At our weekly tastings at Jackson Family Wines, we’ve now finished with West Coast Pinot Noir and are ready to tackle Chardonnay.
I started Pinot many months ago with a roundup of wines from Santa Maria Valley. After that, in order going northward, came Santa Rita Hills, San Luis Obispo (Edna and Arroyo Grande valleys), Monterey County, the Santa Lucia Highlands and Chalone, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Carneros (both Napa and Sonoma), Russian River Valley, the “true” Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley and, finally, Willamette Valley.
What did I find after this intensive tour de force?
All West Coast Pinot Noir is more alike than not. This is not to discount variations in alcohol level, ripeness and so forth; merely to ascertain that Pinot Noir, made competently in California and Oregon, has a character of delicacy, soft tannins, bright acidity and a juicy berry-ness that persists through changes in terroir and winemaking technique.
Still, there are broad differences. To me, Santa Maria Pinot Noir is characterized by black and blue fruits, brown spices, acidity and minerality. Santa Rita Pinot is balanced and complex, also with acidity but somehow more generous when young. San Luis Obispo Pinot can be variable: Edna Valley has varietal purity, Arroyo Grande ageability, in the best cases. Monterey County-appellated Pinots are simple but can be good values. Santa Lucia also is variable, depending on north or south; the wines are full-bodied and dense. Of Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir, it is difficult for me to judge, since there is so little, and what there is is scattered over vast differences of terroir. Carneros Pinot Noir is earthy and minerally and sometimes soft; newer plantings are helping to increase quality. Russian River Pinot Noir is another case study in difficulty of specificity, since the appellation is so broad. In general, it is rich and balanced, often veering towards cola, sassafras and winter fruits (persimmons and pomegranates), and the best are classic. Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir is just beginning to declare an identity, and what a glorious one it is: wild, feral and intricate, and, at the top levels, spectacular. Anderson Valley possibly triumphs over all its southern neighbors in sheer balance and harmony, especially in great vintages, like 2012 and 2013; but there is so little of it, quantity-wise. Up in Oregon, Willamette Valley Pinot, equally as vintage-driven as Anderson Valley, is the most “Burgundian” of American Pinot Noirs, with earthy, mushroom and tea notes. My most recent tasting of them blew me away. Anyway, what an exciting six months this has been for us tasting freaks!
And now here comes Chardonnay. I’ll round the wines up in the same south-to-north geographic order, starting again with Santa Maria Valley. How do I chose which wines to include in our tastings? It’s purely arbitrary, although there is a method to my madness. Since I can’t have every wine from each appellation, I have to pick and choose. My first parameter for choosing is my own experience: I select wines I’ve reviewed for many years and have given good scores to. I’m also interested in wines I haven’t tasted (at all, or recently), if a publication I regard gives them good scores. For example, the October 2015 issue of Wine & Spirits has a “Year’s Best Chardonnay” section that will give me some guidance. Many of these wines are not available on the current market, but I keep my fingers crossed and hope that, when I call the winery and identify myself, I have just enough name recognition remaining (after being largely out of circulation for 1-1/2 years) to wangle myself a bottle.
Since I’ve been doing a lot of phone and website ordering of wines lately, I’ve encountered an aspect of the direct-to-consumer experience that I wasn’t very familiar with. Critics mainly depend on tasting samples being sent to us, which means we don’t have to hit the telephone and the Internet the way “ordinary” consumers do to buy wine. I must say that, by and large, the DTC system works quite well. Most wineries seem to use the same software (shopping carts, proceed to checkout, etc.), and it’s really easy and intuitive to use. The main problem is wineries who, deliberately or through ignorance, make it almost impossible to get in touch with them. There have been one or two instances where the phone tag got so severe that I gave up trying to obtain the wine. Why would a winery make it so hard for me to buy their wine? It is a mystery.
One other frustration: The rules concerning sending wine, even in-state here in California, are confusing when it comes to the details of how UPS, FedEx, GSO and other shippers work. I’m sometimes told that FedEx and GSO will not deliver wine to me at my local UPS Store—even though they have been doing just that for years. Some wineries tell me they’re not allowed to send wine overnight. What’s up with that, if I’m willing to pay for it? These rigidities all are the residue of Prohibition, that stupid “experiment” when alcoholic beverages were considered “demons” and their transport within the country was made almost impossible.
Anyhow, on to Chardonnay, still #1 in America after all these years. There’s a rumor going ‘round that says vintners are making it more “balanced.” That means, I suppose, picking it less ripe. That’s fine, but the risk is turning Chardonnay into a lean, green machine, instead of the opulent wine I, and most other people, like. As usual, it’s a balancing act.
