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My respectful reply to criticism of my reviews

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Well, it happened again. A winemaker took umbrage at the scores I gave his wines, and emailed me with all the reasons why I was wrong.

So let me take a few minutes to explain. As I told the winemaker, I never mind it if someone reaches out to me to complain about my reviews. It’s fine to call me. We can agree to disagree, and just because you disagree doesn’t mean you have to be disagreeable. (That goes for me as well as for winemakers.)

That doesn’t mean I like it when I hear from a disappointed winemaker. I’m only human. I’d much rather someone call me up and say, “Way to go, Heimoff!” than “You really got that wrong.” Usually, these unhappy winemakers have three “facts” they cite in order to prove I’m wrong. They’ll tell me that the grapes came from a great vineyard and therefore it can’t deserve a middling score. Or they’ll tell me that other critics gave it higher scores than I did, and so I must have missed discerning its true qualities. Or they’ll simply cite their sincerity and passion as reasons why their wines should have scored better.

To all of which I say: That’s silly. Just because a wine comes from a “great vineyard” doesn’t mean that it has to be a great wine. We all understand that, don’t we? I should think so. And don’t even get me started on comparing my reviews to those of other critics. That’s fine, if you want to do it, but it carries no weight with me if you point out that ___ and ___ gave your wine 90-plus points while I didn’t. As for the sincerity thing–“We work our tails off to make the best wine we can”–a score in the 80s doesn’t mean to suggest that you don’t care, or that you’re not trying hard. I assume that every winemaker in the business is working his or her tail off and trying their best. The point is that trying one’s best isn’t good enough. The resulting wine has to deserve a great score.

I guess I should add a fourth “fact” often given to me by unhappy winemakers. They’ll review their own wine, find qualities in it that I didn’t, and hope thereby to persuade me that I somehow missed all that good stuff. Well, I think winemakers are the least objective appraisers of their own wines! They’re like doting parents who can’t bring themselves to perceive all the qualities–good and bad–about their children. We all know parents like that, don’t we? The same thing goes for dog owners. I know certain dogs that are not very nice animals. They’re angry, they snap at people and other dogs, they bark when there’s no reason to. And in some of these cases, their mommies and daddies are clueless that their pet has an attitude problem. It’s that way with some winemakers, too. Of course they love their product, and it’s only natural they’d be defensive about it, when and if it’s criticized. But winemakers also need to stand back and at least try to be objective. If they think highly enough of a critic to be upset if that critic doesn’t fall in love with their wine, then instead of complaining to the critic, they should read his words and try to understand the nature of the criticism. On the other hand, if they think the critic doesn’t have the chops to understand their wine, then why would they care what he says?

In most cases when I don’t enthuse over California wine, it’s because it suffers from one or more of the following issues:

1.   too sweet in residual sugar

2.   too fruity-extracted, i.e. a fruit bomb

3.   too soft or, conversely, too tart

4.   unbalanced in alcohol. I don’t object to high ABV, in and of itself, but I don’t like a wine that tastes and feels hot, which even some wines in the low to mid-14s do

5.   an overall simplicity or one-dimensionality

Notice that I’m not even mentioning true flaws, such as excessive brett, TCA, botrytis moldiness, heat damage, etc. I’m talking about wines that are technically “good” (by Wine Enthusiast standards) and drinkable, but just don’t deserve high scores.

Every winemaker wants those 90-plus scores. A part of me deplores that selling wine has come down to that, in order to market wine. But that is obviously beyond my control. I wish it weren’t so (and I know for a fact that every critic who uses the 100-point system feels the same way). I think we were as surprised as anyone when, in the 1990s and 2000s, the situation reached that point. I, myself, often drink wines at home that I’ve scored (or would score) in the middle 80s, and I like them. They’re good, sound, interesting wines that just don’t happen to have the extra levels of complexity required to lift a score over 90.

