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On super-tasting


Doing gigantic tastings isn’t my favorite thing. I know how to, and have done so many times. But as I’ve written, it’s not the ideal way to taste.

However, as with everything else, there are pluses and minuses.

The minus side, of course, is the wham, bam, thank you ma’am syndrome. You have, what? A minute or two with each wine, and have to come to a quick and dirty decision before the clock inevitably ticks and you move on to the next wine. There’s little or no opportunity to return to a past wine, which at any rate won’t be the same wine you originally tasted, because it’s been exposed to the air and has had a chance to chemically change, for better or for worse.

I don’t totally condemn this method of tasting. It has the advantage of quantity. Among those who taste like this are my good friend, Wildred Wong, at Beverages & More, and, purportedly, Robert Parker. Under the forced circumstances of a gigantic tasting, you enter the “zone,” a mental and physical arena in which your total senses are concentrated on the wines before you, and the most subtle differences are highlighted. That is a distinct advantage, presuming you are able to hit this zone of peak performance and stay there for more than 100 wines. I can. But it is tiresome, and you pay for it afterward. Following my blind tasting of 106 wines, at 4 in the afternoon, I fell into a deep sleep. My body seemed intent on clearing and cleansing itself. But despite that penance, I would never reneg on any of my findings during the tasting.


106 wines in their bags

My preferred method of tasting is 12-15 per flight, with one flight a day. This gives you a lot more time with each wine, and also lets you go back and forth between the contestants in the “beauty pageant.” You can second-guess yourself, alter your impressions, decide that a wine that had seemed shy and austere is actually more interesting than you thought, or, alternately, that a big, powerful wine that originally impressed actually is overbearing. The more time you have, the more opportunity to trip yourself out, negotiate with yourself, change your mind. Is that good or bad? I prefer it, but philosophically speaking, I can see that it has a weakness. First impressions, as we know, are usually the most trustworthy. The more you think something over, the greater the risk of stumbling, of tripping yourself up the way the centipede did when it was asked, “How do you know where your 47th leg is when your 94th is going forward?” In the fable, the centipede became paralyzed with indecision.

There’s really no answer, beyond personal preference. I could not physically do this type of tasting every day. It would harm me. If I were a robot, maybe I could.

I did come away with the impression that Paso Robles’ best red wines are its Bordeaux blends. I’ll have much more on this in my upcoming article in Wine Enthusiast, slated for this Fall. Paso Robles is a young winemaking region with some ambitious and aggressive people at the helm, and it is making enormous strides. It’s best days clearly lie ahead.

Here’s a tip to bloggers and other up-and-coming tasters. If called upon to do super-tastings, get plenty of rest beforehand. Eat well, but not to the point of gluttony. Be in good physical shape. If you find yourself losing perpective during the tasting, get up and take a walk. Have some coffee. Smoke, if that helps. (I detest and condemn tobacco, but recognize it helps some people center themselves.) Make sure that the people who set up the tasting are aware of your needs (water, spit cups and buckets, crackers, napkins, comfortable physical conditions). You’re playing at the Olympic level of tasting, and you’ve got to be in Olympic condition.


The elements of tasting: paper and pens for notes, spit cup and bucket, napkins, crackers. Not shown: water.

* * *


You thrilled us, Michael. RIP.

When rap stars do wine


from Paso Robles

Seems there’s this rapper, Lil Jon, who started a wine company, Little Jonathan Wine Company, that made a Central Coast Chardonnay that just won a silver medal at the L.A. International Wine & Spirits Competition.

Now, readers of my blog may know what I think of such competitions, but that’s beside the point. What’s really interesting is that Lil Jon tweeted about the award, in caps: “FOR ALL YALL SUKKAS THAT WERE HATING ON MY WINE CHECK THIS OUT!! WE WINNING AWARDS TWITT!!! GET U SOME.”

We can presume that this is the written equivalent of the way Lil Jon talks on the street. It’s a form of urban speech I hear all the time, living in Oakland. Invented by black kids, it’s now been appropriated by some Asian and Latino kids (at least, those who yearn to live the hip hop lifestyle), as well as every white Eminem wannabe in the land.

On his winery’s website Lil Jon writes:

While traveling the world, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to experience some of the world’s greatest wines. My passion for enjoying those fine wines has led me to pursue my lifelong dream of starting my own winery. Our premium collection is simply some of the best wine that California has to offer. I’m very proud to present our rich, complex blends and world class varietals from the finest vineyards in the Central Coast, Monterey and Paso Robles regions. Our wines are hand-crafted to ensure excellence in evnry bottle and I personally invite you to try our wines and share in my passion.

