If I you were told that this was painted by a knockoff painter who specializes in fake Renaissance paintings, would you like it?
Would you buy it? Would you hang it in your livingroom?
What if I told you that, actually, it was painted by Raphael—arguably the third most-famous Renaissance painter (after Leonardo and Michaelangelo)? Would knowing that change your perception, your feeling about it?
Would you be more exalted, more inspired, more impressed, more awed knowing it was an authentic Raphael masterpiece?
I suspect the answer is, Yes, you’d be more impressed knowing it’s a Raphael. But why? The painting itself, in either case, real or fraudulent, is exactly the same: same colors, same images, same glow. It clearly took talent to paint it: Whether it was Raphael, or the knockoff guy, is irrelevant in that respect. So why does knowing it’s a Raphael cause you to feel so differently about it?
This is a parallel to the question of great wines I’m so fascinated with. If I take a wine that is, by all critical consensus, a masterpiece—let’s say, 2010 Cheval Blanc, a Parker 100, Enthusiast 100, Spectator 98—and pour it for you from a brown paper bag, and I don’t give you any visual clue whatsoever concerning what I think about it (I am poker-faced, as it were), but just hand it to you and say, “What do you think?,” what do you think you’d say? Assuming you have a decent palate, you’d probably say, “Pretty good wine.” If I really pressed you to give it a score, maybe you’d do 94 or a 95; psychologically, it’s almost impossible for someone tasting blind or, in this case, double-blind, to rate a wine higher than that, because, in the absence of knowledge of its identity, the risks of being too high (or too low for that matter) are simply too grave. So 95 points is probably the best you’re going to be able to do, and I strongly suspect you’d be lower than that.
Instead of the double-blind thing, let’s say I give you a glass of the wine with a broad smile on my face—I’m clearly pleased—and say to you, “My friend, this is a masterpiece. Perfect scores from Parker and Enthusiast. Almost perfect from Spectator. Smell it; savor it; this is a wine you will remember for a long time.” I bet you’re going to agree with me (and with Parker, Spectator and Enthusiast) and be dazzled. (Yes, this presumes you can appreciate a great Bordeaux/St. Emilion. But of course you can; otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this blog.)
See, in this case the knowledge of the wine’s identity–with all the associations it conjures up—is silently working its magic on your brain, shifting your perceptions upward, inclining you to favor it—just as if I gave you a glass of wine I told you was Two-Buck Chuck, you’d probably be inclined downward in perception. Same phenomenon with the painting and the wine.
This analogy settles, I think, the objective-subjective question we’re always dealing with: Is wine appreciation objective? Yes, in the sense that a professional should be able to identify its quality up to a very high level. In terms of point scores, I’d put that level—as I said above—at about 95 points. All very great wines are 95 point wines.
But to get above 95 points you have to let the subjective appreciator within you have free range. That is the best way, the most logical way to stretch that 95 points up to 98, 99, 100. You have to know the wine is Cheval Blanc, just as you have to know the painting is by Raphael, to really experience its greatness. For a large measure of that greatness has nothing to do with what’s in the glass; it was created, and exists, in your mind.
By the way, the reason this is important, and not just some bit of esoteric sophism, is because it relates directly to prices. If we accept the fact that you can potentially add hundreds of dollars to the price of a bottle of wine solely due to its psychological-subjective impact on the brain, then we have opened up a can of worms, or perhaps the better metaphor is that we have carved out a slippery slope. For those of us witnessing mudslides in this El Nino California—events that destroy homes—a slippery slope, unrestrained, can wreck utter havoc on the things that slide down it.
P.S. This post was inspired by an article in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle about this painting, “Portrait of a Lady With a Unicorn,” said to be by Raphael.
I’d call it a super-tasting, our event on Wednesday in which we sampled 13 of the top Syrahs from California.
The background was Jackson Family Wines’ purchase, about a year ago, of Siduri Wines, which also included the Lee family’s lesser-known brand, Novy. Now, I’d always given very high scores to Novy’s Syrahs and other Rhone-style wines, going back to the 2000 Page-Nord Syrah (94 points). It was clear to me that Novy was a top Rhone producer in California, but I wanted to more clearly understand the wines, especially in light of the competition. So I thought, let’s taste some Novy reds against the most critically-esteemed Syrahs and red Rhone blends in California, and see how things stack up.
