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Learning how to learn about new wines

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I’ve been a California wine guy for a long time, but in the 1980s, I was happily catholic, in the old sense of the word, derived from the Latin meaning “universal.” I studied and drank every classic wine and region I could get my hands on, from Old Europe to New World California, and everything inbetween.

But by the 1990s my job was to write about and review California wine. Once I got a reputation as a go-to guy for California, the transom opened (do you know what a transom is? A free lifetime subscription to steveheimoff.com if you do), and I was swamped with wines from the Golden State—to my pleasure, I might add. But the corresponding sadness was that the wines from the rest of the world necessarily had to take a back seat.

I’ve long maintained that there are two legitimate ways to be a professional wine critic: You can specialize in a region (as I have done), or you can generalize. Some people think nothing of covering Australia, Austria and Anderson Valley. They bring their innate sense of tasting to whatever region they’re in, and if they’re lucky enough to have a budget to fly all over the place, they can actually bring a sense of the ambiente of the region to their writing.

That was, alas, not to be my fate. But California is a big place, one that you can spend a lifetime traveling through and trying to understand. That ended up being my forte.

Lately, I’ve been tackling Italy. Now, Italy is probably the greatest challenge for the person seeking to understand an entire country. It’s so vast, with so many regions and varieties. I suspect my friend and former colleague, Monica Larner, who now reviews wines for The Wine Advocate, considers herself still a student of Italy, despite her vast knowledge of that country. I am by contrast an absolute dilettante.

How does one go about understanding a brand new region? Carefully and humbly. I’ve always known at least the fundamentals of Italian wine, but to delve into it and be immersed in its fantastic intricacies is something else. It’s not only the technical details of the denomination system, it’s tackling the flavors and textures, which are so different from our wines here in California.

For example, last night I drank a Dolcetto d’Alba from the Tenuta I’Illuminata winery. It’s a Piedmont wine and I don’t think there’s anything remotely resembling it in California. So dry and tart, so bitter on its own, nothing you’d want to drink as a cocktail sipper, the way a fresh young Cabernet or Pinot might suffice. I went through my Wine Enthusiast reviews, and the highest score I ever gave a California Dolcetto was 88 points. That was for the Acorn 2010 Alegria Vineyard, in the Russian River Valley. To read the text of my September, 2013 review—“you might think it was Pinot Noir”—I can almost recall its succulent fruitiness, but this L’Illuminata Dolcetto is anything but sucuulently fruity. How, then, does a “California palate” make sense of such a wine?

Well, by expanding your mind. We all get used to certain kinds of things in our lives. We settle into our routines, hang out with the same people, go to the same places, eat the same foods. It’s understandable, but at the same time, when you’re plunged into a world profoundly different from the one you’re used to, you have two alternatives: to reject it as weird, or to set aside your predilections and try to understand it.

As a wine critic, there’s really only one legitimate approach, the latter: to try and understand something that, at first, doesn’t make sense. And for this, you need two things: study, and imagination. The “study” part mean that you need to read up on what smart people have had to say about that region and wine. The “imagination” part means that you have to understand how people actually drink the wine, in the region where they live. This is the “ambiente” I’m talking about.

With this Dolcetto d’Alba, I can imagine drinking it with very rich foods. Take some fatty meat (beef, sausages), put some tomato sauce on it, add some mozzarella cheese into the equation, figure out how to work in wild mushrooms, don’t be shy about the garlic and black pepper. Decant the wine for an hour or two. You know how some people complain that the opulent red wines of California pale after a while? This Dolcetto is the opposite: it gets more interesting.

Does it matter that it’s an 88 point wine and not a 98? Not to me. Am I embarrassed to admit I don’t know much about Italian wine? Not at all. I’ve learned, through blogging, the importance of telling the truth—transparency, they call it. “The truth will make you free.” And—even more importantly—I’m happy that I retain the ability to learn, to be surprised, even after all this time. How cool is that?


