Testarossa, Siduri, Williams Selyem, Merry Edwards, Failla, Bonaccorsi, La Follette, De Loach, Bjornstad, MacPhail–what do they (and many other California wineries) have in common?
Yes, they’re all Pinot Noir houses (in addition to whatever else they make), but they also play the interesting game of buying Pinot Noir fruit from multiple vineyards and bottling them with vineyard designations. For the wine taster, this presents unique opportunities, as well as challenges.
I suppose the allure of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti was such that it was only to be expected serious Pinot winemakers would want to try their hands at expressing the terroir of different vineyards. (I don’t mean wineries who own estate vineyards and produce different designations, like Lynmar, Donum, Rochioli or Talley, I mean wineries that buy their fruit. And yes, I know that some of them, like Williams Selyem, own their own vineyards.)
I don’t know who was first to play the multiple vineyard game in California. Williams Selyem certainly was an early adapter. Testarossa seems to have followed their model in the 1990s. The entrepreneurial aspect of the template is perhaps most perfectly expressed by Siduri. But over the last 2-3 years, more and more wineries are getting into the act.
The opportunity for the taster in these cases is twofold: (1) to see if you can detect the winemaker’s signature across multiple terroirs, and (2) to see if you can detect the vineyard’s terroir across multiple winemakers. This latter opportunity is true only of those vineyards large enough to sell fruit to multiple winemakers; among them would be Bien Nacido (among the largest) and smaller ones like Rosella’s, Precious Mountain, Olivet Lane and Fiddlestix. This isn’t as easy as it seems, though, because winemaker techniques can differ widely (some pick earlier than others) and because of micro-terroir differences in vineyard rows and blocks.
There also is the challenge of precisely how best to taste the Pinot Noirs of these multiple producers when they all arrive in one box. There is no one best way of tasting; each approach has its pros and cons. When Bob Cabral sends me 15 vineyard-designated Pinots, should I taste them in a single flight, or should I segregate them out by appellation and taste them against other Pinot Noirs from those appellations? I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule for this. My own preference is to taste them all together–to take a long, leisurely swim in the essence of Williams Selyem, as it were–but I can see where an argument could be made to taste Russian River against Russian River, Sonoma Coast against Sonoma Coast, and so on. It also would be instructive to do flights from the same vineyard from multiple producers, although tactically, this is more difficult for me to set up, as wines from the same vintage may arrive at widely different times across a calendar year or even two, depending on the winery’s release schedule.
I will say that tasting these multiple Pinots from the same producer is one of my most enjoyable tasks. Not every wine in the world is bursting with joy. Some, maybe most, are made grindingly, to pay the bills and fill the bellies of the masses. But when a California producer makes a range of Pinots from different vineyards, it’s because he wants to and loves to and can. This is the Happy Hunting Ground for the intrepid Pinot producer, and with each pop of the cork, I get to share in his joy.
Incidentally, it’s worth noting that few wineries play the multiple Cabernet game. Duckhorn and Nickel & Nickel do, Paul Hobbs a little, Chimney Rock’s getting into it as is a new player, PerryMoore, and there are others I could mention. But the multiple Cabernet thing is nowhere near as advanced as the multiple Pinot thing. I’m not sure why that is, but I don’t think it’s because “Pinot shows terroir more transparently than Cabernet Sauvignon,” which is the usual trope (and one moreover I’m not convinced of, not to end a sentence with a preposition). I think it has more to do with the availability of good Pinot fruit versus good Cabernet fruit. While there’s more than twice as much Cab planted than Pinot, there’s more Pinot going in by a long shot, which increases the availability of fruit. Great Cabernet for sale is restricted pretty much to some well-known Napa Valley vineyards, like Beckstoffer To Kalon and Stagecoach.
