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The classics win out over the obscure. Always have, always will

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You want wisdom in wine words? Consider these: “In many centers of wine hipness these days, what matters is not how a wine tastes and how the associated sensory memories make you feel, but instead the social source of pleasure derived from tasting—and professing to like—a much ballyhooed wine that is made in a style that is currently in vogue.”

That’s from Andy Peay, in his Peay Vineards Fall newsletter. Now, Andy was being diplomatic in his choice of words. Let me put the case more bluntly: There is an insidious tendency today for some sommeliers and insecure critics to praise obscure varieties and temporary styles that, when all is said and done, don’t actually taste very good. That a winemaker, like Andy Peay, has to come out and fulminate against “wine fads” is almost unprecedented—but then, so is the emergence of a maven class that seems hellbent on revolution for its own sake.

How else to explain the cult-like hosannas for low-alcohol Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in California? Andy Peay found a similar phenomenon for the offbeat in Copenhagen, where “all I could drink was wine esoterica” because the “tastemakers” are addicted to the strange and unfamiliar: Trusseau, Jura whites, Biodynamic wines “and other wine styles/regions currently in vogue” most of which Andy found “flawed and, mostly, downright unpalatable.” (Orange wine, anyone?) This is why Andy entitled his opinion piece “Yes, but be delicious”: It’s fine to be esoteric, but please, at least taste good! The first duty of wine, after all, is and always has been—not to satisfy the eclectic taste of bored gatekeepers—but to taste good and give pleasure.

Nor is this drumbeat for the “new” showing any signs of slowing down. Yestrrday’s San Francisco Chronicle, in the wine section, headlined the lead article “The next new wine thing,” a header that editors who have nothing else to say routinely trot out, offering timely proof of Andy Peay’s argument that “Wine writers need something new to write about.” Actually, they—we—do not; there is plenty to say about tradition. But wine writers’ editors and publishers, driven by more commercial motives than merely good writing, tell them to find something new—and so they dutifully do.

Go back to Andy’s phrase, “a social source of pleasure.” That is a compound noun containing a vast trove of implications. ”Social pleasure” is the opposite of “sensual pleasure.” It means, in essence, that when one of these wine faddists tastes something he or she believes to be “currently in vogue” among his peers, he actually is tasting—not the wine itself—but the idea of the wine in his mind! This is a form of idealism that is disconnected from reality and that, under different circumstances, could be described as hallucinatory.

Now, we don’t want our wine gatekeepers to be hallucinating, do we, but there is truth when Andy Peay continues: “Instead of highlighting the classic wines of the world, many tastemakers—including sommeliers, writers, and wine organizations—are focusing on what is novel in wine…”. There’s nothing inherently wrong with such a focus. Indeed, one could argue that somms and writers owe it to themselves and to their professions to seek out “what is novel in wine.” But all things in balance. There’s a huge difference between seeking out what is novel, and ignoring or, even worse, trashing everything that is traditional. But this latter approach marks too many modern tastemakers, who seem to believe that, if their father or grandfather liked it, then it is not worth considering.

One wonders if some modern tastemakers, and here I include bloggers, have even tasted the classics. Do they understand them? Do they know that there is a reason why some wines have been classic, and why some never have been–say, orange wine or Jura wine? Do they understand that, long after their careers have ended, the classics will remain the classics—and the obscure will be just as obscure as ever?

You know, sixteen years ago I went to a workshop at U.C. Davis entitled “Emerging Varietals.” Lots of important people were there: from Robert Mondavi, Silver Oak, Kendall-Jackson, Gallo, and the ubiquitous Randall Grahm. The purpose of the event: To discover “the next big things” in varietals. We tasted everything from Graciano and dry Touriga Nacional to Trinkadeira, Greco di Tufo and Gaglioppo—in order to, as one of the organizers explained, “take [winemaking in California] to the next level.”

Well, none of those varieties worked out particularly well, and I doubt, rather sadly, if any of Randall’s plans to breed 10,000 new varieties on his San Juan Bautista ranch will work out, either. (Randall was the subject of the Chronicle’s Sunday article, the one I referred to.) With all due respect to Randall, who has been interested in “emerging varieties” for a long time, the public has not been clamoring for them; and the gatekeeper somms and writers who get so worked up over obscure varieties seem to be a fickle bunch. They get bored easily; they do want some shiny new thing every five minutes. That does not seem to be a good audience to cultivate, unless you’re making, say, Gaglioppo, and if you are, good luck! I mean, seriously, does anyone think that in fifty years people are going to look back and say, “Gee, California really screwed up with Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc”? I don’t think so.