What are the traits of westside GSMs from Paso Robles?

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This was our objective at yesterday’s tasting. The answer:

  1. high alcohol
  2. tremendous fruity extract
  3. thick tannins
  4. soft acidity
  5. full-bodiedness
  6. a sense of sweetness

Think about each of those. Each element is at the utmost of the limits of a table wine to remain balanced. In this high-wire act, if you make the slightest error, you’re screwed.

The high alcohol means that, while it’s there (and we’re talking 15%-16% or more), if the wine is in the slightest degree hot, it loses points.

The tremendous fruity extract means that, if you get it wrong, you end up with a fruit bomb.

The thick tannins mean that you don’t want to end up with something that’s harsh in the mouth.

The soft acidity presents the danger of an insipid, boring wine, flashy, perhaps, with the first sip, but one that quickly palls.

So we’re talking about that elusive but vital element, balance. It’s funny that people always talk about a more delicate wine, like Burgundian Pinot Noir, as being so transparent that balance, or any hint of imbalance, is apparent. But that’s also true of these gigantic Paso Robles GSMs. Mere size isn’t enough to hide flaws. Nothing can hide a flaw to the discerning taste. And yet, a good winemaker can turn size to his advantage.

These winemakers—Matt Trevaison, Justin Smith, Stephen Asseso and the like–chose to make these sorts of wines, and by the standard of the market, they’ve been wildly successful. These westside GSMs have become Paso Robles’ most expensive wines. Produced in tiny amounts, they sell for far more on the aftermarket than their initial release prices. So, when my friends at Jackson Family Wines asked me to put together a Paso Robles tasting (and the family currently owns nothing in Paso Robles), I happily acceded.

I could have done a tasting of Paso Bordeaux blends. I’ve been a big fan; that was part of the reason why I successfully argued for Paso Robles to be Wine Enthusiast’s “Wine Region of the Year” a couple of years ago.

I could have done a tasting of what I call Paso’s “wacko blends,” those innovative blends of everything from Tempranillo and Zinfandel to Merlot, Sangiovese and Petite Sirah. I wrote extensively about them for Wine Enthusiast. These young winemakers, who invaded Paso Robles over the last 5-10 years, had nothing to lose by being creative. They knew they couldn’t compete against Napa Valley with Cabernet Sauvignon. Pinot Noir was out of the question. Why not create a blend that had never existed before in the history of the world, if it made a delicious wine? It was a niche to be explored and exploited.

But GSMs are the signature wines of Paso Robles, especially at the high-priced end. So here were the seven wines we tasted yesterday, in a blind tasting. (Sadly, although I ordered the L’Aventure 2013 Cote de Cote directly from the winery, and paid $120.68, including shipping, for it, it never arrived.)

The wines, with SRP and alcohol:

Saxum 2012 Heart Stone, $149, 15.1%

Tablas Creek 2013 Cote de Cote, $55, 14.5%

Law Estate 2011 Sagacious, $67, 16%

Linne Calodo 2013 Sticks & Stones, $79, 15.8%

Jada 2012 Hell’s Kitchen, $54, 15.5%

ONX 2012 Crux, $45, 15.2%

Booker 2013 Full Draw, $75, 15.3%

My favorite, and the group’s, too, was the ONX. It was closely followed by the Jada, Tablas Creek, Saxum, Linne Calodo, and Booker. The trick with wines of this sort, which are very popular with critics, is to keep them balanced. All the individual parts—tannins, fruity extract, alcohol—are so strong, in and of themselves, that if any one of them sticks out, it perturbs the entire wine. (One of my co-tasters called several of the wines “distracting,” for that very reason). In this modern In Pursuit of Balance world, we make much of the structure and finesse of lightly-structured wines, which are so transparent that inherent imbalances quickly reveal themselves. As we focus—properly—on these wines, we tend to forget that these big, rich wines have similar balancing challenges; like Bob Dylan’s “mattress balanced on a bottle of wine,” the equilibrium must be just-so, the poise exquisitely tense, or otherwise the wine just collapses under its own weight into a heap.

