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What wine writers talk about at dinner

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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?

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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

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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.


A conversation with the Burghound, Allen Meadows

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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?

Exactly.

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?

It’s quarterly.

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?

I do.

Why?

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.

Yes.

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.


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