I’m mad as heck and I’m not going to take it anymore!
I’ve had it up to here [you can’t see me, but I’m holding my hand up to my forehead] with writers who complain that “wine consumers have little use and perhaps even less tolerance for wine tasting notes.”
That is simply a falsehood. The truth is, wine consumers have little use for (and they may even hate) people who say that wine consumers have little use for wine tasting notes.
Now, the anti-tasting note crowd may retort with the claim that wine consumers have little use for people who disagree with people who say that wine consumers have little use for wine tasting notes. But I disagree. You see, I happen to believe that people who say that wine consumers have little use for wine tasting notes hate people who say that people who say that wine consumers have little use for wine tasting notes are idiots. And nobody likes a hater.
If it were really true that wine consumers have little use for wine tasting notes, then why did Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart go on a romantic wine tasting trip to Cannes?
The anti-wine tasting note cabal can’t answer that, can they? Nor can they properly address the 1WineDude phenomenon, or explain, with any coherence, why the Hosemaster of Wine always points in the direction of magnetic north, no matter how many times you spin him around.
You see, there are many, many things these anti-wine tasting note haters can’t explain! Actually, this bloke, Michael Godel, who wrote the anti-tasting note article I linked to above, seems like a regular chap. (Blokes? Chaps? Is British catching? Except that Godel isn’t a Brit, he’s Canadian. Well, what’s the difference? They both talk funny and worship the Queen.) Anyhow, consider the following, from the Hoisted On Your Own Petard Dept.:
Angels Gate Sauvignon Blanc 2011 ($13.95) in comely, pale gold flesh and peach blossom nose is well designed if not grape-specific “correct.” And I thank her for that. Leads like a Jack Johnson ballad, gathering then tempering the 2011 vintage’s acidity and finishing with a soulful refrain. Outright proper Beamsville Bench white wine, even if it bears little resemblance to the Loire or Marlborough. Good on her, this angel, “she gives me kisses on the lips just for coming home.” 88
Michael Godel writes a mean tasting note! Not my style, but witty and stylish, although I don’t get the Jack Johnson thing. There is a Hawaiian musician of that name, but we have no way of knowing if he’s the one Michael Godel refers to. Quite frankly, my dears, I have little use, and perhaps even less tolerance, for obscure cultural references in wine notes.
I like rosé wine, but for the longest time I didn’t think California had many good ones. There were all sorts of problems. I found a Renwood 2005 “too watery for recommendation,” a fairly common problem for a type of wine that’s delicate to begin with. Another set of issues arose with a Dominari 2005, from Napa Valley: “heavy, with bizarre medicinal flavors and a sugary finish.” That’s pretty common, too. I’m not sure what causes the medicinal stuff, but residual sugar in a thin, simple wine is awful; and R.S. was one of the biggest problems Cali Rosé had. Then there was the vegetal smell I found in a 2005 Big House “Pink Wine.” Unripe and pyraziney.
There used to be a restaurant in the Financial District called Vertigo. (It’s no longer there; Vertigo Bar, in the Tenderloin, is decidedly not the same place!) I had read that Vertigo claimed to have the biggest rosé wine selection of any restaurant in San Francisco–maybe America, for all I remember; this was about 12 years ago. I called them up and asked if I could drop by and taste through the lot. They said, Sure. (Being a wine writer does have its advantages!) I sat at the bar and went through 25 or 30 wines. Just about each was stunning. Blew me away. Some pale and delicate, others darker and fuller. But all dry, dry, dry, and crisp, crisp. Those are rosé’s first duties: to be dry and crisp. And not a one of them was from California. All French.
Oh, now I get it (I thought to myself). This is what rosé is supposed to be. I never forgot that tasting. It remains the bar to which rosé must rise, in my mind.
Then, for the next decade or so, I didn’t pay much attention to rosé. If it came in, I reviewed it. There wasn’t much, maybe 50 bottles a year. Every once in a while, a wine writer would write about rosé, usually as spring or summer was coming on, and claim it was enjoying some kind of comeback. I never believed that. Some years ago, there was that group, Rosé Avengers and Producers, that my old friend Jeff Morgan was behind. But they didn’t seem to gain much traction.
