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Learning from somms

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Great time yesterday tasting wine over lunch at a fabulous restaurant, The Loft, at the Montage Resort in Laguna Beach. “Fancy-schmancy,” my grandma Rose would have called it. Chef Casey Overton’s food rocked; the pairings were excellent. Our guests were about a dozen local somms and retailers. The hours flew by and the conversation never lagged, so I guess you’d say it was a success. I certainly enjoyed myself.

It always amazes me that professionals on the retail side of things are so interested in my former job as a wine critic. I mean, I’m there to talk about the wines, the vineyards, the winemakers and so on. There are certainly great stories to tell. But people want to hear about the nuts and bolts of the critic’s job. How do you taste? How do you score? These are things of great interest, I guess, but it’s all the more strange to me given that most somms have a natural (and perfectly understandable) antipathy to critics. They (somms) work really hard to master their trades, and then in comes some customer who wants the latest 100-point wine, instead of depending on the somm’s latest insights.

That would annoy me, too.

I think for somms, and better retailers, the critics basically landed their jobs through a combination of luck and maybe some skill, but certainly not the skill set that a sommelier develops, especially one who’s deep into the certification process. They look at critics and think “That guy doesn’t know nearly as much as I do about [fill in the blank], and yet he’s got more influence on consumers than I’ll have in a lifetime.” This is a profound truth, and there is an element of unfairness. At the same time, it’s life—reality—the way things are—so the somms have to deal with it. Perhaps some of the fascination with the critic’s job is because most critics seem like remote beings, up on some pedestal or magic mountain or something. They’re not really human: they’re brands. There’s the Robert Parker brand, the Jim Laube brand, the Antonio Galloni brand, and, up until last year, the Steve Heimoff brand. I don’t think that’s the way any of us planned it, or even wanted it, but it’s how things turned out.

For myself, one of the biggest challenges of being branded was to try to put people at their ease. But we (all of us; the media, buyers, consumers) have elevated critics to such high levels that they can almost seem like gods. This is understandable in part because we have given over to the critics one of the most fundamental parts of our minds—the ability to make judgments—a part of our mind that really should never be entrusted to someone else. And then, in order to justify this abdication of our own judgment-making capacity, we convince ourselves that the critics must have some insight into the divine—must be in touch with something greater than we can comprehend—otherwise how could we live with ourselves, knowing we’ve entrusted our judgment to a mere mortal?

Of course, that’s nonsense. Critics aren’t divine, any more than anyone else. But the psychology of how we think and make decisions and feel about ourselves is at play here. These are enormous stakes, of enormous interest to people who think about such things, so it’s only natural that these somms and retailers would want to know more about how a critic thinks. We’re all trying to make sense of our world, aren’t we?

All of which makes me wonder about the future of critics. Will they always be with us? Will they go away? If they do, to whom will the public turn for advice? We are at a crucial crossroads here. The public is more confused than ever, what with the proliferation of wine brands, but at the same time they’re more ornery than ever. Older wine drinkers, who are rapidly fading away, are more conservative, but younger ones—bless their souls—are adventurous. This means that any winery can be famous for fifteen minutes. The question is, how does a winery achieve brand loyalty? This is the biggest question the industry faces going forward.


On the art of blending

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The new book The Winemaker’s Hand, which contains interviews of winemakers, is a testament to the art of blending. “Blending is very intuitive…it’s neither linear nor logical,” Cathy Corison tells author Natalie Berkowitz, adding, “A plus B doesn’t equal A plus B.” Her fellow Napan, Bill Dyer, refers to the “hunches and perceptions” involved in winemaking: “Dawnine [his wife] and I are quite competent at blending,” which he calls “an essential part” of making wine.

Just how essential and intuitive blending is, is rarely appreciated by the public, but winemakers know it’s at least as important as anything else they do, and in the long run, maybe more so. The entire yield of a vineyard never ends up in the final bottling, at least at a top winery. The winemaker must blend for consistency with house style and also to produce the best wine she can from the vintage, while remaining true to the terroir. That can entail tasting through an enormous range of individual lots, some as small as a single barrel. It’s tedious work, but necessary, and, if you’re of the right mindset, terrific fun.

