates vulnerability for American intelligence, because those are things that are easily exploited by foreign governments. These are things we would exploit if intelligence was being questioned in other countries.
SH: I’m sure we have.
GN: And we are experts in all of these things, including undermining foreign elections.
SH: One of the Republican Senators on the committee who was trying to defend Trump said he’d read that the U.S. has interfered in something like 89 foreign elections.
GN: Eighty-nine, yeah. We all read that same article or analysis.
SH: But that doesn’t excuse Russia—
GN: No, just because we did it doesn’t make it right. Of course, we’re sovereign, we have the right to protect ourselves and criticize others who would undermine this republic.
SH: Okay, well, let’s get into politics!
MONDAY: Part 2: The election, Trump, the Democratic Party’s future, how to win back disaffected voters, and California’s resistance to Trumpism.
I’ve followed Benziger’s fortunes for decades, and one thing I can say, they’re always striving to boost quality. The Benziger family began with the hugely successful Glen Ellen Winery, which pioneered “fighting varietals,” before launching their boutique Benziger brand, which they sold to The Wine Group in 2015. These five wines are the first I’ve tasted since the sale—although all five of them were made prior to it. We’ll have to see if the winery continues on a quality trajectory under the new ownership. The Cabernets are from the estate vineyard, in Glen Ellen, the heart of Sonoma Valley, on slopes of Sonoma Mountain. The Pinot Noirs hail from the estate de Coelo Vineyard, way out on the coast between Freestone and Bodega Bay. I first visited it years ago when it was being developed. My sneakers sank inches into the deep, seabed-derived Goldridge soil, as fine as moon dust. One of the best soils for Pinot Noir in the world, Goldridge drains readily, and lends the wine an expressive elegance.
Here are the wines, in the order I tasted them.
Benziger 2014 de Coelo “Terra Neuma” Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $75. Alc. 14.0%, 230 cases produced. This is from a higher-elevation block of de Coelo. The color is pale and translucent, hinting at delicacy. As in previous vintages, the alcohol is lowish, giving the wine a light, silky mouthfeel. Dusty tannins give it plenty of grip. The fruit suggests persimmons, with tarter cranberries, highlighted by mouthwatering acidity. There are more exotic notes of green tea, white pepper, Chinese 5 spice, and wild mushroom. The finish is severely dry, which is a compliment. Yet, toasted oak barrel aging lends it a vanilla sweetness. Complex and elegant, and so easy to love, this beauty will age for at least eight years. Score: 94 points.
Benziger 2014 de Coelo “Quintus” Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $75. Alc. 13.5%, 625 cases produced. The family resemblance with the other wines from de Coelo is marked in this block-derived wine, which is lower in alcohol than Terra Neuma. It’s slightly tarter and more delicate, but the same persimmon, raspberry, cranberry, tea, orange peel, mushroom and white pepper notes carry through, as do the silky tannins and magnificent acidity. This is exactly what we look for in Goldridge-derived Pinots: enormous complexity, delicacy undergirded with power, extreme drinkability. If there is ever going to be a Freestone appellation—and there ought to be—this wine could stand as its exemplar. I cannot imagine a better companion for lamb or steak. Score: 94 points.
Benziger 2014 de Coelo “Arbore Sacra” Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $75. Alc. 13.5%, 641 cases produced. Another block bottling from the estate vineyard. Aromatically it’s a little shier than the other two, showing more mineral and earth notes, like tree bark, brittle, dried leaves, cloves and dust. But the fruit is there: raspberry tea, pomegranate, orange peel, tart cranberry. There’s also a crispness that lends vitality to the mouthfeel, but the tannins are as light as air: they give a hint of astringency. The mouthfeel is as silky and delicate as an old tapestry, yet the depth is very great, with complex impressions extending out through a long, spicy finish. Of the three wines, I’d have to say this is my favorite. It is ultra-refined and elegant, a wine that would have been unthinkable in California not that long ago. Score: 95 points.