Starting about a year ago, I found myself thinking about rosé again. It started subtlely; I’m not sure why. Then the new year was upon us, and people started sending me a lot of rosé, to get reviews in time for the warm season, I guess. And all of a sudden, I was talking about rosé to anyone who would listen. I recently told Chuck, my intern, that in a way, rosé is the most interesting wine now being produced in California.
Really!?!? That’s a pretty radical thing to say. But I just said it. There’s more good rosé (which is to say, dry and crisp) than ever before. Is it the recent cool vintages (2010-2012)? Is it a change of mindset among producers? The influence of sommeliers? It is true that the best new rosés are coming from very small producers who may be in close touch with the on-premise market. As usual with such things, it’s impossible to pinpoint a reason.
Here are some rosés I’ve really enjoyed over the past year: Kokomo 2011 Pauline’s Vineyard Grenache (Dry Creek Valley); Minassian-Young 2011 (Paso Robles); La Grand Côte 2011 L’Estate (Paso Robles); Sanglier 2011 Rosé du Tusque (Sonoma County): Muscardini 2011 Alice’s Vineyard Rosato di Sangiovese (Sonoma Valley); Birichino 2011 Vin Gris (California); Balleto 2011 Rosé of Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); Luli 2012 (Central Coast); Lynmar 2012 Rosé of Syrah (Russian River Valley) and Chiarello 2012 Chiara Rosé of Zinfandel (Napa Valley). All over 90 points, and not one of them more than $22, except for the Chiarello, which is $35.
Rosé, along with Champagne, is the most versatile food wine. It’s also a nice gateway wine for Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Moscato drinkers looking to get into red wine. If I was a winemaker today, I’m not sure what my main focus would be, but I’d definitely have a rosé on the list. (The one variety that I think is hard to do rosé with is Cabernet Sauvignon. Too heavy and full-bodied. Merlot is tough, too.)
Mike Veseth, the wine economist whose blog posts and occasional research papers I always look forward to reading, published another thought-provoking piece last week.
It’s about what he calls “context-sensitive” tasting, a term I’d never heard before, but one I’ll use going forward, because it’s snappy and useful.
My readers know that I tend to be obsessed with the mechanics of tasting: single-blind, double-blind, open. As a Gemini (not that I believe in astrology, but the characterization of Geminis as being able to see things from multiple points of view certainly applies to me), I can appreciate the pros and cons of all three approaches.
Double-blind really makes you think hard and deep. Single-blind gives you just enough context to judge whether or not the wines are good examples of their class. And open tasting gives you the complete context that can make the wine-drinking experience so multi-dimensional.
The problem with these three approaches, or at least the first two (single- and double-blind) is that they’re fundamentally incompatible with consistency of judgment. The same wine, tasted blind on multiple occasions, will impress even the most professional reviewer differently, leading to questions concerning reality. What is the wine really like? It’s not really like anything; it all depends how you experience it.
(Of course, if you’re tasting openly, you can be 100% consistent. You can also be 100% biased based on what you know you’re tasting!)
This is why Veseth titles his post “In Vino Veritas?” with the question mark playing a pivotal role. The conventional wisdom, among the general public who read wine critics, is that there’s something “real” or “true” in wine that critics are in a unique position to perceive and describe. Well, there is something “real” in wine, but it’s not what critics perceive and write about, it’s what a wine laboratory measures with instruments. You can determine everything from aluminum to zinc in wine. Those things are “real” and “true,” but they obviously are not things critics look for, nor are they things most consumers care about.
Thus, Veseth writes, “our impressions of wine is [sic] context-sensitive–perhaps more so than we really want to admit.” This conclusion chagrins him, but it shouldn’t.
So is there “reality” in wine, beyond a lab analysis of its chemical and physical properties? No. In that case, proponents of open tasting have a point when they say, in effect, “Why bother tasting blind if you know the results are not replicable?” And furthermore: “Since open tasting is reliably the most consistent method of tasting, it also is the most trustworthy.