So when Marcia Monahan, the winemaker at Matanzas Creek, invited me to blend Sauvignon Blanc with her, I jumped at the chance. She was looking to assemble the final blends on three of her wines: the Bennett Valley bottling, the Helena Bench wine from Knights Valley, and the top-tier Journey. So Gus and I drove up early last week from Oakland and spent the most delightful day playing with dozens of samples.

 

BOOTY

When I say “playing” I use the word intentionally. There is something of the kid playing with toys; although it’s serious business, personally it has its roots in the little girl trying different outfits on her doll or the little boy who’s plugging Legos together. (Blending also brings to mind the playful tinkering of a chef developing a new dish.) Try this, try that, what do you think, how does it taste, how about this and that, with a little more of that, a little less of this, let’s put in a drop of C and see what happens… There’s no way not to think of this behavior as play for adults. But there’s always intentionality behind it.

The idea, as Cathy Corison suggested with “A plus B doesn’t equal A plus B,” is that the sum of A plus B can be more than either A alone or B alone; the mixture is greater than the sum of its parts. On the other hand, sometimes A plus B is less than A plus B. It’s difficult if not impossible to know, in advance, how the alchemy will work out, so almost every possibility has to be tried before you can know what works and what doesn’t. This means the process is arduous. But it’s the tedium of pleasure, of discovery, of the gold miner willing to plod through tons of ore because any moment now the big nugget might appear.

 

Marcia

We—Marcia and I—put together what I think is a marvelous Helena Bench and Bennett Valley. We preserved the terroir of both—the latter being cooler than the former, it has a different fruit-acid profile. (Journey will have to wait for a later date.) Of course, our blends may not be the final ones, but I do think they will in large part constitute them. When we finally hit the nail on the head, after all that trial and error, it was like, “Yes!” Fist bumps, high fives all around—both Marcia and I glowed with pleasure. We had taken raw materials, some better than others, but no one of them anywhere near perfect—and through admixture, come up with something that never existed before, something Mother Nature by herself could not have accomplished, because it required hands, brains, experience, esthetic vision and hard work to achieve. But after all that work, you’re hungry! So we went down to the Jimtown Store.

* * *

Off to Southern California and Arizona for the week. I’ll be blogging from the road, so you never know what will turn up!


Einstein, wine quality and a great San Francisco day

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After 1918, when the General Theory of Relativity made headlines all over the world, and Albert Einstein was the most famous scientist in history, the theory became the basis, in the popular mind, for a singular misconception.

“The phrase ‘everything is relative’ became very popular. It was thought to mean that nothing is better than anything else,” writes Robert Cwiklik, in his little volume, Albert Einstein and the Theory of Relativity.

Under this misunderstanding of what the theory actually meant, people assumed that no opinion, idea, style or solution to any problem was better than any other. This certainly had nothing to do with Einstein’s own beliefs—he always stuck to his view of fixed, immutable truths in the Universe, and spent his life, futilely at the end, searching for them. But it did enable the masses to argue that, since everything is relative, one’s own views were as valid as those of any expert.

This strain of thinking has always been nascent in humans—it is the basis of the anti-intellectualism that runs through American history–but it has acquired particular force in the age of the Internet and social media. This is because anyone can, indeed, formulate an opinion and then promulgate it, instantaneously and universally, with the push of a keystroke. This had led to the notion that expertise is no longer valid—is, in fact, elitist—a notion that has particular traction in wine reviewing, which has always been viewed skeptically and even hostilely by certain segments of the public.

However, as Einstein would be the first to aver, this is simply not the case. As one who has repeatedly suggested that people drink what they want, with whatever they want, I defer to no one in my democratic [small “d”] beliefs. But the fact is, there is such a thing as quality in wine. Some wines simply are better than others, and this is always due to two factors: the excellence of the vineyard, and the diligence of the winemaking team.