Benziger 2013 “Signaterra” Obsidian Point Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma Valley): $65. Alc. 14.4%, 486 cases produced. This is a very proper Cabernet, by which I mean it is classic, balanced and delicious. It’s one of those wines that you take a sip of and think, Wow, is this going to be easy to like. Bone dry, with thick but fragile tannins and just-in-time acidity, it’s rich in black currants, anise, unsweetened cocoa powder, sweet toasted oak and just a hint of herbaceousness: sweet green olive especially. The grapes are from Benziger’s estate vineyard, in the heart of Sonoma Valley on the slopes of Sonoma Mountain, and were biodynamically-grown. I have not been an ardent supporter of biodynamique, but there is a purity to this wine that is notable. Interestingly, the wine is already throwing some tannins. Drink now-2020. Score: 93 points.
Benziger 2013 “Signaterra” Sunny Slope Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma Valley): $59. Alc. 14.5%, 562 cases produced. The wine is just a little bit less concentrated than Obsidian Point, but it’s also six bucks less. It’s quite lovely, with classic black currant, cassis, cocoa and green olive flavors, enriched by 20 months of aging in French oak. It has an inherent elegance due mainly to the splendid acid-tannin structure. It’s not clear to me that it would be worth aging this wine for any length of time, but it is an enjoyable, complex sipper. Score: 90 points.
OAKLAND FIRE VICTIMS
Happy Nov. 28! What’s your favorite part of the Thanksgiving holiday, Cyber Monday, Small Business Saturday, or Black Friday? They’re all such fun days to spend money. I’d be hard-pressed to pick just one, but I’d have to say that, for me, personally, it’s Black Friday! The crowds, the traffic, the lines–it’s all so cheery, and gets me right in the mood for Christmas. We went down to the mall, spent 45 minutes circling the parking lot to find a parking space, and then my cousin Orwell got into a big fight with some schmuck who beat him to the one spot left, and who, as it turned out, was a Trump supporter! We knew that because the guy was wearing a “Make America Great Again” T-shirt. Things got ugly, what with the name-calling, but what do you expect from a Trump supporter? Bad manners, is what.
And by the way, how come there’s not a special shopping day for Sunday? It could be Yard Sale Sunday. A lot of people have yard sales on that day, especially here in California, where the weather’s usually nice, and everybody has some old treadmill or pepper grinder they’d like to make a few bucks on.
Anyhow, when we finally got to our family’s big Thanksgiving dinner, needless to say the conversation turned to the recent election. My family, kina hora, are all liberal humanists, so there wasn’t much argumentation. Everybody was and remains appalled and disgusted. We here on the far left coast of the bluest state in the union wonder what could those red state voters have been thinking? We expect they’ll have buyer’s remorse sooner or later; the question is when, and what will the new President do to cause his supporters to realize what a catastrophic mistake they made. Of course, his choices are manifold: his campaign was based on so many lies that almost anything could cause him to slip up, but in my family’s opinion, the number one thing that’s likely to bring him down is his business practices, which always have been shady and unscrupulous and seem even more so now that he refuses to place them into a blind trust. Over the weekend it turned out that Trump owns a chunk of the Dakota Access pipeline, up there in North Dakota. No wonder he’s so in favor of fracking and drilling: he stands to make money! Can you imagine if Obama had such a big conflict of interest? McConnell and Ryan would be introducing motions of impeachment. They’re curiously silent in Trump’s case, though. Well, my take is that a lot of Republicans would like to see Trump fail, but right now they have to button up their lips because they don’t want to piss him off, lest he prove to be an authoritarian, vengeful autocrat. Some of my family hope Trump will be impeached, but then someone reminded us to be careful of what we wish for, because if Trump goes down (which would be great fun to watch), we’ll have—ta da!—President Pence, who is a creationist homophobe and possibly worse even than Trump.
(I just want to add that never in my lifetime did I expect to see creationists running the government. That’s how far America has fallen. Thomas Jefferson is rolling in his grave.)
Anyhow, at some point we all got tired of this constant yammering about politics and got into the real heart of the issue: Food and drink! But my family agreed on one thing, and bless them for that: Remain involved! Don’t be discouraged! Fight this hideous new administration and all it stands for! Even the most conservative of my cousins vowed to take it to the streets if need be. We also spoke, as befits Thanksgiving, of our family members who are no longer with us, and I remembered my mother, who died eleven years ago, at the age of ninety. She was a huge Democrat—volunteered for her local Democratic county headquarters almost to the end. She would have been so thrilled that Hillary Clinton was running and would have been so proud to vote for her. Hillary’s loss would have devastated her, but my mother would have redoubled her efforts to get a Democrat elected next time. Here’s one of the last photos I ever took of her—she’s wearing her little Kerry-Edwards button.
