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When wine writers lose it

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David Butner’s comment on Facebook yesterday, concerning a blogger’s put-down of one of his wines, raises questions of enormous interest to the world of wine criticism, especially in this era of “everybody can be a critic through the magic of the Internet.”

Butner is owner/winemaker at a Washington State winery, Kaella. One of his wines (which I’ve never had) is a 2010 Sangiovese, from the Ciel de Cheval Vineyard, and bearing a Red Mountain appellation. The blog that reviewed it, on Dec. 10, was WAwineman’s Northwest Wine Weekly. Among other things, WAwineman wrote: “Nose: sudsy, rubbing alcohol, dirty cherry. Mouthfeel: tangy, soft medium-bodied. Tail trail: 4 seconds. Flavors: sour cherry punch, midpalate Bhopal-style alcohol plume, green cranberry, chainsaw’d oak, heavy dose of drying tannins. Even rougher 24 hours later.” Rating: 59 points!

Now, this upset Dave Butner so much that he put up his Facebook post, in which he shared his anger with all of us readers. The review of his wine “ripped it to shreds. I mean, just one of the most brutal reviews I’ve read, a real hatchet job,” Dave wrote. Turns out he wrote the blogger a note, apologizing for his “bad experience with the wine,” suggested it was an off bottle, and offered him a replacement bottle.

The blogger, according to Dave, wrote back: “Yes sir, it really sounds like one bad bottle in the bunch. I visited your tasting room recently as well as attended your inaugural opening weekend so I know the quality of your wines across your portfolio. This one clearly did not fit with the consistency of the Kaella label…” Which led Dave to wonder how the blogger “agrees it must be a bad bottle…and then writes a scathing review of it, making no mention at all about the possibility of a bad bottle? I don’t think that is cool,” Dave concludes.
His Facebook post resulted in a ton of comments, most of which gave the blogger a negative review. A typical one was this: “there are bad wines that deserve bad reviews, but it seems like this guy could tell there was something wrong with the wine, but he didn’t say ‘This was a bad bottle, I think’, instead he implied that 25% of your output was like this. That’s pretty bad.” Another commenter was Sean Sullivan, who’s just been hired to be one of Wine Enthusiast’s Pacific Northwest reviewers (alongside Paul Gregutt). Sean wrote: “Ed Matsuwaka is his [the blogger’s] name. He’s a troll who just likes the attention. Ignore him.”
WAwineman responded to the criticisms of Butner and others with what I can only describe as a spirited defense of himself. Here are a couple bullet points:
-       Why is it so damn hard to just rate a wine for what it really is?
-       bottom line is, this is a real, truly independent wine blog. Why I have to continue proving this is the winemaker’s fault, not mine.
A truly independent wine blog should be fearless in reviewing wines, regardless of whose ox is gored. I have no doubt that WAwineman’s blog is independent, and that he prides himself in his take-no-prisoners approach. And if he hated the Kaella Sangiovese, fine. There are wines I hate, too, although Wine Enthusiast’s policy is to “bury” anything below 80 points, to avoid exactly the kind of public humiliation Butner endured.
But WAwineman clearly avoided coming to terms with the huge criticism that, if he’d visited the winery and truly “kn[e]w the quality of your wines across your portfolio,” then he ought to have bought or requested a second bottle to review. There’s no way for him to get around it. The most he could do was to complain that wineries should “NEVER” sell bad bottles. Well, in a perfect universe there wouldn’t be bad bottles, but the universe we live in isn’t perfect. Bottles suffer—happily, not many, but some—and a wine critic with any sense of professional responsibility would take the time to retaste a wine if he had reason to believe the first bottle was flawed. And in this case, it sounds like WAwineman had plenty of reasons to suspect that there was something wrong with his original sample.
On the other hand, all the above is predicated on the supposition that WAwineman knows anything about tasting wine. After all, the Sangiovese could have been quite a good wine, by any reasonable standards; it might have been WAwineman’s tasting ability that rates 59 points. There is one other critic I know of who tasted the 2010 Kaella Sangiovese and loved it: my friend Paul Gregutt, who reviewed it for Wine Enthusiast. He scored it 91 points and wrote: “There’s much to admire here – moderate alcohol, great vineyard, varietal expression, sophisticated winemaking – and all at a more than fair value.” In fact, in all his years of reviewing Washington wines, Paul’s only scored 5 Sangioveses higher than 91 points. I know Paul, I trust Paul, he’s the Pacific Northwest’s senior wine writer. Which means, ergo, I cannot trust WAwineman.
Finally, in his self-defense, WAwineman couldn’t resist indulging in some hating on other wine writers, like Paul.
And, that brings me to the topic of those hoidy-toidy wine snobs who think they know wine. Hey, if these wine writers really knew their shit after all these years, why aren’t they “Master Sommeliers” or “Master of Wine” designees? Why not? Because, bottom line, they are no different than any other newbie wino. Chan, Sullivan, Gregutt, and even Sealey… not a single one of them could duplicate their tasting experiences in a truly blind tasting. No one can. Their narcissitic problem is that they THINK they know wines and deceive the public into thinking that. They are f*cking with other people’s money and that’s their crime against humanity. My greatest wish is that I testify against these buttf*ckers at The Hague, as they sit chained next to Assad, Morsi, and Kony.
I don’t know who “Chan” or “Sealey” are, but I presume they’re professional wine writers. Sullivan is the Sean I referenced above, who now writes for the Enthusiast. Sounds to me like this WAwineman is filled with anger at the fact that some people are making a living at this gig and he isn’t.
Look, as a professional wine writer who’s been at this for a while, I have strong feelings about ethics, standards, professional practices. Wine writing and criticism has always been the profession of gentlemen and gentlewomen. I expect a new generation of bloggers to inform themselves about how this business is done and behave accordingly. If the wine blogosphere doesn’t clean up its act, it will be worthless. One proactive thing wine bloggers could do is to identify those in our midst (as in the recent Natalie McLean brouhaha) who over step over the line. WAwineman has stepped over the line. Peer pressure might work where conscience doesn’t.
If WAwineman wants to continue in this business and achieve any respect, he should learn about professional standards, and try to play well with other writers in the sandbox. Oh, and he might clean up the smutty language, and learn the correct spelling of “narcissistic.”


