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Sacto, Are you ready? It’s The Sur Vs. Steve Show!



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.

From Houston: Michelin won’t come here? Really?



I’m told by my friends and hosts here in Houston, Texas’s biggest city and a financial and oil hub, that Michelin won’t come here to review restaurants. If that’s true, and they swear by it, it makes no sense. Houston is a great city, a port city that prides itself on its international culinary influences. I’ve now enjoyed the food in four places here, and I gotta say, Kudos! Good food. Interesting food, including a popup presided over by a James Beard award-winning chef. Why would Michelin ignore Houston? Don’t know. Just asking.

Anyhow – forgive me for short-shrifting my readers the last few days in terms of content and word length. Long days, and triple-digit temperatures with high humidity conspire against me being creative when I finally get back to my hotel room, usually after copious amounts of alcohol. (I will say they know how to make a proper vodka gimlet in this town!) On tomorrow (Wednesday) to San Antonio, then on Thursday, Austin. I like to remind people here that I consider myself half-Texan and Oklahoman. My mom’s parents moved to Oklahoma–which was then Indian territory–in 1907. The family quickly spread to Texas. All my cousins on that side of the family are from down here; I used to visit in the summers, and once, at the age of seven, I spent a good part of the summer digging a ten-foot-deep hole in my uncle’s Oklahoma City home looking for oil (which I never did find).

I’ve met some great people on this trip, including Sean Beck, the sommelier at a group of restaurants including Caracol, where we had some fantastic Gulf oysters, but more to the point, Sean is of like mind with me when it comes to today’s rather bizarre tastes in sommelier-driven wine. I won’t attempt to quote him, but it’s refreshing to know that not every young somm thinks that  wine has to be low alcohol and have a lot of funky dirtiness in order to be interesting. I exaggerate, of course, but you get the point…and as I told Sean, I think this temporary insanity in favor of so-called “natural” wines (a meaningless term) is coming to a merciful end, as the demise of In Pursuit of Balance symbolizes (and Sean, like me, scratches his head when it comes to defining “natural”).

Well, that’s it for tonight. Have a great Wednesday!

Can you “train” a palate?



I picked up an older issue of Bon Appetit in which the “Starters” column (a sort of “Ask Bon Appetit anything you want” feature) has the following question from a reader: Dear BA, I often hear chefs on cooking shows…talking about a person’s palate…What exactly does that mean, and can I train my own palate?

The use of the verb “train” is strange here. I’m reminded of what I had to do when Gus first came to live with me. There was a lot of dog training involved: he was pretty well housebroken, but not entirely, and he had to learn—and respect—my voice commands, including “no,” “stop,” “sit,” “stay” and “come.” This training involved me—the dad—imposing my will upon Gus, the child/dog. It was a process of issue command—wait for result—impose result if necessary—repeat—and repeat—until the result was an obedient dog, which Gus is.

Does one “train” a chef’s or wine lover’s palate in the same way? (“Sit, palate. Give me your paw, palate.”) Bon Appetit’s answer person, Andrew Knowlton, defined a “great palate” for chefs in two ways: a more fundamental level in which a talented chef can identify the flaws in a dish and know instinctively how to correct them: perhaps by adding a pinch of salt or squeeze of lemon.

On a higher level, Andrew defined a great palate by the degree of “taste memory” the taster possesses. According to this approach, the only way to acquire an extensive taste memory is to taste a ton of food (and, for our purposes, wine) over a long time. That way, when you judge a food (or a wine) you compare it to the greatest similar food or wine you’ve ever had. This presumes, of course, that you remember that greatest food or wine, which is why it’s a function of memory.

Well, most of you reading my blog probably have tasted a lot of wine in your time, and you no doubt possess an extensive taste memory (kind of like having a lot of books in your library). Still, I’ll bet you wonder if you have a truly “great palate,” or just an ordinary one. Am I right? Sure I am. I think most of us doubt our palates from time to time, even though we might never care to admit it. I do admit it, and I did throughout my long career as a wine critic. I always did the best I could, honestly and diligently, but I knew that there were palates more acute than mine. There’s always a palate more acute than yours, just as there’s always someone better than you at (name it: basketball, math, making an omelet, dancing, sodoku).