A Pinot Noir tasting in San Francisco
You can take the boy out of the wine business but you can’t take the love of the business out of the boy.
Or something like that. Anyway, although I formally retired from my career on Sept. 2, I still have “wine in my blood,” so when the invitation came to go to PinotFest, the big annual Pinot Noir tasting held at Farallon, near San Francisco’s Union Square, I doffed my cap and BARTed in on an absolutely splendid Autumn day, and had some excellent Pinots. But I wasn’t there to review, only to sip, see what’s up, and connect with old friends.
Honestly, when you’ve been in the biz as long as I have, you somehow manage to accumulate a lot of friends. Here are a few. John Winthrop Haeger is of course the famous author of North American Pinot Noir, published by my publisher, University of California Press.
It’s always a pleasure to run into John, whose opening lecture at the World of Pinot Noir I always used to look eagerly forward to.
The first thing Diana Novy said to me when I saw her was, “I bet you’re surprised to see me here,” by which she meant that her husband, Adam Lee, who usually does the Siduri pouring at events, had been delayed, so Diana was substituting.
I missed seeing Adam, but Diana more than made up for him not being there. I profiled them in my second book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff, and Siduri is owned by my former employer, Jackson Family Wines, so I got to work closely with Adam.
Jenne Lee Bonaccorsi took over Bonaccorsi winery after the unexpected, tragic death of her husband, Michael, in 2007. Jenne makes ardent wines of great delicacy and inner power, just like her. She is one of the gentlewomen of California winemaking.
Jon Priest is at the helm of Etude, the great Pinot Noir house in the Carneros.
I can’t even remember how long ago I met him—I think Tony Soter was still running the winery. I told Jon I’d recently opened his 2005 and 2006 “Heirloom” Pinot Noirs, and both were showing well.
Then there’s Josh Jensen.
My profile of him and his winery, Calera, was among the first I ever wrote as a professional. I well remember when Wine Spectator sent me down to Mount Harlan, around 1993; what a thrill that was for an up-and-coming wine writer! Josh remains a gentleman and a scholar, and can always be counted on to be wearing something colorful. He’s very tall and, as you know, I’m not, so I asked him to crouch down a little bit, so the picture wouldn’t look like an avocado next to a broom.
Jonathan Nagy was another colleague of mine at Jackson Family Wines.
He presides over Byron Winery, down in the Santa Maria Valley of Santa Barbara County. When I left J.F.W. I knew Jonathan had embarked on an exciting new project: making single-vineyard Pinot Noirs from purchased grapes grown at some of Santa Barbara’s top vineyards. The wines are now in bottle. We tasted through some of them, and man, Jonathan is at the top of his game. But you know what my favorite was? None other than the Julia’s Vineyard, whose grapes Jonathan shares with sister winery Cambria.
It’s still fun for me to go to these events and taste the wines–if, that is, I’m lucky enough to be invited. If you see me at one, come on up, and say Howdy!
Why I Fight Drumpf
“Do not hesitate. Fight in this battle and you will conquer your enemies. Fight you will, your nature will make you fight. Your karma will make you fight. You will fight in spite of yourself.”
— Krishna to Arjuna, The Mahabharata
Maybe it was because I was brought up on the mean, hardscrabble streets of the South Bronx, where a skinny little kid had to learn how to fight to survive.
Maybe it was because of my many years of karatedo training, in which we were taught never to initiate a fight, but to resist violently if someone else started.
Maybe it’s the latent Jew in me. We weren’t raised with “Turn the other cheek.” For us, it was “an eye for an eye.”
Whatever the reasons, my inclination is to fight, fight, fight against this monster, this dybbuk, this aberration of a normal man, this drumpf.
In my twenties came a period during which I was a hippie, steeped in that Sixties thing of “love and peace.” I believed it. I studied it and tried to practice it. Loving your enemy seemed the right thing to do. Hadn’t Jesus? Hadn’t Buddha? Isn’t that what the Beatles preached?
But the Sixties was fifty years ago. A lot of water under the bridge.
Among people I know—good liberal-humanists—there is currently a debate going on, in the aftermath of the Nov. 8 results. Option #1: accept this unacceptable President, accept his hateful minions and the awful legislation they will craft, and give him a chance. Option #2: oppose him and his dreadful movement every step of the way. This debate is tearing people apart. They really are not sure which way to go. After all, we criticized Mitch McConnell’s statement of utter opposition to Obama—before the latter was even sworn in—as deplorable. It angered us. “How could you be so against him when you don’t even know what he’s going to propose?” And we were right to take that attitude.
