I’ve long had a soft spot for Paso Robles. When you think of how far they’ve come over the last 10-15 years, it’s just amazing. One used to think of this inland Central Coast region as too hot for fine wine, but that was a huge mistake. I’m glad that I recognized its potential early, perhaps sooner than some other critics. In fact I was responsible for Paso Robles being recognized as Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Region of the Year, some years back, against heavy competition. The Cabernets and Bordeaux blends at their highest expression, including Vina Robles, are outstanding, but so are many of the whites and red blends; and prices are a fraction of what you find in Napa-Sonoma. Here are three reviews of current releases from Vina Robles.
Vina Robles 2015 Estate Sauvignon Blanc (Paso Robles): $16. The approach here—early release after the vintage, no oak, no malolactic fermentation, brief sur lie aging in stainless—is proving to be one of the best for California Sauvignon Blanc, preserving the fresh fruit and vital acidity, while the exposure to yeast gives the wine a creamy tartness. The grapes are from the winery’s Jardine Vineyard, on the eastern side of Paso Robles, a warmer area. The warmth accounts for the wine’s ripeness, with suggestions of tropical fruits (papaya especially) in addition to Sauvignon Blanc’s usual lemongrass, grapefruit, honeydew melon and green bell pepper flavors. It’s a super-tasty wine, with a properly dry, clean finish. This is really a very successful Sauvignon Blanc, and tremendously versatile at the table. And what a price point for what you get. Score: 93 points.
Vina Robles 2013 RED4 (Paso Robles): $17. Robust and rustic are good words to describe this darkly-colored red blend. A composite of 41% Petite Sirah and 40% Syrah, with a splash of Mourvedre and Grenache, it’s the kind of wine paisans drink every day at the trattoria. Bone dry and thick in tannins, the flavors are of blackberries, black cherries, pepper, leather and espresso. Unscrew it and drink with burgers, lasagna, pizza and other simple fare that wants a full-bodied red. Score: 86 points.
Vina Robles 2014 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (Paso Robles): $26. Compared to a classic Napa Cabernet, this holds up very well. In fact, there’s better structure here than many of the super-soft, high-alcohol versions up north. It sure has a lot of forward flavors: fresh ripe blackberry and black cherry jam, cocoa puffs, licorice, cassis liqueur and sweet toasted oak. There are considerable tannins that give the wine a bite of astringency, but a good steak or chop will tame them. As for the finish, the flavors last well into a long, spicy aftertaste. It’s a delicious wine, and that price makes it a fantastic value. Why would anyone pay $50, $75 or more for a Cabernet when this is available for $26? Seriously good stuff, highly recommended, and should be easy to find, with more than 16,000 cases produced. Score: 94.
In the immortal words of Vince “Buzzsaw” Kosciuszko:
Now that I’m retired
I can’t get fired!
So I feel free to express my REAL opinions on wine stuff. There’s a video going around Facebook that I disagree with, even though it portrays a lot of heavyweights who, IMHO, are simply wrong. (They include Phillippe Melka, Andrea Robinson, Bo Barrett, David Breitstein and others.)
The video apparently was first posted by Karen MacNeil, although she didn’t create it. I got it on my Facebook feed via Paul Mabray, with whom I’m friends. The video’s central message is that wine goes through ups and downs, “ebbs and flows” over time after it’s bottled. A major “down” or ebb” is “the dumb phase,” which Andrea calls “one of the deepest valleys a wine can stumble into.” Melka adds that, in such a dumb phase, “The wine totally loses harmony.” “Blank, disheveled, like the whole core of the wine is gone,” Karen MacNeil chimes in, comparing it to “a really bad hair day.”
Andrea explains why ordinary consumers should care. “As the wine lover, the big problem is, you don’t know when that’s going to happen.
