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.
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.
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.
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.
At Tuesday’s Petite Sirah Symposium, there was plenty to talk about: viticulture and enology best practices, and lots of personal history, but one question overrode all else: How can we make Petite Sirah a “hot” category?
That’s what people asked me. Generally, it would take place privately: they’d approach me, do their introductions, and then graduate to the main point. “Say, in your opinion, what do you think we have to do” or “How long do you think it will take for…” and similar inquiries along those lines.
Well, I’m not the Oracle of Delphi. But here’s what I think. Petite Sirah is not going to be the Next Big Thing. I don’t believe any new varietal from California will be. The market and cultural forces are such as to mitigate against the rise of a new wine. True, we’ve had Moscato, but that had several things going for it. It was cheap, it filled the niche of a crisp, sweet white wine, and there was plenty of it to go around (at least, once the giant companies saw the handwriting on the wall and quickly grafted over hundreds of acres of Merlot to Moscato, which they then could quickly push out with no bottle age!).
Petite Sirah, obviously, is none of those things, beginning with cheap. There are inexpensive Petite Sirahs, but very, very few of them: in the last two years I’ve reviewed only about a dozen below $20 (of well more than 200 tasted), and of those half-dozen, most were execrable. The best, from the likes of Envy, Turley, Grgich Hills, Sean Thackrey, Frank Family Retro, Rutherford Grove, Chiarello and Summers, all cost between $32-$75, making them rather costly for the average American (although certainly less than Cabernet Sauvignons that had similar point scores). Most of these high-scoring Petite Sirahs, by the way, were from Napa Valley, which is hardly a surprise. The climate (warm and dry) is right, the soils are well-drained, and vintners can afford the viticulture to get things right.
Nor does Petite Sirah fill any particular niche that currently is unfilled. I said in my remarks to the Symposium that Petite Sirah is a distinctive wine, and it is; but it fundamentally is a full-bodied, dry red wine, which tends to have highish alcohol and considerable oak, and in those things, it’s hardly alone. So are Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Zinfandel. So it’s not as if the consumer is forced to buy Petite Sirah if she’s looking for something to drink with the barbecue. There are plenty of other choices.
Finally, there is not yet a great deal of good Petite Sirah to go around. Most of the top examples are produced in the hundreds of cases (which partially accounts for their relatively high prices). You’re not going to find good Petite Sirah at the 7-Eleven. Along these lines, however, I was struck by this article, from the July 5 “The Drinks Business,” to the effect that Santa Rita, the giant Chilean producer, just released its own, first Petite Sirah, called Bougainville. The interesting quote comes from the winery’s technical director, who said, he “had originally intended to buy Syrah [for the new line]. However, he praised the results now being achieved with Petite Sirah” in Chile. So they’re making progress there, too, just as are the Californians.
Well, that won’t hurt to raise Petite Sirah’s visibility, assuming Santa Rita exports Bougainville to the States. Still, Petite Sirah is unlikely to erupt positively onto the consumer’s radar to the extent that everyone will be wanting some this Christmas. But that’s not the point. The way to build a category is one step at a time. Let individual wineries establish their own reputations, among sommeliers, merchants and selected consumers. Let word of mouth spread the message. Let critics praise the wines (as we already are) until consumers, here and there, start thinking, “What is this ‘Petite Sirah’ I keep hearing about?” Curiosity has launched many a trend.
But to expect Petite Sirah to explode like Pinot Noir post-Sideways? Nope. Not until George Clooney and Ryan Gosling make a buddy movie about it.