Have I said anything earthshaking, or that you didn’t know? No. But I’m reading the Einstein book, and that quote led me to these thoughts, which you’re reading now. Of more pertinence, perhaps, to me anyhow, was my day in San Francisco. A picture-postcard day, Spring-like and sunny, with the beauty that S.F. is famous for. Maxine, Keith and I had planned to have oysters at Waterbar during Christmas week, but the flu hit all three of us, hard, and we had to postpone. Marilyn joined us at the last minute, largely because after Waterbar, we planned to walk over to Trou Normand, in the old Pacific Telephone Building,

PacTel

South of Market. Marilyn worked there, long ago, as a secretary, and wanted to reminisce. Besides, Trou Normand was just chosen as one of Michael Bauer’s top ten new restaurants of 2014, and one of the chefs, Seth, is married to my friend Danielle, who’s the receptionist at Old Crow Tattoo. Trou Normand specializes in charcuterie—who could say no to that, except a vegan?—and, rare for downtown, they’re open all afternoon. So we had our oysters (a dozen each) at beautiful Waterbar, with a bottle of Domaine Chandon L’Etoile (a great wine), then walked over to Trou Normand and gorged on charcuterie and salumi. Here’s a photo essay.

downtownSF

It was clear and blue-skied downtown

FerryBldg

The Ferry Building gleamed white

BayBridge

And the water was blue beneath the Bay Bridge

MrGull

Mr. Gull was relaxing on an old piling

 WaterBar

Waterbar looked warm and inviting

WaterBarPatio

with its outdoor area by the bridge

 Shellfish

The shellfish beckoned

Then it was off to Trou Normand

Normand

Located in a high-ceilinged former lobby of the telephone building

NormandInside

I wanted everything on the menu

 NormandMenu

Charcuterie

Our server was very helpful!


Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir, and the loss of a pioneer, Daniel J. Gainey

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Santa Barbara County has been much on my mind lately. Last month, we at Jackson Family Wines did our “Sand & Fog” event in L.A. that focused on the Pinot Noirs of the Santa Maria Valley. I followed that up with a small private tasting of additional Santa Maria Pinots. Next week, I’ll do Santa Rita Hills Pinots, up at the company in Santa Rosa. Since Jackson Family Wines has no properties in the Santa Rita Hills, I’ve chosen the following eight wines, which I think give a good representation of the region:

Siduri 2012 Clos Pepe

Loring 2012 Cargasacchi

Brewer Clifton 2012 3-D

Brewer Clifton 2012 Machado

Domaine de la Cote 2012 Bloom’s Field

Lutum 2012 Sanford & Benedict

Foxen 2012 La Encantada

Foxen 2012 Fe Ciega

As you can see, the vineyard sourcing is from all over the appellation, north to south and west to east. There’s also a good spectrum of clonal material ranging from the Dijons to older selections like Pommard and Calera. Some of the wines were fermented without the clusters while others, notably Greg Brewer’s, were whole cluster fermentation. And alcohol levels—always of such interest—range from the Cote’s 12.5% to Siduri’s 15.6%. All of the wines are, of course, sourced from individual vineyards or from specific blocks within vineyards.

Does a blended wine give a better representation of regional terroir than a single-vineyard wine? This is a tough question to answer. A blended wine—say, a Pinot from La Encantada, Cargasacchi and Brewer-Clifton—is hard to imagine in the real world. But if you had no idea what the Santa Rita Hills was like for Pinot Noir, such a mythical beast would undoubtedly give you a good idea. On the other hand, it’s terrific fun to explore individual vineyards, especially provided that you’re able to do so over many vintages. Fortunately, I can always go into my database and see what I’ve said over the years about most of these vineyards. Encantada, Fe Ciega, S&B, Clos Pepe, Cargasacchi—I have a history with these wines, which are all very great expressions of their terroir.

For this Santa Rita Hills tasting, I think we’ll do it blind. It will be instructive to see if, for instance, we can tell the Domaine de la Cote and the Siduri because both are the outliers in terms of alcohol level. I, myself, am not always to detect highish alcohol in a California wine. I always try to, before peeking at the label, but I’d say my batting average is just that: average. I also want to see if we’ll be able to detect the whole cluster wines blind. I’d look for more body, more spiciness and a different feeling to the tannins. I don’t think Greg Brewer would whole-cluster his Pinots if the stems weren’t fully lignified. I’ll be looking for that architectural element that stems can give, which you can feel in the mouth.

