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Your questions anwered, here, now

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Some readers asked me some questions yesterday. Here they are, with my answers.

“Would also be curious to hear how the editorial team takes into account the thought, ideas and trends coming out of the blogosphere.”

Tom: I can’t speak for the rest of the team, as these are personal decisions. Speaking for myself, I am not terribly influenced by other bloggers, except in the realm of ideas. For example, I learn from your blog and am often inspired to think about things that you discuss. I enjoy cruising other blogs looking for ideas and concepts that make me think, and perhaps to blog about here on my own blog. However, when it comes to wine reviews, very little of what bloggers write has any interest to me.

Tom Barras: “To what extent,if any, do you take into account what your several magazine competitors and wine journalists have been writing about?”

Tom: Again, it matters very little to me what other writers say about wines, in terms of their impesssions, criticisms, etc. Of course, it’s always nice when I stumble across a critic I respect whose opinions agree with mine! But I’ve been around long enough to understand that reasonable people can disagree. I do have certain writers, both online and in print, whom I follow with some regularity, just as I know there are writers who follow me with some regularity. But I hope they don’t base their opinions on what I say!

Cody Rasmussen: “Steve, I’d love to have you dedicate a whole blog post to the differences in taste among your fellow editors. It sounds as though a 93 point California cabernet for you might score no more than 89 points with Roger Voss? I find that very honest and interesting.”

Cody: This would indeed be a fantastic blog post! However in all honesty it’s not likely to happen, for the following reason: We live in different parts of the country—indeed, on different continents—and we do not often have the opportunity to taste together in a way that would allow for such direct comparisons, except in the most casual way: at a dinner, for example. However, we’ve worked as a team long enough for me to have a pretty good idea how our tastes differ. In general the Europeans prefer their table wines drier and more acidic, while I, with my California or “New World” palate, enjoy fruit and opulence. (That’s a tremendous generalization, and I could come up with dozens of exceptions, but still…). For example, last night, as I previously mentioned, we had the 2009 Ovid, which I scored quite highly. Most of the other editors would have scored it in the low 90s, which is a great but not a stupendously great score. They said it had an enormously attractive aroma and was upfront delicious, but disappointed them a little in terms of complexity and/or finish. Understood. But Mr. Voss, who you reference, liked it quite as much as I did and he, like me, felt it to merit a good long time in the cellar. Roger is the ultimate Bordeaux guy. I was surprised, and so were some of my fellow editors, that he thought as highly of the Ovid as he did. Just goes to show…

Rew Craig: “Why do wine writers so rarely allow someone to tweet or fb their writing? It spreads their name without asking my followers to go to the site and sort through everything.”

I replied briefly yesterday to Rew, but here’s a fuller reply. First of all, on my blog, it’s easy to tweet or Facebook it. I can’t speak to other bloggers. Most of the ones I read also make it easy to shoot them right onto Twitter or your Facebook page. So I don’t know if “so rarely” is a true description of the situation. The more interesting aspect of Rew’s comment concerns “spreading their name.” I have a couple things to say about that! I do think that a lot of ambitious bloggers use every trick in the book to spread their name. Buzz is good! In my judgment, one has to combine good taste with sound tactical thinking. It’s a little tacky when somebody is touting their blog all around the place. For example, when the period for Wine Blog Award nominations was open, I never mentioned it here, or on my Facebook or Twitter pages. I could have asked my thousands of readers, friends and followers to nominate me, and I’m sure many of them would have. But I didn’t, and so I didn’t get nominated. Would I have liked to? Sure. But not at the price of “Please vote for me!,” every day, 24/7. Like I said, tacky. Not the way I was raised.

Happy to answer my wonderful readers’ questions anytime as best I can. If I get enough, maybe I’ll make it a regular feature.


What wine writers talk about at dinner

14 comments

We’re in NY (“we” being Wine Enthusiast’s editors, here for the annual editorial conference), and we had a nice dinner with plenty of wine. We’re staying at a cool inn in Chappaqua, the Kittle House, said to have one of the best restaurants in Westchester. The wine list certainly is impressive, one of those telephone books that makes you wonder just why it has to be so big. But it does get certain awards for its heft or what my father would have called zaftig.

We had a 2007 Grand Cru Chablis Paul Gregutt and Roger Voss loved, I considerably less so. When I said it was sour, Paul exclaimed, “It’s called acidity,” but then Paul, our Pacific Northwest editor, is congenitally complaining that California wines are too soft. We had an $85 rose Champagne that no one cared for. I had a glass of 1994 Zind Humbrecht Gewurz that was fantastic. A couple of other things not worth mentioning. But I wanted to write about what we talked about.

