It’s funny, isn’t it, how we hierarchize wine. It’s almost reminiscent of the Indian caste system, in which the highest caste was the priests, then the warriors, followed by merchants and then, at the bottom, the untouchables.
Maybe the British social structure is more apt, with royalty at the top (themselves intensely hierarchized), then gentry of various orders, followed by an elite class of merchants and, finally, the poor. America is supposed to be a classless society, but it isn’t, as even a brief exposure to the Napa auction proved.
I suppose there’s something in human nature that likes to classify things, including where people are on the social scale. We do the same thing with wine. The First Growths and Grand Crus of France are wine’s Brahmins and Kings and Queens. Here in California, their equivalents are the you-know-whos of Napa Valley that go for high triple digits.
What I wonder is, we all know that pigeon-holing human beings into a caste system is wrong. All men are created equal and all that; all are the children of God, and each person should be appreciated for what he or she is–or so our liberal philosophy says. Regardless of whether or not we actually believe that, it’s patently obvious that we’re comfortable putting wine into castes. If you’re familiar with San Francisco’s neighborhoods, we might say there are Pacific Heights mansion wines, North Beach artisanal wines, Mission District working class wines, and finally there are ghetto wines nobody would ever be caught dead drinking or serving, unless they were poor and couldn’t afford any better.
I’ve always been of the opinion that all wines should be treated equally, which is to say, with respect. That comes from the way I was raised, in a household where my parents idolized FDR. They were far from wealthy and had to watch their expenses, so I grew up understanding the concept of value.
Today, I love value in a wine. I give credit to the Broncos and Wine Groups of California, companies that make wine affordable for the masses. Sure, you can call those wines peasant wines, the equivalents of the untouchables, the dreaded lower classes whom British royalty were so snobbish toward. I know people who would refuse to drink these wines; they’d rather drink nothing than to sully their palates.
But that’s a wrong-headed attitude. If I were a billionaire I’m sure I’d drink my share of old Burgundy, but I’m not. One of these days I’ll be cruising the supermarket wine aisle again, like I used to, looking for affordable wines. Here are some of the best value brands I’ve reviewed this year–some old names, some new names, all worth a round.
L de Lyeth
Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi
Robert Mondavi Private Selection
Are these great, world-class wines? No. But they’re the wines I’d be drinking if they were all I could afford, and they’d give me plenty of pleasure. All of them should be the envy of the world, when it comes to producing dry, properly varietal wines at a price ordinary working people can afford.
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In the 1970s and 1980s, when I was coming up in wine, the conventional wisdom was that in order to be ageable, a young wine had to be undrinkable.
That made sense. After all, it was the case in most of Europe. Barolo, Rioja, great German Riesling, and especially Grand Cru Burgundy and the top Classified Growth Bordeaux all required years and years in the cellar.
I figured it was the same for the top California wines. The people whose guidance I was depending on–Charlie Olken, Norm Roby, Earl Singer, Bob Thompson, Harvey Steiman–were saying that Cabs in particular required aging, and sometimes for an extended period of time (10-15 years, said Olken-Singer-Roby in their “Handbook,” 20 years in Thompson’s “Encyclopedia”).
I took them at their word. Trust was involved, because they were tasting a lot more and a lot better wines than I was able to (which was actually very little, given my limited budget and the fact that it was to be many years before wineries started sending me free samples), and so I had no basis other than their judgment on which to form a conclusion regarding ageability. I began collecting, modestly: Cabs from Freemark Abbey, Louis M. Martini, Beringer, Pinots from Carneros Creek and Acacia, and so on, and then aging them; but the results were disappointing. I’d open a bottle after 6 or 8 years and more often than not found the resulting wine dried up and boring.
Of course, my cellar conditions were inadequate then. You couldn’t even call it a “cellar.” I had a plastic contraption that I kept in my apartment. Whatever the temperature was in my apartment, that was the temperature in my “cellar.” I knew that was bad, but it was San Francisco, where it’s pretty cool even in summer, so I kept my fingers crossed.
At some point, there was a sea change in popular thinking concerning Cabernet and Pinot. The view began to be that a wine that was undrinkable (hard in tannins, biting in acidity) in youth would never age out. Instead, the theory now went, any California wine that was ageable should be good and drinkable on release.
