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A California critic tastes Saint-Emilion

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My first thought after going to the big Grands Crus Classés Saint-Emilion tasting yesterday in San Francisco was: Wow, someone secretly put California wines into bottles with St.-Emilion labels.

No one had, of course. But many of the wines were so ripe and fruity, so extracted and oaky, and so high in alcohol, they might have come from Paso Robles, Napa Valley or Sonoma Valley.

Nothing wrong with such wines, of course. I give them good scores all the time. But I was hoping for something different and distinctly non-Californian. I didn’t find it, for the most part.

I know that St.-Emilion traditionally makes two kinds of wines. Michael Broadbent decades ago described these as a “Côtes” style of “deepish but quick-maturing wines, loose-knit, sweeter on the bouquet and palate,” and a “Graves” style “with hint[s] of iron/earth.” Almost everything I tasted seemed more like that Côtes style.

The Merlot is king in St.-Emilion, which accounts perhaps for the wines’ approachability. Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson, in their new The World Atlas Of Wine, praise “the solid tastiness of St.-Emilion,” wines that “grow almost sweet as they mature.”

Still, the wines were much more Californian than I had thought they’d be. And I wasn’t the only one with that impression. All the friends I talked to–other critics, merchants, marketers–felt the same way. I heard the word “approachable” over and over; also, a more troubling term: “almost overripe.” The vintage I tasted was 2009, which has an outstanding reputation; my Wine Enthusiast colleague in Bordeaux, Roger Voss, rated it 96 points. But I have to say I was, not exactly disappointed, but surprised.

How to account for this ultra-ripe style? Three factors: (1) the Parker influence, with his penchant for ripe, big wines, (2) global warming, which seems to be impacting Bordeaux more than California, and (3) the influence of a cadre of flying consultants, who are bringing about an international style all over the world. An example of this is the 2009 Chateau Fleur Cardinale, whose alcohol level is 15%. “Californian,” I immediately wrote in my notes. “Rich, lush and forward.” It might have been from Rutherford.

Don’t get me wrong, these California-style St.-Emilions still are very good wines. I gave most of them scores in the 88-91 range. But, like I said, I found their internationalism troubling.

Here, however, were my top-scoring wines. They seemed to have been made in a more old-fashioned way. (All are 2009s.) Chateau La Commanderie struck me for its fine, distinguished mouthfeel and dryness. It is a significant wine that needs many years. So does the Chateau Fonroque, so fleshy and meaty and dry. Chateau Jean Faure was based on Cabernet Franc rather than Merlot, and its small percentage of Malbec gave it a firm structure. The two wines of the tasting for me were Chateau La Dominique, firm, dry and tannic yet packed with fruit, and a gorgeous La Tour Figeac. I wish I had a case of each for my cellar.

Incidentally, I walked to the tasting, which was on Harrison Street, all the way down First Street from Market, and have never seen so much construction going on in San Francisco in the 35 years I’ve lived here. The city is in the boom of its life, and everybody seems to be a 28-year old tech worker. I’ve seen San Francisco go through several iterations over the years. This has to be the most interesting yet, but it’s coming at a price: S.F. now is the most expensive city in America in which to rent an apartment. I think all those young techies are living four to the room.


That pesky quality-price ratio: QPR reconsidered

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I suppose I can see the logic (if that’s the right word) of charging many hundreds of dollars for a wine of known provenance (Lafite, for instance). But when a new brand, right out of the gate, releases itself at triple-digit prices, some sense of justice in me is aroused to the point of disgust.

I wrote “releases itself” but that is, of course, an intransitive verb structure, the kind we writers recoil from, because nothing in this world occurs intransitively. So let me rephrase it: When a new brand is released by its owners at triple-digit prices, something in me is disgusted.

I could choose from among any number of Napa Valley wines to illustrate my point, but since I have to live, and get along, with these people, it’s probably a better idea for me to turn abroad. To Australia, in this case, where the new Thousand Candles winery has released a Pinot Noir and a Shiraz, both at the price of $110 U.S.

The winemaker, William Downie, told Bloomberg News’ Elin McCoy about “the surprising backstory” (McCoy’s words) concerning the wines’ “true expression of the site” (we’ve heard that before). “I believe a great wine tells one story: Who am I?” Downie said. (Never mind that Thousand Candles’ owner is anonymous, and Downie didn’t disclose his/her identity; what kind of “story-telling” is that?)

Downie did admit to McCoy that “We have been accused of hubris,” referring to the controversy that gripped the Australian wine scene when the wines’ prices were revealed. Indeed, Qantas Airlines’ online web site said “No inaugural wine release was more controversial than that of Thousand Candles…”. (I should add that I have not tasted the wines, nor has anyone at Wine Enthusiast, yet.) Such reviews of them as I’ve found online have been mainly positive. Most emphasize the wines’ uniqueness, and that may well be true.

There are certainly arguments supportive of releasing some new brands at high prices. One is the pedigree of their creators; indeed, this is generally the most-used rationale. Such-and-such a famous viticulturalist and winemaker is involved; such-and-such great terroir: these usually are the prime justifications. In the case of Thousand Candles, there seems also to be a desire, on the part of the winemaker at any rate, to reassure the world that Australia, despite its well-publicized woes, is capable of producing top tier wines. Now this gets us into the through-the-looking glass world of perceptions: If a wine costs that much money, surely it must be good!

We know, from studies and through anecdotal evidence, that the tendency of the consumer to believe that price and quality are related is practically hard-wired into the brain. I don’t quite understand what the evolutionary value of such reasoning is; perhaps someone can explain it to me. But it’s a powerful driver; even if you intellectually understand that price and quality aren’t that tightly connected, a high price has an emotional impact on most people that’s makes it hard for them to reasonably dismiss it. Look at art: if it’s a scribbled daub on the bulletin board at a local school, it’s considered minor. Put it in a fancy frame, in a museum, and suddenly connoisseurs are willing to pay millions for it.

