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Is there a “glass ceiling” when it comes to scoring certain wines? (Hint: yes)

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The blog Gargantuan Wine has an interesting post, “Dark Secrets of the 100 Point Wine Scale,” that identifies a “pair of endemic faults” the author says are not only “shameful” but “which are seemingly never discussed.”

Well, never mind that they are constantly discussed, in blogs, newspaper columns and the like. The first “endemic fault” is what the author calls “glass ceilings for certain wines.” He points out that certain varieties never seem to get high scores, no matter how good they are. He cites the example of Beaujolais. He asks: “Why can’t a flawless vin de soif, or ‘quaffer’ — even if that very term conceals an unfair stigma — park itself in an upscale, 90 point neighborhood, without a stop and frisk? For some reason, we relegate even exceptionally tasty, inexpensive wines to an 86-88 point ghetto.”

This is true enough. There’s are reasons for it, which I’ll get to shortly, but first, I’ll point out that even when I was a working wine critic, I wondered about this. I myself gave comparatively few ultra-high scores over my career, but it is true that Chardonnay trended far higher than Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir trended far higher than Zinfandel, say, or Barbera or Sangiovese. Since I reviewed California wine, I didn’t have the pleasure of reviewing Beaujolais, Sancerre, Alsace, Hermitage or any of the other fabulous French wines I like. But I totally “get” Gargantuan Wine’s criticism, that a great Beaujolais seems to max out at 88 points regardless of how wonderful it is.

I said there are reasons for this. Here are two:

  1. In every sort of contest in which there are winners and losers, there are certain parameters. They may be spelled out explicitly, or they may be tacitly understood, but either way, they’re there. In the Academy Awards, comedies almost never win Best Picture. Why not? Don’t ask me, ask the members of the Academy who do the voting! But I can infer that most of them feel that drama has more importance, more classic virtues, than comedy. This may be unfair to a film like Tootsie, which lost out in 1982 to Gandhi; Gandhi was Cabernet Sauvignon, Tootsie Beaujolais. I personally think Tootsie is a better movie and will stand the test of time. But there you are. Like Tony Soprano always asked, What are you gonna do?
  1. The second reason is just as arbitrary: Generations of wine experts have determined that some varieties are inherently “noble.” These include Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, and possibly Syrah. Everything else, no matter how good the wine might be, is less than noble. This, too, is unfair: it’s based on outmoded European systems of royalty and class. But again, there you are: it’s how the system works. No critic is going to give a Beaujolais 100 points (or 5 stars, or whatever), because no critic, in his heart of hearts, believes that Beaujolais is capable of that sort of perfection.

Of course it’s unfair, and Gargantuan Wine is well within his rights to be upset. When he asks, “Can’t a simple rosé…be scored properly for what it is?” I feel his pain. A few nights ago I drank a rosé that was so good, at that particular moment (a warm, muggy night, and I was tired after a long day), that I wouldn’t have traded it for anything else. But had I been reviewing and scoring it, which I wasn’t, I don’t think I would have scored it above 90 points. So I’m not defending the point system, so much as trying to explain why it is the way it is. Perhaps when a younger generation of wine critics takes over (which already is happening), they’ll get away from the “glass ceiling” and we’ll start seeing 100 point rosés and Pinot Grigios. That would be fine with me.

I don’t have much to say about Gargantuan Wine’s second “endemic fault,” what he calls “the deleterious effects of moderation drinking rationale.” It’s an interesting take, but when all is said and done, it’s just another version of the “alcohol levels are too high” critique, which frankly is getting a little stale.

Anyhow, I like Gargantuan Wine as a blog. It’s smart, witty and informative. But I do wish the “About Me” section contained more information. The author’s name, location and employment may be hidden somewhere, but I couldn’t find it. I don’t like “blind reading” blogs; I want to know who the writer is.

Have a great weekend! I’m having an adventure tomorrow: working in the tasting room at Kendall-Jackson. I’ve been in a zillion tasting rooms over the years, but this will be my first time on the other side of the bar. Will report on it this Monday.


The next big thing? Probably not

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We’ve seen it plenty of times before: “the next big wine variety” is just around the corner. But it usually turned out there wasn’t anything around the corner, except another corner.

Remember Sangiovese? In the late 1980s-early 1990s everybody swore it was the next big red wine. Cabernet Sauvignon, they said, was all well and good, but… And then there was poor Merlot, which had gone through its own “next big thing” earlier, but the pundits eventually decreed that it wasn’t good after all to achieve “next big status.” Thus, Sangiovese.