After the usual shop talk common to every office, it was the nature of our jobs. What is an 82 point wine. What is a 100 point wine. The trials and joys of traveling in wine country: it’s a mixed blessing, fortunately more fun than not. The ethics of accepting freebies of any kind, including meals at restaurants we’ll never review, since we’re wine critics, not restaurant critics. Being friends with winemakers whose wines we sometimes must pan. One particular thing we all agreed on was how a winery’s more expensive wine isn’t necessarily its best. This is certainly true in California, where “Reserve” frequently means oakier and higher in alcohol, but not better. I wouldn’t say wine writers are cynical–we love our work and the industry too much. But we’ve seen how producers can fool themselves into thinking that “more” equals “better” when it ain’t necessarily so.

Now it’s onto the hard work of planning the 2013 book, or editorial calendar. This is always a somewhat competitve experience, since there’s only so many pages in the print magazine. Having an online component that is essentially spaceless and therefore limitless helps all of us be able to get our stories published, but still, you can’t just put everything you want to online. At the magazine, we’re trying hard to get online standards to conform to print standards, but the nature of online’s evolution–rapid, hard to keep track of–means it’s an ongoing challenge. I myself have some very strong California stories I hope to write in 2013. I worked hard to think them up. We’ll see what survives the conference’s give and take.

My own view continues to be that California is the center of the world’s wine industry, but of course I’m prejudiced, as a regionally based wine writer should be. Anyway, the next three days will be busy ones, but I’ll try to post something here everyday.


Bad bottle? Or bad wine?

18 comments

Last week I was sent a white wine from Paso Robles that I let stand for a day before chilling in the fridge for my daily review tasting. (I’m not going to name the brand because it’s irrelevant.)

As soon as I opened the bottle I knew something was wrong. The color was off: a weird, orange-brown, like diluted root beer. Then the smell hit me: the unmistakable, nasty aroma of a maderized wine. “Maderized” is the term used to describe a wine that has been baked. It comes from the word “Madeira,” the island in the North Atlantic whose wines used to be shipped in ship holds across the ocean to the eastern U.S. Madeira wine is said to have been one of the favorite wines of 18th century America.

I’ve had my share of authentic Madeira, which is very good. But a “maderized” wine is not Madeira. It’s simply a wine that has suffered hideous treatment and isn’t fit to drink.

That white wine was one such. Now, there are any number of reasons why a wine can be maderized, and I didn’t know why this one was. So the question was whether to contact the producer, let him/her know about the problem, and resend the wine. Or to simply conclude that the producer made a bad wine, which isn’t my problem but theirs, and let it go.

I get a fair number of awful wines, but it can be hard to say just why they’re so bad. Are they bad because the producer was incompetent? Sometimes, I’ll look up my past reviews for a wine and see if the current bad bottle is shockingly out of whack with previous bottlings. For example, let’s say a winery whose Chardonnays I’ve given 90-plus scores to for the past ten years sends me a bad bottle. In that case, I’d most likely call the producer and ask for a replacement bottle (or, if they originally sent two bottles, I’d try the second one).

But I obviously can’t call every producer every time there’s a problem with a wine! If I did, I’d be tasting thousands more a year than I already do. So at some point, I have to conclude that, if the producer sends me a bad wine, it’s on them. In the case of the Paso Robles white wine (the producer had sent two bottles, and the second bottle was just as bad as the first), I decided to give it a code “22,” meaning it gets buried deep in the bowels of Wine Enthusiast’s database, where no one except the Tasting Department will ever see it. That seemed the only fit and proper way to deal with that wine.

A little later, the Paso proprietor emailed to ask if I’d received the wine and what did I think? I told him candidly that I found both bottles undrinkable and had given them 22s, so at least he could relax and know that the public would never see my review. He then sent me a long email explaining how the situation had come about.

Simply put, there was some kind of irregularity with the third party shipping company, and the wine was shipped during one of Paso Robles’ worst heat spells in years, with daytime temperatures hitting 113 degrees. Who knows what auto-da-fé the wine suffered in the back of a metal UPS truck, where the heat could have been as high as 130 degrees?