The video is cleverly done—high production values, as they say. No wonder: It was created by Partners 2 Media, a Yountville-based media production firm (although it’s not clear to me who paid for the video, or why it was made, or who was paid to be in it, if anyone, all of which would be nice to know). After I watched it, I felt compelled to make this comment on Facebook:
This is essentially marketing bullshit from winemakers. It’s an excuse they tell when their wine doesn’t taste good, or when somebody doesn’t like it. “Blame it on the dumb phase, not the wine.” Well, sorry. A good wine is always going to be good at any age. Besides, this kind of nonsense just makes consumers even more confused than they already are. This is a really stupid and misleading video.
Bo Barrett actually has been talking about “the dumb phase” for decades (he might also have called it “the dip”). I remember him explaining it to me way back when I was at Wine Spectator. He said that, in his case, it applied specifically to Chateau Montelena’s Estate Cabernet, which (if I remember correctly) he said starts out really fresh and delicious (I agree), then slips into “the dumb phase” at about the age of 4 or 5, only to re-emerge some years later, and then plateau for a long time. I took, and take, Bo at his word: surely he knows his own wines better than I, or anyone.
But after my long professional career, I’ve come to regard certain statements about wine as problematic, and this is one of them. As I noted (and as Andrea says), the trouble is that the consumer not only doesn’t know when the wine is going to turn “dumb,” the consumer isn’t even in a position to know if the wine is “dumb.” If the consumer finds the wine too austere, or reserved, or tannic or just plain mehhh, how does it help her to have the idea in her head of “a dumb phase”? This is why I said this just makes consumers more confused than they already are. The implication of “a dumb phase” is that the wine just needs more time in the bottle and all will be well. But how much more time? What can the consumer reasonably expect in another three, six, ten years? If she tries it again and still doesn’t like it, does that mean it’s still in a dumb phase? Or is it just not a particularly interesting wine for her?
The oddest thing about the video is the star commenters telling us that even though the wine may taste awful, it’s actually pretty good. “There’s nothing wrong with the wine,” says Karen. Bo adds, “The consumer should know that the wine tastes fine. It just doesn’t have the aroma.” How can the wine have “nothing wrong with it,” how can it “taste fine” while it simultaneously “totally loses harmony” and “the whole core is gone”? This bizarre incongruity goes unexplained.
As a critic, my ambition was to liberate consumers from the onus of confusing and misleading beliefs about wine, which have been, and continue to be, so harmful to the industry. Consumers should not have to worry that, if they don’t like a wine, it’s because they’re not drinking it at the right time, or they don’t know how to understand it. That just makes them feel insecure. Having said that, I do realize that the wines this video is talking about are the one percent of all production that’s expensive and might benefit from time in the cellar. Still, I feel like a better message would have been the one I’ve consistently given: A good wine will taste good at any stage of its life (except, obviously, if it’s too old or hasn’t been stored well). You can open and appreciate a good wine anytime you want. Even the experts will disagree over when a bottle is ready to drink. It’s all subjective. We should tell consumers who buy these expensive wines (if they don’t already know, and they should), “Different people will like this wine at different points in its life. Some people prefer older wines, some don’t. Besides, all bottles age differently. It’s a crap shoot at best. A good red wine, like Chateau Montelena, should reasonably be excellent for the first eight or ten years of its life. After that, it’s all about personal preference.” In other words, no confusing stuff about “dumb phases.”
Gus and I headed up to the Alexander Valley yesterday for a tasting. It was chilly and foggy in Oakland when we left early, and the ride could have been worse: only 1-3/4 hours. We drove up the 101 to Alexander Valley Road, turned east through some awfully pretty wine country, and then—before reaching the winery—stopped by the old Jimtown Store
for a late breakfast and bracing cappuccino. The temperature in the valley already was in the 80s, under a cloudless, azure sky. While I was eating Gus checked out the flowers.