Well, yes…but then, why was it so hard to get anyone from the Wine Advocate to state, in no uncertain terms, that they do taste openly, instead of dancing around the issue for so many years? To the best of my knowledge, it wasn’t until Antonio Galloni told me that he does (you can read his quote here, from last year)
that anyone from the Advocate organization. And Antonio did so not only with candor, but with passion: he strongly defended tasting openly at high-end properties, whether in Burgundy or the likes of Harlan Estate. Why, then, does TWA’s website, presumably written by Robert Parker, say, “When possible all of my tastings are done in peer-group, single-blind conditions (meaning that the same types of wines are tasted against each other and the producers’ names are not known.”? Admittedly, this is Parker talking…he pointedly says “my” tastings, not “our” tastings, so maybe he was implying, very gently, that not every review in TWA is the result of a “peer-group, single-blind” tasting.” Or maybe standards have changed since he wrote those words.
Well, I don’t mean to criticize Antonio’s method,or anyone else’s, since, as I said, each approach has its strengths. In the end, consumers have to decide what methodology they want their critics to use. To tell you the truth, I don’t think most consumers care. But they should. If all the wine critics in the world tasted blind, the hierarchy of pricing and tiers would fall down and crack, like Humpty-Dumpty, and all the King’s men couldn’t put it back together again.
So what’s my solution? If I’m limited to just one form of tasting, I prefer single-blind. The way around this is transparency. Every review that anyone does should have a little symbol next to it: TO (yasted openly), SB (single-blind), DB (double-blind). That way, consumers who cared would know, and if someone was concerned with bias, they could dismiss a TO wine.
A Facebook friend commented to me:
I rarely have to purchase wine .. but here in Ontario Canada we have to do so at a WINE STORE … so I walked in yesterday and was floored by the number of wines that had been judged by Steve Heimoff !! so like any good wine guy I purchased several bottles where scores above 90 were given. mostly 90 and 91 and a few higher. (price point on wines above were ridiculous). Familiarizing myself with your palate a bit was quite an experience. so Mr. Steve it brings a question to mind … When judging wines .. what characteristic stands out most for you that boosts the score of the wine ? I would like to think if this question gets an answer it will be more than the word BALANCE but knowing you I doubt that is possible. Cheers and Libations.
I replied (maybe a little touchily after that “knowing you” remark), “Balance, certainly. This is a topic I could write a book about and have explained on many occasions in my blog.”
The guy replied, “been reading through it .. looking for where you site a particular point or something specific you look for … and i’ve been reading it for years .. no luck .. so I thought the question may wake something up and prompt a ‘Heimoff’ Answer … without being a ‘WANK’ lol”
The reference to “a WANK” was to my post from yesterday.
So, all right, I should probably explain from time to time what I do and how I do it and why.
What characteristic stands out most for you that boosts the score of the wine?
He doesn’t like the word “balance,” so I’m looking for another one-word answer and the best I can come up with is Strikingness. It’s when the wine has that hard-to-define Wow! factor. I have a Platonic notion in my mind of what the perfect Wow! wine should be. Ninety nine percent of all the wines I taste fall short of it. I suppose the perfect Wow! is a perfect 100-point wine. The further away from perfect Wow! the wine is, the lower the score. At some point, wines that fall short are still enjoyable, so they get scores in the 85-90 point range. At a still lower point, the wines become increasingly irritating, until finally they’re almost or entirely undrinkable. This is your 80-point range and, at Wine Enthusiast, the ultimate Purgatory, 22 points.
As I implied earlier, it would take a book to get into all the details of what constitutes the Wow! factor. All that “balance” means is that nothing sticks out over everything else. Too much oak is unbalanced. In my blind tasting, I will critique a wine for being too oaky. Once I know what it is, I may suggest that the oakiness might become more integrated into the wine with age, but the score doesn’t change because it’s still too oaky. Same with residual sugar. Most people know I hate it in a table wine that’s supposed to be dry.
I know that doesn’t fully explain “balance.” Maybe this helps. Yesterday I got an email from Kevin Willenborg, who’s winemaker at Vina Robles, a winery I like. He wrote: “If a vine is balanced it is capable of producing its true potential – more evenly ripened, physiologically mature fruit that reflects the terroir.”