A tasting of Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay

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I was really looking forward to our first Chardonnay tasting yesterday, after a half-year of exploring Pinot Noir. Although Pinot is inherently a better, more complex variety than Chardonnay—at least, in California, IMHO—the latter is the most important variety and wine in our state, and across America, and the winery I work for, Jackson Family Wines, has a big stake in Chardonnay. So I thought it was important to taste intensively across all of the important appellations. We begin with Santa Maria Valley.

Chardonnay somehow seems to be in the crossfire of critics, who always have something to inveigh about it, or so it seems. These days, the invocation is for drier, lower alcohol and more streamlined Chardonnays—dare I call them “minerally”? In this Santa Maria Valley tasting, which was completely blind, we set ourselves the task of determining just what makes some wines more balanced than others, despite all of them being grown in close physical proximity to each other, and made more or less identically, along white Burgundy lines: barrel fermentation and aging, stirring on the lees, the malolactic fermentation.

We tasted eighteen wines, over nearly four hours; there was a great deal of conversation. My top-scoring wines (and the other tasters generally agreed) were Alta Maria 2014 Bien Nacido ($40, 95 points), Ojai 2013 Solomon Hills ($35, 95 points), Jackson Estate 2013 (98 points, about $20) and Alta Maria 2013 Rancho Viñedo ($40, 96 points). Yes, it was gratifying, but not entirely surprising, when the Jackson Estate took top honors. Other wines tasted were from Byron, Cambria, Foxen, Riverbench, Presqu’ile, Qupe, Chanin, Paul Lato and Rusack.

These Santa Maria Valley Chardonnays shared much in common. All show masses of fruit, due to the cool climate and exceptionally long hangtime of this southerly growing region. All exhibit mouthwateringly brisk acidity, and a firm minerality that I always think comes from the sands and fossilized seashells scattered throughout the soil. Sometimes there can be a slightly green note, although not in great vintages, such as 2013. The best wines show a real sense of terroir—not that generic feeling that the grapes could have been grown anywhere. And all the wines handle oak well, although, to put this into the proper context, I should say that on average the wines have between 10% and 35% or so of new oak. Beyond that, the barrel influence can dominate, especially when the wood has a good amount of char.

The greatest problem with these Chardonnays concerns residual sugar. Often, the wines are noticeably sweet, which in my book is a no-no. Sometimes, I think, the winemakers leave a little sugar in there to counter-balance the acidity, which can be fierce. But sometimes there doesn’t seem to be any discernible reason for it. There’s an exceedingly fine line between balanced R.S. and unbalanced R.S. For me, the former happens when the wine tastes opulent and honeyed yet finishes throroughly dry. The latter unfortunately strikes when the finish is not dry, giving the wine a somewhat insipid, cloying taste; the word “candied” frequently arises. Finding exactly where this line is is the supreme task of the winemaker.

The Santa Maria Valley is the least well-understood important coastal appellation in California. Critics and other tastemakers seldom get there, due mainly to the absence of tourist amenities such as hotels and restaurants. Whenever I visit, I stay at the Santa Maria Radisson near the airport—good enough for my needs, but well outside the appellation’s boundaries. In the valley proper, and especially on the bench and in the southern hills, Chardonnay can be as spectacular as any other region makes it. But, as our tasting showed, even though Chardonnay seems to be a “winemaker’s wine” that adapts to the most extreme interventions without resistance, it really is not an easy wine to make in a balanced way.

As we did with Pinot Noir, we’ll continue our Chardonnay tastings, moving northward up the coast. Next time: Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay. How does it differ from Santa Maria Valley? We’ll see.


Professional tasting, and more on the Wine Train (just a little)

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The central paradox of wine tasting is this: While professionals indisputably have educated palates, nonetheless they disagree with each other concerning individual wines to a considerable degree.

How can this be?

The simple answer is that, wine tasters being merely human, and wine tasting not an exact science, you would expect variations in tasters’ conclusions, the same way that film reviewers will often come down on different sides about a movie.

Still, every wine company on the production side of the business has, or wishes to have, a core of tasters, whose competence cannot be doubted, in order to weigh in on such things as new SKUs, or how to improve existing ones.

So what is the difference between a “competent professional” taster and just anybody? Well, Mr. “Just Anybody” is as entitled to his judgments about wine as anyone else. It’s a free country, and there is much to be said concerning the value of the opinion of the non-professional. Since the majority of wine consumers are non-professionals, their voices deserve to be heard. Or so it would seem.