I have the utmost respect for California’s winemakers. I understand their jobs, not in the technical sense perhaps, but in the applied sense of having to sell their products. Some of them don’t have to worry about what people like me think; most of them do. It gives me no pleasure to disappoint them, but that’s my job, just as making wine is theirs. It just doesn’t work to turn out average quality wines no matter what your excuse is, and expect them to get 90 points or higher, especially at high prices. That dog won’t hunt. American consumers have too many choices from around the world these days for that to work anymore.


How dry was California in 2013?

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It’s official: 2013 was the driest year ever in recorded California history.

Here are some statistics for selected cities. The number represents the percentage of normal seasonal rainfall that has fallen so far during this year’s rainy season. (Figures courtesy of San Francisco Chronicle)

Bakersfield: 16.7%

Eureka: 12.5%

Los Angeles: 6.4%

Oakland: 7.7%

Sacramento: 8.6%

San Diego: 21.7%

San Francisco: 8.7%

San Jose: 9.8%

Santa Rosa: 6.2%

Napa City, meanwhile, had only 22.7% of its normal yearly precipitation average, according to the Napa Valley Register, making 2013 “the driest year since reliable records started being kept nearly a century ago in Napa.”

Granted, the 2013-2014 rainy season still has many months to go. But we’re getting off to a bad start, and people are scared.

The numbers clearly are unsustainable, and reflect the fact that the drought is statewide and not merely regional. All previous drought records, dating back to 1850, have not only been surpassed, but pulverized. “The official drought map of California looks as if it has been set on fire and scorched…”, a reporter wrote in the San Jose Mercury-News.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein in early December asked Cal. Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a drought emergency, an action Brown so far has resisted taking, although a week after Feinstein’s request, he did form a task force to study the issue. Some municipalities aren’t waiting for statewide action. The city of Folsom on Dec. 23 mandated a 20 percent rationing order. Three days later, Sacramento County asked some residents to reduce water consumption of 20 percent. In Sonoma County, the County Water Agency has asked permission from the state “to slash flows from Lake Mendocino to the Russian River,” in order to keep the reservoir’s dwindling water level from falling even more.

Other cities are expected to enact similar water-saving mores in January.

The American Geophysical Society announced that California, and large parts of the West, may be experiencing a “megadrought” that could last for decades. They released this drought map

 

drought map

showing the extent of “severe” and “extreme” drought, with the worst areas centering on California and northwestern Nevada.

What impact could the drought–if it continues through the rest of the winter and spring–have on California wine? Vintners fear there won’t be enough water to spray for frost protection during the crucial early budding season. And there won’t be enough water for vine irrigation next summer, especially if we have heat waves. This enforced dry-farming probably means lower crop levels, especially compared to the last few years. Catastrophically dry conditions could spark massive wildfires that take out vineyards.

Is the drought related to climate change? I’m not prepared to go that far.


Live! From Oakland’s Uptown District

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2014 will mark my 27th year living in Oakland. When I moved here, my neighborhood was rough and tumble. I used to describe it as the Wild West. Every now and then you’d hear gunshots, and some of the locals were rather disreputable.

I first started noticing demographic changes in the mid- to late 1990s. Real estate prices were soaring in San Francisco, forcing people out. Some of them found their way to Oakland. You know who the first group to arrive was? Lesbians. That’s when I knew my ‘hood was in for some good changes. Look what Lesbians did for Hayes Valley. They went there in the 1980s, when Hayes was all prostitutes and junkies. Now it’s one of S.F.’s hottest neighborhoods.

Following the Lesbians to my neighborhood came the gay boys, DINKs as we used to call them (double income, no kids). They had plenty of disposable income, with few places to spend it in Oakland. Entrepreneurs took note: in the early 2000s came the first wine bars and a sprinkling of interesting new restaurants. With the good economy of 2002-2007, restaurant and wine bar launches increased their pace. Jerry Brown, who was our Mayor from 1999-2007, heavily promoted the development of downtown, which had been wrecked in the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake; with his economic development program came shiny new condominium towers. More restaurants, wine bars, night clubs and entertainment venues followed the money. Suddenly, my neighborhood was rocking. Realtors gave it a flashy new name: Uptown.

