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The Art of the Blend

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I’ve been getting into blends lately–wines made from varieties that had seldom if ever in all of history met each other until they migrated across The Pond from Old Europe and then found their way to California, where some wacko winemaker got the idea to mate them up and see what happens.

For example,  Paraduxx’s 2010 Napa Valley Z Blend is a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with enough Zinfandel in it to make it briary and robust. Lone Madrone, in Paso Robles, threw everything but the kitchen sink into their 2011 Calon: Counoise (a little known Rhône variety), Grenache Noir, Sangiovese (hello, Tuscany) and Syrah. Way down south in Santa Barbara, Matthias Pippig, at Sanguis, grafts a Northern Rhône-style Syrah and Viognier blend onto Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon, and gets a stylishly unique 2010 Couture. ONX’s 2010 Moxie, another Paso Robles wine, shakes it up with Zinfandel, Syrah, Tempranillo and Cabernet.

These are only a few high-scoring examples; I could go on and on. It’s funny how the cycle of history deals with blends. Once upon a time in California, blended wines were the norm, from the so-called “field blended” vineyards that immigrants planted in the 19th and 20th centuries from Mendocino down through the Central Coast, but especially in Sonoma and Napa. They didn’t care about varietal labels, they were looking for two things: a wine they could make regardless of what the vintage conditions were like, and one moreover that was hearty and tasted good. It wasn’t until the U.S. government, beginning in the 1970s, came up with our current regulations concerning varietally-labeled wines that consumers became obsessed with particular grape names.

Why did that happen? Because as soon as Prohibition was repealed, wine writers announced that wines made from particular varieties were the best. Several generations absorbed this lesson, from the 1930s right through the boutique winery explosion of the 1960s and 1970s and continuing into the 21st century.

As I look at my reviews for these unusual blends, I notice a few things. One is that my scores are not as high as for Cabernet Sauvignons, Pinot Noirs and scattered Merlots and Syrahs. Another is that I almost never suggest that these wines be aged. Beyond their particular flavors and textures, they are above all wines of youthful polish and immediate gratification. I suppose I do subscribe to the notion (common among my generation of wine writers) that ageability is a requirement for a very high score.

It may be time, however, for us to begin to recalibrate our approach to evaluating wines. Few people bother to age wine anymore. I believe that the best California Pinots and Cabs do get better with age, but they don’t “require” it, in the sense that, say, old-time Bordeaux was virtually undrinkable in its youth because it was so tannic (which isn’t really the case anymore). The consequence of people not wanting to age wines is that winemakers are making wines that don’t need to be aged. These blends are perfect examples of winemakers seeking to do something new, in a state (California) where it’s increasingly harder to find new things to do with wine, because consumers tend not to reward novelty

I think writers now have the challenge before them of educating the public to understand that a well-made blend need not have a varietal name in order to be charming. Older consumers may be resistant to receiving this message, but younger ones get it. We don’t need to recreate Old Europe’s template, especially in California. We’re the nation’s most diverse state, a rainbow quilt of humankind. Our wines increasingly are reflecting that diversity.


Thoughts on retasting a wine after a producer complains

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READERS: I’m reposting this from yesterday because my site was down for most of the day. Sorry for any hassles you experienced (and thanks to some of you for letting me know through Facebook and email). New post on corked wines tomorrow!

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It happened again yesterday. A producer, whose wine I reviewed a few months ago, got a score he didn’t like, and so has requested that I retaste the wine. So I thought this would be a good time to let the industry know my policy and thoughts on retasting.

My policy is, sure. Go ahead and resend the wine if you wish. As long as this doesn’t happen too often (and fortunately it doesn’t), I’m happy to retaste. If it started happening a lot, well, that’s a different story. I don’t want the 4,500 wines a year I taste to suddenly explode to 7,000!

