Allen Meadows is the author of Burghound, one of the premier Pinot Noir review publications in the English language. I’ve known Allen, not well but cordially, for some years. Now 57 years old, Allen was at last weekend’s World of Pinot Noir, where he kindly consented to let me interview him. The conversation was entirely spontaneous; I had no prepared questions in advance. And like my Antonio Galloni Q&A of last week, this one’s virtually unedited; what you read is what we said. This is Part 1. The final part will appear tomorrow.
SH: Where do you live?
AM: Tarzana [California] for less than half the year, Burgundy for less than half the year, and another two months, you pick a place.
As long as they grow Pinot Noir?
And what is the Burghound? What do you do?
Well, Burghound was a vision I came up with in the middle ’90s and finally had the nerve to realize in the Fall of 2000, to take the wine publishing approach of doing the world and stand that model on its head and do one thing, which was Burgundy, but do it in real depth. I emailed 20 of my friends who were into Burgundy and said, “Do you think that a review that is devoted to one thing only could work,” and it was zip for twenty. Nobody thought it would be a good idea. But, like some good ideas that don’t seem to make any sense at the time, it worked in spite of itself, and so, 12 years later, we’re still here.
And what is the publication?
It’s a newsletter.
How often do you publish?
What does it cost per year to subscribe?
It is about to be moved up to $145 a year from $125, which is the first increase we’ve had in six years.
And what do I get every issue?
You get a series of reports that, by the way, have no advertising and no photos, so it’s quite dry, by intent. What you get is in-depth reviews of Burgundy, Pinot Noir and, from time to time, Champagne. And the coherence between those three is, it’s all the same grapes. The other thing that comes with it is a searchable database with, at this point, almost 60,000 Burgundies and Pinots in it, that is searchable all the way back to 1845.
What is the typical word length of a single review?
Probably 30-50 words, depending.
And how many reviews per issue?
I would say it varies, but the average is probably 1,250 wines an issue, so the average is 150 to 200-plus pages.
So that’s about 5,000 wines a year you’re doing.
Five to six, yeah, depending.
And you use the 100-point system?
Because I think to be commercially relevant you really don’t have a choice. I could have tried to pioneer a different approach, but I think that English-speaking consumers are comfortable with the scale. You can debate whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. It’s something I actually looked at carefully before I chose to use it. In fact, I almost thought about trying to grade wines using that scale, but within a hierarchy, because if it’s a really fantastic Bourgogne, and it gets 90 points, you could still easily have a Grand Cru that’s not really all that special, getting the same score. Yet in its class, the Bourgogne is much better. So if you use something that’s an absolute hierarchy, sometimes it doesn’t quite impart the value and just how good something at the lower end of the hierarchy is.
So name the Pinot Noir regions of the world you cover.
I cover basically Burgundy, California and Oregon. Once in a while, I’ll do an article on New Zealand, but it’s occasional, as opposed to systematic.
Why not include New Zealand full time?
Simply because I barely have time to do what I’m doing now. I’m not complaining, but I haven’t had a vacation in 8 years, so it’s just one of those things where there’s only so much time.
Well, some people would say your work is a vacation!
Well, they would, and I wouldn’t disagree. I do it because I love it, and I’m not about to complain, but it is real work.
Where do you do most of your tasting?
Put it this way: Most of Burgundy, in spite of the fact that a lot of importers send their wines to me at home, I would say that 98% of Burgundy is done in Burgundy, whereas most of the U.S. Pinot reviews as well as Champagne are done in my home office.
Do you solicit bottles, or just take what comes in?
Both. For the first 5 years, I didn’t do U.S. Pinot, and then I decided to branch out and do that, because there was a good deal of request for it from my readership, so initially I solicited. Now that people–I mean reviewers–are used to me reviewing, they typically just send the wines on a schedule of whenever they’re due to be released, but also in the last 7 years there have been a lot of new wineries that have just sent things, in one of two ways: they either write and say “May we submit and if so, how do we go about that?” and then other people just send it.
Do you review everything that comes in?
Yes, although I’m starting to wonder whether I can continue to do that, for the simple reason that there’s only so much time, and therefore, just because somebody sends something…in the past, I’ve tried to honor that. So for the moment, I taste everything, but I don’t know that I’m going to continue that policy. Sometimes, when people send things, it’s not necessarily of the highest quality.
