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My early career as an amateur wine buff

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I remember it as if it all happened yesterday instead of 35 years ago. I was newly arrived in San Francisco, had no money and needed a place to live. So I answered an ad on the S.F.S.U. housing board for a house sitter. It was for a dilapidated old four-room cottage in the southwestern neighborhood known as Top of the Hill Daly City, although in this case, it was at the bottom of the hill. The owner for some reason had the electricity shut off throughout the place, except for my bedroom. There was no heat. Because it was such a hardship case, the owner charged me only $15 a month–although he should have paid me for tolerating such a crummy place. It was wintertime, which can be very cold in San Francisco, and that, added to the location near the ocean, made it really damp and uncomfortable. My only source of heat—and cooking—was a hotplate. But I didn’t care. I was young, strong and adventurous, and, hey, I was living in San Francisco and having the time of my life!

I’d started getting into wine, mainly by buying those little handbooks that were so popular back then: Olken, Singer & Roby’s “The Connoisseurs’ Handbook of California Wines” and Bob Thompson’s “The Pocket Encyclopedia of California Wines.”

handbooks

Since I couldn’t afford to buy much I also depended on local critics’ reviews in the various newspapers. Here’s a photo from my little notebook of that time where I kept track of their reviews:

winebook

 

W. is Wilfred Wong, RH is Richard Paul Hinkle, H.S. is Harvey Steiman, J.M. is Jerry Mead, W.B. was something called the Wine Buying Guide, B.G. is the Bay Guardian, ADB is Anthony Dias Blue and the Best Buys were from the San Francisco Chronicle.

After a couple years I could finally afford to start buying some nice bottles, so I began to keep my Tasting Diaries. Here’s a page for a 1978 Lytton Springs Zin I reviewed in late 1984.

mynotes

By now, I had developed a tasting template: date, occasion (“Thanksgiving at Maxine’s”), and the standard color-nose-taste three-pronged approach. As you can see, I was already beginning to appreciate that some wines need age (“Disappointing; too young”) and also had come up with a rudimentary rating system of stars (to be replaced by the 100-point system when I started doing that).

This Montelena 1979 Chard, which I tasted in 1983, is interesting for three reasons: I was blown away by the price ($12, so expensive at the time. Today it’s $50), I included a food pairing, and,, via the “NOTE” section, I began to introduce more subjective commentary into my reviews. I was much fascinated back then by the French word goût (as in goût de terroir); it shows up a lot in those early reviews.

montelena

 

I wish I still had the first note I ever wrote. It was in 1979 in that awful, cold, barren house at Top of the Hill Daly City. It was for an Almaden Cabernet Sauvignon with a Monterey County appellation. I recall with crystal clarity sitting in the freezing cold at the little table off the kitchen and making my notes. I cannot remember a word of what I wrote, but I know that I concentrated on it very carefully. I think I liked it; at that time I was not aware of the issue of “Monterey veggies.”

It’s hard to know with any precision why a person gets hooked onto something virtually overnight (I don’t mean drugs, I mean hobbies). In 1979 I knew no one at all who cared a thing about wine. My family and friends were oblivious to it, although they were increasingly having to put up with my blather about the latest bottle I’d enjoyed. Looking back, it blows my mind that I was so feverishly making all these notes (my Tasting Diaries eventually filled five hard-cover volumes, amounting to thousands of wines). Why was I doing all that work? For whom? For nobody; for myself. There was no payoff. I never expected anyone to care about what I thought about wine.


Why a famous critic’s 100 point wine may disappoint you

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Patricia Talorico’s column in Delaware Online, describing her disappointment at a tasting of 100-point wines, is worth reading, if for no other reason than to make the point that a famous critic’s taste may not correspond to yours.

And there are some good reasons for that, which I’ll get to in a moment.

As a journalist, Patricia went to a tasting in Wilmington that consisted of ten wines, each of which had received a perfect 100-point score from either Robert Parker, Wine Spectator, James Suckling or Wine Enthusiast. So excited was she in advance (I would be, too, and so would you) that she called it “a fantasy event not to miss.”