There’s a meme in this business that the best palates belong to those professionals who have undergone some sort of formal training: sommeliers and Masters of Wine. Winemakers, too, are often known as great tasters. I’ve known quite a few great palates in my time. One was (and still is) the longtime winemaker at Jordan, Rob Davis, whom I once saw correctly identify, blind, twelve Cabernet Sauvignons concerning their origin, Napa Valley or Alexander Valley. That’s pretty good.

I once knew quite well a person who was studying for his MW. He’d been at it for years, and was therefore completely saturated in that hard-nosed, analytical approach. When he tasted a wine, blind, he’d go into a sort of mesmerized concentration: eyes scrunched shut, brow wrinkled in thoughtful meditation. Swirling and chewing the wine, he’d begin his written analysis, slowly and methodically working through all the wine’s parameters—flavors, acidity, complexity and so on—until he felt he had a good handle on it. (Sadly, this person never did get his MW, and he eventually dropped out of the program.) Of course, the ultimate expression of this approach—the Gold Medal at the Tasting Olympics, as it were—would be to taste a wine double blind and announce that it is, say, a young Spanish Verdejo. Not Sauvignon Blanc, not Albariño, not Gruner Veltliner. This is the taster’s wet dream: to nail it in public. Polite applause (and perhaps envy) from the crowd—the taster’s reputation is enhanced—the story will go around the wine world via social media in no time.

Yes, that is one definition of a “great palate.” But you have to ask yourself, what’s the point of it all? You take years and years, do all that studying, all the hard work that goes into it, and for what?—so that you can nail Verdejo at a blind tasting? I’ve always said that the kind of tasting skills one develops depends on one’s job. Wine critics, of the kind I was and most of the well-known print critics are, do not need that particular skill. In fact, it may be detrimental to them doing their jobs well. Aspiring MWs and MSs do need it, for one reason only: to pass their respective examinations, so that they can get their credentials. Afterwards, such freakish analytical skills become less and less necessary, as the graduates find themselves careers in which other skills—business, teamworking, networking, accounting, organizing, writing, teaching, food pairing—take center stage. In fact, from the point of view of a consumer (which we all are), what skills do we want to see in the person who’s making buying recommendations to us? Personally, I couldn’t care less if my somm or critic can nail Verdejo blind. But I do want her to know her wines, tell me stories, answer my questions, impartially help me make my decision, and maybe even be able to have a good conversation about something besides wine.

Older wine in restaurants? Not worth the risk



Somm Journal executive editor David Gadd asks the pertinent question of what to do when you let a sommelier hand-sell you a glass of older wine, and when you taste it, it’s over the hill.

I say the question is pertinent, because we see this happening with greater frequency nowadays, what with these older vintages, especially of more obscure wines and regions, being readily available at affordable prices, and somms being notoriously into “cool”, offbeat wines that can be downright strange to more traditional tastes. The general public, which includes many professionals in the wine industry, still is mesmerized by older wines; even though many of us understand that the life-curve of most wines is short, and that, from the moment they are bottled they begin to die, the possibility of finding some transmogrified old treasure still haunts us, and is probably responsible for more money being spent on moribund wine than is generally acknowledged.

Such at any rate was evidently the case with David Gadd, who spent $25 each on two “fossils” that were “heavily oxidized” and finished “flat [and] funereal.”

That does not sound like a pleasant gastronomic experience!

I had a very similar time once in one of Carmel’s top restaurants, when I was persuaded by a somm (complete with silver tastevin around his neck) to invest in a 12-year old Spanish Albariño he guaranteed would be fantastic with my scallops sautéed in butter. The wine was completely dead and tasted frankly awful.

The reason these anecdotes, mine and David’s, matter is not because of their particulars, but because they raise questions of current interest. Today’s diner of fine food and wines is confronted with a looming question: whether to stick with what he or she knows and likes, which is usually Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon or one of the other major varieties, in a fresh and relatively young wine; or to go the route of adventure, which usually means an obscure variety, from a lesser-known country or region, and moreover, may—depending on the restaurant and sommelier—have acquired some bottle age, although it may still not cost much more than a younger bottling. One might be tempted to go the second route, in which case there are two possible ways of preventing catastrophe: asking for a free tasting sample of the wine before officially ordering it, or reaching an understanding with the server that, should you not care for the wine, you will have an unconditional money-back guarantee. Both of these are more or less standard practices in good restaurants, but both come with a certain level of risk: you, the diner, are out on the town for fun, and you don’t suddenly want to find yourself plunged into drama with a sommelier or server, particularly when the playlet is likely to be overheard by strangers at neighboring tables (not to mention potentially stressing your dining companions). The first alternative, asking for a free tasting sample, is less fraught with danger, but also less likely: a restaurant is not likely to offer a tasting sample of older wines (although the advent of the Coravin is making that more likely).