Some Zinfandels I liked in 2012

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I reviewed fewer than 300 Zinfandels last year, which is about average for me. There isn’t all that much premium Zin bottled in California’s coastal regions, which is my beat. I no longer cover the vast Sierra Foothills—Virginie Boone does that—and I miss tasting those hearty, heady Zins.

Zinfandel accounted for 8.9% of all grapes crushed in California in 2011, giving it third place (after Cab and Chardonnay). While California acreage of Zinfandel is very wide—the #2 most planted red wine grape, after Cabernet Sauvignon—a lot of it is in the Central Valley counties of San Joaquin, Fresno, Madera, Stanislaus and Merced, and most of that fruit or bulk wine goes into jugs or boxes of inexpensive blends.

I suspect a lot more good Zinfandel could be produced along the coast, from the Russian River-Sonoma Coast and Napa Valley, down through the Santa Cruz Mountains and San Luis Obispo right into Santa Barbara. But growers and vintners have to look at the business side of things, and Zinfandel just doesn’t sell. It fetched a statewide average of only $443 per ton in 2011, actually one of the lowest for any variety, including Teroldego, Tannat, Calabrese, Gamay and Lemberger. Only a few truly execrable varieties—Ruby Cabernet, Rubired and Refosco among them—were cheaper than Zinfandel. (The average cost per ton of Cabernet, by contrast, was $1,029.)

Still, wineries who have long been committed to Zinfandel remain steadfast; no one, to my knowledge, who has produced Zin for any length of time has voluntarily given it up. The North Coast counties of Napa and Sonoma perform best. In my mind, Napa Valley Zinfandel is more finely crafted, more balanced and nuanced than Sonoma County Zinfandel, but I suppose you could call that a fault rather than a virtue. If you’re looking for classically brawny Zins, spicy, briary and heady, it’s Sonoma you look to.