After all, on the roster were such celebrated bottles as 2010 Leoville-Barton, 2010 Dominus, 2001 Rieussec and 2006 Casanova di Neri Tenuta Nuova Brunello di Montalcino. Who wouldn’t be up for that?

But, alas, as Patricia reports, she was “Not…blown away by a majority of [the] highly rated wines.” For example, “I was less impressed” by a 2000 Krug Brut than were some of the other tasters. Then there was a 2009 Giovanni Chiappini Guado de Gemoli that, Patricia wrote, “got little more than a ho-hum” despite its 100 point score from Wine Enthusiast. She quoted others present as being highly critical of the Tenuta Nuova that Suckling gave 100 points to. “Over-ripe,” said one. “Not a perfect vintage,” sniffed another.

On the other hand, there was that 2010 Dominus, which everyone seemed to fall in love with. Still, that didn’t stop Patricia from offering readers this advice: “Wine lovers, save your money” when it comes to some of these high-priced rarities.

I couldn’t agree more. The thing the public has to keep in mind—actually, several things—when it comes to evaluating these high scores from famous critics is that the wines sometimes aren’t tasted blind. Sometimes, they’re tasted on the premises of the winery, alongside the winemaker or owner. (Wine Enthusiast has a firm policy against this, as I know well.) This has profound psychological effects, not the least of which is what we call “tasting room bias.” A wine will usually taste better under conditions of propinquity and proximity to its source of production, than it will at a distance. Put another way, if you’re an invited guest at [fill-in-the-blank] great winery, sipping the wine in the glamorous reception room with the world-famous winemaker, it’s far more likely you’ll be dazzled than if you tasted the same wine poured from a bottle in a paper bag, in a blind flight of its peers.

Another thing to keep in mind is that, when these famous wine critics are tasting the wine openly, they’re aware of such factors as the quality of the vintage (which they’ve probably also pronounced upon) and their own previous reviews of the same wine from prior vintages. There is a tendency (understandable) on the part of critics to want to be consistent in their reviews. Consistency is a large part of their credibility, after all, especially among the proprietors of great wineries who invite them to taste the latest vintage. I’m not saying that a scrupulous critic will deliberately stretch the truth for the sake of consistency. But it may be that his or her sensory impressions are skewed, at a subconscious level.

This is a very large part of the reason why the same wines keep on getting the same high scores over and over again from the same famous critics. It’s also why less famous (which is to say, less well-connected) wine writers, such as Patricia, often find themselves underwhelmed at tastings like the Judgment of Wilmington. She had no skin in the game, no reputational stakes on the table, no consistency to safeguard. All she had was her palate. As, indeed, do we all.


Why do people buy wine?

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There’s a million reasons, of course, but one that’s interested me for years is why they’re willing to pay a premium for some wines and not for others. And in some cases, a huge premium.

The plain and simple fact is that a $1,000 wine isn’t ten times better than a $100 wine or 20 times better than a $50 wine. In fact, you could make a strong argument (which I guess I’m making now) that, once you get above a certain price, there’s less and less difference between wines. That $500 bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon isn’t necessarily better than a $50 Napa Cab.

We have to define what “better” means, though, before we can proceed. By “better” I mean the wine’s hedonistic or organoleptic or purely sensory qualities: the flavors, the way it feels in the mouth, the finish. In a great winemaking region such as Napa Valley, where the overall quality is as high as anywhere on earth, the consumer can rightfully expect a certain standard of excellence once the wine gets to, say, $40. This is why you can make a blind tasting and often a more modestly priced Cab will win.

Which returns us to the question: If the $500 Cab and the $50 Cab are so alike in objective quality, then why would anyone in their right mind buy the former?

Well, you have divined the answer, haven’t you, dear reader? It’s because, when it comes to paying these astronomical prices, there’s nothing objective whatever going on in the buyer’s mind. It’s all subjectivity.

