subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

The classics win out over the obscure. Always have, always will



You want wisdom in wine words? Consider these: “In many centers of wine hipness these days, what matters is not how a wine tastes and how the associated sensory memories make you feel, but instead the social source of pleasure derived from tasting—and professing to like—a much ballyhooed wine that is made in a style that is currently in vogue.”

That’s from Andy Peay, in his Peay Vineards Fall newsletter. Now, Andy was being diplomatic in his choice of words. Let me put the case more bluntly: There is an insidious tendency today for some sommeliers and insecure critics to praise obscure varieties and temporary styles that, when all is said and done, don’t actually taste very good. That a winemaker, like Andy Peay, has to come out and fulminate against “wine fads” is almost unprecedented—but then, so is the emergence of a maven class that seems hellbent on revolution for its own sake.

How else to explain the cult-like hosannas for low-alcohol Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in California? Andy Peay found a similar phenomenon for the offbeat in Copenhagen, where “all I could drink was wine esoterica” because the “tastemakers” are addicted to the strange and unfamiliar: Trusseau, Jura whites, Biodynamic wines “and other wine styles/regions currently in vogue” most of which Andy found “flawed and, mostly, downright unpalatable.” (Orange wine, anyone?) This is why Andy entitled his opinion piece “Yes, but be delicious”: It’s fine to be esoteric, but please, at least taste good! The first duty of wine, after all, is and always has been—not to satisfy the eclectic taste of bored gatekeepers—but to taste good and give pleasure.

Nor is this drumbeat for the “new” showing any signs of slowing down. Yestrrday’s San Francisco Chronicle, in the wine section, headlined the lead article “The next new wine thing,” a header that editors who have nothing else to say routinely trot out, offering timely proof of Andy Peay’s argument that “Wine writers need something new to write about.” Actually, they—we—do not; there is plenty to say about tradition. But wine writers’ editors and publishers, driven by more commercial motives than merely good writing, tell them to find something new—and so they dutifully do.

Go back to Andy’s phrase, “a social source of pleasure.” That is a compound noun containing a vast trove of implications. ”Social pleasure” is the opposite of “sensual pleasure.” It means, in essence, that when one of these wine faddists tastes something he or she believes to be “currently in vogue” among his peers, he actually is tasting—not the wine itself—but the idea of the wine in his mind! This is a form of idealism that is disconnected from reality and that, under different circumstances, could be described as hallucinatory.

Now, we don’t want our wine gatekeepers to be hallucinating, do we, but there is truth when Andy Peay continues: “Instead of highlighting the classic wines of the world, many tastemakers—including sommeliers, writers, and wine organizations—are focusing on what is novel in wine…”. There’s nothing inherently wrong with such a focus. Indeed, one could argue that somms and writers owe it to themselves and to their professions to seek out “what is novel in wine.” But all things in balance. There’s a huge difference between seeking out what is novel, and ignoring or, even worse, trashing everything that is traditional. But this latter approach marks too many modern tastemakers, who seem to believe that, if their father or grandfather liked it, then it is not worth considering.

One wonders if some modern tastemakers, and here I include bloggers, have even tasted the classics. Do they understand them? Do they know that there is a reason why some wines have been classic, and why some never have been–say, orange wine or Jura wine? Do they understand that, long after their careers have ended, the classics will remain the classics—and the obscure will be just as obscure as ever?

You know, sixteen years ago I went to a workshop at U.C. Davis entitled “Emerging Varietals.” Lots of important people were there: from Robert Mondavi, Silver Oak, Kendall-Jackson, Gallo, and the ubiquitous Randall Grahm. The purpose of the event: To discover “the next big things” in varietals. We tasted everything from Graciano and dry Touriga Nacional to Trinkadeira, Greco di Tufo and Gaglioppo—in order to, as one of the organizers explained, “take [winemaking in California] to the next level.”

Well, none of those varieties worked out particularly well, and I doubt, rather sadly, if any of Randall’s plans to breed 10,000 new varieties on his San Juan Bautista ranch will work out, either. (Randall was the subject of the Chronicle’s Sunday article, the one I referred to.) With all due respect to Randall, who has been interested in “emerging varieties” for a long time, the public has not been clamoring for them; and the gatekeeper somms and writers who get so worked up over obscure varieties seem to be a fickle bunch. They get bored easily; they do want some shiny new thing every five minutes. That does not seem to be a good audience to cultivate, unless you’re making, say, Gaglioppo, and if you are, good luck! I mean, seriously, does anyone think that in fifty years people are going to look back and say, “Gee, California really screwed up with Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc”? I don’t think so.

Sangiovese’s bold, noble road to nowhere



Reading about Piero Antinori in the April 30 issue of Wine Spectator brought back memories of the early and mid-1990s, when the Marchese had hundreds of acres of Sangiovese growing in a beautiful section of Atlas Peak.

The sprawling vineyard was a fine sight to see. Sangiovese, the grape and wine, still was on the upswing in Cailfornia. Many winegrowers and critics thought it could be California’s answer to Tuscany—indeed, the term “Cal-Ital” was coined to express this desire.

To understand Sangiovese’s allure at that moment, you have to put it into context. Cabernet Sauvignon was the undoubted king of red wines. Pinot Noir was not then seriously considered to be a candidate for anything. Merlot was on the rise. Zinfandel, as always, was in one year, out the next. Petite Sirah? Hmmph. It was okay for blending, but nobody took it seriously as a standalone. So people were left to wonder: What is the “next big red wine?”

In California, with its edge-of-the-continent tradition of radical reinvention, there always has to be a “next” everything. The next big movie star. The next big politician. Even the next big earthquake. This concept of “nextness” is uncomfortable with tradition—tradition, after all, is what drove so many people to leave their homes and travel westward, where they would be free from stifling oppression. So it was with wine.

Sangiovese was crowned early on with this crown of nextness. But there was a problem—a big one. It never seemed to make very good wine. Grown on fertile flatlands and benches in Napa Valley, it made a light, pale, savory wine, almost a rosé, at places like Flora Springs. But its lightness disqualified it from being the next big red wine. So it was that growers and vintners headed to the hills.

Enter Piero Antinori. The Atlas Peak vineyard, as I’ve said, was gorgeous, and the fact that the master of Tuscany presided over it was inspirational. However, once again, Sangiovese failed to live up to expectations. The tannins in the wines were enormous, gigantic, impossible. I remember attempting to review them and fundamentally giving up. Would these wines age well in 15 or 20 years? Who knew? Who cared?

So it was that, as the Wine Spectator explains, Antinori eventually gave up on Sangiovese and replaced almost all the Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon, which he bottles under the Antica brand.

As for Sangiovese in California, it’s one of the really few disasters in the state’s wine varietal history. Acreage over the last ten or fifteen years has remained practically stagnant statewide. In Napa, less than 300 acres remain. I can barely remember the last one I reviewed for Wine Enthusiast.

Someday, somebody might resurrect Sangiovese in California and make something of it, but I doubt if we’ll ever see it return to glory. It’s awfully hard to attempt something important in California wine, only to fail, and then to return. Some politicians have done it—Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan conspicuously come to mind, men who ran losing campaigns that embarrassed them, but then came back and triumphed.

Wine, however, is not man. Whatever niche Sangiovese once promised to fill has been replaced by Pinot Noir. Sangiovese’s experimental period in California was a bold and noble venture, but it led nowhere.

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



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



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



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



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.

« Previous Entries

Recent Comments

Recent Posts