I asked Adam Lee for his suggestions as to which Novy wines to include in the lineup, and he suggested 2013 Simpson Vineyard Syrah-Grenache (Dry Creek Valley), 2011 Syrah (Santa Lucia Highlands) and 2013 Susan’s Hill Vineyard (Santa Lucia Highlands, from a part of the Pisoni Ranch). Beyond those, I selected the rest: Saxum 2011 Bone Rock; Tensley 2013 Thompson Vineyard Syrah (with a Santa Barbara County appellation but actually from the Los Alamos Valley); Zaca Mesa 2012 Black Bear Block Syrah (Santa Ynez Valley); Copain 2012 Halcon Syrah (Yorkville Highlands): Alban 2011 Seymour’s Syrah (Edna Valley): Colgin 2012 IX Estate Syrah (Napa Valley): Qupe 2011 Bien Nacido X Block “The Good Nacido” Syrah (Santa Maria Valley); Arnot-Roberts 2013 Clary Ranch Syrah (Sonoma Coast, from way down to the south, near the Marin County line); Kongsgaard 2013 Syrah (Napa Valley, from the Hudson Vineyard in Carneros) and Donelan 2012 Obsidian Vineyard Syrah (Knights Valley).
Let me tell you, California flights don’t get any better than this!
We tasted the wines, as usual, blind. There were eleven of us, and we took our time, discussing each wine separately, but going back and forth. There was quite a bit of unanimity, but for this posting I’m using only my own impressions.
Despite the conventional wisdom that you can’t sell Syrah, these wines should be enough to convince even the most confirmed doubter that, when well-grown and well-made, Syrah is one of California’s best red wines. It’s common to say that there are two styles of Syrah in California: a riper style from warmer regions such as Paso Robles and a more structured style from cooler regions like Edna Valley. In general, this is true, although there are notable exceptions; for instance, Alban’s wines, from Edna Valley, are high in alcohol (the Seymour’s was 15.6%). Still, in general there are two styles: (1) higher alcohol, more extracted, darker in color, softer, richer and fuller in body, and (2) lower alcohol, paler in color, more delicate, less ripe, earthier, more nuanced and crisp. In our tasting, the quintessential #1 style was the Saxum (15.3%, Paso Robles); the quintessential #2 style was the Arnot-Roberts (11.8%, Sonoma Coast/Petaluma Wind Gap), which was so pale it could have been Pinot Noir. (But I liked it a great deal despite the lack of typicity.)
Either style can succeed critically, but it’s fair to say that, among the top critics (including myself, when I was a critic), the former style, #1, gets the better scores. On this occasion, I have to say that the Alban and Saxum wines were not among my favorites. I could and did appreciate the soft charm of the Saxum, but the Alban, at 15.6% alcohol, was just too porty.
My top wines—the style I really love—cannot be described as Northern Rhone or Southern Rhone, but rather is balanced, in a rich, sexy, California way. Tied at 98 points each were the Novy 2013 Susan’s Hill and the Donelan 2012 Obsidian. Both almost exploded the top of my head off. Unbelievable richness and concentration, massively saturated wines, so complex and flavorful you could hardly believe it, yet both of them with superb structure and integrity. Close on their heels was the Colgin, which RJP gave 98 points; all I could muster up was a measly 95! The alcohol on that wine was 15.3%, quite high, but the wine had no heat, or perhaps it’s accurate to say it had a pleasantly warming feel. As good as it was, I wrote, “Needs time.”