How does this subjectivity work? We get a hint of the mechanism by reading this description of a tasting set up by a crafty Frenchman, Frédéric Brochet, who fooled a bunch of so-called connossieurs. “[He] decanted the same ordinary bordeaux into a bottle with a budget label and one with that of a grand cru. When the connoisseurs tasted the ‘grand cru’ they rhapsodised its excellence while decrying the ‘table’ version as flat.”

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, and of wine news in general, you’ve no doubt heard enough of these kinds of experiments to know that they demonstrate the point I’m trying to make: Your experience of the wine all depends on what you think you’re drinking.

My goal today, though, isn’t to reiterate this point, but to try and rehabilitate the reputations of people who routinely get fooled in these tastings, and to show that they’re not total idiots, and you shouldn’t condemn them as such. Instead, their very failure to perceive reality illustrates one of the best reasons to drink fine wine: because it satisfies, not just the senses, but the intellect.

When I taste Lafite Rothschild, for example, and I know what it is (nobody tastes Lafite blind), I have to admit my soul lights up. I get excited. I pay very careful attention, because this is, after all, Lafite. I know the back-story: First Growth of Bordeaux. Ancient history. One of the greatest red wines in the world. Thomas friggin’ Jefferson loved it. My reaction similarly would be the same as, say, being given the Koh-i-Noor diamond, as opposed to costume jewelry. If you gave me the Koh-i-Noor (you’d have to wrestle it away from Queen Elizabeth first), you just know I’d stare at it and bring it up to the light and look through it and ogle it and go ooh and ahh and remember that moment forever. Now, on my own, I’m sure I couldn’t tell the difference between the Koh-i-Noor and a cubic zirconium from QVC, but that’s precisely the point: in our little thought experiment, I do know the difference. And that makes all the difference.

This subjectivity explains why wines of equal or almost equal quality may vary so widely in price. The pleasure of drinking Lafite consists of far more than merely what the wine tastes like. This is something that’s hard for outsiders to understand, but which is easy for a wine geek. To think that you’re in a limited circle of people privileged to taste something as exclusive and expensive as Lafite boosts your love and appreciation of the wine. This may sound snobbish to some people, but it’s perfectly understandable. It’s occurring in the brain, the seat of thinking and understanding; and pleasuring that part of the cerebral cortex is as important as pleasuring the senses, maybe even more so.

So I’m arguing for some understanding for these poor schlemiels who get caught in these wine tasting entrapments. It could happen to you, it could happen to me, and in fact, it has. What it says about wine isn’t that it cheapens the experience or levels the playing field, but that it elevates wine tasting to a fine art whose appreciation requires knowledge and understanding. As the physicist/mathematician, Freeman Dyson, observed, “Mind and intelligence are woven into the fabric of our universe in a way that altogether surpasses our understanding.” What we think is, for each of us, reality; it’s our collective thinking that elevates Lafite to Grand Cru-ness.


Tasting Bordeaux

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It was old friend’s day at yesterday’s Bordeaux tasting, sponsored by Maisons Marques & Domaines. Not only was the wonderful Xavier Barlier there to greet me, but I ran into Fred Swan and Wilfred Wong, so there was also some nostalgic recollecting. But not too much—we were there for the wines.

I didn’t taste everything, but here are my abbreviated notes. [All retail prices are my own estimations, based on wholesale price.] As you can see, you can take the wine critic out of the game—but you can’t take the game out of the wine critic!

Chateau d’Armailhac 2010 [$120]: Great Pauillac structure on this 5th growth; firm, dur. Glorious stuffing, all black currants. Very complex and mouth-filing, a very good wine. Drink 2022 and beyond. Score: 95.

Chateau d’Armailhac 2000 ($175). A little lacking in depth, but with plenty of charm. Very pure and refined. Drinking beautifully now with, say, a fine grilled entrecote. Score: 91.