The diner, then, finds himself on the horns of a dilemma. We don’t want to be conservative and stuffy and trod only the well-worn paths of least resistance. We want to be open to surprise and delight, ends that cannot be achieved unless we’re willing to take risks. But the dining room floor is often not the best place to take those risks. As a former critic, I have come to the conclusion that older wines are generally more apt to disappoint than to please, which is why, except under strict circumstances, I wouldn’t take the chance, but would stick to young and fresh. There are exceptions, of course: if there’s a wine and winery you’re familiar with, and know has a good track record for aging, then go for it. (For example, I wouldn’t have any problem ordering a 12-year old Corison Kronos.) But old dry Loire whites, which is what caught David Gadd off-guard? Nope.

A great sushi meal in S.F., and some thoughts about somms



Had a fantastic lunch at Pabu Izakaya, Michael Mina’s sushi restaurant at 101 California in the FiDi. My goodness, I love sushi practically more than any other food but it can be pretty generic. In this case, it was outstanding. We had a bunch of different things off the menu and ate it family style and everything was so fresh and delicious, I couldn’t help stuffing myself, down to the last piece of nigiri. Incidentally, their ahi tuna poke, served on a crispy wonton, is my desert island food. OMG, so good, and the perfect starter.

One of my fellow diners was Scott Christopher, from the House of Prime Rib, up on Van Ness, which brought back great memories. I haven’t eaten there for some time, but well remember the cart with the standing rib roast and the Yorkshire pudding, not to mention an excellent wine list. So I’m going to have to get back there, and soon. You’re never too old for that beef fix! And retro is back, as a new generation discovers just why great restaurants like the HOPR have endured through decades of wars and earthquakes and tumultuous times and emerged triumphant.

My fellow diners, including Scott, all seemed to be in their twenties and thirties, wine people, and it’s so interesting to chat with them and find out what’s on their minds. One of the questions I ask restaurant people is, “What’s hot these days?” and that always stimulates a good conversation. A topic that arises with frequency is that a restaurant can’t just have a wine (or beer, or spirits) list that contains stuff the proprietor or beverage manager or sommelier likes. It has to offer customers things they like! This would seem obvious, from a service and commercial point of view, but it isn’t always. For example, I like telling the story of the Sonoma County restaurateur who told me about another restaurant, someplace around Petaluma, that didn’t have any Chardonnay on the wine list. The reason: The somm didn’t like Chardonnay! Anyhow, the restaurateur who told me about this added that he’d heard about it from a diner, who came to his restaurant and told him she’d never go back to the no-Chardonnay restaurant again, because she likes Chardonnay, so why would she? Well, of course, that no-Chardonnay sommelier certainly didn’t do his restaurant any good. He tried to impose his own tastes on his customers. It’s all well and good for a somm to have maybe 20% of the wine list be “interesting” stuff he or she is enamored of. But the other 80% should be stuff that real customers want! The ideal somm, it seems to me, plays the role of a bridge between his tastes and those of his customers. It’s a delicate balancing act. I’ve dined in fine restaurants where the somm tried to push bizarre stuff on me that, frankly, might have been interesting by itself but was awful with the food it was paired with. We need to get past that era, which, hopefully, is ending. When somms respect wine more than they respect their customers, something is seriously askew.

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While I am affiliated with Jackson Family Wines, the postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the postings, strategies or opinions of Jackson Family Wines.

Scores, stores and wineries: a new analysis



Every day, I get blast email advertisements from wineries or wine stores touting the latest 90-plus point score from Suckling, Parker, Vinous or some other esteemed critic. Here’s an example that came in on Saturday: I’m reproducing everything except the actual winery/wine.

_____ Winery’s ____ Napa Red Wine 2013 Rated 92JS.

Notice how the “92JS” is printed in the same font type and size as the name of the winery and wine. That assigns them equal importance; the rating and critic are virtually part of the brand. Later in the ad, they have the full “James Suckling Review” followed by a full “Wine Spectator Review” [of 90 points]. This is followed by the winery’s own “Wine Tasting Notes,” which by and large echo Spectator’s and Suckling’s descriptions.