Now, the republicans are turning that argument around and asking us, “How can you oppose trump before he’s even taken the oath of office?”
Well, let me explain the difference. The promises Obama made—to unite the country bipartisanly, to end wars, to get along with foreign countries, to rescue the financial system which was dying due to the Bush Great Recession, to respect the environment and be kinder to gay people, to understand the needs of the poor and of immigrants, to respect science, to be a gentleman, to have a clean administration based on high principles—these spoke to the heart and soul of liberal-humanists. When McConnell issued his belligerent threat, we thought, “How could he be against all that?”
Drumpf on the other hand made other promises. Every one of them was based on hatred of “the other,” except for his promise to “Make America Great,” as banal a platitude as ever issued in any soap commercial. Now that we’ve had a sniff of his appointments, there’s every reason to assume the worst: this awful person will divide the country and is a threat to the things we hold dear. He is a last gasp of male, heterosexual, Anglo-Saxon, lower-middle-class, under-educated, bigoted, resentful white supremacy, the latest incarnation of the Know-Nothings, the McCarthyites, the America Firsters and Father Coughlins and Dixiecrats, all of whose sociopathic unreason did such harm to America (and all of whom have been roundly condemned by History). Therefore, to oppose this drumpf is to stand for the best American values of inclusion, fairness, equality, progress and love.
Yes, love. Not some kind of hippie love. This is not the time to move to the woods and meditate and pray to the Spirit Guide, or Mother Earth, or whatever you wish to call it. Sure, if you want to sit zazen and go Ommm, feel free. It can’t hurt.
But the spirits will not protect you when the shit hits the fan and the government comes under the control of the radical theocrats and paranoid militias that form drumpf’s shock troops. When he reverses Obama’s great work, it will take more than a groovy feeling to keep this nation from sliding into darkness. It will take active resistance.
I was never a protester in the Sixties. I went to one anti-Vietnam march, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in New York, but it wasn’t so much because I was anti-war (although I was, in an inarticulate kind of way), but because my friends wanted to go, and I thought it would be fun. So I’m not really a born street demonstrator.
But the times have changed. This catastrophe, drumpf, is looming over America like a toxic cloud. I’m afraid of him, and I’m more afraid of the evil forces he has unleashed: the anti-semites, the KKK, the Muslim haters, the Mexican haters, the anti-government open-carry crazies, the homophobes, the anti-science types like Pence and Huckabee and Franklin Graham, the crypto-nazis like Steve Bannon, the bullies like Giuliani and Christie. These are the termites that have been allowed to burrow into America’s foundation, and, left unchecked, they will cause dry rot leading to collapse.
So when I suggest that this old guy—me—is a fighter, it’s because that’s what I believe in: fighting for what is good, and against what is bad. I always looked forward to a peaceful retirement, but this is no time for complacency. The future of our country, and the world, is at stake. Look, drumpf ran the dirtiest, sleaziest, most mendacious and vulgar campaign in modern American history; it was an insult to my parents and grandparents, who believed that voting was a sacred duty…an insult to all people of intelligence, to our nation, its history and political legacy. This creature of television and greed does not deserve the title deeds to our proud, progressive country. I urge you not to accept a drumpf presidency. They—the tea party, the white nationalists, the right wing theocrats—do not want to get along with us; they have repeatedly proved that with their deeds. They want their own exclusionary society. If you think you can go along to get along, you are in the same boat as the “good Germans” who allowed Hitler to triumph. And look what happened.
Last Friday, I told Rick Tigner, the CEO of Jackson Family Wines and a man for whom I have the utmost admiration, that I was quitting the job I’d held since March, 2014.
Why? Because I turned 70 years old in June, and I’m feeling my age.
I always had believed I would be retired by seventy, provided my finances were in order. I inherited no money from my parents, and I never had a proper pension, because I’d worked for nearly 30 years as a freelancer for Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, neither of whom paid very well. What I did have in the way of a nest egg, though, was a very nice private investment through my family that gave me every expectation of a comfortable old age.
