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I’m the new “go with” wine guy

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I went on a “go with” yesterday. That is (as I just learned) the jargon for a salesperson who calls on an account and brings “someone else” (like me) with him. In this case, I’m the “famous former wine critic” whom most of the accounts have heard of, and whose ratings might even appear on their shelf talkers; apparently, some of them at least like meeting me—a name they previously knew only in print, only now it’s in the flesh.

What I, and other critics like me, used to do is so mystical and mythical to these guys. Many of their questions are basic: How do you assign a numerical rating? What’s the difference between 89 (death) and 90 (glory)? How exactly do you taste? It’s a reflection of the secrecy of so many famous critics that even hard-core industry veterans don’t understand. I don’t think I, personally, am guilty of obfuscation, since in this blog I’ve explained every detail of how I did everything, over and over, for more than six years. But in all objectivity, I don’t think most other critics have been similarly straightforward, and that’s a shame.

I’ve always said I like the sales and marketing aspect of this business. The sales guys, in particular, fascinated me. These road warriors are out there every day, doing battle with on- or off-premise wine buyers who have heard it all, seen it all, done it all. So in other words, you have two battle-hardened guys, sellers and buyers, meeting on the playing field, and may the best man win.

One of the reasons why I took this job at Jackson Family Wines was, obviously, because it’s a great company, with the greatest portfolio of family-owned wines in California, maybe in all the world, IMHO. It was easy for me, in the comfort of my own home, to review their wines and form impressions of Stonestreet, Cambria, Edmeades, Hartford, Cardinale and all the rest, and know in my mind how good they were.

But the seller-buyer relationship is totally different, as I learned up close and personal yesterday. The sales guy I teamed with, Charlie, and I covered 150 miles of Bay Area freeways going from account to account at upscale wine stores. One thing I learned: you have to be very patient at dealing with traffic and driving long distances if you’re going to do sales! Another thing: each account is different. I mean, in terms of their personalities. One guy will be all business: no small talk here. Another might be just the opposite. One of our calls was a guy who majored in history at U.C. Berkeley. I asked him what his specialty was, and he said Post World War II Italy. Well, I’m a WWII freak, and the book I’m currently reading is a biography of Galleazo Ciano, Italy’s foreign minister during the war, and Mussolini’s son-in-law to boot: Ciano’s diaries (which I have), smuggled out of Italy during the war despite the Gestapo’s attempts to find them, did much to shed light—damaging and embarrassing light—on the Hitler-Mussolini relationship. Anyhow, that led to a long conversation between me and the sales guy that had nothing to do with wine—although we did return to that subject. The point I’m trying to make is that I’ve always valued relationships in this industry, and it’s fascinating to meet such a varied range of people with so many different interests and points of view.

I valued yesterday’s experience. It enriched my life, and helps me more deeply understand this complex thing we call the wine industry—such a multi-faceted thing, so driven by human personality. When I was a critic, I lived in a sort of bubble. I’m not complaining: it was a very pleasant bubble. But a bubble nonetheless. I had the time of my life, but I eventually came to believe that there was more to life, and to me and my career, than being a wine critic. I’m extraordinarily grateful for those years. At the same time, I’m also thoroughly ensconced in, and enjoying, this, my newest adventure.


The soft bigotry of tasting inexpensive wine

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If wine tasters could be categorized into political categories, I guess you’d call me a liberal. By that, I mean that all wines have the right to be taken seriously, in terms of their own aspirations and self-identity. No wine should be automatically dismissed because it’s inexpensive. As in the case of Justice, the only fair way to evaluate a wine is to do it blind.

BlindJustice

This is why I never did turn into a snob, even after 25 years in the trenches as a wine critic. Sure, I could appreciate Harlan, or Colgin or Screaming Eagle, and when I rated them, it was usually with high scores. And while I didn’t formally review non-California wines, for the better part of two decades I tasted every one of the world’s most valuable wines, from Romanée-Conti and Grange Hermitage to Guigal’s LaLas, Petrus and the First Growths. I completely understood what it took to produce wines of that quality and complexity, and I rewarded them accordingly.

