I went to a tasting today at Epic Roadhouse, the newish Kuleto restaurant with the stunning view of San Francisco Bay and the Bay Bridge. The tasting was of some current releases and barrel samples of various wines from a very well known Napa Valley Cabernet house, which I’m not going to identify no matter how much you hope I will.
I’ve given very high scores to this winery’s Cabs and have a great deal of respect for them. I’ve walked their vineyard in the hills above Napa Valley and witnessed how perfectly tended it is. The wines are extraordinarily fine and, by Napa standards, not very expensive. So it’s not like I have an axe to grind here. Just a point to make.
At one point the head of the winery explained how they used to vineyard-designate their top Cab made from their estate vineyard, but no more, because (and I paraphrase) “We want to make the best wine we can every year, and sometimes that requires blending out the estate vineyard with grapes from other vineyards.” Fine; I get that; I agree. Then we moved on to another wine, a barrel sample of a new proprietary blend. That wine, he said, will be exclusively from the estate vineyard, and will be the top wine it can produce, capturing the essence of the vineyard’s terroir. They all were very excited about it, he added.
Well, whenever I hear about a block or barrel selection from a vineyard that’s exciting and will capture essence, etc., my reporter’s skepticism is aroused. Sounds like language to justify a super-high price. So I asked, “How much will this new wine cost?” The guy hesitated, then said, “We haven’t set the price yet.” But if it doesn’t cost more than the regular Cab, I’ll buy you a bottle at full retail.
Think about the contradiction the guy made. First, he said they reserve the right to blend out the estate vineyard to make the best wine. Then, in the next breath, he said a wine that’s likely to be their most expensive is going to be exclusively from the estate vineyard, in order to capture its terroir.
Hello? Is it just me, or are these two statements mutually exclusive?
Well, actually, yes, if you’re talking about sheer quality. But no, if you’re coming from a marketing and sales point of view. Because the truth is that a gullible public is happily willing to pay more for a block or barrel selection, or something else that suggests exclusivity, than they are for a wine that was blended for balance, which may have a more general appellation. Which gets us back to the title of this post.
In medieval times a Danse macabre was a morality play to demonstrate the allegorical idea that we all must die, even the most virtuous among us. I use the term here to suggest that you might have the greatest vineyard, the best-tended grapes, the most talented winemaker, the best state-of-the-art winery; but Death, now in the figure of a marketing manager, is going to lead you to the same place as everyone else: the afterlife known as The Market, where everything — truth, contradictions, lies, terroir — is the same.
My San Francisco tasting group met again on Monday. It was a warm day in the city, with blue skies and a temperate breeze from the north, and outside the window the Bay Bridge and the waters of the Bay sparkled under the sun.
All we knew of the wines was that they were Cabernet Sauvignon, or Bordeaux blends, from around the world, and from multiple vintages. Our host, Gary, had set up eight glasses, but one of the members, Chris, brought a ninth wine, so this was added at the last minute.
We always rank the wines in order of preference, then get a group ranking, but this time, we agreed beforehand that rank would be of lesser importance than the discussion of terroir that would follow. We were each asked to guess the country or region of origin of the wine as well as its approximate age. Of course, if anybody wanted to go out on a limb and guess the producer, that was okay, too.
In blind tasting, I proceed this way: Visual, aroma, taste. You start with broad-brush conclusions that are no more than guesses, really, but quite often that first impression can be your best guidance. Too much thought can be crippling. Right off the bat, I could see that the wine Chris brought was far and away the palest in color. It was orange at the rim, or meniscus, and I judged it was at least 15 years old on that basis alone.