TO ALL OUR FRIENDS WHO ARE SUFFERING FROM THE VALLEY FIRE: This is truly awful. Our hearts and prayers go out to you.
We had a great time down at my recent Jackson Family Wines dinner at the Driftwood Kitchen, a grand restaurant right on the beach in Laguna Beach.
Laguna Beach, if you haven’t been there, is one of those rich beach towns in Orange County where every view is a picture postcard. It’s California’s Riviera, Monte Carlo without the gambling. I must say that Chef Rainer Schwarz prepared an outstanding dinner: pan-seared John Dory with potato gnocchi in lobster sauce with caremlized fennel; duck breast with butternut squash galette, goat cheese salad and roasted candied beets in a huckleberry vinaigrette; and a pair of proteins, filet mignon and short ribs, swimming in a potato coulis with brussel sprout chips, almonds and an Umbrian truffle sauce.
Sound good? It was. We paired each course with two JFW wines:
Course 1: Matanzas Creek Bennett Valley Sauvignon Blanc and Stonestreet Knights Valley Sauvignon Blanc
Course 2: La Crema Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and La Crema Russian River Valley Pinot Noir
Course 3: Freemark Abbey Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and La Jota Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon.
Yes, the pairings were as good as they sound. Different people had their favorites as to which wine paired best with each course, and so did I; but it’s really senseless to make these sorts of things into contests.
As the resident wine guy, my job was to say interesting things and, hopefully, keep people’s attention. Hosting these sorts of meals is lots of fun, but there are risks. As the evening goes on, and people drink more wine, it’s harder to keep their attention. You don’t want to force them to listen to you: they’ve paid their good money and are entitled to laugh it up with the others at their tables. (We had two big tables and two smaller tables, total of 26 guests in all.) As a result, the experienced dinner speaker has his bag of tricks to resort to.
I don’t overly-rehearse for these events. I’ve seen other hosts who have delivered the same spiel a thousand times, and you can tell: it’s not fresh or spontaneous. I’m a big believer in spontaneity. Life is spontaneous. You can have your talking points, and your written notes to refer to, but you have to go where the energy takes you. In this case, I wanted to talk about the wines and the wineries and the appellations, but I also wanted to gauge our guests’ knowledge of Jackson Family Wines, and their overall wine knowledge. You don’t want to talk up or down to people. You want to talk to them where they are—and since 26 people are in 26 different places, you have to keep your fingers crossed that you’re appealing to the majority of them, if not all of them. Believe me, it keeps you on your toes.
Things went very well. I can always tell from the feel of the guests; and the feel was happy and upbeat. Afterwards, 6 or 7 people came up to shake my hand and tell me how much they enjoyed the evening. That’s a great sign, when a quarter of your guests deliberately seek you out to say “Thank you.”
I will admit that, at the very end, things got pretty boisterous; and while I still had lots to say, I had to realize that my part—the formal part, anyway–of the night was over. At that point, people just wanted to enjoy themselves, not listen to a spiel about cepages and terroir. So I concluded, but it’s always nice, afterwards, to make the rounds of the tables, introduce yourself to folks you haven’t met, and continue the conversation more informally and intimately. And it doesn’t have to be about wine! When people are relaxed and comfortable at the end of a great meal, they know what they want to talk about. It might be their families, or something about work, or sports, or, well, romance. It’s called “hanging out” and it’s all part of the job.
And it’s a part I love. I get nervous before these things start, although maybe “nervous” is the wrong word. I conserve my energy. I center myself to be prepared for anything. I go internal. I imagine that Broadway actors go through the same thing. But once I’m out there, on my feet, wham! The ham in me loves it.
By the way, someone at the restaurant had the great idea of starting the night by putting KJ’s Grand Reserve Rosé, which we drank with passed-around appetizers, into a black glass. You couldn’t see the wine, so you didn’t even know what color it was. The idea was for me to explain to the guests how hard it can be to assess a wine when you don’t know anything about it, even the color. Of all our guests, I’d say about three-quarters thought it was white. A few thought it was red. But only one nailed it: when I asked him the color, whether he thought it was red or white, he said, “Could it be inbetween?” Good palate! I don’t know if I could have done that.
Have a lovely weekend. Back Monday.
My event yesterday in Monterey was even better than I’d dared to hope. You never know, when you put together a complex tasting like this, for a high-level audience of wine professionals, how it’s going to go. In this case, we decided to have a “Sur and Steve Road Show,” Sur being Sur Lucero, one of Jackson Family Wines’ Master Sommeliers, and Steve being me, the former critic who works with the 100-point scale. The idea was for the audience to get inside our heads and see how differently we think: Sur the analyst, looking for typicity, zeroing in on variety, region and even vintage based on his long experience at double-blind tasting; and me, not really having the same skill set, but being able to determine the quality of the wine, based on the 100-point system.
