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The truth behind the lie that “Wine tasting is junk science”

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The last few years there’s been a ton of stuff published about how inaccurate critics’ reviews are. You’ve heard it all: We’re influenced by price. We give different reviews to the same wine. Different critics give widely varying scores to the same wines. (For a summary of the various complaints, click here, to this article which appeared yesterday on Yahoo Finance.)

All of the individual criticisms are largely true. In a moment, I’ll tell you why none of that matters, but first, I want to try and figure out why some people get so psychologically bent out of shape about wine critics.

The latest to do so is this guy, David Derbyshire (great name), who writes for the British publication, The Guardian. Here’s the link to his article, Wine-tasting: it’s junk science.

Why don’t people get so upset about restaurant critics or movie critics? You’ll never see an article headlined RESTAURANT REVIEWS ARE JUNK SCIENCE. That’s because restaurant reviewers don’t pretend to be offering anything but their opinion.

Well, neither do wine critics. If you want a “scientific” analysis of a wine, send it to ETS. But how useful would that be for the consumer? Not very. Consumers don’t want scientific analyses of wine and they don’t need them. They want to know what it smells and tastes like, and how it feels in the mouth, and maybe a few other things. For these, they turn to critics.

What’s wrong with that?

We could settle this whole thing in 5 seconds if all the wine critics would take the pledge. What pledge? Admit that your review is the way you responded to that particular wine at that particular time. Don’t claim to be scientific about it, just assure readers that you’re doing your level best and have no conflicts of interest. I sometimes think critics invite this outside criticism because of their implication that wine tasting is science when it’s not. All the critics know this. They all know how fallible they are. They all know they could be fooled, and rather easily at that. But very few of them will admit it. They hide under a veil of authority and pretense, and that’s precisely why this field of wine reviewing is becoming suspect.

If social media has taught us anything, it’s to be transparent in our dealings. Transparency doesn’t cost people their reputation; it enhances it. And the most transparent thing a critic can do is to tell people, Hey, I could be wrong, but this is my opinion, just sayin’.


Even the New York Times now recognizes California’s diversity

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When I read Eric Asimov’s statement that “The polarizing years of California wine are over. No longer can its styles be summed up in a descriptive phrase or two,” I thought: “What? They never could.” I mean, I never summed up California’s “styles” in such simplistic, reductionist phrases as (to quote Eric), “plush, concentrated cabernet sauvignon; lush, jammy pinot noir; buttery oak-bomb chardonnay; or extravagantly ripe, blockbuster zinfandel.”

Any individual wine might be describable in those terms. But to describe all the state’s Cabernets, Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, Zinfandels and whatever that way is just plain wrong. It was wrong ten years ago, it was wrong five years ago, and it’s wrong today. So it’s nice to see Eric finally coming around to that realization.

Of course, it’s been the conventional East Coast wisdom for years that California wine could be summed up in pat phrases. It was a smear, but I never was sure what their motive was. Even Eric concedes that this view of “a monolithic wine culture” was an “impression.” Impressions are not knowledge, but feelings. Impressions can be misleading, and it can be hard to separate impressions from their near-cousins, biases.

There are several possible explanations for this one-dimensional view. The first is that people simply didn’t taste enough California wines to know how diverse they are. They didn’t know that, even though there admittedly are a lot of oak-bomb Chardonnays, California has long had balanced Chards as well: Kistler, Failla, Rochioli, Marimar Torres, Morgan, Dutton-Goldfield, Chateau St. Jean, Gary Farrell, Williams Selyem, Hanzell, Mount Eden, to name a few. I could go through similar lists of balanced Cabernets, Pinots and Zinfandels, but it would take too much space.

Another explanation is that California’s recent string of cool vintages (2009 and counting) is resulting, per force, in wines of less fruity concentration, making them more appealing to a Europhile’s palate. This is certainly the conventional wisdom, and it may contain elements of truth. But, if California wines are leaner, or more elegant, or less alcoholic than they were, say, five years ago–to say nothing of less oaky, which would not have anything to do with the weather–it’s by very tiny degrees, certainly nothing so dramatic as to enable someone to proclaim the end of a “polarizing” era and the beginning of a–what is the opposite of polarizing?–more conciliatory one, in which the full diversity of California’s wines can be appreciated.

Anyway, I’m glad to see Eric, one of the nation’s leading and most important wine critics, who is in a unique position to guide America’s taste, come around. As they say, better late than never.


When wine doesn’t have to apologize for being what it is

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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.

Kendall-Jackson Avant

Firestone

Bogle

L de Lyeth

Pedroncelli

Smoking Loon

Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi

Robert Mondavi Private Selection

Greystone

CK Mondavi

Kirkland Signature

Happy Camper

Geyser Peak

Ballard Lane

Line 39

Nickname

Avalon

Bota Box

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.


Everything about aging California wine is changing

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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.)


In defense of wine tasting notes

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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.


Rosé rising

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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.)


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