* * *

Speaking of Santa Barbara County, just as I was writing this post, I got an email that Daniel J. Gainey, the founder of Gainey Vineyard, has passed away, at the age of 89. I had a great deal of respect for Mr. Gainey, although I was closer to his son, Dan H. I was a frequent visitor to their lovely winery, which was just down the road from Santa Ynez town, where I often stayed at the Santa Ynez Inn. Gainey made excellent wines, from cool-climate Pinots and Chards grown in their Santa Rita Hills vineyards to the Merlots, Syrahs and Sauvignon Blancs from warmer vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley. As a matter of fact, before the advent of Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, I used to write that Gainey made the best Merlot in the county. Over the years, I gave 48 Gainey wines scores of 90 points or higher. Not bad.

Mr. Gainey was a true pioneer, having founded his winery in 1984, when practically no one had heard of the Santa Ynez Valley, or of Santa Barbara County wine, for that matter. He was a true wine lover and a gentleman. My sympathies to Dan H. and the entire family.


My Pinot Noir event in Los Angeles

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I did my first big event for Jackson Family Wines yesterday, and I think it went pretty well. Despite a downpour, we had a full house. It was on the wines of the Santa Maria Valley, especially Pinot. I didn’t want it to be a JFW thing, so I asked my dear friends Dieter Cronje, from Presqu’ile, Chris Hammell, from Bien Nacido, Dick Dore, from Foxen, and James Ontiveros, from Native9 and Alta Maria, to participate, along with Denise Shurtleff (Cambria) and Jonathan Nagy (Byron).

Everybody did such a great job; I’m so proud of them. The idea was to give gatekeepers—somms, bloggers, writers, restaurateurs, merchants—a better idea of what the Santa Maria Valley is because, frankly, in my opinion, people don’t fully understand it. That’s because it’s fairly isolated and hard to get to, without great restaurants or hotels, and the valley floor is more about row crops than winegrapes. But, oh, the terroir is perfect on the benches and hillsides for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and other cool-climate varieties, as our tasting amply demonstrated.

The temperature warms up a degree or two with every mile you go inland in this west-east-running valley (courtesy of the transverse deforming action of the San Andreas Fault), so it was fascinating to taste the Pinot from the westernmost area, Presqu’ile, compared to the Pinot from the easternmost area, Byron, and everything inbetween. Sometimes, data actually verify hunches, and in this case, the data beautifully illustrate this temperature gradient. Check it out, from west [cool] to east [warmer]:

Presqu’ile [westernmost]: alc. 13.2%

Fermentation: 100% whole cluster

 

Native9 [very western]: alc. 13.5%

Fermentation; 100% whole cluster

 

Bien Nacido (central): alc. 13.7%

Fermentation: partial whole cluster

 

Foxen Julia’s Vineyard (toward the east): alc. 14.2%

Fermentation: 100% destemmed

 

Cambria (toward the east): alc. 14.6%

Fermentation: 100% destemmed

 

Byron (easternmost, warmest): alc. 14.4%

Fermentation: 100% destemmed

 

Alcohols go up as you travel to warmer inland areas. As for the fermentation, the Presqu’ile and Native9 winemakers felt the wines could benefit from the added tannins and body of stems, whereas the inland winemakers felt their wines were full-bodied and tannic enough to not need stems. Right in the middle is Bien Nacido, where you get partial whole cluster.

Isn’t that pretty? Such a sweet illustration of the way climate impacts winemaking decisions. And yet all the wines, in my opinion, showed a distinct Santa Maria Valley character: Spicy. Silky tannins. Great fruit, running towards the red: pomegranates, cherries. Great balance and complexity, as well as dryness. And great ageability. Afterwards, we had a library tasting, and the oldest bottlings, dating to 1997, were superb, among the best California Pinot Noirs I’ve ever had.