Still, these west side Paso Robles wines (which now come under a guise of AVAs since Paso Robles split up into 11 appellations) are attention-getting, although I’m not sure I’d want to split an entire bottle with someone over dinner.


WSET and wine education: Does it develop a house palate?

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I suppose it was inevitable that the wine industry would eventually develop something like the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), which is to wine what community colleges are to higher education.

In general it’s a good thing to have a college-level curriculum for wine knowledge and then force aspiring students to go through it. They learn about the entire gamut of wine and spirits: basic to advanced knowledge and service, graduating from Level 1 to Level 5. This professionalizes the wine industry. WSET, which is based in London, recently announced they’re expanding to China.

Prior to WSET’s founding, back in 1969, the wine industry had no central repository of knowledge. People learned on the job, in the country in which they lived, which is why they developed regional perspectives. A Londoner, for example, might apprentice at a wine shop or auction house, where Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhine wines predominated. He would become a master of them, but not necessarily of wines that were not widely distributed in Great Britain, such as the wines of Spain, Italy or, much less, the New World, including California, South Africa and Australia. Even French regions like the Rhone valley and the Loire were little understood in London. This tended to maintain the supremecy of Bordeaux and Burgundy. It was a self-reinforcing, self-referencing business model that worked for its time and place, but was essentially unfair.

Which is why a fellow like Harry Waugh was so unusual. Harry was at the peak of his game in the 1950s and 1960s. Sitting on the board of Chateau Latour, esteemed as a stately and principled wine merchant and gadfly, he was the consummate Bordeaux and Burgundy man. So when he began visiting California, at the behest of a small group of Napans, this was seen as an oddity by his fellow enophiles. They assumed Harry’s new-found interest in barbarous California would quickly fade, after which he would return to the fold.

It was not to be. Harry found himself charmed at first by California wine, an enchantment multiplied by the worshipful treatment accorded him by the rich Californians who understood that he was an important factor in British, and thus European wine tastes. They flew him back and forth across the pond, provided his local transportation, took him to the best restaurants, served him their best wines and lavished their own personal bonhomie upon him and his wife.

Little wonder Harry quickly fell in love with California wine. Would he have done so had he experienced them under blind tasting conditions, in a dreary little room at Christie’s? Possibly. But to drink them under such lavish, friendly circumstances undoubtedly played a role.

At any rate, the tale of how Harry shipped California wine back to London and then coaxed his important friends in the industry to try it is now legendary. It was an essential part of why and how California wine succeeded in being viewed in the same league as Bordeaux and Burgundy, well before the Paris Tasting of 1976. (Indeed, it can be argued that Harry was at least partially responsible for Steven Spurrier including California wines in his lineup in the first place.)

Had there been a WSET back in the 1940s and 1950s, when Harry was coming of age in the British wine industry, I rather doubt he would have discovered California. He would have been confined to WSET’s curriculum, and had neither the time nor, probably, the energy to explore beyond it. All I mean to suggest is that formal education, in any field, can have its own set of internal restrictions. It’s important to students of wine to explore the world of wine on their own, developing idiosyncratic preferences (or antipathies) that may not be included in formal agendas of study. This not only opens them to new opportunities, it guarantees the wine industry an expanded set of palates. My main worry with the centralization of wine education is that it tends to develop a house palate that can be detrimental to differing styles. The wine industry should remain ever open to a spectrum of approaches to wine.


In Pursuit of Balance tasting, San Francisco

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A lovely tasting today at In Pursuit of Balance, really the best they’ve ever had. The venue was new: City View, in the Metreon Center, instead of RN74 like it was the last time I went. And what a crowd! This was clearly the buzziest place to be today if you were anywhere near San Francisco.