Then the Great Recession hit. It was pretty devastating to San Francisco restaurants, but Oakland actually benefited. Chefs forced out of their restaurants crossed the Bay Bridge and opened places in Oakland, where rents were much cheaper. The food and wine prices weren’t as high in Oakland as in San Francisco, which brought diners in. Today, Uptown is perhaps the most thriving restaurant zone in the Bay Area. Every week, it seems, a new one opens up. And Uptown’s demographics continue to change. We’re now seeing an influx of young couples, often with little kids. These are people who don’t want to spend half their lives in a car on the freeway, commuting from the ‘burbs to their offices. They want to live in a vibrant, thriving inner city, close to BART and buses. (The 19th Street BART station in Uptown is three stops away from the Embarcadero station in San Francisco. One stop further and you’re at Montgomery Street, in the Financial District.)

Here are some of my favorite local restaurants. Come on down for a visit!

Boot and Shoe Service is awesome, attracting a colorful Oakland crowd. Hip, casual, fun and affordable, it has some of the best cucina rustica in town. My fave: any of the pizzas, topped with a gooey, poached farm egg. Prices are moderate.

 Hawker Fare is the second restaurant from Michelin-starred James Syhabout [Commis]. The storefront used to be a cheap Thai restaurant owned by his mom (I loved their fish cakes). When she retired, James opened Hawker Fare. It’s just a neighborhood joint, but with James’ inventive world touch. And it’s not expensive.

Some people don’t like Ozumo because it’s part of a chain, but I find the contemporary Japanese cuisine delicious and creative. This is a glamorous restaurant, and they do a good job with sushi. After dinner, I like to head next door to Pican, the city’s premier Black upscale restaurant, for their  classic Bourbon cocktails. (Fortunately, I can walk home!) Pican has got to be the most romantic late-night joint in town.

My friend Solomon co-owns the Ethiopian-themed Ensarro. You wouldn’t believe how busy this neighborhood joint is. Folks line up to get in the door. Prices are moderate. My favorite is the combo meat and vegetarian platter, served with the doughy bread they call inerja, which is made from teff flour.

Every once in a while I like to go to Bocanova, a Pan-American fusion place down on the waterfront at Jack London Square. If the weather’s nice, which it usually is, I sit in the outside patio, overlooking the estuary. The extensive menu is small plates, and everything is absolutely delicious: oysters on the half shell, papas fritas with aioli, grilled octopus, Peruvian fish stew with bacon and–I get hungry just thinking about it–the slow-roasted pork tamale with a poached egg and queso fresco.

Have a great weekend!

 


It’s two lists, for the price of one!

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Everybody else is making their top list, so why not me? I’ve never done it before, so here goes. And not just one, but two. All reviews have been published in Wine Enthusiast, with the identical score. In this post, I’ve shortened the descriptions a little.

First, the top wines: ageable and classic.

Williams Selyem 2010 30th Anniversary Cuvée Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir. 97 points, 25 cases produced, 13.8% alcohol, $125. If you think great Pinot Noir has to come from a single vineyard, this wine will set you straight. It’s a blend of Bob Cabral’s various vineyards, and he has access to some of the greatest in the Russian River Valley.

W.H. Smith 2010 Hellenthal Vineyard Pinot Noir. 96 points, 241 cases, 14.2%, $48. The vineyard is way out there in the Fort Ross-Seaview section of the Far Sonoma Coast, in the neighborhood of Hirsch, Flowers and Failla. The wine is classic coastal, and at this price, a great bargain, and quite cellar-worthy.

Terra Valentine 2010 K-Block Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon. 95 points, 106 cases, 14.9%, $65. I like Terra Valentine. They always make great wine and their prices have remained modest, by Napa standards. This is not just a lovely Cab, it’s ageable too.

Stonestreet 2010 Rockfall Cabernet Sauvignon. 95 points, 2331 cases, 14.5%, $100. Just to prove that Napa Valley doesn’t have the lock on ageable Cabernet. Of course, the winery’s Alexander Valley appellation hides the fact that the high mountain vineyard is actually just on the Sonoma side of the Mayacamas Mountains, giving the wine something of a Spring or Diamond Mountain tannic intensity.