I also quite liked the Zaca Mesa, the Copain, the Qupe and the other two Novys—I scored them all above 90 points. While the others didn’t rise to the magic 90 level, they were still delightful; and it might be that, in another tasting with another lineup, they might have shown better. It always strikes me in these blind tastings that the wine’s place in the flight, and the other wines that accompany it, are very important. For example, the Copain (which I gave 90 points) came immediately after the magnificent Donelan; the first thing I wrote was, quote, “Not fair after the last wine,” and some of the other tasters led off their remarks by saying something similar. Which is why it’s so important for the critic to try and set aside everything that’s going on in his head and his palate and try to be fair and objective about every wine. Who knows? Had the Copain come before the Donelan I might have given it 91 or even 92 points. That is the subjectivity factor in tasting, which every honest critic will admit exists. The public needs to constantly be reminded of the shortcomings of every type of wine tasting.
Anyhow, this tasting has provided me with a fresh perspective on Syrah, and I intend to give that sometimes maligned variety more of a drumbeat than I have in the past. At this level, it’s a better wine than Merlot, making it a lovely choice for that steak, pork chop or game—in fact it occupies a distinguished place between heavier Cabernet Sauvignon and lighter Pinot Noir as the ideal medium-bodied, complex, dry red table wine.
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I’ll be in Mexico next week, doing some wine tastings for Jackson Family Wines. Will try to blog everyday. Have a great, peaceful weekend.
I have to say the results were mixed in this latest tasting, which we did on Friday. All the wines were tasted blind. Several were stunning; most were delicious despite imperfections; a few were just average.
These hills and valleys, west of Buellton, are of course famous for running on an east-west orientation, allowing the cool maritime air to funnel in over the vineyards, so that, despite being at quite a southerly latitude—about the same as parts of Algeria and Tunisia—the climate is cool. The average water temperature in the Pacific in these parts is only in the low 60s, and the average high temperature in Lompoc, where the winds come from, in July is a measly 72 degrees, cooler even than in Burgundy.
The soils are variable: the appellation is not particularly large (30,720 acres), but spans two separate hill ranges and the valleys between them, making for differences in exposure and wind patterns, although it can be said that a fair amount of limestone makes the soils somewhat unique for California. This limestone can add a tang of minerality, especially to the white wines.
All of the wines were current releases, 2012s and 2013s. I bought most of them direct from the winery. The wines were poured about 90 minutes prior to the tasting, which enabled them to lose a bit of their chill, and breathe.
My top-scoring wine, at 96 points, was the Longoria 2013 Fe Ciega (13.5%, $50), a marvelous wine that only got better in the glass. So delicately structured, with such finesse, brilliant acidity, perfect integration of oak (only 18% new) and with bracing minerality. The vineyard of course is Richard Longoria’s own, located in the cooler, western end of the AVA. This is Richard’s first bottling of Fe Ciega Chardonnay, and what a stunning debut it is, an utterly captivating, first-class Chardonnay.
Close on its heels—nipping, you might say—was the Liquid Farm 2013 “Four” (14.2%, $74). This is a blend of four vineyards (Rita’s Crown, Clos Pepe, Kessler-Haak and Radian) and is the winery’s most expensive Chardonnay. I gave it 94 points for its ripe flamboyance, chalky-minerally mouthfeel and superb peach, pineapple and nectarine fruit. “Very fine, dry, will age, “ I wrote.
Not far behind that was veteran Babcock, in the form of the 2013 “Top Cream” (14.5%, $45). At 93 points, it’s a big wine, flooded with apricots, pineapples, buttered toast and honey. All that volume could be a catastrophe, but Brian pulled this off with distinction. “Top Cream” refers to the layer of gravely loam in which the vines grow, although the wine itself is also creamy rich.
I also loved the Sanford 2012 Rinconada (14.5%, $45), which I gave 92 points. Although Richard Sanford long ago lost his eponymous winery, the fine Rinconada vineyard, which he planted in 1995 adjacent to the famous Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, in the southernmost hills of the appellation, continues to produce glorious wine. The perfume on this—pineapples, peaches, buttered toast, cinnamon—is alluring, while the wine itself turns citrusy and delicate, an “intellectual” Chardonnay, I wrote.
I liked the least expensive wine in our flight, the Kessler-Haak (14.6%, $29) enough to give it 91 points. It came immediately following the magnificent Longoria, and although made in a total different style—riper, bigger—it hardly suffered in comparison. Tiers of pear drop, white flowers, banana cream pie and butterscotch, and the complexity was fine.