It was something of a gamble: this could have been a disaster. But somehow, it worked. I think it helped that Sur and I have great respect and affection for each other. As he goes through his Master Sommelier grid, explaining how through the process of deduction he works from the general to the specific, I am in awe of the experience required to taste a wine, double-blind, and determine that it must be a Riesling from California! Wow, how good is that. And yet, Sur is the first to admit he’s not really looking for a qualitative analysis, especially one based on a numerical scoring system. He could be entirely dismissive of the 100-pont scale—lots of somms are—but he isn’t. It’s wonderful and rewarding for me to have someone of Sur’s talents tell me how much he wants to learn how my mind works when I analyze the wine—not in an M.S. way, but in my own, developed over decades—and then decide what the score ought to be. And, judging from the reaction of our guests, they were fascinated by these twin tours through the brains of two pros.
The risk for the sponsoring winery, in this case Jackson Family Wines, is that I, as the critic, am going to declare an absolute quality to each wine. And that may not be equivalent to a high score. Sur isn’t going to do that: if you’re in the audience, you have to read inbetween Sur’s lines, decipher his comments, to decide if he likes the wine. With me, you don’t have to guess: I’m telling you upfront, with the score. I’m not always in love with every one of JFW’s wines, and I’ll tell you so. But that’s part of keeping it real.
I’ve been in plenty of public events that were duds. I don’t think that any of the events I was responsible for and led was a dud, because on those occasions when it’s entirely up to me, I usually come up with something offbeat enough to be of interest. However, I’ve been invited to be a part of events that fizzled instead of sizzled, and my after-analysis of them is that they were too mundane and predictable. There’s a certain template to having a nice, safe event, where nobody feels like they wasted their time, but they also don’t go home excited, or having learned anything. I don’t want to be part of such blah events.
Yesterday’s event, as I said, was exciting, because it was different. I’ve never even heard of anything like it. I specifically did not want it billed as the Sur Versus Steve Ultimate Blind Tasting Smackdown. Instead, I wanted it to be exactly what it was: Two professionals, both with long experience, both nice, sane, communicative guys who like each other, both explaining just how their gray matter works. The fact that things turned out so well is proof of the fact that, sometimes, when you take risks, they pan out. And I’ll tell you how I knew this was risky: it’s because I was nervous beforehand. No risk, no reward. I’d hate to have a road show that was so well-rehearsed, so perfected in all its parts, so been-there-done-that, that it no longer possessed any frisson of danger.
My voice may never be the same after today’s wine event at the M Resort and Casino in Henderson, just outside Las Vegas. It was in a large banquet room and they had six of us “experts” each presiding over a tasting station. Each of us had a dozen guests at a time (general managers of restaurants) coming through six times (a total of 72 in all), so I had to repeat the same tasting six times, which was great fun—don’t get me wrong—but the other experts were doing the same thing, the acoustics were pretty bad, and so we were all hollering at the top of our lungs. That comes easy to Larry O’Brien, M.S., who—as I told someone—is invariably referred to as the Great Larry O’Brien. He’s got a big, booming voice. I’m small; fortunately, I do have that Bronx thing which can out-yell almost anyone, but after two hours of hollering, I just know tomorrow I’ll be hoarse as a frog. Oh well. That’s the occupational hazard to this job and you know what? I don’t care. What a fantastic time!
My topic was comparing mountain and benchland Cabernet Sauvignons in Napa Valley. Most of the GMs, I’m told, have completed some early phase of the WSET, so they have some general knowledge of wine. My mountain wine was 2011 Mount Brave and my bench wine was 2004 Freemark Abbey Bosché.
When I do these sorts of presentations, I like to involve my audience by having them answer questions–testing their knowledge, and encouraging them to think. So I asked each of my six groups to tell me one thing they know about mountain soils. What I was driving at was, of course, the lack of water-holding capacity: the aridity and low nutrient value, the runoff. Instead, four people in four of my groups responded with the same word: “Rocks.” (The other two groups didn’t want to say anything.) I thought that was interesting. Yes, mountain soils often are rocky—but flatland soils can be, too. But it wasn’t what I was looking for. Anyway, “rocks” was a good enough segue to get into the water-holding capacity (or lack thereof) of mountain dirt, so all was good. Incidentally, that ’11 Mt. Brave absolutely rocked. The ’04 Bosché was pretty good, having entered a secondary phase, and I’d drink it anytime with roast chicken. But OMG was that Mt. Brave awesome, and three of the GMs volunteered to me how much they like Mt. Brave.