Chateau Clerc Milon 2010 ($200). Great depth, a real beauty, but so tannic. Heaps of blackberries and cherries. Fabulous acidity. Will make a great bottle after, say, 2022. Score: 93.

Chateau Clerc Milon 2006 ($170). Not a big wine, in fact a little thin. But it’s delicate and refined. Drink up. Score: 88 points.

Chateau Palmer 2006 Alter Ego de Palmer ($175). Fleshy, meaty, with blackberry and black currant flavors as well as a bacon fat, truffly richness. But very tannic. Seems best opened in the next few years. Score: 88.

Chateau Palmer 2004 ($320). A dramatic wine, in the midst of an evolution and not showing well right now. Neither hard nor soft, but the tannins are strong and there’s plenty of elegance. With lots of fruit, it should develop after 2020. Score: 90.

Chateau Palmer 1999 ($475). A gorgeous wine and a great success for the vintage. Surely approaching its peak now. So supple and rich in sweet cherry pie filling, with wonderful acidity and tannins. Silky and absolutely delicious, a standout in this tasting. Score: 96.

La Parde de Haut-Bailly 2008 ($39). Solid, masculine, still with hard tannins. The vintage was not great but the wine has good fruit and will drink well in, say, 5-6 more years. Score: 88.

La Parde de Haut-Bailly 2010 ($50). Solid, a litte gutsy. Very dry and tannic, some rusticity. Not an ager, but a clean, well-made wine. Score: 88.

Chateau Haut-Bailly 2010 ($180). A huge wine, with dusty tannins and good acidity. Lots of fruit, with a pleasant, Graves minerality. Needs many years. Drink 2022 and beyond. Score: 94.

Chateau Haut-Bailly 2003 ($110). The wine is showing considerable evolution, with the fruit revealing secondary notes. Still some tannins to shed. A good wine that should open further by 2018. Score: 90.

THE FOLLOWING WINES ARE FROM CHRISTIAN MOUEIX’S PORTFOLIO AND WERE POURED BY CHRISTIAN.

Chateau de Sales 2010 ($37). A lovely wine, round and feminine. Oodles of black currants and cassis, so sweet and tender. Significant tannins, but it’s soft enough to drink now and through 2022. A great value in a Pomerol. Score: 92.

Chateau Certan de May 2008 ($115). A hard wine, with big, tough tannins, but some lovely fruit. Tons of black currants and minerals. Needs time. Give it another ten years to come around. Score: 93.

Chateau Certan de May 2010 ($190). Far greater depth and complexity than the 2008, in fact twice the wine. Such opulence and craftsmanship. Very fine, balanced and elegant, but young. Wait until 2025, for starters. Score: 95.

Chateau Hosanna 2010 ($275). For me, a bizarre wine. Too oaky. Incredibly strong, spicy, black currants, chocolate nibs, anise. California style, fat, opulent. It is said this wine needs a great amount of time to come around, but I would not take the gamble, especially at this price. Score: 87.

Chateau Hosanna 2004 ($NA). Same style as the 2010, a big, oaky, New World-y wine. Beginning to show its stuff, but still nowhere near ready. I scored it 91 points based on potential.

Chateau Lafleur-Gazin 2007 ($45). A rustic wine, hard around the edges, but good fruit. Ready to drink now-2015. Score: 86.

Chateau Magdelaine 2008 ($105). Soft, fleshy, what you want a Saint-Emilion to be. Mainly Merlot, with lots of red cherries and red currants and a lovely mouthfeel. Needs time. Drink after 2020. Score: 93.

Chateau Puy-Blanquet 2011 ($27). A nice wine, with some lovely fruit, but for me, too sharp in acidity. I said this to Christian and he remarked, “Well, the vintage…”.

Le Petit Mouton de Mouton Rothschild 2007 ($300). This junior Mouton is delicious in black currants and cassis, although it lacks the power of the Grand Seigneur. Drink 2019 and beyond. Score: 91.

