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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.


Can you entirely eliminate subjective factors in wine tasting?

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If you’re one person, No. A single taster will always be tasting within the parameters of his limitations, e.g. he may be more or less sensitive to TCA than other tasters. He may wince at the smell of pyrazines, or find the heat from alcohol unbearable, or feel that a totally dry wine is too severe.

But how about a group? Can the dynamics of consensus solve the subjectivity dilemma?

Objective tasting has been the unicorn of the wine industry for centuries. A long time ago, it was assumed that an epicure, like Thomas Jefferson, was correct in anything he said about wine. Nowadays, in our era of mistrust of authorities, we no longer take it for granted that anyone can be the supreme expert. “Galloni might not like it, but I do,” the reasoning goes—as it should.

But sometimes, it’s important to understand exactly what you’re dealing with in a wine. Is it really balanced? Is it really dry? Is it reduced? What do we mean by “creamy” or “rich” or “spicy”? These are the kinds of things two tasters can easily disagree about, sometimes violently; but if you have a group, you can more easily arrive at a consensus. Or so the theory goes.

My own approach to these matters has been based on my experience as a wine critic. I’ve said for years that, if you’re a consumer interested in wine, then find an expert you trust, and stick with him. (And it doesn’t have to be a critic. It can be a merchant, or your sister-in-law.) In other words, find someone whose palate you relate to, and trust.

But there is something to be said for a group consensus. We’re all part of a group: the human race, and moreover, of a sub-group within it: American wine consumers. Group influence, AKA peer pressure, can be strong, especially when people are as unsure of wine as most people are. And—just to underline my point—everyone is unsure of his or her palate: not just ordinary consumers, but critics, winemakers, even, dare I say it, Master Sommeliers. Everyone seeks refuge within the safe harbor of a peer group. It’s the herd instinct that makes, for example, impalas cluster together when lions stalk the perimeter.

Whether you go with group consensus or individual reviews, is up to you. It depends on your purpose. But I do think that, if you go with the group, you should make sure your group knows what the heck they’re talking about. These crowd-sourced reviews, where anyone can weigh in no matter what their professional qualifications, are questionable to me. Does that sound anti-democratic? Pro-elitist? I guess it does. But I do think reviewers need to bring credentials to the table.

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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.


A vertical tasting of Beekeeper Rockpile Zinfandel

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Beekeeper Cellars started in 2009, a partnership between Ian Blackburn and Clay Mauritson. Mauritson owns the Madrone Spring Vineyard and was a principle in creating the Rockpile AVA, in 2002, They sent me a mini-vertical of four bottles of the Zinfandel, 2010-2013. I must say how wonderfully each of them shows off the terroir of the vineyard. These are big, voluptuous, heady Zinfandels, and they are picture-perfect exemplars of that style.

95 Beekeeper 2013 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (Rockpile): $65. This beautiful, picture-perfect Zinfandel is ripe, dry and heady. The alcohol is quite high (15.4%), but the wine wears it well, with a slight, prickly heat to the superripe black currants, blackberry jam and black licorice. Thick, fine tannins and just-in-time acidity give it needed structure. I had never tasted a Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel before, but I have reviewed several Mauritson Petite Sirahs from the vineyard, and except for an overripe ’08—a hot vintage—I came away with great respect for the grape sourcing; and, after all, Clay Mauritson co-made this wine. It really defines this intense, concentrated style of Zin. My friends at Connoisseur’s Guide gave it 97 points, and while I wouldn’t go that far, I know where they’re coming from. The fruit is complexed with dark chocolate, sage and black tea notes that grow more interesting with every sip. The wine will hold in the bottle for a long time, but there’s no reason not to drink it now.

95 Beekeeper 2010 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (Rockpile): $65. The fruit is just starting to turn the corner, going from primary to bottle bouquet. Where the ’13 is all jam and licorice, this nearly six-year old Zinfandel tastes of dried fruits and prosciutto. It’s still vibrant and fresh, but, even with alcohol at a heady 15.4%, it feels light and lithe on its feet, an Astaire of a wine. Mid-palate, cocoa dust kicks in, sprinkled with cinnamon. The tannins are thick but so remarkably soft and silky, the wine just glides across your tongue. I have no doubt it will hold and change in interesting ways over the next 15 years, but it’s really compelling now.

94 Beekeeper 2012 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (Rockpile): $65. There’s a succulence to this Zin that testifies to intensely ripe fruit, which of course the grapes do get in this hot, sunny appellation that rises above Dry Creek Valley. The wine brims with raspberries, blueberries, blackberries and mocha, while alcohol brings a pleasantly mouth-warming quality; fine acidity provides clean balance. Thirty percent new French oak is discernible in the form of toast and vanilla bean, but it’s completely balanced with the fruit. The tannins are smooth, complex and sweet. With a briary, brambly spiciness, this really is picture-perfect Sonoma Zin. It seems to be hovering at that interesting point where the primary fruit is evolving into secondary characteristics, shifting to reveal notes of bacon fat and leather. A wonderful, complete, wholesome Zinfandel, definitely big, but never ponderous. It should hold and evolve in interesting ways over the years.