But I always could also appreciate a good, affordable wine. I never shuddered just because something was produced in high volume, or because it wasn’t an elite, estate-bottled wine. That didn’t bother me, anymore than it bothers me that some of my neighbors in Oakland are rich while others are struggling and poor. I just felt you have to take everyone for what they are. And that’s how I feel about wine.

My career as a critic was shaped by this attitude. It was reinforced by the basic philosophy of Wine Enthusiast. The magazine could have gone in a direction of elitism, the way the competition did, but very early on the decision was taken to make it more of a “people’s” magazine than one for collectors. This is a tricky game to play if you hope to be taken seriously by wine buffs. On the one hand, you don’t want to present yourself as ignorant and pedestrian, devoid of the taste and discernment required to appreciate great wine. On the other hand, you don’t want “ordinary” wine drinkers, whom you respect, to feel left out of the conversation. You want to appeal to both the aspirational crowd and the folks who are just looking for a nice $12 wine without turning  off either side.

If I had any doubts about my approach, they were dispelled through blind tasting. There were times, in large flights, I preferred a $25 wine to a $250 wine. At first, that was a humbling, almost embarrassing experience. But after a while, I grew to expect it. It was almost a badge of honor, because it proved that I hadn’t been mesmerized by labels, or reputations, or whatever trend was then in vogue. Some of my readers will know exactly what I mean when I remind them that some very famous “palates” have been hoisted on their own petards through blind tasting, when what they said was contradicted by what they actually found.

If I had to choose between drinking only expensive wine or inexpensive wine for the rest of my life, I’d choose the former. Fortunately, I don’t have to. If I had a magic wand, I’d wave it around and try to change the attitude of elitists who will only drink this, or that, or something else, and tell everyone else to do the same. That’s what the writer Michael Gerson calls “the soft bigotry of expectations,” which means: You’ve made up your mind about the wine before you even taste it.


Thinking about tasting

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Lots of food for thought in the Fall 2014 issue of Wine & Spirits, which is devoted to “The art and science of wine tasting.” There’s so much thoughtful content, I could write a post on each sentence. Surely that’s the mark of a good wine magazine.

The fun starts with editor Josh Greene explaining why he never pursued a Master of Wine certification. Although Wine & Spirits is rather M.S.- and sommelier-oriented (IMHO), Josh says his mind isn’t geared toward “dissecting wine.” Instead, he’s interested in what he calls “pattern recognition,” a softer, more intuitive way of experiencing wine. This leads him to be struck by “how many ways there are to approach wine.” Amen brother!

This multiplicity of approaches is nicely illustrated early on, in a section in which a couple dozen wine pros describe how they “improved their game.” These include Master Somms, MWs, restaurateurs and retailers, critics and writers. Their individual approaches are all over the board, as you’d expect, but a read-through of them all suggests two over-arching themes that are inextricably at odds with each other. These are:

  1. a focus on, indeed practically an obsession with, identifying precise food-related aromas and flavors, versus
  2. a tendency to pooh-pooh this approach in favor of something broader, which we can call “structure.”

In the first grouping, we might place Josiah Baldovino (Bay Grape, Oakland, and former lead somm at Michael Mina). He looks for “the nuances of wine. Not just, ‘this wine is fruity,’ but: ‘What kind of fruit is it? Citrus, stone fruit, orchard, tropical…maybe durian?’” Also in this group is another sommelier, Geoff Kruth, M.S.: “When I taste blind,” he writes, “I don’t worry about what the wine is; I worry about understanding the underlying aromas and flavors…”.

In the second group, the structuralists, there’s Eric Asimov (The New York Times): “The precise specifics of the flavors and the aromas [are] unimportant. The notion that we must challenge our senses to concoct a list of overly specific references…does not convey much of significance.”

Well, you can’t get any more opposite that those two points of view! My own tendency conforms toward that of Eric and Josh Greene. I veer also toward the approach taken by Patricio Tapia, a Wine & Spirits critic, who “realize[d] that I should be approaching wine in terms of structure rather than aromas. I’d never been particularly good at discovering roses or wild cherries in my glass…”.