How does he go back and forth from hip hop talk to the King’s English, with such ease? On his tweet he provides an insight: Jonathan Little Wine Company sounds “a little bit more upscale than regular ‘Lil Jon.’ … This is not no ghetto Boone’s Farm; this is some real wine.”

What’s notable about this, aside from a rapper turning into a winery owner (just another version of celebrity wines), is the glimpse it provides into the different ways we relate when we’re in different groupings of society; also, the way that Jonathan sees wine, which is probably the way most people see it. Lil Jon sees the world one way, and sings it the way he sees it, because his listeners see it the same way as he does, and he wants to relate to his listeners. But when Lil Jon becomes Jonathan Little, he’s no longer a rap star, or, more properly, he’s more than just a rap star: He’s a businessman, selling a product. So he has to act in a way that’s more appropriate to the business world, which is to say, speaking and writing the way business people, and most people in the wine industry, talk and write. No double negatives, no deliberate misspellings or mispronunciations.

We all do that, don’t we? When I’m in New York with New Yawkahs my speech reverts to the Bronx accents of my boyhood. When I’m with serious winos, such as my San Francisco tasting group, we talk in a way that would be as incoherent (and probably sound a lot more pompous) to outsiders as Lil Jon’s urban speech may be to some. Wine geek-speech is no different, in substance, than urban hip hop speech. Both are forms of communication that allow us to function in and bond with specialized groupings of people.

Hey Lil Jon, if you read this: let’s get together and drink some wine. I can teach you geek-speak and you can teach me hip hop talk.

Friday Fishwrap


We say “Chateau,” Europe says “Shut up!”

The spat between the European Union and American wineries flared up again last week, as a group of members of Congress teamed together to urge the U.S. Trade Representative, the nation’s top trade negotiator and principal advisor to the President, to clear the “traditional expressions” logjam with the European Union.

So-called “traditional expressions” are words on labels. They include chateau, clos, classic, noble, vintage, sur lie, champagne and ruby, among others. The E.U. long has objected to their use on American wines, claiming they poach on traditional European territory and mislead consumers. Back in 2006, the U.S. agreed to stop using the terms, but under a “peace-making clause,” wineries using them at that time were grandfathered in, and allowed to continue their use for 3 years.

That 3 year exemption ended in March. The expectation was that the E.U. would issue 2-year renewals, in order to further the peace-making period, while the hard issues were hammered out. “But they didn’t renew it,” says a source with close ties to the industry. It is this impasse that the U.S. Trade Representative is now being pressured to resolve by the politicians.

(For a good background story on this issue, see this Wines & Vines article.)

I asked the industry source what is likely to happen next. “It remains unresolved what the people with trademarks are supposed to do, like Chateau Montelena or Korbel [Champagne Cellars]. So we probably have a case for the World Trade Organization,” the international body that resolves trade disputes between nations.

My guess is that every winery currently using traditional expressions will be allowed to keep them. After all, nobody expects Clos du Val to change their name! I also suspect the list of words the E.U. objects to will be narrowed. I mean, sur lie? Come on.

Beckstoffer’s big Mendocino gamble

“Are we really too early?” That’s the question top grower Andy Beckstoffer asked rhetorically when he was quoted, in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, concerning his planting of 300 acres of organic Chardonnay vineyards by the banks of the Russian River in Hopland, which is in central Mendocino County.

Andy B. is one of the smartest guys in the industry, a veteran who came up through the ranks and bears the scars to prove it. (I have a chapter on him in my book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff.)

Andy’s question concerns, of course, when the Recession will end. Since nobody knows, it’s something of a gamble to be developing a big new vineyard at this time. Beckstoffer’s optimism runs in his genes, but it’s based also on his assumptions that (a) downturns always end, and (b) inland Mendocino County has been underrated as a source of premium wine.

I remember when I first tasted a Chardonnay from the old Jepson winery, which was made from the same area as Beckstoffer’s new vineyard. I thought it was one of the best I’d ever had. Chardonnay remains America’s favorite white wine, and there’s no reason to expect that will ever change. So, if Beckstoffer can keep his prices moderate — and if the wineries that buy his grapes don’t charge too much — his gamble is likely to pay off. I’d expect the Chardonnays to retail in the $10-$15 range.

Wine Train highlights problems, opportunities of vino-tourism


I’m always fascinated by the tension that so often arises in wine country between those who promote tourism and locals who don’t want a bunch of strangers traipsing all over their neighborhoods — even if they come armed with credit cards to spend in the stores and restaurants.