People who are seriously getting into wine–who’ve crossed over from being “mere” wine likers to wanting to know more about what they’re drinking–often start by becoming interested in technical aspects. What’s the residual sugar? How much new oak? How many cases were produced? What clones did you use? Winery representatives who pour at public events or who work in tasting rooms are used to these questions. I often feel sorry for them because they have to say things like “It’s a mix of Clone 667 and Pommard” about 400 times a day.
I went through this technical phase in the 1990s. I would ask the kinds of questions I thought a wine journalist should ask. How many buds per spur? What’s the rootstock? Do you pump over or punch down? But somehow my questions bored me, and so for the most part did the answers. I was thinking about wine rather than feeling it, and over-thinking it, at that, which was a barrier to understanding the essence of wine, which is: Not numbers, but heart, life, soul, essence.
At some point, I decided to jettison that part of me. It wasn’t a conscious decision, like waking up one day and thinking “I’ll never ask a technical question again.” And it isn’t that I no longer ask technical questions; I do, when there’s a reason to. I simply found myself asking less about technique and more about the winemaker’s motives, perspectives, aspirations and understanding. Not “Is the wine fined or filtered” but What is the winemaker trying to do? What’s her vision, her ideal, her dream? Why that, and not something else? How has she evolved over the years? How does she reconcile the natural tension between the commercial aspects of her job and the artistic ones? How does she perceive her wine as an expression of its terroir? These are not technical questions; they are inquiries into the winemaker’s thought processes and practices, and their answers shed more light, I think, on why the wine is the way it is than any laboratory analysis. Besides, I think my readers, who always are foremost in my mind, would rather read about these things, and not numbers.
Writers obsessed with technique suffer from “paralysis by analysis,” which Wikipedia defines as “over-analyzing (or over-thinking) a situation, or citing sources, so that a decision or action is never taken, in effect paralyzing the outcome.” It also is the title of a blog Terry Theise wrote last week in the Huffington Post. While I’ve had my differences with Terry, primarily over his disdain for California wines, here he’s right on when he says “I’ve reached a place in my drinking career where I find…analytical stats otiose.” He quotes a German winemaker who once told him, “You don’t need these [numbers] anymore, Terry. Analyses are for beginners.”
Now, many wine drinkers are beginners, of course, as Terry rightly points out, and he observes that it would be “peevish of me to deny them the understanding they seek.” Yet he lets us know that “technical minutiae” are not what he wants to write about, nor are they the things wine lovers ought to obsess over. “If you’re stuck in the ‘how,’” Terry writes, with epigrammatic lucidity, “you’ll have a rough time finding your way to the ‘what.’”
What is the “what”? It is what the wine really is: its meaning in this world. That meaning need not be grandiose; it can be ordinary. Whatever it is, it can be written about–and it can be inferred by others. The “what” is, of course, what every wine writer ultimately wants to capture. It also is what true wine connoisseurs seek, yet it will never be obtained by statistics. Many people who taste wine at public events and in tasting rooms seem insecure, and asking a technical question is a form of compensation for their fear of appearing ignorant–it makes them look like they know what they’re talking about (to themselves, to the pourer and, often, to the others in their group). (By the way, writers can feel insecure, too, especially when talking with winemakers.) But really, technical information doesn’t advance the amateur’s understanding of wine. If anything, it impedes it–paralysis by analysis.
There are lots of tasting lineups that make sense in reviewing wine, i.e. there’s not just one way of doing it. If Bob Cabral sends me 15 Pinot Noirs from all over Northern California, I could taste them against one another—or I could save the Russian Rivers, for example, to taste against other Russian Rivers (which is how he once told me he prefers) and leave the Sonoma Coasts, etc. for another day.
This above situation (and my mind is far from made up on it) assumes that one should only taste Pinot Noirs with other Pinot Noirs (or perhaps the rare Meunier), Cabernets with other Cabs, Chards with other Chards, and so on. But where is this written in stone? If you taste blind, it can be fantastically instructive to mix up the varieties in a flight. You can see how “Cabernet-ish” that Syrah actually is, which might be instructive information to communicate to readers, which is, after all, the whole point of what I do.