We have to ask, at this point, if the reason some people (Asimov, Greene, Tapia, me) shy away from “overly specific references” is because we’re simply not very good at finding them (as Tapia concedes) or because we’re philosophically opposed to that methodology. To doubt oneself is an implicit part of the wine critiquing business. Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, from Champagne Louis Roederer, calls describing wine “a true act of humility,” while David Lynch, at St. Vincent Tavern & Wine Merchant (San Francisco), quotes Pio Boffa, of Pio Cesare: “When it comes to wine, I know nothing except the fact of my own ignorance.”

Knowing one’s own ignorance can be scary, especially for those in the public eye who are expected to know everything. Josh Greene, for instance, in explicating his “pattern recognition” approach, concedes that another reason he never studied for the M.W. is because “at the time, I feared the M.W. study process.” Who wouldn’t? It’s incredibly rigorous, takes a lot of time, and results most of the time in failure. Why would someone deliberately undertake such a perilous journey when it’s likely to end in an embarrassing (and public) rebuff?

One must then ask the question, What is the point of wine tasting, anyway? An obvious answer is that some people are paid to do it. But wine tasting—the kind practiced by the people interviewed by Wine & Spirits—is a very odd, even unnatural practice. Nobody would do it in real life. If we were simply drinking wine for the purpose it was made—which is to drink it—we all would agree with Paul Draper, who points out that analyzing and comparing is “wasting great wines…instead of enjoying them as they were intended: one or two at a time with friends and good food.”

(“Wasting great wines…” I couldn’t help but recall all the wine I poured down the kitchen sink, after I took my one-ounce tasting pour. I hated to do it—but what was the alternative?)

I think we’ve fallen through the rabbit hole into the “overly specific references” looking-glass world, and we’re not about to climb out of it anytime soon. My personal approach will remain what it was for all those years at Wine Enthusiast: to speak of wines in more or less general terms and refrain from the precious and pompous. To me, the ideal wine review is to give people some idea of the aromas and flavors – of the relative dryness level and acidity, the structure–a little bit of the history of the grape, winemaker or region–to touch on terroir, where appropriate, in order to explain its influence on the wine–and, of course, some recommendations for food. With this latter, too, I want to avoid “overly specific” or exotic references, and keep it veered towards stuff that real people actually make at home. When I review and describe a wine, I do so with a very specific person in mind: that average American wine lover who wants a memorable wine (and food) experience, and wants to know a little more about the wine than he or she otherwise would– nothing that’s going to weigh them down, or make them believe that enjoying wine is super-complicated or only for experts. My way, then, is K.I.S.S., keeping in mind Leonardo da Vinci’s observation that “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”


The last word on single-blind, double-blind and open tasting

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I don’t know that I’ve ever fully laid out, in this blog, my views on the three most common forms of wine tasting: single-blind, double-blind and open. So let me do so.

I’ve long argued that no one way of tasting is “right.” Each has its pluses and minuses. If there were one “correct” way we all would have accepted it by now, so the fact that we haven’t suggests there is no one correct way.

Single-blind tasting, in which you know something about the wines (maybe their region, variety and vintage) is useful, in that it’s blind enough to prevent bias, but gives you some context in which to make evaluations. This question of “context” has been woefully underreported by the wine and academic media, in my judgment. Why context matters is difficult to prove to those who think it doesn’t; it’s an almost political point of view. But suffice it to say that context gives the taster at least some parameters within which to base his conclusions. The following metaphor is a little stretched, I’ll admit, but gets the point across. Let’s say a juvenile is on trial in a courtroom for some youthful infraction. The D.A. wants to throw the book at the kid, but the judge permits his parents and teachers to testify. They offer a view of the kid that’s far different from the one the D.A. presented. The judge, after taking all these views into account, adjusts his sentence accordingly. That is “context.”

Double-blind tasting by contrast allows for no context (except, obviously, knowing the color and stillness or bubbliness of the wine, which may be sweet or dry). To extend the above metaphor, the judge allows no “character witnesses.” He simply bases his conclusions on the law/s the defendant is alleged to have broken, and makes his sentence based on prescribed punishments. This is “unfair” in that it fails to take anything into account other than the actual act of lawbreaking; but one can argue (and extreme law-and-order societies do so argue) that it is after all the fairest, most objective and consistent and least emotional approach to jurisprudence.