Chateau Mouton Rothschild 2005 ($950). Possibly it was just me, but this wine wasn’t showing well despite the vintage’s reputation. Primary fruits starting to evolve, but it’s a bit raw. But you have to give it the benefit of the doubt, especially considering the stellar reviews the wine has received from top critics. Undoubtedly it is going through an awkward phase. I did not rate this wine and would like to taste it again from another bottle.

Chateau Mouton Rothschild 2010 ($1500). An awesome wine, huge, magnificent, clearly a Great Growth. Masses of black currants, perfect oak, gorgeous acids and tannins. Will improve for decades. This was so stunning I swallowed rather than spit. Potentially a perfect wine. Score: 99.

 


Getting ready for a Bordeaux tasting

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To San Francisco today for a Bordeaux tasting, at Wine & Wall, the interesting space just south of Market, near the Embarcadero, that’s such a hotspot of a neighborhood. I know little about the event, except that it involves the following wines:

Château Hosanna 2004 | 2010
Château Certan de May 2005 | 2008
Château Magdelaine 2008
Château Haut-Bailly 2003 | 2010
Château Mouton Rothschild 2005 | 2010
Château Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande 2006 | 2010
Château Ducru-Beaucaillou 1995 | 2003
Château Palmer 1999 | 2004

which of course makes it pretty compelling.

I haven’t paid much attention to Bordeaux for years, overwhelmed as I was with California wine, although I do follow, at a distance, Bordeaux’s fortunes in the trade pubs. The question for Bordeaux, it seems to me, is whether it can hold onto its glorious reputation among a new generation of wine lovers. In Bordeaux’s favor is the old maxim—Newton’s first law of motion, actually—that an object in motion will continue in motion at the same speed and direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. The object in this case obviously is Bordeaux sales, which have continued in motion for many centuries. It can be argued that Bordeaux’s popularity threatened to become unhinged in the 1960s and 1970s, but that Bob Parker came along at the very moment when Bordeaux needed a boost, and a serious one at that; and that is exactly what Parker gave it, with his triumphant review of the 1982 vintage. It can be equally argued that, now that Parker is receding from the scene, the props are disappearing from Bordeaux’s stage, leaving it increasingly bare. We shall see.

I, personally, can see no reason why Bordeaux logically should hold onto its reputation. Worldwide competition has narrowed their appeal; high prices make most consumers look askance. Just this morning, Harpers, via Wine Business.com, reports that the chateaux are already discounting their 2013s, as “Buyers [show] a continued lack of confidence” in the Queen of Wines. Then, too, 2013 was supposedly “the most difficult” vintage in a long time, and Bordeaux consumers are notorious for being vintage-sensitive. This is so unlike the situation in California, where vintage matters far less. It may not be true, as long alleged, that “Every year is a vintage year in California,” but surely vintage differences here—even between an iffy year like 2011 and a superb one like 2012 and (we think) 2013—are more nuanced.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with the wines of Bordeaux. I’ll be looking for any hedonic pleasure I can find, since pleasure is what I want wine to provide. I’ve reached a point where I can’t really make excuses for a young wine that’s too tannic to enjoy, under the theory that all it needs is 10 or 20 years in the cellar to be drinkable. I’ll pay particular attention to the 2010s, which Parker rated so highly. The ‘03s and ‘04s fared less well, reputationally, but then there are the ‘05s, which for Parker at least was a stellar vintage.

I quote Parker! Yes, now that I’m a “civilian” with no particular allegiance to any publication, I see no reason not to, at least where Bordeaux is involved. Like many people, I rely on the advice of critics, in my selection of movies to see, restaurants to patronize, tech gadgets to buy, and Parker still seems to be the authority when it comes to Bordeaux. I will report on the results of today’s tasting tomorrow. Then I’m off on my first official visit for Jackson Family Wines: a couple days hanging out at the Panorama Vineyard, in the Arroyo Seco, and meeting with Carmel Road’s winemaker, Ivan Giotenov. I’ll be staying at the Inter-Continental; if you’re in the area, give me a shout.