The question is, what is to be gained with tasting like with like, and what is to be lost? Or, to put it the other way, what are the relative advantages and disadvantages of reviewing a mixed flight? Right off the bat, I can hear the terroirists beating their breasts in protestation that the purpose of tasting is to discover minute distinctions between wines of the same variety that must be due to terroir (especially if they’re from the same winery and were made with more or less identical production methods).
This may be true, but it’s not clear that it’s of help to consumers, who after all are unconcerned with the nuances of terroir, but just want a clear, concise description of a wine they might buy. I can’t tell you how consciousness of my duty to the consumer informs my every decision regarding tasting. There are two audiences a professional taster is playing to: the consumer, or the somm/winemaker/collector crowd who love to wade into the tall grass of terroir distinctions, often with a sense of Gotcha! or moral superiority. At the magazine I previously worked for (a long time ago), I saw enough of that pretentiousness to last me a lifetime.
I do think that tasters are best off tasting the same varieties against each other, although this obviously depends on what their samples are. If you’re a blogger getting the odd sherry, Italian Pinot Grigio, Languedoc and Napa Cabernet, I believe your reviews will be of limited value. You can tell readers what your hedonistic impressions are, but offer them little of the knowledge of the winery or vineyard, or of how that year’s vintage compares to previous years. In this, I’m fortunate. I get a lot of wine every year, which allows me to shape my tastings pretty much how I like to.
The important thing in tasting is experience. The knowledge one acquires over many years makes one a better taster: more informed, better able to put things into perspective and break down the barriers. The longer I do this, the easier it gets: I feel like I can capture the wine’s essence in a few words. That’s what readers are looking for, isn’t it? Haiku, not a ballad, that tells the story at its essential elegance.
READERS: I’m still buried in meetings at Wine Enthusiast for our annual winter conference. Please enjoy this post, originally published in July, 2008.
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There’s been a lot of chatter out there lately about the 100 point system. (Even my colleague at Wine Enthusiast, Paul Gregutt, has written skeptically about it.) While I might have thought this was a bit of a dead horse, the issue does shed light on, not just how some of us rate wine, but how we think about wine.
As a person of interest at Ground Zero of the 100-point scoring system, I’d like to offer my thoughts. What I meant by the debate shedding light on how we think about wine is this: Wine is something that people rank (consciously or not) on a qualitative basis. Other things we rank are films, automobiles and politicians. Things we don’t tend to rank are those we take for granted. Probably no one ranks paper clips.
We know all wine isn’t the same and even if we’re not wine drinkers we’re aware that some wines are better and more expensive than others. Once you get into the ranking game, you’re opening the door for experts to come in and decide what’s best, what’s better, and what’s not so good.
So the concept of wine critiquing works for me. As to how it’s done, it’s important to keep in mind that people want visual symbols to reference, not just text. A few years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle stopped using visual symbols in their wine reviews and went to text only. Readers revolted, and the paper had to restore the icons.
I guess there’s fundamentally no difference between a numerical score and puffs, stars, glasses or any other symbol, and so I can’t make an argument on logical grounds that the 100-point system is inherently better. I can only say why it works for me at Wine Enthusiast.
To begin with, it’s not really a 100-point system, it’s a 20-point system. We only publish wines with a rating of 80 or above. Everything else is given a code number, “22,” and consigned to the database’s bowels, where the public will never see them.
Since I work with a 20-point system, not a 100-point one, I don’t have to defend the extraordinary practice of giving a 67 to something instead of a 66 or a 68 or for that matter a 71. How you can slice the baloney that thin is a mystery to me and a little spurious.
So what’s the difference, you ask, between 82 and 83, or 91 or 92? It’s something you feel in your bones, head and heart. The bones are your first instinct. The head is your considered opinion based on further tasting and reflection, and the heart is when you’re sure you’re right and have nothing to be ashamed or afraid of, but can hold your head high and say, “This is what I believe.”