Our destination was right around the corner:
Stonestreet Wines, owned by my employer, Jackson Family Wines. From the winery itself
you can look further east, to the west wall of the great Mayacamas Mountain Range, and see the mountain
Jess bought years ago, for which we’re currently trying to establish an A.V.A., since it makes no sense to say that mountain wines come from a valley appellation. The family long has called it Alexander Mountain Estate, and it was the Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays off this sprawling, beautiful property I had come to taste.
The thing to understand is that this very large estate is broken into a series of smaller vineyards, with extensive wildland corridors inbetween through which wildlife–bears, cougars, deer–can pass on their millennial expeditions. Each smaller vineyard was planted to particular varieties depending on soil analysis, elevation and exposure. (They have this wonderful schematic model in the tasting room that explains everything, but if you can ever arrange a tour of the mountain, I highly recommend it.)
The first flight was white; the second, red. All the wines are Stonestreet. Here are my abbreviated notes. There was no need to taste blind.
2013 Broken Road. Rich golden color. Complex aromas of wet stone, tropical fruit, white peach, crème brulée, baking spices. Rich and delicious, with bracing acidity and a creamy texture. Score: 95.
2013 Upper Barn Vineyard. Rich golden color. Similar to Broken Road, but more saline and minerals. Ripe white peaches, tropical fruits, buttered toast, crème brulée, vanilla bean. Insanely rich, with bracing acidity. Notable for its superior structure. Score: 96. This is the white wine I brought home with me.
2013 Gravel Bench Vineyard. Rich golden color. The oak is more apparent (it’s the only Chard aged in 100% new French oak). A big, exuberant wine, with tropical fruit, nectarine and white peach fruit. On airing the oak got more integrated. Score: 92.
2013 Gold Run Vineyard. Rich golden color. Nice, firm flintiness, but the fruit and oak star. Tiers of golden mango, crème brulée, lemon meringue, vanilla bean, honey custard. Excellent acidity. A real star. Score: 95.
2013 Bear Point Vineyard. Good golden color. Nose a bit shy, suggesting lemon verbena, honey, golden mango, white peach, vanilla bean, buttered toast. Really rich and wonderful, in a way my favorite for its exquisite tension of parts. Score: 97.
2013 Cougar Ridge Vineyard. Good golden color. A tangy green apple note brings a bite to the mango, grilled pineapple and crème brulée richness. Lots of oak in the mouth: vanilla bean, buttered toast, smoke. Soft, creamy and opulent. Score: 94.
2012 Bear Point Vineyard. Pitch black color at the center, garnet at the rim. Very young and closed now. Jammy plums, tar, coffee and smoke. Thick tannins, bracing acidity. Dense and concentrated. Needs plenty of time. After 2020. Score: 94.
2010 Rockfall. Similar color to Bear Point. At six years, still closed, mute, resistant at first. On airing, hints of dark chocolate, olive tapenade, plums, black currants. Very tannic. Great structure, lots going on down underneath the astringency: creosote, blackberry jam, black licorice, cedar, toast, mushu plum sauce. Reminds me of Lynch-Bages. Needs time. After 2020. Score: 95.
2012 Rockfall. Midnight black without a moon, turning purple at the rim: young, young, young. Hints of blackberry jam, sweet oak, cocoa, rum, plums. Great primary fruit sweetness, plump, fat, rich, but very tannic. Good acidity, elegant structure, great weight and balance, with a very long, spicy finish. Superior if possible to the 2010. Needs time. After 2020. Score: 96.
2011 Christopher’s. The highest point on the mountain, at over 2,400 feet. The blackest color of all, impenetrable. Tight, closed; airing shows blackberry jam, clove, mint (eucalyptus), dust, smoke. Extremely complex but very tannic. Massive core of ripe summer blackberries and cassis; creosote, minerals. Needs lots of time. Drink after 2020. Score: 96. This is the bottle I brought home with me.