Why do we need “a next big thing” anyhow? We don’t, in reality, but “reality” needs to take account of the people in the wine industry who profit from a “next big thing” mentality. Those would be the so-called tastemakers: sommeliers and MWs, of course, who play an increasingly big role in the culture; wine writers (some of them), who have the journalist’s addiction to breaking “news”; and merchants, to some extent, who hope to capitalize on a “next big thing” by stocking their shelves with it before their competitors can.

Every few months, somebody discovers a “next big thing” and now, it’s the turn of the drinks business, a very good online journal that makes for must-reading every day. Their writers now tell us that “A native Armenian red and a white variety from the Peloponnese could be ‘the next big things in wine…’.”

Why would the authors have chosen two obscure varieties for stardom? Well, the white grape—Rabigato—because it’s “a high-quality and high-acid, age-worthy grape,” and the red– Alfrocheiro Preto—“for its ability to retain acidity, even in hotter climates.”

Understand, I haven’t had either of those wines. They do sound good and savory and, given the authors’ use of the word “lighter” to describe them, it sounds like they’re fairly moderate in alcohol. But “global potential,” as one of the writers asserts?

Several problems, at least in the U.S. (keep in mind that the drinks business is a British publication). For one, there is no Rabigato or Alfrocheiro Preto planted here (if there is, there can’t be more than a few acres). That means if either wine hits the jackpot, it’s going to have to be through an import. And imports have a hard time cracking the glass ceiling in this country. A few have made it (I’m thinking of Terlato’s Santa Margharita Pinot Grigio), but those usually benefited from big companies with large distribution networks. As far as I know, no large wine company is going to gamble on Rabigato or Alfrocheiro Preto. Why not? Because wine companies exist to make money, not lose it. They prefer to leave the risk-taking to smaller companies, and then, if things look good, they rush in and join the party.

So will small wineries do Rabigato or Alfrocheiro Preto? I doubt it. They have enough on their hands without having the headache of convincing people to buy and drink something they’ve never heard of and can’t even pronounce.

The truth is, America is a conservative country when it comes to wine preferences. People stick with what they know; their capacity to change is limited. Gatekeepers are more adventurous by nature, but there’s a limit to how much influence they actually possess among the public. Wine gatekeepers are like inside-the-beltway Washington pols: they live in a bubble that most people don’t really care about.


The internationalization of style is no friend of blind tasting

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The embarrassment of mistaking a California Pinot Noir for Merlot, or a Merlot for a Zinfandel or Petite Sirah, or a Malbec for Cabernet Sauvignon, can be acute, for someone known as a wine critic. Surely a person of that stature should be able to tell the difference between major varieties!

Well, not necessarily. When I was reviewing 15 wines a day, blind, I would sometimes include different varietals in the lineup and try to figure them out. My success rate was good but not great, although I will say that I had a far easier time discerning the wine’s inherent quality, regardless of what grapes constituted it.

Why do we think we ought to be able to identify varieties blind? Who put that idea into our heads? In my case it came from reading the books of the great, primarily British wine writers of the last 100 years. They made such a fuss of the differences between, say, Saint-Estephe and Margaux, or Musigny and Nuits-Saint-Georges, not to mention the Rhône Valley which was a bit of a mystery to them, that one such as I, who had aspirations of my own, felt compelled to develop that unerring palate of detailed perspicacity.

It helped to fuel this ambition to taste with vintners who crafted different wines from neighboring vineyards, or even from blocks within the same vineyard. They would tell me of the huge differences between the wines—differences which I found, often as not, to be less than huge. Counter-balancing this was the occasional blind tasting in which vintners could not identify even their own wines! But overall, by the late 1980s I had the thought firmly lodged in my mind that a writer ought to be able to distinguish between different varieties, and, at a higher order of magnitude, between different terroirs of the same variety.

At the same time, for going on thirty years now writers of greater stature than I were expressing the opinion that, in California at least, everything was starting to taste like everything else. This was especially true of red wines. Gerald Asher was one such. In the Preface to his 1986 “On Wine,” a compilation of articles he’d written for Gourmet magazine, Gerald noted that the “universal sophistication” of winemaking technique—“stainless steel, cultured yeasts, temperature-controlled fermentation and clarification by centrifuge” [he might have included picking the grapes riper]—had “imposed the dominant grapy fragrance that brings out similarities in modern wines rather than the bold differences we knew.” He sounds here wistful for a gauzy past (in his case, it would have been the late 1940s and 1950s) when distinctions between appellations were clear and distinct, a situation that apparently had passed by the mid-1980s, when “We find red Graves…that taste like tannic Beaujolais.” !!! As anecdotal proof of this phenomenon of sameness, Gerald cites a Spanish winemaker who told him that “Liebfraumilch was his criterion in making and judging his white Valdepeñas,” an eyebrow-raiser Gerald said was “the inevitable result of marketing wine instead of selling it.”

