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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.”


When wine is actually worth its price

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I blogged the other day about high prices and the way some people pay more for certain wines than those wines are intrinsically worth. So I thought it would be appropriate for me to suggest some wines I’ve reviewed this year that actually provide exceptional value. Here we go.

We have, at Wine Enthusiast, a special designation we reviewers can give wines, at our discretion. It’s called Editor’s Choice. It’s a kind of gold star on the forehead (I’m dating myself with that one) for a wine that is exceptional in some way that may or may not be related to its price. The concept of Editor’s Choice admittedly is a little loosey-goosey; I tend to apply it sparingly (maybe 2% of all wines I review), and it’s not always easy for me to spell out in words exactly why I do. It’s just a feeling, but it is based on my many years of appraising wines, and so I think it gives value to my readers.

For instance, I gave an Editor’s Choice to the Bonaccorsi 2010 Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir (95 points, $45) for several reasons. One is because that’s a very high score, while $45 is not exorbitant for Pinot Noir these days. The vineyard, Fiddlestix, is famous and important down in the Santa Rita Hills, which provides for some thoughtful conversation about the wine. These factors–high score, fair price and an intellectual component–in my mind definitely qualify it for an Editor’s Choice.

I also gave an Editor’s Choice to the Chappellet 2011 Signature Chenin Blanc, Napa Valley (92 points, $30). My reasoning there had more to do with the variety than anything else. Had it been a 92 point Chardonnay for $30, I wouldn’t have given it the designation. And had it been a $60 bottle, I wouldn’t have done it, either. But Chenin is a wine so difficult to make well (in California), and this one was so good, at such a fair price, that, once again, it was a no-brainer.

A third example was Miro’s 2011 Wolcott-Bevill & Piccetti Zinfandel (92 points, $26). That wine didn’t qualify for a Best Buy designation (which is based strictly on a price-score ratio). But 92 points is pretty good for a 26 buck Zin, and this one moreover displayed classic Dry Creek character. It may have been this latter feature that inspired me to give it an Editor’s Choice. I like wines that are classic examples of their regions.

Here are selected other Editor’s Choices from this year:

Jaffurs 2011 Stolpman Vineyard Roussanne, Santa Barbara County) (93 points, $30. The vineyard is in the Ballard Canyon region of Santa Ynez Valley.))

Ehlers Estate 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, St. Helena (93 points, $28)

Matanzas Creek 2010 Chardonnay, Sonoma County (92 points, $26)

Landmark 2010 Steel Plow Grenache, Sonoma Valley (92 points, $35)

Sbragia 2010 Home Ranch Merlot, Dry Creek Valley (92 points, $35)

Von Strasser 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain (92 points, $45)

Calera 2011 Chardonnay, Mt. Harlan, (92 points, $30)

Ziata 2009 Cabernet Franc, Oakville (92 points, $60. Yes, that’s pretty pricey, but the combination of quality and the fact that it’s a very serious Oakville red wine qualified it.)

Dutton Estate 2011 Kyndall’s Reserve Chardonnay, Russian River Valley (92, $38)

Eberle 2011 Mill Road Vineyard Viognier, Paso Robles (89 points, $23)

Morgan 2012 Metallico Un-Oaked Chardonnay, Santa Lucia Highlands (89 points, $22)

J. Lohr 2010 Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles (89 points, $17. What swung this for me was sheer drinkability. This would make a great house red.)


Friday Fishwrap

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I was pleased to see the California State Legislature approve yesterday a resolution to honor California’s Mexican American Vintners. The Legislature, which is based in the State capital of Sacramento, will hold a reception on Sept. 4 “to honor, advance and recognize the contributions and history of California’s Mexican-American winemakers.”

The event was announced by State Senator Noreen Evans, a Democrat who represents much of the North Coast’s wine regions. Sen. Evans also chairs the Senate Select Committee on California’s Wine Industry. Most if not all of the 14 family winemakers who will be honored are members of, or helped form, the Napa Sonoma Mexican-American Vintners Association.

It’s all too rare that California officially gets to give a shoutout to our Mexican-American vintners. Although there aren’t many of them at this time–in the sense of owning their own wineries–anyone with the remotest familiarity with the California wine industry understands that it would completely collapse without the efforts of thousands of Mexican and Latino employees, from assistant winemakers to field workers. So, in a sense, these workers also are being honored, which is only right.

And it seems Hispanic Americans are learning to love wine! Yahoo Finance reported this morning that “annual wine consumption among Hispanics would increase by nearly 50 million cases over the next 20 years. That would put annual wine consumption by U.S. Hispanics at nearly 95 million cases…”.

* * *

Is it any surprise that “drinking two to seven glasses of wine a week lowers the risk of becoming depressed by 32% on average…”? “Their hearts shall be glad as with wine” says the prophet Zechariah. Isaiah advises men to “drink [wine] in the courts of my sanctuary” while praising the Lord. Haven’t we always known that wine chases away the blues?

* * *

The 2013 vintage so far looks like a great one. For all the talk about how hot it’s been, it really hasn’t been that toasty. The harvest looks to be early, but that’s because of the warm, dry winter. Spring and summer by contrast have been mild, but not hot. We don’t even seem to be gearing up for the usual Labor Day heat wave: The forecast is more of the same: dry, cool nights, warm days after the fog lifts. If this weather continues for the next 45 days it will be an incredible vintage. But anything can happen.

* * *

I’ve been following the Gary Vaynerchuk vs. New York State Liquor Authority brouhaha the last week or so. The SLA apparently has banned Gary’s wine store, Wine Library–the biggest wine retailer in New Jersey–from sending wine to New York customers. This is regrettable, as it’s state interference in the free exchange of goods between willing adults, which is wrong. By the way, whatever happened to Gary? Once he gave up his Wine Library T.V. show, he seems to have disappeared.

Have a great weekend!


Have a nice weekend

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Steve isn’t feeling well today and is taking the day off. Back on Monday!


Happy Independence Day!

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Love our freedom. Back tomorrow.


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