A couple years ago, I recall, there was a big brouhaha up in Knights Valley, that tranquil stretch of the Mayacamas Mountains that separates Alexander Valley from Napa Valley. Kendall-Jackson had wanted to build some kind of visitor’s center. Local residents opposed it. They called me up to see if I’d write about it. I decided not to, but in essence, their complaint was “Look, we have a nice, quiet little piece of God’s country up here, and we don’t want tour buses and traffic jams screwing it up.” I never did find out what happened.

There’ve been similar eruptions of passion in wine country. Another longstanding complaint is that when a region decides to glamorize itself as wine country, the price of real estate soars (well, it used to, anyway, before the housing bubble burst), forcing locals to pull up stakes and move. That happened in the Santa Ynez Valley, where lots of winery employees, who can no longer afford to live there, have to reside in faraway places like Lompoc or Santa Maria. And I remember when Wente wanted to develop the Ruby Hills area of Livermore Valley. Some bad feelings about that one.

Back in the ‘90s, when the owners of the Napa Valley Wine Train wanted to activate it as a tourist draw, the citizens of Napa Valley reacted with fury. It was a real pitched battle. Eventually, of course, the Wine Train was allowed to run along a stretch of Highway 29, but not as far as St. Helena, which surely is the leading tourist destination in the central-north part of the valley. Some of the local shops in St. Helena wouldn’t have minded the train coming into town and discharging tourists eager to spend money in the fancy chochky shops, clothing stores and art galleries. But St. Helena’s general citizenry said, Hell, no.

That was before the Great Recession. Now, the St. Helena Star is reporting that “[T]here’s been a thaw in the cold war between the Napa Valley Wine Train and the city of St. Helena.” Seems the city council has agreed to a trial period in which the train would bring passengers into town at 11 a.m. and let them wander around and spend money for two hours.

The issue of “sustainable tourism” is of worldwide concern, from scuba diving in endangered barrier reefs to eco-tourists plundering through the ancient preserves of indigenous people. In the case of wine, or what has come to be called vino-tourism, the downside was aptly described in this essay about wine tourism in Mexico’s Baja peninsula. Rising real estate prices are bringing about “land wars with aggressive buyers trying to corrupt land transactions,” and hotel and resort owners and wealthy Americans looking for second homes “roaming the valley…bused in from Ensenada to ride ATVs and ORVs, drinking wine and roaming the formerly quiet and peaceful neighborhoods.” Nor is there enough water for all the newcomers.

I imagine this is the very sort of thing the people of St. Helena wish to avoid.

“Regional character” is not a reliable way to judge wine


I have to respectfully take issue with Dan Berger’s recent post at Appellation America, in which he sets up something of a straw dog.

Straw Dog [from the Urban Dictionary]: something (an idea, or plan, usually) set up to be knocked down. It’s the dangerous philosophy of presenting one mediocre idea, so that the listener will make the choice of the better idea which follows.

In this case, Dan postulates two competing approaches to wine reviewing.

1. One that is “based [merely] on…A person’s likes.” Dan charges that the 100-point scoring system is devoid of “essential criteria.” And “If no criteria exist, the score means nothing other than someone’s lame attempt to say, ‘I like it.’ Higher scores call for, ‘I like it a lot,’ or ‘I really like it a lot,’ or ‘I really, really like it a lot, a lot.’”

2. This is as opposed to his trademarked Best-of-Appellation program, which he describes as a “template that allows for each wine from a region to be credited with ‘bonus points’ for its regional distinctiveness.” Under this approach, a critic may not care personally for a wine, but still praise it for displaying proper “regional character.”

The straw dog Dan sets up here is that he makes the first approach sound so lame that any intelligent reader would have to reject it — and correspondingly be in favor of the second approach.

Is it really true, as Dan asserts, that some of us critics simply assign scores based on “I like it” or “I don’t like it” without reference to any external circumstances? Of course not. If I give a high score to a wine, obviously it’s because “I like it.” But what makes me “like” a wine is when it’s clean, balanced, harmonious, true to its variety or type, and utterly without faults. And the more that wine fascinates and impresses me, the more I “like” it, and the higher the score I give it. So, in that sense, Dan is correct that “score” = “like” and “high score” = “like a lot.” But to reduce it to “I really, really like it a lot, a lot” is a reductio ad absurdum, which, like a straw dog, is a rhetorical trick, not a serious argument. It’s like saying a movie critic should give a good review to a film he hates, because it had good cinematography, good acting, good soundtrack, good screenwriting and good direction. Well, if it was all good, then the critic wouldn’t hate the film, would he?