I fully subscribe to that theory, but when did it start and how did it come about? I was thinking about this as I read the following quote from the winemaker Philip Togni (Philip Togni Vineyard), in Benjamin Lewin’s new book, Claret & Cabs:
“I used to claim that if the wine wasn’t pretty terrible coming out of the fermenter it would never amount to anything, but I no longer believe that.”
Given Philip Togni’s wealth of experience (Chateau Lascombes, Gallo, Chateau Montelena, Chappellet, Cuvaison), this is quite a statement: The confession of a great winemaker who’d essentially gotten something very important very wrong. The only “excuse” (if that’s the right word, and it isn’t, but I can’t think of a better one) is that pretty much everyone in the 1970s in Napa Valley thought that a Cabernet had to be “pretty terrible” coming out of the fermenter in order to age well. It was the weltanschauung of the era, and weltanschauungs are the hardest things in the world to see beyond.
The reason things began to shift was, IMHO, the rise of Parker. We can argue until the cows come home about him, but let’s not today. Parker pushed winemakers around the world to produce wines that tasted pretty darned good right out of the fermenter (and out of the bottle on release).
Do they age as well as the Bordeaux of old? The critical community is still debating that one, and since there are now billions and billions of critics (tip of the hat to Carl Sagan), the debate may go on forever. On the other hand, the attitude toward aging wines is shifting with tectonic force. The parents of Baby Boomers aged their wines. Baby Boomers themselves might have aged some of their wines (if they had some kind of cellar), but they were not as obsessed with aging as their Depression-era parents. Now, the children of Baby Boomers, and in some cases their grandchildren, are becoming the main consumers of fine wine in America, and as far as I can tell, they don’t give a rat’s patootie about aging wine. They want something delicious and interesting, at whatever price they’re prepared to pay, not something they have to stick away for some point in the future when they might not even be around to enjoy it.
Much is made of Cathy Corison’s Cabernets when it comes to Napa wines in the “older” style. And it is indeed true that her Cabs are lower in alcohol and age gorgeously–well, up to ten years anyway, which is the oldest Corison Cab I’ve had. (A 2001 was fantastic in 2011.) However, ageable as they are, they’re lovely on release. Here’s what I wrote about Corison’s 93 point 2007 regular (not the Kronos): A beautiful wine, dry and classically structured, showing the elegant balance for aging. Made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s long and deep in blackberries and cassis. Give it a brief decant if you open it now, but it should develop over the next six years, at least.
I suppose if Cathy had been making Cabernet in 1976 I might have written something like “Tough and tannic and sharp, almost undrinkable, a dark, brooding wine of astringency. It stubbornly refuses to reveal its inner nature. However, a deep core of fruit and cassis suggests 10, 15, even 20 years in the cellar.”
Well, that wine never existed, so we don’t know, do we? It might have aged gracefully, but it might have been one of those clunkers like the Cabs I tried aging from the mid- to late 1970s. Aging wine always is a crapshoot, and I’m not a gambler. I like a sure thing, which is why I like Napa Valley Cabernet nowadays: it’s drop dead gorgeous and sexy from the get-go, and whether or not it will go 20 years is pretty much irrelevant. (But a lot will.)
I’m mad as heck and I’m not going to take it anymore!
I’ve had it up to here [you can’t see me, but I’m holding my hand up to my forehead] with writers who complain that “wine consumers have little use and perhaps even less tolerance for wine tasting notes.”
That is simply a falsehood. The truth is, wine consumers have little use for (and they may even hate) people who say that wine consumers have little use for wine tasting notes.
Now, the anti-tasting note crowd may retort with the claim that wine consumers have little use for people who disagree with people who say that wine consumers have little use for wine tasting notes. But I disagree. You see, I happen to believe that people who say that wine consumers have little use for wine tasting notes hate people who say that people who say that wine consumers have little use for wine tasting notes are idiots. And nobody likes a hater.
If it were really true that wine consumers have little use for wine tasting notes, then why did Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart go on a romantic wine tasting trip to Cannes?