94 Beekeeper 2011 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (Rockpile): $65. The 2011 vintage was the coolest in a long time, and we certainly haven’t seen any cool vintages since. It was the year summer never came; grapes along the far Sonoma Coast in some cases failed to ripen, or were moldy, but Rockpile is a hot inland region. So here we have a wine that, while in the Beekeeper Rockpile Zin tradition, is somewhat more structured and not as massive as the ’10, ’12 and ’13. That’s in the wine’s favor. It still has the cassis and wild black currant fruit, the briary leather, and the spices, but there’s a savory herbaceousness, like dried sage and thyme, and tangy volcanic red rock iron. The wine has power, but also elegance and control: there’s a tension within that’s delightful, in no small part due to excellent acidity. Quite a bit of French oak, too, but it’s seamless. This distinctive wine makes a case for Rockpile Zinfandel even in difficult vintages that is persuasive. I quite like it. Only 90 cases were produced.


When does “different” become “flawed”?

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Went to a nice little Sauvignon Blanc tasting yesterday at Josiah and Stevie’s Bay Grape wine store.

It was only four wines, but they pretty much spanned the gamut of world Sauvignon Blanc styles: cool-climate, warmer climate, unoaked, lightly oaked. For me, the top wine, an absolute charmer and classic, was the Francois Cotat “Les Caillottes “ 2013 Sancerre. Just what I want: bone dry, fierce acidity and super-racy, brimming with minerals and grapefruits. There was that slight herbaceousness, like a whiff of green bell pepper, that added to the complexity. For food pairings, I thought of a salad of frisée, goat cheese and grapefruit sections, in a vinaigrette; but something also made me think of tempura, in a light, tamari-based dipping sauce.

Next in my faves was Domaine d’Alliance “Definition” 2013, with an IGP Atlantique appellation. It was quite similar to the Sancerre in the racy acidity and lemongrass, but the addition of 50% Semillon fattened up the middle. A very classy wine.

Compared to those two the Sarapo 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, with a Sonoma County appellation, seemed somewhat flaccid and heavy-handed. A good wine, but this just shows the importance of context when tasting. We were told it’s a blend from Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast and Dry Creek Valley. I fancy Dry Creek brought a riper note of figs, but the wine just didn’t have the lift and savoriness that I want in Sauvignon Blanc. Others liked it more than I did.

If I were formally reviewing the fourth wine, I’d give it a failing grade: Momo 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, from Marlborough. One sniff was enough to make me wince: I picked up a strong, offensive smell of dirty, sweaty sox. To me that signals brett; another taster insisted there was no brett, that this was just a signature of Marlborough. The wine was fermented naturally—no store-brought yeast, which is a risk. It always troubles me when another respected taster has an opinion so different from mine. I looked up other professional critical scores: 86 from Wine Spectator with no mention of dirty funk; 87 in the Advocate; nothing in Enthusiast; and nothing for the ’14 in Vinous, but Tanzer did review the ’12 and called it “musky…with a complicating note of game.”

Fair enough: but speaking for myself I don’t want musk or game in my Sauvignon Blancs! I made this point rather forcefully at the tasting, and a few of my compatriots replied that, while the wine is not “classic” nor for everyone, it does represent a certain eccentricity that some people, somms in particular, are looking for these days.

Here’s what I think: There’s a reason why “the classics” are the classics. Being different just for the sake of being different does not mean the wine isn’t bad! Some people are looking to break the rules, but at what point does breaking the rules result in dirty wines that would get you thrown out of U.C. Davis? I realize that progress has to be made in wine—styles don’t always remain the same, otherwise we’d all be drinking the resinous wines of ancient Greeks. But I do think that there’s a tendency on the part of some somms and other younger tastemakers to go for the bizarre. If you have a wine like that, you may like it—or think you like it, because you think you’re supposed to like it, because somebody better known or more experienced than you liked it and therefore you fear that if you don’t like it, you’re not cool.

But these are wines I call Andy Warhol wines: they will be famous for fifteen minutes, and then fade back into the obscurity from whence they came. There are standards; there are rules, established not by authoritarian fogies but by a thousand years of human experience. Outliers do not last.


A tasting of current Cameron Hughes wines

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Cameron sent me another batch of wines, which I was glad to review. In general, the Cameron Hughes brand continues to provide fantastic value for the money. His business, briefly, is to function as a negociant: vintners who want or need to sell their wine, privately and off-the-record, know and trust Cameron. We never know where the wines come from, although Cameron does provide “hints.” I did have a problem with one bottle, as you’ll see, but the rest are wines I would gladly drink anytime.

95 Cameron Hughes 2013 Lot 596 Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma Valley); $35, 15.2%. This is one of the more expensive Cameron Hughes wines, but it is from the deservedly famous Monte Rosso. And it’s quite a good Monte Rosso: dark, deep, rich and ageable. Cabernet hardly gets more intense than this, with an explosion of blackberry jam, black currants, blueberries, cassis liqueur and a penetrating minerality suggestive of graphite. Throw in the oak, and you get smoky-sweet vanillins. This is a serious wine for red wine drinkers, a wine of sinew and muscle, potency and mouth-filing depth. But it never loses that inimitable grace and dignity we expect from the vineyard, far above Sonoma Valley. The alcohol is admittedly on the high side; there is some jalapeño heat. But it’s an integral part of the wine’s personality. Delicious to drink now despite the massive tannins; a good steak will cut right through them. But I would not be surprised if this wine were not evolving over the next ten-plus years.