An important part of the Wow! factor is the ability of a wine to stand out in a flight. I’ve said before that I don’t see how it’s possible to give a very high score to a wine you taste all by itself (I mean, if it’s blind. If you know you’re drinking 2010 Latour at the chateau, it’s a whole different story). A wine needs to be tasted in the appropriate context of its peers, in order to be fully understood. Say you’re tasting a flight of Napa Valley Cabernets from great producers. Everything scores highly, but one or two of those wines will dominate the others, even after two hours or so of continuous back and forth and development in the bottle.
What does “dominate the others” mean? The conventional wisdom is that the biggest, most extracted, oakiest and, yes, most Parkerized wines will always dominate a less bold wine. I don’t know about other tasters, but that’s not true for me. I can taste a gigantic wine that’s too big for its britches, one that’s cynically designed to get a high score. Such a wine will not get a high score from me. It lacks balance–but here we go again, because that’s the very word my Facebook friend asked me to expostulate on. I’ve done my best, within the limits of a blog post.
Wanker [from Wiktionary}: (UK, Australia, New Zealand, slang, pejorative) An idiot, a stupid, annoying or ineffectual person who shows off too much, a poser or poseur; someone who is overly self-satisfied.
The Brits and their island relatives south of the equator love the word “wank” which in addition to the above meaning has so many other colorful implications. In the context of wine, it shows up in this article, in yesterday’s Sydney [Australian] Morning Herald, in which the writer, Nick Bhasin, was swirling and sniffing wine at an office party when one of his co-workers said to him, “It’s hard to do that and not look like a wanker.”
I never had any preconceptions about wine wankiness when I was coming up. When I moved to San Francisco and fell into the wine culture, we all swirled and sniffed, held the wine against a white tablecloth to see how clear it was, “chewed” it as if it were meat, thoughtfully appreciated its finish, and then, afterward, talked about it with the excited animation of a cadre of Giants fans debating Tim Lincecum’s abilities as a pitcher. (If you live here and hang out in sports bars, you know what I mean.)
In other words, I’ve always been comfortable being a wine wanker and being in the presence of wine wankers, although, even for me, there’s a limit. You can be wanky (or wonky) about wine without losing common sense and normal ways of talking.
But nobody should be embarrassed about their wine wankiness, as Nick Bhasin apparently was. He asked a “wine educator” for advice on how not to appear wanky, and she told him, “The glass doesn’t have to be raised to the sky in conductor-like fashion. And swirling can be done subtly, it doesn’t require much effort to swirl a glass properly at all – and it doesn’t require exaggerated facial expressions either.”
She’s surely right; one can easily imagine Fred Armisen, on Saturday Night Live, doing his Guy Fieri sthick as an out-of-control wank, gargling the Lafite, and sniffing it so hard it comes snorting out through his nose.
There are such people; we all have seen them, at tastings and such. Usually they’re amateurs. Fortunately, they’re in the minority. I often wonder, though, how we got to this position, where the merest, sincerest interest in wine is perceived by others as pretentious and fatuous. People don’t think that baseball or wrestling fans are pretentious. Personal aircraft owners talk about their planes all the time (try hanging out in Napa Valley) and, while it’s annoying to those of us who do not own such boy toys, I don’t think it’s pretentious. (Well, maybe a little.)
Yet wine talk and behavior has earned its own place of infamy. I guess partly it’s due to our American disdain for high culture. Wine is associated with the wealthy (although that’s a stupid attitude, because wine is really the beverage of the masses), and Americans have always had suspicions of the rich. Particularly suspect are people who aren’t rich but take on rich “airs”; and could any “air” be more offensive than swirling and sipping? Hence “wanker.”
I’ll just conclude by saying that I never exhibit my wankitude in public unless it’s in an appropriate setting. If I’m at a party where nobody cares about what they’re drinking, then neither do I. In my family, we do have certain members who seek me out at Thanksgiving and other holiday gatherings to ask me to pronounce on various wines. I’m happy to oblige, but not at length, and not because I don’t want to offend anyone else, but because that’s not why I go to parties. I do my analysis thing when I review and I do my drinking thing when I drink, and I keep the two things separate. Still, after all these years, I never fail to be amused when someone who knows me well introduces me to someone who doesn’t with the words, “Steve’s a wine expert.” The other person’s eyes open wide and, while they search for something to say, I can almost hear them thinking, “He’s a wank [or wonk].”