The anti-wine tasting note cabal can’t answer that, can they? Nor can they properly address the 1WineDude phenomenon, or explain, with any coherence, why the Hosemaster of Wine always points in the direction of magnetic north, no matter how many times you spin him around.
You see, there are many, many things these anti-wine tasting note haters can’t explain! Actually, this bloke, Michael Godel, who wrote the anti-tasting note article I linked to above, seems like a regular chap. (Blokes? Chaps? Is British catching? Except that Godel isn’t a Brit, he’s Canadian. Well, what’s the difference? They both talk funny and worship the Queen.) Anyhow, consider the following, from the Hoisted On Your Own Petard Dept.:
Angels Gate Sauvignon Blanc 2011 ($13.95) in comely, pale gold flesh and peach blossom nose is well designed if not grape-specific “correct.” And I thank her for that. Leads like a Jack Johnson ballad, gathering then tempering the 2011 vintage’s acidity and finishing with a soulful refrain. Outright proper Beamsville Bench white wine, even if it bears little resemblance to the Loire or Marlborough. Good on her, this angel, “she gives me kisses on the lips just for coming home.” 88
Michael Godel writes a mean tasting note! Not my style, but witty and stylish, although I don’t get the Jack Johnson thing. There is a Hawaiian musician of that name, but we have no way of knowing if he’s the one Michael Godel refers to. Quite frankly, my dears, I have little use, and perhaps even less tolerance, for obscure cultural references in wine notes.
I like rosé wine, but for the longest time I didn’t think California had many good ones. There were all sorts of problems. I found a Renwood 2005 “too watery for recommendation,” a fairly common problem for a type of wine that’s delicate to begin with. Another set of issues arose with a Dominari 2005, from Napa Valley: “heavy, with bizarre medicinal flavors and a sugary finish.” That’s pretty common, too. I’m not sure what causes the medicinal stuff, but residual sugar in a thin, simple wine is awful; and R.S. was one of the biggest problems Cali Rosé had. Then there was the vegetal smell I found in a 2005 Big House “Pink Wine.” Unripe and pyraziney.
There used to be a restaurant in the Financial District called Vertigo. (It’s no longer there; Vertigo Bar, in the Tenderloin, is decidedly not the same place!) I had read that Vertigo claimed to have the biggest rosé wine selection of any restaurant in San Francisco–maybe America, for all I remember; this was about 12 years ago. I called them up and asked if I could drop by and taste through the lot. They said, Sure. (Being a wine writer does have its advantages!) I sat at the bar and went through 25 or 30 wines. Just about each was stunning. Blew me away. Some pale and delicate, others darker and fuller. But all dry, dry, dry, and crisp, crisp. Those are rosé’s first duties: to be dry and crisp. And not a one of them was from California. All French.
Oh, now I get it (I thought to myself). This is what rosé is supposed to be. I never forgot that tasting. It remains the bar to which rosé must rise, in my mind.
Then, for the next decade or so, I didn’t pay much attention to rosé. If it came in, I reviewed it. There wasn’t much, maybe 50 bottles a year. Every once in a while, a wine writer would write about rosé, usually as spring or summer was coming on, and claim it was enjoying some kind of comeback. I never believed that. Some years ago, there was that group, Rosé Avengers and Producers, that my old friend Jeff Morgan was behind. But they didn’t seem to gain much traction.
Starting about a year ago, I found myself thinking about rosé again. It started subtlely; I’m not sure why. Then the new year was upon us, and people started sending me a lot of rosé, to get reviews in time for the warm season, I guess. And all of a sudden, I was talking about rosé to anyone who would listen. I recently told Chuck, my intern, that in a way, rosé is the most interesting wine now being produced in California.
Really!?!? That’s a pretty radical thing to say. But I just said it. There’s more good rosé (which is to say, dry and crisp) than ever before. Is it the recent cool vintages (2010-2012)? Is it a change of mindset among producers? The influence of sommeliers? It is true that the best new rosés are coming from very small producers who may be in close touch with the on-premise market. As usual with such things, it’s impossible to pinpoint a reason.