Here’s a picture of some of the folks after our session.
I hadn’t been to Vegas in a long time and it kind of freaks me out. For one thing, it’s insane the way the irrigated landscapes are surrounded by desert.
I mean, nature obviously doesn’t intend for anything to grow here except creosote or whatever those scrubby little bushes are, yet Vegas is an explosion of golf courses, parks, grassy yards and swimming pools, not to mention the insatiable water need of the hotels. And I saw all sorts of billboards advertising future planned communities. Where are they gonna get the water? My driver told me they’re hoping for a big El Nino this year, same as we are in California. Good luck.
Then there’s the casino. They wouldn’t let me take pictures, but it’s sad, very sad. Isolated, unhealthy-looking people throwing their money away, staring into computerized machines like zombies. I’ve seen the commercials showing beautiful, sexy young men and women at the tables and slots, laughing and hitting jackpots, having the time of their lives, but I didn’t see anything remotely like that. All the lonely people, where do they all come from? Then I think: Who am I to judge? Are they any different from me watching TV for hours?
Tonight, it’s onto some well-deserved sushi for dinner, a vodka gimlet, and then back home tomorrow to Gus, who’s lucky enough to be watched by my cousins. They tell me Gus is lonely for me. I am for him, too.
Have a great day. Back tomorrow.
I got my Sunday San Francisco Chronicle and, what do you know, there was an entire section on California Wine! Sixteen pages. That’s the most wine coverage I’ve seen in the paper in years. Maybe they got the message—not just from me, but from others, including the Napa Register’s Paul Franson–about how skimpy their wine writing has been. I don’t know, but Sunday’s section was a welcome surprise.
Still no appearance by their supposed new wine writer, Esther Mobley. Maybe she’s getting up to speed. [EDITOR’S NOTE: I’ve since learned that Ms. Mobley had an article on Aug. 15.] There were several articles by local freelance writers; I particularly liked Luke Sykora’s on the drought. But it’s not clear whether this new, expanded coverage will be permanent. Maybe not; on the paper’s website, the wine section is tagged under “California Wine Month,” which is officially this September.
* * *
Meanwhile, as part of my Jackson Family wines job, I’m off to Las Vegas for Darden’s Specialty Restaurant Group conference at the M Resort. (Darden owns everything from Olive Garden to The Capital Grille.) I’ll be doing a seminar on Napa Valley mountain Cabernet Sauvignon “versus” Napa Valley valley floor Cabernet.
I put “versus” into quotation marks, because I don’t see this as a contest. Valley floor used to have a negative connotation (inherited from Europe, I guess, where the best vines are on slopes), but with modern viticultural and enological techniques, valley floor Cab can be quite good. Witness Beckstoffer’s Georges III Vineyard, close by the Conn Creek, in the Rutherford flats.
The two wines I’ll be presenting are Mount Brave, way up (1,600-1,800 feet) on Mount Veeder, which obviously is the mountain wine, and Freemark Abbey Bosché, which is not strictly speaking a “valley floor” wine but is on the Rutherford bench. (I think that one of these days there ought to be “Bench” appellations for Oakville and Rutherford, and possibly Yountville too, but politically, it probably won’t happen.) The main difference between viticulture in the mountains and the floor is that, in the latter, the soils are richer, so growers will often force the vines to struggle by dry-farming them. Growers also can leave more clusters on valley floor vines because the canopies are more extensive and can support more fruit. Of course, up in the mountains, there’s less fog and more sunlight, but as we’ve seen, this is a mixed blessing. The vines up there can bake in a heat wave. Mountain Cabs also tend to be more tannic than floor or benchland wines, so winemakers have to deal with that—typically, by letting the fruit hang longer, and then doing “aerative pumpovers” to expose the juice to more oxygen.
If I can tear myself away from the casinos and the nightclubs, I’ll be reporting from Vegas. Or, maybe not. What happens in Vegas…
We (Jackson Family Wines) are having a winetasting in two weeks down in Monterey that will be hosted by myself and by one of JFW’s Master Sommeliers, Sur Lucero, who is not only an M.S. but a helluva nice guy. So he and I were talking about it over the phone, to discuss logistics, and I realized that the two of us are going to be tasting these wines—blind—in far different ways.