After these five 90-plus wines we come to the 2012 Sandhi (12.8%, $36), low in alcohol as you’d expect, which I gave 89 points. I found myself lowering the score as the wine aired, because its initial impression, with a muted arom, lots of tart acidity and a certain thinness, never went away. In fact, since I had a “mystery” ringer in the flight, I wondered if this were the white Burgundy I’d snuck in. I settled on 89 points because it was elegant and “a food wine,” but it was really outclassed in richness by some of the other wines.
Just one point below the Sandhi, at 88 points, was the Bonaccorsi 2013 Melville (12.8%, $40). I liked it quite a bit, finding it “brimming with honey, tropical fruits, smoke and buttered toast,” but there was some peach-pit bitterness throughout that lowered the score.
Then we come to an 87 pointer. Sanguis is a label I’ve been acquainted with since meeting Matthias Pippig years ago. The wines seem somewhat modeled after Sine Qua Non. The reds can be spectacular, the whites exotic. This 2012 “Loner” (13.8%, $60) is 100% Bien Nacido Chardonnay, which means it is NOT Santa Rita Hills, but Santa Maria Valley, an AVA that’s right next door, and with a similar climate. It was included in the tasting due to a miscommunication with the winery. The first thing I wrote on tasting was “Ripe, California style,” packed with guavas and pineapple jam. My score of 87 was a difficult one for me to settle on. At various points the wine seemed oxidized, maybe even bretty; then, a few moments later it recovered its poise, then lost it, then regained it. Sometimes you get a wine you just aren’t sure how to deal with. This was one of those.
At 86 points was my “mystery” wine, a 2011 Meursault from Pascal Marchand. The vintage was by all accounts a good one but I must say this wine did not please me. Perhaps it’s my California palate. From the get-go I found it oaky, and the acidity was, I wrote, “brutal, almost sour.”
Eighty-six points was the best I could do for the Brewer-Clifton 2013 Hapgood (14.7%, $70). It was a bit hot in alcohol, although it did offer a great big mouthful of pineapples, peaches, lemons and minerals. I had started off giving it a higher score, but as the wine warmed in the glass the alcohol really showed through. Parker loved this wine, by the way. He called the winery’s 2013s “a significant change in style,” being “more exuberant…and ripe,” but in my opinion, this change, if in fact it occurred, was not favorable.
We also had the Brewer-Clifton 2013 “3D” (14.0%, $75), at 86 points another disappointment, although Parker loved it too. I wrote “disjointed” as soon as I smelled it; another taster called it “hostile.” It just seemed harsh and over-oaked.
Also scoring 85 points was the 2012 Sea Smoke “Streamside” (14.9%, $90). After the first whiff I wrote “Ripe, fleshy, maybe some brett.” It had solid pineapple and grilled oak flavors, but there was “something off” that made it clumsy and let the oak show through. It had sort of a sweet-and-sour Chinese sauce flavor. I think the main problem was the alcohol level. I realize this is a shockingly low score for this wine. Most critics were kinder. But you have to go with your impressions, and in a blind comparative flight like this one, I trust mine.
Heavy philosophical opining over at Jamie Goode’s blog the other day. Jamie sat down with “academic philosopher” Professor Barry Smith to talk about the philosophical aspects of wine tasting and specifically about “objectivity and subjectivity,” an old and slippery topic that will never be fully resolved, I think, because the question itself is misleading (more on this later).
The Professor did raise an interesting point: He said “all the great wine critics…say…taste is subjective,” but then these same critics “tell you which vintage is better…and which domain is better” and so, the Professor concludes, “They don’t really believe [tasting] is entirely subjective” because, if it is, then they should not be able to state so definitively (so “normatively” in Smith’s words) that something is better than something else, “normative” being a philosophical term implying the existence of objective standards or “norms.”
Well, the Prof does seem to have identified a paradox. How can tasting be subjective if the taster is giving normative judgments on things? But here’s the problem. No wine critic I’ve ever heard of has said that tasting is just a bunch of random subjectivity; I certainly never did. Let me explain why this whole thing of “objective or subjective” is misleading.