The most esteemed professional taster, at any given winery, is usually deemed to be the winemaker. We assume that winemakers have excellent palates, because they spend their time tasting wine, analyzing it both intellectually and in the laboratory, comparing the wines of different producers and in general being experts.

However, winemakers have their own deficiencies concerning their tasting abilities. For one, they may not be naturally gifted (in the sense of being super-tasters). For another, the winemaker is in constant danger of developing a “house palate.” Then too, you can’t assume that every winemaker is widely familiar with competitive benchmarks. They may not have the budget to taste deeply. (What does a bottle of Montrachet cost these days? $800? And that’s if you can even find it.)

Still, it’s essential for the decision makers at wineries to assemble a tasting team. Which barrels will make the cut for the reserve? How shall the Meritage be assembled? Can we raise the price on the Sauvignon Blanc this year? Which blocks do we use in the estate Pinot? These are tough questions; ultimately, they are questions concerning quality. And quality is the realm of the tasting professional.

You do not have to be blessed with a natural palate to develop a professional one. If fact, as I’ve said many times before, there are huge risks in having a super-palate. (If you’re more sensitive to, say, TCA or brett than 99.9% of the people in the world, you’re not really the most representative person to recommend wine.) What it takes to develop a professional palate is nothing more or less than repeated tasting, and note-taking.

But back to the paradox I spoke of at the top. How can it be that professionals disagree, and what are we to make of those disagreements? Fundamentally, this throws a monkey wrench into the works. How can we believe anything that the professionals say when we know that they can differ, sometimes radically, in their evaluations of a wine?

There’s really no resolution to this problem, except to pick the critic you trust and disregard the others. This, though, brings us to the notion of crowd-sourced wine tasting. The concept is that, if you have enough participants, you can eliminate the outlying extremes and find a consensus, right there in the juicy middle of the bell curve.

I suppose this makes sense, in a scientific way. And morally, “the majority rules” in a democracy. But does this middle way bring us closer to the truth in wine tasting?

JUST IN

Napa Valley Wine Train Sold

Hmm. Talk about timing…


A grand dinner on the beach in Laguna

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We had a great time down at my recent Jackson Family Wines dinner at the Driftwood Kitchen, a grand restaurant right on the beach in Laguna Beach.

Laguna Beach, if you haven’t been there, is one of those rich beach towns in Orange County where every view is a picture postcard. It’s California’s Riviera, Monte Carlo without the gambling. I must say that Chef Rainer Schwarz prepared an outstanding dinner: pan-seared John Dory with potato gnocchi in lobster sauce with caremlized fennel; duck breast with butternut squash galette, goat cheese salad and roasted candied beets in a huckleberry vinaigrette; and a pair of proteins, filet mignon and short ribs, swimming in a potato coulis with brussel sprout chips, almonds and an Umbrian truffle sauce.

Sound good? It was. We paired each course with two JFW wines:

Course 1: Matanzas Creek Bennett Valley Sauvignon Blanc and Stonestreet Knights Valley Sauvignon Blanc

Course 2: La Crema Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and La Crema Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

Course 3: Freemark Abbey Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and La Jota Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon.

Yes, the pairings were as good as they sound. Different people had their favorites as to which wine paired best with each course, and so did I; but it’s really senseless to make these sorts of things into contests.

As the resident wine guy, my job was to say interesting things and, hopefully, keep people’s attention. Hosting these sorts of meals is lots of fun, but there are risks. As the evening goes on, and people drink more wine, it’s harder to keep their attention. You don’t want to force them to listen to you: they’ve paid their good money and are entitled to laugh it up with the others at their tables. (We had two big tables and two smaller tables, total of 26 guests in all.) As a result, the experienced dinner speaker has his bag of tricks to resort to.

I don’t overly-rehearse for these events. I’ve seen other hosts who have delivered the same spiel a thousand times, and you can tell: it’s not fresh or spontaneous. I’m a big believer in spontaneity. Life is spontaneous. You can have your talking points, and your written notes to refer to, but you have to go where the energy takes you. In this case, I wanted to talk about the wines and the wineries and the appellations, but I also wanted to gauge our guests’ knowledge of Jackson Family Wines, and their overall wine knowledge. You don’t want to talk up or down to people. You want to talk to them where they are—and since 26 people are in 26 different places, you have to keep your fingers crossed that you’re appealing to the majority of them, if not all of them. Believe me, it keeps you on your toes.