That’s my official policy. Here are my thoughts. In 99 percent of requests for me to retaste, the producer suggests that it must have been a “bad bottle” that caused the middling score. (And by the way, producers complain about 87s! which by Wine Enthusiast definition is a Very Good wine. But that’s another story.) This phrase, “bad bottle,” has entered the lexicon and has come to be the default explanation for why a wine that should (based on certain assumed criteria) be quite exceptional turns out to be merely ordinary.

But what does “bad bottle” really mean? The first thing that comes to mind is that the bottle suffered during shipment, usually due to excessive heat in the delivery truck. That always is a possibility, and is why I always remind producers to CHECK THE 7-DAY WEATHER OUTLOOK BEFORE YOU SEND ME WINES! If there’s a heat wave coming up, wait until it’s over. And you don’t need a heat wave for the temperature to get very hot in the back of a steel delivery truck. This study shows how, when the outside temperature is only 82 degrees, the inside of a car with all the windows shut will quickly soar to 109 degrees.

What else can make for a “bad bottle”? I suppose there could be spoilage or bacterial issues, but these are actually very rare in California winemaking, and when I do encounter something that’s obviously spoiled (and if a second bottle concurs), I simply assign it 22 points, which means it’s buried, like nuclear waste, deep inside the bowels of Wine Enthusiast’s secure database.

Aside from that, when a producer suggests that a wine I gave an insufficient score to may have been a “bad bottle,” my feeling is that he’s clutching at straws (an old metaphor, whose first use may have been in this 1583 line from an English clergyman: “We do not as men redie to be drowned, catch at euery straw.”). The producer hopes that a resent bottle will miraculously soar in score, unlikely as this is to happen.

Incidentally, it’s of no interest to me that another critic gave the wine 94 points or whatever.

My experience with retasting is that the re-sent wine usually scores just about the same as the first time around. Sometimes, it scores lower (which surely defeats the producer’s purpose). But the take-home lesson is simply this: Producers love their own wines more than most of the rest of us do.


Thinking about tasting on a Friday morning

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I taste every wine the same procedural way, but I can’t say my excitement level is the same. Some wines are boring, boring, boring; nonetheless they must be formally reviewed. With boring wines, it’s hard to find 40 or 50 words to say, without adding gratuitous verbiage just for the heck of it. Sometimes I just want to say something like, “This wine would be okay in a paper cup at a barbecue” but that’s snarky. But in general when I use the word “barbecue” it means a wine you don’t have to think about. It’s not an insult, just a fact.

But some wines are interesting. These wines make me think. They make everything above my neck come alive, including my mind. This past week has been a good one for good wines. Among the best have been Viader 2010, Au Bon Climat 2010 Historic Vineyards Collection Bien Nacido Pinot Noir, Iron Horse 2004 Brut LD, Terra Valentine 2010 Yverdon Cabernet Sauvignon, Blackbird 2011 illustration, Clendenen 3008 Le Bon Climat Chardonnay, Stonestreet 2011 Upper Barn Chardonnay, Gary Farrell 2011 Lancel Creek Pinot Noir, Isabel Mondavi 2010 Pinot Noir and a 2003 LD Brut from J. These wines get my pulse racing. They’re why I fell in love in with the stuff in the first place.

More and more do I find myself seeking ethereal structural elements rather than more immediate and accessible taste sensations. You’d think that after all these years wine would be demystified for me, but exactly the opposite is true. It is a greater mystery than ever what makes one wine special when everything else is merely adequate. One struggles to put this sense of specialness into English. The numerical rating is the easiest way to signify specialness: A score of 97 or above instantly telegraphs it. But a written review accompanies the score; and while I (and many other critics) lament the fact that few people apparently read the review (we know this from anecdotal evidence), I still spend quite a bit of time crafting it. It may not matter to Joe Blow or Susie from Kokomo what I say, but it matters to me.