94 Cameron Hughes 2013 Lot 597 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $32, 14.9%. This wine is so inky black and tannic, you might think it was a Petite Sirah. Cameron says it’s from the famous Stagecoach Vineyard, and it does have fantastic mountain concentration. The tannins are considerable: they sting the mouth and shut it down. A fatty, char-broiled steak would work, but far better is to age this wine for eight years, maybe even longer. There’s so much going on way down deep under the astringency: black currants and black raspberries, cassis liqueur, leather, violets, dark chocolate, mushu plum sauce, smoky oak, herbs, spices, the works. The wine is absolutely dry, none of that semi-sweet cult thing going on, and while there’s some headiness from alcohol, it’s even-handed, just enough to let you know this is a wine of heft. I really admire this Cabernet.

94 Cameron Hughes 2013 Lot 470 Petite Sirah (Oakville); $19, 14.9%. And while we’re on the subject of Cabs that might be Petite Sirah, here’s a strong, young Petite Sirah that might be a Cab! It’s black in color, except around the edge, where it glows garnet. The aromas and flavors are thick with blackberries, black currants, blueberries and dark chocolate, wrapped into firm, authoritative tannins, and finished with significant new oak. There’s also a meatiness, like the salted, charred fat on a steak. This is a big, big wine, entirely dry, but sweet in fruit. Cameron calls it “bombastic”; not a bad word. It’s Petite Sirah, Napa-style. In fact, Oakville-style, which is to say, classy and sophisticated. This is by far the greatest value in Petite Sirah I’ve ever seen. Get as much as you can; it is not only fantastic now, it will develop in the bottle for many years.

93 Cameron Hughes 2013 Lot 457 Meritage (Napa Valley); $18, 14.9%. Great price for a blend this rich and satisfying. It’s a little generic, in the way of a good New World Bordeaux blend, but I can’t imagine that anyone would fault it for that. A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot, it’s fleshy, with broad black currant, bitter chocolate, plum and cherry fruit flavors. Shows its pedigree in the finesse of the tannins and crisp acidity. Very good now, and should hold for six years. A steal at less than twenty bucks.

92 Cameron Hughes 2013 Lot 444 Meritage (Napa Valley): $19, 14.9%. This is quite a distinguished wine, but it’s very young and rather impertinent at this time. (“Impertinent”: I always liked that old-fashioned term for a wine that’s immature, gawky, all primary fruit and barrel influences.) Here are the particulars: bone dry, full-bodied and tannic, with deep, complex blackcurrant, dark chocolate, espresso and oak flavors, and a firm minerality that adds to the architectural integrity. Cameron suggests that the wine, a Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon blend, comes from Oak Knoll, which might account for its fine structure. The wine will improve over the next 5-6 years, maybe a little longer, so decant and enjoy with its ideal partner, steak. Nineteen bucks? You have got to be kidding.

92 Cameron Hughes 2013 Lot 599 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley): $29, 14.9%. This is a very good Cabernet and a good value. Cameron says it’s from a producer that “sells for $135.” I don’t doubt it, given the plethora of Napa Cabs that now cost triple digits. The wine is inky black. It smells of black currants and oak, a young, vigorous aroma. Flavorwise, it’s very rich in black currants, cassis, unsweetened baker’s chocolate, charred beef fat and spices such as cloves and black pepper. The finish is long, clean and thoroughly dry. All in all, a fancy wine that gives lots of pleasure, and develops in the glass as it breathes.

89 Cameron Hughes 2012 Lot 503 Pinot Noir (Santa Maria Valley): $15, 15.3%. At a time when Pinot prices are rising, this is a very good value. On the minus side, it’s a little too hot, with a distinct red chili powder heat from high alcohol. That aside, it’s dry and silky, with pretty tannins and good acidity. The flavors, of cranberry, raspberry, cola, spices and leather, are complex. Ready to drink now, especially with grilled lamb or salmon.

88 Cameron Hughes 2013 Lot 600 Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville); $29, 14.9%. The grapes got exceptionally ripe, to judge from the flavors of chocolate-covered raisins and raspberry jam. There’s also a lot of smoky oak, and thick, sweet tannins. It’s a good wine, full-bodied and soft, and benefits from some olive and herbaceous complexities, but it’s not really what you except from a top-notch Oakville Cab. If it cost a lot more, as Oakville Cabs do, it wouldn’t be worth the price, but for less than $30, it has enough fanciness to recommend it. Drink up.

Not Rated But Reviewed Cameron Hughes 2012 Lot 2012 Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley): $75, 15.5%. This is a big, rich, soft wine, made in the modern cult style of high alcohol and generous oak. For me, though, it’s marred by bretty aromas, which may be why the actual producer unloaded it. It may have been an off-bottle, but I can’t recommend it.


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