It’s impossible to taste everything, but I did get to quite a few Pinot Noirs, mostly 2012s. In general, you can say that this is a generous vintage, yielding balanced, supple and frankly delicious wines of great structure, although in a few cases, the acids were too fierce. The best of them need age. Here are a few standouts:

Domaine de la Cote. I have not been a fan of the 2011s which were green, but 2012 was a great success. The Bloom’s Field (12.5%) is sleek and streamlined, with a core of raspberries. It needs time.

Sandhi. Their ’12 Sanford & Benedict (13.5%) is a real beauty, charming and supple.

Knez. This was a new winery for me, out of Anderson Valley. The ’12 Demuth (13.3%) and ’12 Cerise (about 13.3%) both are gorgeous, the former tight, the latter more generous. Both need time.

Hirsch. First, it was good to hear that David is back at work! The ’12 East Ridge (13%) is powerful but delicate, with awesome structure. The ’12 Reserve (13.1%) is a wine I’d describe as Burgundian, with mushroom and tea notes to the raspberry core. Both wines need time.

Au Bon Climat. The 2011 Knox Alexander (13.1%) is huge in flavor, explosive in raspberry essence, yet gorgeously structured and dry. It certainly needs 5-6 years in the bottle.

Wenzlau. Another new winery for me. The Estate Santa Rita Hills (13.0%) is very acidic, almost lemony, with with solid raspberry-cherry fruit. I would give it six years.

Kutch. A pair of 2013s, the Sonoma Coast (12.3%) and the Rohan Vineyard (12.3%), from the Bohan-Dillon area of Fort Ross-Seaview. Two great wines. The former is delicate, the latter more potent and dramatic. I would cellar the Rohan for six years.

Native9 2011 Rancho Ontiveros (13.4%). A great success for the vintage, pale in color, lots of acidity, plenty of finesse. Drinking beautifully now.

Here are a few pictures of some old friends.

SashiSashi Moorman pouring. Raj Parr in background.

ClendenenJim Clendenen, one of the immortals

StevieStevie Stacionis, of Bay Grape in Oakland

CarloCarlo Mondavi. Sorry you have to crane your neck!

 JamesJames Ontiveros, Native9 and Rancho Ontiveros

EhrenEhren Jordan, of Failla


A 40-year retrospective tasting with the Richard Arrowood

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Last Wednesday’s historic tasting of 40 years worth of wines produced by Richard Arrowood was not only a testament to the oeuvre of one of California’s greatest living winemakers, but a refreshing reminder—if one were needed—of how well Sonoma Valley wines, red and white, can age.

Richard invited a small group of us to the tasting of some 60 wines. We gathered at his idyllic Amapola Creek Winery, in the hills above Sonoma Valley, just below Monte Rosso Vineyard, then motored further up the mountain to the home he shares with his wife, Alis, where the grand event took place.

Richard began his career at Korbel in 1965, created a series of famous, great single-vineyard wines at Chateau St. Jean in the 1970s, and then presided over his own Arrowood Winery (which eventually passed into the Jackson Family Wines portfolio.) He launched his Amapola Creek venture in 2001.

Space precludes me from writing about each of the sixty wines we tasted, but I will provide overviews of each of the flights, and include the top wine/s from each. Richard, in his introductory remarks, said one of his purposes was to show how well these wines can age. Indeed, the tasting illustrated that, many times over. All wines bear a Sonoma Valley appellation.

Flight 1. Chateau St. Jean Zinfandel.

These were all from the Wildwood (now Kunde Estate) and Glen Ellen (Moon Mountain) vineyards.

1976 Chateau St. Jean Wildwood Vineyards Zinfandel. Crowd favorite. Sweet blackberry jam, violets, bouquet garni, cocoa nib, espresso. Alcohol 13.9%. Score: 91.

Flight 2. Chateau St. Jean Cabernet Sauvignon.

