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A Thursday afternoon Pinot Noir tasting

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I did a small tasting session yesterday up at Jackson Family Wines for some folks and, as it was highly informative, I thought I’d share some of the findings here.

Pinot

All the wines were 2012 Pinot Noirs. Here was the lineup:

Foxen Fe Ciega

Siduri Clos Pepe

Domaine de la Côte, Bloom’s Field

Foxen La Encantada

Cambria Julia’s

Loring Cargasacchi

Brewer-Clifton 3D

Lutum Sanford & Benedict

Brewer-Clifton Machado.

You’ll notice that all the wines were Santa Rita Hills except for the Cambria. I thought it would be nice if we included the Julia’s (a wine we at Jackson know well) to see if we could detect it and also if it showed a “Santa Maria Valley” character as opposed to a “Santa Rita Hills” character. After all, the two appellations have nearly identical climates, although the soils are different, and are separated only by the 101 Freeway and a little bit of latitude.

My top wines easily were the two Brewer-Cliftons, the two Foxens and the Loring. All showed what I think of as the fleshiness I want in a great California Pinot Noir: rich, ripe, almost flamboyant fruit, great tannins and acidity, enormous complexity, and deliciousness right out of the bottle yet with the capacity to age. Interestingly, all five were at least 14% alcohol by volume. By contrast, the wine with the least alcohol, the Domaine de la Côte, at 12.5%, was my least preferred wine.

The tasting was blind, and all of us thought the Bloom’s Field was dominated by oak. Even though the tech notes say there was zero percent new oak, still, the wine was aged in barrel for 20 months, and the vanilla and char were overwhelming. I think the problem was that the wine simply didn’t have the power to support the extracted wood. It’s fine to aim for a low alcohol wine, but not at the cost of trading away richness and ripeness. This is California, not Burgundy. If you take ripeness away from our Pinot Noirs, there’s not much else that remains.

The Lutum, which was made by Gavin Chanin, was an interesting wine, but even though the alcohol was offfically 13.7% I found it a bit hot and rustic. I think, concerning these lowish alcohol levels, that we really have to resolve this discussion about how to keep Pinot Noir “balanced” and yet retain its opulence. Balance for the sake of balance seems silly to me, if by “balance” you mean simply alcohol below 14%. I don’t think “balance” is determined by a number. Shouldn’t deliciousness and opulence be a part of the equation?

Incidentally, the four Foxen and B-C wines were fabulous, but aside from neither of them having an obsession with alcohol levels, they were separated by the fact that Greg Brewer loves whole cluster fermentation whereas Billy Wathan destemmed all his berries. And yet their wines were magnificent, stunning and, yes, balanced. This shows that the degree of whole cluster is irrelevant, provided, of course, that those stems are lignified if you do include them.

Did I identify the Julia’s? No. Mea culpa. It was right in the middle, score-wise.

Anyhow, I can think of worse ways to spend eternity than tasting Pinot Noir and talking about it! Salud, and have a great weekend.


An upcoming retrospective, and an oldtime SF restaurant

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Mostly the advantages of having been around the wine industry for a long time outweigh the disadvantages. And this is almost always a reflection of the wonderful personal relationships I’ve formed with winemakers over the years.

Two cases in point. I’m putting together a little in-house tasting of Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noirs at Jackson Family Wines—nothing big, just eight wines for a few interested people. Now, there are many dozens of wineries in that appellation, so when it came time to decide whom to include, it was obvious: Old friends who make great wine. The first folks who came to mind were the inestimable Greg Brewer (Brewer-Clifton, Melville, others), who always was so kind to me whenever I visited the region. In fact, it was Greg, many years ago, who took me on my first tour. I also turned to the one and only Peter Cargasacchi, who I’m happy to say is a friend, both of the Facebook variety and in this, the real world we physically inhabit. I reached out, as well, to old friends like Adam Lee (Siduri) and Dick Doré (Foxen). Although neither lives nor works in Santa Rita Hills, they both make killer wines from there.

The second case is that of Richard Arrowood. For most of you, he needs no introduction. Richard is one of the most historic winemakers in California. From my second book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff: “[Richard] is the man who put Chateau St. Jean on the map in the 1970s with a series of brilliantly crafted single-vineyard Chardonnays…”. He’s also been mentor to a generation of California winemakers. Richard has decided to put together a retrospective of his fifty years making wine, at a small event to be held this March, and I am lucky enough to be invited. Richard will be pouring, among other things, the oldest St. Jean Cabs and Zins, plus some of his specialty late-harvest Rieslings and Gewurzes. Also his Arrowood wines from the 1980s on. What a treat, and I’ll get to see my friend, Virginie Boone, from Wine Enthusiast, whom I don’t see as often as I’d like.