My greatest struggle–let’s get this out of the way–is with very good Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Some will disagree with the following statement, but I’ll make it anyway: At the top levels, these wines in California tend to be more alike than not. For better or for worse, we’ve reached a stage where everyone is basically growing their grapes and vinifying the wines the same way. Oh, someone may put 30% stems into the fermentation whereas someone else puts in 60% and a third winemaker destems everything, but really, that does not result in fundamentally, dramatically different wines. The parent material–the grapes themselves–determines everything: all else is simply tinkering around the edges.

The best way–the only way I know of to discern minor differences between wines made of the same variety is to let the wines breathe for as long as possible. Fresh out of the bottle all oaky Chards, Cabs and Pinots converge along the same horizon lines. There is, however, a limit to how long the critic can allow a wine to breathe before practical logistics set in. In my case, it’s longer than for many others: tasting at home, at my leisure, means I can take my time. It is only after time in the glass that Au Bon Climat’s Los Alamos Pinot Noir seriously begins to diverge from the winery’s Bien Nacido bottling, referred to above, the latter being considerably more powerful and superior (even though it costs only $5 more). This is why I would never want to taste in the wham-bam style some of my critic friends employ: 30 seconds or so per taste. How are you supposed to get to nuance, subtlety, the hidden stuff that emerges only with time? You can’t.

Have a great weekend!


Malbec in California? Mixed bag, emerging story

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I reviewed a very nice wine from Trefethen, the 2010 Dragon’s Tooth, a blend of 58% Malbec, 22% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Petit Verdot. (My full review and score will appear in an upcoming issue of Wine Enthusiast.)

In the paperwork accompanying the wine, Janet Trefethen had written of the winery’s “tinkering with Malbec for the past 12 years” and added, “Clearly, we are not alone in our interest in Malbec as Napa Valley plantings have tripled since the year 2000.”

That sent me to do my own research in the latest Grape Acreage Report, produced every year by the fine folks at the California Department of Food and Agriculture. According to it, prior to 2004 the state had 1,255 acres of Malbec. Last year, acreage had grown to 2,689–considerably more than double. Acreage of Cabernet Sauvignon in California, by contrast, increased in the same period from 71,472 acres to only 80,630–a much smaller rate of growth.

In Napa County, according to the Acreage Report, Malbec increased 70% in acreage between 2004-2012, from 230 acres to 392 acres. That’s still not a lot: There were just under 20,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in 2012. Still, this is evidence that vintners are taking a second look at Malbec and what it can bring to red wine.

Personally, I don’t think California Malbec, bottled on its own as a varietal, is very interesting. Dark, tannic and fruity, yes: compelling, rarely. My scores tend to be in the 86-88 point range. There are, as always, exceptions: Mt. Brave’s 2009, from Mount Veeder, is an awesome wine.

But as a blender, well,…Some wineries in Paso Robles (Bon Niche, for example) are tinkering with Malbec as a component, as are others in Napa: Michael Pozzan’s 2010 Marianna, a Bordeaux blend, is excellent, as is Mount Veeder’s 2009 Reserve Cabernet, blended with Malbec and Petit Verdot. That formula is hewed to at CADE, which adds a little Merlot to it, with their 2009 Napa Cuvée. Newton, meanwhile, replaces the Petit Verdot with Cabernet Franc in their delicious 2010 Unfiltered Merlot. Across the hill, Lancaster, in their 2009 Nicole’s, deepens the interest of their Cabernet Sauvignon with 25% Malbec, bringing a brooding, earthy quality. In all these cases, what the Malbec brings is depth, color, and a certain juicy softness despite the tannins.