Well, how do you know, unless you try it?
Well, you don’t, and therein lies the trick that I will taste everything, but I don’t know that I’m necessarily going to write up everything.
Does that mean you sort of have a policy that you don’t trash wines?
That’s a very, very good question, because to this point, if a winery presents it, either on site, like in Burgundy, or sends it, it gets reviewed. So people don’t have to worry about what you just said, which is, if it’s not very good, then I won’t review it. But in this case, with stuff that I haven’t solicited, that just gets sent, I may in fact have to start a policy where I taste and then I don’t review it if it’s not very good.
Would you ever consider hiring an assistant taster? I mean, Parker branched out eventually.
A great question, and thus far, no. I think that a unique voice still has a place. I mean, I know that Steve Tanzer has done it, I know that Bob [Parker] has done it, obviously the Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast have various reviewers with expertise in their areas, and that makes sense. But for somebody who is specifically devoted to Pinot Noir-based wines, with obviously white Burgundy thrown in, I’m not sure that that policy makes sense. So for the time being, there are no plans.
So Burgundy, Oregon, California. Who gets the best scores?
That’s a good question too. I would say that, in my eyes, the reference standard still remains Burgundy. But when you look at the scores that some California wineries, as well as some Oregon wineries, are receiving, that difference that used to exist 7, 8 years ago is definitely narrowing. I would not say Oregon and California have caught Burgundy yet. But the difference continues to narrow.
In what respect does the difference continue to narrow?
Well, just the sheer quality. I think that, as wineries here better understand their terroirs, as the vines continue to mature, they’re getting better fruit. And it takes a long time to understand the terroir. I mean, even Burgundians will tell you that when they lease or buy a new parcel, it takes them time to understand it.
That raises an interesting question. You said that the quality of California and Oregon fruit is improving. But the style of Burgundy remains quite different from the style of California.
Characterize briefly the three styles.
When I talk about quality, obviously “beauty” is in the eye of the beholder. I think most arguments come down to, What is beautiful? You have a vision of beauty, I have another, another person has a third, and sometimes the minds meet and sometimes they don’t. So my point is, Burgundy should not try to emulate the New World, any more than the New World should try and emulate Burgundy. But if your definition of great wines are wines that can age and change and mature and evolve in a positive sense, enduring is one thing. But we’re talking about evolving, and become more interesting, then that is the way I view both Oregon and California improving. And so, if I were to characterize the three regions, Burgundy is Burgundy, vins de gardes, tends to be a little more austere, tends to have a little more acidity. California, due to the weather, tends to be more opulent, lush, it’s riper, tends to be more generous. Oregon has a foot in both camps. It’s not California, but it’s still riper than Burgundy.
Tomorrow, the concluding part of my conversation with Allen Meadows.
I am enjoying reading Adam Gopnik’s new book, The Table Comes First, which is a (sort of) celebration of French cooking, with an American democratic [small “d”] accent that says you don’t need to worship at the shrine of Brillat-Savarin to know and love good food.
Adam writes with the depth and allusionary complexity of a New Yorker regular, which he happens to be. It’s sometimes hard to wade through the verbiage, but there are enough nuggets to make it worthwhile–almost one per page, which is the writer’s equivalent of Ty Cobb’s career batting average of .366, which, I think, remains Major League Baseball’s record.
The book is about food, but touches often on wine. When writing is so stimulating it prods thoughts about one’s own interests so frequently, you have to give it props; and Adam made me think frequently about wine. How do we determine questions of personal taste versus objective analysis of quality? That’s a big one. Another question: how do we liberate ourselves from whatever historical era we’re trapped in? Once upon a time, connoisseurs liked Yquem with roast beef. Today, a sommelier would be fired for so suggesting. Were the 19th century experts “wrong”?
This is a slippery slope. If we allow that Yquem might be a worthy partner for beef, where does this permissiveness end? What about a 16% Zinfandel with grilled ahi tuna? A tart Pinot Grigio with tornedos of beef? A sweet, oaky California Chardonnay with grilled veggies on toast crisps? These pairings sound horrible, yet someone will like them. Somebody will write about them, and that person may be read 100 years from now and sound sensible. So how do we arrive at appropriate determinations of taste?