There’s something else going on with these super-expensive wines that also touches in on human psychology. It’s the feeling that, even if you taste the wine and don’t particularly care for it, there must be something in you that’s missing in action, not something in the wine. If you tasted a Two Buck Chuck and thought it was a thin disappointment, you wouldn’t give it a second thought: It’s just a cheap wine that doesn’t deserve to have you lavish time and energy trying to understand it.

But a $110 wine is somehow different. Consider this review of Thousand Candles, from the Wine Will Eat Itself blog. The writer, Jeremy Pringle, is trying very hard (it seems to me) to be fair and objective in his assessment, for which I give him credit. He doesn’t robotically fall into line worshiping the wine, just because it’s expensive. Instead, he revisits it, thinks about it (a lot), considers the opinions of its critics, doubts himself, and retastes–these all are admirable qualities for a wine critic to possess. In the end, he writes, while the wine may not immediately dazzle (“Those who criticize this wine based on some sense of objective value for money are probably spot on”), he concludes that “it is a cerebral wine…best shared with others and within the context of a discussion if not a debate.”

I understand where he’s going…kind of. But why would you give a wine so much power over you, if your first impression of it is “Meh”? I’ll tell you why. Because it’s expensive, because it has a “surprising backstory,” because the chattering classes are all mumbling about it, and because you, as a wine writer, don’t want people to think you’re not “up” on the latest important developments. So you give that wine extra consideration–extra time in the glass–extra thought. You want to find great stuff in there, so you look, and look, and look, and talk and talk about it, and suddenly, Voila! There it finally is: great stuff.

Well, this of course is precisely the reason to taste blind. But I am not ignorant of the fact that there’s a huge other side to this debate, and that is, as Pringle writes, “There are occasions when context matters a great deal.” Evidently, tasting Thousand Candles requires context. Does tasting Lafite require context? Does Harlan Estate require context? Does an Arrowood Cabernet require context? Does Two Buck Chuck require context? Where is the line? How does the critic determine which wines require context, and which can be summarily dismissed?

Good questions; no good answers.


Who makes the best wine critics, supertasters or the rest of us?

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Some years ago, there was a lot of talk about so-called “supertasters” — men and (more frequently, women) with more than the usual quantity of tastebuds in their mouths that makes them unusually sensitive to flavors.

supertaster

The term had been coined by a Yale professor, Linda Bartoshuk, who in 2004 vividly illustrated the difference between super- and regular tasters with this metaphor: “Supertasters…live in a ‘neon world’ of taste, while nontasters [sic] are in a ‘pastel world.’”

I remember at the time feeling slightly embarrassed that I wasn’t a supertaster. For some reason, I developed the feeling that being a supertaster made one a better wine critic. For example, Robert Parker was said to be able to identify wines double-blind, surely the mark of a supertaster. And Jim Laube’s well-known sensitivity to TCA, which suggested supertasting abilities on his part, was enough to bring wineries to their knees.

I, by contrast, had to be content with a palate that was, at best, no better, if no worse, than everyone else’s. It caused me some moments of imposter syndrome. Who was I to be telling people what wine tasted like, if I didn’t even have a super-palate?

All this was brought up again last Saturday night when I had dinner with old friends, one of whom is a supertaster. I knew she wasn’t a big fan of seafood, but during the course of our meal, her other food antipathies emerged. Rosemary, for example: she can’t bear it beyond a miniscule amount, because it overwhelms everything else in the food. Frankly, my friend confided, being a supertaster isn’t a blessing: it’s a curse. In fact, she added, that’s why she decided not to become a wine writer. (Her work is in a separate field of the wine industry.) She’s so extraordinarily sensitive to everything that she figured she could never be objective.

Well, that cast things in a different light for me. Maybe, I figured, it’s not so good after all to be a supertaster. So I Googled up the term and found a whole bunch of suggestions that supertasting ability can indeed be a drag.

For example, here, from Yale Scientific (Bartoshuk’s own university), the professor says supertasters are “also super-perceivers of…the burning sensation of…ethanol [the alcohol in wine],” which causes them “oral pain [and a] burning sensation.”

That, surely, must be a handicap, if not an outright bias, for  a wine critic, especially of California wine.

The British publication, The Guardian, addressed the issue squarely on when it wrote, “It is often assumed that the world’s top foodies must be supertasters, but the jury’s out on whether being one is something to brag about in the industry.” The website How Stuff Works amplified on this theme: “Usually, it’s great to have heightened senses like 20/20 vision or sharp hearing. But a heightened sense of taste, no matter how delicious it might sound, is really no joy.” Since everything is amplified, sensations like the pepperiness of a Syrah can be overwhelming. Slate Magazine, asking “whether being a supertaster helps you evaluate wine,” concluded that “being a nontaster [i.e. regular taster] was not the career death sentence [for a critic] it appeared to be. For another, being a supertaster turned out to be not nearly as good as it sounded; in fact, to the degree that it matters at all, it is probably more of a liability for a wine critic than an asset.” [Bold face mine] The “flavor of alcohol…astringency and acidity…spiciness [and] bitterness” that characterizes so many wines “may make wine–or some wine styles–relatively unappealing.”

Well, I’m ready to buy into Slate’s suggestion that “being a supertaster is no blessing when it comes to wine.” But it does make me wonder to what extent the modern wine style (often called Parkerised) of exceptional ripeness, fruitiness, softness and sweet oakiness is the result of the domination by supertasters of the wine criticism business over the past 25 years.


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!

* * *

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!


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