Open tasting must break with the metaphor and use a different rationale. In open tasting, you know exactly what you’re tasting. The argument in favor of it is that it’s only fair to know all the facts before making a judgment. This is why so many proprietors insist on critics visiting the winery and tasting with the winemaker; they will not send wine to the critic to taste anonymously in some lineup. This approach, too, makes sense if you view it through the lens of another metaphor. Let’s say your child wants to marry someone. You, the parent, feel you should have some say in the matter: your child’s protestations of love for the fiancé are not enough to convince you that this is a marriage that will succeed. So you insist on meeting the lover and knowing more about him or her: About the parents—the financial situation—the prospects for making a living—the person’s moral fiber—his or her commitment to your child. Surely this is not an unreasonable approach for a parent: He wants to experience the lover “openly.”

How a person tastes wine depends on his reason for doing so. A negociant or a winemaker assembling a final blend may decide to taste double-blind: the sole purpose is to produce the best wine possible. A wine critic may choose to taste single-blind, as I did at Wine Enthusiast (and as I believe many other major critics do). But a wine critic also may choose to taste openly, as I know for a fact some of the world’s most famous English-speaking critics do. They will argue (and who am I to disagree?) that they are perfectly capable of disregarding their knowledge of the wine so that they arrive at an objective conclusion. One can even suggest that open tasting is simply an extreme case of single-blind tasting: After all, if you already know something about what the wine is, then how much “worse” can it be if you know still more?

In the end, we can conclude one thing with certainty: The critic who tastes openly will be a lot more consistent in her reviews that the critic who tastes double-blind. If you value consistency in critics (and the winemakers I know say it’s the single most important thing they look for), then you probably want your critic to taste openly. Finally, I’ll just say that this discussion involves a lot of inside-baseball stuff: All this may be controversial within the critical/winemaking community, but the general public doesn’t give a hoot how their critics taste. They can’t be bothered with the details: All they want to know about is the review and score.


Talking about tasting room staff

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I spoke to a group of people last night—marvelous people, actually, employees of Kendall-Jackson’s Wine Education & Garden Center (I call it the chateau), in Fulton, just outside Santa Rosa. They had invited me up for a periodic dinner they have together.

They asked me about tasting, and here’s part of what I told them: How to taste wine depends on your background and experience. By that I meant that your actual physical and mental impression of the wine is based, not merely on the wine’s objective qualities, but on your mindset. Dr. Timothy Leary used to say that a person’s experience of an acid trip depends on “set and setting.” “Set” is the person’s mental state, a composite of everything he’s ever done, learned, felt and thought. “Setting” is the physical environment around the person doing the trip. Two tripping people might share an identical setting, but obviously they have two different sets: hence, they will have different trips, sometimes drastically different.

So it is with wine. I told them they my entire orientation for 25 years had been toward the consumer. The first obligation of a wine, I said, is to be delicious. Therefore things like “typicity” or alcohol level don’t concern me; they’re irrelevant. Now, someone else—a sommelier, perhaps—might be more concerned with typicity and therefore find fault with a big, fat, juicy, fruity California Pinot Noir for not being “Burgundian” enough, or not being like the Pinot Noirs from Burgundy that he likes, But the sommelier has a far different job than I had, as a critic. The somm has, in other words, a different “set.” We might taste the identical wine (“setting”) and arrive at two entirely different conclusions about it. And that’s okay. We have different jobs; we look for different things in wine; and we experience wine in different ways.

Neither way is better than the other; neither is right or wrong. They just are. Afterwards, a few people came up to say they agreed with what I said about a wine’s obligation to be delicious. I can see why. They work in the tasting room, a very hard job. All day long they encounter people’s reactions to the wines they pour. They’re the first ones to know that most people don’t buy a wine because they think they should, or because somebody gave it a high score, or because its name or region is famous, or because rich people were drinking it 150 years ago, or any of those reasons we can call “set.” No, people buy wines they find delicious. And what better reason could there be to buy wine?

Speaking of the tasting room, the K-J folks invited me up to spend a weekend afternoon working there. I’ve never done that. I have a great deal of respect for tasting room staff. Not only do they have to answer the same questions 400 times a day, all year long (“What’s the blend on that wine?”), they have do so pleasantly, personably, and with a smile. It’s a job that requires patience, a healthy attitude and above all, human social skills: a tasting room staff person has to genuinely like people. They also have to put up with the occasional a-hole who gets drunk or rude, and they have to do so graciously. And yet the tasting room pourer is often the public face of the winery. So I’m looking forward to the day when I work the K-J tasting room, and I will faithfully report on it here.