The issue to untangle here is, does a critic have an obligation to notify a producer when a bottle is suspect or not showing well? How about if the wine is ever so slightly corked? What if it’s slightly fizzy? Some wines can be lightstruck. Others can be bretty or have a little v.a. Oxidized wines can mimic maderized wines. Many wines just seem off in some way–you know something’s not right, but you (not being a trained enologist) can’t quite put your finger on it. The list is actually quite long of things that can go bad. In the case of a heat-damaged wine, shouldn’t producers be aware of the weather conditions they’re sending their wines into? Most send via ground, which can take 5 business days, as opposed to the more expensive next day delivery. (Savvy producers, I’ve noticed, are starting to include little ice packs in the boxes that can keep the wine cool for days.) At any rate, a producer ought to check the long range weather forecast. If they don’t, well, who’s to blame and whose responsibility is it to rectify the situation?

Delving deeper, how is the critic to determine if the bottle in question was bad, as opposed to the wine itself being bad? I recently gave this review to a wine: “This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah…has a burnt, overripe flavor suggesting shriveled raisin skins…”. My first thought was the grapes got sun-burnt, but I suppose it could have been a baked bottle, blasted in the back of a delivery truck. There conceivably could be other bottles of the same wine that don’t have that burnt flavor and are perfectly sound. How am I to know? Were I to second guess myself every time a bad wine comes my way, I’d have to clone myself and have a second, third or fourth taster confirm every dreary repeat.

I admit there are aspects of this situation that trouble my conscience. I take no pleasure in giving out bad scores and harsh reviews. But two thoughts comfort me: One, nobody is forced to send me wine at the point of a gun. And two, there really is a lot of bad wine out there–not bad bottles, not bottles that suffered, but perfectly good glass bottles that contain perfectly awful wine.


The Chardonnay Symposium: a photo essay

10 comments

The Symposium was last Saturday in the Santa Maria Valley of Santa Barbara County. I hope you like these pictures.

The red house at Bien Nacido Vineyards, where I often stay in Santa Maria Valley

Bien Nacido on a sunny afternoon

Bien Nacido, fog blowing in

Gus outside the red house. He loves to run free on the ranch

My panel at the Symposium, which was at Byron Winery

Byron Winery, vineyards

Dieter Conje (Presqu’ile) and Josh Klapper (La Fenetre)

Jonathan Nagy (Byron)

Eric Murphy (Talley)

Bob Cabral (Williams Selyem)

James Hall (Patz & Hall)

Gus, back at the red house, after a long day!

 

 


New Jersey wines get their due

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“The Judgment of Princeton,” they’re calling it. In a blind tasting of French and New Jersey wines, a Garden State Chardonnay came in second, while its Bordeaux-style reds took the #3 and #5 slots.

Quoting the Wall Street Journal, “The results were … surprising. Although the winner in each category was a French wine (Clos de Mouches for the whites and Mouton-Rothschild for the reds) NJ wines are at eye level. Three of the top four whites were from New Jersey. The best NJ red was ranked place 3. An amazing result given that the prices for NJ average at only 5% of the top French wines.”

Here are the complete results, according to the online pub, NJToday.net:

WHITES
1 Joseph Drouhin Beaune Clos Mouches 2009 FRA
2 Unionville Chardonnay 2010 NJ
3 Heritage Chardonnay 2010 NJ
4 Silver Decoy “Black Feather” Chardonnay NJ
5 Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet FRA
6 tied Bellview Chardonnay 2010 NJ
6 tied Domaine Macr-Antonin Batard-Montrachet Grand Cru 2009 FRA
8 Amalthea Cellars Chardonnay 2008 NJ
9 Ventimiglia Chardonnay 2010 NJ
10 Jean Latour-Labille Meursault-Charmes Premier Cru 2008 FRA

REDS
1 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 2004 FRA
2 Chateau Haut-Brion 2004 FRA
3 Heritage Estate Reserve BDX 2010 NJ
4 Chateau Montrose 2004 FRA
5 Tomasello Cabernet Sauvignon “Oak Reserve” 2007 NJ
6 Chateau Leoville Las Cases 2004 FRA
7 Bellview Lumiere 2010 NJ
8 Silver Decoy Cabernet Franc 2008 NJ
9 Amalthea Cellars Europa VI 2008 NJ
10 Four JG’s Cabernet Franc 2008 NJ

It’s hard to know what to make of this. The judges reputedly were “vineyard owners, international wine critics and journalists, including three from Belgium and France,” which sounds pretty much on the up and up. I, myself, have never had a New Jersey wine. I did a search of Wine Enthusiast’s database for New Jersey wines and found a few dozen, with scores ranging from 81 to 87 points. The 2010 Unionville Chardonnay that came in second in the tasting was in our database, with the 2005 vintage getting 84 points.