Mr. Gopnik struggles mightily with this question and is, unfortunately and predictably, unable to answer it. That is not his fault. We humans collectively are unable to arrive at conclusive definitions about anything, whether it be the nature of God, who should be allowed to marry whom, what millionaires should pay in taxes, or how lamb should be served. That’s our fundamental liberty: we disagree about personal taste, and that’s fine. So what does that mean for a wine critic, who delivers authoritative judgments on individual wines? Speaking for myself, I know people will disagree. They should. But why should my opinion–and that’s all it is–matter more than Joe Blow from Kokomo’s, in a democratic [again, small “d”] democracy?
Well, this is the eternal question concerning “taste,” which Mr. Gopnik struggles with so articulately. While he does not and cannot ultimately resolve it, he makes us think. Why do we like what we like? Why do we arrive at consensual opinions concerning what is “good” and what isn’t? Have these decisions shifted over history? Of course they have; Mr. Gopnik illustrates this abundantly. This given the case, how can we say that (for example) a Harlan Cabernet Sauvignon is “better” than a Temecula Cabernet Sauvignon?
We obviously need to determine common parameters for such things. But I would be the first to concede that such parameters have an arbitrariness that makes them suspect. I have my opinions; I’m a product, or victim, of my own background and prejudices. I believe what I believe, and strongly, and can argue my convictions. But I also understand that you’re entitled to your own convictions, however they may differ from mine, and however silly I think they are. I think it’s insane to say that a Temecula Cabernet is equal to a Harlan. But if you think so, fine. It’s your money to spend as you see fit. If you believe that, you probably have a lot less influence on the public’s buying decisions than I do. I think that’s good. I want people to agree with me, not because I think I’m “better” than anyone else, but because I think my taste is more in tune with modernity.
Go ahead and read this article from The Drinks Business, which modestly describes itself as “Europe’s leading drinks trade publication.” It’s about a tasting held recently at the Culinary Institute of America and sponsored by the St. Helena Star newspaper and Napa Valley Vintners.
The tasting was of 2008 single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons from Napa Valley. The article suggests that the 2008 vintage was viewed with skepticism early on, with one of the panelists saying it was “Initially written off as sub-par to 2007…”. I’m not sure I agree with that. I always thought that 2007 was a great Cabernet vintage, with lush, opulent, fat wines, but I liked 2008, too. It wasn’t as precocious, but was better structured. I scored it 92 points on Wine Enthusiast’s Vintage Chart, but that, of course, was a generalization. Vintage assessments mask (or exaggerate) individual properties. When it comes to specific 2008 Napa Cabs, I rated 23 2008 Napa Cabs at 95 points or above. (My highest-scoring ‘08 was the Venge Family Reserve, at 99 points.) In my vintage diary, I quoted numerous winemakers to the effect that the long, dry growing season would result in very good Cabernet, which it did.
So it was a little bizarre to read, in that Drinks Business article, that “even critic Robert Parker agreed Napa Valley exceeded all his expectations in 2008, and Napa Valley was the most successful appellation in the state.” What does the speaker mean by that “even” Robert Parker thing? Is it supposed to imply that, if Parker says something, it’s So Metaphysically Correct that “even” God would have to agree? People, do we need an intervention here? And why would Parker have an “expectation” unless he doesn’t taste blind and arrives at his tastings with preconceived notions? Beyond that, to say that Napa Valley is the most successful appellation in California in any given vintage is nonsense. Napa Valley always succeeds, unless the vintage is horrible, which almost never happens; and it’s ridiculous to pit Napa Valley Cabernet against, say, Anderson Valley Pinot Noir or Russian River Valley Chardonnay or Santa Barbara County Syrah. If you do, then you’re admitting you don’t taste enough wine from across California, but are only obsessed with Napa Cabernet. I understand why a Parker would say something so triumphantly quotable, but a “wine expert” who repeats it with such worshipful seriousness isn’t really being serious but is merely tedious.
Anyway, what the panelists noted are mostly things I agree with. “[T]he wines were ‘crowd-pleasers’,” said one. That surely is the mark of Napa Valley Cabernet, from 2008 or any other vintage. I often (maybe too often) use the phrase “made in the modern style” in my reviews; that style is one of pleasingly plump, ripe fruitiness, which Napa perfected years ago and still follows.
