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California never will have a winery classification, and it shouldn’t

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I was shopping at Rockridge Market the other day and stopped by the Goodwill Store to check out their books. Came across a familiar old one I hadn’t thought about for years: The Wines of California, by Roy Andries de Groot (Summit Books, 1982). Its subtitle: “Including the First Classification of the Best Vineyards and Wineries.”

I read that book when it was new, and it made quite an impression on me. Twenty-five years ago, I was a novice wine amateur, reading everything I could get my hands on. Of course, back then the bedrock of all wine knowledge rested in Europe, and in France in particular. I was very familiar with the Classification of 1855 and was in awe of it. It seemed to represent the pinnacle of everything California aspired to: great wine, grown in the right places, organized into established tiers of quality. Before I came across the book, I had wondered if California wines would ever be classified. It seemed like a natural thing to do. So the book really grabbed my attention.

If there was an inherent weakness in de Groot’s book, it was that it didn’t distinguish clearly between wineries and vineyards. That distinction is crucial in Europe. The Clos de Vougeot is classified as a Grand Cru vineyard of Burgundy, not the wineries who buy its grapes and bottle it. So when de Groot classified, say, Heitz Wine Cellars as one of his three highest-ranked (“Great”) wineries, mainly on the strength of Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, he failed to note that Heitz bought those grapes, whereas Stony Hill (another “Great” winery) grew all of its own grapes. (The third “Great” winery was Schramsberg.) If Heitz had lost access to Martha’s Vineyard grapes, it could not have remained a “Great” winery.

Still, what de Groot did was audacious and interesting for the time. And where he led, others followed. There were numerous attempts to classify California wineries over the next several years, most notably by Wine Spectator’s Jim Laube. In his 1989 “California’s Great Cabernets,” he stole the five-tier Bordeaux model and applied it to Cabernet Sauvignon.

We haven’t heard much about California classifications since the turn of the 21st century, and for good reason. As sincere as these attempts were, they were naive. A moment’s reflection would have prompted the following objections to any sort of California classification:

– as noted, a failure to distinguish between wineries who own their vineyards, and thus can never lose that fruit, and wineries who buy their grapes. Even a long-term contract may end someday.

– an inability to include wineries that did not exist at the time of the classification. This is not such a problem in the Médoc, where new wineries arise only rarely. But in fecund California, a classification would be futile because new wineries pop up all the time. For example, Laube did not include Harlan Estate, Cardinale, Staglin or Araujo in his book.

– the difficulty of revising the classification should a winery move up or down in quality. This problem afflicts all classifications in Europe. But it would be particularly misleading in California. Laube classified Shafer as a Third Growth, but surely, Hillside Select is of First Growth quality. De Groot placed Glen Ellen as a “Superb” winery — his second-highest tier. But that clearly was before Glen Ellen became a jug wine producer.

– it’s unlikely that any single wine critic could ever review all of the wines of California. There are simply too many brands (about 4,000 and counting). So any classification would be faulty for not considering everybody equally. True, a critic could focus his attention only on the more famous, culty wineries, but that would be patently unfair to the others, and could even reflect a pre-existing bias.

Despite the inherent weaknesses of a classification, the spirit of the 1980s permitted these efforts. It was a time of great optimism when anything seemed possible. We were still in thrall of Europe. Their systems had withstood the many tests of time; they must have been good, no? So why not try the same thing over here. Besides, the Baby Boomers were discovering fine wine by the millions; not only that, they were buying wine books. A wine book that purported to classify California wine was bound to sell lots of copies.

How times have changed. Can you imagine anyone having the temerity to classify California wineries? It would be ridiculous, and would meet up with the ridicule it deserved.


Sorry, Fred, lots of wines are worth more than $10

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It’s time somebody replied to Fred Franzia’s claim — repeated endlessly in interviews and again the other day — that “No wine is worth more than $10” and various permutations thereupon.

It’s a good line, and Fred’s a good showman who knows the value of controversy. But let’s put this one to rest, along with other shibboleths such as Obama’s death squads, the birthers and the moral superiority of the Republican Party.

Some wines are worth a lot of money. Why? For starters, there’s the law of supply and demand, which you’d think Fred — a shrewd businessman — would understand. If everybody wants Harlan Estate, and there’s only so much of it to go around, then it’s worth whatever price people are willing to pay. By the same token, if everybody wants Two Buck Chuck, and there’s enough of it available for everybody who wants it, then it’s worth exactly the two or three bucks you pay at Trader Joe’s. (ABC News online reports that Fred is about to sell his 500th millionth bottle of TBC, so evidently there is a lot of it to go around.)