These retrospectives are rare enough; you don’t come across them everyday. So when a great one beckons, you go! I still remember some of the best ones I’ve been to. Two stand out in my mind: Beaulieu’s vertical of every Georges de Latour Private Reserve ever, and a retrospective of Freemark Abbey Cabernets. I bet that this upcoming Arrowood will be equally memorable.

* * *

Had lunch yesterday, for the first time in many years, at venerable old Tadich Grill, on California Street in the FiDi. This place dates back to Gold Rush times, and is said to be the third-oldest restaurant in America. With its dark wood paneling and narrow aisles, you can practically breathe the ghosts of San Francisco’s past. (I swear I saw Sam Spade ducking around a corner.) Seafood is the specialty. We split the big seafood platter, and I had a bowl of Manhattan clam chowder. I don’t know that people go to Tadich for the food, which is good and comfy but, let’s face it, a little retro (shrimp Louie, oysters Rockefeller, cioppino). But they certainly go for the atmosphere. Tadich is your classic power lunch spot. The Stars and Trader Vic’s come and go in San Francisco, earthquakes occasionally rattle everyone’s nerves, but through it all, Tadich abides. May it be always so.


A tasting of 1974 wines (and one 1944)

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Went to a very interesting tasting yesterday. It was a small private affair, held at the Restaurant at Wente, a chic place tucked into the southern foothills of the Livermore Valley. The subject of the tasting was 1974 Cabernet Sauvignon.

Now, anyone familiar with the modern history of wine in California knows that that vintage was a very famous one. Bob Thompson (1979) called it “strong, showy,” and added, “May be early maturing.” Sadly, for him—happily, for us–he was wrong. Charlie Olken (1980) was nearer the mark. “The best are dark, concentrated, tannic and potentially long-lived.” He even predicted the best “may last until the next century.” As indeed they have.

When tasting older wines like these, which were all 40 years of age, quite a bit of subjectivity rises to the surface. In general, most of the fruit has faded away, and turned into drier, secondary or tertiary notes. Any fatal flaws that were initially present in the wine, such as brett, overripe grapes or excessive tannins, rise to the surface. Then too, in a group such as the one that sponsored the tasting (which was open, not blind), familiarity with these wines is very high, which also raises expectations: The tasters, most of whom are collectors with vast cellars (indeed, it was they who furnished the wines), have a certain emotional attitude invested in their showing well. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I bring it up only in order to suggest that I, personally, was perhaps a little more objective in my appraisal.

Overall, the tasting was remarkable. Not a single one of the wines was dead—pretty astonishing considering their age. Here are some brief notes:

ALL 1974s:

Heitz Martha’s Vineyard. Getting a little threadbare. The alcohol is showing through. Toast, caramel, loads of sweet blackberry jam, but getting tired and starting a downhill slide. Score: 89.

Mount Eden. Holding up well. Good, strong bouquet: blackcurrants, dried fruits, toast, spice. Hard to believe it’s 40 years old. Still, it’s beginning to unravel. Score: 90.

Ridge Monte Bello. A little funky. Tannins strong. Lots of blackberries and currants. A bit rustic and tired. But it held up well in the glass with some fruit gradually sweetening. Score: 89.

Villa Mt. Eden. Delicate. Earthy-tobacco. Oodles of cherries and blackberries. Very tasty—long sweet finish. Definitely in a tertiary stage, but clean and drinkable. As it breathes it opens up. Score: 92.

Mayacamas. Turning old. Cassis and blackcurrants. In the mouth, incredibly sweet and delicate, yet with California power and the ripeness of the vintage. Really classic. Will continue to evolve. Score: 94.

Conn Creek. Lots of sweet blackberry, mocha, spice. Insanely rich. Heady. Getting old, but still fresh, clean, muscular. Finish is sweet, strong, spicy. A great wine. Score: 96.

Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill. Firmer, with a hard foundation of stony mineral. Tons of blackberries and blackcurrants. Very high quality and still a ways to go. Really top quality. Heady and voluptuous. This was the wine of the flight. Scote: 97.

We also had, for starters, some older white wines:

1944 Wente Brothers Dry Semillon. Browning color. Sherried aroma, slightly maderized but pleasant: nutty, toffee. Very dry, good acidity, clean, but over the hill. Still, this wine is 70 years old!!!! Score: 88.

1974 Heitz Chardonnay. Golden-brown color. Not much going on in the nose. In the mouth, remarkably fresh and lively. Good acidity, dry, clean. “Old Chardonnay.” Fruit largely gone, but a good honeyed sweeteness. Score: 88.

1974 Phelps Syrah (Wheeler Vineyard). This Napa Valley bottling is said to be the first varietally-labeled Syrah in the U.S. Pale and translucent in color, with a brick color at the rim. Pretty bouquet: spices, dried mushrooms, raspberries. Complex, dry, good acidity. Slightly maderized. An interesting wine. Score: 90.