As Sur expressed it, he’ll be looking for typicity. Based on things like fruit, earthiness, tannins, acidity, wood, structure and so forth, he’ll be appraising the six wines to determine what they might be. I, on the other hand, will be assessing them the way I’m used to: qualitatively, according to the standards I employed at Wine Enthusiast. There, we rated wines on the 100-point system, which is sub-divided into a scale based on how good (or bad) the wines are on a quality basis.
(By the way, some people told me, when I quit Wine Enthusiast, that I ought to change my tasting procedure. I saw no reason to do that, and I still don’t.)
Typicity and quality: these are really two entirely different ways to evaluate wine. One, Sur’s approach, depends on a vast knowledge of the world’s major wine regions, accumulated over many years to such an extent that the taster is able to pass the extremely rigorous M.S. examination. The other approach, mine, couldn’t be more different. For one thing, professional wine critics are mostly regional. We develop an expertise at tasting the wines of a particular region, or perhaps of several regions, but very few critics claim to focus on all the wine regions of the world. Moreover, we’re looking for inherent quality, not typicity, which is the fundamental basis of assigning a point score.
All those years I was at Wine Enthusiast, I told myself—and I still do—that it’s not that important for a wine critic to have the worldwide palate of a Master Sommelier, because we have different jobs. The critic’s job is to hopefully develop expertise in his region, then to report faithfully on the wines, and finally offer consumers enough judgment and information so they can make an intelligent choice concerning whether or not to buy the wine. A sommelier, on the other hand, has to assemble a wine list that will pair well with his or her chef’s food. In that sense, a wine that a critic might score at 86 points—not bad, but not great—might be the ideal wine to drink with chef’s food.
A sommelier’s job also entails something far, far different from a wine critic’s: It’s the somm’s responsibility to pick and choose the wines she puts on her list, according to her preferences and the restaurant’s parameters. The critic by contrast tastes and reviews the wines that are presented to him. He’s not picking or choosing anything. He doesn’t care who buys the wine, or if anyone buys it. He doesn’t have to make a chef happy, or worry about a bottom line, the way a sommelier (who also is a restaurant wine buyer) has to. Thus, I told myself, my job entailed greater freedom than that of a somm.
I always was a bit concerned that, in focusing so heavily on California, I was missing out on the rest of the world’s wines. But it was unavoidable. I was tasting thousands of wines a year. There simply wasn’t time to explore France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, the New World and so on. I wished there had been, but…well, there just wasn’t.
Since our Monterey tasting will be blind—actually, double-blind, since neither of us will have any idea what the wines are, aside from their color (although they all will be JFW wines, which come from four continents)—I’m going to be a bit out of my element. As I explained to Sur, no critic who uses the 100-point system tastes double-blind, to my knowledge. At the big wine magazines and newsletters, they taste single-blind, meaning they know something about the flight: it might be 2012 Napa Cabernets, or Barolos over $30, or something similarly broad. That’s if they taste blind at all: open tasting seems to be the new normal for critics.
Now, single-blind is the way I’m used to tasting, and it’s actually my preference. When you know something about the wine, your mind works in a different way from when you know nothing. It makes assumptions. It has expectations. It rules certain things out, and certain things in. For example, if I know I’m tasting white Burgundy from a great vintage, I’m inclined to give the wines fairly high scores. Of course, the more I know, the less “blind” the tasting is. If I know that those white Burgundies are all premier crus—no village wines, no Grand Crus—that probably suggests I’m not going to be handing out 100s or 99s or maybe even 98s. But it also suggests I won’t be giving any low 80s either.
Some people complain, with justification, that having too much information invalidates the results of the tasting, even if the bottles are in paper bags, because the taster cannot be completely objective. That’s true, but it gets back to the different jobs of the critic and sommelier. As a critic, I don’t have to be completely objective. I have to be fair, and uninfluenced by monetary concerns or friendship, but ultimately my job is to deliver a clear, informed judgment on the wine. I always felt that I could do that even non-blind (and I think most professional critics agree), only there is a lot of pressure out there on critics to taste blind, so to some extent they do taste blind to satisfy that pressure.
However, as I said, lots of critics who used to taste blind (or said they did) have now abandoned the practice in favor of open tasting. And I have not heard a peep from anyone complaining about it. A few bloggers here and there might gripe, but they’re outliers. I don’t believe the public at large gives a hoot how critics taste, as long as they believe the critic’s ethics are unimpeachable: can’t be bought, has no ax to grind, and so forth.
So I’ll be a little uncomfortable at our Monterey tasting, not with the quality part, but with the identification part. But I’m excited, too. No doubt I will learn something, not just about the wines but about how I think when I taste. This old dog can still learn new tricks.