There are several possibilities to explain this. (1) New Jersey wines are getting better, fast. (2) The result was a “one-off” that should be viewed with the utmost suspicion. (3) It just shows to go that blind tasting can reveal surprising things. If there are other possibilities, I’m not aware of them.

At any rate, I’d like to taste some of those Joisey wines myself.

P.S. If you were having trouble earlier this week accessing my blog through Google or Yahoo searches, that problem’s been fixed. There was never any issue with the blog itself; it was search engines that had been compromised. I’m not sure how it happened, but we’re looking into it, and when I find out, I’ll let you know.


Why I score Chardonnay higher than Sauvignon Blanc–and why I wonder about it

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If I’ve achieved any reputation at all with regard to California Sauvignon Blanc, it’s been as a debunker. It’s not my favorite variety.  Too often, I’ve found the wines lacking in any of several dimensions. On the expensive side, they’re overworked, with too much oak and lees, the result of a winemaker infatuation with white Bordeaux. On the inexpensive side, they’re insipid and sweet.

But about a year ago I began to notice a change, toward greater subtlely and complexity. My assumption was that this was due to two factors: a greater sensitivity on the part of winemakers that Sauvignon Blanc need not be merely a throwaway second wine, but one that shows real ambition; and cooler vintages. Of course, the precarious danger of the latter is unripeness, especially in the cat pee aromas and flavors I’m not supposed to use in my official Wine Enthusiast reviews, because they think that term is vulgar. But it sure does tell the truth, doesn’t it?

However, like I said, this past year has shown me some magnificent Sauvignon Blancs. Among them I would mention Mondavi’s 2009 To Kalon I Block (no surprise there),  Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 2010, Dutton Estate’s 2010 Cohen Ranch, Rochioli’s 2011, Mayacamas’s 2010 from Mount Veeder, Cade’s 2010 Estate, Long Meadow Ranch’s 2011, Hand Made by Marketta’s 2009, Stonestreet’s 2010 from Alexander Valley, Hartwell’s 2010, and Twomey’s 20112, which bears a Napa-Sonoma appellation.

What I love about all these Sauvignon Blancs are three things: dryness, acidity and streamlined flavor. Dryness is so essential to Sauvignon Blanc, I don’t even know how to begin to describe it. The slightest hint of residual sugar is, to me, a cardinal sin in a wine like Sauv Blanc. Acidity also is vital. Of course, you want good acidity in any wine, but in Sauvignon Blanc, which is supposed to be racy, it’s especially important. And then there’s flavor. I don’t ask for much, but I do want my Sauvignon Blancs to be ripe enough to avoid excessive cat pee, not to mention the veggies.

All the wines I mentioned above succeed admirably in all these parameters. Still, the highest score I’ve given a Sauvignon Blanc this year is the Mondavi ‘09 To Kalon I-Block, which, at 93 points, is respectable, but way short of the massive scores I gave to Chardonnays such as Failla’s 2010 Estate, Dutton-Goldfield’s 2010 Dutton Ranch Rued Vineyard, Rochioli’s 2010 South River Vineyard, Lynmar’s 2010 Susanna’s Vineyard or Roar’s 2010 Sierra Mar Vineyard. Why?

In three words, I love richness. Yes, that makes me something of a slut. But mere richness, even with tons of new, flashy oak, doesn’t work for me. I’ve given horrible scores to wines of that ilk. The strange thing, which I confess I don’t entirely understand, is that there are certain foods, which I eat on a regular basis, that I would far prefer to pair with a 90 point Sauvignon Blanc than with a 96 point Chardonnay. Sushi comes to mind. So does bruschetta with goat cheese, which I prepare often, or a salad of bitter greens. Almost anything Chinese, Vietnamese, Burmese, Ethiopian or Indian–all foods I eat a lot of in ethnically-diverse Oakland–goes better with a dry Sauvignon Blanc than a rich Chardonnay. Still, I give Chardonnay the nod.

Why?

Feel free to weigh in, because my mind is far from made up. I suppose a good part of the equation is because Chardonnay is more seductively appealing than Sauvignon Blanc. Like you, I have an eye for an attractive human being: Chardonnay is sexy. Sauvignon Blanc is the person at the party who’s intellectual, not hot. You want to go home with the Chardonnay and have pleasure. With the Sauvignon Blanc, you want to go out for drinks, or coffee, have a conversation, and see where it does.

Before I get too carried away, let me just say that I’m open on this topic of whether Chardonnay automatically is better than Sauvignon Blanc. I think it is–my scores reflect it–but I have enough self-examinative doubt to wonder.


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