(Gerald himself wrote self-mockingly about mistaking a Petrus ’64 for a Rutherford Cab, admitting that he should have—but didn’t—wonder who could possibly have been making Napa Cabernet in that style at that time! But then, logic is seldom able to penetrate the fortress-walls of preconception.)

Whether it’s due to marketing, or something else, there can be no doubt that wines from anywhere and everywhere resemble each other more than they used to. Thus the writer/critic may be excused for failing to correctly nail all the contestants in a blind tasting! He can always attribute this to the internationalization of style.

I therefore years ago stopped playing the guessing game in blind tasting, arguing with myself that it was a parlor trick. Far more important than identifying varietal tastes and flavors, for me at any rate, is assessing a wine’s balance. This is why I never criticized a wine for being varietally “incorrect.” Who cares if a Merlot is not particularly Merlot-like as long as it’s luscious? I’ve drank and enjoyed Pinot Noirs that were dark and fruity as Grenache. I’ve sipped Sauvignon Blancs that were oaky and creamy and fruity in the finish that might have been Chardonnay. I’ve had Cabernets as peppery as Syrah, and Petite Sirahs that were as smooth as Cabernet. If the wines were balanced, they were good, and I said so in my reviews, always wondering why this atypicity bothered some critics so much.

Which raises, of course, the question, What then is the difference between a 95 point wine and an 88 point one? Writers have tried for centuries to describe what lifts one wine above another to which it might bear a close resemblance. In fact the Writer’s Full Employment Act is predicated on this very challenge. It has to do with a quality of mouthfeel; the only way to explain it is through analogy. It’s the difference in the fabric of a fine Italian suit and one you buy at Sears. The difference between a weed and a bonsai. It’s the difference between Beethoven played by the San Francisco Symphony as against a high school student orchestra. It’s an experiential quality, intellectual in its most basic form, and it requires experience on the part of the taster to learn to recognize it. (This sounds snobby but isn’t really.)

Is it difficult to reconcile the twin facts of an internationalization of style with degrees of quality? I don’t think so. Styles come and go, but fundamental quality always remains, whether it was the wines of ancient Greece and Rome, the Bordeaux of the 19th century or the wines of modern California. As Jamie Goode writes in his current blog, “Balance is important in wine, and it’s a style call,” which makes it, in his words, “quite personal.” Of course, it was easier in past decades and centuries, when all the important tastemakers agreed on what was “balanced” and what wasn’t; there were just a handful of them (mostly in the English wine trade), and no one would have thought to challenge them. Today, of course, we have a proliferation of wine writers, so ambitious, which makes things more confusing than ever. If someone says something, someone else ridicules it, and the debate goes viral. This is hardly the way to arrive at reasonable conclusions. The anchor of authority regrettably is getting lost, in favor of the flotsam of the masses. Whether this is a good or bad development has yet to be determined.


Cocktails and varietal promiscuity

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I’m not a big cocktail drinker, but I do like one or two from time to time when I’m having a nice dinner at a restaurant. My preference is vodka. The taste of Scotch has never appealed to me, although I do appreciate the complexities of a single-malt. Rum and bourbon, ehh, I sometimes like to venture over to Pican on a late night and have some of their Bourbon classic cocktails, but I have to be in the right mood. On my to-do list is to explore tequila. Now that I’m not immersed in a tsunami of California wine, like I was for so long, I have the time to explore other beverages!

I used to be a dirty vodka martini guy, but the excessive salt in the olives and brine eventually bothered me. So I asked a bartender at a hotel where I was staying to recommend a vodka drink that was simple but not salty, and he gave me a gimlet. Now, that particular gimlet was not very good. It was too soft and sweet and simple. So when I had dinner recently at Ozumo, I tried again, and bingo! That was a superb gimlet, as were the two I had the other night at Boot and Shoe Service, here in Oakland. I asked the bartender lady why it was so good, and she said it was because they freshly squeeze their own limes, instead of using the classic Rose’s Lime Juice, which to my understanding is sweetened. Perhaps that was the problem with that hotel gimlet, which tasted like liquid candy.

Before I was a wine writer, I drank widely and prolifically. My old tasting diary is filled with notes on Alsace, Chianti, Bordeaux, Germany, the Loire—not so much Italy, alas. These are the wines I plan to start re-enjoying in this new phase of my life and career. But I’m sure the majority of the wines I drink will still be from California.

