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Lessons learned from old tasting notes

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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.

NOTES

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

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).

 

DUNN

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.


A tasting of Oregon Pinot Noirs

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I couldn’t be more pleased with my tasting yesterday, but I don’t give the credit to myself; I give it to the wines. The idea was to taste some of our Oregon Pinot Noirs to a select group of people in Marin County. In many respects, this was the best tasting I ever went to, because it satisfied the requirements of a good comparative wine event. The wines were conceptually linked: all Oregon Pinot Noirs. Seven of the eight wines were current releases, although they weren’t all from the same vintage. The eighth wine was from 2005, but from the same winery and vineyard as one of the current releases, so we could see how these fine Oregon Pinot Noirs age. And there was a ninth “surprise” wine, much older than even the ’05, that I’ll describe shortly.

But the best part of the tasting was the logic of the order of wines. Seldom have I experienced a better gradation from lighter and more accessible to richer and more ageworthy. I didn’t really understand how compelling this spectrum would be until I arrived early to open the wines and taste. It was so obvious, like ascending a ladder or climbing a mountain, as it were. To a wine taster like me, this is glory, this is as good as things get, when the order of a lineup makes perfect sense. It is a thing of beauty.

I started with the lighter wines, of course, worked my way through the more complex ones, and then there was that 2005, so you could see that we don’t only say these great Oregon Pinot Noirs are ageable, we demonstrate it. Here was the order of the lineup, with very brief notes.

La Crema 2014 Willamette Valley. It was what I think of as the La Crema style: broadly appealing, fruity, easy to like, with some complexity. The alcohol was the highest on the table, some 14.5%. It was easy to appreciate (and I say this as a Jackson Family Wines employee, but also as an objective reporter) why these La Crema wines have been so successful in the marketplace.

Siduri 2014 Willamette Valley. There was a definite step up in complexity here, not just fruit but tea, mushrooms, earth notes. Still a wine to drink now.

Siduri 2014 Chehalem Mountains. Even earthier than the Willamette Valley, with oodles with cherries and wild mushrooms. One of the guests, a restaurateur, said he would make a porcini mushroom risotto with this.

Penner-Ash 2014 Estate. So new is JFW’s acquisition of Penner-Ash that not even I have all that much familiarity with it. This is their estate vineyard, formerly known as Dussin Vineyard. It represented an entirely new leap into complexity, starting off a bit closed due to tannins, then erupting into pomegranates, tart cranberries and a wonderfully earthy mushroominess. I would surely age this wine.

Gran Moraine 2013. A new winery from the JFW portfolio, and so complex. It elicited a fierce discussion from our group concerning what to drink it with. Quail, veal, risotto, salmon, steak, take your pick. A mineral-driven wine of great terroir and ageability.

Zena Crown 2013 The Sum. This is another wine that was new to me. Wow, what complexity. Very low alcohol (12.9%), dry, fairly tannic in youth, and mushroomy, with a sassafras and cola taste many of us noted. Lots of acidity, a serious, intellectual, ageworthy wine.

Angela Estate 2012 Abbot Claim. This is not owned by JFW but sold in California by Jackson’s Regal Wine Company. For me it was the top current release, although not the most expensive. Gorgeous perfume, with foresty scents and tons of wild raspberries. At four years, it’s starting to show some age; the bottle was throwing some light sediment.

Penner-Ash 2005 Dussin Vineyard. Showing its age: orange-bricky color at the rim. But so clean and vibrant, with marzipan, cocoa, raspberry tea and spice flavors. It had that “sweet but dry” richness you sometimes get from older wines.

I finished with the surprise wine, the Penner-Ash 1998 Dussin Vineyard. This was a Wow! wine for everybody. At 18 years it was still vital and alert, a wine with nervous energy, plenty of spine, pure, bright and delicious, with sweet fruit and a long finish. Some wines of this age die quickly in the glass. Not this one. I brought it with me afterwards to lunch and it was fabulous.

And speaking of lunch, we had our event at Tamalpie, which calls itself a pizzeria, and it does have fabulous pizza, but also does wonderful Cal-Italian fare. I would eat there all the time if I lived closer to Mill Valley.


A tasting of Oregon Pinot Noir

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I’ve been on a sharp learning curve about Oregon Pinot Noir for the past year or so. In all my years at Wine Enthusiast I was “the California guy” and so my exposure to wines not from my state grew increasingly limited—one major negative of being a regional specialist (but the positive, of course, is that you get very knowledgeable about your region).

Because of Jackson Family Wines’ involvement in Oregon, and particularly the Willamette Valley, I’ve been involved in a number of projects that require this study, and have been traveling up there with some regularity. So, when it came time to schedule the latest in my series of tastings at JFW, I decided on Oregon Pinot Noir.

