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On the “subjective vs. objective” tasting front, what have we learned?

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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.


A Cameron Hughes Cabernet vertical

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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.


The classics win out over the obscure. Always have, always will

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You want wisdom in wine words? Consider these: “In many centers of wine hipness these days, what matters is not how a wine tastes and how the associated sensory memories make you feel, but instead the social source of pleasure derived from tasting—and professing to like—a much ballyhooed wine that is made in a style that is currently in vogue.”

That’s from Andy Peay, in his Peay Vineards Fall newsletter. Now, Andy was being diplomatic in his choice of words. Let me put the case more bluntly: There is an insidious tendency today for some sommeliers and insecure critics to praise obscure varieties and temporary styles that, when all is said and done, don’t actually taste very good. That a winemaker, like Andy Peay, has to come out and fulminate against “wine fads” is almost unprecedented—but then, so is the emergence of a maven class that seems hellbent on revolution for its own sake.

How else to explain the cult-like hosannas for low-alcohol Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in California? Andy Peay found a similar phenomenon for the offbeat in Copenhagen, where “all I could drink was wine esoterica” because the “tastemakers” are addicted to the strange and unfamiliar: Trusseau, Jura whites, Biodynamic wines “and other wine styles/regions currently in vogue” most of which Andy found “flawed and, mostly, downright unpalatable.” (Orange wine, anyone?) This is why Andy entitled his opinion piece “Yes, but be delicious”: It’s fine to be esoteric, but please, at least taste good! The first duty of wine, after all, is and always has been—not to satisfy the eclectic taste of bored gatekeepers—but to taste good and give pleasure.

Nor is this drumbeat for the “new” showing any signs of slowing down. Yestrrday’s San Francisco Chronicle, in the wine section, headlined the lead article “The next new wine thing,” a header that editors who have nothing else to say routinely trot out, offering timely proof of Andy Peay’s argument that “Wine writers need something new to write about.” Actually, they—we—do not; there is plenty to say about tradition. But wine writers’ editors and publishers, driven by more commercial motives than merely good writing, tell them to find something new—and so they dutifully do.

Go back to Andy’s phrase, “a social source of pleasure.” That is a compound noun containing a vast trove of implications. ”Social pleasure” is the opposite of “sensual pleasure.” It means, in essence, that when one of these wine faddists tastes something he or she believes to be “currently in vogue” among his peers, he actually is tasting—not the wine itself—but the idea of the wine in his mind! This is a form of idealism that is disconnected from reality and that, under different circumstances, could be described as hallucinatory.

Now, we don’t want our wine gatekeepers to be hallucinating, do we, but there is truth when Andy Peay continues: “Instead of highlighting the classic wines of the world, many tastemakers—including sommeliers, writers, and wine organizations—are focusing on what is novel in wine…”. There’s nothing inherently wrong with such a focus. Indeed, one could argue that somms and writers owe it to themselves and to their professions to seek out “what is novel in wine.” But all things in balance. There’s a huge difference between seeking out what is novel, and ignoring or, even worse, trashing everything that is traditional. But this latter approach marks too many modern tastemakers, who seem to believe that, if their father or grandfather liked it, then it is not worth considering.

One wonders if some modern tastemakers, and here I include bloggers, have even tasted the classics. Do they understand them? Do they know that there is a reason why some wines have been classic, and why some never have been–say, orange wine or Jura wine? Do they understand that, long after their careers have ended, the classics will remain the classics—and the obscure will be just as obscure as ever?

You know, sixteen years ago I went to a workshop at U.C. Davis entitled “Emerging Varietals.” Lots of important people were there: from Robert Mondavi, Silver Oak, Kendall-Jackson, Gallo, and the ubiquitous Randall Grahm. The purpose of the event: To discover “the next big things” in varietals. We tasted everything from Graciano and dry Touriga Nacional to Trinkadeira, Greco di Tufo and Gaglioppo—in order to, as one of the organizers explained, “take [winemaking in California] to the next level.”

Well, none of those varieties worked out particularly well, and I doubt, rather sadly, if any of Randall’s plans to breed 10,000 new varieties on his San Juan Bautista ranch will work out, either. (Randall was the subject of the Chronicle’s Sunday article, the one I referred to.) With all due respect to Randall, who has been interested in “emerging varieties” for a long time, the public has not been clamoring for them; and the gatekeeper somms and writers who get so worked up over obscure varieties seem to be a fickle bunch. They get bored easily; they do want some shiny new thing every five minutes. That does not seem to be a good audience to cultivate, unless you’re making, say, Gaglioppo, and if you are, good luck! I mean, seriously, does anyone think that in fifty years people are going to look back and say, “Gee, California really screwed up with Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc”? I don’t think so.


A tasting of Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay

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I was really looking forward to our first Chardonnay tasting yesterday, after a half-year of exploring Pinot Noir. Although Pinot is inherently a better, more complex variety than Chardonnay—at least, in California, IMHO—the latter is the most important variety and wine in our state, and across America, and the winery I work for, Jackson Family Wines, has a big stake in Chardonnay. So I thought it was important to taste intensively across all of the important appellations. We begin with Santa Maria Valley.