Now, the other part of Dan’s assertion I want to tweak is this notion of “regional character.” It sounds all well and good, but really breaks down on analysis. For instance, there may be a general Santa Lucia Highlands Pisoni Vineyard Pinot Noir character, but if Vintner #1 prefers to pick his fruit at 23 brix while Vintner #2 waits until 29 brix to pick, the resulting wines will be different. So different, in fact, that trying to pinpoint a “regional character” in both wines would require a very big tent. So that’s one problem  with the “regional character” argument.

There are others. Let’s assume there’s a “regional character” to Tuscan Sangiovese. Let’s further assume that the hidebound officials in Italy and Europe in general wished to protect that character for all time. So they mandate what grapes can be planted, when they must be harvested, and the like. Well, if the Tuscans went only by “regional character,” Piero Antinori would never have given the world Tignanello. So a slavish devotion to “regional character” can inhibit creativity.

Speaking of Europe, “regional character” is a lot easier to identify in wine regions that are 2,000 years old, like Bordeaux and Burgundy. But California is a young region! How do you define “regional character” in a place like Paso Robles, whose wine industry is barely 30 years old? Most of their wines have been soft in acidity, extracted in fruit, high in alcohol, and often with some residual sugar, especially whites. Is this the “regional character” of Paso Robles? Then what happens if someone down there figures out how to make a truly dry, balanced, elegant wine (which, in fact, is happening)? Does it get downgraded because it lacks “regional character”? So the “regional character” goalposts in a new region are constantly changing.

You can’t get away from the “I like it” nature of wine reviewing no matter what approach you take. All Dan is doing is equating “really, really like” with “I think this wine really, really shows regional character.” That’s the straw dog he posited, which I just demolished.

California Grape Acreage Report: Pinot Noir on a roll


The 2008 California Grape Acreage Report is hot off the presses from the Dept. of Food and Agriculture, and as usual it makes for fascinating reading for statistically-minded geeks.


Overall acreage of all wine grape types remained virtually unchanged from the last 2 years. Both red and white wine bearing acreage was down slightly in 2008 compared to 2007, but non-bearing acreage increased slightly. Bottom line: statewide grapevine acreage is in a period of static activity.

The devil, as usual, is in the details.

Among major varieties, the following were all slightly reduced in bearing acreage in 2008, compared to 2007: Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Syrah, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc. The following varietals were all slightly up: Merlot, Petite Sirah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. The actual percentages, both of increased and decreased acreage, were very small (on the order of a few percentage points), but it’s interesting that the “hottest” varieties — Petite Sirah, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris — all saw increases. What growers plant, of course, is what they believe will be selling down the line.

Digging deeper, of all wine grape types, red and white, guess which one has by far the greatest number of non-bearing acres: Pinot Noir. In 2008, there  were 7,573 acres of the grape which had not yet yielded fruit. That is half of all the red non-bearing acres in California, and 5 times as much as the acreage of the #1 white non-bearing variety, Pinot Gris. This provides further testimony that growers are putting their chips on the two Pinots.

Where is all the new non-bearing Pinot Noir acreage planted? The county with the most new plantings of the great grape of Burgundy is — ta da!Monterey. The Report doesn’t state where in Monterey the 2,558 non-bearing acres are, but my hunch would be a combination of the Santa Lucia Highlands, Arroyo Seco, and the Pinnacles area in the eastern Gavlian Mountains. After Monterey, the county with the second-highest acreage of non-bearing Pinot Noir is San Luis Obispo, most likely in the Edna Valley, with some Arroyo Grande Valley. Taken together, Monterey and SLO account for 3,650 non-bearing acres of Pinot Noir, nearly 50% of the non-bearing total for the variety in California, and exactly ten times the non-bearing Pinot Noir acreage in Sonoma County (although Sonoma has by far the highest bearing acreage of Pinot Noir in the state). If you add Santa Barbara, with its 830 non-bearing Pinot Noir acres, the Central Coast boasts nearly 60% of all the non-bearing Pinot in California.  This should convince anyone that these 3 Central California counties are making a serious play to become the Pinot Noir capital of the state.

Cabernet Sauvignon is striking in its contrast to Pinot Noir. Altogether, there’s only 1,578 non-bearing acres of it in California. That’s 1/5 the number of non-bearing Pinot Noir. Of course, there’s a lot more bearing acres of Cabernet (73,420) than bearing acres of Pinot Noir (25,737) in California. But Pinot Noir has been increasing in acreage literally twice as fast as Cabernet Sauvignon since 2000, and even faster post-Sideways. If that pace continues, Pinot’s acreage will equal Cabernet’s one of these days. (If I were handier with mathematics, I could tell you exactly when; maybe someone out there can figure it out.)

Anyway, the bottom line is that Pinot Noir is on a roll. It has become the most exciting wine type in California, red or white, and growers are betting the house on it.

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