2012 Legacy. Another dark black wine with glints of ruby and garnet at the rim. The 30% Merlot in the blend is immediately apparent, giving a floral-violet scent to Cabernet’s blackberries and plums. In the mouth, complex, smooth, more forward than the other Cabs, but still very tannic, with blackberry, cherry, shaved chocolate, anise and baking spice flavors. You could drink it now but it will age for decades. Score: 94.
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.
Why I did 25,000 tasting notes before I ever even had a job reviewing wine remains a mystery to me to this day.
I guess it was that overused word, “passion.” It’s not that I couldn’t help myself, as can happen with other less desirable addictions. I didn’t want to stop; I loved taking wine notes. I felt I was performing a useful act (if only to myself), and I’ve always derived intense pleasure in learning and mastering new talents. In the end, though, it really is a mystery, this “getting bit by the wine bug.”
I kept all eight of my hard-cover volumes as well the thick files of my written notes, and I’m glad I did.
I don’t think I’m going to publish a “Great Vintage Wine Book,” but re-reading them makes so much fun. Here’s one from the summer of 1991 or 1992;
Gavin Newsom, today our Lieutenant-Governor (and the odds-on favorite to be California’s next Governor) was about to open his first Plump Jack wine store, down in Cow Hollow, and he invited me to be part of a small tasting group that met weekly to taste wines that salesmen had dropped off. The wines were written by Gavin himself, the notes are mine. We marked them simply “Yes” or “No”; a group consensus determined if the wines would be sold in the store on Day One.
Here’s another, from a Bon Appetit tasting panel shortly before Christmas, 1990 (and a big, belated Thank you! to Andy Blue for inviting me to those wonderful tastings for so many years).
I don’t know if you can read it, but my notes concerning the 1979 Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon—then 11 years old–are interesting. Here they are:
Me: “Inky black, orange at rim. Dead? Raisined nose—some licorice, tar. Massive tannins either hiding it all, or this wine’s gone.” Andy himself was there and so was Jim Laube, so I asked them both, separately, what they thought. I wrote:
“Laube says 91 [points], hold 5-6 years. Dias Blue agrees with me [i.e. that the wine is dead].”
That was a teaching moment for me. Andy and Jim were just about the most famous critics in California in 1990. As an aspiring critic myself, I looked up to them as mentors. And yet, here they were, coming down on diametrically opposite sides about a wine. I remember thinking, “Maybe there is no objective truth about these sorts of things. People will differ. The best course is to state your opinion honestly and confidently. Others can agree or disagree.” And that is the philosophy that guided me for the next 25 years after I really did become a professional wine critic. (And by the way, I still think that ageability predictions are crap shoots.)
One other thing I noticed going over my old tasting notes, and that’s how relatively low my scores were. From the same page as the Dunn: 84 points for Keenan ’87 Cab. A measly 86 points for La Jota ’86 Cab Franc. On other pages, I found lots and lots of scores in the mid-80s for wines that, today, I probably would score above 90. Why is that? Only two possible explanations: Score inflation, or a definite improvement in quality. I think it’s the latter. Vintners are picking riper these days than they did in the 1980s (which is a good thing, if they don’t let the grape sugars run away). They’ve learned how to tame those tannins, and they’re also far more educated about how to oak their wines; many from the old days were simply too oaky. That makes for better wines. On the inflation part, I’m willing to admit that there may have been psychological factors involved in my higher scores over the years. I don’t fully understand that part. I didn’t particularly feel pressured, from either external or internal sources, to score higher. I wasn’t aware of any shifting in my thinking or motives; Wine Enthusiast certainly never hinted to me they’d like more high scores. But I think my notes from the 1980s and early 1990s prove that my scores did tend to get higher, especially after the year 2000. I’ll leave it to others to ascribe the reasons why.
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I’m on my way to Oregon’s beautiful Willamette Valley today. The weather will be absolutely gorgeous, warm and blue skies, so unlike my last trip when it was cold and wet, and the Siskyou Pass was treacherous driving. More tomorrow.