Tasting Oregon Pinot Noirs is more challenging for me than tasting California Pinots. The latter are easier to “get”: generally fruit-forward, riper, softer and lusher. The Oregons, by contrast, have all sorts of earth, mushroom and black or green tea notes, firmer tannins and brighter acidity, all of which can mute them in youth, making them harder than their more southerly counterparts to appreciate straight out of the bottle. So it’s important to let these wines breathe, to see what they might begin to do down the road. Certainly, this was the case in yesterday’s tasting.

My three top wines were Penner-Ash 2013 Pas de Nom Pinot Noir (Yamhill-Carlton), $100, Zena Crowne 2013 Slope Pinot Noir (Eola-Amity Hills): $?, and Siduri 2014 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley); $24. (These are all Jackson Family Wines, which numbered 9 of the 13 in the tasting.) Almost in the same league was the Evening Land 2013 Seven Springs Vineyard La Source Pinot Noir (Eola-Amity Hills), $75. All of my scores were at least 88 points; most were above 90, and the four I just cited all scored at least 94 points. I found, over the course of 2-1/2 hours of tasting, that I was raising my scores consistently over my initial impressions, which illustrates the point I made in the preceding paragraph about letting the wines breathe. I must say I found the Antica Terra 2013 Botanica ($75) a little too robust for my tastes. There was one wine whose score I lowered over the course of the tasting: The Cristom 2013 Marjorie Vineyard Pinot Noir (Eola-Amity Hills): $65. At first I loved it; everyone else in the tasting pointed out a funkiness that initially eluded me (I called it mushroomy). This resulted in a discussion about brettanomyces, and while I can’t say this wine had brett (because I didn’t do a lab analysis), after a couple hours in the glass the funk really took over, so I lowered my score to a still-respectable 91 points.

Oregon Pinot Noir offers a real counterpoint to its California brethren. It’s not a question of better-worse, but different. The Oregon wines also tend to be lower in alcohol: Of our 13 Pinots, only two were above 14% (Siduri Willamette and Penner-Ash Estate), and those were only 14.1%. All the rest were either in the 13s or, in the case of the Evening Land and the Zena Crown, 12.6% and 12.7%, respectively. These low alcohol levels make the wines fresh, vibrant and delicate, which is what Pinot Noir ought to be. Also, probably, more ageable. In general, I’d say that most of the bottles we opened were victims of infanticide.

Oregon

This was the table when the tasting was finished.


Pit bulls and Pinot Noir, or how IPOB changed the way I think

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That old saying “It changed the conversation” needs explanation. Not everybody in America is talking about the same things at the same time. We say Donald Trump has changed the conversation but there are lots of people who couldn’t care less about him. We say Ellen DeGeneres changed the conversation about gays when she came out on T.V. but there were millions of people who didn’t know that and wouldn’t have cared if they had. We say mounting evidence of massive, manmade climate change has changed the conversation, but we all know there are still so many Americans who refuse to believe even the basic science. So we have to be careful when we talk about conversation changers.

Now consider In Pursuit of Balance. It too is said to have changed the conversation, specifically about Pinot Noir, and more specifically, about West Coast (California and Oregon) Pinot Noir. Did it? I can speak from my own experience: Yes, it did. I’ve been a staunch defender of Pinot Noir for years and battled against what I perceived as IPOB’s irrational stance towards alcohol levels. I will yield to no critic for having done more to protect Pinot Noir from assault. I have the scars to prove it. I maintained from the get-go that just because a Pinot Noir was below 14% didn’t automatically make it “balanced” and just because a Pinot Noir approached 15% didn’t make it unbalanced. I consistently argued that if the wine tastes good, who cares what the alcohol is?

But slowly I’ve been looking at things differently. This has been evolving over the past two years. It actually began with my tasting Raj Parr’s 2012s from Domaine de la Côte. Those wines were quite low in alcohol (Bloom’s Field is 12.5%, La Côte is 13%), and while I was prepared to dislike them, after Raj’s execrable 2011s, they actually blew me away, and I began to think that maybe there was something to this low-alcohol thing after all.

Since then I’ve been finding more and more Pinot Noirs excessively heavy. These are mainly the 2013s: celebrated as a near-perfect vintage, it did result in grapes that were intensely fruity, but in many instances I’ve thought it was more successful for Cabernet Sauvignon than Pinot Noir, because Cabernet’s bigger tannins and structure can carry more fruity weight and oak. Pinots that are super-ripe (and oaky) can be heavy, hot and monolithic, lacking the delicacy and cerebral complexity that the wines should possess.