All this raises profound questions, which may be summed up by Alder Yarrow’s query at his blog, a few days ago: When it comes to wine critics, “whose perceptions and emotions do we trust?”
I’m not sure that this period of the public’s reliance on critics will be seen kindly by future generations (assuming there are any). We may one day be viewed as the equivalent of soothsayers or snake charmers or seers who read the entrails of beasts. But for now, wine critics are a vital part of the industry, along with the 100-point system. As for the who-do-you-trust part, I’ll leave that for others to decide.
Last Friday’s Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting was a big deal. The crème de la crème of San Francisco’s wino high society turned out, and even in a city where “Friday casual” tends to be seven days a week, there was enough Armani to gag a Milan runway.
It’s a fun tasting, although the most famous Growths (Margaux, Lafite, Latour, Mouton, Haut-Brion, Petrus, Cheval Blanc, Ausone) never seem to come. I guess they don’t have to market their wares. But everybody else does, apparently.
I don’t even attempt to taste everything. It’s simply not possible, unless you power-taste your way through (which some people do, although it’s a pointless exercise, IMHO). Instead, I selectively taste. How to decide what to selectively taste? Ask others who know more than you do! I spotted the immortal Fred Dame, who immediately steered me to a pair of Right Banks, La Conseillante (Pomerol) and Figeac (Saint-Emilion). The former was amazing: fat, soft, unctuous, while the latter showed its composition of one-third Cabernet Sauvignon with hard tannins.
By the way, the French hate it when we American reporters ask them what the blend is. They expect the question, they know it’s coming, and they’ll rattle off the answer, but you can see their inner eyebrows rising to the tops of their têtes in exasperation, as if to say: What is wrong with these people? One is supposed to look for terroir, not burden oneself with such trivial pursuits as the percentage of this or that variety. Sometimes, I ask the pourers anyway, but I don’t like to—they make me feel guilty and provincial. (Or do I do that to myself?)
Then I ran into an old acquaintance, Jean-Noel de Formeaux du Sartel, the proprietor of Chateau Potelle, who reminded me that my story on him, back around 1990, had been the first I ever wrote for the Wine Spectator, when I worked there. Jean-Noel—“Johnny Christmas”—has had a lot of adventures lately, with some health issues and a trek through India to rediscover the wellsprings of his being. He insisted on my tasting Leoville-Poyferré, the Saint-Julien, which I found a little rustic, and Brainaire-Ducru, another Saint-Julien, whose rôti fruit, cocoa and meat flavors were so good, I wrote, “I would buy this.” I tasted also the Pomerol Clinet (“shows the power of the Merlot”), Haut-Bailly, filled with Pessac-Leognan stones and tannins, and a four or five others. Then I headed over to the Pauillac table to compare the two Pichons, Longueville and Lalande.
There I met another old friend, Gary Cowan, sales manager at Fine Wines International and also at Vineyard 7 & 8, who was doing the same thing. I think we agreed that the Lalande was more beautiful and approachable now—more feminine?–than the Longueville, whose tannins were like a Denver Boot on the mouth.
Wine chit-chat at these events is inevitable, but can be tiresome. A guy who knew who I was (I never did get his name) wanted to talk about precisely when a particular wine’s tannins kicked in. Was it mid-palate, 60%, or what? I don’t like to be rude to anyone, but that’s a situation I had to extricate myself from quickly, so I made some lame excuse and crawled away. That’s when a cool-looking dude with spiky hair introduced himself to me.
“Hi, I’m Josiah,” he said. That would be the exquisitely-named Josiah Baldivino, head sommelier at Michael Mina San Francisco, whom I’d spoken with on the phone earlier that day. He was with his lovely wife, Stevie. We talked about the evolving role of the somm, a subject of endless fascination for all three of us, so much so that we agreed to take it up again in the near future.