Here are some rosés I’ve really enjoyed over the past year: Kokomo 2011 Pauline’s Vineyard Grenache (Dry Creek Valley); Minassian-Young 2011 (Paso Robles); La Grand Côte 2011 L’Estate (Paso Robles); Sanglier 2011 Rosé du Tusque (Sonoma County): Muscardini 2011 Alice’s Vineyard Rosato di Sangiovese (Sonoma Valley); Birichino 2011 Vin Gris (California); Balleto 2011 Rosé of Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); Luli 2012 (Central Coast); Lynmar 2012 Rosé of Syrah (Russian River Valley) and Chiarello 2012 Chiara Rosé of Zinfandel (Napa Valley). All over 90 points, and not one of them more than $22, except for the Chiarello, which is $35.
Rosé, along with Champagne, is the most versatile food wine. It’s also a nice gateway wine for Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Moscato drinkers looking to get into red wine. If I was a winemaker today, I’m not sure what my main focus would be, but I’d definitely have a rosé on the list. (The one variety that I think is hard to do rosé with is Cabernet Sauvignon. Too heavy and full-bodied. Merlot is tough, too.)
Mike Veseth, the wine economist whose blog posts and occasional research papers I always look forward to reading, published another thought-provoking piece last week.
It’s about what he calls “context-sensitive” tasting, a term I’d never heard before, but one I’ll use going forward, because it’s snappy and useful.
My readers know that I tend to be obsessed with the mechanics of tasting: single-blind, double-blind, open. As a Gemini (not that I believe in astrology, but the characterization of Geminis as being able to see things from multiple points of view certainly applies to me), I can appreciate the pros and cons of all three approaches.
Double-blind really makes you think hard and deep. Single-blind gives you just enough context to judge whether or not the wines are good examples of their class. And open tasting gives you the complete context that can make the wine-drinking experience so multi-dimensional.
The problem with these three approaches, or at least the first two (single- and double-blind) is that they’re fundamentally incompatible with consistency of judgment. The same wine, tasted blind on multiple occasions, will impress even the most professional reviewer differently, leading to questions concerning reality. What is the wine really like? It’s not really like anything; it all depends how you experience it.
(Of course, if you’re tasting openly, you can be 100% consistent. You can also be 100% biased based on what you know you’re tasting!)
This is why Veseth titles his post “In Vino Veritas?” with the question mark playing a pivotal role. The conventional wisdom, among the general public who read wine critics, is that there’s something “real” or “true” in wine that critics are in a unique position to perceive and describe. Well, there is something “real” in wine, but it’s not what critics perceive and write about, it’s what a wine laboratory measures with instruments. You can determine everything from aluminum to zinc in wine. Those things are “real” and “true,” but they obviously are not things critics look for, nor are they things most consumers care about.
Thus, Veseth writes, “our impressions of wine is [sic] context-sensitive–perhaps more so than we really want to admit.” This conclusion chagrins him, but it shouldn’t.
So is there “reality” in wine, beyond a lab analysis of its chemical and physical properties? No. In that case, proponents of open tasting have a point when they say, in effect, “Why bother tasting blind if you know the results are not replicable?” And furthermore: “Since open tasting is reliably the most consistent method of tasting, it also is the most trustworthy.
Well, yes…but then, why was it so hard to get anyone from the Wine Advocate to state, in no uncertain terms, that they do taste openly, instead of dancing around the issue for so many years? To the best of my knowledge, it wasn’t until Antonio Galloni told me that he does (you can read his quote here, from last year)
that anyone from the Advocate organization. And Antonio did so not only with candor, but with passion: he strongly defended tasting openly at high-end properties, whether in Burgundy or the likes of Harlan Estate. Why, then, does TWA’s website, presumably written by Robert Parker, say, “When possible all of my tastings are done in peer-group, single-blind conditions (meaning that the same types of wines are tasted against each other and the producers’ names are not known.”? Admittedly, this is Parker talking…he pointedly says “my” tastings, not “our” tastings, so maybe he was implying, very gently, that not every review in TWA is the result of a “peer-group, single-blind” tasting.” Or maybe standards have changed since he wrote those words.