When I began enjoying California wine, the state hadn’t yet turned into what we may today call the appellation-varietal complex (a term I borrowed from Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex”). Even in Napa Valley, which shortly was to become a varietal monoculture, with primarily Cabernet Sauvignon planted, you still saw vineyards with Zinfandel, Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet next to each other. When Harry Waugh visited the valley, in the mid-1980s, he was astonished to see, at the S. Anderson winery, only Chardonnay and sparkling wine produced, which he called “another new trend…What a contrast [to when] every winery used to produce and sell half-a-dozen varietals!”

I’m not here to defend varietal promiscuity in a vineyard, but it wasn’t the worst thing in the world in the 1960s and 1970s and it wouldn’t be today, if someone did that sort of thing. We got into this topic last week on my blog, where someone wrote critically of Trefethen for having Riesling growing in the same vineyard as their Cabernet. That person felt it was terroir-ly (is that a word?) impossible for both varieties to thrive in close proximity. I suppose his thinking was that Riesling needs Alsatian or German weather and soils whereas Cabernet needs Bordeaux weather and soils, and since the weather and soils in Alsace/Germany are different from those of Bordeaux, it must ipso facto be impossible for both varietals to thrive in Oak Knoll!

That’s an example of what I call ideological thinking. It may seem logical, but you really have to taste the wine to see what’s real. In the case of Trefethen’s Rieslings, I’ve always liked them. They’re dry (as the label says), and most of the time make for excellent drinking, at a fair price. I gave 91 points to the 2009, 87 to the 2010 and 89 to the 2012 (I didn’t review the 2011—did they make one?). I’m also a huge fan of Trefethen’s Cabernets, so for me, the argument that you can’t grow Riesling and Cabernet in the same vineyard just doesn’t hold water.

In part what I’ve learned and tried to communicate during my entire career can be boiled down to this: Whatever you think is real may not be. The best way to find out is to have an open mind. If you can’t have an open mind, then taste blind. You discover the most surprising things that way.


State of the grape: Viognier

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My young colleague at Wine Enthusiast, Andrew Hoover, recently found himself quoted in an article in the Richmond [VA] Times-Dispatch on the topic of Viognier.

Andrew led a breakout tasting session at the Virginia Wine Summit. Here’s what he said about the variety and wine:

“The study revealed that Virginia’s Viogniers strike a balance between those of France and California. Most of Virginia’s Viogniers don’t have the flamboyant fruit, high levels of alcohol and voluptuous body that often characterize California’s offerings. Instead, Virginia’s Viogniers reveal their exotic fruit character more subtly, making it compatible with more dishes. I think the audience will recognize the distinct personality of Virginia’s Viogniers and see how they have one foot in the Old World and one foot in the New World.”

This is a greatly articulate statement; Andrew is a natural-born communicator and I hope one of these days he’ll write a book! He has described California Viognier exactly correctly: high alcohol, voluptuous body, flamboyant fruit. But are these its virtues, or its vices?

The answer is both. Whenever you have a wine like that, it had better be balanced in order to avoid blowsiness. Funny word, that: it’s not even in my Webster’s New World Dictionary. I found this definition online: blowsy, adj. (esp. of a woman) untidy in appearance; slovenly or sluttish. Setting aside the sexist implications (which are annoying), I’ll fasten on the word “slutty” to describe what happens when Viognier goes over the top.

To begin with, it’s too much of everything. We all love the fruitiness of California wine, but something has to limit it at the boundaries, or the wine becomes a runaway fruit train. I once saw a fruit delivery truck on the freeway that had spilled its entire load onto the road: mounds of peaches, pears, melons, kumquats, grapes and oranges, mashed and oozing juice. You could smell it hundreds of feet away on that hot summer day. That’s bad Viognier, a fault compounded by residual sugar. Andrew referred to high alcohol: that is a tendency of Viognier, one that vintners sometimes “resolve” by stopping the fermentation while the wine still has dissolved sugar. This has been my main criticism of blowsy Viognier: it has the taste of a simple candy bar. And if you pile new oak on it, well, all you end up with is an oaky candy bar.

I remember the first California Viognier I ever had. It was a Calera, and was siphoned off from the barrel for me by Josh Jensen. (I think it was the first Viognier he’d made.) Josh handed the glass to me with the proud grin of a new dad, and watched as I smelled and sipped. I have never forgotten the impression that wine made on me: the top of my head exploded. Seriously. (You don’t forget a thing like that!) The wine was so amazingly rich, so unctuous, yet so balanced in acidity and minerality that it was one of the most complete, wholesome wine experiences I’ve ever had. (That was more than 20 years ago. At around the same time someone gave me some Zind-Humbrecht Vendange Tardive Grand Cru Gewurz. I don’t remember the vintage, but that wine similarly blew me away.)