There are other reasons why some wines cost a lot. Viticulture at an estate like Harlan, which has winding vine rows set on steep hillsides that are picked by hand, is expensive, whereas Fred’s Central Valley vineyards, which can be miles long and utterly straight, can be cheaply harvested by machines. Fred eschews expensive new French oak; Harlan doesn’t, and that also pushes the price higher.

I could go on and on about why superior viticulture and enology makes superior wines. But we now come to the crunch of the argument, which needs to be addressed squarely. Is any wine worth more than $10?

The answer is obviously, indisputably, uncontestedly yes.

Fred, at his Bronco Wine Co., makes a lot of wines that I give “Best Buys” to, which is a strict bottle price-rating formula we use at Wine Enthusiast. Brands including Forestville, Forest Glen, Crane Lake, Silver Ridge and Harlow Ridge routinely score between 83-86 points and cost below $10, which automatically gives them a Best Buy ribbon. I applaud these wines and Fred’s other brands because they’re priced at a level everyone can afford, and Fred deserves huge credit for helping make sure that consumers can drink clean, sound wine at a good price.

But let’s not kid ourselves that there’s no difference between a ForestVille Cabernet Sauvignon and Shafer Hillside Select! I mean, come on. Now, it may well be that Fred prefers to drink his own wines over any of the world’s great, expensive bottles. That’s his privilege. But it’s just incorrect to say that no wine is worth more than ten bucks.

It kind of reminds me of a tasting at Beaulieu about 6 years ago. Joel Aiken, the winemaker, had opened every bottle ever made of Georges de Latour Private Reserve and invited a pretty stellar audience, which included Robert Mondavi and Ernest Gallo. After we went through them, Joel asked people what they thought. Mr. Mondavi stood and eloquently praised the wines for their beauty, elegance and longevity. Then it was Mr. Gallo’s turn to have his say. He said (I paraphrase from memory) “I don’t like any of them.” He added that none of them measured up to Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy. I remember wondering if he really meant it, or if he was just trying to shock the audience (which he did). And it may be of some interest here that Ernest Gallo was Fred Franzia’s uncle.

There’s one more reason why some wines are worth a lot of money, and it tends to get overlooked. It’s the psychological satisfaction of drinking a great wine that has a story behind it. Not just any story (“I got this Two Buck Chuck at Trader Joes!”) but something that makes the person who serves the wine, and his guests, happy to know about because it stirs the imagination and intellect. The story could be as simple as “This is Lafite.” It could be “I own a share in the chateau.” Or “My Dad bought this for me on the day I was born, to open on my 21st birthday.” Or “Parker gave this wine 100 points.” Or “I’ve followed every vintage of Sloan so I’m really looking forward to the new one.” Or “This is the new wine from Heidi Peterson Barrett, and I love her style.” Cheap wines tend not to have stories because they’re industrial products. They get the job done, which is their purpose in life. A great wine, on the other hand, is so much more than simple organoleptic impressions, or something to wash down food with. It involves thinking and feeling and emoting and loving and remembering and contemplating and, yes, conversation. These are attributes of great wine as much as are barrels, and for them, we pay a premium. That is why many, many wines are worth more than $10, and sometimes, a lot more.


When rap stars do wine

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from Paso Robles

Seems there’s this rapper, Lil Jon, who started a wine company, Little Jonathan Wine Company, that made a Central Coast Chardonnay that just won a silver medal at the L.A. International Wine & Spirits Competition.

Now, readers of my blog may know what I think of such competitions, but that’s beside the point. What’s really interesting is that Lil Jon tweeted about the award, in caps: “FOR ALL YALL SUKKAS THAT WERE HATING ON MY WINE CHECK THIS OUT!! WE WINNING AWARDS TWITT!!! GET U SOME.”

We can presume that this is the written equivalent of the way Lil Jon talks on the street. It’s a form of urban speech I hear all the time, living in Oakland. Invented by black kids, it’s now been appropriated by some Asian and Latino kids (at least, those who yearn to live the hip hop lifestyle), as well as every white Eminem wannabe in the land.

On his winery’s website Lil Jon writes:

While traveling the world, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to experience some of the world’s greatest wines. My passion for enjoying those fine wines has led me to pursue my lifelong dream of starting my own winery. Our premium collection is simply some of the best wine that California has to offer. I’m very proud to present our rich, complex blends and world class varietals from the finest vineyards in the Central Coast, Monterey and Paso Robles regions. Our wines are hand-crafted to ensure excellence in evnry bottle and I personally invite you to try our wines and share in my passion.

How does he go back and forth from hip hop talk to the King’s English, with such ease? On his tweet he provides an insight: Jonathan Little Wine Company sounds “a little bit more upscale than regular ‘Lil Jon.’ … This is not no ghetto Boone’s Farm; this is some real wine.”