It would take too much space to go through each of the wines, but here are some highlights. Chris’s old wine was in fact the 1990 Capezzana Ghiaie Della Furba, a Super-Tuscan blend of Cab, Merlot and Syrah. It was an instructive lesson in the appreciation of an older wine, starting out delicately perfumed and spicy, but after 30 minutes it began to dry out, and the alcohol showed through. My top wine of the flight — in fact, the group’s top wine by far — was another Italian: the 2001 Rampolla Vigna d’Alceo ($200), a Tuscan blend of Cabernet and Petit Verdot. It showed impeccable balance even in the company of the other wines: Penfolds 1994 Bin 707 ($110), 2002 Rudd, 2000 Lynch-Bages ($240), 1995 Montelena ($150), 1997 Togni ($225), 2001 Spottswoode ($150) and 2002 DuBrul “Cote Bonneville,” a Yakima Valley Bordeaux blend ($125). All the wines were quite good, although the Lynch-Bages was a little heavy and so was the Togni. But that Rampolla made me understand, or re-understand (for it’s a lesson you can never absorb enough), the importance of things like balance, harmony, elegance and class in the evaluation of wine.
There were 2 other take-home lessons from the tasting.
1. How much a complex wine can change in the glass. For example, the Montelena grew dramatically better after an hour of airing and warming up. This confirmed to me what a pity it is that I — and most other critics — can offer only a shapshot of a wine, an appraisal of how it is at a particular moment in time. Someday, I’d like to write about how a wine changes in the glass, which is really the way we drink our wines.
2. How terroir is harder to determine than it used to be. Once upon a time, there were huge differences between Tuscany, Pauillac, Napa Valley and Barossa Valley. That’s less so now, as the International Style (or Parkerization, or call it what you will) marches on. I thought the Rudd was a Left Bank Bordeaux, although I nailed Spottswoode and Togni as Napa Valley. And I was gratified when Chris explained that his Italian wine, which I identified as an old Classified Growth Bordeaux, had been planted by Lafite’s vineyard manager, from Lafite cuttings.
The Atlanta Constitution has an interesting article called Is beer becoming the new wine? that caught my eye, because it comes on the heels of that Gallup Poll that said how beer has opened up a double-digit lead over wine as the favorite beverage of American alcohol drinkers.
Now, wine lovers are justifiably proud of the gains their favorite beverage has made over the decades, but attached to this pride is always a little apprehension that what we all worked for so hard could be snatched away as quickly as, well, Lehman Brothers’ profits. America is at heart not a wine-drinking culture like Italy or Spain or France, but a beer and hard spirits one (or a tee-totaling one, but that’s a different story). Ale and moonshine are what our country was built on (Thomas Jefferson’s penchant for Yquem notwithstanding), and for all wine’s popularity, you just have to look at the way (mainly) Republicans refer to its effeteness to realize that a lot of people look at wine as something drunk in elite, affected San Francisco, not the heartland. Hell, when Hillary tried to prove during the Primaries she had cojones, it wasn’t an amusing little Pinot Grigio she sipped, but a frosty mug of brewsky.
You chug, girl!
Beer and wine have always been on opposite sides of the great divide in America’s social wars, with beer laying claim to the working class — and that Gallup Poll suggests that, in tough economic times, the working class’s collar is a little bluer and more frayed than usual.
So for the Atlanta Constitution to suggest that beer is the new wine is a little scary. Slate had a similar story last year, and NBC’s Today morning show even had a segment on “beer is the new wine” in which an editor at Food & Wine made food-pairing suggestions. In that Constitution article, they said how the chef at a popular restaurant was pairing rainbow trout stuffed with smoked oysters and bacon over sweet potato hash and crispy fried leeks with a German-style malt called Twain’s Autumnfest.
Now wait a minute! Beer can’t have it both ways. It can’t be blue collar, C&W and chewin’ tobacco one minute, then turn around and be the twinkle-toed partner for some fancy pants chef’s expensive, precious entree the next. Sarah Palin won’t stand for it, and you don’t want to get on gun-totin’ Sarah’s bad side, especially with that heartbeat-away thing we may have to deal with pretty soon. I have it on reliable authority that the only food Todd Palin would ever eat with beer is pickled eggs and moose jerky.