You can have too much of a good thing, though, and if Napa Cabernet has a fault, it’s that some are too fruity, chocolately and soft. Even crowd pleasers need to pay attention to the rules of structure. And structure is what it takes to lay these wines down. Brett deLeuze, another panelist, was quoted as saying, “Ninety percent of these wines would benefit from at least a couple of years of bottle age and some (of the wines) many more years.” Note his “couple of years” hedge. That’s two or three years, maybe four. You can’t stretch “a couple of years” to mean much beyond that, certainly not eight or ten or more. That accords with my experience. Four or five years seems about right for a Napa Cabernet that scores 95 points. I wouldn’t hold any longer than that, because too many of them are liable to fall apart, and there’s no experience (in wine, anyway) more disappointing than holding onto a bottle for a long time and then finding out that it sucks.
Incidentally, the list of eight winners at the tasting is a good one. I haven’t tasted the ‘08s from all those wineries but I have tasted most of them, and they’re all good. However, with top Napa Valley Cabernets, there are no “winners” or “losers.” They’re all winners because they’re among the greatest wines in the world.
Got my copy of Wine Business Monthly’s (WBM) Feb. 2012 ish at the recent Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers conference, and a keeper it is! That publication’s lists (Top 30 Wine Companies and Hot Small Brands) are must reads in the industry. Everytime I’m writing an article or a blog post and need to know how big a major winery is, or how it’s ranked in size (is Gallo still #1? Constellation?), I have to spend valuable minutes Googling it, hoping to come up with WBM’s most recent list. Now that I have the actual magazine, it’s staying right near my desk, where I can find it anytime I want.
It’s not surprising that the biggest U.S. wine companies sell affordable wine: Gallo, The Wine Group, Constellation, Treasury, Trinchero, Bronco, Ste. Michelle, Diageo, Jackson Family and DFV [rounding out the top 10 of the Top 30]. Most if not all of these companies also produce expensive wine, but expensive wine doesn’t pay the bills. It’s the mega-palettes of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, other varietals (Hello, Moscato!) and blends that dominate supermarket shelves and sell like hotcakes at family-style chain restaurants that keep these companies running.
I’ve always had admiration for a big wine company that can put out Best Buys year after year at production levels that make them easy to find in most U.S. states and territories. That’s the broad base of the pyramid upon which the pointy little top–which includes all cult the wines–rests. I’ve also long thought that, if you’re a big wine company, like that, you’d probably also want to take some of your money and invest it in prestige products. Why? Just because you can. I think every winemaker at big wine companies would like to try his or her hand at producing a luxury wine. It’s just human nature to have a talent and want to express it at the highest level possible. But how can you know what that level is, unless you try it?
That’s why I’ve had the greatest admiration for Jackson Family Wines. It’s certainly not Verite or Cardinale that landed them on WBM’s Top 30 list. It’s Kendall-Jackson. But the Jackson Family allows–no, that’s not the right word, encourages its winemakers at smaller wineries it owns to make the best wines they possibly can, and that includes Randy Ullom, who, while overseeing production of the multi-million-case Vintners Reserve program, also works his magic at the highest levels at K-J’s Highlands Estates wines. When a winemaker at a big company has the opportunity to craft small-production, artisanal wines, he can only get better at producing the mass sellers.
Same with DFV, which is the Indelicato family’s newish umbrella name for their various brands. I’ve given more Best Buys to Bota Box than you can shake a stick at. Ditto with Gnarly Head, and the Twisted wines that have come my way, while fewer in number, have impressed me. I bet their new HandCraft wines (line priced at $13 retail) are going to be big sellers, too, because this is a company that knows how to sell wine. But the Indelicatos also own Black Stallion, a Napa Valley Cabernet and Chardonnay producer, and those wines give plenty of bang for the buck.
Such an interesting industry, our wine one. So multi-faceted and complex, just like a great wine should be. Sure, I love tasting the “cult wines,” but while the inexpensive ones may not have the same excitement level, I can tell you that every time I review one, and realize it qualifies (under Wine Enthusiast’s guidelines) for a Best Buy or Editor’s Choice, it makes me happy.
Steve is taking the day off. Have a great weekend and I’ll see you on Monday.
See you on Monday. Have a great weekend.