Some pronouncements are objectively true. If I say “Two plus two equals four,” that is fundamentally objective, at least in the Universe we inhabit. If I say “Lafite is more expensive than Two Buck Chuck” that is also objectively true.
With judging wine, though, things get more complicated. Consider: Let’s say we expose three different critics to a single wine, blind, and each reacts differently (as is to be expected). That can’t be explained by the wine: It is what it is—its chemical composition is the same for each of the critics. Therefore the difference is in the critics’ perceptions of the wine. The professor understands this conundrum (which is relativistic): The wine’s chemical properties are absolutely objective (i.e. they exist in the real world and can be measured), and yet the critics’ reactions are absolutely subjective. How are we to make sense of this paradox?
Here’s where the Professor introduces a novel solution: “an intermediate level…in between the chemistry and the variable perceptions.” What is this “intermediate level”? The Professor says it’s “flavour.” “Flavours are emergent properties; they depend on but are not reducible to the chemistry.”
Confused? Me too. I reread this part of the Professor’s answer a couple times and have to say I never did fully grasp it, perhaps because the Professor didn’t make himself clear (it wouldn’t be the first time a highly-trained academic found himself unable to express his theories in plain English). As near as I can tell, this “intermediate level” would form a bridge of sorts between the strictly objective chemistry of the wine (which we all acknowledge exists, independent of our personal reactions to it) and the subjective, personal impression the wine makes on us.
I think this is overthinking things. It has a bit of “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin” Talmudic disputation—argument for the sake of argument. Just because you can arrange words so that they take the form of a question doesn’t mean the question makes sense; but too much of our discourse is based on the premise that, if I can ask it and make it sound like a real question, then it has to have a real answer. It doesn’t.
Look, wine tasting shouldn’t be this complicated; it doesn’t require the skills of an epistomologist. A majority of professional wine tasters will usually agree on the more salient or obvious aspects of a wine—that it’s sweet, for example, or that it has heavy brettanomyces (or that it’s sparkling, for that matter). It’s in the more subtle realms that disagreement sets in (is the wine just a bit reduced? Is it too old? Over-oaked? Tannins too rough?). We should not expect agreement on such subtleties among wine critics, whose palates after all are not laboratory devices but flesh and blood, but that doesn’t mean that wine tasting is either totally objective (it isn’t) or totally subjective (if it were, we wouldn’t have broad agreement on those salient aspects of taste). To expect total agreement is to rest one’s thinking on several illusions: (a) that winetasting is a scientific pursuit (it has elements of science but is not in itself scientific), (b) that the taster will be consistent over time concerning the same wine (she will not be, which the Professor also discerns when he implies a “temporal dimension” to flavor), and (c) moving well beyond wine, that there is a such thing as an “objective reality” that all humans perceive in the same way. Yes…and no. Again, it’s the difference between “more salient aspects” and subtler ones: All humans will agree that the Sun rises in the East (if you disagree, then you’re nuts) but all witnesses to a hit-and-run will not agree that the car that struck the pedestrian was blue. The former (the Sun rising) is a salient perception, the latter (the car color) more subject to differing perceptions. When it comes to such subtleties, humans will always disagree; critics certainly will about wines. That makes life more complicated, and frustrating, and uncertain; but also more interesting, and forces us, in the end, to arrive at our own conclusions.
Cameron Hughes Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. Sold as a six-pack vertical, 2006-2011 vintages, $449.
Cameron Hughes was kind enough to send me this six-bottle vertical for review. (Full disclosure: He also was kind enough to come all the way to Oakland and buy me a sushi lunch.) All the wines are obviously related to each other, being strongly similar except for bottle age; but negociant Cameron cannot reveal his precise sourcing, except to strongly hint we’re dealing with major sources and famous winemaking consultants.
I begin with a lengthy discussion of the youngest wine (2006) and the oldest (2011), since they frame the conversation. Then it’s on to briefer considerations of the ’07, ’08, ’09 and ’10.