On an Argentine Torrontes and how critics come up with those numbers

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I drank a very nice wine from Argentina last night, Michel Torino 2013 Don David Finca La Primavera #3 ($23), made from the Torrontes grape. It was quite delicious, offering layers of lime, quince and tangerine, with wonderfully brisk acidity, and while there was a honeyed richness, the finish was absolutely dry.

After 25 years of tasting mostly California wines, I now have the time to branch out. When I tasted that Don David (not blind!), my first thought was to compare it to what I know best: California. Had you given it to me without telling me what it was, I might have guessed Pinot Gris—or Sauvignon Blanc—possibly Chenin Blanc–but not quite. It had oakiness, but in a balanced, low-key way. Gorgeous acidity, too, mouthwatering and clean. There was minerality, but also something vegetal, not in a bad way, but in a wonderful way. I know this sounds weird, but it reminded me of lightly salted cream of broccoli soup. What’s not to like about that?

I liked it so much I looked to see if it had been reviewed in Wine Enthusiast, and there it was. The review was by my former colleague, Mike Schachner, who covers South America and Spain. He gave it 89 points and wrote: “This single-vineyard Salta Torrontés is virtually as good as it gets for the variety. Pure lychee, lime and mineral aromas precede a crisp, focused palate. Flavors of steely citrus are chiseled, while the finish is long and juicy. Drink prior to fall 2014.”

(Note: Salta is a region in Argentina. I have no idea if the name if related to salt, but there was definitely a saline character to the Don David that added to its savory character.)

I always admired Michael’s palate, and I thought, Wow, he really nailed it. I, personally, might have mentioned the honey, since the impression of sweetness is, it seems to me, a vital one to convey to readers. But that’s just me. And I also totally supported Michael’s judgment that the wine is best enjoyed soon. Its delicate structure, and rich fruit will fall apart sooner rather than later.

I mention all this because I’m fascinated by the concept of consumers having so many multiple sources of wine reviews. In addition to all the major wine magazines and newsletters, we have, at last count, 1.3 gazillion bloggers who review wine, not to mention the people who write all those shelf talkers at supermarkets and wine stores. If I put myself into the shoes of the wine consumer trying to figure out what to buy, I feel total sympathy if they feel dazed and confused.

I wondered about Michael’s 89 points. For those of us who work (or used to work) the 100-point system, the biggest decision in our everyday job is whether to give a wine 89 points or 90 points. That is the dividing line between life and death. I don’t work in sales, but I’ve been told for many years that 90 points is the cut-off for many buyers. If you’re trying to sell a 90-point wine from a major publication, it’s not that hard. If it’s below 90 points, well, good luck.

Had I formally reviewed the Don David, blind (as I’m sure Michael did), I think I would have given it an initial rating of 89 points too. Let me try to explain my rationale. The message of an 89-point rating is “This is a really good wine. If you drink it under the right circumstances, it can be a fantastic wine. However, objectively, and tasted by itself under laboratory circumstances, it fails—by a hair—to rise to the standards of what I consider a wine worthy of scoring in the nineties.”

I don’t know the details of how Michael considers, or reconsiders, his scores, or how long he takes for each review. But once I had given that Don David an initial 89 points, I suspect I would have raised it to 90 points, maybe an hour or so later, because I liked it so much. I would have put it in the fridge and then, unable to stop thinking about it, I would have tried it again, and given it the extra magic point simply because it had fired up my imagination.

Is that fair—I mean, to give a wine a second chance or reconsideration? Maybe not. But it happens with all critics, whether they admit it or not. I point all this out simply to illuminate the somewhat capricious nature of critical reviews. A score is serious business, and should be considered so by readers. But it should also be taken into context for what it is: fungible. Today’s 88 can be tomorrow’s 92, tomorrow’s 100 can be yesterday’s 92. It all depends. But it’s also important to understand that critics have been known to “adjust” their scores to keep them consistent with past ones, and if you don’t believe that, there’s a bridge in San Francisco I’d like to sell you.


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