Just yesterday morning, Peter Cargasacchi had asked, via Facebook, what the components of the 1961 Cheval Blanc had been. I went to Eddie Penning-Rowsell’s 1969 The Wines of Bordeaux where he wrote that the vineyard, in the Sixties, was “37% Merlot, 43 Bouchet and 20% Pressac (Malbec).” (“Bouchet” apparently was not the Alicante that we know in California, but an old name for Cabernet Franc.) Michael Broadbent, in The Great Vintage Wine Book, ranked that wine higher than Ausone of the same vintage, although not as highly as the five First Growths of the Médoc. The point, anyway, is that Malbec in Bordeaux and especially in the Right Bank historically was considered good enough to put into the cuvée, but I think it’s lost its luster in recent decades; after the devastating 1956 frost in Bordeaux, which killed much of it off, it was replaced with other grapes, in the belief perhaps that Malbec is a bit rustic. (That is precisely the word Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson use to describe it, in The World Atlas of Wine.)

It is rustic, although I certainly wouldn’t complain if you opened a bottle of Catena Zapata for me. I suspect that Malbec’s recent popularity in Napa Valley is as much due to the search for novelty (and playing off its popularity in Argentina) as anything else. Sometimes, winemakers “throw spaghetti at the wall” to see what sticks. I suppose you can’t blame them for not wanting to rest on their laurels, but sometimes I wonder where the line is between innovation that actually improves things, as opposed to change for its own sake.


“Tasting better than claret”

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One of the most pleasurable bottles of wine I ever drank was a 1978 Almaden Cabernet Sauvignon, with a Monterey County appellation. I’d just moved to San Francisco and was poor, renting an unheated apartment, in the dead of winter, in the Ingleside District, just below Top of the Hill Daly City (and if you know that neighborhood, you know that it’s a cold, foggy, working class, decidedly unglamorous place, then as well as now).

That wine was the first Cabernet Sauvignon I’d ever consciously purchased, as a varietal wine to try and understand the meaning of “Cabernet Sauvignon”. It probably cost all of $3. I remember sitting at my desk, on that chilly December night, shivering in my bones, but delighting in the velvet caress of the wine. I took notes, recording every facet of the tasting experience: the texture, the flavors, the body, the finish. (At that time, I did not know that Monterey Cabernet was under fierce attack by critics.) With that act, I had opened the door to becoming a true wine lover: more than opened it, I had marched proudly right through it, never to go back again.

These memories came rushing back to me when I read these words in Pete Townshend’s superb memoir, Who I Am (HarperCollins, 2012): Referring to a family vacation he’d taken in the early 1970s through the South of France, Pete writes: “When we shopped, Karen [his wife] and I bought huge flagon-baskets of cheap local wine–tasting better than claret…”.

Who knows what the Townshends drank? Probably at the time not even they knew. Perhaps it was a modest little Vin de Pays d’Oc. (A “flagon,” by the way, is a sort of pitcher or rustic bottle; the word, of Latin origin, is related to the Italian fiasco, the traditional straw-matted Chianti bottle.) Yet the memory of that wine, and the pleasure it gave him, remained in Pete Townshend’s mind for 40 years. (And how many of his memories of Lafite, Cristal or Dom perished in that time span?)

Is there any more proof that wine need not be famous and expensive in order to have such lasting impact? Here’s Hemingway, from A Moveable Feast: “As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

We know as little of what wine the narrator drank with those oysters as we know of the Townshends’ South of France wine. It could have been a minerally Muscadet-Sevre et Maine, or maybe even a simple Petit Chablis. Whatever it was, it likely was not costly. Yet it formed a sense impression on Hemingway that not only persisted, but was so brightly etched in his mind that he labored to express it in words.

The point, I guess, is that any wine, from anywhere, can make you happy. That is wine’s glory and distinction. It’s why I’ve always had an anti-elitist attitude. The point of view that only famous, acclaimed wines are worth anyone’s attention is repugnant to me. Of course, I have my own opinions, which I express freely in my job as a wine critic, but I never lose sight of the fact that they’re just opinions. Someone, somewhere, is going to fall in love with a wine I give 84 points to, and that’s just how it should be. Salud!

By the way: Was there a wine that stands out in your memory?