I expected more color differentiation between the 2006 and the 2011, with the older wine, at nine years, being paler. It is, kinda sorta, but you have to squint to see it, which means either of two things: The ’11 is looking old now, or the ’06 is looking young. In this case, it’s decidedly the latter, but that may be the high alcohol level. I would not guess the ’06 for being nine years old. It’s still dark, a gorgeous ruby garnet, like the ’11. So much for color: then I inhaled the wines, which is where the ’06 begins to show its age. Where the ’11 is all fresh black currants—sprinkled with cocoa nibs and anise, with that telltale hint of fine, smoked new oak—the ’06 (alcohol high, at 15.7%) is more yielding and pliant. No more currants: blackberry and blueberry jam, but what is that lurking underneath? Bay laurel? Violets? Teriaki? Definitely mocha. The new oak has evolved into old cigar box. These are scents that are hard to define, easy to appreciate. But it’s in the mouth that the vastest difference occurs: The ’11 (alcohol 14.5%) is so tannic, it assaults the gums and tongue like an attack tank, hard, raw in its immediacy, stinging. Old-style tannins, mind you. Mountain tannins. Who knows, given the secrecy. The wineries that sell to him are, presumably, in some kind of financial trouble. It seems to me that all the wines come from mountain vineyards, but in the ’11 the tannins are especially blunt. Of course, 2011 was a chilly year. Score for the 2011: 92.
Then we come to the ’06. It was not a particularly great vintage: okay, adequate, fine. I would not hold this wine much longer. It’s good to go now. The tannins are resolving: the wine has achieved a maturity where ripe, fresh fruit is fading. Complex, interesting, mellowing. But there still are those cabernet tannins. Give it greasy protein fat—a charbroiled steak—and it’s a match made in heaven. Score: 91.
By the way, I did let the ’06 and the ’11—the oldest and the youngest of the wines—sit in the bottle, opened, for 48 hours, to see what happened, which can be very interesting. Both wines went downhill, showing an overripe quality that wasn’t evident to me on opening.
Here are my notes on the other four wines:
2007: Alcohol 15.9%. Very dark, in fact midnight inky black. The aroma is oaky and quite rich in black currants, with shavings of baker’s unsweetened chocolate and black licorice. The flavors are similarly rich, and while the tannins are strong, they’re finely-ground and sweet. You can feel the high alcohol in the form of a slight jalapeno pepper heat. This is quite an interesting wine, one that fans of ripe Napa Cabernet will love. The alcohol level makes its future troubling. Drink now-2016. Score: 91.
2008: Alcohol 15.3%. A bit more elegant than the ’07, but still somewhat hot in alcohol, with similar flavors: black currants, baker’s chocolate, black licorice, and plenty of sweet, smoky oak. Bone dry, with good acidity, a wine to sip on a cold winter night. Score: 91.
2009: Alcohol 15.3%. Like the others, this is an ultra-ripe Cabernet, brimming with black currant, black licorice, shaved chocolate and oak flavors. The tannins are, like the other wines, exceptionally smooth, but they do have a fierce quality. You can taste that Napa Valley sunshine and heat all the way through. Almost identical to the ’08, this is a rich, somewhat Porty wine to drink with rich meats and cheeses on a winter night. Score: 91.
2010: Alcohol 14.9%. Fits right in with the rest. Super-dark black and garnet color. Rich, Porty aromas of black currants, dark chocolate, black licorice and oak. Deeply flavored. Cabernet doesn’t get any riper, yet still with that peppery heat from alcohol. Like the other wines, it will drink well with a rich, fatty steak or filet mignon. I would decant it first and drink it over the next three years before the overripeness takes over. Score: 91.
Discussion: At an average bottle price just under $67, these Cabernets are pricy. For the fullest intellectual appreciation, they require some belief on the buyer’s part that they are from super-famous wineries, or vineyards, or winemakers, that are distressed enough to have had to sell to Cameron Hughes. In their own way, each is distinctive, showing Napa’s classic Cabernet luxe. But each also is marked by overripeness and subsequent high alcohol, with a finish almost of sweetened crême de cassis liqueur and even, at the more chocolatey extremes, Kahlua. Although I recommended drinking them with steak, you could enjoy them slowly as after-dinner wines, like Port or a cordial, to be sipped on the way to oblivion and bed.