I think a lot of people feel the same way as Louise Saunders. She writes that, after pretending to like wine for 30 years, she finally realized that she really doesn’t.
I have friends who don’t like wine, for various reasons. They’re not against it morally, but it doesn’t sit well with them. Some of them love spirits and beer, but there’s something about wine they just don’t get.
Personally, I love wine. I don’t see how somebody could be a wine writer and not love wine (although I know at least one winemaker who’s a teetotaler). There are wines that stun, amaze and delight me, and I couldn’t imagine living without that experience. Of course, the buzz is nice–let’s get that on the record and out of the way. But I’ve learned to hold my alcohol pretty well, and I know my limit, so you’ll never see me drunk.
There is some danger, if you’re in the wine, beer or spirits business, of drinking too much. We’re surrounded by these glorious beverages all day (and night) and can always tell ourselves that drinking is part of our job. I joke about it, but it’s true: I get paid to drink. But I know exactly how much alcohol my body can tolerate or, to put it more precisely, my body knows how much alcohol it can tolerate, and when I’m approaching that point, it sends my brain a warning signal.
How much is okay for me? Around three-quarters of a bottle a day. I suppose that, by some estimates, that’s too much, but I think we’re all built differently, and I can handle that amount. When I was in my teens, I was a binge drinker. I was away from home for the first time, at college in New England, and fell in with a boozy, druggy crowd. There were days we’d start drinking by 10 a.m. (horrible sweet stuff, like Bali Hai) and still be going strong twelve hours later. That period, fortunately, didn’t last long, because some instinct told me in a strong way that it was unhealthy and I’d better stop doing it, so I did.
Until fairly recently, I could handle big tastings, of 50-75 wines at one sitting, but I don’t think I’m going to do that anymore. Galloni once told me he can taste hundreds of wines at a sitting, and feel stronger and more refreshed at the end. I cannot say I can do the same. I’m comfortable tasting my 15 wines a day, on average. I like it, the routine is comfortable for me, I’ve done it for a long time, and my body and mind are in tune with it. I suppose I could do thirty if I had to (and I’m sure there will be occasions when I will), but it’s not my preference. I want to pay more, and longer, attention to what I’m tasting these days, not less. I don’t want to become a digital tasting machine: like, don’t like, like, like, don’t like. That’s not why I got into wine and I refuse to let it happen
It’s hard to describe the process of tasting to someone who doesn’t understand it. People always smile when I tell them what I do for a living. It’s the same smile, I suspect, they’d make if they thought I get paid for having sex. But really, tasting wine has little or nothing to do with imbibing alcohol. It’s intensely mental. It begins with physical sensations: visual, aromatic, taste, texture. But the experience occurs, not in the nose or the mouth, but in the brain. I think all day long (don’t you?), and usually my thoughts are just monkey thoughts that flit from one thing to another with no coherence, rhyme or reason. (I try to meditate, but have never been very good at it.) There are a few times during the day when I can focus my thinking. Writing is one; tasting wine is another. I like it when I focus my thinking. It makes me feel useful and proper and in line with the universe. Since both writing and tasting focus my thinking, imagine my pleasure at being able to write about wine tasting! I’ll begin a sentence, then realize I haven’t quite got the right adjective, and stare at the computer screen, mind empty on one level but actively searching on another, until the correct word comes. It always does. I suppose that’s a form of meditation. The same concept can be expressed in an infinite number of ways in the English language. You can say “There’s not much alcohol” or “There’s hardly any alcohol” or “There’s scarcely any alcohol” or, moving to different structures, “Alcohol barely shows up” or “As for alcohol, it’s pretty low,” and on and on. Each way of phrasing has its strengths and limitations. I try on phrases the way some people try on shoes at the shoe store, until I find the one I like the best. Then the review is written, and I’m on to tasting the next wine. And so it goes.