Things went very well. I can always tell from the feel of the guests; and the feel was happy and upbeat. Afterwards, 6 or 7 people came up to shake my hand and tell me how much they enjoyed the evening. That’s a great sign, when a quarter of your guests deliberately seek you out to say “Thank you.”

I will admit that, at the very end, things got pretty boisterous; and while I still had lots to say, I had to realize that my part—the formal part, anyway–of the night was over. At that point, people just wanted to enjoy themselves, not listen to a spiel about cepages and terroir. So I concluded, but it’s always nice, afterwards, to make the rounds of the tables, introduce yourself to folks you haven’t met, and continue the conversation more informally and intimately. And it doesn’t have to be about wine! When people are relaxed and comfortable at the end of a great meal, they know what they want to talk about. It might be their families, or something about work, or sports, or, well, romance. It’s called “hanging out” and it’s all part of the job.

And it’s a part I love. I get nervous before these things start, although maybe “nervous” is the wrong word. I conserve my energy. I center myself to be prepared for anything. I go internal. I imagine that Broadway actors go through the same thing. But once I’m out there, on my feet, wham! The ham in me loves it.

By the way, someone at the restaurant had the great idea of starting the night by putting KJ’s Grand Reserve Rosé, which we drank with passed-around appetizers, into a black glass. You couldn’t see the wine, so you didn’t even know what color it was. The idea was for me to explain to the guests how hard it can be to assess a wine when you don’t know anything about it, even the color. Of all our guests, I’d say about three-quarters thought it was white. A few thought it was red. But only one nailed it: when I asked him the color, whether he thought it was red or white, he said, “Could it be inbetween?” Good palate! I don’t know if I could have done that.

Have a lovely weekend. Back Monday.


What makes a successful tasting event?

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My event yesterday in Monterey was even better than I’d dared to hope. You never know, when you put together a complex tasting like this, for a high-level audience of wine professionals, how it’s going to go. In this case, we decided to have a “Sur and Steve Road Show,” Sur being Sur Lucero, one of Jackson Family Wines’ Master Sommeliers, and Steve being me, the former critic who works with the 100-point scale. The idea was for the audience to get inside our heads and see how differently we think: Sur the analyst, looking for typicity, zeroing in on variety, region and even vintage based on his long experience at double-blind tasting; and me, not really having the same skill set, but being able to determine the quality of the wine, based on the 100-point system.

It was something of a gamble: this could have been a disaster. But somehow, it worked. I think it helped that Sur and I have great respect and affection for each other. As he goes through his Master Sommelier grid, explaining how through the process of deduction he works from the general to the specific, I am in awe of the experience required to taste a wine, double-blind, and determine that it must be a Riesling from California! Wow, how good is that. And yet, Sur is the first to admit he’s not really looking for a qualitative analysis, especially one based on a numerical scoring system. He could be entirely dismissive of the 100-pont scale—lots of somms are—but he isn’t. It’s wonderful and rewarding for me to have someone of Sur’s talents tell me how much he wants to learn how my mind works when I analyze the wine—not in an M.S. way, but in my own, developed over decades—and then decide what the score ought to be. And, judging from the reaction of our guests, they were fascinated by these twin tours through the brains of two pros.

The risk for the sponsoring winery, in this case Jackson Family Wines, is that I, as the critic, am going to declare an absolute quality to each wine. And that may not be equivalent to a high score. Sur isn’t going to do that: if you’re in the audience, you have to read inbetween Sur’s lines, decipher his comments, to decide if he likes the wine. With me, you don’t have to guess: I’m telling you upfront, with the score. I’m not always in love with every one of JFW’s wines, and I’ll tell you so. But that’s part of keeping it real.

I’ve been in plenty of public events that were duds. I don’t think that any of the events I was responsible for and led was a dud, because on those occasions when it’s entirely up to me, I usually come up with something offbeat enough to be of interest. However, I’ve been invited to be a part of events that fizzled instead of sizzled, and my after-analysis of them is that they were too mundane and predictable. There’s a certain template to having a nice, safe event, where nobody feels like they wasted their time, but they also don’t go home excited, or having learned anything. I don’t want to be part of such blah events.

Yesterday’s event, as I said, was exciting, because it was different. I’ve never even heard of anything like it. I specifically did not want it billed as the Sur Versus Steve Ultimate Blind Tasting Smackdown. Instead, I wanted it to be exactly what it was: Two professionals, both with long experience, both nice, sane, communicative guys who like each other, both explaining just how their gray matter works. The fact that things turned out so well is proof of the fact that, sometimes, when you take risks, they pan out. And I’ll tell you how I knew this was risky: it’s because I was nervous beforehand. No risk, no reward. I’d hate to have a road show that was so well-rehearsed, so perfected in all its parts, so been-there-done-that, that it no longer possessed any frisson of danger.