I ran into a few diehard somms who would never sell anything in their restaurants besides Burgundy, and that’s just fine, it’s a free world. But really, this was a sensational tasting, one of the best I ever went to. I wish you could have been there. We had it at Republique restaurant, on La Brea in L.A., which is on the site of the old Campanile, a restaurant I enjoyed ages ago. Chef Walter Manzke prepared some small plates to enjoy with the older wines, and that food was uncannily good. I’m still thinking about it.

Afterwards a group of somms and I hung out in the front of the restaurant, talking about cocktails. I do like a good vodka gimlet. But I have to say, in all sincerity, these Santa Maria Valley Pinots are awesome, from a cru as great as any in California, even if it doesn’t get the love of Santa Rita Hills or Russian River Valley. Maybe it will now start to.

See you tomorrow!

 


Fourteen rules concerning wine blogging

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I hope you had a great Thanksgiving weekend! We were down in Malibu, where we ate all the traditional foods and washed them down with a bunch of great wine.

 My post of Nov 24 elicited 32 comments (not counting the ridiculous spams, which fortunately you don’t have to see!), which is pretty good for a middle-aged blog that isn’t trying to rock the boat, but only thoughtfully observe what I see around me. Evidently, this subject of the relationship between wineries and bloggers (and the rules that can or should govern them) is of interest to many of my readers. It certainly is to me, which is why I address the topic with some frequency (hopefully, not too much!) As the Santa Barbara winemaker Larry Schaffer observes, This topic certainly has been covered before, but it’s always fun to see where folks stand on it.”

Fun, yes…and important, for as blogging (and other forms of online wine writing) become increasingly more important, it’s imperative to understand what these formal relationships really consist of. To my mind, the most important aspect of that relationship is that wine knowledge is becoming more diffuse and subjective. This is a huge game changer because:

  1. Nothing can be taken for granted anymore, because everybody is playing by their own rules (unlike the old days, when everybody played by the same rules).
  2. Bloggers, and younger generations in particular, are less beholden to the traditional way of doing things than their parents and grandparents.
  3. Therefore, there are as many sets of rules as there are bloggers.
  4. Therefore, any specific wine has a much greater chance of a great review or a lousy review than it used to have.
  5. Yet “what goes around, comes around.” What do I mean by this? See #14, below. But first, read #6 through #13.
  6. There’s no reason, in principle, why a lot of bloggers can’t decide that First Growth Bordeaux is too expensive, and is boring to boot.
  7. Thirty years ago, if someone had said “Bordeaux is too expensive and is also boring,” that person would have had zero credibility. Today, to say that “Bordeaux is expensive and boring” is a perfectly credible statement. Why? See #1 and #2, above.
  8. The inverse of this is to say that “Wine X is cheap but great.” It’s no longer necessarily true that a winemaker who selects a few special barrels of a wine, then puts extra oak on it and ages it longer before release, will produce a better wine. (Why? See #1 and #2.)
  9. When enough people agree that a “reserve”-style wine isn’t worth the extra money, winemakers will stop making reserve wines.
  10. I, personally, believe that most (not all) reserve wines are worth the extra money, but I am a Baby Boomer, and (once again), see #1 and #2, above.
  11. On the other hand, I don’t always want a reserve-style wine. We had mashed, baked sweet potatoes with marshmallows on our Thanksgiving table and it would have been ridiculous to drink an expensive wine with it. (Well, maybe Sauternes would have been nice.)
  12. Younger generations are more likely to eat things like sweet potatoes with marshmallows than gourmet cuisine, so they’re more likely to gravitate toward less expensive wines.
  13. In principle, there’s no reason why the age-old template of “everyday” wine versus “reserve” wine should continue to exist. Pace Andy Warhol, “In the future, every wine, expensive or cheap, will be famous for 15 minutes.”
  14. Here’s the irony. Although I believe everything I wrote above, I also believe we’ll continue to have expensive, critically-acclaimed wines forever. Why? See #5, above.

* * *

Today is our big event down in L.A., “A Tale of Sand & Fog.” I’ll be reporting on it in coming days. Meanwhile, please enjoy the rest of your Tuesday!


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