Alas, that private investment turned out to be run by Bernie Madoff. On Dec. 10, 2008, I—along with thousands of others—got the bad news: My life savings were gone. Along with the money went hopes of an early retirement.
However, there was some good news: In 2005, the feeder fund I was invested in unexpectedly stopped accepting new deposits. Thus, for the next four years—until the date of the Madoff arrest, and for the eight years since–I was, through force majeure, able to invest my money elsewhere. And when, in 2014, Jackson Family Wines offered me the new job—at considerably more money than I’d ever made at Wine Enthusiast—I was able to tuck away much of that, too, with the result that, by last week, my banker and I determined that I did have enough money to comfortably retire. Granted, I will never have a high-spending lifestyle. But then, I never had one before, and you can’t miss what you never had!
Turning seventy, in case you haven’t had the experience, is psychologically impactful. When I turned 40, 50, 60, it didn’t change how I felt about myself. My health was wonderful: I’ve always been in the top one percent of my age cohort when it comes to fitness. But seventy? You can’t make believe any more that you’re not old. Seventy may be “the new forty,” but it’s still threescore and ten, which Psalms tells us are “the days of our years.” The aches and pains accumulate; one fatigues more easily. More to the point, one becomes happy with (or at least reconciled to) what one is, and stress, which is inevitable in any job, is no longer welcome. The result was that, after an enormous amount of reflection, and plenty of back-and-forth in my own mind (Should I do it? Shouldn’t I?), I decided to “do it.”
This decision obviously has major consequences for me. For one, it means I’m on a fixed income. For another, it means that my career in wine is over. Period. Done, finis, #ByeBye. I no longer have any reason to be interested in wine, aside from drinking it, although it’s likely to be years before I fully disengage from thinking and reading about it; old habits die hard. But I have already begun that process in full deliberation. The symbolic act of interment, which I have yet to take, will be to eliminate all the Google alerts for “wine,” “wine industry,” “wine critic” and so forth that have filled my in-box for so many years. I haven’t done that yet…but I shortly shall.
And this blog?
Well, I still have a lot of readers. Whenever I traveled the country for Jackson Family Wines, people—complete strangers—came up to me and told me they read me every day. That is enormously gratifying; the only people who probably can relate to it are my fellow bloggers. It hasn’t always been easy to come up with topics five days a week, but then I think of all those folks across America (and in other countries) who begin their day with a little Steve, and I don’t want to disappoint them…to disappoint you.
So I will continue this blog. But there will be changes. Big ones. Going forward, I’ll write about anything that interests me. It won’t necessarily be about wine. I will frequently write about politics, which is an intense interest of mine, and I will certainly do my best to demolish the Republican Party, which deserves it. I’m sure I’ll lose readers, maybe a lot of them. But I may also gain some new ones. Be that as it may.
So, to those of you who are going to bid me a fond “farewell” because you want a strictly wine-oriented blog, I say, Adieu to you, too. Thank you for reading steveheimoff.com all these years. But you might check me out from time to time. The writing will be better than ever.
One final remark: I can’t begin to express how grateful I am to the Jackson family “kids” (as I call them) for the friendship, support and, yes, love they have given me. Julia…Chris…Ari…Hailey…Max…Katie…Shaun. You are wonderful, kind, special people with extraordinary hearts. I’m so very glad I had the privilege to get to know you; our tastings (and we still have one more left!) have been a highlight of my career. Your parents raised you right.
Off to Sacramento early this morning for a trade tasting the organizers are billing as “The Critic Vs. the Somm.” It’s kind of a M.M.A. smackdown beween Master Sommelier Sur Lucero and myself—or, at least, that’s what it’s purported to be.
They expect a big turnout, I’m told. We’ll taste through a half-dozen or so wines. Sur, like myself an employee of Jackson Family Wines, will do his M.S. thing and explain his analytical process. I’ll do mine.
The M.S. grid (I think this is it – I got it off the Web)
certainly looks helpful; it encapsulates just about every quality you could find in a wine, and thus helps you identify what the wine is in a blind tasting in which you’re using deductive logic to identify what’s in the glass. Deductive logic, you’ll remember from philosophy class, is where you take a top-down approach to reasoning: starting with the premises, you reach a conclusion that must be true, provided that the premises are true. Thus, if the wine satisfies all the parameters of a fresh young German Riesling, then it must be German Riesling—or so the Master Sommelier grid would have it.