Built along similar lines was a recent email ad for a certain Brunello: The headline was “2011 ____ Brunello di Montalcino DOCG”; immediately beneath is (in slightly smaller point size), “94 Points Vinous / Antonio Galloni.”

We can see that, in these headline and sub-heads, through physical proximity on the page or screen, the ads’ creators have linked the name of the winery and the wine to the name of the famous critic and his point score. One of the central tenets of advertising is to get the most important part of the message across immediately and strongly. (This is why so many T.V. commercials begin with the advertiser’s name—you hear and see it before you can change the channel or click the “mute” button.) In like fashion, most of us will quickly read a headline (even if we don’t want to) before skipping the rest of the ad. The headline thus stays in the brain: “Winery” “Wine Critic” “90-plus point score.” That’s really all the winery or wine store wants you to retain. They don’t expect you to read the entire ad, or to immediately buy the wine based on the headline. They do expect that the “Winery” “Wine Critic” “90-plus point score” information will stay embedded in your brain cells, which will make you more likely to buy the wine the next time you’re looking for something, or at least have a favorable view of it.

This reliance of wineries and wine stores on famous critics’ reviews and scores is as strong as ever. There has been a well-publicized revolt against it by sommeliers and bloggers, but their resistance has all the power of a wet noodle. You might as well thrash against the storm; it does no good. The dominance of the famous wine critic is so ensconced in this country (and throughout large parts of Asia) that it shows no signs of being undermined anytime soon. You can regret it; you can rant against it; you can list all the reasons why it’s unhealthy, but you can’t change the facts.

Wineries are complicit in this phenomenon; they are co-dependents in this 12-Step addiction to critics. Wineries, of course, live and die by the same sword: A bad review is not helpful, but wineries will never publish a bad review. They assume (rightly) that bad reviews will quickly be swept away by the never-ending tsunami of information swamping consumers.

Which brings us back to 90-point scores. They’re everywhere. You can call it score inflation, you can argue that winemaking quality is higher, or that vintages are better, but for whatever reason, 90-plus points is more common than ever. Ninety is the new 87. Wineries love a score of 90, but I’ve heard that sometimes they’re disappointed they didn’t get 93, 94 or higher. Even 95 points has been lessened by its ubiquity.

Hosemaster lampooned this, likening 100-point scores to Oprah Winfrey giving out cars to the studio audience on her T.V. show. (“You get a car! And you get a car! And you get a car! And YOU get a car! Everybody gets a car!”) Why does this sort of thing happen? Enquiring minds want to know. In legalese, one must ask, “Cui bono?”—Who benefits? In Oprah’s case, she’s not paying for the cars herself; they’re provided by the manufacturers, who presumably take a tax writeoff. It’s a win-win-win situation for Oprah, the automakers and the audience.

Cui bono when it comes to high scores? The wineries, of course, and the wine stores that sell their wines (and put together the email blast advertisements). And what of the critics?

Step into the tall weeds with me, reader. A wine critic who gives a wine a high score gets something no money can buy: exposure. His name goes out on all those email blast advertisements (and other forms of marketing). That name is seen by tens of thousands of people, thereby making the famous wine critic more famous than ever. Just as the wine is linked to the critic in the headline, the critic’s name is linked to the 90-plus wine; both are meta-branded. (It’s the same thing as when politicians running for public office vie for the endorsement of famous Hollywood stars, rock stars and sports figures: the halo effect of fame and glamor by association.) There therefore is motive on the part of critics to amplify their point scores.

But motive alone does not prove a case nor make anyone guilty. We cannot impute venality to this current rash of high scores; we can merely take note of it. Notice also that the high scores are coming from older critics. Palates do, in fact, change over the years. Perhaps there’s something about a mature palate that is easier to please than a beginner’s palate. Perhaps older critics aren’t as angry, fussy or nit-picky about wine as younger ones; or as ambitious. They’re more apt to look for sheer pleasure and less apt to look for the slightest perceived imperfection. With age comes mellowness; mellowness is more likely to smile upon the world than to criticize it.

Anyhow, it is passing strange to see how intertwined the worlds of wineries, wine stores and wine critics have become. Like triple stars caught in each others’ orbits, they gyre and gimble in the wabe, in a weird but strangely fascinating pas de trois that, for the moment at least, shows no signs of abating.

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