Some recent California Viogniers I’ve given high scores to have been Arrowood 2009 Saralee’s Vineyard (95 points), Failla 2010 Alban Vineyard (93 points) and Jaffurs 2011 (92 points). These all possess Viognier’s flamboyance, yet exhibit precision and control. Any of them could substitute for a rich Chardonnay. And yet, I really haven’t had a California Viognier in years that did to me what that Calera did, so long ago. Maybe it was just the shock of discovery that made it so special–to realize that California could produce something so exotic. Maybe Josh’s joy rubbed off on me, too (which is yet another reason to take a skeptical view of wines you taste at the winery with the winemaker). Whatever it was, and as much as I like a good California Viognier, it has a ways to go before I can give it my unstinting praise.


Malbec in California? Mixed bag, emerging story

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I reviewed a very nice wine from Trefethen, the 2010 Dragon’s Tooth, a blend of 58% Malbec, 22% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Petit Verdot. (My full review and score will appear in an upcoming issue of Wine Enthusiast.)

In the paperwork accompanying the wine, Janet Trefethen had written of the winery’s “tinkering with Malbec for the past 12 years” and added, “Clearly, we are not alone in our interest in Malbec as Napa Valley plantings have tripled since the year 2000.”

That sent me to do my own research in the latest Grape Acreage Report, produced every year by the fine folks at the California Department of Food and Agriculture. According to it, prior to 2004 the state had 1,255 acres of Malbec. Last year, acreage had grown to 2,689–considerably more than double. Acreage of Cabernet Sauvignon in California, by contrast, increased in the same period from 71,472 acres to only 80,630–a much smaller rate of growth.

In Napa County, according to the Acreage Report, Malbec increased 70% in acreage between 2004-2012, from 230 acres to 392 acres. That’s still not a lot: There were just under 20,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in 2012. Still, this is evidence that vintners are taking a second look at Malbec and what it can bring to red wine.

Personally, I don’t think California Malbec, bottled on its own as a varietal, is very interesting. Dark, tannic and fruity, yes: compelling, rarely. My scores tend to be in the 86-88 point range. There are, as always, exceptions: Mt. Brave’s 2009, from Mount Veeder, is an awesome wine.

But as a blender, well,…Some wineries in Paso Robles (Bon Niche, for example) are tinkering with Malbec as a component, as are others in Napa: Michael Pozzan’s 2010 Marianna, a Bordeaux blend, is excellent, as is Mount Veeder’s 2009 Reserve Cabernet, blended with Malbec and Petit Verdot. That formula is hewed to at CADE, which adds a little Merlot to it, with their 2009 Napa Cuvée. Newton, meanwhile, replaces the Petit Verdot with Cabernet Franc in their delicious 2010 Unfiltered Merlot. Across the hill, Lancaster, in their 2009 Nicole’s, deepens the interest of their Cabernet Sauvignon with 25% Malbec, bringing a brooding, earthy quality. In all these cases, what the Malbec brings is depth, color, and a certain juicy softness despite the tannins.

Just yesterday morning, Peter Cargasacchi had asked, via Facebook, what the components of the 1961 Cheval Blanc had been. I went to Eddie Penning-Rowsell’s 1969 The Wines of Bordeaux where he wrote that the vineyard, in the Sixties, was “37% Merlot, 43 Bouchet and 20% Pressac (Malbec).” (“Bouchet” apparently was not the Alicante that we know in California, but an old name for Cabernet Franc.) Michael Broadbent, in The Great Vintage Wine Book, ranked that wine higher than Ausone of the same vintage, although not as highly as the five First Growths of the Médoc. The point, anyway, is that Malbec in Bordeaux and especially in the Right Bank historically was considered good enough to put into the cuvée, but I think it’s lost its luster in recent decades; after the devastating 1956 frost in Bordeaux, which killed much of it off, it was replaced with other grapes, in the belief perhaps that Malbec is a bit rustic. (That is precisely the word Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson use to describe it, in The World Atlas of Wine.)

It is rustic, although I certainly wouldn’t complain if you opened a bottle of Catena Zapata for me. I suspect that Malbec’s recent popularity in Napa Valley is as much due to the search for novelty (and playing off its popularity in Argentina) as anything else. Sometimes, winemakers “throw spaghetti at the wall” to see what sticks. I suppose you can’t blame them for not wanting to rest on their laurels, but sometimes I wonder where the line is between innovation that actually improves things, as opposed to change for its own sake.


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