What’s notable about this, aside from a rapper turning into a winery owner (just another version of celebrity wines), is the glimpse it provides into the different ways we relate when we’re in different groupings of society; also, the way that Jonathan sees wine, which is probably the way most people see it. Lil Jon sees the world one way, and sings it the way he sees it, because his listeners see it the same way as he does, and he wants to relate to his listeners. But when Lil Jon becomes Jonathan Little, he’s no longer a rap star, or, more properly, he’s more than just a rap star: He’s a businessman, selling a product. So he has to act in a way that’s more appropriate to the business world, which is to say, speaking and writing the way business people, and most people in the wine industry, talk and write. No double negatives, no deliberate misspellings or mispronunciations.

We all do that, don’t we? When I’m in New York with New Yawkahs my speech reverts to the Bronx accents of my boyhood. When I’m with serious winos, such as my San Francisco tasting group, we talk in a way that would be as incoherent (and probably sound a lot more pompous) to outsiders as Lil Jon’s urban speech may be to some. Wine geek-speech is no different, in substance, than urban hip hop speech. Both are forms of communication that allow us to function in and bond with specialized groupings of people.

Hey Lil Jon, if you read this: let’s get together and drink some wine. I can teach you geek-speak and you can teach me hip hop talk.


Wine & Pot? Why not

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How ironic is it that, even as California seriously considers legalizing marijuana (to help stanch the  budget deficit), anti-alcohol forces are once again attacking the concept that a little wine each day is good for your health.

The “wine isn’t good for you” crowd was reported on in yesterday’s Times (come on, you know there’s only one Times in the country, right?) under the provocative header, Alcohol’s Good for You? Some Scientists Doubt It. After all these years (since The French Paradox) of study after study demonstrating that a little wine is good for everything from hearts to diabetes prevention and anti-cancer, there are still some stubborn scientists stuck in the “you can’t really prove it, so nyaah nyaah” camp.

The basis of their objection, the Times writes, is that “No study, these critics say, has ever proved a causal relationship between moderate drinking and lower risk of death — only that the two often go together.”

When I was a philosophy major back at good old Clark U. in Worcestor, Mass., we studied the Scottish philosopher, David Hume. I never forgot his metaphor about billiard balls to illustrate how hard it is to actually prove causality. When we hit the cue ball, we see it smash into the six ball, which then moves (hopefully, into a pocket). But we can’t directly observe this causality, which must happen on the atomic level. All we can do is infer that the causality is there.

hume

Hume and Socrates playing billiards

So the anti-wine scientists say, in effect, “Just because people who drink moderate amounts of wine are healthier, we’re not justified in saying that wine causes them to be healthier. It may just be that wine drinkers lead healthier lifestyles (more balanced meals, going to the gym, jogging, staying slim, don’t smoke) and therefore are healthier, regardless of wine.”

On the scale of dumb, self-serving arguments, that one takes the cake. Look: whether it’s wine that makes you healthier — or the fact that healthy people choose to drink wine — either way, the bottom line is that WINE DRINKERS ARE HEALTHIER, not to mention happier! Would it hurt for these scientists to admit it?

Meanwhile, the Associated Press yesterday reported that momentum is building for legalizing pot. Seems that with states and municipalities struggling to pay their bills and keep services, a tax on weed could raise billions — money that Mexican drug lords are now getting instead of our local police and fire departments and public health facilities.

Here in (not so sunny) California, even Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said he’s open to the idea of at least talking about legalizing pot. And I recall that the late William F. Buckley and the still very-much alive former Secretary of State, George Schultz, also expressed support for legalizing, or at least decriminalizing, marijuana. So it’s not like a Republican-vs.-Democrat thing.

It’s definitely worth looking into. Not only would this rob the drug kingpins of the source of much of their wealth, it would result in far fewer people being locked up in prisons, which would save the state money.

Think what a nice place California would be if everyone drank a few glasses of wine everyday, went to the gym, stayed healthy, ate right, and smoked a doobie every once in a while. Why, we could almost get mellow again, like back in the Sixties.

doobie


Generational sniping? I don’t think so

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Yesterday I wrote about gender. Today, it’s generations. (Why am I thinking in such weighty terms lately?) It happened when I read this Q&A in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, by one of their writers, Peg Melnik. It started out with her profiling a real, 23-year old Millennial and asking the question, “How can wine country court them [Millennials]?”

Good enough question to draw me in. Usually, if the first sentence of an article or blog don’t grab me, I move on.

A couple things struck me about the Millennial, whose name is Matt. First, he doesn’t want to be condescended to by writers, critics, merchants, tasting room personnel, or anybody else. Here’s a great quote from him: “If a winery wants to target Millennials, it should be accepting of how we demand quality, image, and history, but we like to think for ourselves.” All Matt asks is for industry folks to be respectful of where he’s coming from, not treat him like an idiot because he may not know as much as a Boomer. And “The winery should know that we network and market through each other and a warm smile and a memorable experience in a tasting room can go a very long way.”