Wine Reviews: Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

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We had another of our periodic tastings yesterday, this time of Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs, and I want to focus on a couple of them, to show that stylistic differences in their production—mainly alcohol level—are really irrelevant when it comes to quality.

Consider these four wines, with price, alcohol level and my rating. All the wines were tasted blind.

WALT 2012 The Corners, $75, 15.2%, 91 points.

Kendall-Jackson 2013 Jackson Estate, $30, 14.7%, 94 points.

Anthill 2012 Demuth Vineyard, $46, 12.9%, 96 points.

Littorai 2013 Savoy Vineyard, $70, 12.7%, 95 points.

You can see right off the bat that, for me anyway, the alcohol levels didn’t matter, in the sense that I did not automatically reject the K-J or the WALT as being “unbalanced.”

The WALT was actually a delight. Yes, it didn’t score quite as high as the others—because the alcohol did give it some heaviness—but the flavors were fantastic: cherry pie filling, orange zest, cocoa powder and an exotic teriyaki savoriness. An easy, lush, fat wine that, frankly, expresses a certain California style, and would be fabulous to drink with steak. It’s a shame some people reject that approach: it’s simply one extreme of a spectrum of Cailfornia Pinot Noir.

The other end? How about that Littorai! Sometimes these low alcohol wines can flirt with greenness, but not the Littorai. It had a clear, translucent ruby color, suggesting its delicacy, and what an eruption of flavor and spice. Raspberries, cola, orange zest, a gorgeous, dramatic, silky wine. I’m sure this is the kind of wine the IPOB crowd loves, as well they should: but I wish the cool kids were more open to other styles.

And yet, good as it was, there was the Anthill, which was my wine of the flight (of 14 wines). I remember meeting the Anthill guys years ago and being so impressed by them, so it was nice to see another triumph. The mountain vineyard (Demuth) has been source to many famous Pinot Noirs. This one, with its low alcohol, was a triumph of silk and delicacy, and enormously complex and racy. Just a beautiful wine, and an ager too.

It was, I have to say, a particular delight that the Kendall-Jackson Jackson Estate scored so well, especially since we were tasting at K-J’s chateau and gardens, up in Fulton. Having been a small part of the launch of Jackson Estate, I know how excited K-J and the Jackson Family have been about the launch of Jackson Estate, which they meant to express the finest terroir of their vineyards. Really, the Jackson Estate knocked it out of the park. At 14.7%, it’s not low in alcohol, and yet the wine showed.—well, here are my notes. “A very pretty wine, easy to like. Lots of sweet, upfront raspberries and cherries. Some sweet heirloom tomato and prosciutto. Good acidity, smooth tannins. A bracing, wholesome wine, balanced and charming, with a long, rich finish.”

I might add that the Jackson Estate, at $30 retail, was by far the least expensive wine in the flight, further proof, as I blogged yesterday: “The new normal: just because it’s more expensive doesn’t mean it’s better.”

Did the flight show any particular Anderson Valley character? Not really. The wines were just too different to all be lumped together. Certainly, the uniform high quality testifies to Anderson Valley’s suitability at being included among California’s great coastal, cool-climate wine valleys. There was perhaps a certain mushroomy earthiness in many of the wines that was more prevalent in the Anderson Valley flight than in, say, Santa Rita Hills. One could say, poetically, that Anderson Valley Pinot Noir represents a middle ground between the fruit of Russian River Valley and the earthiness of Willamette Valley. But, as with any great growing area, there were wines that were not particularly successful; two or three were too heavy (despite being expensive), and lacked the vibrancy you want in any wine, especially Pinot Noir. I do not think that’s an Anderson Valley characteristic, though, as much as one of young vines, perhaps, or of the grapes being grown in a warmer spot, or something odd in the fermentation. As for alcohol level, I have to say that my lowest score, 86 points, went, sadly, to the Drew 2013 Morning Dew Ranch, a wine I’d had high expectations for, as the vineyard (not the winery) is Burt Williams post Williams-Selyem project. Its alcohol was a mere 13.3%; I found some vegetal notes. Oddly, the Williams Selyem Morning Dew, made from the same vineyard, I scored at 93 points. But then, its alcohol was 14.1%.

Have a wonderful weekend. Back on Monday.


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