Every once in a while I’ll taste such a West Coast Pinot Noir and think, Wow, this really needs steak or something to balance it out. When the wines are that dark, tannic, ripe to the point of raisins, hot and oaky, they can be hard to appreciate; but rich, fatty fare will take care of that, right? Of course, as a former critic, I’m aware that when we taste wine, it’s without food: you’re sampling the wine in and of itself, without ameliorating factors. Maybe that’s unfair. Probably it is. Normal human beings don’t drink wine (especially red wine) without food. Wine is made to be drunk with food. Still, you need to have consistent rules about wine tasting, and you can’t taste every wine with food. So we taste without food.

But if I think, “Wow, this Pinot is so heavy, it needs beefy fat to balance it out,” isn’t that making excuses for the wine? It’s like a pit bull that snarls and lunges at you on the street, scaring you, but the owner insists “Oh, Molly is a goofball, you should see her with little kids.” You think, “If I had little kids I wouldn’t let them anywhere near Molly,” and you think that Molly’s mommy is making excuses for her out-of-control dog: She doesn’t even realize that Molly is a ticking time bomb. So when I taste a big, thick, heavy Pinot and think “Steak!”, am I Molly’s mommy, making excuses for my pit bull of a wine?

Would I have been thinking along these lines had it not been for IPOB? It’s a hypothetical, but I think the answer is that, as harshly as I criticized IPOB for being ideological, they have changed my way of thinking about Pinot Noir. For the better.


A Sauvignon Blanc tasting that raises questions about point scores

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We had a perfectly lovely blind tasting yesterday, 12 Sauvignon Blancs, six of them from Jackson Family Wines wineries, and the others from around the world. It was a bit of a hodgepodge but I just wanted to assemble a range that showed the extremes of style, from an Old World, low- or no-oak, high acidity, pyrazine-driven tartness to a bigger, richer, riper New World style of [partial] barrel fermentation. Here, briefly, are the results. The entire group of tasters was very close in its conclusions—a highly-calibrated group where we achieved near consensus.

My scores:

94 Matanzas Creek 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County

93 Robert Mondavi 2013 To Kalon Vineyard Reserve Fumé Blanc, Napa Valley

93 Matanzas Creek 2013 Journey Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County

92 Stonestreet 2013 Alexander Mountain Estate Aurora Point Sauvignon Blanc, Alexander Valley

90 Merry Edwards 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, Russian River Valley

89 Peter Michael 2014 L’Apres-Midi Sauvignon Blanc, Knights Valley

88 Jackson Estate 2014 Stitch Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) NOTE: This is not a Jackson Family Wine.

87 Francois Cotat 2014 La Grande Cote, Sancerre

87 Arrowood 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, Alexander Valley

87 Cardinale 2014 Intrada Sauvignon Blanc (Napa Valley)

86 Goisot 2014 Exogyra Virgula Sauvignon Blanc (Saint-Bris)

85 Sattlerhof 2014 Gamlitzer Sauvignon Blanc, Austria

The JFW wines certainly did very well, taking 3 of the top 4 places. The surprise was the Matanzas Creek Sonoma County—it’s not one of the winery’s top tier Sauvignon Blancs (which are Bennett Valley, Helena Bench and Journey) but the basic regional blend. But then, I’ve worked with small lots of all Matanzas’s vineyards, and know how good the source fruit is. This is really a delightful wine, and a testament to the fact that great wine doesn’t have to be expensive. It’s also testament to the art of blending.

But I want to talk about the Francois Cotat, as it raises important and interesting intellectual considerations.

The Cotat immediately followed the Mondavi To Kalon, always one of my favorite Sauvignon Blancs, and the first thing I wrote, on sniffing it, was “Much leaner.” Of course the alcohol on the Cotat is quite a bit lower, and the acidity much higher: it was certainly an Old World wine. But here was my quandary. In terms of the reviewing system I practiced for a long time, this is not a high-scoring wine; my 87 points, I think, is right on the money. It’s a good wine, in fact a very good wine, but rather austere, delicate and sour (from a California point of view). I could and did appreciate its style, but more than 87 points? I don’t think so.

And yet, I immediately understood what a versatile wine this is. You could drink and enjoy it with almost anything; and I was sure that food would soften and mellow it, making it an ideal companion. Then I thought of a hypothetical 100 point Cabernet Sauvignon that is—let’s face it—a very un-versatile kind of wine. It blows you away with opulence, and deserves its score, by my lights. But the range of foods you can pair it with is comparatively narrow.

So here’s the paradox: The higher-scoring wine is less versatile with food, while the lower-scoring wine provides pleasure with so much. It is a puzzle, a conundrum. I don’t think I’m quite ready to drop the 100-point system as my tasting vernacular, but things are becoming a little topsy-turvy in my head.

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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.


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