Well, I don’t mean to criticize Antonio’s method,or anyone else’s, since, as I said, each approach has its strengths. In the end, consumers have to decide what methodology they want their critics to use. To tell you the truth, I don’t think most consumers care. But they should. If all the wine critics in the world tasted blind, the hierarchy of pricing and tiers would fall down and crack, like Humpty-Dumpty, and all the King’s men couldn’t put it back together again.
So what’s my solution? If I’m limited to just one form of tasting, I prefer single-blind. The way around this is transparency. Every review that anyone does should have a little symbol next to it: TO (yasted openly), SB (single-blind), DB (double-blind). That way, consumers who cared would know, and if someone was concerned with bias, they could dismiss a TO wine.
A Facebook friend commented to me:
I rarely have to purchase wine .. but here in Ontario Canada we have to do so at a WINE STORE … so I walked in yesterday and was floored by the number of wines that had been judged by Steve Heimoff !! so like any good wine guy I purchased several bottles where scores above 90 were given. mostly 90 and 91 and a few higher. (price point on wines above were ridiculous). Familiarizing myself with your palate a bit was quite an experience. so Mr. Steve it brings a question to mind … When judging wines .. what characteristic stands out most for you that boosts the score of the wine ? I would like to think if this question gets an answer it will be more than the word BALANCE but knowing you I doubt that is possible. Cheers and Libations.
I replied (maybe a little touchily after that “knowing you” remark), “Balance, certainly. This is a topic I could write a book about and have explained on many occasions in my blog.”
The guy replied, “been reading through it .. looking for where you site a particular point or something specific you look for … and i’ve been reading it for years .. no luck .. so I thought the question may wake something up and prompt a ‘Heimoff’ Answer … without being a ‘WANK’ lol”
The reference to “a WANK” was to my post from yesterday.
So, all right, I should probably explain from time to time what I do and how I do it and why.
What characteristic stands out most for you that boosts the score of the wine?
He doesn’t like the word “balance,” so I’m looking for another one-word answer and the best I can come up with is Strikingness. It’s when the wine has that hard-to-define Wow! factor. I have a Platonic notion in my mind of what the perfect Wow! wine should be. Ninety nine percent of all the wines I taste fall short of it. I suppose the perfect Wow! is a perfect 100-point wine. The further away from perfect Wow! the wine is, the lower the score. At some point, wines that fall short are still enjoyable, so they get scores in the 85-90 point range. At a still lower point, the wines become increasingly irritating, until finally they’re almost or entirely undrinkable. This is your 80-point range and, at Wine Enthusiast, the ultimate Purgatory, 22 points.
As I implied earlier, it would take a book to get into all the details of what constitutes the Wow! factor. All that “balance” means is that nothing sticks out over everything else. Too much oak is unbalanced. In my blind tasting, I will critique a wine for being too oaky. Once I know what it is, I may suggest that the oakiness might become more integrated into the wine with age, but the score doesn’t change because it’s still too oaky. Same with residual sugar. Most people know I hate it in a table wine that’s supposed to be dry.
I know that doesn’t fully explain “balance.” Maybe this helps. Yesterday I got an email from Kevin Willenborg, who’s winemaker at Vina Robles, a winery I like. He wrote: “If a vine is balanced it is capable of producing its true potential – more evenly ripened, physiologically mature fruit that reflects the terroir.”
An important part of the Wow! factor is the ability of a wine to stand out in a flight. I’ve said before that I don’t see how it’s possible to give a very high score to a wine you taste all by itself (I mean, if it’s blind. If you know you’re drinking 2010 Latour at the chateau, it’s a whole different story). A wine needs to be tasted in the appropriate context of its peers, in order to be fully understood. Say you’re tasting a flight of Napa Valley Cabernets from great producers. Everything scores highly, but one or two of those wines will dominate the others, even after two hours or so of continuous back and forth and development in the bottle.
What does “dominate the others” mean? The conventional wisdom is that the biggest, most extracted, oakiest and, yes, most Parkerized wines will always dominate a less bold wine. I don’t know about other tasters, but that’s not true for me. I can taste a gigantic wine that’s too big for its britches, one that’s cynically designed to get a high score. Such a wine will not get a high score from me. It lacks balance–but here we go again, because that’s the very word my Facebook friend asked me to expostulate on. I’ve done my best, within the limits of a blog post.