That’s great stuff. Then Melnik concludes the Q&A by asking Matt “about the generational sniping from the Baby Boomers who think some of the Millennials drink wine with too much gusto. What’s the best way to bridge this generation gap?” That’s when my jaw dropped.

Sniping?

snipe [verb] to shoot from a hidden position, as at individuals of an enemy force; to direct an attack [at someone] in a sly or underhanded way

Have I missed something? I haven’t heard anything about sniping Boomers throwing underhanded stink bombs at Millennials. If anything (speaking on behalf of Boomers), we think it’s fantastic that people Matt’s age are getting interested in wine. When Melnik asks her readers, “Is there any more generational sniping going on?” I hope they tell her, loud and clear, “No! There isn’t. And stop trying to stir up trouble.”

I don’t know, was last summer’s Rockaway dustup an example of “sniping”? To the extent any criticism was expressed from my direction, it was concerning questions about journalism, P.R. ethics and full disclosure. I don’t think it was a generation gap thing. And it sure had nothing to do with anyone enjoying wine too much.

I did think that, when the magazine WineX came out about 10 years ago (could have been longer), I was discountful of it, as were most other people I knew, because I thought it condescended to young people, as if they had to throw in sexual or cultural terms of reference instead of just being smart. But that wasn’t a snipe at young people, it was my disgust with a magazine that pandered to some bizarre perception of them.

One of the best things that’s happened to America is that we’ve become a wine-drinking country. My generation led the way, simply because we were born earlier than Gen Y and Millennials. Now, people over 21 are turning to wine in droves (and we have a wine-loving couple in the White House, Yay!). I’ll lift a glass to that, and welcome Matt and his Millennial friends to the club.


Oops! When famous wine writers get it wrong

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I liked Eric Asimov’s mea culpa last week when he wrote about how he had mistaken a Syrah for a Pinot Noir, in the company of people he was having dinner with at a restaurant. Of course, it’s always gracious to acknowledge one’s faux pas with a dash of self-deprecating humor, and Eric did, claiming that one of his missions “is to do away with the aura of omniscience that so often adorns wine writers.” Well, there’s nothing like getting the variety wrong, in public, to take that aura of omniscience and pulverize it to smithereens.

It does happen to the best of us. Harry Waugh‘s famous, and similarly self-deprecating, remark that he hadn’t confused a Burgundy for a Bordeaux “since lunch” comes to mind. Now, Eric put up a little fig leaf to hide his nakedness when he said that, after all, it hadn’t been a light, silky wine he’d confused for Pinot Noir, it had been a Copain Syrah — Copain’s style being dense, dark wines. Here’s where the psychology comes in. Eric knew he’d ordered Copain off the wine list. His brain was expecting a broodingly ripe, dark Pinot Noir, so when he tasted the Syrah, that same brain censored, in essence, the wine’s “Syrah-ness” (pepper? violets? crushed blackberries? meat?) and hallucinated instead a “Pinot Noir-ness” that was in accordance with Eric’s expectations.

Remember all the debate in the blogosphere last summer about whether wine tasting is “subjective” or “objective”? I should think that this settles the matter. It’s “subjective” because the brain can never be entirely neutral. Somebody once said that Andy Warhol’s films of the 1960s, such as Sleep or Empire State Building, were the only authentically neutral films because they had absolutely no point of view. But that’s not true. Their point of view was precisely that they had no point of view. And the reason they had no point of view was because Andy Warhol had decided to simply point his camera at something, and then leave it running while he read magazines or went to the bathroom. His films therefore did have a point of view: boredom, banality, unconventionality.

The most extreme example of a wine taster having no point of view with regard to the wine is the Master of Wine tasting blind. This is supposedly the classically objective way to critique a wine. The mind as a camera, capturing incoming information, with the brain functioning as a computer, analyzing it in a completely detached way, then printing out data in the form of a review. But does anyone really believe a person can function like Frank Herbert‘s mentats, in Dune, which Wikipedia defines as “humans trained to mimic computers: human minds developed to staggering heights of cognitive and analytical ability…the embodiment of logic and reason”? Can’t be done, and that’s the overarching reason why wine reviewers must approach their jobs with humility and even a bit of apology. As Eric discovered, mistaking a Syrah for a Pinot Noir comes with the territory.

Okay, so what happens when that “aura of omniscience” is stripped away from a wine writer? It’s not exactly a case of “the emperor has no clothes.” But it does mean that wine writers not only have to review to the best of their ability, they also have to be great historians, students of popular culture, with an aptitude for science and geology and — above all — transcendent writers.

emperor

This emperor is missing some clothing!


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