Zinfandel for me is one of those wines that can’t quite decide whether it’s noble or common. In a great one, the aroma, the entry or attack, the complexity, the balance, the finish all are there, yet something at the last minute detracts. It’s like seeing someone very glamorous and well-dressed at the Opera with a piece of toilet paper stuck to their heel. The best Zinfandel I ever tasted was the Hartford Court 2007 Highwire Vineyard, Russian River Valley, which I gave 96 points four years ago. It was very high in alcohol (15.5%). I wrote “It should be in a museum” because of its classic Sonoma-ness. Yet even that wine, great as it was, was a little country, a handsome rube with hay in its hair.

Here are some of my top Zins of 2012, with their appellations:

Bella 2009 Barrel 32 (94 points, $48, Sonoma County)

Elyse 2009 Black-Sears Vineyard (93, $37, Howell Mountain)

Turley 2010 Tofanelli Vineyard (93, $34, Napa Valley)

Oakville Winery 2010 Estate (93, $25, Oakville)

Summers 2009 Four-Acre (93, $34, Calistoga)

Williams Selyem 2010 Bacigalupi Vineyard (93, $50, Russian River Valley)

De Loach 2009 OFS (93, $30, Russian River Valley)

John Tyler 2007 Bacigalupi Vineyard (92, $38, Russian River Valley)

Sausal 2009 Century Vines (92, $40, Alexander Valley)

Chateau Potelle 2009 VGS (92, $65, Mount Veeder)


HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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Taking the day off. See you tomorrow!


How does a winery get from the minor leagues to the major?

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I was talking yesterday with a guy on the marketing side of the wine industry who’s trying to promote his winery (as all good marketers should always be doing). He used an analogy with Major League Baseball—that his winery has reached AAA status in the minors (the top category) and now is ready and willing to hit the Major League. But it hasn’t happened yet, and he was wondering how to get it done.

As he put it, “How did those guys at the AAA level get to the Majors? How did they take the step to get access to capital to develop their business?”

Well, that’s the Big Question, isn’t it.

I replied that there’s no one answer to the question, but at least two that I can see, based on my years of observation. One is that some people simply buy their way into the Majors. They start with a ton of money they made from another industry or inheritance (Gordon Getty at PlumpJack), buy a prime piece of real estate in a significant appellation, hire the talent (viticultural and enological) to make killer wine, and then hire the public relations pros to promote the heck out of their wines. That’s how everybody from Tom Jordan to Kenzo Tsujimoto did it.

Fortunately it’s not the only way. Then there are the guys who started with little or no money and did it the old-fashioned way: sweat equity. They simply made great wine while no one was looking. Nobody gave them anything; they asked for nothing. Quietly, they did their thing until the media—and then the sommeliers and other influencers—noticed. Justin Smith, at Saxum, and Ehren Jordan, at Failla, come to mind.

The marketing guy’s reference to getting “access to capital” made me think. His idea was that if a winery is performing at the peak of their game with limited resources—i.e. at the AAA level–they should be able to convince a moneybags to invest to push the winery into the Majors. I replied that it seems to me that investors will only invest in a winery if they think it will make money, but he reminded me that there’s plenty of capital invested in wineries by people who don’t expect to make a pile of profit. They don’t want to lose money, but they do want to at least break even, and have the chance to live the winery lifestyle. (I’d love to take visiting friends to visit “my” winery but I don’t think that’s going to happen unless I win the Powerball Lottery.)

That’s the same dream that all those young entrepreneurs down in Silicon Valley have: an angel investor comes along and believes in them enough to finance whatever they need to realize their vision. I don’t really know enough about this investment side of the wine business to know if rich people actually do look for opportunities to help struggling younger winemakers up their game. But I do know that old adage: How do you make a small fortune in wine? Start with a large one.

Finally, there’s this reality: Not all Major League Baseball players are equal. Some, like Cal Ripken, have long, fabulous careers. Some, like Buster Posey (yay!) are just starting out on what could be long, fabulous careers. And some burn out early and fade away, sometimes going back to the Minors. Just because a winery makes it to the Majors doesn’t mean they can stay there—especially through all the ups and downs of the economy.

I’ve always thought there’s an element of magic to getting and staying famous. Heidi Barrett once told me that when she and Screaming Eagle got super-famous it caught even her by surprise; she described it as a wildfire that just erupted and swept everything before it. If there was a formula for making it, everyone would follow it. There isn’t. Short of being able to buy your way in, the best way to make it to the Majors and stay there is to do whatever it takes to make the greatest wine possible.