Sorry for the Sarah segue! Sometimes I just can’t help myself. All I wanted to say is that beer isn’t a threat to wine. Ask any winemaker, especially during harvest, when they bring the suds in by the tanker. Beer, wine, it’s all good. I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.
Decanter has a story whose tease of a headline definitely made me want to read it. It’s about the new chairman of the Institute of Masters of Wine, Dr Josef ‘Pepi’ Schuller (himself an MW), and that inviting headline is:
New IMW chairman: ‘We’re not elitist’
As soon as I read that, all sorts of thoughts flashed through my head, beginning with: Well, of course you’re elitist, you Masters of Wine. Why would you say you’re not, with that name (masters), the way you put the letters MW after your name like MD or PhD, your official crest with its aristocratic flourishes, your London address, the fact that you have only 264 members in the entire world, and the feeling — never explicitly stated, but oh, so implied — that the MW stands above all other wine titles as supreme.
Well, I just re-read the above and decided it sounds snarky so let me get warm and fuzzy and say I have some MWs who are very good friends, in fact some of my oldest friends in the industry. I have enormous respect for them and for all the hard work they put in. Guys like Peter Marks and Joel Butler are incredibly kind, generous, hard-working professionals who, personally, are in no way elitist, and they know more about the world’s wines in their pinkies than I know all together.
But when Decanter itself is suggesting there might be something elitist about the IMW, you’ve got to wonder. Besides the headline, here’s a quote from the article:
Schuller rejected recent criticisms that the Institute is elitist and out of touch with its own students – but stressed that they would always reward excellence.
Decanter didn’t say where these “recent criticisms” came from, and I wish they had. Harpers had a story suggesting MWs were “old-fashioned, chauvinistic, elitist and out of date,” but that was more than 2 years ago.
But I want to get in a good word for elitism. Instead of rejecting the notion that the IMW is elitist, here’s what Dr. Schuller should have said. “Why, yes, we are elitist. We’ve studied harder to get where we are than anyone in the world. Few individuals on earth have as wide and deep a knowledge of wine as do MWs. There is no title that holds the cachet of the MW. And we’re not ashamed to proclaim this.”
Schuller did say that the IMW has to be “more relevant to the trade…We also want to form more partnerships with global wine industry leaders and find new sponsors.” I completely agree. If the IMW wants to be a factor in the rapidly democratizing, anarchic (and increasingly non-white) world wine industry of the 21st century, they are going to have to “mingle,” as the Royals say.
The blogger at Wine Cast (his name is Tim) had a short but provocative post yesterday, titled Course Correction. Seems he’s been reading a new book, Reflections of a Wine Merchant, by a fellow named Neal I. Rosenthal, who seems to be the New York-based owner of Rosenthal Wine Merchant (I get this from Google). Now, I don’t know anything about Rosenthal’s book beyond what Tim wrote, but he (Tim) did say Rosenthal “attack[s]…wine ratings.” Tim also includes this excerpt from the book that pinpoints Rosenthal’s attitude toward most modern wine writing:
“There is little journalism, which is to say fact findings and reporting, and virtually no effective prose; there is, however, a series of judgments backed by a sadly limited descriptive vocabulary and powered by precise scores.”
Let’s break this down.
- “There is little journalism” Well, in a 25- or 30-word wine review there’s not much room for classic journalism: who, what, when, where, why, how, how much, and so on. However, wine magazines — Wine Enthusiast and every other reputable publication I know of — also have articles into which a great deal of journalistic effort, fact finding and reporting are invested.
- “no effective prose” Says who? The wine writers I know pride themselves on being wordsmiths. True, the average wine review isn’t about to compete with a Basho haiku, but that’s not the point.
- “a series of judgments” True enough! Wine reviewing is judgment. Judgment is not a dirty word. Its synonyms are discernment, appraisal and determination. Judgment is what wine writers do.