That’s all well and good, if your objective is to pass the M.S. examination. But it’s not the way I taste wine. I always say that the way you taste depends on your job. Master Somms learn to taste the way they do because they want to be Master Somms; their job, as it were, during the period they’re studying, is to taste like an M.S., hence the grid. They learn to taste in order to deduce what’s in the glass and pass the test.
That seems to me a kind of closed-circle way to taste wine. I have no gripe against it, and I can appreciate the amount of hard work that goes into tasting a wine double-blind and being able to say it’s Bordeaux or whatever. That’s pretty good. It’s the Cirque du Soleil of winetasting: flashy, entertaining, a crowd pleaser.
I might have gone that route, except that the way I learned to taste wine was entirely different. It was basically the old British way, transferred to our shores via the media I read when I was coming up (the San Francisco newspapers, wine books) and, most importantly, Wine Spectator magazine. The latter was my Bible in those early years. I thought it was the greatest magazine that ever existed: I couldn’t wait to get my copy in the mail (this was when it was a tabloid, not a big glossy ‘zine the way it is now). And from Wine Spectator, I learned to taste wine using the 100-point system, in a way that—let’s admit it—is not nearly as rigorous as the M.S. grid.
So exactly how does the amorphous 100-point system work? Well, to begin with, it’s a subjective impression, but it’s not subjective to the point of random incoherence. The proper use of the 100-point system depends on extensive experience, the kind needed to draw upon a sense-memory of what “perfection” is and then comparing all subsequent wines with that rarely-encountered Unicorn. The way I taste is like a shortcut around the M.S. grid. It’s a lot easier: you don’t have to go through all those complicated line items, but then again, the sommelier doesn’t taste for quality; she tastes to be able to deductively identify a wine. I taste for quality. Those are two different things.
When I taste a wine single-blind, it’s not important for me to figure out what it is. That concept never even occurred to me when I was coming up. It would have seemed senseless. I tasted then, and now, with respect to the overall impression the wine made in my mouth and brain. Was it a Wow! or a Dud, and where on that continuum does it fall? After all, that’s the way actual human beings taste: do they like the wine, and if so, how much do they like it, or do they loathe it? It never seemed important to me to taste deductively; I wanted to learn to taste hedonistically (as Mr. Parker might put it). I wanted to get a job as a wine critic, and when I was coming up, wine critics got successful jobs based on criteria such as writing ability, knowledge of wine, and team skills, and not on deductive tasting. In fact, such deductive tasting is, to the best of my knowledge, a comparatively recent practice. Wine professionals never tasted the way sommeliers taste. Throughout history they have tasted the way I taste.
Is one method better? Well, like I said, the way you taste depends on your job. Wine writers of my generation never troubled themselves to think deductively (although there’s a certain amount of deduction involved in my kind of tasting). We either tasted openly, in which case deduction was completely pointless, or we tasted in single-blind flights, in which we knew many things about the wines (region, vintage, variety, etc.) and were simply comparing them qualitatively. That’s still the way I taste, but there’s something else: since I came up as a magazine writer, the object of my thoughts whenever I tasted wine was the consumer. I always thought of those anonymous people out there who might buy a wine based on my recommendation. They don’t care about the M.S. grid. They don’t get into that level of analysis. They just want to experience pleasure, and perhaps some good wine-and-food pairing too. And so that’s how I taste: Does the wine give me pleasure? Because if it gives me pleasure it should give most consumers pleasure. And if it gives me pleasure, how much pleasure does it give me? That’s where the points come in. Ninety points is a lot of pleasure. One hundred points is pleasure unbounded—a wine that’s right up there in my sense-memory with the greatest I’ve ever had. I might be less able than a somm to say “This is a Cabernet Sauvignon and this is a Merlot” but that sort of thing doesn’t matter to me, nor do I think the readers of wine magazines (or diners in a restaurant) care about that in a writer or server. They want someone who cares about them, who is able to predict for them what they’ll like, who can tell them stories about the wines. You don’t have to taste deductively in order to be that person. I think, ultimately, the skills needed to be a Master Sommelier are exactly that: the skills needed to be a Master Sommelier. One develops expertise at that sort of thing in order to climb the sommelier ladder and append those magic letters, M.S., after one’s name. That helps to get a job nowadays, in this intensely competitive environment, but how it helps consumers isn’t clear to me.