Merry Edwards 2010 Meredith Estate Pinot Noir. 95 points, 1450 cases, 14.2%, $57. Year in and year out, Merry Edwards rocks. The cool vintage shows in the tangy acidity, which makes this wine so racy and pure.

Clendenen 2005 Bricco Buon Natale Nebbiolo. 95 points, 418 cases, 13.5%, $50. You can count successful California Nebbs on one hand. This is surely among the best the state ever has produced. I believe the grapes are from Bien Nacido. The wine is luscious and spectacular and, at eight years of age, still has a long future.

Testarossa 2010 Rincon Vineyard Chardonnay. 95 points, 229 cases, 14.4%, $39. Talley’s version of Rincon Chard is more famous, but now the peripatetic Testarossa, always on the lookout for a great vineyard, gets to dip into this Arroyo Grande property. Mmmmmmm good, so tart and fruity.

Robert Mondavi 2011 Fumé Blanc. 95 points, 1975 cases, 14.5%, $32. The appellation is Oakville, and I suspect that a good portion of the grapes come from To Kalon. What style and class you have here. I just wish all California Sauvignon Blancs were this dry and racy.

Nickel & Nickel 2010 Harris Vineyard Merlot. 95 points, 1639 cases, 14.3%, $53. I’m not the biggest Merlot fan ever, but you have to give credit to this single-vineyard, Oakville-grown wine. It’s intense, tannic and almost sweet in liqueur and oak notes, yet the finish is dry and complex.

Sanguis 2011 Incandescent Proprietary White Wine. 94 points, 275 cases, 14.3%, $50. The iconoclastic Matthias Pippig likes to shatter expectations with weird blends that shouldn’t work, but do. This one’s Roussanne, Chardonnay and Viognier, grown in Santa Barbara County. It scores high on the Wow! factor.

Next, ten Best Buys of 2013.

Kendall-Jackson 2011 Avant Chardonnay. 90 points, 84,000 cases, 13.5%, $15. It’s not quite sweet, not quite dry, but somewhere in the middle. Another inexpensive success story from K-J.

Firestone 2010 Gewurztraminer. 90 points, 1474 cases, 13.5%, $14. This Gewurz has all the spicy power you want in the variety. It’s from the Santa Ynez Valley.

Chalone 2011 Pinot Noir. 90 points, 40,000 cases, 13.5%, $15. Lord knows, there aren’t many decent Pinots at this price point. But Chalone knows from Pinot Noir. This is a good one, from Monterey County.

Vina Robles 2012 Sauvignon Blanc. 90 points, 2583 cases, 14.3%, $14. So tangy, clean and citrusy, it doesn’t need oak to succeed, which it does. Brilliantly.

Luli 2012 Rosé. 90 points, 610 cases, 14%, $15. The appellation is Central Coast, and the blend is Grenache and Pinot Noir. I’m a big critic of sweet, flaccid California rosés, but this is just the opposite. Dry, crisp and delicate.

Bogle 2010 Old Vine Zinfandel. 89 points, 240,000 cases, 14.5%, $11. Bogle knows exactly how to make good Zin at large case production numbers. I suspect the fruit, or most of it, comes from the valley or the Delta. Whatever, this is a sure-fire bargain.

Bailiwick 2012 Vermentino. 90 points, 325 cases, 13.5%, $15. California needs more wines like this. Dry, crisp, minerally and fruity, the perfect antidote to oaky Chardonnay or sweet Sauvignon Blanc.

Marilyn 2011 Norma Jean Merlot. 88 points, 4000 cases, 12.5%, $12. Enjoy this polished, supple, fruity Merlot, then keep the bottle as a souvenir. Marilyn Monroe remains as beautiful and mysterious as she was fifty years ago.

HandCraft 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon. 88 points, 7500 cases, 12.5%, $13. When I blogged the other day about how high-scoring wines aren’t always best for food, this is the kind of Cab I had in mind. From the Indelicato family.

Pepi 2012 Pinot Grigio. 87 points, 15,000 cases, 13%, $10. Just what an everyday PG should be: honeyed yet dry, crisp and utterly drinkable. Bring on the Thai food.