1974 Mount Eden Pinot Noir. Beautiful color: rich robe, still some depth of ruby-garnet in the center. Complex, lovely, delicate. Bone dry, but lots of sweet raspberry fruit. Clearly old, but attractive. Turns slightly brittle and dried-leafy on the finish. Score: 91.

I don’t expect to come across any of these wines again in my life, so this was a very special treat!


My conversation with a guy in a tasting room

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What do you do when you’re tasting wine with a novice in a tasting room, and there are points you want to make—and the other person says something about the wine that you don’t understand?

Over the weekend I worked a shift at the Murphy-Goode tasting room, the second time I ever did that (the first was last month, at Kendall-Jackson), and I found there’s a very typical kind of taster: perhaps a little younger, enthusiastic, friendly, curious, there to learn about wine, open-minded in a way that older folks may not be. My approach is, I’m not going to do a hard sell. I’m not going to lecture them with some pre-set spiel. I’m going to find out where their interests lie—what direction of thought their mind is going in—what sorts of things they might want to learn more about. And then I’ll take it from there.

So, with this one guy, we were tasting a reserve Zinfandel, and we had it following the winery’s other tiers of Zin, Liar’s Dice and Snake Eyes. These three tiers are absolutely rational in terms of price and quality (which you can’t always say about tiers). I had joked with the guy (he was a firefighter), “I’m going to test you after we try the three Zins, and I’ll ask you how you perceive the reserve versus the other wines.” After we tasted the reserve, I asked him again to compare it to the first two. He was silent for a moment, thinking, and then he said, “The reserve is more consistent.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant, because “consistent” isn’t a word I normally use to describe a wine. It’s more of a term I’d use to describe a wine that’s pretty much the same year in and year out from the winery (in which case, consistency is a good thing). But I don’t know I’d call an individual glass of wine “consistent.”

So I asked him what he meant, and he said, “Well, with the other wines, the flavors were kind of all over the place, but this one is more consistent.” And I thought to myself, “You know, it’s not how I would phrase it, but I kind of see what he means.” That made me really happy: the guy wasn’t using language that I’d use, but he was talking about the wine, describing it, in a way that perhaps was beyond his usual comfort zone.

I had wanted to point out that the wine was more full-bodied, richer and more complex than the other wines—more multi-layered. But I didn’t want to step on his remark: I wanted to understand how what he meant by “consistent” might actually be the same thing I meant by “more complex.” So I told him, “I know! You’re exactly right. It is more consistent.”

Now, in a certain sense, that was not an entirely true statement, because, as I said, “consistent” is not an adjective I would use under those circumstances. But I thought I knew what he meant by it, and what he meant was the same thing I meant, which was the thing I was trying to point out that actually made it a better Zinfandel, which justified its higher price.

I wondered where to go from there (I’m basically winging it). I didn’t think he wanted a whole lot of blah blah technical non-sequitors from me. And, having done this only twice, I don’t really have what you can call a “tasting room approach” (if there is one). So I said, “Do you know, achieving that sort of consistency is one of the hardest things to do for the winemaker?” Since he knew what he meant by consistency (and it was clear he really liked the wine), I figured we could build on his understanding of it by me describing some of the steps that go into making a very good wine: the terroir of the vineyard, the age of the vines, controlling the yield, and so on. It’s not an accident that a wine is “consistent.” I could tell he was really into it by now. After a while, when he went away, he thanked me, with a big smile on his face. He had learned, not only that different wines made from the exact same grape variety can vary in quality, but why, and that is something he’ll carry with him for the rest of his life.


I’m the new “go with” wine guy

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I went on a “go with” yesterday. That is (as I just learned) the jargon for a salesperson who calls on an account and brings “someone else” (like me) with him. In this case, I’m the “famous former wine critic” whom most of the accounts have heard of, and whose ratings might even appear on their shelf talkers; apparently, some of them at least like meeting me—a name they previously knew only in print, only now it’s in the flesh.

What I, and other critics like me, used to do is so mystical and mythical to these guys. Many of their questions are basic: How do you assign a numerical rating? What’s the difference between 89 (death) and 90 (glory)? How exactly do you taste? It’s a reflection of the secrecy of so many famous critics that even hard-core industry veterans don’t understand. I don’t think I, personally, am guilty of obfuscation, since in this blog I’ve explained every detail of how I did everything, over and over, for more than six years. But in all objectivity, I don’t think most other critics have been similarly straightforward, and that’s a shame.

I’ve always said I like the sales and marketing aspect of this business. The sales guys, in particular, fascinated me. These road warriors are out there every day, doing battle with on- or off-premise wine buyers who have heard it all, seen it all, done it all. So in other words, you have two battle-hardened guys, sellers and buyers, meeting on the playing field, and may the best man win.