These were from the Wildwood, Glen Ellen, Laurel Glen (pre-Patrick Campbell) and Jack London vineyards.

1977 Chateau St. Jean Laurel Glen Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon. Good color. Spice. Cassis, black currants, cassis liqueur. Amazingly rich, sweet, still so fresh and vibrant. Superb. 13.9%. Score: 94

Fight 3. Arrowood white wines.

These were from the Alary and Saralee’s vineyards, both in Russian River Valley.

2009 Arrowood Saralee’s Vineyard Viognier. Tropical fruit, green melon, honey. Rich and exotic. Tremendous power. Great job balancing Viognier’s exoticness with structure and dryness. Drinking well now. 14.4%. Score: 94.

Flight 4. Arrowood Malbec and Syrah.

Except for the Sonoma County-appellated Malbec, these were all from Saralee’s Vineyard.

Arrowood 2004 Malbec. Good dark color at the age of nearly eleven years. Fruit drying out. Dried blackberry, grilled meat bone, shaved dark chocolate, cassis. Softly tannic. Tons of sweet black currant liqueur. Beautiful now. 14.5%. Score: 93.

But I want to praise a pair of Syrahs, the 2006 Saralee’s and the 2002 Saralee’s. Both scored 92 points.

Flight 5. Arrowood Cabernet Sauvignon.

These were all from the Monte Rosso Vineyard, or were Richard’s Réserve Spéciale bottling, except for the 1990 and 1991; I don’t know the grape sourcing on the latter two.

This was an incredible flight. It was hard to pick a “best,” but I went with the Arrowood 2005 Monte Rosso Cabernet. Good dark color. Heady, lots of black currants, cedar. Very rich, heady, sweet, opulent. Superb now and will age for many years. 15.8%. Score: 95. Concerning the alcohol level, the wine was not in the least hot.

Runner-ups: A pair of Réserve Spéciales, 1994 and 1993. Both were gorgeous 20-year old Cabs. I scored both at 94 points.

Flight 6. Amapola Creek Cabernet Sauvignon.

These were all from Richard’s estate vineyard, just below Monte Rosso. All the wines are eminently ageable.

2005 Amapola Creek Estate Vineyard Cabernet. Beginning to show bottle bouquet and development. Softly tannic, supple, rich in black cherries and mocha. Balanced, complex. Will drink well through at least 2025. 15.5%. Score: 94.

Flight 7. Amapola Creek Zinfandel.

Eight were Zins, mainly from the estate vineyard, with a few from Monte Rosso. Richard put a Petite Sirah in among them.

Amapola Creek 2008 Monte Rosso Zinfandel. Monte Rosso Zins, for me, can get too high and hot in alcohol, and the flavors can turn raisiny, even pruney. But the ’08 was the best of the lot, despite the heat waves of the vintage. I called it “claret-like” (an appraisal Margo Van Staaveren, sitting next to me, shared). Tons of fruit, spice and cocoa, balanced and elegant, yet always with Zin’s powerful, briary character. 15.1%. Score: 92.

Flight 8. Various Rieslings.

These were from Arrowood and Chateau St. Jean, and covered the vintages 1975-2009. The wines were from the vineyards Richard made famous with his Rieslings and Chardonnays of that era: Robert Young and Belle Terre, joined, later, by Hoot Owl and Saralee’s.

Tie for first:

1975 Chateau St. Jean Belle Terre Vineyards Johannisberg Riesling Individual Bunch Special Select Late Harvest (10.6%), and 1975 Chateau St. Jean Robert Young Vineyards Johannisberg Riesling Individual Bunch Special Select Late Harvest (10.0%). Score on both: 96. It is impossible to praise these very old white dessert wines enough. Possibly I scored them too low. In fact, the entire flight of eight wines was a masterpiece. It’s a pity people don’t drink more of these white late-harvest stickies, especially as they achieve the glories of senior citizenship.