- “sadly limited descriptive vocabulary” This is a statement of Rosenthal’s I agree with. We wine writers, as a collective community, do lack a standardized idiom for describing wine smells and tastes. To some extent this is because the English language itself is deficient in olfactory and gustatory descriptors — as opposed to visual and auditory descriptors. I suppose somebody could try to develop a standard vocabulary of tasting (and some people have; Linda Bisson’s Aroma Wheel, for instance), but it’s highly unlikely the entire community of tasters is ever going to adopt a universal language.
- “powered by precise scores” Not all critics use scores. I do, and, yes, they are precise. But I’ve always advised readers (and I can’t imagine any critic, or M.W. for that matter, not agreeing) that a score is an impression of a particular wine at a particular moment in time and one, moreover, that can be different at another time.
Anyhow, I don’t imagine that we wine critics will ever find ourselves anywhere but in the middle of the bull’s eye. I’ve learned to be comfortable there.
P.S. Please visit our other blogs at Wine Enthusiast’s Unreserved.
Yesterday I blogged about Sarah Palin’s silly quote that “alcohol isn’t necessary to have a good time” when she spoke last April about Alcohol Awareness Month. (This, despite her Playboy-style thigh tease with a glass of red wine; with those stiletto heels and cleavage-bearing decolletage, she sure seems ready to party hard.)
Actually, Alcohol Awareness Month is a production of the U.S Department of Health and Human Services (your tax dollars at work), and specifically of a division within it called SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration. Now, I know I’m going to get into trouble with this post, but I have to say that something about this whole approach to “combating” alcohol rubs me the wrong way. On SAMHSA’s website they lump alcohol in with cocaine, methamphetamine and suicide, and that’s just on the home page. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find comparisons with LSD, ecstasy and marijuana, among other Devil’s delights. It’s as if a nice glass of Cabernet (which, judging by the dark color, Sarah might be enjoying) and a crackhead’s needle were morally equivalent. Go to HHS’s Alcohol Awareness Month homepage and you’ll find it stated that “People who abuse alcohol can be…Professionals who drink after a long day of work” and “Senior citizens who drink out of loneliness.” Now, can we get real here? Professionals who drink after a long day of work can be alcohol abusers? For crying out loud, I’ll bet you that plenty of senior management at Health & Human Services head over after work to the Fairfax Lounge in the Westin Hotel on Embassy Row for a well-deserved Gimlet. (And by the way, does “professionals” mean that blue collar workers can’t abuse alcohol, or does the Republican administration simply not want to piss red-staters off?) Of course, this is the kind of nonsense we might expect from the employees of a President who is an out of the closet “recovering” alcoholic. As for all those lonely old geezers, hey, if a couple glasses of wine-in-a-box or schnapps help pass the hours until snooze time, so what? The website also has one of those “Are you an alcoholic” pseudo-scientific quizzes, which contain such questions as “Do you drink alone when you feel angry or sad?” (Answer: I sometimes do, and I bet you do too. See Proverbs 31:6-7: Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.) and “Does your drinking worry your family?” (It doesn’t bother mine, but what if my family believed drinking alcohol was a sin, even though it’s mentioned, what? thousands of times in the Bible, and mostly favorably.) This approach by the Federal government is so opposite to our own here in California, where Gov. Schwarzenegger, a Republican but not a bizarre one, just proudly declared September “California Wine Month.”
We still have vestiges of neoprohibitionism in this country, which itself is an echo of the old Puritan ethic that, if it feels good, it’s a sin. Don’t get me wrong: Obviously some people have issues with alcohol abuse (just as some religious fanatics have issues with intolerance), and there are some people who should never drink at all. What bothers me is this suggestion that we should all conform to some white-bread government nanny’s ideas of right and wrong. And while I’m on the subject, now I see the Republicans are planning on promoting Todd Palin (who was busted for DUI in 1986) as “First Dude,” thereby winning the hearts and votes of the rural, beer-drinking, liquor-swilling, country & western crowd. Am I suffering from cognitive dissonance, or just too many glasses of Cabernet?