Cork: equal time in the closure wars

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A few weeks ago, I blogged on the closure wars, and specifically about Nomacorc, a plastic “cork.” While I was careful to write, in bold italics, “This is in no way a product endorsement of Nomacorc,” I was aware of the fact that my sources of information were representatives from Nomacorc. They did a good job pointing out the advantages and efficiencies of their product, and that’s what I reported on.

So it wasn’t completely surprising when a fellow named Dustin Mowe contacted me, asking if we could meet up so he could tell me the real,  natural cork side of the argument. Dustin’s president of Portocork America, whose website describes it as “the premier supplier of natural cork closures to the North American wine industry.”

Dustin drove down from Napa, where the company is headquartered, and we met at my office-away-from-home, also known as Whole Foods. (Full disclosure: I let Dustin buy me a medium soy latte.) I told him I was there to learn, not to take sides. This was an important ice-breaker, I think, because the cork people have felt a bit beleaguered in recent years, what with TCA being a problem and vastly increased competition from plastic “corks,” like Nomacorc and screwtops. Dustin was perhaps expecting to have to defend natural corks more than proved to be the case; I let him know right away that I have no great argument against natural cork, just as I have no great argument with screwtops or plastic closures in general (except the ones that swell up after you extract them, and then don’t fit back into the bottle).

It seems to me that every producer has to figure out what makes the most sense for his wines, economically, esthetically and technically. I’ve learned enough over the years to know there’s no perfect solution to the bottle closure issue. There always will be a certain failure rate for natural cork, in the sense of it being infected with TCA, just as there always will be a failure rate in automobiles and medical procedures. (Life itself, let’s remember, has a failure rate of 100%.) Hopefully, the failure rate in corks will be low. Dustin assured me the cork industry is hard at work on getting TCA down to as near zero as possible, and I have no reason not to believe him, since their livelihoods are bound up with finding a solution.

What is the failure rate of corks? Depends on whom you ask. My own experience is around 1.5%. It used to be much worse, maybe 10-15 years ago, so it seems like the cork industry is making progress. Dustin showed me a chart on TCA analysis in natural corks over the last ten years; the tests were conducted by a third party lab, ETS Laboratories, in St. Helena, so there’s no worry of bias. TCA, measured in parts per trillion, averaged just over 4.0 in 2002 and has steadily declined since, with 2012 averaging about 0.50. Dustin cited Christian Butzke, an enology professor at Purdue University: “TCA is no longer a major problem for the US Wine industry.”

So why do some people insist it is? Partly, I suspect, because minds are slower to change than facts. If a critic decided 10 years ago that cork taint was unacceptably high, he might not have changed his mind today. Dustin cited Jim Laube, from Wine Spectator, who’s been criticizing TCA in corks for years. For example, in 2007, Jim wrote, “Wine Spectator’s Napa office tracks the number of ‘corky’ bottles in tastings of California wines, and the percentage of defective corks routinely runs at 15 percent, which seems way too high to me.

Last January, Jim addressed the topic again, writing , “In 2011, out of roughly 3,100 bottles of California wine topped with cork (another 269 were topped with twist-offs), the percentage of ‘corked’ wines dropped to 3.8 from 4.8 in 2010—making it the best year since we started tracking this. In 2009, nearly 7 percent of the wines were corked, and in 2007, it was 9.5 percent.” Don’t ask me how the 2007 “routinely runs at 15 percent” squares with “9.5 percent in 2007” because I don’t know.

People do have differing threshholds for TCA perception, as for other compounds in wine, like brett. Jim’s schnozz may well be far more sensitive to TCA than most other people, including MWs, somms, collectors and winemakers. Besides, every form of closure has its issues. Screwtops can let too little air in, which can lead to reductive aromas. Plastic can give weird rubbery smells. Each closure also has its own environmental footprint issues, which I don’t intend to get into. There are economies that have to be considered by the producer, as well as image issues. Dustin told me that Bronco Wine Co. uses natural cork for most of their brands, even though cork on average is more expensive than plastic or screwtop, because the Franzias believe cork has a better image.