Why big is better (but just up to a point)

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In my job as a critic who gives point scores to wines, even after all these years I still think all the time about just why I give high scores to certain wines and not-so-high scores to most others.

Just what is it that, in my head, makes one Cabernet score 96 points and another “only” 89? It’s not that the latter Cab is bad. In fact, it may be better to drink (under certain circumstances) than the former. This is where a certain arbitrariness comes in–but it’s an arbitrariness with rules.

The main thing I look for in a wine is power. There are synonyms for power: concentration, intensity, volume, size, mass. (These are all nouns; their corresponding adjectives would be words like intense, massive, powerful, huge, etc.). The more mass a wine has, the more likely I am to give it a high score.

It can be tricky, though, determining the line between mass that’s pleasingly balanced, and mass that’s just power for its own sake. I hate to engage in meaningless metaphors, but I sometimes make analogies in my mind to power that’s controlled, as opposed to uncontrolled power. Imagine a large dam, like Hoover Dam or Boulder Dam. Controlled power is when the dam’s walls hold; the force of all that water can be used for productive ends, such as the manufacture of power to turn turbines. That’s controlled power. Imagine next that an earthquake destroys the dam’s foundations, resulting in a great flood that destroys forests and buildings and lives. That’s uncontrolled power.

I realize the comparison isn’t perfect, but that’s how it feels to me when I taste–the kind of sense impression the wine gives, from my first glimpse and sniff to the way it occupies my mouth. And quite often, I find the balance of power, especially in red wines, slipping away from control into abandonment and chaos.

This usually happens when a winery has two (or more) tiers of a wine, often expressed as a “regular” regional bottling and a “reserve.” Most often the reserve is a more concentrated version of the regular; that is, whatever characteristics the regular has (specific flavors, quality of tannins and oak, acidity, alcohol), the reserve will possess also, but in spades: everything will be more, greater, more evident. Sometimes, this works. Sometimes, it doesn’t. Sometimes, more is more; sometimes, more is less. Just because the wine goes from 60% new French oak to 100% (or 200%) new French oak doesn’t make it better; it can make the wine merely oakier, which in itself is not balance but imbalance. Same with fruity concentration. There are technical ways of increasing the extract in wine, but the winemaker has to be very careful with tinkering, because there’s a thin line between “massive fruit” (a term I might use positively) and a fruit bomb. Sometimes, I taste these reserve-style Cabs and I’ll give it a lower score than the regular Cab (even though it costs a lot more money) for the very reason that the winemaker tried too hard to impress with sheer force. There is something to be said for finesse, restraint, elegance: Just because the California sunshine and warmth allows you to make a fruit bomb doesn’t mean you ought to.

The final step in my thinking process when reviewing such wines is, inevitably, this: Granted that the wine tastes clumsy now, might it age? Part of the problem is that the way I was educated about wine. I read the likes of Professor Saintsbury and Eddie Penning-Rowsell and learned to appreciate that a fine Bordeaux that tastes hard and unyielding in youth might turn out silky and delicious if given enough time in the cellar. Well, that’s true, as far as it goes: But there’s a big difference between a young wine that’s clumsy because it’s hard and tannic, and one that’s clumsy because it’s a fruit bomb. I don’t think it’s right to assume that a wine will age simply because (a) it’s a Napa Valley Cab, (b) it costs triple digits and (c) it has more fruit than a roadside fruit stand in August.

If there’s a cautionary tale here, it’s to advise vintners that just because you can extract massive fruit doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Show some restraint, please. Not just in reds but in whites: I’ve seen too many perfectly fine Chardonnays ruined by massive applications of oak, or oak-like aromas and flavors. I’ve always defended California from the naysayers who claim it’s too hot here to grow fine wine (a patent absurdity), but it is getting difficult to defend these over-extracted, overly-oaked, too soft and too sweet wines that seem to be popping up even in the $30-$40 and up ultrapremium range.


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