We Remember

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John-F-Kennedy-9362930-1-402


What does “elegant” mean in wine?

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“Elegant” is one of those words critics love to use to describe wine, but it sure must befuddle civilians. Here’s Hugh Johnson referring to “elegant reds” from Portugal. Jancis Robinson calls a Spanish red “elegant” in this tweet. Antonio Galloni says some ’06 Barolos have elegance. Steve Tanzer calls a Paso Robles Rhône-style blend elegant, while I myself said the Riberas I tasted in San Francisco last year possessed “great elegance.”

What does elegance mean, anyhow? Its roots go back through French to the Latin verb ligare, which means “to tie, bind, unite,” which in turn seems tied to another old Latin word, eligere, “to select” (from which our word “election” derives). The modern meaning of elegant, of course, is “dignified richness and grace, as of design, dress, style, etc.” (according to my Webster’s New World Dictionary).

It’s hard to define just what any of these terms mean. I have young hip-hoppy friends who probably would never use the word “elegant” to describe anything, thinking it poofy; but in their own way, they know an elegant rap when they hear one. So there’s an element of culture (or class) that comes into play when you use words like “elegant.”

But let’s stick to wine. All the critics are throwing the e-word around, even though nobody’s quite sure what it means when it comes to that liquid in the glass. So let’s break it down. I can speak only for myself, but I think my views are widely shared. An “elegant” wine, first of all, has a certain mouthfeel. In my own vocabulary I use words like “silky” and “velvety,” which of course suggest images of fine fabrics, like taffeta or old tapestries. These are expensive items to buy; the implication is that “elegant” pertains to costly wines. It takes quite a bit of work (in both the vineyard and the winery) for the winemaker to create that mouthfeel, and the cost of doing so eventually finds its way into the price of the bottle.

But “elegant” is much more than just mouthfeel. There are silky wines that are mediocre. To truly be “elegant” the wine must also be superbly balanced: in acids, tannins, alcohol, fruit and oak. It might be so tannic that you can hardly drink it young, but that doesn’t preclude elegance: classified growth Bordeaux is famously elegant even though it needs years in the cellar. I’d add complexity to the list of qualities implied by “elegance.” Just as a tapestry is so complex you can look at it for a long time and keep seeing new things, so too an elegant wine only gradually unfolds itself.

It might be easier to break it down if I look at specific wines I’ve called elegant in the last month or so. The Amici 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, from Napa Valley, got the word, as did the 2010 Truchard, from Carneros, and the 2009 Arrowood, from Sonoma County. Moving on to Chardonnay, I called Falcone’s 2012 “elegant,” but I also found elegance in Retro’s 2009 Old Vine Petite Sirah, from Howell Mountain. You don’t usually associate brawny, muscular Petite Sirah with elegance, any more than you associate Jesse Ventura (remember him?) with elegance. But a big man can be elegant: Orson Welles, in late middle age, was. Pinot Noir is famously elegant; Williams Selyem’s 2011 Allen Vineyard defines that quality, even as the wine itself is brooding and needs plenty of time in the bottle.

It may be clarifying to draw analogies to other consumer goods. Tailored clothing is easy to describe as elegant: a great suit (men’s or women’s), a fine necktie, a stylish pair of Italian loafers, even a well-cut pair of jeans. Cars can be elegant: I think Audis and BMWs are, with their stylish lines. Actors can be elegant: Claire Danes, Gwyneth Paltrow and George Clooney come to mind. On the other hand, the following actors are not elegant: Adam Sandler, Kathy Bates, Jack Black, Russell Crowe. This doesn’t mean they’re not great, likeable actors. It just means that, whatever “elegant” means, they don’t have it.

Michael Broadbent, in his Pocket Guide to Wine Tasting (a useful book whose diminutive size belies its trove of information), describes an “elegant” wine as one possessing “stylish balance and refined quality.” Again, these words are, by themselves, hard to define. But, as Justice Potter Stewart once said of pornography, he couldn’t define it, “but I know it when I see it.”


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