Have a great weekend!


Thursday throwaway: Rutherford dust, Bordeaux prices and Parker, Parker, Parker!

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Went up to Napa yesterday for the annual “Day in the Dust” tasting of the Rutherford Dust Society. I wanted to see if I could discern a “Rutherford dust” characteristic to the wines. If there was one, it was pretty well disguised. All the wines were very fine, as you’d expect, but they were different: Some more tannic, some less, some rustic, some refined. Some wines were oakier than others. The fruits tended toward reds: cherries, sometimes sour candy, sometimes freshly sweet, but there was plenty of blackberry and cassis and also, some pleasant herbaceousness. (The vintage was mostly the cool 2011.) Most of the wines were ageable. But Rutherford dust? I don’t think so. Andre Tchelistcheff’s phrase was pure marketing genius (or was made so after others latched onto it), but I defy anyone to consistently tell the difference between a Rutherford Cabernet and one from St. Helena, to use but one example.

* * *

The drinks business has a nice little article where they went back to something Parker said ten years ago, and it has proven to be right. “If my instincts are correct,” he predicted, “10 years from now a great vintage of these [Bordeaux] first growths will cost over US$10,000 a case…at the minimum.”

Well, that’s exactly what happened in some instances. Now I’m seeing certain recent Napa Valley Cabernets that cost close to $1,000 per bottle, which would put them well over $10,000 a case. I always have to rub my eyes at these nosebleed prices, but nothing seems to be slowing them down. Not the Great Recession, nor the incessant bashing Napa Cabernet has come under in recent years has changed wealthy people’s inclination to buy them at any price.

* * *

I’ve always held that wine tasting is both objective and subjective, even in the supposedly “greatest palates” in the world. How could it not be, when the proof lies in the prices I just referred to. Is any wine “worth” $1,000 a bottle? Not objectively. Instead, “emotional associations…affect what we taste,” says a scientist whose work was reported this month in The New Yorker.

By “emotional,” he means the “expectations” people have when they see a bottle of a wine they know to be rare, esteemed and expensive. “Every time we have a wine,” the article says, “we taste everything we know about it and other related wines.”

Fascinating statement. Think about it. I taste, let’s say, a Parker perfect 100-pointer and I know a lot about the history of the estate and the vineyard, the winemaker, the fact that the wine has been celebrated throughout the vintages as one of the world’s greatest. I know that it costs $1,000 a bottle or more on the wine lists of the world’s greatest restaurants. I know that it sells for multiples of that on eBay. I know that there are people who have been waiting for years to get on the waiting list for the mailing list. I know that the wine is so celebrated across the globe that counterfeiting it in China has become big business. I know that people buy it and put it in their cellars for their grandkids to drink (or sell). And that’s only the beginning: not only do I know stuff about that wine, I feel things about it that stir my emotions—that cannot be put into words, but are perhaps all the stronger for that very reason: they tap into my dreams, my fantasies, my hopes and aspirations. These are truths about wine as powerful as the objective truths of alcohol level, varietal composition or pH, and we should keep them in mind always when we ask the (now answered) question: Is the evaluation of wine objective or subjective?

* * *

Speaking of all the above, a bearded and hairy Robert Parker—looking more and more like Orson Welles in his Paul Masson days—has been on what looks like a P.R. fix-it campaign lately. First he gave a rare and unusual interview, published on the Hawk Wakawaka blog, that wasn’t so much about wine as RMP’s views on film, spirituality, raising kids, the 24-hour news cycle and lots more. It’s a compelling peek inside the head of the most famous wine critic in the world.

And now, today’s Wall Street Journal has yet another exclusive interview with Parker, not particularly interesting because it’s predictable and says the same-old, same-old things. So why is Parker on the mashed potato circuit?

My guess is that after all the bashing, he’s decided it’s time to rehabilitate himself in the public’s eye (and also to publicize his new magazine). And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with either of those motives.

That’s it for now! Have a nice day.


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