I emailed Joey Franzia about this, and he replied, “BWC [Bronco Wine Co.] % of sales is 2-4% of all case goods produced; consumers like the POP! And screw capped wines are received 50/50 by buyers as positive and negative, corks are natural, eco-friendly and biodegradable.  We do extensive cork testing minimizing TCA contamination with BWC wines.”

I do like the POP! with corks, and the pomp and ceremony of opening a bottle, particularly when I’m entertaining. My poor old fingers are getting a little rickety, after opening 100,000-plus bottles over the years, but that’s a small price to pay for all the pleasure wine’s given me. So you’d have to count me as a cork fan.


A California AVA: for what’s it worth

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California has a new AVA, its millionth. This time it’s Inwood Valley, up in Shasta County, which is way to the northeast of San Francisco, up toward the Oregon border.

Actually, Inwood Valley isn’t California’s millionth appellation, it’s only the 128th (by my count), but still, that’s about 28 more than the last time I counted, which wasn’t that long ago. So these things are proliferating faster than walking dead people in a zombie movie.

I have nothing against appellations, but consumers really have got to understand their limitations. The bottom line is that an American Viticultural Area is a guarantee of nothing except grape origin. The specific percentage that’s required depends on the type of AVA. For example, a county appellation (like Shasta County) calls for a minimum of 75% of the grapes from that county. A more specific appellation (like Inwood Valley) requires 85%. There are additional minor requirements, but that’s pretty much it.

You can’t get good wine from a bad appellation (not saying Inwood Valley is a bad appellation, don’t know anything about it), but you can get bad wine from a good appellation. That’s because the federal TTB (trade and tax bureau) requirements for appellations have nothing to do with quality. It’s strictly origin, like I said. Maybe they should, but this gets into governmental intrusions that I don’t particularly want to see happen. I’m not a small government guy, but can you imagine TTB “taste experts” saying what Napa Valley-grown wines can use “Napa Valley” and which ones can’t? That would be like getting Dan Berger, Wilfred Wong, Jim Laube and me into a room and making law.

Steve: I love this wine. I think it should qualify for a Napa Valley appellation.

Dan Berger: Are you crazy? It’s overblown! Look at that alcohol–15.5%. I say downgrade it to North Coast. Maybe even California.

Wilfred: Boys, boys, try to get along. Say, are there any hors d’oeuvres?

Jim Laube: I give it 100 points. Or maybe 57.

There are certain appellations that are more likely to be good than others:  Howell Mountain and Mount Veeder are two. Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills has a high probabilty of being good, but the bigger they get the more opportunity there is for so-so wine. Usually, the smaller AVAs in the better coastal counties offer the best chance for success. But, of course, smart wine lovers wouldn’t buy a wine based solely on appellation. They’d want a trusted recommendation, whether it’s from a critic, merchant or friend.

I poke fun at the proliferation of AVAs in California, but actually, there are lots of areas I’d like to see even more appellated, or sub-appellated. Alexander Valley needs to be split up, especially as regards elevation. I wouldn’t mind having Oakville divided into east and west, although I know that will never happen. Remember the carnage when somebody suggested an Oakville Bench? (They wanted a Rutherford Bench too.) There was blood running along Highway 29, and the Napa River ran red. But it wasn’t a bad idea then and it isn’t now.

I think Santa Lucia Highlands should be split into two, maybe three parts, on a northwest-southeast line. I’ve written plenty about sub-AVAs within the Russian River Valley and won’t get into the details again, except that there’s a big difference between south of River Road and the Middle Reach. Down in Paso, they’ve been hassling with sub-AVAs for years. I lost track of developments a while back. I think they were talking about an additional 11 or so new ones. Can that be right? Somebody let me know. Seems excessive. Sometimes in an effort to get things right, people go too far and just over-complicate them.

And, as I wrote in October, a Pritchard Hill appellation is long overdue, although that, too, is unlikely anytime soon.

What AVAs are just right? Yountville. Calistoga. Edna Valley. Arroyo Grande Valley. Diamond Mountain. Spring Mountain. Stags Leap. Happy Canyon. Santa Maria Valley. Those are a few. I’m not gonna go through all 128, so I’ll just stop here.


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