Chardonnay somehow seems to be in the crossfire of critics, who always have something to inveigh about it, or so it seems. These days, the invocation is for drier, lower alcohol and more streamlined Chardonnays—dare I call them “minerally”? In this Santa Maria Valley tasting, which was completely blind, we set ourselves the task of determining just what makes some wines more balanced than others, despite all of them being grown in close physical proximity to each other, and made more or less identically, along white Burgundy lines: barrel fermentation and aging, stirring on the lees, the malolactic fermentation.

We tasted eighteen wines, over nearly four hours; there was a great deal of conversation. My top-scoring wines (and the other tasters generally agreed) were Alta Maria 2014 Bien Nacido ($40, 95 points), Ojai 2013 Solomon Hills ($35, 95 points), Jackson Estate 2013 (98 points, about $20) and Alta Maria 2013 Rancho Viñedo ($40, 96 points). Yes, it was gratifying, but not entirely surprising, when the Jackson Estate took top honors. Other wines tasted were from Byron, Cambria, Foxen, Riverbench, Presqu’ile, Qupe, Chanin, Paul Lato and Rusack.

These Santa Maria Valley Chardonnays shared much in common. All show masses of fruit, due to the cool climate and exceptionally long hangtime of this southerly growing region. All exhibit mouthwateringly brisk acidity, and a firm minerality that I always think comes from the sands and fossilized seashells scattered throughout the soil. Sometimes there can be a slightly green note, although not in great vintages, such as 2013. The best wines show a real sense of terroir—not that generic feeling that the grapes could have been grown anywhere. And all the wines handle oak well, although, to put this into the proper context, I should say that on average the wines have between 10% and 35% or so of new oak. Beyond that, the barrel influence can dominate, especially when the wood has a good amount of char.

The greatest problem with these Chardonnays concerns residual sugar. Often, the wines are noticeably sweet, which in my book is a no-no. Sometimes, I think, the winemakers leave a little sugar in there to counter-balance the acidity, which can be fierce. But sometimes there doesn’t seem to be any discernible reason for it. There’s an exceedingly fine line between balanced R.S. and unbalanced R.S. For me, the former happens when the wine tastes opulent and honeyed yet finishes throroughly dry. The latter unfortunately strikes when the finish is not dry, giving the wine a somewhat insipid, cloying taste; the word “candied” frequently arises. Finding exactly where this line is is the supreme task of the winemaker.

The Santa Maria Valley is the least well-understood important coastal appellation in California. Critics and other tastemakers seldom get there, due mainly to the absence of tourist amenities such as hotels and restaurants. Whenever I visit, I stay at the Santa Maria Radisson near the airport—good enough for my needs, but well outside the appellation’s boundaries. In the valley proper, and especially on the bench and in the southern hills, Chardonnay can be as spectacular as any other region makes it. But, as our tasting showed, even though Chardonnay seems to be a “winemaker’s wine” that adapts to the most extreme interventions without resistance, it really is not an easy wine to make in a balanced way.

As we did with Pinot Noir, we’ll continue our Chardonnay tastings, moving northward up the coast. Next time: Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay. How does it differ from Santa Maria Valley? We’ll see.


Professional tasting, and more on the Wine Train (just a little)

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The central paradox of wine tasting is this: While professionals indisputably have educated palates, nonetheless they disagree with each other concerning individual wines to a considerable degree.

How can this be?

The simple answer is that, wine tasters being merely human, and wine tasting not an exact science, you would expect variations in tasters’ conclusions, the same way that film reviewers will often come down on different sides about a movie.

Still, every wine company on the production side of the business has, or wishes to have, a core of tasters, whose competence cannot be doubted, in order to weigh in on such things as new SKUs, or how to improve existing ones.

So what is the difference between a “competent professional” taster and just anybody? Well, Mr. “Just Anybody” is as entitled to his judgments about wine as anyone else. It’s a free country, and there is much to be said concerning the value of the opinion of the non-professional. Since the majority of wine consumers are non-professionals, their voices deserve to be heard. Or so it would seem.

The most esteemed professional taster, at any given winery, is usually deemed to be the winemaker. We assume that winemakers have excellent palates, because they spend their time tasting wine, analyzing it both intellectually and in the laboratory, comparing the wines of different producers and in general being experts.

However, winemakers have their own deficiencies concerning their tasting abilities. For one, they may not be naturally gifted (in the sense of being super-tasters). For another, the winemaker is in constant danger of developing a “house palate.” Then too, you can’t assume that every winemaker is widely familiar with competitive benchmarks. They may not have the budget to taste deeply. (What does a bottle of Montrachet cost these days? $800? And that’s if you can even find it.)

Still, it’s essential for the decision makers at wineries to assemble a tasting team. Which barrels will make the cut for the reserve? How shall the Meritage be assembled? Can we raise the price on the Sauvignon Blanc this year? Which blocks do we use in the estate Pinot? These are tough questions; ultimately, they are questions concerning quality. And quality is the realm of the tasting professional.