One of the reasons why I took this job at Jackson Family Wines was, obviously, because it’s a great company, with the greatest portfolio of family-owned wines in California, maybe in all the world, IMHO. It was easy for me, in the comfort of my own home, to review their wines and form impressions of Stonestreet, Cambria, Edmeades, Hartford, Cardinale and all the rest, and know in my mind how good they were.

But the seller-buyer relationship is totally different, as I learned up close and personal yesterday. The sales guy I teamed with, Charlie, and I covered 150 miles of Bay Area freeways going from account to account at upscale wine stores. One thing I learned: you have to be very patient at dealing with traffic and driving long distances if you’re going to do sales! Another thing: each account is different. I mean, in terms of their personalities. One guy will be all business: no small talk here. Another might be just the opposite. One of our calls was a guy who majored in history at U.C. Berkeley. I asked him what his specialty was, and he said Post World War II Italy. Well, I’m a WWII freak, and the book I’m currently reading is a biography of Galleazo Ciano, Italy’s foreign minister during the war, and Mussolini’s son-in-law to boot: Ciano’s diaries (which I have), smuggled out of Italy during the war despite the Gestapo’s attempts to find them, did much to shed light—damaging and embarrassing light—on the Hitler-Mussolini relationship. Anyhow, that led to a long conversation between me and the sales guy that had nothing to do with wine—although we did return to that subject. The point I’m trying to make is that I’ve always valued relationships in this industry, and it’s fascinating to meet such a varied range of people with so many different interests and points of view.

I valued yesterday’s experience. It enriched my life, and helps me more deeply understand this complex thing we call the wine industry—such a multi-faceted thing, so driven by human personality. When I was a critic, I lived in a sort of bubble. I’m not complaining: it was a very pleasant bubble. But a bubble nonetheless. I had the time of my life, but I eventually came to believe that there was more to life, and to me and my career, than being a wine critic. I’m extraordinarily grateful for those years. At the same time, I’m also thoroughly ensconced in, and enjoying, this, my newest adventure.


The soft bigotry of tasting inexpensive wine

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If wine tasters could be categorized into political categories, I guess you’d call me a liberal. By that, I mean that all wines have the right to be taken seriously, in terms of their own aspirations and self-identity. No wine should be automatically dismissed because it’s inexpensive. As in the case of Justice, the only fair way to evaluate a wine is to do it blind.

BlindJustice

This is why I never did turn into a snob, even after 25 years in the trenches as a wine critic. Sure, I could appreciate Harlan, or Colgin or Screaming Eagle, and when I rated them, it was usually with high scores. And while I didn’t formally review non-California wines, for the better part of two decades I tasted every one of the world’s most valuable wines, from Romanée-Conti and Grange Hermitage to Guigal’s LaLas, Petrus and the First Growths. I completely understood what it took to produce wines of that quality and complexity, and I rewarded them accordingly.

But I always could also appreciate a good, affordable wine. I never shuddered just because something was produced in high volume, or because it wasn’t an elite, estate-bottled wine. That didn’t bother me, anymore than it bothers me that some of my neighbors in Oakland are rich while others are struggling and poor. I just felt you have to take everyone for what they are. And that’s how I feel about wine.

My career as a critic was shaped by this attitude. It was reinforced by the basic philosophy of Wine Enthusiast. The magazine could have gone in a direction of elitism, the way the competition did, but very early on the decision was taken to make it more of a “people’s” magazine than one for collectors. This is a tricky game to play if you hope to be taken seriously by wine buffs. On the one hand, you don’t want to present yourself as ignorant and pedestrian, devoid of the taste and discernment required to appreciate great wine. On the other hand, you don’t want “ordinary” wine drinkers, whom you respect, to feel left out of the conversation. You want to appeal to both the aspirational crowd and the folks who are just looking for a nice $12 wine without turning  off either side.

If I had any doubts about my approach, they were dispelled through blind tasting. There were times, in large flights, I preferred a $25 wine to a $250 wine. At first, that was a humbling, almost embarrassing experience. But after a while, I grew to expect it. It was almost a badge of honor, because it proved that I hadn’t been mesmerized by labels, or reputations, or whatever trend was then in vogue. Some of my readers will know exactly what I mean when I remind them that some very famous “palates” have been hoisted on their own petards through blind tasting, when what they said was contradicted by what they actually found.

If I had to choose between drinking only expensive wine or inexpensive wine for the rest of my life, I’d choose the former. Fortunately, I don’t have to. If I had a magic wand, I’d wave it around and try to change the attitude of elitists who will only drink this, or that, or something else, and tell everyone else to do the same. That’s what the writer Michael Gerson calls “the soft bigotry of expectations,” which means: You’ve made up your mind about the wine before you even taste it.


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