The 2010 Bordeaux vintage has generated a lot of buzz. I’m not a Bordeaux critic, so I’m not making any grand, informed statements, but I’d love to have a cellarful of any of the wines I tasted. Where we can only surmise at the ageworthiness of a great Napa Cab, these 2010 Bordeaux are stone cold guarantees. I don’t think that makes them better, just different. Young Napa is flamboyance, flash and instant bedazzlement. Young Bordeaux lets you know it won’t show you anything anytime soon.
Josiah and Stevie
People sometimes ask me if it’s hard to taste wine every day, after so many years of doing it. Don’t I get tired, or bored, or burned out?
The answer is NO! In CAPS. Especially when it’s a great flight.
Oh, I guess plowing my way through 12 or 15 under-$10 Chardonnays has its elements of tedium. (And if this were an email I’d include a little smiley-face emoticon : > with that statement.) But let me tell you about the pleasures of going through a range of fantastic wines.
Like the ones I did yesterday. A very high-level flight of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons. Included were the following: PerryMore 2008 Stagecoach, Paradii, Beckstoffer To Kalon, Beckstoffer Dr. Crane and regular Napa Valley; Altvs 2009 (the “v” is not a typo. I guess it’s Bill Foley’s inner Roman coming out); three Raymond 2009 “District Collections,” St. Helena, Calistoga and Oakville; also Raymond’s 2009 “Generations. I threw in a Kunde 2010 from Sonoma Valley (at $25, the bargain of the lot) “just to see.” More on this in a moment.
My tasting was, of course, single-blind (which I define as knowing generally what’s in the lineup, but not knowing which bottle is which. We can argue ‘til the cows come home what the best way of tasting is. For me, this approach is what I’m used to, and so it works for me.) Now, right off the bat, I admit to starting out with a heightened sense of excitement. These are all well-regarded properties and/or vineyards, Raymond is in the process of being reinvigorated, and this is, after all, Napa Valley Cabernet, a place and variety for which (you might know) I have some affection. So this was a gratifying tasting for me.
“Happy families are all alike,” Tolstoy famously wrote, and I should say, of happy Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, that they are all alike. Lest readers begin barraging me with emails explaining how different Atlas Peak is from Calistoga, let me explain myself. A good Napa Valley Cabernet makes you reach for the Thesaurus for synonyms for “delicious.” I’m finding a lot of chocolate in my Napa Cabs these days, which probably is some alchemical synthesis of things in the berries and contributions from oak; but Cabernet’s classic black currants and, often as not, crème de cassis are there, and what’s not to like about those flavors? So, when I first attack my flight, my mind and palate are simply dazzled by this virtuoso display of richness.
They’re not all the same, though. Once the immediate dazzlement is over, then we get down to the serious business of finding differences. One wine’s tannins are firmer, another’s more pliant. One wine turns out to be a little thinner after it’s been in the glass for a while—but maybe that makes it more elegant? At any rate, you can see how much fun it can be to frolic among the glasses while all the while coming up with a conceptualization that’s accurate enough to send to the magazine’s database, on its way to being published: and let’s not forget associating a score with that description. In this way, the hours fly by, while I do my thing (with Gus nearby) and the outside world ceases to exist, for all I know or care.
Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, at the level of yesterday’s flight, is very great. If you don’t like that style, fine. Most of us do. Oh, that Kunde? Remarkable. Held its own right alongside the others, at a fraction of the price. I’d happily drink it anytime, with the best Cabernet food you can find. Was it just a shade less rich? Yes. But so balanced, so refined, and made in such good taste. In a way, California can be prouder of producing a great $25 wine like that, than of producing triple-digit cult idols. But that’s what makes California so cool: everything from $7 clean, everyday wines from Freddie Franzia to these wonderful premium varieties in the $15-$25 range to the spectacular heights of Napa Cabernet. I love this state!