You do not have to be blessed with a natural palate to develop a professional one. If fact, as I’ve said many times before, there are huge risks in having a super-palate. (If you’re more sensitive to, say, TCA or brett than 99.9% of the people in the world, you’re not really the most representative person to recommend wine.) What it takes to develop a professional palate is nothing more or less than repeated tasting, and note-taking.

But back to the paradox I spoke of at the top. How can it be that professionals disagree, and what are we to make of those disagreements? Fundamentally, this throws a monkey wrench into the works. How can we believe anything that the professionals say when we know that they can differ, sometimes radically, in their evaluations of a wine?

There’s really no resolution to this problem, except to pick the critic you trust and disregard the others. This, though, brings us to the notion of crowd-sourced wine tasting. The concept is that, if you have enough participants, you can eliminate the outlying extremes and find a consensus, right there in the juicy middle of the bell curve.

I suppose this makes sense, in a scientific way. And morally, “the majority rules” in a democracy. But does this middle way bring us closer to the truth in wine tasting?

JUST IN

Napa Valley Wine Train Sold

Hmm. Talk about timing…


A grand dinner on the beach in Laguna

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We had a great time down at my recent Jackson Family Wines dinner at the Driftwood Kitchen, a grand restaurant right on the beach in Laguna Beach.

Laguna Beach, if you haven’t been there, is one of those rich beach towns in Orange County where every view is a picture postcard. It’s California’s Riviera, Monte Carlo without the gambling. I must say that Chef Rainer Schwarz prepared an outstanding dinner: pan-seared John Dory with potato gnocchi in lobster sauce with caremlized fennel; duck breast with butternut squash galette, goat cheese salad and roasted candied beets in a huckleberry vinaigrette; and a pair of proteins, filet mignon and short ribs, swimming in a potato coulis with brussel sprout chips, almonds and an Umbrian truffle sauce.

Sound good? It was. We paired each course with two JFW wines:

Course 1: Matanzas Creek Bennett Valley Sauvignon Blanc and Stonestreet Knights Valley Sauvignon Blanc

Course 2: La Crema Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and La Crema Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

Course 3: Freemark Abbey Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and La Jota Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon.

Yes, the pairings were as good as they sound. Different people had their favorites as to which wine paired best with each course, and so did I; but it’s really senseless to make these sorts of things into contests.

As the resident wine guy, my job was to say interesting things and, hopefully, keep people’s attention. Hosting these sorts of meals is lots of fun, but there are risks. As the evening goes on, and people drink more wine, it’s harder to keep their attention. You don’t want to force them to listen to you: they’ve paid their good money and are entitled to laugh it up with the others at their tables. (We had two big tables and two smaller tables, total of 26 guests in all.) As a result, the experienced dinner speaker has his bag of tricks to resort to.

I don’t overly-rehearse for these events. I’ve seen other hosts who have delivered the same spiel a thousand times, and you can tell: it’s not fresh or spontaneous. I’m a big believer in spontaneity. Life is spontaneous. You can have your talking points, and your written notes to refer to, but you have to go where the energy takes you. In this case, I wanted to talk about the wines and the wineries and the appellations, but I also wanted to gauge our guests’ knowledge of Jackson Family Wines, and their overall wine knowledge. You don’t want to talk up or down to people. You want to talk to them where they are—and since 26 people are in 26 different places, you have to keep your fingers crossed that you’re appealing to the majority of them, if not all of them. Believe me, it keeps you on your toes.

Things went very well. I can always tell from the feel of the guests; and the feel was happy and upbeat. Afterwards, 6 or 7 people came up to shake my hand and tell me how much they enjoyed the evening. That’s a great sign, when a quarter of your guests deliberately seek you out to say “Thank you.”

I will admit that, at the very end, things got pretty boisterous; and while I still had lots to say, I had to realize that my part—the formal part, anyway–of the night was over. At that point, people just wanted to enjoy themselves, not listen to a spiel about cepages and terroir. So I concluded, but it’s always nice, afterwards, to make the rounds of the tables, introduce yourself to folks you haven’t met, and continue the conversation more informally and intimately. And it doesn’t have to be about wine! When people are relaxed and comfortable at the end of a great meal, they know what they want to talk about. It might be their families, or something about work, or sports, or, well, romance. It’s called “hanging out” and it’s all part of the job.

And it’s a part I love. I get nervous before these things start, although maybe “nervous” is the wrong word. I conserve my energy. I center myself to be prepared for anything. I go internal. I imagine that Broadway actors go through the same thing. But once I’m out there, on my feet, wham! The ham in me loves it.

By the way, someone at the restaurant had the great idea of starting the night by putting KJ’s Grand Reserve Rosé, which we drank with passed-around appetizers, into a black glass. You couldn’t see the wine, so you didn’t even know what color it was. The idea was for me to explain to the guests how hard it can be to assess a wine when you don’t know anything about it, even the color. Of all our guests, I’d say about three-quarters thought it was white. A few thought it was red. But only one nailed it: when I asked him the color, whether he thought it was red or white, he said, “Could it be inbetween?” Good palate! I don’t know if I could have done that.

Have a lovely weekend. Back Monday.


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