For an extra treat, Richard invited a group of his former assistant winemakers over the years. They included Milla Handley (now Handley Cellars), Margo (Chateau St. Jean), her husband Don Van Staaveren (also from the old St. Jean days, now at Three Sticks), Heidi von der Mehden (Arrowood, now Merry Edwards) and, representing a younger generation, Erich Bradley (who was at Arrowood, and now is at Sojourn and Repris). Apologies to others who were present whose names I have not mentioned.

Richard's WMsA prestigious gathering of distinguished winemakers

ArrowoodRichard and my former colleague, Virginie Boone, of Wine Enthusiast

Richard Arrowood surely will be inducted one of these days into the Vintners Hall of Fame!


Wine writing when you can’t taste or smell?

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Lovely, inspiring article on the BBC’s website about about Andrew Hedley, a British-born New Zealand winemaker (Framingham Wines) who developed throat cancer and had to have his larynx removed, which had a devastating effect on his ability to smell and taste.

“Anything that goes into my nose or mouth now goes straight to my stomach,” he says, meaning, according to the article, that he “had to come up with a new way of smelling and tasting the wines he created.”

Andrew did indeed come up with a new way of smelling and tasting that works so well, he said, “We’ve actually won more awards since I had the cancer surgery.” This is indeed an inspiring story of the ingenuity and triumph of the human spirit.

As I read it I recalled the travails of my own wine-writing hero, Harry Waugh, who following a car accident in which he landed on his head lost his own sense of smell. Yet Harry, who was on the board of Chateau Latour in addition to his other considerable achievements which included writing some of the most influential books in the history of California wine, developed alternative ways of tasting that ensured his continuation as one of the great wine tasters and writers of the second half of the twentieth century.

What are we to make of great wine people who, suffering awful loss of a good part of their sensory equipment, nonetheless remain at the pinnacle of their careers?

Well, for me, the big takehome is that you don’t have to be the awesomest palate ever in order to be a big success. Both Andrew and Harry, and indeed anyone of us, had their limitations: they did what they could do with what they had. And yet something in their skill set enabled them to rise above their limitations.

I don’t know Andrew but I knew Harry. What made him great was his absolute devotion to the grape and wine as well as his ability to put complex thoughts into writing that was easy to comprehend. I have no idea how he managed to tell the difference between a vin ordinaire and a grand vin or vin de garde after his automobile accident, but he did. People still cared about what he said.

We make too much of “expertise” in wine and I realize I need to explain that. With all this attention to Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers, we tend to think that you need some letters after your last name to be taken seriously if you opine about wine. While I bow to no one in my regard and respect for MWs and MSs, I have to say that when it comes to wine writing of the kind Harry—and a generation of wine writers of the last 30 years, including me—represented, there’s a case to be made that you don’t want so much expertise that it removes the reviewer from the common realm of the 99% who actually buy and drink wine.

There’s another important lesson to be learned from Andrew’s experience. The BBC reporter interviewed a head and neck surgeon who told him, To be able to differentiate between subtle aromas and tastes of wines must be very difficult and to be honest, it almost never happens in cases where surgery has been performed.” Well, even if you haven’t had your larynx removed, “to be able to differentiate between subtle aromas and tastes of wines” is very difficult anyway! It’s not objective science; even professionals will disagree about what they’re smelling and tasting, which is why my recent blending sessions at Matanzas Creek have been so educational. Taster “A” may find quince and guava, taster “B” may find nectarine and white peach, who’s to say who’s right or wrong? No one, that’s who. But what we can all agree on—at least, I would hope—is that beyond specific flavor descriptors we can all recognize essential quality, which when all is said and done is a function of intellectual interest. For what is great wine, if not a wine that stimulates your mind? And it would seem that, even when your sense of smell or taste is impaired, your ability to be intellectually interested and flattered remains. How cool is that?


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